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Stories 2019: How Did It Go?

In 2017, I began submitting and tracking my fiction writing and then posted a 2018 update. How did it go this past year?

  • In 2019, I submitted versions and revisions of 33 stories 111 times to 49 different outlets. This included 22 contests.
  • Between January 1 and December 31, 2019, I received 106 rejections (including some for stories submitted in 2018) and two acceptances (1.9%).
  • One losing story received an Honorable Mention.
  • Several rejection notices came with brief comments from editors. A few of my favorites:
    • “We felt the story was well written and confidently told, and we thought the relationship between [A] and [B] well established. We wondered if this piece may benefit from expanding beyond the flash form… we’d love to read more of your work.”
    • “The editors felt that it was a little cutesy…”
    • “There’s something satisfying about that punch at the end!”

Much of the feedback on my stories in 2019, and in previous years, included versions of “this should be longer,” so I have kept that in mind when revising and writing. 

Stories Published in 2019

Three stories were published in 2019, including one accepted in 2018.

On January 22nd and August 27thDaily Science Fiction published independent stories with the same cast of characters. Both capture what my friend Danny Hamsley calls the “curse of the big brain”, which challenges us as parents raising children, and as adolescents dealing with clueless moms and dads.

On November 4thMicrofiction Monday Magazine published “Cedar Balls” (99 words; 1 minute read). My brother and Reverend Jim Ignatowski inspired the seventh, critical rewrite.

Enjoy the stories and thank you for reading!

Managing Risk by Screening Out Trouble

My work as a researcher in forestry sometimes highlights ideas relevant to developing plans or managing risk in other industries. For example, it helps to have a simple screening and ranking process. Without a structured approach to ordering the world, the world will impose its views on us. 

The fact is some things are more important than others, some things are easily verifiable, and some things depend on others. We have “nice to have” and “need to have.” There are “necessary” conditions and “sufficient” conditions. Simple processes help us sort the mess and prioritize.

At Forisk, my research team applies simple screens each quarter to the wood bioenergy sector to sift out speculative projects. Typically, our analysis suggests one-third of these projects will fail. We’ve fielded disgruntled calls over the years on this, but back-testing has found that our screening, applied consistently and systematically for over a decade now, has been helpful. 

Our screen poses two answerable and generalizable questions. First, does the project rely on a proven technology? In other words, does this thing work? Second, has this project secured at least two of the necessary resources or agreements such as financing; air quality permits; engineering contracts; or supply agreements? In other words, is this thing moving forward and on schedule?

While we can always ask other questions, this approach has proved useful in systematically distinguishing probable from speculative projects, investments, and technologies. Simple screens don’t tell us everything, but they do tell us something that focuses the mind and reorders follow-up questions.

We all apply screens in our lives. Does he tell the truth? Does this house have three bathrooms? Does this car have a big enough trunk for my flux capacitor? The key is to apply these screens consistently, systematically and then revise based on back-testing performance over time. That’s how we learn and improve.

For those interested in a further discussion of screening risk or the wood bioenergy sector, click here to read a seven-page white paper.

Stories 2018: How Did It Go?

In 2017, I began submitting and tracking my fiction writing in earnest. So, how did it go this past year?

  • In 2018, I submitted versions of 33 stories 76 times to 33 different outlets. This included 12 contests.
  • By December 31, 2018, I received 64 rejections and three acceptances (4.5%).
  • Two of the rejected stories did receive “Honorable Mentions” in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine flash fiction contests.
  • Several rejections came with brief notes from editors. A few of my favorites:
    • “…almost there with this piece…”
    • “…the exposition at the beginning stalled the story before it got started…narrator was over the top simple [and] stupid…”
    • “…the narrator has a rich voice, and the story is well told but constricted…this should be a longer story…”
    • “It wasn’t a bad story…I could see it in an episode of Tales from the Crypt.”

The three acceptances included my first professional (sold) stories, both to Jonathan and Michele at Daily Science Fiction. Thank you!

2018 Stories

Two of the accepted stories were published in 2018. 

On October 24thDaily Science Fiction published “Water Carrier” (591 words; 3 minute read). The idea for this story arrived during an NPR Driveway Moment. I remembered seeing The Gods Must Be Crazy, an indie film about a remote tribe disrupted by the arrival of a single Coke bottle, which proves useful and incites conflict. Then I imagined visiting a peaceful village lacking the ability to carry water.

On October 28th, 365tomorrows published “Day at the Office, Night on the Job” (353 words; 2 minute read). I remember hearing Bubbee, my wonderful grandmother, use the line “but the money was clean” once in a story involving (literally) dirty work. That line stuck with me and led to this story.

Enjoy the stories and thank you for reading!

Communicating in Public: How to Prepare and Deliver a Wedding Toast

Since clipping on my first tie as a child, I’ve sat through many a wedding speech. Unfortunately, most memorable speeches and toasts carved out mental real estate in my head for the wrong reasons: they went awry or too long or both.

Those ‘toasts gone bad’ motivated me years ago to draft a four-part wedding speech “recipe.” Since then, I shared it with friends and colleagues to help them settle nerves and organize thoughts before stepping to the microphone. The recipe, like the PREP framework outlined in an earlier post, reduces anxiety by removing the need to figure out how to start, organize, and end a tight and heartfelt toast, especially for last minute preparations.

Brooks’ Four-Part Wedding Speech Recipe

  1. Relationship 1: note how you know or met the person inviting you (easy for siblings; “he’s my baby brother…”).
  2. Entertainment: share one fun or personal story that most folks in the room don’t know that is also appropriate and “easy” to tell (no 12-part sagas or “making” it funny; it’s just a story).
  3. Relationship 2: tell how you met the spouse or when you realized that he or she was “the one” or when you learned the relationship was serious.
  4. Toast: say “raise your glasses” and how happy you are for them and wish them love forever….

An alternative on “Relationship 2” as suggested above is to share a single piece of advice, lesson or story from your own marriage or from your parents. These often resonate and ring with truth (and humor).

One final recommendation: do your drinking AFTER delivering the speech.

Have fun!

The Most Important Person on the Team

Who is the most important person on your team?  As much as we’re “all created equal,” we join and work with teams comprised of higher performers and lower performers. Some salespeople exceed quota; others struggle to keep up. In sports, most players, at any given time, watch from the bench. How do we reconcile “managing our stars” with “managing the team”?

Years ago, Ian “House” Somerville and I co-captained the MIT baseball team, an experience I wrote about in Beaverball: A (Winning) Season with the MIT Baseball Team.  As captains, we met regularly with Head Coach Fran O’Brien to discuss upcoming opponents and issues relevant to maintaining team chemistry. Before our spring trip to Florida, House and I recapped one particular lesson that Coach O’Brien emphasized to both of us. He said, “The most important person on the team – and to me – is the last man on the roster, the person sitting at the end of the bench. Why? Because if that man really believes that he will have every opportunity to earn playing time, then he will push everybody else on the roster above him, improving the team’s attitude and performance.”

Coach explained how even the best player on the team would feel competition at practice, keeping him sharp and on top of his game. Each person, at some point in the season, needed reminding that playing time and leadership were not rights or entitlements; they were privileges that one earned. The minute a job or leadership role becomes an entitlement, we have a morale problem, a performance problem, or both.

Did Coach believe that team success relied on lavishing attention on our newest, part-time intern? No. He simply highlighted the importance of reinforcing expectations. A manager holds everyone on the team to the same standards for key values such as hustle, integrity, and cheering your team. If the star third baseman dogs it on and off the field, the manager must hold him accountable.  As a player, and as a teammate, it’s incredibly motivating to see leadership in action, to see deed follow word.

Coach reinforced expectations with everyone on the team. He said, “running around is fine for getting into shape, but during practice and games we want focus.”  He explained how each person contributed to the team’s success.  For example, during practice drills, he would tell Eddie, our back-up catcher, “Gun those guys down! Make them work for that extra base, Eddie. Help us get better!”

The message isn’t complicated.  But it requires a commitment to communicate consistently.  As managers, it is our job to “hold the line” on the most important values and expectations, and to take the time required to clarify how each person adds value. In recognizing this lesson, not only do we serve the team, we help ourselves.