Well, since you asked…

I’m a Vine reviewer.  If you’re not familiar with the term — and no I don’t mean the video site — that means I’m one of a group of reviewers who gets products from various companies, via Amazon.com, to evaluate and review.  Or to put it simply, Amazon sends me stuff in exchange for reviews.  I’ve been a part of Vine for a number of years now so I’ve gotten a lot of stuff from the program.  Not all of it is stuff that was worth getting, and I’ve said so on any number of occasions because that’s my job.  Vine requirements are pretty strict, you get a product, you review it.  If you don’t, you don’t get more product.

I also get private review requests, a lot of them, because I’m one of the top 500 reviewers on Amazon.  (I don’t know exactly how that’s figured, it has something to do with how many reviews you’ve written and how many helpful votes they’ve gotten or something like that.)  Companies send me stuff to evaluate and review.   I actually turn down more of these than I accept because sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

With items I get outside of Vine, the agreement to review is implicit.  For me it’s simply common courtesy to review something I’ve promised to review.   Have I ever not done that?  A few times.  Mostly they were books that I wasn’t able to get into.  Not bad books, just ones that, for whatever reason, never held my interest.

A lot of my friends, upon hearing that I’m evaluating, for example, a vitamin supplement, a slow cooker, or a book by Stephen King (only one of those three have I ever been sent for  review) will say, “Hey, I could do that!”  to which I say, “Of course you could.”  Because it’s true.  Each of us has the capacity to evaluate an item and give our opinion about it.  Most of my friends would probably write very good reviews.  But when they ask me how to get into the Vine program or get people to send them “free” stuff, I have to say upfront that I haven’t got a clue how to get into Vine.  Nobody seems to know what the criteria are for being chosen.  I also have to point out that it’s not free stuff.  Implicit or explicit, the exchange is clear: you get something, you give something.

I just wrote my 675th review on Amazon.  That’s a lot of work.  And I can tell you that you don’t get into Vine without doing a lot of that work on your own, reviewing the stuff you’ve bought, giving your honest opinion on what’s good or bad about those things.  I’ve written 675 reviews over a long period of time and that makes me a good bet for any company.  They may not get a great review, but they will get a review.  If I wrote one review a year, and that review was maybe fifty words, there’s no way people would be asking me to try their stuff.    Hell I’ve just shed blood over one review!  I was evaluating a kitchen chopper, my hand slipped and I ended up in the bathroom, trying not to drip blood everywhere while I struggled with the band aid wrapper.

Of course you could do what I do, but do you?

If you just want to get free stuff, I’d say forget it.  That doesn’t just happen.  If you’re willing to put the work in, I’d say get writing.  Review everything.  Make your reviews useful to people by giving specifics about what you’ve found.  You know how to do this; emulate the reviews you’ve found helpful.  Just keep writing them.  Maybe one day you’ll hit the magical goal and Amazon will send you a note inviting you into the program.  And maybe you won’t.  But you’ll have helped a lot of people along the way and that’s worth a lot.

I link below to a couple of articles about Vine below, one of which refers to “elite” reviewers.  Not so much.  We’re just the people who do the job.

What does my story sound like?

Everything I write has a soundtrack.  Sometimes it’s just in my head, although since I discovered Spotify, those soundtracks have become more real, and infinitely more time-consuming.  I can spend hours hunting up the right combination of musical tracks that will keep me in the mood to write.  I have a jazz soundtrack for a romance novel I’m working on, a 60s soundtrack for a (finished) piece of Highlander fanfiction called “White Rabbit” (Some of you might recall it.), a dark rock soundtrack for a piece of Oz fanfic called “Rough Trade”  (I’m thinking even fewer of you recall that.) and a big, all purpose Celtic/folk soundtrack for a larger universe that I will probably be working on on my deathbed.

But I often find myself in need of a generic sort of soundtrack, something full of instrumentals I’m not familiar with, so I did a Spotify search on “music for writing.”  I turned up about a dozen different playlists, many of which didn’t suit me at all so while I added a few of them to my queue, I decided I needed to make one of my own.

When I started compiling my own generic “Music for Writing” list, my favorite work by Philip Glass, “In the Upper Room,” had to be on it.  I saw the Joffrey do this on a horrible Valentine’s Day night when it was snowing so badly that the house was nearly empty when the curtain went up.  But people struggled through the snow, and by the time intermission was over the place was full.  And I was transfixed by not only the music, but the movement.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ballet that thrilled me more than this one.  Here’s one of the pieces from it:

I like working to classical music.  The pieces are usually more than a few minutes long, so I get a flow going.  One of my favorite pieces of music of all time, is a perennial favorite for writing too.  It’s the “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” by Ralph Vaughn-Williams

My playlist also includes a lot of Wagner, and if you think you hate Wagner, check out “The Ring Without Words.” It might just change your mind. It’s good writing music.   I also listen  Brahms “Academic Festival Overture,” Saint Saens Organ Symphony, the end of which you’ll certainly recognize if you ever saw the movie, “Babe,” and more contemporary work by Eric Whitacre, (“Lux Arumque”) and William Grant Still, (“Romance”)  But I’m not all about the classical gas.  I love Celtic and folk, too.  I play a lot of stuff by Enya and Loreena McKennitt while I work.  But this is currently one of my favorite tracks, “Chi Mi Na Morbheanna”:

I’m also big on jazz, particularly stuff from the 20s and 30s, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong are all big favorites of mine, though the vocals are distracting. Ditto swing music, instrumental only is pretty much the rule.  Duke Ellington‘s “The Mooche” has set the mood for a few playfully sexy scenes.

Ken Burns series “Jazz” has opened up a lot of new areas of interest for me in terms of jazz so my soundtracks are seeing a lot of tracks from folks like Chick Webb, Fats Waller, Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and a great many more.  There’s a kind of shaky line between jazz and blues, and I slide back and forth over it.   One of the songs I’ve played a lot lately is Blind Willie Johnson‘s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” which is one of the pieces of music that went out into space on Voyager’s golden record.

And just this week I discovered Adham Shaikh’s “Water Prayer Rasta Mix” thanks to “Orphan Black”  I’ve been playing it a lot in the last few days.

Isn’t that just the best?  I’ve been boring my Facebook friends stupid by plugging whenever I can, but it’s so good.  I’m actually liking the whole album.  I’m finding it to be great writing music.

So while I was practicing other forms of avoidance today and thing to share some of the music that keeps me going while I work, I also thought to ask the other writers out there what they listen to while they write.  I am always open to suggestion, and I love getting recs.  That’s how I discover new stuff!  So please let me know what sets your moods for you.  Do you have specialized soundtracks, or generic ones?  Both?  Neither?  Do you work best in absolute silence?  Or in a chaos of house noises?

Here’s my current generic Music for Writing playlist.  Like everything about my life, it’s a work in progress.

For those of you who do recall White Rabbit and/or Rough Trade, the links to my soundtracks are embedded below the links.

Related articles

White Rabbit:

Rough Trade:

I’ve hit the (almost) mid-story slump

A number of years ago, when I was active in Oz fandom, I started what I thought would be a series of short stories in an alternate universe.  It was called “Son and Heir.”  I don’t know why I never wrote more than one story.  Some folks liked it quite a lot, and at the time I thought it was an interesting idea.  But I let it go and never went back to it.

About a week ago I started thinking about the story for some reason, reread it, and thought again that it was a good idea, so I set out to write it again, but without any sort of direct reference either to the Oz universe or the original story.  It’s been an interesting process.  I got a complete outline in about three days, and banged out close to 10k in about the same amount of time.

And then it slowed to a crawl.

20140618_193532I did almost  nothing yesterday, and today looked like it was going to be the same.  It’s immensely frustrating to have an entire story outlined and not be able to write the story.  Even the presence of Miss Peeb, my most trusted work associate, hasn’t helped.

Today I managed about 1300 words, and it felt as if I was mining each one.  I had the sense that I was going after the story with a pickax.   So today I spent a lot of time surfing the web — I did manage to pin two of my favorite cake recipes, Reine de Saba and Hershey Bar Cake, to one of my Pinterest boards — answering email, sleeping (I’ve been rewatching “Rome” but I couldn’t stay awake this afternoon) and checking the weather because there are lines of thunderstorms moving through the area.  I also spent a total of about an hour staring into the refrigerator muttering, “I wonder if I should just order from GrubHub?”  I still haven’t eaten yet today, except for a couple of pieces of chocolate coconut almond bark.  When I can’t write, I don’t really feel much like eating either.  Nothing in the house looked good.  Now I’m starving.

I don’t know why my brain continues to skitter sideways when I look at the outline.  I see “words words words” and I’m thinking “How can I rearrange the living room?”  “Should I turn on the a/c?”  “I wonder if there’s a good resource for information about con games of the 1920s?”  I can’t even use the time to do things that need doing like laundry or the dishes.

How useless am I as a writer?

Eh, this too shall pass, and I’ll be banging out words like a demon this time next week.  I hope.  I need to feel productive again.  Blergh.

I got the disappearin’ railroad blues

Earlier this year I applied to the Amtrak Residency for Writers.  I didn’t have high hopes; I was sure there were going to be a lot of applicants.  I’m not the only person who loves writing on trains.

Almost as soon as the program was announced, people started having problems with it.  No real surprise, people have problems with everything.  I had to admit there were some genuine concerns but since I never expected to be chosen, I figured that applying would be good for me, a kind of motivator.

So I filled out the forms and waited.  Today I got the very nice, So Sorry But… email.  And that’s fine.  It’s all what you’d call grist for the mill.  I figured I’d get a blog post out of it at the very least.  And while I was trying to think of a good title for the post, and listening to umpty gazillion versions of “City of New Orleans” on Spotify, I came up with a plot for a train story.  So far from losing, I’ve gained something from the whole process.

You’ve stuck with me this far, so let me share a bit of the essay I sent to Amtrak with my application.  It was written on a trip I made on the Empire Builder in April of 1989.

 

I intend to read for a while before I sleep, but am distracted by the special, secret pleasure of watching a moonlit landscape move past my window.  The land is very hilly here in Minnesota, and it has the look of a sound sleeper.  In small towns, grain silos stand like patient giants beside the tracks. I imagine them filled with treasure, or terrifying secrets.  Or both.  Even the most prosaic landscape changes at night into something mysterious, vaguely threatening and wholly exciting.

Around midnight we pull into the St. Paul/Minneapolis depot.  This is a long stop and I can see Sandra from my window.  She is standing on the platform talking to a conductor; they both look cold.  While we’re at the station I fall into a fitful sleep despite the noise from the next compartment where it seems there’s a party going on, and the fact that the bed is so hard it’s like sleeping on the floor.  I sleep surprisingly well, rocked in this unfamiliar cradle.

But by six the next morning I am irrevocably awake; the swaying of the train can no longer lull me back into sleep. Anxious to see where we are, I raise the shade and encounter something for which I have no frame of reference. Now, just before dawn, the sky and land are a uniform shade of grey.  There are no landmarks, no trees, bushes, fences, nothing to break the seamlessness flow of earth into sky, not even a discernable horizon line.  Powdery snow devils swirl and sweep across the void.  It’s like traveling along the edge of the world. But in another few minutes, the sun is high enough to cast a few shadows, and give the landscape some form.  It looks as tired as I feel.  Can anyone else be up and about at this hour?

Sandra has already slipped a copy of USA Today under my door, so I begin my morning by catching up on the outside world.  After the shock North Dakota, it’s a pleasure to read sports scores and national weather.  As I read, the sun brightens the landscape and a wide expanse of white clouds breaks up a sky which grows progressively bluer.  The land is so flat out here that it could be used to teach perspective.  Here there are not even those piles of rocks and stones I saw in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  It is as if nature had not enough energy to throw up the smallest protuberance.  I am uncomfortable with such starkness; it strips away my defenses and makes me feel serious and mature.  Later still, when the land begins to rise and fall a bit, I am finally able to feel frivolous again.  I wander down to where there’s an urn of coffee, and some sleepy-looking people chatting about the trip.  Some of them are waiting to get off at Rugby and aren’t looking forward to the icy morning.  Rugby, North Dakota is the geographical center of North America, according to the route guide.  There is a monument to mark the spot and a museum nearby, but all I can see when the doors slide open is a lot of very cold people.  The town itself is drab.  I joke that they should have put the geographical center of the US someplace warmer.  One of the passengers tries to explain the concept to me, and I have to tell him that it was a joke.  It’s early, we both say, and laugh.

My breakfast companions are more cheerful than the group from the night before.  There is a woman traveling to Spokane to see her sister, a man from North Dakota who rides the train regularly, and an older man who is an Amtrak employee.  We talk about the weather (cold), traffic (sparse, even along main highways), and trains (in the Eastern corridor the trains are newer and faster.)  I wonder how to account for the difference between last night’s awkward conversation and this morning’s easy dialog.  Is it the people?  Are they more garrulous?  Or is it that we are now all veterans of a night on board?  I find I am too late for the ‘famous railroad French Toast’ so I order pancakes and find them unremarkable.  The coffee is wonderful, though and I have several cups as we talk.

Just outside Minot the landscape changes dramatically and I find this very exciting for no better reason than that I am sick to death of flat land.  I rejoice too soon.  Suddenly the country flattens out again.  The man from North Dakota assures me that most of the land I’ll be seeing from here to the Rockies will look like this and I begin to wonder about the wisdom of this trip.  They all promise that the Rockies are wonderful.

Like the land, the sky is wide and unbroken.

The morning’s commentary brings some interesting information.  North Dakota is the coldest of the lower forty-eight states; it has more millionaires per capita than any other state and so much military power that if it ever seceded from the United States it could become the third most powerful military nation in the world.  I spend some time trying to correlate these statistics but the connection eludes me.

Train conversation mostly centers around travel.  It’s the one thing we all have in common, and as I am to discover, it’s a topic of great interest to nearly everyone I meet.  Train travelers enjoy the journey as much as the arrival.  I don’t think I’ve ever met an airline passenger who could say as much, though some profess to love to fly on commercial airlines. I feel certain that they’re the same people who like Wonder Bread and instant coffee.

On the way back to my compartment the disembodied voice over the P.A. system exhorts us to look to the left where a herd of buffalo are grazing.  ‘Herd’ is, perhaps, optimistic.  There are about as many animals in the field as there are passengers on the train.  The sight of them shocks me into an unpleasant realization.  We have so much to lose, and already we have thrown much of it away.  Our land is beginning to be tired; it is beginning to look tired.  How much garbage can it absorb?  How many people can it sustain?  How much of its natural resources can we deplete before it becomes unlivable?  And then I realize that this country is only the world in small, and that the same choices will have to be made over and over again, in every country on earth.  It’s not a productive line of thought for someone cut off from her life, and living among strangers, so I pack it away to consider later.

At Havre, Montana there is a stop of about a quarter hour.  I need to walk a bit in the fresh air so I gather up a handful of postcards and go downstairs.  Sandra gives me more postcards from other passengers and asks me to mail them too, which I do.  Then I go into the station and call home just to make sure that my family is coping without me.  I am first to the phones, but by the time I have finished dialing there are twenty people lined up behind me.  I resent having to cut my call short, but I do it because I understand the need to make contact with the familiar.

 

Good night, America, how are you?

ETA: For anyone who is interested, the full text of this essay is available here on this blog

Photo by Sneebly and used with Creative Commons license.

More on the Amtrak Residency for Writers Program:

Lessons From the Rocky Launch of Amtrak’s Writing Residency Program

The Amtrak Writers’ Residency’s Journey From Twitter to Talent Search

Amtrak’s Writer’s Residency Is Either A Dream Opportunity Or Too Good         To Be True

From Amtrak to Trainwreck, writer’s residencies are hitting the rails

 

She wasn’t kidding.

Just got another call, using the non-number 1-861-8161, from “Microsoft support.”  Some woman with -a very heavy accent.(They all have heavy accents, nearly unintelligible.)

Me: Yes?

Her: We are getting a report that something something, crash, personal data.

Me: Oh?  That sounds bad.

Her: Yes ma’am it is.

Me:  What should I do?

Her: Are you in front of your computer?

Me: Why yes, I am.

Her: Do you see something something icon on the lower left?

Me:  I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you.

Her: (Repeats.  Almost more unintelligible.)

Me:  Oh, yes, I see it.

Long silence

Her: Did you click it?

Me: Oh, was I supposed to?

Her: You should click it.  You’ll see something something documents, computer.

Me: Okay I clicked it

Her: Do you see something something something

Me:   I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you.

Her: Computer.  Click on Computer.

Me: Okay

Her: Now you’ll have to help me here and tell me what you see.

Me: It says “Go to Narnia,” “Go to Oz,” “Go to Middle Earth.”  Does that mean anything to you?

Her: What operating system do you use?

Me: Why, I don’t know, what one should I use?

Her: We are getting a report that something something  computer, personal data, crash, something.

(You have to hand it to her, she’s game, she got a loony and just kept on going.)

Me: How are you getting that report?

Her: We’re getting a report, internet, something, crash, something.  (She’s clearly getting a bit agitated now.)  What you use Facebook, Gmail.

Me: Oh, I don’t use those.

Her: You use Gmail.

Me: No, nothing like that.

Her: Something something, internet connection.

Me: I don’t go on the internet.

Her: Are you connected to the internet now?

Me: No, I don’t have any internet.

Her: We’re getting a report, ma’am

Me: How are you getting that if I’m not connected to the internet?

Her: We’re getting a report, something something, crash, something

Me: That’s terrible, but I don’t know how you’re getting this report since I don’t have an internet connection.

Her: (Hangs up)

Me: Score!

If they keep this up, I will drive them crazy.

And the scams just keep on comin’

 

 

 

I’m actually fairly tired of people trying to take my money under false pretenses.

For a couple of days now I’ve been getting calls from 646-612-3444.  The first two were from a man who said he was from World Wide Services.  I said “What’s that?”  He said  “It’s the WWW.”  I said “You’re calling from the world wide web?  Where would that be exactly?”  End of call.

A bit later he called back and told me that my computer had, in his words, been “disconnected from the mainframe because of a virus problem.”  I said “Give us a break” and hung up.

Today a woman called, purportedly from a tech support department and I blew a gasket.  I started yelling at her that I was tired of these calls, that I knew that nothing was wrong with my computer and she needed to stop calling.

Then she got snippy. “Did I SAY anything was wrong with your computer?”  I said “No you didn’t.”  She said, “Why don’t you listen to me?”  I said, “Fine, what is it you want to say?”  She said, “You’re not listening to me.”  I said, “You’re not saying anything but “listen to me.””  We went on like that for about a minute and then she promised me that I’d be getting these calls every day.

Well… probably not.  I have call blocking.

I looked up the number and found some interesting information on various sites:

From 800 Notes

From CallerCenter.com

Chris Capelle’s blog

Every Call US

You have to hand it to these people, they’re persistent.  They’re also rude as hell.  Someone said it’s a criminal gang in India using a spoofed number.  Whatever it is, I suggest you hang up on them and, if possible, get your phone company to block the number.  They mean you no good.  But then these days, who really does?

Review: The Backstory of Wallpaper, by Robert M. Kelly

download Y’know the old saying about watching paint dry? I suspect that most people think of wallpaper with the same oh-yawn attitude; I know I did. But then I read Robert Kelly’s “The Backstory of Wallpaper” and was stunned to find that this was a fascinating look at something which was essentially a folk art to begin with, but which became so popular that eventually the British crown was able to levy taxes on wallpaper.

Kelly covers the physical creation of wallpaper which was originally lined with materials such as bamboo or canvas rather than applied directly to the wall. He covers the printing of wallpaper (which cost one printer his head!) the styles, the countries in which it became popular, influences and a good many other wallpaper-related topics, and he does so with fascinating asides that make the story much more than a dry recounting of a decorative process. There is a substantial bibliography and a lot of end notes for anyone who wants to take their reading further.

This is a remarkable piece of work and is reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s writing. It might, in fact, be an excellent companion to Bryson’s “At Home.” Kelly’s prose is crisp and clever, always engaging, scholarly, but never dry.. It’s an attractive book, too, filled with black and white illustrations. I’m genuinely pleased to have been offered this book for review, and I hope that Mr. Kelly chooses to do another volume that follows the evolution of wallpaper into the modern world.

Highly recommended.