Are there any good reasons to self-censor your work?

Not too long ago, there was a controversy with DC Comics and their Batgirl #41, where the cover shows the Joker threatening a frightened Batgirl with a gun, with “Joker makeup” on her mouth. From CNN:

Batgirl is menaced by the Joker in a comic book cover that was pulled after criticism on social media.

 “Following that was a viral trending hastag on twitter, called #changethecover. Shortly thereafter, DC Comics pulled the cover created by artist Rafael Albuquerque.

Regardless if fans like Rafael Albuquerque’s homage to Alan Moore’s THE KILLING JOKE graphic novel from 25 years ago, or find it inconsistent with the current tonality of the Batgirl books — threats of violence and harassment are wrong and have no place in comics or society,” they said.

“We stand by our creative talent, and per Rafael’s request, DC Comics will not publish the Batgirl variant. “

Albuquerque said in his own statement, “My Batgirl variant cover artwork was designed to pay homage to a comic that I really admire, and I know is a favorite of many readers. ‘The Killing Joke’ is part of Batgirl’s canon and artistically, I couldn’t avoid portraying the traumatic relationship between Barbara Gordon and the Joker.”

He concluded, “My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art. For that reason, I have recommended to DC that the variant cover be pulled. I’m incredibly pleased that DC Comics is listening to my concerns and will not be publishing the cover art in June as previously announced.”

It was just the latest brouhaha involving portrayals of women in comic books and variant covers in particular. In September, Marvel Comics canceled future variant covers from artist Milo Manara after a “Spider-Woman” No. 1 variant cover caused an uproar for being “over-sexualized.” (The company later said there was no connection between the two events.)”

Censorship isn’t just about politics, though. Censorship is about when you have some artistic value in your work, but you silence yourself because you’re afraid of who you’re going to offend. For example, you write something critical of a powerful God-like company like Facebook or Google, but you stop yourself because you’re afraid if you make your masters unhappy, someone at the company might “accidentally” close your Facebook account or post personal data you thought was private to the public domain so all can see. Believe me, white extremely rare, this has happened. That’s why I switched from Google to DuckDuckGo for most of my search engine results, though I still use Google Maps, Gmail and some level of searching (disclosure: I’m slowly moving away from them). You should use DuckDuckGo if you don’t want your searches tracked or saved for all eternity. So you simply refrain from heavy criticism because of the fear of being embarrassed or crushed via SEO rankings or search results.

Or, perhaps you wrote an article critical of JK Rowling (and I bring her up since I was just at a senior thesis presentation today where a girl talked about Harry Potter and its Christian message), who has her seat reserved in Heaven already next to Steve Jobs because she is so awesome like he was, and if you criticize her in any way I can only image the mob fury which will come down on the poor bastard(ess) who criticizes her or Harry in any way whatsoever, legitimate criticism or not. Good luck.

Woe be the writer (book, screenplay, or musician) who creates a piece critical of a group with a lot of money, power, influence, or members, or some other topic which is generally considered taboo and would get you uninvited to the A-list parties. Death threats, hate mail, and boycotts are becoming an increasing common staple of our society by extremists on all sides, who use the internet to essentially form “mob rule” to keep dissenters in line.

Most performers like to keep their politics and religions under wraps as not to offend anyone, so they go along with the flow in order to make sure everyone likes them. For example, what is Aaron Rodgers political preference? Or Stephen Strasberg? They don’t usually discuss, so you know then as entertainers and they keep their brand apolitical and clean. Those who take stands risk pissing off the other side and having them boycott your work or harass you.

This is of course, different than hate speech, where you may have the right to say it but doing so means a legitimate loss of business or boycotts. Don’t expect much sympathy if you write “Heil Hitler” on your blog, or if you talk about murdering gay rights advocates or pro-lifers. Just as censorship is wrong, there are consequences to taking freedom of speech too far.

B&B Tip: consider what you say before saying it, but do not let censorship shut you down.

Disclosure: I’m not suggesting any of the above examples are my own opinions, but ones where I can see problems being caused if you did write about them.

Pirates vs. Big Corporations: You lose Either Way

 vs.  and 

*disclosure. I meant to post this yesterday but I was…well, it WAS 4/20 and my inner Ganjaness wanted to be satisfied, so…*

About 3000 years ago, a man named Moses came down from the slopes of Mount Sinai and held out two large stone tablets with ten commandments from the Torah (aka Old Testament). These Ten Commandments were the first-known Cliff Notes version of any significant text in recorded human history; taking a very long scroll and condensing it to about 66 words (depending on the exact translation you use). These Commandments are easy to understand and easy to see why they were picked.

*Only kidding above.

One of those ten is “You Shall not Steal.” The Merriam-Webster definition defines the verb “steal” as

to take (something that does not belong to you) in a way that is wrong or illegal

: to take (something that you are not supposed to have) without asking for permission

: to wrongly take and use (another person’s idea, words, etc.)

Today’s lesson is about piracy and whether we should support piracy or the major book/movie/record companies who want to force you to spend a lot on their products, all with DRM to prevent you from accessing your purchased content on a different device than the one you used to buy it. So if I download a song to my Amazon cloud music store onto my laptop, which I paid 99 cents for, they want to set it up so I can’t download Amazon’s mobile music store with that song unless I buy it again for 99 cents. If you share even one of their products with someone else without them paying for it, they get angry.

On the other side we have folks to don’t care much for those four simple words which make up the eight commandment, and who want to take whatever they can because they can and because they don’t want to pay for anything, so they entitle themselves to things from other people, and if you call them out for what they’re doing, which is stealing, they get angry.

The truth is, both sides here are wrong in their actions. Excessively high prices of goods encourage counterfeiting, piracy, and general theft, but these same actions also discourage some people from engaging in the production of goods in the first place, if their rights to their own labors are not respected or protected.

The U.S. Constitution recognized this problem, and defined in Article 1 section 8 Congress’  obligation “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”  Because this clause is the source of Congress’ power to enact legislation governing copyrights and patents, it is often referred to as the “patent and copyright clause.”

This thread popped up on Kboards and, given what we do, it’s important for us to understand high prices vs. piracy, and how to balance both. Take notes: Your actions might be the difference between success and failure.

First, let’s present the argument in favor of piracy: the so-called “Cartel” the entertainment industry has to stifle competition.

In order to maximize their already-enormous profits, the music, book, and movie industry enacted Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection on their produced works. The argument they claimed was to prevent people from violating “copyright protection” for published works. However, the end result has been to inconvenience, or even criminalize, legitimate behabior like making a backup copying of a cd, sharing a file with a friend, or transferring files from one device you own to another. Opponents of DRM say it’s realyl a way for big buisness to stifle competition, by making it illegal to make “unauthorized uses” of reasonable purchases. Think of DRM as a lock against piracy, and if the technology changes, the “lock” may not be able to be adjusted. But, you still can’t remove the DRM.

Then there’s the prices. $10-15 for a book, album, or movie ticket may not be expensive indidually, but how many of these products will you access at these prices? More than likely you limit yourself to select items because you can’t afford to take a $10-15 (or more- what’s the price for most big 5 hardcovers these days?) “test drive” to find out if you like the product. Yes, you could sample any of these online in advance, but you still cannot guarantee that you will like it and feel like you got your money’s worth. Plus, digital products should not be so expensive. Once an e-file is created, say an e-book, it has no cost besides the initial recovery cost of your investment- editing service, book cover design, maybe a file formatter, some advertising, etc. If technology changes you will probably have to re-format your e-book but otherwise you incur no additional costs because the file technically doesn’t exist as it’s not a physical product, so you don’t have storage or ink to pay for.

I believe a lot of the movement to pirate works began with frustration at high prices for downloads and the reality of of big corporations treating artists/authors and their fans poorly while focusing more on distributors (I will say this is more anecdotal, since polls go in and out about the satisfaction of authors/artists with their publisher/label). Especially since the superstars are all multimillionaires, will they really be losing out because a few hundred or even thousand people downloaded their product free or went to a service which allowed them to sample your work without compensation? It’s hard to say.

Hypothetical scenario: Let’s pick the book Insurgent  by Veronica Roth. I’m picking this one because I looked at movie listings this weekend and this was the first one based on a novel which I saw listed. Say the scenario is: you buy the book and love it so much you want to share it with your friends. The truth is, the book publisher would prefer your friends all buy their own separate copies. If you buy the movie on DVD and you and all your friends watch it in your room together, the movie producer won’t object to this but their far and away preference is for everyone to buy their own separate copies.

Suppose one of your friends doesn’t come when you watch the movie. You lend it out to her, she watches the movie on her laptop, and returns it to you. Have you and your friend engaged in the crime of consuming a media product for free?

By Big Media standards, yes. Your friend has technically watched a copyrighted movie without paying/compensating the copyright owner, so if they could find out you did it, they’d come after you. If you use a program like Handbrake for Mac (open source video transcorder) to upload the movie from a disc onto your Mac, the movie industry will tolerate it ONLY if you use it just for yourself. If you share this file, say with your parents, and they find out about it, expect them to come down hard on you. As proof, recall the cases of the music industry finding people who had made a handful of downloads off Napster and taking them to court.

But most of us would agree that this kind of sharing is not bad. Expecting every person to purchase their own copy of a movie, especially at $25 a pop (HOLY CRAP- $25 FOR A SINGLE DVD?! Better be plated in gold) is a lot, and it would be tough to prove that Ms. Roth or Lionsgate, which produced the movie, was really hurt because you lent it to a friend. In anything, I suspect Ms. Roth would be happy since if your friend never read her books or saw her movies until that point, they might be converted into fans, and it’s possible they might go buy the books or merchandise from whoever I assume sells her merch. For those of us who are indie, whether by choice or by necessity, knowing that people like your work so much they want to share it with their friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors is like a blessing in itself.


Second, let’s talk about reasons Piracy is bad: the fact that piracy is literally stealing

Let’s revisit that Merriam-Webster definition:

“to take (something that does not belong to you) in a way that is wrong or illegal

: to take (something that you are not supposed to have) without asking for permission

: to wrongly take and use (another person’s idea, words, etc.)”

“the unauthorized use of another’s production, invention, or conception especially in infringement of a copyright”

Piracy IS stealing, regardless of the justification or excuse used for it. Just as it’s wrong to be customer unfriendly and force people to rebuy products they already bought, and criminalize minor peer-to-peer sharing, it’s also wrong to upload someone’s files without permission and then give it away to the world, or worse, sell it without permission and keep the money for yourself.

Some people may want to pay for something, and are put off by exhoribtant prices. Others just want to steal what they can and justify it by pretending that piracy somehow benefits the creator because in theory the pirate “might” buy another one of your books or some merch from you.

Some studies and economists try to argue that piracy doesn’t hurt anyone. Most reseachers will tell you it does. Let’s break down the arguments:

ARGUMENT #1: If a pirate steals from you, they have money to spend elsewhere. So don’t feel bad if the pirate steals from you, s/he might buy a fruit smoothie from McDonald’s and they’re happy.

RESPONSE: How does this help you? What about your editor? Your cover designer? Next, please

ARGUMENT #2: If people pirate your work, they might be tempted to become fans and pay for it later.

RESPONSE: And what percentage of piraters will do that? If they ripped it off in the first place, the odds of them suddenly paying for your work is ____%”

Here are two snippets from two different news articles about pirating:

  • Offer more digital-based releases that premiere before theatrical releases – What’s there to lose? Offer your movies on digital cable, smartphone or computer (in HD quality) a few days to a week before a theatrical premiere and already you’re cutting out one of the main incentives for pirating. And let’s be real: if your movie is good enough, people WILL shell out again for the “big-screen experience.” You may end up making more money than you would’ve. IfZombieland had been available on cable same day as in theaters, would a sequel be hanging in the balance? Maybe, but then again, maybe not…
  • Market the $mart way – If you’re taking full advantage of the digital market, what’s the need for huge billboards, three different trailers, TV spots, print ads, etc… If you’re selling a movie to the online/digital consumer then use the free promotion you get from blogs like Screen Rant (HINT!) – or maybe loop your trailers and spots on cable on demand menus ad nausem. Archive movie info in one place (on cable menus, websites), use fan reactions and early screening promotions to build an interactive rating/review system to let perusing viewers know what new movies are worth their time and money. Once the consumer adapts to the new digital model (i.e., learns where to go to find out about movies), you can spend less, more effectively, to reach them.
  • The first business model that dissuades illegal file sharing is to make the downloading easy and cheap

Does Piracy Hurt Digital Content Sales? Yes

ARGUMENT: “I love pirates. I get money from them all the time,” said the best-selling author of Wool, Hugh Howey, who will be speaking later at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo on his success story. “They send me money thanking me because they loved my book. I sometimes go onto torrent sites and if I don’t see my book there I feel bad because it means I’m not in demand.”

RESPONSE: That’s like saying “You have a really nice-looking car. Don’t you feel great that people pick YOUR car, out of all the other car in the neighborhood, to break into and take things from? That proves that your car is considered beautiful by a lot of people. If people weren’t breaking into your  car, then that would mean it isn’t attractive and worth stealing from.”

Umm…someone BROKE INTO YOUR CAR AND STOLE STUFF. Which part of that did you not understand?

Disclosure: I have read Hugh’s blog, and Joe Konrath is another pro-pirater whom I generally agree with as well. They are both great indie author success stories and I agree with them on a lot. But not on this. I think they’re both totally wrong.

Some people argue that piracy has always been among us because it’s human nature. Therefore, we should not only tolerate it, but embrace it.

Murder is also a part of human nature. Some people want to kill, no matter how many laws there are against it. Just because laws don’t stop people from committing crimes like murder doesn’t mean we ought to tolerate and embrace murder.

CONCLUSION: So who’s right and who isn’t? Is it better to let big corporations control the sale and distribution, charging exhorbitant prices for the products and mistreating their artists/authors? Or is it better to let anyone who can steal or gain access to your work do so, because they might hack into your website and/or they might become paying customers down the road?

Here’s the answer: neither side is right. Both sides have good arguments. But the truth is in those “blurred lines” (speaking of copyright infringement…) should be up to you, and not someone else, to decide. For me personally, I think low-cost e-books and some freebies which lead to more purchases are the way to go. At the same time, protect your rights. If someone is stealing from you, be it books or merchandise, file a formal complain with the site hosting that content or, depending on the severity, with local police or the FBI. While you won’t stop 100% of it, especially overseas, you can do your part to help the rest of us reduce it. if you are an indie, you already cut out the expensive “middleman”. Now it’s time to look at the other side of things.

The bottom line is, there’s a difference between you offering your works for free download or distribution, where YOU control the time, place, and manner of distribution, and where YOU can still get something for it, such as e-mail addresses and merchandise sales. In fact, you may even offer an e-book with a merch purchase or vice-versa. But that’s YOUR right, not someone else’s.

Should Celebrities Take Stances on Controversial Issues, or Avoid Them Altogether?

 Feel free to share your thoughts: Do you take stands on controversial political issues, or do you stay away from controversy so you can focus on the noncontroversial part of your platform?

Politics and entertainment have mixed for as long as human civilization has been around. In the 5th century B.C. Aristophanes, a Greek playwright, used political satire of the times in his play and was one of the founders of comedic satire (Image if the Daily Show existed back then). He was one of many examples of politics and social commentary used in fictional works in the ancient world.

Sports has also played a big part in politics. In the 20th century integration of athletes from diverse backgrounds was part of the success of ending racism in America, in 1972 the world saw Palestinian terrorists massacre 11 Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympic games which has been one history point in the century-old battle between Jews and Muslims in that part of the Middle East, and Billie Jean King’s victory over a 55-year old Bobby Riggs was one historical point in the battle for equality for women in athletics. Whether intentional or not, these points became rallying cries for the mixing of politics in sports.

However, what is unique about the 21st century is that we have social media and lots of forums for celebrities to post, tweet, keek, pin, snap, or otherwise share their photos, videos, and thoughts. Many celebrities choose to be as apolitical as possible in their public lives so no one can get angry at them for taking sides and thus hurt product sales or reputation. But some celebrities do wade into the political arena and the question is: does being political impact your brand positively or negatively, and when do you want to be involved?

I picked four recent cases of people who  were involved in controversies involving politics when they are not otherwise political people (reputations not built on politics). These are randomly picked but they all had one thing in common: New Media made their opinions much more well-known than they probably would have been in the pre-internet age where news traveled more slowly and was less readily accessible.

Rupert Murdoch, founder of News Corporation, would come off as more political since he owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Last week Murdoch posted a tweet reading “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.” J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author, then tweeted back, “I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.” She then compared asking Muslims to be accountable to Jihadists the equivalent of holding Christians accountable for the Spanish Inquisition.

Then there were the double killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The tension between those who believe Brown and Garner were victims of cops deliberately targeting Black youth as “criminals” versus those who believed Brown and Garner were at least partially to blame for their demise ran high (for the record I was more surprised by the Garner verdict than the Brown one, though I didn’t follow either case closely). After the verdicts athletes like LeBron James, Derrick Rose, and Reggie Bush wore  “I can’t breathe” shirts during pre-game warm-ups last month. Six St. Louis Rams players put their hands up for “hands up, don’t shoot” and angered the police in St. Louis for doing so.

And who can forget earlier in 2014 when the Clippers, during Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors, tossed their warm-ups to the ground and turned their pre-game shirts inside out to hide the Clippers logo over what they believed was a racist comment by then-owner Donald Sterling towards Black people?

The one odd one was Liam Neeson, whose Taken 3 movie was just released in theaters. He told, “there’s too many [expletive] guns out there, “Especially in America…There’s over 300 million guns. Privately owned, in America. I think it’s a [expletive] disgrace. Every week now we’re picking up a newspaper and seeing, ‘Yet another few kids have been killed in schools.’” Given that his movie involves him shooting guns and is marketed towards a diverse audience I have to believe this will hurt Taken 3’s total take since I believe this comment will be perceived by many to be “Elitist” and “Hypocritical”. A similar situation happened with Exodus and they suffered at the box office because of it.

Where I am going with this is on when otherwise non-political people make political statements and whether it helps or hurts their brand. Rupert Murdoch, whose name and companies have been involved in politics in nature, might be expected to make comments (and his comments probably won’t cost him viewers or readers in the end). Ms. Rowling’s books and movies are already out so I’m not sure how much her tweet at Murdoch will hurt her in the long run. Probably none of the athletes who made statements supporting Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or Eric Garner will suffer either, but I really do think celebrities should be careful with what they say before taking sides.

So should you be political with your brand, or not? I think it depends on what you want to be known for and who you’re trying to appeal to. Some people benefit by taking public stances on issues, exercising their rights to free speech. Others like to shut up as to not offend anyone. Your personal brand is yours and it’s entirely up to you what you want to do with it. Just accept that stating your opinions in public risks offending people who disagree with you and who will boycott you to make a statement (not saying it’s a bad thing, just stating the obvious here). And in the age of the internet and social media, anything you say absolutely will be used for and against you in the court of public opinion.

Why Understanding Web Traffic is Important to your Website Profile

I want to start off 2015 with a miniseries of articles on data analytics. The reason is because as the Caesar Rodney Institute’s Communications Director I have spent a lot of time going through data analytics for our websites and social media pages (social media analytics will come in a future blogpost). Seeing the data is one thing; knowing how it can benefit your company or personal website is another. All you aspiring authors and personal profile builders out there, you might want to take a few notes. Knowing ways to build your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can mean the difference between being discovered and going “viral” and being stuck in the bog of roughly 644 million websites worldwide.

For this post I’ll focus on Google Analytics (GA) and the book “Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics, 3rd edition” by Brian Clifton (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012). Brian is the former head of web analytics for Google Europe, Middle East, and Africa, and I combine his lessons with my own experiences. Most of the newer editors are just slightly updated versions of previous editions, but if you have the chance to pick up a copy I’d recommend it. (author note: I do not benefit in any way from endorsing this book)

The first step in learning to use data analytics is to know why it’s so important for your website profile. Unfortunately many people just see a bunch of numbers and some pie charts and then don’t compare data from past months or try to dig into the data to spot useful trends. GA has over 100 different reports available for downloading and this is a daunting number for the new user.

Not all data points in GA are as useful as others; for example I discovered that, for CRI, measuring the average page visit was not very valuable. Part of this reason is because there is no perfect way to measure exactly how long someone really stays on your page- ever opened a new website in your browser, then gone off to do something else? At some point the website has to cut off your site visit time. Some sites cut it off after 30 minutes of inactivity, some 10.

Some useful data points which can be tracked:

  • Your daily visitor total
  • average conversion rate (if you sell things on your site)
  • top-visited pages
  • where people are searching from (location)
  • where people are searching from (web browser)
  • Your “page stickiness” (how many pages are viewed before a visitor leaves)
  • keywords being used in search engines to find you.

All of this data, and more, help you identify your Key Performance Indicators (KPI). For example, a review of CRI data shows about 1/3 of people who find us via search engine are doing so by looking for us by keywords like “prevailing wage Delaware” or “Delaware government accountability” rather than by our name, which is an indication that there is interest in our policy issues but a lot of those people didn’t know we existed prior to entering those keywords.

Having this information available allows you or your team to figure out what is working and what isn’t working with your pages and make adjustments. So for us, for example, we discovered that we had an increase in total visits in November but a lot of those views were from November 1-20. By being able to break down the month into thirds to view our total page views, we could see that November 21-30 accounted for only 26% of our visits, which we attributed to the Thanksgiving holiday. Knowing the specific cause of the late November drop into early December prevented us from being overly concerned about the drop and then making an irrational decision regarding our online presence.

In the next post I’ll talk about some of the inaccuracies in GA and some ways you can prevent these inaccuracies from adversely affecting your data points. Please feel free to comment below on ways you use data analytics for yourself or your company.

Happy New Year! My Blog’s Resolution

Happy 2015! I want to end the year with one final blogpost to welcome in the New Year and mention what I will be writing about more of in 2015:

  • More social media tips. I’m becoming more of an expert on this from my work and from reading books from industry experts. Check these out if you’re trying to build a personal platform and boost your online presence.
  • Tips on how to use data analytics (Google and otherwise) to better measure results and find out what works and what doesn’t.
  • Better ways to market and advertise.

Whether you follow my blog because you’re an author looking to build an online platform, or a social media/PR professional looking for more tips on branding and using data analytics for work, you should expect more posts from me and more things you can take away.

As always, please subscribe to my page and follow me on Twitter @sammydrf.

Happy New Year!

How to tell a story, part 2: Emotions and Voice Command

 At long last Part 2 of “How to tell a story” is here . I promised this about three weeks ago but recent (negative) situations in my life have made blogging tertiary for the moment.  Unfortunately I am not (yet) a successful, multi-millionaire author/publisher/entrepreneur  so until that time I need to keep working my day job and moving along with life.

I will update this section with a link to the vlog I am creating on this section, but in part 2 out of 3 I want to focus on two more aspects of Nick Morgan’s excellent book “Power Cues” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014). In chapters 2-4 Nick talks about many things but two concepts are most critical to you, the aspiring writer: Mirror neurons and your “secret sound”.

Mirror Neurons are, by definition (from Wikipedia):

“A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.”

In other words, we react to an emotion with a reflecting emotion because it is in our DNA. It’s the reason why we (there are some sadists who are exceptions, but they really are) see someone cry and we feel a sense of pity. We see someone laugh and we want to laugh with them, or at least smile. Mirror neurons in short are what create emotion and allow us to feel empathy. From the book:

“At its heart, decisions making involves emotions, because emotions give us the ability to weight the relative import of all the factors involves…the decisions we make in real life involve weighing different amounts of attachment and importance.” (Morgan 64)

“If communication becomes possible thanks to mirror neurons, then leadership becomes possible too, because what is leadership without the ability to communicate with your followers?” (Morgan 65)

The purpose of controlling one’s emotions is not just to get parts in a movie (Morgan write that a big reason why we as society make actors into celebrities is because they are able to master their emotions to manipulation in ways the rest of us can’t) but to convey a sense of feeling which words cannot describe. Morgan’s book focuses on the nonverbal cues and how they can help in speech, but for this exercise I will talk about how they impact one’s ability to write.

It is not always easy, nor should it be, to convey emotions by literally writing “she looked into her eyes and saw a reflection of herself: a sad and lonely child with few friends but many enemies.” This sentence is blatantly obvious about there being a scene where two characters are sad. Sometimes it can be expressed through speech:

JOHN: Hey man, you look like you’re bothered by something. What’s up?

JACOB: Not much, man…well, nothing I really want to talk about.

JOHN: You sure?

JACOB: Nah, well…John, have you ever been fired from a job?

JOHN: Yea, I have.

JACOB: Well, that’s the gist of what happened.

JOHN: Listen man, I’m here for you. You can talk to me.

In this made-up example I as the author do not need to narrate John’s emotional understanding that Jacob is upset by something, in this case the fact that he was fired from his job. The dialogue alone tells you how the two characters interact and how John can “share” Jacob’s pain in just dialogue. If you are trying to improve your writing then you should try to think about how YOU would behave in a certain situation (unless you are an emotionless zombie, in which case think of how your screaming victims might behave) and try to picture that scene in your head.

If you would listen to a friend when she’s been dumped by her boyfriend or your cousin who got a pay raise at work and react appropriately, then there is no reason your writing should change. For some reason a lot of authors have a fetish for a type of literary style I like to call “literary prose” which differs from the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition in that it is too style-focused and not action-focused. You’ll recognize books like that where the author will spend countless words describing some rather irrelevant backstory or how someone feels about something or explaining every minute plot point as though you’re in second grade (unless you are, in which case I apologize). Having seen enough novel excerpts I get the impression that this is what must be taught in workshops and creative writing courses, like everyone must one-up Charles Dickens.

Instead try to write as though people are behaving rationally and let the characters carry the action. Leave as much of the narration behind as you can get away with. Some authors, especially very novice authors, will narrate too heavily and spend page after page reflecting on someone’s feelings. One good example was a book I recently read, Wool by Hugh Howey. While the plot itself is very creative Howey spends too many pages, especially in the middle, describing a backstory unrelated to the plot and telling, rather than showing, how a character feels about something. I am picking on him because he comes to mind right now so sorry Hugh, it’s not personal.


The second part of the book relates to your “secret voice”. Every person, when he or she talks, emits low-frequency sounds called a “hertz” which sound like a hum. Listen to someone talk, preferably in person, and see if you can detect the monotonous low drone sound which comes from their voice. You probably didn’t know, but a lot of who we as people determine who our leaders are by wwhoeverhas the “lowest” low-frequency sounds because we somehow perceive them to be the “strongest people.”

Most of the chapter in Morgan’s book on this topic discusses public speaking, a topic which I will blog about in the future. Sticking to the book or script writing, you cannot (literally) write in a character’s vocal chord hum. But you can, through dialogue, determine the “voice” your characters will have. You can have characters speak a certain way to determine who’s in charge in a given group. If you picture how this person might talk in real life you will better understand what it is inside our brains which makes us hardwired to follow the person with the best vocal chord pitch. So in our next example:

SAMANTHA: This assignment is soooo stupid. How are we going to memorize Act 1 Scene 1 of Hamlet in two days?

SABRINA: There is a way to get it done but it just takes practice.

LEANNE: How would we do that Sabrina?

SABRINA: It’s easy. There are four characters. Horatio and Marcellus have longer lines so one of us takes Horatio, One takes Marcellus, and the third person takes the other two characters. Just memorize your character’s lines and the three words preceding it to give your verbal cue.

SAMANTHA and LEANNE: Sounds like a plan.

Can’t figure out how it worked in this example, can you? In your own mind, how do you think Sabrina sounds? Does she sound maybe like a well-spoken female leader you know, a famous person like Condoleeza Rice or perhaps your alma mater’s president? A successful businesswoman or lawyer? My guess is the literal sound Sabrina created in your mind was cobbled together from your life experiences and expectations. Therefore it would be logical, based on your own mind, to create a voice which would allow Sabrina, with that dialogue, to command respect.

Now try this exercise: Picture Sabrina speaking like Fran Drescher from “The Nanny” or some other nasally sounding voice. She will have the same dialogue, but would she command the same respect? Most people, even with the same dialogue, are listening to HOW someone talks and not just the words they say. It’s a bias we all have.

My tip: If you are trying to project a characteristic on a person, particularly if your character is supposed to be a leader, think of either a) someone you know (in person or informally) or b) a combination of people based on your experiences; and then think of how they might exhibit leadership through dialogue (again narrate only as absolutely necessary). Write that down and “listen” in your own mind. Once you can create a dialogue in your mind which sounds like how you want it to go. You may find your plot might even pivot or change completely based on how a character you create acts based on the dialogue you’ve constructed for them.

Give it a try and leave comments on this page if you want to add to the discussion.

Coming up Next: The  third and final installment of “Power Cues”: How to use stories to get on the right wavelength.

Coming up soon: the pre-Halloween special. This will be a trick-or-treat set of “top Ten” items, but whether it’s a trick or treat is up to me (cackle, cackle)


The time I try to Vlog: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and the missed PR Opportunity

Below is my first attempt to vlog, or video blog. Basically typing hurts my fingers so I decided you’d care more if I talked into a webcam  rather than read anything I write. Oh, well, either way no one cares.

The topic: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and the PR opportunity with the movie which could have given the movie, and the topic of a teenage cancer romance story, more of a bump than it did. Watch the video below:

COMING UP NEXT: A lot of people who write like to talk about writing novels. But telling a story and writing a novel are not completely mutually exclusive. I’ll provide some ideas to keep in mind when telling stories (hint: think of how you might compose your body when you talk)

COMING UP SOON: I’ll continue the lesson on story-telling but I’ll talk more about the body’s gestures, like hand gestures, body language, etc.