Our Boston Mensa Writing Group formed in 2008. Right from the beginning, Michael Coughlin joined us. Michael was well known in Cambridge, Massachusetts from the 1970s, participating in the music scene as a recording engineer. He adored all styles of folk music, especially fiddle music. Michael wanted to write essays about the theory of music and frequencies – how music varied from culture to culture, how it changed over time, and how humans reacted to it.
Michael was active in Boston Mensa beyond our writing group. For example, he was a regular at the New Mensans parties, welcoming new members with a smile.
The more our Boston Mensa writing group met, the more we realized how varied Michael’s interests were. He delighted in explaining to us why our novels about time travel were impossible. He helped us with in-depth research on near-light-speed travel and on telescopes. He showed off his own experiments on TV antennae of various shapes and sizes. He dreamed of creating a YouTube channel where he explained them to the world.
If a writer had a question about how radios might have worked in the 1920s, for a story about historic Alaska, Michael was right there with all the details and intricacies. If an author was writing a science fiction story about aliens, Michael had great insight.
Michael was fascinated with language. He continually honed an essay on how languages could be optimized by creating new letters which represented sounds. He was waiting for it to be just right before publishing it. He could definitely be a perfectionist.
He wrote an essay about what it was like to be part of the big smallpox vaccine push in New York in the 1940s. He was in the final stages of editing that one.
He loved visiting local museums and researching their statues. He wrote an essay about an Egyptian statue pairing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He wrote another essay about a bronze Amazon statue at the Harvard Museum.
When the pandemic hit, our interactions grew. We set up weekly 2-hour Zoom meetings so everyone in the group could remain motivated and creative. Michael was there every single week. He would offer ideas, suggest constructive feedback, and was a wonderful part of the conversation.
Michael was always supportive, happy to listen, and had a great easy-going nature. We could tease him incessantly about time travel and he happily let us give our point of view, before calmly letting us know it simply was impossible.
Michael loved taking photos of cats and always carried a pocket camera to capture stray cat images. In fact, it was a camera I gave to him that had a shutter issue. Michael figured out how to fix it. He could fix pretty much anything. We’ve given him countless iPhones, laptops, and other devices over the years, and he always enjoyed fixing them up. He especially loved taking a Windows computer and installing Linux on it.
Michael passed away in his home in July 2022 at age 82. At the time, he had at least six different writing projects that he was working on. He was immensely excited about getting them published soon. He had just published his essay on the Bronze Amazon statue in the Boston Mensa Beacon, and another essay on time travel was in the review stages at the Mensa Bulletin.
We all miss him immensely.
Note that I checked in with the Cambridge Police and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on August 15th, 2022. They let me know that Michael’s legal name is James Michael Coughlin, and that they had found cousins of his who transferred Michael’s body to a funeral home. Legally, the office was not able to tell me which funeral home. I have not found any funeral home listing for Michael. It could be that Michael’s cousins do not have any intention of holding any ceremony and that they will not be posting an obituary for him. I will definitely update this page if I find any listing for Michael in the coming days.
Here is one of Michael’s time travel essays:
Here is Michael’s essay on fonetics –
Here is Michael’s essay on what makes music appealing:
In 2021, Michael Coughlin made a concerted effort to organize some of his thoughts about melody and music. He had wanted for years to write a series of essays about stringed instruments throughout history, how they were tuned, how their notes harmonized, and much more. He decided to tackle just one tiny aspect of this set of thoughts.
Michael felt his main challenge was how to explain this complex topic to a person who was new to music. He struggled to find ways to make this easy to understand. He kept putting the project aside and then returning to it.
Here is the essay from 2021. Michael was a brilliant, talented person, and it shows in the variety of interests he held.
What makes a beautiful musical melody? With few exceptions, each note is consonant with the note before it and after it . After the invention of the lyre and harp, when two notes would be played together to tune the instrument, it was discovered that consonance is mathematically related to the length of strings and the tension they are stressed with. In recent times this has been expressed in terms of the frequencies of notes. Two notes are consonant when the ratios of their frequencies are small whole numbers. A ratio of two to one is the most consonant and is named the octave. Next is three to two, named a fifth, and four to three, named a fourth. As the numbers in the ratio get larger the notes are less consonant. If notes are not tuned precisely then they will not be ratios of small whole numbers — they will be ratios of large numbers so will be dissonant instead of consonant.. With numbers as large as five and seven things start to change from consonance to dissonance.
The problem of tuning a lyre or harp was solved early on by tuning pairs of strings in ratios of 3/2, 4/3, and 2/1. A collection of seven notes tuned this way was found to be particularly useful. After a thousand or two years this musical scale of seven notes was named the Pythagorean tuning. Unfortunately this does not exactly match what a singer wants to sing. But it comes close. The harpist can change the notes that are out of tune for each song.
Multiply the fraction 3/2 by itself four times. Also add 4/3
4/3, 1, 3/2, 9/4, 27/8, 81/16, 243/32
divide by 2 to make the fractions be between 1 and 2
Or start the Pythagorean scale at the high note and tune down 1/1, 8/9, 27/32, 3/4, 2/3, 16/27, 9/16, 1/2
Of the many musical scales that have been used to improve on the Pythagorean, one called the just diatonic scale has had the most influence. It uses intervals with small whole numbers. First written about around 130 AD by Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria. it was also investigated by prominent musical theorists such as Gioseffo Zarlino and Hermann von Helmholtz. It is not favored by composers for orchestras since there are still small changes needed to keep everything in tune with a large number of instruments and key changes.
A comparison between a Pythagorean scale and the justly tuned diatonic scale.
How does this work out for frequencies? Musical notes are designated by letters. Let the first or lowest note in the scale be ” C “. The notes in a scale would be C D E F G A B. So the sixth would be ” A “. The pitch frequency of the note A was defined to be 440 Hz by an international conference in 1939. The pitch of the sixth note in the above Pythagorean scale is 27/16 times the first, so C would be 16/27 x 440 or 260.74 Hz.
Classical music has a requirement that any melody can be played at a different pitch by starting on any note. No problem for singers. For musical instruments five extra notes (flats or sharps) needed to be added to the original seven to attempt this. But it is still not possible to be perfectly in tune with the Pythagorean scale or the just diatonic scale. Many attempts were made to create such a well tempered scale and about two hundred years ago it was decided to use a compromise named the equally tempered scale. Easy to do with a guitar; much harder with a piano. The pitch of each note was given by multiplying by a factor of the twelveth root of two (1.059463). So if the note A is 440 Hz then A# is 440 x 1.059463 = 466.16 and B is 440 x 1.059463 x 1.059463 = 493.88 We lose the idea of using the ratio of small whole numbers but this compromise comes very close to sounding like a justly tuned diatonic scale and that scale can be played starting on any note.
Let us return our attention to the ratio of small whole numbers. The singing voice and certain other musical instruments (violin, trombone, Hawaiian guitar) do not have the limitations of the harp family. The singing voice can change the pitch of notes by any ratio. It is not limited to using the pitch of only a few harp strings. Around 1960 Warren Creel and Paul Boomsliter experimentally measured the pitch of familiar melodies produced by expert musicians and found they chose rational intervals but in combinations that did not match any conventional scales or temperaments. The instruments they used were a monochord with a six foot long string tuned with a steel rod like a Hawaiian guitar and a reed organ with a selection of keys tuned to confirm the measurements discovered with the monochord.
Start with a series of fractions 3/2, 4/3, 5/4, 6/5, 5/3 … these are intervals from the just diatonic scale. Add a few more fractions that don’t seem to be used as much 7/6, 8/5, 7/4. What Creel and Boomsliter discovered was that these intervals were only part of what was used to play music. They needed to be combined in other patterns. Start with one note in a series. Multiply by each ratio to have a selection of pitches to choose from. But then multiply all by another ratio to have a different selection. This is repeated several times. Unlike conventional musical theory that has notes related to a tonic pitch, Creel and Boomsliter found that what could be thought of as the tonic pitch changed as the melody progressed.
The following chart illustrates this. The vertical scale is frequency ratios in cents and fractions. Three generations of pitches are plotted horizontally. The left hand axis is marked every hundred cents and the corresponding Do Ray Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do syllables are indicated. The horizontal green lines mark the pitch of piano keys or guitar frets.
The first generation of ratios is 1/1, 7/6, 6/5, 5/4, 4/3, 7/5, 3/2, 8/5, 5/3, 7/4, and 2/1. A collection of these notes is plotted as horizontal lines with their pitch values shown in cents. Next on this chart the second generation of ratios is 3/2 or 3/4 times the first generation. A third generation would be 3/2 or 3/4 times the second generation or 9/4 or 9/8 times the first. This is the same idea of producing the Pythagorean scale applied to more than one note at a time.
Music exists in major, minor and modal forms. Creel and Boomsliter discovered that using different ratios to change to the second generation made the melody change musical modes. To quote Warren Creel (1976) “Our experiments in Albany indicate that music in a major mode uses 3/2 of the first generation as reference note for the second. Music in a minor mode uses 6/5 of the first generation as reference for the second. Music in a blue mode uses 5/4 of the first as reference for the second.” Warren also states that several more generations are needed using the ratio of 3/2.
Creel and Boomsliter theory is a very radical departure from older theories. As a melody progresses each change of pitch is a ratio of small whole numbers, so it is a consonant interval with none of the out of tune beating of equal temperament. But notes that are several steps apart can have pitch ratios that are made of large integers. They need not come close to the notes of the equally tempered scale. Perhaps even more important such melodies can not be written as ordinary sheet music.
Composers of “modern” microtonal music frequently use equal tempered scales with any steps besides twelve. These are doomed to be out of tune.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= Fractions with small integers and corresponding cent values
A quote from the Catgut Acoustical Society — “Warren Creel and Paul Boomsliter worked together closely in the field of auditory perception and organization, studying pitch relations and durational effects in tonal perception, sensation, rhythm and cadence in language which they studied through music and poetry with related psychoacoustic studies, including animal experimentation. Starting in the early 1960s, Warren worked as a research associate in the Department of Surgery, Albany Medical College”
Paul C. Boomsliter and Warren Creel, “Extended Reference an Unrecognized Dynamic in Melody”, Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1963), pp. 2-22″;
Warren Creel, “Musical Intonation For Fiddlers”, The Catgut Acoustical Society Newsletter, Number 26, November 1, 1976
In 2018, Michael Coughlin shared an essay with the Boston Mensa Writing Group about “fonetics”. It was Michael’s dream to revamp the English language (and all languages, really) by using new symbols to represent sounds. Part of his obsession was to present his case in a very specific format. He wanted the lines to wrap in exactly the right place. He wanted each character to be presented just the way he saw them.
We helped Michael again and again with formatting ideas, but he just never was happy with the end result. The only format which he was even remotely satisfied with involved a JPG image of his essay, so he could wrap each line exactly where he wanted. Having a JPG-only solution then posed problems for a number of reasons, such as how a visually-impaired person could “read” it.
Michael put this project off until he figured out a solution. Sadly, he never got that opportunity.
Here is what Michael was working on. We can share in his dream that the English language become easier to use. First I will show the JPG versions which he preferred. After that I will have the raw text, which might be harder for some display systems to show properly.
Image version of Michael Coughlin’s essay on fonetics:
Next, here’s the text version of this same essay by Michael Coughlin. Depending on your browser / device, you might not be able to see all the characters properly. For example, Michael used as a description the symbol less-than (<) with I and greater than (>). This combination means “italics” to most web browsers. So work had to be done to prevent this type of issue. This is exactly the issue Michael was having with his project.
* * *
When I was ten years old I discovered a disturbing aspect of the study of the English language. The alphabet had three extra unneeded letters (C, Q, X) that could be replaced with other letters. Worse yet many letters needed by the English language are missing. We say the alphabet has five vowels -- A E I O U -- but the English language uses three times as many.
It took a long time for me to realize that we did not have an English alphabet, but used the Roman alphabet for medieval Latin instead. How many letters were missing? The more I looked, the more I found, and the more confusing the subject became.
The answer was not to be found in any of my schoolbooks, or the books in the children's library, or the books in the adult public library. It was only when I searched in the largest textbook store in New York City that I found a good answer. I needed a book on the topic of phonetics. I did not need to study this subject to graduate from high school or college, I just wanted it to answer a simple question that any child might ask.
How many letters does a real English alphabet need?
This is something a ten year old can understand, but adults will have trouble with.
So can the computer help with this puzzle? Now we can write all the main languages of the world with the Unicode characters we have on our current operating systems, a big change from the days of green screen CRT monitors. We even have the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) characters available with some type fonts. These show up on web pages about languages between / / (or [ ] when being more fussy). Regular spellings can be quoted with < >. With the IPA we can write down any language even if it has never been written before.
Lets try that with English.
The first missing letter I always think of is <TH> which is neither T nor H. We need ð from Icelandic or Old English. But wait, ðere are two <TH>s. So we need θ from Greek.
English uses stressed or accented syllables. ðis just means important syllables are longer and louder ðan oðers. An unaccented or unstressed syllable frequently uses one of two special vowels, ə or ɪ. ðese are ðe most common letters in English but don’t have ðeir own symbols.
Now we have enough new letters to show a true fact about English ðat everybody knows but nobody can write. ðə definite article <the> is almost always unstressed and pronounced ðə before words ðat start wiθ a consonant but as ðɪ before words ðat start wiθ vowels. It’s a similar change as ðɪ indefinite article <a an> = /ə ən/.
Anoðer missing letter is needed for words like ship -- ʃip so we can distinguish it from words like sip and use ðə right number of letters. ðere is anoðer letter ðat goes wiθ it, ʒ, to distinguish bays from <beige> = /beiʒ/.
Now we have what we need to describe one of ðə strangest parts of conventional English spellings. Words like church and judge. Church starts wiθ a t. Judge starts wiθ a d. Sometimes ðə t or d gets put in at ðɪ end of syllables but not at ðə beginnings of words. Church is really tʃurtʃ and judge is really dʒudʒ.
But wait, it gets worse. ðese pairs of letters in speech actually only take up ðə space of one letter. So we need to have symbols showing ðey are squashed togeðer. ʧurʧ ʤuʤ. Now we don’t need to use j for ʤ, we can use it as it was originally intended a few centuries ago, a variation of i which was pronounced <ee> in Latin.
Here’s more of ðə story of <the>. It's ðe before consonants, ðɪ before vowels and <thee> /ði/ when its accented, someθing ðat doesn’t get written but does get spoken.
ðə letters M and N are nearly ðə same. M goes wiθ P and B and N goes wiθ T and D. But ðere is anoðer letter ðat needs to be used wiθ K and G. So we need ŋ for words like <ink> = /ɪŋk/.
Finding ðə new letters we need for all ðɪ English vowels is very difficult. We changed all ðə names for ðə letters a few centuries ago and didn’t change all ðɪ words and spellings. ðə first letter in ðɪ alphabet is ðɪ worst. In Latin it is called “ah”. ðə English name of A actually goes wiθ ðə Latin letter e. ðɪ English name of "I" starts wiθ “ah”. ðə main ways of pronouncing A vary wɪθ where people live. ðə IPA uses different type forms of letters for different sounding vowels. <Fool> becomes /ful/ and <full> becomes /fʊl/. ðose two different vowels need two different symbols. Likewise for O. ðə word <so> = /so/ but <saw> becomes /sɔ/. A word wɪθ only two letters should be written ðat way.
Dealing wiθ A E and I is quite a problem. Would you believe e should always be pronounced <eh>? No? Neiðer did I at first. It's a foreign conspiracy started by ðə Romans and Etruscans. ðɪ oðer version of E gets ðə symbol ɛ so we can write <bait> as /bet/ and <bet> as /bɛt/.
<I> is more of a problem. Its pronounced <ee> in languages ðat don’t fool around changing θings like English. We have a lot of words like <machine> ðat use it ðə old way. A small capital I is used for <pit> = /pɪt/ to distinguish it from <pete> = /pit/. An interesting case is <pity> which could be /pɪti/ or maybe /pɪtɪ/ depending where ðə stress falls. Unlike ə, ɪ can be used in boθ stressed and unstressed syllables.
I’ve saved ðə most confusing vowel for last. <A> has more variants ðan you can shake a stick at. So ðə IPA uses a whole bunch of different A type faces for completely different vowels. ðɪ old sound from Latin is just ɑ as in <bar> = /bɑr/, which is a different vowel ðan <bat> = /bæt/, and not ðə same vowel as <ask> = /ask/, ðə IPA doesn’t change ðat word. ðə symbols ɑ, a and æ are always getting mixed up boθ in speech and writing IPA depending where you are from.
One vowel ðat is in a class by itself is ʌ. You use it in words like <but> = /bʌt/.
Two oðer leftover letters are j and w. ðey are related to ðə vowels i and u but get stuck onto someθing else and don’t make whole syllables.
If single vowels are confusing, ðen θink of what to do wiθ diphθongs wich are vowels ðat start off one way and change into anoðer in ðə same syllable. ðɪ English name for I and ðə first personal pronoun is just such a case. It might start off wiθ ɑ, a or æ and finish off wiθ i or ɪ. I like to use ðə leftover j and write I as aj. Its ðə way ðey do it in Polish. Some people use ɑɪ instead. Two different ways of writing ðə same sound. Maybe ɑɪ means <ah> <ee> in two syllables instead. IPA transcriptions are somewat a matter of opinion.
Oðer English diphθongs are ɔj aʊ and oʊ.
Anoðer troublesome letter is R. It is pronounced or left out in different ways all over ðɪ English speaking world. Only people from Scotland can pronounce R. Everybody else just mumbles it. A word like <nurse> and a word like <word> doesn’t use ðə separate sounds of u o or r and needs anoðer symbol /nɝs/ /wɝd/. For unaccented symbols we need /ɚ/. Where I’m from we almost lose R at ðɪ end of words, but not quite, and not always. It depends on wheðer ðə next word begins wiθ a vowel.
wi naw kæn mɛʒɚ ænd kaʊnt ɔl ðə ɪŋglɪʃ lɛtɚz.
hir ðe ɑr.
p b t d f v s z θ ð ʧ ʤ ʃ ʒ k g m n ŋ r l
h j w ɪ i e ɛ ə ɚ ɝ o ɔ ʌ u ʊ æ a ɑ
aj ɔj aʊ oʊ
ðə lɝnəd ʧajnis ɛmpɝɝ kāŋ ʃī dì roʊt -- θɪŋgz ju stʌdid æz ə ʧajəd ɑ ðə lajt əv ðə rajzɪŋ sʌn; ðə stʌdiz ɪn jɔ mæturɪti, ə kandəl.
It could be that you plan to write a five-book young-adult series about a dystopian world. Maybe your goal is to write cookbooks or a memoir. If your end aim is to publish books, why should you consider writing for a blog?
It all comes down to publicity.
Whether you’re traditionally published or self-published, you as the author will shoulder a lot of the burden of marketing your content. Even big publishing houses expect authors to schmooze and interact with fans. There will need to be somewhere that you can post about your progress, answer questions, and keep readers enthused. Sure, a portion of people love Facebook, but just as many people swear against ever participating in the “Evil Empire”. For every Twitter lover you’ll find ten people who despise Twitter. The solution is to have a wholly independent place for people to find and talk with you.
Make sure your blog has an easy-to-use URL, for all sorts of reasons. Going with something simple like LisaShea.com is best. If you do something long and complex like SweetMedievalRomanceNovelsForKids.com the chance or someone remembering or typing that all in properly is slim to none.
What to post? Post generally on topic, to build up a base of fans interested in that area. If you’re going to write books on gluten-free recipes and living, post all sorts of tips about gluten-free life. If you’re going to write SciFi for young adults, post about books you’ve read in that genre. Post ideas about teleporting or lasers or whatever else strikes your fancy. Those types of posts will draw in like-minded readers who will then enjoy your content.
Definitely post updates about your writing. Readers love to read those. Even if you just got one page written, celebrate your progress. People enjoy cheering you on. If you get stuck, ask for ideas. People love chiming in with thoughts. Even if you really don’t need any ideas, it gets the conversation rolling.
The nice thing about a blog is you can set it to auto-update your Amazon Author Central page, your Goodreads page, and many other locations. By updating in one place you automatically keep a variety of other systems active and posted with content on your topic area. That means you’re more likely to be found by people searching on your topic, and your fan base grows, which then leads to more books selling on launch.
If you’re a writer and don’t have a blog yet, look into setting one up. If you need help, send me a message. I’m happy to lend a hand!
This article was first published by Lisa Shea in the March 2022 issue of the Boston Mensa Beacon.
There is much in life that we can take for granted. Often we only realize what we’ve lost once it’s gone. Growing up, I never thought to ask my grandmother what she endured during the World War II years. She had been a farming girl in Ukraine who got swept off into Germany to work as a laborer. Her beloved brother was sent to the mines. To me, she was simply Baba, a curvaceous elderly woman who made pierogies from scratch, cutting each one with an old soup can.
As a wiser adult, I would love to hear her stories. I wish I could learn more about what her life was like. Sadly, it’s too late. It’s not just my own loss. I can no longer share that history with the next generations.
In this current moment, you might not see the value of recording personal stories and information. I suggest motivating yourself to do it anyway. It could easily be that in a few years you realize you wish you had those details.
Some people start with recipes. You can gather up family recipes and look to find the stories behind them. Why were certain ingredients used? You might discover it’s because it’s all that was available at some point in time. Maybe some ingredients relate to family allergies or favorite flavors.
You can gather up favorite songs, books, and movies. I loved reading the books mentioned by my great-grandmother in her diaries. I could connect with her and understand how she felt about the characters.
Challenge yourself to remember as much as you can about your own early years. Then talk with family, friends, and others who were around during that time period. How do your remembrances line up? Do they help you recall other things you’d forgotten about?
Every one of us carves a unique path through life. Our experiences reflect a combination of our culture, our ancestry, our interests, and our dreams. We might not realize just who we could inspire with our story. We live in very interesting times. It could be our own descendants, members of the community we live in, or even society at large who becomes intrigued by what we went through.
I imagine there will be countless students, in the years to come, who will be fascinated to hear why we of our generation did the things we did. The more voices we can document, the fuller that picture will be.
This article was first published by Lisa Shea in the February 2022 issue of the Boston Mensa Beacon.
Happy New Year! This is the perfect time to begin a new project. Write that memoir. Develop your recipe book full of family favorites. Share your mystery story about five-armed space aliens and river-laced planets. Get it started.
Sometimes authors are concerned about the money involved with publishing. Getting your book out into the world can be wholly FREE. Yes, FREE. Whether you choose to go with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or several other options, you can load your PDF or Word DOC of your manuscript online wholly for FREE. Your content is then available for people to buy in ebook format. If you wanted to make a paperback, the cost to get copies in your own hands is just the printing cost. So, for example, a typical novel might cost you $3.50 printing, plus shipping, to get a version into your hands. There is no setup / listing / maintenance costs involved.
Yes, certainly, if you wanted to pay someone to edit your book, or design a cover, or so on, you could choose to pay them. But I know authors who have paid $5,000 or more to a company when all that company did was take the author’s Word document and load it into Amazon (for free), plus add a free stock-photo cover. There’s no reason to pay $5,000 for a ten-minute free activity.
If you’re in the process of thinking about a book, please contact us. We can get you pointed in the right direction. If you want to pay $1000 to an editor to fix your typos, that is wonderful! If you have a favorite illustrator you want to pay $500 to so they custom-design the perfect cover for you, fantastic. We will help you navigate to know which costs make sense to incur and which don’t.
Above all, write. Write, write, write. Never let concerns of “how will I pay to get it published” hold you back. We are here to help you. Whether you are eight or eighty-eight, your voice matters. The world needs to hear your stories. Our modern world makes that reality a mouse-click away.
This article was first published by Lisa Shea in the January 2022 issue of the Boston Mensa Beacon.
As a new year approaches, many people build lists of things they’d like to accomplish in the coming twelve months. For a number of people, this involves embarking on a new writing project. Maybe you’d like to write your memoirs. Maybe you’ve always wanted to write a children’s book. Whatever the project, now is definitely the time to start!
The key is to settle in for the process.
Few things in life go smoothly or easily at first. Writing can be just as challenging. Give yourself time. Every step will probably take longer than you thought. That’s fine! Make yourself a writing nook that suits your needs. Some like noisy cafés. Others prefer a silent couch by a window. Test different situations until you find what works best for you.
Writing energy comes in waves. Sometimes words will pour out of you. At other times, you just won’t know what to write. Accept that pattern. When you’re able to write, give yourself the time and space to take advantage of that. When you aren’t, jot notes about ideas, dialogue, environments, and whatever might seem intriguing. You’ll be able to use them later on.
Immerse yourself in reading books and watching shows that you adore. The more creative input you soak in, the more it will inspire your own creativity to start flowing.
Find like-minded cheerleaders. Family and friends might be well-meaning, but they’re not always the best ones to help you in a writing project. Look online to find people who adore your genre and who will celebrate every milestone.
If some people don’t enjoy your writing style, that’s fine! Stephen King’s Carrie was turned down by 30 different publishers. Just keep on following your heart. Your audience is out there. Similarly, leave off editing until you have the full first draft done. That way you know the complete story before you begin smoothing out rough edges.
Ask with any questions, and good luck!
This article was first published in the December 2022 issue of the Boston Mensa Beacon.
National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, happens every November. Nearly 800,000 writers participate! We begin on November 1st, end on November 30th, and aim to write at least 50,000 words during those 30 days. It’s all free!
If you’ve ever wanted to write a novel, this is the perfect community to join. During those 30 days you’ll get daily encouragement, a sense of camaraderie, and practical help with everything from how to world-build a desert planet to how to murder someone in 13th century France. The online forums are fantastically supportive and constructive. Whatever genre you’re working on, there’s sure to be others to bounce ideas off of and get feedback from.
It’s not that your novel will be done on November 30th. Rather, this is a powerful way to jump-start your process and get solid progress made. By November 30th, some writers are barely half-way done with their sci-fi epic. Others might have completed their first draft of a short cozy mystery. Whatever progress is made, it’s well worth celebrating! Whether you reach the 50,000 word mark or not, you generally have still made far more headway than you would have without giving NaNoWriMo a try.
For those who benefit from in-person events, each region holds write-ins in a variety of accessible locations. For those who prefer to work alone, the access to the online support forums, reader feedback, and other systems can make all the difference when you need another point of view.
Nearly 800,000 writers around the world all pull toward a common goal. Hundreds of thousands of authors give each other encouragement, share enthusiasm, and cheer the small victories. It can make an enormous difference in your work’s progress.
So whether you need help with an illustrated children’s book, a teen fantasy, a young adult romance, or a Miss Marple-style mystery, you’ll find what you need during NaNoWriMo. Give it a shot!
Flash fiction. Micro-stories. Short-short stories. They’re all names for a genre of writing which has been around since the beginning of time. Flash fiction stories compress an interesting thought or event into a minimum of words. Zen koans, children’s fables, and religious parables are all forms of flash fiction. In modern times, we tend to use the flash fiction category for works that are less than 1,500 words.
A variety of famous authors have turned their focus to flash fiction. Philip K. Dick, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Anton Chekhov, and many others have thrived in this short-form world. One might compare the challenge of writing flash fiction rather than a novel to the writing of a haiku rather than an epic poem. It’s an entirely different experience. Our world thrives by treasuring both ends of the spectrum.
In the 1800s and 1900s, flash fiction was usually a highlight feature of a newspaper or magazine. Often the stories came in a series. However, with the advent of modern devices, now flash fiction can stand on its own. Readers happily download Amazon Kindle Vella episodes which are only 600 words each. Short-short stories are found on Wattpad, Radish, and a variety of other platforms.
There are publications which focus on flash fiction. These include FiftyWordStories.com – Press53.com – CarrotRanch.com – 101Words.org – FlashFictionMagazine.com – MoonFlakePress.com – and many more.
Sometimes a flash fiction story is a moment in time, similar to most haiku. Take a look for Franz Kafka’s famous work “Give It Up!” This flash fiction hones in on a harried, lost man who needs help – and what happens when he asks for it.
In other cases, the flash fiction has more of a start, middle, and end. Search for “The Eyes Have It” by Philip K. Dick. This fun comedic piece presents the story of a man who discovers that aliens live amongst us.
And then there are those who write flash fiction as a way to present a longer tale one episode at a time. This is the way the Amazon Kindle Vella system plays out. Several of our Boston Mensa authors are writing episodic stories for this system. Historically, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Edith Wharton all initially published novels as a series of short episodes in magazines. One thing a writer learns when writing serially is how to ensure each chapter ends at an engaging moment. There needs to be a reason for the reader to actively seek out that next episode.
If you haven’t written flash fiction before, consider giving it a try! There are plenty of markets out there eager for flash fiction. Whether you prefer short dollops of moments, complete little stories, or pieces of a longer tale, there are readers out there enthusiastic about delving into your unique view of our world.
Ask with any questions, and good luck!
This essay was first published by Lisa Shea in the October 2021 issue of the Boston Mensa Beacon.