In Search of an Online Platform?

Social media on the internet is rapidly devolving from Speakers Corner to the Tower of Babel to individuals howling in the digital wilderness.

Why is nobody listening?

With X (Twitter) rotting from the top down, most people fond of communicating via pithy snippets have migrated to Meta’s Threads, Bluesky Social, and the aggregation of Mastodon servers. Or maybe CounterSocial. (Remember the hacktivist app CounterSocial? I don’t, but apparently I have an account there. Sigh.)

Is Microsoft-owned LinkedIn filling the online-conversation need for you?

Those of us who write at mid-length now have a choice of drowning in Facebook’s recent onslaught of repetitive ads (mine are for sweaters and Japanese snacks) while reading about our high school friends’ family vacations or reviving our moribund accounts on Tumblr, Medium, and Substack. We can take payments, or ask for tips via Ko-fi.

And, of course, there’s always Patreon where we can harness ourselves to a schedule of content production for a small-but-loyal paying audiencee—and end up spending half of our posts apologizing for not meeting that schedule. Talk about a self-induced guilt trip.

FROM THE Audience Viewpoint

If none of this sounds appealing to you as a content creator, I’ll point out that this fragmented array of platforms is even less appealing to readers. It used to be that if someone stopped following social media, they missed out on a shared experience, be it Twitter or Facebook. And the community missed them. Now…no one notices.

I’m sure that one or two of these platforms or communities make it easy to browse, find, read, and pay for interesting content. But platforms fall in and out of favor pretty quickly (often because they’ve changed their rules—see: Twitter). This does not motivate me, as a writer, to invest time and energy in one. And I certainly don’t have the time to check in on each of them every day to read what’s been posted by friends. I’m a follower, but usually a ghostly one.

It would be wonderful to have some kind of aggregator for all these sites, the way we used to have blogging aggregators (remember RSS feeds?). But if you look at the current aggregator software, it’s commercial stuff aimed at business clients who want to use it aggregate (often to rip off) other commercially produced content and offer it under their own banners. I haven’t found software that lets you aggregate content posted by individual creators who publishing via Automattic’s WordPress and Tumblr, Square’s Weebly, Google’s venerable, SquareSpace, Medium, and Substack. I doubt very much if such a thing would be commercially viable. (And if I type the word “commercial” one more time here, I’m going to gag.)

Bottom line: Reading social media content is not much fun these days. Particularly the bizarre posts generated by AIs, which seem to have a serious problem with gender-pronoun consistency.

Back to the Blog

As for writing, at this point I’m joining the personal blogging revival, going back to my own WordPress blogging here. You’ll notice that most of the affiliate-marketing bloggers have jumped over to visual platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and (to my surprise) Pinterest. That leaves blogging to the writers. So I guess we should get to it.

If any of the platforms mentioned above are providing a rich and comprehensive social media experience (for writers to connect with readers and readers to connect with writers), please leave a comment. What platform is meeting your needs, and why? And if you have a lot of neglected social media accounts out there, ‘fess up—and tell us why that happened. I’m here, and I’m listening.

Escaping from the real world

I write to escape. Instead of looking around and asking “Why?” (which I find myself doing more and more often these days) I want to look into the mists and ask, “What if?”

Then my job is to clear away the mists and show people what “What if?” would look like.

Some fiction takes place in worlds where just about everything is different. Flatland, a story about a square living in two-dimensional space, is one of the most extreme examples. An example we’re more familiar with is Alice in Wonderland. I’m in awe of writers who can manage that sort of worldbuilding.

By contrast, the fiction I write usually takes place in recognizable worlds where one small element is different. For an alternate history, it might be a past in which two people who never met encounter each other. I’ve written time travel stories in which people from the past encounter each other and build a different future. This approach is certainly inspired by my fascination with Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series.

Quite a few speculative fiction works examine humans in settings where a major physical or cultural rule is different: A world where gender roles are switched or societies have multiple or fluid genders, such as the one described in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Dystopian fiction, such as Stephen King’s The Stand, often looks at the ways in which humans might respond to a disaster (nuclear war, alien attack, or a pandemic).

One of the most fascinating variations on the “one change” theme involves the ways in which a completely isolated group of people build or maintain a culture. Would we do it better this time? This includes Riverworld (again), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and Mike Resnick’s astonishing short story “For I Have Touched the Sky,” (available online), part of his Kirinyaga novel. (If you are familiar with Resnick through his humorous space opera stories, Kirinyaga is quite different, and deadly serious. I recommend approaching it without reading any spoilers.)

I have more to say on the topic of writing to escape, but I’ll stop here for the moment. Go read “For I Have Touched the Sky.”

The short story from a mosaic workshop

One way I break out of a writing block is to switch to a completely different art form—usually one at which I’m a pure novice. Trying to get a grip on the basics of an unfamiliar form often refreshes my sense of the essentials in fiction writing.

This is why in the summer of 2018 I signed up for a day-long mosaic workshop. I had no idea that the visiting instructor was a woman recognized internationally for designing and leading large community mosaic projects (walls, walkways, etc.). So I was astonished to find the workshop packed with attendees ranging from complete novices like me to well-known local mosaic artists.

We’d been told to bring small items (coins, stones, gems) to incorporate into our mosaic pieces. I soon discovered that several of the students had brought along a lot of ego and emotion as well. Some of the seasoned artists were highly competitive, busily snatching up the choicest of the tiles and glass pieces the teacher’s assistants had set out on the tables. And among my fellow newbies there were a few of a type that drives me bonkers: People who babble about how terrified and incompetent they are, literally begging people not to look at what they are doing, while all the time making such an ungodly racket that it’s impossible to ignore them.

I’m fairly confident about my design skills, but had to work hard to follow the directions and then master the techniques for cutting tiles, affixing pieces, and adding grout. I soon figured out a design I liked, came to grips with the results of my clumsy gluing technique, and turned my attention to what was going on around me.

The instructor was moving from person to person, offering some of the most tactful advice and heartfelt encouragement I’d ever heard from a teacher. A few of the attendees, completely wrapped up in their creations, were experiencing fear and frustration. One woman, who revealed that the small items she’d brought had belonged to a daughter who had died recently, simply melted down.

I was fascinated by the instructor’s almost magical ability to validate each person’s struggle to rise to their creative challenges—essentially transforming their roadblocks into stepping stones. In the long run, learning that approach to art would be far more effective than learning how to apply grout evenly. I now had what I’d come for—and it wasn’t a mosaic.

What I experienced in the workshop that day led to my story “Pieced Together,” which I am delighted to say will appear in the anthology The Art of Being Human from Fablecroft Press.

Note: Fablecroft is doing a Kickstarter campaign for the anthology (it’s now aiming for stretch goals). While the ebook will be for general sale, print copies will be available only to backers of the Kickstarter.

Feature Writing and Speculative Fiction

I’m now splitting my time between feature writing and speculative fiction, so I’m going to be switching back and forth between those topics on this blog. I hope this doesn’t drive anyone much crazier than it’s currently driving me. (Only kidding—I’m loving this mix of work.)

After spending the pandemic lockdown working on a writing contract for (where I’m continuing to freelance with reviews of cat-related products and services), I’ve recently shifted to work for the Seattle Times weekend Home section. I’m covering topics best described as “preventing and solving household problems.” While I’m not writing much about my own epic home repair and remodeling adventures, those experiences, and my contractor contacts, are definitely informing the feature writing work.

As far as speculative fiction writing, 2020 was my worst year for selling stories since I started publishing short stories in 2015. I sold one story, which hasn’t seen publication yet! But 2021 is off to a fine start.

In an abundance of caution, I rarely mentioned my publications until they are available for sale. But I’m so excited about having “Pieced Together” in The Art of Being Human, from the Australian publisher Fablecroft, that I’m making an exception. Editors Tehani Croft and Stephanie Lai have just announced the book’s table of contents, noting, “This anthology seeks to remind readers of the hope and beauty of the Arts, and the way our engagement with writing, music, film, theatre, artworks in all media, and craft of all kinds are at the core of our humanity.” The Art of Being Human is scheduled for publication later this year.

The inspiration for “Pieced Together” came from an introductory mosaics class I took a few years back. The instructor, Laurel True, is an activist and master of collaborative community mosaic art. While the mosaic plaque I produced in her class was a bit of a hot mess, the story I discovered while taking the class is pretty special.

Speaking of classes…like everyone else, I’m looking for ways to break out of the narrow existence I lived during the pandemic. To that end, I took a class this week taught by vocal coach Alyssa Keene for Jack Straw (Vocal Training for Writers). The class included one-on-one coaching and Keene helped me with “The Train,” which I’d read May 12 for the weekly Facebook Live program Story Hour. Plus, I’ve now learned how to use a pop screen with my Yeti microphone!

That Man Looks Familiar

I’ve never asked anyone to draw a picture of what they saw while reading one of my stories, but Space and Time magazine did. They asked artist Anthony R. Rhodes to illustrate “The Hum of the Wheel, the Clack of the Loom.”

When I write a short story, I see it as a film. There are scenes, locations, changes of perspective, wide shots, and close-ups. (When I edit a short story, my edits often involve sharpening a scene, modifying the sound or lighting, or changing the perspective from which the story/film is told/shot.)

If I do it right, I assume a reader will see in their mind something close to what I’ve seen in mine.

I’ve never asked anyone to draw a picture of what they saw while reading one of my stories, but Space and Time magazine did. They asked artist Anthony R. Rhodes to illustrate “The Hum of the Wheel, the Clack of the Loom.” It’s a story with a high fantasy setting but one that makes reference to contemporary social issues.

When I saw the illustration, I gasped. It was exactly what I’d envisioned, complete with a perspective that centers on the protagonist as he views a puzzling and disturbing conflict. The illustration even captures my fantastical beasts, the sofhars, exactly as I’d imagined them.

Rhodes was generous enough to post the illustration on his website for everyone to enjoy. His accompanying blog post talks about the processes he used to develop the black-and-white illustration, including inspiration drawn from my Scandinavian heritage, the work of Swedish illustrator John Bauer, and Rhodes’ own fascination with Iceland.

You can find the story, and the illustration, in Space and Time #140.

Great online panels: Tips and tricks

You don’t often hear someone say “I went to this awful panel and Susie Creamcheese was just great on it.”

That’s because bad panels are a bad experience for everyone.

This post is about looking great on a panel by making your fellow panelists look great.

What You Can Do In Advance

  1. Do some quick social media research on your fellow panelists. You don’t have to read every book or article they’ve written, but know what they write about, what they’ve written recently, and what their hot buttons are.
  2. Do some quick research on the topic(s) of the panel and make a list of five things that are new and unexpected. The idea here is that you will be able to add value to the discussion by bringing something new, and factual, to the discussion. Such as:
    1. An organization that has just formed to deal with one of the key issues.
    2. A tricky procedural issue that needs explaining
    3. An article by an authority outside the field that pertains to the in-field topic you are discussion

What You Can Do at the Start of the Panel

  1. Arrive early so there is time for introductions before the panel goes live. Make sure the name you have on your screen is the name you go by—not your gaming handle or the name of your sister-in-law whose laptop your borrowed.
  2. If the other panelists don’t know you, introduce yourself and give your credentials in two short sentences: “I’m Karen Anderson. I have a background in investigative reporting, worked at Apple for 6 years, and now write arts criticism and science fiction.” (It’s usually the case that no one had time to do their research. If you give them this information, they’ll know when to turn the discussion your way—without information, they’re likely to ignore you.)
  3. If you are asked to give an opening statement to the viewers, give an indication of the topics you’ve done research on: “I’ll be talking about a new organization that has just been formed to look at these issues; asking my fellow panelists to help me figure out a tricky procedural issue; and making a few remarks about this recent article by <outside authority> that pertains to our field.”

What You Can Do During the Panel

  1. Panels have personality. The energy ebbs and flows. There are some folks who always have something to say, and others who wait patiently for an opportunity to get a word in. There are some panelists who make canned speeches, some who like to interact, and others who see every statement as something they need to disagree with. Get a sense of your panel’s personality, and proceed accordingly.
  2. Think of the heart of the panel as being a ball. If you are someone who always has something to say, try to end your comments by tossing the ball to another panelist. “Rick, I saw you shaking your head when I advocated that new policy. What do you think?” If you are someone who waits patiently, you will have to reach out and snatch the ball out of the air. (For the audience, watching someone just sitting, waiting, is like watching the fly on a debate participant’s hair. It becomes a distraction.)
  3. If you find yourself on a panel where other panelists have strong, colorful opinions and you don’t, you can play a key role by steering these folks to questions that you and the audience would love to have answered. If one person is advocating a certain action, ask them (or–more fun–another panelist) a question such as: “I understand why you think that’s critical, but what are the specific steps we’d need to take to get there, and just who do you think would be leading that work?” You’ll look clever, and they’ll look clever as they answer. Everybody wins!
  4. If energy is ebbing, introduce one of the topics you researched in advance, give your opinion, and toss it to the other panelists. In most cases, they’ll leap on it. Be sure to put any relevant URLs or citations into the Chat panel.

What You Can Do at the End of the Panel

  1. Sum up. Think about what you’d say about the panel if you’d been in the audience and, if it’s reasonably positive, give the summary—plus your own twist on it. “It was great to hear someone with a background in our field explore some of the ramifications of these issues. I hadn’t known about the research Sarah mentioned, and it’s definitely something I’m going to look up.”
  2. Thank other panelists and the organizers—it’s fine to take a sentence or two to blurb the organizers and any group or publication they represent.

But, Wait, What About Promoting Me?

By being a good panelist, you have promoted yourself. The audience wanted a great panel, not five minutes of you reciting your resume or waving your latest book around. Trust me on that. If you did a good job, they’ll find you online.

On Organizational Communication to the Previously Disenfranchised

We’re being deluged with announcements from organizations about their new programs to benefit people they have previously underserved, ignored, or outright disenfranchised. Many of these announcements are problematic. Here’s why.

You can’t open your email this month without seeing a dozen announcements from organizations about their new programs to benefit people they have previously underserved, ignored, or outright disenfranchised.

And you can’t get onto social media without seeing comments about how tone-deaf, clueless, rote, and even offensive some of those announcements are.

This is sad. Why is it happening? Because, in their rush to look like good, enlightened organizations, very few of these groups have thought hard about what they were “giving” and even less about what the recipients might think of it. Often it looks as though the privileged organizational leadership threw together a program to make their (mostly privileged) members read the email and think “Thank God, they’re saying something and doing something. Whew, that’s over.”

This so does not work.

First of all, few of these organizations are consulting their historically underserved, ignored, and disenfranchised members to find out what, exactly, they would like from the organization. Which is, of course, once again ignoring these folks. And it’s resulting in “do good” programs that are poorly conceived and even some that are described using language that offends the proposed recipients. (If you’ve been ignoring people for years, how on earth would you know how to speak their language or how to craft a statement on a hugely complex and sensitive topic?)

Second, these announcements often turn out to be all about the beneficent organization and how much it has learned. Which may be true and worth saying, but the effect is that the leaders look like they are wildly patting themselves on the back. A synopsis of the email would read “Organization X is thrilled that they are going to do something enlightened!” O…K…

If your organization is absolutely intent on forging ahead with an announcement of a program that has been crafted quickly, with no involvement of the recipients (and this has you worried), there is a great way to find out how it will be received. Ask one of your members who is also a member of a recipient community to review the program and your announcement. (If you don’t feel comfortable asking for that feedback, that is a very serious sign you need to back up and start over.)

Obtaining some feedback may well send you back to the drawing board, but your next version of the program, and any announcements about it, will be far less likely to result in embarrassment.

The ideal announcement of a genuinely appropriate program will be one that a respected member of a recipient community would be comfortable making themselves. Which brings me to my final point: Why not ask a member of one of your recipient communities be the one to make your announcement? If that works out, instead of showing your organization’s leaders smugly patting themselves on the back, you’ll have a stakeholder publicly thanking your organization for taking a first step in the right direction.

Which do you think looks better?

Email tips for organizations in times of pandemic

I’m not a health professional, so I can’t tell you much about dealing with COVID-19 but as a communications professional, I have some suggestions for organizations that want to communicate about the pandemic to their clients, partners, donors and other concerned parties.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

1. Say something.

People are listening. Many people are getting fewer emails and have more time to read emails — and they are desperate for useful information.

If your organization is doing something to protect customers, staff and volunteers in the face of a global pandemic, let people know. Don’t let people wonder.

2. Talk about your customers, staff and volunteers (not about the organization).

This is not the time to pontificate about your adherence to your mission and vision or to throw a bunch of consultant/HR/legal jargon at worried people.

What they want to know, urgently, is how the pandemic will affect the delivery of your services to them and to other vulnerable stakeholders (including your staff and volunteers).

Avoid: Stilted, cliche-clogged statements like “Agency X remains keenly aware of its mission to deliver camping opportunities to our community’s youth…blah, blah.”

Instead: Say specifically what you are doing — where, why, and when: “To protect the children and volunteers who come to our programs, we are suspending operations as of <date>. We’re using this time to have health experts train our staff and establish cleaning procedures for our gym and vehicles.”

Avoid: Vague, generic promises like “In the coming weeks we will make a decision on how to proceed in this uncertain times…blah, blah.”

Instead: Be specific about who, what, when and how: “Our executive director, Jami Joy, will confer with leaders from our parent community (including the parent coaches) during the weekend to decide when we will reopen and what programs we’ll be able to offer. Jami and our board chair, Lee Fitz, will also work with state, city and local health officials. Our goal is to make an announcement on <date>.

3. Send links, not lists.

Give your readers links to where they can always find your most updated information.

I’m seeing newsletters filled with procedures, protocols, hours, etc., but those procedures are likely to change several times in the coming weeks. Rather than have all that quickly outdated information floating around (just waiting to be forwarded or reposted so it can misinform more people), include a link to the web page where you keep your updated information. That way, instead of needing to send out a new email every time some small detail about your response changes, all you will need to do is update the page on your website.

Example: Wondering how to submit paperwork while our office is closed? You’ll find a list of options here.

Another advantage of sending links rather than lists is that it will keep your email short, increasing the chance that people will actually read it.

4. Make sure people can contact you.

Assure people that you are open to input, including urgent reports of problems with your COVID-19 response system. Describe the contact process to them in a way that inspires confidence.

The generic contact page on your website will probably need to be updated with options for sending feedback or reporting emergencies. Again, use specifics such as the days/times your phone line is open, who in your organization is reading the email messages, and the timeframe people can expect for a response.

If your organization is a healthcare organization or related agency that is swamped with activity because of the pandemic, or your organization has people working remotely, and this may delay responses — say so. “We’re working on COVID-19 issues and may not be able to respond to non-emergency emails or calls as quickly as usual.” The idea is not to promise the impossible, but to manage expectations and reduce frustration.

5. Have the email come from an individual in the organization.

A message from a well-known leader (it doesn’t need to be the executive director or board chair) increases credibility. Plus, more people are likely to read it.

Messages from “us” may feel to the writer as through they are expressing a sense of teamwork. But in times of stress (like a life-threatening pandemic) the faceless “us” can come across to the reader as cold and institutional and reinforce the fear that “no one is taking responsibility.”

Doing It Right

To see an example of an organization that is meeting the pandemic challenge (both in terms of response and communicating about the response) check out the website for this Seattle restaurant.

Curiosity meets fear in Alternative Truths: Endgame

Everywhere I go, they’re talking about paths to the future. What will our food, and our food supplies, be like? How will countries with conflicting world views resolve (or fail to resolve) those differences? What careers will “dead-end” and which will be lucrative? What materials will we use to build houses, and what plans will we use to build communities? How will we protect children, and how will we care for the sick and the aging? How will we treat each other in what is clearly going to be a very different world?

Endgame cover

B Cubed Press, publisher of the Alternative Truths anthologies, is taking a look at possible futures in Alternative Truths III: Endgame. You’ll find several of us from previous B Cubed Press anthologies in here, along with some new voices. The book is getting some thoughtful reviews on

Paula Hammond’s “Fortunate Son” posits an alternate past in Vietnam to bring us a heartbreakingly beautiful alternate future for the United States.

“The Nature of the Problem” by Thomas A. Easton looks the problem of human credulity — a scientist has discovered a biological explanation for why humans have trouble figuring out what’s true and what isn’t.

In Debora Godfrey’s startling “No Excuse,” an Attorney General carries out a fantasy prosecution to please the president.

Essays, poems, and even songs round out this collection — a book that Amazon lists under both “satire” and “short stories.” Whether you seek inspiration as you plan for the future or share in the dark predictions a few of the authors put forward, I think you’ll find our new anthology thought provoking.

Lyft—where reality meets the road

I had, by this time, commandeered the phone. If my mother had seen the screen she would have spent the next 30 minutes in the Dunkin’ parking lot, refusing to agree to the cancellation fee and trying to figure out how she could call directly Lyft and give them hell.

Living in a high-tech urban area like Seattle is living in a bubble. Turns out there’s nothing like trying to use a ride service in Southwestern Florida to get you out of your cultural cocoon.

My 100-year-old mother, who lives in Southwestern Florida, still drives. People are always nagging me to “take away her keys.” These are people who have never met my mother. I’d rather try to take away a fresh antelope from a hungry lioness.

Since my mom (wisely) does not drive at night, I thought a proactive way to wean her away from driving would be introduce her to a ride service like Lyft — pointing out that it would make it possible for her to attend evening events in town. My mom is fiercely independent and would not ask anyone for a ride (and, since many of her friends are nearly as old as she is, most of them don’t drive at night, either — or shouldn’t).

Why is there a picture of a monster truck on this blog post? Read on and you’ll find out.

Given that back story, you’ll understand why I was delighted when my mother agreed to install the Lyft app on her iPhone and give it a try, with me along to coach her. We decided to test the system with a non-critical, non-time-dependent errand: coffee and donuts at the local Dunkin’, a mere three miles from her building.

I’m still shaking my head over what ensued.

At 2:30 p.m. we went out to the shaded portico in front of her condo building and my mom tapped her way through the process of summoning a Lyft driver. She is somewhat impatient, and it was difficult to get her to stop pushing buttons while we waited for Lyft to assign the driver — a fellow with the rather fantastical name “Neotis.”

I will have to wonder what Neotis was like, because we never actually met the fellow. He arrived at the far back entrance of her condominium complex and parked. I (having seized the phone) set about trying to explain to him how to get to the large, clearly marked, high-rise front entrance. I texted him three times, while Lyft sent me a series of threatening messages that he was leaving. Finally, I called Neotis.

“No English,” Neotis grunted.

“Come…to…the…FRONT,” I tried.

“No English.

The accent was Russian, but, figuring “this is Florida,” I tried my weak Spanish. “Conducir al frente.”

“No English.”

All this while my mother was asking me what on Earth was going on.

I cancelled the ride, for which Lyft assessed my mom $5, and put in a new request. It was now 3 p.m. The next driver, Jose, arrived and off we went to Dunkin’. He told us this was his second day driving for Lyft. I could understand him only because I speak a little Spanish. My mother, who does not speak Spanish and is slightly deaf, had no idea what he was saying.

After our coffee, my mother pulled out her phone and gamely put in the request for the ride home. She was getting the hang of it! And the driver was just two minutes away! We dashed out of the Dunkin’ and Georgio pulled up — in a white Silverado. My mother, who is five feet tall, went over to the car, opened the door, and stared. The floor of the Silverado truck was at her waist level.

“How am I supposed to get in?” she asked.

Georgio looked embarrassed. “I guess I need to get steps,” he said.

He told us to cancel the ride and call another driver. Again, Lyft required that we accept a $5 cancellation fee. I had, by this time, commandeered the phone. If my mother had seen the screen she would have spent the next 30 minutes in the Dunkin’ parking lot, refusing to agree to the cancellation fee and trying to figure out how she could dial Lyft directly and give them hell about the Silverado.

I paid, cancelled, and then we called another driver, who showed up in a normal sized-SUV. We were able to get in and get home. This driver, with a year of local Lyft driving experience, was actually familiar with the location of my mother’s building.

My mom, who is a former data systems analyst with a decent grip on user interface design, somehow came away from our ordeal with a good impression of Lyft. “All they need to do,” she said, “is just let me put on my account profile that I need a regular car and not a truck and that I’d like a driver who understands English.”

Well, wouldn’t that be nice.

I don’t have the heart to tell her that Lyft has no way to let you customize your profile for these, or any other, needs. And for that reason, it’s a complete disaster in terms of meeting the requirements of the elderly (and, gee, they do seem to have a few of those in Southwestern Florida). It’s also problem for anyone not tall or athletic enough to vault into a monster truck.

As soon as we got into her condo, my mother handed me her iPhone. “Put on the Uber app, too,” she said. “This is an adventure.”