Sunday, March 31, 2013

All Caught Up

I promised myself I'd get caught up with my 365-day challenge during March, and here it is.  It took three posts today, but hopefully you all don't mind the extra posting activity.  For me, I enjoyed writing both of the posts earlier today.

So, hope everybody had a great Easter, and here's looking forward to April Fool's Day tomorrow!


Why Easter Is When It Is

"Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem." - William of Ockham ("Occam's Razor": among competing solutions, select the one that makes the fewest assumptions)

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." - Robert J. Hanlon ("Hanlon's Razor")

To all my Christian friends: Happy Easter!!!!

To all my friends who don't practice Christianity: Happy Easter to you, too!!!!

Which brings us to the question of why in the heck Easter bumps around the calendar so much, doesn't it?  Well, it brings me there, anyway, and I'm'a takin' you along for the ride, with your gentle permission.

I have, over the years, fallen into and out of the practice of a fair variety of religious/spiritual faiths.  I'm pretty firm now in my beliefs (and no, they're not spelled out in my Return of the Gods works of fiction), but while I was younger I went through all sorts of experimentation.  Never had intercourse on an altar table like a certain candidate for the Senate claimed to, but yeah, I shopped around.

During that experimentation I happened upon the theory that Easter is scheduled on the date it is because the early Church wanted to squish out paganism.  In doing so, they named and timed their major holidays to coincide with pagan ones, in this case the spring celebration of the pagan goddess Eostre, whose symbols (as a goddess of fertility/spring) were of course the bunny and the egg.

Darn those Christians.  Darn them to heck.

Now, for much of my life prior to this period I was a fairly devout Methodist, to the point where you'd see me carrying a Book of Discipline around with my KJV Bible w/ Concordance.  As much as I'd studied church lore, then, and as much as I loved spouting off with Hanlon's Razor, you'd think I wouldn't have gone for the "Church Ate My Holiday" conspiracy theory.

But I did.

I've learned more since, though.

It turns out that Hanlon's Razor is particularly appropriate in the explanation for the timing of Easter.  In the early days of the church, there wasn't even a standardized calendar.  As the faith spread through the western hemisphere, those in Europe followed the Julian, solar(ish), calendar, while those elsewhere followed the Hebrew, lunar(ish), calendar.  Easter, the holiday celebrating the rise of the Christian church's lord and savior, was thus celebrated on all sorts of days, often as not tied to the Jewish celebration of Passover.

That last fact really irked many, particularly western, Christians in the first couple of centuries, by the way.  They still blamed the Jews for killing Christ, after all.  Why, then, should they let the Jews tell them when to celebrate His resurrection?

Enter, Stage Right, that most inefficient of all human creations, the group.  You know, that organization that bequeathed upon the United States our three-fifths compromise?  Yeah, same thing, same stupidity, many centuries earlier.  In this case, in 325 AD, the new Roman Emperor, Constantine I, decided he needed to call everybody together to get some things straight.  So he called them all to a spot that was geographically central: the city of Nicaea, which was a large settlement at the time.  These days it's known as Iznik, Turkey, and wouldn't even qualify, population-wise, for its own Wal-Mart, not that that detail is particularly important. But if you're looking for Nicaea on the map, fuggeddaboutit.

All that said, the Emperor invited all 1,800 bishops of the church to gather in Nicaea to resolve some of the major canonical issues they were having.  And when the Emperor calls, the bishops come, right?  Not really.  Three bishops who were there published three different counts of attendees, numbers between 220 and 318, a variance that can probably (at least sarcastically) be explained by the fact that they were counting with Roman numerals.

"Was that XXIII or XXXII?  Oh, dang, now I must start over."

Socrates and others who weren't there later said there were 318 bishops in attendance, and hey, since they wasn't there, they must've had it right.  Glenn Beck would've probably estimated attendance at around 10,000, based on multiple drawings of the same bishops from different angles, and since that number feels best I'll just go with it, okay?

Now, where was I?  Oh, right, the Nicaean Council.  So all ten thousand bishops started talking about the major philosophical divides that were plaguing the early church.  Things like the divinity of Christ.  The need for a standardized Creed, because if everybody isn't murmuring exactly the same thing, you can't say you have a real church, right?  The need for more laws ("canons" is the correct term, I suppose) on important subjects such as the invalidity of baptisms done by the heretic Paul (not the same Paul who wrote all the bestselling letters.  I suspect he went by "The Other Paul" in online social media). 

Oh, and the date of Easter.

Sort of, anyway.  What the First Council of Nicaea (yeah, it worked so well they had another one a few hundred years later) did, specifically, was rule that Easter/Pascha would no longer be timed according to the Jewish calendar, and also that it would take place on the same day world-wide.

What they did was leave the actual calculation part as an exercise for the reader, kind of like in those physics texts that nobody ever actually reads.

Note, by the way, that so far I've said Julian calendar.  That was the modification of the Roman calendar done in the name of Julius Caesar.  For one thing, he wanted January 1 to be in the actual winter, so he decreed as the Roman Emperor that what we now know as 46 BC would actually be 445 days long.  (could you imagine having to deal with the IRS over that kind of a shift?)  Also, he recalculated everything so that they'd still have the special solar/lunar-ish alignment with the parts of each month (hence the shorter and the longer months) but the year would correspond to the 365.25 days the earth takes to fully traverse its path around the sun rather than the nice, round number of 365 days the earlier Roman calendar used.

Future emperors, of course, ignored parts of what Julius had put in place, thus causing the year to wander around a bit, but that's neither here nor there to this story.  The key fact is that now we use something called the Gregorian calendar, named after a Pope this time, which realizes that 365.25 is actually just a skosh off.  To acknowledge the fact, Pope Gregory XIII decided (well, a Jesuit scholar decided and he signed off on it, technically) that we'd toss away one Leap Day every hundred years.

Oh--and he also made ten days disappear that year.  Poof!  Bye bye!

Keep in mind that the Pope is Catholic.  You knew that, right?  Problem was, in 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII did the deed, there were already plenty of Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians in the world who really didn't give a rat's behind what the Pope said about their calendar.

Imagine yourself back then.  Your Pope says it's one month.  The folks down the street have a calendar that says it's different.  Now figure out when to celebrate Easter.  I dare ya....

Anyway, that's basically why Easter is the date it is--the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox is a whole lot easier to understand and calculate than all that other crap.

Luckily Christmas is always the same date every year.  Wal-Mart would have a helluva time figuring out its sales cycles otherwise.


Journeys and Pit Stops

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." - Lao Tsu

I'm sure Lao Tsu was speaking metaphorically, but in my household a journey of any distance actually begins with everybody taking a turn in the restroom--or else.  I don't even have to say it any more.  The kids are trained; they just know....

It's funny how we stress out over our journeys, both physical and metaphorical, in life.  Take my example--what would happen if the kids didn't empty their bladders prior to getting into the car?  Well, they'd be begging me to pull over before it was "time" to pull over.  I'd have to stop for a restroom break even before I had to stop for more fuel.  I'd be pulling off of the highway for a stop completely unrelated to anything other than urination, most likely before I'd crossed the hundred mile point of the trip.

But then again, so what?  When I set off on a road trip of any distance, be it 200 or 1200 miles, I have a range of time rather than a specific point on the clock's rotational trajectory in mind for arrival.  I did road trips before there was a GPS, after all, and there's only so much distance-related specificity you can finagle out of blue and green lines on the pages of a road atlas.  I've since come to know and rely upon Bertha, the disembodied voice that tells me things like "in one quarter mile, turn right on exit twenty four."  She's much nicer than some of my previous co-pilots have been when I fail to follow that instruction, too, merely saying "recalculating..." instead of--um, well, yeah.  You married guys, you know what I mean, right?

As smart as Bertha is, though, I've learned not to trust that little readout at the bottom that tells me I'll arrive at my destination in, say, five hours and forty two minutes.  Uh huh.  I'll get there when I get there, and I bet I can make it in five and a half hours....

So back to the original issue, if I'm already planning to get there when I get there, what's the big deal about pulling over to let the kids pee one more time than I'd planned?  Was it really worth all the coaching I did in the beginning to get them trained?  Was it really worth stressing out like I did in my younger days--"Go to the bathroom, dangit!  What if we have to stop on the way, at *gasp* an unscheduled location?  It could throw my entire plan off.  I don't care if you don't feel like you have to go, you get in there and go now orrr elllsssse"

As I said earlier, life is full of metaphorical journeys, too.  We journey through our careers.  We journey through building an authorpreneurship.  We journey both physically and metaphorically through moves from one part of the country to another.  Physical journey or not, though, there's still the same issue--is avoiding a short pit stop along the way really worth stressing everybody out as you're taking off?


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Do Dumb Ideas Make For Commercial Storytelling Success?

First, some background--I had the question come to me this morning while reading's "The 6 stupidest plots of supposedly smart movie villains".  I'm a fan of's snarky tone in their posted lists, and this one made me sit back and think about the fact that I'd never considered the plot problems in most of these six cases, or others like them, quite the way the article did.

G'head, go read it.  I'll still be here when you come back.

Now, were all six really the *ahem* most stupid (not "stupidest") plots out there?  No, probably not.  Were they stupid enough to deserve the article?  Some of the commenters suggested no.  I think, for the most part, yes.

One defender of the bad guys objected to the characterization of Inspector Javert as a villain.  I can see the point; people can see Javert's point of view, can understand why he's torn to do what he does, can even to a certain point side with him.  As such, he's kind of an anti-villain, which accounts for part of the endearing genius of the work.  The Cracked writer would've done better to refer to him as antagonist rather than villain, then.  And, to be fair, the original plot as contained in the book was a lot more complex than the scene that showed Wolverine saving the Gladiator.  Regardless, I have to agree that in the situation as portrayed in the musical/movie, the comments in Cracked were spot-on.  Why would a recognizable authority figure risk himself, and his side's plan, with personal intervention rather than sending a more junior, less recognizable person?

Several of the other examples were instances of the same flaw, one that doesn't necessarily manifest to you while you're engrossed in the story.  Then again, if brilliant villains don't think about "Hey, what do I do with all this money/land/status once I destroy the system that makes it valuable" why should we?  The stories were fun to watch, anyway, right?

That leads, then, to the first (technically, #6) flawed plan: that of Hans Gruber in Die Hard.  Here, again, I have to side with the Cracked writer over the commenters, and I have to admit that some of the technical flaws occurred to me while I was watching the show, too.  I have to further admit that the movie has always struck me as a true Bruce Willis masterpiece--a parody within an action movie, one where the brilliant villain is actually a dumbass.   

Yet the commenters take the article to task--if Hans Gruber is brilliant, they reason, then he's probably holding his true plan close to his chest all the way till his plummeting death, right?  Okay, that's possible, but it takes my idea that the movie is a brilliantly-done parody of the genius bad guy and smashes it against the wall of poorly-told stories.  Please, please don't do that to me.  See, we all expect antagonists (and, sometimes, protagonists) to hold parts of their plans in reserve, hidden away from the knowledge of all of their fellow characters.  That said, we, the story consumers, are not characters.  An author/screenwriter who holds his an/pro-tagonist's clever twist back to the very end before revealing it to the readers/watchers is brilliant.  Hiding some of the plot through the entirety of the story and past the words "The End," though, is just dumb storytelling.

There's also the pro-Hans argument that he really did plan all of that, and it might've worked, but that the idea of leaving evidence behind was a function of his arrogance as a brilliant criminal mastermind.  Sure, and the idea of leaving a garbage chute on the south side of your great big planet-killing space orb open to a single torpedo isn't dumb, either, because it's....  No, wait, it really is dumb.  Brilliant villains are allowed a certain amount of arrogance, but when the arrogance becomes a flaw in their plan, it turns into stupid. 

I'll give the commenters this, though--the principal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off isn't meant to be a smart movie villain.  Anybody who goes into that movie expecting to see anything other than a farcical caper of stupidity is probably going to leave crying.  Ragging on that movie for stupidity in the plot is like ragging on, say, Toy Story for too much animation.

All that said, though, as a guy who crafts plots, it's good to be reminded once again that it doesn't take a perfect plot to be a commercial success.



"Retirement - when you quit working just before your heart does." - Unknown

"When you retire, you switch bosses - from the one who hired you to the one who married you." - Gene Perret

"Retirement kills more people than hard work ever did." - Malcolm Forbes


Ahhhhh, retirement.



Oh, I'm sorry.  Was I saying something?

Oh, right.  Retirement.  That word, that phase of our lives that workers all across the world speak of in hushed tones.  I mean, there's eternal salvation and all that, but I've yet to see evidence whether the Afterlife is more like sitting around playing harps, partying every night in Valhalla, being "rewarded" with 72 virgins (I have yet to see the reward in that, but hey, whatever works), or being in a Billy Crystal movie.  I have, however, seen direct evidence of what retirement is like.

Fishing all day.

Getting up only when--and if!--I want to.

Playing checkers with other retirees in the park.

(Yes, I hear my retired friends giggling now over the silliness of my "direct evidenced" vision.  But it's my story and I'm stickin' to it.)

Have you ever thought about what your retirement will look like?  There are all sorts of things you can do with it, aren't there?  Back when I was a kid, the retired gentlemen of the town of Corinth, MS, really did gather around the courthouse every day to whittle together, a practice that filled the old town with the delightful aroma of freshly-shaven cedar.  I always looked forward to joining them some day, but times have changed (the old courthouse just doesn't exude the "come sit around me" feeling any more), and besides, I think after a while it would become a skosh repetitive.

It was a post by a friend, Carol Tomany, on the subject of living on the water, that got me thinking about this, actually.  I've always been intrigued by the idea of retiring onto a houseboat and thus being able to putter around to various locales while enjoying an occasional glass of wine.  Granted, the real intrigue comes to me when you replace "houseboat" with "megayacht" with the wine brought up to my hands from the chiller by a liveried member of the staff.  Different price range, certainly, but still kind of the same idea.

A little research turned up an interesting article on some unusual retirement communities, though I'm still scratching my head over how seniors traveling and living out of their RVs constitutes a community.  Not that I haven't thought of that one, too, mind you, at least without the community part.  I've done my share of travels in an RV, and the people at the parks across the nation tend to be among the friendliest, open, most sharing folks I've ever met.

A community specifically for retired postal carriers as described in the article sounded interesting.  It makes sense, though, that some folks would want to settle down around people who'd built up similar histories and tales through their lives.  Granted, other folks wouldn't want that.  I think I'm in the latter group--living out the remainder of my days around the same type of people I'd been around for most of my working life just doesn't sound like much fun.  But that's just me.

I suppose it all kind of boils down to what you want to do, doesn't it?  My all-time favorite sage to quote said this: "When I was 43 and John Hay 41 he said life was a tragedy after 40, and I disputed it.  Three years ago he asked me to testify again; I counted my graves, and there was nothing for me to say.  I am old; I recognize it but I don't realize it.  I wonder if a person ever really ceases to feel young--I mean, for a whole day at a time." (source: Mark Twain Quotations A-Z page)

My bottom line is that I'm not sure what I want to do when I grow up, honestly.  I mean, I've found my vocations: I love being an academic leader, and I love being a writer.  But will I continue doing those things for the remainder of my life?  I don't know.  And if I don't--what will I do?  Will I (finally) move down to a hut on the beach to enjoy the warmth (and the hurricanes)?  Will I follow my cousin south of the border?  Will I seek a simple job where I can still connect with people?

I don't know.  Yet, anyway.  But the fact that I can't see the end point doesn't mean I won't enjoy the ride, right?

Do you have a retirement dream?  Wanna share it? 


Thursday, March 28, 2013

To Be A Billionaire

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is." - Oscar Wilde

"The lack of money is the root of all evil." - Mark Twain

"All I ask is the chance to prove that money can't make me happy." - Spike Mulligan

While traveling recently I picked up a copy of Forbes magazine because of its promise to illuminate the life, times, and secrets of those richest of the rich, the wealthiest of the wealthy, the happiest of the happy, the world's billionaires.

Yes, yes, I know--money can't make me happy.  I sure do wish it would hang around long enough to try once, though.  In the long term, indeed, I don't expect to be happy without love, without joy, without all that other happy-schmappy stuff.  But just once, I'd love to dive into a bathtub full of jasmine-scented gold coins that I own--I betcha that would bring a B.O.S. (big ole' smile), however temporary, to my face.  To be served a beautiful sushi dinner in the formal dining area of my mega-yacht as we set off for exotic ports--probably another B.O.S. right there. 

Anyway, concerns of the relative level of happiness that wealth can bring aside, being a billionaire is still a mark of success for most folks.  Granted, the Walton kids may or may not fit into the "you're a B-word so you're a success" group, but most of the people on the Forbes list made it for themselves. 

That, of course, leads me to the Big Question (at least, to my Big Question): what does it take to get there?

The path varies a lot, of course.  Some are there because they started making jeans and branched out into other fashion arenas.  Others make cosmetics.  Some buy and sell real estate.  One guy strapped a camera to his wrist and realized he had a cool product.  Another guy, and, um, others too, created a web site where we could all sit around and post pictures of cats for each other to see and play games like Farmville, Castleville, Yoville, WastingTimeville, KillingMyCareerville, and so on.

It varies, then.

One thing that doesn't seem to vary too much, though: it takes a while.  "Overnight success" still really isn't overnight.  Nor is it particularly young.  Out of 1,426 billionaires in the world, only 23 are under 40 years old--that's just over one percent.  Granted, some of the list members have been billionaires for a long time, but reading the stories it's pretty clear that most of those who are self-made didn't make it before their 40th birthday either.

One of the cover billionaires makes the point perfectly about the importance of time.  He joined the company he now owns at the age of 20.  He became a partner in a newly-named company three years later.  This is the first year he's been a billionaire--at 57.  That's 37 years of efforts that have paid off.

Another cover story is the guy who founded GoPro, a camera that can be strapped to your wrist (or just about anything else, apparently).  His "overnight success" only took nine years, and followed a pretty awesomely spectacular failure that sent him home to live with his parents.

The lesson of the magazine issue, then, seems to be that it takes time and perseverance to get to that bathtub full of gold coins.  I'm'a workin' on it, though.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

No Joy Without Grief, No Grief Without Joy

Today's post was a guest post over at my friendly publishing group's blog.  Their "topic of the month" was grief, since that's an emotion that is commonly involved in a fiction work, especially as often as we writers like to kill characters off.  Please go enjoy:


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Sh*t Characters Say

"The hero would never say that!"

Ever heard that?  Ever said that?

While I'll agree that there's always somebody who's willing to say something so dumb that it can't possibly be real--oh, wait, am I talking about reality or fiction?

I recall a time long ago when I was under a lot of stress at work.  The stress came out one night through a rather disturbing nightmare about my ex-wife returning to the house and shooting me, and then my girlfriend.  Now, the ex-wife in question would never actually do that (at least, I don't think she would) but it freaked me out nonetheless.  And then, inexplicably, I told my girlfriend of the dream.

Hey, I was stressed out, remember?

No surprise that she broke up with me very closely to the revelation of the dream, is it?

Dumb, dumb, dumb, and I knew it was at the time.  Still, I was stressed, and often when we're stressed our mouth runs away with stuff the brain hasn't okayed yet.

Next time you put your protagonist into a stressful environment, which should probably encompass the majority of your plot, go ahead and play around with letting him say abnormally stupid stuff.  It's--normal.


Monday, March 25, 2013

Personal Tastes in Fiction

It's said that men who prefer large rear ends on women cannot lie.  Whether that's true or not is certainly open to further experimentation, but it leads me to wonder where they acquire such a personal taste.

I, personally, really don't have my preference one way or another in the grand derriere arena, but when it comes to food I definitely have some favorites. If you've read the Return of the Gods series, you've probably already guessed one food that turns my knees weak: fried okra.  I mean, it makes sense logically, as few other foods can so successfully negate the negative health aspects of being deep-fried with the fact that they're a vegetable, nor can one single nugget of yumminess so often contain such a wide variety of pleasant textures.  You can eat them like popcorn without having to worry about the nasty hulls. 

And while I haven't met many other Southern (U.S.) delicacies I wouldn't take home to meet momma (to be honest, she introduced me to most of them, anyway), I'm also quite a fan of raw oysters, crab, lobster, and all sorts of rather non-traditionally-Southern food. 

So where do tastes come from?

I admit, I really don't know, but they sure are fun to play around with as an author.  I've caught on to the fun, and will be doing more of it in the future.  You can kind of tell--in the first book of Cataclysm it talks a little about Matt's love for fried okra, but then that love really comes out in Deception.  Similarly, Crystal has her faves (and a phobia or two) that are coming out in Book 4.  Alyssa, my main character in the Elf Queen series, also has her share of personal tastes that you'll come to know and love, I promise.

There have been a great many fictional characters over time whose personal tastes have helped define them.  Take Captain Jean-Luc Picard, for example, and his famous penchant for Earl Grey Tea.  Bond, James Bond, liked his martinis shaken, but not stirred.  The antagonist in The Help had an understandable aversion to a particular variety of pie.  Sansa Stark, from what I hear, really likes lemon cakes.  Tony Stark, meanwhile, prefers his liquor fine and his women finer (yes, in Marvel lore, he gave up drinking, but not forever). 

Where do fictional tastes come from?  Well, from the mind of the author.  There are an awful lot of sources out there describing how to use food in fiction as a way to draw another of your reader's senses in.  The really cool thing about it, though, from my own standpoint is that it's one aspect of the story that's entirely up to us.  When a character sits down to dinner, we're the only source for what is available for him to eat.  It's up to us what his choices are, and then it's our call whether it's perfectly seasoned, raw in the middle, or boiled to oblivion.

The thing to remember, though, is that our characters are like us in our humanism.  We sigh when we're eating prime rib not because it's the flesh of a cow cooked to temperate perfection, but rather because of the delicate way the grains of meat melt in our mouths, leaving a bold meaty and sometimes peppery flavor behind.  If you do it right, you've already gotten intimately familiar with a wine before it even touches your lips--can you describe that?   When was the last time you bit into a sizzling hot wurst of some sort and gleefully wiped the fatty juice from your chin and sucked it off of your finger?  A character who loves his Islay malt Scotch is going to love it for a reason--why?  What does it do to his mouth, to his sinuses, to his center when he takes the first burning sip?

Authors, get to know your characters more so that we can, too.  Play with different foods, different drinks, different textures, different tastes, and then let your characters do the same.

Unlike us, they can't get fat unless you write them so.


Having Plan B

"The man who isn't a pessimist is a damned fool." - Mark Twain

"Pessimism is only the name that men of weak nerves give to wisdom." - Bernard De Voto

Sometimes the glass is neither half full nor half empty.  Sometimes we just need to get more beer.

A friend did a post over the weekend about feeding your inner pessimist, and it got me to thinking.  She's absolutely right when she says that a little bit of controlled pessimism is a good thing.  We control only what we control, and sometimes--often, in fact--what we don't control doesn't turn out like we plan for it to.  It's in those cases that an optimist wonders what to do next while a good healthy pessimist carries on with Plan B, right?

I learned the importance of Plan B early on.  I was put in charge of my battalion's Hail and Farewell, a drinking event at which occasionally the officers welcome new arrivals and say farewell to departing comrades.  The details from the previous event were explained, and I was to replicate it.  Only problem was, after I picked up the keg and then went to pick up the key to the facility, they informed me that there was no drinking allowed on the premises.  That pronouncement caused me to scurry back to battalion headquarters to ask someone else for a Plan B, a mistake that landed me on the battalion commander's official "Shit List," the top of which I kept all to myself till his own Hail and Farewell.

Got to have a Plan B.  Be a pessimist.  But do it like Carol described in the blog linked above, because nobody likes a real-life Eeyore.

West Point was my Plan B, to tell the truth.  What got me into the military academies in the first place was my uncle's example.  He was a retired Air Force missile officer who'd been around the world, had an exciting life, and told me all about how great it was.  Thus, I set my sights on the beautiful campus near Colorado Springs.

"You should probably also apply to the other academies in case the Air Force Academy doesn't accept you," someone said.  Dang pessimist.  Okay, fine, I did, though not being accepted to the Air Force Academy seemed impossible.

Thank goodness for that pessimist, though.  The USAFA did turn me down; they said my eyesight disqualified me from being a pilot, and they require something like 80% of their classes to be pilot qualified.  West Point, on the other hand, didn't give a crap about my pilot qualification, though they did make me fix a tooth before I arrived to start my Army career. 

So.  Plan B.  West Point.  A holiday on the Hudson.

It's funny how things turn out sometimes, ain't it?  West Point may not have been exactly what I wanted, but it ended up being exactly what I needed.  I was a bit of a--well, I say maverick, others use different terms--and that was the version that was tempered by 200 years of tradition.  The ever-watchful ghostly eyes of Thayer, MacArthur, Eisenhower, and so on are guides that you can actually feel sometimes when you're there.  Who knows what I might've gotten into somewhere else?  And the combination of academics and athleticism I found there on the banks of the Hudson River--I don't know exactly what it's like at USAFA, but what I got at West Point was perfectly suited for what I needed.

That, and I wouldn't trade the friends I met there for anything. 

Honestly, the only downside I can see through my rear view mirror to having gone to USMA instead of USAFA is that watching my alma mater play football makes me cry. 

Sometimes we should be thankful for Plan B.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Iron Men vs. Captains America

I'm Johnny Gung Ho
I get a dress off wherever I go
I shine my breastplate up
I write my classmates up
I go to chapel twice on Sunday
I love to be hazed
Before I go to bed I say The Days
And my Tac thinks I'm STRAC
'cause my girlfriend's a WAC
And my favorite color is grey. - Traditional West Point song

If you've devoured the Avengers comics and movies with anywhere close to the voracious appetite I've demonstrated, you too know about the intense personality disharmony between Captain America and Iron Man.  The good Captain is what we old D&D players used to call "Lawful Good"--he fights on the side of good against the forces of evil because it's the Right Thing to do.  Laws are vital to him.  So are Rules.  So, of course, are Authorities.

Meanwhile, Iron Man, aka Tony Stark, is an unrivaled genius who was born wealthy and earned himself the title of Billionaire Playboy before he became a superhero.  Stan Lee's vision of a corporatist superhero, he plays by the rules so long as they suit him, and then he doesn't.  He's a good guy, luckily for the world, and so the D&D folks would most likely call him "Chaotic Good."  He's the quintessential "ends justify the means" kind of guy--one who'll face off against a demigod without his suit of armor, wielding only a glass of whiskey to protect himself. 

The pairing makes for some awesome internal tension throughout the Avengers storyline.  Of course, everybody knows that in the end they'll fight side by side and win one for Truth, Justice, (to Captain America) and "Yeah, whatever" (to Stark).

As you can probably tell from reading between the lines of the traditional West Point tune I quoted above, we had our share of that internal tension there as well.  Some were straight, righteous, wanting to see justice done and rules followed.  Others, well, didn't.  I like to think of myself as a poor version of Stark, personally.  Oh, I got the job done--I graduated, didn't I?  Dean's list, in fact, most terms.  I had a lot of fun along the way, saw some awesome places, did some cool crap, and formed some incredibly long-lasting relationships as well.

Anyway, one of the lectures Captain America gives Stark and Thor in the Avengers movie gave me flashbacks to an event at West Point that I don't talk about much. 

See, it was a dark and stormy night....

Okay, no, it wasn't stormy.  Was dark, though, and kind of chilly, it being Thanksgiving weekend.  The thing about hanging around West Point over Thanksgiving was that the place was fairly well deserted; most cadets headed off to see their own parents or parents of friends during that time.  Those of us who hung around, then, got a nice, quiet time with no lines to the racquetball courts.

We did, however, have to sign up for food.  Normally our presence at the cadet mess hall was expected, but over a holiday they needed to plan for the number of meals to prepare.  Thus, some time before the actual weekend those of us who planned to eat in the mess hall would have to sign up for meal tickets.

Unfortunately, one of the few cadets who showed up for a chapel choir practice that evening hadn't signed up for meal tickets.  She hadn't planned on being there at all, but her other plans had fallen through. Thus, she didn't have any food waiting for her in the mess hall.

And she was a plebe.

Plebes couldn't just run off post to get something to eat the same way upper classmen could.  They also couldn't just hop on down into the quad to pick up a pizza in West Point's own Mama Brava Italian food paradise.  They either ate in the mess hall, or they went hungry.

I didn't like those options.

Now, a smart TOSK would've bought her a pizza and let her head out to wherever she found to peacefully eat it.  Problem was, while I as a junior could carry a pizza pretty much wherever I wanted on post, she as a plebe carrying a pizza would've been like a trophy buck carrying a red flashing light on the first day of hunting season.  Thus, I did the only thing I could think of to satisfy the requirements given in the scenario--I invited her to my room to eat a pizza I bought on the way.

Now, at any other college that wouldn't have been a big deal.  Right?  And if she'd been anyone other than a plebe it wouldn't have been a big deal, either.  As a plebe, though, her presence in an upper classman's room eating pizza was a first class (the most severe of four levels) offense.

Then again, the cadet barracks were pretty much deserted.  We were able to slip her into my room unseen.  The door had to remain open, of course, due to West Point rules about men and women being in the same room, but I had her take off her battle dress uniform top (no, I know what you're thinking, and she wasn't topless--she had her brown t-shirt on under it) so that her lack of rank insignia wasn't evident.

(I must admit that seeing my own classmates--women of strength, agility, and intellectual power--in battle dress pants and a form-hugging brown t-shirt did inappropriate things to my internal rawr.  But I did mention that she was a plebe, right?)

So there we were--two cadets, neither of visible rank, eating pizza peacefully in my room.  Standing.  Not touching.  I mean it--nothing was going on.  I mean, yes, at the time she did fit my overly-testosterone-based definition of "hot," being in the age range of 18-35, articulate, and blessed with breasts as she was, and yes, later on, once she became legal, she and I might've briefly seen each other a little bit differently, but at the time--no.  Nothing.

I mean, come on.  No way would I ever put the move on a girl of any class, much less a plebe, in the frickin' cadet barracks.  That's asking for a one-way ticket home.  No.  Way.  Granted, the academic halls were a different story, but I mean it--that's a different story.

It's one that I only tell once in a very blue blue moon, and then only when I'm really drunk.


So anyway, everything was fine that night till the CQ ran by to make his checks.

The CQ--Cadet in Charge of Quarters, but shortened by one of the C's--was the guy--oh, you already guessed he was in charge of the quarters, right?  One of the things he did every so many hours was walk around to make sure everything was okay.  He did so then, walking by my room and looking in, his eyes seeing me and then the girl, stopping for a brief bit of a second, and then heading on.

You know that sinking feeling when you know you've been caught?  I had that.  The guy who was CQ that evening was the company's Captain-est of the Captains America.  *sigh*

A second or two later he poked his head back in the room and asked to see me in the hall.  Uh oh.  Turns out, he recognized the plebe from one of the groups he was in with her.  Was that her, he asked me.  Of course I said yes--even a miscreant like me believed in the Honor Code, after all.  That's when I got The Lecture.  I don't recall much of the specifics, my brain being clamped down into fight or flight mode, but I do remember something about his disappointment in my actions and how they were forcing him to write up a friend and company-mate and blah and blah blah.  And blah, blah blah, blah blah blah blah. 

A lot of people were actually overjoyed at the news, believe it or not.  I'd already been caught on a second class offense as well as more third and fourth class write-ups than I ever bothered to count.  This first class zinger was sure, some thought, to send me a'packin'.

One of those, incidentally, was my Tac, the regular Army "Tactical Officer," Tac for short, assigned to each cadet company to oversee discipline and such.  He'd had just about enough of me, he explained gleefully in his office on Monday, and couldn't wait till justice was served.  I might as well start packing my stuff and preparing to leave Hogw--er, Hudson High--er, Yoosmay.  (sorry)

Funny thing was that it didn't play out precisely that way.  I mean, yeah, reading this blog by a West Point graduate, you probably already figured out that I didn't get shipped back home.  But here's how it happened.

First and second class levels of discipline could only be adjudicated by the Regimental Tac, while lower levels of discipline (the ever-present eight and four being one) were handled at the company level.  In my case, the RT was away on a well-deserved vacation, and his disciplinary power either hadn't been or couldn't be delegated.  Thus, my company Tac (and the other happy onlookers) had to wait a week for their day of righteous glory.

It wasn't to come, though.  The girl was in a different regiment, and her RT happened to be on duty.  She went into her speedy trial, explaining about how she knew what she'd done was wrong and would never do it again, but also how she'd been so hungry, and there was nothing going on but two choir-mates eating pizza, and so on.  It was a solid mitigation, and so she walked out with one of the lowest fourth class penalties you could get--eight (demerits) and four (punishment hours).

Boy, was my Tac furious.  Red-faced, he locked me up (made me stand rigidly at attention, eyes to the front, neck back) as he verbally chewed up one side of me and down the other.  I heard all about how I didn't deserve the chance I was being given (and, to be honest, I probably didn't, but hey, there it was) but that to be fair he had to reduce my own penalty to fourth class.

I thus added to my total eight demerits and eight hours of punishment tour ("tour" being a sloppy term for dressing up fancy and walking back and forth 'tween the barracks) for my egregious pizza-serving.

I never fed a plebe again.

Sometimes, I guess, the good guys win.  Sometimes, the bad guys win.  Sometimes, whether it was the good guys or the bad guys who won depends on your orientation.


Facing High Heat

Ah-ha!  Corned beef hash, you old culinary nemesis of mine, I got your number today, didn't I?

Canned corned beef hash has always been one of my favorite breakfast meats.  It takes me right back to the joys of a fairly modest childhood.  It was expensive enough to be a treat, but inexpensive enough to be on the table of a couple of full-time public school teachers in Mississippi.  Done just right, cooked up to a crisp and served with an egg or three and some ketchup and hot sauce, and it's awesome--the best meat that can possibly accompany a breakfast anywhere, anytime, in fact.

Yes, I know--eww, canned. Corned beef hash is about the only meat I enjoy coming out of a can--well, that and Vienna sausages, for the same reason.  Oh, and there are all manner of fish they put inside of a can that make my still-Southern taste buds sing.  But most beefs, hams, etc., in a can have a well-defined spot on the spectrum of inedibleness.  That said, I've had hand-made beef hash, made with freshly-cut chunks and shreds of potato and beef, and it's just not the same.  Sorry, when it comes to CBH, give me canned every time.

I've always had a hard time cooking it, though.  I know, it ain't exactly rocket science.  You open a can of what looks like it might be better destined for the cat's bowl, you schlock it out into a frying pan, and you heat it up.  Easy peasy, right?

Not so much.

Each time I've tried in the past I've gotten a greasy flaccid mess that looks nothing like the crisp golden-brown platter of goodness I've had at great Southern restaurants.  Tastes nothing like it, too.

This time was different, though.  I dropped an egg into a frying pan that was too hot and watched it turn brown and crispy around the edges almost immediately.  Eureka!  With this fresh discovery in mind I reached over and cranked the burner that bore the weight of a frying pan full of CBH right up to maximum heat.

Put simply: I nuked it.

It was good.

Now, being an amateur cook who's been working on that craft for decades, I know there are very few foods that high heat does much good for.  Most need medium heat, and lowering the burner often makes the result better.

Corned beef hash, though, needs really high heat to become what it's destined to be, apparently.

That's like some of us, right?  (yes, I really was going somewhere with the CBH talk)

The "heat" in our lives isn't something physical like a burner, but rather the difficult challenges we face.  Sometimes it's the criticism of a friend.  Sometimes it's an awful experience with a critique group.  Sometimes it's a bad evaluation--or worse--at work.  There are all sorts of events that make us feel uncomfortable, that make us squirm.

The best response, as you know, is to learn what you can from the heat and move on.  Unfortunately most of us, as a matter of human nature, require the heat to be applied in order to kick into "learn what I can and move on" mode.

Some of us just require a bit more heat than others, though, right?

So next time things get really, really bad, just imagine yourself as the corned beef hash in a Southern family's breakfast.  The heat sucks to go through, but the result--you!--will be far better than anything else out there.


(wow, now that was a helluva metaphor.  I think I could hear William Faulkner turn over in his grave from here)

Friday, March 22, 2013

My List

If you can listen to Country Music without your ears bleeding, listen to this song by Toby Keith.  (It's a Youtube video that opens in a separate window)

Good song, yes?  It always makes me sit back in my chair for a while.  It often makes my eyes leak a little.

I've mentioned before on this blog that, to get myself fired up to write all day, I like to listen to Eminem's Lose Yourself.  That's a good "fire me up" kind of song, expressing as it does a tale of sacrifice, of drive, of true gritty desire.  Then, at the end of a day of work, Toby Keith's My List does the opposite.  I can't listen to it, honestly, without thinking of all the time I've spent on things that weren't all that important, how much time we haven't really got left on the planet, and all the priorities I should be worried about. 

Life's all about balance, isn't it?  If you're going to be successful, you have to desire it.  You have to strive for it.  You have to sacrifice, and I suspect the truth is that the greater the success, the greater the sacrifice required. The problem is that if that's all you do, then you're missing out on the life you're trying to live, aren't you?

Life, after all, isn't really about what we achieve.  It's not about how much money we make.  It's not about how many bestseller books we've written.  It's about quality, about relationships, about people.

Then again, what we achieve, how much money we make, and how many bestsellers we've written all impact the quality of life we can afford to live, don't they?  One of the most-cited issues leading to ending relationships is financial problems.

It truly is a balance.

I won't break my back for a million bucks I can't take to my grave
So why put off for tomorrow what I could get done today....
Like go for a walk, say a little prayer, take a deep breath of the mountain air,

Put on my glove and play some catch.  It's time that I make time for that.
Wade the shore, cast a line, look up an old lost friend of mine,
Sit on the porch and give my girl a kiss.
Start livin'.  That's the next thing on my list.
(lyrics by Toby Keith)


How Long Does It Take To Write A Book?

Yesterday a friend of mine, on behalf of her younger brother, asked me how long it takes to write a book.  Now, you know me by now, and so you probably already guessed that my snarky side immediately started typing "forty-two."  Hey, it's the ultimate answer to everything, right?

Still, I restrained my snark.  She's a friend, and a good friend's daughter, and had asked a sincere question that actually does have a real answer.

The only problem is that I don't know the answer.

The short version of the best approximation to a response that I know would be: "as long as it takes."

What is a book?  More specifically, how long is a book?  If you go by "industry guidelines," whatever the hell those are, a fiction book for a new author should be around 80,000 to 120,000 words.  Because, you know, we new authors can't possibly, successfully, spin a complex tale.

(The real reason I've heard is that publishers aren't willing to risk more pages than what's required to hold120K words on an unknown author.  It makes sense; publishers charge by the page no matter how many squiggly marks you want them to put on each.  And standards, once set, are hard to change--a key measure of web site type size is based upon a several-hundred-year-old typographic standard in which there were a dozen dozen of them per French foot, and I've heard that our roads are the width they are based on the distance between Roman chariot wheels.  Not that I'm suggesting books are going the way of the Roman chariot, but....)

Anyway, I aimed for this range in the three novels I have out now, Cataclysm, Ascension, and Deception, thinking that if I played the game according to "industry guidelines" I'd nab a lush publishing contract and launch myself toward my first million dollars in the bankie-pooh.  Obviously it didn't work out that way, but it did result in three pretty good novels for sale on Amazon. 

Thing is, you don't have room for much plot twisting in 80,000 words.  At least, I didn't think so.  I'm thinking I probably can do more now, and I am aiming for more in the first book of the Elf Queen series, which will still be in that word count range.  My sci fi work in progress, meanwhile, is going to give a great big moist and loud raspberry to the "industry guideline" and present many more words, and a helluva twisted plot, for your reading pleasure.

So now that I've not-answered the question about length in word count of a book, the other significant variable is how many words you can bleed into a word processing program every day.  Stephen King, in On Writing, says 2,000 is what you should go for, and I kind of agree with that.  It's a significant chunk of writing, but it's attainable.  At that pace, he says, you can finish a 180,000-word novel (more than the 120K max for newbs, but remember, he's not what anybody would call a newbie author) in ninety days, which is, give or take a holiday, three months.

So three months!  There, you have it.  It takes three months to write a book.  More specifically, it takes three months to write a 180,000-word novel (a term which implies fiction as the genre category) at the pace of 2,000 words per day. It's just simple mathematics.

It took me just under two months to write Cataclysm.

It took me three months to write Ascension.

It took me nine months to write Deception.

Mathematics--you suck.  I guess it just takes as long as it takes.

Keep in mind that another, hidden, variable is the revision time.  If you're going to write a draft and send it out, expect a lot of negative feedback (then again, if you're going to revise the hell out of it and send it out, you should still expect a lot of negative feedback--ahh, the joys of authoring).  But this hidden variable is the reason Karl Marlantes told us (at the 2011 James River Writers Conference) that it took him 25 years to write Matterhorn.  Yes, there are a lot of words in that book, words that I still haven't entirely read through yet, but hopefully nobody is thinking it took him 25 years of just writing to create it.  At 2.000 words per day, that's somewhere north of 18 million words.  That's somewhere around 23.5 Bible-lengths.

That's a lot of words.

No, what his 25 years consisted of was writing the book and setting it into a drawer for a while, and then rewriting it.  He said that at one point he had to revise out three entire pages talking about dirty socks--a vital topic to an Infantryman, but not so much to a novel reader.

Revise, revise, revise.  How long does that take?  Well, it takes as long as it takes.  Cataclysm is on its eleventh major revision, and I'm thinking it's pretty darn good and done.  Ascension required nine revisions to get where it is.  Deception took seven.

See the trend?  I'm excited; somewhere around my seventh novel they're going to start coming out better than the revisions can be.

*ahem*  Once again I must say: mathematics--you suck.

Regardless, it really does get easier to write well the more you do it, an assertion I've made many times.  The number of revisions you'll need to make will, in fact, decrease, though never quite to the point of being negative.

But back to the original question--let's assume you're talking about your first novel.  Let's assume you can put out 2,000 words per day, and that your writing skill is approximately similar in level to mine when I began.  Let's assume you're writing an "industry standard" length novel, rather than 23.5 Bibles.

All those assumptions made, then, it'll take a couple of months to complete the first draft, and another three to twelve to polish it up to where you like reading it.

Or in other words--it takes as long as it takes. 


Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Five Worst Interview Questions

My friends, I apologize for my extended absence. Over the past several days I've had a rather interesting series of misadventures, and some day (if I'm not careful) I'm likely to tell you all about them.

Meanwhile, now that I'm back to my regularly-scheduled--um, schedule--I'm teaching a class called Career Development.  Of course, it has as a primary topic a lesson or two on doing resumes, but too many people look at it as just a resume course.  It's so much more than that.  There are lessons on networking, lessons on researching, lessons on what to do after you accept your dream job to build it into a career, and so on.  And there are many lessons, too, on everyone's anti-favorite topic: interviewing.

Yes, I know how much everyone hates to interview.  Hate it, hate it, hate it.  But like doing basic math, and like eating spinach, it's a basic requirement of life.  If you're going to be successful, you will have to face down the dragon of the interview process and learn to come through it relatively unburnt.

I know, I know, I hear the contrary voice already: but what if you work for yourself?  Working for yourself creates your own employment opportunity, poorly-paying though it may be at first, and so there's no interviewing required, right?


Someone who's self-employed may not have to interview with a potential boss, but at the same time he isn't going to make any money at all unless he's selling either a product or a service.  After all, the only place you can open your doors and have people walk in and give you money is a church.  If you're selling a good or a service, you're making sales pitches.  Maybe you're making them in person, maybe not.  Maybe the pitch is in front of a board of directors, and maybe it's in the form of a query letter to an agent or a publisher.  Doesn't matter, it's a pitch.  And a pitch is just, I must add, like an interview.

That said, saying that a sales pitch is just another interview is backward.  I should be saying that an interview is just another sales pitch.  In a job interview, you're selling the most precious thing you have in the world: your future time.  Your job is to convince the buyer--the interviewer--that your future efforts will provide more benefit to the company than they cost.  The buyer, meanwhile, is trying to determine whether your future efforts will benefit the company more than others' future efforts.

It's a complicated game.  It is, however, quite do-able, and actually kind of enjoyable once you get the idea behind the process and learn to relax.

Interviews take many forms, incidentally.  To enter West Point I had to endure a grueling panel interview in the Congressman's office to win his nomination.  To get my first job after the Army, I had to show up and prove I could say the world "computer" without messing it up.  My second job after the Army was even simpler: I don't even recall being asked any questions other than "when can you start?"

The first two jobs after the Army, however, were for fairly low-wage positions, one a retail clerk and one a bench electronics tech.  The employer in neither case was betting much on the outcome.  For my first teacher position, a job directly impacting the organization's customers, I endured a screening interview, followed by a panel interview, followed by a "test teach" in which I had to present a lesson (on Windows 3.1, which will give you an idea how long ago that was).  For other interviews I've had psychological and even math/logic tests.  For my dean positions I've handled series interviews in which they march the candidate (me!) from office to office for an hour-long question and answer session in each location.  Some interviewers have been the program directors who will work for me, and they often all ask the same questions as each other, while others are corporate heads who ask questions directed from different areas of the business.

It's--well, it's tough.

So with that in mind, let me talk about the five hardest questions I've had to face:

Tell me about yourself.

The interviewer doesn't want to hear about where you grew up, nor does he want a rambling discourse on every job you've had.  This is a prompt for what's known in sales as the elevator pitch.  It's named such because it's what every good salesman has on the tip of his tongue in the event of meeting somebody somewhere--like an elevator--and not having a lot of time to explain what he's selling.  Have you ever seen anybody remain on an elevator after their floor is reached?  I haven't either.  An elevator pitch has to be quick, it has to be engaging, and it has to be powerful.

Thirty seconds is what we teach in class; you have thirty seconds to impress the interviewer with your education, your experience, and your character before he starts thinking about finishing the interview and going to lunch.  This is the key part of any interview, and it's the answer you should spend the most time rehearsing.  Rehearse it till you can't stand it any more.  Rehearse it till your dog starts walking away from you when you start in on it.  Rehearse it till you sound like you're not just rehearsing it. 

So I understand you met ______ (another interviewer).  What did you think?

To quote the robot on the classic Lost In Space: "Danger, Will Robinson, danger!"  This one's a steaming pit of fanged vipers waiting to swallow you.  Remember, you don't know the office politics.  You don't know what the two people think of each other.  You should, however, know this: speaking poorly about the other interviewer, no matter what the guy did during your time together, is always a wrong answer.  So, incidentally, is speaking glowingly of him--best case, it'll come off as sycophantic, and worst case you're heaping praise on a guy the current interviewer despises.

Words you should consider using: professional, articulate, qualified.  Interesting is a good word to use if your impression wasn't all that great.  Think of something positive to say.  And don't under any circumstances let the interviewer lead you down a negative path, no matter what negative comments he may make.  Remember, he might be employing the stress interview technique of baiting.  Just.  Don't.  Take.  The.  Bait.

What are your greatest strengths?  What are your greatest weaknesses?

Yes, I bundled the two questions, because they're two sides of the same hazing technique.  Hey, look, if they wanted a perfect person they would start by asking you to walk across the office pond.  They also don't want someone who's perfectly without strengths, of course.  But think about what you're going to say (hopefully before the interview).  If you're asked about strengths, keep in mind that they don't care about your strong musical ability--that is, unless you're applying to be a rock star or some such.  Pick strengths that are directly applicable to the job at hand.

The weaknesses part always messes people up.  I know, 'cause I always ask that question when I'm the interviewer.  "I don't have any significant weaknesses" sounds to the interviewer like "I'm a dirty rotten liar who's only interested in getting a job so I can pay for my crack habit till I'm fired."   You have weaknesses.  I have weaknesses.  Everybody has weaknesses.  But here's the thing--be smart about the ones you tell him about.  Make them job-related, and make sure they're weaknesses that can be turned into strengths.  For example: "I am not good at keeping up with filing in the midst of a normal day of management" (which is something nearly any honest manager would cop to) "BUT I've learned to compensate for that by coming in while my kids are at baseball/soccer/music events to catch up on the mundane crap of office life."

Okay, leave off the kids part, and the mundane crap part.  But do you see where I went with that?  I showed that I acknowledge I'm not good at something, and that I know how to work around it, and while I was sailing that tack I managed to zip in the conversation that I'm a hard worker. Win, win.  And win. 

Tell me specifics about a time you demonstrated _______.

Now, this question is more complex than it appears at face value.  It's a part of what is called behavioral interviewing, a technique founded on the philosophy that your past behavior is the best indicator of your future performance.  What the interviewer is looking for is a specific example from your past that will show him that you're more likely to respond appropriately in the future.

I love asking this type of question, by the way.  When we interview faculty candidates, I'm the meanie who comes in after the program director and zings behavioral question after behavioral question at the teacher to be.  "Tell me about a teacher you thought did a great job.  Mm hmm, and so what was it that Mr. Smith did that earned him that?  Tell me about a time you dealt with a difficult student.  Tell me about a time you worked with a student of a racial or ethnic background different from yours.  Tell me about the time you most embarrassed yourself in front of a class."

That last one is nearly out of bounds, so I seldom actually ask it.  I think it, though.  If you've been in a classroom for any significant length of time, you've done something embarrassing, trust me. 

What can go wrong with your answer?  Well, a few things, actually.  One mistake that many interviewees make is to completely ignore the request for something specific and give generalities: "when dealing with difficult students, you should...."  No, I don't need to know what you should do.  I need to know what you did do.  That's why I'm asking a behavioral question.  Another is that they give examples that aren't really relevant.

The worst mistake interviewees make, though, is sitting there looking like a fish out of water, bequeathing me with an ultra-intelligent sounding series of "um, um, um, um, um...."  Hey, lookit, I don't expect you to remember everything you've ever done.  But certain key things should stand out, like the first time you broke up a fight in a classroom.  Unfortunately nerves can play a big factor in our ability to dredge stuff up out of our memory banks, but that's why preparation is so important.  I have a series of the most likely behavioral questions interviewers will ask me written down, and I have notes about the answer I can give.  If I am going into an interview, I'll review them quickly.  I've pre-selected certain events in my past that make the best answers to those questions and several others, and I know those cold.

Practice, practice, practice. 

Why shouldn't I hire you?

What the hell do you mean, why shouldn't you hire me?  I'm perfect for this job.  There's nobody in the entire world who can do this crap like I can.  Hire me, or you'll regret it till your dying day--hell, till your grandson's grandson's dying day.


I can tell you from experience that this is probably the toughest question to answer in an interview.  You've primed yourself up to spend an hour telling the guy why he should hire you, and wouldn't you know that he pulls this crap on you.  Why shouldn't he hire you?  Why?  I don't know--I think he should, right?  I mean, does he not like me?  Am I the wrong person for the job and didn't realize it?  Am I worthless, weak?


Ease up a bit, pardner.  The answer to this one is related closely to the "greatest weakness" question.  It's just--well, bigger in scope.  Greatest weaknesses can be little stuff, but this one's your chance to prove that you know the overarching picture.  The best answer to it will be completely specific to the job for which you're applying, too.

Find the thing that most people would look for in the position that least describes you--that you can turn into a positive.  It's tough, but I'll give you a personal example.  A lot of career colleges are heavy in allied health programs (like medical assistant, dental assistant, and so on).  I have zero background in those fields; I'm an old grumpy IT guy at heart.  What in the hell would an old grumpy IT guy be doing running an allied health school?

Good question, right?

The answer is fairly simple: I'm an expert not in any AH field, but rather in both business (by virtue of my MBA and background) and education (by virtue of my PhD and background).  That makes me qualified to be a dean, but the cherry on top of that sundae is that I won't ever be accused of playing the Favorite Program game at an all-AH school.  Most deans come from one program or another, which means that that particular program is either the most fully-resourced, or the most picked-on, or both.  If I'm applying to an AH school dean position, though, I don't have that potential problem, right?

So--my answer to that question: well, you might be more interested at first in someone who comes from a background in one of the disciplines you teach.  In my case, though, you'll find what I think you need more: an education expert who's impartial, who's going to be fair across the board in his treatment of all the program directors and their faculty and students.

See how that works?  Turn a frown, upside down!

Gawd, I hate that phrase.  I hate it even more when I type it.

On that note, go forth and interview!


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Happy Saturday!

Hope you're all having a great Saturday!

I'm out of the office this week, having fun celebrating with my brother.  I'm being brave and going without my laptop for the first time in a long, long while.  Enjoy your weekend, and I hope you're looking forward to my return and further writing.


Friday, March 15, 2013

The Myths Behind Friday

"If you must have motivation, think of your paycheck on Friday." - Noel Coward

Well, I'm not sure where that dark mood I was sporting around yesterday came from, but it's gone now.  It's Friday!

Friday is usually an awesome day of awesomeness, but this one is especially so.  Today we're planning to leave town a little bit early, drive up to Pennsylvania, and spend the weekend with family.  And if that isn't exciting enough, this weekend is both St. Patrick's Day and my li'l baby brother's 40th birthday.  A pub crawl, then, is definitely called for.  Two, even. 

Speaking of Friday, it surprised me to learn in a gathering yesterday that over half of the people at the table didn't know where the names of the days come from.  "Friday" comes from the name of the Norse goddess Frigg, sort of.  Several sources, including the online etymology dictionary, suggest that it also sort of comes from the name of the Norse goddess Freyja.

Now, don't confuse the two--Frigg was the wife of Odin, queen of Asgard, female half of the leadership of the Aesir, and, being a good Norse woman, wasn't really known for much else.  Freyja was the leader of the Vanir (the other faction of deities, who fought the Aesir long, long ago and--well, they kinda lost, sort of).  Some legends also have her as the commander of the Valkyrie, and anybody who can hold that post is da'schnizzle in my book.  Frigg is seen as the queenly, wifely icon of eternal love, while Freyja is the shamanistic goddess of love, beauty, and fertility--and, as I just noted, bad-assness.

Meanwhile there are scholars who suggest that Freyja and Frigg are actually two avatars of the same goddess.

Confused yet?   Me too.  Keep in mind that much of what we "know" of Norse mythology was handed to us in the writings of a 13th Century Icelandic politician/lawyer/historian named Snorri Sturluson.  No, I wasn't making that up when I mentioned him a couple of times in Return of the Gods--he really existed, and he was the author of the Prose Edda, which basically serves as the hitchhiker's guide to Norse mythology, and a few other works.  Of course there are other source documents, including the Poetic Edda, and there's also the ongoing stream of folklore, but keep in mind that folklore changes over the years and sometimes poetry is written more to sound good than to carry truth.  Just--sometimes. 

So yeah, I don't really know either.

Incidentally, that sorta funny, sorta heinous thing that Venus accuses Mars of doing in Deception: Return of the Gods is exactly what I'd do if I were immortal, but you probably already knew that about me.  Specifically, I'd find the most naive historian-ish person around, get him drunk, listen to his stories, and then feed him lines of crap like "hey, that's really good stuff, man.  You should totally write that.  Write it, write it!  And have you heard the story about the great big vat that Thor couldn't retrieve for himself but had to get Tyr's help?  Oh, sure, of course, you have.  ...hey, did you hear about when Heracles captured the guardian of the underworld?  Yessir, the hero went right down there and faced the, um, three--yes, three!--three-headed, um, dog.  No, it was a dog, and a great big one at that!  ...of course there was a burning bush.  You think an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-everything God couldn't light a bush on fire?  No, really, I read seven eye-witness accounts of the bush-burning, way back when I passed through the Middle East.  Certainly, I wish you could read them too, but they were destroyed in the Great Flood of, um, Obeewankenobee, about ten years ago.  I'm not surprised at all that a famous historian like you hasn't heard of a little regional flood, as busy as you must be answering all of your fan scrolls and working on your next exciting work of greatness.  No, no, see, he only thought he was alone in the wilderness; surely a well-traveled man of the world like you has seen those wildernesses down there, right?  Of course you have.  They're nothing like the wildernesses up here, so crowded it's amazing anybody can even think.  Horrible places, those...."

Yeah, I'd so do that.  I can't imagine any more fun way to screw with an entire civilization than to craft some really strange stuff into the myths that form the foundation of their religion.  

Back to topic, though, my friends at the OED suggest that since the Greeks and Romans were fond of identifying this particular day of the week with Venus/Aphrodite, and since Freyja is (roughly speaking) the Norse equivalent to Venus, there's some validity to saying that today is Freyja's Day.  Apparently that version is documented in some early Icelandic writings with a day name that I probably can't pronounce but sounds a little bit like somebody bringing up phlegm while saying "Thank Odin it's Friday."

...not with a Scottish accent, I must add.  Norse adults, as you know, only speak with Scottish accents in blockbuster cartoon movies.

The British, meanwhile, apparently just took the Germanic name "Frigg's Day" and shortened the guhs out of it. 

Whatever.  Either way, you get Friday, and Friday is a grand day, indeed.

Some day soon I'll go over the other days.  They're less confusing individually, but the strange mix of Pagan, Germanic, and Roman influence is--well, strange.  We're talking four Norse gods, two pagan icons, and a Roman god strange.  Strange at a level that suggests an immortal sitting in a bar saying, "Hey, your suggestion that we name this day after Saturn....  You remember making that suggestion, don't you?  I do, and it was great.  Saturn is one cool god, I don't care where he's from." 

Have a great Friday!


Thursday, March 14, 2013


One of my greatest challenges as a teacher was always that I assumed people learned as I did.  For example, the first time I taught the DOS class (yes, we really did teach that operating system back then) I taught it pretty much straight out of the book--here's a command, here's what it does, and here's how you can modify what it does.  It was a good class, taken by the IT students in their very first terms.  I enjoyed it, and they seemed to as well.

Then, over time, my own curiosity with the exercises drew me to learn a great deal more than what even a long-term normal user would have cause to know.  Of course, I incorporated those lessons into the class; who wouldn't want to learn all sorts of cool and fancy new tricks?

Unfortunately, the students didn't want to learn all sorts of cool and fancy new tricks, at least not till they'd mastered the less cool, less fancy, and less new ones.  I was assuming they were in the same learning phase I was, which is a dangerous assumption for any teacher to make.  They weren't, and I eventually had to go back to the more straightforward approach to teaching the class. 

Writing, both as a craft and as a business, is much the same thing.  I've been at it for a couple of years, now, and I've learned quite a bit along the way.  Why, then, can't everybody else know all that too?

I got that sensation this morning when reading an article a friend of mine linked in Facebook:
Self-published authors hit by Amazon online royalties cut
G'head--go read it, and also spin through the comments underneath it. I'll wait.

What an outrage!  Amazon is stiffing us!  That horrible huge company that now owns a majority of the e-book business--they're big, so they must be evil! And they're trying to control e-book prices!


I was going to reply to the article on the Telegraph's site, but two things kept me from it: 1) I couldn't come up with anything nice to say that hadn't already been said, and 2) one of the posters had already started the ad hominem that anybody who posted anything favorable to Amazon had to be just an Amazon employee.  You're here, though, and you know I don't work for Amazon, and I also don't feel the need to be nice over here on my own e-turf.  So here, then, I go....

So the chief argument is that Amazon is being a big fat meanie by setting the royalties at 35% for books priced over $9.99.  It's also that amount, incidentally, for books priced under $2.99.  It's looked at by the article's author as a penalty you as an ebook author incur for the crime of wanting to sell your work of wisdom at a high price.

Now, 35% is still more than twice what you'd make for the book going through traditional publishing, but apparently it's unfair, the reasoning goes, to be limited to that when you'd get 70% of the proceeds of every sale at $9.99 and under.

Okay, I'll admit that I think it's kind of silly for Amazon to try to manipulate pricing that way, if that is in fact the reason they set the price range where they did.  Their pricing pages don't say; they just say that you're only eligible for 70% of the selling price under certain conditions, and price is one of those.

While we're getting outraged, how about the evil requirement that the book be enrolled in KDP Select (giving Amazon exclusivity to the title's sales) in order to qualify for 70% royalties in Brazil, hmm?  I've never sold a book in Brazil, but if I did, I sure would want to make 70% instead of 35% of the R$ that the sale generates, right?  How dare they put requirements in the way of that? Granted, it's their site, their system, their marketing, and so on--and yes, this is the company that went without a profit for five years while pumping all revenues back into development of the engine they are driving to market dominance today.  Still, we authors oughtta be able to dictate the terms.  

*sigh*  Yes, that previous paragraph was written with my tongue squarely lodged in my cheek.

See, there's this thing called math.  There's also a less-scientific topic that starts similarly, from a spelling standpoint, called marketing.  Marketing says your product is only as valuable as your customers agree it is.  Math says it's better to sell 1000 copies at $2.99 (total earnings: $2070, roughly) than to sell 1 or even 100 copies at $19.99, no matter how much Amazon takes out of your sales at the higher price.

I've said it before, and I'll repeat it here: it does not matter how valuable you think your book is.

$2.99 and $3.99 are prices right in a sweet spot for e-books, it seems.  How do I know?  Well, some people who sell a lot more copies than I have said so based on their own sales experiments.  The truth of the statement is also borne out in my own sales.  For example, I was thrilled a few weeks ago to offer the "boxed set" of Return of the Gods.  I'm offering it for the low, low cost of two of the three books, which is low indeed but still well over $3.99.

Hey, three for the price of two--who wouldn't want that?

Most people, apparently, wouldn't want that, at least as far as the sales are indicating.  Granted, I think I'm doing other stuff wrong on it, and I'll get around to fixing things once this experiment has run its course.  Still, there's a pretty resounding chorus of "no" going on, while the individual books are still selling well.

And then there's the other argument that grates on my ears: "My book took seven years to research....  If you want the benefit of the research you'll have to pay more than $10."  Well, if it's technical non-fiction, then sure, people are used to paying more than $10 a book--often, much more.  But people are also used to relying on technical non-fictions to have gone through the review process of an academic publisher.  For other non-fics--if your brilliant book of brilliance contains Yet Another Story of the Wright Brothers, for example--then you may want to reconsider your pricing if you think you're going to sell a lot of copies at over $10 each. 

For fiction, though--and yes, I've heard the argument in that bookstore section as well--nobody gives a crap how long you researched the book.  You're expected to have done some, sure, but the amount of time you spend researching adds no value to the story contained.  If it did, that would be the blurb on the back flap or in the e-book description: "The author researched this book for 98 years before writing it" rather than "Come on, cozy up and read this amazing story about...."  A book that was researched for six years is not necessarily any better, much less twice as good, as a book that was researched for only three.  So put away that soapbox, okay?  Nobody gives a crap how long you researched your story; they only care how engaging/entertaining it is.

Something else about business that some authors miss: the idea of sunk costs.  Some things we shell out bucks for really do add value to the story; paying for quality editing is one.  Problem is, once you pay for it, that's a sunk cost.  It's done and gone.  You either recoup it or you don't.  All costs, in fact, other than advertising, that are involved in self-publishing are sunk costs.  There are no marginal costs.  Once your e-book is on the market, it costs you nothing to distribute an additional copy.  Too many authors get wound up around how much time they invested, how much it cost to have their baby edited, how much the cover designer charged them, and so on, and they want to see dollar signs in the black right away.  They'll use all those things to justify a high price on the book.  Now you can see the folly in that, yes?  You'll recoup the book's sunk costs much faster selling a thousand copies at $2.99 than a dozen copies at $9.99, yes?

New authors, take heed: it doesn't matter how much you believe your book is worth.  It only matters how much you can sell it for.

Another "take heed": every minute you spend worrying about Amazon's evil practices of evil evilness is a minute you didn't spend writing your next masterpiece.  

Now, off my own soapbox and back to work I go....


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Interview with Sean E. Thomas

Today I’m interviewing Sean E. Thomas, a long-time friend of mine from Alaska.  He and I met through his son, Bob, who was one of my I.T. students.  At Bob's graduation, SE and I became good friends.  Sean's latest work, Deadly Rites, is a Mystery and was released in on November 1, 2012.

Please tell us a little bit about your book.  Deadly Rites is the ninth novel in the Alaska State Trooper Robert Sable Mysteries. In DR, Priests are being crucified on inverted crosses in Alaskan churches.  On the surface, it appears priests are killing priests.  As Sergeant Robert Sable starts his investigation, he finds a similar trend across the lower 48 states. It seems that Alaska now has another serial killer.  Sable must sort out the suspects and clues to find the killer.

What is the book’s genre?  Mystery.

Is this the only genre in which you write? Now, yes. In the past, I have written articles on Copy Machine Management, published in Association of Records Managers and Administrators International Quarterly circa 1992.

What is it about this genre that interests you?  It holds many avenues for new plots and ideas.  It allows me to use my extensive background in the military, chemistry, analysis and deductive reasoning.

How did you come up with this latest plot?  From the front pages of newspapers.  Some like Lost Legion and Dark Shaman came from my nightmares/myths and legends.  Roman Legions made it as far as China (Qin)—Why not Alaska?  Dark Shaman came from the myth that one could gain a shaman’s power by drinking from his skull.  Dark Gold came from the myth that an Army Quarter Master aircraft carrying tons of gold crashed on an Alaskan glacier.  Stalker and Silent Killer covered factious serial killers (similar to Ted Bundy and Robert Hansen).  And Alaska Dutchman is a story of a mine of myth and legend.  In June 2013, Frozen Treasure merges fiction with history on the Spanish exploration of Alaska.

What is your writing routine like?  Usually, I write every day, sometimes all day.

What is the most rewarding thing about having finished this latest book?  It feels great.  Yet, I can’t get really excited because the work isn’t over.  Then novel has to be edited, reworked and after it’s sent to the publisher, they make changes.  Then the galleys need to be edited.  But when the novel is in hard copy and in my hands, I feel pride.  I love to feel the cover, the paper and enjoy leafing through the pages. That pride is short lived.  The work has only begun—promoting the novel and working on the next one.

What’s next in the writing queue?  Blood on the Moon (tentative title/my eleventh novel).  It’s about murder/money and the Iditarod sled dog race.  Next, Priestess will be Wicca and murder.  Recently, I have had to set them aside.  I needed to revise/edit my first four novels for conversion to e-formats.  My current publisher is picking them up.  When I first started I had new author-itis—lots of descriptive prose and long dialog.  I’ve punched up the dialog and made the prose concise.  So far Dark Shaman and Dark Gold have been accepted.  Dark Project and Dark Project have been revised and are awaiting a final edit before going to my publisher.

Deadly Rites (November 2012).  Priests are being crucified on inverted crosses in Alaskan churches.  On the surface, it appears priests are killing priests.  As Sergeant Robert Sable starts his investigation, he finds a similar trend across the lower 48 states. It seems that Alaska now has another serial killer.  Sable must sort out the suspects and clues to find the killer.
Alaskan Dutchman (September 2012). A prospector’s body is found near the railroad tracks south of Fairbanks.  At the miner’s cabin, Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Robert Sable finds two bodies slumped over a table in pools of blood.  While investigating the crime scene, he finds several hundred thousand dollars in gold nuggets hidden under the base of the prospector’s fireplace.  Rumors fly that the prospector had found the Dutchman, a mine of myth, legend and a curse.  Over the last hundred years, many men had died trying to find the mine.  Those who did find it ended up dead, and the mine would be lost again.  The killers close in on the mine’s location, and as Sable follows the clues, they lead him closer to the killers and mortal danger.
Stalker (May 2012).  More dangerous than Theodore Bundy and Robert Hansen combined, a serial killer calling himself Anubis stalks the cities and highways of Alaska. This killer leaves no fingerprints, fibers or DNA.  He hides behind numerous stolen identities.  Now, the stalker has murdered a Seattle police detective.  Alaska State Trooper Robert Sable and his team must find the killer before he strikes again.
Silent Killer (October 2011).  Alaska State Trooper Robert Sable investigates a serial killer who uses stealth and carbon monoxide to kill alumni from the Chugach High School class of 2000 and their families.  So far, all the deaths have been ruled accidental.  It appears the killer is exacting revenge for bullying and abuse in high school.  The killer leaves minimal evidence, only a tiny smiley face with the number 2000.  Since Sable’s wife is a 2000 graduate, she may be next on the killer’s list.  Sable and his team must catch the killer before he strikes again. 
Lost Legion- (August 2011).  Pulled from his honeymoon, Alaska State Trooper Robert Sable investigates the murders of the governor’s brother and the brother’s friends.  Clutched in the dead men’s hands are gold coins imprinted with the likeness of Augustus Caesar.  As Sable follows the clues, he realizes a myth that Roman soldiers settled in Alaska more than 2,000 years ago may be true.  Closing in, he comes face to face with the architect of the murders, a village chieftain who is a descendent of the Romans.  The descendents have set into motion a plot to take over the halls of power in Washington, D.C.  Even the current Alaskan governor unknowingly is being used as a pawn to achieve this aim.  It is up to Sable to foil the plot and put the chief and his fellow conspirators behind bars.

A longtime Alaska resident with a Native American-Finnish heritage, Sean E. Thomas graduated in 1970 from Alaska Methodist University with a bachelor of arts in chemistry.  He attended graduate school at the University of Idaho for two years studying organic chemistry, then served eight years as an Army officer, working with missiles and laser weapon systems.  He later went into federal service, working in different endeavors, and retired in 2006.  He is married to his college sweetheart Doris and has one son Robert.  He published four novels between 2002 and 2003.  They are now being converted to electronic formats.  He had a five year break in writing because of congestive heart failure and ablation therapy to correct some of it.  After recovering, he started writing again.  His five newest novels were published fall 2011 through fall 2012.  A sixth new novel, Frozen Treasure, will be out in June 2013.  Other novels are in the works.  An avid boater, he has been a Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteer for more than 36 years, teaching boating safety and supporting search and rescue programs.  Member: Sisters in Crime (SinC), Pacific Northwest Writers Assoc., Alaska Professional Communicators, National Federation of Press Women (NFPW), Alaska 49 Writers, Association of Alaskan Writers and Alaska Writers Guild.

How can we buy your book?  All my novels are available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Whiskey Creek Press.  Amazon Authors Central:

Robert Sable Mystery Novels with WCP:
Lost Legion Aug 2011 E-ISBN:  978-1-61160-038-4
Paperback ISBN:  978-1-61160-271-5
Silent Killer Oct 2011  E-ISBN:  978-1-61160-044-5
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-61160-292-0 
Stalker May 2012  E-ISBN:  978-1-61160-242-5
Paperback ISBN:978-1-61160-358-3
Alaskan Dutchman Sept 2012 E-ISBN:  978-1-61160-318-7
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-61160-532-7
Deadly Rites Nov 2012 E-ISBN:  978-1-61160-330-9
Paperback ISBN:ISBN-13: 978-1611605440
Frozen Treasure June, 2013 E-ISBN:  978-1-61160-603-4
Paperback ISBN:       
Dark Project 2002 ISBN-13: 978-0741410825
Dark Soul 2002 ISBN-13: 978-0741410078
Dark Shaman 2004 ISBN-13: 978-1553957874 (WCP Spring 2014)
Dark Gold 2003 ISBN-13: 978-0741409119 (WCP Dec 2013)

And now, some fun questions:
1)      Favorite author? Robert Parker. His novels are straight forward and no nonsense--noir.  I used to like Dean R. Koontz—his earlier works but then he started using lots of prose with little substance—he became too wordy.  Stephen King has a similar problem.
2)      Favorite character in a book you’ve read? Spenser and Jessie Stone.  These characters are thinking men.  They plan their traps and they use teams to back them up.  Yjey neve walk in to traps alone.
3)      Favorite vacation?  Hawaii.  When the temperatures are at 30 below zero is always great to get away from cabin fever, thaw out and enjoy the warm weather.  Also it means not wearing lots of clothes.
4)      Coffee or tea? Coffee.  I love coffee in all its forms.  I like to have a pot or two of coffee while I write.  I also like flavored creamers—coconut, cinnamon, and pumpkin spice.
5)      Favorite color?  Blue.  Though I like wearing all black like my son and Johnny Cash.
6)      Favorite dessert?  Bread Pudding.  My mother and grandmother made it and I guess I haven’t outgrown it.  Every time I go to Golden Corral after dinner, I head to the desert table for bread pudding.  There’s just something about the creamy vanilla and raisins.