I’m giving up

I’m giving up my book sale profits to support mental health.

My friends at Community Health Charities have helped me start WriteCause, a way authors, readers, and others can support those who are struggling with depression, suicide, and other mental health challenges.

This summer I’ll be donating the proceeds from all my book sales to WriteCause. Because I know that you know that I don’t make much money on book sales, I’m pledging a minimum of a $250 donation.

How you can help

Buy my books. Or buy books by other participating authors. At the launch of WriteCause, it’s just me; I hope that over time many authors will join in, as mental health is something a lot of authors or their loved ones struggle with.

Tell your story on the WriteCause page, or on social media, and tag it with #WriteCause. Read and respond to others’ stories that get posted. Engage in the discussion. Browse the mental health resources CHC lists. Pay attention, and care.

If you’re an author, visit the WriteCause page and contact CHC or me to learn how to join in the pledge.

Why WriteCause? Why mental health?

I could choose any cause. A few years ago I donated my book sale proceeds to our local library. Another year I donated to the group that runs NaNoWriMo. I could choose to donate to cancer or ALS or homelessness or any number of important causes. (And I do, through my workplace giving campaign each year.)

The last two years, however, someone I love very much has been struggling with serious depression and suicidal thoughts which have led to several hospitalizations. This, with other things, has made me far more aware of the difficulties that so many people face with serious anxiety, depression, and other mental and emotional issues that interfere with their ability to simply function in everyday life. With suicide rates on the rise (both teen and generally), mental health issues are quickly becoming a tragedy that few people are talking about. I think it’s critical to raise awareness of the issue, help people who don’t struggle with these conditions understand them and engage appropriately, and provide preventative and treatment services for people who need them.

I’ve known too many people who have lost a loved one to suicide, and I’ve seen too much beautiful talent lost to depression and anxiety. I can’t do very much about it, but I will do what I can. Thus, WriteCause.

There are more than two genders whether you like it or not

Once upon a time, a man invented a vehicle. It had wheels, and an engine that powered those wheels, and a shifting lever he could use to make the engine go forward or backward.

The man was proud of his vehicle.
The man was very proud of his vehicle, and the people found it useful. They drove them in long lines, forward and backward, going to some other place and coming back again. Cities created roads for the vehicles, and parking lots, and complicated rules of operation to ensure public safety and efficient transportation.

Then, one day years later, another man invented something called a “steering wheel” which allowed the operator to change the vehicle’s direction in more ways than just backwards or forwards.

The people freaked out.

“I cannot see sideways!” shouted some. “What if someone else steers as I am steering? We will crash!” cried others. “All the roads will have to change! We will need new road rules!” lamented others.

The inventor despaired. “But we turn and move in all directions all the time already,” he answered. “Surely those who wish to do so in the vehicle should be allowed that freedom.”

“It is not natural,” demanded the frightened populace.

The population voted to outlaw steering in vehicles, and some people began arguing that all turning of any kind should be banned. Until one day, when a plucky nonconformist took his case to court. The judges agreed that it was his right to be able to steer while in his vehicle. And in fact it was everyone’s right, if they desired it, to identify as a person who does not simply go forward and backwards but also in other directions. As a nonbinary vehicle operator.

Justice prevailed.
The population reeled. “This will have repercussions far beyond this man’s vehicle,” they cried. “It was the wrong decision. Stupid activist judges and their liberal agendas!” But there was nothing they could do. Left and right had existed forever, and turning was every bit as natural as going forward or backward. It was just the system that had been designed poorly, to account only for two possible states, and that system had become so entrenched in the people’s minds that they believed anything that did not conform was immoral and repugnant rather than natural and beautiful.

Until one day, generations later, a child was astonished to learn that her great-grandfather’s society had only been allowed to go forward and backward. She found the idea unnatural and unnecessarily limiting, and she wondered about the poor people who had been oppressed all those years, forced to fit the poorly designed system.

This story was inspired by a facebook comment on this NPR article.

Upcoming free and discount book promotions

I really really want you to read and rate Lifelike before June 18. So I’ve got a bunch of free and discount days coming up for Lifelike and my New Eden trilogy.

Three books for under two bucks

The entire New Eden trilogy will be discounted beginning June 14:

  • Semper free June 14 – 18
  • Forsada $0.99 June 14 – 17, then $1.99 June 17-21
  • Freda $0.99 June 14 – 17, then $1.99 June 17-21

Lifelike introductory price

Lifelike, available now at $5.99, will be just $0.99 June 16 – 23, to celebrate the launch of the print version. Please mark your calendar to buy it on June 16, and rate it as soon as you can. Before June 18 if possible. To read a preview version for free before June 16, email me.

Get a $5 off coupon for Lifelike print edition

When Lifelike launches in print on June 16, it will retail for $14.95. Anyone who joins my email list by July 4, however, will get a $5 off coupon in their inbox July 5.

I really do love you all.

I love you all

Seriously. Life is short; we have limited hours on this Earth, and none of us knows when those will be used up. I am in awe that people read my work, and I know that each rating posted is a statement that someone spent some of their limited hours on my stories. One star or five, I am grateful for your time and feedback.

Also, June is my half-century birthday month, so if you love me back…

Don’t subject me to this. Please.

Everyone gets too many emails every day. A good subject line helps organize and triage the inbox so we don’t get overwhelmed.

Then WHY OH WHY do you still send emails with these remarkably stupid and useless subject lines?

  • Thanks
  • Following up
  • Quick question
  • Checking in
  • Hey
  • Got a sec?

Ok, that last one at least passes one (maybe two) of the five tests for an adequate subject line. The rest tell me nothing about the email, but they tell me the sender did not give any thought to how I interact with email. These are the opposite of clickbait. Clickbait infuriates me with its tease–I know that the article won’t live up to its hype-saturated headline–but I sometimes can’t help myself, and I click anyway.

These subject lines infuriate me with their lazy uselessness, yet I know I must read them, even if they turn out to be throwaway nothingness. Because behind these vapid subjects may be a critical business task. There’s no way to tell.

So. Five rules. Here they are:

  1. Tell me what’s in the email
    “Quick question” may hint at it, but I have never in my life met a quick question that had a quick answer. My day is a constant barrage of incoming problems, and I cannot triage effectively if I don’t know what you’re emailing me about.
  2. If it’s time-sensitive, say so
    Add something like URGENT: to let me know that this requires attention now. The priority flag in most email programs like Outlook help, but adding this will make it unambiguous. Better: add the timeframe. NEED TODAY or NEED BY JUNE 16 makes it easy to triage and makes it pop out if it scrolls below the fold.
  3. If it requires action, say so
    Correllary to the prior point, ACTION REQUIRED: at the beginning of a subject line lets me know that something needs to get done. An approval, perhaps, or a compliance step that may be holding up the project.
  4. If it requires my attention specifically, say so
    If you send an email to 100 people with ACTION REQUIRED and only one of them needs to take action, you deserve a time out. FRED ACTION REQUIRED lets everyone know that Fred is on the hook, but the rest of us have a need to know. Maybe to make sure Fred does his job.
  5. Be unique
    Once four different people emailed on different topics, all with the subject line “Following up.” Soon, more than twenty emails clogged my inbox with the subject line “Re: Following up”. Most were reply-all “thanks, great to meet you, too!” One thread was about a timely, critical problem. Guess how much time I wasted wading through the sludge to handle the real problem.

It should go without saying that not every email is TIME SENSITIVE ACTION REQUIRED red-flag emergency.

Editing Pony is watching. Don’t be THAT person.
Please do not be that person.

Also, when writing subject lines, assume the recipient has a smaller screen than you do. “Following up on the meeting about action required time sensitive stuff” will show up on a phone as “Following up on…” Entirely useless and very difficult for a busy person to track effectively.

Good communication is not about how you say something; it’s about how the recipient experiences it. Too many people treat writing email subjects like picking the color of an envelope. Marketing experts know, however, there’s an art to designing the packaging in order to get the recipient to care about the contents before they even open the package. Junk mail is often designed to look overly important, to get you to open it. Well designed packaging lets you know what you’re getting before you open it, and helps you manage your inbox effectively.

Pay attention to the subject lines of emails you send and receive over the next week, and note how you and others respond to them. Do you have tips on writing good subject lines, or examples of really bad ones? Share!

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

Getting to the bottom of it

Up, up, up. Strive for more. Go higher. Achieve bigger.

The other day I saw an article encouraging people to journal every day. As a journaler myself, I find it helps me process complex feelings and turn over ideas like a mental compost pile (thanks to Natalie Goldberg for that image). Journaling in the morning centers me before work, and in the evening it gives closure to the day’s messiness.

But this article? I hate it. It instructed me to answer three questions every night, three questions about self-improvement. I don’t remember the exact questions, but they demanded that I explain how I improved myself today, and that I commit to doing better tomorrow.

Up, up up. Strive. Achieve. Soar.

Is nothing safe anymore, not even my private journal, away from the maddening rush to achieve? For the achievers, a journal is a way to measure and push progress. Productivity is the only worthy goal for achievers. Without progress, they believe, we stagnate and die. Like sharks, we must keep swimming or sink to the ocean floor.

I am not against progress. I push myself and my team to do the best we can in everything we do. If you’re going to do it, you might as well try your best. I never end a gym workout, for example, thinking I could have done another set. If I were a non-achiever, I would not have published five books. I also think we can learn from every failure and every success, so this kind of self-reflection has value.

But balance is as important as progress.

Read enough business articles, and you’ll see a common theme of career people feeling like they’re walking up a downward escalator. They need to get to the top, but the very path itself is working against them. So they feel they have to strive harder, to make more upward progress.

What’s lost in all this striving and improving is any contemplation of what’s at the top.

The truth is, there is no top.

Our bosses don’t actually want us to think about that. Most organizations talk a great game about work-life balance, but how many of us have been trained that “meets expectations” is a poor result in an annual review? Personal and professional development are very visible idols in the workplace pantheon, constant reminders that we are not (yet) our best selves.

Personally, I often feel I am walking down a crowded up escalator. I’m striving for balance and simplicity in a world hell-bent on forcing me to go higher, get better, achieve more. There is no top. There is no bottom. There is only restless motion based on the promise of an unknowable future success.

So my journal won’t turn into a self-development ledger. I won’t be using it to track daily progress and commit to daily improvements. That’s what to-do lists and project plans are for. We can achieve a lot (like publishing a new book) without becoming slaves to a self-improvement process.

How do you achieve balance between progress and peace of mind?

I strive for balance.

WWJD: The 24-hour rule

Joan taught me that nothing good ever comes from lashing out. Take time to reflect and analyze before responding.

When someone slaps me, my natural tendency is to say, “Ow, what the heck, dude. Chill.”

I believe that raw conflict in the workplace rarely leads to anything good. I don’t slap back. I want to believe that over time, if I behave in a way that keeps my conscience clear–being inclusive, striving for transparency and clarity, taking others’ interests into consideration, and acting with integrity and honesty–people around me will recognize that and know me for who I really am. Everyone falters once in a while, and I believe it’s better to forgive, especially if the person’s entire body of work proves them to be a good, upstanding person.

How many fingers am I holding up?On Friday, I got slapped. Scratch that… I got slammed hard. Unfairly and wrongly. When I heard what had been said about me, the word defamation came to mind.

Of course, this was not said to my face; it was fed in private to people who have direct influence over my livelihood and my career. (Side lesson: Everything you say about someone might make it back to that person.)

Stunned at first, I laughed it off. Of course everyone will see how ridiculous it was.

Ten minutes later, I was seething. How dare they? Such an attack cannot go undefended. I wanted to erupt, to spout equally strong language in defending myself and showing how little credibility my attacker had. I wanted to point out their long track record of deceit and underhandedness.

Then I took a deep breath and reminded myself of Joan’s 24-hour rule.

From time to time I need to step back and ask myself,

What would Joan do?

Joan was a beloved friend and trusted manager who taught me a lot in our few years together. One of the biggest lessons was the 24 hour rule.

It’s simple: When you face a sudden emotional situation, make yourself wait 24 hours before responding. When the explosive moment has cooled, you’ll see the big picture and can plan a better, more productive response.

You may need to find other ways of venting frustration and anger. Go to the gym. Talk it through with a trusted friend. Journal it. Redirect into other expressions that help you process your thoughts and get perspective and objectivity.

You can even write the response in an email to yourself, just to say what you have to say. It’s the digital equivalent of screaming into a pillow. Sometimes you may need 48 hours, or even longer.

Frequently, you’ll find that once the emotion is gone, you realize the best response is no response at all.

Other times, you’ll find that the distance and time have given you the opportunity to formulate a far better, more effective response.

Editing Pony is watching

I read your novel. Are you a painter?

I want to send you not just one, but two free* Lifelike bookmarks, and I want you to deface one of them.

Last week a reader sent me a note:

If I didn’t know better I would think that you were a painter/artist by profession.

Question: When someone reads your novel and thinks you’re probably a painter, is that like saying, “You have a great face for radio”?

I’m a terrible painter. If I were to take the “easy A” high school art class today, I’d get a B. I can appreciate a painting, even intellectually understand how the artist made it look the way it does. I simply have no talent with color, shadow, or texture; my attempts always fall far short of my vision.

But a writer who is also a painter sent this to me after reading the rough draft of Lifelike:

Are you a painter also? I am, and I am very surprised that you have such an accurate sense of how an artist feels about a sense of place and light and thought.

So at least I can fake it, which is good enough for me.

But about the bookmarks: I designed them with a line sketch of one of the characters from Lifelike on the back, meant to be painted or colored in.

I’ll send* you two bookmarks if only you ask. One will be personalized–painted by me!–and the other will be blank–for you to paint! Just send me your postal mailing address (US only, sorry). The only thing you have to do is color or paint the blank, then send me a photo or scan of your finished work. Your bookmark will hang in my virtual gallery (coming soon).

     
* Free to you, for a limited time. I have to pay for the bookmarks, envelopes, paint, and postage. Which is why this is only open to people in the United States. Sorry, most of the world. But if you send me a self addressed, stamped envelope, I’ll send you back a few bookmarks.

PAY ATTENTION TO THIS PART! AND THIS PART!

One of the best ways to strengthen your writing is to send important emails in plain text. Rich text effects–bold, italics, highlighting, and underline–are the empty calories of online communication–they can satisfy a quick need for an instant eye-catch, but relying on them over a long time will make your writing flabby and weak.

We all work with someone whose long, rambling emails contain a sentence that looks like this:

This is the IMPORTANT part: pay attention!

The writer realizes that the recipient needs a map through their forest of words, and these visual cues create guide posts highlighting what is critical and what can be ignored.

This approach has two problems:

  1. If there’s filler in your email that can be ignored, take it out.
  2. Over time, people get used to ignoring everything that isn’t highlighted.

If you’ve eradicated all unnecessary filler and still have a lot of text, fight the urge to use the sugar-rich visual cues of bold, underline, italics, exclamation points, and highlighting. Why? Because your colleagues use them liberally, and busy people have been conditioned over the years to react to them in these ways:

  • We assume you have not taken out the filler, and we are likely to skim or ignore large parts of what you wrote.
  • We assume you lack confidence in your points, and that you are trying to dress them up to make them seem more credible.
  • We assume that you believe we are either incapable of or unwilling to read and understand what you’ve written, and as a result we may feel untrusted or disrespected.
  • We assume you’re trying to sell us something, and we may approach your highlighted points with more skepticism than we should.

So if you shouldn’t highlight with these cues, what can you do in those (necessarily) long emails to make sure your main points get the attention they deserve?

Begin with good organization. You can choose from several approaches to present complex information; pick one that fits your topic and the nature of what you need to communicate. A sequential description (A led to B led to C which leaves us at D) may be good when a lot of background is needed, but it can distract when that background really is just filler. An executive summary may be useful for informing someone of a decision, but it might not work if you’re asking many people for input on a complex problem. Whatever structure you choose, make sure the structure supports the information and not the other way round. If you find yourself adding extra information, or twisting your words to fit a prescribed structure, then you’ve chosen the wrong structure.

Editing Pony sneers at ALL CAPS.
Editing Pony sneers at ALL CAPS.

Put each key point at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Either make your point and then defend it, or provide the necessary information and conclude with the key point. If you feel an itch to highlight or bold something in the middle of a paragraph, restructure your paragraph.

Don’t forget the negative space. White space can create visual pauses, separate ideas, and refresh the reader’s attention. It’s also a signal to the reader that the previous point is done.

Bullet lists force brevity. Each bullet in a list should be concise and easy to digest at a glance. As a general rule, if your bullet is more than two sentences, it should be a paragraph instead of a bullet. Good bullet lists also provide a refreshing visual break in paragraphs of text.

Stay away from tables. People love to put complex information in tables, but inevitably a table will end up carrying empty cells. These are visual trip hazards; an empty cell feels like a mistake. So what do you think happens to empty cells? That’s right: they get filled with unnecessary words, distracting from our main points.

Write well. Use simple, direct sentences with strong nouns and verbs. Eliminate equivocations and adjectives. Learn to use commas properly, and for everyone’s sake spell things right. Read it over many times from the beginning for flow, clarity, and even cadence. Read it out loud. Fix awkward parts.

Finally, cultivate your own reputation for tight, efficient communication. We all dread hearing from people who always speak ten minutes longer than they’re allocated, but we like speakers who finish on time or early. If people know you as someone who doesn’t speak much but who says important things, you will find yourself using bold, italics, underline, highlighting, all caps, and exclamation points less and less.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

Lifelike Cover, Preorder, and Launch Promo

I’ve put Lifelike up for preorder in the Kindle store.

But don’t preorder it!
The list price is $5.99*. If you preorder it, you will pay full list. But on June 16 I’ll drop the price to $0.99 for a few days. So wait until June 16 to buy it. If you absolutely positively must have it before then, email me and I’ll send you the file (but promise to buy it for 99 cents on June 16 so I get credit for the sale). If you have a bad sense of finances, you can buy it for $5.99 now through June 16 (ebook publication date is May 16).

To sum up:

  • Wait until June 16.
  • Buy it for $0.99 before the promotional price expires.
  • Read it.
  • Write a review.

A side effect of offering it preorder is I uploaded the cover to the Kindle store. So this isn’t really a “cover reveal” post (which I find almost as curious as those “gender reveal” parties that are oh so premature) because the cover has already been revealed. But I’m revealing it to you here, now!

Lifelike Cover - Wendy Russ, designer
Sexy, isn’t it? That’s Jewel, the main character, in the blue dress holding the roses.

What do you think? Sexy, dark, intriguing? Bewitching? Let me know with a comment here.

So put June 16 on your calendar. If June 16 is already on your calendar, write “Purchase Lifelike for 99c!” on the spot where June 16 is. Then write in the URL for the Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/Lifelike-Peter-Dudley-ebook/dp/B071421YB6/

* Apologies to non-US friends. I default to USD because I’m an arrogant American in that way.

State clearly; ask clearly

If you can’t make your email easy to understand and act on, don’t send it.

Most of work email is about one of three things:

Any questions?
  • Informing people of something important,
  • Asking someone to do something for you, or
  • Amusing your closest friends with clever snark.

If your email isn’t one of those, don’t send it. If it must be sent, then respect the recipients’ time by doing these three things.

Be clear and concise

Most people who think they are great communicators are, in fact, terrible writers. My wife (an experienced teacher of writing) and I were lamenting yesterday that school teaches kids that good writing requires more words–add description, adjectives, DETAILS! Dead wrong, especially in business writing. More on this in future posts, but about work emails I want to say just these two points today:

  • Stick to the central point(s). Eliminate backstory. Eliminate details that are already known to the recipients. Eliminate distractions. The longer your email, the less attention your main point will get.
  • Use clear, direct language and sentence structure. Your reader should understand your point on the first reading. This isn’t always possible for complex topics, but it should be your goal. Don’t strive to make your email understandable; strive to make it impossible to be misunderstood.
No “quick question” email has EVER had a quick answer.

Set up the right response

Before you send your email, know what you want, and who you want it from. Don’t send your email until you are clear on those two points and have made it obvious in the text. Bad emails fail this in two main ways:

  • Pussyfooting around the question, or burying it in the middle. Don’t make the recipient work to find your question, or to figure out what you need from them. If I have to dredge your question from a bog of muddy text, I’m going to think you don’t really know what you’re asking, or I’m going to suspect you’re trying to hide something. Make your question or request clear, and set it apart where I’ll see it.
  • Not asking anyone in particular. When your question goes to a group, often no one will respond because they hope someone else will. Perhaps you’re sending it to the group because it’s a complicated issue that needs input from multiple people and you don’t know where to start. I’ve found that either asking a pointed question of one individual on the list, or stating outright that I need help and don’t know where to start, gets things rolling.

Reread and rewrite

If you don’t take time to make your email easy for me to read and respond to, I am going to set it aside for later.

Did that sound arrogant and dismissive to you? Did you think, “That’s really rude. I would hate to be his coworker”?

When I get a wordy, rambling, ambiguous, or difficult email, I know the sender prioritized their own time over mine. They decided it was easier to make me decipher their word maze than to take a few extra minutes and clarify their message. They may have saved a few of their own minutes, but they cost me extra time and effort, which delays their answer.

Now imagine that multiplied by everyone on the distribution list. If six people get your email, that’s six times the deciphering effort. It’s far more efficient to the group for you to spend a couple extra minutes editing.

In other words

State clearly; ask clearly. Get to the point. Eliminate distractions. Guide the reader to your request, and make it obvious who needs to respond.

If you can’t do those things, you’ve got either lazy editing skills, or lazy thought. Either way, you’ll end up frustrated that no one is responding. If no one responds, reread what you sent before blaming them. Over time, your effort will be rewarded when your coworkers pay more attention to your emails than other people’s, without even realizing it.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a new blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.