How to Write When the World Is a Mess

From Writer Unboxed:

“The world is a mess.”

I keep hearing this from people who are finding it hard to access their creativity or justify making time to write.

This seems like a new challenge, partly because of the full-on speed of news stories hurtling at us in the digital age. But it’s not new. I would submit that:

A) the world has always been a mess and

B) creative works are the most powerful tool we have to oppose the black-and-white, them-versus-us, whataboutism lack of subtlety in the news.

The arts change hearts, and changed hearts can change the world.

Your creative work is important.

The world is a mess and nevertheless…we must find time to create.

It’s where we are reminded that people are complex; that we can love and hate a character; where we learn to understand why a person might make dubious choices and still be worthy of love; where we see the real, everyday impact of policy decisions made by politicians…and laugh along with characters who are living and loving and laughing amidst the consequences.

In Neil M. Gunn’s The Silver Darlings we follow the lives of displaced Scottish Highlanders forced, after the Clearances, to go from homesteading to learning to be fishermen. The social message lodges in our heats only because we fall in love with Catrine and Roddy and their communities.

In the 1960s in the US you could argue that music and movies helped end the Vietnam War. (SIng it with me: “War! What is it good for?”)

Musicians, artists, and yes, athletes, refusing to visit South Africa helped overcome apartheid.

I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain, where mainstream entertainment encouraged everyone to aspire to be Laura Ashley-clad yuppies. In reality  most of us lived in or near towns dealing with miner’s strikes and teachers’ strikes and 10% unemployment and the decline of manufacturing.

Artists like Billy Bragg and Sinead O’Conner, The Specials, Pink Floyd and U2 made art out of those turbulent times.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

After 1177 B.C.

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Bronze Age in the Near East and Aegean region began around 3000 B.C. It peaked in the 1500s B.C. and ended gradually, then suddenly, in the Late Bronze Age collapse of the late 1200s and early 1100s B.C. The Egyptian empire went into terminal decline. The Hittite empire fell, and the Assyrian and Babylonian empires faltered. The Mycenaeans, Minoans and Canaanites disappeared from the record. Mainland Greece’s population halved and its palaces collapsed, along with literacy and even the concept of a supreme ruler. Welcome to the age of ignorance, war and poverty that Hesiod called a “race of iron.”

Modern historians attributed the collapse to the Dorian Greek invaders whom the Egyptians called the Sea Peoples; a horde of them sailed into Egypt in 1177 B.C. These categories now seem to be a retrospective mirage. Various peoples came to the Eastern Mediterranean over a period of centuries, some by land, some in peace, and many driven by drought, but none understood themselves as Sea Peoples or Greeks. The crisis at Egypt’s southern border, the wave of tomb robberies attributed to “foreigners” and the partisan paralysis of Egypt’s administrators were consequences as much as causes of Egypt’s demise.

In his 2014 book, “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed,” Eric H. Cline attributed the Late Bronze Age collapse to a “systemic failure with both a domino and a multiplier effect.” Mr. Cline, a professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University, applied complexity theory and systems analysis to the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. He detected a cascade effect of unpredictable interactions and nonlinear outcomes, often amplified by the sophistication and interdependence of imperial economies throughout the Mediterranean world. The Sea Peoples’ invasion of Egypt in 1177 B.C. remains a pivotal event, a proof of decline akin to the barbarian sack of Rome in A.D. 476. But the shift from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age was a “rolling” process. The mighty Bronze Age kingdoms and empires took decades to crumble, and the city-states of the early Iron Age took decades to cohere.

History is one sequel after another, and in “After 1177 B.C.,” Mr. Cline describes what happened next. These were, Hesiod wrote, times of “sore trouble,” but “even these shall have some good mingled with their evils.” Late Bronze Age societies adapted and transformed, or they faced eclipse and extinction. What did the dawning Iron Age do for us? Monotheism, coinage, innovations in iron-working, the Greek alphabet, the polis (city-state), the origins of democracy in Athens and the nation-state in Jerusalem, and, as Mr. Cline’s expert, ingenious and endlessly fascinating book shows, an ancient lesson in the lately rediscovered virtue of “resilience.”

Ramses III of Egypt saw off the Sea Peoples in 1177 B.C., but two decades later he was murdered, his throat cut in a “harem conspiracy” led by one of his wives and her son. His predecessor Ramses II became the “Ozymandias” of Percy Shelley’s poem, a “colossal Wreck” in the sand. Egypt went the same way through food shortages, palace intrigues, political schisms and pressure on the southern border. Neither adapting nor transforming, the Bronze Age superpower suffered a “rapid decline” in its standing and stability.

Around the same time the Hittite empire in Anatolia (modern Turkey) shattered. Attacked from the west by Sea Peoples and from the east by Assyria, the empire broke into as many as 15 small “Neo-Hittite” states populated by a “host of political entities and various ethnicities.” Hittite culture survived—the Israelite king David falls in love with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite—but the Hittite capital of Hattusa was leveled and the Hittites’ cuneiform language, a Bronze Age lingua franca, fell into disuse.

The Babylonian and Assyrian empires survived drought, famine and plague, and eventually revived in a new form. Babylonia’s population collapsed and Assyria’s record-keeping seems to have stopped in the mid-1100s B.C., but their “Neo-Babylonian” and “Neo-Assyrian” successor empires retained cultural continuity, governmental capacity and military strength. Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylonia defeated his Elamite neighbors so severely, Mr. Cline writes, that they left “no written records and little archaeological evidence” for centuries. When writing resumed at Nineveh in Assyria, it recorded victories over the Aramaeans, a nomadic people who, displaced by drought, were raiding Assyrian cities. Their language, Aramaic, would become the lingua franca of the Near East in the Iron Age.

The Mycenaean and Minoan societies of mainland Greece and Crete ended by the late 1100s B.C. Contact with the Near East dwindled, writing stopped and only “survivors or squatters,” Mr. Cline writes, lived amid the mainland’s ruined palaces. The Bronze Age was remembered in Homer’s oral legend, and Greek civilization took centuries to rebound. As everywhere, the collapse of large sociopolitical units gave space to city-states. The polis, which the Greeks would export across the region, was born from this power vacuum. The cities of Bronze Age Canaan were reborn as a mishmash of Phoenician cities, an Israelite state in the southern hill country, and, after a Sea People called the Peleset had annexed Canaan’s coastal strip, a league of Philistine cities.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Indiana’s Intellectual Diversity Law

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

When I won a teaching award at my university, I was asked to write a brief description of my pedagogy. I proudly wrote — and my provost read aloud at the awards ceremony — that I incorporate themes of racial justice and gender equality into my composition classes. Today, if I were in Indiana, I would be afraid of losing my job if I admitted such a thing.

Under Indiana’s Senate Bill 202, known as the “Intellectual Diversity” law, the trustees for public colleges will evaluate faculty every five years on the following:

  • Whether they “foster a culture of free inquiry, free expression, and intellectual diversity.”
  • Whether they teach “a variety of political or ideological frameworks” within their disciplines.
  • Whether they “subject students to political or ideological views and opinions” unrelated to the course.

Faculty, regardless of tenure, can be fired if the board determines that they would be “unlikely” to foster intellectual diversity, “unlikely” to incorporate a variety of ideological or political frameworks, or “likely” to talk about their own political views.

According to its supporters and its Republican sponsor, State Sen. Spencer Deery, the law is needed to help politically conservative students feel more comfortable expressing their views on campus. But Indiana’s law is a solution in search of a problem. Survey data analyzed by the political scientist Ryan Burge show that most conservative students feel about as comfortable sharing their views as liberal students. The difference in comfort level is small and mostly due to perceptions of how other students might react, not faculty.

Critics say the law will chill both free speech and academic freedom. But no one is talking about the self-contradictory nature of the law, nor how its built-in contradictions empower a biased policing of campus speech and thought.

When does presenting diverse ideological frameworks to students transform into subjecting them to one’s ideological views? Or is sharing one’s ideological views — which students may never have heard or considered before — part of fostering a culture of intellectual diversity?

Is allowing students to share their own ideologies tantamount to endorsing them to other students, or is it fostering a culture of free inquiry and expression? How does a professor foster “a culture of free inquiry, free expression, and intellectual diversity” while also satisfying the requirement to teach “a variety of political or ideological frameworks”?

Does “free inquiry” mean exploring everything as though all ideas are equal, or does it require the exclusion of disproved ideas? What constitutes a sufficient “variety” of frameworks? Inquiry struggles to be free when one must treat all ideas and perspectives the same.

. . . .

One person’s “free inquiry” and “variety” of ideological frameworks is another person’s political indoctrination. The frameworks that a professor considers irrelevant to their discipline could be central to a trustee’s sense of “intellectual diversity.” Correcting a student’s misinformed statement with facts and sound reasoning could be portrayed as censorship. The clear message for Indiana faculty: Avoid saying anything that might cause complaints.

Just a few student complaints could be used to claim a professor is “unlikely” to foster a culture of intellectual diversity or “likely” to subject students to political rants, leading to termination of tenure and employment. As all faculty know, course evaluations tend to produce polarized responses: Students love you or they hate you. Sometimes, they project their own biases and assumptions onto you, a phenomenon that will now come with graver consequences.

It is tempting to ask rhetorical questions, as Diane Ravitch did, about professors teaching evolution, climate change, or the Civil War, and then giving equal time to “the other side” to comply with Indiana’s law.

. . . .

After George Floyd’s murder, I began using racial justice and gender-equality advocacy as examples of discourse communities in my composition courses. Students learned some of the key terms, concepts, values, beliefs, and rhetorical strategies of these communities, gaining the transferable skill of audience analysis in a relevant context. Most of my students seemed very engaged. Some students of color said they had never felt so “seen” in a class. Only two or three complained in course evaluations. But when only a couple complaints could lead to your firing, why risk it?

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

PG understands the frustration more than a few feel about the political/cultural monoculture that rules on many college and university campuses. In an era that privileges an individual’s “comfort,” it’s almost certain that students and professors who disagree with the dominant social/political environment that permeates higher education are likely to feel uncomfortable and isolated.

However, few individuals in the now-dominant culture will recognize and respect their feelings because intelligent individuals today know this is the new normal, and it’s the nonconformer’s responsibility to deal with it.

Many university campuses are replete with speech limits — free-speech zones that imply speech must be carefully censored on the rest of campus. You can only say what you really believe and how you really feel about what’s going on around you in a free-speech zone. But, you still might be drowned out by groups using the hecklers’ veto.

Students and professors must be very careful not to perpetrate microaggressions that may harm a single individual in a large classroom. This morning’s quip might trigger a single student and become a microaggression that brings down disciplinary sanctions on the microaggressor before the day is done.

PG has no idea how professors can recall and use the personal pronouns various individuals may have adopted for themselves –

  • Ze/hir/hir
  • Per/per/pers
  • The person’s name – Jack ate Jack’s food because Jack was hungry

And misgendering is offensive and disrespectful to anyone, but especially to trans and gender non-conforming individuals.

PG wonders if there is a list analogical to U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of universities and colleges that ranks institutions by cultural and political freedoms enjoyed by students.

Wrong couple divorced after computer error by law firm

From BBC:

A staff member at Vardag’s accidentally opened the file of a couple referred to in court papers as Mr and Mrs Williams, when trying to apply for a final divorce order for a different client.

Vardag’s applied three days later to rescind the order but judge Sir Andrew McFarlane dismissed the application.

The firm’s head Ayesha Vardag said the judge’s decision effectively meant “the computer says no, you’re divorced”.

Court papers say that Mrs Williams applied for divorce in January 2023 following 21 years of marriage.

The mistake was made by solicitors acting for Mrs Williams on 3 October last year on an online divorce portal operated by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

In his summary, Judge McFarlane noted that “with its now customary speed”, the system granted the order just 21 minutes later.

Vardag’s did not discover the error until 5 October, thinking the order had been made for another client, but then promptly applied for it to be rescinded.

The husband became aware of the situation only on 11 October, the same day Vardag’s wrote to his solicitors to explain the situation, court papers say.

In the summary, Judge McFarlane, president of the High Court’s Family Division, said the issue arose against the background of “ongoing contested financial remedy proceedings”.

Ms Vardag has been nicknamed the “diva of divorce”, with her firm based in London, as well as offices in Cambridge and Manchester.

The firm describes itself on its website as specialising in “high net worth and ultra high net worth family cases”.

Lawyers for Mrs Williams argued that as the order had been made by mistake it should simply be “set aside”, describing the error as someone at the firm simply “clicking the wrong button”.

Mr Williams’ legal representatives argued a final order of divorce is a “once-and-for-all” order, which cannot be set aside by the consent of the parties and may only be rescinded by the court if found to be either void or voidable.

Judge McFarlane rejected the wife’s arguments that the order should be set aside, finding it was not “rendered voidable” by her lack of consent as her solicitors were “generally authorised to act for her and the court was entitled to accept the application for the final order made by them as being validly made on her behalf”.

He went on to say that even if the order was voidable, there was “a strong public policy interest in respecting the certainty and finality that flows from a final divorce order and maintaining the status quo that it has established”.

Link to the rest at BBC

Recalcitrant judge and a likely-dismissed law staff member.

No mention of an attorney who directed the fired staffer to enter the order.

Interesting that Mrs. Williams is contending that the the mistaken order should be set aside while her husband is saying the divorce is final. Something is happening behind the scenes.

Vardag’s “high net worth and ultra high net worth family cases” appear to be their own little world.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “You know, the rich are different from you and me.” Ernest Hemingway is said to have responded, “Yes. They’ve got more money.”

Here is more about the Diva of Divorce.

‘We may lose ability to think critically at all’: the book-summary apps accused of damaging authors’ sales

From The Guardian:

A tech sector dedicated to boiling things down has raised temperatures in some quarters of the publishing world

Hungry for niche knowledge to impress your colleagues? Troubled by the size of a hefty new book? Doubt your abilities to understand complex arguments? Well, today an increasingly competitive industry offers to take away these problems with one product: a book summary app.

Since these digital services first promised to boil down a title, usually a nonfiction work, a decade ago, the marketplace has become crowded. So much so that authors and publishers are concerned about the damage to sales, as well as to the habit of concentrated reading.

Some successful writers, including Amy Liptrot, also fear that apps such as Blinkist, Bookey, getAbstract and the latest, Headway, may be undermining the book trade and misrepresenting content.

Liptrot has approached her union, the Society of Authors, for advice on how to take action. She was alarmed last week to find her acclaimed 2015 memoir, The Outrun, now a film starring Saoirse Ronan, being peddled in potted form on Bookey. “It was unnerving to see a totally fictional quotation purporting to be from my book,” she told the Observer. “These apps are very anti-literary. They’re for people who want to absorb the key ideas without reading the book. I don’t mind a bland, soulless summary, but I do mind a false quotation.”

Diana Gerald, chief executive of the charity BookTrust, is also disturbed by the influence of these apps on young readers. “Book summaries can be a useful starting point. However, it goes without saying that improvements in mental health, in sparking imagination, empathy and language acquisition that reading can have, come from reading the book itself,” she said.

Writer Susie Alegre also sees lurking danger. “The trend towards apps that summarise books so that you can ‘think better’ is likely to have the opposite effect – if we don’t use our minds to reflect deeply, we may lose our ability to think critically at all,” she said, citing research which showed that our reliance on satellite navigation was already rewiring our brains and “destroying our ability to navigate the physical world”.

“Relying on summaries of big ideas might do the same for our capacity for deep thought,” added Alegre, whose forthcoming book Human Rights, Robot Wrongs: Being Human in the Age of AI is published in early May.

“AI is famously prone to hallucinations: if you read an AI-generated summary of a book, there is no guarantee that it actually reflects the content,” she said, pointing out that writers’ “already meagre income” could be destroyed by the summary-app business.

The publishing industry is also on alert. Andrew Franklin, founder director of Profile Books, understands the worry: “These apps are potentially depriving authors of income and bookshops of custom. It is quite a serious way of infringing copyright, although not technically wrong, as you are allowed to summarise a text. These apps are really just the same as the adverts that pop up offering you an effortless way to lose weight without exercise.”

The new crib sites function a little like the York Notes study guide series for British students, (or Cliffs Notes in the US), but have less analytical content and tend to compete over the niche business areas they cover.

Not all in the book world are concerned. Toby Mundy, executive director of the prestigious Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction, wonders if these apps might prove a gateway for readers to actual books.

He said: “When people want to know about a subject, they might start with Wikipedia or a precis app, but publishing is fundamentally about voices. If you want to know about the Russian Revolution – and I mean really know – then most people will turn to Orlando Figes’s masterpiece, A People’s Tragedy, rather than a dreary textbook, because it combines authoritative scholarship with tremendous literary verve. Precis apps might disrupt certain genres, business books perhaps, but they are intrinsically anti-voice and philistine.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

From Wikipedia:

CliffsNotes are a series of student study guides. The guides present and create literary and other works in pamphlet form or online. Detractors of the study guides claim they let students bypass reading the assigned literature. The company claims to promote the reading of the original work and does not view the study guides as a substitute for that reading.[1]

History

CliffsNotes was started by Nebraska native Clifton Hillegass in 1958.[2] He was working at Nebraska Book Company of Lincoln, Nebraska, when he met Jack Cole, the co-owner of Coles, a Toronto book business. Coles published a series of Canadian study guides called Coles Notes, and sold Hillegass the U.S. rights to the guides.

Hillegass and his wife, Catherine, started the business in their basement at 511 Eastridge Drive in Lincoln, with sixteen William Shakespeare titles. By 1964, sales reached one million Notes annually. CliffsNotes now exist for hundreds of works. The term “Cliff’s Notes” has become a proprietary eponym for similar products.

IDG Books purchased CliffsNotes in 1998 for $14.2 million.

Link to the rest at Wikipedia

PG wonders if borrowing a copy of the notes for a class from a friend who Aced the class qualifies as a terrible moral failing.

What if the class is taught by a professor who reads her/his notes, putting nearly everyone to sleep?

What if the world’s worst literature professor teaches Shakespeare?

Do all students have to consume the academic version of Brussels Sprouts from professors who have gained tenure and use their status to force starving graduate students to update their class notes?

It doesn’t take more than being sentenced to one or two boring 500-student lecture classes for many students to realize they should choose the professor instead of the subject. Why? Because, unlike Education majors, professors have never been taught to teach effectively. Teaching skills are not nearly as professionally rewarding as the publication of a paper on an abstruse topic that perhaps 15 people will read in its entirety.

PG made a big change to his college major to a subject nobody had heard of so he would be taught by one of four superb professors for 90% of his classes, with each class typically comprised of 10-12 students.

His GPA reflected his enthusiasm for these classes, but never completely recovered from the terminally miserable experience of the giant auditoriums struggling to stay awake.

Censorship Is a Hammer Looking for a Nail

From Publishers Weekly:

Last week, the American Library Association released its annual list of the top 10 most challenged books. Once again, it was dominated by books by LGBTQ authors or about the LGBTQ community. PW caught up with Sam Helmick, community and access coordinator at the Iowa City Public Library, to discuss the necessity of advocacy, the importance of allies, and how the library community is handling such an unprecedented challenge.

What was it like for you when Iowa’s book-banning law, SF 496, was enacted in 2023?

It was difficult. I was president of the Iowa Library Association at that time, ILA’s first nonbinary, aromantic, asexual president. And there was a wonderful book called Gender Queer that was quite a bit about people like me. And it was the most banned book in the state. At the same time, I was thinking about how we in Iowa are the founders of the Library Bill of Rights. Forrest Spaulding, then director of the Des Moines Public Library, wrote it in 1938.

So these two things were on my mind as I was being asked questions like what my favorite banned book is. And my answer became: my favorite banned book is yours. My favorite banned book is the one that you’re going to check out of my bookmobile today. My favorite banned book has yet to be written. Because the only way books like Gender Queer—which I needed as a teen but didn’t get until my 30s—are written is because library workers before me have defended a process, and invited the public to ruminate on books and to recognize that we as a free people should read freely.

What that was meant to impress was the importance of gently holding people accountable to the process, because library workers cannot single-handedly paint themselves out of the corners that pernicious policy puts them in. When I think about the Freedom Riders, when I think about Stonewall, I think about the brave folks who are part of those communities but also of the allies that came together to support them. It’s going to require the public—the public that resources us by policy, goodwill, and funding—to paint us out of this corner.

Last December, freedom to read advocates scored a victory when a federal court blocked SF 496, but the censorship onslaught continues. How are librarians in the state managing?

We are pulling for each other more than we might have in the past. I’m very pleased that we now have built an affinity coalition inside and outside of library circles, and that we’re much tighter with the school library and college and research library associations than we ever were before. But it’s also complicated and stressful.

I think the solace that I take is that if what we did was irrelevant, the book banners would leave us be. They obviously believe we have the power to support people reading and thinking freely, and there’s something heady about that, even during the hard days. I get to stand up for something important.

On April 2, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics say will legitimize discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Did that feel like déjà vu after fighting SF 496?

I would love to say it’s déjà vu, but it’s been more of a deluge. Iowa had the second-most library-averse bills in the nation last year. Library workers have had two full-time jobs for a very long time: the first is to be incubators of access, opportunity, and hope. The second is to constantly fight for the ability to be that.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

‘Transitioning’ to Digital Distribution

From Publishing Perspectives:

This month’s column describes Mensch Publishing’s transition from a mixture of traditional print and distribution to a wholly digitally driven model.

The Downsides

Change is hard and frequently expensive.

The files I’d created for the traditional route and held by my publishing partner were, it turned out, formatted to the first, normally hardback edition. This master file was used to hold any corrections or changes.

In moving to a print-on-demand solution, paperback is the preferred format for reasons of cost and author and customer pressure. I only discovered the problem when proofs, and in a couple of cases of finished book, were reformatted with illustrations in the wrong place and new pagination. We had to re-typeset most of the titles.

I was grateful that I’d taken an early decision that Mensch titles wouldn’t have indexes. If anyone really wanted help in finding a name or whatever, they could buy the ebook and search to their heart’s content, which would have entailed even more work and cost.

Even where there was no change in format, the paper used in on-demand printing is likely to be of a different thickness,  meaning that cover artwork had to be revised to take account of a changed spine width.

The next downside is the reluctance of retailers, both traditional and on the Internet, to stock print-on-demand titles because of perceived, although not actual, non-immediate availability; limited returnability; and typically lower discounts, lower retailer margins—all valid reasons from the retailers’ point of view: They’ve enjoyed increased discounts; increased stock security; and improved delivery schedules over the last few decades. They were obliged to resist, even at the expense of reducing the range available to their customers.

Of course there’s nothing about print-on-demand requiring a firm sale or lower discounts to retailers—these are publisher choices but my choices were and are driven by a commitment to reducing waste; maximizing author income; and focusing on marketing to drive sales rather than positioning in terrestrial bookshops.

The corollary of this lack of retail support has been a certain amount of author discomfort at not finding his or her books where they’d like to see them. My riposte that the proportion of new titles prominently displayed at traditional independent and chain bookshops is very small. Ask even the major publishers how many copies of non-automatic best sellers are subscribed into brick-and-mortar stores.

However, there are always exceptions, and launch parties in bookshops can happen if strict discount and returns policies are temporarily waived. The downside of this is that these special arrangements need to be separately accounted, thus undermining the overall pure simplicity of the new model by adding accounting complexity.

And of course right now, print-on-demand books cost more per copy to print, but the savings elsewhere in the supply chain are significant.

Upsides

Every book is available in every market simultaneously without the need for special shipments or inter-warehouse arrangements. In a world of international media, this is, in my view, an essential service to authors. What would an author think of a great review in, say, the Guardian in the United Kingdom, a review downloaded hugely in the United States—but Americans couldn’t purchase the book because the US publication date was later than the UK’s?

With print-on-demand, there are no are no out-of-stock issues. Every book is constantly available. No need to cogitate on the size or practicality of a reprint. No need for the inevitability of the last reprint of a book never selling out (by definition). No stock wastage as there is no stock except where held and made available by retailers and wholesalers. Fewer trees need to be cut down.

Printing takes place mainly in the country of purchase: There are no shipments by sea or by air between continents; no unnecessary handling costs.

Most importantly perhaps, there are no unnecessary CO2 emissions. Production quality is superior to traditional litho. This came as a surprise to many of our authors but a pleasant surprise.

As part of this, I’ve signed up to automated advertising for the books in order to drive sales, rather than rely on retail displays.

Daily access to sales performance is a boon. Daily changes to metadata are feasible.

Most important of all to me is that I now have control and transparency, and this allows me to communicate with authors without having to adapt to any other organization’s time frame.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Can SEO writing ruin your prose style? And why Bill Bryson can call a book Wubberhumptimuph and you can’t

From Nail Your Novel:

I’ve had this question from Mark….

This question has been bouncing in my brain ever since the digital revolution began and especially after working for various publishers that asked me to help them with social media and website text. 

Do you think that being forced to focus on SEO when writing articles, promos, headlines etc can negatively impact your non-journalism writing? My sense is that SEO flourishes from a writing style that is different from the style I use when writing creative works, especially fiction. And I don’t want my brain to be steered down that path.

Good question! Short answer: yes, writing for SEO purposes will affect your prose style!

But don’t panic yet. It’s not all doom and there’s much more to say.

First, a brief explanation, so we understand the difference between SEO writing and the kind of writing we do in our books and other creative domains, the kind of writing that Mark is talking about.

What is SEO writing?

SEO is writing that’s meant to be read by machines, specifically search engines. You do this with keywords and key phrases. Ideally, you imagine what words or phrases a reader might type into Google, and make sure they’re used a lot in your blogpost or article. And especially in your headline because that sums up the whole piece.

Here’s an example from a piece I edited for the Alliance of Independent Authors. If you’re writing about William Shakespeare, perhaps to promote a book you’re publishing, you might post a piece about the 10 best quotes for Valentine’s day. If you’ve got an ounce of soul, you’ll get creative with the headline. ‘When love speaks… Timeless lines from the Bard.’

Will that get the attention of humans? Yes. Will it get the attention of search engines? Probably no, so the humans won’t get to see it. You’re much more likely to get hits if you call it ‘My 10 top Shakespeare quotes about love.’ Dull but true. ‘Top Shakespeare quotes’ is what a reader will ask a search engine to find, so those are the words (the key words) that will get you the most hits. The searching person just wants an answer, and they won’t think of the many inventive or witty ways to enjoy expressing the question.

Here’s where I’m wholeheartedly agreeing with Mark. I want to live in a world of headlines that are intriguing, evocative, stylish, haunting. I love how language can do that. If I ruled the universe, we would all use our words with grace and panache.

SEO, though, isn’t about that. It’s about communicating with machines first, humans second. Labels rule; not a love of language.

Link to the rest at Nail Your Novel

Why There’s Nothing Icky About Promoting a Book

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Many authors would rather chew off their own arm than stand in the spotlight promoting a book. They say things like, “I don’t want to seem narcissistic,” “I hate being like, ‘Me, me, me!’” or “I just want to write.’” If this describes you, I am here to explain why — and I know this sounds a little harsh — you need to get over it immediately.

(An aside: I get it — finding language that bridges the gap between authentic and promotional can take some thought, and I empathize. But I also hate to see an author not get their due because they are nervous about putting themselves out there. All of this book publicity advice comes from a place of love!)

Below are three ideas that might help you think about leading a book promotion campaign for your book with confidence:

Conduct this thought experiment.

Conjure a smart and talented friend, and imagine they’ve been working on a creative project — maybe an indie film or an art show—for many years. They’ve poured their heart and soul and thousands of hours into bringing it into the world. It’s finally completed, and the premiere, opening, or launch is coming up.

Now, imagine they say to you, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to email my friends and family about it,’ or ‘I don’t want to look like a narcissist,’ or ‘I’m hoping people find out about it organically.’

You would likely tell them, correctly and emphatically, that’s wild, they must let their people and, if possible, the wider world know about their work. How will their ideas and talent be known otherwise? You and your book deserve the same championing you would insist upon for a loved one.

Put on your business hat when promoting a book.

Authors tend to bristle at this idea but once you have a publishing deal or pub date, you need to think of your book as a product. It’s a smart, creative, thoughtful, excellent product, yes. But it is still a new thing that you want people to know about and buy. No (successful) business in the world launches a product and just waits for people to stumble upon it.

Would a band release a new album and neglect to alert their fans? Would a playwright open a show and make a single social media post about it? Of course not. There’d be a launch party, emails to mailing lists, a website, many social media posts, media outreach — a slew of promotional efforts.

Authors need to do the same.

You might be thinking, isn’t that the publisher’s job? That would be nice, but in-house publicity and marketing teams have slim budgets and are way overstretched. They’re often handling an impossible workload. That includes managing every season’s soon-to-be and newly published books. Plus any longer-term interest in books published in past seasons. Today’s media environment, by and large, requires too much in-the-weeds research time for them to lead robust and highly personalized campaigns for all their books.

Publishers expect authors to be active partners in the promotion of their books — running their own social media (occasionally with marketing help provided), building and maintaining an author website, curating a broad contact list for personal outreach, and more.

No one will be paying as much attention to your promotional emails or posts as you.

Remember, people get hundreds of emails a day and see who-knows-how-many social media posts. It may feel like a heavy lift for you to hit send, but it’s going to land as just one in a ton of other messages. When you post about it online, the vast majority of your followers will miss it.

In this era of overwhelm — with the nonstop churn of social media posts, the proliferation of mailing lists, Substacks, and more clogging your inbox, the reduction in book coverage across the print and digital media landscape, and the pick-and-choose format of personalized news intake—you have to make as much noise as possible.

You need to post about it — and then post about it again! You have to email people — and then you need to follow up with them. I cannot tell you how many top national media hits Press Shop PR has landed for authors on a third follow-up. People miss emails all the time. Sometimes they mark them as unread and forget to go back to them. Sometimes, it just gets pushed down into the depths of the recipient’s inbox too quickly. Don’t let the success of promoting a book depend on other people’s email management skills!

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Steven Levitt and John Donohue defend a finding made famous by “Freakonomics”

From The Economist:

More than two decades have passed since we published an academic paper linking the legalisation of abortion to the enormous decline in American crime since the 1990s. The underlying theory is straightforward. Children who are unwanted at birth are at risk of a range of adverse life outcomes and commit much more crime later in life. Legalised abortion greatly reduced the number of unwanted births. Consequently, legalised abortion will reduce crime, albeit with substantial lags.

Our paper created much controversy, which was further stoked by a chapter on the topic in the best-selling book “Freakonomics”, written by one of us with Stephen Dubner, published in 2005. For many, it was more important to spin a political response to our hypothesis than to evaluate whether it was correct.

The data available at the time strongly supported our hypothesis. We showed, for instance, that crime began falling sooner in the five states that legalised abortion in advance of Roe v Wade, the US Supreme Court decision that made abortion available legally nationwide. We documented that crime in states with high and low abortion rates followed nearly identical trends for many years, then suddenly and persistently diverged only after the birth cohorts exposed to legal abortion reached the age at which they would commit crime. Consistent with our theory, looking at arrest data, which reveal the age of the offender, the declines in crime were concentrated among those born after abortion became legal.

These data patterns do not, of course, make an open-and-shut case. No randomised experiment has been conducted on this topic. We also didn’t help our own case by mislabelling the set of control variables included in one of the specifications in one of our tables—a regrettable mistake (later corrected) which led some people to dismiss all of the paper’s findings. One of the most vocal and consistently sceptical voices arguing against our findings has been The Economist, which has written about our study on three occasions (most recently last month), each time taking a critical and dismissive stance.

We concede that reasonable people could disagree about how convincing the findings were in our initial paper. The analysis was retrospective, and there is always the concern that researchers have cherry-picked their findings, or that perhaps it was just pure coincidence that the patterns emerged.

There is, however, something unique about our hypothesis, which allows a second test of the theory that is far closer to the ideal of the scientific method. There is a long lag between abortions being performed and the affected cohort reaching the age at which crime is committed. Thus, we could already at the time of our first academic paper in 2001 make strong predictions about what our theory would predict should happen to future crime. Indeed, at the end of that paper, we made the following prediction: “When a steady state is reached roughly 20 years from now, the impact of abortion will be roughly twice as great as the impact felt so far. Our results suggest that all else equal, legalised abortion will account for persistent declines of 1% a year in crime over the next two decades.”

It is rare—almost unprecedented—in academic economics to be able to make a testable prediction and then to go back and actually test it decades later. That’s what we did in a paper published in 2020. Our methodological approach was straightforward: mimic the specifications reported in our original paper, but limit the time period to the years that were out of sample, ie, those after our original data ended.

The results provided stunning corroboration of our predictions. For each of the seven different analyses we had presented in the initial 2001 paper, the results for next two decades of data were at least as strong as the results in our initial dataset, and in most specifications even stronger. This included what the main critics of our 2001 paper called the “crucial” test, showing that the abortion rate at the time of any birth cohort negatively correlated with the age-specific arrest rate for that cohort years later as it moved through ages 15–24, while perfectly controlling for whatever other factors were influencing crime in a given state and a given year. We would argue that, short of a randomised experiment, this is some of the most compelling evidence one could present.

The magnitude of the implied impacts we are talking about is huge. If you look over the entire sample, violent-crime rates fell by 62.2 percentage points in high-abortion states whereas they rose by 3.1% in low-abortion states.

Though there is not complete acceptance of our hypothesis among academics, all agree that if our paper is not correct, then there is no viable explanation for the enormous drop in crime in America that started in the early 1990s. Indeed, there is not even an arguable theory to supplant the abortion-crime link. Exposure to lead in the environment might, perhaps, be the next best hypothesis. But as we showed in our 2020 paper, when one controls for both environmental lead and abortion, the coefficient on abortion remains large while the coefficient on environmental lead is greatly reduced and loses statistical significance.

It seems fair to ask why, in spite of strong supporting evidence, no academic contradiction of any of the findings of our 2020 paper and support for the abortion-crime link from international evidence, so many observers remain sceptical of the hypothesis. Not surprisingly, those whose livelihoods came from fighting crime during the great crime drop were not keen to conclude that their approaches—whether more police, more incarceration or particular social programmes—however important they might have been, were not the dominant factor in the decline. Another possible explanation is that people across the political spectrum were uncomfortable with our conclusions. Many people would prefer that our hypothesis not be true—perhaps not recognising that the core finding is that when women can control their fertility the life outcomes of their children are greatly enhanced.

Link to the rest at The Economist

As somebody who, in my second marriage, insisted on a prenuptial agreement

As somebody who, in my second marriage, insisted on a prenuptial agreement, I can also testify that sometimes it is an act of love to chart the exit strategy before you enter the union, in order to make sure that not only you, but your partner as well, knows that there will be no World War III should hearts and minds, for any sad reason, change.

Elizabeth Gilbert

The first page of your novel

The first page of your novel is vitally important, but not necessarily because the action starts there. The first page, and first several pages, should:

  • set your tone and reader expectations. In a thriller, that means establishing a rhythm that will push forward rather than linger, and maybe having some sort of stakes already in play, even if they’re unrelated to the central plot. (Your protagonist is running late to get to a meeting and is running to catch a bus pulling away from her bus stop.)
  • make your reader care to continue on: have a hook that grabs the reader’s attention, makes them think, “now that’s interesting,” and pulls them from one paragraph to the next. Make them interested in solving a mystery from the first paragraph, even if it’s a minor question only pertinent to your opening scene. (Why was she running late? Where was she rushing off to? What are the consequences of her tardiness?)
  • introduce some important aspect of character or theme; setting can be introduced here but is easy to overdo. Don’t make setting the only thing you talk about; it is impersonal exposition and therefore doesn’t make the reader care. In a thriller this is especially true; don’t describe setting with any more words than you need to unless it can be worked into what the character is doing or is itself inherently thrilling.
  • be without flaws. It’s early, you don’t have to defend or overcome structural weaknesses here– but you do have to polish your writing to a mirror finish.

. . . .

The first page (and first sentence, and paragraph) is important in the same way your first meeting with somebody new is important. An agent or publisher (or indeed a customer thinking of buying your book) is going to read the opening line, the first paragraph, the first page to see if they like your style of writing, and see if you know how to begin a story and get the reader engaged.

They want to see if you make dumb mistakes (typos, grammar, clichés, other beginner errors like opening with a fight in progress, or opening with an info-dump, or detailed character descriptions, or the history of your setting, etc).

Agents (and the readers for publishers) reject 95% (or more, seriously) of the books or queries they receive, which means (practically speaking) they have to make snap decisions, and they do. Otherwise they’d have no time to do work that actually pays them money. They expect you to put a great deal of care into the opening sentence, the first page, the first ten pages (which many request).

They expect your most careful and attentive work there, and if it sucks, they don’t need to read the rest. They aren’t there to fix your work, or critique work, or help you get better, or see a promising young talent, or spot a diamond in the rough, they are there for one thing: to find writers that are already good writers, and represent already good writing, and make their 15%. That’s it!

The service agents do for the publishers is screening, searching through the flood of dreck to find some gold nuggets.

No, it is not advisable to move the “thriller” to the first page.

The opening of the book is expected to be an engaging introduction to the main character(s) and the setting, a setup for a story to come. The setup usually lasts for 10% to 15% of the book, before the big problem of the book appears.

Nevertheless, this first 10% is supposed to be engaging. One way to do that is to introduce your character(s) by giving them a “little” or “throwaway” problem of some sort, not necessarily a problem important to the plot but a kind of problem they might encounter in their everyday life. This gives you a chance to talk about setting, show us some of their personality in the process of dealing with their little problem.

The problem with opening in the middle of action is closely related: If you do that, readers don’t really care, because they don’t know who is fighting, whose side they should be on, or anything else. In the opening pages, readers don’t care because they don’t have any context for understanding what is going on.

That is why nearly every movie and story begins with “The Normal World” of the hero; and the main problem first appears 10% or 15% of the way in. If the setting is complex (with magical, fantasy or scifi elements) the main problem is delayed somewhat, until the reader/audience is “up to speed” and has a basic grasp of what the heroes and villains can do, or what their ships can do, etc.

In some series (movie or TV or books) we can cut “The Normal World” quite short, since the audience is up to speed from the first book and doesn’t need much reminder. But in a “from scratch” novel, don’t rush the main conflict, it doesn’t make the book more exciting at all, it makes it boring.

Your query letter, the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, the first ten pages, the first chapter: This is how you will be judged, quickly and ruthlessly, by agents and publishers. Nobody is going to invest the time to read your whole book or story if these alienate them.

I am a sick man

I am a sick man. … I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can’t explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “pay out” the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well then let it hurt even worse!

First paragraph of Notes From Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky

It was the best of times

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – first paragraph

What Does an A Really Mean?

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

When classes pivoted to remote instruction in 2020, some professors — even some entire colleges — moved to pass/fail grading systems. Sure, it was a short-term crisis response. But allowing pass/fail, even for a little while, demonstrated that the traditional approach to grading isn’t the only option.

Some professors had already decided as much: There’s a small but high-profile “ungrading” movement championed by professors who argue that grades are not only poor measures of learning, but also pull students’ focus from understanding the material to earning points. And there are alternative grading approaches that evaluate student work against a standard, provide feedback, and let students try again if the standard has not been met.

For other professors, grades are a barometer. If many students aren’t performing well — and if there are demographic disparities among them — that is a sign something has gone wrong in how they’re being taught or supported.

Meanwhile, there’s been a wave of worry about grade inflation. And it’s true that grades at many colleges have risen steadily since the 1980s. Grades can rise for many reasons, but the concern is that students and administrators are pushing professors to award higher grades, lowering expectations and losing a main method for differentiating among students.

Grades mean something — articulated by an instructor and interpreted by a student — in the context of a particular course. But that isn’t all they mean. Grades play a gatekeeping role, helping to sort students into colleges, majors, graduate programs, and jobs. They can shape the way students see themselves. Heck, they can get them a discount on their car insurance.

In an attempt to capture the myriad and evolving ways in which grades are perceived, The Chronicle asked a selection of stakeholders, including professors, students, and high-school counselors, to provide a short answer to the same simple question: What does an A mean?

. . . .

As a teacher (of both philosophy and public speaking), my philosophy of grading has always been that a B should be relatively easy to earn, assuming that the student gives an honest effort and does what is expected, and that an A should be hard to get, representing both excellent performance and depth of understanding.

Jim Jump, retired academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va., who writes about admissions issues

You knew what the course was trying to achieve and pursued it sincerely without trying to game the system.

Holden Thorp, editor in chief of the Science family of journals and a former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

. . . .

It depends on context and content, but I flash back to the rubric I used when teaching high school so many years ago. For me, an A should reflect five things: evidence of deep understanding, masterful application of the relevant knowledge or skills, attentive participation, creative engagement, and thorough attention to detail. These will apply very differently when it comes to a seminar discussion, an essay, a biology midterm, or a math problem set, of course, but the intuitions should consistently apply.

Rick Hess, senior fellow and director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who has written about grade inflation

Link to the rest at the Chronicle of Higher Education

Fuzzy grading that differs from professor to professor and from college to college is one reason that prospective employers sometimes ask prospective employees for their results from standardized testing.

Per The Wall Street Journal:

Consulting firms such as Bain & Co. and McKinsey & Co. and banks like Goldman Sachs Group Inc. ask new college recruits for their [SAT] scores, while other companies request them even for senior sales and management hires, eliciting scores from job candidates in their 40s and 50s.

College students can be ‘Marriage Pact’-matched with ‘backup plan’ spouse if all else fails

From Fox News:

A college student is helping young adults feel more confident in the future of their love life with a new insurance policy tool.

Finding “the one” can be something that happens early in life for some people — or later on for others.

In 2022, the average age of marriage for a female was 30, while the average age of marriage for a male was 32, according to the Knot.

Liam McGregor, however, is making sure that even those at the age of 30 and 32 have some sort of “insurance policy” for living a life in marriage.

In 2017, McGregor and another college student started the Marriage Pact — a tool for students at Stanford University to have a spousal “backup plan.”

Essentially, students who signed up would take a questionnaire that would then match them with someone on campus, a percentage of quality and an email address to reach out if they so choose.

McGregor told Fox News Digital the purpose of the pact.

“A marriage pact is an informal agreement between two people that if both parties remain unmarried by the time they turn 30 or 40, to simply marry each other,” he said.

He added, “When you look up from your career in your mid-30s and realize you never prioritized ‘the one’ … you’re going to need a backup plan. The Marriage Pact matches you with your optimal backup plan in your community, based on what really matters in lifelong relationships.”

The questions on the Marriage Pact vary based on the particular college campus — and students can only be matched with others from their same school.

The 50-question survey is based on core values, according to the Associated Press, and includes questions about communication styles, conflict resolution, smoking and drug habits and more. 

McGregor told Fox News Digital that the algorithm doesn’t ask for pictures, height or any of the other typical dating site criteria — saying there’s “no swiping or search[ing].”

An example of a question used at the University of Michigan is: “There is a place for revenge when someone has wronged me.”

From there, the students must rate their response on a scale of one to seven, with one being “turn the other cheek” and seven being “plotting rn (right now).”

A question on the Boston College Marriage Pact is: “I would end a friendship over differing political views.”

Notre Dame has one that reads: “I would send older relatives to a nursing home.”

Based on how individuals respond, the algorithm attempts to match them with their optimal marriage backup plan partner.

“It’s designed using decades of relationship science research to match you with the person who you’re most likely to be compatible with in the long term,” he said.

The economics student, who graduated from Stanford University in 2020, had over 1,000 people sign up from Stanford on the first day, followed by another 1,000 the next and so on.

McGregor said that by the end of the first week of Marriage Pact, 60% of Stanford students had signed up to get their “optimal marital backup plan.”

McGregor told Fox News Digital he was “floored” by the initial response to the survey.

“The way people describe it, it’s the only thing people can talk about for weeks when the Marriage Pact happens at their school,” he said.

Now, seven years later, Marriage Pact is on 88 college campuses across the country and has nearly 500,000 participants.

The U.S. Department of Education and Marriage Pact say there are 14 schools where students are more likely to make a pact by the end of their senior year than students who will graduate.

McGregor said students from 15 different schools initially tried to join the Marriage Pact when it was released at Stanford — and the interest grew from there.

In the fall of 2020, the Marriage Pact was in seven schools — and by the spring of 2021, it was in 50.

McGregor told the AP that about 30% of matches meet up in person and one in nine of those end up dating for a year or longer — many actually getting married.

For example, Max Walker and Melia Summers joined the Marriage Pact as New York University students in the fall of 2020.

Walker was at the New York campus, while Summers was at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, per the AP.

Summers eventually decided to do a semester in New York. That’s when she and Walker met for the first time and went on a date — nearly one year after their match.

The pair will wed in June 2024 after having a match rate of 99.65%.

Link to the rest at Fox News

One of the several things that crossed PG’s mind when he read the OP is whether the arrangement will create an implied license to stalk.

Another thought was that more than one interesting story could be written about those who signed up for this service.

Thanks to F. for the tip.

With the old economics destroyed

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

Clay Shirky

We’re Never Alone

Note: This year, The Paris Review chose author Tobias Wolff to receive the Hadada Award, the magazine’s annual prize for lifetime achievement in literature. Following is an excerpt from Mr. Wolff’s remarks.

From The Paris Review:

When Lady Astor was breathing her last, a large group of family and friends gathered around the bed to see her off. Just before she departed this life, she snapped awake and looked around and said, “Is this my birthday, or am I dying?”

Well, don’t tell me.

The scene here bears some resemblances to hers. I look out and see my dear wife, Catherine, and my oldest and best friends, and others who’ve come into our life in later years, even as I still vividly recall the laughing, never-to-be-forgotten faces of two beloved friends who left our company too soon, George Crile and Edward McIlvain. I have been lucky, blessed, really, in family and friendship, and in too many other ways to describe here.

The Irish painter John Yeats, the poet’s father, described the making of art as the social act of a solitary person. Actually, he said “a solitary man.” They talked like that then. Anyway, I nodded in recognition when I came across that line. Maybe Hemingway could write in a crowded café, but I and the other artists and writers I’ve known have had to be shut away somewhere, out of the human stream, to get our work done. Yet as the years have frosted and mowed this head of mine, I have come to a different understanding of the situation. You may have retreated to your attic studio, you may even have pulled up the ladder behind you, but you were not alone. Never.

Case in point:

When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher became exasperated with my mulish refusal to learn cursive. I liked to print my words, so that they looked like the ones in the books I read. Finally, Mrs. Post sent me home with a note to my mother, telling her that I would not be allowed to return to school until I learned to write in cursive. My mother did not need this complication. She was raising me alone, in a small apartment above a garage, working on her feet all day at a Dairy Queen. By the time she got home and finished making dinner she was ready to put those aching feet up and lean back with a book. Now she had to spend her evenings teaching me how to … well, write.

This is how she did it: she started with the “quick brown fox,” and when that became unbearably tedious she chose passages from the books I’d borrowed from the library: Lassie Come-HomeOld Yeller; Jack London’s White Fang and Call of the WildLad: A Dog, or another volume of Albert Payson Terhune’s many-volumed testaments to his love of collies. You see a pattern here. I wanted a dog. So: passage chosen, my mother adjusted the pencil just so in my fingers, then put her hand on mine and guided hand and pencil over the page, copying the chosen passage in her beautiful script that I could never duplicate, though damned if I didn’t finally learn to stitch letters together, and make recognizable if unlovely words and sentences, until I was allowed back into the classroom. And to this day, when I write in longhand, I sometimes stop and remember those nights, and the feeling of my mother’s hand on mine. 

Some years later I received a scholarship—preposterously undeserved, but that’s another story—to a rigorous boarding school in Pennsylvania. I spent the summer before school began with my brother Geoffrey. We had not seen each other in six years. He had just graduated summa cum laude in English from Princeton, and was shocked to discover that I couldn’t write an essay, not really. I’d been skating by in a rural high school in Washington State, the classrooms full, the teachers overwhelmed. Late as the day was, my brother took my education in hand. He assigned books for me to read, and essays to write on those books while he was at work, and then he went over my essays when he got home. He was both demanding and kind, his red pencil unsparing but also, often enough, encouraging. So did this young man with plans of his own give his summer nights to his little brother, hoping to get him launched with some hope of success.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Adelle Waldman’s new novel follows workers in a big-box store

From The Economist:

Adelle Waldman’s sharp-eyed observations of intellectuals in Brooklyn chasing book deals and bedmates made her first novel, “The Love Affairs of Nathanial P.” (2013), a hit. For her follow-up, she has traded the excesses of the urban elite for the struggles of unskilled workers farther afield. This may sound dreary, but “Help Wanted” is a lively, humane book.

To write about the employees of a big-box store in upstate New York, Ms Waldman spent months working at one herself, earning $12.25 an hour unloading trucks of merchandise at 4am. Many of her colleagues had been working at the shop for years, but their hours were limited and unpredictable, which made it hard for them to make plans, get a second job or reliably cover their bills.

Town Square, the shop in “Help Wanted”, is a rare source of jobs in a town that has seen better days. The fictional Potterstown still hasn’t recovered from losing an office of IBM, a computer firm, to Mexico decades ago. The employees who show up to the “dungeon-like” warehouse in the small hours are not thrilled by their lives, but they are grateful to be there.

Ms Waldman probes the needs of this motley morning team, such as Nicole, a young mother with an unemployed fiancé, who hides her anxiety about how she will feed her daughter beneath “an air of boredom and free-floating hostility”. These affectionate portraits chronicle the rough luck of people who cannot afford university and who struggle to make ends meet or, in some cases, to stay out of prison.

. . . .

The employees of Town Square enjoy their shared rituals and take pleasure in their “sense of mastery” as they expertly stack boxes and arrange displays. Their pride is real but fragile, threatened by greedy employers, monopolistic e-tailers and the prospect of automation, which looms ominously near the end of the book.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Chess Teaches the Power of Sacrifice

From The Wall Street Journal:

The act of sacrifice holds an elevated and sometimes sacred place in societies across the globe. While sacrifices may be rare in a person’s daily life, they happen as a matter of course in a large number of chess games. Many positions cannot be won or saved without something of value being given away, from a lowly pawn all the way up to the mighty queen. Certain types of sacrifices happen so frequently that to an experienced player they might be considered routine, almost boring, and it often takes an unusual sort of sacrifice to quicken the pulse of jaded grandmasters who have seen tens of thousands of them in their lifetimes.

In the introduction to his classic book “The Art of Sacrifice in Chess,” player Rudolf Spielmann wrote, “The beauty of a game of chess is usually appraised, and with good reason, according to the sacrifices it contains. On principle we incline to rate a sacrificial game more highly than a positional game. Instinctively we place the moral value above the scientific.”

It is this “moral value” that separates some sacrifices from others. Spielmann draws a clear distinction between what he calls a “sham sacrifice” and a real one. A sham sacrifice is one where one can easily see that the piece being given up will return concrete benefits that can be clearly calculated. Any player would be happy to part with their queen if they see that they can checkmate the opponent’s king within a couple of moves.

However, in the case of a real sacrifice, giving away a piece offers gains that are neither immediate nor tangible. The return on investment might be controlling more space, creating an assailable weakness in the opponent’s position, or having more pieces in the critical sector of attack.

In chess, we call these intangibles “compensation.” Having enough compensation for a sacrificed piece is a judgment call based on knowledge of similar situations or a refined intuitive feel based on thousands of games played. Of course, compensation doesn’t guarantee that you will win the game, and if these intangible advantages don’t pan out then that extra material you gifted to the opponent could come roaring back to overwhelm your smaller army.

Life is filled with examples of sham sacrifices versus real ones. When someone takes out a college loan, there is a reasonable assumption that, through future earnings, they will be able not only to pay off the loan, but also to earn more money on top of it. This assumption may not work out, but it has been executed so many times with success that many students feel safe taking on that debt. The fact that it may take years, or in some cases even decades, to see the sacrifice pay off doesn’t change the sense of confidence most young people and their families have when investing in education.

In contrast, real sacrifices promise no guarantee of a concrete return. My mother made an incalculably real sacrifice when she made the painful decision to leave my brother, sister, and me in Jamaica, where we’re from, to head to the U.S. in search of a better life. I was only two years old when she left. It would take her 10 long years to gain citizenship and be able to sponsor us to join her in this land of opportunity. She could not have known how those 10 years would play out and the infinite number of possible challenges we might all have to overcome.

In fact, the very first day after she arrived in the U.S., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.was shot and killed in Memphis, setting off riots all around the country. The way she tells it, she was in shock that her dream began in such a devastating fashion. But she understood that this wasn’t just about her emotions and fears; she had three young kids, being taken care of by her mother, who were relying on her to push on. And push on she did, with courage and determination and sense of purpose, and a decade later, she accomplished the task that she had set her mind to so many years before, and finally we were able to reunite as one family.

Her sacrifice came with unanticipated results. While she had dreamed that we would all get a college degree (we did), she assumed that we would end up in traditional professions with guaranteed pension plans. She could not have foreseen that I would end up making my living from chess, that my brother’s martial arts passion would lead to his becoming a three-time kickboxing champion, or that her baby girl would leave the world of business behind to win six world titles in boxing.

It did not have to turn out that way. It did because she was willing to stomach the key aspect of making real sacrifices: the willingness to take risks. For a chess player, risk is as much intuited as it is calculated. Due to the inherent complexity of the game, it is virtually impossible to assess with certainty whether a risky move will pay off in the end. It’s up to the player to decide if sufficient conditions have been met to take the chance on a risky move. Those conditions may be an aggressive, attacking posture, dominant pieces, weaknesses in your opponent’s position, time pressure, or the stress of the competitive situation. All these could add up to a certain degree of confidence in the chance of a positive result.

When it comes to risk, grandmasters are not a monolithic group. Depending on their personalities, top players have different levels of risk tolerance. On one hand, you’ll find the swashbuckling, dynamic attacking personality types like Alexander Alekhine, Mikhail Tal, and Rashid Nezhmetdinov, who will take risks without much hesitation. On the other side of the spectrum are more conservative players such as José Raúl Capablanca, Tigran Petrosian and Wesley So. Tolerance for risk is very personal.

What we do know, however, is that the famous saying “No risk, no reward” is true in many cases. A skilled adversary is normally able to handle solid, conservative play and therefore able rob us of opportunities that may be inherent in our position. As Magnus Carlsen put it: “Not being willing to take risks is an extremely risky strategy.”

To be comfortable with risk is to be comfortable with uncertainty.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Perplexity at Work

Prompt: TikTok considers AI ad avatars

Perplexity Response:

TikTok is actively exploring and integrating various AI-driven features and tools to enhance content creation, advertising, and user engagement on its platform. This exploration includes the development and testing of AI-generated avatars, AI-driven content creation tools, and advanced advertising solutions that leverage AI to improve targeting, engagement, and measurement. Here’s a comprehensive overview of TikTok’s considerations and implementations regarding AI ad avatars and related AI features:

AI-Generated Avatars and Content Creation

  • Digital Avatars: TikTok introduced AI-generated Digital Avatars as a new feature for content creation, offering over 100 different avatars with a range of appearances, accents, and languages. These avatars are designed for various uses, including narrating product demonstrations, explainer videos, and gameplay, thereby providing a cost-effective way for businesses and content creators to produce engaging content.
  • AI Avatar Testing: TikTok is testing a new option to let users create AI-generated avatars for their profile pictures. This feature, still in the early stages of testing, aims to put recent advances in AI technology at the forefront for millions of users, potentially enhancing personalization and engagement on the platform.

AI-Driven Advertising Tools

  • Pencil: Pencil offers a service that uses AI to combine branding and products with user-generated content (UGC) to create TikTok ads that blend seamlessly with the platform’s native content. This service emphasizes the importance of standout text and contemporary video effects, following TikTok’s best practices for ad layouts and text use.
  • Promote Tool Enhancements: TikTok has added new targeting and boosting features to its Promote advertising tool, allowing creators and small businesses to more effectively turn their content into ads. These features include driving traffic to TikTok pages or inboxes and expanded audience targeting options.
  • Search Ads and AI Content Label: TikTok has introduced search ads, allowing brands to position their advertisements strategically during user searches, and an AI label to flag videos entirely generated by AI. These initiatives aim to enhance transparency and trust while leveraging AI for advertising and content creation4.

Strategic AI Integration

  • Generative AI Tools: TikTok continues to experiment with generative AI tools, including profile images, improved contextual search, and AI music generation. These efforts are part of TikTok’s broader strategy to integrate AI in ways that drive engagement and offer new creative opportunities for users and advertisers13.
  • Measurement Tools: TikTok has launched new ad performance measurement tools, such as Cross-Channel Partners and Lift Partners, to provide marketers with improved insights into the effectiveness of their campaigns. These tools leverage AI to analyze ad performance across different platforms and measure the impact on brand metrics, sales, and physical store visits14.

TikTok’s exploration and implementation of AI ad avatars and related AI-driven features reflect the platform’s commitment to staying at the forefront of social media innovation. By leveraging AI, TikTok aims to enhance content creation, advertising effectiveness, and user engagement, offering new opportunities for businesses, creators, and advertisers to connect with their audiences in creative and impactful ways.

Outline for a Murder Mystery in the Style of Dorothy Sayers

Perplexity Prompt: Create an outline for a murder mystery in the style of Dorothy Sayers

Perplexity Response:

Setting: The Quaint Village of Little Hampden

  • Little Hampden is a picturesque English village known for its tight-knit community, charming cottages, and a central village green where the annual summer fete is held.
  • The village is surrounded by dense woods and rolling hills, with a small river running through it.
  • The local vicarage, the pub called “The Weeping Willow,” and the village hall are the main social hubs.

Introduction: A Mysterious Death

  • During the village fete, a beloved local artist, Jonathan Eastwood, is found dead in his studio, which overlooks the village green.
  • The death appears to be a suicide, but certain inconsistencies lead to suspicions of foul play.
  • Lord Peter Wimsey, visiting his aunt in Little Hampden, takes an interest in the case.

Key Characters

  • Lord Peter Wimsey: The aristocratic amateur detective with a sharp intellect and a passion for justice.
  • Mervyn Bunter: Wimsey’s loyal valet and assistant, with a keen eye for detail.
  • Reverend Thomas Marple: The well-respected vicar with a love for gardening and a secret past.
  • Eleanor Brampton: The victim’s muse and a talented painter, known for her fiery temper and tumultuous relationship with Eastwood.
  • Dr. Henry Forbes: The village doctor, whose medical opinion on the death raises more questions than answers.
  • Inspector Charles Parker: Wimsey’s friend from Scotland Yard, called in to assist with the investigation.

Red Herrings

  • A mysterious figure seen near the artist’s studio on the night of the murder.
  • A scandalous love letter found in Eastwood’s desk, hinting at a possible affair.
  • A recently altered will that benefits a distant relative.
  • A disgruntled former student of Eastwood’s who had a public falling out with him.

Twists and Turns

  • Evidence that the suicide note was not written by Eastwood.
  • Discovery of a hidden compartment in the studio containing a valuable missing painting.
  • An anonymous tip that leads Wimsey to question the alibis of several villagers.
  • A break-in at the vicarage that uncovers a stash of blackmail letters.

Character Development

  • Wimsey’s empathy and understanding of human nature help him connect with the villagers and gain their trust.
  • Bunter’s military background proves crucial in deciphering a code found among Eastwood’s belongings.
  • Eleanor Brampton’s initial hostility towards Wimsey softens as she becomes an ally in the investigation.
  • Reverend Marple’s struggle with his conscience as secrets from his past come to light.

Clues and Evidence

  • A palette knife smeared with paint and blood, found in the nearby woods.
  • A torn piece of a jacket caught on a bramble that matches the fabric of a local squire’s missing coat.
  • A set of footprints leading away from the studio that suggests the presence of a second person.
  • The discovery of a rare poison in the victim’s system, not readily available to the public.

Conclusion: Unveiling the Murderer

  • Wimsey gathers all suspects for a dramatic reveal in the village hall.
  • He meticulously explains how each piece of evidence fits into the puzzle, exonerating the innocent and cornering the guilty.
  • The murderer is revealed to be someone unexpected, with a motive rooted in a long-held grudge and greed.
  • Wimsey’s clever deduction and attention to human psychology bring the case to a satisfying close.

Epilogue: Aftermath and Reflection

  • The village of Little Hampden returns to its peaceful ways, with the shadow of the murder lifted.
  • Wimsey reflects on the nature of crime and justice, and the impact of the case on the community.
  • Eleanor Brampton dedicates her next painting to Wimsey, capturing the essence of Little Hampden and its resilience.
  • Wimsey and Bunter depart, leaving behind grateful villagers and a sense of order restored.

Based upon his playtime with Perplexity, he thinks the AI might be most useful for this sort of question – an author is stuck for a plot and wants some fresh ideas. PG thinks there might be help for sub-plots, character creation, etc., generated with similar more-focused prompts.

How to Deliver Backstory Without Confusing the Reader

From Jane Friedman:

One of the key pitfalls of backstory, especially early in a novel, is either confusing backstory or overly coy and “mysterious” backstory. Here’s what it looks like.

In the enigmatic town of Serenity Falls, nestled deep within the embrace of towering pine forests and shrouded in perpetual mist, secrets were as abundant as the whispers that echoed through the labyrinthine streets. The townspeople moved with an air of quiet reserve, their eyes veiled and their lips sealed, guarding the mysteries that lurked in the shadows of their collective history.

Isabella, a newcomer to Serenity Falls, with a past as elusive as the morning fog, felt an inexplicable pull toward the town’s enigmatic allure, drawn by a sense of curiosity that she could neither explain nor ignore. She found herself embroiled in a web of intrigue and suspense that seemed to emanate from the very soul of the town itself.

Editor Tiffany Yates Martin discusses this terrible passage of backstory (written by AI, in fact) and then shows how to improve it. 

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Dig into Your Character’s Taboos

From Writer Unboxed:

I am drawn to the things that people won’t talk about. That may be obvious, if you know that my first two novels were about body image and suicide. When was the last time you asked a new mom about her poochy, post-baby abdomen, or what it was like for your neighbor to find her son dead by his own hand? Body-altering, life-changing events happen to us every day that most people just won’t talk about, even though staying mum feeds a churning magma of shame.

Secrets and lies are everywhere in contemporary fiction, and will often drive the entire novel, as David Corbett covered well in a 2022 post. For the purposes of this post, if the protagonist participated in “the thing that shall not be mentioned,” it’s probably more like a shameful secret that someone might lie to cover up.

What I want to look at today is a subtler contribution to characterization—unquestioned taboos passed down through your character’s family or tribe of origin.

Our understanding of what behavior is acceptable in society can come from what we’re told—“No sweetie, we don’t bite our friends”—or, sometimes more powerfully, through what’s never spoken about. If you’d like to try this way of enhancing characterization, look for a taboo relevant to your premise that is specific to the character’s family, as in the examples below. Because it won’t ever be talked about, the character may not even know why it’s taboo; they’ve simply accepted it as forbidden. These silent influences can add shading to a character, impact goal achievement, or dam/damn their inner arc of change.

Love. A man approaching a dock in a motor boat is met by a four year old waving his arms. “Uncle Jim, Uncle Jim, I love you!” The man climbs onto the dock, says hello to the child, then marches up to the boy’s mother and asks why her son would say that to him. She says, “Um, because he loves you? Wild guess.” The uncle harrumphs. “Well. We don’t do that.” What if using the word love causes suspicion in a family member instead of pleasure?

Money. Even though your character’s father was a vice-president of a major company, she had no idea what he earned except that according to her mother, the money didn’t stretch far with five children. This might leave the character clueless about budgeting, saving, and investing in ways that could impact her goal achievement. If her best friend hinted at “how much more money” she was making at her new job, your protagonist might feel prompted to ask for the details her friend longed to spill, but, believing it was crass to talk about money, have to force those words through the involuntary constriction in her throat. What if making money made her feel uncomfortable rather than successful?

Age. At dinner, a girl once asked her favorite aunt how old she was. Her mother cut her a stern look. A long, tense pause ensues. Her aunt finally says, “Old enough to know better.” How might this impact the girl? Would she think that aging is shameful and to be avoided at all cost? Might she be waiting for the day when she knows better?

Emotions. As with many who will not talk about the trauma they’ve suffered, there might be only two prevalent emotions at home: silence and anger. How might this impact a sensitive boy, who perceives the emotional world in many more shades, and cannot stop his tears despite his mother demanding that he do so? Might he see his emotional intelligence as emotional damnation, instead?

. . . .

 Interpersonal issues. An only child grows up to be a mother ill-equipped to manage the five children she has after she marries, especially since her husband works long hours supporting them. Her strategy when trouble erupts is to divide and conquer. How might this impact her daughter, when she’s called upon to resolve conflict in her own life?

Mistakes. A boy grew up never realizing that the parents he’s been emulating made mistakes. They certainly never admitted to any. How might this hamper this young man later in life, when an important relationship requires that he make use of the fine art of apology? And might he dismiss as weak an important mentor after the man admits to his own mistakes? How can he leave perfectionism behind in order to allow new awareness and personal growth?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Unions at Oxford University Press and Barnes & Noble are continuing to organize the book world.

From The Literary Hub:

We may be in for another hot labor summer in literature and publishing this year. Two recent news items caught my eye, as workers continue organizing in the world of books.

Workers at the Oxford University Press Union are threatening to strike as negotiations with management continue to stall. The union has faced stiff resistance, and filed a successful complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that the Oxford University Press has broken the law by refusing to negotiate and by moving bargaining union work overseas. A strike may be next for the union as they continue to fight for better conditions and protections “to ensure the sustainability of OUP’s legacy and to serve as a model for fairness and stability across the industry.”

Elsewhere, Barnes & Noble workers are gearing up to unionize more of the chain’s more than 600 stores. Organizing efforts have already been successful at seven stores, and workers are hoping to keep the momentum up and push for more.

Barnes & Noble’s CEO James Daunt’s attempts to squash further organizing and slow-walk negotiations haven’t been particularly effective, and he has made the argument against organizing oddly personal. The Guardian quotes Zane Crockett, a bookseller at a unionized store in Bloomington, Illinois, who said that Daunt called into “the store himself saying a vote for the union is a vote against him.” A New York bookseller, Jessica Sepple, said that the CEO’s “big argument against us unionizing was it would make [Daunt’s] life harder, which he would repeat several times. It wasn’t very successful.”

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

If the Daunt quote is accurate, he’s even more stupid than PG has long suspected.

Carter Wilson Interviewed Hundreds of Writers — Here’s What He Learned From Them

From BookTrib:

I launched my podcast Making It Up nearly three years ago with the goal of interviewing writers not for any particular work of theirs, but to talk to them about their lives. I didn’t want to ask them what famous author they want to have dinner with or what their top five favorite books are … yech. I wanted to know what their childhood was like, what inflection point made them want to write, and to hear about the years of glorious rejection letters. Most readers pick up a book and assume the author has always been an author, and they make gobs of money writing. I wanted the real, raw truth.

After nearly 150 conversations with writers of all backgrounds (from NYT bestselling thriller authors, to hopeful debuts, to historians, science writers and poets), I’m still amazed how much connective tissue binds us writers together. A few commonalities I’ve evidenced throughout my interviews:

  • Most writers can name a specific person or event that happened in their teenage years that made them want to write.
  • Writing is less a plan than it is a purpose. Despite all efforts to do anything but write, the act of writing will burrow its way to the surface at some point in a writer’s life.
  • No one sets out to write because it’s a solid business decision.
  • Nearly every writer has suffered (or continues to suffer) from impostor syndrome. We all feel like frauds, no matter how successful we may get.
  • There is no linear progression to a writer’s career. Some become hugely successful with their first book, but struggle to repeat the magic with the next several. Others find their best sales after ten books. You can’t count on anything, but yet the best may always be yet to come.
  • Writers can easily name a peer of whom they envy their success.
  • Writing is hard. It gets easier as the muscle for it develops, but it’s never easy.
  • Writing is meditation. It’s one of the few times in a person’s day they have to be fully focused and, more importantly, completely present.
  • Most writers hate social media and eschew the idea of self-promotion, necessary as it may be.
  • Writers view the publishing industry with a mixture curiosity and frustration. We all agree the industry is incredibly opaque, and there’s no formula for success within it.
  • Writers in the same field or genre don’t view one another as competition, and are often generous with their time supporting and promoting each other’s work. They view the true competition as anything else that vies for a potential reader’s attention, namely smartphones and Netflix.
  • Finally, from my experience, most writers are deeply kind, humble and just happy to share their time and opinions with you.

That last one is a universal truth I’ve seen throughout my podcast career. I’ve never talked to a jerk. Sure, some are shy, awkward, and certainly technologically challenged, but always generous and honest. Moreover, these writers are fountains of wisdom, doling out indispensable truisms from which not only my listeners benefit, but I as well. My favorites include S.A. Cosby talking about the equitability of writing (all quotes slightly edited for clarity):

“I think writing, of all the creative arts — acting, singing, dancing — it’s the one where everybody has the best shot. You can be a 75-year-old first-time author, you can be a 35-year-old author that’s got six or seven books under your belt, or you can be a 21-year-old wunderkind. Everybody has that same shot because nobody knows what’s gonna click, what’s gonna break out. And so for me, writing is that thing where I just feel like it’s the most equitable creative art.”

— S.A. Cosby on the Making It Up podcast

Or listening to Robert Dugoni tell me about taking advice from a friend, which led to him diving into learning the craft of writing:

“He said “immerse yourself in the community in which you want be involved.” So I started going to conferences, and I’d be sitting at tables with people that I had just met, and they’d be talking about these books that they read on story structure, or on character development, and I’d be like, what? So I took a step back, and I took about three years, and I gave myself an MFA. I have about forty binders, all full of different tabs, things like development, tension, what you’re trying to do. I had to learn, and, lo and behold, three years after I initially started, after I’d spent years and years studying, I started to have some success.”

Robert Dugoni on the Making It Up podcast

Link to the rest at BookTrib

How anybody can compose a story by word of mouth

How anybody can compose a story by word of mouth face to face with a bored-looking secretary with a notebook is more than I can imagine. Yet many authors think nothing of saying, ‘Ready, Miss Spelvin? Take dictation. Quote no comma Sir Jasper Murgatroyd comma close quotes comma said no better make it hissed Evangeline comma quote I would not marry you if you were the last person on earth period close quotes Quote well comma I’m not so the point does not arise comma close quotes replied Sir Jasper twirling his moustache cynically period And so the long day wore on period End of chapter.’

If I had to do that sort of thing I should be feeling all the time that the girl was saying to herself as she took it down, ‘Well comma this beats me period How comma with homes for the feebleminded touting for custom on every side comma has a man like this succeeded in remaining at large mark of interrogation.

P.G. Wodehouse

Best dictation software of 2024

From Tech Radar:

The best dictation software makes it simple and easy to record audio notes on your desktop or mobile device.

It also allows you to speak instead of typing and converts your spoken words into text. This can save you a lot of time and energy and is very useful for anyone who might have difficulty typing for any period, such as those with RSI or a disability.

Although dictation software has been around since the 1990s, it was mostly seen as a gimmick due to low accuracy. However, technological advancements have made them more accurate and usable; you can now dictate text with accuracy levels of over 90%.

The most popular office software, Word, comes with a built-in speech-to-text converter, and it’s back engine has almost certainly been helped by Microsoft’s purchase of the Dragon software company, which leads the field when it comes to dictation software for all applications. Apple and Google also provide similar options for their software platforms.

. . . .

Dragon Professional Individual

Dragon Professional Individual dictation software is widely recognized as the best in the business. Dragon products are reliable, easy to use, and among the most accurate available.

Having used Dragon dictation software on our laptop, we can attest to its best-in-class performance. In a 300 word test, the software got 299 words correct. 

Like most advanced dictation software platforms, Dragon software leverages deep learning technology and artificial neural networks. These technologies enable Dragon to adjust its transcription based on several factors, such as the amount of ambient noise, the speaker’s accent, and even the tone with which they speak. 

For businesses, several Dragon dictation products may be suitable. This is because Dragon has gone beyond merely offering one software package for all purposes, and has created dictation software custom-designed for specific industries. The most popular are Dragon Legal, Dragon Medical One, and Dragon Law Enforcement. 

The biggest downside of Dragon dictation software is the substantial cost for a license.

. . . .

Microsoft Word speech to text

Although not a standalone dictation software platform, we believe Microsoft Word’s dictation functionalities merit a spot on this list. Built directly into Microsoft Word, and included with all Microsoft 365 subscriptions, it is a powerful and accurate dictation tool. 

The platform relies on vast amounts of training data and artificial neural networks, meaning it is continuously improving its ability to transcribe voice to text. Having tested Microsoft’s dictation software, we’re confident it competes in accuracy and ease of use with the leading dictation software providers. 

There are few standout features to mention, but we see this as a strength. Microsoft Word’s dictation software is straightforward to use, with no setup or installations required. It is accessible directly from the Word application, and it only takes one click to begin voice typing. 

Several voice commands enable you to take control of the document. These include punctuation marks and formatting tools. 

A final thing we like about Microsoft Word’s speech to text software is its support for nine different languages, with many more in the testing stage.  

. . . .

Google Docs Voice Typing

Google Docs is a popular online world processor offered by Google, the tech giant best known for its search engine. It works just like Microsoft Word but online instead of a desktop app. It’s also free to use, so you don’t have to pay any extra fee for a dictation tool. 

Google Docs allows you to type with your voice. When you open the software, just select Tools > Voice Typing and give it access to your device’s microphone. Then, you can click the pop-up microphone button anytime you want to dictate text. During our test, it was very accurate and typed in the correct words that were dictated. Just ensure you speak loudly and legibly because little pauses and stutters can confuse it. 

All you need to use Google Docs is a working Google account. There’s no setup or installation required; you just have to sign in and open a new document. The drawback is that you can not use the voice typing feature offline. 

. . . .

How We Tested the Best Dictation Software

To test for the best dictation software we first set up an account with the relevant software platform, whether as a download or as an online service. We then tested the service to see how the software could be used for different purposes and in different situations. The aim was to push each dictation software platform to see how useful its basic tools were and also how easy it was to get to grips with any more advanced tools.

Link to the rest at Tech Radar

The OP includes information about other dictation programs beyond the three mentioned above plus a more detailed review of Dragon Professional, MS Word and Google Docs.

Feel free to share your experiences with dictation software in the comments.

How To Dictate Your Book

From The Creative Penn:

The word ‘writing’ has become associated with hitting keys on a keyboard to make letters appear on a screen or inscribing by hand onto paper. But the end result is a mode of communication from one brain to another through the medium of words. Those words can be generated by your voice, just as people can ‘read’ by listening to an audiobook.

Famous authors who have written with dictation include diverse creatives John Milton (Paradise Lost), Dan Brown, Henry James, Barbara Cartland and Winston Churchill. When Terry Pratchett, fantasy author of the Discworld series, developed Alzheimer’s Disease, he found he couldn’t write anymore, so he moved to dictation in his final years.

. . . .

So, why dictate?

(1) Health reasons

You can dictate standing up or while walking, or lying in bed with injuries, or if pain stops you typing.

I started using dictation when I had RSI and used it to write the first drafts of Destroyer of Worlds and also Map of Shadows, plus some chapters for this book, which I dictated while walking along the canal towpath.

(2) Writing speed and stamina

Dictation is faster at getting words on the page than typing, especially if you are not self-censoring.

I’ve made it up to around 5000 words per hour with dictation, while I only manage around 1500 words per hour typing.

There is a trade-off with ‘finished’ words as you will have to at least lightly edit to correct transcription issues, but if you want to get that first draft done faster, then dictation can be the most effective way.

(3) Increased creativity

Some writers have a problem with perfectionism and the critical voice in a first draft. They struggle to finish a book because they are constantly editing what they have written.

If you dictate, you can bypass this critical voice, get the first draft done and then edit it later.

. . . .

What’s stopping you dictating?

There are a number of reasons why people resist dictation. I know them all because I’ve been through this journey several times!

The most common are:

• “I’m used to typing. I don’t have the right kind of brain for dictation.”

• “I don’t want to say the punctuation out loud. It will disrupt my flow.”

• “I write in public so I can’t dictate.”

• “I have a difficult accent which will make it impossible.”

• “I write fantasy books with weird names which won’t work.”

• “I don’t know how to set it up technically.”

• “I can’t spare the time to learn how to dictate.”

Here’s what I wrote in my journal on the first day I tried dictation before I’d actually even started.

I’m very self-conscious. I’m worried that I won’t be able to find the words. I’m so used to typing and creating through my fingers that doing it with my voice feels strange.

But I learned to type with my fingers, so why can’t I learn to type with my words? I just have to practice. Something will shift in my mind at some point, and it will just work. This should make me a healthier author, and also someone who writes faster.

Authors who use dictation are writing incredibly fast. That’s what I want. I want to write stories faster as I have so many in my mind that I want to get into the world.”

Here are thoughts from my journal after the first session:

“It felt like the words were really bad and the story clunky and poor. But actually, when the transcription was done and I edited it, it really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. A classic case of critical voice.

I need to ignore this when I’m dictating. I definitely need to plan the scene more before I speak it, which will save time overall in both dictation and editing.

I did think I would find the punctuation difficult, but that has also been easier than I thought. There are only a few commands that you use regularly, and dialog is the worst but you get into a rhythm with that. It also gives you a pause between each speaker to consider what they might say next, so perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. For the Indian character names, I am just using an easy placeholder word that I will go back and fix later.”

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

It appears that Joanna created this blog post and video about six years ago. PG plans to see if he can find anything about technology updates that may be relevant to authors who may want to experiment with dictation.

Here’s a video in which Joanna describes how she dictates her books.

Authors who dictate

From Sathyanand’s Blog:

“The Greek poet Homer (probably) dictated the entire Iliad and Odyssey because, according to tradition, he was blind.” ~ says Michael M. from Daily Writing Tips.

Dame Agatha Christie dictated perhaps half of her 66 famous mystery novels. Science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson says, “It’s been about fifteen years since I gave up the keyboard and took up a recorder for my first drafts.” He is the author of 56 bestsellers, with more than 23 million books in print worldwide.

Legendary writer Sidney Sheldon wrote all his 18 novels by dictating. “Each morning from 9 until noon, I had a secretary… I wrote each morning — or rather, dictated — and then I faced the TV business.” On the best days, he dictates close to 50 pages.

Link to the rest at Sathyanand’s Blog

Are You A Dictator? Then Philips’ New Integration with Nuance Dragon’s AI Speech Recognition May Be for You

From LawSites:

I am not a dictator (although some in my family may at times disagree). But I know that, for many lawyers and legal professionals, dictation is the only way to go. If you are one of them, you may want to check out the integration announced today by Philips Dictation of Nuance Dragon’s AI-powered speech recognition into the Philips SpeechLive dictation platform.

Philips SpeechLive, owned by the company Speech Processing Solutions, is a browser- and mobile-based dictation and transcription product for converting speech to text. The product, which also includes tools for routing and managing transcriptions, is used by a number of law firms.

With today’s announcement, SpeechLive now integrates Nuance Dragon, which has been a long-time leader in dictation software for the legal profession. The integration brings enhanced AI-driven speech recognition with software that continuously learns and becomes more accurate with use.

. . . .

Among the features enabled through this integration:

  • Specialized legal vocabularies. User can access tailored legal vocabularies for greater precision in transcription.
  • Custom profiles. Speech profiles can be personalized for to enhance efficiency and reduce repetitive corrections.
  • Personalized user recognition that uses adaptive learning to optimize transcription accuracy, tailored to individual preferences.
  • Real-time speech recognition. Integration of the Dragon Bar enables users to dictate directly into applications, such as Word documents or client management systems.

Link to the rest at LawSites

PG was an early adopter of Dragon’s early dictation system a very long time ago. It didn’t work very well.

However, in his law office, he dictated most of the documents that he couldn’t create with his home-brew document assembly system. His secretaries were very talented at cleaning up some of the documents he had dictated badly.

He also dictated requests to call the court clerk’s office to find out the status of court filings, etc., etc., etc. He hired the smartest secretaries he could find and paid them significantly more than the local going rate so they would stay around a long time. When a big check would arrive, he often paid his secretaries part of the windfall. Hiring and keeping smart people paid off very nicely for him.

PG remembers reading that a successful author dictated the first drafts of his novel for transcription a long time ago. He doesn’t recall who it was, but perhaps the name will float into his mind from the cloud or some similar source.

The Pacific Islands: United by Ocean, Divided by Colonialism

From Public Books:

The Pacific islands of Samoa and the Cook Islands are about as far from each other (960 miles) as the American West Coast cities of Los Angeles, California, and Portland, Oregon. And yet, the inhabitants of the two islands must contend with a time difference of a remarkable 23 hours. The reason is that they are separated by the International Date Line, which divides one calendar day from another. Here, deep in the Pacific, the impact of Western colonialism runs deep: it even shapes the way Pacific Islanders experience time. It does so by erecting a barrier between geographically close and historically linked islands, a divide, explains scholar Maile Arvin, that is “irreconcilable with Indigenous epistemologies of the Moana, or Pacific Ocean that emphasize the ocean as connection rather than barrier.”

The Pacific Islands have long had a shared culture, yet were divided by European colonizers—with terminology based on their encounters with Africa—into “Polynesia,” “Micronesia,” and “Melanesia.” “White people carved this vast oceanic world into categories of race,” Nitasha Tamar Sharma writes, “appointing Melanesians as the Black people of the Pacific because of their dark skin and curly hair, in contrast to Polynesians, whom Europeans considered closer to Whiteness.”

A case study for understanding Pacific Islanders’ relationship to whiteness can be found in Guam, a Micronesian island held by the US as a territory. One of the most militarized islands in the western Pacific Ocean, Guam contains two major military bases: Naval Base Guam in Santa Rita and Andersen Air Force Base in Yigo. It is the construction of modern Guam as a strategic military outpost for the United States that forms the basis of Alfred Peredo Flores’s Tip of the Spear: Land, Labor, and US Settler Militarism in Guåhan, 1944–1962. Flores posits that Guam (which Flores calls Guåhan, the island’s Chamorro name, but which I will refer to in this essay as Guam for ease of recognition by unfamiliar readers) was developed by the United States through a process of “settler militarism,” and that the formation and maintenance of Guam’s civilian military labor system depended on privileging the needs—financial and sexual—of white Americans over those of Chamorro (the Indigenous people of Guam, also spelled CHamoru) and Filipino workers. “Settler militarism,” according to Juliet Nebolon, underscores the extent to which “settler colonialism and militarization have simultaneously perpetuated, legitimated, and concealed one another,” making it a useful term to understand the development of Guam as both a cultural and military asset to the United States.

This question of proximity to whiteness is also considered by Arvin in Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawai`i and Oceania, which theorizes that Pacific Islanders’ identity has been shaped by a “logic of possession through whiteness.” By this logic, Arvin argues, Polynesians were considered “almost white”: allowing white settlers to claim indigeneity and thus settler colonial ownership over Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia. Such near-whiteness contrasts Micronesians (including Chamorros in Guam) and Melanesians, whom Arvin argues were considered closer to Blackness and, thus, racially subjugated in a more conventional manner. Polynesians’ perceived proximity to whiteness, according to Arvin, was primarily rooted in the belief that “because Polynesian language, myth, and biology contained an Aryan heritage, Polynesian peoples and land were naturally also the heritage of white settlers.”

Arvin’s “logic of possession through whiteness” illuminates Flores’s account of what happened in mid-20th-century Guam. Putting these two books in conversation, I argue that Chamorros’ racialization as dark and “other” in contrast to white Americans allowed for the privileging of whiteness and white labor in the settler colonial project in Guam, in contrast to Arvin’s example of settler colonialism in Polynesia, specifically Hawaii, relying on constructing Polynesians as proximal to white Americans. In the first instance, settler colonialism positioned Chamorros as distant from whiteness in order to underscore Pacific Islanders’ perceived inferiority as laborers and residents of Guam compared to their white counterparts. In the second instance, settler colonialism similarly exalted whiteness not by underscoring Pacific Islanders’ distance from whiteness but by locating Polynesians as “almost white as an attempt to make Polynesia into a Western, settler colonial project, not merely a place.”

In post–World War II Guam, then, Arvin’s “logic of possession through whiteness” operates slightly differently than it does in Polynesia to nevertheless exercise control over Chamorros, specifically by underscoring their distance from whiteness rather than assigning them an “almost white” status.

It is necessary to first define the parameters of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, even though the terms are a “form of knowledge production that structures settler colonialism.” Polynesia is the largest by area of the three regions and includes Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti Nui, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand, among other islands. West of Polynesia is Melanesia, which includes Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, among others. North of Melanesia are the islands of Micronesia, including Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Polynesians, specifically Native Hawaiians, were positioned as racially proximal to whiteness. As such, they were elevated above Micronesians and Melanesians, who were named so literally because of their melanin. Micronesians fell somewhere in between: darker in complexion than Polynesians but lighter than Melanesians, occupying the liminal space between whiteness and Blackness. Some scholars offer a more capacious definition of Blackness: According to legal scholar Charles Lawrence as summarized by Sharma, Blackness “includes Micronesian and Hawaiian men whose lives are burdened (and cut short) by racist people in positions of power—who in Hawai’i include Asians.” Under this framing, both Chamorros and Native Hawaiians occupy a position of relative Blackness compared to non-Indigenous Asian and white settlers.

So where do all Pacific Islanders, considered separately from Asian Americans (with whom they have been grouped), stand in relation to whiteness? Considering this question is important as Asian Americans litigate their own positionality in relation to whiteness, especially with looming discourse contending that Asian Americans are “honorary white people” in light of issues such as affirmative action and policing.

Pacific Islanders are often lumped together with Asian Americans in US community surveys, data reports, and government-sanctioned celebrations. These include Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, alternatively referred to by the federal government as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and, most recently, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: three names that underscore the government’s ongoing uncertainty when it comes to defining and locating Pacific Islander communities in relation to Asian Americans.

In 1997, the US Census finally separated the categories “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” and “Asian.” Still, Pacific Islanders are seldom considered separately from Asians in mainstream news coverage and scholarly criticism, beyond references to the Pacific Islands in geopolitical and military contexts. But there are “stark, documented inequalities between Asian American and Pacific Islander groups,” as Arvin observes. Moreover, grouping them together ignores “the distinction that Pacific Islanders are Indigenous peoples,” meaning they are the earliest known inhabitants of the region.

And the dearth of specific information about the demographic makeup and needs of Pacific Islander communities has led to fewer resources for those communities, especially when health and economic studies in reality focus primarily on Asian ethnicity groups but purport to target AAPI communities. Disaggregating data among Asian American and Pacific Islander communities can help: a San Francisco Unified School District student population recount found that almost three times as many students identified as Pacific Islander compared to the school’s initial report for the 2018–19 academic year—and that more than half of them identified as Samoan, which led to the creation of an educational pathway for students “rooted in Sāmoa Aganu’u indigenous values and practices.” Clearly, when it comes to Pacific Islanders, questions of terminology have material consequences.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG doesn’t agree with ideas of racial guilt or historical racial subjugation as the most relevant elements in today’s society.

He also disagrees with the statement in the OP that “The Pacific Islands have long had a shared culture.”

How did this sharing of culture take place in a region that covers an enormous area—64 million square miles—a space larger than all the land masses of the world combined—during times when a huge portion of Pacific Islanders could only travel by small boats powered by sails or paddles?

PG will limit himself to a discussion of only one more statement in the OP – “White people do not need to be present for whiteness to exert its hegemony.”

What is “whiteness”? Is the “whiteness” of Finland the same as the “whiteness” of white people living in South Africa? How about the “whiteness” of Alaskans and the “whiteness” of white sharecroppers who live in Alabama?

The author of the OP is a woman named Meena Venkataramanan (Harvard University, BA in English; University of Cambridge, MPhil in English), who writes for The Washington Post and speaks English, Spanish and Tamil.

On Ms. Venkataramanan’s blog, we learn that:

My writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, POLITICO, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Chicago Review of Books, Harvard Magazine, the Texas Tribune, the Arizona Republic, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and ABC News. My work has been featured on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show and All In With Chris Hayes, and I have discussed my reporting across national and regional media.

On a different page of her blog, we can see “links to selected media appearances on television, radio, video, and podcasts.” In various of these media appearances, we learn that she is a recognized expert on why more American women want their tubes tied and how Queen Elizabeth’s death resurfaced colonial trauma for some people. Additionally, her thoughts about a “Bad Bunny and El Muerto Variant Cover” on TikTok apparently rated an article in The Washington Post.

Ms. Venkataramanan is certainly a useful expert on a wide variety of subjects—where Pacific Islanders stand in relation to Whitness, knowledge production that structures settler colonialism, how Asian Americans litigate their own positionality in relation to Whiteness, and so forth.

PG just realized that he forgot to mention another field of expertise Ms. Venkataramanan has mastered – Why “Some Black Germans want change.”

Captain Cook’s Final, Fatal Voyage

From The Economist:

Until recently Captain James Cook was not a particularly controversial figure. But in January a statue of the 18th-century British sailor and explorer was toppled in Melbourne and the words “The colony will fall” spraypainted on the plinth. In Hawaii an obelisk in Cook’s memory has been splattered with red paint and the message “You are on native land.” Cook has joined Edward Colston, Robert Clive and Cecil Rhodes as a focal point for anti-colonialist ire.

In fact Cook was neither a slave trader nor much of an imperialist. He was, first and foremost, a brilliant navigator and cartographer. Acting under Admiralty orders, he undertook three pioneering voyages in the Pacific between 1768 and 1779. His mapmaking transformed Europeans’ knowledge of the world’s largest ocean.

An excellent new book draws on Cook’s letters and notebooks to tell the story of his third and final trip. Cook was almost 50 when he set off on hms Resolution in July 1776. Among the crew he took were William Bligh (later captain of the Bounty before the mutiny in 1789) and Mai, a Tahitian prince noted for being painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Cook had secret instructions from the Admiralty not only to claim new territory for Britain, but to search for a north-west passage via the Bering Strait (a task even someone with his navigational experience found impossible).

The author, Hampton Sides, focuses on Cook’s return to Australia and New Zealand—countries the explorer had first encountered almost a decade earlier—his discovery of the Society Islands (today part of French Polynesia) and his time in Hawaii. It was there, in February 1779, that he was killed after a botched attempt to kidnap a local chief in response to the theft of a longboat.

Cook was a man of his times. He believed Europe would have a civilising influence on many benighted folk in the Pacific. He was distinctly cruel in meting out punishments, to his own crew as well as to any indigenous people who opposed him.

Yet Cook also admired many of the people and places he encountered in the South Pacific. Unlike the Spanish, he had no interest in religious conversion. He tried hard to stop his men from spreading venereal disease. For the most part, his land claims were aimed not at promoting a British empire but forestalling grabs by Britain’s rivals, France and Spain.

Link to the rest at The Economist

J.K. Rowling Still Free from the Speech Police

PG note: This is closer to the political line than PG typically ventures. This will not become a regular feature on The Passive Voice.

He makes this exception because, as described in The Wall Street Journal, Scottish law has the potential to seriously harm authors who are subject to it.

Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of any democracy. If a government can outlaw and punish speech it dislikes for any reason, a fundamental tool that allows a democracy to readjust its course and correct the errors that human beings inevitably commit.

It is a short step from prohibiting speech a government believes to be improper to prohibiting speech that criticizes other actions the small group of people who are in power decides will be best for themselves.

From The Wall Street Journal:

An appalling political effort to force the people of Scotland to express only government-approved thoughts on “gender” has so far been unable to conquer the country’s most successful expresser of thoughts. Megan Bonar and Katy Scott report for the BBC:

Social media comments made by JK Rowling challenging Scotland’s new hate crime law are not being treated as criminal, Police Scotland has said.

The Harry Potter author described several transgender women as men, including convicted prisoners, trans activists and other public figures.

The new law creates a new crime of “stirring up hatred” relating to protected characteristics.

The force said complaints had been received but no action would be taken.

Ms. Rowling responds on X:

I hope every woman in Scotland who wishes to speak up for the reality and importance of biological sex will be reassured by this announcement, and I trust that all women – irrespective of profile or financial means – will be treated equally under the law.

Libby Brooks adds in the U.K.’s Guardian:

As the Scottish government’s contentious hate crime law came into force on Monday, the author… posted a thread on X… listing sex offenders who had described themselves as transgender alongside well-known trans women activists, describing them as “men, every last one of them”.

She stated that “freedom of speech and belief are at an end in Scotland if the accurate description of biological sex is deemed criminal”.

Agence France Presse notes more of Ms. Rowling’s commentary:

The law, she said in a lengthy online criticism, is “wide open to abuse by activists who wish to silence those of us speaking out about the dangers of eliminating women’s and girls’ single-sex spaces”.

“I’m currently out of the country, but if what I’ve written here qualifies as an offence under the terms of the new act, I look forward to being arrested when I return to the birthplace of the Scottish Enlightenment,” she wrote.

Thank goodness that Ms. Rowling will remain free—at least for now—but will such liberty be allowed for everyone? Ross Douthat now writes at the New York Times

In 2002, the English journalist Ed West penned an essay entitled “Britain Isn’t a Free Country.” His evidence was straightforward: Through the aggressive enforcement of laws against hate speech, Britain was harassing, investigating and sometimes imprisoning its own citizens, effectively consigning the right to free expression to the dustbin of history.

Here in 2024, Mr. Douthat describes the latest assault on free expression:

The new Scottish law criminalizes public speech deemed “insulting” to a protected group (as opposed to the higher bar of “abusive”), and prosecutors need only prove that the speech was “likely” to encourage hatred rather than being explicitly intended to do so. One can offer a defense based on the speech in question being “reasonable,” and there is a nod to “the importance of the right to freedom of expression.” But a plain reading of the law seems like it could license prosecutions for a comedian’s monologue or for reading biblical passages on sexual morality in public.

Mr. Douthat adds:

My prediction is that neither Rowling nor any figure of her prominence will face prosecution. Rather, what you see in West’s examples is that the speech police prefer more obscure targets: the teenage girl prosecuted for posting rap lyrics that included the N-word or the local Tory official hauled in by the cops after posting to criticize the arrest of a Christian street preacher.

Which is, of course, a normal way for mild sorts of authoritarianism to work. Exceptions are made for prominent figures, lest the system look ridiculous, but ordinary people are taught not to cross the line.

Mindful of this possibility, Ms. Rowling posted on X on Tuesday:

If they go after any woman for simply calling a man a man, I’ll repeat that woman’s words and they can charge us both at once.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

It is extremely difficult to obtain a hearing from men living in democracies

It is extremely difficult to obtain a hearing from men living in democracies, unless it be to speak to them of themselves. They do not attend to the things said to them, because they are always fully engrossed with the things they are doing. For indeed few men are idle in democratic nations; life is passed in the midst of noise and excitement, and men are so engaged in acting that little remains to them for thinking. I would especially remark that they are not only employed, but that they are passionately devoted to their employments. They are always in action, and each of their actions absorbs their faculties: the zeal which they display in business puts out the enthusiasm they might otherwise entertain for idea.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The journey from Self-Published to Traditionally Published author

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

I often get asked why I decided to self-publish my books. It all started in the summer of 2019 when I attended the Winchester Writers’ Festival, submitting the first three chapters and a synopsis of my debut novel Leave Well Alone to four literary agents beforehand.

It was a busy weekend, listening to guest speakers, participating in workshops, meeting other authors and joining writing seminars. In addition, during the festival, I attended one-to-one sessions with each of the agents I had submitted my work to. These sessions were how I imagined speed dating to be, but for writers to find an agent rather than a lover.

There were about thirty agents in a hall and as many authors. A bell would ring, indicating the start and finish of each session, when the authors would stand up and leave their current perspective before moving on to the next agent. The stakes were high for us authors, each session intense as we hoped to find an agent.

The highlight of the weekend came when I sat down opposite the third agent (from a very reputable agency), and she said, ‘I love it. Everything about it. Your story idea, your writing, your characters, everything!’ We spent the ten-minute slot chatting about the publication process and the author name I should use. It was a surreal moment, and I was beyond excited! While raising my three sons, one of whom has severe disabilities, I’d been writing Leave Well Alone on and off for seven years. I envisaged signing copies of my labour of love in bookstores. I fantasised about seeing it at the airport.

But life doesn’t always take the path we hope for.

Things didn’t work out with that agent (long story), and to say I was bitterly disappointed is an understatement.

But, in hindsight, it was the best thing to happen to me. And if I ever met that agent again, I would wholeheartedly thank her for not taking me on.

I threw my manuscript into the Cloud in disdain and began plotting my second book, Don’t Come Looking. By the end of the year, I had completed a very rough draft.

Discouraged by the agenting process, I began researching self-publishing and what it would entail to get my book into the hands of readers. I found an editor (who went on to edit all my six self-published books) and worked with her to make Leave Well Alone the best it could possibly be. I spent hours learning the beginning of the publishing world and constructing a marketing plan, and at the end of 2019, I decided 2020 would be the year I would see my debut in print.

I found a cover designer, devised a detailed publishing schedule, and taught myself how to run Amazon and Facebook ads. Then, on August 1st, 2020, I self-published my debut. By Christmas, it had earned Amazon’s bestseller tag, topping the charts in both the UK and the USA. Little did I know I would go on to self-publish another five books.

In May 2023, I was approached by Bookouture, a division of Hachette UK, to work with them. Two months later, I signed a two-book deal with them. I was thrilled they signed me on two books I hadn’t even written. I spent the rest of 2023 writing How Can I Trust You? and Did I Kill My Husband? to be published on April 8th and May 29th respectively. I also wrote a short story, Sweet Revenge, to introduce new readers to my work. You can pick up a copy from the following link: https://bookouture.com/subscribe/aj-campbell/

I’m currently writing books nine and ten, which I can’t wait to tell my readers more about.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

Writers With ADHD: Strategies for Navigating the Writing Process

From Writers Helping Writers:

Earlier this year, I received an email from Bret Wieseler, requesting, “I would love to see a post about writers with ADHD. If you’ve never struggled with it yourself, maybe you know someone who has and can share their thoughts, methods, management strategies, etc. You offer such great insight into the many aspects of being a writer. I’m sure some of your readers, like myself, who struggle with ADHD would appreciate any advice you could offer.”

I immediately knew who to call on, and I am excited to share a guest post today from a writer who has been a part of my own journey almost from the very beginning. Johne Cook and I met on an online writing forum over 15 years ago, and he remains one of my favorite people to have entered my life in this journey. I have long admired his pragmatism, his insight, and his general cool in the face of the Internet’s insanity. To this day, I will often ask myself, “What would Johne do here?”

He has always been open about his experience as a writer with ADHD—both the challenges and his solutions for overcoming them. Today, I’m excited to have the opportunity to let him share his experience, tips, and resources with you.

Discovery

I wish I knew then what I know now.

For my first 45 years, I thought I was broken: I was a daydreamer, I couldn’t focus on things everyone else thought were important, I fidgeted when I should have been focusing, and I focused intently on the wrong things when people wanted my attention elsewhere.

It’s not like there weren’t clues. I excelled as part of an award-winning marching band in high school where marching in unison was expected, but it was like I was out of step with society.

I had difficulties with organization, time management, and sustaining attention in non-stimulating environments.

I couldn’t make important decisions to save my life. I kept putting things off. I had health problems, money problems, interpersonal problems.

I waited until the 11th hour to begin anything important, and things frequently fell through the cracks.

When I was young, what I wanted most was to be “normal.” But the older I got, the more I believed that was never my reality or calling.

Everything changed the day I heard a piece on NPR called “Adult ADHD in the Workplace.” As they discussed what ADHD was and shared six basic questions, I realized I checked five of the six boxes. They shared a link to a website, and I double-checked my results when I got home.

And then I met with a doctor and confirmed the diagnosis. My entire identity changed.

When I tried two different medications that gave me additional focus at the expense of my creativity (and some other small side effects), I sensed, for the first time, that my creativity was somehow tied to my condition. I valued my ability to sling words, see patterns, and make intuitive leaps that others around me couldn’t.

Because I valued my creativity, I ultimately handled my ADHD through other means that I’ll talk about below.

I realized I could either run from my ADHD or embrace it.

I decided to lean into it.

Communication

Knowing is half the battle. Knowing this about myself (and knowing that I was special, not broken) changed the way I saw everything.

I started by talking to my wife Linda and my family about what I was like and gradually increased my communication to include my boss and peers at work.

For some of them, what I told them was no surprise, and my biggest pleasant shock was how cool everyone was about it.

Finally, when appropriate, I shared about my ADHD with people I met out in the world. Letting people know what I was like set expectations and minimized confusion.

Once I had that handled, I moved on to the fun stuff.

ADHD as a Superpower

If attention deficit is the disorder, attention hyper-focus is my superpower.*

During the pandemic, Linda and I watched an interrupted season of The Amazing Race, mostly for Penn and Kim Holderness from YouTube’s The Holderness Family. It was only while watching the show that we learned that Penn was very ADHD. They referred to his ADHD as a superpower, and I saw with my own eyes how his ADHD helped him with pattern recognition, creative outside-the-box thinking, and hyper-focus during challenges.

And watching Penn at work on the show changed how I viewed my own ADHD.

In short, when managed effectively and embraced for its positive attributes, ADHD can empower writers to harness their inner strengths and achieve success in various domains of life.

Understanding ADHD in the Writing Process

People with ADHD exhibit different symptoms such as difficulty maintaining attention, hyperactivity, or impulsive behavior. For writers, these symptoms can manifest as challenges in organizing thoughts, staying on task, and completing projects.

However, it’s also associated with high levels of creativity, the ability to make unique connections, and a propensity for innovative thinking.

Challenges Faced by Writers With ADHD

(The following challenges are common but not universal.)

  • Distraction: Writing progress can be derailed by the lure of new ideas, social media, or even minor environmental changes.
  • Difficulty Organizing Thoughts: It can be daunting to translate a whirlwind of thoughts into coherent, structured writing.
  • Procrastination: Delaying writing tasks in favor of more immediately rewarding activities.
  • Impulsivity: Starting new projects without finishing current ones can lead to a cycle of uncompleted works.

Despite these challenges, many writers with ADHD have developed strategies to thrive.

Strategies and Tools for Writing with ADHD

I decided against medication. Once I took medication off the table, I began leaning harder on software tools to become more organized and to remind myself of important things.

Turning ADHD challenges into advantages requires a combination of personal strategies, environmental adjustments, and technology.

Linda and I are a team—she knows to prompt me to use my tech to capture ideas or thoughts in the moment, and I’ve become better at tracking my ideas by noting them in my phone or on my calendar.

Today, there are more tools available than ever.

Here are several approaches:

1. Structuring the Writing Environment

Minimize Distractions: Create a writing space with minimal visual and auditory distractions. Tools like noise-canceling headphones or apps that play white noise can help.

Establish Routines: Having a set writing schedule can provide structure and make it easier to start writing sessions.

2. Breaking Down Tasks

Use Lists and Outlines: Breaking writing projects into smaller, manageable tasks can make them less daunting. Outlining can also help organize thoughts before diving into writing.

Set Small Goals: Focus on short, achievable objectives, such as writing a certain number of words daily, to build momentum.

3. Leveraging Technology

Calendars: Google Calendar or Fantastical (MacOS only) free up my mind and keep me up-to-date.

Writing Software: Applications like Scrivener or Google Docs offer features to organize ideas, research, and drafts in one place.

Time Management Apps: Pomodoro timers or task management apps like Trello can help manage time and keep track of progress.

Pocket: A social bookmarking service for storing, sharing, and discovering web bookmarks.

SnagIt: A screenshot app on my computer where I capture and store screenshots in folders for later use. Also does optical character recognition (OCR) on text strings, allowing me to replicate URLs with copy/paste.

Note-taking appsApple Notes—my second mind that I can access from any of my Internet-connected devices.  Notion—a beefier app for more sophisticated note-taking

4. Embracing the Creative Process

Allow for Free Writing: Set aside time to write without worrying about coherence or structure. This can help capture creative ideas without the pressure of perfection.

Develop a System for Capturing Ideas: Use note-taking apps or carry a notebook to jot down ideas as they come, regardless of the time and place.

5. Seeking Support

Writing Groups: Joining a writing group or participating in writing challenges can provide accountability and motivation.

Professional Help: For some, working with a coach or therapist specializing in ADHD can offer personalized strategies and support.

Success Stories: Writers With ADHD

Many successful writers have ADHD and have spoken about how it affects their creative process. Writers emphasize the importance of embracing their non-linear thinking, and view it not as a hindrance, but as a source of creativity and originality:

Agatha Christie: The “Queen of Crime” was known for her prolific output and intricate plots. Some speculate that her energetic writing style and ability to focus intensely on details could be signs of ADHD.f

. . . .

John Irving: The author of The World According to Garp was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult and has spoken about how his condition has both helped and hindered his writing process.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The following are from The Holderness Family, mentioned in the OP:

SPD Client Presses Race to Claim Books as Ingram Drops a Tight Deadline

From Publishers Weekly:

An email sent by Ingram Publisher Services to former clients of the shuttered SPD Press Distribution is causing more panic in the independent publishing community. The email directs publishers to fill out a form by April 17, providing Ingram with instructions about where to send their titles—at the presses’ own cost. But what has publishers most anxious is Ingram’s plan to “recycle” any inventory remaining at the Ingram warehouse after 60 days.

Given the current state of confusion and uncertainty about future distribution arrangements, some publishers worry that two months isn’t nearly enough time to complete the process of finding a new home for their titles. Others on social media pointed out that some of the 300,000 books that were at the SPD warehouse likely belong to publishers that are no longer operating, and, without anyone around to claim them, will simply be destroyed.

The email also notified publishers that with the closure of SPD, Ingram’s warehouse and fulfillment agreement with the distributor has ended and that Ingram has stopped fulfilling orders. This puts publishers in a lose-lose situation: on the one hand, filling orders with no clear path for retailers to pay suppliers is a losing proposition; on the other, no new orders coming in means no cash flow.

The IPS email also says that Ingram will continue to process returns from the Ingram wholesale business for all titles associated with SPD for six months. After that point, all returns will be recycled “unless agreed otherwise.”

Responding to the urgency of the distribution question, Independent Publishers Group will participate in a webinar hosted by the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses on April 8 at 3:00 p.m. EDT, in order to provide information about its different services. CLMP is inviting all presses with at least $10,000 in annual sales and an ongoing publishing program to attend. On April 9, IPG will host its own online open house at 3:00 p.m. EDT.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Small Press Distribution Shuts Down

From Publishers Weekly:

Small Press Distribution, one of the last remaining independent book distributors in the United States, has closed. In an announcement made March 28, SPD executive director Kent Watson said that the closure is effective immediately, and that the staff is in the process of winding down the business.

Watson cited a decline in sales and a loss of institutional support as the reasons forcing the distributor, founded in 1969, to close. “Despite the heroic efforts of a tireless staff to raise new funds, find new sales channels for our presses, and move from our outdated Berkeley warehouse, we are simply no longer able to make ends meet,” said Watson in a statement. In February, SPD completed moving more than 300,000 titles from its Berkeley facility to warehouses owned by the Ingram Content Group and Publishers Storage and Shipping.

The transfer was part of Watson’s plan to keep the nonprofit distributor a viable option for small publishers by cutting operating costs while simultaneously increasing services such as access to print-on-demand facilities, e-book and audiobook distribution, and more extensive distribution in the U.S and worldwide.

The move from the Berkeley warehouse was facilitated by a GoFundMe campaign that raised $100,000. Watson launched a second effort last month in an attempt to raise another $75,000 to roll out the new services to publishers, but the campaign was having trouble gaining traction. In announcing the closing, Watson said that the warehouse shift took longer and cost more than SPD had planned for, while systems integration delays further strained SPD’s financial resources. Part of that strain, Watson elaborated, was due to a loss of $125,000 in annual grants SPD had previously received, a loss Watson attributed to “funders [moving] away from supporting the arts.”

At the moment, all SPD inventory remains at the Ingram and PSSC warehouses. In a post on its website, SPD said publishers will need to contact Ingram or PSSC to discuss distribution options and the return or disposition of their books.

The demise of SPD is another blow to independent publishers looking for distribution options to reach retail accounts.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG says a lot of many small presses are operated by very conscious people who love books and will publish authors who can’t get a New York publishing contract. These authors are left out in the publishing cold because they write for a group of faithful readers that is too small to move any New York profit needle.

It’s not unusual for small businesses of all sorts to be thinly capitalized without any financial backup plan to weather a storm like that described in the OP.

Authors publishing through small presses provide writing is attractive, at times very attractive, to a small group of ardent book lovers. Again, unless such readers manage to gather hundreds of thousands of like-minded book lovers, big publishers are unlikely to fill a gap that has kept some small publishers in business.

Ingram may want to help, but they operate in large-volume printing and distribution that is designed to sell at least thousands of copies of a given book. PG notes that Ingram Lightning Source does provide print-on-demand service. PG understands that Ingram charges an annual Market Access Fee of $12 for each title a publisher places in the Lightning Source system.

He doesn’t know enough about Ingram’s real-world per-page fees and shipping fees to speculate if it can provide a profitable safety net for small independent publishers. However, he suspects that Small Press Distribution, the last distributor services small publishers that has closed its doors as described in the OP, must have had some significant benefits to small publishers that Ingram does not offer.