Monday, April 24, 2017

Monday Noneday

Today finds me struggling to wake up for work after a grueling weekend (my organization put on an Earth Day event on Saturday that takes up a LOT of energy). Next weekend, my organization is running a garage sale on Saturday and Sunday, which requires a lot of heavy lifting and hauling and moving of things around. The older I get, the more I find it's not so much the day after events like this that get me, but the day AFTER the day after.

WHICH is a long way of saying don't expect much from me here next week, either!

I don't have much else left in the tank this morning, so I'll leave you with this nifty, slinky little bit referred to, for reasons unknown, as "Orange Tango Jam." Usually, pieces like this are best listened to in full context, but that would take about a half an hour. See you on your blogs, and maybe here next week!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Story Cubes

Back at Christmas, I found a package under the tree for me from the Catbird that was the approximate size and shape of a deck of cards. When I picked it up, however, it was clear that it wasn't a deck of cards. This felt a little heavier. Denser. And when I picked it up, things moved inside. Shifted. When shaken, the box sounded a little like a box of Good & Plenty or Tic Tacs.

It wasn't candy, though. It was Story Cubes. Have you heard of them? I'm sure that, somewhere out there in this writing world I've immersed myself in, someone must have been talking about them on a blog, or Absolute Write, or somewhere, yet I can't quite remember hearing about them before. Even though I couldn't remember having heard about them before, I knew exactly what Story Cubes were, and how they worked, without really having to open the package (and I love the package, by the way; it's a clever little box that looks to be quite sturdy).

The idea behind Story Cubes is pretty simple. The box contains nine six-sided dice in the box, but instead of little pips for numbers, there are symbols, pictures. Throw the dice, look at the symbols that come up, and use those words in a story. That's pretty much it right there. The Catbird suggested that I could use the cubes when and if I got stuck.

Now, anyone who's been reading this space for a while may know that I'm not really big on the concept of writer's block. My approach has been, when stuck, to keep banging my head against the wall. This is the best approach, most of the time (for me--your mileage may vary), though I do know there are also times when it's best to get up and redirect the brain by taking a walk or a shower, doing the dishes, or vegging out in front of the television.

I confess, the Story Cubes sat unused for a long time. It's not something I would use in the course of a normal writing session, where I already have a starting point from the last writing session, and my desk is too messy to use them, anyway. I'd either lose them in the mess or have them fall off all over the floor. Recently, however, I took them to my writing group. Normally, we start our writing group off with someone reading a short prompt, followed by free writing that's supposed to be inspired by the prompt. I thought maybe we could use the Story Cubes as the prompt. Sounds like a perfect job for it, right?

The first time I brought them, no one else showed up. I knew this was a possibility and wasn't overly upset--I had to go to town for some shopping anyway. This just meant I got done that much earlier and we had dinner at a normal time. When it was clear no one else was going to show, I gave the cubes a shake up, tossed them on the table. Here are the symbols that came up: question mark, flowers, airplane, beetle, eye, fire, cane, house, bridge. Five minutes later, I had this 'story' (cube words underlined; note, this is completely unedited, and, as I look at it now, really kind of silly):

"I questioned the pilot's ability to fly this airplane. He lingered up the aisle, supported by a white cane, a heavyset, beetle-browed man with a lazy eye and a flower-child's hair. But he said in a voice full of fire, 'This is my house and I'll brook no disagreement; follow my every order and this flight will be no more trouble than walking across a bridge.' And he was right."

Does it make much sense? No, not at all. Is it a story? Not exactly, but it could be the beginning of something. And at this point, I need to say something about Story Cubes: the makers offer no explanation for the symbols, for what they mean, and that's a good thing. I used the question mark not as an object or a word, but as a concept (the narrator questions the pilot's ability). Meanwhile, the six-legged creature on one of the cubes was anatomically accurate enough for my naturalist's brain to call it a beetle; others might see it as 'insect,' 'bug,' 'cootie' or something more conceptual.

I did take the cubes back with me last week, and we used them again. I had a lot more trouble this time, scratching out another three paragraphs over forty minutes or so, nothing I'd care to share here (though I did manage a nice turn of phrase that maybe I'll use for something else). The others enjoyed it and had better writing success than I.

All in all, the cubes are a lot of fun. I may not use them as a regular part of my writing routine, but I'll keep them handy all the same, and I'll keep bringing them to my writers' group. Hey, you never know when they'll help unlock something big.

Have you ever used Story Cubes or something like it? What did you think?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Monday Musing: Delayed Reaction Edition

Hidey-ho, folks, hope you're all well. After enduring a week of cold, rain, and snow, the sun came out on Saturday afternoon, and it was positively balmy yesterday, mid-sixties and sunny. Daffodils are sprouting (though not quite flowering--yet), spring peepers are getting louder in the wetlands, swallows and kestrels are turning up on the telephone wires--it is spring at last! It's interesting that, though we've been living in upstate New York for fourteen years now, in some ways I'm still calibrated toLong Island time. Spring arrives down there much closer to the actual vernal equinox. The weather delay seems to have been compounded the last few years as well, with more snow falling after March 1 than it did when we first moved up here. Weather blip, or climate change? Who can say for sure?

Speaking of delayed reactions, two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Vestal Review. I've been receiving a lot of notifications from publications about contests and deadlines and such lately, and I figured it was just that, but then I noticed the subject line was "Sunday Drive," the title of a short story I had sent around, so I opened it:

Though your manuscript does not suit our current needs, we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere. Sorry for holding it so long.

His desk is neater than mine
I wasn't even really disappointed, to be honest. In fact, I think as I read the e-mail, I had my head cocked like a dog trying to figure out if what you're saying is really interesting or can be ignored: I couldn't even remember submitting "Sunday Drive" to Vestal Review. After miraculously remembering my Submittable password, I found it had been two years, ten months since I submitted "Sunday Drive" to Vestal Review.

Two years, ten months.

As writers, we're told to be patient. We know, if we've done any bit of research at all when getting into this game, that things move slowly. Yes, we all want to get in The Atlantic or Glimmer Train or Ploughshares on that first submission; we want to land the agent and the publishing deal with that first manuscript; we want National Geographic to hire us to do that rain forest story that's been in the back of our heads forever. We also know--or should know--that it's not going to happen. I've resigned myself to this fact, and when I send a completed project to Agent Carrie, or when Agent Carrie starts prospecting my manuscript to editors, I try to immerse myself in something else and forget about it. Sometimes, I'm pleasantly surprised by the speed of a reaction, but mostly, it's just like it used to be when ordering things before the age of the internet: "Please allow four to six weeks for delivery."

Still: Two years. Ten months.

I get that magazines and literary journals are shoestring operations run by dedicated individuals who are understaffed, underfunded, and overworked, but this is a bit much. I'm sure some of you who submit short stories on a more regular basis than I do have horror stories and longer waits. Feel free to share them below. I can't help but feel there has to be some better way.

EDIT (4/11/17): I should point out this is not meant to slag on Vestal Review in particular, or to say they are worse than other publications, or deliberately evil, etc., etc. I suspect the editors have to wade through a great deal of flotsam that comes in over the transom. Maybe, as Nick suggests below, it made a short list (though the form response may or may not negate that), maybe it just caught them at a bad time.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Reading List, 2017 (Part I)

Hey, ho, it's the first post of April, and that means it's time for the Quarterly Reading Report!

I feel like I had a really slow reading period this year so far. That can be attributed to watching too much hockey, playing too much Grand Theft Auto, and actually doing some writing. The Bruins' season may or may not be coming to an end soon (an unlikely, white-knuckle victory over Chicago has put them in pretty good shape to make the post season; a victory over Tampa Bay tomorrow night will almost seal the deal, though they could also drop all three of their last regular season games and miss the playoffs again--isn't this fun stuff what sport is all about?), and I actually haven't played GTA in about a week, so maybe this reading thing will take off again. Anyway, here's the list:

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016), Matthew Desmond. Anyone who rolls their eyes at so-called "Welfare Queens" should give this book a read.

Redemption Road (2016), John Hart. Honestly? I don't even remember this book anymore.

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (2010), Karl Marlantes. Critics really liked it, I was not so enthused, feeling it tried to do too much. And the POV felt much more "head hoppy" than omni.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016), J.D. Vance. Speaking of people who should read Evicted. Good book, but shows surprisingly little sympathy for others living in the same kind of situation Vance grew up in.

Men's Lives (1986), Peter Mathiessen. A chronicle of the men who (barely) made their living fishing the waters of eastern Long Island.

Cold Blooded (2015), Lisa Regan. I beta read this for Lisa a couple years back, and really enjoyed it. Finally got to see it all grown up. Great job, Lisa!

The Waste Lands: The Dark Tower III (1991), Stephen King. After being reminded that there's a movie version of some kind of this series coming out, I wanted to do some re-reading. Books I and II are missing from my collection, so I grabbed this one. Always good to slip into Mid-World and travel the path of the Beam with the gunslinger and friends.

That's it. Only seven books since the beginning of the year, and the last one was technically finished after the quarter ended, but I'll count it anyway. Interestingly, three works of non-fiction, which is a lot in one quarter for me; I usually spread them out much more.

So, what's been on your reading list?