a dash to Roundrock

Posted March 20, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

Tags: ,

I made an abbreviated trip to my woods last Saturday. My wife was out of town (in NYC, seeing the grands and catching every virus they had, apparently), and I had obligations in town that morning. But when those were discharged, I threw some things in my truck, including the two dogs, and turned it toward my cabin.

The plan had been to have a fire in the evening as the sun went down, burn some hot dogs and maybe enjoy a few adult beverages, then crawl into bed in the cabin and sleep till I woke on Sunday.

It didn’t happen that way. I felt oddly anxious the whole time, like I should have stayed at home, and that seemed to put a pall on the visit. The lake, I’m happy to report, was at full pool (and the partly repaired spillway wasn’t washed away). The spring peepers were enjoying all of the water leaking under the dam in the acre below it. The temps were moderate — into 50+ degrees under a blue, blue sky. I had groceries to carry me through the weekend and enuf chores that did not involve starting the chainsaw (something I don’t like to do when I’m out there alone) to keep me busy the whole time.

But it wasn’t pulling together for me. All I could think about was that I should have stayed home. That I had forgotten something important to do there. That I needed to get back. It didn’t help that our small dog, Queequeg, was being willful and wouldn’t stay inside the cabin. I look at him as coyote bait when he’s out there, so he needs constant watching. When he could escape — the clever beast would wait inside the door and slip out as I stepped in — he would dash for my truck and sit under it, presumably where a bird of prey could not reach him, but also where I could not reach him. I fooled him once with a treat and managed to get him back in the cabin. But he didn’t fall for it the second time.

I had collected the makings for a one-match fire, but with the recent time change, the sun wasn’t going to set for hours, and like dogs that are coyote bait, fires in a forest need constant watching. So I didn’t want to start the fire hours before dinner or darkness and then have to be tied to it for those hours. (I was already tied to a dog.)

Somehow I managed to get both dogs in the cabin at the same time and threw myself on my bed, thinking I could luxuriate with an actual nap. But sleep wouldn’t come. As I lay (?) there I realized that I didn’t really want to spend the night, only to wake to just-above-freezing temps that would linger all morning. And that made building a fire superfluous since it would take me well into the night before I could leave it, and who wants to drive home at highway speeds through deer country in the dark? So in a moment of uncharacteristic behavior, I decided just to give in to whatever demon was deviling me and go back home. (Never mind that I spent less time at my cabin than it took me to drive to and from it.) The dogs, as they always are, were fully in favor of this idea when I proposed it to them. So I put them in the truck and then packed up what little I had brought down (that I didn’t intend to leave, including several hundred marbles, but that’s for a different post). Then I turned my truck toward home.

I did make a few observations while I was in my woods though. You may remember this mineral block I had put near the cabin:

My goal at the time was to see if it would be favored by the gnawing critters rather than the cabin’s doorjamb that they’ve been chewing to bits. The doorjamb showed plenty of fresh chew marks, but the mineral block looked like this:

You can see that the corners have been nibbled a little, but I’ve seen these reduced to slivers, and it had sat there for more than a month (since my last visit) with little attention. So this doesn’t seem to be my solution to the gnawing of the doorjamb.

I had also hung this bird feeder — one big mass of seed — on a tree in front of the cabin on my prior visit:

Note how the lake looked pretty full then.

Here is what I found when I returned last weekend:

So I think it was a big hit, though I don’t suppose it did anything to prevent the gnawing of the doorjamb either. It’s not easy to tell, but the lake in the second photo is actually much fuller. If I can figure out how to post an actual video here, you’ll get to see what I saw over the weekend.

I’m not sure when I’ll be back down again. Winter seems to have gotten the message and has retreated — at least in this part of the Midwest and for right now — so that should mean more opportunities to visit.

“Twilight of the Alpha Males” has found a home

Posted March 13, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: short stories

Tags: , ,

I mentioned here once or twice about a story I wrote that was only 460+ words long yet seemed whole and complete. I dithered with it, thinking maybe there was more story to tell, but when no more story presented itself I figured it was finished. My first piece of flash fiction. I was originally going to call it “Rolling Coal” but then settled on “Twilight of the Alpha Males.” It’s a fun story, with maybe a jibe at some current political situation. (Or maybe not.)

So I began sending it out to see if there was any interest. And it turns out there was. The very first place I submitted it to, accepted it. “Twilight of the Alpha Males” will appear in the May 2019 issue of Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.

I had sent it to two other places, the second only two days ago, and now I must withdraw those submissions.

When the story comes up, I’ll post a link here.


Posted March 4, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons

Tags: ,

When I had boldly said before that I had finished writing the vignettes, surely you knew that I would come back to correct such an outrageous assertion.

Doing the math, I had them done. Twenty-four chapters; twenty-three inter-chapter vignettes in the bank. I even spent a stressful evening inserting the vignettes from their separate file into the body of the One-Match Fire document, creating the new document I named “OMF v.v.” I grumbled as I did this because every single time they imported as a different typeface that I had to fix and then panicked when somehow their placement got off and I seemed to be missing one. I got it all worked out in the end, even changing the (very short) Chapter 24 into a vignette itself. And I thought it done.

Silly me.

I guess maybe I needed to believe it was done so I could jolt my self into considering the implications of this and realize that I was missing something truly fundamental.

Nowhere in the entire novel did I have a character actually building and lighting a one-match fire. I had fires burning and fires remembered, but I’d never had a one-match fire built. Building a successful one-match fire is supposed to be a skill that is handed down from father to son in the novel. Hence the title.*

So, vignettes to the rescue. I thought that I could devote one of them to this important task. They are long enuf (~300 words) to cover the process, and the activity spans the novel, so it needn’t happen in any one given story. It occurred to me that since it is a tradition that belongs to the three main characters, I could write the vignette such that any one of them could be building the fire. (There are a couple of lines of dialogue in the novel that are not tagged and remain ambiguous because they could be spoken by any one of the three in their moments.) I wouldn’t specify which character was building the fire. He would note that the other two were down at the lake, thus making clear that all three are at the cabin, while he was building their evening fire. And which of them he was wouldn’t matter. The tradition was successfully handed down and any of the three could accomplish it.

That part was easy. I’ve built enuf of one-match fires myself to know how to describe the process. But once I had the vignette written, I needed a place to put it. Fortunately, I was never really satisfied with another one I had written. It did provide important information to the novel, and it bolstered some character explication that was also important, but it seemed forced, even gratuitous. I figured I could take the essentials from the weak vignette and insert them into an existing story/chapter to do the same thing. (Plus, it had some snarky word play that I didn’t want to lose.) I did this without too much surgery, leaving its placement open.

And it happened that its placement was sufficiently along in the storyline that the youngest character (of the three) was old enuf to be able to build successful one-match fires himself.

I’m in the process of reading through v.v now, and someone should probably slap me and tell me to leave well enuf alone, but I have this idea that maybe I can do a little something to clarify/fortify the presence of the narrator. I don’t want to bring him out and make him overt, but I think if I can make it clear that there is someone actually telling the tales, an outsider, it will smooth over some of the structural “issues” that have always nagged me about the telling. (Chiefly, how can anyone know/remember specific moments from forty years in the past? My narrator can’t, of course, but his is telling stories, not writing history.) I’ll be on the watch for the one or two opportunities I think I need to make this happen.

And then really, for certain, absolutely, I’ll consider the novel finished!

*Thank you, Ellen Goldstein!

vignettes are completed

Posted February 28, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons

Tags: ,

I finished drafting the vignettes last weekend, and I’ve been monkeying with them in the days since, but I think I need to call them done. They are all in first person — the rest of the novel has a third-person narrator — and they’re spoken by five different characters.

The novel’s narrator is an outsider to the family, looking in at two father/son relationships that are far better than what he experienced. So his telling of their stories is idealized to some extent. The first-person vignettes between each chapter allow the characters to balance his ideal with their real.

Anyway, they add 6,800+ words to the overall count, which was part of my goal. There are twenty-three vignettes — one between each chapter and one at the end, which was actually the last chapter originally, but I revised it to be a vignette. Now I must shoehorn them into the novel and then give the whole thing a massive read through.

And then?

bits and pieces ~ cypress edition

Posted February 27, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

We have two cypress trees in our back yard. One was put in (at our request) by the landscaper hired by the builder (30+ years ago) and the other I plugged in the ground a few years later myself. For the most part, they have thrived (though one suffers a little from crowding by nearby trees), and I have even taken some of their offspring out to my Ozark woods to plant. One is doing especially well there by the pond.

But the combination of cypress trees and long-haired dogs does present a problem for anyone hoping to keep a relatively clean house. Cypress leaves are feathery things with many leaflets on them. In the fall especially, but every season of the year, the dogs bring them in on their fur and then they fall out (or get tugged out by me or my wife), the leaflets break off, and their accumulation begins in the corners of the rooms. Worse, though, are the “cones” that the cypress trees produce. These are spherical, a little smaller than a golf ball, and are not much of a nuisance in that state. But they break into smaller, sharp pieces and get wedged in the pads of the dogs feet. Not only will the dogs bring them in the house this way (and then leave them here and there for my bare-footed self to step on), but they often hurt the dogs, who limp and chew at their feet until one of their humans can dig around and find the offending bit.

I did not know this, but apparently cypress trees are like oak trees in the production of their cones. After an especially prolific year, they apparently will lay off from producing cones the following year. Oaks will do this with acorns. It seems that the resources and effort required to produce an abundant crop of acorns (and I guess cones) exhausts both the trees and the ground/immediate growing conditions. Thus the fallow year. And I understand that wildlife populations will wax and wane based on this cycle as well.

And so last fall was the fallow year for our two cypress trees. I didn’t see a single cone high in the branches or on the ground, the dogs have had no complaints, and I’m not stepping on them in the house. It’s easy to get complacent about this, to forget that nature is going to keep to its cycles regardless of my memory or desire.

On the few occasions we’ve had a tree trimmer out, they have always gravitated to the larger of the two cypress in the backyard, certain that it was why they were called out. Obviously, they seem to think, removing that is why they were summoned. “Too close to your house,” they assert. Or “clogging your gutters with droppings.” And then they are surprised when we say no, we love this tree that shades our house in the summer and provides shelter for birds and squirrels and visual interest from our bedroom window in the winter. We did have some lower branches removed that were rubbing on the roof and in a mostly futile attempt to get more sunlight to reach the ground so we could grow some grass, but the tree remains.

the second life of “Men at Work and Play”

Posted February 25, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons, short stories

Tags: , , ,

One of the early (2014) One-Match Fire stories that saw publication was “Men at Work and Play.” Back then the perfect title (for the whole collection) had not yet been bestowed upon me by a certain poet, and I was calling the slowly growing collection of them my Fathers and Sons stories.

“Men at Work and Play” appeared in Wolf Willow Journal in April of 2014. That may have been the only edition of that publication because less than a year later the publication itself had gone dark, and today the address is hijacked.

Now, though, the story is going to appear again. A newish publication called Defuncted is seeking fiction that had appeared in magazines and journals that are now gone. My experience with Wolf Willow Journal was exactly that.

A problem, though, was that the word count of the story, 3,500, exceeded the maximum preferred by Defuncted. Writers in that situation were welcomed to write to the editor to discuss the possibility of submitting, which I did. I was told to send the story in, which I also did. And over this past weekend I learned that the story will appear in Defuncted in an upcoming issue.

Once I know that it’s reappeared, I’ll provide a link.

Update: And here it is!


Posted February 20, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons

Tags: ,

What of One-Match Fire? you say. What’s the latest news in that adventure?

Well, I seem to have a serious case of not-being-able-to-let-go. I was cautioned about this by a friend. That it was never going to be perfectly finished in my eyes and that I had to reach a point where I released my grip and surrendered it to the world.

And I thought maybe I was there, except the nagging wouldn’t relent. More than just pencil work and trying to refine verbs or staggeringly beautiful sentences, I thought there were some gaps in the story telling that needed to be filled somehow. The novel spans more than forty years in the lives of three people (two fathers, two sons), and there are several long spans of years in the narrative that are not represented. There are some significant life events that readers don’t get to see or the characters to experience. They’re just “understood” to have happened. And that seems insufficient, even a cheat to the reader.

There are 24 chapters in the novel as it currently stands, and that includes two late-addition chapters that were originally intended for the inevitable sequel. (Isn’t that further evidence that I can’t let go?) The gap filling that I think is needed is more than just bringing in some references to existing chapters. In part, I think the chapters are complete and whole as they are currently written. The fact that ten of them have been published as stand-alone stories confirms this in my inchoate mind. So I don’t really want to attempt to substantially change them. And the idea of writing whole new chapters is too daunting for my little mind to be willing to engage. Plus I think a whole new chapter to deal with this or that subtlety might be stretching its worth and/or diluting its impact.

So, somehow, I came upon a different solution. I am now writing 300-word vignettes that I will slip in between the chapters. Vignettes are handy because they don’t really need a beginning, middle, and end. They are just snapshots of a moment, of a thought. But if done right, they can set up or clear up some later or earlier matter in the bigger narrative. They can show how a certain decision was made or why a certain action was taken. They can effectively fill some of the gaps without the need to write a few thousand words to do so.

One-Match Fire is written with a third-person narrator. (Originally, before I realized that the stories I was writing were accumulating into an actual novel, I wrote several of them in first person, and one was even published in that state. But then, when I saw I had a novel rather than a cycle, I figured I needed to rein in the narrator, at least give it a consistency that the reader would follow. So I made it third person, with a specific narrator in mind. Then it became a different person who is the narrator, which I thinks works better.)

The vignettes, on the other hand, are being written in first person. I think this gives a better glimpse into the minds of the characters in these critical moments. I can show the characters to the reader in ways the characters wouldn’t show themselves to each other, giving them more depth. (Uncertainty. Doubt. Regret. Fear. Shame. All human qualities that the characters would keep stuffed inside themselves rather than trouble the people they love.)

I don’t think having between-chapter vignettes in first person is unconventional to the point of being experimental, and I don’t think it would jar the reader, once the pattern became apparent. And I do think it serves the story well.

I’ve written four thirteen of these so far. That leaves only nineteen ten to go. To this point they’ve been easy to write, and that’s due to me knowing what holes need filling (and knowing these characters so well). But I’ve done the easy stuff. Part of what lies ahead is defining what holes are still out there, and which are more important to address than the others.

And then, once I have all twenty-three written, I’m promising myself I will consider the novel finished.