Friday, March 30, 2012

Sad Song Blogfest

Hey, I was almost all set, putting finishing touches on a post for this week, when I came across this at Jemi Fraser's blog. I thought, why not? I didn't even know it was happening until today, but it apparently originated with L. Diane Wolfe. And if I'm wrong, please correct me. So, without further ado, here it is:
In no particular order:

In Dreams, Roy Orbison.

I’ve featured this one on this blog in the past, but it’s worth it again, just to hear Roy’s incredible voice and range.

Visions of Johanna, Bob Dylan. Some of Dylan’s best lyrical work, as a man struggles between the woman he has (Louise) and the woman he lost (Johanna). Sadly, Dylan’s voice and arrangements don’t really match his lyrics. The version on Blonde on Blonde is just too fast, and is hampered (in my opinion) by a the drums, which belong with a march, not this. But, oh, those lyrics:
Louise, she’s alright, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like veneer
She makes it all too concise and too clear, that’s Johanna’s not here
A ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

This song has what I think of as a great 'late night' feel to it, of darkened rooms and streets, and empty spaces. Here's more:

Lights flicker in the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft but there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

Here's a live performance from 1966.

Visions Of Johanna (Live) [17 by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

Do You Think It's Alright?/Fiddle About, Pete Townshend, The Who

It's about child molestation. Enough said.

Sing Me Back Home, Merle Haggard. Okay, this is sort of cheating. I know this song through the Grateful Dead, who played it a handful of times on their fabled European tour of 1972. Part of the poignancy for me of this song comes from leaving Long Island to come home after learning my mother had cancer ("treatable," said the doc. When it's 'treatable' and not 'curable', you know what you're dealing with)and having this song be the first one up on the CD player in the car.
Sing me back home, a song I used to hear
Make my old memories come alive
Sing me away, and turn back the years
Sing me back home before I die
Ten minute version incoming:

Sing Me Back Home by Grateful Dead on Grooveshark

Pink Floyd Pink Floyd is arguably the World's Most Depressing Rock & Roll Band, and could probably put any number of songs up here. I'm going with two (six, if you listen to them properly).

First up, is The Great Gig in the Sky from The Dark Side of the Moon. Like the next entry, it really should be part of a three-song segment, with Time and the reprise from Breathe. Nothing like being reminded of the ticking clock and our impending demise, is there? Clare Torry's vocal work on this is outstanding.

Nobody Home, from The Wall. I was 16 or 17 when The Wall came out and I hated Pink Floyd. I've come to appreciate just how good these guys were since then. The Wall is a horrible, brilliant piece of work. Nobody Home is its own song, but is perhaps best-experienced as the coda to the first three songs of the album's second half (Hey, You, Is There Anybody Out There?, Nobody Home - the guitar piece at the end Is There Anybody Out There? may be the loneliest piece of work on record) and finishing with this one. This is desolation.

So, thanks, Diane, for running this hop, and to Jemi for calling it to my attention. What about all of you? Do you like sad music? What are your favorite sad songs?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Musical Monday: The Cover Story

The Way Back Machine is going all the way to 1962 for this one, a hit for Bo Diddley, written by Willie Dixon.

"You can't judge a book by its cover." Do you remember learning that? That little lesson goes back about as far as I can remember. We learned it in school. We learned it from our parents. We learned it from book and stories, and we learned it from TV shows from The Brady Bunch to Davey & Goliath. And maybe you even learned it through an actual life lesson instead of from some fable of Aesop's. You can't judge a book by its cover.

And yet, it's funny, isn't it? Publishers spend probably millions of dollars each year trying to get us to do just that, don't they? They try to give us as much a clue about the book from the cover art as they can. Sure, you can't tell whether the book will be any good or not from the cover, but you can usually get a pretty good idea about the genre. How often do you put a book back on the shelf after a quick glance at the cover art? How often does the cover art entice you to read the blurb or take a peek inside?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sleep Deprivation

Image by Arndt Nollau

That about sums up how I’m feeling right now. On several occasions in my life I’ve had the pleasure of working the Graveyard Shift. Working overnights can really screw around with your body, and there are some interesting physiological reactions that occur in the depths of the night when your body’s natural clock is telling you to go into shut-down mode and your brain is saying “Must. Stay. Awake!”

But the body can get used to it, and if you can go home in the morning and get some solid sleep you’re usually good to go. It’s the interrupted sleep that’s the problem.

Last night the Catbird went to see the premiere of The Hunger Games with a friend. Showtime: 12:01 AM Friday morning (right, she left last night. Technically the movie was this morning). Her friend’s mother gave her a ride and sat in the car in the parking lot reading, snoozing, whatever-ing. I went to bed shortly after 11, read for about half an hour (current read: The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen) and set the alarm for 2:30. I figured I’d get up, wait for the Catbird, then get back to bed.

At the appointed hour I woke and stumbled downstairs to find The Wife up (still) watching TV. “I didn’t know you were planning to stay up,” I said, because I didn’t think she could stay up that late. “I wasn’t intending to,” she said. “Want to wait with me?”

I’ve been married long enough to know that the correct answer to this question is “yes”, but I also know that, as The One Who Gets Up First the only logical answer was “no.” There was a time when I would have stayed up, but she had it covered. I went back to bed. About thirty minutes later The Wife came to bed, I asked her if the Catbird liked the movie, and I went back to sleep.

That interruption, all of ten, fifteen minutes in the middle of my sleep cycle, was enough to leave me a bleary mess this morning. The honest truth is I felt a lot like I did when I had a hangover: stuffy, headachy, slow of finger and thought. The only good thing is I didn’t have the extra stinky breath or the spins. I think that Sleep, Interrupted is worse than No Sleep. Meanwhile, the Catbird got up much easier than expected this morning. It will be interesting to see how she looks at the end of the day, after a full day of school and track practice on all of 4 hours of sleep. It will be more interesting to hear what she thought of the movie. She didn’t have too much to say about it this morning, but she’s glad she went. Any of you see it yet?

On a writing note I’ve spent all week working on the Hydra: the dreaded combination of Agent Lists, query development and synopsizing. As Tom Petty said (in Yer So Bad), “I can’t decide which is worse.” I’ve worked on all three at different times as I wrote, but now things are serious. The good thing is I’ve got my top ten agents down for the first batch of queries. Now I’m wrestling with the requirements: “Query + synopsis” says one agent. “Submit your query via the online form” says another. “Submit a cover letter plus first three chapters.” Wow, what a chore, and very critical to get right.

Of all the steps involved in getting published, this may be the toughest (at least so far, hah hah). I thought writing the book was hard. At times it was. At other times it was glorious, exhilarating, a thrill ride. But now? The synopsis is tough, possibly tougher than the query letter. I’ve found it’s easier to boil my novel down into three paragraphs and maintain a shred of Voice in a query letter than it is to summarize what happens for the synopsis and not have it sound like The Epic (you remember me writing about The Epic, don’t you?). Something about the synopsis just seems to suck the soul right out of my writing. I’d be tempted to skip it altogether and submit to agents who don’t ask for one, but there are two problems with this approach: first, some of the agents I really like ask for one. Second, you know I’d get at least one asking for me to submit a synopsis. And then I’d have to do it anyway, under extreme pressure. Then again, maybe extreme pressure is the way to go with this…..

That’s about it for me, hope you all have a good weekend.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bye-Bye, Britannica

Big publishing news last week, which I’m sure you’ve all heard by now: Encyclopaedia Britannica will no longer produce a printed edition. We do not have a set of in my house, thankfully. I say 'thankfully' only because we’ve moved so many times. Books are a bitch to move in general, and those things weigh a ton and take up acres of space. But I do have a lot of happy memories of leafing through our own set of encyclopaedia as a kid. We had two sets. One was the Encyclopaedia Americana, the other was a more kid-friendly version (Book of Knowledge, I believe).

I loved these books. They were so substantial. And the pages made that dry, crinkly sound as you flipped them, and there was the smell – a good smell, one that’s hard to describe. As a kid I used to just sit and leaf through them for fun, and every school project started there. It was a topic on NPR’s great news quiz show, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me this weekend, where host Peter Sagal bemoaned the demise, saying:

“What are personal injury lawyers going to sit in front of in their TV commercials? Without those bookcases what are we going to put in front of the secret door to our underground lairs? That’s how we learned the minimum number of words you had to change so it wasn’t plagiarism.”

It’s sad to know that this venerable institution is no longer printing, sad to see it become a solely virtual product, but it’s a sensible move. By the time I got into junior high school our teachers were trying to get us away from encyclopaedias as source material (and forget about college - I don't think I would have had the nerve to stick an encyclopaedia as a source in a research paper). They pointed out that the length of time to research, write, edit and, finally, print those encylopaedias (not to mention the fact that no family was buying a new set every time they came out) made the information old at best. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with old information, as long as it’s still good information, but current sources were better. Still, the expense of printing, the space, all that, made it much more sensible for something like Britannica to go all digital.

Predictably, the news hit Absolute Write and started yet another debate over the future of books. And this went hand-in-hand with another discussion about buying e-readers. Another blow to physical books? Another death knell? I don’t think so, not really. Print still has its place, and will for a long time, I think. But for something like an encyclopaedia, it’s a smart move.

Various bits and pieces:

- Back in the fall I talked about how tough it was for me to watch my daughters and their once-little friends perform in Fiddler on the Roof. Well, this weekend the Magpie appeared in a production of The Vagina Monologues. It was an excellent production, a very thought-provoking show, but man oh man, it’s kind of strange listening to your 18-year old daughter doing a monologue entitled “He Liked To Look At It.”

- Nancy S. Thompson has a deal! A big congrats to Nancy on making it happen, I’m looking forward to seeing her excellent book, The Mistaken, coming to print in the fall. Nancy not only knows how to write a great story, she’s an excellent crit partner and is well-deserving. If you don’t know Nancy, stop by her blog and say hello. Congratulations, Nancy!

- Frogs were committing suicide in mass numbers last Friday night. I heard my first Spring peepers of the year last night and this morning, a very welcome sound. Even though this winter was pretty mild, with little snow and few periods of extreme cold, it’s always a relief to see and hear those definitive signs of spring. Frogs, Red-winged blackbirds, geese in pairs instead of flocks, Turkey vultures back in big numbers. Yes, it’s possible to get hit with snow and cold weather, but those signs really point to the change of seasons more than anything else.

- Finally, tagged by Amanda Olivieri for the Lucky 7 thing last week. I’ll have to hit that up somewhere down the line. Thanks, Amanda!

Have a great week, all.

Friday, March 16, 2012


“Hey! What are you going to do when you hit one?”

Years ago, when I worked in a visitors’ center in Central Park’s north end, a coworker looked out the window and saw three boys a hundred or so feet away. The boys were on the edge of the lake and they were throwing rocks. No big deal, kids love to throw rocks in the water. The problem? They were throwing them at a small flock of ducks that paddled around in the water. So my coworker opened the window, stuck his head out, and yelled the line above.

I thought about this event after recent events in the sports world combined into a weird abomination in my head with Natalie Whipple’s blog post last week. It’s about stupidity. Is there a writing connection in here? Somewhere.

In Natalie’s post (Alternate Reality) she talked about a period in her life when she became extremely self-conscious as a result of her early adolescent development. She says:
I got SO self-conscious because of my changing figure—and boys noticing—that I couldn't stand to move more than necessary. I stopped running and swimming, refused to dance in public, and never stepped foot on a trampoline again. I was just soooo embarrassed all the time, and it didn't help that I did get crap about the way I looked.
Now, the post wasn’t about Natalie’s body, it was about the way things might have been different in her life if…but it made me think, and it got stitched together in my mind with Bountygate. If you haven't heard, former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had a bounty system in place. Each week players received cash not just for making big plays (a practice that has deep roots in pro sports but is now banned due to the salary cap), but for injuring opponents, for knocking them out of the game. Breasts and bounties? Strange combination, but bear with me.

Reading Natalie’s post made me think about how I was back in those days, and about a couple of girls who showed up for junior high school in rather, err, busty form. Did I stare? Yes. Did I ogle? Yes. Did I comment? Yes. I will defend myself and only say that I always tried to demonstrate tact and not say or do anything rude to these girls, and not say anything within earshot of them. I don’t remember being caught by them staring, but I’m sure they were aware nonetheless.

In my comments to Natalie I said I think most boys that did act up were not acting out of malicious intent. They were not trying to be mean or make girls feel uncomfortable. No, I think most of them were just not thinking. They were not thinking that being stared at would make a girl uncomfortable. They didn’t think that attention was unwanted. And in truth, from the kind of crap we were seeing on TV back then (and that kids are still seeing on TV), we probably thought girls would actually appreciate the attention. It certainly never occurred to me at the time that a girl would be uncomfortable. It was, basically, thoughtlessness.

This is not to excuse the behavior. It was callous. It was rude. It was, in short, stupid. And maybe we could get away with it by way of the fact that we were ‘just kids’ and didn’t know any better. Aside from the physical changes we go through, growing up is also about learning to navigate the complicated waters of personal interactions.

Adults do stupid things, too. The Bounty fiasco with the Saints illustrates this point beautifully, I think. Pro football players – pro athletes of any kind, really, especially those in contact sports like football or hockey – exist on a funky sort of edge. They know they can get hurt, and accept those risks. They also know they’re always one play away from being out of a job, either through performance or injury. Football and hockey players in particular have to walk a fine edge between vicious brutality and respect for one’s opponent. Putting a bounty on a player’s head trashes that edge.

(note: gratuitous clip from Slap Shot they won't let me embed)

The thing is, I don’t believe most of these players (or coaches, for that matter) really think through what they’re doing. They’re paid to a large degree based on how hard they hit, and when you hit people, you hurt them. It’s part of the game. As fictional hockey coach Reggie Dunlop would say, “Let ‘em know you’re there!” But I don’t think they really believe they’re going to permanently hurt their opponents. Even when they see a target wrapped up in a vulnerable position and come in with a late hit, I don’t think they ever really think about long-term damage. The opposing quarterback wobbles off the field after taking a shot to the head? Yeehaw. Pay up, coach. Same quarterback can never play again because he can’t shake the lingering headaches and nausea of post-concussion syndrome? That’s another story altogether, and I don’t think the guy who picked up $1000 bucks for making that hit is going to be too happy with himself. At least I hope he isn’t. Like adolescent boys staring at a girl, it’s a case of not thinking things through, of not seeing all the possible consequences. In short, it’s stupidity.

Is there a writing point in here? Probably. There’s no age limit on stupid? Don’t forget to use stupidity as a plot device? I don’t know, I guess take out of it what you will. This was just one of those things I felt compelled to write. Have a great weekend.

Monday, March 12, 2012


First off I apologize for the weirdness that was this blog last week. Thank you for your kind comments and your patience, I hope that won't happen again. I can tell you this, March has become a month that is not enjoyed in this house in general. Over the last eight years March has brought to this family two deaths and one diagnosis of terminal cancer, so I think maybe that’s something that rattles around in the brain a bit. In addition to that, the Magpie is now sweating out acceptance letters and financial aid awards. She’s top 5 in her class, has a very specific field of interest, and has, consequently, applied to three rather competitive – and expensive – schools. So we’re kind of sweating bullets here. I’m confident with her record that she’ll get accepted, it’s really a question of whether we can afford to send her that’s really weighing on my mind.

The good news was I was still able to work on the important writing. Blogging can take a back seat to the WiPs. I finished yet another round of rewrites on Parallel Lives and decided to take one last, quick pass through (actually, it’s to make sure the latest alterations are really in there, since I did some of them as separate docs. “newchapter30”, for example, or “33a”, etc. Most of the time I’d work on them as a separate doc and then paste it right in, but some of them didn’t go that way. But it was sailing along.

Until now.

Last week I had a sit down with one of the people in my writing group. We had a great conversation about the book and I walked away feeling pretty darn good about it. BUT…she suggested something. In her view, one of the key characters was like this – and she drew a half circle in the air with her hands – and you want her to be like this: and here she made a complete circle. We talked about ways to round her out a little, and I could see the possibilities, and I could see that the underpinnings were already there. Most of it would require a bit of tweaking. So, I sat down to try to write.

And nothing happened.

Most of this doesn’t require much beyond some tweaking, as I said. The problem is where it requires a fairly big change, and that ain’t happening. I’m not sure if this is a case of me being afraid to kill a pretty major darling or if it’s my instinct saying the scenes in question are perfect* as they are, but it just ain’t happening. I’ve been spinning like a one-legged duck in a whirlpool. So now I’ve got my blog mojo back and my book mojo missing. Crap.

*Knowing that ‘perfect’ means it’s not really perfect, but is probably good enough to stand as is.

And now I’ll shift gears and drop this in. I’m not good at picking favorites at anything, but this is probably my favorite song from my favorite album. No video, just one great piece of music. See you on Friday.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Taking a Break

This is probably the worst possible time to do this. The blog has been picking up steam. I'm getting more views, the followers are coming in (welcome to you all!), more comments. One of the most important things to do as a blogger is to be consistent. If you're posting twice a week, post twice a week, or you'll lose people. Of course, that leads to things like Friday's post, where I draw you in just to tell you to go away for the day.

Anyway, today in particular is a day where my brain is running in wrong directions. This is a non-focus day today. As I type I've got 9 tabs open on my browser with blogs that I follow. I don't know if I'll read them today. My head is just not there today. I've got the novel that I will force myself to make some headway on, but the blog, for today and Friday, will be dark. I will be back, don't worry. Thanks for your readership and support, see you next week.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Another One of Those Days...

In my case, there's two kinds of blog posts: those that I plan and write and rewrite and agonize over, and those that just sort of spill out of my head and onto the page.

Make it three kinds of blog posts. When the planning and agonizing over hours and days just isn't ready on post day, and when nothing really seems to want to spill out of my head, then I do this, and tell you you should just move along, folks, there's nothing to see here. That's it, move along. Move it along, and have a nice weekend. Sorry to bring you over here for nothing. Although it's always good to see a clip from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And I have to add I'm seriously disappointed that Sergio Leone did not employ the Harvard Comma.