Four Reasons Not to Read “Go Set a Watchman”

The big deal lately is the release of “Go Set a Watchman”, by Harper Lee.  Described in various ways as a prequel, sequel, or something else, I haven’t read it yet.  But I have read a number of articles about it.  I can’t (and won’t judge) the novel from the reviews, but I have a recommendation on reading it: don’t.

Yes, this is the most anticipated new book since forever.  At least, that’s what the articles say, although if it beats out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on pre-sales, I’d be surprised.  Still, for Harper Lee’s sake, don’t read it.

How come?

Well, the story of how the novel came to light is a bit murky, and her lawyer seems to be making up the story as she goes along.  Maybe there’s even a third book by Lee hiding out there (or in that incredibly large but strangely unexamined safety deposit box).  Maybe even a fourth.  However, there seems to be no question that Lee wrote the book (at least not yet), so I’m going to proceed with the assumption that she did.  Still – don’t read it.

It all comes down to this.  The author did not present “Go Set a Watchman” to the world as a work of art.  If I’ve got the story right, she presented it to a publishing house, got some feedback, and ended up producing “To Kill a Mockingbird” instead.  The original book was buried, and despite the phenomenal long-term popularity of the book and considerable pressure to produce another one, Lee never dusted off the original and sent it back to a publisher.  Lee is still alive, but from what I’ve read, she’s mentally not all there.  There’s no indication that she’s given any kind of informed approval to the release of this book.

To me, this says the author knew it wasn’t what she wanted to give the public.  I’m not saying she knew it was no good – it just wasn’t what she wanted to be known for.

When an artist in any media holds back something from the public – especially in this media-satiated epoch – I say bravo.  I say they had good reason and they’re entitled to keep it buried.

J.D. Salinger, one of my favorite writers, is also considered by some to be another one-hit wonder novelist (although his three books of short stories and novellas give us more of a canon to work with).  For years he was pressured to permit his complete backlog of short stories to be collected and published.  For years there were rumors that he had two, three, or a whole shelf full of novels ready to dump on the drooling public.  He refused to let his stories be collected, and years after his death, no posthumous novels have been scaling the best-seller lists.  Salinger was clearly satisfied with the body of work he was known for.  He even sued a biographer publishing a book with a number of his letters in it (and he won, too).

Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t at least take a peek at any new Salinger works that came to light.  I probably couldn’t help myself.  But I rather suspect that was all just wishful thinking.

And those uncollected stories?  I found a bootleg publication in the Special Collections at Northwestern’s library when I was a student there.  All of Salinger’s early fiction neatly assembled in a couple of volumes in a box.  I read them all.  You know what?  One or two were amusing, but nothing was up to the standard his audience came to know him for.  I think Salinger knew that.

It’s always possible that Salinger wanted to write more – or more precisely, to publish more.  Maybe he didn’t because he had far more fame than he wanted from what he’d written, and didn’t want to make it any worse.

Who knows – maybe Harper Lee felt the same way.  She was said to be as private a person as Salinger, and maybe it was the fear of fame that kept her from putting out anything else.

On the other hand, I say she hit a home run at her first at bat, and decided to go out a winner.  Let’s let her do that.  Don’t read “Go Set a Watchman”.


An Affliction of Inspiration

I’ve written over 40 books, but curiously, I have never actually written any about what I actually do for a living.  I did write one novel, “Best Judgment”, which was about business and used many stories and jokes I have picked up over the years, but I’ve never sat down and actually written about the day to day work I do.

I’ve had ideas for it, but nothing ever came from those.

However, a couple of weeks ago I was stricken with an affliction of inspiration.  An idea completely clicked in my head, and a book outline fell into place in mere minutes.

The idea comes from something I’ve been playing around with at work lately.  Technically, I’m a project manager.  However, in many circumstances, a project manager is a very administrative person.  They create and manage work plans, manage lists of risk and issues, and act (as I call it) as a professional nag.  Get that done yet?  When will you have it done?  How’s it going?

Over the last few months, I’d really reformed the notion of project management into the idea of project leadership.  That label isn’t new: my last company used it to group project and program management together, although I’m not sure anything more was meant by it.

My contribution to it was to define project leadership as something more than project management.  If you just want an administrator for your project, you probably don’t want (or need) someone with the experience of myself or most of my colleagues.  If you want someone who will own the activities to deliver a project, and actually care about what the project outcome, then you want a project leader.

I’ve written some slideware on the topic for a couple of presentations, but I’ve still been noodling over what else to do with it.  I’d like to develop the concept within the firm I work with, defining the work we do as project leadership.  That should help drive the model of how we hire people and how we approach our work.  Still, this was not yet an inspiration.

Then the inspiration hit.  I’d write it as a book (not a PowerPoint deck), and I could encompass a lot of my own experiences and theories into it.  I’ve since leapt into that and have written roughly half of it so far (5 out of 12 chapters drafted, about 22000 words).

Of course, this will fall very much in the zone of a business self-help book, a category about which I am notably snarky.  Hopefully I’m being realistic about my snark when I write this.  That will also be the big test.  I’m planning to give draft copies of this to some colleagues, and that’s when you ask the big question: I’ve just spent all this time to write a book; now, is it going to be interesting to anyone?

In my dreams, this helps launch a new phase of my career.  I’m not quite ready to set off as a Stephen Covey-like career as a public speaker.  Maybe I could do it in a small way.

My day dreams quickly founder on the rocks of a sad reality in the business self-help industry.  I need a catchy name.  Something inspirational, something pithy.  Something that gets right to the point.

My wife pointed out that I also need a self-assessment questionnaire.  All the best books have those.  I’m still thinking about that.

Back to the name.  The working title of my book has been “Old Wombat’s Guide to Project Leadership”, which is boring and distractingly quirky at the same time.  I’ve put together several other books under my personal brand of Old Wombat’s (“Old Wombat’s Concise History of the World” and “Old Wombat’s Law for Junior Wombats”) but I wasn’t necessarily putting my professional identity behind those books.  Another name is absolutely critical.

Luckily, on Friday night I went to a rock concert.  We saw Guster at the Riviera Theater.  I can’t even remember what song they were playing, but one word suddenly jumped out at me: believe.

I reached my catchy name in a moment: Project Believer.  It fits completely.  A major part of my ideas around project leadership is essentially a matter of positive attitude, constructive contributions, and so on.  You have the believe in the project you’re working on.

I haven’t decided how to completely work this in, yet.  I’m not sure I want to replace “project leader” everywhere it appears in the 100 pages I’ve written so far.  I might just talk about project leadership as a step towards being a Project Believer.

Anyway, there it is – the affliction of inspiration leading to “Project Leader to Project Believer”!  Coming to online bookstores and project management seminars soon!

How Much Time Do You Have?

“People often ask me…”

That’s a standard start to many stand-up monologues, blogs, and newspaper columns.  I’d like to say that I’ve got a whole list of questions people often ask me about my writing.  But that would be wrong.  There’s no list.

There’s only one question: how do you find time to write so much?

People are astonished that I’ve not just written a novel, but that I’ve written a whole shelf-full.  I think there’s a gigantic mystique about it.  Now, I don’t want to completely dispel the myths that to write a novel requires focus, determination, wisdom, grit, blah, blah, blah –

No, I don’t want to dispel those myths, because people are impressed when you show them a novel you’ve written, and I’m happy to ride that horse as long as I can.  I get comments expressing how unaccomplished people feel by comparison.  But you shouldn’t you believe that such an accomplishment – or any similar one – is outside of your grasp.  It all depends on how you spend your time.

So, you think you don’t have time?  Check out these figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The average employed person aged 25 to 54 (with a child in the household) has 4.2 hours “free” – combining leisure and sports (2.5 hours) and other (1.7 hours).  Now, the average person in this study clearly doesn’t work in Chicago, because only 8.7 hours a day is allocated for working and related activities, and I don’t see a category for the two hours of daily commuting.  All right – let’s assume that “other” category is for “driving all over the place to do stuff”.  That leaves 2.5 hours for leisure and sports.  Even figuring that there’s no more than 2.5 hours a day in that category on Saturday and Sunday, that’s still 912.5 hours a year.

As Woody Allen, says, 90% of life is showing up: there’s over 900 hours a year right there for showing up to write, paint, fly fish, line dance, or play the accordion.

Okay, great, you say.  Even agreeing that you won’t argue over the TV watching time or time spent at the gym, is 900 hours a year really enough to accomplish anything with?  Well, if you work full-time you spend roughly 2000 hours a year at work.  Get anything done?

But a novel’s different!  Or playing the piano.  Or synchronized swimming.

Perhaps not.  First of all, we’re not necessarily assuming that you’re doing any of these things well enough to get paid for them.  I’ve written plenty of novels, and my lifetime earnings from writing totals a whopping $350.  Clearly I’m motivated by something else, and hopefully you would be, too.

So how long does it take to write a novel?  Is 900 hours enough?  Let’s assume you can type 50 words a minute, and the novel you’ve dreamed of writing is 50,000 words (the standard benchmark for something being a novel and not something else).  That’s 1000 minutes, or a mere 17 hours.  All right, you’re a lousy typist: we’ll double that to 35 hours.  Now, you probably spent a bit of time organizing your thoughts before you cranked up the word processor, and I’ll generously say that’s about 50% of the writing time.  Now we’re at 50 hours or so.

What about editing? you whine.

Forget about the editing.  You’re trying to get a first draft done, not get published.  That’s the mantra of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  In NaNoWriMo, the idea is simply to get to 50,000 words written in a calendar month, whether or not anyone would ever want to read them, and you can see that – with a little effort – you should be able to put in 50 hours in November.

The point is not that you’re going to write the Great American Novel or the next book Oprah talks about.  The point is that you’re going to be able to show someone something and say, “Look at that!  I made that!”

There are books full of clichés and aphorisms along the lines of the longest task is the one never started.

And by the way, Jack Kerouac wrote “On the Road” in three weeks.  You think those romance novels at the grocery store took a year to write?  I don’t think so!

All right, you may grudgingly admit, I’ve got 50 hours lying around I could use to write a novel, and I’d be a better person for finishing some task longer than a level of Angry Birds.  But that 50-hour book just isn’t good enough!  I’m an overachiever!  I don’t just want to write 50,000 words, I want to write a novel that sparkles, soars, grips, entertains, and educates.  Where’s your 50 hours now?

That’s what the 900 hours are for.  And even that probably won’t be enough.

In “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell claims that it takes 10,000 hours of practice at a skill to achieve mastery.  That figure seems a little off-the-cuff, but he’s got some supporting evidence for it.  Anyway, whether that number is dead-on or not, the overall point has merit.  In his evaluation, you may not have natural talent for the skill you’re trying to master, but neither do a lot of people.  It just takes a lot of work to get there.

About 11 years of it, it sounds like.

I Do Not Think This Word Means What You Think It Means

If you work in business, you’re generally around people with college educations all day.  It’s a mistake, however, to assume that they’re all literate.

From my experience, I think of people who are speaking from the “MBA phrasebook” – basically, clichéd expressions that people use to sound forceful, knowledgeable, and hip.  You can particularly tell when someone’s using the phrasebook when they don’t use words correctly: they’ve heard the terms, but really don’t know what they mean.

One of my peeves is “walk the talk”, but it’s not the worst of the lot.  It started with expressions like “you can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk”.  In some case, it was “can you walk the talk”, meaning to follow through on your claims.  At this point, though, it’s almost always used badly and obscures meaning instead of providing it.

Another favorite is “home in on”, or as it’s often said, “hone in on”.  Again, if you don’t know what you’re saying, don’t say it!  The original expression is “home in on”, in the sense of a getting close to a target or destination.  “Hone” is just wrong.

Then there’s “coming down the pike”, often said as “coming down the pipe”.  A lot of people change “pike” to “pipe” because they have no idea what a pike is.  Ding!  MBA phrasebook in action!  The correct expression is “coming down the pike”, as in “coming down the road” (e.g., turnpike).

Besides confused expressions, some words are used to sound authoritative, but the speaker really isn’t thinking about what they’re saying.  “Fulsome” is a standard example, as its general meaning is offensive or insincere, but it sounds like it ought to mean complete.

Another MBA phrasebook mess-up is “contingent” and “contingency”.  The problem here is that the two words have collectively three meanings that are really useful in business, but people can’t get straight which form of the word they want.  Quick primer: “contingent” as a noun means a group, “contingent” as an adjective means dependent on something uncertain or unknown; and “contingency” is something which might happen.

I’ve just given up on the word “decimate”.  Consider that one surrendered to the phrasebook.

Not necessarily mis-used, but a pet peeve of mine anyway, is the word “acceptable”, as in “this is unacceptable!”  It’s usually applied in cases where unfortunate or undesired events have taken place and are now in the past: there’s really nothing to be done about them but pick up the pieces and make a new plan.  So, frankly, the event is necessarily acceptable.  The time to use it would have been earlier, when warning an unfortunate underling or hireling about career consequences:

Example: “This contingency is completely unacceptable!”

One of my favorite moments in business came when I was with a colleague doing a presentation, and he liked to use the expression “bottom line” all the time.  He intended to stress that what he was talking about was what was really important.  Then, after using this about six times, he got to a point where he was referring to a cost figure that was – you guessed it – the very bottom line of the page!  He paused, recognizing (I like to think) of how absurd this was, and then went ahead and said it anyway.

Of course, while a lot of clichés and words can be identified in their mis-use, sometimes the speaker is ahead of you.  I was working with a certain international express delivery company whose headquarters were generally in the southern part of the United States, and in one meaning, a local gentleman pointed out, “The dog’s got to eat the dog food!”  The rest of us sort of stared at him, unsure of what it was he meant.  Later experience suggested that, far from being the meaningless cornpone wisdom I assumed it was, it was actually a cliché fresh enough to warrant a certain amount of use.  Working for a major software company located roughly in the Seattle metropolitan area, I found it common for people to speak of “dogfooding”.  This was the idea that a company that made software should be confident enough in it to use it themselves, so most projects had a “dogfood” phase.  The explanation I got was that if you’re running a factory making dog food, and dogs won’t eat it, it’s not really dog food; hence, “the dog’s got to eat the dog food”.

Chapbooks for the 21st Century

So, who out there knows what a chapbook is?  Raise your hands – don’t be shy!  I’m not seeing many hands up…

Permit me to enlighten you, then.  It’s my pleasure.  No, really – it is my pleasure!

Chapbooks basically vanished from popular culture around the mid-19th century.  They were the grocery store tabloid of their time: they usually were made up of poems, ballads, and badly written popular fiction and history.  Think “National Enquirer” without the fact-checking and high journalistic standards.  Besides the Bible, they often the only written material people in rural areas could ever get their hands on, and so were a considerable influence on popular culture.

Well you might say, gosh, we don’t need more cheaply produced popular entertainment around here.  We’ve got plenty of the expensive kind!

How true.  However, the point here is not to reproduce the content, but take a concept and see what we can do with it, meeting modern needs and using modern means.

A rough equivalent of the chapbook existed in the Soviet Union: samizdat.  Samizdat was self-written, self-published material, covering themes such as literature, poetry, politics, and religion.  The quality of the physical product was about that of chapbooks: bad printing, bad binding, lots of typographical errors, and bad illustrations.  However, the medium avoided official censorship and was a significant way to communicate among the artistic elite.

Like chapbooks, samizdat (and its relatives in other repressive regimes) was a product of its place and time.  What our own place and time have given us is the opportunity to reinvent the concept for our own purposes.

Image goes wavy as we move to the flashback scene

A bunch of years ago I got back into writing.  I’d done a lot of fiction writing in college and right after it and then given it up.  I was convinced I wasn’t going to ever be published, and I had also come to the conclusion that I wasn’t all that good a writer.  Years passed, and I came to an idea for a novel that I simply had to write.  The result was “The Last Great Act of Defiance”.  After showing it to a select and highly biased audience, I decided to share it with some other friends and family.  However, even as short a novel as this cost something close to $50 to photocopy.  Then I discovered print on demand.

Print on demand services produce a bookstore-quality book at a bookstore price.  I’m referring to the physical product there: if you want help on the content, that’s an extra fee.  (No seriously – the service I use offers editorial and marketing services at a cost.)  They also offer a web page for sales, and now, with some effort, you can get your book linked to websites like Amazon.  For example, here’s my latest book’s entry on Amazon.  I’m not doing any real marketing, so it’s not like this placement is turning my book into a best-seller, but it’s still out there.

Now, you might come to the conclusion that this is just Pinterest and Etsy for frustrated authors and poets.  Maybe you’re not a writer, or maybe you think there’s no point in being a writer if you’re not published so that people can find your books in a bookstore, so where’s the so what?

Here’s where it’s time to open your mind to the possibilities.

Don’t think of books.  Don’t think of three hundred pages of highly edited, well-thought out and structured content.

Think of anything you’d want to have all in one place.  It could be all your favorite poems.  Lyrics to favorite songs.  Links to your favorite YouTube videos.  Meaningful magazine articles.  Every poem your daughter ever wrote, organized chronologically.  Your diary or journal entries.  Your blog articles.

Just as MP3 players let us create our own albums (a.k.a., playlists), you can create your own anthology or reference book.  Always wondering what book had that great line you always want to quote?  There’s your answer.

You don’t even need to create physical books.  I believe sales of e-books surpassed sales of physical books in the United States a couple of years ago, which suggests that we’re all pretty much walking around with some form of e-reader.  You can use print on demand to create e-books, or you can go simpler and make PDF files.  If you’re the only audience, you can use OneNote, Evernote, Word, Google Docs – whatever you want to collect your thoughts in.

You can keep it to yourself or share it.  I’ve assembled my favorite poems, articles, and so on into two volumes (so far), conveniently accessible on my local e-reader device.  You do have to be mindful if you want to share, however.  “Fair use” only goes so far: you can’t sell works that someone else copyrighted!