Monday, December 31, 2012

Fact of the day: Emily Dickinson

You've perhaps heard that writers are loners by nature. 

Consider this: Emily Dickinson, the the 19th-century author of hundreds of poems, did not leave her home for the last 16 years of her life. 

Now that is taking artistic seclusion to an extreme.

Did not leave home for 16 years.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One: Intro + Chapter 1

Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One has been quoted extensively and used in university classrooms. Below are the video readings of the Introduction and Chapter 1: (There are two separate videos.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reading risk and the Fifty Pages Rule

I have noticed that a lot of people screen their reading list (in regard to unfamiliar authors and genres) with a degree of conservatism that would be best reserved for marriage partners and new home purchases.

One of my friends reads fiction by only five authors. That’s it—five authors!

Reading the first chapter of a book does not obligate your to persevere until the last. I probably abandon about 5% of the novels I open. Sometimes I give up because a novel is poorly written. Other times, I simply can’t “get into it.” For example, I know that a lot of people love Haruki Murakami; but his novels have never really worked for me.

My abandonment rate for novels is so high because I am promiscuous about trying new authors and genres. Over the years, this has led to some genuine surprises: In 2004 I happened upon a steeply discounted copy of Michael Connelly’s Chasing the Dime. At the time, I had never read Connelly. However, he has turned out to be one of my favorite authors since then—all because I took a risk on something new that day.

You can leverage your reading risk in two ways:

1.) Restrict your experimental reads to library books, low-priced Kindle novels, and used books. (You might try my attractively priced Blood Flats or Termination Man, for instance.)

2.) Remember the Fifty-Pages Rule. It’s a book, not a contract. If something doesn't grab your attention after fifty pages, chuck it. Don’t suffer through a 1,000-page dud. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Results orientation vs. process orientation

Lately I have been reading a lot of heated debates in the business press about the supposed conflict between the results orientation and the process orientation.

Process orientation and results orientation are not opposites. You need a process orientation in order to achieve any nontrivial, lasting result.

Conversely, a single-minded focus on results, when combined with the inherent flaws of human nature, inevitably leads to debilitating shortcuts, costly mistakes, and frustration. In other words, either a half-ass result, or complete discouragement.

Show me a person who dismisses the process orientation, and I’ll show you a person who doesn't really understand what the process orientation is all about.

The keys to a successful process orientation are as follows:

1.) Your process must be deliberately aimed toward an explicit, achievable goal.

2.) Your process must be properly planned, based on your own experience and the relevant existing body of knowledge in your field.

3.) No process, once begun, should be regarded as static or fixed in granite. The results of your process must be reevaluated at certain intervals or milestones. These evaluations will determine what adjustments should be made.

4.) Your process must be worked consistently. This last point is very important: The process orientation must not be mistaken for dithering or procrastination.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Self-discipline is a form of rebellion

For me, self-discipline is a way of rebelling against authority. It is a way of striking back against the Man.

In our society, the individuals who demonstrate the least self-control are also the ones who are most under the control of others:

               Criminals who break the law end up under the control of the justice/penal system.

               Drug addicts and alcoholics are controlled by pushers and the legal system. Most have minimal to non-existent economic resources (which makes them even more dependent on others).

               People who eat too much, drink too much, or smoke will eventually lose the physical vitality that enables independence. Drinking, smoking, and overeating are all pathways to dependence on others.

               The person who is not disciplined enough to start his own business will be under the control of an employer. (Overspending also makes one more dependent on an employer. If you have a million dollars in the bank, you do the work you love. If you have a million dollars in debt, you do the work they give you.)

Discipline yourself, so that others will not be in a position to discipline you

Facebook and friendship inflation

People who spend a lot of time on Facebook often succumb to what I call “friendship inflation.”

You have no doubt seen Facebook pages that list something like eight hundred or a thousand Facebook friends.

This is friendship inflation. Facebook gives you a distorted view of your actual inventory of real relationships. And this can happen on a smaller scale, as well. You don’t have to have 1,826 Facebook friends to be in a state of Facebook-induced friendship inflation.

Some of my Facebook friends (I have about 150 in total) include people I haven't seen since grade school. For me, grade school was more than 30 years ago.

These people show up on my Facebook feed; but I really don't have any sort of a "relationship" with them. We never talk; we never hang out. And why should we? We haven’t seen each other since the eighth grade, after all.

Facebook “friends” are a bit like the people you see on television.

Facebook friends require little in the way of time, compromise, and "getting yourself out there in the world." You can acquire them with a few mouse clicks. But Facebook friends don't provide you with much, either. 

This is friendship inflation. When something is subject to inflation, it is easier to acquire, but it is also less valuable.

Friendship inflation is another peril of our obsession with online social media. You would be better off to spend less time making Facebook friends, and more time making real-life friends.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Novelists and Internet strategies

The other day another novelist asked me for a summary of my thoughts regarding fiction authors and online promotional strategies...

*   *   *

It goes without saying that every novelist should have an Internet presence. But not all strategies are equal. 

There are two high-level, strategic ways for authors to think about Internet strategy.

First there is what I call the "basic merchandising and promotion strategy."  

This means that at the minimal level, your work should be listed online, in some format that readers can both sample and purchase

These bare-bones requirements can be met simply by having your book listed on Amazon, and equipped with the "search inside the book" feature. 

If you are willing to expend a bit more effort (what I consider to be the real minimum level), you should also have an independent Web presence with a listing of your books and more reading samples. 

This is what practically every fiction author does, from John Grisham and Stephen King on down.

*     *    *

Then there is what I call the "Internet personality strategy." When you successfully implement this strategy, your online efforts take on a life of their own, independent of your fiction. 

At present, most of the writers who succeed with this strategy are in the nonfiction and science fiction realms.

Seth Godin is a business author. He also maintains a heavily trafficked business strategy blog. The blog definitely serves to promote Godin's books; but it is not explicitly promotional, in the same way that John Grisham's website is. 

Godin updates his blog on a daily basis (Grisham updates his website only when he has a new novel out); and he seldom makes a direct reference to one of his books (though they are strategically pictured and hyperlinked in the left margin.)

Likewise, science fiction author Cory Doctorow is heavily engaged in various aspects of online culture. He is an active blogger who posts daily on at least two blog sites. Doctorow is a science fiction author; but one could argue that he is an Internet personality first and foremost.

*     *     *

Which one should an author choose? At first glance, some version of the Seth Godin/Cory Doctorow strategies might seem optimal. This would mean that authors can best succeed by spending a lot of time tweeting, blogging, and making videos on YouTube.

Not necessarily. The fact is that few bestselling authors are "fully engaged" in online culture. For example, almost no bestselling novelists maintain YouTube channels. A relatively small number are regular bloggers.

On the other hand, there are many active and successful bloggers who enjoy only mediocre book sales, relative to their online activity. 

Much of this can be attributed to opportunity costs. Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, and video blogging are enormous time sinks. This time might be better spent writing books. For many novelists, frequent blogging, tweeting, etc. are fragmenting rather than productive activities.

More importantly, though, not every author has the platform needed to become a full-blown Internet personality. Doctorow and Godin are both capable of producing large amounts of "Internet-friendly" non-fiction subject matter. 

Godin's business blog is focused on online marketing. The target market for his blog posts (and books) therefore spends a lot of time online. Likewise, science fiction readers (as opposed to readers of Westerns, romance novels, or historical fiction) have a higher than average level of online engagement.

*     *     *

When selecting an online strategy, consider your own strengths and weaknesses. Don't automatically assume that "the more you blog, the more books you'll sell." 

For better or worse, not every author can become an Internet personality. Such authors can still use the Internet to promote their work, but they will rapidly reach the point of diminishing returns when blogging, podcasting, and engaging with other forms of social media.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Reading List: A People's History of the Civil War

I am presently reading David WIlliams' A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom.

A few years ago I read Howard Zinn's similar title, A People's History of the United States. While Zinn's book did bring out some interesting historical tidbits, it was every bit as skewed as those patriotic paeans that folks on the Left habitually get all worked up about. (Zinn seemed especially enamored of anyone, anywhere who ever published "an underground newspaper.")

I almost dismissed Williams' book as another tome of selective, ideologically biased  historiography. To be sure, Williams, like Zinn, points out everything that was wrong with America during the Civil War era. Even the much venerated Abraham Lincoln does not escape criticism for failing to be progressive enough. Much of this criticism is highly predictable. Like Zinn, WIlliams reminds readers that the America of the 19th century was predominantly run by Rich White Males, and Rich White Males were by default responsible for the misery of everyone else. 

Nevertheless, books like this are worth reading because they examine complex historical and political events from an alternative viewpoint. Zinn and WIlliams are unabashedly leftwing, ideologically skewed authors. However, neither author is some blathering maniac à la Michael Moore. Both men write books that provide interesting information about the past---even if you can't bring yourself to agree with some of their conclusions.

In summary, I would recommend either of the "People's History" books to any reader who already has a solid grounding in history. Newcomers to the topic of American history--or readers who simply want an objective, just-the-facts summary of key events--would do well to look elsewhere.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"The Vampires of Wallachia" short story giveaway: 12/6 to 12/10

When I was a corporate warrior who did a lot of business travel, I commonly had to travel the long route between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan (about four hours of drive time).

Most of this drive takes one through lonely stretches of Ohio along Interstate 75. Ohio is a mostly rural state outside of the big cities. In the sparsely populated counties in the middle of the state, there are many places where your imagination can run away with you if you aren't careful.

One day I had a thought: "What if a group of corporate employees were driving between Detroit and Cincinnati late at night, and they stopped at one of those lonely exits along I-75 for a late dinner, and they found that the restaurant where they stopped was actually a den of vampires?"  

That is the premise of the short story, "The Vampires of Wallachia." There is more to the story, of course. Any reader who has ever had to grapple with the frustrating intricacies of corporate politics will enjoy the story's secondary storyline: You see, "The Vampires of Wallachia" is also a story about bosses from hell. (But I won't include any spoilers here.)

To encourage new readers, this story will be free on Amazon Kindle for 5 days only--from December 6 through 10. 

If you enjoy the story, please consider the collection that it is a part of: Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Writers and the importance of reading widely

Most aspiring writers realize that they have to read a lot before they will be able to write well. (This is territory that has been covered exhaustively by Stephen King, among others.)

An important addendum to this advice is that you have to read widely. 

This is a point that many aspiring writers (including your truly, in my early days) struggle with. But there are many sound reasons why an aspiring author of detective fiction, for example, shouldn't devote 100% of his reading time to Michael Connelly and Raymond Chandler. 

In this video I cover many aspects of this issue. It includes advice for writers of genre as well as literary fiction.