Going Back to the Past

At this writing, I’m reading Signal by Patrick Lee. This isn’t a review, or even a recommendation as such, though I’ve read a couple others by him and have to say he’s a good writer.

Ft Irwin

Ft Irwin

I guess this is more like a reminisce.

The book opens at the site of a freshly burned trailer south of Barstow, California, out in the middle of the Mojave Desert, at something like four in the morning. An FBI agent has been called to the scene because it has to do with a child predator she’s been tracking for some time now.

As she steps out of her car, she’s assaulted by the smells, one in particular reaching out to her: burnt flesh. Before she approaches the trailer, however, she takes a look around, seeing the smudge of lights that is Barstow to her north, and to the west, the lights of Edwards Air Force base and the foothills of the San Gabriels outlined by the glowing haze of LA. Other than that (and the crime scene, of course), these are the only lights she sees. The desert night is pitch black.

Reading this, it took me back. I’ve been to the Mojave on two different occasions, and I don’t think I’ve seen a blacker night than you see out there. Of course, the smells are different for me, since I’ve never had to investigate a trailer fire with burnt bodies inside. I remember the dry, dusty desert smell that eventually permeated everything.

I went in August of 1985 and again in January of 1986 to Fort Irwin, thirty miles south of Death Valley, and a little less than forty miles northeast of Barstow. Back in those
days, Fort Irwin was the home of the National Training Center, or NTC (the military do love their acronyms and abbreviations), and we went out there for a month at a time. August, as you can imagine, was hot, while January was cold, this being high desert.
And those are the things I think about when I remember that time: the dusty smell everywhere—a scent that’s impossible for me to describe and one I’ve never encountered anywhere else—and the black, black nights.


Milky Way over the Ozarks

I grew up out in the country, so I’m used to nights with little or no light pollution. Nights where you can see the Milky Way like a mystical trail across the sky, the stars scattered across the grayish black hard points of light twinkling and beckoning to you. Trees and hills outlined in black against the heavens, letting you know just where you are while you listen to the noisy insects of summer or the almost dead silence of winter, broken only by the soft whisper of a cold breeze. Or, on those nights when everything is black, the hiss of falling snow.

I remember one night—and I think I’ve written about it here before—during my January visit to NTC. It was dusk, and we were looking for a place called Hidden Valley, or maybe it was Lost Valley. The convoy had stopped while the sergeant major and his driver went ahead in the jeep to see if we were close. To my left, there was this large stand of rocks sticking up out of the desert floor, with another, smaller one ahead of me. We were facing east, and the moon was just coming up, huge on the horizon, butter yellow, hovering over that smaller lump of rock. The air was so clear it felt like I should be able to reach out and touch the moon, maybe even balance it on the tip of one finger. I stared at it, mesmerized, knowing I was seeing something I’d remember for the rest of my life.

The night wasn’t black that time, for the moon was full. We went on to bivouac a few minutes later, and I fired up my truck and drove off reluctantly to the site. But I kept that moment in my heart, just as I did some sights I saw in Germany a little over a year earlier when we went there for forty-five days.

moon over mojave

Moon over the Mojave

These days, thirty years later, I have to write lists to remember a lot of things. I have to put my shopping list on my cell phone because otherwise I’ll write the list of things I need, then go off and leave it at home—forgetting it, of course. I have to do things in routines so I don’t forget to do or take something important with me. It’s not dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s just me being me.

But I can crack open a book, see a passage talking about somewhere I’ve been, something I’ve experienced, and I can see it in my mind’s eye as if I’m standing there with the character.

That’s the beauty of books. They can take you anywhere, and sometimes anywhen. I’m not talking about the usual thing of reading about a time period from the past or future, though that’s a treat within itself. No, I’m talking about those rare occurrences like this, when a book or a scene is set somewhere you’ve been, somewhere memorable, and even though the scene isn’t in the time period when you were there, it still takes you back, makes you smile as the visions from the past billow up in your mind.

For just a moment, you’re back there, younger, feeling and experiencing everything in ways your older self can only barely remember and can’t really live through again.

That’s the power of books, and the power of imagination.


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Singing Along With Freebird

Sometime in late 1983 or early 1984—the chronology is a bit fuzzy these days—I walked into the Enlisted Man’s Club at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and saw, for the first time in my life, an entire crowd singing along—somewhat drunkenly, it must be admitted—to the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Freebird.”

Back in those days, the Enlisted Man’s Club—or EM Club, and I make no apology for the “sexist” term, since most soldiers in those days were men—was a big, wooden box, two stories, if I remember correctly, with white clapboard-style siding. It was one big room inside, for the most part. I wasn’t a drinker (yet), so I don’t remember where the bar itself was, but I think it was opposite the door, which, following military SOP, was in the center of the front wall.

To even so much as go to the EM Club, we had to don up in our dress uniforms, so when I walked in, all I saw were guys in Class A’s, jackets off, ties loosened, bellowing the lyrics at the top of their lungs.

I grew up sheltered, so seeing this phenomenon stuck with me. For one, I came of age in a dry county, so there weren’t any clubs to go to and see this kind of thing happening. And while I listened to rock music—I was a huge fan of Styx, followed closely by Kansas and some Journey (are you seeing a prog rock trend there?)—and no doubt had heard “Freebird” at some point—I know I was at least aware of Lynyrd Skynyrd at least peripherally because of older cousins and uncles who listened to them—I don’t consciously remember hearing the song before that time. I do remember feeling unfamiliar with it, so perhaps that was my first time.

Of course, it wasn’t the last, and it wouldn’t be just that song. By summer of ’84, I also went to my first concert—Night Ranger, with Tony Carey (“It’s a Fine Find Day (For a Reunion))—and had my first taste of beer in Germany that October—in Nuremberg, at Oktoberfest, of course.

Curiously enough, right at ten years later, July of 1993, I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd live (not the original band, of course, but close) and when they did “Freebird” as their encore, the crowd was dead silent, partly, I think, out of respect for Ronnie Van Zant, and partly out of reverence for the song. A good three-quarters of the crowd were bikers, though how much that had to do with it I have no idea. It was one of the best behaved crowds I’ve ever seen at a concert.

And while seeing Skynyrd perform the song live was a treat, and I still remember it, I have to say that first experience of seeing the way music bonds people, even if it’s only temporarily (I’m thinking of the fight I saw going on after seeing Iron Maiden in Providence, Rhode Island), has stuck with me as few other memories have. I can still remember looking around in wonder as who knew how many guys belted out those words at the tops of their voices, beers held high (for those who could drink them; we couldn’t being still in training), sleeves rolled up, ties loosened, competing quite handily with the club’s sound system.

I used to scoff at the way old people seemed to live in the past, but now I understand why they do. It’s not so much that they want to go back, but they certainly take comfort in those days. I’ve always loved music, figured I’d always keep up with whatever was the latest thing. But I think you have to be of roughly the same age as the musicians to get what’s current. For me, my best memories are of the eighties and the metal bands I loved. I even find myself listening to bands I wouldn’t have even considered back then, thinking they were too commercial, just because hearing their songs brings back memories. I think the music you listen to as you’re coming of age is the stuff that’s most special to you, so you get hippies who still love the sixties stuff, others who revere the disco era, and so on.

And that coming of age all started for me on that day long ago when I stepped into the EM Club at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and heard probably a hundred guys singing along lustily with Ronnie Van Zant.

And feeling more alive than anyone had ever been.



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I want you to stop and take a look around yourself for a moment—either mentally or physically (or a bit of both)—and consider all you see: your home, your computer, your cell phone, your car, the electricity running your home, the food in your fridge, the highways you drive on, the job you go to—all of it. Go ahead. Take a minute and really see it. I’ll wait.

All done?

Good. Now think about this: what would it be like if none of that existed? I don’t mean you had it and lost it, maybe you’re homeless, or the zombie apocalypse happened, whatever. I mean it never existed, and a lot of it hasn’t even been imagined yet.

All of that stuff it the result of civilization, and it’s a very tricky thing, a very thin veneer.

Off and on, I play a computer game called Civilization. Or, more properly, Sid Meier’s Civilization, Civ for short. In my case, I’m playing Civ IV, which is far from the latestciv iv version (I think on PC the latest version is V, and there’s Civilization Revolution for the gaming consoles), but I have fun with it anyway.

If you’re not familiar with computer gaming, Civ is what’s called a simulation, or sim game. In other words, it simulates something from real life. In the case of Civ, you run a civilization as its eternal ruler and decision maker. When the game starts, you choose a civilization from among several historical, real-world civs. You’ll also choose the world you play on, its size, composition, etc. You can even pick randomly for all this, let the computer assign your parameters.

The game begins in prehistory, something like 5,000 BC, if I remember right (that could be wrong, so don’t quote me on that), and you generally have two units: a Settler, and something else, depending on what civ you chose. Could be a Warrior, could be a Scout. The screen is divided up into tiles, and you can only see a few adjoining tiles. The rest of the world is literally dark, and as far as you can see, you’re the only people in it.

The first thing you have to do is find a good site for your first city. This city will be your capital, so be sure and pick wisely. You can have the game show you good choices for where to put down roots. You can use your other unit to explore and expand your map, eventually meeting other civs.

s2-81f2f04e647cfdad36ec8c6b96543b6eYou’ll usually start out with a couple of technologies, but everything else you’ll have to research, and you have to budget for it. You’re always given a choice of what technology (the game’s term for every advance your civ makes) to research next. It’s not handed to you. And keep in mind that other civs will be researching as well. There are advantages to finding some technologies first, such as the founding of religions, which can give you at least temporary benefits over the other civs.

I’m not going to describe every facet of the game, because it would be far too complicated for this post. But I will say this: playing the game will give you a whole new outlook on all that stuff I had you look at when we started. In Civ, you as the player at least have the benefit of hindsight. If you’re offered the opportunity to research gunpowder, you know, at least in a vague way, what that will possibly lead to. And as you learn the game, you’ll learn what takes you through what’s called the tech tree faster and gets you to your goals (there are several you can achieve). Through  your research, you’ll learn how one thing led to the discovery of another, and how it’s all intertwined to a great extent.

And you’re left with a sense of wonder that we have all the things we have. You’re playing with foreknowledge. Even if you don’t get into history, you know what we have today. But by playing Civ, you can see how chancy it all was, and it’ll make you wonder how we got this far. This depended on that being discovered, which depended on something else, ad nauseum.

I’m nowhere near being a good player, and I’ve only taken up playing the game again for the first time in four or five years (at a guess). I have to play for fun, since I rarely civilization-4-mac-screenshot-3have good scores at the end of the game. It’s so intricate, and you have to keep track of so many things to score high that I despair of ever being what you’d consider a good player.

But it’s given me an appreciation of everything we’ve achieved as a race. And you can look in the in-game Civilopedia to learn things about the actual civilizations you’re playing, as well as the Wonders you can build and so on.

So if you like a game where you can have fun and learn something at the same time, go out and find a copy of Civ. You might just find yourself looking around in wonder the way I do.


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The Costs of Publishing

It seems strange to me, but people who’ll spend ten bucks to go to the latest explosion fest at the theater gripe about the cost of a book and tout it as one of the reasons they don’t read. Maybe our special effects budget isn’t high enough or something.

So let’s look at the math, in a general way.

For the sake of argument, let’s say you spend that same ten bucks for a book. Mass media paperbacks are getting really close to that now, so it’s a semi-valid argument.

If you’re an author with a New York publisher, your cut of that ten bucks is gonna be in the range of five to ten percent. That means for that book, you’re gonna make somewhere between fifty cents and a dollar. Now, if you have an agent, he’s gonna get fifteen percent (based on industry standard. Some may be lower), which means you lose anywhere from eight cents (it works out to 7.5, and I’m sure the agent will round up) to fifteen cents, leaving you with forty-two to eighty-five cents.

Doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

But that’s not all. Now you have to figure out how much you actually made. How long did it take to write the book? You’ll have to break it down into hours, but after you figure in the writing and multiple edits, my guess is, unless you’re someone like Stephen King, you’re not making anywhere near the national minimum wage, never mind what those, um, people in Seattle thought they’d be making with their fifteen dollar an hour minimum.

So where’s the rest of it go? To the publisher. It’s expensive to print books, and if you’re with one of the Big Five, they do print runs based on how many books they project you’ll sell. Most of the time they’re wrong, judging from everything I’ve been reading online, so if they gave you an advance—something that’s shrinking and even disappearing in today’s publishing world—you likely didn’t earn it back. Which is why the Big Five are mostly losing money and are happy to have surprise hits like Fifty Shades of Grey, regardless of actual quality.

Things are a little different on the indie/small publishing side of things. For instance, at Oghma Creative Media, our standard contract is a 60/40 split, and we’re able to offer the forty percent to authors because we’re basically print-on-demand (POD). Still, to set up a book with Lightning Source, the premium way to go when it comes to POD because using them makes you look far more legit to bookstores and libraries, costs well over two hundred dollars (I can’t remember the exact figure).

Granted, it’s still not great money. You’re getting four dollars of that ten-dollar book, but since we’re still a struggling company, you’re likely not selling many books. Yet. But would you do better with one of the Big Five? Unlikely. I’ve read and heard that ten percent of Big Five authors get ninety percent of the promotional budget. Which is to say, they’re really only betting on sure things. It’s a system set up to fail, made to fulfill their prediction that new authors are money pits. It’s a closed loop that accomplishes nothing.

So the next time you feel you’re paying too much for a book, keep all this in mind. And remember that the vast majority of us writers aren’t making money hand over fist like John Grisham and Stephen King.



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The Cartel

the cartelIt’s hard to know where to start with a book like this. The Cartel, Don Winslow’s sequel to The Power of the Dog, continues his sprawling epic story of the Mexican Drug Wars and America’s own so-called War on Drugs, began by President Nixon back in the seventies.

The good thing about The Cartel is you don’t really have to read The Power of the Dog to follow it, but I’d still recommend reading the first volume for that sense of history. Don Winslow has spent almost fifteen years researching the drug wars and brings us their stories in fictionalized form. I can remember reading The Power of the Dog and then doing my own study of the Mexican Drug Wars and realizing how many incidents from real life Mr. Winslow uses to bolster his fiction.

Both books are well worth the effort.

The Cartel opens with Adán Berrara, the fictional version of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Sinaloa cartel leader who made news a month back by making a second escape from a Mexican maximum security prison, this time allegedly through a sophisticated tunnel leading directly to the shower section of his cell. (Don Winslow believes this is a cover story put out by the Mexican government, and judging from what I know, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.) Adán is also in prison, but in the US, awaiting trial for his many crimes. While there, his daughter dies from cystic lymphangioma, a deformation of the head, face, and throat that ultimately kills its victims. Her name is Gloria, and the other main character in these novels, DEA agent Art Keller, actually used her at the end of The Power of the Dog to capture Adán.

Gloria is everything to Adán, but the authorities won’t let him attend her funeral. So he tells his lawyer, a man with the sobriquet of Minimum Ben due to his ability to get minimum sentencing for his clients, that he’ll tell all the secrets about the drug cartels if they’ll only let him go to the funeral.

All of this sets into motion an elaborate plan that lands Adán back in a Mexican prison—Pente Grande Correctional Facility—and eventually leads to his freedom and regaining control of the Sinaloa cartel.

Art Keller, meanwhile, has retired from the DEA and is a beekeeper at a monastery in New Mexico. But when Tim Taylor, his old boss, comes by to inform him that Berrerapower of the dog has a two million dollar bounty on his head, he leaves the monastery so as not to endanger the monks there. Eventually, he’s pulled back into the DEA when Adán makes his escape by simply walking out of Pente Grande and flying away in a helicopter—the way Chapo Guzmán is said to have really escaped back in 2001, rather than being wheeled out in a laundry cart by a prison guard as we were initially told.

The Cartel covers the drug wars from 2004 to 2015, chronicling the rise of violence after Adán moves to make his Sinaloa cartel the supreme organization by killing the leader of the Gulf cartel, thus kicking off the Mexican Drug Wars. Most telling about this book is the page and a half of names, in small font, of journalists either murdered or “disappeared” during the time the story takes place. These are real life journalists, not their fictional counterparts, and Mr. Winslow has a fictional character named Pablo Mora who, along with his colleagues at a Juárez paper, stand in for these real reporters who lost their lives to the drug wars.

Just as it’s hard to know where to begin with a book like this, it’s also hard to know where to stop. I could go on and on praising this book and its prequel, but that would be overkill. Instead, I would leave off saying this: Go out, get both books, and read them. They’re big, they’re epic, and they’re worthy of space on your bookshelf, real or virtual.

Because I guarantee you’ll want to read them again.


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On Being an Editor

blogWant to improve your writing? Become an editor.

Before you balk at this, hear me out.

As an editor, your primary job should be to improve the writer’s work. Regardless of its form, your task is to make it better, whether that means spotting plot holes, catching technical mistakes, or simply correcting typos. Ideally, you’ll do all these things and more. I’ve seen a few instances where I was able to suggest small things that added to the depth of the story, things like the way a character thinks of another, or just an explanation for why that character thinks that way. They’re small things, sure, but the small things add up to big things in the end. It’s a skill I’m still learning, and I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve an author’s story with these little tidbits, all without ruining the original intent or voice.

To be honest, when I first started, I didn’t feel qualified. How was I supposed to point out the weaknesses in another’s story when I had such a hard time finding them in my own? Who would even listen to me, an author with all of one book published, and that one not exactly famous? So, as assistant digital media director for Oghma, I volunteered to do the occasional fantasy, science fiction, or crime fiction, since those were my areas of “expertise.”

But apparently I was gooder better than I thought I was, because people started asking for my editing. I made a somewhat lateral move to assistant editorial director—I found I was much happier there—and then became publishing director. But I’m still an editor.

And it’s helped my writing immensely.

Why? Because as I edited, I became more and more aware of things that needed changing to make the writing better in other’s works. picardThings like passive voice that doesn’t really look like passive voice: The man was standing by the door. That’s kinda lazy. The man stood by the door. See how much more forceful that is? And yet, it’s something we as writers do all the time. I see it in published book after published book.

Another one: He began to walk down the road.

Okay. He began. Did he keep it up?

No, make it: He walked down the road (and even that’s lazy. Tell us how he walked, not just that he walked: He strolled, he marched, something like that).

Of course, there are downsides, too. As publishing director, I’m part of the acquisitions process, so I get to see all the new manuscripts. That means there are times when I read something and want to send back not just a rejection letter, but a cease and desist, telling them to please stay away from keyboards, to stick to writing grocery lists. At least they’ll get some recompense for that.

As a writer, it’s not easy to tell folks you can’t use their work. You know what it is to dream like that, and if you’ve any experience in this field, you know that some writers simply give up after a few rejections. Yes, for some, that’s probably for the best. But you’ll also come across those who have potential, even if you don’t have time to bring it out in them. (Which is why we here at Oghma actually have a Willy-Wonka-bad-writer-memedevelopmental editor. When we see someone that’s not quite up to par but looks like they could be with some coaching, we like to give them that chance. We remember the dream, after all. Heck, we’re still living it.)

But this is more than compensated for by those undiscovered gems you come across, those works that make you wonder how any agent or editor in their right minds could have rejected this. You sit and you stare at the words on the screen (we take only electronic submissions here), and you wonder why this isn’t already on a bestseller list somewhere. But then you sit up and smile, because, hey, we’ve got dibs on this one. Give it an A+ and send it through the rest of the submissions process (I’m just the gatekeeper, not the final arbiter. That belongs to the board.)

No, editing isn’t for everybody. For instance, you need to know how to write first, at least in my opinion. And you need to make sure you’re up on the policies of your publisher (natch). And you know that feeling you get as a writer when you send off your manuscript for submission? I get that when I send one back to the writer with my recommendations in it. Will they understand what I’m trying to do? Will it make sense? Can they see that none of this is meant to denigrate them in any way?

So far I’ve had good responses to my editing, but you never know. There’s always a first time for everything, and I’m dreading getting that author who’s hard to work with, no matter how much his or her writing might need it. We’ve had a few of those here, but I’ve been lucky enough to avoid them so far.

And if you don’t want to do it professionally, you can still join a writing group and/or be a beta reader for someone else.48191213

It’s like the old saying goes: You learn best by teaching.

It’s true of writing. I’ve learned more by editing than I ever did as only a writer.


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Book or Show?

Dexter is DeadAt this writing, the book I’m reading is Dexter is Dead, the last volume in the Dexter Morgan series by Jeff Lindsay, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Dexter ends his career in the books as opposed to in the TV series.

Now, full disclosure here: I’ve only seen up through something like Season 4 of the TV series, but I know how far off the show veers from the books. Only Season 1 has any resemblance to the original material and, while I like what I’ve seen well enough, they don’t compare to the books. The show is like Dexter Lite, in my opinion. The dark humor isn’t there, the bitter irony, the idea that Dexter is a sociopath and that’s all there is to it. There isn’t a cure, and he doesn’t even view himself as being human. He just does his best to act like one to blend in.

Reading this got me to thinking about another book-series-turned-television-series, Game of Thrones. Like Dexter, Game of Thrones is getting ahead of the books. Dexter ended a couple years ago now, and Jeff Lindsay is only now ending it in his books. And of course, the frustration a lot of fans feel with George RR Martin is the fodder of a lot of websites—not to mention memes.

It think the frustration with GoT is a little more palpable because the show, until recently, stuck to the source material much more closely than Dexter did. From what I’ve read, Jeff Lindsay was a consultant to the show for all of one season—the first—and even that one didn’t follow the book exactly. In fact, it veered off in some significant ways.

I don’t expect shows to follow the book to the letter. As even Mr. Martin himself has said, they’re two different mediums, and things that’ll work in a book won’t necessarily translate well on the screen, and vice versa. Books are more contemplative, more able to put you inside characters’ heads, while shows can only approximate the thought processes of a character through action or, worse, the expressions and actions of the actor, which can be easily misinterpreted. And that’s just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Of course, one could argue that the recent divergence on GoT is worse because they have outlines from Mr. Martin as to where he intends the books to go, and he is an GoTexecutive producer on the show. Of course, outlines aren’t fleshed-out scenes with all their innuendo and flash. If it is that detailed, you might as well go on and write the scene itself and dispense with the outline.

I suspect the creators/producers of Dexter flinched—they didn’t think the darker Dexter of the books would appeal to a viewing audience. Maybe they’re right, though I’d argue the success of the books proves them wrong. Of course, there are a lot more people watching TV than reading books, and I have to wonder how many people who watched Dexter—or who are watching GoT, for that matter—picked up any of the books.

But for those of us who do read the books… well, we can get double enjoyment out of this trend. We get to see where the author took the original material, and compare it with how Hollywood treated their subject. Two what-ifs on one character—or characters, in the case of GoT.

Did not readThat can be good or bad. I understand the finale to Dexter was very unsatisfying to a lot of people, and I admit it’s got me wondering if I want to finish watching the series when the books are so much better and more satisfying.

And that’s the other good thing about all this: if we don’t like the show, we don’t have to watch it, especially when it’s on a pay channel like Showtime or HBO, as these two series are/were. We don’t have to buy the DVDs or devote more time to a show we no longer like if we don’t want to.

We can, instead, reserve that time for reading the books we already love.



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