Sunday, June 28, 2015


To complete my complement, on all platforms, of markdown-based editors with folding, I have also purchased Editorial. This application turns my old iPad 2 into quite a powerful editing program. Like Haroopad and Smartdown, it allows me to pull things from Dropbox, edit the markdown files, then send or save them as plain text, HTML, and even PDF. All of them share a design aesthetic I like: very clean, very similar in function. Editorial also has a very handy touchscreen way to drag paragraphs around. Until now, on the iPad, I really haven't seen anything that did quite everything I wanted. Editorial's basic functions are clear and powerful; the built in Python scripting could scale to very complex things. But I don't need to go there, yet.

So now that I'm done tinkering with my tools, and have established a master file on Dropbox available from Windows, Linux, and iOS, all I have to do is write.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Smartdown and Haroopad, revisited

I've written twice now about the Windows application Smartdown (a Mac version is also available now). It's a markdown editor that includes code "folding" -- the ability to hide or "collapse" text under a heading. It is also "Zenware" -- software that adheres to a simple, stripped down aesthetic. It sells for $20 from Aflava. When I was on my writer retreat, I decided to buy it, first because it's a fine tool, second because good programmers should be paid. Smartdown is a pleasure to use, although I did have to reach out to support to figure out how to change its "save to panel" properties, instead of the more common minimize behavior. Smartdown can also be stored on a flash drive to make a portable application. I found it ideal for working with a long, chapter-length file, collapsing and expanding the sections to track the flow of it.

On my Linux box (a recycled ThinkCentre PC running LXLE) I already had HarooPad, which is free, but I sent them a donation, too. It too is a minimalist markdown editor with folding. It isn't quite as polished as Smartdown. In particular, HarooPad lacks spellcheck. But it offers GitHub markdown, which means it does Tasks - nice for a floating window with a list of things to be done for the day, and which allows for the satisfying ability to check them off as done. HarooPad runs on Windows, the Mac, and Linux, which is a rarity.

Smartdown and Haroopad both are light, easy-to-learn and easy-to-use software. Writers could live within either application for much of their work.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

New rhythms, new mistakes

First, I want to thank my good friend and colleague Claudine Perrault for letting me have a mountain retreat for 5 days to work on my book. She and her daughter were vacationing, and Estes Park (where Claudine is library director) is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. I wound up writing a little over 8,000 words, which was mostly one full chapter. But I also had a chance to think about the whole structure and audience of it.

I returned to three things: first, I'm stepping in to fill out Kari May's term as Past-President of the Colorado Association of Libraries. Kari is moving to Utah to become the Assistant Director of the state library there, overseeing Continuing Education and certification. Past-president is the best job of all. CAL seems to be recovering from its recession challenges, and there's a lot of energy in the group. As part of my position, it seems I'm also to be chair of the Colorado Library Educational Foundation or CLEF. Stay tuned for more about that.

Second, I'm doing some prep work for the latest theme in my professional speaking. There are a lot of leadership development groups out there. I've spoken in Illinois, Minnesota, and will soon be in Illinois again to a new generation of leaders. I like this generation a lot, and find myself intrigued about the idea of emphasizing true leadership as they begin their managerial careers.

Third (and related), I find that I'm doing a fair amount of executive coaching lately. In essence, I have a monthly, one hour call (often Skype or Google Chat) with people, typically first time directors or senior staff. I ask them to give me a one page list of their key goals - what they want out of the relationship. If they have particular issues they are dealing with, we talk about that. If not, I have questions designed to help them achieve their goals. At the end of each session, I summarize what I talked about, and send them a bill. That gives them a record of their issues, and an outline of their progress. I've now worked with about 7 directors, and find that almost everybody "graduates" by the end of the year. Then we're just colleagues, and I find myself very invested in their success. But it's that first year that's so important.

Mostly, I find, my advice is about identifying clear systems for managing relationships. Directors have a lot of stakeholders: board, staff, community, professional colleagues. And let's toss in another one: your relationship with yourself. When thing go wrong, it's usually because people stopped paying attention to one of these areas. As a coach (and very occasionally, a consultant) I can draw from my own vast experience in making mistakes to steer somebody away from the important ones. New mistakes - that's my motto. Don't just repeat somebody else's, especially if they're around to tell you about them.

Throughout my own career, I became always more conscious of organizational development issues. There are predictable crisis points, there are predictable rhythms of looking out and looking in, of breaking out of stagnancy, then exploration, then systematic organization of discoveries, then breaking out again. What's interesting to me is that the more I think about these things, the more I realize that they aren't unique to libraries. They apply, I think, to any human enterprise.

At any rate, I'm finding that my original desire to leave Douglas County Libraries, which was to move from living and testing values to something that's more like teaching and imparting them, still holds true. I have been very fortunate in my life to enjoy some success, and now get great pleasure from moving others along their careers more consciously and more quickly than I managed to.

So if you're starting a new job, and want a sympathetic ear, give me a call.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Self-interest versus the common good

I've been working on my next book, tentatively titled "The Public Library and the Public Good: A Renaissance." Here's the kernel of my idea.

There are two arguments for the public library: what's in it for me, and what's in it for us. That is, we justify support for an institution on the grounds of self-interest, or on the grounds of the common good.

You can't help but be struck by the language used during the public library movement of the 1880s. Libraries were founded for clear social purposes. They were intended to acculturate and Americanize a new wave of immigrants. They were meant to reform the rowdy miners and common laborers through exposure to Great Literature. They were designed to inform the citizen on the issues of the day, the better to advance an enlightened democracy. They were conceived to give tangible evidence of civilization, of a town or community that was now grown up enough to invest in serious pursuits. 

The public library, like public education, was a responsibility to society, and to the future. It had solid support from business and civic leader alike.

But that language is all but forgotten now. Since the 1960s, no institution has escaped the relentless question: "what do I get out of it?" And if the answer is "nothing immediate," then the follow-up question is, "then why should I have to pay for it?" Or as Homer Simpson complained after being informed that a deep fat frying machine could cook a whole cow in 9 seconds: "But I wanted it now!"

Investment in institutions is by definition long term. There may be, there must be, many projects that have closer horizons. But successful enterprises have to think beyond the moment. They have to anticipate shifts in the environment, some of which may not be obvious.

The challenge, of course, is getting people now conditioned to think of just-in-time production to pay for something they may not need for a decade, but when they do, the markets won't be able to provide, or the public won't be able to afford. The institution of the public library is one of the underground aquifers, a wellspring from which tomorrow's water is fed. It is time to acknowledge and cherish that wellspring.

Of course, the public library has solid and powerful responses to both challenges: a host of Return on Investment studies across the country have shown that libraries reliably return between $5 and $8 on every tax dollar in immediate services. This is quite apart from our yeoman's work in, for instance, helping people find work or create new businesses.

We also, over the long term, nurture the young minds and hearts who will build the society after ours. And now we shift from the language of business to the language of human development.

Both arguments are necessary. But while many librarians have now learned to speak the language of self-interest, we have fallen out of practice in conveying the importance of the public good. Yet libraries are one of the few, remaining institutions people that people trust. Thus it is urgent that we step up to the challenge, reclaim our legacy as the foundation of community and society, and lead a renaissance. In a time when corporations are people and the government is the enemy, we must reclaim a moral pride in institutions that know their value, and demonstrate their worth.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Are libraries socialist?

In the very conservative Douglas County, Colorado, people sometimes told me, angrily, that the library was "socialist." That's libertarian shorthand for "an unnecessary program that steals my money through taxes." But we won't get very far if we allow those opposed to our aims to define our terms.

First, as I hope to make clear (in the book I'm working on), libraries are not only important, but a staggering return on investment. And taxation is not theft; it is a well-tested mechanism for a people to pay for essential services that don't easily lend themselves to short-term profit (think public roads, sanitation, court systems, etc.).

Second, a more precise definition of socialism is "a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies." Typically, socialism requires both the "production and distribution of goods" to be managed by the government.

By this definition, there are ways in which the label does apply: the assets of the public library are in fact collectively held; they belong not to one person, but to the larger community. Further, the public library (in the United States of America) is typically a unit of government, either municipal, county, or (in the case of "district libraries,") subdivisions of the state. Public libraries are publicly accountable, and "equal access to all" is the point. So the distribution of goods is also shared.

But there is a fundamental way in which the library is not socialist: the production of goods. While some libraries do indeed produce books (a trend that will grow), and it could be argued that the provision of public space and programs is often "produced" by library staff, the overwhelming stock of the library is and will continue to be produced by others: mainly individuals, but also (as in newspapers, magazines, and electronic resources) by corporations. The public sector invests in the private; the private sector (through taxes and philanthropy) invests in the public.

All economies are a mix of capitalism and socialism. So the library is both socialist and non-socialist. And while that truth may trouble some uncompromising libertarians, most people are more concerned with the efficacy and value of an institution than its ideological purity.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

So You Want to Write a Book: a 10 step program

A year or so ago, I wrote a series of blog entries about how would-be authors can get started at the library. These were on the Douglas County Libraries' "The Wire." When that blog was discontinued, I decided to republish the content here. Thanks to Amber DeBerry, Director of Community Relations, for passing the content along, and for her staff for many suggestions for improvement of the text.

So You Want to Write a Book

So you want to write a book. Good for you!

Do you want to write a good one?

We know from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers (Little, Brown and Co., 2008) that accomplishment is more than a matter of talent. It's the result of disciplined effort over time. No one picks up an instrument and plays it perfectly the first time. Similarly, no one sits down and cranks out fine literature right off the bat. Just as musicians spend a lot of time practicing, good writers spend a lot of time writing. And if Gladwell is right, approaching mastery takes a good 10,000 hours. So start writing!

But just as it won't help a would-be musician to start banging away at piano without any instruction, there's more to good writing than aimless hours at a word processor. The idea is to be both thoughtful and disciplined about it. That means to start with good examples, with expert coaching, regular, informed criticism, and even more writing.

Step One: Read

It's hard to become a successful writer if you're not a reader. Reading as a writer falls into two categories.

First, read the kind of book you'd like to write. In So You Want to Write: How to Master the Craft of Writing Fiction and Memoir, by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood (The Leapfrog Press, 2010), the authors urge, “If you want to write a memoir, read memoirs. If you want to write science fiction, read science fiction…The best books you can read on how to write are books that are in the genre in which you want to write.” Librarians can help you find the right books for your kind of writing.

Second, read books, magazines and websites about writing. Entering “write,” “writing” or “write a book” in the keyword search field of your local library catalog will return many titles meant to help you get started, refine your writing, finish your book, and even publish and market it. 

Step Two: Think about It

In 1957, Dr. Seuss and Random House published The Cat in the Hat. The book not only changed the Dick-and-Jane landscape of reading primers, but the way children’s book authors learned to write, says Laura Backes in her essay, “What Dr. Seuss Can Teach Us” (The New Writer's Handbook 2007: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft & Career, edited by Philip Martin, Scarletta Press, 2007). “Instead of telling a thin story based on a simple, everyday incident, Seuss packed the plot with action that escalated on every page. Rather than relying on one-note characters, he populated his book with quirky, complex and surprising personalities that didn’t always cooperate with one another, thus creating tension and conflict,” writes Backes.

When you find the books you love, start analyzing them. What's the structure of the book? What techniques did the author use? If writing fiction, how does a fine writer manage plot, character, dialog or pacing? Read and re-read until you start to get a glimmer of just how the author achieved whatever you admire.

Step Three: Try It Yourself

Try your hand at re-creating the effects you like. Start small, but hold yourself to it. Some wonderful books—big books, even—were written a couple of pages at a time, at maybe 250-500 words a day. But they were written every day, not just when the muse struck. According to Priscilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life (Wallingford Press, 2010), “Writing every day is the key to becoming a writer. Writing every day is the key to remaining a writer. It is the only secret, the only trick. Don’t despise the fifteen-minute write.” Set a schedule, and stick to it.

Step Four: Share

The first time you read your work aloud to a good writer's workshop, it can be brutal and deflating. What seemed funny and original comes across as muddled and clich├ęd, the work of an amateur. That's because in all likelihood, at least at the beginning, it will be.

To move from amateur to professional you have to learn to seek and receive professional criticism, then apply those lessons to your work. The point isn't to squash your own unique perspective. The point is to learn the craft, to make your work deliver the message or feelings or information you intend it to. Athletes have coaches, musicians have teachers, and writers have each other.Feel free to shop around. But don't look for a group that just praises you no matter what you write. You want informed and expert review from groups that are as serious about getting better as you are; people who will encourage you, but not coddle you.

Step Five: Keep Writing

If you're looking to put in 30 days of writing and launch a bestseller, think again. But while you're thinking, keep writing. In A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words that Work, Jack Hart says, “The happiest, most productive writers approach their rough drafts as a literary version of Mr. Hyde. They cast civilized restraint aside, letting an uninhibited process of creation carry them quickly through the first version of the story. They don’t stop. They don’t revise. They don’t look back.”

Step Six: Re-Write

Hart continues, “Only when they’re finished with the draft do they slip back into a Dr. Jekyll persona. Then they sweat each detail, checking facts for accuracy, revising sentences for rhythm, and scrutinizing words for precise meaning.” Good, productive writers learn to re-write. Every piece of writing can be improved. Some people edit each line a hundred times before they go on. The best writers take the time to polish their work.

Step Seven: Put Yourself Out There

If your book isn’t done, but is still a work in progress, seek other ways to find an audience. Look for speaking engagements, conferences and workshop opportunities. Particularly for nonfiction, but also for fiction set in a particular venue or period, you may find yourself becoming an expert in a particular subject. That, in turn, may present an opportunity to expose your work to interested groups who just might want to buy a book on it. Submit your stories to magazines and websites, or start a blog on a nonfiction topic. If you get stuck on a book, see if you can mine some of it for short stories, articles or blog posts. If nothing else, you might get some feedback telling you how you’re doing. Or an editor might see something in your work and reach out to you, maybe with a contract for something else. Nina Amir, author of How to Blog a Book: Write, Publish, and Promote Your Work One Post at a Time (F&W Media, 2012), recommends blogging as a way to both accomplish the writing of a book and to market the finished product to a built-in audience. She writes, “Blogs constitute one of the best ways today to build the coveted writer’s platform. A blog read by thousands of people each month goes a long way toward impressing a publisher or selling your independently published book.”

Step Eight: Consider Your Options

At some point, when your book is approaching "done," you need to consider your alternatives. Traditional publishing has some pretty clearly defined steps: tracking down who is looking for new content of a particular kind, writing a letter of inquiry and/or book proposal, and finding an agent or publisher. Self-publishing is another option. The library can help with this research, by providing print and electronic information, and also through our programs and workshops.

Step Nine: Be Professional

If you go the traditional publishing route, do your research about the reputation of the company, contracts and costs. If you opt to self-publish, be willing to accord other professionals the same respect you want as a writer. That is, copy-editing is also a profession, and every writer needs good editing. Creating an eye-catching book cover is also a serious trade, and hiring a good graphic artist is money well spent. You may decide to do a print book, go digital or do both. Book design—the look of it on page or screen—is another craft. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel, by Tom Monteleone, assures that “The Least You Need to Know” is that “editors can help you make your novel better.” Whatever route you choose, take the time to get informed about whose help you will require, and the real costs associated with creating something you can be proud of.

Step Ten: Remember the Library

For many authors, writing the book is just the beginning. Today, there are more new titles hitting the market than at any time in human history. Now, the trick is to get noticed. There are a host of ways to do that, and groups that will help with marketing. Together, America's public libraries have millions and millions of visits, both online and in person. In both cases, people are looking for books. We hope that you'll consider donating at least one copy of your book to us. Many libraries now offer the ability to buy a book right from the catalog. Libraries also offer author events, book signings, and workshops. You'll meet potential readers, other writers, and will build a reputation.

Ultimately, the library is one of the records of human achievement. Help us celebrate your achievements. - Welcome

In November of 2018, I left my position at ALA in Chicago to return to my Colorado-based writing, speaking, and consulting career. So I'...