Sunday, August 28, 2016

Half The People, Half The Time

Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.

—E.B. White

Like many people, I have a love/hate relationship with the Internet. I truly love that it has democratized information. Having written for newspapers and magazines both before and after the advent of the Internet (yes, I'm that old), I can remember telephoning sources, poring over dusty bound directories, driving to municipal and county halls of record, and trudging out to libraries, all to unearth one fact or to look up a name. Honestly, I don't know how we did it; I certainly don't know how we did it quickly and efficiently. Now, the Internet at least gives us a starting point and, if nothing else, a list of possible sources. And email, another Internet-based technology, gives us a pipeline directly to many of those sources.

But more than that, I love the way that the Web has opened up the world to many of those to whom it had previously been shuttered. Not all, of course; we're a long way from an ideal world in which everyone has the same access to such resources. But many more have it today than they did 10 or 20 or 50 years ago. Knowledge truly is power, after all, and more people have access to that knowledge than ever before. The Internet—and the access it provides—is both the natural outgrowth and a continuing echo of Gutenberg's printing press, which unleashed a (sometimes quite literal) revolution of information; that avalanche of knowledge, freely accessible for perhaps the first time, shook the world, and the world still trembles in its wake today. The Internet, I think, is truly that important. (Which is one reason we have to keep working to ensure that everyone has unfettered access to it.)

Gamergate principal Zoe Quinn. Photo courtesy
of Zoe Quinn.
But,  then . . .  There’s also an ugly side to the Web. In democratizing information, we have also democratized misinformation and provided a mechanism that seems particularly well-suited to the delivery of hate and bigotry and misogyny. The Internet seems to have fostered an anonymity-fueled onslaught of ugliness. It's not enough to disagree with someone, which could, after all, be done with tact and grace and . . . well, respect. We seem to have lost that. Instead, many Internet users spew hate and vitriol instead of engaging in reasoned and dispassionate argument. They don't converse, they don't argue, they don't debate; they attack.

Check the comments thread of any news or magazine article. How many comments does it take before you hit the first ugly one? The first in which the writer's disagreement includes an insult? How long before the "comment" is pure insult, without even the pretense of mounting an actual argument?

It doesn't take very many comments to hit that first nasty one, does it? And the type of publication almost doesn't matter. Political blogs. News sites. Technical magazines. They all get nasty, and very quickly—and they often morph abruptly from merely critical to outright threatening. If you'd like to see real-life examples of this, just Google actresses Leslie Jones, Emma Watson, and Ashley Judd; because of their activism, they've all been threatened with rape and worse.

Or ask Zoe Quinn. Quinn was involved in the so-called Gamergate controversy, which began when a group of gamers accused Quinn and others of garnering positive reviews for their games because of favors (some allegedly sexual) offered to game reporters. (Some of you may not much care about games; I certainly don't. But keep in mind that it's a very big business, delivering a complex, sophisticated, cutting edge product to extremely passionate and knowledgeable users. It matters a great deal to many, many people.) 

From Leveling the Playing Field:

Gamergate started out as a legitimate argument about what some people felt was shady journalism: game reviewers who may have been influenced one way or another (but not by the quality of the game itself) to give positive reviews. At the beginning (for about an hour, maybe) it was a debate about ethics in journalism—surely a subject about which a group of reasonable people could have an intelligent discussion, or even a civilized argument. Then the issue got hijacked by a bunch of needy, abusive, misogynistic children. Instead of intelligent adults arguing their points of view, it became something else. Something ugly and malicious and disturbing.

Zoe and her partner, Alex, were two of the main (though not the only) targets of that misogyny and hate. They were threatened, "swatted" (SWAT teams were sent to their homes after the police were told that there were problems there), and "doxxed" (their private information released). For many months, Zoe and her partner were afraid to go home, and ended up in hiding.

It will no doubt take someone smarter than I to figure out why this problem exists, and more space than I have here to sort it all out. In my mind, I suspect that the issue has to do with the fact that there is simply a lot of hatred out there, a lot of ugliness—and it's easier to attack someone at a remove, especially when you can do so anonymously.

In the end, the world is full of ugly people and good people. And the Internet, being a product of our ingenuity, is after all simply a reflection of that world, with all of its beauty and unsightliness on display.

I don't know if democracy is merely a "suspicion," and one that's so far not quite proved. If so, then I'm not sure that bodes well for us. On the other hand, I kind of prefer Winston Churchill's comment (actually, he was quoting someone else at the time): "Democracy is the worst form of government . . . except for all the others." 

If Churchill was right (and he was often right), then perhaps this wild digital democracy is the best we can do, and we’ll find ways to mitigate the evil and protect one another from the ugliness. In the meantime, perhaps we could make it a priority to just . . . be kind, whenever and wherever possible; it costs nothing, after all, and it may redeem us yet.

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.")