Archive for January, 2011

Writing Blogs, Search Terms, and Our Corporate Overlords

I’ve talked about search terms before.  Pretty much everyone who blogs regularly winds up doing it at least once, for the laughs if nothing else.  We’ve all had someone wind up on our blogs because they were looking for “how to stab penguins in the ear” or something similar (and now stabbing penguins in the ear is forever tied to my blog in the mind of Google — I am hoist by my own petard).  If I invited everyone to share one oddball search term that’s directed people to their site in the Comments section, I’d probably have my new Most Discussed post (and sure, knock yourselves out — what it’s there for).

But the funny ones are, for the most part, the exceptions.  Most of them are weird terms that return no real results.  Your blog somehow contained a hodgepodge of words that came closest to the gibberish about penguin mutilation.  You don’t actually need to do much with them except post them for a cheap laugh once in a while.  What I’ve always found interesting are the unrelated terms that aren’t isolated incidents, but wind up directing a substantial amount of traffic your way.

By way of example:  the far-and-away most common search term directing people to this blog is not “Geoffrey Cubbage” or even a variant on “Misanthropology 101″ of some kind (though both are flatteringly high in the rankings).  It is “yoga pants,” followed at some distance by “snuggie.”  If regular readers are chuckling, it’s because I’ve mentioned yoga pants in exactly two posts:  here and here.  “Snuggie” appeared once, in the deservedly-popular “How to Shop for Your Neurotic Writer” post.  Far more commonly-occurring phrases are things like alcohol, alcoholic, alcoholism, and get me a drink right fucking now, and once in a while something about writing.  There are a few lessons to take from this:

1.  Say Hi to Your Corporate Overlords

The majority of the internet gets used for one thing, and that thing is, well, porn.  But discounting the porn, commercial use — buying and selling shit — takes up the majority of most people’s internet time (buying or selling porn gets you a two-for-one bonus, I guess).  So expect some amount of traffic, most of it meaningless, to result from every reference you drop to popular consumer goods.

2.  If a Search Engine Directed Someone to Your Blog, You Probably Aren’t What They Were Looking For

It’s sad but true.  There’ll be exceptions — I’m sure people who Google “Ayn Rand overrated” and find “The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read” aren’t disappointed.  But for the most part it’s people looking for a good deal on snuggies and finding out that Steven King has a really ugly mug.  It’s up to you if you want to try and adjust accordingly.  It probably wouldn’t be all that hard for me to throw together a list of “Seven Fantastic Things I Do in My Snuggie You’d Never Think Of” if I put my mind to it (despite not owning a snuggie).  Is it worth my while to keep the snuggie-seekers that entertained?  Hard to say.  But those are regular hits I could reach out to if I really wanted to.

3.  Half Your Hits are from Robots

This is another one in the “sad but true” category.  A Google search for “snuggieisn’t going to return me in anything close to the top ten pages of results.  I’d be lucky to hit the top ten thousand.  Most of those numbers are coming from data-sifting programs that just like to know what the internet is thinking about today (I could have told them “porn” if they’d asked), not from people searching for a term in the basic Google engine and finding their way to your site via direct clicks.

4.  It’s Okay; You’re Still Relevant

So throw a word or two in for your snuggie fans, or your penguin mutilators, or whatever odd interest group keeps hammering your site with redirects.  Smile and wave and perhaps contemplate calling the cops.  Then go back to doing what you’re already doing.  Real human beings will keep coming to your blog if you write interesting and varied posts.  And maybe the robots will too — they lead boring lives.

Your turn in the Comments section.  I’m popular with snuggie-wearers and fans of yoga pants, or at least of that picture of a hot chick in yoga pants I posted a while back.  Who are your fans that you never expected to have, according to your incoming search terms?

In fairness, they might be on to something here.

“Am I a Writer Yet?” – Paid, Professional, Published, and Other Benchmarks Defined

First off, my apologies for the lateness of this post.  Today was one of those eating-ramen-from-a-mixing-bowl-because-everything-else-is-dirty mornings.  This is overall good news, because it means there are lots of paying jobs in my inbox, but all the same and nonetheless — my apologies.  Now then.  Some thoughts about writing, shall we?

Writers — creative artists in general, really — tend to struggle with self-definition.  There isn’t really the same clearly-defined progression of success there is in a job where you work at a certain position with a certain salary until someone decides that you’re too good for that and moves you to a different position with a different (better) salary.  This leads to a lot of second-guessing, asking “Am I a writer yet?” and wondering what to introduce yourself as at parties.

But don’t worry.  You’re probably doing better than you think.  In fact, you’ve probably already hit more than one clearly-definable benchmark of the writing life!  I’ve tried to list the major ones here, and if it looks like I’ve missed something don’t be shy about dropping me a comment:

Writer: This is where it all starts!  If you write words, you’re a writer, so good job.  If it’s just for yourself or if you aren’t actively working on doing anything beyond putting the words on paper you might tack “aspiring” or “hobby” in front of the word, but what the hell.  It’s what the word means.  If you write, go ahead and call yourself a writer when you want to.  The author of this piece assumes no responsibility for disappointed stares from relatives.

Paid: Another mostly self-explanatory one, I think.  If someone’s giving you money for your writing, you’re a paid writer.  That can be a one-time thing, a steady gig, or just a contest prize.  It can also be a big pat-on-the-back moment, especially the first time around (I made something like twenty bucks writing an article for a roleplaying game-based magazine back in high school, and it was so much cooler than the hundreds I made from my real job).

Professional: This is a little more of a gray area.  It implies that writing is how you’re paying the bills, which may not be entirely true even for very successful writers — that “don’t quit your day job” line has real meaning.  But if you’re writing for money regularly, even in the form of freelance submissions as opposed to a staff gig, you can probably tell people that you are a writer and that it is what you do professionally.  Just be aware that saying “Oh, I’m a professional [anything]” makes it sound like you’re trying a little too hard in some contexts.  “Freelance” or just plain ol’ unmodified “writer” may serve you better in certain settings.

Published: Here is where people start to get into disagreement.  The internet has opened a lot of options up under the name of “publication”; some are more universally accepted than others.  But if you say that you’re a “published writer,” most people are going to assume that you’ve been paid for a piece in your own name that ran in some form of book or periodical that other people paid for.  For journalists and other non-fiction types that may mean a short article in a magazine; for fiction writers and poets it could be a story in a book or a novel.  The key mostly seems to be that it’s a product other people are paying a store/publisher for, and your work is in it.

Author:  This is a weighty term.  Every written piece has an author, of course, so if you’ve published something you can certainly claim to be its “author.”  But I’d be cautious of casually describing yourself as “an author” until you have a book under your belt, or at least a serious collection of short stories, poems, or detailed non-fiction articles.  The definite article can help it seem less like giving yourself airs:  “Geoffrey Cubbage writes Misanthropology 101 and is the author of many short pieces on fashion and menswear” is not an objectionable sentence; “My name is Geoffrey Cubbage and I’m an author” sort of is.  To some people.  Did I mention that there isn’t a whole lot of certainty in this business?

I’m curious what other terms people have seen floating around out there as benchmarks for writerly success, or at least for some vague sense of self-definition.  For that matter, what do you call yourself?  In your private secret moments?  Is it the same thing you introduce yourself as at parties?  Questions, questions, questions…

Writers Should Be Problem-Solvers! (or, The Dog Pee Post)

Be careful where the huskies go, and do not eat that yellow snow.

– Jack London or one of those other Yukon-loving fucks [cit. needed]

So as you can see, today’s post is about problems.  Specifically it’s about this problem where dogs like to pee on things higher than ground level, presumably in some kind of my-dick’s-bigger territory-marking ritual (although if that were the case you’d think they’d all be trying to piss lower than each other).  Those of you lucky enough to live in more temperate climates may get to forget this fact for much of the year, but here in Wisconsin we have about six months of snow piled multiple feet deep on either side of our sidewalks.  They become little canyons, walled in with the tightly-packed overflow of multiple shovelings.  And they make every square foot of sidewalk fair game for overhydrated canines.

This is a goddamn problem.  Within the first month of snowfall the edges of our sidewalks look like the tiny, graffiti-covered walls of some midget yeti slum, covered in indecipherable yellow scrawl.  A five-block walk to work really drives home how much freaking dog piss I spend my life wading in.  It’s not like they’re just hosing the corners and the spots near the hydrants and trees down; every couple feet there’s another frozen spray.  And unlike the related problem of dog crap everywhere (why do people even own these things?) you can’t even pass ineffectual laws requiring people to clean their animal’s filth up, since it’s only visible half the year.

But that’s okay.  I am a creative person — a writer, goddamn it!  I can be a problem solver.  Electrocuting the snow, while potentially hilarious, puts my own health at risk every time I get shoulder-checked off the sidewalk by some asshole jogger who thinks having a masochistic habit makes you more important than the lowly peons trying to get to work.  (Editor’s Note:  This doesn’t actually happen that much.  I’m a really big guy.  But seriously, joggers, get the fuck over yourselves.) Beating the animals is obviously useless, since if they could be trained they’d go in a box like a decent pet, and beating the owners is only slightly more likely to have an effect.  If they understood basic causal logic they wouldn’t have thought bringing an animal that can’t control its bladder into a small suburban house was a good idea in the first place.

Therefore I have turned to a writing-based solution.  Play to your strengths, as they say.  And that is why my dog-owning neighbors will wake tomorrow to find notes on their doorsteps reading Dear Sir or Madam, I am writing to thank you for your civic-minded attention to the state of my building’s sidewalk.  I had not considered the unsightliness of the plain white snow until you generously loaned your dog’s services in brightening it up.  The case of beer was expensive, but it was worth it to repay the favor on your car’s fender.  Uric acid is really hard on paint jobs, too, so the cheery faded spots should be permanent!  Your loving friend, [Someone Else’s Name].

Seriously, though, I just didn’t have that much to write about today.

Shameless Self-Promotion: Article on Cracked.com

I try not to talk too much about my own work on this blog — in fact, “Works in Progress” is my most under-used category, with only a couple posts from before I realized I sound boring when I talk about things I’m writing.  But I’ll make an exception for running an article on a major humor website, which hey, it’s a living, right?  (Wrong.)

The article — 6 Pieces of Music That Mean The Opposite of What You Think — is at the top of Cracked.com today.  Go me.  And go you, and read it, and leave loving comments telling them to pay me for more things!

To make this not just a post about me being awesome, I will say that the article benefited hugely from the editorial staff’s revisions.  Those guys know funny.  Resist the temptation to piss and moan about your editor, and give them a hug today instead.  No one is so good they don’t need an editor!  There, I was edifying.  Now go read my cheap, sophomoric humor.

Writing Personal Letters (That Don’t Suck)

I’ve talked about the special role of letters in a writer’s life before, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually given helpful advice on it before.  So today that changes!  Don’t worry if you’re not a big letter-writer.  You can apply most of this advice to e-mails or even tweets and texts too.  I’m a sucker for the hand-written letter myself, but even people who’ve switched whole-heartedly to electronic media are using written communication more than verbal.  Keep the basics in mind any time you’re banging words out for someone else to read:

1.  Don’t Write Letters about Yourself!

For people who write Christmas cards once a year and not a lot of other letters, this may seem counter-intuitive.  But trust me.  A letter is, for all intents and purposes, a one-sided conversation with no escape (unless you write something so bad the reader puts it down unfinished).  If the whole message is about you, you’re that guy who can’t stop talking about himself.  A few personal details in the interest of catching up are fine, especially if this is the only communication someone’s received from you in a while, but be sure to spread them out over a few paragraphs and work plenty of other text in there that isn’t a laundry list of The Things You Have Done Lately.

2.  Relate Things to the Reader

Presumably you know something about any person you’re writing letters to — so drop references to what you know about them.  “It’s balls-ass cold here in Wisconsin lately” is just kind of filler; “It’s balls-ass cold here in Wisconsin and I hate you and your sunny Florida perfection” shows that you’re thinking about the reader (and hate him).  Try to find more interesting things to bring up than the weather, but it’s a sort of bare-minimum gesture of personalization that makes it clear you aren’t just copying out the same letter you wrote all your friends/co-workers/whoever.

3.  Avoid Direct Questions

Unless you’ve got a regular flow of letters back and forth, it’s silly to ask direct questions like “Did you ever find my pants after that New Year’s party?”  It makes sense if you’re planning on getting an immediate reply or a phone call or a package with your missing pants in the mail, but otherwise you’re just shouting into the wind.  Find less awkwardly direct ways to bring up things you have in mind, like “Still making the social rounds here in town, but I haven’t managed to leave my pants at anyone else’s house lately.  Sorry about that again!”  Maybe they’ll get the hint and send you your damn pants.

4.  Don’t Feign Intrest

You won’t always be able to avoid writing about things that you genuinely don’t give a crap about, but try to avoid dwelling on them.  Feigned interest is very easy to spot in writing.  If you find yourself using phrases like “…I couldn’t help thinking of you…” or “…it was wonderful to hear about…”  you probably want to cut it short and move on.  Even if your enthusiasm is genuine you don’t want to spend more than three or four sentences on the same topic, or your reader is going to start wondering why you’re waxing so eloquent about something.  A longer letter, of course, might spend longer on each topic, but keep it proportionally small.

5.  Keep It Short

Speaking of brevity, keep the whole letter short.  Legibility also counts, so if your handwriting stinks (like mine), try to at least write big and leave a lot of space between the lines to make tracking the chicken-scratch easier.  Remember — one-sided conversation.  You don’t want to be the one going on and on.

6.  Dress the Envelope Up

This one just applies to snail-mail, and there’s really no way to say it that doesn’t sound kind of lame and Martha Stewarty.  But getting letters is fun for people — rare fun for most people — and the envelope’s part of the novelty.  If (like me) you qualified for remedial-level handicrafts courses in school, you can still get a grin out of a friend by addressing the envelope with their full name and as many titles as you can legitimately tack on.  I tend to swap the abbreviation “Apt.” out for the more old-fashioned “No.” too, just for the hell of it.  Anything that makes the letter enjoyable to see in the midst of the bills and junk mailers is worth the extra few seconds.

And that thar is the basics.  Lists are sort of hard to write conclusions for, aren’t they?

Hasbro’s Taboo Is Serious Business, and Mr. Rogers Was in Porn

I am an argument for gun control:  heavily influenced by Westerns in my childhood, I firmly believe that the appropriate response to a cheatin’ varmint is to pull out your six-shooter and plug him full of lead.  This would be a problem in modern society because modern society is mostly made up of cheatin’ varmints, and I’m not just talking about Goldman-Sachs (although they count too).  No, this is a story about cheatin’ varmints at a game of Taboo.

Serious Business

Without going into too much detail, it was made clear by the cheatin’ varmints team that the upholders of nobility team had not properly scored a point when they managed to guess “The Joker” for a card with the clue “joke.”  It was argued — to no avail — that the word was contained in the shouted phrase, and therefore had been said.  No point was scored.

Fast forward several points, and another representative of Team Uprightness and Honor described “sandal” as “a piece of footwear, on the beach, for sand.”  It was pointed out that “sand” was part of “sandal,” and therefore the team had fouled and lost a point.

then-there-was-a-firefight

THEN THERE WAS A FIREFIGHT

Well, all right, not a firefight.  But the two arguments were one and the same, and people were not shy in arguing that either part of a word counted as saying the word — in which case the point for “joke” stood — or it did not, in which case “sand” was not a foul.  Words were exchanged.  Feelings were hurt. Taboo is serious business.

I bring this up for you my loyal readers mostly because I like to humiliate my friends publicly, but also because I think there is an important lesson here for writers with a desire to be clever.  Words that contain other, unrelated words are literary landmines — always effective, but often unintentionally so, so be careful where you set them.  It’s a safe bet that William Faulkner’s protagonist Joe Christmas had something to do with Jesus Christ; it is less certain that Mr. Rogers was actually a sex fiend.  But that hasn’t stopped porn stars from alluding to him*.

The moral here is really very simple:  words matter, even when they have nothing to do with the word you used outside of a few shared syllables.  Go back through your manuscript.  Look for really awkward coincidences.  Then write them down for when you want to make people feel really awkward at a party, and cut them out of the manuscript.  But remember them for your next game of Taboo.

You cheatin’ varmints.

* EDITOR’S NOTE:  “Roger” is slang for intercourse, and yes, there is a porno.  I’d have linked to it, but the movie starts playing immediately and I didn’t think everyone needed to see that.  Google “Mr. Rogers Porn name” if you really need to know.  I won’t judge you.

The Definition of “Misanthropology”

Since it comes up once a week or so in my inbound search terms, I thought I should clear this up once and for all:  “Misanthropology” is not a real thing.  It is a made-up word and a play on “misanthropy” (the dislike of human company or society) and anthropology (the study of human culture).  I’ve always defined it as something along the lines of “The critical — highly critical — study of human culture and behavior.” Other people have made up their own definitions as well, including one submitted to UrbanDictionary.com, which I initially thought very flattering until I realized that the entry predated this blog by several years.

I had not stumbled across the term anywhere else when I chose it for the title of this blog, giving me the dubious distinction of having made it up independent of the various other people who have done the same (and for today’s fun fact, Googling “made-up words” or “types of made-up words” and you mostly get articles about how making up words is a sign of schizophrenia).  If I were to do it again I would probably call the blog something keyword-laden like “Geoffrey Cubbage Writes on Fiction, Writing, Essays, English, Literature, and Editing,” which just goes to show that writing for the Internet makes you boring.

Anyway, glad we’ve cleared that up.  If you want to read more words I apparently made up (or at least words that spellchecks think I made up), there’s an old post on the blog full of them.  And, of course, spellcheck doesn’t recognize “spellcheck” as a word…

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