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Updating My Style

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I did something last week that had been unthinkable for the first 13 years of my working life – ordered my own copy of the Associated Press Stylebook.

Unthinkable because in every newsroom in which I landed from the moment I started in the newspaper business (including my university paper, The Gamecock), I was provided with one as a part of the job.

The one you see here is old – ancient in terms of stylebooks – having the distinction of being the first and (up until last week) only one I had actually paid money for. It was purchased in 1987 at the University of South Carolina Book Store at the beginning of my sophomore year when I decided to make the switch from broadcast journalism to news-editorial.

After I graduated, it sat on a number of bookshelves across the country but rarely got pulled down because in the place I really needed it – the newsroom – there was always a more recent version sitting on my desk.

So now, 26 years later, I figured that it was time to refresh things a bit. The new version arrived last Friday and just paging through it I was stunned by how much has really changed.

In 1987, having a personal computer in one’s dorm room was a luxury (I had an Apple IIC with a thermal printer). There was no Internet as we know it (that would take another decade to emerge) and all the reporting one did was in person or over the phone. Social networking didn’t exist. As such, there was no reason to focus on anything other than what we now regard as “analog” journalism.

The new version of the AP Stylebook is heavy with new (and not so new) digital-age references and style points, including how toAll the President's Men approach sources via e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. I love that today you can just cyber-stalk sources, where back in the day there were lots of editors telling lots of young reporters, “Sit in that bozo’s office until he comes out for lunch and get me that quote.”

It’s a stark reminder that between the time newspaper film classic All the President’s Men came out (1976) and when I graduated from college in 1991, nearly all that had changed in the “modern” newsroom was the arrival of clunky, pain-in-the-ass computers with green-on-black CRT displays that still required 12-character strings of code just to format a headline.

Simply the fact that you can now subscribe to digital versions of the Stylebook is a big indicator of how much has changed. I remember thinking during the internet boom of the late 1990s that an online Stylebook would be incredible. Now you can access it on your smartphone – something that very few of us anticipated.

So, with my new edition in hand I’ll study up and try to catch up on all the “official” bits that I’ve missed by not having been in a newsroom for nearly 10 years. The old one, however, will stay, simply because it now serves as a great little artifact and time capsule of where we once were and how far we’ve come.

99 Problems, But A Witch Ain’t One

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Throughout my life, I’ve been more of a fan of performing in stage musicals than seeing them.

But since my wife wanted to see a show for her birthday this year, I was just happy that she had to pick something other than Rent, which we saw three times in a row over the course of about five years. So Wicked it shall be, and we get to enjoy it with our 9-year-old son and my sister and brother-in-law, too.

And I feel pretty sure (and am exceptionally excited by the prospect) that no one in this show will be a heroin addict or suffering from AIDS.

Waiting for Superman

For all the good in my life every day, the last week has been challenging. “Too many difficult conversations,” I told my wife last night. “I think I’m done with difficult conversations for a while.”

Then I saw this. I wonder what kind of sap I am that I find it hard to let emotions flow at times of real crisis, but get choked up by the decidedly non-campy, non-cheesy trailer for the upcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel.

But then I remember that the largest tragedies come down to small things. Things like fathers and sons. Things like finding who you are (even if who you are isn’t an extraterrestrial superhero). And things like hope.

I know this film (and most of those that I love) are fantasy. The only bases in reality they have are the emotions they can represent and manifest. So I’ll vow to share this movie with my son when it comes out. Then, for a brief moment escaping the summer heat, we’ll enjoy the illusion that no matter how bad things get, there will be some incredibly powerful and benevolent force that will protect us.

And I’ll put my arm around him and remind him that in the absence of a man of steel, that job – at least where he, his mother and sister are concerned – will be up to me.

This is Boston

BostonI’m thinking of Boston today. The TV is off, the news is silent, so I’m focusing on the above image to put those smoky, gory pictures and videos out of my head for a bit.

I can’t say I’ve spent too much time in Boston. There was the obligatory visit as a child during my family’s two-week summer tour of significant East Coast historical sites. Then, many years later, I went there to do a travel story for an online magazine.

That magazine – despite promises to the contrary – didn’t amount to much in market share or money. But that story and the time I spent in Boston have lingered in my mind since the events of yesterday at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

As a writer (and former newspaper journalist) in this world dominated by the immediacy of social media, it’s a challenge to respond to everything as fast as everyone else and with any amount of depth.

In the absence of some brief message of condolence, sympathy or outrage via Facebook or Twitter, it’s often hard to form coherent thoughts in the face of tragedy like this. Some people come off sounding trite. Some just sound like assholes. Others, like comedian Patton Oswalt, sit down and compose a bit of impromptu poetry without even realizing it.

I was where many people were yesterday afternoon – neck deep in the commitments of my day. Kids home from school, karate lessons and dinner preparation were all taking place as I tried to answer questions from my 9 year old about what was happening and why. It wasn’t until the kids were in bed that I was able to catch up on the full extent of the horror.

I reserved my response to those closest to me – my wife and my son. This morning, when my 5-year-old daughter saw the newspaper photos, I had to gently explain what had happened without getting too explicit. This after having already had to deal with school disciplinary issues and the illness of a dear friend.

My heart was not in sharing thoughts with the world but with drawing the ones I love close to remind myself of what is good. A hug from your child. A kiss, sweet with therapeutic wine, from one’s spouse. Sitting down to dinner and the blessings of the small portion of abundance we share in our country. Close friends who rally together for each other, despite the constraints of geography.

Tragedies like yesterday’s bring us together, too. With Boston’s place in American history and runners from every part of the nation, the entire country had some stake in what happened.

But truly, we have a stake in what happens everywhere every day. You don’t love your kids only when they’re good. You don’t care for friends only when they’re healthy. But it’s frequently those bad moments that highlight how deeply we feel about the people and places in our lives.

It saddens me that it takes something terrible to bring us together. So look away from the news for a moment and take a look at the picture above. The graphic images of Boston in the news are what we see right now, but that lovely low-rise city poised on the river – that is the real Boston.

 

The Critic

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Roger Ebert, the way most of us remember him. In recent years his face was disfigured by multiple surgeries for cancer, but he never lost his drive, his wit or his motivation to write about movies.

For many of us who grew up in the hinterlands, where we were lucky if the local newspaper carried movie advertising, Roger Ebert and his TV partner Gene Siskel were frequently the first exposure we had to film criticism.

Thanks to PBS and their show “Sneak Previews,” it was possible to get the opinions of two erudite, educated men whose joyful duty was to go to the movies, then come back and tell us whether those movies were any good.

As a result, this young fellow got to find out about many movies he wouldn’t see until much later, and also grasp the ins and outs of what “film critics” actually did. For these were real people, and they obviously had real (and legitimate) jobs at newspapers. How cool was that? The were the kindly uncles giving us all movie advice, rather than the harsh, cosmopolitans like Pauline Kael, who wrote from on high at the New Yorker (which was not well stocked at small-town Southern newsstands in the late 1970s, as you might imagine).

But even if I’d known to look for Kael’s work, I probably would have liked Roger Ebert’s better. He seemed like a kindred soul – the nerdy kid who loved the magic of the darkened theater.

Ebert died today at the at of 70, just a day after announcing that he would scale back on his still prodigious level of productivity. Even ailing, he wrote books, blogged regularly and still reviewed movies. He hand-picked the critic team put in to cover for him  at the Chicago Sun Times, his home newspaper. He was in the midst of preparing to host his own film festival. That is a hell of a way to go.

All of us who have ventured into film (or music or theater) criticism since watching “Sneak Previews” and its various later incarnations owe Mr. Ebert a great debt, as he influenced all of us in one way or another – sometimes just by proving that there were successful people who actually did it.

God Bless Allyson Bird, For She Speaks the Truth

A few weeks ago I wrote about why going into journalism is a great career choice for people who want to write for a living but aren’t sure how toNewspaper readers actually translate that into rent and grocery money.

What I might have glossed over is the fact that today, possibly more than ever, it is one of the lowest paying, most thankless jobs out there. You will be called upon to do twice the work of normal humans for about a third of what most college-educated professionals are paid. It is stressful, relentless and exhausting.

No one has summed up the negatives of the field lately better than Allyson Bird. Allyson is a fellow University of South Carolina journalism school alum who distinguished herself in her undergrad years and went on to work at the highly-regarded Post and Courier, the major newspaper in Charleston, S.C.

Full disclosure: I attempted on numerous occasions early in my newspaper career to get a job at the Charleston paper, to no avail. While you don’t hear much about it outside Charleston, it’s a fine paper in a spectacular old city and generally considered a plum gig.

So when I received the USC J-School alumni newsletter that referred to her blog Sticky Valentines (named after a line in the Elvis Costello song “Alison” – which only increased her cachet with me), where she wrote at length about why she, not yet out of her 20s, was leaving journalism, I was intrigued.

It turns out that a decade apart, Allyson and I shared many of the very same concerns about the newspaper world and our place in it – specifically, how we would continue to survive the business in the face of increasing work demands and ever diminishing returns. She did what I attempted to do on a number of occasions – left the business and found a non-news job that let her put her skills to work and afford something other than a four-person apartment share and Ramen noodles.

I’ve actually written before on this same topic in response to a column by Connie Shultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist formerly with the Cleveland Plain Dealer and now a columnist for the Parade magazine Sunday newspaper supplement. In it, she lamented the dearth of young people going into journalism, with many of them saying they would prefer to go into marketing, advertising or media relations. She expressed horror that j-school students would opt for “The Dark Side.” I, however, was not surprised at all.

I replied to her column via the Poynter Institute comment thread by noting that her outrage was silly, because for a college graduate – even one devoted to the cause of truth – to expect no more in her paycheck by her third job than a Burger King management trainee would is a travesty, and that until newspapers learned to pay people like the college-educated, highly skilled individuals they are, the trend would continue.

So as a counterpoint to my earlier blog entry, I invite you to read Allyson’s thoughts and consider them well before you jump into journalism as a long-term career. Per my earlier statements, I still heartily stand by the news biz as a great entry point for young writers. But as Allyson notes, it might not be the kind of career you want to stay with for the rest of your life.

Oh, and a little something for my fellow Gamecock, because I simply couldn’t resist.

One Amazon/Goodreads Combo, Comin’ Up

goodreads-and-amazonSo, Amazon – great, lumbering consumer juggernaut that it is – gobbled up literary social networking site Goodreads in (an impeccably timed) Good Friday announcement.

If you’re interested in catching up, check out the New York Timesoriginal story and this interesting bit of analysis on Amazon’s motivation from the Washington Post.

I saw the news but, consumed with pre-Easter prep and the celebrations of the weekend, put off posting until today. Not very New Media of me, but what the hell. Not much thoughtful analysis takes place by the bozos who insist on posting first.

But what struck me right off the bat when I heard of this move was, “Huh … Amazon, which already owns Shelfari, now feels it should own Goodreads, which was run by Barnes & Noble. Amazon makes Kindles, the most popular e-readers around, but couldn’t build itself a workable, popular literary networking site, while B&N, which produces the floundering Nook, had what was the most popular literary networking site around. Interesting how each could make one part of the puzzle work, but not the other.”

As I said, lots of other better informed folks have already chimed in on this, but I would like to point out that while ownership of the formerly pseudo-independent Goodreads by Amazon will likely put the recommendations portion of Goodreads under tighter control, it also puts two of the biggest arrows of the independent author/publisher arsenal into the same quiver.

Whether this will be good or bad for me and other indie authors remains to be seen. As both an author and a member of Codorus Press, I think my biggest concern is the danger of reader reviews somehow being deleted or diluted. As any author will tell you, one of the best ways to sell books – whether hard copies or e-books – is through word of mouth. And typically, that word of mouth these days comes thanks to online reviews from readers.

To take that major selling point from us kicks a leg out from beneath authors and small publishers who, shunned by big-box booksellers – of which B&N is the last – were standing on just one leg to begin with.

What Amazon should remember is that for many indies, Kindle Direct and the Amazon-owned print-on-demand service CreateSpace are the only places where some titles are available. For the company to keep Goodreads as intact and independent as possible would better serve Amazon by continuing to drive sales in what I would suspect are its two biggest growth sectors.

Another Public Display

Tonight I have the pleasure of doing something a lot of writers don’t enjoy – talking to people in public.

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Yours truly at a Brandywine Valley Writers Group public reading in the fall of 2012. Unlike many writers, I like public speaking. Maybe too much. OK, I’ll shut up now.

The topic will be indie and self-publishing and I’ll be one of three writers on a panel made up of members of the Brandywine Valley Writers Group, a great bunch of professional, amateur and aspiring writers based in West Chester, Pa.

Joining me on the panel will be fellow authors Jim Breslin and Jorgen Flood, both of whom have gone about their own publishing adventures via independent or self-subsidized means.

Jim is an editor by day, writes short stories and has produced his own anthology titled Elephant, as well as shepherded the excellent Chester County Fiction anthology, featuring a number of friends and fellow BWVG members. Jim is also the founder of the West Chester Story Slam, a monthly storytelling competition that is now so popular he has to sell tickets and has since spread to other areas of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Jorgen, who hails from Norway (cool accent!), has three titles to his name, non-fiction and historical fiction among them.

One of the reasons I was invited was to discuss the unique structure of Codorus Press, the publishing collective I helped form along with my good friend and former newspaper colleague Wayne Lockwood.

But along with chatting up the many upsides (and occasional downsides) to publishing independently, one of the things I always stress when speaking to groups of writers is this: Whether you’re publishing through traditional means or independently, the fact remains that you can’t just write a book, put it out there, hide at home and hope it sells.

It’s incumbent on every author – no matter how his or her book is published – to get out there. Talk to people about your book. Make connections. Pick up a copy of your book and put it in someone else’s hands and tell them how good it is. Inspire other writers to do just what you have done. I’m constantly hammering away at the same point: Wayne and I are just a couple of guys who had an idea and a manuscript and decided to do something different, and there’s nothing stopping anyone from doing the same thing.

The fact is that being a writer can clearly be divided into two areas. First, there’s the artistic. If you’re a fiction writer, you’re creating something new entirely out of your own imagination. If you’re writing non-fiction, you are using your journalistic talents or your own experiences to convey to the reader a truth or your own observations and experiences.

Second (and this is the bit that lots of writers like to deny), there’s the commercial. Once the art has been rendered, you must now think of the resulting work as a product that has to be appropriately packaged, marketed and sold. And part of that is being willing to get out there and talk to people. Sure, social networking and PR services will help. Great reviews are wonderful. But I’m convinced that one of the most important parts of being a writer – or any kind of artist – is making that connection with the audience.

I will admit that I have a slight advantage in that I’m a naturally gregarious person who is comfortable speaking to groups. But not every public appearance you make needs to rank up there with other great moments in public speaking. The key is to make yourself available, be friendly, respectful and willing to engage. Most of all, be appreciative that anyone has shown up at all, and those who are there want to hear what you have to say.

 

An Early ‘Guide’

Last week marked what would have been the late Douglas Adams‘ 61st birthday, and I should take this (belated) opportunity to thank him for proving to me that although writing is a serious business, it doesn’t have to be entirely serious.

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The original, having passed through many hands, as evidenced by the vigorously taped spine.

As a kid, I’d always been a fan of the absurd. I glommed onto Monty Python and Benny Hill early and shared many long BBC-via-public TV blocs of Fawlty Towers with my dad, mostly to the consternation of my mom, who never quite got what the appeal was.

But when I discovered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I quite literally fell in love.  Since my original edition (shown here – the cover held together by Scotch tape) notes that it is the fifth printing of the Pocket Books first edition with a publication date of 1981, I suspect that I stumbled across what would prove to be one of the defining books of my youth when I was in 7th grade.

As American readers go – at least for my age group – I always felt that I was a bit of an early adopter when it came to H2G2, as it is now fondly known. Many of my classmates were clueless, unaware that such a perfect melding of sci-fi, satire, social commentary and outright hilarity even existed.

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Ford Prefect, Arthur Dent and Zaphod Beeblebrox from the 2005 film version of H2G2. Or, me and pretty much any two of my friends after an evening of festivity.

I recall reading and re-reading my copy (thus the tape), then becoming something of an evangelist for the novel, loaning it out to friends who I thought would appreciate it. They, too, became fans, and joined what, for me, was like a special little club of in jokes and cultural exclusivity.

Even today, I sometimes have to restrain myself from foisting it on others – my kids included. Thankfully, my son, at 9, has a growing appreciation based on the 2005 film version. He has my full permission to read the novel whenever he is ready. In fact, he noted to me the other night that his copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys (a must for any adventurous-minded lad) lists H2G2 as a must-read.

This is a good thing, because I can’t even begin to estimate the role H2G2 played on my development as a writer. I can most definitely trace my style of column and opinion writing, first honed at my high school newspaper, right back to the novel. As I grew as a writer and began to read other novelists and columnists, I always found myself drawn to those that maintained a sense of the patently absurd (Dave Barry and the late Lewis Grizzard, I’m talking to you guys).

In fact, I can also trace my eventual discovery of Christopher Moore to my fondness for Adams, and that led me to the legendary West Chester Christopher Moore Codorus Press Ambush, of which I might be convinced to write about some other time.

Nevertheless, if you’ve actually read my novel Immaculate Deception, and you also happened to have read H2G2, I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw some similarities. Hopefully they also made you smile.