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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Yet more mystery

Part II of "Best of 2007: Crime Fiction" is up at January Magazine. You'll find some surprises on the list, not the least of which is my review of C. J. Sansom's Sovereign — it's not one of my usual noir reads, but a book of historical fiction set in Tudor England.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Letters to the editor

I rarely let political differences get in the way of a good read. And there are few essay writers I enjoy reading more than William F. Buckley (and Joseph Epstein—but that's another story).

Buckley's come out with a new book, Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription, a collection of letters to the editor of National Review, which ran in the magazine's "Notes and Asides" section along with the response from the editor — Buckley. The book includes a back-and-forth between Hugh Kenner and Buckley that Wall Street Journal reviewer Andrew Ferguson (who sides with Kenner) calls "a miniature tutorial in rhetoric and style from one of the century's most rigorous critics directed at one of its most accomplished journalists."

Ferguson's review, in today's WSJ, is a good read as well. I liked his comment that contemporary editors have a Platonic ideal of the contributing writer: "the writer who hands in his article and is then run over by a bus before he can complain about the editing." He's close, but I think to meet the Platonic ideal the writer would have to have handed in the article on time before being flattened.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Webloggers toast Anita Rowland

The December Seattle Weblogger Meetup opened with a toast to the memory of Anita Rowland, who started the group five years ago. Anita, a pioneer of online journaling and blogging, was also a talented facilitator of social networking. Friendships, business relationships, and even a marriage (Ryan Anderson & Tara Anderson) have their roots in the meetup.

The gathering at Ralph's Wednesday night was a mix of regulars, newcomers, and out-of-town visitors, including John Chow, the Vancouver, BC, blogger who runs a blog on how to make money blogging — and walks his talk by using the blog as an ongoing experiment in doing just that. How successful is he? You'll find John consistently ranked in the top 50 on Technorati. John's wife, Sally Chow, does a more traditional personal blog.

Also at the meetup were three Seattle news bloggers, Clark Humphrey of MISCmedia, Monica Guzman of The Big Blog, and Dylan who often blogs for Seattle Metblogs. Look for these folks to be back at the meetup in early 2008 for a panel on the relationship between blogging and traditional news reporting.

Which reminds me — Jack William Bell has agreed to kick off the Jan. 16 meeting with a short presentation on adding RSS feeds to blogs.

More familiar faces: Andrew Ferguson (who blogs at Andrew Ferguson dot NET and contributes to the blog StudentTabletPC) and The Zorg. Promising to blog more in the new year: Jeannie of; Jerry Kindall of; and Bill.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Best Books of 2007: Crime Fiction

If your year has been lacking in mystery and mayhem thus far, January Magazine is giving you a chance to catch up: They've just published the first half of their annual "Best Books of 2007: Crime Fiction" list. It includes my review of the latest book in Reginald Hill's Pascoe and Dalziel series, Death Comes for the Fat Man.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Meme different

I love to do memes on my personal blog, but am less likely to do them here on Writer Way unless they are writing related. I've been tagged by Terry from Cofffee Writer and have decided to tweak my answers to the meme just a bit so that they all refer to writing.

Here are the original rules (memes have rules): 

"Link to the person who tagged you, post the rules and five facts [about yourself]  (some random, some weird) on your blog. Tag five people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs. Let them know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blogs."

Hmmm. Looks like I'm gonna be tweaking those rules, too. Because I am not going to post the names and links of the five people I tag. But I am going to tag five people. If any of them want to be linked to from Writer Way, they'll have to contact me and give me permission to point to their blogs.

So, here are my facts:

1. One of the first short stories I wrote as a child was about a Hanukkah bush and a Christmas tree.

2. In junior high, my friend Emma and I were called on the carpet by the vice principal for creating a "slam book" with short poems skewering each of our classmates. I can still remember most of the poems, verbatim.

3. The most money I've ever gotten for a non-fiction piece was a $6,000 scholarship for a story about my mother taking care of her elderly parents.

4. I wrote Johnny Cash's obituary for the front page of the iTunes Music Store.

5. After reading a New Yorker article about novelist Alice Walker, I dream of someday having an office with a big wooden kitchen table in the middle of the room to work on.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Anita Rowland, one of the early bloggers

Anita Rowland, one of the founding mothers of the contemporary blogging culture, died today at Swedish Hospital after several years of battling ovarian cancer. She was 51.

Anita's Book of Days, the blog she kept from 1997 through 2006, says everything about Anita. Her mischievous, subtle, and even-tempered personality shines through in every entry.

Anita and I lived somewhat parallel lives (grew up in Northern Virginia, moved to Seattle, became writers in the tech industry, loved genre fiction, enjoyed swing dancing, and married relatively late in life — to geeky guys who read genre fiction). Our paths eventually crossed through the Seattle Webloggers Meetup that Anita led and I attended. She gently urged me to do more of the genre fiction writing I love, and saw to it that I was introduced to other supportive people in the field (through events like Potlatch).

Anita was a joy. I miss her.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Words count: Changing a name

One of the most common—and difficult—tasks I undertake for online clients is helping them name or rename products and services. In many cases, this involves modifying an existing name for online use.

An example of this would be a crafts product called Urble Soapz. This is a name that looks cute on a tag in a retail shop or crafts show but is certain death online, where people are searching for "herbal soaps." Or a service that a company's internal team has always called "multiple viewpoint advocacy" but anyone coming to their website would think of as "group work" or "collaboration."

I have been involved in one or two situations in which not just a product or service, but the entire company name, needed to be changed to become more web-friendly or user-friendly. In most cases, this meant that the name got longer, vaguer, and indisputably worse.

Guy Kawasaki's blog called my attention to a well-written report on company name changes done by Strategic Name Development. If you are in the middle of naming or renaming a business entity, I strongly recommend studying the before-and-after comparisons. This is a real "read it and weep" document.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Download in progress

From the Department of Digital Inefficiency:

I have several specialty applications that I launch once or twice a month for quick, minor tasks. Inevitably, upon launch they inform me that there is a new version of the app that I need to install to deal with some security threat or a compatibility issue with some major application. So, I download. Tap, tap, tap. And I install. Tap, tap, tap. And I close and relaunch. Tap, tap, tap.

Every once in a while this process involves finding some ghastly 40-digit authorization code I was sent when I first installed the app three years ago.

Of course, by this point the update has taken three times as long as the minor task I'd wanted to accomplish. Is there any wonder why I don't use the software more often?

Monday, November 26, 2007

The open-book test

You can't judge a book by its cover, but the middle page is a whole other story.

I have four books to review for a publication. For the heck of it, I opened one book to the middle and read a page.


I opened the second book to the middle and read a page.

Ugh again.

I opened the third book to the middle and read a page and thought "Not bad."

And then I opened the fourth book, read a middle page, read another page, and thought "Nice. Really nice."

Tonight I'm sitting in the living room reading that fourth book, and it's pure joy. I can't believe people pay me (a modest amount) to do this.

Of course, I do still have to go back and read and review the other three. I guess that's why they have to pay me.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Books for the season

Winter wouldn't be winter at our house without a reading of Terry Pratchett's novel The Hogfather, a wise and profound satire about the way our culture handles the winter holidays, from decorating and gift-giving to over-indulging to confronting our deepest hopes and fears.

Pratchett, a highly regarded British novelist, writes mainstream adult and young adult fiction (and, come to thing of it, children's books) cleverly disguised as comedic fantasy. While he's a household name in Britain, he's more of a cult author in the US — often known for an early-career collaboration with Gothic/anime writer Neil Gaiman (Good Omens, 1990).

This winter we're starting early, with Pratchett's recent young adult book, Wintersmith — the story of an adventurous teenage girl who has leapt into a dance with the god of Winter, an act that threatens to derail the cycle of the seasons.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Seattle Weblogger Meetup

The Seattle Weblogger Meetup this evening at Ralph's in Belltown night included Hamburger Lad (complaining of blogger's block), Clark Humphrey of Misc Media (showing us preview copies of his latest book Seattle's Belltown), and Jack Bell, who had his hands full with grandson Riley (who is celebrating his 5th birthday this week). And me, taking a break from Thanksgiving cooking.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

News flash

The ratio of news to commentary online is so low these days that when I skim a "news" site I feel like I'm watching a field of cows gumming their cuds.

So when Rebecca Traister at Salon did some digging to write bios of all the spouses of all the current presidential hopefuls, I was pleasantly surprised. And when I read some of the bios, I was unpleasantly startled.

Not sure if Traister's article requires a Salon subscription, but it would be worth getting one just to read about Judi Guiliani. Ick.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Got bacn?

Find out more about bacn here.

And, for how I made this videocast using QuickTime Broadcaster instead of Quicktime Pro, check out this great article by Derrick Story, author of Digital Video Pocket Guide. (And, yes, I know I should address the audio background noise by hooking up an external microphone. Next time!)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Making it as a freelancer

After two very slow months, I'm now writing and editing at full speed on a variety of interesting projects. This is just what I wanted -- both slow times and busy ones.

Blogger Ryan Caldwell, posting at Deborah Ng's Freelancing Writing Gigs blog, talks about the odd mixture of work and play that characterizes successful freelancing in "5 Signs You've Made It As a Freelance Writer."

Friday, November 2, 2007

The attack of the Leopard. Ouch.

I'm a technology gadfly, not an expert, but I'm going to weigh in about Apple's new operating system, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, anyway.

Most Mac users had a smooth experience with installation, but a sizable minority -- a larger minority than usual -- encountered problems. Because I have two Macs, and had two very different installation experiences, I flatter myself that I can add something to the discussion.

Installation of Leopard on my Intel iMac (one of the early Intel iMacs) was quick and flawless. The only glitch I noticed subsequently was having to enter the WEP key (password) for our WiFi system.

Lulled by that experience, and emboldened because my little 12" PowerBook (a just-before-Intel machine) is merely a convenient travel machine and holds no significant data, I popped the Leopard disk into its DVD drive and began the install. (For those of you raising eyebrows and betting that the 12" PowerBook was not a Leopard-eligible machine -- nope, it is. The chip is plenty fast. Read on.)

The installation verified the DVD and began to install. But I returned an hour later to find a vague message that the install had failed.

I tried again. On the second try, a message informed me that the installer needed to wipe my drive and install fresh. Sighing, I realized this meant something on my machine was annoying Leopard, and I'd probably need to reinstall the software, piece by piece. But I agreed.

And was quickly surprised when this journaled install failed. But now I had no original OS on the machine to boot with -- just the install DVD. At this point, I looked up pricing on the new Intel MacBook and considered reinstalling Tiger on the PowerBook, selling it, and getting the mid-price MacBook. Definitely an option.

I went to the Apple support site and read the discussions, found a few people also struggling with non-Intel PowerBooks, and noted that indeed the problem seemed to be software on the machines that was confounding Leopard. Vaguely intending to configure the options section of the install to address this, I figured "what the *," and installed again.

To my amazement, it worked. Of course, I ended up with a complete vanilla system, which I now need to reconfigure and repopulate with software and data.

Fortunately, I have my Address Book contacts, browser bookmarks, and calendar all synced through .Mac, so by registering the drive with the new OS on it with .Mac, I had downloaded all that data to the machine in a few minutes.

Over the next few days, with the help of VersionTracker, I'll be re-installing and re-downloading my basic software for the travel machine. As for data...well, perhaps this is my opportunity to explore the Mac-connecting features of Leopard, or just put the PowerBook in target mode and drag the stuff over.

To sum up the experience, I should have been suspicious about the 12" PowerBook. I know it's not like Apple to be overly solicitous about "legacy" machines. I'd be willing to bet that the older your Mac, the more frustrating glitches you're likely to experience. So -- do check out that new MacBook. It comes with Leopard already purring away.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Don't Make Me Think

Don't Make Me Think is the landmark book on website usability, written by Steve Krug. He was in town last week giving a usability workshop. I missed it, but Josh Freeman, who writes Internet Marketing Blog, heard him speak and posted a great introduction to Krug's work on web design.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"Don't try to be original...

...just try to be good."

That's a quote -- and a great piece of advice to creatives -- from the groundbreaking graphic designer and educator Paul Rand.

Here's more of Rand on the critical interplay between form and content. (Thanks to David for pointing this out.)

Monday, October 22, 2007

New, improved links at Writer Way

You'll note a few updates and additions to the They Have a Way With Words listings (at left).

Freelance Writing Jobs is a fresh link to Deborah Ng's renowned lists of gigs. Her site's nav bar includes a link to lists of new blogging jobs as well.

A new site in the Writer Way listings is Story Ideas Virtuoso. In recent posts, blogger Deb Gallardo muses about story ideas inspired by autumn...and notes the achievement of an Italian author who wrote his first novel on his Nokia phone during his daily commute to work.

David Levine, a science fiction author who recently retired from his job in technology, has changed the name of his writing blog to "The Days Are Just Packed." (And I've renamed the link to it accordingly.) Check out Monday's post to see a (very) formal headshot of Mr. Levine and a list of his upcoming conference appearances. Yes, David is a highly entertaining speaker.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Seattle Weblogger Meetup

It was a small gathering of veteran webloggers Wednesday night at Ralph's: Clark Humphrey of, Hamburger Lad of the Hamburgerland blog, and me. (Anita and Jack, we missed you.) We saw some familiar faces across the room; they turned out to be a small group of tech types meeting to discuss something called "actual programming."

One of the topics the bloggers talked about was using Blurb to archive a blog and print it out as a book.

No fancy new gadgetry at this meeting...Clark and I both had older laptops with us and discussed strategies for upgrading.

Just realized that we missed the chance to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the Seattle Weblogger Meetup Group, which was founded in October 2002. Perhaps at the next meeting? That'll be Wednesday, Nov. 21. Come join us at Ralph's.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day: Environmentalism, then and now

Today, bloggers worldwide have been asked to focus on a single issue: The environment.
As I have no special expertise on the topic, I'm going to using this opportunity to document the experience of growing up along with the environmental movement.

Silent Summer

I grew up during the McCarthy era, the child of a liberal father who read Silent Spring and then stopped using DDT on the anthills at our summer cottage. I suspect all the neighbors thought we were nuts. But an awareness of the impact of all the new chemicals that had been introduced into the environment was slowly emerging. I remember people sitting on the beach and speculating about the gradual disappearance of the little sandpipers that used to scamper along the water's edge.

Earth Day

In high school in Northern Virginia I was one of those "hippie-types" who naively set about beautifying the school property on the first Earth Day in 1970. A group of us were called on the carpet by the high school principal, a fellow quite open about his Ku Klux Klan membership, and counseled that unattractive and unsanitary conditions in the school were the result of...racial integration.

Economics and Oil

Yes, it often felt silly trying to use fewer paper towels while American industry was wasting natural resources by the ton. Bumperstickers didn't do much to drive change, but the Arab oil cartels did. The 1972 gas shortage, not any pangs of conscience, led to the development of energy-efficient cars -- or, rather, to the importation of energy-efficient cars developed by the Japanese.


Organic food had been the province of eccentrics like Adelle Davis, but the "back to the land" commune movement and urban food co-ops re-vitalized the idea of healthy cooking and eating. (Laurel's Kitchen, published in 1976, was as much a nutritional encyclopedia as a cookbook, and is worth studying for an insight into the minds of people making the shift from eating highly prepared foods to whole grains and natural ingredients.)

There was very little interest at that time in the idea of "natural" or "organic" meat. Meat was bad, bad, bad, and the alternative was vegetarian soups and curries, paired with whole grain breads heavy enough to be used as cannon fodder. Though, if you'd eaten some of the brownies, you probably didn't care. (And somehow chocolate got replaced by carob during The Great Organic Kitchen Purge; I've never figured that one out.) Concerns about nutrition and concerns about additives were mixed in with environmental concerns about agricultural pesticides, baked in heated arguments, and served up with a garnish of sanctimony. If you added in the contemporaneous issues about women and men and who does the cooking, the 1970s kitchen really heated up.


Yes, once upon a time we used to dump everything in the garbage. Unless, of course, you lived in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, where glass soda pop bottles could be turned in for a few pennies. Or you had milk delivery (we did, in Virginia) and glass milk bottles were recycled. But mostly, everything went to the dump.

In the early 1980s, I worked as a reporter and my specialty was landfills. I learned about landfills for nuclear waste, landfills for construction waste, landfills for medical waste, and landfills for plain old household garbage. And about how private hauling firms, charging large sums to haul particularly hazardous waste long distances to specially certified landfills, often pocketed the fees and dumped the waste at less expensive landfills certified to take innocuous construction waste or plain garbage instead. (And about how the private hauling firms, owned by interlocking families, rigged bidding on municipal garbage contracts. But that is another story.)

Much of my investigative work was in Connecticut, where landfills tend to be sited next to rivers -- usually at the downstream border of a particular township. One landfill I was investigating -- after multiple incidents of illegal dumping -- spontaneously combusted. As a matter of fact, the river next to it caught fire as well. When I left the newspaper, 22 years ago, the FBI had seized the landfill and was investigating.

Out of curiosity, I Googled this landfill last week. Incredibly, the state has yet to do anything about it, or its owner (a former state legislator), though they are still "trying."

The factor that dismayed me the most about the whole dumping investigation was not the authorities' inability to get to the powerful politicians and business people who backed the hauling and landfill operations. It was the reaction -- or lack of it -- from the people who lived near these hazardous waste sites. They didn't want to make waves because the companies doing the dumping, hauling, and maintaining the sites were employers and provided jobs for the community.

Big-Systems Thinking

There is no question that the environment has finally made its way to the grownups' table for official discussion. Some 60 years after Silent Spring, global warming is demonstrating how a closed system works, and political and economic forces are beginning to drive significant change. It's a fascinating process, and I hope some other planet is documenting it.

Speaking of the big picture...whenever I see one of the big science fiction films about asteroids or aliens threatening the earth, I have to roll my eyes. As Walt Kelly said in Pogo (another one of my dad's favorites from the 1950s), "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Friday, October 5, 2007

Tell me a story

I'm a believer in the power of stories. I try to get at least the sense of a story being told into every piece I write.

Have you ever noticed how if you stop generalizing, and tell a story, people tend to respond with stories of their own?

The post I made yesterday about script-free telephone support elictited a comment that I thought linked to some routine "yeah, Zappos rocks" post. And I accidentally rejected the comment (tapped in the wrong place on my iPhone screen). But when I got to my full-size computer later on in the morning, I manually added the comment, copying and pasting the text that had been emailed to me from Blogger for comment moderation.

The comment linked to a blog post from Writing - Cooking - Life that was downright astonishing.

I encourage you to click through. Then send flowers to someone. And buy your next pair of shoes from Zappos.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Press Z for genuine communication

Once or twice a week I find myself plodding through the layers of a "Press 1 for this, press 2 for that" automated phone system: Oh, the joy of hearing about the dozens of options I don't want just in case they mention the one I do want in terminology I might understand.

Today I called the phone support for shoe etailer and had a very different experience.

Instead of the usual droning or unctuous voice, recorded three years ago and still blathering on, Zappos' recording was fresh. On it, two employees introduced themselves by name, mentioned the lovely fall weather, took turns offering the "Press x for y" options and included in the list of options Zappos "joke of the day." It was like listening to two cheerful people doing a podcast. Not rocket science -- but you sure don't find their competitors doing it.

(And it didn't hurt that the live person I got when I selected the "product info" option was energetic and well informed.)

According to this post from Silicon Valley Musings, Zappos has a policy that everyone in the company starts work by spending four weeks answering customer calls. And, according to this post from Get Satisfaction, the call center doesn't use scripts. Each employee has to know the products and engage with the customer.

As it happens, Zappos doesn't have the color of boots I want to order. Their rival (where I talked with a very rude, bored-sounding customer service rep) does.

You know, I'll think I'll just wait for that color to come in at Zappos.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Getting outside my box

A writer at a keyboard is like a car motoring down the road. At some point, you need to stop for fuel.

For the car, it's gas. For the writer, it's ideas.

In web and marketing writing, the ideas come pretty much pre-defined:

"Write an email that makes people want to click through to check out our products."
"Describe the conference highlights in a newsletter article."
"Use a basic website template and present our company's information."

To complete assignments, I get to know a company's products; I attend a conference and interview key participants; I study a company's existing materials and interview the CEO or marketing director to fill in the gaps.

But for other types of writing -- blogging, freelance magazine articles, and fiction -- the writer starts from scratch. This requires a much higher grade of fuel.

Sure, there are books and articles full of suggestions for sure-fire story ideas, and there's always past experience. But I find there's nothing better than a good, strong jolt of the unknown to power fresh thinking. Last year at a technology conference I met a man whose work had very little to do with technology. What was he doing there? He told us he kept himself inspired by regularly attending conferences -- in other fields.

So, for those of you who heard that I recently received my state private investigator certification, you can stop wondering if I'm in the car behind you practicing my surveillance skills. It's all about exposure new ideas. And the only concealed weapon I'm carrying is my iPhone.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Walt Crowley and real journalism

As sad as it is to think about the recent death of Seattle journalist/historian Walt Crowley, I was heartened to see the remembrance Jean Godden wrote for Crosscut. It's classic journalistic writing, in the very best sense. Here's her lede:

I have six indispensable books authored by Walt Crowley on the shelf in my City Hall office, tears in my eyes, and a very large hole in my heart.

Godden, a longtime Seattle newspaper reporter and columnist before going over to the Seattle City Council, writes in the old style. When I read a well-crafted piece like this (and I don't, very often) I think that comparing blogging to classic journalism is like comparing a stroll around the block to mountain climbing.

On the other hand, I'd be the first to admit that it's an unfair comparison. Because there's very little "classic journalism" being written -- or published -- these days.

A few notes on communication

I was going to write today about how proud I am to be a graduate of Columbia University. The Columbia administration feels that our country is in no way threatened -- and in fact, demonstrates strength and confidence -- by allowing the president of a hostile country to appear on campus and give a speech. (Unfortunately, there appear to be thousands of people in New York who would prefer to live in a country where political speech is controlled and restricted.)

But, I'll spare you the long version of that rant.

Instead, take a look at this video produced by CommonCraft. As blogger Michael Markman points out, the production is low tech...but the communication itself is worth thousands of dollars.

Friday, September 21, 2007

God answers lawmaker's complaint

After an agnostic Nebraska lawmaker filed suit against God for bringing death and destruction upon mankind, the court clerk in Douglas County was surprised to discover on the office counter a formal legal response to Sen. Ernie Chambers' complaint. The response appears to have been filed by the Almighty; it's signed "God, Defendant." (A second response appeared at the courthouse, listing a phone number for a "Corpus Christi" law office.)

Included in God's response is the assertion that while He may have committed many of the acts Chambers is complaining about, He also gave humans free will, making them, rather than Him, responsible for much of their own suffering.

This, of course, is the sort of story that reporters and editors dream about.

What I found particularly newsworthy about God's responses were that they clearly indicate that God is an attorney. That's bound to upset devoutly held beliefs of many members of the medical profession.

The next big blog thing?

Scroll down to the bottom of the lefthand sidebar of Writer Way and you'll see BlogRush in action. I've enrolled WriterWay in the "writing" category of BlogRush, so that Writer Way posts now appear as teasers on other blogs in that category.

The idea behind BlogRush is to accomplish two things at once: To provide blog readers with links to blogs on the same topic, and the drive more reader traffic to participating blogs.

It will be interested to watch the effect on traffic to this blog. My prediction that BlogRush will increase traffic for a while, but then BlogRush will be hacked by the SEO "garbage blogs" and, as a result, readers will lose interest, and then legitimate blogs will lose interest. Of course, if the people who run BlogRush are smart, and have resources, they'll attempt to police the system to prevent abuse.

To paraphrase George Jones, "the rush is on."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Be kind

Did you know that September is "Be Kind to Editors and Writers Month"?

Humor writer Angie Brennan has blogged about six ways writers' friends and families can observe the season. Oddly, she has no suggestions for how to honor editors. Perhaps this is telling us something about the relationship between writers and editors...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Funny -- and fast

The Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop in Dayton, Ohio, attracts quite a few repeat attendees. I attended the 2006 workshop and found out why.

So when I got email Monday saying registration for 2008 was open, I signed up. And it was fortunately I moved quickly...the conference, with headliner Garrison Keillor, sold out in 77 hours.

It's encouraging when tickets to a writing conference go as fast as ones to a rock concert!

I'll have your headset on a platter

A few years back, talking with someone using a mobile phone was generally annoying. Calls were dropped, voices were delayed, and often it sounded as though the conversation were being conducted in the depths of an industrial popcornmaker.

Now that the quality of our mobile phones has improved, we've found a new piece of phone technology that screws up not only our wireless phones, but our land lines as well.

It's the headset.

You may be using the latest Bluetooth earbud or an ancient AT&T headset, but chances are, either you hate it, or the person talking with you does.

In the past two days, I've had the following phone "conversations" with people wearing headsets:

• "Hi, whoever this is, you'll have to call me back on my other line because I can't hear you. I can't get the headset on this phone to work."

• "Sorry, I'm having trouble hearing those numbers. It's this headset. Could you repeat them again?"

• "Sorry about that; I'm back. My headset fell off there."

• "Wait a minute. Let me change headsets." (horrible crackling sounds)

• "Do you hear an annoying noise? Do you hear it now? (Pause.) I think I need a new headset."

• "Hi. I'm just calling to test my new headset. How does this sound?"


I don't use a headset (after several tries) but I'm interested an another technological advance that's supposedly just on the horizon. It's an advanced form of Caller ID that can detect callers using headsets...and route them immediately to voicemail.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Care and feeding of your contractor

Much of my web content writing is done on a contract basis, with the number of hours I work per month somewhat variable. The workflow from one of my clients slowed markedly in August, so I'll be billing them for only a couple of hours of work this month.

Imagine my surprise when a check arrived from that client today representing 10 hours of work. I didn't remember billing them for that, so went back and checked my records. No clue. Then I looked closely at the memo line on the check. It said, simply: "Bonus."

Tears came to my eyes. I felt incredibly valued. Will I work my tail off for them in September? Oh yes, you bet!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Slow in August

There's a perceptible slow-down in the blogosphere in late August.

People are off the grid on vacation, at Burning Man, or just out enjoying the last days of summer (and taking advantage of the absence of bosses, collegues and clients to do so).


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Mice? Nice!

The Name Inspector nibbles appreciatively at the TrenchMice site and the story of how TrenchMice got its distinctive name.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Red ink: It's not just for editors

On the freelance writing lists I frequent, and at the indie business site, Biznik, there is much talk about pricing your services, billing clients, and collecting from clients who are slow to pay. But no one ever says beep about their own bill-paying habits.

I bring this up because today I met with a new accountant, one who comes highly recommended and who was (like several other accountants I've talked with in the past year or so) noticeably reluctant to take on a new small business client. Now I know why.

We spent more than an hour going over some fairly gnarly tax issues involved in my transition from salaried work to sole-proprietor contracting business. His insights were impressive. At the end of it all, I reached for my checkbook. He looked astonished.

I asked his hourly rate for consultations, and again, he looked surprised. Apparently, accountants put consultations on your tab and add them to the charges for your annual tax filings in the following year. Yet many people who come in for a consultation don't end up using that accountant, and thus the accountant is out the hour of work. I said I thought that was weird, and I wanted to pay up front (even though I have every intention of asking him to do the filing for us next year).

We chatted a bit, and he remarked that his elderly clients from the area like to pay, just as I did, by check at the end of the meeting. The majority of his clients he bills after they pick up their taxes -- but now he is starting to re-think that policy. Looking rather embarrassed, he told me that recently he has been having difficulty with new clients, people who have been moving into the fancy condominiums in our area and opening new businesses locally. Some of them pick up their taxes from him, file them, and then ignore his bills. This year, he had to file in small claims court against two small business clients. (They paid up, immediately, when they received notice of the court filings.)

I'm as astonished and appalled to hear these stories as I would be if I saw someone sneak out of the local fish-and-chips place without paying. What's going on here?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Writing for Hollywood

No, even jet-lagged as I am, I'm not entertaining ideas about becoming a screenwriter. But I do want to blog a bit about one of television's foremost screenwriters, Dorothy Fontana. (You're more likely to recognize her under her gender-neutral professional name, D.C. Fontana.) I heard her speak at the Las Vegas Star Trek convention this past weekend in what was apparently a rare appearance.

Fontana started her career as the production secretary for the original Star Trek series in 1964, and rapidly moved to the position of story editor. She's credited with writing much of the back story for Star Trek's Spock character, and for introducing Deep Space Nine's Jadzia Dax character. She's written for Babylon 5, Dallas, Streets of San Francisco, and Kung Fu, and teaches screenwriting at the American Film Institute.

Fontana is anything but a flashy or dramatic person, and her plain-spoken accounts of scripts rejected, scripts rewritten, and projects gone astray made it very, very clear that for every script of hers that made it to filming a pile of others were ruined or jettisoned.

After watching some of the enormously entertaining Star Trek actors hamming it up onstage at the convention (Walter Koenig, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Kate Mulgrew, and Wil Wheaton), it was sobering to realize that their memorable roles began with writers scribbling away under the distinctly unglamorous circumstances Fontana describes.

Interestingly, several of the actors talked about their own writing experiences. Koenig said that, despairing of finding work after the initial Star Trek ended, he wrote a novel; Mulgrew, currently on Broadway in Iphigenia 2.0, is writing her memoirs; and Wheaton, an accomplished essayist and performer in the style of Garrison Keillor, was there promoting his latest book, The Happiest Days of Our Lives. (We bought a copy of the limited edition chapbook from Monolith Press; I suspect you'll have to follow Wheaton's blog to find out when the official version becomes available.)

I came away wondering if it ever goes the other way 'round -- with a screenwriter taking up acting...

Monday, August 6, 2007

Ignite Seattle Wednesday

The next Ignite Seattle is Wednesday evening at the Capitol Hill Arts Center (CHAC). There's an amazing lineup of talks, plus a "startup improv game" to get things going at 6.30.

Ignite Seattle is free. You'll come away with dozens of new ideas and (even if you're an introvert) a contact or two. (Unfortunately, I'm headed out of town Wednesday morning and will miss this one. But you go, and tell me all about it!)

Saturday, August 4, 2007


The key element in weaseltalk, a.k.a. marketingspeak, is pretending that your readers or listeners are extremely stupid. Even though you know that most of the readers and listeners are relatively intelligent people who react to weaseltalk by dropping their jaws, grinding their teeth, rolling their eyes, or gagging. When it comes to weaseltalk, there is no feedback loop -- only a massive disconnect several light years across.

Weaseltalk is the bane of a writer's existence. That's because marketing organizations will pay us big money to write weaseltalk but every time one of us writes it a small part of his or her soul shrivels up and dies. Those of us who keep it up too long become a director of PR or communications or something with the oxymoronic phrase "customer relations" in it.

Joe Kissell, author of several acclaimed software books for Peachpit and Take Control, translates Microsoft's press release on the delay -- er, the release -- of Office 2008 from weaseltalk into plain English. Sigh.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Real-world social networking

I've been known to roll my eyes when my husband describes a party as "relentless socializing," but that phrase perfectly described last night's high-energy doubleheader: A blogger confab organized by Chris Pirillo (Lockergnome) and hosted by KOMO, followed by a Biznik get-together at the intriguing McLeod Residence gallery in Belltown. (The evening went into extra innings: A late-night supper of "happy hour" tidbits at Flying Fish with a couple of fellow Bizniks.)

The KOMO event drew many of the usual tech bloggers I've met at the Seattle Weblogger Meetup, Ignite Seattle, and Seattle Mind Camp but there were plenty of new faces as well. I came away with a heap of business cards and URLS -- for postmodern blogs, for mountaineering blogs, for parenting blogs, and more.

I walked from the KOMO building at Seattle Center down to the Biznik event, discovering along the way that Second Avenue in Belltown is just one continous sidewalk party. Outside the Crocodile Cafe I chatted with a blogger friend, Michael Hanscom, who was getting reading to take photos of the Crocodile's dance-off contest ("You don't need talent to dance").

Upstairs at the McLeod Residence Bizniks were networking dizzily -- a reaction, perhaps, to gallery's landing, which features flocked neo-Victorian wallpaper in a style reminiscent of a cheaply remodeled B&B. After a minute or two of that wallpaper, one of the elegant mixed drinks from the bar was a necessity. Thus I found myself seated on a long bench, flanked by an exercise physiologist and an award-winning pastry chef, sipping a Kir, and speaking Italian. (This is clearly how Biznik earns its reputation for "business networking that doesn't suck.")

And, yes, I talked with a Biznik who is interested in having me do some writing for her new website. In English.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Sidestepping the boobies and their traps

This entry from Seth Godin's marketing blog, on dealing with people who expect you to fail or underperform, offers some valuable tactics for writers.

I've unwisely spent too much time in organizations in which I was the only writer/editor. Often my work was looked upon by many people as an unnecessary extra step in the process ("doesn't everybody know how to write?") or a burdensome expense to the organization. The upper-level managers who valued professional writing and editing capabilities, and who hired me, seemed oblivious of the need to explain the role I was to play, leaving me to justify my own existence. As a result, I usually spent more time politicking to be able to simply accomplish my work than I did writing or editing!

One amusing tactic Godin suggests is to dramatize the difficulty of your work. "Magicians are really good at this," he notes. "If people think what you're doing is really difficult, they root for you." Such as turning their arcane research into a front page news story, perhaps? Abracadabra, press releaseum!

As a rule, I was much happier in situations where I was part of a team of writers and we were all focused on our writing work. I'm sure my boss, or my boss' boss, was busy justifying our existence to someone, but I didn't have to know about it! Now, as an independent contractor, I'm extremely careful to work only for people who value writing and appreciate someone who does it professionally.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Writing fiction?

Many of the professional writers I know in the various branches of non-fiction aspire to write fiction. I certainly do -- and I have the completed manuscript of one so-so crime fiction novel to prove it.

Since leaving Apple more than a year ago, I've taken a novel-writing seminar. But I haven't made fiction writing (unlike my personal blogging, professional blogging, and paid writing projects) part of my daily routine. Instead, I took up Trailer Park Yoga -- which is another story.

I'll be giving fiction writing another try in September, I hope. I've registered for a semester-long short story writing course.

On the cover

The cover of Wired magazine has a distinctly busy, digital feel. It gives the impression of impending societal chaos averted only by the use of one large, powerful graphic image. By contrast, Martha Stewart Living has a cool, "still life with money" feel. It's characterized by one large but soothing graphic image -- sometimes a decorated dessert, sometimes Martha.

When the August issue of Wired arrived in my mailbox today, and I saw the cover, I thought "Wow!" This has to be one of the cleverest magazine covers ever. It instantly conveys not only a sense of what's in the issue, but a sense of impact of the wired world now has on the American home.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Very funny

One of the funniest writers around is Canada's Gordon Kirkland. This essay he wrote for the BookExpo America (actually, the answers he provided to some profile questions that had been sent out to BookExpo's writers) will give you a taste of his distinctive style.

Gordon was one of the presenters at the Erma Bombeck humor writing workshop I attended last year. He has a wry, unabashedly masculine, slightly warped, and very, well, Canadian, sense of humor. As a former PR person for the Canadian government, Gordon is particularly clever when playing with politically incorrect topics, such as his own physical disability.

Gordon is also a master in the field of syndication of columns and promotion of books. But that's another story.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Listen to The Writing Show

Back from a long July 4th holiday and ready for a fresh perspective on writing and publishing? You'll want to check out Paula Berinstein's podcast The Writing Show ("Where writing is always the story").

The show's archives (audio files and transcripts) span topics from technical writing and screenwriting to horror stories and romance. Listen to interviews with crime fiction diva Val McDermid, Hollywood screenwriter Andrew Findlay, or NaNoWriMo contest founder Chris Baty. If you're the entrepreneurial type, don't miss Paula's biographical multi-part series, "How Not to Run an Online Bookstore."

And of course there's lots on getting published, on marketing your writing, and on living the interesting but not-very-lucrative writer's life. You might recognize the interviewee on the latest podcast "Writing for the Web." (The podcast should have mentioned the latest version of Crawford Kilian's indispensable book Writing for the Web. Note that the book comes in two editions, one for writers and one for geeks.)

Saturday, June 30, 2007

iPhone report

Got the iPhone -- and, after this post, I'll return to writing about writing.

The wait was 12 hours at an AT&T store at a mall north of Seattle, and mildly amusing. The folks in line were geeky, but gadget freaks rather than Mac aficionados. Everyone had friends and relatives coming and going during the day for entertainment and to hold their places in line, which made for a congenial atmosphere. There were two security guys (one in a black suit, with sunglasses and a crewcut!) assigned to keep an eye on us and pretty soon a sort of "reverse Stockholm Syndrome" took hold, with much sharing of snacks and talk about the local club scene. The AT&T store staff were really revved up; they got a briefing on the phones from an Apple rep at 4:30, and at 5:30 came out to let us play with some of the accessories (ear pieces, cases) that would be on sale with the phones. It wasn't quite as posh as the scene at one California Apple Store, where the store staff treated those in line to coffee from a nearby Starbucks. We had to buy our own.

At 6 p.m. the doors opened and the AT&T store sold us the phones in sealed boxes in sealed bags. I brought mine home and activated it through iTunes in about three minutes. I'd had my landline forwarded to my old cell phone during the wait, and forgot to take off call forwarding, so my first clue that my mobile number from T-Mobile had shifted to the iPhone was when I started getting calls. The iPhone had synced my contacts from my iMac, so it recognized the callers and displayed their names.

Those of you who like Apple products will be delighted to hear that the iPhone takes user friendliness to astonishing new heights. Those of you who are sure the iPhone is an over-rated piece of crap wouldn't believe a single thing I'd say about it, so I won't bother. Really. This is a writing blog, not a technology blog.

From a writer's perspective, the iPhone is not going to be a significant tool. The touchscreen keyboards (one for alphabet, one for numbers and punctuation) are fine for composing short text messages and adding info to a contact file. But you wouldn't want to take notes or blog with them. The process is crystal clear, but the tapping is slower than with a traditional mini-keyboard.

From a business person's perspective, an iPhone could become an essential. Today I found myself using the phone, the text messaging, Google Maps, and the web browsing capability as I headed off to brunch with Chris Barnes (another ex-Apple person) and then went in search of a store that sells Tom Bihn bags. It seems odd to call it a phone, because it feels more like having a computer in my purse.

Chris and I ran into Monica Guzman, who blogs about the Internet for the Seattle P-I, at brunch. We demo-ed our iPhones for her, and then Chris used the Apple website to locate nearby stores at which iPhones were still in stock. Monica's off on vacation for a few weeks, but I'll be watching her blog when she gets back to see if she's iPhone-equipped!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

iPhone camp-out

I'll be covering, and likely participating in, an iPhone "campout" in the greater Seattle area Friday. Frankly, I'm curious to see how people make use of tech devices and online services to communicate during the event. And I'm curious to see who participates (the Mac faithful? iPod devotees, independent of platform? Buyers? People who just want to check one out?). If I actually manage to purchase an iPhone (rather than just order one) that would be nice, too.

The reason I'm hedging on making a promise to participate is that, in some cities, people are already camping outside stores in anticipation of the Friday, 6 p.m. product release. That's not for me. I've selected what I hope will be a relatively low-key location in the Seattle area (so, not an Apple Store) and will be poised to take my place in line at 5 or 6 a.m. If there's a line of 100 people around the block at that point, I'll still have a story, but not a shopping expedition. If, by the dawn's early light, the line is minimal, I'll bivouac with a portable chair, a thermos, some energy bars, and all the necessary recording and communications gear.

Flickr groups for photos of campouts are being set up. Since the Apple Stores have wifi, expect lots of live reportage. Not sure what the AT&T locations will offer.

In Olympia, WA, a enterprising person has posted on Craig's List offering to camp out in line for you. The hitch? You have to buy him/her an iPhone, too -- complete with usage plan. (If the stores are limiting purchases to, say, one phone per customer, anyone involved in this deal could be in for quite a surprise.)

ADDED WEDNESDAY: I just received an email from AT&T inviting me to come buy an iPhone Friday. And it notes "limit one per person." (Hmmm....shouldn't there be a colon between "limit" and "one"?)

Friday, June 22, 2007

Why iPhone?

The rumor is that iPhones will be in limited supply at AT&T and Apple stores on the 29th, so it may be a long time before we actually get to play with an iPhone.

What do these pricey gadgets really do?

This 20 minute video demonstrates, step by step.

So, what do you think?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

120+ resources for bloggers (from Mashable)

Is your blogging bogging down?

The folks over at have compiled more than 120 resources to take your blogging to the next level. Best of all, these are grouped by type, and Mashable gives short descriptions of each so you can quickly compare and decide which one best fits your needs and interests.

If you've been meaning to spiff up your blog, energize your blog writing, etc., this is the ideal starting point.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Creative and production

Creative and Production. In your organization, it might be called Marketing and Operations. Or writers and publishers. Or dancers and stage crew.

But you get the idea: One group is supposed to be doing something artistic. And the other group is supposed to be mediating between the artist and reality in such as way that the artistic expression can connect with a sizeable audience.

Finding the perfect balance between the two is an art in and of itself. The concept "respect" usually figures prominently -- even when there's a lot of swearing going on.

Friday night I was involved on the production crew for the installation of the artworks for a highly ambitious performance art event. The artists were putting the final touches on massive pieces. The production crew was going over schedules and handing out radios and flares that would be involved in rolling the artworks a mile through town to a display area.

The artistic director sprang onto a stage of sorts and began rallying the crowd, talking about the impact of the upcoming performance and the uniqueness of the work to be presented. There was cheering and applause. Music came on; dancing started up; the performers were ready to roll.

A few minutes later, the artistic director, partially costumed and clearly inhabiting his performance persona, approached one of the production crew chiefs. He called out "Let's go! People are ready to move; let's not lose this momentum." The crew chief looked up from his clipboard and said firmly, "Got it. But we still have one key person to get into place. We'll move out when it's safe to go."

Friday night was my first time working with this community, but I've heard that exchange between Creative and Production hundreds of times in my career. It's a sign of organizational health when both speakers are calm and full of conviction. (Whining, muttering, and tantrums are signs that Something Is Wrong Here.)

I was thrilled to see that this was a good group (and the rest of my weekend experience with them bore this out).

What didn't thrill me, I must admit, was to find myself on the Production side of the event. Throughout my career I've moved back and forth between Creative and Production. I was discouraged to find myself entering yet another organization on the Production side when I want to be in the Creative end of things.

Next year.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Who's driving the bus?

Some years back, I had a close friend who drove a bus for Seattle-area Metro Transit. His career came to an end as a result of an incident in which a gun-wielding thug commandeered the bus in the middle of downtown Seattle.

The hijacker allowed other passengers to leave the bus, then ordered my friend to drive on, at gunpoint, without stopping. Metro Transit police were eventually alerted, began following the bus, and after several blocks the hijacker was coaxed out of the bus -- without carrying through on his threat to shoot my friend if he stopped the vehicle.

My friend took a few weeks off from work, met with some mental health counselors, then went back to work and suffered a major panic attack the first time he sat in that driver's seat with his back to a bus full of what were, in his view, potential hijackers. A few months later he retired on disability.

In the past couple of weeks, I've been thinking a great deal about how commercial websites, and other small businesses, get hijacked by "bad guys."

At the first Seattle Lunch 2.0 (organized by Josh Maher and hosted at WetPaint), Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz talked about "black hat" SEO practices that come under the heading of "link spamming" -- ways that the bad guys drive traffic to their websites by placing unwanted links on other sites (such as yours) or loading up their sites with inaccurate or redundant keywords to trick search engines into seeing their pages as highly relevant. (You'll find a link to Rand's excellent PowerPoint presentation in this SEOMoz blog post.)

The audience voted to hear that presentation (Rand, a prolific presenter, offered a choice!) not because we're a bunch of link spammers but because many of us are involved in protecting our websites from that sort of predation.

On a personal website or blog, it's easy to put a stop to link spam. Simply turn off comments. But for a commercial website, that's not a choice. Web 2.0 pretty much mandates the highest level of reader/customer participation you can handle. Thus a commercial site needs to devote resources (human or technical) to screening comments before they are published. And there needs to be aggressive, legitimate SEO work, including keywording, to make the site as visible as the sleazy sites earning their rankings through the sorts of tactics Rand was describing.

The issue I'm most interested in here is karmic: The danger of getting really, really good at protecting yourself against hijackers is that you start thinking of everyone as a hijacker...and treating them that way. Paranoia may or may not be justified, but no one wants to spend time (online or off) with a paranoid.

The day follow Lunch 2.0 I was shopping at one of my favorite stores in Ballard. The couple who own the store were talking with another local retailer about a skirmish with a professional shoplifter that morning. The shoplifter, a man, appears frequently but unpredictably, always carrying boxes and bags and wearing a bulky jacket. He prowls around the large store for about an hour. One of the owners (the husband) keeps an eye on the suspect. Of course, this ends up diverting him from helping customers, running the cash register, answering the phone, or supervising shipments coming into the store. That morning the husband had relaxed his surveillance to help a woman with a large piece of furniture, only to have the shoplifter grab something small and valuable and waltz out of the store with it. The store can't afford to hire a security guard to deal with this one criminal, and they were unwilling to cause a big chase scene in the store (generally filled with female customers). "We estimate he's getting out with about $100 worth of stuff every time," I heard the wife said, a shrug in her voice. "It's a cost of doing business."

I thought sadly about how much less fun the store would be if vases, candlesticks, CDs and such were kept in locked cabinets rather than artistically displayed on tables and shelving. Just as a lot of websites are less fun (and less usable) because of all the security hoops you need to jump through just to leave a comment.

I've been giving some thought recently to starting a quasi-commercial website, one that would revolve around reader participation and comments. One of the biggest obstacles I'm grappling with is what to do about the bad guys. I don't want a hijacking incident, but I don't want to become a professional security guard, either.

Monday, June 4, 2007

PR in the 21st century

Guy Kawasaki has been facilitating a fascinating discussion on public relations. It started when he posted material from a PR person about "The Top Ten Reasons Why PR Doesn't Work." Unfortunately, several of the reasons the PR person put forth seemed to boil down to "because the clients are dim and clueless."

Needless to say, this got quite a few comments. The CEO of the tech company Redfin sent Guy his top 10 reasons why a company should do its own PR.

Both posts, and most of the comments, are recommended reading.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The lonely marketer

As part of my work for a particular client, I follow the trade press for a certain segment of the marketing field. Each week I get a few dozen email newsletters about marketing, many of them offering tips as a lure to check out a particular blog.

This morning MarketingProfs sent Get to the Po!nt: Small Business Secrets in 60 Seconds, with three tips from Patrick Schaber, who writes The Lonely Marketer blog. Not only were all three tips brilliant, but each could be easily adapted to small groups in very large businesses -- even to volunteer groups or boards.

After clicking through so many newsletter tips that fall into the "been there, done that" category, it was startling and delightful to come across these gems.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Is copy editing extinct?

The weekend discussion at Deborah Ng's Freelance Writing Jobs site is on copy editing (or the lack of it) on the web. My "guest post" about my own experiences writing with -- and without -- a copy-editing net kicks off the discussion:

"These glitches had gotten by me because my eye and my brain were focused at some other level of the text. Did the quote I'd selected accurately represent the person quoted? Was the lede as sharp as possible? Did the story flow at a good pace? And they'd gotten by me because I'm a writer, thinking about writing, and publications have copy editors who think about copy editing. At least they used to." Read more.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Unjustly overlooked

A few weeks ago J. Kingston Pierce, editor of the crime fiction literary blog The Rap Sheet, asked writers and reviewers to nominate "one crime, mystery, or thriller novel" they felt was unjustly overlooked. I wrote about a British paperback I'd discovered on one of my used-bookstore prowls many years ago, P. M. Hubbard's High Tide.

Read about it here and check out nominations from more than 100 other crime fiction authorities including writers George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin and critics Tom Nolan and Adam Woog.

Monday, May 21, 2007

From whence it comes

Seth Godin had a typically pithy post a few days back about how to deal with people's reactions to your ideas.

It reminded me of a saying my mother often used when I was a child: "Take it from whence it comes." Meaning, of course, that criticism (or praise) has a context that's as important as the comments themselves.

Godin gave several examples of the effect of context on advice. These included praise that's given because the person likes you, or is afraid to upset you with honest criticism; criticism given because someone doesn't want to be responsible for encouraging an idea that fails later on; people who push you to take risks; and people who urge you to proceed but only with caution.

I've come to expect certain types of reaction from certain people. One of the reasons I moved from the Northeast to the Pacific Northwest 22 year ago was because the typical reaction to new ideas back East was negative and cynical: "Why bother? Someone will just rip off your idea." "Oh, someone else has probably already thought of that." "Well, maybe if you have the right connections..."

I liked it out here because the typical reaction to new ideas was positive. "Interesting! Let me know how it develops." "You know, there's someone I think you should talk with."

Godin points out that you have a choice of who to ask about your ideas; I guess I made that choice in a broad, general way just by moving to Seattle.

But, now that I'm here, I find that I like to expose my ideas to a variety of people, keeping in mind the context and motivation behind their advice. What I look for is advice that goes against the expected -- a usually conservative friend who says, "I think you've got it this time -- go for it!" or a usually encouraging person who says, "something about this has me worried."

Take control of your technology

Own a Mac? Thinking of getting a digital TV? Setting up a wireless network in your home?

The succinct ebooks from Take Control Publishing give you step-by-step tips for dealing with all this technology — and they're all on sale (a whopping 50 percent off the usual $5 - $15 prices) through May 29.

Here's a partial list of Take Control titles, by category:

iPod & iTunes

Take Control of Your iPod: Beyond the Music
Macworld iPod and iTunes Superguide
Macworld Apple TV Superguide
Take Control of Digital TV
Digital Photography
Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera
Macworld Digital Photography Superguide
Take Control of Booking a Cheap Airline Ticket
Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner
AirPort & Wi-Fi Networking
Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Extreme Network
Take Control of Your AirPort Network
Take Control of Your Wi-Fi Security
Take Control of Your Domain Names
General Macintosh
Take Control of Mac OS X Backups
Take Control of Maintaining Your Mac
Macworld Mac Basics Superguide
Take Control of Buying a Mac
Take Control of Running Windows on a Mac
Take Control of Podcasting on the Mac
Take Control of Switching to the Mac
Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger
Take Control of Passwords in Mac OS X
Take Control of Syncing in Tiger
Take Control of Fonts in Mac OS X
Take Control of Font Problems in Mac OS X
Take Control of Permissions in Mac OS X
Take Control of Upgrading to Tiger
Take Control of Customizing Tiger
Take Control of Users & Accounts in Tiger
Take Control of Sharing Files in Tiger
Apple Applications
Take Control of iWeb
Take Control of .Mac
iPhoto 6: Visual QuickStart Guide
Take Control of Apple Mail in Tiger
Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail
Take Control of Making Music with GarageBand
Take Control of Recording with GarageBand
Microsoft Office
Take Control of Customizing Microsoft Office
Take Control of What's New in Entourage 2004
Take Control of What's New in Word 2004
Take Control of What's New in Word 2004: Advanced
Other Applications
Take Control of Getting Started with Dreamweaver

Friday, May 18, 2007

Morning rituals work even for night people

I've been following the Freelance Switch blog, which is full of tips for independent contractors in writing, photography, design, and programming.

This post on Creating a Morning Writing Ritual resonated with me. (Even a dyed-in-the-wool night person has to start the workday somewhere.) One of the points the writer makes is that if you focus and get a good chunk of writing done right at the beginning of your workday, you can take time off to relax later on. I like to reward myself mid-afternoon with some gardening.

The post also suggests that you jump directly into writing without first checking email; my version of this has been to set a timer, to spend 15 minutes checking email and flagging certain messages for later attention, then to move on to the writing tasks.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Take neighbor to court bamboo

The title of this blog entry, "take neighbor to court bamboo," sounds like the germ of a short story.

And, in a sense, it is: the phrase is a search query some anonymous visitor typed into Google.

This brings us to It's a new web-based service that does search traffic analysis -- helping you analyze your website by studying the queries that have brought visitors to it. (These queries are easy to capture using a web stats service such as — or using As this 103bees blog post explains, analyzing website queries is important for websites and blogs that want to increase their earnings from ad programs such as Google Adsense.

103bees invites users to show off their funniest search queries. WriterWay hasn't had any particularly weird queries recently (perhaps because it's a site about clear communication?) but I've signed up for 103bees and I promise to share anything amusing that comes my way.

In the meantime, I'm wondering if that person did, indeed, sue the neighbor over the bamboo.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Another note on organization

After blogging yesterday about organization, I realized I should have mentioned the little (well, sometimes fairly lengthy) email I get every day from Productivity501 with a productivity tip. Today's strategy, on storing things in a contextual manner so that it's easier to find them, is particularly clever.

Monday, May 7, 2007

What's in the basket?

Like all of us, I play the priorities game on a daily basis.

Currently my top-level priorities are getting to my yoga/weight-training/aerobics class three days a week and completing weekly writing assignments for my major client.

Second-tier priorities involve growing my writing business and routine care of my family and the house -- from cooking, laundry and shopping to paying bills and scheduling the usual house/car/etc. maintenance stuff.

Beyond that there's this weird third tier of stuff, a hodge-podge of professional and personal development and my hobbies, all of which involve design and fabrication of some sort and most of which entail collaborating with friends or meeting new people interested in the same activities. This list of things I want to do in these areas is endless!

Organizationally, I have no difficulty keeping the tools and schedules for the top- and second-tier activities in perfect shape. But the rest of it? Files, bookcases, boxes, and deceptively decorative baskets in nearly every room of the house -- to say nothing of megabytes of space on my Macs -- are filled with potential ingredients for these projects.

Here's the contents of the most recent basket:

  • Goodies from the excellent WebTrends conference I attended at the Grand Hyatt last week. The conference was free, the presenters were good, and I came away with a better grasp of the web analytics field. WebTrends gave attendees some great gifts, including the marketing book Waiting for Your Cat to Bark and an attractive notepad portfolio that includes a little pocket handy for collecting business cards. I took notes on my PowerBook during the conference and promised I'd blog later about the shockingly bad PowerPoint presentation given by a Microsoft VP. So here it is: I didn't have the nerve to whip out my cell phone and take a picture of it, but his first slide used outlined type in italics, and his second slide had more than 60 words, four levels of outline, 15 bullet points, and three footnotes -- plus a chart. It looked like a "before" example from an Edward Tufte graphic design seminar.
  • A handwritten list of mystery writers whose books I like and want to buy more of.
  • Receipts to shred.
  • A scribbled note about Pat Murphy's book Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, recommended to me by an award-winning science fiction writer I met at a party.
  • Martha Stewart's Spring Cleaning Checklist (three pages, illustrated). I see I get points for cleaning my "window treatments." Unfortunately, after I took the diningroom curtains to the dry cleaner and got them cleaned for an outrageous amount of money I realized I like the dining room much better without them. And that I want to replace them with honeycomb shades. $$$$.
  • Baklava recipes for a cooking contest I didn't enter.
  • The hour-by-hour schedule for the upcoming Northwest Folklife Festival. I've marked all the concerts I want to attend, even though I always spend 11 out of 12 hours of the day dancing in the Roadhouse.
  • Four silver buttons I clipped off a hideous jacket and intend (some day) to put on a much nicer jacket. If the cats don't turn them into playthings first.
So, what's in your basket?

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Blogging by the rules

I'd never heard of the blog law site Aviva Directory, but was intrigued by the lengthy post "12 Important U.S. Laws Every Blogger Needs to Know."

It covers paid posts (ads); deep linking; use of inline image linking and thumbnail images; stolen content; collecting reader data; ownership of uploaded content; a blogger's responsibility for blog comments; tax law on blog revenue; the blog as a legal entity; spam laws; and the applicability of journalism shield laws to bloggers.

The issues this post tackles are dauntingly complex, particularly as this area of law is still evolving. Fortunately, each section concludes with some general tips on "how to stay out of trouble." Definitely worth reading and bookmarking. And the comments from bloggers about their own legal experiences are excellent.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Webby Awards announced

Today's announcement of the Webby Awards winners was of particular interest to me because I was one of this year's site reviewers.

I was assigned some 70-odd nominated sites to explore and rate. They included two that I thought were quite extraordinary and dozens that should have been singled out as textbook cases of user-hostile design driven by art departments engaged in passionate affairs with their trendy software. None of the sites I reviewed made it to the finals.

My friend Meg Frost's Cute Overload won both the official Webby Award and the People's Choice award in the Weird category; that's the site's second annual Webby win. As they say on Cute Overload, "Big snorgles!"

Friday, April 27, 2007

Ignite Seattle videos - April 2007

The videos of the 5-minute "Ask Later" talks from the April 5 Ignite Seattle have been posted on The sound is surprisingly good, but unfortunately it's a bit hard to make out the presenters' slides. Highly recommended are Scott Berkun's talk on "Attention and Sex" and Christopher Johnson's "The Art and Science of Naming."

Here's my talk on "Workplace Survival":

[NOTE ADDED APRIL 28] The slides for this talk (no voiceover) are available as a QuickTime movie at:

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Classic rhetoric trumps ranting

The often-controversial physicist Gregory Cochran offers an original and highly plausible unified-field theory to explain the bizarre behavior of the Bush administration. His articulate analysis, in the April 9 issue of the The American Conservative online, is a refreshing change from the ranting and smug bombast that characterizes so much political discussion these days. I urge anyone who writes to advance political arguments to read this piece and to think about why it's such effective communication.

I'll think back on this article every time I hear Bush, Cheney, or Rice speak. I used to wonder "What the bleep could they be thinking of?" Now I know.

(Thanks to Mystical Forest for turning me on to the Cochran piece.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Slugs on the web

A slug is not just one of those long slimy brown garden critters we have in Seattle to keep down the primrose population.

A "slug" is also the term used in newsrooms to refer to the short filename of a story or a photo. Slugs, assigned by the copy desk, might be something like "Bush Speech" or "Va Shooting."

Slugs are "insider" labels for stories that appear in the paper with much longer headlines and captions.

With the advent of the web, slugs are no longer "insider" information.

On a news site, slugs often make it into the HTML that refers to the name of a photo. They might even appear above a caption. Thus it's very easy for anyone to see a slug. So using a slug like "GAYSUIT" for the photo of a gay fireman who has filed a suit (and is wearing a suit at the press conference) probably isn't the best idea.

Metroblogging Seattle didn't like it, and apparently the Seattle Times, which had allowed the slug to appear above the photo caption, removed it when it was pointed out.

I have to say that I don't think a filename, particularly a clearly ambiguous one, warrants such a hissy fit. But maybe I'm just showing my calloused, reportorial side here. Comments?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Short story

Kristin at Metblogging Seattle sums up the local newspaper scene with one great sentence:

"What would Seattle do without both the Times and the P-I to report on important celebrity news?"

She's been updating her online coverage of the two papers reporting on themselves (and their joint operating agreement) throughout the day. It's (gasp) real news reporting.

So, will I now cancel my P-I subscription and get all my news online?

Not yet. A friend of mine is going to be a guest star on the new season of Paris Hilton's "The Simple Life" and I need to keep up with the celebrity gossip...

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sounds familiar

I will always remember a writer friend from college who teased a musician we both knew with a comment to the effect of "gee, women never want to come over and watch me write."

As a writer, I'm often envious of the attention musicians and actors get for their live performances. But an amazing experiment, conducted earlier this year by The Washington Post, turned all that on its head.

What if you took one of the world's most acclaimed concert violinists (a strikingly handsome man, to boot) and had him busk solo in a Washington, D.C. Metro station? Would people notice or appreciate the extraordinary quality of his performance? Or would they hurry past, oblivious, yammering on their cell phones?

Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony, predicted that perhaps 4 out of 100 people would "recognize the quality for what it is," adding "Maybe 75 will stop and spend some time listening."

What do you think?

Here's what happened. And here's a link to the entire 45 minute performance.

Friday, April 6, 2007

20 slides in five minutes

A little bit about the communications aspect of the presentations at last night's Ignite Seattle. (I'll write more about the presentations themselves when the Ignite folks post the videos.)

Let me start by saying that all the presenters were experienced and skilled. So what I'll be writing about is how folks dealt with the constraints of making a five-minute speech when the 20 slides they had prepared were being automatically advanced every 15 seconds.

Scott Berkun, unquestionably one of the most polished of the speakers, stepped outside the box by simply giving a five-minute speech. His graphics-only slides ticked off the time, moving from 20 blue squares to none by the time he'd finished.

Chris Heuer of Social Media Club also finissed the 15-second rhythm by using very general photos of people at meetings. Since his slides illustrated the very top level of his presentation on face-to-face communication, they matched anything he was saying.

The rest of us attempted to stay in sync with our slides, sometimes with amusing results. In one or two instances, people found themselves tapping their feet while waiting for their next slide; more often, a slide would beat the speaker to the punchline. I admired the very calm, very articulate fellow who looked at a slide he wasn't ready for, looked back at the audience, and said "I'm just going to give my talk," and went on to ignore his slides.

If you are planning to present at Ignite Seattle and will be grappling with the unusual 15-second slide format, here are a few tips:

• If possible, pick a topic that has logical steps, so you'll never get out of sequence. Jordan Schwartz's presentation on the "hive mind" concept and how you can set up a beehive your backyard flowed perfectly because his slides and his speech were telling a linear story. (By contrast, Candance McNaughton's presentation on natural medicine Health Hacks and mine on Workplace Survival issues covered bullet points we could have presented in just about any order. A few times we had to turn around to look at our own slides to see what point was next.)

Time the comments you'll make with each slide. Make sure they're only 14 or 15 seconds, and edit relentless until they are! Once you've got them down to size, I found that chunking them into three phrases worked. I saw the slide image, it sparked the first phrase. The second phrase was a transition, and the third phrase was either a punchline or moved us along to the next slide. Each 15 seconds of text had a rhythm like a waltz, so I was ready for the next slide instead of jarred by it.

Practice til you own it. I had the speech function (part of Mac OS X) read the speech to make sure it was really 5 minutes long. The computer voice is a bit slower than mine, but I also realized I'd take up a bit of time here and there ad libbing or reacting to the audience. I then recorded myself giving the speech (to iPod via an iTalk mic) and went for a walk and listened to the speech a few times. When I got back I printed out the Keynote slides six to a page and tried to go through the speech using only the slide visuals as cues. When you can do that, you're ready to go.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Come fly with me

Thursday night is Ignite Seattle at the Capitol Hill Arts Center.

The event starts at 6:30 with the crafting of paper airplanes, followed by a competition to see who can send his or her creation winging through a target hoola-hoop onstage.

The updrafts of hot air begin at 8:30 with Ignite Seattle's rapid-fire 5-minute presentations, guaranteed to put any long-winded pundits into a fatal tailspin.

As one of the dozen or so "speed speakers," I'll be whipping through a few of my tips on Workplace Survival. Thanks in advance to the people I've worked with who have provided me with so many colorful anecdotes for the talk!

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hate, hate on the web

The back-and-forth of the recent verbal threats and harassment against blogger and tech guru Kathy Sierra is evolving into some more reflective commentary. For those of you who have a Salon subscription, I recommend the essay "Men who hate women on the web."

One of the thoughtful and wry observations Salon editor Joan Walsh makes in the piece:

"And what does it mean that women writers have to drag around this anchor every time they start to write -- that we reflexively compose our own hate mail, and sometimes type and retype to try to avoid it? I can honestly say it's probably made me more precise and less glib. That's good. But it's also, for now, made me too cautious. I write less than I would if I wasn't thinking these thoughts. I think that's bad."

That really struck home with me — the part about composing your own hate mail. It's so easy to do! If a woman is overweight, she'll be called "a fat ____"; underweight, she's "a scrawny ____." Old? That would be a "wrinkly ____." Well-educated? "Ivory Tower ____." Under-educated? "Trailer park ____."

And on we go. If someone like Kathy Sierra (who looks like a model for the J. Jill fashion catalog, and is one of the strongest writers in the blogosphere) comes in for this sort of abuse, it's not hard to imagine what could happen to the rest of us!

Perhaps I'm reading the wrong blogs, but it seems to me that the 20-somethings active on the web, men and women, have been oddly silent during this discussion. Is this dynamic absent from their web experience? Is this discussion so "old school" that it's irrelevant to them? I'd be curious to know.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Customer support that really sucks

OK, try and beat this one:

J2 is a fax service you can use from your computer on the road. I used it during my travels in January and February, was not hugely impressed, paid for the second month of service, and then decided to cancel my account.

But, searching all my account options and their website, I couldn't find any way to cancel.

I finally emailed their Customer Support with a request to cancel, and they wrote back the following:

We have received your e-mail request to cancel your account. However, please be advised that we require your request be confirmed by calling us at 1-323-817-3218, or by visiting out Live Chat service, at [URL removed] where a Customer Service representative will assist you in the cancellation process. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Please note that your account will remain active until your cancellation request is confirmed by Customer Service.

[Name removed] j2 Customer Support

Of course, it was at this point that my blood began to boil. This email was from Customer Support. She didn't need me to be confirmed by Customer Service; she needed me to be high-pressured by Sales.

I called the (long-distance) number, followed the annoying system of convoluted prompts, finally found an option for "inquiring about cancellation." I thought that was an odd turn of phrase, and I was right to be suspicious. The automated message told me that if I wanted to inquire about cancelling my account, I had to use the Live Chat service on the website.

Rolling my eyes, I went the Live Chat page, logged in with my account information, and waited for the Chat screen to load. And waited. And waited. And waited. (My browser hung, and continued to hang on repeated tries.)

So I called the phone number again, but this time I selected Technical Support. The fellow who answered (a very pleasant person who had trouble understanding English) got my account information. He told me that my service didn't have any Chat, just conference capabilities. He didn't seem to know anything about the Live Chat service mentioned in the email and the phone system.

I then told him that I was trying to cancel my account. This sent him off to talk with a supervisor. He came back and offered me an extra free month of service. I stuck with my guns and told him I wanted to cancel. More chat with the supervisor. Then he came back and told me that my account would be cancelled and I would receive an email to confirm that.

Note, by the way, that all this had to be conducted via two long distance phone calls that I had to pay for; I suspect the two calls cost me as much as a month of service from the company.

Bottom line: I'd rather hike four miles in a blizzard to fax something from Kinko's than ever do business with J2 again.