During recent conversations, I’ve become aware of three things.
So… here we have a giant expository post about audio and fiction.
One of the things that being an audiobook narrator has done for me is make me really remember that writing developed to convey the spoken word. I talk about this when I’m teaching how to read aloud, but also when I’m teaching writing. Punctuation, for instance, often represents breath and delineates the natural pauses in speech. You become painfully aware of this when you hit a sentence that you just cannot parse because it’s missing a comma.
You remember this joke, right?
- Let’s eat Grandma!
- Let’s eat, Grandma!
Punctuation saves lives.
When you say those aloud, you read them differently and the punctuation records that difference. There’s that old saw that action scenes should have short choppy sentences. I think that’s because the periods represent breaths coming faster, the way it actually would in an action scene. Conversely, stripping the punctuation will lead to something that sounds breathless. So, now I use punctuation and sentence structure deliberately, even in narration, to give a subtle clue about the tone of a scene.
Most of the the audio tricks are not structural, but are in the small details that will make it easier for the narrator, and more importantly, easier for my listening audience to follow. Some of these tricks are things that might be useful for other writers, or — to be more accurate — these are things I wish other writers would think about before I have to narrate their lovely book.
So… here’s what I’m thinking about when I’m writing a story that I know is destined for audio. And to be honest? Most fiction these days stands a good chance of having an audio production so I think about it most of the time. And just the standard caveat — these are guidelines. I’ll break any of them if that’s what serves the story, but I also weigh the cost of doing so.
I tend to signpost the start of a new scene a little more. In print, we can use design elements to indicate that a new scene is beginning. You know the standard # as a scene break, or the double linebreak? Those are all visual ways of distinguishing that there’s been a break and we’re in a new scene. In audiobooks, you have to do that entirely with the words and your interpretation of them. Why not use music as my design element? Because that slows the momentum of the story. The biggest benefit of thinking about this is that, even in print, it makes it easier for a reader to orient themselves when we start a new scene.
I try to keep my cast of characters in a given scene small and of disparate type. It’s hard on a listener to distinguish between a lot of different voices, even if the narrator is Mel Blanc. Just listen to Writing Excuses, even with four different people, the guys sometimes bled together. When I’m teaching people how to give an effective reading, I tell them to look at their selection and make sure it’s something suitable for being read aloud. Not all fiction works well in audio. The side effect of this for print is that I’m more likely to write a diverse cast, instead of having ten white men of the same age in a room — and seriously, I had to narrate that once. It gives me more distinct characters.
I lean towards first person. When I write for Audible, where my primary audience is going to be listening, I step away from third person, which is my usual go-to POV. This is mostly a personal preference, but I feel like if you have someone talking to you, that person will be who you relate to. I might as well take advantage of that and go first person to create the illusion of a more personal connection. There’s nothing wrong with audiobooks in third person, but I suspect the rise of audiobooks are one of the reasons that the first person narratives is coming so strongly back into fashion.
I try to be very, very conscious of the presentation of information. The listener can’t back up to re-read. They also can’t skim in audio. So I need to be really sure that the information is coming in the order necessary to understand the story. Again, in print, this gives me a cleaner narrative.
I avoid parentheticals. Seriously… those look good on the page, but when you are trying (this is really just a problem with audio, although even on the page it can create confusion sometimes) to connect the end of a sentence to a beginning that the reader has forgotten (they always forget) it can get complicated to make understandable and (go ahead and try to read this aloud (also ask me in a bar about the two-page nested parenthetical I had to read)) you’ll see what I mean.
I skip any dialog tag I can. Truly, I do this for things intended for print too, and that’s just a stylistic choice. I only include if I feel like there might be some ambiguity about who is speaking. On the page, I can rely on paragraph breaks to help delineate who is speaking. You don’t get that visual cue in audio, but most narrators do at least some vocal distinctions between characters, which serves the same function. Where it differs is that in print you skim the “he said” “she said” but in audio you hear every single redundant one of them.
I avoid homophones. Take the word “moue” for example. It’s a lovely word on the page and describes a flirtatious pout. But there is no way to read, “She gave a small moue in reply” as anything other than, “She gave a small moo in reply.” Believe me. I’ve tried.
My favorite example of homophone fail is a friends’s story about Lewis and Clark’s expedition, in which they brought along their dog Seaman. He read it aloud for the first time in front of a live audience. The story had the line, “Then, Seaman erupted from the bush.” I leave you to imagine the consequences of that…
But besides keeping in mind things that audio fiction does well and things that it does poorly, it works pretty much the same as print fiction.
Radio plays on the other hand are completely, totally, wildly different creatures. I’ve written a couple when I was working with Willamette Radio Workshop and besides the formatting, the way language is used is totally different. Since you are probably mostly interested in writing fiction, I’m going to demonstrate the difference — Show, don’t tell — rather than attempting to teach you to write for radio.
Way back before Shades of Milk and Honey was a novel, it was a radio play. I was working on a serial before realizing that a radio play about a visually based magic was not the best plan. When we sold the novel Shades of Milk and Honey, while included the audiobook rights but I asked my agent to make certain that we held onto all the dramatic rights because I had the idea that someday I’d still like to do the radio version. However… visual magic.
Still, it’s useful in this context because you can do a direct comparison between the two forms. This is the first scene, which you can compare to the first chapter. Much of the dialog is the same, but you can see where I am using language to represent action, even though it’s fairly clunky. If I had gotten out of draft form, I would have been able to replace some of that with sound effects.
The biggest difference is that the novel uses language as the primary method of telling the story and setting the scene. A radio play, even though language is a key element, shares the burden of storytelling with music and sound effects.
SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY
A serial radio drama.
Mary Robinette Kowal
(scene 1 – the Wentworth parlor)
Here, I’m still dealing with the same broad structure as a novel, but the way in which I use language to carry the story is entirely different. I wind up having to make the characters say things to describe what they are seeing, whereas with straight up fiction, whether spoken or audio, I can just create a word picture for the audience. Yay for narration!
So, whew. That’s my giant post about audio and fiction. Any questions?
Between 750 BC and 400 BC, the Ancient Greeks composed songs meant to be accompanied by the lyre, reed-pipes, and various percussion instruments. More than 2,000 years later, modern scholars have finally figured out how to reconstruct and perform these songs with (it’s claimed) 100% accuracy.
Writing on the BBC web site, Armand D’Angour, a musician and tutor in classics at Oxford University, notes:
[Ancient Greek] instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow us to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.
And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.
The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals – an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.
The notation gives an accurate indication of relative pitch.
So what did Greek music sound like? Below you can listen to David Creese, a classicist from the University of Newcastle, playing “an ancient Greek song taken from stone inscriptions constructed on an eight-string ‘canon’ (a zither-like instrument) with movable bridges. “The tune is credited to Seikilos,” says Archaeology Magazine.
For more information on all of this, read D’Angour’s article over at the BBC.
“I am a really, really undisciplined person:” This confession, coming from the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics in a much-discussed, lengthy, and gripping interview last week, was not especially surprising to those who have followed the young papacy of Francis closely. From the moment of his election, stories have bubbled up about the unscripted papacy—about phone calls out of the blue to ordinary Catholics, about a mass being moved at the last minute to a juvenile detention center, about a member of the Swiss Guard being ordered to have a seat while protecting the new pontiff. In early statements, he rather mockingly disparaged both Catholic traditionalists (“restorationist”) and Catholic radicals (“pantheist”) and made a remark about salvation and atheists that Vatican spokesmen, like characters in a palace comedy, later had to clarify with a “what the Czar meant to say” sort of statement. “It’s just Francis being Francis,” I found myself starting to think, with a mixture of delight and suspense for what his papacy might entail.
From the beginning, the contrast with his predecessor could not have been more stark: Benedict was meticulous in his public statements, austere in demeanor, and took a rococo approach to vestments. Francis is improvisational, intimate, and dons more basic wear. He has famously eschewed the papal apartment for a room in the Vatican guest house. He drives an old Peugeot.
It’s true that these early departures were—as many progressives who were reluctant to place their faith in the new pontiff pointed out—mostly matters of style. But with the papacy as with few other offices, style truly is substance. The pope plays a uniquely visible function: representing Christ (and the church) to the world. And it was clear early on that the Christ represented by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires would cut a different figure than the Christ represented by the man formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger.
It was less obvious where the new pope stood on doctrinal issues. Until this week it was still possible to imagine Francis wrapping conventional theological views in a charmingly chaotic pastoral style. But the 12,000-word interview, conducted over three sessions and approved in its Italian text by the Vatican, closes that possibility definitively. It is a document that may fairly be called unprecedented. In discussing topics that range from doctrine and spirituality to art and music, Francis gives clear and fulsome voice to the long-muted tradition of theologically progressive Catholicism. On homosexuality, the role of women, and the collegial relationship between the pope and other bishops, Francis spoke carefully but encouragingly for the possibility of development. Doubt and the openness of faith are celebrated; the pope, himself a Jesuit, says that a Jesuit “must be a person whose thought is incomplete.” That there are turns ahead in Catholic faith and life, turns ardently hoped and worked for by some and resisted by others, is a possibility Francis leaves pointedly open.
But more striking than anything he has said about hot-button issues was the way in which he depicted the development of teaching and thought within the church. In facing the world, the church can’t let itself retreat into a “small chapel” for “a small group of selected people”—a clear rebuke to the many advocates for a “smaller, purer church.” “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” In an interview full of startling moments, this one stands out for what will likely become a rhetorical trademark of the Francis papacy: he identifies the impulse to separate from and reject the secularized society not with an admirable if misguided holiness, but with mediocrity. This mediocrity seeks only to discipline and correct a “barbarian” world, and to put the church into a posture of defense. But this, Francis insists, is exactly wrong. “There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning.” There is a difference between the genius of Thomas Aquinas and the “bankrupt” commentators who imitated him. “Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform,” Francis says, citing the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Caravaggio, Chagall, and Dali, “and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.” “In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.”
The interview met with a thunderous cheer from many quarters, believing, unbelieving, differently-believing, and estranged, and took a variety of forms. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross singled out a comment about Wagner’s Parsifal. A friend of mine who hasn’t been to mass in years confessed a desire to go “old-school Irish Catholic and hang a picture of the Pope in my living room.” It is easy to exaggerate the radicalism of his statements; the very next day he condemned abortion as an extension of the “indifference and solitude” to which we condemn the world’s poor. The ideas expressed in the interview are not new or unorthodox. They are thrilling to theological progressives and discouraging to church traditionalists less on their own account than because of the person giving them voice.
Francis inspires admiration or anger because he is supposed to inspire awe. The pope who began his papacy threatening to become a cassocked version of Warren Beatty’s Senator Bulworth has emerged quickly as a more classical, solid figure of reversal. A pope is not expected to wash the feet of female Muslim prisoners, to drive a beater, to live in a guest house, or to compare the church’s doctrine of humanity to the movement from classical sculpture to Dali. The irony of Francis’ young tenure in the chair of Peter is that he has become a hero (or a villain) by subverting the expectations of the very role that makes his utterances significant.
This subversion is unrepeatable. “I feel sorry for whoever has to be pope after Francis,” a theologian friend remarked to me. Having shown that a pope can perfectly well break down the hallowed distance between himself and the people, speak candidly and publicly about his own failings, and fearlessly push his church toward embracing “the freshness and fragrance of the gospel” over a “disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” Francis will leave his successor accountable either to continue doing so or to revert to a fustian papal model that will appear not so much grand and ancient as nostalgic and, to borrow Francis’ word, mediocre. If the next pope drives an old Peugeot, no one will care; and if he brings back all the medieval trappings he’ll look foolish.
In that sense, Francis has already made himself a pivotal figure. In answering his predecessor’s departing challenge to lead the church into a complex modern world, Francis has changed his office and his church. What remains to be seen is whether this modestly-styled, thrilling, frustrating papacy will retain enough awe to effect the renovation it promises.
It seems that every time researchers estimate how often a medical mistake contributes to a hospital patient’s death, the numbers come out worse.
In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published the famous “To Err Is Human” report, which dropped a bombshell on the medical community by reporting that up to 98,000 people a year die because of mistakes in hospitals. The number was initially disputed, but is now widely accepted by doctors and hospital officials—and quoted ubiquitously in the media.
In 2010, the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services said that bad hospital care contributed to the deaths of 180,000 patients in Medicare alone in a given year.
Now comes a study in the current issue of the Journal of Patient Safety that says the numbers may be much higher—between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital for care suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death, the study says.
That would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease, which is the first, and cancer, which is second.
The new estimates were developed by John T. James, a toxicologist at NASA‘s space center in Houston who runs an advocacy organization called Patient Safety America. James has also written a book about the death of his 19-year-old son after what James maintains was negligent hospital care.
Asked about the higher estimates, a spokesman for the American Hospital Association said the group has more confidence in the IOM’s estimate of 98,000 deaths. ProPublica asked three prominent patient safety researchers to review James’ study, however, and all said his methods and findings were credible.
What’s the right number? Nobody knows for sure. There’s never been an actual count of how many patients experience preventable harm. So we’re left with approximations, which are imperfect in part because of inaccuracies in medical records and the reluctance of some providers to report mistakes.
Patient safety experts say measuring the problem is nonetheless important because estimates bring awareness and research dollars to a major public health problem that persists despite decades of improvement efforts.
“We need to get a sense of the magnitude of this,” James said in an interview.
James based his estimates on the findings of four recent studies that identified preventable harm suffered by patients—known as “adverse events” in the medical vernacular—using a screening method called the Global Trigger Tool, which guides reviewers through medical records, searching for signs of infection, injury, or error. Medical records flagged during the initial screening are reviewed by a doctor, who determines the extent of the harm.
In the four studies, which examined records of more than 4,200 patients hospitalized between 2002 and 2008, researchers found serious adverse events in as many as 21 percent of cases reviewed and rates of lethal adverse events as high as 1.4 percent of cases.
By combining the findings and extrapolating across 34 million hospitalizations in 2007, James concluded that preventable errors contribute to the deaths of 210,000 hospital patients annually.
That is the baseline. The actual number more than doubles, James reasoned, because the trigger tool doesn’t catch errors in which treatment should have been provided but wasn’t, because it’s known that medical records are missing some evidence of harm, and because diagnostic errors aren’t captured.
An estimate of 440,000 deaths from care in hospitals “is roughly one-sixth of all deaths that occur in the United States each year,” James wrote in his study. He also cited other research that’s shown hospital reporting systems and peer-review capture only a fraction of patient harm or negligent care.
“Perhaps it is time for a national patient bill of rights for hospitalized patients,” James wrote. “All evidence points to the need for much more patient involvement in identifying harmful events and participating in rigorous follow-up investigations to identify root causes.”
Dr. Lucian Leape, a Harvard pediatrician who is referred to as the “father of patient safety,” was on the committee that wrote the “To Err Is Human” report. He told ProPublica that he has confidence in the four studies and the estimate by James.
Members of the Institute of Medicine committee knew at the time that their estimate of medical errors was low, he said. “It was based on a rather crude method compared to what we do now,” Leape said. Plus, medicine has become much more complex in recent decades, which leads to more mistakes, he said.
Dr. David Classen, one of the leading developers of the Global Trigger Tool, said the James study is a sound use of the tool and a “great contribution.” He said it’s important to update the numbers from the “To Err Is Human” report because in addition to the obvious suffering, preventable harm leads to enormous financial costs.
Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon at The Johns Hopkins Hospital whose book Unaccountable calls for greater transparency in health care, said the James estimate shows that eliminating medical errors must become a national priority. He said it’s also important to increase the awareness of the potential of unintended consequences when doctors perform procedure and tests. The risk of harm needs to be factored into conversations with patients, he said.
Leape, Classen, and Makary all said it’s time to stop citing the 98,000 number.
Still, hospital association spokesman Akin Demehin said the group is sticking with the Institute of Medicine’s estimate. Demehin said the IOM figure is based on a larger sampling of medical charts and that there’s no consensus the Global Trigger Tool can be used to make a nationwide estimate. He said the tool is better suited for use in individual hospitals.
The AHA is not attempting to come up with its own estimate, Demehin said.
Dr. David Mayer, the vice president of quality and safety at Maryland-based MedStar Health, said people can make arguments about how many patient deaths are hastened by poor hospital care, but that’s not really the point. All the estimates, even on the low end, expose a crisis, he said.
“Way too many people are being harmed by unintentional medical error,” Mayer said, “and it needs to be corrected.”
The first open-air museum in Japan was opened in 1956 in Toyonaka city, Osaka: the Open-Air Museum of Old Japanese Farm Houses. Since then, several other museums appeared, showcasing region specific buildings.
So far, my favorite traditional Japanese buildings are those from the Edo Period and one of the most important museums presenting them is Boso-no-Mura, located in the Sakae town, Chiba: it presents about 30 buildings, including samurai residences, merchant houses, farmhouses, even a kabuki stage and a water mill.
Here’s the main street, photographed in the light of the evening, with a couple of workshops and the red gates of the Inari shrine.
Yesterday’s Japan Photo: Meiji Jingu Shinto wedding procession
There is one principle common to all Japanese gardens: the asymmetry. And the best example is the Zen type garden, because it is meant to be admired as a whole. More than this, the imperfection is very important to the Zen philosophy and like with the broken symmetry of the Ensō Zen circle, the Japanese garden beauty is created through asymmetry…
Yesterday’s Japan Photo: Japanese traditional architecture, Irimoya-zukuri
In most companies, performance reviews are a ridiculous process that does orders of magnitude more harm than it does good. If they’re an inconsequential formality, they waste everyone’s time. If they actually matter, they become touch-points for horse-trading and political activity that has nothing to do with work, instead creating enmities that divide the organization– managers vs. reports, managers vs. other managers, et cetera– and demolish efficiency. Good managers often ignore this “responsibility” by providing honest feedback verbally while putting nothing negative on paper (since doing so can cause a bilateral breakdown in loyalty) unless required to impose a forced distribution (i.e. some percentage must fail) on their employees, in which case the company just goes up in flames. Worst of all, performance reviews hinder internal mobility, because only people with extremely high scores are able to transfer, creating “warring departments” mentalities as team assignments become effectively permanent. (Those with good reviews want to keep getting promoted where they are; the rest are unwanted and can’t transfer.) Finally, review don’t work at their stated purpose, which is to punish the bad and reward the good. For the worst people– those who actively harm a team or company– one cannot afford to wait for an annual review to take action. The best people aren’t really motivated by reviews either– they want promotions, pay raises, and more autonomy, not mere confirmation that they “exceed expectations”. Give a top performer a rating of “exceeds expectations” with no improvement in pay, autonomy, or working conditions, and you’ll just piss her off.
If performance reviews are so terrible, then why do companies use them at all? My belief is that the architects of most of HR systems know that the best and worst performers can’t really be addressed through such bureaucratic systems. Reviews exist for the people in the middle, who are not in the running for promotion, but are basically competent and never going to do anything so wrong as to get themselves fired for cause. They still need, according to conventional HR theory, to be scared a little bit. The middling 90 percent are basically the forgotten children of an organization, and performance reviews are there to make them feel watched. Firing the “bottom” (often, the unluckiest) 5 percent is supposed to scare people into doing whatever they can to land above the blade, but what it actually does is make the environment needlessly more political. I’m not going to argue that this “scare the middle” approach works, but only that it is an existing motivation. It goes back to Jack Welch’s statement that “A players hire A players, B players hire C players”. B players are the competent but unexceptional people in the above-mentioned middle 90%; C players are the truly toxic ones who don’t get any work done, ruin morale, and can kill an organization. Yet another Welchian anxiety is around the idea that B players will become C players over time. The purpose (whether it succeeds would require another discussion) of the annual review is to prevent that.
This, all in all, is pretty fucked. Employees don’t like the intimidation angle; and good managers don’t like being on the other side of it, either. A manager who is honest and gives negative marks for poor performance will never garner real respect or loyalty from his reports, because he’s selling them out to HR. On the other hand, if a manager inflates grades on paper (which is the right thing to do, because it is unreasonable to demand loyalty without returning it; negative feedback should be private, verbal, and constructive) then he is rendering the whole process a waste of time. One might argue that positive reviews can help a good manager in supporting the people below him; the truth, however, is that good managers don’t need HR paper to support the people below them. Good managers in good companies can get resources, autonomy, and promotions for their people without having to write annual reviews.
One might think, then, that I’m suggesting that companies should do away with performance reviews entirely. To be honest, that would improve on what 90% (if not 99%) of companies already have. However, I think there is a way to preserve what little good there is in the process of performance reviews, which is to document a trajectory and present a case for promotion. The process needs to be revamped in a major way, however. Here’s how to do it: each person is reviewed at the next level. Instead of subjecting people to this humiliating reminder that they’re being watched for decline (from B into C-player status) there is a better goal to be sought, which is to try to convert some of those B-players into A-players. A fundamental problem with the HR way of thinking is that it assumes the worst of people, making progress (from a B- or even C-player status to A-player contribution) so far outside of its context that the only thing left is to watch for decline. But good organizations should be focused on making people better.
Here, I’m assuming (to start) a formal hierarchy or “ladder”. I’m not necessarily in support of that, but I’m assuming here that one exists. If someone is a Level 5 engineer, then he should only be reviewed for Level 6. It’s not part of his transfer packet, it doesn’t go on his record unless he wants it there. (I’m in favor of making work less like a prison, so putting things “on [someone's] HR file” doesn’t do it for me.) In other words, the purpose of the performance review is to answer the question: how far is she along to the next level?
See, this is a non-insulting way of handling performance assessment. People are assumed to be competent and “performing” at their jobs. (If they’re not, an annual review is far too late to work on that.) That’s not even to be on the table. Rather, the discussion centers on progress and the future, and whether a person is on track to get where he wants to be.
What if not everyone wants to be promoted in the same way? Or how would this work in a non-hierarchical corporation? Then it gets more interesting, and better. Each review cycle (which should be more often than annually, because if you’re going to do something like this, it should be done right) the person decides what he or she wants to be able to do, in the company, in the future; in the next cycle, the manager can assess whether that person’s efforts succeeded in taking him or her in the right direction. Reviews are in this context: whether the person is taking the right steps to get where he or she genuinely wants to go. If so, then things are running well. Good! If not, then it’s useful to discuss which efforts are leading the person in the desired direction, and which are less productive. This has managers acting more like talent agents than parole officers and, on the whole, I think that’s a major improvement.
4 July 2013 – Cleveland, Ohio
During a trivia game a few years ago, I was asked what waterway bypasses Niagara Falls. The answer is the Welland Canal, a twenty six mile channel that winds from Lake Ontario up to Lake Erie. I knew the answer right away, for an atypical reason – I’ve gone through it. And a few days ago, I went through it again.
If you’ve been around the maritime industry for a year or two, you’ve probably heard of the Welland Canal. A series of eight locks operate as a floating stairway to lift and lower vessels over three hundred feet. Cargo vessels built halfway around the world are constructed to the dimensions of the Welland Canal locks. It takes seven to seventeen hours to get through the locks, primarily based on traffic, and often requires all hands on deck to manipulate docklines and fenders.
On Monday morning, the crews of Unicorn and Pride of Baltimore II woke shortly after five and got underway for Port Welland. The other boats would follow later that day. We collected every fender on board and lashed them over the sides. They would absorb the shock and protect the boat if we made contact with the lock walls. We then lashed newly created “Welly-boards” outboard of the fenders. These sacrificial chunks of lumber slide up the lock walls as the boat rises. Some tall ships even add a second layer of sacrificial wood, nicknamed “spuds”. If there is still a great deal of friction as the vessel grinds up the lock wall, a crew member may be sent to take the cook’s container of Crisco and be told to slather grease all over the fenders. Having accomplished this duty for Lynx, a Crisco-covered crewmember earned the nickname Crisco Man!
We reached the first lock around 0800 and were lucky to find a green light, signaling us to enter. The Captains took the helms and skillfully steered into a towering, cement box. One of the most remarkable features of the locks is their immense size. Only more remarkable is the size of the cargo vessels that traverse them. Lines were tossed down from the top of the lock wall, nearly forty feet above our heads. We hitched these lines to our sturdy docklines so that workers on the dock could haul our docklines up and loop them around bollards. Once we were secure, enormous wood and metal gates slammed shut behind us and water started pouring into the lock.
We had requested a slow fill but the turbulence in and beneath the water rocked the boat. At the Captain’s orders, deckhands aboard eased and took up slack in the docklines, enabling us to maintain our position as we quickly rose to dock level and cheering bystanders appeared through the chain link fences at the edge of the cement dock. Finally, the water settled. Ahead, the thick gates rumbled open and we glimpsed flashes of green grass and trees and murky, blue, canal water. Slipping off the dock and out of the lock, the crew breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed on the deckboxes, exhausted. One down, seven to go.
INTERVIEWED by KATHARINE ELISKA KIMBRIEL
Q.)What drew you to Book View Cafe?
A.)I first became aware of BVC when the announcement went out that it was forming. A group for getting backlist into ebook? Oh, yeah, it was like it was made for me.
Except I wasn’t in it. Argh!
But within a year or so, in talking with members Judith Tarr and Deborah Ross, I found out how it worked. In those early days, you not only were expected to pitch in in some way to help the labor flow (and there is enormous labor flow) but to broadcast the “dowry”, which was a blurb written up for each new release.
The intent behind this “dowry” was good, because as everyone knows, a book no one knows about goes unread and unbought. And in those days (this makes it sound like decades ago, but it was just what, four years? Five?) anyway, Twitter was new, Facebook was exciting and fast paced and many swore by it as a PR tool.
Within a year or so after my joining, BVC was busy seriously reassessing. The “dowry” was jettisoned, as there was negative feedback about spamming the same PR message all over the social media, where PR blurbs were mushrooming faster than shoe fungus in an army on the march, and were thus about as welcome.
At the same time, BVC began bringing out original works. These were by members, as it was assumed that members were already professional level writers. But it soon became apparent that few of us are able to do our own editing, and especially copyediting and proofing. How to deal? We wanted books of quality for the readership who liked the target subgenre, and yet no one wanted an editorial board.
I was so glad to see that, because in my experience, fun groups that got together to critique or discuss writing would inevitably say, “Hey, why don’t we publish a magazine?” And that would be the beginning of the end, as political infighting determined who was going to be Queen Bee. BVC was successful because decisions were batted around until consensus was reached.
The decision was made to form a pool of members who had edited, to serve as beta readers. The author was still in the driver’s seat. But getting feedback, and then re-submitting the book to another pool for copyediting and proofing, meant that the books would get as much professional attention as most books published by the big six. Sometimes more.
At the same time, some very savvy members started looking hard at what kinds of cover art worked, and how to make it when you have a budget of $0.00 Some of the early covers (like mine, which I made myself) are stinkers, but they have since come to look professional and evocative.
Meanwhile, members were also busy with outreach, resulting in Book View Cafe’s catalog going out to libraries all over the world, and other exciting developments in the back room.
And yet members were still going to cons here in North America, gatherings, and contacting reviewers or whatever, and on mentioning Book View Cafe, got the blank look and the WHO?
There are two challenges for any publishing venture. One, production, which (let’s face it) is a protracted, painstaking job of work. Then there is getting the word out. If you do not have a PR budget, and you don’t want to be annoying people with tweets and twitters and Facebook blurb-bombs, how do you connect potential readers with the sorts of books they are looking for?
BVC is trying a lot of different things, seeing what works, what doesn’t. My own cherished theory is that content is king, but there is also the matter of style. I think to catch the attention of the constantly clicking reader one has to be interesting. Yeah, but how? We all want to be interesting to others, or we wouldn’t be in the field we’re in. So this is an ongoing process.
Q.) What titles can BVC readers expect to see from you?
A.) Two of my titles have become popular in a modest way, and they were fun to write. So first off I have coming up this summer, a fluffy and fun YA fantasy adventure with a romantic tinge, called Lhind the Thief. It should appeal to the readers who liked A Posse of Princesses.
Then I am writing a Napoleonic era romance for those who liked Danse de la Folie, which is an old-fashioned silver fork novel. Rondo Allegro begins on the continent, stops by Revolutionary France, and then goes north to England after Trafalgar.
Q.) With urban fantasy taking over more and more of the genre these days, how do you think epic fantasy will do in the long run?
A.) That is so hard to say! Judging by the vigorous sales as well as debate all over the internet, epic fantasy is back in fashion, perhaps stronger than ever. Readers are passionate about epic fantasy, from the postmodern “grimdark” to the old-fashioned quest tale built around a hero who becomes king, which I think hearkens back to the centuries-old seduction of competence and dash. (Look up the history of words like panache and sprezzatura.)
Book View Cafe offers those, too.
In my first enterprise software company we developed a methodology for sales that we called PUCCKA.
The point of PUCCKA was to develop a common methodology to make sure our whole team approaches sales with the same mindset and to give us a language to talk with each other about our prospects, as in, “have you identified your customers pain point yet?”
Having a methodology instead of just going on random sales visits helped force a bit of rigor and honesty amongst team members about how well or not we thought we were doing.
It’s a reminder that unless your prospect has a need to solve a problem they are not going to buy a product. Customers sometimes buy things spontaneously without thinking through what their actual need is. But often there is an underlying reason for a purchase even if the buyer doesn’t bring it to the surface.
Take for example the years 2010-2012 where every brand out there seemed to be buying Facebook “Likes.” In truth many companies had no idea why they actually needed Facebook Likes but there was still a pain point. The pain was that somebody senior in the organization had read about the importance of Facebook for business and had begun asking loud questions about why the organization didn’t have a strong Facebook presence.
That is still “pain.” It’s a reason a company would buy. That a boss is a dolt with no economic rationale for what he is asking to be achieved does not disqualify pain. Just watch Mad Men and you’ll know that.
Too many sales reps walk into customer meetings with their pre-canned sales decks and proudly squawk through 30 of their favorite slides without engaging the customer in a discussion.
The reason they do this is that it’s far easier to go through talking points you’ve said 100 times than to engage the customer in a dialog about their business challenges.
I call these people crocodile sales people – small ears and a big mouth.
It is not effective because while you leave the meeting feeling great about yourself you really don’t have any further knowledge of the customers “pain.”
I call this sales approach “tell & sell” and I don’t recommend it.
The best sales meetings are discussions. The goal is to get the customer speaking about their organization. And the best kind of questions to ask are open-ended questions.
I’ve also seen the converse too many times – sales reps who walk into a meeting and spout out, “so, tell us what’s not working in your manufacturing process!”
I hate when people do this to me. My first thought is, “You asked for the meeting – why am I going to give you a bunch of ammunition to sell to me?”
There is an art to teasing out pain points.
I recommend starting with a brief overview of you, your company and your solution. And by brief I mean BRIEF! You’d be amazed at how long some people rattle off their life stories in an introduction. Nobody wants to hear your life story other than your mom.
After a brief overview of you, your company and your solution I recommend putting up some example clients you’ve worked with, although you obviously need their approval first.
These references make for great discussions with customers. If you have enough references in your arsenal you obviously want to pick out ones that you believe will resonate with your prospect due to job function or industry.
And then there’s the key transition slide, which I call “What We Find” (WWF) or some variation of this.
WWF gives you the ability to tease out the problem having just shown similar cases where customers have this problem.
“What we find is that many of our customers have been accumulating Facebook Likes because they thought they were supposed to. Now they have a few thousand Likes but haven’t been able to figure out whether this is improving their bottom line. They don’t have a way to measure the effectiveness of a Like.”
“Do you see that at all inside your department? Have you found a way to best link your potential marketing leads in social media into activity that leads to more business?”
Often if a customer has heard similar problems described in other customers (not hearing your solution pitched at them but a real business discussion about the pain point) then they will start to open up and have a discussion.
Even if they start to debate with you whether this is a real problem or not, you’re having a much better meeting then just flipping through slides. If they’re going to take the time, energy and logic to try and debate with you then they’re at least engaged.
People prefer to hear themselves speak rather than to listen to you. It’s just human nature.
So throughout the meeting your job is to tease out as many discrete pain points that are near enough to your solution set to begin talking about what it is that you do.
Write down the customer pains so you’ll have them for later. Ask questions the whole time. The best form of sales is “active listening” where you’re engaged in what the customer is telling you.
And please resist the temptation to cut off the customer with a story of your own.
You know, the blah, blah, blah I heard you but now let ME tell you this great story I have. Most people naturally do this at cocktail parties (everybody does) but not in sales meetings. Never. When you cut off customers with your stories you lose valuable insights that might be exposing more pain points.
Open questions equals a treasure trove of information to mine for pain points.
Show your knowledge and charm through great questions not great anecdotes.
In many ways it’s more enjoyable to learn about other people than it is to spout BS about your company or products.
In the words of Dale Carnegie,
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
Or in words that I first heard from one of the greatest sales gurus of all time, Zig Ziglar
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”
Apparently Zig got that from Theodore Roosevelt if the Internet is to be trusted.
But it is so true. I think every big sale I have had in life came because I genuinely cared about the person buying from me. In many ways, the “sale” made me feel more committed in my role at the company because I felt a huge sense of obligation to live up to the expectations the buyer had entrusted in me.
Ask more. Listen more. Care more. Problem solve. Good things will come.
If you get your prospects talking about problems you’ve solved the first step of sales, “Why Buy Anything?”
Frankly if you can’t sit with prospects and tease out pain points then you ought to be working in a different department than sales or executive leadership.
Everybody has pain points – believe me.
And once you manage to tease out some problems you can then begin to pivot the meeting importantly to your solution and how it may solve their problem.
But that’s the next post, “Unique Selling Proposition” or USPs.
A few years ago, design writer Steven Heller dedicated his column in Print magazine to this question. It has also been bothering the Chief Architect of Google+, Yonatan Zunger, who published his investigation of the phenomenon yesterday, in a post poetically titled, “How the price of paint is set in the hearts of dying stars.”
Their answers are interesting, and different.
Heller draws on Eric Sloane’s American Barns and Covered Bridges, which explains that until the late eighteenth-century, builders carefully considered a site’s wind, sun, and water exposure in order to position bridges and barns in such a way that the weather would treat the wood:
The right wood in the right place, it was discovered, needed no paint.
By the end of the 1700s, however, farmers began to paint their barns, as “the art of wood seasoning gave way to the art of artificial preservation.” Virginia farmers were, apparently, “the first to become paint-conscious,” although no explanation is given for this shift. Heller does, however, attribute the rise of red, specifically, to both function and fashion.
The red colour came from the addition of iron oxide, which is abundant in the soils of the eastern United States, and is equipped with anti-fungal properties (dissolved rust is still used as a DIY anti-moss treatment today). This new-and-improved red barn gradually superseded its unpainted wooden predecessor, becoming the norm.
Heller concludes, somewhat unconvincingly, that having a nice red barn was also an aesthetic choice, as it “became a fashionable thing that contrasted well with traditional white farmhouses.”
Zunger, on the other hand, starts from the premise that barns are red because red paint is the cheapest. This is certainly not the case anymore — a gallon of barn or fence paint from FarmPaint.com costs $8.95, whether it is grey, green, white, brown, or “traditional barn red.”
IMAGE: Barn paint colours available from AgSpecialty.com
However, red was the cheapest paint, once. According to an article by preservationist Robert Foley (PDF), red was the ubiquitous colour of eighteenth century England and colonial America, produced by mixing iron-oxide rich milled earth with linseed oil and turpentine. The result was called “Spanish Brown,” and, because the precise mineral content of the soil determined the final colour, it could range “from burnt orange through reds and into browns” — “the exact shade didn’t seem to matter, cost did.” Other pigments, such as white lead or verdigris green, required an extensive manufacturing process before they could be mixed with linseed oil and used; dirt could just be dug up and ground.
Zunger is not content to leave matters there, however. Instead, he dives deep into the physics of exploding stars to explain precisely why iron is so abundant in the Earth’s crust, and why ferrous oxide reflects a wavelength of light that is visible to human eyes.
Things get pretty technical, but, in short, “it’s because of the details of nuclear fusion — the particular size at which nuclei stop producing energy — that iron is the most common element heavier than neon.” If you also factor in the temperature of our Sun (and any star stable and long-lasting enough to sustain planets with life on them) as well as the speed at which the outermost electrons in the iron atom spin, Zunger concludes, “iron is going to be, by far, the most plentiful pigment for any species which lives on [sic] a star that isn’t about to blow up.”
Furthermore, in a detail that Zunger actually doesn’t mention, about 2.45 billion years years ago, for reasons scientists don’t fully understand but that seem to be tied to the evolution of photosynthetic cyanobacteria, the Earth experienced something called the “Great Oxidation Event.” Prior to that, oxygen was nearly absent in the atmosphere of early Earth; after that, the iron in ancient soils turned into rust.
So, to sum up: many barns are painted red because paint protects the wood against weathering; because the pigment that went into red (or, more accurately, “Spanish Brown”) paint was the cheapest available two centuries ago, due to the abundance of iron oxide in the soil (due to nuclear physics and blue-green algae) and its ease of preparation for use; and because, despite the fact that green is as cheap as red today, humans tend to display a preference for the familiar.
Of course, some barns are white. Whitewash, a mixture of chalk, lime, and water, was also cheap — even cheaper than Spanish Brown in areas with iron-poor soils but readily available limestone deposits left by ancient marine life — and possessed of both antimicrobial properties and sanitary connotations.
IMAGE: The green Sears barn in Newark Valley, NY, via The Barn Journal. It was originally painted yellow.
And some barns are green, but there is no accounting for taste.
I tend not to stop when I’m writing a draft, unless it’s for something really vital (for instance, the precise headdress that someone is wearing is something I can always work out later; the layout of the rooms where the nobleman was murdered and that my characters are searching is rather more vital to the way the scene plays out, and requires me to have actually done the research/invention/work). Accordingly, my first (and subsequent) drafts are peppered with little notes to myself, that I generally smooth out in the next revision.
I stole a leaf from a friend’s book, who marks such places in his manuscripts with @; except I upgraded to square brackets because 1. there’s less risk of me accidentally using them in anything, and 2. Square brackets enable me to see the beginning and the end of my own annotations.
(cut for length)
Here’s a an example from my latest WIP:
The view zoomed out; a thin line of green threaded its way through the debris–a zigzag course through some of the less cluttered areas [MB]. “My best guess,” The Dragons in the Peach Gardens said.
“That’s assuming they’ll take the obvious path,” Sixth Aunt said, her eyes still on the map.
“Security reasons?” Thuy asked. “They’ll assume there isn’t a ship that can touch them; and ordinarily they’d be right.” She stared at the map again, willing the truth to emerge from the jumble of debris–but the only truth that would come was the same Chi already knew; that nothing was fair or [?] in life.
“What would you do if you were Chi?” Sixth Aunt asked.
Thuy shook her head. “I can’t tell what she would do. Not anymore.”
Sixth Aunt said nothing. Chi had stayed a while, after the accident; and she’d tried, for a while, to act normal; to pay her respects every morning to her elders; to [special attention to Sixth Aunt]; to pretend that everything was fine. But the change that had come over her–the magnitude of what had happened to her while she’d hung alone in the carcass of the ship with her spacesuit’s thrusters disabled–was like a wound in the family’s everyday life; like a swarm-mine sending shards and shrapnel [R?] long after it had detonated–like smart bullets still worming their way through a body, years and years after the impact.
[WW]: wrong word, pick another one
[?]: missing word
[MB]: missing bit (generally a large bit: portions of a sentence or entire paragraphs).
[R]: repetition, find another word
[blech]: also self-explanatory
And any longer chunks of text, of course, if I need to put in more details between the square brackets.
You’ll notice that there are large chunks of things that I’m missing (for instance, a sentence where I’m a bit unsure what peculiar attention Chi would have had for Sixth Aunt, or entire paragraphs near the end); but I also put in the square brackets when it’s just a question of flow (the lone [?] in the third paragraph): I’d rather save the space for one or two missing words while I’m still in said flow, than have to reread the entire text and work out where my rhythm slipped.
And here’s the cleaned-up version:
The view zoomed out; a thin line of green threaded its way through the debris–a zigzag course through some of the less cluttered areas. “My best guess,” The Dragons in the Peach Garden said.
“That’s assuming they’ll take the obvious path,” Sixth Aunt said, her eyes still on the map.
“Security reasons?” Thuy asked. “They’ll assume there isn’t a ship that can touch them; and ordinarily they’d be right.” She stared at the map again, willing the truth to emerge from the jumble of debris–but the only truth that would come was the same Chi already knew; that nothing was fair or equitable in life.
“What would you do if you were Chi?” Sixth Aunt asked.
Thuy shook her head. “I can’t tell what she would do. Not anymore.”
Sixth Aunt said nothing. Chi had stayed a while, after the accident; and she’d tried, for a while, to act normal; to pay her respects every morning to her other elders; to bring fruit fresh from the orchard to Sixth Aunt; to pretend that everything was fine. But the change that had come over her–the magnitude of what had happened to her while she’d hung alone in the carcass of the ship with her spacesuit’s thrusters disabled–was like a wound in the family’s everyday life; like a swarm-mine ejecting shards long after it had detonated–like smart bullets still worming their way through a body, years and years after the impact.
The parts. Thuy blinked, and said aloud, “Can you tell me what the parts would be used for?”
Notice that there’s stuff I did indeed fix and bits I added, but there’s also places where I decided it wasn’t worth it to add to the existing sentences (also, I write relatively clean drafts; I tend to have a really messy brainstorming process and to only commit words after I’m reasonably sure ).
What about you? Do you note where you need to add bits in a draft? Do you use Word comments or some other process?