Archive for July, 2011

Blogging Basics: The Art of the Running Joke

Most of my readers probably already know that I love ponies.  And that’s because I’m doing something right.

Specifically, I google "fuzzy pony" like a champion

The internet is a big place.  Blogs are a whisper in a tornado.  Lots of people struggle not just to get page hits, but also to keep steady readers on board.  None of us, after all, are saying anything that absolutely no one else in the whole world could say.

So personality actually counts for a lot.  You can have the best information in the world, but if people don’t remember your blog, they’re only going to see it once in a while when someone else links.

A lot of very successful, profitable blogs have attracted their readership by just having an interesting personality and keeping it consistently out there.  Hyperbole and a Half is widely read despite its erratic updates because the erratic updates are part of the engaging, unfocused, off-the-wall image it presents.  The Art of Manliness gets away with some pretty thinly-researched content because even the worst articles are loaded down with a healthy dose of nostalgic testosterone, transporting you right back to the good old days when men were men and women were property.  And so on.

Thus, ponies.  So that if nothing else I will be remembered as “that guy with the writing advice, the one with the ponies” (or perhaps “the guy with the adorable pony pictures who sometimes talks about writing” — you never know) rather than just “one of those writing blogs.”

More ponies.

Also I just like ponies.  It’s a very bittersweet sort of sentiment, since I will always be far too enormous to ride them.  But there you have it.

Misanthropology101 has ponies.  Linda Grimes over at Visiting Reality keeps me coming back for camels every Hump Day (Wednesday).  Elizabeth Craig has, okay, let’s be honest, the enormous lists of EVERY WRITING-RELATED LINK EVER that we like to browse through.  Little, fun things that keep people coming back.  Running jokes!

What does your blog have?  If you can’t answer the question of the top of your head, it might be time to start thinking about adorable animal options…

NYC Library Offers Reduced Fines in Exchange for Time Spent Reading

So the New York Public Library has come up with a way to coax heavily-fined readers back in:  reducing fines in exchange for time spent reading.

There’s a lot to unpack from that idea, so I’m just going to bullet-point a couple thoughts:

  • The first obvious reaction is that this, at least on the surface, is a pretty cool idea.  I don’t know how endemic the problem of potential library-users avoiding the system because they owe it money is, but what offenders there are would clearly be people willing to read books.  This seems like a good appeal to them.

"They've got a name for people like you, H. I. That name is 'recidivism.'"

  • Where this gets odd is that the program is run through a third-party (and presumably for-profit) website, SummerReading.org.  No idea how that tie-in happened or what the specifics of the deal are.
  • Participants can hold materials as long as they like when they are “reading down” their fines, without accruing more fines — making it tempting to run up a 25-cent fine for the first time ever, check out a hotly-demanded bestseller, and be able to finish it at leisure instead of two weeks.  Also seems like a good way for students to save on buying textbooks that they need for the whole season, as long as the library has a copy.
  • If this works, is it going to be another compelling argument for the “let’s run our government services as businesses” camp?  Because this is a very retail-world sort of “special,” with the same focus on getting people in the door and encouraging repeat customers.
  • But at the end of the day, it’s about encouraging people to read.  That’s a good thing, from a writer’s selfish point of view, right?

Alternatively, I could be over-analyzing.  Take a look at the website and let me know your thoughts!

Off-Day Post: Bulwer-Lytton 2011 Winners are Up (Worst First-Line Contest)

I’ve mentioned the Bulwer-Lytton contest on this blog before, but for those of you who weren’t around and don’t know it already, it’s a very long-standing humorous contest for the worst first line of a novel.  (The novel does not actually have to be a real novel.  People just submit the first lines.)

It’s been around since before the internet, back in the days when getting people all over the country to submit to a joke contest really meant something, and this year’s results have just been posted.  Take a look and enjoy.

We return to our regularly-scheduled MA101 tomorrow!

Modern Life: Occasionally Terrifying

I don’t like to think of myself as a worrier.  I’m a believer in the five-second rule (cheerfully stretched to as many seconds as needed if it’s something delicious that got dropped), I drink my tap water unfiltered; I don’t bother washing my hands after peeing.

Look: what I'm touching has been inside my pants all day long. If anything, my hands are making IT dirty. Until I manage to pee on my fingers, washing is an entirely wasted gesture.

But every now and again it’s hard not to get a little twitchy about modern life and its many charming poisons.  For example, I recently pulled out of the fridge, opened, sniffed, and used some perfectly good heavy cream.  Its sell-by date was almost three months ago.

In that same fridge I have a pitcher of water — not a Britta or anything, just a cheap plastic pitcher from Target.  Or I had one, I should say, because we put the water in, went away for a weekend, and came back to water that tasted strongly of the onions also in the fridge.  O Best Beloved and I came to the (not unreasonable, I think) conclusion that anything capable of leeching that much flavor was probably also leeching everything else in the plastic into our water, and switched to glass.

I'm not naming any names here, but it wasn't exactly U.S.-made.

So every now and again I allow myself to be a little terrified of modern life.  There’s a scary amount of people out there whose job it is, in one way or another, to make sure my food doesn’t have any especially toxic shit in it; and there’s an even larger number of people whose job it is to find cheaper ways to make my food without getting caught by the first set of people.

Does anyone else ever feel totally out of their depth on things like this?  Are there times when you realize how painfully ignorant you are of the stuff you use every single day?  And the key question — do you pick up some books and educate yourself, or do you go hide by watching five straight hours of My Little Pony on your possibly-carcinogenic smart phone?

The authors of this blog espouse no editorial opinion whatsoever on the subject.

I guess how much time we spend considering things outside our control — and ways to bring them into our control — is revealing.  I’m beginning to believe that writers spend more time noticing the terrors of the modern world and less time actually doing anything about them…but maybe that’s just me, and I’m projecting myself onto others.

You tell me!  I’ll be back on Wednesday with, I can almost promise, a post that does not involve My Little Pony in any way.

Domain Names, Traffic, and a New Kind of Pun

PvP comic

Yes, you can do this. It’s a real thing.  Actually several real things, and the names for them are just fascinating.  There’s apparently a world of difference between “domain squatting” and “cybersquatting” and “reverse domain hijacking” and a bunch of other things that sound like a bodybuilder’s competition narrated by William Gibson.

My absolute favorite, however, has got to be slurls.  Slurls — wonderfully named — are URLs prone to misinterpretation because of the way URLs are formatted:  all case-insensitive, all mashed together.

These can be downright tragic.  The Mole Station Plant Nursery, for example, had to change their site name to Mole River Nursery (dot com) so that people would stop worrying about “www.molestationnursery.com” and what its content might be.  Fans of Big Al’s bowling alley found themselves having to explain “www.ilikebigals.com” in their browser history.  And so forth.

Anyway.

I was actually going to talk about website traffic today (hence the comic up top).  The entertaining idea of getting lots of hits by registering as “twittter.com” or something like that isn’t all that far-fetched, and people do use strategies like it to some effect.  The question is what you want your traffic for.

If you are trying to build an internet presence for yourself, personally, you do not want your name attached to something like that.  If your name appears nowhere on it and you are purely hoping for ad revenue, or to be able to put “ran a website that attracted 100,000 hits a day” on your resume, sneaky URLs may be more viable. Just be cautious — the U.S. does have a number of trademark and consumer protection laws that govern URLs.  You’ll need at least a plausible explanation for why the site is succeeding other than its similarity to a famous site’s URL.

But really, why not just throw caution to the wind and register for some entertaining slurls instead?

Your turn!  Come up with some slurls.  It’s more fun than thinking too hard about blogging and writing and all that.  D’you think Britney Spears has a fan site called http://www.britneyshits.com yet?

Because, ya know. She kinda looks like she's fighting one, here. Right?

It’s Good to Have a Backup Plan

O Best Beloved is in grad school, where you occasionally have to do unpleasant-sounding trials like “Prelim” and “Defending” and so forth.  I’m not sure what any of them actually entail, but they sound like the sort of thing that’s administered somewhere deep underground by old men in hooded cloaks.

Pictured: grad school (artist's rendition)

So her lab has a tradition:  you go into your Prelim with a backup plan that’s way more fun than grad school.  That way when the monks open your veins and begin draining your blood into the holy chalice you can close your eyes and think about teaching little children in Micronesia, and fishing for crabs during your afternoons off, rather than screaming and violating the Third Holy Instruction.

I think this is a good stress mechanism for everyone, whether you’re facing trials of torture or not:  have a backup plan.  It doesn’t have to be in preparation for a specific make-or-break moment; it can just be your backup plan for the day you get fed up with all this shit.  When this shit gets extra shitty you can take a deep breath and relax, secure in the knowledge that you have a plan.

What’s that?  My plan?  Oh — I thought I would take up yak herding in Alaska.  They don’t have yaks there yet, and I think they’d like the climate.  I’ll be like Johnny Appleseed, except with baby yaks.  Geoffrey Baby Yak!

Baby yaks also happen to be the cutest thing ever.

Do you have a backup plan?  And if not, why not?

Word Choice: How to Only Say Positive Things (Even about Very Negative Subjects)

Fiction authors don’t actually use the same skillset as journalists, despite our love of giving advice “for writers” as if they were some unified whole, but I’m increasingly convinced that journalism is the place to go if you want a really, really strict command of your usage and vocabulary skills.  Limited text space makes word choice a sentence-to-sentence priority in a way that it just isn’t in novels, and if you can cross-apply that same focus to a novel you get a very tightly-written piece.

Exhibit A:  The Wall Street Journal Covers Its Own Internal Scandal, Sort Of

Also, you learn how to create evasions so elaborate they might as well be works of art.  Consider this piece from the Wall Street Journal‘s weekend edition:

Dow Jones CEO Hinton Resigns; Move Follows Brooks’s Exit

If you haven’t been following the News Corp. hacking scandal closely, or don’t know much about the newspaper industry, you might be excused for missing a very salient fact in this story:  the “Dow Jones CEO” Les Hinton is also the publisher of the Wall Street Journal.  Right now.  Or up until Friday, anyway, meaning that very very very shortly before this story ran he was the absolute top boss of everyone involved in writing and printing it.

This guy (drawn WSJ style).

It takes style and grace — and judicious use of synonyms — to write a front-page article about your publisher retiring in shame and scandal that never once suggests he is, in fact, the publisher of the newspaper your reader is holding in his or her very hands.  They actually make it past the jump with this evasiveness; far down on the Page A6 continuation the reader finally gets the statement that

The resignation of Mr. Hinton creates a challenge for News Corp. The company is eager to wall off the properties Mr. Hinton has lately overseen—including the Journal and Dow Jones Newswires—from the messy British tabloid scandal.

..oh my!  The Journal!  You don’t say!  Surely not the…Wall Street Journal?  The one I am holding in my hands?  Why, that’s news indeed!

The Lesson for All of Us

Hopefully most of you will not ever need to use this lesson in actual crisis communications (PR-speak for “lying when you fucked up”), but here is what the article ably demonstrates:  you can, in fact, write long and descriptive pieces about uncomfortable subjects that would never, in a million years, bring up the idea of that uncomfortable subject to the casual reader.

You can’t do anything about the inside baseball crowd — the people who already know the players in the story, their histories, their significance — but you can sure as hell make sure that, if someone totally unfamiliar with the story picks up your coverage first, they come away without having connected the awkward dots.

And you do it all with word choice.

I may overstress this point on my blog, but content is cheap.  There are no new ideas under the sun — try to have a good one, but don’t kill yourself making it perfect.  How you say something matters more than what you say.  For authors and for multi-billion dollar news conglomerates.

Expressing Basic Physical Concepts in Words (That Don’t Suck) — Now With a Lesson from George Lucas

This is a longer post, but bear with me — there’s real advice here as well as the obligatory pop culture references.  Seriously, what lessons can’t I teach with Star Wars?  Here we go:

Have you ever seen that exercise they do at leadership seminars and the like where participants have to “teach” the instructor to tie his or her shoes?  And then the instructor does everything with Amelia Bedelia-like literalism until hilarious frustration ensues?

It's funny because the servant class is inherently inferior to us! Ha!

If you have (or if you just read Amelia Bedelia when you were a kid), you already know the challenge technical writers face:  how to express basic physical concepts in words that readers can understand and translate into actions.  I’m always reminded of this around the middle of the year because my page-a-day desk calendar is one of those that you flip around in July, and I’ve always goofed the stacking up so that (in today’s case) January 3rd follows July 14th (and the back side of the Jan. 13 page isn’t July 15 either).  “Just turn your calendar around and start from the top,” my ass.

If you’re not a technical writer or desktop calendar manufacturer, you might be struggling to see the relevance of this.  Bear with me.  It’s because this is awesome:

While this is not:

The erratic course the galactic cruiser was traveling was intentional, not the product of injury but of a desperate desire to avoid it.  Long streaks of intense energy slid close past its hull, a multihued storm of destruction like a school of rainbow remoras fighting to attach themselves to a larger, unwilling host. 

One of those probing, questing beams succeeded in touching the fleeing ship, striking its principal solar fin.  Gemlike fragments of metal and plastic erupted into space as the end of the fin disintegrated.  The vessel seemed to shudder.

The source of those multiple energy beams suddenly hove into view — a lumbering Imperial cruiser, its massive outline bristling cactuslike with dozens of heavy weapon emplacements.  Light ceased arching from those spines now as the cruiser moved in close.  Intermittent explosions and flashes of light could be seen in those portions of the smaller ship which had taken hits.  In the absolute cold of space, the cruiser snuggled up alongside its wounded prey.

Those are all George Lucas’s* own words (yes, even “snuggled”), from the novelization released shortly before Star Wars hit theaters for the first time.  You may have noticed that it’s kind of awful.

Setting aside the odd vocabulary choices, the excerpt’s problems can mostly be traced back to one obvious issue:  it was written from a screenplay, and it still reads like one.  Three paragraphs in we’re still hearing a laundry list of sequential actions.  Every sentence has included some new action that happens:  in the first, a cruiser travels an erratic course.  In the second energy beams shoot past it.  In the third a beam hits it.  In the fourth bits fly off into space.  In the fifth the vessel shudders (or at least seems to — one wonders who it’s seeming to).  And so on.

On the bright side, the cover is pure, unadulterated 1970s awesomeness.

The problem here is one of pacing.  When you describe actions there’s a tendency to want to use the simple, one-thing-then-the-next approach that we use when teaching an overly-literal leadership coach how to tie his/her shoes.  It is, after all, how we learn most things.  Why not use it for teaching people “what happens in my book” as well?  (The answer, hopefully made obvious by the excerpt above, is that it sucks.)

So what’s the alternative?  Well, people have been struggling with that for a long time.  Some have succeeded; others are Stieg Larsson.  But in general there are a few broad options to choose from:

  • The Big Gloss.  Here you cram a lot of action, several minutes of “screen time” or more, into a description of the end result:  “After a flurry of blows and a short you-push-I-pull dance along the flagstones, Captain Rake’s blade slid beneath El Dastardo’s elegant basket hilt and tore the sword from his grasp.”  This is particularly merciful when used to describe naval (or space) battles or massive movements of armies.
  • The Justified Confusion.  Similarly efficient, this plays up the realistic confusion of most intense actions to skip to the point:  “From that moment everything was a blur of fists and hastily-improvised weapons, and the bar was still roiling when she finally tumbled out the door and into the street, away from the beer-scented madness.”  It has the added advantage of seeming to throw a little “gritty realism” into a story whether it actually possesses said quality or not.
  • The Interspersed Non-Sequiter.  If the individual steps of an action are really too important to gloss over you can at least break up the laundry list of “this happened, then that happened” statements (see the Lucas excerpt above) by shoving in some non-action non sequiters:  “She laid the candle in the bowl and sprinkled the herbs carefully around it.  Her knife lay close to hand.  Was this really the right thing to do?  They’d find out soon enough.  A dip of her fingertips in water was all it took — the spell was prepared.”  This keeps the rhythm more varied and avoids the plodding feel of one action described after another.
  • The Slide Show:  It’s possible to skip through a long period of time by simply watching the big points in rapid succession through one charater’s eyes:  “She could already see the outcome.  The cruiser would bend to the starboard, following the gravity well, and they would have to tilt their bow downward to compensate.  From then on it was a matter of physics:  the ponderous range-finding blasts “walking” slowly down the planetary curve, the nauseating yaw, and, finally, the inevitable drop below the horizon.  Assuming the shields would hold…” This at least puts the reader in the more interactive role of an eavesdropper on a character’s thoughts, rather than a movie-chair-seated passive observer of bland description.

I won’t swear by any one of these, or that they’re a particularly comprehensive list, but they’re at least a start on some alternatives.  Feel free to share your own in the comments section (or to tell me my examples suck — my feelings won’t be hurt).  And while we’re at it, does anyone want to know a really cool way to tie their shoes?

-

*In fairness, they are Alan Dean Foster’s words, ghostwritten for and approved by George Lucas.  But he did publish the novelization under his own name. 

2 cats! Free to a bad home!

This is Oh Best Beloved.  Geoffrey has a post planned out that he’s ready to share with you, but last night our pair of hell beasts (aka cats) managed to dump water on his key board and chew through my laptop cord so this morning there are 0 working computers in our apartment.  As soon as we get a working computer in the apartment there will be a real post.

In the meantime wouldn’t you like this pair of adorable balls of destruction?

Disclaimer: Of course we’re joking, as per the 10 page contract we filled out with the Human Society we are not able to give the cats away.  Making them into pies on the other hand….

The Physical Hazards of Writing

My brother the lighting designer swears that all his peers go blind in very specific parts of their eyes.  O Best Beloved the crop geneticist claims all corn scientists end up with skin allergies.  I have no idea what public relations directors cultivate as chronic ailments besides black humor, but I’m sure my father will tell me when he gets there; the point is that we all have our inevitable job hazards.  And writers?  Well, yes.  It may come as a surprise to you, but huddling in a dank cave and scratching out word count for your daily bread does take its inevitable toll.

$1250 a month plus parking, downtown.

And if you’re self-employed you can’t even file with OSHA.  So what do we have to look forward to in our old age?

  • Eyes: painfully light-sensitive from hours of staring at a low-lit computer screen as they daylight vanishes unnoticed behind us.  Squints common.
  • Speech: gradually more halted as we think in longer and longer chunks of written text.  Conversation and its lack of revisability becomes increasingly frustrating.
  • Fingers: curl permanently into keyboard-pounding claws.  Snatching fish from nearby rivers becomes gradually easier (and can get you through a rough month).
  • Back: conforms over time to the shape of your chair.  Problem goes unnoticed until the chair wears out and you have to switch, which you take worse than a divorce.
  • Figure: gravitates slowly toward the extremes.  Diet and health will determine whether you end up with “writer’s butt” or “famine survivor chic.”
  • Legs: Whither away and atrophy without regular exercise such as kicking the cat when it bothers you.  Pets a worthwhile investment.
  • Personal hygiene: hardly bears mentioning, really.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that you’ve found some sort of in-your-chair yoga routine that solves all these problems, or just balance your life and your writing in a normal and healthy way (ha! just my little joke).  Have I missed your malady of choice?  Leave a comment and I’ll add it to the list!

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