Word Geekery: Anachronistic Idioms

My baby boy says “Ring Ring” whenever he wants to play with my cell phone. Thing is, none of the cell phones in my house actually ring. One plays techno music, one has a recording of my older son calling us to the phone, the third plays the default tones from the manufacturer.

Practically no phones ring anymore, and yet we still say “ring tone” and “the phone is ringing.” Brits offer to “ring you up” when they mean to call your phone.

On the same track, people still sometimes say “drop a dime”…despite the fact that pay phones are nearly extinct, and none of the scattered survivors will work for less than 50 cents.

And what about “Disc Jockeys” — known to the kids as DJs? If you’re talking about the DJ at your local house party, he still uses discs…but only because happy coincidence makes CDs topologically similar to the vinyl LPs of the era that birthed the term. Radio DJs don’t even use those — they have high-tech sound files accessed by clicking a mouse.  Nary a disc to be found anymore.

A subspecies of this linguistic oddness comes from some of our older relatives. Ever hear a grandfather talk about fighting the “Japs” or the “Gooks” during his term of service, or a grandmother tell you a recent good deed was “mighty white of you,” or have no problem with being called “the little woman?” They mean no harm, but their children look embarrassed and jaws drop on the grandchildrens’ guests.

Language moves and evolves with time. Sometimes it shows that our culture has changed for the better. Other times it’s a difference in fashion, or a shift in technology.

I’d love to hear more. Alert readers, comment in with your own anachronistic idioms.

Thanks for listening.


Getting Ideas: Emperor Joshua Norton

For me, ideas tend to spray off of things I see or hear, like sparks shooting off when you hit flint and steel together. I was happy to discover recently that author Christopher Moore works the same way — at least sometimes.

Writers hone their craft by reading. Recently, I stumbled across the existence of Joshua Norton, self-proclaimed emperor of San Francisco. This legendary figure walked the streets of his city from 1859 to 1880. During his reign, he issued public proclamations that ranged from a demand for Sacramento to clean its streets to the dissolution of the US Congress.

Local businesses allowed him to eat for free, and he had complementary use of the city’s mass transit. Citizens would even buy his 50-cent imperial treasury bonds. His dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, were exempted from city leash laws. At times, enthusiastic new police officers or dog-catchers would arrest a member of the trio — to citywide outrage. When he died, donations sent him off in style with a procession that extended over two miles.

The Emperor, Bummer and Lazarus are recurring characters in Moore’s San Francisco vampire trilogy: Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck and Bite Me. Maybe I’m the only person for whom this is new information, but there it is.

Ideas are everywhere. It’s just a matter of feeding them when they scratch at the door.

You can find out more about Emperor Norton I of the United States of America at the San Francisco History Encyclopedia page in his honor. Stuff You Missed in History Class has a great podcast on him as well.

As a final note, another author wrote Bummer’s obituary. A (then) little-known journalist by the name of Sam Clemens.

Thanks for listening.



Friday Fun: Wings of Defeat — Another Journey

Some writers choose fiction. Others, nonfictions. Others do ad copy, scripts or humor. Another kind of writer does documentaries, working with words, sound and image to create compelling films. Risa Morimoto is one of these writers. Her award-winning Wings of Defeat chronicles the story of kamikaze pilots during WWII.

Filming this documentary, Risa interviewed several survivors of kamikaze attacks. This included Fred Mitchell and Gene Brick, two sailors on the USS Drexler — a destroyer sunk by kamikaze on picket duty between mainland Japan and Okinawa.

By an amazing set of circumstances, Fred and Gene were invited to Japan to take part in the events surrounding the release of Wings of Defeat. They met with survivors of the kamikaze corps, drank sake and visited several cities. It’s a story of forgiveness and peacemaking that can literally bring a tear to my eye. Here’s a snippet of Another Journey, Risa’s documentary of that part of the story.

If I’d written this story, it would have been rejected as too unrealistic. As a side note, Gene Brick is my grandfather. I’m rather proud of him for having the courage and kindness to do this.

Thanks for listening.

Ideas for Nonfiction (Part Two)

Continuing our list of ways to come up with topics for nonfiction articles, which you can then pitch to magazines and turn into fees and a portfolio…


I touched on this in detail in an earlier post. Keep a note pad handy while researching and writing your assignments. A fact might grab your attention, but be inappropriate for your current assignment. A small section of an article might have enough juice to warrant a full-size piece of its own. Maybe your article for a regional magazine could be recast to suit the needs of a local, or national, publication. If you jot down a reminder, you can come back to these ideas later and pitch them as unique stories.

Library Time

If all else fails, go to your local library or friendly neighborhood bookstore. Spend an hour or so skimming through magazines and reading what kinds of articles they’ve published lately. Think of related, but unique, ideas that will suit them. If you want to write for magazines, you should be reading them anyway. You can combine this idea with your personal expertise and a mind map for ferocious onslaught of idea generation.

The Shower

From what I’ve been told, I’m not the only person who does his best thinking in the shower. I don’t know why, but it seems like humans do their best thinking wet. Your omnipresent, ever-ready notebook will get ruined in the shower. A grease pencil or kids’ shower crayon won’t. I keep one in the little caddy, between my razor and the shampoo. If I’m struck by inspiration, I scrawl it on the shower wall and jot it into my notebook when I’m finished.

That’s what I’ve come up with so far. I’m certain others have their own methods, and I’d love to see some in the comments.

Thanks for listening.

Ideas for Nonfiction Writing (Part One)

“Where do you get your ideas?”

This question is normally associated with fiction writers. I think it’s Harlan Ellison who tells people that he subscribes to an idea service. Coming up with ideas for nonfiction articles is just an important, and in some ways harder. The nonfiction article market is enormous — and growing every day with the proliferation of internet content. All we need to do is come up with compelling pitches. Here are some of the methods I’ve used to get ideas and turn them into money. I’ll bring more to your attention in a later post, since this is a rich topic I could write about all day.

Plumbing Knowledge and Experience

Everybody is an expert at something. I got my start writing self-defense and safety articles as an adjunct to running a karate studio. I sold insurance for a while, and recently did the math to discover I’ve made more money writing about insurance than I did selling it. Industry and special interest publications are the best market for these, especially if you can apply your special knowledge to a related interest. I’m a middle-sized fish in the martial arts pond, which means I had to fight to get my stuff in Black Belt. Parenting magazines, on the other hand, eat my family safety stuff up. This may be the best way to break in to the writing market, since you’re selling your existing expertise rather than asking somebody to take a chance on a thin portfolio.

Mind Mapping

This is the shotgun approach to idea generation. Start by writing a word at the center of a piece of paper. Draw branches off that word, each with a detail or related subject. Draw further branches off each of those branches, filling the page with words and concepts. Some of them will remain words, while others will blossom into full story ideas. This is the method I use for blog subjects. It works well for general brainstorming, and for expanding on basic areas of expertise or interest.


Some ideas come to you prepackaged. The freelance writing job sites (more on these in another post) rarely have ads for general writing. Rather, they have ads for somebody to write about a specific — sometimes very specific — topic. The current boom of content mills is based on writers accepting prepackaged writing assignments based on common search engine queries. Small business owners want blogs written to topics that interest potential clients. If you’re a quick researcher, this is an opportunity for nearly limitless work at a pretty good wage.

I’m eager to hear your ideas, as well. Please comment with some tricks you’ve tried.

Thanks for listening.

Point of View

Under normal circumstances, I’m a highly energetic, ferociously physical guy. This affects my writing, both in terms of voice and in terms of what I choose to write about.

These past two days, I’ve been alternating between periods of aching recovery, frustration with how slowly I have to move, and hazy drifts through pain-medicated fog. Overall, this is not the most pleasant experience I’ve had this year.


It helps with point of view. Joe R. Lansdale, a martial artist speaking of writing bad fight scenes, once said “You can tell when a virgin is writing a sex scene.” This feeling of helplessness, of low energy, of weakness, will help me write better characters in my fiction and write more effectively for some audiences of my nonfiction.

A lot of the best authors suffered throughout their lives, giving them the empathy to truly understand each and every one of the challenges and conflicts affecting their characters. I’m not comparing my routine hernia operation to the lives of those giants, but it’s a small piece of the same page.

As writers, we have the advantage that every hardship we suffer now is fuel for your creativity later. Even if it never makes it into a particular story, simply knowing this can help us better handle the situation as it happens.

Thanks for listening.

The Job I Want

This week will consist of a bunch of short posts. I’m in recovery from a minor surgery and, although everything went well, the pain meds are making my attention span shorter than it usually is.

You know what job I want? I want to be the Google front page guy. More days than not, Google replaces their standard front-page logo with a stylized logo that celebrates a birthday or anniversary…first cosmonaut, Montgomery Bus Boycott, famous artists, the fall of the Berlin Wall…all manner of cool people and happenings. It would be fun to get paid to choose and research who makes that list.

Of course, at Google, it probably isn’t a job. Google uses the concept of “20 percent time,” under which employees are free to work on whatever they want (so long as it’s for the company) one day per week. Google Docs and Google Maps are two of the products to come out of 20 percent time, and it seems likely that the front page celebration is, too.

Of course if I’m wrong, Google, please give me a call. We’ll talk.

Thanks for listening.

The Power of Templates

As a writer, I find templates to be one of my most powerful tools. When working with tools, a template is a metal or plastic form that lets you cut out the outline of an object. When working with words, it’s an organizational form that lets your rough out the outline of a work.

In the context of web content, I have about a dozen templates — rough structures for articles — that I apply detail and personality to when I receive an assignment. This saves me hours every week, since I’ve gotten pretty quick at matching the right template with the right subject.

Templates do not stifle creativity or voice any more than a standardized rhyme scheme stifles creativity in poetry. It actually encourages creativity and voice by allowing me to put all my focus on the unique part of the article. I no longer have to think about the frame of the house, meaning I can focus on what’s living there and how it’s decorated.

Some authors use a template for their novels, producing entire series in which each book follows basically the same outline. Done poorly, they can be disappointing and formulaic. The best take that same outline and make each one a unique story by changing the characters, the dialog, the details.

You can also make life easier by building “time templates” into your day. This is a way of organizing your time and your writing. I work best from about 6 to about 9. AM vs PM don’t matter, so I schedule the rest of my day around writing during that block. Weekly and monthly templates can help you arrange less frequent tasks — for example, committing to posting certain kinds of posts to your blog on certain days.

Think about the writing you’ve done. If it helps, you can pencil a rough outline for a few representative samples. Chances are you also use templates, but may not know it. Once you realize you have such a powerful tool, you’ll be better able to use it to your advantage.

Thanks for listening.

More Accountability

When I planned my earning cycle onslaught, I scheduled in a week off. The weather’s beautiful, I’m feeling a little burned out, and next week I’ve scheduled a surgery that will mean I can’t lift heavy stuff for about a month.

So I’m taking this as that week. I’ll still do work on some projects, but I’m not going to hold myself to the aggressive workload I’ve had for the past 5 weeks.

I get to do this because I accounted for it in my planning. If I hadn’t, needing to take some time for other things might have inescapably derailed me.

Yay, planning! It’s even more important when you don’t have a boss than when you do have one.

Thanks for listening.

Friday Fun: She Don’t Like Firefly

I’ve mentioned Firefly in the past. With just 16 episodes and a movie, it deserved to live far longer than it did. Geek comic Mikey Mason has this to say about it:

The story of Firefly is a cautionary tale for writers. Despite its cult popularity, extreme quality and potential for crossover sales, it ended up cancelled in the middle of its first season. A lot of factors went into this, but a lot of it has to do with moving time slots, poor promotion and minimal support from its network.

If you have a brilliant project, it will not succeed without promotional support from the distributor. More than one author has been disappointed after signing a deal with starts in his eyes, only to watch the project “wither on the vine.”

It’s hard, but you can leave an offer on the table if a publisher isn’t willing to work to sell your book. You’ll have to do a lot of promotion on your own, but they must meet you halfway. This may mean waiting a year or more for another offer — but your writing deserves the best offer, not the first.

Thanks for listening.