Oohh, Pretty Ribbon! (And Other Ways the Web Makes Us Woozy)

And these are just for ordering lunch

One morning this past week, I had a writing project open on my screen, while looking at a Twitter stream, and also listening (well, my ears took in noise) to a webinar, which was going to end on the hour, and be followed by another webinar. Oh, the humanity! Now the webinar material wasn’t just mindless prattle; it was sound information on building a bigger blogging audience, and the one that followed also offered insightful information on revising a novel. And I’d seen some great tweeted links to intriguing topical news and the amusing oddments of humanity in the tweeted flow.

But the whole of it, the tapestry of electronic screeching tires, colored balloons, half-cooked flotsam—I sensed that the inner nutrient levels were low. Trying to look more than two tweets ahead, I know this is unsustainable behavior, on a spiritual as well as logical level.

But just to add to the feeling of this cascade described above—the “is that a mouse running up my leg before I’m going to make an important speech while someone in the audience is having electroshock administered”—while I was webinaring and tweeting and reading and wobbling, I opened this email from Jonathan Fields. His post squints at this collected connectivity, and the accompanying potential of disconnect that can come from it.

The Sunday Picnic Basket of the Web

The Net indeed can seem like the largest Sunday picnic basket of all, with juicy treats shared among smiling friends and extended family, and perhaps I’m biting the keyboard that feeds me by saying “no mas, no mas,” but sheesh, I’m concerned that I’m turning into one of those mice that hits the lever to drop the cocaine, and the lever taps are happening more frequently.

There have been a few recently published studies that suggest (as Fields alludes to) that our heavy use of the Internet and its popcornings of this and now this, but this too! is reshaping our abilities to have deep, concentrated focus on a subject—indeed attenuating our abilities to focus at all.

Computer Narcosis, Internet Brain and Gosh, Where Did the Time Go?

As I commented on the Fields piece, I also fear potential neurological re-shapings, that perhaps will suppress the ability to absorb in any reflective way long-form information, in favor of the slot-machine, bells-lit flavor-packs of brain candy we can access all day long now. Undoubtedly some brains are more susceptible to this than others. Since I’ve peppered mine with enough bourbon so it has more divots than most public golf courses, I might have to be more wary than most. (And our War of Warcraft army recruits might be lost already, but we’ll need them to man the expanding air force of drones that will soon be used to both kill terrorists and to perhaps shoot the fingers off of people texting while driving.)

Me, after musing on the Fields post (at the very moment I was being buffeted by the cluster bombs of divided electronic attentions), I vowed to no longer do these data-crams. It might be the bourbon that’s trenched my memory, but it feels like I’m getting so little retained value anyway from all the podcasts, webinars, PDFs and tweets that concurrently flood my bloodshot eyeballs.

When I ask, does all this stuff, despite its twinkly appeal, make me any happier? Smarter? Better?

No.

The Net and its wonders have been an immeasurable boon to my work, but that horrible sucking sound of my soul draining away has to be listened to as well. Of course I’m still going to be there typing away, but not while opening the curtains on all sides to every passing circus. One thing at a time. Breathe. Balance. (And maybe just a bit more coffee.)

All the News That’s Fit to Squint At

I have an ongoing battle with myself (damn, every time I get on top, I’m on the bottom too) about reading and listening to the daily news. It can be such a litany of woe and strife: so many deaths, so many injustices that I become inured to the actual screaming pain of it and instead numbly click on to the next article. The drive to drink more news swill is partially due to me wanting to be a journalist for so many years, and for thinking that if I stay current with global currents, I’ll know what’s happening.

But often, what’s happening is just as real under the radar, on the other side of the insistent NOW. Life works its odd ways in the road-not-taken nooks and crannies of not-news and not-hot-news. So, while I continue to battle with whether I’ll lap up the blood-soaked headlines of today, I also subscribe to a number of email newsletters, some of them writing-related, some not, that take a different perspective on what’s interesting and important. (Note: do not point out that reading yet more digests of information doesn’t really address the prescription that it might be time to wean oneself off the news entirely. Bah! Resolutions are for New Year’s.)

So, some offbeat compendiums of not-quite-news:

Next Draft
A daily digest of the provocative, the crazed and the head-scratching (and sometimes it does include top-of-the-news stories, though often from a different angle). The guy behind this, Dave Pell, usually has some wry or deadpan take on the articles he lists, before you click through to the madness.

Brain Pickings
Often centering around writers and literature, this is a weekly digest of the old, the new and the odd. Let them explain: “Brain Pickings is a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, culling and curating cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers, and separating the signal from the noise to bring you things you didn’t know you were interested in until you are.”

Work in Progress
A weekly (though not always) newsletter from the Farrar, Strauss Giroux publishing company, it will often have oddments from the byways of literature and literary types, sometimes with snippets from interviews of famed authors long dead, or snipings from unruly authors quite alive. Some promo of their own publications here, but not obnoxious.

Shelf Awareness
And if you want to find out which of your favorite bookstores are closing this week, this newsletter’s for you. Well, that’s not all they do—from their About: Shelf Awareness publishes two newsletters, one for general readers and one for people in the book business.
Shelf Awareness: Enlightenment for Readers, our new newsletter, appears Tuesdays and Fridays and helps readers discover the 25 best books of the week, as chosen by our industry experts. We also have news about books and authors, author interviews and more.
Shelf Awareness: Daily Enlightenment for the Book Trade, which we’ve been publishing since June 2005, provides booksellers and librarians the information they need to sell and lend books. It appears every business day and is read by people throughout the book industry.

Writing on the Ether
And if you need to read about which publishing industry maven is trashing Amazon today (but it’s funny, really), you can do no better than to go to Jane Friedman’s fine blog and read the Thursday edition of Writing on the Ether. There’s more than just Amazon trashing going on, with all the publishing industry in a constant froth about pretty much everything. Porter Anderson surveys and curates sharp commentary from every whichaway.

Extry, Extry, Man and Dog Both Bite Reporter

And a bit of my own news: Men With Pens put up a post of mine about “Why I Write.” Go there and tell me why you write as well. Or why not.

And I was a finalist in the Gotham Writer’s Workshop 50-word monologue contest, which solicited 50-word monologues on growing up in the suburban 60s. Guilty. I won two tickets to a Broadway revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” which I would dearly love to attend, but it being on the Right Coast, I can’t. I’ll be finding some backbiting, caustic, alcoholic NY friends of mine to give them to instead.

Dictionaries: for Whom the (Electronic) Bell Tolls

And you can also use it to bash rodents

For the past 30 years or so, I’ve kept a hardcover dictionary, usually a Merriam-Webster’s, near my bed. Reading in bed at night has long been one of my delicious pleasures, and because words themselves are the savory nuggets of that deliciousness, I’ve never found it tedious to pause in the narrative to look up an unfamiliar or unusually wrought word. Quite the opposite. True, sometimes throwing a rock under the wheels of your reading journey can be disruptive, but I’ve more often found that considering why an author might use a particular word helps me parse the narrative all the better, and thus roll more smoothly through it.

However, once you pick up a dictionary to sniff out one savory nugget, your word-stimulated appetite might hunt out all the more, so your reading attentions turn from the original story to that herd of words corralled by the alphabet. So, grabbing the weighty word-cage from the bedside table is less an annoyance than a pleasure. But I do wonder how much longer such a big box of words will come in that container: a couple of weeks ago, I read that MacMillan, one of the larger reference book publishers, would be printing its final physical edition this year, becoming instead an online reference source for language arts.

Death (or at least gone to the hot tub) of a salesperson

That’s not any kind of shock: the stalwart Merriam-Webster Collegiate at my bedside is published through Encyclopedia Britannica, which ceased the print edition—after 244 years of publication—of its 32-volume set in 2010, to concentrate on its digital assets. And the most venerable of the dictionary publishers, Oxford University Press, also dropped the curtain on the 126-year print publication of “the definitive record of the English language” in 2010. The third edition of the Oxford, which will be available exclusively online, won’t be release until around 2037, which tells you that cooking with words takes a sweet, slow simmer.

I’m sure if there are any surviving door-to-door salespeople who used to trundle the Britannica around, they would issue a world-weary, “It’s about time.” That’s probably just as well: According to a 2006 report by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Britannica’s own market research showed that the typical encyclopedia owner opened the books just once or twice a year. They undoubtedly provided more of a touch of intellectual window dressing for many families.

Not to bury Webster, but to praise him (Er, it. Or them.)

However, this is no lamentation for the death of the physical tome. For me, I’m often as not starting the engine of that big Webster’s tank because of a wiggly word I spotted in my Kindle reading. I love the page-by-page presence of books, always will, but I have no quarrel with the e-readers of the world; I am one of them, I have one of them—there’s much to recommend them. As Seth Godin says, in many ways, the physical book is a “souvenir”—with information being instant, the physical book is more of a trophy of sorts, though one I hope isn’t designated as wallpaper like those old Britannicas.

Here’s to the book, long live the book (but I’ll be peeking at the Kindle I’m hiding behind the book cover as well).

You ought to see my flask collection too

As a postscript to this bookish bender, you may be amused by the video that graces my About page, which shows me wrestling with a portion of my collection of reference works. Books, can’t live without them, can’t get good gas mileage if you fill your trunk with ‘em.

Chopping the Copywriting and Creative Writing Salad

Copywriters that have a clearly defined niche—”I write sales letters for mid-tier businesses selling nuclear-powered rabbits”—are both constrained by their choices and freed by them. They are constrained in that they may have always dreamed of writing sales letters for nuclear-powered goat companies, but instead they are known as the rabbit guy, and thus they don’t want to dilute their focused offering, and potentially blur the boundaries of their defined space.

However, they are freed from casting their “I-need-new-work” lines in the thistle-tangled fields of businesses small, medium and large, who might peddle soap made from recycled comic books, or tongue scrapers for denture wearers. Generalist copywriters tend to a casual work garden of mingled (and sometimes flopping) stalks, colors and scents, while the specialist might have a sturdy monocrop of clients and cutoff dates.

You might guess that I’m a generalist.

The 360-degree Rotating Exorcist Head
I’ve thought about trying to restrain my 360-degree rotating Exorcist head (minus green spewings) of writing endeavors, but it’s just not my nature. While I can admire the ferocity of focus some copywriters employ, I can’t join their ranks—I don’t think I could breathe. And, genial bigot that I am, I have to sing the praises of the generalist’s keys, because polymath writing pursuits are inherently interesting for their variety. This month alone, to wit:

  • I finished an article for Fine Books and Collections magazine on the makers of exquisite and zany handmade books, touring the U.S. in their gypsy wagon.
  • Finished editing a book on social media for nonprofits.
  • Edited the first in a series of short books on Nonverbal Communication in Dentistry.
  • Wrote logo taglines suggestions for a home design and remodel company, and begin writing their brochure copy.
  • Discussed writing “replies” for a company that’s developed an advanced virtual personal assistant chatbox app; the replies will cover the branching potentials for suggested questions that users might want answered.
  • In discussion with a company that needs someone to update the documentation for the new version of its novel-writing software.
  • Am writing my two monthly articles (a recurring gig) for the Airstreamer, Airstream’s email newsletter.
  • Sending out queries for a variety of articles, many of them travel-related (though a few are about whiskey and one about old cars).
  • Sending out short older short stories of mine to some lit magazines.
  • Berating myself for pausing in what had been a steady (and productive!) half-hour of writing per day on my novel, having used Thanksgiving and then Christmas and then my father’s death for an excuse for not doing the work. Get after it, man!

Building Expertise, by the Paragraph and by the Project
Now, I have varying degrees of expertise in the areas above, but having written and edited nonfiction books, having written question-and-response dialog for software products, having written a novel (unpublished), having written travel pieces, having written brochures, heck, having written lots of grocery lists, I’m confident I can deliver what each organization needs, granting the many iterations of review and rewrite that some projects necessitate. For many writers like me, once you write website copy for a company, they may call you later to write headlines for an ad.

You might not have written headlines for ads before, but the good generalist will always pipe up with a merry “Yes!” when asked about their ability to write a heady headline. Many fundamental writing skills translate across boundaries—cross-writing is often more comfortable than cross-dressing. (High-heeled pumps just don’t work well with my size 13s.) So, if you are breaking in to the copywriter’s fold, and you’re thinking that you could write sales letters not only for the nuked goats and rabbits, but perhaps for radium-isotope gerbils too—go for it. Next thing you know, you’re a reptiles-with-battery packs specialist too.

Brutal Poetry Smackdown!

I used an interesting creative tool from Xtranormal to create this lively literary debate. It’s a fun tool, because you can add all kinds of camera angles, effects and gestures to your characters and settings. But I also thought it might be a great educational tool to prompt kids to write—as you can see, it’s not wholly necessary to have your characters speak sensibly. Passionately, yes.

Even though the cinematic challenges are at a pretty fundamental level, there’s also a good deal to learn here about moviemaking, with the availability of the tools to change perspective and the flavors of scenes. I only spent about a half-hour making this one, and it shows, but there’s potential to make something quite effective and communicative. Thanks to Rex Williams, my friend on Triiibes, for pointing Xtranormal out.

Gifts from the Ether (Plus, A Bonus: Books, Booze and Bacteria!)

Ezine Articles gift booty

Ezine Articles provides a perk-me-up

I’ve written before about Ezine Articles. It’s an article directory or repository, where writers post articles on a wide range of topics and they give permission to other publications or sites to republish them. Article topics cover most of the subjects in the known universe, and probably unknown ones too. However, pieces can only be re-published if they retain the original URLs of the article writers, which typically go back to the writer’s business site, as is the case with my publications.

It’s a nice site for me, because I own the reprint rights for lots of articles that just listlessly sit around in a back pocket of my computer—why not poke them to life again and see if they bring any baying of writing bloodhounds to my site? Ezine’s tracking stats let me see that I’ve had several of my articles re-published on other writing sites, and I’ve seen from my own tracking stats that being on Ezine does indeed bring traffic to my site. Customers—I dunno.

But that’s just my long-winded intro to noting what I got in the mail a few days ago, pictured above: Ezine sent this gift package, with a nice coffee cup, leatherette coaster, package of coffee for a pot o’ joe, and a certificate stating their thanks for me being a member of the site. Sure, it’s all branded stuff, but wow, it was totally out of the blue (I hadn’t seen anything on their site about them sending gifts), and I’d only posted 10 articles, which is nothing by comparison with some posters. That’s the kind of unexpected customer appreciation that sets some companies apart, and prompted me to give them a shout-out today. Treat a writer right, and they will write right. Or at least write more.

(Pssst! Ezine: the coffee was nice, but a half-pint of bourbon next time will help my digestion.)

Books and Booze
Speaking of sticking your nose in a glass of hootch while you drink in some literature, I was heartened to read a post last week from Shelf Awareness that included a link to an article on Books and Booze, An Old and Profitable Mix. The piece looks at a number of bookstores that also serve wine and beer, such as The Spotty Dog Books and Ale in New York. Goodness, that is quite an advance over the bookshop cafe, such as the one I worked in, where we merely peddled sugar bombs and jolts of java.

One of the quotes from a Spotty Dog bookseller is illuminating: “… the bar allows us to have more in-depth relationships with customers and to discuss all matter of things, including books, than just having a coffee service would necessarily support. The more you talk to your customers, the better you can know what they will want to read.” I have no doubt that the customers want to discuss all manner of things after getting schnokered, but books might not be at the top of the list. Lady Gaga’s latest foundation garments, perhaps.

The store’s owner said, “Also, serve quality products, and you will get people out to enjoy one or two delicious beverages, not to go on a binge. Unique micro-brew beers go well with books.” Aye, a good brew, a good book. But cognac isn’t bad either, in my opinion. The article also profiles some other bookstores that stock swill and have found it to be an asset. When they start putting bars in church, you’ll know the world’s a kinder place.

Bacteria, You Are Me
And thinking that you’ve massaged your mind with all available nostrums by having read your basic anxious modern person’s requisite amount of self-help, nutrition and doomsday books—and that knowledge of the human condition is your stock in trade—out comes the most recent Smithsonian, with this nugget in an article about organizing and talking nice to microbes and their neighbors:

“Trillions of cells make up the human body, but there are at least ten times that number of bacterial cells in you or on you. You are, at best, only 10 percent human.”

Man, I KNEW that those times when I reached for the TV remote and I picked up the cat that it wasn’t me. All along it was those filthy bacteria controlling me. And they’re getting a free ride! Why can’t we tax these creatures and pay for another 100 years of Social Security?

Writing Jobs Delivered to your Door (er, Screen)

For all of you freelancers who toil in your treetop aerie, serenaded by regal raptors, and even for those who might subject their verbs to subjective verbalizations in an old Airstream, you might wonder where your next crust of bread (or better yet, bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve) is coming from. Fret not.

That old series of tubes dubbed the Internet will whisk job listings straight to your screen, so that you can continue to work your magic behind the home keyboard like the great and terrible Oz. You won’t have to go out into society job-hunting, where you might expose those accidental dreadlocks you’ve been cultivating. There are all manner of job sites Netwise, but I’m talking here about listings of writing jobs delivered directly to you—and they have the bonus key lime pie of being wrapped in a writer’s newsletter, full of the newsiness you writerly types are keen on.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Writer’s Weekly – This is the handiwork of Angela Hoy, and it gets around: as stated, “The highest-circulated freelance writing ezine in the world.” Angela sends out a weekly newsletter that has a range of contract job listings for telecommuters of every stripe. The mailing also has her reports about personal travails and triumphs, a lead writing article, warnings on deadbeat publishers and more. On the deadbeat publishers issue, if you contact her about a venue that hasn’t paid you your due, she reports it online in her Whispers and Warnings column, and will write (for free!) a series of letters to the offending party, acting as a liaison between you and the crumbbum who stiffed you. She does get results.

Writing World – Lots of good stuff on the site itself (many helpful articles in the Business of Writing section), and sections on all writing genres—what, no haiku? But I go for the free newsletter, which also has a lead article on the business of writing, a Inquiring Writer column where readers help readers on writing requests and issues, and the Jobs and Opportunities portion, which has freelance work and submissions listings. Delivered twice a month.

Funds for Writers – No, they aren’t just going to dole out dough to you—I already asked. But the free newsletter lists lots of writing grants and retreats, writing contests and job markets. And Hope Clark, the woman who runs the joint, is charming. Her column is personal and always worth the read. Delivered once a week.

I’m also a member of The Writer’s Bridge, a paid site that sends out a daily compendium of job listings from across the U.S., including gleanings from all the major Craig’s Lists. I have gotten a couple of juicy contracts from these listings (though there are some clunkers in there too, as any Craig’s Lister knows). Ten bucks a month, and like I say, every day. Darrell Laurant, the fellow that runs the site, is a long-time journalist, and a good guy.

Sites (and Sights!) Galore
Those are the only sources of writing jobs on the whole Internet. Wait, did I hear you grunt in disdain? OK, true, that isn’t even a quivering bacterium’s ecological cloth grocery bag’s worth (say that ten times, fast) of the job listings for freelancers on the net, but dang, who’s got the time to list them all?

But if you absolutely lust to look at other lists of contract writing work (and associated writing advice and resources), here are a few other job site conglomerates I flip through now and then:

Journalism Jobs

Freelance Writing Jobs Network

About Freelance Writing

Copyediting

If you see anything there about writing songs for lovelorn squirrels, buzz me—I’m a pro.

Working Naked Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Circulate

I’ve mentioned before how answering HARO (Help A Reporter Out) story queries can result in your blog or business URL getting flapping wings over new waters, and indeed that again was the case for me in answering Lisa Kanarek’s solicitation for hints on stepping away from the home office for her Working Naked blog.

Lisa posted my short answer to her inquiry on her blog yesterday, and I saw this morning, through the magic of Google Analytics, that seven people had traipsed over to my site from hers.

A Lucky Seven
Now you might think that seven people is only a crowded phone booth [Note to self: do people remember what phone booths are?], but I know that even gaining small numbers of folks sifting through the shelves of my site is a good thing, no matter if they are interested in my copywriting services or in seeing if I’ve made a spelling missteak. (And no, I don’t obsess over every traffic footfall in Google Analytics, but it’s an intriguing tool.)

By the way, seeing as how summers in Santa Cruz County, CA are often pretty durn foggy, I never work naked; the heat’s on right now…