Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Gush Over Fareed Zakaria

Anytime I read anything, and that includes cereal boxes, I always consider how I would reword some of it. I don't think I'm better than everything I read, I just always find passages that I think could have been better. Sometimes it's awkward phrasing, sometimes it's a cliche, and sometimes it's just a crappy paragraph.

The only modern writer that I can read without ever doing that is Fareed Zakaria. He's a Newsweek columnist as well as being Newsweek International's editor. He sometimes pops up elsewhere, but I mainly know him from reading Newsweek. One recent pop up was on The Daily Show, which really freaked me out. Who knew my hero was popular enough to go on The Daily Show?

Fareed Zakaria's writing is so superb and so nuanced that it feels completely effortless. It's like stepping into bathwater that's exactly the right temperature. Nothing in his writing ever feels forced. He uses facts and figures in the perfect places without ever coming across as aggressive or snotty. His complete understanding of what he's writing about shines through. He keeps his own opinions visible, though they aren't the driving force of the work.

He is simply the most amazing columnist I've ever read, and I would so marry him if he asked me. If I met him on the street, didn't know where we would live or whether he snored or smoked cigars, I would still marry him. Is there a Fareed Zakaria fan club? If so, I would welcome wearing a t-shirt with his picture on it and possibly putting a bumper sticker with his head on it on my car.

Here's this week's column, which is entirely flawless: A New French Revolution

Last week's was one of my very favorites, since he talks a little about his own experiences. At first it feels like he's doing it to start off in a conversational tone or to use a holiday reference to start the column out slowly. But after reading it a couple of times, it looks like he uses his personal experiences to establish himself as a outsider (born outside the U.S.) who understands the immigrant experience, but also as an insider who loves America and is therefore free to criticize it. Move over, Mark Antony.

The Seven Things Meme

I was tagged for a meme challenge by two people yesterday- same challenge. Those have always looked like fun- that's for the tags! The rules are to reveal seven things about yourself, link to the ones who tagged you and then tag seven other people and post the links to their blogs. Here goes:

I was tagged by Easing Chronic Pain and Anything Parenting.

1. I LOVE Beauty and the Geek and Project Runway. They are the only reality shows I can stand.
2. I usually write until about 3 a.m. and then take a nap in the afternoon.
3. When I get strapped for time I use voice recognition software and dictate my work.
4. I have a cage full of anoles.
5. I am a huge Anglophile.
6. I have big curly hair and look kind of like Bob Dylan.
7. I am a Trekkie to the point that I sometimes think- what would Kirk do?

I am tagging:

Web Writing Info
Geek Parenting
Drawing on Words
Writing on the Wall
Work at Home Mom to Five
Fiction Writing- The Passionate Journey

You've been tagged!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Rejected by Two Literary Agents - Woo Hoo!

I've gotten two rejections from literary agents already, which I thought was pretty impressive. The first came the day after I sent the query. Since most agents I looked at advise waiting up to six weeks for an answer, that was an agent who definitely knew what she didn't want- me. I expect to be rejected by all of them, since the project I was pitching is very weird and there's nothing really like it on the market.

To get it published I would probably need to send it directly to publishers, and I have another book project that I would rather spend that time on. But, now that I've gotten my feet wet with agent queries, I expect to be much less nervous when pitching my much-more-marketable book. And hey, there are still six or seven other agents out there who haven't yet responded. There's always the chance that one of them won't hate my weirdo book. Isn't there? Maybe not.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

At the End of My Rope With Cliches

Keeping cliches out of my writing has been a struggle that I think I am finally starting to win. I had a problem in high school and college with being heavy on the cliches, and it took a lot of awareness and editing to get myself out of the habit. For a long time I would skim over my writing and take out the cliches, replacing them with a phrase that was a more personal representation of what I was trying to get across. I think it worked well and I think I have cut them out of my writing in most cases.

The problem lies in what is considered a cliche. There are as many answers as there are writers, and some phrases that I never considered to be a cliche are considered by others to be so. I found this mega list of cliches, and some of them I certainly don't consider to be anything other than a couple of words that are often used together. And as for the one word examples- um, no. A cliche, in my opinion, is something that is an easy way of expressing something, and expressing it in a way that is far too common.

Sure, "asleep at the wheel" is a cliche. But, is baby boomer? That made the list, but I've used it several times to describe that specific generation, and I would not cross it out as being a cliche. What is the line between language that slows down the copy and language that is simply accessible? It can be touch and go to cash in your chips an call a spade a spade in these instances.

Monday, November 26, 2007

What Tone Should Your Writing Have?

I love it when clients give you the tone they want- conversational, highly technical, comical, positive, evil- whatever they want. But when they don't give you a tone, what should you do? I use one of two techniques, depending on the situation. I can either analyze what I know it's going to be used for and set the tone to what those readers will likely want to read, or I use my "magazine tone."

Figuring out the context can be helpful, but sometimes the client had something else in mind that you didn't now about. Normally, I don't discuss much about what a client asked for or told me, but since this guy never paid, I feel pretty free to do so. He contracted with me for a handout for office workers. Now, not being given a tone, but knowing that it was for office workers, I settled on a fairly straightforward style that was something that a high school senior could read easily. He ended up wanting it redone, saying that he wanted it at a 5th grade reading level. He then sent samples he had gotten from another freelancer and directed that it be written along those lines.

The samples were indescribably bad. Really, really, really bad. They were nowhere near 5th grade level- more like 2nd or 3rd grade. Something like that would be insulting to an office worker. When I worked in an office, if I had been handed something like that I would have been pissed. I reworked the thing to make it as simplistic as possible, but it was almost painful to do so. When the client wants something that you know isn't going to go over well, you just have to bite the bullet and do it, even if you know that the tone and complexity should be something else. But, without a guideline or any direction, I had done the best I could. Usually simply looking at the potential audience works very well.

My magazine tone, as I call it, is for when I am given little direction and don't really know what the articles will be used for. That is a tone that is technical enough to give the work credibility, but is conversational enough so that it doesn't feel inaccessible. This tone is what most people end up wanting for their work, and it fits in probably 90 percent of the work I do. I think it's a good, readable tone that works for most web writing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Amazon Kindle

I had never heard of the Amazon Kindle until yesterday, but when it rains- it's constantly thrust into your face until you have to write about it. Heading to Amazon yesterday, I saw it proudly described on the front page in a letter from Amazon's founder. Then, later in the day, it arrived on the cover of my Newsweek. Today it still commands Amazon's full front page and it's being compared to Gutenberg's press in the media. So what is this thing?

Basically, the Kindle is a small, light book reader built to be ergonomic and easy to hold with one hand. It can hold hundreds of books, making it much easier to lug a lot of books around with you. It's also supposed to have lighting that reduces eye strain. It's not backlit, and if you view the demonstration of it, the lighting looks pretty pleasant- not a blinding white but not dim enough to cause strain. The Kindle is brand spanking new, but it's already sold out and Amazon is now taking advance orders. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, seems to have a lot of hope for the device, as do the many customers who have jammed the site with orders.

At first, I frankly thought it sounded stupid. I like the tactile experience of a book. I don't care if the book is worn, I don't care if it's heavy, and I don't mind lugging a separate bag of books on a trip. I don't know if I can ever convert to some type of electronics over a physical book. But after viewing the video about it, I have to say it does sound pretty cool. It isn't just books- you can get a newspaper sent to it, and carry around as many books as you like anywhere you go. I don't know if any of that is necessary- the newspaper still comes to your house and a book can still be put in your purse or pocket, but it's a neat idea.

It's kind of the iPod for books- have access to hundreds of books anywhere you go, just like iPod people have access to their thousands of songs. Neither of these is a pressing need, but could be fun to have. The price is a but high right now, but it does come with a few perks. New-release books for it are $9.99 apiece, which is a lot less than most new releases, and the books get stored in your computer as well in case anything happens to your Kindle. On the downside, of course, it's a lot of cash. You could buy yourself a room full of used books for what this baby costs. It all comes down to personal preference- do you need to have your books with you all the time, or do you travel a lot and hate carrying lots of books? Or, are you the low-tech type who always has a handful of paperbacks nearby and wants to keep it that way? I'm definitely the latter, but if the price should ever fall by a few hundred dollars, I might be willing to give it a try.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sending Query Letters

This week I've been working on sending queries to agents, among other ongoing projects. The thing about query letters is that no one can really tell you how to write one. I went through about 10 websites and read about how to write one and then read the sample letters. It sounds simple until you notice that every site has a different set of instructions and samples that are completely different from each other. My Writer's Market came on Saturday, and that has additional information about query letters. I tend to trust them more than a lot of other sources, but many of these sites have letters that actually got them an agent or a publication deal.

Most of the resources I've seen have a paragraph-by-paragraph plan for putting together a query letter. But, is that really wise? As long as the basic information is there- the name of the book, the basic contents and the writer's credentials, does it really have to follow a specific paragraph order? Is there no room for creativity? The point is to generate an interest in the work, so I'm hoping to do that, even if the result is simply what I think works best rather than a four paragraph clinical analysis.

I haven't sent query letters in years, so the biggest surprise this week is that many agents will now accept email queries. That makes it easy, perhaps a little too easy, to send queries quickly and to keep track of them. I worry now that the ease may have resulted in my sending queries too early, before I have perfected the letter itself. Having agent email addresses in front of you is a lot like having left over birthday cake. It's a lot of temptation, and thought and care should be taken before giving in.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Elance Changes Redux

Elance has made some changes to their changes, a play that may or may not have been choreographed in advance. The raise in prices now doesn't sting quite as much as it did when the price hike was even higher. It's a great psychological ploy for the writers, who are having their prices raised more than other providers and who have been the most vocal complainers.

It remains to be seen how high the prices will really be, as the main hike will be in what it costs to bid on projects, and many providers are leaving the site. It may be that with fewer providers, fewer bids will have to be placed and the price won't be as bad as it now seems. It may also be that they will use the increased fees for marketing, bring in more providers and the cost will continue to rise for providers. I am not taking on new Elance clients right now, so I am not as worried as I would have been a year ago. But for the people who make most of their living through Elance, and there are many of them, this must be a nasty blow.

If anyone were to create a site that had the customer service and free bidding of RAC and the range of projects of Elance, they will have created a super-site with the potential to drive all other sites out of business, take over the world and colonize new planets.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Women Writers Around the World

I have been looking for an agent for a short children's book, and looking through the Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market listings. Every one of them that I saw was a woman. Taking a look at the book publisher listings, I found that most of the editors and founders were also women. My Writer's Market came yesterday and I perused it briefly just because, well, I'm a geek, and many of those listings also listed female contact names.

That got me thinking about all of the lovely writers who have been kind enough to give me advice over the past couple of years, and all but one of those has been a woman. The ladies at the WAHM writers' board are of course women, but then so are most of the writers at Absolute Write. I used to think of a writer as some kind of Hemingway/Faulkner type, typing alone at a typewriter with a bottle of Scotch nearby. Now I think of a writer as a woman at home trying to write with kids underfoot.

Thinking that this must be some kind of new phenomenon that has made women dominant in the industry, I tried to find some stats. As far as I can tell, there aren't any. But, I found out a few startling things. The first is that the surge of women writers isn't limited to the West- women in Iran are writing books in higher numbers than ever before. The number of women writers in Zimbabwe are also rising. I thought this must be a new phenomenon, and in some countries it certainly is. But in the West, it's just business as usual.

Take a look at all of the British women writers from the Regency. From that era most people can name Austen and Mary Shelley, but there were multitudes of women novelists writing away in their corsets and empire-waist dresses. Perhaps I'll join them, though it'll likely be in sweat pants.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Freelance Roundup

I got accepted by Suite101 some time ago and just recently got the time to get an article up. A lot of freelance writers won't write for them because they don't offer any upfront payment- just small payments based on pageviews. It's certainly not ideal, but it's a neat site and the writers get creative control over topics and approaches. I don't know how often I'll do it, but it will be a lot more often if I end up getting any pageviews. So far, in two days, I have gotten one.

Elance announced today a major revamping of just about every aspect of the site. Bids, now called "connects," will cost .50 apiece, with some projects requiring several just to bid once. All quarterly and yearly discounts have been disposed of in favor of a monthly fee. The Select program, that I had paid about $350 for, is now gone. In its place is a merit-based system, which sounds great, except that they want to charge more than $200 extra for it. They also require two credentials to be verified to be eligible, and providers have to pay for those as well. The people in the Elance forum have reported that their fees will be going up anywhere from double to triple the amount they had been paying. And, we have been given less than a month's notice of the change. If I haven't said it enough before, I'll say it now- Elance sucks.

I signed up with Triond to see how well it works. I love the idea of residuals, and it pays writers a portion of the revenue for their articles every month. They accept pretty much anything not obscene or libelous- even poetry. I worked up four very quick articles on topics that I already knew a lot about and sent them in. All were approved, and all have gotten slow page views. Each has earned me less than a cent a day, so it may not be the best use of time ever devised. Of course, if the articles take only a few minutes to write and a person had hundreds of them, they could bring in a steady stream of extra money every month. The articles/poetry/stories don't have to be long- mine are 250-300 words apiece, but I don't think there is any specified length. You can also use a pen name, which I have done. I'll post further stats about it if they get better or worse. was a site that paid pretty well at one time- though they paid in gift certificates. After awhile they revamped the site to pay writers only with their own AdSense revenue. At that point, they added a place for writers to see how many page views their total articles had gotten on the site. At the time, about a year ago, my 49 articles had about 800 page views, which I deemed pointless to pursue new page views for Adsense revenue. However, I looked at it again yesterday for the first time since, and the page views were more than 45,000. Somehow in the last year they have revved up their marketing, and HTDT might just be a little more worthwhile. Hey- residuals are residuals.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Norman Mailer- Dead

It's been a big month for literary figures, and the events continue. Norman Mailer has died, having lived a long life full of literary creations of all types. The part that I thought was interesting is how little I had read of his work, and how no one I asked about it had ever read anything of his. Ok, I've never read anything of his at all. With literary figures of his caliber, they actually become more famous than their works, much like actors. How many times have you seen a picture of a famous person, knew their name and had no idea what they've been in? The same principle seems to have been at work for Norman Mailer. This is unfortunate for him, as he sounds like a wretched person. A few of the highlights:

  • He was married six times
  • He stabbed one of his six wives, almost killing her
  • He hated women's liberation and feminism, and once said that "all women should be locked in cages"
  • He was physically abusive to his fourth wife
  • He claimed that the women who didn't appreciate his misogynistic words were seeking publicity for themselves
  • He fought to get a felon out of jail, who then killed someone in a restaurant
  • He was married to his his fifth wife for only one day and got engaged the next day to someone else
  • He invented the word "fug"
I read once that people spend more time reading about famous writers than they do reading the works of those writers. In the case of Norman Mailer, I've read all I need to. I think I'll pass on his works.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Wall Street Journal nod

I check my pitiful stats every day just to see how many people are wandering in here. I noticed this morning that a number of people were coming in from a link on the Wall Street Journal site. I couldn't access that link, not being a paid subscriber, but I poked around a little and found a page where I could access it. The site has a link to this blog at the very bottom of a story about Harper Lee and her Presidential Medal of Freedom. The link is near the bottom of the page under " Blog Posts About This Topic." I'm thrilled that they'd link to 'lil old me, but I have to wonder how they came across such a small, obscure blog. I don't yet have the best idea about how the whole blogosphere thing works, but it must work pretty well, since that post wasn't on any of the first 15 Google pages when I searched the title of the post. Thanks, WSJ!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Harper Lee and the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Harper Lee was just granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom for To Kill a Mockingbird. And what better a work to command such an honor? If you've ever read the book, and who hasn't, you know what an amazing work it is. It's so richly textured that you can read it again and again, further dissecting it and finding new aspects of it that contribute to the whole. The bird imagery, the use of light and dark to highlight the character of each of the players- they all add up to a masterpiece of observation and persuasion. There's just the one little thing...I really don't think she wrote it.

Rumors have dogged To Kill a Mockingbird for decades, but here's what tipped me off: she came up with such a richly-textured work as her first novel, and never wrote another book. Say what, now? Someone with that ability couldn't come up with anything else? Apparently not. She also never talks about the book and never gives interviews. Adding to the questions is that fact that she lived next door to Truman Capote, who wrote novels on similar subjects and with similar nature imagery. There's nothing that can be proven, of course, but I'll always have questions. Why nothing else from Harper Lee? Why never talk about a book that won her the Pulitzer Prize?

I live a few hours from Monroeville and poised the question to a native Monroevillian who had been in the town's annual production of the play based on the book, because I'm just that obnoxious. The reaction was swift and severe. No, Capote had nothing to do with it, I was told, and never say that to anyone from Monroeville. They take their native daughter very seriously, going so far as to never tell anyone from out of town where she lives. Apparently she lives there part time and has her main residence in New York. While she's in Monroeville she's treated like a queen and protected from any pesky reporters with questions.

Since the book, Harper Lee attempted a novel but never published it because she reportedly was having too many problems with it. It just doesn't seem to me that someone capable of To Kill a Mockingbird could have that much trouble writing a novel. After that book she probably could have published her shopping list in book form and been guaranteed a certain number of sales.

So, did Capote write it? Who knows? I think that if he didn't, he definitely helped her with it quite a lot. Where was he when I was trying to make that sci-fi novel work? Oh yeah- dead. But, Harper Lee is alive, and if any novel deserves the Medal, it's the one that has her name on it.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Writers' Guild Strike

The Writer's Guild strike is an interesting turn of affairs, particularly for writers of all types. The entire affair has gotten melodramatic much more quickly than I would have imagined, especially with no writers writing it that way (sorry, I couldn't resist). The producer's group spokesman has called the strike "irresponsible," which really made me laugh. Irresponsible? Are lives at risk? It's pretty much a few weeks of Leno jokes, right? Yeah, pretty much. Strikes like this never last long, so I can't see all new movies coming to a grinding halt. Producers make a nice bit on the venues they produce, and actors make entirely too much. So, why drag their feet over the writers' pay? I don't remember any producers getting upset over the latest overpaid actor getting $20 million plus residuals. But since actors get them, why shouldn't writers get residuals? I'd much rather see writers get them than actors.

Imagine if web content writers went on strike. I tried to do that, but I can't see that many people agreeing about anything. I wouldn't mind a piece of those ad dollars that people are bringing in thanks to my content. Nah. Residuals are dependent on someone else's marketing, and I don't think they make anyone a better writer. Flat-fee writing just makes more sense. If you want royalties, write a book. But, that's just my opinion, and I'm not going on strike anytime soon.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Oh. My. God.

You will never believe how low some "business people" are going now to get their cheap content. Apparently paying $2 to people in third world countries to write horrid content in broken English was just too much trouble. Now I've found this. It has to be the laziest thing I've seen since, well, I can't think of anything right this second, but it's pretty freaking lazy. What kind of crap are they going to end up with by using this method? Is it really so much to ask for people to pay for their content? No one is going to read their generic copy, and their $67 is worth nothing more than a tax deduction. Sheesh. What exactly is the internet coming to?

Friday, November 2, 2007

Article Marketing

It's interesting how people try to get their backlinks in so many different ways. I've seen people paying for backlinks, I've seen them willing to do work in exchange for them, and then there's article marketing. The premise, of course, is that the articles have one or more backlinks within them, or they can be in the source box. So, how well does this work?

I think it works pretty well, depending on where the links are located and how they got there. The last I heard about it, article directories had been demoted in the search engine rankings, which makes those links much less valuable. I have also seen people on Digital Point bragging about the thousands of backlinks that they have. Those were likely gained form directories, so there's a limit to how effective they will actually be. On the other hand, I checked this site to see how many links a client already had to their site. The thing is, this person has never marketed their site, has never bought/worked for backlinks, and has never written or bought an article about their site. They had over 2,000 backlinks. How did they get them? Through quality content, perseverance and having information that people want. The site has been around for several years and it offers a genuine place to get information without pandering or over-SEOing. People link to the site because they like it and it will give their readers information.

The bottom line is this: you can either spend thousands over the course of years to get hundreds, or thousands, of articles that provide a backlink to your cheap copy; or you can spend a little up front to get high-quality copy on your site in the first place and let everyone else link to you and spread the word about the site. Article marketing definitely has its place, but it should never take the place of a good, professionally-written site full of relevant information.