Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

Saturday, May 21

Dropping Stories: Ten Threads As A Kindle Exclusive

The last two years have been among the hardest — a series of unrelated wretched events with the dark cloud of the pandemic looming in the background. You know the cloud. We all do. It blotted out the sun. 

The start of all our trouble didn't begin with it. It started with our home being invaded and cars stolen. Mine, a 20-year-old Infiniti G20, was nearly totaled. 

Who am I kidding? I spent $6,000 or more to fix a car worth half as much. It was totaled. But the very idea that someone could take away something I've taken care of for 20 years was too much. So I didn't accept it and had it fixed. 

The pandemic rolled over us all a few months later, and I didn't have anywhere to go anyway. If I could have gone somewhere, it would have been to southern Arizona, where my paternal grandmother lost her cognitive ability. Adult protective services estimated we had a few months to figure it out.  

We really didn't. By the time the guardianship papers were processed, one of those family villains that everyone seems to have swept in with a story that nobody believed except one misguided attorney. The stress of the guardianship battle nearly killed us. We survived, but my grandmother did not. She died two weeks before the court investigator filed a formal report in my favor, forcing us into another battle for the estate. 

We won. And we lost. The villain took almost all of the bank accounts while the court allowed me to manage the dilapidated property she called home. We're still mitigating it today, more than a year later.

It's true, you know. After a while, you become numb to bad news. Six months after losing my grandmother, we lost my stepdad's best friend, someone we long considered part of the family. And six months after that, we lost my stepdad too. I'll spare the details except to say it wasn't sudden — unless you count those last few weeks that played out like months in slow motion as sudden. I'm still reeling from it.

So what does that have to do with a book release?

Nothing. And everything. 

Someone once told me "never let bad days fool you into thinking you have a bad life." It's too easy to do. I've had plenty, more than my share. Some of them I invited. Some came along anyway. 

You wouldn't think so if you met me in person. I generally present light-hearted most of the time, and intensely passionate about everything for the rest of it. It's called coping. You find every shining moment you can and you squeeze it for every ounce of sunshine it might give you.

My debut, 50 States, was one of those moments. It took some time but, eventually, word of mouth helped propel it to become a top 100 bestselling literary short stories collection on Amazon for three consecutive months — an honor compounded with two book awards. The first was first place for short stories in the Spring 2022 BookFest Awards. The second was first place for literary fiction, psychological thrillers, and short stories in the ABR Book Excellence Awards.

Of course, 50 States wasn't my only shining moment. I'm honored to work with some great clients. I was reappointed to serve my city as a parks commissioner. My wife was promoted, twice. My children are brilliant. My daughter finally achieved a 4.0 GPA while becoming one of the top softball players in the state. My son just recently graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno. That was my school, too. 

So I've been squeezing all of these things for every ounce of light they shed (along with all those smaller, seemingly insignificant things too). It's something that my maternal grandmother, the one who raised me for ten years while dying of cancer, taught me before she died. You take whatever comes, catching hold of even the tiniest sunbeams to break the gloom. It's the only way to survive it all. It's the only way to thrive.

Ten Threads is a ten-story companion to my best-selling, award-winning debut. Published as a Kindle exclusive, it can be read as a stand-alone anthology of about 100 pages or as a continuation of stories found in 50 States. Specifically, this release features stories set in Idaho, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Utah, Pennsylvania, California, Vermont, Nevada, Maine, and Kentucky. 

If you read the debut, eight stories will feel like continuations. Two of them, while connected to their counterparts, aren't as strongly linked. Collectively, the stories feel like life. Nine parts darkness and one part light, which is why I dedicated it to my maternal grandmother, Helen. She is forever my sunbeam. Nobody squeezed me tighter. Good night and good luck.

Want a more straightforward book release update? Yes, you can find that too. It's in the news.

Monday, April 11

Writing Analysis: Who Do You Write Like?


Last December,  I was invited to submit my collection of short stories to ScoreIt!, an algorithm that compares stylistic distinctions to a library of books by other authors. The purpose of doing so might not be what you think. 

I wasn't interested in the analysis simply as a means of comparison because reviewers had already compared 50 States to various authors. Two of my favorites were provided by the IndieReader and OnlineBookClub. 

"Written in sparse, understated prose reminiscent of Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Olive Kitteridge,' Becker’s tightly focused stories pack a punch."— IndieReader 

"The author's storytelling bore a resemblance to the style of the acclaimed Russian short storyteller Anton Chekhov in brevity and addressing salient issues of human existence." — OnlineBookClub

You can't get much better than that. So why try ScoreIt! by Inkubate?

The premise behind ScoreIt! was to develop a comparative algorithm similar to those used by Apple, Spotify, and Pandora for musicians and songs, and apply it to authors and books. So, in theory, readers who like the style of one author will likely enjoy closely matched authors. 

For the author, it means ScoreIt! provides promotional connections and keyword insights that are almost impossible to imagine without. This was true for me. The algorithm cited two authors (usually, it cites three) that I would have never considered being similar (even after taking an online class by one of them).

According to ScoreIt!, the writing style in 50 States has characteristics most similar to David Baldacci (thrillers) and Heather Graham (romance) across vocabulary, expressive complexity, grammar, and tonal quality. This might seem like an odd combination for anyone familiar with both authors (or the genres), but not to me. Although broadly defined as literary fiction, about half of the stories in 50 States are thrillers, and several have romantic undertones (even if they aren't explicitly romance stories).

How to apply the ScoreIt! analysis. 

In speaking with Don Seitz, CEO of Inkubate, the best practice for debut authors is to review how similar authors market their books in terms of keywords, adjectives, and descriptors. By doing so, it is more likely those types of readers will discover your book and, more importantly, appreciate your writing style once they do. This will eventually lead to better reviews by people predisposed to like the work. 

One of my takeaways from the analysis was to mention more short thrillers from the book in its store description. The original description called out three of the 50 stories, only one of which was a thriller. The revision called out four stories, with two being thrillers (and one being a favorite of a Kirkus reviewer). Along with this change, it made sense to punch up the suspense and unpredictability of the work.

These changes eventually helped attract more attention to the book and contributed to 50 States breaking into the top 100 literary fiction short story bestsellers on Amazon in January — a milestone repeated in February and March — just before it received a first-place award for short stories from The BookFest.

Signing up For ScoreIt! by Inkubate. 

Look, I'm not certain all of my new readers are also Baldacci readers, but I did notice more readers who enjoy thrillers are picking up the anthology. In turn, they provide insight into better marketing based on the words they chose to describe the book: gripping, suspenseful, impactful, and poignant. 

I was originally introduced to ScoreIt! by Barnes & Noble Press but had also seen the service promoted by Bowker Identifier Services (ISBN brokers). Running the analysis on your work is an investment of about $100 (and there are multiple plans that cost more). The cursory plan includes a comparison between the book submitted and three bestsellers (usually by three different authors), search term suggestions, and an optional consultation with Don Seitz, CEO of Inkubate (for a limited time). You can sign up here

While I already understood the value of the findings, I did speak with Don to clarify a few points. Most importantly, I wanted to know if the algorithm considered the entire work or simply the sample provided. Don assured me that the whole book was considered in the analysis. 

We also spent considerable time discussing trends in publishing, how important it is for debut authors to find the right readers (as opposed to any readers), and how to better pinpoint what readers use as search terms when looking for their next read — topics that many debut authors never consider until well after writing their novels. I'm a bit different in having worked in marketing and communication for decades.

Overall, ScoreIt! is worth it for authors looking to fine tune their marketing efforts, especially on storefronts like Amazon. It's especially useful for improving the description, adding more keywords, and building some Amazon ads. It's not as useful, in my opinion, to use it for bragging rights. I enjoy Baldacci as an author, but prefer to think of my style and stories as my own. 

Of course, if someone who grabs a copy of 50 States is a Baldacci or Graham fan, I would be very interested in finding out what they think. Writing is, after all, a relationship between authors and readers. Good night and good luck.

Friday, February 11

Telling Stories: Voice Actor Brian Callanan


There’s a June event in West Seattle where hundreds of kids and parents turn out to run a 5k race and obstacle course — climbing over walls and crawling through mud. Think of it as a community-minded version of Tough Mudder or the Spartan Race that doubles as a fundraiser for Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

The event is called Loop the ‘Lupe because participants run a 1k course with seven obstacles — everything from spider webs to a squirt gun alley — five times. There is plenty of post-run entertainment too, live music and a beer garden, organized in part by the efforts of someone who has always seen success as a marathon. 

“After taking post-graduate courses at San Francisco State University, I couldn’t wait to jump into the world of television broadcast news in 1995,” explains Brian Callanan, event organizer. “I worked my way up from smaller markets like Roseburg, Oregon before breaking into a bigger market like Seattle and eventually joining The Seattle Channel in 2011. I’m glad I made that decision. I’ve been able to report on a variety of important local issues and connect with the area’s top political decision makers.”

His work has also garnered five Emmys in television broadcasting, a distinction Brian is quick to share with anyone and everyone who is part of the teams that made it happen. Listening to Brian talk about how he broke into broadcasting becomes a familiar story, too, even when he isn’t talking about TV journalism. All of his accomplishments started small. 

“I always wanted to get involved in voice acting, and I finally connected with my friend David H. Lawrence XVII,” says Brian. “He and Dan O’Day helped me learn how to record myself for audiobook work, but also how to edit my work and promote it.” 

So what started as a side hustle quickly turned into something bigger. Within the last seven years, Brian has narrated close to 80 books across all genres — from adventure and science fiction to nonfiction and romance. Generally, he takes on one title a month, which he says is a manageable pace. 

“My career took off when I narrated a noir thriller called ‘The Last Watchman Still Rides,’” says Brian. “It required a first-person, tough-guy narrator that a lot of authors need in a narrator. It works because while I’m a big fan of all kinds of books and don’t want to be typecast, noir thrillers are some of my favorites.”

On the tech side, Brian says he records and edits using the Studio One platform, with iZotope software for audio mastering, on an ASUS solid-state-drive laptop. The laptop has been a stalwart performer, especially because it runs without fans that could disrupt his performance. He also uses an AT2020+ microphone and highly recommends the course he took to break into the business, the ACX Masterclass. 

“Early on, I had one author who kept adding chapters to his book while I was in the process of narrating it. Those kinds of situations can get a bit tense,” said Brian. “But I’ve been fortunate to work with authors and rights holders who are very understanding. Mostly, I tend to avoid books that call for lightning-fast deadlines and narrators with foreign accents.” 

That might surprise some listeners given that his latest project, 50 States (my book), is a collection of short stories that called for hundreds of characters and scores of accents from all over the world. And, since the stories are not confined to a single genre, Brian had to approach each one with a fresh perspective.

“The main challenge of 50 States was simply re-setting and re-studying the needs of each story as I paused between them,” said Brian. “I had to take some longer breaks than usual just to get into a different mode of thinking about them.”

The challenge was worth his initial attraction to the project. The result is a collection of stories that have an outstanding serial quality to them.

“I liked the nod to the collective trauma we’ve been going through with ‘A Hole in the Wall,’ the sweetness of ‘Forget Me Nots,’ and the grittiness of stories like ‘The Best Life’ and ‘The Siren’s Call,” he said. “There’s a ton of good action in this book, along with some great moments to ponder. I’m excited to see what listeners think of it!”

Fortunately, this was one time Brian didn’t have to wait long. It only took a few days before Victor Dima, publisher of The Audiobook Blog, called out Brian’s performance as “absolutely incredible how many different characters he can bring to life and make them feel unique.” Dima gave the book a perfect 5 stars for the stories and narration.

In some ways, Dima’s review feels like a fitting finish line for the project Brian tackled one story at a time like every marathon he’s ever run. It doesn’t even matter how you want to use the metaphor. Brian is a broadcaster, emcee, auctioneer, community supporter, volunteer, family man, triathlete, and member of a rock band called The Superchargers. 

“I’m training for a half-marathon in March that one of my daughters dared me into,” says Brian. “We’ll see how it goes!”

I’m sure it will be a success. And, if nothing else, the perfect warmup for Loop the ‘Lupe in June. Good luck!


Saturday, January 22

Breaking 100: 50 States As A Bestseller

When I set my book sale schedule weeks ago, I knew mid-January 2022 would be special for 50 States. What I didn't realize was that the Kindle edition was going break the Top 100 Literary Short Stories

A few days after just bouncing around below the watermark — #189, #105, #168, #406 — 50 States suddenly came in a few places behind Stephen King, right next to Thomas Wolf and Ray Bradbury, and a couple of spots ahead of James Joyce. It was ranked #82 (subsequently ranked up and down between #89 and #64 at the time of this writing). It was a pretty amazing moment, with my wife excitedly telling me to grab a scene shot — as if seeing it listed there was a digital mirage or practical joke. Oh, I did. Several. 

It caught me by surprise, a very pleasant one. There were still a few things I expected to have in place. One of them was to sort out the various editions. So, I thought I might do this today for anyone curious. 

50 States - Print Editions 

First Edition / Gray Book (ISBN: 978-1006811159) - I affectionately call the first edition the gray book because, unlike newer editions, the back cover and spine are gray. Some standout elements are the gloss cover, graphic chapter dividers, and original book blurb. The book originally retailed for $16.99, but publishing costs forced me to raise the price to $18.99. Since the price is printed on the back cover, I decided to sunset this edition. There are still some copies out there and I have a few dozen on hand. Blurb is often listed as the publisher, but not on the book. The page count is 358. $16.99/$18.99 depending.

Spark Edition / Hardcover (ISBN: 9798985381122) - After a quality press check with a different printer, I turned to Ingram like many authors. This edition is a classic cloth hardcover with a dust jacket. The back cover features five of its early reviews on the cover and the revised book blurb on the flap. It's a very well-done book that looks sharp with a black back cover and spine. There are no graphic chapter dividers, but the paper is thicker and the font slightly larger. The page count is 378. This is the edition you'll find anywhere books are sold. Retail $34.99

Spark Edition / Trade Paperback (ISBN: 97989853811390) - With the grey book being sunset, it made sense to produce a new paperback edition with Ingram. The inside mirrors what you'll find in the hardcover edition, except with slightly thinner paper. Despite being 20 more pages than the grey book, its spine profile is thinner (but the paper is still strong). It also includes some early reviews on the back, along with a truncated book blurb and two-line bio. It's very well done, as good as any book on the market. This is the new edition you'll start seeing in bookstores. Retail $18.99

Amazon Edition / Trade Paperback (ISBN: 979-8774412730) - For those who don't know, Amazon assists authors and small publishers with its own press. There are some advantages to taking advantage of it. The quality is just as good as Ingram with slightly thicker paper. Other than its heft, there was less room to include information on the back cover (only three reviews as opposed to the five on Ingram) but adding an author photo was easy. It's a great-looking book with a much stronger spine. The title really pops. Another advantage. I haven't heard of a price increase yet. Retail $16.99

Amazon Edition / Laminate Hardcover (ISBN: 979-8985381115) - Amason's hardcover offering is a laminate hardcover (like textbooks, except matt) and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it looks and feels. It also left less room for information on the back cover and could possibly benefit from wider margins around the book blurbs and reviews, but the size, feel, and quality more than makeup for it. With a bold graphic title on the spine, this is the novelty edition that found a home on my downstairs bookshelves. I don't expect as many to be printed, making it even cooler. Retail $28.99

Everything else out there is digital, with the Kindle edition turning out to be the strongest driver. If you are one of the people who helped get it there, I cannot thank you enough. I'm grateful and hope you enjoy it. And for anyone interesting in signed copies, please consider purchasing them from bookstores that stocked them early. Their support really means so much to me.

Please stay tuned. This book's story is far from finished. The audiobook narrated by 5-time Emmy winner Brian Callanan is right around the corner. A new Kindle exclusive companion piece (about 100 pages) is in the hands of my editors. I'm close to finishing a first draft short story for my newsletter, due out in March. And, more importantly, I'd be grateful if you told your friends and family that there is something surprising about 50 States. That will keep this book's story alive too. Good night and good luck.

Monday, December 13

Signing Books: Five Places I Visited For 50 States

Book signings are finally coming back in fashion, but still not everywhere. Some bookstores are holding out for one thing or another. My own book, 50 States, missed out on meet-and-greets last June. Nobody would host book signings back then, so I eventually settled into dropping signed books off at select locations — usually coinciding with my daughter's travel softball schedule.

I didn't mind. I still had a chance to visit some pretty cool bookstores and meet some great people, sometimes leaving with more books than I brought. I'm grateful to them all, so here's a holiday shout out.

BookMonster in Santa Monica, Calif. BookMonster was the first bookstore to pick up signed copies. I wrote a post about the experience, and my gratitude hasn't diminished. The store has been an icon at 212 Santa Monica Blvd. in Santa Monica, just northeast of Ye Olde King's Head and King and Queen Cantina. My book currently has a home at the store on the second shelf (top to bottom) of D07. They shelved it there because the first edition description sounded a bit metaphysical (but it's not, really). 

The book is listed "like new," and it is new. You can reserve your copy online

The store is pretty cool with a big square footprint that is surprisingly deep. The shelves along the outside walls run floor to ceiling. Once past the front area (reserved for new books and accessories), the store is organized with two columns of spacious rows all the way to the back of the store. The store also has some scarce books protected by glass cases in the very back. They have a sandwich board outside the store that counts how many books they've sold today. 

BookEnds in Kailua, Hawaii. Before traveling to Hawaii, I reached out to almost every bookstore on the island of O'ahu. Most of them didn't respond or weren't interested in carrying any titles from a debut author. I almost gave up until I reached out to one more the same day we arrived on the island.

The manager asked me a few questions about the book. Then she said she loved the hook, loved the wholesale price, and asked how many copies I brought with me. She took them all. 

BookEnds is a small neighborhood bookstore. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in character and books. There are shelves of books, stacks of books, and piles of books that make up a meandering book garden of sorts. The longer you wander, the more likely you are going to find that one hidden gem you can't find somewhere else.

The store is located at 600 Kailua Rd, Ste 126 in Kailua, on the southeast side of the island, northeast of Waikiki. The drive through the mountains made the side trip worthwhile. And we look forward to exploring more of Kailua the next time we go. 

Barnes & Noble in Henderson, Nev. I've had some interesting experiences reaching out to bookstores in Las Vegas. The best of them was with Barnes & Noble in Henderson. Once they knew I was a local author, they didn't hesitate. 

Barnes & Noble does it a bit differently than indie stores. They prefer to order copies instead of accepting them from the author. When the books came in, they contacted me to schedule a visit. I really appreciated it because they also had their hands full with a store remodel. 

This Barnes & Noble, located at 567 N. Stephanie St., gets books, authors, and readers. Not only did I sign the books they had on hand, but they also did a quick in-store promo that they shared on Twitter and Facebook. And, they noticed I did my own post about the visit. You can find a copy of 50 States on their local author bookshelf toward the store's back (in front of the digital media section). 

I've visited the store several times over the years, and I have to add that the remodel has transformed it into a book lover's paradise. If I need some last-minute books, this will be my go-to Barnes & Noble, even if it is a little more out of the way. 

BookMaze in Mesa, Arizona. The Phoenix area is a little more like Las Vegas in that not all independent stores are friendly to debut authors. One will even charge indie authors a stocking fee to sell their book on consignment and charge them for any unsold copies.

I didn't qualify for this program because my book is available from major distributors, not that I would have accepted the offer anyway. Instead, I discovered the out-of-way BookMaze in Mesa, Ariz., that stocks scores of books with a floorplan that lives up the store's "maze" name. 

While the front entry can be a little offputting, the bookstore itself is like a lost city of books at deeply discounted prices. The shelves are arranged in interesting angles, broken up by a few cubbies and seating areas like you might find at the heart of a maze. 

My visit felt awkward because the bookstore owner wasn't in when I arrived and no one knew they were picking up 50 States. But after showing my messages to one of the clerks, she was happy to help. I'm not the only one. The bookstore has a reputation for helping people — they recently donated 400 pounds of candy to our troops! 

Adventures Underground in Richland, Wash. Adventures Underground, located at 1391 George Washington Way, was an absolutely amazing discovery. It's part bookstore, comic shop, gaming hub, and collectibles gift store all rolled up into one — the kind of eclectic coolness you wish you could find in every city. There is even an inviting cafe attached with coffees, smoothies, and other tasty treats. 

My family and I browsed more shelves in this store than any other. Most of mine was spent perusing an extensive sampling of metal fantasy figures on pegboards (an old hobby I haven't paid much attention to lately) and thumbing through some of their comic book drawers. 

Ultimately, I didn't find any comics to fill a few holes in my collection. However, my daughter picked up a limited-run comic series featuring Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy. If we had had more time, we could have browsed for hours. But as I mentioned before, many of these stops happen between softball games. 

Future Visits 

These were the first five stores with which I arranged signed book drops, but they won't be the last. Next year's softball schedule will take us to several cities, including Denver. I'm incredibly excited about that stop because the Tattered Cover serves as a setting for one of my stories inside 50 States. 

With book signings finally coming back into fashion, I'm hoping to arrange in-person signings for a few hours instead of the sign-and-dash book drops next year. The timing couldn't be better. Right now, 50 States is in audiobook production, and the long-awaited hardcover edition press check recently shipped. 

Of course, more than all that and to the point: I really do appreciate these stores for adding 50 States to their shelves. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are vital to our communities, and I hope you find some time to visit them — whether you are looking for 50 States or not — to fill your holiday gift list. Good night, good luck, and happy reading.


Tuesday, July 20

Visiting Bookstores: BookMonster In Santa Monica


BookMonster in Santa Monica has earned my long-term gratitude. They became the first brick-and-mortar bookstore to place signed copies of 50 States: A collection of short short stories on their shelves. 

They were one of four independent bookstores I reached out to around UCLA, where my daughter was attending a weekend softball camp, and we immediately struck up a dialogue. After some discussion, they agreed to take a couple signed copies at wholesale price, which they’ll likely offer up at a discount online and/or in the store. 

Why I’m thrilled that BookMonster was first.

BookMonster was among three independents I called because they almost permanently closed in March. The store hasn’t had an easy go of things. They were looted last June when things got out of hand in Los Angeles, and that was after being among several struggling booksellers that innovated curbside pickup during the peak of the pandemic. 

The primary reason they survived at all, which is also why they didn’t close on March 31, was because of the generosity of area book readers. People in Santa Monica didn’t want to see their local bookstore close. It’s an icon in the area, located at 212 Santa Monica Blvd. in Santa Monica, just northeast of Ye Olde King’s Head and King and Queen Cantina (which is where we had lunch after the book drop).

They also have some great member benefits, including 5 percent of every in-store purchase amount in points. Members are also the most likely readers who sell their books back. BookMonster buys books, up to 20 items per visit, provided they are in excellent condition. Many customers accept store credit in lieu of cash, using the title they turn in as an opportunity to walk out with a few more. 

If you have never been to BookMonster, it’s certainly worth a visit. In most cases, you wouldn’t ever guess most books inside are used. Even a handful of rare books in the back have been carefully preserved. This store is top-notch. The staff is excellent. The average visit time for browsing is a bit more than an hour for anyone who loves books. 

Bookstore visits are still a mixed bag for authors. 

I’m also grateful to BookMonster for two more reasons. Since book signings haven’t come back to all brick-and-mortar bookstores, accepting books from authors backed by new or small publishers isn’t easy. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are taking a bigger chance on every book they decide to stock. Even when I posted the event on my Facebook author page, I appropriately called it a book drop rather than a signing or meet-and-greet. 

The second reason I’m grateful addresses another wrinkle for bookstores in general. There are more books and authors today than bookstores have shelves. So many, in fact, that independent bookstores aren’t answering every inquiry. They might be more inclined if book signings were back, but we’re still a few months away from that. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll give up on contacting bookstores when travel softball takes us to a new location. In between whatever schedule my daughter might have, I can usually set time aside for at least one bookstore visit. Even if signings aren’t possible, I can still drop off a couple of signed copies — and then help them help my book by telling people online where they can find it. 

So please stay tuned. I may have a few surprises in the weeks and months ahead on where 50 States might show up. But for now, if you are in Los Angeles, the go-to bookstore for 50 States isn’t the oldest or the smallest or the hippest. It’s BookMonster in Santa Monica. They are the coolest.

Tuesday, June 22

Writing A Book: 50 States by Richard R. Becker


Two years ago, I started writing short short stories — so short that I sometimes called them scraps. And since I didn’t belong to any writer groups, I started sharing them on my Facebook author page. 

It wasn’t the first time short fiction appeared there (or longer stories on this blog, for that matter), but two things changed. It was the first time in my life I started treating my short stories like an assignment, with equal weight to any advertising/marketing deadlines I might have. Second, it was the first time I was committed to publishing fiction with consistency so people could anticipate a new story every week on my author page. 

Experience had already taught me both habits needed to happen if I ever wanted to add fiction writing to my repertoire. These were among the habits I adopted to become a freelance writer (which quickly evolved into Copywrite, Ink.), several publications (Key News * Las Vegas, and Liquid [Hip], and even this blog (which took off in 2007 when I made it daily). You have to be in it to win it.

Immersion is a critical key to creativity.

What I didn’t expect was how immersion opened up inspiration. After sharing the first few stories, I fell into a creative rhythm, and an overarching idea began to crystalize. 

I was inspired to write about seemingly random events happening or having had happened to different people in different places — stories that could stand on their own but were also left open to be continued in unexpected ways or possibly intersect with one another. I felt so strongly about this concept that I adopted some guidelines: each story would be set in a different state, and each would touch on a different psychological state as people face or cope with different life-defining events.

Once I formalized this idea, I applied lessons learned from two friends and colleagues to keep me going. One told me to always work for myself first. The other provided a proof of concept to be disciplined. One of his projects, The Daily Monster, was an exercise in illustrating a new monster every day, no matter what. 

I knew I couldn’t write a daily story, but I did feel confident I could write one a week. For a while, I was so motivated by the immersion of writing that I would sometimes write two in a week, scheduling the additional story in advance. It was a good thing I did too. Like many creatives, last year was very disruptive to the process. Having a few scheduled in advance kept me on track when I needed an extra week for some. 

The outcome was better than I could have ever imagined. 

50 States: A Collection of Short Short Stories was an exciting project because I didn’t always know where each story might come from or go. Most often, I would work on three story concepts simultaneously, mulling over the details until one of them solidified. Other times, the story might grow out of my research. It was really important to ground even the most speculative stories to a time or place.

For instance, I knew the story I wanted to tell about two runways meeting at a Greyhound bus station in Tennessee, but I didn’t know much about the Jackson transportation system, circa 1977. Research is essential for set dressings. 

Conversely, that story about a middle-aged man and a young basketball player in Chicago isn’t as reliant on location. I could have set this story in almost any midwestern urban center, and it would have worked. However, I thought name-dropping the short-lived Chicago Zephyrs lent a nice touch for a story taking place in 1963. 

The third story I call out on the back of the book's cover didn’t have to be tied to Oregon either. But once I decided Oregon could become a home for it, I researched wildfires in Oregon so I could use it as a reference for the fictional one in the story. Now, I couldn’t imagine this modern story playing out anyplace else. It belongs there.

Intersecting stories and paths that cross, divide, and double back. 

To keep track of what states were complete, I used to color in the state shape on a line art map every time I finished a story. I also added them to a project table list. The table includes: the title of the story, the state, the date it takes place, the word count of the first draft, the date of origination, and how many actions (likes, shares, etc.) were taken on the story once I posted it to Facebook. While it didn’t influence my writing, it was nice to see how some stories resonated relative to the number of people on the page. 

I have yet another document I’m using to track every character too. Knowing some details at a glance will help me later as every character could appear, connect with, or intersect with other characters or stories in the future. Some stories already have connections in 50 States, but it’s not apparent.

I did publish a longer short story (3,600 words) on Facebook about the Diamond family from the story Shine On You Crazy Diamond that appears in 50 States. It's called The Shut Out. Unfortunately, the story was removed from Facebook when it disabled a blog-like feature called notes. The feature never really took off, but I loved it and shared several longer stories there — some of which are being slated for another project. 

However, I am sharing some new short short stories on Facebook. This new project, 50 Threads, has obvious connections to the stories in 50 States. The very first short I shared was called The Beige Door. It is a direct continuation of the story The Blue Door, which can be found in 50 States. 

Keeping tabs on various projects and what’s next. 

My company, Copywrite, Ink., partnered with Blurb on the production and distribution of the project. Anyone interested in the book can track the 50 States by Richard R. Becker page as the book is added bookstores and booksellers. I’ll also post links to booksellers on the 50 States page hosted by my company Copywrite, Ink. 

I am publishing a newsletter with exclusive “first look” content and other news. The next newsletter is out in October 2021. I am also answering questions on Goodreads. I will no longer be sharing 'first look' content on my Facebook author page, but I will post announcements there (as well as on TwitterLinkedIn, and other social networks) so you know where to find it. 

Bookmarking this blog wouldn’t be a bad idea either. I see this space as in transition, with a little more focus on life, fiction, and writing. Who knows? We’ll see. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, September 24

The Elephant In The Room Of Banned Books Is Gray

banned books
The most common commercialized celebration of Banned Books Week is to create a display of the top ten banned book titles or top ten banned book classics (for sale), thereby making this week sometimes feel more promotional than purposeful. And while this celebration can prove useful in raising awareness or discussing ignorance, it's easy to forget these top ten lists come from a pool of more than 300 titles targeted for much bigger, broader and diverse reasons than we like to think.

This is one of the reasons I appreciated the article penned by Donald Parker that addressed some of the myths and realities of censorship. He cut to the heart of a bigger matter, reminding readers that not all banned books are challenged by conservatives, nor are they confined to school libraries and classrooms, nor are they classified as young adult fiction in an increasingly less tolerant world.

The truth is that censorship is a national problem without any real geographical, demographical, or socio-polictial preferences. People who seek to ban books are young and old, rich and poor, left and right, and live from one coast to the other. When you take a closer look at them, it's exactly as Ray Bradbury once called it in Fahrenheit 451 — whereby "minorities, each ripping a page or paragraph from a book, until one say the books were empty and the minds were shut and the libraries closed."

Eight Articles That Cut Past The Top Ten Lists And Aim At The Elephant.

1. Too Graphic? 2014 Banned Books Week Celebrates Challenged Comics by Lynn Neary. Neary catches up with Jeff Smith, author and illustrator of the popular series Bone, who was shocked to find out his series was named one of the top ten most frequently challenged books in America. Censors typically cite violence, racism, and a political viewpoint.

2. Costco Denies Political Motive For Pulling D'Souza's Book by Jerome R. Corsi. Corsi recaps the recent attempt by Costco to pull a book critical about Barack Obama from its stores. The big box store claimed the decision was made because of poor sales despite showing up on the New York Times bestseller list. Costco is a supporter of Obama and the Priorities USA super PAC.

3. Riverside: "Fault In Our Stars" Banned From Middle Schools by Suzanne Hurt. Hurt covers the best intentions of parent Karen Krueger to remove the book or only make it available for checkout with parental consent in a middle school library because it includes references to two teens having sex. When several members of the school committee agreed that the teen love story was inappropriate for that age group, it pulled the book and would not allow other schools to purchase it.

4. Confronting My Temptation To Ban Books by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush. Raushenbush raises an interesting point in asking people to skip past the top ten mot banned books in America, which he says pose no discernible threat, and challenge any anti-ban convictions by stocking library shelves with "recruitment propaganda from ISIS, or books and essays that perpetuate systemic racism, or sexist literature that denigrates women..."

5. America's First Banned Book And The Battle For The Soul Of The Country by Jim Miller. Miller takes a fresh look at banned book week not by being current but by looking backward. His article touches on the sensitive content of the New English Canaan by Thomas Morton, published in 1637. The book itself was put in the midst of two colonies clashing over ideas — specifically between Puritans and those "other" untamed colonists.

6. School Accused Of 'Purging' Christian Books by Todd Starnes. Starnes runs down the true account of a public charter school in Temecula, California, that stripped its libraries of any book with a Christian theme or by a Christian author. This included The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, which is a survivor story about a Christian family that helped Jews escape the Holocaust.

7. How Does Banning A Book Work? by Cristen Conger. Conger takes deep dive into the process of banning a book, including the legal precedence that dates back to the furthest reaches of literary history, which includes the work of Socrates in 399 B.C. Today, despite the U.S. Supreme Court already ruling that a book or periodical must be "pervasively vulgar" to constitute adequate ground for banning, people continue to challenge books for one reason or another.

8. America's Most Surprising Banned Books by Theunis Bates and Lauren Hansen. Bates and Hansen put together a list last year unlike most of the lists you will see this week. They told the story of thirteen titles and why someone sought to ban them. One of the more dubious mentions includes Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See because someone mistook author Bill Martin Jr. for an obscure Marxist theorist who had the same name.

Why The Elephant Is Gray And Books Will Continued To Challenged. 

It's mostly easy for readers and authors and libraries and booksellers to point at the most commonly challenged books in America last year and laugh at the reasons. But when you look beyond the list and consider the bigger picture, you can pinpoint a portrait of what Americans are wrestling with today. Look even deeper and find bigger questions being asked every time books are challenged.

Should books with religious viewpoints be allowed in schools (and is it a religious viewpoint not to have them)? Do parents have the right of oversight by minimizing the accessibility of some books? Is there an appropriate age limit for certain content (and if so, then who decides)? Are depictions of racism part of the problem or part of the solution?

Does expressing sexuality breed tolerance or temptation? Should booksellers be forced to sell all books or only those they agree with and support? Are history books beginning to exploit the power of complaint and using emotional bribery to invent ever increasing levels of social guilt? And what about those other books — the ones specifically written to incite, recruit, or defame?

These questions aren't always as easy for everyone as people tend to rally to protect their own beliefs and convictions but generally struggle to protect those they consider in opposition to their own. How about you? Is there a line you won't cross in defense against censorship? Maybe there are many lines.

Wednesday, October 30

Where Would We Be Without Words? I Can Imagine.

Literacy
Years ago, when John Corcoran told me that almost half of his students were not able to read beyond a third grade level, I didn't want to believe him. And yet, I believed him.

I believed him because third grade was a pivotal year in my education too. It was the same year that my grandmother made the decision to have me repeat the third grade outside of the public school system. Had nothing changed, I would have landed on the wrong side of a statistical division.

According to the John Corcoran Foundation, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Not all of them do. Corcoran was a teacher.

He learned to cheat, but only cheated himself. 

As Corcoran progressed through school, he became more and more resourceful in hiding his illiteracy behind his natural aptitude for math, athletic prowess and deep friendships. He hid it so well, in fact, that he taught bookkeeping, social studies, and physical education for several years.

Living this lie wasn't easy for him, he told me, but it was not nearly as painful as not being able to help students who faced a similar problem. They could not read and he could not teach them.

Corcoran eventually did learn to read, but not until long after he left teaching and entered real estate. He was 48 years old at the time and an exception to the rule. Most people never learn to read.

A brief look at the growing literacy problem in the United States.

Literacy
There is a growing literacy problem in the United States and our self-confidence, much like Corcoran's self-esteem, makes us blind to it. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 14 percent of adults in the United States cannot read (the same number of people who do not use the Internet) and, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), this number swells to 40 percent when counting those who only possess level one reading skills (marginally functional).

High school graduation is not an indicator. As many as one in five students graduate without being able to read. About one in four graduate without being proficiently literate. One recent study, OECD Skills Outlook 2013, placed the United States 16th in literacy proficiency (among 23 countries).

The same organization warned that the U.S. was the only country among 20 OECD free-market countries where the current generation is less well educated than the previous one. It published this finding as part of the National Commission on Adult Literacy in 2008. It's not any better today.

Individual career paths aside, literacy is a family matter. 

Any time I step on stage or in front of a classroom, most people cannot imagine me as anything but a writer. Even with other occupational titles, writing has provided my career with a strong foundation. I write approximately 10,000 to 15,000 words a week (excluding email and social networks), which is the equivalent of a novel every other month (and the reason I don't write a novel every other month).

Ironically, I can imagine my career path without ever becoming a writer. From the onset, I wasn't very good at it because strong writing is indicative of being a strong reader. I wasn't a strong reader.

Reading came much later for me. I didn't learn to appreciate it until seventh grate. Writing came even later. My skill sets were only passable up until my freshman year. Both have stories for another time.

Teaching To Read
The point is that I can imagine it because I had to imagine it. But what I could not imagine would be the inability to help my daughter when she needed it most. She reads with confidence now.

While it has been an amazing journey transforming my daughter into a strong reader during the past six months, I can't help but wonder what might have happened without intervention. What if I didn't know how to read well, let alone teach? How long could she have hung on as a struggling reader?

Three days this week with literacy. Maybe you could connect to one.

All Hallow's ReadThursday is All Hallows Read. Most people pass out candy, but Neil Gaiman continues to make the case that people could pass out books instead. He calls the campaign All Hallows Read, a program that inspires more stories and less sweets for Halloween.

I wrote about the program last year, including five titles that have always conjured up an appropriate spirit for the season. Feel free to add The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, written by Gaiman. Coraline is another family favorite. The film is part of my family's Halloween lineup.

NCFLFriday is National Family Literacy Day.  The National Center For Family Literacy (NCFL)  is hosting a fundraising challenge for literacy. Proceeds from the campaign will help the center continue its work, which has helped more than one million families make educational and economical progress.

The reason family literacy is so important is that children's reading scores improve dramatically when their parents become involved and help them learn to read. This isn't possible without literate parents so the program goes a long way improving the household. The NCFL is my friend Geoff Livingston's account and he is raising funds along with hundreds of others. They have a "thunderclap" scheduled.

Cegas Valley Book Festival
Saturday is the Vegas Valley Book Festival. The Vegas Valley Book Festival is the largest literary event in Las Vegas, bringing together hundreds of writers, authors, artists, and illustrators to celebrate literacy and creativity. All programs and events are open to the public. Admission is free.

As social media director for AIGA Las Vegas, I have been overseeing elements of the social media campaign, including an event schedule on Facebook. If you are in Las Vegas this Saturday, there isn't a better way to promote family literacy and art appreciation. There is also an event kick off tonight with Catherine Coulter as this year's keynote.

One last thing for my own curiosity: What are you reading and why? I really would like to know. It's important because you never know who it might inspire next because words inspire lives. They inspired mine.

Wednesday, July 17

How A Little Love For Learning Can Jumpstart A Reader

Summer can be a mixed blessing for most children. While it gives them a little more freedom to play, explore extracurricular activities, and enjoy more free time, it also separates them from their natural love of learning.

The break leaves many of them at a loss after the summer, which is why most teachers set their startup lessons to be either refreshers or benchmarks. They want to know what these children retain over the summer.

Theoretically it works, unless these the children were already slipping in proficiency. Many children are. My daughter is among them.

Despite private school, she ended first grade with an F reading letter level on an A-Z scale, which represents an early reader at the start of first grade (not the end). She landed somewhere in the middle of her peers, which was better than my son did at that age in public school (and he had outperformed most other students there). But it really wasn't good enough.

If we assume that most children drop two reading letters over the summer — because they gravitate to books below their levels, if at at all — then we might also assume students like my daughter would automatically face challenges in second grade. Ergo, even if her new teacher started teaching the class at an H reading level, my daughter would have been critically behind as a student reading at a D level.

You can see the potential problem here, especially because many parents are unfamiliar with the various reading level benchmarks. They simply see their children reading and smile, thinking it's good enough. It's not. My daughter would have been lost after the first few weeks of school.

How parents can develop an accelerated reading program for young students.

Awareness is always the first step. Take some time to become aware of reading level benchmarks and find out where your child finished at the end of the school year. It doesn't matter which benchmarks the school uses — letter, numeric, or Lexille (a.k.a. Lexi). All benchmarks correspond to a grade level.

Some parents just don't know. While I knew my daughter's level this year, we never knew my son's reading level when he was that age. If you don't know, don't panic. Look up the books he or she has read or looked at since the end of the school year. A search with the book title and words "reading level" will usually produce a landing page that corresponds to one or all benchmarks.

Discover books to move them forward. Assume that the books are at their reading level (or a little less) because children (like adults) tend to gravitate toward what they can read easily and not what will improve their reading. Have them read whatever is on hand (or that they have been reading) out loud to demonstrate their strength at that level. You'll immediately get a sense of their proficiency.

Depending on how well the student reads, choose books that are at their level (if they are struggling) and slightly higher. Make sure you double check the approximate level too as all book publishers use different measurements. For example, Penguin Level 2 books are generally first grade books; some "I Can Read" Level 2 books are second grade books; and some Scholastic Level 3 books are second grade books.

Encourage kids to read the books out loud. It doesn't take much time. Between 15 minutes and one half hour of reading time every day is enough to propel them forward. Just remember that from their perspective, natural story breaks make more sense than random page counts or hard time quotas. They'll enjoy reading to a preset goal.

It's also best for parents to pick the books. Sure, children can provide input, but parents need to be aware that young readers pick books based on topics and characters they know. From experience, these better known characters tend to have clunkier writing and thinner story lines. Too many weak stories will cause young readers to become discouraged. So try to pick books with strong stories while paying attention to the language lessons.

Learning words by sight is a tiered process. Any time a student comes across a word that he or she doesn't know, block out everything except the first syllable (or block out everything except the root word) with your fingers. Most of the time, doing so will give them just enough confidence to get it right. And if they struggle, explain any rules that might help: e.g., sometimes "gh" sounds like "f" and sometimes it's silent.

The point is that you always want to help them solve a problem as opposed to reading the words for them (and letting them parrot you). Only when all else fails do you read the word and tell how why they missed it. Then ask them to reread the sentence and pay attention to whether they've mastered the word on the next occurrence. If they haven't, add it to an index card.

Flash card drills help create intangible rewards. Every morning after breakfast and/or after lunch or dinner, my daughter and I now work through flash cards that are mostly made up of missed words. There are only about eight or ten cards to go through one time. (It's important to only go through the pile one time per session to ensure long-term retention.) The only other words I include are instructional words; words that may appear in second grade instructions like "complete," "correct," "length," etc.

If my daughter gets it right with no assistance, we put a mark on the card. When she gets five marks on the card, she keeps the card and rips it up. As she rips these cards up, new ones are added so there are always plenty of cards at various stages of completion.

She thinks of it as an achievement reward and each ripped up card is celebrated. And if she misses a flashcard word in a story, I give her a one-time prompt that she already ripped the word up and we don't want to add it back. She immediately remembers. As an aside, never offer candy or monetary awards because you'll risk teaching them to love the reward and not a love for learning — which I believe is the ultimate goal of any teacher.

When my daughter returns to school this year, she will be well beyond her peers. 

If you read through these accelerated reading steps, then you'll likely be left with one question. Does it work? Within four weeks, my daughter moved from F to K on an A-Z scale. At this pace, she might reach Q by the end of the summer. To put that into perspective, Q is the letter for a fourth grade reader.

A few days ago, I spoke to a group of educators about communication (and I'll be sharing the deck next week). It was during my presentation that I shared one of my observations about education: I have never met a kindergartener who wasn't enthusiastic about school. So if we want to solve the problems with education, then we have to look at what happens between kindergarten and the fourth grade.

I believe reading proficiency is one of the biggest things that happens or, perhaps, doesn't happen. Too many children have not met the reading level required for their grade level. Their parents don't know it.

At yet, reading is the core requirement for every other subject (including math, with its abundant word problems). It seems to me the problem is apparent. Unless the material is easy to read and the problem easily understood, how can they ever hope to understand it or solve it, let alone enjoy it? Exactly.

Literacy is the key to every other subject, along with a love of learning. It needs a little more attention. It needs a little more awareness. It needs more advocates. So how are you spending your summer?
 

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