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Dec 21, 2011

Does time exist?

We have arrived at the tail end of yet another year. For those of us with children, it might sometimes seem that as the children grow so quickly, the years pass that much faster. It does to me. End-of-the-year retrospectives are also much in vogue. I often dread them, especially as there are so many events that seemed like they occurred years ago rather than months. Does it also seem to you that each year starts off with a leisurely gait but ends up in a labored-breath sprint? 

As a geophysicist, I understand that when it comes to time, the word 'seems' is highly appropriate. Time is relative, we learned from Albert Einstein. Quantum physicists and cosmologists are now telling us that time may not even exist at all (
article.cfm?id=is-time-an-illusion). For a geo-person like myself, comparing the blink of a human lifespan to 4.5 billion years of Earth's evolution puts a different spin on.

But yet, we have markers for time. Milestones in our lives and our children's lives, birth, childhood, youth, middle-age, old age, and death, give us reasons to believe that time exists. And not just that. As we near the borders of middle-age, we feel the pressure of time, chances we no longer have or dreams we run to catch before it's too late. For young people, the pressure of time is felt in grabbing at the grails of secondary and higher education or apprenticeships and career ladders. 

When preparing the calendars for this double issue, I came across many dates to commemorate—markers of a different sort. There are special days for everything from maple syrup to human rights and many more too bizarre to contemplate. 

And there is that one day special to Americans (and Canadians!) where we choose to be thankful. Thanksgiving is my very favoritest of all holidays on this planet and maybe even the galaxy (Walk Like a Venutian Day comes a close second). Although historically Thanksgiving has Christian underpinnings, it is usually celebrated in America today as secular, free from any burden of gift-giving and, if honored traditionally, brings friends and family together in the joy of a shared meal. Many choose to express their thanks on this day by acts of charity—also in the best of Thanksgiving traditions. 

But yet, maybe imagining that time does not exist is not such a bad idea after all—especially this time of year and on this particular day. All of us have things we are thankful for, and stepping out of time to recognize these things, apart from everything else whizzing past us, is perhaps a Most Wonderful Thing. Being thankful allows us, just for that one ephemeral breath, to forget that time exists, bringing the luster of meaning to our mortality. That is the beauty of giving thanks.

Jul 1, 2011

Review of Waltz of the Asparagus People

Originally appeared in the July-August 2011 AIWCC Bulletin

Waltz of the Asparagus People
Robin Meloy Goldsby

To say that this collection of memoir-styled essays with its vintage-gorgeous cover is a sequel to Robin Goldsby's splendid debut, Piano Girl, would be, to put it bluntly, missing the point. In a similar vein to her first book, the twenty-three short pieces comprising Waltz of the Asparagus People — stories written in the key of wonderful— run the gamut from the sublime (The Glass Piano) to touches of the surreal (Waltz of the Asparagus People) to the absurdly poignant (Naked and The Tattooed Bride) to the one that is guaranteed to have you crying buckets (Little Big Soul).  
But the Piano Girl in Waltz of the Asparagus People is a bit older, married, with children, and has a wealth of life experiences, mostly as an expatriate, to share with us within these pages. It's no exaggeration to say that each story will evoke different emotions, sometimes a whole drawer full, but there is always laughter, even if bittersweet, to accompany them all
I never thought I would be afraid of a man in a wheelchair until I read The View from Here, a superbly written piece that could not have been handled so precisely in the hands of a less skilled writer.
Many of you have probably seen Robin Goldsby perform the introductory piece, Mr. President. Easily my favorite piece, Mr. President hasn't lost its charm after several readings, and it is easy to hear her voice while savoring the coming-home undertones highlighted by the absurd coincidence of meeting a charismatic ex-president who shares a moment of commonality with Robin.
 New York mingles unabashedly with Cologne in these pieces, with jaunts across the globe including a side trip to childhood in Pittsburgh, a touch of South Africa, the American Midwest, a hint of the middle East, Lyon, France, and, of course, Bergisch Gladbach, home to Schloss Lerbach, where Robin Goldsby plays her compositions for the well-dressed and well-fed guests.
But wait, there's more! The German language book, Walzer der Spargelmenschen, published by B├╝cken and Sulzer, was lovingly and expertly translated by our very own Dagmar Breitenbach. And the music to accompany the stories is available on the recently released companion CD, Waltz of the Asparagus People, providing ear candy to go along with the stories you won't want to leave behind when you go on vacation this summer. They can truly be read over and over again.
Both Waltz of the Asparagus People (ISBN 978-1456477547) and Walzer der Spargelmenschen (ISBN 978-3936405507) are available on Amazon in paperbook and ebook format.

Jun 1, 2011

Life Behind the Slushpile, Part Two

Originally posted in Allegory, Summer, 2011

 First of all, if it makes you feel any better to picture us naked and chained to our computers when you send in your stories, then go ahead. It used to work for me whenever I had to give a presentation in college. Well, almost always. It depended on who was sitting in front of me and the images raised.

Okay, no more silliness. This is serious business. Really. Are you ready? I'll summarize the process first before we get to the good stuff.

You send in your story. As per the guidelines, of course. Then Ty Drago, Allegory's editor, divvies up the stories to us – the legendary Allegory Elf Babes. The legendary part is because no one has actually ever seen one of us – we've never even seen each other – but we all exist, at least as far as anything exists and is not just a random conflagration (erm, configuration?) of supersymmetric strings…oh, never mind. We are the Assistant/Associate Editors whose names appear on the magazine.

So, the Elf Babes (and Ty) each take their pile of stories and read them. Why the skeptical faces? We do read them – all of them – and, as far as I know, we read them all the way through. I will admit to skimming on some of those 9K monsters if the story doesn't warrant the length, but that's usually near the end of the submission period when the story batches are piling up and Ty's got steam coming out of his nose (I can't actually see this, but I can sense it).

When we read a batch, we write a few relevant comments about each story, aimed at helping and illuminating. Unfortunately, in my case, it's usually only a sentence, at the most two. Sometimes, if the story really doesn't jive with me at all, I have a hard time coming up with anything to say. That doesn't mean the story is necessarily bad, it's just not something I feel I want to or can comment sufficiently on to help make it better. Then we make a decision to reject the story or bump it up to Ty. This last category is known in Allegory parlance as a 'maybe'. Very, very rarely, an author will get asked for a rewrite. I only know this from hearsay. I've never asked for a rewrite.

A note about response times. We try to do relatively quick turnarounds. We do. But sometimes, especially towards the end of the submission period…well, things pile up. And since Ty is so very nice and tries very hard not to bug us except to remind us that he's got a gajillion stories still to distribute, some of us feel especially guilty, and we ask Ty to send us another batch. So then we've got two batches to finish up. You get the picture, right?

At the end of the submission period, Ty takes all of the 'maybes' and selects eight of them for publication in the next issue of Allegory. The rest get Honorable Mentions. Then we Elf Babes get a few weeks to do our own writing and rest up for the next submission period while Ty wrestles with getting the magazine ready for publication.

So far so good. But what do we look for? And how does a 'maybe' translate into a 'yes'?

As an answer to the first question, I can only speak for myself. But when I see a well-written story, I'm happy. On top of that, it has to be a story that makes me want to read it to the end to see what will happen. And when I've gotten that far, it has to be an ending that makes me glad I read it all the way through. That's it. Nice writing. A story that propels the reader forward. An ending that justifies the journey. If all three of those things are present, I'm usually well inclined to give a story a 'maybe' and send it up to Ty.

There are also questions of personal taste involved, and those will vary depending on which of us your story gets sent to. Ty does not impose any pre-conceived ideas of what he is looking for on us. We send up things we like. Maybe it's a less than efficient way to do things, but personally, I rather like it. It makes working at Allegory fun and interesting because I don't have to second-guess whether another person will like the stories I'm sending up.

There are times when none of the stories I picked make it into the magazine, but I usually hit on at least one or two 'keepers'. I imagine it averages out over time. And even if not, I think it's a sign of a magazine's well-roundedness if differences in taste are apparent. That's the advantage of being a smaller, non-professional ezine. We don't have to say up front, 'read the magazine to see what we publish'. We publish just about everything if it has a speculative slant and if it's good and we like it.

So, in answer to the second question, I can only give you this advice. It works for Allegory, and I think it will work for any magazine, pro, semi-pro, or even f-t-l. Just write the best story you can. Write a story because you want to write it, and it's a story you would actually like to read. There are some who might recommend, 'write a story for a particular market'. Maybe they're right. I think this is particularly true if you are trying to get into a themed issue or an anthology. Or if you're really shooting for that one mag, and you've just got to crack it – then take out a subscription and read all the stories you can to get a flavor for what they're looking for.

But really, just keep writing. Maybe you'll have to consign a few of them to your own private slushpile hell along the way. We've all done that. But if you keep writing and and keep submitting, one day it will pay off. And keep reading. Read all kinds of stories, all over the place.

Oh, and before I forget – one last piece of advice. Maybe volunteer to read slush for one of those magazines. It will likely make the learning curve for crafting a good story less steep, especially for those of us not financially equipped for attending those coveted writing workshops we all dream about. And because it's just darn fun. I enjoy reading your stories. Thank you the privilege and for giving me your trust.

Life Behind the Slushpile (Part 1) appeared as a guest blog here on Colin Harvey's Suite 101 blog in May, 2009.

Life Behind the Slush Pile

Originally posted on Colin Harvey's blog, May, 2009

Joining the ranks of those whose job it is to read submitted stories has not significantly increased my own publication rate since I joined Ty Drago's editorial staff at Allegory in August of 2008. Not yet, anyway. But it will. I'm learning a lot about the things that make a story work from reading 'slush' – a term we do not use to refer to the stories in our pile. They are called submissions, and rightly so!

During the Allegory submission period, Ty distributes the stories as they come in to whichever of us (timidly) raises our hand. I suppose every editor has their own approach to reading stories. Mine is simple. I read them, one after the other, all the way through – regardless of whether overwritten, badly written or 'I just plain don't like'. It does take time. But it's my job, and I've discovered that I rather enjoy it.

If I find myself really liking a story, I'll break out the pickles and crisps while I'm reading and make it a festive occasion. We throw the really good stuff into a 'maybe' pile for later sorting into the stories chosen for that issue. The rejected stories all get a personal note, even if only a short one. It's the magazine's policy and I think a good one. Here's how I picture an author's response after getting back one of my rejections: "Oh, they hated the surprise ending with the zombie budgies – I can work on that" or "I knew having the three-headed alien puke green slime all over the girl – with all three heads – was over the top." When I've written 'please keep trying', I actually mean it. It is especially encouraging to see an author who I've rejected before submit a new story that is better, closer to being what I consider 'publishable' for Allegory.

Because that's what it's all about, really. Enjoyment of the craft of writing stories and getting better at it.