Monday, May 2, 2016

Squeezing Time

Last week was one of those weeks.

Each year, the organization I work for runs a garage sale. The purpose of said sale is for people to find new homes for old items that would otherwise either go moldy in a basement or garage or end up in a landfill. It also helps raise a little money for us. It's pretty popular. So I spent about 90% of my work week in a dusty garage (because our garage sale is literally in an old garage), hauling old furniture and boxes getting things set up. It's physical, and dirty, and tiring, and in the back of my head I'm always worrying about the office things that are maybe not getting done while I'm not there.

On Saturday, on the first day of the sale, I actually spent my day with a group of college students doing some trail cleanup and maintenance in a local state forest. This was also physical, dirty, tiring work, but I came out of that, not exactly refreshed, but with a little more pep. It's the difference, I guess, between working in a rather dingy garage sale space and working in the great outdoors.

Yesterday was my day of "rest." I worked on the revisions to my current project, which I've been working on steadily all week. Yesterday I managed to put in three good chunks of time on it, probably totaling six or seven hours over the course of the day and evening. It's not dirty work, but it is tiring and it does take a toll on the body as well.

I'm coming into a stretch where I'll be working part of just about every weekend for several weeks, and where I may not be able to get a day off in the week for a while. I also may have to put in some extra hours during the work week here and there, as I'm temporarily filling two positions at once. Both girls will be coming home in the next week-and-a-half, which means there will be more squeezing of time. I won't let that cut into my writing time.

Back when I used to hang out on Absolute Write, people would regularly start up threads with titles like "How do you find the time to write?" And they would start the thread talking about all the demands on their time that kept them from writing. When I responded (after a while, I stopped, but my reasons for quitting AW are a post for another day), my answer was always pretty much the same: "I want to be published. For me to be published, I have to finish what I start. Therefore, I find the time." It's not always easy, but it's how it has to be.

How about some music from the Tedeschi Trucks Band?

Monday, April 25, 2016

In the DNA?

Did he steal his fate or earn it?
Was he force-fed, did he learn it?*
 Anyone with even a passing interest in the Beatles and/or John Lennon probably thought the same thing I did when hearing "Valotte" -- the first single from Julian Lennon's debut album -- back in the fall of 1984: "Holy shit, he sounds a lot like his father!"

His father, of course, is John Lennon, and the resemblance, physical and vocal, between the two men is striking. One thing I do find interesting: Julian at twenty-one sounded less like his father in his twenties than he did his father at forty. Take a listen to something like "Please Please Me" compared to "Watching the Wheels" and you'll see what I mean.

I'm no expert, but there are two things that seem to go into creating a voice: the physical component is based on things like the shape and size of your larynx and vocal cords, chest and lungs, nasal and oral cavity, and probably more than that, but you get the idea. These things go into making the sound of your voice, the timbre, if I'm using that in quite the right way, and these things are determined by genetics. In other words, Nature.

The other component of voice is the way you speak (or, in this case, sing). It's in your word choice, pronunciation, accents, phrasing. These things are the product of non-physical factors: where you live, the people around you, socio-economics. This is nurture. Some things are absorbed, and some things are put on, but these things are easier to learn, unlearn and change than the physical components of voice. I say "Lawn GUYland" because that's where I grew up and that's how everyone talked. I add "eh" on the end of a lot of my sentences because one of my friends and I used to mock (lovingly) Canadian hockey players and broadcasters and that's how THEY talked; in my case, it became habit (Fun fact: in college, I had a guy peg me as from being from Long Island based on how I said the word "strawberry"; some years later, the sister of a co-worker thought I was from Canada).

Questions of voice and nature versus nurture occurred to me last week as I read Joe Hill's latest (published in 2013, so I guess it's already "old") novel, NOS4A2. Hill is the author of three novels, with a fourth due out in a few weeks, one short story collection and at least one graphic novel. He's also the son of "America's Horror Master," Stephen King, a fact he reputedly withheld from his agent for twenty years until his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box came out in 2007.

Last year, knowing full well that Hill was the son of King, I read both Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, which came out in 2010. I enjoyed both books and admit that I went in at least partly searching for similarities to King. While there were some, they didn't stand out to me hugely. Heart-Shaped Box felt like a solid debut novel (and Hill won major points with me when, in HSB--SPOILER ALERT--he let a side character that I liked live; I have no doubt his father would have killed that character off 'cuz that's how he rolls), while Horns was a little grittier. If there was any resemblance to King in that one, it was King when he was masquerading as Richard Bachman. But in NOS4A2? Oh, the resemblance is strong.

Aside from the fact that Hill references several of his father's works in this one (remember when I was talking about Easter Eggs last week? Yeah, that post could have been inspired by NOS4A2), it's the style that's eerily similar. There's liberal use of italics and parentheses (though not quite in abundance), and things that advice-givers tell newbie authors to avoid like the plague, like ALL CAPS! AND EXCLAMATION MARKS! AND THE BOOK IS 700 PAGES LONG! And it just really feels like younger Stephen King. So I ask the question: Can something like this be passed down from novelist to novelist, the way elements of appearance or voice (physical) can be? Or is it the result of learning and absorption? What do you think?

*"Victim or the Crime" by Gerrit Graham and Bob Weir

Monday, April 18, 2016

Easter Eggs

If you're a video gamer, regularly watch DVDs, or even just a user of computers (and who isn't at this point?), then you're probably familiar with "Easter Eggs." These are hidden bits of coding that reveal or unlock some special feature or joke: maybe an extra level in a game; a goofy message; an extra video clip; the names of the members of the development team. They don't necessarily add anything of real significance to the experience, but they are no doubt fun for the people making the product, and give the end users plenty to do as they seek them out.

He's even got Indy's trusty whip!
I remember the first Easter Egg I found was in the LucasArts produced game, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. While wandering through the game's last level, I took Indy down a long, dark corridor with a light at the end. As Indy stepped into the room, his appearance changed: he became Guybrush Threepwood, the hero of LucasArts' Monkey Island games; the room he came out in was a reproduction of a barbershop from one of those games, the walls lined with pictures of various LucasArts people. It was good fun, though it made me wonder what I may have missed in other games I've played over the years. When I was playing, however, I did not put a whole lot of time into trying to find these things. There were always other things to do.

Late last week, I found what I consider to be an Easter Egg in a book.

Technically I suppose it's not an Easter Egg. Books can't have Easter Eggs in the same way as so-called interactive media; what books can have are inside jokes and self references, spoofs and homages. Readers might get the literary references (when Stephen King and Peter Straub co-wrote The Talisman, you can be that naming their 12-year-old hero Jack Sawyer was a nod to Twain's Tom Sawyer), but they can't be expected to get the inside jokes--unless they know the author. In this case, I do, as she lives and works locally. More importantly, I know the person whose name she dropped, and while the way she used it didn't unlock any secret levels or hidden chapters, it did unlock a laugh from me. Right or wrong, I took it as a bit of a backhand at her boss.

When I write, I let bits of myself out into my characters. Places that are or were important to me often filter into it (I have a terrible habit of including ocean beaches as significant places in my writing), but I have not included names of people I know, or written directly about things that have happened to me or my friends and family. No Easter Eggs in my writing. What about yours? Do you include deliberate references to people, places and incidents from your life in your writing? Do you hide Easter Eggs?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Monday Musing, Post-Event Edition

Up at my job, we have a phrase we throw about from time to time: "It feels like the day after a board meeting." This phrase is usually uttered, you guessed it, the day after a board meeting. Said board meetings typically occur on Thursday evenings, and, while they only last a couple of hours, they have a tendency to disrupt the day that follows.

Saturday was one of the big events that we co-sponsor, Earth Festival, which draws a pretty big crowd for the day. And though yesterday was the day after, I'm still feeling it today. So, we'll just ramble here and there.

-From the Crazy Weather Department: In February, we scheduled two events in a nearby state park that were supposed to be snowshoe hikes. We saw some snow, tucked away in little pockets and hollows in the woods, but there was no snowshoeing to be done either day, and the second one was so warm, light jackets were all that were required. Tuesday last week I led what was billed as a spring hike in a state forest. When I woke that morning, the temperature was just above zero--yes, zero, on April 5--and there was five inches of snow on the trail. The daffodils that had come up before that 'spring' hike? Yeah, they're dead.

-From the I Sent it out Like That? department: I read Carrie's comment notes on my latest manuscript right away, but I delayed on delving into the actual manuscript for a week or so, just because I'm a coward. I swear, I went over this thing multiple times, ran spell checks, read for consistency, hangers, etc. And still, as I read, what do I find? Reading one especially bad sentence, I'm thinking, "She must think I'm a total idiot!" It seems no matter how often and how hard you go over things, something always seems to slip through. The very first piece I sent out to a literary journal had a bad typo in the very first line. Ugh.

-From the Here We Go Again Department, volume I: A while back, I think I mentioned how some Windows Update screwed up my MS Word, making the font look terrible on screen. I uninstalled that update, and when the next update came out, I installed that, and everything was fine. When I type in word, the spacing on em dashes and ellipses are all screwed up. They run together. And it's not just new documents. As I read through my manuscript, it's there, too. Carrie didn't mention it in her notes, so maybe it didn't screw up format for her, I don't know. Haven't seen any solutions on the web.

-From the Here We Go Again Department, volume II: Came home from my event on Saturday and found the Bruins, in their latest installment of "Must Win" hockey--lost. No playoffs, for the second year in a row. The Recency Effect points to their dreadful 3-8-1 record since March 15. All Other Things Being Equal, had they won one of their first three games this year, they're in the playoffs. Though maybe that isn't for the best.

Well. This whole post sounds a lot gloomier than it should. I think I need some more coffee...

Oh, I hope it's not going to be that kind of week....

Hope you all had a nice weekend!

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Reading List (Part I)

As I type this, my heat is running and I can hear the sound of a plow scraping along the county road nearby--April is always exciting in upstate New York! We're typically about a month behind on the onset of warm weather here (and, sadly, about a month ahead on the onset of autumn and winter) compared to where I grew up, so, in some ways, this is not unusual. The old phrase, "March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb" does not quite apply here. Still, even though it's not unexpected, it is a little disheartening to find ourselves waking up to temperatures in the teens and having a couple of inches of snow on the ground. It shouldn't last long, at least.

Okay. Griping about the weather is now over. Unless it's still like this next week.

Inspired by a variety of bloggers, I decided to keep an actual list of books read for the year, because, why not? It's sometimes interesting to look back and see a) how many books you read; and b) what they were. I tried doing this last year, but I got started so late that I couldn't actually remember everything: "Did I read that this year, or last year? Hmm." That sort of thing. So, in mid-January, I started a new document and listed what I'd read since the start of the year. Given that we've just now started the second quarter, I figured it's a good time to share. So, here it is, my first quarter reading list for 2016:

Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee (1980). Picked up from the Magpie's pile of books she read in the fall semester. I liked it quite a bit. A very effective tale about "us and them," and who's worse?

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett (1953). Waiting to understand it. I can honestly say I didn't like it any better than when I read it in high school.

The Bone People, Keri Hulme (1984). STARTED, UNFINISHED. Third straight book picked up from the Magpie. I like the story, have gotten used to (mostly) the unusual writing style, but halfway into the book I find it really hard to see how this story can keep going in this vein for another 200+ pages. I'll come back to it, I'm sure.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (1861). STARTED, UNFINISHED. Inspired in part by my re-read last year of The Cider House Rules, I started in on this (we had a copy floating around the house). I actually like it, but I'm kind of using it at this point as an "in between other books" read.

Avenue of Mysteries, John Irving (2015). I found this more enjoyable than his previous new book (In One Person), yet I'm starting to find Irving is becoming repetitive, and his main character has the appeal of a bowl of plain oatmeal. This was a disappointment.

11/22/1963, Stephen King (2011). Re-read in preparation for the TV version (which I think concludes tonight). Love this book. Maybe a little long (okay, a lot long), but it's entertaining piece, and has quite a love story, something King does surprisingly well.

Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, Bill Kreutzmann, with Benjy Eisen (2015). Breezy and laconic at the same time, and surprisingly little insight into one of the oddest rock and roll bands in history.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl, Peter Straub (2003). I read this in early March, and it's already lost from my memory.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt (2002). Far, far better, in my opinion, than Tartt's much-hyped The Secret History. I've always liked adult books about kids--err, wait, that doesn't sound quite right, does it?--and Tartt delivers a an effective child protagonist, along with a cast of interesting characters. I guess I'll have to tackle The Goldfinch after all.

The Doll Maker, Richard Montanari (2014). As is my custom, I looked at the reviews after reading this, and I'm mystified why this mystery gets as much love as it does. The plot was a bit of a stretch and there were too many "Wait, what?" moments in here. Not a terrible book, but maybe needed a firmer hand editing? The good thing? I was interested enough to read to the end, and, though this is part of a series, it stands on its own.

So, there you have it. Eight books completed, two begun (actually, three; I'm on the verge of finishing something else). Looking at the list, I realize I need to read a little 'newer' than I have been. Part of the issue is that I do most of my reading from the library and I tend to wander in there and have no idea what I'm looking for.

Anyway, that's it for me; what's been in your reading pile lately?


Monday, March 28, 2016


I must have been rather cranky last week. Being tired, I guess, can do that to you. In addition to being somewhat worn out from all the driving, I think maybe I was just a little under the weather, as well. Aside from dragging my butt around work and the house all week, I found myself also being somewhat disagreeable on the web, with other writing blogs.

On Wednesday last week, E.C. Myers, over on Pub Crawl, wrote excitedly about a device "built for only one purpose: writing." Called the Freewrite by a company called Astrohaus, it is also branded as "Your distraction-free writing tool" and "the world's first dedicated device for distraction-free writing composition." I would argue that that honor actually belongs to the typewriter, unless you believe the rattle of keys, a dinging bell, and the ratchet and slam of the carriage as it returns to home is a distraction (I learned to type on a heavy Royal typewriter that made a lot of noise; I can't quite remember what sound the IBM Selectric made, except it wasn't quite as noisy). Typewriters and early word processors had no distractions: no games, no internet, no e-mail, no streaming videos of kittens and puppies. They weren't especially portable, either--there's a reason why Paul Sheldon in Stephen King's Misery was able to build upper body strength by lifting his, those things were heavy--which I guess is one advantage of the Freewrite, as it only weighs about four pounds.

As Myers enthused over the Freewrite's capabilities, I found myself imaging writers prone to distraction eagerly plunking down their $500 for the device, taking it to the library, the coffee shop, the city park, the far side of the room from the desktops and TVs, powering it up, and--bing, buzz, chirp, it's the mobile phone, alerting them to e-mails, tweets, and status updates from Facebook friends they've never actually met in real life. And I started thinking about this:

Can the Freewrite help people? I guess so, sure. For me, however, I actually find things like music helpful when I write. I also find that there are times when I need to step out from my manuscript--maybe it's to research something pressing, or to look up the spelling of a word that's really, really bugging me, since Spellcheck is so unreliable. Those little breaks help keep me fresh. I realize I am not Every Writer; we all have differences in how we work, and the Freewrite maybe be perfect for some. Yet there's part of me that can't help but view it as yet another thing invented to help separate writers from their money--and $500 is a lot of money. Maybe you would be better off spending $15 instead on a good book on time management and maintaining focus instead.

What do you think? Is Freewrite something that would help you?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Second Chances

I've used this before. So sue me.

Driving, it seems, takes a lot more out of me than it used to.

So, I'm curious: as a reader, do you give authors a second chance? If you read a book by someone, and you think it's awful, are you willing to read something else by that same author at another time?

I ask because, while searching for an agent, I kept coming across references to a particular, best-selling author in the agent blurbs: "I want the next [Famous Author here]," said one. Or "I'd like someone who writes like [Famous Author here]." I finally decided that it was time to read said famous author, who actually had a brand new book coming out around the time I was reading all this. I went to my local library and found Famous Author's first book, a much ballyhooed, very heavy text.

I was unimpressed.

Not with the writing. I thought, on a sentence and paragraph level, Famous Author did a great job. No, for me, I found myself spending 500+ pages with characters I did not like, and a story that was, quite frankly, unbelievable and rather thin. I read it all the way through (because I still tend to do that), but it was a struggle. These were people I really didn't want to spend time with, but not like, say, Walter White or Tony Soprano--those guys, at least, are interesting, even if morally bankrupt. These people were just...blah.

I shook my head and wondered what all the fuss was about, because Famous Author's debut novel was, as I said, much ballyhooed--though I noted, after finishing, that there were an awful lot of one-star reviews on Amazon. Seems a lot of people felt the way I did.

Last week, I came across a second (actually, the second) book by Famous Author at the library. Why not? I thought, and checked it out. After all, the worst that could happen was I found it just as unpalatable as the first, and I could put it down and dust my hands of Famous Author forever. But a funny thing happened: I liked it. A lot. Unlike the other book, this was one I could not wait to pick up, and every time I put it down, I did so reluctantly.

Interestingly, when I put it down for the last time on Saturday morning and then started reading reviews, I found the critics (the fancy-pants book reviewers; I haven't checked Amazon at this point) were mixed. Every review started by mentioning Famous Author's first book; due in no small part to how starry-eyed they (still) were over it, this one paled in comparison. Funny how it goes, isn't it? As for me, I'm much more likely to read Famous Author's most recent book than I was a week ago.

So, back to the original question: do you give second chances? I typically do. There are a couple of authors out there who I have put on my "Don't bother" list, but that's after three or four attempts--and even then, I might be willing to reconsider at some point.

That's it for now, as I consider calling in sick and going back upstairs and falling into bed. Have a pleasant week!