A Greater Sum and The First Line

Receiving an acceptance letter for something you’ve created never gets old. I’ve had the privilege of receiving a couple of special ones in the last few months. 16640614_1448605115184690_3368495077227667306_n

A Greater Sum is a new journal and I was honored to have two of my flash fiction pieces included in the inaugural issue. It’s available for sale now and I believe they begin shipping February 16, 2017.

vol18_coverAnd a journal that I’ve subscribed to in the past and have long been a fan of called The First Line accepted a short story of mine. .

Podcasts

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Podcasts work great for me when either exercising or making short car trips. My day job finds me commuting between airports and hotels and podcasts are a nice way to pass the time.

Here are a few I’ve been into lately…

Revisionist History – Malcolm Gladwell’s newish podcast. Great content and the production value is stellar.

This American Life – Ira Glass. Quality.

Homecoming – High quality radio drama. Only two episodes so far, but this one seems way promising.

Crimetown – A true crime documentary-style show that will feature criminal activity in a single city per season. Season one is Providence, RI. Only two episodes in, but this one is done really well.

Guitarwank – Definitely R-rated. Scott Henderson is the best teacher I’ve had (although he doesn’t remember me) and an amazing player. Bruce Forman is wise and hilarious and a brilliant player in his own right. And Troy MacCubbin tries to keep them on track (and I’ve never heard him play…).

The Art Of Manliness – I avoided this one for a long time because I didn’t really like the title. But I was wrong. Brett McKay

A few others…Serial, Criminal, Scriptnotes, StoryGrid Podcast, The New Yorker: Fiction, Reply All, Here’s The Thing, RadioLab

 

 

Story Inventory

9781555974770Many (many) moons ago, I read Ron Carlson’s aptly titled, Ron Carlson Writes A Story. Recently I had the good sens to read it again and was reintroduced to the idea of story inventory.

Now I can’t quit thinking about it, whether I’m reading, listening, or writing.

The idea is pretty simple…when in doubt, include things.

You can do much of this without a lot of forethought. Just transcribe the people and their actions that are rattling around in your head. Include things like a character’s name or the car he/she drives or something about his/her appearance or even the room they happen to occupy.

Then have this character do some things, simply, “small acts that reveal character.”

When you come up for air, see what’s there. What you will likely find are the seeds of credibility and some helpful narrative evidence to propel the story forward.

This oversimplification may not be all that helpful. So my main advice here is to go get a printed copy of the book. My copy has been highlighted in yellow, scribbled in pencil, and notated in blue ink. Thankfully I have a whole drawer full of colorful pens for future re-re-readings. The book really is that good.

In case you missed the link the first time: Ron Carlson Writes A Story.

(Disclaimer: I don’t know Mr. Carlson, but have often wished I could have sat in for a few of his classes. And if he wants to pay me for this plug, I’ll take it!)

Learning New Stuff (and some humility too)

aka, Embracing the bottom rung

You have to be willing to be bad at something, before you can be good at something. You have to learn to survive frustration and maybe even some pain. The process works much faster if you will allow people to witness your trials and errors in real time so you can receive the necessary feedback for improvement.la-foot-jpg-pagespeed-ce-nqauhaehj9

The first time this concept hit home for me was in high school. I ended up being one of the better players on my soccer team and was invited to play an all-star team for the state of Virginia. There is no humble-bragging intended here because I was definitely one of the worst players on the best team in its class. I didn’t see much actual playing time but I learned a ton about soccer and teamwork and the value of continually “starting at the bottom.”

Years later I went to GIT in Hollywood. They tell the students on day one to leave their ego at the door…acknowledging that everyone in the room was likely one of the “best” musicians in whatever town they came from, but…”no matter what special thing you think you can do on guitar, there are likely six guys in the room who can do it better.” They weren’t wrong.

I had virtually no writing experience when I decided I wanted to write a novel. So I read 32 books on the craft and started typing. Ever since, I’ve alternated between reading a lot and writing a lot. Like anyone else, I am prone to letting my head swell a bit when I write something particularly good or receive an acceptance email for one of my stories. But then I simply read something by Richard Russo or Nick Hornby or Anne Tyler or Benjamin Percy or Ian Mcewan (or dozens of others) and I am appropriately humbled yet again. (Reading my own stuff can be rather humbling too!)

I have done this with musical instruments, memory tricks, and many facets of my day job. I start out knowing very little and simply accept the fact that the only way to get good at something is to swallow my pride, resign myself to doing whatever is required poorly for a while, then do it anyway.

The good news is: the more often you learn a new thing from scratch, the better you get at learning things from scratch. Believe it or not there is a lot of crossover between learning the banjo, how to memorize a shuffled deck of cards, how to craft better sentences, and my company’s clumsy ERP system. You have to be willing to suck at something for a while, to be okay with incremental improvement, maybe even take a step or two back before you can leap a few forward.

Personally, I believe this helps people live longer too (along with juicing regularly and not playing chicken with dump trucks).

Thrill Me: Essays On Fiction by Benjamin Percy

This is no nonsense writing advice and commentary from a tremendous literary talent. However, he loves comic books and horror and thrillers too. So there’s very little pretense and snobbery on display (at least so far, only about halfway in). Thrill Me should easily land (and remain) in my top ten books on writing. If you’re a writer, do yourself a favor and pick this one up. I doubt you’ll regret it.

 

Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy (Raquel Zaldivar/NPR)

Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy (Raquel Zaldivar/NPR)

Thrill Me on amazon. “An urgent and entertaining missive on craft, Thrill Me brims with Percy’s distinctive blend of anecdotes, advice, and close reading, all in the service of one dictum: Thrill the reader.”

Cal Newport Is Smarter Than Everybody

Not really, but he is smart and I liked that title, so I’m keeping it.

I own at least four Cal Newport books (I think he’s published five). I own hardcovers of both Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You  (also both of them on Kindle and audio book). I even get his newsletter…and I don’t sign up for newsletters. But again, because he’s smarter than everyone else, he only sends newsletters when he feels like he has something to say, NOT at regular intervals to “build his brand,” and never to try and sell me anything. See? Smart.

I won’t try to summarize his teachings here, but rather highlight a few of the ones I like best.so-good-they-cant-ignore

  • Every second you spend on social media is exponential time wasted that could be used to build rare and valuable skills.
  • Rare and valuable skills are what knowledge workers use to leverage better vocational circumstances (aka, money, benefits, promotions, new jobs, etc.)
  • Learning hard things begins with mastering the underlying concepts. It ends with absorbing the material to the point you could teach it to others.
  • Mastery precedes passion. If everyone followed their passion the world would be filled with guitarists, actors, and volleyball players. But if you take the time to get really good at something, passion will follow. It always does. Think about it…you have an affinity for all the things you’re already good at.

That is just scratching the surface. Buy his books, seek him out online (it’s hard; he’s not everywhere hawking his stuff, but hard is good, right?), and learn something. He really is that smart.

Click here for bio, photo, books, etc.

 

Write Short

flashfictionlogoMy pal (and former editor) Andy Meisenheimer did me a huge favor and he doesn’t even know it. At the tail end of my first writing “career,” Andy started Story Praxis. He would provide a daily prompt and encourage writers to bang out ten minutes (or so) of prose. It was a way to keep in shape, so to speak, like a ten-to-fifteen minute workout. I dutifully complied and ended up with piles of really short “stories.”

I recently reviewed some of these morsels and found quite a few worth salvaging.

Writing short forces you to learn to say a lot with a little. And since most writers (me included) tend to say very little with quite a lot, forcing oneself to write really short stories and essays could just prove to be an invaluable skill. Like everything else, it takes practice. My first few forays into micro stories came out stilted and riddled with melodramatic sentence fragments. Now they read a bit more like stories. The best news? Every single time I write short, my facility with longer forms improves. This never, ever fails.

I routinely write/submit tiny stories (from seven words to 140 characters to exactly 100 words). This discipline sharpens my ability to choose “just the right word” or phrase “in the moment” while composing longer forms. This may not make me a better writer. But it certainly makes me a more confident one. Or maybe it’s a placebo? I’m good either way because it still works.

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PS: Andy did a lot of things to help my writing. If you find yourself in need of professional editing, you might want to look him up. (Not to mention, he’s now a New York editor!)

Mower

(This is an interesting piece I recently found. Apparently, I had some kind of love/hate thing going on with a former lawnmower).

My lawnmower hates me. And who could blame it? I don’t simply mistreat the miserable machine; I abuse it. I routinely ask it to do things it was not designed to do, then forcibly push it into precarious circumstances, well beyond both its capabilities and its horsepower. When it coughs and sputters under my grip, I tip the front wheels off the ground and allow it to momentarily catch its mechanical breath. Then I drop the wheels and watch it choke on dust and weeds and overly long grass.

Not long ago, I bought a riding mower and parked it next to the beleaguered walk-behind. I change the oil and filters and sparkplugs in the big machine. All I do for the little guy is fill it with gas, but even that’s begrudging. Sometimes I whisper small reminders that maybe it ought to be a little more grateful, that before the big rider came along, I used to bounce its rickety wheels across an entire acre of uneven field, usually once a week.

Regardless, my mower keeps on taking my abuse, then coming back for more. In one rather extreme act of defiance, it refused to shut off after I let go of the safety handle. Nowadays, when I want to kill the motor, I have to reach dangerously close to the little engine-that-obviously-can and manually close the throttle. Sometimes, it burns my fingers a little.

On our last outing, as I alternated between banging its already-dented frame into a fencepost and force-feeding it a row of small trees, it flung off its own floppy discharge guard. My mower gaped up at me, grinning. Then it proceeded to spray fresh mulch all over my face and clothing until I wired its mouth shut with a metal coil and a rusty bolt. I may have had the last word, but that round clearly went to the mower.

We’ve been together about four years now. And if I have anything to do with it, we’ll be together for many more to come.

No matter how much my lawnmower hates me, I will not reciprocate. It’s hard not to respect its sheer willpower, its tenacity, its threshold for pain and exploitation. I’ll admit my feelings for my little green mower veer toward the erratic. We got along famously when I brought it home and we shared our inaugural stroll. But over time, I grew to resent not just the machine, but what it represented as well—hot afternoons, buckets of sweat, soreness and blisters, ruined sneakers. Resentment eventually morphed into respect, and respect into an odd form of adoration. Recently, in a moment of weakness, I almost drained its black, chunky oil and replaced it with new. I considered tightening bolts, sharpening its blade, and swapping out filters and plugs and whatnot. But that sort of coddling would no doubt alter the crude balance we’ve been able to maintain these many summers.

Besides, for some strange reason it feels so good to love something that so thoroughly despises me.