Monday, February 29, 2016

Monday Musing

The blear is strong in me this morning.

I woke up in the dead of night--or morning, technically. 3:22, to be exact. I'm not sure what woke me up: too hot, too cold, fingers falling asleep, spider running across my face, who knows? But I was sure, for just a few seconds, that it was actually Saturday morning, and I was happy.

And then I woke up a little more. Ah, well.

Anyway, if I'm not quite as cohesive as I sometimes am, that's my excuse.

First things first, Agent Carrie is accepting submissions for her Query Critique contest. Submit a query to Carrie's contest and, if you're the lucky winner, she will critique it on her blog. And if you're really lucky and enough people comment on your query, you can win a critique of your first 100 pages! Go for it!

Second things second: I probably shouldn't talk about this, but last night I sent my current project off to Carrie. It's that wondrous time of imagination, where anything's possible: she can tell me "It's fantastic, I love it, it only needs a few tweaks and it's ready to go, and I know five editors who will kill for this!" She can tell me, "I really like this a lot!" and send me tons of notes that will have me revising for another five months. Or, it can be, "I like it, but there's just no way to sell this. What else have you got?" It's Schrödinger's Manuscript!

Third things third, it's Leap Day, but more important than that, it's the National Hockey League's trade deadline. I have to say, I kind of hate what this day has come to mean in the NHL. Time was, you made a trade to improve your team. It could be for now, it could be for next year, it could be a little further down the road. Now? It seems it's all about the salary cap, or all about getting 'value' for a player who looks like he'll walk away as an unrestricted free agent. The fact that the phrase "Hockey Trade," as in, "It's a good hockey  trade" has been invented (and is so rarely used) says a lot about the state of the sport.

Time for another cup of coffee. How are you all today?

Monday, February 22, 2016

I Wish I'd Written That

I can't remember if I've relayed this story before, or used this title in a post before. If I have to either (or both), forgive me, the old brain ain't what it used to be.

A few years back, the Magpie's English class did a big project. The teacher partnered with the head of a small arts center in town to put the students' work on display. The event ended with an open mic event in the courtyard, and it was quite an evening.

The school is blessed with a number of talented musicians, many of whom were in attendance that day. At one point, I went inside the main building and was talking to the arts center's director, who is a friend of mine (this is the same center where our Writers' Circle meets, and the director was also a participant in our group). While we were talking, the music continued outside, which was quite nice as a backdrop.

During the course of our conversation, whoever was performing finished up, and two brothers took the stage. We heard the sounds of them tuning up (acoustic guitar and violin) but paid little attention.

And then they started playing.

I don't remember if I was talking, or if my friend was talking, but the second the music started, we both shut up. It was a "mouth hanging open in surprise" moment, and then we both turned and looked out the window to see who was playing. I'm also pretty sure I said, "Holy shit." These boys were good. I mean, really, really good. As I said, there was--still is--a lot of talent in this school, but these boys were a cut above everyone else. It's funny how you can listen to singers and performers and say, "Yeah, they're good," but there's a line between "good" and...whatever word you would choose that comes next, and you know it the instant you hear it.

It's the same with writing. There are tons of books out there, tons of books published every year. Lots of books are well written. There are lots of books where I think, "Yeah, I wish I'd written that," but every once in a while, you come across something that is just beyond that line and into the next zone, whatever you call it.

Yesterday, in Writers' Circle, one of our members brought in a short story collection she had picked up at an event in town earlier in the week. The Brink was written by Austin Bunn, the story in question called, "The Worst You Can Imagine Is Where This Starts." It's a brilliant story about a man who makes a truly horrific discovery in his basement. The line that caught me--in describing the protagonist's basement, Bunn writes, "The place was a warehouse of his unfinished business, the tool table an open grave."

Wow. This is one of those descriptors that does in so few words what it would take others (like me) a page-and-a-half to write. Immediately, an image came to mind of a basement, with work strewn about, bits and pieces and parts all over, the detritus of projects started and abandoned--or even completed, but with the cleanup not quite finished--it's fixed in my mind as soon as those few words hit my ear. And even if you're the sort of person whose basement is immaculate, I suspect you can see it. It is perfect, in my mind.

I wish I'd written that.

Interestingly, while I sometimes get depressed when reading really good writing--you know how it goes: "How can I ever hope to reach those levels?"--this I found rather inspiring. Maybe I, too, can reach these levels. Time to start trying.

Monday, February 15, 2016

On Writing Contests

Back when I had my "State of the State" phone call with Agent Carrie back in January of 2015, one of the things she suggested I do with my manuscript was enter it into a contest or two. The idea being that it gets the manuscript out there and that, if it won or got shortlisted for anything major, well, that's a selling point, right? Being able to tell editors, "This manuscript is a finalist for A Major Award" would make it more appealing to editors.

I agreed to do that, then started looking at Poets & Writers. I put together word document to list the contests I thought I might enter, and started to psyche myself up...

...and did nothing.

I dusted off the list yesterday and found I had put two contests on the list, and I did nothing about either one of them (in fairness, one of them had a deadline that was maybe a week out from the date I found it). Once in a great while during the year, I would look at P&W again, but half-heartedly.

Last month, when we again had our "State of the State" call, Carrie again suggested conferences, and again I said I would look into it, only this time, I mean it! (Well, I meant it last time, too; sometimes, it just takes a while for things to stick, know what I mean?) The good thing is, this time, when I looked at P&W, I found more choices. I think last year I must have gone searching at a downtime in the yearly calendar, because I only found those two that looked suitable.

There are three problems with the whole contest thing: first is the time they take up. Each of the contests will have different requirements. This one wants the first fifty pages of the manuscript, plus a three-page synopsis. That one wants twenty manuscript pages, and a two-page synopsis. Another asks for thirty and a single page synopsis. Plus a cover letter. It's a lot like querying agents again, pulling pieces out of the manuscript, formatting it, writing cover notes, etc., etc. And we all know what I'd rather be doing with my time.

The second thing is the money. Very few of these contests are free. It's thirty dollars here, twenty-five there. Not much in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, not when there's a shot at a thousand dollars (or more), and the prestige of winning one of these things. But it adds up, yes it does. We're not so flush in cash that I can just keep throwing it out the door in thirty and fifty dollar chunks. On the other hand, I suppose I can keep track of it and talk to my accountant about it as a deduction for next year.

Finally, there's the doubt. Of course there is, me being the Doubting Writer, after all. When I look at some of the awards and the criteria for winning, and think of the competition, I think, "there's no way I can win." One of the awards had over 600 entrants last year. What are the chances of my manuscript winning? They wouldn't seem to be very good. And it's not just a 1 in 600 chance, of course. I the manuscript were selected at random, maybe it would be worth it, but it's based on skill, and on the writer's ability to catch a contest judge in just the right way. Can I do that? Is it possible for me--for my manuscript--to be that much better than 600+ others? 

The doubter in me says, "No way. Don't even try." I recognize that I have skill, and I believe in my manuscript; but stacked up against 600 or more people? It just doesn't seem worth the effort. But then again....

So, I've got my eye on a couple of upcoming contests, and I'll jump through the ring of fire and stack my manuscript up against all the others. I don't think I'll hear anything back beyond, "You're a finalist/winner!" or "Sorry, kid, better luck next time", but that's okay. I'm taking a shot. Maybe I'll score.

On another note: it's funny how people want to kill Punxsutawney Phil this week, isn't it? Two weeks ago, everyone was all, "Rah, rah, we love Phil!" because of the no-brainer prediction of an early spring. Even with that prediction, people seemed to forget that we still had one little thing between us and spring: February.

A guy I knew in high school once called February "the armpit of months." I think that's a little harsh, myself, but, even with the mild winter we've had so far, I'm ready for real spring. Instead, I woke up to this yesterday:

Can you read it? It says "It's fucking cold."

That thermometer is mounted on the window frame in our pantry. It has an outdoor probe. At 6:30 yesterday morning (Sunday) it was thirty below. My dog was actually shivering when I took her outside; I don't think I've ever seen her so cold.

Oh, the number on the left? That's the inside temperature (at least measured right at the thermometer). Our pantry became a walk-in freezer for the day. Still, the sun was shining and, when the wind wasn't blowing, you could feel it, and that's a nice thing. Meanwhile, we're supposed to see temperatures closer to 40 later this week, so our yo-you winter continues. Crazy stuff.

That's it for me. Do you enter contests? What do you think of them?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Super (Sneaky) Advertising

Crap, here I am, stuck again.

Some time yesterday I had an idea for a blog post, one that was actually about writing. Nothing huge, mind you. The way I envisioned it, it would be short and sweet, a couple of paragraphs at best.

I don't know what I was doing when it came into my head. I might have been actually writing, or we may have been driving the Magpie to the bus station (she came home for a visit this weekend; it's good to be a senior with no classes on Friday!), or I may have been doing something else. "I like that," I thought. "I may have to use that on Monday."


Except I didn't write it down.

And so, here we are.

I didn't watch the Super Bowl last night, but I looked at the boxscore when it was over, took a spin through the 'play by play' list, and all I could think was, "Wow, this looks like the most boring Super Bowl ever!" If you watched it, was it as bad as the recap made it look?

A lot is being made over Peyton Manning kissing the Papa John's pizza guy on TV, and at least twice telling interviewers, "I'm going to drink a lot of Budweisers." Questions of taste in beer and pizza aside, some vilified Manning for blatant, inappropriate product placement. Seems all the goodwill Peyton garnered for beating Tom Brady and the Patriots was immediately squandered.

I have to wonder, though: is it all that different from "I'm going to Disney World"? Maybe, in the sense that those commercials are commercials, and a post-game press conference or sideline interview isn't expected to be about product placement, right?

Oh. Hmm. Okay, then.

Granted, comparing a hockey coach's mid-season, post-game interview with a spontaneous, post-game event is a bit of an apples-to-oranges thing. The truth is, just about everything in sports these days, especially the big events, is about advertising and product placement. How many times did the announcers mention that the game was being played in Levi's Stadium? I'm willing to bet that, just before the opening kickoff, viewers were told that the kickoff was being sponsored by Met Life or Go Daddy or someone. And that half-time show, that was all Pepsi, right?

I wouldn't be overly upset with Manning. For all we know, he might just equate Budweiser with beer, the way millions of people think a copy machine is a Xerox or a facial tissue is a Kleenex or a can of soda is a Coke. Just wait--it won't be long until the team names in the end zones take up half the space they do now, with a sponsor name taking up the rest, or the uniforms the players wear are covered with advertisements. I'll be more upset by that then a throw-in plug that may or may not have been an accident.

That's it for me. Did you watch the game? What did you think?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Monday Musing

Last week was one of those weeks that nearly ate my brain. We had a big grant application due on Friday that kept me in the office for 22 combined hours on Wednesday and Thursday, and took up almost all of my other time in the office. Despite that, I actually managed to draft a post that I wanted to run today...but couldn't quite bring it home this morning. So it goes, as some famous author once said. Instead, here are some random bits and pieces.

The great winter that wasn't continues. My radiator was cold to the touch this morning, but mainly because the heat wasn't going on often enough to make it warm. It was about 45 F when I got up this morning. Given the mild winter, I expect a spike in the price of maple syrup this year, because I can't imagine we're going to see a whole lot produced this year. Back in December, the grass was green and there were a few dandelions popping up. When we took the Catbird back to school after Thanksgiving, there was a red maple in flower on the campus quad (they're not supposed to flower until late winter/early spring), and I've heard reports of Forsythia blooming downstate. El Niño has brought us wonderful, mild weather, but I can't help but wonder what the spring is going to look like.

Tomorrow is groundhog day, and I fully expect that the mayor of Punxsatawney is going to tell us it's going to be an early spring this year. I also expect that, some time in February, we're going to get a murderous cold snap that will make us forget how mild everything has been. It's still winter, after all.

Two notable events occurred in sports over the weekend: the NHL held its All-Star weekend, and the NFL held the Pro Bowl. Does anyone even watch this stuff anymore?

Writing is progressing. Actually, I've been reading and taking notes on my current manuscript. I expect to finish very soon and start yet another rewrite. Aside from a couple of thin spots, I'm actually pretty happy.

Speaking of writing--when Carrie and I had our conversation, she asked me if I had any ideas for The Next Project. I did. I do. One is partially written, another was just an idea. This weekend, a story started writing itself in my head. I'm not sure where it came from. It feels like it has potential....

Speaking of writing, II: Elephant's Bookshelf Press is opening up to submissions for their next anthology. Matt is a good guy and a great editor, and I'm not just saying that because he published two of my short stories. Details can be found here.

Last week, quite by accident, I discovered that Hulu is running a special mini-series adaptation of Stephen King's 11/22/63. In case you're not aware, this was a mighty, mighty book by King about a man who traveled back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. It's an excellent book, and I will watch this. I just hope it's better than the treatment given to Under the Dome.

Finally, here's an oldie for you, one that is appropriate in these troubled times: Elvis Costello and The Attractions covering Nick Lowe. Have a great week, everyone.