Posts Tagged ‘Writers’

Storytelling wizards

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012
Storytelling wizards

Harry Potter is rushing through the Muggle-world train station when he walks into a pillar. He’s on his way into the wizard’s world. You could say he can’t see until he can believe. Or that sometimes the facts, the literal things in life, get in the way.

In an era of 140-character messages, Riley Gibson has written a thoughtful post on why business leaders should master the art of storytelling. (His allusion to Harry Potter is not only contemporary but spot on.) Here are three of his reasons, with a few editorial comments tossed in for effect:

  1. Stories are memorable. Stories not only hold people’s attention during the presentation but remain with the person long after the facts have fled.
  2. Stories travel further. It’s easy for stories to go viral because we like to tell and hear them.
  3. Stories inspire action. That’s because people inspire action. Not presentations or mission statements or strategic plans with gobs of information about monitoring and measurement.

Time to pack the suitcase. Leave the slides at home.

Six degrees of reading

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012
Six degrees of reading

Want to see books similar to the ones you’re reading? Head over to Yasiv, a site that uses Amazon data to create a flowchart of recommendations. Created by Andrei Kashcha, the site serves up a web of book covers that, when clicked, lead to information about those titles. There’s also a box on the left that lists the volumes by title.

Kashcha describes Yasiv as “a visual recommendation service that helps people to choose the right product from Amazon’s catalog.” In addition to books Yasiv can web other products carried by Amazon including video games, music and movies, although a search for broad clothing categories such as skirts and pants yields only a single image. Good for Grand Theft Auto. Not so good for Vera Bradley.

Yasiv recommendation web for 'House of Silk' by Anthony Horowitz

Writing with style

Friday, December 16th, 2011
Writing with style

The Associated Press has released software that uses the AP Stylebook to proofread content in Microsoft Word.

AP StyleGuard provides automatic checking of documents for AP style. The software uses defined structure and rules similar to Word’s spelling and grammar checking. AP says the plugin ensures consistency and saves writers the time spent manually referring to the AP Stylebook. The rules will updated throughout the year.

The software is only available for PCs at this time. It will cost $59.99 for a one-year subscription. Until its general launch on April 1 the plugin is available for an introductory rate of $49.99 a year.

Impulse writing

Monday, November 7th, 2011
Impulse writing

Writing that flows is often based on a solid structure.

Take the piece “Why impulse spending can be a good thing” by Katherine Rosman, who writes the Checks & Balances column about finance and marriage for the Wall Street Journal. The article is designed to read like a short story with comments, unfolding through scenes with increasing drama. We want to determine what happens between Rosman and her husband Joe, who in their struggles to mesh their opposites-attract financial styles have become persons of interest.

The article is structured in three parts. The first details a recent event, the second one that took place a while ago, the third the night the two met. All involve charity auctions. All create an orderly march backward in time, from a seemingly frivolous exchange to a defining moment. Each segment seems ordinary yet together they build toward a quiet but profound insight you’d see in the work of Anne Tyler or Anna Quindlen.

The parts consist of anecdotes, all of which bring to life the article’s theme—that contrary to popular wisdom occasional impulse spending can provide rewards to even the most budget-minded couples. Those mini stories also illustrate a greater wisdom: we can argue about spending but what we really value is not the behavior but the relationship. The real prize isn’t the money, it’s the person.

When I worked as a writing coach for a newspaper owned by the publisher of the Wall Street Journal I studied briefly with the great Roy Peter Clark. Now vice president of the Poynter Institute, Clark taught us to use the tools of fiction writers while rigorously adhering to the facts. Structuring a story that way is more than playing dress-up. It’s a process to present and order events with all of the immediacy and emotional resonance of direct experience.

It’s good to see other non-fiction writers have adopted the storyteller’s technique. Using those tools, Rosman ratchets up the conflict between spouses with a deceptive calm that shows rather than tells about their relationship. The story flows without effort. Even the ending feels natural, a surprising valentine to financial and emotional conservatives everywhere.

Talk about impulse control.

Monroe libraries to present local book expo

Monday, July 11th, 2011
Monroe libraries to present local book expo

The Associated Libraries of Monroe County will present the second annual Monroe County Book Expo on Saturday, July 23, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Eastern Monroe Public Library in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. The event is free and open to the public.

The expo will highlight books written and/or published by residents of Monroe and other Eastern Pennsylvania counties. The day is intended to encourage aspiring writers and support the exchange of ideas about the creative process and the publishing industry. Attendees will have the opportunity to meet and visit with local authors, and to purchase copies of their works. Books will be sold by the individual authors at their tables.

Two special programs will be featured during the day. At 11 a.m. there will be a panel discussion entitled “Self-Publishing: Pitfalls and Rewards.” This will be followed by a presentation at 2 p.m. by author Alissa Grosso, whose debut novel for young adults, Popular, was recently published by Flux.

Authors may register to participate online.

For more information, call library Director Barbara Keiser (570) 421-0800, extension 13.

The Monroe County Book Expo is a project of the Associated Libraries of Monroe County, which includes Barrett-Paradise Friendly Library, Clymer Library, Eastern Monroe Public Library, Pocono Mountain Public Library and Western Pocono Community Library.

Going mobile

Monday, December 6th, 2010
Going mobile

Print is on the move again.

Ever since Bernard Silver and Norman Woodland invented the barcode in 1949 business has worked to turn objects into information. The recession in advertising, the migration from print to digital media, consumer preference for mobile devices—all have accelerated the trend toward digitizing the physical world.

Enter the QR, or quick response, code. What looks like a stamp, a maze or a square hieroglyph is really a portal to a new world of information-rich advertising. QR codes allow people with cameras in their smartphones to load websites just by pointing the device at, say, a magazine ad that carries the code. They function like hyperlinks on websites, taking readers directly to the information they want.

It’s more than the latest online fad. The technology just might help authors connect with an elusive audience.

Specialty publications are among the first to adopt the technology. The October issue of This Old House is loaded with codes. And not only in the ads. The editors are using the little squares for contests, access to how-to videos and requests for literature—techniques authors might adopt to publicize their work and promote their brand.

Builder Buzz QR CodeTrade publications are embracing the technology, too. Last month Randall-Reilly’s trucking division sent an email to media buyers announcing a program to allow readers to “unlock access to multimedia content.” Consumer publications are also rolling out programs. A recent issue of People featured a QR code in an ad for Panasonic. Why not publish the codes in any printed collateral used to publicize your work? You can track the responses, analyze the data and reach out to new audiences with targeted messages on the device of their choice.

Our agency joined the movement last week when we designed a QR code for a social media platform I helped to create. Printed on postcards that we’ll distribute at a tradeshow next month, the code will lead smartphone users to a blog that highlights trends in the industries in which our clients compete.

Try it yourself. Download an app like QR Reader, hold your smartphone up to this screen and visit the site—all without having to key in a lengthy URL.

The very technology that threatened to destroy print is enabling it to reach new readers. As the economy recovers and mobile devices spread, writers can use that knowledge to turn dead wood into dynamic sources of data . . . and revenue.

Writers’ lib, Crusie style

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010
Writers' lib, Crusie style

Jennifer Crusie has a new and delightful take on the old saw Publish or Perish: just as you don’t have to get married to validate yourself, you don’t have to publish to validate your talent.

Jennifer Crusie“Just as women had to give up being married as a life goal before they could lead full lives as women, so writers must give up being published as a career goal before we can lead full lives as writers.”

Her suggestion about getting published? Don’t make that your only objective. “When we write the stories we need to write, we take back control of our lives because we’re meeting our own needs, not looking for validation elsewhere.”

To draw a parallel of our own, Crusie sounds a lot like Marsha Sinetar in her book Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow: write what you love and maybe the editors will follow. No guarantees from the management, but at least you’ve liberated yourself.

The accidental publicist

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010
The accidental publicist

First we had cavemen sitting around the fire telling stories. Then gossips and reporters. Then came chat and blogs and we cycled back to citizen journalists.

With the rise of social media we now have citizen publicists. Like volunteer journalist, they want to speak their mind. When they listen, they want to hear what their peers are saying, not just the company line. And through the really big amplifier called the Web they can have an outsized influence on our work.

As creatives, we want to reach them.

FireOur agency regularly counsels clients who want to join the social media wave but are afraid of getting swamped. There are too many networks and monitoring them is a time-sink. So for those clients who want to dip a toe into online communications, we’ve developed an approach called the Social Media Platform that allows organizations to engage their audiences as well as publish their ideas.

It’s a perfect fit for artists, photographers, writers and other creatives who can’t afford a publicist.

Here’s the strategy: Organizations need to monitor and influence what people are saying about their brands. So do creatives, with the added task of promoting their work far and wide. We social media because that’s where our future editors, clients and benefactors hang out. With a social media platform we can harness the power of peers, asking influentials who like our work to spread the word. The social media platform is no substitute for a full-blown marketing campaign that uses advertising, direct mail, media relations and microsites. But it offers creatives a turnkey operation that allows them to join, monitor and influence the online conversation.

quest-for-fire_lHere’s how it works: The platform is an integrated collection of social media networks and tools. It includes the major social and business networks—Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, SlideShare and YouTube—but has room for numerous sites, forums and communities. At the heart is a white-label blog without branding for an independent look and feel. With the blog creatives can manage reputations, disseminate key messages and establish expertise in the market—this might apply more to non-fiction than fiction writers. Creatives who’ve already built a reputation can use the platform to solve issues before they become wide-spread problems.

There are six parts in the process of establishing a social media platform:

  1. Create. We start with a blog hosted on an independent site. Posts and comments radiate from the blog to the major social and business networks. The system notifies the blog administrator each time someone from the outside posts a comment. For your peace of mind, comments can be approved, edited or deleted before anyone on the ‘Net sees them. Tools: WordPress software, web host.
  2. Listen. Tapping into the online conversation about our brand is essential. Specialized search engines allow us to listen to what people are saying about our work. PR people call it reputation management. Tools: Social Mention, Google Alerts, Gmail to verify social network accounts.
  3. Contribute. Based on your expertise, you can contribute original text, slides, photos and video. Crowdsourcing allows you to obtain feedback on work. You can even use your network to float ideas for future projects. Tools: those listed above.
  4. Publicize. Blogs are like parties. You have to invite the right people to achieve critical mass. We start with the internal audience, your friends and business associates, and add editors, writers and bloggers in traditional and digital media. Tools: LinkedIn, Twitter.
  5. Monitor. The conversation is ongoing. The monitoring needs to be, too. But checking multiple sites dozens of times a day can get crazy. A dashboard can simplify the process: Tools: HootSuite, TweetDeck.
  6. Evaluate. You’re not a major corporation. The goal isn’t to fill spreadsheets and generate charts that dazzle but yield no useful information. We measure the volume and tone of comments but take everything with two grains salt. Tools: Twitrratr (Twitter rater), Twendz (Twitter trends), Tweet Level.

Does the system work? Yes. Our agency is seeing a good adoption rate from editors and bloggers as well as retweets of original material. Why does it work? Because it leverages three potent forces in our society: the shift toward digital media, people’s desire to hear recommendations from peers rather than companies and journalists’ need to discover leads rather than waiting for pitches.

That’s almost as good as telling stories around the campfire.

The dance of leadership

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010
The dance of leadership

What does it take to create a trend, a movement, a runaway success? Leaders? Followers? Or someone in between? An important question for creatives, marketers and others who try to harness the wildfire properties of the Internet.

Along comes Derek Sivers, a musician who founded CD Baby, which became the largest seller of independent music on the web. From this three-minute video clip he calls “Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy,” Sivers has extracted several lessons in inspiration and group-think that apply to artists as well as executives.

DerekSiversThe first is obvious. The second is amazing, maybe even a little unsettling.

We need leaders. But we might need what Sivers calls the first follower even more.

It takes guts to be a leader. But it also takes guts to be a follower (just ask the apostles). The dancing guy has no effect on the people around him except to provide mild amusement . . . until a second person overcomes his aversion to risk and gets up to dance. And then a third, and then. . . .

“The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader,” Sivers says, echoing Malcolm Gladwell’s contention that any viral movement is spread not by the creator but by people he calls mavens–those with both the contacts and the social standing to gain the attention of followers. It’s those first followers who use their influence to help the movement achieve critical mass–or to use Gladwell’s term, the tipping point.

“We’re told we all need to be leaders, but that would be really ineffective,” Sivers says. “The best way to make a movement . . . is to courageously follow and show others how to follow.”

A heartbreaking life of staggering generosity

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010
A heartbreaking life of staggering generosity

An eerie thing happened on September 14, 1982. I received a letter from John Gardner that morning about a pack of short stories I’d left with him to critique, at his suggestion, even though I wasn’t one of his students. Later that day, as I sat on the rim of the copydesk, the city editor swiveled in his chair and, pointing to the computer, said, “Look at this.”

It was an AP story reporting that the novelist had died in a motorcycle accident on his way home that day. He was forty-nine. The story sounded like something from his latest novel.

Gardner was well-known in and out of literary circles for his outsized characters and their philosophical rants. Some of his books, like October Light, made the bestseller lists. A few months before his death the New York Times led its book review section with commentary on his last novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, a work I had just finished reading.

John Gardner explainsI’d met him earlier in the year in a class at a local university. The professor had invited Gardner to talk about fiction and, as a bonus, he’d read and commented on the first page of our latest submissions. He had a shock of white hair that flowed over his forehead and small, wrinkled eyes. His pipe kept going out as he talked. Later the professor invited some of us to his apartment to continue the discussion. Sitting on the floor, our backs to the tiled fireplace, we listened as Gardner talked about his work.

Some of the discussion was funny. “Why did you sell the short story on Julius Caesar to Playboy?” “Because they offered the most money.” Other parts were more serious. Gardner didn’t give a toss about genres; he didn’t care whether people considered his work popular or literary, thoughtful or entertaining. He wanted to be known as a storyteller. He constantly courted the ancient arts, rewriting epic tales like Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. (Years later, Hollywood would turn his novel Grendel into a movie, the closest to populism the author ever got.)

John Gardner typewriterEmerging from the dream
For emerging writers Gardner is best known for his view that fiction should remain a “vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader, uninterrupted by extraneous detail. Yet his books were crammed with characters philosophizing about life. He seemed obsessed with philosophy and argued constantly against nihilism, a doctrine that nothing is knowable, that rejects all distinctions of moral value. In his work of criticism, On Moral Fiction, he called for books with “just and compassionate behavior,” art that “establishes models of human action.” He may have identified deeply with Grendel, the monster who finds himself cast out of heaven because he’s ugly, comes from a bad family and asks too many questions.

While his characters were not always models of behavior, Gardner was a kind and generous man, lending his time and name to aspiring writings. I met him that May in class and shared an evening with friends, but I wasn’t his student. Yet he invited me to his home in Susquehanna to discuss and critique my work.

I arrived on a fine spring day to find the novelist in a farmhouse on the edge of town, nestled in the hills the locals call the Endless Mountains, purplish gray and draped with mist like the webs of tent caterpillars. The clapboard house had curlicues over the porch; it looked like an old train station.

Inside sat Gardner’s son Joel, a photographer, and Susan Thornton. She and John were to be married—the week he died. A visiting colleague handed him a few short stories and a novel for comment. They talked about producing plays in Susquehanna and about a literary magazine on which he was working.

Gardner went into his study to concentrate on the story. His desk consisted of a door resting on two sawhorses, covered with pipes and papers. He hunched over the story, making quick notes with a pencil. Then he and Susan had to leave. He apologized over and over for giving me so little time.

Mickelsson's Ghosts AMZA life in fiction
Back in the living room, I asked Joel how much of his father’s work was autobiographical—a questions many writers hate but I was too young to know at the time. Not much, Joel said, but then he opened the door to the dining room. It was long and sparking with new plaster walls and thick with beams. The mead hall from Grendel, the house from Mickelsson’s Ghosts. I felt a chill, as if the spirit of those characters were looking over my shoulder.

There were other similarities. The main character in that book, Peter Mickelsson, is a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton who is battling a failing national reputation and the IRS, which is after him for back taxes. He lives in Susquehanna and is going through a divorce. That much mirrored Gardner’s life. But Mickelsson is going mad, his mind enflamed with the ghosts of Martin Luther and Nietzsche, his wife, his son, two lovers and a murderous couple who used to live in the farmhouse. Joel smiled at this and said his father made up most of the book.

John Gardner hatThe lion of literature
Whatever its condition at the end, Gardner’s career in fiction got off to a slow start. He was born on July 21, 1933, in Batavia, New York. His father was a dairy farmer and lay preacher, his mother a high school literature teacher. His first novel sold about 1,000 copies but The Sunlight Dialogues became a bestseller in 1972 and October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He raced motorcycles, survived surgery for cancer of the colon and married twice. He lectured at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He settled in rural Susquehanna, on a thirty-acre farm. Writers sought his comments on fiction and his clout with publishers.

A gifted writer with a marvelous ear for dialogue, he had always written interesting books. But with Mickelsson’s Ghosts he reached the top of his form, merging his beloved philosophy with a strong story line. He also seemed to have mellowed from the harsh critic of his youth to a man who wanted to say good things about others. People said he was trying to find his place. Others found him humble and generous.

The day I visited him in the Endless Mountains he sat on the couch and chatted in a smooth and quiet voice about new projects. I told him I’d had trouble finding his work in the local bookstore. It wasn’t filed under “fiction.” Concerned that his backlist had gone out of print, I asked the clerk if she carried Gardner’s books and she led me to the back of the story. There they were, filed under “literature.”

Gardner threw back that great mane of white hair and howled with delight, much like I imagine Grendel might have done.