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In Which I Reflect on Christmases Past…

It’s a week before Christmas, it’s 80 degrees outside, and I’m enjoying a nice cup of spiked hot cider with a real cinnamon stick. It doesn’t sound like that reflective of a moment, but it is for me. When I was a kid, I thought both liquor and real cinnamon sticks were something only rich people buy. My fiance picked up a couple baggies of cinnamon sticks last night for a hot buttered rum recipe we decided to try. I have never bought cinnamon sticks before because I always assumed they were a luxury item for fancy people. Turns out, they are less than 99 cents.

It’s odd to think of something that costs 99 cents as a luxury item, but Crayolas are only a couple bucks more expensive than less-than-crayola crayons, and I never go to have those as a kid, either. Christmas time was always a very tense occasion in my family. They usually involved my parents getting payday loans and putting things on layaway, things that because I went to college and worked hard to get a good writing job I could stroll into the store and buy even on the last day before payday. There was always more fighting around Christmas as money got tighter, and I got more and more complacent about the holidays as the years went on.

But that’s Christmas past, not Christmas future. I don’t buy Christmas presents with payday loans or nearly-maxed out credit cards. My fiance has revived the Christmas spirit that I thought died in me a long time ago. We make Christmas our own – with liquor and Nutella-stuffed cookies and our wall of Christmas lights, Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and silly Texas Christmas cards.

And this might just be the best Christmas ever.

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SXSW panel in review: The Accidental Writer

The first panel I attended at South By Southwest this year was not the first one I intended to see… as per tradition. Still, it was a great one to start out with. It was called “The Accidental Writer: Great Web Copy for Everyone” and was not really geared toward writers, but more toward web designers and others who end up writing copy as an afterthought. Melanie Seibert (@melanie_seibert on Twitter) was the speaker.

The first thing the speaker stressed was that copy and content strategy in general cannot be an afterthought. If it IS, then it’s probably going to be boring, crappy copy. She gave some examples of companies that have great design AND great copy, like and Groupon (which I’ll admit though that wound’s still fresh). She also pointed out that content doesn’t come cheap… it’s expensive to write, especially if you’re not a native speaker, so sometimes it works out much better to hire someone to do it for you.

She then pointed out something that’s been in the back of my mind for awhile… SEO training. As a writer, a lot of the freelance jobs I see out there want writers with some SEO training, and it makes sense – if you’re going to pay for great copy, you want people to be able to find it. She threw out some SEO certification courses that I’m hoping I can talk my boss into paying for. After all, it’ll help me in my day job a lot, too. Our help documentation is ridiculously difficult to search.

She offered the following tips for everyone who needs to write web copy but may not be an expert at it (and a good refresher for those of us who are):

  • Don’t just describe things. You’ve got to tell a story to keep your reader engaged.
  • Break up text. No one wants to read a paragraph that’s a page long.
  • Give people something to do by using actionable language.
  • Web copy needs to integrate with the site design, and you have to design around the content.
  • Don’t overuse memes and cliches. No one’s got milk anymore.
  • Don’t be afraid to write a horrible first draft (sadly, this is something I’m just now embracing).
  • Revise and proof. Get rid of half the words on the page, then get rid of another half.
  • Never use passive voice
  • Make your copy fun and friendly.

What did I get out of this panel? I definitely want to get SEO training so I know how to be more search-savvy with my writing. It’ll be a great resume builder too, right? It’s also good to know that writers still have value in the eyes of our more back-end savvy counterparts. I’ll be looking into Heather Lloyd Martin’s material on SEO certification very soon.

And I’ll let you know how it goes!

For audio of this panel:

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SXSW: Days 2 and 3

So, I was too drunk to blog on Saturday, too tired to blog on Sunday, and left my ID in my pants and got turned away at a party tonight so I finally have time to talk about all the cool stuff I saw over the last couple days.

Saturday was a crazy busy day for panels, but I learned SO much about what I need to do to get my book going for realsies.

I was just in time for the So Long and Thanks for all the Babelfish panel with Tim Holden, who will forever be impregnated in my mind as the person who called copywriters “fuddy-duddies”. It was a panel about the costs and trends with content translation, a topic I don’t care a whole lot about, but one that I have to deal with, and one I figured I could learn a little bit about.

The next panel I attended was the one I was most excited about for the year, and it did not disappoint. The Self-Publishing Novel: Report from the Trenches panel featured self-published writers from all corners of the spectrum, including Carolyn McCray of the Indie Book Collective. I came away with the following takeaways for things I need to do to get my book ready for self-publishing, because it’s a route that I really should take:

  • First and foremost, when I get home, I need to solicit a beta reader group to get valuable readership feedback to figure out if my book is a complete piece of crap.
  • I need to step up my Twitter game. I don’t think I can (or want to) realistically follow 50 people a day, as McCray recommended, but I can reach out more for sure.
  • When you are an independent author, you are your own marketing department, so I need to approach every day as “do I want to go to work or not?”.

It was a great panel, and one that you should watch when it’s available.

Next was Tell & Sell Your Story with Stephanie Klein and company. They billed it as a panel about writing a book proposal, finding an agent, and maintaining balance as a writer. They didn’t get to the proposal information until the end,  but Stephanie Klein took the reins on outlining in great detail all the elements you need a book proposal:

  1. An overview, written in your own voice, that is like an ad for your book.
  2. An analysis of the books that are like yours, but includes why your book is unique.
  3. A chapter-by-chapter summary
  4. 2 sample chapters that show your range as a writer

Klein also gave great advice about not holding back as a writer based on a worry about a specific person reading your work. One of my favorite lines from the conference so far: “the minute you start censoring yourself is the minute you become inauthentic.”

Every year it seems I find a panel that I completely misinterpret. Last year, it was a panel on editing that turned about to be a panel about film editing. This year, it was a panel called Semantically Yours: Dating Tips for the Semantic Web, which I thought was about using word nerdery in online dating (a topic that recently became relevant to me that I’ll have to talk about in an upcoming post) but turned out to be about creating semantic data. I still don’t know what that is, but I know it’s not relevant to me at all. Another lesson in why you always read the description. I did cut out in time to make the Q&A for the bloggers vs journalists panel, which was a spirited and timely debate.

That ended day 2 for me, but not until after some sweet parties and far too much alcohol. Sunday morning started surprisingly on time and on task:

The first panel was a very interesting one… there were 12 slides with 12 concepts of the writing lifestyle on them, and 3 writers each to give their take on each of the concepts. I got both affirmation that some of the crazy rituals we have as writers aren’t crazy and some tips on how better to approach the writing process.

After that, I hit up a transmedia storytelling panel that thankfully was more about creating a great story through character development, plot advancement, and rich world creation and less about the crazy buzzword that is transmedia. It was a little bit story 101, but it was a wonderful reminder/affirmation for writing a great narrative first and focusing on the medium second.

The next panel I hit up actually WAS about the future of online dating, and while it didn’t have anything to do with writing in an online dating context, it did apprise me to the fact that there are services out there that will easily make my freelance job obsolete.

The final panel of day 3 was Gavin St. Ours’ Why New Authors Should Think Like Indie  Bands, and was all about the practice and promotion that unknown authors need to follow to get their names out there and build a readership base. There was heavy talk about the different forms of publishing beyond traditional New York publishing house dead tree methods, not all of them revolving around self-publishing, which was comforting. After all, they can’t be the only 2 options out there.

I’ll be delving into the meat and potatoes of all these panels after I get home from South by Southwest, but that’ll have to wait until I am done partying it up here in Austin.

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New Essay: Christmas with Just Dad

I’ve posted a new manuscript that is somewhere between a flash fiction piece and an essay. I’m not sure which fits more, so I put it in essays because it starts out most like an essay. It’s called Christmas with Just Dad and you can read all about it here.

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New story up: The Pollen Bath

I got the idea for this short story way back before it was 30-some degrees back in Kansas City, but I hit a wall with it so many times, it sat in various stages of incompletion for a long time. NaNoWriMo was my kick in the ass to do something with all these works in progress, and I finished this one. It’s called The Pollen Bath.

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Seeing my name in print

It’s a pretty damn priceless feeling. My work got accepted by a print journal all the way back in February, but it still has yet to be printed. I’ve also had several things be accepted by web magazines and other bookish sites, and seeing my name in an HTML heading was also pretty damn cool. But nothing could compare to my elation when I ripped open the package that contained my two contributor’s copies for the first issue of Line Zero. Holding the book in my hand and seeing my name on the back cover in the list of contributors, it was a pretty unmatched feeling.

Maybe I’m just a dork, but it rocks to see my first published short story, Two Steps Forward, in words on a page. It’s a feeling I hope to enjoy several more times.

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At the risk of sounding like a literary snob, I must admit publicly that I have not read many of the series that have become more popular than Molly Ringwald’s characters in 80s movies.

The Twilight Series I have not read this because I have no interest in vampire fiction for teens, and it stuns me that something so contrived could become so successful in such a short time.

Harry Potter Again, I always saw this as a series for children and fantasy is not a genre I enjoy. Still, when’s the last time people waited in line for a book?

The DaVinci Code and similar ilk by Dan Brown. I never got into this because mystery thrillers have never really done it for me.

But the more I think about these wildly popular series that I have never troubled myself to read, the more I think there may be another reason behind the self-important one I believe is me fighting against perceived mediocrity. I think I am jealous of the success of these books in spite of their literary value.

Granted, I don’t know if they actually are devoid of literary value, because I have never read them. For all I know, they could be highly visceral works filled with sardonic wit. I doubt it, but it’s possible. I’m also not trying to imply that if it’s not Tolstoy or Milton I won’t read it. In fact, the opposite is true. I try to sandwich my classic reading with something lighter and more mainstream. Love in the Time of Cholera was like a Dagwood sandwich whose contents I thought I would never finish devouring, but was bookended with a Judy Blume novel and something equally as light and enjoyable. I’m also definitely not trying to imply that anything I write equals the literary value of Updike or Vonnegut, but like it, it doesn’t fit into a nice little genre like Twilight, Harry Potter, or The DaVinci Code. I think that’s something that literary fiction writers struggle with a lot –  trying to answer the question “So what kind of book is it?”

I have therefore resolved myself to read the aforementioned works to try and figure out what makes them so ferociously popular, instead of seething at them. Be warned – I will likely be reading these very conspicuously.

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