31 August 2009

Advice for Writers (101)

I can haz mailbag again!

Another friend recently wrote me when I sent out an e-mail to friends about the stuff I've had published over the summer...


Dude! ...you're killin' me... I WANT IN!!!

Hey, I want in on this writin' articles and gettin' published action. Give me some tips. I've been playing around (ok, more thanplaying around) with the idea of writing articles for Christian magazines (along with some other ventures). I've even tried to approach a couple magazines and got rejected. So, I figured I'm probably not going about it right and thought I should probably touch base with a professional... that's YOU!


So here's my starter advice for writers (fiction and non):

* I highly recommend the current year's Writer's Market (it should be about $25); it can help you find more markets. Also I recommend _The Writer_ magazine. They do both nonfic and fiction writing, have more markets, and lots of different types of advice. Another good list - especially for speculative fiction types - is Gila Queen's Guide to Markets.

* The Writer's Market will have advice on writing query letters as well, which will be a helpful tool.

* It sounds like you already have a niche you want to explore; what special things or perspective can you bring to that niche? What's different about your experience? What contacts/experience can you bring into it? You'll emphasize these in your query letter as well.

* Use rejection letters as cheap wallpaper. :) Seriously - because rejection does NOT mean anything about the quality of your work. You can get rejected because of space considerations, because they've got too many submissions that month, or a ton of other reasons. Maybe they just ran an article like yours a month or two months before. Ignore them, keep going.

* Commit to a writing goal - even 100 words a day. Commit to a submission goal. I submit one thing a week - which tells you something about my rejection rate, too. When something's been rejected, that means you don't have to worry about what to submit that week - you just find a new market for it.

* Track your submissions. I use a free program called SONAR3 (by "spacejock software", I know how hokey that sounds, but they're legit), but you can use excel, pen & paper. Just do a way that makes sense for you and that you can keep going and submitting.

* MONEY FLOWS TOWARDS THE AUTHOR. You may choose to do something for free - the stuff at 365 Tomorrows isn't pay - but don't offer to do it for free, esp. for nonfiction for magazines and websites. If they don't mention money, you can. If you do too much for free, then you're devaluing your own work.

That help? Questions about the above?

28 August 2009

Mailbag: Advice on writing a blog

I can haz mailbag day! (It's a small mailbag, but hey.)

I got this question from a friend of mine, and thought I'd toss out my advice for anyone else considering starting a blog:

Okay I have a question fur you, Mister Organized Writer-Man. I intend to start a proper blog trouble getting my stuff together. My big writing issue is that I go at it willy-nilly with whatever is in my head, & no set plan. Help?


It depends on *why* you want to blog. Mine, for example, is shit I'm thinking about or things that are important to me. Other folks stick to a topic, and write about their own writing process & the world of writing, politics, local happenings, etc. Some of them do it professionally and to build a brand for their freelance writing / consulting career - and some just do it because they *like* to. There's nothing *wrong* with an eclectic blog; it does mean that getting a "core audience" is vaguely problematic. That said, who cares about a core audience?

Realistically, here are the basic "rules of blogging" as I understand them:

1) DO NOT LOOK AT HIT COUNTERS. Especially if you're not blogging for a commercial reason, it will only undermine your own voice.

2) Blog regularly. It doesn't matter *what* that schedule is, just pick one and go with it as best you can. Realistically, it's frequency of blogging that brings people back again and again.

2a) Do not apologize for lapses. Just pick it up again.

2b) If you know you're going to be breaking schedule for some reason, then announce that ahead of time.

3) Be interesting to yourself. Most bloggers (myself included) don't make much money from it; like short story writing, if you're not compelled to do it for yourself you need to seriously question *why* you're doing it.

What advice do you have?

27 August 2009

Networking means "don't be a jerk"

Elizabeth Vaughn tells a wonderful story of how she got a literary agent. It doesn't involve an elevator pitch, collecting business cards, or anything else.

It involves a pool.

The story (and if you have the chance to hear her tell it, you should) boils down to this: She met a literary agent while swimming early in the morning. Kept saying hello to them throughout the conference. Then ended up sharing a cab and coffee on the way home. At which point the agent asked her to send the manuscript.

Why? Sure, Ms. Vaughn had mentioned the work - but not pressed it on this agent. I think it had a lot more to do with real networking. It has little to do with collecting business cards, and has a lot more to do with 1) being genuine and 2) being interested in the other person and 3) concentrating on what you can do for the other person.

Say you meet Bob. Don't fake sincerity - nobody can do it well. Listen to what Bob has to say. Later, when you meet Sally, you can realize that Bob and Sally have mutual business interests and goals, and can introduce them to each other. Or Michael needs a bit of info about something you can provide.

Maybe down the line Michael, Sally, and Bob will be able to do something for you and your career. Do, after all, mention your own projects if they ask.

But don't be like the "networking" contact I made who instantly stopped talking to me when he realized I wasn't in city government or big business. He assumed I wasn't the kind of contact he wanted... though he might well have been wrong. Maybe I do have that bit of information, or a weird social contact that could have served him well. Now, instead of spending a few minutes and getting that connection, I'll actively NOT help the guy.

You see, there's one big no-no of networking. It almost goes against the whole point of the exercise - and it definitely categorizes people:

If you only focus on your own desires and wants from the other person, you'll not only look like an jerk, but you'll be one too.

26 August 2009

That's not a story!

As someone who plays a lot with really short fiction, I have some pretty strong feelings on this subject. Definitions are fast and loose, and the lines blur. There's a brief glossary at the end of the post, but this is the important definition:

A story has a beginning, middle, and end, with some kind of change happening in the story.

The change aspect, especially in flash and smaller fiction, can be implied. The oft-quoted (and possibly apocryphal Hemingway snippet "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn." has a huge implied story - with resolution - behind it. That counts.

What does not count are descriptions. Scenes. Character sketches. All of these things can be amazingly beautiful, powerful, evocative, and moving. I've written a few of these myself. (Look at this example of mine for a striking scene that is not a story. It sets up a scene, but doesn't have an end or suggest change.) Too often, especially in flash fiction, this distinction is forgotten. Sometimes it's because of the beauty of the work, which might be better called prose poetry rather than story. Other times it's because the imagery is very powerful or... well, literary.

Compare the fragment I linked to above with, say, this drabble I wrote. The drabble - at 100 words - has a clearer story arc than the 133 word fragment. That's what makes the difference.

What do you think?

Definitions (these are generally accepted, AFAIK):

  • Short story: low end either 1500 or 2000 words. The high end varies from 10K to 20K words.

  • Flash fiction: Again, varies. Common definitions are less than 1K words or less than 500 words.

  • Drabble: 100 words. Period.

  • Hint fiction: As defined here, it's a mini-work that suggests a larger one. It's an interesting conceit, and one they capped at 25 words. It's arguable whether or not this fits in my definition of "story" above.

  • Twit Fiction (or Very Short Stories): You can find these on Twitter by searching for #vss. These are 140 characters or less - but really, 135 characters to leave room for a space and the hashtag.

25 August 2009

Bacteria, Efficiency, and You

The rumbling of my insides was no friendly warning of hunger; it was a premonition of rebellion. I had managed to get a case of food poisoning. A simple case of bacteria where it wasn't supposed to be. Even though it was a generic, run-of-the-mill organism, it made me ill enough to go home halfway through the day. A single celled organism, enough to lay a highly trained human low. But that is not its only achievement.

That bacteria has something to teach your leadership seminar.

The superbugs - MRSA, VRE, and several others with huge latin names and dangerous-sounding acronyms - have been a huge concern for hospitals years before the recent general public awareness. Once they were virtually unknown of outside of the group of health professionals, but now they've become a new public boogeyman.

And they're inefficient.

These superbugs are hard to cure. They eat some of the most advanced antibiotics for breakfast. They are a real threat to thousands of lives. They cause or lengthen innumerable hospital stays. They are specialized to deal with a specific situation, and that's what makes them inefficient.

When antibiotic resistant bacteria are cultured alongside their generic brethren, the "superbugs" lose. In a nonthreatening environment, the normal bacteria are far more efficient at reproducing, processing food, and all the other things that bacteria like to do. The superbugs have traded efficiency for antibiotic resistance, and simply can't complete.

Yet, when the environment changes - antibiotics are added to the mix - the superbugs have a huge advantage. The inefficient ways of living, the cruft and the slack, turn out to be absolutely vital for survival.

This concept is scalable.

The economic growth of the last thirty years has often been attributed to increases in our efficiency brought to our workplaces by computing advances. Inspired by a computer's efficiency, we have begun to strive for that kind of pace in our own lives. Whether it's the soccer dad managing over committed kids or young professionals lifehacking, we are constantly wanting to squeak out that little bit more.

The same process has occurred at all levels of business. It began back during the Industrial Revolution. Fredrick Winslow Taylor, who wrote Principles of Scientific Management almost one hundred years ago, pioneered the time and motion study. He would measure each part of a job, and determine how best to make each worker's motion more efficient. Taylor also felt that the workers who did a job couldn't understand it - and so his efficiency proposals should be imposed upon the workers he studied.

There were quite a few strikes.

Taylor's idea still persists among hamburger managers. When there is any pressure in their environment - whether from competition, economic downturn, or random bad luck, they're suddenly much more interested in controlling every moment of your work life - and beyond. Taylor - and the managers of today - do have a point. There can be so much slack that nothing gets done.

But it is exactly here that the bacteria - both generic and superbug varieties - can teach us about the downside of efficiency, and how much it is overrated. Economic models - which usually imply that increased efficiency is a good thing - also presume that ceterus parebus, that all other things are equal. But as our bacteria in the petri dish found, all other things are not equal. In each situation, different skills and structure were more advantageous. Or to put it differently, the slacker bacteria has the special skills needed to survive the penicillin bath.

As lifehacking, simplicity, and efficiency become even greater buzzwords in the coming years, we can all learn a little from a simple bacteria.

The flexibility to adapt to changing situations may result in some inefficiency in the short run, but in the long run, it will become an advantage.

24 August 2009

Meetings - A bit of fiction...

The morning light leaked through the boardroom curtains. Six men, similar in grey hair and grey suits, fidgeted in their leather chairs along the sides of the table. The double doors at the rear of the room burst open; Samuel strode through the doorway and to the head of the table. His blonde hair swirled around his shoulders as he slammed a portfolio onto the table.

"The killings have to stop," he said.

Johnson and Smith carefully studied the ceiling. Giovanni kept his gaze on the papers he flipped in his lap. Brickman slowly turned off his Blackberry and put it away. Mankiff rolled his eyes and looked at the last man at the table.

Arthur cleared his throat, then addressed Samuel.

"And how, exactly, do you propose to do that?"

21 August 2009

Because you need to feed your ears

I'm still surprised when I encounter people who have never heard of podcasts. I can't imagine commuting at all without them anymore, let alone long car trips. When I tell people about them, they often say "But yeah, what's interesting to listen to?"

So I'm sharing my favorite feeds with you here (and so I can send this link to friends). With most of these, you can listen to the podcast streaming on the website. If you don't know what a podcatcher is, either iTunes or the crossplatform (free) Juice will serve you well. (Me? I use an xml file and a python script. I'm a geek, I know.) Not all of these podcasts are child-safe.
I have to start with these three. Escape Pod started it all for me. Science fiction? That I could listen to while commuting? FREE? Awesome. As Escape Artists has branched out into fantasy and horror, they've kept up the same quality of story and production that has me coming back for more, and more, and more. (I also contribute monthly to them.)


The rest of these are often just as awesome, and range from individuals to media company products. Check them out and let your ears relax over the weekend.



And if all that isn't enough, I can't recommend Podiobooks nearly highly enough. Books podcast in serial form? Awesome. And then contribute what you think the story was worth.

20 August 2009

Wiki for renters?

The few of you who have read this blog for a long time know that it started out as a place for me to throw out ideas I couldn't implement myself, or didn't have the time to explore. Today's post hearkens back to that time.

I proposed this to my university back in 2006, after a fellow student ran into two landlords in a row who violated legal agreements and state law. When they spoke to Student Legal Services, they discovered - too late - that many other students had similar problems with those landlords. I used to knock on random doors in apartment complexes to get a feel for the neighborhood, but that's not nearly so practical anymore.

So here is my proposal - one I don't have the ability to do myself. I think it would be especially useful for students and active-duty military personnel, since they move so much and need a candid, honest appraisal of the situation. The few I've seen previously are commercial ventures rather than something based in the needs of a particular population (again, students or military members).

So what are your thoughts? Could you - or would you - use such a service?


RATIONALE OF NEED: An acquaintance recently moved. She has had numerous problems with her landlord - including violations of state law. When she contacted the university Legal department, the lawyer recognized the name of the landlord; she had taken advantage of students before.

SOLUTION: Create a wiki (definition at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikis ) or a PHP based message board within the university website with the express intent of students sharing experiences with landlords in the area.

POTENTIAL ISSUES

Credibility: This would be a collection of user experiences, nothing more. Minimal editorial needs would be similar to that of services such as http://ratemyprofessor.com. The intent is not to replicate the Better Business Bureau, but to enhance word-of-mouth customer experiences.

Security/Authentication: Being under the university network umbrella would inherently restrict access to students and faculty.

Abuse: With tracking/login already handled by the university system, abuse could be easily monitored and corrected.

Resources: Server time and space for both wikis and messageboards need not be large. Further, ready-to-run packages for both exist as open source or freeware, meaning minimal startup costs.

Value: The value of the service will depend entirely upon the number of students who use it. However, financial and emotional hardships created by bad landlord situations drain resources from students - potentially leading to reduced income for the university - and from the university itself in additional demand on legal services.

19 August 2009

Twister - A 100 Word Story

[Steve's note - an all-too appropriate story to run, since I'm reading Gamer Fantastic right now...]

The battle raged on before me, the virtual limbs of my fleet stretching out between star systems. The VR suit carried my body's commands to the drones slaughtering the enemy. Color-coded representations of star systems swam before my eyes. The drones had an advanced AI, capable of immediate battle tactics. But they were not smart enough for strategy. They could not see the grand picture and win the war.

I saw the opening in the enemy's defenses. I gathered the fleet, twisted uncomfortably, and used my right hand to smash them all into the red dot of the enemy's homeworld.

18 August 2009

Mixing the Corporate Bland

"I dropped my coffee," the customer said to the barista. "I need to buy another."

The coffee shop is in a nearby workplace's building, one I visit pretty regularly.

"No problem," the barista replied. "And we won't charge you for it - you didn't drink it, after all."

The customer was surprised and delighted; she already had her purse out and was ready to pay. After she had gotten her replacement coffee, I told the barista that "You did more for your building's customer service rating just now than any amount of remodeling."

That workplace is undergoing another iteration of "looking professional" - that is, updating the decor to fit with the current upper-middle class aesthetic. Unfortunately, that also seems to include making the workers - except managers - interchangeable and invisible. Personal items and pictures are being restricted more and more to fewer and fewer places.

All personal items. The portrait of your spouse. A mug with your dog on it. Those sorts of things.

And it's a mistake.

I understand the impulse. Painting walls, changing pictures, and enforcing standardization are all measurable. They provide numbers that managers and executives can point at. It's difficult to point at the externalities - the unintended effects - of giving someone a free cup of coffee, a moment of connection with a customer over a picture of a loved pet, or a laugh at a cute cartoon. Instead, these things - these real human connections become marginalized and abnormal.

It is the very opposite of what is needed. As I've argued for two years now, customer service is effective advertising - but only if it's genuine customer service.

Someone at that workplace puts little smiley faces on the "call cancel" buttons of elevators. I don't know who they are, but they've done it off and on for three or four years. They're harmless - nobody uses that button - and I've seen more than a few people giggle at them. I thought it was cute enough to take a picture of one.

They used to last for days - even a week - before they got rubbed off. Now they get scrubbed off every night.

Where would you rather be - either as a worker or as a customer? A homogeneous beige of corporate chic populated by workers who are little more than automatons, or somewhere with real people, smiley faces, and enough empathy to give a free cup of coffee?

17 August 2009

Trained to take it personally

You know what RACEFAIL is, right?

(If you don't, I suggest these two posts from Whatever to get a grip on the issues)

There's three main reasons I'm bringing it up:


  1. It's still going on. I don't mean (just) the LJ commentary - I mean both the raised consciousness (and willingness to speak out) from it and the pain of it (on all sides). Neither of these is going away anytime soon.

  2. If you check out this comment thread on The Mammoth Book of Mind-Blowing SF, you'll not only see that race is an issue, but we're moving quickly into GENDERFAIL as well. Quick summary of this particular episode: If you imply that your anthology is all of the best in a field, it's pretty damn unlikely all of it will be produced by white males, especially when there are quite a few prominent women and women of color who write in the field. It's not enough to not be racist or not be sexist; one needs to be anti-racist and anti-sexist as well.

  3. We, as minority groups and allies, need to understand that the last sentence of #2 is not yet common knowledge for those of privilege. The difference between Archie Bunker and Paul Di Filippo (in the comment thread linked to above) is huge.



Yes, Paul made a lot of fallacious arguments. And yes, they're old arguments you can easily read about (see Racism 101 or Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, or even this LJ post that summarizes the failed arguments of RACEFAIL). But we have to remember that not everyone has got this yet. Hell, it's not even fair to assume that everyone's even heard all of these arguments, let alone their disproof.

Is that frustrating? Yes. Annoying? Yes. Even more annoying when it's the same arguments (though different people) over and over and over and over again? Fuck yes.

But it's necessary to remember that just because it's the same old canard, it's different people at different places in a journey towards being anti-sexist and anti-racist.

It is easy to forget that those with privilege have been trained to ignore structural, systemic racism and sexism. (Or all the other isms, for that matter.) All that we're used to seeing are Bunkerisms. We are trained to take it personally.

This is not an excuse. Those of us with privilege (including allies) must be taken to task when we screw up. All I'm saying is that we have to consider our audience when we do it.

Take, for example, Jim Hines taking Realms of Fantasy to task for its covers. He points out the problem, and while not softening it a whit, also acknowledges the differences between systemic and personal sexism.

I talked to several sf/f authors and aspiring authors about RACEFAIL and the issues around it, especially after sharing one of my stories that has a transgendered person as the protagonist. One put their problem simply (I'm paraphrasing here):

I had it pointed out to me that all my characters are white. I was surprised to realize that; I definitely didn't mean to. But that was also the same time RACEFAIL was going on, and an author got ripped to shreds for (badly) writing a nonwhite character. Now I'm nervous about trying to write non-white characters. What if someone thinks I didn't do a good enough job? I'm hated if I do, and hated if I don't.

It's a valid point, and one that can be easily forgotten.

I agree that authors need to be considerate and understanding when they write the Other (see Jim Hines' post about his ongoing process with this for an example of how it should be done). At the same time, if we want existing authors to not just write about white (or male) characters, we must understand that sometimes they'll screw up.

Maybe it's because I'm an ally instead of being a member of a marginalized group. I remember - and you can probably find evidence on this blog - when my understanding of priviliege was far less than it is now.

I may never have been Archie Bunker, but I know I've been where Paul Di Filippo was when he was writing in this comment thread.

I am not there now, but it's been a longish journey. I was - and am - lucky enough to grow and learn as an ally in a supportive environment, where the people are patient with my screwups and take the time to teach me. I've had good friends to whom I could say: "If I'm saying something offensive, then assume I'm clueless. And then tell me what I'm doing, so I can stop." They have, and I'm deeply indebted to them for that. I also highly recommend Privilege, Power, and Difference; it helped me to grok my privilege more than any other single text.

It's true that, as this open letter points out, Paul Di Filippo may have lost some readers. And that's his problem.

As an ally, I worry that rather than spur Paul (and others) to understand where we're coming from, we've turned him away instead.

[Edit: Mary Robinette Kowal also does great work skewering stereotypes without being meanspirited. This one in particular about the lack of GBLT characters (especially realistic ones) in fantasy is quite good. Which goes to show you that I went and only pointed out male authors. Everybody's got room to screw up. ::sigh::

14 August 2009

Kick 'em while they're down: How the WSJ misrepresented my city

I'm pissed off at Doug Belkin.

He's a Wall Street Journal reporter who covered a conference I attended in Dayton. I'm pissed, because... well, you can read why here.http://daytonlocal.blogspot.com/2009/08/snark-from-wsj-i-get-pissed-off.html And you can read Aubrey's much more literate complaint here.

And apparently Mr. Belkin doesn't get it. He wrote back saying that he doesn't understand how his article was so negative and unfair.

Please, sir, allow me.

Because the elements I'm critiquing are so pervasive and (relatively) subtle, I end up quoting a huge amount of his article. Because this is a review and critique of his article - and hopefully serving an educational service to those who are journalism students - I believe my use below falls under fair use. I have also (because I don't want to just copy the whole article) omitted sections that I did not have a problem with - but there weren't many of them.

First, keep in mind that most people just read the headline, look at photos, and barely read any text. You can assume that those who read the article at all will read the first paragraph or two, and not much more. (source, and I imagine it's worse on the internet. I originally learned this in an INTRO TO JOURNALISM class.)

So, now let's look at the mean-spirited snark, shall we?

'Fastest Dying Cities' Meet for a Lively Talk

Hey, there's a conference that's explicitly called to counter the "Dying Cities" moniker! Let's call it by the name it's trying to change! That'll show them they can't change the image the WSJ wants them to have!

To be fair, editors usually are the ones who set headlines, so maybe Mr. Belkin doesn't deserve blame for this one.

DAYTON, Ohio -- Here's an idea for saving Rust Belt cities: Tell bloggers and radio stations to stop calling your town a basket case.

As mentioned in my original blog post, taken out of context this idea does sound stupid. Put in context as "a way to get citizens actively involved in managing the image of the city they live in", this is a perfect example of government doing more while spending less.

The city representatives lunched on $6 sloppy Joes and commiserated through Power Point strategy sessions: Lure back former residents, entice entrepreneurs and artists, convert blighted pockets into parkland.

What does the price of the food at the Convention Center have to do with anything? I'm currently around the Indianapolis Convention Center, and the food isn't any cheaper here. The last time I was in New York, I paid quite a bit for a simple meal at the airport. By putting the price and "Sloppy Joes" here, it creates the connotation of being overpriced and us being unsophisticated (presumably unlike the WSJ readership). It's patronizing.

My biggest complaint about the conference was that everyone was spending their time talking about how great everything was. NONE of the presenters were feeling sorry for themselves or wallowing in pity with others, as commiserating implies.

Yeah, both of these are connotation rather than explicit slam. They also subtly create a false impression about a conference that was overwhelmingly positive . One of my complaints about the conference was that it was a little too positive for my taste!

On the Ropes

Hey, look at this chart title in bold! These cities are "on the ropes" and don't know it! The bold title creates more of an impression for more readers than an entire paragraph of text halfway through an article of this length.

What emerged was a sense of desperation over the difficulty of rebounding from both real problems -- declining populations, dwindling tax bases -- and perceived woes.

These are explicit slams. What emerged - simply by sheer amount of time spent talking - was a sense that these cities are working to change things in areas where they live.

Valarie McCall expressed frustration at marketing a city that still echoed the image of the polluted Cuyahoga River catching fire. "That was 1969," said Ms. McCall, Cleveland's chief of governmental affairs. "Come on, I wasn't even born then."

And why, pray tell, is it so frustrating? Why, because a WSJ reporter only bothers to quote this one sentence out of a twenty-minute presentation, about 18 minutes of which was spent talking about positive things that Cleveland is doing. Thanks for being part of the problem, Mr. Belkin.

Last year, Forbes.com used long-term trends of unemployment, population loss and economic output to devise a list of "America's Fastest Dying Cities." A few months later, Peter Benkendorf was eating chicken tacos when he hatched the idea for the symposium.

Again, an irrelevant food reference. Why include it? It's a snarky little subtle dig at Peter so that the folks reading the WSJ can feel superior. Again, connotation rather than explicit, but given how ubiquitous these sorts of digs are throughout the article, he obviously knew what he was writing. He wrote them subtly so that when called on it by people like Aubrey, he could then turn around and claim innocence.

And assuming that we're stupid enough to buy that excuse is even more patronizing.

And apparently the chicken tacos were more important to mention than the fact that Peter recently relocated to Dayton. Pointing out that Peter is not just talking but actually practicing what he preaches would be an important bit of information - but it would also mean that Mr. Belkin's article couldn't be as snarky.

Mr. Benkendorf, who directs an arts program affiliated with the University of Dayton, named the symposium, "Ten Living Cities." Dayton skeptics called it "Deathfest."

::shrug:: I heard skepticism from people, but I never heard that term. Interesting, since I live in Dayton and Mr. Belkin doesn't.

One was college student Joe Sack, 22. "It's like a gambling addict [trying] to help an alcoholic," he said while at work in a coffee shop. "It's hard to see what they can learn from each other."

And this is where I really lost it. Why is a college student barista's opinion relevant here? Why is it more relevant than mine - also a college student, but one who works full-time here, has been in the military and seen MSAs of many different sizes and shapes, and actually knows what the difference between a MSA and a city is? My opinion apparently wouldn't allow for the snarky story - so I'm not heard. So much for journalistic integrity.

Representatives of Dayton, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo; Canton and Youngstown, Ohio; Flint, Mich.; and Charleston, W.Va., took turns talking about their plans. There was little discussion of how cities might pay for the initiatives.

Apparently Mr. Belkin fell asleep at some point during the presentations. Representatives from many of the cities - Flint, Youngstown, Charleston, Buffalo, and Cleveland specifically - talked about actions already taken as well as actions for the future.

Dayton Mayor Rhine McLin ran to the podium for her talk.

Again, an irrelevant detail with a connotation that's negative. Why was a mayor running? Was she late? (Short answer: not at all)

It matters, and it comes across as negative - unless you show motivation. She was so enthusiastic about the conference - and said as much, in as many words - that she was full of energy. But without those bits of detail - detail omitted from the article - you're left wondering why someone like a mayor was running.

"If you look under the surface, you will see that we are developing a boutique city," she said. She didn't elaborate on what she meant.

She didn't. She wasn't giving a presentation; she was giving opening remarks to the conference. Going into detail at that point would have been unfair to the other cities or to Mr. Gower. But again, pointing out the context would not allow Mr. Belkin to be snarky - so it's left out.

In a historic reversal, the cities are embracing plans that emphasize growing smaller.

I can hear white guys in suits saying "Wha-wha-what? Growing smaller? Madness!" (And you can actually read comments to that effect at the WSJ website.) Again, the context - we're talking about market equilibrium and adapting to it instead of waiting for the housing bubble to reinflate - provides the context that makes this sound reasonable,

In Buffalo, where more than a third of the students drop out of high school, Michael Gainer, executive director of Buffalo ReUse, is putting young people to work dismantling some of the thousands of abandoned homes and selling the scrap materials.

The dropout rate is true. He then fails to mention that Buffalo ReUse is not just "putting them to work" but explicitly giving the high school dropouts skills to make them marketable. It's a relevant detail that shows how Buffalo ReUse is working to counter the negative Mr. Belkin cited - but again, it's left out. By this point, we must assume that Mr. Belkin is intentionally leaving out relevant details or is incompetent as a reporter.

A councilman from Charleston described how the city lured "The Worlds Strongest Man Competition." It was shown several times on ESPN, she said.

How did they do so? Oh, wait, by the MSA being able to quickly adapt and seize an economic opportunity when the date of the contest moved up - in direct contrast to other potential venues. Yet another example where a relevant detail was omitted. With the context, Charleston looks more adaptable and resourceful, and demonstrated so in the real world. Without that context, they look foolish. And once again, Mr. Belkin chooses to make us look foolish by omitting parts of the truth.

Mr. Bach described how he is fighting back. After a Canadian radio station aired a "This Ain't Flint" campaign to cheer up listeners depressed about Ottawa's economy, Mr. Bach orchestrated a letter-writing and email effort to stop the ads. The station awarded Flint more than $60,000 in free radio time that Flint used to air spots about vacationing in Michigan.

Why, this is that idea that sounded so silly in the opening paragraph! It suddenly doesn't sound so stupid! Too bad that most readers stop after the first paragraph!

Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams talked of helping startup companies. This month, his city was named by Entrepreneur Magazine as one of the 10 best in the U.S. to start a business.

When I was taking journalism classes, one of my assignments was to rewrite an AP article. This was during the first Iraq conflict; and I pointed out to the professor how much impact paragraph order had on the story. Putting the paragraph about soldiers dying at the top made it sound far more negative about Desert Storm than the paragraph order that had run on the AP wire.

Just imagine how much difference it would have made if this article had started with the two sentences I quote above.

"We don't want to force anything on them," said John Slanina, a Youngstown native working on the project. "But we want people to know, 'Hey, Youngstown is changing, take a look.'"

Mr. Slanina said he's optimistic about the future of his hometown. But for now he lives in Columbus, Ohio, and has no plans to move back.


Again, somehow that person's choice of location is more newsworthy than Peter's - or mine - where we chose to move to Dayton. Again, the main difference is that our stories are not snarky.

Mr. Belkin wrote a shamefully misrepresentative article, omitting relevant facts and context in an attempt to deliberately slant the story. When called on it, he claimed ignorance. This is a review and critique of his work, with a majority of this article being my own original commentary and observations and (hopefully) an educational purpose. This fits three of the criteria for fair use citation. Stop by Mr. Belkin's article, comment there, and e-mail him at doug.belkin@wsj.com. Let him know what you think of someone going out of their way to slam our city.

Edit: Also e-mail the editor of the WSJ

13 August 2009

Chicken Rampage - A 100 Word Story

[Steve's note - a rerun from a year ago while I'm at GenCon...]

Dusty air scraped its way into my throat while I ran. The scales covering the herd's bodies blended with the ground, except where blood spattered around claw and tooth. They hunted in herds, using the rough sandstone outcroppings as camouflage. It wasn't fair.

The reverse scriptease experiment had worked too well. Too many genes were reverted too far back. In two weeks our peaceful flock had morphed to a 65 million year old ancestor. They were not prey, and we were fit to be fried.

The rooster cawed through its dinosaur mouth. I ran faster, wondering what I'd taste like.

12 August 2009

Distracting Diversity

Posting will be light for a few days, but I give you this gem from "Why Race, Class, and Gender Still Matter" by Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins to think about in the meantime:

Diversity initiatives hold that the diversity created by race, class, and gender differences are pleasing and important, both to individuals and to society as a whole - so important, in fact, that diversity should be celebrated. Under diversity initiatives, ethnic foods, costumes, customs, and festivals are celebrated, and students and employees receive diversity training to heighten their multicultural awareness. Diversity initiatives also advance a notion that, despite their differences, "people are really the same." Under this view, the
diversity created by race, class, and gender, although worthy of appreciation, does not and should not affect how society functions.

Certainly, opening our awareness of distinct group experiences is important, but some approaches to diversity can erase the very real differences in power that race, class, and gender create.



  • How does this quotation apply to your organization's diversity initiatives?

  • How does this quotation apply to your life?

  • What relevance does this quotation have for cultural festivals and/or multicultural festivals?

  • What might I be implying with the title of this post?



11 August 2009

After the Collar

After the Collar: Moving Past Blue and White Collar Class Structures


My wife first began studying straddlers as an undergraduate. She was a straddler herself, transitioning from a blue-collar background towards white-collar work. Her experience, aesthetics, and difficulties were much like those of any successful straddler - but it did not explain my experience. It was that dissonance that began my search for where I belong. That search leads me now to propose that the concepts of blue-collar and white-collar are rooted in a time and place that is quickly passing. In a Hegelian sense, concepts of blue- and white-collar classes are the thesis and antithesis which are producing a new "collarless" synthesis class.

Let's start at my beginning.

My first memories are of the trailer.

The trailer was gone by the time I was old enough to drive to it. I remembered with a wading pool out front, with a little white plastic fence in the patch of yard to keep my toddler legs out of the street. None of the trailers that remained were anything like that. That was irrelevant in my personal history; my parents were busy moving up. By the time my sister was born, we had already moved across town to a two-story home. A little over a decade later, we moved to a more affluent suburb. My parents are typical straddlers, changing homes as they moved from blue-collar roots into white-collar professions.

I grew up in a town of contradictions. The population doubled for nine months of the year while the university was in session. Many of the students were from outside the state - and even from outside the country. They brought a huge amount of diversity to what would otherwise have been a poor rural coal-mining town.

Despite that influence, it was still a small town. It was hard to find peers in your social niche, especially before the internet. Unlike larger cities, all of the freaks, weirdos, artists, druggies, punks, skaters, and nerds were combined into a single social entity. We were outcasts, a community defined by exclusion. My friends and playmates ranged from the children of upper-class parents to those whose parents struggled to make each month's rent. We were a group with common interests, but sharing few other outward social markers.

I believe that experience sensitized me to the incipient synthesis.

The old ways social and economic ways of doing class still exist. There are plenty of individuals and institutions trying to preserve or overthrow the current order. Like sexism, racism, and homophobia, our concepts of class are in a time of transition.

The thesis and antithesis of class are still very real in many people's lives. In 2004, both candidates for President of the United States staked out a framework on each side of the blue and white collar divide. That division helped George W. Bush win the 2004 election. That technique of separation was repeated four years later by the Republican Party, but had a comparatively minimal effect. This was partially due to the character of the candidates, but more because it simply did not seem to be as large of a concern.

A synthesis group is forming, fueled in part by the children of straddlers. In many ways, it resembles the social circles of my youth. Unlike straddlers, we are a utilitarian form of a postmodern generation, unwilling to reject wholesale the norms and customs of any social class. We acknowledge the best of all worlds, working to find common interests, beauty, and solutions from all people.

We are the makers and crafters, the builders, coders, and modders. We are the children of the technological age once again entranced by the sounds of bluegrass and ukuleles. We value merit and functionality over brand names and mere appearances. We are not merely tolerant of others, but celebrate their differences. We praise the DIY ethic for its individualism and creativity, not as a fulfillment of a puritanical work ethic. We do it ourselves as expressions of ourselves, and find co-option and commoditization repellent. We are jaded optimists, focused on inventive solutions instead of ideology.

These seeds of synthesis are not new; the economic and technological conditions surrounding us are. We can find each other across the globe, communicate, and share ideas in ways nearly unimaginable thirty years ago. The tools and materials for creation can be afforded by more people than ever before. In the same way that the military produces its own "green-collar" world, this combination of ethos, life experiences, and technology has produced a new collarless synthesis.

This new synthesis has reshaped and revitalized old sociological concepts, the strongest of which is the personal aspect of Marx's concept of alienation. Or perhaps it is better expressed as the desire to avoid alienation. It is easy to empathize with the employee alienated from both work and self. But it was not until the 1990's that Joseph Campbell's exhortation to "follow your bliss" was accepted as serious business advice. Rejection of personal alienation from work and self has become a recurrent theme in popular culture, from movies like Falling Down, Office Space, American Beauty, and The Incredibles to television shows like The Office. We are no longer content to find fulfillment outside of our work. The expectation now - both from workers and supervisors - is that work is fulfilling and meaningful at some level.

There are three large problems with this model of a collarless synthesis class. First, this is a brief, sketchy conceptualization. This synthesis is still forming, and both the eventual shape and the boundary lines are far from clear. The normative description of this class does not require either technological fluency or being a second-generation straddler. There is a significant overlap with both the traditional definitions of blue and white collar work. Finally, there are other conceptualizations that include this group, such as Richard Florida's "creative class".

Secondly, it is also possible that this group is not an actual synthesis. The aesthetics of class groups have shifted over time. Historically, the lower class often adopts the tastes and preferences of the upper class, only to find that the upper class has discarded that set of class markers. In Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt clearly show this with historical trends in baby names over time. It is possible that what I have described as a synthesis is merely a shift in class tastes; the fledgling institutionalization of a different - but comparable - class structure. A possible signal of this is the emerging hierarchy, with significant online cultural leaders and trendsetters in near-unassailable positions.

Finally, there is the search problem of a core do it yourself ethic that celebrates diversity. As more people become active participants, the sheer amount of created cultural artifacts becomes staggering. Some reaction to this can already be seen in attempts at localization like outside.in which reduces the amount of information to geographical location.

Despite these problems, these creative synthetics hold the promise of taking the best of both worlds. If the collarless class does not become a reality, they have already done a great deal.

They have shown the hope of neither reinforcing nor overturning class structures, but of moving completely past them.

10 August 2009

Breaking and Entering - A 100 Word Story

The ground vibrates from the bombs. We huddle in the corner, my children crying beneath me. Mother's picture shakes from the wall and shatters.

The blue of sky, the clean rocky mountains - all is obscured by the dust and fire of the bombs. The chalk of collapsed buildings is on our tongues. My children do not know why the men run with rifles, do not understand the destruction.

Vehicles rumble down the street. I pray silently to the Virgin to protect us. I pray harder than even when Josef died.

A hard boot strikes the door.

I close my eyes.

06 August 2009

Freak on a Salary


I knew who the slackers would be.

I ran the Jail-And-Bail booth three years (maybe four, it blurs) in a row for a church carnival. It was largely geared towards tweens and the occasional group of friends. For a small fee, we would "arrest" a person of your choice and hold them for fifteen minutes. Unless, of course, they could make "bail". It's a silly fundraiser, but it can be fun. We put chalkboard on the inside of the "jail" with chalk for kids. We kicked the obnoxious folks out. We made "warrants" with all sorts of silly accusations on them, like "not knowing how to spell transubstantiation". We marched people around the midway, shouting that they were "naughty people". It was a great deal of fun... and very, very exhausting.

And I could tell which volunteers would be slackers.

I had two groups of volunteers. One set came from the church membership. They were... well, typical churchgoers. The second set were people who just stopped by and asked if they could help. They were usually not part of the church and they were, nearly uniformly, freaks.

I mean that in the nicest possible way. It is, however, an accurate term when comparing the nice Catholic twentysomething volunteer to a Wiccan bisexual volunteer wearing a Korn t-shirt. And those freaks were the ones who did most of the work. They would stay later than their shift. They would be outgoing and exuberant with the customers. They would actually get into it, and put some energy into it. The parishoners who volunteered usually had to be shoved into working, wanted to leave early, and simply didn't get into it. (There were exceptions on both counts, of course.)

The success of the Jail-And-Bail booth - and nearly all the other booths at the carnival - were based on customer interactions and exuberance. The more energy volunteers put into it, the more the customers got out of it. This was pretty obvious to anyone. Yet the parishoners, who actually had something at stake, were rarely worth the effort it took to recruit them as volunteers.

I am still not entirely sure why it worked out that way. It surprised me at first - but when I thought back to my own experiences with (and as) a freak, weirdo, and outcast, I remember us volunteering and helping with things just because they were fun to do. Maybe the other parishoners were worried about appearing silly. I don't know.

But I think it's important to remember when we look at our co-workers and our employees. It's important to remember when we're hiring people, or choosing and listening to consultants.

We often look for the "professional" look, for those who have at least the same social status markers as ourselves. We judge the value of someone's knowledge and estimate their work based on them.

And they can be completely, utterly wrong.

05 August 2009

All for one and one for all


A few years back, I wrote a paper called "What's Socialism Got To Do With It?" I had high hopes for it as pointing out a way to revitalize and economically develop areas without massive influxes of money from outside (which tends to lead to massive outfluxes of money on down the line).

It is one of the most unpopular papers I've ever written.

When one talks to economists - or even the general public - they tend to divide everything up into straight capitalism or socialism. Or worse, a misrepresentational mashup of socialism/communism/fascism. And then they align themselves with one side and stop listening to the other.

Mention co-operatives, and the self-styled capitalists stop listening. Mention using co-ops as a natural part of capitalism, and the self-styled socialists stop listening. The thing is, both capitalism and socialism have shown that they don't particularly work well, at least on large scales. Hell, they don't even work all that well on small scales.

But they work better together.

"Cooperatives" can simply mean that the employees are also the shareholders. There are benefits to this:


  1. Business profits stay local

  2. Increased sense of ownership among employees

  3. Increased sense of loyalty from the community

  4. Harness more of the creative energy of all workers by flattening the heirarchy



I think this kind of model could be extremely useful in urban redevelopment. Currently, cities spend huge amounts of money (in tax breaks, etc) to bring in outside business. Instead, they could use that same money to support and start local businesses that keep profits local. The recession has made some things more difficult, but most kinds of knowledge work can still be done remotely. As long as transportation costs stay lower, cities can export - but by creating local small businesses they can retool when transportation costs inevitably rise again.

These businesses may not end up being a blockbuster leviathan of the financial world - but they will do far more good for their employees and their cities. The Ten Living Cities conference is this weekend in Dayton, OH. I hope that as these cities consider their options in the economic world that they can think far enough outside the box to do what's best for their citizens, not what's best for an economic ideology.

04 August 2009

Third Person - My fiction on 365 Tomorrows

As the Fates would have it, there's another bit of my fiction published today - Third Person is a bit of flash fiction of mine that appears on 365 Tomorrows today. Hop on over and give it a read, and let me know what you think!

03 August 2009

One Small Leap


Your flash fiction for this week is One Small Leap, which was published in the webzine Quantum Muse a few days ago. Stop by and give it a read (or, um, tip the author).

Small warning - There's some cussing.