When Fire Reigns: Season 1, Episode 1 Published

On January 1, I set out to develop and publish an 11-episode podcast called, “When Fire Reigns.” It’s about the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and the mayor who died just three months later, reportedly by his own doing. Today, I published the first episode, just one day before the 115-year anniversary of the great conflagration.

You can listen to it on Podomatic HERE. Or, you can check it out now on Spotify or (fingers crossed) on Apple’s Podcasts very soon.

It wasn’t easy to do this. Venturing into the world of podcasting is all very new to me, and I wanted to just throw in the towel more than a few times. I pushed on, though, thanks to my daughter’s pep talk and the support of my around-the-world friends.

Here’s what made it so challenging.

I’ve got all of the equipment (Blue Yeti mic, laptop), but I just don’t have the sound-proof space to do the actual recording. I ended up turning my car into a makeshift studio. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it got the job done.

When I started editing, I wasn’t terribly happy with the quality of sound, but I decided to go forward with it anyway. I know I need to solve this little dilemma before I record next week’s episode. I’m committed to doing it, so I will find a place to record.

The other challenge was that I know how I want it to sound, much like a beginning guitarist knows how she wants a particular riff to sound, but just can’t seem to get there yet. That’s me. I could spend a full year trying to get each note just exactly perfect. But then I hold back a year’s worth of content that I could have shared with my community. What’s the sense in that? Get it out there, learn, and do it better the next time.

Anyway, enjoy. I plan on publishing an episode every week or two. I want to establish a routine and try to build up a little following. We’ll see. Right now, I’m just having a blast doing this.

So: Thanks for listening, if you get the chance. I do appreciate it.

Building a Podcast: The Baltimore Fire of 1904

Now that Fossil Five is in the hands of my editors, I have decided to devote the month of January to building a podcast series on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. It was my thesis project in grad school, and after listening to a bunch of podcasts this past week, I think it is the perfect story to tell over 6-8 episodes.

The only challenge is that I’ve never done a podcast before. I had to dive in and decide what I wanted to do, and how to share it with the world.

The Plan

The first step, for me, was to figure out how many words each episode should be. I did a timed reading from the manuscript, and I read about 700 words every 5 minutes. I want my podcasts to be between 20 and 30 minutes each, so I subtract about 5 minutes for front and end chatter (ncluding intro and outro music), and I am left with anywhere between 2100 and 2800 words per episode.

A little more simple math: My script is already over 30,000 words. so 6-8 episodes is not going to cut it. I’m going to need about 10-12 episodes, even with a good edit of my script.

The Structure

Now that I know I’m going to be working with about a dozen episodes, I divide my manuscript into rough episodes. I look for the cliffhangers, the teasers, the time shifts — all the things essential to a complete episode. I decide that I’m going to have to trim it back an episode or two, and I see plenty of places where I can edit out some superfluous material. Not a big deal. I can add it in later if I need to.

The Music

One of the coolest discoveries I made last year while teaching speech was copyright-free music. I went to my favorite site, Epidemic Sound, and searched through their huge database to find the exact track I was looking for. You need to establish a free account, but it is simple and fast to download the audio track to use for your intro, interlude, and outro segments. And, because it is copyright-free, you have no worries at all about having your podcasts blocked for copyright infringement.

The Web Host

I did a quick search through the various podcast hosting sites, and I fell in love with Podomatic. They have several kinds of accounts (including a free one, which I opted for in the early stages of podcasting). Upgrading to their pro account seems seamless and simple, and you have the option to pay monthly or annually. These are the kinds of options I’m looking for as a novice. Your podcast gets pushed to all of the most popular sites, and you don’t have to spend a penny to get it up and running.

The Podcast

I am building my podcast episodes on GarageBand, another free software program with Apple. It’s intuitive, easy to use, and exports your file to an MP3 format. I’ve used GarageBand for other projects, and it’s never let me down. I use a Blue Yeti microphone to record the audio in any low-sound area I can find (no air conditioners or heating units, no refrigerators, no external announcements or interruptions). I break up the episode into 3-5-minute chunks and record each sub-segment, knowing that I will be placing short clips of interlude music between them. And, because I am not trying to record the whole episode in one block, I usually need just one or two recordings for each sub-segment. For a 30-minute episode, I’m usually done in under 90 minutes.

The Edits

Good audio recorded in one setting means clean editing. It’s really more of a splicing of music, introductions, and segues with the main story. It takes another 90 minutes to 2 hours to edit, and then I export the file and upload to the podcast server.

I plan on launching my first episode by January 15, and then release new episodes every week (this includes through the anniversary of the Great Fire in Baltimore that started on February 7, 1904).

Stay tuned! I’ll be announcing its launch soon.

In the meantime, don’t be intimidated by the how’s of podcasting. Just jump in and start recording. It’s the only way to push through the full process and create a publishable product!


Our Authentic Show Must Go On

This weekend, I was enthralled by a blog post shared by Mark Willen (“Sexual Assault: When Real Life and Fiction Collide”), who was pondering how his published works hold up in the #MeToo era. As a result of Mark’s post, which was weighing heavily on my mind today, I decided to ask a few writers/teachers about what they thought influences authors to share certain works with their intended audiences.

Now, that’s a lot packed into that last sentence, so let me unpack it.

What influences authors.

As English teachers, we often analyze an author’s writing by what the topic of the essay/story is about, and what was happening during that time in history or, more specifically, what was happening in that author’s personal life, either directly or indirectly. Our focus is finding that cause-and-effect relationship, that One Big Thing that led her to craft that piece. We love doing that. It’s what we live for.

To share certain works.

As well, we know that writers often choose which pieces they take to publication. This is what they offer the masses; this is what they have selected as their representative piece.

With their intended audiences.

Not only does the author select the intended piece, he selects the intended audience. Sometimes, that’s a decision based on money and quantity. What can I write that will reach the most number of people, and fill my pockets with the most amount of money? Or, conversely, he might choose a very selective audience to share a more cultivated piece, aimed at entertaining or conversing with a smaller group.

So what?

What all these things have in common is that we are making gross assumptions that the cause-and-effect relationship even exists. As we know in this era of all things, it is nearly the opposite. Some of us are in great distress, and our creativity is stifled in ways we could never fathom. We put our pens to paper and the parchment remains unblemished.

Where do we begin? How do we tell the truth? How do we write about something that is so polarizing?

So we choose to write about other things, and in other genres. Published or not, none of it is representative of where many of us are. There is no authenticity in a large body of what is being published. Truth lies in that unwritten, Barbaric YAWP that plagues us, weighs us down, suppresses our voice in ways that historians might overlook entirely.

In other words, the literature written centuries ago, which we have been analyzing so comfortably based on the stories crafted in history books, may be as much of a lie in absencia of the truth that could never be written.

Maybe a little like what we’re going through now.

I just got rejected from yet another publication (Let the great streak from 2017 continue!). It was a horror short story that I thought was pretty good. It wasn’t, according to the judges (again this year), and I’ve allowed myself a 12-hour pity party that ended, oh, a few minutes ago.

But I find this okay. I’m not a horror writer anymore. I thought that I should be able to spin a good tale no matter the genre, but that’s probably not true. I’ve got so much bunched up in me of what I am not writing about, that it makes full sense to me that anything I try to pass off as authentic is anything but.

So I’m turning this figurative page somehow, and I will return to authenticity. I will spill words here that are raw, genuine, politically incorrect, and my truth. I will lose followers and, perhaps, close friends and family members. It sounds so harsh to say this, but I can no longer let that stop me.

I don’t want to be cautious, gentle, patient, worldly, or even compromising. The time has come to share that authenticity with all of you.

I have no idea where this will take me, but at least I’ve opened the door for it to happen and to find out. We have to demonstrate courage in our writing and our art in the present; we must let our work be an authentic reflection of who we are, where we are, how we are reacting to it, and why all of this matters.

Thanks for listening (er– reading). I’ll be back soon, sharing words that need to be said, and by me.

Fossil Five Released to Beta Readers in One Week

It’s 4:56 a.m., and I have just dropped off my daughter at work. I pour a fresh cup of coffee, sit down in front of my laptop, and open my working revision of my latest novel, Fossil Five.

Seven days to go, I think. Seven days until I release my story to 15 readers around the world to read and review. It will be the first time I have allowed anybody to read the manuscript, and the moment of truth is suddenly inevitable.

Is it any good? Does it connect with a diverse group of readers? Or was it all a waste of time? An illusion of grandeur that I really had something important to say, when in fact I said nothing at all?

The questions flow through my mind constantly. I know it’s fear talking, this little, bothersome voice in the back of my mind doing its best to plant seeds of doubt, and that knowledge alone diminishes its grip on me. Still, I cannot silence it entirely, and the whispers of negativity continue as I work through the early morning hours, writing segues and deleting derailments as I tighten up this story that has consumed me for nearly 5 years.

By July 23, I will know. The feedback will trickle in between July 1st and the 23rd, and then I’ll analyze each review to see where the strengths and weaknesses line up. Sending it out to 15 independent readers and receiving 15 independent responses will tell me most everything I need to know. The question will no longer be, “Is this good enough?” Fifteen unique readers will confirm this question.

Or they will respond with a declarative, “No.”

Yes, the wait will be interminable.

But this is all my doing (or undoing). I write because I love to spin a good story, to share an idea, to entertain my readers and maybe make a little difference along the way for the better.

And we’ll find out on July 23 if, indeed, I have come close to doing that in Fossil Five.

For now, I keep working through my revisions. My list of needs is down to 8, and most of them are quick fixes. Then, it all comes down to the final read-through, making sure dates, settings, and characters are all consistent, and are all contributing in a fluid, entertaining way to a realistic beginning, middle, and end to the story.

I’ve waited a long time for this, and my readers have been ever-faithful. I just hope I don’t disappoint them with Fossil Five. I hope they enjoy the book as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

More Than A Cup Of Coffee

About 15 years ago, in the pre-dawn darkness, I stood outside the brand new Starbucks in Dulaney Plaza and waited patiently for them to open their doors for the first time. I enjoyed being a part of the coffee store’s grand opening, and for years I frequented it often, learning the names of the new baristas and managers, getting to know our neighbors a little better over a cup of coffee, and being a part of the ambiance that defined the origins of that cafe.

Years later, we moved to Loch Raven Village, and I didn’t spend nearly as much time at the Dulaney Plaza location. I became lazy and used the drive-thrus in the Towson University and Timonium Fairgrounds locations. I lost touch with that community feeling that I had established at Dulaney Plaza. I forgot how important that was to share words with friends over freshly brewed coffee.

IMG_4038Well, today, our neighborhood Bel-Loc Starbucks opened just down the street from where we live. The outside of the building is unlike any other Starbucks that I have seen. It is retro, and it has retained some of the flavor of the old Bel-Loc Diner that it replaced, an iconic restaurant that had defined the corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road for decades.

The decision to place an internationally franchised coffee house on the same corner as a local landmark was met with some resistance. And even today, after its doors have opened, there is still push back from some residents who are completely against a chain cafe that serves “overpriced” coffee.

But Starbucks has to be acknowledged for creating a low-key cafe that really adds an aesthetic enhancement to our little “village.”

IMG_4039Once I entered the small store, I felt as if I were in Harry Potter’s Goblet of Fire at the Quidditch World Cup, when Harry steps inside the Weasley’s tent. It’s as if the store had magically expanded inside, offering a variety of tables and bars to work, commune, or just relax.

Immediately, I felt at home in our new, local cafe.

Even before I ordered my Grande Pike Place coffee, I noticed a friend in the southwest corner of the store, seated with his work spread out as if he had been here for weeks. As we placed our order and waited for our drinks to be made, we spent a few minutes chatting with Pat, and I felt the old habits returning ofIMG_4043 making and meeting good friends at the Dulaney Plaza location many years ago.

The interior is spacious, clean, and filled with natural light from two walls of windows facing south and west. Some of the chairs, in fact, were originals from the Bel-Loc Diner.

Both inside and out, there is a mingling of the old and the new, a respect for tradition with a touch of the 21st century coffeehouse encouraging a community to come together.

Maybe their coffee is a couple quarters more than its pre-fab competitor in orange a few blocks west, but I will gladly make the sacrifice for the opportunity to forge new friendships and share words with my neighbors, especially in a coffee house that has gone to great lengths to respect the legacy of Bel-Loc Diner, where our parents spent similar mornings communing with neighbors over a cup of coffee.

I look forward to spending my mornings at our neighborhood Starbucks, writing, reading, and conversing with my new and old friends. After all, it’s what we make of it. For generations, family members and neighbors did the very same at the Diner; let’s do our part to savor the spirit of the old as it merges with the new. IMG_4042

The Writer’s Craft: Rethinking Structure When Drafting

I’m not much on labels, but in 1981, Betsy Flowers published an article in Language Arts that talked about the four different kinds of writers. Without going into too much detail, here they are:

Madman: Unleashed, uninhibited writing that’s a free-flow from brain and heart to parchment.

Architect: Planned structures of the story, plotting out the beginning, middle, and end with precision and perfection.

Carpenter: focused writing with an understanding of the bigger game plan. This writer likes to get to work and get the work done.

Judge: Critical, judgmental, stickler for details. This writer can’t sleep at night without making firm decisions about semi-colons and Oxford commas.

In most of my larger writing projects, such as Fossil Five, I’ve been the avid architect to a fault. When I get into the actual writing, though, the madman takes over and tries to push the Carpenter to the margins, giving him little to no respect in the process of writing.

Frustrating, to say the least.

This has, very unfortunately, created a 100,000-plus word document that is nowhere near finished, with scraps of solid writing that is woefully disjointed from the rest of the story line. For months, I have been trying to sew it all together like some kind of Frankenstein story, but to no avail.

That’s because it’s impossible to sew up the works of a madman and stick to the carefully constructed plan of an architect. For more times than I care to count, I have jumped eagerly into the story, determined to finish it and get it ready for publication, only to hit the brick wall of this impossible scenario and walk away screaming, pulling my hair out, and moving on to…nothing.

A few months ago, I decided to take a slightly different approach, and stick with the core manuscript and just work from chapter to chapter, adjusting the story as I went along. But even that didn’t work out, because I still felt too glued to the original architectural plan that, on paper, seems perfectly logical.

Frustration emerges, and I shut down once again.

I will never finish this book, I thought.

Fast forward to this weekend, where I started re-reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Great book. I recommend it highly. As I’m reading the story, I’m thinking the whole time that his planning must have been crazy tight to make this work. That led me to pull his memoir, On Writing, from the shelves and give it another read, too.

Instead of gaining great wisdom from one of my writing idols, I wanted to throw the how-to book across the room and burn my own manuscript-in-progress. I don’t think I ever felt more like a failure up until that moment.

I found my fellow creative Jodi Cleghorn on line and shared my thoughts with her. As always, she offered sage advice from halfway around the world in her Australian home.

First, she reminded me that the present is the perfect time, always, to write. And what we create in the present is exactly the way the story is meant to me.

Great advice. I absolutely swallow this medicine full-spoon.

Second, she offered me a plan that seems so simple, yet so brilliant. Stuff your pack and fill your water bottle and go on a 5-day writing hike with just the manuscript. Then, on days 6 and 7, break out the maps, check your course, and plan the next 5 (loosely).

Brilliant. By this time, I’ve thrown the spoon over my shoulder and am now taking full swigs from the medicine jar.

So today, I did just that. I let go of the maps, the outlines, the plans, and I listened to the whispers of what I’ve written on the pages, and what still needs to be written between them.

What I realized in re-reading both works by King and listening to my fellow creative Cleghorn is this:

Somewhere in the middle, between the madman and the architect, the carpenter has to be given the chance to modify the plans. Both the madman and the architect need to take a break, release the creativity to the hammer-hitting writer, and trust the process.

Yes, trust the process within the process.

The result? After writing, revising, and reconstructing for nearly 7 hours today, I now see new possibilities in the major structure of the story. It’s simpler, but deeper; more chronological, but suspenseful. It’s like nothing I ever imagined for this story, and yet it does not alter the major plan for the full story.

Jodi is exactly right. Today’s story is perfect, because it took everything I’ve done in the past few years to get to this point today to let go. To let the story and its structure emerge from the wild writings of the madman and the over-structured planning of the architect.

So tomorrow the boots go back on, I sling the backpack over my shoulder, and I fill my water bottle for another day of writing.

After all, there’s no time like the present.

Follow me on Instagram: @rusvanwestervelt, and Twitter: @rusvw13 for writing updates on Fossil Five and other projects.

 

Baltimore’s Nasty Press Holds Fundraiser, Provides Platform For Local Voices

It all started last summer with a cool sticker at Open Works in Baltimore.

For five consecutive Fridays, I had the good fortune of working with 25 teens in Baltimore City through the Bloomberg Arts Internship Program. We met at Open Works, a collaborative space for creatives. In the main lobby, between the classrooms and the Greenmount Coffee Lab (highly recommended), local literature rested on a small wooden table. Sipping the daily roast, I walked over to see what literary opportunities were happening in Baltimore.

A small sticker, with the words “NASTY PRESS,” stood out. I picked it up out of curiosity, stuck it in my pocket, and returned to the workshop.

That night, I did a quick search on Facebook, and there they were. I was immediately drawn to their quick surge in Baltimore providing what I call “Literary Advocacy.” In just a few short months, they had created a space for locals to share their stories that, until now, had no real platform to be heard.

How appropriate to discover them in a place called Open Works.

I reached out to the founders of Nasty Press and asked them three simple questions. Here are their responses, just as they supplied them. Any attempt on my part to paraphrase would be ridiculous and, quite frankly, rude.

They’ve got a fundraiser happening at the end of the week as well. See below for more details.

The need for these voices to be heard cannot be overstated. I support Zoey, Em, and XoChitl in the work they are doing for all of us.

The Baltimore Writer: Please tell us the origins of Nasty Press, the purpose for starting, and its current state.

Nasty Press: After the election last November, the three of us separately noticed a shift in Baltimore’s creative energy. It felt almost like a power-outage. There were expressions of rage, sadness, fear, and joy all over social media, but it seemed like the artistic communal hub that we’ve each grown from was at a stand still. We each separately concluded that artists needed a push to re-direct their energy; that maybe they needed an unbiased, open and inclusive place to showcase their emotions and artistic responses about what was happening socially and politically, instead of only ranting on the internet. There needed to be a place without labels that doesn’t exclude anyone, but which uplifts the creative voices of Baltimore, no matter who you are or how you feel. We wanted to generate constructive discussion, even if that meant pissing some people off.

We are in the throes of formatting our second issue which tackles mental health and mental illness in the Baltimore community. We were blown away by the submissions we received and we can’t wait to release this issue to the public. Our FundRager will help fund the printing of the zine along with raising donations for select local non-profits.

TBW: What kind of space are you providing Baltimore citizens, and how might publishing their works further your mission?

NP: Much like collectives before ours in Maryland, we are cultivating space and time for voices that feel and are unheard. We provide a space for visual art (illustration, painting, drawing, etc.), poetic and creative writing, film and photography, and live music and performances. Our collective exists in print format as well a literal venue for local artists. We cater events toward current socio-political issues aiming to benefit the people that are directly affected. This past September, as a result of the potential ban on trans people in the military, we hosted a mini art fair in which we showcased visual art, poetry, and music from our POC and trans/queer family in Baltimore. This event was entirely free to participate in and to attend, and the artists kept 100% of their earnings. We are planning a similar but larger event in April 2018.

TBW: Your work is important, even essential. But you are just one opportunity where we need many. How might you encourage others to do what you are doing to strengthen your larger mission?

NP: We are transparent and tangible. We are open about the way that we operate, and we are accessible to all communities. We never have a cover charge at our events and no artist is ever charged to submit work to the zine nor to participate in our events. We are showing people in our community that it isn’t difficult to get the ball rolling; all you need is passion, drive, and friendship. You don’t need a degree or money, you just gotta stand up and speak up, and people will listen. Recently, we’ve met with organizations, such as Planned Parenthood of Maryland, to discuss future collaborations in hopes to generate more active socio-political dialogue in our community. 

Their upcoming event, FundRager², will be held on Friday December 15, from 8pm to 1am. For more information, including the venue address, please visit their Instagram at @nastypress, email them at thenastypress@gmail.com, or find them on Facebook at Nasty Press.