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Chris Answers Questions About Writing

People often ask writers about their daily schedules, hoping to get some nugget of advice that’s going to help them finally start or finish the novel they’ve been planning. I totally understand where this question is coming from, and I ask the same question of anyone who manages to exercise on a regular basis. Writing can be difficult, and a different perspective or the right advice can sometimes make it easier.

I’m the kind of writer who really likes to tell stories (often conflicting) about the things that I do and don’t do — so I have fun with this question. I never mean to mislead anyone or give out bad advice…I think the things I say make sense…for example: “write without pants on before 6am, edit with pants on after 6pm”. But, take everything I say on this matter with a grain of salt, because I’d be some sort of crazy robot if I actually followed my own advice half the time.

There was an article I read recently where someone tried to actually follow the routines that various authors claimed they followed…but he wasn’t willing to follow through with Hunter S. Thompson’s supposed routine and so the article was sort of lame.

At any rate, I make up stories about how I write, and here’s the latest installment, with some other fun questions and answers too. This is from Nancy Christie’s series of interviews called One on One: Insights Into The Writer’s Life.

Howl.com

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by startups,

        weakened caffeinated bloated,

hunching themselves over glowing screens at night looking

        for a syntax error,

filthyheaded coders burning for the algorithmic

        connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of Steve,

who overworked and malnourished and burned-out and tired stayed up typing

        in the fluorescent wired-ness of south park warehouses sitting

        in the sacks of Herman Miller contemplating Java,

who bared their brains to VCs on Caltrain and saw

        Torvaldsian angels stammering at conference room tables

        powerpointed,

who eased through universities with curious humor

        improvising Yahoo! and ebay among the

        networks of war,

who dropped out of the academies for startups & committing

        hurried code to be the first to market,

who packed into unadorned rooms in moscone, stuffing their

        totebags with t-shirts and listening to the Guru with

        the laser,

who lost years working for equity marketers in Austin

        with a half-baked idea,

who ate pizza at meetups or drank microbrew at Google

        Numbed, wasted, or killed their minds night after night

with HTML, with CSS, with servers, earbuds and

        endless javascript,

insufferable meetings with clients and lawyers in

        the open workspaces of Brannan & Bryant,

        interrupting all the motionless focus of code between,

Mountain Dew rush of flow, laptop white fruit LCD wakes,

        jolt nerves terminal blinking cursor shell, bourne again

and configuration files in the remote innards of Linux,

        irc rantings and kind opers and faqs,

to recreate the systems and bonds of pre-Internet humans and

        stand before you victorious and heroic and bursting

        with pride yet secretly fretting over the next update

        to the library that binds together his fragile code,

tech and sales scheme in Time, unknown, yet putting down in readme

        what they need to fix post ipo

and rose disillusioned in the elastic pants of freelancing in the makeshift

        home office and uploaded the suffering of crushed dreams

        into another lorum ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur

photoshop mockup that failed to “pop” enough

        and the incessant client change requests inciting their

        own souls to threaten to leave for a thousand years.

* with apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl

What writing death notices taught me about writing

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.

bignotice

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.

Beginning HTML5 and CSS3 for Dummies is out now!

My latest book, which I co-authored with Ed Tittel, is out now and available everywhere computer books are sold! If you have no previous experience with web development and you’re interested in learning to create websites, or if you’re already a web developer and want to brush up on the latest HTML and CSS technologies, this is the book for you!

Here’s the link:
Beginning HTML5 and CSS3 For Dummies

In just about 400 full-color pages, you’ll learn all of the essential skills you need to create websites, including:

  • How to create the structure of a web page with HTML
  • How to use images and multimedia in your web pages
  • How to create links in web pages
  • How to use CSS to make your pages look great
  • How to use typography on the web
  • How to use CSS3’s new properties to do advanced text and shadow effects
  • How to optimize your web pages for mobile devices
  • and much much more!

Plus, there are full-color pictures of our cats, Sparky and Mr. Jones, for those of you who might be more interested in pictures of the cats than in learning to make web pages. This book really does have something for everyone!

 

Online Learning Through the Instructor’s Eyes

I’ve been teaching an online course for several months now. For a year prior to that, I was writing the course and working with the team at Ed2Go to make it sparkle. My course gets an average of about 150 students each month.

Since I get asked about it pretty often, and since I feel like I’m starting to get a pretty unique perspective on online learning, I thought I’d share my experience with you, my excellent readers.

My course is called Creating Mobile Apps with HTML5. Needless to say, the course has to cover a LOT of technologies. To further complicate things, I designed the course to be useful for a very wide range of people — from those with very little web development experience to those with tons of experience, but perhaps not so much with HTML5 technologies. To elaborate and further set the stage….

I must teach:

  • HTML, JavaScript, CSS, JQuery, JQuery Mobile, JSON, web browser fundamentals, AJAX fundamentals, web performance tuning, offline database, web APIs, PhoneGap, and more.
  • In just 12 lessons.
  • To 150 students
  • Who are located all over the world
  • And who have varying levels of experience and knowledge
  • On the Web.

This is quite a daunting task…but I only have myself to blame for designing the curriculum and taking it on. When I first signed on to be an Ed2Go instructor, I was just finishing writing my book (WebKit for Dummies), and I was high on my knowledge of all things HTML5 and so I plowed on, despite my previous less-than-perfect experience with online learning.

I’m somewhat of a veteran of online teaching, having taught my first online course (for a community college) back in 2001. At the time, I was frustrated with the format and the lack of ability to really communicate with the students. After one semester, I threw up my hands and pretty much decided that online teaching was way more difficult than live teaching, and that it wasn’t worth the effort for the teacher or the students.

But that was then. Today, pretty much the exact same classroom software is being used for my online course (a learning-oriented forum system), but the entire process for developing and teaching the course has been very different.

I wrote my first online course (on web application development) over a period of about 2 weeks. It consisted of a sloppy powerpoint deck and some links to more information. There were no standards, no editorial review,  and no assistance from the school. I don’t think anyone else at the school knew what I was teaching.

Ed2Go, on the other hand, is extremely process-oriented. Deadlines are tight, and quality standards are very high. More importantly, both are strictly enforced. I consider my editor at Ed2Go to be one of the very best I’ve ever worked with. She kept me honest about whether I was doing my best work, edited me where I needed it (always making me look better than I am), and put up with (and maybe understood) my sense of humor and why I thought it was important to keep certain jokes in the lessons. Writing my course was probably the most difficult writing project of my career, and it took almost a year, during which I worked on it for 4 hours a day and got paid nothing.

Now I’m teaching the course (and getting paid, thanks). My students get a new lesson every Wednesday and Friday. The lesson contains 5 chapters of pre-written instruction, an assignment (usually a little programming task), some frequently asked questions, a list of additional resources, and a quiz. At the end of the 12th lesson, students take the final exam, which consists of 25 multiple choice questions. I’m available to answer questions in a forum area during the duration of the course, but the students’ successful completion of the course is based solely on how they do on the final exam.

The format really works, and the vast majority of my students that I get to interact with seem to get a lot out of it and have a good time. They rank me highly on the surveys at the end of the class and say really nice things in the course feedback.

So, where’s the big “but”? There really isn’t one. I enjoy interacting with my students and I firmly believe that I’m teaching them some really valuable skills and passing on some great information.

There is an occasional challenge brought on by a software dependency that suddenly makes part of the course obsolete or incorrect. Sometimes, a student may get frustrated and take it out on me (that’s what they make the delete button for!), and sometimes I may come home from happy hour too late and fail to do as good of a job explaining the inner workings of JavaScript arrays as I could have done several beers back. But, all in all, I’m really happy with my latest online teaching experience and I’m feeling really positive about the potential for affordable and high-quality online learning.

psst…Want to take my class? A new session is starting soon. Click Here!