Tuesday, July 12, 2016

What I learned about writing while failing my first marathon

As a middle-aged guy, I struggle to keep in shape. Ok, to be honest, I’m not in good shape unless paunchy is considered chic these days. I rarely get to exercise much beyond walking 15-20 minutes between my office and the subway station. But there was a time before I became a dad when I actually tried to -- and believed I could -- run a marathon.

Perhaps that is overstating things. In my training to run 26.2 miles, I never got beyond 15. Still, those months of training taught me a lot about writing, especially about writing novels. Here are a few of those lessons.

Lesson 1:
You don’t have to do it every day, but you can’t let it go too long if you want to remain both motivated and in shape to accomplish your goal. When I started training for a marathon, it was summer. On occasion, I had to deal with some heat issues, but mostly I would run early on Saturday or Sunday with the occasional “maintenance run” after I got home from work in the evening. But summer days eventually shorten and when you live in suburban New Jersey, you learn not to trust drivers to see your reflective vest as the sun goes down. So before long I was running almost exclusively on the weekends. The same can be true about writing. Sure, lots of writers aim to write every day, but sometimes there's just not even fifteen minutes to squeeze in between work, commuting, perhaps a doctor's appointment or special dinner or event. Life happens. But if too much of life gets in the way of writing, well, let's just say you start to doubt your ability to complete things.

Lesson 2:
Treadmills are boring, but they help you meet your targets. The analogy here is writing backstory that you’ll need to remove. Some writers will disagree, but not everything you write needs to be golden. I’ve written thousands of words that will never see a reading lamp outside my home. But I needed to put that time in to get to know the characters better, to get a stronger sense of what motivates them or what they aim to accomplish. It gets edited out – at least, it should most of the time. Unknown characters are like relationships that don’t get beyond the physical attraction. Without putting in the time to discover your characters, you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to the “injury.” You need to build endurance.

Lesson 3:
Your longest run can still serve as motivation, even years later. I still recall the thrill of running 15 miles. It had been a major milestone for me, because before that run, my longest was about 13 miles – not quite half a marathon. I have “finished” a novel. I’ve had beta readers go through it and give me lots of great advice for ways to improve it, much of which I’ve applied. It was wonderful to complete that first draft and entertain the dreams of seeing it published. But still I know it’s not ready. I eventually trunked it and went to work on other novels, which have also been trunked as a result of my commitment to EBP, but they too will eventually see “The End” written, I have no doubt -- in part, because I've finished one before.

Lesson 4:

It’s ok to change your goals, even to “quit,” as long as you know why you’re doing it. I still run, even though I have not aimed for a marathon in almost ten years. I set new targets for myself. I have annual mileage goals I aspire to these days, and I set monthly goals with the annual goal in mind. In a similar way, I have realized I don’t have the time currently to write a novel. But that’s because I started Elephant’s Bookshelf Press and instead of seeing my own novels published, I aspire to see my company produce at least two books a year, preferably more. It might not sound like much, but it works for me. I also know that I will eventually chisel out the novels that are in my brain. Call me a quitter if you like, but I chose the path I’m jogging along even if my pace isn’t quite what it used to be.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Expanding our next anthology

Sometimes being a small press makes it easier to change directions quickly. As the deadline for our latest anthology was approaching, we decided to make an alteration – or edit, if you will: the anthology is no longer limited to urban fantasy now; we are accepting fantasy stories of any setting.

An EBP fantasy anthology has always been in the planning, to tell you the truth, but several of the submissions we’ve received so far have been only barely urban fantasy and more along the lines of fantasy. So this change enables us to open things up a little bit.

With the story focus expansion, I believe it’s only fair to change the deadline as well. The new deadline has been moved to Friday, September 9. As a result, our publication date will need to shift, too. We haven’t quite nailed down the date, as we have other books in process, too. But I suspect we’re looking at early 2017.

Based on the submissions we’ve received so far, I’ve also decided that fantasy stories need a bit more room than other genres, so the word count has been boosted to 5,500 words. There’s no change in where to send the stories: submissions@elephantsbookshelfpress.com

If you’re wondering whether your story has been accepted or not, fear not: unless you’ve already received a rejection, the story is being considered. And if you’ve received a rejection, you can submit another story for consideration.

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to us at the same email address listed above.

Friday, March 18, 2016

My latest guest post

Yesterday, I had the honor of appearing on the writing blog of Michelle Hauck. If you don't know about her or her blog, take a look. I think you'll enjoy it. I sure do.

In the meantime, how is your writing going? We're almost a quarter of the way through 2016. What have you created so far? Care to share?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book review: Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works

My latest book review. Pardon me if it's a bit too "philanthropy" focused, but I enjoyed this book.

Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works

Changing the world is a lot like writing a novel: many people say they want to, but only a few actually accomplish their goal, and fewer still succeed in creating something that gets noticed.

In Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works, business strategist Roger L. Martin and Sally R. Osberg, president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, provide an overview of the burgeoning field of social entrepreneurship and share the stories of several social entrepreneurs who have changed — and are changing — the world for the better. And, like the entrepreneurs they highlight — nearly all of whom have been recognized by the Skoll Foundation for their efforts — Martin and Osberg mostly succeed in their objectives, providing a definitional framework for the field, explaining the joys and challenges of the work, and finding compelling examples of people who have overcome those challenges.

Martin and Osberg define social entrepreneurship as direct action aimed at transforming, rather than incrementally improving, an existing system; in the process, a new equilibrium is created. Moreover, social entrepreneurs work in "ways that do not fit neatly into the traditional modes of government and business." Whereas businesses are constrained by a need to earn profits, and government-led change efforts are designed to provide services to citizens rather than cultivate new customers, social entrepreneurs are able to "[negotiate] these constraints. The creative combination of elements from both poles...is what enables [them] to build models designed for a particular context."

Through their work at the Skoll Foundation and the Skoll World Forum, Osberg and Martin have observed that transformative change involves four key stages: first, the social entrepreneur must understand the system she is trying to change; then, she must envision a future in which that system has been changed, build a model for achieving the change, and, finally, scale a solution.

It is not enough, for example, to be repulsed by a tradition such as foot binding or female genital cutting that has been standard practice in certain societies for centuries. Rather, the social entrepreneur "sets out to make sense of the problematic equilibrium itself: how did it come to be and why does it persist?" To do that, Martin and Osberg write, the social entrepreneur must "navigate three powerful tensions" with respect to the world they wish to change: abhorrence and appreciation; expertise and apprenticeship; and experimentation and commitment.

Take the case of Molly Melching, the much-honored founder and executive director of Tostan, a nongovernmental organization headquartered in Dakar, Senegal. Melching, who arrived in Senegal in 1974 as a young academic and, after her program was canceled, found work as a translator for various development agencies, soon fell in love with the country and its people and almost immediately "began heading out from the urban familiarity of Dakar, with its French enclaves of cafes and bookstores, into rural villages." There, she saw signs of failed development and ineffective educational initiatives almost everywhere. "There was little appreciation [within the development community] of the reasons indigenous communities operated as they did," write Martin and Osberg, "[or] why the unhappy equilibriums that prevailed in Africa persevered even in the face of new incentives." After a few years, Melching "came to believe that a different approach was necessary if change was to happen sustainably in Senegal." Continuing her travels, she "sought to engage ever more deeply with communities…learn[ing] from and build[ing] relationships with village elders and young people, to explore community networks, and to shape her knowledge of how the society was structured." In the process, she became intimately familiar with the established equilibrium that prevailed in rural communities — and eventually realized she could do something to change it. After learning and helping teach rural children in their native Wolof language, Melching founded Tostan as a vehicle to scale a community empowerment program and start a conversation about human rights and women's health issues.
Of course, some problems defy simple solutions, and what works in one cultural milieu may not work elsewhere. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a social entrepreneur to come up with an innovative solution to a problem only to discover that the particulars of the local context make it impossible to scale beyond the initial group of individuals he had hoped to help. Given that reality, Martin and Osberg seem to suggest that real, lasting social change is largely the result of leadership — the hallmarks of which include humility and the ability to think outside the box.

It was the latter, for example, that enabled Bart Weetjens, founder of APOPO (Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development), a registered Belgian nongovernmental organization, to reduce the costs of detecting and disabling land mines. For much of the second half of the twentieth century, dogs had been used to sniff out mines in post-conflict countries, at a cost of $300 to $1,000 per mine. Meanwhile, training a single mine-sniffing dog can cost upward of $40,000. Weetjens, who kept small rodents like rats and hamsters as pets when he was young, recognized that the animals might be both intelligent enough and small enough to do the job for a fraction of the cost. The result of his epiphany? APOPO's army of rats has cleared nearly seventy thousand mines and more than twenty-five million square meters of land since 2004, and along the way Weetjens learned that they could also be trained to sniff out tuberculosis in human tissue samples.

If the book has a shortcoming, it can be blamed on the relative immaturity of the social entrepreneurship field and the lack of a research base detailing the impact of such endeavors. By the authors' own admission, the book is a step, but only a step, down the long road to a cleaner, safer, more sustainable world. It also raises, for this reader at least, as many questions as it answers. For example, as the first generation of social entrepreneurs passes from the scene, who and what will keep their organizations, many of them founder-led, from fading away? And what of the millennial generation, which seems long on good intentions but lacking in resources and, at times, resolve? Perhaps Martin and Osberg will answer those and other questions in their next book. In the meantime, Getting Beyond Better is both a good read and an excellent illustration of the real potential of social entrepreneurship to change the world. That's something we should all embrace in these uncertain times.