Platespinner

Oops… (image by Chuttersnap, via Unsplash)

I’ve got a lot of stuff going on right now. Two clients, two Town projects (maybe three…), lots of friends who deserve attention, prepping the house for winter… it just feels like there’s a lot of things moving right now, and every time I spin one of them, the others are all slowing down and wobbling.

And today, I dropped one. I hate when that happens.

It was a grant proposal. I’d been after a few people to get me information, and they hadn’t, and I had my attention on other projects with tighter deadlines and so didn’t follow up every single day to find out what was holding them up. And now the grant deadline is unattainable.

One of the most important, and most difficult, skills of management is to build teams and responsibilities among people whom you do not actually supervise. It’s actually kind of easy to be a boss, but it’s a lot harder when you’re working with people who are themselves already really busy with their own jobs in their own organizations. And it doesn’t always work.

A lot of things in life don’t always work. And we have to get used to that. Steph Curry’s on track for yet another MVP season and scoring championship, he’s reinvented the game with his three-point shooting… and he makes about 45% of them. If he misses two or three in a row, he can’t get into his own head—he just has to run the next play, get himself open, and launch another one.

One of my favorite writers put out a new book last year. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely the third best of the three. If it had been the first one, there might not have been a second. Every musician who releases an album with twelve tracks has one or two that just aren’t up to the level of the others. We all just have to get used to coming up short once in a while.

It’s never fun, of course. But it’s absolutely normal. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Today’s Coolest Thing in the World

Story Code

Nora thinks I know a lot about pop culture. If I do (and I don’t, really), it’s because I start my day looking at the compilation feeds from a few different websites. The New York Times, the New Yorker, the Creative Independent… it’s like a little diary of what’s out in the world, from Federal policy to new recipes. So I follow one, and then through the miracle of hyperlinks, end up somewhere else, and all of a sudden have found things I have no reason to have found.

Here’s today’s. The freelance science-and-culture writer Clive Thompson put together a little web tool that allows you to paste in some block of text, hit “submit,” and have it return instantly with all of the alphanumeric characters removed, only the punctuation remaining. He’s posted an article about it at Medium, and it’s truly awesome. The graphic at the top of today’s post is from the first chapter of my new novel & Sons, and there’s something just magical about seeing your own work through some other structure.

There’s large scale and small scale understandings that we can take from that graphic. Look, for instance, at the fourth line, where we see four consecutive em-dashes. (—). When I look back at the text, I see that I use those as markers of parenthetical commentary, but they aren’t all of the same sort. Sometimes, they’re used to give a specific list—of materials, of options, of alternatives—within a single category. Sometimes they’re used—pay attention, now—to shift perspective within a sentence, like a quick camera shot. And sometimes they’re used to give a definition—a more plainspoken explanation of something complex—to demonstrate that there’s some knowledge that the characters take for granted but the reader probably won’t. So when you see a bunch of those in close quarters, it’s an indicator that the narrator is more actively guiding the reader through unfamiliar territory. Where it’s nothing but a string of periods and commas and question marks and quotation marks, it’s full scene, and the narrator expects that you’ll be able to track it just fine without the voice-over.

The 3,089 punctuation marks that were counted in my 32-page story were:

  • Periods: 836.
  • Commas: 927
  • Quotations, or “: 536
  • Apostrophes, or ‘: 536 also
  • Question marks: 78
  • Exclamation marks: 18
  • Em-dashes: 126
  • Paired parentheses (): 4 pair
  • Colon: 8
  • Semicolon: 8
  • Slash, or /: 5
  • Ampersand, or &: 7 (not surprising in a story called & Sons)

You might think that nearly a hundred punctuation marks per page is a lot, but it’s not as surprising as you think. They’re supposed to be invisible, you don’t notice them when you’re reading OR when you’re writing. (We just saw eight of them go by right there.) Anyway, there’s a lot of stuff we could talk about from that quantitative breakdown, but here’s the ones that stood out for me.

More Commas Than Periods. Clay’s an educated guy, he qualifies his sentences, thinks out loud toward a closer approximation of what he’s thinking.

Commas and Quotation Marks Are In Inverse Frequency. Where I look at strings of commas, quotation marks are in short supply. Conversely, where there’s lots of quoted dialogue, there aren’t many commas. This strikes me as fairly reasonable for the ways that most of us have conversations. We say something. Then maybe we say another thing. Then somebody else says something.

Lots of Apostrophes. And mostly these aren’t possessives. Mostly they’re contractions, which isn’t surprising in a dialogue-heavy story, but which also comes through in Cale’s narration to the reader as well. He’s a farm kid who hasn’t fully entered white-collar culture, and he’s just as likely to say can’t and wont and didn’t and we’re and you’re when he’s at work as he is back at the farm. Poker players like to talk about tells, the little involuntary motions we make when we’re excited or nervous. The use of contractions is Cale’s tell, and his colleagues on the faculty probably all feel it, even if they never overtly notice it. It’s a little culture marker that he’s not really one of us.

The Exclamation Marks All Come Together. There are eighteen of them total. Eleven happen within two pages, when Cale and his sister Ray are presented with their dad’s will and they both have to come to terms with his posthumous anger and disrespect and manipulation. They don’t like it, and they start barking at the lawyer and at each other. (Maybe we should just call ! the bark mark, because that’s what people do when they use it. They’re barking.)

Anyway, I don’t mean to suggest that quantitative analysis of writing should in any way become a standardized mode of literary criticism. But patterns are patterns, and they probably indicate something. We learn how to write by writing. But we learn how we write by looking back at what we’ve written, with whatever tools are in the box. If the patterns we find match our intentions, we’re probably doing what we intended. But if the patterns surprise us, we now have an analytical tool with which we can go back into the text, like spelunkers, and figure out what’s down there.

Publishing Empire

Job-creatin’, risk-takin’ hero of the free market!

The photo you see above is the first public image ever released of the Spruce Knob Press’ Global Fulfillment Center (GFC). It’s a massive complex, nearly three square feet. Five levels, with sufficient build-out space to accommodate nearly double the Press’ current inventory.

Originally designed by Herman Miller in 1956 as a turnkey operations-management center, the GFC was painstakingly relocated in 2012 from its original Manhattan address to the Press’ current location in Vermont. In coming months, the Press’ already substantial catalog is anticipated to grow to a previously-unthinkable two-digit volume count. The GFC is thoroughly designed to manage the strong public demand for quality literature, and to uniquely support the Press’ innovative zero-revenue business model.

To learn more about Spruce Knob Press and its exciting literary catalog, follow this link. No salesperson will call.

The Gift Economy

Here we go.

It’s time.

I’ve been thinking about this for a little more than a year—taking some of the books I’ve written, putting them into attractive paperback versions, and then giving them away. For free.

It’s a fun process to take a story that’s lived its whole life in an anodyne Microsoft Word document and to give it physical form. To make it into a book. To make the hundred decisions about typeface and margins, about chapter headings and section dividers, about cover images and cover text, that every book requires. To design the graphic device (the publisher’s mark, which you can see at the top of this post) for Spruce Knob Press, which isn’t really a business, it’s just me making some books.

It’s also been fun to NOT make some decisions. My books don’t have ISBN numbers or barcodes. They don’t have e-book editions, or links to Amazon. They don’t have a price, or a link to a Square or Venmo or PayPal checkout. They’re simply gifts.

You’re welcome.

So now it’s your turn. Visit the “Books for Free” tab of my website to see a brief description of the six books that are currently available. Choose one. (We’re operating under the Thanksgiving-dinner model here: take only one. If you like it, you can always go back for seconds.) Get me your U.S. mailing address—by email if you know my email address, through the “Keep in Touch” tab of my website, or through the Messaging feature of LinkedIn if you saw this on that site. And I’ll put a book into the mail for you. It really is that easy. If I run out of one, I’ll get more made in a week or ten days, so don’t worry about that. (As Jay Leno once said on behalf of Doritos, “Go ahead, we’ll make more.”)

I’ll look forward to sharing stories with you. Thanks for all of your support and encouragement along the way. I hope you’ll enjoy them.

A Book You Should Have, If You’re In Higher Ed

A few days ago, I talked about preparing to give some books away for free. Well, I can’t give this one away, but you should go buy it anyway. The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture asked me about a year ago to do some workshops on assessment, which in the end had over 200 attendees from about 50 colleges and universities. So we decided that an assessment handbook might be in order, and have spent the past few months making one.

And here it is.

Although it’s aimed specifically at assessment methods that will be of use for architecture schools, it’s a simple guide for any school (or frankly, any organization at all) that wants to develop systematic ways to get better at the things they really want to do.

Assessment scares people, but it really shouldn’t. The cycle of assessment, from description to judgment to change, is a normal—and crucial—part of everyday life. Our new handbook describes both the practices and the opportunities of assessment.

Assessment can be an important lever for the pursuit of equity and inclusion, and for communication with stakeholders. Assessment can improve curricular alignment, and help your program to pursue your own unique mission. This plainspoken handbook is designed to help architecture programs at any level of development to create, improve, and make use of relevant and powerful systems of assessment.

The book is intended to be encouraging, to help your organization start somewhere and make some important and effective advances. So go pre-order one. If your school’s an ACSA member, it’s thirty bucks plus six for shipping; if you’re not an ACSA member, it’s forty plus six. And anybody can buy the electronic version that can be shared broadly across teams for a hundred. So go do one of those things. Right now. Go.

Re-Emergence

Uh-oh.
(Image by Dušan Veverkolog, via Unsplash)

So for four months I was underground, digging away happily at the vein of ore in the mine. It was rich and productive, and I was fully immersed.

But now I’ve emerged, blinking, into the sunlight where all the complications of the world have waited patiently for my return.


The biggest problem that awaits the happy author of the completed manuscript is actually a mirrored pair of problems, a pushmi-pullyu that can’t successfully navigate in either direction. One head of the animal is finding readers. How can I get the book in front of people who might enjoy it? The world of literary agentry is the most fakakta enterprise ever invented, a community of connections for which you need pre-connections to get more than a desultory twenty-second review. Not their fault, of course; they’re looking for the love-at-first-sight moment, and using the equivalent of Tinder to do it. Swipe left… swipe left… swipe left…

I’m preparing to give copies of my books away to friends and their friends, but that means re-building my website, which means new plug-ins and new account levels and blah-de-blah-de-blah. I don’t need money, which means that I’m not all that attractive to the publishing world anyway, since words are currency over there. I’m actually looking forward to giving the work away for free, but that’s its own set of tasks.

But the other head of the creature is what might happen if I DID find readers. What are the book’s responsibilities in the world, and to whom? In particular, what do I owe Nora, my first and most steadfast reader? Can I publish things that she finds uncomfortable? Why would I introduce discomfort into the person I love most in the world?

I write lots of characters. I actually counted, in one book, that there were 84 specific, identifiable people who would have to be cast in the movie, not counting the anonymous crowds. Many of those characters are unlike me. In gender, in sexual orientation, in ethnicity, in age, in social class, in profession. I can research similar lives for months on end, but I can’t possibly “get them right,” because there IS no single right way to be female, to be Hindu, to be a corn farmer. All of those groups are wildly diverse within themselves, but lots of people are ready to be affronted if a writer’s expression of a community is different from their own. And I don’t mean to cause anyone else discomfort, either.

I’m not going to write about nothing but 63-year-old white guys who’ve moved to Vermont in the past ten years. That’s kind of a limited palette. (Although lots of memoirists have dug endlessly from a single mine. As David Chapin put it, they’ve become parasites on their own lives.) So what responsibility does my story bear to someone who might see herself “inaccurately” portrayed? And what responsibility does my story bear to people who ARE quite a lot like me, and might actually learn something about diversity (and about themselves) through the research I’ve conducted to bring my characters into being?

It’s dangerous above ground, right? Safer to duck back under and start another book!


One of the great things about my being married to a super-smart writer is that we have wonderful conversations. Nora and I actually went over a lot of these ideas this morning, while we were out digging potatoes and getting the garden ready for winter. We talked about what it meant to be novelists who were both trained as ethnographers, for whom the research can sometimes be more fun than the writing, for whom listening to characters has ethical importance. We talked about the limits of what must be known and what may be filled in with invention. We talked about what it’s meant that she’s read three of my novels in the past four months, and thus now knows all my tricks. “Oh, geez, that again?” Patterns you might miss if you dip into a writer’s work every couple of years become visible (and maybe annoying…) when you’ve seen them three times since summer. What of our repetition is our “voice,” and what of our repetition is just laziness? Or some authorial disability that limits our motion?

All that, plus we got potatoes.

Anyway, keep you eyes open for the web re-launch, and your opportunity to choose from among several new books that will be my gifts to any readers who ask.

Done.

As of about half an hour ago, the new novel is done. & Sons has been fully assembled, fired up and run on the bench with no damage. There’s a fair bit of cleanup left to do before we take it out to the show, but I know how to do that.

I opened my writing log and closed out the account for this one. One hundred twenty-six days, eighty-seven thousand words. And I discovered that, without my knowing it, this one has pushed me past a significant mark. I’m now over a million words of completed book-length work since I started doing this seriously back in 2013. I must be getting better at it, right?

Here’s the family:

Nonfiction: The PhDictionary. The Adjunct Underclass. Slush.

Fiction: The Abbot of Saginaw. The Triptych (The Host/The List/The Test). The City Killers. The Opposite of Control. A Field Guide to Men of the 1970s. Trailing Spouse. Leopard. & Sons.

Fourteen books in eight years. Productivity or compulsion? And who could know the difference?

I’ll be revising my website in the next few weeks to make some of this work available to you. I hope you’ll enjoy it. And thanks for following along with the journey so far. Your comments and thumbs-up’s have been sustenance on the trail.

The Hidden Costs of Graft

That will be in Vol.36:4, Section 19B.2.19 (Image by Viktor Talashuk via Unsplash)

I act as the Emergency Management Director (EMD) for our little village of about 800. Mostly what that means is that I compile our annual Local Emergency Management Plan (LEMP) in April, coordinate our five-year Local Hazard Mitigation Plan (LHMP) coming up again in 2024, and pay attention to what the Vermont Department of Health is telling us about COVID.

Yesterday, I was in our neighboring metropolis for a five-hour workshop provided to local EMDs by our regional planning commission and the state’s office of emergency management, running through a scenario about the remnants of a tropical storm dumping five or six inches of rain in a 36 hour period, with winds gusting up to 70 miles an hour. Not unreasonable; a Hurricane Irene sort of event. We talked about how we’d open and staff our Emergency Operations Center (EOC), what we’d have done in advance of the storm, during the storm, immediately after the storm, and in the subsequent two weeks when some of the remote areas STILL didn’t have electrical service. And one of the things we talked about was debris management.

In our town, debris management mostly means downed trees. That would occur in two phases: the first phase would be cutting brush and sectioning branches to drag off to the roadside so that we could make things passable, and the later phase would be disposing of all of that cut brush and sectioned wood. In low-lying areas of the County, the definition of “debris” would be more likely to include a broad and messy array of crap moved around during a flood, ranging from refrigerators to propane tanks to dead animals to building materials, along with probably quite a lot of mud and gravel. One of the first phases of disaster reclamation is getting the crap out of the way, for public safety and for a clear playing field to rebuild on.

Foolish person that I am, I volunteered at the end of the meeting to take on two tasks and report back to the larger community. One was to investigate policies for non-competitive hiring of immediate disaster relief contractors, people who just wade out there and get stuff done in the first couple of days. You don’t have time to advertise those jobs, and they aren’t expected to endure anyway; you just call your friends who are trained loggers to go out and cut brush so you can clear roads, and you hire the farmer who also has a trucking business to haul gravel in and branches out, and you try after the fact to get them reimbursed.

But the second task broke me.

I volunteered to investigate policies for post-disaster debris management. Which led me to the August 2020 Interim Public Assistance Debris Monitoring Guide, published by FEMA. Fifty-four pages of requirements for debris control, all of which must be followed in order for a town to provide adequate justification for disaster reimbursement. We have to have a “debris monitor” who oversees the retrieval, the staging, and the ultimate disposal of all refuse. We have to have truck loading guidelines, and refuse-separation guidelines. We have to name our job-cost accounting methods, and have draft contracts ready to go in order to hire trucking contractors to retrieve and dispose of our junk.

It’s easy to look at all of this and get all red-faced and shouty about big government and bureaucracy and the time-suck of paperwork. But every single bit of this is a response to someone’s malfeasance at some point in the past. Every line in the tax code is a response to a tax cheat in the past. Every regulation in a health-care chain is a response to insurance fraud that’s happened before and shouldn’t happen again. We are buried in regulations because we are beset by grifters who’ve tried to skim a little money or save a little time.

So someone, somewhere, was running half-full trucks of debris and claiming full load capacities to make a few hundred extra dollars, and now we all have ten pages of monitoring guidelines to prevent that from happening. Someone was jamming all the debris they could find together into one truckload, regardless of whether it was a dead cow or a pile of tires or a half-filled gas can, and trying to tip it all together into the landfill. And now we have a dozen pages of refuse-segregation requirements to prevent that from happening.

Colleges and workplaces have equal-opportunity hiring guidelines because decades of people just somehow seemed to have hired nothing but white guys (golly, how about that, what a coincidence). We have Title IX guidelines because decades of college decisions seem not to have recognized that women actually go to college and deserve to be well-served (and because too many men are predatory).

Every law is the product of a prior abuse. So if we want less regulation in our lives, we just have to quit being dicks about everything. We have to encourage our friends not to be dicks about everything. We have to prosecute white-collar crimes aggressively and early, at low levels, before they metastasize into systemic abuses, criminal organizations armied up with lawyers and accountants to muddy the waters.

Jane Jacobs, in her wonderful book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, puts forth the idea that commerce and government play mutually regulating roles, that they are by necessity in opposition, the engine and the brakes of civic society. Which, of course, means they have to be relatively balanced in size and scope. The difference is that commerce is represented by hundreds of thousands of organizations, from the country store to Goldman Sachs, and government is seen as a monolith, a single occupying force. But “big government” has all grown in response to millions of stupid, abusive, decentralized decisions.

To paraphrase your mom in her worst moments of frustration, this is why we can’t have nice things. This is why we have to have a wall full of manuals for emergency management, and state and federal agencies dedicated to their oversight, and monthly trainings about how a town of 800 people and its volunteers have to deal with disaster reimbursement. Why we have EMDs and LEMPs and LHMPs and EOCs and endless other acronyms and initialisms. Because of demonstrated mistakes and abuses that have occurred before, and need to be avoided in the future.

As the old proverb has it, when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.

Week Ten—Permission to Land

I have the runway in visual. (Image by Jordi Moncasi, via Unsplash)

After ten weeks, I can see the end of the journey. It’s probably fifteen or twenty thousand words out, another few weeks, but I know how to land the plane. And on Wednesday, I absolutely did not. But I’m in contact with the tower now, I’ve got my coordinates for approach. All I have to do is be attentive to weather and traffic, and we’ll be home safely.

I’ll continue to report as we approach the runway and terminal, I’ll give you updates on arrival gates and all that, but you can rest now. We’re going to make it. This flight that departed on June 7 will be in soon.

Please leave your safety belts fastened until we pull up to the gate.

What I Know After Nine Weeks

The teams are sorted out… (Image by Pascal Swier, via Unsplash)

This past week has been volcanic, with allegiances being shifted and everyone discovering their limits. One opponent has begun to come around; one ally has become oppositional; and one other person, hinted at in the first twenty pages a couple of times, has now appeared, her allegiances not yet fully clear. Even whole communities are shown to be in opposition, neither side blameless.

That’s always a fascinating point. When the good guy reveals her or his shortcomings, when the bad guy shows us why she thinks she’s doing good. Writers build the stakes by showing us the conflict in unambiguous terms, then they build the story by showing us that things aren’t as clear as they’d seemed.


We’re on the glide path to landing now, about 60,000 words in. I don’t really aim for this, it’s not like I’m a TV writer who knows that I have exactly 22 minutes for this episode, but all of my novels have all been of similar length. The shortest, Trailing Spouse, is 61,000; the longest (four of them more or less tied) are at about 90,000. It seems to be the container I’m built to fill.

The generic guidelines for an adult novel put it between 70-100K. But of course, there’s been vast variability across time and writer. The five books in The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin have all been over 300,000 words. Atlas Shrugged for a long time, over 560,000 words. At the other end of the scale, three classics of high school English—The Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men, and Animal Farm—all clock in at fewer than 30,000 words.

The general range, 70 to 100, holds a lot of familiar books.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Joy Luck Club
  • The Girl on the Train
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • 1984
  • The English Patient
  • Frankenstein
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • The Color Purple

That’s what you think of as a novel. About an inch thick in paperback (in modern terms; in the old-school compression of the Bantam and Dell paperback era, closer to half an inch, each page dense with ideas). It’s a comfortable space, the detached house of ideas, each family occupying its independent dwelling for us to visit.

Short story compilations, by contrast, seem more like apartment buildings. Smaller boxes, more families, not all of whom get along or even know of one another’s existence. And flash fiction is like seeing people in the subway station as you zip by on the express train; none of them matter, none of them are knowable, they’re just the interesting array of life to consider and then forget. At the length of a novel, I’m with this family long enough to start to learn who they are as they drop their guardedness. It’s an ethnographic form, built for deep learning of a few people.