Archive for June, 2011

A Writer’s Thoughts on the High School Yearkbook

No, not mine.  Well — you get those thoughts, too.  But I wouldn’t be having them without Eileen Reynolds’s excellent “An Appreciation of the Humble High School Yearbook,” as posted on the New Yorker (in the publicly-viewable section, so no need to worry about my recent harsh words for their paywall).

It’s a touching essay for all those of us who had, signed, and especially worked on high school yearbooks.  Since much of it is written in the context of schools searching for cheaper and more Internet-savvy alternatives to yearbooks there’s a good deal of wistful comparisons; I was touched to see this passage so shortly on the heels of my own odd experience with post-mortem Facebook tributes:

I still remember my favorite yearbook message of all time, a single line from the sixth grade: “Keep practicing your bassoon and one day you’ll make it to Radio City Music Hall.” It’s short, it’s specific, and I think there’s a compliment buried in there, along with a kind of enigmatic joke. (Why Radio City and not Carnegie?) The person who wrote it—a goofy guy with a quick wit and a good heart—was killed in a traffic accident three years after our high-school graduation. I think of that message often, and I prefer the scraggly boyish handwriting to the ghostly Facebook memorial.

Between that and the pressure of coming up with the perfect memorable-yet-original-yet-acceptable message to sign with (I believe I wrote “you are holding the book upside down” upside down near the top of the cover most years), I felt a real connection to the author of the article.  And hey, isn’t that what our yearbooks were supposed to do…?

Approaching Obsolescence: The Home Printer

Funny story about writing — it used to happen on paper.  D’you remember that?  It might have been while you were in school, or even after graduation if you’re, you know, ancient.  Words came out of your brain through the pen and down onto sheets of crinkly stuff.

And then into your Lisa Frank Trapper-Keeper! ...I'm not the only one, right?

That was obsolete a while ago, of course.  No news there.  We were taking typing courses by the time I hit middle school, and I was a public school kid, so we know I was behind the times.  Computers have been standard issue for the writer’s kit for decades.

What weirds me out is that the home printer is still being sold.  You know, these guys:

Not just sold, but actively pushed as part of a computer package.  You can’t go into a Best Buy without seeing rebates and mail-ins and coupons and god knows what else for these things.  HP keeps making newer and shiner ones with super-customized interfaces (which should probably be no surprise, given that the coffee machine in the waiting room had a custom interface the last time I took my car in for repairs).

No, really. That's a custom-made-for-Toyota coffee machine.

So someone has decided that the American consumer still wants these things.  And I have to ask — and this is speaking as someone who makes his living on the written word — what the hell for?  I don’t think I’ve printed off anything except my taxes in the last three years.  There’s like…three periodicals left in the world that still make you mail submissions in.  Anyone that you care enough to snail-mail a letter to deserves hand-written.  And any massive, multi-page document you need to refer to multiple times will be faster and easier to navigate if you keep it as a PDF rather than having to leaf through the hardcopy each time.

I’m a cheerful anachronism in a lot of ways and probably will be all my life.  But the home printer seems like a relic of a very far-gone era to me.  Does anyone still use these things as part of a writing career?  Brick-and-mortar businesses are another story, but all you printer-using writers out there, indulge my curiosity and let me know if there’s still anything you print off!

Blog Correction: Those Are Not My Boobs

Astute readers have pointed out to me that the photo and caption from Friday’s post seems a little disingenuous.  You may recall it as a hand clicking a mouse, with the caption “I have no life,” referring to my obsessive examination of WordPress’s “Random Post” mechanic:

What I did not notice when I lifted the picture from a Google Images search with my usual assiduous attention to copyright law was that the body attached to the hand differs from mine in a key respect:  I would never be caught dead in a white sweater.

Also I do not have boobs (I suspect that I would have noticed if they’d appeared recently, and the blog would not have updated because I would have had better things to do).  The image used yesterday is a stock photo and has no relation to me other than that I needed a picture of a hand clicking a mouse.  In my defense, however, it is the same mouse I use.

I apologize if I accidentally misled any of my readers into thinking I have an awesome rack.  Longtime readers will recall from the Topless Men Post that I have no such thing.  Regular content will resume on Monday, with greater attention to detail when stealing images from Google search results.

Thank you.

The Management

The “Random Post” Effect: WordPress Wants Your Blog to Succeed

I don’t know if people who read this blog but aren’t WordPress users have access to this option, so you’ll have to tell me in the Comments section — do you get a little drop-down menu at the top of the screen called “Blog Info”?  If you do, there’s an item on it (first one in my version of the interface) called “Random Post.”  That pretty much does what you’d think it does.

I’d ignored that feature for the last year and a half.  I tend to read the most recent three or four posts when I visit a new blog and decide whether or not to come back based on those.  But a coincidental bit of lag and a sticky mouse pulled it up a few days ago, and lo and behold, there was one of my favorite old posts from this blog (The Hunks of the Western Literary Canon, if you were wondering).

That struck me as a fair way to get to know a blog better.  Everyone has off-weeks — what if I’ve been passing up on good content just because I was linked to someone during their “meh” period?  The idea bothered me, so I took some time to test the feature out on my own blog, clicking through a number of random posts to see how spread out they were, whether one-line “sorry I can’t post today” posts were weighted equally with 1000-worders, and so on.

I have no life.

The results were startling.  For one thing, I’d forgotten most of the posts I found ever existed; it was like reading a lot of this stuff for the first time.  Three times a week times a lot of weeks adds up to more random crap than I apparently knew.  But more importantly the content seemed to be consistently good.

Regular readers know that the content isn’t actually consistently good, so I suspect WordPress of weighting things somehow.  Longer titles seemed better-represented.  Perhaps there’s a keyword influence there?  Many of the posts were the more readable (and sometimes off-topic) list-format ones that tend to be easily readable.  With no creative editing or glosses, the first five clicks of “Random Post” (not counting that first accident) got me this:

They may not be the best posts I ever wrote, but all of these are solid.  I can link them here without feeling embarrassed.  Since that can’t be said about everything on this blog, I’m inclined to conclude that WordPress really wants my blog to succeed.

What about you, oh loyal readers?  Does a random sampling of your blog turn up the posts you’d like it to?  Do you suspect WordPress and its random number generator of stacking the odds?  Leave a comment and let me know!  The usual nonsense returns on Monday as usual…

Writing Links: Famous Authors and Their Favorite Drinks

From time to time I decide on a blog post I really want to write and then find out that someone has already done it.  At that point there’s really very little left to do except share the links, or else try to upstage the existing version.  I think I’d rather give credit where credit’s due, so here’s the first one I stumbled across when I decided to sit down and write a post about famous authors and their favorite drinks:

They got most of the ones I’d have known and a couple besides, so I was going to call it a day when I found an even more comprehensive list from even earlier:

There’s some overlap between the two, obviously.  Some will be familiar (who didn’t know about Hemingway’s fondness for mojitos?) and some less so (Anthony Burgess’s “Hangman’s Blood,” seriously?).  But they all have one thing in common:  lives marked by ill health, troubled relationships, and early graves.

I mean literary success and lasting fame.  Just how do those two wind up so intertwined, anyway?  You tell me — I should really go top this martini off.

Boy, that turned out to be less work than I thought…maybe I should only write on subjects other people have already done in detail.  Enjoy the links and come back Friday!

Answering Questions About Your Writing Career (Cocktail Party Edition)

I expect that if you’re a working writer — one who actually makes a living by selling words, that is — you’re also at least dabbling with alcoholism.  No?  Keep telling yourself that.

It calls. It calls to you.

So you’re likely to end up doing some form of small talk over drinks on a regular basis.  That means being able to do the “so I’m a writer…” routine with aplomb — and with a drink in your hand.  Are you prepared?

The Question:  So what do you do for a living?

Interpreting the Question:  This is a default question in social settings.  It doesn’t come from a particular desire to know what you do with your life; it comes from a desire to not be that awkward guest who can’t think of anything to say.  Your answer should be short, factual, and leave the door open to more questions if the conversation needs to last a little longer, so don’t provide any more detail than you have to.

Good Answers:

  • I’m a writer.
  • I’m a novelist.
  • I’m a freelance writer.

Bad Answers:

  • I write children’s books about fairies and talking bears.
  • I publish novels, but you couldn’t really call them “novels” as such, since I’m diversifying prose structures to deconstruct the concept of text as linear.
  • Actually, I’m a serial killer.  Ha ha ha.

Adding "but the really useful kind" will not make it go over better.

Oh, what do you write?

Interpreting the Question:  If you’ve properly answered the first question this is very likely to be the second.  But don’t get too enthusiastic — you’re still in the realm of the one-sentence answer here (or two very short ones I suppose).  Most people, in asking this question, are hoping for an answer they’re vaguely familiar with so that they can say “Oh, just like so-and-so” or “Have you read this thing that’s sort of like that?”

Good Answers:

  • Well, I write YA novels.  Like Twilight, you know?
  • Freelance articles, mostly for cooking magazines.
  • I’m keeping a blog up while I work on finding an agent for my first novel.

Bad Answers:

  • My next novel is about a fairy child who can talk to bears, but realizes that they don’t have anything interesting to say.
  • I wish I had an easy answer for that.  I write all sorts of things, you know?
  • Humor for the internet.  Want to hear a good dick joke?  Ha ha ha.

Seriously, don't tell people even if it is true.

So sort of like [example]?

This is a desperation question.  People ask it when they have no way of relating what you do to their life at all and are desperate to convince themselves that you’re not a total weirdo and/or they’re not completely ignorant.  Throw them a bone.

Good Answers:

  • Yes, sort of.

Bad Answers:

  • No.

That’s fascinating.  How did you ever get into that?

Interpreting the Question:  This is one where tone of voice can be important.  Some people will sound almost envious when they ask it; others openly mocking.  You’re allowed to be a little more flippant with the latter.  But remember — at least the pretense of sincerity is necessary for polite society!  Your ideal answer should be a little tongue-in-cheek but still be believable.  Extra points if it’s clearly a lie but just far enough within possibility that they can’t dismiss it outright.

Good Answers:

  • Truth be told, I just never wanted to have to wear a tie.
  • Well, it seemed like as good a way as any to put my English degree to work.  I don’t actually like school, so another useless dregree was out!
  • I’d always been interested in [the subject you write on], but not actually very good at it.  This seemed like a good way to stay involved.

Bad Answers:

  • I was actually going to be a professional wrestler, but the prize for one of the amateur-league tournaments was a three-week writing camp and I’ve never looked back.
  • It seemed the easiest way to get disgustingly rich for no effort.  I just dress like this because I want to, you know.
  • My ex left the draft of her first novel in the dresser when she left me, and I published it under my name.  Now I’m just keeping appearances up.

I might start using the wrestler one, actually.

Does it pay well?

People asking this are often — but not always — looking to score some cheap points off you.  Of course it doesn’t pay well.  But humor them along with something that suggests their impression might just be mistaken.  Just stay within the believable reality of what you’re wearing and the car you arrived in.

Good Answers:

  • Enough to get by on.  But hey, it beats a real job, right?
  • You know, I was surprised.  I haven’t had to live on ramen for at least a few paychecks.
  • I could probably make more doing something else, but it’s the life I want, you know?

Bad Answers:

  • Terribly.  I had to sell the second Porsche to a friend when the royalty check was smaller than expected.
  • Probably not as well as your job — no matter what that is.
  • It would keep me in beer money if I weren’t an alcoholic.  Ha ha ha.

You’re now ready.  Accept that black-tie invitation with aplomb.  But take a trip back through the blog archives and read the series on The Well-Dressed Writer first!

Lessons of a Changing Blog

On Monday I talked about off-topic blog posts and how they can be a good thing for readership.  That got me to thinking about this blog and where it’s wandered to over the years, and looking back over the archives really did highlight some salient facts for me:

  • I’ve gotten much, much better at formatting for the internet, particularly at adding white space and images to make things more readable.  Interpreting Rejection, or, About the Form Letter was the first sort of longer, list-formatted post I did, and if you click through you’ll see that it’s basically a big block of text.  Nowadays I’m far more likely to use bullet points, font/highlighting changes, and images to break lists up.  I’ve actually gone back and improved some of the most popular off-topic posts so that things like The Hunks of the Western Literary Canon are more presentable.
  • Speaking of off-topic posts, I’ve clearly increased their share of screen time over the year-and-some that this blog’s been around.  This is especially true in longer posts:  anything over 500 words or so is far more likely to be something like Badass Superheroes and Their Shameful Origins than the monolithic writing-tip posts I used to produce like the “Devil’s Details” post on Pacing.
  • I’ve gotten much better at internal linking.  Could you tell?

Most of these are just the natural evolution of an internet writer:  content gets shallower and shinier, simultaneously.  Chalk it up as part of the transition from “aspiring novelist” to “pampered fashion writer.”

Supermodels were also part of the transition, so it's safe to say I'm never looking back.

The plus side of this is that it’s overall a more engaging, entertaining, and easy-to-read blog than it was a year or so ago.  On the other hand, it’s probably not as valuable a resource to other writers, particularly if they’re just scrolling through the last half-dozen posts or so.  That’s likely to turn up a few short thoughts on writing, some pop-culture references, and maybe a picture-story about highly inappropriate advertisements for divorce lawyers.

But hopefully posts like this can at least be useful to other bloggers and internet writers, who can at least take away the lesson that naked supermodel bums never hurt anyone’s site traffic.  What do you think?  Is there any substance left below the style of MA101?  Did I tempt you into clicking through to a delightful new surprise hidden in the archives of the blog?  Drop a comment and let me know!

On the Facebook Pages of the Deceased

The person who was my best friend in elementary school, up through fifth grade when I moved, died a few days ago.  We were friends back before Facebook, so we lost track pretty much immediately after I moved — eleven year-olds are not really good at the whole letter-writing thing, and guys just don’t call other guys to talk.  That’s weird to us.  Which means I’m able to process this fairly quickly and efficiently, as far as grief goes, and along the way I’m noticing some very odd things.

The oddest is the Facebook memorial thing.  I’d gotten back in touch with this former friend via Facebook, same as a lot of people my age have done — “Oh, holy shit, it’s that kid that used to make me eat sand at recess every day.  We should totally be Facebook friends!

(Full disclosure: I mostly was the one making people eat sand. Also, is it just me or does the smaller kid look like he really doesn’t want to go wherever they’re walking?)

So I was able to go to this friend’s Facebook page when I got word of his death.  It seemed like a good place to get the details, at least on what was going on in his life in the days immediately prior.  And I did find some relevant information.

I also found pages and pages (as far as one can measure such things on a Facebook wall) of memorial posts.  Lots of friends and family and supporters and so on leaving their personal notes.  Which, okay, is a thing that most literate societies do in one way or another, I guess.  We have funeral guest books, after all.

For example, this one seems to be for some middle-aged guy with long hair. Probably a guitar player or something.

But I’m a little weirded out by the idea of writing our thoughts and wishes to the deceased.  On his Facebook page.  In the usual writing-on-a-Facebook-wall format, addressed explicitly to the person whose page it is and speaking as if expecting a reply.  There’s this eerie feeling of people waiting for a reply, like some William Gibson-esque uploaded consciousness is going to start writing back.

It could be that I’m just behind the times.  Addressing the dead is not, after all, an uncommon custom, even in things like the funeral oration (or the scathing words as you piss on the grave, depending on your relationship with the deceased).  It just feels a little strange and unsettling to see it done in the medium of instant response.

I guess I’ll start worrying when he writes back.

Your Disloyal Readers

I would like to recommend something unkind for the newish bloggers out there.  If you’re just getting started, you may not have very many regular readers yet.  They are the treasured few people who keep your page view count above “zero” (that aren’t advertising robots).  You love them and rightly so!

Now disregard their needs entirely.

If you do a Google Images search for "snub," this is one of the first results. Makes sense, when you think about it.

The basic reality here is that if you have a blog that is entirely about one thing — let’s say you’ve written nothing but posts on stain cleaners and the different carpets they work on — your regulars are regulars because they rely on you to be their one-stop shop for all things stain cleaning.

Already taken, apparently.

So those readers like you and what you have to offer.  However they got there in the first place — tweeted link, recommendation of a friend, some judicious spamming of StumbleUpon; maybe they’re just a sympathetic family member — they’re likely to keep coming back as long as you regularly talk about stain cleaners.  Maybe some of them will even leave regular comments with recommendations on their favorite cleaners and/or OCD medications.

But as far as readership goes, you’re going to have a hard time building from there.  Take a lesson from the Democratic party (oh I went there) and abuse the base a little.  They’re going to stay loyal anyway.  Slip a post or two in about something off-topic and see what it gets you.  There’ll be some referrals from search engines that you didn’t see before, maybe some new click-throughs from Twitter — and who knows, maybe some of those people need good stain cleaner advice too, right?  As long as you’re only slipping these in once every few posts, your stain cleaner-loving base is going to keep coming back anyway.

Like addicts to the table.

The easier your posts are for first-time readers the better this strategy will work.  It’s entirely possible for someone to wind up on your blog just because they did a Google Images search for a picture and you had one they liked.  Take the one right above this paragraph — it’s titled “gambling-addiction.jpg” and will show up in search engines as such.  (I didn’t change the name; I in fact got it by Googling “gambling addict” myself.  Copyright issues will be another blog post in the future.)  It’s entirely possible that someone looking for an actual site on gambling addiction may find themselves here as a result.

Is this a helpful site for them?  Not in the slightest (though perhaps they might enjoy some of the early posts on alcoholism, still among the most-viewed).  But that doesn’t mean that the person doing the search won’t also like the content here. if it’s quick, funny, and readable.  I’ve already talked about how to make your blog more readable — stop by that post if you haven’t already.

And then go back to your blog and abuse your base a little with some off-topic posts.  Let me know how it goes for you!

Of All the Questions in Literature, “Why” Is the Most Intelligent and the Least Sublime

That may be my longest post title to date.  I’ve shorthanded it as “the-why-post” in the URL.  But onto the thesis it presents:

As I age I find myself noticing an arc in my career as a reader.  Success as a critical consumer of the written word always seems to be measured by the questions we can answer, starting with “Can he read?” (the answer to that one mostly seemed to come down to whether you opened the book or stuck it in your mouth, and I still occasionally flunk).  But the clearest upward trajectory you get is progressing from a reader who can answer the What/Who/When questions (“In Chapter 3, who does Ponyboy hit in the testicles with a tire iron”) to the Whys (“In Chapter 3, why does Ponyboy hit someone in the testicles with a tire iron?”).

It's possible I don't remember this particular seventh grade assignment as precisely as I think I do. Stay golden, Ponyboy!

As the educational atmosphere grows thinner you start asking odder and odder Why questions, delving into authorial biographies, historical contexts, and so forth.  It is, undeniably, the most advanced question for readers to test themselves on.

But I’m finding that I like it less and less as I age.  Actually, looking back on it, I think I always liked books that defy the academic “why” approach, even as a small child.  My favorites have always had a certain amount of whimsy:  Why does the Devil make a poor woman in Moscow a witch?  He just does!  Why does Ada occasionally inject herself into Van’s narrative voice?  Frankly, because Nabokov felt like it.  Why does Cimorene hate “proper” princess things?  Because it’s funny.  And so on.

I don’t know that there’s a consistent reason for this, but the less an author seems to have worried about answering all the possible “Whys” the more I find myself liking the work.  Absent character motivation might be a sin to the serious mystery reader, but how many of us can actually explain exactly why we do what we do?  Do we honestly think Anthony Weiner could sit down and tell us what made him think Tweeting junk shots was a good idea?

Get it? "Junk shot?"

Life is usually confusing, uncertain, and difficult to come up with neat answers for.  I think prose should occasionally be the same.


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