Tag Archives: Writing

Carole Jelen and Michael McCallister – “Build Your Author Platform”

CaroleBook

Eric Bickernicks is an industrial filmmaker here in New England. Fifteen years ago, he wanted to have something more substantial than a closet of corporate training videos to show his grandkids. So he wrote, shot, and then tried to sell his first independent feature film.

He blogged steadily throughout a long and adventurous learning experience. In of those posts, he talked about “Rebel Without A Crew,” Robert Rodriguez’ book about the making and subsequent success of “Mariachi.” After acknowledging how the book inspired him, he made a great cautionary allegory about the dangers of seeking advice from successful people.

Let’s say that over any given period of time, a thousand skydivers jump out of a plane only to have both their main and reserve parachutes fail. Let’s say a dozen out of those thousand survive…two even hobble away with just minor injuries. You’re a skydiver and you’d like to learn how to survive a 12,000 foot free-fall. So, easy: you should ask those dozen people how they did it and follow their advice…right?

Nope. All they can tell you is what happened to them. They’ll tell you about the specific situation and their specific opportunities, and the choices that they made in response. If it’s even possible to replicate their moves, they probably won’t even remotely apply to your situation and even if they do…it’s possible that they just got lucky.

It’s a great allegory that describes a universal truth. I do a lot of Q&As after my talks and I’m sometimes asked about the business of being a working journalist in this modern age. How did I build my audience? How did I successfully find so many outlets across so many kinds of media? What advice can I give to someone who wants to do what I do for a living?

I give them the only truly useful advice I can give them: I tell them skydiving story. (“Well, first I had to tell myself to stop pulling on the reserve chute handle and praying that something magical would happen on the 23rd pull. Next, I started to scream a lot, then I weeped a lot. When I realized that I’d already wet myself, that was when I decided to go ahead and soil my underwear…hey, you’re not writing any of this down…”)

So I’m relieved that I can now maybe steer people towards a more practicel kind of advice. My friend and literary agent Carole Jelen has co-authored “Build Your Author Platform: A Literary Agent’s Guide To Growing Your Audience In 14 Steps.”

Carole is a top representative who specializes in a sub-category of writers: people who want to share their particular and peculiar knowledge with a wide audience. She’s agent-ed me through about a dozen books by now and her expertise in getting ideas to market has always blown me away. I send her an email and say that I think (X) would be a good idea for a book. She helps me to spot the problematic areas and leads me to put together a focused proposal. She handles the contracts, she deals with it when everything goes very right and she deals with it when some things go very wrong.

(To continue with the skydiving analogy — sometimes, long after contracts have been signed, the publisher decides that a B.A.S.E. jump is actually a better idea. Despite how carefully you specifically explained that you have no interest in it, that the airplane jump is going to be much, much better than that, and that you’ve already done half of the work for the project that you all agreed that you were going to do. On the contrary, they get very confused when you refuse to leap off of the edge of a downtown building no matter how strongly they assure you that the bedsheet they’ve delivered to you instead of the parachute they promised is more than adequate.)

(This is when you want someone like Carole in your corner to handle those conversations.)

She’s represented all kinds of authors who write about all kinds of topics, and she’s been an agent and an editor for decades. Carole is, truly, Finest Kind, and that comes through in this book.

Will the information guarantee you a successful book launch and Harry Potter-scale sales numbers? Naw. Remember: skydiving advice. But I’ve never seen a book that does such a complete job of capturing all of the variables that go into that alchemy.

No one element will do it for you. If you want to create an ecosystem from which you can share your knowledge and somehow get paid to do so, you’ll need to

  • Write
  • Speak
  • Share
  • Connect
  • Energize

…and this book explains, in detail, multiple ways that you can do each of those things. The book contains specific examples and plenty of case studies with successful authors. And yes, many of those authors certainly owe much of their success to Carole’s savvy.

You won’t have enough time or energy to do everything you read about in this book. But you’ll have a broad understanding of all of the opportunities available to you, and you’ll be able to build a solid, personalized game plan.

Maybe what I like most about this book is its sedate and sober tone. I just checked the cover to make sure and nope: there isn’t a single exclamation point to be found. This isn’t “The Golden Highway To Your MILLION DOLLAR Book!!!!” This is a reasonable and informed explanation of the things that a Sharer Of Expertise ought to be doing if they truly want to make a go of it. You won’t get there by just starting a Tumblr and waiting for pageviews and ad checks to roll in. You shouldn’t become bitter and confused if you self-published a Kindle title six whole months ago and The Today Show has yet to call you out of the blue and make you their official correspondent on that subject that you know lots about.

I’ve often reflected on my career with great gratitude. I was born exactly late enough to build my journalism career upon the business model that started to shape itself in the 1990s. If I’d been born five years sooner, I would have set conventional goals: freelance for a newspaper, then land a staff position at a newspaper, then get promoted into an editorship at a newspaper.

But I was born at the right time. I define myself as a Sun-Times columnist but that’s just a small part of my reach. I feel like I have a point of view that’s valuable and I know I’d be frustrated without all of the different outlets that I’ve developed for that point of view. I’m certain that I wouldn’t have the kind of job security I now have as a name-brand tech pundit, as opposed to an employee of a single publisher, toiling under an anonymous byline. It’s exciting to be in such a position. I’m planning on creating (as Tim Cook has recently taken to saying) “an exciting new product category” and it feels like I can just go right ahead and do that, because I have (as the book describes it) an “author platform.” God know how I got it, but I have one.

I didn’t have this book to advise me in my career, but I certainly recognize and can second the advice I saw in it. Carole told me about the book a few months ago and I was excited to read it when my comp copy arrived at the house. If I didn’t think it was a terrific book, I’d just Tweet about how this friend whom I respect and admire and have worked with for two decades has a new book out, and I’d leave it at that. WordPress tells me I’ve just written about 1200 words.

Take that as my endorsement. You’re probably not lucky enough to have Carole Jelen as your book agent, but now you’re lucky enough to have so much of her expertise available to you for just a $17 cover price. Here’s an Amazon link.

The Slow Review Movement

“Where’s your Nokia Lumia 1020 review?”

Hmm. Yes. A valid question, considering that the phone was released during the summer, I’ve had it in my office as of a week before release, and though I’ve spoken and written about it, my review is still on my hard drive instead of on a website where it can entertain, inform, and delight millions.

It’s coming. Very soon. The timing of the 1020 review is significant because it illustrates a choice I made this year after much thought.

I’m getting off the merry-go-round of “FIRST POST!” reviews. All the hell the way off.

I’ve spent 2013 thinking about the work I’m doing and the work I’d like to be doing. There were times in 2012 where I had a perfectly good review in front of me and I filed and published it…even though I thought there were a couple of half-formed thoughts in there, or even though I sensed that I was right on the cusp of understanding this thing a little bit more deeply. But I shipped the review because it was the Hot New Device/OS release/Whatever and the subject of much immediate interest.

These are good reasons to publish a review quickly. My audience is the world of consumers, and during the week of the 1020’s release, TVs and bus stop shelters and billboards were plastered with ads for this thing. It was certainly on people’s minds.

But: there are so many sites out there that do a fantastic job of getting out a detailed review on ship day. A site like Ars Technica or The Verge or the fine sites under the IDG umbrella often deploy a Navy SEAL team of writers to the task, with each writer taking up a different element of the thing and putting out huge quantities of valuable stuff on launch day. So in terms of what the consumers need, that kind of review is already being done. Most times, it’s being done very, very well.

“I got it out first” doesn’t make me happy. It’s just a value-add. “I’ve figured this out” is what makes me happy. And expressing my own point of view regarding what makes technology important, valuable, or even just Spidey-Sense-Tingle-Inducingly Cool is what I need to be doing.

Also: I want to make people glad that they discovered my review. I don’t claim any victory from knowing that someone read my review before they read somebody else’s. In fact, if someone told me that they read my thoughts and then they didn’t continue collecting opinions, I’d tell them that their knowledge is incomplete and their journey must amble onward.

The Lumia 1020 impressed the holy hell out of me, beginning ten minutes after I signed for the package. I broke it out of the box and I was so excited about testing this bonkers 40 megapixel image sensor that didn’t even bother inserting the SIM that AT&T had included. I briskly walked straight into the backyard and I took a photo of a flower. I dumped the photo to my MacBook and oh my goodness, what a beautiful picture this smartphone had made! I was flabbergasted.

It then became my mission in life to find out exactly how good this camera is. I shot and I shot and I shot.

The flabbergastation held.

Then it became my mission to prove that it couldn’t possibly be as good as I thought it was.

The flabbergasting wavered. After a couple of weeks of intentionally trying to make it screw up, I was indeed able to find some shortcomings. But still: I was astounded.

I was finally ready to publish. And then, I got so busy with other new releases that I back-burnered the review.

Uhh…my bad.

Which led to Lesson Two of “how to best do my job”: yeah, focus on depth and making a statement…but there are still limits, son.

My iPhone 5s/5c review is a better case study. I received my sample hardware on ship day. After the weekend, I certainly had everything I needed re: the fingerprint sensor, so I published a piece on that. This week, I felt like I had everything I needed on everything other than the camera, so I published a second piece about everything other than the camera. I think I’ll have the last of what I needed this weekend (after some talks with Apple about a little quirk I was experiencing with a specific feature)…so you can expect that to wrap up this coming week.

And the situation with the Lumia also nudged me to crank through my review of the Kindle Fire HDX. I have pre-release hardware and I felt like I was ready to post a review as soon as my NDA expired (with the indulgent help of editors at TechHive who were able to edit and post it just a couple of hours after I filed). I felt like I “got” this thing right away. Why delay?

And sometimes, dragging my heels pays off, big-time. I also didn’t ship my Moto X review. I intentionally held that one up. I felt that the online customization tool was an important part of the product, so I wanted to wait off until I received a finished sample phone made to my color specifications. Then that was delayed a week or so (Moto wasn’t happy with the results of the custom engraving feature, so they removed it from the app; they had to re-do my “order”). Then I got information about Motorola’s new Droids, which had some of the same cool features as the Moto X. I felt like I wanted to at least handle those devices and get some kind of sense of what made the new Droids different from the new Moto X. And so, as with the Lumia review, I had to give its assigned slot in my calendar to another thing.

But! My major complaint about the Moto X was the quality of its camera. Its photos were often…weird. Not “this camera is fundamentally broken” weird, but “the software that turns numbers into JPEGs has a strange concept of how the human eye perceives light and detail” weird. And now, Motorola has released a software update that attempts to address some of the problems that I was seeing (like a lack of “punch” re: contrast and color).

So I’ll download that update, re-do my camera tests, and then finally pull the trigger. I’ll be very, very happy to have a “complete” review that represents this phone as consumers will experience it for the majority of its release life, not based on the mistakes that Motorola made in its early days.

(But pleeeeaaasssseeeee, AT&T: make the update available to my device. AT&T has formally released it, no worries there, but it hasn’t rolled out to my specific device yet.)

(Hooray! It wasn’t available when I sat down in my chair to write this, but as soon as I woke up the Moto X, it presented me with the “Download a critical update” screen. I can now keep my plans to go on a photo trip today.)

Which provides me with another valuable data point: This update rolled out to users quickly. Traditionally, maker firmware updates are a bane of Android devices.

(Wow! Somehow, blogging about problematic software updates shames AT&T into releasing updates, even before I’ve actually posted what I’ve said! It reminded me to check for updates to my Samsung Galaxy S3, and lo and behold, yes, there is one. I hope it’s finally my update to Android 4.2.2 Thank you, NSA, for watching my keystrokes and nudging the right people.)

As I test out a new thing (hardware, software, service…doesn’t matter) I’m hoping to come away with the thought “this needed to be made.” It’s why I’m more enthusiastic about the 7″ Kindle Fire HDX than the iPad Mini or the Nexus 7. The latter two are both fine tablets. Their shared weakness is that each is “one of those, just in a different size.”

Whereas Amazon’s tablets emphatically represent a unique point of view on how people use a tablet. I think it has the same relationship with the iPad as iPads had with netbooks. Netbooks were a great idea: they rearticulated the notebook computer for ultramobile use. Then the iPad said “Yes, but you’re being way too literal. Think about how people are using notebooks, imagine the best possible device for making all of that possible, and then build that very device and OS. Don’t just make ‘one of those, only smaller and at a much lower price point’.”

The iPad Mini is “one of those, only smaller.” The Nexus 7 is “one of those — an Android phone — only bigger.”

(Each sauced with “We’re leaving money on the table if we don’t have a compact tablet in our product lineup. We should make one of those.”)

The 7″ Fire HDX understands that people are chiefly going to use a small tablet for content. Thus, it delivers the best content experience of the three.

Neither Apple nor Google were expressing that content-centered point of view. So, yes: the Kindle Fire HDX needed to be made and the marketplace is better for it.

I apply that same sort of approach when I write my tech reviews. Why does this review need to be written? What opinion, observation, or just point of view isn’t being represented?

I’ve always held this policy. It’s better for the readers, it’s better for the body of conversation about a new product, and it’s better for me. The difference now is that it’s been carved on a metaphorical piece of oak, leafed in conceptual gold, and philosophically hung in a spot where I can’t help but see it every time I sit down to write.

It has to matter. If it doesn’t matter, shouldn’t you be vacuuming or something?

Writing about technology is, in many ways, a bum job. If I’d spent a pleasant week or three writing a 10,000 word short story instead of spending a frantic and panic-filled three months writing a whole book about MacOS 10.5, it would have led to a greater sense of satisfaction, of a sort. The Mac book is utterly useless today as anything other than a source of heat. The short story would still be interesting and relevant now, and then years after I’m gone.

Such is the case with writing reviews and news. Those of us who care wish that when we die (or take up a job in marketing), we will have left behind a collection of consistent work that serves as a satisfying statement of who we are and what we believe in. I will likely never write “The Great Sermon Handicap,” (Wodehouse, 1922, utterly brilliant, published as part of “The Inimitable Jeeves“) but I’ll be damned if I die before I can tell you, through dozens of articles over several years, what I believe about the relationship between the Humans and technology and how well or poorly various companies are living up to their responsibilities.

But once again: I promise you that the Nokia Lumia 1020 review is indeed coming out soon.

I swear.

Spork, Sympathy, Lumia, Moto, Manifest, Vultures.

Through the interaction of a complicated array of sensors and indicators, a piece of hardware communicated an error condition that allowed me to quickly diagnose and solve a problem that would, if left unchecked, have eventually led to the failure of said hardware.

In plain English: “When the garbage disposal immediately made an unholy racket, I knew that a piece of silverware must have dropped down there.”

No harm done, in the end. In fact, the accident improved the utensil in a way that brought this geek some immediate joy:

Spork

It’s a Spock Fork. I herewith declare that the word “Spork” now applies to a conventional fork with this arrangement of tines and not any other thing. Live long and prosper, by eating lots of salads.

* * *

Shipped a review of Parallels Access yesterday. I had it ahead of the release day but couldn’t publish until Thursday. I was experiencing so many problems with it, and the price of this iOS app is so utterly insane ($80 per year!) that I knew that my review would be…dark. When one sets down the pot of honey and picks up the cruet of vinegar, he or she should be absolutely certain that they’re making the right choice.

I came home from dinner last night, still wondering if maybe I should have gone easy on this app.

Then I saw that the app had done this to my MacBook Pro while I was away:

20130830_085948

And I felt a lot better.

* * *

I’m still working hard at getting my Lumia 1020 review out the door, as well as my Moto X writeup. The hitch with the Lumia piece is that I’ve been spending too much time writing it. I now need to convert the 4500 words that I assembled over three or four weeks into the 2000 words I would have written if, when I started the piece, I had three weeks’ worth of experience with the phone.

I kind of needed to hang on to the Moto X review until I got a chance to see Motorola’s Droid Ultra, which was released about a week ago. The Moto X was designed from start to finish after Motorola was bought by Google and the company received its new sense of purpose. The Droid Ultra is a legacy phone that merely benefits from many of the great ideas that became Moto X signatures (like the Active Display). By holding off for a week or two, I can now put those features in context.

And! I can show off the Moto Maker custom color phone that Motorola finally sent me. They had to kibosh the first one because they didn’t like how the engraving was coming out on the samples and decided to not offer that specific feature to customers until they’ve got it right. Fair enough.

They’re solid reviews and I’ll be keen to see how they play in front of an audience. I’ll be sooooo relieved when these finally ship! My brain tends to get locked into major projects and once they’re out the door, I can free up bandwidth for other things.

I did resist the impulse to drive to the Back Bay after dinner last night and take some nighttime tripod shots with the 1020. That’s a welcome sign that I’m not gripped in an infinite loop on this project.

(Or is it a sad sign that I had the power to end this madness whenever I wanted? That’s the kind of question that has a tendency to lay there and fester.)

* * *

Meanwhile, I sent a note of praise to Jim Barraud, the designer of the Manifest WordPress theme that I’m using here. He responded with an offer to let me beta test the new edition. Manifest is one of those “labor of love” projects and those kinds of things often wind up in a holding pattern until a Twitter DM from a slightly doofy tech writer makes you remember that you’ve created something that is both lovable and loved.

I’m very much looking forward to playing with his update. I’d been diving into the theme files looking for a way to add a custom header but now that’s not necessary; the new edition will likely support WordPress’ new built-in “any dumbass can add a header without editing the theme files” resource.

That’ll be welcome! Because a neat new header has been on my hard drive for about ten months, waiting for me to make time to redesign the site. “Labors of Love” and all that. Until then, I’ve just been tweaking the layout a bit and replacing fonts. I like the new headline font and am on the fence on whether or not I should find a spiffy new body font.

* * *

Last thought of this post: if I ever meet an alien who needs to quickly understand the nature of Human society in total, I know exactly what do to. I’ll tell him/her/it the story of how I arrived at one of my favorite independent stores the other day and, within the space of about three minutes, my thoughts went from “Oh, they’re closing their doors for good on Saturday! That’s terrible! I love this place and I’m going to miss it! I sure hope the owners are going to be okay!” to “I wonder if they’re taking offers on that utility table they’ve got behind the register…”

I can’t predict what an alien would do with this information but at least it’s honest and complete.

Wisdom from “Project Runway”

I’m watching this week’s “Project Runway” on my iPad while eating lunch.

The designers are in the workroom. I’ve just heard a certain phrase that seems to come up a few times in every season.

There are days when my writing does not go well. Sometimes, the writing is going so desperately Not Well and I am so creatively frustrated that I am forced to go to Plan Z, which commences after I have made the following ceremonial declaration:

“I am completely, 100% out of ideas. The tank is bone-dry, there is no liquid in the fuel lines, and the Vehicle of Genius has rolled to a stop at the bottom of a hill. I’ve been sitting here on this bench for hours, waiting for The Next Bus To Ideaville to arrive, and now I’m starting to doubt if this town even has bus service. I am going to just move forward without any plan. I have a childlike hope that God Himself will become so exasperated with my performance and so impatient to see results that He will manifest Himself here in the office and hand me an envelope labeled ‘A Workable Concept’ sometime before my deadline. Why? Because this is, in fact, the most rational and practical plan available to me at this moment.”

From now on, I shall shorten this to

“I’m just going to drape the dress form and allow the fabric to speak to me.”

Ray Bradbury

Dammit, Ray Bradbury died this morning, at 91. It’s the second time that the death of a science fiction/fantasy author knocked me off my pins early in the morning.

The first time, it was Douglas Adams, and the surprise came because he was just so damned young. Bradbury’s death took me by surprise because…well, it’s weird, but it seemed like Ray Bradbury was never going to go away, you know? I wasn’t expecting him to die, for the same reasons why I don’t expect to come home after a week of travel, walk through Copley Square, and find that Trinity Church isn’t there any more. It’s just so big, and familiar, and prized by so many people, and nobody can remember a time when it didn’t have this incredible presence…nothing could ever blot it out, right?

Ray Bradbury was one of the very first fantasy authors who really clicked with me. As a kid, I kept having science fiction thrust at me because, statistically speaking, it was a safe bet for someone of my obvious nerdy proclivities. I dug “2001” and checked out Arthur C. Clarke’s other books, but he kept disappointing me with livid explanations of how alien doorknobs worked while allowing the drives and personalities of human characters to go largely undocumented. Harlan Ellison was seriously unbalanced, capable of meh-inducing lows and massive highs that more than made up for them. I didn’t make it very far through a book of Richard Matheson short stories, though I couldn’t tell you why; maybe I ought to give him a long-overdue second look. I loved “The Hobbit” but abandoned “The Lord Of The Rings” early into the second volume.

Then I read “Fahrenheit 451” and that set the bar for me. It was a “Star Wars” moment…exciting, but with a powerful, human, emotional core. Ray Bradbury was smart enough to hold on the wide shot of Luke Skywalker as he encountered the bodies of his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, allowing us to watch, silently, as a farm kid’s world collapsed around him.

I think Arthur C. Clarke would have spent nine pages talking about the peculiar chemical composition of the Tattooine atmosphere caused by the planet’s twin suns. “…Which is why the smoke billowing from her skull had a purplish tinge to it. It flashed quickly to orange as it erupted from her eye sockets into the quinone-rich air…”

You might wish to argue with me about any of these opinions, and I will only say “Yes, of course, you’re right.” I can only speak about how these authors affected me.

The most important Bradbury book wasn’t one of his novels or short story anthologies. It was “Zen In The Art Of Writing.” “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” showed me that writing could be fun. Bradbury’s book showed me that I could be a writer. I don’t think any other book about writing can top it.

The three takeaways from this slim book of essays are easy to understand and manifestly correct:

  • Love what you do.
  • Write in your own voice.
  • Work, work, work. This isn’t magic.

The whole thing is just Ray Bradbury telling stories about how he got into writing and what the process is like for him. Reading this book is like watching someone build a rowboat. Even if they’re not bothering to list the materials and the measurements, the experience of watching the pieces cut and assembled demystifies the whole process. By the end, you think “Gee, maybe I should try building a rowboat, too.” Start with a cool, two-word title and just see where that takes you.

“Zen” was one of several pushes that got me moving towards being a writer. It’s one of the reasons why my English grades dipped a little in high school, as I stopped just writing the essays that I knew my teachers wanted and experimented with different styles and opinions.

(And before I create the impression that I was penalized for my rebellious courage…many of those essays were awful. That’s why they’re called “experiments.”)

When I learned of Bradbury’s death, I went downstairs to the analog /usr/lib/ repository and retrieved my old copy of “Zen In The Art Of Writing.” I belatedly wondered if it was available as an ebook. Alas, no, but in searching for it on the Kindle store I encountered an interview with Ray Bradbury that amplified my appreciation for the man even more:

David Boyne: You’ve written how when you were a kid you wanted to be a magician, then a carnival performer, and then at an early age you settled on being a writer. What do you want to be now?

Ray Bradbury: Oh, God Almighty! I just want to go on being me! I’m on very good terms with myself. I’ve had a wonderful life, a terrific life. I’ve done all the things that I’ve wanted to do. When I was just out of high school I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t write a decent poem, I couldn’t write a short story, I couldn’t write a play, I couldn’t write an essay, I couldn’t write a screenplay. So one by one, over the years, by staying in love, I became a poet, I became a short story writer, I became a novelist, I became a screenwriter—but it was all love, you see?

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS WRITERS’ BLOCK.

This morning, I came across a list of tips on how to get through ten different kinds of writers’ block.

Pro Tip: there aren’t “ten different kinds of writers’ block.” There isn’t even _one_ kind. There is no such thing as writers’ block.

Okay?

On a physical level, writing involves just sitting in a comfy chair and doing this for hours (mimes typing). This creates the entirely false impression that writing isn’t hard work. It is. Every writer seeks one of those effortless days in which it seems like you just go into a trance, and the thread keeps revealing itself as fast as you can pull it. But! That’s rare.

Every driver hopes that they’ll get to their destination in forty-three minutes, just as the GPS promises, without encountering any traffic, construction, accidents, or unclear road signs.

Every contractor hopes that the walls of this house’s kitchen were built plumb and level and according to building codes, and that the custom-cabinet maker built these units to the exact measurements provided.

Every cook who ever made a Thanksgiving dinner wants all of the parts of the turkey to be equally succulent, for the skin to be a crispy golden brown, and for the bird to be on the table on time.

Every scientist who ever tried to solve a fundamental problem of theoretical physics wants the numbers from his predicted result to be so close to the experimental result that the difference is statistically insignificant and the theory is supported.

But those things almost never happen, either. There’s no mystical, mythical obstacle in any of these physical activities. There’s a goal, and there are a bunch of unforeseen obstacles preventing someone from reaching that goal. You took a serious wrong turn somewhere; the two pieces that are supposed to fit together perfectly don’t fit together at all; it’s become very clear that you’re not going to be able to carve a food-porn-grade turkey at the table in front of your guests at 1 PM; your theory suggests that E = MC Hammer.

So you just crack your knuckles and work on the problems. You acknowledge that you went the wrong way and you get back in the right direction; you modify one piece or the other so that they do fit; you stop mourning the loss of your original plan and embrace a new one that’s just as good; you put it aside and determine to go back to it in a week or two with fresh eyes.

As a writer, you are never “blocked.”

Here, let me say it again, with more markup tags:

As a writer, you are never “blocked.”

The fact that you’re not actually writing doesn’t mean that you’re not actually working. You’re also working when you’re thinking. Figure out what the problems are and _solve_ them. Solve them in a half-assed way if you have to; slap enough duct tape over the problem that you can proceed to the next step. Go back later and improve it in the editing process.

Or! Just put the whole thing aside. Just for now. Even in the worst, most frustrating situation, you’re not “blocked.” You just can’t make any progress on this one thing.

So write something else. One good page about anything in your line of sight will prove that you can still write, and even if it doesn’t help you with a project that’s due soon it’ll still exercise those muscles that convert synaptic misfirings into something readable.

Or, walk from the desk to the sofa and read something else. Reading something that’s very good will inspire ideas of your own. At minimum, you’ll stop thinking about the kind of writing that you hate (your own Projectus Horribilus) and start thinking about writing that you love (Wodehouse; always reliable).

Or just knock off work for the day.

But don’t say you’re “blocked,” ever. And for the love of almighty God, don’t seek answers from the sort of madmen who insist and reinforce the idea that “writer’s block” is a real thing.

Your brain is highly malleable. If you train it to believe that you need to pull over to the side of the road and stop moving forward the instant a “Writer’s Block” indicator on the dashboard turns red, then over time, that’s the only solution it’ll ever offer you.

Writing is hard. That’s why so few people stick to it and actually finish things. It’s also why you have a right to be immensely proud when you finish something.

There is no such thing as “Writers’ Block.”

Tabled for Consideration

People often do weird things when they’re chasing productivity. Alas, despite my efforts towards higher things, I am a People.

I do a lot of writing in coffeeshops and where-have-yous. Partly it’s because of the Very Writerly Thing where you get a little energized by the presence and activity of people around you. Partly it’s because I work out of a home office, and going out to write every day or two pretty much insists that I maintain a sensible and regular schedule of showering and shaving.

I’ve come to really like the tables at coffeeshops. They’re meant to take abuse and thwart theft, so they’re solid and heavy. They’re about the perfect height for sitting and typing at, and they’re the perfect size. They’re just big enough to comfortably accommodate a writer, a laptop, a beverage, a muffin, and one source of distraction, such as an iPhone or a hamster in a small cage.

(Don’t bring a hamster into a Panera Bread. You can have the quietest wheel in the world…the management will still get upset.)

So when I came across a nice 28″ coffeehouse table at a consignment shop, I gave it a couple of days’ thought and then came back for it with cash in hand. The sensible part of my brain said it was a nice, well-made table at a great price. The irrational but still useful part of my brain imagined that I might be able to get more writing done late at night if I could occasionally move from the desk in my home office to a room with a coffeehouse table, the arena where I have so frequently plucked victory from the gaping, snapping maw of unproductive defeat. Productivity is productivity, even the cargo cult kind.

But there was a third element to this buying decision. I try not to be a wuss about hot weather. If it’s hot, I turn on a fan. If it’s really hot, I’ll pack up and spend the day working in a series of public places that offer aggressive AC, free WiFi, and unlimited free refills.

If three days of possible triple-digit weather are forecast, however, it turns out that my response is to buy a table and set it up in the bedroom, so that I can work in the one place in the house that has air conditioning.

Letters of Note: Try again, won’t you?

Remember that “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry decides to live out every standup comic’s fantasy by visiting the office of a heckler and disrupting her while she’s trying to do her job?

Behold, the comeuppance of legendary mystery and thriller writer John D. MacDonald:

If by any chance we have been unable to use your magazine, don’t be discouraged. It may not be due to any particular deficiency in the magazine, but instead to the fact that we haven’t recently been writing the type of THING that you use.

via Letters of Note: Try again, won’t you?.

But I Won’t Crumple Them; That Would Take Effort

Suffice to say that this has been one of those heavy, frustrating workweeks in which I’ve been constantly distracted by the knowledge that there’s a valid passport in my filing cabinet and enough available credit on my Diner’s Club card to buy an air ticket to almost any friendly nation on earth.

The only hitch: I’d probably have to Expedia the tickets, and the really good deals require at least a three-week advance purchase. So I’d definitely be denied the giddy pleasure of drinking mimosas in Rio eight hours before anyone even realized I was gone. Instead, I’d be in a nondescript motor lodge in New Hampshire Delaware, where I’d be holed up for most of a month no fewer than seven weeks waiting for my departure date. I think you’ll agree there’s a lack of satisfying drama in this scenario.

See what I almost did there? I nearly gave away my plans. You members of the Platinum Double-Diamond Executive Rewards Club get to see the edits. Normal readers, including my enemies, shall remain completely in the dark. I’m adding this secret note so that you folks can help me out with the disinformation campaign. You know who didn’t have Platinum Double-Diamond Executive Rewards Club Readers? Whitey Bulger and Osama Bin Laden, just to name two. I’m confident that you people will pull through for me where their blog readers failed.

Yup, work on my upcoming iPad and iPhone books is now in the “frenetic” phase. Early knowledge that iOS 5 would contain truly transformative elements forced me to write in “LEGO brick” fashion, where I do all of the research and then write big hunks, without a firm knowledge of the final form of the book and saddled with a nagging worry that I’d have to spend ages on new material and fixing up existing stuff. iCloud is just part of the problem, and it’s problem enough: I can hardly find a chapter of the original outline that wasn’t fundamentally affected by Apple’s new cloud service.

Hence my dreamy fantasies about a new life in South Korea and a new job selling straw hats at a beach resort or something. I’ve spent the past week and a half rewriting the book’s outline and pounding chapters into shape. It’ll all come out well in the end, I know, but a quality product only comes after you spend a long time at the forge, pounding, pounding, pounding away at the steel until the object that you see in front of you looks like the gorgeously deadly weapon of truth, beauty and wisdom that you’ve been picturing in your mind all this time.

I’m taking a break today to work on some Sun-Times columns and also (yeesh) tidy up a bit. For decades, when a movie or a TV show wanted to communicate “A writer has been writing hard for hours, days, or weeks” via a single, instantly-understood visual, it would simply show an office strewn with hundreds of crumpled-up sheets of typing paper.

Alas, even when I was a kid, a typewriter was that funny thing way back in a basement closet that your Mom or Dad kept from their college days. This old trope is destined for the dustbin of history.

But as I look around my office…

…And the TV room…

…And the bedroom…

…And the room I use as a podcast studio…

I realize that a new trope has stepped in to fill the void: the half-drunk can of diet cola. Yes, if it’s possible for me to write for an extended period in any specific spot in my house, then at this moment that spot is surrounded by at least $1.80 in deposit cans containing probably about six ounces of backspit, total.

It’s a perfect modern adaptation of a familiar visual. It acknowledges the obsolescence of written pages, it reflects the fact that laptops and WiFi have made “the place where I work” into an almost uselessly-fluid concept, and most importantly it opens up whole new opportunities for commercial product placement.

Today’s piece of self-directed wisdom…

Highlights and Lowlights

I’ve been spending the week reminding myself that writing books is different from writing shorter pieces.

You have to spend a long time feeling like you’re down in the galley pulling, pulling, pulling on a set of oars before you start to feel like you’re finally up on deck, lightly adjusting a rudder with one hand.

I did a search of my Flickr stream for photos with the tag “boats” but it didn’t turn up anything that really fit with this post. So here’s a photo I shot the other day in the Boston Public Library. It’s kind of pretty, and it’ll help to dress up what is otherwise a short and bland blog post.

Though…hmm. I bet that Louis St. Gaudens had to keep hammering at that thing for weeks and months before it started to look like a lion. I should probably keep that in mind.

Plaster model of Louis Saint Gaudens lion statue, side view