Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Do Not Quit. Ever.

The blog has been silent for a bit.  I’ve been considering whether or not to keep it going.  It’s got a cool name, but as anyone who watched “The Phantom Menace” knows, it takes far more than a cool name to make a good product.

The goal of Rejected and Alone has, all along, has been to keep me writing.  What I’m finding is that it now keeps me from writing.  Every post takes away from the bigger projects.  Since the end goal is to produce professional, saleable work, it makes sense (personally) to shift my effort into those projects – like the two novel drafts I’ve finished but not finished or the score of screenplay ideas that need to be broken, written, and polished.

I’ve gotten some very positive rejection letters on my short stories with comments that tell me I’m close.  So.  Very.  Close.  I’m ready to close that deal.  And I plan to publish a novel this year.  Commercial ventures, unlike the blog which I have pledged (even if only to myself) to keep ad free.

So I was going to pull the plug.  After all, how many of you are actually reading these words because you want to be better authors?  How many times do you want to read me saying the same things in different words?  Listen, I can sum up the message of my blog in four words.  Do not quit.  Ever.  Everything else is just me talking and you being polite – and hopefully entertained.

First smartest dog

Then I got an email comment from a stranger who liked some of the content.  And some of you have been asking what happened – am I alright?  Why has the blog been silent?  I talked to my wife about my plans to shut down R&A and she said, “What?  You can’t do that.”  Hmm.

How about this.  How about one post a week?  I’m thinking Tuesdays.  Maybe because today is Tuesday, maybe because Tuesday is a day that needs a little something.  Doug Richardson posts one day a week and I really like his format.

So here is my pledge for Rejected and Alone, version 2015.  One post a week.  And it will make you smile.  To make sure you don’t miss it, please get an email subscription (there’s a link at the bottom of this page).

This was all pretty serious and nobody has smiled yet.  I could say it isn’t 2015 yet, which would make some of you laugh, but instead I’ll tell you a funny story.

Yesterday was my last day of vacation.  It was a good day and I cooked a dinner of twice roasted potatoes, creamed sweat corn, a roasted onion (butter and beef bouillon) and grilled rib eye.  The dogs get very confused when I cook.  I’m not the sort to toss them scraps.  Doesn’t keep the third smartest from hoping though.  Thing is, she’s terrified of pretty much everything, even Norah Jones on the Pandora, so when I was chopping the potatoes she wouldn’t come over and get the ones that fell on the floor.

Then I was rushing in and out between the skillet (olive oil, parsley, ground black pepper with the roasted potatoes) and the grill.  She kept smacking into the cabinets to get out of my way.  The first smartest dog was jumping over her.  The second smartest did some barking.  I put them out.  They still didn’t know what to do.  I felt bad for them, the steaks looked amazing, so I dropped a bouillon cube into their big water dish.

That was a trick because they catch really well, I had to chase them away from the bowl.  Then they rushed up to see what it was I’d dropped in.  I laughed out loud watching them try to figure out how to get to the cube at the bottom of the deep bowl.  They started drinking like crazy and I thought for a minute they were going to drink it all, just to get to the cube.

But they didn’t.  The first smartest was distracted by a tennis ball and the third smartest ran away when I clicked the igniter of the grill.  Maybe you had to be there.
Third smartest dog

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Kent Haruf speaks the truth

I heard a wonderful excerpt from an interview of the now deceased author Kent Haruf.  He said that in his experience there is no shortage of creative writing students with talent.  The shortage is in creative writing students who are willing to put in the work required to write something truly good.

It was a fine articulation of a truth you must come to terms with if you plan to succeed in the arts.

I spent a month writing a short novel.  I’m finishing up the first draft now, probably by Friday.  60k words written as fast I can go.  The next part is where the work is.  I’ll have to take that mass of gobbly guck and refine it into something worthy of your time.  That’s a lot of work.  It’s so much work that the first draft of the short novel I wrote last year sits idly on my hard drive, taunting me, telling me I’m not a pro yet because I’m not willing to go back and do the hard part.

Thousands of people finished novels during NaNoWriMo this year.  I suspect that the published results will show Mr. Haruf to be correct.  Only a few of the authors will be willing to put in the work required to write something truly good.

I expect to be one of them.

Don’t forget, you can subscribe to Rejected and Alone and receive each post delivered directly to your inbox.  Want to comment?  Just click on the link in the email and it will bring you to the page.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bad Luck

Finished NaNoWriMo.  Now I need to finish the novel, probably another 10k words or so.  Should be Thursday if I can keep the NaNo pace up.  Also ran a 5k with my family.  It’s been 17 years since I ran in an organized race and this one was very crowded.  It was a little frustrating at first but after about ½ a mile the pack sort of settled and then we spent the rest of the time passing people.  That felt pretty good.

Thought I’d try something different for today’s story.

Bad Luck
by Jon Stark
December, 2014; about 700 words

The Squids came about five years ago, best we can figure.  Bounced off Mars and smashed into the moon.  Broke it and their ship.  Of course at the time we thought they did it on purpose and all those smaller ships descending on us were attack craft.

It didn’t help that they took out a U.S. carrier group somewhere in the North Atlantic.  Or that one of them burned into Beijing.  Sort of galvanized our resistance, global cooperation kind of thing.  It took two years and five billion people to beat them.  Worst luck we ever had.  As a race.  Squids killed clean.

Thing we didn’t know in time was that the Squids weren’t invading – those little ships were lifeboats and they were running.  Didn’t know that until the Cha’ah showed up.  We were trying to put things back together, one hand on the wall and the other on our extraterrestrial blast rifles so to speak, always with an eye overhead.  Wondering when round two was going to start.

We didn’t know there wouldn’t be a round two, that we’d destroyed the last of the Squids.  Ironic.  The Cha’ah pulled Pluto into Neptune’s orbit and then recycled it into a forward operating base.  They put an Illuminator in orbit around Jupiter and focused the ten jiggawatt beam on earth.  You want night?  Go underground.  There’s not a dark place left on our planet.  Seasons were messed up, clocks were already fried, we sort of lost track of when we were.

The Squids were NBA sized -- tall aliens with tentacles and beaks – but they had faces and spoke.  They wore suits and carried their weapons.  And we could kill them.  The Cha’ah are bugs.  Big, nasty, spidery things -- all legs and hair and eyeballs.  They’ve got these antennae things that sort of flop around and they chatter.  Clicks and whirs all the time.  They sound like tap dancers or drill sergeants when they walk on our ruined streets, clattering on claws and they swarm everywhere and I’ll tell you, doesn’t matter how you feel about spiders, they are terrifying.

Our weapons didn’t seem to touch them.  Worse, the best weapons we had were captured from the Squids and they had been beaten soundly by the Cha’ah.  You know how in the movies when the zombies or vampires or aliens showed up there was a guy, either one of the heroes or somebody they found, that knew how to kill the evil?  The guy who would say, “Garlic doesn’t work on them.  But Holy water does.”  Well, that guy hasn’t shown up.  Not here.

And if there’s a secret base somewhere with a captured Cha’ah ship that we’re reverse engineering, nobody has told me.  Nukes can’t stop them.  The President of the United States leading a fighter attack can’t stop them.  The unbreakable human spirit can’t stop them.  Even the common cold seems to be powerless against them.

They just march over us.  They suck the life out of you if they touch you.  They call down fire from orbital systems if you run from them.  We’re out of food.  There’s disease we can’t cure.  The oceans have nearly boiled away.  I’m not sure we’ll be able to make it even if we beat them back.

Not that there’s any chance of that.  We’ve been running and hiding and they just keep coming like a line of tanks advancing through the desert.  We run from hole to hole but none of them are deep enough.  There was one place -- might have been Colorado but who knows – where we hooked up with a military unit for a few days.  They had a Colonel who told us that he’d heard about somebody standing against the Cha’ah.  Somewhere in Europe.  Albania or Romania or something.  A group came out of the mountains and when the aliens attacked they were beaten by a man who used their own power against them.  Sounds too good to be true.

Sounds like a dying man grasping at straws to keep up the morale of his troops.  They fought well, when the bugs dropped in on us.  Left us wandering again.  But now we’re wandering east.  It’s a long walk to Moldova but that’s good.  A man needs direction, some sort of purpose, to keep going.  To get up in the morning and not quit.  To fight.

And who knows?  Maybe there is a secret base somewhere.  Or a man that has power against the scourge destroying the world.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Snapping the Pieces Together

Snapping the Pieces Together by Jon Stark
November, 2014, about 1100 words

Blustery is probably the best word, because the wind was fierce and when you’re on the corner of 31st and Avenue of the Americas it’s hard to find someone to help you.  There was one nice man but he apologized, said he was from Brooklyn, and had no idea where Garrett’s was.

If you have never been to New York City than you can’t imagine how big it is.  Not really.  You can’t sympathize with the man from Brooklyn who didn’t have a clue about the iconic popcorn shop that I hadn’t even heard of before this trip.  And I lived there for years.  Brooklyn, not Manhattan.

Which makes another interesting point.  If you’ve never lived in New York City you don’t know how small it is.  You know how Legos all sort of snap together and make up interesting things but all the interesting things – death stars and Hogwarts and race cars – are made up of the same blocks?  That’s New York.  A thousand small towns where everybody knows everybody all snapped together and connected by a half dozen bridges and tunnels into a 7 million person metropolis.

I don’t live there anymore.  And my girlfriend said that when I came back I’d better have a bag of caramel corn from Garrett’s.  Apparently, to her, Garrett’s is New York.  I have another friend who told me to make sure I had a knish.  “It isn’t a trip to New York without having a good knish.”  For me it is.  I don’t like them.  Maybe a slice from Cosimo’s or D’Angelo’s but I didn’t bother with that this trip, New York isn’t about the food.  Not once you’re from there.

Not that I was ever from Manhattan, but I spent a lot of time in the lower part, down by Battery Park and Pearl Street and the towers.  That’s New York to me.  They’re gone now.  What they’ve put back is a sign of the city’s decline.  They dress it up with fancy language, but the truth is obvious.  If New York was still the center of the universe and a place of opportunity and growth, they’d have built something big.  Real Estate that valuable wouldn’t have been used for a memorial.

Don’t get me wrong, I think a memorial is good.  When I was dating Toni -- when I lived in Brooklyn --she and Mike’s wife had to go across the bridge for a procedure so Mikel and I went too.  And her son Brandon.  He was probably about three.  I didn’t know anything about being a father, wasn’t interested in being a father, but Mike was so it was a good day.  Sometimes I wonder if Brandon remembers that trip or if we were just part of the blur of faces that came in and out of his mother’s life.

The twin towers of the World Trade Center were huge.  You know what I mean if you’ve ever stood at the foot of them and looked up.  I remember one time driving across the Brooklyn Bridge and seeing the towers disappear into a cloudbank only to emerge into bright sunlight a few hundred feet later.  They were like mountains, sheer unassailable cliff faces rising from the bedrock with more concrete and glass than my hometown.  We wandered in their shadow and stumbled across a firehouse.

There was no Dalmatian but the young men working there were friendly and went out of their way to show Brandon everything there was to know about their truck and the garage.  They even took us all upstairs to see the barracks and kitchen.

I think of those men every time I see smoke in the towers.  I hope they transferred before September.  It doesn’t change the tragedy of what happened but maybe the people who died weren’t as nice.  Bad things should happen to bad people.

There was a girl I knew who worked there.   In the towers, not the fire house.  Her name was Tricia and she liked Pinot Noir and I couldn’t afford to take her out again.  We’d meet socially on occasion and I liked to think she always wanted me to ask again.  I almost did a couple of times, but she was out of my league.  Or I was just scared.

When I stood at the construction site of what used to be the towers I overheard an old woman complaining to her daughter and grandchildren that she’d never been to the top of the towers.  She’d had the chance but didn’t want to spend the $17.  It was a regret, she said.  Don’t be cheap when life offers you a chance for something wonderful.

It made me think of Tricia.  I don’t usually think of her when I see the towers.  But it did then.  Her office was above the line.  Impossibly high.  I thought about her fear.  Her terrible choice.  I think she would have jumped.  I looked at the street, the broken sidewalk where I stood and wondered if maybe that was where she landed.

Or someone else.  I was suddenly overwhelmed and my knees buckled and the city around me became a blur and I had to get out and I couldn’t understand how the woman could complain about her life being incomplete when she was still alive and how could anyone blow their horn in impatience there, in the cramped quarters of the final resting place of thousands of souls who had loved the city and hated the city and gone to work excited or hung over and had plans for weddings or birthdays or were expecting children or grandchildren and it made me terribly sad.

And that was New York to me, not knish and certainly not Garrett’s Gourmet Popcorn but here I was, wind tearing at my ears and killing time before my train following directions on my iPhone that told me I was right there but I couldn’t see it.  The man from Brooklyn couldn’t see it.

And then I did see it.  I’d over looked the door a hundred times.  You know how it is, if you’ve ever looked for a special place in New York.  No awning.  No real store front.  Just a door and a window and a small sign that said, “Garrett’s.”

The door was open.  A woman held it for a family that must have been from North Dakota because they were in shirt sleeves and the rest of the world was freezing and I saw her face and it was Tricia and she was alive.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Strings Attached

I hope you enjoy today’s no-frills story.

Strings Attached
by Jon Stark
November, 2014

“Just us?”  Stephanie smiled.  His voice had that power.  It did other things too.  If she was fourteen she’d be up until midnight listening to his radio show.  That she hadn’t been fourteen in twenty years and he wasn’t a DJ didn’t diminish the fantasy in the least.

He always dressed well, one of the many traits she admired.  She took fact that he was wearing the tie she’d bought him for his birthday as a good omen.  She said, “You look good in that tie.”

He looked down at it.  “Thank you.  I think my kids got it for me a couple of Father’s days ago.”  She frowned, almost corrected him, was distracted by his eyes.  Oh, those eyes.  He said something about the restaurant being a nice place.

It was a nice place.  She didn’t remember it being so expensive.  She’d wanted nice, but the prices.  How did they stay in business?  There was hardly anyone even there.  When the waiter came she ordered soup.  Not even with a sandwich or salad.

He ordered the Beef au Jus without hesitation.  It made her shiver.  He was a hunter, a strong meat eating man, confident with what he wanted and rich enough to get it.  He hadn’t even looked at the menu.  This was his kind of world.

They made small talk.  Mostly he talked.  And smiled.  He could be reciting the Oxford Dictionary for all she cared.  As long as it was the unabridged version so that it would take longer.  Watching the big words roll off his tongue, between lips that had been sculpted by some divine agent.

He paused when the food arrived.  She made her move.  Asked how he was getting on with his family out of town.  Through a mouthful, slow trickle of au Jus on his chin, he said, “I’m not going hungry.”

Her turn.  A nod.  Then, “You sure?  I’ve got the afternoon off.”  She hadn’t practiced the words, exactly, but she’d been working on the tone.  And the look.  Combined with the outfit she’d bought on Tuesday he got the message.  Knife and fork stopped moving.  She could barely hear him over the rush of blood through her ears.

“Steph, I hope I didn’t give you the wrong idea.”  That wasn’t his line.  He was saying it wrong.  She missed most of the rest of what he said.  The crackers were stale.  $30 for a bowl of soup and the crackers were stale.  It made her so angry.  “… what you’re offering.  I’m flattered, truly, but it isn’t what I want.”

“What about what I want?” she said.  It sounded harsh, even childish.  She hadn’t practiced this at all.  How could he be saying that?

He shook his head.  “What about what Leslie wants?”  Our kids?”  So he’d thought about it.  She tried to get back to before, to when she had him.  “I’m not like that.  Never have been.  Never even thought about it.”

That couldn’t be true.  She didn’t want it to be true.  Those eyes.  They said it was true.  And the crackers.  Could it get any worse?  She needed something.  Tears were dangerously close.  He had to give her something.  “What if you didn’t have Leslie?  What if there were no kids?  What then?”

He did her the courtesy of thinking about it.  She thought he might even be appraising her, appreciating the effort she’d put into her hair.

“If I hadn’t found Leslie?  Was unattached?”  She nodded, encouraging him.  “I think I would probably be very interested.  You’re a remarkable woman.”  The words washed over her, cleansed her, warmed her.  She forgot about the crackers.  Move the conversation on.  Worked on getting back to normal.  He played along.  Nothing had happened.

She thought about what he said, nodding as he spoke now but not really paying attention.  If there was no Leslie he’d be interested.  She didn’t remember slipping the knife into her purse when the check came, but fishing for her keys back at the car, wondering where to go now that she had a free afternoon, it was there.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Different isn't bad when it's done well

I’m reading a John Hart novel.  I’m writing my own novel.  (Not nearly as good as his.)  It’s really showing me just how different novels and screenplays are.  He’ll spend two paragraphs describing a scene, vividly and well, but in a screenplay I’d have to do it with a single sentence, reduce it to the most visceral part.  That’s the advantage and bane of many pages.  I’m a feature length script into the book and have barely passed the introduction.  It’s why books are almost always better than films.

I’m playing a game with the book.  It’s called, “How would I turn this masterwork into a screenplay?”  It’s making me do the sort of analysis that high school English teachers dream about.  BTW – Mrs. Odell, if you are reading this, I still don’t think you’re right about the black pot in Red Pony but I’m mature enough now to let it go.

Novels are hard to transpose to screen.  That’s why a lot of films start with the words, “Based on the short story XYZ.”  Last weekend I watched a movie based on a children’s book.  It was nothing like the book.  Really.  Not the least bit.  That’s okay.  Alexander’s Bad Day was still fun.

If you like Steve Carell, you will like the movie.  If you don’t?  You won’t.  I haven’t met anyone who is indifferent about him (sort of like Woody Allen) so I don’t see a need to comment on that further.  Instead, let’s look at book to screen conversion.

1         * Almost the same title.
           * Has a character named Alexander.

Differences (described from movie):
1         * Doesn’t take place over a single day.
2         * Has magic involving birthday wish.
3         * Takes place in the burbs.
4         * Alex isn’t the guy with the bad day.
5         * Has crocodiles and male strippers.
6         * Is about Steve Carell.

It’s sort of like how The Perfect Storm is based on a true story but 75% of it is a total fabrication, including most of the conflict and character development.

I loved it because it was fun and exactly what was advertised.  Nobody in it expected to win an Oscar.  My wife called it her new favorite movie.  Different isn’t bad when it’s done well.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Creation is an act of will.

I was talking about NaNo with a friend of mine the other day – he decided not to participate “this year” – and another acquaintance of ours joined in.  He was surprised that I wrote, then wasn’t.  But he did ask an insightful question, even if it is common for those of us with a second, non-writing job.

“Where do you find the time to write a novel too?”

I said, “Usually I write screen plays and they aren’t quite as long.”  That was a joke but I don’t think anybody else got it.  I then told him, “I ride the train.”  ‘Nuff said, that’s 2 hours a day where my choices are limited.  He nodded, like that was all there was too it.

Thing is, it isn’t.  I used to say that if I rode the train I’d write a novel.  Said it for years.  Then I started riding the train and after a couple of weeks I actually tried to write a novel.  Two days in a row.  Then I stopped.  Went back to reading and playing games.  Did that for over a year.

What I’ve learned is that creative art is something you make time for.  The same way you make time for going to DMV or grocery shopping.  In the novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” Phillip Dick gives us the idea of kibble – stuff that fills all available space but has no value or purpose.  Our schedules fill with kibble, can be over-run by kibble.

I’ve just come off a very nice break, a five day weekend if you will.  (An expression I really don’t like but seem to use anyway.)  No train.  No agenda.  Still wrote.  It was about showing up.  Yesterday I showed up three times, wrote for about an hour each time.  Got 2800 words.  Day before?  Only showed up once.  Got about 1k – split it between the blog and the project.

You get what you put in.  If you like the idea of writing or the act of writing itself is all you’re after, feel free to show up when you find time.  But if you want to actually create something, finish it, then you’ll have to make the time.

And show up.  Otherwise the kibble will stifle you.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Somebody, somewhere.

I sat down to work on my NaNo project and remembered it was Monday.  Story time.

by Jon Stark, November 2014

Henry drove east.  The fading sunlight blinded the folks coming at him, swerving a bit here and there, creeping over the yellow, not in a dangerous way but he was glad to have it at his back.  Gave him a Red Baron sort of confidence.  And a red tint to the world, maybe more orange.  Either way, it was on the way out and reminded him of the body in the car.

He was okay driving with a body.  He’d been on the detail back in ’90, driving a half-track through the desert loaded down with bodies.  Didn’t know them.  Didn’t want to know them.  Some of the guys freaked out.  Davis walked all the way from Nasiriyah to Kuwait just so he wouldn’t be with the corpses in the truck.  Henry was just thankful to be driving away from the killing and out in the desert there no SCUD drills.

Stateside was different.  He and Donna were married during his tour at Ft. Benning and then with the baby he decided not to re-up.  Didn’t have a lot of call for an infantryman in the civilian world.  School didn’t suit him although he did end up taking a custodial shift at the high school.  He also worked part time for his brother who, for some gruesome and inexplicable reason, had purchased a mortuary business.

Henry did a lot of driving for his brother.  Picked up bodies, delivered bodies.  He made a few runs to Florida.  Even went way out to St. Louis one time.  That was the trip he started talking to them.  It was a long way.  And a soldier.  He felt like they had something, some sort of a connection.  He wanted to encourage the boy, thank him, tell him it was going to be okay down here.

It was a good chat.  He had a few others, over the years, on those long stretches of interstate between bubbles of ticky tacky.  He liked talking to them.  They listened, gave him time to think through what he was trying to say.

Henry didn’t talk now though.  Nothing left to say, really.  Not to this one.  She sort of looked asleep, headlights sweeping across her face.  He drove on long after they should have been home.  The ride was nice.  Traffic wasn’t too bad.  The company was good.  And he’d driven for his brother.  He knew what would happen when he finally did stop.

And he wasn’t ready for that yet.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Gordon Bombay. Dream chaser.

We watched The Mighty Ducks.  It has held up well.  Except for the hair.  My goodness and people make fun of the eighties.  Emilio Estevez was at the top of his game and turned in a typical EE performance.  There was nothing the least bit surprising about the movie or story and it didn’t matter.  It was just plain fun.

And let’s face it, you don’t watch a sports movie with kids in it if you are looking for plot twists and surprises.   #3 summed it up best when he said, “It was pretty good.  I mean, it’s a movie about sports so you know what’s going to happen, but there aren’t very many about hockey so it was cool.”

If you’ve studied screenwriting at all you’re familiar with the “Same but different” mantra.  TMD delivers on that and manages to somehow rise above most of the other films in the genre.  Interestingly, the story is about learning to play by the rules and the triumph of everyman over the wealthy.  Team work is a distant backseat.  It’s there, but you’re fare more likely to hear, “Get out of here, Cake Eater,” than “That’s what teammates do for each other.”

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art,” but I thought it was interesting that in the movie, Gordon (Emilio) leaves a high paying job on principle and then pursues the crazy dream of becoming a professional hockey player.  It plays well and gives us a wonderfully satisfying ending that everyone loves BUT if Gordon was our friend, would we encourage him to quit the law firm and follow the dream?

If you’re a writer, you are shaking your head and laughing.  It doesn’t work like that at all.  Unless you are blessed as I am with family and friends and who really think I can do this.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Children's theater

There is something truly special about seeing your work brought to life.  I’m fortunate to be enjoying a second helping of that specialness.  You may recall that last year I wrote a Christmas play that the teens in our church performed.  This year – surprise, surprise -- I’m doing a reprise.

Not a true reprise, the story is completely different, more like Fierce Creatures as a reprise of A Fish Called Wanda.  (When I saw Wanda, I was a middle teen watching it with a lot of old (70+) people and was horrified that they were laughing at the sex jokes.)  What I mean is, the cast is mostly the same even though the story is not.

Working with the actors is great because you can see what works and what doesn’t.  The kids laugh at me because they’ll deliver an exchange perfectly and I’ll bust out laughing – it’s funny – and they’re all like, “Why are you laughing?  Didn’t you write this?” and I’m all like, “Yes and I thought it was funny then but you guys nailed it and it’s hysterical!”

What really struck me this year was how little direction the actors needed for the proper way to deliver their lines.  They knew, from the words and context, exactly how to say it.  I wasn’t that good last year.  This is proof-positive that I’m getting better.

If you want your very own copy of “You Don’t See That Every Day,” send me and email.

Monday, November 3, 2014

What Guy?

It’s November, that magical time of year when thousands take to the proverbial quill and parchment to craft the next great American novel.  But not me, I’m going for the next commercially successful American novel.  If you have any interest at all in writing the long form, please give serious consideration to participating in NANOWRIMO.  There is something magical about the shared experience and there’s a ton of encouragement floating around.  You might not write something great, but you have the best chance ever of finishing and that really does mean something.  I’m off to a reasonable start and it’s funny how different year 2 is.

I plan to keep the blog going during the month.  I remember last year getting a bit short on time and skipping out on a couple of entries.  This year I’m more professional.  And I fully expect to get blocked along the way so I’ll have plenty of opportunity to write posts instead of prose.

Anyhoo, on with today’s original fiction inspired by a conversation I had with #4 over the weekend.  For background, he and his brother like watching – and mocking – the “survival” shows on Netflix.

What Guy?
by Jon Stark
November, 2014

I was waiting for the train, as I often do, and heard a cell phone ringing.  I hate that.  People should have the decency to mute their phones when sharing public spaces.  But we can’t have everything and this wasn’t so bad, it was Frank Sinatra singing, “Same Old Saturday Night.”  One of my favorites.  In fact, I like it so much that I… oh.  Made it my ring tone.

I answered the phone.  It was Martin and he had an emergency.  It was a typical emergency and involved both being late and a girl.  Not what you just thought.  He was late for work and had gotten drawn into a long conversation with his favorite barista.

I asked, “Why was she so talkative?”

“Don’t know,” he said, “But from here on out I’m going to get just plain coffee.”  We shared a laugh.  “Traffic is awful today, I’m never going to make it.”

“Sure you will.  You always do.”  I wasn’t sure, but it was my line.  We had this conversation three days out of five.  “And you’ll get the same coffee you always do tomorrow.”

He laughed.  “Maybe. “  There was a moment’s silence.  I’m never sure if he is changing lanes or thinking of something clever.

“You guys want to come over this weekend?” he asked.   (He must have been changing lanes.)

“Probably.  I don’t think we’ve got anything going on.”  I heard the train whistle.  “I gotta run.”

“Sure – whoa, this guy is crazy.  What is he –“  There was some sort of noise but I had to jerk the phone away from my ear.

“Marty?”  No response.  I looked at the phone.  Call ended.  I tried to get him back.  Got voicemail.  Odd, I thought, but the train had come and I sit in the quiet car.  No calls.  But I was curious.  What guy?  What was he doing?  I sent a text.

Martin never answered.

Friday, October 31, 2014

"But first you accomplish paint fence."

Watched 1984’s “The Karate Kid” with my children last weekend.  They were hesitant because they’ve seen the remake and didn’t think it was very good.  I haven’t seen it but they so didn’t like it that I doubt we’ll be able to do another comparison like “Red Dawn.”

TKK aged well.  The styles are out, naturally, and the fit and finish of the film is rough in a couple of places but if we are honest, they were rough in 1984 too.  The biggest thing for me was how young Ralph Macchio was.

I haven’t seen the movie in a very long time.  He was always older than I was.  They all were.  This time around they were kids.  And as an adult, I understand a bit more about what was going on.  Like why mom moved to California, why Ali’s acceptance of the poor kid from Reseda was so unlikely, and just how funny the dialogue actually was – sure, I caught a few of the jokes, but it is really clever.

The family conversation focused on pacing.  #3 complained that we were a half an hour into the movie and nothing had happened yet.  My daughter was incredulous.  “What are you talking about?  He’s moved across the country, gotten beat up by a gang, found a girlfriend, and we just saw the old guy kick butt.”  #3 said, “O.K., but he hasn’t done any training yet or anything.”

That’s a great point.  I don’t think you could sell the TKK script today because it takes so long to get to the meat of the plot.  There’s this idea that you have to rush into the action because the modern audience is savvier.  Forget the insult for a minute and focus on the result of that belief.  A remake that has lots of fighting you don’t care about.  If Daniel got beat up once, what are the stakes?  Why does he have to fight?  If we don’t meat Ali’s parents and her friends, why do we care that she dates Daniel?”  There’s no pay off.  And then what about Mr. Miyagi?  He is destiny and patience and wisdom rolled into one – if you rush him, you lose him.

And that would be a tradgedy.  All weekend I heard Mr. Miyagi quoted and my daughter is still chuckling about the scene in the boat when he falls off the seat laughing because Daniel fell into the pond.

My boys wanted to know if it was really possible to catch a fly with chopsticks.  I told them it was.  So is writing a movie that speaks to your children the same way it spoke to you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Steal yourself

I discovered a wonderful little book that you absolutely have to read.  When I say little, I mean little.  Your library has it if you don’t like to buy books.  If you do like to buy books, it’s one that your collection yearns for.

That’s right, yearns.

The book is Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like an Artist” and it will both motivate and free you.  He opens by telling us that in his opinion, anytime someone offers you advice, they are really saying what they would do now, in your position.  There’s a bit of obvious but undiscovered truth there and it sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The book itself is pocket sized and doesn’t feel any pressure to fill the pages with words.  What is there is good.  What isn’t there wasn’t needed.  Illustrations, charts, and balloon quotes all get their own pages.

It isn’t because he doesn’t have much to say or needs filler.  It’s to control your pace as you read.  It’s the printed version of my mother-in-law’s apple pie.  You take a bite and just let it sit there for a minute making your mouth happy.

Essentially what Kleon does is articulate, artfully, the difference between inspiration and plagiarism.  His arguments may not stand up in court but they will give you permission to enjoy your creative passions more fully.

And that is the goal of the book – to encourage you to make art that you like.  He breaks convention and says, “Don’t write what you know, write what you want to read.”

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Monday, October 27, 2014


By Jon Stark
October, 2014

Levi did what anyone else would do.  He pretended not to see.  But some problems don’t go away by themselves.  That’s what Hannah would say.  He still wasn’t ready to admit she might be right.

Things were out of hand now, though.  He couldn’t ignore that.  Fall was well on its way to winter.  Time to gather up the mess.  Time to get on with it.

Levi didn’t know how to do that, though.  The trash can was out, he’d never fit it all in.  A gust of wind stirred the mass of leaves in his yard.  Spun them up into a spectral shape that danced a hundred yards before dissolving, drifting back to the ground.  He shivered.

There were branches down in the yard too.  An idea formed.  Then the shape of a fire as he gathered sticks, broke them to size, and constructed a teepee within a log cabin.  That should do it.

No, it wouldn’t.  Levi gathered more wood and stacked it beside the carefully laid fire.  He crumpled newspaper and hid it inside the sticks.

More leaves fell.  Clouds roiled in the sky as night crept upon him.  He glared at the faces of his neighbors, peering from the windows of their warm houses, judging him with their immaculate lawns and orderly bags of debris stacked at the ends of driveways that got fresh sealant every summer.

He didn’t like being judged.  He’d told Hannah that a hundred times.  She had a problem though, involving judging, talking, and not listening.  The quiet was nice.

Dark had come when he was finally ready.  Those who knew him would say it was because he was lazy and started too late in the day, not because he’d planned it that way.  Others would suspect that he labored over the fire, adjusting everything just so, because be he sick in the head.

Once he had a good blaze going he headed to the house and dragged out some of the trash bags.  The rooms were packed with garbage, a warren that both comforted and horrified him.  The neighbors had complained unsuccessfully -- the homeowner’s association only had rules for the outside and to see his mess you had to be a nosey Nancy and look through his windows.

All the same, he’d blocked the windows.  Hannah didn’t like that, but she was too busy running her yap to do anything about it.

A pair of eyes watched Levi from his neighbor’s upstairs bedroom.  He stared back until they went away.  The fire flickered and the rising shadows turned his face to a grotesque parody of a man.

Levi heaved one of the bags onto the blaze.  It sputtered for a moment, hissed, then burned with a sudden furry.  He wasn’t prepared for the smell.  He’d thought it would be horrible but it was more like grilling steak.

Flashing lights caught his attention.  He rushed around front.  A sheriff’s deputy walked from the curb toward the house.  “What can I do for you, Officer?” asked Levi.

The deputy stopped, shined his 6 cell flash light at Levi, then walked over to him.  “Had a call about a fire.”

“Just burning some stuff I cleaned up,” said Levi.

“You’re supposed to call before you burn,” said the deputy.

Levi cursed under his breath.  How had he forgotten that?  “Sorry.  I was rushing to get it done, didn’t think of it.”

The officer nodded.  “That’s alright.  Just don’t let it happen again.”

“It definitely won’t happen again,” said Levi.

The man walked back toward his car then turned.  “What are you cooking?  Smells great.”

Levi stared at him.

“You okay?” asked the deputy.

“Dinner.  I’m hungry.”

The deputy frowned, shrugged, and went back to his car.  “Be careful with that fire.”

Levi didn’t wave.  He ran into his house and through the piles of collected junk to the freezer.  He grabbed a package of meat and put it on his grill out back near the fire.

The grill wouldn’t start.  He cursed.  He hit it.  Again.  He threw it around his deck.  It didn’t start.

The fire settled into coals.  He threw on another trash bag.  It caught quickly with a sickening hiss.  This time flames didn’t leap up, they crawled low and blue.  He watched them dance.  The way he watched Hannah dance.  He felt the same stirring.

It took some puttering but he wasn’t upset about the cop anymore and he got the grill going.  He wasn’t sure anyone ever grilled a roast but nobody would be that close.

He threw more wood on the fire.  He couldn’t afford to let it go out.  Then he dragged out a half dozen more trash bags, one at a time, carefully so that they wouldn’t rip.

One of his neighbors waved from her back deck, a can of something in one hand, a cigarette in the other.  He ignored her.

“You and Hannah having a late night barbeque?” she asked.

Levi snapped his head around.  The woman had come to the edge of her lawn and was watching him.  He glared at her, the fire casting a deep red tint on them both.

She caught her breath and stumbled back inside.

Levi spent hours at the fire, adding wood and trash bags until he was out of both.  He poked at it with a long stick, shifting the ash and bones.

He dozed on a rusting folding chair.  The moon came up and played hide and seek with the clouds.  Still the fire burned.  He startled awake, a curse on his lips.  He looked around.  Nothing.  And the fire.

The flames rose up, formed and reformed.  Arms stretched out and retreated.  A face laughed at him.  The wood was gone but still it burned.  He poked at it again.  He was tired.  How long would it take?

Dawn crept into the sky and the fire burned.  He sprayed it down but the fire kept burning.  He could clearly see the bones now, fire fliting in and out of the empty eye sockets of the cracked skull.

He ran to the garage and fumbled for a rake.  He worked feverishly and dumped piles of leaves on the fire, smothering it.  Smoke poured out, vile, acrid, thick.

Levi went inside.  He ate.  Outside, the fire burned through the leaves.  He went back to work, feeding the fire with leaves and fallen branches.

Every time it burned down he would sift and stir and each time he found the bones still burning, no hint that they were being consumed.  All day and into the night he labored.  He burned all of the leaves.  Still the bones looked untouched by the fire that clung to them.

His phone rang.  He ignored it.  A few minutes later his neighbor was back, with a fresh can and cigarette.  “Where’s Hannah?  I just tried to call and she didn’t answer.  Haven’t seen her in a few weeks.”

“Gone,” said Levi.  “Maybe to her mother’s?”

“Why would she go there?”  A drag on the cigarette.

“Didn’t say.”

“Or you weren’t listening?”  It was playful.  So was the subtle unzipping of the sweatshirt she wore.  “She say when she was coming back?”

Levi shook his head.  He threw some books onto the fire from where he’d moved the stack in the dining room to a pile beside the fire.  “I told her to shut up.  She said I couldn’t make her.  I stopped paying attention after that.”

His neighbor nodded sagely.  Finished her can.  “You let me know if there’s... anything I can do.”

“You can go home and leave me alone,” said Levi.  He threw the rest of the books on the fire.  She zipped up the sweatshirt and huffed away.

The fire burned all night.  He tried soaking it with the hose but the water just hissed and mocked him.  The fire danced and leered at him.

He emptied the house, burning decades of collected treasures but each time the trash was consumed, it left only the bones.  The sheriff’s deputy came back.  He chased the man away.  Promised he was almost done.

But he wasn’t.  When the trash in the house was burned he started on the garage.  Then the furniture in the house.  Then he tore up the floors and broke up the walls.  The fire consumed all of it.

The fire department chief came by and suggested that maybe it was time to put out the fire.  Levi told him he was on it.  His eyes blazed and smoke clung to him and the fireman retreated, shaken.

Levi tried burying the fire.  The bones moved together then, hiding from the dirt.  Scurrying out of the pit and onto his lawn.  He hacked at them with his shovel.  They danced out of reach.

Exhausted, he stopped for breath.  They came together.  Feet, legs, pelvis, ribs, shoulders, arms, hands.  He watched in horror as the bone fingers lifted the skull and set it in place.

A voice, harsh with smoke, hissed at him from the broken jaw.  He fell to his knees, covered his ears.  But he still heard her.

“You can’t make me,” said Hannah.

Friday, October 24, 2014

You never know where you'll end up unless you never leave.

Last weekend I typed Fade out on a script.  I haven’t looked at it since and probably won’t until after Christmas.  I’d better not.  There has to be a “cooling off” period when you work on a project before you can effectively edit it.  The bigger the project/more you change, the longer that period has to be.  In this case, it’s a 113 page feature.

Thing is, typing Fade out was a bit anti-climactic.

I didn’t know why I felt that way, after all, I finished it – something I’d never done until just over a year ago.  I had allotted a month to write the first draft and I only needed 3 weeks.  I had no difficulty getting to the end I wanted without it being contrived (by Hollywood standards, anyway).  And it’s a great story.  I really like the protagonist and she gets to do pretty cool stuff.

So I went deeper.  Why didn’t I feel like I’d actually accomplished something major?  There are literally tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of people who never get to Fade out.  It was my fourth feature script.  I’ve written a novel.  Getting to the end isn’t the goal anymore.  There was never a question in my mind that I’d be typing fade out within 30 days of typing fade in.

Getting that draft done was only the first step.  I know I have at least one more major revision draft and dozens of smaller passes.  Most likely – despite unwavering confidence in my awesomeness – I’ve got 2 or 3 more major revision drafts.  It probably won’t actually be “done” until next year’s contest season.

I’m excited about the script but that excitement is now tempered by experience.  It’s also a private story for now.  Even harder than the discipline needed to reach Fade out is not sharing the first draft with a trusted reader.  Stephen King knew whathe was talking about when he said NOBODY should ever see the first draft except for you. 

Nicole Sullivan

So it isn’t done, but that’s okay.  I’ve finished another important step on the way to being done.  I take heart in that and am reminded of the speech that Nicole Sullivan gave at graduation.  She quoted Winston Churchill – a man who understood scripting – who said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The only thing better than a rejection letter is 4 rejection letters.

Long time readers may recall the excitement from about a year ago when I wrote about receiving a rejection letter with personal comments.  I’ve gotten a few more since then and they really cause as much excitement as they once did.

But the one I just got did.  It didn’t have a personal comment from the editor.  It had a personal comment from the editor and the three readers.  I made it almost to publication in a respectably paying market.  The comments were positive about the writing and spot on criticisms of the plot.  Please forgive the hubris, I’m going to share some of them.

“This piece is tense and exciting.  It has a lot going for it.  But I don’t feel very sumpathetic towards the protagonist…  It is a good piece, but I don’t think it’s quite there.”

“Your prose is vivid and well written.  I feel your plot could have a little more exposition added to it, however.”

“The author of this piece has a world view and character clearly thought out before htem.  The staccato sentences, “The mirror was in a very honest mood,” reflect Angela’s own tense and acerbic frame of mind… in part because I wasn’t sure this made a whole story in itself… This feels like the true story’s cold echo.”

I love that last line.  Cold echo.  It was a cold piece and needed warmth to draw a reader in.  I plan to add that warmth.

The key to getting better is honesty.  I have another story being rejected all over the place that I think is good and just needs the right editor.  But this story isn’t there.  Yet.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A new story and and a new contest

I hope you don't consider this cheating.  I wrote a piece for Wendy Strain's new contest last week and now that it doesn't have to be anonymous anymore, I'm using it for the entry today.

Please consider entering the contest.  It's 500 words or less, to prompt, to be posted on Friday with voting over the weekend.

Here's the story -- mine is the one about the fork.  http://www.writeonwendy.com/perspectives-wow555-writing-challenge-story-time/

Friday, October 17, 2014

"It's a snow cone maker."

Great movies have something that elevates them above the conventions and standards of their time.  Easy examples are Casablanca and Charade which, while “old” when you watch, are still entertaining for new audiences.  I watched a pair of movies over the weekend that did not rise above their peers.  Actually, I watched 1 and a half movies.  We gave up on Crocodile Dundee.

I know you are cringing at that.  How could you give up on a classic that gave us such memorable lines as, “That’s not a kni-afe.  THIS is a kni-afe!”  Simply put, it wasn’t entertaining after 30 years.  They don’t make movies like that anymore.  If you have fond memories of that film, don’t revisit it.

The disappointment of CD led me to consider an observation I made back in the 90s when I was a fan but not a student of film.  Some of the movies I loved and watched all the time lost their luster and seemed cheesy 5 or 6 years later (or less).  When Iron Eagle came out it was amazing.  Everyone loved it.  There were even a ton of sequals.  But it’s not a good movie.  The year after IE, Top Gun was released.  It’s still good.  Somehow it rose above the genre and became more than just a summer blockbuster.

I freely admit to having been a fan of Steven Segal back in the day.  I must have watched Hard to Kill and Marked for Death a hundred times.  But they got old quickly.  I haven’t watched either in decades because the last time around they were so awful.  Yet other action movies from the same time, like Die Hard and it’s first sequel are still great movies (just remember they’re ‘R’ for a reason).  I’d argue that the first Die Hard is still far superior to the last installment.  (There was also my recent post about Red Dawn.)

So why are Terminator and True Lies so much better than Raw Deal and Red Heat?  What made Kindergarten Cop superior to Twins?  (You don’t get to blame James Belushi or Danny DeVito.)

I think it’s character.  Crocodile Dundee was larger than life, we can’t relate to him anymore.  But we all know somebody we think just might be Harry Tasker.  I certainly have met my fair share of fighter pilots who make Pete Mitchell seem humble.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ask a busy person.

When was the last time you learned something new?  I’m not talking trivia, like how many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop.  I’m talking how to do something, like actually make a tootsie pop.

There is nothing more stimulating than adjusting your perspective by putting on a different pair of metaphorical shoes.  Sure, you may stink at whatever you’re trying to do -- I almost failed 8th grade art and my teacher made me do three water color projects because she thought I was goofing off (which I may have been, but I can’t do water colors) – but the experience will energize your life.

I recently changed jobs and the duties/responsibilities are so different that I spent the first three weeks struggling to keep my (metaphorically again) head above water.  You know what, though?  During that time I started a new screen play and I’ve got almost 90 pages done!

Next month is November.  It’s NaNoWriMo.  Do it.  Seriously.  If you think you’re too busy then you’ve got a better than average chance of actually succeeding.  When December rolls around you’ll be a novelist.

Just one thing --  start from scratch.  Don’t pick up a scrap or a stalled out idea from ten years ago.  It will be easier without baggage.  And I meant what I said about being busy.  The busier you are in life, the more likely you’ll be able to get it done.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Swimming Hole

Happy October Exploitation Day.  Let’s celebrate with a story.

The Swimming Hole
by Your’s Truly
October 2014

Mr. Webster flipped through his manuscript again as the frown that seemed to be permanently etched into his face grew even more pronounced.  “Blasted tarniverous obfuscation,” he muttered.

The woman seated in the chair beside his work table looked up from her needlepoint and peered down her hawkish nose, across the rims of her spectacles, and on to the trouble form of the man who’d won her heart a half century earlier.  “What is it, Dear?”

“I’m missing something,” he said.

She considered his words, then the bulky collection of papers covered in his perfect script.  “I don’t see how you could have.  That book must be a thousand pages.”

“It’s more than that, but there are so many words.”  He thumbed through it again.  “So awfully very many.”

“Then it’s to be expected that you’ve missed a couple and no one will mind.”  She was a sensible woman which was why he’d chosen her over the flighty Mabel.

He considered Mabel for a moment.  Wondered how long she’d be content to sit in a chair with skein and needle.  Once more he counted himself fortunate to be with Merriam.

He looked down.  His breath stopped.  There it was.  “Ahh HA!” he cried out.  “I knew something was missing.  Right here between swill and swindle.”

Merriam, God bless her soul throughout the eternity to which she was predestined upon her baptism at Courtland Abbey, rose from her chair and ambulated to her husband’s side.  “What’s missing?”

He scratched his chin.  Then he scratched his lower back where something had bitten him in the night.  “I don’t know.”

“It seems to me that one word doesn’t make that much of a difference,” she said.

He looked over at two covers for his opus, identical but for the word “Abridged” attached as a subtitle to one of them.  “Sometimes one word makes all of the difference.”

Friday, October 10, 2014

Why isn't there an 'unlike' button?

I’ll jump right to it.  This week I read “The Social Network.”  Despite all of the problems and content that I didn’t care for, it was a well written and compelling script.  I have to say that I liked it, even though there isn’t a single reason I can think of to do so.  There isn’t a great scene, a grand hero, a victory, or anything, really, except a bunch of very smart, very small people being mean to each other.

Thing is, it’s about Facebook, and somehow that makes this story larger than life.

The problem I have with the script is the same problem I have with Facebook itself.  There’s a whole lot of trash mixed in with the lives of people I don’t really know or care about.  It’s a story of over-sharing and back stabbing without a hero.  It’s a story of arrogance and hedonistic self-indulgence.   And once you start it, you have to finish it – drunken drug-induced orgies and all.

To be fair, much like the real Facebook, the worst of the bad is hidden in subtext so the censors don’t have to cut anything out, but I have no intention of ever actually watching it.  What is there in the story isn’t entertainment.  Neither are videos of cats taking a bath, but they still get a lot of views.

Maybe that’s why I liked it?  It was a commentary on how banal the most successful social networking site in the world really is – and has been right from the get-go.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Facebook “hater” but nobody can deny how much more narcissistic it has made our culture.  And at the expense of true knowledge – like what narcissistic means and where it came from.

If you want to write screenplays, read this script.  There are some interesting transitions and it uses flashbacks masterfully.  It also draws characters and settings extremely well.  Then there’s the pacing,  top notch.  It’s technically an outstandingly well executed document.  But if you aren’t writing screenplays, just watch the movie -- if you’re in to that sort of thing.

I know that doesn’t make any sense.  How can I be so down on it and still like it?  Still be thinking about the script days later?  Actually put off writing on my project so I could finish it?  It’s got to be the magic of the site itself, the addiction that keeps us logging in, time and time again.

Facebook really has changed the world.  Perhaps the allure of “The Social Network” is that of any creation legend, one that all mythologies must have.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

There's no dog like an old dog.

Long time readers may recall that last year my youngest son’s science project was to determine which of our three dogs was the smartest.  An interesting side effect of that was the discovery of which one was the dumbest.  But he’s a good, kind-hearted boy, so he described her instead as “the third smartest dog.”

So now, on occasion, I’ll call her #3.  Thing is, I like #3.  She’s sweet and when we got her she was terrified of the world.  Seriously.  She only stopped shaking in dark room by herself.  I often found her in my closet.  She would leap from the dogs’ recliner if I even came close to the shredder.  So I would pet her with keys in my hand.  She’s still nervous about that, but I don’t have to hold her anymore.

#3 is a black Lab.  If you know labs, you know they have a voracious hunger and will consume vast quantities of anything when given a chance.  This one is partial to charcoal and Crayola’s.  It makes for a colorful back yard.  I’ve trained #1-2 to eat only when given permission.  But could #3 learn to wait too?

She can and she has.  It just took longer than the Border Collie did.  I estimate about 1 week of training for the lab per day of training for the collie.  To be fair, the lab is about 7 years old and the collie was a pup, but, well, there’s a reason she’s #3.

My point in all of this is that my family was dubious about my chances for success.  After all, everyone knows that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  Except that I did.

Think about that.

Have you passed on your dream again because now you’re too old?  If I can teach a lab in late middle age to wait for her breakfast, you can do it too.  Not wait for your breakfast, but live your dream.  The thing about dreams is that most people don’t follow them and they’ll tell you all sorts of reasons why you shouldn’t either, one of them that you’re already set on your life path.  Don’t listen to that.  People, in general, are afraid, and what you are hearing are the expressions of their fear, the things that are holding them back.  But you aren’t them.

So what if you’re only third smartest.  Doesn’t mean you can’t succeed.