Archive for the ‘Rants and ruminations’ category

contest fees ~ what am I missing?

October 19, 2021

What are your thoughts on fees for submitting to writing contests? I just can’t seem to find the will to pay a fee to enter a competition.

I’ve had a fair number of my short stories published, so I think I have some small measure of talent, but the ratio of acceptance to rejection for me is ~ 1:7. (Check my math: Duotrope records 287 rejections and 41 acceptances of my stuff. Add in a handful of submissions that I haven’t recorded there.) Given that ratio, and assuming it’s indicative of my prospects in general, it seems obvious to me that paying to submit a story is going to be mostly a way to lose money.

Does this thinking apply to story-writing contests as well? Given that my likely chance at publication for stories in journals is 1:7, would it be similar in contest submissions? And if so, why would I pay to enter a contest? Is the “competition” in a contest lower than in a normal journal submission? Are there some where the prestige of the prize is worth the cost of admission?

I target my fiction submissions based on themes the journals announce. I know that most competitions are also this way, so I could target a submission there to make my money be better spent. But if the ratio would be the same as my targeted journal submission, then this targeting doesn’t seem sufficient enuf to justify the cost.

What am I missing?

I realize that fee charging is one way to filter the volume of submissions to make them more manageable for the editors. (I’ve seen it referenced as meaning only “serious” writers will then submit.) But I also know that I am not the only serious writer who refuses to “pay to play,” so potentially good stuff never comes across the transom at some of these fee-charging outfits.

And I realize that charging a fee gives small publications much-needed funds to continue operations. (Though how do the non-fee outfits continue to operate?) Similarly with contest fees: they can fund the award (though that seems circular: pay to submit to our contest so we can have money to give an award for our contest). But the conventional wisdom for novel submissions is to never pay a publisher to make a submission. (Unless you intend to submit to a vanity press.)

So it seems to me I’d just be throwing my money away if I paid a submission fee for a fiction contest. (I’ve seen several No Fee contests, and a few that had fees around $2. But the average fee seems to be about $15, and I’ve seen it as high as $49. Again, given my ratio, I would pay about $100 in $15 fees for the chance at acceptance.)

What am I missing?

bits and pieces

June 1, 2021

Latest Big Project is coming along well. I think I’m about finished with the “assembly” portion of the work. The big revelations, which were coming to me rapidly a few weeks ago, have more or less stopped. (In fact, the latest revelation I had for it would have upended the story completely, and while that would have given it more psychological depth, I think it would have weakened the intended punch. Sorry to be so vague.) Now I must do the hard work of sneaking the actual story into it. I’m not sure if I should step back and work on something else or if I should stick with it and do what I can. I suspect once I begin adding the story part of it, further revelations will come to me, so I don’t feel the need to rush it. Actually (a word my grandson Emmett uses more frequently — and accurately — than you might expect from a five-year-old), there is some research I can do to help flesh out the story part of the work, so maybe I can stay productive doing that.

Latest Big Project is currently at 26,000 words, and I don’t see myself adding more than maybe a thousand more words, which will make it a novella, and everyone knows you can’t get novellas published.


I heard a writer on a podcast say that she’d had a piece rejected but then changed the typeface from Times New Roman to Garamond and got it accepted. This is not the first time I’ve heard of a possible bias against Times New Roman (though nearly all guidelines I’ve seen that express a preference ask for it).


Maybe I should consider that since my year of no acceptances continues into June.


I’m no good with writing challenges. My creative mechanism just doesn’t work in a way that would flourish under a challenge. My ideas need to brew in my head (sometimes for years) before I can successfully pull a story together (see revelation reference above), so if I had a targeted word count for each time I sat down to write, I think it would result in frustration rather than production. (I guess this is why NaNoWriMo never appealed to me. Also, that seems more like stunt writing than actual craft.) A friend is now participating in the 1000 Words of Summer Project with the goal of writing 1,000 words each day for two weeks. That’s an admirable volume of words produced by the end, even if the pace isn’t sustained the full time, but I couldn’t do it. Certainly I have written a thousand words and more in one sitting, but then days may go by before I write another word. And not leaving the screen until I hit a given target seems like a force fit, at least for me.

I think this is also why I don’t/can’t work from outlines. Latest Big Project has made several major shifts in direction from what I started with. (Obelus was the same.) Had I been guided by an outline, even a superficial one with the knowledge that it wasn’t a commitment, I wonder if I would have had the revelations that changed the course of the mighty river.


Did I tell you that all four of my grown children came home for Mothers Day weekend? As a surprise to my wife? That involved clandestine flights from New York and Seattle as well as a drive from St. Louis. It’s always good to have them together again and always bad to fear this will be the last time (no reason to think that, but some of us are over thinkers, okay?).


The apple above is a Honey Crisp. I used to eat one every single day for years until one day when I just couldn’t. Then I turned to bananas, and the same thing happened. Right now I’m between fruits.


May was a lean month for me in terms of book reading.

Black Card by Chris L. Terry – I heard the author on a podcast and immediately checked out his latest novel from the library. This is the kind of cultural broadening I must do more of.

The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch – My second time reading this as I make my way chronologically through her novels again. She never disappoints.

meta musings ~ blogs for bucks

March 15, 2021

Recently, I’ve seen a few people with writing blogs who are considering “monetizing” them. To my understanding, this means rigging the blog in a way to make money from it. Most commonly, I guess, is to add a plug-in that would post advertisements on the blog. The blogger would then get paid for allowing those ads, and I think in more sophisticated operations, would get paid more if readers actually click on the ads. (I understand this humble blog has some ads that appear from time to time. I’ve never seen them, I guess because I’m the administrator, and I certainly don’t make any revenue from them.)

In another case, I knew a blogger who had a natural history blog, and she was very good at what she did, writing informed posts in an engaging style. I read her blog regularly. She proposed making it pay by charging a fee for readers to see the content, citing several celebrity bloggers who did this and lived off the proceeds. I commented that I would never pay to read anyone’s blog (she had asked what readers thought of the idea), and I think I insulted her because while she used to respond to my occasional comments, she abruptly stopped after I said I wouldn’t pay for the privilege. The last time I looked, she was not charging an admission fee.

There are several websites I visit that have pop-up ads appearing on the margins. Many of these are animated and/or have video and audio. I’m never interested in what they are shilling, and I’m annoyed enuf with the ads I already see elsewhere apparently based on Google searches I made years ago. I don’t want to add to that intrusion by clicking on mindless ads further. Regardless, for me, these pop-ups slow down the scrolling. I can click them off, but they generally return if I click on some actual content on the site I want to see. And then the article I want to read won’t load fully for a while and I leave in frustration.

Aside from the fact that I consider “monetizing” to be sleazy in a way and part of the idea that a writer must have a “platform” or a “brand,” I don’t think this humble blog would pay me the price of a cup of coffee (if I drank coffee and knew the price). I have followers in the triple digits, but I don’t know how many actually visit the blog when I post. I do have a visitor counter, but that’s not only shown pathetic numbers, it’s also shown unreliable numbers. There are days, for example, when I receive one or two comments about a post and the counter shows that no one visited at all. Doesn’t seem possible to me. The little research I’ve done suggests that when followers visit, they are not counted. (Also, I’ve tried using Google Analytics to get a better picture, but I can’t seem to make it work. It shows zero visits to this humble blog.) So if revenue is based on visits, I’m going to be in the poor house.

So I remain baffled by this idea of “monetizing” the blog. It seems sleazy, it wouldn’t pay, and it would likely be one more thing I would have to manage.

Here’s a picture of a round rock:

books of 2020

January 4, 2021

I’m sure I’ve written here before that I’ve long thought the new year should begin on the first day of spring, as has been done by the Persian culture for centuries. It’s a celestial event, measurable by everyone in every culture. It’s not arbitrary the way January 1 is. But January 1 is what we’re stuck with for the most part, so that’s what I’ll use for my beginning/end date.

This is the time of year when I see people’s lists of what they read in the last year. I’ve done that before, too, though not consistently. Sometimes I’ve listed all of the books I read in the past year. Other times I list only the highlights. Some years, nothing at all.* Well, this year I’m just going to touch on the books that I thought were worthy to me and leave out the stinkers and those that left little to no impression. And so, from the back pages of my journals where I keep my list of books read, here we go:

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout – I loved the characterization of Olive Kitteridge, so when I learned a sequel was coming, I grabbed up the first copy I came across (which happened to be in a bookstore when I was traveling in Kentucky — remember traveling?). Godfrey, what a good book. The story continues, and Olive begins to see beyond herself.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jumpha Lahiri – I read this because I had read her novel The Namesake and really enjoyed it. While I thought it was well done, and it gave me a glimpse into a different world view, I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Namesake.

Nat Tate by William Boyd – The biography of an utterly forgotten New York painter, which turned out to be a novel because the painter never existed. It was part of an elaborate hoax on the New York art set and people like Gore Vidal and David Bowie were in on.

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner – It took me two tries to finish this monster of a novel, purported to have the longest sentence in the English language (1,288 words!). Faulkner’s typical esoteric style was at its peak here.

Stone Diaries by Carol Shields – This is one of those quiet looks at the deceptively simple life of a woman over a long time. I came to it when the novel was more than 25 years old, and I regret having lost all of the time not having known it.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles – Another novel I regret not having taken up sooner. I had read a good deal of Fowles in my callow youth, so I was surprised that I had neglected this one, especially after I enjoyed it so much. (Metafiction, folks!)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – We’ve had this on our shelves pretty much since my daughter moved to Brooklyn more than a decade ago. With the pandemic, I was prowling the house, looking for things to read (so I didn’t have to go to the bookstore with the unwashed masses). I enjoyed it, and I suppose it can be taken at face value, and the Brooklyn she describes is long past. Notable: Smith did not adhere to the sad dictum that only the word “said” could be used as a dialog tag.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – I was given this book by the man who sold me the 80 acres where my Ozark cabin now lies. He even inscribed it to me. Westerns were never my thing, but again, I was taking up many novels I had left untouched around the house (or in this case, at the cabin), and was engrossed from the first page. (It helped that I’d just watched the miniseries.) I think McMurtry got a little tired of writing it near the end (my copy is 900+ pages).

Upstate by James Wood – He is better known for his literary criticism, but I saw this on the shelf (at one of my rare bookstore visits) and bought it. Not much happens plotwise, but the look into the character’s lives and the development of Thomas Nagel’s philosophy in the story captivated me. I intend to read this one again, and soon.

Passing by Nella Larsen – A forgotten novel in the huge literary sub-genre about the movement of light-skinned African Americans into white culture in the U.S. This was a gift from a friend. A worthy read.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – I mentioned this novel in a recent post. Her retelling of King Lear in the Iowa farmland left me cold, but it is well done and won the Pulitzer.

Because I am not haunting the used bookstores as much as in years past, I’ve also read a few books in the public domain I can find online. Two notable works I read last year were The Story of a Bad Boy by Matthew Bailey Aldrich, which is said to have influenced Twain when he wrote Tom Sawyer, and The Unpublishable Memoirs by A.S. Rosenbach. Not a memoir at all but a series of stories about rare book collectors and rare book thieves. A bit of fun. If you’re familiar with the Raffles stories, you might like this book.

There were other books I read last year, including a smattering of nonfiction, but many were just things I got through on my way to the next work to read.

*I’m trying to be less quantitative about many aspects of my life. I think over-measuring and comparing my performance was one of the reasons I lost my love of running. I’m cautious about tabulating my creative life too much as well.

changing signs and blurring lines

October 6, 2020

I dashed down to Roundrock over the weekend, passing through a deeply red part of rural Missouri to get to my little cabin. I’ve made this drive hundreds of times and have grown familiar with the homes and farms and small towns along the way. For the most part, the people who express their political allegiance along this route are not shy about it. Where one flag would do, most have two. Beside the highway with its fast-moving cars, the dozens of political signs tend toward the larger, held upright by two fence posts slammed into the neatly mowed easement before well set-back homes. There is no doubt about dominant political tenor of the region and no visible expression of any alternative leanings.

But on my recent Saturday drive I saw something so unexpected that at first I didn’t trust my eyes. The roadside political signs have large blue letters on a white field giving the name of the presidential candidate favored. Except in one case it appeared to my glance, as I drove past just over the legal limit, that the first letter of the candidate’s name had been covered with white paint so the name read R U M P. I dismissed it as sun in my eyes or bugs on the windshield or obscuring plants by the sign. But then I saw it again, and it was clear to me, because I was looking more deliberately, that the sign had been altered. Here again was R U M P. And then a little farther along, a sign was further altered to spell H U M P.

This went on for miles, and I could see it on both sides of the highway.

What to make of this? Was it merely a bit of naughty pranking by some rowdy boys with a can paint and too much free time? Perhaps, though the signs have been in place for months, and they weren’t altered when I last passed through two weeks before. Or did this perhaps indicate some shifting allegiances, given the recent news from the campaign trail? Is the more timid leaning become more assertive?

It’s impossible to say, of course. This is the first election in my life where I have placed signs in my suburban front yard. This is so unprecedented that my daughter posted about it on her social media. Yet in my red state I’ve read accounts of yard signs being stolen in the night (yard signs that must be purchased, for a nominal fee, but still some effort and expense is put into getting them). So far that hasn’t happened to me.* About the only reaction I have seen, and it may be merely coincidental, is that my neighbor up the street moved a contrary political flag on his front porch so it is slightly more visible from the vantage of my front yard. In fact, there are far more signs in my neighborhood in support of my candidate than for the opposition, which would be surprising in a normal election year in this purple county of a red state, but this year is far from normal.

In fact, rural Missouri might be shifting slightly from normal this election year as well. Not only have I noticed the altered signs (and I’ll be watching for them the next time I pass through to see if they’ve been fixed or replaced), but at least two farms that regularly flew flags in support of the incumbent no longer do so. They still have their usual American flags and POW flags, and often a flag for the Kansas City Chiefs, but the pennant of the incumbent are missing. Coincidence? Perhaps. But perhaps not.


*I found, on the morning I wrote this post, that one of the signs — about diversity, not a specific candidate — in my front yard was uprooted and lay on the grass. It hadn’t merely blown over but was clearly pulled out of the ground. At least it wasn’t stolen. Fortunately, since I rise freakishly early on the weekends, I discovered this in the predawn hours and restored it. Perhaps the pranksters will be disappointed.

grammar check in Word

September 21, 2020

Over the weekend I tried running the grammar checker in Word against Obelus. It did not go well.

First, you need to know that I consider strictly following the “rules” of grammar to be optional for creative writers. I think narrative voice is far more important in fiction that proper grammar (as long as the reader can follow what’s going on, more or less). In fact, my casual attitude toward grammar is one of the reasons I quit teaching composition at the local community college. Further, one of my stylistic tendencies is the sentence fragment, which I think adds punch and mimics closely the workings inside a character’s or narrator’s mind. My fiction is filled with intentional grammar violations (and even spelling creativity), and never once has an editor asked me to correct these when accepting a story. Nor do I find “perfect” grammar is most of the fiction I read by others.

I consider myself more than adequately adept with the language and the standards of grammar. I used to know most of it by rote, and I’ve absorbed a lot of it by simply reading widely and deeply. But I don’t anguish about formal structuring or correctness. (The grammar checker would have cited that last sentence.) Thus I rarely see the need to use the grammar checker in Word, but over the weekend I gave it a go just to see what I might see.

I could only get through about a tenth of the novel before I gave it up. The narrator of Obelus is a playful scamp, and his (his?) voice matches this. The program was finding dozens of “violations” that needed my attention. In most cases, it had to do with the “improper” use of conjunctions, and I dismissed those readily. It did point out one subject/verb agreement problem that I fixed, but it identified an incorrect use of “it’s” saying it should be “its”, but in fact my use was not possessive but a contraction. So the grammar checker was legit wrong there.

I don’t foresee applying this tool to the rest of the novel. Maybe on some shorter works it might prove an occasional use, but with 101,000+ words to parse, I don’t intend to spend my time using it on Obelus.

“suddenly illuminated by a flash of lightning”

May 4, 2020

from Chapter XII, Third Part, of The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide, from the journal of the central character, who is a writer of a novel called The Counterfeiters:

“As soon as I got home, set to work on The Counterfeiters. My exaltation is calm and lucid. My joy is such as I have never known before. Wrote thirty pages without hesitation, without a single erasure. The whole drama, like a nocturnal landscape suddenly illuminated by a flash of lightning, emerges out of the darkness, very different from what I had been trying to invent. The books I had hitherto written seem to me like the ornamental pools in public gardens — their contours are defined — perfect perhaps, but the water they contain is captive and lifeless.”

This captures pretty well the experience I have had since mid-December with the writing of Ouroboros and now Omphalos. They are unlike anything I have written before, both in subject matter and in experience. I’m not going to resort to a naturalistic metaphor, but it does seem with these two works that everything I had written hitherto (may I use that word?) was merely preparation for what I’m working on now. I may eat these words later, but for now, I’m in a good place.

Gide’s novel has been a chore, and the characters are hard to relate to, and the setting (Paris, now nearly 100 years ago) is hard to grasp, but passages like the above are a nice payoff. (Melville’s stuff works the same way for me sometimes.) I think I’ll read more Gide after all.

keeping productive?

April 8, 2020

I’m now in the third week of my work-from-home life and general social distancing. It hasn’t been especially difficult to adapt to working at home. I have all of the equipment I need set up on a creaky table in my basement, and my internet connection is just fast enuf to make it workable. I am conscientious about being at my desk for eight hours each day, but I don’t stay a minute longer (unless I’m on a call that runs over). I’m doing the same volume of work at the same level of quality as I was when I trekked into the office each day.

I am, however, disappointed in the plummeting of my personal creative work since this has begun. I have not written a thing in these three weeks. I still rise at 3:00 on the weekend and sit before my trusty laptop, but aside from transcribing notes and/or doing (legit) research online, I’ve mostly just been re-reading Ouroboros umpteen times. And yes, with each pass through I tighten this or refine that. I’m making small changes that I think would be defined as “pencil work,” but no structural revisions are coming to me, no new characters are asking for admission. Nor do I find myself eager (or even willing) to make an effort with any of the short story ideas I have lined up. Further, it was only through a force of will that I managed to submit a few of my stories to journals for consideration this week.

I’m not sure how to account for this. In my imagination, I would consider this scenario to be ideal: home all day, quiet and solitude abounding, resources I need at hand, opportunity to write and write and write. But as the man says, the map is not the territory. My ideal isn’t lining up with my reality.

My guess is that I simply still need to adjust to my new reality. I have upset what must have been a delicate balance between my creative life and my profane life (one that I suspect I built over a decade or more), and it will perhaps take time for me to regain some new form of balance.

I don’t like this state of things, of course. While I expect this new world order will last much longer than most people are predicting, I miss not doing the writing that I think I should be doing effortlessly and I regret the time that seems wasted right now.

And part of it may just be a coincidence in timing. This new world order came just as I finished an unprecedented sprint through Ouroboros; I wrote the 45,000+ word novella in two and a half months. That was a period and pace of creativity that I had never experienced before, so maybe my creative self is taking a breather.

Overthinking is something I know I am guilty of, and I suspect I’m doing that with this situation. If you tell me to relax and just let it return at its own pace, I’ll probably be okay.

Here’s an old photo from the archive:

it’s come to this

February 19, 2020

I’ve reached a grim impasse. I’m going to stop reading a book, give up on it, walk away from it, not finish it.

Last weekend I eagerly stopped at the library after work to grab the novel At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan). It’s on every list of the best metafiction there is, so I wanted to read it.

And I tried. I pushed myself to read each word in sequence, losing the narrative but hoping I would find it again. Not finding it but finding another. Yes, I realize there are three stories happening at once in the novel, but I wasn’t sure which story I was on or even if I was still on it or had drifted into the next one. Characters suddenly appeared that I might have been reading for pages but I couldn’t be sure. I had little idea what was going on or where it was leading. I was lost, and I hadn’t even made it a third of the way through the novel. So I made a decision.

I have quit reading it. I’m going to return it to the library unfinished. I just don’t see myself making sense of it, not if my experience of the first third is indicative of the remainder. At Swim Two Birds will be added to the very small list of novels that I never finished.

I don’t like this. I’ve always thought that a novel can redeem itself by the end, that the writer put the thing together in that order or that way with that ending because it worked properly, and so I have an obligation to meet the story on its terms. I don’t feel so obliged this time.

What I am doing now, though, is taking on a novel that some say is the most difficult in the English language: Absalom, Absalom. I had tried reading it years ago and was defeated about half way through, but I vowed I would return to it. It’s sat on my shelf since, taunting me. So this time I’m going to muscle through it.

bits and pieces

January 6, 2020

When I treated myself to my new Macbook Air recently, I expected some transition issues as I moved programs and data from my older laptop to this new one.

Not surprising was the fact that Microsoft Word did not come across when I had the Apple Store make the transfer for me. It was only when I got home that I discovered this. (They could have told me!) So I dragged myself back to the Apple Store and tried to set things right. Also not surprising, this involved me handing over more money. No longer could I have a static copy of Word on my computer. In this new world order I must subscribe to the software. Microsoft will kindly keep my version of Word up to date for a “nominal” annual fee. Okay, so I have paid more than this fee a few times on dinner with friends, and there are some books in my collection that cost me greater sums. Still, I feel powerless, like I’m exactly where their craven capitalist hearts want me to be.


The photo above is one I grabbed randomly from the 10,000+ I have on my computer. (Those did transfer properly from the old to the new machine.) At least I thought it was random in the moment I selected it. But it turns out to have a deeper meaning than I realized.

As you can tell, it’s one of the many masks we having hanging around the cabin at Roundrock. I took this photo nearly a decade ago, the the poor mask has faded a good bit since then. (It even housed a nest of hornets one year. Nice!) And all of that is fascinating on its own, but read on.

The work on my newest novel, which still only has a tentative title and no category on this humble blog, is racing along. It’s fantastic to feel as invigorated as I am about it. But it’s beginning to take on a life of its own. As the story progresses, I realize that I need to add this or that, chief of which have been new characters to carry part of the load. I had come up with one character who was going to be the main antagonist, but she had other plans. I don’t want to spill the beans (really, where did that expression come from?*) but she may be transitioning into the ultimate protagonist. And this story is becoming something like peeling an onion (an expression with a more obvious origin), with layers and layers I hadn’t realized. It’s a lot of fun, but I hope my creation doesn’t get out of my control. (The Frankenstein’s monster metaphor is not lost of me.)


The holidays are now behind me. My out-of-town family visitors have all returned to their respective homes and my household is returning to what I consider “normal.” I managed to acquire a head cold from those sweet little virus vectors my grands are, but it is passing just in time for the new year at work to begin. We’re collecting things left behind by the Seattle gang, and when we’re convinced we’ve found it all, we’ll mail a package that direction.


You may have done this yourself. Using the juice of a lemon as your ink and a toothpick as your pen, you write a super-secret message on a piece of paper that is invisible to the eye. Then your recipient holds the paper over an incandescent bulb, and the heat of it “chars” the dried lemon juice and the message appears. This being the 21st Century, though, who has incandescent bulbs in their lamps, right?

An alternative method is to hold the piece of paper over the flame of a candle, achieving the same result (though with a higher risk of burning the house down).

And so I am reconsidering the wisdom of sending such a secret message to my five-year-old grandson. (I have precautioned his mother.)


Another outfit that may have me right where they want me is WordPress. I use the free version of the software, and for the most part, it is all that I need. But you may have noticed that the separators betwixt the subjects in posts like this one are no longer centered. Nor can I use asterisks as I did before (they change into bullets). Further, I don’t seem to be able to add color to the text, which was something I could do in the days before I upgraded the software.

I’m sure all of this would be resolved if I should buy the commercial version of the program.


*Believed to have originated in ancient Greece where votes were cast with white or black beans dropped in a bag. If the bag was spilled, the outcome was revealed too soon. Thanks, Wikipedia!