Friday, April 29, 2016

Inspiration from Numbers

Inspiring image all by itself.
Normally, when the quarterly report comes in I have a pretty good idea how it’s going to read.  Tracking online sales and physical books sales is little like divining water using a telescope from space.  Sure, you’re probably seeing the liquid stuff, you just don’t know you’re seeing it.

Which brings us to today’s numbers for the first quarter of 2016:

Books Sold
Running Total
1 Quarter 2016

That’s more books sold than the entire first year that Tears of Heaven was released.  It’s almost twice as many books sold as the last quarter of 2015 (36).  It is not, of course, give-up-this-life-of-crime-and-retire-to-a-small-moon money.  But it does mean either a higher grade of Scotch from the bottom shelf, or twice the Scotch as before!

What’s the lesson learned here for writers?  Well, Hell Becomes Her released toward the end of November, 2015.  It’s a direct sequel to Tears of Heaven, which generated some reciprocal marketing all on its own.  Hell Becomes Her can serve as a standalone book, but there’s plenty of information about Del and Marrin and Ahadiel to be had from Tears of Heaven.

So what you’ve heard about having multiple books in a series out is very true: you’ll see increased sales numbers in all titles.

If you were looking for inspiration from a purely mathematical/financial impact—you’re welcome!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Steamborn - Book Review

Why yes, this is a spider I'm riding!
As a young adult (YA) book, “Steamborn” by Eric R. Asher, the first in the Steamborn Series, is a delightful read and perfect for any junior high to high school age readers.  Asher’s post-apocalyptic story suffers from some small-scale issues, but turns on fun inventions and decent characters.

Asher’s story is an adventure story of Jacob, a sometimes thief, but mostly engineer’s apprentice and the struggles he faces in a world of overgrown insects.  Jacob is from Ancora, a mountain city that is divided between literal Lowborn, those born in the lowlands, and Highborn, those born within the higher, more protected areas.

Told more as a series of one-off adventures, the arc of the story doesn’t really start to get going until about midway through.  Jacob is something of a lovable rascal, but he’s also a good kid.  Alice, his best friend, is a sweet, always-do-right girl who sometimes acts as Jacob’s companion.  Charles, Jacob’s engineering master, serves as guide through the history of Ancora and the various incidents that resulted in the current conflicts.

While almost all the conflicts in “Steamborn” are external, with very little issue between the main characters, this remains a truly steampunk story, with plenty of gadgets running on gears, springs and the inventiveness of their creators.  For YA readers, this is a plot-driven story that is fun and enjoyable.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Damned Dialogue Tags

“Stop!” I shrieked, my voice echoing in the silence, jumping forward to put myself between them.
Sparkly Vampire Book

"Come with me if you want to write good dialogue tags."
Mostly, we learn by doing.  You can read about almost any activity, and you can fake expertise by relying on experts (thanks Jamie, Eric, Jan, Chuck, Michael . . . everyone else who helps me sound like I know what I’m talking about).  Then, there are some things that you simply have to be taught. 

Language, especially English, is so complicated that it’s overwhelming.  Even as a native speaker, and being taught the particulars in school, most of us still don’t have a complete handle on all the finer details.

This is where an editor steps in, takes a forward stance, pulls leather, and slaps you right upside the head with Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.  Then proceeds to beat you senseless with a copy of the AP Manual until you GET IT!

Take the above sentence, written by a wonderful author (personality-wise) who no longer has to care what anyone says about her writing.  She probably has six large, well-muscled men carrying her and her impressive royalty check to the bank as we speak, all of them laughing.  This leaves us free to examine the example quote and mine it for a wealth of knowledge.  In the single sentence, the voice is doing an impressive amount of work, first “echoing” then “jumping forward” to somehow pull, transport, or worm-hole the character forward into the action.

That’s some voice!

New(ish) authors make this “mistake” all the time.  You also can’t laugh a line of dialogue, sigh words, or frown witty one-liners.

“I’ll be back,” Aubrey glowered.

“Uggh, really?  That old line?” Del sighed.

“I like that line!” Aubrey frowned.

"Your dialogue can't smolder, but I can."
Glowering, like sighing, laughing and frowning are facial expressions or physical actions that occur before or after the words are spoken.  You can smile in between saying words, but it’s hard to keep your mouth curved up and your teeth exposed in the expression the entire time such that you could actually “grin” a sentence.

Most of us don’t do it unless we’re reading a blog about it, and making the attempt to prove the blogger wrong.

But sure, argue the point that a line of dialogue can be “sighed”.  First, that’s most likely not at all what the author had in mind.  This was a mistake made while the writer was in the flow of crafting the scene.  Second, these moments of vocal hilarity have the increasing potential of pulling the reader right out of the steampunk Austria-Hungary Empire circa 1868.  Maybe not for every reader, but some.  That’s a failure of the author, and thus should be avoided.

So how do we dodge this particular literary bullet?

The fix on this is incredibly simple, and in fact the editor of Sparkly Vampire Book is at least as much to blame as the author for this line.  The author can be forgiven because, in the flow of writing, this line does make sense.  She was seeing the character do all these things, and didn’t stop to consider how she was describing the voice, and accidentally assigning it actions.  No major surgery is required.

“Stop!” I shrieked, my voice echoing in the silence. I jumped forward to put myself between them.

"Dodge this!"
That’s it.  Delete three characters and add three new ones.  This is the case with most dialogue tags that go wrong.  To train yourself against this, end the sentence quickly and add any additional actions before or afterward, as they would happen in real life.

Michael sighed. “Why won’t he stop talking?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Chuck replied.  He grinned.  “Maybe he thinks we’re still listening.”

“All I hear is ‘blah-blah-I’m-so-awesome-blah’,” Michael said.  His laughter ended the conversation.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bernie Sanders—True, Verified and Really Real Facts

Bernie may have a point.  But what does Hilary think?
I found this list both enlightening and deeply moving.  In reverse order, it’s #ThingsBernieSandersHates:

10—Smooth Jazz.  Bernie is more of a Muzak guy.  He can often be found in the Capitol Hill elevators, jamming out.

9—When celebrities claim to be environmentalists.  Pick one, damnit.  Bernie doesn’t have time for you to be a triple threat.

8—People who point at their wrist when asking the time.  “I know where my watch is pal, and it’s not on my wrist!” Bernie will tell them.

7—Turn signals.  Pure government bloat.  The car turns just fine without it.

6—The phrase, “Have your cake and eat it too!”  It’s not your cake.  It’s everyone’s cake.  If you’re good, you’ll get a slice.

5—Unicorns.  Always unconventional, Bernie prefers Chimeras and Pegasi to the ever popular pinnacle of equestrian dreams.

4—Extra thick plastic packaging for electronic devices.  “We get it,” Bernie said.  “You don’t want it ripped out at the store.  So do what GameStop does and keep the product behind the counter!”

3—Dirty dishes in the sink.  It only takes a moment to rinse and put them in the dishwasher.

2—Parents who give their kids weird names.  Bernie.

1—Automated Customer Service that asks for your information AND then the actual human asks for it again!

I was pleasantly surprised that a lot of the key issues of Bernie’s campaign didn’t make this list.  It just shows that the Bernie Sanders waters run deep and are unfathomable.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Niagara Falls Turns to Purple Rain

Dearly beloved,
We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.
 Electric word: Life.
It means forever and that's a mighty long time.

There are better tributes out there.
But this one is mine.
Remember to go crazy this weekend, party like it’s 1999, jump in that little red Corvette, and don’t worry about being too demanding or never satisfied—it’s what Prince would have wanted.

The Eiffel Tower, and numerous other landmarks turned purple yesterday.  Niagara Falls was actually in celebration QueenElizabeth II birthday.  I don’t want to say a “happy coincidence” because there’s nothing good about a 57 year-old dying—royalty or not.

If there’s an upside, it’s multi-faceted.  Introspection, retrospection, a shared sense of community, and perhaps a celebration of life.  The death of celebrities, especially those we cared about, or remember fondly, or simply remember because they were part of the cultural tapestry of our youth, brings us back to a relative reality—we’re all mortal.

No one gets out of this life alive.

The only good part of that is the sense of urgency that places on what we’re about.  Today, I’m picking up my pen (i.e. keyboard) and getting back to work on my third book.  I won’t have much of a legacy to leave my boys, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to get a few more books out of me before they pry the mouse from my cold dead hand.

You don’t have to be rich, to be my girl
You don’t have to be
Don’t have to be cool
To rule my world
Ain’t no particular sign I’m more compatible with
I just want your extra time and your

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Weekends Are What You Make Them

Speech is harder than it sounds!
What a weekend.  I’m not even close to recovered.  For the second time, my team at John W. North high school has qualified for state competition.  This year, we went to the semi-finals round, the furthest any North team has gone.  In June we will attend the National Speech and Debate Association (formerly National Forensics League) tournament in Salt Lake City.


Part of my exhaustion is from judging eight rounds at the California High School Speech Association State tournament—the first four were policy.

Note to policy debaters—If all three judges on your panel voice issues over speed, DON’T SPEED!

That's not how this works!
Also, despite the conflict of State, two of my speechers were able to attend the RCC Friends of Forensics tournament.  Usually, we have an entire squad going, but due to conflicts with other competitions, we were only able to send two competitors.  Still, those two brought home three trophies and managed to snag 5th place in sweepstakes.

Then, of course, there was yesterday’s drive back to Riverside.  Even watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens (awesome!) and Singin’ in the Rain (also awesome!) it was a bit more brutal than imagined.  Going up to the tournament only took six hours, but coming back we were treated to additional potty stops by my three boys, who apparently were on a rotating schedule.  It added up to eight hours total, the last hour of which was spent in SoCal rush hour traffic.

Still, a great weekend was had by all.  If you get the chance

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Lucifer and OneMillionMoms

Million Moms?  More like forty-thousand!
Every now and then I check in on OneMillionMoms to see what’s up.  I love reading about their “Successes”.  They like to claim they’ve had a huge impact getting various shows cancelled, or sponsors to pull their support, when the truth is that those shows were weak to begin with, and OneMillionMoms likely had nothing to do with loss of finances or their inevitable demise.

If you haven’t had time to read up on OneMillionMoms, or their parent group the American Family Association, these are the people who equate homosexuality with the Nazi regime.  Among other things, they were called out for their use of hate speech and in 2010 were named an out and out hate group.

Don't watch it on FOX Mondays at 9pm Easter, 6pm Pacific!
I saw that they were outraged—obviously—by the current run of the clever and well-written “Lucifer”.  Their chief concern seems to be that the Father of Lies is portrayed as a “likable guy”—as if evil would always twirl a mustache and wear a black hat for our convenience.  OneMillionMoms also provided a number of links to send a pre-packaged notice to one of the smaller sponsors, Academy Sports.  For funsies, I clicked the email link.  It was typical blah-blah, but I stole the whole thing and flipped it on its ear to send my own notice of support:

As a parent and viewer, I strongly encourage your company to continue all plans of financially supporting FOX's new drama "Lucifer" that airs on Monday evenings at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT with a 14-DLSV rating.

The program eschews the modern characterization of good and evil, and instead provides for an even tempered, and thoughtful consideration of the characters.  Rather than treating all people (or fallen angels) and inherently good or evil because of their background, "Lucifer" asks us instead to take a look at what is in a person's heart, and to witness their actions, rather than judge them based on preconceived notions of right and wrong.

It would make things easier
if evil dressed like this!
I certainly hope your company's financial support of this type of television programming through advertising will continue.

As a consumer, I am asking you to please keep your ads on this show. My decision to support your company depends on it.

I look forward to hearing from you regarding my concern.

I like how they include the exact date and time for the show, thus giving a little bump to those who otherwise probably wouldn’t be interested in this particular brand of “filth”.  I don’t particular care one way or the other about Academy Sports, but since I like the show, I thought they should know that there is a silent majority out there, enjoying clever takes on old tropes.

Feel free to copy and paste my email if you feel the need and send to:

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Bat and the Boy Scout—Review of Batman vs. Superman

Nice suit!
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was just bumped, as expected, by Melissa McCarthy’s The Boss.  Having watched the BvS this weekend, it’s easy to see why.  Zach Synder loves to recreate panels from the comic books he’s based his movies, which is sweet fan service, but also misses the mark for the fans he’s trying to serve.  He trades pacing for artistic moments which were better represented in the still-media of comic books.  Was there anyone in the theater who didn’t know Bruce Wayne’s origin story?  Even summed up as it was, spending several minutes on the well-worn-path-to-the-Batman does nothing to move the story forward, and is one of the key reasons BvS is only a mediocre film.  Snyder’s lack of pacing took what could have been some very cool plot points and character introductions, and dragged them out into a 151-minutes.

Simplicity is best.
That doesn’t mean BvS is a bad film.  It’s not.  Ben Affleck does an excellent job bringing us all the gravity and humor that should accompany Bruce Wayne/Batman.  Henry Cavill gives us all the statue-like qualities that exemplify Clark Kent/Superman.  All the elements promised to fans and viewers alike from the much-drooled over trailers are present.  Every.  Single.  One.  It’s the plot that’s a mess.  Synder jams in and draws out some amazing visuals—so much so that they start to become boring.  Worse, the impetus for Superman to try to get Batman to stop doing what he’s doing—and conversely Batman to try to shut down Superman—never really materializes.  Is Batman, now gun-wielding and Bat-branding, out of control in his one-man crime fighting crusade?  Does Superman, the god-like immortal whose fights do vast damage and cost untold number of lives, need to be reined in?  In straddling these two characters, and perhaps not wanting to take sides in a potential fan war, the movie only ever gives us a “maybe” of an unsatisfying answer.  Holly Hunter’s wonderful Senator June Finch could have provided this one way or the other, but her character was misused giving Jesse Eisenberg’s so-smart-he’s-crazy villain Lex Luthor—now with Daddy Issues!—ummm . . . well, not reasons for his villainy.  More like a target with some minor justification?

Note to Zach Snyder—Villains don’t need a lot of reason, but they should be comprehensible.

In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, where much of the source material for BvS comes
Looks like you boys need a hand!
from, the lines are lot clearer.  Batman doesn’t just go rogue, but he does it in such a spectacular way that Superman has no choice but to try to put the Bat down.  Both heroes take a side which results in one of the greatest uppercut, knockdown, smash-around fights ever imagined.  BvS on the other hand never really gives the audience a reason for the ultimate “who would win” fight.  When issues finally come to a head, Bats and Supes could have been easily solved with a quick conversation—something which Miller’s characters and their ideological stances didn’t allow.  Snyder’s time would have been better spent paying attention to the conflict Miller created, and less to the artwork he was going to steal recreate.

I dream of a world where my vitals are covered.
Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman also struggles with this same issue.  While Bruce and Clark are busy looking for a reason to trade punches, Diana wanders in and out of parties looking incredibly exotic and beautiful.  Point for Snyder.  When it comes time for her to reveal her true powers as Wonder Woman, Snyder again provides little in the way of reasoning.  Diana shows up in a “sexy” boob-plated leather ensemble, which leaves her mostly exposed, while her super friends are covered from head to toe in more practical garb—or at least as practical as Superman’s blue-and-red tights ever get.  Gadot infuses Wonder Woman with impressive strength, and her scenes battling the Big Bad are some of the best—but why is she there?  Why does she care?

Maybe all that would be OK if the film were shorter, sharper, and edited with an eye toward what we all came for—Batman versus Superman.  But by the time the titular sequence shows up, it’s tedious.  It’s all there, but like the slow-motion scenes Snyder loves to force on his audiences, it’s so drawn out, it’s not worth the price of admission.  Batman, in powered Bat-armor, comes off less "world's greatest detective" and more lucky that he doesn't lose the fight on the first punch.

Wait for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice on DVD, the streaming service of your choice, or the first twenty minutes of Zach Snyder’s Justice League Part One due 2017.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Daddy, Where Do Nerds Come From?

Author's Note: This one actually came from my old blog, but as it came up recently in a discussion, I moved it over here, spruced it up a bit and am now sharing with you.  Enjoy!

Ok, bear with me, there will be prizes at the end.
Is Bothan another name for soap bubble?

First, go put in your copy of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. You know you’ve got one (I’ve got four), so go watch it, and we’ll all wait here.

That Lando, what a character, eh?

Anyhow, let me draw your attention to this particular scene and information-drop in the movie:

The data brought to us by the Bothan spies pinpoints the exact location of the Emperor’s new battle station. We also know that the weapon systems of this Death Star are not yet operational. With the Imperial Fleet spread throughout the galaxy in a vain effort to engage us, it is relatively unprotected. But, most important of all, we’ve learned that the Emperor himself is personally overseeing the final stages of the construction of this Death Star.

Mon Mothma - Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

So the Bothans brought three pieces of important information:

1 - “The exact location” of the new Death Star
2 - The weapon’s systems weren’t operational
3 - The Emperor would be on board

How many Bothans died?  All.  All the Bothans.
That’s not a bad days’ spying. Even James Bond would be hard-pressed to deliver all that without an Aston Martin in sight!

Initially, this all seems well and good. The Rebels have some key intelligence, they have the means and will to take advantage and exploit this. Clearly, things are coming to an exciting and dramatic conclusion in a galaxy far, far away.

And yet . . .

Are the Rebel leaders idiots!?!

Ok, check this: From watching the movies, we, the audience, know that the weapons system on the second Death Star (DS2 as it was known around the Imperial Court) were actually functional, it appears that the Emperor was moving the pieces the entire time (which he was), and the Rebellion was playing straight into his hands (which they did). The information gained by the Bothans was likely deliberately leaked in order to draw the entire might of the Rebellion to Endor so that the Emperor could finish them off and turn or kill Luke.

Which nearly happened!

So, to the question: If, as Mon Mothma stated, “Many Bothans died to bring us this
Darth Rumsf—The "f" is not silent.
information.” Why, in the name of all the Light Side of the Force, would the Rebellion believe this information is still viable? The fact that Bothans were killed suggests very-damn-strongly, and correctly, that the Empire was on to them. Knowing that, the immediate assumption should be that the Empire would be expecting an attack on the “uncompleted” Death Star. Which they were!

All attack groups were shocked and awed that it was a trap, when the obvious and logical conclusion, given the Bothan deaths points directly to a trap.  "That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know."

I mean, c’mon, I’m no military strategist, but even I can figure out that if the spy is captured while transmitting information, as Han might say, “It’s a good bet the Empire knows we’re coming.”

On the flip-side of this question is this:

Is the Emperor an idiot!?!

Kolir Hu'lya is not amused.
Why did the Empire kill the Bothan spies? I mean, yeah, I get the whole spying thing and capital punishment and what not, but feeding misinformation is hardly a new technique in espionage and military strategy, and killing the messenger, while time-honored, usually defeats the purpose. Killing the Bothans should have immediately alerted the Rebellion leadership that the Empire was on to them and their little spies too. Any information passed to the Rebel Alliance, especially in the last couple of days, was probably compromised and useless or bait for a trap. If the Emperor wanted to lead the Rebellion into his trap, which he clearly did, he should have left the Bothans alone (i.e. not killed them) at least until the trap was sprung. Or had the Emperor already “forseen” that the Rebellion didn’t have the sharpest tools in the shed, or rather any tools or even a shed to hold them. Clearly, offing the Bothans wouldn’t mean anything except this information was pretty durn important!

Bothan Spy - Sir, I’ve just managed to steal this highly important and very secret information away from those Imperial slugs. You’ll have to mobilize immediately to take advantage of it
Rebel Leader - Excellent, transmit it.
Bothan Spy - Alright, done. Arrrggghhhh . . .
Rebel Leader - What happened?
Stormtrooper 1 - We just shot and killed this guy for spying.
Stormtrooper 2 - Yeah, we shot him alot too, because we have bad aim and he didn’t move!
Rebel Leader - Dead you say?
Stormtrooper 1 - Dead as a doorknob.
Rebel Leader - For spying?
Stomtrooper 2 - Yeah, and telling secret stuff!
Rebel Leader - Oh, very good then. Carry on. We’ll just go ahead and mobilize as if nothing had happened.
Emperor [rubbing his hands together] - Exxxcellent!

Seriously, am I the only one who figured this out? Were there no CIA operatives, or twelve year-old kids who put this together and said, “Umm, hey, Mr. Lucas, sir, you can write this in, but it really doesn’t make sense.”

Well, the downside on this is that I fully expect to hear the title line on the playground while watching my son instructs other children on the proper self-destruct sequence for a Constitution class starship and why it requires at least two command officers to initiate.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

And That, Your Honor, Was When I Killed Him

Bigger is always better.  Always.
The bigger and more complex the company/system, the easier it is for things to slip through. Generally, I try to talk to a human and start out saying, "I need some help." It usually goes well from there. But sometimes, just sometimes, things go haywire.

Today was that day.

While investigating online why the automatic payment for my mortgage didn’t automatically get paid, I was deeply dismayed by the mortgage holder’s website which claimed that my loan has been “closed”.  That was somewhat ominous, especially since string section of Bernard Herrmann's Psycho Suite kicked in at that moment.

With trepidation, I pressed on.  I called the number the website gave me for “further assistance” and was immediately kicked into their VAL 9000 automated system. Automated response systems are a real time-saver—for businesses.  Messy questions from customers can be handled without ever actually listening to the customer.

They’re nothing short of a man-made calamity on the scale of Dresden after the bombing for the customer.

That’s when they work right.

When they go wrong, it’s more along the lines of a global thermos-nuclear war.

Today was that day.

VAL 9000, a chipper, happy-to-help-you, female-voiced system asked me to choose, verbally,
Rob?  What are you doing Rob?
between entering my social security number or my loan number.  As I have two loans and was only interested in one, I said, “Loan number.” 

“Please enter the four-digit extension of the person you are trying to reach,” VAL 9000 requested. 

I tried to ask for a representative or to go back. 

“Please enter the four-digit extension of the person you are trying to reach,” VAL 9000 requested. 

I punched in zeroes and ones in a vain.

“Please enter the four-digit extension of the person you are trying to reach,” VAL 9000 requested. 

There was no way out.  I hung up and tried again.

This time, I tried my social security number.  Things went better with VAL 9000 until I requested a customer service representative.  Miffed, she immediately hung up on me.

On my fourth try, I ignored all of VAL’s requests for information and insisted on a human being.  VAL tried, repeatedly, seductively to insist that she could assist me.  I remained unmoved.  Eventually, she gave up and Michael answered the phone.  I let Michael know that their automated system was a mess, that it had taken me several phone calls and effort to reach him.  I explained that the online website had claimed my loan was closed and that I was trying to find out why my automatic payment hadn’t been automatically paid.

“You can go to the online site for that information,” Michael informed me.  “Or use our automated phone system.”

Now why didn’t I think of that?