Flash Fiction Friday: I Made it All Up

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends,

Welcome back to Friday and the fiction that happens here each week. I hate this week’s prompts. There. I said it.

I’m feeling really uninspired of late, and I have to keep reminding myself that the the writer writes even when it’s hard. The writer returns to the work, even when it feels like work. And today it feels like hard work.

I’ve been reading more than usual lately too. Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth, second in the Locked Tomb Trilogy, Holly Black’s The Modern Fairy Tales compendium, Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order:Twelve More Rules for Life, not to mention the stack of TBR and the Basque folklore I’ve been reading as research for my current WIP.

I’ve been watching lectures and listening to podcasts on poetry as it is nation poetry month. I have heard really valuable insights and airy fairy fluff in equal measures. I’ve written a smattering of haiku, half a children’s book, and a few hundred words in the WIP. It hasn’t been glorious, but it hasn’t been nothing. I keep trying to tell myself that for now, this spring, this year, this moment that’s okay.

So today, I am just going to riff. No prompts. Nothing but a notion, and we will see how it plays out.

If you have any interest in using the prompts I pulled (I have none) they are: inspector, talking dog, home movie enthusiast. P.S. I guess my prompt to myself ended up being: invisible pet. Feel free to use it instead.

A dear sweet friend gave me this little guy. He’s been sitting with me while I read of late.

Remember when you were a kid and you dreamed about having some insane kind of pet? You’d see a rhino on Animal Planet and ask if you could get one. Or you’d consider it a reasonable possibility that a crocodile could live in the bathtub. I think we all do it. I think we all get a little awe struck by the idea of confining mega fauna of some sort to our rigid human dwelling spaces.

Well, I ca tell you with no uncertainty that this is a child’s fantasy that is absolute bull. There is nothing delightful about having a massive roommate that could stomp you to powder at a moment’s notice.

I know because I accidentally adopted an elephant.

In North America this not merely a near impossibility, but a crime. At least I’m fairly certain it’s a crime. Elephants are endangered. They don’t just wander around like feral cats and have a litter in your backyard.

But Shelly did.

Shelly wandered up my street, clearly dehydrated and distressed. I pulled up one of those ten gallon planters I had in the back yard, filled it with water and sat there with her while she drank it down six times over. Then she walked through the open gate into the back yard, laid down and went to sleep.

I called animal control. They hung up on me.

I called 911. They reminded me that prank calling emergency services was a crime and then hung up on me.

I decided that a loose elephant was not a thing that would go unnoticed, so I turned on the news hoping some sanctuary or zoo or attraction would be asking for information about their missing elephant.

Nothing. I figured my neighbors would call it in at some point. She wasn’t small or quiet. I mean we had a home owners association that fined for weeds in your yard. An elephant would surely be an issue.

But it never was. No one said a word. The elephant in the room simply wasn’t. So I bought some hay from a local supplier. I sprayed her down twice a day and gave up all hope for my garden boxes. Shelly just became a part of my life, a big part.

Manure disposal, keeping her fed and watered, giving her a sense of security ate up all my time and resources fast.

I sat on my porch watching her munch one day, when a snake went slithering through the far side of the lawn. It was a big one, but not a dangerous one. That didn’t matter to Shelly. She trumpeted, stomped the heck out of the snake, and then the fence next to the snake, and then my neighbor’s raspberry bushes for good measure.

My neighbor came out of their back door screaming at me, asking what had happened. All I said was, “snake.” Then I pointed at Shelly.

My neighbor said I was insane and they were suing for damages.

I said that wasn’t necessary, I’d pay for the fence, though I wasn’t sure how, and that something like a lawsuit would force me to get rid of Shelly.


“Yes, that’s what I call the elephant.”

“What elephant?’

My neighbor searched my yard, her eyes roving right over where my elephant stood huffing and puffing from the exertion. It became immediately apparent to me that this was the explanation for Shelly’s apparent absence from the news. No one could see her or hear her but me.

Somewhere in my brain six year old me was screaming with glee, “An invisible elephant?! We have the coolest pet ever!”

And then on the other side of my brain rational, grown up me was experiencing a dread so profound I would call it existential. I had in my possession an invisible elephant. I looked around my yard carefully, hoping to see piles of uneaten hay, or a garden box that had not been trampled as I’d imagined. A psychotic break would be much easier to understand and explain than an unprovable pachyderm.

But there was nothing. Nothing but my neighbor’s rampaged fence and the lost dreams of summer ripened raspberries.


I couldn’t deny it, not without sounding just as insane as if I tried to explain its validity.

Anyway, that’s when I rented a trailer, bought a bunch of land in New Mexico, and relocated. Me, Shelly, and the jackalope that showed up when we arrived.

So take my word for it kid. You on’t want a giant pet. Get a gold fish. One your mom can see. You’ll thank me.

All my best, and happy Friday.


Writing: The Power of Critique Pt. 1

If I had to rank the skills of a writer in order of importance the list would look thusly:

  1. Disciplined persistence/focus- these two are inseparable and form a kind of positive feedback loop.
  2. Critique- both the giving and receiving of such, identifying useful from not so much, etc.
  3. All the other writerly things in whatever order seemeth thee good.

The various structural and artistic skills of writing come to each of us in different orders, based on the level of talent and skill we bring to our careers. The more you do it, the more those will build on each other over time. So improve your craft, for sure, but don’t get so concerned about your prose that you lose sight of bigger picture issues. Furthermore, the artistic stuff is variable, not to mention subjective, there is no clear advantage to pursuing one’s characterization technique over one’s plotting ability.

No, the only advantage comes from dedication to Butt In Chair-Hands On Keyboard (BIC-HOK) style discipline and the constant improvement of your work not from your own eyes, but someone else’s. Others have filled volumes* with how to cultivate focus and persistence in your writerly ways, so I won’t go down that road. Rather, I think the skill of being a good critique partner and appropriately utilizing the critique of others is woefully undervalued and still a mystery to too many writers looking to improve.

So let’s see what we can do to demystify the process and amplify those skills, shall we?

top view photo of people near wooden table

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

First, let’s take a deep breath and realize that perfection in communication is not possible.

We may revel in coming up with just the right turn of phrase or get a little giddy when we see how the plot twist at the end is going to both unhinge and delight your readers. But that doesn’t make them perfect. No one can communicate mind to mind (yet). So the best anyone can do is try, fail, and refine until they get to something that is close enough.

Do you know what this means? THERE”S NO PRESSURE TO BE PERFECT!!

But here’s the best part, since no one can perfectly put their thoughts into words, there’s no such thing as a perfect story.

Take any of the classics you like. You will find run-on sentences, awkward phrasing, typos, bad dialogue (so much bad dialogue), and all kinds of stylistic wonkiness that may have worked for its time, but isn’t working now. Tastes, trends, and techniques change. And that’s great.

It doesn’t give us permission to be lazy. Please don’t take the pass on perfection as a pass to write poorly and not try to improve. We need to edit. We need others to help us edit. But then we need to be done. We need to let the project go, and move on to the next so we can continue to improve and grow as storytellers.

Author Julie Berry once said, “It’s ok if you write a mediocre book. The world is full of mediocre readers.”

This was a kidding, kinda, moment from a keynote she gave at the ANWA Time Out for Writers conference a number of years ago. But I’m betting it made you feel a little less like the universe is lurking over your shoulder, demanding the highest quality product ever, before it will allow your manuscript to see the light of day. 

You might be saying, “But I pick up errors in books all the time. I’m a really good editor.”

And that may be true. Most of us who get into writing started as voracious readers. We know what we like in a good book or essay. We can spot a bad comma-splice a mile away.

In someone else’s work.

No one can see their own work clearly. All the story, character, and setting stuff that you have tucked away in that big, thinky noggin of yours gets in the way of your ability to separate what you see from what the reader will see.

You may describe the protagonist’s jacket as blue. Which you understand means it’s the same cerulean of the eyes of his lady love from so very long ago; clearly indicating that he is still carrying a torch. So when a would be mugger tears the jacket in the next chapter, it makes sense that he flies into a rage, and doesn’t merely fend the attacker off, but beats him senseless.

All the reader knows is that the jacket is blue. Not even what kind of blue, just blue. And what the heck is wrong with your main character that he would display such violence?

See the issue? We fill in the gaps for ourselves, especially after we’ve seen a chapter on our screen (or in a notebook for us old school types) again and again. It solidifies in our heads as being the prefect representation of what we are thinking because we can’t uncouple our meaning from our writing. So much of the subtext that we take for granted has to be on the page in some way, so that the reader has access to it, too.

This means that when you are getting feedback, good feedback, it’s not about you as a writer. It’s just about helping you get all that beautifully imagined wonderment onto the page so that the reader can see it. Too many writers think that the best outcome of a critique is, “I loved it! It’s amazing! It doesn’t need anything else, except I fixed one uncapitalized ‘I.'”

That is not the best outcome. This is a less than useful outcome.

It is the sign of a critique partner who doesn’t know what they are doing. Maybe they don’t have the experience to help improve your writing (maybe they are newer at this than you are). Or perhaps they are your grandmother who likes you so very much and doesn’t want to say anything discouraging and here dear have a cookie.

pensive grandmother with granddaughter having interesting conversation while cooking together in light modern kitchen

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

When hunting for good critique partners we are looking for folks with the skills not only to point out where the commas and the quotation marks should go, but who can say in a thoughtful, objective, helpful way how we can improve our composition as a whole. They say things like, “I’m confused by this word choice, do you mean x or y?”, “Why do we need to know this right now?”, or “How does the protagonist feel about what’s happening here?” These are the kinds of feedback that point an author to real improvement and awareness of where their own pitfalls lie. It gives them the opportunity to fix what’s broken, based on their own vast knowledge about their story or topic.

Good critique partners never seek to transform another’s book into the book they would have written (more on this in later posts), but to mold a Work In Progress (WIP) so that it more closely resembles the vision the author has established for their own work.

And how do you attract such helpful helpers?

  • Read my subsequent posts to discover techniques that will make you a valuable critique partner.
  • Find writer’s groups (most likely all virtual right now) and practice those skills by reading for others. This will invite others to read for you as well, and give you practice recognizing useful from useless feedback.
  • Don’t drive good critique partners away with either hostility or constant explanations about why you are right and don’t need to change what you are doing.
  • Remember that perfect is not possible. For anyone. So let that nonsense go.

The fastest way to ensure that others decline to read for you is to rebuff every bit of input with snappish comments or constant explaining about why you did the thing they are finding confusing/over-wrought/incorrect. You won’t be able to follow around every reader explaining bits of the book to them.

The book must explain itself.

And you are doing neither the story nor yourself any favors by acting like a shield warrior, deflecting all incoming missiles of correction. There are no prizes for rough drafts with less red ink on them than others.

So let’s get the blood bath going.

We can sop up the mess later.

You’ll find that writing doesn’t scar. The reader can’t tell you were corrected before they read the sentence. They can only tell when no one corrected that sentence/chapter/story arc at all. And they don’t appreciate that kind of disregard.

Ready to get into more of the nitty gritty?

Good. Next time we’ll talk techniques and best practices. And I’d love to hear your horror stories about bad critique partners, if you’ve had them, in the comments. It’ll remind you and everyone else how important giving and getting good feedback can be.


*Here are just a few of the titles that might interest you if persistence is your weak link: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Grit by Angela Duckworth, Take Joy by Jane Yolen, Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, Atomic Habits by James Clear, and many more. I’d love to see your suggestions in the comments!

Unsolicited Advice: Part Glue, er, Two

Look back through the archives for a spell and you’ll be reminded that I pointed everyone to Kevin Kelly’s 68 Pieces of Unsolicited Advice.

I feel like most of the world is either in desperate need of or trying frantically to give some form of unsolicited guidance/opinions/pseudo-scientific hoopla. So I decided to return to it this week for a little inspiration.

Today’s Tidbit: Don’t Trust All Purpose Glue

The obvious sentiment being that different projects require different tools. The more generic the tools, the less specific the application. Wood working requires wood glue, a substance that has a seriously viscous texture to make adherence to a porous surface possible. You want to bind a couple pieces of plastic? Well the bottle better say, specifically, that it can bind plastics. Otherwise, you may as well melt the things and smoosh them together to cool, while you huff toxic fumes. It’d be more effective.

But I suspect there’s a broader applicability.


If there is a panacea it’s being out in nature, and getting to snap photos like this.

I am, the older I get, more and more skeptical of anything claiming to be a panacea. Whether you’re looking to fix all the ills of the world, or just completely and perfectly transform your life, there is no shortage of notions, philosophies, and products that claim to do just that.

Transform your body with this one weird trick!

Just purchase my online course to start maximizing your business!

This ideology will bring about a utopia!

The last is the most dangerous, because it’s the most attractive. It’s so easy to believe if we could all just be a certain way, think a certain way we would all be happy and prosperous. The only problem with this is that in all of recorded human history, it has yet to ever happen.

But the truth is nothing fits all people. No size of clothing will cover all bodies. No daily schedule will work for everyone. And as every parent knows, no form of discipline works for all children.

Unless a tool, a product, or even an idea can show you how it will mold to the individual, meet a diversity of needs and applications, then its claims to be the end-all-be-all are bogus. And in the age of disruptive technologies, this is even more the case.

Side bar: If you haven’t read The Future is Faster Than You Think, get on that.

Just as we get used to a dominant tech, it gets over-turned by the next, and leaves us all scratching our heads about the promises it made to liberate mankind.

Here’s the thing, humanity can’t be liberated from itself. The wood can’t stop being wood. The plastic will still be plastic if you melt it. Each needs a specific glue to bind it. Nothing short will do the trick.

The history of humanity indicates that we tend toward the lazy, entitled, and greedy- ACROSS THE BOARD. No governing system, no ideology, no weird weight loss trick will change our basic natures.

But humans have some pretty cool built in features, too. We build family and community,  we are attentive to our children when our brains aren’t being hijacked by addiction, and we dream about and adapt toward a better future.

That means human-specific glues will be unity focused, community enhancing (not destroying), and imagination supporting. They will be full of nuance and context. They will understand that people make mistakes, and cannot be held to perfectionist standards without breaking.

I hope we know these fixatives when we find them. We have a lot of projects that need some adhesion.

Oh, and if you happen to know what that one weird trick that will give me abs without exercise is, let me know.


Good Questions Get Good Answers feat. Cal Newport

I’ve been an advocate for devoting personal, solitary time to the completion of worthy endeavors since I was in high school. It didn’t make me popular then. I don’t really expect it to now, but I take so much hope from seeing an increasing number of people applying the kinds of principles espoused by the author of “Deep Work,” Cal Newport.

eyeglasses on book beside macbook

Photo by Fallon Michael on Pexels.com

He has recently started a podcast called Deep Questions with Cal Newport where he fields questions from his email list subscribers about living a deep, intentional life that is aimed at skill acquisition and work/life balance. He expands on the concepts in books (which if you haven’t read them, why not?!) on a slightly more personal level.

Well, in a moment that surprised the heck out me, I popped onto iTunes to listen to the latest episode, titled “Battling Email, Online Learning, and a Game Plan to Escape the Shallow Life,” and guess what?

He took my question! By accident naturally. It was part of a segment he calls question roulette, where he pulls a random question from the many he gets and answers it on the fly.

And he pronounced my name correctly!! Please take note for anyone pronouncing my name in the future.

If you just want to hear my question and his response you can click the link above and skip to 21:45. But the information is golden across the board. And really you should just subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.

I do think we are experiencing a transition within certain sectors of American society. The frenetic, distracted, stress-glorifying pace we have been told is optimal in the technology age is just not satisfying us. And it’s not producing high quality content that is meaningful and resonant. That can only be accomplished by the slow, practiced, dedicated attention to building skills and conscientiously applying them.

If that intrigues you at all, Cal and his books are a great place to start.