Black Friday


Midnight on Thanksgiving as Dollar General Store opens its doors for Black Friday

Sometime after the Act of Union permanently merged the thrones of England and Scotland, merchants figured out that they could make a butt load of pounds sterling by touting the giveage of gifts at Christmas. It was the dawn of modern capitalism, and already, retailers had figured out how to exploit its worst aspects. (Compare this with communism, in which everything is mandated to be dull, gray, and depressing.)

Fast forward to the end of the eighteenth century, and George Washington inadvertantly decrees a line of demarcation for this consumer frenzy to begin by creating Thanksgiving. The holiday did not have a somewhat permanent slot (Thursday of the last full week of November) until Lincoln set it by proclamation, but it always fell in November. Then after you eat all that turkey, the shopkeepers start with the sales, the advertising, the pressure to get that perfect gift. Even then, Thanksgiving was not all that big a deal until the Great Depression, when FDR made it a federal holiday, creating a permanent four-day weekend.

Following World War II, when America realized that 1.) the Depression was over, 2.) we were the only major world power that had not been cratered by air raids, and 3.) we’re really, really rich, merchandisers learned that they could make a huge buttload of money by luring consumers into the stores the day after Thanksgiving with low-ball prices. A new invention, television, reinforced this behavior. Then came the Internet. Since advent of this world-altering invention, designed to deliver questionable political rants, free pornography, and cat pictures, Black Friday has become a national sport. Year after year, we hear stories of trampling incidents at Walmart at 4 AM over $30 Blu-Ray players. Now stores are even opening on Thanksgiving, a trend I find rather disgusting.


Walmart customers really want that $25 big-screen plasma TV

I’ve come to have contempt for Black Friday. Retailers may make most of their money this weekend, but that doesn’t change the fact that workers are being denied time with their families. I’ve noticed there is only one holiday where stores are not open. Christmas. On Christmas, only gas stations and convenience stores are open, and only a handful of them, mostly along the Interstates. Now retailers are opening on Thanksgiving? That is absolutely disgusting. I think the people who start their Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving are just as bad. Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the year-end high holy days tend to bring out the best in people. Black Friday brings out the worst.

So what am I doing on Black Friday?

Sleeping in. So while I’m snoring away while all the idiots are fighting over the $10 laptop, enjoy this Steely Dan classic. Because, to me, “Black Friday” will always be a song off Katy Lied.

All photos Paramount Pictures

Giving Thanks, 2013 Edition

flamingturkeyIt’s that time of year again, when we in America pause to give thanks for what we have. In Canada, they do this in October (better weather) on a Monday (kills Monday for a week.) I sort of like the Canadian idea, but in America, it’s a rare four-day weekend. It’s a day for watching football (The Cowboys, the Lions, and, for some odd reason, now the Ravens). We consume huge amounts of the meat of a rather stupid bird, which puts us to sleep following dinner. It is a day for many families to embrace and indulge their dysfunction. Friday is a day that makes even Gordon Gecko despise capitalism, even if only for a day or so. It is the cultural end of autumn, the fiscal start of Christmas, and time when those of us who hate cold weather resign ourselves to that inevitable season we must endure for a few months: Winter.

But mostly, Thanksgiving is just that: Giving thanks. What am I thankful for?

Will code for food, labeled for reuse

I work. Unemployment is still high, mainly because we have a Congress that, collectively, is the most useless in American history. Nonetheless, I have a job. Since 2008, when the economy tanked spectacularly, I was only out of work for about six weeks at the longest. When I lost my job at BigHugeCo, the VP who broke the news to me – whom I’d worked with for years – told me he regretted doing this, but at the same time told me to enjoy my summer vacation. They handed me twelve weeks severance. Within a couple of weeks, I was contracting, with only a two-week break that summer. There was a scary six weeks the following January and February where work jobs just weren’t to be had. And then I found work at Medishack, a job that was a hybrid of my old job as a desktop support technician and what I wanted to do, development. A lot of my good fortune was luck. A lot of it was persistence. And one thing I’ve seen during our most recent recession is that some people had a sense of entitlement that kept them out of decent jobs because the work was “beneath them.” These are usually the same people who complain the loudest about other people not working. So why did I not join in their reindeer games? All I know was that my creditors were asking where their money was, and it was hard for my wife to put food on the table with only my unemployment check to add to her income. I took less-paying work because I believe if you don’t work when it’s possible, you have no right to complain about not finding a job. It’s not like some people who literally can’t find work. Those people I feel for. The ones I had no respect for were the ones who asked me if I was insane taking temp jobs only two weeks after a layoff. I found that question insulting. At one point in my younger days, I worked three jobs at 60-70 hours a week. I don’t like idle time. Not without a fat bank account to back it up.

computer code

Photo: Carrot Lord, used under GNU FDL

I’m thankful I have a marketable skill. I write code. And I still fix computers. (No, I’m not going to fix yours. Forty hours a week of that is enough.) And I’m learning more about that all the time. Technology was a boon to me in the 1990’s. Through the Internet and cheap PC’s, I discovered several skillsets that will probably carry me through retirement, assuming I can retire. I don’t see why not. The more I learn, the more opportunities come my way. Add to that a business degree, and the opportunities open even wider. Nita is also getting a degree, a technology degree. This is going to help us open our own business. That, if successful, will secure our future. It won’t guarantee one or both of us won’t have to take a job welcoming people to Walmart at some point, but it makes it less likely.

Gabriel Iglesias

Photo: Tom Villegas, used under GNU FDL

I’m thankful for my health. Yes, I gained back all the weight I lost earlier this year. But after a recent hospital stay, my doctors were actually encouraged by what they saw. It’s only renewed my commitment to run the Flying Pig Marathon the week of my fiftieth birthday. I need to renew my discipline – no snacking, more fruit, stick with and keep revamping an exercise plan.

My wife expressed some doubt about me doing the Pig, but I have 2 1/2 years to get ready. In the meantime, my health can only improve. It’d better. After 50 is when a lot of things start falling apart at inconvenient moments. I intend to be healthier at 50 than I was at 40.

Nita_picMost of all, I’m thankful for the lovely lady to the right. Nita has been the best thing to ever happen to me. After five years, she still accepts me for who I am, is not afraid to be herself, and lights up my days and nights. Because of her, I’m a stepfather. And AJ looks at me as more than just the dude mom married. He is a great son, and I’m privileged to be part of his life. Our home is cozy and warm, and we all laugh a lot. I’ve married a hair metal chick and live with a boy who loves Monty Python. I look at Nita and know that I have a future. I watch AJ as he works his first job and goes to UC Blue Ash and marvel at how his adult life is a blank slate. Thanksgiving at our house is just us three with a small turkey and one rule: Stay out of Nita’s way until she puts up the tree. Once the tree is up, then we can get involved. Until then, shut up and eat your turkey. Oh, and could one of you do the dishes after lunch?

Wednesday Reviews: The Little Sister

The Little Sister
Raymond Chandler

A girl with the unlikely name of Orfamay Quest comes to Philip Marlowe’s office wanting him to find her brother Orrin. Marlowe’s rate is forty dollars a day plus expenses. He does it for twenty because the girl is nice, just off the bus from Manhattan. Kansas, not New York.

Marlowe doesn’t find Orrin. He finds Orrin’s old apartment, a guy with a bad toupee, and a dead building manager who apparently sold – and used quite a bit of – marijuana. The guy with the bad toupee invites him to meet at a hotel to explain what he’s up to. Only Marlowe arrives to find Hollywood starlet Mavis Weld leaving and the bald guy with an ice pick in his neck. Soon, Marlowe is tied up in the politics of the Hollywood movie business and subjected to the constant come ons of Dolores Gonzales, West’s friend. He almost takes her up on it.

This book is full of loathing for the movie industry. It was written after Raymond Chandler worked with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for Double Indemnity. He rather vocally complained about the experience. This book, however, is not Chandler’s best Marlowe. It’s better than the shaky The High Window, but not as solid as The Lady in the Lake. Of course, they can’t all be The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, or The Long Goodbye. Still, it’s not bad. This one is probably the book Robert B. Parker referred back to when he wrote The Godwulf Manuscript. Marlowe’s snappy patter is almost dead-on Spenser before the cliches set in.

George H. W. Bush


George H.W. Bush Library

George Bush had an unusual path to the White House, though not as unusual as that of Chester Arthur or Gerald Ford. No, Bush had only held one elected office, as a congressman from Houston, Texas. From there, he became Ambassador to the UN, Republican National Chairman, head of the US Liaison Office in China, and director of the CIA. The presidents who have taken office since World War II have been senators (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Obama, with Ford coming from the House), governors (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and GW Bush), and four vice presidents (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, GHW Bush), two of whom were senators before stepping one heartbeat away from the presidency.

It may surprise many to know that Bush was actually considered for the vice presidency, a job he held under Ronald Reagan, as early as 1972, when Nixon considered getting rid of Spiro Agnew, and again when Agnew resigned. Ford twice considered him (complaining later in Write It When I’m Gone that Congressional leaders twisted his arm to make Bush head of the CIA essentially to keep him off the 1976 ticket.)

Bush ran in the second election in which I was eligible to vote. I immediately liked him because, unlike so many who run for president, he struck me as a manager. He was definitely a politician. He had to be to hold the jobs he held before joining the Reagan Administration. But spending most of his career in business and in appointed jobs showed in his demeanor and his approach to domestic and foreign affairs. He would manage the country, whereas Reagan, though active and involved, also served as a larger-than-life figurehead.

What I also remember is that Bush was better suited for foreign policy – which he excelled at – than domestic. It may have been that he simply approached domestic matters with a more low-key approach than Reagan did. Bush is a Republican in the mold of Bob Dole (who probably should have been Nixon’s second vice president, though Ford did well enough.) He leaned conservative, but was more center right than he cares to admit even now.

Reading his book of letters, All the Best, George Bush, I got a sense of a man who did business in a way that Washington sorely needs to return to these days. Bush valued friendship and even sought advice from political rivals during his political career. One letter playfully needles his former opposite number on the Democratic National Committee after Bush’s posting to China.

I often say Bush came in the finish Reagan’s paperwork. Considering that he was president at the end of the Cold War, that’s a somewhat accurate assessment, but hardly a dismissal. After Reagan was shot in 1981, he became an essential part of the administration, a sort of unofficial diplomat. (“You die, I fly,” he once joked after some ribbing in the press about his frequent trips to attend funerals, where, he points out in his book, a lot of diplomacy would get done.)

But, as with Reagan, Bush saw the rough-and-tumble of politics as a sort of Sam Sheepdog/Ralph Wolf routine. Legislators, candidates, and officials would snipe in the press, then roll up their sleeves and figure out how to get work done.

There’s something missing in the way DC governs now. Clinton, who learned a lot from his predecessor, may have been the last to govern the way Bush did, but it’s something more. Bush was the last World War II vet to sit in the Oval Office. While the living presidents tend to be friendly, if not close (George W. Bush is surprisingly the most sympathetic man to Barack Obama’s woes, which should really make some of Obama’s – and Bush’s – detractors ashamed of themselves), it seems as though real civility in the White House and on Capitol Hill began dying off as the Vietnam Era generation began to retire from politics. Today’s method seems to be hold one’s breath, stamp one’s feet, and make sure nothing positive is ever said about one’s opponent.

I admire Clinton, but I suspect something very deep and very important began disappearing the day George H. W. Bush went home to Houston. Johnson, for all his crassness, showed it. Ford was the embodiment of it. Carter and Reagan did it without thinking. Bush was the last of a generation that survived a Depression and fought a war to save civilization. Today it’s all demagogues, posers, and people who are incapable of compromise, nuance, or even substance.

It died when our best one-term president in modern history left office.

Space Stuff!: Deer Park, We Have A Problem


So I stopped what I was doing when I realized I was in Act II Hell. So I backed up and reread what I’d written so far, throwing out close to 20,000 words. Well, I wouldn’t say I threw them out. I simply saved the draft as a new file, deleted everything after Chapter 21, and started making notes. It means less time spent on the novel and more time on other things.

Someone suggested I ship off a short story. Trouble is that I don’t have anything in the can at the moment. I have a couple of ideas, but while focused on long work, it’s hard for me to shift gears back to short work.

“Wait a minute. You’re writing this blog post.”

Yes, I am, but a blog is quite a bit like a newspaper column. It requires a different set of muscles. I’ve had other writers warn of the dangers of blogging, but I’ve also noticed that song doesn’t get sung as much in the era of Facebook and Twitter and whatever. Suffice it to say a blog post is not a short story is not a novel is not a screenplay. Some may argue that it makes no difference. To them, I say, “If that’s true for you, don’t do it.”

I digress. Last week, I made a long list of things I needed to do: Continuity errors to fix, references to put in or take out, mismatched names to fix, and a couple of tasks to do before I begin writing narrative again. One of those tasks was drawing a map. I actually have little clue what the setting looks like. There was a vague sense that the continent where this took place looked suspiciously like Middle Earth. Part of this stems from naming a mountain range the Misty Mountains and a putting a town called Edoras (the capital of Rohan in Lord of the Rings.) The map is crude and lacking details I’ll need later, but that’s fine. It lets me exploit the absence of established story facts until they come into being. Then I can add them back. That’s half the fun of world building. It was part of the motivation of writing Holland Bay, which takes place in the fictional Monticello, Ohio, a city of roughly 400,000 people that does not exist in the real world.

Now I’m outlining. I’ve had a few people, including some experienced writers, say, “Oh! Well, you can do that in an evening.” I could, but it would not be very good, and I’d be right back where I am in a month. Worse, I’d probably have to throw out twice as much as I did this time. So I outline two or three chapters in a sitting, then spend the next day thinking about what comes next and what possibilities I’ve can open up. It also helps me to keep from “opening the kimono” too fast. It’s Act II. I need to spend my time knocking my protags against the ropes. I also need to make the enemy more than a bunch of anonymous armored guys who can’t shoot straight. And I need to plot out the final battle, give our people a victory to end the book, and set up the sequel. (This is at least a trilogy.)

So this is how I’m spending my Thanksgiving week. I will be thankful when I can start work on the actual book again.

JFK: Fifty Years Later, My Theory


National Archives

Today is the fiftieth anniversary anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination. There would be three more credible attempts on a president’s life afterward, none of them successful: Two on Gerald Ford and John Hinkley’s shooting of Ronald Reagan 100 years after the Garfield assassination. The Kennedy assassination, however, looms large in our national consciousness. Conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory abounds, including a questionable assertion from Watergate figure E. Howard Hunt that LBJ was in on it. (Most credible biographies and accounts of Lyndon Johnson suggest that our 36th president spent his entire term in office terrified that he was next. Wouldn’t you?)


LBJ Presidential Library

Part of this stems from Kennedy’s death existing in living memory. For instance, I read one of McBain’s 87th Precinct novels from the mid-1960’s where one of the bulls (Kling, I think) went into an American Legion post to ask questions. The veterans were all from the Spanish-American War (which ended before 1900). When it was written, most Americans had either served in World War II or had relatives who did. When I grew up (the 1970’s), World War II was still a big scary thing, and many adults younger than I am now looked still looked suspiciously at Germany and Japan. Now World War II is fading into history as old age claims more and more veterans every day. Korea is forgotten, but Vietnam is now grandpa’s war, and most of us wonder why we couldn’t duplicate the rapid victory of the Gulf War in 1991.

Likewise, Kennedy is in the memory of a large number of Americans, up there with the Challenger disaster, the Reagan shooting, and 9/11. So naturally, people have strong feelings on the matter. It’s inevitable that books and movies, particularly Oliver Stone’s JFK, would muddy the waters a bit.

When I was younger, before I looked at why many of the theories got debunked, I believed there was someone on the infamous grassy knoll that shot Kennedy. What I also believed was this:

  1. Oswald acted alone, but missed.
  2. Oswald just happened to pick the same day someone else did to take a shot at the president.
  3. The shooting was a mob hit – an idea bolstered by Joseph Kennedy’s cozy relationship with the Mafia.
  4. When Oswald’s rifle was found an Oswald arrested, some mobsters probably did a happy dance having found a patsy to feed an angry FBI and Secret Service.
  5. Jack Ruby sealed the deal.

It’s possible, but I don’t believe it as strongly as I once did. At this point, it doesn’t matter to me now. Those responsible for both the killing and its aftermath are mostly dead. The repercussions have been supplanted by subsequent events and issues.

Still, it ended an era in America. I still feel robbed after all these years. Whoever was responsible (and anymore, I believe it was Oswald) stole from a large number of unborn Americans. For that, I have no forgiveness.

Thursday Reviews: Desperation by Stephen King


Stephen King

A couple is pulled over in the Nevada desert by a cop who finds a baggy of pot in the car. It’s one of those instances where a trip to the police station would clear up everything. Instead, the cop is crazed, swearing at the couple and punctuating his speech with the word “tak.” When they arrive in Desperation, Nevada, population 0, formerly about 250, they find a house of horrors. The cop has taken prisoner a family of five, killing their six-year-old daughter, and a burned-out literary wonder who passed through on a Harley on trip to revive his career. Desperation is not just another forgotten Western mining town. The mining company uncovered something bad. Something very bad.

The cop is possessed by Tak, a primitive entity too old to be a demon. However, Tak, via David Carver, runs afoul of God. Yeah, that God. The one in the Bible. But King’s God proves to be a rather edgy, if still distant, character. One theme that runs through the novel is that God is cruel. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but usually is extremely difficult to endure.

This one is a bit messy. King goes through each abduction in something other than chronological order, which makes this hard to follow for the first 200 pages. Once the battle between Tak and his captives begins in earnest, it finds its groove. While not mentioned in the novel, The Dark Tower‘s presence looms. You know Tak is something Roland Deschane will eventually have to confront, and the protags, though never stated, forms a ka-tet, a group whom fate has tasked with a mission. It’s slow going and not as clear as Insomnia or The Green Mile (which seems to exist outside the King universe, as does Carrie.)

In Praise Of Grunge

When grunge came out, it was considered the future. Combining punk and hard rock, it broke the back of hair metal, something Metallica and Guns N’ Roses were already trying to do. The mainstream press called it “alternative,” yet by the time Kurt Cobain died, there was nothing alternative about it. It was the mainstream. Yet in the years that followed, the music was freer, looser, more original. Bands did not feel compelled to be Led Zeppelin or David Bowie. Grunge made the 1990’s the WTF Decade in rock.

Nowadays, it’s maligned. One recent British music writer said there was nothing original about grunge and it deserved to die. This was the same idiot who left Dark Side of the Moon and Never Mind the Bollocks off a list of most influential albums of the rock era. Hey, I hate the Sex Pistols, but if you leave out Bollocks, you’re too stupid to live. Leaving out Dark Side warrants breaking all your fingers, smashing your laptop, and forever barring you from calling yourself a rock journalist. Not that I’ve really thought about it.

Yes, grunge did combine hard rock and punk. It was time to strip rock of its excesses. It was time for guitarists to quit trying to be Clapton, Page, and Beck. It was time lead singers stopped trying to be Robert Plant. (Unless you were Chris Cornell. Because Cornell sounds like Robert Plant without trying.) It was time for David Coverdale to go. (And I say that as a life-long Deep Purple fan.)

But grunge was a function of the times. Musicians my age playing to an audience five years younger and tired of the screaming vocals, day-glo Spandex pants, and canned “incendiary” guitar solos. It was time for rockers to shut up and play. Grunge begat post-grunge. It opened the door for Brit pop in America. It held the door for Lillith Fair. It let Green Day go mainstream without selling out. Hell, progressive rock fans now embrace Green Day. That would not have been possible with grunge. So who were the purveyors of grunge?

Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam

Photo by Lugnuts, used under Creative Commons

Probably the godfathers of grunge. Their Ten came out at the tail-end of the hair metal movement. Only lead singer Eddie Vedder didn’t so much sing as growled. Unlike some grunge bands, they thought nothing of having prominent guitar solos. The only difference was that they didn’t seem canned. They seemed drawn from the song itself. “Even Flow” exploded on the scene in 1990, but things got really dark with “Jeremy.”


Soundgarden in concert

Photo: musicisentropy, used under Creative Commons

“Black Hole Sun” was the scariest damn video I had seen when it appeared in 1992. Those CGI-stretched smiles were creepier than the black hole sucking up everything. Soundgarden mixed harmony with power chords and lyrics about something other than snorting coke off some groupie’s bare ass. Intelligent, meticulous, yet sounding like a bunch of guys jamming in a garage, Soundgarden rejected the metal way of doing rock.

Alice in Chains

Alice in Chains in 2007

Photo: Jenya Campbell, used under Creative Commons

Layne Staley committed slow suicide to make this band sound great. That’s the way he described it. Alice in Chains started out as a metal band along the lines of Guns N’ Roses in their early days. But a funny thing happened on the way to MTV’s Headbangers Ball. Someone noticed they were from Seattle and decided they were grunge. That probably was the best thing to happen to them. They could focus on Staley’s tortured lyrics and his harmonies with Jerry Cantrell. These days, William DuVall fills Staley’s shoes as vocalist and guitar player. Now the band is all about those dark harmonies and even darker lyrics (as if that was possible.)

Stone Temple Pilots

Stone Temple Pilots

Photo by Selena Smith, used under Creative Commons

Wait a minute! A grunge band from San Diego? It had all the ingredients: Guitar more woven into the music, a lead singer who alternately growled and screamed, moving from acoustic to power chords on a dime. And drama. Lots of drama. Lead singer Scott Weiland spent the 1990’s on most people’s celebrity death poll, managed to get fired from STP, and even reminded Velvet Revolver why they all quit on Axl Rose. But oh, they sounded great. “Core,” “Sex Type Thing,” and “Interstate Love Song.”

The Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters

Photo by Christopher Simon, used under Creative Commons

Okay, technically, they’re post-grunge. And through most of the 1990’s, they were the Dave Grohl Band. But Nirvana planned to split up the songwriting between Grohl, Krist Novocelic, and Pat Smear to evolve the sound and take some of the load off Kurt Cobain. But Cobain died, and Grohl had some songs he wanted to do outside Nirvana. One trip to Sound City later, boom. Foo Fighters. They’ve since become the Band of the 2000’s. But grunge did not die. If you listen to the Foos’ output, it becomes clear it just outgrew itself.


Nirvana on MTV's Unplugged

Source: MTV

The mack daddies of grunge. Kurt Cobain’s fuck you attitude with lyrics personal to the point of being unintelligible. Those drums. The bass player bouncing about the stage the way most guitarists do. They didn’t scream. They yelled. They were pure punk rock, but, as Grohl said about 20 years after Nevermind, “We wanted to be The Beatles.” They made a pretty good run at it.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Red Hot Chili Peppers – more a funk band, but with the same attitude as their grunge brethren; Hole – Oh, come on. Courtney managed a few jewels between periodic self-destruction; Smashing Pumpkins – Rush fan Billy Corgan rewrites the rules, then breaks them all; Garbage – Shirley Manson is a grunge singer in search of a band. She found them in three producers from Madison, Wisconsin.

I’m No Artist: GIMP, Book Covers, And the Indie Author

roadrulesThe original book covers I did for Road Rules and (when it was available) “A Walk in the Rain” were, to put it mildly, horrible. Actually, the first Road Rules cover wasn’t too bad, but blindingly red. The Nick Keplers all had either photographs of the sky that I either shot myself or bought off a photo site. The skyline came from Erin O’Brien as a favor. The second Road Rules cover looked better, but not great. It pixelated badly, though I liked the layout until I realized I left JD Rhoades name off the cover. (He wrote the intro.)

When it came time to release Bad Religion. I was absolutely stuck coming up with an idea. Then I learned the broke indie author’s best friend: Barter. So, in exchange for a thorough beta (bordering on a full edit, I suspect), Li’l Sis stepped in. After some brain storming, we came up with the idea of a “keyhole” image, a transparent silhouette made over a shot of the skyline. We tried Erin’s photo, which worked quite well for the ebook editions, but, because it came from a cellphone, did not work for CreateSpace. (I suspect the same goes for covers from Lightning Source and Spark.) So I bought a new shot of the skyline that became part of the Kepler series’ new signature look: BadReligion-ebook600Transparent silhouette over the Cleveland skyline, over a subtly patterned background, and the title in a “shattered glass” font. In the meantime, I found some Cadillac images and a photograph of the Little Miami Bike Trail that I took and combined them into a new Road Rules cover. I should have spent the extra $5 on the Caddie as CreateSpace warned of pixelation again. (It turned out OK and didn’t hurt the cover at all.) By then, I was starting to understand the arcane art of making a book cover. For The Compleat Kepler, a collection, Jen took black silhouette of a man with a gun and placed it over the Cleveland skyline, which became the background. It sort of looks like the Kepler series, but separate from it. The fonts all remain the same.

So now I got it, but I also realized that Corel’s PaintShop Pro wasn’t cutting it for me. It doesn’t have the control over the image that Photoshop has. It does, however, have a price tag that’s a fraction of Photoshop’s. For $45, you can have a decent graphics program to manipulate to your little heart’s content. The trouble is that there’s little documentation about PaintShop Pro. It’s not that popular, and not as many people love it the way they love Photoshop. What people do love is GIMP, or GNU Image Manipulation Program, which is an open-source alternative to Photoshop.

wilberAnd it’s almost as powerful. Plus, I don’t need a course in GIMP. (They don’t teach them anyway.) There are plenty of places on the Internet, including YouTube videos, to show you how to do things. And you have to relearn anyway. Some of GIMP’s basic functions are not as intuitive as Photoshop or PaintShopPro. But then you really should learn a graphics program before diving in head first anyway. So I had to learn, from scratch, how to make things transparent, manipulate layers, save files (GIMP exports to jpeg or png, not “Save As” like most Windows and Mac programs), insert components into pictures, and resize objects. If the instructions refer to something not in your version of GIMP, put the version number into your Google search and boom! It’s powerful, fast, and, best of all, free.

But having a good graphics program is not enough. I’ve seen web designer after web designer point out that they’re “not some kid with a pirated copy of Photoshop working on their parents’ Windows 95 machine.” No, you have to apply some graphics principles to what you’re doing. I am not a graphic artist. Someday, I may be a decent photographer, but even that is not enough. It’s one of the reasons Li’l Sis did the Kepler covers. She started out as a graphic designer before becoming a an evil code monkey like me. But what’s a graphically challenged independent author supposed to do when he doesn’t have a spare $300 lying around?

“Hey, stupid. You’re a writer. You research things. Go do some research.”

streetscape-test3That’s right. Once again, Google’s your buddy. I searched for some basic design principles to guide me. I’m no expert, and the sample of the partially completed cover for the upcoming The Compleat Winter (Watermarks left in since I haven’t bought the source photography yet) is not something I’d pay someone else to do for me. But it’s getting there. I need to play with fonts and font effects now. But so far, it’s shaping up nicely. I started with the streetscape and almost pestered author Toni McGee Causey to use one she posted to Facebook recently. (Almost. I like Toni, and would like the feeling to stay mutual.) I went with the iStockPhoto background you see here. It didn’t “pop,” which is what covers need to do, so I found this lurid picture of a woman with a knife (also at iStockPhoto) and placed her over the streetscape. Since the streetscape is partially obscured, it’s not really clear why she’s where she is with a bloody knife, but I like it now. The fade-out effects on the cover were a terrific discovery in GIMP, and it opens up all sorts of possibilities. However, it also took me about five hours to get the cover to just what you see here (plus the background, which I don’t have in a standard image file yet). Clearly it’s not done yet. And when I buy the photos, I have to do it all over again. The blatant piracy you see to the left was done just to see if it all works.

Covers are something I probably won’t do for money in the near future. As I said, I’m not a graphic artist. But I have other skills I can barter for edits, covers, etc. With technology and the programs out there, money should not be a barrier to entry for the indie author, only ingenuity, talent, and networking. Those I can’t help you with.

Space Stuff: Start Again!


Historical fiction writer Brian Thornton and I have reached what I’ve dubbed “Act II” hell on our respective projects. It’s where you reach what science fiction writer Chuck Wendig calls “the mushy middle.” Brian and I have both spent a lot of time whining back and forth about our individual woes. Mine happened when I reached a certain point where I said, “Uh oh, I need to get all my protags into one place.”

So I abruptly fast-forwarded them about a month into a refugee camp. Then things got choppy. Continuity errors multiplied. And then came the 2000-word expository speech I wrote about last week. I thought it was a necessary evil to move the plot along. What happened?

I got stuck.

As I thought about it this week, I realized I had moved not into the second act but the second novel of the series. This story had a vague, ambiguous ending planned that might work, but only if I spend 200,000 words laying the ground work. Um… That’s two novels. So now, the SF project is going to be about our protags having their whole world ripped out from under them, struggling to regroup, and striking back at these really ugly guys who came from the sky like something from War of the Worlds and shot the place up in these dune-buggy type things that look like rejects from Mad Max.

So all that work I’ve done for the past three weeks? Out the window. I am going back and tweaking some references to fix continuity errors and drop in some place names and details sooner. And I’m outlining. I should have done that before with this, but that just tells me I didn’t have a clear picture of this story when I started out. I know the story arc. I know how it ends. And I know there’s another story arc beyond it.

One question I need to answer concerns two of the characters are not only into love, but they plan to get married. That brings up a whole “Will they or won’t they?” scenario. And if they do, how do I handle this? The problem is that this is a YA project. If this was Nick Kepler or one of the cops from Holland Bay or any of the characters from Road Rules, the nasty would already have occurred. Several times. In detail. Can’t do that here. The best advice I was given was to imply it. The second best advice I was given was to focus on the female when it does happen. Then again, Twilight (of which I’m not a fan, but it will serve as an example here), is probably one of the most chaste vampire stories up until Edward and Bella get married. And Harry? We know Harry and Ginny have been together in the series’ final scene since, well, where did young James, Albus, and Lily come from? But again, Rowling, like Meyer, pretty much confines sexuality (beyond the odd kiss and Ron and Hermoine’s head start on becoming the bickering couple) to marriage. While Rick Riordan is a bit more forward on the subject in the Percy Jackson series, Suzanne Collins acknowledges sexuality in The Hunger Games without making it a plot point. Like Meyer and Rowling, the main characters seem to save it for marriage.

So that’s a toughy to handle. Because one of these characters is going to be taken away, which is going to enrage and embitter the other. (Tough for me, too, because I really like both these characters, and the adult version of the remaining one is not really someone I’d socialize with if I could avoid it.) At least I won’t be handling it like VC Andrews. Not only do I not want the controversy brought down on my head (or rather Dick’s head, since this is under another name), but the only depictions of sex – graphic or implied – that should make my skin crawl are the violent ones. And I always question those when I write them. That’s why we have beta readers.

Violence is often a question in YA fiction. I noticed John Scalzi turned the violence down a notch in Zoe’s Tale, which paralleled The Last Colony, a much more graphically violent novel. Rowling started out easy on the violence and slowly amped it up. The Deathly Hallows story can’t not be violent. A woman is eaten by a snake early in the book, lest ye think Voldemorte is simply egotistical and misguided. Nope, this bastard is so evil that even the most ardent death penalty opponent is praying for a random Stinger missile to blow his ass up. But The Hunger Games can’t avoid it at all. It’s The Running Man and Death Race 2000, which are all about the violence. At the same time, this book can’t shy away from it, either. The invaders want the land, and they want these monkeys from Earth the hell off of it. One character, only a day after his sixteenth birthday, kills nine of them (mainly lucky shots), one of them while it demonstrates the end result of its species’ digestive process. (Another character points out that the Geneva Convention bar soldiers from killing the enemy on the john, then muses that these invaders probably don’t even know what the Geneva Convention is or care.)

Also, who is the villain? I know who the invaders are, but there needs to be a Khan, a Darth Vader or, better still, an Emperor. He doesn’t need to be Hannibal Lecter, but he does need to be a bit of an asshole. Right now, it’s just a horde of armored vikings looting and pillaging. Who is the head bastard?

All this is fodder for the coming outline. I’ll be spending the week tweaking and mapping out where I want to go. Next week, back to the lame play on SF titles and talking about stuff I made up.