Monday, July 17, 2017

Put a Bow on it

Yesterday (Sunday, the 16th), at pretty much high noon, I pushed back from the computer, the final chords of the Grateful Dead's spirited-but-sloppy "Scarlet Begonias" first set closer from July 16, 1976 still ringing in my ears, and said, "Finished." The latest WiP had been completed.

Not finished finished, mind you. In early evening I sat with my cup of coffee and made some tweaks to the final scene in the manuscript, then searched back a ways to make a couple of changes to an earlier scene that had to reflect that ending. Part of me wanted to wait until Revision, Phase One to make those changes, but it was on my mind there and then, so I did it. Officially, I guess, I didn't actually put a bow on it until just about 8:30 last night.

This one is currently a monster, 471 bloated pages, almost 138,000 words--yeah, I guess Stephen King really is an influence--but I tend to write long and do a lot of cutting during the revision. I believe the RiP was just shy of 400 pages and in the neighborhood of 116,000 words when I called it a first draft. That manuscript went on a crash diet and went out on submission last year a svelte 98,000 words. This story may well be bigger, but I should be able to get it down much closer to the 100,000 mark. For now, it's time to let it stew, and then I'll read it in a few weeks and discover just how bad it is. In the meantime, there's a RiP that has been too-long neglected sitting on my hard drive...

What about you? Do you draft big, or draft small?

EDIT: Just saw that Agent Carrie has the doors open for another Query Critique! If you've got a query you need help with, send her an e-mail and maybe you'll get a critique. See here for full rules.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Thoughts on the MOOC (Part II)

Well, look at that, me delivering on a promised post! I even went to the extraordinary step of pre-writing a good portion of this post; still, it's just past six a.m. on a Monday and my coffee's not quite ready yet, so there's no guarantee of actual coherence here.

When I wrote about this previously, I gave some idea of how the course works. I'll try not to repeat myself as I give my overall impressions now that the course is over.

It was pretty intense. The course began officially on May 15, with the first assignments posted about two days later. The final assignment was posted on June 22, with all course materials due on July 3 (July 4, for those of us in the eastern time zone). Because I started late, I was playing catch up from the get go, and put in a lot of work. I eventually did catch up, though I admit I also fizzled toward the end--I submitted my final assignment about two hours before the deadline.

I enjoyed the course quite a bit, despite what's going to come in the critique section, which might make it look like I hated the course! Positives included a lot of reading, widely. Each week our required reading assignments typically included one or two pieces of fiction and one or two piece of nonfiction (there were usually three readings per week). The readings were high-quality works of fiction or journalism, no wild esoterica that leaves you scratching your head and saying, "WTF???" There was also a long list of optional reads, though I confess I did not quite have time for getting into all of those (I wish I had). Each week, guest authors provided a video mini-lecture (typically 20 minutes long, give or take). Guest lecturers came from all over the world and included scifi authors, journalists, memoirists. It was a nice balance. The instructors themselves provided interesting topics for discussion related to the weekly topics. Finally, there was the opportunity to meet and read authors at all levels of the writing journey from all across the world.

Holy non sequitur, Batman! One of the other things I really liked about this? In the video mini-lectures, when the authors wanted to illustrate a point about technique or weaving in social issues, they referenced...books! Not movies. Not TV shows. Actual books. This may seem like a small thing, but think about the number of times you read a blog post and the author says, "For a really great example of characterization, watch Forrest Gump" (or something like that). It was refreshing.

Back to the course. There were problems. Some of these, maybe most of them, stemmed from the technology the course was built on. It was hitchy. Jumpy. On several occasions, I started to type in a comment and found that the first five letters on line one disappeared. Or I'd actually hit the post button, and my response would be missing the last half a line. If I clicked 'edit,' Instead of having my entire post there, waiting for me to re-type the first five letters or last five words, I'd have...nothing. I resorted to typing comments out in a word document and pasting them in. I also tried switching to Chrome, and it seemed a little better, but I don't like Chrome and I don't want to have to switch to Chrome. Firefox is still used by a huge number of people, and if you say this program works well on Firefox, you better make sure it does.

The other problem, and this was a big one, as far as I'm concerned, is that there was little actual discussion that I could see. Each week, the instructors posted thoughts for discussion, and asked for our thoughts/comments/experiences. But the interface itself did not really promote discussion; it promoted individual commenting. For one thing, you could not see all the responses to the main discussion, you could only see the last five. You'd have to click 'show previous comments' to get more. Also, on the few occasions where someone replied directly to a comment on the main discussion thread, you had to click a tiny little icon at the bottom to see the reply. Instead of a discussion where people responded to each other and freely shared ideas back and forth, what you had was more of a 'stop and drop' situation, with people stopping in, dropping a comment, and moving on. This is partly a product of the fact that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of participants, along with the fact that you got credit for posting and commenting. I think sometimes people were just aiming to do the bare minimum to get credit.

Along these same lines, course participants were able to set up their own discussion groups. I mentioned joining one or two of these. But again, there seemed to be very little actual discussion. Instead, when people posted assignments, they'd share them to the discussion groups and ask for feedback. (True confession: I didn't actually start any discussions myself within these groups, so I guess I can't complain)

Would I do it again? Yes, yes I would. Despite my complaints, I was exposed to a lot of different writers of all backgrounds, as well as a lot of different ideas, and some lessons on craft. I was able to revisit old works and new (the opening to PARALLEL LIVES got a workout here, as did both the WiP and the RiP), and anytime you are forced to think about your writing is a good thing, I think. I also met a few people who could become good crit partners/sounding boards/beta readers, and have already critiqued a piece for one of them.


This post has already gotten kind of long, so I will say farewell for now, leaving you with this piece of music from Pete Yorn. Though I have not heard it for years, it worked its way into my thoughts yesterday when I was sketching out this post. Enjoy, and see you next time. Please share your thoughts below!



Monday, July 3, 2017

The Reading List, 2017 (Part II)

Happy Independence Day (early) for my American readers! Happy Canada Day (late) for my Canadian readers! And happy [insert appropriate holiday here] for my [insert appropriate nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc. here] readers! Whew, I think I covered it.

Last week, I wrote about the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I'm in, and the promise to finish that job is still there, but since the course is still technically open until tomorrow, I'll hold off until next week. And since we just closed the second quarter of 2017 on Friday (seriously, how is it July already???), it's time to share my reading material for the quarter, in case you find it of any interest. Here we go, in order that I read them. Some with editorializing, some without:

Feed (2002), M.T. Anderson. A future with wifi built right into our heads. Good concept, good book overall, undermined (for me) by the really annoying "teenage voice" of the protagonist/narrator.

Wizard and Glass (Dark Tower, book IV) (1997), Stephen King, re-read. This was always my favorite of the Dark Tower series, and a treat to read again.

Wolves of the Calla (Dark Tower, book V) (2003), Stephen King. Re-read, but it's been a long time.

The Song of Susannah (Dark Tower, book VI) (2004), Stephen King. Re-read. This is where King may have lost a lot of readers, as King introduced a new character into the series: Stephen King.

Fates and Furies (2015), Lauren Groff. Irony: I started reading this one right after my semi-coherent thoughts about time. This book made me question the whole premise of that post.

The Lifeboat (2012), Charlotte Rogan.

The Sleepwalker (2017), Chris Bohjalion. Both this and Lifeboat were interesting while being read, but quickly forgotten. And I'm a Bohjalion fan.

White Fang (1906, though the one I read was published in 1971 or so), Jack London. I think I'll be skipping Call of the Wild.

The Dark Tower (Dark Tower, book VII) (2004), Stephen King. Re-read, but it's been a long time (and I think I had only read it once, unlike some of the other entries in the series). Authorial insertion aside, this is a good read and a satisfying conclusion to the series. Does it make any sense at all? That would take many multiple posts.

That's the list. Three months, nine books completed, which is more than I thought, as it seemed like I went through long periods of not reading during that time. I suspect the fact that four of the books were re-reads (though only Wizard and Glass is a book I've read more than once) sped my reading up a bit. I'm also happy to say I'm still making progress on the WiP and even a bit on the RiP.

So--what have you been reading? Anything good?


Monday, June 26, 2017

Some Thoughts on the MOOC, Part I

Sounds like some sort of bizarre memoir, doesn't it?

A few weeks back, I believe I mentioned that I had signed up for a MOOC (i.e., Massive Open Online Course). The MOOC in this case was called The Power of the Pen: Writing Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction, offered through The University of Iowa's International Writing Program (that's a lot of words to name a program!). Though the course is technically still open until July 4, I'm in the final stretch and thought I'd share some of my impressions about it with you. Of course, time is short for me this morning, and I have pre-written none of this (of course), so this week I'll just give an overview of the course and next week, or the week after, I'll give more of my impressions on the course.

I've never done a MOOC before, so I have nothing to compare it to. Pretty much all of my formal learning has been done in a classroom, so this was a little different, and I liked a lot about how the course was structured. After signing up and getting confirmation, you were directed to a course outline and information page, which in turn was subdivided into sections, with each section being used to summarize how the course worked, how to access discussion groups, and an optional assignment that involved reading several short pieces and participating in discussion groups with course instructors. Also, there was an initial push to get participants to form and join their own discussion groups. After surfing through the (long) list (remember, I started a week and a half late), I chose to join the "Literary Fiction and Creative Nonfiction" group, which has twenty members at the moment.
I should probably re-read my User Agreement before posting this, but...

Each week, new content was posted, based on a specific theme, such as "Establishing and exploring identity and community." Content included usually three video lectures by an author (usually around 20 minutes each); three pieces of required reading, which generally consisted of one fiction, one personal essay or memoir, and one creative nonfiction piece; a menu of optional reads; instructor-led discussion groups related to the week's topic; and a writing assignment. Assignments would be uploaded, critiques given and received--and credit given.

Course credit was received for participation: upload an assignemtn, receive six points. Participate in one of the weekly, instructor led discussion groups, receive two points per comment. Provide feedback to fellow participants on their assignments, two points per comment. The maximum number of points was 100; passing the course required 74. (There are maximums in certain categories, so you can't get more than 32 points for class discussion or providing feedback; this is to push people into participating as broadly as possible, and not allowing them to get by just making a lot of comments) There is also a certificate of completion that can be received. This requires successfully completing the course, plus paying a $50 fee. Perhaps this looks good to agents and editors when establishing credentials; I opted for the cheap option.

So. I signed up, filled out my profile, and went through the course overview. At that point, it was time to play catch up. Next time, I'll share actual impressions of the course. That's all for now!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mental Health Day

That's what I'm on.

I work a lot of weekends. Sometimes, the work is just for a few hours, such as when I lead a nature walk for my organization, or take a table full of displays and 'stuff' to some event and talk to people all day. Other times, it's an all-day sort of affair, such as when we're the ones running one of those events. In the last three weeks, my Saturdays were as follows: nature walk on the third (only 3 hours worth of time, total), festival on the 10th (I was "on the clock" basically from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.), and a fundraiser beer pouring at a concert on the 17th, where I was "on" (and on my feet) from 3:30 to about 10:30.

I call this a mental health day, but it's also about physical well-being, too. The nature walk is easy: two miles on a mostly easy trail. The event and the beer pouring, however, were physically demanding, draining. Setting up tables, lugging our own display materials around, being responsible (okay, that's mental) for the smooth running of the event or for wrangling nearly 70 volunteers--that's draining. And depending on what's going on, I'm not guaranteed getting a Monday off for working a Saturday. Sometimes, you just can't swing it, and that's okay. We don't get overtime, but I've got a boss who is humane. As long as the work gets done and gets done well, we have the flexibility to take time when/where needed.

Long-winded way of saying there's not much of a post today. I'm hopefully going to catch up on my assignments for the online writing course I've been taking. Technically, I've already completed the requirements to 'pass' the course, but there's more to learn; it behooves me to complete all the assignments. The good thing is it's getting me going on my RiP again (Carrie will be glad to hear that!) and I may also have picked up another beta reader, hooray! Once the course is over, I'll try to sum up my experiences here. The University of Iowa will be running another beginning on July 17 aimed at poets and playwrights. Also, somewhere down the line I'll explain what the beer pouring fundraiser was (besides fun and exhausting!). EDIT: Oh, and maybe I'll add in my reactions to Wonder Woman, which we saw on Wednesday (Quick reaction: Really good film).

So, I'm out of here, hoping to write, relax, and just enjoy what will hopefully be a good day, weather-wise (had great, great weather for the beer pouring and Father's Day; got deluged last night). In closing, I'll leave you with this song that has been absolutely stuck in my head the last week and a half. Posting it on my personal Facebook page has done nothing to get rid of it, so maybe this will. I'm also pretty sure this same song got stuck in my head last year, too. It's got a great groove. Have a great week, everyone!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Monday Musing: No Real Theme Edition (and no political commentary!)

Random bits and pieces from over the last week, because I've been too lazy/busy to get an actual post!

-Penguins won the Stanley Cup last night. This was a good game, an entertaining series, and a lot more fun to watch in some ways without a dog in the fight. Congratulations to Pittsburgh on the win, and Nashville on a great series.

-In an era where coaching and systems have become so dominant, it's comforting to see talent as the deciding factor. Though the deciding goal wasn't some sort of rink-length, dipsy-doodling rush finished off with a diving backhander tucked up under the crossbar, Pittsburgh's overall talent superiority was evident in them having most of the really good scoring chances. It would be nice to see coaches fill out the bottom six forward lines with more talent over "grit," because the talent is out there.

-A couple of weeks back, I joined a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC; I think that's what the letters stand for) through the University of Iowa. The theme of the course is "Writing Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction" (I always want to hyphenate 'nonfiction'). It's been pretty interesting, good food for thought, good exposure to other writers. The 'discussions' we're supposed to be participating in, however, seem to be mostly individual responses to a question posed by an instructor instead of actual discussion. And there's a lot of quid pro quo critique going on. Of course, there are a lot of people in this course, with a lot of assignments being posted: how many can you read (and thoughtfully comment on) in a week?

-I used a piece of my WiP and a piece of my RiP for a couple of assignments and got some useful feedback. It also got me looking at my RiP, which means I'm actually one step closer to finally doing something with it.

-Downside of opening the windows to let cool night air in? Skunks. Last night, the smell just sort of wafted in, growing stronger and stronger, though it never quite reached eye-watering levels. Pepé le Pew was on the prowl!

-Hit the middle eighties yesterday. I think maybe we're clear of the threat of frost and snow--finally!

-Am I the only person who gets annoyed by this "Focused Inbox" thing that Microsoft is trying to shove down my throat with Outlook? Just show me everything and let me decide what's important, thank you very much.

That's about it for me, what's new with you?

 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Public Writing

When I was a kid, I loved to draw. I drew pictures every chance I got, and I was told by some tat I was pretty good at it, though in hindsight, I think I heard that mostly from my mother, so maybe I wasn't that good. Somewhere along the line, I stopped. When did I stop? More important, why did I stop? Drawing was something I enjoyed, though I can also remember ripping my paper to shreds, or scribbling out something so hard it tore jagged lines through the paper, and being so frustrated that the picture wasn't coming out the way I wanted it that it drove me to tears. Maybe that's why I stopped.

Photo © Teddy Llovet/Flickr/CC by 2.0
During the brief period where I liked to draw, I had no trouble sharing my work. I'd show it to my parents, my friends and classmates, my teachers. They could look at it when it was finished, but one thing I could not handle was having anyone watch me while I drew. I'd encircle my paper with my arms, hunched over like a hawk protecting its prey, nose nearly touching the paper. If I knew someone was trying to look over my shoulder, I'd stop. I just did not want anyone watching me do this.

Writing in public is different. I've written in public before. Sat down with my notebook and pen in coffee shops, on park benches in parks and right on Main Street. It's never bothered me to do it. Several years ago, I occupied a table in the back of a coffee shop for an hour or so every Tuesday evening for three months while the Magpie took a course at a local college. Maybe it was because I had a story I was working on, but I could shut out the conversations, the people passing by with their steaming lattes and overpriced pastries and it didn't bother me that people might scoff at me, the emobdiment of the "writing in a coffeshop" cliché. It never occurred to me that anyone would really even look at me--why would they?

Yesterday, my writing group met in a local coffeeshop instead of in our usual place, and it was different.  Awkward. Uncomfortable. Neither of us wrote particularly well, and he skipped both the out loud reading of a prompt and the out loud reading of our work, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it was the size of the table, which was far smaller than the ones we usually write at in our usual meeting location, small enough that we had to cock our notebooks at angles so they could fit without overlapping, small enough that, if we had both bent over to protect our work, our heads would have cracked together. Maybe it was the fact that this is a very local sort of space, where we were more likely to encounter people we know. But I almost think the reason is this: no one really  gives a single person writing in a coffeeshop a second glance. But two people? Two people writing in a coffeeshop is different. Unusual. Who writes together, after all? Two people writing together is enough to attract attention, while not being large enough to confer anonymity through mass. At any rate, when we were done, I think it was with a shared sense of relief as much as satisfaction.

I'm curious if any of you have experienced this. Do you write in public, and does it bother you? Does it make a difference if you're alone or in a group?

One other update for the week: On Satuday, I cut the grass, and stopped by to take a look at our old friend, the American chestnut tree. Here's how it looks.


Not a bad start! See you next time!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Whatever it's Called, it Worries Me

The world of the Grand Theft Auto series is populated with memorable...vehicles. Banshees and Bobcats, Sentinels and Schafters, Intruders and Inernus (Inferni?)--there are literally hundreds of cars, motorcycles, trucks, helicopters, boats and bicycles to steal in the course of the game, and these vehicles have more personality than the random citizens walking the streets of Liberty City. Car spawning, i.e., where these cars appeared, seemed to be rather random, though some models were more frequently found in certain neighborhoods. One thing I noticed when playing Grand Theft Auto III many years ago, however, was that certain cars would seem to be very rare when you were looking for one, but once you found one and started driving it, they'd be everywhere.

Some have suggested this is a glitch, but I've noticed it in every GTA game I've played, and I suspect it's just the game developers and designers having a bit of fun with us. Years ago, a friend of mine acquired what was then his dream car (and, indeed, this was a dream car for a lot of young men at the time): a Camaro Z-28. He loved that car. Once he got it, though, he had an unerring ability to see (and a somewhat annoying habit of pointing out) Z 28s everywhere. "There's a nice Z," he'd say, while we were on our way to a hockey game, or the mall, or a friend's house. And he had a great ability of finding parking spaces--you guessed it--right next to other Zs.

Psychologists have a name for this (of course, they do); I'm just not entirely sure if it's Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, frequency illusion, selective perception, or some variation of confirmation bias, but it seems to be rooted in our tendency to look for patterns, which in itself is probably rooted in some ancient survival mechansm from the days when we were swinging in the trees or seeking shelter in caves.


I'm thinking of all of this because of the recent shenanigans of Greg Gianforte, who won a special election in Montana last week for the state's only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. A few days before the election, Gianforte apparently body-slammed a reporter who had the nerve to ask Gianforte a question about Trumpcare. This follows on the heels of reporter Dan Heyman's arrest on May 9 for trying to ask questions of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Presidential Advisor Kellyanne Conway, and the forcible ejection of reporter John Donnelly from an FCC meeting on May 18. And, on May 2, a reporter in Alaska was allegedly slapped by a state senator.

There is no question that the tone has been set by our president. Whether it's calling into question the truth of everything reported (unless it comes from Fox, Breitbart, or Alex Jones), or using dangerous phrases like "enemy of the people," or suggesting to then-FBI Director Comey that he should arrest reporters for publishing leaked information, Trump has been waging war against the mainstream media for at least as long as he's been a candidate, and we're starting to see the results of that war.

Or are we? Maybe this is really just coincidence, or Baader-Meinhof, frequency illusion, selective perception, or hyper-sensitivity to what is potentially a serious problem, I really don't know. What I do know is that Gainforte's victory, combined with House Speaker Paul Ryan's weaksauce disapproval of Gianforte's behavior, and the continued rhetoric and behavior out of Washington concerning the press should set the alarm bells ringing. On this Memorial Day, it would do well for us to remember that the sacrifices made by so many over the last 241 years could be lost if we're not careful, and one of the first things to go would be the free press.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Semi-coherent Thoughts on Reading and Time

For the better part of the last four days, I've been thinking about time, and books, and reading. Last Thursday over at Writer Unboxed, Ray Rhamey posted the first page New York Times bestseller The Handmaid's Tale in his "Flog A Pro" column. If you're not familiar with it, in "Flog A Pro," Rhamey posts the first page of a current bestseller (minus title/author) and asks his readers, "Would you turn the page and keep reading?" There's a little doodad for voting and viewing the vote tallies, and Rhamey continues by identifying the book/author, and analyzing the opening, explaining his own answer. It's an interesting exercise, well worth the time, in my opinion.

Though it has been several years since I read The Handmaid's Tale, I knew by the second line that that's what I was reading. Apparently, Margaret Atwood's opening stuck with me over the years, and I voted 'Yes' to the question, "Would you turn the page?" and I commented as well my belief that the opening page was outstanding. At the time I voted, the overwhelming majority (though in an admittedly small sample size) was also voting the same way. Both commenters before me were similarly impressed.

Later in the day, I went back to see what others were saying, and found the tide had turned: the no's outvoted the pro's (at last look, it was 78-70 in favor of nay). And while those who bothered to comment still mostly extolled the virtue of Atwood's first page, several of them noted the book might have a hard time getting published or gaining traction today (The Handmaid's Tale was originally published in 1986 in the US), while a couple stated plainly that they did not like it.

And I'm fine with that, really. The fact is, not everything is going to please everyone, and Atwood's style is much more literary than the novels Rhamey usually features. But there was one comment that especially stuck with me (and it wasn't the one that dismissed the opening as "pretentious twaddle". Okay, maybe that one stuck with me, too). The one that has really stuck with me said, "Books 30 years ago could take their time and if I was on vacation maybe I would have continued but today? No time."

No time.

At this point, I can see a friend of mine raising his eyebrow, looking at me over the top of his glasses, and saying something like, "Last time I looked, we all have the same time. Twenty-four hours, right?" And it's true. We all have the same amount of time in a day, the same amount of time in a week. The only difference amongst us, ultimately, is how much time we have on this earth. That's the big unknown.

But what I find myself wondering, more and more, is what's so much more precious about our time now than thirty years ago? A lot of people read The Handmaid's Tale back when it first came out--enough to make it a bestseller, enough to get it printed in many countries, enough to help Atwood win or get nominated for a number of prizes, enough for it to get turned into a major movie in 1990. (For an intersting perspective on what the success of this book did/meant to Atwood, see this article). So, why did so many people have so much time in 1986, and why do we have so little of it to this day? As far as I know, we still have twenty-four hours in the day, right?

According to the website Reading Length (readinglength.com, and just know before you go my antivirus flagged it as 'suspicious,' though it seems perfectly fine), The Handmaid's Tale is 311 pages long, 96,000 words, and will take 6 hours, 25 minutes to read from end to end. Wow. In comparison, Cross the Line, the latest in James Patterson's Alex Cross series, is a whopping 400 pages, 124,000 words, and will take 8 hours, 16 minutes to read. In other words, the latest Patterson potboiler will keep you from reading more books than Atwood's. Which one don't you have time for?

Of course, the "no time" comment doesn't mean the person literally doesn't have time to read Atwood--we've all got the same amount of time in a day, right?--it could mean (probably means, in fact) this person just doesn't enjoy this style of book (and, despite my use of statistics, it probably does take longer to read a 300 page Atwood than a 400 page Patterson) And that's okay. Again, not all things appeal to all people, and quite honestly, I suspect most of the readership of Writer Unboxed leans away from literary fiction. But using time as an excuse rings a little hollow. We're already making a commitment of time by picking up a book. What difference does it really make if this book takes eight hours versus that one's six? If a person is an avid reader (and someone who is reading Writer Unboxed probably is), they're just going to open up another book once they close this one for the last time. Reading doesn't come down to not having time: it comes down to how you choose to spend the time.

Does it matter to you how long it takes to read a book? Do you feel an urge to burn through books fast, or are you okay with taking your time?








Monday, May 15, 2017

Weekend Update: Old Friend Edition

Waking up once again exhausted and unprepared for Monday. It's been that kind of a spring, and the weather hasn't helped much, with a lot of rain and colder temperatures than normal. Our little corner of upstate is normally a couple of weeks behind the weather I was used to growing up on Long Island, so the "lion" typically makes it's entrance around the second week of the month (which, this year, was when the big lake in our county finally froze all the way over for the first time, followed by three feet of snow); likewise, the April showers and May flowers are similarly late. This year, however, the April showers seem to have been saved for this past weekend.

The weekend started for me on Friday afternoon/evening, where we were, fortunately,  blessed with good weather, for the dedication of a boat wash station. What's a boat wash station, you ask? Exactly what it sounds like. It allows boaters to use a high pressure, hot water spray to clean off their boats before launching into a water body, and to clean off their boats before leaving one lake for another. The purpose is to help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. My organization worked with another non-profit and a local government to get funding for the construction of this boat wash, so I got to make remarks on behalf of my organization. We had about forty people on hand, which was not surprising. The man the boat wash was named after was just one of those people, the kind who left people smiling, the one who devoted himself to making his community a better place. My comments focused on the fact that, though I didn't know this man well, he always treated me like an old friend. It was a nice event, and a very fitting tribute to a good man.

On Saturday I wore a different hat at another event. This time, I was wearing my 'member of the Audubon Society' hat (and, perhaps more important, my 'spouse of an Audubon Society co-president' hat) at a bird festival event at a state park. This was the first bird festival for this park, and the weather was not at all cooperative, with rain throughout the day no doubt holding down attendance. The good thing is the parks people had put up several tents a few days in advance of the event, so it was relatively dry beneath (though the ground was quite wet; chairs would sink an inch or two into the soft ground when you sat on them). Not a whole lot of people came out, but the people who did were enthusiastic and very nice. And, I got to see an old friend:

Yes, that's Morty the turkey vulture. For those of you who don't know, my wife and I ran an environmental education business for a number of years; 'Morty' was (is) a permanently-injured bird we had in our care and used for programs. When we ceased operation, we transferred him and several other birds to a group in the region. I'm happy to say that Morty is this man's star attraction, and he very kindly let me hold him for a few minutes. Did Morty remember me? Hard to say. He didn't bite me, and he didn't puke on me, even though my bird handling skills aren't what they used to be. It was a nice visit, and good to see Morty doing so well and in good hands.

On Sunday, we watched Prometheus, which was a sort of prequel to Alien. I was not impressed. I think they tried to pack a lot of meaning into the story, but characters were poorly developed and behaved in ways that didn't make a lot of sense, the dialogue was terrible, and everything felt kind of rushed. Ah, well.

That's it for me for this week. How was your weekend?




Monday, May 8, 2017

Stanley Cup Favorites--Or Not



The National Hockey League playoffs are rolling along, more than halfway through round two. As I write this, eight teams have already been eliminated in the first round, one has been taken out of the second round, and another could be knocked out by ten thirty this evening. As always, the playoffs has provided drama, thrills and controversy in equal measure, heroes and goats, and further proof that no one really seems to know what goaltender interference is. 

My own Bruins went down in the first round, losing to Ottawa in six games, which means I can actually enjoy watching the games for a change (playoff hockey is probably the most excruciatingly exhilarating thing in the sports world. It's only when you don't have a dog in the fight that you can truly appreciate the game as a game.). Still, it's always more interesting when you're rooting for someone; I just need to figure out who. With that in mind, I'll list out the remaining teams, and some pros and cons of rooting for them. Maybe by the time I'm done, I'll know who to root for.

Anaheim Ducks

Pros: Well, uh, there's…hmm. Can I come back to this?

Cons: Ryan Kesler. Ryan Getzlaf. Corey Perry. The fact that the team, originally owned by Disney, was actually named after a movie franchise. Coach Randy Carlyle reminds me an awful lot of Dean Wormer. Maybe that's a pro?


Pros, part deux: Honestly, I still got nothing. As far as I can tell, the Ducks have no redeeming qualities at all. That was easy!

Edmonton Oilers

Pros: A Canadian team hasn't won the Stanley Cup since 1993. They practically invented the game, for God's sakes. Let 'em have one.

Cons: They switched to those awful orange jerseys. That's unforgivable. Sportscasters on Hockey Night in Canada insist on calling Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 'RNH.'

Nashville Predators

Pros: A Cup victory for P.K. Subban will give the management of the Montreal Canadiens an ulcer the size of Tycho. As a Bruins fan, anything that does that is fine by me (and I like Subban, now that he's not on Montreal anymore).

Cons: With 46 games played for the Predators, it's possible that Mike Ribeiro gets his name on the Cup.

New York Rangers

Throw it into Mount Doom, Master Mats!
Pros: A win means they can finally stop talking about Mark Messier and 1994. They were my Dad's favorite team, and I have a lot of friends and family who would be really happy if they won. Mats Zuccarello would be the first hobbit to get his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. 

Cons: New Yorkers are insufferable when their teams win championships. A deep playoff run means having to look at an ever-increasing number of bandwagon celebrities in the Madison Square Garden crowd.

Ottawa Senators

Pros: See Oilers, Edmonton. Also, the original Ottawa Senators won 11 Stanley Cups in the NHL's early days before moving to St. Louis and folding in 1935. As such, the Senators, who rejoined the NHL in 1992, would be the first "Zombie Team" to win the Cup. That'd be kind of cool. And we'd get two more rounds of Coach Guy Boucher doing stuff like this:


Cons: The Senators have a bunch of sneaky-dirty guys who are jerks. And not just because they eliminated the Bruins. Since the NHL is a league of copycats, a Senators Cup win might set the NHL back about 20 years, as everyone decides to employ a boring system with a bunch of marginally-talented players. We'd have two more rounds of Guy Boucher, and frankly, Guy Boucher scares the bejeebus out of me:


Pittsburgh Penguins

Pros: There hasn't been a back-to-back Cup champion since Detroit in 97 and 98; it's time we had one. A second consecutive Cup for Phil Kessel would be a giant "FU" to the Boston media who savaged him when he left the Bruins and might earn him some of the respect he deserves.

Cons: A third championship for Sidney Crosby would make listening to NBC coverage of the Penguins even more insufferable than it is now--and it's pretty insufferable.

Washington Capitals

Pros: A win for the Caps might just shut up some of the unfair criticism directed at Alex Ovechkin, who has only scored more goals by a long shot than anyone else since he entered the league. It would also mean Justin Williams is still perfect in his career in game 7s. They have a guy named Beagle--who doesn't like a beagle?

Cons: I still hate Braden Holtby for almost single-handedly knocking out the Bruins in 2012. Tom Wilson is a dangerous player who needs to stop leaping into hits. I'm not real happy with anything from Washington these days.

The verdict
 
Well, that was very helpful. As expected, writing all this out has helped me figure this out. So, who do I want to win the Stanley Cup now that the Bruins are out? Well, um...err...Bruins in 2018!

Can you root for anyone when your favorite team is out of the playoffs? How do you decide?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Monday Noneday

Today finds me struggling to wake up for work after a grueling weekend (my organization put on an Earth Day event on Saturday that takes up a LOT of energy). Next weekend, my organization is running a garage sale on Saturday and Sunday, which requires a lot of heavy lifting and hauling and moving of things around. The older I get, the more I find it's not so much the day after events like this that get me, but the day AFTER the day after.

WHICH is a long way of saying don't expect much from me here next week, either!

I don't have much else left in the tank this morning, so I'll leave you with this nifty, slinky little bit referred to, for reasons unknown, as "Orange Tango Jam." Usually, pieces like this are best listened to in full context, but that would take about a half an hour. See you on your blogs, and maybe here next week!



Monday, April 17, 2017

Story Cubes

Back at Christmas, I found a package under the tree for me from the Catbird that was the approximate size and shape of a deck of cards. When I picked it up, however, it was clear that it wasn't a deck of cards. This felt a little heavier. Denser. And when I picked it up, things moved inside. Shifted. When shaken, the box sounded a little like a box of Good & Plenty or Tic Tacs.

It wasn't candy, though. It was Story Cubes. Have you heard of them? I'm sure that, somewhere out there in this writing world I've immersed myself in, someone must have been talking about them on a blog, or Absolute Write, or somewhere, yet I can't quite remember hearing about them before. Even though I couldn't remember having heard about them before, I knew exactly what Story Cubes were, and how they worked, without really having to open the package (and I love the package, by the way; it's a clever little box that looks to be quite sturdy).

The idea behind Story Cubes is pretty simple. The box contains nine six-sided dice in the box, but instead of little pips for numbers, there are symbols, pictures. Throw the dice, look at the symbols that come up, and use those words in a story. That's pretty much it right there. The Catbird suggested that I could use the cubes when and if I got stuck.

Now, anyone who's been reading this space for a while may know that I'm not really big on the concept of writer's block. My approach has been, when stuck, to keep banging my head against the wall. This is the best approach, most of the time (for me--your mileage may vary), though I do know there are also times when it's best to get up and redirect the brain by taking a walk or a shower, doing the dishes, or vegging out in front of the television.

I confess, the Story Cubes sat unused for a long time. It's not something I would use in the course of a normal writing session, where I already have a starting point from the last writing session, and my desk is too messy to use them, anyway. I'd either lose them in the mess or have them fall off all over the floor. Recently, however, I took them to my writing group. Normally, we start our writing group off with someone reading a short prompt, followed by free writing that's supposed to be inspired by the prompt. I thought maybe we could use the Story Cubes as the prompt. Sounds like a perfect job for it, right?

The first time I brought them, no one else showed up. I knew this was a possibility and wasn't overly upset--I had to go to town for some shopping anyway. This just meant I got done that much earlier and we had dinner at a normal time. When it was clear no one else was going to show, I gave the cubes a shake up, tossed them on the table. Here are the symbols that came up: question mark, flowers, airplane, beetle, eye, fire, cane, house, bridge. Five minutes later, I had this 'story' (cube words underlined; note, this is completely unedited, and, as I look at it now, really kind of silly):

"I questioned the pilot's ability to fly this airplane. He lingered up the aisle, supported by a white cane, a heavyset, beetle-browed man with a lazy eye and a flower-child's hair. But he said in a voice full of fire, 'This is my house and I'll brook no disagreement; follow my every order and this flight will be no more trouble than walking across a bridge.' And he was right."

Does it make much sense? No, not at all. Is it a story? Not exactly, but it could be the beginning of something. And at this point, I need to say something about Story Cubes: the makers offer no explanation for the symbols, for what they mean, and that's a good thing. I used the question mark not as an object or a word, but as a concept (the narrator questions the pilot's ability). Meanwhile, the six-legged creature on one of the cubes was anatomically accurate enough for my naturalist's brain to call it a beetle; others might see it as 'insect,' 'bug,' 'cootie' or something more conceptual.

I did take the cubes back with me last week, and we used them again. I had a lot more trouble this time, scratching out another three paragraphs over forty minutes or so, nothing I'd care to share here (though I did manage a nice turn of phrase that maybe I'll use for something else). The others enjoyed it and had better writing success than I.

All in all, the cubes are a lot of fun. I may not use them as a regular part of my writing routine, but I'll keep them handy all the same, and I'll keep bringing them to my writers' group. Hey, you never know when they'll help unlock something big.

Have you ever used Story Cubes or something like it? What did you think?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Monday Musing: Delayed Reaction Edition

Hidey-ho, folks, hope you're all well. After enduring a week of cold, rain, and snow, the sun came out on Saturday afternoon, and it was positively balmy yesterday, mid-sixties and sunny. Daffodils are sprouting (though not quite flowering--yet), spring peepers are getting louder in the wetlands, swallows and kestrels are turning up on the telephone wires--it is spring at last! It's interesting that, though we've been living in upstate New York for fourteen years now, in some ways I'm still calibrated toLong Island time. Spring arrives down there much closer to the actual vernal equinox. The weather delay seems to have been compounded the last few years as well, with more snow falling after March 1 than it did when we first moved up here. Weather blip, or climate change? Who can say for sure?

Speaking of delayed reactions, two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Vestal Review. I've been receiving a lot of notifications from publications about contests and deadlines and such lately, and I figured it was just that, but then I noticed the subject line was "Sunday Drive," the title of a short story I had sent around, so I opened it:

Though your manuscript does not suit our current needs, we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere. Sorry for holding it so long.

His desk is neater than mine
I wasn't even really disappointed, to be honest. In fact, I think as I read the e-mail, I had my head cocked like a dog trying to figure out if what you're saying is really interesting or can be ignored: I couldn't even remember submitting "Sunday Drive" to Vestal Review. After miraculously remembering my Submittable password, I found it had been two years, ten months since I submitted "Sunday Drive" to Vestal Review.

Two years, ten months.

As writers, we're told to be patient. We know, if we've done any bit of research at all when getting into this game, that things move slowly. Yes, we all want to get in The Atlantic or Glimmer Train or Ploughshares on that first submission; we want to land the agent and the publishing deal with that first manuscript; we want National Geographic to hire us to do that rain forest story that's been in the back of our heads forever. We also know--or should know--that it's not going to happen. I've resigned myself to this fact, and when I send a completed project to Agent Carrie, or when Agent Carrie starts prospecting my manuscript to editors, I try to immerse myself in something else and forget about it. Sometimes, I'm pleasantly surprised by the speed of a reaction, but mostly, it's just like it used to be when ordering things before the age of the internet: "Please allow four to six weeks for delivery."

Still: Two years. Ten months.

I get that magazines and literary journals are shoestring operations run by dedicated individuals who are understaffed, underfunded, and overworked, but this is a bit much. I'm sure some of you who submit short stories on a more regular basis than I do have horror stories and longer waits. Feel free to share them below. I can't help but feel there has to be some better way.

EDIT (4/11/17): I should point out this is not meant to slag on Vestal Review in particular, or to say they are worse than other publications, or deliberately evil, etc., etc. I suspect the editors have to wade through a great deal of flotsam that comes in over the transom. Maybe, as Nick suggests below, it made a short list (though the form response may or may not negate that), maybe it just caught them at a bad time.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Reading List, 2017 (Part I)

Hey, ho, it's the first post of April, and that means it's time for the Quarterly Reading Report!

I feel like I had a really slow reading period this year so far. That can be attributed to watching too much hockey, playing too much Grand Theft Auto, and actually doing some writing. The Bruins' season may or may not be coming to an end soon (an unlikely, white-knuckle victory over Chicago has put them in pretty good shape to make the post season; a victory over Tampa Bay tomorrow night will almost seal the deal, though they could also drop all three of their last regular season games and miss the playoffs again--isn't this fun stuff what sport is all about?), and I actually haven't played GTA in about a week, so maybe this reading thing will take off again. Anyway, here's the list:

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016), Matthew Desmond. Anyone who rolls their eyes at so-called "Welfare Queens" should give this book a read.

Redemption Road (2016), John Hart. Honestly? I don't even remember this book anymore.

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (2010), Karl Marlantes. Critics really liked it, I was not so enthused, feeling it tried to do too much. And the POV felt much more "head hoppy" than omni.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016), J.D. Vance. Speaking of people who should read Evicted. Good book, but shows surprisingly little sympathy for others living in the same kind of situation Vance grew up in.

Men's Lives (1986), Peter Mathiessen. A chronicle of the men who (barely) made their living fishing the waters of eastern Long Island.

Cold Blooded (2015), Lisa Regan. I beta read this for Lisa a couple years back, and really enjoyed it. Finally got to see it all grown up. Great job, Lisa!

The Waste Lands: The Dark Tower III (1991), Stephen King. After being reminded that there's a movie version of some kind of this series coming out, I wanted to do some re-reading. Books I and II are missing from my collection, so I grabbed this one. Always good to slip into Mid-World and travel the path of the Beam with the gunslinger and friends.

That's it. Only seven books since the beginning of the year, and the last one was technically finished after the quarter ended, but I'll count it anyway. Interestingly, three works of non-fiction, which is a lot in one quarter for me; I usually spread them out much more.

So, what's been on your reading list?