Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Business Style of Writing

"Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." - E.L. Doctorow

"The greatest possible merit of style is, of course, to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought." - Nathaniel Hawthorne

"In your business writing, you must choose between boredom, shouting, and seduction.  Which do you choose?" - Roy H. Williams

Okay, so I blew it.

Lately I've reveled in the opportunity and need to write in a fairly conversational style.  It works well, I think, for the fiction works I've taken on, and it also works well for blog posting.  At the same time, you've heard me whimper, moan, and even cry out in disgust over the perils of academic writing.  Pure hell, that is, it being prose with all the interesting stuff distilled right out of it.  If there are a thousand interesting ways and one mind-numbingly dull way to describe the results of a study, the academic writer is supposed to pick the dull way without even considering the others. 

Don't get me wrong, now--I appreciate academic writing.  It's the only way that we can preserve the accumulated knowledge of science over the years.  I've accessed and devoured it many times myself, both on subjects I needed to investigate for work or school and on subjects that were merely interests or topics of conversation.  There's definitely a need for it.

That said, I don't enjoy writing in that style.  I can, quite successfully, and I plan to, as I continue my academic career and submit, soon, my first paper for a conference.  It's just that I look forward to writing that abstract with as much joy as I look forward to brushing my teeth next.

So--two different writing styles.  Very different, in fact; as much so as, to pull a horrible cliche out of my hat, night and day.

But there's a third style, and I forgot it.  I tend to use it at work, and when in front of career classes I've always recommended using it.  It's work prose.  "Business English."  It's not nearly as boring as academic writing, to be sure; I've seen plenty of managers prove their knowledge of tremendous repertoires of adjectives and adverbs, many of which I wouldn't put in print here if you paid me to.  But it does have one common characteristic, a standard for which I use the acronym "BLUF": Bottom Line Up Front.

Put simply, people doing or considering work don't want to spend time reading wonderfully-wrought prose to get to what you are suggesting.  They want it spelled out in the first line, and very clearly, please, while you're at it.  If, for instance, the dog died, you shouldn't tell the tale of how the dog, a present from a husband to his wife whose "biological clock was ticking," was a troublemaker but the kid loved him but the dog-sitter couldn't handle him and how the man and woman go through job and relationship issues and then, finally, get around to the death of the dog.  No, you start with "The dog died."  Then you provide as much detail as is pertinent to the situation.

That is the nature of writing with BLUF.

Doesn't work with fiction.  If they'd started the movie with "The dog died," nobody would've watched it, would they?  If I'd started my first novel with "And Matt and Crystal kicked Aphrodite's butt and then lived happily ever after" (granted, it wasn't quite like that, but--well, read the book) you wouldn't have read any farther, would you?  And that's not a bad thing; I like stories, too, that begin at an interesting point, worm their way around and into my heart, and finally come loping or screeching to a graceful (or not) end. Just--not when I'm trying to get crap done.

No, seriously.  BLUF me, please. 

You're probably looking for an example, right?  Especially considering how I started this post?

I've been working on a project.  Not for my day job, but with other colleagues.  I sent a missive last night with a list of contacts and the letter that would be merged to go to each attached.  In the missive I noted, in my flowery prose, that the list of contacts was on its second revision and it needed a once-over to make sure revisions were acceptable, and--um, so on.  Hell, I even forget what I wrote.  But in the second paragraph I said, "More importantly," to please review the letter as I'd made significant changes and needed their input.

Got their input.  At least, got one of the four's.  She complimented me, of course, on how well I'd managed the list of contacts, and then right when I thought she'd get to the changes to the letter, she signed her name. 

First thought: damn, next time I won't use paragraphs.

Second thought: okay, it's not the paragraphs' fault.  It's mine, for forgetting BLUF.  I didn't start with the part that was most important, the bottom line.  My fault for writing it like a pleasure reading rather than a business message.

Even when you're writing to writers, you still want to keep business and pleasure separate, even down to the style and structure of the message.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Separating Business and Emotion

"Man is by nature a political animal." - Aristotle

"Being in politics is like being a football coach.  You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it's important." - Eugene McCarthy

A friend of mine posted something I found fairly silly the other day on Facebook.  Granted, my friends post silly stuff all the time, as do I.  This one, though, struck me as illogically silly.  It was a graphic that claimed that there were millions of American businesses who wouldn't hire an additional employee after the 49th, thanks to the act most of us refer to as Obamacare. 

Alright, lookit, I'm really not here to talk about the positives or the negatives of that legislation.  I've done that plenty in some of the forums I'm in, and of course I'm right and everybody who disagrees with me is wrong.  Right?  But please, this blog isn't about politics.  I'm all about success, whether that be writing success or business success or just life success.

Seriously, this one disturbed me.  I've had my own business before.  I do now too, though as an authorpreneur I guarantee you it'll be a while before I ever get close to 49 employees (it's in my business plan, by the way--but that's the future plan).  But try as I might sometimes to stay away, I keep getting thrust into management roles at work, and my current day job is no real exception.  I'm in management.  In fact, I'm by most estimations the second in charge of the campus, with somewhere around two-thirds of the employees of the company's location here reporting either directly or indirectly to me. 

That's why the post was so absolutely foreign to me.  I would never, ever make a decision on whether or not to hire someone based on my emotional stance regarding a political issue.  Never.  I take my business and its operations way too seriously. 

I'm acutely aware of the issues regarding the current legislation, by the way.  I know where the 49-50 employee barrier comes from; there is more expense required with hiring the 50th employee, and for all employees, if you haven't already begun offering health insurance before that point.  That expense is a valid business concern and has to be taken into account.  I'm also aware that there is some risk involved in setting yourself into compliance with the current law when nobody really knows who's going to be making decisions come January, and one side is saying they'll keep it going while the other is saying they'll do away with it and replace it with--um, something. 

You know what?  Business is risk.  Business has been about risk-taking since before Thomas Jefferson built Monticello.  You measure the risk and decide if you want to go after it, and if you win, you get the reward.  Writing is no different; the risk for a writer who keeps his or her "day job" is pretty minimal, but it's also really tough to get anything going toward a reward.  Up the risk by leaving your day job and you now have much greater risk, but you're also suddenly in a much better position, time-management-wise.

So anyway--whether you are for or agin' the ACA (aka Obamacare), don't don't don't don't make business decisions based on that.  Make them based on a risk assessment, make them based on a cost-to-benefits analysis, make them based on needs assessment.  But don't run a business on emotion.

Now I come to what really spurred this post--I got into it over on Publisher's Weekly's web site.  Specifically, there was an article that outlined booksellers' overall reluctance to stock the books published by the physical book arm that Amazon recently purchased.  I--and you can probably already see why--said this was dumb.

Lookit, if there's no demand for a book, then don't stock it.  If you're not going to make any money off of the sale of the book regardless of demand, then don't stock it.  If your patrons will be offended by a book, then--well, that one's kinda up to you.  They're your customers, but not necessarily your moral compasses.

But don't, don't, don't, don't, please, for the love of God, don't decide what books to offer your customers based on your opinion (no matter how widely agreed-upon) of who makes them.

Many people disagreed with me.  After all, what do I know about running a bookstore?  What do I know about stocking? (I do, incidentally, have a couple of years of running a significant stocking/shipping/receiving concern in Phoenix on my resume, but I chose not to trot that out)  What do I know about the evil exploits of that spawn of Satan itself, Amazon?

Oh, c'mon.  Whether I'm a fan of Amazon, myself, is irrelevant.  I finally gave in to the argument, though.  I said okay, let's assume you're right.  Let's assume that every employee at Amazon has on their secret desires list to put the physical bookstores--all of 'em--out of business.  Let's assume, while we're playing around, that Jeff Bezos got picked on constantly on the bus by the guys who eventually ran a bookstore, and as a result he swore he'd have their hides, and that when he goes home every evening he says hi to his father by referring to him as "The Dark Lord of Hell" or just "Satan."  Okay?  Feel better?  Amazon is evil, Bezos is evil, everything they do is for the purpose of eradicating you from the face of the planet, book sellers.

So I come in to your bookstore looking for one of the books I've heard about that they publish.  Does that make me evil, as your customer?

How much do you really care about what your customers want?

If you're going to let your own opinions about what your customers should be reading, based solely on where they are sourced, decide what you offer to sell, you're going to lose.  And, frankly, you deserve to lose. 

"Oh, but we will be happy to order them," some booksellers cried in defense of the accusation of censoring their customers.  Yeah, fine, but consider this.  The only advantage you have, folks, over the online retailers is that customers can find something they want and take it home to be read that evening.  You don't have automatically-updated peer ratings of the books I'm looking at.  You don't have a "look inside" option for books that aren't on the shelf.  You may have "staff picks" but I don't know your staff nearly as well as I know the online reviewer I've been following for a year or two.  You don't even have frickin' free shipping.  Yes, you'll order it to the store, but I have to go pick it up when it gets there.  For cities like Richmond, and some bookstores in the more popular areas, that's more annoying than paying a shipping fee. 

You do have a customer experience to speak about.  Unfortunately, for the most part, it's bad.  I've done laps around my local Barnes & Noble without being addressed as a person by the kid--any of 'em--wearing the employee badge and studying the computer screen.  I went into a locally-owned store a couple of weeks ago and, despite the fact that there were a grand total of three human beings in the place (my wife, the attendant, and me), I tried and failed to engage the attendant in conversation.

Good grief.  And you want to censor what I have available to buy, too?

Bottom line: please, for the love of all that's holy, if you run a business, focus on making your customers the happiest customers on the planet.  If you're an author, that means writing a great book.  If you're a bookseller, that means stocking what your customers want you to stock.  If you're anything else, that means staffing as needed to meet your demand.  No matter, in all cases, whether or not you like it.

Is it really that hard?


Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Bayonet in the Stage

"You are not in Kansas anymore.  You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen.  Respect that fact every second of every day." - COL Quaritch

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning....  Smelled like...victory." - LTC Bill Kilgore

"Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country.  He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." - GEN George S. Patton (the movie one)

You know, there's this tendency for Hollywood to portray the military leader in a certain light, one that's quite a bit non-warm and non-fuzzy.  He's (and it's generally a he--women in the military are, if you believe our movie-making brethren, either stupid blondes or tragic victims of their male counterparts) extremely competitive, bloodthirsty, stern of countenance, and fond of uttering his own personal military lingo interwoven with periodic growls and cheers.

Of course, that's not really how we were.  Just sayin'.

Nevertheless, this image is based on a touch of reality, as are most caricatures(*).  It's not like people of all personality types just wake up one day and say, "I think I'm going to go be an infantryman for a while."  People are pulled into that field in part because of the perceived match between their personality and the stereotype.  Besides, the leaders, like it or not, have to occasionally be willing to send the soldiers they've trained with up a hill to their potential death.  It really does take a certain type of person, yet that type of person is still one that in reality doesn't deserve the negative taints that have been applied by the movie theater's artistic brushes.

So all that said--no shit, there we were.  (yes, that's a stereotypical start to a good ole' war story--so sue me)  We'd arrived at West Point, our future collegiate(ish) home and the playground of all the demons we would end up facing.  Days later we'd marched in formation to a theater, filed in, and taken our seats--quietly and with dignity, of course.  We were waiting to receive another briefing by somebody, one of a long string of talks designed to prepare us for the months and years to follow.

They were working to fire us up, playing loud music--um, loudly.  Granted, every morning we woke up to loud music (or a quote from the movie Patton, or something else along those lines), but they didn't always start briefings like that.

Soon enough Colonel Turner, head of our Military Science department, walked out onto stage.  Now, you have to understand that this man looked every bit the military man from the movies--or, perhaps, vice-versa.  Whoever cast COL Quaritch for Avatar may very well have been looking at Colonel Turner's picture as he did so, and when he didn't get a perfect match he added the scars to make Quaritch look as tough as possible.  Colonel Turner didn't need scars, though.  This man was GI Joe and Sergeant Rock mushed into one fictional ball of awesome and blasted into reality.  Every inch of him, from his close-cropped crew cut to his pressed battle dress uniform to his shiny combat boots, screamed "soldier of frickin' awesomeness."

I'm not making this up.  The man was amazing.  Scarily amazing, and amazingly scary.  And he was a pretty good guy, to boot. 

So back to my story--Colonel Turner walked out in front of all 1400(ish) of us wearing full combat gear and toting an M-16 tipped with an un-scabbarded bayonet.  Bare steel, it was.  He marched right out there, the epitome of the finest of America's fighting men, and planted the rifle, bayonet down, into the stage.  BLAM!

Don't try this at home, of course, but the effect is dramatic.  Ask my classmates--everybody I've talked to remembers, if nothing else, the bayonet stuck deeply into that stage.

Anyway, once he was done talking, he walked over to the still-quivering rifle, gave it a final strong tug that sent it into quiver mode, and strode confidently off, the rifle standing at attention like an exclamation mark in the middle of the now-lifeless span of wood. 

Awesome.  Awesome, awesome, awesome.  That was one of those awesome "defining moments" of my awesome cadet experience.  Did I mention it was awesome?

But the story's not over; fast-forward a bit.  West Point also had a sponsor program.  The sponsors were life-savers, sometimes literally, in that they opened their homes and hearts to us as a place to relax, get the stress off our chests, and regain some perspective.  It was wonderful, having this special place on post to go when we needed extra help to stay sane.

My sponsor was Colonel Butzer.  He scared the crap out of me at first because he was somewhere around nine feet tall with at least five hundred pounds of muscle wrapped around his frame.  Okay, I exaggerate.  A little.  But he was a big, big man.  He'd played football for Army back in the '60's, and later had accumulated all sorts of incredible Infantry experience.  He was also a patient, kind, and humorous man, I should add; once I got over my fear of his towering physique I became attached to him.  His wife, meanwhile, was somewhere around normal petite size, but beside him she looked like an itty-bitty fairy princess.  She was every bit the Infantry Colonel's wife, too--pleasant and proper at all times except when it wasn't called for, and then she was a conversational firecracker who laughed and joked right alongside us obnoxious and sometimes-obscene men.

An amazing couple, they were.  He was like the dad that my own late father couldn't be, and she was like a second mom.  In fact, when First Mom was there for graduation and they met my girlfriend, I cherished both her and Mrs. Butzer's opinions equally (luckily they were pretty much the same).

Colonel Butzer also worked directly for Colonel Turner as the second-in-charge of the military science department. He told us a story once--Colonel Butzer, not Colonel Turner.  It had to do with a bayonet quivering in a stage--remember that?  It turned out that the tug Colonel Turner gave the rifle was actually an attempt to dislodge it from the stage so that he could march out of sight holding his weapon.  But he couldn't.  Either he'd misjudged the force of the thrust he'd used to lodge it in the first place, or the wood was stronger than he'd thought it would be. 

Either way, the rifle got stuck.

Later they went back after it in force.  They had to get the stage cleared off, after all, because we also had etiquette briefings (no, I'm not kidding), and those are hard to conduct in a serious manner with an M-16 attached to a bayonet stuck in the stage.  Colonel Butzer confided that it took three or four guys to convince the wood of the stage floor to release its grip on the bayonet. 

And you know what?  Many never knew that the rifle was stuck.  Colonel Turner had gone out and impressed the core of his message indelibly into our hearts and our minds.  Then when something went wrong, he made it look right.

And he cleaned up the mess later, of course.

There's a lesson, there.


* (the male caricature, I should specify--Hollywood's stereotype of the Army woman is so completely opposite the reality of the incredible women with whom I served that it makes me angry to watch)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tastes and critiques

"All of life is a dispute over taste and tasting." - Friedrich Nietzsche

"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." - Henry Louis Mecken

I had a friend in one of the online forums I hang out in say that he doesn't like bacon.  Now, that absolutely floored me.  As a comedian whose name I can't remember once said, bacon bits are the fairy dust of the culinary world.  All it takes is a sprinkle and anything is better.  How, then, can you not like bacon?

I love, love, love brussel sprouts.  Steam 'em up, cut 'em down the middle, drizzle with olive oil, and hit 'em with salt and a little pepper, and bam!  Well--no, not really bam.  Bacon bits are bam.  But it's good--really, really good.  It's one of my favorite vegetables, in fact; probably belongs at the very top of the list if you disallow the inclusion of something whose name ends "with cheese sauce" as a veggie. 

Let's not even get started on sizes and shapes and brands of automobiles.  We all have our own tastes, though, yes?

What I don't understand, then, is why such emphasis is placed on good vs. bad reviews.  There was recently a much-publicized incident where a gal wrote a fairly level-headed 2-star (out of 5) review and the author melted down over it and retaliated with a 1-star and a blog post that rambled on about some things being unforgivable.  Whole thing was just silly.  But this issue has been burbling under the surface for a while, and likely will continue to do so.  I've had friends on Facebook get entirely out of the reviewing schtick due to authors' overly emotional reactions to reviews that aren't coupled with five out of five stars.

Similarly, at work, I evaluate the folks who work directly for me based on HR's fancy "Needs Improvement," "Meets," "Exceeds," or "Outstanding" metric on a questionnaire that is somewhere around 25,984 pages long (I exaggerate--a little).  The power structure is a little different there than it is in the business of book reviews, so we've never had a meltdown and retaliatory rating, but there have been some tense moments.  "I think I earned an O for the Teamwork category because...."  Hey, it's covering an entire year, which is a pretty long and diverse period of time, and the measures boil down to being fairly subjective.  Just.  Like.  Book.  Reviews.

That said, my subordinates and I may not always end up agreeing on every evaluation point, but the discussion is always useful.  They go in valuing certain activities and accomplishments more than I, and vice versa, and getting those differences aired out increases our mutual understanding and, in the end, helps bond us more closely as a team. It teaches us something.

The purpose of a book review has nothing to do with bonding or teamwork; it's there for two other reasons.  One is to help guide people into making a book purchase.  That, I think, is the part that gets under authors' skin when there's a review that's less than perfect; in our minds we see sales falling through the floor, everybody who already bought a copy returning it, and us having to give our homes back to the bank and go live in a special trailer down by the river just for failed authors who got reviews with fewer than five stars.

Doesn't really happen like that, though, does it?  Take, ferinstance, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  There were a gajillion copies of that book sold, so it must've only had great reviews, right?  101 one-stars, actually.  Twilight, Breaking Dawn, sold another gajillion copies--1,178 one-star reviews, out of 5,700 reviews in total.  That's indication that nearly 20% of the people who took the time to write a review thought the book was total crap, and yet I understand that the author is doing quite well these days.

But those are nothing new; I've posted before about the dichotomy of wonderful books (as defined either by "I love them" or "they sold a gajillion copies") that have negative reviews.  Fact is, they all do.  Bad reviews are part of life, just like having people go "eww" when I say that I love brussel sprouts is entirely normal.

The other, more important (to me), purpose for reviews, though, is to learn something.  There's no such thing as an author who has perfected the craft.  We all have something to learn, and while we like to think that we're learning all we need to know by attending workshops at our local conferences, there's still a great deal to be learned from the feedback of total strangers.  Of course, you always have to take it for what it's worth: don't get upset if you write about bacon and find one of your reviewers doesn't like bacon.  It happens. And some reviews contain nothing at all useful: "Great book! four out of five stars" or "Worst book this year by anybody who dares call themselves an author! three out of five stars."  But I find that most of the time there's something useful to be learned in reading reviews with an open mind. 

Bottom line is that in order to succeed, you have to be able to accept feedback, extract the nuggets of truth from the inherent taste concerns, and figure out how to use that to make your future efforts better.


Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Supporting Cast - Why you need one

"There are basically two kinds of people.  People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things.  The first group is less crowded." - Mark Twain

"My parents are my backbone.  Still are.  They're the only group that will support you if you score 0 or if you score 40." - Kobe Bryant

"So guess what folks?  NO EXCUSES!  Just get moving." - Cricket Walker

Okay, so I joined a gym just about exactly a month ago.  Have worked out several times, in fact.  Have even lost a few pounds doing it. 


Not yay enough, I must add--I'm not svelte yet.  The picture of the 165-pound guy running the Marine Corps Marathon still hangs there on the wall, taunting this 265-pound guy.  I'll, um, hopefully get there.  Eventually.  I think.  But yay, isn't a loss of a few pounds a good start?

The guy who signed us up for the gym membership is brilliant.  He's around the gym quite often, and he makes a point of recognizing people who've signed up recently whenever he sees them.  No cheering squad, but no firing squad, either.  Just a "hi, glad to see you're here again," message, delivered with a sincere smile and repeated every time he sees us. It's funny, in fact.  There are hundreds of people there when I go, yet not a one of them makes a difference in whether or not I go again quite like Brian does. 

Meanwhile, I just got pulled into a new Facebook group: Just Get Moving.  It was created by my friend Cricket (the famous Cricket Walker I quoted above), who's always doing something motivational.  Recently she's started posting her workouts (simple stuff: number of steps taken, number of miles walked, number of floors climbed) for the same reasons I used to post my word counts to the blog.  First, it's motivational to others; I know I usually grumble when I see her post if I haven't done my own part that day.  Second, it keeps the poster motivated when we're sticking our progress up there for everyone to see.  It's the old carrot and stick idea--the carrot when we've done well, and the stick when we're weighing whether or not to sit one out (after all, it's just one workout) in terms of how it'll feel to post "I was a big lazy couch potato today" (ish) to the Internet. 

Anyway, Cricket's new group is there for the members to talk about healthy eating, basic exercise, and most importantly just getting off of our duffs and doing something.  And it's a nice group to be in.  It gets to be a slog, going to the gym and watching the diet and then not losing weight as fast as I'd like to, and having somebody there to discuss the ups and downs with is really important.

That's a lesson, by the way, that bears repeating in nearly every theater of our lives.  Not long ago Rachelle Gardner made a point that we authors should surround ourselves with like-minded people: join, for example, a writing club.  Or a reading club.  Or both.  I know I get a charge out of Writers Wednesdays at the Capitol Ale House here with the James River Writers; just talking to people who are going through the same ups and downs and same long, slow slog through creating a novel-length story is motivational as hell. 

Similarly, one of the favorite activities, way back when I worked for the Arizona Technology Incubator, was the every-couple-weeks CEO meetings.  As I recall the events, all the CEOs of the various companies that were operating under the roof of the ATI (a high-tech incubator) would gather to eat lunch and discuss, in a freestyle fashion, the various successes and challenges they were facing, not in a boardroom high-stakes kind of way, but rather just informally as a group sharing stuff (without, of course, the stereotypical Kum-Ba-Yah singing and hugs at the end).  Yeah, they were sorta kinda (but not directly) competitors, and so they avoided proprietary topics, but there was always plenty of discussion to be had anyway. 

The principle was simple: it's hard at the top, and it takes time to build a business.  A lot of times people look at entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison and see a guy who one day said "I have an idea for a software business" and the next month made a gajillion dollars.  There's no such thing in this world as long-lasting overnight success, though.  It's easy to watch shows like "How'd You Get So Rich?" and think otherwise, but every big business out there took time to build. 

Time, and challenges.  The founder of Charter College once told me a tale of his early years, having to dip into his own savings just to make payroll.  That story certainly isn't unique to his business.  Similarly, there are hundreds of accounts of people reaching a point in a novel's progress and not being able to move ahead for a while.  At the same time, we who are trying to lose weight have good weeks and bad weeks, and some of those bad weeks we cause ourselves (nom nom nom!), and others we don't. 

That, then, is why people working at long-term projects like weight loss (coupled, hopefully, with getting back in shape after *mumbledy*-five years of slothful living), writing novels, and building businesses all need some sort of support group. 


Thursday, July 5, 2012

The mutiplicative business model

"My son is now an 'entrepreneur.'  That's what you call it when you don't have a job." - Ted Turner

"I feel that luck is preparation meeting opportunity." - Oprah Winfrey

Earlier I mentioned wood carving.  Now, I love that craft.  It's truly one of the most satisfying activities I've ever done.  If I could figure out a way to make a meaningful living out of doing it I would, and I would have been doing so for a while now.  In fact, some day I hope to retire to a secluded house with a small bedroom, a whatever in the rest of the dwelling that will make my lovely bride happy, and a huuuuuge wood shop from which I can tell the rest of the world to, to leave me alone.  And, of course, a writing desk with which to do so.

It took me a while to learn enough about the craft to consider myself competent, but I'm still not that good at it.  It's like any other craft--read all the books you want on it, but those won't make you better.  It can only be learned by doing, and then by doing it again, and then by spending another 50,000 hours(ish) doing it more.

What didn't take me long to figure out about wood carving was that it's a fun activity but it doesn't represent a great potential for making a living.  I say that not to denigrate those who are doing wood carving now--I know that many people do a fine job at it, and a few do manage to make a fine living out of it.  But I've always believed in the power of multiplicative business that I learned while futzing around in Amway some years ago, proving that the "get your friends to buy soap" idea just ain't my thing.  

It's really pretty simple.  The basic idea: as an entrepreneur, you have a certain number of hours available to you.  Each of those hours is--must be--worth $X to you.  That's your bottom line, your most precious commodity, because you only have so many hours available, and once the hours are gone you can't get more.

Now, the math on a linear model is simple.  Each of us has 168 hours per week--no more, no less.  Each of us has to sleep for part of that--let's say 7 hours a day.  You're also going to spend time doing other stuff, and let's assume for the sake of argument that whatever you choose to do to earn a living doesn't combine well with, say, showering or time with family.  Entrepreneurs don't typically only work 40 hours a week, of course, so let's pick an even number somewhere in the realm of normal: 60 hours.

Unfortunately for the typical entrepreneur, nobody's gonna show up at your door to buy your products out of the blue.  You have to market and merchandise.  Let's say--half of that time.  I know it seems like a lot when you're approaching the topic fresh, but believe me that it's realistic.  So there you go--30 hours per week actually producing what you're going to sell, which is the amount of time you'll actually be making money.  Everything else is just administrative "stuff" that goes with the task of running a business.

Alrightee, we're almost done.  Thirty hours per week, and let's assume you're a super-human worker who doesn't need vacations (not that tough an assumption to swallow, really, if you love what you're doing).  Thirty times 52, then, is 1,560.

One thousand five hundred and sixty hours.  That's it in a linear model.  That's all the time you have to make your money.  So--how much do you want to make?  $40,000 per year?  $30,000?  $50,000?  A beeeeelion dollars?  It's up to you and your budget.  What's it going to take to make your life a pleasant and happy one?

Let's say you just said "TOSK, I think I could be pleasantly pleased on $40,000 per year."  Good, let's go with that.  Now divide that by the number of hours: $40,000 / 1560 hours is $25.64 per hour.  THAT is what your work has to be worth to you to do this.

The good news is that makes it a simple question: can you make $25.64 per hour?  If your chief product takes one hour to create from start to finish, can you sell each one reliably for $25.64 plus cost of parts?  If it, like a lot of wood crafting projects, requires a few hours--let's say, for the sake of calculation, four hours--can you sell it for just over a hundred bucks plus the cost of the wood (and screws and other crap)?

Most crafts, and most craftsmen (especially when starting out), that answer is no.  Believe it or not, back when I was sick and having troubles finding a job between episodes of coughing my lungs up, I tried to do cross-stitch because a) I didn't own any woodworking tools, and b) my wife at the time already had everything needed to do cross-stitch.  But cross-stitch takes hours and hours to do, and sells for a pittance.  Beading: same thing.  Dream-catchers take less time and sell for more, but everybody and his brother and their cousins and even their girlfriend's pet cat is making dream-catchers, so we couldn't sell them reliably.

But here's the flaw of the linear model: you make what you make, and it takes whatever time it takes, and then you can only sell it once.

Enter the power of multiplication.  In Amway's business model, that involves roping your friends into selling your crap too, and so your income is a product of your time plus a portion of your friends' time as well.  Works great, if you're into--that.  I'm not.

The world of the authorpreneur, though, works along the same principle.  Write a book once, and then you can sell it to several different people.  Yes, once everybody who would buy it has a copy you're done selling, but do you have any idea how big that number is?  I sure haven't come close.  Neither has Konrath, one of my personal idols, and he's been doing it for years.

See what I'm saying?  With the multiplication model you invest the time into creation once, and you sell many copies for a period of time.  You just have to be able to sell it, and in the field of writing that's seeming to get tougher and tougher every day with the number of people who are creating books increasing.  There's a LOT of noise out there, and it's hard to be noticed.  It's certainly not something you can just create and forget about. You have to constantly work your marketing/merchandising muscles.  But remember that 50% rule that I mentioned earlier?  All that I've admitted here is that it's applicable to writing. 

By the way, I didn't make the 50% rule up.  It actually came from a few books I read once upon a time when I was looking at starting up my own IT business.  It seems to be a fairly consistent rule through accounting, IT and other fields: the professional is going to spend half of his professional time in non-productive pursuits. 

Anyway, that's the allure, to me, of becoming an authorpreneur: write once, sell many times. 


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day

"Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it." - Thomas Payne

"The American Revolution was a beginning, not a consummation." - Woodrow Wilson

Happy Fourth of July to all of you! For those in America, I hope you enjoy the parades, the fireworks, the cookouts (it is okay to call 'em by the somewhat archaic, non-Food-Network term cookouts, right?). And as I told all my students and all my employees, make sure you stay as safe as possible, because for some people July fourth is synonymous with getting inebriated and then jumping behind the wheel. Be extra careful out on the roads today, as I'd also like to celebrate July fifth with you.

Today we celebrate what historians tell us is the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress. By that point the Boston Tea Party had been, um, partied, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord had already been battled to a somewhat surprising (to the folks at the time) eventual victory for the colonists, while the Battle of Bunker Hill had been won by the British regulars but at an excruciatingly heavy cost. That, then, set the stage for a group of colonists (who, we can only assume, had just come to think something along the lines of "holy shit, we might actually accomplish this") to write a pretty heady bit:  

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

It continues, but what's relevant to this post is that this document served as the birth certificate of our nation.  And, for better or for worse, for all the great and all the dumb things this nation has done over time, I'm proud of that.

One funny thing is that 7/4 may not have been the actual date.  Some historians claim that 7/2 was the right day.  Had Fox News and MSNBC been running against each other back then, who knows what would've happened?  We might have had a revolt against the revolt.  


To the United States of America: Happy Birthday.

To my friends and classmates in the USMA Class of 1989 ("We Strengthen The Line!"): It has and continues to be an honor knowing you and serving the nation with you.

To patriots, both past and future, who shed their blood in service to the nation: I salute you.

And finally, to everyone reading this, I remind you of these words: One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.


Monday, July 2, 2012

In Honor of R-Day

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." - Seneca

"A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step." - Lao Tzu

"The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy." - John Galsworthy

Today is West Point's new class's R-Day.


There I was.  I remember it like it was yesterday.  Which it was--yesterday, that is--July 1st, only way back in 1985. 

R-Day.  The first R-Day we experienced, anyway.  There are other R-Days at West Point; after all, with our proclivity toward shortening each and every term we faced, every important day that began with an R became R-Day.

This R-Day, though, was special.  The R in this one stood for "Reception," which was precisely what we got when we arrived.  A Reception, indeed.  And boy, was it special.

Reception Day is the first day that every future West Pointer general (yes, we were all future generals back then, or so we thought) officially arrives for the first time at the United States Military Academy in order to begin the journey.

It's definitely a beginning. 

It's also an ending.  I mean, I'd been on vacation with my aunt and uncle before, but this was really the end of my time living under the protective (and restrictive, or so I thought) roof that my parents provided.  The end of high school.  I'd worked long and hard in high school to build a reputation, and it was over, poof, gone.  On top of that, public secondary school is predictable once you get into it.  By senior year, you're pretty settled in and know what to expect.  R-Day was the first end of knowing what was to come.

Of course, I'd had some guidance.  I, like (I hope) every New Cadet, had been accompanied through the fairly involved process of applying for and then preparing for appointment to the nation's oldest military academy by a military officer and grad called a liaison officer.  It's not like regular school, I was told--quite correctly, I must add.  My liaison officer described in some fairly specific detail what I could expect on R-Day and subsequently through "Beast Barracks," officially known as CBT (Cadet Basic Training, but of course we didn't say the whole thing). 

Didn't matter.  Have you ever read any of Neil Armstrong's accounts of what it's like to stand on the moon?  No matter how wonderfully his words paint a picture in our minds, I'm willing to bet the reality is different.

So anyway, there we were.  Now, I'd been accepted fairly late in the year (about a week and a half prior to R-Day, in fact, thanks to certain factors like me telling West Point "no" initially, but that's a whole different story) and so the "normal" route to getting New Cadets to the appropriate spot on post was already fully booked.  No seats for me.  Luckily there was a backup plan (are you kidding?  This is West Point, for God's sake.  Of course there's a backup plan).  So instead of spending the night prior to R-Day (theoretically; I never did find out what actually happened on the path I didn't take) and then a bus ride to West Point with a bunch of fellow soon-to-be cadets telling stories and commiserating, I took a shuttle to a different hotel to be picked up by one of the employees from admissions on his way to work the next morning.

Like I said, I never found out if it was a different experience than most had, but my path worked fine regardless.  There were actually three of us arriving at the new beginning like that; I was joined by two young ladies, one of whom (if my memory serves accurately) ended up being a dear, dear friend of mine.  Who, I should add, wasn't there that night.  It turned out that her flight was delayed, so the night before R-Day was spent with me proving how incompetent I was (still am) in pool to a fellow soon-to-be New Cadet.  Robin, or something--I unfortunately never heard from her again.  It did, at least, give me an opportunity to learn that I wasn't the only one who was absolutely terrified of the day to come.

I think I slept.  I honestly don't remember.

The guy who picked us up (at oh-my-God-there's-not-enough-coffee-in-the-world-early-thirty in the morning) wasn't a West Point grad himself, so he really didn't have a whole lot to tell us about what we were to face.  The result, though, of a long, dark, quiet, somber drive, was that we were in the very first group to arrive at Michie Stadium and go through the process.

(Yes, looking through the pictures on West Point's Facebook page I see that they're doing it in Ike Hall now.  Was different back then, I guess--maybe too many dinosaurs wandering around near Ike?)

There's something very symbolic about the way they do that first briefing.  Same could be said for much of what they do at West Point, but that one is touching in a I'll-never-forget-this way.  Specifically, there was a person who welcomed us and said something-something about something-something (yeah, unless there's a bayonet left sticking in the stage I tend to forget speeches awfully quickly) and then invited us "New Cadets," as we were to be officially known, to head one direction, and all of our lovely parents and siblings to head the other.  Shouldn't have meant much to me, as I'd already had that moment of separation the day before, but the air was thick with meaning nonetheless.

So we got onto buses after being told not to speak unless spoken to and went to the gymnasium for the biggest set of lines I've ever seen.  Have you ever considered what it takes to take 1400-ish people through all the legal and logistic hurdles of not just going to school, but actually living together in specific uniforms, all in one day?  Boy, was it intense.  I remember that, at least.  And I remember getting vaccinations shot into both shoulders from both directions at the same time.  Also remember sending my civilian clothing away to be collected later--wouldn't be needing it for a while, we were informed.

They dressed us in black shorts with gold pinstriping, white t-shirts with the black USMA logo printed on the left breast, black socks, and black leather shoes.  Then they made us hang little tags off of our shorts to be checked off at each station, issued us the ugliest eyeglasses on the face of the planet to wear (I think--can't recall the challenging logistics of this one, but I vividly remember the ugly-as-hell glasses), and issued us two large heavy bags full of stuff to carry around.  Ugly we were, indeed, and all cut from the same bolt of ugly.

Next stop was the barbershop where I swear they paid the workers based on pounds of hair removed.  Now, I'd cut most of my hair off already, I thought, based on my liaison officer's prompting that I really didn't want to be stigmatized as the long-haired hippy surfer California dude when I arrived.  Walking out of the barbershop was a whole new sensation, though.  It was like every nerve ending on my scalp was newly-activated, waggling and firing free of any hair-based impediments in the breeze that, till then, I hadn't realized was quietly blowing.

Wow, I thought.

Honestly, it was more like holy crap.  But I was there, and my parents hadn't purchased a ticket home.

Then came reporting to the Cadet in the Red Sash, something that every West Pointer I've ever spoken with remembers somewhat less than fondly.  It's literally that--several stations where lanes have been set up, at the end of which stands a formidable-looking upper-class cadet wearing a sparkly grey and white uniform and a red sash around his or her middle.

I tell you, I've never felt as much trepidation toward a single item of attire as I did that day.  Those damn red sashes turned people mean, man.

Okay, mean isn't right.  We were entering a whole new world, one where discipline was a must, and it was the CRS's duty to teach us that, specifically by making sure we learned our "Four Responses" and other rules of West Point life.

To wit:
  1. Yes, Sir
  2. No, Sir
  3. No Excuse, Sir
  4. Sir, I do not understand.

Yeppers.  That's it.  That's all you're allowed to say at first.  Well, that and some of the cadences they taught us later, but you get the idea.  Remember that discipline thing?  It helps to start out on a single, simple path, where if the answer is yes, then say yes.  If it's no, say no.  If neither applies, then there's really, ultimately, no excuse.

There's a very important lesson underlying that moment there, one I wish we could teach everybody, but they'd never let me line my current student body up in the hallway and teach them the four responses.

But that wasn't even the first lesson the CRS taught us.  Nope, first lesson was follow instructions, dumbass.  Okay, I honestly don't think he said the word dumbass, but it was pretty clear in what he was saying.

"Step up and do exactly what I tell you to do," is more along the lines of what I recall him saying.  I watched the guy in front of me have a hard time with that; he stepped up and set his (did I mention heavy?) bags full of issued uniforms and equipment down onto the nice pavement they'd so pleasantly provided for our use.

"New Cadet, did I tell you to set those bags down?"

"No, Sir," the guy ahead of me said, and he picked them back up.

"New Cadet, did I tell you to pick those bags up?"

"No, Sir," the guy ahead of me said, and he put them back down.

"New Cadet, did I tell you to set those bags down?"  By this point, I was doing a very good job not snickering at the unfortunate but obviously somewhat dense guy ahead of me.  After all, I didn't know exactly what the CRS would do if he heard a snicker from the line, but I was absolutely certain that I really didn't want to find out.

Anyway, finally the guy ahead of me got it right.  He learned the Four Responses and was sent off, relief clearly not showing in his face, toward what could only be a friendlier station.

I stepped up and set my bags down.


Now, the disadvantage of being there so early was that I was done with all the inprocessing very, very early in the day.  I was thus assigned to my company (Charlie, whatever that meant) and my room early, and was told to go stay there.  My room, that is.

By the way--the barracks at West Point have the rooms along the outside of the building and the latrines (and don't you dare call 'em restrooms or *gasp* potties) along the middle, separated by a hallway that starts that first day at about a mile wide and shrinks to just a few feet wide by the end of the first summer.  There was absolutely no way I was walking out into that hallway once I was safely parked in my room.  No way in hell.  I've never not gone to the bathroom so intently in my life.

My roommates eventually showed up.  Yay me.  Since high school, when I had played water polo and thus been the antithesis of a football player, I hadn't really been all that fond of big burly guys whose self-identity was tied to a position whose title contained the word "line," "end," or "back."

Guess what?

One roommate was a big guy whose father was an important military dude somewhere in the Pentagon.  He played football and was going to do something-something for the team.  The other roommate was an even bigger guy who had come specifically to play football for the Black Knights (and who ended up being on the squad for all four years; he was actually quite a good player). 


It wasn't that bad, all things considered.  By that, I mean we didn't kill each other as we learned to talk the same language, and we ended up being pretty good friends four years later.  But Mayer, Svoboda, and I were quite the roomie-team at first.

It was kinda quiet after that.  We were taken out for marching drills, and at some point we all got to march out and swear an oath as New Cadets.  I suspect it was hot and muggy--every day from April through September was hot and muggy at West Point--but I honestly have no memories of the weather.  I was freaked out.  Whole new world, meet me, a southern boy exiled to southern California in high school who's never been out of his (non-military) parents' home for long.

That night, our squad leader brought us all together and gave us the first non-structured, non-discipline-centered, time of the summer that we came to know as Beast.  He taught us how to shine our shoes.  Nicely, sort of.  It was a new thing to me; hell, when my liaison officer had told me to buy and get used to wearing black leather shoes, I thought he meant the patent leather ones that were shiny already.  But I learned, as did everybody else, the intricacies of layering on black shoe polish to turn dull black leather into shiny black leather. 

Did I sleep that night?  Probably.  I'm sure I was exhausted.  I don't recall much of it, though.  I had no idea how much was ahead of me, either.  At the time, we were a bunch of civilian kids in better or worse shape than we needed to be who knew how to shine shoes and march in a reasonably straight line without tripping each other.  That summer we had military, bearing, tactics, shooting, and heck, even etiquette classes ahead of us.  Not to mention a speech that ended with a bayonet stuck quivering in the stage.

It was definitely a beginning to remember.


Shifting focus

"As long as I'm having fun, I'm not quitting." - Sue Johanson

Happy New Year!!!!

Well, no, it's not January.  But at my college, accreditation reporting cycles run July through June.  Thus, my "new year" begins every July 1 at work.  It's kinda cool having two new years, especially when I feel no desire to make any silly "resolutions" regarding one of them.

So--speaking of new and resolutions, it's time for a change.  You've probably noticed that my posting frequency has waned a bit.  It's unfortunate, but that's the way it is.  My blog has been on the topic of writing, both to chronicle what I've learned through the process of crafting two novels and to keep me honest with my word count goals.  Besides, the other Stephen King's book On Writing was what got me started, and so the title just worked itself out.

It's been largely successful.  Thanks in part to the blog, I've completed two novels and a novella and have them all out there currently for sale on Amazon.  Thanks in part to the writing of those books, I've had plenty to blog about over time.  Writing is, after all, quite a strange craft in that everybody--well, many of us, anyway--okay, me, for sure, anyway--start out thinking we know everything and end up realizing that we really knew next to nothing. 

That said, my learning path has changed over time.  It's kind of like when I was learning to carve and burn wood.  At first, I was just focused on learning what the tools did and how to keep myself from carving or burning my own fingies.  Each little bit of effort involved fascinating discovery, back then.  There were a whole lot of "oh, lookit" moments, along with a couple "oh, dammit, get me a bandaid" moments as well.

After a while, though, I had all the tools pretty much figured out.  I still wasn't much good, but once you learn what a particular hook chisel does you don't need to re-learn it.  It became a matter of crafting, honing a skill rather than making a new and brilliant(ish) discovery.

Add to that the fact that I haven't written a lot in a while.  I had to take some time off of creative writing, as those of you who've followed the blog know, to complete my dissertation.  While I'm awfully excited about having it done, it wasn't all that exciting to do.  I managed to get what--two posts out of it?  And both were me bitching about academic writing. You all know, now, that academic writing is exactly what creative writing would be if you sucked out all the interesting bits, right?

Anyway, the above is why I'm changing.  I'm just not coming up with cool and interesting stuff to write about writing any more.  I don't want to bore you, and I don't want to bore myself.

Believe it or not, I've been wanting to do this for a while now.  I have another blog already created, but I haven't had the energy to go over there and write about what I wanted to write about while I was still over here writing about writing.  Write?  Er, right?  The other blog, though, is on success, a topic about which I'm quite passionate.  I'm even creating--about halfway through, as a matter of fact--a non-fiction book on the subject.  But the post series I've been envisioning has more than just "a grumpy dean's success manual" inside it.  It's stories--stories about West Point, stories about my MBA, stories about business, stories about my triumphs and challenges in my job as Dean.  Stories about how so many people in my immediate vicinity within the world always have, and still do, set themselves up for success only to snatch failure right out of what would be the winning trophy.  Stories, too, about some of the great friends I've met in the writing world--some incredibly gifted and successful authorpreneurs. All sorts of stories, and I need to tell 'em.

That is what I want to write about.  Why go to another blog when I have this one already?

Problem's been, I don't want to lose any of you.  You're why I do this.  If I'm just sitting here writing to be read only by myself, that's not very much fun.  Yes, it might finally answer the age-old question of "if a man is writing and there's no woman to read it, is he still wrong?"  But everything else about that scenario just sucks.

I've been watching, though.  I post stuff about writing, and I get reader activity on the blog.  I post stuff about other topics, and I still get reader activity.  I post nothing, and I still get activity and maintain followers.  Similarly, I get the most response on Twitter and in other social media when I Tweet/post/whatever about inspirational topics rather than writing topics.  It's not that the choice of topic is unimportant, but I think and hope that many of you are here because you enjoy my voice, my snark, my knowledge, rather than or at least in addition to my discussion of learning the process of writing.

Bottom line--lookit, there are a bazillion and one blogs out there about writing, most written by folks who're better, more seasoned, and far more credible than I.  I don't think I'm significantly impacting the blogging world's contents by shifting the focus of my own blog a little.

So, all that being said, my future path is charted, at least for a while. I hope you'll follow along with me.  If so, buckle up, because I'm looking forward to a helluva fun ride.