Wednesday, January 29, 2014

He Who Leads Leads Loudest

So here’s a good little tidbit to consider both for Scouting and for the classes I teach:

The guy (or gal) leading your group? It’s likely they’re in charge not because they’re competent, but because they spoke up first.

And why did they speak up first? Because, according to psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, writing in their book “The Invisible Gorilla,” they’re confident and used to “dominating” in situations.
Here’s what they say (emphasis mine):

They became leaders by force of personality rather than strength of ability. Before starting the group task [solving a series of math problems from the GMAT test], the participants completed a short questionnaire designed to measure how “dominant” they tended to be. Those people with the more dominant personalities tended to become the leaders. How did the dominant individuals become the group leaders even though they were no better at math? Did they bully the others into obeying, shouting down the meek but intelligent group members? Did they campaign for the role, persuading others that they were the best at math, or at least the best at organizing their group? Not at all. The answer is almost absurdly simple: They spoke first. For 94 percent of the problems, the group’s final answer was the first answer anyone suggested, and people with dominant personalities just tend to speak first and more forcefully.

So in this experiment, group leadership was determined largely by confidence. People with dominant personalities tend to exhibit greater confidence, and due to the illusion of confidence, others tend to trust and follow people who speak with confidence. If you offer your opinion early and often, people will take your confidence as an indicator of ability, even if you are actually no better than your peers. The illusion of confidence keeps the cream blended in. Only when confidence happens to be correlated with actual competence will the most able person rise to the top.

So what’s the lesson here?

First of all, I don’t think the lesson is that confident/dominant people are dumb. They’re not. They’re just confident and dominant. When a question is asked, they’re ready with an answer. They may recognize, as the group continues to form – through storming, norming and performing – that they’re not the most able person in the group (others may certainly be better at math, to continue the example) than they are. But they’re frustrated by the more able yet less dominant person’s inaction, even if that inaction is only a matter of seconds. An answer was requested, and an answer shall be given. With confidence.

Second of all, I don’t think the lesson is that less dominant but more able people are easily bossed around or cowed by more dominant individuals. Just as a greater ability at math is a trait they possess, they may equally desire to remain in the background during any group work, because that is also a trait they possess.

So what is the lesson here?

If you’re naturally gifted but content to remain in the background, either be prepared to stand your ground if the group is coming up with incorrect answers or information, or be content to see the group fail.

If you’re a natural leader, get to know your team and their strengths and weaknesses as the group forms so that you can identify the naturally gifted and rely on them to come up with the correct answer. Then supply the confidence and domination to convince the rest of the group that your expert is right.

And here’s the takeaway: Give your team the time they need to sort all this out for themselves. In other words, give your team time to form, storm, norm, and then perform.

I’m dealing with this in my scout calling. Last night, we worked on lighting fires with flint and steel, and it became clear that we have one scout who is highly competent at using the tools correctly to get a fire going. He’s also one of the quieter scouts, more content to hang in the background. Other scouts came forward as leaders, and the most dominant of all spent the longest time trying to get his fire started (his heart is in exactly the right place; he wants to perfect the skill). But as we and the scouts watched the dynamic of fire-starting, it’s clear where the “leadership” of the fire-starting crew is going to fall. And then we have to identify those who are good at taking direction from the fire-starter, so that their contributions of tinder and twigs doesn’t suddenly overwhelm the little fire and put it out.

Our role as scoutmaster and assistant is to provide the laboratory not only for the skill of fire-starting, but so that the boys themselves can sort themselves out and identify who is the best at flint and steel, and who is going to be the best at assisting, so that the fire is built, started, and maintained to the point that competence is achieved. We have to help the boys build competence so that when the time for confidence arrives, even those who are not naturally dominant can rise to the top because their peers have seen their competence and encouraged it enough so the natural confidence is there at the same time.

I’ve seen this in action, in my own son. He is not the most confident or dominant person in the world. But last year at scout camp, his peers recognized his ability in tying knots. When it came time for Colter’s Run – a weekly competition at Island Park Scout Camp that involves knot tying, shooting, running, canoeing and other events, the scouts in his troop recognized his knot-tying ability and gave him the confidence he did not naturally possess. He aced the knot-tying, helping to send our troop on to win the race.

Monday, January 27, 2014

In A Snow Crash World . . .

This is apparently a thing.

But is it anything more than gimmickry?

I can’t ever recall reading a book and thinking, “You know, this is a very intense part of the story. I need some kind of real-world stimulus to accentuate the fact that the characters’ predicament is making me happy, anxious, or in any other way emotionally stimulated.”

First of all, it’s because I don’t talk like that.

Second of all, it’s because the author’s words and my own brain’s creations envisioning the world thus created bear with them the physical stimulus I need to keep reading.

I can’t read of Aslan’s sacrifice, and his subsequent resurrection, without going into tears or feeling my heart pound with joy.

I can’t read of Sam’s despair when he realizes Frodo is going to keep the ring as he stands at the precipice of Mount Doom, to fail after having come so far, and not feel it with him.

I don’t need flashing LED lights or a sensory stimulation vest to do that kind of thing for me. The books I read are (mostly) capable of doing that with my own body and mind.

So it’s gimmickry.

We can’t be that out of touch with books or with stories that we need an external stimulus to make them real. If we do, we’re definitely reading the wrong kinds of books.

And I’m always very suspicious of people who use the word “protagonist.” I know it’s essential vocabulary. But most often I hear it used by people who are trying awfully hard.

Additionally, I hope the creators of this thing see the irony in using the novella “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” as the prototype story for their product. The story focuses on P. Burke, a deformed woman whose brain is used to control a genetically perfect individual named Delphi to shill products for the shadowy corporation that runs things in James Tiptree Jr’s story.

If this catches on – and that’s such a big if it’s visible from space – I can see where the quality of writing that’s attracted to this technology will be low. Good authors don’t need cheap lights or vibrations or a remote-controlled corset to help their readers connect with their characters. Things like this come and go. I remember back in college when the rage among the booky types was to package a compact disc of mood music along with their books, with notations of when to play certain tracks to go along with the story.

I know. Sounds as quaint as Tinkerbell waving her magic wand letting you know when to turn the page. Remember those records? Do they even make them any more?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

We Need Fewer Books on Writing and Publishing, More Books on Beta Reading

Seems to me everywhere you look, someone is waving advice in your face on how to write better and how to self-publish your brains out.

I read a lot of these books. Far too many, actually. And can count on one hand the books in this category that I find useful.

And if I got right down to it, I’d be able to count the best on just one little finger. It’s “Secrets of  Successful Fiction,” by Robert Newton Peck, published in the 1980s.

It doesn’t matter that this book came out well before the era of ebooks and self-publishing, because in this book Peck focuses on the fact that if you want to sell books, whether you’re traditionally published or not (though the term would have meant nothing to him at the time) you have to be your best promoter. You. Not your publisher if you’re lucky enough to go that route. You.

Because publishers are, at the fundament, risk-averse. Why spend time and money promoting an unknown when that money is more of a sure bet promoting one of the rare few who, at the end of all things, don’t really need promotion? There are reasons most authors don’t make gobs of money from their writing, and that is because they sit back and wait for their publisher to do the promotions. Peck didn’t do that, and managed, through crisscrossing the country and speaking, sometimes for free, to any group interested in hearing from him, to keep his books in print.

What seems lacking – or at least scattered throughout the Internet – is advice on finding, training, and otherwise taking good advantage of beta readers.

Oh, there’s plenty of advice. There is advice like this. And this. And services like this. But you’d think with the explosion in ebook publishing and self-publishing, finding beta readers wouldn’t be as convoluted as it is right now.

The first, obvious answer would be to create a web site or blog for beta readers (some that would be less complicated than, say, deviantArt’s service) but a quick search shows there are plenty of such blogs and web sites like that out there.

The misery is that I’m having trouble finding beta readers among my friends and family, the best advice I’ve heard out there. I don’t have time for local critique groups – they want to meet face to face, and given that I work ten-hour shifts sandwiched between 1 ½ hours of commute on each end four days a week, I don’t have a lot of time for that kind of thing. Going electronic seems to be the best route – but that’s after I’m through the electronic duty of teaching a three-credit English class after hours.

There’s got to be a way, though.

I still think the best idea I’ve had is to read my book to my kids – kind of my target audience anyway – or at least let them read it on their own. But I know the obligatory read is something no one wants to do, whether they’re my kids or not.

So, your solutions, folks: Where to find beta readers? I know firsthand it’s a lot harder job than it seems at first, so don’t think I don’t know what I’m asking.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Paying for the Obvious? I Don't Think So.

So, what advantages do traditional publishers offer authors that self-published authors can’t find for themselves?

Digital Book World knows, and for $295, it’ll sell you a 2.68 megabyte PDF of a study it did finding out.
Alas, I’m too cheap to shell out that many beans for the study, so a look at the analyses done by others will have to suffice.

Here’s what the folks at GalleyCat say:
  • The majority of authors make less than $1,000 a year (no surprise there).
  •  Almost 80 percent of self-published authors and 50 percent of traditionally-published authors fall into that category (again, no surprise there).
  • Ten percent of traditionally-published authors make more than $10,000 a year, with half of that number reaching the same monetary plateau among self-published authors (again, no real surprise).
Digital Book World, through its press release, offers the following:

Authors held favorable views of traditional publishing and expected that traditional publishing would offer several advantages over self-publishing, and most of the authors wanted to publish their next book with a traditional publisher. However, authors experiences with traditional publishing seemed to fall short of expectation, and authors were not overall highly satisfied with their experiences with traditional publishers.


Obviously, this study is either really boring, GalleyCat didn’t pay the $295 either or Digital Book World is holding the best gems tight to its chest until enough people pay the cash.

What did they expect to discover? That the moon reflects sunlight?

I might revisit this topic in a few weeks after more details of the report leak out. If more details are not forthcoming, then I’ll suspect either the report reports some pretty obvious stuff, or Digital Book World’s goons are more efficient than we’ve been led to believe.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

On the Cutting Edge

(Thanks to Alan Nelson for this screencap.)

We have this picture in our minds of what the early adopter looks like, particularly when it comes to computer technology:

Young. Peach-fuzzed face, willing to survive for days eating nothing but Skittles and drinking nothing but Red Bull. But young. Always young.

So consider Richard Halloran, Owns Home Computer. Back in 1981, he was an early adopter. Sitting there in his luxurious high-rise apartment in San Francisco (per this report), in front of his snazzy TRS-80 computer, he was on the bleeding edge. One of the first electronic newspaper subscribers in the nation. With his red Bakelite rotary phone and the dial-up modem, downloading the entire digital content of his chosen newspaper in two hours, at $5 per hour. (He got his news form a computer in Ohio; there were long-distance phone rates to consider.)

So, you nattily-dressed punks out there looking cool at Wal-Mart with your ginmormous tablet or phone-thingy poking out of the back pocket of your mom jeans, remember, in the distant future, you in your hipness will look as anachronistic as Richard Halloran, Owns Home Computer, to the geeks of the day.

When Inspiration Strikes . . .

This is one of the reasons I enjoy having a Kindle Fire -- I've got an instant little spot, if the battery isn't dead, to record what little inspiration comes my way.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Do NOT Do This At Home

This is serious business, folks. No one responding to an accident or emergency wants to be responsible for taking a life of someone they could be rescuing, but we see here it does happen.

This is on my radar because we recently conducted a drill out where I work and saw an incident where a driver responding to the emergency was driving too fast and not responding to visual direction given by another to slow down a s the vehicle approached the drill site.

This is a concern not only for the potential of hitting someone, but also in not paying attention to someone on the ground who has a better grasp of the immediate situation and who could help the driver avoid, say, driving through a spill of radioactive waste and thus turning the rescue vehicle into part of the contamination that has to be cleaned up.

None of us are perfect – I know I constantly have things I have to improve about my emergency response performance. This is why we practice, and why we have drills. I’m certain this driver will be much more situationally aware and not let the emergency get the better of him or her during the next drill. That is precisely why we practice, so we can identify deficiencies in our performance.

More Magic Woids and Phrases

Just on the heels of a study from Stony Brook University in New York that takes a look at what good books have in common, a pair of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology takes a look at the commonalities among Kickstarter campaigns that got funded, versus campaigns that went down the proverbial drain.

Lily Hay Newman writes about the Georgia Tech study at, where there’s also a link to the presser announcing the study (where you can find a link to the paper itself). For a word weenie such as myself, this study is gold, and could be used in extrapolation by anyone seeking to write a successful bit of writing, whether it be for grants, job applications, or even college essays.

That being said, this is more than a peek into raw search engine optimization; it’s clear form the study that simply inserting these phrases into a proposal wont’ guarantee success – they’re part of a bigger puzzle of success that incorporates winning attitudes as well as winning phraseology.

The study’s authors, Tanushree Mitra and Eric Gilbert, looked at over 45,000 Kickstarter campaigns in a wide variety of subjects. They discovered, after controlling for a variety of variables including whether or not the campaign was linked to a strong Facebook presence and whether the campaign had a watchable video to go with the words, that there is a pattern of phrases linked to the ideas of reciprocity, scarcity, social proof, liking, and authority that were common among winning campaigns. Less-successful campaigns had less of these phrases in common and were more prone to phraseology that made them come across as needy, greedy, also-rans, and less confident about their project’s current state and future viability.

None of that should be surprising to anyone who has written grants, written novels, or sold a product, but it’s good information for people (like me) who have been involved in projects where such selling has to be done and success is the desired outcome. The authors themselves say: “[P]hrases which exude negativism (not been able) or lack assurance (later, I hope to get) are predictors of [campaigns that are] not funded. [U]nsurprisingly, phrases which signal lucrative offers to potential backers (also receive two, mention your) are positive predictors of successful funding.

Backing away from the specificity of this research to Kickstarter campaigns, I can see how the general positive attributes of winning campaigns could be used in other instances where a writer or group wants to persuade successfully an audience to participate, donate, or further consider their work.

The study notes, first of all, that strong reciprocity – clear messages that show what the audience will receive if they donate – are key to successful campaigns (though it appears the draw of dressing up and seeing campaigners dressed up is a negative as far as campaign success goes).

Also key – no surprise here – is that pledgers will fund campaigns they’re already prone to liking, as long as the campaign demonstrates those who pledge will be showered with appropriate praise.
Other successful attributes include campaigns that have strong social proof of previous support (the phrases “has pledged” and “pledged and” show, firstly, that support is already there, and, second, that pledges were often accompanied by other forms of support; appeals to authority; and positive outlook of the campaign as a whole (phrases such as “we can afford” and “project will be” are strong indicators of a successful campaign).

Attributes that resulted in a failed campaign are also telling. Phrases such as “not been able” and “even a dollar” demonstrate past failure, and past experience with failure. Potential pledgers could interpret these phrases as coming from campaigners who are resigned to fail again – and who wants to be involved with a failed campaign? Other phrases concentrate too much on need or greed – “provide us,” “the needed,” “need one,” and the like. There’s too much focus on negativism, failed campaigns, and desperation in these failing campaigns to make them successful.

Of course, all of this has to be taken as part of the whole. As the study authors point out, there are many other variables that also make for winning or losing campaigns. They also point out that some of the magic woids and phrases they identify carry only a weak positive potential. But their results are still intriguing.
Per the study’s authors: “[S]uccessfully funded project demonstrate more active thinking, (cognitive process)a higher degree of social process, higher perception rates (senses), higher levels of emotions (affect) and exhibit personal concerns via references to money, occupation, leisure, and home.”

It’s this bit of conclusionary material that I find most interesting. Look at that list again, and consider how more active thinking, more consideration of social processes, higher uses of senses and emotions and a heightened attention to personal concerns could be used to enhance, say, a novel, an essay, a resume, a letter of recommendation, or any other type of writing where one is selling a product, service, or idea to an audience which has the opportunity to spread its choices among a good variety of possible campaigns. It’s all stuff were hear in writing tips and courses from high school on up. But here, in this study, quantified for our consideration.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Weather Channel, Get Over Yourself.

I guess it’s true that without the Weather Channel, I would not know the name of the storm bearing down on me right now in all its righteous fury. But I do know the name of the storm TWC is raising over its expulsion from DirecTV: Storm Self-Important.

Apparently there’s some kind of dispute between TWC and DirecTV, over prices and whatnot. TWC is determined to emerge the victor, as a self-described “critical life-saving community resource.”

As if TWC is the only source of weather news out there.


I have a question for you, TWC. If your weather forecasts and news are such a critical, life-saving community resource, by is it the only weather news I can get on your front page today is buried uder the following:

Well, there’s weather trivia there: a gust of wind hitting 199 miles per hour in Logan Pass, Montana, and a fear-factoring story about Louisiana “disappearing.” But actually very little by way of actual, you know, critical life-saving weather news.

And let’s face it: the idea of critical, life-saving weather news is about as manufactured as the idea of critical, life-saving 24-hour news broadcasts.  We got along just fine without it for many a year. Yes, I know there are critical weather events like tornadoes and, uh, tornadoes. But you can bet your salt the folks who need to worry about tornadoes are turning to their local news meteorologists who combine tornado expertise with extreme knowledge of the lay of the land to offer the critical news their viewers need.

And here’s another face it, TWC: You’re not the only source of weather news, so if you disappeared off DirecTV – to which I do not subscribe – I would not be bothered in the least. When I visit you, it’s on the web. And I’m much more interested in the weather than helping you fight the good fight with DirecTV.
So get over yourself.

I can go to the website of my local TV station for weather news. I can go to NOAA for weather news. And in my 42 years of life, I cannot recall a single weather report that I thought was critical. Oh, we’ve had some bad storms come through of course. But I never needed a meteorologist to tell me it would be best to stay indoors. I can figure that out by looking out my window.

It’s true there may be TWC junkies out there, hanging on every broadcast word. And it’s probably true you’ve saved lives. Maybe. Then again, maybe not. What’s more likely is that you’ve grown from what was a three to five minutes of local weather delivered by a guy required to be goofy thanks to the likes of Lloyd Lindsay Young into an overly-serious, self-important, money-making branch of some media empire now having a tiff with another overly-serious, self-important, money-making branch of some other media empire.

So be honest with us: this isn’t about providing critical, life-saving news. It’s about money. Amigo money. No dough, no show. And you’re just mad DirecTV called your bluff and began offering – surprise – 24-hour weather coverage from another weather provider, WeatherNation. You’re not the only playa in town, TWC.

Need some lip balm?

NOTE: Interesting analysis of the situation here, including this quote: "'The Weather Channel does not have an exclusive on weather coverage -- the weather belongs to everyone,' DirecTV chief content officers Dan York said in a statement."

Monday, January 13, 2014

Once Upon A Time . . . (Love Letter No. 2)

Joe Banks’ life stinks.

He works at a dead-end office job for $400 a week, in a place he hates and with co-workers who he’s sure are already dead, they look so bad under the office’s flickering fluorescent lights. He’s constantly sick and has gone through a string of doctors who never can quite figure out what’s wrong with him.

Then: Brain cloud.

It’s incurable, his new doctor says. Joe’s got maybe six months to live. “You have some life left,” Dr. Elison says. “Live it well.”

Enter Samuel Graynamore. Graynamore is an industrialist who needs the mineral bubaru, an essential ingredient in the superconductors he manufactures. Bubaru is available only on the tiny Pacific island of Waponi Woo. But the Waponis will only let him mine there if he fixes a problem: They need someone to jump into the island’s active volcano to satisfy their god. Graynamore wants to send Joe to the island, all expenses paid, promising that he’ll live like a king before he dies.

Joe decides to jump.

And jump he does – into a new life where he finds true love and, for the first time in years, meaning in his life.
He also discovers gratitude, and rediscovers God. While marooned on four steamer trunks lashed together in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with his true love unconscious by his side (a long, spoiler-filled story; I won’t spoil it for you) Joe sees the moon rise gigantic and magnificent over the horizon. As he watches the moon, he utters a prayer:

“Dear god, whose name I do not know. Thank you for my life. I forgot . . . how big . . . thank you. Thank you for my life . . . “

Joe finds life. He discovers it was his to have all along, once he got his head and his heart and his body in the right place.

The metaphor in John Patrick Shanley’s 1990 film “Joe Versus the Volcano” is clear: We don’t have to jump into a volcano to rediscover meaning in our lives. But we do have to take a leap. A leap outside of our comfort zone, a leap outside of our own self-imposed ring of misery.

Because everywhere Joe goes, he finds people who are happy in what they are doing, because they took that leap.

He meets Marshall, limo driver, content with driving a big car all over Manhattan and showing Joe an inkling of the life he could lead if he’d see happiness every day, rather than sadness. He finds contentment on “a working-man’s salary,” joy in helping others.

He meets Patricia Graynamore, sailor and daughter of the industrialist, doing a favor for her estranged father only because he’ll give her the yacht they make their Pacific voyage on once Joe is at Waponi Woo. She finds contentment sailing the seas, where she is in command.

He meets Tobi, chief of the Waponis, content that his volcano-sacrifice problem is being solved so easily.

And finally, Joe Banks meets the most important person of all. He meets Joe Banks. And Joe Banks was brave enough to leap into a volcano, and braver still to survive what came after that.

A Thousand Monkeys . . .

So, are we heading towards a world where an algorithm – a complex one – could write a book you’d want to read?


But we are in a world now where wonks are analyzing what good books have in common and are coming up with some interesting things, some things that line up with any random collection of writing tips you could pull out of your hat.

For example, here’s a study done by a group of computer scientists at Stony Brook University in New York. They admit they don’t know all – “external factors such as luck can also play a role,” writes Matthew Sparkes at the Guardian, concerning the study’s results. But there are some interesting things there for any writer to consider.

Less successful books, they discovered, “rely on verbs that are explicitly descriptive of actions or emotions . . . while more successful books favor verbs that describe thought processing and verbs that serve the purpose of quotes and reports.”

Let’s parse that a bit. Successful books appear as if they’re getting into the characters’ heads – the thought processing – and steer away from heavy-handed “quote and report” words like promised, cried, cheered (as in “’Hooray! We’re all alive,’ the crows cheered”.

Less successful books also relied more on negativity, more clichéd “topical words,” such as love, and more extreme words – breathless, never, vary, absolutely, perfectly. More successful books included more prepositions and more connective words – and, which, that, after, since, etc.

Here’s something else that’s interesting:

“The work of Douglas and Broussard reveals that informative writing (journalism) involved increased use of nouns, prepositions, determiners and coordinating conjunctions whereas imaginative writing (novels) involves more use of verbs and adverbs. Comparing their findings . . . we find that highly successful books tend to bear closer resemblance to informative articles.” So maybe that ten years in journalism will pay off after all.

Or not.  Because there’s that luck factor. And I’ve read some real stinkeroos produced by journalists.

Anyway, there’s a lot of things to swim through in the study (link to it from the Telegraph’s page). I don’t know what to make of it all. Hope I can figure it out before a computer does.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Love Letter No. 1: I Love Lamp

NOTE: A little writing exercise/example for my BYU-Idaho students, who have to write a love letter this week.

My wife should know better. But sometimes she forgets.

Like a few Christmases ago, when she got for me, as a joke, an itty-bitty flashlight I can strap to my finger.
Being a male of a certain age, of course I strapped it to my finger and tried to chase her around the house while saying “Ouch!” waving the lit flashlight in her face. She had about the same reaction Elliot did when ET, in the movie “ET The Extra Terrestrial” did when he waved his glowing finger in his face: Silence. Except it wasn’t fear on my wife’s face, just a knowing smirk and a roll of her eyes.

I love that flashlight.

I’ve used it to light the way as I replace headlight bulbs in our cars. It helps me locate shoes that got shoved under the bed. I once used it in a complicated way with two mirrors to try to see what it was that was making my left ear itch. Turned out to be ear hair. Who knew it grows like that?

I have used it to read at night, hiding under the covers with my book, just like I did when I was a kid. I’m not really sure who I’m hiding from these days, except maybe the fact that I should have been asleep a half hour ago so I’m rested enough to get up when the alarm goes off at 4:30; I don’t want to miss my bus to work.

Its light is bright, and I have yet to replace the batteries. Every time I turn it on, it’s a miracle. Such a little light bringing hope when all around has gone dark, if I can paraphrase Galadriel.  It’s on my desk right now, next to the new roll of masking tape and the two finger-mountable Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots, fruit of this year’s Christmas. Faithful, ready to go to work.

Speaking of this Christmas: My wife got me a headlamp, with a nice little battery pack that straps to the back of my head. When I saw it, I ripped open its plastic clamshell packaging, put the light on my forehead and then ran to my desk to get my finger light. I strapped both of them on, turned them on, then went up to my wife, saying “Ouch!”

Got that smirk, that roll of the eyes.

I now have two lamps to love. Maybe in a few more years, when my wife forgets again, I’ll get another.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Push. Push as Hard as You Can.

Here’s why I love Wikipedia.

I read this today, while learning more about the life of Wilson Rawls, who wrote “Where the Red Fern Grows”:

[After serialized publication in The Saturday Evening Post,] DoubleDay then accepted the book for publication. Rawls said DoubleDay then "broke my heart." They changed the title to, "Where the Red Fern Grows," and attempted to market the book to adult readers. For about six years, the book languished on shelves and failed to sell. DoubleDay was going to put the book out of print, but one agent named Mr. Breinholt from Salt Lake City fought for the book and asked for just a few more months to market the book. Mr. Breinholt got Rawls a speaking engagement at the University of Utah to a conference of over 5,000 reading teachers and librarians. Copies of the book were made available to the teachers and librarians. When the teachers and librarians took the book back to their schools, the children loved it, and orders began pouring in. Jim Trelease states, "Each year since then, it has sold more copies than the previous year."

Lesson learned: If you write a book, don’t count on it being marketed properly, unless you find the right person who wants to market it in the right way, and you’re willing to participate in the marketing.

Not that I’ll ever write a book as good as “Where the Red Fern Grows,” but I can hope. And because I can hope, I can deduce, from this example and from what Robert Newton Peck writes in his book “How to Write Successful Fiction” the author has to be his or her best evangelist for the stories they tell, or they will not sell.

There are only rare exceptions to this, and it’s to those exceptions that traditional publishers pour most of their money because they’re sure to get a return on investment. It’s also a telling story for those who want to self-publish: Push that book everywhere you can. And get it printed. And carry as many copies of it with you as you can.

And have an advocate who can push the right buttons.

I don’t have that. Nor do I yet have a book ready to publish, let alone print. But I can see the blueprint, and I know what I’ve got to do to accomplish what I’d like to do.

So, keep writing.

Keep editing.


And push whenever I can find a place to push.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Space That Calls for Whispers

First there was this:

Now there's this:

Sparks fell from the platform like dying stars.

Some lost their light seconds after they were born while others, hotter, fell through the blackness drifting on drafts in that empty space. They eye followed them, and when currents of air blasted them to and fro, it was as if gravity shifted with them, first to the right, then down, then to the left, up and sideways and back towards us again, cutting on the platform.
I closed my eyes. To watch the sparks too long might mean a fall.
We have come too far for falling.
Water drifted through the cavern’s air as well, trickling and dripping and rushing through the curved concrete surface, trailing tree roots with it as it fell. The floor of the cavern was an archipelago of shattered concrete, crumbled bunkers, rusted equipment and pools and floods and ripples and torrents of cold black water.
It took us three years to map the cavern, another year to find a safe path through it. I remember as a child seeing the maps of it, traced in glowing paint on the wall of our hidden room. Father was one of the cartographers. There were many. Many, so the map and its details would not be lost if one of the mapmakers was caught out and sent to the Roots to rot. I played a game with that map, tracing routes to the fairylands and forests with my finger. I saw it in my eyes at night when I was supposed to be sleeping.
With it, I told my sister stories.
“There be the dragons,” I said, pointing to a large, hilly island near the center of the cavern. “Fire-breathers, quite dangerous. But they keep their fires low. They do not want to be found out. They live a balance between the fire that feeds them and the water that surrounds them and that could put their fires out.”
The map’s glowing lines reflected in her eyes, and she whispered, “Take me to see them. Take me to see the dragons.”
I told her of the trolls. The dwarves and the witches and the blind rats, eyes bulging, never seeing light, ever craving the flesh of humans. She shivered and giggled. “The rats make the dragons sound tame,” she said.
And that is true.
The rats are the most dangerous creatures in the cavern, imagined or not. We lost more explorers and watchers and guides and bearers to the rats than we lost to the Roots.
But when the lights of one faded, the eyes of two brought their light to the circle, ready to work, ready to escape.
Gabe, my favorite watcher, told me stories as well.
“The cavern used to be bright,” he said. “It used to see daylight, moonlight, starlight. I have seen the lamps and traced the grooves in the concrete where the stars and moon and sun followed their paths across the sky. It must have been wonderful,” he added. “It must have been wonderful, to live among the light.”
Father liked that my sister and I looked at the map. He gave us what paint he could spare, and with it we drew our own maps in different corners of the bunker. “The more light your eyes receive, the quicker you’ll adjust to life Outside,” he said. “There, the light is real.” In the light of the map I could see his pale face, lined with wrinkles, stubbled with a beard. He has a mole underneath his right eye.
His eyes are blue.
He said his mother, her mother, and her mother as well also had blue eyes. But their eyes were much more blue than his – and ours. The circles of blue in their eyes were wider, the black pupils smaller. In the light of the map-room, his pupil was only tinged with the slimmest of blue rims.
“Stare at the light,” he whispered. “Stare at the lights. Exercise your eyes.”
Exercise your eyes.
He told us that every morning. Exercise your eyes. It made my sister giggle-whisper, to think looking at our maps was good for the eyes.
There were places in the caverns where there was more light and where people had eyes that were blue, or green, or hazel, or grey, or any other number of colors. But those places were near to the Roots and we knew enough about them to fear going there. There were rooms there where the light was so bright it burned your skin and shone through your eyelids even if you covered your eyes with your hands.
Thus the conundrum.
For through the cavern roof, pas the roots and waterfalls, was a place where the light was even more intense. And that is where we are trying to go.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Doleful Creatures: What Might Have Been

NOTE: Found this while cleaning out some really old files on my computer. It comes from the first attempt to what's now Doleful Creatures. Certainly a different approach from the one I've taken now. And certainly a lot more exclamation points . . .

Humming coming! 


I’m still not sure. . . 

Button your beak! 

The man idly hummed out of tune to something he’d heard on the radio earlier in the afternoon. He was a dreamer, of course, prone to long walks he took to avoid doing anything really constructive with his dreams. He felt if he enjoyed the sights of nature and wrote a poem about leaves when he got home, he’d had a good day. Spotting a squirrel ranked a bit higher, while talking to cows sent him home in the giddiest of moods to write convouluted short stories about how much he hated cars. It was only when he walked near the auto salvage yard that his mind wandered to animals. 

He thought today, after his walk through the woods and along the pasture fence - which really wasn’t a pasture fence, but the property line between his own and that of Mr. Grundy, who owned the salvage yard across the street - he’d write about how much he hated his job. That was certainly nothing he’d ever tried before. 

He’s almost in range, Quentin! 

Quentin? I’m Morbley. 

I’m Quentin, and he was talking to me. You’re just a lieutenant. 

Since when do we have ranks in this flock? I thought we were equal opportunity. 

All that rot got us was dissention and a bunch of freelancers who wasted their energies on cats! 

But that tabby never came through here again, did he? 


The birds, he thought - undescript and rather raggy-looking sparrows- were a bit louder than usual, but as the sun was shining after nearly a week of steady drizzle, they, like he, were apt to make a little more outdoor noise when the noisemaking was good. 

I’m not sure we have an affect on him, really. If I had my way, we’d do something a little more permanent. 

I just worry about the transitory nature of our efforts. There one day, gone the next, and he never even wipes that silly grin off his face. 

I just wonder about some of the louts in my outfit. 

There he goes militarizing everything again. Are you sure he’s not a jay? 

Less beaking, more sneaking! Here he comes. 

I’m putting in for a transfer to a different flock. 

He’d written a sonnet about spoons yesterday, but wasn’t quite satisfied with the rhymes he’d chosen. Writing a sonnet about spoons was not a cliche, but all the rhymes were. Poltroon. Maybe he could work poltroon in there somehow. Maybe, he thought, these are Bowie spoons, a weapon so ludicrous only a coward would use them. That would be a little Ogden Nashery. Babboons weilding Bowie spoons? That went beyond Nash and right into Shel Silverstein. 

That was the tack. 

Not a sonnet, but a song. A song about . . . naw. 

Sonnets were literary. Songs about spoon-carrying monkeys sounded like something from a Disney movie. If he despised anything, it was anthropomorphism. 

Damn damn damn! Morbley! He was right under your group! 


Who? WHO! The hummer! 

Oh. Him. 

I think we’re in trouble, Lyle. 

Why didn’t you fire? 

Why should I? 

Well, let’s see. Maybe it’s because that’s what we’re up in these trees to do in the first place! 

It all seems a bit pointless, don’t you think? 

(Probably not very often by the looks of it.) 

I heard that! 

(See? I told you the dumbest ones always had the sharpest hearing!) 

What was that? 

Nothing, sargeant. 

Perhaps he’d be better off forgetting about spoons for the moment.

Friday, January 3, 2014

January Speaks

                        The wind is tired of biting

                                    its toothless, slurping broth.

                        The trees are tired of being bare

                                     and naked because of sloth.

                        The sun is bored with sugared snow,

                                    and casting a pale cold light.

                        I’m not saying this to help you out,

                                    but only for doleful spite.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

On Writing: What's In Store for 2014?

One thing I’m not going to do as I look at my writing year 2014 is to say I’m going to self-publish a book.

Not that I’m giving up on self-publishing, it’s just that I keep saying I’m going to publish but I never do, because I don’t have a book that’s ready to go. I’ve got a few that are close. OK, Maybe two. Maybe. But it could be a year or more before they’re ready.
Doleful Creatures is now fully written. Maybe. I started it a while ago and finished it at NaNoWriMo 2013, significantly cutting what had been written in the past and adding a lot more to it. It’s basically a new book, and thus is only a first draft. No way is it ready.
The Hermit of Iapetus – Product of my first NaNoWriMo in 2011. It’s still in that first draft position as well.
And what of Yershi the Mild, 2012 NaNoWriMo baby? Well, it’s there. But it’s the least developed of the three, and the least likely of the three to draw my attention in 2014. So I can’t count it as anything at the moment.
And just the other night, a new plot came to me in a dream (cliché, I know): Folks escape from one dystopian society built in heavily-fortified underground concrete domes into a paradise on the surface which turns out to be an even worse dystopia than the underground version. What makes it worse right now I’m not certain of, but the fact that everyone drives bulbous cars that look like athletic shoes has got to be a part of it. I even got the title as I slept: St. Anthony. Not the town in Idaho, though that’s kind of how it started out. A Facebook friend pointed out that St. Anthony is the Catholic patron saint of lost things, so that increases the Ironic-O-Meter potential of the novel a thousandfold.
I’ve also got a little project called The Farming Dragon, sitting there with only a few chapters written. I’m not sure at this point it’s going to go anywhere.
And Slouching Towards Bensonville, my magnum opus. Nothing. I got nothing on it, except a weird uncle who checks to make sure everyone he meets has YKK zippers on their outfits. That seems a bit creepy.
So what is next?
Editing, obviously.
Beta reading. I’d like to get my wife involved in it, but she’s so busy with other stuff I don’t think I have much of a chance. I also just finished beta reading a novel for a friend, but he’s expressed disinterest in the novel I’d like him to beta read – Doleful Creatures. Apparently, a fuzzy talking animal book isn’t really his cup of tea. And I’m fine with that – why make someone read a book they’re not interested in in the first place? Well, to get an honest assessment, for one.
Editing is an ugly word. But an exciting world. I know there are things in Doleful Creatures that need to be taken out – but I also know there’s more story that hasn’t been written yet. I just have to figure out where it is.
So what’s going to be my process?
Pen and ink are out. I’m a terrible editor in that way. Oh, it’s a great way to catch spelling errors, errors in grammar and such. But errors in storyline and content require a different approach – live on the document. Taking Doleful Creatures through NaNoWriMo helped bring it to life, and that was done with live editing. So live editing it will be once more.
And should I track changes? To a point, I think I will. But just as a mileage marker, nothing more. And by that I mean a record of how much has been added or deleted.
Here’s the approach:
No editing for grammar. This is storyline only. I’ll do a quick read to identify plot holes and where the story bogs down.
But here I retract a bit of my “no pen-and-ink” rule: I’m going to read this to my kids, and make notes where I see things that need fixing, but more importantly, where they see things that need fixing. I hope I can convince them to listen in that manner.