Monday, December 31, 2012

A Safe New Year's Eve

The only thing better than having a Happy New Year?  Having a Safe New Year.

As someone who is in charge of shepherding thousands of students each year through the twists and turns of a college education, I've become quite sensitive to the "stuff" outside of academics that we can't really control.  There's nothing worse, after all, than seeing a student with the ability and the motivation to succeed who is rendered unable to by circumstance.  And--that nasty circumstance always seems to bite us around this time of year.

So please, everybody, have a great and wonderful New Year's celebration. But please, also have a safe one.  There's no excuse for getting behind the wheel of a vehicle after you've been drinking.  It's hard enough watching out for other drivers who might be driving intoxicated when you're sober, after all. 

The AAA "Tipsy Tow" program that's been tossed around Facebook isn't available everywhere in the U.S., unfortunately.  It turns out that they stopped running it in most places after people abused the program, using the goodwill of AAA and the organization's member base to get home rather than planning responsibly safe alternatives.  That's sad, but I can't say I blame them much.

There are other programs, though.  A list of options, listed alphabetically by state and then by city, are available here, having been compiled by the NHTSA and hosted on the AAA web site.  If you plan to go out drinking, you should go through the list prior to departing to program the number into your cell phone.  Alternatively, if you're in the Richmond area, the law firm of Allen Allen Allen & Allen (I'm thinking they need two or three more people named Allen, aren't you?) is offering free options here

And so, on that note--enjoy responsibly, and enjoy safely, but enjoy your New Year's Eve celebration!


Sunday, December 30, 2012

An End, or A Beginning?

"I don't believe in happy endings." - Jeanette Winterson

"Beginnings are always messy." - John Galsworthy

"It's the end of the world as we know it." - R.E.M.

So, all of us who survived the predicted apocalypse can breathe a little easier now.  It's okay, the Mayans apparently got it wrong.  That, or perhaps the end of their calendar only signals that they got tired of counting out the hundreds of years.  Or maybe they didn't, and their Calendar Pt. II was actually created with numberings out to, say, the year 6060, but it got destroyed in one of the attacks.  I dunno, but regardless, we're still here.  Whew, I say.  Break out the champagne, I say. 

Then again, apparently the Golden Dawn predicted a century or so ago that the end of the world would happen in 2010.  We survived that one, too.  I've heard Pat Robertson said the same for 2007.  A lot of people thought January 1, 2000, would be our official End of Record marker.  We've stared down about a dozen apocalyptic prophecies thanks to the combined efforts of Harold Camping and the Jehovah's Witnesses.  And frankly I refuse to bother with a count of all the times people have claimed that their interpretation of the works of Nostradamus says that the world must end on a certain date.

It's nothing new.  The Romans thought the ending would come somewhere around 600 years B.C., based on the theory that Romulus had seen 12 eagles, and each eagle represented 10 years, and so basic math (if you can do basic math with all those Ms and Cs and Xs and Is) gave Rome 120 years from its founding to exist and then die.  Yep, really.  Later another Roman, Pope Innocent III, said that the world would end 666 years after the rise of Islam, in a year that passed by apocalypse-free a thousand years ago, give or take a few dozen.  Returning the favor, the head of the Nation of Islam predicted that the Gulf War of the early 1990's would be the "War of Armageddon."

Nope.  Still here, guys.

No end in sight, then, but rather a continued turning of the wheel.

No grand ending of doom is in sight, that is.  We mortals, I think, have a difficult time looking at the passage of time as one long string.  We need endings, and we also need beginnings, because without them life wouldn't make much sense when bookended between our own beginning at birth, and our own ending at--well, at the other end.   We often, as a result, manufacture our own endings, and what flows naturally from an ending is another beginning. 

So which is it, then?  Does this self-manufactured mark at the New Year point to a beginning, or an ending?  The answer is fairly simple; it's both.  The year 2012, when it began, offered us all sorts of promises for what it might bring.  I was certain, for example, that it was heralding my becoming a famous (and wealthy) author who could buy a private (and perpetually warm) island where I could do nothing but drink and write.  Clearly, that didn't happen.  But other, less grand, promises were fulfilled by what was truly a great year.  I've already listed some of them on a post a few days ago, but other stuff happened as well.  Through, for example, I played a part in helping an Argentinian lady launch a business.  Through my day job, I played a part in helping well over a hundred people become trained and certified and launched into new careers. 

One of the news agencies labeled 2012 the year of 'meh.'  Their point was that nothing all that grand happened in the year.  I disagree. 

It was a pretty good year.

And it's over.  Done.  Ending.  Tomorrow, in fact.

That brings us to the beginning.  The year 2013 isn't nearly as round a number as 2012, which is probably why I haven't heard any grand prophecies regarding the year to come.  And odd as it is, it's not a prime number either.  It just--is.

And yet, it's gonna be great.

I'm still working on the goals for next year.  Hopefully you have, or are going to have, some too.  If you haven't yet sat down to consider where 2013 will take you, please do so with me over the next 24 hours or so.

As much as we loved (or didn't, depending on your own experiences) the year 2012, let's get it ended so we can get on with a fresh new beginning.  

2013, beginning in just a couple of days, is going to be our best year ever.

So tell me--what are you looking forward to the most with this new beginning?


Friday, December 28, 2012

Why New Years Goals?

"Achievable goals are the first step to self improvement." - J.K. Rowling

"A goal without a plan is just a wish." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"Life is like a ten-speed bicycle.  Most of us have gears we never use." - Charles Schulz


A blog post I read recently--forgive me, I can't recall which one--commented sagely enough that it's silly to rely upon a particular date (specifically, January 1st of each year) to spur ourselves into self-improvement activities such as goal-setting, resolution-declaring, beer-drinking, etc.

Okay, I made that last bit up.  But there is an awful lot of beer-drinking that goes on around that time of year, isn't there?  It's followed, appropriately enough, by even more resolution-declaring regarding a reduction in beer-drinking.  Which is soon enough followed by more beer-drinking, of course, which is in turn followed by vocal promises to an unnamed deity to "never drink again."


So anyway, I kind of agree that a properly-functioning goal-oriented person doesn't need artificial spurs like New Year's Day to create goals.  We really ought to be constantly evaluating our paths and crafting new markers on a regular basis.

Doesn't happen, though, does it?

Even if it does, even if you're a goal-setting maven from way back, you still need to pick a day and time at some point in the year to sit down and craft/evaluate your annual goals.  Why annual goals?  Well, they're probably the easiest to create and track, because weekly and monthly goals, if they're kept achievable, are often not grand enough to get us excited (though please don't assume I'm downplaying their importance!), while multi-year goals are usually so far out that we don't see much movement toward them.  But I can see next year, all in one happy calendar, and in looking at next year I can plan for some pretty splendiferous achievements.  The plans for those achievements will require weekly and monthly goals, to be certain.  And the annual goals I set should, in turn, play into what I'm hoping to accomplish in the next 3-5 years.  But it helps to start looking at one thing at a time, and annual goals are my favorite spot to start from. 

So, what day and time makes sense to sit down and look at your annual goals?  Doesn't technically matter.  At work, for example, I set some goals based on July to June calculations, because that's what my accreditation agency is tracking.  If you, too, are burdened with external agency "fiscal year" considerations, then go with those.  But most of us aren't, at least not for our personal and business goals.  So--wanna set goals on February 14th?  Nah, didn't think so; there's too much chocolate to be eaten and wine to be drunk on that day, right?  A random day, perhaps, like April 28th or August 20th?  Nah, too random.  So why not use the calendar year since so many of us use normal calendars on a regular basis?

So, that's why I'm suggesting we go with goal-setting activities at the end of December for a Jan 1 - Dec 31 period.  It's not because I think New Year's Resolutions have any particular merit, but rather because it's just a fairly obvious choice given the basic calendar structure.

Soon to come: Looking to 2013.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012: A look back

"Blog Challenge: What do YOU believe you can accomplish in 2013?" - Cricket Walker, V7N Blogging Tips and Challenges question of the week

"Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." - Les Brown

Good question, Cricket.  Short and meaningless answer: just about anything I set my mind to.  That truly is a meaningless response, though, because the underlying question still isn't answered.  What is it that I'm going to set my mind to?  In other words, what are my goals for 2013?

Hold on there just a sec, though.  One important principle of goal-setting is that you start with a look at where you've been and where you are.  After all, you wouldn't just start giving directions to the local store without identifying the location from which the person you're directing is starting from, would you?

Well, okay, I know some people who would, but let's assume you're not one of those.

I've written a blog post or two on the SMART method of goal evaluation before: goals must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-sensitive.  I've trained leaders on the importance of SMART goals.  Typically in that training I include a hands-on real-world type of practical exercise in which we evaluate some goals for that particular team.  It always goes roughly the same way: Specific and Measurable are pretty easy to evaluate, and then all hell breaks loose on Achievable.  There's always somebody who preaches the moon philosophy stated above, which is fine if you're into the practice of sitting down at the end of the year to brag about how many lofty goals you didn't quite make.  Put simply: moon-goals are great for my motivational writing, but they're crappy for my annual performance evaluation.

At the same time, there's always a realist in the group, someone who not only objects to moon-goals, but screws up their face into the "I just sucked on a lemon" expression when you start discussing stretch goals.  You know--those are the goals that are achievable in the foreseeable future, goals that don't require shooting for the moon, but still they're goals that will require nearly perfect execution of a nearly perfect plan by everybody on the team.

"But what if somebody messes up?" *more facial imitation of lemon-sucking*

"There's no if; it's a when.  We know we're imperfect, but we can build some contingency into the plan."

"We do that every year, and then the contingencies fall through."

Then the moonie speaks up: "But if we shoot for the moon...."

"Then we have longer to fall, and we still end up with our head stuck in a mud bank."

See?  This is probably one of the most difficult discussions to moderate through, but the benefit of doing so is the team that becomes much stronger through the process.  The key to successful moderation?  Figuring out where you're starting from and what's gone right/wrong to get you there.


My turn.  2013 goals will follow later, but for now, let's look at what I've done in 2012.  Mostly, anyway.  Out of respect for my boss and co-workers I'm going to leave the work discussions at work, but here goes with the rest:

Didn't win the lottery.  Didn't get out of the apartment, though frankly that wasn't really one of my serious goals.  Did survive a couple of bouts of pneumonia and three broken ribs and a broken collarbone.  Gained, rather than lost, a few pounds.  Got a couple of chronic health issues (hypothyroidism and sleep apnea) under treatment.

Finished my PhD.  'nuff said, man.  Been working on that thing since early 2007.  Haven't gotten people at work retrained to call me "Doctor King" yet, though.

Authorpreneurly (hey, I made the word up in the first place; it's up to me how the suffixes get added, right?):
Self-published three works, all in early 2012.  Numbers aren't in for December yet, but as of February through November I'd sold just over a thousand copies of my work, nearly 100 of those in European markets.  I've had nearly 200 copies borrowed in the Kindle Online Lending Library, which actually pays nearly as well per copy as selling it does.  I've had some strong promotions, too.  All totaled, I'm hoping to cruise past December 31st with just over 13,000 copies of my works in readers' hands.  That number's not going to get me onto any bestseller lists, but it's not bad for Year 1, right?

The Blog:
I've had a tough time with the blog this year.  In 2011 I started in late February and racked up 201 posts by December 31, 2011.  But I've slowed down in 2012; this post you're reading now will be number 92 for the year.  Viewership is up, though; in 2011 I had just shy of 7,000 visits, compared to well over 10,000 to date in 2012. 

All things considered, then, I've accomplished a lot in 2012.  And more importantly, now that I know where I've come from and where I am today, my goals for 2013 shouldn't be too hard to craft off of this list, right?

Heh--we'll see.  Here goes.  More to come, later.

Questions for you, though, while I'm away working: have you taken the time to look back over the last year and see what you've accomplished yet?  Did the activity reveal anything? Does it give you a hint as to how to barrel into 2013? 


Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas, again!

"The xmas holidays have this high value: that they remind Forgetters of the Forgotten, & repair damaged relationships." - Mark Twain

You know, not to be a Danny Downer, but the frail and fleeting nature of life is a recurring theme in my books, and it's actually a central theme of Book 4 (which I hope to have out sometime next summer, but Book 3 must of course come first).  Still, that's fiction.  Over the past few weeks, meanwhile, I've had not one, not two, not three, but four different reminders of how that theme plays out in real life.  In real life, life is frail.  In real life, life is fleeting.  And in real life, we mere mortals can't just hop on over to Gaia's glade, asking as Crystal did for the secret to immortality.

We can, however, work to make every day we're given into a life well lived.  What does that mean?  Well, when my own life is over, nobody is going to stand at my remembrance ceremony talking about how many books I've written or sold.  Nobody is going to speak of the wondrous accomplishments with accreditation I've wrought.  They will, however, (hopefully) tell tales of relationships, of memories that span a lifetime of us all traveling through it together.

That's what life's about.

The beautiful thing, incidentally, about this season is that the very thing I just said life is about is amplified by the "Spirit of the Season."  We all decry the commercialism of gift-giving, yet we still participate.  Why?  Because, I think, down in our hearts, we know that the trading of gifts really isn't, or at least shouldn't be, about the gifts themselves.  Instead, it's about finding an easy way to open a connection between two people through which joy, friendship, and love can flow.

So as you journey through the events of Christmas Eve today, and Christmas Day tomorrow, keep all that in mind.  If you're like me and still have to brave the shopping areas (every single year I forget something till the day before Christmas) then try to do so with love and joy in your heart no matter how many idio--er, lovely fellow shoppers--cut you off.  Think of someone you haven't connected with in a while, and reach out to them.  Do it today, not tomorrow; you might find out as I did this morning that that person is no longer connectable with.  Practice a random act of kindness.  Smile at people, even--especially--when they don't deserve it.

Speaking of Christmas and gifts and stuff--I and my friends at Alexandria Publishing Group would like to help you enjoy the season with the gift of a free anthology.  It contains bits of all of our writing, from fantasy to science fiction to humor.  It's got Greek gods and zombies and nanobots, and even *gasp* a guitar or two, so what's not to love about it?

You can download it from Smashwords here:

Enjoy, and have a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Holidays, a Joyful Kwanzaa, a Happy Hanukkah, a Merry Festivus, or whatever tradition you follow.  And please, make it be about your incredible fellow travelers in the voyage of life.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Following Directions

"We are a puny and fickle folk.  Avarice, hesitation, and following are our diseases." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

I poached my first egg, by hand, today.  And, by way of that success, I also poached my second, third, fourth, fifth, and so on, after a while being proud to have enough to feed the family breakfast.

Now, "by hand" doesn't mean I'm Johnny Storm.  But I remember being a kid using a poaching pan on the stovetop, and later I used the microwave version.  To use those, you just pop an egg down into the preformed cup, fill the bottom with water, and heat it till it's done.  Easy-peasy.  If you've ever watched those cooking shows and witnessed the fine art of poaching without the cups, though, you know that there's a finesse, a fineness to doing it by hand.

Turns out it's pretty easy.  But....

The first thing I did was, as usual, look it up online to see how others have been successful at it.  Because, you know, that's one of the first steps of our own success.  It's what we're taught to do: replicate others' achievement.  Right?

So I found sites pretty easily that proclaimed to have "the true secret" to poaching eggs in water.  The trick, all of them I looked at said, is to spin the spoon around the water rapidly to create a whirlpool, into which you gently deposit the egg to be poached.  That, they say, will hold the egg together and make for a super poaching experience.

Yeah, right.

Thing is, I doubted it initially--a gut feeling, which I carefully ignored.  I'd watched the art of poaching eggs on the food network before, and the chefs poach multiple eggs at a time in the same water, which, if this method is used, would require several whirlpools going simultaneously.  I'm no physics expert, though I am a physics major, and I think I can safely call the multi-whirlpool thing a feat of physical impossibility in any normal-sized pot.  But then again, my brain said, those were pros who were cooking sans-whirlpool, while the sites I was reading appeared to be written by amateurs for amateurs, so--surely there's something I don't know, my brain said, overriding my gut.

There wasn't.

I did the first egg precisely like they said--waited for the water to get just right, not boiling but nearly boiling, added a touch of vinegar, and started Ye Olde Whirlpool up in the center.  Dropped the egg into the little tempest, and--zzzziiip!  The white did precisely what I should've predicted it would do, studly physics major that I am.  It spun right off the yolk, pulled by the centrifugal forces of the storm.

Well, that ended up being a nicely-poached yolk, anyway.  It tasted good, egg white or no.

Using that experience, then, as well as my own ideas as well as what I'd seen from the experts, I proceeded to drop two and then three eggs at a time gently into still (and quite hot) water.  It worked perfectly.  It's really not hard to poach eggs, it turns out--you just have to drop them gently and then not panic while the egg sits in the water for a few minutes not doing much.

Oh--and don't blindly follow directions, regardless of what you do.  Writers, you know the perfectly friendly advice about what person to write in, what kind of story to write, how often to blog and Tweet and post to other sites, not starting your story with somebody waking up from a dream, etc.?  They're all wrong.  Well--the one about not starting your story like that is pretty universal.  But the rest--nah.  They're right for the person who wrote them, but odds are they're wrong for you.  What's worked in one story may not work in yours.  What hasn't worked in others, meanwhile, might turn yours into the next best-seller.  Bottom line is to write the story that you want to read.  Cook the eggs you want to eat.  Build the business you want to be a customer of. 


Monday, December 3, 2012

Animal Abuse

"Compassion for animals is intimately connected with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man." - Arthur Schopenhauer

This morning I rose with the goal of, prior to going to the office, revising a holiday-themed short story I'd written over the weekend for the upcoming Alexandria Publishing Group anthology.  I chuckled a bit, though, when I noticed that it was still titled "The Puppy" yet there was actually no puppy in it.

No, I'm not crazy.  There was a puppy in the story at first.  But as it developed it became clear that the poor canine mischief-maker couldn't successfully keep up with what I needed from the primary plot device, and so poof, I sacked him for another animal.  No warning, no performance counseling, just whap!  You're outta here.  Go find another story where they'll like you better, Fido.

The more I thought of it, the more it upset me.  It occurs to me that there are plenty of agencies who fight against animal cruelty of a physical nature, but what about their psychological needs?  What about protecting them from prejudice and discrimination?  I'm not talking about the almighty "dog-lover" versus "cat-lover" argument; the two species arguably have profoundly different characteristics and thus should be treated as differently as, say, Army and Navy football fans.  No, I'm talking about the inherent assumption, devoid of facts, that one animal breed can necessarily do a particular job better than another.

Ferinstance, when you think about those dog sleds up in Alaska, what do you see in your mind's eye?  A team of huskies, right?  Can other breeds of dogs do the same task just as well for equal pay?  Sure.  Granted, other species are wrong for the job--cats, for example, would make the human pull them, and horses would charge too much in food.  But why do we automatically make the assumption that dogsled pullers must be huskies?  Discrimination, that's why. 

Writers are probably the worst, both at propagating these stereotypes and at initially creating them.  Take the standard magician's animal sidekick, for example.  It really doesn't matter what animal appears from inside a mage's headgear, yet you never hear a story where the magician says "watch as I pull this cobra out of my hat."  Any animal small enough to fit in the hat in the first place would do, but it's always a rabbit.  Why is that?

And why is the rabbit always white?


Similarly, why do poets choose to use the perfectly benign crow/raven family as the animal incarnation of evil?  There's absolutely no reason Mr. Poe couldn't have written:

"And the parrot, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting, 
on the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door"  

Granted, parrots are known to speak, and so the continued repetition of a word by that breed of bird would seem normal, and thus it wouldn't guide us to the conclusion that the narrator was crazy as a loon (oh!  the poor maligned loons, too!).  Given that, though, another breed would've done just as well:

"But the pigeon still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling, 
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door."  

Anyway, you get my point.  Why pick on the raven?  Just because it's black?

Support your poor animal friends and their psychological well-being today, folks. 


PS--my mind goes strange places when it finds itself at the intersection of Monday morning and caffeine.  Absolutely none of this article was meant to be taken seriously, nor were any cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, or even cobras harmed in its writing. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Answering the "What Do I Do Now?" Question

Now that NaNoWriMo is successfully behind me, I was pleased to gloat my way into the Thank God It's Over party for my region's NaNoGroup.  It was actually a lot of fun, all gloating aside, meeting the folks once again.  Nearly every one of them had won, one young lady even having put out 110K words! And then the question came up--what to do now?  I fled, not because I didn't want to answer the question based on my own experience, but because I didn't want to answer the question twenty times when I could just blog about what's clearly an important topic.  Write once, read many--a good system, no?

So you finished NaNoWriMo.  What to do?  Well, first, I'll join everybody else who's written on the topic by advising you to pat yourself on the back.  Take a day or two off.  You deserve it.  DON'T allow your momentum to slip away; you're a writer, now if not before, and the thing that makes you a writer is that you write.  Trust me, it's easy to slip back into the casual affairs of the day, sliding into the bedsheets without a single word committed to paper.  Sure, relax a little, but don't stop writing for more than a day or two.  Not now, not ever. 

Another, probably more important, don't to keep in mind: don't push your now-finished manuscript in front of anybody.  Not critique groups.  Not your parents.  Not your spouse, at least not unless your relationship is solid enough that you can tolerate being the recipient of hysterical laughter from someone you care about.  Especially not an agent.  No, I'm serious--I've been following many agents' blogs and writings for a while now.  Most, if not all, literary agents hate December.  It's not because of the guy in the big red suit or the huge lines at the mall, either.  Well, not just because of that.  No, it's because December follows NaNoWriMo.  December is when their mailboxes light up with 30-day crappy manuscripts of crappiness.

I know, yours is really pretty good.  I know, some very famous novels started as NaNos.  I know, I know.  But listen, I'm really serious on this one.  Don't submit your NaNo project to an agent.  If you're experienced enough as a writer that you stand a chance in hell of pulling it off, you're also experienced enough to know it's a horribad idea.  If you're not--well, do this instead.  Take your manuscript and print it out.  Save it, yes, and back it up, yes, but also print it, on both sides of the paper if you wish to conserve.  Then take that sheaf and stuff it into a brown paper bag, or at least a plastic Kroger bag--two, one inside the other, is even better.  Write "Do NOT open till after Christmas" on it and stuff it behind the tree.

Why?  Because that's how writing works.  Most of us, when we're learning to draw, craft a beautiful picture of an apple--intending, unfortunately, to have drawn a face.  But we don't expect the first attempt to be that good, because drawing is hard, right?  Keep at it, recognizing where you need improvement, and some day your drawing of a face will look like a face--or not, if you're an impressionist, but whatever trips your trigger.  By the same token, most of us, when we're learning to bicycle, look at falling down as part of the game.  It hurts, but it's the only way to learn, right?

Why is it then that people crafting a novel think the first draft is going to be anything but a mushy pile of smelly literary crap?

But don't just believe me.  Leave that manuscript behind the tree till you take the tree down sometime in late December or early January (or June, if you're like me).  Then read it.  You'll be shocked at how bad it really is.  But since you wrote it, and the story came from inside your head, you'll also probably know what you need to do to fix it.  Then leave the second draft aside for another few weeks and do it again.  It'll take several drafts, and even then it may never serve as anything beyond your greatest learning exercise--but then again, that's valuable, right?  The only way to get better at writing is to write, but that's not enough.  You also have to find your mistakes and revise.

So anyway, I'm done beating on the manuscript.  What else can you do after finishing NaNoWriMo?  Besides, of course, the obvious answer: "write more."  There are a ton of different things you can do, though.

First, if you haven't already, get yourself habituated to following agents' and other authors' blogs.  Rachelle Gardner is a key agent to follow, but there are many others out there.  Some represent your genre, while others don't; you'll want to find agents that represent your genre if you can, but don't ignore those who don't.  Also, find some authors whose books you like and follow them.  You'll see that some are active while others aren't; some are interesting while others aren't, and so on.  Over time you'll winnow out the ones that aren't valuable, but don't expect to recognize what's valuable at first.  Follow it all, read it all, and enjoy it as much as you can.

Join Facebook.  No, really.  It is a colossal time-waste opportunity, granted.  But there are a ton of good writers on there to follow (I got to wish Tracy Hickman a happy birthday the other day!), and there are a great many writers groups.  I'm in the Indie Author Group, for one.  Also Novelspot, and Book Junkies.  Those are all at or over 1000 members, and the discussions on them are fairly well moderated.  You should just be able to search by name and request membership--none are hidden, as far as I know.  But pay attention to the rules; nothing annoys a group more than someone joining it and immediately posting about a book he wants them all to buy.  Outside of marketing, though, get active with the groups.  Lurk, read discussions, but also ask questions.

If you're local to Richmond, VA, you're in a great town to be a writer.  I recommend the following:

James River Writers - my #1 recommendation.  Several reasons:
  • Writers Wednesdays, on the second Wednesday of every month at one of the Capital Alehouse facilities in town (aka Beer Mecca in my book).  It costs nothing, and you don't have to be a member.  It's a meet and greet, with published and unpublished writers and poets and screenwriters.  And beer, by the way.  If you expect an agenda you'll be disappointed, but it's a great way to meet people and start friendships.
  • The Writing Show, last Thursday of every month from January to August.  There is a fee for this, but it's not huge and the ones I've been to have been worth every penny.  And if you go to Writers Wednesday first, you'll already know somebody at the Writing Show to sit beside!
  • The Conference.  There's a fee for this too, but you've got till next fall to save up the couple of hundred bucks, which really isn't all that much for a writers conference.  I blogged a bunch about it in 2011--look at my October blog entries.  Would have done the same in 2012 had my shoulder injury not kept me at home that weekend.  The sessions are great, but the three things you must do are a) submit a first page for the critique (a panel of agents will critique a series of anonymous first pages of novels), b) sign up to spend a few minutes of personal one-on-one time with an agent of your choice, and c) Pitchapalooza (assuming my friends at The Book Doctors make it again in 2013).  Yes, you're going to learn a lot by watching others, but the only way to get better at pitching your work of literary genius is by pitching your work of literary genius.  Just.  Do.  It. 
  • The Unpublished Novel contest.  Deadline is December 17.  Go ahead and send the first 50 pages of your NaNo--I dare ya.
Other writers groups are here in town, too, I must say.  I know Greg, from Agile Writers--find them on  Good guy, and probably a great group, but I don't have time to do more than one writing group, myself. 

Richmond is a great place to be if you're a sci fi/fantasy/horror/spooky fiction type too, by the way. My favorite (though I'm admittedly biased because I work for the group) is RavenCon.  We're a fairly moderately-sized convention every year in the spring; we've gotten national praise for what we do, though, and we're pretty proud of it.  There are a lot of local and national writers who come out; I'm still kicking myself for missing the year when Jim Butcher was the author Guest of Honor.  At $35 a person (if you sign up by the end of December) or $40 a person in 2013, it's a reasonably-priced weekend event.

MarsCon is coming up quick!  It's in January in Williamsburg, and with David B. Coe as the author Guest of Honor, it looks like this will be on my must-attend list.  I haven't actually been to a MarsCon before, but the folks I work with at RavenCon tell me it's a great show.

SheVaCon is nearly here too!  It's a bit of a road trip to Roanoke, but it's worth it.  I attended last year and enjoyed the heck out of myself.  Bought a print there that made the framers at Michael's turn green with envy. 

So go.  Talk to people.  If you're not in Richmond, look up conventions in your own area.  You'll run into authors who've been working the craft for ten, twenty, even forty or fifty years.

Oh, and keep writing.  Did I mention that?


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

NaNoWriMo Winner

"Nothing in this world will take the place of persistence.  Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.  Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.  Education will not; the world is full of educated failures.  Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent." - Calvin Coolidge

"Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all time thing.  You don't win once in a while, you don't do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time.  Winning is habit.  Unfortunately, so is losing." - Vince Lombardi

"R.I.P., Zig Ziglar" - the rest of us

So, let's start with the good news:

I won!  I won!  I won!  For those unfamiliar with the NaNoWriMo terminology, "Win" means start no earlier than November 1, write at least 50,000 words that might loosely be called a novel, and complete whatever plot arc happens to exist either intentionally or accidentally by the time the clock strikes midnight November 30th.  To do that, you have to write 1667 words per day, or as so many people I watched seem to, a couple of thousand words a day for the first few, no words the second week, and a whole bunch of words over Thanksgiving.

That was me, too.

Let me back up for a bit, though.  This is my first blog post in exactly two months.  Last I posted, remember, I was headed away for a sunny vacation.  I was finally going to write on the beach.  I was going to totally disconnect from all forms of modern communication and just--be.  And write.  And be writing.


Yeah, it happened that way, sort of.  We got to Bermuda and rented a scooter the next day.  To make a long story short, three hours later I drove the scooter into the side of a taxi van.  My fault, ish--I overaccelerated, and oversteered, and the brakes weren't as snappy as I needed them to be.  Luckily the $30 insurance payment that's required when you rent a scooter covers everything but the passengers.  Unluckily the passengers sustained, as is apparently normal in scooter mishaps, the gravest injuries.  I broke my collarbone and three ribs.  Rum being both plentiful and cheap there, I managed to self-medicate until we got back to the states.  Thus, I was mostly okay, but there wasn't any writing on the beach after that.

There wasn't much writing at all for October, actually.  I am now aware of how much your arm movement relies upon your collarbone; I couldn't raise my left arm to the desk to type for a while.  Everything I wrote for that month was one-handed.

By November 1, though, I was back to being able to raise that arm to desk level without screaming, so NaNo was still on.  Yes, I had other projects that deserved more attention, but NaNoWriMo was still hanging over my head as something I'd attempted before and failed at.  Which brings us to the lesson of the day:


Persist, even if it's not likely you'll succeed.  If it's worth doing, it's worth your persistence.  Push forward, push through.  Keep at it.

I did it.  The third novel in Return of the Gods is in revision state now, so it wasn't eligible.  First novel in the Elf Queen series is nearly done, so same thing.  I decided to write the fourth novel of RotG, then, since I already had that one in my head.  Actually started November 1 at midnight, excited as I was.  By the end of the first week I had about 16,000 words entered.  Way ahead of the game, I was. Then, well, life happened, as it usually does.  I got busy. I rolled into Thanksgiving week quite a bit behind.  Luckily there was some down time worked in for that week and I was able to catch up. 

Fast-forward to this morning.  There are still a couple of days left in November, mind you.  The book's not really close to being written yet; the story I have in mind will take another thirty to forty thousand words, if not more, to tell.  But I was bound and determined to win NaNoWriMo, and to be honest, I've got a couple of other projects that are more important (like Book 3).

So this morning I rose and started writing with about 49,200 words in the Scrivener project word counter.  Eight hundred to go, and I hadn't finished the scene that leads to the final battle yet.  So first, I finished that scene.


I wrote the first part of the final battle scene and checked again.


I remember thinking that it was going to be the crappiest final battle scene I'd ever written if I stopped there, but it was about time to get up and start showering and dressing for work.  Besides, that's what editing is for!

I added another index card in Scrivener, titled it "The Final Scene," and wrote "And he died.  The End." There.  Done.

Scrivener has the ability to take all the scenes you've written--the little 3x5 cards that are pictured in the organization screen--and compile them into a book in whatever order and whichever format you wish.  It'll make PDFs, RTFs, etc., but what I wanted was a simple novel format in Word.  It's also (if you can't tell, this was my first time using it, and I'll use it much more going forward) remarkably quick with the compilation process; within a couple of seconds the Word doc was sitting on the desktop.

Microsoft Word, though, isn't so quick.  In fact, when dealing with long documents, Word is pretty much the antithesis of quick.  Looking at the counters at the bottom was frustrating: page 1 of 1, then of 2, then of 3, then--spin, spin, spin--finally it determined that I had 99 pages (single-spaced).  The word counter also took a while to spin up, but I wasn't expecting it to stop where it did.


Wait, wut?  Scrivener just told me I had over 50K words.  And now you, Word, are telling me I'm short?  You evil piece of evil software, you!

It was, by then, a little bit past time for me to get up and start the showering/dressing routine.  Didn't care.  I was finishing.  I had till Friday at midnight.  Didn't care.  I'd already pretty much turned off the creative side, checked out of writer mode.  Didn't care. 

Have you ever gotten "in the zone" like that?

So I wrote another 300 words, this time in Word.  To do so, I added to the final battle scene.  I didn't add anything particularly substantive, of course.  Remember, my brain was out of Creative Writer mode already.  No, I wrote some of the longest sentences I've ever crafted that didn't go anywhere.  "The battle went on and on and on, with the god of war using his powers and the mage using his powers as the elemental magic flashed back and forth and back and forth and back and forth again as the battle continued to...."  Or something like that.  Bad, bad, bad writer, with bad, bad, bad writing.  That's what editing is for, right? 


To "win" NaNoWriMo officially, you have to go to their site ( and paste your novel into their word counting window, which (for those who're worried about crappy first drafts being stolen) counts the words, deletes the text, and returns the count to the server.



Now, everybody counts words differently.  It would be easy if all words were the same, but there are all sorts of punctuation gumming the matter up.  For example, do you count a hyphenated word as one word or two?  How about words separated by an em dash?

I think that's the cause for the different counts, anyway.  I'd hate to think that any of the applets or programs I was going between were written by idiots.

Didn't matter.  The one, the only, official word counter for the site said I wasn't a winner yet.  And if you're not a winner, you're--yeah, you know where that's going, right?  That's what I imagined my computer was flashing at me: Loser!  Loser!  Loser!

But I still had the document up in Word, and right at the end, so all I had to do was add more words.  Specifically, one hundred and thirty of them.  Because 50,000 is a winner.  49,999 is a loser.  I jumped in and just wrote--um, frankly, I wrote whatever crap came to mind.  Now the final battle in my fourth novel is attended by Dorothy and her flying monkeys, and the other deities of the pantheon are hanging out watching and roasting weenies on the flames.  Yeah, bite me--that's what editing is for.


Are you f-ing serious?  Yes, I think I actually asked the computer that out loud, which was a pretty silly thing for a human to say to a hunk of electronic device.  But by that point I was seriously late getting up, so there wasn't anything to gain by arguing.  I wrote more.  Now, instead of "And he died.  The end." there's a celebration party at Matt's estate with Twinkies and fried okra.  And yes, I forgot the bacon--I was that irritated.  But--say it with me--that's what editing is for.



Up pops a screen with a video of people clapping.  No, I'm not kidding.  There was also a PDF certificate to hang on the wall, and several sizes of "Winner" badges like the one I copied at the top.

I won.

Yes, I won with some of my dumbest, worstest, writing ever in the history of my dumb writing.  This book will require serious work in the future.  But now I've put the former failure behind me and can move on to the three major projects that await--Book 3, which I want to get out before the end of the year, and a short story for the APG's anthology, and the Elf Queen book for a contest.  Whee!

And no more electronic word counters for the month.  I'm so over word counts.


Friday, September 28, 2012

On Vacation

"Too much work, and no vacation,
Deserves at least a small libation.
So hail! my friends, and raise your glasses,
Work's the curse of the drinking classes." - Oscar Wilde

"A vacation trip is one-third pleasure, fondly remembered, and two-thirds aggravation, entirely forgotten." - Robert Brault

"The rainy days a man saves for usually seem to arrive during his vacation." - Unknown

"The alternative to a vacation is to stay home and tip every third person you see." - Unknown

"Babies don't need a vacation, and yet you see them at the beach.  It pisses me off!  I'll go over to a little baby and say, 'What are you doing here?  You haven't worked a day in your life.'" - Steven Wright

"Laughter is an instant vacation." - Milton Berle

"The thing I love most about going on vacation is that I get to leave behind any kind of schedule.  My entire life is scheduled from morning to night, and when I'm on vacation, there is no schedule." - Kelly Clarkson

"I envy people who can just look at a sunset.  I wonder how you can shoot it.  There is nothing more grotesque to me than a vacation." - Dustin Hoffman

"I honestly if I get a vacation I'm gonna go and sit on my couch in New York 'cause that's the one place I haven't been for a very long time." - Matt Damon

...and if you couldn't tell from the quotes, starting today, I'm on vacation. 

No, really.  I know I've said it before, usually as we're driving away on a trip somewhere and I'm checking my e-mails and messages every time we stop.  But this weekend we're flying to Bermuda, a place that's so expensive there doesn't seem to be any point bringing mere dollar bills.  Each call on my cell would cost $1.99 a minute; each text coming in a nickle, and each text going out half a dollar.  None of that really sounds like much till you take into account how tied to my cell phone I've become.  Heck, I burn through 200MB of data a week, and that doesn't include calls or texts. 

I'm turning it off.  Once I get on the plane, that is.  You know how they announce that, despite their being no real documented need to do so, you have to turn off all electronic devices in order for the plane to be able to close its doors and take off?  I will.  That's nothing special--I always do, Mr. Compliant that I am.  But I also am always one of the first people to turn it back on as soon as the plane's wheels are on the ground and they announce that it's okay to use them again.  That, or as soon as the guy next to me turns his on, whichever comes first; I figure I can always blame him if the plane really does explode due to cell phone usage. 

Not this time.

I'm turning it off.  I'm disconnecting.  I'll turn my cell back on when the plane lands back in the states upon my return, but till then the world will get on just fine without me for a while, I'm sure. 

Have a great week!


Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Customer is the Boss

"There is only one boss.  The customer.  And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else." - Sam Walton

If you assume, as I do, that Sam Walton knew what he was talking about regarding business, then that's a quote to take to heart.  And no, I'm not going to use the quote to write another post bashing bookstores over the head.  Well, maybe a little....

...nah.  Too easy these days.  I'll just say--when a customer wants to buy a book, sell him a damn book.  Don't worry about who printed the thing.  Revel instead in the success of satisfying yet another customer's need/desire. 

There, that's off my chest.

And while we're at it--not that I care a whole lot, since neither company is really hurting for market share, but--Walmart, what's up with not carrying Kindles any more?  I mean, honestly, it didn't occur to me to buy the one I own at Walmart anyway.  I go to Walmart to buy Walmart stuff, just like I go to Best Buy to buy computer stuff and bookstores to buy books.  And when I want ebooks and an ebook reader, I go to  That's just how I roll.  Granted, I shop for bargains on eBay--so is Walmart going to stop carrying computers and tablets too because we use those to access a competitor? I don't get the "we're not going to sell this to you because you might use it to buy future stuff from someone else" logic. 

I guess part of me wonders why Walmart would have carried Kindles in the first place; seems to me that the first thought someone would have when deciding to buy a Kindle is "it's an Amazon thing--I should check Amazon."  But they did carry the Kindle, and apparently they did some volume in it.  Which means that somebody, some customer somewhere (knowing Walmart's volume, probably times a few tens of thousands), wanted it and Walmart was able to satisfy those customers' need/desire.  Was able to, anyway.

The article I read from Reuters quoted a "retail analyst" who called the Kindle a "trojan horse" of sorts--apparently the assumption is that people were buying a Kindle in a retail outlet, presumably because they wanted the feel and touch and immediacy of a physical store, and then doing the rest of their shopping online, because--well, suddenly they didn't want all that stuff any more. 

It just doesn't make any sense to me.  Did Walmart forget what Sam Walton said about the customer?


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Parts of Speech

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs." - Stephen King

Yes, I'm pretty sure that's the other Stephen King who said that.  Certainly wasn't me.  How do I know?  Well, after posting on my own blog and on an OPB (Other People's Blog) yesterday I sat down to read some Twain.  Lately I'm really enjoying going back through Mark Twain's Roughing It, and that was no exception.  Twain really was a master storyteller.  Except, of course, that after reading and discussing writing-themed advice in part dealing with overuse of adverbs, I sat down to find that the first page I looked to in Twain's work contained three--in a row!--of the nasty little -ly words.

Poor guy.  Perhaps if he'd learned to speak without the use of the adverb, he'd've made a real name for himself.  *sarcasm*

Hey, look, I'm busting Stephen King's chops unfairly.  It's absolutely true that new writers really like to frequently abuse the unobtrusively simple part of speech we collectively know as the adverb.

But what if you don't know it?

No, I'm not kidding.  At the OPB I was greeted with someone who didn't know adjectives from adverbs.  The shame!  Granted, there's a reason the stereotypical grammar teacher is the stereotype.  We've all experienced one, and that experience falls down near the bottom of list of memories when ranked by enjoyment factor, doesn't it?  Probably the only thing worse in elementary school was learning multiplication tables. 

Anyway, put as simply as I can, here's the key.  You know what a noun and a verb are, right?  A noun is a word that identifies a person, place or thing.  It's the who/what of the situation.  Then the verb is the action term.  It's the answer to "they did what?"  "Students danced": Students is the noun, because it was them what danced.  Danced is the verb, because that's what the students did.  Easy, right?

So, continuing along, an adjective is what modifies the noun, makes it more interesting.  For example, you can sign documents with a pen, or you can sign them with a blue pen.  Now, didn't the adjective "blue" make it more interesting?

It did, didn't it?

Nah, guess not, but at least you know what color the signature was, yes?

So if the adjective tells us more about the noun, then the adverb tells us more about just about everything else.  That's why they're so important.  The students danced, big deal.  The students danced joyfully, though, after finding out that the Dean was suspending final exams (big fat chance of that).  Or perhaps the students danced gaily because it was the first day of spring and they were being let outside for the first time all year.  Or maybe the students danced apathetically because the steps they were learning held no interest with the younger generation, and the instructor was their old grammar teacher with the assistance of the mathematics teacher chanting multiplication factors to the beat. 


Like I said, though, the adverb can modify more than just the verb.  A pen may be blue, but it may also be deeply blue.  Darkly blue.  Vibrantly blue.  Gigantically blue--nah, guess that one doesn't work.  You get the idea, though, right?

But!  But!  But!  The writing purist sputters indignantly--adverbs are the lazy writer's way out.  It's one thing to say that the students danced joyfully; it's another, and in many or perhaps most cases far more entertaining, to show us their joy in your description of their faces, their light steps, the barely-controlled bobbing up and down of their torsos.  Yep, that's true.  In most cases, I must add.  There's a time and a place for such things.  Sometimes the description is needed, but other times the writer just needs to say that the students danced frickin' joyfully and get on with the dang story.

So you, as a writer, will find your challenge a little tougher than you might have thought initially when reading the quote above by Stephen King (the know, right?).  Adverbs themselves aren't bad.  Sometimes it's proper and right to smack one right down onto the page, in fact.  Just don't let yourself fall into the lazy habit of sprinkling them around instead of describing what deserves description, and also keep in mind that a stream of words ending in "ly" can actually distract and bump a reader up out of that Suspension of Disbelief.

Bottom line: use 'em, but use 'em carefully. all the other words at your disposal.


Friday, September 21, 2012


"If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable." - Lucius Annaeus Seneca

I ran New Student Orientation yesterday for--well, for the new students, of course.  In that orientation I always go into some of the basic rules and requirements of life at a career college (e.g., no blue hair, sorry), but the most important bit is right at the beginning when I talk about January 1.  New Year's Day is all of our "Good Idea" Day--we realize it's a good idea to lose weight, to spend less money on frivolous items, to spend time with someone else more often, to import fewer elephants, etc.  So after briefly discussing the whole "I'm gonna get in shape" idea that fills up the gym parking lots, I show a picture I took of a gym parking lot a few days after G.I.D.  An empty gym parking lot, of course.  Why is it empty?  Because all those folks who had a good idea to work out, lose weight, become more fit, suddenly realized there was work involved, and then they had other good ideas.  They didn't truly Decide to do it, and so the winds in life were able to blow them elsewhere.

That's the one thing I ask of the beginning students, and I probably say it five or six times.  DECIDE.  Decide to finish.  Decide to succeed.  Decide, decide, decide.  It's an active process, a choice you make  You have to say "I'm going THERE."  Every year, every graduation, I see smiling, happy graduates who went through their programs buffeted by the same winds that hit those who didn't make it there.  The difference?  They decided; they put a pin in the map and told life, "Hey, that's the port I'm headed to."

Same is true of every endeavor, of course.  The number of people who tell me they're in the process of writing a novel is far larger than I'd thought it would be.  What's the difference between "I'm writing a novel" and "I've written a novel?"  A decision.  Well, that, and a few months, once the decision is made.  It does take time.  But during that time, if the decision hasn't been made, any wind gusts blowing through your life will take you their way instead of toward the final "THE END."

Don't let them.



Thursday, September 20, 2012

Making Excellence a Habit

"Yesterday's home runs don't win today's games." - Babe Ruth

I just finished teaching a course, finalizing and submitting the grades just this evening.  It was a fun course to teach, but all courses are fun to teach if you approach them with the right attitude.  I'm proud to be able to brag that I'm often rated as one of the best teachers on campus--but then again, I should be.  I'm the Dean.  I teach the teachers.

Still, as I read over the students' comments on the informal survey I took the final night, I was pleased at all the positive ones.  I was even more pleased at the students' excellent performance on the final exam.  Clearly they learned, and clearly they enjoyed doing it.

That said, none of their comments involved the previous time I taught that course, and the reason for that is obvious: none of the students knew how I taught the class the time before.  None of them would have cared if they'd known.  In teaching, every course is a new attempt, a fresh canvas upon which to create the designs of increased cognition.  And as in baseball, yesterday's home runs don't win today's games.  True, I learn something with every iteration, and I bring past learnings into every current course I'm teaching.  That said, though, nobody in the classroom at that moment cares how much I've learned in the past.  If I'm not swinging for the fence with each new class period, I'm not doing my job.

Writing is kinda like that too, especially considering the weight of a novel.  It takes hours--days, even--to read one, and in that long period of time the reader is evaluating the novel for its own qualities, not those of the author's previous work.  True, there are some readers who will read the entire series and comment on the stronger entries versus the weaker ones, but that's like talking about the various years and posts in the Bambino's career.  The fact is that while Babe Ruth was playing, people expected every night to be a great one.  Similarly, while you're writing, people expect every novel to be a great one.

Then again, the same principle applies to every endeavor I can think of.  There are a small set of restaurants in our area that we frequently--well, frequent.  We'll sometimes try out others, of course, but we make a habit of going to a few.  Why?  Because they're always excellent.  The food is good, yes, but more importantly the service is impeccable.  Price per plate doesn't seem to have a lot to do with it; a couple of their menus are in the $10 per person range while another is a steak house that charges a fair amount more for its cuts of beef.  But the price you pay is immaterial when it comes to whether or not an establishment makes you feel like a welcome guest or a burden to be served, and the kings of that world are the ones who make us feel like welcome guests over and over and over, consistently slamming the ball out of the park on every visit.

Consistency, then, is vital no matter what field you're in.  But consistency isn't enough; it's possible (and even fairly easy and frequently accepted) to be consistently mediocre.  It's not just consistency that makes you a superstar, it's your habit of excellence.


PS--woo hoo!  another opportunity for a sports metaphor.  And an art metaphor too.  Of course, you can't be a panda (that last for my friend Greg).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

"There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island." - Walt Disney

Me fam'ly, th' pirate troop.  Arrrr!

 Avast, me hearties!  Shiver me timbers, mates, it's International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

On one level, the designation represents a lot of fun, as people wander around uttering dicey-sounding phrases and growls ("arrrrr...").  Some people, that is, of course.  I'm sure there are some who would applaud for a short while if the Dean wandered around campus referring to people as bilge rats and scupper-maids, but others would decry it as unprofessional and a distraction from the learning process.  And--they'd be right. Still, it's fun where appropriate.  From the official (more or less) web site:

Do we need Talk Like A Pirate Day?

Make no mistake. We do. But it's a little hard to articulate why, especially when you've made the mistake of referring to your wife as a scurvy bilge rat and tried to order her back into the galley.

Talking like a pirate is fun. It's really that simple.

It gives your conversation a swagger, an elán, denied to landlocked lubbers. The best explanation came from a guy at a Cleveland radio station who interviewed us on the 2002 Talk Like a Pirate Day. He told us we were going to be buried by people asking for interviews because it was a "whimsical alternative" to all the serious things that were making the news so depressing.

In other words, silliness is the holiday's best selling point.

The reality of pirates is pretty dark and ugly.  We've all been treated to media reports of small bands off the coast of Africa who, once they managed to put their hands on the lethal combination of boats and guns, ply the seas looking for death and destruction.  Other peoples' deaths and destruction, of course.  Nobody wants to talk like them, I think.

The fantasy of pirates, meanwhile, is--well, sexy.  All the men swagger like Captain Jack Sparrow as portrayed by Johnny Depp, and the women all look like Keira Knightley.   More to the point, since neither Captain Jack nor Will Turner do much for the holiday vernacular, all pirates in our fantasy world talk like Captain Barbossa. 

Today is the day, then, that we celebrate the fantasy in our lives.  Go ahead and pay homage to the noble tradition of writers crafting people, places, and things that could never exist in the real world in order that their readers' imaginations can revel in them.  We're not just celebrating works like Treasure Island, but rather holding up an entire genre of fiction: thank you, authors, for bringing us pirates, elves, space cowboys, Wookies, and yes, even vampires who sparkle. 

And talk like a pirate while you're at it, and smartly too, y'ken? Else ye'll walk the plank....


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mmm, Bacon

"Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon." - Doug Larson

The Pig, if I am not mistaken,
Gives us ham and pork and Bacon.
Let others think his heart is big,
I think it stupid of the Pig." - Ogden Nash

"Bacon bits are the pixie dust of the food world." - Jim Gaffagan

"I used to have trouble choking down the pills I have to take for controlling my cholesterol, but it's a lot easier now that I wrap them in bacon." - Brad Simanek

"Pork chops and bacon, my two favorite animals." - Homer (Simpson, not the other one)

"Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear." - Aesop

"I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give." - Thomas Jefferson

One would assume the nation's third president could afford a few modest cottages, plenty of books, and as much bacon as he desired. One might assume further that after holding that post for a few long years the sentiment he expressed would be well-earned. 

Anyway, on to the topic of today--let's see, what was on my mind--oh, right.  Food.  The food that comes from the cured meat of a pig, specifically.  We're out of my typical breakfast: low-fat, low-calorie, low-everything-that-tastes-good yogurt, washed down with a splended and invigorating helping of Metamucil and then a pot or two of coffee.  Digging through the cabinets, then, I was delighted when my eyes lit upon one of this southern boy's faves: grits.  Thus, I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed a bowl of grits this morning, washed down with hot sauce (the proper way to eat grits has nothing to do with anything sweet, but you already knew that, no?) and the rest of my morning yum-yums.  Mmm, orange-flavored fiber. 

There's nothing that brings bacon to my mind quite like grits.  Or biscuits and gravy.  Or fried eggs.  Or--well, anyway.  Let's just focus on the important part: bacon.

So what's your favorite breakfast?


Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Constitution Day!

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." - Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

*spoiler alert* potentially political topic is ahead.  Keep reading at your own risk.

Happy Constitution Day!

Many people may not realize this but today hasn't always been Constitution Day, and no, I'm not talking about the obvious years before 1789.  September 17th wasn't an official holiday known as Constitution Day (technically, "Constitution Day and Citizenship Day") until the Omnibus spending bill of 2004 made it so.  And why did a spending bill create a holiday?  Well, because that's just How it Works.

Granted, most people don't even know the day exists.  Few people treat it like a "real" holiday--you know, when we sit around in pajamas until it's time to go watch a parade or drink heavily or something entertaining like that.  But we educators--everybody, in fact, whose institutions use federal funds or allow students access to federal student aid--have to know it exists.  We have to teach our students something about the Constitution every year.  In fact, it's the only thing I'm legally required to teach at my college--I could legally (and stupidly) turn my medical assistant classes into instruction in how to create beautiful basketry, but one day, each year, I must teach something about the Constitution of the United States of America.

Why?  Well, because that's just How it Works. 

It's tougher than it seems it should be these days, mind you.  Everybody from the guy with a Harvard law degree down to the radio talk show host who couldn't finish a semester of college is an expert on the document already, and they all disagree with whatever the other side agrees with.  And that's the funny thing about the document.  It was purposely written a little bit vague.  Ferinstance, it gives our government the responsibility for providing for "the general welfare" among other things.  Have you ever looked up the definition of "welfare"?  Yeah, that's such a general term by itself that the adjective does absolutely nothing for it.  Benjamin Franklin had a helluva time getting the group of men with extremely diverse views to agree on much of anything otherwise.  They probably couldn't even come to consistent decisions on which fast food place to eat lunch at, and thank God they didn't have to ponder the morality of chicken sandwiches, or they'd've gotten nothing done.  Still, people use it as an arguing point: "The Constitution doesn't say anything about _____!"

Even members of Congress get into that argument, so much so that sometimes they'll begin sessions with reading the Constitution itself out loud.  Now, that sounds kinda cool, at first.  Except that I, as a teacher, know that there's only two reasons we make classes read aloud.  The first is if we're trying to break the class in gently for being able to speak in public--reading aloud is Step A on that educational journey.  But I've listened in on C-SPAN, and I can tell you that if there's anybody, Republican or Democrat, in that august body who needs any additional training in the art of bloviation, they sure hide it well.  As for reading in class, the other time we bring it is for punitive reasons, when we know people aren't doing their reading homework outside of class and the material is important enough that we just make 'em suffer through reading it out loud instead of the far more enjoyable process of listening to us talk about it.  But seriously, I have to say that it really bothers me--students are students and they'll always find reasons and ways to not do their assigned work, but legislators make a whole lot more money than I do every year.  If they're not doing their assigned readings before they get there, send 'em home and find someone who will, I say. 

Anyway, back to the document itself.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg raised some Americans' hackles early this year when speaking to the new Egyptian regime.  She said, "Let me say first that a Constitution, as important as it is, will mean nothing unless the people are yearning for liberty and freedom.  If the people don't care, then the best Constitution in the world won't make any difference.  So the spirit of liberty has to be in the population, and then the Constitution, first, it should safeguard basic fundamental human rights...."

All that is great, but what got under peoples' skin was her answer to a question about where to look for examples: "I would not look to the U.S. Constitution, if I were drafting a Constitution in the year 2012.  I might look at the Constitution of South Africa."  Hoo, boy--one of our own Supreme Court Justices saying that our Constitution doesn't make a great example for a new government.  Let the fireworks begin.

Easy, though, folks.  Her point related to the currency of the effort, not value of the overall document, and I think that it's a good one.  Back when our Constitution was crafted, it was written for a rather different world.  When folks like Thomas Jefferson echoed phrases like "all men are created equal," they weren't using the male-gendered noun to meet a purely grammatical requirement.  Women didn't get the right to express their opinions in the voting booth, remember, till the 19th Amendment (Nineteenth!  Not first, not second, but nineteenth!) was enacted in 1920.  That's nearly a century and a half later.  Many of them also weren't talking about anybody who wasn't a landed gentleman of Caucasian descent, by the way, and some were even excluding the Irish immigrants, darn them (my own great-great-and-so-on-grandfather had already immigrated from Ireland several decades previous, so he was okay, and besides, he'd gone south to the Carolinas).  Each of the subsequent equalizations has happened over the years since, many requiring years of protest and push, and one unfortunately even requiring a war.

So all totaled, the document has been formally amended 27 times.  True, ten were at the same time, and one of the amendments was to undo an earlier one (the famous Prohibition amendment), thus leaving us with 25, um, "real" amendments.

And then there's the unofficial amendments, more accurately called interpretations.  For over two hundred years the Supreme Court has been responding to questions of law, interpreting the vague verbiage used in the U.S. Constitution in more or less interesting ways.  It's their job, of course, one specifically set out by the document itself.  A tough, thankless job it is, too; every decision they make seems to be hailed as wise and justified by one segment of the population and evil, biased, and an extreme of "judicial activism" by another segment.  Who says which only depends on which side of the population the Supreme Court agreed with.

You know, looking at the revisions that have happened over the years, it's easy, I guess, to think less of the document.  I'd suggest that's the wrong way to look at it, though.  Not only has the U.S. Constitution stood the test of time, but the years, revisions, and interpretations have only served to make it stronger, more just to everyone and not just a specific few. 

All except, of course, the Supreme Court decisions with which I disagree.  Those evil, biased, activist judges....  *ahem*

So, all that said, with 27 amendments and over two centuries of case law muddying the water, I'd agree with Justice Ginsburg that a new nation should look to less heavily-revised documents for the purpose of finding a template to use in crafting their own.  For all other purposes, though, I'm quite proud of the one we have, thank you very much, occasionally-vague though it may be.

Please, join me today in celebrating the United States Constitution.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Trying to Please Everybody

"I don't know the way to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody." - Bill Cosby

I love reading reviews of my books!  I was honored to receive a new 5-star review recently from a kind reader who enjoyed the way I intertwined physics and elemental energies.  I've read others, too, that weren't all rated at the top but did make great points about my writing and made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  What I'm doing matters!

Then, of course, there's the other side of the review scale. Barlow and Moller told us that A Complaint is a Gift in their book of that name, and I agree.  Totally.  One hundred percent, especially at my day job, where that book is one of the central tenets of our customer service lore.  Except, of course, when that complaint is directed at my babies on Amazon's e-shelves, but, well, you know....

Reviews of 1, 2, and 3 stars have been the topic of much debate, hand-wringing, and other (usually vitriolic) stuff.  From the author's perspective, I can agree that it's hard sometimes to objectively receive criticism of the work we've done.  From the reader's perspective, meanwhile, I can agree that the ability and responsibility to award reviews at the lower end of the spectrum are the only reasons the higher reviews mean anything.

But back to Bill Cosby's words for a moment.  A book review, when well- and properly-written, tells us the story of a reader's experience with the book.  That's a very subjective thing, and boils down to whether or not the reader was pleased by it.  As, I admit, I had to remind myself a few days ago.

Here's what happened, in a nutshell: I found my first 2-star review.  Owie, right?  But I read it with as open a mind as a human can muster after being told his baby is ugly, and found it to actually be quite well-written.  What the reader didn't like, for the most part, was that the book "felt like a soap opera."  Okay, I can see that.  Really, I can, especially when a couple other reviews agree.  Fact is, I wrote the book to be that way.  I know most books in the genre are dead-center fantasy books, with the barest of nods to a little bit of emotional conflict leading to the meat, lots of fiery magic shows.  I--didn't write that, though.  I had fun with the emotional trauma, and the magical drama clearly came second.  Some like that; some don't.

Regardless of all that, though, this review--a complaint, of sorts--really was a gift.  It told me rather firmly that I hit where I was aiming.  Hey, I offer what I offer.  There's a reason most of the seasoned authors I've spoken with recommend not reading reviews, or at least not getting hung up on them. 

Same thing happens in business, though, both with what we do well and what we don't.  While I worked at a previous employer, we did extremely well at educating and training students to not only pass their IT-related certifications but also to perform at their real-life jobs thereafter.  As a result of that success I remember hearing, quite often, that it would be nice if we'd open a training program for professionals to come enroll in day- and week-classes.  After all, it was the same curriculum.  Only problem was, it was a different scheduling system, a different marketing system, and a different delivery system.  Nope, sorry.  I'm gonna continue doing what I know how to do well.

And then, we went and started an online school--same curriculum, but different scheduling system, different marketing system, and a different delivery system.  Go figure.

Anyway, as Mr. Cosby said, you can't please everybody, nor should you try.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

On the Lighter Side....

"An author is a fool who, not content with boring those he lives with, insists on boring future generations." - Charles de Montesquieu

Found this little peach of a quote, kind of on a whim.  I was searching for quotes, which I do by typing "____ quotes" into the magic oracle box on, and I got bored.  Being in that state, I typed "boring quotes" and the one above came right up.  It's not that it's particularly boring, but rather that it contains the....  Well, you get it, right?

So usually when I find a quote that strikes me as odd, I probe the ancient oracle further to learn more about it--when it was said, where, and in what context.  Granted, context means very little to many people these days, and even less in an election season, but I often find the discoveries interesting. 

Yeah, I'm a nerd.  But I like it.

This quote, unfortunately, was obscure to the oracle's sight.  I tried everything I could, adding key words on citation and source, but after probing for--heck, six or seven minutes--I found nothing and had to conclude that M. de Montesquieu, an Enlightenment-era French philosopher who's been quoted often on matters of civil liberty and separation of governmental powers, didn't write much for the general Internet. 

I probably should be offended by the quote, I suppose, since I'm one of the fools to whom he's referring.  I don't know about insisting, but I sure hope to bore--er, entertain--future generations.  The alternative--and there are far more examples of this than there are of the baron's suggestion--is that my creations remain on a computer hard disk and eventually give in to the laws of physics, which say that artificially-magnetized spots can't stay magnetized forever.  Well, that, and they also say some things about dropping cats from heights or putting them into boxes, but I'll leave those alone for the time being. 

I wonder if M. de Montesquieu had a cat?

But--yeah, back to the topic--offense--nah, I don't have the energy.  Everything's so offensive these days, it seems.  People I agree with get offended over things I don't.  People I don't agree with get offended over things I do.  Some day, sometime, we're gonna have to take a day off from offense and explicitly recall that we're all residents of ____, and outside of that we're all Americans (except my friends that aren't, and they're all something else), and outside of that we're all members of the only species on the planet who can wiggle our thumbs opposite of our fingers while doing calculus.  Well, dolphins probably could do calculus, but not with the thumb thing going on.  And most of my friends can't do calculus, but their thumbs work.  And--well, you get the idea, right?

Oh, and M. de Montesquieu had another entertaining quote about the importance of mustaches, too.  You should look that one up.  But he spelled the word "moustaches" like the British do.  Those people--you'd think they invented the English language or something. 


Oh, and PS and all that stuff too--Cataclysm is Number 2, right now, on Amazon's list of Epic Fantasy!  Woo hoo!  Thanks for all the help and support you've given me as I push the book out into more peoples' hands in the hopes that they'll also enjoy Ascension, and in just a few short weeks, also enjoy Atlantis.

For other updates:

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Change of Name - TOSK

"They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself." - Andy Warhol

There's a lot to be said for not fearing change, for relishing it as a way to go forward, and so on.

But not today. Today I'm announcing my own change.  Zip on over to my author site,, for details, but here's the skinny: I changed my name.

Well, sort of.  I changed the name that's featured on the front of my books, and I also changed the name readers will search for me at Ama--er, book-selling websites--under.  Why?  Well, mainly because I got tired of telling folks who couldn't find my books to search for my name and the book title, because if you don't, their search engines disregard the middle initial and find the guy who's been selling books for 40 years, and all 8 or 9 pages of his books.

That, and I like the sound of "TOSK."  Been signing blog entries that-a-way for months now.

If you've already purchased a copy of one of my e-books, the cover image won't refresh to the new one; sorry.  Let me know if you want and I'll send you a .jpg of the new one, or you can relish the old version as an itty-bitty bitmap of future-collectable pixels.  Same with the paperbacks--cover doesn't refresh.  And same deal--I'll be happy to send you a .jpg of the new cover.

So anyway--off I go, into the brave new world.  Same writing, different name. 


Whatcha think?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

All that glitters is not gold

The long quote of the day:
"Moralizing, I observed, then, that 'all that glitters is not gold.' Mr. Ballou said I could go further than that, and lay it up among my treasures of knowledge, that nothing that glitters is gold. So I learned then, once for all, that gold in its native state is but dull, unornamental stuff, and that only lowborn metals excite the admiration of the ignorant with an ostentatious glitter. However, like the rest of the world, I still go on underrating men of gold and glorifying men of mica. Commonplace human nature cannot rise above that." - Mark Twain, in Roughing It

How often do you underrate men of gold and glorify men of mica?

You know what I'm talking about.  Every day, each of us chooses to involve a certain group of people in our lives.  Granted, for some the group is big, while for others the group is small.   Also granted, we don't always get to choose the group's membership--sometimes our bosses or our business chooses for us.  Those "granted"s notwithstanding, each of us has a group of people from whom we obtain our pleasure of socializing, our feedback on all sorts of matters both business and pleasure-related, and, to a lesser or greater extent, part of our sense of self and self-worth.

Are these people, these mirrors through whom we see ourselves, men of gold or men of mica?

As I write this, of course, I'm having a hard time defining what a "man of gold" or a "man of mica" might look like.  That's because there are so many different types of acquaintances.  If you're in business you have your workers/partners, your advisors, and others.  If you're a writer you have your beta readers, your other readers, the writers of the blogs you follow, the guy you've never met who just wrote a review of your book on Amazon, and so on.  Each of these people holds a certain place in your world.  Each is in a position to influence you, your thoughts, and your actions, if you allow it of them.  And you do.  We all do.  It's human nature that we allow those around us into our heads and, sometimes, our hearts.

Bottom line, then: you're going to take something in, like it or not, from those with whom you surround yourself.  Are you selecting your circle so that what you take in will give you an advantage?  Or will it take advantage of you?


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Education comes from within

"Education comes from within; you get it by struggle and effort and thought." - Napoleon Hill

Today I suppose I'm meandering in a strange direction for a career college dean to take.  "Education comes from within," Mr. Hill said.  The rest of his quote sounds much like the sorta cliche comment you'll occasionally hear me toss out: "experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted."

So yeah--struggle, effort, and thought.  Experience.  Not college textbooks.  Not sitting in the classroom.  Not listening to vibrant lectures presented with detailed graphics.  Strange direction for a college dean to go, indeed.

I suppose, though, that first I should clarify what I'm talking about when I use that word.  The dictionary's not much help; Merriam-Webster defines education as the act of educating.  Thanks, guys.  And the verb "to educate" merely means to provide schooling for or to train.  That shallowness of the definition is probably why the deeper meaning of the term has been confounding educators and legislators for decades.  When I say that I'm in the business of educating, does that mean I ensure that students receive the skills and knowledge necessary to obtain employment, or that I work on more important concerns such as critical thinking, citizenship, and intellectual pursuit instead of delving into the mundane topics?

Yeah, that's a tough one.  That question is gonna have to wait for a later post.

See, here's the thing.  I've been conversing with employers for years, and believe it or not I've been listening for most of that.  It started during my days at the Arizona Technology Incubator, when I listened to what the president of the company thought made good entrepreneurs and good team members for building a company. Later, as a senior IT instructor, I attended advisory councils for that program and listened to dozens of local employers talk about our grads' successes and shortcomings.  Now, as a dean, I attend and run advisory councils for all programs.

You know what?  The surprising thing, at least early on, wasn't what they were saying.  It was that they were all saying the same thing.

I mean, I wouldn't have assumed that an accountant and an entrepreneur and an information technologist and a medical assistant and a construction manager would share the same keys to success.  It's not intuitive.  But they do.  Everybody requires skills, of course, and those skills are different as you go from one field to another.  Skills are also trainable, and the reason that many practitioners of higher education turn their noses up at mere skills is that people can, in fact, often learn them through on-the-job training.

Knowledge, too, is vital for success, and I differentiate that from skills because I'm talking cognitive gain rather than psychomotor gain.  Skills are about doing things; knowledge is about understanding why things are done the way they are.  In a medical assisting classroom, a skill is taking blood pressure, while knowledge is understanding why you put the stethoscope head where you do.  For an IT person, a skill is knowing how to delete your boss's user account; knowledge is understanding why you probably shouldn't do it.

That leads, then, to the similarities between the requirements for success in the fields, which I was fascinated to find were usually more important in senior managers' minds than the differences.  They're also dang hard to teach in a classroom.  Yes, I'm talking about "soft skills," which are, in the above examples, the ability to talk to the patient and explain why you're wrapping something around his arm and squeezing it tight, or the ability to discuss account management concerns with users who really only want to be able to get to their e-mail and files.

We educators and managers often talk about "soft skills," but where do we learn them?  Communication is a biggie, for example, but most programs at career colleges don't have a course called "communication."  Granted, some of ours boast a course titled Communications, but students rarely learn how to actually communicate in that course; instead, they learn the fundamentals of rhetoric and other heady theoretical stuff that does you no good when staring down a toddler who's destined to receive a shot in the butt. That's why we career college educators often have to approach soft skills obliquely, sometimes even tricking the students into learning them.

All that said, then, what is it that really makes a difference between succeeding or not?  Is it having an appropriate skill level?  Is it obtaining a certain amount of knowledge--after all, they (whoever "they" is) are always telling us that knowledge is power!  Or is it the soft skills helping you get through life's tough situations?

Frankly, I think none of the three, my meaning being what Napoleon Hill was getting at in the words I quoted above.  Granted, all of the three are (usually) necessary in order to make success a possibility.  It's just that they're the kickoff, not the touchdown (there--can't have a success talk without a sports analogy).  In other words, they're the start line.

The finish line is what I've been talking to my students about at orientation and then later on in a success-themed class they all take, but I'm never sure how many of them really get it.  I speak of skills and everyone nods--it's what they're there for, after all.  Then I speak of knowledge, and they wince, knowing that I'm talking about such enthralling topics as Anatomy & Physiology.  Then I discuss the soft skills and receive some grudging nods.  Sure, okay.  But when I talk about personality traits that lead to success, I often get a lot of blank stares.

Into the bucket I call "traits" I lump things like professionalism and reliability, because that's really where I want my students to focus, but that container also includes things like stick-tuitiveness and sound decision-making.  That's the stuff that makes for a success story, no matter which story you read.  And it's stuff that, as Mr. Hill points out, you gain through experience, through life, through struggling and pressing through.  The May 2012 issue of Entrepreneur magazine held an opinion piece that made a strong case for would-be entrepreneurs right out of school to start off by working for someone else.  In the July 2011 Fiscal Times there is a similar article--different author, same point.  Young people aren't as prepared to succeed as older ones who've been through the battlegrounds and fought the good fight a few times (and there's my war analogy--I'm batting a thousand today!). 

It's not that young people can't succeed.  The business world--and the writing world--are alive with success stories of young Mark Zuckerbergs and Amanda Hockings.  It's just that they're the exception rather than the rule, and for a good reason.

On a related (believe it or not) note, I never did learn to play the guitar.  When I was younger, I received one as a present because I'd been telling everybody that was what I wanted.  It's easier and cooler to whip out a guitar than a trumpet to play a song in most social gatherings, you see.  But then I started trying to learn to play the darn thing, and--well, it hurt.  It's supposed to, apparently.  In order to play guitar you have to build up small calluses on your fingertips that allow you to grip the strings, I was told.  Building calluses requires pain, though.  It requires frequent abrasion to the skin.  Learning the guitar wasn't important enough to me to go through the pain, so I didn't. 

Success in life is like that.  You have to build up mental, emotional, and psychological calluses that will shape your interactions with other people--not in a "callous" way, but rather in an experienced and thoughtful way.

So.  All that said, if you're going through some of life's pains right now, rejoice!  You're building up the calluses of success.  Soon enough you'll be scoring the touchdowns of success while taking the hills of the business world.