Friday, September 11, 2020

A New Q&A With Writer Richard Becker

Last year, American writer Richard R. Becker set out on an ambitious story writing project: write 50 short, short stories in 50 weeks, sharing one a week on his Facebook page. What emerged was a cross-genre exploration of the human condition. The collection, called 50 States, is also a composite of periods and places, with each story set in a different state.

With all 50 stories complete, Richard is exploring publishing options for the collection while simultaneously starting work on two more writing projects. So, we decided to catch up with him and ask a few questions about the projects.

Q: What inspired you to start writing 50 stories in 50 weeks?

A: I’ve written short fiction on and off all my life, but never gave it the serious attention it deserved while focusing on my commercial business. Advertising and marketing are very deadline-oriented, so when new clients, communication projects, or marketing campaigns demanded my immediate attention, I sidelined any personal projects.

One of my good friends, Geoff Livingston, told me how to remedy the challenge. You have to work for yourself first, he said. It’s excellent advice, but it took another couple of years before the graphic designer and illustrator Stefan Bucher showed me how to set project parameters. Bucher is the author and illustrator of the Daily Monster, an art project he started by illustrating one new monster every day.

I knew I couldn’t write a new story every day, so I settled into writing one short story, somewhere between 30 and 2,600 words, every week. Once the parameters were set, I revisited Livingston’s advice and dedicated the first part of every Monday to do the bulk of the work.

Q: What can you tell me about the stories?

A: As a collection, 50 States plays out like visiting an art museum. You never know what painting you might see when you round the corner — a slice of life, drama, thriller, experimental, or supernatural — partly because I wasn’t always sure what I wanted to write from week to week. And partly by design because I didn’t want to settle down on this project.

Writers are often told to stick to a genre, but I wasn’t convinced doing so would sustain my interest over 50 weeks. If there is a common thread beyond each story taking place in a different state, I would say it’s found in the psychological and sociological components.

I’ve always enjoyed exploring how people with different perspectives and backgrounds cope with experiences, problems, or transformations. It can be incredibly insightful when people challenge what we might expect from them, or if we’re left to wonder what we might do when faced with the same problem.

Q: Where did you get your ideas?

I’ve been asked this question dozens of times as a commercial copywriter, content marketer, and speaker. I often tell audiences and students that our job as a commercial writer is to find a passion and purpose in whatever we’re writing about — no matter how mundane the topic might appear on the surface. I have a few tips for inspiration.

I found writing fiction to be a bit different. Coming up with a story every week came from holding a few creative sparks in mind at any given time, and then fanning each one to see what ignites. As I developed one of these sparks into a story, a few more sparks might take their place.

Sometimes they would come from something I might see in passing (like a harassed girl taking a chance on a passerby to rescue her), current events (like people fleeing wildfires or environmental protests), research about a particular location (like a non-customer inexplicably wandering into the back room of a restaurant), or a sliver from my past experiences (being dared to cross a creek on the outside of a bridge). Not every spark will develop, but I learned how to become more alert to them once I was in the habit of collecting them.

Q: What did you learn from the 50 stories in 50 weeks project?

A: You can listen to a hundred writers tell you to just write. It might be impossible to fathom when you aren’t wiring, but it’s true — writing is the secret to writing. If you can write one decent sentence, even if you rewrite or cut it later, the second will be easier.

The importance of immersion cannot be understated. Robert Greene, author of Mastery, considers this actively engaging dimensional mind the key to reaching our creative potential. David Lynch talks about creativity in much the same way. Once we move from the trappings of a conventional mind, we can be led to a fantastic place where trillions of ideas are waiting to be caught.

It made me realize that I should have done this much sooner. Whereas before I always looked at writing fiction as something that would take away from commercial work, the opposite turned out to be true. Being in this dimensional space has lent something to my commercial work.

Q: Did you face any challenges along the way?

A: My biggest challenge has been the same one faced by everyone on the planet. Regardless of how we feel about it, the pandemic has a nasty way of keeping us grounded in conventional thought. It pushes negativity, scarcity, regulations, and the mundane to the forefront while diminishing access to and the importance of creative thinking — even if creative, positive thinking is what we need the most right now.

Before the initial shutdown in our state, I was ahead of schedule with up to five stories written and ready for publication on my page. After a few months of the shutdown, I found my stockpile of finished stories diminishing as it was harder and harder to find sparks that had nothing to do with the pandemic.  I also didn’t want it to seep into the stories.

In the end, two stories touch on the pandemic (and one is directly related to it) as I learned how to navigate around it. But what was lost in the process was my ability to keep ahead of my weekly schedule, and sometimes I finished stories the night before the deadline. Ultimately, not having 10 weeks off from writing pushed my original publishing dates out the window.

Q: What’s next for 50 States and any new projects?

A: I always wanted to self-publish 50 States, so I’m currently exploring my best option. I’ve already narrowed it down to three paths and plan to start production in the next few weeks. Whether the initial offering will be a small run or something like a Kickstarter campaign will depend on how many people sign up for my newsletter.

If you sign up, keep in mind that the sign-up page was initially meant to provide production updates. Plans change. I’m using it for my future quarterly newsletter, including an original long format short story — maybe 3,500 to 8,000 words — every three months. It will also include any updates on 50 States and some other surprises.

I’ve also restarted another collection of short, short stories called 50 Threads but won't be publishing them on Facebook. Instead, I'll share them elsewhere and announce them on Facebook, byRichardBecker, and other social networks like Twitter, LinkedinMeWe, and maybe a few other places. 

As the name 50 Threads suggests, most of these shorts touch on or tie into those that made up 50 States. What’s different is that my publishing schedule will be slower so I can focus on production and other projects. 50 Threads will present 50 stories in 100 weeks, published every other Thursday. If you aren’t following already, I’d love to see you there!

50 States by Richard R. Becker will be on our watch list.

It’s always great to see someone kickstart their storytelling career, and this effort is especially interesting because it came out of a personal challenge. It will also be interesting to see how his next project pans out. The first story in 50 Threads, The Beige Door, was published on Facebook. Future stories may not be.
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