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Monday, April 9, 2018

A Community of Writers

I'm writing a new series of essays called Walks With Sam, and this post is how you can be involved either directly or indirectly as a reader and/or a writer, how reading the series can benefit pets, and how writing on a subscription-based site can help you as a writer and the charity of your choice. 

If you follow me at all, you know I am not a fan of the plethora of writing "tips" found all over the Internet. Much of what is there is clickbait, and although there are some slivers of good advice, a lot of it leads to formula writing. Think of it this way: There are a lot of good pasta sauce recipes from all our Italian grandmothers, and there are certain things that make all sauces savory, but not every sauce is the same, each is made a different way, each has unique and varied ingredients, each is cooked in a unique way. And in the end, you may not like every sauce, but it's still pasta sauce. All of it. 

I'm a big proponent of simply getting after the work. If you want to be a good golfer—go play. If you want to be a good painter—paint. Writers should write, not belabor over tips and advice. It's okay to make mistakes, whatever they are. Mistakes are simply steps along the way, right? The idea is to get to the work. Yes, you need a framework of skills, you need support, you need to read the work of good writers. But there is only one way to be a writer and that's to write.

I have found a wonderful site that keeps you engaged in your writing. It helps you maintain deadlines and supports your work, and best of all, it gets your work out there for others to read and share. Writing should be shared. Personal journals are great. But art—painting, sculpture, music, theater, writing—should be offered to the world.

A friend turned me on to Channillo.

The site is a community of writers on a digital publishing platform that allows authors to share their work in regular installments. The "regular" part is crucial. As a writer, it forces you to stay on a deadline, to populate your "series" regularly, to write, to create. As you certainly know, inspiration alone does not make you write. If we all waited for inspiration, we would all be still waiting. Writing is a job. Go to work. Channillo helps you do that by keeping you "responsible" for populating your series. Yes,  submit to other opportunities—journals or lit magazines. But Channillo, due to its commitment component, keeps you writing no matter what.   

And if you are not ready to write, then read at Channillo. 

There are wonderful stories of all kinds, styles, and themes. Poems and prose. You can follow a novel's progression, or read regular columns, or essays. 

Channillo is somewhat discerning. You can apply to write a series, but only a limited number of writers are accepted each month. That's a good thing. It keeps the quality high and it encourages those who are not quite ready as writers to keep at it, to work at their craft. I was contacted by the founder of Channillo, Kara Klotz, through Twitter to consider writing. I'm so happy she reached out.

I write a weekly series entitled Walks with Sam. I had written a 60,00 word novel about a man who walks this dog every morning after facing a number of life setbacks and begins to rediscover the world through those walks. But after finishing the first draft, I wasn't satisfied. I thought maybe the Walks with Sam concept needed something different. Maybe it needed to be real. Nonfiction. Essays. Memoir. So, to keep me focused on this new approach and to see what kind of reaction I might get from these weekly installments, I found a home for the walking stories on Channillo. The jury is still out on what will come of the series, how the series will progress, and if it's worth more. But no matter what, there it is. For me to work on and for you to read. I'm sharing not only my work, but my writer's journey. 

And that is the beauty of Channillo. 

There is one more thing, although it is not the main reason to use Channillo. Writers get paid. This is a subscription-based site for readers. But I would suggest setting up your work to be a non-profit. This allows you to use the proceeds for charity. It might be a bit easier to get people to sign up for a subscription if they know the money is going to a charity. I have signed up to donate all of my profits from Walks with Sam to PAWS Chicago, which works to build no-kill communities that respect and value the lives of cats and dogs. 

Take a look at Channillo. Sign up. Read the stories. Write for them. 

One last thing...

Here are a few reasonable recent stories about writers working on Chanillo that will give you a well-rounded idea of its benefits and scope. 

Keep writing! 


Sunday, March 25, 2018

What the Hell Do I Know? Thoughts on Writing

Some thoughts from a long-time storyteller, me.

It seems every writer with a computer is blogging advice about this or that, and most of it is a lot of blah-blah. (I'm guilty, too.) Honestly, advice is cheap. Yes, some of it comes from wonderful people, great writers, teachers, people who have walked the walk, many who have walked the walk far more successfully than I have. But, I've been telling stories professionally since the mid-1970s, either in print, online, in literary mags, through journalism, in books, or on the radio. And believe me, my long radio career has helped me be a better writer. "Telling stories" is far different than "writing" them, but telling stories on the radio is a key ingredient of my storytelling life. One has assisted the other.

So, with this background, some thoughts you can take or leave from this storyteller...

Write Each Day

Something. Anything. And be dedicated to it. Own it. Write it for you, but, even better, write for others to experience. Writing is a gift to others. The cliche of the lonely writer sitting with his own thoughts in a quiet corner of the world is a tired, pathetic thing. Writing is meant to be shared. Get it out there on social media, a personal blog, anything. Let it fly! 

Read Out loud

You've heard this before. But it is essential. Whether your work is for print, online, or for the speaking voice, reading it aloud will give you a sense of its musicality, its weight, its clarity.

Perform Lit Live

There are dozens of Live Lit groups around the city of Chicago, where I am, and in many other cities everywhere. They are wonderful opportunities to get your writing out there, to see how an audience (your "reader") reacts, how it resonates and connects. And most are open to new voices. Just reach out. 

Be Careful with Self-Publishing

I'm not here to bash self publishing. My very first book was a hybrid-publisher, which is one step above pure self-publishing. That book won respectable awards. My experience was a good one. But not all self-publishing experiences are. There are some awful publishing companies out there preying on writers. Be cautious. Do your homework. Hire an experienced editor and book designer. Hire a publicist. And be ready for bookstores to reject your book, simply because it's self published. All this said, self-publishing can be the right way to go if you are diligent and prepared for its realities and what comes with it. 

Don't Self-Publish

I know, I just suggested self-publishing might be right for you, depending on your goal. For instance, genre fiction does better through self publishing than literary fiction or memoir. So, before deciding to go that route, give your work a real shot with small presses and attempt to find an agent. Take your time and do your research. If you can get a traditional publisher, it's almost always going to be better for you. There will be more chances to get your book in bookstores and the like. I had an agent once. Dropped her. She was good. But I found I was making better inroads on my own, at least with small presses. If you're really going after the Big Five publishers, you will need an agent. Still, you can get published, legitimately, without one. This said, a great agent is just that, great, and along with a good writer, one can create a dynamic duo. 

Get Used to Rejection

You hear this all the time, but it needs to be repeated. It's part of the gig. I have been rejected over and over. Many times, it doesn't necessarily have to do with your writing or your story. Many times, it's a marketing dilemma. Is your story too much like a book the publisher already released? Is the subject matter too risky? I had one acquisitions editor tell me that no one in this business will admit that much of the decision-making process is purely subjective. Yes, the writing is important. You have to be a good writer. So, keep writing, and keep submitting. 

Take All Criticism with a BIG Grain of Salt

Not everyone is going to like your writing, your stories. They just aren't. This goes for other writers and readers of all kinds. Refer to the above about rejection and how so much is simply subjective. Still, one can learn from criticism. Yes, it can help you improve, just don't let it define you. Not all criticism is valid. 

Don't Dismiss Amazon

Too many authors badmouth Amazon. But the reality is Amazon is here and will remain and they sell a lot of books. This is not to dismiss supporting your local bookstore. Certainly not. But Amazon is a reality and, I contend, there is a place in the market for both. Be loyal to your bookstore. But if you are trying to sell books, you simply cannot completely dismiss Amazon. 

Read, For Goodness Sake 

This should be a no-brainer. You must read if you are going to write for print, online, radio, or TV. Reading is absolutely essential. And stretch yourself. Read the classics and read the comics. There is no good writer who is not a voracious reader. 

And Lastly, Forget This Advice

Advice is not always good advice. It's just advice. It's only someone's experience. And yes, what I have done well or not-do-well can be valuable knowledge for others, but still, it may not be what is best for you. Make your goal, aim high, and gather knowledge, but do not take what I say or write, or what someone else says or writes, as gospel. It's not.

One More Thing

Consider stopping when you want to improve. Don't over edit. Sometimes the fourth draft doesn't need the fifth. As Leonardo da Vinci said, "Art is never finished, only abandoned."

Oh, One, ONE More Thing

Take risks. Writing is art. Art is risky. Putting yourself or your stories out there is courageous. Take the leap. It is worth it. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

How Not To Be a "Formula" Writer

If Jack Kerouac tried today to submit his manuscript of On the Road, he would have a hard time getting it past many editors. Publishers are not as willing today to take risks. Jack likely would have had to self-publish, or find some tiny indie publisher who thought his story was worthy enough to give it a shot. 

There are many critics (whatever they are, whoever they are) who believe On the Road was not a well-written book. That it lacked discipline or convention. But my point is not whether On the Road was a great book. That's debatable and subjective. There is no denying its impact, however. And no denying it was not the kind of book that had come before.

And so with this, I wonder, why do so many workshops, independent or publishing house editors want writers to stick to the formula, the long-held rules, the conventional tenets of writing? Stay with a certain approach, write like this. Are there art curators who tell painters they must create their work in a certain way, a particular form, or adhere to a conventional process, like every other painter. No, of course not. Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" broke all the rules of conventional rock or pop on the radio. It had far too many verses. And it was too long. Six minutes and 13 seconds. The average length of a song on the radio at that time was under three minutes. Today, songwriters will tell you "Like a Roling Stone" may be the best pop/rock song ever written. 

Kerouac, like Dylan creating music, did not create the story of On the Road in the traditional way. He did not adhere to the "formula" writing that was expected. And of course, Kerouac is not the only writer to push away convention. I use his work only as one example of how many facilitators at workshops, MFA programs, and writing retreats ask participants to model a pattern. 

This is what I see and hear and read far too much:

1. Always start your story with action.
2. Show don't tell. 
3. Write your story in a three-act structure. 
4. Build a crisis and come to a clear resolution. 

These "rules" of creative writing are all over the internet, in the workshop brochures, in the lesson plans of higher-ed programs, especially continuing-ed programs. The majority of the "tips" out there include these ideas. 

"Beware of advice. . .even this." —Carl Sandburg

There is something to these so-called rules, there is truth in each one, to some extent. But what has happened, in my estimation, is that we are producing a lot work that is similar, the same, in a particular formula. Writing that is almost paint-by-number, writing that is put together with an instruction manual, as if Ikea were running a writing workshop. 

I do not write this as an expert, for there is no such thing. And it would help if we are reminded of this. There are masters of the craft, of storytelling, of literature, but "expert" implies that he/she has all the answers to your writing woes. They don't. They won't. Don't expect them to. 

Certainly, as a reader, you may like a formula story, or a conventional structure, or like lots of dialogue or not, or wish the writer would stop "telling" so much and "show" more. (Whatever that means. There are so many schools of thought about what this actually means.) And ultimately, it is the reader who is the critic, the last reviewer. 

Some would argue that self-publishing has partly created this "formula" approach. So you want to be published? Do these four things. And some "real writers" believe literature has been dumbed-down because there are no longer strict gatekeepers. The music industry "experts" said the same thing when small labels began to sprout in the early days of Indie Rock. And of course, we have all read the stories of how many great writers of the past had once self-published: Zane Grey, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot. I could go on and on. 

"We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master." —Ernest Hemingway

My base discipline is journalism. Broadcast, mainly. But my memoirs and fiction are part of my creative life. They fuel the energy. And in the end, I write for me. Yes, of course, I want to the reader to enjoy, to find connections: I want the story to resonate. But, and this may sound selfish, I first must satisfy myself. Many writers have said the same. And it might be that what satisfies me is not formula, is not of the conventional wisdom. This means, of course, that some may dislike my work. That's okay. I accept. But I'll take that over developing work that fits in a neat little box. 

"Style is to forget all styles." —Jules Renard

I've been lucky enough to have publishers want my work. Are the Big Five scrambling for my manuscripts? No, they are not. But that, too, is okay. Would I want them to? Sure. But obtaining their acceptance is not why I write. 

So, if you want to abandon formula and find beauty in your words simply because they are yours, then forget, at least partially, what you have been "taught" and write what is resting on your soul and in your heart, and don't look back. 

"And if from this turn inwards, from this submersion into your own world, there come verses, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. . .a work of art is good if it has risen out of necessity." —Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Generous Writer

I was listening the other day to one of my favorite radio shows, Sound Opinions, with Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis. In this episode, they were interviewing music producer, Don Was, who has worked with Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones. Was talked about working with what he called "generous" musicians, musicians who played from the heart, who were not quick to show-off what might be his/her flashy technical prowess. "There were two kinds of music,"Was said. "Generous music and "selfish music." "Selfish" is someone standing up with his guitar playing "a thousand notes a second." Basically, all he is saying was "look at what I can do." It is like "watching an acrobat." He must have "practiced a lot." But this music doesn't "impact your life." One can appreciate the skill. On the other hand, "generous music" comes from people who "spill their guts" and then have the ability and courage to share it with strangers. "Generous music" transcends any style or genre.

Was was right. But I wonder if he knew he was not only talking about musicians, but writers, too.

What is a generous writer? 

The generous writer doesn't spend his time trying to craft the acrobatic sentence. That's what a selfish writer does. "Look at what I can do," he says. Certainly nothing wrong with a well-crafted sentence. But what have some of our most revered storytellers said? Hemingway: "Write one true sentence." Kerouac said, "Don't count syllables." When talking about poetry, Kerouac said to keep it "simple and free of poetic trickery." "One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple," he wrote in The Dharma Bums.

Are you a generous writer?

Do you keep it simple where you can? Do you believe opening your heart, (in memoir or fiction or personal essay), is more important than being praised for your technically perfect grammar? Are you authentic to your prose? Are you true to your story? You don't make your story sweeter than it is. You don't make it more troubling than it is. Will the reader discover your soul in your writing? Do you reflect a shared humanity? Do you believe in the power of words?

Do you believe your words have that power?

Generosity comes in many ways, and being a generous artist comes in different forms. But the spirit of generosity comes from one thing—something deep inside. William Wordsworth wrote in his poem, The Prelude: "Fill your paper with the breathings of the heart." I'm not sure there is any better piece of advice. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Walks With Sam

I took a long walk the other day. Before the snow melted, before it was washed away by warmer weather and rain. My dog, Sam, and I set out for a winter hike. It was a couple of miles long, long enough to re-balance. The beauty of a long walk is just that, a matter of re-balance.

I'm also working on a new novel, a work-in-progress, based on a man who tries to re-balance his life through daily walks with his dog. The people he meets, the intersection of thought and movement of feet, the aloneness, the surge of endorphins all play a part in his redemption. But so does the dog, the dog's intuition and the power of unfaltering love. 

The morning was gray, but the snow gave it light. There were tracks everywhere. People tracks, dog tracks, tracks I did not recognize. Little feet had scampered to or from something in the hours before dawn. 

In the park about a mile from home, the village had fenced off a hill to give children a safe place to sled. The snow was packed and icy. But there was plenty of evidence that it had been put to good use.

I wore my knee high rubber boots, a poor man's Wellingtons or Wellies, as they are affectionately called. It was damp, slushy, and muddy in places. The boots allowed me to walk with Sam in the park's most water-swollen spots. I unhooked Sam's leash and let her run and romp. She made circles around me and around the icy pond. She ate snow. It was not easy to get her back on the leash. No dog wants to be tethered. 
It was early enough that few people were outside. Not even the early, dedicated joggers or the reliable dog walkers. Just me. Just Sam. And we liked it that way. There was solace in the silence, a quiet the snow had helped to recreate. And I could think. Consider the place where I walked, and allow my mind to wander, to reconnect with the world. Not the world of the daily news, the Trump chatter, or how spring training was progressing. But the natural world, the world out in the open.

As I write this, Sam is stretched out at my feet on the hardwood floor. She does not know that we are heading out again this morning. She does not know that I will again slip on my "Wellies" and tramp my way around the neighborhood in the light rain that falls this morning. She does not know that I just might let her off the leash again, to jump and splash in the mud and the puddles. She doesn't know that we are again about to re-balance in the world outside, in the grayness of a February morning, but also in the light of a new day. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Learning to Write

I'm a teacher, a journalist, a broadcaster, and an author. I am not just one of these things, I am all of them. I'm also a guitarist who occasionally writes songs. I am a father, a husband, and a friend. I try to be as good as one can hope to be at all of them. There are occasions I fail. Sometimes fail miserably. I'm not perfect. But I do know this. I have learned much along the way. And I am better, I believe, at every one of these parts of me—these aspects of myself—than I was the day before. It's a matter of incremental steps.

I could write much about this notion of growth when it comes to fatherhood or being a good marriage partner, I'm certain of this. That's probably a different blog post or better left for the therapist's office. So, what I want to write about instead is writing and growing as a writer. 

I have published six books. The sixth coming out this April. I have a memoir manuscript being shopped around now that I'm proud of and feel strongly about. It's received some good interest from potential publishers. We'll see where it goes. I'm also working on a new novel—very early stages—and I am determined for it to be the best writing I've done. For certain, I know I write this now NOT because I want to reveal to you all my accomplishments or want you to think how special this guy is, how talented, how wonderful. I write this because I want you, the reader, and all the other writers out there to know, even after all the writing and work I've done, and being humbled by all the wonderful writers in Chicago, I still believe I have not yet written my best book.

When I go back and re-read my earlier works, I question nearly every word. I read much that I would now change, re-write, massage, tweak. Not because I think it is bad or unworthy, but rather because I am not the same writer I was when I wrote those earlier books. Hopefully, I'm better somehow, have more insight, more skill, and not just technically or as a crafter of words, but more skill as a storyteller with something worthy to share. This said, my desires are not truly about being better, but rather about whether I have grown. Grown in many ways. Grown as a person, a father, a husband and a writer, with all of these "growths" contributing to the writer in me. 

Writers read a lot. I read a lot. Tons. My wife laughs at the number of books that come in the mail. I admire so many writers. Especially some wonderful contemporary writers in Chicago. I could name them, but I would miss many, and I don't want to do that. If you follow the literary scene in Chicago, you know their names. And others you may not know, under the radar writers with much to say. They are extremely talented. I read their work and I shudder. Could I ever write that well? But then again, I know that I do write well. I wouldn't still be doing this, have another novel coming out in the spring; I wouldn't have publishers interested in new work or have been humbled and honored by the awards I have won. Not the National Book Award (Seriously?), or the Nobel (LOL), but awards of value and recognition—Chicago Writers Assocaiton Award, honored at the Chicago LIbrary Foundation's Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner, the Royal Dragonflly, The Eric Hoffer Prize.

So why am I writing all this? To pump myself up, as writers often need to do? No. I write this to acknowledge that writing is a journey. It is not about perfection. I write this in the belief that the art of the written word is a moving target. Art in all forms is much the same. Painters change and reinvent themselves and their work. Songwriters do it, too. They grow into new artists with something new to offer. Think of the Beatles. Is the album Revolver better or just different from Abbey Road? And when the surviving members listen to those old records, do they wish they could change a lyric, a harmony, a note, alter the way it was produced? Yes, they do think that sometimes. McCartney has said so much. But their work is what is for the time that it was created, the time along an artist's growth journey, and that's what it should be. 

I will continue to grow. And I hope, continue to find new ways to develop for me and for those who read what I write. And I will move forward and try not to overly critique every word, every theme, or plot—vague or not—and try never to question what I am. For at least in part, I am a writer. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Submit Your Work

Every single time.

Students, workshop attendees, friends who want to write all say the same thing: "I have this material, and I think it's pretty good, but it probably isn't, but I don't know, and I'm afraid to send it out, and so it sits in a file on my computer."


Other writers,  beginning and accomplished, say: "I have some work that might fit for that, but no, it's not good enough, or it needs more work, or...or...or..."

Putting your work out there as an artist—any kind of artist—is an act of courage. Beginners and veterans alike struggle with self-doubt, concerns about whether something is perfect, whether it is finished. Here's the truth: It's never perfect and it's never finished. Art never is.

If you wait for perfection, you'll never share it. And art is not art if it is not shared.

I have a writer colleague, who will go nameless, who said once during a bookstore event we were sharing, that when she is finally finished with a manuscript, she is certain it is exactly how she wants it. Every little corner of it. That is probably true. She's an excellent writer. But I would argue that she is only finished with it, that is only perfect, at that very place and time. At that very moment. In time—weeks, months, years, or decades—she will look back at that work—even a published work—and see something she wished she had done differently. I guarantee it.

There is not one piece of writing—published books, short stories, essays, journalism—that I have "finished" that at some point in the future I have not wanted to adjust, change, rearrange. A word here. A sentence there.

Perfection, like inspiration, is elusive.

And that fact brings me to this:


The Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, Illinois is open for short story submissions. The HEMINGWAY SHORTS contest is all-inclusive—beginners, veterans, writers of all types are encouraged to offer their work. And one of them should be you. Write no more than 1500 words and submit for a chance at publication and a grand prize of $500.

Here's the link to do just that: Submit—Hemingway Shorts

Put your work out there. Make it the best you can, but shun perfection. You can tweak and edit and rework ad nauseum. Just let it go. It will do you good.

Art must be shared.