Archive for April, 2011

Unoaked Chardonnay and Creative Writing; All My Metaphors are Alcoholic

Incoming food metaphor!

If you’re a wine person (or just an alcoholic with a steady income), you may have noticed a trend lately for “young” or “unoaked” Chardonnay wines.  The theory here is that you get the pure essence of the Chardonnay grape, which is supposed to be a good thing.  Oaking — aging in old barrels — gives the wine the buttery taste most people associate with Chardonnay.  Wine snobs have lately decided that you only need to do that with bad wine.  The instant boom in very high-end unoaked Chardonnays was, of course, immediately followed by a boom in rather more down-market unoaked Chardonnay.

The problem here is that the unadulterated essence of the Chardonnay grape really isn’t all that good.  Very fine ones may have some interesting nuances that refined palates can detect, but your run-of-the-mill unoaked Chardonnay just tastes like white grape juice with a bit of burn.  You need a good sit in an oak barrel to cut the sweetness with some smoky flavors.

Barrels: Mario's enemy; your friend.

Here’s where the food (drink, in this case) metaphor comes in:  your writing is the Chardonnay.  Your editors are the oaking.  See how it works?

Every once in a while you get someone who produces really, really good writing straight out of the pen.  Hunter S. Thomson’s “gonzo” pieces are unoaked Chardonnay — the good kind.  Some of them are delicious in their unadulterated, unedited form (others honestly could have used an editor).

But unless you are one of those rare grapes, your writing needs “oaking.”  It needs to slosh around and gather flavors.

Letting go of the manuscript is always hard.  I tend to rewrite whole books about three or four times myself, just so I can avoid showing them to other people.  But there comes a point at which you’ve stomped all you’re going to out of the grapes (your writing, remember) and need to let the barrel do some aging for you.

Did that metaphor actually work?  I can’t really tell, and I think it has something to do with all this Chardonnay I’ve been drinking.

This Chardonnay, specifically. It's oaked.

Freelance Writing: How to Spot a Lousy Contract

I’m occasionally reminded of a comic I read years ago about a man making a deal with the devil:  “Jeez, it was already the worst contract in the world, and then you went and bled all over it.”

You’ll see a few of these if you’re determined to earn your bread with written words.  Internet writing is especially guilty, because many sites will base their compensation for the writer directly on ad revenue rather than a by-the-word rate.  An advertising-based model isn’t inherently bad — though I think it lends itself to bad writing, since it means writing for the ad bots rather than human beings — but you need to look very carefully at how that revenue is being calculated.  For example, a fairly large website offers freelance writers the following deal:

[Company] attempts to secure, but cannot guarantee, advertising on every page of the Content published on [url].com. [Company] agrees to pay the Writer a fee (the “Fee”) that constitutes a share (at the discretion of [Company] and its partnering advertisers) of revenues earned from advertising displayed on all http://www.%5Burl%5D/ web pages where the Writer’s Content appears in full.

The emphasis is mine, but it shouldn’t really be needed.  If you’re a writer, you’re presumably good enough with words to know that the highlighted clause basically means “We pay you if we feel like it.”

I don’t mean to say that this company is inherently bad to work for.  There’s certainly a lot of content on the website in question; presumably they had to pay at least a few people decently to get it.  I may even write a few articles for them in a what-the-hell, see-what-happens kind of mood.  They will not be my best pieces.  But none of that changes the fact that this is a really lousy contract.

Recognizing language like this is a vital skill in the freelance business.  Don’t sign anything that doesn’t lay out in specific terms exactly how much you get paid and when.  Or if you do work for a company with a contract like that, do it with the assumption that you’re throwing your work away — sort of like buying a lotto ticket; maybe you’ll get lucky and it’ll pay off but you probably shouldn’t figure it into your budget for the month.

Still feeling pretty poorly so I’ll leave it at that for today, but I hope my point’s clear.  Anyone else got tips on avoiding bad contracts?  Leave ‘em in the comments section…

Sick Day

The inestimable Tawna Fenske, whose blog you should all be reading, mentioned yesterday that she wasn’t posting because she was here:

Then she called them “alien boobs.”  You can see why I like the blog.  So in a similar vein, I am posting to say that there won’t be a real post (just this crappy placeholder), because I am here:


I have no idea where this vicious and viral attacker came from, or how it missed the memo that it’s spring now and we’re done with incapacitating illnesses.  But once again I am struck by how many sentences will still make perfect sense if you misspell “vicious” as “viscous.”


Why Some Books Make Me Hum(?)

Every time I hear “Hungry Heart” by Bruce Springsteen it takes me to a whole different world.  Specifically, Roger Zelazny’s world, or worlds I guess, from Nine Princes in Amber and its various sequels.

The covers got better as he got more famous.

The book doesn’t have anything to do with Bruce Springsteen except that I thought both were cool at about the same time, somewhere early in middle school and too young to know better.  About either.  And for whatever reason, lying in my bedroom listening to The Boss and reading Roger Zelazny made the two stick together in some way that my mind can’t let go of.  I still think about Corwin and Random when the organist grinds out a couple bars of “Hungry Heart” at the ballpark.

The same thing happened a year or two later when I got “Tommy” by The Who and Stranger in a Strange Land for the same Christmas.  I hum little bits of “Gypsy Queen” whenever people talk about grokking (it happens more in Madison than I suppose it does elsewhere).  Cat Steven’s “Tea for the Tillerman” and The Amber Spyglass, same thing.

The only connection I can see is that all of these book/music connections formed when I was in my early teens.  I feel like there’s a lesson in there for YA authors, but I’m struggling to put it together.  Maybe you all can help me.

Meanwhile I’ll be grokking with Pete Townsend.

Winter is Coming Cheap: Stealing HBO’s “A Game of Thrones”

Winter is indeed coming in Wisconsin; we had a lovely little snow just this morning.  And on that subject, I have a confession to make about A Game of Thrones:  I stole the first episode.  Downloaded it in toto without paying a cent.

Tyrion would have understood.

I mention this because there’s a lesson in it, rather than out of some confessional urge (I have no confessional urge). Stealing the episode was somewhat unusual behavior for me.  O Best Beloved and I have always felt that pirating music/movies is kind of like having unframed magazine posters taped up on your wall:  fun and convenient, but something you give up once you graduate from college and become a real adult.  This was behavior out of our normal pattern.  So why do it?

Supply and demand, basically.  Here’s how it is:  if you don’t get cable, HBO doesn’t really have an option for you.  They’re sort of playing around with online video for their cable subscribers, or ways to watch online through your cable box, but if you’re a no-TV household without some kind of cable subscription you’ve got no options until the DVDs come out.  And that’s just how it is.

When your target market is “geeks,” that’s a terrible distribution strategy.  A series based on books is going to attract viewers who don’t have TVs (because they spend most evenings, you know, reading books).  A series based on books beloved by a tech-savvy, establishment-irreverent demographic is going to attract viewers who are very good at stealing electronic content.  It was like they hung a giant sign out saying “STEAL THIS SHOW.”

Hoffman probably never sold the movie rights, huh.

We’d have been happy to pay for the show if there’d been a way to that involved buying just the show.  There wasn’t a way.  We watched it anyway.  Kind of like going over to a friend’s to take advantage of their cable subscription, only without the social awkwardness, and the net profit for HBO is the same either way — zero of my hard-earned dollars.

To bring it all around full circle for you authors and authors-to-be out there:  distribution matters.  It especially matters to a generation trained by iTunes:  people expect to be able to buy the thing they want, and just the thing they want, without having to wade through any other stuff to get to it.  And that’s not just a detail for your agent to worry about.  You need to be actively checking with every place your book is sold, online or brick-and-mortar, and making sure that your work is getting to the people who want to read it.  Because if you don’t, they will just go to an illicit source where they can temporarily access books entirely for free.

The fiends.

Editor’s Note:  The above situation is purely hypothetical and constructed for illustrative purposes only.  No one ever steals television programs online and especially not ever anyone associated with this blog.  Please don’t sue.

Palm Sunday Special: It’s Okay To Talk About Jesus Sometimes

I walked by a bunch of kids waving palm fronds on my way to work yesterday morning.  And despite what you’ve seen on Fox News that’s not normal for Wisconsin this time of year — must be Palm Sunday again.  In the name of casual conversation I made the mistake of mentioning the palm-waving kids at work, using a fond tone of voice that maybe indicated I was either down with the whole Palm Sunday thing or else a pederast.

Those guys.

Turns out I would have done well to play up the whole pederasty angle.  People are not very comfortable with religion in the workplace these days.  And when you work with someone who devoutly wants you to believe in Jesus to save your soul from the fires of Hell everlasting I am okay with that discomfort, but we are talking about seriously strange looks because I suggested that palm-waving kids are kind of fun.  People were not comfortable with that shit.

I’m not sure I like this trend.  Biblical allusions are sort of a staple of English (language, not country-of-origin) writing.  Half of those allusions may be in point of fact Miltonic rather than Biblical (and I am very impressed with the built-in spellcheck for swallowing “Miltonic” as a word, even if it still red-underlines “spellcheck”), but either way you can’t really have literature without some Jesus.  That was a big part of how this writing-things-down-and-copying-them thing we all do got started.  So was porn — I’m nothing if not even-handed (hur hur hur) in my love of cultural developments that make people feel uncomfortable.  The point is that we should probably not be throwing this entirely out the window as a Thing We Can Talk About.

And to be fair, people (including devout atheists) are still writing books chock-full of Jesus and so forth.  But I have to wonder how much longer that can go on when you can’t bring up going to church in public unless you do it in a world-weary tone that makes it clear you’re only going so the neighbors will keep inviting you to their garden parties.  Once we’ve raised a few generations that are only aware of church as an unpleasant obligation, books about it are going to have a lot less meaning.

I suspect there’s other conventions that will be obsolete in a few generations as well.  This was just the one that sprang to mind today, on account of the palm-waving children (who, to be fair, are evidence that I’ve got at least one more generation to work with in terms of Biblical references).  What’s your prediction?  Are you writing about something that just won’t matter in a hundred years?  Or is your shit timeless and perfect?  Leave a comment, because I could sure use some of the latter.

How to Blog Well (When You Don’t Have Time)

It’s been a busy week.

That’s a good thing, since it means getting paid (and don’t I just need it, after paying my taxes), but it makes the temptation to just skip the blog post for the day much, much stronger.

Fellow bloggers take heed:  if you have a regular schedule (like my M-W-F updates), you cannot give into that temptation.  Maybe — maybe — once a year or so.  Holidays, certainly, though it’s still good form to post “No Post Today — Merry Christmas Everyone” or the like.  But not on just plain ol’ busy days.  Readers are impatient and content is not unique; if they can’t rely on fitting your little corner of the internet into their schedule they will find similar entertainment elsewhere.

So have a backup plan for the days when life gets completely out of hand.  Mine is fuzzy ponies.




There, see?  Wasn’t that better?

Cute Animals and Tasteless Advertising at Henry Vilas Zoo

Ever since the Reachemol billboards I’ve been keeping an eye on local advertisements.  And you know where you can find great ads?  At the local zoo, where everything is required by tradition older and dearer than law to include at least one adorable animal.  Look at this one, telling me about all the good things hospitals do:

Or this one, which raises some very good points about the Honda Odyssey and its similarity to various zoo animals:

Or this one!  About loving giraffe families and…divorce law.  Wait.  What?  Yep.  Don’t bother squinting at the picture; there’s close-ups below.

That is in fact an advertisement for divorce lawyers.  See how it works?  The poster has this helpful little bloc of information on giraffes…

…and then it has this:

So if you ever need to protect your young, perhaps because your ex is a ravening beast like unto a savage lion, these are apparently the guys to call.

But it gets better.  And I have no idea if the guys over at Axley Brynelson were aware of this next fact or not, so it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the real hilarity of their advertisement stems from malice or ignorance.  Because the zoo’s giraffes are, I’m sorry to say, a broken home:

No joke.  For added hilarity, the initial separation had the female and the junior in one pen and the adult male in his own — she must have had a good lawyer.  Now junior’s on his own, and they’re back outside with an improvised fence dividing the pen:

Pretty sad stuff.  But all’s well that ends well, and it looks like the grown-ups are approaching some kind of reconciliation over there.  My understanding is that the young one is not the offspring of the two adults, so it’s a little less Oedipal than I’d initially hoped, but you still have to admire the nerve of a divorce firm that uses the zoo’s only broken family as mascots in their advertisement.  The one posted at the zoo.  Full of small children.

I’m searching for a pithy conclusion to all this, but I think it just comes down to “divorce lawyers are kind of dicks.”  That and “pay attention to local advertisements.”  Anyway, here are more giraffes, just because they’re cute.  Tune in again Friday!

Bad First Lines: It Could Be Worse Than Bulwer-Lytton

I expect some of you are already familiar with the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a yearly honoring of the worst opening lines in fiction.  It has the distinction of being a tongue-in-cheek, submission-based bit of literary humor that predates the internet, going back to a time when getting multiple thousands of entries in a contest really meant something.

Mostly it meant a few hundred bucks for the U.S. Postal Service

And if you’re not familiar you can always check out the website, which looks to have been made some time in the early 80s itself.  Zing!

But here’s the thing.  The contest all stems from the purported awfulness of Paul Clifford‘s iconic first line:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Which is, okay, kind of awful and wordy prose in this day and age.  In 1830, when Paul Clifford debuted, it was sort of par for the course.  We’ve latched onto the “dark and stormy night” introduction and Dickens’s “It was the best of times” as icons of wordy English prose, but I submit to you that things could be much worse.  No one makes people read the really bad ones any more, so we have no idea how good we’ve got it.  Take, for example, The Tower of London, a William Harrison Ainsworth published ten years after Paul Clifford:

On the 10th of July, 1553, about two hours after noon, a loud discharge of ordnance burst from the turrets of Durham House, then the residence of the Duke of Northmberland, grand-master of the realm, and occupying the site of the modern range of buildings, known as the Adelphi; and, at the signal, which was immediately answered from every point along the river where a bombard or culverin could be planted,–from the adjoining hospital of the Savoy,–the old palace of Bridewell, recently converted by Edward VI, at the insistence of Ridley, Bishop of London, into a house of correction,–Baynard’s Castle, the habitation of the Earl of Pembroke,–the gates of London bridge,–and, lastly, from the batteries of the Tower,–a gallant train issued from the southern gateway of the stately mansion above-named, and descended the stairs leading to the water’s edge, where, appointed for their reception, was drawn up a squadron of fifty superbly-gilt barges,–some decorated with banners and streamers,–some with cloth-of-gold and arras, embroidered with the devices of the civic companies,–others with innumerable silken pennons to which were attacked small silver bells “making goodly noise and goodly sight as they waved in the wind,”–while others, reserved for more important personages of the ceremony, were covered at the sides with shields gorgeously emblazoned with the armorial bearings of the different noblemen and honorable persons composing the privy council, amid which the cognizance of the Duke of Northumberland,–a lion rampant, or, double quevee, vert,–appeared proudly conspicuous.

I respectfully submit that this is a far, far worse opening line than anything Bulwer-Lytton (who was popular and successful in his time) ever penned.  I would even go so far as to say that it is worse than any of the recent winners of the Bulwer-Lytton contest.  For that matter, I’m sort of fond of some of those winners, especially 2008’s, submitted by Gordon Spik:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city, their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N. J.”

It kind of has something going for it.  Or maybe I just like manhole covers.

We have nice ones here.

Where did you last run across a really awful first line?  And was it awful in its own right, or just a product of its times?  Leave a comment…

It’s Hard to Convince the Internet You Aren’t Writing Porn

I have this problem where I like to talk about funny things that happen to this blog.  So if I write a post about yoga pants, with a picture of a girl in yoga pants, and the next day I have a slew of inbound links from places like “” — I mention it.  That sort of goofy, internet-driven, robots-are-still-dumber-than-us misunderstanding is fun.

The problem is that the robots are still reading and they’re still stupid.  All they can do is count how many times you use words and phrases.  So every time I talk about “naked butts” (see Wednesday’s post for said naked butts) I get another tic mark in some algorithm’s “probably a porn site” column.  And the inbound links get weirder and weirder.

It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to break (I was really tempted to write “viscous cycle,” not gonna lie).  The internet’s role as a socially challenged child who can’t stop talking at public gatherings never ceases to amaze me, but I really do need to stop giving it more bad ideas in association with my blog.

Has this happened to anyone else?  Does the internet think your blog is porn?  Or am I the only purveyor of really, really, really disappointing smut out there today?


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