Featured in Burnside

What a very cool thing to happen…

A few weeks ago, I submitted a small story I’m rather fond of to The Burnside Writers Collective. Last Friday they decided to publish it. (Okay, I’m fairly certain they decided before Friday, but that’s the day it posted. Today is the day I finally got to see it.)

So to the nice folks at BWC, thank you!

For the rest of you, please click HERE and read the story. It won’t take long and you might just like it. If so, tell a few people so they can tell a few people and it’ll be like that old shampoo commercial.

Again to read, Normal People by me, just click the story title that appears near the beginning of this very sentence.

Quotable Me

I’m not sure this actually counts as a new publishing credit, but it appears that I’ve been quoted in a new book. In fact, according to the table of contents, I have my own chapter!

The new book is called 112 Christian Authors and Publishing Professionals Share Their Best Advice for Novelists by the uber cool person known as C.J. Darlington.

The official description goes a little something like this:

“Imagine a coffee shop packed with award-winning Christian novelists, top editors, literary agents, and publicists. Each one is taking turns sitting down with you, giving you their best writing advice. Sort of like speed dating for writers.

Within these pages the most recognized names in Christian publishing share their personal answers to the question, “If you could say one thing to aspiring novelists, what would you say?”

In the ever-changing publishing world, you must stay on top of your game to succeed. This book will give you a leg up, with practical tips and advice you can use on your novel writing journey.

Includes advice from Karen Kingsbury, Frank Peretti, Ted Dekker, Jerry B. Jenkins, Josh McDowell, Liz Curtis Higgs, Francine Rivers, James Scott Bell, Terri Blackstock, Randy Alcorn, Melody Carlson, and many more!”

The unofficial description is: “Really? Another excuse to show some love for Michael Snyder by shrouding his brilliant wordsmithing amid a whole bunch of other chapters by other, more famous, more talented authors and/or publishing insiders? Sheesh…when will it end?”

In case you missed the link above, click HERE.

And thanks.

Weekend Update

Music-wise, it was a slow week. I did a little reading and a lot of listening this week. Here is some of what I discovered…

Incendiary by Chris Cleave (novel, audio) – The back cover calls it “emotionally raw” and “alive with grief, compassion, and startling humor.” Not only that, the entire novel is a personal letter to Osama Bin Laden. This one is bold, haunting, and written extremely well.

Moonlight Mile by Dennis LeHane (novel, audio) – This guy can definitely craft a story. And most of the dialog is pitch perfect. However, some of the exchanges with bad guys come off sounding like tired movie dialog. The overall plot did test my capacity to suspend reality. But it was entertaining enough.

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins (novel) – The story feels a bit disjointed, but I’m only a third of the way in. The writing, however, is downright enviable in places. And the patches of dialog between man and machine are really starting to grow on me.

Etgar Keret (stories) – I would trade two of my favorite guitars for this guy’s imagination

October Baby (DVD) – It may not be fair, but I have to view these kinds of movies through two separate lenses. If I judge it on its own merits as a film, I’d have to give it an average score. The filmmakers did a lot of things right but the cast was unbalanced, there a few indulgent scenes, and they tried too hard to make sure we got the point. We did not need the scene with the priest telling our hero she needed to forgive everybody. It would have been much more effective (and less cheesy) to have her figure this out on her own, then act. And the obligatory turn-around-at-the-last-moment-and-run-back-for-another-weepy-hug scene was downright cringeworthy. However, as far as Christian films go, this is one of the best I’ve seen. The writing, cinematography, and storytelling was WAY better than anything else I’ve seen in the genre. And Rachel Hendrix was outstanding.

Here’s The Thing (podcast) – Andrew McCarthy – This one caught me by surprise. I’m neither fan nor foe of the former brat pack actor. But I was captivated for his 35-minute interview where he tells of his journey from punk kid to renowned travel writer and family man. Yet another excellent interview.

This American Life (podcast) – Overall, TAL is my favorite podcast ever. This week’s entry wasn’t so hot. But maybe that was my fault. The episode was all about the recent election and I think I’m just tired of hearing about it.

Decompose (blog) – I followed a rather heated discussion that ended up pitting progressive Christians against their more conservative brethren. And although it was no one’s fault in particular, the whole thing makes me sad. Like most online debates, the majority seek first to be understood, to make their point, or to lob some snarky grenade into the other team’s camp. Healthy discourse occurs when everyone makes a genuine effort to understand the other guy first, then offer a thoughtful reply. Too much assuming, stereotyping, and too much of a premium on winning the argument. And for the record, the comments I left in the thread were probably no mover helpful than the ones I’m critiquing here.

 

Novels and Platforms

For years, I kept hearing publishing industry folk talk about platforms. It was the writer’s responsibility to market their own books. The publisher, it turned out, was the venture capitalist.

My argument was always the same: the best marketing a writer can do is to simply write better books.

Okay, so I wrote a few. My publisher did very little to get the word out about my novels. I did even less, partly out of ignorance, part fear, but mostly because I was under contract to write another novel. When I tried to balance deadlines with my family, my day job, and living an actual life worth tapping into for literary fodder…there was very little time left for platform building.

After the release of my third novel I took a break for while, rediscovered my love for music, gained some much needed perspective. Now I’m writing again and trying to sort out this whole platform thing.

I recently read a blog post where Dave Long (Bethany) and Rachelle Gardner (Books & Such) chimed in on the importance of platform–specifically regarding blogs–for the working novelist. They seem to agree that the quality of the work still trumps one’s ability to market it. But given the choice between two authors of similar talent and similar stories, the more marketing-savvy writer will likely get the contract.

So…marketing platforms are not THE most important thing, but rather one of many in a writer’s career. Still, I contend that writing should be about the process of writing, not just the adventure of getting published or paid or even noticed.

So for now, here’s my simplistic plan:

1-Write well. Get better every day. Never sacrifice creative writing time to come up with a nifty blog post or some clever marketing scheme.

2-Remember that community is more important than platform. One is a lifeline, the other a luxury.

3-Consctruct your platform the old-fashioned way, one brick at a time. Most of us have pockets of time during the week that can be used to write blog posts or participate in Twitter or write back cover copy. Use those “spare” moments wisely.

Michael Hyatt, Jeff Goins, and many others have written extensively about how to maximize your efforts. I won’t try to reiterate them all here. Suffice to say that the creative use of Twitter, Facebook, Hootsuite, MarsEdit, and a few other online tools really do streamline one’s ability to engage with other writers and potential readers without cutting into precious composition time.

As to whether a platform will actually move the needle for novelists? To be determined…

So when you think of “platform” do you think of an Olympic high-diving ledge? A dank, graffiti-laden concrete slab where you stand around waiting for trains? A lectern rising up above a crowd? Something else altogether?

Election Day, Before and After

A cyber-friend asked my thoughts just prior to the election. Here was my reply:

My Grown Up Election Day Wish…

I would encourage folks to be involved, but avoid becoming enamored. Don’t buy the hype. Neither of these guys will save you; neither will single-handedly ruin your life. Remember what the Veggies taught us—God is indeed bigger than the bogeyman.

Oh, and resist the urge to turn people you disagree with into bogeymen.

Pull the lever, absolutely. Engage prayerfully, mindfully, with equal parts caution and confidence. Understand the issues, but maintain some perspective. Remember to value people more than systems.

If, after all of that, you simply MUST persist with a warlike mentality…do us all a favor and pretend you’re on a football team instead of living out some bogus assassin’s creed. Fight for every yard, but fight fair. Remember that the guys with other jerseys care just as much. They bleed the same red, white, and blue as the guys on your team. (And sometimes players change teams too.) Ultimately, the one who knitted us all together in our mother’s wombs, will have to stitch things up after the final whistle blows. Don’t make things any messier than they have to be.

Hokey, but true, the golden rule applies…even during election season. And when you distill it down to its noun/verb essence, you get: Treat people.

***

Now that the election is over?

Take a deep breath…

If your guys lost, your life is not over. You survived the last four years (and all the years before that), most of you will survive the next four. The sky is not falling; it’s right where God left it. If your guys won, all your problems will not suddenly disappear. And even if they do, I doubt it will be because of an executive order or the direct result of some congressional mandate.

Whining helps nothing and no one. Gloating is obnoxious. (Healthy debate is fine, but let’s give it a week or two.)

Expect loads of rhetoric, finger pointing, and name-calling in the wake of this election. Then do your best to avoid all that. People are still more important than political systems or agendas.

I mentioned the golden rule above. As usual, the rigors of our election have robbed it of its natural sheen. Our best response, regardless of affiliations, is to roll up our sleeves and work on polishing our little corner of it.

Peace (seriously),

Mike

Behind Bars

Last week I went to jail. The good news is that I was released the same day. The even better news is that I was never arrested, booked, or fingerprinted. I was just visiting.

Although I don’t write thrillers or cop dramas, I have occasionally written about people getting into trouble with the law. It’s not terribly difficult to conjure the images and emotions associated with incarceration. We’ve all seen countless Hollywood depictions, so we can guess what it looks like. The Internet can teach us about processes and procedures. And we’ve all faced enough trouble with parents or teachers or even real, live policeman to be able to tap into the emotion of it all. Filter all this through an able-bodied imagination and most writers would have little trouble crafting a believable scene or two.

Last week, however, my day job required me to visit an actual detention center.

It wasn’t scary, but it was creepy. It was neither hip nor cool; rather, it was stark and sad. The lighting was fair, but there was no dramatic soundtrack or a single person you’d describe as sexy. There were two lawyers present, one reedy and skittish, the other reminded me of a hot dog vendor. The cops were implausibly young (or perhaps I’m just getting old). Most were shorter and pudgier than I would have imagined.

In the waiting area, I overheard several clipped conversations between attorneys and newly released clients. I sat opposite worried parents and grandparents. One man wearing a Hilton Head sweatshirt paced and leaned, but never sat. He looked like any other worried father, probably an insurance salesman and an usher at his church. But that morning he was jittery mess of shame and resignation. His son had been locked up for failure to pay child support…again.

From there, a small gaggle of us “professionals” were escorted into the bowels of the facility. What struck me most was how normal all the inmates looked, their jumpsuits and orange Crocs notwithstanding. Metal doors kept clanging shut behind me as we descended echoey stairwells. The guards down below seemed even less imposing than the specimens up top. These guys were a bit pudgier, and way older. They had radios, but no discernible weapons.

Suffice to say, it was less than pleasant.

What struck me as I eventually emerged from the facility and climbed into my car was just how normal everyone seemed. The difference between those locked away inside and those roaming free on the outside was a simple decision or two. Accidents happen. Arguments escalate. Substances are abused and cloud our judgment. We all do stupid stuff.

I saw two prisoners get released that day. Neither looked like serial killers. They looked more like Kinko’s employees.

Sadly, the state is already building a new wing onto this seemingly new detention center. Our escort told us that if construction were complete, they could fill every cell of the new wing that very day.

This should inform our writing for sure. More importantly, it should inform the way we conduct our lives and teach our kids. Although I’m sure I’ll relapse soon, I have kept my speed very near the post limit, remained at least three car lengths from the nearest vehicle, and resisted the urge to text-while-driving ever since I walked out of jail.

The takeaways here?

If you write about incarceration, keep it real. It’s bleak, nothing remotely sexy about it.

If at all possible, don’t end up on the inside. It’s not a happy place.

If you know a cop, or happen to sit next to one at a coffee shop this week, tell them thanks.

Normal People

1-

We went to the prom together. We ended up in the hospital. In the decade between, we somehow managed to form a family without ever making much of a life. We were normal people, pretending everything was okay.

Maria blames the doctors. I blame God. Secretly we both blame Hailey for dying on us. When we feel like hurting each other, Maria and I blame each other for not giving our baby girl something more to live for. When we feel like being honest, we don’t blame Hailey at all. We envy her.

2-

We’re in Room 419; Maria is sleeping now despite the machines and tubes and nurses. When I’m sure she can’t hear me, I apologize for things. I practice telling her goodbye. No matter how hard I try, the sad tears won’t come. All I can manage are tears of frustration for not feeling sufficiently sad about my dying wife. And that makes me cry harder. But it’s not the cleansing kind.

3-

Maria was looking right at me when she died. I think she tried to tell me she didn’t blame me any more. I didn’t mean to resent her but I did. I envied her too. Not her death, but her belief.

In her version, all she had to do was quit breathing and wait for Jesus to take her up in the clouds to push Hailey on some heavenly swing set. Hailey loved to swing.

4-

Tony says he wants to cheer me up so I let him try. It turns out I’m Tony’s excuse to drink. He already knows I’m beyond salvage. The gin just makes him feel better about having to spend time with me. So I sit and watch my kid brother fail to cheer either one of us up. Later, I drive him home.

5-

They tell me I fainted at the funeral. The more generous mourners gave me the benefit of the doubt, blamed it on exhaustion and grief. Those who knew better blamed it on the sleeping pills that, at least until the graveside service, hadn’t done a thing for me. My personal opinion is that I was still frustrated about not crying. Not since Hailey was born. I wept the first time I saw her, but not the last. That’s not an easy thing to admit.

6-

I finally slept last night. But not because of the sleeping pills.

I took every picture out of every frame and out of every photo album in the house and spread them on the bed. I cinched Maria’s bathrobe around me, then draped Hailey’s baby blanket on my face like a robber’s bandana. It smelled like formula and warm baby skin. Eventually I fell into bed with the lights on.

I think maybe I prayed some too.

When I woke, the blanket smelled more like my breath than Hailey’s.

7-

I’m not Catholic so I don’t know the rules. But the priest is young and willing to play along. The booth smells like Grandma’s closet, which I used to pretend was Narnia.

I kneel and confess everything I can think of until my knees ache. The priest assures me I did a fine job, but I get the feeling he wants to be rid of me. Or maybe it’s me that wants to be rid of me.

8-

When I can’t sleep I get up and call the hospital. I asked to be connected to Room 419. The groggy switchboard nurse tells me she’s sorry, that there’s no one in Room 419. I wonder briefly if she’s really sorry, and why?

Packing a duffel makes me feel a bit like Oswald or Ruby, making final preparations and wondering if I have the nerve.

Just like the sleepy nurse said, the room is empty, the bed made. I pull the privacy curtain, careful not to make noise, then climb into bed. Maria’s scent is gone, but I still have Hailey’s blanket.

There’s no cop there when I wake, just a different groggy nurse. She says, “You can’t stay here.”

“I know,” I say.

She thinks I’m talking about the room.

9-

I can’t live. And I can’t die. So I sit and wait for whatever is supposed to happen next. I do this every day until I run out of coffee.

There’s no money any more because there’s no job any more. I tell myself that I’m not really stealing, that I’m simply servicing my caffeine addiction. I check my conscience, but my conscience doesn’t seem to care.

Stealing is easy, easier still to justify. I’m poor now, hungry and confused. I’ve been wronged and abandoned. It’s not my fault. A man’s got to eat.

The cop disagrees.

10-

I walk now. I talk a lot too. Out loud. Mostly to myself, sometimes to God. All the good smells are gone. There are no more kind eyes either, no more Tony’s or groggy nurses. I do have my photographs though. And Hailey’s blanket. I bartered away Maria’s bathrobe for a pair of Pumas that don’t fit. When I get good and desperate, the priest will feed me or give me a coat. He tells me to keep talking to God, to say it out loud if I have to, no matter how the normal people look at me or move to the other side of the road. He says my decrease is Jesus’s increase, which sounds like total crap to me. Still, I continue to testify about the things I have seen and heard and smelled and done.

Flash Fiction

According to Wikipedia: Flash fiction is a style of fictional literature or fiction of extreme brevity. There is no widely accepted definition of the length of the category.

This brand of storytelling is not for everyone. The author must get to the point of all those writerly devices (plot, character, story, etc.) in a hurry.

And it’s all very subjective too. Either it works or it doesn’t. And beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. The good news is that the investment of time it takes to read a piece of flash fiction is relatively low compared to the potential payoff of the experience.

Most of my flash fiction has been inspired by story prompts, supplied by an online community called Storypraxis. Some of the better ones are collected HERE on this website. They vary in style and substance and tone, so hopping around is encouraged.

If you’re so inclined, go have a look. Even better, take the title of the piece, or perhaps a particular phrase or character or description, and use that to write your own story. Even better than that would be to post your story in the comments section. And best of all, you could skip all this story business and just send me a check for a thousand dollars!