Monday, December 17, 2018

Time off

On Friday, we went and picked up the Catbird at college for her college recess. It's nice to have her home. My wife figured it out, we're down to four more round trips to do this, maybe as little as two or three if we can get her to take the bus (taking the bus cuts more than half the time from our trip, turning ten hours of traveling in a day into maybe three). Four years goes fast. At any rate, I thought I'd take this opportunity to take a couple of! My next post will either be on December 31 or January 7, depending on how I feel. Or, I could post next week. You never know. Whatever I choose to do, I hope all of you have a lovely couple of weeks and enjoy the holidays!

Monday, December 10, 2018

"I think there's a play there!"

Monty Python's Flying Circus once featured a skit in which a well-dressed, professional looking young man named Ken (Eric Idle) returns to the home of his parents, where he receives a warm welcome from his mother (Terry Jones), but hostility from his father (Graham Chapman). What starts out looking like a tale of a college boy coming home to his working-class parents is quickly turned on its head, as Ken is a coal miner, while his father is an award-winning playwright and novelist. "There's nowt wrong with gala luncheons, lad!" sneers the father. "I've had more gala luncheons than you've had hot dinners!" The father suffers an attack of writer's cramp and kicks his disgrace of a son out, and then--the punch line: "I think there's a play there!"

It's the blessing and the curse of writers to see 'the play there' in all kinds of situations. A few years back, while driving through a hurricane to pick the Magpie up at a friend's house, I watched a normally placid creek boil through a culvert, and I asked myself, "What if I couldn't get to the house to pick the Magpie up?" This question was followed by opposite, but equally compelling thoughts: "That would be horrible!" and "Ooh, that might make a good story!"

Since I was actually able to pick up the Magpie and get her home safely, it was a case of 'no harm, no foul' and I was able to let my imagination run wild over the scenario I had imagined. And it was a good story. But sometimes, it's not always 'no harm, no foul.' One of the first ideas I ever had, though one I did not see to completion, as I wasn't seriously writing then, came about after hearing about two different, but related stories: one was a radio interview with the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center about the rise of hate groups, and the other was a particularly chilling story of a midwestern militia group that was planning on killing a state trooper, then ambushing the funeral. Pretty horrible stuff, but potentially the basis of a good story (and one that keeps coming back to me).

At the end of last week, I learned that a local man, someone I know through the school system, someone who was the Catbird's track coach for two years in middle school, someone about whom I would say, "He's a good guy!" was accused of a pretty nasty crime. You don't want to believe it when it's someone you know, when it's someone you think of as "a good guy." Hoping that it was some kind of mistake or misunderstanding, I found the criminal complaint attached to an online story. Innocent until proven guilty, yes, but this seemed pretty damning, and disgusting. And yet.

And yet, even in all of that, I find that Monty Python punch line coming back to me. "I think there's a play there!" There is, of course. There's a story there, in this man's crime; in its impact on his family, on the community. There's also the story of the victims, and the detective who discovered it. I don't know if I'd ever use this local man's crime as the basis of a story or not. It might never feel right, either due to the nature of the crime or because it's too close to home, but the story's there, just as there's a story in pretty much everything we see around us: the mother and child at the bus stop. The old woman who meticulously rakes her lawn every morning. The fender bender at the gas station. There's a story there. In fact, there are myriad stories in every instance, it's just a matter of which part of it we choose to tell.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Elevation: A quasi review

Well, a little late today, but better late than never, right? Let's hope so, anyway.

I actually had some partially-written posts going, but when my alarm went off this morning I turned it off--then woke up forty minutes later and ended up short of time. I've had my alarm clock for probably twenty-five years (seriously!), maybe more, and I still never hit the snooze button. I always swear I'll get up in a few minutes, and usually, I do. I must have been a little tired. Anyway, on to today's post. Be  warned, there may be mild spoilers for Stephen King's Elevation ahead. Not like I give away the ending or anything.

I don't know what surprised me more: Finding out in early October that Stephen King had yet another book coming out in 2018, or finding out how very small it is. Seriously, when my librarian handed it over to me last week (first one to read it, too!), I almost asked, "Is that all there is?" King's last two books, Sleeping Beauties, co-written with his son, Owen, and The Outsider clocked in at 702 and 576 pages, respectively. Elevation is, by contrast, a slip of a book, a novella, really, of just 146 pages, a book that can fit in one hand and is barely thicker than that hand (pretty cover, though).

It's like a little notebook!

Elevation is the story of a middle-aged man who finds himself inexplicably losing weight--with a catch. When the story opens, he's already dropped 28 pounds, but he looks exactly as he did when he was weighed 240. As his weight continues to drop, at about two pounds a day, there is no change to his outward appearance. The book hearkens back to King's 1984 novel, Thinner (written under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, in which an obese lawyer loses weight uncontrollably after being cursed) and Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man, in which a man shrinks by 1/7" a day. In fact, Elevation's protagonist shares the same name, Scott Carey, with the hero of Matheson's book, and the dedication for Elevation reads "Thinking of Richard Matheson." King wears his influences on his sleeve. (NOTE: I now find myself wanting to re-read both Thinner and The Shrinking Man)

It took me about a day to read, and the surprises kept coming, though. For the first time in a long time, I found myself wishing that the book was longer. That's not something I've said about a King book in a while. Now, for the record, I like long books--when they're good. King has put out some really long books (1138 pages for It; 1074 pages for Under the Dome), and I mostly really enjoy them. But both Sleeping Beauties and The Outsider felt way too long for me, full of extraneous characters and too much...well, something. Elevation has none of the bloat, but I found myself wanting more backstory for our main characters, more of the sketches of small-town Maine and the quirky folks who live there. Not this time.*

But the thing that surprised me the most? Unlike Thinner, or even The Shrinking Man, Elevation is suprisingly optimistic. King is well-known for torturing his characters, for putting them through the wringer, for always asking himself, "How can I make things worse for them?" Here, however, the worst thing happens in the first ten pages. King's version of Scott Carey quickly accepts what he thinks his fate will be, and unlike Thinner's Billy Halleck and The Shrinking Man's Scott Carey, King's Carey actually seems to gain from losing: he gains perspective on his own life, and on that of his beloved town of Castle Rock.

Over at Stacy's blog last week, Stacy asked me what genre I thought Elevation fit into. It's clearly not horror. Nor does it fit quite into fantasy. The phrase that came to my mind was "magical realism," even though there's no magic in the traditional sense. Thinking about it some more, it almost has the feel of a fable to me, so that's what I'll go with.

I'm kind of lacking a concluding paragraph here, so I'll turn it over to you: Have you read Elevation? What did you think of it? Have you ever been surprised by something an author did in a book the way I was surprised by Elevation? Please share, and thanks for reading!

*In hindsight, given the style of book, its length is probably a good thing. If King started coloring in the back pages in his typical King way, it might have shifted the narrative in a direction he didn't want to go, maybe even turned this into more of a horror or science fiction novel. Keep true to your vision, Stephen!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Gone Fishing

We're still picking at the remains of Thanksgiving dinner here at my house, still delighting in turkey and stuffing (a once a year thing), sweet potato casserole and apple crisp. Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the loveliest of holidays, both because of the sentiment and the fact that you never have to ask, "What're we eating tonight?"

We had a nice time here, though we were bothered with the coldest weather of the year on Thanksgiving morning--the thermometer on the backside of my house registered about -18F at 6am, and I don't think it ever got into double digits on the day. Brr. So much for making that new tank of oil last! On Saturday, we went to see Bohemian Rhapsody. Good film from a film's perspective, though I'm not sure how accurate a biography it is, and it had a curious way of dealing with Freddie Mercury's homosexuality, but more on that next week, perhaps. I also read (in a day) Stephen King's newest book, Elevation. I enjoyed it, wished there was a little more of it (something I haven't said about King in a while), but also more on that in another post.

I haven't spent much time writing this past week. Of course, part of that is just being busy. Picking up and dropping off the Catbird burns two days out of the week, Thanksgiving itself can be hard to write on, going to movies, etc. (oh, the Bruins had a couple of games this week, too). There's not a lot of time. But the other issue is I haven't quite found my way in to the next project yet. Over the course of the week, I've been dropping a hook in the water and jigging it around, looking for a bite. I've written 3200 words, but there's nothing cohesive there, not yet: a single paragraph description of the overall plot, a couple of scattered ideas for scenes, with dialogue between nameless characters. I'm waiting for something to really grab the hook and run: the right voice to tell the story in, the character who will assert themself as the hero (or Great Enemy), the scene that will really kick the whole thing off. So far, only the barest ripple on the water, the slightest movement of the hook to indicate that something might be nibbling. But I think there's something there, just beneath the water. I hope it's a big one.

How do you get yourself into a new writing project?


Monday, November 19, 2018


It finally happened.

On Saturday morning, after inserting and feathering in an 810-word sequence, I sent off my manuscript to that "one more reader." I kind of wanted to feel like Rocky running up the steps while training; I felt more like these two guys:

I'm not sure which one's the manuscript and which one's me!

It's amazing how tiring it is, isn't it?

So, for reasons I can't explain, I do keep stats on this sort of thing. As I have stated, when I started the revision process way too long ago, I had a 138,000-word, 426-page monster on my hands. My revision process this time was to start with a blank page on the screen, and marked-up, printed pages on the desk in front of me. I copied off the printed pages. When I finished that version, I was down to 124,000 words, 415 pages. Better. Not ideal, but I thought I might be able to live with it. My spell check run through netted six words cut, but added two pages. Location is everything. Over the next three weeks, I went back through and tightened and trimmed (and added). The result is what I hope is a sufficiently-sleek beast, standing in at 119,500 words and 'just' 402 pages. I am happy with it right now.

On Sunday, I started noodling a bit, chewing a little over an old idea that might just be able to have new life. I opened a new document, asked myself some story questions, even wrote something of a scene. Will it go anywhere? I don't know yet. I hope so. Also on Sunday, I spent some time resurrecting the query letter for my now out-of-my-hands manuscript. Query lettering is hard. Ugh. The good news is I'm off all week, so I might have time to make some headway on both.

This and that

*John Oliver's Last Week Tonight continues to be one of the best things on television. Last night's piece on authoritarianism, like the best segments on that show, is funny, timely, and scary. The world has been shifting in an uncomfortable direction for some time. It used to be, America at least made a show of standing up to strongmen and standing up for freedom (when we weren't selling them arms or propping them up in the name of strategic interests, that is). That time now seems to be over. If you haven't seen the segment, you can find it here.

*I'm not sure what it is, but over the last week or so I've had unusually vivid dreams, and been remembering them more than usual (or remembering that I had them; aside from one in which I was being chased around a lake by a small snapping turtle, most of the rest are really kind of fuzzy). At least they're not nightmares.

*The Catbird comes home tomorrow. It will be nice to have everyone here for a short time.

*At the grocery store yesterday, while wandering up the cereal aisle, I realized they were playing Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do?" I thought, "This is grocery store music now???" Especially because I'm pretty sure he says, "I want to fuck you" through his guitar talk box at one point. If you're a certain age, that album was pretty inescapable. Still is, on a lot of classic rock stations (and, apparently, in grocery stores).

*Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the States. Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Americans, have a great week to all!

Monday, November 12, 2018

Almost there

I'll admit it, I'm a little disappointed in myself.

I was hoping to be done by now, but when I finished working on The Weighty Tome yesterday, I was on page 376 of what is now just 400 manuscript pages. So close! But I had put probably close to four hours in over the course of the day (it occurs to me I might want to log my hours on these projects, because why not?), and when last night's Bruins game was over, I couldn't go back to it, even though there were still a couple of hours left in the day. I just didn't have anything left in the tank, and I've learned not to force it when that's the case.

It's funny how you get to a point in the day when you're just done, isn't it? When I'm running hot on writing, I can interrupt myself to go to the bathroom or get something to eat, but rarely does that interruption really break my flow. I can come back a few minutes later and get back into it pretty easily. But when I'm done, I'm done, and walking away for a few hours doesn't do the trick. There's just nothing there until the next day.

So, I sit on the cusp of 'finishing' this manuscript again (though I know I have to go back to a point somewhere in the middle and add a tiny bit), but am just not quite there. And November is half over which means it's really WAY to late, because I'm getting to a point where I would have to average over 2500 words a day to 'win', and that's too much. And that's also okay. As much as it would be nice to join the NaNo masses, everything has its own time and the next project will come about on the schedule it needs.

Disappointed? A little. But I also know enough to listen to myself.

How about you? Can you push through those moments when you're 'done', and how does that work for you?


One note: the Bruins had a good weekend, winning both games after turning in a horrible performance against Vancouver. The fans are very skittish this year, which I think is a product of the team being unexpectedly good last year. Funny how that happens.

Second note: I really screwed myself by posting that "McCafferty's Bib" song by They Might Be Giants last week. I can't get it out of my head! I think it's because I can't get the melody and lyrics to match up quite right, no matter how many times I listen to it. Help!

Third note: Yesterday was Veterans Day here in the US, so let me take this moment to express my gratitude and appreciation to all our veterans. Thank you for what you do.


Monday, November 5, 2018

More Revising

Hoorah, hoorah! Two weeks ago, I finally reached the last page of my WiP! When I pushed back from my desk two Mondays ago, I had cut some 14,000 words from my bloated epic. Perhaps more important than pure word and page count, I was also able, I think, to shorten the 'ramp up' time in my story. Two of my trusted readers told me they didn't get really interested in things until between 40 and 60% of the way in, and that's way too far in to make readers wait.

At the time I 'finished,' I had been thinking I'd send it out to another couple of readers by the end of the month. During the time they have it, I'd get back to work on the query and redo my synopsis, with the goal of sending it out either late this year or early next. Also, I thought I just might actually be able to ~gasp~ do another NaNoWriMo. An old idea of mine has been starting to kick up a bit of a fuss in the back room lately, and, given the way things are in the world right now, it seems topical. For the first time in a few years, the timing for NaNo looked like it might actually work out.

Three days after 'finishing,' I had the day off of work and sat down with the manuscript and ran spellcheck. Rather than use features like 'Change all' or 'Ignore All' (the grammar checker in particular has no understanding of nuance, artistic license, or even grammar), I looked at each highlighted word, each flagged sentence, even though my eyes wanted to roll up in my head. Miracle of miracles, when I was done, I had managed to reduce six words from the total (but, strangely enough, I had added two manuscript pages--location is everything).

And, of course, I discovered a bunch of things that needed to be fixed.

This is how it goes, isn't it? We tell ourselves we're ready, and then we find something else that needs fixing. On October 27 I went back to page one and started fast reading. I was aiming to do that sort of sentence-level tightening to pull extraneous words ('that' and 'just' tend to be big on extraneous usage), but I've also found enough 'big stuff' to fix that it makes me call into question my entire process! So, now I'm waiting to send this out to readers once again, my dream of having it off my plate by Halloween gone, and NaNo definitively on hold. The good news? I've already cut over 3000 words, which has shaved about ten manuscript pages off the whole thing, and I'm more than halfway through.

A recurring theme for me, indeed for any writer, is how hard it is to wait, and how often we have to do it. We're always waiting: for betas, for agents, for editors. We want to get on with it. We want our works out there in the world, to sink or swim on their own merits. But I've stayed my hand. Frankly, I was embarrassed when I saw the hot mess I subjected my betas to. They don't expect perfection, but they deserve better than what I gave them, and agents will need better.

Do you give in to the temptation to 'send,' or do you force yourself to make 'one more pass'?


Fun stuff

The same day I ran my fateful spellcheck, the Magpie and I drove a couple of hours to Ithaca to see They Might Be Giants in concert at the State Theater. My kids loved They Might Be Giants when they were little--really, why wouldn't any kid? They're quirky. They employ clever wordplay in their lyrics. They sing funny. And they use odd instrumentation. They are also far from a novelty act. The two hour plus show was a treat. TMBG is an energetic band on stage, with lots of funny banter and lots of great music. I was a little nervous about not knowing any of the songs (I only actually have the one album myself, 1990s Flood), they played widely from across their 30-year catalog, and I knew more than I thought. I recommend catching them if they come to your town on this tour (It's also nice to see a band in a 1600-seat theater as opposed to a hockey rink or football stadium). So, here are two selections from TMBG for your listening pleasure: 1990's "Whistling in the Dark" (which seems appropriate to our current times) and "McCafferty's Bib" from their newest album, I Like Fun.

Monday, October 29, 2018

A note

This morning, I quick wrote a post about writing. At the close of it, I wanted to acknowledge the terrible events of the last week (pipe bombs, synagogue shooting), but I did not wish to relegate them to a footnote to a post about something as trivial as writing. At the same time, I really just don't know how to express my anger and frustration with what is happening to this country. I honestly fear for the future of this country more than ever, when we have politicians whose first impulse to the news of pipe bombs is to raise the specter of 'false flag operations,' or to immediately insist (yet again), that guns have nothing to do with a shooting in a synagogue, or that words don't matter. Words matter. They matter a lot. The President, the Vice President, and the lackeys in Congress are either flat-out lying when they say they don't, or are too stupid to see the connection between what they say and what people do. Either way, it's clear they are not people who should be running this country. My heart goes out to the people who lost family and friends in Pittsburgh, and I hope we can get through this time without worse.


Monday, October 22, 2018

The dreaming brain

Once, many years ago, I woke from a dream about....I don't remember what. What I do remember about the dream is that someone or something was tapping. On a door, maybe. On a floor. I don't remember who it was doing the tapping, or what they were tapping on, only that they were tapping. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap. Tap, tap. No particular rhythm to it that I recall.

I woke up. It was morning, the sun was shining, and though the dream was over, the tapping continued. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Tap tap. Stumbling out of bed, I went to the window and discovered the source of the noise: a woodpecker was outside, digging at the wood around the window frame in its search for bugs.

It always amazes me how outside stimuli can work their way into dreams. I've never been entirely certain how dreams work (and I've never been particularly interested in looking it up for some reason): do they unfold in your brain over a longish period of time, i.e., over several minutes, so that what feels like a long dream really is a long dream? Or are they more like flashes of lightning, something that is in reality a fraction of a second long, only it feels like a long time? If it's the latter, then was that woodpecker working on the window before I started dreaming, and was the dream built to accommodate this noise? Or, if the dreams take place over a long period of time, did my brain just decide to take this new sound and throw it in, like a cook might grab some spice off the rack to throw into an already boiling stew? Maybe I'll look into it, because it is pretty interesting, how it all works.

At about four this morning, I woke up from a dream that, again, I don't remember at all. The only thing I do remember is there was a muffled thump or bang that was literally right on the boundary line of dream and awake. I lay there under covers, still half asleep, trying to decide if that noise had been in my head or outside of it. The noise was not repeated. The house was as quiet as a house usually is at 4 a.m. I debated briefly whether I should get up and take a pass through the house to make sure no one was roaming the house, or that the roof hadn't fallen in, or the expansion tank hadn't blown on our furnace again (though I was awake for that one a couple of years ago, and it was LOUD, let me tell you; this was a totally different kind of noise). After a brief inner debate, I was able to go back to sleep.

It wasn't always that way, though. For several years, it was common for me to wake up in the middle of the night, or to be drifting off to sleep and snap awake, and just feel compelled to check the house for...I don't know what. Something. Someone. There was never any rhyme or reason to it. No dream or nightmare, sometimes, I wasn't even asleep. I'd just get this feeling, a super-creeped out feeling, that I needed to do a walk around. And even when I knew logically there was no reason to get out of my warm, comfortable bed, I would not be able to rest until I got up and checked every room in the house, sometimes even going into the basement. Never once did I find anything amiss.

I wonder if those super-paranoid, check every room in the house moments were related somehow to child protection instincts. My children are both grown, and though the Magpie lives with us full-time, and the Catbird part-time (we'll see what happens in May when she graduates), I have not had one of those 'gotta check the house' moments in years, maybe not even since they were in middle school.

The mind does some really interesting things, doesn't it?

Monday, October 15, 2018

The end draws ever closer

When I left off my manuscript yesterday evening, I was on page 365, just shy of 110,000 words. On the pages I printed out to help me with my revision, I'm on page 386, exactly 40 pages from THE END. There are two pages or so out of those last forty that have already been incorporated into an earlier part of the revised manuscript, so I'm really more like 38 pages from the end.

This is the tough part, though. Yesterday, I only squeaked out 900 words or so, some of which was the result of backing up ten or so pages and futzing around a little. I thought said futzing would cut words, but it might have actually added. So be it. The end result was that yesterday was a little like treading water. My main character stands at the final inflection point of the story, the point where she makes her final major decision and goes from down and out to triumphant.

There are, I think, two reasons for my treading water. The first is losing the rhythm. Because I've been obsessively tracking this, I know that from Sunday through Wednesday last week, I cranked out 11,600 words, an average of nearly 3,000 per day. I was in the groove. On Thursday, however, it all came apart. We had a board of directors meeting that night. It lasted four hours. Ugh. On Friday, my wife and I went to our Audubon Society's charter dinner (my wife is co-president of the chapter). We stopped out for a drink after and didn't get home until after 10. On Saturday, I worked in the morning, watched the Bruins rout the Red Wings in the afternoon--and just didn't feel up for writing that night. While I recognize that the so-called Writing Rule "Write every day" is not for everyone, I know I'm better when I do.

The other thing that slowed me down, however, is because of that inflection point I mentioned above. This is the last such point in the story, and arguably the most important: this is the point where everything really comes together. The character must now stand on the foundation I've built for her through the course of the story, and that foundation has to be rock solid, or there will be no future readers for this manuscript aside from a couple of more betas and some agents who ultimately pass. It's scary stuff, and what makes it scarier is this: any changes I make to this point could potentially reverberate back through the entire story, sending me on a search-and-destroy mission throughout the manuscript. It's almost like being a time traveler setting out to find some evil-doer (or someone who is well-meaning but doesn't understand you don't mess with time!) who grabbed a time machine and fucked around in the past.

Writing with the story ahead of you is easy. Keeping the continuity during the rewrite stage? That's a lot harder. How do you do it?


I've had Pete Yorn on here once before. Here he is with Scarlett Johansson (yes, that Scarlett Johansson, how many do you think there are?). I think their voices work well together, don't you?

Monday, October 8, 2018

Reading List, 2018, Part III

Technically, the end of the quarter was last week, but I chose to delay this post based on events in the world. Here are the list of books for the third quarter (July 1-September 30).

Wolf Season (2017), Helen Benedict. Not bad. Local(ish) setting was familiar.

The Outsider (2018), Stephen King. I love Stephen King. I like long books. But this felt way too long.

The Marrow Thieves (2017), Cherie Dimaline. I like when Young Adult novels don't feel like Young Adult novels.  This is one of them.

Catch-22 (1955), Joseph Heller. Re-read, but it's been so long since I've read it, it felt new. Feels like we're living in Yossarian's world right now, only not as funny.

Exit West (2017), Mohsin Hamid. Lovely and poignant tale of a refugee couple escaping their war-torn country though magical doors that send other places in this world.

Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America (2018), Alissa Quart. We have problems in this country.

Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change (2018), Mary Beth Pfeiffer. We have problems in this world.

The list was short this quarter. The last two books slowed me down quite a bit. Plus, I've been writing/revising a lot, which slows down my reading. Plus, hockey season started, which will slow me down even more. I'm a bit surprised at how new my list was for this quarter. Though I've been making an effort to read current, all of the books save Catch-22 were published within the last two years. Not bad!

Other news:

* Passed the 100,000 word point on my WiP this weekend while cranking through just about 7000 words Friday (took the day off) through Sunday. That includes a thoroughly non-productive Saturday (less than 500 words), where I sat staring at the screen and the printed pages I was working off of and just couldn't figure out how my main character was supposed to make a particular transition. I think I got it! It looks like, when I'm finished, I will have managed to cut nearly 30 pages from the previous draft.

* Is it you, or me? For some time, I uses to get e-mail notifications when most people left a comment on this blog (with one or two exceptions). Not anymore, and not for some time. As far as I can tell, my settings haven't changed, but no more notifications. Anyone else see this happening?

* Congratulations to the lovable scamps at Delta House for the achievement of Brother Bart. Now they have a Supreme Court Justice to go along with Senator Blutarsky.

* Hockey season is on! The Bruins got shellacked in their season opener, but righted the ship the next night. I'm hoping they can pile up points against weak teams like Buffalo, Ottawa and Edmonton while they work out the kinks on the season.

* John Oliver did a piece on the Brazilian elections last night on Last Week Tonight. Can anyone tell me why the world is shifting so much in favor of hatred and intolerance? Let's hope it doesn't take another world war to put a stop to it.

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

Monday, October 1, 2018

Another year, another post like this

I may have told you this story before. Perhaps not. Whatever the case, I'm not sure what it is about this time of year that seems to bring this sort of thing out. Last year around now, I was writing about Harvey Weinstein. The year before that, Donald Trump and locker room talk. Maybe it's something in the change of seasons that brings this all about, I don't know. At any rate, the stuff going on now serves to remind me of this.

For nearly the entire decade of the nineties, I worked for the Central Park Conservancy, a great organization that works with the City of New York to manage and protect and promote that fantastic greensward in the heart of New York City. For all of those years, I commuted to work, a journey that involved a minimum 40-minute train ride and two subway lines, but it was a good job with a good organization in a great location, and I've always liked trains so I tolerated it for quite a while.

Two of the years I worked in Central Park, we lived in southern Connecticut. Metro North took me all the way down to Grand Central. From there, I had to take the Lexington Avenue subway back uptown to 103rd Street (my office was just outside the Park at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue). It seemed a bit of a waste, going all the way down to Grand Central just to have to come back up, and the Lexington Avenue line at that point sucked, to put it honestly, so I looked for--and found--an alternative: get off Metro North at 125th Street and walk 21 blocks to my office. And so I did.

I don't remember how I got to and from the station, to be honest. I think I got off at 125th Street, cut over to Madison, and went all the way down Madison to 104th, and vice versa, but I honestly couldn't tell you after all this time. When I walked (and in the winter, I did not do the walk if it was dark), I walked with purpose, fast but not running. I kept my head up and my eyes moving, but also tried not to attract attention. It was a little unnerving. Mine was pretty much the only white face on the street there, and the route took me through just about every kind of neighborhood: bustling commercial sections, upscale homes, bombed-out crack houses (it was the nineties, after all). It seemed quite possible that I could get mugged for money to fuel someone's crack habit, or mugged--even killed--simply for being the wrong race in the wrong neighborhood. Not once, however, did it ever enter my mind that I might be dragged off into an alley or wrecked building and sexually assaulted.

The allegations against Brett Kavanaugh that surfaced last month have once again served to highlight the vastly different worlds men and women live in. When do men worry about being sexually assaulted? Never. For men of my generation, it's a "Dueling Banjos" reference when we go camping or find ourselves in some backwoods area. Maybe younger men joke about pawn shops and the Gimp. But that's what it is for men: a joke, something to laugh about. When do women worry about being sexually assaulted? All the time? Half the time? From the stories that have once again been shared in the wake of the Kavanaugh accusations, they'd certainly be forgiven for worrying about it all the time. It happens too damn often, and that's got to change.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Why did I bother?

I knew better.

I knew better, and I did it anyway.

Last week, a Facebook friend of a very conservative nature posted a graphic on Facebook. Unlike his usual postings, it wasn't even a share, it was a graphic he'd come across, downloaded, then posted. It was about Christine Blasey Ford.

If you do not know who Christine Blasey Ford is, look her up. Suffice to say, the graphic posted was not particularly complimentary, calling her an alcoholic, promiscuous and, possibly worst of all, a liberal activist. It then suggested that not only was her coming forward a desperate attempt to keep a conservative off the Supreme Court, but that Dr. Blasey Ford was looking for a book deal.

If they were making The Princess Bride today (heck, the way Hollywood is, they probably are), Vizzini might declare that the most famous blunder of all is "never get involved in a political discussion on Facebook." It's almost always a no-win situation for all. Most people have no interest in actual, informed debate about politics on Facebook. Most people just want to stake their position and fly their flag as high as possible for all like-minded people to see, and to piss off those who don't agree. The first time I saw this, I clicked in the comment box and was poised to strike, then thought better of it. It bothered me to pass it by, but it was sensible.

But two days later, based on whatever algorithms Facebook uses, it was there again, floating to the top of my news feed even though I am constantly telling Facebook I want it to sort by most recent, not what Facebook thinks is a 'Top Story' (why I have to change this every. Single. Time. I get on Facebook is beyond me). This time, I couldn't hold back.

All I wanted was an acknowledgment. What acknowledgment? This one: Dr. Blasey Ford may well be all of those things this Facebook graphic depicts her as. An alcoholic. Promiscuous. A liberal activist. Sure, maybe she's even an opportunist, hoping to catapult herself to riches and fame (though, please see this excellent post by John Pavlovitz about that). Yet, none of that precludes the possibility that Brett Kavanaugh did exactly what she says he did. Unsurprisingly, I got no admission of the sort. Instead, I got (and am still getting) the usual litany of Republican talking points, victim blaming, and straw men. In other words, pretty much what I expected. At least I haven't gotten any personal attacks. Yet. I haven't checked Facebook this morning. Meanwhile, I swear I'll stay out of it next time...


Monday, September 17, 2018

What a mess I've made

Shortly after Agent Carrie and I parted ways earlier this year, I completed a draft (a sort of second draft, maybe something like a 1-1/2 draft) of a new manuscript I was quite excited about. The problem? It was big. 426 pages big. 138,000 words big. The biggest project I'd ever done.
Now, it turns out 138,000 words isn't necessarily terrible. The Return of the King is around 131,000, or so I have read. Salem's Lot is around 150,000 and sure doesn't feel that long. Of course, one of those books was written sixty years ago, the other forty, and we're told debut novelists can't get away with long books and that people don't want long books anyway (I call bullshit on both of those, but then maybe that's why my next published book will be my first). Anyway, I knew even before I got comments back from my Trusted Readers that it needed to be cut: there were lots of redundancies, lots of duplicate scenes, lots of saying the same thing in a slightly different way. And, of course, it had to get to the point faster.

Like this, only bigger!
Normally, when I'm ready to start redrafting, I sit down with notes from my Trusted Readers, my own notes, and a printed copy of my manuscript that looks like one of Sheriff Obie's 27 eight-by-ten color glossy photographs from "Alice's Restaurant." I open the last version of the manuscript on my computer, 'Save As' the project title and date (or the project title version xx) and go to work, deleting, adding, changing. It mostly works okay, though somewhere along the line the page numbers on the screen will stop matching up with the page numbers on the printed copy, which can cause a little bit of trouble. Also, I think it sometimes leads me to not paying attention to everything: if a sentence or paragraph has escaped my critical eye, why even look at it? It's perfect, right? Maybe not.

This time, I decided to do something different. I assembled my notes and the notes of my Trusted Readers, plunked the 426 paragraphs with the circles and arrows and margin notes and paragraphs on the back down on the desk, opened a blank document on my computer and started to type. The benefit is that it's forcing me to look at each line as I type, so everything's up for consideration, not just what's been marked up, and that's a good thing. It's not quite like starting all over again, but it does make things fresher, I think.

This weekend, I ran into big trouble, though I may have had the same problem if I'd done it 'the old way.' I had two scenes separated by thirty-odd pages in the manuscript that, while not exactly the same, needed to be condensed into one in order to move the story along faster. No problem, I managed the feat, the new version works--but then I found myself with my printed manuscript divided into four--or was it five?--piles: one on the floor that's finished. One that's stuff yet to come (pp. 325-426) and two--or was it three?--that I was currently working on. On the left, page 289. On the right, p. 252--what comes next? Oh, it doesn't help that the stuff from page 290 or so has now been moved up to page 180.

I sat at my desk for about fifteen minutes yesterday morning shuffling papers back and forth. "OK, this is done, I can put that down here--wait a minute, that's not done, that's staying in, so that" It got to the point where I sat there for about a minute looking at it all and almost saying, "Fuck it" for the day and going off to mow the lawn. Eventually, I did say "Fuck it" and just started working, and it went pretty well (3500 words yesterday, wowza). Still, it was fifteen minutes of stress that I didn't need. Hopefully, it's the last day of that sort of stress on this manuscript.

Writing, editing, revising: it's an ongoing process, one that's always in revision. Maybe next time I'll figure out a better system for organizing myself so I don't get lost.

What about you? How do you keep everything straight in the revision process?


Forty years ago this weekend, the Grateful Dead played a series of what might rightly be called "historic" concerts at a tiny little theater nestled almost at the base of the Great Sphinx in Giza, Egypt. (I say historic because I believe they were the first rock band to play there, though others have followed). For three nights, the band played before a small crowd in the desert, and by all accounts, they had a blast. Said Jerry Garcia: "Egypt was great. We were terrible!" They hoped to pay for the trip by releasing a live album, but they were, indeed, terrible. Even at their best, the Dead were unpredictable. The wheels could fall off at any moment. Here's a song from their last night, probably the best of the run and, true to form, the wheels fell off. At least twice. Have a good week!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Today's Recommended Reading

I came across this powerful piece in The Guardian last week. It is disturbing to say the least that we are staring down the same things--rampant nationalism, racism, authoritarianism--that we faced eighty-plus years ago. It disturbs me even more that the USA has gotten caught up in the same reprehensible tide. I only hope it can be resolved this time without a global war.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Breaking Bad Revisited

Back in early August, I found myself home alone for an extended weekend, due to a work requirement that coincided with a family event. Sunday afternoon found me too physically tired to mow the lawn or do much around the house, and too brain dead to write or read; I reached for the TV remote instead--and soon found myself rewatching Breaking Bad.

I know a lot of people will say, "Why rewatch some TV show when there's so much good, new programming out there?" Indeed, there are only so many hours in a day, week, month, life; why spend it watching something you've already seen, especially something that takes so much time? (Breaking Bad ran for five seasons, 62 episodes, roughly 50 minutes per episode. I hate doing math that shows how much time I've spent on something, just as I hated looking at the "Time Played" counter on my World of Warcraft characters.)  Yet I regularly seek out the comfort of previous experience when choosing my television, film and reading material. Earlier this year, I finished a re-read of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, and I'm currently re-reading It for seemingly the thousandth time. There's a good bet that, some time in the next year or so, I'll pick up either A Prayer for Owen Meany or Empire Falls again, too, even though  there are literally thousands of books I haven't read before coming out each year. Often, I'll just grab something familiar off the shelf when I'm in between new books, though sometimes I just get a real strong urge to read an old book once more (It came about in part because we watched last year's movie version, which was actually pretty good).

As a writer, there's great benefit in following those familiar paths. Watching the first few episodes of Breaking Bad, however, I found myself really viewing Walter's and Jesse's actions against the context of what those characters become as the series goes on. It's especially fascinating to see the breadcrumbs being dropped by the showrunners. One of the central questions of the show was who is the true Walter White? The mild-mannered, bumbling high school chemistry teacher, or the ruthless Heisenberg? I don't think I started asking that question until more than halfway through the series on my first run through; now, I've been looking for it since episode one, watching for clues, and I think "Walter White" may have been the mask worn by "Heisenberg" for fifty years. By the end of season two, which is where I am now, that certainly seems to be more than a slim chance.

Interestingly, I find I interact differently with books when I re-read them than I do with movies or TV. I suspect it has to do with the difference in impact images make on your brain than words, or that reading engages the mind in a different way. I will sometimes pick up something as foreshadowing, or the first appearance of a motif in the work, but for me, re-reading a book is much more like reading it for the first time than watching TV or a movie.

How about you? Do you experience TV, movies and books differently the second (or third) time around? Do  tell!B

Monday, August 27, 2018

RIP, John McCain

The late Senator John McCain was not a perfect man. No one is. He may not even have been quite the maverick we all believed him to be (McCain voted with Trump 83% of the time, which included greenlighting all of Trump's cabinet-level picks, except for Mick Mulvaney (McCain voted no) and the disaster that was Scott Pruitt (no vote)). Still, John McCain was a man of honor, a dedicated public servant, and a fundamentally decent human being. He will be missed, especially now, in this time of poisonous politics.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Just to clarify

In the wake of Rudy Giuliani's statement this weekend that "truth isn't truth": *

Fake news:

Real news:

Get the difference?

*Link is to the entire interview. Fast forward to 9:00 for the "truth isn't truth" section.

Monday, August 13, 2018

An End of One Thing

Just about three years ago, I was fortunate to begin an unpaid gig writing a monthly column for one of the weekly newspapers in the county. We're fortunate here, to have no less (fewer? I can never remember the proper use) than four newspapers in our county, despite being a decidedly rural community. One is a daily, and three are weeklies.

My previous boss was an ex-newspaper person herself who had once been the editor-in-chief for one of those weeklies. She knew I liked to write, she knew that the papers always like to get content when it's written for them, and she knew that it was a good opportunity for our organization to raise its profile by getting a column with our name on it. So in a way, I was actually getting paid to write, just not by the newspaper. So, for the last three-and-a-half years I struggled mightily once a month to find something relevant to write about, to make it relevant to my job without it seeming like pure party propaganda, and to make it interesting to the community.

At first, I felt a little like I was screaming into the void (sadly, that website, launched by John Oliver, is now defunct). I opened with a column on lightbulbs, of all things, and how New York State laws would be requiring a phase-out of incandescent bulbs for most household applications in favor of higher efficiency compact fluorescent and LED bulbs. Exciting stuff, right? I wrote a lot about recycling, because there's so much confusion, but I also wrote about invasive species, water quality, pollinators, ticks and, in what might be my favorite column, an homage to goldenrod (which, in my little corner of the world, is now blooming, which makes me happy and a little sad at the same time). Over time, I found something strange: people were reading.

It's nice when someone drops a comment on this blog, nicer still when someone (or several someones) regularly drop comments on this blog. It's nice to know that people are actually reading these words and find something to say about them, and that you're not all a bunch of Russian bots crawling over this site for reasons I can't comprehend. But it's even nicer when the cashier at the local Price Chopper says, "I really like your column" and tells you about her own battles with customers and corporate over the plastic bag recycling program stores are required to have, or when a respected doctor e-mails with advice on solving a problem I griped about by improving signage, or when the crusty old scientist on my board praises my column on ticks because "most of the time, it's 50% bullshit," and he doesn't mean my column, he means what you normally read about ticks. It's nice, but it's also a little scary.

Sadly, about a month ago, I received an e-mail from my editor at the paper for the last three years, informing me that he was stepping down. The nationwide conglomerate that owns both the weekly and the daily paper decided that it was cutting the size of the weekly in half. My editor was going to be forced to work out of an office half an hour away and was going to be reassigned as a reporter if he decided to stay. He was not staying. He was also not sure if there would be room for his columnists anymore. Turns out, there isn't.

Writing that column, roughly 700 words a month, was rarely easy. I missed deadlines, pushed deadlines up to the limit, but it was a great experience overall. I will miss it, but maybe we will take my wife's advice and recast it as a blog on the company's website. It might lose some of its cachet, but will keep getting the word out. We shall see.

Music Time

Why is this song stuck in my head? Who knows? "Doing That Rag" from the Grateful Dead's 1969 album, Aoxomoxoa (Yeah, I don't know what that means, either, or how to say it). This is one of the few songs that was actually better on record than live. Enjoy your week!

Monday, August 6, 2018

Disaster strikes

A couple of days ago, my wife and I were coming home from...somewhere, I don't remember where, exactly. As we came down the road in front of my house I looked up my graceful sweep of overgrown lawn and sat up a little straighter, alarmed by something out of place amidst the ragged grass and weeds: the plastic mesh cage surrounding the chestnut tree had been knocked on its side.

I haven't provided an update on the Famous Chestnut Tree since the end of May, but it was doing quite well. It was definitely in the closest thing to the "leap" phase of the "sleep, creep, and leap" cycle that my botanist board member who used to work for a nursery told me about (i.e., when transplanting trees and shrubs, expect it to take about three years before it really starts growing). While the Famous Chestnut Tree wasn't a threat to reach 20 feet tall this year, what was taking over as the new trunk had put on substantial growth this year, and spawned an additional side branch.

Happier times
That picture was taken May 28. Just to the left of my pinkie is a bend in the trunk--everything above that bend was this year's growth. Leap, indeed.

As I ran out to check on the Famous Chestnut Tree, I hoped and hoped that the cage had just been knocked over by wind, though I did not really believe this. While we had some massive periods of rain last week, they were calm affairs: little thunder, little lightning--and pretty much no wind.

It was not the wind. This is what I found when I got to the tree (and I apologize, I can't seem to make my camera focus on the tree, so it's a little blurry; but you'll get the picture):

Oh, the humanitree!
Who dunnit? The culprits are likely one of three: rabbit, deer, or woodchuck. My money is on deer. I'm guessing the opening at the top of my plastic mesh "sleeve" was far too wide and some deer stuck its head right in, knocking the whole thing down. Looks like I need to up my security game a little.

Annoying, but not an end to the Famous Chestnut Tree, not yet. Not clear on the photo, but there are a couple of leaves left (small, yes, but still there), and there are already buds in place. Trees are resilient; I'm confident this one will just get stronger.

In other news...

I've let work on the WiP slide a little bit this last week, though not entirely. I've been participating in The University of Iowa's Moving the Margins: Fiction and Inclusion MOOC. It's a bit of a struggle to keep up, but I'm hanging in there, and I think it's going well. I have been using parts of the WiP in class, and I'm hoping it will help. I've read some fantastic short stories as course reading and I've received some excellent critiques on my assignments (and, hopefully, given some). The discussion areas are still a little clunky, but overall, it's been a positive experience so far.

That's all for me; how's everything with all of you?

Monday, July 30, 2018

Off the map

I did something yesterday I hadn't done in two weeks. I wrote. And it felt good.

I've been working on revisions to my latest Mighty Tome, trying in particular to shorten and tighten the narrative, especially in the front end, and it was going pretty well. On July 12, I hit the hundred page mark--and there I sat. For two plus weeks.

Unlike revisions in the past, I decided this time to type the entire, 426-page manuscript over again into a new, blank document, using a heavily-marked printed version as my guide. It was going well, until I started leapfrogging. As an example of what I mean, a series of events that occurred in the Page 150 section of the previous draft are now occurring around page 100. Which is fine--this manuscript does need to be shorter, and it needs to be more urgent in the first half. The problem, though, and the reason I stopped writing, is that I found myself thinking, "Now what? What happens next?"

It's a bit like driving before GPS, when you had a navigator in the front seat with you trying to makes sense of the world using one of those Rand McNally or Hagstrom road maps in the spiral bind. "Turn left at Sycamore," your friend tells you. So you do. "What next?" you say, but now you're off the edge of the map and they're trying to turn to map 34 and find where you are. Or, in more modern terms, it's like somehow getting three steps ahead of your GPS. "In one thousand feet, turn left on Sycamore Street," says the GPS, but you're already on the interstate highway, and the next exit isn't for another forty miles.

In an effort to find my way, I printed out those hundred pages and read through them again (finding a lot of things to fix, damn it). Yesterday, I sat and wrote. It was only 1100 words, but it was a start, and I can see where I need to go next. I'm back on the map.

Do you ever get lost in revisions? How do you find your way back to where you need to be?

Monday, July 23, 2018

Monday Musing: Is this necessary?

Hey, folks, as of my usual post time I am, as we used to say in the days of World of Warcraft, AFK--Away From Keyboard. I'll be traveling home from a weekend away and will almost certainly not feel like posting when I get home. So, here's an actual advance post of things that caught my eye, either this past week, or some time in the not-so-distant past.

Thing One: Giant Jeff Goldblum statue in London.

Did you see this? It turned up last week. And all I can say is, "Why?"

I have to say, I do find it amusing how he seems to float in the air, like it's not just a giant Jeff Goldblum statue, but it's the ghost of a giant Jeff Goldblum statue. I suppose I shouldn't criticize. On Long Island, where I grew up, we have The Big Duck.

Thing Two: Do we need this level of specificity?

I may have posted this one another time, or I may be confusing this blog with my personal Facebook page. Isn't "Apple" the default flavor on Applesauce? Like, if it's not labeled, you just assume it's apple?

Thing Three: Escape hatch

One of my favorite features on newer cars. Just in case the mob tosses you in the trunk with the intent of putting you in a shallow grave somewhere upstate.

I especially like the way the person is jauntily running away from the car.

That's all for me for now. Have you ever seen things that don't seem strictly necessary?

Monday, July 16, 2018

Monday Musing: Overburdened, self-inflicted

This morning when I go to work, one of my tasks will be to complete my timesheet for the pay period that just ended. It's going to show a lot of extra time. This past week was a seven-day work week, which included a ten-hour day in the middle of it. So, I've been a little crispy around the edges lately.

I'm also contributing to my own burnout: on top of what was a 60+ hour work week, on Saturday night, after helping to put on a first-time, minor event, I rushed home, changed, and then my wife and I dashed out so we could volunteer for a local charity pouring beer at a concert. I may have written about this last summer: my organization was the charity at one such concert which meant organizing 60-70 volunteers. It's a heck of a lot of fun (and a good fundraiser: my organiztion made over two grand in approximately five hours), but it's exhausting. And then there's the MOOC, the Massive Open Online Course offered through the University of Iowa, which just started yesterday (slots still available, I believe). I did my required readings and discussion participation for the first unit already, and now have to write something.

Ah, writing. Yeah, about that. This week has been unbelievably bad for writing. After getting off to a rousing start on the revisions for my WiP, which included two 3000+ word days in late June and a massive 5600-word day on July 4 (here's to holidays!), this week has been a disaster. In the last five days, I've amassed a whopping total of 347 words, and those 347 came hard and grudgingly. My goal of having this one out on submission by the end of the summer is slipping away.

When we write our stories, the obstacles we force our heroes to overcome can be external or internal. External: my job is really busy this week--I have to work seven days and a night, so I have little time and I'm really, really tired at the end of the day. Internal: I can't say no, thus I overextend myself and leave myself more exhausted with less time to do things I want (or need) to do for myself. Like writing. And I end up crispy around the edges.

Other random thoughts for the week that was and is to be:

Best news all week was the rescue of the boys and their coach from that cave in Thailand. Outstanding work by the rescuers, and very sad to lose one of them in the rescue effort.

I'm not a big soccer guy, but congratulations to France on their World Cup victory.

I read the indictment. I'm really curious about the identities of a) "a candidate for US Congress"; b) "a then-registered state lobbyist and online source of political news"; c) "a reporter"; d) a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump." I suspect more indictments are coming.

That's all I got; what's going on with you all?


Monday, July 9, 2018

A question on change

Yesterday, while towing a  trailer of canoes down the road to an invasive species removal event, I found myself listening to the program, Out of Bounds on NPR. On this particular show they were interviewing poet Michael Jennings, and talking with hm about his recently released chapbook, Summoning the Outlaws. Now, I missed a good part of the interview, spending a sizable chunk of time getting out of the truck to make sure the hitch was line up properly with the trailer, then getting the trailer hitched up, then walking around the trailer to make sure all the lights and turn signals worked, and triple-checking that half a dozen canoes weren't going to go flying off the back of the trailer while I'm trundling down the road (it's my worst nightmare; hasn't happened yet, knock wood).

Once everything was squared away and secure, I got to listen to the rest of the interview, which was pretty interesting. I'm not what you might call a big fan of poetry, but the poems Jennings read on air were good, and it's always interesting to listen to writers of any kind talk about their process. One question in particular caught my fancy.

How did writing this book change you?

As often happens when I listen to these sort of programs, I let my imagination run away a little. I wasn't listening to Michael Jennings whilst hauling a canoe trailer through the heart of the county on a Sunday morning; no, I was the one being asked the question after the publication of my latest, greatest book. How did writing this book change me?

First off, fantasy me did not answer that, as a newly-minted best seller, I was jetting around the world in my private jet and rubbing shoulders with all the biggest celebrities and bending the ears of heads of state--my fantasies don't typically run that way. It's enough to be published and to get interviewed on a radio show for me! Besides, that wasn't what the question was aiming at; it was more to the point of how writing the book changed Jennings'(my) world view.

For me, a book (and yeah, I know it's not technically a book until it's published, but I've still got one foot in fantasyland here, okay?) typically starts when something catches my attention. That something triggers a question, most typically one that starts with "What if...?" The possible answer to that question fires off all kinds of things in my brain and a story emerges, slowly (very slowly) but surely. At least in the case of this book, what caught my attention were the views of a certain billionaire presidential candidate and a certain sort-of in control political party. Seeing what was happening, listening to what was being said worked on my brain, and this story started to develop. In terms of the question being asked, it's not so much that I wrote this book, therefore I changed as much as it's I changed, therefore I wrote this book.

Now, in fairness, I think it's also true that writing this not-yet-a-book has changed me as well. At this point in time, I haven't been able to quantify any changes that have occurred as a result of writing this particular project. I suspect it will vary from project to project. Fortunately, fantasy interviewer was appropriately appreciative of my response and didn't press the point. Unfortunately, I didn't really get to hear what Michael Jennings said; I was too busy responding in my head (and keeping one eye on the mirror to make sure my trailer--and all my canoes--were still there).

What about you? Does writing change you, or do you change, then write? And, while we're at it, am I the only one who does fantasy interviews in my head?

Monday, July 2, 2018

Reading List, 2018 (Part II)

Hard to believe we're into July already, isn't it? Seems like just yesterday I was sitting here at my computer, likely with a blanket draped over my shoulders and posting Part I of this series. This morning I'm wearing shorts and a t-shirt and it's comfortable, after the hottest night of the year so far.

Before getting into the list, I'll add that I've (finally) gotten around to actual rewrites on my latest project, the one that landed at about 138,000 words. I'm about 14,000 words/50 pages in right now, struggling with how to shorten the beginning without losing too much of importance. This is the job the phrase "Kill your darlings" was meant for.

One other note: on Saturday, I led a canoe trip for what turned out to be around 30 people (we had a veritable Spanish Armada out there) on what was until yesterday the hottest day of the year. Let me tell you, there is no feeling on this earth quite like sticking your feet over the sides of your canoe and into cool water on a hot day. It is heaven. On to the list!

All Our Wrong Todays (2017), Elan Mastai. After thirty pages with no dialogue I was almost ready to toss this one aside. I'm glad I stuck with it. Time travel by a screw-up, which screws things up.

Tool of War (2017), Paolo Bacigalup. I much preferred by The Windup Girl and The Water Knife. Entertaining and fast-paced, but not quite my thing.

The Heart Goes Last (2015), Margaret Atwood. Atwood's a great writer, and she explores some creepy directions society could go. Unfortunately, this one gets muddier the longer it goes.

Oops: Tales of a Sexpert (2018), Vivian Peters. This may be the most important book I've read this year. Long-time educator for Planned Parenthood relays her experiences working with teens in rural America. It's often funny, but not funny at all, if you know what I mean.

American War (2017), Omar El Akkad. Quote from the book, which seemed particularly appropriate given our times: "Nativism being a pyramid scheme, I found myself contemptuous of the refugees' presence in a city already overburdened. At the foot of the docks, we yelled at them to go home, even though we knew home to be a pestilence field. We carried signs calling them terrorists and criminals and we vandalized the homes that would take them in. It made me feel good to do it, it made me feel rooted; their unbelonging was proof of my belonging."

Flight Behavior (2012), Barbara Kingsolver. How is it I've never read Barbara Kingsolver before?

A Hologram for the King (2012), Dave Eggers. A man finds himself in an absurd situation in Saudi Arabia.

Summerlong (2015), Dean Bakopoulos. Don and Claire Lowry's marriage becomes a slow-motion car wreck. That description does not do this book justice.

Catskill (2001), John R. Hayes. This is easily the worst book I've read in a long time. Why did I read all of it? I hate to leave things unfinished.

Commonwealth (2016), Ann Patchett. A tale of a blended family (and not always well-blended, at that) that unfolds over fifty years. Very well done.

Ten books read this quarter, not bad! I suppose this is what happens a) once hockey season and and, b) when I was trying to avoid working on my own writing.

What about you? What have you been reading? Anything from on this list?

Monday, June 25, 2018

Oh, that jacket

First, let's get something straight: I don't follow fashion. I don't care what the stars wear. And on the occasions when I happen to see snippets from the runways at Fashion Week, my reaction is usually along the lines of, "Who in their right mind would wear that?" (the answer, of course, is pretty much "Nobody except the models at Fashion Week.")

And then Melania Trump wore that jacket. Well, this one:

In case you haven't been paying attention, it says on the back "I really don't care, do you?" and she did not write it herself, it is a designer jacket, and sales are likely to shoot through the roof.

This jacket would raise eyebrows if the First Lady wore it while strolling around the White House grounds on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It would raise eyebrows if she casually draped it over the back of her chair while sipping tea in the Rose Garden. In those settings, itwould raise eyebrows and draw jokes like the one Trevor Noah of The Daily Show made: "It is kind of sweet she made a jacket out of her and Donald's wedding vows." But she didn't wear it in those situations; she wore it while boarding Air Force One last week to travel to Texas, where she visited a detention center for children separated from their families for illegally crossing the border.

Now, it's good that Melania Trump visited these centers. More of our politicians should go and see what the President's "Zero Tolerance" for illegal border crossings has wrought. Maybe then they would do something substantial instead of just sniping back and forth across the aisle. And maybe Melania saw and heard things there beyond what was released in the highly-staged photo opp, something that she would take back to Washington, something that would enable her to push her husband into doing something thoughtful, something humane, something not written by Stephen Miller. I applaud her for making the trip, and for apparently wielding some sort of influence in the President's order of last week that reversed his policy.

But that jacket.

To her credit, the First Lady did not wear the jacket when she got off Air Force One in Texas, and she did not wear it when she toured the detention center, but she did wear it when she got off Air Force One on her return to Washington. Why did she select it? Maybe she just likes the way it looks (if you remove the awful lettering, it's actually a pretty sharp looking jacket). Maybe it was just the right weight for dealing with over-enthusiastic airplane air conditioning. Maybe it was her way of saying the trip was just for show, or was her way of trolling her husband, or her way of trolling the news media, as the President insists.

We will likely never know what she meant when she selected that jacket, but it is (Dare we say it? We do, we do) feckless of her, her staff, and Fox and Friends to insist it doesn't mean anything. Words matter, people. Image matters. And when you're the First Lady of the United States, you have to pay close attention not just to what you say, but what you wear and the images you project, because even if it doesn't mean anything to you, it means something to someone else.

Unless you just really don't care.

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Facebook challenge comes to the blog!

Some time in late April, I did something I don't normally do: I accepted a challenge. Every day for ten days, I was supposed to list a record album that I still listen to. I had been seeing this happening for a week or two, and found it interesting to see what people I knew were listening to.

As I said, I don't normally do this stuff, but I did this one and it turned out to be kind of fun. So, for today, here is my list of ten albums that I still listen to. The format is Album title, artist, (year released). The list is presented in no real order.

The Beatles, The Beatles (1968). Better known as The White Album, this does go first because it represents my real entry into rock-and-roll. For the most part, I'd been listening to whatever was on the AM radio station my mother listened to. Hearing this at a friend's house in 7th grade or so got me into The Beatles--and rock music--big time.

Quadrophenia, The Who (1973). On Facebook, I listed Tommy in this slot, but on further review, while my friends and I listened to Tommy a huge amount, I actually listen to this much more often now. And the story--about a teenage boy searching for his identity against the backdrop of gang violence is the 60s--is a bit more relatable that Tommy.

London Calling, The Clash (1979). Fun fact: the song "The Right Profile" once helped me answer a Trivial Pursuit question, much to the amazement and disgust of all in attendance. That's Montgomery Clift, honey!

Anthem of the Sun, Grateful Dead (1968). "We mixed it for the hallucinations."--Jerry Garcia. Yeah, no shit. The band allegedly made the producer quit when Bob Weir stated he wanted "the sound of thick air."

American Beauty, Grateful Dead (1970). It's amazing how far this band developed in two years. There's a warmth and presence on this album that this band would never achieve in the studio again. "Box of Rain" may be my favorite song of all time.

Flood, They Might Be Giants (1990). The only band I can think of that has the audacity to reference Jason and the Argonauts, the Longines Symphonette, AND manage to work in the phrase "filibuster vigilantly" in a song...about a nightlight. These guys are all kind of fun, and they're still making quirky records like this.

The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, Traveling Wilburys (1988). The Osmonds. The King Family. The Jacksons. The Von Trapps. No list of great musical families is complete without the Wilburys. Listening to this album just makes me feel good, they sounded like they had a lot of fun making this. It's too bad only two of the brothers are left.

Bringing Down the Horse, The Wallflowers (1996). Lucky Wilbury's son fronts a band and shows he's got what it takes. Some great songs on this one, and still good listening today.

Astro Lounge, Smash Mouth (1999). I don't care if John Oliver said "All Star" is a "terrible stupid song," I like it. And this whole album is still fun to listen to.

The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd (1973). I was never into Pink Floyd back in the day, and while I'm not exactly "into" them now, this is one hell of an album. There's a reason it was on Billboard's charts every week for 15 years. Heavy stuff, yes, but great music.

Abbey Road, The Beatles (1969). Side two of this album may well be perfection.

It's probably telling that the newest album here is just short of 20 years old. The truth is, while I hear plenty of new songs I like, I don't really buy albums anymore. And when I do hear new songs on the radio, it's hard for me to remember who the artist is or what the name of the song is!

What about you? Are there any albums from "back in the day" that you still listen to? This particular Facebook challenge turned out to be fun, and it was surprising to see what turned up on other people's lists.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

When I started this blog all the way back in...holy crap, 2011? Really? Anyway, when I started this blog back in 2011, it seemed like you couldn't swing a dead cat around without running into a blogfest, a bloghop, or some kind of "award." Liebsters. First lines. Sad songs. First loves. Remember these things? Someone out there would start them, maybe create a nifty little badge, crib together some rules and start tagging people, and it would spread across the blogosphere like ink on a paper towel.

The rules on the "awards" usually followed some variation of the pattern: answer a bunch of questions about yourself and/or your writing project, tag a bunch of people, visit and comment on their posts. For bloghops, you would sign up at someone's blog, and on the appointed day, you would write about a specific topic and jump around commenting on as many posts as you could. These things could be fun (or they could be pressure-packed), they could be ways to meet new people with interesting things to say, they could be ways to get more followers.

Where have they gone?

I can't remember the last time I saw a bloghop aside from the Insecure Writers' Support Group. Likewise, the last time I think I saw anyone who had been Liebstered, it was at least two or three years ago.

When I started this blog back in (shudder) 2011, the blog was already being declared dead on a regular basis. All the cool kids were on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or Instagram. Platforms that I either don't know or don't like. But for a couple of years, anyway, the awards and hops and fests rolled on. I didn't always particpate--I'm not a joiner of stuff like this in general--but sometimes I did, and sometimes it was fun, and it was always interesting to see how people responded to the challenges posed in them. Is the lack of contests and hops and awards indicative of a dying world, or a more mature one that no longer needs these things?

In Stephen King's Dark Tower series, Roland the Gunslinger often noted that "The world had moved on." It conjures up an image of a place and people who are left behind, that time stopped carrying them forward. That is what it feels a little like, living in blog land these days, like one of those old western mining towns where the well ran dry and the mine collapsed and all but a few hearty souls lit out for the coast. Or maybe it's just this little corner of the world. This morning, I took a look at my reading list. Even after some recent pruning, I've got 52 blogs on my reading list. Of those, only 19 are active, and 9 of those are industry insiders. Where have all the writers gone?

Aside from the flight to Facebook and the like, one thing has happened is that bloggers seem to be collected at places like Writer Unboxed, Pub(lishing) Crawl and the like. Here, they get to post once a month or so, and while most of them have their own websites with a tab for their own blog, most seem to do their blogging either at these collectives or in guest posts for other collectives (often, coincidentally, when they have a new book coming out). 

I am curious about the people who no longer blog. Many of them left on a final post that said, in essence, "I'm taking a break, I expect to be back." My respons was usually, "Enjoy, we'll be here when you come back." I suppose that's part of why these people are still on my reading list: many of them felt like friends in the short time we read each other, and it would be sad to come back and find none of the old gang around, right? Leave no blogger behind!

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Bee and the Barr

Late last night, I gave in to an itch and rubbed my eye. I knew it was a mistake, but the eye had started itching madly right around the time Last Week Tonight started. Twice during the program I dribbled a little cool water into the corner of my eye, but it did no good: the itch remained. And though I knew the itch was the result of an allergy (I had cut the grass earlier in the day, and it was raining, and it's spring/summer), and though I knew exactly what was going to happen if I gave in, I stuck my finger in behind my glasses and rubbed.
Ahhh, such sweet relief! There is nothing quite so satisfying as scratching as scratching an itch. It's It's just so.

Here's the problem with this sort of itch, though: while it feels positively orgasmic while you're scratching it, it doesn't solve anything. As soon as I pulled my finger out from behind my glasses, three things happened: 1) the itch returned, as bad and insistent as before; 2) it now felt like a lash or something was stuck beneath my eyelid, even though I didn't have to check in the mirror to know this wasn't true, and 3) the phlegm factory in my head went into full-scale production mode, churning out mucus like Soviet factories cranked out tanks in World War II. I ended up taking Benadryl, and while it did the job, taking Benadryl at midnight means waking from a bizarre dream at 5:44 with no recollection of the alarm having gone off and a tongue that feels about as moist as the Mojave Desert. My head is clear of phlegm, but my brain is rather sluggish, which might explain this post.

The sad thing? All of this was predictable. I've been here before. It never ends well. Experience tells me there are certain types of eye itches that I must absolutely leave alone, and last night's was one of those. I knew it, and I reaped the consequences. But it felt so good!

Last week, Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee both scratched some particular eye itch, Barr in her Twitter feed, Bee on her show, Full Frontal. (If you've been living under a rock, Barr's tweet was a racist shot at a former Obama administration official, while Bee dropped a C-Bomb on Ivanka Trump) Barr was fired from her show before the day was out. Bee is still employed, though she has lost a couple of big advertisers. She is supposedly going to address this on this week's show. At this point, I'm guessing she'll keep her job, since the network (TBS) joined her in falling on the sword. Unless there's enough of a backlash.

What was Roseanne thinking when she fired off her 2 a.m. Tweet? What was Bee thinking when she dropped the C-bomb on air? I can't say for sure, but I imagine it was a lot like me with my eye itch: it felt really good until the entirely predictable--and avoidable--reaction.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Slow starts

True confession time: My wife and I haven't been current with a TV show since about the time Seinfeld went off the air twenty years ago. Up until then, the Magpie (and then the Catbird) was small enough to go to be at some ridiculous hour like 7 or 7:30, giving us time to actually watch prime time TV. When the girls got older and extended their waking hours, we didn't fill it by watching TV. We read and played games with them, baths, and so on. Later, TV was lost by going to school concerts, ferrying kids to plays and rehearsals, sports, friends, etc. The absolute death knell for current TV came when we decided to drop cable in favor of Netflix. Cable had gotten way too expensive and we only watched maybe four or five of the hundreds of channels at our disposal, so it seemed kind of pointless to keep.

This meant we missed things, of course, or that we saw things, but after everyone else. We watched The Sopranos several years after the show famously cut to black. We watched Breaking Bad and Walking Dead about a season behind, since Netflix wouldn't show last year's episodes until right before this year's episodes were due to air. It meant I had to try to recognize potential spoilers in Facebook without seeing enough to actually spoil me.

One of the shows I was aware of on the air that I might have liked to watch "in real time" was Parks and Recreation, mainly because I always liked Amy Poehler. It started its run while we still had cable, but got swallowed up by life and World of Warcraft. People would talk about it, tell me how good it was, but one thing I heard from several people: it starts slow. You have to give it about half a season.

A couple of years ago, I was alone in the house for a weekend, was in between writing projects, and hockey season was over, so I fired up Netflix and watched the first two episodes. I was not impressed, but decided to push on because the show reputedly got good halfway through Season One, and Season One was only six episodes long. I was still unimpressed. One chuckle per episode is not enough; who's got time for an unfunny comedy?

Several months later, I went back and finished Season One and started Season Two (Boredom is a powerful thing). And then? It clicked. I can't say whether it was the actors more fully inhabiting their characters, or the writing getting better, or that it was like hearing a crappy song that you hate over and over again on the radio until you're singing along like you're one of the band (okay, it wasn't that), but the show got good, and I watched it fairly regularly, and just finished the series over the weekend. Plain and simple, it was a quality TV show. But oh, that slow start!

Slow starts are not something writers can generally afford. TV shows can generally get away with a slow start. Some big hits start out with humble beginnings, it's really a matter of generating buzz and keeping advertisers and network executives at bay until that buzz brings viewers. A book, on the other hand? Slow starts are tough to overcome. It's amazing to me in some ways that I sat through probably about four hours of TV programming time until Parks and Recreation "got good"--one the other hand, I don't think I'd sit and read a bad book for four hours.

What's made me think of all this is I got feedback from two beta readers on my latest manuscript, a manuscript I have very high hopes for. The feedback was good; the news? Not so much. One of them noted that they did not feel particularly invested in things until about 40% of the way in. Forty percent! That's almost half the manuscript! The other said they read the last third or so "like my hair was on fire and the only way to put it out was to get to the end" (I love that!). The problem? The first two thirds. Ouch.

I have long known that I have a tendency to write stories with long, slow, ramp-up times. Writing coaches fill blogs and books with fun little graphs of story structure that look like mountain ranges full of foothills, peaks, valleys and gorges, to show how you should build your story. They look more or less like this:

Mine? It looks more like a wheelchair ramp on the side of a government building, and that's not good enough.

TV by it's nature is a passive activity. You sit. You watch. You react (or not). Books, however, are different. Though you are sitting, you are actively engaged. A TV show can get away with a bad start. A bad start for a novel is generally death, unless you have very patient readers. (Some are. I just finished Barabara Kingsolver's 2012 novel, Flight Behavior. It took me three attempts over as many reading sessions to get past page 10, but was worth it in the end.)

The good news for me is I've got feedback, I've got my manuscript, and now I've got the opportunity to make that ramp shorter, steeper, and more bumpy. On to revisions!

*Weather, vacation, and working too many weekends meant that I finally got to mow my lawn this weekend, about a month later than I would normally get the first cutting, and at least two weeks after it should have been done this year. It gave me the excuse to go look at my chestnut tree, and it's potentially taking off:

OK, so I got new glasses, but apparently my photo skills just plain suck. I took my first photo of the year on Friday (even worse than this), and this one this morning. The tree has definitely grown between Friday and today.

*With my favorite team out of the NHL playoffs, I was kind of rooting for Winnipeg, but they crapped the bed against Vegas. I do not want an expansion team winning the championship, but I really dislike the idea of the second coming of Raffi Torres (i.e., Washington's Tom Wilson) winning, and I still hold a grudge against Braden Holtby for 2012. On the other hand, I would really like to see Alex Ovechkin win so that it would shut up the whole "selfish player, bad leader, shrinks in the big moment" narrative that, for many people, is really a result of the whole "enigmatic Russian" bullshit. Plus, if Ovechkin wins, maybe we'll get a new commercial featuring the Ovech-head in the bowl of the Stanley Cup!

*F&$%@^g Windows! A recent update by Microsoft totally borked our home network. The problem? All my writing is on an external hard drive attached to my wife's computer--and that drive (the whole network) became inaccessible. After banging my head for hours, I think I've finally figured it out. If you're having similar problems (and if you're a Windows 10 user, you almost certainly are), what helps is to not just search stuff like "Windows update killed my network" or "can't access network after Windows update." Find the actual update/build number. This last one was 1803, and the article that helped me was found here. Good luck.