Broken Preferences

Merced River in Hazy Yosemite Valley
Merced River in Hazy Yosemite Valley

Broken Preferences

What happens when you “should” like something and don’t? I found this gargantuan (788 pages) book recently: The Best American Stories of the Century, referenced in “Twenty Things to Do before Submitting Your Story to a Lit Mag: Part 1” by Erik Klass for a piece in LitMag News (behind a paywall). He used it to illustrate what makes a good story. I bought it as inspiration and a guide to better short story writing. And good reading.

John Updike, the editor, picked one story per year. No author appeared more than once. This, of course, can’t be a valid collection of the greatest short stories, but I assume they needed guardrails to make tough choices. The collection starts with stories from the turn-of-the-century. “Wild Plums” by Grace Stone Coaates and “That Evening Sun Go Down” by William Faulkner.

Many of the stories from early America are incredibly difficult to read. They focus on extreme poverty, lack of education, etc. I’m sympathetic… but getting through the dialogue is excruciating. Presumably, it’s authentic (there’s no one alive to confirm). The challenge is compounded by the use of terms that are now deemed offensive. These stories are challenging reads due to the bleakness of the situations andthe use of non-standard language.

This reluctance to engage in like stories popped up elsewhere. As part of the amazing George Saunders Substack, he has us read different short stories. One of them was “The Gilded Six-Bits”. I couldn’t tell you what the story is about because I can’t get past the first few pages. The dialogue, the characters… it was like a mountain I didn’t want to climb. So I didn’t.

My problem is writers I respect revere these stories. So the limitation is with me, not with the work. I remember struggling through Mark Twain novels in high school. For now, with an unlimited amount of unread stories, I’ll avoid these turn-of-the-century snooze-fests. And look forward to more modern short stories in the collection.

Book Review: The First Five Minutes of the Apocalypse

Apocalypse Book
Apocalypse Book

I have a personal connection to this book. I came across the following call for submission back in January 2023:

“We want that (apocalypse) story. It doesn’t matter how this thing started, what caused it, or where it came from. That’s not what we’re after. We want the experiences, the points of view, the wild, weird, disgusting, disturbing, beautiful, heartbreaking things that happened at the very beginning of the end of the world.

Short horror, weird, dark fiction between 1500 and 4000 words (firm limit) that deal with a fictional apocalypse.

The story must take place within a short period of time (less than a day) at the beginning of a fictional apocalypse. The story shouldn’t be the inception point or the origin of the apocalyptic event. It shouldn’t even be about the event itself. Rather, it should be about when it all started for the POV character(s). Make it personal. Make it weird. Make it disturbing. Make it beautiful. We’re gonna get a lot of zombies, so points for originality.”

Bingo! Right up my alley. I set most of my stories in a post-apocalyptic world. I wrote a story called “Through the Fog”; about 2500 words about a pair of men left alive in their rural town after a purple fog rolls through.

I worked on 2 other contest stories at the time… but was careful to prioritize the stories based on due date. I completed Through the Fog on time but, but, but… never submitted. I don’t know how I neglected to send the entry. Sadly, I didn’t realize this for months. I was actively waiting for a response from the editor, which, of course, never arrived.

After my self-directed anger subsided, I ordered the book. The First Five Minutes of the Apocalypse is from Hungry Shadow Press and edited by Brandon Applegate. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of quality; the press was new to me and the turnaround time from the end of the contest to publication was just a few months. The collection of stories is quite good, and the quality of the storytelling and editing is high.

Each story envisions the apocalypse differently. Disease, aliens, nuclear war, etc. One of the most interesting was Estrangements by D. Matthew Urban; the apocalypse is something that tricks human minds into seeing monsters instead of other humans. The Scream from Andrew Cull is a well-done “classic” PA tale of a family trying to escape a paralyzing agent that captures victims in a hideous muscle-lock, while navigating lawlessness. The Door in the Basement is even weirder.

The collection has recurring themes. Two stories from the POV of animals. Two stories featuring wives very upset with their partners. The recurring theme that hits the hardest is regret. Lost Time by Eoin Murphy is the best example and my favorite story in the collection; facing the end of everything, do you regret how you spent your time? Chasing career advancement in the office on a Saturday?

I enjoyed the collection. It’s an interesting angle to take in the PA space. The stories are the right length and of good quality. I only skipped gave up on two stories, a high hit rate for a collection. Would my story made the collection? Maybe. We’ll never know.

Mo Money, Mo Problems

Tenaya Creek, Yosemite
Tenaya Creek, Yosemite


One of my pet peeves are barriers to spending. Specifically, when I have a need and finding help is hard. The most common case is home contractor work. I’ve defined projects, realistic budgets and no one to do the work. And searching for contractors usually includes missed appointments, lack of follow-up, vague answers, etc.

I’m in a similar place with writing. I need for an editor/partner to help progress my writing. Most of my submissions (hundreds) have been rejected. Obviously, something is missing the mark. Sure, I can send individual pieces to freelance editors, but I’m looking for someone to help/guide/edit the writing en total.

I’d like an editor/coach to lift the quality of my writing, hone my style (what works, what doesn’t) and, most importantly, offer real feedback on all elements of the writing. An expert can elevate the quality of my writing.

Much like with housing contractors, I can’t find such partners. Although not for a lack of options. A quick Google search for “writing coach” or something similar returns hundreds of hits. Collectives of coaches and editors, individuals, extensions of writing schools and seminars. Specialists in memoirs, corporate writing, novels, coaches to encourage you and keep you accountable. But few specialize in genres or short stories… or present as a collaborator.

I reached out to a few independents. Crickets.

Perhaps my expectations are unrealistic, but this is my creative output at stake, and I need someone I can trust.


Book Review: Slade House

Giant Sequoias
Giant Sequoias

Readers of know David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors. I took a break from reading his books after Cloud Atlas. Since then, I’ve re-read Ghostwritten and The Bone Clocks (my favorite). During the re-reading Bone Clocks, I discovered Slade House was a follow-up to Bone Clocks.

I read, somewhere, Slade House was about an extraordinary house in a city… naturally, I thought it was the backstory of 119A (a Horologist safe house). No, Slade House is different. I liked the book; reading it immediately after re-reading The Bone Clocks was immensely helpful… I was already in the Mitchell universe. It follows the usual Mitchell approach; seemingly unrelated narrators who tie together in the end.

There are a few notable differences. The book is short compared to most DM novels and feels much simpler. As I read it on a vacation, it worked for me, but readers who expect the usual deep backstory may be let down. And this book is a quasi-horror, part haunted-house tale. Everything about Slade House is disconcerting; I felt dread for characters caught in its web.

One of my goals for reading Slade House was to pay close attention to how DM told his stories. First person, always. Backstory delivered naturally, not through info dumps. References to other people, even passing, were connected to his larger universe. But done in a lighter, interesting way… even though we jumped between four narrators, they were compelling with different viewpoints of the same situation.

It was hard, though, to concentrate on how DM “did his work”. I was too interested in the narrators and the story. Mostly, I cared about what happens next. I even experienced this with Bone Clocks, a book I’d read, but forgot the nuances. This immersion in the story and its characters is what makes DM a brilliant author and someone to emulate.

Slade House is strongly recommended. An intriguing read with a clever conclusion. The biggest con is to fully appreciate the side references and parts of the conclusion, the reader should have read at least the Bone Clocks.

Writing in the Name Of…

Savannah, GA
Savannah, GA

(Apologies to Rage Against the Machine)

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. One of the many truths I’ve internalized about writing is how much imitation plays an important role in the creative process. This feels wrong, at first. Isn’t copying someone else plagiarism?

Life is gray, as is the line between copying and inspiration. We are hard-wired as students never to quote sources, to read and absorb and write in our own language. Upon entering the business world, my boss told me to copy because no one cared about “that stuff” in the real world. But the creative process is funny. There’s a book called “Steal Like an Artist.” A great podcast, Song Exploder, describes the inspiration behind creating songs. Many of these stories start with taking a beat or a rhythm from another song and playing with it. By the time they release these songs, the pilfered part is un-recognizable… it turned into something new.

Authors do the same. Developing authors copy the prose of another, more famous author. Sofi Bahcall studied small passages of Nabokov every night. I’ve tried this as well… early on, I’d start my writing sessions with ten minutes of copying passage from The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises or Dubliners. I’m not sure these books were useful (Gatsby and Dubliners are written in an old-fashioned way) but it felt good. It forces the examination of sentences and word choice and how these masters jump between dialogue, story-telling, and exposition.

I used Wool by Hugh Howey to discern the rules to follow for backstory and explanation. My copy of that book is dog-eared to the start of Chapter 3… a scene between Holden and his wife, Allison. A transitory scene, not very important to the story. Howey interspersed conversation regarding the surrounding room. These references set the scene and provided the rules for the world (describing their ancient, claustrophobic rooms, computer systems, etc.).

Authors copy themes and stories. How many stories are re-telling of Biblical tales, or legend of King Arthur, but in modern times? This resonates with me; sans an editor, I wandered deeply into un-helpful writing patterns. No exposition or basic descriptions of setting or people were allowed. Everything started en res. The result is stories that read more like screenplays than short stories. I wanted to re-boot this rule set and check back with my favorite authors and see how they handle the mechanics of their writing.

And wow, my favorite authors don’t follow any of these self-imposed rules. Exposition, descriptions of people when they are introduced, backstory, time-shifting… the things I had convinced myself were verboten.

So my new, new plan is to re-read David Mitchell and pay close attention to how he handles voice, exposition, description, and, of course, his intertwined plots. I can’t copy him, per se, as he writes in the first person. I’ve tried, but whenever I do, my characters become super whiny and introspective. And part of his magic as a writer is capturing the voice of the distinct characters (Dutch from the 1800s, old sea captains, musicians from Europe, Horologists, etc.). I won’t ever write as well as Mitchell, but I need to break free from this rut.

The Dinner Party Question

Dinner Table
Dinner Table

A classic conversation starter is, “What four people from history, alive or dead, would you invite to a dinner party?” I hear this query a lot on podcasts, especially with authors. What four authors would I invite to a dinner party?

I’ve struggled with this question for two reasons. One, am I putting together a party of just my favorite authors? Like an all-star team? Or assemble a group who could converse? How much conversation can an old Russian master have with Murakami and Mark Twain? Different languages, different time periods, etc. The second element of the question I’ve struggled with is hosting a dinner party… I’m not George Plimpton. Seems like something out of a seventies playbook.

I’m practical and will error on the side of realism. My invited authors need to share a language and a time. As to not limit myself too much, I’ll have a modern guest list and another from authors active in the 20th century.

The modern party is easy. David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman, Emily St. Mandel and Haruki Murakami. This list won’t surprise readers of this site, as these are my favorite authors. This group speaks English (I don’t know how good Murakami’s English is, but he lived in the US for years) and is living. Much of their writing is based in the modern world with otherworldly/supernatural elements. All have had books adapted for either movies or series. I can’t know for sure if they are fans of each other, but Mitchell wrote Number9Dream like Murakami, so he is a fan. And someone who writes about Japan.

Oddly, none of these authors are American (by birth)… maybe this adds to the mix? I picture the four of them sitting in a private room in a nice restaurant in NYC in the early afternoon. Mixed fare, some wine, but nothing crazy. Conversation is slow to start, but picks up eventually, swapping publishing stories and Hollywood gossip and life on book tours. The glue is their commonality.

My dinner party for authors of a different era is more complicated. It has to start with Hemingway. He’s the star of the team (warts and all), so I’ll build around him. F. Scott Fitzgerald is easy to slot in, as they (for a short time) were friends and confidants. John Cheever in the third seat. I’ve only read a handful of his short stories (The Swimmer is one of my favorites), but his reputation as bon vivant, the celebrity hard-drinking author from the fifties and sixties, makes him a lively choice. And perhaps he was a fan of both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who were of a similar era.

The final slot is hard. Can I get away with an author from a different time? Hemingway listed Mark Twain as an influence, stating all modern American literature comes from Huck Finn. Twain was from an earlier era… barely. Twain passed around 1910 and Hemingway was born in 1899. Or adding Gertrude Stein instead. I’d recreate Paris in the twenties, but is that so terrible?

This group would enjoy their dinner either in a Parisian cafe or a hot, open-air bar in Cuba, complete with waiters in white jackets, bottomless rum and slow-turning fans, tucked away from a chaotic street.

The list for a modern party was so easy. I’m disappointed I couldn’t make it happen. Maybe an indie documentarian or short series producer on Apple TV plus could pull them together. The older party feels more like a re-creation.

Spring Cleaning, Bookshelf Edition

Authors Together
Authors Together

I’ve written about my bookshelves in an earlier post. Since then, I’ve collected more books but not shelving. I have a space issue.

I banished my leather bound morning pages journals to the closet and consolidated my growing collection of magazines. Now to choose books to get rid of… first were the terrible books I’d acquired “for free”. Then the seemingly important but ultimately unreadable books like The Origin of Species . Finally, the garbage books that I’d purchased but discovered weren’t worth reading, or hopelessly dated books (environmental best practices from the late 1980s).

The excess books filled a large plastic bin destined for donation to the local library.

Now to the fun part; how to organize? My guiding principle is make books easy to find, rather than systems based on size or color. Authors with the highest number of books dominate the central stack; Hemingway, Gaiman, Mitchell, etc. and are bunched together. Below them are “classics”, anything from A River Runs Through It to Cheever’s short stories.

By Topic
By Topic

The second stack is organized by topic like writing, poetry, philosophy, history. Heavy programming books, along with old dictionaries and picture books on the bottom shelf. And the newer butcher block shelves get “everything else”… fiction but not classics or literature or bunched by author. I used the top for the larger books and items that don’t fit on shelves.

It’s neater, for now. And I can find the books I need when I need them. This exercise yielded some interesting findings… like how many books I have by authors I don’t read anymore (Ed Abbey or T. C. Boyle). And, sadly, I’ve confirmed certain books I used to own (Dubliners, The Road) are gone.

Where is My Yesterday?


Paul McCartney claims to have heard the entire melody for Yesterday in a dream. My dreams are more pedestrian. If I’m stressed, I dream I’m in high school and cannot find my next classroom. If I read about someone during the day, they may appear in my dreams. Binge-watching almost guarantees characters or scenes from the show settling into my dream world.

I’m struck by the connection between creating during the day and generative dreams. Is it related to one of my recurring themes on this site: the importance of continually working the creative muscle?

Working ten hours a day creates work dreams. If I, instead, spent three or four hours working on stories and writing, would my dreams reflect the same? If I didn’t dream about TV shows or manifestations of stress, would my Yesterday appear?

It’s naïve to think I wouldn’t have stressors. Other things would fill that space. But maybe a little more room would help? And if my mind reacted to the increased effort of working through writing problems rather than politics at work, all the better.

One of my frustrations is my story ideas are based in reality, with real people working through problems. I’ve recently encountered a term for this: low stakes. And that’s not a compliment. If my unconscious would do more work, could my ideas become larger? More surreal? Include different worlds or incredible characters?

Is there a way to hack the process? One of the stoic habits I’ve always considered but never implemented is writing out all of my thoughts and worries before going to bed. This works with Morning Pages… clearing out my head in the morning leaves me free to write and face a new day.

LNK: []

A Universe of Abundance

Mets Spring Training 2023
Mets Spring Training 2023

Sometimes it’s easier to disprove than prove.

Many books on creativity and the writing process speak of a universe of abundance. Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way‘ brought the concept to my attention initially; I’m sure I’d heard it somewhere, but never in this context. Others mentioned it as well, most recently (for me and my reading) Rick Rubin in the delightful “Way of Being”.

Julia explains,

“If you think of the universe as a vast electrical sea in which you are immersed and from which you are formed, opening to your creativity changes you from something bobbing in that sea to a more fully functioning, more conscious, more cooperative part of that ecosystem…

  1. Creativity is the natural order of life. Life is energy: pure creative energy.
  2. There is an underlying, in-dwelling creative force infusing all of life—including ourselves.
  3. When we open ourselves to our creativity, we open ourselves to the creator’s creativity within us and our lives.
  4. We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, are meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves.”

When I first read this, I was skeptical about the universe and energy. It’s far from my “real” world in corporate career technology. Hard to swallow.

Rubin has a similar take: “Creativity is not a rare ability. It is not difficult to access. Creativity is a fundamental aspect of being human. It’s our birthright. And it’s for all of us.”

I don’t know if I’d describe my experience in the same way, but I agree with the general effect; opening up every day and listening brings results. Working the habit, or training the muscle, opens one to a bottomless well of ideas.

This state is easier to disprove that to prove. When I fall out of the habit of generating with ideas, or jot down notes, or to work through story ideas… it’s very difficult to begin. Instead of too many ideas and too many thoughts, I have none. What I assume is referred to as writer’s block (closer to idea block). And it’s so, so easy to fall out of this rhythm. Currently, life is very busy between home and work. I’m still following my writing routine, but many mornings a week I’m rushed, and short either morning pages, my meditation or writing five-hundred words. The quality and quantity of ideas have slowed, almost to a crawl.

Simply getting back on track with a few weeks of focus always helps. My idea notebook fills up with ideas and fragments. Is it the universe, or a very finicky muscle that needs to be well-tuned to work? The process is the same for both. Only the story is different.

Book Review: Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita Book Cover
The Master and Margarita Book Cover

I’ve written before about how I consider recommendations. Pre-pandemic, I came across this list from baseball author Keith Law. He passionately recommended two books; Beloved by Tony Morrison and The Master and Margarita by Bulgogov.

I knew before cracking the cover Beloved was a heavy, emotional book, but was surprised at the supernatural/surrealist elements. Picked up M&M next, thinking it was a comedy (the recommendation highlighted the humor). Instead, it was a weird book set in Moscow in the 1930s, full of difficult Russian names and strange characters. I put it down after one hundred pages. A surrealist Russian historical novel wasn’t what I was wanted.

Since then, I’ve become a fan of Russian literature, thanks wholly to A Swim in the Pond in the Rain and the accompanying Story Club. I read Anna Karenina and a handful of the short stories in Nabokov on my own, and wanted more. Before buying new Russian books, though, I wanted to revisit M&M.

Attitude matters while approaching a book. I cracked into The Master and Margarita, knowing Bulgogov set it in old Moscow and surrealist. The humor would come from absurdity, not snappy dialogue or ironic thoughts of the narrator. And Anna Karenina cured me of any phobia I had about Russian names.

My favorite part of reading M&M is the prose. Something about the Russians and how they work with the language and tell a story. Bulgakov used more exposition than a modern story allows, but it’s done artfully. I’m never taken out of the story. My attention calmly flows from sentence to sentence. Reading is inviting and steady. But this made me wonder; who am I admiring? The author or the translator?

I’d never given much thought to the translator. We covered the topic in the GS class, and now I research the best translations. Anna Karenina had a team of highly respected translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Surely, the plot, characters and overall direction are the original authors. But I consider myself as much a fan of Pevear and Volokhonsky as Tolstoy and Bulgakov.

Whenever I finish literature, I read essays and articles examining the story. Most of the critique and praise of M&M refers to its absurdity. Satan’s Ball was the most absurd part of the book and my least favorite. I kept waiting for these sections to end. I enjoyed the reactions of normal people to the absurdity, though. And of course very much liked Behemoth, often referred to as the large black cat.

If this were a Hollywood movie, it’d be an ensemble cast. Woland, otherwise known as Satan, is a constant throughout the book, but as a sometimes-absent protagonist. His dialogue and action are fairly limited. For the first third of the book, the reader assumes it’s about a play and its effect on a newspaper and theater. By the end of the book, we’ve spent significant time with a character we barely meet in the first half, namely the Master. And Bulgogov only referred Margarita to in the first half of the book. Much like an ensemble movie, we learn how all of our characters faired in the last few pages.

I loved The Master and Margarita. The prose, the characters, even Moscow, called to me. And, a day after finishing, I ordered another Tolstoy, a collection of Chekhov stories and Nabokov’s Lolita. With Pevear and Volokhonsky as translators, of course.