Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Writing Basics

By Mark W. Danielson

A recent speaking engagement to a group of aspiring writers took me back to the basics of writing. Upon hearing their introductions, I soon realized these people were members of a critique group who were interested in hearing what published authors had to say.
Some in attendance were writing non-fiction while others were working on fiction. Still others were writing their memoirs. All wanted to know how to find a good editor or a good publisher. My best recommendation was for them to review blogs such as this one that include advice on those and other writing related topics.

Following this meeting, I decided to summarize some basic writing principles for the benefit of anyone who is seeking similar information. I’m hopeful that other authors will chime in with their own recommendations or experiences. Having said that, I’ll proceed with some writing basics.

First and foremost, no one speaks to wanna-be writers better than Stephen King in his book, On Writing. King truly wants writers to benefit from his experience and even offers them an exercise that if you follow precisely, he or a member of his staff will offer their critique. To me, this book is as important as a thesaurus, dictionary, or style guide. If you don’t already own it, buy it. You’ll also learn some interesting things about King.

A key point made by every successful author is that writers must also read. As King bluntly says, if you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time to write. How can you understand different writing styles if you haven’t read them? I’ve put many books down because I couldn’t force myself to finish them. Since I never want anyone doing that with my own books, I analyze what it was that turned me off in a particular story and learn from it. Conversely, if I like a story, then I try to determine why the pages kept turning.

People frequently tell me they would like to write, but don’t know what to write about. Certainly, everyone has at least one story in them, and that’s the story of their life. One of my fellow pilots just told me about his surviving a plane crash during an air show. He was one of two that survived. The other four died. His story was a remarkable testament about flying and survival. Burned over forty percent of his body, he made a remarkable recovery and was flying again in four months. Since them, he has performed countless blacked out landings with the Air Force in various parts of the world and is currently flying as an airline pilot. No one will ever know about stories like his unless they are spoken or written down. Writing your memoirs is a great way to re-live memories while developing a suitable writing style. The key is to write the story as if you were telling it at a family reunion. Don’t throw in an overabundance of detail for it will slow the pace. Deduct ten points for every unnecessary adjective.

Regardless of what you write about, you must read it out loud during the editing process. Doing so catches the majority of your grammatical errors and also flags bad dialogue. What may look good on paper may not sound believable when read aloud. Whatever you write about, keep it real.

Accuracy is equally important in both fiction and non-fiction because inaccuracies dissolve credibility. In non-fiction, inaccuracies may also warrant libel suits. No author can afford either.

There are plenty other important items worth passing on. Published authors, remember what it was like when you first started. Think about your mentors’ best advice and please offer it generously.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Got a Cure for Blogger's Block?

By Chester Campbell

I've never been plagued by that strange malady known as writer's block. When I start on a story, I have no problem pursuing it to the end. Of course, when I get to the end, that isn't really the end. It's just time to go back to the beginning and start revising. But lately I've faced another dilemma: blogger's block. I sit down to create one of these scintillating journalistic exercises and...nothing. No idea what to write about. Should it be a piece on the craft of mystery writing, a short essay on some topic of current interest, some hopefully exciting tale from my checkered career?

Okay, say we try the writing assignment. I've been crafting mysteries full-time, more of less, for the last twenty years. I've read numerous books on writing, sat through panels at conferences and conventions covering just about any area of writing you could imagine. I've devoured my share of essays on everything from plots to characters to settings to...well, how about stuff to avoid (adverbs) and stuff to concentrate on (active verbs). Is there anything that hasn't been covered? Not likely. Do I have a unique approach to any of this?

I suppose my contribution might serve to remind someone of something they already knew but let slide in the pressure of the moment. That's one of the advantages I get from attending writers' conferences. It jogs my memory of things I should be putting into practice but have gotten away from over time.

Maybe it would be a good idea to take on some current hot-button issue. Politics is the big thing now, with the elections coming up in a few weeks. That's a sure way to stir people's ire. If you happen to be on the opposite side from them, you'd better be wearing a Kevlar vest. Have you read the comments following political pieces in places like the Huffington Post? If you enjoy crucifixion, give it a try.

You'd think everybody would be against taxes, but not this season. If you make more than $250,000, you're one of "them." I hardly take in a fraction of that, but it isn't because I wouldn't like to. My wife and I are always talking about how we wish we had enough money we could hand out $20 bills to every guy we see standing on the corner with a sign. Guess I'll have to save taxes for another time.

Hmm, looks like I'm down to my last choice, writing about an exciting adventure from my past. I've already covered a bunch of those, like the time my fourteen-year old buddy and I rode our bikes to the airport and went up in a snazzy open cockpit plane. I recently wrote in my own blog about rafting into the River of No Return Wilderness Area. I'm sure there are plenty of others I could  dig out of my rusty memory banks, but it's getting late and this blog needs to be up at 12:01 a.m.

So guess I'm back to my opening question: anybody got a cure for blogger's block?

Find me suffering also at Mystery Mania.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Franklin Wonder Five

by Ben Small

Most folks know that the state of Indiana is associated with basketball, but nobody knows when Hoosier Hysteria began. But it's there, part of every Hoosier's proud heritage.

As a kid, I remember crowding in front of the radio to listen to Crispus Attucks' rampage through the state. Crispus Attucks, the first all black school permitted to play white teams. And play them Crispus Attucks did, as the Robertson brothers, Bailey and Oscar and their team, coached by now legendary Ray Crowe, took everybody down hard, blistering the nets, pounding up numbers few could believe. Oscar, the Big O. To this day, the only player to ever average the rare triple double  for his entire NBA career.

My father told me about the Milan Miracle, spoke of it often, and then lo' and behold, Milan's legendary coach, Marvin Wood -- portrayed badly in Hoosiers -- came to my high school, became my coach, teacher and friend.

Ah, the stories...

Outsiders associate Hoosier Hysteria with college basketball, most recently Butler, but thoughts of Indiana Universities' five national championships and 1976 undefeated season dominate, There's often the reminder that Bob Knight's 1975 team, spoiled when Scott May broke his arm late in the 1975 season, was actually the better team.

Yes, the fever for college basketball -- even the NBA -- runs hot in the Hoosier state. Fall, even with its blustery cold winds, cold wet leaves and the birth of cold-and-flu miseries, is a welcome season,

Fall means basketball.

Contrary to what some sports commentators seem to think, Hoosier Hysteria is rooted in high school basketball; always has been, may always be so. As the state of Indiana developed and communities -- particularly schools -- merged through the years, there was often more talk among town councils school boards about team lineups and schedules, more worrying about the potential for lost team traditions, than about budget, headcount or moola-matters.

Well, maybe...

Ask any native Hoosier about the Vans, Glenn Robinson, Jimmy Rayl, Rick Mount, George McGinnis or Steve Downing. Ask them about Tony Hinkle or Butler Fieldhouse. You're likely to get a lengthy response.

Ask them about Fuzzy Vandivier...


Fuzzy Vandivier, the guy who legendary coach John Wooden, a Hoosier himself, said was the best basketball player he'd ever seen. My father took me to meet Fuzzy once, but I don't remember much about the meeting; I was too young. But there was the sense my father gushed all over poor Fuzzy, regaling him with stories my grandfather told him.

See, Fuzzy played in the early Twenties. That's why you don't know him.

You know about the so-called "Fab Five" Michigan hired some years ago. Memories of that excitement are tarnished forever by the Chris-Webber-being-paid scandal.

But what about the Franklin Wonder Five? Betcha never heard of them.

Some Hoosier Hysterics know the name: "Fuzzy's team," they'll say. "Make that "teams.'"

The Franklin Wonder Five were local kids who grew up together playing basketball on outside dirt courts around tiny Franklin, Indiana, when they weren't beating every high school, college and pro team they played, winning state and national championships alike.  

In modern street terms, when it came to basketball in the early Twenties, Franklin College (student pop. 350) "ruled."  A team so cool, the mighty New York Celtics, the best pro team in the land, begged to play them. Sadly, both the Wonder Five and Franklin College said no. 

Grades, you know. Gotta study. 

There were no big shoe contracts, no enormous salaries; no media spots, rap songs, flashy chains, tattooes or ear-rings. No internet; hence, no Facebook, Twitter, TMZ...whatever. Just a love of basketball, shared by five small town neighborhood buddies who were endowed with championship spirit and the drive, discipline and determnination to achieve their goals. What were those goals? Simple: To have fun and play basketball.  

Part of Hoosier Hysteria. The stuff discussed around Hoosier barber shops, water coolers, curbs and card tables back in the day. The stuff our fathers told us and that we passed on to our children, enhanced a bit perhaps by ripening memories.  

Maybe sometimes we look too far forward for our heroes and fail to consider worthy candidates from the past, Perhaps someone close by, someone in our roots, our heritages, our traditions.   

Well, look... If you're short on heroic achievements to pass onto your Hoosier kinfolk, read up on Fuzzy and his pals. The Franklin Wonder Five may give you inspiration.

For references to the Franklin Wonder Five, see Philip Ellet's book HERE, or check out Wikipedia HERE.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Are You Fiction Or Nonfiction?

By Pat Browning
Literary agent Michael Larsen’s blog at
covers topics from storytelling to publishing and everything in between. This week, with his permission, I’m reprinting his Sept. 15th blog -- “Memoirists: Are You Fiction or Nonfiction?”

The husband and wife team of Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada left New York for San Francisco and opened their own literary agency in 1972. They founded the prestigious San Francisco Writers Conference almost eight years ago.

The next conference is scheduled for February 18- 20, 2011. It will feature nearly 100 agents, authors, editors and book industry professionals. Attendees will have access to more than 50 “how to" sessions, panels, and workshops taught by authors. Speed Dating for Agents and Ask a Pro offer one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work directly to publishing professionals.

New this year is a contest for independent and self-published authors. Here’s a quote from contest publicity: “In this new era of digital publishing with eBooks, Print on Demand (POD) books and more, there are now many paths to publication," said Laurie McLean, Contest Director of the San Francisco Writers Conference and Dean of the soon to debut San Francisco Writers University. "While the Holy Grail remains a contract with one of the big six publishers in New York, that goal is getting more elusive than ever for writers. We are offering the indie alternative to get to the big six--and hoping to establish the credibility for indie publishing that the indie film and music industries enjoy today."

Check out The Indie Publishing Contest where you can win a publishing package complete with distribution, marketing and more. Deadline to enter is January 5, 2011. Details at the conference web site:
Memoirists: Are You Fiction or Nonfiction?
By Michael Larsen
William Hamilton once did a cartoon showing an aspiring young woman writer asking a balding, mustachioed literary type: “Are you fiction or nonfiction?”

If you’re writing a memoir (a me-moir to the cynical) you may wonder whether it would be better as a novel. What reasons might there be for making that decision?
Legal Reasons
Publishers are extremely wary about anything that might cause litigation. If you’re going to include unflattering things about living people, they may sue. You can disguise them, but if you’re living in a small town or people will know who you’re referring to anyway, that won’t help.
Personal Reasons
Fictionalizing your past may make it easier to write about. A memoir is constrained by the truth. Writing fiction liberates you to alter your experience as you wish.
Literary Reasons
What are your literary goals in writing the book? If you want to create a legacy for your friends and family, writing a memoir makes more sense. Nonfiction is easier to write because you’re drawing on your experiences and facts you can verify.

But writing fiction liberates you to create whatever combination of character, plot, and setting will have the most impact on readers. And a memoir should read like a novel. Frank McCourt’s bestseller, Angela’s Ashes, which ignited the interest in memoirs, certainly does. You could call it a novel without changing a word. The dialogues he had as a child with his family capture the emotional truth if not the factual truth of what was said.

Like a novel, a memoir has to describe places, characters, and situations so readers will want to keep reading about them. The book needs a story arc that traces your transformation from who you are at the beginning of the book to the person you become after being changed by your experiences. Many novels, especially first novels, are autobiographical, and all novels make use of the author’s experience filtered by the imagination and the needs of the story.
Commercial Reasons
What are your financial goals for your memoir? Will it be more salable as a novel? Will it be more promotable? Will it have more film and foreign rights potential? Will have more potential for follow-up books?

My partner, Elizabeth Pomada, spent quite a while trying to sell Pam Chun’s biography of her great grandfather, The Money Dragon. Finally, we suggested Pam call it a novel, and the first publisher to see it published it complete with photos and trial transcripts. It became a prizewinning bestseller in Hawaii, where it’s set.

I hope these considerations help you answer the question of whether to fictionalize your memoir. Everyone has a story to tell, and I encourage you to tell yours. First get it down on paper in the most effective, enjoyable way you can, and get feedback from a fiction or memoir critique group as you write. Then, if you still can’t decide whether to fictionalize it, let your community of readers help you figure out how best to offer your story to the world. If your writing has enough humor, drama, insight, or inspiration, it will find its audience.

Take heart. The hardest part of many memoirs is surviving the research!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Authors and Alcohol

by Jena Ellis and Jean Henry Mead

I regularly receive requests for interviews and guest blogs, the most unusual an article from Jena Ellis of the Online Certificate Program. Originally titled "10 Famous Writers Who Didn’t Die From Suicide or Alcohol," I decided to rename the piece and include alcoholic writers of the past.

Among the better known writers addicted to alcohol were: Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote, Edgar Allen Poe, Dorothy Parker, Dylan Thomas, O. Henry, John Cheever, Raymond Chandler and Hunter Thompson. I was surprised to find John Steinbeck and Jack London among them.

Many great 20th century writers, Americans in particular, struggled with alcohol addiction. Some apparently believed that liquor contributed to their creative talents, while others used it as medication for emotional problems. I wonder whether writers have a higher incidence of addictions than the general public. If anyone knows, please feel free to comment.

Jena's list of writers who did not succumb to alcohol and suicide includes:

Isaac Asimov achieved a lot during his 72 years. In addition to being a professor of biochemistry, he was a titan in the sci-fi world, with his name on more than 500 books as author or editor. The epic Foundation series was one of the most popular and acclaimed works, and his Three Laws of Robotics became a foundational bedrock for many of his writings. He also produced a number of history volumes in later life, examining the Greeks, the Romans, and the Egyptians. He received multiple awards and more than a dozen honorary doctorates in lengthy and influential career. He died in 1992 after some earlier health problems, including a heart attack, and years later it was revealed that some of the complications were a result of HIV contracted during a blood transfusion.

Patricia Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921. She was acclaimed for her suspenseful psychological thrillers, most notably the Tom Ripley franchise. Her debut novel was Strangers on a Train, adapted to a successful film by Alfred Hitchcock, and The Talented Mr. Ripley would go on to inspire multiple film versions. Highsmith, a lesbian, often created works with gay undertones, marking her as one of the more progressive authors of the mid-20th century. She wound up publishing 22 novels and eight short-story collections before dying of leukemia in 1995 at age 74.

James Baldwin was another gay writer notable for tackling issues of sex and race long before others were so open about it. He debuted with the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1953, and would go on to explore race and class and a variety of other issues with his incisive essays and fiction work. He also became active in the civil rights movement, and his 1972 nonfiction work No Name in the Street examined the movement and the death of major leaders Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr. Baldwin died at age 63 in 1987 from esophageal cancer, leaving behind an influential body of work that continues to challenge and inspire.

L. Frank Baum left an indelible mark on children’s literature with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which remains a classic thanks in no small part to the beloved 1939 film. What some forget that is that Baum also wrote thirteen sequels to create an immensely detailed fantasy franchise, and he wrote scores of other novels, short stories, and poetry. Baum campaigned for women’s suffrage. He died of a stroke in 1919, not long before he would have turned 63.

Ken Kesey was a prominent counterculture figure during the tumultuous 1960s, though he considered himself something of a lost man between the earlier beatniks and later hippies. After a small start, Kesey gained prominence in 1962 with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which he was inspired to write after working the night shift at a veterans’ hospital. It became an instant success and was soon adapted to a stage play, followed in 1975 by the classic film version starring Jack Nicholson. His Sometimes a Great Notion ws released in 1964 and joined a few other counter cultural dignitaries (including Neal Cassady) to form the “Merry Pranksters.” A believer in art until the end of his days, his final major work was a Rolling Stone essay published shortly after 9/11 in which he advocated peace. He died in November 2001 after a series of health problems. He was 66.

Pearl S. Buck was the daughter of Southern Presbyterian missionaries. She grew up in China and spent a large part of her life there. Seeing events like the Boxer Rebellion and the Nanking Incident firsthand had an effect on her, influencing her humanitarian efforts. Her 1931 novel, The Good Earth, was the bestselling book in the U.S. for that year and the next, and the story about a Chinese village won her the Pulitzer in 1932. Yet her diverse bibliography includes many more novels and a host of nonfiction titles, many about China, and a variety of short story collections. She died in 1973 of lung cancer at the age of 80, and her name remains synonymous with smart, passionate writing about justice and humanity.

Ralph Ellison won a National Book Award for Invisible Man, his 1952 novel about what it meant to be black in America in the early 20th century. The novel is regarded as one of the best in modern literature, but Ellison was also noted for his critical writings. Shadow and Act, from 1964, is an essay collection spanning twenty years of life and reflection on culture and class. He lived to be 80, dying in 1994 of pancreatic cancer. Some of his unfinished works were published posthumously.

Michael Crichton died in 2008 at the age of 66 after a quiet battle with cancer. He left behind an impressive body of sci-fi and adventure fiction that probed the meaning of humanity and the cost of technological advancement. He remains the only artist ever to have No. 1 hits simultaneously in TV, movies, and books, a feat he accomplished in 1994 with (respectively) ER, Jurassic Park, and Disclosure. His career gathered steam in the 1970s and ’80s with thrillers like The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, and Sphere, and in later life he became a prominent public speaker on a variety of scientific subjects, including the complexity of global warming.

Philip K. Dick was easily one of the most influential and pioneering writers in science fiction — not to mention one of the most adapted, with nine of his stories turned into films —He's known for creating fantastical, intriguing worlds that use outlandish ideas to explore our own. The Man in the High Castle, set in a world in which the Axis won World War II, is a harrowing examination of authoritarian control, while stories like “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” and “The Minority Report” dealt with memory and fate in compelling ways. Unfortunately, many mainstream audiences and critics didn’t begin to embrace his work until it was almost too late. Dick died after susffering a stroke in March 1982, at the age of 53, having written dozens of novels and more than 100 short stories.

Marion Zimmer Bradley was born during the Great Depression. She began publishing fantasy novels and short stories in the 1950s. She created a series of works set on the fictional planet of Darkover, and she also wrote myriad other works in straightforward and pulp styles, but she’s best known for her 1982 novel The Mists of Avalon, which retells the stories of King Arthur from the points of view of the female characters. The work explored the potential oppression that can come with the spread of religion, and the perpetual battle between a character’s fate and their free will. She died in 1999 at age 69 after several years of failing health. Her impressive bibliography contains some of the most popular fantasy writing in recent memory.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review: SPIRIT by Andrew Feder

By Beth Terrell

Because I am interested in both astral projection and the timeless conflict between good and evil, I was intrigued by the premise of Andrew Feder's novel Spirit: What if you could astrally project? What if, the first time you tried, you found yourself trapped in the body of a stranger and covered in the blood of a woman that stranger had just murdered?

Multimillionaire, philanthropist, and New Age guru Randall Lender finds himself in this predicament; we learn early in the book that his astral mishap was engineered by a powerful agent of evil at the behest of a group called the Guilders, a secretive, Illuminati-like organization with an insatiable thirst for money and power. They have a finger in every potentially lucrative pie and an interest in keeping humankind under control through capitalism and traditional religion. They will do anything to increase their power, including harnessing dark occult forces--or enlisting those who can.

Lender is their target because, not only does he speak out in favor of individual spiritualism over organized religion, he has the means and charisma to influence others to embrace his views. To remove him as a threat, the Guilders have arranged to have Lender's soul trapped in the body of an infamous hit man, Johnny M., where it will ultimately be destroyed. Lender's own body, now soulless, slips into a coma. (It is not clear where Johnny M's soul is throughout the ordeal.)

The book is primarily a vehicle for the author's thoughts on spirituality and religion. As a result, character and craft often take a back seat to the exploration of Lender's philosophy. This appears to have been a conscious decision on the author's part-- a reflection of his vision for the book and its message. It opens with a disclaimer, and since the writer thought it prudent to place it there, I'll share it with you: "Due to the author's Selective Tourette's Syndrome, the following contains some profanity and obscenities that might burn your little eyes and ears. Read at your own risk..."

Here is an excerpt:

Before even a word was uttered from her lips, I immediately looked straight into her eyes, and much like a deer in the headlights, I was suddenly entrapped by my own astonishment. Out of the blue, I felt beholden to her with an unusual and yet very intense magnetic feeling I had never felt before. Her presence lured me in like a marlin on an angler's line.
Here is another:
After eating my salad like a goat eating hay, I devoured my sandwich like a hungry lion taking huge gnawing bites from its prey.
Sandy stared in astonishment at the way I gulped down my food. "Man, don't they even feed you in County?"
"Yeah, but you can't eat it. You never know what's really in it. The meat is like a Cracker Jack Box--you never know what kind of surprise you're going to get--and it's kind of grayish brown so who knows what animal it came from. Hell, it could be like from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, with a finger or two or even perhaps a rat's tail for added texture and flavor. Did you really think it was FDA approved? Sometimes the food comes mashed into a golf ball, like they're feeding us Soylent Green leftovers from the executed ones? Maybe we're eating our own? The only thing I can really eat is the bread, milk, and fruit. But being in solitary confinement, at least I don't have to fight over a bed or food--I hear it's so overcrowded inmates are actually sleeping on the floors of their overcrowded cells. The food, the conditions, the sleep, the degradation is well...Perhaps, it's really all part of the psychological crap they use while many of their deputies display their Napoleonic shortcomings. All in all, they're really trying to break you down. I can tell you one thing--after you come into county jail as a petty thief or nonviolent criminal, you'll come out s a vicious murderer. That's how you'll have to behave in order to survive in here." My eyes began to water from the intense reality within the jail.

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of Spirit by the Cadence Group in return for an unbiased review.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In Search of A Good Meal

By Mark W. Danielson

Two weeks ago, Lyne and I enjoyed a wonderful California vacation by first visiting my relatives in Napa, and then driving down the coast to Monterey, Carmel, and San Simeon. The weather was perfect. In Napa, we enjoyed a wonderful hike through Jack London State Park, and dined at a foo-foo restaurant near the Napa River. The wait staff here was highly experienced, but we weren’t real fond of the tiny uncooked squid floating in green brine below our fish entree. After saying good bye to our family, we headed to Monterey Bay, where a high fog hung over us. Our visit to the aquarium was fantastic, but lunch at Bubba Gump’s was less than stellar. We truly enjoyed visiting the Mission Carmel, but dining at Clint Eastwood’s Hog’s Breath Inn was quite disappointing. We loved the nostalgic Carmel Mission Inn, but our dinner there was odd, thanks to our bizarre waitress. The hotel was perfectly preserved in the ‘60’s, but so was our waitress. In fact, she spent as much time talking to the bartender, our drinks literally in hand, as she did tending to us. With the exception of the Napa restaurant, our dining disappointments had one thing in common – the wait staff knew little about providing good service. We certainly didn’t expect that our best meal would come from a diner named Sebastian’s Store, which resides inside an old whaling station located across the highway from Hearst Castle.

Constructed in 1852, this small wooden building is a registered State Landmark and has been owned by the Sebastian family for over fifty years. Inside, it’s also a general store, a post office, and a Hearst Vineyards wine tasting bar. Everywhere you turn, you find timeless relics such as an old fashioned milk shake machine, Coca Cola napkin holders, and a variety of trinkets for sale. But what keeps Sebastian’s going is they know how to treat their customers. You see, these folks have figured out that if you serve good food in a friendly atmosphere, people will talk about it and more customers will follow. Lyne and I both ordered the French dip sandwich, which is made with all-natural Hearst beef. Truly, it was the best sandwich either of us has had, and the presentation was equally superb. And though our order was served through a pick-up window, it was delivered with a genuine smile. You see, dining should be an experience, not merely the consumption of food, and it’s up to the wait staff to ensure the dining experience is enjoyable. That’s the key difference between our experience at Sebastian’s versus the so-called fine dining establishments we dined at.

Perhaps one day our less experienced wait staff will learn how to serve with dignity and create a memorable evening. Then again, in tourist towns, perhaps they feel there’s no need to put in the effort. After all, tourists will always come, right? Maybe. But then there’s that old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” That’s right – people talk, so maybe they won’t be back. So think about it, -- if it takes 98 percent effort to do your job, why not put in the extra two percent to do it well? Aside from earning better tips, you’ll have more fun and so will your customers.
Our drive back to Oakland was interesting. Since the low coastal fog had caught up to us, we decided to drive El Camino Real (101) rather than risk a knuckle-curling drive back along Highway One. We were glad we did because the entire area surrounding Paso Robles has been transformed into vineyards, and those vineyards continued nearly all the way to King City. We stayed at the Hayes Mansion in San Jose, which was a really classy place. (photo below) We made the mistake of dining downtown rather than at the hotel, and our experience at McCormick’s was very disappointing. You see, we were seated across from the bar where the wait staff constantly congregated to socialize to kill time as they weren’t busy. In spite of walking by us numerous times, not once did our waitress check on us or offer to re-fill our drinks. I have spoken with their manager and he is very eager to correct these deficiencies. Interestingly, my e-mail to the Hog’s Breath Inn manager generated no response.
We drove over 600 miles in our sunshine-yellow Rental Bug in six days and took back fond memories of visiting family and Hearst Castle. Interestingly, out of all our meals, Sebastian’s remained the best, which is why it’s worthy of this post. If you’re planning to visit Hearst Castle, be sure to include Sebastian’s in your trip.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Perils of Pauline, Among Others

By Chester Campbell

I like to use cliffhangers to close out chapters in my books. It keeps readers turning the page to learn what happens next. I suppose it came to me naturally, as I could be the poster boy for movie serials that brought swarms of kids to neighborhood theaters every Saturday in the 1930s. According to movie historians, the zenith of the series came in the mid-thirties, its prime audience boys between eight and fourteen. I turned eight in 1933 and hit fourteen in 1939.

The most famous serial was The Perils of Pauline, featuring the damsel in distress theme. It didn't really feature cliffhangers, however, with Pauline being saved at the end of each segment. I don't recall anyone hanging from a cliff, but there was a case where someone was about to go over a waterfall. The good guys I remember best were the cowboys, played by the likes of Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, Harry Carey, and Tom Mix. Gene Autry came along and popularized the singing cowboy.

Jungle scenes provided the setting for many perilous plots with Tarzan, plus rugged outdoor heroes Clyde Beatty and Frank Buck. Early aviation series caught my fancy, such as Mystery Squadron and Ace Drummond. That would lead to my fascination with airplanes. The science fiction series made its debut with Flash Gordon, featuring Buster Crabbe and his sidekick, Jean Rogers. She was probably my first crush on a screen heroine (there would be many more as I matured).

What kept bringing us back every Saturday with our dimes and nickels was the keen desire to find out if the hero or heroine survived. The cliffhanger worked back then, and it still works now. Adults as well as kids are intrigued by the prospect of finding out what happens next.

In one form of the cliffhanger, you foreshadow the dire situation by letting the reader know the bad guy is lurking out there, awaiting his opportunity. That creates suspense as the hero heads into the trap, building tension as he goes. Though difficult to do in first person, I handle it by letting my protag see or hear signs that something is amiss. You can heighten the suspense by letting your character open Door Number One, then Door Number Two...

The one to avoid at all costs is the defenseless woman heading down the stairs into the dark basement. Unless, of course, she's a tormented mother trying to get away from her fiendish kids. But that's another story. If it fits with the plot, you can close one chapter with a cliffhanger and start the next with a totally different scene, working toward the resolution of the cliffhanger later on.

In a completely action-packed book, you could create highly tense endings for every chapter, but the reader might soon tire of grating her teeth. I often close a chapter with a question, which leaves what's next up in the air even if it isn't fraught with danger.

If you've run across especially effective hangers, tell us about them.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Riding A Bike With The Brakes On

By Pat Browning

I’ve lived in my apartment for almost six years and I’m still picking up, throwing out and rearranging. This week I spotted a sheaf of papers underneath an end table. What it was doing on the floor is anyone’s guess but I finally picked it up.

It’s a 13-page printout I did in February of an article from The Guardian newspaper online. The headline: “Riding A Bike With The Brakes On: The First 12 Years Are The Worst.” A survey of British writers inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, the article is both funny and spot on.

Some highlights:

Margaret Atwood – You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

Roddy Doyle – Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy. Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – “He divides his time between Kabul Tierra del Fuego.” But then get back to work.

Helen Dunmore – Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.

Geoff Dyer – Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire. Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give it up and try something else.

Anne Enright –Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.

Richard Ford – Don’t drink and write at the same time. Don’t write letters to the editor. (No one cares.) Don’t take any shit if you can possibly help it.

Jonathan Franzen – Never use the word “then” as a conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.

Esther Freud – Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.

Neil Gaiman – Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing.

David Hare – Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome. If nobody will put your play on, put it on yourself.

PD James – Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.

AL Kennedy – Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

Hilary Mantel – First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?

Michael Moorcock – Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

Michael Morpurgo – It is the gestation time which counts. By the time I sit down and face the blank page I am raring to go. I tell it as if I’m talking to my best friend or one of my grandchildren.

Joyce Carol Oates – Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – there may be one but he/she is reading someone else. Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.

Annie Proulx – To ensure that you write slowly, write by hand.

Will Self – Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.

Helen Simpson – The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying, “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”

Zadie Smith – Don’t romanticize your “vocation.” You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle.” All that matters is what you leave on the page.

Colm Toibin – Stay in your mental pyjamas all day. No going to London. No going anywhere else either.

Rose Tremain – Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.

Sarah Waters – Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story.

Ten Rules For Writing Fiction – The Guardian Feb. 20, 2010 - is still in the archives and includes Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules. Read the article at:

Reader graphic from (Books)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Welcome to the Hamster Wheel

By Beth Terrell

In my recent quest for relief for my ailing back, I came across several references to a study released by Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Levine advises the use of a "treadmill desk" instead of a regular desk chair. It's exactly what it sounds like. You walk slowly on the treadmill (about 1 mile per hour), while doing your regular job. Typing, talking on the phone, checking your Facebook page...hey, that's work, right? How else are we going to promote our books to all our many friends and the people who "like"--or may eventually like--us? Here's an interesting article, "Your Office Chair is Killing You," about the dangers of sitting and the health benefits of the treadmill desk. I don't know about you, but my day job involves working on the computer much of the day, and the part that's not spent on the computer is largely spent sitting behind a desk doing paperwork. Add to that the time I spend on my own writing and the time I spend online promoting my book and helping to organize the Killer Nashville Crime Literature Conference, and it comes out to a lot of sitting. Turns out our bodies weren't made for that.

But what's a writer to do? If you can't afford to give up the paycheck and you can't bear to give up your writing, are you doomed to lives of lower back pain? Indications are that the treadmill desk can help. Here's another article that describes how to make one of your own (a more affordable option than the $5000 plus Treaddesk designed by Levine) and further explains the rationale behind it. Seems there are some compelling reasons to walk while you work, not the least of which is that exercise--even low levels of exercise--improve brain function.

It also promotes weight loss and better health. Jonathan Fields describes the treadmill desk he made and the 600 calories a day he burns while blogging. He got that number from Levine's study.

Best of all, I read posts from a number of people who say working at the treadmill desk has relieved their back pain.

Now, I'm not the most graceful creature on the planet, but I'm intrigued. Turns out my mom has a treadmill she doesn't need, so I went over tonight to see if it would work (e.g., it will go slowly enough, and the belt is wide enough). It seems to fit the bill. The next step is to get my brother to deliver it to my office for me, and then to find something to use for the desk itself. It has to be strong enough to hold my computer and stable enough that I can hold onto it for support if I lose my balance. I'm thinking of seeing if Mike can make me one of these. It may be like running--or walking sllllooooooowlllly--on a giant hamster wheel, but I'm willing to give it a try if it means no more rationing my computer time.

Next, there's the question of what to do at home. I didn't want to go the treadmill route there. First, I will have already been walking for eight hours. Second, I'm afraid my little dogs would find some way to hurt themselves on it. I've read that sitting on an exercise ball is good for building core strength and relieving back pain, so we ordered one. No worries about hurting the dogs there! It just arrived today, and you're only supposed to use it for a few minutes at a time to start with, so it's too soon to tell how it will work.

I'll keep you posted.

Anybody out there using either of these methods in lieu of ye olde office chaire? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Where's the Justice?

I had a blog ready to post, but then my friend sent me this article. She lives in a city where they had planned to release this convicted killer. Needless to say, she had reason for concern and took action, as did many other residents. Their combined and rapid action led to this prisoner being released on prison property in another county. That doesn't mean he can't go to her city, though.
Rather than summarize the article, I'll let it speak for itself. After you've read it, ask what's wrong with our criminal justice system? Bear in mind, this prisoner could just as easily have been released in your neighborhood . . .

Convicted killer Loren Herzog is scheduled to be released in Lassen County in mid-September.

Feather Publishing 9/13/2010

If the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has its way, a man some believe is one of California’s most notorious serial killers will arrive at the California Correctional Center in Susanville on Thursday, Sept. 16 and pass through the lethal fence and concertina wire the following day as a free man in Lassen County on three years parole.
But if Lassen County has its way, it will join San Joaquin, Modoc and Tehama as counties that refuse to allow Loren Herzog, 44, to be released on parole in their jurisdiction.
After the news of Herzog’s release in Lassen County broke last Friday, Lassen County District 2 Supervisor Jim Chapman added the issue to the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.
“I asked that the late item be placed on the agenda for Tuesday so that the board can discuss the matter with the sheriff and be in a position on Tuesday to take any actions that would be appropriate,” Chapman wrote in an e-mail to those on the board of supervisors’ contact list. “The sheriff and sheriff-elect are aware of the matter and have been invited to discuss the issue with the board on Tuesday as well.”
A loud, public outcry might be the best way to thwart the CDCR plan to release Herzog in Lassen County, Chapman said. As the news of Herzog’s parole spreads, Chapman said no one in the community wants the convicted killer released here.
“The bottom line,” Chapman said, “is the law can do what it has to do, but public opinion can make a difference.”
The supervisor acknowledged the story is evolving quickly, but he said time is of the essence.
“Whatever case Lassen County makes to the state to change (its) consideration, we’re going to have to do it by Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest,” Chapman said, “because I think otherwise they’ll be shipping that guy up here on Thursday and cutting him loose on Friday.”
According to reporting on the trials, Herzog and co defendant Wesley Shermantine — childhood friends the media dubbed the “Speed Freak Killers” — each fingered the other as the perpetrator of several murders in California’s Central Valley during the mid-1990s.Shermantine, convicted of four counts of murder, awaits execution on death row.According to a press release from the CDCR, in December 2001, a Santa Clara jury convicted Herzog on three counts of murder and sentenced him to 78 years in prison after a change of venue from San Joaquin County.
But in 2004, a California appeals court overturned his conviction and much of the evidence used against him after it determined his statements to law enforcement officers had been coerced.
Rather than face a new trial, Herzog pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the 1998 murder of Cyndi Vanderheiden, 25, three counts of being an accessory to a felony and one count of transportation of a controlled substance.
According to the Associated Press, Herzog and Shermantine lured Vanderheiden “to a cemetery with the promise of methamphetamine. Herzog testified that he hid in the back seat of Shermantine’s car while his friend attacked Vanderheiden. Herzog also testified that he helped load the body in the trunk, but doesn’t know what Shermantine did after that. Her body hasn’t been found.”
On Dec. 8, 2004, Herzog began serving a 14-year prison sentence — with credit for the time he already had served in county jail and state prison.
According to Luis Patino, a public information officer for the CDCR, by law a parolee should be released to the county of last legal residence.
However, Patino said victims, victims’ next-of-kin and witnesses have the right to file for special consideration regarding the location of the parole releases of their offenders. All requests are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Patino said, “CDCR received additional valid requests. And an evaluation was made to determine what level of consideration was to be granted within the confines of the law. Based on those requests and the confines of the law, Loren Herzog will not be released in San Joaquin County. Herzog will be released in mid-September in Lassen County.”
Chapman said despite the concerns expressed by the San Joaquin county residents, Herzog should be paroled in a county with the resources and personnel to adequately supervise him.“
It’s like a designed-to-fail type thing,” Chapman said. “Maybe that’s what they want — to put the individual in an environment knowing full well this thing is guaranteed for failure, and one of two things is going to happen. Either he’s going to kill somebody or somebody’s going to kill him. Or he will transgress so they can slap him back in a prison where he belongs. If that is indeed the intent behind this maneuver, that’s really sick — to put a community in that kind of a position of jeopardy because the criminal justice system or the judicial system wasn’t able to do what needed to be done in the first place.”
Chapman said he expects these issues will be “hotly debated” at today’s meeting.
“The attitude that Lassen County doesn’t care or is going to roll over and play dead, knowing the folks I know, I doubt seriously that’s what the response is going to be,” Chapman said.
According to Chapman, Rocky Deal, district director of Congressman Tom McClintock’s office in Granite Bay, Calif., has contracted state assemblymen Dan Logue and Ted Gaines seeking their support in blocking Herzog’s release in Lassen County.
Chapman said CDCR may have decided not to release Herzog in Modoc County because of all its problems — including a possible bankruptcy.“
Probably the reason why they abandoned Modoc County early on as a consideration is because all the other problems they’re having, and rightly so,” Chapman said. “I think it would be ludicrous to put him in a place such as Modoc, especially given the shortfalls that they’ve got to contend with. Tehama County’s a little different story, but San Joaquin County’s a pretty good sized county with pretty good resources — much more than we do, so I think if they’re looking at finding a place to put this guy, they need to look at a county, community or area that’s comparable to or even larger than San Joaquin County instead of going to smaller counties that just don’t have all the pieces available to them. If the intent of this is to make it succeed and for him to transition back into society, it’s totally ludicrous to think this is going to work (here in Lassen County). And I have yet to run into anybody who can convince me otherwise.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Ebook Revolution

Tim Hallinan prompted a raft of comments when he wrote a post for Murder is Everywhere a day or two ago, praising what the ebook has done for authors. Tim pointed out how he has put up some of his old books for the Kindle, books the publisher let go out of print, and plans to release in electronic format some new books publishers were less-than-enthusiastic about.

I'm thinking of doing the same with two or three thrillers I wrote before landing a publisher for my first Greg McKenzie mystery. At least a couple of them were spoken of favorably by publishers before being turned down.

All six of my current mysteries are now available for the Kindle at $2.99. I've put the last two on Smashwords, which makes them available in various e-book formats, and plan to upload the others soon. I get 70 percent of the sales, which gives me a little more than the standard royalty on a paperback. Of course, I don't have a following like Tim Hallinan, who sells about 1,000 ebooks a month. But half a hundred isn't bad and should add  up to more than a thousand bucks in a year. Hopefully my sales will improve, and if I get a few more on my Amazon page, it should cover the cost of attending a couple of conferences.

One of Tim's blogging partners, Stan Trollip (half of Michael Stanley), decried the long-term effect of books going electronic. He talked of fondly remembering times when he opened his grandfather's bookcase and browsed its impressive contents. I sympathize with him. A faded wooden bookcase with artfully decorated glass doors stands against one wall of my office. It opens with an old hollowed-out metal key. It contains some of my own books, plus ones handed down in the family. Pulling out one at random, I hold a thick volume titled The Mentor, Serials 73-96. A little more battered are volumes with Serials 49-72 and 97-120.

These came from my history-teacher aunt who died some years back at age ninety-six. The Mentor was a weekly publication of  The Mentor Association in New York City. Serial 73 is dated December 15, 1914. An early issue of the publication contained this statement:

"The object of The Mentor Association is to enable people to acquire useful knowledge without effort, so that they may come easily and agreeably to know the world's great men and women, the great achievements, and the permanently interesting things in art, literature, science, history. nature and travel."

Serial No. 73 is devoted to Charles Dickens. Printed on heavy stock, it contains beautifully rendered intaglio-gravure pictures illustrating Dickens' characters. The next issue covers Greek masterpieces, with full-page pictures of various sculptures, including one I saw on a visit to the Louvre, Venus of Melos. Following this came an issue devoted to Fathers of the Constitution.

I have my doubts that any e-reader will ever have the impact of turning the pages in this vintage volume. I hope our libraries will continue to provide sanctuary for bound books both old and new. But I think coming generations will depend more on electronic reproductions of books read for entertainment. I intend to contribute my share of ebook fiction to the cause.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Jello Shots

by Ben Small

Crime on the Guadalupe River?


Who'd have thought?

I'd heard the rumors: dealing; transporting, smuggling -- violators old and young.

Yes, a river known far and wide for its beauty and danger, rumored to float a massive crime wave. And in Texas, the Gruene and New Braunfels region to be specific, not the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez some eight hours to the west.

I had to see for myself. Brave the cold water, suffer the embarrassment every man fears: shrinkage.

Dressed casually in a ruby red swimsuit tight enough to expose fat rolls, I blended into the rush for tubes.

The intake, you see, entry point for smuggled goods. All around me I saw them, the contraband, their method of transport usually black rubber tubes, some with mesh containers and coolers, all of them stuffed with similarly clad butts. Butts in tubes roped together -- the connection.

A rubberized chain gang, filling the river's fast-flowing current, the lifeblood of Mother Nature. The Guadalupe curves, rolls, then flattens and sweeps out. Water volume varies, sometimes by several feet on the water gauge -- in hours. Ride the Guadalupe twice one day, and you'll see different rivers. It rose fifteen feet the day after our plunge.

We saw debris thirty feet up, hanging off massive trees, leaning toward the flow. Shore lines were lined with root balls, twisted brown shapes wriggling over and under and around obstacles...or each other. Established, that's what I'd call those trees. Behind the root art lay flood damage, downed trees, wrecked homes. The Hundred Year Flood was just months ago. People died.

The Guadalupe sweeps over rocks and slabs, creates and surrounds islands. It carves, marks and changes the landscape it dominates.

But my discreet entry to the Guadalupe's criminal wave was foiled, and my wife and the friends who'd led me there -- my snitches -- made three critical errors. We were grossly underweight, i.e. too thin; we had no tattoos, and we weren't drunk.

Outed on the Guadalupe. The shame of it.

All around us we heard the clarion call, "Butts Up".  We expected puffs of smoke, the sweet smell of burning hemp, maybe a few foot-longers. You know, Cheech and Chong stuff.

But this signal meant something else: a herald for defensive action; ignore at one's peril.

Unfamiliar with the Code of the Guadalupe (Jiggers the Cops), we gambled and lost. We've got the bruises to show for it. For the call is for rocks, underwater hammers, knives and spears, and tubed as we were, constrained within rubber bounds, legs and heads pointed up, swirling around in current eddies, our trailing fannies -- and body parts nearby -- took the hits.

We bumped from rock to rock like human pinballs, occasionally impaling our buns -- or worse -- on pointy granite slabs. The term "Butts Up" took on a new meaning and exposed us to sights no eyes should see. Exposed skin, and way too much of it -- the wrong parts, too. Some of the show clad in Speedo, some in Spandex, most of it stretched to the snapping point.

Aaiieeyah! My eyes, my eyes!

Another thought: All those coolers, all that beer... Was the water getting warmer?

Eyed warily by those around us and returning the favor, we floated down river, cytoplasmic blobs of connected rubber tubes. Think Dodge-Em cars on water, Superball on a horizontal plane. Think soap bubbles draining -- bump, swirl, spin. There was a nervous tingle in the air. The river churned and throbbed, rolling over slippery surfaces, occasionally presenting a turtle-head for a bit of quick suspense. Snappers can hurt, don'cha know.

There was always someone ahead and someone close by. I saw more tattoos than people.

A tight corner ahead, channels merging, sweeping to the left. We held our collective breaths as once more the call went out: "Butts up!"

Bravely, we turned the corner, and the current slowed to a crawl. Bodies began to stack up, bobbing together in a rubbery blob.

Crimes all around us. We readied ourselves to spring upon 'em.

And saw the locals had beat us to it. New Braunfels cops, copping in a Zodiac. Making arrests by the dozens. Taking names, issuing citations.

Damn! Beaten to the punch,

Should have expected it, I guess. Everybody knows: Cops in Texas are plentiful. More cops in Texas than flies in Florida. More cops than tattoos, oh yes, more cops than deer. And like all Texas cops, these guys were serious. Citations aplenty. Container size, underage drinking and Jello Shots.

Jello Shots: Plastic jello containers filled with vodka-mixed jello. Any flavor.


I'd never heard of Jello Shots, but was told they're deadly. They taste so good and hammer you on the sneak.

Yee haw.

We saw plenty of that.

One by one, the two cops moved tube by tube, as one reached in and tossed jello cups to his partner, who dropped them in a large blue mesh trash bag. From a group of thirty-some tubes, our hero flashed a wide grin and held up two such bags. He roared, "A new record!"

Everybody cheered. Yup, even those arrested -- especially those arrested.

And just around the next bend another tube-cluster, this one full of nattering old folks like me. You know, head-shakers, complaining about an iPods music or the double-WMDs somebody flashed. Old folks like me always find something to bitch about.

Meanwhile, some drunks on shore had two boat coolers full of Jello Shots. They lobbed plastic cups full of the stuff to the Oldies. The summer sun flashed off upturned Jello Shot bottoms as sugar-suicide slowly transformed the white-hairs.

Don't know if money exchanged hands. I can't remember.

The cops say I like strawberry.