What writing death notices taught me about writing

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smallnoticeI’ve been a professional writer for 22 years. The first time my writing was published was in 1993, when I was the circulation manager for a small weekly newspaper in Detroit. The full-time reporters considered the job of writing death notices to be beneath them, and shoved it off onto me.

I loved it. Each week, the death notice forms would come in from the funeral homes, along with the remembrance ads from the spouses and loved ones of the recently, or not so recently, departed. Some notices stuck to just the facts: Mr. Volchuck died March 18 at Holy Cross Hospital. He’s survived by his daughter, Anna, and his son, Leon.

Other notices would feature bible verses. Occasionally there would be a line or two of bad poetry or some clip art selected from a binder that was kept at the front desk.

Some death notices would give a bit more information about the person than just the names of their spouses, children, and grandchildren. For example, Jan Kowalski played football for University of Detroit and worked at GM for 30 years.

My job was to put each death notice into a standard format, get the facts and spelling right, and have it all ready to go to paste up (the paper was pasted up when I first started working there) in time for the Tuesday night press run.

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The structure of death notice had been the same for the entire 75+ year history of the paper: Last name, first name, middle initial, location, date of death, survived by wife (nee maiden name), children, grandchildren, location and date / time of services.

Although the policy was to stick to the standard format and keep it as dry as possible, I would routinely include as much information into each death notice as I could. A death notice is a very different thing, with a very different purpose, from an obituary. But, I treated each notice as an opportunity to try to fit an obituary into around 50 words.

The challenge of squeezing human details or touching words into whatever small amount of space was left after listing the grandchildren was one that I was particularly fond of and good at.

The readership skewed towards elderly Polish-Americans. They were notorious gossips and wanted to know everything about everyone else’s troubles, illnesses, and ultimate undoing. The paper, however, had a policy of not printing the cause of death.

I was a 22-year old on a break of indeterminate length from college. Full of unearned self-assuredness, I argued with the editor-in-chief and publisher — who had a collective 40+ years of newspaper experience between them — that the cause of death should be listed in death notices whenever it’s included on the form.

Death notices were one of the most-read parts of the paper in this community. Listing the cause of death, I argued, would make the notices even more popular. The publisher considered it tacky to mention the cause of death, and pointed out that doing so would require additional research and permissions from survivors. I eventually saw that the trouble of printing the cause of death wasn’t worth the effort, and my crusade for openness ended there.

From this first experience with being published and having my writing distributed I learned to be concise, to always be thinking about the audience, and to do quality work while balancing the effort and rewards. These are vital skills for any writer to have, and I would encourage anyone who is just getting started as a writer to spend some time practicing the art of writing death notices.

My Writing Cave Quest

A couple months ago, I started a writing group. My vision for the group was that once a week, my writer friends and I would get together to write, talk about writing, act stupid, and share stories. I named the group the Hemingway and Gump School of Writing.

I chose a location that served beer and coffee and that was fairly centrally located in midtown Sacramento. I scheduled the first meeting and invited all of my friends who are writers or who aspire to be writers.

No one showed.

I had a great time and got more fiction writing done than I had in a long time. So, I scheduled it again for the same time and same place the next week.

Again, no one showed up and I was really productive and stumbled home after a few hours of writing and drinking beers by myself.

The next week, one other person showed up and I was much less productive. But, it was fun!

After a while, though, I started to feel like the location and the place I had selected for writing wasn’t the best. The mix of people drinking coffee (probably 85%) and people drinking beer (me) felt strange and I wanted a more mellow scene.

I planned a writing crawl with my trusted friend and counsel, Jeff, to seek out a new location for the writing group. The idea was that we would walk around Sacramento with our laptops, and have a drink and write something in as wide a variety of places as possible.

On the planned day of the crawl, I headed to my local coffee shop (Naked Lounge) to warm up and await Jeff. Unfortunately, Jeff wasn’t able to make it out on the morning of the crawl. So, I decided to embark upon the crawl alone.

What follows is the journal of my quest to find the perfect writing location in midtown Sacramento.

My first stop was Naked Lounge, at 15th and Q.

Naked serves coffee of all sorts, plus some pastries. I had an iced coffee and sat at a small table and worked on a sidebar to Chapter 1 of Coding JavaScript for Kids. Naked has free and open wi-fi (no need to ask for a password), there are plenty of places to plug a laptop in, no one minds if you hang out for hours, the coffee is excellent, and the atmosphere is good for morning or early afternoon. The tables are a bit small and it’s often pretty crowded, however.

After I finished my sidebar and coffee, I moved on. My next stop was University of Beer, on 16th Street. University of Beer has 100 beers on tap and some nice picnic tables outside where you can sit quietly and type. There was nowhere to plug in, and the wi-fi was password protected (and I didn’t feel like asking for the password). This places gets pretty crowded at night, so I don’t imagine it would be a good regular night-time writing spot. However, I wrote my company’s weekly newsletter and had a delicious New Glory Brewery American Country Saison.

At this point, I was getting hungry, so I headed across the street to Uncle Vito’s Pizza. Uncle Vito serves pizza by the slice and has a good selection of beers on tap at great prices. I ordered two slices of pepperoni and a Lagunitas Lil’ Sumpin. Everything was delicious. They don’t have wifi that I could detect, but the University of Beer wifi signal was strong from where I was sitting.

I started writing this blog post while waiting for my pizza, then ate my pizza and enjoyed the atmosphere and beer without writing. Vito’s might not be the best place to get writing done (it’s small, and I didn’t feel like I could sit for a long time and type), but so far it’s tops on my list for places to get together with other writers and not write.

My next stop was to be the Sheraton Grand. I like hotel lobby bars, and the one at the Sheraton Grand in downtown Sacramento is a particularly nice one. Unfortunately, there was some sort of fitness convention going on and the place was mobbed. So, I walked through and continued on.

My next stop, the Hyatt Regency on L Street did not disappoint. The bar was empty and has plenty of comfortable seating. The beer list is severely limited, but they also have food, free wi-fi, places to plug a laptop in, and high ceilings to look at while pondering what the hell to write next. I wrote the rest of this blog post up to this point at the Hyatt while drinking two Rubicon Monkey Knife Fights.

Could this be the place? No, probably not…although I have enjoyed my time here. Time to move on to the next spot. Stay tuned.

The Many Insults of the Web Developer – Part 4

Motel Magazine: The zine for people who are made mostly of water.

Sidebar: Showing Off My 90s Design Skillz

I was primarily a programmer, writer, and boss for most of my web development career. In the early days, however, I used to also do web design. I like to think that I did a lifetime worth of great design work between 1996 and 2000, so I retired from designing after that. But, I recently unearthed a stash of screenshots of my design work from back then, and all of my illusions of design greatness have been shattered.

Seen through today’s eyes, the design work I did at the time was truly horrible. But, if you look at it in context, it actually was understandable. Before I show off my gallery of design catastrophes from the late-90s, here’s a quick peek at what the most popular web site in the world looked like in 1997.

 

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Ok, got that in your head? Good. Now, let’s look at some of my masterworks.

Motel Magazine: The zine for people who are made mostly of water.

Motel Magazine: The zine for people who are made mostly of water. The robot was animated – its mid-section would expand and contract.

 

MWS 1997

The 2nd version of the Minnick Web Services web site – complete with 3D arrow and truck. Why a truck? I thought the previous design looked too “weak”. Naturally, a truck was the answer.

 

Perhaps the greatest feat in all of web design! I wish I had a larger screenshot of this one.

Perhaps the greatest feat in all of web design! I wish I had a larger screenshot of this one.

 

Believe it or not, this one was really difficult to do.

Believe it or not, this site was really difficult to build.

 

I don't know if you can see it, but we have some really awesome 3D buttons here. I miss 3D buttons.

I don’t know if you can see it, but we have some really awesome 3D buttons here. I miss 3D buttons. That’s why I’m no longer a designer.

 

 

 

 

The Many Insults of the Web Developer – Part 3

My first project as a professional web developer.

I managed to stretch out my first project for several glorious months. Eventually, though, the amount of work started to taper off and I turned to thoughts of finding more work for my awesome one-man business.

My first project as a professional web developer.

My first project as a professional web developer.

It was at this point, just a couple months into my career as a web developer, that I made one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made: I decided to seek out small business clients.

The obvious way to find potential clients in 1997 was by flipping through the Yellow Pages. I started from the front of the phone book and pretty quickly got mired in the giant swamp of accountant listings. Since I had no idea what I was doing when it came to managing my business finances, I figured that if all else failed we could trade services.

With just the information I found in the phone book and some clip art, I proceeded to build a website for the accountant who was located closest to our apartment building. Then, I called her up and asked if she’d like to meet with me so I could show her the website I made her. I also mentioned that I was looking for an accountant for my new business.

Naturally, I got a meeting. Laptop in hand, I walked to my new prospect’s office and demonstrated the many features and benefits of her new website. When she asked what I would charge her to customize it and put it on the web, I blurted out that I needed help with my taxes. I asked how much she would charge to do my taxes and offered to trade the website for help with my taxes. The deal was as good as done.

The 2nd website built by Minnick Web Services - built in 1997.

The 2nd website built by Minnick Web Services.

To my grown-up web developer self, this sounds like the absolute worst way to get new business that I could have ever come up with.

  1. I was undervaluing my services.
  2. I gave the client an open-ended license to request endless revisions, in exchange for a fixed price (tax preparation for a sole proprietorship with almost no expenses and very little income).
  3. I was wasting a whole lot of time.

All of these problems became major issues as my business grew. Even worse, I feel like I made an early contribution to the now widespread belief that you can get someone to build you a website for free.

While you read the horror stories of horrible clients and nightmare projects that are to come, keep in mind that I recognize that I’m at least partially to blame.

The Many Insults of the Web Developer – Part 2

MWS 1997

My 18-year long career as a self-employed web developer started with the best project for the best client I’ve ever had.

It was 1996, and I was working as an editorial assistant for Software Development Magazine in San Francisco. My job consisted of copyediting, some writing, and running errands. I worked for a great company, had awesome co-workers and bosses, and I even got to write an occasional product review. It was really the perfect job for me, except that I wasn’t paid enough to live on, and I made a horrible employee (but more on that later).

Motel Magazine: The zine for people who are made mostly of water.

Motel Magazine: The zine for people who are made mostly of water.

At night and on the weekends, I was writing a humor and travel zine called Motel Magazine with Margaret. The website I built for it received some attention for being less ugly than most things on the web in 1996. That was the extent of my web development experience.

Margaret’s dad owned an engineering firm in the city and they needed a website. He asked if I could do it. I said “Yes, of course!” and quoted a rate of $50 per hour. That was all that was needed for me to get the job, and to quit my day job.

For the next month or so, I spent the mornings exploring San Francisco and taking pictures of the client’s projects and of beautiful San Francisco landmarks to use on the website. In the afternoon, I played golf or sat in our little apartment on the far west side of the city smoking cigarettes and learning how to write code.

Occasionally, I’d go downtown to have lunch with the client or with a friend. Four billable hours a day was just about all I needed in order to be extremely well-off, and I had no time pressure or competing demands. My client knew what he wanted the site to be, gave frequent and useful feedback, and paid my invoices quickly – he even taught me how to create an invoice.

Of course, the good times couldn’t last long. As I recall, they lasted about 6 months.

The Many Insults of the Web Developer – Part 1

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wtc-introIntroduction: I remember 9/11

In September 2001, Margaret and I were living in Austin and were operating our web design business out of our house. Things were going pretty well. The business was successful; Austin was exciting and fun; and we were a few chapters into the writing of a new book: The eBiz+ Certification Exam Cram.

On September 11, I woke up shortly before 8:00 and sat down at my computer to check my email before taking a shower. I opened Excite.com and saw in the newsfeed that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. “What a horrible accident,” I thought. I left a browser window open to CNN.com so I could check it out after I went through my email.

The next time I looked at the news, a 2nd plane had hit the World Trade Center. I ran downstairs to tell Margaret. We turned on the TV and saw the first tower collapse. For the next hour, we watched in total shock as the most horrible thing we’d ever seen unfolded.

Then my office phone rang. I saw on the caller ID that it was Joe, our real estate agent client. I had talked to him at 10PM the night before, several times during the previous day, and a couple times over the weekend. It wasn’t unexpected that he would call at strange times. But if he was calling now, it must be a huge emergency.

Maybe he had family in New York and wanted my help contacting them? Maybe he felt it necessary to call and tell me that he wasn’t going to be working today? Maybe he just wanted to talk to someone about what was going on and thought of me (we had been talking an awful lot lately, after all). I picked up the phone.

“Chris, I know what’s happening in New York right now is just terrible. But, we really need to launch the site today. We have a big e-blast going out tomorrow morning.”

 


 

I’ve been a professional web developer and owner of a web development firm for 18 years. I started the business in San Francisco in 1997. Margaret joined forces with me when we moved to Oakland, then to Austin, then to Sacramento. We survived the dot-com crash and the early 2000s lull. The great recession hit us hard in 2009, and we laid off 10 of our 12 employees. Margaret left the business to become one of the happily not self-employed, and I continued to run things for another 5 years.

This summer, I decided I’d had enough and started planning a slow wrap-up and shut down. That shut down completed yesterday.

The coming series of articles, and maybe book someday, will describe the history of my years as a small business owner, employer, and web developer. I don’t know how long this series will end up being, but I’m looking forward to sharing some of my stories as well as the small bits of wisdom I’ve gained. My hope is to figure out where everything went wrong with my first business, and to learn from that myself so that it never occurs again. I’m also hoping to educate the next generation of web developers and clients about what not to do.

I won’t bother you with my personal revelations (much). You’re here for the story, and I’m going to give it to you as best I can.

All non-innocent names have been changed to protect the innocent.

What’s it like to be the 32,284th most popular author?

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According to Amazon, there are only 32,283 authors who are more popular than me (on Amazon) today. Updated hourly, this number has fluctuated in the range of 20,000 to 40,000 over the last few months.

With somewhere around 5 million titles in the Amazon database, I figure there are at least a million different authors I compete with. That puts me in the top 3 percent of authors on Amazon. My rank doesn’t look so shabby now, does it?

But, what does that mean, in terms of fame, wealth, book signings, fighting off paparazzi, and all of the other important measures of success? Pretty much nothing. No one (except family members) has ever asked me to sign my books, and I have yet to earn enough to live on for more than a couple weeks from sales of my books. So, why do I do it?

Writing books is valuable for much more than just the writing of the book. For example, what would I be writing about right now if it weren’t for the fact that I can write about writing books?

One of the big things that it’s useful for is to demonstrate just how difficult certain pursuits are – even though the perception is that success happens all the time.

I’m thinking, in particular, about mobile apps and web startups. Almost every single mobile app that has been built has been a failure, in terms of money earned — with the rare giant success. Yet, I get calls and questions daily from people who have a “sure thing” app idea that will make us all billionaires (and I should be happy to work for free because of it).

In the end, my best advice is: think long and hard before you jump into a sure-thing hit project. Is the straight-ahead path of selling app downloads or subscriptions the best way to make money, or can you give away the app to help boost the business you already have? Are there less glamorous ways to make your web or app project pay for itself without relying on it getting a million downloads? Let me tell you now: even with the best distribution network in the world, a great product, founders who are willing to work 24 hours a day, and a marketing budget – getting even 1000 people to pay 99 cents to download something, or to pay $20 per month for a service, or to buy a book, is way more difficult than you can imagine.

So, how do you build a successful website or mobile app? The same way you become the most popular author on Amazon (except for about 32,000 other ones): stick to it for a long time, know your subject and audience inside-out, and look at ways to make your project successful without having to amass a large audience of paying customers.

Want more free advice from me? Sign up for a Free Website Audit.

The post What’s it like to be the 32,284th most popular author? appeared first on Minnick Web Services.

Maybe I’m America’s 2nd Next Best Bartender?

I have no idea what's going on here.

Last weekend, a reality show called “America’s Next Best Bartender” had a casting call in Sacramento. As someone who is interested in booze production, serving, and consumption, I decided to go and see if I was America’s Next Best Bartender material. There was also some prize money attached to the title, which also helped persuade me to try out.

I have no idea what's going on here.

I have no idea what’s going on here.

The day started at noon, with a line of 20-30 people and some paperwork, followed by a lot of waiting around. This was my first reality TV casting call, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I could tell from the outfits and the over-the-top “attitude” that nearly everyone else there was a professional reality TV contestant.

Imagine, if you will…

Me (thinking): It just struck me that I’m the oldest person here. I hope there isn’t a dance competition as part of this thing. These seem like nice enough people, but they’re pretty loud. Am I not loud enough? Well, I’m sure my knowledge of bartending, beer, wine, and spirits will be far greater than any of these kids and I’ll get to be on this show. Do I want that, though?

Almost everyone else (very out-loud): Hey! Let’s get pumped up! Woooooo!

At around 2:00, I was called in for an interview with the producers and asked why I want to be America’s next best bartender. I said I didn’t care too much, actually, but I thought it could be fun. And, also, I like to drink. They told me to come back at 5 for the 2nd round.

I went back to my office, worked a little, prepared some snappy answers to the questions they were sure to ask (how about: “What qualities make a great bartender?”), and returned at 5.

After waiting for an hour or two in the crowd of other contestants (the 2nd round, oddly enough, seemed to be larger than the first round), I was called in for my 2nd audition, or interview, or whatever.

They asked me if I see myself as “The Parent,” “The Coach,” or “The Underdog.” I had no idea, except that I know I’m not a coach or a parent. I bumbled around a bit and then asked “what do you mean?” They asked me if I’d be able to handle the pressure and I assured them that I’m not afraid of anything, and I’m especially not afraid of being on a TV show.

There were no questions about bartending, or even about what the primary flavor in Galliano is or what’s in a Perfect Manhattan and what should it be garnished with. Ah well, I did well enough that I was invited back for the after party and casting announcement at 10:00.

I brought 3 of my nerdy friends with me to the party and we waited and people-watched. I drank a Gimlet, a couple beers, and some horrible shot from a test tube. The show producers watched the crowd of contestants from a balcony over the dance floor, and I thought my cool and aloof demeanor was sure to win me a spot on the show.

Oh boy was I wrong! At midnight, the chosen ones were called to the stage, one at a time, to dance around. Pretty much every one of them would have been my last choice for someone who would (in my opinion) make a great bartender. These were loud people who could dance and weren’t afraid to take their shirts off (but leave their neckties on, oddly enough) in a club.

I left the after party feeling relieved that I wasn’t picked, but a little disappointed as well. I’d be curious to see what this show ends up being like, but I won’t watch it, because I can’t stand and don’t understand reality TV.

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