Serious Writer Voice

5 February 2016

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

So I read fiction magazine after fiction magazine, anthology after anthology.

I noted something as I read. Most of the stories had the same voice and tone. What do I mean by that? I mean they read like they’d been written by the exact same person.

It was always a joy—it is always a joy—to “hear” a new voice, a voice that doesn’t sound like anyone else. I could tell without looking at the byline when I hit a Joyce Carol Oates or Megan Abbot or Michael Connelly story. The Strand found an original F. Scott Fitzgerald story and published it last year, and Fitzgerald’s voice—unlike any other—came through loud and clear.

A lot of the stories I read this past year had wonderful plots. They had great characters and lovely twists. The stories were published, remember, and so they all had something unusual, something strong.

But that something generally wasn’t voice.

And now I’m reading manuscripts for an anthology that should be all voice. Every story should sound so different from every other story as to be unrecognizable. Think of it like accents or word usage: As I read, I should be seeing Texas accents and idioms in one story, Australian accents and idioms in the next, and Scottish accents and idioms in the next.

Instead, I get mostly what I call “serious writer voice.”

Serious writer voice is carefully bland. It will include a few setting details, some nice descriptions, maybe a few unique words. But mostly, it is indistinguishable from any other voice. Rather like the way we used to train broadcasters in this country.

When I started on the radio, I was fortunate enough to have the perfect accent, because broadcasters were trained to speak like a Midwesterner. (Middle Midwest, if you want to be specific—more Central Illinois than Northern Minnesota or Southern Missouri.) Now, if you listen, you’ll hear broadcasters with Georgia accents, and broadcasters with Brooklyn accents. They actually sound like human beings these days—with correct grammar (most of the time) but varied delivery.

Like broadcasters of old, writers have been trained to sound the same. Serious writer voice stories have paragraphs that are of uniform length, sentences that rarely have contractions, a lot of passive voice (!), and very few conjunctions. Things like dashes and parenthesis are used judiciously—as in so rarely that most stories don’t even have them.

All the tools that writers should have in their grammarian’s toolbox—the tools that make writers “sound” different—well, most writers don’t know they exist. It’s as if writers try very hard to build a house using a hammer, nails, some wood, and a saw. No screwdriver, no wrench, no metal, no PVC pipes, nothing. Just the same four things over and over again, whether they fit or not.

. . . .

Think of it this way: imagine someone telling you a story. That person, who uses his own voice creatively—mimicking accents, raising his voice when someone’s shouting, using different tones for different characters—will hold your attention with his performance as well as his story.

Then think of the same story told like this: the person stands in front of the room, uses no gestures, and speaks in a monotone. Sometimes, you can hear the story anyway. But most of the time, you have to struggle to pay attention, because that monotone is deadly.

Most of what I read these days—things that are published, both traditionally and indie—are written in the stylistic equivalent of that monotone.

Is there a reason this is happening? Absolutely.

Writers workshop their manuscripts. They have their friends (usually unpublished or poorly published) writers go over the manuscript. Those friends impose really weird rules on the writers. I’ve seen lists of these rules. The rules tend to vary depending on where the writer learned them.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch and thanks to Toby for the tip.

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

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This writing app deletes everything if you stop typing

4 February 2016

From Mashable:

Writing on a computer can be one of the most harrowing experiences of the modern era. With a bevy of Internet distractions including endless pictures of puppies, videos of people falling down and social media, it’s a wonder anything actually gets done anymore. How can anyone stay focused while simultaneously drowning in thousands of procrastination catalysts just one click away?

Flowstate, found on Product Hunt, is a writing app for OS X ($14.99) and iOS ($9.99) that wants to keep you focused. You select a font, timeframe and title, then start writing. If you stop typing, your text begins to fade, and it’s completely deleted after five seconds of inactivity.

. . . .

You can choose timeframes between 5-180 minutes, although one of the creators Caleb Slain told Mashable you’ll only really start to lock in at 15 minutes or longer.

. . . .

“You as a person want to keep the things you own, it’s your natural instinct,” Slain said

“So if you make a sentence, you make a paragraph, you don’t want it to go away, but the only way to keep it is to write more. So if you make a sentence, you make a paragraph, you don’t want it to go away, but the only way to keep it is to write more.”

The more you write, the more you have to lose.

“Before you know it, you have page, or two pages,” he said. “Nothing in the world matters anymore except for keeping what’s yours.”

Link to the rest at Mashable and thanks to Jill for the tip.

You know what I am going to say

4 February 2016

You know what I am going to say. I love you. What other men may mean when they use that expression, I cannot tell; what I mean is, that I am under the influence of some tremendous attraction which I have resisted in vain, and which overmasters me. You could draw me to fire, you could draw me to water, you could draw me to the gallows, you could draw me to any death, you could draw me to anything I have most avoided, you could draw me to any exposure and disgrace. This and the confusion of my thoughts, so that I am fit for nothing, is what I mean by your being the ruin of me. But if you would return a favourable answer to my offer of myself in marriage, you could draw me to any good – every good – with equal force.

Charles Dickens

Google launches e-book ‘experiment’

4 February 2016

From The Bookseller:

Google has launched a new digital-only bookstore “for books that cannot be printed”.

The “experiment” into digital books, called Editions at Play, was created by London-based publisher Visual Editions and Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney and features books Visual Editions has commissioned, including a book set in Google street view.

The idea behind Editions at Play is “not to challenge conventional publishing” but to “open some doors”, according to its creators. It was born out of a “response” to the evolving digital publishing landscape, including e-books, enhanced e-books and online PDFs. The initiative’s goal is to “allow writers to create books that cannot be printed” and, said Google, “fit better with 21st century sensibilities”.

In a blog, Google said: “Editions At Play is an experiment by Visual Editions and Google’s Creative Lab to explore the potential of digital books: that is, books that change dynamically on your phone or tablet, using all the attributes of the modern mobile web to do things that printed books never could. Simply put, we wanted to see if we could keep the integrity of reading, but play with the book’s digital form.”

It added: “Books in Editions at Play are designed to make the most of the mobile web in order to ‘do things printed books never could’. They abide by the principles that books must be envisioned as ‘mobile-first’, have pages and “use the dynamic qualities of the interweb”.

Editions at Play’s two launch titles include a book that “travels the world” through Google Street View called Entrances & Exits by Reif Larsen; and a book that invites the reader to “take sides” called The Truth About Cats & Dogs by the authors Joe Dunthorne and Sam Riviere. The titles cost £2.99 each through the Google Play store and can be read through both Apple and Android devices.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

See through words

4 February 2016

From Aeon:

If you could ask Dante where he got the idea of life as a road, or Rilke where he found the notion that time is a destroyer, they might have said the metaphors were hewn from their minds, or drawn from a stock of poetic imagery. Their readers might have said the imagery had origins more divine, perhaps even diabolical. But neither poets nor readers would have said the metaphors were designed. That is, the metaphors didn’t target people’s cognitive processes. They weren’t engineered to affect us in a specific way.

Can metaphors be designed? I’m here to tell you that they can, and are. For five years I worked full-time as a metaphor designer at the FrameWorks Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, whose clients are typically large US foundations (never political campaigns or governments). I continue to shape and test metaphors for private-sector clients and others. In both cases, these metaphors are meant to help people to understand the unfamiliar. They aren’t supposed to make someone remark: ‘That’s beautiful.’ They’re meant to make someone realise that they’ve only been looking at one side of a thing.

Here’s an example. In the 1960s, the US philosopher Donald Schön spent some time at the consulting firm Arthur D Little (he eventually became a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nearby). He was working with product researchers trying to figure out why a new paintbrush design with synthetic bristles didn’t apply paint smoothly. As Schön related it later, someone in the group suddenly said: ‘A paintbrush is a kind of pump!’

Ordinarily, seeing a paintbrush this way would be considered a mistake. In this case, what the researchers knew about pumps suddenly became available for thinking about paintbrushes too. ‘Paintbrush as pump’ isn’t beautiful, but it’s very useful. It was, as Schön wrote later, ‘a generative metaphor for the researchers in the sense that it generated new perceptions, explanations, and inventions’. (Among other things, it led to new bristle designs that would bend the right way.)

. . . .

Consider the thing to be communicated – a business strategy, a discovery, a new look at a familiar social problem – and then make a pseudo-mistake. Actually, create a lot of pseudo-mistakes, and test each one. At the end, the floor will be covered with the blood of failed comparisons. One way to create these mistakes is to deliberately miscategorise the thing you are trying to explain. What do paintbrushes have to do with pumps? Ah, they all move liquid. You choose the pump because it’s the most prototypical member of the things-that-move-liquid category.

Another way to create the mistake is to break the thing you want to explain into its components, then connect them to some other idea or domain of life. Say there’s a city department that’s in charge of lots of different programmes, all of them related to health. The department plays a centralising function for various programmes funded by multiple sources, operating over several jurisdictions. That diversity confuses audiences. Also, the programmes are often for vulnerable populations – the elderly, immigrants, people with addictions: people for whom the average taxpayer’s sympathies are not necessarily assured. So the right metaphor must speak to inclusion and community, and suggest some benefit, such as health or opportunity, that’s more widely shared. I tried ‘bridge’ and ‘platform’, but ultimately went with ‘key ring’: the department holds the keys for unlocking health.

. . . .

Pretty much every metaphor designer is inspired by Metaphors We Live By (1980), by the Berkeley linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon. It’s the classic look at how metaphors structure the way we think and talk, and once you’ve read it, you can’t help but agree that, at a conceptual level, life is a journey, and arguments are wars (you take sides, there can be only one winner, evidence is a weapon). However, for the practical metaphor designer, psycholinguistic research turns out to be much more useful than philosophical commentary, because it studies how people actually encounter and process new metaphors.

It was the Princeton psycholinguist Sam Glucksberg who in 2003 argued that metaphors are really categorisation proposals. Provocations, you might call them. You’re suggesting that one thing belongs with another. But the thing that lets us make sense of ‘paintbrush as pump’ – or ‘lawyer as shark’ – is that ‘pump’ is the name of a category for liquid-moving mechanisms, just as ‘shark’ is the name of the category for predatory individuals. Words such as ‘pump’ and ‘shark’ aren’t just the names of individual things; they also speak to generalities. They have what Glucksberg calls ‘dual reference’. He points out others that have become conventionalised metaphors. ‘Butcher’ refers to ‘anyone who should be skilled but is incompetent’, ‘jail’ to ‘any unpleasant, confining situation’, ‘Enron’ to ‘any dramatic accounting scandal’, and ‘Vietnam’ to any ‘disastrous military intervention’.

Link to the rest at Aeon and thanks to Julia for the tip.

Going Analog to Beat Writer’s Block

4 February 2016

From author Toby Neal:

Going analog to beat writer’s block is a desperate measure, something I never thought I’d have to do. I don’t know how long I’ll be analog. It may be permanent.

“What are you saying?” You may well ask. “Didn’t you just write a cyber mystery about a woman who’s always Wired In?”

Well, yes. And it took a toll. Actually I’m not sure what took a toll exactly, all I know is that I hit a wall in November and couldn’t write any new material. It’s now February.

“Big deal,” you say. “You wrote fourteen mysteries, three romances, two memoirs and a couple of YA novels in five years. It’s okay to be a little burned-out and take a break.”

That’s what my friends told me, too. I told myself that, agreeing. But not writing isn’t “taking a break” to me. I’m happiest when I’m writing, and I couldn’t seem to. Nothing appealed, not even my romances, which are my go-to feel-good projects when I get a little stuck. Even blogging, which I normally love, felt Herculean.

. . . .

And gradually, I began to go analog. This definition from matches the way I mean the term: “Analog is the opposite of digital. Any technology, such as vinyl records or clocks with hands and faces, that doesn’t break everything down into binary code to work is analog. Analog, you might say, is strictly old school.”

My version of analog meant stopping the noise and distractions in my head and life, most of them somehow digital. I stopped listening to music in the car, and let my thoughts wander instead. I stopped listening to audiobooks or calling friends on my walks with my dog in the neighborhood, now just noticing things: the cry of Francolin grouse in the overgrown, empty pineapple field, distant roosters, barking dogs, doves and chattering mynahs, the sound the wind makes in the coconut trees, the swish of my feet through grass, the feel of air on my skin.

I stopped filling my ears with noise and my eyes with electronics, staying away from my computer except for planned chunks of work using the Pomodoro method.

. . . .

I did the book launches, and the two books are out, selling well, and gathering great reviews—all a writer of any stripe can hope for. These latest two are some of the best I’ve written, and with the relief of having them out there, I got a tiny insight:some of this block is performance anxiety.

I worry I won’t be able to top myself, that I’ve already done the best work I’m capable of.

Once that insight finally bubbled up through the silence I was cultivating, I could examine it. Interact with it. Test its veracity, as we do in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is my primary counseling mode. In trying to grapple with it, the tiny insight got louder, clearer and more detailed. I recognized the voice of the Inner Critic, and the razor-tipped arrow of a lie that had pierced me in the heart and frozen me in place.

Link to the rest at Toby Neal

Here’s a link to Toby Neal’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

Meet the Guy Behind Amazon’s Secret Retail Store Plans

4 February 2016

From Re/code:

The Amazon retail store initiative is being led by Steve Kessel, a longtime Amazon executive whose team launched the first Kindle e-reader and who is very tight with CEO Jeff Bezos, according to three sources familiar with the group.

Kessel is widely respected inside Amazon, where he is known as a low-ego leader with greater emotional intelligence than some other senior executives at the company, according to two sources. He joined Amazon in 1999 and left in 2011 or 2012 to take a sabbatical. He started working on this initiative when he came back, these people say. The specifics of Kessel’s project had been a secret internally for a long time, but his group has attracted more attention since it opened up Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle in the fall.

. . . .

Early Amazon exec Jennifer Cast runs the Amazon Books division and reports to Kessel. She spent a long time away from Amazon before returning in 2014 to take on this role.

. . . .

Amazon will indeed open up more bookstores, but it also plans to eventually unveil other types of retail stores in addition to bookstores, according to two sources familiar with the plans. It’s not yet clear what those stores will sell or how they will be formatted, but the retail team’s mission is to reimagine what shopping in a physical store would be like if you merged the best of physical retail with the best of Amazon.

One source says the team is experimenting with some of the ideas discussed in this retail-store-related patent application that Re/code uncovered last year. One of the experiences discussed in the application would allow customers to pick an item from a shelf and automatically be charged for it upon exiting the store without stopping to pay at a checkout counter or kiosk.

. . . .

Amazon is currently hiring for a new Amazon Books bookstore in Southern California that has yet to be announced, according to job listings. One listing, for an Amazon Books assistant store manager in La Jolla or San Diego, says: “You love the excitement of running a bookstore. You have a flair for leading teams and adjusting your leadership style based on the situation. You enjoy reading and keep yourself updated on the latest in the digital devices front. You are part of the store leadership team.”

There are no immediate plans for a rollout of 300 to 400 stores, two sources say, but they could not rule out that eventual outcome.

Link to the rest at Re/code and thanks to Christian for the tip.


3 February 2016

The mountains near Casa PG are looking good these days.

.File Feb 03, 3 28 49 PM

This is an iPhone photo. Phone cameras are getting better and better.

Amazon’s Q4: An E-Commerce Enabler Rather Than A Retailer

3 February 2016

From Seeking Alpha:

  • Amazon’s promising business model is based on being an e-commerce enabler rather than a retailer.
  • Amazon’s real value is embodied in its unique experience, knowledge, systems and credibility gained in e-commerce which will be monetized by rendering service like FBA and AWS.
  • Amazon’s own retail activities may even become irrelevant as a direct earnings contributor as profit margins on AWS and FBA will dwarf those ever achievable in retail sector.

Amazon published a remarkable set of excellent results in Q4 and the whole of 2015. They demonstrate that enabling others to conduct their e-commerce results in much higher profit margins than when Amazon would only strive for growing is own online retail business.

Compare Amazon to the guys that sold tools and victuals to the fortune seekers going to Klondike during the gold rush. These were the firms that made the real money. This concept of what is the essence of Amazon is still little recognized. I may be wrong – nothing is certain in the field of investing. New ideas develop from unintended results. But I do believe that when Jeff Bezos started his venture in 1994, his mission was to be a new, revolutionary factor in bringing goods to consumers via the internet.

Sometime in the execution phase of this idea, the insight must have gradually taken shape that more had to be gained by making others retail (or “dig for gold”) and that Amazon would be better off to sell to these guys all the unique tools and things Bezos had acquired and learned in the pioneering years. This initially vague notion has gradually become ever more clear with each step set on the road to serve other retailers. It turned into the crystal clear vision to see these other retailers not as competitors but as customers.

The amazing set of quarterly earnings figures that Amazon released on January 28 seemed to confirm this thesis. Services grew three times (47%) as fast in Q4 2015 than the sale of goods from Amazon’s own stock (15%) resulting in a 22% overall growth in revenue of $36.7 billion. Operating earnings were up 87% to $ 1.1 billion, taking the operating margin to 3.1%. A memorable fact as it was the first time for the operating margin to exceed again the 3% level since Q1 2011.

. . . .

I suspect that sales of goods that move over Amazon’s own ledger, contributed hardly, if at all, to the encouraging earnings obtained in 2015. There is much in Amazon’s financial reporting that can and must be improved but as least we know the level of profitability realized last year on the AWS’ cloud computing services: 28.6% for the final quarter and 23.7% for the whole of the year.

But AWS accounted with a turnover of $ 7.9 billion for just 28% of Amazon’s net service revenues which totaled $ 27.7 billion. The largest part of it stems from annual payments for Prime subscriptions and payments for a range of fulfillment services. From the current state of Amazon’s reporting it can only be guessed how much the operational margin on these activities must have been, but I think there is all the reason to expect that the margin is high, and much higher than most investors probably assume so far.

Link to the rest at Seeking Alpha

PG says the thesis of this article neatly applies to indie authors. Other than with Amazon Publishing and Kindle Scout, Amazon doesn’t buy indie books, then resell them. Instead, for the large majority of indie books sold, Amazon provides indie authors the tools to sell their own books.

You and I

3 February 2016

You and I, it’s as though we have been taught to kiss in heaven and sent down to earth together, to see if we know what we were taught.

Boris Pasternak

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