Friday, March 18, 2016

My latest guest post

Yesterday, I had the honor of appearing on the writing blog of Michelle Hauck. If you don't know about her or her blog, take a look. I think you'll enjoy it. I sure do.

In the meantime, how is your writing going? We're almost a quarter of the way through 2016. What have you created so far? Care to share?




Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book review: Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works

My latest book review. Pardon me if it's a bit too "philanthropy" focused, but I enjoyed this book.

Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works











Changing the world is a lot like writing a novel: many people say they want to, but only a few actually accomplish their goal, and fewer still succeed in creating something that gets noticed.

In Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works, business strategist Roger L. Martin and Sally R. Osberg, president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, provide an overview of the burgeoning field of social entrepreneurship and share the stories of several social entrepreneurs who have changed — and are changing — the world for the better. And, like the entrepreneurs they highlight — nearly all of whom have been recognized by the Skoll Foundation for their efforts — Martin and Osberg mostly succeed in their objectives, providing a definitional framework for the field, explaining the joys and challenges of the work, and finding compelling examples of people who have overcome those challenges.

Martin and Osberg define social entrepreneurship as direct action aimed at transforming, rather than incrementally improving, an existing system; in the process, a new equilibrium is created. Moreover, social entrepreneurs work in "ways that do not fit neatly into the traditional modes of government and business." Whereas businesses are constrained by a need to earn profits, and government-led change efforts are designed to provide services to citizens rather than cultivate new customers, social entrepreneurs are able to "[negotiate] these constraints. The creative combination of elements from both poles...is what enables [them] to build models designed for a particular context."

Through their work at the Skoll Foundation and the Skoll World Forum, Osberg and Martin have observed that transformative change involves four key stages: first, the social entrepreneur must understand the system she is trying to change; then, she must envision a future in which that system has been changed, build a model for achieving the change, and, finally, scale a solution.

It is not enough, for example, to be repulsed by a tradition such as foot binding or female genital cutting that has been standard practice in certain societies for centuries. Rather, the social entrepreneur "sets out to make sense of the problematic equilibrium itself: how did it come to be and why does it persist?" To do that, Martin and Osberg write, the social entrepreneur must "navigate three powerful tensions" with respect to the world they wish to change: abhorrence and appreciation; expertise and apprenticeship; and experimentation and commitment.

Take the case of Molly Melching, the much-honored founder and executive director of Tostan, a nongovernmental organization headquartered in Dakar, Senegal. Melching, who arrived in Senegal in 1974 as a young academic and, after her program was canceled, found work as a translator for various development agencies, soon fell in love with the country and its people and almost immediately "began heading out from the urban familiarity of Dakar, with its French enclaves of cafes and bookstores, into rural villages." There, she saw signs of failed development and ineffective educational initiatives almost everywhere. "There was little appreciation [within the development community] of the reasons indigenous communities operated as they did," write Martin and Osberg, "[or] why the unhappy equilibriums that prevailed in Africa persevered even in the face of new incentives." After a few years, Melching "came to believe that a different approach was necessary if change was to happen sustainably in Senegal." Continuing her travels, she "sought to engage ever more deeply with communities…learn[ing] from and build[ing] relationships with village elders and young people, to explore community networks, and to shape her knowledge of how the society was structured." In the process, she became intimately familiar with the established equilibrium that prevailed in rural communities — and eventually realized she could do something to change it. After learning and helping teach rural children in their native Wolof language, Melching founded Tostan as a vehicle to scale a community empowerment program and start a conversation about human rights and women's health issues.
Of course, some problems defy simple solutions, and what works in one cultural milieu may not work elsewhere. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a social entrepreneur to come up with an innovative solution to a problem only to discover that the particulars of the local context make it impossible to scale beyond the initial group of individuals he had hoped to help. Given that reality, Martin and Osberg seem to suggest that real, lasting social change is largely the result of leadership — the hallmarks of which include humility and the ability to think outside the box.

It was the latter, for example, that enabled Bart Weetjens, founder of APOPO (Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development), a registered Belgian nongovernmental organization, to reduce the costs of detecting and disabling land mines. For much of the second half of the twentieth century, dogs had been used to sniff out mines in post-conflict countries, at a cost of $300 to $1,000 per mine. Meanwhile, training a single mine-sniffing dog can cost upward of $40,000. Weetjens, who kept small rodents like rats and hamsters as pets when he was young, recognized that the animals might be both intelligent enough and small enough to do the job for a fraction of the cost. The result of his epiphany? APOPO's army of rats has cleared nearly seventy thousand mines and more than twenty-five million square meters of land since 2004, and along the way Weetjens learned that they could also be trained to sniff out tuberculosis in human tissue samples.

If the book has a shortcoming, it can be blamed on the relative immaturity of the social entrepreneurship field and the lack of a research base detailing the impact of such endeavors. By the authors' own admission, the book is a step, but only a step, down the long road to a cleaner, safer, more sustainable world. It also raises, for this reader at least, as many questions as it answers. For example, as the first generation of social entrepreneurs passes from the scene, who and what will keep their organizations, many of them founder-led, from fading away? And what of the millennial generation, which seems long on good intentions but lacking in resources and, at times, resolve? Perhaps Martin and Osberg will answer those and other questions in their next book. In the meantime, Getting Beyond Better is both a good read and an excellent illustration of the real potential of social entrepreneurship to change the world. That's something we should all embrace in these uncertain times.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Announcing the Next EBP anthology: Urban Fantasy

As someone who has always read a lot, I am sometimes dumbfounded to learn that there are genres that lay claim to books I enjoy. Perhaps I’m na├»ve, but I tend to separate books between fiction and nonfiction and then add poetry and plays; I read them all. I don’t worry about genres and subgenres when I’m reading. I simply love quality writing.

Still, as I’ve gotten deeper into publishing, I have recognized the value of genres and subgenres. And as a lover of mathematics, I also enjoy the Venn diagram aspect of those genres. A book can be both Young Adult and science fiction, for example. I know a few steampunk writers who happily added romance – or was it vice versa? – to their repertoire.

It is with this spirit of experimentation and love of quality fiction that Elephant’s Bookshelf Press announces its next anthology: Urban fantasy.

To me, it’s a challenging genre to nail down. Of course, the “urban” element is vital. The idea of the city standing as a character in its own right has appealed to me ever since I seriously studied authors and literature. While there may be similarities, I think any native of New York, Philadelphia, Austin, Amarillo, Chicago, or Detroit – to say nothing of London, Dublin, Venice, or wherever – would argue their city is more different than like the others.

I regularly commute into New York City and my mind is often awhirl with ideas about the people and situations I see almost every day. I’ve traveled throughout the U.S. and much of the U.K. and Ireland, and I’m always amazed at how an urban center can vary regardless of the size of its population.

The fantasy aspect is every bit as important to the story as the city in which it takes place. As a reader, I’m intrigued by the ideas of angels and demons walking among us, commuting and communing with “ordinary” humans. But what happens when a gargoyle take flight from its perch atop a building? How might an ancient curse affect the urban denizens? Lately, I’ve been reading so many fairy stories to my girls, and I’ve been curious how I might place some of their favorite pixies into New York. Indeed, the possibilities are endless.

For our anthology, the urban fantasies can be up to 5,000 words long. Still no erotica. The deadline is July 11; there is no payment, but published authors will receive a paperback edition of the completed anthology. We are aiming for publication in late September, though it might end up being October.

You can send your submissions to submissions@elephantsbookshelfpress.com

Our team will review the stories as they come in. If history is a judge, some stories will be obvious decisions, but other decisions might be held until we’ve seen enough submissions. I expect we’ll publish no more than twenty stories and it’ll probably be fewer than that.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

In It to Win It

It's the biggest buzz all over the country: a $1.5 billion payout! And what if there's no winner this time? What would you do if you won?

While I don't generally drop anything into the lottery pool, even I have gotten a ticket (actually, several through an office pool -- more on that in a moment) and spent some idle moments fantasizing about what I'd do if I received some multi-million-dollar cut of the big prize. Who wouldn't?

But such dreams come with downsides. For one thing, I would expect that any large prize would cause problems within the little pool of colleagues -- I think it's about two or three dozen co-workers -- if for no other reason than the fact that many of us live in different states. As a New Jersey resident, do I have a responsibility to pay taxes to New York, where the winning ticket would have been purchased? I'm pretty sure I do, though I don't have any clue what that amount would be. And what would happen to the organization where I work if dozens of people decided they didn't need to work there any longer? Yes, I worry too much.

Needless to say, I haven't ditched my day job and don't expect to anytime soon, but if I were to get a piece of the office pool largess, I know what I wouldn't do: I wouldn't stop writing. If anything, I'd probably write more and might even be asked to write more. It would certainly help my publishing company, though I'd have a lot more expensive bills for folks like lawyers and accountants and probably financial planners.

As writers, we have the potential to win big with every book we complete. Your lottery win might be gaining a top agent or getting a publishing deal. It might be sales numbers that you couldn't imagine a few months ago or newly found celebrity. Personally, I'd be happy with financial security for my family. Again, who wouldn't?

So while I'll be happy if any of my writing and reading friends (or myself) are among the big winners of the billion-dollar lottery, I'm staying focused on creating my own lottery tickets with the books, stories, and articles I write. Good luck, winners!