Monday, July 29, 2013

Monday Musing: Save the Cat, Kill the Kid

On Friday, I stumbled across a thread on Absolute Write that was already three pages when I started reading. By the time I got to the end of page 1, the thread was five pages long, and still growing. As of this morning, it is 9 pages long, with more than 200 posts.

It wasn't another "Authors Behaving Badly" thread, though those always draw the crowds. No, this was on cruelty to animals in fiction. "How do you feel," asked the original poster, "about scenes or incidents where the antagonist harms an animal?"

Photo by Steve-h
I was surprised at the strength of the reaction. While some folks took the opportunity to complain about it as a cliche--"Look at me, I'm super evil, I'm going to harm this animal!"--others, many others, in fact, argued against it on a different level.

"I stop reading. And you go on my "never buy again" list.

Vivisection innocent girls. Decapitate babies. Blow up cities. Destroy civilizations. I'm OK. Hurt an animal, and I stop reading. It's just a line that I can't forgive being crossed by any storyteller (all media)."

The spirit of the above response (do anything you want to people, but don't you dare kill an animal) was echoed by a surprising number of people. There was much talk of book hurling and blacklisting, but not as much talk about why. Fortunately, there was also talk about ways the action could be altered so that it wouldn't be so...tropey, for lack of a better word. And, as often happens, the discussion veered off into discussions of culture and other things, though I've sort of lost track of it.

It reminded me more than a little of this post by E.L. Wagner, who also took the time to ponder the reasons for this reaction in a very rational way. I suggest you pop over there and take a read; it's worth it.

I don't have time to get into it today in any greater detail than this. I'm curious, however: how do you feel about animal deaths in fiction? Is it all a question of how it's done, or does it trigger an immediate, "Stop reading now" reaction?

Have a great week, see you on Friday!

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Tipping Point

I'm an early riser.

Some years ago, faced with a long commute, I started rising around 5:30 in the morning, which was earlier than I really needed to be up. I like to have time to ease into the day, have a couple of cups of coffee, maybe something to eat. When I stopped commuting and had to get the kids up for school, I kept waking up early, in part because it was ingrained, and in part because of that selfish desire for 'me' time. For the most part, I still do, even though the kids can (mostly) get themselves up, and (mostly) don't have to be anywhere as early as they did during school. I like the quiet hours of the early day, and it gives me time to read and comment on a bunch of blogs.

This past week of early rising has made me sharply aware of something: in my little corner of the world, we've reached the tipping point of summer. It started this week, when I noticed that the morning was a little darker than it had been the week before. 'Darker' may not be the best word—dimmer is much more effective. I can tell myself it was because we had some bad weather earlier in the week, some clouds in the morning, but I know better. Summer is winding down.

Photo by me!
Quite technically speaking, the actual tipping point for summer would be around the summer solstice, which fell this year on June 21. According to, sunrise was 5:17 AM, sunset was 8:37 PM, for 15 hours, 19 minutes, and 19 seconds of daylight. The following day was four seconds shorter. Each day is shorter than the day before, though it's hard to notice at first, and because summer is blessed with protracted twilight, it's light until well after 9 PM for several weeks after the solstice, and we mostly don't notice a thing.

But the tipping point—the point where you notice the change—eventually occurs, and I've been seeing the signs. Cicadas buzzing in the trees (my area was out of the zone of the 17-year Cicadas, so we did not get swept up in Cicadamania), different wildflowers coming into bloom, more than a few trees showing flashes of yellow in their foliage, geese joining up in large flocks in the field instead of in pairs and small family groupings. Yesterday, I noticed the first hints of flowers on some goldenrod, which is typically thought of as a fall wildflower.

Then there's the weather. After a hot spell (it was in the upper eighties and low nineties last week), a cold front came through on Saturday, mercifully dropping the temperature. The last few mornings have been very cool and breezy. When I walk the dog in the morning, there's a touch of fall in the air, especially when one of the neighbors has to light his wood stove in the morning. It's not so much the temperature that makes me think of fall as it is the angle and color of the light. It puts me in mind of back to school.

I feel like I'm at a tipping point in writing as well. Not in any sort of bad way, because I know that's how it sounds. Though I'm waiting on feedback from a couple of beta readers, I've been doing more work on BARTON'S WOMEN, and I'm at roughly the midpoint in the story. Like summer, the story's actual midpoint comes slightly after the physical midpoint of the manuscript. I'm hoping to query this by the end of summer. The calendar tells me that this year, the end of summer is September 22. Many Americans consider Labor Day (September 2, this year) to be the end of summer, but for me, it's always been the end of August. That's my target.

Eh. I hope I haven't bummed you out by talking about the upcoming end of summer (though it probably cheers my Australian readers out there, because summer is coming for you!). There's still plenty of time left, the Dog Days are almost upon us, so there's still time for barbecues and beaches and block parties. Enjoy!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Musical Monday: Still Fighting the War

Heard this on NPR's folk program last night.

When I was kid, if I heard someone refer to 'The War', it meant WWII. Twenty-five, thirty years after the end of that conflict, WWII still shaped so much of the world, and my perceptions of it. We had the Cold War as a direct result of it, for one thing, plus I knew people who had fought in it. My grandfather, several uncles, fathers of a couple of my friends. They were still making movies about it and doing TV shows about it (and this was long before The Hitler History Channel provided us with fodder like, Sex and The Third Reich), and books, books, books.

It wasn't until later that Vietnam came into sharper focus for me. I was a little too young (and I suspect my parents shielded me from the more grisly images of body bags and burned out villages that were shown on TV) to really remember or pay much attention to Vietnam; it wasn't until Vietnam began entering popular culture through films like The Deer Hunter that I started paying attention. At the same time, more and more Vietnam veterans began fighting for their rights, and more and more of them began revealing major physical and psychological damage as a result of their experiences. Sadly, the crazed Vietnam vet who was "still fighting the war" became a cliche used to drive all kinds of TV programs and movies. World War II veterans seemed to make a seamless transition back to civilian life (and I know this isn't true, but that's the perception); Vietnam veterans, by contrast, had a far more difficult time. "Still fighting the war" was a phrase much more frequently attributed to them than to veterans of other conflicts.

When I heard the title of this song, and the opening verse, I immediately thought it was a Vietnam song. Funny how you get conditioned, isn't it? It wasn't until the line, "Flashback to Fallujah" that I realized Cleaves is talking about the Iraq war, the war that is still going on. Perspective is a strange thing.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Summer's Edge and Double Edge

I'm really, really bad at self-promotion. Still, I I need to say something about Summer's Edge and Summer's Double Edge, the twin anthologies from Elephant's Bookshelf Press, released earlier this week, one of which includes my short(ish) story, Last Man Standing. Hey, I just did!

First, a big thanks to Matt Sinclair for including the story in Double Edge. Matt made my day when he e-mailed me with his acceptance of Last Man, along with an apology for taking so long. Long? It was two weeks, which is a nanosecond in publishing terms. I've gotten used to long waits. A magazine which shall remain nameless has had one of my short stories for over a year!

I was fortunate that I had Last Man in the can, so to speak (yeah, that was me channeling my inner Tobias F√ľnke),because I don't write short stories easily, and I probably couldn't have come up with something good between the call for submissions in January and the April deadline. Last Man's first draft was written over a three day period in May of 2011, starting with 850 words written on a Sunday afternoon in my writer's group. Sadly, I don't know the prompt we used that day, except that it called up some lonely images: "I am the last of my kind," I wrote in the margin of my notebook. "Passenger pigeon; Dodo; Ivory-billed Woodpecker" (I like birds, and I think there may have been some kind of animal motif in the prompt). Anyway, the idea of being the last something translated into being the last man, the last bachelor in a group of friends, and one thing led to another and…well, you'll have to find a copy of Double Edge to find out the rest.
The first draft ended up about 25 pages long. As I said, I don't do 'short' well. I really liked Last Man, and thought it had publication potential, but finding markets for short stories is about as fun as a prostate exam, and I was about to pull PARALLEL LIVES out of the drawer to start reading and revision. Last Man Standing went into the virtual drawer, a victim of lack of ambition and not enough time.

Flash forward to August, 2012. PARALLEL LIVES was out on query; Draft 1 of BARTON'S WOMEN was in its mandatory six week cooling period. I needed a writing project, but didn't want to start a new novel (and didn't have an idea for one, either), so I dug into the 'bits and pieces' file on my hard drive—and found Last Man Standing. In the next few weeks it went through roughly six more revisions. In this I was ably assisted by my friends, Nancy S. Thompson and Lisa L. Regan, who provided great criticism, advice, and encouragement, and the fine folks in my writer's group. What started off as a fragment of a story was now good enough for publication. So I hoped/thought.

Last Man did go to a few markets in the fall, but I was soon elbows deep on BARTON'S WOMEN, and everything else fell  by the wayside. Until I saw Matt's call for stories that "explore the short-term relationship." What could be more short-term than a man looking for a one night stand? Happily for me, Matt thought the story worked, and I'm proud to see my work alongside Cat Woods, R.S. Mellette, Jean Oram, and so many other talented writers.

POST SCRIPT: I'm not a big believer in destiny, but when I started Last Man in my writer's group, I had trouble getting started. In addition to the margin note about being the 'last of my kind', I wrote this, right before launching into the story: "The last bachelor. Hunted down. By what? By friends, family, looking to use an elephant gun of love."

Yeah, 'elephant gun of love.' Fortunately, I didn't use that line in the actual story, or I might not be writing this post today. Still, it's funny that the story ended up with Elephant's Bookshelf Press. Have a great weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

And We're Out!

Breaking with my usual posting schedule to point out the anthologies, Summer's Edge and Summer's Double Edge (featuring my short, Last Man Standing) are now available from Elephant's Bookshelf Press! Featuring 25 stories about short-term relationships from gifted writers (and familiar names from the blogosphere) such as Cat Woods, Mindy McGinnis and Jean Oram, and assembled under the watchful eye of Matt Sinclair, the stories should be great fun to read. I'm looking forward to it.

The books are available at Amazon and Smashwords as e-books, and will also be available in Print-On-Demand format via CreateSpace (that link is not currently working, I'll update when it is).

Summer's Double Edge on Kindle, Smashwords

Summer's Edge on Kindle, Smashwords

Now to learn to walk the fine line between subtle, effective promotion and shove-it-down-your-throat-until-you-want-me-to-go-away-already excess. I think I'll fade into the background until Friday, when I will try to post something related to all this that doesn't make you want to hurl.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Quote

If you trusted the justice system to find a man guilty, you must trust it when it finds a man not guilty, or it's just partiality you seek.--Bryan Peterson

I wasn't in the courtroom. I didn't follow the trial closely (and even if I had, it would have been through the filter of America's mass media, which as concerned with ratings, subscriptions, and click-throughs as it is in providing complete and unbiased coverage). Unpopular decisions like the one handed down on Saturday night are tough to swallow. We have to take it on faith that the system is working as intended. It's not always easy, and sometimes justice is not done, but I'll take this system over any other.

I hope the demonstrations going on throughout the country do not turn violent; I hope the Martin family can find peace.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Disqussion Stymied

Lately, I've been feeling unwanted.

Don't worry, this is not another, "My query isn't getting anywhere" post. And it's not to complain about how no one is reading this blog, because a lot of you are—or at least you're stopping here. I have no idea how many of you are really reading anything, but at least you're dropping in. No, what's making me feel lonely and unwanted is the growing number of blogs that use Disqus as a portal for interaction. I'm being frozen out.

Several times now, I've wanted to comment on a post, only to find myself stymied by the Disqus login. It's the same sort of login you see on any number of blog pages, whether they're powered by Blogger or WordPress or it's some fancy, custom-built site using who-knows-what platform: screen name, e-mail, password. It even has little buttons along that sign-in that indicate you can sign in using your Disqus, Facebook, Twitter, or Google accounts. However, if you try to sign in using one of those non-Disqus identities, it either asks you to register, or it asks permission to gain access to your Facebook or Twitter.

Now, the registration for Disqus looks pretty innocuous. My info—screen name and e-mail—is already filled in. All I have to do is fill in a password and click the 'register' button, but I hesitate. Why? Because I know nothing about Disqus, and I'm not going to sign up for one of these third-party things without knowing what they're all about, or what they're going to do with my info. On the registration form is a link title 'benefits of Disqus', but to be honest, it’s a very short list. As far as I can tell, Disqus is some sort of comment management system, like a HootSuite for comments, that allows you to check on and participate in blog commentary without having to leave the comfort of the Disqus program (and most of this was learned from googling the name; about the only thing I learned from the Disqus website is that it's staffed by a bunch of kids who get to play foosball in the office, at least on photo day).

You're not going to mess with him, are you?
Maybe this is a 'Get off my lawn' reaction, but I'm just not seeing how this program benefits the people who install Disqus on their blogs, how it would benefit me (except that, apparently a lot of people are using it, and if I want to be heard in those places, I'm going to have to do it), and, finally, I don't see the benefit to those foosball playing kids in the Disqus home office in San Francisco. They must be getting something out of it, but since there's nothing on their site that tells me what it is, they ain't getting anything from me.

Disqus is supposed to facilitate discussion. For me, right now, it's keeping me out of the loop.

Do you use Disqus? Does it help? And what are we signing up for? Have a great weekend!

Oh, by the way, the Phytophotodermatitis looks a LOT better.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Lesson From Looper

Last weekend, I finally got to see the movie, Looper.

This was a movie I wanted to see from the instant last summer I saw the teaser on television (and this will tell you what's on my mind lately: when I wrote that line, I wrote 'query' instead of trailer).

The concept is fantastic. Men recruited in the present (which itself is about thirty years in our future) to assassinate men from the further future. The targets arrive at a predetermined time and location, where the 'loopers' (killers) shoot them and dispose of the body. At some point, however, the loopers themselves are deemed unnecessary, and you get to kill your future self. Mind blown.

Time travel stuff fascinates me, but it also has the potential to overwhelm a story, and can lead to all kinds of complications. I suspect J.K. Rowling may have gotten rid of the Time Turner from the Harry Potter series after finding herself with a device that could have been too powerful, too complicated to explain, and too easy to use as a way to get Harry and company in (and especially out) of trouble.

But here's how they dealt with time travel in Looper:

Abe (the man sent back in time by organized crime to run the Loopers): "All this time travel crap, it fries your brain like an egg."

Old Joe: "I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws."

Hah. I love it. The movie just presents time travel as an established fact and ignores trying to explain how it actually works. The simple truth is, none of the characters need to know how it works, thus we don't need to know how it works, either. And instead of getting lost in all that wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, we can focus on the story, which is really NOT about time travel. Well played, Rian Johnson. Well played, indeed.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Word Nerd Friday

I love the sound of that. Word Nerd Friday. If I'm smart, I'll make this a regular feature of this blog, though that will require me to spend time finding and breaking down various words. This one came to me quite by accident.

So the first word of Word Nerd Friday is: Phytophotodermatitis. That's a mouthful, isn't it? Phytophotodermatitis. Say it again, because it's fun: Phytophotodermatitis.

What, you may ask, is phytophotodermatitis? It's a skin condition caused by chemicals in certain plants and fruit, triggered by exposure, first to the chemicals, then to sunlight or ultraviolet light.

I'm no scholar of Greek or Latin, but I do know a little. If we break down the word into parts, we get this:

Phyto: plants, 
Photo: light
Derma: skin
-itis: bad*

*Okay, I made that last one up. As my wife points out, -itis is more like 'condition', but if you think about it, it's almost always something bad, isn't it? Dermatitis, Appendicitis, Diverticulitis—nothing good ever comes out of something with '-itis' on the end.

And that's the case with phytophotodermatitis—hell, as much as I like to say it, it's a pain in the backside to type, so I'm going to start calling it PPD. Following contact with the chemicals in question, ultraviolet light triggers PPD, a reaction that can look like a typical rash or sunburn. After a day or two, it can produce blisters, which can be pretty big (don't Google it, unless you've got a strong stomach). From my reading, these blisters and burns usually look worse than they are (though, if you get the stuff in your eyes, I expect it can cause severe problems), and they'll go away in a few days, though some people apparently suffer long-term discoloration at the sight of the PPD.

Parsnip in a ditch. It's about four feet tall. Phot by me
If you're wondering why I looked up PPD, it's because I now have it. Last week, I did some work with a local conservation group. We cleared a boat launching area on one of our rivers and pulled an invasive weed out of the river. Unbeknownst to me, one of the plants we cleared out was Wild parsnip, (Pastinaca sativa) a close relative of the carrot.

While the parnsip root is edible, the leaves, stems and flowers contain the chemical that causes PPD. I found this out Sunday, two days after exposure, when I saw a red line on my leg. I thought my dog scratched me when I came home (at seven years old, she's still an overenthusiastic greeter), though I couldn't remember her actually doing that. A few days later, it looked like--well, I'll just stick that photo at the bottom. It's not as bad as ones I've seen on the elsewhere, but no need to make anyone lose their lunch.

It looks pretty ugly, but it doesn't hurt.

Wild parsnip is a pretty common weed that can be found across most of the continental United States and Canada, and across much of Eurasia, where it came from. As it's summer for most of my readers, take care when going outside, especially if you're doing any bushwhacking. Wash up after playing around in the weeds, and learn what this looks like (in other words, find a better picture than the one I've taken (never mind, just take a look at this page). 

Anyway, that's our first Word Nerd Friday. Have a great weekend, and stay out of the Parsnip!

And here's the leg:

Aside from the phytophotodermatitis, that's one good-looking gam. Photo by me.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

We Interrupt This Silence

I try not to break with my Monday-Friday posting schedule, because I know how we all like routine. A break from routine is upsetting, and I don't want to upset you--or me, for that matter. Still, I figure this is worth a break in the routine.

Last night, Matt Sinclair, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer at Elephant's Bookshelf Press, sent over the cover images for the summer anthologies, one of which will contain my short story, "Last Man Standing." Since I know how much we love cover reveals, I thought I'd share them with you.

I said 'them' because there will be two. Matt received an unexpectedly large number of quality submissions and decided that, rather than go with one super-huge edition, he'd go with two. Twenty-five short (or not so short, in my case) stories from familiar names, such as Cat Woods, Mindy McGinnis, Jean Oram, and many, many more, exploring the short-term relationship. From the Elephant's Bookshelf blog:

As much as we all like to think about what might have been, we all know that not all relationships were meant to last. For you, perhaps it was a May to September romance that still tastes sweet, or a one-night stand that lasted too long, or maybe the haunting pain associated with a parent or child who died too young.
 I'm certainly looking forward to reading my fellow authors' takes on this one. And now, without further ado, here are the covers:

Spiffy, eh? "Last Man Standing" will be in Summer's Double Edge. Release date is July 15, details on where to find them forthcoming. And now back to your regularly-scheduled silence....

Monday, July 1, 2013

Whither Latvia?

I like statistics. Not in a math nerd, let's break out the Chi-squared test, and analyze this data set, but in a general, are we trending up or are we trending down? sort of way. When I pop into my blogger dashboard, the number of page views are there, staring me in the face, big as life. Pageviews, Number of Posts, Number of followers. They're begging to be looked into, and, yes, I give in, far too much.

And I'm honestly puzzled by what I see. This is because, I suppose, I don't have GoogleAnalytics, which, if I were really serious about blogging and branding and building an audience, I'd load up, because it would tell me all kinds of cool stuff about whose coming, who's going, from where and to where, how long you're staying, etc. Instead, I get the generic list, which shows page views, referring sites, and audience.

I always like looking at that little world map (I've always been a sucker for maps; back on one of my first trips to Boston back in late 80s, I was super-excited to find a Rand McNally store, where I purchased a map of Europe—featuring Re-unified Germany! I loved it. Ahem, I digress.). It shows, with lovely green-shaded countries, where your audience is coming from. You know this, of course. It often reveals fun and interesting things. For example, last week I popped into the dashboard, and noticed a lot of views. I clicked on it, and hit the 'Day' tab. And this is what  I saw:

See that tiny dark green speck? It looks kind of like someone went a little heavy with a line there. It's Latvia! Somehow, out of roughly 70 pageviews for the day, Latvia was #1 source of pageviews, with 56. The second-most number of pageviews was 16, from the United States. That's quite a gap. You'll notice a big audience from Eastern Europe that day: I had visitors from Russia, Ukraine and Poland (All time, Russia provides the second most number of visitors to this blog by a long shot. I add that the #1 search term that brings people to this blog seems to be 'European hockey jersey(s)', which goes back to this post, which is my most popular in terms of pageviews.).

Why Latvia? I haven't a clue. Well, that's not true. It seems there's a referring page that also had 56 pageviews--that number looks familiar. I took a look at the referring page and found what looks to be some sort of SEO service. Why a Lativan internet company would be funneling people my way is beyond me, though I half-expect to get an e-mail soon that asks (in Latvian), "Did you notice a boost in numbers? That's because of us! We'll keep doing it if you pay!" Or maybe a group of aspiring Latvian writers stumbled across my site. Either way, I say to you, "Laipni ludzam!" (and pray I don't cause international incident with a sloppy translation).

For my fellow bloggers, where does the bulk of your audience come from?