Archive for November, 2011

There’s a hoot of a show on TV that I discovered over the Turkey day weekend.  If you don’t know about it already, it’s on the National Geographic channel and it’s called Rocket City Rednecks.   The half-hour episodes are funny documentaries on a gang of five guys in Alabama who talk and act like yahoo rednecks that are overly fond of beer and guns, but in fact these guys are brilliant. Two of them have Ph.D.’s and work for the space program, and the lead guy’s daddy is a retired machinist from the program.

Their ringleader is Travis Taylor (Ph.D.), who besides being a physicist and aerospace engineer just happens to write science fiction novels. Here’s a link to his books on Amazon:

Anyway, it seems that all this writing and working ain’t enough for Travis, because on weekends he and his buddies do some action hero genius stuff by trying to solve problems with applied science – some of it impressive, some of it  funny and crazy.  We’re talking about how to shoot down an asteroid that’s falling to earth (hint: it involves guns), or how to bomb-proof a truck from IEDs that are taking out our soldiers.  By the end of that particular show the truck on which they’d built a blast-proof bottom worked better than anything the military is currently using and can save lives.

My favorite show was the one in which these grown men decide that they should prepare for a zombie/alien invasion.  So they armor a truck until it looks like something out of Road Warrior and outfit it with a cannon that shoots two-by-fours and a golf ball air gun and a flame-thrower.  All home-invented.  And then these grown men ride off in it to an obstacle course complete with zombie/alien dummies, where they blow away said invaders while hootin’ and hollerin’.


And I have only one question, which is…


I mean, if I lived anywhere near these guys I’d be over at their places every weekend and hopping up and down while babbling, “What are we gonna invent today?  Can we blow up something?  Fly something?  Head off an invasion from Mars?”  And you just know that these men have wives or girlfriends and sisters and daughters and moms, but on the shows I watched only one mother appeared and she had just cooked breakfast. That’s it.

Like… are you kidding me? So are women banned from this all-male gang? Or are they just not interested in what their men folk are doing?

Whenever more episodes of this show come on, I’m gonna so watch them and see what these guys are up to and if women get involved.  And whether or not women appear, I am hereby VOLUNTEERING TO JOIN THEIR GANG!

I really want to help invent something useful. And shoot down an asteroid and zombie.


If go you into the comment section of this blog then you’ll see that super heroine Julie Jones, wife of Greg (Rog) of the Rocket City Rednecks, kindly got in touch with me  and set me straight.  Turns out the women ARE involved in other episodes with the inventing/ adventuring/ experimenting (and, I suspect, keeping the men from blowing themselves up).  I’ve ordered the DVD set and am SO anxious to see these ladies be supercool.

I just hopped around to a few of my favorite blogs, and I was soooo relieved that most of them haven’t had new postings for a couple days.  Now I don’t feel so bad about my own blog.

Anyway, we’re obviously getting into that time of year when everyone is crazy busy, including yours truly.  But now at least I’ve got a couple good old-fashioned Layla activities lined up.

First off — you know how I’ve talked here about wanting to do ghosthunting.  Ironically, I had no idea the building I work in is supposed to be haunted.  Then the other day I chatted with someone who works on my floor, a very sensible man who told me he was in his office late one night and kept getting a very creepy feeling.  He also pointed out how a new brochure on the building had a couple pages that deals with alleged ghosts and weird goings-on in the place.  See, I work in the oldest “skyscraper” in downtown Denver – a 10 story creation built more than a century ago.  Well, here’s my chance to come back to the office late this coming weekend or the next and hang out on a couple of the “haunted” floors and in the basement.  With my luck, nothing will happen.   Or maybe I’ll get lucky.

Second on the list – a friend sent me a coupon for a few group lessons in an archery place not too far from me.  When I was a kid I was okay with a bow and arrow.  I usually hit the paper target and never wounded any of my siblings.  But I’ve been wanting to try it out again and this is a cheap ($22) way to go.  Besides, a lot of action heroes, especially in the paranormal genres, know how to be deadly with everything from a longbow to a crossbow to a kind of Gatling gun/crossbow as in Van Helsing.  So here’s my chance to be like them in a kind’ve wuss way.

Anyway, that’s what’s going on with me.  Hope y’all have a great Turkey Day and long weekend.

If you’re a writer like me, you probably savor even the smallest compliment anyone gives your writing.

Like a starving beggar being thrown a crust of bread, I pounce on every favorable word, like interesting and intriguing and fun.  I dissect and analyze simple  sentences such as, “I really liked your book,” as in Is he just being polite or does he really, truly like and almost love my book and what’s he gonna tell other people about it and how does he think it compares to other books in the genre and…?

So you can imagine how I felt when I recently got emails from an overseas distant relative and another from an almost stranger/author, and they RAVE about The Compass Master.   As in “Talk about Dan Brown – he’s got nothing on you,” and “It’s so much better written than The Da Vinci Code!” and “I love the main characters, and I just can’t wait to see what happens next.”

Swear to God, my initial pleasure reaction was so bone-deep I was giggling and grinning like a brainless twit.  And of course I tell myself they’re right and it’s not just my imagination or flashes of desperate ego that whisper to me maybe I’m good at this craft.  And of course one reason I’m happily rolling around in these compliments like a goofy dog in the grass is because I know that any day now life will sucker punch me with a cold hard reality check, and I’ll come thudding back down to earth where I’ll go through yet another bout of insecurity and borderline depression.

This is why we writers understand what Mark Twain meant when he said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”

EXACTLY!  Who needs food?  Who needs shelter?  I got me some really hot compliments so I’m doing just fine.  Sure, this feeling won’t last.  If we writers know anything it’s the emotional bipolar torture writing can inflict on us.

But for right now, for some of us, today is a good day.

First, a little announcement…


Now on to the subject at hand…

I never knew it before now, but I’m one serious shadow worker.

See, according to an article in the New York Times, the term “shadow work” means unpaid labor, which is getting out of control in our society.  It’s also applies to a whole lot of us writers.

I’ll explain by first describing ancient history:  my childhood.

I’m so old I remember how when my Dad pulled our family car into the gas station, he never, ever got out and pumped gas.  A station attendant did that job, plus cleaned the front and rear windows and asked if he should check the oil and the tires.  Then he took my Dad’s cash and brought back change.

We didn’t have to go to the store to buy milk because  it was delivered each week.  If you had trouble with an overseas call or finding a number, an operator helped you.  At the grocery store clerks checked you out and bagged your stuff, and in department stores they measured your feet before bringing out precisely sized shoes (in my case, 9 Narrow when I reached 13).  When I took my first hitchhiking/ backpacking trip to Europe straight out of high school, a travel agent helped me buy my airline ticket and Britrail Pass.

We used to live in an economy where people were paid to help you.  Now we perform these tasks ourselves and nobody is paying us, and I don’t see anything getting cheaper because I’m doing for free the work companies used to pay their employees to do.  Even at my job, I’m doing some tasks others used to do, and I sure as hell haven’t seen my salary go up commensurately.

Can you and I perform most of these service tasks for ourselves?  Of course.  But because corporations have made us take on so much shadow work, their profits are way up along with unemployment, and doctors are saying that more than ever Americans are exhausted.

Now this blog is a lot about action heroes who can do EVERYTHING themselves.  But the point is, they don’t have to (with the exception of Nikita) because they’ve got fantastic spy agencies/ servants/ governments backing them up.

Me?  I got squat.  Which is okay because outside of my head I’m not an action hero saving the world.

But I am a writer, and looking around I realize how much shadow work has been creeping over the writing and publishing professions for some time now.  Sure, I pride myself on being low-maintenance in most aspects of my life, including writing.  And by self-publishing I have, by choice, taken on a major chunk of unpaid labor.  But even for traditionally published authors, unless their names are Stephen King or James Patterson, the burden of work placed on them is expanding.  They’re told that a manuscript must be as close to perfection as possible before an editor will look at it, and it’s not a bad idea to personally hire a freelance editor to groom it before submission.  And do you the author have a platform?  Blog?  Facebook and Twitter followings?  What are your plans for promoting your book?  Will you be hiring a PR expert?  All of which must be done on the author’s time and dime, with no promise of recompense or a substantial change in royalties.

In defense of many literary agents and editors, I don’t think they’re too happy either.  Some editors in the big houses complain that they’re not given enough time and support to do the job they love.  And my impression is that some editors are happier being in the new small independent publishing houses, where they may not earn big bucks but they can work more closely with authors and manuscripts.

If you ever want to see (and weep about) how much publishing has changed, pick up a book I read years ago:  Max Perkins, Editor of Genius.  Perkins was the legendary Scribner editor of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Rawlings, Taylor Caldwell, Alan Paton… the list goes on.  This is a man who often traveled to see his writers, who kept them sober and sane and encouraged them to write masterpieces.  Hell, Marjorie Rawlings was writing successful commercial stuff until Perkins convinced her to go literary and write The Yearling, which won the Pulitzer.  Wolfe’s manuscript for Of Time and the River came in three crates, which took Perkins two years to shape into an American classic.  Was Perkins an editing genius?  Absolutely.  Are there similar genius editors around today?  No doubt.  But these days no big company will pay for those editors to be great.

In the meantime, we writers keep working and loving and struggling  with what we do, same as always.  But the big difference is, we now must work harder than ever not just to get ahead, but simply to stay in place once we get there.

This is my story
I wrote it myself.
It’s that wonderful book
Right there on the shelf.

It took many months
Of plotting and typing
Fitting into a genre
Obsessing and griping.

I learned how to edit
And polish my prose
How to speed up a chapter
Whenever it slows.

I peopled my novel
With characters deep
And penned moving scenes
To make readers weep.

I wove thrills and spills
Through chapter and verse
Gave flaws to my heroes
Made dialogue terse.

I fought writer’s block,
Literary neurosis,
Despair and confusion,
And a touch of cirrhosis.

For nothing could stop me.
I would finish my book!
And then get it published
By hook or by crook.

Thus now I’m triumphant
And friends and folks cheer
They pop the champagne,
Whilst I shed a tear.

For now that it’s over
And my book is in print
I must find a few readers
Or I won’t make a mint.

For to keep at this game
Of being a writer
I must earn a few bucks
And wield words like a fighter

I must toil and perspire
O’er my keyboard and words
And must o’erlook
How this job’s for the birds.

For once my book’s finished
And it’s printed on paper
I feel lost and adrift.
I must write a new caper!


Talk about being shot down.

Have you ever come up with what you think is an original idea, and you work out the details, and you think you’re onto something and you believe your idea or theory or gadget or story will fly?  Then you send it off to an expert who’s a stranger but who may deign to respond and give the teensiest sign of approval, and lo and behold the expert does indeed reply and with bated breath you open her email and she…

Shoots you down so fast you don’t know what hit you.

That’s what happened to me.

See, in a flashback scene in The Compass Master lead character Layla presents her controversial Master’s thesis, which states that the Book of Revelation is the result of an opium-induced hallucination or “walking reverie.”  Now this may not sound very original to you, but what was original was how I worked this theory out to the nth degree – not in my novel, which would be terribly boring, but in my background research.  Of course I don’t bore the reader with reams of facts or an appendix or footnotes or any other nerdy stuff.   This is a thriller, after all, so let’s keep the story going.

But now that TCM is published I wanted some feedback from one or two of the best experts in a religion departments of an Ivy League bastion.  I won’t name who I contacted, let’s just say I have a couple of her books, she’s a MacArthur Fellowship grant recipient, speaks half a dozen or more languages, and in 2012 her book analyzing Revelation will be published.  In other words, this woman has all the credentials I ain’t got.

Feeling pretentious and presumptuous, I boiled down the traits of the opium dream and addict and sent them in an email to her.  Her response?  She politely stated that she knows about the effects of opium and this “could sound like a possibility,” but that she has “no evidence at all that opium was known and used in first century Judea.”  And how “we also have to account for the visions in Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah and Jeremiah circa 600 B.C. from which much of John’s imagery is patterned.”  Have a nice day.

And that’s when I thought….


See, because I’d assumed the archeology and history of opium was a given I didn’t mention it in my email.  And her polite but dismissive attitude so devastated me that I felt as if I’d fallen into an alternate world where all the facts I’d worked with had suddenly evaporated in a poof of smoke.

Once I recovered I looked up my sources, and thought…


I mean, opium was the medicine of choice all over the ancient world.  Of course in ancient Greece and Minoa and Mycenae and Cyprus and Asia Minor and Egypt and Rome.  But also all over the Mesopotamian area and hence among the Sumerians and Assyrians and Babylonians (and these people and others were often overrunning and conquering each other) and how the B.C. Hebrews “cannot but have been cognizant”  about opium and its uses.  And how there are all these archeological discoveries with pictures of poppies and how to harvest and get opium from them and clay tablets describing medicinal uses of opium…

I re-read page after page of one long scientific article that documented the use of opium as far back as 3000 B.C. through 1500 B.C.  through 600 B.C. and beyond in this part of the ancient world.  I checked the footnotes, scrutinized the sources of fact after fact because… Hell, I’m a nobody, and here’s this expert who speaks Hebrew and Greek and Coptic and Latin and Jehovah only knows what else, and she’s emailing me from (I assume) her Ivy League office and telling me there was no opium in First Century A.D. or Sixth Century B.C. Judea, so obviously opium couldn’t have influenced those Old Testament prophets or John of Patmos or Fred the goatherd.

So as much as I believe my theory is correct, I’m still wondering what does this brilliant expert know that I don’t that makes me feel like I’m having my own hallucination? Does she possess some ability or inside scoop that allows her to dismiss what I perceive of as historical and archeological facts because… well, because she’s a genius and I’m not?

Nothing like having your confidence in your very brain shaken to its core.