(My goofy title is an allusion to the first line of “Handy Man,” of which Wikipedia says: “Handy Man” is a rock and roll song credited to singer Jimmy Jones and songwriter Otis Blackwell. It was originally recorded by The Sparks Of Rhythm, a group Jones had been a member of when he wrote it, although he was not with them when they recorded it. In 1959, Jones recorded the song himself, in a version which had been reworked by Blackwell , who also produced the session. “Handy Man”went to number three on the R&B charts and number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960, becoming a million seller . The song was a hit again in 1964 for Del Shannon and again for James Taylor in 1977. Taylor’s version of the song was the most successful, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the adult contemporary chart .})
I’m a fair grammarian, but this NY Times piece taught me a lot. Here’s a snippet:
The Most Comma Mistakes
By BEN YAGODA
As I noted in my earlier article, rules and conventions about when to use and not to use commas are legion. But certain errors keep popping up. Here are a few of them.
Identification Crisis. If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times. I’m referring to a student’s writing a sentence like:
I went to see the movie, “Midnight in Paris” with my friend, Jessie.
Comma after “movie,” comma after “friend” and, sometimes, comma after “Paris” as well. None is correct — unless “Midnight in Paris” is the only movie in the world and Jessie is the writer’s only friend. Otherwise, the punctuation should be:
I went to see the movie “Midnight in Paris” with my friend Jessie.
If that seems wrong or weird or anything short of clearly right, bear with me a minute and take a look at another correct sentence:
I went to see Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Midnight in Paris,” with my oldest friend, Jessie.
You need a comma after “movie” because this and only this is Mr. Allen’s newest movie in theaters, and before “Jessie” because she and only she is the writer’s oldest friend.
The syntactical situation I’m talking about is identifier-name. The basic idea is that if the name (in the above example, “Jessie”) is the only thing in the world described by the identifier (“my oldest friend”), use a comma before the name (and after it as well, unless you’ve come to the end of the sentence). If not, don’t use any commas.
Grammatically, there are various ways of describing what’s going on. One helpful set of terms is essential vs. nonessential. When the identifier makes sense in the sentence by itself, then the name is nonessential and you use a comma before it. Otherwise, no comma. That explains an exception to the only-thing-in-the-world rule: when the words “a,” “an” or “some,” or a number, come before the description or identification of a name, use a comma.
“Presenting financials and other numbers so people will understand you.” That’s the subtitle of “Painting with Numbers,” a book by my client, Randy Bolten, that’s just out from Wiley. It’s getting enthusiastic reviews from sources as diverse as academics, bankers, politicians, and IT professionals, and its initial sales are gratifyingly strong.
From the book’s introduction: “This book is not about numbers. This book is about presenting numbers, and doing it clearly, concisely, elegantly, and, most of all, effectively.” And it successfully conveys its message in practical, take-it-home-and-put-it-to-work terms.
Bolten served as chief financial officer of several Silicon Valley firms and learned his skills “in the trenches.” He endured numerous presentations that left him scratching his head and wondering, “What was that person trying to say?” Determined to never do that himself, and to help others do better, he began to record and organize his insights regarding good and bad communication behavior in the numerical context.
This is a “how-to” book in the very best sense of the term. You can read it cover-to-cover and learn a great deal from it; you can also flip it open anywhere and gain helpful tips for the presentation you’re supposed to give in the next 10 minutes.
If you are an aspiring author, here are some key learning points you can model from Randy:
- The focus of the book is his unique expertise, organized and articulated in bite-size chunks for easy consumption.
- He invested time in learning what others have to say on the topic, and cites items of interest that can help his readers.
- He micro-managed the book design process. Specifically, he knew that his spreadsheet examples would have to look like screen-captures, not like a gussied-up artist’s version of spreadsheets, if readers were to feel, “I can do that!”
- His writing demonstrates his awareness that his reader is unlikely to feel excited and enthusiastic about his topic, to begin with. So he makes excellent use of humor and beautiful layout to engage the reader and drive home the power and utility of learning the skills he so eloquently presents.
He went with a major publisher, although we had considered self-publishing. Here are some reasons:
- He didn’t want to undertake the work of creating a business to produce and market the book.
- He was able to network his way to an appropriate editor, without an agent.
- The implied imprimatur of a major publisher was meaningful to him.
- Maximizing his profit was not his major goal.
I’m very proud of Randy, who has become my close friend from what began as a coaching relationship. Check out the book!
Susie Brown wrote this guest post:
There I was, in the middle of writing a very important article, and the craziest thing happened. My laptop’s keyboard, which I had always been so trusting of, failed me. At first, the “backspace “ button just started looking a little bit out of place. But then the right side actually started sticking right up in the air above all the other keys. Saying that it “stuck out like a sore thumb” sounds just too cliché, but it is so fitting. The right side of the backspace button seemed to protrude just a little bit higher each time I pressed it. Until finally the unthinkable happened, and my “backspace” button fell off.
The truth is, I have had buttons pop off my trusty laptop keyboard before, and I knew what to do from previous experience. I applied enough pressure to that backspace button to flatten a penny, which seemed to help. I continued to write.
Then, the button fell off again. I put it back, and it continued to jump right off of the keyboard. It turned out that a minuscule piece of plastic that holds the button in place had worn off–the button was ruined.
I was crushed.
It turns out that you can order computer buttons online for about $5 each, plus shipping. It would take days for the new button to arrive. I live on my keyboard. “What will I do in the mean time?” I wondered.
Whether out of habit, or mere stubbornness, I continued writing. “I’m not going to let losing a cheap piece of plastic cramp my writing style,” I thought.
If you have never lost a keyboard button, there is something that you should understand about the construction of a keyboard. Even if the plastic top of a key falls off, there is still a small rubbery doohickey underneath, that you can press to get the same result as you would from pressing the key. The problem with the rubber doohickey is that most times that you aim to hit it, you miss, so it’s arguably not even worth bothering with. How frustrating it was when I began writing without a backspace button! But after a while, I began to enjoy it.
And then it set me free.
All of a sudden I began writing free-flow. Whenever I made a mistake, which was often, I wouldn’t bother attempting to hit the rubbery protruding doohickey that was once my backspace button. Instead, I just wrote without correcting, and my fingers started to write whatever my heart wanted to express. My writing had been imbued with a new spirit. I wasn’t just putting words on a page anymore, I was plucking my own heartstrings as my fingers created a free flow of ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Looking back, it was the best thing that has ever happened to my writing.
I recommend trying the experience sometime. You don’t need to break any keys off of your precious keyboard; rather, just avoid hitting the backspace key while you write your rough draft. Then, watch as your thoughts develop naturally. Without the pressure of trying to write perfectly, your mind will become free to think about what you actually want to say. No more shackles of second-guessing yourself mid-sentence, no more frustration from stopping for a few minutes in order to ponder which word would fit just right. Just write.
When you read what you put on the page you will probably be surprised at what you have written. Writing this way takes a lot less time than interrupting the flow in order to click the backspace button every few words. Of course, editing takes a bit more time too.
Author Bio: Susie Brown is a FastUpFront Blog contributor and business author. FastUpFront offers a fast business loan alternative based on business cash flow.
Humans love stories. “Once upon a time…” immediately engages us.
I don’t know why; I’m not sure anyone does. But if you just list facts or events, you will lose your audience quickly. If you tell a story, in which one thing leads to another,
reveals a conflict, and ultimately resolves in one way or another, you hold their interest.
This is easier to do in a blog post or a short story than in a book. Plotting a story “arc” is more difficult when you want to fill 150 pages than if you are trying only to fill one or two. Of course, the short story is an art of its own, and one that is not easy to master. But the book-length story requires logic and intuition. What will engage the reader? What will cause them to care about the people and events of the narrative.
We long for familiarity; we want our stories to follow a pattern we recognize. Evil is punished; good is rewarded; virtue is its own reward. We can be held and entertained by violations of these conventions: We can sympathize with the professional assassin, who only kills bad guys, and want him to “win.” We can feel for the prostitute with the heart of gold.
We expect consistent chronology; first this, then that. Flashbacks are ok, but we need to be anchored in the timeline, or we’ll get confused.
Chekhov, the renowned Russian short-story writer, said, “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” The story sets up expectations for us, and we feel frustrated if they are not satisfied.
How does a narrative become a story? Here are some ways:
- Chronology. “I was born a poor black child,” says Steve Martin in the film, “The Jerk.” The chronology continues from there. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” says Charles Dickens in the opening to “A Tale of Two Cities.” We set a stake and continue.
- Causation. It all happened because…
- A question that must be answered. “How was she killed? There was no weapon in evidence, no mark upon her body. Yet it was clear she had not died of natural causes.” Our curiosity is piqued. How indeed?
- A promise: “Although you have never written a sonnet, by the time you’ve completed this slim volume, you will have written one.”
I work mostly with non-fiction writers. Yet the story is just as important in a work of non-fiction as it is in a work of fiction.
What’s your story?
I’ll start from the conclusion. Here’s why you should ONLY self-publish, and not seek a publisher:
You get to market MUCH more quickly by self-publishing (days or weeks versus a year or more)
- You keep your intellectual property; you can reprint, translate, sell movie rights, go to multiple distributors without limitation
- You keep 70% or more of the book’s selling price, versus 14.7% or less with a publisher (including for the ebook version)
- You are in control of everything from design to editing to production to distribution
In the past, before the Web and print-on-demand technology, authors were at the mercy of publishers. That’s when the “rules of engagement” were established by the publishers, and they remain today as they were then: The publisher controls everything about the relationship, if the author signs the standard agreement. That means a production schedule that commonly stretches out 15-18 months from receipt of manuscript; a royalty rate that is nominally as high as 15%, but due to hidden costs, is more like 10% (payable six or more months after it is earned); total transfer of ownership of intellectual property to the publisher (meaning that if the publisher decides not to reprint the book after the first printing, the author must negotiate to re-acquire the rights to it); and other onerous strictures.
The author was ostensibly relieved of all responsibility for editing, design, production, distribution, and marketing of the book. Unfortunately, the author usually learned that she was actually stuck with marketing the book, and all the costs thereof–at the paltry royalty rate specified in the standard contract.
In recent years, an author could not even submit a manuscript to a publisher; he had to find an agent who would agree to undertake on his behalf, for 20% or more of the deal. And finding an agent was no simpler than finding a publisher had been in earlier times. A common question posed to the author: “Do you have a platform?” Meaning, do you have a coterie of loyal fans who are likely to buy your book? If not, your chances of finding an agent or a publisher were small.
Today, the author has been emancipated in the age of self-publishing. She is no longer in bondage to the system of publishers and agents. She can have her manuscript edited herself, get a cover designed to her liking, and take them to CreateSpace.com or Lulu.com, set her sale price–and have the book available for purchase within a week of submitting the manuscript and cover. At no fee for the service; production costs are taken out of the sales price for each book, and the balance sent to the author. Monthly.
These publishers take no ownership of the content. The author is free to submit it to multiple such services.
Moreover, both they and others offer a service to convert the book to the most popular ebook formats. Since the production cost on an ebook is virtually zero, it is reasonable that the authors receive 70% or more of the sales price of their books, and they do. If the ebook is published by, say, John Wiley and Sons, the author gets 14.7%.
Well, what about editing? It is true that the leading publishers employ competent editors. But so can an author–and at a lower rate by far, with the expectation of far faster turnaround.
And marketing? Most authors seeking to be published by one of the “Big Six” do not realize that the big marketing bucks are reserved for the “sure bets”–books by celebrities and already-popular authors. All the other books on the publisher’s list get very little in the way of marketing dollars. And if they do not sell in significant numbers–thousands–in the first three months after their debut, they will not be reprinted.
A client asked me the other day about the “cachet” of being published by a well-known publisher. Certainly there is something to that. But let me ask you, prospective published author: What value does it actually have for you? Will it establish you higher in the firmament of author/experts? Will it get you more clients? I doubt it.
The big publishers are not foolish, and they employ very smart people. But the traditional publishing world is stuck in an antiquated paradigm, and has not found a way out.
If you are an author, save yourself grief: Do not invest your energies in petitioning agents and publishers. Recognize that your book represents a business, of which you are the ceo. Act accordingly. Self-publish.
This week, Jews all over the world celebrate Purim, the feast commemorating the rescue of our people from genocide at the hand of the wicked Haman, in the kingdom of Shushan. (Get the full scoop in the Book of Esther, in any Jewish or Christian bible.) The traditional celebration involves reading the Scroll of Esther (the Book of Esther) together; the listeners are encouraged to boo and hiss and make noise at every mention of Haman, and to cheer at every mention of Mordecai, the uncle of Esther the queen, who is the main good guy in the story.
It also involves dressing in costumes for this gathering, representing either figures in the tale–Esther, Mordecai, King Ahashverosh–or pretty much anything entertaining. (Oh, yeah, and a lot of alcohol; you’re supposed to drink until you can no longer tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai. So be careful driving near your local synagogue this Thursday evening.)
All of which made me think of advice to bloggers I’ve been reading of late: Without exception, bloggers are instructed, “be yourself.” In other words, let your writing express who you are. You’re quirky? Great. Swear like a sailor? Have at. Write the way you talk and express yourself in such a way that your personality comes through. People will relate to your personality–at least some of them. That’s your audience.
But it’s not always the right thing to do.
In fact, I suggest that you worry less about your persona and more about your audience. Why are people coming to your site? What have you taught them to expect? What are they seeking? What do they want? If you consistently, or even just usually, deliver what they want, they will keep coming back.
It’s the same for authors of books. Be yourself, by all means (everyone else is already taken, anyway). But be yourself in the context of serving your reader. And if it comes to a choice, let go of “I gotta be me” in favor of “How can I be of service?”
Nobody outside of Amazon knows how many Kindles have been sold, but the number is in the double-digit millions. Add to that the number of Kindle apps, free for iPhone, iPad, PC, Mac, and Android; the number of Barnes and Noble Nooks; the number of other electronic book readers; and without even getting to the number of people who can read/print a pdf–basically, every person with access to a computer–you have a market for ebooks that defies quantification.
And here’s the deal: Your cost to produce an ebook version of your manuscript, once you’ve written it, is at most $150–and that includes getting into the Kindle market on Amazon, as well as into other ebook markets, like the iBookstore. With NO marginal cost per copy.
So if you want books to be part of your marketing plan, you would be foolish not to include ebooks.
Are there lots of people who still want hard copy? Yes, there are. Meet their needs and desires through print-on-demand services. But you can optimize your ebook’s price based on what the market will bear, without having to take any production or fulfillment costs into consideration. Your marketing plan, and those who read it, will love that.
Sell your ebook for $.99 for volume. Sell it for $19.99 based on value. Design your marketing plan such that you can experiment, testing different prices. The different ebook formats may sell at different rates for you. Try different things.
There are several ebook formats, but for $150 or less, you can have your manuscript in all of them–and available in their associated bookstores.
You could even offer your ebook through the Clickbank Marketplace, a site for affiliate marketers, where it can find active affiliate marketers who are seeking great products to promote to their lists. You can turn it into a free bonus, a giveaway to get people onto YOUR list, so that you can sell them other products and services. Again, that can be an asset to your marketing plan.
What should your ebook’s topic be? Use tools like Wordtracker.com to discover keywords that have 500 or more searches per day–and not much competition. Then write your ebook to match what your chosen market wants.