Plan for 2019 San Francisco Writers Conference now! #SFWC18 #SFWC19

You know what’s truly appalling? How few photos I have from ten years of volunteering at the San Francisco Writers Conference.

Ten years I’ve trudged up the half mile and (roughly) 73,000 vertical feet of Powell Street from BART to the Mark Hopkins hotel. I’ve introduced speakers, crawled under tables to plug in cords, set up a Whova app, got down with OPP (other people’s powerpoints), reprimanded best-selling authors for droning on too long, and made lots and lots of friends.

In those ten years, I collected numerous rejections, published five books, had stories published in at least four anthologies (including Julaina’s), held an author reading, and on and on.

All this is to say that if you’re a writer, or think you might have writerly tendencies, you should plan now to spend Valentine’s Day 2019 with me at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco. Editing Pony is here to take care of you… Hey, Pony, give us the details!

Thanks, Pony!

I hope to see you there. All new location, even better content and networking.

Rabbit Hole Day

Lewis Carroll was born on January 27th.  The idea of blog Rabbit Hole Day is to stop making sense for 24 hours to honor the birthday of the guy who came up with Alice and the white rabbit and Cheshire Cat and all that.  I, however, take a different approach.  I honor the day not by being inane and insane but by penning a poem that attempts to mimic something.  You get to decide what it mimics.

Prior attempts at this can be found on my old blog.

The Candleship

Rekindling the stars

Timbers whine, creaking; sailors sweat, reeking.
The man at the watch checks his compass again.
He brustles his jacket against the wind’s stracket,
Alarmed by pitch darkness at quarter to ten.

“Prunch the pinjammer, and cease all that yammer!”
Demands Mister Stitcher with braughtery bluster.
“Shawlup and listen, there’s demons a-swissin,
So gather your courage, what all can ye muster.”

The ship glythers slow as cruel moanings below
Fill every lad’s heart with a dreckoning fear.
They gloomish their plight as they watch the last light
Sink into the black of the bottomless squeer.

“Now, man, let’s hear it, and sing it with spirit!”
Cries Stitcher while striking a match at the mast.
Its tiny spitsizzle belightens the drizzle
Like memoried starstorms from eons long past.

It’s too late, though, I fear, for the demons are here,
With their shashowy shapes climbing over the rails,
And their claws clickerclack as the wind has gone slack
And the night feels as flat as our dreakening sails.

With grim sword in hand, I’m ready to stand
And fight to the end of all life and all joy.
But soft in the glow, a lone voice starts in low,
On a song that is something I knew as a boy.

It windeshes clear through the rain far and near
And snatches up sparklets as skyward it drives.
And the demons, conchailling, leap over the railing
Bewailing their failing to capture our lives.

Then, magic surprising–the raindrops, they’re rising!
Constelling in patterns of glittery lightness.
We stand there like fools, agape at the jewels
Skembedding in heavenly swathings of brightness.

On the song’s final note, our draddeling boat
Belurches to glythe once more on its way.
The Candleboat crew, all seventy-two,
Now ready to kindle another new day.

Why you use the passive voice

Do you ever find yourself writing this

An email was written and sent to me by my coworker, and it was marked as high priority.

instead of this

My coworker sent me a high priority email.

Don’t worry. We all do it, and I’ll explain why in a second. But only one time in 10,000 should you actually send the first one.

The photograph of the picture that was painted by Editing Pony was taken by me.

 

The difference between these two sentences is that one is in passive voice and the other in active voice. If you don’t already know the difference, go learn, then come back.

My favorite reasons for avoiding passive voice are

  • Passive voice almost always uses more words. Although words are not a limited resource, your audience’s attention is.
  • Passive voice is usually harder to decipher because we live in a “Joe called me” world, not an “I was called by Joe” world.
  • In business writing, passive voice can erode the reader’s trust because they may think you’re trying to direct attention away from the real subject and verb. Most of the time, that’s exactly what’s happening.

In the first example, the email takes center stage, and the sender and recipient are secondary. In the second example, your coworker is telling you something, and email is just the mechanism.

Why do we write in passive voice?

I’ve only found three reasons people write in passive voice. First, they think long, wordy, circuitous sentences sound more intelligent and credible. (The opposite is true.) Second, they are trying to deflect accountability by moving the spotlight away from the agent. Third, they don’t understand the point they’re trying to make.

Here are a few examples from recent emails I’ve received. Do you have examples? Share them in comments.

An estimate has not been generated by the sales team.

The writer thought their audience was most interested in the cost, so they focused on the estimate and its status. This may seem logical, but the reader would still more easily understand

The sales team hasn’t generated an estimate.

In business writing, when you bury accountability in a grammatical labyrinth, people trust you less. Why are you letting the sales team off the hook? Have you followed up with them, or are you just waiting for an estimate to magically appear?

Challenges were created by not having a process in place to identify issues prior to launch.

Here’s an example where the agent doesn’t even appear in the sentence. Who was responsible for creating such a process? Was it one person or many people? And what should bother us here: that there was no process, or that issues weren’t identified in time, or that challenges resulted? Clearly, this example is taken out of context, but now I have to read a lot more just to understand what this sentence is trying to imply. And I’m also on high alert because I may need to work very hard to see the real meaning through the word fog.

Joe should have identified these issues before launch.

Far less ambiguous. And, although it may seem more aggressive to call Joe out like that, it’s actually less unfair to him because now Joe has something to respond to. Joe can agree with or rebut the second statement, but he can’t do anything at all with the first statement.

Write in active voice

For 2018, commit to writing your business communications in active voice. If you find yourself writing circuitous sentences where the agent is not the focus, ask yourself why. Is it because you aren’t clear on your message? Clarify your message before writing the email. Is it because you are afraid of blame falling on someone? Sometimes deflection can be useful, but be aware people will see right through it or be confused by it, and either they will trust you less or ask questions to get at the point anyway. Is it because you think the focus really should fall on the patient rather than the agent? Passive voice can be a useful structure in this case, but it should be the very rare exception in your writing. Almost always you can be more clear and concise with active voice.

Write courageously. Don’t hide your true meaning behind the verbal fog of passive voice. It doesn’t sound more intelligent; it just confuses and distracts.

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.

picking blueberries (a poem)

picking blueberries
2010 – Bolton, CT

A few years ago I drifted away from writing poetry. This year, after publishing Lifelike, I found the daily barrage of bad news and work stress was pounding the imagination out of me until I just couldn’t write anything new. So, in an effort to rediscover my muse, I turned tonight to some poetry I wrote a few years back. Almost immediately I discovered this one, which although a little self indulgent perhaps and in need of some tightening, I think is actually quite good. I hope you enjoy it.

picking blueberries

My father wears a white bucket around his neck,
shaded by a wide brimmed hat.
I’m ten years old, jostled along
on the flat bed of a converted farm truck.
Its enormous, bald tires kick dust
into the sweaty Connecticut summer.
A line of tall trees wilts in the shimmering heat,
too far away for shade.

The truck turns, grouches to a
bumpy, dust-bowl halt.
The teenagers in their frayed cut-offs
and faded bandanas
leap off even before the truck stops.
They gather and mosey into the spaces
between long rows of blueberry bushes.
My father hops off, turns and reaches for me.
I hand him my bucket, and he watches me
squat at the truck’s edge before
I drop carefully to the soft, bent grass.

He picks us a pair of untouched bushes
just far enough away from the others.
He teaches me to roll clumps of berries
off their sagging stems.
He shows me how to reach inside,
under, around to pick the bush clean,
unlike the teenagers whose impatience
seems like an injustice to the bush.
He pops fat, juicy berries in his mouth.
I follow, but unlike him I select the
red berries, their tartness like
summer lightning in my mouth.

As our buckets fill, hollow plunks
give way to a soft, rain-like drumming
of berries falling on berries,
and I treasure the growing weight
pulling down on my hot neck.

Now I am nearly forty years old,
and the sun seems hotter and the
air seems stiller and the teenagers
seem exactly the same.
Ethan and Sam hang empty plastic buckets
around their necks, complaining of
the rope’s dull bite, the sweaty day.
I lead them over yellowed grass
between the rows of bushes
the boys can’t see over.
I teach them to roll clumps of swollen berries
off sagging stems, to peel back the branches
and pick the bush clean.
And I pop a plump, juicy berry into my mouth
as the boys seek out the summer lightning
lurking inside the little, red ones.

Don’t rewrite. Okay? Just… don’t.

Proposals, “what went wrong” documents, even status updates. These and lots more come through your inbox, written by others and given to you to pass along to management, decision makers, or others. When I get these, I always proofread before sending along. After all, my name will be on it even though I’m not the author.

My team are all good writers, but every document can be improved. Here are some edits that may occur to you as you review.

One of these is helpful. Guess which.

Only one of those four is helpful, though. Which one? I’ll give you a few minutes to think it through.

If you didn’t say the last one, then we can’t be friends anymore.

What do the first three have in common that make them not just unhelpful but actually counterproductive? In each, you’ve acknowledged that the communication does its job, but your ego has declared, “That’s not the way I would say it.” You now have a choice: Approve the document with minor edits, or rewrite the document the way you would have written it?

If you’re unsure of the right choice, here’s a handy flowchart for you:

How to decide whether to rewrite or not

The objective of business communication is to communicate business things. If the document does its job and is not grossly offensive in how it presents itself, then leave it alone. Make minor edits–clarify where necessary, fix usage and grammar, spell-check, etc.–but do not rewrite.

Rewriting a document that is already competently written accomplishes only negative things:

  • You waste your own time.
  • You make the author feel their time was wasted.
  • You make the author feel their voice is unheard and their work is unappreciated.
  • You confuse people about who now “owns” the document. It’s no longer the original author’s, but it’s not yours either. Who responds to questions?
  • You set yourself up to get crap that needs to be rewritten in the future, because who wants to put a ton of work into something that’s just going to get reworked anyway?

Certainly, some situations may require rewrites. A draft written by an engineer that needs to be reformed in the corporate voice for public use, for example. This is where professional communicators need to step in and command the output.

You all know me by now as someone who cares deeply about the written word. Much of the time in business, however, your time is better spent elsewhere than rewriting a competent document into a (marginally) more competent document.

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.

You want to help. What can you do?

CBS news posted a terrific article illustrating why giving money is so much more effective than giving stuff (or worse, organizing your own collection drive) after a disaster. But you want to help. Can you do anything more than just text ten bucks to Red Cross?

You sure can. Things you can do now:

  1. Donate to American Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Team Rubicon, or other disaster relief agencies.
  2. Donate to long term recovery. United Way of Greater Houston is a great option as they will know how and where to apply funds during the years of recovery after the news crews have left. Consider donating to other organizations that provide job training, child care, access to health care, education, and help with clothing, housing, or food.
  3. Prepare yourself, your family, and your community for a disaster locally. If you’ve got kids, have them help. Learn the locations and phone numbers of your local relief agencies.
  4. Give blood if you can. Your blood won’t help people in Houston, but donated blood has a short shelf life, and your local supplies always need replenishing.
  5. Put a reminder on your calendar for six months or a year from now to check in on recovery efforts, and to see if it might make sense to hold a collection drive or fundraiser then, or to join an onsite volunteer effort.
  6. Donate and volunteer locally. The best way for a community to recover from a future disaster is to build a strong, thriving infrastructure with the services in place to help when help is needed.

Also, please don’t forward those stories that go viral after every disaster. You know the ones… about the 8 year old who organized a collection drive of Pez dispensers, or teddy bears, or school supplies. Heartwarming and full of love, but ultimately not terribly effective.

And do not even think about going to the disaster area to help unless you are trained in disaster response and are mobilized by an aid organization. Seriously, no matter how willing and able you are, you will only add to the number of people burdening the water, food, security, transportation, and sewage infrastructure. Stay out of the way of the experts, but help them by giving money they can use to do their jobs efficiently.

How do you continue to create in times of stress?

The world ties cinder blocks to our balloons, and if we don’t cut them free, we will never fly.

I realized this morning that I haven’t created in a few weeks. I’ve journaled. I’ve tweeted witty things. I’ve produced work at my job. I’ve written a hundred insightful, well-crafted comments about world events.

But I haven’t created. I have responded.

There’s nothing wrong with responding; we all should participate in the debates of our time, add humor and critical thought to the human dialog. Help others learn while learning from them. But I want to create. I love having written stories like Lifelike that come purely from my imagination.

A person has only so much creative fuel, though, and the world conspires to burn it in a thousand little ways every day. Solving problems at work. Deciphering baffling health care bills. Explaining white privilege in 140 characters. I have to be careful of burning up all my creative fuel.

In order to create, though, I also need to cut loose the thousand stones the world ties to my ankles every day. Gut-wrenching news of terrorism, violent demonstrations, and hate crimes. Family members’ health problems. The worry of too many expenses and not enough income. Constant reminders like Facebook notifications saying “Peter Dudley – Author got no new views this week.” (Thanks, Facebook, for really brightening my day.) These weights numb my brain until I just want to sit and be empty for a bit.

It’s impossible to fly without fuel, or when you’re too heavily weighed down.

But life is life.

What do you do to cut loose the weights, and to keep from burning too much of your creative fuel during the week?

Wrangling your fat, aimless cows into useful writing

All writing starts with ideas, just as all stampedes start with cows. Good writing wrangles those ideas into a herd, then spurs them into motion. Weak writing plops those ideas down in ones and twos on the page, like cows milling about a pasture.

Ideas in your writing should be a lot more like a stampede than a pasture dotted by aimless, fat cows. Stampedes surge. Stampedes roar. Stampedes have no time for bullshit. You don’t forget a stampede, but if you wander around pastures you’ll probably end up with poop-covered shoes.

Listless cow is in your herd, thwarting your stampede
Listless cow is in your herd, thwarting your stampede

How, then, do you wrangle your ideas (the fat, aimless cows) into a strong piece of writing (the stampede)?

Note to self: Next installment of Editing Pony should be about not torturing metaphors.

In business writing, a good example for this lesson might be a languishing project that you inherit. Such a project is likely to have

  • multiple participants who aren’t personally accountable for the ultimate objective
  • multiple dependencies blaming poorly understood external factors
  • lots of meetings where the first 45 minutes is spent trying to remember where we left off last time

These are listless cows, wandering about a pasture.

What the project does not have is focus, direction, or momentum. You can provide it with a tight project directive, created with three simple actions:

1. Gather the herd

Happy cattle dispersed into small, separate groups rarely stampede. When spooked, they just run a few feet and settle back into grazing. Your first step is to bring everything together into your own corner of the pasture. To do this, create four lists:

  • Deliverables
    What needs to be created, by whom, and for what purpose? (e.g., Frank write a data entry app to capture names at the event.)
  • Dependencies
    In order to create those deliverables, what needs to happen first, and who needs to do it? (e.g., Marketing needs to provide the data specs to Frank.)
  • Gaps
    Where dependencies and deliverables don’t have a name attached, call them out. Or if a critical step has been previously unidentified, list it here. (e.g., Frank has the wrong development tools for the target platform.)
  • Actions
    What immediate actions need to be taken, by whom, and by when are they needed? (e.g., Mary call Marketing to demand the data specs, by Friday.)

What don’t you see above? You don’t see executive summary or background. You don’t see templated document structure. You don’t see any “how we got here.” That’s all a waste of time. Spend a sentence or two on the ultimate goal of the project if you must, but no more.

In other types of writing, the same principles apply. The lists may be different, but you still need to put all your points together in one place and see where they connect, see the dependencies, and identify the gaps. It’s nothing more than simple storyboarding, really, but it’s shocking how often people skip this step and jump right to composition before they know what they’re writing. Which leads to crap output, or to “writer’s block.”

In high school essays, for example, this step forces the student to forget about “the paper” and focus on the points, which ultimately leads to better citations, stronger arguments, and a more complete product. In fiction, this step may identify themes, characters, major plot points, and timeline.

2. Thin the herd

When a project has stagnated or your ideas have been muddled, you’ll probably spend too long making the lists in step 1, and the lists will stretch out, full of rambling description. Kill all that crap. If a deliverable is not absolutely necessary for project success, eliminate it. If someone claims a dependency on a vague external event, nail that down or reject the dependency.

Send 'em packing!
Send ’em packing!

The goal in this step is to find and break those circles of discussion that keep folding in on themselves. Someone always calls for “another meeting to discuss it,” or someone whines about an external dependency no one in the meeting has accountability for. Stampedes can be stopped by turning the front cows back into the herd; get rid of the slow, easily frightened cows that are likely to thwart your stampede.

The output of step 2 should be a terse, tight set of lists free of needless description. A document that shows only those things that need doing, who has to do them, and when they have to get done. If an item doesn’t drive to your ultimate goal, cut it.

Again, this step is critical in other writing. In high school essays, this is where structure is imposed on the arguments. In fiction, this is where you fill in plot holes and get rid of extraneous scenes and characters; for some authors this looks like an outline.

3. Direct the herd

In our project example, it’s time to kick the team into action. But don’t just toss the project plan out to the group; connect individually with each person assigned to a deliverable, gap, or action. Avoid sending anything to the whole group–that wastes the time of the uninvolved and gets ignored by people who need to act. Where gaps exist, assign people to fill them. Where dependency delivery dates don’t support the project, get them tightened. You’ve now got a document that shows why.

With these simple steps, you’ve taken a stagnant, aimless project and pointed everyone in one direction. You’ve told them exactly what they need to do and when it’s needed. You’ve eliminated the pointless and extraneous, and you’ve illuminated the gaps. And really, all you’ve done is what any good writer does.

If your project is huge, or you’re writing a novel, this set of techniques nests and scales. I do this before I start a novel, focusing first on the entirety of the plot arc. Then as I write, I do it again for each major section, and then for each chapter within each section. The same could be done for a project or a research paper. All my novels were written this way.

Conclusion: Not all metaphors work

I really was hoping that my cow stampede metaphor would carry me through this post, but it kind of stinks. Even though I’ve been to a rodeo in Texas, inside I’m just not cowboy enough, I guess.

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.

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.