Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Writing and travel in 2010

Our Bengal cat George seems to be doing well on his beta blocker, a tiny 6.25 mg pill fragment that if it fell on the floor we might never see again. We delayed our Mexico trip so he can have a Saturday morning follow-up at the vet, and then barring anything unexpected, we will head off on our trip on Sunday. Our first stop will be Nogales, Arizona, so we will cross the border on Monday. As everyone knows, there is a certain amount of mayhem down there, but none of it—knock on wood—seems aimed at tourists. Still, we'll be careful. The road to Mazatlán is a straight shot from the border.

While we're there, I'll be working on one of my 2010 goals of losing 33 pounds by my birthday in October. As for writing-related goals, those for once are easy to define and should be straightforward to keep. Long ago I set a goal of getting a particular novel published by a certain date, which quickly taught me never to set a goal where I can't control the outcome. So my goals include writing and submitting material for publication, editing and publishing a couple of writing club chapbooks, and maintaining the Internet Review of Books website. Oh, and I may decide to self-publish one of my old novels as an e-book.

What are your plans for the new year? Do you find it hard to stick with your annual goals?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A hopeful prognosis for George

George, doing what he does best

We learned today that our five-year-old Bengal cat George has a defective mitral valve and hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, which the vet tells us will shorten his life. Lately George has had a few seizures and lacks the energy he used to have, when no shelf was too high, no breakable item quite safe from a swat of his paw. He'll be going on a beta blocker, and his prognosis is "fair to good." Many cats survive only months with symptoms like his. We're hoping for him to have the best outcome possible.

We've been speculating that his life span may be shorter than his twin sister Gracie's, but we will be grateful for whatever time we have with him. Even without his full former spunk, he's a joy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Getting ready for Mazatlán

We're preparing to leave for a month-long RV trip to Mazatlán on January 1. Today we drove with our friends to the Mexican side of the Santa Teresa border entry to get visas. We're confident we'll be safe because our friends are going with us and have made the trip a number of times. In fact, they've lived in Mexico. So we were all mildly surprised when a woman in line for a visa warned us what not to do when we're on the road: don't pick up anyone, don't talk to strangers, don't leave the vehicle unattended, and at gas stations just pay for your gas and leave. Some of that is common sense; we don't intend to pick up anyone, for example. On the other hand, we aren't going to live in fear. The highway from the U.S. border to Mazatlan is apparently a straight shot, so we aren't worried about getting lost.

Last night our friends called an RV park in Mazatlán and were told we'd have no trouble staying at their park. Skittishness of tourists is one reason they gave, but they said the overall economy is the main problem. In any case it has security, has wi-fi, and is right by the beach. That way I'll be able to get sand in my toes, drink cerveza, maintain the Internet Review of Books website, and write blog entries accompanied by lots of photos.

Mexico is a beautiful country wracked in places by violence. Mazatlan itself is said to be safe for tourists; as with any big city, there doubtless are neighborhoods where strangers shouldn't go. But our friends, who've been there, tell us we'll get everywhere we want to go by bus or taxi.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

An uncommon snowfall

Organ Mountains near Baylor Canyon Road,
Las Cruces, New Mexico

Over the past weekend, a storm moved in and delivered two days of rain—not a deluge, but steady. Our Chihuahua Desert climate typically sees scattered rain, if any at all, between July and September, so our most recent storm was a surprise. As a transplanted New Englander, I listened with excitement as the El Paso weatherman predicted that the clouds would deliver one to three inches of snow in the region before disappearing.

I'm happy to write that the snow fell in the relative lowlands of Las Cruces, lasted long enough to titillate us, then promptly melted. Even the Robledos and Doña Ana Mountains were bare. But the Organ Mountains dominate our city's skyline, and they looked as though they wore a coating of confectioners' sugar. It might not happen again for years.

A view from Baylor Canyon Road

So Nancy and I set out for an afternoon drive up Route 70 to the San Augustin Pass (elevation 5719 feet), which leads to the White Sands Missile Range. From there we doubled back to the city side of the mountains and followed Baylor Canyon Road.

It probably won't last on the mountains but another couple of days. Snowmelt is already trickling in rivulets and will soon rush in sheets, watering the cactus, the creosote, and the grama grass. It will find its way into the arroyos and into the Rio Grande, and whatever people don't take out will either evaporate or flow to the Gulf.

Baylor Canyon Road parallels the Organ Mountains.
The White Sands Missile Range is on the other side.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When Pigs Fly gets its butt kicked

Here is the latest review (ForeWord Clarion Review) of When Pigs Fly, and it's hardly kind. The writer's main point is that he hates my humor. Even his compliment about my storytelling is framed as a slap in the face. Mainly, though, Diet Cola is pissed off. He worked so hard to be an asshole in that story, and all the reviewer can focus on is what he drinks.

The review came through iUniverse, and they offered me the option to kill it. I told them heck no. Let it run.

When Pigs Fly
Bob Sanchez
290 pages
Softcover $17.95
Two Stars (out of Five)

“George Ashe sat in the passenger seat, inside the ceramic urn still protected by the FedEx box,” Bob Sanchez writes in a line that is typical of the humor in his latest novel. When Pigs Fly tells the story of Mack Durgin, a former police officer from Massachusetts, who has settled into retirement in Arizona only to be sucked into the biggest crime caper he’s ever seen.

Sanchez’s plot sounds original, but the novel reads like a watered down version of a Coen brothers’ script. First, there’s the compelling protagonist who wants nothing more than to settle down and enjoy some peace and quiet. Of course that can’t happen, because a box arrives with his friend’s ashes contained in an urn inside, and Mack knows that he has to fulfill a promise. The fulfillment of that promise becomes a harrowing task that involves over-the-top, one-dimensional characters like “Diet Cola”—an ex-con with a craving for calorie-free soft drinks—and an Elvis impersonator who is actually named Elvis.

Mack sets out to spread George Ashe’s ashes over the Grand Canyon. Along the way, he’s pursued by a variety of oddball characters who want to get their hands on another item contained inside the urn. This twist provides the hook that propels the tale forward.

Sanchez’s humor falls flat from the beginning because the novel seems to be trying too hard to be something that it isn’t. The characters are clichés that readers will have a hard time taking seriously. There are bad one-liners (“We’re not in Kansas anymore Dodo”) and downright shameless gags such as an Elvis impersonator getting stabbed in the eye with a tampon. Additionally, Sanchez contradicts himself often by making a point, then immediately overruling himself, as in this line: “Too bad tires were so hard to shoplift, or Ace could pick up some nice radials Stealing tires was always possible but it was tough getting them installed.” Statements like these lead readers to question the tale as a whole.

The real shame, however, is that Sanchez is actually a good storyteller when he puts his mind to it. The narrative flows well and actually captivates at times, but sadly, his writing skills are overshadowed by silly character names and lackluster dialogue.

Even in the craziest of crime capers, readers must be able to identify with the characters and believe that, as strange as the story is, it could actually happen. When Pigs Fly does not succeed in this.

Liam Brennan

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Turkey Day in the Southwest

A short Thanksgiving essay of mine has just appeared in the newsletter of The California Writers's Club (West Valley Branch), thanks to their editor, Kathy Highcove. You'll need to scroll down to page 11 of the PDF, where I am honored to have space next to Alice Folkart's essay. Here it is:

Turkey Day in the Southwest

By Bob Sanchez

Kathy Highcove recently asked me to write about food for your Thanksgiving issue, and she could have picked no one more qualified. Indeed I have consumed food my entire life, and for virtually every reason one can imagine: hunger, consolation, gluttony, boredom, celebration, love, parental threats, desire to please, and the time of day, to name but a few.

Thanksgiving gives us one more reason to tie on the bib. It’s that wonderful day when we give thanks for football and our God-given freedom to overeat. In 1950s New England, we’d go to a high-school football game that Thursday morning and return home to the aroma of the baked turkey and mince pie that Mom was just pulling out of the oven. She’d make the piecrust with lard and the gravy with bird grease. Clogged arteries were a thing of the future—the near future, as it turned out.

When we sat down at the table, Dad led us in a swift and perfunctory Bless us oh Lord for all those delights we really took for granted. Critical questions followed: White meat or dark? (Always white for me.) More stuffing? (Yes, please.) Cranberries? (Yes, please.) Lakes of gravy filled the craters in the mashed potatoes, while salt and pepper rained over all. At one such meal I politely asked my brother’s girlfriend to “please piss the butter,” causing everyone but Mom and me to get up from the table, choking with laughter. Mom glowered and said nothing.

We didn’t know the word tryptophan back then, but we felt its effect as the afternoon wore on. Then in the days after Thanksgiving we’d pick away at the turkey’s carcass until there was nothing left of that poor bird but the bones and a plaintive gobble.

Half a century has passed, and now my wife and I live in New Mexico, where the official state question is “Red or green?” referring to one’s preference in chile colors. Our holidays have been drained of most of the fat except what we carry around on our persons, but otherwise we still have turkey on Turkey Day. So when my online friend Miz Highcove said, “Hey Bob, what’s a Hispanic Thanksgiving like?” I was briefly stumped because I’m not Hispanic (long story short: Papa Sanchez was from British Honduras and swore allegiance to King George).

So I delved into research for a few minutes, and it turns out that Southwest holiday fare isn’t much different from what you might expect: mix a bit of chile into the stuffing and go easy on the Pilgrim references, and you’re pretty much there. Several Web sources (and you know how authoritative they are), say that the real first Thanksgiving was celebrated near El Paso—therefore, near me—by a conquistador in 1598. Take that, Plimoth Plantation.

Of course, some original research was necessary, so we went out to eat. A Hispanic waitress told me that on Thanksgiving she likes to serve her family cornbread muffins made with chopped jalapeño, which sounds delicious to me. Finally, a Google search turned up such worthy suggestions as mixing spicy chorizo into the stuffing and combining a sweet and sour chile sauce with a cranberry base. So with a little Googling, you can easily add a Southwestern flair to your Thanksgiving meal.

Just keep an eye on the butter.

Bob Sanchez is an ex-New Englander living in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he’s webmaster of The Internet Review of Books. In the past, he’s been a technical writer and a few other things he’d rather not talk about. You might find his blog interesting and his novels amusing. They are When Pigs Fly and Getting Lucky.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Nothing That Needed Eyes (Flash Fiction)

Here's a short piece I wrote for my writing group's chapbook.

Nothing That Needed Eyes

No good would come from disturbing this old house, I thought, applying my crowbar to an ancient oak plank. Still, there could be money squirreled away somewhere in this mess. Rusty nails creaked and snapped; the board popped up to expose a shallow dirt cellar crawling with centipedes and roaches.

Nellie Westhaver had lived here alone, at first pitied and then ignored by the townsfolk for the shiftless husband who had held lots of odd jobs and fast women until he and some mini-skirted trash named Luann disappeared for good and good riddance, probably on the Greyhound to Boston. He’d left his rattletrap Buick behind, but Nellie didn’t drive.

I’d recently spent ten years’ worth of medium security in Walpole and didn’t have a dime left to my name. Crazy Nellie had been my next-door neighbor, the type who never answers the door, fills every room with newspapers going back to Genesis, and lets you know she’s dead when she starts to smell. The house dated back to Revolutionary times, with its low ceilings and stone fireplaces in every room and not a single wall or doorway plumb or true. Not having many job prospects as an ex-con, I decided to see if the old bat had hidden any cash.

The stench had finally told her fate last week—masked EMTs carried her body out feet first on a stretcher, and police closed and padlocked the door. Already I hear Seven-Eleven wants to buy the lot.

Evidently, someone had made half an effort to tame the terrible odor, but the place still smelled like air freshener overpowered by death. Rot gnawed at the wood while mold spores and silence filled the air. Old Look magazines and Lowell Sun newspapers sat in dusty stacks. A small TV with rabbit ears looked like it hadn’t been used since Lawrence Welk died. At the window, a fly struggled in a spider web as a daddy-longlegs sidled up to suck out its juices. I knew how the fly felt, an inmate at the mercy of a sadistic prison guard.

Home improvement for this house would have to start with a match, but I’d never torch it because I’d be the number one suspect. This was the first place I’d ever broken into, the first place I’d ever been arrested, back in my juvie days when Nellie and Ashton still held backyard cookouts and enjoyed sipping martinis and electrocuting moths with their luminescent bug zappers.

Nellie’s bed smelled about right for her having died in it. I felt in the stained pillows and covers for hidden cash, knowing perfectly well some cop would already have checked all those obvious places and pocketed the prize. Cabinets and closets and dressers turned up the usual jetsam floating in a sea of dust bunnies as Nellie sailed on to her next life.

I pushed the queen-sized bed aside to rummage through the tattered cardboard boxes underneath and found old letters and bills, a broken telephone, stained Melamine plates, nothing even fit for a yard sale. If this house had anything less than ten years old or worth more than five dollars, I’d have been shocked. Frustrated, I kicked a box. There was no point in looking any more—but wait, this was odd. Several floor boards looked lighter and newer than the rest: pine surrounded by oak, galvanized nails bent but not rusted, hammer-head impressions in the soft wood suggesting slapdash carpentry.

Eagerly I pried another board and looked into the darkness. Some godforsaken life form squeaked and scurried away. I turned my flashlight on a pea-green Army blanket, and a thousand miserable bugs scattered in all directions. Only a fool would disturb that filthy piece of trash, but I was a plain and simple fool.

I went to a closet and found a wire coat hanger that I used to fashion a hook. I tried to catch one edge of the blanket, but the hanger slipped out of my hands and out of reach. Disgusted, I lay on the floor and reached down to pull away the blanket.

A sudden visit from the police couldn’t have brought me closer to cardiac arrest. I didn’t care anymore about money.

A pair of skeletons in rotted clothing lay one on top of the other. A hatchet rested inside the skull it had shattered down the middle. Toadstools grew out of both eye sockets—but there was nothing here that needed eyes.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Focus, lad

The last few days have been characterized by my trademarked lack of focus, resulting in much frustration. Yesterday I spent hours trying to create a dynamic HTML menu for the Internet Review of Books's Archive section. It's hard, but it's possible. I have done them before. Does the web site need it? No. Are there more important things to do? Yes.

Then there is the book I promised to review for October that makes me want to beg for mercy. It's 400 pages (300 to go!) of excessive detail on—on—what’s the topic again? My pattern lately has been to pick up the book, read a couple of pages, despair at how many are left to go, then close the book and turn on my Kindle, where James Lee Burke and Tin Roof Blowdown await. But while murder in the bayou is more interesting, it inspires a degree of guilt that I'm getting nothing constructive done. So after a while I'll lift dumbbells or check my email or Google Janelle Moloney because she has the cutest damn smile on West Wing. Recently I interrupted my work to make a list of commitments I should try to get out of in the next year so there'll be more time to write. That list is around somewhere, and I should really stop writing and find it.

One thing worth dropping is Twitter. Yes, it probably has value, but it also sucks up a disproportionate amount of time. My Twitter friend list, or whatever it's called, is up around 750. I'd tweet now and then, always linking to my blog, but who is really paying any attention? The friend invitations would come in, and I'd always click the link to see if they looked legit. If so, we became friends. If not, I deleted the invitation. Each time was an interruption of a couple of minutes in my day, and they added up.

There's more to say, but first I have to check my email.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Email promotion for When Pigs Fly

Being fundamentally a cheapskate, I'd thought to bypass paid advertising for When Pigs Fly and Getting Lucky and see how far I could get with my own online efforts. As it turns out, that hasn't been very far. So Ifinally agreed to spend $349 through iUniverse on an email marketing campaign for When Pigs Fly, which includes sending out a half million emails over a two-week span. Not long ago, I saw that the book's ranking had sunk to 1,880,000. Could it go any lower? It did, down to 2,178,615.

Today iUniverse notified me that the first emails went out yesterday, so I checked my Amazon ranking again. It was 350,579, so something good is happening. Here is the ad:

Sunday, September 06, 2009

My life in six words

We did a short writing exercise at Mesilla Valley Writers yesterday, to write our autobiography in six words. Here's my life story:

Long time growing up. Old now.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

An advertising experiment

Sunset and pampas grass
reflected in my living-room window

My next big step in publicizing When Pigs Fly will be a large emailing by iUniverse. They'll write and send out 500,000 solicitations to people who have opted to receive them (no spam!) for a small fraction of a penny apiece. The sales percentage is a big unknown, of course, but a 1 percent return would be a handsome success and about one-fortieth of that would cover my costs. If this works well I'll naturally keep advertising and will extend the effort to Getting Lucky as well.

Meanwhile, I will continue the no-cost emailing of press releases in batches of a dozen or so, several times a week. It's labor-intensive to collect the email addresses, but my marketing effort will be mostly on line. As much as I love to travel, I am not especially interested in traveling on a book tour.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The press release

Lots of comments in Chinese have been showing up on this blog lately, and they certainly aren't about writing. Mind you, I think Taiwan is a fine country, but the clutter of the Chinese ideographs and the English-language gibberish make for an annoying cleanup chore. So I've taken the step of adding that word-verfication tool to see if it cuts down on spam.

Today I started emailing the iUniverse press releases for When Pigs Fly. Initially, they will go out to all the print media I can find in the Southwest, and then I'll move on from there. Will anyone pay attention? At least it's costing me nothing but what my dear old mom used to call elbow grease.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Writing tasks for this week

Some blog-evaluation tool analyzed this blog and said it has too many pictures. What's up with that? Well, I'll try writing this one without pix.

My local writers' group starts up again this coming Saturday after a summer hiatus. I tried to interest someone else to take over the presidency, but apparently the perks are insufficient to stoke anyone's ambition. In other words, the job is mine for another year. So the first task is to publish the pre-meeting newsletter to tell members about our guest John Duncklee and get them all to show up.

Now that I'm back from Santa Fe, I also have to finish up a draft of a book review for The Internet Review of Books. It'll cover a pair of books on physics written for the intelligent lay person. Both were a challenge to read, perhaps the sort a person of my modest intellect should either read twice or not at all. The reviews themselves won't be as hard to write as I'd first thought, though.

In the living room, my son is watching The Simpsons on Fox, a network that doesn't get much airtime in our house. Maybe I can get Homer Simpson to help me with my review about black holes and conversion of matter into energy.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Visiting Santa Fe

Our son has flown in from Boston for a week's visit, and we're all spending a few days in Santa Fe. Jeff drove our car up from Las Cruces while Nancy, the cats, and I drove up in our RV. Yesterday we spent a few hours strolling down Canyon Road and poking our heads into the fancy galleries where the sculptures and paintings run a little on the pricey side. For example, you can have a beautiful bronze sculpture of a family of donkeys for only $85,000.

Today we took a look at Madrid and Cerrillos, two small towns on the Turquoise Trail. Here are some doodads created by a Madrid artist out of recycled materials:

And here is the Catholic church in Cerrillos:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ode To The Yellow Pad

Here is a guest post by prolific Las Cruces writer John Duncklee, who is the author of Disowned and 16 other published novels.

Ode To The Yellow Pad


John Duncklee

We marvel at what we can do with the computer: cut and paste, send over the internet, correct mistakes and typos with ease and without erasing six carbon copies, choosing fonts and sizes with the touch on a mouse. The list goes on and on.

But, remember The Yellow Pad? No writer was without one or a pencil or pen to write on it. Fifty lined sheets begged to be written upon. With a pencil changes could be made with ease using an eraser. Erasers came in varied sizes shapes and materials. All worked well on The Yellow Pad.

And remember when you filled that last sheet, and took a clean Yellow Pad from the shelf to continue writing. That was always a good feeling of accomplishment. It kept you going in a way. You never counted the pages because you knew there were fifty. What did a Yellow Pad cost then? Twenty cents, thirty. Hell’s fire, pencils were only a nickel, and if you had a good pocket-knife, and knew how to use it, you didn’t need to buy a sharpener. With a pencil and a Yellow Pad you were in business. There were even editors that accepted some writers’ manuscripts written on Yellow Pads. Alas, I wasn’t one of those. I had to transfer those words to a blank white sheet of paper with a typewriter using two fingers. I had to borrow the typewriter. But, you had to be very careful. Corrections meant six carbon copies to erase and change. And, it took a different kind of eraser to obliterate typewriter ink. It never looked the same either.

My storage room has four large boxes filled with Yellow Pads. Every pad is filled. I know there are two non-fiction books and two novels in those boxes. And, they have been published. But, I’ll never toss away those Yellow Pads. Should I ever need more storage space, I’ll build another room, but the Yellow Pads with all that writing filling their fifty pages each will stay at rest. They deserve that much.

I stared at the computer for a month before I dared turn on the switch. It sat on a table so I could step around it to sit at my desk where I could write on my Yellow Pads. Of course, in time I started learning how to work the damn thing, but I realized soon that it meant learning more than what happened when I pushed different keys, I had to learn a completely new language. It was both spoken and written. It was also baffling, (and still is). In this new language a series of letters not making a word meant something important. I was only used to knowing that NRA meant National Recovery Act back in The Great Depression, and WPA meant Works Progress Administration, also in that time period. I also knew that WWA means Western Writers of America. I had no clue that RTF means Rich Text Format and I still haven’t a clue as to what Rich Text Format is or does. That list also goes on and on

But there have been plenty of laughs along the road to learning how to use a computer. In one book I changed the name of a character from Jack Ryland to Jason Roland. Pushing the command button on the keyboard along with the “f” key the “find” window popped into view. Again, with my two fingers I typed in Jack, clicked on “replace all” and then wrote in Jason in the space devoted to the resultant desired change. Satisfied and smug with my accomplishment, I hit the “replace all” command oval. Almost immediately, (another mind boggling characteristic of computers is their speed of execution), I saw the announcement that thirteen Jacks had been changed to Jason. Wow, that was easy, and I sat back I my chair in wonderment. Later, as I read through the manuscript I came upon “Jason rabbit”, then “pump Jason”, and even “Jason pot”. Bewildered by this I soon realized just how I had accomplished such a miracle. I also learned that important lesson that computers do exactly what you tell them to do. I also thought back and said to myself, ”This would never have happened on The Yellow Pad."

The other day I went to the office supply store to buy some toner for my printer. They don’t call it ink anymore. It is “toner”. No matter why I go to the office supply store I always end up strolling around to see what might be new. So I passed by the stacks of cases containing printer paper. I still had half a case. Beyond there was a shelf, part of which held The Yellow Pads. There was a stack of them all shrink-wrapped into bundles of six. The price wasn’t twenty cents per pad anymore, but the price was reasonable in my mind. I stood there a while thinking about those Yellow Pads. I couldn’t help myself a minute more. I reached down and grabbed a bundle and put it in the cart with my toner. As I wheeled the cart next to the cashier’s stand I thought once again about buying those Yellow Pads. One never knows when the power will go off or how long it will stay off. I patted the bundle of Yellow Pads as I put them on the counter.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Writing reviews for The Internet Review of Books

These are the reviews I've written for the Internet Review of Books dating back to October 2007. If you decide to purchase any of these through links on the review pages, the Internet Review of Books will earn a few pennies. In any case, please enjoy the reviews.

Contract with the Earth, by Newt Gingrich

American Lion, by Jon Meacham

Bananas, by Peter Chapman

Beyond Terror and Martyrdom, by Gilles Kepel

Blue Covenant, by Maude Barlow

Come to Think of It, by Daniel Schorr

Destiny Disrupted, by Tamim Ansary

Home Girl, by Judith Matloff

Independents Day, by Lou Dobbs

Simplexity, by Jeffrey Kluger

The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby

The Book that Changed My Life, by Roxanne J. Coady & Joy Johannessen

The First Day of the Blitz, by Peter Stansky

The Gamble, by Thomas E. Ricks

Three Generations, No Imbeciles, by Paul A. Lombardo

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Distractions from writing

I've been doing once-monthly radio interviews of local authors here in Las Cruces and have been eagerly waiting for podcasts of old shows to become available on KSNM's website. They're still getting things set up over there, but here is the first podcast they have ready for me, a chat with my friend the retired cardiologist David Hoekenga (at right):

Lately I seem to have been doing anything but writing. For example, there is an acquaintance's mother's apparently doomed appeal of an application for a green card that's consumed a ton of email and telephone time. There is organizing a writing contest for one writers' group and organizing meetings for another. There is fixing a supposedly professionally written press kit for When Pigs Fly. And straining my little brain to understand a lay explanation of E=mc2 for a book I'm going to review—and—oh, a whole passel of excuses for neither writing new fiction nor blogging nor keeping up with friends' blogs.

I'll try to fix that soon unless something else sidetracks me, like wondering why a green card isn't green. Here's a sample I found on the Internet:

Friday, July 31, 2009

Get it in writing!

A friend recently emailed me to say she's been ripped off by a local publisher and needs to know how to disentangle herself. She has given me permission to post this. Here is her email (I changed all the names):

My book is published without a written contract. All I have on paper is an order form stating size of book, cost for bar code, ISBN, etc. Initially, I was told that the up-front money would be the total and that any monies from the sale of my book belonged to me. Well, over the weeks of getting the thing printed, Jane at ____ gave out little details about how it really worked. Honestly, I thought that I was getting a book printed POD. I had no idea she would take 20% of every book she sold that I had bought, as well as having extra books printed to sell in her "bookstore" and that I hadn't paid for. She would get all of that money. I verbally agreed to that, I think, in the week the book was being printed. The reason I didn't make waves was because it had already cost me more money because "it was taking so long and she was having to help me more than usual" to get the book done. I needed the book in my hands for an event. My question is can I terminate my relationship with Jane and do I retain all rights to my book, to include all hard data and disks? This is a lot to ask of you, but I'm not happy about this deal. The only one making any money is Jane and I keep going deeper into the hole money-wise. She is charging me $450 for a second run of fifty books. She sells other authors' books at her place of business to include two of Diane’s. When I queried Diane about it, she told me she had no idea Jane had any of her books and that if Jane had sold any, Diane hadn't received a penny from the sales. I can't afford to keep doing this and any thought of doing a second book with Jane is out of the question. Any help would be appreciated. I'm so dumb for not finding out all this legal stuff up front.

Then on the phone she told me the publisher was planning to print copies and sell them on their own, giving nothing to her! She said that for her initial print run including setup charges and whatnot, she paid nearly $1000 for 50 copies that would list for $11. Subsequent copies cost her $9 each. In other words, my good friend has been taken for a ride.

Oh, and she had a conversation with the publisher in which the publisher said they were getting so much business they were going to have to start keeping records.

I told her I'm not an attorney, but that she should send a certified letter to the publisher telling them to cease and desist from printing any copies not requested by her. She also can and should terminate that relationship immediately.

If there's one lesson to come out of this mess, it's this: Get it in writing!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Editing tip #1: Get rid of those extra spaces

This is the first in a series of editing tips for writers preparing their work for self-publication. They are presented in no particular order and represent tasks an editor or proofreader might do. Writers should still use a professional editor, but why pay for anything you can do yourself?

Get rid of those extra spaces. Your sentences should have only one space after a period. No matter how large your document is, you can check for and fix any extra spaces with a global search and replace. In Microsoft Word, for example, press Ctrl + h to display this window:

In the Find what field, type a period followed by two spaces.

In the Replace with field, type a period followed by one space.

Click Replace All.

How do you indent a paragraph? If you use the space bar, you may wind up with inconsistent indents—some five spaces, some four or six. Word and other programs can be set to automatically indent, but let’s put that aside for now. Many writers indent using a half-inch tab, and that’s fine. So let’s replace all those five-spaced indents with tabs:

Ctrl + h

In the Find what field, type exactly five spaces.

In the Replace with field, type ^t.

Click Replace All.

Then you can repeat the process by replacing ^t plus a space with ^t only, and then do the same process with four spaces.

Finally, do a search for two spaces and replace with one.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Planning to self-publish?

Las Cruces cacti in bloom

Planning to self-publish*? Always hire an editor—yes, I'd like that. I'm an editor. Hire me. Chances are you won't, of course. Chances are you'll hire no one, and that will be a pity for your book's sake.

Here's the deal, though. You must have someone read your manuscript who is not a friend or relative, someone with critical skills whose first interest is not to make you happy. If you belong to a writers' group, ask for critiques of your work, and be prepared to reciprocate. You might consider the Internet Writing Workshop, a helpful group I've been with for years.

Skill levels vary, of course, but getting critiques is an essential start. Don't take everyone's advice, because people can and do contradict each other; critiquers can also be flat wrong or unconstructive.

Once you've compiled and incorporated the best comments from the critiques, take the steps I outlined in my previous post. This should not take the place of hiring an editor, but not being born yesterday, I know that many people either can't or won't spend the money. In the first place, editors vary in quality as widely as writers do. In the second place, many charge by the hour and expect—get this—to be paid a living wage. Soon I'll have a post containing tips for choosing an editor.

Meanwhile, the higher quality your work is to start with, the less work an editor needs to do, and the less the impact on your wallet.

*By self-publishing I mean causing your book to be published, whether by sending your manuscript to a printer or to an outfit such as iUniverse or Xlibris.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Self-Publishing—Ten Great Tips to Make Your Book Shine

We self-publishers fight a lonely battle, finding readers for our wit and wisdom. We write alone, and now we sell alone and search for ways to market our work. How do we entice readers to open their wallets?

Those questions are often premature. Before asking how you’re going to cope with all those book orders, you need to make sure you have a quality product. So here are ten tips to make your book, fiction or non-fiction, the best it can be.

#1 Use a spell-checker, but only as a first line of defense. Then you look for misspellings the spell-checker won’t catch, such as then/than, to/too/two, tail/tale, or its/it’s.

#2 Read your manuscript critically, as though you weren’t the author. Some things to check include complete chapters, well-organized paragraphs, complete sentences, and accurate punctuation.

#3 Be consistent. If you capitalize a word once in the text, chances are you always want to capitalize it. Decide whether you want one space or two at the end of a sentence, and stick with it. Never change your font or type size without good reason. If your work consists of more than one file, be sure that every file is formatted identically.

#4 Get honest, competent critiques. Leave your mother and spouse alone; your family has better things to do than fawn over your work. Avoid critiques from anyone who has an emotional stake in making you happy, because that isn’t what you need. The Internet Writing Workshop ( is an excellent source of constructive, informed criticism.

#5 Use your judgment. Even good critiquers may give you conflicting advice. Remember that it’s your project, so the final decision is always yours.

#6 Refer to a style manual such as the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the most widely accepted guide for standard writing.

#7 Make a style sheet. A novel or other large manuscript can involve lots of small stylistic decisions by the author. Keep a pad of paper with a running list things you don’t want to have to keep looking up. For example, a cartoon I liked showed a bank robber writing a note and asking the teller, “Is holdup one word or two?” Think of words you often misspell or don’t know how to capitalize, and write them correctly on the list.

#8 Follow your publisher’s guidelines religiously even if they don’t insist.

#9 Repeat tip #2.

#10 Review the publisher’s proof carefully. When you receive the publisher’s proof isn’t the time to look for typos; you should have done that already. At this stage, the publisher may even charge you if you fix many of your own mistakes at this stage. Instead, look for their errors. Are illustrations in their proper places? Are pages and chapters numbered properly? Look at every page’s overall appearance. Is each one properly aligned? Is any text missing?

If you follow these simple (but not always easy) tips, I can’t guarantee best-sellerdom for your book, but I can promise you this: Your book will be far superior to the vast majority of self-published books. You will have a quality product.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Where ideas come from

The other side of Paradise:
Behind the Paradise Diner,
Lowell, Massachusetts

Where do a writer’s ideas come from? The genesis of my new novel, Getting Lucky, is very much the location: the mill city of Lowell, Massachusetts. There is an old map of the city from circa 1907 dividing it up by ethnic neighborhoods: English, Irish, German, Jewish, Polish, Greek, and French Canadian are the ones I recall. It was a city designed to be a modern 19th-century industrial center, with a spider web of canals linking a series of mills to the Merrimack River. Barges brought raw cotton from the South and returned with bolts of cloth for much of the country.

In the 20th century Lowell fell on hard times and developed just the grittiness and the edge to make it a good setting for a noir detective novel. Then for various reasons in the 1980s refugees from Cambodia flocked there by the thousands. My wife and I lived in a nearby town and sponsored one of the families, which gave us a heightened awareness of the Cambodians’ impact on the region. I had been a technical writer, and I remember waking up in the middle of the night thinking I had to write a novel about the Cambodians coming to America.

Freedom Country was my first try at writing fiction, and the best I can say is that I learned a lot about writing, about Cambodians, and about Lowell. That novel will never be published, because I could never gain a deep enough understanding of the Cambodian culture to make the story compelling. But I used much of the research for other projects.

A couple of novels later came Getting Lucky. I named my hero Mack Durgin after Mike Durgin, a real kid who had bullied me in my childhood. Mack bears no resemblance to the bully; I just happened to like the name. My wife insists that Mack’s personality and my own are not similar, but I like to think that he and I would be very much alike given similar circumstances. He has a sense of humor that he uses as a defense against life’s brickbats.

In Getting Lucky I try to establish a strong sense of place and character. Lowell has a shop called Tower News that sells newspapers and tobacco up front and hard-core pornography in back. In my novel it becomes a pure (well, impure) porn shop called A Touch of Love. My writer’s group loved to tease me about my research and about all the “field trips” I supposedly had to make to Tower News. One of my friends, a proper and devout Christian woman if I ever knew one, playfully pouted that I never invited her along on any of these excursions. One outing we did take together was to the county medical examiner’s office. On the M.E.’s wall hung a satin painting of a crying clown sticking a revolver into his mouth.

Despite all the research a writer does, it’s still easy to get things wrong. In one of my writer’s group meetings I read a scene set on one of the city’s streets in a tough neighborhood called The Acre. Mystery writer David Daniel, who knows the city cold, listened patiently and then told me that street slopes gradually uphill. It wasn’t critical to the story, but it was important to get details right when you’re dealing with a real place.

In writing Getting Lucky I learned that you can use facts, details, and observations that come from anywhere and find a home for them in your fiction.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Open mic at Palacio's

Shades of Bulwer-Lytton. Tonight we're doing the dark and stormy, with torrents of rain and constant sky-splitting lightning. It began as I left Palacio's Bar in Mesilla, site of the monthly open mic readings and performances. It was my first time there. The Carta Blanca was ice-cold, the crowd was friendly, and the popcorn was free. I was up for a night like this.

I read from Getting Lucky to an audience of two dozen; most read poetry, one played a three-piece Indian flute, another acted out a one-man skit. A guy from El Paso read some cleverly-rhymed, fast-paced gibberish. He teaches English and Philosophy at a community college and claimed he's an avowed Marxist. He used to think all rich people should be shot, he says, but now wants them to have the option of repenting or committing suicide. I smiled, thinking him a harmless twit but keeping said opinion to myself.

Pamela was one of the better poets of the evening. She prefaced her work by telling the audience that the poems she planned to read were about her ex-husband. In one poem, she said his primary means of communicating with her was punching her in the jaw. Then she described putting a gun to his temple while he slept but not pulling the trigger.


In the course of the evening, the fellow sitting next to me kept picking up my book and putting it down, making me think he'd buy it. Alas, no. I made no more money than the poets tonight, but never mind—I'll be back.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Literary magazine for the
El Paso Writers' League

My friend and colleague Sulta Bonner and I just completed a slick publication for the El Paso Writers' League entitled Border Tapestry. It contains first-prize-winning entries in the EPWL's 2008 writing contest, an annual event held for members. We did all the editing and layout, and then we paid a local printer who gave us technical advice and printed up a couple hundred copies for us.

Sulta knows El Paso far better than I do, so she showed me around town and advised me what photos to take. The result is the collage that appears on the cover.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

New cover for When Pigs Fly

Here is iUniverse's new cover design for the Star edition of When Pigs Fly.

And this is the logo on the back cover.

By the way, a reader emailed me today and called When Pigs Fly an "absolutely fun and utterly impossible book." Sigh. Words like that are beautiful music.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

If only I had a beach...

The reviewer at Rebecca's Reads wrote this nice comment in her review of Getting Lucky: "Getting Lucky" is a fast-paced read and would be the perfect book to take to the beach this summer."


Friday, July 03, 2009

Star turn

My winged amigo Puerco, a gift from friends who'd visited Mexico, admires the shiny star that iUniverse sent me this week. The star commemorates the 500+ copies my novel When Pigs Fly has sold.

Monday, June 22, 2009

RV trip day 25: Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish River

We spent a cloudless day driving through spectacular Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota, the filming location for Dances with Wolves. Tomorrow we head home, eager to return to our routines but so glad we've spent June exploring the West.

  • Roughlock Falls, Spearfish River

Sunday, June 21, 2009

RV trip day 24: Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial

Today we saw the last of the attractions we intended to see—Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse rounded out the list—but we heard today about Spearfish Canyon and were advised to check it out. That's tomorrow's agenda, and then our sightseeing is pretty much over and done. We still have 1,000 miles to go before home, though, so we will overnight later this week in Cheyenne, Colorado City, and Albuquerque. If enough energy remains, we may explore Albuquerque for a day. We're tired from all this fun, though, and are itching to get back to our routines.

Above is the Crazy Horse Memorial, 61 years in the making so far. This will be a work in progress for several generations to come.

We saw this fellow moseying down the road in Custer State Park. Signs warn us not to approach any wildlife, especially bison, as they're big and dangerous. We stayed in our car for our photos.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

RV trip day 23: Driving to Rapid City, South Dakota

Beautiful rolling hills, long drive. The wind whipped up as we entered South Dakota, and the awning came loose from the side of the RV as we were driving. We pulled off to the side of I-90 to fix it and found that we couldn't roll it back up, partly because it was billowing in the wind. We were afraid the whole awning was going to rip right off the side of the RV and possibly blow into traffic, so I called 911—although nothing disastrous had happened yet, it felt possible.

In a few minutes a state trooper showed up, and we both got onto the roof of the RV to try to secure the awning. But he was as clueless as I was. Then a good Samaritan showed up who was a mechanic getting off work. From his truck he got a hank of rope and a sharp knife, then he figured out how to roll the awning into place and then tie it down. I'm grateful to the stranger and the trooper, who rescued us from an unpleasant predicament.

Friday, June 19, 2009

RV trip day 22: Little Big Horn

Markers on the Little Bighorn Battlefield showing where men fell.
The remains were buried elsewhere.

We spent our 44th wedding anniversary visiting Little Bighorn Battlefield and will eat dinner at the classiest restaurant we can find: The Purple Cow. It's billed as a family restaurant and casino, although the latter is in a separate building.

As we drove through the flat plains and the gently rolling hills, I tried to imagine Indians and U.S. Army trekking through here, hunting for each other and spoiling for a fight. Here is a visitor's center; down the road a KFC, a Conoco station, the Lariat Cafe. Men bashed each others' heads in to control this land, which seems so utterly peaceful now.

Markers for two of the Custers who died on June 25, 1876

General Custer fell at the spot marked with the flag. Among the U.S. Army killed that day were three Custer brothers, a nephew of the general, and a brother-in-law. Notice the two ranks mentioned on General Custer's marker. Apparently he was a lieutenant colonel operating with the command responsibilities of a major general. I haven't read much of the history.

We're having the best weather in weeks. With luck it will hold until we get to Las Cruces, where there's good weather most all the time.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

RV trip day 21: Driving to Hardin, Montana

Riverside blossom, Yellowstone

Today was a travel day, capped by our discovery of a failed water pump. So the first order of business tomorrow is a trip into Billings to get the pump replaced. Assuming it doesn't take too long, we'll then head out to the Little Big Horn battlefield site that's just outside of Hardin. If need be, we'll extend our stay by a day.

Last night in West Yellowstone I stopped by the office at our RV park and asked the manager if he would post one of my business cards on his bulletin board. This led to a conversation about my writing, which led to his purchasing two copies each of When Pigs Fly and Getting Lucky. One copy each he had me autograph with a comment about how great his RV site is so he can share them with customers. Then he asked me to sign copies for both of his ladyfriends. They know about each other, he said, and they're good friends with each other, and he's divorced, y'see, and everybody gets along just fine, and...and...I finally laughed and said he didn't owe me any explanations. When I finally took my leave of him, I gave him a friendly little salute with my left hand. He returned it and said, "Toodle-oo, Buckaroo!" He's a very nice fellow, and a character. A variation of him may turn up in one of my novels.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

RV trip day 20: Yellowstone

We'd never have seen these grizzlies if we hadn't been backed up in traffic while dozens of tourists ahead of us stopped their cars in the road and aimed their cameras. Being stuck in traffic for a good half hour, we thought we might as well take photos of our own. Bison and elk have been far easier for us to spot than bear.

Steamboat Geyser spouts far higher than Old Faithful—when it decides to spout. The last time was in 2005, and it goes off every 5 to 50 years, as opposed to every 90 minutes for Old Faithful.

Boiling water bubbles out of the ground and onto a thin crust of ground that is easy to fall through and be scalded to death, according to the warning signs. Luckily, the pathways are well maintained and safe.

Mammoth Hot Springs grows out of a fracture in the earth from which hot water flows, leaving these limestone terraces.

I took about 190 photos in the two days at Yellowstone—even accounting for dupes and bad shots, far too many to post in a blog. After getting home and settling down, I'll put up the better ones on Flickr.

Tomorrow is a long travel day across Montana to the town of Hardin.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

RV trip day 19: Yellowstone

We spent the day driving the southern loop through Yellowstone and plan to drive the northern loop tomorrow. A remarkable fact about the park is that it has thousands of hot spots where steam and boiling water escape from underneath the surface. The photo below is Old Faithful.

Our most common wildlife sightings were bison, though at the end of the day we saw several doe elk resting on a river bank. Signs warned us not to approach any wildlife including bison, because they can be dangerous. The animals typically acted as though all us gawking tourists weren't there. We also saw a bald eagle sitting in a nest high atop a tree, but a road sign told tourists not to stop, so I have no photos of the bird. Alas, no bear sightings. The manager of our RV park told us we wouldn't find grizzlies—they would find us.



There are still many patches of snow at the higher elevations.

Monday, June 15, 2009

RV trip day18: West Yellowstone, Montana

West Yellowstone, Montana is a pretty town mere yards from the National Park entrance. We drove our car a few miles into the park without cameras in the early evening in between the many rain showers. As we returned to our RV I noticed the sun setting over this mountain, so I went back for the camera. The sun was still too strong and the colors too drab, and this black and white image was the best of the bunch.

RV trip day 17: Pocatello, Idaho

We're overnighting in Pocatello, Idaho, where we're told it's been raining for three weeks. We left Salt Lake City this morning under sunny skies, then drove into torrential rain. The skies cleared briefly while I took a walk and a few photos near our RV park. A gentleman kindly allowed me onto his property to take photos of his emu and other animals.

It's midnight. I've been putting together the web pages for the June Internet Review of Books this evening, then watching West Wing.

Tomorrow we head to Yellowstone.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

RV trip day 16: Great Salt Lake

Great Salt Lake in the rain

We had planned to visit the Great Salt Lake in the afternoon, but on the highway we were stuck for 2-1/2 hours in accident traffic. The news report said that a driver cut off a pickup truck, which swerved across the median strip and head-on into a FedEx 18-wheeler, killing one and critically injuring another. Firefighters were unable to contain the blaze immediately because the FedEx cargo was said to include live ammunition. Just a godawful situation.

By the time we got to the lake it was raining and late, so we stayed only a few minutes.

On a more cheerful note, a Mormon greeter yesterday commented on all the rain they've had lately by telling me they'd been washing Salt Lake City all week for us. I passed the comment on to a fellow RVer today, and she just grunted.

RV trip day 15: Salt Lake City

Inside the Mormon Tabernacle

In Salt Lake City, it appears that all roads lead to Temple Square. We visited the Tabernacle and listened to a free organ concert with a couple hundred other people. You've no doubt seen photos of the organ—some of it—it has over 11,000 pipes, many of them hidden in this acoustic wonder of a building. In his introductory remarks, the organist turned off the microphone and said he would drop a pin. When he did, the sound was clear in the entire hall.

As the organist played, a man shouted "Yes!" from the audience on the other side of the hall from us. Later he shouted "Mozart!" and, a bit later, "Beethoven!" He shouted about six times until four young men in dark suits stood by him and escorted him out a side door. As far as I could see, no one touched the man, but they saw to it that he left. Perhaps the man has Tourette's Syndrome.

The Temple

The Mormons we saw and spoke to were unfailingly courteous*, friendly, and wholesome. Even coming from friendly Las Cruces, we found our trip to Temple Square a culture shock.

Flower bed in Temple Square

* Almost unfailingly courteous. We went to the Family History Library, the largest repository of genealogical records in the world. A retired professor was patiently trying to help me locate information about my family history, and I may have interrupted his explanation once too often—I can blab—and he told me to shut up. But then he smiled and said "I can be brusque sometimes." We both laughed. He was really helpful, and the access and assistance at the library are free.

Friday, June 12, 2009

RV trip, day 14: travel day

Canyon in the clouds, Canyonland National Park

Travel and laundry today. It's rained most of the time since we arrived in Salt Lake, and I took no pictures. Thursday, though, we'll go downtown and see the Mormon temples and such.

People sometimes express odd opinions on bumper stickers. This afternoon in the RV park I saw this one on a car from Nevada:

Caution: This woman has no hormones, and she carries a handgun.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

RV trip day 13, Canyonlands National Park

Having a tough time with the unstable wireless Internet connection here in Moab, so I will post some pix and sign off. These are all from Canyonlands National Park. Will be wordier tomorrow, I hope.

Mesa arch

Blossom and trunk

Prickly pear cactus blossom

Canyon floor