City Paper 2020 Fiction Contest Reading at Eaton DC

City Paper 2020 Fiction Contest Winners
(l to r) City Paper 2020 Fiction Contest Winners Carmen Munir Russell-Sluchansky, Rhonda Green-Smith, Joe Flood

I had a chance to read my short story, Apartment 101, at a reading arranged by the Washington City Paper for its 2020 Fiction Contest winners.

I read first, sharing my fiction before an audience at the arts-friendly Eaton DC hotel and online via Facebook Live.

Standing in front of the crowd with my short story in hand, I read slowly, stressing the funny lines and looking up at the audience occasionally. A reading needs to have a bit of performance to it.

This wasn’t my first reading. I won the City Paper contest in 2017 for my short story Victory Party and read at Kramerbooks, which was the experience of a lifetime.

I was glad to read first because then I could sit back and enjoy the work of the other winning writers from the Fiction Issue.

Carmen Munir Russell-Sluchansky shared his story about an epic paintball war in DC. It’s funny, a rarity in these grim times in the nation’s capital. A journalist, he wrote it the night before the contest submission deadline.

Rhonda Green-Smith read her story of a child who learns everything she needs to know about life one morning in 1986. Her voice is DC authentic, coming from the real city beyond the monuments. This story is part of a collection that she’s working on.

Then we did a Q&A with the audience, including being asked for writing advice. I said: write what you know. Apartment 101 is based upon an apartment I lived in during the 90s. The characters and the events were all drawn from my experiences.

Thanks to City Paper for setting this up! Fiction provides a more satisfying experience than skimming a tweet. I hope that I inspired other people in the room to pick up the pen and start writing.

Eight Life Lessons Learned, 2010 – 2019

Andrew Jackson statue at sunset

The world has been turned upside down since 2010. This crazy decade has taught me eight invaluable life lessons.

  1. If you don’t do politics, politics is going to do you.
  2. Your most interesting times will be the worst.
  3. You can bike in any kind of weather. Snow, rain, polar vortex. Doesn’t matter. Humans are designed for this.
  4. Read that book. Reading is the best use of your leisure time.
  5. Write that book! Creating art has its own rewards.
  6. Don’t try to monetize your hobby.
  7. If you’re healthy, appreciate that. If not, endure.
  8. We’re not here forever. Go to that party, hug that friend, take that cheesy sunset photo.

WordPressDC: Create a Home Page That Gets You Clients

Headline with image

Before social media and SEO, the home page was all about words.

Content, we called it, and content was king.

The home page with the best words won.

At least they did for a few brief years in the 90s, before keyword stuffing, monetization strategies, content management systems, personalization, cookies, bots, influencers, viral videos, tweet storms and other forms of digital manipulation embraced by late-stage capitalism.

Every once in a while, however, I’m reminded that web sites are about words. Without them, your web site is an empty shell.

Create a Home Page That Gets You Clients

Marylyn King presented on the power of words at the October WordPress DC Meetup on creating a home page that gets you clients.

She made the point that effective web sites clearly spell out their offer. Ask for what you want!

It’s a novel concept that’s been lost as so many home pages are soaked in indecipherable jargon. If you’re in the IT field, it’s buzzwords about the cloud. Government agencies decorate their pages with undefined acronyms. Nonprofits do everything but describe what they do.

No one wants to say, “I sell widgets.” Instead, they claim, “We’re a next generation industrial enterprise bringing lifestyle solutions embraced by the marketplace.”

But if you want your customer to buy something or donate money or sign-up for the newsletter, ask them! Make it clear, direct and bold.

Home Page Elements

Marylyn explained how to write the copy for an effective home page:

  • Problem
  • Solution
  • Authority
  • Call to Action

You describe the problem – I want toast.

You give the solution – here is a toaster.

You mention your authority – 99% of Amazon shoppers gave this toaster five stars.

And then the call to action: buy the toaster!

The silly examples are mine but your home page does not need to be complicated and should not be complicated. You’re dealing with a fickle consumer who will click away from your site within seconds.

So, tell them what you offer immediately. Don’t make them figure it out. Don’t make them think.

Content management systems may change. Web design fads differ from year to year.

But the power of words is a constant. Invest in them to deliver returns.

Published! Five Tips for a Better Weather Photo

cyclist on P St

I have a new article in The Washington Post – Five Tips for a Better Weather Photo!

In this listicle for the Capital Weather Gang, I share my tips for creating a good weather photo. It’s about composition, knowing your camera, including people, getting out of the car and telling a weather story.

The photo editor included lots of bike photos – that’s what I’m known for as a photographer. A bike is also how I get around the city and am able to capture so much interesting imagery.

I’m a huge Capital Weather Gang fan. It’s the best part of the paper, IMHO. I was glad to share my knowledge with their readers.

Where Do Book Ideas Come From? The Story of The Swamp

Perfect headline/photo from the Express #snowquester

Where do book ideas come from?

In my novel The Swamp, a drone crashes into the White House, changing the course of history forever. Where did that come from? A bad weather forecast.

The Triggering Incident

On this day in 2013, Washington was supposed to get an epic snow storm. There was a run on milk and toilet paper. The federal government shut down. The local TV channels suspended programs and went to wall-to-wall coverage. Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel even flew in to witness the snowy carnage.

And it rained. I watched it all day, waiting for it to turn to snow, but the precipitation remained persistently non-frozen. It was the city that cried snow, to quote the Washington Post Express.

Around 4 PM, I gave up and went to happy hour, walking deserted downtown streets to be the only customer at a bar. The weatherman on TV said that there was a layer of hot air over the city; it was snowing in the suburbs.

Layer of hot air…. If you’re a writer, this is one of those amusing details that you file away.

Collecting Information

Ironically, I had recently started working in communications at the National Weather Service. A few months later, I had the chance to visit the Weather Forecast Office in Sterling, the office that had issued the bum forecast.

I didn’t ask them about that. Instead, I was shown how they used computer models and data displays to customize local forecasts. I was also shown a weather balloon, which carried a radiosonde designed to transmit atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed data.

“The Secret Service visited after we had balloon end up on the White House lawn,” a meteorologist told me. Another interesting detail, filed away.

At the same time, I was annoyed by the ever-increasing level of security theater in DC. Public spaces and parks have been stolen by the Secret Service and other agencies in the name of security. The perimeter around the White House expands ever outward, seizing Lafayette Park to the north and the Ellipse to the south, grand public spaces that are routinely closed off. This is done despite the Secret Service’s failure to prevent fence jumpers and other miscreants.

Then, in 2015, a man crashed a drone into the White House in what was described as a drunken lark. It made a mockery of security theater. How can you keep the President safe in the age of the drone? Another interesting detail.

If you’re a writer, you constantly collect information – even if you don’t realize it, filing away interesting stories and amusing incidents for future use.

Write What You Know

I had a recently finished writing a mystery novel, Murder on U Street. It’s a dark comedy in which I kill off hipsters.

For my next book, I wanted to write a satire with a political edge, like Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.

What could I write about? The image of the drone disappearing into the night stuck with me. It would be a great way to open a book.

Write what you know. What did I know? The National Weather Service had taught me about weather forecasting and government bureaucracy. I knew security theater, for I had seen places I loved locked away by fences. And I had heard enough anti-Washington sentiment to understand that a good chunk of this country wanted this city to disappear.

So, where do book ideas come from? Putting all of these thoughts together, I had my idea for The Swamp:

A meteorologist, humiliated by a bum forecast, puts a drone into the layer of hot air over DC to measure its strength. It crashes into the White House, triggering a security scare. The nation is outraged. How can we keep the President safe from drones? By moving him, and the rest of government, out of Washington.

Now, I just had to write it.

The Swamp: Early Reviews of My Book

Meeting Mandi, one of my readers in Orlando, Florida.
Meeting Mandi, one of my readers in Orlando, Florida.

One of the most gratifying things about being an author is hearing that people enjoyed your book.

And readers have enjoyed THE SWAMP!

Here are some early reviews of my funny new novel about Washington, DC, and the times we live in now.

Even better than experiencing good reviews is meeting readers, like Mandi in Florida! Her extended family has been some of my biggest supporters. Her aunt Rachel (the cool aunt) designed the cover of my novel.

Check out the hilarious world of THE SWAMP, available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.

Winter: A Time of Deep Crankiness

Rosslyn at sunset

I unleashed a volley of obscenities at the two (two!) cars parked in the middle of the bike lane. After a minor fender-bender, these two drivers decided the best course of action was to move their cars into the protected bike lane of 15th, thus forcing people on bikes (me!) into traffic.

I cursed; they cursed back. At the next light, a woman on a bike pulled up next to me. “That wasn’t helpful,” she said.

“But,” I started, thinking of all the different ways the bike lane is blocked daily by cars, construction and utility companies determined to dig up every bit of asphalt in this city. However, I’ll admit when I’m wrong and I was. Yelling at them did not help matters nor did it make me feel better. It just left me with a hangover of rage.

It’s a tough time of year. I dread these days when the sun sinks lower in the sky until it just barely seems to get above the horizon. You go to work under gray skies and leave when it’s black.

A time of deep crankiness, when schedules are packed with commitments while you’re pressed with a tyrannical demand to appear jolly. Humans, however, are cyclical animals and this is the low end of the year, a sputtering conclusion to a particularly bad one.

Thank god I can run. On Monday, after wrestling with “Run? Don’t run?” I plodded toward Georgetown as the sun set. Running along the waterfront it occurred to me that perhaps the way to conquer winter was to embrace the darkness. Cold temps bring a stillness to the city, banishing the fair-weather tourists. I ran alone by the dark Potomac. Light lingered in the west, across the river.

I stopped to capture the moment. Pretty photo but I’m never going to love winter. Move faster, earth, and spin these dark days away until we reach spring.

The Swamp – Get This Funny Book About Washington

The Swamp - coverMy new novel, THE SWAMP, begins with a bad weather forecast. A meteorologist predicts snow for the nation’s capital. But snow turns to rain over the city, for it is protected by a layer of hot air in this funny book about Washington, DC.

How much hot air is over the city? To determine this, the meteorologist sets a drone aloft over the skies of DC, triggering a comic chain of events leading to the end of the country as we know it. Welcome to THE SWAMP.

DC always seems to be on the rain-snow line and with another questionable forecast in the air, I decided this weekend was the perfect time to launch THE SWAMP. This dark satire of Washington, DC is now available in print and Kindle on Amazon.

A five-star review described the book as a “dystopian thriller that will have you wondering..what if? or if only?”

THE SWAMP is set in a mercifully Trump-free era. It’s an alternate history of DC, in which sleazy TV correspondents, mommy bloggers and jaded politicos struggle to control a world spinning away from them. If you like dark comedies filled with complex characters and ironic plot twists, then you’ll love THE SWAMP.

Relive election night with my short story Victory Party

In my short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper Fiction Competition, I portray a Washington shocked by the Trump victory – and one person who’s happy about the result.

Election 2016 was an event that traumatized the American psyche. I wasn’t the only person who processed this horror through fiction. A majority of the submissions to the City Paper contest concerned Trump, as I learned during a reading at Kramerbooks.

I assumed the worst was over. A horrible punch to the gut but then life in Washington would resume along the contours of previous experience. Trump would rise to the occasion and become a normal Republican like Bush.

I was wrong. Realized it during his American Carnage inauguration speech. Everything went downhill from there, a year of outrages culminating in the firing of James Comey. Now, we’ll be lucky to survive 2017 without Trump kicking off war on the Korean peninsula.

During the year, I wrote a novel – The Swamp. My fictional depiction of the Obama era seems quaint. The book presents a scenario I thought outlandish, in which a political groundswell demands that the nation’s capital be moved out of DC. Out of Washington, I called it. But this fictional future reads like a best-case scenario now.

Thinking back on my short story, Victory Party, what would my protagonist make of the past year? My ex-con Randy was happy, the Trump victory representing revenge upon the elite class, through he’s wise enough to know it won’t last. One year later, it hasn’t, and I imagine him trying to stay honorable in very dishonorable times.

We write to make sense of our times, trying to impose narrative on chaos. Washington wrote following the Trump victory. Washington continues to write as the nation unravels.

 

Letter from Washington: Things Fall Apart

The man who would be king

Every morning, I bike by the White House.

Blocked off from traffic, the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue is peaceful and calm. Just after dawn, I slowly pedal by, just me, a few joggers and the Secret Service. In the warm light of morning, the White House looks serene.

Inside, however, a President rages as a conspiracy is revealed.

A plot against America, carried out by the President’s campaign. If this was a season of House of Cards, it would strain credulity. Democrats and Republicans, while they have their differences, all believe in democracy – right?

No. Trump and his family colluded with Russia to win an election, gleefully aided by a Republican party willing to do anything to win.

At first glance, the scandal seems like a black comedy cooked up by the writers of Arrested Development, the Bluth family writ large, a global scheme to launder money and filled with bit players such as a George Popadapoulos, catfished by Russia into thinking he was meeting Putin’s niece. Funny, right?

But then you remember that this isn’t TV. It’s not HBO. It’s your country and the scandal is an attack on democracy, an act of collusion between a corrupt candidate and a Russian adversary eager to upend the global order.

Our external enemy (Putin) has joined with our internal one (red states) in an alliance to bring down the country that they hate: America.

Over the weekend, I watched Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. She too was cursed to live in interesting times, the 1970s, and used her talent to document the disorder she saw in brilliantly-written essays that reported on the decline. Combining a literary eye for detail with a pitiless examination of her personality, she captured what life was like when things fall apart.

We tell ourselves stories to live.

Joan Didion

The thing about the 70s is that no one knew how it would turn it out. As a kid, I remember seeing maps on the spread of communism, from Angola to Yugoslavia. The Russians were going to win – just look at the map. During the Carter era, we were stuck with a combination of inflation and stagnation that economists said couldn’t exist: stagflation. Or maybe another Ice Age was coming. Seemed plausible. Anything did back then, because we didn’t have a defining story, a vision of the future.

Like the 1970s, we’re in a hinge moment. The narrative of democracy has collapsed. A new era of tyrants has emerged, promising a revenge saga of blood and iron. To quote Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

In the evening, I return home past the White House. Tourists gather by the fence to snap photos, like they always have. This symbol of American democracy remains a powerful one, despite its current occupant.

And the strength of our story, the American story, endures, as it waits for a new storyteller, and a new vision of the future, to bring us together once again.