Sunday, August 21, 2016

Tools Of The Trade

I love the idea of writers going completely old school: settling into a comfortable leather chair (or better yet, hunched somewhat uncomfortably over a kitchen table only recently cleared of dishes) and scribbling on a yellow legal pad, preferably using a number 2 pencil. There's something about that image and about the sounds and scents of it all: the acrid, sawdust smell of a freshly sharpened batch of pencils; the scratching of pen or pencil on paper; the rustling of pages being filled and then flipped over to expose a fresh, empty sheet with its blue or green ruled lines; the occasional rub of an eraser, possibly accompanied by the writer's mutterings—frustrated or frenzied or simply excited by the struggle to get ideas placed on the page before they disappear into the ether. 

This is part of the Photos section of one Leveling the Playing Field
manuscript chapter as it appears in OneNote.

This approach isn't completely unheard of, even today in this age of computers and tablets and networks and clouds and Chromebooks and the like. There are still writers—truly good ones—who write in longhand, at least for the first draft or two. I was thinking about these folks when attempting to answer a question that I sometimes get: "What tools do you use when writing?"

The Web, Duh!

To begin with, the Internet, naturally. We've democratized information, so the answer to almost any question is usually just a mouse-click away. (We've also democratized misinformation, so be careful.) Many times, a link to Wikipedia is among the very first hits listed on the results page. I happen to think Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, and I always urge students to use it feely, but not exclusively. It's an excellent place to start, though, and especially helpful are the citations within the Wikipedia article itself. If you're seeking first-rate vetted research materials, Google Scholar is a great Internet resource, though much of the content there resides behind paywalls of one kind or another.

Email is incredibly useful. I've "interviewed" dozens of sources via emails sent back and forth, sometimes in quick succession, but often over days or weeks. It's not as spontaneous as a real-time interview, but it can be more measured and much more convenient for both parties. And it gives the interviewer the ability to quote the source very accurately—and to point out the source of the quote, should questions arise later.

Audio & Video Interviews

Another set of interview tools I've used extensively are Skype and a Skype recorder called Evaer. Using Skype with Evaer running in the background, I can record the video and audio streams of both participants, or of just the interviewee. Handy stuff. 

While interviews are useful and can be great fun, transcribing those interviews is no fun at all. In fact, it’s a royal pain. In my case it seems to take me about twice as long to transcribe an interview as it did to conduct it in the first place. (Then again, my typing skills are . . . well, not terribly impressive. I generally type with just four fingers, a thumb, and an occasional elbow, so you ace touch-typists out there may fare better than I do when transcribing.) 

But then I discovered a secret weapon. Not a playback pedal, though those are pretty handy. Instead, I use an incredibly helpful free Web service called oTranscribe. Just import your audio or video file, and then play it back at a speed you select. You can add italics or bold if you choose, and press CTRL-J to add a timestamp. (Very useful if you need to go back later and listen to something again.) Just press ESC at any time to stop or start the playback; when you start again, the audio automatically rewinds a few seconds so that you're where you left off, but with a little breathing room. When I asked the developer, Elliot Bentley, why he didn't charge anything for such a useful tool, he said it was really just a hobby, and he didn't want to mess with collecting money, paying taxes, etc. I found oTranscribe to be so useful that I really wanted to help out the developer by paying something. In the end, I assuaged my hurt feelings by going to Dairy Queen and toasting Elliot with a double-dip chocolate swirl. It seemed to help.

Notes & Organization

I'm not sure about writing fiction, but with nonfiction, half the battle (possibly more than half) is collecting, making notes about, and storing in some accessible place a huge volume of information: quotes, transcripts, photos, articles, facts and dates, phrases you intend to use, and on and on. (I also found this to be true when writing magazine articles. In every single case, writing the article was the easiest part of the job; interviewing, finding and storing information, and deciding what to use was the tough part. In other words, in nonfiction, it's mostly legwork. If you did the legwork well, the writing was easy. If you kept hitting walls when writing, it was almost always because your legwork was sloppy.)

For years, I used Evernote as my go-to notetaking application. It was free and fast, it was available on multiple platforms, and it did everything I needed and nothing I didn't. But as the developers added new features, Evernote became bloated and clumsy. (It's no longer always free, either; if you need access to advanced features or want to run it on more than two devices, it’ll cost you.)

I switched to OneNote. Microsoft's powerful note-taking application is complex, but the user interface makes it work. Instead of bolting features onto a UI that could handle only a limited number of tasks, OneNote feels like it was designed from the start with sophistication in mind. I can set up a notebook, and then add sections (or tabs) for each part of the project: one for interviews, one for media, one for materials and queries from the publisher, and so on. Within each section I can have pages and subpages. For instance, in my Manuscript section I had pages for the draft manuscript itself and subpages for photos, tables, audio clips, notes, etc.

Not only is the application free, but it's almost impossible to find a device for which there is not a version of OneNote. (To get the most out of it, you need a Microsoft OneDrive account, but that's also free, for up to 5GB of storage. More than that will cost you a few bucks per month.)

Writing Them Words

So, eventually you have to deliver a manuscript, and the days of messengering over to the publisher a large box containing your typed or handwritten masterpiece are long gone. These days, the publisher needs digital files, and like it or not, that almost always means Microsoft Word files. Of course, you can use any number of other excellent word processors and then convert the file, but sometimes things go awry in the conversion process.

In my case, I just start in Word to begin with, after that first draft in OneNote. Most publishers don't need anything too fancy: just a nice, clean double-spaced manuscript in 12 pt. Times New Roman or whatever. You could create such a document in just about any word processor, but I happen to like Microsoft Word, especially since that's the desired end format anyway. (Lest you think I'm some sort of Micro$oft lackey: I did not start out as a Word fan. I was a die-hard WordPerfect user, going all the way back to the DOS versions that displayed on a monochrome screen. I loved those early versions of WordPerfect, and I pretty much refused to run Word until I found myself creating help files for a Windows program. It turned out that those were much easier to create if you used Word, so I switched, "temporarily." That was 23 years ago. I'm still "temporarily" using MS Word.)

So that’s my toolkit. It’s not a complete list, by any means, and I'm sure that others may have different tools that work better for them. What do you all use when writing or putting together a project of this sort? It’d be interesting to hear from writers, crafters, project managers, and other folks who have to collect and keep information in some organized, accessible fashion.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Another Giveaway!

So, my ace marketing team (i.e., Lesley) noticed that we have seen several photos of people holding, reading, or standing near their copies of Leveling the Playing Field, and this gave us an idea for another giveaway! This time it’s worth $50 at your favorite retailer! (As long as your favorite retailer is either Barnes and Noble or See the rules and fine print and such below: 
NEW GIVEAWAY! Enter to win a $50 Barnes & Noble or Amazon gift card (your choice). Post on your Facebook wall a photo of yourself, your spouse (or S.O.), or a pet reading Leveling the Playing Field. (Photos taken in a bookstore don’t count.) :) Don’t forget to tag me, so I’ll know that you posted, and for a second chance to win, share THIS post with your friends. Winner to be announced on Sept. 30th. Thanks again for all your support. The “likes” and “shares” really help get the word out!
Notice that the contest ends September 30th. That’s so you’ll be able to attend the book signing (SouthPointe B&N, September 24th at 2:00), get your book signed, and still have time to enter the contest.

Also, don’t forget that you can get a second entry in the drawing by sharing my Facebook post.

Thank you all again for your help. It’s been a great journey so far, and it wouldn’t have been possible without your support.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

It's Simple, Really. But Complicated.

So, I was speaking with Kris Kristofferson the other day…

Two old guys, one of whom is very, very
talented. The other one writes this blog.
Wait, wait, wait . . .  Yeah, I always wanted to start off a blog post with a major name-drop like that. But I really was speaking with Kris Kristofferson the other day; he’s my wife’s cousin, and we recently met up with Kris at a family reunion in Oregon. And, oddly enough, our conversation actually is relevant to this blog post. (I also got to play guitar and sing with him for bit, and that part is not at all relevant to the topic of this blog post, but c'mon . . .  How many of us get to say that we played with Kris Kristofferson?)

Ahem . . . So, anyway, I was speaking with Kris Kristofferson the other day, and I asked him who was the best guitarist he’s played with. Now, Kris has played with a lot of really good guitar players in his 60-year career, but his answer surprised me. He said the best guitarist he’s worked with is Willie Nelson. I had never paid much attention to Willie as a guitar player. I assumed he was competent, of course; good, even, but nothing special. It’s country, after all. “Three chords and the truth,” right? How complicated could it be?

“It sounds simple, but it’s really not, not the way he plays it. The guy plays like Segovia,” said Kris. “Definitely the best I’ve played with.”

And he’s got a point there. (Well, of course he’s got a point. He’s Kris-Freaking-Kristofferson!) If you listen to Willie’s work on the Stardust album, which is full of old standards and torch songs, you can hear that he plays a lot of complex rhythms and sophisticated jazz chords, with the occasional flamenco-style trill or run thrown in for good measure. But the thing is that when you examine much of his country work, he’s doing some of that there, too. Even in his “pure” country songs, if you listen carefully, you can pick up subtle echoes of both jazz and classical Spanish guitar work—with maybe a little blues thrown in. (I’m not really sure that there’s actually such a thing as “pure” country. Or pure anything, really. My friend and former colleague, Seth Colaner, who is both an excellent writer and an accomplished musician, knows a lot more than I about music, music history, and music theory. He touches on the subject in the Artist Statement on his website. Definitely worth a look, and be sure to check out his music while you’re there.)

Like many things of great beauty, Willie’s guitar-playing sounds . . . simple. Understated. Even the flourishes seem straightforward; they never overshadow the song—they’re subtle touches meant to complement, not stand out. It makes you think that playing like that would be easy.

But of course, it’s not easy. Most things that seem simple are only simple because so many of the complexities are masked.

Software, for instance. When you run a program and discover that it’s easy to use, chances are that someone (or a team of someones) went through a great deal of trouble to make it easy to use. There is nothing simple about software; even in the most rudimentary programs, there’s a whole lot going on behind the scenes, and many, many ways that the program’s interactions with the user could go astray. Someone figured out all of those ways (or as many as possible, anyway), and tried to account for or avoid them. The software you’re using is easy to use simply because a skilled designer or programmer made it so, and that person expended a great deal of time and energy in the effort.

And writing is “simple” in the same way. Very few people can write beautiful prose (or poetry or song) off the tops of their heads. For most of us, writing is a great deal of very hard work. It seems simple and straightforward and natural only because we labored to make it so. 

Discussing the craft of writing reminds me of the saying usually attributed (in various forms) to sportswriter Red Smith: “Writing is easy. I just sit at my typewriter until beads of blood form on my forehead.”

It’s not that bad, really. But it’s like any craft: working up the basic framework might be simple enough, but tweaking and reworking and polishing it can take many, many hours. And yet, when you read it, the work will feel smooth and effortless; it will be a coherent whole that seems to flow naturally and easily. All of the artist’s hard work is hidden from view.

It’s there, though. Good work takes work

Monday, August 01, 2016

Writers Read

I very often start off my writing classes by explaining to students that they don't need me. Really. They don't. If they actually want to become better writers, they can achieve that by doing three things: reading, writing, and reading some more.

Trying to sound like Ernest Hemingway? Well,
that's not a bad place to start. Eventually, you'll
find your own voice. Image in the public domain.
Oh, I like to think that I'm a helpful guide, that I can explain things in such a way that they become better writers more quickly or more easily than they would without me, and that I can make the process more interesting than it might be otherwise. (And I believe that's true, or else I wouldn't do it.) But the bottom line is that students can become better writers just by reading a lot and by writing a lot. 

And it doesn't even matter what they read. Comic books? Fine. Romance? Excellent. Manga? Go for it. Science fiction? Definitely. "Great literature"? (Whatever that is...) Sure! Read from whatever genre and in whatever format you like. Simply reading things written by people who know how to write will help you become a better writer.

And on the writerly side of things... I just tell them to write. Don't worry (yet) about whether what you're writing is any good. It'll get there. Sure, at first, 90% of what you're writing will be garbage. So what? Learn to tell the difference, and then use the remaining 10% to move on. Eventually, much of what you write will be strong, solid stuff. Just keep writing. If you don't quite know where to start, do what I do: start in the middle. Or at the end. It'll work itself out. That middle piece you write will suggest what the beginning should be like. That ending you wrote will help you fill in the middle.

Yes, at first, much of what you write will be crap, and derivative crap at that; you will probably try to sound like a favorite author. (At some point, we all tried to sound like Hemingway, right?) But that's OK. For now, go ahead; sound like a bad imitation of Hemingwayor Stephen King, or whomever. There are worse things to sound like. You'll eventually find your authentic voice.

The key here, of course, is that the student has to want to become a better writer. He or she has to care about the writing, has to want the communication to be effective. (And as an excellent writer by the name of William Van Winkle recently noted on my Facebook page, much of that effectiveness boils down to clarity, to a lack of ambiguity. I was lucky enough to work with Van Winkle during my days as a magazine editor. Check out some of his writing here. You'll be glad you did.)

So there's only one important thing that I really have to teach my students: I have to teach them to care. If they actually come to care about their writing, to think that clear, effective writing actually matters, then I've done my job. The rest comes naturally as an answer to the question: OK, so what do I have to know in order to do that? How can I achieve this clarity of which you speak?

Reading becomes a habit, and writers tend to be voracious readers. (In fact, readingand being so enthralled and impressed by what we readmay have been what made us want to become writers in the first place. Holy crap! That was awesome! I want to do that!!, we thought in the 5th or 7th or 12th grades.)

My reading, for instance, is varied and constant. I'm always reading something (or several somethings), and I read everything from sci-fi to medical thrillers, from police procedurals to biographies, and from history to technical manuals. Right now I'm reading a biography of Ronald Reagan (personal political note: never in my life did I think that I would miss Ronald Reagan, but there you go....), a book about the making of The Princess Bride ("My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die..."), a book about the risks of using drones in warfare, and Walter Isaacson's book, The Innovatorsabout the technologists who created the digital revolution. (I also just finished The Progenya thriller by my friend, Tosca Lee. And of course, there were the dozens of books that I read while researching Leveling the Playing Field.)

Reading is one of the things that makes fledgling writers into accomplished ones, and good writers into great ones. (I'm still working on "accomplished," and I dreamas do we allof being "great.")

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Digital Elk

It's good to be an elk. At least, it is if you happen to live and forage near the town of Sequim, in northwestern  Washington state. Or for that matter in Clam Lake, Wisconsin or in certain areas of Minnesota.

A bull elk. Image in the public domain.
Sequim (pronounced "squim") has a population of a bit fewer than 7000 people and 100 or so Olympic or Roosevelt elk. In the late 1990s, as more and more people moved into Washington's Dungeness Valley, collisions between the elk (weighing up to 1000 lbs.) and vehicles (averaging 4000 lbs.) were becoming more and more common. The contest was a lopsided one, with the elk almost always on the losing end. The herd was being decimated by the encroachment of people (many of them retirees) seeking a peaceful, quiet place to settle, but who tended to ignore the "ELK CROSSING" warning signs on the highway. As is often the case, the clash between man and nature was being decided in favor of man, but at the expense of the beauty of nature and possibly with unanticipated effects on the local ecology. Things were not going well for either Cervidae or human residents.

But in 2001, a wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had an interesting idea. Shelly Ament came up with what amounts to an interactive elk crossing: Thanks to a project she designed and spearheaded, about 10% of the elk–mainly the herd leaders–were equipped with radio collars similar to those used to track wolves, bears, and other wildlife. But these collars were different. When the elk come within about 400 yards of the highway, the collars emit a laser signal that causes roadside warning signs to flash "ELK X-ING."

The idea worked. Many fewer animals were killed (in fact, only one elk was killed during that first year), and the herd is now healthy and reproducing well. With the help of this technology, the people and the herd have been able to get along.

Ament's idea caught on, and now several other areas of the country are also employing radio-activated warning signs to reduce the likelihood of collisions.

That's the thing about innovation: When a technology is created, no one knows where it will lead, the uses to which it will be put, or the other technologies with which it will be combined. When the first laser was built in 1960, one assumes that the inventors had absolutely no idea that their invention would be used to protect elk herds. (Or that lasers would turn up in optical disc drives, 3D printers, and scanners, none of which had themselves yet been invented.)

We simply have no way of knowing what "feedback loops" (to use a term popular with anthropologists) might result from an invention. While researching Leveling the Playing Field, I read Steven Johnson's How We Got to Now, an enthralling and entertaining book that lays out some of these loops, tracing some of the ways in which early technologies have had far-reaching effects that no one could possibly have foreseen.

Here's a brief extract from Leveling the Playing Field that discusses this phenomenon:
…Johnson lays out a fascinating series of those [feedback] loops, some of them so extended and seemingly so disconnected that one would never see the associations among them without Johnson’s expert (and enjoyable) guidance. And yet, they are very connected.
For instance, he traces the development of the printing press and explains how it caused an explosion of inventiveness not only among printers and writers and the like (which was to be expected), but also among glass and spectacle makers who now found themselves seeking optometric solutions for a seriously myopic population that had never realized its eyesight was deficient until, thanks to Gutenberg, so many people found themselves attempting to read the books, journals, and broadsheets that were suddenly available. But the loop doesn’t end there. The explosion of lens crafters and experimenters ultimately resulted in the invention of both the microscope and the telescope; the former then led to germ theory and other medical discoveries, while the latter helped Galileo and others challenge the Aristotelian notion that the heavens revolved around the Earth. In a way, the invention of the printing press may have led to antibiotics and to space travel.
So who knows where digital elk crossings will lead? Is it much of a leap to anticipate traffic signs that will respond to the presence of your phone or watch, freezing traffic if you happen to step (or fall) out onto a busy street? You could end up owing your life to a herd of elk.  (Or, more properly, to a Washington state wildlife biologist named Shelly Ament.)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

New Arrivals

It's an oddly exhilarating feeling when boxes of books sent by the publisher show up on your doorstep. I've gone through it a couple of times before, but those books were annotations of existing texts; this is the first time I've received copies of a book that I conceived, pitched, researched, and wrote from scratch. It's a heady feeling, a bit like that first time you see your byline on a newspaper or magazine article, but a lot more intense. Then again, this represents a year's work, plus another year of waiting and edits, and some more waiting, and then more edits. (And yet, as always, even after multiple edits, I still see things that I'd like to change! Perfection is so elusive—in a book or in anything else.)

At any rate, they're here! This publisher was a bit more generous than the last with "author copies," as they're called; most of these are destined for reviewers, and of course, three of them will be sent to the three winners of our "name that blog" contest. 

The receipt of the books does bring up a couple of questions I get fairly often: 1) What tools and techniques do you use when writing longer nonfiction? 2) Exactly how does one land a book contract?! Those are both incredibly interesting questions, and I plan to talk about both subjects in upcoming posts. (Short answer to the first one: Mostly Microsoft OneNote and some additional digital tools, many used mainly for interviewing. Short answer to the second: Mostly luck, and maybe a bit of skill, experience, and perseverance. But, honestly, heavy on the luck.)

If you're looking to have your copy signed, I'm happy to do that for you; just arrange shipping both waysor if you're local, drop by the house or visit me at Sandhills Publishing. (Call first.) Otherwise, there will be a book signing at the SouthPointe Barnes & Noble, most likely during the Lincoln Arts Festival on September 24th and 25th. [UPDATE: The signing is scheduled for Saturday, 9/24, at 2:00 p.m.] Hope to see you there, even if you don't need a book signed! (I'll post more info when we firm up the date.)

Thank you all for your support and for accompanying me on this journey.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

FYI: It's the end of the world as we know it

All of these new-fangled technologiestexting, emojis, email, social networking and the likeare destroying our ability to communicate. They're making it impossible for young people to concentrate, to speak and write grammatically, and to communicate effectively; in the end, they're doing serious harm to the very language itself.

 Or so say many. As one teacher complained about his students, “They use ‘cuz’ instead of ‘because,’ and IDK instead of ‘I don’t know.’ They’re shortening their lingo instead of using proper English." (I'll just point out that "lingo" is itself a shortened term derived from Portuguese via the Latin Lingua Franca.)

Jacquie Ream, a former teacher and the author of K.I.S.S.: Keep It Short and Simple, noted, “We have a whole generation being raised without communication skills.” She and others contend that texting is destroying the way young people think and write.

And yet, the destruction seems awfully . . . slow. Technology has apparently been ruining the language for quite a while now—many dozens or hundreds or even thousands of years. And yet here we (and it) still are. You would think that, by now, technology would have succeeded in destroying the language. Perhaps it needs to work harder; apparently, destroying a language—or our ability to use a language—is not as easy as it looks.

There have always been plenty of critics ready to point out the dangers that new technologies pose to our ability to communicate and to think. And they have been ready for a very long time, beginning with the most foundational technologies—ones that predate the iPhone and texting and Facebook not by years, but by centuries.

Writing itself, for instance. In his Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates recounting a story in which the inventor of writing seeks a king's praise. But instead of praising him, the king says, “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant.”

So, at least for some people, even the invention of writing horrified the older generation. It was, after all, a new technology, and one which completely altered the acquisition, storage, and dissemination of information. Talk about a game-changer—and you know how we old people hate change.

And that's always how it goes; the younger generation adopts new tools, while the older generation looks on aghast, certain that what they're witnessing presages the end of our ability to think, to work, to communicate.

These days we're fine with writing. In fact, it's the demise of writing we're worried about.

In another recent development, it turns out that the use of pictures (such as emoticons and emojis) to replace words confusesand perhaps angerssome people. British journalist and actress Maria McErlane told The New York Times that she was “deeply offended" by emoticons. "If anybody on Facebook sends me a message with a little smiley-frowny face ... I will de-friend them ... I find it lazy. Are your words not enough?” Ms. McErlane apparently has a very short temper and way too much time on her hands.

Invented in 1982 by Scott E. Fahlman, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, the first emoticon was a sideways smiley face made up of a colon, a hyphen, and a right-parenthesis. It was created explicitly to add information to plain text messages, the underlying context of which might otherwise be misunderstood. (Was that a joke? Is he serious? Should I be angry? WHAT DID HE MEAN BY THAT?! OMG!) 

And thus began the end of the world as we know it. I mean, not counting Socrates and such.

John McWhorter, with whom I traded emails while researching Leveling the Playing Field, is a linguistics professor at Columbia University. He has studied texting and writingand communication in generaland he says that we're looking at this whole texting thing all wrong. Texting, says Dr. McWhorter, isn't writing at all, and thus has little or no effect on writing. Texting, says McWhorter, is actually "fingered speech."

In McWhorter's view, rather than being a bastardized form of writing, texting is more akin toand follows fairly closely the rules ofspoken language, complete with its shortcuts, telegraphic delivery, fragmented utterances, and the use of "body language" (in this case, emoticons, emojis, and the like) to clarify and add context to an otherwise potentially ambiguous communication.

Many of us seem to think of texting as something less than writing, something that represents some sort of communicative decline, but McWhorter insists that this is not so. “We think something has gone wrong, but what is going on is a kind of emergent complexity.” (Check out Dr. McWhorter's TED address here.)

Which may be a way of saying that my granddaughter was right. During a discussion of this topic, she suggested that perhaps what we're seeing is not the death of one language, but the birth of a new one.

Of course, there are almost certainly other problems caused or exacerbated by technology and social media; there's even an argument that so-called social media has, ironically, made us less socialbut that's a topic for another post, or perhaps another book. But for now, it appears that our students' inability to communicate does not seem to have been caused by new technologies. If we're encountering young people who no longer know how to punctuate, how to write a coherent sentence, or how to craft a cohesive essay (and I see such students daily), perhaps we should look elsewhere for the cause; it may turn out to be a failure of some other system.