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 Rover.com (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!

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.

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 Amazon.com.

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.

Anthologies: Variations on a Theme

The Metaphorosis Books anthology Reading 5 x 5 was designed to provide insight into the process by which authors write to a detailed theme.

Themed anthologies and themed magazine issues are big these days. They enable editors to focus on timely topics and they attract new readers interested in those issues. Themed publications are inspiring for writers, too. In the past year, I’ve written stories for six anthologies:

Of particular interest is Reading 5 x 5, edited by B. Morris Allen. The book was designed to provide insight into the process by which authors write to a detailed theme. Allen brought together 25 authors, grouped them by five speculative fiction subgenres, and for each subgenre provided a fairly detailed story brief. (His concept is described at the Reading 5 x 5 website.) Thus all five authors in each group started out with similar characters, settings, and plots. The resulting stories — most wildly divergent — are fascinating.

While I’d written to general themes for the other anthologies, I struggled with writing a story outlined by someone else. I may have been the “bad girl” of my group (I was in the soft science fiction group, writing in a style that non-genre readers might know as “space opera.”). I felt hemmed in by the detailed brief and spun my wheels for several weeks — until I came up with the idea of writing a story in which someone hemmed in by authority rebels and plots an assassination. To see how my little revenge fantasy turned out, buy Reading 5 X 5 and read “Patience.”

I strongly recommend the writers’ edition of our book, with 100 additional pages including the original story briefs we worked from, authors’ notes for each story, and two additional stories.

The editor and writers involved in the Reading 5 x 5 experiment agreed at the outset that proceeds from the book will benefit the Jo Clayton Memorial Medical Fund. Administered by Oregon Science Fiction Conventions, Inc., the fund assists professional science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery writers living Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska who need help with medical expenses.

 

 

Customer communications, done right

Home ThermostatWe get them just about every week now — mostly emails, but sometimes a physical letter from our dental office, our CPA, or our insurance agency.

The letter says that the mid-size company with which we have been happily doing business has been acquired by MegaCorpCo. The email or letter from MegaCorpCo assures us that now we’ll get even better service — just as soon as we log into their new online system, set up a new account, and spend three months trying to contact their call center to get the information from our previous account connected to the new one. Of course they don’t offer exactly the same service as the mid-size company did, but, hey, now we can get even better services (for a lot more money) or considerably worse services for the same price.

We hate MegaCorpCo immediately — even more after the three months of fighting with the know-nothings at their call center. So eventually we go off and hunt for a highly regarded mid-size service provider.  Then we cross our fingers and hope we’ll have a year or two of decent service before they, too, are acquired by the MegaCorpCo.

Turns out, it doesn’t have to happen this way.

Today I got two letters — in one envelope — from our oil company, Rossoe Energy systems. The first letter was from Ronald N. Glatz, the president of Rossoe. It begins:

“It is with sadness but also with pride, that I share the following news with you, our valued customer. This year I turned 82 years old and am thankful for that. Unfortunately, I also found out I have severe health issues that prevent me from continuing as President & Owner of Rossoe Energy and that makes me said.”

At this point, it is making me pretty sad, too. These are the people who rushed out and took apart our furnace ducts when our cat got lost in the ceiling. He continues:

“As you may know, Rossoe Energy has been around the Seattle area for over 80 years and I have been at the helm for the past 40. We built a family run business with employees and clients that over the years, became family to me. I enjoyed every single day I got to go to work and I will miss it.”

Now, I’m in tears.

Glatz’s letter goes on to introduce the new owners, “another family run business that has been serving their clients for more than 67 years, in much the same manner as Rossoe.” He assures me that we can still call the Rossoe phone number to get Sound Oil, and that Rossoe’s employees will be with the new company.

The second letter, with the Sound Oil logo, is from Marilyn Jensen, president, and Jim Franck, VP, of Sound Oil, welcoming us to their company and giving us the history of the friendly competition between the two local companies. Then, a look at the future:

“There is nothing for you to do…everything has been handled for you…service records have been carefully transferred to the Sound Oil office. Heating oil deliveries will continue normally and without interruption. For customers who have Furnace Maintenance Agreements and/or Tank Warranty Coverage, those will continue seamlessly…the Rossoe Energy office staff, along with all of the Rossoe Oil delivery drivers and service technicians, will be joining our team. Expect familiar faces and familiar voices!”

So. No MegaCorpCo. No clueless call center. And no despairing customers off to seek a better oil company.

What Rossoe Energy and Sound Oil have done here is corporate communications on the level of Warren Buffett’s annual letters to shareholders.

This is an example of how easy corporate communications is when you love what you do, are proud of your company, and have every intention of giving your customers great service.

These letters left me with a very warm feeling, and it wasn’t because my furnace just came on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pantsuits and Privilege

Well, blue-city ladies, I’m appalled by us and our unironic display of privilege.

My Facebook newsfeed is filled these days with subtle expressions of disappointment in Pantsuit Nation, the closed Facebook group formed in the final days of the Clinton campaign.

The veiled criticisms, sighs of frustration, and wrinkled noses are summed up by a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed that described Pantsuit Nation as a potentially powerful political movement that had degenerated into a “kaffeklatsch” for middle-class white women new to politics.

Talk about missing the whole point.

Yes, well-educated, highly diverse women in blue cities are absolutely appalled by the clueless ladies on Pantsuit Nation who are cheering each other on for trivial things like “inviting a Muslim mom to tell the class about Eid.” (a direct quote from the sneering L.A. Times article)

Well, blue-city ladies, I’m appalled by us and our unironic display of privilege.

Sure, in Seattle or San Jose or Brookline, Massachusetts, inviting a Muslim mom into the classroom is pretty unremarkable. Standing up for a woman of color being harassed by a racist asshole in a parking lot — what’s the  big deal?

But how many of the eye-rolling, oh-so-disillusioned critics of the Pantsuit Nation live in a small town in a red state? Or send their kid to a public school where the principal is in the KKK? Or know that racist asshole in the parking lot—because he is the man they share a bed with at night, or their boss at the insurance company?

Yes, a lot of the women on Pantsuit Nation are clueless newbies. Yes, they missed out on those college seminars we took on gender identity, third wave feminism, and capitalist oppression. Yes, they are taking baby steps and, yes, they are talking in the language of Hallmark greeting cards. But some of them are taking those baby steps across a mine field.

And, as organizers like Saul Alinsky taught, community organizing takes place in the community — not in the classrooms of liberal universities.

“A good tactic,” he wrote in Rules for Radicals, “is one your people enjoy.” Like Pantsuit Nation.

If those of us on the blue coasts and in the blue cities are so deafened and blinded by our liberal and progressive privilege that we can’t be bothered to dialog with the liberal women in red states, how in hell do you think we’ll ever be able to communicate our causes to the conservative women in those states. You know — the ones whose votes put Trump in office?

I’m writing about this on my professional blog because it is, in many ways, a communications issue. Telling newbies that they aren’t talking in our dialect or acting the way we would in our (very different) neighborhoods, and refusing to listen unless they get hip to our trip, is not a recipe for building or strengthening our political movement. It’s a recipe for walling ourselves into our own elitist intellectual bunker. And a bunker is what we’ll need if we can’t open our ears and our hearts to our red-state sisters trying to figure out what they can do to cut short the Era of Trump.

 

Social Media for Public Relations — a post-election view

It’s critical for communications practitioners to acknowledge how uncontrollable, risky, and powerful social media has become.

social-media-for-public-relations-survival-and-successIt was my pleasure this week to speak to Lee Schoentrup’s University of Washington PR Certificate class about social media. It was the 10th year I’ve done a presentation for one of Lee’s classes, and we always marvel at how much the social media scene changes in the 11 or 12 months between talks.

Two years ago I focused on interactive social media. “Dancing with Your Audience” was the title. Earlier this year I didn’t feel as optimistic about the field, and titled the early 2016 version of the presentation “How to Stand Out in a Busy World.” My feeling was that social media had maxed out audience bandwidth; people were experiencing more than enough social media interaction. I told the class that social media professionals were facing a battle for attention, a battle that would be won by people and organizations delivering the best (most valuable or most entertaining) content and the best user experiences.

Post-election, I’ve rewritten the talk with a new theme “Survival & Success: Surfing the social media tsunami.”

Currently, it’s critical for communications practitioners to acknowledge how uncontrollable, risky, and powerful social media has become. It used to be possible to just dive into the waters and follow traditional communications best practices. It is now important to know specific social-media best practices and — particularly if you want to avoid wasting organizational resources — to extensively plan your social media activities. And that plan needs to include how to rapidly deploy an effective, coordinated response when your organization gets caught in a fast-moving social media crisis.

I also talked about the media’s, and social media’s, loss of credibility because of the proliferation of fake news sites and the appearance of poorly researched “news” stories on legitimate news sites.

Here, for Lee’s class and other interested folks, is the new presentation, SME_UW_2016_Nov, in PDF form.

The 7-minute solution for author readings

Tip from Worldcon: A great author reading is 7 minutes long. Plus information about the Two Hour Transport speculative fiction readings in Seattle.

Female student making a speech. She is standing at a podium and smiling to the crowd.In the elevator at the Hugo Loser’s party Saturday night, a bunch of us were discussing authors who give great readings.

Tom and I wrote an article for Locus about readings a while back that included advice from Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, Eileen Gunn, and Andrea Hairston. But a fellow in the elevator — a New York editor whose name I am horrified to say that didn’t get — had a tip I hadn’t heard before.

“Seven minutes!” he said as we piled out of the elevator and into the Midland Theater lobby. “A great reading is seven minutes.”

When I got home from the convention I looked it up and, sure enough, the memoirist Gigi Rosenberg wrote an extensive blog post, 7 Tips for Giving a Powerful Public Reading, that includes the 7-minute rule. (All of Rosenberg’s suggestions are great, especially #3, so I urge you to go over there and read them.)

If you are in the Seattle area and want to hear (or participate in) short readings of speculative fiction, check out Two Hour Transport at Cafe Racer. The monthly series spotlights two authors each month; their readings are preceded by an open mic (5-minute slots).

This month’s invited readers are Coral Moore (published in a number of magazines, and online at Diabolical Plots) and Evan J. Peterson, volume editor of the Lambda Literary Award finalist Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam: Gay City 5.

Good Trump vs. Bad Trump is the game we’re all watching

[NOTE: I don’t usually write about politics on this blog, but the communications issues this year are fascinating me.]

I’ve started listening to iTunes playlists in my car rather than turn on the radio and hear the latest Donald Trump story.

I’ve stopped reading Facebook because my timeline is full of friends’ comments about the latest Trump story.

Folks, he’s won. Not the battle for the presidential election, but the war for the eyes and ears of America. Love him or hate him, he’s all we’re talking about. I haven’t seen a story on Hillary Clinton’s plans, policies, or speeches since that lovely Democratic convention a few weeks back.

The Democratic Party and the Republican Party are playing a traditional game of lacrosse. Or perhaps polo. Something obscure.

By contrast, Trump is playing NFL Football: Good Trump vs. Bad Trump, and most of what’s happening on the field is an over-the-top half-time extravaganza.

Guess which contest has the big viewing audience? And all the advertisers?

Even if Trump loses badly in November (or quits the campaign before election day, which I believe he will) he has changed the face of  political communications in America.

Not for the better, in my opinion, but probably irrevocably. History books will talk about this campaign — though whether there will be many educated people left to read them is a whole other question.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: