Foresight, hindsight, and the mid-term elections

“Bonding over stories is an ancient, primal pastime. Bards and tale-tellers kept the lights on through the dark times, and hopefully we can do the same.”

B Cubed Press books

On November 7, we’ll know if the Democrats and progressives have taken back Congress — or if the Republicans have, once again, succeeded in doing what people keep saying they can’t possibly get away with.

What does the future hold? For the past two years, the people at B Cubed Press have been grappling with that question.

Bob Brown, a publisher from Eastern Washington, pulled two dozen of us together in the wake of the presidential inauguration to work on Alternative Truths, an anthology so successful that he followed up with More Alternative Truths, After the Orange (stories about a post-Trump future), and Alternative Theologies: Parables for a Modern World. Each anthology added more writers and more points of view. B Cubed Press projects have attracted some of the sharpest futurists around, among them poet and children’s book author Jane Yolen, blogger Jim Wright (Stonekettle Station), and science fiction authors David Gerrold and Brenda Cooper.

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 7.54.18 PMBrown says that when he formed B Cubed Press and published the first Alternative Truths anthology, he thought he knew what he was doing. “It was meant as satire about the political situation. Not as prophecy.”

He was taken aback when many of the dark stories and poems in his science fiction anthology were rapidly outpaced — by the daily news.

“We wrote assuming there were constraining structures in place, things that would have prevented some of the great idiocies,” he says. “We were wrong. We wrote about the presidency and the accompanying absurdities, not imagining the collaboration that would come from Congress. Things we envisioned as dark possibilities became prophecies — and now a shameful history that will shape our country for most of our lives.”

Brown has a fifth anthology, Alternative Truths: Endgame, in the works. While the pool of contributors grows, many of us keep returning to the challenge of describing the country’s political future through fiction and poetry. My first story for Brown was a dystopian tale of an architect acclaimed in 2020 for designing the eldercare community of the future. Forty years later, when the story takes place, she’s trapped in her failing community after the country’s human services and healthcare systems have collapsed. For my second Alternative Truths story, I turned to humorous fantasy, imagining a feisty Molly Ivins and vengeful Walter Cronkite sending LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover back from the afterlife to haunt the Trump White House.

What’s next?

With the mid-term elections just a few weeks away, I asked my fellow B Cubed Press authors to look back on what they wrote in 2017 and early 2018. Were their predictions accurate? Were their fears justified? Are any of their proposed solutions being implemented? Are we still on track for some of the far futures outlined in After the Orange? Is there anything in their stories they’d change? Are they optimistic or pessimistic about the political future? Do they feel that we, as writers, can make any difference?

As usual, they had plenty to say. Their responses touched on topics ranging from the future of the environment to the power of fiction as a political tool. Some saw reasons for hope, others a darkening horizon. Here are excerpts from their responses, with links to the B Cubed Press books in which their stories and poems appear.

Reasons for hope

James Dorr, whose poem “Tit for Tat” appears in Alternative Theologies, is putting his hope in future generations. “I’m optimistic if younger people will invest more into the political process, including voting,” he says.

Manny Frishberg, editor of After the Orange, is “guardedly optimistic” about the future. He notes: “As Winston Churchill said, ‘Democracy is a very bad form of government, but let me remind you, all the rest are so much worse.’”

Marilyn Holt (author of the Alternative Theologies story “Everlasting Due”) is looking to the Midwest for leadership. “Medicine is strong in the Midwest, and there are some excellent schools,” she says. “This combination gives me hope. The Midwest could become a financially vibrant middle ground. It will look more like California or the Puget Sound area than Georgia.”

Lou Antonelli wrote the alternate history “Queens Crossing” for More Alternative Truths. “I believe America is a more durable and resilient nation than some people think,” he says. “Whatever you think of the present political climate, ‘this too shall pass.’”

Elana Gomel, author of “The Desert of the Real” (After the Orange), speaks from an immigrant’s perspective. “I am optimistic by nature,” she says. “Our family escaped one of the most evil regimes the world has ever known: the USSR. At the time, that behemoth of the empire, straddling half the world, seemed invincible. And yet less than a decade later it was gone. The USA is a great country with great people. Its relative youth, its immigrant diversity, its fierce individualism are its great strengths. I don’t believe it will ever go down the rabbit hole of totalitarianism. My grandmother survived Hitler and Stalin. Surely the people of this country can survive Trump.”

Philip Brian Hall, whose stories appear in More Alternative Truths and Alternative Theologies, also believes the people will prevail. A U.K. citizen, he says: “I fear, in short, that the roots of democracy may be shallower than we thought and the still relatively young plant frailer. But in both our countries I see a great number of good people who have shown they cannot be ignored for too long and pushed too far by professional politicians who have forgotten, if they ever knew, what it is like to be an ordinary citizen. This encourages me to believe that we can yet revitalize our political life and reconnect with the sound underlying principles of government to which our two countries, in particular, first gave expression in thought and deed.”

Faith in the mid-terms

Blaze Ward’s story “The Last Ranger” (Alternative Truths) is about the last federal park ranger certified to protect public lands. Ward hopes the mid-term elections will ensure that his tale remains a fantasy. “If we can overturn the House and maybe even the Senate, we’ll only be a decade undoing the damage,” he says. “If not, we’ll be generations.”

Brenda Cooper, whose “Maybe the Monarchs” (After the Orange) is about failed attempts to mitigate climate change, is also focused on the mid-terms. “We are in a race to save the planet, and the people running America right now clearly don’t care,” she says. “But as we approach the mid-terms I’m hoping that we manage to pull out a blocking move by taking at least one of the House and/or Senate.  I see more women running, more people of color running, more voters who are energized. I work in a local government, and our government works well and is reasonably responsive to constituents, cares about the planet, and works hard to create what we call an ‘inclusive and welcoming community.’”

Rebecca Kyle, who co-edited More Alternative Truths and contributed stories to three of the anthologies, is also putting her faith in the mid-terms. “We have a solid chance to vote some of the worst of them in the House and Senate out,” Kyle says. “I’ve noted some ‘career’ Republicans in my state have retired. ‘Cashed in’ is the description some political pundits are using. They may see their party now as a finite resource and their reputation is better served by getting out.”

Phyllis Irene Radford, an editor of Alternative Truths, More Alternative Truths, and Alternative Theologies, says “I’m waiting with bated breath for the mid-terms to see if voters realize the mistakes they made in choosing the current regime.”

Voices from the dark side

Several of the B Cubed Press authors report that they are losing hope.

“I’m still pretty wrung out from the whole Kavanaugh drama — and that isn’t even finished yet,” says Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. Her story “” appears in More Alternative Truths.

Stuart Hardy lives in the UK, which faces a similar political situation. His story, “A Beautiful Industry” (More Alternative Truths) portrays immigrants scapegoated for taking working class jobs when, he says, “it’s actually the mechanization of industry that’s seen a decline in manufacturing work.”

“If we don’t tackle the causes of political unrest, the next Trump may not just happen but the next Trump may be competent and be able to cause even greater damage than Trump’s managed,” Hardy says, “and that’s what terrifies me.”

J.G. Follansbee, whose story about global warming, “The Orange Street Parking Garage is FULL/OPEN,” appears in After the Orange, warns that time is running out. “Our government is showing no inclination whatsoever for tackling this problem in a serious way. I’m glad localities, such as my home town of Seattle, and many states are taking action, but only the federal government has the wherewithal to encourage the kind of change we need,” Follansbee says. “Instead, it seems that Washington will fiddle while the Earth burns.”

E.E. King (“The Faithless Angel” in Alternative Theologies) reports: “I’m pessimistic, but happy — fortunate that I still live in a beautiful world, sad for the creatures in it.”

S. Workman says, “Despite the bleak outlook of my story (“Sandarakinophobia” in After the Orange), I enjoyed having the opportunity to write about a futuristic underwater civilization, and speculating on what kind of society might result from it.”

Debora Godfrey, who wrote “Non-White in America” (More Alternative Truths) and “Don’t Get the Bible Wet” (Alternative Theologies) says her outlook these days is pessimistic. “My story ‘Non-White in America’ could be in the newspaper any day now,” she notes.

Hindsight about foresight

Quite a few of the authors said they’d have written their stories differently if they’d known what the next 18 months would bring.

Christopher Nadeau, who wrote “Ultimate Messiah Smackdown” for Alternative Theologies, says “If there’s an inaccuracy to be found in the story, it’s in the mild, yet easily dashed, optimistic undercurrent. If I’d written that story now, that would not be present.”

Paula Hammond contributed stories to three of the anthologies. “Good Citizens” (Alternative Truths) imagines the aftermath of a second civil war in a ‘whites only’ America while “Ghosts & Glory” (After the Orange) is a climate change story in which vast areas of America are under water. “To be honest, the worlds imagined in these stories are, sadly, becoming even more likely,” she says. “Now I realise that I didn’t go far enough!”

Charles Joseph Alpert wrote “Sunday with Javier and Papi” for After the Orange. The story is set 100 years in the future after a political civil war between the Reds and the Blues. “In the last year, I would say that we’ve only gotten closer to something like a civil war,” he says. “I’m surprised by how misogynistic the Trump camp seems to be growing. I didn’t think to put misogyny in my story.”

Mike Morgan says he would have upped the tension in his tale, “A Spider Queen in Every Home” (More Alternative Truths). “In light of recent events with the Supreme Court, I think I would’ve been tempted to have my lead character defend an obviously egregious sexual assault perpetrated by her manager as — somehow — the fault of the victim,” he says. “Because, it turns out, right-wing folks, they be happy to tie themselves up in logical knots tighter than anything I could’ve predicted in my wildest delusional fantasies.”

Larry Hodges would have given “The Monkey Cage Rules” (Alternative Truths) a more resounding ending. The story currently concludes with the question, “Can anyone rule the monkey cage?” (where “monkey cage” means “politics”). “I’d rather be more blunt,” Hodges says. “Our current politics shows that nobody can rule the monkey cage because our country is too split. I might even want to work in the Lincoln quote, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’”

The story “How to Recognize a Shapeshifting Lizardman (Or Woman) Who Has Been Appointed to a High-Ranking Government Cabinet Position” (More Alternative Truths) is “not so funny anymore,” according to its author, Kurt Newton. “Now that the outlandish has become the norm, the poke is not as funny as first imagined,” he says. “I’d probably either rewrite the piece and take it up a notch to be even more ridiculous, or turn it into something more satirically biting.”

Poet Gwyndyn T. Alexander, who wrote “America Year Zero” (More Alternative Truths) and “A Liberal Prayer” and “A Conservative Prayer” (Alternative Theologies), says “I wish, looking back, that I had found more room for hope. As things get bleaker, hope is harder to find, and each smidgen of it is more precious.”

Manny Frishberg (After the Orange) concludes, “As the editor of a book of post-Trump future stories, I would have tried to find a few more hopeful, optimistic futures to project. Who knew the world would continue to get darker?”

Dreams (or nightmares) come true

While some of the authors felt they’d missed the mark, others were astonished to watch scenes from their fiction appear on the news.

Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 10.21.45 PMWhen John A. Pitts penned “The Last Flight of Captain Kittredge” for After the Orange, he thought his tale of a GOP oligarchy taking control of all three branches of our government was pretty outrageous. But now? Not so much. “We have psychosis gripping the nation, and Russians influencing our populace at an unprecedented level,” Pitts says.

In “aboutthechange.wav” (Alternative Truths) Joel Ewy‘s protagonist becomes unhinged as the truth twists and changes around him. “It was an attempt to understand the consequences of taking part in a forceful redefinition of truth and reality,” Ewy says. “If anything, the events since the time I wrote it have intensified this situation.”

Gregg Chamberlain saw a milder version of a scene from his story “Alt Right for the President’s End” (Alternative Truths) play out. “Trump did appear at the United Nations, but did not ‘break down and explode into cybernetic pieces’ on his way to the podium,” Chamberlain says. “The actual result of his U.N. visit was even better: getting laughed at by the General Assembly for his typical outlandishly inaccurate and fanciful claims.”

Daniel M. Kimmel notes that “It’s All Your Fault” (Alternative Truths) “is a rare story that marks me as prescient. When I wrote about aliens trolling on social media it was long before it came out that there was extensive Russian involvement in influencing the election.”

Edd Vick wrote “Call to Order” (After the Orange) and co-wrote with Manny Frishberg “Twitterstorm” (More Alternative Truths). “All I can say is that the president’s Twitter messages are more outrageous, more deranged, and more unintentionally funny than anything Manny & I could write,” Vick says. He explains, “We had to create a narrative, where Trump just has to stream his consciousness with no regard for consistency or the truth.”

A vote for the power of fiction

Several of the writers and editors involved in the project expressed the hope that their stories might inspire others — to activism, to understanding, and to action.

“I am proud of the authors that have submitted, spoken out, and taken what someday might be a real risk in putting their names on these books,” Bob Brown says. “This is not paranoia — this is looking at what happens under one party rule where the press is vilified, the courts are stacked, and opposition is considered treason.”

Screen Shot 2018-10-24 at 11.18.06 AMMike Adamson, who stands by the dystopian future he portrayed in “Hellrider” (After the Orange), observes: “Creating dystopian science fiction used to be a warning, 40, 50 years ago; now it is a commentary on an ongoing situation, an ‘I told you so’ from the genre to the world. I doubt it gives any writer pleasure to be the one to say that, but, to steal a line from an American president of the past, ‘it must be said again and again with fierce conviction.’ If not by the writers of speculative fiction, then who?”

Perhaps the best way to end this roundup of observations from the B Cubed Press futurists is with Diana Hauer, who wrote “The Trumperor and the Nightingale” for Alternative Truths. She says “I wrote the story with a level of sympathy towards the Trumps that I no longer possess. I’m not sure I could write the same story today, I am too disgusted with everything. That said, I hope we can hold onto some of our human empathy for the other side, even the most deplorable examples. My hope with the work B Cubed is doing is that fiction can start knitting things back together. Bonding over stories is an ancient, primal pastime. Bards and tale-tellers kept the lights on through the dark times, and hopefully we can do the same.”

Where will we be After the Orange?

Screen Shot 2018-07-27 at 8.12.06 PMThe writers and editors who put together the Alternative Truths and More Alternative Truths anthologies have taken a collective leap into our uncertain future with a new book, After the Orange: Ruin and Recovery.

Edited by my talented friend Manny Frishberg, the newest B Cubed Press anthology has stories by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Paula Hammond, Mike Adamson, J.G. Follansbee, me and 24 others. Our stories in After the Orange provide a glimpse of the world in 2032 and beyond.

Manny says: “Some stories are about imagined Resistance fighters while others, like ‘Garbage Patch Kids,’ envision people cheerfully making the best of their situation. Generally, the farther in the future a story looks, the more likely it is to be optimistic.”

“Maybe the Monarchs,” by Endeaver Award-winner Brenda Cooper, and J.G. Follansbee’s “The Orange St. Parking Garage Is FULL/OPEN” are all-to-plausible, and disturbingly so. I heard Brenda read “Maybe the Monarchs” at Norwescon this spring, where many in the audience were moved to tears.

Tom Whitmore, who helped proofread the anthology, recommends Su J. Sokol’s story “Studies in Shadow and Light,” a chilling tale of a government interrogation. I was fascinated by “The Orange Street Parking Garage is FULL/OPEN,” set in the ruins of the nation’s capitol. And I hope you’ll take a look at my story, “Bad Memories, 2032,” about the dedication of the Trump Presidential Library.

As I write this, submissions are about to close for the next B Cubed Press anthology, Alternative Truths III: Endgame. It will bring us back to the political turmoil of the not-to-distant future.

How (and why) to write while furious

How can I write about marketing communications topics when I’m shaking with anger and shame about the political situation in this country? Joe Hage helps me figure things out.

I haven’t been blogging much. How can I write about marketing communications topics when I’m shaking with anger and shame about the political situation in this country?

But marketing communications guru Joe Hage has kept going. He’s been using a weekly email to communicate to his readership (medical device marketers). On Wednesday morning, Joe lowered the boom.

His blunt and courageous email begins:

“I’m angry. I hate him so much. You know who I’m talking about.”

Joe goes on to talk about the flood of information we face every day from highly curated news and marketing streams. We feel as though we’re in a deluge of information that’s deep and fast-running — but it turns out that it’s also deceptively narrow.

As Joe points out, many of us (unless we listen extensively to National Public Radio), have never read or heard about the civil war raging in Nicaragua. Joe didn’t know much about that war, either, until his video editor, who lives in a Nicaraguan city, witnessed a march of soldiers in the street outside her house. They left the dead body of a child in the street as a warning to anyone who might consider opposing them or aiding the opposition.

What does war in Nicaragua mean for someone like me — or you — whose business is all about trying to communicate to readers, donors, or customers? Joe tells his medical device industry colleagues:

“If a civil war in Central America doesn’t even hit our radar, can you imagine how many messages the average citizen is getting per day?”

“Your messaging is not competing with other medical device videos, images, and words. You are competing with every possible stimulus out there.”

In a communications environment like this, Joe asks, “what hope do any of us have in breaking through?”

His answer is that by writing as a real person, he is breaking through. He is engaging. His thousands of readers did read him yesterday morning (even if some of them were hitting “unsubscribe” and grabbing for their blood pressure medication).

My take-away from Joe’s out-of-the-box email? There are a lot of ways to engage people and get them to pay attention.

One of them is to threaten them (dropping dead bodies in the street, for example). Another is to inundate them with the same message, over and over again, drowning out fact and complexity with emotion and oversimplification (our news and marketing feeds). And, yes, a third way is for communicators to be real in their communications. Genuine, heartfelt communication stands out because so few of us do it, or hear it, in our professional roles.

It’s sad that being real, and honest, and thoughtful is “just not done” in the field of business communication. We have tens of thousands of well-dressed, well-educated people marching each day into beautifully decorated, air-conditioned workplaces, attending meetings about product marketing, advertising, and communications strategy, sitting down at their expensive keyboards to devise “messaging” — while inside most of them are all thinking about what’s real: That we live in a country that snatches immigrants out of their homes, separates children from immigrant parents, and puts immigrant families in prisons. Indefinitely.

Now let’s take a look at that PowerPoint, shall we?

(For more information on who Immigration and Customs Enforcement is arresting, why, and how, see this document from the Immigrant Defense Project.)


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.



More Alternative Truths: Stories from the Resistance

In “The Right Man for the Job,” desperate Democrats hold a séance to bring Molly Ivins, Adlai Stevenson II, and Walter Cronkite back from the afterlife to “do something” about Trump.

51i1Zf7iAWL-1What I like best about writing fiction is getting to solve my characters’ problems. And what I like best about writing speculative fiction is getting to use a bit of magic to do so.

Last spring I asked a friend active in Democratic politics what on Earth the party was going to do about Trump. When the answer came back, “We have no idea!” — I knew it was time for a fantastic solution.

The result is my short story “The Right Man for the Job,” published today in the anthology More Alternative Truths (B Cubed Press). In it, desperate Democrats hold a séance to bring Molly Ivins, Adlai Stevenson II, and Walter Cronkite back from the afterlife to “do something” about Trump. The pundit, politician, and newsman refuse to answer the summons, but Cronkite comes up with a better idea: They recruit former president Lyndon Baines Johnson, who is infuriated when he hears what Trump is doing to education, healthcare, and the rest of the Great Society’s programs. Armed with his favorite Scotch, his beagles, and some damning evidence obtained from the late J. Edgar Hoover, LBJ comes back as a ghost to terrify the White House, the Executive Office Building and Capitol Hill.

More Alternative Truths, available as an ebook and in paperback, is the brainchild of Bob Brown of B Cubed Press. His company’s debut anthology, Alternative Truths, has 89 reviews and a 5-star rating on (A third anthology, After the Orange, is now open for submissions.)

For More Alternative Truths, Brown pulled together an editorial team that includes Lou J Berger, Phyllis Irene Radford, and Rebecca McFarland Kyle. The 45 writers involved include major names in contemporary science fiction: Lou Antonelli, David Brin, Adam-Troy Castro, Esther Friesner, Philip Brian Hall, Vonda N. McIntyre, John A. Pitts, Irene Radford, Mike Resnick, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Jane Yolen, and Jim Wright. (Wright’s essay for the first anthology, “President Trump, Gettysburg, November 19, 1863,” spawned its own theater piece (complete with Trump in a stovepipe hat and Melania at his side in bonnet, shawl and sunglasses), now available as a YouTube video. In More Alternative Truths, Wright casts Trump as Moses presenting the Ten Commandments.)

The stories themselves range from chilling and grim to amusing and delightful. Stephanie Weippert pens a sad letter home from a women’s rights activist serving a life sentence in federal prison. Wonder Vanian gives us the story of a young gay man, wearing the mandatory rainbow on his shirt, on a train on his way to the Atlanta Re-Orientation Camp. In the disturbing “Queens Crossing,” Lou Antonelli poses an alternate reality so plausible that I emerged from it temporarily disoriented. In Manny Frishberg and Edd Vick’s “Tweetstorm,” the president tweets his way into outer space.

In short, this book is the perfect read for anyone who is concerned about the current political situation. Whether you stood up for Hillary, backed Bernie, went the Libertarian route, or just threw your hands in the air and screamed, these stories, poems, and essays will amuse, educate, astonish, and ultimately inspire as we head toward mid-term elections and on to 2020.



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.







Alternative Truths: An unexpected-success story

Alt truths cover
The cover of the Alternative Truths anthology

Just over 100 days ago, on Jan. 23, science fiction author Bob Brown issued a writing challenge: Imagine the future during or after the Trump presidency. Write a story. Submit it to an anthology to be called Alternative Truths.

“This is an anthology about the future in an alternative fact world,” Bob wrote. “What does the future hold? Endless alternative facts? Brilliant leadership? Alien invasions? Zombies in the White House?”

Bob set about co-editing the anthology with Phyllis Irene Radford, vowing to publish the book within the first 100 days of the Trump administration.

As submissions came in, Bob formed the private Facebook group Alternative Truth (now public) so the participants could discuss the project. In a field where submissions generally vanish behind a curtain from which editors issue cryptic rejections, the decision to open-source the anthology project seemed both odd and courageous. Did these people know what they were getting into?

I submitted a dystopian story, “Patti 209,” and joined the Facebook group.

Day by day, Phyl and Bob answered questions about manuscript guidelines, deadlines, and their progress as they waded through what turned out to be 94 submissions. To my surprise, they asked those of us in the Facebook group for our opinions about contract terms, the book’s title, subtitles, tagline, blurbs, cover designs, marketing and more. And the group approved, by Facebook comments and email, Bob’s plan to donate a share of any profits to the ACLU of Washington state.

Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 12.05.13 PM
Editor Bob Brown with the first copies of Alternative Truths

I worried that the group would turn into a breeding ground for arguments and hurt feelings, and even damage the final product. But that never happened. Bob and Phyl stood their ground, made tough decisions, and nailed the ambitious deadline.

The result was not merely a great experience for the writers involved, but a book that launched as the #1 ranked science fiction anthology on Amazon.

How did that happen? To some degree, we’re still trying to figure it out!

What I can tell you is this:

Bob was concerned and curious about living in a world defined by “alternative facts” and governed by people who wield them. He wanted to encourage people to think about the implications of the new Trump government.

To this end, he invited leaders in the fields of science fiction and political commentary to write for the anthology, as well as throwing the project open for general submissions. He received and bought stories from Jim Wright (known for the political blog Stonekettle Station), Endeavor Award-winner Louise Marley, journalist and cultural critic Daniel M. Kimmel, Philip K. Dick Award-winner Adam Troy-Castro, and science fiction critic Marleen S. Barre. Submissions came in from writers in England, Canada, and Wales, as well as from across the U.S.

With guidance from friends in the ebook-publishing collective Bookview Cafe (where Phyl is a member), Bob and Phyl got both an ebook and a print book designed and formatted. Again, members of the Facebook group were invited to help proofread  files. By April 26 files were uploaded to and other platforms. A marketing/PR plan, and a PR person, were in place. But when Alternative Truths, both ebook and print editions, debuted at the top of science fiction and political fiction category rankings on Amazon on April 28, we were all pretty astonished.

We shouldn’t have been. I’d read the book (while helping to proof the formatting) and was delighted by the high quality of the stories Bob and Phyl had chosen and edited. The stories ranged from short to long, journalistic to literary, and hysterically funny to depressingly grim. I think the standouts are Jim Wright’s terrifying “President Trump, Gettysburg, November 19, 1863” and Louise Marley’s heartbreaking “Relics: a fable.”

I’ve just started out as a fiction writer, and, as is the case with many semi-pro authors, my stories appear in anthologies rather than major magazines. I made it into the Aurora Award-winning Second Contacts and The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories. Both of those were traditional publishing experiences, with the editors and publishers responsible for just about everything. Alternative Truths was a whole new approach — one that shouldn’t have worked but which, astonishingly and wonderfully, did.

Stay tuned. Bob’s started planning for volume 2.


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.


Holiday letter-writing tips (2016 remix)

Holiday letters occupy a position just below fruitcake on the top ten list of Things to Dampen the Holiday Spirit. This need not be so.

reindeer-redDo you dare tackle that most controversial of writing assignments, the holiday letter?

It’s a tricky task. The audience should be people distant enough that they don’t already know your news, but close enough that they won’t squint at the return address and ask “Who on earth are ‘Joe and Meredith Saberfogle’?”

I like getting holiday letters from old friends, and I like the challenge of writing them. Here are my (updated for 2016) tips for holiday letter writing.

OK, so holiday letters occupy a position just below fruitcake on the top ten list of Things to Dampen the Holiday Spirit.

This need not be so.

While fruitcakes are pretty much victims of their own cloying recipe of heavy and sweet ingredients, you have complete control over what goes in your holiday letter. Really, you do.

Each year we receive a few dozen holiday letters. Some have me yawning with boredom or rolling my eyes with incredulity by the second sentence. Others have moved me to tears, or had me eagerly reading them out loud to other family members.

Here are a few tips for creating letters that fall into the second group:

1. Write for your recipients, not for your family. If two of your kids made the dean’s list and one was in juvenile court three times last year, don’t feel you need to go into detail about any of it, or invent something for the black sheep to balance out the other kids’ accolades. “Janie is a junior at Oregon State, Pete is in his freshman year at Reed, and Susie is in her last year of high school. We look forward to having the whole family together for the holidays in on the Oregon Coast,” is just fine to keep old neighbors and college friends up-to-date. Many of them can’t remember the kids’ names, anyway.

2. Go short, stay focused. While you will probably start by drawing up a list of the key things that happened to your family during the year, select just two or three to highlight in the letter. Professional and scholastic achievements can be boring and off-putting. Travel and hobbies are almost always a better choice, as they give people not only news about what you’ve been doing but an insight into another region or field of interest. Something really outrageous is ideal — but only if the family member it happened to is OK with it appearing in the letter. “For some reason, Arabella insists on dyeing her hair in atrocious colors,” will amuse the reader, but not Arabella. (Thought it might inspire Arabella to start writing her own holiday letters — mentioning you…)

3. Make it clear who’s writing the letter — that being you. It’s difficult and a bit weird to refer to yourself in the third person, as if a reporter were profiling your family. And it’s even weirder to use “we” and then try to talk about things you did as individuals. Don’t go there. It really is OK for the writer to begin the letter “Elizabeth and I opened a new bookstore in July…” and at the end sign it “Frank and Elizabeth.” People will get it. (When I include stories from other family members describing their activities in first person, I set their words off from the body of the letter as indented paragraphs, in italics. For example:

[…] after our trip to Boston. Tom writes:

I broke away from the tour group and visited the original birthplace of Cthulu. Few people know it, but the Old One co-wrote with Lovecraft […]

4. Talk briefly about why you’re writing the letter. “It’s wonderful to take a few minutes to reflect about the year and share some highlights with friends,” is the type of opening you’re looking for. Don’t apologize. If you feel compelled to open with something like “We hate to bore you all with another long, stilted holiday missive,” you shouldn’t be writing one. Go make some eggnog.

5. Drop names. Not names of famous people, but names of mutual friends and acquaintances. This is even a good time to gossip, as long as you keep it positive. “We ran into Mark and Sandy Connors, our old neighbors from Denver, and discovered Mark left his job at Microsoft and is playing with a heavy metal group. Check out his new album…” This makes your letter a valuable source of genuine news, not just a brag sheet.

5. Keep your mailing list short. Send holiday letters to people you see once or twice a year (or less often) and with whom you genuinely like to keep in touch. Don’t send personal holidays letters to people who are (or were) purely business associates. As far as the people you see on a regular basis at the office or on Facebook? Spare them. They know this stuff anyway.

6. What about the people only one of you knows?  Our increasingly mobile society, our significant-otherships, our late marriages, and our re-marriages mean that quite a few people on your holiday list know one member of a family extremely well and the other members hardly at all. Think twice, maybe three times, before sending a letter to them. A personal note on a card might be better.

I’ll be the first to admit that while some of my holiday letters have been great, other years they have been merely pro forma. I can always use tips and inspiration. Please feel free to add your suggestions in the Comments!

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.

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