The Interview came about because I conjured up a kicker of an opening line. So then it immediately started to fall into place.
Since I have been on countless job interviews, this one was rather easy to write. So I brought forth a memory I have of an interview being conducted over lunch. It was an odd situation. Two guys met with me and neither of them ate anytime. I ate Caesar salad by myself.
Also, as I recall, they were supposed to take me to some swanky-ish place. But instead, we went to Pizzeria Uno. At that moment, I should have known damned well it was not going to go well.
Plot of The Interview
The narrator meets a woman who runs an agency which hunts demons. And then things go a little haywire from there. In particular, during their meeting, the narrator gives away how she can sense demons. So this is vital information. But not when the story ends, it isn’t. Then it turns into an albatross around her neck.
As for the restaurant, it is a combination of a number of places I have been to. The parking lot, in particular, is from Jasper White’s Summer Shack in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But with the wine steward and all, the pretend restaurant in The Interview is a lot more hoity-toity.
The characters are the narrator and the head of the agency. The narrator is the interviewee.
Memorable Quotes from The Interview
“So, how long have you wanted to hunt demons?” The question hung in the air for a second.
The job interview was being conducted over lunch and I had just taken in a big forkful of Fettuccine Alfredo. I washed it down with iced tea, swallowed, wiped my mouth, and tried not to look stupid. “It’s since I was just out of school. My classmates didn’t see them. But I did.”
The Interview has a K rating. While there is some menace behind it, nothing violent happens “on screen”.
Mettle is a punny title. And it may be the best thing I have ever written.
The story sprung out of a dream I had where my wedding ring dissolved while still on my hand. Amateur psychologists, take note!.
I had the basic plot sketched out in an afternoon. I don’t believe I have ever gotten a book together that fast. And I probably won’t ever again. This was just an insane creativity timeline.
So the characters are a mix. Some of them came very quickly. Craig Firenze sprang, almost fully formed, and almost immediately. I heard his voice the loudest and the clearest. Then, as I recall, came Elise Jeffries, Nell Murphy, and Noah Braverman. Kitty Kowalski and Mink Lopez arrived together – Kitty and Mink. But the others took longer. However, I had Mei-Lin’s name pretty early. But I didn’t know too much about the character to start.
This story was exceptionally easy to outline. I changed nearly nothing. The storyline came to me, I wrote it down quickly, and then added a few little flourishes. And then it was ready. Which is amazing and kind of rare, seeing as I am struggling over the Time Addicts outline for Everything is Up For Grabs. So even Untrustworthy was harder to put together.
In early 2020, Mount Tambora erupts as an earthquake hits Southeast Asia. So which came first? That’s sort of irrelevant, as a huge pyroclastic cloud springs up. This cloud blocks out a lot of sunlight and starlight. It gets colder, and dimmer.
Yet at the same time, Chinese students claim their experiments on chromium changed when the chromium somehow converted to vanadium. But that story is buried; Tambora and the earthquake are front page news.
When more elements convert to vanadium, people experience the effects. This includes the loss of gold, which hits financial markets hard. And losses of plutonium and uranium, which put countries on high alert, afraid of a nuclear war.
The more things change, the harder it is to live the way we all used to. So the quoted scene, below, takes place after the power goes out.
Mettle is an odd story for me because there almost isn’t a main character. Instead, the point of view shifts from chapter to chapter. The character with the most ‘screen time’ is probably Colonel Craig Firenze, but the more observational sections come from Nell Murphy. The scene is mostly Brighton, Massachusetts, although there are some scenes in Houston or in downtown Boston, plus a chapter is set mainly on an aircraft flying from Houston.
In a lot of ways, the story more or less takes place in my house.
There are about a dozen characters of note, mainly listed in order of importance:
Jackie (no last name)
Shelley (no last name)
There are a few other named characters but these are seen the most, although Jackie and Shelley are only in one chapter. Which happens to be the same chapter. The last six on the list do not get a POV chapter.
Memorable Quotes from Mettle
He started to dump the corn into a bowl.
Mink came into the kitchen. “What’s left in the cabinets?”
“Green beans, some tuna, I think I saw tomato paste in there,” Dez said as Mink opened the cabinets and started to look for herself.
“There’s pumpkin pie filling, too, and we still have peanut butter. I wish we had bread.”
“Want some corn?” He offered her the second bowl and fork.
“Yeah, sure, thanks.” He dumped about half of his bowlful into her bowl. “Kitty, what are you gonna have?”
“I want French toast.”
“If we had eggs, we could make French toast, if we had bread. And a working toaster. Aunt Doreen used to say shit like that.”
Mink just shrugged and ate as did Dez. When they were done, she bussed the dishes to the sink and washed them, and then started to wash the other dishes. “Man oh man, we don’t have to live like pigs. Can somebody dry?”
Kitty made a beeline out of the kitchen. Dez came over. “Just leave ‘em on the rack. I can get ‘em later.”
Rating for Mettle
So Mettle has an MA rating. I am not kidding. While there are no sex scenes (a few are implied, though), every single main character has a potty mouth. Plus there are any number of violent scenes. Some are more graphic than others but the worst should be rather disturbing.
I 100% mean this.
One thing which was great fun about this story was writing it with 9 1/2 points of view. I say a half because the first chapter is mainly news stories. So that one doesn’t quite count. And I have changed it to add little scenelets but the common thread is the news.
Each chapter worked as a separate POV. This is a style of writing I had not attempted before. And I found it exhilarating but it’s important to not confuse the reader. So I would really love to get beta readers on this one!
Figure out which content you’ve got and archive whatever isn’t working for you, e. g. fulfilling some sort of purpose. Good purposes include building trust and expertise, answering customer questions and facilitating sales. Not such good purposes are things like get some content out there because we’re naked without it!
Archive that Stuff!
For whatever currently published content that does not fulfill a good purpose, either archive it or get rid of it entirely. It does not help you, and it may very well harm your company.
Get someone in charge of content. Not surprisingly, a Content Strategist comes to mind but definitely get someone to steer the ship.
Listen to the customers and the company regarding content. The company may be setting out content that’s confusing to the users. The users may be asking for something that can’t quite work. It may or may not be in the company’s best interests to fix either problem, but at least you’ll know what the issue is and,
Start asking why content exists out there in the first place.
This process begins with a content audit, e. g. know what you’ve got out there. Then talk to the users. And, once you finish these processes, you can start to think of a strategy.
Yes, it’s really that much time before actually creating any content. Why? Because doing the ramp-up now will save a lot of headaches later. Think it’s a bear to audit and check every single piece of content on your site now? How are you going to feel about it next year?
I bet it would thrill to only have as much content to deal with as you have right now, at this very moment. So start swinging that lasso now. It’s time to audit.
I have to say, while I can see where Ms. Halvorson is coming from. Furthermore, there was also a large chunk of the book devoted to, essentially, justifying the Content Strategist’s existence. And perhaps this is necessary with a new discipline – I don’t know. But it does make for an edge of defiance, e. g. this discipline is good enough!
The Last Patient was written for the Stardust, Always anthology. All of the proceeds go to the American Cancer Society. Please give generously, even if you never buy the book.
This short story is based on real events from my life.
When I was in my first two years of college, I had a therapist. He was a fun guy; I liked him. Then I left Boston for the summer between sophomore and junior year. When I returned, I noticed he was more stooped and paler. He seemed to be tired and weak. I asked him what was wrong and he told me he had lung cancer. Keep in mind, this was late 1981 and that was essentially a death sentence.
I saw Dr. Brodie a few more weeks, with our last session happening before Halloween of that year. He told me that he didn’t want to see his other patients, who were all a lot older. At age nineteen, he felt I was lively and that helped him. He told me that I was his last patient.
This story was lifted directly from my memories: hook, line, and sinker. A few of the quotes are precisely as I remember them. It wasn’t writing. This was me taking dictation from my own memories.
The only characters are the unnamed narrator and Dr. Richard Brodie.
Thirty-five years ago, a sacred trust was unexpectedly given to me, to be a friend and confidant to the man who was supposed to be mine. I did what I could, but I was not ready for it.
The story has a K rating.
I would have liked to have shown him works like Untrustworthy. I think he would have been happy for me.
As a part of our required readings for the social media writing class at Quinnipiac, we read On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. This was a terrific book.
On Writing Well covers a multitude of issues that writers can face. Zinsser gives writers the freedom to occasionally break some rules, or at least to bend them. Moreover, he gives reasons why one type of construction might work better than another.
For Zinsser, the start and the end pack heavy punches. On Page 54, he writes,
“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he’s hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the ‘lead’.”
Not only is this good advice for fiction writing, it’s excellent for report writing and for writing for the web. How many times have we had to slog through a ton of prose before getting to the good stuff? How many times have we tried to hang in there when we’d rather be doing anything but tackling an opaque garbage can full of prose?
Active Versus Passive Tense
Many writers are told to prefer active to passive tense when writing. Zinsser explains why, on Page 67,
“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style – in clarity and vigor – is the difference between life and death for a writer.”
A little over the top, maybe, but it does get the point across.
Don’t dance around your subject. Be bold. And be clear. Be terse.
Podcasting can get you to a wider audience. It’s a different medium from what you might be used to. And it offers practice and the opportunity to polish some skills that you, the writer, might not have realized you needed, such as thinking on your feet and being an interview subject.
Alas, I currently no longer podcast. But these tips don’t go out of style.
Getting Started with Podcasting
What do you need for podcasting? This image is a pretty good summary of what you need –
The good news is that you have most of this stuff already. In fact, you don’t even need everything that’s in the image.
It doesn’t seem to matter too much which type of computer you use. You really just need an Internet connection. You will need some speed, so dispense with dial up if you’re still using it (someone out there is, right?). I would, though, recommend using an actual computer as opposed to a phone for podcasting, as the resultant file is going to be huge.
The image shows a studio-style mic, but the truth is, you don’t need to get quite so fancy. My own microphone is part of a headset. It works just fine and most importantly, the mouthpiece is adjustable. You want adjustability because, inevitably, you’re going to sneeze or cough, or the phone will ring or whatever.
To be able to talk to your fellow podcasters on your show, or to your guests, you’ll need some software. Essentially what you are looking for is chat. My team and I liked to use TeamSpeak. I imagine you could do as well with Yahoo! or Facebook chat. Just make sure that whatever you are using is private. Oh, and turn any sound notifications off.
If you’re going to put your podcast on YouTube (I think this is generally a good idea), you’ll need software for that, too. I use software that came from my school, Screencast-o-matic. The school also uses TechSmith Relay but I prefer Screencast-o-matic. Either way, you want software which allows you to record a fairly long video.
You may not think that you need any sort of visual art software, but I beg to differ. At minimum, your podcast needs a logo or at least a slide that you can slap onto the front of your YouTube video. Photoshop or Gimp is ideal, but Paint or even Microsoft PowerPoint can do in a pinch.
If you are going to use an image that you didn’t make, check the license! I like to use Wikimedia Commons as a lot of their images have open licenses or they just require an attribution and nothing more. But remember – just because an image exists online and you can right-click and save it, does not mean that you have permission to use it! When in doubt, use one of your own images. I like to use scenery images if I don’t have a logo. Scenery can even be something really tiny, such as one flower bud.
For sound editing, the beauty of TeamSpeak is that it allows for sound recording. But you will still need to trim something or other. I have Audacity though I admit I don’t use it for much (I don’t do the sound editing for our podcast). But Audacity is otherwise useful.
You should practice before you try to go anywhere with podcasting. It doesn’t need to be long or involved. Get to know the software. For example, TeamSpeak allows for a push to talk feature. Use it! This will help a lot when you are recording, as you need to consciously press a button for any sound to come out. Practice using this until it’s second nature.
Use Audacity, and record yourself saying something simple and scripted. It can be a nursery rhyme or the like. You don’t want to be doing this for more than a minute or so.
The idea here is to listen to playback. Can you be understood? Are you too breathy? Does your accent push through a bit too much? Do you talk too fast? Every single one of these issues can be fixed, including the accent.
Fix Your Audio
Generally, you will need to slow down and enunciate. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun, but at least in the beginning you’ll want to talk more slowly, in particular if you have a thick accent.
If you’re too breathy-sounding, try bringing the mic farther away from your mouth. As for outside noises, you’ll need to close windows and doors, put pets outside, and turn off fans and space heaters. Set your phone on mute.
When you work with co-hosts, practice with them at least once. Remember to not talk over them and, if you’re laughing at their jokes, you need assure that even your laughter is being recorded.
Hosts and Guests
Consider your subject and your potential audience. On the G & T Show, we talked about Star Trek and Star Trek Online. This included the novels and cosplay. We would also branch out to talk about other gaming and other science fiction. Having this broad a topic but with its own limitations made it fairly easy to come up with show ideas. As for guests, our hosts networked at conventions, in the STO game, and on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
A co-host is an extremely good idea, as otherwise you’re talking to yourself a lot. While you could carry a show by yourself, it’s a lot easier if you don’t have to. Three hosts tends to be a really good number, particularly if the third is not too active. You’ll quickly find your hosts unconsciously dividing into three groups:
The talker – this person won’t necessarily stay on topic all the time, but they can fill dead air.
The organizer – this person understands creating a theme and keeping the show on target. This person often remembers to thank the guests.
The utility infielder – this person can chime in and also cover if either of the first two cannot podcast. Along with the organizer, this person often performs research and gathers potential podcast material in advance.
As for guests, consider your circle, both online and off. You can podcast without guests, and you will most likely need to get a few under your belt before anyone will want to visit.
However, when you do get guests, the usual details apply, e. g. be polite, give them ample time to plug whatever they want to plug, and prepare questions for them in advance. If your guest writes, for example, you might want to talk about the themes in their book, where they get their inspiration, how long they’ve been writing, and how they first became published.
Think outside the box and consider guests a little removed from your basic subject. Hence if your subject is books and writing, why not have a cover artist on as a guest, or a professional editor? Maybe feature a literary agent or a representative from a publishing house.
At G & T we had a Streaming page and used a minicaster. This also included a hosted chat room – the show broadcasted live and the audience could listen and follow along in the chat room. This was not necessary, but it’s fun.
We also blogged about the show, which meant that we took notes (in our case, the utility infielder did this). The blog was a great place to get the URLs in that we may have talked about but our audience might not have gotten the first time we mentioned them. With the blog, we could just make clickable outbound links. We also made sure that a player was embedded into the blog, so that a reader could listen to the show if they would prefer that.
Podcasting and Distribution
We always uploaded our podcast to not only iTunes, but also MixCloud and YouTube. These spread our broadcast even further. We used a regular logo card as the image accompanying our YouTube videos. For special interviews, we made different images, usually with our guest’s provided headshot.
To introduce new segments, we used bumpers. These are just short (less than half a minute long) introductions to various segments (e. g. Star Trek News). Ours consisted of our utility infielder’s niece giving the title of the segment and then some introductory music that we had permission to use (always get permission or make sure that music is public domain!).
Bumpers help because they provide a smooth transition between segments and they can cover up any ragged transitions. We spliced these into the completed file. Our announcer girl also recorded our intro and our credits portion (with music we could use), so we added these as a part of post-production. Again, these provided recognizable transitions for our audience.
Promotions and Podcasting
We promote our show on social media, with mainly our YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. We also have Tumblr, and Pinterest accounts but use them less. Our main promotions come from YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. We also promote at conventions, including a table at Star Trek Las Vegas for the past few years.
Why Not Podcasting?
So what are you waiting for? Why not give podcasting a try?
The Before Time, Where There was Weeping and Wailing, and Gnashing of Teeth
One aspect of my career transition consists of writing a lot more.
And I found that I had truly missed it.
Sure, I had typed tons and tons of stuff before. But a lot of it covered such thrilling topics as documenting queries, or making lists of terms used by public service officers. It very rarely encompassed topics with wit, or style. And I certainly did not have permission to make up any of it.
NaNoWriMo, I Love You
I had known about NaNoWriMo for a while, but hadn’t thought I had anything to offer.
In 2013, I woke up with an idea during the last week of October. I created a wiki and an outline for it, and signed up.
And I wrote. And wrote.
Then about halfway through the month, I had finished. By the end of the month, the story was edited.
It was and is the right thing to do, and the right path.
In addition, it feels fun. And it feels exciting. It feels like it’s a fit.
Furthermore, it does not feel like something where I’m stretching to fit into someone else’s idea, or parallel someone else’s vision. And I certainly don’t feel like I was going through the motions. In addition, it does not feel like ho-hum, same old-same old.
Furthermore, it releases a pent-up inner artist who was shouted down by pretty much everyone I knew for way, way too long in my life. And that is exceptionally freeing.
It feels right. And it feels honest. So it feels free. It feels good.
Book Review: The Elements of Style, by Strunk, White, and Kalman
As a part of the Quinnipiac social media writing class, we were required to purchase and reference The Elements of Style (illustrated) by William Strunk, E. B. White, and Maira Kalman.
Rather than just reference this work, I read it from cover to cover. And it turned out to be an easy read, considerably more comprehensive and better than I had remembered.
Simple rules emerge in clear and concise prose which never talks down to the reader. It contains all of the rules that so many people should known, and should have learned years ago. Yet these days it seems that so many people just plain don’t know.
Case in point: forming possessives. Therefore, on Page 1 the guide just says, “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.”
That’s it, no more.
Information about punctuation remains equally succinct. Hence on Page 15, the guide says,
“A colon tells the reader that what follows is closely related to the preceding clause. The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.”
Easy to follow and remember, the above two sentences tell more about colons, semicolons, and dashes than I think I learned in most of my formal education.
Furthermore, language comes across as something knowable, with rules and formal logic. This is instead of what English can sometimes seem like, e. g. a messy stew of words from all over the world. The work gives the English language structure and predictability. Both of these things make it a lot easier to know the rules.
There is but one thing left to say, and the Elements of Style certainly says it.
This was a story originally created for a competition. But it also came from a very wacky idea I had had several years previously.
The concept was, how would First Contact happen? And so I hit upon a very strange way to do it.
Because TV is more important to many of us than we would care to admit, the idea was a simple one.
My aliens would have to originally contact us on television. And, even better, it would have to be via the medium of fiction. But what would be the best means of doing this? After all, TV shows are cancelled all the time.
And then I hit upon the more or less perfect answer.
And so the idea was born – my aliens would make contact with us via the soaps.
My Aliens: the Characters
The characters are not of this earth, of course. The only two who really get names are Chaz and Katherinemma. Katherinemma got her name because Alyssa Milano had (at the time) recently named her daughter Elizabella. So K got her name as a kind of homage to that.
And Chaz, of course, was the most typical and obvious male soap star name we could think of.
Some of my favorite parts of this story are how the action zooms from the strangers thinking about contacting Earth to the stars getting here. And then, of course, they have to get to Area 51 (because, reasons). And, of course, the daytime Emmy awards.
No good soap opera would ever be complete without a dramatic scene with a slap. No good story about celebrities would ever be complete without some crazed fan screaming about having her idol’s baby. And no good science fiction yarn would ever be complete without something with tentacles.
Fortunately, the story has all of that.
It also has what, I feel, is perhaps the funniest ending line I have ever written.
All My Aliens is probably a K when you get right down to it.
The Numerati by Stephen Baker remains a fascinating work about sensors, technology, data mining and where it’s all going when it comes to our privacy.
And it ends up all about data, about collecting, refining and interpreting it. People are, well, a bunch of fish in a bowl. Or, if you prefer, hamsters on a wheel. We are lab rats, we are subjects, we are collections of bit streams. We are … information.
And the kicker is that, put together enough things about us, and conclusions can suddenly be drawn.
Let’s say I go to the same grocery store every week (not a stretch – I really do). And I buy fish every single week. What if I buy, say, tuna steaks 70% of the time, and swordfish the other 30%? Am I automatically a tuna lover? Or am I simply scared to try something new? Or am I getting to the fishmonger when everything else is sold out?
And what happens if a coupon is introduced into the mix? Does my tuna consumption go up to 80% if you give me $1 off per pound? However, that’s not too much of a victory, seeing as I normally buy it anyway. Will a $1 off coupon entice me to buy more pricey salmon instead?
Ideas But Not Gospel
The data gives its interpreters (Baker refers to them as the Numerati, which sounds a tad like Illuminati and perhaps he means that) ideas. However, it’s not really a slam-dunk. Or, at least, not yet. Hence essentially the Numerati bucket you. So I am a tuna buyer. And I am a sometime swordfish buyer. And I am also a Caucasian woman, in her (ahem) fifties, married, no children, living in Boston.
So far, so good. And when the data are all herded together, when the bits and bytes of our lives are aggregated, this may very well have a lot to say about us. Because it might be a predictor of how I’ll vote in the next election. Or perhaps it will show how I’d use a dating site if I should ever need one in the future. Or it may even tell whether I’m likely to become a terrorist.
Border Collies and Data Goats
The data matters, but, to my mind (and to Baker’s as well, it seems), there are not only herds of data but there are also nagging outliers. And these constitute the Border Collies amidst all the data goats. Perhaps I am buying tuna to feed to a cat. Or maybe I buy it with the intention of eating it to improve my health but, alas, never get to it and it goes to waste every single week.
So consider this case: a health professional places a sensor into a senior citizen’s bed, to determine whether that person is getting up in the morning. And, let’s say we also collect weight data. Because a sudden dramatic rise in weight would indicate the possible onset of congestive heart failure. And let’s say the senior in question is a woman who weighs 150 pounds. Your own mother, maybe. Day one: 150 pounds. Day two: 158 pounds. And then day three: 346 pounds. Day four: 410 pounds. Golly, is Mom really that sick?
Maybe Mom’s dog is 8 pounds. Okay, that explains day two. But what about days three and four? Maybe Mom’s got a boyfriend.
Or maybe she’s got two.
When I had the occasion to meet Stephen Baker, we had the opportunity to talk a bit about these squishy, messy feelings. Sure, our hearts are in the right place. And we want Mom to be safe and healthy, and we can’t be there. She might live in a warmer climate, and we cannot (or won’t) leave our cooler climes. Or the job opportunities may be no good there for us. For whatever reason, we are here and she is there. So we want to be aware, and caring and all, but in our desire to gather information and protect her, what else are we learning?
If Mom is competent, and single, and protecting herself from STDs, we truly have no business knowing who she spends her evening hours with. Yet this technology makes this possible.
And if we have any sense of the future at all, we have to think to ourselves: what happens when I become Mom’s age? Will my bedroom and toileting habits potentially become a part of this huge bit/byte hamster wheel lab rat canary in a coal mine data stream? You betcha.
It is often said that only people who have something to worry about in their private lives are the ones who are worried. Everyone else should be fine, blithely giving up their warts and preferences, their virtues and secrets, to all who ask.
I say bull. I like my secrets. And I like my hidden life. And I’ll be damned if I give it up, even in the name of health, diet, voting, national security or even love.