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Culture Shock

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a country boy. I’ve been some places—Germany always comes immediately to mind when I say that, but that was waaaay back in 1984.

Yes, I’m that old.

As I write this, though, I’m nearing the end of my fourth trip (if I’m counting right) to LA. More specifically, to Santa Monica. Just off Wilshire Boulevard. Not far from the ocean. And the Pier.

Not exactly the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. Hell, I’ve only seen one Walmart the whole time I’ve been out there, and that was over an hour away.

All the other times I’ve come out here, I’ve been limited on what I saw. Stuck mostly with whatever I could see within walking distance—and careful with where I went since I have no idea when or if I’ve wandered into a bad neighborhood—I’ve pretty much seen the same things: the Santa Monica Pier, the chaos that is LAX, a very limited stretch of the PCH, and the famous Third Street Promenade. Not a lot to write home about.

But this time I came out for my daughter’s wedding, and because her husband is from Simi Valley, that’s where they decided to have the wedding. It was in a very nice place called Rancho Simi Park, not far off the 118 Freeway. We took the 405 north through what I think was the Sepulveda Pass into Simi Valley, two different trips, one for the rehearsal, one for the wedding itself. Got to see some of that famous freeway gridlock Southern California is known for.

And some high desert. With lots of rocks. And scrub.

I think it’s beautiful, but not everyone does. To each their own. I fell in love with the desert way back in 1985 when I was in the Army and made two trips to Fort Irwin, right smack in the middle of the Mojave Desert, thirty miles south of Death Valley. Much more barren than the desert I’ve seen the last few days.

If it were only the landscape, that wouldn’t be a big deal. But there’s LA. Los Angeles. There are so many cultures here. According to Google, there’s 224 languages spoken here. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that fact. I mean, who’da thunk?

People, people everywhere, and not a break from them in sight. Wanna escape? You’ll need to drive at least an hour to get to the desert.

Of course, that’s one of the things about this area. You can go to the desert, the beach, or the mountains, and most of it is within a couple hours’ drive. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can head up the coast to San Francisco. Or keep going north to Northern California and see redwoods and Yosemite (something I’d love to do).

But down here? As my wife says, it’s too peopley.

I like the area, and the climate is great, especially if you’re closer to the ocean. The inland canyons and high desert can get hotter than Hades in the summer, and as much as I love the look of the desert, I don’t wanna live there. Are you crazy? No thanks. I spent one August in those triple-digit temperatures, and I ain’t doin’ it again.

I’m writing this on Thursday the 2nd, and I’m set to fly back on Friday the 3rd. So by the time you read this, I’ll be home, back to fall temperatures and—probably—bare trees. My daughter is honeymooning at Disneyland as I write this, and I wish her all the luck and love in the world with her marriage. I hope she comes to visit me again (she was at my wedding this past July), and I’m sure I’ll come back out to see everyone.

But as far as living out here? No thanks. Gas across the street was $3.45 for the cheapest stuff, the California legislature having voted in a twelve-cent gas-tax hike that went into effect Wednesday. Helicopters fly overhead on a regular basis, and let’s not forget all the sirens that are like the city’s theme song.

And the homeless begging money and sleeping under overpasses.

The miles and miles of eight-lane freeways with miles and miles of backed-up traffic.

The millions of people.

You can’t find a moment’s peace. Can’t enjoy a sunset in solitude. Hell, you can’t have solitude period.

Yeah, I’m a country boy, and I’m gonna stay that way. It’s where I’m happiest.


Where Are the Editors?

I want to make a point perfectly clear at the outset: I’m not being self-righteous here, okay? Okay.

Having said that, I have to ask: where are the editors these days?

I’m reading a book at the moment—I won’t give title, author, or publisher, since I’m gonna be nitpicking it—that has a good overall story. But there are details that should have been corrected. For instance, take a look at this sentence: The horses back and whinny, as [he] swears and tries to control the frightened horses. Now, to me, this looks like the typical first draft mistake all authors make, and if I were reading the first draft, I’d have no problem with it. I’d mark it for the author and move on.

But this is a final, published book. I picked it up at my library. Has a great cover. The overall story editing is great. I haven’t spotted a plot hole yet, so I can’t fault that. But when you have a sentence like the one above—and it’s not the only example in this novel—you have to wonder where the editor was when he read that particular passage.

Now, to be fair, the novel isn’t exactly rife with things like this. Again, it reads smoothly, for the most part, and I can’t point out anything huge and say, “Look at this crap!” It’s more the little things, like unnecessary dialogue tags, as if the writer is afraid we’ll forget who’s talking, and the occasional sentence like my example, that pop up.

Again, I’m not being self-righteous. I’m sure I’ve missed things—in fact I know I’ve missed things—that make me want to face-desk. Hard. I’m not a perfect editor by any means, as anyone who’s read any of my texts and infrequent Facebook posts can tell you. Autocorrect messes me up so many times it’s not funny, and for some reason I can’t get it through my thick head to go over what I’ve typed before sending or posting it. And then, of course, there’s the old phenomenon that every writer is familiar with, which is it’s far easier to edit someone else’s writing than it is your own. Even in online posts and texts, we’re too close to our writing to do it justice (though some of the horrible things autocorrect does should stand out like a sore thumb).

At the small company where I work, I have to wear all the hats. I’m general editor, line editor, technical editor, and copy editor. I have to keep my phone handy to research things that I wonder about, so I can help the author get details right. I keep the app on my phone to look up dubious spellings, and Google gets a good workout when I need to reacquaint myself with writing rules. I’m not having a pity party here, but it’s not always an easy job—I’m always thankful for those writers who write so well that I’m mostly looking for typos—and I can understand how things like this can get by an editor.

The sad fact is, I’m not the only editor having to wear multiple hats these days. Thanks to the Great Recession, publishing companies have downsized editorial departments (which to me is the equivalent to shooting yourself in the foot) in an effort to save money. The result is overworked editors who miss things they shouldn’t. Oghma has some thirty authors under contract (last I checked), and I don’t have to edit all of those (thank God!), but as I’m the only full-time editor, I do the lion’s share of them. I can’t imagine what some editors are going through on a daily basis at the major publishers.

The good thing is, at Oghma, we have beta readers, which lightens the load a little in that I know I don’t have to rely only on myself to catch everything. And knowing that, I’m able to relax a bit and, as a result, actually catch more than I probably would if there were more pressure. Having beta readers doesn’t mean I can slack off, but it does mean I don’t have to sit at my computer wiping sweat off my forehead and stressing because I may have missed something. I’m especially worried about plot holes, and having other readers who see things differently is a blessing. I don’t know if any of those people read my blog, but I still want to give a hearty thanks to them. They have no idea how much easier it makes my job knowing they’re there to catch my screw ups.

I’m seeing articles on a fairly regular basis these days talking about how book sales are up—both physical and electronic—so I’m hoping the other publishing companies will put something in place to help catch more of these mistakes and stop working their editors into the ground and early burnout. Sure, as an employee at Oghma, I want us to have anything we can to give us an advantage in this field. But as a reader, I want to see quality books out there because, in the long run, it helps all us authors and publishers more.

So let’s bring all those editors back, whatever the cost. We’re not the author’s enemies—despite popular belief that says otherwise—and if we could spread the load out more, all of us would benefit from a better product, and a better product would mean better sales. And better sales means we’re fulfilling the dreams of some very worthy authors.

Nothing wrong with that, is there?


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.



Honesty. It’s what everyone says they want. Go ahead. Ask them. Ask yourself.

But when it comes right down to it, a lot of people can’t handle honesty. Take a good, long look at yourself, at your life, and tell me if you’re completely honest. You’re not. Neither am I (just in case you think I’m being judgmental). We tell lies all the time. From little white lies to big whoppers. We even tell them without realizing it.

Those lies are generally told to make ourselves look better: “I was late because of traffic.”

Well, if you know traffic is bad that time of day, leave a little earlier. Yes, there are times when traffic is way worse than you expected. Maybe there was an accident. That always ties things up to no end. I’m not saying everything is your fault. But I’d bet more of it is than you’d like to admit. I know it is for me.

Usually, we’re late because we didn’t leave early enough.

That’s just one example, though. There are others.

2010-11-22-too-much-facebook“I couldn’t get the report done because there was too much to do (and I was spending too much time on Facebook).”

“I wasn’t able to write much on my book this week because things got in the way (and I spent more time than I should have playing video games).”

“I’m not going to be able to come over and see you after all because I let housework pile up (from spending too much time playing games—on Facebook).”

But these are, relatively speaking, trivial things. Yeah, you’re disappointing someone, and that’s not good. But life is full of disappointment, and if you don’t get used to it real quick, you’re gonna be in really bad shape.

There are other, deeper lies we tell ourselves—and, after all, we lie more to ourselves than we do others. And we’re the easiest person to lie to, so we get away with it far more often than we do lying to others.

I see it online a lot. Someone takes exception to what someone else says, especially if it’s a celebrity/politician we don’t like. I’m just enough of a curmudgeon these days to try and call people on it, and they don’t like it. This is where I see people who really don’t want honesty as much as they claim.

A recent example would be the hullabaloo over something Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty said at a prayer breakfast. Of course, this isn’t the first time Phil’s said somethingPhil-Robertson the public hasn’t agreed with, but maybe this one is a bit more egregious than some others. He was apparently trying to illustrate what happens when you don’t follow God’s laws, and used the example of some criminal element breaking into the home of an atheist family, raping the daughters and mother and killing all of them, all the while spouting doggerel about how it can’t be wrong because, as atheists, the don’t recognize right and wrong the way good Christians do, and people took exception to the example Phil used.

Now, on one level, I can agree with them. Phil’s example, at best, is naïve, to say the least. Atheists—most of them, anyway—have a moral code every bit as stringent as Phil Robertson’s. The vast majority of them believe they only have this life, while they’re alive, to get it right. There’s no blood of Jesus to wash their sins away. They are one hundred percent accountable for their actions.

Now, I happen to find many atheists far too condescending of anyone who believes there is an afterlife or any kind of spiritual dimension to life. They look down on such believers as naïve children, and they’re not a bit above letting them know that. They’re generally—at least most of the ones I’ve come across—somewhat insufferable and smug in their positions. They want everyone to be respectful of their beliefs—and they are beliefs, because you can’t prove a negative—but they can’t quite seem to drudge up respect for anyone who’s spiritual.

Either way, Phil Robertson’s statements showed his ignorance. But what most folks seemed to take exception to was his rather graphic example, and I have to admit that it nn_05ami_isis_140819was more extreme than was needed. But when one poster compared fundamentalists like Robertson to members of ISIS, I had to bite my tongue. Robertson’s example was graphic, I’ll admit, but—and here’s the important part—it was hypothetical.

That means it didn’t really happen.

That means it’s no different from me writing about a similar incident in one of my crime novels.

And, I’m sorry, but I know lots of fundamentalist Christians, and I have yet to see one of them post a beheading video while wearing a mask. I have yet to see a group of them burn children or enemy pilots alive in a cage in order to make an example out of them.

The online community—and the very biased mainstream media—has created this image of Christians that doesn’t really exist outside of Westboro Baptist Church and their ilk. And most fundamentalists I know disapprove of the actions WBC undertakes. We hear people from all over the world protesting that the actions of a few Muslims like ISIS don’t represent the faith as a whole, and yet we’re ready and willing to jump all over Christians as a whole because of idiots like Phil Robertson and WBC.

That’s not honesty.

That’s hypocrisy.

One of the worst forms of dishonesty, as far as I’m concerned.

Being honest with yourself is hard. I know. I’ve been telling myself for a long time now that, yes, I’m overweight, but it’s not that bad. I carry it well. It’s mostly my belly.

And then I saw a picture of myself sitting in a chair at the OWL conference back in February. It’s at one of the keynote sessions, and I happen to be looking at my phone for some reason. The simple truth is, I look awful. I’m this blob sitting in a folding chair, thinking he’s not that bad off.
It was a wake-up call for me, that’s for sure, and I’ve been hitting my stationary bike and weights very regularly since. Besides the health risks, there’s the simple fact that I’ve been telling myself all along I wasn’t that bad, when in fact I was, and knew it, and wouldn’t admit it.

The problem, I think, with honesty, is that it means you have to take responsibility. Owning up to being fat wasn’t easy for me, and still isn’t. I still want to tell myself that I’m not that bad off, that it’s just my belly hanging out more than it should.

But if I really want to see how out of shape I’ve let myself become, all I have to do is remember what I was like when I went in the Army. Granted, at almost fifty years old, none of us is what we were at eighteen. But I stood the same height I do now and weighed 170 pounds. Where now I weigh over 300.

It’s horrible, is what it is. And I have to face up to that and do something about it. And I am. Probably not enough, and I really need to make more money in order to do it. The sad fact of the matter is it costs more to eat healthy, and that’s no lie. If you think it is, next time you’re in a store, compare the price of a Snickers to the price of a health food bar. Generally speaking, the healthy alternative is well over a dollar higher.
But I’m sure there are things I can do even within my meager budget (and believe me, it’s very meager indeed). I just need to research them. Somehow.

I don’t claim a perfect record here, but I at least try to be honest with everyone. And when you do that, you really see how people don’t want honesty as much as they claim. I’ve had people get mad at me and not talk to me because I was honest with them about something. One individual unfriended me on FB because I got tired of him trying to make me drink the Kool-Aid of his particular brand of political belief—which he claimed was true conservative but was a far cry from it—and told him he’d never win me over and he should stop trying. No great loss, really. I also had someone comment on this very blog, saying I’d screwed up in my post on internet illiteracy by using the word than when I should have used then. I admitted to the mistake, but that wasn’t good enough. This person stated there’s no way you can make a typo like that because the a is nowhere near the e on the keyboard. I replied that I never claimed to make a typo, but a mistake that I missed on proofreading, and then went on to tell this person that if he (or she; they commented under a username rather than their real name) didn’t believe me or like my answer, that was his problem.

No answer to that.

But I like to live my life by what I believe Mark Twain said: if you always tell the truth, you never have to remember anything.

I can’t help it if people don’t like honesty. I have no answer to the dilemma.

But honestly? I’d like more honesty if you’re dealing with me. And I promise not to unfriend you for it.


The Return

Yeah, I know, it’s been a while. To be honest, I’ve been dealing with some stuff. Some of it I’m still dealing with, but other things are off the board for now.

First off, there’s my new CPAP machine. That has taken some serious getting used to. You try learning to sleep with what amounts to a fighter pilot’s mask on your face and see how well you do. On top of that, there’s the hose that connects the thing to the machine. I learned one valuable lesson after a night away from home: use a firm pillow. I have a bad habit of using a pillow till it’s not much thicker than a notebook, and that was causing problems with the mask. Then I had to spend a night in Branson and the quarterly Ozark Writer’s Conference and learned that a thick, firm pillow keeps the mask from trying to come off my face all the time. So on the trip back, I stopped by Walmart and bought a cheap pillow (cheap things are all I can afford).

Anyway, learning to sleep with that thing has made me tired and cut down on most of my writing activities, including this blog. I haven’t added as much to my WIP, either. About the only things I’ve made significant progress on are the two novels I’ve been editing for Oghma, and I just finished those up (well, first round on one of them, anyway, the other is done, for the most part), and that’s freed me up to make a blog post. I’ll get back in the swing of things, it’s just gonna take some time.

Another problem I’ve had with this blog is that I’ve tried a new technique that’s not really working out. If you’ve paid attention, you’ll notice I was trying to do three posts a week. This was because it was recommended in a book I read about blogging and using your writer’s platform. The idea being, if you post more, you’ll attract more traffic. So I decided to try it out. Problem is, it doesn’t really work very well for me. I have trouble coming up with good topics that often, so I think the quality of the posts—which weren’t the best in the world to being with, in my opinion—were suffering.

Coming up with topics that stick with a certain formula hasn’t been working very well for me for a long time now, so things are gonna change in that department. I’m not sure just how yet. Some of my posts may be a bit more personal, others might delve more into the history of crime (something I’ve intended to do for some time now), and others yet might…well, who knows? This blog was started to talk about writing and my experiences as an author. But, for me, that actually covers a wide range. And it seems I’ve gotten the most hits from my historical posts, too, which hold a lot of interest for me.

Anyway, that’s where I’m at right now, and you’ll likely see some changes in the future. They’ll likely seem minor in some ways, but they’ll be good for me because I’ll be talking about things that truly interest me, which should make the quality of the posts go up (fingers crossed).


The Convert’s Song

converts songSebastian Rotella has returned with The Convert’s Song, the sequel to Triple Crossing, and it’s a worthy successor. Where Triple Crossing felt more like a crime novel, The Convert’s Song definitely steps over the line into an international thriller.

Valentine Pescatore, the hero of the first novel, is living in Buenos Aires and working as an investigator for a man named Facundo Bassat, who runs an agency that works out of the triple border area of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. As the novel opens, he’s helping a Miami doctor whose son was killed by a business partner get justice. They will visit a judge Facundo knows and offer him forty thousand dollars to keep the suspect in jail. It’s an attempt to top the suspected thirty thousand dollars the other side has offered to stall the investigation and let the suspect go free. That’s just the way business is done in Buenos Aires.

After completion of the deal, Pescatore escorts the man back to the airport for his return flight to Miami. As the doctor makes it through the checkpoint, a hand falls on Pescatore’s shoulder. It turns out to be his old friend Raymond, who we met in the prologue.

The last time Pescatore saw Raymond was some ten years earlier, when he accompanied Raymond to a drug deal as security. But when Raymond reveals he plans to double-cross the dealer, Pescatore leaves. Raymond shoots the dealer and is later arrested with the drugs and the money.

Now, Raymond claims he’s changed. He’s married, has a couple of boys. He got out of the drug bust by becoming an informant and giving up everyone he knew. And, it turns out he’s a converted Muslim. He’s a businessman, has some investments in the Middle East and Europe.

But a couple times during the reunion, Raymond’s phone rings. The first time, he ignores it. The second time, he answers, and it’s plain he’s talking to a woman. A few triple-frontier-brazil-argentina-paraguay-tripointmoments after he hangs up, she texts him, which he also blows off.

For a week after the meeting, Pescatore isn’t sure what to think of the encounter. In some ways, Raymond seems changed. In others, he’s the same old trouble maker.

Then, there’s a terrorist attack at a local mall. Pescatore’s boss has a heart attack while responding in the attack. The next morning, police kick Pescatore’s door down, claiming he’d participated in the attack, that the terrorists had called him. He has no idea what they’re talking about, of course, until he realizes the call was made to a cell phone he rarely uses. It’s the number he gave his old buddy Raymond when reluctant to give him his working number.

Calls are made and the FBI bails him out. This starts a long chase, first into Argentina, then France, then Iraq, where it becomes more and more evident Raymond isn’t at all what he presented himself as being. In fact, he’s worse than he was when Pescatore knew him a decade earlier.

triple crossingThe Convert’s Song is definitely a worthy follow-up to Triple Crossing, and I’m very curious to see where Sebastian Rotella will take Valentine Pescatore next. If you like international plots intertwined with terrorism and varied, exotic settings, this is a book for you.