Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Dead Hand

by Ben Small

Are you aware that you almost died the afternoon of September 26, 1983?

Late that evening, Russian time, one of the seven Soviet Union's missile detection satellites reported a massive launch of United States inter-continental ballistic missiles, heading toward Russia. One lone man, Stanislav Petrov, a technician sitting at what stood for a computer terminal monitoring these signals, went frantic. He tried unsuccessfully to contact members of the Politburo, seeking a decision. Petrov knew that if the satellite signals were authentic, the Soviet Union had only twenty to thirty minutes to launch their own strike before their state and their own missiles would be destroyed by nuclear explosions the likes of which mankind had never seen... and might not survive.

Petrov also knew that Soviet technology was unreliable, especially the satellites monitoring nuclear launches. These satellites tended to last only one week, and new ones were launched almost daily to keep something working in space.

Petrov had the capability to push the button, to launch the Soviet Union's missiles. His finger hovered, twitching with nervous energy. Seconds, then minutes ticked by as Petrov sought the advice of co-workers and pondered the weight of his decision. Finally, he decided the satellite signals must be mistaken, or maybe he chickened out. He waited for immanent explosions, for his life to melt in a blast from the sun.

Nothing happened. The satellite warnings were false.

The Dead Hand, by David E. Hoffman, a Washington Post contributing editor, is one of the most powerful and frightening books I've read. It's the untold story of the arms race during the Cold War, a story of mis-perceptions, deceit, distrust and treachery. Hoffman spent years interviewing participants, leaders and scientists, and he obtained access to formerly secret Soviet documents which are both illuminating and chilling, much more so than any work of fiction. For the aging Russian leaders were paranoid about the intentions of the United States. They firmly believed the Americans were just waiting for the right strategic time to destroy the Soviet Union. Their leaders understood that the Soviet Union could not keep up with American technology. While the Americans were advancing computer technology, making smart-chips faster and smaller, the Russians were dealing with circuit boards unsuitable for an Apple IIe. So the Soviets bluffed, puffed their chests and bragged about capabilities they didn't have. Yes, they had nuclear warheads and plenty of enriched uranium, and they had delivery systems. But they had nothing to compare with American Pershing missile systems, and Soviet Command and Control systems and technology were seriously lacking. So the Soviets created a Doomsday device, called it "Perimeter." Perimeter was a semi-automatic system that when triggered, would launch everything the Soviets had.

And the button which would launch Perimeter sat in front of Stanislav Petrov, who watched his missile detection system telling him the Americans had launched.

Scary stuff, eh?

Well, it gets worse...

Even more frightening were the biological/chemical weapons systems being designed, developed and made operational by Soviet scientists and military personnel, all in secret and in knowing violation of a treaty with the U.S.

By mandate from Richard Nixon in 1969, the U.S. shut down its biological and chemical weapons system development programs. The theory was that if we had nukes, we didn't need these weapons.

The Russians felt otherwise. And despite signing a treaty with the U.S. in 1972 to not develop or implement such systems, the Soviets immediately undertook a top secret bio/chemical weapons development and implementation program to do just that. The scientists working on these systems were stationed all across the country, in rural outposts mostly, surrounded by forests or wasteland. The developers were kept separate from the implementers, those people who would take the biological and chemical materials and put them into hundreds of missiles or other dispersal systems. Plague, smallpox, nerve gas, weapons-grade anthrax and new forms of viruses and bacteria were developed and installed in missiles, the scientists who developed and implemented them given special food supplies and living arrangements not available to the general Soviet population.

They were rock stars, the Soviet Dream Team.

Every Soviet leader from Andropov through Gorbechev and Yeltsin knew about these programs and lied about them. When Reagan called the Soviet Union "The Evil Empire," he was spot-on, but had no idea just how evil they were. The Russians disguised their bio/chemical factories, claimed they were being used for vaccine production, and when inspections were finally agreed to, the factories to be inspected were made mobile or cleaned up for the inspectors, only to be made fully operational again once the inspectors departed. Tons and tons of these materials were produced, and delivery systems were made operational. Hundreds of missiles were retooled to carry these toxins to every part of the globe, and vaccines were developed to shield those in the Soviet populace deemed worthy of saving.

In April, 1979, weapons-grade anthrax leaked through exhaust systems in the Soviet industrial city of Sverdlovsk. Death came quickly to both cattle and people. At least forty-five people died, hundreds were hospitalized and over forty thousand residents vaccinated. And as fast as the anthrax struck, so did the cover-up. The Soviets claimed, when word of the Ural Mountain disaster leaked out, that contaminated hay from natural anthrax had been fed to cattle, resulting in infections to those who'd eaten the meat.

Yes, Gorbechev and Reagan, who became friendly, agreed to missile reduction programs. But Biopreparat, the Soviet secret biological/chemical weapons programs, continued, unknown to the West.

Most people believe that Reagan's Star Wars program killed the Soviet Union. That's not true. The Soviet response was to be an asymmetrical one: build so many biological/chemical and nuclear missiles, no defensive system could withstand the onslaught. Reagan and the CIA believed the Soviets were developing their own, cheaper laser systems as a defensive mechanism. In fact, Soviet lasers were so weak, they couldn't even reach a missile.

What in fact killed the Soviet Union was falling oil prices, debt and a dropping currency exchange rate. The Russians couldn't keep up. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, the scientists working on their nuclear, biological and chemical weapons systems were left stranded. No food, no money, no way to earn a living.

They began to barter. It's known that over seventeen hundred pounds of nerve gas were sold to Syria. When U.S. scientists were finally let into the Soviet Union to investigate nuclear, biological and chemical weapon plants during the late 1990s and early 2000s, they found many of them unguarded, found boxed up weapons and weapon materials ready to be shipped to addresses in Tehran, Iran. They also found communications from Osama bin Laden, who wanted suitcase and dirty bombs and was willing to pay for them.

The Americans, realizing the scope of the problem, offered jobs to the Soviet scientists, and many of them reside today in the United States. But much of the nuclear, bio/chemical materials they designed and developed have not been found, especially those which were stored or buried in former Soviet states.

As some of these Soviet scientists have stated, and the CIA has agreed, it's just a matter of time before some of these materials find their way into the hands of terrorists.

David Hoffman's The Dead Hand is a book that will keep you up at night and give you nightmares. Deservedly so. And his book also may give you cause to reconsider whether or not we need to secure our borders.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Just Finish The Dang Thang

By Pat Browning

I’ve been sitting on a half-finished manuscript for five years. My excuse: Life happened. So what? Life happens to everyone.

Except for an outline and a storyboard leaning up against my wall I might have lost track of the narrative years ago, but sometimes I get lucky. Just in time to keep my Work-in-Limbo from slipping through my fingers I came across Timothy Hallinan’s 10 Rules For Finishing A Book.

Hallinan has written ten mysteries and thrillers under his own name and several others in disguise. In the 1990s he wrote the critically acclaimed Simeon Grist mysteries about a brainy, overeducated LA private eye. His current series, set in Bangkok, where he has lived six months each year since 1981, features American "rough travel" writer Philip "Poke" Rafferty, who lives in Bangkok with his hand-assembled family: his Thai wife, Rose, a former Patpong bar dancer, and their adopted daughter, Miaow, who was eight years old and living on the sidewalk when she met Poke.

The first three Rafferty books, which have made Ten Best lists everywhere, are A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, THE FOURTH WATCHER, and BREATHING WATER. The fourth, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, will be published in August by William Morrow and is available now for pre-sale on

Before becoming a full-time writer, Hallinan had his own international consulting company, advising Fortune top 100 companies on their television activities.

In the Blog Cabin on his web site, Hallinan writes:

“I’d estimate that 98% of all the novels people begin are never completed. Every person who abandons a book feels that he or she has a good reason, but my experience suggests that most of those books could have been finished – the writer just came up against something he or she couldn’t handle.”

The section of his blog titled “Finish Your Novel” is a great resource for writers. It’s in six parts:
1) Introduction and overview;
2) Getting started;
3) Following the line;
4) Getting out of trouble;
5) Finishing up and some thoughts on publishing;
6) Additional resources.

You can read all of them here. I zeroed in on “The Ten Rules of Finishing” in Part 2. Many, many thanks to Tim Hallinan for his permission to reprint them here.

Timothy Hallinan’s Ten Rules of Finishing.

Lots of people seem to like rules, especially where writing is concerned. The rules I suggest below are meant to help you write your book, but mostly they're intended to help you finish it. Here they are:

1. Write something you would like to read.
This may be the single most important rule. It amazes me how often students come to my class with plans to write a novel they wouldn’t read if it appeared spontaneously on their pillow one morning. For some reason, many aspiring writers think a novel requires a sort of elevation – of prose style, plot, character – everything. It’s a little like people who are wonderful talkers – direct, clear, and entertaining – but who get tied up in knots when they start to write because writing is “different” than talking.

Generally speaking, we should try to write with the same directness and clarity we use when we talk, and when we write a novel, we should write the kind of book we most like to read.

There are two ingredients here: the type of book you write, and what it’s about. Do you read mysteries? Write a mystery. Do your shelves sag under the weight of romances? Write a romance. And write it about something that fascinates you. If you love horses, get horses into the story. If you’re a science wonk, get some science into it. Do both things – if you love thrillers but don’t like science, you’re probably not going to like (or be able to finish) a thriller about subatomic particle physics.

Remember, once you choose the idea for your book, you are going to have to live with it for a year or more. It had better be something that entertains you. Ideally, it’s also a subject you want to learn more about, because you’re probably going to have to if you’re going to write 80-100,000 words about it.

I write thrillers about Los Angeles and Bangkok because I love thrillers and I love Los Angeles and Bangkok. One more time: You should write the book you would most love to read.

2. Your material needs to be something you care about.
You'll find lots more about this in the material that follows. Novels take a long time to write. They will claim every bit of skill and glibness you possess. They will exhaust your store of funny or heartbreaking stories. They'll ransack your childhood for anecdotes. They'll eat your friends alive and spit them out in (hopefully) fictionalized form.

Sooner or later you'll run out of tricks and pure nervous energy, and when you do, you'll learn (possibly the hard way) that the only material that will get you through this marathon is material you truly care about. You will need to care personally about your characters, about the themes of your story, about what's at stake. If you don't, you're going to run out of gas. You're going to quit.

Choose your idea in the first place because (a) it would make a book you would like to read, and (b) you care about the issues it raises.

3. The enemy is not the badly written page; it is the empty page.
If there’s one rule you should write on a card and tape over your desk, this is it. A bad page does a lot of good things: it advances the story, it gives you a chance to work with your characters, it demands that you write all or part of a scene, it challenges you to describe your setting – on and on and on. (It even makes the stack of pages look a little thicker, which can give you a psychological lift.)

So what if it does some of these things badly? You’ve learned one way not to handle that particular piece of material.

But the great advantage of a badly written page is that it can be rewritten. It can be improved. A blank page is zero. In fact, it’s worse than zero, because it represents territory you’re afraid, unwilling, or too lazy to explore. Avoid exploring this territory long enough, and you’ll abandon your book.

4. Perfection is not, and never has been, possible.
Go back to the paraphrased Samuel Johnson quotation at the beginning of the “For Openers” page: A novel is a long work in prose with something wrong with it. Your book won’t be perfect. Your chapters won’t be perfect. Your pages, paragraphs, and sentences won’t be perfect.

And you can’t let that stop you. If you’re dissatisfied with something you’ve written, you always have two choices. First, rewrite it right now. Second, let it stand for the moment and keep writing. You can always fix it later.

One thing I’ve learned to do is to begin every writing session by going back over what I wrote in the last three or four days. That gives me a chance to improve it (or toss it and write it over) and it also gets me back into the state of mind I was in on those earlier days. This makes for more consistency in the manuscript. Another good thing about working this way is that you’re already writing by the time you hit the blank page. Starting your session with a blank page is much more difficult, at least for me.

5. Getting it down is more important than getting it right.
This is a variation on the fourth rule. You need to get from point A to point B. Your character is trapped in a cave, and you need to get him or her out. One character needs to tell another something important. Get it on the page, even if you’re not particularly happy with the way it reads. You need to move the story forward; you need to get these characters interacting.

Once you’ve done that, even if you didn’t do it very well, it’s done. You can improve or rewrite it later. Now, at least, you’re in position to write the next bit.

6. Show, don’t tell.
Like a lot of novelists, Raymond Chandler – probably the greatest American writer of detective stories – was hired as a screenwriter. He hated it, but the money was good, so he went on hating it for quite a while. In his letters (I think), he talks about how he learned one important lesson.

He needed to demonstrate that a marriage was in trouble, and he wrote scene after scene – lots of dialog – to make the point. The screenwriter he’d been assigned as a partner was an old-timer, and he offered the following scene: The man and wife get into an elevator, the man keeping his hat on. (Obviously, this was when men still wore hats.) The elevator goes up and the doors reopen, and an attractive young woman gets on. The man removes his hat. When the young woman gets off, a few floors later, he puts his hat back on. Zero dialog, point made.

The best way to tell us something about your characters is to show it to us. For some reason, every time I teach my class I get a student whose novel begins with someone who can’t get out of bed. Generally, they lie there for quite a while, as the writer tells us how they’re feeling and so forth, and it’s pretty deadly.

I challenged one woman to come up with a way to give us a sense of her character’s frame of mind by showing us something the character does. She came to the next meeting with a scene in which the character forces herself out of bed, plods to the kitchen, and tries to make breakfast. Prying apart two frozen pieces of bread, she snaps one of them in half. Trying to break an egg into a pan, she puts her thumb through the shell. Then she picks up the pan, hot fat and all, throws it against the wall, and sits down and cries. Infinitely better, and much more interesting, too.

7. Specific is better.
Our lives are specific. We don’t just get dressed in the morning, we choose a certain color or style. Our day isn’t just Tuesday or Wednesday; it’s hot or cold, cloudy or sunny, wet or dry. Once I was working with a bunch of 12- and 13-year-olds, kids who lived in a gang area. The idea was to try to give them something else to do, something more productive than getting killed. On the first meeting, I asked them to write two paragraphs about their day.

One kid, a bright boy named Eloy, couldn’t get past paragraph one, and paragraph one began and ended with the word “today.” That was it. The word “today,” written once. I asked him whether there hadn’t been something different about today, something specific that made it different it from yesterday or the day before. Eloy thought about it and said that nothing much had happened, “After we found the baby in the Dumpster.”

Now that’s a specific detail. It’s kind of an extreme detail, but it’s a detail. Details bring things to life. And they tell – or show – us things. People don’t just walk, they walk in a certain way that might tell us how they feel, whether they’ve been injured, whether they want to go where they’re going or dread it, whether it’s hot or cold out, whether they’re wearing borrowed shoes because they can’t afford their own, whether the wind’s blowing, and so forth. They bring us into the world you’re creating, into the characters who live in it.

One other good thing about details: Writing them gives you ideas. Once you begin, for example, to tell us what a character looks like, you see that person more clearly. The way he or she combs his or her hair might tell you something about the character’s parents or general neatness and cleanliness, or whether he or she is trying to seem younger or older. There’s no telling where it will take you, but wherever it is, you wouldn’t have gotten there if you hadn’t focused on the details.

(By the way, in your final draft you might want to cut some of the details. Too many can slow the story or bore the reader. But the story will be stronger if you wrote the details in the first place.)

8. Be true to your idea and your characters, not your story.
The shortest workable description of practically any novel can be started with the words, “This is the story of a person who . . .” The Wizard of Oz is the story of a young girl who finds herself in a magical land and tries to go home again. David Copperfield is the story of a boy who tries to find out who he really is. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the story of a boy who has to learn to live with the fact that he’s a wizard.

All these descriptions begin with the who. Characters are arguably the most important component of a novel. Generally speaking, people read books to read about people. You can have a great plot, a great setting, a terrific plot twist, and a guest appearance by Hannibal Lecter, but if you haven't worked on your characters, your readers won't stay with you.

You need to know who these people are before you begin to write them, and you need to continue learning about them as you continue to write them. And you need to remember one more thing: the reader doesn't know anything you haven't shown or told him or her. It's no good for you to know that Sally, your heroine, has a richly detailed personal story that dictates the way she reacts, if you keep it to yourself. If all you've told us about Sally is that she's short and wears a plaid skirt, that's all we can be expected to know.

Here's a classic case of putting story before character. We've all seen a movie in which a bunch of characters are trapped in a spooky house with a homicidal maniac/vampire/guest appearance by Hannibal Lecter, whatever. At some point they're all gathered in the living room, relatively safe, and some idiot suggest that they each go – ALONE – to their rooms. And everybody says, “Sure, good idea,” and then they all get killed one by one.

Why? Because the screenwriter needed them to be alone, that's why. Think about what that movie could have been about: ten people and how they deal with fear and mortal peril. An act of extreme revenge by the killer. Instead, it's about ten idiots who go to their rooms alone instead of banding together against the danger. Why? Because the writer put the story ahead of the characters.

9. Treat your reader honestly.
I think that when you invite a reader to devote hours of his or her time to your book, you've made a deal. The deal on the reader's end is that he or she will give you a decent chance before throwing your book across the room. The deal on your part is that you'll do your best to keep your reader interested and entertained, and that you'll deal with him or her honestly.

What does that mean? It means that you'll play by the rules. If your book takes place in a world where people can't fly, you won't save your central character's life by having him/her sprout wings and take off. You won't bring in a deus ex machina at the last moment (literally a “god in a machine”) with the power to resolve the situation. You won't have characters do things they would never do in order to move the story along.

You might spend a lot if energy trying to mislead the reader, but you won't lie to her. Some eighty years ago, Agatha Christie wrote a detective novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, that kicked up a cloud of dust that still hasn't settled completely. The book is narrated by a Dr. Ferris, an apparently saintly character who (spoiler ahead) is unmasked at the end as the killer. All literary hell broke loose – even a critic as exalted as Edmund Wilson, who normally couldn't be bothered with mysteries, chimed in with an essay called, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”

Did Christie break faith with the reader? I say, yes, although lots of people disagree. I believe she kept too much to herself and that she represented the character of Dr. Ferris dishonestly. I wouldn't have done it. Of course, I haven't sold millions of copies of my books, either, but I don't think she played fair in this book.

Howard Thurston, known professionally as “Thurston the Great,” was one of the most famous magicians of the early 20th century. (And, of course, as a writer, you're a magician, too.) Thurston believed that the key to his success was in his attitude toward his audience. This is what he wrote:

Long experience has taught me that the crux of my fortunes is whether I can radiate good will toward my audience. There is only one way to do it, and that is to feel it. You can fool the eyes and minds of the audience, but you cannot fool their hearts.

Try to maintain that relationship with your reader, and you'll keep his or her trust.

10. It’s only a book.
When you're writing, it's important to remember that your life does not depend on the outcome of the next paragraph or the quality of the next page. There are life-and-death situations, and this isn't one of them. Writing is something you want to take seriously, something you want to do the best you can, but it's not a lung x-ray. You can get up and walk away from it for a while. You can find other ways to put it into perspective, and we'll discuss a bunch of them later on. And – this is important – writing should be fun, at least part of the time.

There's no quicker way to jam yourself hopelessly on a book than to make it the thing your entire life depends on. Don't turn it into a grim, hang-by-the-fingernails activity because if you do, you'll quit. My best advice is always to remember (a) you can always rewrite something and improve it, and (b) it's only a book.

Friday, May 28, 2010

J.T. Edson

by Jean Henry Mead

Of the hundreds of people I’ve interviewed over the years, J.T. Edson was the most entertaining. The prolific writer of Old West escapist fiction wrote from his home in England. During my interview with him at a Western Writers of America convention in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he complained that his work was considered third rate by some, although he was published by Corgi, a “posh” UK publisher.

He had no literary pretensions and said he wrote for money and didn’t care who knew it. But his tongue had been stuck in his cheek for so long that he was rarely taken seriously. He insisted that writers are "a bunch of bone-idle layabouts who have found a good way of making a living without working.” And that “I have no desire to have lived in the wild West and I've never even been on a horse. I've seen those things and they look highly dangerous at both ends and bloody uncomfortable in the middle.” He laughed uproariously, often in a high-pitched giggle.

He did have his moments of introspection. “I can make more money and do less work writing than any other job I’m capable of doing,” he said. “I’m a damned good dog trainer, but there ain’t a lot of jobs for training dogs to bite people these days. I learned to train them during the army for twelve years.” He served in the British military during “the dirty little bushfire wars in Malaya and Kenya.”

Edson turned out a novel every six to eight weeks, his fastest to finish was eleven days working eighteen hours a day. “I read Nelson Nye and other escapism-adventure authors before starting to write. I also read various classics such as Shane, and to be frank, they left me cold. I far preferred the virile stories which [British] middle-class management snobs refer to as ‘the pulps.’ One of my pet hates is that they regard all western novels as being substandard and unworthy of their superior intellect. “

He believed that he was successful in this country as well as the UK because his roots were from the same working class stock as the majority of his readers. “Unlike practically all my contemporaries and various newcomers to the field, I don’t regard writing westerns as beneath my dignity, and am willing to have my own name, not a pseudonym, on my books.”

Edson first supported his western writing habit by composing the text for British comic books. “They don’t call them comic books, they’re ‘boy’s papers.’ You write and tell the artist what to put in his little panels. It’s a very demanding and interesting style of writing. You must comprise a 3,000-word short story in forty frames while keeping the limitations in mind.”

The burly novelist worked as a postman while writing part time. Edson had gained considerable weight as a cartoonist and decided to walk it off while increasing his western sales. “At fourteen pounds to the stone, I weighed twenty stones, twelve, and my doctor was giving me hints like sending the undertaker round. I didn’t want to work in the first place, so as soon as I gathered enough money to stop working, I did. “ Not working meant writing full time, from 1961 until his death.

No matter what he wrote, it tied into his fictional family, members of the OD Connected Ranch’s outfit. His sergeants Alvin Fog, Ranse Smith, and Mark Scrapton of Company Z, Texas Rangers are the grandsons of his original characters, Dusty Fog, Mark Counter and the Ysabel Kid. Those and related continuing characters allowed him to plug various titles in his books by means of footnotes and other references. He insisted that it was simply good business but many of his peers disapproved.

Although he made many trips across the Atlantic for research, he was more concerned with entertaining his readers than providing them with accurate history. In his Calamity Jane series, he had his heroine tied to a log in a sawmill, which prompted a call from his editor. He quoted her as saying, “John, I wouldn’t have believed that any writer would dare to do this.” To which he replied, “I’ve got another marvelous idea that’s never been done before. The nasty is going to fasten Calamity Jane to the railroad track.”

(Excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers. I'm giving away five copies of the book at my Facebook site, June 10. To be eligible, go to: Maverick Writers and click on the "like" icon at the top of the page)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Nothing Wasted, Nothing Gained

by Beth Terrell

Last week, my agent called me with the news that she was heading to New York for BEA (Book Expo America) and that a publisher who had been considering my manuscript might be interested. "He loves the first 100 pages," she said, "and he loves from page 266 on, but he'd like you to do some work on the pages in between."

Ever been there? Maybe you're there now, knowing your book needs work but not quite sure where to start.

In my case, "some work" turned out to be cutting 12,000 words from the 166 pages in question. This wasn't an easy feat, since I had already trimmed the manuscript as much as I could figure out how to at the time--some 8,000 words. But he was right; the story dragged in the middle. "There's a lot of back and forth in there," I was told. This gave me the clue I needed to start renovating my novel.

I realized that I'd fallen into the trap of trying to follow my private investigator's progress too realistically. In a real investigation, one interview leads to the next, then to another. Somewhere along the way, an inconsistency is revealed. or a new clue uncovered that leads back to the first person in the chain. Then the detective goes back to confront that person. It's also not unusual for an investigator to ask the same question of several suspects. Subtle differences in their answers may provide illumination or reveal deception. Realistic, yes (at least, I think so), but when I combined all the scenes with the same suspect (as much as possible), it became painfully clear that the result was not realism but repetition that bogged down the plot.

If you've edited a novel before, you know what comes next. The first step was to combine all scenes that could be combined. This involved more than just cutting one scene and slapping it onto the end of another. In one case, Jared (my PI) wants to interview a husband and wife who recently lost a son. He calls the house, and the husband agrees that Jared can come over to talk to them, but believing his wife is in an emotionally vulnerable state, the husband makes sure she isn't home when Jared comes by. In the original version, Jared comes back later to interview the wife while the husband isn't home. I needed to combine the two scenes, but I also needed the husband to want to keep Jared away from the wife. What to do? I finally realized (yes, gentle reader, I'm slow sometimes) that if the wife answered the phone instead of the husband, I could combine the two interviews into a tension-filled scene with the wife trying to be forthcoming and her husband trying to steer her away from painful subjects.

This scene was both challenging and enlightening to write. Often, we think of tension or conflict as arising from two people arguing or fighting. (Think of the traditional romantic formula in which the man and woman seem to despise each other from their first meeting and then spend at least half the book sniping at each other.) But in this scene, two characters who love and want the best for each other have opposing ideas about how that "best" can be achieved.

With each chapter, I asked myself, "What's the key information the reader must get from this chapter?" and "Does this sentence contribute to that?" I ended up with eight fewer chapters than I had when I'd started, and after that, I was able to find some other places to tighten the manuscript. I ended up cutting a few small things that, if a publisher (the one who requested the edits) or another should accept the book, I would make a pitch to put back, but overall, I'm pleased with the results.

When she first gave me my editing assignment, my agent said, "I hate to have you do all this work when another publisher may want it as is."

"If it makes the book better, it won't be wasted," I said. "And if it doesn't make the book better, I'll learn something from it, so it still won't be wasted."

As it turns out, it was both, so whether anything comes of the pitches she's making on my behalf this week, I'm grateful to that publisher for pointing me in a direction that helped me write a better book.

How about you? Care to share a time when you learned something valuable from editing your novel?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Bone Yard

By Mark W. Danielson

Why are all these airliners in the desert? In a word, they’re being preserved. Aircraft bone yards are a testament to the WWII B-24 bomber, Lady Be Good. You see, on April 4, 1943, the Lady Be Good and 24 other airplanes took off from Soluch Airstrip in Libya to bomb the port at Naples, Italy, but things didn’t go as planned. Strong winds and poor visibility forced the bombers to take off in small groups, and Lady was one of the last to depart. Fatefully, engine problems forced the other two bombers to turn back leaving Lady alone and well behind. Lady attempted to join the bomber group prior to the target, but poor communication and crew inexperience made this impossible. Arriving too late, Lady dumped her bombs into the ocean and attempted to return to base, but somehow during this journey, managed to vanish without a trace.

Fifteen years later, a British oil exploration team spotted aircraft wreckage in the desert and decided to investigate. The markings on the nose revealed it was Lady Be Good. Other than her fuselage breaking apart just behind the wings, the B-24 was in remarkable condition. Her guns fired, her engine oil was good; even her tires had pressure. This revelation prompted the US government to “mothball” its aging aircraft at Davis Monthan Air Force base near Tucson. Since then, aircraft stored at the so-called “Bone Yard” have been used for spare parts, put back into service as drones, and sometimes put back into service as line aircraft.

Many years later, a surplus of commercial airliners led to civilian Bone Yards at Marana Airpark near Phoenix, Mojave, and the former George Air Force Base near Victorville, which is shown in the above photo. Sharp eyes will spot aircraft from a variety of airlines, including FedEx. FedEx has since returned several of these airplanes to service while storing others that are awaiting modification.

Mothballed aircraft have served other purposes as well, such as law enforcement hijacking/hostage training, movie sets, and music video backdrops. If these planes could speak, they would all have tremendous stories. Sadly, most of the bone yard aircraft await their fate of becoming recycled scrap metal.

For mystery writers, what better setting is there to hide a hostage or dump a body than a yard full of ghost planes? A setting like this offers endless opportunities. A visit to your local aviation museum may be enough to inspire a future story.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Crime of the Century

By Chester Campbell

The 20th century produced several cases that have vied for the "crime of the century" title. The Lindbergh kidnapping occupied headlines for months back in the thirties. The Charles Manson murder spree in 1969 still pops up occasionally when one of the principals generates a bit of news. And, of course, the O.J. Simpson case dragged on forever following the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole in 1994.

Although the 21st century is young, we already have a crime of the century nominee. This one isn't a murder in the normal sense, though several people have been killed. The body count could become astronomical when they start tallying up all the birds and fish and turtles. Yep, we're talking oil spill here.

For several years, my wife and I spent two weeks each March and October at a condo on the pristine white beach at Perdido Key, Florida. We aren't swimmers, but we walked barefoot in the sand most days and spent hours on the balcony watching the breakers sweep onshore. Just the thought of what will happen if that gummy reddish-black muck washes up on Perdido Key turns my stomach.

Just the possibility of what may happen has already had adverse effects on the area. Luxury condos at nearby Gulf Beach, Alabama are renting for rock-bottom prices. I've always done well at book signings in the Pensacola area and was looking forward to this fall when my new book comes out. Maybe the people will find reading mysteries a good antidote to worrying about the terrible crime that's taking place in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP is ready to attempt another method or two at stopping the flow of rogue oil that continues to pour from the well on the ocean floor. If these don't work, maybe they should try stuffing a bunch of Washington bureaucrats into the pipe. That should cause enough confusion to plug up anything that might be gushing around.

From all that's been said, neither the oil company nor it's bureaucratic overseers were prepared for such an accident. Hopefully they have learned enough to make sure it doesn't happen again. But before it's over, this is likely to go down as the worst disaster ever suffered by America's southern coast. And it may even infect parts of the east coast as well.

Speculation is that Nashville will not fully recover from the effects of last month's flood for twenty years. The Gulf Coast may be in for a similar fate.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Blog Today

by Ben Small

I apologize for not blogging today. I hate excuses, but this time I’ve got a doozy. Not only is my study being painted, but when I moved the laptop -- which had half of my blog on David Hoffman’s THE DEAD HAND, an outstanding book tracking nukes and bio-weapons from the Cold War to now -- the laptop blew up. Well, it didn’t explode really -– writer’s license -- but the operating system failed. The blue screen of death. So my laptop is residing with the Geek Squad, where they’re doing a data backup and a clean install of Windows 7 Home Premium. I won’t have it back for three days. Yes, I’ve got two other computers, but I can’t use my study except to write this, and  both of my other computers are desktops, located… well, you know… I’d have to start over, and I’d likely pass out from the smell and color myself in shades of burnt orange not covered by Coppertone. So now, I’ll put the paint canvas back over everything and smother my sorrows in pizza.

Argh. Top that if you can.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Further Adventures With E-Books

By Pat Browning

In Amy Shojai’s latest blog she talks about Kindle Boards and how to pump up your Kindle sales with “tags” and reviews. She also breaks the news that Barnes and Noble will offer pubit! this summer. “This is their version of the Ebook, with a free self -publishing platform similar to the Kindle model, to publish on the Nook.”

As a thank-you to friends, fans and pet lovers, Amy offers two articles: communicating with your cats, and treating dogs whose outdoor romps invite insect bites and stings. Many thanks to Amy for sharing her adventures with e-books.

Folks, the publishing biz is changing so fast I can’t keep up. Author J.A. Konrath set the planet on its ear by selling his books to Amazon. Now, THERE’S a twist! This clip from about Target selling Kindle books is already old news but I only heard about it a couple of days ago.

Target, a long-time Amazon partner, is going to give the Kindle a distribution hand in a small number of stores with a larger rollout later in the year.

The retailer said Wednesday that it will carry Amazon’s Kindle beginning April 25 in select stores. Specifically, Target will carry the Kindle at its flagship Minneapolis store where the retailer is based. In addition, Target will put the Kindle in 102 south Florida store. After those pilots, Target will bring the Kindle to more stores.

News of the Target distribution leaked out earlier in the month. Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble paired up with Best Buy to distribute the nook. Leading e-reader manufacturers are bolstering distribution as Apple’s iPad hits the market.

The big question is how big the market is for hard-core readers. With additional distribution at Best Buy and Target we’ll find out. Sony already distributes its Reader at retail outlets.

Target and Amazon have a solid history as partners. Amazon has hosted for years, but the parties are amicably breaking up.

Meanwhile, Google is jumping into the digital book biz with an online store. This by-lined article by Andrew Orlowski appeared at

Google has confirmed it will enter the retail digital book business, with the launch of an online store called Google Editions by July. Google Editions will also be available as a B2B service, allowing third-party retailers to sell eBooks on their own websites.

There's no word yet of any deals, and a company spokesman didn't elaborate on the question of pricing.

Currently the major publishers insist on maintaining their current flexibility with pricing via what's called an agency model, which they hope will preserve their high margins. Apple endorses such an approach to market, even though it leaves "retailers" such as itself scrapping over a smaller pool of potential profits. It's also supported by literary agents who have long-running and lucrative franchises.

Amazon looks at it a different way -- it wants to be able to set pricing, and it wants the high margins for itself. Amazon's original slice of the wholesale eBook price was an eye-watering 70 per cent, but after Apple's entry (with a publisher-friendly setup) it's since been forced to cut it back to 30 per cent.

By picking a fight with the book business, Amazon has been taught a lesson in where the power really lies. Publisher Macmillian withdrew rights to its vast catalog in the New Year, and Penguin stopped providing digital eBooks to Amazon a month ago. Apple is happy to work with publishers rather than dictate terms, because it sees it as a two-sided market -- Apple makes its revenue from hardware, and content is merely a something that makes the hardware more attractive. Amazon wants both the profits of a traditional distributor and retailer and hardware profits. Something has to give.

You may by now be scratching your head and wondering where Google will make any money, since it doesn't make any money (even indirectly) from Android, and it's not an advertising play. You're not alone.

So, what does it all mean for authors? I think it means that authors who are fast on their feet are going to clean up.

And here’s Amy’s blog.

May 20, 2010, 4:56 pm

The news about my Kindle journey continues to be positive, with Complete Kitten Care continuing to sell well, now into the double digits in less than a month. I'm told (by them-thar experienced E-authors) that the key to sales is tags-tags-tags, and reviews-reviews-reviews. Well, that's one part of the key, anyway, but the sales puzzle has a combination lock that challenges the most savvy biz people. I'm still learning. In the weeks ahead, I plan to set up a paypal for offering the PDF (full color!) version of the book via my website.

Anyway, the Kindle Boards has been extraordinarily helpful. One of the ongoing threads supports authors with tags, each poster encouraged to tag all the other posted books in order to garner the same courtesy. One of these kind souls also posted a link to a similar Facebook-Amazon-Tag group which offers a similar service.

For those who missed the explanation in a previous blog, the tags describe the content of a given book and are suggested by both the author/publisher and by readers. Then visitors to that Amazon book page have the option to vote and agree the tag accurately describes the book. Those books with large numbers of tags in a given subject theoretically rise in the Amazon rankings so that should a visitor to Amazon search for a book with that content, YOUR book so tagged will be high on the list and get the attention it deserves.

Thus far, my Complete Kitten Care has garnered 30-58 "votes" on the various tags that include cat, kitten, breed and the like. I'm also grateful to Fran Pennock Shaw, Carol Shenold, Dena Harris and others for their glowing reviews. Note: I will happily give you and your books a shout-out should you happen to review my book. *s* Hey, as with cat training, bribes are legal, right? I'll keep you posted on when the other books are kindle-lized.

Breaking news--I just learned that Barnes and Noble will offer pubit! coming this summer. This is their version of the Ebook, with a free self publishing platform similar to the Kindle model, to publish on the Nook. Smashwords is another option which can be downloaded on the Sony reader (and yes, I'm looking into all of these option).

Meanwhile, on the article-writing front, I've been typing my fingers down to the claws. So as promised, here are some free "furry reads" as a thank you to all the folks following this blog. Please share with your other pet-loving friends.

For cat lovers -- do you understand what she's saying? Cat language stymies even the most loving cat owners. Did you know, for instance, that wetting on your bed (ew!!!) actually might be a cat compliment? Understanding talk...can help owners solve behavior problems and enrich the relationship you have with Kitty. Read “Cat Talk: Cat Language Explained” at

On-the-go dogs delight in outdoor adventures, but too often they sniff out pesky bugs that prove aggravating or even dangerous. Recently my happy-go-lucky German shepherd pup Magic morphed into a miserable crybaby, courtesy of “something” that bit or stung. His eyes swelled shut, muzzle inflated, and hives made fur stand off his body in an itchy checkerboard pattern that prompted nonstop scratching.

Fur offers some protection but paws and sparsely furred tummies are at risk especially in areas that host fire ants. Dogs who play with bees, wasps, spiders or scorpions suffer stings on the face, head or even inside the mouth. Bites and stings beneath the fur may be hard to see or treat, but first-aid usually is all that’s needed to relieve any minor swelling, itching or redness.

• Bees leave behind the stinger, which may continue to pump venom into the skin. Use a credit card or similar rigid tool to scrape it free.
• A cold pack or compress applied to the bite helps reduce the swelling. A bag of frozen peas or corn works well, and molds against the pet’s body.
• A baking soda and water paste works great to soothe the sting, but it can be messy when applied to fur so use only on exposed tummies.
• Ammonia works great to cool the pain of fire ant bites. Moisten a cotton ball and dab on the stings. Calamine lotion also soothes ant bites.
• For stings inside the mouth, offer ice cubes or ice water for the pet to lick and drink.
• You can also mix a teaspoonful of baking soda into a pint of water, and squirt the solution into his mouth with a turkey baster or squirt gun, if he’ll allow you to do this.
• As long as your dog continues to breathe with no problem, a veterinary visit may not be necessary even if the face swells quite a bit. Benadryl, an antihistamine, counters swelling and itching. A safe dose is one milligram for every pound your pet weighs or a Benadryl ointment can be used directly on the sting.

Hives usually go away on their own after a day or so, and sooner if treated with an antihistamine. Magic felt better within only twenty minutes of the first dose of Benadryl but it needed to be repeated when it wore off. Benedryl also causes drowsiness as a side effect so the pup slept through the night and recovered by the next morning. Today he gives fire ant mounds a wide berth.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Good How-to Writing Books

by Jean Henry Mead

There are a number of good books on writing available, many of value to even the most experienced writers. During the past year I’ve accumulated several that I’d like to share:

~Richard Curtis’s How to be Your Own Literary Agent has been around since 1983, and was revised and expanded in 2003. Curtis doesn’t advise fledglings to become their own agents, despite the book’s title, but offers advice for those brave enough to try. A top notch agent with forty plus year's experience, he outlines in detail what his job entails. He also lists the reasons why publishers can no longer afford over the transom submissions.

How to negotiate your own contract alone is worth the price of the book as well as termination and revision rights, royalty statements and the bookkeeping games that publishers play. He also talks about warranties, permissions, option causes, ancillary rights, cyberbooks and hyper authors, ebooks, movie and TV deals and what writers need to know to launch their careers in today’s publishing environment, among other insider tips.

~Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘em Dead with Style by Hallie Ephron is another book writers should read. Novelist and broadcast journalist Hank Phillippi Ryan swears that Ephron’s book enabled her to write her award winning novels. Ephron talks about planning a novel, writing a dramatic opening, creating a sense of place, fixing plots and characters, and targeting agents.

Ephron also discusses villains, choosing a title for your book, introducing your protagonist, planting clues or red herrings, laying in backstory, minor characters, point of view, dialogue and everything in between. I highly recommend this book written by a best selling novelist.

~How to Writer Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat is another book writers should have on their shelves. I especially enjoyed her chapter on writing killer fiction. Her introduction quotes the late John Gardner, who wrote, “Fiction is like a dream.” She goes on to say that “Fiction can send us on a roller coaster ride of sensation, or it can produce images as distorted as any to be seen in the funhouse mirror in the carnival.” And “If fiction is like a dream, then suspense is a nightmare. The hero, and through the hero the reader, is plunged into chaos, driven from one extreme to the other, hounded and disbelieved and threatened with ultimate danger.”

Wheat writes of many aspects of her “Funhouse of Mystery,” including organizing your novel, the two-layered ending, spy fiction offshoots, the hero’s journey, how to finish your book before it finishes you, endings that satisfy, the storyboard, comic relief and much more.

Another how-to book I’ve been hearing about for some time but only acquired recently is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, an abstract and somewhat shocking account of her journey as a writer. A fiction writing teacher, she writes of her experiences growing up, in her classroom, as well as writing her own novels. In the book she says, “Now, who knows if any of this is usable material? There’s no way to tell until you’ve got it all down, and then there might just be one sentence or one character or one theme that you end up using. But you get it all down. You just write.” Word by word. Bird by bird. The writing advice and lessons she offers her students as well as her readers is invaluable.

I’ve saved some of the best for last: Chris Roerden’s award winning books, Don't Murder Your Mystery and Don’t Sabotage Your Submission. The former New York editor, freelance editor and author lists ten reasons writers cause editors to cringe: Arrogance, as in:
~ My book is so good it doesn’t need editing.
~ The only thing it could use is maybe a light proofreading.
~ Everyone will want to buy it.
~ Every publisher will want to publish it.
~ They’re getting a bargain at 150,000 words.
~ To make sure no one steals my ideas, I’ve already registered the copyright.
~ I don’t have to read guidelines, write a synopsis, or play by any of those other Mickey Mouse rules because those are for amateurs.
~ I never read books about writing.
~ What genre is it, you ask? Let the publisher figure that out. They’re in the business. It’s got romance, mystery, history, and biography, and autobiography.
~There isn’t another book like it.
(Excerpted from my soon to be released book, Mysterious Writers)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Creating Civilized Characters

By Mark W. Danielson

Civilized is such an interesting word. It describes many things, but rarely does it describe wildlife. My Denver neighborhood is home to hawks, eagles, foxes, and coyotes because of its abundance of prairie dogs. Similarly, deer roaming Boulder neighborhoods attract cougars, New York City rats attract birds of prey, and sometimes, Florida pets attract alligators. I’ve seen owls nesting inside a Lowe’s store, bald eagles nest in a tree surrounded by busy streets, and mallard ducklings paddle in hotel fountains. Wherever you look, you will see wildlife coexisting with us. So, why is it so hard for us civilized humans to get along with each other?

Not long ago, the Memphis Zoo had a “free day”. With perfect weather, twenty-five thousand people showed up to take advantage of this special event. Kids held balloons and ate candy, and then skirmishes broke out. Rival gang members had sent text messages to each other to meet there, and when the gunshots rang out, the police were called, and the zoo was evacuated, ruining the day. Amazingly, no one was killed.

The premeditated actions of a few thugs were vileness. Everyone who saw this story felt nothing but contempt for those responsible. Taking a fight to a place of joy filled with young children goes beyond explanation. These people had no sense of civility.

By definition, civilized means having a highly developed society and culture. It infers refinement in taste and manners. It shows evidence of moral and intellectual advancement; humane, ethical, and reasonable behavior. Civilized people are cultured, polite. But this photo also shows that animals can lovingly interact with other species. This particular polar bear returned every day for a week to hug this chained sled dog. Wildlife kill for food or protection; not for sport. This is a key point when developing evil characters.

My reason for comparing animals to people is to ensure authors develop characters that readers will care about. Thugs who kill without explanation have no place in mystery novels. We all know such people exist, but that doesn’t mean we want to read about them. If I can’t empathize with a story’s characters, I will close the book and toss it. Conversely, if I have a sense that the character’s past led him or her to commit dreadful acts, then I’m far more inclined to read on.
There is a fine line between civilized and wild, just as there is between murderer and tortured victims. We have seen plenty of belittled people who have lashed out, in which case they were both murderers and tortured victims. Every writer has the opportunity to create complex characters. Have fun with them, and most importantly, make us care.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ban Ethnic Studies?

by Ben Small

Arizona banned Ethnic Studies from the public schools last week, and needless to say, the media and some Hispanic students are up in arms, protesting the loss of their heritage, even mock-assassinating state leaders. What's next? some say. Shooting Hispanics on sight?

But this isn't really a racial or ethnics origin discrimination issue. Arizona is broke, and closing schools, laying off teachers, almost doubling in-state tuition at state universities, and putting a sales tax hike on tomorrow's ballot. In this background of rising costs and a shrinking tax base, the state wants to focus more on core subject matters in its public schools, eliminating some electives. At both Arizona State and the University of Arizona, whole departments have been erased and others merged. And because of union contracts, the State cannot terminate tenured university professors and replace them with much cheaper adjuncts.

But it's the banning of the Ethnic Studies programs that has caught most of the attention, and this action, combined with Arizona's recent illegal immigrant legislation, has liberals across the country demanding Arizona boycotts. In response to those boycott calls, other groups have set up web pages to support Arizona, and some conservative-leaning groups are arranging Arizona conventions to replace dollars lost by boycotts.

There's never a dull moment in Arizona these days.

But the Ethnic Studies ban raises some interesting issues. Is an Ethnic Studies Program a right? If so, must every student have a right to an Ethnic Studies program? As you might imagine, most Arizona Ethnic Studies programs focus on Hispanics, especially those of Mexican derivation. I've yet to see a Caucasian Studies program anywhere, and if one was set up, I surely expect somebody would object. But what if there's one Chinese student at a school? Or a Pakistani? Must a program be set up for those students, too?

Are employers looking to hire someone who graduates with an Ethnic Studies major? I doubt it.

I'm not cynical enough to think Ethnic Studies programs aren't useful. Everyone should be proud of their heritage. But who's responsible for teaching heritage? Aren't there other institutions that can and do fill in the gaps? Church groups, for instance? And what about parents? Shouldn't parents have a role in teaching their children to be proud of their heritage?

Private schools, of course, can teach whatever they want. Catholic schools have been private since their inception, and it's not only the rich who attend them. We have plenty of rich Hispanics in Arizona. No doubt, if pressed, some of these folks would help establish private Hispanic schools... if there were such a need. Hispanics have been in Arizona for hundreds of years. Indeed, their presence here was a major reason William Randolph Hearst pushed Congress to make marijuana illegal and funded the movie Reefer Madness as a scare tactic. Hearst wanted to chase Hispanics away.

That worked well, didn't it?

A good friend is a Tucson high school chemistry teacher. He tells me that students take Ethnic Studies in his school district because it's an easy A. And since Ethnic Studies and other feel-good programs were adopted, enrollment in hard science courses has dropped. Meanwhile, companies like United Technologies (my former employer), General Electric, Microsoft and other technology-based companies and the industries they serve can't find enough new engineers and scientists to replace those retiring.

So they import them.

Banning Ethnic Studies programs doesn't mean the textbooks which support them aren't still available. People who want to learn about the subject can just buy the textbooks, or even borrow them from local libraries. And ethnicity is covered history classes; it's part of the Melting Pot genealogy of our country.

When my father pulled my sister and me out of Catholic school because our Monseigneur threatened to ex-communicate my mother if my father took us to see Martin Luther in the Fifties, we had to go to Catholic education classes outside of the public schools. Can't Ethnic Studies be handled similarly? Or would that interfere too much with a student's party-time?

Many parents today don't spend enough time with their kids. They don't know where they are; they don't know what they're doing. These kids are easy prey to gangs, and in Arizona, most gangs are of Hispanic origin. If Ethnic Studies are so critical, maybe parents should get involved. Maybe bringing these studies into the home will bring parents and kids closer together.

But these days, pathos is king. The media loves to blow an issue out of proportion. They'll show demonstrations and protests, but from camera angles that magnify the numbers present. I drove by the protests last week. There were maybe thirty or forty kids, but the evening news portrayed it as hundreds.

Egads. Somebody call Al Sharpton.

Meanwhile, Arizona's getting back to the basics, those courses and curricula that will prepare one for college or a job. And in this job market, isn't that more important?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Little Kindle Music, Please

By Pat Browning

Amy Shojai, past president of the Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. (OWFI) decided her out-of-print books deserved another life so she began putting them on Kindle. She has blogged her progress in detail, as a guide for other writers who might like to “Kindle-ize” their books.

Amy is one of the busiest writers I know. Just reading her bio makes me want to lie down and take a nap.

Briefly, Amy Shojai is a nationally known authority on pet care and behavior, is a certified animal behavior consultant, a spokesperson for the pet products industry, and the author of 23 nonfiction pet books and hundreds of articles and columns. She is the behavior expert at, hosts a weekly half-hour radio “Pet Peeves” show at, and appears as an expert on Animal Planet's "Dogs 101" and "Cats 101."

Her award winning columns appear in the Herald Democrat newspaper, at Purina’s and, and She also hosts “Ask The Pet Care Expert” at She appears in a twice-monthly TV “Pet Talk” segment at KXII-CBS.

On April 10 Amy posted this on her blog:
I have had 23 pet care and behavior books published since 1992, all by "mainstream" bigtime NYC publishers. In the beginning, my agent commanded 6-figure advances for my books, and some of these books have sold extremely well.

It sucks to start at the top, cuz there's only one direction to go from there, especially when Internet freebies and economic challenges meet. The Internet and Animal Planet killed the kinds of books I write--prescriptive, heavily researched, highly reliable info-tainment about cat and dog care, behavior and training. Why buy a book, when you can access the information for free--and who cares if it's the latest research from reliable sources or just the "guru of the moment" spouting off. Free = good.

Anyway, I have a number of solid-information books looking for a new life (and audience) as Ebooks. If folks want information from the Internet, I won't fight them--and in fact, I'll HELP them find some solid, good material at a price this economy can afford. Heck, I think some of these titles now sell on Ebay for $90 or so, and meanwhile I can provide updated information in a format they want at a fraction of the cost to readers or to me.

And so began Amy's journey as a Kindle-izer. Formatting non-fiction books like hers may be different from formatting fiction text but even fiction writers can benefit from her experience.

On April 23, Amy posted a recap of her progress.

It's Alive! The Kindle-izing Journey continues...
by Amy D Shojai
April 23, 2010, 1:40 pm

After a little over a month, much research and even more angst, Complete Kitten Care is LIVE and available for $2.99 at Kindle. Whew!

While publishing via the DTP (digital text plaform) provided by Amazon works great for text-only (fiction) works, there are a number of hoops nonfiction cat-egories must leap. Pun intended. I promised a recap for all my followers, and I promise it's not nearly as difficult as I made it. So for all you other DWAA and CWA and other nonfiction authors including all my good friends at OWFI, (maybe even some nonfiction Thriller Writers?) here's how I did it.

1. Create a single document by combining all chapters into one.

2. Format with the "style" templates to code your documents for the table of contents. For each chapter heading, I used "Heading 1" and then "Heading 2" and so on for either section heading and/or breakout boxes of text. I found that the software default for HTML codes in the TOC recognized Heading 1, 2 and 3.

Remove any tables, boxes of information or other such graphics, as they will not translate. Instead format them with bolded or italicized text, or use Heading 4, 5, 6 etc. These won't be recognized in the TOC, but the look/format will remain true once translated into HTML. I used this technique to highlight "pull out" information such as sidebars.

3. Insert any photos at low resolution (72 dpi) but as large as possible to be viewable once published in the Kindle. A gif or jpg file works well. Kindle only displays black and white pictures; HOWEVER, if you have color, why not use them? The FREE Kindle-for-PC does display color, and perhaps in the future the handheld will as well.

For what it's worth, I set my page size to A5 (about 6" x 8.25") to approximate the view from the smaller Kindle, before sizing my photos. I also placed them between paragraph breaks, which worked well at that size--but not as well if the page is read in larger format or changed to smaller type. I suspect there's not much to be done in this case although you can set it to "word wrap" which helps a bit.

4. Insert any links you wish. In my bio section, I've included my other writing venues as well as my website. Throughout COMPLETE KITTEN CARE, any website mentions for products or resources also have live click-able links.

When the books COMPLETE CARE FOR YOUR AGING CAT and COMPLETE CARE FOR YOUR AGING DOG are updated and published, they will include hot links to veterinary resources, and the experts interviewed for the books.

5. Click on the "references" tab in Word software, and find the "table of contents" command. There are default choices, or you can build your own. I used the template. It automatically lists, in order, every single word you've "coded" with Header 1, 2, and 3, with associated page numbers and clickable bookmarks to that given page.

6. To convert the finished document to HTML, you will SAVE-AS, click on OTHER FORMATS and save as a WEB PAGE, FILTERED. You will lose much of your margins and formatting, but don't let that scare you. Check throughout for any inadvertent missing paragraph tabs. Remember, this will be translated once more by the Amazon DTP software.

7. If you have any photos in the text, the HTML conversion will create both an HTML text document with 'placeholder' spots for images, and a second folder that contains the files of those images. You'll need to 'zip' or compress both of these into a single document. Highlight both files, and then right-click the mouse, SEND TO, and click on compressed (zip) file. THAT is the file you will upload to the Digital Text Platform.

Once you've uploaded, be sure to view the test version. This process can be tedious because each page takes a couple of seconds to load. It is well worth checking for formatting errors at this stage, though. If you publish at this stage, and later find errors, you will need to re-publish all over again.

Good luck! I hope this journey helps others. And once again (cuz it's my blog and I can!), I hope y'all will spread the word about this how-to blog. And if you need good pet care information or know someone who does, please consider my Kindle-ized books.

I've just updated my homepage to reflect the new kitten book--along with a new author photo, what fun!
Happy Writing!
You can read all of Amy’s posts on her Kindle-izing journey at her blog:

The blog also has a link to her web page.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Rock Hound Heaven

by Jean Henry Mead

I've always been a rock hound. As a child I collected rocks, displaying them on every available surface, much to my parents' dismay. Years later, when I moved to Wyoming, I discovered a treasure trove of colorful boulders, which I wrote about in my centennial book, Casper Country: Wyoming's Heartland.

While researching the book I learned that the high plains landmass, now known as Wyoming, was one of the first sections of molten planet to cool and solidify nearly four billion years ago.
Most of the rocks are huge, the size of pickup trucks and eighteen wheelers. One of them one tumbled down an embankment Wednesday afternoon in the Wind River Mountains. The boulder came to rest on the railroad tracks, causing the derailment of a southbound BNSF freight train, which slid into the river following several weeks of snow and rain. So the rocks are not only a pleasure to photograph, they're an ever present danger.

I prefer photographing boulders at eye level, such as the cluster at the entrance to Cottonwood Beach at Lake Alcova.

One of my favorites includes the huge boulder below, which resembles a whale, its mouth wide, ready to swallow a fossilized fish.

The large rock stacked atop another reminds me of a granite robot searching the skies for yet another approaching storm.

I envy the young rock climbers below, whom I photograhed last week near Black Beach, not far from Pathfinder Reservoir. I'd love to be able to hug the warm rock face. but I get dizzy standing on a step ladder.

To see more of my rock collection, go to Rock Hound Heaven (lower left panel photo album). Double click to enlarge the photos.

(c) copyright 2010 by Jean Henry Mead
Train wreck photo by Dan Cepeda of the Casper Star-Tribune