Discover the joy of writing during National Novel Writing Month

Don't give up, OK?

In your head, it’s perfect, the Great American Novel, a book destined to be a classic. All you have to do is write it down.

But an idea is not a real thing. It’s nothing. Saying you have a great idea for a book is like saying you have a great idea for a jet fighter. It’s a fantasy. Only by taking your story and actually telling it do you create art.

Your book will be imperfect. Shockingly so, which is why most people never get around to creating art. It’s safer to be an imaginary artist than a real one.

But, if you’re an artist, you get your art out the door and into the world. “Real artists ship,” as Steve Jobs said. You become a writer by writing, not by dreaming about it.

National Novel Writing Month in November is an excellent time to start your creative journey. Join a global community of people striving to write a novel. Challenge yourself to pick up the literary habit, find the solace of creating something new and make a real contribution to the world.

The objective during NaNoWriMo is to write a novel – not necessarily a good novel. NaNoWriMo is about quantity, not quality, with a single goal to attain: 50,000 words. That’s 1667 words a day.

The novel can be crap. In fact, it probably will be crap. Expect it to be crap. Giving yourself permission to write crap is enormously liberating.

And you can always fix it. Many great novels have emerged from painful first drafts. Every book gets revised. Hemingway wrote 47 different endings to A Farewell to Arms.

I tend to write and cut. For my short story, Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction contest, I wrote it over a couple of days but then spent the next month picking away it like a turkey carcass, deleting anything that sounded like exposition until only the bones remained. You can fix stories but first you have to write them.

My first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall, began as a joke. After three years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I was going to take some time off to write a big, serious novel about 9/11. No pressure.

But, at my going away party, I joked that I was going to write a book called Murder in Ocean Hall. I had learned a lot about the big egos of ocean explorers while at NOAA, as well as interesting background behind the construction of the Ocean Hall exhibit at the Smithsonian. I could pair these interesting stories with my street-level knowledge of DC beyond the monuments to create a murder-mystery.

Write what you know.

Plus, writing a mystery was a way of taking pressure off my own artistic ambitions. I wasn’t writing serious literature. Instead, I was writing genre fiction. It didn’t have to be the Great American Novel; readable would suffice.

I don’t know why people say writing is painful. “Just open a vein and bleed,” according to Hemingway.

But, for me, writing is a joy. Starting during NaNoWriMo, but continuing long after, I went to a coffee shop and made stuff up, piling up words and solving problems as I built my book, learning how to write a novel over endless cups of java.

Is Murder in Ocean Hall any good? Does it matter? I had fun writing it and I enjoy seeing it on my shelf.

Which is why you should NaNoWriMo. You’ll do what few people have – actually write a book rather than just talking about it. But also because writing is a fun and creative activity with its own rewards. And you can do it while hanging out in coffee shops. That’s why I write.

 

Brunch, for tomorrow we die

A tremor went through the social media world of Washington, DC – someone was slamming brunch! With anticipation, I clicked and read What the DC Brunch Says About the Young Urban Elite.

The best line in the article was at the beginning:

brunch in D.C. has evolved to be little more than a way for the young urban elite (today’s yuppies) to make their messy weekends look neat, drunkenness hip, and materialistic desires something other than hedonistic.

After that highlight, the text got vague, with standard indictments of DC as being too white, too rich and too fake. Hoping for a polemic against a Washington institution deserving mockery, I put the iPhone down in disappointment. Do you even brunch, bro?

I have the misfortune of living off 14th Street. This once-gritty corridor, home to auto repair shops by day and hookers by night, has been refashioned as a temple of conspicuous consumption. Everything notorious about the strip is now gone, replaced by juiceries and micro-apartments.

A little after 1 PM on a Sunday, I saw a 20-something stumbling down the street. I was concerned. Was he sick? As he passed me, I saw. Raging drunk, in the middle of the day. The cause: brunch.

Despite my dislike of the sloppy DC brunch scene, I was recently forced to the meal. First ones in the restaurant but the manager insisted on squeezing us into a tiny booth, carefully packing us together like a puzzle of human parts. The objective: maximizing revenue out of an audience willing pay inflated prices for scrambled eggs.

The waiter kept pushing bottomless mimosas – “You just want one?” – confused by these strange people who didn’t want to get hammeringly drunk before noon.

Maybe if I was a morning person, I’d like brunch better. But I really don’t want talk to you before coffee. I don’t want to be social.

But brunch is all about the social, less about the food, and more about the Instagram. It doesn’t matter that you waited an hour for pancakes. What matters is how they look. And how you look, as you craft a social media persona to make your friends back home jealous. Fabulous! So totally Sex and the City! Even as the country slides toward a world that closely resembles Idiocracy.

Brunch is messy, careless and usually paid for with someone else’s money. No wonder Washington loves it so.

Stuff is messed up. With Trump in the White House, life in DC could end in a mushroom cloud.

So, enjoy your mimosas. Indulge the omelet. Take one final selfie.

Brunch, for tomorrow we die.

From Office Space to Open Office: Why Does Work Suck?

manhattan laundry

Even by government standards, the office was a dump. A brutalist structure on the treeless expanse of L’Enfant Plaza, the building was awkward and uninviting from the outside – a concrete slab with windows encrusted in filth.

Once through the doors, there was the usual puzzle of obtaining entry, 1960s architecture and security theater combining to create an imponderable maze of hallways decorated with faded American flags and outdated office directories encased in plexiglass.

The interview was in a conference room. I followed my guide to a subterranean level, where he submitted a letter to a functionary behind a desk. After signing a log, he was given a key. We then went back upstairs to unlock the conference room.

After the interview, I was shown where I would work. I had been warned. “Make sure you show it to him,” the interviewer said.

For good reason. I’ve worked as a government contractor for ten years, primarily in environments that look straight out of Office Space. Fluorescent lights, beige furniture, chunky computers – depressing but doable. Windows are reserved for feds. Contractors get the worst space.

But I don’t need much. A private little space in a corner somewhere and I’m fine.

But what I was shown wasn’t even a cubicle – it was a worn formica table in a noisy hallway crammed with people, including consultants working elbow to elbow, the two of them sharing one desk. It was like working in a submarine, but one cluttered with broken office equipment and sagging cardboard boxes. I must’ve visibly recoiled because I did not the get the job.

I recently attended the Inclusive Smart Cities Summit, primarily because I was interested in the transportation session – Gabe Klein, who created the 15th St bike lane and bikesharing in DC was speaking – but before that panel, there was a discussion on workplaces of the future.

At first, it was the usual thing, a panel of buzzword-spewing experts describing the future of work as open and collaborative though everyone I know who works in an open office wants out. Those pushing the open space trend typically do so from executive suites, where they don’t have to listen to coworkers discussing medical conditions with their doctor.

What’s missing from the open office trend? Data. Listening to Randy Fiser, CEO of the American Society of Interior Designers, was a revelation. They selected and designed their office based on employee needs, choosing a downtown building with an abundance of green space, fresh food and walkable transportation. After moving into their new office, they then measured the results, with productivity and employee satisfaction both increased.

WeWork has been billed as the future of work. I certainly hope so. I’ve taken advantage of their DC locations through their Summer Mondays promotion.

While WeWork is open space, I love it because it doesn’t feel crowded or claustrophobic. There’s room to move around, plenty of seating options and lots of natural light. Plus, there are phone rooms for private conversations and a kitchen stocked with coffee, beer and snacks.

It’s about creating a narrative, according to Dave McLaughlin. The WeWork exec has a screenwriting background, a refreshing change from the MBA-educated consultant class. WeWork is for creators. With hip wall art, low couches and millennials busily working on laptops, it provides a hip backdrop, as if you’re working in a Hollywood romcom.

WeWork wants you to do more than just create – they want you to accomplish your dreams through collaboration with other WeWorkers. Space is designed to facilitate chance encounters, with hallways that are a little too narrow, so that you have to look up from your iPhone and make eye contract with other people.

According to Randy Fiser, we spend 91% of our time indoors. We spend so much time at work that we should make it as pleasant as possible. Not every office can look like WeWork but design matters. Humans need space, natural light and privacy. Create offices that people like. It’s good business.

America, Eclipsed

IMG_2835
Eclipse in Cullowhee, NC

It was the Great American Eclipse, a continent-spanning solar event that would bring squabbling America together, if only briefly. And, who knows, the sight of forces much bigger than ourselves – the sun blocked out by the moon – might even cause people to put aside their prejudices and unite as one.

Novels are full of epiphanies, life-changing moments when characters realize the folly of their ways.

But real life rarely has those moments for most people never give up their guiding principles, no matter how misguided.

With friends near the path of the eclipse, I was determined to experience this unique event. Totality would occur just a few miles from their home in Waynesville, NC.

The morning of the eclipse, my friends demurred, seeing traffic backed up on the highway, afraid that they would be caught in a historic traffic jam rather than history. But me, familiar with gridlocked DC, was unfazed, reasoning it couldn’t any worse than the Beltway on any day at any time.

It wasn’t. I reached the campus of Western Carolina University with hours to spare. WCU was in the zone of totality and I had my friend’s parking pass so I could park on the closed campus.

The biggest problem I encountered was getting something to eat. It was the first day of classes at WCU and students were lined up everywhere for lunch.

Slowly, the sun diminished. By the time I finished my sandwich, it was as if the solar orb had been turned down by a dimmer switch, the light fading to the point that I no longer needed sunglasses.

Crowds in purple (WCU’s color) filled the center of campus, near the clock tower. Scientists from WCU provided color commentary while students lined up for eclipse glasses and moonpies. I settled into the grass and waited for the show.

Minutes before the eclipse I saw people heading indoors, bags of food in hand, choosing to miss this magical moment. It’s curious but there were some in the path of the eclipse who wouldn’t even look outside, annoyed at the impertinence of the sun. A friend’s mother couldn’t be bothered with it, thinking it all to be overrated. Fake News!

But on the packed campus at WCU, the crowd sighed as clouds washed over the golden orb. Apps were checked, as students counted down the moment to totality and willed the clouds to part.

The moon ate the sun, until just a shining crescent remained, screened by the wispy cumulus. It was beautiful but there was more to come.

Seconds before totality, the offending cloud drifted off and the campus broke into relieved applause.

Then the sun was extinguished, disappearing, all but the sharp platinum ring of the corona. Students cheered, as if rooting for their favorite team. Eclipse glasses were removed. People stood and embraced, a rising tumult echoing off the mountains.

Seated on the grass, lens pointed upwards, I snapped photo after photo in happy disbelief.

It was night on campus, the clock tower lit up against the dark sky, stars visible in the blackness but light lingering in the west, like sunset on a strange world.

After a minute of star-speckled darkness, the sun broke free from the moon’s grip. Another round of applause then everyone got up to leave, the sky still strangely dim.

Traffic going back was bad but moved steadily over Balsam Gap. My friends in Waynesville had seen a lot – like shadow bands and the mountain across the valley go dark – but had not experienced totality. An eclipse is like being pregnant. It’s either 100% or nothing.

The next night, Trump gave a speech so unhinged that commentators began seriously wondering about his sanity. The Mad King.

The eclipse did not fix America. It was not a transcendent moment that brought people together. No one questioned their beliefs following the cosmic occurrence. Despite science predicting the eclipse’s exact path across the United States, there are those who still cry “Fake news!” at any fact that they find disagreeable.

The Great American Eclipse will not usher in the Age of Aquarius. Instead, it’s an ominous portent that the ancients would recognize, heralding a time of troubles for the nation. May it just last a moment, exiting quickly and returning light and reason to the country.

Letter from Washington: Stranger than Fiction

queen + lambert

How do you write a novel in a time that’s stranger than fiction?

Queen + Adam Lambert came to Washington, DC. A friend had an extra ticket and graciously invited me. We sat in the upper reaches of the Verizon Center as Lambert and the group went through a fast-moving set, filled with the kind of lasers and stagecraft that’s expected from a band in 2017. It’s not enough just to be a musician, any more.

They played all the hits – Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen and Another One Bits the Dust.

It was not the same. Lambert is not Freddie Mercury, something he would be the first to admit – and did admit – during a tribute to the late singer early in the show. Queen + Adam Lambert made me appreciate the genius of Freddie Mercury, a man with an unreproducible vocal range but also an awkward shyness that’s missing in the age of the polished pop star.

The Queen show took place during the short-lived Age of Mooch. The reign of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director was far too short, a rich comedic opportunity that was thrown away before the Mooch even received his Saturday Night Live parody.

“Scaramouche. Scaramouche. Will you do the fandango?” Imagine the possibilities – Scaramucci singing the Queen classic live from New York.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” You can learn more about a nation from its artists than from politicians. Shakespeare does a better job explaining the English than some dry book of history.

But what happens if events progress faster than comedians, satirists and novelists can comprehend?  We barely had time to mock the Mooch before he disappeared.

I’ve written another novel: The Swamp. I started writing it a couple years ago, inspired by the tail end of the Obama administration. I wrote something I thought was outrageous – an errant drone lands on the White House, leading to the end of Washington as we know it.

After November 8, 2016, my idea didn’t seem so outlandish, as reality raced past the conception of the possible, devolving into a scenario that even the bleakest dystopianist would find implausible.

The problem with writing timely fiction is that times change. Does my novel The Swamp still make sense? After the election, I had to put aside the book and think about it.

I went on to write Victory Party, a short story that won the City Paper fiction contest. It’s another very timely work, for it concerns election night in DC and one person who’s happy about the result.

It’s a story that I wrote quickly and then ruthlessly cut, slowly paring away everything that was non-essential. I deleted exposition, explanations and any word that wasn’t necessary. It worked. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” according to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition.

So, I went back to my novel and I cut, reorganized and rewrote, aiming for clarity. Sections that I deleted went into a document called Remnants. Hurt less that way.

I also changed the title. My book was originally called Drone City, a title that I thought was clever. Drone City. DC.

I changed it to The Swamp, for the book is about the city that America has come to hate. My dark comedy follows swamp denizens – politicians, journalists, millennials – blindly chasing spoils, unaware that the world around them is about to turn upside down.

Trump, American Carnage, Spicey, Boy Scouts, Build the Wall, Russia, Deep State, Mooch – little of this makes any sense now and it will make even less so to future generations. It will be up to the artists, the legislators of our age, to explain the dark and confusing year of 2017.

Usability is Simplicity

“I’m not a usability expert.”

That’s what I said, prior to the recent NoVA UX Meetup, User Experience for the Experienced.

While I’ve worked on web sites my entire career, I’ve primarily been on the content side, as someone who writes, edits and manages web content. I’m a writer, not a designer, and have never convened focus groups to evaluate web site design or any of the other typical tasks of a UX expert.

Web sites are a mix of content, design and tech, perceived as a whole by users. While I have not identified my work as focused on usability, it’s inevitable that it does. Good, simple, usable web sites require good, simple, usable content.

Roughly four-in-ten seniors are smartphone owners
Pew survey on 65+ smartphone use

At the meetup, the AARP team spoke about the challenges of designing digital experiences for the 50+ audience. The stereotype is that “seniors” don’t use technology. But the fact is that older Americansare passionate users of iPhones and Facebook, just like the rest of us.

I worked on the AARP web site myself, in the late 90s. It was surprising how much older Americans took to the online world – particularly games, member discounts and romance.

While we wanted them to read articles about Social Security, the most popular section of the site was Member Benefits, for it contained the most relevant information for them, i.e., how to get discounts on travel and insurance.

Another surprise was what avid gamers they were, even when playing crossword puzzles on AOL via dial-up modem. We also created message boards to discuss serious topics, which were ignored, while members looked for love in the open chat forums.

The lesson is that the audience wants what it wants and there’s not much you can do about that. While users are determined when looking for something they want, like romance, they don’t have much patience for complicated design.

hamburger menu example
Hamburger menu. It’s clear what you do here, right? No?

Ann Li, a usability expert for AARP, discussed a test she did on hamburger buttons. Popularized by the iPhone, these are the three little lines that you find on web site menus. Click on it, and an additional menu drops down beneath it.

They don’t work, as Li discovered, confirming research from the Nielson group. People do not understand three cryptic lines and don’t get that they can click on them.

I’ve looked at enough Google Analytics for the sites I’ve managed to know that hardly anyone uses menus. Visitors to your home page scan for relevant content and, if they can’t find it, they immediately go to Search.

Usability is simplicity. It’s using the terms that the public uses, not what you want to say. Li discussed another example – an online course on driver safety. Users flocked to the course, thinking that they could learn how to get discounts on car insurance.

The user is always right, as WordPress creator Matt Mullenwegg would say, even when they’re wrong. The course was renamed to make it clearer that it was about driver safety not driver discounts.

In government, where I worked for almost ten years, we never had money for usability testing. However, we had to comply with laws like Sec. 508, which mandates that web sites be accessible to all users, including the blind and disabled. That means that text alternatives have to be available for multimedia information. It forced you to make simpler sites, ones without annoying video intros and Flash.

Making sites accessible is about making them simple. It’s about using the terms that your audience uses. In Washington, we love specialized terminology, for it marks a person as “in the loop.”

Don’t do this. Instead, use simple words that the public knows.

And it’s a good practice, no matter the audience, according to Li. Making a site easy enough for seniors to use will benefit all readers. After all, not everyone is a native English speaker. Not everyone has a sleek laptop with a wifi connection. And there are a surprising number of people who still use AOL to access the web. Your audience is more than just tech-savvy millennials.

You don’t need to be a usability expert to design a usable web site. Focus on simplicity.

After all, you can’t fight Father Time. You’re going to get old. Design simple sites now, ones that all Americans can use.

Letter from Washington: Lotus Flowers

lotus flower and bee

The lotus flowers are blooming, a sea of pink flowers emerging from the primordial muck of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. It’s an impressive sight, for the flowers are as big as plates, rising from lilies on massive stalks.

I biked to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – the only national park devoted to water-loving plants – early Sunday morning. The wetland is right off the new Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. The park service was prepared for crowds, even crowds of cyclists, for they set up a long row of bike racks for the two-wheeled. Despite the early hour, the ponds were busy with photographers angling for the perfect shot and tourists taking selfies with pink lotus flowers.

Looking at the exotic blooms against a backdrop of overwhelming green, with insects buzzing everywhere and humidity pouring off the shallow pools crowded with lily pads, Washington has never felt more like a swamp.

One of my friends was arrested recently, flying in from Arkansas for the privilege. She was protesting TrumpCare. In addition to spending a day in jail, she was mocked online, Trump supporters and other trolls doubting whether the people in wheelchairs crowding the hallways of Capitol Hill were really sick.

“Never read the comments” is one of the cardinal truths of our age.

There’s been much hand-wringing in the media about the need to understand Trump supporters. What motivates them? What do they believe? Why do they stick with him?

I tried my hand in understanding the phenomena in Victory Party, my short story in the City Paper, imagining who might be happy about the unexpected election result.

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter. There’s a hard core of people who will believe anything – that’s another one of the cardinal truths of our age.  They cannot be persuaded, despite evidence of Russian collusion from Trump’s own family. They will follow Trump to the end, even if it ends in resignation and defeat.

The Resistance is winning. Despite control of both houses of Congress, all of Trump’s plans have collapsed in disgrace. He does not know how to craft legislation or mobilize support for a bill. His ideas are so slapdash and badly formed that even Republicans reject them, especially when confronted with scores of the sick being arrested outside their offices.

Washington may be a swamp but occasionally it produces programs that ordinary people really value. Programs that save lives, like Obamacare. Like a lotus flower emerging from a dank pond, the underside of the program may look terrible, a morass of slime and waste, but after seeing it in person, how could you take it away from others?

The swamp is not going to be drained. While not pretty, Americans depend on it, an appreciation that has been forced on them by their President.