Sunday, December 27, 2015

Palm Trees and Edmund


Sitting on my “writing bench” with the silvery palm trees off to my right.
I don’t know the proper name for them but they’re the kind whose leaves, or fronds, I guess, catch the sunlight and shine metallically.
That got me thinking about some other palms we used to see from an apartment in Los Angeles. We called them “the lollipop palms” for their straight-up trunks topped with bushy sets of fronds. And that put me in mind of that apartment and someone I met there.

When I called the number in the rental ad, the building owner said the downstairs tenant would let me in to see the place, and that he was a little odd -- “he has a beard” -- but he was alright.
The man would have fit right in to “La Boheme.” The writer/artist/philosopher cast would have been rounded out nicely with that theatrically-dressed and -voiced photographer.
Almost before I had settled in I found myself driving Edmund, in my recently acquired ’49 Ford convertible (that no longer converted) to a location in downtown Los Angeles where a particular derelict wall was peeling apart. The light at a particular time of the day at that particular time of the year made the composition, and Edmund set up his bulky view camera and started photographing it. I stood by, wondering if we might  be trespassing, and whether he really knew what he was doing with that vintage equipment.
Much later I found out his work was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and several other museums of similar rank.
The only thing I remember seeing him do to support himself was to organize periodic “raffles” of his work. On those occasions I might wake up to find an assembly of 20 or 30 people, usually some of them Pan-like individuals sitting in the tree under my window playing musical instruments. Were they actually pipes?  I don’t  remember, but they should have been. 
Edmund would raffle off prints of his work for $5. They were extravagantly matted and difficult and expensive to frame. I will tell you I acquired a number of them, and they brought handsome prices at auction long after he was dead and I needed money.

I still have some of my amateurish pictures of the view with the lollipop palms, but I should have asked Edmund to photograph it. He’d have made art of it. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

New Beginnings


Funny how things go. The novel, an afterthought for 40-some years, is suddenly front and center. It’s officially (self) published on line; this direct link will take you right to it. You can sample the first 20 percent of it there free, and for now you can download all 126 pages of it at whatever price you feel is appropriate, starting at “nothing.”
Pricing will have to change at some point, obviously, although I don’t mean that to sound like a late-night TV huckster's “Limited Time Offer!” The day of  “While Supplies Last” is over, too; the book exists only as a digital file and can be downloaded forever. And I can’t use the part about “Not Available in Stores” either, because it’s available at Amazon. They ask $2.99 for it, of which I believe I score about half.
The full effect goes quite a bit further, however. It’s caused me to rethink my whole “business model,” as they might say it at Harvard B-school.
Clearly, I’m out of step with today’s approach to what used to be my business -- an anachronism among the horde of “content marketing” practitioners. The reasons have been aired at length in earlier posts and won’t be repeated here, but in response I’m contemplating a two-edged approach. There will be a sea change to my LinkedIn presence, and a different tone to this blog. 
In the blog I shall leave the grubby world of business and ascend to the realm of “creative” writing. Not necessarily writing creatively; maybe just writing about it.
Actually I’ve wondered just what “creative” writing is supposed to be. Seems like almost any kind of writing would be creative. If you think advertising copywriting, for example, isn’t creative, you’re wrong. But I see “creative” listed by agents and publishers as another genre, and I’m taking my cue from that.   
It will be a hardship at first to give up being snarky and combative, rolling over to composing inoffensive fictions. To mitigate the shock I will keep one foot in the business world with a LinkedIn page, modified -- another story; but this web log will reek, hereafter, of  a more  refined, lit’ry ambience.



Sunday, December 13, 2015

Mug Shot


I have mentioned more than once here that I’ve fought off posting a picture on my LinkedIn profile for a long time. For a while I tried to post a message in the little box explaining that I Didn’t Think My Mug Shot Was Going To Win Me Any Business -- sort of the equivalent of “Camera Shy” in your school yearbook.

However, when a second venue asks to show your likeness, you begin to wonder if there may not be some pent-up demand after all and you’d be churlish not to satisfy it. This is the case where my novel is recently (self) published, a site called Smashwords; they like to put a picture up with the author bio. Absent something even less prepossessing than my own, I can’t see where a picture is going to hurt the success of a novel. The story has to stand on its own, and visitors to the site will buy or not on that basis after sampling the opening pages.

That’s less true of LinkedIn. You can sample someone’s work there, too, but some people think if you don’t post a picture of yourself there’s something wrong. So while I’m about it, the picture is going up there as well.   
            
There have not been many pictures of me over the years in which I look like someone you’d want to talk to, and this one is no exception. It shows me wearing the fatigue hat mentioned in some previous posts, and a kind of Mona Lisa smirk that should put off all but the incurably inquisitive.

I call it a portrait in grander moments, but  the friend who took it for me is quick to correct me: it’s only a snapshot, and taken with a smartphone, at that. She usually works with a professional camera and worries the details, but I reassured her that nothing she could do was going to make me look any better. Or any worse, for that matter. So for better or worse, you can now find me looking back at you, trying to appear friendly, on LinkedIn and Smashwords.    

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Smiff and Dale

We named them after an old comedy team because they worked so well against each other and they made us laugh.
They had been at the vet for treatment of the neglect they’d suffered at the storefront pet shop where we’d found them. We had seen the white one in the window, looking scruffy and depressed. We came close to buying him, but we were both working and felt it would be unfair to leave a dog alone at the apartment. It would get lonely at home by itself. If there were some way to find it a companion...
And then we saw the black one, curled up at the back of the window in the shadow. And that did it. We bought the two of them for, I think $30, from the relieved shop owner who obviously didn’t want the expense of keeping them saleable any more. We took them straight to the vet, who recognized them. The store owner had had them in previously for some minimal treatment of a cough, but wasn’t going to spend the money to treat them any further.
The first fun thing about bringing them home was just arriving. Jean sat in the back seat with a blanket-wrapped bundle in each arm, and when George, our downstairs neighbor, saw her he practically fainted. She hadn’t looked pregnant.
We assured him they were dogs, and took them up to our apartment. It wasn’t that big, but compared to the store window where they’d been confined for who knows how long it was a prairie. They ran back and forth on the hardwood floor, their nails clacking, skidding into the wall at the end of each run, twisting backward, scrambling to their feet, running back the other way, for minutes at a time.    
You couldn’t tell for sure what breed they were when they were in the store window, but cleaned up and clipped they turned out to be miniature poodles. Smiff, the black one, was a runt; his legs were too short for his body. Dale looked to the layman’s eye to be conventionally proportioned, but was probably flawed some other way. Their being together and in that place told you that some breeder who wasn’t going to be able to sell them as show dogs had sold them off for a couple of bucks. It was the best thing that had happened for us, though. We’d been married only a few years, and Smiff and Dale were our family for almost the next fifteen.     
- - - - - - - - 
RPH

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Squirrels


I wear a hat these days on my bench rounds to keep the sun off. I think it’s called a fatigue hat: a soft crown and floppy brim, olive drab. For some reason, the manufacturer incorporated two little zipper pockets at the base of the crown. I have no idea what they were originally intended for, but I use them to carry peanuts for the squirrels I meet on my walks.

If you’re inclined to assign human attributes to animals, squirrels are among our best citizens. Thrifty and hardworking, they seem to be tending to business all the time, and always hurrying. You never see one just strolling around; they’re purposeful -- the animal world’s equivalent of real estate agents.

I’m always surprised to meet people, and there are some among us, who consider squirrels to be no better than rats. (I wonder if the rats aren’t even getting a bad rap. They help us out a lot in pharmaceutical laboratories.) They’re usually people who don’t like having any animals around. But it balances out: I don’t like those people being around.

I feed the squirrels, but surreptitiously, because it’s against the rules here. The thinking is that you’re fattening them up for the coyotes, and the better the hunting the more coyotes, the longer they’ll stay, and the more residents’ chihuahas will disappear.

I can’t refute that. But watching our squirrels go up trees, I’d think a coyote would have to surprise one out in open ground, and even then would have to be pretty fast on his feet to catch one. The little guys are no slouches as they ripple across the ground. I notice, too, that they’ll stay in the shade as much as possible, where their coloring gives them some protection. There is another threat, however; this week’s newspaper reports, with photo, the death of a squirrel by red-tailed hawk. The hawks come over from the nearby fields occasionally, probably when they tire of an all-rabbit diet.  

I have wondered why there are times when our squirrels are out in numbers and other times when they’re nowhere to be seen. Not trying to make it a scientific inquiry, but what would be the parameters that would correlate with those phenomena? Cooling weather? Shortening days? Fruit ripening? Arrival of pensioners with trick hats? 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

I Publish Electronically


It's an ironic turn of fate. I find myself now involved in electronic publishing; that’s what the new self-publishing process I’m entering into is about. It’s completely new to me, but then just about anything electronic is.

My views on self-publishing, as noted in a previous post, have had to be revised, but surprisingly not as radically as I thought. I had equated all self-publishing with “vanity” publishing, but that turns out not to be the case. Vanity publishing required the author to pay to have his work produced, which I vowed I would never do.

It turns out that the service I now intend to use -- Smashwords -- enables an author to format the work for viewing on electronic devices but doesn’t charge anything to do it. The practical result of their process is that readers on any kind of digital “platform” will be able to read it once it’s posted online in Smashwords’ catalog.

The more important result is that the work is put out there before the world -- visibility that could not have been achieved without some substantial investment of money or unimaginable amount of effort and luck. Readers decide to buy or not; the words stand or fall on their merit. Any proceeds from sales go to the author less a small commission -- a better deal than conventional publishing would offer.

 Of course there is a substantial investment: the thought and effort and hope that went into the writing, and there is the possibility that an author will find that no one cares. With the audience now being world-wide, rejection can be total. I could find that no one in the whole world likes what I’ve written. It’s something to think about. Smashwords doesn’t edit the work, so the result -- best-sellerdom (unlikely) or continuing obscurity (a strong possibility) -- will be entirely my own doing.

Books that do go on to success are more than just well-written; they’re promoted. Promotion is up to the author, so in a sense getting published is only Step 1. If an author can’t or doesn’t promote his or her work it’s probably not going anywhere.

However, there is a promotional technique that’s effortless and requires no talent: the free sample. “Free” greatly increases chances that people will look at anything, and if that first 20 or so pages are interesting, a book can begin to be noticed. 

I know I talked dismissively about vanity authors' depending on family for readership, but I'm going to alert all my nieces and my nephews and my cousins and my aunts when the book hits the electronic market. Build a little momentum and then, when readers are desperate to know whether Animal Rights win or lose in the climactic courtroom scene, sock it to `em; it'll cost $2.99 to find out, and I'll be on my way. 


Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Gentle Leg-Pull


The short story writers' group I've joined is headquartered in the UK, as I think        I mentioned. Their physical address is The Old School House, Ivinghoe Aston, Leighton Buzzard, Beds LU7 9DP. It doesn't get any more UK than that. 

We don’t have addresses like that, I don’t think, or anyway not where I grew up.     It was mostly numbers and letters there, with the exception of  “Washington” applied to The Heights, two bridges, and the high school, commemorating the Revolutionary War battles fought (against our friends the English) in the area.

Among the impressions I get from the conversations members post on the site is that it must rain a lot in Scotland. Makes me feel almost guilty here in Southern California on a November afternoon with the temperature a sunny -- but that would be unkind. Besides, weather that keeps you indoors may well inspire better writing. A lot more good stuff has come out of Scotland than out of Orange County California, although I’m working at remedying that.

The group’s purpose is mutual help for some writers who haven’t hit the big time yet, and I can use all the help I can get, transiting from fact (tech writing, business articles) to fiction. A particularly fitting analogy, I think: it’s like an auto mechanic switching from Detroit cars to one of the European models. You can identify the components alright, but your old wrenches aren’t right any more; the specs are in different units. You need a new set of tools to do the work.

There are many other members in the US besides me. I don’t know if it’s true for them, but I find myself working at accommodating to English expressions and sensibilities (like mentioning the Revolutionary War?). I’ve learned that a supermarket cart (US) is a trolley, UK, and  I was already calling walkers Zimmer Frames. Also I’ve decided not to send my Fourth of July story for the in-house contest; I don’t think it would resonate as it would for a purely US audience. Besides, it commemorates Independence Day.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Novel Resurrected, Maybe


Two posts down I was doing “Streets of Laredo” over my novel: one last bouquet and I let the clods fall. Here two weeks later that’s all changed, thanks to some new-found friends in a new-found writers’ group. Happens to be hosted in the UK, but most of the stuff translates pretty well. (Will it work in the other direction? That first sentence up there may tell us.)
With encouragement from the group I’ve decided to self-publish. What that means is that I now have to eat some of my words about self-publishing. If you have, or if you do, read or read what I wrote about that you’ll see why it’s going to be hard to swallow. Publicly reversing your position on something you’ve been sarcastic about isn't easy to carry off. I'll find a way to rationalize it, though.
There does remain one last consideration before publishing; I have to make sure I haven’t libeled someone. There’s the off-chance, if a lot of people were to read the story (!) that someone might say, “That character sounds like my Uncle Herbie, and you’ve insulted him.”
Back when -- and it does seem like a long time ago -- when I had the idea I would be working with a real publisher, I assumed an editor there would note the potential problem and it would be referred to a huge legal department. That’s not the case any more; I’m on my own now. I have sought advice, and what I’ve heard so far is that you can’t libel a dead person, and given the time setting of the novel, “Uncle Herbie” should be dead by now. A good thing, too, because he comes off looking pretty bad in my story. 

And there’s another startling development that’s come with membership in the new group. I’ve been invited to send the link to this blog. Readership could go from zero to a positive number. I’m not sure I could handle that.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

LinkedIn, Again

      
This business about not having a picture on  my LinkedIn profile had become a problem. I’d almost been turned down for membership in a writers’ group because of a “blank avatar.” (If you don’t post a picture, the default is a gray unisex head-and-shoulders silhouette that looks like an FBI firearms training target. Linkers like to call it an avatar.)

The thinking is confusing for me on several levels.

First -- If there were ever a case where a picture is not worth a thousand words it’s in a profile you consult to see if that person is experienced in the work you want done. Why do you need to see what someone (ostensibly) looks like when you can read all his/her qualifications for whatever business you want to conduct? 

If you think you’re going to get an insight into someone’s character from their picture, forget it. No one is going to put up an unflattering picture. Do you suppose some people might post something less than current? From a school yearbook, maybe?

 Or - is not having a picture cause for  suspicion? Do we need to  eliminate the threat that there might be a space alien or a multinational corporation lurking behind the individual’s name?

And absence of a mug shot is only one offense on Li. A shortage of “connections” can mark you as suspect, too.

Li is all about connections. You can “connect” with others and they can “connect” with you. There are 300 million people on the rolls, so you can see the potential. But for practical purposes, how many connections is enough?

There are people with 500+ connections. (Bragging rights are cut off at that point.) Really? How do you keep up with that many friends or even acquaintances?            I suppose you could email a “hello” to 50 a week for a couple of months, but it would be time to start over by then.

I used to find, before I learned more about controlling things, that some of my paltry 40 or 50 connections had accreted without my knowing who they were -- possibly chance pressings of a button in the course of a surfing session. I wonder how much of that might be part of it for those 500+ guys.

On the other side of the equation, occasionally someone will ask to connect with me, and it's a flattering thing to be chosen from 300 million people. 

The avatar situation has a solution, too. It’s permissible to use the photo space to put up some other kind of illustration besides your face.  Some people have company logos or other designs there. Since I don’t think my mug shot will win me any business, I’ve taken advantage of the loophole and posted an avatar of my own. It’s a picture of  a diamond, about a hundred-carat job. Wotthehell.


Sunday, October 25, 2015

Death of a Novel, Maybe

  
Not only has the novel nibble reported in July become null -- I’m on notice that I don’t have a novel at all. I have a novella. Forty-six-thousand words does not a novel make, I’m told, and I may have been sealing my own fate by specifying that number in the pitches I’ve been sending to agents.

This leaves me in a quandary. The work is too long to try to pass off as a short story but too short for a comic strip. (I had actually considered that format for it at one time, but comic strips go on for years or, in some cases, decades, while this story has an end.) 

Trying to force something into a new format is unpleasant work. It would mean creating new adventures for the characters to satisfy the comic strip form or adding thousands more words to make it a conventional novel. Either would be like patching together a Frankensteinian monster; it might walk, but you wouldn’t want to spend time with it. Might individual chapters, excerpted, make coherent stories? Maybe, but it would be by lucky coincidence at best.   

There is a last resort: self-publishing. It used to be called “vanity” publishing, but like many other things it’s been renamed and made respectable, the literary equivalent of “erectile dysfunction.” I've always held out against it as being an admission of defeat: your work couldn’t make it in the competitive arena.

 I believe there have been instances of self-published books going on to become wonderfully successful, but it’s so rare as to be comparable to winning the lottery. There must be countless books in print, sort of, with readership in the single digits, slightly more for authors with large families. I prefer not to put myself in that category, especially since my circle of relatives has greatly diminished over the years.

The saving of the situation is that not being published, while it’s a disappointment, isn’t a crushing defeat, because I’m not a novelist. I’m a business/technical writer who felt a story coming on one time and put it down on paper. Maybe it’s time to put it down altogether. Appropriate; it’s about animals.           

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Profiles and Dumb Questions


Occasionally I write profiles of people and companies. Haven’t made it into The New Yorker yet, but I have been featured in Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration News and Paint and Coatings Industry  -- so there.

There are (or used to be)  publications like those for every industry. Usually there’d be two or three in each, because someone in the business is the CEO, someone else is the technical expert behind the product or service, and there’s a purchasing agent and the marketing department, even if it's a one-man company and they’re all the same guy. You could slant the writing to the interests of each in the publication that catered to each. Enterprising business writers traditionally made their living emphasizing different aspects of a basic story for different audiences. I guess they’d call it “repurposing” now.   

For reasons I have to think back about to explain, I’ve always preferred writing for trade publications like those rather than consumer publications. Pay is less and exposure is nil, but it just seems there’s something more …solid…about it. Those business book editors gave you specific assignments and expected pertinent information back. You weren’t going to slip a wad of “content” past them.

The profile assignment would usually be someone selected for his or her reputation in the industry or maybe for something newsworthy they’d done. It’s where one of my specialties, the dumb question, comes into play. 

Dumb questions are the secret behind being able to go, with nothing but scribbling ability, into an interview in a business or a technical operation you may know nothing or very little about and come out with a story. I’m good at asking dumb questions. The skill part of course is asking the right dumb questions. At the end, you organize what you’ve learned, consider your audience, decide on the “voice,” et voila -- your article.  

Those assignments are the easy ones. It’s trickier developing a profile about someone undistinguished or an “average” business. You have to believe -- I do -- there’s a story in every business. Maybe you can see what it is going in but, then, maybe it only emerges at the end, and when it’s finished and it’s good you feel like you’re reading it for the first time yourself. 

It’s a good feeling all around. Your editor is happy (you’ve met the deadline); the interviewee is delighted (he sees himself and his business reviewed, to the envy of his peers); and for a writer, it’s knowing you were skilled enough to find the story where maybe not everyone could. Very satisfying.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Young Tree, Old Gardeners

    
Just discovered a newly-planted tree in the greenbelt near my writing bench. It’s a skinny little thing, still with its training wheels: poles on each side wired to it, holding it erect. You can count the number of leaves on it -- I did, there are 12 -- although I don’t know what kind. They’re not three-pointed maples, so it’s pushing the limits of what I know about trees. They’re vaguely oak-looking, and I’m not even sure of that.

All the other trees in the neighborhood are fully leafed out; it’s first days of autumn but the weather is still summer around here. So this newbie really sticks out. You want to say encouraging things to it, like you might to an awkward teenager: “You’ll be beautiful in a little while. Hang in there.”

And it will flourish. I’m not the one who put it in the ground, a sure death sentence for anything green. We have really professional gardeners. Mostly they’re Chicano, 50s- and 60s-looking. Many look too old to be doing this kind of work in the heat -- we’re having some near-hundred-degree days as I write this -- but I’m sure  it’s not by choice. I think they get even with the world by running their hundred-decibel leafblowers.

They work all around us residents but manage to not be “of” us. Most don’t speak English or pretend not to, and I and the people   I know don’t speak Spanish. So if there is any contact it’s fleeting: pidgin Spanish-English and some gestures to indicate you’d like the flowerbed in front of your apartment weeded. If it’s heavier than that the English may be a little louder and a little slower, and maybe a ten-dollar-bill will change hands.

The gardening goes on  constantly; no blade of grass escapes to grow more than half an inch when our gardeners mow the lawns. At tree-trimming time you see them perched in the upper branches, running small chainsaws. The trees look denuded when they’re through, but I’ve learned they know what they’re doing because the trees come back better than before.

I can't help but think there must be a metaphor in the situation somewhere: the aging gardeners, some of whom look like they should be in retirement themselves, planting young trees in an old folks’ community. The trees will outlive all of us, residents and gardeners both. Young Tree, Old Gardeners

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Emotion and Business-To-Business Marketing


There’s an  ongoing argument about emotion in business-to-business marketing, and it’s a fundamental one: Should emotion be used, yes or no. I’ve seen diametrically opposed arguments from people who are represented (or represent themselves) as gurus in the field.

This is an argument against.

Traditionally, business marketing has taken a pragmatic approach, focusing usually on helping prospects attain practical objectives by practical means. “Increase Your Profits With This Product.”

The people who advocate using emotion point out that businesses are run by people and people have emotions, so you should appeal to that when selling business products or services. “Here’s a Way To Become Rich.”

Basically the approach recasts “objectives” as “emotions.” You translate the business owner’s objective, “making money,” into an emotion, “greed”; the employee’s drive to advance on the job becomes pride.  But have you really changed anything?

Not if you’re in business for the conventional reasons. Your prospects have objectives or emotional needs, call them what you want, and you’re selling something that will help achieve or fulfill them.

How do you do that?

Not with emotion; you do it with hard information.

The entrepreneur makes additional profit (satisfies his greed) by increasing sales or lowering costs or getting to market ahead of the competition or offering higher quality for the price. Your task is to show how your product helps achieve those things. Demonstration, specifications, test results, case histories, ROI.

The manager advances to a better position (satisfies his pride) by demonstrating improved results for his department. Your product has to show him increased productivity. More efficient processes, new-technology equipment, better-trained employees.     

Sure, you can hook `em with emotion, but question-answering and problem-solving and customer benefits are what you’re going to need after that. Why not just get down to it?

And it’s no different even in the new-era work environment we hear about where profit may not be the driving motive; where success may be measured by other criteria. But the business going under won’t help save the environment or improve the human condition; it has to be viable to achieve the larger goals. The ends may have emotional roots, but the means remain stubbornly practical.

That’s not to say there can’t be any emotion at all in business marketing.

Say you’ve just solved a tough problem for an important customer. Your reward is practical -- a big sale and a lot of money  -- but there’s an emotional component in it, too. Depending on which camp you're in, it's the pleasure of knowing you have a profitable business, or the satisfaction of your greed.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Compound


I’ve  discovered that some of my fellow residents in our little world refer to it as “The Compound.” It’s great shorthand and I think I’ll adopt it. Saves the trouble of trying to decide whether you want to say you live in a senior community or a retirement community (or an old folks’ community).

A century ago it wouldn’t have been a problem, because most people weren’t living to be old. Any that did probably ran out their string in a bedroom of the family domicile, now handed down to a son or daughter. That usually meant a son- or daughter-in-law as well, with all the potential friction that brought on as the oldster expropriated a grandchild’s bedroom and got a turn in the family bathroom. “Don’t be silly, Dad. It’s not an imposition.     You be quiet, Susie.”

The Compound has some 9000 residents in 17 "mutuals," groups of cooperative apartments. Apartments are 12 to a building, which is fine with me. Having grown up in rented apartments in New York tenements, I’d be uncomfortable without people on three sides of my walls making living noises.

You see some people sunk under blankets in wheelchairs, but the great majority are quite independent, and many are talented, as the annual arts and crafts fair demonstrated. There are more clubs  and activities than anyone can recite from memory, and new ones spring up when four or five enthusiasts in anything discover each other.

Income range is a reflection of the greater society: some got it, others don’t. The thing of it is, if you can afford to buy in in the first place, the living is easy. I think most people do it by selling a  single-family home and applying the proceeds. Monthly payments then are low, maintenance is taken care of, et voila! you’re retired.

A lot of us still work inconspicuously at computers or in the wood shop or at the ceramics kiln. Some of us of more authoritarian bent become security officers and get to drive around in white cars with lights that flash red on occasion. Many if not most of those occasions will be when assisting the paramedics, who are regular visitors. The county thoughtfully located a fire station literally just down the road  from us, so help is here within minutes. Sometimes even that’s too late, but the thought is comforting.

All in all, if it’s security you want -- and you find you do want help with that as your aim and gun hand become shakier -- this is the place.

Jean and I used to say “That’s for old people.We’ll never live in a place like that. Right on the first part, wrong on the last.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

New York, New York


There’s a type of writing assignment that never grows old: the city guidebook.

One type is really comprehensive, covering all the things that make up the city, from aquarium to zoological garden, if the city has them, and heavily into restaurants, theaters, and that sort of thing. Everything a tourist would want to see and the Chamber of Commerce would want him or her to spend money on.

There’s another type which, if it doesn’t exist, should. It would convey the spirit and mood of the town rather than the mundane facts of its geography and physical features. It would look like this.

A Visitor’s Guide to New York
New York is everyone’s favorite city; it’s the friendliest. You want neighborly? There’s no place you can get closer to your neighbors, quicker, (or they to you) than the IRT subway at 5:30 on a Wednesday evening. Sample it at its best, on a humid summer day.
That “big city” image? It’s only PR; New York is really just a series of neighborhoods strung together. Each has its own attractions for the visitor who can speak the local language or is adept at a martial art.
Just think about this: New York has, in one city, two of the best-known tourist attractions anywhere.
Times Square is maybe the most famous single location in the world, and I understand they’ve cleaned it up wonderfully.
Central Park – well, you still want to be alert there after about 6 o’clock, and you don’t want to go there at all in the evening, but it’s spectacular from the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel. Check out the closing credits of “All in the Family.”     

I grew up in New York, but I haven’t been back in years (decades, really).  Things can change a lot in that time, and I don’t know if this advice would still be useful. I may have a nostalgic view of it, but that was my New York




Sunday, September 13, 2015

Flogging the Novel - 2: A Revoltin’ Development


There’s a classic story and I think a whole ballet -- “Spartacus”-- about slaves rebelling. You suffer under someone else’s oppressive rules for a long time and one day, like Spartacus, you think, Dpz  SaFGv  WYbje -- “the hell with this” --  and you do it your way. It’s the most liberating feeling, figuratively and literally, there is.

You may know about my novel. I’ve written about it in a post or two and there’s a whole sub-page about it on the home page, and if that hasn’t brought it to your attention I’m not sure what more to do here. But I’ve figured out what to do with literary agents.

It’s galling, when you’ve written something and you’re trying to get it published, to have to approach someone on your knees. That’s the way the agent game is played, however, and how you’re expected to play it. That’s the way I’ve been doing it. 

You look up a likely prospect -- an agent who specializes in your type of writing, your “genre.” They all list the types of material they want and don’t want to see. They also tell you exactly how they do and don’t want it submitted, and that if you send something you’d better not expect to hear anything back from them any time soon. “Responds in four weeks.”  “Responds in six weeks.” Never responds at all. But you send your work anyway.

 As I said, that’s the way I’ve been doing it. Because novel-writing is an aberration rather than my career, I’ve been pretty lax about it. Send it out and wait. Maybe get a rejection, maybe get nothing. Send it out again.

Well, no more. This time I picked 20 fiction agents off a list, starting with the “A”s and pitched them all at the same time.         If  I’d stopped to think how easy it is now I’d have done it long ago. No more typing a letter, addressing an envelope, the stamp, adding the time-honored SASE, the package  mailed to arrive three or four days later.

Today’s listings give the agents’ email addresses; you type “Query” in the subject line, and that’s all the writing you have to do. You paste your pitch in, hit “Send,” and go on to the next one. And  like it or not, they’ve got it in their inboxes right now.

What’s more important about my new approach, however, is the pitch itself. For starters, I ignore their precise formulations of what they want you to send and the format they expect to see it in. I just pitch. But I don’t try to tell them how great the book is; in fact I don’t even mention the novel until the end of the pitch.     I tell them they can make money off of it.

It’s not hype, either. I honestly believe there’s a big market, and   I give them examples where the same subject matter has generated publicity and book sales  -- the mother’s milk of agenting.  And you know what? It’s working.  I’ve had two rejections in two days. Laugh if you like, but that prompt a response is unheard of in this game. The last rejection I got took six months. Six months!  What would you prefer: hang by your thumbs for six months, or get the word immediately? And there’s still 90 percent of the list that hasn’t rejected it. So I’m revolting. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Grammar Doesn’t Matter


I can prove it.


There’s an awful lot of writing (and a lot of awful writing) by people who write on the Internet, and some of those people even claim to teach writing. Having learned my grammar back in the pleistocene era of education when the rules were drilled into schoolchildren, I’m always surprised to see ostensibly professional writers making elementary mistakes. Lots of confusion out there about “its” and “it’s,” for example, and  “your” vs “you’re, “ and “who’s” and “whose.”  (Them apostrophes are tricky.) But does it matter?

It does to me, and I’m sure to some other people, yet I can prove that in the bigger picture, it doesn’t.

I would divide things three ways:

If the message in important or useful, as long as the meaning comes through, you'll overlook some mistakes. Assuming they're not so bad as to obscure the message, they may make some of us wince, but from a practical standpoint -- it doesn't matter that much in today's communication setting.

Compare it to having a good piece of furniture that works well for your purpose but you discover that for no apparent structural reason, the cabinetmaker has used one phillips-head screw in with 29 slotted ones. Probably ran out of the right ones and reached for one nearby, would be a reasonable guess. It may make you think a little less of the cabinetmaker’s dedication to his craft, but you can still store your shirts and socks in the drawers.

The other end of the spectrum:  if the message is among the many that are of little or no value  -- what then? Well, in that case, who cares? Correct grammar isn’t going to save it, and bad grammar is one of its lesser problems and becomes irrelevant.

The last case is the anonymous strings of obscenities that pass for comment on line from some of our linguistically challenged brethren. In yet another way this further reinforces the case. You wouldn’t want to see grammatical rules applied to this stuff; you might begin to understand it.

 So -- Grammar Doesn’t Matter. QED.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Good Word Revived


 It’s been some time since I’ve had occasion to use the word “grotesque,” but it’s made a dramatic comeback in the last few weeks, and I have television to thank for it.

Two separate instances brought it to mind, one suggesting it as an adjective and one as a noun in the architectural sense.

The first was an ad for an insurance company in which a distraught individual sees his car as his baby. We’re  not just talking figure of speech this time; it’s an actual infant, several times life-size -- about the size of a car. When the car is damaged we’re spared any blood, thankfully, but when repairs are completed he is reunited with his oversize baby.

This is a literal manifestation of an idea neurotic in itself, the whole thing qualifying as grotesque for me.  

In the other instance, three gargoyles sit in judgement of supplicants asking them for money to fund businesses; a hillbilly “Shark Tank” (itself a power trip for some rich people to dominate some poorer people). This group is from Texas, which may explain things. Apparently people in Texas you might not expect to have money have it. In any large Eastern city these three would be told by police to move along, but here they’re in charge.

I have no complaint against them; they’re just good ole boys having fun and looking to make an extra buck off someone else's idea. It’s the situation. If they're all real and not actors, I pity the poor sods who decide, or are forced by circumstances, to grovel in front of the three for money; and I blame programmers or producers or whoever put it on television. Or maybe it’s the television audience. People must be watching it, which encourages sponsors to sponsor it, which keeps it on the air.   

I’ll admit it: my tastes may be too refined for the times. I see financing a business as a discussion  between an individual and a banker, not Christians and lions. I think a  car is a tool for getting you from here to there. I don’t care how much you’ve paid for it; it’s still a hunk of metal. Equating it to a living thing could be the first lurch down a slippery value slope. How much will it cost to replace baby's headlight if I hit the blind man in the crosswalk?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Market Jargon


Two items of jargon popular in the marketing community currently are “touch points” and “pain points.” Near as I can tell, “touch points” are where the seller makes contact (as it used to be called) with the prospect, with emails, blogs, or whatever. “Pain points” are what we used to call problems, and they belong to the prospect. The question I just have to ask is, “Is touching a prospect on his pain point good strategy or bad?”

I can remember once when I had a broken toe, and believe me that’s a pain point. Someone touching me there would have gotten one helluva negative response. You don’t want that if you’re selling something, so at first glance it would seem to be bad practice. Approaching someone else’s pain can be tricky. But today’s marketers have the answers; there’s lots more jargon  in the armamentarium.

Chief among these is “engagement,” a soothing balm to be applied liberally to the affected area. The sign on the side of the wagon promises business people that it will not only get flaccid prospects up and about, but will convert them into evangelists for the seller's cause. Progress toward the promised result will be measured in likes, views, shares, and tweets.

Surprisingly, there are also throwbacks to old practices among the recommendations  --“relevance,” “credibility,” “trust”  -- ingredients formerly available over the counter that apparently now need to be prescribed.   

It’s depressing to think that marketers would need to be instructed in simple truths and that others would be able to make a business of instructing them. I have recently seen at least two articles on the subject of credibility in which the authors posit that the way to attain it is to be truthful. 

Why didn’t I think of that?

The cause of it all is “content marketing,” the nostrum that has replaced traditional and well-proven advertising practices. Laying out the benefits of using one’s product or service is no longer permissible, which creates the need for “content,” which creates the need to try to bend extraneous information to a commercial purpose (see Dos Equis beer’s tutorial on creating fire with dry sticks).    

There are dozens if not hundreds of people practicing without a license, lecturing on dozens if not hundreds of websites, some self-accredited as marketing “universities.” I have not yet seen one, but can a marketing ER be far behind?


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Another WWII Guy


I can’t in good conscience neglect saying something about another of the WWII men I came to know. I wrote about some of them around D-Day, but V-J Day was August 14 -- still is, as far as I'm concerned -- and it's the appropriate time to write about this one.

He was  the second of the men coincidentally named John I got to know, and the time was during our stay in the mountains near Yosemite National Park. The scenery was beautiful, but the area was desolate  people-wise, and when Jean said, “You have to meet this couple who’ve opened the Bear Creek CafĂ©” I grasped the chance like a drowning man.

John and Fern had run successful food businesses in Southern California, and I never heard their story exactly of how they wound up in the boondocks with us. Probably something like our own story: seduction by the beauty of the place followed by a willing suspension of business judgement.

They were consummate professionals; they turned a rundown roadside diner into something great. The silverware matched, the dishes matched, the salt shakers gleamed (and matched), and the food was terrific. They put their hearts into it, and anywhere else it would have been a success. We were in a sort of time warp, though, and they succumbed a year or two before we did.  

After Jean and I packed it in, too, and moved back to Southern California, we renewed our friendship. Lots of rueful laughs about what we’d shared in the mountains, and the inhabitants thereof. Later on, John developed a heart condition. His medications put him into a kind of walking-sleep condition so different from the outgoing, optimistic guy we’d known that it was painful to watch. I guess it was painful for him, too, because finally he quit taking all his meds, and just died.

Only indirectly, I was able to pick up on what John had done in the war. I had to put one and one together; that was all I had. There was a framed photo of him in Navy uniform; but tellingly, he left the table one of our evenings together to watch a television documentary about the invasion of an island in the Pacific. The anecdote about swallowing a borrowed chaw of tobacco when the big Navy guns went off -- that was his. I figured he must have driven a landing craft, but the case was circumstantial; he never talked about it. That was the thing about the WWII guys.
- - - - - - - - - - - - 
You may find that V-J Day is "officially" September 2. That's the textbook date. That's when the surrender documents were formally signed. There's also some debate about whether it should be August 14 or 15, the surrender or the announcement of the surrender. It doesn't matter, and it didn't then, either.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The L.A. Phil Plays Okinawa


There are unreal experiences that seem real, but what about the reverse: things that you actually experienced but over time become hazy? If they were unlikely to begin with, there’s a risk they’ll slip into a sort of dream category: Did I really do that?

These 50-odd years later I had to ask myself if I’d really gone to a concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra on Okinawa. The question intrigued me to the point where I had to contact the orchestra and ask.

As I recall it, I had settled in at my posting, a fenced-in enclosure on top of a hill overlooking the airbase we were to defend if necessary. It was a decade and more since the end of WWII and the airbase had restaurants, a PX, and a movie theater -- relatively luxurious recreational facilities. Our barracks had a pingpong table -- I became fairly proficient -- and a TV set tuned to a military channel. There’s a surprising amount of down time when you’re in the army, and I and the other members of our short-handed crew spent most of it in that barracks on that hill.

I doubt you can imagine my feelings when I learned about the concert. This was the one you swapped  guard duty nights for, two for one. I vaguely remember some walking to get there, and   I really believe I attended that concert, but the rest of the details are gone. That’s what gives it its dream-like quality.

But the LAPO archivist confirmed it; the orchestra had toured the Far East that year, performing in Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Taipei  and, unaccountably, Okinawa.  It would have been the equivalent of including a stop in New York but playing it on Governors Island.

I suppose I could have asked for the program and the conductor, but it wouldn’t have added anything. I’ve probably heard the music, whatever it was that night, hundreds of times since, and the nuances of individual conducting styles are lost on me. Confirmation of the event itself is what I was after, and now         I know for sure I enjoyed it.    

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Acronyms Gone Wild (AGW)


OK folks -- this has got to stop somewhere. Some of us in marketing need to step back and review what acronyms are supposed to accomplish.

There is reason for using acronyms -- judiciously -- in technical fields where terminology is difficult or lengthy and will appear in a document often. A three-letter acronym is a considerable saving of space over a 25-letter subject phrase in a page-limited government proposal, where engineering style dictates that the subject be repeated at least several times on each page. 

Where acronyms do not need to be is where there is no complexity and no space limitation; where the intent is purely to try to give a technical flavor to something that ain’t.

“Content marketing” is filled with examples of that already:     you see CX and UX and CTA for the perfectly pronounceable and un-technical “customer experience,”  “ user experience,” and “call to action.” 

(Those “experiences” are an odd concept to begin with; often they posit a relationship to a company before the individual has bought the company's product. But wouldn’t it seem the customer's experience (the CX) happens only after he or she finds whether the product works or it doesn't and the customer service department is helpful or isn't? But that would be logic, not Content Marketing.)

So the acronym generator grinds on.

I have now seen the acronyms WOMM and UGC. Oddly, while they appeared in unrelated articles, they mean the same thing.  

The first appeared, unbidden, like a toupe in the punchbowl, in an article on a website called Econsultancy. This is a venue in which I’ve had disagreements before. Contributors there are concerned with furthering the idea of ”content marketing” and the industry grown up around it. This is something I’ve railed against in more than one previous post. Anyone who’s been listening, if there is anyone, will know I think it’s snake oil in new bottles, if I can mix a metaphor.

I have also noted in earlier posts my distaste for acronyms as a species, acquired over a dozen years in the defense/aerospace industry, where they run rampant and are invariably over-  and incorrectly used. Here, then, we have the worst case: the combination of acronym and “content marketing.”

The first phrase being acronym-ized is a well-established one often used in the past, that comes up exactly twice in the thousand non-technical-word article in which it was found. So how much has really been saved? Since it had to be written out the first of the two times to define the acronym, the author saved 19 characters in the whole article using WOMM instead of word-of-mouth-marketing. But look: we have another excuse for a glossary!

“UGC” is the discovery of another breathless article that reveals what it is, why it’s good, and how to create it and use it in marketing. It’s based on the premise that the marketer’s “content” will be so intriguing that people reading it will feel compelled to talk and write about it themselves. 

It's not that hard to get people talking, if you aren’t particular about the type of response you get. I myself have responded to marketers’ "content" and discussions about it. I’ve done it in the “Comment” sections of numerous websites. I’m doing it here.     But is this the kind of  user generated content -- the WOMM -- marketers really want? 


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Kind Word for Euphemisms


Euphemisms have their place. Maybe you don’t need to tell a     4-year-old what really happened to his puppy just yet. It’s a kindness.

“Enhanced interrogation”?  “Downsizing”?  They’re meant to spare feelings too. In these cases the feelings being protected are those of the speaker rather than the listener, but you can see where the intent is similar.

Each industry has its own expressions, and publishing has come up with a nifty one: “native advertising.” It amounts to inserting advertising into the editorial matter of a publication. Not sure where the name got its start, but parsing it out, I’d guess that saving “advertising” in the name was a way to attract advertisers, while the “native” part is calculated to make it sound healthful. Like “natural” prefaced to ingredients for all sorts of foods. 

It used to be that publishers and journalists were so concerned about even the appearance of conflict of interest that they maintained a “Chinese wall” between the department that wrote news and the department that sold advertising. No advertiser could ever be able to influence news coverage. If you didn’t keep that wall separating the editorial and advertising departments, your publication was considered to be prostituting itself.

 Well, not only have fallen publications been rehabilitated; respectable ones have joined the sisterhood. In a 180-degree turnabout in reasoning, the argument now goes that you’re not serving your readers if you’re not telling your advertisers’ stories.

I’ve written for a number of trade journals, but I’ve never been a full-time journalist, and I attended Business rather than Journalism school. Even so, I’ve always subscribed to the idea that advertising should be kept out of the editorial side. There’s enough persuasion going on already without slipping in more in the guise of reporting. Yes, there are federal regulations and industry codes of ethics that mandate transparency for the new format, but as we know, regulations are skirted regularly and ethics…ain’t what they used to be.

Maybe the worst part is, now reporters and editors --- the people formerly under almost Hippocratic Oath not to  do it -- are being conscripted to write the material. The argument for it is that, in business publications, for example,  they write about the companies in their industry regularly and so are in the best position to “go native” (while we’re talking in euphemisms).

Unarguable as far as it goes, but what happens when and if one of those reporters or editors has some negative news to report about one of the advertisers he or she’s been shilling for? The conflict of interest that’s been latent all along now becomes real. Where is his/her loyalty expected to lie? It’s the old “serving two masters” problem, and I haven’t heard that anyone has come up with an answer to that one yet.

My inclination is to bemoan the change, although practical considerations tell me I should celebrate it. I’m in the catbird seat: I can write  advertising that reads like journalism, and journalism slanted to persuade. But I still don’t like it.

(Belay that posting date up there by the title; this was ready on Sunday the 26th. 
I forgot to post it!)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Die Gedankenleiter


Can’t help myself; “Thought Leader” just sounds like it needs to be in German.

There has arisen a class of people christened “Thought Leaders.” I thought they had been anointed by LinkedIn because I keep running into them there, but apparently the term originated in a Booz and Company business magazine about 20 years ago. 

The information on origin is from a website called Mashable, which goes on to try to define what a Thought Leader is. Ultimately, after much conversation, for Mashable it comes down to "a Thought Leader has earned his or her title because that person's ideas have gone viral." Presumably the ideas can be good or bad as long as a lot of people see them. 

David Brooks does a much better job in a column in the New York Times of December 17, 2013. I subscribe to his version, or at least his attitude: he defines "Thought Leader" as “sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler."

It’s very confusing. Why are some people in the group? What are the criteria for ordination? I see President Obama near the top -- what the president says is important -- and Sir Richard Branson,   a very inventive guy who’d be worth listening to.  But it falls off pretty quickly after that. 

I’ll allow for experts in fields I know nothing about and whom, accordingly, I don’t recognize. Call that a second  tier, as seen from my viewpoint, and it figures to be a big one. But it gets kind of hazy after that, for me, anyway. There seem to be hundreds, if not thousands of these people. And all with vital information I'm told I should want to hear.

I don’t buy it. I’ve run  into quite a few advice-givers on line by now, and most often what they have to say is a transparent attempt to put a twist on something old and present it as something new. It's especially prevalent in the marketing field. 

You also find Dueling Leaders. One marketing maven says you must use psychology and emotion to sell things to business buyers; another says using emotion to sell business-to-business is “an exercise in futility.” If you’re gullible enough to follow these guys, what are you supposed to do with that?   

The original Thought Leader didn’t have that problem. There was one party line. Everybody believed it. Or else. That’s thought leadership. You can almost hear the echoes from the big stadium. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Nibble on the Novel

  
After years of trying, on and off, to sell my novel to someone,       I suddenly have a sign of interest  -- and not from a publisher or agent. It’s from a movie-making company.

It happened more or less accidentally, the only way it could happen. The description of one of the writing assignment I bid for had the throwaway line at the end, ”We’re always looking for movie scripts.” I told them I had a novel, but if they’d like to make it into a movie I wouldn’t object.

As the novel had languished over the years, I had considered trying to convert it to other formats. I'd thought about a comic strip, but the problem there was that comic strips go on -- sometimes for years -- but my story had an ending.

After that I thought about a photonovella and tried the idea out on some graphics-type friends. That ran into a different kind of problem: these guys are so visually oriented I couldn't get them to read enough of it to see the potential. "Too many words." 

So, no luck with novel, comic strip, or photonovella; what was left? MOVIES!

To my surprise, my half-joking offer drew a response. I fired a synopsis off to the fellow who contacted me, a man named Victor (a good sign) with a rhyming last name (even better). 

Still better, I had long ago written a “cast of characters” for the novel describing the players and how I envisioned them. I’d never had occasion to use it before, but it seemed just right for a pitch to a movie-maker. All in all it wasn’t a professional package, and it’s not even a script, but I had to take the shot.

To my even greater surprise, I next received an email saying the material I sent would be read within a day or two and I would hear back almost immediately. Wow. That kind of speed and businesslike approach is unheard of in the freelance game. It’s enough to start you wondering if you're onto something really great or being drawn into some kind of scam.   

Abandoning myself to optimism -- I'm assuming it will take some doing to turn the novel into something you can make a movie with; it’s written first person and there’s a lot of what I guess you’d call ”internal dialog,” where the narrator is thinking things to himself. Not the best material for the silver screen. 

So I suppose much of my job, when they buy, will be to translate the internal stuff into dialog you can hear, or into action. I haven’t done that kind of work before, but I’ve been really close to the novel’s characters for a long time; I think they'll say and do the right things if I ask them 


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Transparency


Anyone who thinks there isn’t enough “transparency” in the business world today should see the agreement and disclosure statement I received along with the debit card I applied for. You’ll note I said “see”; I didn’t say “read.”

The reason is that, in what they would probably call a victory for transparency, VISA sent more information than anyone, the most literate among us, could possibly absorb. 

For starters, the type is almost microscopic; I would estimate it at a 4 on the typographic point scale that rates one-inch-high type as 72-point. This mouse type, single-spaced, covers both sides of a sheet that folds out to 14 inches wide and 7-1/2 inches high. The disclosure from the bank itself with the same type runs an astounding 33 inches wide, and it’s an inch taller than the debit card piece. Word count is beyond estimating. But you want full disclosure? We’ll give you full disclosure.

This is a device I’ve seen also used by the utility company, in the enclosure that comes in every bill, informing you of their application for a rate increase. (Not the rate increase from last month; this is a new one.) Everything you need to know for your futile comment to the state Public Utilities Commission is there, but encoded in type so small and so lengthy that only the lawyers who wrote it can be sure of what it says. But it’s there; what’s your complaint, citizen?

There are consumer advocacy organizations and they have lawyers, too, so sometimes we get to hear what all those words really mean, and it’s usually bad news. The organization here in California has celebrated some victories, but whether such organizations can overcome the utility’s lobbying of the state agency over the long haul is a question. You’d think our side would win, considering the unfair advantage we seemingly have: we’re a whole group of people and the utility corporation is just one person. But what if he or she is dating someone on the Commission?