Category Archives: Introduction

Everyone’s A Storyteller

Chances are good that if you’re here, you tell stories all the time. If you don’t think you do, you might think differently in a moment.

Stories are, hands-down, the best way to communicate information in a way that’s engaging and relevant.  Whether you’re trying to make friends at the bar or land that huge account, science proves the benefit of being a good storyteller.

Wired for the Narrative

Before we could print and bind books, the human race gathered around campfires to relate how we killed that lion, or how an unexpected turn in our daily walk led to a new patch of berries. Hearing about someone else’s actions and descriptions lights up our brain in a way that naked facts can’t (more info here if you’re interested).  A full narrative has a beginning, middle, and end. When we recognize the beginning of a narrative, our brains jump on board. If the storyteller advances the narrative in a competent, coherent fashion, we’ll stick with him/her to the end.

I wrote two introductory posts for this blog. One is a brief hello and what I intend for the future of this blog. The other is a story about how I came to be here, and the transition I’ll be making toward more serious writing. Which one’s more compelling? In the first one, Ellis is yet another hopeful would-be author/blogger who wants to do the author/blogger thing- whatever. In the second, Ellis is presenting her unique history and baring large, bloody chunks of her heart (eww- she should probably put those back).

Stories humanize the storyteller.  He/She becomes interesting and relatable, rather than a spewer of words I should probably pay attention to, but… ugh, if this is all in the PowerPoint, I’m just gonna read that.

See the Hidden Stories

Salesmen, marketers, propagandists, and politicians already know how well humans respond to stories. They spin profound tales to influence your behavior, oftentimes without it being explicit. Many of the most infamous ads ever made tell stories- about the noble savage who mourns the destruction of America’s landscape; about an innocent girl vaporized in nuclear holocaust, because her parents voted for Barry Goldwater. Think of the puppy who grows up before our eyes, strong and happy, on the right dog food; or the family Christmas that isn’t complete until a gift-wrapped luxury automobile rolls down the snow-covered driveway.  (The story ends before the years of crushing car payments begin.)

It isn’t all cynical, though. Consider customer testimonials and product reviews. Someone tries something, has a positive or negative experience, and relates his/her story. Sure, it’s nice to get a description of features from a manufacturer, but we feel much better about buying or passing when informed with the experience of others.

It’s Your Turn

What about you, storyteller?  How can/have you put stories to work in your own life? Blog posts, presentations, lectures- they’re all more effective when information is presented as a narrative. Real-life examples are doubly good for showing how  concepts shake out in the wild.  But hey, if you can’t provide the real deal, fiction sells too. Here’s how far too many Computer Science lectures start:

“Today we’re going to talk about queues, a very important data type.”

You can already feel yourself slumping in your chair. Out comes your smartphone for some serious Angry Birding.

How could we make this better? Wake up those eager young minds with a story.

“Our friend Bob just got hired at one of ConMusicCo’s brick and mortar stores.  He’s working in the IT department, but had to spend a few days on the storeroom floor for orientation.  The one thing that stuck with him was all the grumbling customers standing in huge checkout lines.  The store has five cashier lanes and room to add more, but management’s reluctant to do so, claiming customer wait times aren’t a problem…”

You’re just dying to know how Bob comes to the rescue with his amazing programming powers, aren’t you? OK, so it’s not “Who shot JR” levels of suspense, but it beats the heck out of learning about queues in a vacuum.  It’s even more engaging if the lecturer involves the students in telling the story.  They can work together to help Bob build a software program to model customer wait times with and without additional checkout lanes.  By the end, management gets a clue, the story has a happy ending, and the students have an idea of the queue datatype’s advantages and limitations.

The Point

Storytelling isn’t just for word-jockeys with their heads in the clouds (like me). We all respond to stories, we all tell them. People who are really good at it deserve respect.  Applied in the right ways and times, their powers can comfort, inspire generations, or change the course of history. If you’re only an occasional dabbler, get better at recognizing and telling stories.  It could make a huge difference to your career, wallet, and life in general.

Feel free to comment and introduce yourself. What kind of stories do you tell?

Hello World 2.0 – At the Edge, Staring Up

(Picture I took at the top of Mt. Evans, Colorado – June 2012)

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ellis. Sort of.  “Ellis” wasn’t her real name, but let’s overlook that for now.  Ellis was encouraged to do well in school so she could get a degree and a high-paying job, so she tore through 7th to 12th grade earning As in every class.  This was good, because it earned her a full ride to a nice university.  This was bad, because amid all that memorizing and studying, Ellis never figured out what kind of adult she wanted to be.

The elders in her life nudged her toward Computer Science, a field that was sure to be in huge demand.  It took a whole semester to figure out what the hell she was doing, but after that, she liked programming.  It just wasn’t something that excited her.  She never lost herself in loops and case statements for hours on end, the way she lost herself in stories or sketches.  Her programs behaved properly, but weren’t elegant.  Her brain shut down in protest any time she even peeked at advanced problems in algorithms.

Four years later, Ellis earned a Computer Science degree… and the knowledge that she didn’t want to be a full-time developer.

An office job seemed the only way to go, though- something to do for eight hours, then off to peace and freedom and a big paycheck.  It seemed even better than school, because there’d be no homework or studying.  The ample nights and weekends would be Ellis’ “real life” full of fun stuff, like the hobbies she hadn’t fully abandoned in college- story-writing, drawing, etc.

That theory worked, for a little while. Ellis progressed through a string of jobs, occasionally switching up locations as well. Most of the time, the next new job came from a positive recommendation, for which Ellis was always grateful. Truthfully, though, she accepted each position more for the fact that it was there and paid more money than for the prospect of something fulfilling and enriching. Her real life happened on nights and weekends, right? If she actually enjoyed herself at work, that was just a happy accident.

As the years flew by, Ellis’ resume filled up with things she understood but wasn’t passionate about. She also came to realize her theory was bullshit. More American employers were expecting 40 hours in the office and 24×7 attachment outside of it. She had to be on-call during off hours, and could get in trouble if she didn’t answer her phone. Plans to go out, vacation, even sleep became less a given and more an allowance to be yanked away at the company’s discretion. After a frustrating day, and the long hikes through the elements that formed her commute, she faced her evenings with the vigor of a frozen snail. Weekends vanished with increasing speed, and a dwindling sense of recovery from Friday to Monday.

Most of Ellis’ hobbies atrophied or became occasional pursuits- except for writing. For whatever reason, she refused to let that one go. It was her escape, a secret identity of sorts. Whenever possible, she loaded up on coffee and ground out prose. After a few years, she summoned the courage to find a writer’s group to trade feedback. She started writing for an IT humor site, and editing for a Purchasing blog. She even managed to sell her first hard sci-fi short story to a national magazine, in one try.

While it occasionally felt good to finish projects at work, these literary successes were more exciting. The only problem was, they had to remain secondary pursuits.

Did they, though?  Why?

Oh, lots of reasons.  I have a secure job and make a good living. Other people would kill to be where I am now. I have a chronic condition that requires medication- I need good health insurance. There are already a zillion writers. It has to stay a hobby, or I’ll start to hate it.  Besides, I’d never support myself that way. I’ll lose everything and be broke. Suck it up!

For a while, this was enough to scare her back into line.  Over time, though, it felt more and more like excuse-making designed to make her feel good about sitting back and coasting, not having to make any hard decisions.

What if I “suck it up” and stay put? It seemed reasonable she’d end up like the older people at work, who’d been coasting for twenty or thirty years. She had trouble relating to those people. On some level, they scared her. They had no identity outside of meetings, emails, more meetings, and make-work projects.  They put in unpaid hours without complaint- even during vacation, even when there was no emergency.  Despite unlimited sick days at their disposal, they soldiered into the office hacking and sniffling.  Having nothing else to be proud about, they were proud of their suffering. They said skin-crawling things like, “If I retired, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

Programmers are warned all the time about leaving variables undefined.  Ten years after graduating college, Ellis finally understood the danger of leaving herself undefined.  If she didn’t seize control of who she was, someone else would- again.

To her great fortune, she has some money saved up, and a supportive spouse and family behind her. She’s not jumping right now, but preparing for it- urging herself to focus on the beauty of the view and not the terror of the fall.

Hello world!

I don’t know where this adventure might take us. I do know we need to start stepping.  Writing won’t be secondary or tertiary in my life anymore.  However, there’s a time to bury my head in drafts, and there’s a time to open up and offer my experience to a huge community of folks on the same journey.

Some background: I’m an IT nerd who writes documentation and interfaces with customers via email on a regular basis. I’ve also been scribbling stories in notebooks and on laptops for more than half my life. I have experience with a broad spectrum of writing- from professional to silly, technical to fantastical. I can help you write killer documentation and killer fiction.  I’ve helped people ace job interviews, get their work published, and write blog posts that get them noticed.

I don’t just want to hand down tips from on high, though- teaching and learning should always be collaborative.  I want everyone to chime in, whether they agree or respectfully disagree (let’s keep flamewars to a minimum, shall we?).  My intention is to start with weekly posts discussing writing/publishing advice that’s helped me, along with advice that hasn’t helped, and hear from you on the same.  Similarly, we could talk about things we’re really good at (ex. imagery), things we’re not so good at (ex. fight scenes), and help each other out on those.  Finally, I might solicit you to share passages or works in progress if you want commentary from me and/or others.  If I’m feeling really brave, I might give you some of my WIPs to check out. These intentions may mutate drastically over time- we’ll see!

There’s very little I’m not open to discussing, but I will say right now that I have no experience with Romance or Adult material.  Some of the advice offered here may be general enough to still be of help to you, but please don’t expect any targeted discussions on those genres for now (maybe someday we’ll have regular blog visitors who can help with those).  My own fiction tends toward Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Humor, Mystery, Noir, and Western.  My non-fiction skills are in IT-related items like product documentation and instructions, as well as resumes and cover letters.

If you have a request for a future blog post topic, say so in the comments or email me!