Thursday, August 25, 2011

HNT - BookCampTO 2011

Last Saturday I attended BookCampTO 2011. BookCamp is an unconference - a conversation rather than a keynote. This means all attendees are potential presenters and expected participants. The best thing about this type of gathering (besides the collaborative conversations), is that everybody is welcome to attend. Writers, technologists, publishers, readers, editors, designers, book sellers, book buyers, printers, librarians … anyone who cares about books is welcome and encouraged to attend.

This makes for a well-rounded gathering of people who are passionate about our industry.

Session ideas for an unconference like this are typically born from a flexible series of suggestions for topic areas, with anyone welcome to submit comments, questions, ideas and content related to it. This helps provide some sort of basis for each of the sessions that are ultimately decided upon. Typically, one, two, three or more people are asked to help lead the discussion. But, again, rather than it being a lecture or one to many type of talk, it is meant to be a workshop setting, with session leaders guiding the discussion, inviting participation and trying to keep everyone on track.

I always love this type of collaboration, and I am particularly inspired by the enthusiasm, passion and willingness of people to share ideas. The best book industry events, in my opinion, are ones in which people come together to work at sharing and resolving challenges, rather than in a confrontational way. For the most part, the spirit of collaboration and sharing was evident. The schedule itself included five tracks with five sessions, with lots of great choices for things for people to participate in. Four of the five tracks were left completed un-scheduled, meaning it became the ultimate natural-discussion room, where hallway conversations could be worked into ad-lib workshops.

In a nutshell, the organizers, a small group of committed and passionate book industry professionals, along with the sponsors (a similar group) and the volunteers (yes, cut from the very same cloth as the two aforementioned groups) are to be commended for putting so much time, effort and energy into providing a fanastic opportunity for people from across our industry to come together.

I could write a review, but there are already great POV posts out there that cover #bcto11 (that was the Twitter hashtag - check that out that stream to see the types of discussion and commentary about the day) - there are also some great recaps about it at such places as Amy Reads, Bella's Bookshelves and Ben Dugas . . . a blog.

There's a phrase that Indigo used to use which I always admired that says: "The world needs more Canada" - I'll slightly modify that slogan into "The book world needs more opportunities for collaboration." Events like BookCampTO are definitely necessary in order to achieve that and overcome the challenges and hurdles we face as this industry continues to evolve and grow.

This week's HNT picture is one I found via It's a group shot taken from the hallway where many great conversations always occur at these types of events) and you can see my head in it. Think of it like an introductory "Where's Marko?" type of game. It's pretty easy to spot me, but with a little trick since I look a tiny bit different than my standard avatar - I'm sporting a smeckling of facial hair.

Group shot of BookCampTO from

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

You Don't Know Jack

Most of us didn't know Jack Layton personally. But that never stopped us from feeling like we did. That's just the way he was, continually presenting himself in a straightforward and honest manner. He was the kind of leader who easily blended in with the "everyman" mostly because, despite his role as a politician and the opposition leader of Canada, he was down to earth and humble.

Photo by Donald Weber/Getty Images News (2004)

Touted as the national party leader most Canadians would want to have a beer with (you can certainly put my name on that list), no matter which role he played, there was always the sense that he was genuine. Whether fighting for the less fortunate of the community, seeking out equal rights, conducting a local town hall or rallying the NDP party to a record-breaking victory, his convictions and integrity consistently shone through.

I remember first paying attention to him with the 2000 release of his book Homelessness: The Making And Unmaking of a Crisis. (I know, strange, isn't it, that a book nerd's first exposure to a long time political advocate didn't occur until said politician released a book) What I remembered most was the approach he took in this book and in the discussions he made when it was released. He gathered analysis, research and merged them with personal anecdotes, offering an understanding combined with proactive solutions. I remember admiring his approach and that's when his name stuck in my head. Except, of course, I was thinking he would continue to write books to inspire change for the better - little did I suspect he would continue to rise in the political arena.

But the approach in this book seemed to be his approach in many of the things he strongly believed and stood for. Well before his national role he continually took a firm stand for the rights of minority groups that the rest of society would rather have continued to shun. He was one of the few leaders who forged the path for attitudes to change in a progressive and positive fashion - and well before it was fashionable for a leader to do so.

When he moved from his role as Toronto city councilor and into the role of NDP party leader, he took his fight for the common person to whole new levels.

I have long admired Jack Layton's leadership and what he has stood for. Like so many Canadians I never had the privilege to know him personally, but that never stopped me from feeling like I did.

I remember bumping into him and his wife Olivia at Toronto's The Word On The Street a few years back.The two were walking hand in hand and enjoying the simple yet magical splash of book culture that WOTS brings to the city each year. And when I saw them and we exchanged a brief nod and smile, I had to remind myself that this wasn't that couple my wife and I have known for years and before this we had never met - despite the fact that that's exactly how it felt when I saw them.

Jack Layton left a legacy of that feeling in many hearts. He conducted himself with integrity, purpose and a wonderfully down to earth charm. He was the type of leader who could inspire and energize.

And in his last letter to Canadians, written just days before he passed away, he left Canadians with truly inspiring thoughts and words.

"Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one - a country of greater equality, justice and opportunity . . . consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don't let them tell you it can't be done.

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world."

Thank you, Mr. Layton. Thank you for showing us the importance of standing up for what you truly believe in. Thank you for your integrity, for putting the common person first, for rallying for community and family, and for reminding us of the importance of working together.

I only hope that we take heed and actually listen to this message.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

HNT - Just For Mark

I called my Mom the other day to tell her that she is now officially old.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because your son just used Just For Men on his beard." I said.

I did it mostly to give my beard a consisent colour. My beard has always varied between a red and dark brown colour, but lately 90% of my chin was pure greyish white, which made my van dyke beard (a combination of a goatee, which is just hair on your chin plus a moustache) look a little goofy - from more than a few feet away, the chin hair was so light and the rest of my beard was so dark it looked like I had one of those really long moustaches. It just bugged me.

My hair, after all, has long had streaks of grey in it and that has never bothered me. But this grey chin hair was just too unsettling.  So Fran picked me up a box of dark brown from Just for Men and in 5 minutes that grey was gone.

Interesting. Never thought I'd use a vanity product like that - but I was amazed at how simple and easy it was to use.

An interesting side-note. I'd been chatting with a buddy about beards lately and one of them admitted that, like me, whenever he shaved off his beard, he spent time in the washroom goofying around and trying various different "looks" and styles, much to his wife's chagrin. In a blog posted called Anatomy of a Shave I posted HNT pics back in 2006 of one of my "goofing around with facial hair" sessions.

Of course, I also found an interesting post from a guy named Jonathan Dyer called The Quest for Every Beard Type  - in it he is attempting to wear every possible type of facial hair - he continues to update it each year. It's hilarious.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Smiling At The Little Things

Sometimes it's fun to pause and just enjoy the little things that bring a smile to your day.

Take Polkaroo, for example.

Polkaroo was a character who appeared on the long-running TVO television series for children called Polka Dot Door which was broadcast from 1971 until 1993 (Just ask almost any person my age about the show and they can almost immediately start singing the show's theme song) Apparently the show was also syndicated on PBS, becoming the first Canadian television show to be syndicated in the USA.

The show had two human hosts, rotated through a series of theme days and each episode would feature an appearance by Polkaroo, a giant Kangaroo-like creature that said a single thing: "Polkaroo!" A convention of the show (likely due to budgetary constraints) was that, whenever Polkaroo was around, the male host would have disappeared. (Yes, it's the old you never see Peter Parker and Spider-Man at the same time sort of thing going on here) What was really cute about it was that, when Polkaroo took off, the male host would return and inevitable mutter: "Polkaroo was here? I missed him AGAIN!"

In any case, having grown up watching this show, it was a real treat for me to actually meet Polkaroo in person at last year's Word on the Street in Toronto. Yes, a 41 year old man became all giddy at the thought of meeting him. I had wished my son could be there to meet Polkaroo, although Alexander, of course, would have had no idea who this character is. (And let's be honest, I was the fan-boy here, likely just looking for an excuse to get closer and chat up this iconic figure from my childhood)

Polkaroo meeting fans at WOTS Toronto, Sept 2010

And, of course, Polkaroo is someone I am "friends" with on FourSquare - yes, just for the sheer novelty of it.

And why? Because, whenever Polkaroo checks in anyplace on FourSquare, he leaves the following comment:  "Polkaroo!"

Yes, it's the little things that keep me amused.

Of course, if I ever check into a place that Polkaroo has been, you'll be sure to hear me say:  "Polkaroo was here? And I missed him AGAIN!"

Thursday, August 11, 2011

HNT - Have You Driven A Ford Lately?

As I had written a few weeks ago, my truck and I had, after many good years together, parted ways.

Yes, I know I make it sound like a relationship.  In many ways a man's association with a vehicle CAN be like a relationship; and this particular vehicle had been my Dad's, so there was a more intimate depth involved, and the loss of the truck was almost like losing another piece of my Dad.

I went for several weeks without a vehicle. It was a decent experience as I re-acquainted myself with our city's transit system, which seems to have continued to improve. The bus rides were actually good for me, as I was able to get more reading done on the way to work.

And while the vehicle search took a bit longer than originally planned, Francine and I scored a pretty awesome deal at Mohawk Ford.

I was able to get a used 2012 Ford Focus with just 300 KM on it. So, it was basically a new vehicle with the price chopped down significantly and none of the "new car" taxes that normally get compiled onto the price. To boot, the gas mileage on this baby is unlike anything I've ever experienced this side of a moped. (Then again, one must remember I'm going from the gas mileage of a 1997 pickup truck with a giant tank that cost me well over $100 to fill up, to the mileage of a much lighter, smaller and more gas efficient vehicle where fill-ups are now still under $50 . . . a pretty dramatic change -- and yes, you're now less likely to see me weeping uncontrollably while standing at the gas pump and watching the numbers fly up into the heavens when I fill 'er up)

Another benefit of this vehicle is that it's more comfortable for the whole family. Yes, the truck was a great vehicle for Alexander and I to go out in, but when all three of us wanted to go together, the cab could be a little bit crammed.

In any case, this week's HNT is a picture of me that Francine took on the day we picked it up. Interesting. Of all the vehicles I've owned over the years, this is the very first "new" one. (Yes, I know, I bought it used, but, except for the lower price, everything about this vehicle is NEW)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Power Of A Good Editor

I've said it before - I'll say it again.

A writer should never underestimate the power of a good editor.

As a writer I have been extremely lucky to have worked with a number of great editors over the years, both in my fiction and non-fiction endeavors. An article posted on The Mark News yesterday is another good example of the way in which an editor's "red pen" and fine-tuning can turn a well-written piece into something even better. Or a beautiful raw mineral into a wonderfully polished gem.

Yes, writers are endowed with more ability than ever before to get their words out there directly, to self-publish, to push their words onto platforms that didn't exist when I first sat down at a manual typewriter and hammered out words, hoping to one day see them in print.

And as much as I admire -- and take advantage of -- the ability to "go direct" in getting my words out there (I've been blogging here since 2005), I am continually reminded of the extreme value of the mostly hidden work that a good editor brings.

This blog, for example, is the perfect example because I rarely ever edit my own writing, never-mind have an editor go through my posts before they're released into the world. My blog is typically a "first draft" attempt to get down some thoughts that are kicking around in my head. It actually started, for me, as a way to "warm up" to my early AM writing sessions They are, thus, mostly raw and unedited pieces of my writing - an online sketchpad or writing journal.

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post called A Smudge of Eink documenting my frustration with an ebook reader that had "died" on me. Believing the article was worthy of being read by a larger audience, I sent it over to an editor at The Mark News where I have written a series of articles related to the book industry. It had been a while since I'd done an article for them and I felt this particular one would fit nicely with my others.

Like before, when the editor sent back the changes made for my approval, I was impressed with the fine polishing done to my raw words; with the expertise in smoothing out some slightly awkward bumps in the prose, with re-arranging words into a finer flow of text.

A couple of examples:

My post title: A Smudge of Eink. I, of course, think that's a cute title, conveying my original discovery and frustration with a technology that I have been enjoying.

The Mark News title: The E-Smudge of Death. This revised title, of course, is a more dramatic statement - it serves to pull the reader in and immediately lands on the initial feeling of shock and terror I felt when discovering my ereader had died.

And next, just a snapshot showing the editorial modifications on a single paragraph.

You can see how these simple yet important edits don't change the intent of the original prose, but neatly refine it into something more readable.

And that's part of the power of what a good editor can do to a piece of writing.

This particular edit is thanks to Emily Burke, Managing Editor and Sarah Murphy, Copy Editor at The Mark News: Two fine members of The Mark News editorial team that I've had the pleasure of working with over the past couple of years.

As I've said, I have been lucky, over the years, to have worked with some great editors. And I look forward to continuing to enjoy the benefits of these silent, mostly hidden-from-view publishing world agents who revise, suggest and work with writers to create much better pieces of writing for readers to enjoy.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

HNT - Halfing A Good Time

So I haven't been posting to the blog much lately. Having a tight deadline for a book will do that to a guy. I've been spending that "extra" time I would normally spend composing blog posts neck-deep in research and writing the first draft of the book.

But it has been working out relatively well in terms of balancing my time. I've been getting up early, spending about 4 or 5 hours working on the book, and then doing fun stuff with the family. (I'm on vacation this week)

And, even though my vacation was cut short because of some urgent needs at work, at least I had Tuesday and Wednesday off, (Monday was a holiday), I've been able to get a lot of research, writing AND family fun done in half a week.

The other day, for example, we headed to Niagara Falls for the afternoon so we could play Dinosaur Mini Put and do a few more fun things on Clifton Hill.

Again, it was half a day, because I'd spent the morning writing, but we packed in a whole day's worth of fun into the afternoon and early evening.

Gotta love it when we're able to do that "Carpe half-diem" sort of thing.