Thursday writing group

Local sf writer Elizabeth Shack has been doing the work of organising a few writers to meet Thursday evenings at a local coffee shop. It’s not a critique group; it’s a writing group. There’s a few minutes of conversation and sharing of news, but the main point of the event is to do the usually solitary writing in a slightly less solitary environment.

I’ve been twice now. (I’ll be going again this evening.) I’ve been highly productive both times so far.

I think Elizabeth would be pleased to have the group who shows up expand. (This sort of thing works better when there are enough regulars that when one or another person has to miss a day there’s still a group.) She’s got a contact form on her web site, if you’re a local writer and want to express an interest in joining us.

Humor just for me, by Holly Theisen-Jones

There’s a certain category of joke called a “three-percenter,” the sort of joke that’s only going to appeal to 3% of your audience, but that will really, really appeal to them. (Part of the appeal is knowing they’re in the select group that gets it.) You have to be careful using them: At the first sign that a piece is full of inside jokes that they’re missing, the remaining 97% of your audience is gone.

Still, it’s worth embedding the occasional three-percenter in your humor, because for its select audience a three-percenter can really make a piece. What’s best, though—what’s comedy gold when you can pull it off—is a joke that feels like a three-percenter, but that feels that way to the whole audience.

With that in mind, let me say that My Fully Optimized Life Allows Me Ample Time to Optimize Yours by Holly Theisen-Jones is the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. Sitting alone in my study, still tired after cranking out three sets of twenty kettlebell swings, I laughed so hard I could barely breath. The whole thing read like one three-percenter after another, with me being in the 3% the whole time. Gloriously, hilariously funny. Even the lists of trendy superfoods in the smoothies were funny.

So now, the question is: Is this a humor story with six dozen three-percenters and I just happen to be in the 3% for all of them? This is possible. Perhaps even likely. But maybe the audience is a bit bigger than that.

At 3 pm, it’s time to hit the gym. After years of research, I have engineered the most efficient possible workout, which is a single, 100-pound kettlebell swing, followed by four and a half minutes of foam rolling. (See my e-book for step-step instructions)

Source: My Fully Optimized Life Allows Me Ample Time to Optimize Yours – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Let me know if you’re in the 3%.

Disneyland!

I don’t normally suggest a soundtrack for posts, but for this one I recommend that you listen to Da Vinci’s Notebook singing “Kingdom in the Sky.” Open that link in another tab and let it play while you read.

For almost ten years now I’ve been writing about personal finance and frugality for the website Wise Bread. A few months ago, the founders emailed the senior writers to say that to celebrate their 10-year anniversary they were inviting all of us who started in the first year, together with our families, to Disneyland.

What a great gift! Jackie and I flew out last week, spent two nights in the Disneyland hotel, and spent two days in the theme parks.

Even better than the theme parks was the chance to meet the admins, some of the other writers, and the Wise Bread staff! These are people I’ve been working with for 10 years, but had never met except through their posts and email messages.

Nice swag bags were delivered to our room—snacks, Disney name tags and lanyard wallets, big Disney insulated cups, and heavy-weight hoodies with both the Disney and Wise Bread logos. Mine also had a Mophie powerpack! (There’s a local-to-my-hometown connection between Mophie and Kalamazoo which this an especially welcome gift, totally aside from the fact that my old Motorola powerpack had given up the ghost just before this trip, which meant that I really needed one.)

We also got a pair of 2-day hopper passes for visiting the theme parks!

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Some of the gifts from the Wise Bread admins

The evening we got there was the staff/editor/writer dinner at the Catal restaurant in downtown Disney. Jackie and I ended up sitting down at the end of the table with the editors Janet and Lars and their spouses, and enjoyed much fascinating conversation all through dinner. (Also a nice—if rather young—pinot noir that Lars somehow managed to end up paying for despite everyone else’s best efforts.)

Around the middle of the evening, Lynn (one of the founders) called me to join her closer to the middle of the table so she could make a little speech thanking all us writers for joining Wise Bread and sticking with it all these years, and giving us each a “gift appropriate for a writer” which turned out to be the Mont Blanc pen in the photo above. What a generous and appropriate gift!

(A photo of that moment was posted to instagram—I tweeted it—but it seems to have vanished. My tweet no longer even has the link to where the photo used to be. What’s up with that? If it resurfaces, I’ll post it here.)

The next morning was breakfast at Goofy’s Kitchen—a breakfast buffet with Disney characters posing for photos and parading through the dining rooms. We sat at the same table as Will, who had some very kind things to say about me to Jackie.

Jackie in Goofy's Kitchen, with Minnie.
Jackie in Goofy’s Kitchen, with Minnie.

We spent the rest of the morning at the Disneyland theme park (having done the California Adventure theme park the previous afternoon).

Me with the Cheshire Cat in Disneyland.
Me in my Wise Bread/Disney hoodie with the Cheshire Cat in Disneyland. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

After various rides and attractions and lunch (and a good bit of walking—important to Jackie and me), we decided that we were about theme-parked out, and decided to spend the warm part of the afternoon walking in the gardens outside the hotel and sitting by the pool. Jackie wrote some postcards.

We took a bunch of pictures, some of which are good enough to share. I gathered those in a Flickr album I called #wisebread10thdisney after the hashtag the admins wanted us to use for our Instagram posts. (Or you can go to that hashtag at Instagram and see everybody else’s photos along with those of mine that ended up on Instagram.)

However, I got one particularly good shot of Jackie and me that I wanted to share:

Selfie with Jackie and bamboo.
Selfie with Jackie and bamboo

How much fun were Jackie and I having at Disneyland? This much fun.

Thanks to the admins at Wise Bread! Hey, shall we do our 20th anniversary celebration at EPCOT?

Making a note here: Huge Success

What a wonderful party! (“I’m making a note here: Huge success. It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.”)

elephants
That’s Wellington on the right and Alexander the Grape on the left.

Thanks to all the folks who braved the elephants to attend! (Here’s a picture of a couple of the elephants that people had to brave.)

Jackie and I had never thrown a party together (if you don’t count our wedding reception, which was really thrown by Jackie’s mom on our behalf). Our apartment at Country Fair was too small and too cluttered for us to want to show it off. I did have a similar sort of open house party at my house in Philo when I bought it, before I met Jackie, and it was a pretty good party, but not as good as this one (because I didn’t really know anyone to invite except coworkers).

We had a great turn out. There were a bunch of taiji folks, both from the class that I attend and the class I teach, and there were a bunch of former coworkers, and a bunch of Jackie’s spinning and weaving guild members, as well representatives of the local speculative fiction writing and Esperantist communities. We had a lot of spouses and kids as well, so it was a very interesting group.

Everybody commented on how open and light our new place is, and how well it suits us. (It seems that anybody who’s lived in Champaign-Urbana for more than a few years knows somebody who lived in Winfield Village. I was initially surprised by this, but it’s so universally true, I’ve almost come to expect it.)

There was a great deal of interest in Jackie’s loom (something that you don’t see in just every house) and her spinning wheel and the yarn and woven items displayed all over the house. We don’t have much of our art hung yet, but the few pieces we have up all drew favorable comments.

I didn’t get to talk to anybody as much as I’d have liked, and barely managed to talk at all with a few people. I think future parties will be a bit smaller, so there’s more time to spend with each guest. (Sorry if I neglected you! Send me some email! Let’s do lunch!)

Pre-party preparations were a big deal of course, involving as they did unpacking all our worldly possessions and finding places for everything. Happily, post-party cleanup was almost trivial. (Because we just served snacks and deserts and not a real meal, and because we didn’t invite any undergrads.) We were mostly done cleaning up before the first Superbowl ad.

Now we have way too many deserts left over. Too much wine as well, but the wine will keep until we’re ready.

Writers-in-residence on trains

Via Clarion classmate Mart, I spotted this post about Amtrak’s Plan to Give Free Rides to Writers.

One of my most productive days ever was on board an Amtrak train from Chicago to Champaign. I think I wrote four Wise Bread posts (including this one in praise of Amtrak), as well as getting some fiction writing done.

Related to that, I have been meaning for a while to link to this post about using cruise ships as workspaces. The cruise ships don’t offer free travel for writers, but the repositioning cruises are relatively cheap (because they tend to be dull—long days of crossing the open ocean–and because you end up on the other side of the world and end up having to fly back home), so you can do it yourself.

I’m always intrigued by ideas like this (such as rolling my own coworking spaces locally) because writing can so easily turn into day after day of solitary sameness. In fact, though, my desk in my study is a great place to get work done.

Speaking of which: progress on the novel continues apace. I’m averaging 1000 words a day, and it does not seem like a strain to do so. (Whereas trying to average 1667 words a day for NaNoWriMo did feel like a strain. Maybe I’ve found my sweet spot.)

Don’t miss Andrew Leonard on Richard Powers

I first encountered Andrew Leonard when Steve pointed me to the column “How the World Works” at Salon.com. Filled with keen observations about globalization, right at the moment when globalization was changing everything, Steve spotted it as being just the sort of thing I was interested in at the time.

The column wrapped up a while ago—globalization is just how things are now—but I’ve kept up with Leonard’s writing, so today I spotted his latest essay, The astonishing power of Richard Powers.

I’ve been aware of Power’s novels for a long time, because he was a local sf writer, sort of, on the faculty at the University of Illinois. (I gather he just last year took a position at Stanford.)

His work is only sort of sf; it’s more literary than genre. It’s very well-regarded, but my few attempts to read it were unsuccessful: it seemed deliberately opaque. I grasped that the stylistic choices were intended to make the book’s form echo the book’s intent, but in my couple of experiments, they didn’t work for me.

This essay, though, almost convinces me to give more of his books a try. Certainly I’ll take a look at his latest, Orfeo.

But the essay is interesting beyond that. Despite having followed Leonard’s work at Salon for years, I was completely unaware that his father was “the youngest editor in chief in the history of the New York Times Book Review.”

I found in the younger Leonard’s experiences an echo of my own—choosing to be a writer when my father is one of the best writers I know.

A great essay. Long, but well worth reading.

On doing what comes easily to other people

Here’s Marissa Lingen with one of those ideas that ought to be obvious, and yet is so very much not-obvious in practice that I’m very glad she wrote about it.

When her critiquers suggested that her books needed more setting, she made a plan for including more setting:

Very, very early on in the writing process I started thinking about setting and the specific locations that each scene would take place in. Then I sat down and wrote settingy stuff for those scenes first. Sometimes it was just a few lines, sometimes a paragraph or more, but, for example, when the protag was going to join her crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister in said sister’s room for some crazy mad science magic, I did not let myself run along with what they were doing until after I had put down some thoughts about what a crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister’s room would look like.

A great idea for adding description, but also a great idea for adding anything that you tend to under-write—because it is so much harder to add this sort of thing in later, when you’ve already got carefully crafted paragraphs, each one leading to the next, beginning with a great opening image and ending with a nice little cliffhanger.

And however great this idea is, much greater is her insight that people who are naturally good at something usually have no idea how someone who is not naturally good at it can get better.

I learned that fairly early, with my difficulties learning how to spell. Teachers tried putting me next to people who were good at spelling, in the hopes that their spelling skills would somehow rub off on me. This did not work at all, because people who are naturally good at spelling have no idea how to get better at spelling. (People who are naturally good at spelling tend to be people who see words in their head and then can just read off the letters and write them down. Since I can’t do that, I had to come up with a completely different way to get (barely adequately) good at spelling.)

I’m always on the lookout for people who do well things they aren’t naturally good at. They’re often hard to spot. (Spend thousands of hours honing your craft, and you too can look like someone who’s naturally good at something.) But there are clues—such as earlier works where the author or artist wasn’t as good, and works where some aspects are crafted like a masterpiece, while other aspects show merely a journeyman’s skill. Those are the people who might have some insight into how they got better.

With this sort of thing, it’s always useful to put it in terms of KA Ericsson’s model for the acquisition of expert performance. Just practice isn’t enough to get better at something—you also need to monitor your performance and evaluate your success—with help, such as a critique group, when possible. Then you need to figure out how to do it better—which Marissa’s post is a perfect worked example of.

Clarion 2001 poster

clarion-2001-poster-framedAll the writers who taught at my Clarion did readings at the Archives Book Shop, a local bookstore in East Lansing. To advertise the readings, the Clarion office folks printed up a poster with the names and dates. And, as one of our little perks, we each got a copy signed by all the writers (and by our special guest editor).

I’ve had this poster for more than 10 years now. I always meant to get it framed so I could hang it up, but it was one of many things that I kept not getting around to. But for some reason, this past week it suddenly seemed to be the thing to get around to next, so I did. I measured the poster, went to a local shop that sells ready-made frames in standard sizes, and picked up a frame the right size. It was just what I wanted (simple, black, wood frame), but instead of a proper hanging wire, had some crappy metal bracket for hanging the picture, so I also had to buy a kit with some screw eyes and picture hanging wire, but that was cheap.

It still took a couple of days to get it all put together—picture in frame, screw eyes in frame, wire strung between screw eyes—but now it’s done.

I’m pretty pleased. Maybe having it up will help inspire me to keep at my fiction.

Click through for a picture big enough to read all the details.

Genevieve Kierans

Genevieve at the Clarion Reunion meeting in 2002.
Genevieve at the Clarion Reunion in 2002.

I just learned that Clarion classmate Genevieve Kierans died earlier this month.

It was great to have her in the circle at Clarion. Nobody was nicer or happier than Genevieve, and her critiques were always gentle and often incisive and useful—and often different from what everyone else had to say. It was nice to know that she was somewhere ahead in the circle, when you started getting a lot of “ditto what the last three guys said.”

She’d already had ALS back in 2001, and wrote a number of stories that drew on her experiences with disability. Where she excelled, though, was in telling the story of a callow youth growing into being an adult. Each one of those stories left me with a “How does she do that?” feeling, and I’ve more than once gone back to reread one, trying to tweeze apart the structure of that particular character arc.

I’m sorry not have had the chance to read more such stories.

The win of pulp (for e-books)

In an excellent post trying to provide a model for the current e-book market in historical terms, Bruce McFarling suggests that e-books have currently re-invented the dime novel: a publishing unit of a single story, typically of the length that we in the sf world would call a novella (17,500 to 40,000 words). He goes on to suggest that what we need is to reinvent the successor to the dime novel: the pulps.

Tobias Buckell takes issue with this, but I think he’s missed the point. The key feature of the pulps (and McFarling does say this, although he mixes in other issues as well) is not that pulps ran serials. What pulps had was an editor, who provided additional content that fit in well with the anchor story.

The anchor story of a pulp magazine was typically a novella length work very similar to what might have appeared in a dime novel. It was usually by a big-name writer—someone whose name on the cover would drive newsstand sales. And if that’s all it had, it would basically just be a dime novel. But an issue of a pulp had more.

Along with the anchor story, the editor would run three to six short stories, some of which would be by writers who were not big names. They would be the sort of stories that, in today’s e-book market, would sell in single-digit quantities, unless someone with some stature recommended them—which is what the pulp editor was doing by putting them in a magazine with an anchor story. The editor was telling his readers, “Hey—if you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably some of these sorts of things too.”

This was a huge change and a big win for everybody. It meant that new writers had a much better shot at reaching new readers. It also meant that readers had a chance to find new writers whose work they would like. And it did those things at very low cost. The reader paid nothing extra (an issue of a pulp also cost a dime), they got their anchor story, and they got a few extra short stories essentially for free. The extra content was also pretty cheap for the magazine, as the editor didn’t have to pay nearly as much for the short stories by the new writers as he did for the novella by the big-name writer, and each extra name on the cover had some chance of attracting some additional newsstand sales, as those writers made their way from being new to being big names in their own right.

This won’t be easy. One problem is that e-books don’t make as good a format to provide this extra content. It’s very different from a magazine where you can quickly turn to and then read the anchor story you bought it for—and then have the issue as a physical object setting around for a while, giving you any number of chances to pick it up and give some of those other stories  a try.

Maybe if the anchor story is right up front, where the buyer doesn’t have to skip over anything to get to it, then extra stories right after it have a shot at getting read. (Doing it the other way around seems like a terrible idea—does anybody skip over stuff in an e-book and then go back later and read it?)

Of course Toby is right that we don’t need something to be “like” historical forms—they already exist. The e-book is its own thing and people will find their uses for it. But I hope that McFarling’s larger point is well taken by all the smart people working on writing, editing, designing, publishing, and selling e-books. A way to create for e-books something like the value-add that pulps created when they published a longer work by a big-name author together with a few shorter works by new writers that readers would probably like would be a huge win for everybody: readers find new writers that they like (cheap or even for free), writers find new readers—and they (and editors) get paid.

By the way, I discovered along the way to writing this that Stanford has an extensive collection of dime novels available as pdfs.