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.

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.

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.

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.

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.