Friday, November 29, 2013

Interviewed Today!

Special news today.  I was interviewed by a writer friend, Aaron Speca, for his blog, and it was a whole lot of fun.

Go read it here:


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reading to Master the Craft of Writing

"The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who'll get me a book I ain't read." - Abraham Lincoln

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that." - Stephen King

I get it, I get it.  You must read if you're going to make a serious go at writing.  A couple of years ago, in fact, I was blogging about this--this commandment, I suppose.  Only it's not so much a commandment.  I mean, it's fun to read, right?  That's what got me into writing in the first place.  I enjoy reading stories, and I decided I could probably tell stories at least as well as some of those I'm reading, and so blammo, off I went.

Problem was, what to read?

My genre, of course.  I mean, that's obvious.  I write fantasy, and so I've read a lot of a lot of fantasy in my life, and especially over the past couple of years.  I wanted to really do my Dragon Queen series up right as YA fantasy, too, so I've been going back through the first few Harry Potters and the Percy Jacksons and the Pendragons and so on through the list of other successful YA fantasy series.

It's fun.  I love to read fantasy.  I love to write fantasy.

At some point, though, you've got to vary it a bit.

Why do I say that?  Well, there's only so much you can learn about mastery of the craft of writing, as a general thing, through reading commercial literature in a certain genre.  Whatever the genre is, it likely follows certain patterns and protocols--which, I must add, are what make it successful as a genre in the first place.  But to grow as a writer, you have to read other patterns and protocols, too.

It's like, I would suggest, the path to becoming a master builder.  A carpenter gets very good at building a type of structure when he works with that type of structure all the time, but that one area doesn't make him a master.  Instead, he'd have to study in lots of different regions of his craft.  Right?  And now that I've completely pummeled that horrible example to death, time to move on.... literary writing.

Oh, now don't go getting all "literary writers are snobs" on me.  There's nothing inherently wrong or snobbish about literary fiction.  Yes, it as a "genre" tries to smack-down at the deeper understandings of our human existence, and it does so at a time when many of us, if not most of us, really just want to read about two people kissing or fighting dragons or zombies, or, heck, maybe all the above at the same time.  I mean, hey, who wouldn't love that?

Still, there's something to be said for me taking the time to read over some classics.  I remember "reading" several of them back in English classes:

"You finished Crime and Punishment yet?"

"Yeah.  It's a crime that it was written, and a punishment that we have to read it."

"No kidding, man.  So did you read it, read it, or just skim it for what we need to answer the questions in the report?"

"Now, what do you think?"  *surreptitiously flashing the cover of a Cliff's Notes booklet*

"Riiiiiight.  Cool, man."

So not too long ago, prompted by the release of a movie that looked interesting, I re-read The Great Gatsby.  The plot, I found, was every bit as detestable as I remembered back when I'd read it the first time in eleventh grade.  That said, while there was absolutely no way this high school junior was gonna lose any cool points by talking about flowery language and, um, "stuff," this adult man did find himself enjoying the prose.

But there are, as I'm sure many of you already know, way too many "classics" to read them all.  Where do you start?

I was lucky.  Recently I happened across an article on the "Top 100 All-Time Best Novels," a list of the best novels published between 1923 and 2005, which is as close to "all time" as I'm interested in getting.  It was compiled by Lev Grossman, an author/critic whose book The Magicians I found enjoyable, and by Richard Lacayo.

Thus, I set a goal for myself: by the end of 2014, I would have all 100 read (or attempted to read; the memory of my assaults upon the deadly prose of Ulysses still haunts me).  Then I thought about that a little more--there are only about 400 days between then and now, give or take a few.  That's an average of 4 days per novel.  Some are fairly short, and if I did nothing but read I could easily get them done, but others are near the 1000-page mark.

Nope.  No way in heck.

Rule #1 of goal-setting: don't set goals that can't be met.

(Okay, that might not be Rule #1, but it's up there.)

New goal, then: have a significant chunk of the novels on the "Top 100" list read by the end of 2014.  And by "significant chunk" I mean at least a quarter, a goal that requires about one book per 16 days.

Goal set, then, it fell to me to find copies of the books.  Granted, I could just buy a copy of each, but--um, well, that's a lot of money.

I could crowd-source the attempt, I suppose, but it seems rather silly to ask others for money so I can buy a lot of books to read.

Then:  Hey!  The library!

Turns out Memphis has quite an extensive library system, and I was able to find all but a few of the books listed in their collection.  And yes, I was anal retentive enough to create a spreadsheet: title, author, location, and Grossman/Lacayo's main point as to why they picked it.  And then I created a color scheme: yellow means I've read it (recently) and green means I have it in a stack to be read.

List thus created, I started with the first book!  It's already nearly halfway done.  I'm sure you're assuming I started with The Adventures of Augie March, which is the first on the list--right?  Nope, couldn't find that one on my first trip to the central library.  Thus, I'm reading--for the first time, believe it or not, despite having seen the movie--The Lord of the Flies.

And yes, it's good.  Better'n the movie, in fact, a statement that should surprise no one who's ever read a book and seen the movie, both.

I'm going to enjoy this project.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Christmas Commercialism

There was a song I remember from my earliest years that celebrated the Christmas season.  I hope you'll indulge me a moment of nostalgia as I repeat the words to it:

"Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la, la la la la"

Sound familiar?  I remember not really knowing what a bough of holly was, and then once I found out, I didn't know why one might consider decking any halls with it, since "to deck" in those years referred to the act of punching some other guy in the face.

"Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la, la la la la."

Yes, indeed.  Jolly, I got.  I liked jolly back then.  Still like it a lot today, in fact.

"Don we now our gay apparel, fa la la, la la la, la la la"

Whoa, now, gay meant something really not-cool back in the 70's in Mississippi, but once it was explained to me that gay had an entirely non-sexual-orientation-related meaning, I was okay with that.  I mean, who wouldn't wanna wear happy stuff, right?

"Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, fa la la la la, la la la la."

My childhood mind glossed right over that line, still buzzing as it was on the word "gay," but it's the most interesting of the bunch, really.  Back then we didn't have "Yahoo Answers" to look up things like "What does 'troll' mean in 'troll the ancient Yuletide carol'?" and read the results as people go back and forth over whether or not the letter r belongs in the word.

Woo hoo!  Carol fight!  Carol fight!

*ahem* no, not really.  It actually is supposed to be the word "troll," from way back before that word referred to doing something ugly on the Internet.  According to the online etymology dictionary, the word "troll" began its life as a verb in the Germanic tongue in the 15th Century, when it referred to walking about, wandering. Which is, I have to point out, pretty much what you do when you go caroling, and even more so if some yummy wassail is involved.

Neat stuff, right?

So this morning, getting ready for work as I was, I heard a new, modernized version of the song on TV.  This one had the following catchy lyrics:

"Shop, shop shop shop shop shop shop shop, fa la la la la, la la la la."

Neat, ain't it?


I'm about as grumpy of a curmudgeon as they come.  I remember fondly a time when you wouldn't hear a Christmas carol, see a wreath, or get prodded to spend money you didn't have to get people stuff they didn't need, until after 12:01 am Friday morning of Thanksgiving weekend.  It was improper, it was gauche, to advertise for Christmas too early.

And now?  Everybody's doin' it.

Oh, I don't mind the TV commercials too much, unless/until they slaughter an old favorite carol of mine.  But "Black Friday," as it's been called forever (or at least since the 1960's) is now becoming darkly-gray Thursday as retailers open earlier and earlier in order to capture as much of the Christmas overspending cash manna as they can.

It's a practice that, to me, is just plain wrong.  Thanksgiving should be a day to spend with your family, if you have one, and/or friends, if you have those, eating lots of food and drinking lots of--um, drink--if you can afford it.

No, I'm not being sarcastic with that last bit.  I've been there, done that, bought the extra-cheap thrift store t-shirt.  Made the Thanksgiving meal out of cans that said "green beans" and "ham with water added" right beside a simple bar code.  Not for long, but I was certainly there in that economic demographic.  Back then, if my employer had offered me extra pay to work on Thanksgiving, I'd've taken them up on it in a New York minute, because hey, I needed the money.

So no, I have nothing at all against those who choose to work on Thanksgiving.  More power to 'em, man.

Further, I'm honestly not sure I have anything against the employers who choose to open their doors on Thanksgiving.  After all, if the demand wasn't there, they wouldn't be doing it.  Pleasing the customer is, after all, what drives the cogs of capitalism, right?  And as far as I'm concerned, as long as it's not dumping poison into my rivers or fouling my spinach with the latest strain of deadly microbe or making it so I can't afford to take my kid to the doc, I'm all for capitalism.  Yes, some of them Capitalists have fewer people on staff who need the extra money than they require on-site in order to maintain operations, and so they have to force workers to come in when they wouldn't have otherwise.  I hate that, but being an employer and manager myself I see the point.

So all that said, who should we really be cranky with regarding the invasion of our Thanksgiving space of cheerfulness and, um, thankfulness?

I think, the customer.  Frankly, until we get to the point where people aren't willing to spend Thanksgiving away from family standing in long lines in order to enjoy the chance to potentially win the purchase of an iWhatzit for a few bucks off the regular price, we'll continue seeing Darkened Weekdays creeping earlier and earlier.  Is that a problem?  For the employees who need the money and are happy for a chance to work for it, no, it's kind of a good thing.  For the ones who don't and aren't, it's not.

And for me--I guess I can stand to see a few more commercials that butcher my favorite Christmas tunes.  But don't expect to see me at a store on the fourth Thursday of November. 


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Memories -- of West Point Troublemaking

It’s funny, to me, how little things – a sight, an item, a sound – can bring back memories I haven’t had for years.

Recently, ferinstance, I was sitting at breakfast with my lovely bride and daughter, and I started fidgeting because I was done eating and they weren’t.  As luck would have it, I ended up holding my spoon and eyeing the salt shaker for no particular reason.  Suddenly I was transported back to a time when I was much more of a troublemaker than I am today: my years at West Point. 

Yeah, yeah, I know.  West Pointers are supposed to be disciplined automatons, the very antithesis of troublemakers, right?  Wrong.  We were all people, and all quite different once you looked beneath the grey and sparkly of our uniforms.  And hey, we were all college students, too.  Yes, West Point is declared every year to be one of the worst “party” schools in the nation by this poll or by that other one, and we grads are actually quite proud of that when it happens, but that doesn’t mean everybody there is a crispy-clean American version of Dudley Do-Right. 

As a matter of fact, very few of us met that description.  Pranks went on year-round, especially near special football games like the one against our naval brethren-at-arms.  We would regularly “rally,” or show our high level of football-fan spirit, by donning naught but jock straps and running around outdoors in the cold New York air.  Our being the ninth class that accepted girls brought a little hitch to that time-honored tradition, granted, but the girls neatly solved it by wearing black shorts under the jock straps and by putting shirts on over the important parts.  Still naughty, but not illegally so, it was.

Nearly everybody I knew there had at least a little bit of a wicked or wild streak, and some of us had more than a bit.  There was a “Century Man” designation for those who had over a hundred hours of punishment tours, and though I never earned that title I was always suitably awed by those who did. 

So you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with a spoon and a salt shaker, right?

Way back when I was at West Point, when dinosaurs roamed the Plain and when plebes (the freshmen) actually had it rough (sorry, Old Grad phraseology coming out there) we had to go eat breakfast.  We, the plebes, had to, that is.  The upperclassmen could go if they wanted, but none were required to attend so long as enough of them were present to keep us unruly Smacks in line. 

Breakfast, then, would find us sitting eight or nine plebes to a table along with one or two juniors or seniors who were always sleepily and grumpily sipping coffee and reading some sort of academic thing or another, getting ready for the day's more didactic activities.  That was a significant change from the regular meals, which everybody was required to attend and at which we sat two or three of each class to each ten-seat table.  Lunch and dinner were thus generally stressful events in a plebe’s life, while breakfast was more of a free meal overseen by upperclassmen who weren't quite awake and who didn’t really want to be there in the first place.

Two other items of note: the salt shakers were the round plastic restaurant variety, and the ice cubes were round tubes that fit particularly aerodynamically in the tea spoons that each place was set with.

And I was a burgeoning physics major.

It occurred to me one day that by laying the salt shaker over its side it became a smooth fulcrum for a spoon.  The spoon could then be used as a catapult for the ice cubes, whose tubular shape made them ideal for being catapulted.

I was sitting back to back with a girl I liked to pick on.  There was no particular reason for this other than her voice, which had a strange quality to it.  The honest fact was I came to both like and respect her as one of the best people, man or woman, I’ve ever met.  That morning, though, my little internal devil won the battle, and so I sized up the shot I needed to make to interrupt her breakfast.

Hey, man, both upperclassmen, at my table and hers, were doing their best impressions of sleeping in their coffee.  That little red guy convinced me I had a clean opportunity to raise some hell.

I took a trial shot.  The ice cube arced up and over my head and fell just behind its intended victim.  Close, but no cigar.  On the second shot, though, I proved my marksman status when the ice cube sailed over my head, came down just in front of hers, and landed right smack dab in her plate.


That pissed her off, it seemed.  I don’t blame her; I would’ve been angry, too.  Somehow I hadn’t thought quite that far ahead in my planning.  In her anger she took up the ice cube, turned around in her chair, and hurled it at me. 

And no, she didn’t throw like a girl.

Luckily for the contents of my cranial cavity, she missed.  The ice cube smashed against the wall next to my table, the clatter making enough noise to awaken the upperclassmen at the head of each of our tables, and then hoo, wee, the yelling began.  Boy, were we in trouble.  I think each of us got eight demerits and our first four hours of punishment tours.

At the time it was bad.  Years later, it was rather funny.

Oh – and hey, um, kids, don’t do as I did, okay?


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I Don't Get It

I don’t get it.

No, that’s not true.  I do get it.  I wish I didn’t, but I guess I do.

What’s this mysterious it?  It’s hard to encapsulate into a word or two, so lemme ‘splain a little bit.

There are quite a few places to stay when you come to Arkansas to spend a wonderful day or more not-finding diamonds at the Crater of Diamonds State Park.  Some aren’t open in November; most, though, are.  As you’ve probably already guessed, also, some are quite cheap, some are very expensive, and others are right in the middle.

Which should I pick?

I narrowed it down quickly by asserting that we were bringing our puppies along with us.  One’s an old, old guy who we’re scared to leave by himself for a while, and the other is a young persnickety little girl who we’re also scared to leave by herself for a while, for an entirely different reason.  We don’t like to leave either of them in kennels, and generally having friends stop by to make sure they’re okay isn’t enough social contact for them, so we’re kind of stuck traveling with the little boogers.

That narrowed it way down.  The park’s web site has a long list of accommodation options, but specifying “pet friendly” reduces it to just a handful.  Then there's other qualities that are important to me, like "not outrageously expensive" and "not skeezy."  Having a way to prepare basic meals is nice, too, because that means we spend less of our hard-earned money on going out to eat -- or, at least, that we have the option of doing that, or not.

It ended up coming down to a choice of two, and ultimately I made the selection based on online reviews.  The place we were in had sterling reviews, and lots of ‘em, while the other place had some negative comments -- like "mold" and general lack of customer service.  Yeah, no, thanks.

Swaha Cabins and Marina it was, then, and I’m glad now that we chose it.  It was a nealry perfect place, with a beautiful setting and exquisitely-maintained cabins.  The bed was a little hard for my preference, but I do recognize that as a personal taste thing.  The full kitchen only lacked a dishwasher, at least until our daughter stepped into it. 

(don't tell her I said that)

They also have a book on the table for guests to leave remembrances about their stays.  I read it and – well, that leads to what it is that I don’t get.

Nearly every entry into the journal is a complaint.  This place, this idyllic set of cabins set up above a lake in the foothills of the Arkansas mountains, this abundantly well-reviewed (online, anyway) business, got panned in the actual reviews there on site. 

For what sin, you ask?

And I answer:  No WiFi.

No, I’m not kidding.  There’s no WiFi there.  There’s also extremely spotty cell phone coverage.  I received a butt-call from my stepson our last night, followed by a text apologizing for it, and I couldn’t return the call because of lack of signal.  It would be okay for a second, and then not, for a long while. 

When I first arrived I took some beautiful photos of the cabin and – well, you know, I kinda bragged a little.  I posted them up to Facebook.  Or, rather, I tried to post them up to Facebook.  The first two posted okay, and then the next four just sat in the queue trying to get through the then-closed digital airwaves.  I don’t know if you’ve ever done that with a smart phone, but you shouldn’t, because I let it spin and, over the course of about half an hour, I watched my battery strength indicator go from green to yellow to red. 

I actually had to turn it off and plug it in.

It was – liberating.  Hell, it was quite nearly orgasmic.

Look at the picture of the back porch.  I ask you this: would it be improved in the slightest by a WiFi antenna?

I wrote this sitting right there, in fact, right in that first visible green chair, typing on a laptop that was actually sitting in my lap, sipping coffee out of a real, non-styrofoam cup, and the only part of the great big world I was connected to was the one that contains wind and birds and crickets.

And I loved it.


Monday, November 18, 2013


Shhh . . . .

The quiet is almost surreal.

Only, it isn’t quiet.  Not really.  Off in the distance a raven calls.  The wind says hi, brushing through and rattling millions of tree leaves.  Against it all is the whisper of thousands of nearby early morning critters waking up: crickets, squirrels, songbirds.  It all makes for such a serene background to a writing chair and table.

An acorn drops onto the metal roof that overhangs my perch.  I hear it bounce down, a sound of irregular gravity-driven pops.  Then the thunk of acorn hitting wooden porch, and once again it is as quiet as the woods can ever be.

I recall, sitting here on the back porch of the cabin, laptop in lap and coffee cup beside, that the peacefulness of the back country is actually noisy, loud and -- well, and interesting.  For all of the volume, though, it is a completely different soundscape than what I’m used to in my normal life of cell phone chirps and IP-phone pages. 

This is the crazy symphony of the natural world; that isn’t.  This is the song of my youth.  I was raised in a different age, one where you had to find a phone line to make a call, where you had to have a dime and a nickel to coax a bottled soda out of the Coke machine, where kids had to make our own entertainment, and often as not that entertainment involved a lake or a patch of woods somewhere.  It was an age where writing this essay outdoors without invading nature’s song with the smackity-smack of typewriter keys would’ve required that now-antiquated stuff called pen and paper.

Both sets of background sounds change as the morning progresses.  Because I run a school, it’s noisiest just before 8:00 am.  Then, quiet, yet the sounds of the student crowd and college business crescendo back to a roar as the morning ripens.  Out here, it varies also.  The early morning chirps in the dawn hour have already given way to the quacks of the water birds now that it’s fully light.  Here and there, a man-made sound punctuates the wind.  The shot off in the distance reminds me of the presence of deer season.  A car door slamming shut nearby advises me that we’re not alone in the cabins.

This early morning drink of nature is exactly the refreshment my soul needed.  We came to find diamonds, and in a way we did.  We didn’t find any gemstones to bring back, which isn't surprising; only one out of every thousand or so visitors to the park ever does that. 

That’s okay.  For this morning, at least, I found exactly what I needed.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Remembrances of Panic

Since I waxed so fondly of panic in my last post, I figured I should include a couple of significant panic-related memories in this one.

There's a lot I don't recall about growing up in Mississippi.  Of course I remember being able to run around the neighborhood without locator devices or family radio or any such things--hey, it was many years ago in the South, and such activities were generally far safer than they are today.  At the same time, I remember being pretty much the opposite of affluent, to the point where our pastimes included using a broom handle to hit a taped-up wad of paper in a poor semblance of the sport of baseball, and also chasing each other around the neighborhood with BB guns to play war.

I remember having to walk to school.  Uphill.  Both ways.  Barefoot.  Kicking the dinosaurs out of the way, even.

More to the point, I vividly remember the first time I saw my mother lose control while driving.

It snowed.  Now, such an event was a rarity in and of itself in Corinth, Mississippi, but this time we got nearly a quarter of an inch of the white stuff, and it stuck to the ground.  My father was away from home, and our power had gone out, leaving my mother with two young boys -- I think I was somewhere around 10, which means my brother was somewhere around 4 -- and no way to prepare hot food.

It would have been a foodtastrophe, except that there was a Shoney's in town.

Bravely, my mother piled us all in the muscle car that she and my father loved driving (and that all northerners know is a horrible choice in the snow), and we started down the beautiful white streets (nobody else drove in the snow, either) toward the beautiful, distant building filled with warm coffee and pancakes. 

There's a hill in Corinth -- a famous one to Civil War buffs, at that, because it's where a fort was built since that's what you do on hills when you're in the military -- directly down the road from our old home, and it leads a long sloping descent into the actual town part of town.  The part of town, I will add, that contains such havens as a Shoney's restaurant and even a Piggly Wiggly.  In normal weather it would've been a fun hill for bicycling down, except for the extreme amount of traffic it carried.  On that snowy white day we had the whole road to ourselves, which was a good thing because about halfway down, Mom lost control.

She did all the typical stuff I described in my last post that mere mortals do when they lose control.  She panicked.  She stomped on the brake.  She started screaming something entirely foreign-sounding (no, I didn't mention that tendency of the panic crowd in my last post, but I should have).  Then, when physics finally ran its course and the car came sliding to a stop at the bottom of the hill, pointed sideways across the road, she told us how glad she was that we were all safe.

Then, we went to Shoney's.

It's funny that that's one of my clearest memories of growing up.  There's something about panic, the abject terror that takes over our entire souls for that brief period of time, that remains etched in our minds forever, isn't there?

I had a similar experience about a decade later, this time with my own hands wrapped around the steering wheel.  My West Point cadet company was holding our annual Christmas party, and for that year we'd scored the ski lodge.  It was a nice place, for sure, but to get there you had to exit the gates of West Point, travel down scenic highway 9W, and enter the ski hill's separate driveway.  Of course, only the seniors could drive their personal vehicles on post back then, and since it was too far for a comfortable walk, we used military transportation to get the cadets in our company to the party.

A deuce and a half it was, then.

At least, I think it was a deuce and a half.  The Army has two main cargo trucks, either of which can be seen in various movies pulling up to a group of unsuspecting civilians in a cute little villa and then disgorging dozens of camo-clad troops who've been ordered to kill.  The deuce and a half (slang for "two and a half ton") is the smaller one, as you probably would have gathered without prompting when I said the other one is called a five ton.  The differences between them, other than size, are subtle -- one has an exhaust can and the other just an exhaust hat, and so on -- and frankly I can't recall which model of truck it was on that wintry day a quarter century ago.

It was a standard transmission, I remember that much.  That makes it most likely (though not certainly, as my research since has proven) a deuce and a half rather than a five ton.  Again, not that big of a deal.

It was older'n dirt.  That was a big deal.  The truck had one of those steering columns that would swing one direction by a ways, and then the other direction by a different ways, and yet the tires would continue along the same track as though the steering wheel hadn't moved a bit.  It also had a fairly loose shifter path, which meant that sometimes you hit the right gear, and sometimes you didn't, no matter how expertly you maneuvered the damn long rod.

Hey, most of the trucks they let us cadets drive were like that.

So anyway, I don't recall why I ended up driving that night.  I do recall that there weren't all that many folks who would admit to having a valid military permit to drive the big trucks, and/or admit to having their wallets with them.  Whatever reason, though, I was the driver, and the required passenger was a plebe who, likewise, had drawn a short straw of some sort.

He and I will always remember that night together....

No, no, nothing like that.  We were just transporting the cadets of our company to the ski lodge from the barracks, that was it.  It took two trips.  Trip one was made with as little incident as possible -- no incident, in fact, if you don't count the constant harassment the driver of any such vehicle has to endure from the peanut gallery in back.  After a while I learned to not hear the "grind it till you find it" catcalls and the "easy on the shifting" growls, though, and so I didn't count that as incident.

Without incident, then, it was.

I pulled out of the ski lodge on my way to pick up the second set of cadets, my trusty TC (the plebe) sitting in his seat.  It was snowing, and it was dark, two factors that probably should strike fear in the heart of anybody driving an unfamiliar, cranky, old vehicle down a relatively unfamiliar stretch of highway, but hey, I was bulletproof back then.

I was bulletproof right up till I missed third gear, that is.  Then I did what most people would do, I like to think: I looked down at the shifter assembly.

As soon as I looked down there, though, I ended up steering the truck off of the highway.  I felt the right tires go thunk and drop to the gravel of the shoulder, and then I did what most people do in Loss of Control situations: I panicked.  In my panic, I completely forgot what I'd learned in my physics classes and yarded the steering wheel around to swing the big truck quickly back onto the friendly pavement.

The friendly pavement which was, I should remind everyone briefly, quite slick with new-fallen snow.

The truck spun a graceful 180.  It was -- it was beautiful, man.

Now, I've done 180's in vehicles since.  I've done plenty, in fact.  There's something special about a big old Army cargo truck executing that maneuver, though.  In addition to the panic, you feel kinda like a mash-up of Rambo with The Joker doing a waltz spin that would make Ginger Rogers proud.  I mean, it's a big truck.  It doesn't look that big from outside -- or maybe it does, to some people -- but from the driver's seat, it's huge.  And when it's spinning in relation to the rest of the world, well, now, that's panic, my friends.  Slow, graceful, elegant freakin' panic.

We did stop, though.  Amazingly, there wasn't a lot of traffic; all I could see were a couple of headlights way out in the distance.  I felt the bumper knock up against the safety rail in the middle of the highway, but when I looked later it hadn't even dented anything on the truck.  All in all, it was a moment of pure unadulterated terror that ended very, very well.

And that was when I did something really stupid.

See, the reason the "TC" -- the second person in the vehicle -- is required to be there according to safety regulation, is that anytime you back up one of those monsters you're supposed to have someone to regulate the flow of everybody else around so that you don't hit anybody. I knew that.  I'd been through Army trucker training, man. 

So I looked over at the poor plebe and told him to get out and regulate the flow of everybody else while I backed us up and around and got going straight again.

Hey, it was safety regulations I was following.  But really?  Later on I replayed the scene in my head, and watched the poor guy pull his fingers out of the dents that his panicked hands had clawed into the dashboard, then climb dutifully out of the safety and warmth of the truck cab to stand in the blowing snow -- with no light! -- stopping traffic so that we could turn around, I realized what a dumb and dangerous move that had been.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.  Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.

Yeah, okay, it is awfully damn funny, too, now that it's been years and nobody got hurt, but at the time, it was just dumb.

He did a great job, though.  He leaped right out into our headlights and took up a position that was a mixture between parade rest and stop -- you know, one hand sticking straight out, palm outstretched, in the unmistakable (when visible) pose.

Now, luckily once again, New York drivers are many things, but they're generally not stupid.  The ones behind us never even got close, as they'd obviously seen the tall lights of the truck do a pirouette move in front of them, and they wisely slowed way down.  It also didn't take me long to back the truck out, turn it around, and -- after waiting the moments it took the poor now-semi-frozen plebe to clamber back into the warmth of the cab -- drive off.

And I never looked at the floor board in a snowstorm again.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Out Of Control

It's been a week and a half now since I last blogged -- sorry.  NaNoWriMo has had me enthralled in its intensity.  I've been following along the synopsis I wrote, and now I'm thinking that I'm gonna force myself to synopsize every book before I write it.  Far from confining the writer as an outline does, I'm finding that having a pre-written synopsis close at hand frees the writer up to be creative while not having to craft the action plan at the same time.

For once, I've hit 30,000 words without an overwhelming feeling of being out of control, in other words.

Out of control is a bad place to be.  I recall numerous times during my years up in Alaska when I suggested that any driver's training course or test should include an exercise in being out of control.  It's easy in the winter -- just pick an empty parking lot that hasn't been sanded yet, get up to speed, and slam on the brakes.

Wheeeeee! *spin spin spin*

When/if you do that, you'll experience one of two reactions.  One, the one that the driver's manual claims to be the best practice, is to have your brain process the "hmm, I'm no longer in control" sensation and make sane, physics-sensitive adjustments to your driving practice.  Specifically, you should either remove your foot from the accelerator/brake area or actually apply a slight acceleration, depending on how far into the skid you are (I know you don't want to hear this, but experience makes a great teacher for which option to choose there).  At the same time, you should gently turn the steering wheel so that the only controllable part of the multi-thousand-pound projectile you're no longer actively piloting is aligned with its actual, physical path. 

That last is, I should point out, kinda like buying "insurance" in a game of Blackjack.  By the time the dealer asks if you want it, the odds are already stacked against you.  There's a really good chance that the dealer has the unbeatable hand, and all you're doing with "insurance" is hoping to minimize your losses.  

Same thing with steering into a skid -- the only reason we call it a "skid" as opposed to "driving" is that you're not going in any of the directions you'd prefer to be going.  On a directional path such as a road, and in particular when there's other traffic around, the fact that you're in a skid means that, odds are, you're going to end up somewhere you don't wanna be, and that eventual end-up will likely be bad.  Turning the wheels into the skid reduces the friction they're going through and gets them turning with the speed of the vehicle, in the hope that something miraculous happens and you, at least momentarily, regain control.  At that point, if and when it happens, you're much more likely to be able to pull back into an appropriate trajectory if you've already aligned your physics with the physics of reality. 

The other reaction is, I think, far more common.  Granted, I have no statistics to back that claim up, but I've seen an awful lot of accidents happen in wintry conditions.  That look on most peoples' faces just as they're skidding sideways through a red light?  Yeah, that's not the "I'm steering into the skid and removing my foot from the accelerator" expression, is it?  No, it's the "OMFG I'm skidding so now is the time to PANIC!" look.  

Along with that look comes a complete aversion to the principles of physics.  Instead of letting the wheels continue to roll with the car, our brains want control, and we want it NOW!, and that can only be achieved, of course, by coming to a complete stop immediately and instantaneously.  Physics says it ain't gonna happen, but our brain at that panic-induced moment of craziness says that it will, and that the way to do it, of course, is to stomp on the brakes harder than the Saints stomped on the Cowboys this past weekend.

At the same time, our knuckles crack due to the extreme force we're applying to the steering wheel, making sure we have a sufficient hold on it while it -- um, doesn't do much -- and then, while we're choking the hell outta the steering wheel, we always make sure to point it in precisely the direction we wish we were going.

The problem?  Wishful thinking ain't physics, man.  But panic doesn't really care, does it?

Hey, I'm not blaming.  I've been there, myself.  Most of us go through the panic phase the first one or two (or dozen) times we lose control.  Many of us also have strong enough psyches that we manage to forget completely about it later, as our psyche convinces our memory (and we hope our mouth convinces the police) that "nah, I didn't do anything that stupid.  I controlled that skid perfectly.  By the book, even."  

Panic is normal, both in driving and in writing, when we lose control.  That's why I've said it's so important to include that in driver's training (and probably, for that matter, in writer's training). That way we'll know how best to deal with it when it happens.

I know I had an important point to make about writing, but it was more fun talking about sliding around on the ice. 


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Happy Birthday To Me: A NaNoWriMo Update

Happy Birthday to me,
Happy Birthday to me,
Happy Birthday to me,
Happy--um, yeah.

Another year older I am.  I joke about being 29 for the 17th time, but frankly I don't want to go back to that age.  I like being in my 40's, as I (think that I) am much smarter and more resolved than I ever was back in my 20's or 30's. 

Speaking of birthday, it's my intent to spend most of it with my loved ones rather than writing today, but I still had to make some progress on the NaNo effort.  I didn't post an update yesterday, because I was so busy trying to bust out as many words as possible, but the planning beforehand seems to have made a heckuva difference. 

Here are my current NaNoStats (and they'll probably remain my stats through the rest of the day):
Your Average Per Day 5,259
Words Written Today 5,169
Target Word Count 50,000
Target Average Words Per Day 1,667
Total Words Written 15,777
Words Remaining 34,223
Current Day 3
Days Remaining 28
At This Rate You Will Finish On November 10, 2013

I'm glad to read about the finish date, but the fact is that I'm looking at this story to reach 90-100K rather than 50K words, so I'll still need most of November even at the pace I'm on.  Frankly, I don't see how that's possible, either; 5,000 words a day while working during the week is pretty tough. 

Still, I'm gonna try.


Friday, November 1, 2013

A Good Start

3700 words.

One day.

Not bad.

Okay, so there are some caveats to be granted.  It's actually only 3699 words, truth be told.  If anybody seriously objects, I can always go replace a comma with the word "and."  Also, to be honest, I've been planning the first scene for the past couple of weeks, so this has been mostly just regurgitating words I've already written onto the page.  Mentally, anyway.

Only, it's not that easy.  I can't recall specifically what I have been planning, any of the times I've been doing it in my head.  As sad as it is, though, that my memory isn't perfect, it's also a blessing to me.  Specifically, I'll end up creating a better scene than any of what I've done before, just because I've done it several times already.

That said, it's November 1.  I've started the NaNo effort, and I'm 3700 words into it.  46,300 words to go in the standard goal, and 86,300 words to go in my personal goal.  2000 words ahead of the normal daily quota, and 700 words ahead of my own daily quota.

Not bad by any account, right?