Category Archives: Blogging and Writing

Remember When People Proofread?

Today I have not written a post.  Instead, I have posted a graphic from Grammarly in honor of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the annual contest where you complete a 50,000 word novel entirely within the month of November.  If you must know the truth, I started a novel of my own for NaNoWriMo 2015.  But I stopped about 10,000 words in because I became bored with it.  Maybe you’ll have better luck with your novel!

 

Five Mistakes To Avoid in Your NaNoWriMo Novel Infographic

Courtesy of Grammarly (https://www.grammarly.com/grammar-check).

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Remember When Pitches Were Just For Movies: Digesting the Writer’s Digest Conference (Part 3)

After Donald Maass spoke about how to intensify novels and convinced everyone that the novels they came to New York to pitch needed to be rewritten from scratch, we were treated to the last speaker of the evening, Chuck Sambuchino, who gave us a crash course in pitching a novel.

Chuck summed up the novel pitch like this: It is the back of a DVD box.

You start with a logline.  This is a one-sentence hook to draw in your readers to checking out your title instead of that book of 101 pranks that can be performed with fruit.  Can love survive tragedy?  What do you do when the world’s most wanted terrorist is also your mother?

Then you move on to the pitch itself.  A pitch, Chuck explained, is a three to ten sentence description of your manuscript.  Three to ten sentences to get the attention of an agent.  Three to ten sentences that determine whether you are going to become a published author or spend the rest of your life working customer service at Harvey’s House of Milk.

The pitch is supposed to take between 60 and 90 seconds to deliver, or between 5 and 8 seconds if you talk like that guy who did the commercials for Micro Machines.  It begins with a sentence that introduces your main character, preferably by name, that sums up the status quo:

Frank thought he had found the perfect job as a taste tester for Lucky Charms.

Next, a sentence or two that sum up how that status quo is disrupted:

But one day he sees a marshmallow that he has never seen before.  It is black and in the shape of a PlayStation controller.

Then, a few sentences about how the main character confronts that disruption to the status quo:

At first, Frank thinks it is just an accident.  But as these black PlayStation controller marshmallows keep showing up in his assignments, he starts to ask questions, and finds that these new additions are more than just a test.  Rebuffed by his superiors, Frank digs deeper and finds himself embroiled in the middle of a worldwide conspiracy to enslave the eaters of sugary cereals.

Finally, close with a sentence that shows how the main character grows as a consequence of confronting the disruption to his status quo, but that does not give away the ending.  It helps if you can throw in a sidekick and a romantic interest:

Aided by an animated leprechaun—and motivated by his newly found love for the mysterious Wanda Slapjankles—Frank learns that breakfast cereal is more than just for breakfast.

 And that’s it!  Now you try.

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Remember When Genre Was Genre: Digesting the Writer’s Digest Conference 2012 (Part 2)

All of the speakers at the Writer’s Digest Conference that I attended last weekend were excellent.  One of them who stands out in my mind is Donald Maass, who spoke about writing for the 21st Century.  I thought he was going to tell us to write about robots or the aging baby-boomers.  But he was talking more about the way to write a book rather than on a particular topic.

For example, Maass led us through some questions to ask ourselves about our novels.  What is something that would blow your novel sideways?  What is the main character’s one unshakeable belief?  How can we become dead Swedish authors?

He had us write down the one thing that we cannot bear to write down, one thing that we cannot say even to ourselves.  After checking that no one was looking over my shoulder, I jotted down my one thing and covered it hastily with my hand.  I saw what Maass was doing.  He was showing us how to bring emotion into our books, how to make the reader feel something.  What my novel needed, obviously, was for the main character to confront people who keep sitting there sniffling instead of blowing their noses.

Maass also made a prophecy; that cross-genre novels would be big in the 21st Century.  Like crossing paranormal with family epic.  Terrorist with romance.  Ketchup with mayonnaise (the last few are my examples).  In describing the book that people are looking for in the 21st Century, he kept using the words “high intensity” and “emotional,” and said that we should try to show a change occurring over many steps.

Maass’ talk was so electrifying that I was taking notes even before the audience members had finished telling their personal stories disguised as questions.  The notes were for a novel—a novel that was going to blow the doors off every library in the world.  A novel that would be open, face down, on nightstands everywhere.  A novel that would sit on everyone’s shelf from sea to shining sea.

And then I remembered that the novel of the 21st Century would be just electrons and computer code.

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Remember Life Before Memory Sticks: Digesting the Writer’s Digest Conference (Part 1)

This past weekend I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference at the Sheraton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.  It just so happened that there was another Sheraton Hotel directly across the street.  Two Sheraton Hotels facing each other [caution: double spoiler alert], like the identical twin white mega churches at the end of Wayne’s World 2, during its parody of the end of The Graduate.

After I’d finished my coffee and noticed that the lecture I was attending, “Growing Bananas In Your Old DVD Player: An Introduction,” did not seem to have very much to do with writing and publishing and other ways to work in jeans and long t-shirts.  I wanted my money back, but all refunds had to be in banana seeds.

I was fortunately able to make the three lectures by author A.J. Jacobs, agent Donald Maass, and Chuck Sambuchino, an editor for Writer’s Digest Books (an imprint of F+W Media).  A.J. spoke about some approaches to writing about yourself in the 21st Century.  I started to think of myself as a robot, with a Pentium brain and a 75-page Terms and Conditions.  Then Donald Maass—known by some as simply, “Don”—talked about breaking through genre boundaries, and right then and there I began outlining a generational epic based on a family of extreme couponers.

The last speaker of the night was Chuck, who showed the attendees how to write the perfect pitch.  To write a pitch, he said, and I’m paraphrasing here, you have to make your book sound like the back of a DVD.  I wanted to ask him if the emergence of Blu-Ray discs required any adjustments to pitches, but the microphone was in the middle of the room, and to get to it I would have had to squeeze in between table and probably would have knocked some coats off of the backs of chairs.

The highlight of the evening came, however, from a question from a member of the audience.  The vigorous conference attendee said, “Now, let’s just say I’m pitching one of these agents tomorrow, and let’s just say I have a memory stick with my completed work on it.  At what point might be able to slip my stick into the agent’s hands?”  When the laughter died down, Chuck looked at the man, and advised him to not put any sticks into any agents’ hands. 

You just couldn’t achieve a public-speaking moment like that 10 years ago.

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From Seditionist to Blogger

In high school I authored and distributed an underground newspaper.  I believe this was a step towards becoming a blogger.

My friend Darren and I had the idea of starting a literary magazine, but we needed funding for printing and the pizza parties that were required for every school club.  We asked the administration for help, but the entire arts budget had been spent on glitter.  So we took our operations underground.

The first thing we did was pick pseudonyms.  Darren chose “A. Hamilton” because he wanted to express his belief in liberty and the nobility of the fourth estate.  I chose “Zack Morris.”

Then we had to name our paper.  Our high school mascot was the eagle, and so we decided on The Eagle’s Nest.  Had I known that Adolf Hitler’s World War II bunker complex was also called the Eagle’s Nest, we might have chosen something else.  But these are the quirks of history.

We gave The Eagle’s Nest a serious tone to appeal to a higher class of reader.  We wrote articles about the quality of the school lunch, the demeanor of the custodians, and the girth of the cafeteria monitors.  We wrote editorials protesting the archaic practice of running during gym class.  We wrote fake interviews with teachers and students.  We crafted syllabi for classes that did not exist.  And at top of the issue, in a little box, was our journalistic creed:

If it’s not in here, we don’t give a s#!%.

We wrote the first issue on Darren’s computer one Saturday afternoon.  I had the more trusting of parents, and thus the copying job fell to me.  On Sunday night I asked my mother to drive me to Kinko’s.

“Of course, my pumpkin pie,” she said.  “What do you need?”

“Oh, uh, nothing,” I said, curling a manila folder.

I made her sit in the car while I made the copies.  It took only ten minutes.  I came back home with a box under my arm, went upstairs to my room, closed the door, and thought about the meaning of freedom.

And then we received a call from Darren’s mother.  “Do you know what they’re doing?” I could hear from the receiver that my mother held a few inches away from her head.  “They are going to be handing something out to the kids at school!  Something with bad words in it!  They are going to get expelled and won’t get into college!  We have to stop them!”

I tried to imagine how Darren’s mother found out.  I pictured a deposit of laundry, a neglected computer screen, and a long interrogation.

Although my mother did not confiscate the copies and put them on top of her armoire next to my slingshot and BB gun, she persuaded me to seek administrative approval for my subversion.  Darren and I agreed, through intermediaries, to postpone distribution, and the next day my father took me to the local law library to read and copy First Amendment cases.  It was not my idea of radicalism.  At least we went for ice cream afterwards

After a flurry of letters with the school’s lawyers, citing cases that involved Vietnam-era black armbands, Vietnam-era anti-draft t-shirts, and students who wanted to wear tissue boxes on their feet, a deal was struck with the principal.  We would show him the paper we wished to distribute, and he would make “suggestions.”  A memo went out to all teachers advising that Darren and I would be distributing an underground newspaper in between classes.  The arrangement was not what we’d had in mind.  We were not really fighting the establishment, and we were not really hiding our identities.

But when that first issue of The Eagle’s Nest was out there at last, and I saw my peers reading my “Elegy for Tater Tots” and laughing out loud, I thought to myself, “I like this.”

How about you?  Was there an earlier moment in your life that led to blogging?

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How I Started Blogging

My first blog was created in the fall of 2008.  America was in the midst of a Presidential election, and debate was fierce.  While showering I came up with a few ideas on how to solve the financial crisis and the exploding cost of healthcare.  I published a few posts sharing my views, and dreamed of appearing on television news programs with the words “Freelance Public Policy Expert” floating under my talking head.

When I clicked on “publish” it was as if a jolt of electricity had gone through my body.  I imagined that my post would instantly show up on everyone’s screen like that persistent prompt to download the latest version of Abode Flash Player.  Now our leaders would know what to do.  But none of my posts got any comments, or any views, and every Sunday morning it was the same group of politicians, journalists, and well-established experts on the Meet the Press instead of me.

My second blog was daily vignettes and flash fiction.  I wrote about annoying cell phone conversations and chronic snifflers and people who carried large pieces of luggage onto commuter trains during rush hour.  I wrote a story about a device called the Descriptionizer Functioner, even though I did not know what it did, and another story about a man who can’t find parking in Manhattan until a UFO vaporizes a parked car right before his eyes.  I had a great sense of accomplishment with each story, but still no one was reading.  I figured it was because my characters had no depth.

At no point did it occur to me to tell anyone what I was doing.

Then it was early summer and getting hot, and I was taking another stab at the collected works of William Shakespeare.  I try this every summer.  I was supposed to have read Hamlet in the 12th grade, but I was busy slacking off at the time.  Better late than never, I decided a great way to learn the play was to write a humorous parody of it and post my work to a blog.  I wrote it up, and then I moved onto Macbeth, which I liked because it had lots of rhyming and is very short.  At last I had found my blog concept.  I would write a blog making a parody of each Shakespeare play.  But I hit the wall at King Lear.  At first I thought my problem was that I did not understand the text.  Then I saw the movie – the recent one with Sir Ian McKellen – and realized that the play is just really disturbing.

Then I was blogging journal entries about my daily life.  I wrote about coffee and cat food.  I wrote about looking for a copy of a video I made when I was running for class president.  I wrote about my office mate who seemed to do nothing but sip soda and chew gum.  And then I got bored and stopped.

The blogging thing just didn’t seem to be working.  I was glad I hadn’t told anyone about it.

Then I was home for Columbus Day and considered loitering in front of a convenience store to pass the time.  Suddenly I remembered a cartoon show called Beavis and Butthead that had aired on MTV in 1993.  I remembered how fond I had been of that show, and how the base and tasteless humor had spoken to me at a time when I was fairly base and tasteless myself.  And I saw how I could write a post about it.  The short post occurred to me all at once, and after I wrote it I thought of other things that had changed in the last few decades.

The topics seemed inexhaustible.  I blogged for a few weeks, and mustered up the courage to tell my mother about it.  I got decent feedback from my mother, and then I told my wife.  My wife gave me decent feedback, too, especially after I shoveled the driveway and took out the garbage.  Then I told my dearest, closest friends.  Then I told my Facebook friends.  And I saw that the feedback was good.  I kept blogging for them, and then one day I was Freshly Pressed and had the greatest experience I know as a writer – being read by thousands of strangers.

And now I can’t stop blogging.  I think about it when I’m supposed to be paying attention to people who are talking to me.  At least I have an inexhaustible concept for posts.  “Remember when…”  There’s no end to that!  No way would I ever break with such a concept.

So what’s your story?  How did you start blogging?

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