Sunday, November 27, 2011

Plague Tidbits

Photo: A boundary stone marking the border of the village of Eyam, England.  The high sheriff would leave food at this rock for the entire village, since the village itself voted to not let anyone in or out until the plague passed.  For a bit of this remarkable story, see my blog entry here.

A few things I thought were interesting as I continue to write and research my WIP (trilogy?) re: the same in our time--and through all time.  You'll see.  Some of the info. culled from Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders and Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Years.  They're both fiction, though the former is infamously researched and realistic and the latter is fact masquerading as fiction, masquerading as fact.  Check it out to see what I mean.  They are both well-written and highly recommended.

--Two watchmen had to guard a plague house, so that nobody went in and nobody went out.  In many areas, they did this in eight-hour shifts, per house.  Roughly, from 10 pm to 6 am; from 6 am to 2 pm; from 2 pm to 10 pm.

--Stories abound about attempted escapes from such houses.  One I see frequently is that the trapped would lower a noose from a window, somehow get it around a guard's neck, and either strangle him, or otherwise keep him occupied until someone successfully escaped. 

--As is the usual about stories like these, you wonder about a few things, like: What about the other guard?  How would you get the rope around his neck?  How would you keep it there while he struggled?  And why wouldn't the guards confiscate things, like rope, before they guard the place?  And where would they get, and sustain, enough men so that six of them could guard each and every plague house?

--At first, you went to the wakes and funerals of the deceased.  But, after the plague hit and so many people died so quickly, it was impossible to do this.  By then, open pits were dug and bodies just thrown in, like you see in the movies about wars, the Holocaust, etc.

--The sick and despondent would at times throw themselves in these pits, and die there.  Some would lay there as dirt got thrown over them, and die suffocating.

--Until the plague hit, the depth of graves was not uniform.  But the authorities insisted on six feet separating the dead from the living; that is, there had to be at least six feet separating the body from the people walking over it.  The grave wasn't six feet deep, as is the common misconception; it must've been a little deeper than that.  There's six feet between the top of the body and the dirt that marks the grave.  Hence the phrase "six feet under" today.  And the practice still continues.

--The authorities would openly lie about the death count, vastly underestimating it to avoid panic (or for whatever reason).  The real numbers came from the gravediggers at the chapel, at the church's graveyard, or at the massive pits.  And so these people were the ones you went to for accurate information.  (Hence the title of my MS.)

--Speaking of graveyards, it was common practice in England and New England (and probably Europe) to bury most of the dead in their church's graveyard.  When this became impossible, because either they ran out of room, or because nobody from the parish was left alive to bury them, they were buried wherever, often in a family plot next to the house.  This then became a common practice, whether the dead died from the plague or not.  (This is especially true with the TB outbreak in New England, esp. RI and NH, from my research.) 

--In Boston and parts of RI, some took the separation of Church and State seriously enough that the dead were buried in the Common Ground, not near the churches.  (Some of the very rich and famous early New Englanders are buried in Boston's Commons.)  The practice of burying the dead in one large community graveyard didn't hit America until the later 1800s.

Well, there's much more, but that's it for now.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!!!  Here's a list of things I'm thankful for this time around:

--A bigger, better house that I hope the previous owner would be proud I'm in and taking care of it.

--Writing is picking up; I'm completing more.  (Four more short stories ready to go out, and my novels are picking up.)

--Somewhere to go and someone to be with on Thanksgiving.  (I've been thankful for this one for a few years now.)

--Better sleeping.  Not perfect, but we're getting there.

--More happiness and contentment.  See above.

--Never a down moment, unless I want there to be one.  This helps me get more writing done, to sleep better, etc.

--More readers, viewers and hits.  That's thanks for you, folks.

And that's it for now.  Short and sweet.  If anyone reading this feels thankful for something, please share.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thinner by Stephen King (or Richard Bachman, if you prefer)

Photo: Thinner, from its Wikipedia page.  This is the exact copy I have, referenced below.

Stephen King fans by and large rate this one highly; I have to respectfully disagree.  It was the first best-selling Bachman book--but still published under Bachman, not King, which tells you a little about what King himself thought of it.  The premise of the curse from a Gypsy (and of the writing style, if not the overall intent) is soooo Drag Me to Hell (and a bit of a stereotype); the main character is an Everyman who you don't root for three-quarters of the way through (if at all); and the ending is a downer on so many levels, not the least of which is that you don't want your hero wanting to kill his wife.  I mean, really, life is full of so many depressions, why would I want to read a book that ends with one?  And there was a...bit of a meanness to it that is not typical of King, who does often skirt off the happy road, but not like this.  (King often says that Bachman was an angrier, meaner version of him.)  Really the best character is the hood, and only because he was amusing, though in a tv sitcom kind of way.

The biggest problem for me is that it just wasn't overly memorable--except for the ending, and that's not a positive.  There was no doubt, really, about what would happen to the important characters; unquestionably a downer ending was in store here.  So it was like King's Danse Macabre metaphor of the figure under the sheet at a car accident--and I've never been a rubber-necking kind of guy.

The best association I have with this: I own a first edition hardcover by Richard Bachman, with a picture of his wife, Claudia Inez Bachman.  It's in mediocre shape--which is only fitting--but it's still gotta be worth something.  That, in essence, is what I feel about the work itself.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Return of the King--J.R.R. Tolkein

photo: book cover from Goodreads site

There's probably not too much I can say here that you didn't already know or think about for yourself--or read on one of the reviews for the other two books.  These are inescapably linked to the Peter Jackson films, which I became more and more impressed with as I read these.  The series ends as well here as it does in the films, and each ending suited each format.  The destruction of the Shire worked well in the books but would've curtailed the films entirely.  Frankly, there's a heightened feeling of revolt in the films that wouldn't have fit here: the inhabitants of the Shire allowed themselves to be taken over by a rather lame Sauroman and an even more lame Wormtongue--with 50s streetcorner ruffians to boot; no way the characters populating the movies would've allowed that to happen.  Jackson wisely left Sauroman and Wormtongue stuck in the Dark Tower in the movies, which is where Tolkein probably should've kept them, too.  It seems as if Tolkein didn't know quite what to do with him once the War of the Ring ended.  Maybe there was a subconscious (which I say only because Tolkein insisted to the end that he never symbolized any of the wars in his books; I don't believe him) connection to the damage done at home when there's a war abroad; no one is nuetral, perhaps.

But the real ending, where Frodo joins Gandalf, Bilbo and the Elves worked much better in the book than I thought it would; I felt it was too abrupt in the movie.  Here it makes sense, actually; Frodo has what is known today as PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), though actually it may not be called that anymore.  Tolkein would've known it as shellshock.  The injury in Frodo's shoulder clearly is meant to mirror the injury done to his psyche by the ring; this is why none of the other characters--such as Aragorn, who has seen much more battle-time than has Frodo--is as injured, excepting perhaps Bilbo, a ring-bearer himself.  The ring has clearly messed with him as well, though his recent mental feebleness may be expected in one about 130 years of age.  As per the comment above, a soldier is never the same at home as he was before he went off to war; that which was special to him in his native land often is not upon his return.  The only solution, sometimes, to find peace--which Frodo insists he needs and is not getting in the Shire--is to move on, to travel and experience other things.  To explore.  Bilbo is foremost an explorer; perhaps Frodo was, too.

It should also not be forgotten that they are the two writers of the Shire (Samwise is due to carry that on, but he hasn't yet).  As such, when a writer is moribound, the solution is to move on to another work, another experience, as each work, large or small, is a journey.  Stick too long to the same thing and you ground yourself.  Samwise was meant (if you buy the fateful attitude of the works) to do just that, to settle down with Rose Cotton, have a family, and tend to the Shire.  The very long work, surprisingly, ends with him, saying to his wife and family, "Well, I'm back."  A soldier come home to stay--but, then again, he didn't have to bear the burden of the Ring for too long.  As Frodo often said, it was his burden to take, his cross to bear, and, like any soldier, the simple bearing of that burden so that others could live their life of mental, emotional and psychological freedom (not to mention political freedom) is perhaps the soldier's greatest sacrifice.  Frodo did that so that Sam could marry and have a family, and say, "Well, I'm home."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Becoming A Writer--Dorothea Brande

Photo--The book's page on Amazon (obviously).

Like John Gardiner's book, The Art of Fiction, this one is very helpful because of its honest directness and simplicity.  An easy read, it sounds like she's in the room, talking only to you.  An important work because it dispels advice on technique and instead gives bare-bones advice about who writers are and what they must essentially do.  In essence, she advises how to get the butt in the chair, and she tells you what to do in order to keep it there and to be productive.  A large part self-help, it encourages the writer to have a positive, meditative and courageous mindset before you even sit down to type.

Published in 1934, it was unique in its day, and in this one, because of how it eschews technique in favor of mental and psychological stimulation.  Her bottom-line: If you can't sit down consistently to write, you're not a writer and you're better off finding another avenue to express yourself.  As John Gardner wrote a bit later: "Writers write."  Stephen King's book says essentially the same thing, but is even better in a way because he also gives you several memoir-anecdotes and some practical advice on what to do once your butt is consistently in the chair and once you are consistently typing.

This book was written two years before what could be considered its companion book: Wake Up and Live!, which sold even better in its day, over 2,000,000 copies.  Both are recommended, as is Stephen King's On Writing and John Gardner's book.  King's is by far the longest (of course) and they're all indispensable.  Buy those, and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and you won't need anything else to help you to sit your butt down and write.  Re-reading any (or all) of them during blah times is highly recommended, too.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Warning about Contest-only Submissions

A little warning about publishers.  There are some who only allow submissions through contests they hold.  This is ALWAYS to be avoided, especially if there's a fee to enter this contest.  A friend of mine sent me an email with four interesting/odd/eccentric publishers that a friend of his had sent him.  Three of the four only allow submissions through their contests.

Here's the response I emailed back to him--

Thanks for the publishers below.  I looked at a few of them; the problem with those that only take submissions via the contests they hold is that the contests themselves are what they make the money on.  You submit your book to the contest and pay a $50 fee, let's say.  Now, 99 out of 100, at best, are pure crap, no better than amateur fare.  These would normally get immediately rejected, of course, but for free.  Now, these poor slobs, who can't write for crap, are bad writers and now out $50.  This house might get all crap, but at $50 a pop, why not?  They tell the least crappy one, "Okay, no officially submit it to us,"--and then turn it down.  Flat.  Or, even worse, charge that poor slob--who feels he's soooooooooo close---$350, let's say, to edit the thing (or they suggest he pay a specific editing company $350--and they either get a bite out of that, or they are the editing company, by another name, that they've "recommended"), line-by-line or page-by-page--which it doesn't need.  It needs a dose of reality and a complete overhaul, not a red-pen edit that a 7th grade teacher would do.  So now they have his poor slob's $50 contest fee, and his $350 editing fee--and they still reject him.  And they do several versions of this to many of the other contest applicants as well.  Mucho bucks; no hassle; not too many books to represent--and then they say they're just "very picky."

There are good contests out there--but they're not ethically run by publishing companies.  That's not moral, as it isn't when an agent asks for money up-front to edit your work--or "recommends" an editing person or company, that, again, they either take a bite of, or they are that person or company they've "recommended."  Oldest trick in the book, and always to be avoided.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Library of America--Paste, by Henry James

Photo: "Portrait of Henry James," an oil painting by Joseph Singer Sargent, on James's Wikipedia page.

Nice little story, written very stiffly and badly, of course, by a very Victorian writer who could never seem to get out of his own way.  The language is of the supreme upper echelon of society, as are the mannerisms, which may have turned off the readership masses--if the poorer could afford books at the time, which maybe they couldn't.  In that case, James knew his audience very well and wrote directly to them.

This story is a mirror image of Guy de Maupassant's (righteously) more famous "The Necklace."  In that one--and if you haven't read it, you should; it's short and written better--a young woman, very poor, borrows a necklace from her much richer friend, then loses it after a ball.  Thinking it was real, she and her husband sign their lives away and work to exhaustion for ten years.  Finally coming clean to her friend, she's informed that it was paste (fake) and that she'd made herself even more of a pauper for nothing.  And, if she had just admitted she'd lost it, the friend would have told her.

James's story is about a young woman of better means who is given a necklace by a man of much better means, who tells her it's a fake piece of her now-dead aunt's.  This woman's friend, Mrs. Guy (Get it?), tells her it's real, and says she's a fool for wanting to bring it back to the guy who gave it to her, who has mistakenly thought it fake.  If it's real, you see, that means his aunt had to receive it as a gift from someone not her husband, as he had been very poor.  And this woman had been an actor, which in the story explains the moral situation very well.

So the young woman does the moral thing and tells the guy it's real.  He's aghast and affronted, and says she can't have it back, that he'll get it appraised and tell her that he was right after all.  What he does instead is sell it, because it was real, and the young woman's friend, Mrs. Guy, buys it for, as she says, at a good price.  So the one honest character, the young woman, ends up with nothing to remind her of the dead aunt, and with none of the money that the thing was worth.

I tell you all this to save you from reading the story.  Read "The Necklace," or James' "The Turn of the Screw", which is just as stilted, but much more famous.  As it should be.  Very scary and psychologically chilling.

And I'll leave you with this connection.  After my second deviated septum operation, I was given a bottle of pain meds that are quite popular.  I hate taking pills, and told some friends that I wasn't sure I'd ever take them.  Every single well-to-do or of-average-means friend, in total seriousness, told me to sell them if I didn't take them.  I ended up taking them, as I'd been in a lot of pain, but I've never forgotten their responses.

There's another short story in there somewhere.

Speaking of short stories, I finished one recently, an 11-page zombie story called "Too Dumb to Die."  Yeah, I like the title, too.  ("Hide the Weird" was good, too.)  I'll keep you informed.

P.S.--Okay, while getting a picture for this post, I read a really long article about James on Wikipedia, and I'm forced to admit that my terseness maybe was a bit overwrought about his work.  He obviously wrote some great things, not just "The Turn of the Screw," and I'm going to have to get a copy of his Complete Works.  But I'll be damned if I know how I'm going to get past the brick and mortar of his writing.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Photo: Nigel Tufnel, This Is Spinal Tap.  From  Amp it to 11, people. 
So, okay, the alignment of numbers like this won't happen again, of course, until February 2, 2022--only about 11 years away, I hesitatingly add--though that sounds like a sci-fi date if I ever heard one.  But before you schedule a wedding for that date, as tons of people have because of today's date, I remind everyone that today's date really isn't today's date--somewhere in the 1300s or so, maybe 1400s, I don't remember, we suddenly gained 14 years between one day and the next, because we followed a new calendar.  And Day One was based on Jesus's birth, which is still under debate.  The most recent evidence suggests Jesus was born in the year 3 BC, or, three years before our calendar said he was born; this realization caused historians and scholars to create the designation BCE--Before the Common Era--to displace the now erroneous BC, which is their way of saying that, the whole time, we'd been three years off the date we thought we kept time with, which itself was wrong to begin with. And no one really kept day or time a few thousand years ago, except for the astrologers, and about that time there wasn't complete agreement about what a "day" even was.  Or a "year," as the sun was thought to revolve around the earth, and not vice-versa.  Plus, no one really cared.  And time as we measure it is only a man-made construct, anyway, and doesn't really even exist outside of the space-time continuum, which is in of itself used mainly for measuring huge distances, not for scheduling appointments or programming DVRs.  Our concept of time is  just our minor and flawed attempt to create order out of chaos, to stave off nothingness for a little while.

Don't mean to be Debbie Downer here, but let's have a dose of reality, okay?  Mankind is sooooo homocentric.  (That is, the belief that everything revolves around human beings, before you hate on me.)

You think frogs care exactly what day it is?

I'm just sayin'.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Photo: 11/22/63 book cover from its Wikipedia page

Inner ear infection the last three days, so one of the only things I could do laying in bed is read, and that only barely.  So I read this much-anticipated book.  I have mixed emotions and thoughts about it, so...let's break 'em down.

The Good:

Well, it's gotta be a good sign that I read 849 pages in essentially two days, and about 750 of those today (Wednesday) alone.  King's detractors will say that this is bad, that nothing serious enough to be written by one of the best-selling authors of the 20th Century should be that quick and easy to read.  While this smacks of elitism to me, I smell a tiny scent of truth, but then again, King never said he was Nabakov or Shakespeare, and while it's true that this novel, like most of his, doesn't have depth, per se, it does have resonance.  (Much like the harmonies he writes about, one supposes.)  Besides that, it's a good read, for a few reasons:

1.  It was nice to see Bevvie Marsh again, and Richie Tozier, too, I suppose.
2.  Astute fans will say hello to Christine (there's a '58 Plymouth Fury in a few places here, and it ain't nice), Cujo (by reference to nice but rabid dogs) and to the gateway keepers in Hearts in Atlantis and in Insomnia, as well as the town of Derry itself, which was never right in its head.  There are shimmers of The Dark Tower series (especially the most recent) and God knows what else, too.  There's a tiny nod to Back to the Future, too.
3.  King mixes and mashes Derry, Maine and Dallas, Texas in artistic ways similar to Desperation and The Regulators, as well as the mirrored characters in both.
4.  The book is ultimately about love won and lost, and a lovely scene of (odd, but it works) love at the end that is very similar to the ending of Edward Scissorhands--and not about time warps, or paradoxes, or any of those things.  Frankly, he doesn't handle those topics in any way that we haven't seen already.

Which leads me to

The Bad:

Mostly, what I just said: There isn't much in here about time travel, paradoxes, messing with time, harmonies or shimmers or whatever that we haven't already seen before.  And, maybe, better, elsewhere.  In fact, if the reader doesn't fall in love with Sadie (which this reader did), then the book falls apart at the seams.  But, to King's credit, you will love Sadie; I think the logical planner in King realizes that she is watermark here, and that he loses us if he loses her.  So, of course, he doesn't.  Like Juliet, Sadie seems to deserve better than the guy she falls for.

There's also no question at all about what will ultimately happen to her, or to Jake/George, which is both bad, and good, considering that you are compelled to read on despite this.  There's also no question about what'll happen when Jake/George goes back to the future (there's the nod), which King also correctly realizes and spends no more than a few pages on--and his character spends just an hour in the future close to the end.  But, again, despite all this, you read on, which is the ultimate good for writers and readers alike.

The only question is: What will he do, if anything, to set things right again?  I guessed it right, mostly because, as a writer myself, I couldn't imagine the character doing the whole thing all over again (there's another nod to the last Dark Tower), but you want to resolve the George/Sadie thing, too, which he does.  Or, at least, according to the Afterword, his son, Joe Hill, does, and King just writes it.  But, whatever.  It's satisfying and it works, despite borrowing heavily, I suspect, from Scissorhands--and it was Joe Hill's idea, to boot.

And so you get the idea.  It isn't The Stand, or It, and we'll have to agree that such high points may not be reached again.  (King himself thinks that The Stand, The Shining and Salem's Lot, out of all of them, will stand the test of time.  I mostly agree, except not for the Lot, which will be eclipsed by the Dark Tower series, by It, and by Different Seasons.)  But 11/22/63 is also not The Cell, Rose Madder or Under the Dome, either, so that's all good.  (Under the Dome is severely overrated.)  It's not existential fodder, either, as there is no grey area with its depiction of a future with a JFK who's lived--or of its depiction of 60s Dallas, either, for that matter.  It's a s--thole, clearly, and it better be undone.  Fast.  Luckily, every re-appearance is a quick reset.

Ultimately I gave it five stars because I read its 849 pages in about 48 hours, which has to be testament to the book's quality, or to my reading stamina, or both.  I'm a writer myself, and if someone told me he read my 849-page book in 48 hours, happily engrossed in its story as he recovered from an inner-ear infection, that would make me perfectly proud.  To relate: A friend of mine, who can be a very good, if not occasionally harshly helpful, reader and critic, read my 11-page zombie story recently--very, very quickly and, as it turned out, appreciably.  Never in a million years would I think that this fine poet would devour and appreciate my 11-page zombie story, but he did.  And I can't think of a better compliment to a writer than that.

And so there it is.  I'll leave you with one more thought, just realized: Sooner or later, King will have to be appreciated for his whimsical portrayal of 3-dimensional female characters who are all too easily appreciated or fallen in love with by his male readers--from Sadie, here, to an adult Bev Marsh in IT, to a feisty Wendy in The Shining (who was NOT a sniveling Shelley Duvall) to Carrie White, in a way, to Charlie McGee in another odd way, and even to Annie Wilkes, in a VERY odd way, as well as a few others in between.  Don't get me wrong, there were some real clunkers in there, too, but overall he is very good, if not entirely realistically good, at this, and I haven't heard anyone say so before.  Woody Allen (rightfully) gets tons of kudos for his developed female characters, and while they are in a different stratosphere than King's, there is still a consistent solidity to them after all these books and years.  And The Woodman's women aren't exactly completely realistic, either, right?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Library of America--Tomorrow

Photo: Eugene O'Neill on Wikipedia; portrait by Alice Boughton

So Eugene O'Neill's only published short story is about drunks.  As shocking as that is, it's not as shocking as the uneven writing here--real sentence clunkers, if I may say so.  Like many of mine, in fact.  But he's Eugene O'Neill, though of course he wasn't until he very suddenly was.  We expect more from these guys.  They shouldn't write

The story comes from the way one of the characters--a reforming drunk who's given a job at a local paper--says that he'll get something done "tomorrow."  That day never comes, until it very suddenly does.  The story's interesting in a few ways, though "interesting" does not always mean "good."

First, it's O'Neill's only published short story, so you have to read it.  Second, you can see echoes of the O'Neill tone here; it's not fully established, but it's there.  Sort of like a shadow.  And it's an unflinching look, though not as jaw-droppingly direct as in his plays.  The depressing outlook and the hopelessness is there, too, as is the defeated look in the mirror at one's own life.  All the happiness that you expect in an O'Neill piece.

And it's mediocre, which gives the rest of us some hope.

This is another installment of my quick reviews of short pieces sent to me from the people at the Library of America, which makes handsome, high quality books from high quality works.  You get a book made of your work from these people, your importance is forever cemented.  Some of the books can actually be affordable, too.  For the previous installment, a piece from The New Yorker's Susan Orlean, go here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Two Quick Questions--Writing groups and writing time

Photo: Fish in a fence after Hurricane Ike.  This is representative of my anxiety re: these two questions.

Okay, a quick shout out to the readers of this blog: I have two questions I'd very much like your answers or opinions to.

1.  Writing groups.  Are you a member of one?  What are your rules, if any?  How many members are in your group?  What are you getting out of it, if anything?  I'd especially appreciate commentary about the number of people in the group, and anything at all that's mandatory about the group.  I've heard that a) smaller numbers are better, such as maybe 5 to 8 members; b) consistent attendance is mandatory, such as every other meeting, if not actually every single meeting; and c) consistent submissions to print or online markets (or contests) are mandatory, like maybe three submissions per meeting, or per month.  Whatever.  Copies of submissions, rejections, acceptances, or applications to contests or projects like NaNoWriMo are acceptable as well.

2.  Writing time.  How do you get writing done?  Where do you do it?  When do you do it?  How do you come down from the career/job, clear your head, see your characters, and start writing?  How do you find the time for submissions?  Certain days of the week?  Certain hours of the day?  Whenever?  Gimme all you got, whatever works for you.

Thanks, guys.  'preciate your time and response.  As always, thanks for reading!!!