Monday, March 2, 2015

Monday Musing: Dr. Seuss

If ever I were granted the chance to teach a creative writing course--say, Fiction 101--I think the first text I would choose as a class assignment would be "And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street" by Dr. Seuss.

Yes, this is why it's highly unlikely I'll ever be asked to teach Fiction 101. With all the great literature out there to study, I would start of with a children's book? A 78-year old children's book? Yes. Yes, I would.

"Mulberry Street" was the first published children's book by Dr. Seuss. If you're not familiar with it, you can read the text here (at least for now), minus the illustrations. In it, a young boy with a reputation for stretching the truth is asked each day by his father what he saw coming home from school. On this particular day, all he saw was "a horse and a wagon on Mulberry Street." As he continues on his way, he decides it's too ordinary, and starts adding new things, just to spice it up a little. You can imagine where things go from there.

The reason I like it so much is that it starts with a grain of truth. A horse and a wagon on Mulberry Street becomes a grand parade with elephants, a magician, police escort and more. By the time the boy gets home, the horse and wagon have been totally lost in the tale, buried under imagination. And that, I think, is the big lesson for so many people breaking into fiction. It's fine--maybe even desirable--to start with a grain of truth, but a straight retelling of personal history (with names changed to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent) isn't fiction; it also might not be as interesting as you think. 

Follow the Doctor's lead, I say.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Bună zuia!

Earlier this week, I opened up my blogger dashboard and found this:

This, of course, is how I reacted:

Of course, I'll admit I've just been looking for an excuse to put Stevie back up here, but it was pretty much my honest reaction. When I dug a little deeper into those stats, I found another surprise:

Last time something like this happened, it was Latvia. This time, Romania. Why? Who knows? The funny thing is, not all that long ago I referenced Nadia Comăneci--remember her?--in the project I'm working on. Comăneci, of course, was the first gymnast to score 10s in Olympic competition, back in 1976 in Montreal (for pop culture reference, that's also the Olympics where the world first heard of Bruce Jenner). Anyway, I can't explain the sudden influx of Romanian page views, but to you I say "Bună zuia! Good day!"

Other notes: this month, incredibly, is over. Well, tomorrow, anyway. It's gone fast, but also very slow (but I promise, I won't complain about the weather). The temperature is supposed to get to around 30 or so this weekend, which will be very nice. Maybe I'll be able to dig out my mailbox a bit so my mailman can actually deliver my mail.

-The Catbird, I am pleased to say, received her first college acceptance letter last week--whee! Here's hoping for more so she can get this waiting part out of the way.

-The Magpie seems to have decided that blogging about her experiences in Japan is not for her, since she hasn't updated since December 6. She is now more than halfway through her time time there and is still loving it.

-My plan to have my current project in the hands of betas by month's end looks to be thwarted. I've made great progress and cut the manuscript back by around 6,000 words so far, but I have a fundamental problem with timeline that I don't know if I can shake so easily. Grrr.

-I think that's all. Have a nice weekend--and to my Romanian friends, "Vehicolul meu pe pernă de aer e plin cu ṭipari!"

Monday, February 23, 2015

Monday Musing: A Change In Style

Be warned, this is a top-of-my-head post, so it may end up not making any sense. I know where I'm starting, but I'm really not sure where it's going to end up, or how it's going to get there.

There's a woman in my writers' group who is legendary among us for two things: first, in 40, 45 minutes of writing time, she can crank out six or seven pages easily. She takes ideas and runs with them, and almost always comes out of the day with fully-formed stories or essays that have a beginning, middle and end. By contrast, I wrote maybe 250 words yesterday, and quite often, my work just sort of ends, incomplete, not satisfying (at least to me).

The second thing she does is she writes lush sentences, sentences full of clauses, dependent and independent; sentences that meander like a lazy river twisting left and right across the valley from which arises the sweet smell of hay in the summer, sentences that are packed with tastes and smells and textures so that you can feel the sun on your face when she describes it, or taste the sweetness of summer strawberries. When she reads her work, it can be a challenge sometimes to follow the thread of the sentence, but the journey is wonderful. My first sentence is a poor attempt at imitating what she can do. She does it much better.

Yesterday, she wrote a story recounting an event that occurred in her childhood, when she was ten years old. It involved girl scouts, an inattentive leader, and a rescue from a pond whose ice wasn't as thick as thought. What I found interesting (aside from the story, that is, which was quite compelling) was how much she varied from her usual style in the telling. Instead of sentences that stretched and twisted like a python, loaded with sensory input, she wrote short. Her sentences were quick and to the point, stripped of excess verbiage. There was no struggling to follow the thread of the sentence; it was instantly clear, but no less enjoyable.

After she read the piece for us I commented on how different it was from her usual style, and how fitting it was, given the action. She noted how odd--awkward, even--it felt when she read it. A lot of her work is contemplative in nature, but she's written plenty of other pieces that have action in them, and a lot of those pieces also have her very literary style. This was the first one I really remember, at least in a long time, that's been quite so...punchy, I guess I would say.

One of the other members of the group suggested the change in style was because this was a story she had relayed verbally many times over the years. Telling a story and writing a story are the same, yet different enough in delivery that it makes sense they'd come out different, and I can certainly see his point. I do wonder, though, if some of it had to do with the fact that she was reaching back into a memory of being ten years old, and as a ten-year-old will see the world very differently from a grown woman. I didn't think to ask that question yesterday, because it hadn't occurred to me. I'm not sure if she made a conscious decision to change her style, or if it just came out that way, and if it was the latter, was it because the telling has become somewhat set in stone, or was the product of unconscious adoption of her then-young age. Perhaps I'll raise the question next week.

I hope that all made sense. Have you ever found your style radically changed for a particular story or piece of writing? Please share!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Cursing the Weather

With apologies to those of you who do not approve of swear words.

Holy fucksticks.

This expression has been uttered by my more times than I'd care to admit.

I'm not sure exactly where it came from. I don't know if I heard it somewhere and adopted it or if it just came to me, some clever new way to drop an F-bomb, but either way, it's been in my head quite a lot lately, mostly when I step outside for the first time in the day or come in from walking the dog or something. Holy fucksticks, as in, "Holy fucksticks, it's cold out there!"

I did some digging around and found that, in the 40 days since the calendar turned from 2014 to 2015, we've had 9 days total where the mercury reached or exceeded 32 F. We're currently at 10 days straight of waking up to temperatures below zero, including -22 on Monday morning. Holy fucksticks, it's cold.

(Incidentally, I was just looking at the weather records for last year at this time. You know, the Polar Vortex? Over the same 40-day period, we had 16 days where the temperature was at or above the freezing mark, and a maximum of four days in a row where overnight lows hit the negatives. Interesting.)

But as I look at Facebook posts from people who live in this sort of climate, and listen to the way people talk around here, including myself, I realize there's some perverse sort of pride people take in all this. As much as we like to gripe and moan, I think we like to suffer in it more, and like to tell everyone how much we suffer. I see posts about shoveling literally a ton of snow off the roof (and that's probably literal literal, not figurative literal; snow is pretty damn heavy), and comments about how it was 'only' -7 one night, when the forecast called for much worse.

It's something we northern folk do this all the time. We see films of how a half inch of snow causes panic and pileups in Richmond, Virginia, and we snicker and snort and talk about the time we drove through 18" of unplowed snow. Someone in Florida complains because it's 58 degrees, and we snort. "Tanning weather," we say. "We'd be out doing yard work in shorts!" And when we meet each other in stores and on the streets, we take turns comparing weather. "It was minus 5 at my place this morning." "Yeah? I had 12 below!"

Is it simply a case of "Misery loves company"? Is it a case of "You think you've got it bad"? More likely, there's a perverse sort of pride in it, a way to show how tough we are. What I do know is that when I step outside in a little while to take the dog out, I'm going to say, "Holy fucksticks, it's cold!"

Stay warm, everyone!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Monday Morning This and That

-I continue to do battle with Windows. Each night, my computer automatically installs that one critical update that borks my fonts; each morning, I uninstall it. Hey, Microsoft, I want this update! I believe in your updates! Just give me one that doesn't make my documents an unreadable mess--I've got that part taken care of!

-Speaking of unreadable messes, this weekend has largely been a disaster from a writing perspective. I made almost zero progress this weekend, and this after telling two awesome beta readers that I should have it for them by the end of the month. Performance anxiety? I think part of the issue is I've found a rather thin spot in the narrative that I'm having trouble filling. Or it's a timeline issue. I'll figure it out.

-Whoa TV: my wife and I recently burned through the first two seasons of Orphan Black. Have you watched this? Very, very good show, and Tatiana Maslany is fantastic in her multiple roles. The concern I had rolling through season 2 is how will the show not collapse under its own weight? Convoluted conspiracies can be tough to maintain over the long haul, and they already started losing me a bit during season 2. I definitely recommend it.

-Frustration. Last night I was looking for a paragraph or two I had written with the intention of sticking somewhere in my manuscript. I couldn't find it, not in my notebook, not in any of the (too) many files devoted to the project on my computer. I know I wrote it; I just can't find it. It might actually be in one of my older notebooks. Time to dig.

-Oh, oh, oh! In case you're not aware, Elephant's Bookshelf Press has announced their next anthology. Can you write horror? If so, go check out their guidelines and get writing. Deadline is 6/8/15 for September publication. Go! Go!

That's it for me; how are you all?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Curse You, Windows Update!

A couple nights ago I set one of my anti-malware programs loose on my computer before I went to bed. I wasn't having any particular problems, but it had been a while, and it's always a good idea to do this. In the morning I expected to find the scan results; instead, I found my computer had restarted. I had to dig around to find that the program apparently did its work. As for what made the computer restart? That I didn't know.

Later that night when I sat down to write, I found a strange thing. I could barely see what I was typing. For reasons unknown to me, it looked like my words were being typed on a typewriter with a bad ribbon. By a grandmother who didn't have enough strength in her fingers to press the keys all the way down. The letters looked broken, thin in spots, hard to read. I slogged through on my manuscript as best as I could, but it was kind of hard on the eyes. Meanwhile, I also found that the overall look of my display was different in a hard-to-pin down way. Fonts on my web browser looked off, the size of the browser was off, everything seemed out of scale.

I checked my display settings and monkeyed with them for a while, tried adjusting window sizes and zoom levels and it did nothing. Finally, while poking around, I discovered that Windows had done an automatic update, which was what caused my computer to restart.

Now, I'm actually a big believer in this process. I've seen what happens when you let a year or two go by without doing those updates, and it ain't pretty, because some of that stuff is pretty important. My wife feels otherwise, but she can do what she wants on her machine. I go for the critical updates, but leave out a lot of the optional ones (especially for stuff like Silverlight, which Microsoft is constantly trying to get me to install, which I won't on principle). This policy has not led me astray--until now.

I don't know which update did it. I ended up restoring my computer to the last save point before things went wonky--which just so happened to be about two hours before the computer updated itself. Problem solved! Last night, though I did not have my most productive night ever, I was able to actually read what I was writing. Everything looked normal, and I was happy.

Until today, because Windows updated itself again sometime in the wee hours of the morning.

Have a nice weekend, everyone.

UPDATE: After posting this, I did some more digging, but did not have time to update until now. My search led to this thread on, which included this:

Known issues with this security update

      After you install security update 3013455, you may notice* some text quality degradation **in certain scenarios.*** The problem only occurs on systems that are running Windows Vista SP2 or Windows Server 2003 SP2. Microsoft is researching this problem and will post more information in this article when the information becomes available.
 I uninstalled the particular update and things are fine once again. See you next week!

*it was hard not to
**like, almost unreadable
***pretty much all of them

Monday, February 9, 2015

Musical Monday: The Blues Brothers

Funny how life works. For reasons unknown to me, I found myself thinking of The Blues Brothers--the actual musical act, not the movie; I've never seen the movie--yesterday morning while scraping snow off my driveway. I was thinking how at first it seemed like a novelty, a gag for Saturday Night Live like John Belushi's Joe Cocker at Woodstock bit, or Gilda Radner's punky Candy Slice, but that they were actually a really good musical act. I don't know why I was thinking about this; just one of those random things that pops into a brain and stays for a bit.

Later in the morning, while eyeballing Facebook, one of my friends posted a status update. She was watching The Blues Brothers (the movie) and commented about how much she loved the film. Strange brainwave, right? So I did some searching around and found some clips. Here's one from New Year's Eve, 1978, at Winterland in San Francisco:

And yes, that was that Paul Shaffer, for those of you who watch David Letterman.

Not a whole lot else to say about this weekend. At some point in the near future I'll have to set foot outside and see how deep the snow is and determine if I can get to work (school is already closed)--maybe I'll get a writing day!

How was YOUR weekend?