Tech, Writing

Welcome to the era of micro-communications

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I’m a fan of brevity, and in the era of status updates, of witty online profiles, of Twitter and Snapchat (an app for images your recipient can only view for seconds), there’s plenty of brevity out there. As I write in my column about micro-communications:

Put down “Infinite Jest.” Turn off “Citizen Kane.” Yes, people still read novels and watch movies (I do), but this is an age that’s increasingly enthralled with and defined by — very, very brief communications. Fueled by the prospect of a mega-audience of online followers, today’s micro-communicators spin out their pithy phrases and status updates at a mind-boggling clip.

And is it all junk? I don’t think so. As I say, “It’s easy enough to deride this, to see it as a sign of everything wrong with our culture. But let’s put that sort of thinking aside and agree on this: Among all of the dreck, all of those idiotic rants and pointless observations, you’ll find any number of micro-communication masters — writers, in particular — who are making the most of these new forms by crafting personas ideally suited to the online world.”

And if you’re wondering about Snapchat? Well, I wrote about that app, and other new photo-sharing tools, in another recent column.


My short story, “Out There,” is available as a Kindle book


Out ThereWell, I published my first book, an e-book, as part of my goal of publishing one book a month in 2013. (Should I call this my One Year, 12 Books project?) My short story, “Out There,” is available at Amazon as a Kindle book. I’ll write more about the process soon, but for now I’ll just say that the mechanics of publishing the book (i.e., formatting it for Kindle, etc.) took less time than I thought it would; Amazon provides a very useful tutorial on publishing Kindle books with a Mac. I set the price at $0.99. I considered making it free — after all, it’s a short story (and one that I wrote and published years ago) — but decided I might as well see what happens if I charge a buck for it.

And what’s the story like? Well, as the cover says, it’s “a short story about teenagers, a road trip, and the Jersey Devil.” I’d like to think it’s inspired by the work of T.C. Boyle and Junot Diaz. You can buy it at Amazon and read it on your Kindle, your phone, your computer, or your tablet.

Tech, Writing

My goal: Publish a book a month in 2013


Mosaic app

This sounds crazy. I know it does. But it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

In fact, when I came up with the idea, I actually thought of it as “a book a day” (yes, that’s really, really crazy) or “a book a week” (pretty crazy too). By comparison, a book a month seems reasonable, do-able, and not entirely off-the-wall.

The impulse behind this? I want to see how far an indie writer/author/journalist can take things in this new world of books and book publishing. I’m fascinated with the changes in the industry (e-books, on-demand publishing, Kindle Singles, Blurb photo books, and so forth), and I want to jump into the fray. This is a way to jump-start my exploration of the changes in book publishing, to experiment with the technologies available and the new forms evolving, and to learn (and think) about the future of books.

What will these twelve books* be? I’m not sure yet, but I’ll share a few ideas to offer a sense of the possibilities.

Let me start with an easy one — easy, that is, in the sense that I could publish it in minutes. With the iPhone app Mosaic, you’re able to create and publish a photo book, composed of 20 images, and then tap a button and buy your book for $20. The finished product comes with a lovely die-cut cover. I tend to think of this as an “impulse book.”

Another might be a reprint of an out-of-print children’s book in the public domain, possibly with new illustrations. I’d like at least one, and maybe more (one prose, one photography?), of the books to use print-on-demand technologies, and this would be a candidate for using an on-demand printer.

Yet another would be based on the content at my mobile photography blog, What I See Now — in particular, a series of posts naming the top 100 iPhone photography apps. Plenty of journalists and bloggers are turning their writing into e-books, and this would be a chance to give that a whirl.

All of this raises a question: Is this devaluing, or undermining, the concept of the book? I certainly hope not. I don’t have any illusions about the amount of time, thought, and skill required to write and publish a book properly. I’ve done that — well, I’ve been part of the process (as an author) — and I know the expertise book publishers bring to the process in terms of editing, layout, design, and marketing. But it’s also clear that our notions about what a book is, about how they’re made, and of who controls the appartuses of their production are changing. All of that’s worth exploring, and this project is just that — an exploration of books and their future.

Though I don’t want this experiment to be all about the technology, I expect I’ll use a variety of formats, services, and tools along the way: iBooks Author, PDFs, Kindle, on-demand printers (such as Blurb and Lulu), and plenty of others. Along the way, I’ll document what I’m doing and blog about it, focusing, in particular, on the questions likely to arise from the process. What is a book? Should writers become publishers? Is it possible for an indie journalist to create a publishing imprint with an on-demand publisher? How can books effectively integrate video and other multimedia content? What are the obligations to update the content of e-books? What will become of handmade artists’ books in the age of on-demand printing?

What will the end result be? I expect I’ll learn a lot. Maybe I’ll end up with a number of books I like. Maybe I’ll create a publishing company. Who knows? Maybe there’s even a book in this.

* Why the asterisk? Why this footnote? Because, well, I want to make clear I’m defining “books” broadly for the purposes of this project. Truth be told, when I think of a book, I think of Atonement, of My Antonia, of In Cold Blood: works of prose requiring years of effort, thought, and breathless creativity. Yet our notions of books are changing, for better or worse, and it’s clear the idea of the book is far more flexible than it was just a few years ago.

Tech, Writing

I’m starting to use a standing desk


20130104-180306.jpg Enough sitting. I want to stand while I’m working. That’s the concept, at least. I’m experimenting with a Furinno Multi-functional Portable Desk, which my wife bought for about $50. It wobbles a bit, but not too much, and it’s definitely portable and adjustable — two things I really like about it. After all, I do a lot of my work — my writing — on a MacBook, and I need something I’m able to move around the house. If you’re looking for more advice on standing desks, here’s an article with 15 ideas for buying or building one.


What is a notebook?

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I love notebooks, and lately I’ve been experimenting with new types of notebooks, made possible by the portability (and multimedia capabilities) of the iPad and other tablet computers, as well as smartphones. As I wrote in a recent column, these apps make the most of the iPad’s capabilities — the handheld screen, the microphone, the ability to use a stylus and grab images from your photo library — to turn the notebook into something more “Matrix” and less Moleskine. They’ve got a lot going for them, but I haven’t really settled on one that I use on a daily basis. The issue? For me it’s finding something that’s truly simple — that doesn’t really make me think about how to use its various features — and yet provides a lot more than just a legal pad or a simple text-based note-taking app.


Why I decided to use Day One for my journal


For years, I’ve kept a journal, using any number of word-processing programs for this. Microsoft Word, of course, and Apple’s Pages, and Mellel (a Mac-only word-processor I liked for a couple of years), Google Docs, and even SimpleNote, a note-taking tool for the web and my iPhone.

I wasn’t really looking for something new for keeping a journal — after all, you don’t need much more than a blank page — but then I heard about raves for Day One, a Mac and iOS app. I took a look, bought the Mac version ($10) and the iPhone version ($2), and now I’m a bonafide Day One fan.

Why is this? Well, I think it’s for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s got a simple, great-looking interface.
  2. I can keep the Mac and iPhone versions synced with Dropbox (or iCloud).
  3. A couple keystrokes, and I can “lock” the journal.
  4. It’s got some stylish user interface features, like the ability to hover over dates on a calendar to scan your journal entries.
  5. I appreciate having a well-designed writing tool tailored to one task, journal writing.

This is all something of a surprise to me — my infatuation with Day One, that is — because I almost always prefer to use just one tool for writing, rather than many. In fact, I’ve been frustrated over the past few years over the need to use so many different writing tools (Word, Google Docs, Pages, and so forth), depending on what I’m writing (and whether I’m collaborating with others). But I’m getting used to it.

Tech, Writing

The joy of minimal, easy-to-follow instructions

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The holidays have come and gone, and with them, several weeks of intermittent box opening, toy assembling, and instruction reading. Much fun was had, but I do have a complaint/observation: Why must companies continue to churn out really, really bad instructions? The instructions included with toys, gadgets, and other miscellaneous whatnots are laughably bad.

I have these specific gripes:

  • The writing isn’t clear.
  • The type is often minuscule.
  • The design is nonexistent.

Things don’t need to be this way. As Apple has demonstrated, it is possible to include set-up and operating instructions that are a joy to follow and make it possible to unbox your item, from a Macintosh computer to an iPhone, and start using it within minutes. Yes, minutes: even if it’s a marvel of technology. To do that, you need to leave a lot out of the instructions, or else make the device so completely simple you don’t need any instructions at all. Instead, many devices come with an instruction manual that’s a motley-looking mishmash of words thrown on a page and tossed in a box (or so it looks to someone hoping to play with something, rather than struggle with it).

Is there a secret to easy-to-follow instructions? Not really — though it helps if the product is designed in such a way that lots and lots of instructions aren’t necessary. Beyond that, it’s great if the company (1) offers very brief and clear instructions just to help you get started (a “Getting Started” guide, with big type and a friendly design), and (2) provides more detailed instructions online or in a separate guide or manual.

Photography, Writing

Book recommendation: “Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books”

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I’ve been struggling with e-books lately. I keep thinking I should go ahead and join the e-book revolution, just as I have with music and photography and so much else, but I just can’t get into it. I have read e-books, but I still prefer traditional, printed books, for any number of reasons. Certainly one of them is their beauty as objects. That’s one of the reasons I love Leah Price’s book “Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books.” This is a beautiful book, and it’s about, in part, the beauty of books, and the writers who love them. The book puts the spotlight on the personal libraries of 13 novelists, with close-up photos of their shelves. Why do I love (printed) books? This book says it all.