Archive for September, 2011

Important Lessons About Word Choice (Poop Edition)

Let me paint a picture for you here.

Imagine yourself at the kind of the party where people get drunk, smash holes in the wall, and then patch the holes up with cardboard from spare cases of beers.  Drunken but not thoughtless, as it were.

Now imagine that the owner of this newly-perforated home comes staggering out of the bathroom in the very latter hours of the party, when everyone has comfortably transitioned from their mostly-vertical simian hunches to a sort of protoplasmic horizontalness, bulging with veins pumping pure, red-hot anger through his body.

In the awful silence that follows his arrival he screams:  “WHO SHIT IN THE TOILET?!”

Man we've been talking about toilets a lot on the blog this week.

If you’re good at imagining things you should have come to the same conclusion all of us present did:  stupefied confusion combined with the immediate nagging fear that yes, somewhere in the course of the drunken evening, we probably had shit in the toilet.  It was a long party, after all.

Apartment Owner, veins still bulging, repeated his urgent query as the first few hands began to rise:  “WHO SHIT IN THE TOILET?!”

Enraged repetitions followed.

I have no idea who finally managed to struggle to his feet, skirt carefully around A.O., and peer into the bathroom.  Whoever it was would have seen the problem immediately:  the lid of the toilet tank was askew, and floating in the tank next to the small inflated bladder that usually floats in toilet tanks were three or four things that do not usually float in toilet tanks.

I like to think I learned something about word choice that day.

Sometimes It’s Important to Not Write What You Feel

One of the things writers like to talk about is feelings.  Writing what you feel; expressing the inexpressable in words.  That’s the name of the game, right?

Freelancing has a way of shattering writerly illusions like a sixteenth-century Dutch church window.  When you are being paid to write for a wide range of employers you often find yourself pouring expression into ideas that you do not actually share, and may in fact with grievous bodily harm upon the holders of.  Case in point:

now i get to write about newborn baby photography all day. i did not sign up for this.

what i have been writing: “blah blah blah precious moments.”

what i would like to write: “newborn baby photography is basically like sack of potato photography. you will pay us and we will place your sack of potatoes in a variety of places and take pictures of it. we especially like putting a little hat on your sack of potatoes and placing your sack of potatoes on a stack of folded towels. in fact, we always place your sack of potatoes there at some point, with a little hat, whether you like it or not.”

I promised I would be good and not share the author’s name, because he/she would sort of like to keep that job for a while (don’t ask me why).  But I think it captures the problem fairly neatly.

Here's that window-smashing I was talking about.

Different freelancers seem to deal with this different ways.  I know of professional writers who come home (well, stay home, usually) after a hard day of work writing for other people and pour their heart and soul into novels or other creative writing.  Others spend extra time and effort making sure they’re querying for articles they want to write and building leads with people in the industries they’re interested in.

Me, I drink heavily.

But I assume at least some of this self-editing has to go into fiction too; we can’t wear our hearts entirely on our sleeves.  Or can-we-slash-do-you?  And do you have any interesting thoughts on baby photography?  If you do, I might know someone who can get you a job…

How Long Since Your Last Shower?

It’s really very important that I know how long it’s been since your last shower.

Ok — it’s not actually important for me to know.  But are you aware?  Because if you have to think for a minute, chances are your own O Best Beloved (or whoever else you might live with, or work with, or otherwise offend with your presence) thinks it’s been too long.

One of the joys of the writing life is, of course, that you can do it in your bathrobe, or whatever else you like.  (And there’s a good question for the comments section — what do you write in?  Baggy sweatpants and a T-shirt?  Work clothes to make yourself feel more professional?  The locking bondage pants your Mistress left you in?  Inquiring minds want to know!)  But the freedom to be a slob has to come with a bit of responsibility, at least if you plan on interacting with other human beings.

So I don’t really use how often I’ve showered as a metric of how busy my week has been (although it’s not a bad one); rather, I tend to use how long I have to think to figure out when my last shower was as the indicator.  That way you get a useful cross-section of your personal hygiene and your processing power all at one go.  Very representative, I find.

These are things you discover about yourself when the work is good and you have a lot on your desk each week.  When do you know that your work week is getting out of hand?  And are those locking bondage pants starting to chafe yet?  Leave a comment…

If All Else Fails, Publish a Coffee Table Book

Do you remember that Seinfeld storyline where Kramer wanted to make a coffee table book of coffee tables?  (I don’t, as it happens, but I know it exists because people bring it up whenever I advance this theory of publishing.)  The joke was basically that there’s already a big, glossy-paged book of full-page images with text captions for almost anything you can think of.

Well, that was before the internet.  Or not before it, but before the internet of lolcats and Michelle Bachmann’s eyes superimposed on other celebrities and, to pick the example that put this post in my mind, hipster puppies.

Hipster Puppies is out in large paperback format for $14.00, and it is a wonderful example of how you can make picture books of anything, especially if it’s something that’s been on the internet first.  Of course, they’re also publishing it as an e-book, which sort of seems to defeat the purpose of a photobook unless you leave your Nook lying around the coffee table.  I suppose soon enough we’ll be able to hook it up directly to the HD viewscreen built into the table.

So if you’re currently struggling with creative writing and publishing — just can’t seem to get a book out there — grab a camera and start clicking.  A coffee table books of coffee table books, perhaps?  It’s a thought.

A Question of Blog Advertising

I’ve never set up any kind of advertising on MA101.  It’s more professional vanity than anything else; I just don’t like blogs with lots of random keyword-generated crap popping up all over the place.  It looks cluttered and, to my mind, makes you seem a little less authoritative.

And as you can tell from all the potty humor, we strive for authoritativeness here.

So imagine my surprise when O Best Beloved (who has heard me ponder my way through various money-making strategies, including discarded ones) said “Oh, you’ve started advertising on the blog?”

To the best of my knowledge I have not.  I wrestle with the temptation from time to time — traffic is high enough that I could actually make a few bucks that way, not to mention write a few of the things I talk about off on my taxes — but so far I have not given into it.  To the best my knowledge the bottom of a post should look like this:

But apparently on O Best Beloved’s screen (which is in the bedroom now, and she’s sleeping, so no screenshot!) there’s a large, rectangular ad with externally-generated content right below the “Like This” option, above the comment form.  And I ain’t getting paid a cent for it.

Needless to say this makes me a bit cross.  If I’m going to have a cluttered, money-grubbing looking blog anyway I’d like to grub some of the money myself.  But it’s possible that it’s just something that’s worked its way into her own browser somehow and isn’t showing up on other people’s screens.

Has anyone else ever had sometimes-but-not-always-there ads cropping up on their blogs?  Is this a more common thing than I’m thinking?  And more importantly, should I just give up my foolish vanity and start putting paid ads on MA101 anyway, or do you want me to stay pure?  Let me know as I weigh my options!

Why You Can’t Rely Entirely on Wikipedia

Writing fiction has never been easier.  You’ve got all the research you need right at your fingertips, whether you’re struggling with the details of an ancient Egyptian setting or wondering exactly how many alleys a villain could theoretically flee down between Broadway and Amsterdam on the 6800 block (and I had to look up streets near Broadway in New York for that second example, which just proves my point).  It’s all right there on the internet.  And nowhere is quicker or easier than a Wikipedia check — “Wikipedia knows all,” as we liked to joke in college.  Right?

Well, sort of right.  Wikipedia’s handy for a spot-check on something you’ve already got some basic knowledge of.  And it’s a great way for dabblers like me to waste time — you can acquire all sorts of meaningless one-off facts by browsing all the links in whatever article you start with.  But you quickly run into issues of quality.  Take a couple examples:

  • The entry on the Khogyani District in Afghanistan (which I was writing about for a project a few weeks back) gives you a map and a basic overview of the district.  It also tells you all about the attractive features and the superior products of the district, in language that leaves little doubt that someone employed to make it sound good was doing the writing:  “Khogyani is famous for its pleasant weather, and high-quality fruits. Its apricots, walnuts, almonds and grapes are famous in Nangarhar province and throughout Afghanistan.”  And so on.
  • In a completely different part of the world, the entry on the Colorado sport of burro racing lists the basic rules of racing and notes that “A well know method of cheating is to wear a giant shoe and use a small donkey. Placing the donkey on the large shoe allows the racer to run. Care must be taken to select a small enough donkey otherwise the runner may be imobilized. This method was first used in 1879 by George ‘Big Foot’ Patterson and imortalised in the ballad ‘Run with your massive shoe’.”  There’s no particular attempt to explain that this is more of a story one tells about burro racing, rather than an actual issue that judges must take into account.

Of course, it’s a communal project.  I could be a good and responsible editor and go fix these right now if I wanted to.  And there we see the weakness of Wikipedia; it relies on people like me taking the time to change slightly biased voices or minor failings in explanation.

So take what you see on Wikipedia with a very large grain of salt.  It’s probably true — editors monitor most changes closely enough that outright false or unsubstantiated claims usually get taken down before they can do much harm.  But it might not be very complete or very fairly-presented, especially if you’re looking at a more obscure subject.

Moral of the story?  There’s still some value in a bricks-and-mortal library.  Get your butt on over to one if you’re trying to be accurate about a subject you don’t already know well.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to change the Wikipedia description of “hunk” to include a link to my picture…

What American Apparel’s Near-Pornographic Ads Can Teach You About Writing

I’m not a very classy person.  I have, for example, a tendency to prefer cheap pizza to the fancy wood-oven-fired stuff with weird ingredients.  Pine nuts and truffle oil?  No thank you.  I’d like fat with more fat on it, please. Things like that. But I draw the line at carrying my porn around in public.

You wouldn’t think it would come up that often, would you?  This is the internet age, after all; those of us who like the naughty pix can just store them on the privacy of our own hard drives, or tweet them to the privacy of young women’s hard drives, where they will eventually be leaked to the press and cause a scandal that ends our political careers.

Hypothetically speaking.

So even classless ol’ me shouldn’t usually have to worry about walking around publicly with porn in hand that often, right?

Wrong.

That’s not a page from Playboy.  You could be easily fooled, since it features not only a scantily-clad woman but also a cute little bio and some URLs telling you where you can see more sexy pictures, but it’s actually an advertisement that ran on the back page of our local paper a few weeks ago.

These are very awkward things to carry around on public transit, just for an example.  Little old ladies give you odd looks.  Parents with small children scowl until you flip the page over.  And in their defense, some of the back-page ads aren’t substantially different from a porno cover.  Some of them are worse.

This, for example, is an advertisement.

.

While this, in theory, is pornography.

The woman in black is wearing quite a bit more clothing, and, I would argue, posing less provocatively as well.  She does, I assume, wear less inside the magazine, but the point remains that I’m allowed to carry the daily news around with the American Apparel ad showing (give or take the occasional disapproving look), while taking a Playboy onto the subway would cause all sorts of trouble whether I opened it or not.

There is actually a writing-related point to the comparison, and it is this:  packaging and branding matter more than content.

American Apparel can run pornographic ads in the mainstream press because they’re not billing it as pornography.  The fact that it’s more physically titillating than a Playboy cover doesn’t bother people because Playboy is for jerkin’ off and full-page newspaper ads are just for selling clothes.  The context trumps the content.

This can play out in a lot of ways.  Just about any choice you can make about a work affects how people will read it:  what genre it’s billed at, whether it’s “literary” or “popular” fiction; even just the difference between hardback and paperback carries expectations that you’ll never get away from.  Don’t be afraid of the choices — but do be aware of them.

And don’t take your Playboy on the subway.  That’s just classless.

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