Wednesday, September 22

Burning Things: Inside A Story Form 50 States

Where's There Smoke
Every time I read an article about wildfires sweeping the western United States, it's always accompanied by an acute sense of loss. I feel for every family forced to evacuate, never knowing what they might come home to or if there will even be a home to go back to when they can return.

Last year, more than 17,000 structures were burned or damaged, many of them houses. More than 550 homes were lost to California's Dixie fire just this year. That's just one fire. And wildfires are not the only culprit. Every year, more than 14 million people go homeless after natural disasters around the world. Events like Katrina in 2005, for example, added 12,000 new homeless in the New Orleans area alone.

Reading about it sometimes makes me wonder what I might do if I was forced to evacuate. We make a mental inventory of what things might be worth saving. Or, in some cases, we wonder what things would be sacrificed. My home, for instance, displays a dozen or so paintings my father painted before his death. He was only 19 when he died, but his talent was phenomenal. The paintings connect me to him. But I don't see how we could save them in an emergency.

What is it about the rest of it?

Aside from family photos and other heirlooms, what about the rest of it? Most of the items in our homes will one day be reduced to an estate sale or hauled away for the trash. And yet, for most people, these possessions become as much a part of them as their memories. 

Early last year, my home was broken into by one of our neighbor's kids. Every item they took was an individual violation, with the worst of them being two cars we left in the garage. One of which, my vintage Infiniti, was nearly totaled (technically totaled). So, I get it. 

And yet, there is always this tiny holdover from when I was 10 years old and forced to give up everything I owned — except for three choice playthings — when I was dubiously moved from one household to another. Things are just things, you tell yourself. Let them go.

Inside 'Where There's Smoke.'  

I wove several themes into the short story 'Where's There Smoke' inside 50 States. But most people who read it see what's on the surface first. One of the last families to evacuate a wildfire that will almost certainly consume their home sees presumed looters racing up to the house as they leave it behind. 

I write about them and what they would do. But if it was you, what would you do?

On the one hand, the fire will likely consume the entirety of everything left behind. On the other, strangers will invade your home, taking those things you painfully surrendered.

There is a grayness here where no one answer is the right one. It's a life-defining moment, regardless what decision is made. If you continue down the hill to safety as your home is ransacked, it says something about you. If you decide to head back to the home to scare them off, that says something about you too. And so do all those supporting decisions in between.

By the way, if you are wondering what to do about wildfire, the American Red Cross has a wildfire relief fund. You can read about wildfires and the volunteers who help evacuees receive the support they need.

Monday, September 13

Writing: Why Fiction And Why Bother?

When I told one of my clients that I would eventually retire into writing fiction, she blinked in disbelief. 

"Do you really want to do that?"

"Yes," I said. 

As an executive, it didn't make any sense to her whatsoever. Why would a guy with mile deep resume as a strategic communication consultant and A-list marketing and advertising copywriter start over as a fiction writer? It might be nice to write something for myself for a change, I said. For the last 30 years, I've only written for other people.

That's what I told her. But the answer is a bit more complicated, one with several answers that depend upon how the question is framed — including that old standby many authors have. It's an itch that needs to be scratched. 

Why do you love writing fiction? 

Initially, it was really about telling stories. Storytelling is so important in our lives. Once a child's basic needs are met, the next step in their development is to hear a story. "Tell me a story," they ask and ask.

I was no exception. I always asked for stories. And as soon as I was old enough, I starting telling stories too. I had a story about everything. My stuffed animals had backstories. My play activities (like army men) had back stories. The games I made up with friends had back stories. I told so many stories, my grandmother used to laugh about it. If you don't become an artist, she said, become an attorney.

Ironically, I wasn't a very good reader (or writer) despite my love for stories. All of my stories were illustrated, play acted, or verbal. It wasn't until I changed majors from psychology to journalism that I became a strong writer — good enough to have established a 30-year career after it became my go-to medium over art and illustration (which I'm trying to brush up and catch up on nowadays). 

Right. That's a bit of a back story, but it doesn't answer the question. So here it goes.

Why do you love writing fiction?

More than any other form of writing, it seems that fiction empowers us to open up deeper conversations about life experiences. And, because fiction involves fictional characters, it creates a safe space to talk about those experiences because well-written stories involve us emotionally without requiring a personal expense. Ergo, we may be vested, but we have no skin in the game. 

When fictional characters make decisions in the face of life-defining moments, we can agree with their choices or not, understand their paths or not, and make our own decisions about how we feel or what we might do too. When the story works, it can be a powerful experience.

But hey, why not nonfiction?

As a journalist and sometimes as a writer for the nonprofit sector, it wasn't uncommon for me to write about complex subjects, but the exercise is different. It's grounded in reality, with the story being told belonging to someone else. While these too can lead to powerful experiences, it's often without the ability to explore someone's pain or joy beyond the empathy we may or may not feel for them. 

For example, several years ago, I developed a campaign about pool safety. We shared some stories with local newspapers, but the heaviest lifting was a series of print and radio advertisements. 

What I learned then, as I know now, is that fiction hits different from fact. When people read about real life drownings, they often react with outrage toward whomever left the child unattended — often a flash-in-the-pan emotion. But when they experience it as a fictional story like the one we developed for radio, the award-winning spot just hit differently. 

In the radio commercial, the narrator (a father) tells the story of a little boy who wanted to grow up to be a fireman. The little boy, the father continues, even bought him a fire truck — one that made so much noise (you know the ones) that it became annoying. The father even laughs before his voice cracks, lamenting how he misses that annoying siren now because his son, the want-to-be firefighter, fell in the pool while rescuing a toy and drowned. 

There is no outrage. The listener feels the story as if it's their story, and it sticks because they feel the character's remorse as opposed to judging a neglectful parent. Even then, I was writing fiction.

There are no pool stories inside 50 States: A collection of short short stories, and I seldom, if ever, include a definite stance on any outcome like I did in the pool safety commercials. Often, just like life, there isn't any right answer in the decisions my characters make or how they cope with their decisions. And that's what I love about writing and reading fiction. 

Friday, August 27

Flipping Pages: 50 States And 50 Stories


What's your book about? It's the most commonly asked question and an easy one to answer for most authors. For me, it's a bit trickier to answer because I don't have one answer. I have 51 of them. 

The first answer, which should be my 51st answer, is that 50 States is a debut collection of experimental, psychological, and speculative short-short stories. Each story takes place in a different state and touches on different states of mind. It's an accurate depiction but doesn't really share enough. 

So, if someone doesn't ask about a specific state, I ask them what they like to read and mention which story or stories match up. There is a little bit of every genre inside 50 States, and most of them, I'm told, cut darkly. Here's a lexicon of sorts so you can see what I mean:

A look inside the 50 stories that make up 50 States.

Broken People. Idaho 2003. Fate gives a farmer another chance for redemption.

The Lake House. Conn. 2005. A grandmother shares how fixing a family is like refinishing furniture. 

Dead Ends. Utah 1992. A couple takes an adventurous turn off a desert highway. 

The Blue Door. Calif. 2019. A woman feels the gravity of her decision to open a motel door. 

The Best Life. Ark. 2019. A man trolls the Internet for old flames after acquiring a unique gift. 

Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Mich. 1975. Three kids visit a haunted house on Devil’s Night. 

Wet. Wash. 1971. A teacher strike becomes a catalyst for action in a coming-of-age story.

Private Conversations. Colo. 2020. A loner hears whispers on the mile-and-a-quarter MallRide. 

A Beautiful Day. Penn. 1990. A patient asks paramedics to sound the siren for heaven. 

Good Neighbors. Nev. 2019. Two neighbors have their first conversation as one moves away.

The Qallupilluk. Alaska 1982. A runaway becomes immersed in the Yupik culture.

The Chain. Iowa 2016. A woman confesses to a police officer while sharing her past. 

The Straw. Va. 2012. College students test the boundaries of their friendship. 

Leftovers.  Wyo. 2020. A woman works to reconcile a relationship with her grandfather. 

Spinning Wheel. Fla. 1969. A young artist decides to reunite with his son in another state. 

Vertigo. N.M. 1955. A man has one final thought after he jumps off a hotel roof. 

The Domino. Mo. 1962. A shanty town family is warned that the time to run has come. 

The Interview. N.Y. 2017. A recent law school graduate interviews with a Manhattan firm. 

The Stranger. S.D. 1982. A mysterious stranger wanders into the back room of a dying diner.

Forget Me Nots. W. Va. 1971. An aging mother relives the same day in a nursing home.

Bad Things. N.H. 2018. A veteran and recovering alcoholic hides out in a crossroads bar.

The Engagement. N.J. 1981. A fortune teller predicts doom just days before an engagement. 

Papa Gede. La. 2014. A teenager attempts to practice voodoo to escape an abusive uncle. 

The Standoff. Ariz. 2017. Two immigrants from different countries face off under Arizona’s sun.

As It Seems. Kan. 1971. A farm family welcomes strangers into the safety of their storm shelter. 

Screen Door. Wis. 1981. A narrator recounts his regrets after losing a family cottage. 

A Hole In The Wall. Hawaii 2020. Two teens meet at a hole in the wall that isolates them. 

Where’s There Smoke. Ore. 2019. Looters look to capitalize on a forest fire evacuation. 

Punching And Hugging. Md. 1990. A groom has second thoughts on the day of his wedding. 

All Your Joys. Mass. 2019. A troubled teen chooses the wrong house to rob in Salem. 

Four Fathers. Ga. 1968. A father explains how only one of his children had the best of him. 

The Samaritan. Ind. 2016. A teenage girl escapes harassment by taking a ride from a stranger. 

Indian Wrestling. Minn. 1968. Two boys challenge each other to prove their courage.

Into The Bardo. R.I. 2017. An investigator discovers something sinister off the coast. 

Tidy Lines. Mo. 1992. A brother demonstrates contempt for his sister’s boyfriend. 

The Catch. Texas 1957. A German circus lures a local lad on the promise of extra work. 

Time Capsule. Maine 2017. A young woman returns home to find her hometown unchanged. 

Top Rung. S.C. 2013. A successful woman contrasts her sister’s choices on a morning run.

All The Wild Horses. N.D. 2019. A ranch girl interferes with the round-up of wild horses. 

Sidelines. Ill. 1963. An aging mid-level manager wonders why one boy never boards the bus.

On The Fourth Of July. Del. 2018. A babysitter is attacked inside an affluent coastal home. 

Mockingbirds. Okla. 2006. A writer reflects on life after meeting a recovering veteran. 

Precinct 13. Ky. 1978. A gang of kids hatches a rescue plan to save two neighborhood pets. 

The Extra Mile. Ala. 2008. A man wonders if God might work at a convenience store. 

Siren’s Call. Vt. 2019. A family’s home becomes the target of revenge and retribution. 

The Right Choice. Neb. 2010. A retired delivery driver for Hostess regrets saving a child’s life. 

The Sweeper. Miss. 1972. A filmmaker uproots his family for racial unrest in the rural south.

All The Odds. N.C. 2020. A woman celebrates her deceased brother’s birthday with a drink. 

The Thin Blue Line. Ohio 2017. A delinquent teen is pressured into robbing a rail patron. 

Wheels Go Round. Tenn. 1977. Two runaway teens only have one bus ticket between them.

50 States is moving forward, much like it was written, one story at a time.

I always knew 50 States would move forward much like I wrote it — one story at a time. Every day, I ask one reviewer to consider my book (several reviews are pending now). Every trip, I ask one bookstore to stock signed copies (which I'm now listing these locations here). Every month, I've re-formatted editions for Apple, Kindle, Google, and Nook.

At the same time, I'm moving many of the stories inside 50 States forward, writing new stories that either continue, link, or otherwise keep those listed above very much alive. If you want to follow along, you can find me on most social networks or subscribe to my quarterly newsletter. I hope to see you there. Writing and publishing can be a fun and exciting adventure! Good night and good luck. 

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.

Thursday, July 8

Telling Stories: The Fiction - Nonfiction Dichotomy

His question almost stumped me. While taping my appearance on Ira's Everything Bagel, award-winning broadcaster Ira David Sternberg asked me to talk about the dichotomy of fiction writers/readers and nonfiction writers/readers.

Is there a difference? I don't really think so.

Sure, some people think so. Many people feel like Beasts of No Nation author Uzodinma Iweala as captured by Miwa Messer's column on Barnes & Noble Review. Despite his first book being fiction, he always felt that historical accounts of war and biographies seemed more relevant. There were more facts to hold onto and tangible lessons on how to live a life grounded in historical relevance. 

Other people say the opposite. Chris Elder, for example, wrote a post on Bookstr a few years ago. It's titled "Why Reading Fiction is Better For Your Brain Than Nonfiction." He quotes Mark Twain to serve his point. "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t," said Twain. He might have been on to something. Even the Havard Business Review has made a case for reading fiction.

Then again, how much of a dichotomy is there, really? I line up a little closer (but not exactly) with writer Mark Grant, which is why the question almost stumped me. "In general, fiction refers to plot, settings, and characters created from the imagination, while nonfiction refers to factual stories focused on actual events and people," Grant writes on Book Riot, right before delving into the fact that the two often intersect.

Maybe the dichotomy is made up or, if it exists, is razor thin. 

This might be a bit too philosophical to some, but the entirety of reality is made up of stories. In fact, homo sapiens arguably evolved from an unexceptional savannah-dwelling primate to become the dominant force on the planet because of them. 

It didn't really matter if those stories were fiction or fact. All that mattered is we learned to tell them, sharing past experiences or imagining a different experience altogether. In fact, this is the very premise of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harai and a concept I hard-baked into many communications classes and presentations over the years, including the one I delivered to the National Recreation and Park Association in 2015.

People are the only creatures on this planet that exist with a dual reality — one formed by our perception of the world around us (the desk, the chair, the window) and one that is formed entirely by abstract concepts, societal constructs, and public opinions. In short, most of our facts are not facts at all.

Maybe our brains can't tell the difference between fact and fiction either. 

I don't mean this rigidly. The brain processes sensory information and imagined information differently. We can tell a character in a novel apart from a living person. And yet, we can't deny that fiction acts as a sort of surrogate life. It can even influence how we see the world, doubly so if that fiction is packaged as real (like more documentaries pretend to be).

There are reasons for all this. The capacity for cognitive empathy is why we feel for fictional characters in stories, novels, and movies. So while our brains might process sensory information and imagined information differently, the sensory input of a book or film can still be mirrored by specific neurons, causing us to feel what all those characters feel or believe what those characters believe. 

One might even say it's the embellishment of fact that has made David McCullough, Adam Makos, and Brad Meltzer some of the most successful historians and biographers out there. Their storytelling ability helps bridge the gap between fact and what we fantasize about, triggering cognitive empathy and creating stronger, longer-lasting memories. 

Who knows? In some sections, they might have embellished plenty, much in the opposite way some fiction writers rip off reality on a regular basis. Or maybe I just made that up. Good night and good luck.

Postscript. Great news. The Kindle edition of 50 States will be available on July 21. Preorder today.

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.

 

Blog Archive

by Richard Becker Copyright and Trademark, Copywrite, Ink. © 2021; Theme designed by Bie Blogger Template