Tuesday, July 20, 2010

So, do you write like a famous author?

I couldn't resist. In fact, as soon as I heard about the Web site, I knew I'd have to try it out.

The site is called I Write Like, and it will analyze your writing style to determine (supposedly) which famous author your writing style most resembles. It's only been up a few days, and it already has analyzed 1.5 million pieces of text, so apparently I'm not the only curious one. It's easy. You visit the site, paste in a paragraph or two of your writing, press a button, and ta da! The comparison is made.

But don't take it too seriously. It was developed by Russian software developer Dmitry Chestnykh, who already told news outlets he's not particularly qualified to analyze literature - the site is really just a learning experiment for him.

Maybe that's why when CNN pasted in Kim Kardashian's blog entries, they were said to resemble the writings of James Joyce. Or maybe they do. I don't know; I'm not familiar with the blog, so who am I to judge?

But who cares, right? It still sounded fun. So I went to the site, www.iwl.me and cut and pasted a paragraph of text from this blog. I hit the "Analyze" button. Guess who?

Stephenie Meyer. Yep. Of Twilight fame. Now I really need to get around to finishing that book.

Because I'm greedy, I decided to try again. I cut and pasted a paragraph from a news story I'd written years ago about a center that helped children deal with grief. I always liked how that story turned out. I pressed "Analyze."

Chuck Palahniuk - the author of Fight Club.

Wow. Those are pretty different. Really, really different.

All right then. Well, I'm nothing if not flexible.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Would time travel change your career?

I've been thinking a lot about the movie Hot Tub Time Machine. No, I haven't gone over the edge - I haven't even seen the flick, although I hear it's pretty funny. What I've been thinking about, specifically, is the aspect of time travel.

I think the whole thing started earlier this week when my former employee, the Gannett Corp., announced in a fairly bloodless memo that it would be creating regional hubs to take on their papers' design work. It's efficient, they say. It's necessary. And it's going to eliminate about 500 more jobs in an industry - an industry I still think of mine - that's reeling from uncertainty and job loss.

Gannett's been slicing and dicing for years, but I guess this move, more than any other, solidified the notion for me that journalism isn't really my industry anymore. I left. I can't go back. Now, would I ever really want to? I mean, c'mon - low pay, bad hours, crazy editors - it's not exactly a glamour industry. Any overworked reporter or editor will tell you that.

Who knows? But I never felt the door slam so hard in my face as it did this past week. There's no going home again, as they say. And that's where my time travel thoughts wandered in - spurred, of course, by the comedy advertised on cable.

If I could go back in time and talk to my college self (I'm sure I could find her in a campus tavern) and tell her that the industry she'd chosen - one that she would eventually allow to practically define her - would hit such hard times by the time she hit (ahem) nearly middle age, would she listen? Would she care? Would it make a difference?

Would I have given up all that I got out of newspapers if I'd known that one day, just when I was comfortable with all that I knew and learned, I'd have to leave and start over again on another career path? Would it be worth it?

Or would I change course, take another route entirely, save myself some time?

It's hard to say, of course. Revisionist history steps in. Today's work is hard, yesterday's work was fabulous. Then I remember the nutty editors, the newsroom job shuffle, the time I was forced to call a woman who's daughter was just mauled by a bear, for God's sake.

But I'm proud of what I did while I was there. And I'm learning, step by step, the rules of the new career I'm in now. Would I have changed the past if I knew the future? Hard to say. Would you?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Do you have the time to be a writer?

For the longest time, I had a great list of excuses why I didn't have time to write. Well, okay - they weren't really excuses, per se, because they were all true. So I guess you could call them reasons.

I had a full-time job. I just had a baby. I had a toddler. My computer was slow. My computer was broken. I was a volunteer. I had to cook dinner. I was exhausted. I just ...couldn't. Not today.

Whenever I heard about an author doing particularly well, I would immediately read his or her biography. "Well, sure," I'd tell myself. "I could write a masterpiece if I didn't have to (fill in the blank) or if I had a (fill in the blank)."

I would be envious. And unhappy. Because no one's life was as hard as mine. I just couldn't manage to find the time to write. Could I?

Then I realized something. I don't think it came to me with a bolt of lightning or in any impressive Oprah-like 'Ah-ha!' style. But suddenly, it was there.

I could make all the excuses I wanted. I could find every valid reason in the world not to write. They could be true. They could be worthy. But in the end, it didn't matter. Time would pass, and my stories still wouldn't be written. And no one would care but me.

In the end, only I could know whether I had the passion and drive to be a writer.

I decided I did - that maybe my life wasn't the hardest after all. And suddenly, those success stories I found myself reading proved me out.

Stephen King was a schoolteacher when he wrote Christine - he wrote in a tiny closet he revamped into a writing area. Debbie Macomber wrote her first stories on a rented typewriter, dyslexic and the mother of four young children, typing up manuscripts that were rejected for five years. Scott Turow wrote his blockbuster Presumed Innocent on the train on the way to work, in longhand, starting in his daughter's Strawberry Shortcake notebook - the only one he could find.

And way back in the day, Louisa May Alcott knew that if she didn't sell her short stories - never mind Little Women - her family would be destitute. So she wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

Are there tricks and tips that can help you find time to write? Sure. Google the phrase and dozens of articles come up. But deep down, I think it comes down to more than any tip or trick - it's a question: Do you have the time to be a writer?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Introducing the Freelancer from Hell

I've been hearing a lot about freelancing lately - it's getting more and more popular as staffs are cut but copy is still needed. It makes sense. I freelance. You probably freelance, too.

But I hear a lot of authors offer advice to newbie freelancers. Be tenacious, they say. Don't give up. Don't give in.

Solid advice to a point, I believe, but I have to wonder if any of these authors have ever worked the other side of the fence - you know, as editors. I have. And I have a few freelancers who still appear in my nightmares occasionally. I doubt anyone would duplicate their behavior, but I swear I'm not making these stories up.

So let me introduce you to one of my favorite Freelancers From Hell. I'll call her "The Diamond in the Rough."

This freelancer was tenacious. She called me every single day, usually with story ideas that were borderline interesting. She sent in story samples that were not that great, and when I told her, politely, that she didn't really seem to know a lot about journalism and AP style, she informed me she was a "diamond in the rough" and that she was hoping I could help her improve.

Yeah. About that. Not to be mean, but I kind of had my own staffers to worry about. I really didn't have time for stone polishing. But she kept calling. And I gave in. She wrote a few small stories. They weren't that great. But frankly, I needed the copy.

Eventually, I let her do one of her own stories - a simple human interest piece about a woman who had an extensive herb garden.

She turned it in. It was okay. Not great, but okay. The woman had 220 herbs in her garden, according to the story. That seemed like a hell of an herb garden, so I read it back to her.

The garden was amazing, she told me. So we printed the story. Two days later, the herb lady herself called. She had 22 types of herbs in her garden. So I called the freelancer. "How could that happen?" I asked her. "Did you not notice the difference in the size of garden?" She was defensive, and swore that was what the subject told her. But then she hemmed and hawed. "Well, I didn't actually see it," she eventually told me. "I just talked to her by phone. I guess I could have misheard."

So annoying. She hadn't lied to me, per se, but I still felt like I'd been had. That was that, I thought. Bye bye, freelancer.

But she kept calling. She was very sorry, she said. She'd do better. Writing was her life. Would I please give her another chance? Please? Please? She called about art exhibits. About Branson shows. Finally, after weeks of daily torture, I gave in.

I know - stupid, stupid me. Editors today probably know better. But I was a sucker.

One more chance, I told her. That's it. She told me she would be interviewing this Branson entertainer after his show, to do a little human interest piece on him. So when the phone rang soon after, I assumed it would be her. It wasn't. It was the entertainer's assistant. She was very worried. It seems the entertainer didn't have time to talk to my freelancer, and the freelancer lost it. Just lost it.

My freelancer allegedly said that if the entertainer didn't talk to her, then the paper was going to essentially run a hatchet piece on the show. The assistant was very upset. Was this true? It was just that he was very tired - he would be happy to reschedule.

I was speechless. I was horrified. As a matter of fact, I was in disbelief. I had the woman describe my freelancer, to make sure it wasn't somebody pretending to be her. But it was her. So I assured the assistant that no hatchet piece was planned, and that was not the way we did business.

Then I politely called said freelancer and made an appointment for her to come into my office. I put a stickie note on my computer reminding myself not to kill her.

When she came in, I didn't mince words. "I heard you threatened (so and so) in Branson with a negative article if he wouldn't talk to you," I said evenly. "Can you tell me what happened there?"

She burst into tears. "I'm so sorry," she said. Stupidly, I thought the apology was directed at me. But she continued. "I'm so sorry, Jesus," she said, and she dropped to her knees.

Um, what?

Then she looked at me. "I know this isn't the way Jesus wants me to act. I know he's not proud of me now." I didn't know if that was directed to me or not. I really didn't want to be accused of talking for Jesus. I just wanted out of of that office, and out of this freelance relationship pretty much more than anything in the world.

Eventually, I got out. I didn't kill her. I hope I didn't speak for Jesus. I did sever our relationship. And I did have my assistant answer the phone for the next two weeks - you know, just in case.