pjhstudios blog

Lessons learned from writing 52 short stories


short story pen and paper

This was originally posted on reddit a while back, and I’ve been meaning to post it here.

The what

I wrote 52 short stories across 9 different genres that totaled over 52,000 words. My constraints were one short story every Sunday, at least 500 words, and I’d publish them on my personal website. I’d consider them as first drafts, some needing more work than others, some exist as scenes, and some serve as the start of a longer story. I gave myself the challenge in order “just write,” but also explore different characters, genres and ideas.

Success and learnings

In doing this, I now have a body of work, where I could (and will) return to and edit them to be excellent stories. And with this body of work, I can see what tics or habits I lean on. For example, I need to get better at showing emotion in a variety of ways, and my ingrained aversion to to-be verbs causes verb tense issues at times. Moreover, if I don’t have a clear vision of an ending, my endings get muddy and flat no matter what idea I had at the start.

In exploring ideas, I found fun in writing other genres and challenge in working to incorporate people different than my male, American, hetero self. The western I wrote about a bar tender recounting a story of a samurai in his saloon was one of the best, and I realized I could work with the conventions of the genre and still be able to execute; the same can be said of the fantasy stories I played with. And I made conscious decisions to write women, minorities, LGBT, in fantastic or mundane scenarios as normal, ordinary people. Did I do them justice? I don’t know. I’ll need to get feedback, especially for the story where a transwoman goes and buys a gun in reaction to an election.

Story telling may just be an exercise in empathy.


Ideas came from all over:

  • A picture of greenhouse I saw on r/pics spurned a horror yarn with two teenage boys
  • News headlines gave me more than one
  • My father asking about whether I wanted any of our Brio trains chugged along into a magical realist story
  • A joking comment about bourbon poured into oatmeal swirled into a story about a cam girl
  • Self driving cars can go on dark rides along technology’s cliff
  • Storage unit + science = !
  • Ferris wheel that goes underground
  • Social media is ripe for exploration

And on and on…

I even managed to write three on my phone while traveling 35,000 feet up in the air. But I’ll be honest, there were days where I scraped my keyboard for words. One idea I’ve had for sometime revolves around the woman in white ghost story trope but at a whiskey distillery. I was miserable writing it—i wasn’t feeling well, the setup was off, and it needed to be at least 5,000-6,000 words to create the tension. It was my worst. I cheated with the end, writing, “everything burned, and he died.”

I do intend to go back to that one and redo it.


  • Scrivener served as my main tool; the iOS Notes app, and then the iOS Scrivener app for mobile
  • I listened to a lot of post rock, jazz, and ambient music while writing
  • I drank coffee, water, Mountain Dew, beer, or whiskey
  • I really need to get dictation set up. I played with Dragon and a headset, but got frustrated with it


  • Total words: 52258
  • Average: 1005
  • Median: 885
  • Longest: 2351
  • Shortest: 515

Genre breakdown

Genre Count
Contemporary 15
Crime 2
Fantasy 7
Historical Fiction 1
Horror 6
Literary 1
Sci-fi 15
Supernatural 2
Western 2
Young Adult 1
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A Haiku Garden – Published!


A Haiku Garden book cover


A Haiku Garden: Selections from the Everyday Photo Haiku Project is published on Amazon!

I created the book, which contains 104 of the most interesting photo haiku from the project. All photos and haiku done on an iPhone (4s then 6).

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And the arts bring life to your city


“Creative centers provide the integrated ecosystem or habitat where all forms of creativity–artistic and cultural, technological and economic–can take root and flourish.” Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class Revisited.

Approximately $300,000 will be cut from the Public Arts budget in Fort Worth, a 25% reduction from 2012. That 25% reduction will multiply into other areas of the Fort Worth economy as the people who will receive those cuts create tremendous value for the city–value the city will lose.

The arts are a tricky thing to value. Painting, photographing, performing, pirouetting, playing with ideas that reflect a culture, mean different things to different people. Through asking a lot of questions and doing math, we can get get a sense of their nominal value. The Arts Council of Fort Worth commissioned a study regarding the impact of the arts to Tarrant County. $200 million dollars coalesce, swirl and reverberate through the economy across industry expenditures, income, taxes and money spent on events.

To echo the point of how amazing that is, consider that Fort Worth contributes $.94 per capita towards the arts. Our Dallas neighbors to the near east–$3.10. Our El Paso (EL PASO!) friends to the far west–$1.95. Per capita measurements are how we make cities equal. And for a city that prides itself in Cowboys and Culture, the per capita measurement of arts investments ought to be an embarrassing shred in the in the back of our jeans.

The study also touched on those that put their painters’ jeans on. 3,000 jobs thread in multiple directions due to the arts. Those are people. Creative people. Creative people who know people. Creative people who attract people who know people who know people.

There’s the rub. There’s the collective tumbleweed blowing through our prarie. There’s the boot in our cowboy rear end.

The arts attract creative people, to create things or events. They bring skills that we can’t send to India or China, and instead apply them to our community. When creative people combine and share ideas, innovation happens. Also, they spend money, they attract night life, they attract more culture and value.

A prime example is the Magnolia corridor. A mix of bars, restaurants, shops, galleries and housing that feels uniquely creative. Property values between 2004 and 2011 increased 137%. Some would say that a vegan restaurant kicked it all off. A vegan restaurant in a steak town attracted so much more.

Much more, innovation, like fortune, favors the bold, the prepared and those who nurture it.

Fort Worth has a choice, one that isn’t zero sum–public policy is rarely zero sum–but one that is nuanced. The city manager stated in the proposed 2013 budget that this budget is a maintenance budget. Yet, they city wishes to grow revenues and increase economic development.

Taking money away in the short term will cause longer term impacts for numerous organizations, and consequently, the city.

If Fort Worth nurtures its arts and creative citizens, makes the policy choice of supporting the arts, it will bring in much more than it invests.

I grew up in surburban Houston, a place without zoning and seemingly any forthought to growth and development. A trip to the museums encompassed a day trip downtown. Nightlife was the movie theater. Street festivals were neighborhood affairs of a lone street with a couple of pies and a few coolers of cold drinks.

In staying here after TCU, I live in a city that astutely manages its land for development. I have five world class museums within a half mile of each other and can visit them all before lunch. Rooftops, live bands, speak easy cocktails and amazing food are a ticket to any night of the week. Street festivals in this city bring in those across state lines.

All of this is possible because we have creative people within City Hall who beleive in what our tax dollars do. These creative people live here for some reason or another. And maybe they stayed because they liked it here. Because it’s a city that supports the arts and creativity. Cowboys that rustle the resources to a diverse Culture that is Fort Worth.

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Creating more Caine’s Arcades


In the 10 minute video, Caine Monroy shows the arcade he built using discarded card board boxes and other supplies behind his father’s shop. It’s a fully realized vision of an arcade with games, a fun pass and prizes. He adapted materials and conformed them into something new, and in a way, it was a means of play to him, to create a mini-business.

Children like Caine should be nurtured. How to do this? Encourage interests in a playful manner. By this, get a child to describe what they’re doing or what they’ve done. Ask them about other ways to do things. Show them new experiences and how one experience can be combined with another. Creativity is all about making connections with disparate things or ideas and putting them into novel or different contexts.

If something isn’t wholly original, point out what you find interesting and ask what if questions. If a child is challenged by a what if question, step back and ask about their favorite activities and how those activities apply to the task at hand.

As a parent, it’s key to expose a child to different experiences. Early in life, reading to a child increases attention spans, curiosity, language skills to express themselves. Seek out field trips for hands on learning and showing them the world. Shy away from using rewards for creative acts–you want a child to develop a strong sense of self-motivation and restraint and to enjoy the process of being creative. Yes, celebrate and recognize the outcome of the creative work, but recognize what they had to do to get to the outcome. Always reframe a child’s failure as a learning experience for them. They can’t change what they did, but they can affect what they do in the future.

Here’s a detailed list of creativity for children.

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Bell Labs and innovation


Bell Labs brought us into the future, making science fiction science fact. This is all due to forcing people to interact.

ONE element of his approach was architectural. He personally helped design a building in Murray Hill, N.J., opened in 1941, where everyone would interact with one another. Some of the hallways in the building were designed to be so long that to look down their length was to see the end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling the hall’s length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions and ideas was almost impossible. A physicist on his way to lunch in the cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings.

This comes from John Gertner’s forthcoming book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

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Book review: The Passionate Photographer by Steve Simon


The Passionate Photographer by Steve Simon

Steve Simon’s book, The Passionate Photographer, covers photography as more than a hobby.  Broken into 10 chapters, he goes from identifying one’s desire to take photographs to using that desire to share a vision. In between, basic technical issues are discussed related to gear, f-stops, shutter speed and ISO as well as elementary composition techniques.

Throughout, he intersperses stories and quotes from other photographers, both historical and contemporary. While some photo books only use the authors images, Simon uses others’ images to illustrate points. Each chapter has an assignment for the reader to attempt and how to assess their ability.  Also, Simon uses personal stories to cap each chapter in a “lesson learned”.

For beginners, Chapter 2, about practice and persistence, and Chapter 3, about ways to keep seeing the world anew will offer the best value. Chapter 6, about how to see light, really shows how to “see” an image–light and contrast creating interesting shapes and forms that are engaging and pleasing to the eye. Chapter 9, details how to go about creating a photo project and executing it, may help all those with ideas of “this would be a cool thing to do…”

The Passionate Photographer is a well sourced and well written book.  Colorful, practical and engaging.

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The audience


Stand in front of crowd. A few friends, a gathering of family, a room full of strangers.  Speak a few words. Announce that you’d like to say something. Present a prepared pitch with or without a slide deck as your copilot. In those first, present moments, you have their attention. The group becomes an audience.

Here’s a secret: 99.98% of the time, when you have an audience, they want to hear what you have to say. They want you to succeed. Know this secret to conquer the fear of speaking to an audience.

Underwear, and envisioning people in their’s, should remain a secret.

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Review: The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry


Todd Henry provides a framework to systemize creativity in The Accidental Creative: How to be brilliant at a moment’s notice. The first three chapters cover “the dynamics” of creative work–what it is, creative team work and things that can sabotage creativity.  These chapters set up the “creative rhythm”, being cognitively aware of the dynamics of creativity to do creative work.

In the rhythm, Henry discusses being able  to identify what’s important, maintaining healthy relationships, staying healthy to do creative work, one’s environment (or stimuli), how much time to do creative work.  The last two chapters tie his concepts together with examples of his own personal implementation.  The index in the back of the book is useful for further reading, as he cites books he referenced to formulate his ideas.  The book is pretty close to a how to book on being creative as you can get, however, you need ideas to work with, which he discusses and suggests to set aside time each day just to think up new ideas.  Accidental creative starts slow (for me at least) and contains concepts and tips found elsewhere.  I’d recommend this as a starter book and take concepts needed to get stuff done.

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Review: Old Masters and Young Geniuses by David W. Galenson


What happens when an economist becomes an art critic? That’s the premise David Galenson writes in Old Masters and Young Geniuses with as he examines numerous artists, primarily from mid 1800s impressionists through mid 1900s modernists. The thesis is that two life cycles of an artist: old masters and young geniuses. Old masters are those that reached their peak later in life, and Galenson believes, due largely to a life of artistic experimentation.  Young geniuses succeed due to conceptual innovation, simplifying previous complexities.  His two metrics to quantify and distinguish artists into either category are the price of an artist’s work from a certain point in their career, or the number of prints, or citations, of their work from a time in their life.

Galenson also applies his framework for analysis to the Renaissance painters of Michelangelo and Carravagio, 19th century and early 20th century American writers, directors, poets and sculptors. (Photographers are noticeably absent.) The book is dry and reads like a mixture of art criticism and art history.  The depth of research provides an overwhelming, yet comprehensive analysis of creating art, and the citations are provided at the end of the book.  My criticism of the book is probably one of scope.  The artist compared were clumped at particular time periods in history.  What would be interesting would be to see if more contemporary artists fit the same framework for analysis.

I’d recommend this book as a Kindle read.  I found myself wanting to mark and highlight the book and look up words or research an artist, particularly the poets.  The analysis of poets alone should make someone somewhat informed of Frost, Plath, Eliot and Pound.

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Review: Creative Black & White Photography by Harold Davis


[easyazon-image-link asin=”0470597755″ alt=”Creative Black and White: Digital Photography Tips and Techniques” src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41%2BUp%2BR-BSL._SL160_.jpg” align=”left” width=”128″ height=”160″] [easyazon-link asin=”0470597755″]Creative Black and White: Digital Photography Tips and Techniques[/easyazon-link] by Harold Davis is an excellent starting point for beginning photographers or a good reference for advanced photographers looking to learn new techniques.

Most valuable to beginners is the first section, The Monochromatic Vision. Davis clearly and concisely discusses basic photographic concepts to make a good picture. These concepts extend well beyond black and white pictures. He gives examples and considerations to take into account for each concept. Also, photographs are provided to illustrate the concept with a detailed caption of how the photo applies and technical information about it, as well.

The second section, Black and White in the Digital Era, introduces the tools and basic processing techniques for black and white photos. The tools are Adobe-centric, detailing Adobe Camera Raw conversion, Lightroom and Photoshop. These processing techniques can be found in other tools, only implemented differently. Davis emphasizes the power of RAW files and how best to work with them to get black and white images that have contrast, tones and impact.

The third section, Creative Black and White Opportunities, builds on the previous section to provide steps for effects and tricks like sepia coloring, duotones, soft focus and more. This is where Davis really shows the art in the process of processing an image. There are numerous ways to go, and it depends on the photo to create the desired effect.

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