Friday, April 28, 2006

"Write On Target" - A good resource for advertising copywriters

iconOne of the most recent "How To Write" books I checked out from the library was Write On Target: The Direct Marketer's Copywriting Handbook, by Donna Baier Stein and Floyd Kemske. The book is an excellent resource, but I should caution that it is a little outdated: it was published in 1997. The biggest change that I have noticed between the world Stein and Kemske are writing about, and the modern world, is the way that internet has changed the face of copywriting. Advertising has started to shift its focus from snail mail and other print and media forms, to primarily internet-driven advertising.

Nevertheless, the book is a thorough study of "direct marketing" (which I think must be the polite way of saying "advertising"). The first handful of chapters focus on the advertisement mailing, breaking it down into all its individual parts (i.e. envelope, letter, response form, etc.) and explaining how to write a winning example of each. The book also describes how to write for radio, video, or other audio or visual forms of media - including telemarketing scripts. The chapter on writing for the internet is, as I have already mentioned, rather outdated - it mentions things like people paying to browse the internet and your materials (back in the days of dial-up connections that charged by the hour) and the ettiquette of email mailings (oh, those sweet days before the widespread use of spam). However, the book still offers some valuable tips on internet marketing, such as how to attract site traffic, how to design an attention-grabbing site, etc.

Personally, though, I think the most valuable part of the book (unless you're an aspiring direct marketer, of course) is the epilogue, "The Copywriter's Toolbox." As well as providing suggestions for resources such as encyclopedias and quote dictionaries, the chapter has a useful section on how to fight procrastination. He offers tips such as "Make a list of points you want to cover" (I do this! rather like a rough outline) "Write a letter to a friend about the project" (he gives a different reason, but I think this is good because it gets you excited about the work - having a conversation or writing an email ought to work, too) and "Look at somebody else's work" (and write down ways you can improve on it - but don't plagiarize!). His theory is that if you get yourself started putting words on paper, the rest will follow.

Well, that should be enough to either pique your interest in the book - or convince you that you don't need or want to look at it. I do recommend checking it - and any other book - out at the library; no sense in buying it unless you know you'll want unlimited access to it.

I have a whole stack of other library books on the art of copywriting - I will review them as well, as I get to them.

Kaavya Viswanathan's novel pulled from the market - permanently?

Wow, there sure has been a lot of commotion over Kaavya Viswanathan's book! Yesterday, the publisher pulled How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life from the shelves. Today, NPR's story on Opal makes it sound like this might be permanent. I really should have gone out right away yesterday (or sooner!) and bought the book, because now my book collector's nose is twitching. I read somewhere that only 55,000 copies of the full 100,000 had been shipped - that's a pretty small first edition, by modern standards. If the book comes out again in a revised edition, those "unedited" first editions will likely be worth quite a bit someday; if the book doesn't come out again at all, it's sure to be. Plagiarism or no, I'll be trying to find myself a copy of that book while I still can...

Thursday, April 27, 2006

More updates on the Kaavya Viswanathan story

The potential plagiarism case of Kaavya Viswanathan and her book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life is becoming more interesting all of the time, judging the by articles that keep popping up about it. Two such articles announce that Viswanathan's publisher has withdrawn her book while they correct the offending passages, and explain how the case sheds some light on the book mills currently in operation.

As far as the first article goes, finding out that the first edition of the book was withdrawn makes the book collector in me bemoan the fact that I didn't buy it. First editions such as this one, that have been withdrawn or corrected after a short run, tend to become very valuable over time. Drat!

As for the second article, I confess I felt a start of familiararity when the book mill company was described. Essentially, the idea is that the company - who makes it their business to know what is selling and why - designs similar potential bestsellers, and then hires writers to flesh them out. It's not a new idea - the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series were only two of many, many syndicated children's series books early in the twentieth century, and from what I understand V.C. Andrews' books suffered a similar fate after her death. Not too long ago, I myself applied for what must have been a similar job, as the company was seeking writers who would write books for teens from an outline. Now, however, it seems that this practice is becoming rather dangerous.

Although Kaavya said that the company, Alloy, didn't have much hand in the creation of her novel, the article says that the graduation speech - one of the events in her novel that is claimed to parallel McCafferty's book - was not her idea, but her editor's suggestion. Is it possible that companies like Alloy follow the bestsellers a little bit too closely? I could see a company like that suggesting similar plots to different writers, with the assumption that not every aspiring writer gets published.

In any case, here is the latest on the Viswanathan scandal - you can decide for yourself what you think.

Much-needed interview help for beginning writers

I conducted my first interview only two months after "going freelance." The interview techniques I'd learned during my stint as a full-time technical writer didn't exactly apply to journalistic work, so I was understandably nervous about getting my interview all wrong. In retrospect, though, I needn't have worried. I had a fairly good instinct for how to conduct an interview, as well as the added benefit of being passionate about the subject myself.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi, in her weekly blog and web comic Will Write For Chocolate, has written a very helpful article - complete with links to other resources - on conducting interviews. I wish I could have found half this information back when I was fretting about my first interview!

Although I haven't yet conducted many interviews - most of my freelance experience has been in writing internet copy - I do have a few tips to share, myself:

Choose a good voice recorder. My first interview was recorded on a minicassette recorder. It worked fine, but I quickly decided that I would have to upgrade before my next in-person interview. (Ironically, I haven't had another one yet - I've had the luck of conducting only email interviews since.) Digital voice recorders are much more appropriate in this day and age - not to mention much smaller and more discreet. There are plenty of cheap digital recorders available, but most of these have a limit of six or eight hours of storage, with no way of transferring files off of the recorder. My favorite digital voice recorders are the ones that interface with your computer in some fashion, so that you can download and store your interview files.

Have a list of questions to ask or points to cover - but don't necessarily follow them to the letter. Most of the resources listed on Will Write For Chocolate suggest preparing questions ahead of time, although others say it's better to fly it by feel. Like many things, I think a compromise between the two is your best bet: have your list of questions, but don't follow them religiously. If you let your subject have some freedom in deciding where the interview goes, you'll get more information - possibly information that you never would have thought to seek on your own - not to mention more natural-sounding quotes. However, the list is useful if you need to get the interview back on track or to double check that you've gotten all of the information you wanted.

Know the advantages - and disadvantages - of an email interview. I love interviewing via email. It makes it so much easier to work around other people's schedules, since you don't have to find a time when both you will be available - but make sure you set a clearly defined time frame in which the interview will need to be completed. It's a lot easier for people to forget about you when you're not sitting right in front of them with a pen, a pad of paper, and a voice recorder. Also, email interviews lack the spontaneity of an in-person or phone interview, so make sure you leave time to follow up after the initial interview, in case the subject says something that sparks your interest in a new vein of information.

Invest in a speaker phone. Trust me, conducting phone interviews without a speaker phone makes things a lot more difficult than they need be. With a speaker phone you can record the conversation with your voice recorder, and not have to worry about missing a good quote or forgetting about a piece of information. If you're like me, and your only phone is a cell phone, phone interviews become even more difficult, because you can't hook a recording device into the line. Therefore, choosing a cell phone with a speaker phone feature becomes even more important.

That's about all I can think to add to the tips and resources that Will Write For Chocolate offers, so do be sure to check out Debbie's article as well!

Online marketing help

I've written tons of press releases for products offering short-cuts to online marketing, so you can imagine how delighted I was to see this article on Writer's Weekly explaining what online marketing really is. The products I've seen always make online marketing sound like this magic strategy, but according to Richard Hoy, it's pretty simply - albeit hard work. Amusingly, the parts of online marketing that he lists sounds remarkably familiar, as these products I've mentioned talk about these techniques as well - except they claim to know "secrets" that will get the same results faster or with less effort.

Richard Hoy's article is the first in a series of six, so over the next few weeks we are bound to all learn a little more about the mystery of online marketing.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

How to handle an editor's run around

On this week's edition of Writer's Weekly, Angela Hoy published some really useful information for writers. The blurb contains information such as the difference between a kill fee and being paid for work that has been accepted, but publication delayed; how to protect yourself in pay-on-publication and pay-on-acceptance scenarios; and, of course, the usual warning - never write without a contract.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

More on the book plagiarism case

I ran across another account of the story I blogged about previously: Kaavya Viswanathan's How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life versus Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. Check out this audio clip on NPR about Viswanathan's book.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Plagiarism happens in larger arenas, too!

I ran across this strange story, about Kaavya Viswanathan, the 19-year-old author of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, which contains material she apparently accidentally plagiarized from Megan McCafferty.

At first I was reluctant to believe something like this could happen inadvertently. How can someone copy passages that closely, and not realize it?

Yet the question also is: how can someone deliberately copy passages that closely, and not make it word for word?

Think about all of the times you paraphrased research material, back in junior high and high school, before you realized that you have to know the material well enough that you can explain it without looking at the book. Think of how hard it is to put something in your own words when you're reading someone else's.

What really changed my mind on Viswanathan was something I'd heard or read once about Helen Keller. She tried her hand at writing children's books, except she basically plagiarized a book she'd been familiar with as a child. (I think she pretty young at the time, herself.) She had internalized the story without even consciously realizing she had ever read the book.

And, come to think of it, during my teenage years my writing was heavily influenced by books I read and regarded highly. Not to say I ever directly stole an idea - I hope I didn't, at any rate - but I definitely chose certain topics or settings because of other books I'd read. For example, after reading Avi's Something Upstairs I wrote a ghost story-romance; after reading a book about a girl kidnapped by Indians I wrote a similar story; and after reading Cathy Cash Spellman's Bless the Child I started writing about characters with telepathic and telekinetic abilities. When you really think about it, writers are all influenced by other writers - what matters is that they have take their own angle on the ideas that influenced them.

So, my own personal verdict is that Viswanathan is telling the truth - she copied the other writer's work unintentially and unconsciously. However, I think cases such as Viswanathan's - and, I'm sorry to say, Helen Keller's - speak for the importance of a writer having enough sense to know the difference between creating a story and remembering a story. And although I've read a great many books by very talented - and very young - authors, perhaps the ability to differentiate is something that young writers, for the most part, lack.

Fake abortion clinics?!

First of all, I apologize for neglecting my blog for the past few days. Michael and I are still pretty busy with moving and related chores. Once we have the house more or less looking the way we want it, I plan on posting before-and-after pictures, so you can see why I've been so busy with it!

And now, for today's news:

Liberal and pro-choice women may know of the recent efforts of the pro-life camp to encroach on women's reproductive rights. In South Dakota they're attempting to undermine Roe v. Wade by passing a law banning abortion, and in my home state, Colorado, we can't get a law passed to allow emergency contraceptives to be more easily obtained - perhaps a deliberate attempt to prolong the race against time, and keep more women from being able to take EC in time?

The pro-life activists have plenty more dirty tricks up their sleeves, it seems. Planned Parenthood recently sent an announcement out on the fake abortion "clinics" that have been set up across the nation to bully women into carrying an unwanted child. These fake clinics may be called "crisis pregnancy centers," but despite their misleading names, they are not interested in the welfare of the woman: their sole purpose is to convince her to give up her right to choose when and with whom she has her children. They have been known to go so far as to make harassing phone calls and visits to women who have unwittingly visited their center instead of a real abortion clinic, even calling the police and making false claims. Each of these attempts creates a road block to the woman who wants to have an abortion, and while they are not permanent road blocks, they make it far more difficult and upsetting than it should be for a woman to exercise her right to choose.

Even worse, the government is paying these centers to harass women! It absolutely infuriates me that my tax dollars are enabling these centers to masquerade as abortion clinics in order to get their hands on people's personal information! If it was for any other purpose - racial hatred, for example, or identity theft - our government would put a stop to it, yet because it's for the purpose of coercing women into giving birth, they pay for it?!

If this makes you mad, you're not alone - but you can help. Planned Parenthood has set up a form letter that concerned citizens can use to send a letter to their representative, urging that he or she support the bill designed to put a stop to fake abortion clinics. If you're a writer, you can also use your talent to help spread the news online.

I hope you'll take action - what are we writers for, if not to make our voices heard?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The frustrations of freelancing

I have to admit it: as much as I love freelancing, not everything is absolute bliss. There are a few frustrations that just seem to come with the territory.

Editors can be such a pain in the @ss. I apologize to any editors who might be reading this, but it's true - I have run across a few different editors that simply make everything far more difficult than it should be! I'm talking about problems more than simply being very demanding - which some editors are. What I'm talking about is stuff like demanding editors who also pay very little and think you'll still do anything for your cookie and a byline... Editors who think that if they don't have an answer for you, the best thing to do is not answer at all... And so on.

My worst editor story of all, however, has to do with a certain editor who sent my query back to me with a handwritten note voicing her interest in the story I proposed. As I settled down to do some research, however, I realized that in the lag time between when I sent my query, and when the editor responded, the publication had already run a very similar story. Confused, I emailed the editor and asked if she wanted me to continue...at which point she claimed that she rejected my query.

I understand that editors are busy, but hey, so are writers! Just think of what a waste of time that could have been, had I not happened to look at the most recent edition of the magazine!

Other people in my life just don't seem to understand that even though I work at home, I still work. Some weeks, I just seem to get so little done, because everyone wants a piece of my time. It can be so frustrating, especially when the paychecks come in...or don't come in, as the case may be. And it's definitely harder than you'd think to tell people, "Hey, I need to work." It's easy to tell myself, I need a break... And before I quite know what's happened, half of the week is gone and nothing has gotten done.

Which brings me to another frustration...

Sometimes I just don't seem to understand that even though I work at home, I still work. I don't think I can quite term it writer's block - procrastination, denial, etc. seems more of an apt way to describe it. There are times when I seem to forget that I have to work and earn money... I just get so caught up in being able to sleep in and work on other stuff on my list that it escapes me why I'm home in the first place.

The high points are nice, but the low points suck. It's really nice when I'm doing well - when I have lots of work to keep me busy, and lots of income to keep my budget happy - but it can be really depressing when there is a shortage of work (or lots of stuff that interfere with work, like moving did).

I've gotten out of the habit of punching a clock. I'm serious - it's not always a good thing to be able to sleep in as you please, work in whatever clothes you feel like, and work wherever you feel like. I've literally gotten out of the habit of being a part of society; I feel like I could easily become a hermit, if it wasn't for the coffee shops and such. Dressing in jeans and a nice shirt actually seems painful at times, as used to working in my sweats or pajamas as I've gotten. Some days, the thought of going anywhere in the car - even if only to run a simple errand - is met with reluctance so strong that going against it is actually painful.

Yet, despite the drawbacks, I love freelancing. I wouldn't give it up for anything. All of these frustrations seem minor in the scope of things. Editors may be a pain sometimes, but I can choose who I work for with much more freedom than if I had a full-time job - and, good God, no editor could ever be as horrible as my last boss was. The responsibility of having to tell other people - and myself - that I need to work has to be weighed against the freedom to go out instead when I really want or need the break. As for my hermit tendencies - well, I still wouldn't trade in my relaxed schedule for a nine-to-five deal, even if it made me into the most stunning example of a social butterful.

Let's face it: freelancing may have its hangups, but for those of us who are suited to deal with them, the benefits make it heaven.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A quote that reflects on the cheap internet content epidemic

In light of all the crappy content popping up on the internet these days, I found this quote rather amusing (and all too true):

"We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true."

--Robert Wilensky

This quote brings to mind all of the cheap content that people commission for the sole purpose of bringing in AdSense revenue. While there are some services that pay decent prices for this content, there is also a regrettably large population of wannabe entrepreneurs who post ads offering writers a dollar or two per article. Many of these ads also say that they don't expect high quality work...which harkens back to the old joke that a monkey could do the job. In this case, it's probably true, and Mr. Wilensky might even agree with me.

Now, before any of you SEO content writers get upset with me, keep in mind that I write this stuff too. However, if you're upset because you happen to be one of the writers selling your soul for a dollar an article, please take it from me - you can earn more for your labor than those fruitcakes will offer you. Search all the job boards daily, send a cover letter and resume to anything that looks like a decent offer, and refuse to work for anything less than what you are worth. (And that rate, regardless of what you decide it is, had better be above minimum wage!)

Leave the crappy content - and the crappy-paying content - to those who couldn't write to save their lives. There's no reason why real writers should allow themselves to be lumped in with the "monkeys."

Monday, April 17, 2006

Back to life and work as normal

This afternoon the phone company technician showed up to look for the break in the lines. Thankfully, it was not in the house, so it was the phone company's responsibility to fix, meaning we won't be charged. Having nothing better to do since I couldn't work, and being interested in this kind of stuff anyway, I followed the guy around as he searched for the break. He muttered a lot, which I think was his way of trying to keep me updated, but I didn't get most of what he said. As far as I could tell, there was two disconnects: one at the main box, and one where the lines run in the alley behind the house.

In any case, he climbed down from his ladder, and just like magic the lights on the modem were on when we went inside! Hip hip hooray! It's such a relief to have my connection to the world back again.

I made today's deadline, and now I can take care of some other things that I needed internet access for. There are still things I need to do around the house - unpacking, moving stuff around, etc. - but I neglected my work so much last week that I think I'd better work for a bit now.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Home sweet home...without internet?

After last week's rush to get the hardwood floors ready in time, Michael and I were able to move into the new house yesterday... Well, mostly. We still have a few things left to move, but we moved enough that the new house really does feel like "home." The rest of our stuff will follow in the next week.

Unfortunately, there seems to have been a DSL complication. I called last week and requested that the service be switched on Friday. I lost internet access at the old place right on time, but it never reappeared at the new place! I called tech support today, and they're sending out a technician to check it out for me. Hopefully I'll have internet back soon, but I'm worried about a problem with the phone lines in the new house. Goodness knows how old they are...

I find it ironic that just a few days ago, I was raving about being a freelance writer in today's world of technology - and suddenly here I am without that technology. Internet is literally my livelihood, and without I feel that I'm slowly bleeding to death. I have deadlines to meet, and no way to meet them. Not only that, I have to stay home all day tomorrow so that I'm here when the technician arrives, which means I can't leave in search of internet access, my lifeblood!

With any luck, this is simply a glitch in the system, and I will wake up tomorrow to find I have internet in the comfort of my own home once again.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Being a writer in today's day and age

One of my favorite writer's sites, Will Write For Chocolate, included a post today about online tools for writers, containing a good number of resources that other writers should find useful. I was reminded of how lucky I am to be a writer in this day and age. Just imagine having to go to the library to do your research - and not even knowing ahead of time whether they might have what you need! Or - gasp - having to search the card catalog!

Seriously, things are so much easier for writers these days. I can research and write an article all from the same screen, from any location with internet access, and usually in a much shorter amount of time than what hardcopy research would take. (Places with free WiFi are my favorite: Tattered Cover Bookstore, Paris on the Platte, and - ironically - the Jefferson County libraries.) Not to mention, most of my jobs have to do with the internet in some form or another.

Another plus: when the spell check or thesaurus features on MS Word seriously fail to help me out any, I can use online sources instead, such as online dictionaries!

Oh, and here's the best part - submission is instantaneous via email (although there are still a frustratingly high number of publications who refuse to accept anything via email), as is payment via paypal!

Basically, I can't imagine how a writer would have made it in the "dark ages" before computers and internet technology. I can hardly imagine how I survived before internet research (although I dimly recall using something called "Carl" - I think that's the spelling - years ago to research via an online encyclopedic database).

Oh! the memories! I also remember scribbling my stories into a spiralbound notebook, and typing them up later on... Just as I remember several hard drive crashes that cost me a good deal of my work! Now I save everything on the hard drive again - for the first time in ten years - and carry it all with me with as much ease as I carried that notebook!

Yes, being a writer in today's day and age is a wondrous thing.

Estimated Tax for Individuals - worse than filing taxes?!

I know it's rather down to the wire, but I'm finally posting on estimated taxes for freelancers. I looked at the form about a month ago, and didn't think much of it; but tonight I'm filling it out for the first time, and it is a headache.

Yes, I'm finding estimated taxes to be much more difficult that filing taxes. First of all, it's really hard to estimate income, let alone stuff like expenses and deductions. Secondly, the worksheet keeps warning that if you don't do it right, "you may owe a penalty when you file your taxes." Frequently they make it sound like you "may" be penalized even if it's not your fault! For example, the instructions include this dire warning in the section where they tell you what to do if you need to adjust your estimated taxes... In other words, if you inadvertently start making more during the year, you could be held liable for estimating improperly?! Whether or not that's true, I don't know - but it definitely scares me (which is, I'm sure, what they want).

In any case, the estimated tax worksheet - form 1040-ES - walks you through a simplified exemptions and deductions calculation. Once you figure out the tax you estimate you'll owe in the current year, the worksheet throws in some confusing bit about "alternative minimum tax from form 6251." I really have no clue what this is about, but since nothing looks familiar, I rather doubt I have to file it; my advice is to read the instructions and determine whether the IRS requires you to endure this additional headache.

Then you get to input your previous year's taxes; if it's less than you're estimated you'll have to pay this year, you get to go with the smaller number - yay! Once you have figured out your estimated taxes for the current year, you divide that number by four, and pay each of the four installments by the due dates given.

Here's another fun saving grace: if your estimated taxes are less than $1,000, you don't have to pre-pay! Nice, but the way they threaten to penalize you left and right, I don't think I'd trust it.

In any case, hopefully this post will get you started. If anyone more experienced has anything to add, you're welcome to post tips in the comments on the post. And if I learn anything new, I'll be sure to pass on the information, as well.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The long awaited post on self-employment tax

I recently promised a post on the self-employment tax form, which I forgot to mention in my tax tips post some time back. Since you last-minuters have only a week left, I thought I should post on this today.

The form is the 1040 Schedule SE, and should have been included in my "Forms you will need" list. The self-employment tax is about 15% of your net earnings - that is, your income after all of your expenses have been deducted. I forgot to include it in my post because after all of my deductions (mainly my laptop), I netted less than $400 last year, in which case you don't have to pay a self-employment tax or file the form.

I was reminded of the form because I started investigating the estimated tax prepayments, which self-employed people are also required to do. Speaking of that, I will post on that particular subject very soon, as well, as the first quarter's estimated taxes are due on tax day, as well.

Self-employment tax infuriates me, especially as it is so high. I think I remember reading somewhere that it is meant to replace a tax that businesses pay - i.e. if you're not employed by a business, the IRS would otherwise lose money because of your self-employment. However, it hardly seems fair to penalize us for having the gumption to make a go of it on our own, with a tax that wouldn't ordinarily come out of our pockets. When you consider that the self-employment tax is 15% on top of the normal tax rate, I can understand why there are so many books on how to increase your expenses and reduce your net income!

Although I didn't have to worry about that tax for last year, I will definitely have to pay it this year, and I don't expect it to be a pretty sight.

The crimes of society against literacy

This evening I caught sight of a billboard that showed a Latino family - two parents, two kids - huddled up on the couch together, smiling and gazing at something off in the distance. The billboard broadcasted the words "TradiciĆ³n" and "It's a Latino thing." The billboard was a cable company ad.

The ad infuriated me, from a political as well as a literacy point of view. First of all, even though Denver has a high Latino population (which I'm sure the cable company has suddenly come to see as an excellent opportunity just waiting to be cashed in on), there are also plenty of others who will instantly assign racial connotations to that image. They will superglue the stereotype of the TV-watching white trash family onto the Latino family, which will serve to exaggerate the stereotypes they have already assigned to Latino people. They will say, "If that's one of their traditions, no wonder they [fill in the blank with any number of problems mainstream society tends to blame on minorities]."

But forget about what people will say - let's address what is fundamentally wrong about an ad like this. It's bad enough that the cable companies encourage people who are well-off and educated to spend more time parked on their @sses in front of the TV - what business do they have selling the imaginary merits of television to a socio-economic group that is already statistically known to face huge challenges in society due to poor education and illiteracy? We already know that television causes problems because it displaces time that could otherwise be spent in pastimes more conducive to education, such as reading or playing. So what does it say about our society that the cable company (whose employees must know the statistics as well as I do) has decided to target an already-challenged socio-economic class with their newest advertising campaign?

This is sick. It is a perfect example of the corruption of our glorious free market society. It's all about advertising and selling. Greed. God help you if your needs oppose theirs.

I remember reading somewhere that the average preschool kid watches 30 or 35 hours of TV a week. That's nearly a full-time job! And the cable company is trying to increase this?

It's partially the writer - and the reader - in me that has a hard time with this. I don't know if it has to do with race, class, or my mom's somewhat old fashioned values, but I didn't really watch much TV growing up. Oh, I can remember a few choice shows, particularly when my mom was making lunch during the summer or a favorite afterschool cartoon during the school year...but that's about it. I could count on one hand the shows I watched with any sort of regularity during my first twelve or fourteen years.

Mostly, I remember the books.

I read constantly. Teachers actually complained that while they couldn't get other kids to read, they couldn't get me to stop reading. I read in class, often straight through another lesson. I read under the covers with a flashlight. (I remember the first book I did that with, too. Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit. I couldn't have been more than seven or eight.) I was even pretty good at reading while I was walking, a talent saved for the particularly engrossing books. When I was in high school I often finished a new book every day.

My little rant does have a point: in many ways, I was far more advanced than my peers throughout my childhood. English class was a breeze, to say the least. I usually already knew the spelling and vocabulary words we were supposed to learn. Often I had already read the assigned books. And writing - imitating the words and turns of phrase I'd read so much of - was second nature to me.

So here is my point: TV displaces reading as a pastime. Reading as a pastime actually educates children, but in a fun way. It also prepares them for (and helps them choose) an educated lifestyle. So by pushing television, the cable company (or society, depending on how you look at it) is handicapping the education of the upcoming generations. And by pushing television on a group of people that is already hurting for proper education...well, I see it as something akin to kicking a dog while it lies half-dead in the street.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Why are writers so critical of each other?

I recently got into a forum debate about a bestselling book that I liked (but, apparently, quite a few people didn't). In defending the book, I inadvertently sparked a lot more criticism of the book, much of which seemed awfully harsh.

Last night, while reading The Last of Her Kind, by Sigrid Nunez, I ran across a mention of a quote that perfectly described what I felt about all the criticism I was reading about the bestseller I'd stood up for:

"One cannot review a bad book without showing off."
--W. H. Auden

Particularly coming from a writer, criticism of another writer's work just comes across as self-righteous, as if there is always an unspoken I could have done it better. Not only that, though; often the criticism seems unreasonably harsh. Writers tend to pick on things that "normal" people would never consider a serious enough flaw to ruin a book. It reminds me of a theory in social psychology, which observes that people are most likely to judge others that are most like them. For instance, women tend to blame a rape victim for bringing it on herself, presumably because all women are vulnerable to rape, and therefore prefer to blame the victim and deny that it could happen to them just as easily, rather than admit to the vulnerability. I think this theory could also be applied to how writers react to each others' work: when writers see "just another writer" become a bestseller, they automatically find reasons to criticize, indirectly making the case that they are more worthy of bestsellerdom by denying that the bestselling writer is any good.

Now that I've stated why I think writers are so likely to turn on each other, I have to say that I don't care why they do it, I think it's absolute crap. All of my fellow writers out there - particularly the newer ones, who will remember their own periods of vulnerability better than the established, successful writers - don't you remember how much senseless criticism can hurt? I'm sure all of us have bad memories of someone making some ridiculous, hurtful, and not at all constructive comment about our work. Rather than turning that same fire on another writer, we writers ought to stand by one another, as we all know and understand what it is like to be injured by criticism.

I have one other quote that I want to leave you with, which Nunez also led me to:

"Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind."
--Henry James

Please, my fellow writers, be kind to one another; support one another.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Getting into writing mode quickly

It's not always like this, but frequently it takes me a while to get into "writing mode" - particularly if I'm working on something I enjoy less than usual. And although I'm not a mom yet, I still have frequent distractions that rob me of the opportunity to take my time getting warmed up. Also, as a professional who must support herself on her writing income, I can't afford to waste time by prolonging my "warm-up" period longer than necessary.

I'm not perfect, by any means - I still procrastinate when I have the luxury of time - but when I don't, there are a few tricks I have learned to get myself going faster.

Make notes. This is probably the most important trick I've learned. I frequently make notes, set apart from the draft by symbols that will draw my attention (so that I don't leave my notes there by accident). For example, I might type "" at the end of a paragraph when I don't know how to finish it off, but I have lots of good ideas for the next paragraph that I want to get down while they're fresh. Also, when I open a new document, I'll often set up a rough outline in this manner, to get my full idea down before I forget it or lose track of it. This saves a lot of time when I pick up my work again, as I don't have to reread everything and figure out where I was and where I wanted to go with it.

Location, location, location. Location is good for more than just house values. I've found that some places enable me to get started writing more quickly than others. I think this must vary between writers, so figure out what works for you and use it when you really need to jump start your writing for the day. For example, contrary to all common sense and how-to-write books' advice, one of the places most conducive to work for me is a coffee shop. I think it's because I have so many distractions at home, which aren't there at the coffee shop. All I have there is literally my coffee and my work. The busy atmosphere doesn't distract me because it doesn't concern me. Likewise, there are areas in the home that help me get started on my work more quickly: desks and tables are not very comfortable for me to work at, and I write best when I'm comfortable, so the couch and the comfortable old granny rocker in my office are the places where I can get started writing the fastest.

Plan for distractions. Does anyone else get the munchies three sentences into something that took a long time to warm up to? Well, you know that getting up will ruin the "writing mode" you worked so long and hard to achieve, so think ahead! Go to the bathroom before you get started, and keep everything else you might need nearby: a blanket in case you get cold, a snack in case you get hungry, any reference books you might need, etc. I actually have my doubts as to whether these sorts of distractions are genuine; your brain may be making them up in order to prolong your "warming up" time, so anticipating them can help avoid some of the subconscious procrastination your clever mind sabotages you with.

Of course, if I were to write about how to prolong your procrastination efforts as much as possible, I would recommend blogging. It really is therapeutic to write and not get anything done at all. :o)

Oh, this sweet, sweet agony!

No, the title of tonight's post was not intended to bring to mind a smut novel. :o) The "sweet agony" I am referring to is actually the pain of several days' hard work on the house, balanced by the joy of seeing it really start to come together.

This evening Michael and I went back to the house and pulled up the carpet in the living room. The floor was about as I expected: pretty much beautiful, with only a couple of flaws: worn spots in the three doorways (front door, kitchen door, and office door). I'm hoping to be able to sand these spots a little, match the stain of the rest of the floor as closely as possible, and apply a new layer of finish to the entire floor. Wear like this happens precisely because over the years, people haven't taken the time to reapply the finish when it starts to wear thin; once the finish is gone, footwear starts to go through the stain and then the wood itself.

In any case, the floor looked beautiful with the ivory color we painted the walls, just as we'd hoped.

Pulling up the carpet didn't take long, so we decided to start removing the hardwood laminate in the front bedroom (office). This was much more difficult, as apparently the stuff doesn't come apart as easily as it pieces together. Also, we felt guilty for pulling it up, as the sellers were obviously very proud of what they did to fix up the house (although we don't know when they installed the laminate), so we tried to keep as much of it undamaged as possible. We got about two-thirds of the office done before we decided to call it a night.

The office floor will also look great with the color of those walls (called cherokee rose, but it's actually more brown than rose - a very pretty earthy tone). The finish is, for the most part, better in there - to be expected, as the room would have seen less traffic over the years. The only flaw was a couple of long grooves between the boards where someone thought it would be a good idea to stuff it with putty. It's pretty ghastly, at first glance, but I'm hoping to stain it to match the wood. At the very least, it's in an area that'll be mostly covered with a small area rug I've had my eye on.

Despite a few flaws, the floors are really terrific. They are all that glorious reddish-gold color we saw in the corners when we peeked under the carpet. A little scratch cover, a touch of stain here and there, and a new coat of finish should do wonders for the hardwood, without destroying the character and ambiance that we like so much. I promise, I will post the before and after pictures soon.

Back to the "agony" part of my title: I hurt. I was stiff and sore after yesterday's long hours of painting; it's funny how you don't notice while you're working, but 10 minutes after you sit down you swear you'll never get up again. I hurt so bad that I didn't sleep well last night - every time I moved, my muscles would cramp and my head would pound. (My neck and shoulders were very stiff, which I think had something to do with my headache.) Today wasn't much better, so I snuggled in with a heating pad and took a nap in the afternoon. Even so, I quickly forgot about all my aches and pains once I was getting ready to work on the house again this evening. I'm sure it'll come back to haunt me tomorrow.

It occurs to me that my blog hasn't had much on writing during the last few days. Obviously, that's because writing has - remarkably - not been a big part of my life. This morning I searched the markets, wrote a bunch of emails, started gathering interview materials for an article due mid-week, and wrote a bunch more emails. Even though it'll be a relatively slow week, I still feel guilty about not working very much. I was planning to catch up on some work tomorrow, but it appears I may have to bail out one of the families I babysit for - their nanny was sick today, and may be tomorrow, too. If my remarkable childcare skills are needed, catching up will have to wait until Wednesday - just one more day, yet it seems unforgiveable.

In any case, to prove to you that I haven't forgotten that this is, first and foremost, a writer's blog, here is a preview of upcoming topics:

How to get into writing mode quickly. This is a struggle I face frequently. I often need time to warm up, and I often don't have it. I do have a few lessons learned that might help other writers.

The self-employment tax form. When I posted about what forms you need to file taxes as a freelance writer, I left this one out. I'll explain why - and why you still need it - in this post.

The estimated tax nightmare. I was really worried about calculating and paying my estimated taxes, but I think I've got it figured out now, and it's not so bad. I'll blog on this once I complete my form, hopefully later on in the week.

Upcoming how-to-write book reviews. I looked into a few more books for writers, and a couple are waiting for me at the library. I'll blog on them once I have a chance to look through them.

And, naturally... More updates on my beautiful house! I am deeply in love with my house and my life, so I can't help but share the good news! I'll let you know how the work is coming along, and why I think this house will make me a better writer. :o)

That should be enough to whet your appetite for Swan's Blog!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A whole lotta painting goin' on!

Well, Michael and I painted this weekend. A lot. Out of the four rooms we're painting, we got three of them done! The living room we did on Saturday, before I babysat; that was about four hours of work. The two bedrooms (a.k.a. the bedroom and the office) we did today; with shopping for the paint for the bedroom, it took us about eight hours! I was tired yesterday, while babysitting, but this evening - wow! If I've ever been this bone-tired in my life, I can't recall.

In the evenings this week, we're going to pull up the carpet and fake hardwood to expose the real stuff. We also need to paint two walls in the kitchen still.

As for tonight, I'm going to take it easy, go to bed early, and worry about work in the morning.


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