March 19

My History of Rejection

Rejection has always been a mainstay of the writing life (and in many cases, my personal life). Well, at least it used to be. Nowadays, with the ability to self-publish, the only thing writers have to worry about is selling their stories on the multitude of online platforms.

But it wasn’t always this way. When I started submitting my stories to magazines in the mid-1990s, rejection was the name of the game. The internet was still in its infancy, so the only real options were to submit stories to magazines: formatted, printed, and stuffed into a flat envelope (no folding!) with a cover letter and the right amount of postage. There was a lot of money put down up front in the hopes of possibly getting an acceptance. And there was also the hurdle that many magazines wouldn’t even look at your story if you admitted it had also been submitted to other publications. No simultaneous submissions.

Oh, and if you wanted a response – either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – you had to also include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Ah, the good olde days.

I think I was an aberration. I wasn’t afraid of receiving rejections for my stories. The way I looked at it, I knew the odds were against me. There were thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of writers out there submitting stories. That’s a lot of competition and, realistically, I knew half of them were going to be submitting better stories. It was all about timing, hitting the right market at the right time. Vegas odds, baby.

So the first thing I ever submitted was a poem to The New Yorker, arguably one of the best magazines for amazing writing. I knew I was going to be rejected. I had no experience, no publishing history, and was completely unknown. The way I saw it, if I was going to start down this path, why not get rejected from one of my favorite magazines?

Spoiler alert: I was rejected.

New Yorker Rejection
My first rejection!

Once I got that out of the way, the rest of the rejections (and yes, there were many) didn’t sting. In fact, I collected them. For many years I had a cork board on the wall next to my PC. It had a little card over it that read, “The Wall of Rejection”, and each rejection I received was lovingly thumbtacked to it. Well, until it wouldn’t hold any more. Then they were moved to a file folder.

I was tidying up in my home office last week and stumbled upon that old rejection folder. It wasn’t quite as thick as I remembered it, but there were still a surprising number. As I thumbed through them I was reminded of how varied they were. Of course, there were the straight-up form letters, there were ones with lists of rejection reasons with a checkbox next to each, and then there were my favorites, the personal notes. The simple fact that an editor took the time to read one of my stories – really read it, not scan it – then sit down and write a note explaining why they turned it down, what they liked about it, and what I could do to improve it, meant the world to me and inspired me to keep writing. They still do, even all these years later.

I thought you might find it interesting to see a few of the personal responses in my esteemed collection.

Vampire Dan Rejection
Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium
Pulp Magazine Rejection
Pulp Magazine
Short Stories Magazine Rejection
Short Stories Magazine
Outer Darkness Rejection
Outer Darkness

Now that self-publishing dominates the writing industry, and magazine publishing is fading into a tiny, niche market, I wonder if rejection letters will become a thing of the past. In a way, I hope not. To me, they are a badge of honor for writers. It shows that we tried.

And for what it’s worth, my writing career has lasted longer than most of these publications.

RB

 

March 5

A Poetry Moment – IV

While I adore poetry and enjoy writing verse, I don’t fancy myself a poet. However, there are moments when I feel I’ve actually written something worthwhile, or at least good enough to share.

One of my favorite short story writers is Ernest Hemingway. He’s probably more famous for his novels, but I’ve found that his short stories are more to my liking. Oftentimes, I sit quietly after finishing one of them so I can let it sink in, contemplate the theme, explore the nuance. There aren’t many writers who affect me that way.

Hemingway Writing
‘Papa’ Hemingway working on a story.

Despite his fame and fortune, Hemingway had issues. Alcoholism, a temper, and later in life, severe depression. All that, in turn, took a toll on his writing and led to the end of his career, and his life.

About twenty years ago I was on a Hemingway kick, reading just about everything he wrote and everything that had been written about him. I tend to do that with writers that I admire or who inspire me. After immersing myself in his work, I found I was inspired to write something. Here’s what I ended up with…

Ketchum, Idaho

Papa said goodbye there, 

in the hallway, near the front door.

His body prone on the floor like a discarded book,

the pages now blank.  The words

splattered against the wall with all the viscosity of gray matter.

He probably felt like a book of blank pages,

basically useless.

The words were no longer there, either

Deadened by pills,

Or drown in alcohol,

Or burned out by the electro shock.

So instead of dwelling on once was, he decided to bring

the story to a close

On a fine summer day, on the outskirts of Ketchum.

And standing in that doorway, if only in a dream, I can hear

a church bell ringing in the distance.

 

Not necessarily the happiest of poems, but it encapsulates what I imagine he was feeling when the words wouldn’t come. And in a way, this is my tribute to a writer who, despite his faults, wrote amazing, timeless stories and inspired generations of writers.

RB

February 25

My 2021 Reading List

I’m off to a late start on my 2021 reading due to unforeseen circumstances, but I’m ready to crack some spines and enjoy being swept away into deep space, magical realms, and exposed to new ideas. After the last year or so, I’m in desperate need for a little escape from reality.

I actually have two “to-read” stacks. One is physical books. I keep a stack on the bookshelf next to my side of the bed, and the other exists on my Kindle. One of my simple joys is laying in bed at night and reading for an hour or so. I find it’s great fodder for my dreams, although I don’t necessarily dream about the stories I’m reading. I think that reading before falling asleep stimulates my imagination, stirs up the dust and cobwebs in my mental archives and allows me to have vivid, and occasionally crazy, dreams. My unconscious imagination wanders down all sorts of twisting and turning paths, and oftentimes I wake up with ideas for stories of my own.

And that’s what I need right now – inspiration. I’m a firm believer that creativity is like a muscle in that it needs exercise, to be worked regularly, pushed so that it grows stronger. I had to go for a good two months without working it, and now I’m feeling the pain as I try to get it back in shape. But I’m not giving up. Baby steps, right?

Here are the physical books I have lined up (so far) to read this year:

Stack of books.
Some of my 2021 reads.

The virtual stack on my Kindle includes A Quiet Rebellion: Posterity, The Garden of Stone Houses, and Accusing Mr. Darcy. These are books written by authors in the Twitter #WritingCommunity.

I have a fairly big mountain to conquer this year, especially when getting a late start, but I’m looking forward to the adventure. And I’ll be sure to review them all here on my blog and hopefully inspire you, dear reader, to pick up copies of these books, as well.

RB

February 22

A Favorite Painter

One form of art that’s always inspired me, and one I haven’t yet attempted, is painting. It intimates me, to be honest. When I look closely at the brushstrokes, the finesse, I feel an overwhelming sense of awe. It’s a subtle art form, where the hand and the eye work in concert to create a thing of beauty.

Of course, I love most of the famous painters, and even a few of the lesser known. However, one of my favorite painters is my mother. She’s not the woman who gave birth to me, but she’s the one who raised me, who inspired me to be creative, and who encourages me even when she doesn’t quite understand some of the things I create. Encouragement without judgement. I’m lucky to have that.

Her primary medium has been painting, and I’m lucky enough to have a couple of her unframed canvases in my home. And because her art inspires me, I thought it would be nice to share it with others in the hope that the inspiration carries forward. I wish I had more of her work, but there are other siblings in the family. But if she reads this and feels so inclined, I’m happy to take more (wink, wink).

Flower painting.
Painting by Joni Bist

My mom isn’t professionally trained, although she took a few classes many years ago. Her painting is nature-based and it probably the reason why I like to take photos in nature (since I’m still unsure about trying my hand at painting).

Painting of river running through a forest.
Painting by Joni Bist

Unfortunately, she hasn’t picked up a brush in years. It happens. Life can get complicated, we get older, our priorities change. She now has grandchildren and great-grandchildren to occupy her time. However, a few years ago I bought her a painting kit in the hopes it would inspire her to pick up the brush again. Maybe once she gets settled in a new home and new surroundings she’ll find the time to return to the medium that brought so much joy to her friends and family.

RB

February 18

Capturing Moments

I’ve previously posted about photography, mostly regarding how I find inspiration in old photos, but I’ve also enjoyed taking photos. It started when I was a teenager in high school. I got my hands on a Canon AE1 35mm and fell in love with it. At one point, a friend and I set up our own darkroom in a shed behind his parent’s house. We’d spend hours taking photos around town and then spend several more hours developing the negatives. We mostly worked in black and white because it was easier to process. Occasionally, we’d try our hand at color, but it wasn’t much fun shaking those tubes of paper and chemicals for what seemed like hours. And while I’d love to have another professional camera, I’m content with my iPhone.

Bottles in sunny window.
Bottles in sunny window.

My personal preferences are portrait and nature photos. In fact, I take photos whenever I’m out and about, walking in the park with my partner and our dogs, or motoring down the St. Marks River and out into the Gulf of Mexico on a friend’s boat. I see little moments of beauty that I want to capture and keep with me, and occasionally I’m successful.

Mushrooms in the grass.
Mushrooms in the grass.

The thing about photography is that it’s not just pointing the lens at something and pushing a button. There’s framing, lighting, the Rule of Thirds, shutter speed, formatting, and so many other things to consider. I’m by no means a professional, but I do try to take all the particulars into account when capturing an image.

I also find inspiration in photos. As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy looking through old photos, even when I don’t know anyone in the images. Looking at those captured moments, my mind wanders as I wonder about who these people are, what they were thinking, what were they like, and what happened to them. 

When it comes to photos of relatives, many of the same questions come up, especially with the ones I never had the chance to meet. Great-grandparents, great aunts and uncles, distant cousins…they all become characters in my imagination. I don’t concern myself with how close to the truth I may get with my daydreams. It’s all make-believe. 

Unfortunately, the weather hasn’t been cooperative lately. Almost constant rain temperatures ranging from the low 30s to the mid 70s have not been conducive to spending quality time outdoors. That hasn’t stopped me from taking photos, however, it’s just limited my roaming.

Autumn Leaves.
Autumn leaves on a tree in my backyard.

In fact, my backyard is a great place to take photos, and not just of my dogs. I’ve let a bit of it grow wild to attract birds, and a few years ago I spread mushroom compost (from a local mushroom farm) and now we have all sorts of interesting fungi sprouting up. It’s really a nice mini-nature retreat within the city limits. 

And most of the photos I take are spur of the moment, like when something catches my eye. It might be the way the sunlight is illuminating a batch of flowers, or the way some mushrooms are growing on a rotting log, or maybe the way a bird is perched on a branch. I don’t necessarily look for the shots, I stumble upon them.

Moss on a rotting log.
Moss on a rotting log in my backyard.

Photography, to me, is a unique art form in that it’s used to capture a moment in time, something that would otherwise be lost with the blink of an eye. That’s both special and inspiring. 

RB

February 8

Creative Storytelling on Television

I’m not much of a television-watcher. Sure, there are certain programs I’ve enjoyed and will rewatch, like Firefly, Babylon 5, Deep Space 9, Doctor Who, and the original Twilight Zone. Most of it I find less than compelling. My partner watches a wide variety of programming, sitcoms, rom-coms, dramas, sci-fi…if it catches her attention, she’ll watch it right until the last episode. Me? Not so much.

The thing is, I don’t find much that interests me. I get frustrated by poor writing in shows that are supposed to be dramatic or realistic. One that comes to mind is The Walking Dead. The first season was fantastic, spot-on writing, great acting, wonderful production. The following seasons kept the acting and production, but the writing got sloppier and sloppier, with gaping plot holes, inconsistent character actions, and too much redundancy. I found myself talking back to the screen and wondering what the hell the writers were thinking.

But every once in a while there’s something new, something original, that rekindles my interest in television. The latest show to do that for me is WandaVision on Disney+. And no, this isn’t a plug. I sincerely love this show and the way Marvel Studios is integrating streaming programs with their cinematic universe.

WandaVision Logo

I’m won’t go into any plot details in order to avoid spoiling the show for anyone who hasn’t tuned in yet. Instead, I want to focus on the way the show is being presented and how they are telling the story.

Basically, Wanda (aka the Scarlet Witch) has the power to mold reality, and in this show she has created her own reality where she and her lover, Vision, live as a happily married couple. The show utilizes the sitcom format, filming some scenes in front of a live studio audience and using laugh tracks for other scenes, but it’s definitely not your standard sitcom.

What I think I like most about the show is how it plays on the sitcom tropes and play homage to classic shows. For example, each episode of WandaVision focuses on an era of television and incorporate elements from popular shows of that time period. The first episode was a homage to The Dick Van Dyke Show (which is still one of the funniest shows to ever air on television), even presenting it in black and white. The second episode was a tribute to Bewitched, the third was The Brady Bunch, and the fourth episode was Family Ties. For those outside the US, these were all shows that were popular in their respective times and are icons of television that are still referenced today.

Black and white photo of Wanda and Vision

The writers on the show are also doing an amazing job. They do a fantastic job of capturing the essence and quirkiness of each show from each era. For example, in the first episode the neighbor comments about Wanda not having a wedding ring and that she’s surprised an attractive eligible woman isn’t married yet. So very 1960s. In the fourth episode – the Family Ties one – the writing slips effortlessly between 1980s humor and drama, incorporating the ‘teaching moments’ that were popular in sitcoms at that time.

Scene from WandaVision

The thing is, there is so much to unpack with this show, but in doing so I’d be revealing spoilers. Maybe once the show ends (it’s only a nine-episode run), I can really dissect it for you and write about all the amazing nuances. Just to give you a bit of a teaser, there’s much more going on than just these old sitcoms. There are weird asides, odd occurrences, and things that just don’t seem to fit quite right into Wanda’s reality. Each episode reveals a little bit more of the overall story.

Wanda with toy helicopter

It also goes to show that television programming can be original, creative, and challenge viewers to think outside the box. Too much of the stuff currently available simply isn’t well written and isn’t thought out. Looking back at some of the shows I listed at the top of this post makes me realize that I like tend to have overarching story lines. You know, where episodes can stand alone, but when put together provide a long-form story.

If you haven’t watched WandaVision yet, I have one word of warning: It’s helps to have some knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You don’t have to go back and watch every film from the first three phases, but it would be useful to at least watch the last two, Infinity War and Endgame. Those will provide enough backstory to get you into the wonderful weirdness that is WandaVision. Check out the trailer below for a little taste.

RB

 

 

January 26

My Evolving Taste in Music

I’ll admit it – when I was a teenager I was a snob when it came to music. Not that I had any reason to be. I was into a mix of classic rock, psychedelic, progressive, and heavy metal. I listened to The Doors, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix, Judas Priest, Scorpions, and Iron Maiden, to name just a few. Not necessarily a bad or strange mix, but it was purposely limited. I think it was some strange sort of teenage rebellion. And if it annoyed my father, all the better.

Man covering ears
My father’s reaction to my musical tastes.

I didn’t understand jazz, and although I didn’t listen to the blues, I assumed all the songs were depressing. Classical was for old people, as was big band music and the crooners from the 1940s and 50s. Country was too…well, country, and I don’t think I even knew that bluegrass, Americana, and folk even existed.

But over time I began to branch out. A lot of this was due to meeting new people and discovering the local college radio station when I moved to Tallahassee. The station, V89, played (and still plays) an incredible variety of music and soundscapes. Additionally, they have weekly shows that focus on specific genres and eras of music. Saturday mornings are set aside for classic rock and in the afternoon you can catch the reggae show. Sunday mornings are blues, the afternoon is singer/songwriter, and in the evening, jazz.

They also have a world music show that caught my attention, and that’s really when things started to change for me. I mean, I’m familiar with music from other cultures, but only peripherally and usually as background or incidental music in movies and television programs. It’s music you hear, but don’t really pay attention to.

Recently, my eyes have been opened even wider by listening to a playlist on Apple Music titled “World Groove”. It’s an amazing mix of music from all over the globe – Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and South America – and it pulls from different time periods, as well. I’ll hear a 1960s pop song from Japan, followed by a modern dance song from Jamaica, which is then followed by a funky song from Turkey in the 1980s. It’s amazing.

This playlist has turned me on to so many amazing musicians, like Congolese artist Lumingu Puati.

And the Swedish/Turkish band Cafe Turk.

And Brazilian singer Ceu.

I hope you take a few minutes to check out these artists. I’ve found that broadening my musical horizons has been inspiring. These are musicians that I probably never would have heard if it weren’t for these radio programs and streaming playlists. Artists who have worked in relative obscurity – maybe known in their home countries, but unknown to the rest of the world – and it makes me smile to think they probably have no idea that some middle-aged guy in North Florida is dancing in his living room while listening to their music.

Do yourself a favor and push the boundaries on your usual musical choices. Like fiction, I don’t think it’s fair to limit ourselves to specific genres. Read everything, listen to everything, explore the world. You never know what you may find out there, what may inspire you, what may change your life. And be sure to dance.

RB

November 20

A Dream to the Rescue

There’s a story idea I’ve been brooding over for quite some time. It’s a science-fiction piece, set on a colony world that’s not terribly dissimilar to the early settlers in the American Old West. Not the cowboy era, but more like the homesteaders, eking out a living from the land around them.

But I’ve been stuck on it. I’ve made four solid attempts to write the story, but each time I end up dissatisfied by the first draft. And each successive draft has been very different from the previous one. So I filed it away out of frustration, but every so often it would pop into my head and I’ll think about it for a while…then move on to something else.

The thing is, the premise of the story is good, solid. I’m good with it. Where I’m running into problems is with the narrative. I can see the basic arc in my head, but I haven’t been able to find the right narrative to fit it, if that makes sense.

However, the other night I was laying in bed, drifting off to sleep, and I started thinking about the story again. I love that half-awake/half-asleep time, where reality and dream mingle and my mind drifts back and forth across the divide. That’s when I have some of my best story ideas, work out problems, inhabit my characters and see through their eyes. And once again, it came through for me. I could see my protagonist working in a  tilled field, planting seeds and wiping the sweat from his forehead with a bandanna. He hears the clang of the church bell in town, about a quarter of a mile away, and he sees a young boy running down the dirt road next to the field. The boy stops, breathless, and says, “Did you hear? The angel is coming back! Reverend Kyle saw it in the sky last night!” And something in my imagination clicked. I had it.

It turns out I’ve been overcomplicating the damn thing, overthinking it. That’s one of the curses of being a writer. Ray Bradbury, one of my writing idols, used to keep a note tacked over his typewriter that read, “Don’t Think!”. That’s good advice. Overthinking it instead of letting the story tell itself is usually what trips me up. And again, Bradbury was right. I miss that man.

Now I have a plan, I can see the story more clearly now what I need to do. It’s a weird feeling – part excitement to finally have a clear path; part anxiety from so many failed attempts. But I feel more confident, ready to tackle this little monster and get it all down on paper. Or on my hard drive. This is one of the last couple of stories I’m working on for my next collection. The end is in sight. Way in the distance, but  I now know I can make it.

My take away from this is to constantly remind myself: Don’t Think. I need to follow Bradbury’s lead and get that printed up in big, bold letters and tack it to the wall over my writing space. And maybe get it tattooed on my forehead. Backward, of course, so I can read it in a mirror.

Now..gotta get back to it. I have a story to write. Thanks, Mr. Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury

RB

October 30

A Halloween Treat

I’ve loved scary stories since I was a wee lad in South Florida, and one of my favorite things to do on Halloween was break out a vinyl album of mine. The album was Alfred Hitchcock presents Ghost Stories for Young People. It was released back in 1962 and I think I found it in a record store when I was around eight or nine years old.

I listened to it so many times when I was young I had it memorized…but it still gave me the shivers. Unfortunately, the original vinyl was lost to time, but I was lucky enough to find it on CD a few years ago. Of course, nowadays you can find almost anything online, and someone was awesome enough to post the entire album on YouTube.

If you’re looking for some Halloween chills, give it a listen. Hitchcock is a fantastic narrator, and the stories, while creepy, also contain a little bit of dark humor. It may be geared towards children, but this middle-aged man still loves it.

Note – the stories are broken out into separate videos, so be sure to listen to all of them!

Enjoy!

October 26

A Little Creativity

I find myself constantly amazed at the creativity shown by people during this pandemic. Yesterday I watched a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about how people are changing their Halloween plans to make them safer. Some of the adaptations included a long-distance candy dispenser for the trick-or-treaters and drive-through haunted houses.

I think it’s fantastic that people are willing to put in a little effort – and imagination – to keep spirits high in a time when we’re all feeling the pressure.

But the creativity doesn’t stop there. I was talking (online) to a friend who told me that over the past weekend he not only learned how to play bingo via Zoom, but also attended a Zoom-based murder mystery party. I didn’t have a chance to get all the logistics behind it, but I can’t imagine how they set that up. Regardless, it’s still an incredibly creative way to bring people together and interact while still remaining relatively safe.

I know, we hear a lot about people complaining about the lock downs, the social distancing, the mask wearing, but I look at this all as an opportunity. Think about it – we can look at all this as some massive pain in the ass that has turned our lives upside down and created chaos, or we can look at this as an opportunity to try new things, to do things in a different way, and to see just how creative we can be.

Don’t let the situation sour your perspective. Sure, things sort of suck at the moment, but you can still make the best of it. Improve yourself, help others, and most of all, be creative. You may have some hidden talents you didn’t know you had. All you have to do it try something new and see what happens.

RB