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12.26.2012

Fiesta Bowl, Baby! Go Ducks!



Sheesh...got the football juices flowing. Just a week until the Ducks are on the big stage!

12.25.2012

Merry Christmas!



Merry Christmas, wherever you are! If you have an hour to devote to a sad, but extremely effective piece of multimodal storytelling, I highly recommend Snow Fall. John Branch's writing is excellent, the ancillaries are fascinating, and this is the future of storytelling. I was riveted to the piece yesterday, and it's stuck with me throughout the day as I think about the many blessings for our family.

I hope the holidays are treating you well, and that you are safe and spending time with the ones you love...

12.21.2012

The Call of Golden Gate


Publishing can be a frustrating business, and this story has endured an arduous journey to the digital page. It was originally accepted for a defunct anthology that was proposed by a well-regarded specialty publisher. Stories are orphaned all the time, and sometimes they never find a good home.


That wasn’t the case here, thankfully, and I am proud to have the story now presented in one of the finest speculative magazines on the Internet. BuzzyMag is publishing some fine fiction, and I’m honored to contribute to their magazine.


Writing this story was an emotional experience I had to do a lot of research to get the tone of the piece right, and I invested a lot of energy in the protagonist. I feel for Dick Allen—I really do. I hope you do too, or the story won’t quite “work” as I’d hoped.


I’ve heard writers say in interviews that they can’t choose a favorite story—that, like parents talking about their children, they like them all equally. I can understand the sentiment, but I don’t share it. I like this story a lot.


I think it’s the best short story that I’ve ever written...


12.19.2012

Seven Truths on the Art of Writing: Read Widely

Inspiration strikes, on occassion, in the oddest of circumstances. I was on the golf course last week, pretty much by myself, when I came across a perfect Bridgestone golf ball. Those balls aren't cheap, mind you. I picked it up and looked around. Nobody was eyeing it. Nobody wanted to claim it. I turned it around in the palm of my hand--not a scuff or a scratch or a dented dimple in sight.

I left it out there.

And I just don't do that. I pick up every golf ball that is legally and ethically retrievable. Even the nasties go into a sack of shags I keep in the garage for practicing with at the park. 

But given the bizarre set of circumstances (the ball was sitting on the collar of the green; I mean, that thing was on a silver platter!), I left it.

Why?

I scared myself. I thought of an explanation for why it might be there, and I left it. Stupid? Hell yes it was. But I got a great story idea out of it, and that's the lesson there. Inspiration comes when it comes, and that's what makes life so great. That variability is why each day is a treat.

But what about when you're actively searching for something? Well, the advice that is ubiquitous in writing circles is that a writer needs to read to write. Alas, I'll tell you nothing different here. I read every day and find it as necessary as getting some physical exercise, so it's not an issue for me.

But it always strikes me as strange when students complain about the reading load in the first week of a new literature section.

Yes...you read that correctly. They complain about the reading load in a college literature course. A course they signed up for, presumably, after reading the course description. A course they paid tuition for. A course they purchased books for.

What in the...?

Sorry for the digression.  One shouldn't just read in his or her genre, in my view. That's important for a number of reasons, but so is incorporating variety. I try to build in some nonfiction (usually history and true adventure) in my personal TBR pile. This past year, I read a lot of scholarship. I read thrillers and mysteries. I read gonzo regional literature by folks like Dorsey and Hiaasen. I read tons of cookbooks (and I even make some decent meals!).

But all of that reading coalesces into something akin to the creative rains that stock a writer's personal well. You're not dipping from the work of others by visiting that well (at least no more than they were when they were doing the work on their end, at least). No, you're just satiating the storytelling impulse. Your own tale will be unique, but if the well is dry, than I doubt it's all that interesting... 

12.06.2012

The Walking Dead



I've enjoyed the third season of The Walking  Dead more than either of its forbears. The pacing has been good, the conflict has been intense (wow..."The Killer Within" was one of the toughest single episodes of television that I've ever looked at), and the focus on the living--on Rick's continued transformation and the developments in Woodbury--have all been excellent.

The inevitable mid-season break comes at an interesting time. A new group of survivors has appeared in the prison. This is good, as the core group from Season 1 has been thinned considerably and the show needs an infusion of new characters. 

Rick remains an interesting case study in character--complex and hard to read. I can't understand how he refuses to embraces Carl. I mean, he leaves last week for Woodbury, knowing full well he might not come back, and the best he can give his son is a few words about looking after the others? I know he's trying to do right by his boy by hardening him to the world, but sheesh...he's still your family, Rick! Give him a hug, for heaven's sake!

While I haven't always enjoyed the casting choices on the show, I love the dynamic playing out in Woodbury between Daryl and Merle and The Governor. It's going to be a long wait until February, but it's likely going to be well worth it. This show is trending up...

12.04.2012

Duotrope Deserves Our Support...

In less than twenty-four hours, I've referenced Duotrope twice. I referred a promising student writer to the site, and I used a search result to illustrate a point in an academic essay. Does the site have value?

Absolutely. 100%

Is a charge of $50.00 per year a fare rate?

I think so, but mileage will certainly vary on this topic. The Missouri Review, a decent publication that thinks more of itself than seems healthy, is skeptical. I give Michael Nye credit, as he has the stones to question the direction of the index at the same time that he uses the phrase "fee-based system," unabashedly,  in the title of his post.

This is the same magazine that charges $3.00 for an online submission. Make of that what you will...

Duotrope is important to me. I will pony up in 2013. I kept my submissions with them years ago (I'm a registered user), but I've been hardcopy for at least three years. I don't report to them. But I log in at least once a week. When I'm writing short fiction, I use them often.

They return productive results, and they've been uniformly excellent. They capture huge swaths of data, they collect gigantic numbers of markets, and they are the industry standard when it comes to market listings. 

I'm surprised they haven't gone to Shark Tank

Not because what they do is hard, but because what they do is boring...and tedious...and meticulous. Duotrope casts a wide net.

This isn't a commercial, but I hope they make this a going concern. There are other sites. I love ralan.com. He does a phenomenal job.

But Duotrope is doing what it has to do. I give them a lot of credit, and I'll support the effort...

12.01.2012

Immersion Therapy...

I'm writing a long(ish) essay on the impacts technology has had on the American horror narrative, tracing movements in the field (in broad sketches, of course) from roughly 1690 to present. It's been a rewarding experience, and an eye-opener in terms of actually seeing the technogenesis that N. Katherine Hayles writes about in How We Think at work. Machine reading and hyper-reading have had material impacts on how we digest and tell stories, and horror tales fall in right in line with some of the theories she explains in her text.

Just in terms of a roll call, I'm touching on:

  • Cotton Mather, the Salem Witch Trials, and execution sermons;
  • Slave narratives and ghost stories of the American South;
  • Windigo narratives of the Upper Plains;
  • Poe and Lovecraft and the long reach of the weird tale;
  • Pocket Books, Dell Books, and the role of the pulps in creating subgenres (the various "punks," if you're at all curious);
  • Stephen King's UR, The Plant, and Little Green God of Agony;
  • Closer reads of Barron's "Frontier Death Song," Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," Yu's "Standard Loneliness Package" and Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown";
  • Discussion of digital publishing and the shifting marketplace for fiction in general;
  • The Moonlit Road, project Gutenberg, and The American Memory Project.
Whew. It's been an exhilarating trip down the rabbit hole. I have a meeting down in Orlando on Monday to discuss an independent study track, and I was wondering if anyone could suggest a title or two that falls into the "dark sci-fi of the twentieth century" category. If anyone has a suggestion (and I've received some good ones after reaching out to friends in the spec. fic. community), I'd love to hear it...

Speaking of speculative fiction, I am chewing through the absolutely indispensable tome The Weird. The VanderMeers really have created a definitive treasury of surreal, absurd, haunting, whimsical, wonderful fiction. I'm stunned by the creativity and diversity on display here, and the uniform quality. I haven't read a story that didn't stand out from its peers in some way; I haven't read a story yet that I didn't enjoy. I'm about fifteen stories in, and Michel Bernanos's "The Other Side of the Mountain" (1967) is my favorite thus far. Two things are abundantly clear to me:
  • This book belongs in every speculative-fiction writer's home library;
  • Gio Clairval is a master translator.
In ten days, I'll have a chance to get back to my first fiction in a long while. With all of this inspiration building up inside me (sheesh, I've read some great stuff lately!), it'll be nice to see that cursor from a different perspective, blinking like a lighthouse at the edge of the sea of pretend...

10.31.2012

Halloween and Other Seasons



I know this little web journal has accumulated some dust in the last months, but things on my end have been busy and hectic. Still (and despite a serious chest cold that's keeping me indoors), I love Halloween and I had to drop by for a few moments. I love everything about the holiday, and I've been trying to sneak in a few short stories here and there in between the books I've been reading for my studies at UCF.

Lyla has never been this excited for a holiday. At three years of age, it's amazing to see how animated she gets about the idea of trick-or-treating and dressing up. I often wonder what life must look like to her--everything new and vibrant and exhilarating and novel. Dang, she's a good kid. We couldn't have been more blessed in that regard...

If you're looking for some Halloween goodness, look no further than Halloween & Other Seasons, by Al Sarrantonio. Be forewarned, though: this collection is seriously dark.

Sarrantonio's collection of short stories doesn't pull any punches.

In fact, it hits you right in the throat from the first story, "Summer," and keeps the pressure on throughout the collection. "Summer" is a cautionary tale, a realistic view of youthful nostalgia that plays with the old maxim be careful what you wish for to keen effect.

"Sleepover" is haunting and sorrowful. Those kids (shakes head) deserve so much more from life. Sadly, there experience is the reality for some, and Sarrantonio's central message here holds much truth.

"Eels" is perhaps the most frightening story. Sarrantonio doesn't shy away from serious themes, dealing here with child abuse. It's a dark, dark tale, and I can only hope that a reunion was in store in the third act...

"Letters from Camp" tells the tale of a punishment camp for wayward boys. Macabre stuff, this one...

"Roger in the Womb" had me in stitches. Again, this one has much to say about the human condition and the notions we hold about the facade of safety...

There's a kinship in these tales, both in style and spirit, with Ray Bradbury's best short fiction. In fact, this feels like a companion collection to the late great author's unrivaled The October Country. In a few cases ("Roger in the Womb" probably being the best example), it expands on the themes Bradbury explored in that collection.

Sarrantonio's prose is good--lyrical and rhythmic. He has a great eye for observation, though that also gets him in trouble in spots. He lingers over the smallest details, often to great effect, and occasionally to ill effect. In spots, the writing bogs down with saccharine sweet details that might make some skim forward to get back to the story.

That's a minor quibble, though, and it, too, is evidenced in Bradbury's writing. I liked this collection very much (B+) and would recommend it to anyone with a stomach for stories that don't finish up with the traditional happy resolution.

To my thinking, we need more stories like these.

And, for those of you looking for a little darkness in your day on this, the final afternoon of October, my collections These Strange Worlds: Fourteen Dark Tales and The Silver Coast and Other Stories will be free until midnight this evening. Take a look and drop me a line if you like what you see!

Happy Halloween!  

9.18.2012

Bestsellers, By Proxy

TM Publishing's Emerald Sky Magazine is sharp. The layout looks great, and the art is attractive.

I was thrilled when my ghost story "Bestsellers, By Proxy" was accepted for publication, but things just got better from there as I had the chance to work with their editors on polishing the piece.

I'd like to thank Daniel Friend for his help on the story, and for seeing the potential this little yarn (which tramples all over a pair of taboos that some editors hold sacred: stories about the supernatural and technology, and stories about writers).

You can read the piece here.

9.15.2012

Crackpot Palace, by Jeffrey Ford


I cited Mr. Ford last week in a debate we were having on the finest examples of contemporary literature in a class over at UCF. His writing is energetic, haunting, exhilirating, lyrical, and damned funny. You'll see what I mean when you encounter this line:


The fire-eater never even turned around but kept working like he was nonunion.

I dare you not to chuckle at that one. It's just one of many great lines that speak to Ford's gifts as a storyteller. His tales have a pretty fierce duality. He packages humor with dark, dark content to great effect. Those who've read his story "The Drowned Life" can expect a lot more of that here.

And Ford's writing is just getting better. While some of the tales in this collection were written many years ago, most of them are of a recent vintage. I've read all of his collections, and this one is the best so far.

Most pitchers lose their fastball over time, and sometimes that analogy has some appropriate overlap with fiction writers. I'm happy to say that, in the case of Jeffrey Ford, his heater is alive and well.

Ford's eye for detail and ability to turn a phrase are on display in his more nostalgic stories. That nostalgia, by the way, isn't of the wondrous, rosy, geez-life-is-great variety. It's the realistic, pragmatic nostalgia that accompanies the memories we've all had of struggling through a period of time, of living in crappy apartments over crowded alleys. "Every Richie There Is" is a great example of this. It's a short examination of those people in our lives that become symbols of a certain time and place. We all know a Richie--he's abrasive and strange and frail and brash; he imposes on others and, though we may not want to talk to him every day, we feel a little weird about the days in which we don't. And then, one day, he's just gone and we're left to ponder our own mortality.

"Down Atsion Road," "The Double of My Double Is Not My Double," and "86 Deathdick Road" explore some of the same human depths. Ford is at his best when he's writing about the interior and exterior conflicts that haunt us: the fear of growing old, of being usurped, of living in isolation, of being ridiculed. The beauty of these tales, though, comes from the surreal undercurrents. There's menace in the most innocent of objects and gestures, and Ford knows just how to push those buttons to ratchet up the tension.

This narrative treasury is filled with stories of all types. "The Coral Heart" is a sorrow-filled fantasy; "The Seventh Expression of the Robot General" a gear-clicking sf story with balls; "Sit the Dead" is an idiosyncratic vampire tale.

If you haven't read Ford's stories, this is a good place to start. Once you get going, you'll find gems in his other collections as well. Highly recommended...

9.14.2012

Book Reviews...

Sheesh. What a generally odious can of worms, right?

Well, yes and no. I tend to fall more in line with Joe Konrath's opinion here than with those who created a petition to show their disdain for sock puppets. I disagree whole-heartedly with those who create false accounts to snipe at authors they view as "competition." C'mon, people, let the stories sink or swim on their merit.

You can read all of Joe's post, and then the hundreds of comments in the thread that follows. It wouldn't be a waste of your time if you want to look at the ethical debate surrounding this controversy. But for practical purposes, the argument is finished in the third sentence of Konrath's post:

Amazon allows one-star reviews.

Until they come up with a different system for feedback, abuses like these will take place.

Look, I appreciate good reviews. I appreciate bad ones, too. I'm thankful that somebody took the time to provide a thoughtful, insightful note on a text, regardless of which way the wind blows.

What I don't appreciate is this. Sure, this reader can post this up there on Goodreads. Obviously, it takes very little time to slam a book that wasn't even finished with three trite sentences and a one-star review. Must make some people feel good, I guess.

Would I do it? Hell no. It's completely demeaning.

But that's the way the system is set up.

I think, in order to earn the right to post a review, one should do two things: finish the book (or use the product) and offer concrete rationale. It's okay not to like something, of course, but the best way to demonstrate that while maintaining your dignity as a credible person is to show why.

Criticism, by its very nature, should be critical. I know that sounds redundant, but it's true. There should be something there. If a reader feels the writing is "choppy," fine...but illustrate how that might be with a passage or two from the text.

I will never post a review for a book I don't finish. Will I post negative reviews? Maybe. I slammed Swamp People (and received about a dozen e-mails for it) some time ago. That was based on what I thought was offensive content. Generally, I post reviews if I like something. My mom taught me that, if I dislike something, there's no shame in keeping my mouth shut. So I do. That's how I roll. Your mileage may vary, and that's fine too, of course.

And I don't think purchasing reviews is the terrible thing that some do, particularly if they are written by those working for a service like Book Rooster. Those folks call it like they see it, and subscribing to the service doesn't guarantee a rosy response.

But I do think the one-star drivebys are ridiculous if they don't actually say anything about the story itself.

Now, speaking of reviews, I'm loving Jeff Ford's Crackpot Palace and will have my thoughts up on that one in a few days. Great book...go buy it.

And, if you would like to read Torched, you can enter a drawing to win a copy here:


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Torched by Daniel Powell

Torched

by Daniel Powell

Giveaway ends September 16, 2012.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

The Violence of Writing


Before asking whether writing could be abandoned, one must ask how writing began. Etymology may be helpful here. Writing comes from the Latin scribere, meaning "to scratch." And the Greek graphein means "to dig." Accordingly, writing was originally a gesture of digging into an object with something, so making use of a wedge-shaped tool (a stylus). It is true that writing is no longer done this way. Now, writing usually involves putting pigment on a surface. We write on-scriptions rather than in-scriptions--and we usually write styluslessly. (Flusser 13)

Let etymology bear witness once again. The English to write (that in fact means "scratch," as does the Latin "scribere") reminds us that scratching and tearing come from the same stem. The scratching stylus is an incisor, and one who writes inscriptions is an incising tiger: he tears images to pieces. Inscriptions are the torn pieces, the cadavers of images; they are images that fell victim to the murderous incisor teeth of writing--hence the shock with which inscription was greeted by those who first received it. (Flusser 14)
Some pretty aggressive theory early in Vilem Flusser's Does Writing Have a Future? on the nature of language and communication...

8.28.2012

Wow...

Two weeks in and my head is swimming with new ideas, theories and emerging skills. I wrote HTML code for my first website today. Guess what? It worked! It was a simple thing--a single, lonely sentence cast out on a digital island in the vastness of the WWW. 

But it worked!

I read Walter Ong's Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue last week, and I thought it was a great first text to look at in this program at UCF. Ong did a nice job of sketching an effective introduction to classic rhetoric and dialectic.

The sheer immensity of reading and studying is a big change to my schedule. I'm going to write some fiction here and there, for the sake of my sanity, but I can tell that my priorities will have to change a bit for the time being. That's the way it goes, I guess.

College football starts up in two days. Halloween is two months off. Fall is right around the corner. 

Be well where you are...

8.23.2012

More on Editing

I sold my fourth story in 2012 at HWA "pro" rates, which are recognized at a nickel per word or greater. It's been a good year in that regard, and I'm very thankful to the various editors that have helped me shape these stories.

The most recent sale was to TM Magazine. My story "Bestsellers, By Proxy" will appear in their pages on the first of September.

It was great to work with Daniel Friend on the edits, but it was also a little humbling. TM Magazine purchases stories that are suitable for readers of all ages. This tale...well, I had no idea how much profanity needed to go until I looked at the track changes. 

I was actually a little embarrassed. I'm no puritan when it comes to language, and the majority of my work can get a little salty in that regard, but it's easy for me to overlook how often I'm letting it fly until I saw the terms in red there on the screen.

Holy #$%&!

I have zero problems changing a story, by the way, for profanity or content issues (unless its absolutely integral to the storytelling itself). I hope my stories will reach all kinds of different audiences, including young readers. And I don't think it's "selling out" at all to sanitize coarse language that isn't important to the story.

Daniel did a great job of offering suggestions that kept the story moving and never interrupted the fluidity of the writing. It was neat to collaborate like that, and I'm looking forward to seeing the story in print soon...

8.21.2012

Seven Truths on the Art of Writing: Everyone Needs an Editor

I've noticed lately that it's fashionable (particularly among the "government-never-helped-me, I-made-this-without-any-American-assistance-at-all, so-why-can't-you?" set) to disparage the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child. I hear folks say it's a silly statement with increasing frequency, so maybe that just adds to the veracity of the claim.

I believe that many who stand firmly in the "personal responsibility/rugged individualism" camp should take great care in heeding that statement, as the world is now awash in writing that is, to be plain, flat out poorly written.

I enjoy about half of the independent stories that I've purchased in the last two years. That sample size is decent (more than fifty titles, if my Kindle history is accurate), but that ratio is still very disappointing. The two reasons I put most stories away without ever finishing them:

  • overt proselytizing (regardless of theology or ideology)
  • poorly edited work
I'm willing to forgive the occasional typo or homonym error. It's rare that any book, professionally edited or otherwise, is perfect in that sense. 

But many of the stories that I purchase, even after taking a look at them in the preview window, fall apart under the weight of simple errors that could be easily caught.

Successful prose is the product of revision and attention. If you are considering putting a book up there on Amazon, or querying an agent, I'd suggest that you run the piece by a trusted reader (someone who isn't related to you). That is, if you mean to be taken seriously as a writer whose work is worth trading for actual money. If that doesn't apply to you, post your unedited stuff online to your heart's content. The Internet's a mighty big place...

But if you want to sell some writing, I recommend that you find someone whose opinion you admire, and who is willing to do this (it's a big request to ask someone to offer a critique--don't be flippant in making such a request, or your feelings will likely be hurt) huge task and who is also willing to be honest. After this person hits you with the good stuff--after they dissect your poor characterization, chastise your plodding plotting and circle every mistake that you made with punctuation--then you should buy him or her the largest container of beer that is available in his or her favorite brand. And mention this person in the acknowledgements section of the book. And help them move when the time comes.

Note: Don't call your local college and then work through the entire department directory asking every English or creative writing professor on campus to read your brilliant, 900-page work of urban erotica (unless you have the money to do this and you come with an offer in hand, and then you will likely only be politely rebuked). This is grossly inappropriate and a little insulting.

You can bounce ideas off of your reading group, if you have one. You can work with a professional editor (rates vary, as some charge by the word, while others charge by the page), but do some research before you head down that road. You can trade services with another writer (and I mean critiques, folks).

But my advice is to return to your writing time and again, and then get a second set of eyes on it. In the long run, your story will be better for it.



8.19.2012

Seven Truths on the Art of Writing: Every Writer Needs Routine

I like routine. I have a touch of OCD in me, and I like the luxury of knowing when I'm going to have time set aside to get to work.

But that's what routine is for me: it's a luxury. 

When I'm in my "off" time at FSCJ, I try to carve out a few hours every morning to write, but even that is hit and miss. I have a daughter and a wife and dozens of other pressing issues, and the whole "I'm sorry, but this is my writing time" thing just isn't me. If Lyla wants to go to the park and I'm supposed to be at the computer (because I set some arbitrary time in my own mind), then I'm going to the park.

I'm fascinated by how writers approach the art of storytelling. There are some great stories out there about Stephen King, John Grisham, John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce that I absolutely love (whether they're true or not, I can't say). It's cool to think about these folks getting the work done.

But for me, I don't really need a routine. Hell, I don't even crave one. I just need some music and a soft light. I sneak twenty minutes here and twenty minutes there. It works. The stories still progress. I sometimes miss a week. Other weeks, I crank out 5,000 words. 

Looking ahead, I think I'll maybe only get a little time on Sundays to write fiction. That's just the reality of how my week is shaping up, with all the driving between Jacksonville and Orlando, and the reading demands I'm anticipating with my course load. 

But I often encounter folks that say they want to write, but they don't have the time to commit to a routine. Really, you don't need to do that to write. Some writers turn a book in every three months. Some do it every ten years. Each has an approach, and one isn't any better than the other.

King says that "Life is not a support system for art. It's the other way around." Think about the next time you fret over getting your word count in at a certain time. If something else is pretty important at that time, attend to it first and just come back to the writing later, without guilt, when the time is right.

The writing will be there for you. Trust me, it'll always be there for you...

8.16.2012

Seven Truths on the Art of Writing: Care About Your Subjects

As I embark on a new path of study at the University of Central Florida (first classes begin on Monday, though I've been in Orlando a few times this week for orientation already), I think that this little web forum might fall into a state of temporary stasis.

I may drop in from time to time to jot down some thoughts on a particularly illuminating academic text, or maybe vent a little bit on matters of public discourse (like the Jacksonville City Council's deplorable stance on human rights), but I foresee long periods of inactivity over the next year. Simply put, I don't think I'll have the time to do much blogging.

I'm not going to nuke the site because I've grown to really enjoy blogging. It's a great way to create a record of what one's done, and where one has been. It allows for authority and permanence in the things we say and do, and our thoughts on particular texts or films or issues. I'll come back at some point in the future and re-invigorate the journal, and grow on the 700+ posts that have accumulated here over the years.

I thought, though, as a means of signing off for my blogging sabbatical, that I might record a few of the maxims that have governed my path as a writer over the last few years. Take them for what they are: one person's opinions on the artistic process.

Without further adieu:

Kurt Vonnegut states in his essay "How to Write With Style" that a writer should:

  • Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
This is particularly important, I believe, in an era of specialization. Publishing's digital paradigm shift allows for a wide degree of latitude in both space and subject, and writers are taking full advantage of both. Novellas are increasingly common on the Amazon Top 100 list. While romance has always been popular, erotica has now pushed its way into the forefront of American reading habits (the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy is selling hundreds of thousands of copies in a single week!). These are good trends for readers, to be sure.

As readers, we can tell when an author cares about his or her subject matter. It comes across in voice, character and setting, I think, more than anywhere else. And I think readers can also tell when a writer cashes in on a popular trend, and maybe rushes a knock-off to market because vampires are hot, or because werewolves are this year's zombie.

So my first piece of advice is to write the book you want to read. If the idea that you had seemed like a commercial dead end years ago, that shouldn't be a hindrance now. It might take time for your story to find its niche audience, but that tome about the popular celebrity chef that murders vagrants, cooks up the  choice cuts and then serves the resulting meals to unsuspecting audience members will find some readers (yeah, I'm looking at you, Paula Dean).

You can take chances and write freely. Commit to telling a story and take joy in it, and it'll come across in the writing... 

8.13.2012

Greaveburn, by Craig Hallam



Craig Hallam is a good writer (and a nice guy to boot!) whose horror stories I've really enjoyed in the past. If you're looking for a summer fantasy, take a look at Greaveburn, available here for the Amazon Kindle.

A Hero murdered.

A Girl alone.

A city of Villains.

From the crumbling Belfry to the Citadel’s stained-glass eye, across acres of cobbles streets and knotted alleyways that never see daylight, Greaveburn is a city with darkness at its core. Gothic spires battle for height, overlapping each other until the skyline is a jagged mass of thorns.

Archduke Choler sits on the throne, his black-sealed letters foretell death for the person named inside. Abrasia, the rightful heir, lives as a recluse in order to stay alive. With her father murdered and her only ally lost, Abrasia is alone in a city where the crooked Palace Guard, a scientist’s assistant that is more beast than man, and a duo of body snatchers are all on her list of enemies.

Under the cobbled streets lurk the Broken Folk, deformed rebels led by the hideously scarred Darrant, a man who once swore to protect the city. And in a darkened laboratory, the devious Professor Loosestrife builds a contraption known only as The Womb.

With Greaveburn being torn apart around her, can Abrasia avenge her father’s murder before the Archduke’s letter spells her doom?



8.05.2012

The College Conundrum

This is a very long post, so please bear with me. I've been asked by many parents about the relative value of a college education. I met with a former student for forty minutes last week to discuss graduate school options. He was very earnest and very sincere, and he posed some great questions, which got me thinking about the relative value of a college degree in relationship to the cost. 

So, should kids go to college?

For decades, the default answer was frequently delivered in the affirmative. However, with the cost of a college education rising exponentially (and outpacing just about every other service in American life with the exception of fuel costs and healthcare) and a rough job market awaiting many recent (or soon-to-be) college graduates, the answer is a bit more complicated.

My advice to students is to ask a few questions that seem paradoxical. I say that because, on the surface they're pretty simplistic questions, but the logistics of creating a plan and seeing it through are extremely complicated. Life is complicated, and things happen that sometimes put the train off the tracks.

Keeping that in mind, my first set of questions would be:
  • What do you want to do with your life? Where do you want to live? What is your optimal work schedule? What amount of financial remuneration do you need to remain satisfied and productive?
Again, that seems simple, but the answers to those questions can be pretty elusive. I earned a B.S. degree in finance at Linfield College (a degree I'll have fully paid for in about five years, but more on that later). I took a position as a financial services representative with the investment arm of Prudential right out of college. In a recruiting class of six brokers, I was the only one to pass my Series 6, Series 66 and Series 7 brokerage licenses. The others were summarily fired; I was rewarded with an office cubicle and a schedule that included about sixty hours of work a week.

The job was selling stocks and mutual funds. I was okay at it, but I really didn't like the work. The hours were so long that I never saw Jeanne. My health suffered, both physically and spiritually, and I didn't get much of a chance to write (I minored in English at Linfield and began writing fiction during my time there). The job was financially rewarding but, at the end of the day, I didn't feel much in the way of satisfaction or contribution to my community. Prudential paid a nice salary (plus commissions) faithfully ever Friday afternoon, but the job itself inspired nothing in me but dread. 

I wanted to spend more time with writing. Hell, I wanted to write for a living, to be honest. I looked into working for the newspapers, and I applied to the master's degree program in English at Portland State. When I was offered a spot in their fall class, I fled corporate America and went back to school. I took a job as a sportswriter at The Gresham Outlook (for which I received, at various times, both college credit through an internship and then payment as an employee of the sports department) and I spent two more years in the classroom, earning that M.A. degree. I learned more about the craft of writing clear prose at the paper than I ever expected to. And I learned more about myself and my abilities to teach and organize a meaningful learning opportunity for others at Portland State.

I knew then that I wanted to work as a college professor. I liked the atmosphere of the college, and I liked the tangible aspect of building stories and delivering the news. It felt good, and it felt right. 

So of course, I needed the degree. Furthermore, I needed a graduate degree from a regionally accredited institution. And to complete the rest of my career goals, I needed a terminal degree (more on that later as well).

So, for some jobs, in some fields, a college degree is mandatory. For many, many others, it's not. There was a time in America in which people with high school diplomas could have a pretty good life if they wanted to build things. The work was often repetitive and physical. The lack of creative control and autonomy aren't attractive to me personally, but to each his own.

However, for many reasons (with outsourcing and offshoring being the greatest factors, in my opinion), manufacturing is not much of a viable option in 2012. There has been a cultural shift, within both the political and the business spheres, that has severely devalued the contributions (and the economic viability) of the American laborer. For some who earn high school diplomas, but who don't want to pursue the cost of a college degree, joining the military is one of the only options (although even that avenue for employment and/or personal satisfaction is becoming more difficult to pursue) left.

With a decreased emphasis on manufacturing in America, and high school dropout rates of about 75% for the country, I don't think our present economic troubles should come as much of a surprise. We are becoming, as Naomi Klein asserts in her book No Logo, a service-based economy. Inevitably, a large portion of our population will find jobs keeping things clean, cooking food, selling things (lots of kiosks in the mall, folks!) and cutting grass. If folks have a passion for positions in the service sector, then things are looking pretty good right about now. But the truth is, most folks don't want to work in those positions.

I had a friend confide in me the other day at the YMCA that he hates his life. He stocks the shelves at a local grocery store, but he also gets to man the register from time to time--one of the more glamorous aspects of working at Publix. He told me that he dreads checking the schedule, that his chest tightens when he goes to see how his life will be parceled out to him in eight-hour shifts over the next couple of weeks. I told him to drop by the Deerwood Center and I'd put him in contact with an adviser.

"I'm in my forties and I'm too tired to go back to school," he said, shaking his head. "That ship sailed years ago."

My friend's experience is but an anecdote, and just a tiny example of the existential angst that I suspect might permeate those that work in the service sector, but it's compelling to me nevertheless. It makes me thankful for the good fortune that's happened in my life to have a job that I enjoy (and could not have, had I not gone to college) and some relative control over the quality and quantity of the work I do for FSCJ.

A rung above this would be the skilled technician class. I have another friend who is considering embarking upon a job as an electrician's apprentice. Those folks make very good money doing extremely dangerous things (like dealing with high voltages; his job would require working high up on towers, so no thanks for me, but more power to him). But earning the licenses, insurance and certification to do that job can be almost as expensive as earning a degree at FSCJ (where we actually offer courses in things like welding and HVAC repair through our career college arm). You can make a very nice living as a plumber or electrician, but I hope one would have a genuine passion to plumb if that's the road he or she might take.

The second questions, then:
  • How much am I willing to pay? Will I actually do the thing I set out to do? How long should I take?
"Debt," in and of itself, is not a bad word. My wife and I have excellent credit, and we prefer to stay lean and mean in terms of carrying debt from month to month, but we use it all of the time. We run all of our finances through a credit card each month, then pay it off, to bank the travel rewards (the round-trip flight she's finishing up today from Seattle didn't cost us anything out of pocket). We have a good mortgage.

And we pay around $450 dollars each month in student loans (federally subsidized loans). We've done this for six years, and will be doing this for five more to come. Do we wish we had that money as disposable income? Sure. Are we thankful that we earned the four degrees between us to have the jobs we do that provide us with the quality of life we enjoy? You bet your ass. 

My wife is a high school guidance counselor. It's all she's ever wanted to do. She earned a bachelor's degree from PSU and then an M.A. from the University of North Florida. We'll have her loans paid off a bit quicker than mine (probably three years), but that sum isn't crippling to us. In fact, it was wholly necessary for her to make her credentialing happen in her field.

For us to carry the debt that we do, it's a professional and occupational outcome of paying for our own educations. My folks picked up the tab on my sister's degree at Eastern Oregon, but I had to make the financing happen for my education.

Now, this is a hard thing to consider objectively, but an important aspect of this question is whether or not a person can actually complete the degree. Many students begin college, but they never finish. And, because most student loans can't be discharged in bankruptcy, the promissory notes they signed so easily every August haunt them for decades.

So six in ten students finish a four-year college degree within six years. For the four that don't, that's a lot of debt out there that isn't necessarily paying off, which leads many economists to have recently predicted that the next big crisis point in our country's fragile economic plight is our exorbitant amount of student loan debt.

This has led to some innovative thinking in terms of how people are paying for college. You know that silly phrase, "If it's free, it's me"? Well, maybe nowhere is it more applicable than the consideration of going to school or not. I'm beginning a doctoral program at the University of Central Florida in about three weeks, and I'm flattered and thankful that I was able to secure a graduate teaching assistantship. This will give me free tuition in exchange for teaching a few classes each term. It's inexpensive labor for UCF, and it keeps me out of the FAFSA cycle for the terminal degree I need to teach upper division communications courses (that professional goal I mentioned earlier).

And another great benefit of working as a college professor is that my dependents will likely get tuition benefits. Furthermore, our college is willing to pay all full-time employees up to $4500 per year to go back to school in the form of tuition reimbursements.

These things are out there, and I hope our children will take advantage of them one day.

In Florida, there is the Bright Futures scholarship program. We also have extensive dual enrollment programs in Duval County, so many high-achieving high school students are getting free college credits at the same time they are pursuing their diplomas.

But those who take advantage of programs like that are few and far between. Far more local kids simply stop attending school, making the possibility of a rough economic future a pretty realistic outcome.

And then there is always the question of quality. Some folks complain that college degrees, even those from regionally accredited institutions, have suffered in terms of their overall quality and that completion doesn't necessarily signify value. I don't buy that at all. I think rigor is as good as it's ever been. Our faculty at the Deerwood Center has a high terminal-degree ratio, and our educators have been widely recognized for the quality of their instruction. Colleges still teach, among the value in the content of the subjects themselves, things like accountability, time management, multi-tasking, productive collaboration and communication.

And what about choosing the degree? There is a shortage of nurses in Florida right now, so that field certainly isn't hurting for applicants (getting in is another story). Are humanities degrees somehow less valuable than so-called STEM degrees? Depends. There are many jobs that simply require a college degree from a reputable school for employment. If you are pursuing one of those, that art history degree won't hurt you at all. If you want to teach and, in many cases, work in law enforcement, you'll need a college degree (JSO requires a two-year degree, I think, to become a police officer)--though the discipline often doesn't matter. Because they wanted folks with conflict-resolution skills, the Florida Fish and Wildlife was actively looking for recent graduates with psychology degrees.

But yes, it's important to picture where you want to live and how you want to live in order to conceptually make your own luck. You want to work in high tech? You  might have to live in the research triangle in North Carolina, or in the Silicon Valley (Bay Area) or Silicon Forest (Portland to Seattle).

You want to process chicken parts? Arkansas is your best bet.

It's all about envisioning what the future looks like. But don't forget what I said about making your own luck. You still need to distinguish yourself in school with things like grades and citizenship and ancillaries (publications and internships). You'll need to be agile, both personally and mentally, and take initiative. I love my job here in Florida, and I like Jacksonville very much, but I'm an Oregonian at heart. The labor market in higher education is fantastically tight (we often screen over one hundred applicants, probably half of them with PhDs, for one opening at FSCJ), and in Oregon, there simply wasn't a market. Some jobs are coming open now, but if you wanted a job with some security and benefits seven years ago, you had to move. I did, and I'm happy to have done so.

My job, by the way, affords me the time I want to write and spend time with my family. I swapped financial compensations that I made at Prudential for time considerations that I now have at FSCJ. I teach a variety of courses, at different times every semester, and that variety keeps me fresh and dedicated. I like the time I can take off, and that's when I pursue the bulk of my writing (which provides a little more income for the family). These are all important considerations one should take into account as they consider whether college is worth it.

And finally, what about for-profit schools?

No.

Watch this, then draw your own conclusions, but I'd steer well clear of those institutions.

Look, life isn't fair and nothing is every promised to any of us. If you want a decent standard of living and a job with autonomy and control, and one that might have other benefits like a flexible schedule, then you'll likely need a college degree. Many of you will need multiple degrees. If you know you can commit to a budget and see the degree all the way through to its conclusion, and if you do so in a quality fashion, then I think earning a college degree is a wise investment in one's self. 

But taking out the loans and getting nothing much of value in return could be a mistake that might cripple a person into the future. It's a tough debate, but certainly one worth having.

Whew. That got long, and it's just one man's opinion (and the tip of the iceberg on the discussion, really). If any reader has a question, e-mail me or drop a note in the comments section and I'll try to address it in full...       




8.03.2012

Mark Freaking Reynolds



I taped the Orioles game tonight and avoided any media that might alert me to the score of a game that actually means a lot in August for this ball club. The Birds are in the thick of a chase for that coveted expansion position in the wildcard. 


And so my eyeballs just about boiled out of my head when I looked at the game. First off, why is Lew Ford playing? Why is Matt Wieters hitting clean-up? Why did Joel Peralta make Mark Reynolds look like such a stooge in crunch time, with ducks on the pond?


Probably because these are the things I know about Mark Reynolds:



  • I can strike him out. Yes, despite the fact that I played my last good baseball an actual eighteen years ago, and I have a noodle arm and little-to-no rising action on my two-seamer, he can't hit me. He couldn't touch my good stuff. I actually sort of believe that...
  • If America could harvest the wind generated by this guy's swings and simply engineer a decent set of Reybines (Reynolds turbines, for the slow) we could look positively at a bright future of energy security. He'll be striking out like this for years.
  • Capital Punishment. We should hire Mark Reynolds to take a Louisville Slugger upside our capital criminals' domes. I say this as a person that doesn't endorse the death penalty. I say we shackle these terrible blights on humanity and bury them in sand up to their shoulders. Then, put an executioner's hood on Mark Reynolds and let him take a cut at their exposed heads. Nobody perishes, but they probably get a good scare. Put them back in their cells and let them rot. Reynolds will have an 0-4 day, with three punchouts (the fourth will be a minor concussion).
Man, I love the Orioles. And I actually like Mark Reynolds as a player (when he was with Arizona, and he swiped bags and hit bombs, and .203 wasn't really an issue). I sincerely hope he gets it turned around.

But that at-bat in the eighth inning tonight killed me. Yeah, you struck out before that, but you had a freaking chance and you had a 2-0 count and you just farted it all away.

The Orioles are on the cusp, but we can't do it with this lineup. C'mon, Buck! Figure this stuff out...

8.01.2012

Football Time in Northeast Florida



It's August 1...


There are Pop Warner teams running wind sprints over at Ed Austin Park. 


The local college squads are taking physicals and running in groups--the freshman checking into their dorms before carrying the vets' equipment out to the practice fields. 


The Jaguars have been in camp now for a week. They're practicing in full pads and scrimmaging on Friday. Hell, they play a preseason game in ten days!


And yet, Maurice Jones-Drew hasn't even met Jacksonville's new head coach yet. Nope. He hasn't even taken the time to shake Coach Mularkey's hand (this according to Dan Hicken of Sports Final Radio). He skipped OTAs with the team. He hasn't spoken with our management.


He wants more money, but he didn't complain when he signed his name on that contract and made millions in guaranteed cash on his last contract. This was back before he had ever rushed for 1,000 yards. This was back when GM Gene Smith went to his camp and tore up his rookie deal, rewarding him well in advance of things he never showed he could do. He has two years left on his deal.


Two years!


So now he sits out, getting fined $30,000 each day, and his offensive line is practicing for five hours daily in the Northeast Florida heat. They're busting their asses in preparation to block for a guy that has a problem honoring his contract!


I mean, Maurice, c'mon! Why did you even sign it if you didn't think you could play it out?


He's a great player. He has the heart of a lion on the field. He's not the tallest back in the league, which is why he fell into the second round as a rookie, but he's performed well all the same. Still, his achievements in no way preclude him from meeting our coach, honoring the deal he signed, helping a second-year quarterback take a leadership role on the team and helping the Jaguars get back into the playoffs. This hold-out shows a serious deficit in character. 


If Maurice had played poorly last year (he didn't catch many balls, and he had more drops than I've ever seen him when Blaine did find him out of the backfield), would he have given money back to the team? I doubt it. I didn't hear anything about Marcedes Lewis doing that, and he was one of the very worst players in the NFL at his position last year.


Will Maurice get paid? Sure doesn't sound like it. In fact, I think the Jags may actually make him pay his holdout fines (many teams waive those fines when a new deal gets done, or the player shows up to camp).


So what happens now? Maurice is set in his ways. He plays his football in Duval County, but he lives in California. He doesn't care that much about Northeast Florida or the fans here, and he wouldn't even be here if the Jags hadn't taken a chance on him in the second round. He would never come here as a free agent--would never choose to make his home here, like Jimmy Smith, Mark Brunell and Tony Boselli have.


He's also very prideful. It wouldn't surprise me to see him miss all four preseason games. Would he sit out week one against the Vikings?


Well shoot, he might have no say in it. While he's at home, Rashad Jennings is kicking ass out there. Rashad can run it. He's an upright back that has averaged more than five yards a carry in limited touches over his career. He's in the best shape of his life (according to him; I heard him interviewed on the Frank Frangie show about a month ago) after a minor knee injury last year (he said he could have played late in the season if it were allowed) and he's primed to break out. Rashad is a glider. He catches the ball well and, at 235 pounds, he can pick up the blitz. 


Maurice might get Wally Pipped if he keeps this nonsense up.


But hey, at least he'll have a comfortable seat on his couch out there in California over the next two years from which to watch Jennings tote the rock...