Friday, June 27, 2014

Learning to Write With Michael Jordan

"Wait a minute? Did I read that right? What has Michael Jordan to do with writing anything?"
Great questions. And in response, here's your first lesson. Create a title that grabs the reader's interest. If you're here, it worked. If you're not, then you don't know what you're missing. I might have called this article "Learning the Hard Way" but what fun is that. This way I got to hang out with Michael Jordan, if only figuratively. So here goes...

Recently I received a slap in my authorial face and it woke me up. It wasn't hard slap. It was more like gentle pat on my cheek, more out of thoughtful concern than malice. Still like the title of this piece, it got my attention.
But let's get down to it. Michael, why don't you make your first point.
"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life."
In other words three-peats are tough.
Many of you have followed my recent successes on a fun new website The concept is remarkably easy. They give you 3 unrelated words and you give them 500 in return in the form of a comprehensive short story utilizing those three words. I was fortunate to make the shortlist for their first two competitions with my stories "Begin the Countdown" and "My Big Fat Mythical Greek Wedding." If you haven't read them yet, go to right now and read them. It's okay, we'll wait right here for you.
Back? What did you think? Pretty great, right? I thought you'd like it. I'm very proud of what they did.
I didn't win the big money but just making the shortlist was awesome, twice. First, they published both stories on their website. Then they created a very professional audio podcast each week featuring a different shortlisted story. Both are excellent but I love what they did with "My Big Fat Mythical Greek Wedding." When I first heard it I was laughing out loud and I already knew all of the jokes because I wrote them. (Be warned they do mispronounce my last name in both stories. It's "bye-bo", not "bee-bo". I let them know both times and we've had a good laugh over it.)
For a long time I had signed up for a twitter account but I never really used it. Then I read an article on how writers need to brand themselves through social media and how publishers actually look to see how many followers you have when considering your book. Really? Okay I'd better get with it. I thought this would be the perfect time to begin. So I tweeted my successes and retweeted many of the kind words by mashstories. And a funny thing happened. People read my tweets. Now I actually had followers, new ones every day, people I don't even know.
Then a couple of other successes came through. I can tell you I was feeling pretty good. So I sent off my entry, "Brother Robert's Discovery", for Mash Stories #3. Third time's the charm, right, this was going to be it, big money.
What was that, Michael? You have something to say again?
"Sometimes you need to get hit in the head to realize that you're in a fight."

Ah, yes. Then came slap. It came in the form of an email from my good friends at Mash Stories. Though kindly, it was short and to the point.

Dear Bill,
Thank you for sending us "Brother Robert's Discovery". We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to shortlist it this time. Don't be disappointed, but do try us again for the next quarter’s competition.
Thanks again.
All the best

Whoa! What? I mean, I thought we had a good thing going here. Now you don't want me? Are we breaking up? I was crushed. I sat in the corner and put on some John Mayer.
Yes, Michael, stop waving your overly long arm. I see it. You have something else to say?

"Be true to the game, because the game will be true to you. If you try to shortcut the game, then the game will shortcut you. If you put forth the effort, good things will be bestowed upon you. That's truly about the game, and in some ways that's about life too."

I hate it when you're right, Michael. I rushed it. In my defense I could fill a basketball stadium with excuses. I had so much work at the office in the next month, having to travel to Gainesville twice in the weeks to come, then family commitments, friends visiting, the summer was booking up. When was I going to write it? Best do it now and send it off quick. They'll love it and post it early and I'll get tons of votes and win the big prize! Great plan. Hooray! Let's do it!

I came up with a brilliant concept and wrote a fine story, but I didn't let it sit and gel and mature. I wrote it, read it over, and sent it off just a few days later, a full month or more before the due date. I went on with my daily chores knowing full well that soon First Place would be mine. It was inevitable, I mean, they love me.

A few days later at lunch I read my story over. That was when I saw the first typo. Dang it. (trying to keep it family friendly). But I still had a chance, maybe they'd love the story so much that they'd overlook it and let me fix it before they publish it. Just to be safe I didn't reread the story again.

Slap time. Wake up, Bill. You've got mail. Whack!

So what do you take away from all this? What are the lessons learned?

The big one, the easy one is don't rush it. It's fine to write your story in a few short days, but let it sit, do something else, come back later and read it over. You'll find ways to make it better. You know you will, you always do.

Don't be overconfident. Everything you write isn't golden. You're not perfect. No one is, even your idol. Vonnegut had stories he kept in his drawer that he or his publisher felt weren't up to his standards. They only got published after he was dead, and then he had no say in the matter.

Don't get lazy. Spellcheck will not find the wrong word if it still is a word and not just the wrong word. Someone once told me to accurately check your writing read the story backwards. Start with the last sentence, then read the next to last sentence, then the one before that. When you write a piece you spend hours hunched over it, delving deep into it. You get to know it, and anticipate it. You see words as you think they should be, not as you have actually written them. Reading the sentences out of sequence lets you focus on each sentence independently.

Finally, don't take it personally. You write words on paper, electronic or real. Readers, especially judges, react to those words. (Note: misspelled, wrong, or left out words judges react to a lot.) Just remember they aren't reacting to you as a person, just words on paper. They probably still think you're pretty cool. I still like them. (Hey, I did get a shout out today in their newsletter.)

So finally, yes I am ending this entry someday soon, here's what you've been patiently waiting for. I present to you my story "Brother Robert's Discovery". The words we needed to use were cathedral, monkey, relativity. The story is exactly as I sent it to Nothing has been changed, nothing has been altered. I leave it naked before you, typos and all. Immediately following the story are the judge's comments. (That is one of the best things about Mash Stories. Feedback. They will tell you what they thought, giving you the chance to grow and get better.)

Brother Robert's Discovery
by Bill Bibo Jr

Brother Robert ran through the cloister, a stack of papers clutched tightly against his chest. He didn't stop when Prior Matthew called to him from the garden. He didn't stop when he ran into the cathedral, his footsteps echoing in the vast chamber. He only paused as he crossed the nave and passed in front of the altar, to genuflect in thanks to his Lord. He must speak to the Abbot. Something glorious has happened.
When he reached the door to the Abbot's office he looked down at the papers in his hand. A tear fell from his cheek striking the top sheet. He cried out and quickly used the fabric from his sleeve to blot it up. Summoning his courage and his joy he entered.
William the 123rd, the Abbot of the Monastery of the Immortal Bard, sat hunched over an ancient manuscript, a large ornate magnifying glass in his hand. Two candles on either side illuminated the manuscript and very little else in the room.
"Who doth interrupt my study? Who stills my contemplation?" the Abbot said not looking up from his table.
Brother Robert leaned gently forward and said, "Father, please excuse this intrusion. I have glorious news."
The Abbott looked up to see his young student rocking side to side and all but bouncing before him. He saw the papers in the young man's arms. He nodded to continue.
"Father, it's my cellmate. He just finished this. I brought it right away," Brother Robert said. He placed the stack of papers in front of the Abbott and retreated to safety by the door.
Abbott William grunted and poked at the papers with his magnifying glass lest they bite him. They didn't. He picked up the top page and began to read. He took the next page and then the next and the next.
"Father, what does it mean?" Brother Robert asked.
The abbot glanced at a few more pages before replacing all of them on the stack. He sat back in his chair staring blankly before him.
"I no not," said Abbot William. "For these centuries following the Great War our order was tasked to retrieve all knowledge that was lost. Some doubted our methods, but we persevere. Given enough time, and our eternal patience, the writings of our Lord will be recreated."
"But this manuscript entitled "Relativity: The Special and the General Theory", I make no sense of it. It has no rhyme and little reason. Tis worthless, I fear." he said dropping the papers into the basket by his desk.
"Brother Robert, return to your cell. Wait by the side of your monkey. Tend to his needs. Keep his typewriter clean and his ribbon dark. Tis 'Hamlet' we want. Tis 'Hamlet' we need. Not this, this dribble. Go now and waste not my time."
His heart heavy Brother Robert walked back toward his cell. At the cloister he paused, looked up to the open sky, and wondered what was out there.

the end

The jury's comments:

- The narrative drive is strong and with more thought and attention it could have been a contender.
- I was gripped by this story, deciding at the opening paragraph that I was going to like it. The idea(s)
behind it are sharp and entertaining, as well as thoughtful and thought provoking. However - and
unfortunately there is a 'however' - as I read on, the quality of the writing seemed to go downhill. There are a few typographical errors, and there is even an error of verb form in the opening paragraph ('has
happened' should be 'had happened' because the story's written in the past tense). There is also a lot of
punctuation missing - something that is probably vital in helping the writing flow.
- I love the pace of this and the build up to the revelation at the end.
- My main problem however is the dialogue between the brother and the Abbot towards the end. It seemed to come apart. And there was a typo: "I no not" should be "I know not". There is plenty that is good in this story; but that piece of dialogue is bothering me.
- The idea of the monkey at the typewriter eventually producing Hamlet is a nice touch. A good joke to slip in.

There you go. My writing soul laid bare before you. The good, the bad, and the lazy. Sure I have my excuses. We all do. But readers don't care. They want to read your story, not your excuses. Live and learn. Correct my mistakes, look back but don't dwell, and move on.

And, Mash Stories, look out. You haven't seen the last of me.

Okay Michael, just one more. What do you want to say?
"In reality, I never want to grow up."

Well played, Mr Jordan, well played.

For more quotes by Michael Jordan, go to

And as always, thanks for reading me.