Monday, January 6, 2020

Scott Stokely: Growing Up Disc Golf

My newest book is out! It's a collaboration with disc golf champion Scott Stokely, writing his memoir of his childhood and years on tour. As of today is is available in both print and ebook formats.

Before he was a national disc golf champion, Scott Stokely was a latch-key kid, a troubled teen, an arrogant punk. Before his entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, he was a black-market dealer, an addict, a fugitive from justice. Scott would become a devoted teacher, a dedicated advocate, a team leader, and one of the toughest competitors in the history of disc golf. But first, he would have to grow up.

The story begins in 1976, when a 7-year-old Scott discovers the world’s only disc golf course, Oak Grove Park in Pasadena, California. There he quickly falls in love with the sport and becomes a junior member of the world’s first disc golf club, the Oak Grove Gophers. Soon he begins to compete. Over the next 25 turbulent years, the one constant in Scott’s life will be disc golf, as his career develops from child prodigy into a decade-long successful professional disc golf tour.

During those years the sport of disc golf will itself come of age, growing from obscure infancy through adolescent growth pains to respectable adulthood. See this history through the eyes of a man who lived it, beginning with the early “Wild West” highlights all the way through its establishment as a professional sport. Scott’s story covers decades of stars, legends, and misfits of the Frisbee family, hundreds of tournaments, and tens of thousands of miles as he tells about his highs and lows, successes and failures, and every aspect of life on the disc golf tour.

Get the print version.

Get the Ebook.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Final, Definitive Guide to Word Counts for Short Stories, Novellas, Novels, and More

How many words make a novel? It's an age-old question. I have done a seriously ridiculous amount of research and have the definitive answer for how many words in a short story, novella, novel, and everything else.

We start where everyone always starts, with Wikipedia. The four-part breakdown is pretty simple. Short story to 7,500 words, novelette to 17,500, novella to 40,000, and beyond that is a novel.

Piece of cake, right? But what about flash fiction? Where's that fit? One source suggests anything between 53 and under 1000.

But wait, that same source says short stories have at least 3,500 words. Anything between 1,000 and 3,499 has just fallen into a forbidden void. That's dangerous, because nature and writers alike abhor a vacuum.

A second opinion comes to the rescue with a refinement on short stories, separating them into short-short and long-short stories. The short-short is a very awkward name, so I propose we call it the Old Mac Donald (like the farm, with a short-short here, a short-short there, etc.)

There's still some void, but it's small and containable.

A long-short is just as problematic. Using the writer's favorite tool, creative synonyms, we could call it a big short. Big Short? That's a movie! It was a book first, but with all respect to author Michael Lewis the most famous name here is Christian Bale.


 We have to add in an important pivot point in the graph. McSweeney's submissions famously said submissions of exactly 742 words used to get accepted to the site as if by magic. That golden rule is, alas, no longer true, but the magic number remains.

But that presents a logical problem, with two different lengths both called "flash". We could separate them into microflash and macroflash, but with that perfect Goldilocks zone in the middle, literary history calls out for Mama Bear Flash and Papa Bear Flash. For consistency, we also have to dump the reference to McSweeney's in favor of baby bear (we can't name the just right length after Goldilocks; she's a burglar and a thief).

Now we have some problems on the low end. The unsubstantiated story of Hemingway's "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," slots in nicely at six words.

Shorter than that and you don't have a story, you have a byline. As for 1-2 words, frankly, you're staring at a screen, trying to figure out how to start. You've got writer's block.

After 6, we get into a murky area. You've got a couple handfuls of syllables, but you haven't gone very far. Up to, say, 17 words, it's probably just a haiku. It's not a sure thing, but wise gambler takes the best odds.

Finally, we can get to the novel. Hand-waving everything over 40k is far too open-ended. For one thing, 40k is too short for modern times. "Old" novels might fit there, but not new novels. Heh, that's ironic. "Novel" means new. Old novels are "old-new." Who's the expert on old-new things? They Might Be Giants, with the lyric, "Old New York was once New Amsterdam."

As everyone knows, books are metric. That gives us an important milestone at 100,000+. And finally, if we've gone past 120,000, we're definitely into fantasy (or rarely sci-fi) epic territory.

There are deeper milestones. "Ulysses", at 262,869 words, makes one complete Odyssey.

By the time you've reached 350k, you have clearly (and coincidentally, since this famous author's top 7 longest novels roughly average this length) written the Dickens out of a book.

When we reach the length of "Gone with the Wind" I think it is frankly safe to say we have given a Damn.

Beyond that, and I admit I'm getting tired here so I'm going to stop with the fancy naming and just let the titles speak for themselves, there are several clear roadmarks.


 Two exceptions, because we need more granularity. In a Chabon book, one character is working on a 2,611-page novel, which at 250 words per page sets fine boundary for a "Wonder Boy" of a book.

Then there is a saying, sort of like Gladwell's somewhat debunked 10,000 hour rule that a writer's first million words are practice. Once you hit that, it's go time.

In summary, the final, definitive, universal, totally accurate and un-arguable for all time list of how many words does it take to have a short story, novel, or any other kind of non-poetic (except haiku) literary work:

Wait, sorry. I have clearly made some mistakes. Kilo is 1000, and Old Mac Donald is 1000. A Kilo-Mac Donald ought to be a million. Also, I have failed to recognize the squidgy Balette space, where the Bale and the Novelette overlap. That plus a typo where flash went to 9,999. Still, every system is imperfect. It would be foolish to scrap all this hard work and start over, right?

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

My Inspiration for Writing "The Great American Novel Returns"

The Great American Novel Returns exists to celebrate the public domain. Art belongs to the world as a part of our shared culture. For practical business reasons we let the creators hold on to their inventions for a time, but it's a temporary monopoly. Eventually all great stories become part of our collective experience and should be free to re-use, adapt, and build upon.

The book is a "mashup," blending an old work with something new. The idea has been around forever. How many myths have been reworked, how many classics retold? Shakespeare, maybe the most-referenced writer from the past, was himself working from stories that were old in his day. But the idea has taken on a life of its own in recent years. Since I first heard about Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies I knew I wanted the chance to take an existing work and treat it like a LEGO kit: break it apart and reassemble in a way that featured both old and new.

One problem was I didn't want to tackle the same books everyone else was already tinkering with, so Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, and most other writers from before the twentieth century were out. Also, I didn't want to go that far back in time. Weren't there new-old books being freshly put in the public domain? For twenty years—my entire adult life—the answer was no. The last copyright extension, the 1998 "Mickey Mouse Protection Act," created a gap, putting creative access to artistic works on pause for two decades. That ended this year, with a crop of works from 1923 finally entering the public domain in 2019.

Among them was the song "Yes, We Have No Bananas." I couldn't make a book out of that, but I hope for the life of me someone eventually does. Then I found The Great American Novel by William Carlos Williams. I knew little about Williams and nothing about the novel, but I have always loved the half-jesting, half-striving implications of that phrase, and immediately knew that was the one to work with. Williams still inspires many poets, but I think his books, and this one in particular, are mostly forgotten. It deserves to be revisited and recalled as a piece of our history and culture. That is part of what I hope to do by dragging his old words along on a road trip with my new ones.

How did I do it? The final result contains three roughly equal portions:

One third is text from the original The Great American Novel by Williams. The parts quoted represent maybe half of his original work and are presented with only minor modifications.

Another third of the book is a conversation with Williams’s text, adding commentary, playful discussion, and a century’s worth of insight and events.

The remaining third is a straightforward story, a road-trip buddy adventure of a car and a computer who set out together to discover America. This part came about because Williams's original satire had hundreds of scenes and talking points, but basically no over-arching story, and the best way I could conceive to make a satire of a satire was to put a story back in, but one that has machines exploring man-made world.

Now available on Amazon.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

My Year in Writing: Invisible Strides

It's the season for annual lists and summaries. Looking at some other authors' "This Year in Writing" posts and threads has me thinking about my own.

The short version is this: If you were looking for Aaron Rath words in 2018, you would have found nothing, unless you want to count a few hundred Twitter posts. But behind the cloak of invisibility, a lot has been going on.

I started the year on the third month of a "quick and dirty" project that was supposed to take six weeks, a novelization of Twilight Heroes, a computer game I used to run. I'd spend another six months not making much progress there before starting to understand I needed to rethink the scope and tone of the book. It's on the shelf now behind some other projects, but I think I've slowly come around to understanding what I need to do to finish it. Late 2019 is likely.

This year I made my first real writer friend, someone to talk to about craft, good books, an accountability partner, and mind-expander. I can't overstate the value of having someone in a similar position and equally obsessed with the hobby to share things with.

Up until this year, everything I had done has been self-published. It seemed like an adventure, and also fewer hoops to jump through, and I'm frequently a do-it-yourself-er. But a combination of exposure to the writing world on Twitter, stories from my writing buddy, and tidbits gleaned from dozens of writing-related podcasts (Book Fight, Writing Excuses, The Drunken Odyssey, Ditch Diggers, I Should Be Writing, How Authors Work, and several more) all nudged me toward considering the traditional route as well.

The final push was a challenge from Barrelhouse, putting out a call for "that one unpublishable thing you really love." I figured, what harm could there be in sending something I knew was unpublishable and having it rejected. So I created a Submittable account, dredged up an unfinished Joycean homage from 1998, figured out how to actually finish the thing and sent it out. My first ever submission to a real publication, more than 30 years after I'd decided I wanted to "be a writer." It was fun and painless, so I sent more.

Naturally, I got my first rejection. Several of them. Because that's how it works. A low success rate is to be expected, and maybe it took me a few decades to come to terms with it--I'm still resistant to fetishizing the rejection process the way many seem to--but it felt normal. But I did write several new short stories.

I also got my first acceptance! A short story sent to a literary journal. I haven't talked about it yet because I'm not sure when I'm supposed to. It seems like mostly that happens on publication, and I'm still waiting for that part. I don't know what to expect there, either, but I'm being patient and hopeful, because it seems like patience is a huge part of the print world.

Most of the summer and fall went to a new project, a novella-length mashup adaptation of The Great American Novel, by William Carlos Williams. That book will be entering the public domain in January, part of the first batch of books in roughly 20 years, since they passed the last copyright extension. I've always wanted to do an adaptation of an old work, and this one grabbed me from the title. It nearly lost me again afterward because the book itself is difficult and experimental, but I found a way to tackle it. I'm deep in revisions now, and also waiting for 2019 when I'm free to make use of Williams's old words. It should be out by spring at the latest.

Finally I've been asked to ghost write the memoir of an old friend. We're about halfway through with that project. It's going well and is on pace for a mid-summer release.

In summary, one and a half books, a literary journal acceptance, a friend, and massive shifts in my world view. All of it invisible on the outside, of course, but it feels like one I'll be pointing back to for decades to come.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Fear and Loathing and NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo as seen through the eyes of Fear and Loathing in Las VegasSincerest apologies to Hunter S. Thompson. Originally written in 2002, so some of the references are a little dated:

We were somewhere around five thousand words on the edge of a real breakthrough when the triple latte began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe I should switch to decaf ..." And suddenly there was this terrible roar inside my skull and the screen in front of me was full of what looked like plot penguins, sliding and cawing and hopping around the page, which was scrolling about a hundred miles an hour towards some insane but obscurely satisfying goal. And a voice was murmuring: "My God! Am I already reduced to using these animals?"

Then it was quiet again. My brother had taken his fuzzy Kangol hat off for the tenth time and was wringing it in his hands, to facilitate the creative process. "What the hell are you going on about?" he muttered, staring unceasingly at his own screen with eyes bloodshot and framed by gold-rimmed glasses. "Never mind," I said. "It's your turn to make the next drink." I hit command-S and aimed a copy of the Great American Novel toward my backup zip drive. No point mentioning those penguins, I thought. The poor bastard will need them soon enough.

It was almost the twentieth, and we still had more than forty-five thousand words to go. They would be tough words. Very soon, I knew, we would both be completely twisted. But there was no going back, and no time to rest. We would have to ride it out. Wordcount verification for National Novel Writing Month 2003 was already underway, and we had to make it there by the thirtieth to claim our winner's graphic. A crazy website in California had taken care of the reservations, along with this clamshell-shaped orange iMac we'd just borrowed off a generous stranger in the Bay Area ... and I was, after all, an aspiring novelist; so I had an obligation to finish the project, for good or ill.

My brother and I had pooled $100 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous chemicals. The table in front of us looked like the smart bar at a rave. We had two cartons of V8, seventy-five pellets of vitamin C, five bags of fun-sized candy bars, a canister half-full of presweetened Kool-Aid, a whole galaxy of multi-colored tea bags, coffee types, crackers, chips ... and also a bottle of tequila, a bottle of vodka, a case of Old Style, a bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans and two dozen pixie sticks.

All of this had been rounded up the night before, in a frenzy of high-speed shopping all over Fort Collins--from Safeway to Aggie Liquors, we picked up everything we could get our hands on. Not that we needed all that for the project, but once you get locked into a serious snack collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

The only thing that really worried me were the espresso beans. There is nothing in the world more twitchy and incoherent and depraved than an author in the depths of an espresso bean binge. And I knew we'd get into that rotten stuff pretty soon. Probably at the next chapter break. We had sampled almost everything else, and now--yes, it was time for a large handful of beans. And then do the next thousand words in a horrible, jittery sort of spastic trance. The only way to keep productive on espresso beans is to balance it with a lot of alcohol--not all at once, but steadily, just enough to ease the muscular flow as your mind fires ninety miles an hour through half a dozen plot twists.

"Man, this is the way to write," said my brother. He leaned over to turn the volume up on the stereo, humming with the rhythm section and kind of moaning the words: "Yeah I'll search the world over for my angel in black. Yeah, I'll search the world over for a Eurotrash Girl."

"Angel in black? You poor fool! Just wait till you see those goddamn plot ninjas. I could barely hear my brother's music ... slumped over in my lounge chair, head phones strapped to my head turned all the way up on "Sunday, Bloody Sunday." That was the only MP3 my borrowed laptop had, so I played it constantly, over and over, as a kind of demented counterpoint to the stereo. And also to maintain my rhythm on the keyboard. A constant speed is good for the fingers--and for some reason that seemed important at the time. Indeed. On a project like this one must be careful about finger limberness. Avoid those quick bursts of typing that pull blood away from the brain.

My brother noticed the visitor long before I did. "Let's see what this guy wants," he said, and before I could mount any argument he was across the room and this poor neighbor kid was walking up to my computer with a big grin on his face, saying, "Wow, I never saw an orange computer before!"

"Is that right?" I said. "Well, I guess you're about due, eh?"

The kid nodded eagerly as I kept typing.

"We're on a mission," said my brother. "It's not like anything you've heard of before."

Oh crap, I thought, he's gonna go into the whole spiel again. "No more of that talk," I said sharply. "Or I'll put hot sauce in your coffee." He grinned, seeming to understand. Luckily, the noise in the room was so awful--between the dishwasher and the stereo and the headphones I'd removed--that the kid three steps away couldn't hear a word we were saying. Or could he?

How long can we maintain? I wondered. How long before one of us starts raving and jabbering at this boy. What will he think then? This same strenuous project was the last known endeavor of Nietzsche before he went mad. Will he make that grim connection when my brother starts screaming about penguins and black-clad ninjas converging on him? If so--well, we'll just have to force-feed him espresso beans. Because it goes without saying that we can't turn him loose unadulterated. We needed plausible deniability in case he tried to report us.

Goodness! Did I just say that? Or just type it? Was I talking, too? Did they hear me? I glanced over at my brother, but he seemed oblivious--making a mixed drink of tequila and coffee, talking to our neighbor at a thousand words a minute or so. There was no sound from the visitor.

Maybe I'd better have a chat with this boy, I thought. Perhaps if I explain things, he'll understand.

Of course. I leaned around in the seat and gave him a fine big smile ... admiring the skull logo on his Punisher shirt.

"By the way," I said. "There's one thing you should probably understand."

He stared at me, not blinking. Was he gritting his teeth?

"Can you hear me?" I yelled.

He nodded.

"That's good," I said. "Because I want you to know that we're participating in NaNoWriMo to complete an American Dream." I smiled. "That's why I borrowed this laptop. It was the only way to do it. Can you grasp that?"

He nodded again, but his eyes were nervous.

"I want you to have all the background," I said. "Because this is a very strenuous assignment--with overtones of extreme personal punishment ... hell, I forgot all about this coffee; you want some?"

He shook his head.

"How about some Old Style with V8 and echinacea drops?"


"Never mind. Let's get right to the heart of this thing. You see, about twenty days ago we were sitting in a coffee shop over in Oakland--in the couch section, of course--and we were just sitting there with an extra foamy latte when this tall skinny guy wearing a brown shirt that said NaNoWriMo came up to me and said, "You must have been waiting a long time for this kickoff party."

I laughed and ripped open a bag of espresso beans that skittered all over the table while I kept talking. "And you know? He was right! I'd been expecting that kickoff, but I didn't know what the mission would be. Do you follow me?"

The neighbor's face was a mask of pure angst and bewilderment.

I blundered on: "I want you to understand that this man in the kitchen is my brother! He's not just some dingbat I found on campus. Shit, look at him! He doesn't look like you or me, right? That's because he's from SoCal. I think he's probably a beach bum. But it doesn't matter, does it? Do you have a problem with that?"

"Hell no!" he blurted.

Monday, October 30, 2017

7 Paths to Self-Improvement

I  have a featured guest article that posted today about the Seven Axes of Development (a.k.a. SAD ... no, that needs work) that I used to shape my recently published Quirkz Handbook with the Really Long Title, called "7 Paths to Self-Improvement."

Full Article here:…/7-paths-to-self-improvement/

Sunday, October 1, 2017

"Stranger and Better" Q&A: What Didn't Make the Cut?

When you write five drafts of a book, like you did with "Stranger and Better," and also cut 70,000 words from the original version, there must be a lot of material left behind. What kinds of things didn't make the cut?

 A lot of things, obviously. Most of it junk, too. When I'm a little uncertain I tend to ramble, hoping somehow that the volume of my words will fill the space with an adequate uncertainty, and that maybe if I say enough of them, one or two will resonate. I'm terrible about writing a full page, realizing the entire thing is boring and pointless, rewriting it as a paragraph, and then recognizing that what I really need to do is delete that and replace it with a single sentence. This is particularly bad with openings (setting the scene before getting to the action), or transitions, where I know I need to get from A to C, and to do so I wedge in D-Q, while forgetting entirely about B.

That said, there were other points that I actually liked, but which I took out of the book because they weren't quite pertinent enough, or the shifting nature of the book over five drafts eliminated the point. Examples include:
  • Simpsons references. Back in 1999 I was really into the Simpsons. They are still a popular item 18 years later, but I didn't feel like I needed to use them anymore to make my own points. The only thing I kept was Polly calling Martin a kwyjibo.
  • The idea that I would start and end each chapter with two halves of a scene, or two iterations of a quote. It didn't always work very well, and was hard enough to do with 9 mega-chapters. Trying to apply the idea to a revised 40-chapter book seemed terrible.
  • Physics references. I personally studied physics in college, and it crept in to a lot of Martin's points, such as using a metaphor of billiard balls getting knocked around, and some references to the three-body problem. I had even invented a joke walk that Martin would engage in, called the Martin-step, but while it's something I could demonstrate visually, it didn't make much sense verbally and mostly confused readers.
  • I used the editorial interference to gloss over or shorten some scenes that had seemed funny, but which ran way too long. (In short, the humor density wasn't high enough, and it wasn't pertinent to the plot.) For example, the original draft had a detailed, mistake-ridden explanation of Martin's first shower, a very euphemism-heavy version of the Great Masturbator scene, and the original "how do you fold your laundry" joke ran about four times as long as the final draft. It wasn't pithy or snappy, so I either chopped it way back or just cut it.
  •  Oberlin inside jokes. I put a lot into the first draft, because I was writing for a fellow Obie. But much of it didn't make sense to outsiders, or, as time passed, was even forgotten by my classmates. Points include: the microburst of 1996, "strenuous objections" vs. regular objections, the transition between Starr and Dye as presidents, the fall poster sale, details about graduation requirements, popular local bands like Bippy and Package from Sally, jokes about the mail room, and a lot more.
  • Martin's desire to be a writer. The first draft had him wanting to get into creative writing, and finding a redemption of sorts by putting together a book while left behind after graduation. I have since been convinced that writers writing about wannabe writers is about as cliche as it gets, and in my years of noveling I'm only going to allow myself one such story, but not yet. So his failure to get into the program, his aggravations and eventual accomplishment, (some of it in a "can I win over Ginevra this way?" fashion), all got dropped. His first adviser, H. Royden Jones, was supposed to be a famous author who was trying to help but accidentally shames Martin badly in a discussion about creative writing interests, much more dramatic than the eventual conversation the two have, but so it goes.
  • A lot more drugs. There were originally multiple trips, different bonding moments with multiple friends, lots more scenes of strangeness and confusion. But while those were originally written to add in humor and fun, creative impulses, they filled too much of the book. Also, the scene with Mudd as a fractal was the original conclusion - a vision of a multitude of universes, of transcending levels, but also an acid trip. I didn't want the story to be just about the drugs, and I definitely didn't want the primary insights to come from them, so they got pushed into the background, in favor of more intellectual pursuits, like the meaning of life.
  • Play-within-a-play moments. I had an homage to James Joyce in one part, and Ish writing romantic comedy in another place. It seemed like too much material, too much of a diversion, and honestly I kind of groan every time I'm forced to read that sort of thing anyway.
  • Characters. The original version was aswarm with one-offs, cameos, freshman-vs-senior friends, and more. It might have been realistic, but it was confusing, and most friends didn't get a lot of time on the page. Ish, and Ginevra were always fairly independent, (and Leon, to a lesser extent) but among the other friends, a pool of 7 eventually turned into Polly, Seth, and James. (Poor James. I think I changed his name at least 20 times as more and more roles landed on that one character. That's more than once per year.) The tradeoff is I lost a little sense of transition, because you rarely meet your four best friends on Day 1 and keep them the whole time, but from a narrative standpoint it's a little more cohesive than adding and dropping new characters every semester.
  • Believe it or not, I really toned down Martin's lust for Ginevra. I would have said two decades ago I was pretty sensitive as to how he wrote about her, but either times have changed, I've grown, or being a father to two girls has shifted my perspective, but looking at the first draft, I feel like he was drooling all over her constantly in a fairly crude manner. At least one reader argued I ought to pump up the final draft a little ("He ought to want the girl more than anything in the world.") and I can see how that's normally part of a modern love story, but in the end I wanted Martin to be more in love with ideas than the girl, and on more than a couple of occasions he shoots himself in the foot because of his love of the truth. Such honesty might mean Stranger and Better will never be a best-seller with movie rights, but it sure as hell knows what it's about.
  • In the original version, when Martin and Ish have their final argument, Martin gives in and Ish finally calls him Dale. I liked that, but in the final draft, Ish is honestly more important than Ginevra to Martin, so he's had his "I need to be true to myself" moment before the final showdown. It hurt me to take it out, but it made more sense that way.
  • A whole bunch of deliciously crafted lines that were just too off-topic. (I've got enough of those, that may be a separate post.)
  • The Ginevra kiss scene was totally different. Originally, Ginevra tells Martin not to say anything, but he can't help but sigh her name, and that triggers a breakdown. Then in the follow-up scene, he hears a phone tick just before it starts ringing (something Oberlin dorm phones actually did), and he has half a second to hate the entire universe (running to a couple of pages) before Brent's call comes through and ruins the rest of the night for him. I intended to keep the moment that way, but in a very rare instance of characters acting up and doing their own thing, (Seriously, I don't believe in the "I want X but my character refuses to cooperate" kind of thing you'll hear a lot of authors say. I would have said I subscribe 100% to the belief the author is in charge. Now I guess it's 99%.) but in this one instance I was trying to tweak Martin's guilt about Antioch, and after I'd tuned that, I could not see anything else but the more comic kiss they engage in.
Yes, this has gotten long enough. I'll definitely save some of those quotes and a final few editorial changes for a later post.