Tuesday, February 28, 2006

If I Wanted to Talk to a Computer, I'd Have Rung My Laptop

The New York Times ran an interesting article yesterday about the deplorable lack of service we routinely encounter when trying to get in touch with a company representative. I've been there too often to count -- stuck in Limbo while an automated, passionless, brainless voice assures me that "Your call is important to us," or tells me, "You may speak to me as to a real person." Neither of which ever appears to be true.

I've traversed the bowels of an insurance company's phone system, trying to find a representative who could help me make heads or tails of my statement (Which, incidentally, turned out to be comprised of completely unsubstantiated charges made after the company had sent me a note telling me I was no longer one of their clients... Hence my confusion.).

I've also been known to bellow "A REAL PERSON! A REAL PERSON! I WANT TO TALK TO A REAL PERSON!!" at the incompetent robo-drone AT&T employs to keep paying customers away from their employees.

The article details scenarios much like these -- ones with which we're all too familiar. Then it talks about gethuman.com . In case you're unfamiliar with this breath of fresh air wafting into the miasmic "service industry," here's what gethuman has to say about itself:

The gethuman™ movement was started by Paul English to change the face of customer service in the US. The information on the gethuman.com website will always be here for free. If you want to thank me for managing this site, just try Kayak.com the next time you are looking to travel (I'm the CTO/cofounder there). Or better, consider a donation to Partners in Health, a group of amazing people who are changing world health by giving preferential treatment to the poor. Paul also maintains a blog at paulenglish.com where he writes about technology and other random topics.

One of the coolest parts of gethuman is the site that posts telephone "cheats" for various major corporations, telling you how to talk to a human. Very cool.

I always feel that if I'm going to rant about a shortcoming, I should rave when that shortcoming is missing. So, while I'm always peeved to hear that Gawdawful computer voice telling me that "your call will be answered in the order it was received," I'm also weirdly gratified if I call a company and never get the voice. That's what happens when I call Wolverine Water Systems. I love dealing with them. We bought a (terribly expensive) water treatment system from them the year we bought our house. The system includes a reverse osmosis filtration system for our drinking water -- and for our fish tanks. Every so often, the filters need changing. So I have to call and order new ones.

When I call, a human immediately answers the phone. I don't even have to press a number for a particular language. They easily access our account (our original purchase was over 15 years ago!). They know our mailing address. They tell us what the total cost will be (always reasonable). They tell us that it will ship out via UPS ground delivery that same day. And we get what we need. No hassle. No fuss. No annoying automated computer.

The sad thing is that this kind of service is cause for celebration. Unemployment is high. People are routinely undervalued and downsized. Honestly -- if I had the choice of talking to a computer about a problem / question / concern or complaint, or switching companies in order to speak with a human, I'd make the switch in a heartbeat. I doubt that I'm alone...

Monday, February 27, 2006

Amazed by the "Lost Boys"

Yesterday we attended a pre-lenten service at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in St. Joseph. A friend of ours is an active member of the congregation. We met her and her husband for dinner on Saturday evening, and she said that the Lost Boys of the Sudan and visitors from other African countries would be presenting a multi-lingual, African-accented service. We asked if anyone could attend. She said "yes," so we went.

It was really quite wonderful. The service was printed in English, so we were able to know what was being said. The service featured four different languages: English, Dinka, Arabic, and one that I couldn't pronounce and can't remember. The music (harmonizing vocals, accompainied by some percussion instruments that sounded much like maracas and a warm, rich, resonant drum) was fabulous, vibrant and alive. We were touched and blessed by the entire service.

It's absolutely shattering to think that these people can sing and praise God after what they've endured -- and what their country continues to endure. We are a resilient race. What a crime that we bring our worst disasters and our greatest tragedies upon our own kind.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Say What You Will -- The Scary Spin Cycle

Lately, I've run into two opposing camps of Spin. Though at first glance, they seem diametrically opposed, they are actually mirrors of each other.

Camp 1: What Isn't, Is.

Anyone who ever heard the words "weapons of mass destruction" and "Iraq" in the same sentence has visited this camp. This Spin cycle posits that saying something will make it so.

The tabloids and other salacious rags do this all the time. Here's my current favorite example, taken from that paragon of journalistic excellence, GLOBE . It's from the February 20 edition -- the one with "Prince William ELOPES!" on the cover, and the one that trumpets the "American Idol Shocker" that Clay is ::gasp:: gay.

Of course, the issue is rife with Camp 1 spin, but the one that warms this writer's soul is the following quote from "Hooker's Sizzling Tell-All on West Wing Boss," an article about former call girl Dimitra Ekmektisis dishing decades-old dirt on Aaron Sorkin (p. 30):

Dimitra is now telling all in a blockbuster new book, Confessions of a High-Priced Call Girl, for which she is seeking a publisher.

See? Camp 1 all over the place. The sentence is a blatant, flat-out, English language impossibility. Either a book is a blockbuster, or it is unpublished. It cannot be both. God Himself cannot make an unpublished book a blockbuster without first putting the thing in print.

Yeesh.

(If you actually pick up the magazine -- not something I'm suggesting or recommending, mind you -- don't miss the ad for the Crock Pot Racing slow cooker . It is THE kitchen must-have for the NASCAR set. Choose from many featured drivers, including Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon. All major credit cards accepted. Order yours today!)

Camp 2: What Is, Isn't.

To visit Camp 2 is to bury your head in the sand and pretend that you don't know, haven't heard, or don't care about something. Camp 2's motto is: "Shut up and play your X-Box."

Camp 2's unmistakable stamp is all over the place, too. It's not so obvious in the tabloids or other media intended for bathroom reading. But it makes frequent appearances in the mainstream press.

A recent example happened at the end of January when the Army Corps of Engineers awarded Kellogg Brown & Root (a Halliburton subsidiary) a $385 million contract to construct U.S. based detention centers in order to deal with “an emergency influx of immigrants into the U.S., or to support the rapid development of new programs.” (Market Watch, 1/26/06)

Which, of course, begs the questions, "The rapid development of WHAT new programs?" and "What new programs will make it necessary to detain up to 5,000 people in one place on American soil?" and "Are these programs already in the works?"

Read the story for yourself. Don't skip over the part about the Pentagon’s Civilian Inmate Labor Program that “provides Army policy and guidance for establishing civilian inmate labor programs and civilian prison camps on Army installations.”

As I see it, constructing detention centers capable of holding thousands of people, and stipulating policy for putting civilian prisoners to work on military installations is at least as important as Tom and Katie breaking up. But in Camp 2, if you don't report it, it doesn't exist.

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran an article about the awarding to KBR of the construction contract, but didn't allot much ink to the issue of what was being constructed.

Either way you slice it, Spin is in. In the current marketplace, and in current media, it pays to belong to one camp or the other. Evidently the truth just doesn't sell well...

Thursday, February 23, 2006

“Freying” at “Eight Below”

Ok, I admit it. I was one of the movie-goers that made Eight Below number one at the box office last weekend. The story of a team of sled dogs left to fend for themselves through an Antarctic winter looked intriguing. Every time I saw the trailer, I got teary, for God’s sake.

Look at any of the publicity and the hype for the film, and you can’t miss the words “a true story.” Whether “inspired by” or “based upon,” the producers really play up the film’s verity.

The film’s story is so specific (taking place during 1992 – 1993… ticking off how many days the dogs have been left on their own…) and some scenes are so clunky (the black-tie event and the meeting in the pub, to name only two) that they can be forgiven only if “it happened that way.”

Ah, but it didn’t.

There is a film that does tell the real story. Antarctic , the English title of the 1983 movie, is much closer to the mark. It really does tell the true story of events that took place in the last 1950’s when a Japanese expedition team encountered trouble on their way back to base from a 500 mile trip to the Antarctic Mount. They freed two of their sled dogs, Taro and Jiro, who went back to the base and returned with a rescue party.

Bad weather caused an abrupt end to the expedition, and the men got on a boat and headed for home – leaving behind all of their sled dogs, including Taro and Jiro.

The men whose lives had been saved knew that the dogs could not survive the winter, and reportedly regretted leaving the dogs behind. When they returned the next year, every dog had died… except Taro and Jiro. When Taro died, he was stuffed and placed on display at Hokkaido University in Sapporo.

Wow!

For an insightful, informative account of the true story, along with an introduction to the relevant dog breeds and a healthy dose of realism regarding the Disney movie, check out The True Story Behind "Eight Below".

Anyone who has seen the movie would absolutely NOT recognize this story. The only similarities are “dogs left behind in Antarctica.” The characters in “Eight Below” are fictional. The dogs are fictional (they’re not even the same breed). The Disney story takes place 35 years too late, centers around a non-existent search for a meteorite, and counts down a completely fabricated calendar of “days on their own.”

I went to see it because I thought it was based on a true story. Shame on me. Should have done my homework first. Maybe if I’d known it was fiction from the get-go, I wouldn’t feel so cheated.

I wonder if James Frey is jealous. When he claimed that his memoir was true, and it was later discovered to be fabricated, Oprah set him straight in front of the country. But “A Million Little Pieces” is far more firmly grounded in truth than “Eight Below” – which is currently enjoying TRUE box office success. I guess sales receipts don’t lie.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Rider's Wednesday -- Colt Concentration

Since I wrote about working with my three year old Percheron ("Colt Kindergarten") , I received the following question from a friend who had come across a colt starting article that confused her:

Ok, maybe it's me but at 3 years old they say that [the horse] should be worked only about a 30 min. stretch... When they are 4-4½: you can work them up to 45 min. But [you should] not work anything -- even older horses -- more than an hour. 

Now I realize they are not talking trail riding here, but they are talking about training young unbroke horses... I am sorry, if my horse takes 2 hours to get the concept of giving and not throwing a fit and fighting me (even to get to the first stage of giving, whether it be back or lateral or vertical) then I will do that so we do not think that they are the boss and we end on a bad note....am I wrong?
 

I responded that I believe the amount of time spent in a training session depends upon what you're doing.

I agree with the article she read that the average 3 year old doesn't have an attention span much longer than 30 minutes for CONCENTRATED training. I also think that if a 3 year old takes 2 hours to "get a concept," then perhaps the trainer had an agenda in mind before starting the training session (never a good thing). Two hours of hammering a point home until a horse quits fighting and "gets it" is, in my opinion, two wasted hours that haven't done much to strengthen the horse's long-term trust in the trainer.

On the other hand, if what I'm trying to teach ("This is how we 'trot.'") is just a matter of letting the horse get some miles on him in order to get the concept, then it's ok to go longer.

No, I'm not suggesting trotting a green horse for over half an hour at a stretch. But I think it's a great idea to trot for 10 minutes or so, and then just walk and relax before trotting for another 10 minutes. Not only does it teach the young ones cadence, rhythm, and consistency at the trot, but it also quickly teaches them to enjoy the walk and to walk calmly (as opposed to jig-jogging).

When I first put a saddle on a horse, he wears the thing all day long. Much longer than 30 minutes. But I'm not "training" him during that time. He's just getting used to wearing the saddle. He's learning that it's a part of him and can be ignored.

Likewise, when I'm getting a young horse used to behaving in new environments, we might go for a lengthy walk down an unfamiliar road. I might even do some spot training throughout the walk. But if the walk lasts an hour and a half, the main training that took place was the horse learning to deal with new stuff in a calm, civilized manner.

Still, the rule of thumb is valid, I believe: concentrated training in small increments. Ideally, always end a training session with both you and the horse more relaxed and happier than when you started. You can't do that if you've been fighting each other for two hours. Remember -- training is not about winning. The two concepts are completely at odds with each other.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Adding Analogies

Because of technical difficulties encountered last week (also known as “life”), I'm still working on the initial draft of Chapter 1 for Dr. Warson’s book.

Its working title is "The Normal Back" – and by default it's very technical. It's a sort of "spinal primer," detailing the anatomy that the reader will need to be familiar with in order to understand the rest of the book.

On the one hand, I believe that readers are inherently intelligent people, and I don't want to dumb the content down too far. On the other hand, I don't want it to be off-puttingly academic. It's going to be a fairly short chapter. But it will set the tone for the rest of the book, and I'm looking for ways to make it more appealing, more readable, and less textbook-like.

One thing that would help would be a recurring analogy that I could use. Something like: "The spine is like a tree..." or "The spine is like a water slide..." or "...an aqueduct..." Something that makes the technical stuff more accessible.

For instance, to use the water slide analogy:

• The spinal column could be compared to an enclosed tunnel in the water slide.
• The water coursing through the tunnel would be the spinal cord.
• The intervertebral foramena would be akin to the various openings in the main slide that led to different offshoot slides.
• And the various offshoot slides could represent the nerves leading into the body.

Analogies of commonly occurring things are a great way to make difficult, dense, or just plain tedious text more interesting. For instance, when explaining the various nuances and functions of the vertebrae, Dr. Warson compares a vertebra to an old-fashioned three-legged milking stool. A (very rough draft) excerpt:

A traditional milking stool has three legs. Each is essential for keeping the seat of the stool stabilized. In the spine, the actual vertebral body represents the seat and one of the legs of the stool. The other two legs are the facet joints created when one vertebra sits atop another.

Pressure from above should be evenly distributed through all three “legs” of the vertebra, just as the weight of the farmer milking the cow is distributed evenly on the stool. If one leg is weak and cannot bear the weight load, the other two cannot compensate. The entire structure is compromised and collapses.


In a few short sentences, a simple analogy helps clarify a concept. It helps the reader better visualize something that may be a little “fuzzy” or “soft.” And – frankly – it helps to maintain a reader’s interest through subject matter that may not be the most engaging when taken on its own merits.

In Praise of Ghosts

I've entered into an interesting dialogue about ghostwriting on a writer's forum. A writer looking for information on ghosting started a thread. Some readers only had negative things to say about writing words for someone else to put his or her name on. I have to say, however, that ghosting was a great boon to my writing career. Not only did the book get into print, but I've also met some amazing and wonderful people (Geoff, Dr. Warson, Charles, Martha, Caroline) as a result.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Eye of God -- the Hoax that Wasn't

Last week, a friend of mine sent me the following pic and e-mail:
This is a picture NASA took with the hubble telescope. Called "The Eye of God". Too awesome to delete. It is worth sharing.

The e-mail also contained the usual muck about "don't break the chain," and "stare at the image for blah blah blah seconds and make a wish, blah, blah..." So, of course, skeptic that I am, I figured it was yet another in-box hoax. Intending to "set her straight," I went to my trusted hoax busters websites , and -- lo and behold -- it's real!

The authentic, composite, photograph is of the Helix Nebula. It was taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. NASA's website featured it as an Astronomy Picture of the Day on May 10, 2003. While there is no credible evidence that NASA has ever referred to the Helix Nebula as "the Eye of God," it's certainly understandable how non-astronomers came up with the name.

The Helix Nebula, a tunnel of glowing gases over a trillion miles long, is our closest example of a planetary nebula created from a dying Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star are expelled into space. From our Earth-bound view, they appear to us as if we are looking down a helix.

What remains in the core of the nebula will eventually become a white dwarf star. It glows so fiercely that it makes the gases around it fluoresce. The Helix Nebula lies about 650 light-years away towards the constellation of Aquarius and spans about 2.5 light-years.

So, while it may or may not be "the Eye of God," it's real. Amazing -- not just for it's existence, but also for the fact that we are able to see it.

Original Image Credit: NASA, WIYN, NOAO, ESA, Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner (STScI), & T. A. Rector (NRAO).

Friday, February 17, 2006

Where Others Have Walked

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported on a 6,500 year-old gold pendant that a hiker discovered last year in a Greek field.

The experts are saying that the pendant "probably had religious significance and would have been worn on a necklace by a prominent member of society."

The pendant is roughly 1 1/2 inches in diameter, is from the Neolithic period, and was made around 4500 B.C. At the time the pendant was made, archaeologists posit that Greece's early farming settlements were developing into more structured trading centers and supporting craftsmen who were skilled metalworkers. Beyond that, however, much about the period remains a mystery.

The woman who found the pendant did not want a reward and remains anonymous.

Many things have changed in the past 6500 years. But many other things have remained constant. We still value gold and fashion it into jewelry. Farmers still congregate in cities to sell their produce. And people still enjoy hiking in fields.

We are not the first. Others lived here long before us. Others have sat where I am sitting. Others have come and gone, loved and lost, dreamed and died -- many times over. We live where others have walked.

History lurks at every corner and is trampled underfoot every day. 6500 years ago someone dropped a gold pendant in a field, where it remained until a few months ago. Makes me wonder what some hiker will discover of ours in another 6500 years -- and what it will have to say about us.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The "Webbers" and the "Webless"

I had a lengthy conversation today with the extraordinarily accomplished author of a book that I've been asked to help promote.

This person is literally a world famous expert in her field. She has 20 years of practical experience. She was on the board of the principal governing body within her area of expertise. Her career has enabled her to travel the world representing her country. She has built a respectable clientele. She has authored several other books, including what is widely regarded as the definitive volume within a niche area. She is a contributing editor to several reputable periodicals. She is also an accomplished speaker and lecturer, presenting classes and conducting symposiums throughout the world.

She's brilliant, engaging, articulate, and knowledgeable. Her newest book really is a Must Have. I hope to come up with ways to bring it to the attention of everyone who is interested in its subject matter.

But before we can plan a marketing strategy, or devise a cohesive campaign, we have to address one key issue:

She does not have a website. Her business does not have a website. And she's not really interested in investing her time towards creating one. She would much rather do what she does best -- and who can blame her?

This is not the first author I've worked with who doesn't have an online presence. Geoff doesn't have a site. Nor does Dr. Warson . But since I'm co-authoring projects with them (and since I believe that websites are important way to connect with today's readers), they both have de facto web pages through my site.

I'm a "Webber." I spend several hours a day online, doing research, fact-checking, and gathering information. I rarely use the yellow pages anymore -- I prefer to look things up online. I can find archived articles, access previous references in the news media, listen to radio interviews, watch film clips, and look up related information quickly and easily. I am of the opinion that everyone with a business, a project, or a product should have a website... in order to reach someone like me.

Many others, however, are "Webless." They have thriving practices, businesses, and careers without having any sort of online presence. Some of these people don't even have e-mail! More often than not, they do -- but they don't have a website.

The key issue that must be addressed before marketing ths book (and, consequently, this author), then, is this:

* Do I focus on encouraging the author to become a "Webber," to create a website and establish herself online? Many of my marketing strategies are laughably simple, provided there is a central website to disseminate information, and to direct interested potential clients to.

* Or do I focus on devising a marketing campaign that is not web-reliant? It could be an interesting exercise in testing off-line strategies -- not only for this client, but also for future Webless Ones.

I was initially leaning toward Option A -- Convert Her to Webberdom. But after some reflection, perhaps Option B would be better. If she's Webless and likes it, who am I to tell her how to run her business? Perhaps working off-line will force me to find more creative ways to get the word out about her book.

Ultimately, of course, the choice is up to her. Should be an interesting campaign.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Beware the Ides of February

Quick updates of other news:

Yesterday, we had what became an aborted meeting with our longsuffering Tax Lady. We were supposed to do our taxes. Turns out that the spectre of 2005 reared its ugly head in a big way, so we came home to regroup and amass more information before we venture out and try again.

On Valentine's Day, one of my very good friends had surgery for breast cancer. Both breasts and some lymph nodes were compromised. She is in her mid-30's, beautiful, wonderful, warm, and funny. I've heard that she came through the surgery well and is doing fine. She's got agressive rounds of chemo and radiation ahead of her. Compared to cancer surgery, I have nothing to complain about. If you'd say a little prayer for Kim, I sure would appreciate it.

The printer's proofs of Geoff's book are in at Trafalgar Square. Rebecca (one of our editors) had a little question about the USEF rule regarding the mandatory wearing of ASTM approved headgear for all jumping competitors. Don't you just LOVE when a sweeping new regulation goes into effect as your book is being printed? It's unclear whether or not a change to the manuscript is warranted. That's up to Geoff.

No news from He Who Will Not Call. The very real possibility looms of having the publisher cut our losses and scrap the entire book project. Mixed emotions ensue. On the one hand, I've done an enormous amount of editing work on the existing project. It's wanting only two chapters, and it would be ready to go. On the other hand, HWWNC's name would go on the cover, and he would get sole writing credit. (!!) I really feel that it is a deeply flawed project. I'll be happy to finish it, if that's the decision. But I'd be just as happy to let this one go.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Rider's Wednesday -- Dental Doctoring

Manny, my elderly Quarter Horse, had a rough week last week. On Tuesday, the chiropractor adjusted him (his hips were both "out," causing him to use one hind leg substantially more than the other one -- not good for overall balance, muscle tone or soundness).

The larger concern, however, was his teeth. For a few weeks now, I've been increasingly concerned about him. He's not been drinking as much as I think he should. And he's been having difficulty eating. His pelleted complete feed would eventually disappear, but it would take a while. The hay I gave him to munch on would just end up in these little wads or "hay cuds." Clearly, something was wrong with his mouth, and it didn't bode well.

I took Manny to Whistler Farm , where Dr. Martin Langhoffer, DVM, who specializes in equine dentistry, came and checked him out. (My friend Denise Hettig, who owns Whistler Farm, boards several geriatric horses and other horses with special needs that require Dr. Langhoffer's regular attention. She was kind enough to let me get in on the farm call.)

It turns out that Manny's teeth needed some work. He had foul breath due to some fairly advanced periodontal disease. Bleah. In the past year or so, he's lost three of his molars, which have caused his remaining teeth to wear unevenly, resulting in sharp points that were causing some ulceration in his mouth. But the biggest problem was caused by two loose molars. Every time he'd bite down when trying to eat something, they would shift and grind into the bone of his jaw. No wonder he wasn't enthusiastic about feeding time.

The two loose molars had to come out. Of course, this left a sizeable hole in his jaw. Dr. Langhoffer feels that the sockets should fill in naturally, given time, if they are kept clean and clear. And so, for the next two weeks, Manny is on antibiotics (12 SMZ's twice daily). I also have to flush his mouth out daily, clearing out the holes in his jaw.

Which brings me to today's topic. If you ever have to administer pills orally to a horse, here's a tip that works wonders:

First, take a sizeable syringe with a tight-fitting, rubber seal on the plunger (this is a 2 oz / 60 cc model). Put the correct dose of pills in it -- no need to crush them up.





Then, insert the tip of the syringe into some apple juice. Pull back the plunger and fill the vial.








Let the juice dissolve the pills for a few minutes and you have a medicine that's no more trouble to administer than a tube of wormer.

As for the whole "flushing the mouth out" treatment, thanks to Dr. Langhoffer's ingenuity, that's not so difficult, either. All you need is a pump sprayer -- like the kind you use to rid your garden of pests. Use a clean one, of course. They're not terribly expensive (you can get one for under $20).

Put half a gallon or so of warm water in the container. Add the medication, or add 1/4 cup of Listerine to it. Then pump it to build up pressure.

To disperse the flushing solution, just slide the nozzle inside the horse's cheek and depress the trigger. You don't want the horse to drink the stuff, so you're not aiming for the back of his throat. If the horse will take a bit, he generally doesn't react too badly to the whole procedure. This makes it fairly easy to flush out the icky stuff, or clean an ulceration in the horse's mouth.

Here's hoping you never need to use any of this information. But if you do have a horse that needs either oral meds or a clean mouth -- these little suggestions may make your job easier.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Blurb Building

Or, "How to Say What's in Your Book in 100 Words or Less"

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, I received the following e-mail at the end of last week:

I’m putting together advance information sheets to go to London Book Fair next month. Now ... the BACK BOOK needs an AI. Do you have a short bio for Dr. Jim you can send me? And, a short blurb (around 100 words) describing the content?

Yesterday I talked about devising the promo bio. Today, I'll tackle building the blurb.

As I mentioned yesterday, it didn't take long to devise a bio, because I had already worked up a complete biography for Dr. Warson. All I had to do was condense what I had. Coming up with a short blurb to describe the content of a book that is not yet written took a bit longer, however. The 100 word limit essentially dictated the format.

When given a very limited number of words to work with, it always helps me to think in terms of paragraphs. One hundred words means only three paragraphs of 30 to 35 words apiece. (Two paragraphs of 50 words will be too blocky to invite a reading. Trying to include four paragraphs will practically guarantee that one of them gets short shrift.)

For a super-short synopsis of a non-fiction book, it helps to think: Audience, Author, Action.

Audience

The first paragraph should clearly define who comprises your audience. Don't say "this book is for everyone." Even though you may believe that this is true, the phrase is too general to have any impact. Analyze your audience. Who stands to gain the most from your product? Who is your ideal client or customer? Be specific.

Is this book for "every mother," "every child," "every grandfather," "every fifth grade teacher," or "every iguana veterinarian?" State your audience and then tell members of your target audience why they need to read what you have to say.

For instance:

A supple, strong, healthy back is the ideal for every equestrian. Unfortunately, too many riders’ backs suffer from injury, stress, or strain. Consequently, these people experience pain when in the saddle – or find themselves unable to ride at all.

Author

Once you've gotten the attention of your target audience, you need to introduce them to the person who will guide them through the book. The second paragraph should clearly state who wrote the book and why that person is qualified to do so. If at all possible, the introduction should also connect the author with the reader:

In “The Rider's Back Book,” Dr. James Warson, a specialist in equestrian back injuries and a practicing neurosurgeon for nearly 25 years, answers the questions you have about your back.

Action

In the final paragraph of any super-short synopsis, it makes sense to give the potential reader a taste of what the book holds in store. Speak in action verbs. Use "teaches," "clarifies," "discovers," "unmasks," and "explores." Tell the reader that the information in the book is accessible, and emphasize that he or she will be able to utilize the knowledge gained.

Another aspect to "action" is movement. Tell the readers how this book will affect them, change them, move them, or improve their lives.

If possible, include a nod to the clock in this paragraph. Mention something concrete that the readers will be able to take away with them upon finishing the book.

An example:

In this book, Dr. Warson explains the human back in easy-to-understand terms. He illustrates how various movements in the saddle affect the rider’s back. He then outlines straightforward steps you can take immediately to help keep your back ready to ride.

The 112 words in those three paragraphs made up the short synopsis that I submitted to Trafalgar Square. That's the text that will be on the AI sheets promoting the book that we're in the process of writing.

"What purpose does the short synopsis serve?" you may ask. Well, in addition to providing text for advance information sheets, a short book blurb can be used in several ways. Some suggestions for using all or part of a 100-word blurb:

* Catalog copy for placing orders,
* Online webpage descriptions,
* Dedicated webpage text,
* Press releases,
* Verbal promotional pitches...

Since I had the text written, I figured we might as well start using it. So my wonderful husband made a webpage for the book . There's no time like the present to start making people aware that the project is in the works!

And Now for Something Completely Different

William Douglas at Knight Ridder Newspapers reported yesterday that the White House officially "blamed the 78-year-old man whom Vice President Dick Cheney shot during a weekend quail hunting trip in Texas for the incident, as officials struggled Monday to explain why they waited nearly 24 hours before making the news public."

...words nearly fail me.

So Whittington, the octogenarian lawyer our VP shot in the face, neck, and chest, brought it on himself. Hmmm...

I only have one question: Why weren't the rest of us informed that Saturday was open season on lawers?

Monday, February 13, 2006

More Bio Talk: Be Prepared!

We're in the midst of a lovely winter storm here in Southwest Michigan. We received over a foot of snow in the past 24 hours, though we can't hold a candle to the Northeast's record setting snowfall . The next few days will be perfect for holing up and getting to work.

Regular readers know that creating a working biography is a recurring theme here recently. Since I try to practice what I preach, I'm pleased to announce that Dr. Warson's bio, with related links, is finally finished, fact-checked, and ready to go to work.

And just in the nick of time. I received this e-mail from Trafalar Square on Friday:

I’m putting together advance information sheets to go to London Book Fair next month. Now ... the BACK BOOK, needs an AI. Do you have a short bio for Dr. Jim you can send me? And, a short blurb (around 100 words) describing the content?

Now, my editor at Trafalgar Square had no way of knowing that I was working up a bio for Dr. Warson for a book that won't go to press until the end of the year. (She and I have had many conversations about the importance of bios, however.)

If I had started from scratch, coming up with a succint but comprehensive and representational biography would have taken up quite a bit of my Sunday. As it was, I simply condensed the "big bio," and had something ready in a very short time.

Since Dr. Warson is known primarily for his neurosurgery practice, and since I don't know how much text is allotted to the short bio, I started with his medical career. Three short paragraphs tell of his experience, his practice, and his professional contributions. Even if very little space is available, people will still learn about his medical credentials and his qualifications for writing a book about the human spine.

But he also has several decades of success in the horse show world. So I included three more short paragraphs highlighting his equine experience. If space is available, the information in these final paragraphs is relevant to show Dr. Warson's additional qualifications to write a book on the human spine specifically for readers who are riders.

Today, comments on the "bio" part of my editor's request. Tune in tomorrow, when I'll share a few thoughts on building the "blurb" she mentioned.

Till then, write well and stay warm!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Do What You Love...

Yesterday was Christmas in February here at Hendrickson House.

A box arrived from one of my newest (and largest) marketing clients. It was full of a sampling of their products, multiple catalogs detailing their entire line, current promotional materials, and more.

The cool thing is -- I love what they do. It's not like I got a box full of proctology instruments or kitty litter samples. The vast majority of what the client produces is either something I would buy for myself or for a friend. The catalogs are the kind that I would happily take out of my mailbox and spend an hour or two browsing through.

Of course this means that hours of work lie ahead of me as I familiarize myself with their full product list. But I can't wait to get started. That's one of the perks of being an independent marketing consultant as opposed to being a paid hack. When I worked at an ad agency (100 years ago, in a former lifetime), I didn't have the luxury of choosing to work only on campaigns for products that I believed in. Money was good. Job satisfaction, however, was in woefully short supply.

"Do what you love and the money will follow," is the too-trite-to-be-true title of Marsha Sinetar's classic self-help book .

I think perhaps Marsha oversimplifies things. I also think she may have copped her book title from something Hedy Lamarr once said:

I know why most people never get rich. They put the money ahead of the job. If you just think of the job, the money will automatically follow. This never fails.

Now, Hedy knew what she was talking about. She's credited with a great number of insightful (or just pithy) famous quotes , including:

Compromise and tolerance are magic words. It took me 40 years to become philosophical.

Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.

Because you don't live near a bakery doesn't mean you have to go without cheesecake.

I have not been that wise. Health I have taken for granted. Love I have demanded, perhaps too much and too often. As for money, I have only realized its true worth when I didn't have it.


The point is -- life is too short to waste chasing money. If you put the money ahead of the job, you are essentially just renting yourself out to your employer. Doing what you love, and focusing on the job rather than the payment for services rendered, allows you to enjoy the rewards of your labor on several levels... And only one of them is monetary.

You'll have to excuse me for getting so philosophical. After all -- yesterday was Christmas.

Online Alert

Thanks to Claire Zulkey for the kind mention in her blog of Jan. 24 . An excerpt:

A few months ago a writer asked me to write the forward to a book of short stories he was publishing with a small press. I was flattered but baffled about what I was exactly supposed to do, and how I would do it well. Because honestly, the forwards to books can be pretty boring. Fortunately he let me be as stupid as possible so I pretended I was writing the afterward instead of the forward...

She ended the blog with a nice plug for my article on Fashioning Fabulous Forewords that AbsoluteWrite.com featured at the end of last year. It's funny -- you never know where you'll show up.

Until Monday:

Keep writing. Keep working. Keep doing what you love.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Another Trip to Bio-Land

I am quite thrilled that the wonderful people at Absolute Write have seen fit to feature another of my articles this week. "Building a Better Biography" explores the ins and outs of crafting and using a viable biography to help people get to know you and your work.

(Regular readers will notice that the article is largely composed of text posted here last summer. Much of it originated from my musings about creating a bio for Geoff while working up a webpage for him and working on our book. You read it here first!)

If Ya Got It, Flaunt It!

Working bios are so important. Since I posted the original blogs, I've had several opportunities to use a bio (either mine or a client's). Every time a "bio-needing" situation presented itself, I have been glad that I didn't have to start from scratch and throw something together. In the past 6 months, I've used a bio for:

* Online search engine optimizers,
* Geoff's book flap promotional text,
* Introductions to speaking engagements,
* Queries and letters of introduction,
* Online article "about the author" text,
* Press releases,
* Teleseminars,
* Online forums and special interest groups,
* Contest entries, and
* Media kits, among others.

Another Bio is Born

And now that a new book is under way, I'm taking another trip to Bio-Land. A significant portion of my writing time this week has been dedicated to crafting a preliminary biography for Dr. James Warson, the neurosurgeon whose project I am working on. He approved most of the text last night. After a few tweaks, it's ready for posting online.

Right now, it appears to serve little purpose -- posting a bio of someone who does not yet have a book. But I feel it is tremendously important. You see, Dr. Warson has decades as a successful neurosurgeon behind him. He has spent much of his life evaluating how horses affected their riders, both from a surgeon's perspective, and from an equestrian viewpoint. He has presented his findings on riding-related injuries and treatments all over the world. Yet, there is no single, easily accessible place for people to go to find out about him.

His bio will change all that. By the time "The Rider's Back Book" is released, it is my goal for Dr. Warson to be THE "Go To" authority on equestrian back health.

Help Me Help You...

On a related note, I've spent many, MANY hours in the past few weeks coming up with marketing suggestions for a major client.

My single biggest, most important, and least expensive suggestion? Make sure that every player in the client's roster -- no matter how "insignificant" -- has a functional biography that can be accessed somewhere on the client's primary website. Not only will this make it easier to promote existing clients ("We proudly introduce Ms. Muckety-Muck..."), but it will also make every client eager to link to the Mother Ship's website, thus helping to build their online presence.

(A word of warning to the James Frey's out there: Your biography is to be non-fiction. That means it has to be true. All of it. Every word. You may not embellish for literary or monetary reasons. If inclined to do so, Just Say No. Then tear the offending bio up into A Million Little Pieces and start all over again.)

Happy writing!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Rider's Wednesday -- Colt Kindergarten

Though winter is here, Colt Kindergarten is in full swing. So far, our lessons include:

* Walking Past Scary Objects,
* Walking on the Road,
* Dragging Garbage Cans,
* Pulling Plastic Sleds Behind Us,
* Yielding to Halter Pressure, and
* Lungeing In Various Locations, among others.

Today, we worked on Lungeing Around Distracting Objects and what Clinton Anderson calls "The Human Currycomb." (Actually, Clinton's version involves lying along the horse's back while vigorously scrubbing him on both sides with your hands. My version consisted more of hanging as far over Theo as possible and rubbing on him as much as I could. Moose Boy is just too big for me to scramble up on him.)

The wonderful thing about using Clinton's methods is that when the time comes for concentrated training, the young horse is so accustomed to having things move and flap and fling and flop around him that he really couldn't care less when he sees the human up above him. He's quite content to go about a normal training session anywhere, and with any number of distractions.

I climbed up on the picnic table and lunged Theo around it. We practiced stopping and turning, walking and trotting, backing up and coming forward. Then we practiced standing quietly while I worked on "desensitizing the air" around him. I threw a leg up on his back, rubbed my foot all over Theo's shoulders, spine, hips, and haunches. He ate it up and just loved the attention.

The moral of the story is, starting young, having the colt enjoy being with you, and teaching him that nothing you do will hurt him makes your life infinitely easier when the time comes to start actual training.

Theo is the first colt I've used Clinton's methods on from the very beginning. I have to say, I couldn't ask for an easier horse to work with -- which is good, since he weighs 2000 lbs, and he's not yet three. I couldn't be happier with the results of a solid groundwork foundation. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Looking Back

Geoff's book cover is now carved in stone. By late Friday afternoon, we'd agreed on the flap copy. And we've reached an agreement on the back cover, which was the last thing that needed to be checked off the list.

I'm especially happy with the back. It features a close-up of the "perfect leg" (Geoff's), and looks classy and elegant. I also like the fact that the only text on the back is provided by either George Morris or Joe Fargis. We certainly couldn't ask for better testimonials. The packaging turns the book into something that really lends itself to someone picking it up, opening it, and seeing what it has to say.

I certainly appreciate how fortunate we are to have Trafalgar Square work so closely with us, and consider our opinions on the cover.

Monday is Marketing Day. I want to do some research into marketing a very specialized niche title. I also want to finish writing Dr. Warson's bio and get it online.

With any luck, by the end of this week, I'll have two chapters of the new Back Book roughed out. As far as I'm concerned, this is the hardest stage of a project. The notes are taken, and need to be shaped into something coherent. But no real "writing" has been done yet. Which means that the book has not yet found its voice. It's starting from a standstill. Once it's achieved some momentum, it should practically write itself. But getting it started is always a challenge. Further musings on the process as it progresses.

In other news:
Steelers win their fifth Super Bowl 21 - 10. Yay! As a Pennsylvania native, though I haven't followed the home team since elementary school, and the days of the Steel Curtain, Bradshaw, and Noll, I have to say that I'm the teeniest bit proud of them...

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Curious Case of Tom Toles

Tom Toles, Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist (Buffalo News, 1990), has drawn fire from the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a political cartoon that he drew for the Washington Post.

The cartoon depicts a quadruple amputee in a hospital bed, with a declining graph labeled "U.S. Army" as his medical chart. Dr. Rumsfeld is at his bedside, saying, "I'm listing your condition as 'battle hardened.' I'm prescribing that you be stretched thin. We don't define that as torture."

The cartoon refers to Rumsfeld's remarks last week when he stated that the U.S. military is a "battle hardened... enormously capable force," in response to a Pentagon-sponsored study that warns the Iraq war risks "breaking" our Army.

Interestingly, while the Joint Chiefs are up in arms over the cartoon (and it seems to be the thing these days, to become indignant when cartoons infringe on our comfort zone), Dave Autry, deputy communications director for Disabled American Veterans, said that while he thought the cartoon was graphic, he was "certainly not" offended by it. Rather, he said, it drove home an important point.

In my opinion, one of the heroes in this op-ed drama is Fred Hiatt, The Post's editorial page editor. Hiatt said he doesn't censor Toles, and that cartoonists work best when no one is breathing over their shoulders. Go Fred!

See, whether or not I like what you have to say, the fact that you are allowed to say it is important. As soon as I make it illegal for you to air your opinions, who's to say that the next opinion to be outlawed won't be my own? The penduluum swings both ways. We can't have editorials that support one side without allowing essays making a case for the other.

"It is the nature of cartooning that someone can read an analogy a cartoon uses to mean things other than what was intended," Toles says. "The only way to avoid that problem is to draw cartoons that have no impact."

In the end, it's not whether I agree or disagree with Toles' editorial slant. It's whether or not he is free to voice his opinion. If it becomes a punishable offense to write, draw, state, blog, or hint that we disagree with the Powers That Be, we'll have to chalk "democracy" up as a failed experiment.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Rider's Wednesday -- Tapping Endorphins



A friend of mine sent me today's link and asked my thoughts. In a nutshell, the Endorphin Tap involves turning a horse's neck to either side, and holding it there until the horse's legs give out and he lies down.

The reason behind the maneuver is unclear.

One theory is that accupressure points are triggered, and this causes the horse to become relaxed and collapse.

Another theory is that turning the horse's head and neck in such a way temporarily restricts blood flow or oxygen, triggering a mini-fainting spell. If that's the case, I would think that the horse would "come to" with a heck of a headache, poor thing.

There's no question that the procedure works. The question is: how does it work, and how safe is it, really?

Anyone out there have any ideas?