Who was that masked writer?

writer wrestling mask

Public Radio International (PRI) today had a segment on young writers in Peru who are fighting it out on stage while wearing wrestling masks. Annie Murphy reports:

“New writers don masks, and head onto a stage where they’re given three random words, a laptop hooked up to a gigantic screen, and five minutes to write a short story. At the end of a match, the losing writer has to take off his or her mask. The winner goes on to the next round, a week later. And the grand prize? It’s a book contract.”

I think this is a great idea. Not, necessarily, for the young writers. But for the general (perhaps non-reading) public. I’ve been writing fiction and non-fiction since I was a young child — some of it promising, some of it competitive, and some of it awful. I know from the comments I get from close friends that few of them have the slightest idea of what a writer does to produce publishable writing. As an editor, so much of what I get for editing from non-writers is either incoherent or blithely plagiarized that I know they have no idea how to write for publication. Bringing the writing process onstage and into the spotlight is brilliant. Can you imagine a high school where the writing event draws as big a crowd as the basketball game? That’s a fantasy short story idea in and of itself. Quick! You’ve got five minutes.

A tale of 2 testimonials — is one of them yours?

How much should you expect to pay a freelance writer to do a case study or testimonial?

Nothing brings more credibility to a B2B website than detailed case studies and testimonials from customers about how a product or service benefitted them.

Just about every  company I’ve done work for has asked me to interview a major client and craft a testimonial for marketing purposes. Before I start the work, they ask me what it’s going to cost. After six years of tackling these projects, I finally have an answer:

“Five hours of my time for a great case study or four hours of my time for no case study at all.”


I can explain with — what else? — a case study of two testimonial projects.

Case Study #1: Company A and their client WidgetSoft

Company A’s project got off to a great start. Even before they contacted me, their VP of sales called the CEO of WidgetSoft and asked if we could get a testimonial from their head of IT. The WidgetSoft CEO agreed.

Company A’s VP sent me

    • background on their product
    • the history of the relationship between the two companies
    • phone numbers for the IT folks WidgetSoft.

I studied the materials, set up two phone interviews (mentioning the CEO’s agreement when I called), conducted the interviews, and wrote a draft. After Company A reviewed my draft, I sent a revised version over to WidgetSoft for review, along with a request for a photo of Company A’s product in use at WidgetSoft. When the draft came back, I incorporated their comments and changes and submitted the final version to Company A — along with a bill for 5 hours of my time.

Case Study #2: Company B and their client Gadgetron

Company B’s PR person called me to say that one of their salespeople had a buyer at Gadgetron who just loved Company B’s product. They wanted me to write a testimonial after talking with the exuberant salesperson and his customer.

I set about contacting the Company B salesperson, with repeated emails and phone messages. A week later, he got back to me with

    • links to background on their product
    • some numbers on how many units they’d sold to Gadgetron at various times over an unspecified period
    • a phone number for the IT buyer at Gadgetron.

Dead end on the roadI studied the materials and called the number. Sure enough, the IT folks at Gadgetron did indeed love  Company B’s  product. But the buyer’s numbers for how many products they’d purchased were considerably lower than the numbers from Company B. I also found out, at the end of the 30-minute interview, that Gadgetron’s PR department does not let employees endorse products, so I couldn’t quote any of the nice things the buyer told me. When I reported all this back to the Company B PR woman, she said “Well, can’t you write something?”

It was downhill from there. I  called the Gadgetron PR guy, who’d never heard of Company B. He said I needed to send him all of my interview questions and he’d see if he could get an executive to comment. Emails went back and forth, and eventually he sent a feeble quote to the effect that “Gadgetron believes that every company needs to buy products such as those made by Company B and other companies.” A photo? Get real.

By now, the PR person at Company B was impatient and exasperated. She sent me the original email from the salesperson, full of vague claims and what I now knew to be overstated numbers, and suggested that based on that I should be able to write some sort of case study. When I suggested that she ask the VP of sales at Company B to call one of the executives at Gadgetron, her response was that she couldn’t “bother” the VP of sales with “that sort of thing.” They’d hired me because I write testimonials, she noted, so why hadn’t I written one? With a sigh, I emailed her the name of her PR counterpart at Gadgetron — along with an invoice for the four hours of my time spent failing to write her testimonial.

The Bottom Line

If the second scenario above sounds familiar, it’s time to make some changes. If you’re the PR person, take a lesson from Company A (or, better yet, look for a job at Company A). If you’re the writer, take a firm stand. Say that you’ll be happy to conduct and write up an interview with an executive at their client company — as soon as they line one up for you.

A story about me

Austin author Rebecca Schwarz wrote a story about me for the Clarion West Write-a-thon (well, a story about the OTHER me).

Austin author Rebecca Schwarz wrote a story about me for the Clarion West Write-a-thon (well, a story about the other me). I supported her in the Write-a-thon, and, in the separate reality she writes about in the story, I’m sure the other me would have supported her as well! It’s a great story.

The Write-a-thon is drawing to a close. Huge thanks to the folks who have sponsored me. I pledged to write three short stories and submit one; as it turned out, I completed two stories and wrote 8,000 words of back story for a fiction project I’m outlining.

Three of my donors sent in hefty $100 donations, and I matched those  donations with $100 donations in support of three other Write-a-thon participants. At this point, the Write-a-thon has raised just over $20,000 for Clarion West. We’ll still be taking donations through the participants’ pages until mid August.

Thank you to everyone who wrote, who donated, and who otherwise supported the Clarion West Writers Workshop this summer.


Back when the U.S. was an agrarian society, schools closed in the summer so students (and teachers) could help with the harvests.

Ironically, this long outdated calendar is what now gives many of us time off in the summer to attend (or teach) workshops.

My friend Mike Schway just posted a video of Cajun grand master Milton Vanicor performing (and teaching) at Fiddle Tunes at Fort Warden. Many of us have been posting pictures of Neil Gaiman reading (and teaching) at the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle. Mike, who players fiddle and accordion, wouldn’t dream of missing Fiddle Tunes. Just as I wouldn’t dream of missing the Clarion West Write-a-thon.

Write. Now.

It’s time to join Clarion West’s “shadow workshop” and spend the summer writing.

Are you a wordsmith who wants to spend more time writing fiction?

I’m always delighted when my friends in journalism, marketing communications, and technical writing reveal that they have fiction projects underway — novels, short stories, poetry, and flash fiction. I want to tell you about a great way to get some of that creative work done this summer, as part of a virtual community of 300 writers.

Clarion West is a Seattle nonprofit that for 30 years has hosted a six-week residential summer workshop for writers of speculative fiction. It also has less-intensive opportunities for those of us who want to experiment with fiction writing or get back to a neglected fiction project. One of those opportunities is the summer Write-a-thon.

The Write-a-thon is like a Walk-a-thon, but usually less physical (unless your computer is on one of those new treadmill desks).

speculative fiction write-a-thon
You really should write that story.

Here’s how the Write-a-thon works: You set goals for your fiction writing and, if you want, a goal for raising money for Clarion West’s operations. Then you create a Clarion West account and a Write-a-thon page. After that, all you have to do is start writing.

If you’re the marketing type, tell your friends what you’re doing and ask them to support you and Clarion West. If you’re shy — hey, that’s OK. Clarion West will list you on their website, with a link to a Write-a-thon page where people can read your bio and an excerpt of your (published or unpublished) writing. You’ll attract donors (and perhaps secret admirers) this way.

Perks of Write-a-thon participation include hanging out with the Clarion West community on Facebook and attending “Tweet-ups” with some very cool authors.

I hope you’ll join me in getting some writing done this summer and raising some money for Clarion West.

My Clarion West Write-a-thon page is up. I’ve set the goal of writing three new short stories and submitting one to a magazine or anthology. I’ve also set a goal of raising $1,000 towards Clarion West’s operating expenses.

I hope you’ll join us, as a writer (Sign up before June 22!) or as a donor (You’ll have until August 2 to make a contribution). Please visit the Clarion West Write-a-thon headquarters to check out the growing list of Write-a-thon participants and read excerpts of fiction from hot new authors like Corry Skerry, Cat Rambo, and Jude-Marie Green and established novelists like Steve Miller and Cassie Alexander.

Please feel free to ask me questions about Clarion West, and I’ll be happy to answer them.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Clarion West board of directors and I’m committed to making a transformational workshop experience available for talented and courageous writers. 

1 terabyte of guilty storage

Be aware: What you save in cash on a yard sale bargain may cost you in karma. This is the story of my new 1-terabyte hard drive.

I don’t feel at all guilty about the new iMac I bought for my office. I am, however, experiencing some real stress about the brand-new 1-terabyte Western Digital hard drive I’m using to handle Time Machine backups for the iMac.

That’s because I only paid $5 for it.

At a yard sale.

Here’s the story:

garage sale writer wayOn a bright sunny Saturday last summer, we were headed off on errands when we detoured to follow a yard sale sign. We found ourselves on a neat little block where the corner house had tables and clothing racks set out. It was a real “chick” yard sale — like a chick flick, but all the squealing is over inexpensive Nordstrom clothing rather than cute guys. Two perky blonde moms with their adorable blond children had set out a sale of gently used clothing, toys, and decor items. Tom, probably with a mind to accruing points so that he could thoroughly  investigate a subsequent yard sale full of DVDs, wandered around while I perused the racks of elegant clothing, looking for something that was not too floral or pastel. As I recall, I found a nice navy blue scarf. I didn’t pay much attention when Tom waved a bright green shrink-wrapped box at me and said “Only five dollars.”

“Sure,” I said, vaguely registering something called “My Book.” I figured it was a kid’s toy of some kind, or perhaps a little gadget for digital photos.

It was only the following day that I saw the “My Book” on our mail table, took a close look, and realized it was a brand-new 1-terabyte hard drive. I looked online and discovered that it sells at places like OfficeMonster for between $125 and $175.

“That much?” Tom marveled. He’d assumed it was something old and out of date.

Obviously, there’d been a terrible mistake at the yard sale. But we couldn’t remember where the yard sale had been. On the way to the store the next day, we drove through the neighborhood where the sale had been, but the sale signs were down and all the neat little blocks looked the same.

So, there we were. With somebody’s expensive hard drive, and a bit of guilt.

But, wait — the story gets worse. Or better, depending on your sense of humor.

A week or two after the yard sale, I was at the local OfficeMonster buying what I always seem to be buying there — HP ink cartridges. I got into the checkout line and sighed. Our local OfficeMonster has a cashier ( let’s call her Brunhilde) who is slow as an ancient laser printer. She asks you if you need any of their weekly specials and goes through each item while you vehemently say “No” to each one. She asks if you have your special coupons — and clucks at you if you don’t. She asks if you have your OfficeMonster Preferred Dinosaur card. And she enunciates every syllable of it all.

The handsome man in front of me in the line looked about ready to strangle Brunhilde. He was clearly in  a hurry. He had only one item on the counter, was waving cash, and his two adorable little blond children were tugging at his leg.

“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”

“Daddy’s hurrying,” he told them through clenched teeth, as Brunhilde droned her way through a list of weekly specials.

She finally rang up the purchase, and that’s when I noticed the item the fellow was buying. It was a  bright green shrink-wrapped box. It looked familiar. So, come to think of it, did the two adorable little blond children. I’d seen them, and a 1-terabyte Western Digital hard drive, before. At that yard sale.

I opened my mouth. And closed it. And opened my mouth again. And closed it.

This was tricky. I realized that if I told this man I’d purchased his hard drive at a yard sale a few weeks earlier, I stood a chance of creating a larger problem than I was solving. If he’d been assured by his wife that his hard drive was “probably lost,” and I stepped forward with information that confirmed his darkest suspicions that it had been “lost” in her yard sale — well, things could get ugly. And then there was Brunhilde. Triggering something that would result in her having to void a purchase would hardly make us popular with the long line of OfficeMonster customers already fidgeting behind me.

While I stood there weighing my options, the two adorable blond children were dragging their grouchy dad and his new hard drive out of the store and into the parking lot. Brunhilde had grabbed my ink cartridges and launched into her recitation of the weekly specials. I nodded along, in a daze. To her delight and amazement, I accidentally bought 10 reams of OfficeMonster paper.

At least someone was having a good day.

That night, I told Tom what had happened — and not happened — at the office supplies store.

“Oh my,” was all he said.

I’m now enjoying the 1-terabyte Western Digital hard drive, but remain aware that what I saved in cash I probably spent in karma. So we’ve resolved that the next time we have a yard sale we’ll include one or two really spectacular bargains.


Social Media Survival presentation

A social media program that makes perfect sense today is likely to be significantly out of alignment in 18 months.

Last night I spoke about social media at Lee Schoentrup’s class on public relations writing at the University of Washington. This is the sixth year I’ve done the presentation. I think when I started, with blogger Peggy Sturdivant, all we talked about was…blogging.

Six years later, the list of social media tools I cover goes on, and on, and on. While in the past I’ve focused on social media strategies for particular tools, this year I revamped the presentation to focus on the need for a social media strategy that can roll with continuous change. I pointed to trends affecting social media, including:

  • Crowds (crowdsourcing, etc.)
  • Increasing use of mobile devices to create and access social media content
  • The return of organic content after the recent obsession with SEO

It’s clear to me that a social media program that makes perfect sense today is likely to be significantly out of alignment in 18 months. Who knew two years ago that companies would be getting mileage out of Facebook and Pinterest? How many companies are providing a good experience for the growing number of people who visit their blogs (or Facebook and LinkedIn pages) using a smartphone? How many are even aware of the social media consequences (good and bad) of sprinkling “Like” and “Share” buttons around their web pages?

I changed the topic of the presentation from “Social Media Success” to “Social Media Survival.” It’s a jungle out there.

Members of the UW class who would like to download a PDF of the Keynote presentation will find it here: SME – UW – 2013.

The return of Amazing Stories

Steve Davidson and a team of 50 bloggers have relaunched Amazing Stories magazine as a community site for science fiction fans.

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 1.56.48 PMApril 1926 — Hugo Gernsback, publisher of Electrical Experimenter science magazine, launched the first magazine devoted to science fiction — or what Gernsback liked to call “scientifiction.” Amazing Stories was published for almost 80 years, passing through the hands of a wide range of publishers (including, in the late 1990s, Wizards of the Coast). It debuted writers including Isaac Asimov and Ursula K. Le Guin, but the magazine suffered from uneven leadership, uneven quality, and controversial editorial policies. It ceased publication in 2005.

January 21, 2013 — Steve Davidson of Experimenter Publishing (note the company name) has re-launched Amazing Stories as a web community, with the goal of establishing a market that will enable him to revive the professional fiction magazine. Davidson, curator of the Classic Science Fiction Channel website and author of several books on paintball, spent three years obtaining the rights to the Amazing Stories name. He published two online issues of the magazine last year, as a proof of concept.

“Every genre fan now has a chance to help support the creation of a new market for the stories, artwork, and articles they all love so much,” Davidson said in a news release this morning.

At the core of the new site’s content are posts by a team of bloggers covering a wide range of science fiction-related topics. The site will offer product reviews, convention news and listings, and will take advertising.

I have more than just a science fiction reader’s interest in the revival of Amazing Stories. I’m going to be one of the bloggers for the site, writing primarily (but not exclusively) about my explorations of science fiction-related communities including gaming, girl geekdom, the Maker community, Steampunk, Browncoats, Discworld, and SF/mystery crossovers. Please come join us at Amazing Stories.

Space. Magic. What more could you ask?

An ebook of David Levine’s short story collection, Space Magic, including his Hugo Award-winning story “Tk’Tk’Tk,” is out from Book View Café today.

An ebook of David Levine’s short story collection, Space Magic, including his Hugo Award-winning story “Tk’Tk’Tk,” is out from Book View Café today. You’ll find it at amazon.com, in Apple’s iBookstore, at nook.com, and at the Book View Café online store.

This includes some of the finest speculative fiction I’ve read. David’s explorations of astonishingly imaginative “what if?” scenarios are precise, rigorous, and often deeply moving. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Levine Space Magic“This Endeavour Award-winning collection pulls together 15 critically acclaimed science fiction and fantasy stories that take readers from a technicolor cartoon realm to an ancient China that never was, and from an America gone wrong to the very ends of the universe. Including the Hugo Award-winning “Tk’Tk’Tk,” the Writers of the Future Award winner “Rewind,” “Nucleon,” “The Tale of the Golden Eagle,” and many other highly praised stories, Space Magic shows David D. Levine’s talents not only as a gifted writer but as a powerful storyteller whose work explores the farthest reaches of space as well as the depths of the human heart.”

The collection is $5.99, and the stories in it are available as individual ebooks for 99 cents each. Highly recommended.

Book View Café (“Because you can never have too many ebooks”) publishes works by Vonda N. McIntyre, Laura Anne Gilman, Jeffrey A. Carver, Phyllis Irene Radford, Linda Nagata, Chaz Brenchley, and many other speculative fiction, mystery, and romance authors. While you’re there, check out Chris Dolley’s Reeves & Worcester Steampunk mysteries, including What Ho, Automation!

To engage website readers, replace “we” with “you”

To engage website visitors, shift the focus from what your organization is doing for them to what they can do with your products and services.

photo showing people pointing to youWhen I edit a client’s website, the first thing I look at is tone. If the content makes the reader feel passive, powerless, or bored, I spice it up. Sometimes spicing it up involves adding more substantive, useful information. But, oddly, often all it requires is changing a few words. This has become so instinctive for me that I don’t often analyze how I’m doing it.

Recently a woman whose website I was editing asked how she could write copy that wouldn’t need to be edited and recast. This forced me to look at exactly what I was doing to enliven her copy. Here’s what I discovered:

I change sentences that leave the reader in a passive position (relative to the website) to sentences that focus the spotlight on the reader and his or her experience.

Example: “We have arranged for rapid check-in.” becomes “You’ll enjoy rapid check-in when you arrive.”

While this is natural for me, as an outside consultant, it’s difficult for in-house writers. That’s because they are so aware of how hard the organization has worked on a project they can’t resist the temptation to pat themselves or their colleagues on the back. They don’t notice that it comes across as subtly off-putting to the reader — particularly on a website where every topic begins with a description of how admirable the organization (“we”) is .

The cold, hard, fact is that the reader just doesn’t care; the reader wants to know what’s in it for him or her. Organizations like Amazon.com recognize that. They don’t tell you how they’ve been working their tails off to make the site convenient for you. They tell  you about all the things you can now do with their site.

Example: “We have chosen iPad photography as the topic for the next meeting.” focuses on the exclusive little group making decisions. It could be recast to use a genuine, inclusive “we”: “We’ll be discussing iPad photography.” Even better, it could focus on the website visitor:  “Bring your experiences and questions about iPad photography to the next meeting.”

My client recognized the change of tone that resulted, and said she was going to give it a try.

What do you think? Does shifting from the organizational “we” to a customer-focused “you” make a significant difference? Are there downsides to it?

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