Friday, December 30, 2011

Review of Welcome Home, Sir

Welcome Home, Sir takes the reader into three realms that may well be unfamiliar territory: the biochemistry lab, Israel's Golan Heights, and the world of hypochondria. The main character, Doctor Ethan Meyer, has served in Israel's military, and key experiences show up in frequent brief flashbacks. Now he runs an American university lab and deals with the inevitable politics that turn vicious and may destroy a career almost before it begins. Privately, he worries that every twitch, every variation in his pulse is the first sign of a terminal disease. He knows he's a hypochondriac and sees a doctor to help him struggle against it.

All of this makes for a good premise. The idea is that Meyer's hypochondria stems from his military experience, but that doesn't come through clearly enough in the novel. The chapters are too short and need development. As far as it goes, the novel is well-written and enjoyable, but it literally falls short. I recommend the novel for its insights into new territory, but it really needs to be at least twice as long.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Review of The Stasi File

The Stasi File impresses on several levels: author Peter Bernhardt knows Germany, he knows opera, and he knows how to write a solid thriller.

The time is the early 1990s, and Communism is crumbling. The Berlin Wall has fallen. East Germany is a failed state with an uncertain future. Will it even remain independent, or will West Germany absorb it? Some fear a resurgent, powerful Germany, while others see reunification as crucial to the future health and stability of Europe.

The Stasi, the newly defunct East German secret police, hate and fear the prospect of reunification. Attorney Rolf Keller is sent from America to Berlin to obtain a secret Stasi file that may be critical to the West. Meanwhile, the opera singer Sylvia Mazzoni has a past that embroils her in a dangerous game of espionage, whether she likes it or not. She sings a key role in Bizet's Carmen. What is in store for her? A bright career, arrest, or death? Keller and Mazzoni have to work together, but can they trust each other? And what is the real threat?

The Stasi File reads smoothly as Bernhardt builds the tension from multiple viewpoints and brings the story to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. This is the work of a pro that deserves a wide audience.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review of The Power of Validation

How can parents raise a child who has the confidence to avoid peer pressure, deal with bullies, avoid self-harm, and get a proper grip on emotions? That is the goal of The Power of Validation, a practical, commonsense book on child-rearing that many readers may wish their own parents had known about.

What is validation? It's "the recognition and acceptance that your child has feelings and thoughts that are true and real to him regardless of logic or whether it makes sense to anyone else," the authors write. No, it doesn't mean giving in to their demands or necessarily agreeing with their feelings. It might well mean "Yes, I understand that this is what you want to do, but we're doing something else right now."

This book shows that validation promotes a healthy, well-deserved self esteem that is based on children fulfilling their potential. Parents learn how to deal not only with children's worry, anger, fear, and jealousy, but with happiness, joy, and having fun. "The idea is to allow independence, interests, and imperfection while recognizing and accepting your child's weaknesses and strengths," the authors write.

The book has occasional exercises that help readers try out the principles themselves, and they are all easy to understand.

If only I could, I would travel back in time with two copies of The Power of Validation. One would go to my parents when they had their first child, and the other would be for when I became a parent.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Review of Totally Buzzed

Totally Buzzed is a lively murder mystery that's full of humor and potential.

A body turns up in the crawl space underneath a Wisconsin farmhouse, and the vic turns out to be a local woman named Carole Graff. Who killed the poor woman, and why? Luckily, retired investigator Buzz Miller takes on the case. She's smart but a little crazy, just like the friends and family who get mixed up in the case.

The story has all the elements of an intriguing mystery and contains plenty of interesting detail about forensics. There is no problem with the plot.

The question that comes to mind, though, is this: Is Totally Buzzed a murder mystery that happens to be funny, or is it a comedy that happens to include a murder? At times it's hard to tell as the story pauses for a joke or for some totally unhinged silliness that may or may not advance the plot. Buzz, who is fifty-something, has a sister Margaret, whom she regularly calls "Maggot." That's the talk of a twelve-year-old, and much of the dialog is laced with mild profanity. That is fine for establishing a character trait or for showing how a person talks in certain situations, but it's greatly overdone here. And for the family dog to pass gas once might be cute--and is probably enough. Humor can be tough, because not everyone laughs at the same things. As a general rule, though, not many people laugh at the same clever line or funny event twice.

Also there are lots of cliches and some repetition, for example "Dead bodies piss me off," followed later by "As I said, dead bodies piss me off."

This looks like a good first draft. Fix some typos and get rid of most cliches. Give the reader an occasional rest from the nonstop daffiness, and try to incorporate more of the humor into the story itself, to keep things moving. Cut the repetition. There's no need to call the same person a "rat-bastard" three times.

The crime detail is good, and the story as a whole can be fun after it gets a little TLC.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review of I'm Not Muhammad

I'm Not Muhammad attempts to show what it is like to be a Muslim in post-9/11 America. Based on what I have gleaned from reading non-fiction books on the Middle East, author Jason Trask's details seem to be quite accurate.

Yusuf Alsawari is a devout Muslim and a native-born American living in New York City with his wife, Ruth. The crisis begins when at her mother's deathbed Ruth declares herself a born-again Christian, renouncing Islam. Yusuf is mortified and decides to leave her. The World Trade Center attacks provide a seemingly good cover for him to simply disappear, pretending to have perished in the rubble. He re-emerges as Muhammad Muhammad, determined to lead a new life.

But then he is kidnapped--hooded, whisked away, and imprisoned without explanation. As an Arab he is automatically suspect, though no one tells him what crime he is thought to have committed as Muhammad Muhammad. Meanwhile, no one misses him because Yusuf is presumed to be dead. Despite his protestations that "I'm not Muhammad," he is placed in a jumpsuit for days on end, not even allowed to use a toilet. The consequences are described in cringe-worthy detail several times, whereas once would have served well enough.

Yusuf's imprisonment without trial forms the core of the story. Will he remain a prisoner forever? Will he ever see Ruth again? What will happen to his faith in Allah?

Jason Trask's novel is well-written and well-researched, and offers a useful glimpse into Islam and some of the darker corners of American security. There are, though, a couple of problems with the story. A good fictional struggle should have both a protagonist and an antagonist where there is some hope for a fair fight. Here the antagonist is an impersonal, crushing system represented by no one in particular, and Yusuf never has a chance. His only hope is that Allah will rescue him. The other problem is that the resolution comes too soon. For the last ten percent of the novel, the tension is gone.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Books, books, books

There is a stack of books on my desk, bookcases behind me, a Kindle and an iPad with more TBR. Where to start? How about the books I'm being paid to read for Kirkus? And then the books I've promised friends or acquaintances I'd read, such as Karyn Hall's The Power of Validation or Jason Trask's I'm Not Muhammad? Most of the books that arrive in the mail from publishers go back out to reviewers for the Internet Review of Books, unless I can't find a willing reader--Taliban: The Unknown Enemy, anyone? That one's been sitting in my office for months, serving no other purpose than to hold down the stack of papers I haven't looked at in just as long.

But this isn't a complaint, not really. After wife and family, books are my first love. If there is too much on my TBR list, so be it. May I die many years from now with a book in my lap. The trouble is, that Taliban book deserves a review while there are still any Taliban left, and the pages may be yellow before I get to it.

Now, come on. Who wouldn't want to read a book about the Taliban?

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Mystery & Me: When Pigs Fly

I couldn't resist reposting this review by Allene Reynolds. Basically positive, but ...

Mystery & Me: When Pigs Fly: When Pigs Fly , by Bob Sanchez, is the most unorthodox book I've ever read. I'm not referring to the religious connotations of unorthodox, ...

NaNo Lite wrapup

For years I avoided NaNoWriMo because pouring out words quickly has never been my style. And all those other items on my to-do list clamored for too much of my time. Not this year, though. Fifty thousand words just was unrealistic, unless my goal was producing gibberish. So I set out to write 1,000 words per day and kept an old-fashioned log on my desk to track progress. Oh, and my project was to continue a novel in progress, so I began at about 39,000.

How did I do? Well, there was that 12-day Thanksgiving break followed by some 600-word days, so November wrapped up with about 13,000 words added, bringing me up to 52 k. Now let's see. A thousand words a day every day in December, and the first draft of my 70k mystery is done. Voilà! (Or viola, for the musically inclined)

Huh? Who's kidding whom here? The distractions haven't disappeared, and my internal editor is knocking on my skull and demanding to be let back into my brain. My first draft may not be finished by New Year's Eve, but the important thing is the steady progress.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Presidential aptitude test

I'm thinking there should be a PAT (Presidential Aptitude Test) for anyone who wants to be president. Not a legal thing, of course, and it would have nothing to do with one's views on issues. It would just be a minimum bar for the wannabes to clear. It would be open book, multiple choice, and cover factual knowledge of broad topics: world religions, demographics, culture, military, technology, economics, U.S. history, and the Constitution. There would be no trivial questions about capital cities or leaders' names, just a test of what might reasonably be considered as core knowledge for a potential leader. I would make it, say, 100 questions with a passing grade of 70. No grades, just pass/fail. And no loaded questions, just strictly factual. And to be entirely fair, no trick questions.

Sample questions:

Which of the following is true about the Middle East?
a. All Muslim women must wear burkas.
b. Iran is an Arab country.
c. Turkey has secular leadership.
d. Saudi Arabia's Muslims are primarily Shia.
e. All of the above.

Which of the following is NOT guaranteed by the First Amendment?
a. Freedom of assembly
b. The right to vote
c. The right to petition for redress of grievances
d. Freedom of religion
e. Freedom of speech

What other questions should we ask of our potential leaders? (By the way, the answers are c and b.)

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A NaNo Lite update

This is a practice I should have started a long time ago, setting aside a specific time to write. Now I roll out of bed, watch Morning Joe over two cups of joe, eat breakfast, shower and change, and then sit down to write a thousand words--that's all, just one thousand. So far, so good from last Tuesday through today. My little log records a modest 6,426 words, steady as she goes. And it's not that hard. The words flow without agony, because my Inner Editor has taken the month of November off. My writing time lasts approximately from 10 a.m. until noon, when it's on to other things. This NaNo Lite is at my own pace, but perhaps it's one that can extend beyond November. Too much to hope for? I hope not. We'll see.

One of those other things yesterday was writing a guest post for Make Mine Mystery, a fine blog run by Morgan Mandel.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Back to Confession

Now how hard was that, going back to writing Confession? I'd set myself a modest daily goal of 500 words and broke 1,000 today. It felt good, almost like free writing. I tried to give my internal editor a rest, not worrying for a change about exactly how anything fit. Most likely, though, it fits pretty well with the overall plan of the story. A little girl has been kidnapped and will be in serious danger, though I promise she will be fine. A general rule of thumb, for me anyway, is that the writer can put children in danger but not hurt them. In fact, her captor will be much the worse for wear.

Monday, October 31, 2011

NaNo Lite?

Call it cheating. Call it NaNo Lite. First I came up with an idea for a new NaNo novel. Then another idea. Wrote ~500 words to test it out and wondered where the heck I could go with it. Actually, both ideas are probably okay, but they don't catch my fancy right now. My mystery in progress, Confession, deserves finishing. So this morning I spent working on plot points and looking for a satisfactory ending (none yet).

My goal for November is to write about 500 words per day, every day. The 15K won't be enough to finish a draft, but they should give me a good head of steam. Yes, yes, it's probably too modest, but I have never been one to write long bursts in a single sitting. The best thing NaNo can do for me is to get me back into the habit of daily fiction writing.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Desert stargazing

Last week I wrote this blog entry on my iPad and didn't get around to posting it. Here it is now:

Monument commemorating Geronimo's surrender
to the US Army in nearby Skeleton Canyon in 1886
This evening we are sitting outside our RV and waiting for the stars to show themselves. The sky is still pink over one of the several mountain ranges, I think the Chiricahuas. A partial cloud cover is blowing to the east, promising a starry night. Behind us about thirty yards, a gaggle of geese cluck quietly by a small pond that seems to be made for them. We are at Rusty's RV Ranch in Rodeo, New Mexico for our second of three nights--maybe four if we decide we can't bear to leave. The owner of the park says her place is starting to attract astronomers because of the complete lack of light pollution. Last night we saw the Milky Way directly above us, and we cranes our necks in awe. Tonight we are out again with our lawn chairs. It is 7:21 p.m. At the extreme western edge of the Mountain Time Zone, and the sky still shows the faintest tinge of pink over the mountains. A few stars are beginning to emerge, although I can't identify them. Picking out Mercury and Mars are usually the best I can do.  Last night the moon didn't appear--while we watched, anyway--and tonight looks like it will be the same, a good night for stargazing.

Going my own way

I'm not sure what the NaNoWriMo rules are, though it should be simple to check. A lady in my fiction group is participating and told me I must--must--start a new novel, because that is what someone at NNWM says. Nice person that she is, the gal can be a little bossy. My first reaction was that I am retired and no one tells me what to do anymore. But then I went home and diddled around with a few ideas, even to the point of writing about 500 words of a new story that might or might not pan out. Did I break some bloody rule by starting before November 1? The fact is that I already have an NIP that runs about 39,000 words so far. I consulted the oracle pictured below, who was no help. So I'm just going to continue working on the novel I've already started, and if NaNo or my bossy friend wants to strip off my epaulets, so be it.

This li'l guy lives in the Chiricahua Desert Museum in Rodeo,
New Mexico. He turns out to be not much of an oracle.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

So. I just signed up for NaNoWriMo, despite my having always shied away from it in the past. Frankly, it's darned intimidating. Years ago, I wrote about 35,000 words on my current novel and have barely touched it since. On the one hand, I've never written lots of words in short bursts. On the other, my novel will never be done at this rate. Recently I sat down to work on it and wrote only one line, for goodness' sake. The current word count is 36,800, or about half the length of my first three novels.

It's not clear if NaNoWriMo is right for me, but November will be a good month to glue my butt to the chair and crank out the rest of the first draft. Was it the great Lawrence Block who wrote that the best guideline for getting writing done was "ass in chair"? It was either him or someone else--how's that for narrowing it down? It will be okay to write a crappy first draft, by the way. At least for me, second drafts are much easier because there is something to work with. It's getting past the terror of the blank page, because words I can see are easier to fix that words I can't see. And waiting one more year won't work, because 2012 will be busy in other ways. I'll always be able to fit revisions.

Have you participated in NaNoWriMo? How well has it worked for you?

Friday, October 07, 2011

Party time at the El Paso Writers' League!

There are big doin's at the El Paso Writers' League tomorrow. Every year we have a writing contest for members, and for the last three years we've published an anthology of the winning entries. So tomorrow the 8th we're having a big whoop-de-doo Launch Party with the winners reading their entries from the book. Yesterday I ordered a sheet cake from Sam's--they call it a photo cake--with the likeness of the cover on it. It makes me a little nervous, though, since the bakery lady said they'd never actually done one before. I'll swing by Sam's and pick it up on my way to the meeting in El Paso.

Here is the cover of this year's Border Tapestry, designed by member Maritza Jáuregui:

In addition to bringing the cake (please God, don't let me drop it), I'm bringing the 100 copies of Border Tapestry for distribution to members at the meeting. I've been editor and co-editor for the first three issues and am turning over the whole project to Sulta Bonner next year. Such fun!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The great e-book giveaway!

Left to right: serious, funny, noir

Here's a great offer for e-book readers: Leave a comment with your email address on this post, and I will send you a free ebook for your Kindle, Nook, or iBook! You may choose from When Pigs Fly, Getting Lucky, or Little Mountain.

My hope is that you will enjoy the freebie enough to post an honest Amazon review, but you are under no obligation.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Book review: Defining Zach

My friend Vonda Frampton has written a YA novel entitled Defining Zach, and she asked me to review it for Amazon. Writing honest reviews of friends' books can be touchy; how do you write something less than positive without putting your friendship at risk? In this case, the book is fine, though YA isn't what I usually read. My only issue, I told Vonda, is that at times it seemed a tad preachy in spots. She graciously accepted the comment.

Here is the Amazon review:

Zach Patterson wants to dazzle the world. At thirteen, he will try the most daring stunts he can think of, as long as witnesses are on hand to verify his derring-do. Hurtle in his toboggan off a ski jump at the risk of life and limb? You bet. He hopes one day to match the great Evel Knievel. There is the problem of slipping grades in school, though, and the fact that his stunts don't win him all the acclaim he feels is his due. Worse, he must deal with a menacing classmate named Gary, whose personal problems make normal growing pains seem like a picnic. Their mutual hatred drives the plot to a different level than first seems apparent. Author Vonda Frampton understands adolescents well, and she understands how to build the tension in a story. What looks at first like a normal YA tale turns dark and potentially deadly as the underlying conflict becomes clear. But Zach often hears a Voice that no one else can hear, a guardian angel who tries to nudge him away from complete disaster. The angel has his hands full. 

Defining Zach will appeal to mature pre-teens and young teenagers and to their parents. Sometimes the life lessons are laid on a bit thickly, which might put off a few readers, but those lessons are right on. Parents of young children will certainly appreciate this well-written book as a reminder of how hard it is to grow up.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Trying out Scrivener

I'm sitting on my sister-in-law's deck in New England, 2400 miles from home, waiting for the mosquitoes to leave and my older brother to arrive from New Jersey. Meanwhile, I have been trying out Scrivener to write my new novel. The actual writing will still be in Word, but Scrivener seems like a nice tool for building the elements, including characters and plot points. Plotting has always been a problem for me; I get it done, but usually the hard way. Let's see if this software makes it any easier. At least I'll know what scenes to write.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Jean Henry Mead's Murder on the Interstate

I just finished reading Jean Henry Mead's Murder on the Interstate on my Kindle today, and I recommend it as a fast-paced, lively read. Two little old ladies--well, they're about 60, which from my vantage point is still the flush of youth--have the rather odd and dangerous hobby of solving murder cases. Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty are toddling along in their RV when they discover a car that's gone off the road. They stop and discover that the driver has been shot dead. Soon they realize that as witnesses they become targets themselves. Eventually Dana's daughter Kerrie gets dragged into the adventure as well, making the case a family enterprise. The women are relentless. Between the fact that "A beautiful young woman died needlessly" and "It got personal when he tried to kill me as well," the bad guys ultimately don't stand a chance.

At the beginning, it looks like an ordinary murder case, but our heroines soon learn that they have uncovered a plot with national implications. What first seems like a relatively light mystery turns dark and tragic, but the women never flinch and remain in the thick of the trouble right to the end.

Mead's road mystery made for a good summer read as I took my own RV road trip this week. It's a nice addition to my Kindle library.

Friday, August 05, 2011

How he sold 1 million ebooks

Today I am re-reading How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! by John Locke. Some of this short book comes across as a salesman's cheerleading, but that's fine with me. He does get down to specifics that seem both possible and sensible, and his book is well worth the $4.99 I forked over. By all means self-publish, he suggests, and decide on your target market before you begin writing (Now he tells me!). Then price your ebook modestly, but at a price where people who don't know you will readily take a chance. His novels are all 99 cents each, which obviously works for him. He claims not to be a great writer, although it's perfectly fine. Writers need for their writing not to "suck" and for their stories to be entertaining; meet those two criteria and follow his marketing advice, and you'll probably sell some books.

There are so many people wanting to make a buck off wannabe authors. The other day I saw an 11-minute video where someone was offering his publication secrets, stuff the big guys supposedly don't want the little guys to know. The video itself offered absolutely nothing of substance, but promoted its $400 package that would tell you everything. When I published with iUniverse, they once tried to sell me a $20,000 publicity package, honest to God. 

You can pay hundreds for email campaigns that blast a message about your book to a half million book buyers, or for advertisements or press releases. As my New Jersey brother would say, fuggedaboutit! Don't waste your time and money. Just buy Locke's book for five bucks. Read it, underline the good stuff, and re-read it. Then go follow his good advice. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Ode to Our Cats

George lands on my head as I lie here in bed.
His claws need trimming for certain.
I toss a pillow as he nips at my elbow.
Soon he’ll be climbing the curtain.

I’d risen before at quarter to four
Commotion assailing my brain.
He’d got in a race, he’d chased sister Gracie
My sweet dreams aswirl down the drain.

Now I might as well rise with sleep in my eyes.
Is that shiny object the sun?
The cats plan to nap when I give them my lap.
Contented, their work here is done.

Friday, July 22, 2011

You should be sixteen

I notice a lot of roadside crosses marking traffic deaths in the Southwest, much more so than in New England where I came from. My trip from Taos today inspired this poem about an imaginary young woman. (A Quinceañera is a party for girls who turn fifteen.)

You should be sixteen now.
You grew up so fast,
You left us so soon
It feels like yesterday
Your Quinceañera had
Brought prideful tears
To mother and father.
Your gown with pink ruffles
And pendant of pearls
Tresses cascading
Framing your dark eyes
Not seeing your future
Blind to the white cross
And corsage of lilies
Remembering you sadly
Mere yards off the road.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Internet Review of Books

This is an unhappy day, because my good friend Gary Presley and I have decided to stop publishing the Internet Review of Books effective October 1. Our staff once numbered six, but with the recent resignation of our fiction editor, we are now just two people: Gary for the blogging and me for the editing. We could continue--we're not overwhelmed--but as with others who left before us, we believe it's time to move on.

Our enterprise began in the mind of Carter Jefferson, who noted the shrinking outlets for book reviews in the press. With his leadership we launched our website in October 2007; four years and roughly 1,000 reviews later, I believe we have accomplished a lot. Granted, we never made any money, but we have earned a solid reputation as an outlet for honest, professional reviewers. We made a point to be open to self-published and small-press publications that looked worthy.

So don't stop reading the Internet Review of Books. We'll continue publishing high-quality reviews through the summer.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Musical shorts

Technology simply baffles me. I have a laptop, an iPad, and an iPod Touch, which I commonly carry around in my pocket. The Touch has a nice note-taking app, so when a brilliant idea occurs to me I can tap-tap the screen and record it. That's much better than stuffing my shirt pocket with jottings on scraps of paper napkins from Subway, or forgetting the idea altogether. It also has a little camera that's let me snap images of street signs in case I've forgotten where I left the car. Often, though, I'll place it on my desk and play classical music from my iTunes collection.

All that is very nice, but there is this one little quirk: it doesn't have an Off button. Oh, it has a button to turn off most of its functions, but none for the music. If I've had enough music for one day, there is only the Pause button. And ninety percent of the time, that's just as good as Off.

But then it goes into my shorts pocket, and perhaps I go to a writers' group meeting. It can be handy there, especially to jot down those to-do's that inevitably arise. Then when someone is talking, usually making a serious point, we're all treated to a lovely orchestra playing Brahms's Fourth or The Red Army Choir bellowing out The Volga Boatmen.

My iPod Touch just goes on by itself, perhaps to liven up the meeting, perhaps to embarrass me. Has it bumped against the side of my chair and activated Play? Maybe, but sometimes I could swear I wasn't fidgeting in my seat.

Apple makes terrific gizmos, sleek and efficient, without a smidgen of superfluity. It even goes on without prompting.

Who needs a button for the sound?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Remembering the Sixties

This is an essay I plan to submit to a local writing competition. Any suggestions, comments, or memories of your own are most welcome.

Robin Williams joked that if you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.

I remember. How could I forget?

China took its Great Leap Forward and almost leaped off a cliff. The Cold War nearly heated to thermonuclear temperatures over the Cuban missile crisis. Vietnam burst into America’s consciousness like a bad LSD trip. The civil rights activists Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner ended up in a Mississippi landfill. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy all died by gunfire. My father died of a heart attack. Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. The Beatles conquered America. I married my girlfriend.

I commuted to Boston University back then. As a transfer from a junior college, I decided to join ROTC in my sophomore year to make the most of my inevitable military service. A sergeant in the Army ROTC office told me incorrectly that they didn’t accept transfer students, so I stumbled into the Air Force ROTC program.  One afternoon, I walked into Economics class to hear that President Kennedy had been shot. Our instructor grimly refused to cancel class, but I could not focus on her lecture.

After my graduation in 1965, the Air Force sent me to the deep South to be a weapons controller, a job that placed me in front of a radar screen to direct fighter pilots running practice intercepts in case of a Soviet bomber attack. Many of those pilots went on to fly combat support missions in Vietnam. The experience convinced me not to become a civilian air traffic controller.

That first duty assignment landed me in Montgomery, Alabama, from where I toured radar sites in the Southeast. Once I looked up a cousin in Biloxi, Mississippi, and had trouble finding him, so I rolled down the window of my Volkswagen bug and asked a young black woman how to get to Kuhn Street. She kept walking as though I didn’t exist, which I suddenly wished were true.

After three years I received orders to spend 1968 at Fire Island Air Force Station in Alaska, within sight of Anchorage and the Chugach Mountains. Fire Island is about three miles long and a mile wide and accommodated about one hundred unaccompanied men and an unknown number of moose. People drank too much, slept too much, and in early summer played softball until after 10 p.m.  Once at midnight, the ghostly lights of Aurora Borealis shimmered above us.

One day, a light plane tried to land on the narrow beach but caught its landing gear on a power line, flipped over, and exploded. In December near the end of my tour, I said goodbye to an Army officer who had been assigned to our unit on temporary duty from Fort Richardson. Lieutenant Murphy hailed from Southern California, so we called him Murph the Surf. A couple of days after our farewell, he boarded a plane to the Aleutians, replacing his boss who had come down with a cold. The plane disintegrated in mid-air in sixty-below-zero weather, its pieces scattering across a frozen lake. No one survived.

Alaska put me far from the battlefields of Vietnam and America, but the daily disaster reports reached us by television. We heard Walter Cronkite read the daily body counts from places like Pleiku—with dead enemies stacked so high, how could we not be winning? Life Magazine reported a visit by General Westmoreland to his troops who had just returned from combat. A soldier said he had killed an enemy.

“How did you know he was dead?” asked the general.

“Because I cut him in half,” the soldier replied.

“Good,” said the general.

I wondered if America had gone mad.

In Chicago, the Democrats convened amid disaster, while police beat both war protestors and innocent onlookers. Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic presidential nominee, but by the time I mailed in my absentee ballot, his position on the war seemed little different from that of Richard Nixon, except that Nixon said he had a “secret plan” to get us out of Vietnam.

After my discharge in 1969, New York Life hired me to sell insurance. Around the time of the Woodstock Festival, I sold a $6,000 policy to a recent Navy veteran who killed himself in a car wreck a week or so later. Months later, the company issued a $12,000 double indemnity check to the 19-year-old widow and mother.  I’d planned to quit my job anyway, so my delivery of the check to the woman’s father-in-law marked the end of my sales career.

For me personally, my marriage to Nancy provided the one enduring legacy of the Sixties. In 1961 we went to the high school senior prom together, and in 2011 we will attend our fiftieth high school reunion together.

So I do remember the Sixties. How could I forget?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Slang from the bad old days

Do you ever think back to expressions popular in your childhood? In my case, that's the 1950s. If you write about an era, it's good to recall the jargon people used then. My childhood was surrounded by blatant racism. Back then blacks were widely called negroes, and anyone who thought they had any rights was likely to be labeled a nigger lover. An important secret, especially an unsavory one, was the nigger in the woodpile, but if you did someone a kindness, that was mighty white of you. If you asked too many questions, you might be asked in return if you were writing a book. Of course, we all knew there was a sucker born every minute, so you shouldn't take any wooden nickels. If you were lazy, you'd better get on the stick, and if you said something stupid, your friends would want to know if your mother had any kids that lived. And you didn't want to call that palooka a homo, because he'd have a cow. Then you'd be cruisin' for a bruisin' and hurtin' for certain. You'd wind up with a knuckle sandwich, maybe even be pushin' up daisies.

How about you? What were your decade and the expressions you wouldn't touch today with a ten-foot pole?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mesilla gate

This is the lovely gate to Josefina's Restaurant in Mesilla, New Mexico. A few short steps away is the town center and the site of the jail Billy the Kid broke out of after he'd been sentenced to hang. Walk a little farther and you arrive at El Comedor, where our Fiction critique group meets.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Emailing to your Kindle

If I send you one of my novels for your Kindle, there are a few things you have to do (Amazon's rules, not mine):

1. Go to You'll need to sign in to your Amazon account.
2. Scroll down to the section marked Digital Content, and select Manage Your Kindle.
3. Add my address,, to your Kindle Approved E-Mail List.
4. Send me your Kindle email address, which you can find on your Kindle under Menu/Settings/Device E-mail.

This will allow me to send the file directly to your Kindle. Unless I'm on your list, they will automatically screen my mail out as spam.

All three of my novels are available in Kindle format. Happy reading!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Introducing Dorothy Webb and Chindii Woman

Let me introduce Dorothy Webb, a writer who lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Dorothy's murder mystery, Chindii Woman, is set on the Navajo reservation where she grew up. The heroine comes to the reservation to learn about the apparently accidental death of her brother and gets in serious trouble when she asks too many questions.

I've read Chindii Woman and found the story, the characters, and the setting appealing. Dorothy recently answered a few questions about the book.

Your main character, Darcy Redbird, is a Lakota Sioux. Why does she feel so out of place among the Navajo?
From being raised in Chicago by her adoptive parents, Darcy knows nothing about being a Native American, much less the Navajo culture. But she tries to learn. She is aware that the Native Americans are closer to nature but cannot accept their belief in the supernatural, like spirits and other things that cannot be seen.

How much research did you do for Chindii Woman, and how much came from your personal knowledge?
All of the information in Chindii Woman is from my personal knowledge. There really was a legend of the Chindii Woman who lived in a very dangerous canyon called Satan's Pass that we had to go through in order to get to Gallup from Crownpoint.  The other taboos, spirits and ceremonies were part of my daily life. I asked friends who continue to live on and near the reservation to read parts of Chindii Woman to insure that I had them interpreted correctly. 

What are the traditional beliefs that drive the story, and to what extent do Navajo still hold to those beliefs?
Of course, the legend of the Chindii Woman drives this story. Depending on the Navajo individual, the traditional beliefs continue to be practiced. For example, a deceased person's name may be mentioned within the three days after the death only if it is done respectfully.

Darcy is an appealing heroine. Do you have another adventure in store for her?
Many who have read the book have asked for a sequel, using Darcy and Raymond. As soon as I get to a place where I can concentrate, I'll see what I can come up with.

Learn more at Dorothy's web site, Books can also be obtained from Author House ( Search on her name and the book will pop up. It is available in hardback, soft cover and e-book. Chindii Woman is also available from Amazon and  Barnes & Noble. For an autographed copy, contact her at ($15 plus $3 postage).

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tour schedule for Little Mountain

Coming soon to a blog near you! I'll be a guest blogger at ten sites in June, writing about my new mystery, Little Mountain. Please plan to visit the tour. I'll be giving away a prize at every stop, so you'll have ten chances to win!

Blog book tour schedule
June 1 – Blog Book Tours  (Winner: Kathryn Craft)
June 2, 3 – Stephen Tremp  (Winner: Lynn Kelley)                         
June 7 – Marian Allen   (Winner: Cara Lopez Lee)                      
June 9 – Diane Wolfe   (Winner: Karen Lange)                             
June 10 – Alex Cavanaugh   (Winner: Michael De Gesu)               
June 11, 12, 13, 14 – Helen Ginger   (Winner: Christopher Hudson)       
June 15 – Acme Author’s Link    (Winner: Deb Larson)        
June 20 – Make Mine Mystery     (Winner: Maggie Toussaint)           
June 21 – Blood-Red Pencil       (Winner: Maryann Miller)         
June 23 – Patricia Stoltey       (Winner: Simon Hay)              

Grand prize winner:  Cheryl Malandrinos    

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Book review

Here is a thoughtful review of Little Mountain that Lynne Hinkey posted it on Amazon:

Bob Sanchez's latest murder mystery, Little Mountain, offers an engrossing look into the Cambodian refugee community that came to the US after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. A departure from Sanchez's previous two comedic detective romps filled with quirky Hiassen-esque characters, Little Mountain is gritty and gory. Set in Lowell, MA fifteen years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, it explores the relationships of immigrants to each other, their new country, and the horrors of the place they fled.

Detective Sambath Long, fully integrated into his life as a US citizen and police detective, tries to distance himself from his painful past in Cambodia, where the rest of his family was killed by the Angka - the brutal organization in charge of the Khmer death camp, Little Mountain. As Sam investigates the murder of a Cambodian landlord, the past pushes its way into his life, reminding him, and us, that the past makes a person who they are today. Little Mountain will draw you in to Sam's life, and that of the Cambodian community.

Initially, I was worried about navigating the many unfamiliar, foreign names of the characters, but Sanchez has created such unique and authentic personalities they quickly become easy to distinguish and identify. The mystery behind the murder, the slow revelation of Long's experience as a teenager at Little Mountain, and his relationship with his American wife and her family keep the story fast paced and complex. Sanchez skillfully intertwines Long's past and present, and personal and professional lives into a compelling, haunting story with a thoroughly satisfying ending. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Thanks, old girl

Yesterday I officially retired my old, dependable LaserJet 4L printer after 20 years of dedicated service that dated well before the reign of Carly Fiorina at HP. Purchased in 1991, the darned thing just wouldn't quit. But it lately started printing heavy gray streaks on the pages and wouldn't respond to my cleaning ministrations. The HP website acknowledged that yes, they once made such a model but offered no specific information about it.

The old faithful LaserJet 4L and her Brother
at her retirement party

That old gray mare must have printed tens of thousands of 300-dpi black and white pages for me, and truth to tell, it still works. But for sixty bucks, less than the price of any replacement parts, I bought a Brother laser printer that cranks out 600-dpi black and white pages and may well serve me into my dotage.

So thanks, old girl. You've given me my money's worth many times over.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Reviews of Little Mountain

There are three quite complimentary reviews of Little Mountain on Amazon. Have a look at what readers think.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cambodians and local politics

Soon we learned that Tong was the young girl's nickname, apparently given by her hated brother-in-law. Her real name is Mni Sarapon. She and Sceur Ly asked for our help in gaining permission for members of their family to come to the United States from one of the camps, so we filled out detailed paperwork for them and sent it to the State Department. The group was large--13 family members--and the bureaucratic wheels ground for months. A number of other Americans got involved, most notably our congressman Chester Atkins. But my paperwork was critical, and someone--I will never know who--got it into his head that the lack of progress in reuniting the family was my fault. So one day I received a phone call from Kitty Dukakis, who said she'd been told I was ruining everything by not sending in the paperwork. I gave her quite an earful, letting her know exactly what I had done and when and to whom it had gone in the State Department--and by the way, she had a nerve calling me when she didn't know what she was talking about...blah, blah. The paperwork was quite involved, and I said I'd do it once more and only once more. She backed off. I felt defensive and angry, but it sure felt good to tell off a big shot.

But the person who went way out on a limb was Atkins. He made a big public show of helping reunite the family, which eventually occurred. He lived in the affluent town of Acton, in the same district as Lowell but culturally like the other side of the Moon. A whole lot of people resented all the attention he paid to refugees as opposed to the needs of his working-class constituents. The local news carried a man-on-the-street interview where a young working-class man expressed his anger that Cambodians were coming to Lowell and the government was giving them cars, which was completely untrue. What did happen was that several members of a family would pool their resources and buy a car for all of them. There was welfare, but there were also many refugees who had jobs and worked hard at them.

The political upshot for Atkins was that he lost his congressional seat. Other factors came into play, but my Cambodian friends were an unwitting factor in the election.

Learn more by clicking the Little Mountain tab at the top of this page, or purchase a copy by clicking the book image at the right.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Our Cambodian friends

The family was deferential to us, but when we weren't around they fought among themselves. Song tried asserting his authority, but his ten-year-old sister-in-law was having none of it. He occasionally hit his wife Sceur Ly, and when word of the abuse got back to us, we told him that wife-beating would land him in jail. "It's okay," he insisted. "It's Cambodian custom." We reminded him that he was in America now, and he had to obey our laws or else. Some other Cambodians we consulted indignantly said that it was not a Cambodian custom, but I came to suspect there was a degree of truth in his claim.

We had a large dog at the time, a sweet-tempered black Lab-Doberman mix named Divot. When Song wanted to say something was excellent, he'd say, "Oh, that's number one." Something bad was number ten. My wife and I were going to work and dropping our son and Tong off to school, leaving Song and Sceur Ly home alone with their baby. Song hadn't found a job yet. Divot stayed outside on a leash and a run. Song told us that in Southeast Asia, dog was excellent food. "In Cambodia, dog is number one!" he said. That scared me, because I didn't know how big a cultural or language gap we were dealing with. Did they plan to cook Divot?  "If you hurt my dog, you're number ten," I told him. He got the message that Divot was a pet and not a food source.
Our good friend Tong

Our guests proved unpopular among the increasing number of refugees living in the Lowell area. Song had a hard edge to him--his English was rapidly improving, and he did a good deal of translating for other people. But he quickly gained a reputation for cheating his fellow refugees in various business dealings. He always dealt with us honestly as far as we could tell, but among some Americans helping other families, his reputation threatened to rub off on us. Luckily, many people who disliked him actually liked and felt sorry for the rest of his family. A rumor even circulated through the city that Song had once been a Khmer Rouge--now, wouldn't that have been interesting? I spoke privately to his wife and sister, whom my wife and I were trying to protect from him. "Is it true? Was Song part of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia?" No, they both insisted, he wasn't Khmer Rouge. He was just a jerk.

Even that was only partially true. The whole family including Song were hard-working. Song was an entrepreneurial sort, apparently outworking most of his fellow countrymen. Sceur Ly got a job on an assembly line where she became known for her hard work and reliability, and Tong assimilated well into public schools, eventually going to George Washington University. They always showed us respect and gratitude for sticking with them. 

After they moved away from the area, Sceur Ly from time to time drove back to Lowell to visit friends. Invariably she would show up at our house unannounced (without her husband), with her little boy in one hand and a box from Dunkin Donuts in the other. She used to talk to us about divorcing her husband, but she never did it. We haven't seen them in years now, but I think they've made their peace.

Learn more by clicking the Little Mountain tab at the top of this page, or purchase a copy by clicking the book image at the right.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Little Mountain background, part 3

Dancer at Cambodian New Year celebration,
Lowell, Mass. 1980
One day in late 1979 or early 1980, I heard on the radio that a family of Cambodian refugees were being flown into Boston and had no place to stay once they landed. My wife and I decided to offer them temporary shelter, but by the time we called, those people had found help. Soon, though, we found ourselves hosting a family: a man and woman, their baby son, and the ten-year-old sister of the woman. Only the man, named Song, spoke a few words of English, and none of us had any idea what we were getting into. Why are all the trees dead? was one of Song's first questions--he'd never seen a deciduous tree before.

Various members of the community pitched in to help provide linens, used clothing and other necessities to help the family get started on their own. We had a little trouble getting them launched, and they stayed with us for seven weeks. That was longer than they or we wanted, but then they moved into an apartment in Lowell.

Meanwhile, we were generally miserable. I came down with double pneumonia, and Song shook with a terrible fever. He had a relapse of malaria, the first but hardly the last such case that the local hospital would ever see. His wife, named Sceur Ly (pronounced sir-LEE) and her younger sister, nicknamed Tong, had ailments of one sort or another. Only my wife Nancy stayed healthy, and she was a rock.

One evening we all sat down to watch The Poseidon Adventure on television. In the midst of all the fictional disaster and chaos, Song kept exclaiming "Choi mai! Choi mai!" We cheerfully imitated him, repeating the phrase until I learned that it was a strong vulgarity.

Many Cambodians started coming to the Lowell area, for reasons I'll write about later. We were all invited in February to a Cambodian New Year celebration, where Nancy thought the women and children looked happy and the men looked like lost souls.

It was only after Song and family moved out when we learned that our new friends' issues ran much deeper than their physical illnesses.

Learn more by clicking the Little Mountain tab at the top of this page, or purchase a copy by clicking the book image at the right.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Background for the murder mystery Little Mountain, part 2

This is more background for my novel, Little Mountain. Future posts will include some of the experiences of the refugees who came to the United States, as well as my own interactions.

Statues at Angkor Wat, the ancient temple
In late 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot's vicious regime, releasing vast numbers of Cambodians from camps where they were being starved, worked to death, or murdered outright. Any connection, or suspicion of a connection, with the outside world resulted in death--that included having an education, knowing any French (it once had been part of a French colony), working in any profession. People without calluses on their hands might be taken for bourgeoisie and murdered. Those who were too ill to work were either clubbed to death on the spot or sent to the "hospital," from which few came out alive.

A great many of the freed Cambodians walked through the jungle to Thailand, where refugee camps were set up to provide safe havens where people could get food and medicine and look for lost loved ones. France, the United States, and other countries provided aid--justifiably so, as between them they had made such an impact on the region since World War II. Many private organizations took part as well, including church groups who helped people resettle in other countries. Many Cambodians hoped to go home again once it was safe and stable; in the meantime, they came to France and the United States.

Learn more by clicking the Little Mountain tab at the top of this page, or purchase a copy by clicking the book image at the right.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Background for the murder mystery Little Mountain

At about the same time we in the United States were celebrating the birth of our nation, very different events were taking place in Southeast Asia. Our decade-long war in Vietnam came to a dramatic close in 1975, leaving over 58,000 Americans and over one million Vietnamese dead.

One aspect of that tragic war included the secret bombing of neutral Cambodia, intended to deny the communists sanctuary from American forces. The bombings couldn't remain secret for long, and the killing of non-combatant Cambodians fueled increasing outrage around the world and here at home.

With the departure of the Americans came the collapse of both South Vietnam and Cambodia. The destruction and chaos spilling over from Vietnam left an opening for the small, tightly-knit Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians) to take over, and they did so with a vengeance seldom seen. They emptied the cities, sent everyone to the countryside, butchering vast numbers of their own countrymen along the way. The Khmer Rouge renamed their country Kampuchea and declared it to be a completely agrarian society, killing all professionals and people with any culture or education. In 1975 they closed off the country to all outsiders and put their people to work in slave camps, creating a terror lasting until about 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded. In the meantime, an unknown number of Cambodians died--a million, two million--probably no one knows for sure. Survivors began flocking to the safety of refugee camps in Thailand, and some of them were allowed to come to countries such as France and the United States.

This is some of the back story to my third novel, Little Mountain. Future blog posts will describe some of the experiences of Cambodians in America as well as my own experiences with them. To read more about the book, go to the Little Mountain tab at the top of this page.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Joaquin Alone

The other day, I spotted a young boy climbing on the back of a pickup truck in a grocery store parking lot. He appeared to be about three years old, and he was alone. He played around the vehicle, sticking within a couple of feet of it. A woman walked by carrying a bag of groceries, and I asked her if the child was hers. Surprised, she replied, “No, he’s not mine.” Another woman responded the same way. This annoyed and worried me, that a boy so young would be left by himself.

“Where is your Mom?” I asked. The boy looked at me and said nothing. “What’s your name?” No reply. Soon two employees wearing orange store aprons came out and tried to find out who he was. “¿Quiere es su nombre?” they tried in Spanish. Nada.

I called 911 on my cell phone, and there was no answer after about twenty rings. Now that was disturbing. I hung up and tried again, this time reaching a 911 operator. She asked detailed questions, and I volunteered the plate number of the vehicle. A police cruiser would arrive soon, she promised.

Meanwhile, another boy showed up, a plump fellow aged eight or so. He cheerfully talked. “He’s my brother,” he said. “His name is Joaquin. I’m Miguel.”

“Are you boys alone?”

“No, my Dad’s in the store, shopping.”

“Is your Mom there too?”

“No. She’s in jail.”

“Oh. You know, Joaquin is much too young to be left alone.”

“He’s not alone. I’m watching him.”

“You weren’t. He was alone for quite a while.”

Miguel shrugged. “I just went inside to the bathroom. I was only a minute.” He’d taken a lot longer than that, and he looked too young to be responsible anyway.

A couple of us adults stayed with them until their father came out with his groceries. He was a burly man with a smile, but I sensed it unwise to provoke him. “Gee, we were worried about this boy,” I said, nodding toward Joaquin. “He was all alone for a good while.”

“No, he wasn’t. Miguel was watching him.” Clearly they were both too young, but it seemed time for me to stop talking. They drove away, and about five minutes later a patrol car showed up. The officer and I chatted and said he would visit the man’s home to make sure the boys were okay.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Z is for Zee final post the A-Z Challenge, that is. This has been a lot of fun, trying to come up with short, interesting posts on whatever subject occupied my fevered brain. This month I visited far more blogs than I used to and far fewer that I'd hoped to. A quirky Internet connection is to blame, as some of the A-Z blog links came up slowly or not at all.

This experience has inspired me to blog more often, and I plan to visit all 1,200 or so A-Z participants in due time.

Longer days and a livelier connection, that's what I need.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Y is for Yahoo!

Yahoo because this is my 25th blog post this month and because I've just published my third novel, a murder mystery entitled Little Mountain. It centers on a murder that takes place among the Cambodian refugees here in the United States. It's available in paperback and on Kindle via Amazon at this link, and I'll be writing about it in future posts.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

X is for Xanthippe

I had to go to my Merriam-Webster for this one, because not a whole lot of words begin with X. Xanthippe, it seems, was the ill-tempered wife of Socrates. Therefore, a Xanthippe is a shrewish wife. Am I the only one who didn't know that? Probably, as I am often the last to learn such things.

The question is, how can we writers use this nugget? In a murder mystery, perhaps?

Through the walls I heard the screams from the Professor's apartment.
"You've been seeing that coed again!"
"Maria is a Ph.D. student. We were merely discussing her research."
"Over what? A glass of ouzo?"
"I have always been faithful to you, but only the good Lord knows why."
"And what's this on your jacket? Feta cheese? You had lunch with her, didn't you?"
"For God's sake, Julia!"
"I'll bet she nibbled your kalamatas!"
"What do you mean by that?"
A shot rang out.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

W is for What an idiot

A year ago, a neighboring town got a horrible shock with the murder of a woman, her husband, and their business partner who were shot as they entered the couple's home. The couple were due in court the next day because they were suing a man over a business matter. Wouldn't you think the man being sued would be the obvious suspect? Since we live near Juarez, I speculated that the perpetrator had hired a killer who crossed the border, did the deed, and drove home, never to be found.

Surprise, surprise. This week the police arrested Mr. Obvious on three counts of first-degree murder, based largely on a tip from the only apparent witness. Said witness drove Mr. O. to the victims' home. Mr. O. then drove the victims' car downtown, where he abandoned it and was picked up again by said witness, who drove him to a public park. Mr. O. carried a bag into a public toilet and came out without it, perhaps believing that the police would never, ever think to look for his semiautomatic weapon in the septic system.

Duh. Apparently the cops knew their man a long time ago and have just working to build their case. This evil man killed three people who were by all accounts fine citizens. What an idiot.

Monday, April 25, 2011

V is for Very

Very is such an overused word. I edit a lot of book reviews and notice that some writers use it a lot. Okay, so do I. One of the many items on my editing checklist is to look for that word and determine whether it's necessary--probably 90 percent of the time my answer is "no." Very is an intensifier that often adds little meaning. Bill Gates is very rich? Okay, I'll give you that one. I love you very much? Yes, we'd better keep that one handy. But trust me, it's a word that bears scrutiny.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

U is for Unique

Somewhere in grade school, I learned that some adjectives are not subject to comparison. Unique means one of a kind, so if you and I are both unique, you cannot be more or less unique than I. People often take unique to mean unusual.

A couple other examples are anniversary and desperate. How often do we hear of the one-month or six-month or the one-year anniversary of an event? However, an anniversary by definition is an annual event. And desperate, I learned, means without hope. We will conduct a desperate search for survivors, by which we mean anxiety-filled. If it were literally a desperate search, then hope would be gone and the search pointless.

Oh yes, literally is another one. We may say we were literally blown away, but that's not likely to be true except in a tornado or on a battlefield. Okay, no one is going to say "I was figuratively blown away," but I would be literally delighted to hear it.

Language evolves, in part with careless usage by local TV news announcers. Words mean what people want them to mean, and then one day the dictionary accommodates the changing usage.

Friday, April 22, 2011

T is for Testosterone

Surprise, surprise...our neutered male cat has excessive testosterone. That explains some of his aggressive behavior of late. He gave my wife a fairly nasty bite on the arm today, and that's a first. He's due for an ultrasound on Monday to ferret out the physical source of the problem. Luckily for George, he is normally a sweetheart whom we wouldn't give up for anything. So we think if the vet can get his testosterone level down, we think he'll be okay.

Have you seen that TV ad asking men if they have "low T"? Maybe we could make some money selling off George's surplus.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

S is for Self-publishing

S could be for so many things, of course, such as syringe-feeding George, one of my handsome Bengal cats. The poor guy has been through a lot lately and faces an uncertain future, but for now he's perked up considerably after a few days of force-feeding by his owners. But more on my feline pal in another post.

So much has already been said about self-publishing. Whatever its merits, the practice is certainly shifting the publishing dynamic by weakening traditional publishers and booksellers and devaluing the literary market. Agents have served as gatekeepers by screening out work that's unready or even unreadable, so what does reach traditional publishers meets certain standards.

Today, all you need is a computer, an Internet connection, and a word processor, and you too can be an author. Standards? Who needs 'em?

It's not that simple, of course. The standards are still out there, but if you self-publish there's no one to hold  you to them. More than once I've heard people say they'd self-publish first, then get the story "picked up" by an agent or publisher, who would clean up any problems with the manuscript.

Um, no. Not on this planet.

So as one who has three self-published books (after having three agents and no traditional publishers), I'd like to offer an incomplete, unordered list of tips to potential self-publishing authors:

1. Don't hurry your work. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. And no matter how inspired you feel, your words are not gold. Be willing to revise.

2. Write because you love to write. Don't write to get rich. With the former, you'll generally be happy; with the latter, you'll generally be disappointed. (I know, J. A. Konrath is an exception, but your name isn't Konrath, is it?)

3. Get objective critiques. Don't ask for comments from your parents, sibs, spouse, lover, or anyone else who has an emotional stake in making you happy. That gets dicey.

4. Read the masters in your genre. Observe how they handle dialogue, description, transitions. Analyze their plots.

Oh, wait...that advice applies to writing in general, doesn't it? Yeah, it does. You have to be your own gatekeeper. In other posts I'll offer more specifics; meanwhile, if you stick to these basics, your self-published book will be superior to 90 percent of the self-pubbed stuff out there.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

R is for the Road to hell

Stephen King cleverly tells us that the road to hell is thickly paved with adverbs, those modifiers of verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They don't always end in -ly, although they often do. (In the previous sentence, always and often are adverbs.)

Adverbs get a bum rap, in my opinion. Like salt in our suppers and passive voice in our writing, they are essential to our language but are easily overdone.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Q fills the gap

Last night I awoke thinking to make my Q about Quitting and how that's a Bad Thing. My inspiration came from a woman who had committed to a local group to run a major project, then got her knickers in a twist over an unrelated issue and promptly quit, leaving many people in the lurch. I was going to mention my first job, where my boss admonished me that "Winners never quit, and quitters never win." Life is never as simple as a slogan, though, and I've quit more than you want to know.

Then there is the topic of Query letters, briefly considered and quickly discarded. I don't do them well and don't need them for my self-published novels.

No doubt there are plenty of good Q topics, but none I feel competent to write about, except that Q fills the gap between P and R.

Monday, April 18, 2011

P is for Pop-up windows for your blog links

If you have a link in your blog, you might like it to open up in a pop-up window so your visitor doesn't leave your site. Just click on Edit HTML, find the text being linked, and change it like this:

Sunday, April 17, 2011

O is for Osculation

Osculation and its attendant repercussions play a not insignificant role in modern fiction--in the romance genre to be sure, but also in many murder mysteries. Tough-as-nails private eyes often engage in osculatory actions in their off hours or after they've offed the awful villains. As a writer, I find I must osculate frequently with my wife in order to keep the details clear in my mind. Of course, an occasional Noodle (see yesterday's blog post) helps as well.

The writer must stay sharp.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for Noodling around

Hmm. N is for Nabokov? No, I never read him and have nothing to say. Necrophilia? Nightshade? Noodle soup? Nattering Nabobs? Negative. So I'm just Noodling around, looking at other folks' blogs and writing a little Nonfiction about the Sixties, which I remember unfondly. Since I missed out on both Vietnam and hallucinogens, some may say I wasn't even there, but I do recall a whole lot of upheaval. The progress of the civil rights movement and the technology generated by the space program are the main pluses I can think of from that decade. But the political murders and the war thoroughly poisoned the atmosphere.

Someone please help me. There must be other major events/phenomena that justified the Sixties. Oh yeah, the Beatles. What else?

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Murder

One evening last year, several of us writers met at a friend's house out of town. My friend Dora said to us, "Did you hear about the awful shooting?"

We hadn't. Dora had just seen one of the victims at a Sister Cities meeting the night before. Apparently the woman and her husband stopped to run an errand on their way home from that meeting, then met up with a business partner. The three drove to her house, and when the woman went inside an intruder shot her. The woman's husband was shot apparently as he tried to help her, and then the business partner was shot as well. All three died.

Police have revealed little so far, but what is known to the public is that the woman and her husband were suing someone and were due in court the day after the murder. Any witnesses or clues are either non-existent or a closely-held secret. Juarez, Mexico, called by some the world's most dangerous city, is less than an hour's drive away.

Another triple murder occurred at a local bowling alley twenty years ago, and that case remains unsolved.

Many of us love murder mysteries when they are figments of our imagination. We transport ourselves into a world of make-believe mayhem and then maybe share the tale with friends if we enjoy it. Then real mysteries come along and don't necessarily reach neat conclusions. They might in time provide grist for the novelist's mill, perhaps with location and circumstances changed. Can you think of any murder mysteries that were clearly inspired by real events?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Writing when you’re stuck

Here is a blog entry I wrote for Dawn Goldsmith last summer, entitled Writing when you’re stuck:

If you’re not a professional writer, then writing is one of those activities you wedge into your day when you can. My friend Patty used to get up at 4 or 4:30 every morning to work on her novel until her husband and children got up. Then she would get herself ready for a full day’s work as a bank officer, come home to cook supper, then dash off to school committee meetings. Patty’s writing friends admired her, but we never wanted to emulate her.

Others keep saner schedules but set aside specific times for writing and perhaps specific quotas of words. Still others put writing on their to-do list or simply get to it when they can.

If you accomplish everything on your list, you have imposed a sense of order on your world (or your list is too short). Writing is usually one of the items on my list, but often it has no special priority and gets done after the daily errands or not at all.

Email is one of the great interrupters, followed by Twitter. I always marveled at the great advantage of email that we can write each other at any time, and we can read your messages at any time. But if that’s the case, why do I feel the compulsion to check for messages a hundred times a day? Maybe it’s a need for affirmation that there’s a cyber-someone who thinks I’m important.

Yesterday I decided to abandon Twitter and my 750 or so “followers.” It had seemed like a good venue to advertise my books, but in fact it’s a tsunami of trivia with little of value floating by. Simply checking out the invitations to follow others takes up time better spent writing.

This morning I determined to finish my monthly Southwest Senior column about Las Cruces writers before looking at my email once. While it wasn’t difficult, it did require a conscious decision on my part to disturb an ingrained habit. Now it’s finally done.

Now suddenly there is a vacuum in my schedule. It won’t last, of course. A jumble of jobs both worthy and unworthy of my time will try to fill the void, and eventually they will do just that. For now, though, my office is silent but for the hum of the hard drive. Even my neighbor’s dog isn’t barking—is she all right?
This should be the time when my fingers fly, pausing only occasionally to let the keyboard cool down. So why am I staring at the screen, waiting for the thoughts to come? Can it be that literary bête noir, writers’ block? Maybe I should stop for lunch and think about it.

That raises a question, though: What do you do when you’re stuck? One trick that’s worked for me is to open a new file and write about the problem. In a draft of a novel I’d write a note to myself: This is the character and this is the situation, and now I don’t know what to do with him. He can’t just hang around, but has to earn his keep by advancing the story. Think about what the character wants and about possible roadblocks. Maybe your hero is having it too easy, in which case it’s high time for an unwelcome event. What if he wins the lottery? Think about the possibilities: he suddenly has too many friends or loses them all; he hosts a party where someone O.D.’s; he becomes a target for criminals. Meanwhile, all he ever wants is to retire and build houses for Habitat for Humanity.

In other words, if you get stuck that’s a good time to brainstorm. Ask yourself “What if?” and see where the answers take you. The event doesn’t have to be disastrous or even negative, but it should keep the story from moving in a straight line.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a knock at my door.  I’ll be right back…

(note: Twitter and I have since made up.)