Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Publishers: Don't Just Lay Off Journalists—Execute Them

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

Here's my new favorite quote about the media revolution:
One of the problems is newspapers fired so many journalists and turned them loose to start so many blogs.... They should have executed them. They wouldn’t have had competition. But they foolishly let them out alive.”
This sardonic valentine to print publishers comes from Alan Mutter, an ex-newspaper editor and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur.

He's quoted this week in a New York Times business story, "Adding Fees and Fences on Media Sites." Mutter's dig about executing journalist-bloggers is at the end of the article, but I think it's the lead.

While magazine publishers dither about selling digital content, blogs are running away with the readers, and it's not clear that the brand-name glossies will ever recover. Partly it's because blogging is becoming a legitimate outlet for writers in desperate times. But it's also about vision—or more pointedly, the lack of vision demonstrated by big magazine publishers.

What is an online magazine, anyway? Does it really matter if it no longer resembles a print tome packed with slick ad spreads? Publishers are understandably obsessed by the money question, but focusing on pay schemes rather than content keeps them stuck in the visionless mud.

Times reporters Richard Perez-Pena and Tim Arango open with an evocative lead of their own:
Over more than a decade, consumers became accustomed to the sweet, steady flow of free news, pictures, videos and music on the Internet. Paying was for suckers and old fogeys. Content, like wild horses, wanted to be free.
They go on to say this sweet spot for readers will likely change in the coming year with various new pay models online for magazines and newspapers ("including this one," they write). But publishers are afraid to take the plunge.

The Times piece is well worth a read as a snap shot of an industry caught short and terrified. It evokes shivering publishers on an icy cliff, decked in nothing but polka-dot shorts, waiting for the first brave soul to dive into paid online content. It includes the requisite nod to the Wall Street Journal's payment model and fighting words from Rupert "quality content is not free" Murdoch.

Maybe magazine consumers will start paying, if forced. Part of me wants to believe that a new joint venture of publishing power players—Murdoch's News Corp., Time Inc., Hearst, Conde Nast, and Meredith—really will build a new "digital storefront" that entices readers to become electronic subscribers.

If only these publishers weren't so cynically out of step. I love magazines, and I want to see at least some of the big slicks thrive online. But watching publishers creep instead of fly into a new medium—then come on with belligerent business talk—is more than depressing.

It makes me root for the bloggers with nothing to lose. To paraphrase the management mags of the '90s, the world belongs to those nimble, entrepreneurial souls who aren't hypnotized by their own brand image.

This yet-to-be-named joint venture has been called Hulu or iTunes for magazines. By banding together, the publishing partners will supposedly hang tough on paid content and force the online world their way.

Yet the publishers seem far too wedded to online editions that are essentially digital analogues of print journals. The real innovation for magazines may come in consumers purchasing individual features or specialized content rather than entire journals.

Here's a wacky idea: What about subscribers at various payment levels, creating personalized versions of, say, the New Yorker? You, the consumer, choose which New Yorker content in a given issue you like and how you want it packaged (a digital version, print-on-demand, or both).

At level A, for example, you might get one feature of your choice, all the reviews, and no cartoons; at level B, you get three features, all the reviews, and cartoons + "Talk of the Town"; at level C, you get everything.

Or perhaps you can specify which channels you'd like (health, style, literary, politics) or which writers you want to read. Or maybe you can opt out of ads, going for text-only editions on electronic readers. The point is the freedom to choose is part of what you pay for. Rather than providing more content—more blogs, more lists of most popular articles, more podcasts and other online blips that clutter the screen—you get a manageable chunk of stuff you want.

I'm just riffing. I don't know how much of this is possible or feasible. Yet I do know that the New Yorker's experimental digital edition—click here for an opening shot—was simply an online version of the print magazine, a pain to navigate, and not the answer to magazine publishing's woes. It's an argument for the wonders of print magazines, not a new vision of how online magazines might make our reading lives better.

A glance at the Atlantic Wire, Atlantic Consumer Media's new aggregation of pundits and political commentary indicates another approach. According to editorial director Bob Cohn, as quoted in FishbowlNY:
"As readers face an overload of information and a deficit of free time, they can now visit one site to easily follow the topics they care about and the opinion-makers who fascinate them."
Will such online features get readers to pony up for the Atlantic proper? Possibly. The blogosphere is so crammed with political and social commentary, my eyes glaze at the notion of a site devoted to "opinion-makers." But I salute the effort to jump out of the print box.

For "newsosaur" Alan Mutter, producing good unique content is key. That could favor magazines like the New Yorker or the Atlantic, if their money people ever pay attention to who's actually reading the gold they already have. In a post titled "How to Charge for Online Content," Mutter writes:
The lesson here is not that free content trumps pay (though, all things being equal, it will) but that there has to be much more to a pay strategy than a publisher’s desire to want to be paid.
Which brings us back to all those journalists who are now blogging on their own dime and producing the kind of quality content that just might, possibly, I hope, net them, not Rupert Murdoch, an audience and financial support. Wouldn't it be nice if they had the last laugh?

This piece has been cross-posted on Open Salon.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Jingle, Jingle! Holiday Wishes for Writers

To ring in the winter holidays, I've compiled some wishes from TW contributors. May the coming year bring inspiration and empowerment to all pens—and computers!

My other wish? That Talking Writing continues to thrive and grow and connect with the terrific community of writers online. Thank you all for stopping by—Martha Nichols

"I wish for every writer an ever-increasing love for people," Paula Silici says, "so they may tell their stories from a heart of goodwill, respect, honesty, and compassion."

"More than a room of one's own," Carol Dorf says, "a writer needs time. My wish is that writers are able to make use of the fragments of time they find flapping on the line above the other demands in their lives."

"I wish for everyone what I wish for myself," Laurie Weisz says. "A chance to step outside the cyclone of distractions, bills, work, all the pissy details of life, and step into my fiction. As composite an exit as Narnia delivered in the third grade. A place way over the rainbow, where the privacy of writing, somehow, resurfaces. I’m cheering for anyone reading this article."

"My hope for our profession is that it remains professional," Judith Ross says. "It’s one thing to post unedited ramblings and pass them off as 'literature.' It’s another to post opinions, rumors, and made-up accusations as facts. In 2010, writers like us—who have been trained and mentored by skilled editors—can’t keep quiet. We must insist that a clear, coherent, and above all accurate message is more important than whatever fancy new technology it might be packaged in."

"My wish is for the clear thinking that enables us to coherently and effectively pull together the fragments of experience, impression, and knowledge that form our stories," Elizabeth Langosy says.

"Here are my wishes for 2010," David Biddle says:
1. Google realizes that information still wants to be free, but good writing is something they believe people should be paid a living wage for—and then does something about it in order to get the real content providers on their side.

2. Kindles come down in price to $39.95.

3. The Association of Author's Representatives adopts a single standard for online submissions only: the first 50, a two-page synopsis, and a half-page bio. Any deviation from this standard will be deemed by AAR a first indicator that an agency is still lost in the 20th century, where writers needed to be kept in their place because people were so afraid that they'd muck things up. Writers should not be forced to support the U.S. Postal Service anymore.

4. We learn that David Foster Wallace is actually alive and well, living on the lam in Andre Agassi's basement, working on a mystery about God and his frustrations with Van Morrison, and secretly teaching Andre and Steffi's kids how to play tennis while being intellectuals at the same time.

5. Annie Dillard publishes another novel with writing that is more meaty and pure than what she already gave us in The Maytrees.
Karen Ohlson says, "May the new year bring you the time and circumstances to write what matters to you. (Virginia Woolf's 'room of one's own,' or its modern equivalent—a laptop of one's own.) And may your writing not be just 'content,' as you are much more than a 'content provider.' May it, literally, not be contained. May it spread forth and reach untold others. May your writing bring joy, holy or unholy, to the world. To paraphrase..."
Let earth receive its sound
And every heart
Prepare it room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


"The Butterfly Field at Night" by Zoe Langosy

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

Talking Writing’s holiday image comes to us from local artist Zoe Langosy. “The Butterfly Field at Night” is mixed-media that includes ink, paint, pencil, collage – and butterfly wings! (Click on image to enlarge.)

According to Zoe,

“Over the past decade I've become increasingly interested in collage. In particular, I love to work with the patterns and colors we find in our natural world. Butterfly wings offer the most intoxicating array of possibilities, and have become a staple for each new piece I create.

‘The Butterfly Field at Night’ shows a woman in a field. As her dress blows in the moonlight, you see that the lining is made from dozens of butterfly wings combined with canopies of trees beneath the autumn sun.”

Do you have an image you’d like to share or an artist you’d like to recommend? Talking Writing is building its portfolio of artists. We’d love to hear from you. Please submit your suggestions to

Friday, December 11, 2009

So…You Want To Be a Writer?

Guest Post by Ken Hertz for Talking Writing

Ken originally wrote this piece in one of my journalism classes at Harvard. It’s such a terrific satire of all the advice flung at writers that I thought it would be a funny follow-on to the posts we’ve been running at TW about style rules. So toss out your Strunk and White for a vicarious moment or three—and relax! Martha

A few years back, I enrolled in journalism school to pursue my long-deferred dream of becoming a writer. From that experience, I can confidently say to others who harbor similar aspirations: you can do it.

Yes—you can become a writer. You just need to follow a few simple guidelines.

I’ve taken to heart my professors’ admonishments on the importance of journalistic values such as honesty, integrity, verification, and so forth—along with some other very important principles that I’m pretty sure I wrote down in my notes during class but can’t seem to locate at the moment.

Fortunately, in my quest to become a writer I’ve acquired some useful rules-of-thumb myself. So, from one aspiring writer to another, I humbly offer these five hard-earned nuggets of wisdom that may help you in your own pursuit of literary stardom:

1. Learn the fine art of procrastination
It’s inevitably part of being a writer, so you might as well embrace the reality. 

For example, when you finally clear your schedule and sit down with great resolve to begin your new life as a writer, don’t become alarmed if you suddenly feel the pressing need to clean out your garage that very moment. Or if you are certain that this is exactly the right time, at long last, to get around to organizing the thousands of digital photos stored somewhere on your old hard drive. 

When you have these urges, immediately discontinue any attempt to produce actual written work and give into them wholeheartedly. They’re a good sign that you’re well on your way to becoming a successful writer.

2. Stay uninformed
Despite what your professors might say, you should avoid reading newspapers at all costs. Too many depressing stories about the imminent demise of the newspaper industry. And since you want to be a writer, you’re likely to be genetically prone to bouts of depression anyway. Why exacerbate the problem?

3. Strive for rejection
According to Wikipedia (pssst…here’s a bonus tip: Wikipedia is awesome, and it’s the only source you’ll ever really need as a journalist—just don’t tell anyone you heard it from me, OK?) it was Albert Einstein who once said “If you want to increase your chances of success, then increase your failure rate.”

I’ve made this my highest priority and am personally trying to accumulate as many rejection letters as possible. I’ve purchased a new file cabinet to hold the thousands I anticipate receiving. You can also make a chart to post on the refrigerator and give yourself a gold star when hitting certain milestones—the 10th, 100th, 1000th.   

(I do admit I may have a slight problem with this one, though. I’ve gotten so addicted to receiving rejections that each time I submit a finished piece, I pray that it won’t be accepted for publication. That would blow my streak of failures, and I’d have to start all over again.)

4. Practice being completely alone
To prepare for life as a writer, spend as much time alone as possible, so you can train yourself for the day when you can finally spend all your time engaged in the solitary pursuit of stringing words together.

Before attempting the actual process of writing, I recommend sitting by yourself for hours at a stretch with nothing other than a desk and chair to see what it’s like. 

(Just be sure it is in a windowless room. You need to cut down on the time that would inevitably be wasted by gazing outside into the distance. Serious writers must constantly guard against the temptation to engage in idle daydreaming, which is the sure mark of an amateur.)

5. Ignore the so-called “experts”
Don’t trouble yourself with those prim little know-it-all books like The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, which was written like a hundred years ago anyway. They’re full of high-minded rules about ensuring that participial phrases are preceded by proper prepositions, and using the “active” rather than the “passive” voice, whatever that means.

(Believe you me, the fact of the matter is that there can be no doubt whatsoever that by learning to ignore these self-proclaimed authorities and instinctively trust your own writerly instincts, that will surely be the most important idea I can convey to you, so to speak, which will allow you to climb through the great wilderness that is the golden highway to becoming a writer, and, as luck would have it, from the very first time that you first hear about this particular piece of advice with your own eyes, that I am telling you, you will just know for sure, without any doubt, that it is exactly the very type of the sort of this kind of information that will not be forgotten by you, without any doubt whatsoever in your mind.)

Speaking of The Elements of Style, have you seen their “Rule 17”? It says: “Omit needless words.”  This makes no sense—don’t they realize that most magazines pay by the word? That Rule 17 is proof Strunk and White had no idea what they were talking about.

Ken Hertz is a Boston-based airline pilot who has written for several aviation magazines. You can read an article he wrote for Flying Magazine here.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Should Blog Posts Be Edited? The New Style Rules

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

The mainstream media loves to snipe about bloggers who offer transcripts of therapy sessions or discourses on their favorite lunch meat. Bloggers themselves may have no use for grammar nazis who cramp their style.

But this year I've discovered just how much editing matters to blogging. Obviously, many people blog for personal reasons. But for the professional writers now migrating online—and all those who want to build readership and get noticed—editing is a crucial tool, even if we're only self-editing.

With this post, I'd like to continue discussing what makes blog writing effective. It's a follow-on to Paula's Silici's piece about manuscript preparation, and I offer ten editorial guidelines for blogging that aren't your granddad's Elements of Style. When I'm evaluating a piece for posting, these are the things I focus on as an editor.

All right, some of the rules will be familiar to professional writers and journalism students. (Go to How to Make My for a list of what bloggers can learn from Strunk and White's classic.) But other guidelines here may surprise even seasoned print writers. That's because blogging really does play by different rules.

When I began Talking Writing, I didn't expect to take on a traditional editorial role—and I haven't, exactly. That's the fun of it, as this blogazine evolves. However, I have found myself consulting with other contributors about ideas and how to frame them, and I line-edit all guest posts. Meanwhile, at WOMEN = BOOKS, the blog I run for the Women's Review of Books, I help non-bloggers and academics with how to shape their ideas online.

So maybe the question is actually this: How much should blog posts be edited? You decide, and let us know.

The New Style Rules for Blogging

1. Use an Effective Title
It's important to make clear what your post will be about, even if the title sounds less punchy than you'd like. The "cute" or pun-laden headlines of print magazines are not the best for blog posts. Questions often work well. If you want to say more, you can always insert a subtitle at the top of your post text. Click here for a TW example.

2. Make Your Post Short
This rule gets broken all the time (including by me), but more than ever, readers like short, focused posts—from 400 to 800 words. The more complicated a topic, of course, the longer it can be. But even in a 20,000-word investigative epic, the famous Elements of Style "omit needless words" rule rules.

3. Keep Your Paragraphs Short
Within your post, break the text into paragraphs, and make those no more than a few sentences long. In a blog, big chunks of dense text are even more off-putting than in a magazine column.

4. Use a Good Lead
This may seem obvious to professional writers, but tight leads (or the traditional spelling "lede") are crucial for blogs. The lead refers to your first sentence or short paragraph; it's how you hook readers. What may not be obvious is that the venerable anecdotal lead rarely works unless it's brief. Otherwise, the anecdote itself might as well be the post.

5. Be Provocative
Good ideas and questions matter. The goal is to get readers arguing. There's probably nothing more important to the quality of a post (except fixing atrocious grammar), so I'll keep this section short.

6. But Don't Just React—Illuminate
It's fun to read somebody railing at a bad movie or political figure. However, if you just react with a thumb's up or down, your post will be less effective than one that grapples with why you feel the way you do.

7. Check Your Facts and Links
As Ellen Goodman puts it in a recent Boston Globe column, "Facts—along with their enforcers, editors—have long been the guides and saviors of my career..."

Checking your facts is one basic way to create a trustworthy voice as a writer. It's also the ethical thing to do. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin may run roughshod over the truth—and seem to get away with it—but writers should hold themselves to higher standards.

Here's where the discipline of journalism has something important to teach the blogosphere, as Goodman and others have argued.

You may be writing about your own experience, but any time you cite a fact that's easily verifiable—such as the title of a movie—you should check it. A quick google of names to verify spellings and other details often does the trick.

You should also link to the source of statistics or other research you cite. If you quote another writer, blogger, or website, doublecheck the wording and link to the source. Attribute quotes or ideas to the right people and name them. (See my attribution of Goodman's piece above.) When you insert links, check to make sure they work.

8. Create a Strong Personal Voice
Blog posts are a chance to relate anecdotes from your own life and to state your own opinions strongly. Blogging is a very subjective medium, driven by the personality of the writer, rather than the omniscient tone of third-person journalism.

When it comes to the voice of a post, my editorial touch is much lighter than with print pieces. Most glossy print magazines have what's called a "house style" or voice—and are edited accordingly—but blog writers are supposed to let their freak flags fly.

The subjectivity of blogging can be freeing, but you still need to keep readers interested—that is, avoid too much detail about toenail clipping or "now I'm sitting down at the computer, thinking about what to write." Instead, think about the kind of person you want to project in your writing: are you likable? are you funny? are you too insulting?

9. Use Links, Images, Video Clips
These are the tools of a new medium, and the ability to link to other information is one of the great advantages of blogs. Don't forget to include links where appropriate, although too many can be distracting. Rather than listing a long URL like, insert your link like this.

Images and video clips, especially at the top of your post, are also a draw for readers. A number of web services provide stock photos for free. (In other cases, you may need to get permission or pay.) Whenever reasonable, include a photo or art credit line with the image.

10. Spark a Conversation and Respond to Commenters
A good title, a good lead, a provocative idea—these will help draw responses to your posts. But one of the transformative things about blogging is the participation of others. So don't hang back! Join the conversation by responding to your commenters.

Concluding Thoughts: Revise and Keep Revising
After I've written a post, I go back over it several times. I often cut whole sentences and paragraphs, as well as "needless words." Even after a post is published, I sometimes makes cuts and changes—and it's OK to keep editing your post once it's public.

Really. Nobody's perfect, including editors. For example, I'm adding this concluding section after I published the post last night.

And if you discover factual errors after you've published a post—or a reader points them out—go back and correct the mistake. Most important, explain to readers that you're making the correction. Click here to read a post of mine that contains such a correction note.

Do your part to fight misinformation in the blogosphere. Otherwise, Ellen Goodman may be right about our falling standards for professionalism and truth. "When the reporters go, so do the facts," she writes. "And their checkers."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

?4U: Should the Standard Rules of Good Writing Apply to Blog Spots?

By Paula L. Silici for TalkingWriting

As the Internet secures an ever-increasing foothold in our lives, we writers should consider ourselves under mounting pressure to maintain a strong, professional presence both online and off.

If we wish to be taken seriously as professionals—and if we are to gain the respect we long for in the blogging arena—then we need to be just as meticulous about the quality and accuracy of our online postings as we would if submitting material for payment to a traditional hardcopy publisher.

Am I being overly pedantic here? Given the laissez-faire nature of the Internet, one could argue that the standards should be relaxed. For many, the blogging world is an “anything goes” venue, where typos, misspellings, grammar, and punctuation errors are the norm. Both readers and some (not all) contributors deem it acceptable, even cool, to replace traditional style conventions with sloppy, ill-constructed, or just plain poorly written ramblings.

What a mistake that is.

Beginning writers who dream of future fame should be aware that whatever they submit online today is being scrutinized by industry professionals and other writers everywhere.

Here’s a sobering thought: Think of how easy it now is for agents, editors, and publishers to google, twitter, or facebook a prospective client’s name in order to check their professionalism and track record.

In writing guest posts or our own blogs—even in commenting on other blogs—can we honestly afford to forego convention when it comes to proper style and format? Shouldn’t we do our darnedest to make whatever we post as polished as it can possibly be, for the ultimate benefit of our readers but also for our own self-respect and satisfaction?

It is true that how we use the written word in general is rapidly changing. For example, there’s the way texters use shorthand abbreviations in place of common words. Those who text don’t seem to care much about misspellings and bad grammar; they simply wish to get their messages across to their recipients as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

But I believe we’re comparing apples to oranges here (forgive the cliché). Professional writers, as standard bearers for our art, cannot afford to lapse into such habits.

So, then, what’s considered proper format in online postings? Since there are few official guidelines governing proper manuscript format when it comes to online postings, the question is open for discussion. But I believe pretty much the same rules apply as those for work submitted to offline publishers. That’s because the overall appearance of a blog entry or other online post ultimately generates a lasting impression on its readers, either negative or positive. In other words, the look of the piece itself will determine how you, the writer, are perceived overall.

On that note, here’s a simple, four-point checklist for those of us living in two writing worlds. You may find these pointers helpful before submitting your next guest post or print manuscript.

The Two-Worlds Guide to Preparing Pieces for Publication

1. Make sure your submission, whether online or off, is presented in a professional manner. This means you’ve placed the text in proper manuscript format. For best results, especially when submitting offline (that is, to avoid immediate rejection) check the publisher’s guidelines for writers and follow them to the letter. Publishers mean what they say.

2. Carefully proofread your work. It’s helpful to let the piece sit for several hours or days, then read through the text again, preferably aloud, noting and correcting any blips in the flow, typos, and grammar errors you find.

3. Spell check. If you’re unsure of a word’s spelling, either use an online source such as or good old Webster’s. Remember that your spellchecker cannot distinguish between the proper use of homonyms such as they’re, there, and their, which brings us back to carefully proofread your work.

4. Check punctuation and grammar, either through an online source such as or your favorite style book. A great, easy-to-understand hardcopy reference I can’t live without is Nitty-Gritty Grammar by Edith H. Fine and Judith P. Josephson. When I really want to power up, I consult The Chicago Manual of Style.

I’m reminded of the old saying: “You have only one chance to make a good first impression.”

I welcome your comments.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Talking Art

"Second Cut" by Kathleen Volp

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

My grandfather, Jacob Scheinfein, was a painter and a photographer. Some of my earliest and most happy memories are of time spent with him: walking around the block near his home or sitting across from him at our kitchen table quietly sketching. Jack kept a studio in his house and though he died when I was 11, the smell of oil paint never fails to bring its image vividly to mind.

My two older brothers and I loved and admired him. He took the time to forge a unique relationship with each of us. He was, hands down, the most positively influential male presence in our lives.

Because of Jack, I have always been drawn to creative people. Many of my closest friends have made artistic expression their life’s work. So it is with great pleasure that I take on the task of choosing and posting images for this blog. My goal is to share the work of my favorite artists and photographers and that of those I do not yet know.

The artist whose work we currently feature, Kathleen Volp, is a conceptual artist. Her images are a skillful manipulation of media that might include paint, metal, string, varnish, and plaster that convey stories, emotions, and themes. Her work is personal at the same time as it makes statements about the world around us. She asks viewers to take their time looking. Those who do will walk away with something new to think about.

So I hope you will take the time to explore these images. To visit the featured artist’s Web site, simply click on the image itself.

Please feel free to comment on these as you would on a blog post – and definitely let us know about other visual artists whose work we may want to feature.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The New Magazine: Blogazine or Magazog?

Why we're now calling TW a blogazine—and the ever-evolving world of first-person journalism. Do you think we've entered a new age for writers, or is it more of the same?

A few days ago, I thought I was particularly clever, dreaming up a new term for the hybrid blog-magazine that's now appearing all over the Web: magazog. That's it! I told myself, as I strode around the local reservoir, golden leaves fluttering down, the raw sticks of winter peeking through.

We professionals, I thought without a scrap of humility, will soon be working for online sites in which the writing is not just stream-of-consciousness crud. We won't just be generating free content, we'll be...zoggers??

All right. Forget magazog. I waded through another swirl of leaves. I played with the words in my head for a few more steps—b-zine (no, sounds like b-school), blozine (nosedrops? yuk), blogazine (yes! yes!)

Hubris is sometimes a wonderful thing. But there's nothing like a quick google to bring a dreamer down. When I got back from my walk, I found many entries for blogazine, a word that already has some currency.

I may have missed the blogazine blip, but what magazines are becoming has been much on my mind. It's a question I'll ask my students to research this spring in my magazine course. It's forcing me to revise my syllabus. After all, Malcolm Gladwell has a blog. Margaret Atwood has a blog. And what about everyone writing for free on Open Salon—with its tag of "You Make the Headlines—isn't that like a magazine?

Yet as radically as the industry has changed in the past year, some of the edgiest trends in magazine writing—the looser style, the subjectivity, the self-reflexive references—may not be so new at all.

One user at Urban Dictionary defines blogazine as an "online magazine/blog with thoughts and opinions that are researched unlike blogs." (Granted, if you check out the other links here, you'll notice lots of tongues in cheeks.) 

Readingaround Blogazine is described as "an online magazine of new work by independent writers and editors," and it actually has a very attractive, magaziney (but mercifully uncluttered) front "cover."

Phresh Mentality, a self-described "myspace photo album" that launched as an indie music blogazine this summer, calls itself  "a dynamic team focused on photography, design, and journalism."

"Journalism" and "research" often pop up in references to blogazines. The collaborative nature of these enterprises also distinguishes them from old-style blogs. And once you've got a list of contributors or "staff," you've entered magazine territory.

But except for the digital medium used, the shift from blogs to some form of online magazine isn't shockingly new. Blogs and blogazines are very much in line with the origin of print magazines. The term "magazine" (from the word for an ammunition cartridge or holder) was first used as a reference to the incendiary nature of opinion pieces.

The Gentleman's Magazine, first published in 1731, kicked off the use of "magazine" for a print journal with political commentary, cultural reviews, and a letters section that involves a back-and-forth with readers. The Preface to one volume notes that "whoever has perused the Gentleman's Magazines of this year" must be able to discern that:
"[W]e have a large number of ingenious and learned contributors, by whom many subjects, of the highest importance, are treated with accuracy, spirit and candour. Much the greater part of these contributors conceal themselves with such secrecy that we correspond only with them by the Magazine...."
The editor himself used a pseudonym—Sylvanus Urban—which would work just fine on Open Salon or other cyber sites where noms de plume are common. Political writers like Jonathan Swift and, most especially, Daniel Defoe would also have been right at home with today's blogs or blogazines. Defoe's Review so much resembled a blog that one academic project has set it up in that form for contemporary readers.

Then there's George Orwell, the patron saint of many feature-writing journalists, who had all the earmarks of an avid blogger. His given name was Eric Blair, but "George Orwell" allowed him to keep "the public from 'working magic' on him by knowing his true identity," notes Paul McHugh in a Washington Post travel piece about Orwell's island retreat on Jura.

(Side question: Would Orwell, ill with TB on that remote Scottish island and composing 1984, have written for free just to get his ideas out? Probably, but I'm not sure.)

Here's what I want to know: Has blogging changed more recent standards for journalistic magazine features? Are we getting more personal, more subjective? Is the first-person starting to trump?

This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it's potentially a profound change. The distinction between "hard" and "soft" news seems increasingly outmoded to me. I'm not arguing that we abandon good reporting practices; more than ever, feature writers need to verify facts, cultivate diverse sources, and make clear to readers where the information comes from.

Yet features in which writers inject themselves to good effect, giving readers entré to how reporters sift through facts and come to conclusions, may get us closer to multi-faceted reality. That's certainly true for trend stories or other features that rely on anecdotes.

Neil Swidey's latest article in the Boston Globe Magazine, "Why an iPhone Could Actually Be Good for Your 3-Year-Old," is a great example. He takes a hot-button topic (I must admit my first response was "Are you nuts?!") and makes a convincing case for something counterintuitive. Yet he doesn't do so by pretending objectivity or journalistic omniscience:
"I say this as someone who doesn't even like the iPhone. I have never worshipped at the altar of Jobs, and have, in fact, always preferred the dowdy PC.... But I can see how quickly our youngest daughter has become a pro with the device, despite being just 4 years old and unable to spell anything more than her name. She belongs to a new generation."
Swidey not only provides plenty of counterpoints to his claim, he also clues readers in to why what they say matters. Swidey writes that "for a reality check, I went to see Dr. Michael Rich," who runs the Center on Media and Child Health at a Boston hospital. Rich, predictably, talks about why smart phones for toddlers are worrisome. But Swidey adds:
"[H]ere's what makes Rich's perspective so valuable. In a field where some children's advocates view all media as bad while industry-bought voices speak only gee-whiz-ese, Rich opts for nuance. He rejects the notion that parents try to seal off their child from all media...."
Most readers know journalists have biases and that we're not completely objective observers. Instead of one's perspective being masked, in personally inflected features it's out there for all to see.

Ironically, the rise of first-person journalism, fueled by blogging and social-networking, may be dragging magazines right back to their roots—to all those gentlemen writers talking with such "accuracy and candour." (Or at least back to Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion.) You can see it on Open Salon, where so many gentlepeople fling ideas around with gusto, and with a quality that matches or surpasses much of what appears in print today.

So do we need a new word for magazine—or blog? Perhaps the only reason to push for blogazine and the like is a professional one: respect.

On another walk around the reservoir, the golden leaves still falling, here's a comment I overheard: "I'm still getting together my blog thing. Do you have an e-mail? I'll send it to you."

This speaker is obviously worried her "blog thing" will get no respect; it's not the equivalent of saying, for instance, "my article in the NY Times Magazine." But she follows up fast with "your email" and "send it to you," revealing just how much finding readers means to writers these days.

Sometimes I think the whirl of blogs and e-zines is the equivalent of a million tumbling autumn leaves. But I like the notion of collaboration versus the top-down masthead of print magazines. If that's what makes a blogazine different and "dynamic," I'm for it. I like the spirit of adventure, the potential for many editors rather than just a few guarding the gate to publication.

Call it the New-Old Journalism. Or the Old-New Magazine. Think of Daniel Defoe or Samuel Johnson, a regular contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine. They would have been thrilled to spread their ideas from pole to pole. If asked to create a new kind of magazine, they'd be learning HTML and how to create podcasts in the pubs of London. They'd be way past worrying about a drop in print ad sales—though they'd also be figuring out how to make some money.

This piece originally appeared on Open Salon as an Editor's Pick.

Corrections: A small error appeared in the block quote from the Gentleman's Magazine (an incorrect "of"); Paul McHugh's article appeared in the Washington Post, not the New York Times. These errors were corrected January 8, 2010.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The View From One Inch Shorter

By Elizabeth Langosy for Talking Writing

It has been two months since I accepted an early retirement offer from Harvard University in order to focus on my fiction writing (my optimistic starting point is described in “An Awfully Big Adventure?”). Since then, life has swept me along on its merry (and sometimes not-so-merry) path.

Did I begin working on my writing? Yes, I did. As planned, I reviewed three stories awaiting final edits and decided which one to work on first. I was both giddy with the prospect of writing days stretching ahead and terrified that I’d made a huge mistake in leaving my job, but on my first workday, I identified—and, more importantly, saw how to resolve—a critical problem with the opening pages of my story. I knew then that I’d made the right decision.

What happened next? I regret to say that I was completely distracted by an overload of paperwork and obligations. These fell into three categories:

Money: My post-retirement to-do list held 22 items, ranging from “Cancel subway pass” to “Submit final Flexible Spending Account receipts.” All of them had to do with funds I could receive or funds I could avoid uselessly spending—but only if I submitted a specific form and associated documentation. When I realized that I was in danger of forgoing money I was owed while continuing to pay for things I no longer used, I knew I had to set aside time to complete the paperwork.

Mom: My mother is 87 years old and has congestive heart failure. She’s now in an assisted living facility, but her doctor suggested that she move to a higher level of care. This prompted my siblings and me to begin simultaneously researching long-term care options and finalizing a partnership agreement a lawyer had drafted several years earlier to preserve and protect a summer cottage we’ll inherit. Many phone conferences and email exchanges ensued, some of them contentious. As the longtime family peacemaker, I ended up revising the partnership document to reflect our conversations while running interference between my siblings.

Mayhem: Well, not literally mayhem, but how many things can happen at once? Between the time of year, happenstance, and things I’d neglected to do over the summer, my calendar listed appointments for nearly every day in September and October. Many of these involved family and friends and others had to do with medical appointments I’d been putting off. At one of these appointments, my annual physical, I learned that I was one inch shorter than I’d been the previous year.

One inch shorter! How could that be? “That happens when people get older,” said the medical assistant as she left me in the examination room. Well, yes, it happened to my 87-year-old mother, who now looks tiny standing next to me in photos. But I thought I had many years to go before I started to shrink, which—face it—is what is happening. Since that appointment, I’ve used up even more time in researching this phenomenon. I’ve learned that height loss can sometimes result from poor posture or a lack of stretching exercises, but the results of my planned experimentation with that will not be known until my next height measurement.

In the meantime, I’ve identified a hidden benefit of decreased height. I was walking a familiar route the other day (the route of my twice-daily walk to and from the subway during my working years) when I realized that things looked subtly different. What could have changed so radically in just a few weeks? I indulged myself in imagining that my newly expanded focus on writing was enabling me to notice much more about my surroundings than I’d seen before. But the truth is that I’ve always noticed what’s around me, storing away images and overheard conversations for future stories. Then I thought of my decreased height. I’m used to seeing things at a flat height or at one or two inches higher, depending on the shoes of the day, but I’ve never seen things at a lower height. Could it make a difference? To test this theory, I tried walking a few steps on tiptoe and suddenly everything looked “normal.”

So now here I am. My calendar is mostly clear for November and December, and I’m back to revising my story. I’m trying to get in at least five hours of solid writing each day and have been reading a lot more fiction than before. I’m also making sure to get in a daily walk, ruminating on the day’s writing conundrums, collecting snippets of conversation, and viewing the world from one inch shorter.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The TW Thriller List: Just in Time for Those Spooky Nights!

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

As promised, here's a list of thrillers recommended by Talking Writing fans and Open Salon commenters to my recent post "A Vaccine for Bad Writing." (It also ran on TW as "Get Your Dan Brown Vaccination: D1B1.")

As "Part One" of the vaccine, I quoted Maureen Dowd's hilarious review of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. As "Part Two," I listed great thrillers as an antidote.

I haven't read all the titles and authors below, but I now have a new list for many a winter night to come. I've also added a few myself, especially in the "truth is wilder than fiction" category. Enjoy!

More Thrillers from Discerning Readers
  • Charles Palliser, The Quincunx
  • Philip K. Dick, The Minority Report
  • Iain Banks, The Business (also Whit)
  • Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
  • Robert Ludlum—"anything by him" (including the Bourne series)
  • Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost
  • Tana French, In the Woods
  • Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers
  • John Le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
  • Richard Wright, Native Son
  • Robert Ward, Red Baker (comment: "nobody's heard of this book; but it's terrific")
  • Richard Price, Clockers
  • Ruth Rendell—"anything by her" (including The Bridesmaid)
  • Martin Cruz Smith, Gorky Park (also Rose)
  • Pat Conroy, Beach Music
  • Scott Turow—"anything by him" (including Ordinary Heroes and more votes for Presumed Innocent: "the best psychological page-turner I've ever read")
  • Kate Atkinson, Case Histories
  • Charles McCarry—"anything by him"
  • Ian Rankin—"anything by him"
  • Robert Littell, Legends
  • Mo Hayder—"anything by her"
  • Carl Hiassen, Native Tongue
  • Robert Daley, Prince of the City ("OK, it's nonfiction...but reads like a novel")
  • Michael Crichton, The Great Train Robbery ("lots of fun facts about Victorian London, and inspired [loosely] by real events")
  • Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action (nonfiction, but a rip-roaring tale)
  • Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller, 24 Days (ditto, Enron)
  • Kurt Eichenwald, The Informant (ditto, a pathological liar)
  • J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground (ditto, Boston—oh, Boston)

Special Anti-Vaccine Award
for "Worst Prose I've Ever Had The Misfortune To Wade Through championship": Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Here's my original list of antidotes with the Dan Brown posts:

Part Two of D1B1: The List that Protects Me
  • Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent
  • Dennis Lehane, Mystic River
  • Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Elizabeth George, What Came Before He Shot Her
  • Sara Paretsky, Killing Orders
  • Laurie King, A Darker Place
  • Eliot Pattison, The Skull Mantra
  • Graham Green, The Quiet American
  • Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander
  • Kerstin Ekman, Blackwater
Any other titles and authors you would like to add?

Friday, October 23, 2009

When Life Hands You Roses and Love

What does a writer do when the meaning of life changes and everything he's been writing for ten years goes against the grain of his new insights?

By David Biddle for Talking Writing

The fiction I’ve been writing over the past decade is about the day-to-day pathos of love between married people. During the past several years, close to 20 of my friends and family members have had to deal with infidelity and other versions of crumbling love. It’s very likely that for every marriage challenged by affairs and anomie, there are probably another 20-30 other couples out there either headed in the same direction or struggling with the humdrum day-to-day of children, jobs, mortgages, commuting, shopping, and periodic, hurried, and quite periodic sex.

Every bit of my prose is informed by the emotional lives around me. I am currently shopping seven different stories about infidelity and obsession to literary publications everywhere. The main theme of these stories is that love is tragic but somehow desire is still life affirming. This is a cynical view of married life in America, but to a certain extent it describes the reality.

Out there as well is a manuscript for a novel I wrote about suburban sexual intrigue that is both amoral and pathetic. My intent was for the reader to come away in pain, pondering why life’s beauty still made it possible to go on finding meaning in living. Yes, so far the book has been rejected by three agents and two small publishers. I’m proud of my work on it though. It’s kind of Henry Miller meets John Cheever in post-9/11 America (at least, that was my intention). I feel that it's honest and true and the writing reflects this.

Something’s happened in my own life though. My children have grown up. The youngest is 14. In the past year my wife and I have been able to spend a frighteningly huge amount of time alone together. The pressure of raising a family is off us. We each have gone through soul-searching transitions that were not easy. Our own partnership was challenged. We realize now that we have struggled together for at least the past decade. Maybe longer. But in the last six months we have grown closer and closer. In the past month we’ve become like two young lovers again. I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say, I’ve learned there can be happy endings; or, rather, in our early 50s maybe we should say happy new trails can indeed lead off into the sunrise of mature and tested love.

But now I’ve got a real problem. I don’t see love so cynically anymore. I see hope and I see redemption for those of us heading into these last phases of our lives. I want to share this new revelation with all my friends and readers. Most surely this will pop up in future stories I write. But for now, the dilemma I face is whether I need to go back into the stories I have floating around out there, particularly my novel manuscript, and rewrite them to reflect my newfound zest for living and my hope for all married couples once giddy for each other everywhere.

It’s not clear what I should do. Tragic, cynical, amoral characters and stories have a lot of traction in this modern crazy sickened world. Shifting gears so abruptly back toward the notion that love conquers all (which I firmly believe is true) would certainly mean major re-writes, but it could also mean that my stories go out there designed to enhance life rather than depict it as tragic and inevitably painful. What do you think? Should a writer re-visit stories that have not been published if he or she has had a dramatically life altering experience that changes their world view?

Monday, October 19, 2009

This J-Student Ponders the Dollars and “Sense” of a New Career

Or How Not to Start at the Bottom When Your Birth Date Shows You’re Nearing “the Top”

Guest Post by Alex Speredelozzi for Talking Writing

Recently, I attended a career fair for journalists at Harvard University. Never mind that I didn’t know the fair was for young would-be interns, not middle-aged graduate students in journalism like myself looking to break into a second career. (How gullible am I to think that newspaper publishers would show up to offer jobs with checks?)

With newspapers bleeding black ink, one might think that few college students would show any interest in journalism. I recall that college for me was a time of idealism, but I thought today’s students were far more practical. Yet that didn’t seem to be the case at this Harvard career fair. There appeared to be no shortage of people interested in media careers. Which is a problem for us all—and especially for me.

My impression of student interest could have been skewed; the number of people might have looked larger because the room was small. I do know, however, that some students came not just from Harvard. One young woman told me she traveled all the way from Cornell University in New York with a group of like-minded students.

Granted, an internship at a newspaper is not only great experience for budding reporters but for those interested in law, government service, public relations, and a host of other professions. The investigative and writing skills are invaluable. But you have to admire the spunk of young people wanting to hurl themselves into an industry in financial disarray.

Maybe the reason for this enthusiasm was best expressed by a panel of veteran international journalists (all current Nieman Fellows) at the career fair. They agreed that there's no money in journalism. I wanted to know what motivates them each day.

“What do you get out of it?” I asked during the Q-and-A.

Their answer: the lifestyle, the excitement, the adrenalin rush. Gary Knight, photographer and editor with VII Photo Agency and Dispatches, couldn’t imagine another career. James Reynolds, China correspondent for the BBC, spoke fondly of flying into a country on an almost empty plane while people rushed to board planes leaving the country.

Hopewell Rugoho-Chin’ono of Zimbabwe, a documentary film director/news producer for Television International, smiled like a kid as he talked about using electronic image-transferring equipment that would have landed him in jail for five years if caught. Anita Snow, Havana bureau chief for the Associated Press, discussed the thrill (and difficulty) of opening a news bureau in Cuba.

These journalists relished the chance to meet and interview both influential people and everyday folks, and to report on crucial events that make history.

But what happens when you’re married with a family and the little eyes in your home look to you for bread and milk?

Even if you find a job as a journalist, it’s not clear how you secure fair pay. In the heyday of newspaper publishing, many owners raked it in but paid journalists only a weekly wage. Early on, reporters unionized to gain some leverage over employers, but unionization doesn’t build you a second home on a lake.

Except for a few stars, journalists get paid like other service employees that we value so much but pay so little: teachers, nurses, firefighters, librarians.

The panelists also agreed that to get and keep a job these days, journalists must know how to work with sound and pictures. Words alone won’t cut it. Though great writing and storytelling are the backbone of journalism, multimedia is the future. We’re a visual society, and we’ve been that way for decades. The technology that’s driving many of the changes in the journalism business is making multimedia the pencil-and-paper of the future.

Fine. I get it. But I have to say that just as the physical ability to put pen to paper never made anyone a writer, the fun of dropping and dragging on a screen won’t turn you into a multimedia expert. What makes a great story great, including one told via podcast, still relies on some old faithfuls: great characterization, great quotes, great story ideas, great reporting.

There’s also a more fundamental law to making it in journalism, at least financially, especially if you can’t afford to start at the bottom. Journalists must develop a niche unnoticed as yet by editors and valued by readers. They need to create a unique “product” and “brand” that can’t be easily replicated.

The buzz word is “specialization.” The journalism field has had specialists for years. But now it requires a higher level of intentionality. You need subject-matter expertise, and editors and readers need to associate your name automatically with that subject. The goal: Ensure that editors can’t hire anyone else to fill your shoes.

With an ample supply of journalists willing and able to cover a town meeting, a Bruce Springsteen concert, or the latest robbery, there’s no reason for publishers and editors to pay for content. Writing better than the next guy by itself doesn’t necessarily translate into higher pay. Sometimes “good-enough” is all that editors and publishers are willing to go for.

Unless, of course, they must come to you, and only you, to get the story.

My problem is that I don’t have a specialty. At heart, I’m a general-assignment reporter. My interests vary wide and far. I was attracted to writing and reporting because of the opportunity it offered to learn a little about a lot of things. So now, I must decide: Do I make a living in a different field and write on the side for pure enjoyment? Or do I develop a niche while also clearing a little space for those stories that widen my eyes? I’ll keep you posted.

You can see samples of my reporting at The Sun Chronicle.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: Why Do I Feel Ripped Off?

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

First, a disclaimer: I am a reader of fiction, not a writer of it – and a relatively uncritical reader at that. I am much more focused on a how a story makes me feel than on its author’s technique.

Last summer, when a friend mentioned that she was reading David Wroblewski’s novel about dogs and a mother-son relationship, I took it out of the library. Like her, I love dogs and am the mother of sons.

Any book that holds my attention at the end of the workday is usually an instant winner. For that reason, I was enjoying Edgar’s story – learning the history and workings of his family’s dog-breeding business, and getting to know the characters – both human and canine.

The story, as promised on the book jacket, included the sudden and suspicious death of Edgar’s father. Things were bumping along; Edgar and his mother were working to pull things together, when I was brought up short by the appearance of the ghost of Edgar’s father.

Even I, not always the most discerning and attentive reader in my post-workday haze, immediately wondered – what is the author doing here? Does this even work?

The next day, I looked up the book on Wikipedia and learned that the story was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A quick review of the Sparknotes on Hamlet (which I haven’t read since college) brought me up to speed. As if remembering the plot of Hamlet wasn’t enough of a hint, my search also revealed the book’s ending.

It has been a couple of months since I finished Wroblewski’s novel and I’m still thinking about his approach – and the role the Internet played in my reading of it.

On one level, I am glad I got the back story before I finished the book – spoiler and all. But it did make me reluctant to keep reading. And it definitely influenced my perceptions.

I am also annoyed. The author had great characters, an interesting story – I wish he had chosen his own path rather than follow Shakespeare’s.

Can this approach to a novel work? Has it? What are some examples? And, what are the advantages and disadvantages of knowing an author’s intent before reading his or her book?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Get Your Dan Brown Vaccination: D1B1

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

I've taken a vow. In this, I am as self-abnegating as Dan Brown's crazily obsessed villains, flagellating myself (OK, I'll skip the castration) in the name of decent fiction.

Against the most horrendous odds, I have crafted a vaccination for Brownitis. D1B1 comes in two parts: (1) commune with Maureen Dowd's recent review of Brown; (2) list, read, and buy other well-written page-turning thrillers as an alternative—and tell your local bookseller why you are doing so. Let the healing begin.

Part One of D1B1: The Least Painful First Step

When Maureen Dowd is good, she's wickedly good. After reading her review of Brown's latest novel, The Lost Symbol, I didn't feel quite so depressed that I'll never be a novelist raking in over six figures. These lines alone are worth the price of the New York Times Book Review:
"The author has gotten rich and famous without attaining a speck of subtlety. A character never just stumbles into blackness. It must be inky blackness. A character never just listens in shock. He listens in utter shock.

And consider this fraught interior monologue by the head of the Capitol Police: 'Chief Anderson wondered when this night would end. A severed hand in my Rotunda? A death shrine in my basement? Bizarre engravings on a stone pyramid? Somehow, the Redskins game no longer felt significant.'”
Dowd makes fun of Brown's over-use of italics among many, many other writerly sins. So does Janet Maslin, in an earlier review in the Times. But unlike Dowd, Maslin lauds Brown for his ability to set an unlikely series of events into motion and to keep the pages turning. She ends her review by noting that the reader, almost any reader, likely will be picking up The Lost Symbol at his or her nearest bookstore.

Not this reader. I love plotted fiction, and I'm a big fan of candy-for-the-mind thriller junk, but The Da Vinci Code was more than junk. It made me doubt the sanity of the reading public, just as I doubted the U.S. electorate in November 2004.

Yes, I did read to the end of The Da Vinci Code, although there were many pages I skimmed or skipped because of the awful prose. When I got to the end, I felt gipped. Fortunately, I hadn't shelled out money for the book, but it's only redeeming value seemed to be the belly laugh I got at its amazingly shocking conclusion.

(Please. Did Brown never come across any feminist fantasy and revisionary historical novels of the 1970s? What about Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology? Guess I had the benefit of sitting in on all those alternative feminist spirituality groups in the 1980s.)

Here's what I have to ask: Does a page-turning plot really excuse excrebably bad ideas? (I'm getting into these italics.) Maslin and happy booksellers would no doubt say this kind of disposable fiction is pure escape, and that Brown is giving customers what they want.

But can't we, as writers, do better than this?

Yes. See Part Two below.

One of the things I love about Dowd's review is that she engages with Brown's ideas and sends them up as a load of hooey—particularly his smarmy rationalizations about the Masons. It's bad enough that the hero of Brown's novels, Robert Langdon, is a professor of "symbology" at Harvard; now we get a new love interest who specializes in "Noetic science," which Brown describes as a study of “the untapped potential of the human mind.” Dowd barely has to comment on that one.

And she's so good at deflating pumped-up melodrama:
"You can practically hear the eerie organ music playing whenever Mal’akh, the clichéd villain whose eyes shine 'with feral ferocity,' appears. He goes from sounding like a parody of a Bond bad guy ('You are a very small cog in a vast machine,' he tells Langdon) to a parody of Woody Allen ('The body craves what the body craves,' he thinks).

But Brown tops himself with these descriptions: 'Wearing only a silken loincloth wrapped around his buttocks and neutered sex organ, Mal’akh began his preparations,' and 'Hanging beneath the archway, his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny. In another life, this heavy shaft of flesh had been his source of carnal pleasure. But no longer.'”
Oh, Maureen. Thank you for reminding us that sometimes the emperor really does need to wear some clothes.

Part Two of D1B1: The List that Protects Me

* Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent
* Dennis Lehane, Mystic River
* Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
* Elizabeth George, What Came Before He Shot Her
* Sara Paretsky, Killing Orders
* Laurie King, A Darker Place
* Eliot Pattison, The Skull Mantra
* Graham Green, The Quiet American
* Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander
* Kerstin Ekman, Blackwater
* And so many more...!

Dear reader, if you feel at all tempted to buy The Lost Symbol, save yourself. Even Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park qualifies as an antidote. Add suggestions here for other well-written page-turners—for your own D1B1 vaccine—and to help me keep renewing mine. I'm always on the lookout for the most nourishing candy.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

You Lie! Are we getting ruder? I blame email

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

Are we expressing our displeasure more openly these days? Certainly the Republicans are – though they are not the only ones. Personally, I think it all started with email.

The first email I ever received – sent via DOS – came from a perfectly lovely boss I had while I worked as a secretary at a local university. I was thrilled to have figured out how to send her a message while she was on the other side of the country. Imagine, I thought, she may get this note in just a few minutes!

She certainly did. And she wasted no time in responding: She wanted specific fonts for printing out her promotion packet. She didn’t care if the school didn’t have them. No excuses. Her message aggressively outlined in no uncertain terms that I was to do everything necessary to get them. With one email all her loveliness went right out the window.

We eventually sorted things out in person. And I know that it was her anxiety around the promotion that was talking and not her. But that scalding message splashed cold water all over my delight at using something new.

Recalling the many counterproductive emails I have both sent and received, I am reminded of a model that sat on my childhood desk. A caricature of a loud-mouthed person, the caption on its base said, “Engage brain before opening mouth.” Today that model would show a harried office worker hunched over a computer or Blackberry and say something like “Engage empathy before pressing send.”

The technology that makes such gaffes possible also makes it possible to retract them – but only if you are quick about it. For example, Google has added an “unsend” feature to Gmail. The new feature was announced last spring and according to the Web site, it “… can't pull back an email that's already gone; it just holds your message for five seconds so you have a chance to hit the panic button.”

Unfortunately, we often need more than five seconds to realize that we have launched an e-grenade.

And while we don’t always intend the hostile or angry tone our email conveys, other times we do. Why do we say things over email in ways that we wouldn’t in-person?

One reason is that email allows us to communicate our thoughts without interruption. The recipient cannot insert their reaction in real time. So even if you don’t intend to send an incendiary message, you are not afforded the social cues that might tell you to back off.

Pressing send is hard to resist when you can vent your fury using exactly the words you want. When faced with a live human being, most of us aren't that pithy. With email those smartly worded comments come all too easily.

Intentionally or not, many of us have been ruder on email than we ever would be in person. On the other hand, maybe it’s good practice for those face-to-face confrontations with people like Joe Wilson … Serena Williams…. Kanye West....

This post originally appeared on Open Salon.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Brainsick in Bloggerland: Certifiable or a Writer's Dream?

Guest Post by Paula L. Silici for Talking Writing

Is blogging making us mentally healthier—or the reverse?

Cyberspace is filled with well-written, thought-provoking blog sites. These bloggers clearly know what they’re doing. As a writer and editor, and especially as a fellow human being, I believe their posts enrich my world and make me proud of my profession.

Yet most of us have visited those “other” blog sites, too. You know the ones I mean: poorly written, poorly punctuated, rife with misspellings, and written by individuals who apparently find it liberating to post every banal detail of every waking moment. And here’s the kicker: most come with illustrative photos.

These “other” blog sites intrigue me. I wonder what motivates this second type of blogger to so publicly exhibit such intimacies. Even when the posts aren’t all that intimate, what would compel someone to while away several hours or more each day sitting at the computer emptying oneself out to an ambiguous audience who may or may not care? There must be a pay-off beyond monetary reward that I have yet to understand.

A sizeable amount of hubris is apparently a blogger necessity. I’m a wary blogger myself, barely touching a toe into the metaphorical whirlpool. I worry about the kind of false comfort this medium offers—especially to young people. Are we truly keeping in touch, or are we actually distancing ourselves farther from the human connections we seek?

I feel we're heading toward the latter, but I’d love to hear what others think. I’d especially like to hear from mental health professionals about the impact of blogging on their patients—positive, negative, or neutral.

Consider the following scenarios, one positive and one negative:

Scenario #1: A blogger I know casually and spoke to last weekend at a writers’ meeting raved about how wonderful blogging is. It thrilled her to know that others were reading her daily posts. It thrilled her even more that she was gaining a growing readership and that many had begun to regularly respond to her posts. Their comments gave her “a high like no other,” she claimed. She ended the conversation by stating that her blog validated her and confirmed her as a person of substance in a deeply profound way. People, she gushed, actually cared about what she had to say. She hoped to someday support her family by writing a successful blog.

All right. There’s something to be said for the dizzying gratification writers feel when a piece evokes an immediate response in others. Professional writers who have suffered the gut-blows of rejections by agents and publishers love the fact that they can now be in control of their work’s destiny. In spite of the current brutal publishing industry, audiences are able to instantly read and respond to an author’s work. This is a good thing, right? A healthy thing.

Then there’s the down side.

Scenario #2: I’ve talked to other bloggers who rarely, if ever, receive comments on their posts. Their reports, of course, aren’t so glowing. Full of hope, they began blogging out of a genuine desire to share with others who they are and what they think and feel. But when nobody responded, the rejection cut deep. One blogger I know, crushed by this experience, quit after only one week in the arena. He later told me he discussed this with his therapist.

There are other scenarios, too. Another blogger writes because, he says, it’s a cathartic, therapeutic experience. He doesn’t care if anyone comments. He simply loves the fact that he’s been provided a “really cool” platform to vent. (He blogs under a pseudonym.)

Oh, yes. And what about those bloggers who publish fictitious “true-life” experiences and post a bogus photo of themselves? Perhaps making up sensational stories that titillate readers is a means of transporting them beyond reality and into a fantasy world where anything and everything is possible. When readers respond to those posts favorably, it’s as if the blogger is given permission, indeed, encouragement, to continue the ruse. Healthy? Unhealthy? Hmmm.

The Internet allows us to visit blog sites anonymously. Hidden in the shadows of cyberspace, we can look through the windows of our monitors and act the voyeur. Blogs allow us into the sometimes outrageous, sometimes shocking, sometimes totally boring lives of others.

But when communicating online, we can no longer touch the person we’re communicating with. We can no longer look them in the eye or hear inflections in their tone of voice or witness the frown or smile on their faces. Yes, photos and videos can be posted; but still, we are once, twice, sometimes thrice removed.

Everyone wants to feel loved and accepted. We all want to feel that our opinions count. Blogging (and for that matter, FaceBook-type sites and Twittering) can provide a certain sense of belonging, a sense of community. Yet who are we kidding here? I know of people who begin first thing in the morning and spend countless hours blogging, reading, posting, and commenting. By doing so, they attempt to perpetuate those warm-fuzzy sensations of community and rightness and well-being. But an addiction is an addiction is an addiction. Any addiction that replaces reality with fantasy is bound to be unhealthy.

I shudder to imagine a lonely world where people no longer gather together in person to discuss issues important to them, or where heated conversations no longer end with a warm handshake or hug. Oh, wait! I-M the psychologist. We just may be there already.