01 March 2014


After two years waiting for Google Sites to activate its built-in comments feature for site visitors, I've given up. I haven't gone far, however. I've shifted the site to a Blogger platform. I hope that will allow for a little more interaction with visitors without too many drawbacks.

So far, in fact, all looks good. There will be a little tweaking over the next few days that will no doubt affect the site's look, and the gadgets available. Mainly, though, I look forward to finally being able to hear from you!

24 February 2014

The Savage Breasts

William Congreve
William Congreve and his
Savage Breast
As Dave Barry might say, that would be a good name for a band. But I chose it simply because my last two posts happened to be about musicians, which caused me to reflect on the connection between music and writing.

A lot of my stories have a link to music. My first real story, as noted elsewhere, is closely based on the Deep Purple song, "Blind" (from their eponymous third album). It's been a long time - I can't recall what it is that drove me to write the story. I listen to music most of the time, at home, and, likely as not, this album just happened to be on when I decided to become a writer and needed an inspiration.

Most of my musical catalysts are a little less calculated. Sometimes I just hear a great phrase and steal it. "Drive Like Lightning ... Crash Like Thunder" is a straight out grab from Brian Setzer's Vavoom album. I'm not too sure he had had aliens and starships in mind, but I named a town and a bar after him, and a ship after the album. In fact, the name of the ship drove its design, which affected the storyline, so Mr. Setzer and I had something of an interactive writing session.

Sometimes, I mishear a phrase. A story still in production, "For This Rich Earth" is based on Peter, Paul, and Mary's version of Travis Edmonson's "If I Were Free". Except that where Edmondson wrote "Of how the flowers do bloom and fade; Of how we've fought and how we've paid", I, as a ten year old, heard "Of how the flowers to Blue Man came; Of how he fought, and how he failed." Frankly, that still sounds like what they're singing. I always wondered who blue man was, and what he failed at. Then last year, I started a story with nothing more than an image, and naturally got stuck after a few paragraphs. Then I remembered this lyric, and the whole story came to me.

I even started a series of stories based on a (knowingly) misheard lyric. Eliza Gilkyson has a song called "Bearing Witness", but the more I listened, the more it sounded like "Barren Witness". It took me some years, but eventually that was the genesis of a Donaldsonian anti-hero. The stories are about a galactic service that witnesses cultural births and deaths. My anti-hero specializes in death, and I wanted to write a total of four stories, all  with titles taken from a Roger Miller song ("Pardon this coffin, Please step aside, Pardon this coffin, My brother just died"). I thought most people would figure it out only on seeing a table of contents (if ever). I dropped the idea when it came to negotiating with Sony Music about copyright. I'm sure there's a fair, transformative use argument but the whole point is that I like these musicians - I'm not trying to literally steal anything. That is... you know what I mean.

There are others. "House of Hope" draws from Toni Childs. Some artists inspire more than once. I've already written about "Puff, the Magic Dragon" as the source for "Autumn Mist". Fred Eaglesmith suggested "The Girl Who Just Went Wrong" and the nascent "Seven Shells".

Except for "Blind", none of these stories has much to do with their source material - they're catalysts, not reagents. But the point of a catalyst is that it can allow a reaction that otherwise would not happen. So in almost every case, I usually to acknowledge my inspiration somewhere in the story. The hero in "For This Rich Earth" is named Edward Travis, and the title of the story is from another line in the song that happened to fit my story perfectly. Part of "The Girl Who Just Went Wrong" takes place in the Eaglesmith Hills. I haven't always followed through on the tributes, but I try. So, little hints for those in the know. And, of course, the stories work even if you don't know the music. My wife says my "Barren Witness" stories are her favorites, and she couldn't care less where the ideas came from - she just wants me to write more of them. ("Please Step Aside" due in an anthology some day soon, in theory.)

If you're a writer, what music has inspired you? As a reader, what do you listen to while you read? What are your favorite stories linked to music?

19 February 2014


Now what
I'm not generally a big fan of live music. It's always seemed to me that you get half the quality at twice the price. Of course, you also get a sense of energy and community, and sometimes, a great performance (which you then wish you had as a recording...).

Somehow, though, I've managed to see a decent number of live acts, including some of my favorites: Cat Stevens (back when he was Cat Stevens), Gordon Lightfoot, Waylon Jennings, Carrie Newcomer*, Steve Forbert, John Gorka, Darden Smith, ДДТ. Also, for some reason, some non-favorites that are good (Nazareth - as invitees of the Prime Minister of Mongolia), and some ... others (Robert Plant?). Last night, however, I finally heard a band that's been at the top of my list for for 40 years.

Happily, Eastern Europe has never given up on the classic music of the '70s. Some might argue that they just haven't caught up, but ... Justin Bieber? ... what's to catch up with? In any case, I turned down (procrastinated away) my chance to see Whitesnake last summer. But then, Whitesnake has been inconsistent of late, by which I mean that their penultimate album, Good to be Badleaned heavily toward bad - in the form of the commercial sludge that made David Coverdale a lot of money - instead of good (the early albums).

When I heard that my town would be visited by the best rock group of all time, I procrastinated some more. But I was rescued by my office mates, who presented me with a ticket. And so, last night, after four decades of fandom, I went to see Deep Purple.

The sound was terrible . They opened with a song from the new album, which I don't yet own. I literally couldn't isolate any of the words. It was only when they shifted into older material** ("Into the Fire"), that I knew what Mr. Gillan was singing. Maybe Mr. Nikolic (President of Serbia, and an old fan) could hear better from his box seat.

Eventually, the sound improved, and the group settled into a smooth display of astonishing talent. Ian Paice on drums (the only constant member of the band), Ian Gillan (with a sly nod to Jesus Christ Superstar), Roger Glover on bass (a key driver of the band's musical direction), and Don Airey on keyboards (a surprisingly effective replacement for Jon Lord, whom I always saw as the heart of the group's sound). Steve Morse and his guitar were also present (with a host of technically able solos that underlined the many ways that his sound and the band's just do not fit).

So, what's the point? Just to review a concert that virtually all of you were not at, and that most wouldn't have wanted to go to anyway? Well, partly that - Deep Purple is the best band of all time, after all, and my personal favorite. If you don't like "Lazy" ... well, I like to keep the blog polite. These guys are and were great musicians. Sure, there were a few weak albums (House of Blue Light, Slaves and Masters [if you even count that one]), but overall, these guys, in all their incarnations, are the band to listen to.

All of which is a long lead-in to this point: the first story I ever wrote seriously was inspired by a Deep Purple song. The song, "Blind" is from one of Deep Purple's early albums (the last one with Rod Evans and Nic Simper, the year before In Rock, with Gillan and Glover). For years, I half-heartedly sent that story around every now and then. Finally in late 2011, I decided to try a little harder. As a start, I sent "Blind" out again to the first place on a list of venues I found on Wikipedia. Much to my surprise, "Blind" was immediately accepted by the (now defunct) Absent Willow Review. That acceptance encouraged me to get serious about writing. So "Blind" was the start of my writing career, and the catalyst, twenty years later, for my decision to write more than just the one story.

I'm happy to say that "Blind" is soon to be republished, in the Song Stories II anthology from Song Story Press. It's tentatively scheduled for release on 15 March 2014 - so just under one month after I first, and finally, saw Deep Purple live.

* Carrie Newcomer may not count, since (gratuitous name drop), she taught me to play guitar, so I saw her live at least once a week. But I also saw her perform in legitimate venues.

** For those interested, the set list is here

02 February 2014

PS - The Last Protest Singer

"I thought if you had an acoustic guitar then it meant that you were a protest singer."
Stephen Morrissey

"Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs."
Edwyn Collins

Pete Seeger didn't play much acoustic guitar, but he wrote a lot of protest songs. Seeger had the firm conviction that the purpose of music was to convey a message, and he stayed true to that conviction until his death last week at 94.

I came at Pete Seeger from the wrong end - I grew up listening not only to his friend Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads, but to Pete Seeger's Rainbow Race. I thought (and still think) it was a great album, and it was one of Seeger's most musical. At the time, I didn't think much about the fact that the songs held political or social meaning - some songs did and some didn't. I was just as happy listening to Gordon Lightfoot as I was to Pete Seeger. But that's not to say Seeger's lessons didn't affect me. The infectious whistling of "Uncle Ho" led me to learn more about Ho Chi Minh and to ponder whether "If a man will stand for his own land, he’s got the strength of ten." ("Hell no, we won't go!")

I liked Rainbow Race for the beauty of the music, but we also owned the abbreviated cassette of We Shall Overcome, and that really was a protest record. Not all of it - it included songs like "I'm gonna mail myself to you", but at heart it was music with a message, from the title track to "If you miss me at the back of the bus" to "Keep your eyes on the prize" to "I ain't scared of your jail". Pete Seeger made me wonder, at the age of 10, "What [I had learned] in school today", and why it wasn't quite what he was singing about. I may not have gone very deep with these thoughts, but they stuck with me.

In fact, it's possible that Pete Seeger misled me. He was 'old', so what he was singing about was obviously old too - it was history. I was genuinely shocked when we first moved to the US to live and I learned that racism was still alive and well. How could that be, when committed people like Pete Seeger had been protesting against it for so long? It was an unpleasant but valuable lesson in human fallibility, and in the fact that passion and reason don't win all arguments.

Pete Seeger knew that he didn't always win, but he didn't give up. Popular or unpopular, he plugged away at the causes he cared about. Maybe it was his unflagging optimism that kept him going; maybe it was deep faith that humanity would see reason after all - "And because I love you, I’ll give it one more try - to show my rainbow race it’s too soon to die."

If there was ever a man who meant what he said, and said what he meant, it was Pete Seeger. But not only was he committed and consistent, from his youth to his death, he seems to have been a genuinely nice man as well. It's rare to find someone so passionate and devoted, but still able to see beyond his own issues to the feelings of others. I'm distressed to see him gone. I'm disappointed there aren't more like him now.

My causes aren't all the same as Pete Seeger's were. But I'll take my cue from his life and believe that if we keep trying, change is not just possible, but happening - small, barely visible, but constant progress toward a better life for us all.

Words, words, words
by Pete Seeger

Words, words, words
In my old Bible
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
In Tom’s old Declaration
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
In my old songs and stories
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
On cracked old pages
How much of truth remains?
If my mind could understand them,
And if my life pronounced them,
Would not this world be changed?

01 January 2014

2013 in review

According to Goodreads (where I track much, but not all, of my reading), I read 25,298 pages in 2013. That doesn't count a number of books I didn't track, or that didn't quite fit the category, or, of course, various magazines.

I haven't counted, but 25,000 sounds like about the number of words I wrote during the year as well. So if I keep my reading/writing ratio at about 1 page/word, those novels are never going to get written. Obviously what I need to do is quit my job. They say it's hard to write without food, shelter, power, but what do 'they' know?

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to look back at what Goodreads says about the year. And since Blogger allows backdating, I'll pretend I posted this on 1 January 2014.

Here's a nifty graphic that shows what I thought of what I read. Unfortunately, Goodreads doesn't seem to offer this as a widget, but see next post.

Most of the books were relatively recent, but some were a bit older.

I can't get Blogger and Goodreads to play nicely together at all times, for some reason, but here are clickable cover links, ordered by preference (most-liked first).

26 December 2013

Duotrope for Dollars

I was outraged last year, when Duotrope announced that it was shifting to a paid model. Well, not actually outraged. In fact, I thought it was a very reasonable decision. Possibly even sensible, though it's hard to be sure without knowing the financial data.

In any case, I found Duotrope to be a valuable service, and I had already been donating $20-25 per year. I thought $50 was a bit steep, but I signed up anyway, since in my search a couple of years earlier, I hadn't found a good alternative.

So, here we are at the end of the year, and it's time to decide whether to re-up. I've been surprised to find no other blog posts covering the same ground, so here are my own decision and reasoning.

I'm not going to renew my subscription.

As with most decisions, there are many factors that play into this.

Output - I simply haven't done much writing this year, and even less submitting. While I've had a number of acceptances, some of them won't be published (or pay off) until next year at best. From a purely financial perspective, $50/year just doesn't make sense when my writing income is low, and my needs are slight. Depending on real life, my output for next year may rise dramatically, but it's also very possible it will dwindle to almost nothing. Real life often chooses the less fun outcome. All in all, I just don't expect to need Duotrope much.

Responsiveness - When Duotrope was free, I occasionally sent in suggestions for improving the site. All were acknowledged; none were acted on. Fair enough - it was a free site. Earlier this year, I sent some more suggestions - some new, some renewed. All were acknowledged; none were acted on. Not so cool, this time around - after all, I was paying a pretty good amount for the site. I thought at least one or two of the more simple and logical suggestions would be followed up on. For example, when I get a rejection, I often turn right around and send the story out again. But the page that comes up after entering a rejection doesn't offer a 'search for new venues' link. To be fair, Duotrope continued to offer the very same service I signed up for. But so far as I can tell, they've added very little to that service over the year, and certainly none of the things that were important to me. 

Alternatives - A year ago, there was discussion of a number of possible, putative, or extant Duotrope alternatives. Many of these seem to have softly and silently vanished away. One, however, remains - the Submission Grinder. The Grinder is (despite its horrid name) an almost slavish Duotrope clone, but one that promises to be forever free. (I take that with a grain of salt; Bigfoot - remember Bigfoot? - promised me a free e-mail address for life, up until they started charging.) Still, the Grinder tries very hard to be like Duotrope used to be. In some ways it's worse, in some ways better, but all in all, it comes pretty close. And it is free.

Statistics - According to what they claim, here are some comparisons of Duotrope and Grinder, based on recent self-reported statistics:

 Duotrope    Grinder
 Markets  4,861  2,590
 Recent market updates  222  34
 Recent market additions  20  21
 Users  30,885  1,965*
 Submissions  138,000  33,415*

* Grinder claims 1,965 users, while Duotrope claimed to gain 30,885 new users just in 2012, with slower but continued growth in 2013.
** Duotrope claims 138,000 data points, while Grinder claims 33,415 submissions.

These aren't exact apples to apples comparisons, but the result is clear - Duotrope has substantially greater coverage and membership than Grinder does.

So, where does that leave us? Well, it leaves me deciding to drop Duotrope. It's a good service, and one that's far more comprehensive than its strongest alternative. However, I don't need the service enough to warrant the cost, I find Duotrope unresponsive, and, most important, Grinder is good enough for my purposes. Late addition - I sent a minor query to the Grinder site owner, and he responded promptly, while on vacation, during the holidays, and was apologetic for a very short delay. So, that's another substantial difference between the two, and it convinced me to send a donation now, rather than wait to see how much I like the site when using it regularly.

Still using Duotrope? Happy with Grinder? Using your own Excel spreadsheet and Ralan? Let me know what you think.

01 December 2013

Amazon Reconsiders Reviews?

One reason Amazon has been so successful is the product reviews that its customers generate for free. Lately, though, it seems like Amazon has focused more on preventing reviews than encouraging them. I started using Amazon in 1998. Not exactly from its very inception, but only three years after they started selling books. I've been pretty happy with them as both a reader and a writer. I rated the (hundreds of) books I bought, but only occasionally posted reviews, mostly of albums by the best rock band ever.

One reason In 2012, I joined Goodreads - then an independent, crowdsourced book review site. I liked it, and I started writing and posting reviews. Since I was writing the reviews anyway, I posted on Amazon as well.

[Then came Amazon's purchase of Goodreads (and the subsequent growth of BookLikes and resurgence of LibraryThing), but that's not what this story is about.]

I recently read the three books of a trilogy in moderately rapid succession. I posted to Amazon the review of Book 1. The Book 2. When I tried to post Book 3, however, things got a little weird. Amazon told me I had already reviewed the book. Since I had just finished reading it for the first time about ten minutes before, that seemed pretty unlikely. I tried again, with the same result. Mystified, I searched through some pages of reviews for Book 3. I found instead my review of Book 1. Mystery solved - somehow, the system had misattributed the review, and I wrote to Amazon to have them fix it.

Some time later, I got a response. Amazon said, essentially, "It's not a bug, it's a feature." They said that they deliberately link reviews from earlier books as an aid to customers. -- [Why they think that a review of book 1 would help someone shopping for book 3, I can't say. What I want from a review is guidance about books I haven't read. When I buy book 3 of something, it's generally because I've already read books 1 and 2; I have my own opinion of them, and I don't need a review to tell me whether they were good.] -- This seemed downright bizarre. Amazon seemed not to have thought through the fact that, as in my case, linking to earlier books would prevent reviews of later books. In other words, there will be lots of reviews of books 1 and 2, and very few of book 3.

I wrote to Amazon a couple more times. No answer. I don't go to the top right away, but I had just recently read an article about Jeff Bezos receiving direct complaints, and assigning them to troubleshooters. So, I wrote to him, and (politely) told him what a dumb policy this was.

It took a couple of days, but I did in fact get a response from a troubleshooter, who agreed that the policy existed, that it was dumb, and saying that she had recommended a change. Of course, there's a difference between "We'll look into that" and "We'll fix that right away."

Amazon has had problems with its review system before. The best known issue (related to potential 'fake' reviews), I understood better. This, new one, however, is just a bad decision through and through. So, for the time being, I've stopped posting reviews on Amazon. When they fix the system, I'll reconsider. Until then, I'll stick with Goodreads.