Some writing advice

Years ago a good friend Liz gave me some writing advice. It’s among the best I’ve received, and I’d like to share it with you. At the time I was writing creative non-fiction and wanted to get better. Here’s what Liz told me.

  1.  No one wants to read about you.
  2. They want to read about themselves.
  3. Write about you – all writers do.  But like a novelist, boil it down to the essences.  Write like it’s fiction – find the story and find what you are trying to say in the story.  Not the moral lesson, that’s a bore for everyone.  But the essence of the story.  What’s it really about?  Fear, worry, the fact you don’t feel like a grownup and you’re raising two kids.  Find that essence and keep all the parts of the story that are about that, throw in a few extra to amuse, toss out the rest and remember no one really wants to read about you.
  4. Keep it very organized.  It’s more like a college paper than you think it is – topic sentences and supporting paragraphs still apply, just creatively.  Consider practicing with some outlines.  Take your previous posts and outline them.  See what that looks like.  Then sit down with an idea for a piece and outline it before you write.  Then try writing off the outline and see what you come up with.
  5. This stuff takes forever.  Nobody does it naturally.
  6. Last, do it because you love it.  Don’t worry about whoeverall else is great.  Just don’t even bother with that.  Do it because you love it, work at it because it pleases you to watch yourself get better and better.


If you look in the sidebar you’ll find a new item called “Diversions.” Here’s what that’s about.

Today I had the great privilege of recording the 100th episode of The Bro Show on the 70 Decibels network. Terry Lucy, Myke Hurley, Peter Cohen and I talked about Mike Daisey, the new iPad and Tim Cook’s performance as Apple’s CEO. That was great, but I was struck by something Peter said about The Loop.

Peter and Jim Dalrymple have been running The Loop for some years now, and it’s one of my all-time favorite sites. That’s because, as Myke noted, it feels like “Jim and Peter’s blog,” despite its size and reputation as a professional and highly-respected site. Peter answered by saying, “The Loop is the same schtick Jim and I have been doing in our professional and personal identities straight back to MacCentral.” That’s exactly what I love about it. It’s obviously written by real, live people with diverse interests and passions.

Jim and I have talked about this before, and I’ve been considering it out loud on Twitter lately. In turning 52 Tiger into a professional venture, I succumbed to idea that it must focus on a small handful of topics, and avoid a casual tone. The truth is, my interests expand beyond Apple’s products. And I’m a huge dork.

The Diversions sidebar item will display quick-hit links to anything I find interesting enough to share with you. Stories, products, photos and so on that I love. It will be updated very frequently. It’s not in any of the RSS feeds, so don’t worry about me cramming your reader.

I’ve noticed that I like reading people more than products. Shawn Blanc vs. Mashable, for instance. That’s why I read The Loop, 512 Pixels, Ben Brooks, Daring Fireball and Brett Kelly among others. If  you do, too, here’s hoping you’ll put Dave Caolo on your list.

“Lost” Rod Serling interview

The great Rod Serling was a television visionary and is among my favorite science fiction writers. Here’s a television interview with Rod conducted in 1970. From the YouTube description:

“In 1970 University of Kansas professor James Gunn interviewed a series of science fiction authors for his Centron film series ‘Science Fiction in Literature.’ This footage from an unreleased film in that series featuring an interview with Rod Serling, which wasn’t finished due to problems with obtaining rights to show footage from Serling’s work in television. This reconstruction is based on the original workprint footage that was saved on two separate analog sources since the audio track was separate. Re-syncing the footage was a long involved process as the audio track didn’t match the film and there was substantial sync drift. While not perfect, there’s a lot of interesting information on writing for television in the dialogue with Serling as well as a prophetic statement about his health at the beginning.”

It’s a great interview. As my buddy Paul at Shadow & Substance says, “He’s remarkably humble about his contributions to the field.”

You’ll find part 2 after the break.

[Via Dangerous Minds]

Continue reading →

More on web attribution

Last week I described my policy of citing sources on the web after reading this post from Stephen Hackett. I got an email from Mr. Berserk Hippo himself in response (which he kindly let me reprint here), asking how I’d handle attribution in a certain scenario:

“I have an attribution quandry. I inserted names so that hopefully the situation makes sense.

I follow Jane on twitter. She retweets something by Mike, who I don’t follow. Mike’s tweet is a link to an article he didn’t write, but I want to talk about.

Who should I ‘via?’ My gut says Mike’s tweet, but I am not sure.”

Here’s the answer I gave:

Good question. I’ll assume the article Mike linked to is the source. In this situation, I’d write “Jane pointed me to this article…” linking “Jane” to Jane’s tweet and “this article” to the article. Then, at the end of my post, I’d give Mike the via.

Five lessons learned from self-publishing

Writer Eric Smith has published a list of lessons he learned while self-publishing his book, Textual Healing. It’s an honest look at the process from someone who recently went through it, soup to nuts. In short, Smith says it’s a labor-intensive process that may or may not be worth it, depending on your expectations:

“Yes, there are lots of awesome success stories when it comes to self publishing, but those are rare considering the sheer number of books that get churned out from these publishers. Don’t count on your book getting a ton of press, popping up in bookstores across the country or making you a ton of money. Press won’t want it, your self publishing company can’t get it in bookstores and even if your book does sell a thousand copies, you’ll probably just barely recoup your expenses.

If you are doing this for the money, you’re already #doingitwrong.

If you go in with low expectations, everything great that happens, whether it is a press hit or a kind review on Amazon, will only feel 100% more fantastic. There is nothing wrong with daydreaming, but stay realistic.”

It’s a great article that you should read if you’re considering publishing a book yourself.

[Via Scott McNulty]

Master of delusion

While doing some leisure reading, I noticed that a blogger whose work I enjoy explained a recent absence by saying that he had just finished up high school.

Hi. Yeah. I’m 40.

When I started blogging for TUAW, I thought, “Wow, I’m getting paid to write!” Calling myself a “writer” at that point would have been like a hummingbird calling itself a space shuttle. Both can fly, but one produces 1,315 tons of thrust and can withstand temperatures of 1,650ºC.

The other entertains retirees from their kitchen windows.

I’ve been able to delude myself into believing that I deserve that title over the years. It started the 1st time someone called something I had written a “piece.” Much like a Lay-Z-Boy is a chair while an Eames Molded Plastic Rocker is a piece, the term elevated my pedestrian re-working of a common opinion to something worth your time and attention. As the head swells, so does the pen and I wielded mine like a Louisville Slugger.

However, the act of typing doesn’t turn one into a writer any more than sleeping in a garage turns one into a car. It’s something you either have or you don’t. Like Herpes.

In “On Writing,” Stephen King notes that most decent writers can become good writers, but they won’t become great. So I’m at my desk, behind the keyboard, writing pieces.

Shooting for “good.”

Zoo food

Part of what I do for a living is write. The other part is read. Much like a red-assed baboon who can’t pelt you with fistfulls of shit until it has filled its gullet with starchy zoo food, I can’t do the writing without first completing the reading.

Years ago, I’d drive my Dodge Dart to the mall, flush with paper route money, to buy a novel. Slowly moving from shelf to shelf and aisle to aisle, I’d look at each book in turn. Once I made my selection and paid the patchouli-scented cashier in the Ramones T-shirt, I’d refuse a bag so that I could hold the book itself as I walked back to the Dart. At home, I’d go into my room and read every word. The cover, the jacket, the reviews on the first few pages. The introduction and the author’s bio.

Mmm, starchy zoo food.

With each chapter completed, I felt smarter. Hell, I was smarter. My vocabulary increased and I considered ideas that weren’t indigenous to Scranton, Pennsylvania. It was lovely to have the time and inclination to do nothing on a Wednesday evening but read.

Today I read in bursts. Press releases are a great example. “Dear iPod vendor,” one might begin. It’s the personal touch that I appreciate. And the fact that I’ve never sold an iPod. Next comes what I call the “parade banter.” This is the type of tripe that’s typically passed between Matt and Willard during the Macy’s Parade. The copy that makes the “Suite Life of Zach and Cody” writers say, “For the love of God, shut the fuck up.” Finally the pitch goes on for at least 1,200 words.

While that’s long-form torture, Twitter is like the spray of a sawed-off shotgun, each pellet a 140-character projectile, and the shooter is the fastest in the west.

Chick-chick, POW! Chick-chick, POW!

The thing is, I love being shot. I love the tech-y articles. I read them all day…and then attempt to have a meaningful conversation (fail). Or I sit down to write something and the cursor asks, “Got anything good up there, Davey?” like a pudgy, red-faced schoolyard bully. “Are your gunney works full of starchy zoo food?”

The answer is no. I don’t have 3,500-word thoughts anymore. I have 250-word thoughts. I blame the reading. The reading feeds the writing. I picked up Sputnik Sweetheart by my man Haruki Murakami and intend to sit on the bed, turn off the tweeting and read something that isn’t a pitch, has more than 2 sentences and maybe, just maybe, generates some new brain cells. Because right now I could really use some more.

iPhone as computer

Patrick Rhone writes about his experience writing with the iPhone and a keyboard. I’m with him to a point. The iPhone 4 is my favorite computer ever. But there’s no way I could spend any amount of time writing on that tiny screen.

Years ago, I bought a foldaway keyboard to use with my Palm IIIe. After half a dozen attempts, I had to abandon it. The whole experience was too cramped.

If Patrick can pull it off, more power to him. He’s a better man than me.

Outgrowing Scrivener

I used Scrivener to write my first two ebooks. It’s extremely good at what it does. After an hour’s setup, I had my whole project neatly organized into chapters, topics, sub-topics and more. Research was at hand and easily referenced or updated. Each time I launched or quit Scrivener, I felt a nice surge of satisfaction. “I’m on top of this project,” I thought. The problem came when I received my first draft back from my editor.

Prior to sharing that initial draft, I exported the document to .doc and enabled changes tracking. That’s a must, as the copy editor, technical editor and I must practice strict version control and communication. It also means that Scrivener is out of the picture.

It’s a huge bummer, and something that I’ve complained about before. As soon as I export the first draft, I don’t touch Scrivener again. The meticulous organization, tagging and research are out the window, as the project now exists as that Word document.

This week I’ve started a new project without Scrivener. The whole thing will start and end in Word. The outline lives on a couple sheets of paper, and research is spread across a notebook and a text file.

I hate to let it go, but I can’t justify spending an hour or two setting up a project that I’ll be forced to abandon within a few weeks.

I can’t blog from the iPad

I can’t blog from my iPad, and it’s entirely due to my workflow. I’m hopeful that iOS 5 will solve the problem.

When I’m writing an article, I like to refer to research material, like a source, supporting articles, etc. Typically that means hopping between browser tabs or text documents. Neither is really feasible with the iPad.

When I open a critical number of browser windows in mobile Safari, the inevitable re-load starts to happen. Plus, as convenient as iOS multi-tasking is, hopping between apps is a hassle when you do it as often as I do while writing an article.

Mobile Safari will feature tabs under iOS 5. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to hop between them easily, and finally start blogging from my iPad.