Friday, December 30, 2011

The Tale of a Dormouse

For many years, whenever I would stop off at the local Starbucks, I could count on seeing Dormouse squirreled away at one of the tables in the rear of the coffee shop, tapping away on her laptop as she sipped her Frappuccino. Her name wasn’t Dormouse, of course. But as she slid her straw through her rodent-like buck teeth and torpidly dragged her fingers across her keyboard, pausing to stare up with her beady eyes and bushy coiffure, she struck me not as the middle-aged woman who had introduced herself as Doris one winter day, but rather as a dormouse, seeking sanctuary from the world in the recesses of a suburban coffee shop.

Doris had worked for many years for a large corporation that one day decided it needed to become a much smaller corporation, and on that day, like many of her coworkers, Doris found herself banking a generous severance check and contemplating her future. Her job search proved futile, as her former employer’s competitors were also downsizing for the recession. Not that Doris needed the income; her husband, a plastic surgeon, provided quite well for them. But Doris felt awkward whenever anyone asked what she did for a living. “Housewife” conjured memories of her mother, she felt too young to be “retired”, and “unemployed” made her feel like a discarded failure.

So, Doris fled her suburban prison each morning and drove to her “office” at Starbucks, where she would begin her day with a steaming cup of Joe, flip open her laptop, and morph into Dormouse. As the day progressed, her hot coffees were replaced by chilled Frappuccinos and patrons would admire her diligence. Some regulars would even strike up a conversation, asking what she did for a living (perhaps curious she seemed to reside at the Starbucks). Dormouse would smile, point to her laptop, and reply, “I’m a writer.”

Dormouse never showed her writing to anyone. It would never be read or published. Dormouse had never trained to be a writer. Her spelling was poor and her grammar worse. She had no clue as to diction (word choice), punctuation, plotting, characterization, or any of the skills necessary to become a writer. But that didn’t matter, because no one was ever going to read the words Dormouse painfully contorted into sentences. What mattered, to her, was she felt she had a purpose in life. She was not unemployed. She was not retired. She was not a housewife waiting dutifully for her husband to return home from work. She was a writer, a calling that placed her in the esteemed company of wordsmiths like Hemingway and Shaw.

Except Dormouse wasn’t a Hemingway or a Shaw, or even a hack. She didn’t have a natural talent or flair for writing, nor had she honed her craft, as I and other writers had over many decades. She had never done the hard preparatory work of studying literature and grammar. She had never suffered the abuse of writing instructors dissecting her work like a biology lab frog and grimacing at the remains. She had never experienced the daily grind of an editor slicing her story with a red pen until it bled like a murder victim and then stating he’d run the story only because they hadn’t sold enough ads to fill the page. In short, Dormouse hadn’t paid her dues or learned her craft. She was not truly a writer; to be generous, she was a creative typist.

I would cringe whenever a Starbucks patron said, “Oh, you’re a writer, too, just like Doris.” I’d glance at the dormouse squirreled away in the corner, and force a polite smile. Doris was a lovely lady who had found a sense of identity and purpose, albeit in an ill-fitting metaphorical suit. Her illusory vocation as a writer was harmless, so long as she never shared her writing with anyone. I wondered how bad her writing might be, were I ever bold enough to sneak a peek at her laptop.

One day, I found out. Dormouse discovered e-books and, using Starbuck’s WiFi, uploaded her book right from her table. As I feared, it was dreadful. Amateurish. Unprofessional on every level, from writing to editing to production. Yet Dormouse was proud. She was vindicated. Now she was “published.” Dormouse flashed me a self-satisfied smile. “Now, I’m an author, like you.”

I sipped my Frappuccino and gazed across the coffee shop. My eyes fell on dozens of dormice, tapping away on laptops. I felt a pang of sympathy for the readers. How would they differentiate between creative typists and writers in an e-world where anyone could proclaim herself an author?  As the slush pile moves online, will we reach a point where self-published dreck proliferates so rapidly it becomes the new standard? Will the next generation, raised on a diet of unprofessional writing, be incapable of telling the difference between good and bad writing? A young woman across from me flipped the page on her paperback edition of “Twilight”. Perhaps it was already too late.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Breaking News! - Cheetah is Dead!

Cheetah is dead.

Best known as Tarzan's chimpanzee companion in a host of Johnny Weissmuller films, the chimp had retired to Florida decades ago to live out his Golden Years. The actor died at the age of 80, in bed at the Florida sanctuary where he had lived since retiring in 1960.

"It is with great sadness that the community has lost a dear friend and family member on December 24, 2011," the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Florida announced on its Web site. The 80-year-old chimp was as remarkable for his longevity as he was for his acting, as the average lifespan of a wild chimpanzee is said to be 45 years.

Although he never won an Academy Award, Cheetah often overshadowed performances by his co-stars, Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, all of whom he outlived. Cheetah's childhood friend Johnny Sheffield, who played Tarzan and Jane's son "Boy" in the movies, died a year earlier. Cheetah co-starred in such classic jungle fare as "Tarzan the Ape Man" (1932) and "Tarzan and His Mate" (1934).

Friends at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary say Mr. Cheetah loved finger-painting and watching football, according to the Tampa Tribune, a local newspaper. A sanctuary volunteer was quoted as saying, "When he didn't like somebody or something that was going on, he would pick up some poop and throw it at them. He could get you at 30 feet with bars in between."

The former movie star was also noted for his ability to "walk upright with a straight back like a human," which set him apart not only from his peers at the sanctuary but also from many of his contemporaries at a nearby Century Village.

While he had many understudies for his role as Tarzan's simian companion who also appeared in the films, Mr. Cheetah steadfastly dismissed rumors through the years that his was a composite role created through the use of numerous animal actors. "Those lightweights could barely peel a banana," he was once quoted telling Variety.

Ironically, the character of Cheetah never appeared in any of Edgar Rice Burroughs' the two dozen Tarzan novels. In fact, no chimpanzees did, although in the novels Tarzan did swing through the trees with a monkey named Nkima as an occasional companion.

The flag outside the Chiquita Banana company flew at half mast today, in honor of the late actor.

Mr. Cheetah and his family in happier times.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Death of the Pony Express

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" reads the inscription on the James Farley New York City post office. Herodotus penned those words describing the expedition of the Greeks against the Persians around 500 B.C, but the saying has become synonymous with the U.S. postal service. Nothing can impede delivery of the U.S. mail… except a Republican Congress hell-bent on destroying it.

Everyone gripes about the post office, but I find it to be an amazingly efficient operation. Even as a child, I was awed by the notion that I could drop a letter into a metal box on my street corner and a few days later it would be delivered anywhere in the world.  The postal service will deliver a letter to the North Pole; by mule to an Indian reservation at the foot of the Grand Canyon; to an inmate at a maximum security prison; to the Alaskan tundra, by parachute; by hovercrafts, and through pneumatic tubes. And it does so for mere pocket change (six cents when I was a boy, 45 cents in 2012).

In the 1970s, the Postal Reorganization Act converted the U.S. Post Office Department into the U.S. Postal Service, making it a quasi-governmental organization. Since then, it has been self-supporting. Not a single dime of taxpayer money is spent on the postal system! All of its revenue comes from the sale of stamps and related products. For the most part, it has been profitable. It is also the country’s second largest employer (Wal*Mart is number one), has the largest fleet of vehicles on the planet, and processes 40% of the world’s mail.

Even with e-mail, online bill paying, and private competitors like FedEx, UPS, and DHL, the U.S. Postal Service performs a vital function. Its mandate demands it service everywhere in the nation… especially places its competitors refuse to service because they find it unprofitable to do so.

Yet today, the postal service is near bankruptcy and facing unnecessary Draconian cost-cutting measures: closure of half of its mail processing facilities; closing between 3,700 and 15,000 post offices; ending Saturday delivery; and firing tens of thousands of employees. That’s right: the Republican Congress thinks forcing the nation’s second largest employer to fire tens of thousands of employees in a depression is a good idea. Those jobless employees will not be spending their paychecks next year, further reducing the amount of money circulating in the economy. The merchants, doctors, lawyers, and others they would have paid will have less income to pay their employees and keep their businesses going.

So why is this necessary? The postal service was profitable -- during the worst recession in 80 years, from 2007 to 2010, the postal service turned a net operational profit of $611 million -- until the Republican 109th Congress decided it was so profitable that it should prefund its employee retirement accounts… for the next 75 years! Say what? Congress demanded the postal service build up a retirement reserve fund that would cover health benefits for the next 75 years, and gave the postal system only 10 years to fund it. A near impossible burden for any business in the best of times. Need I add, these past few years have been far from the best of times?

That unnecessary financial obligation forced on it by Congress accounts for 84% of the postal service’s shortfall. This is a manufactured crisis created by a Bush era 2006 law passed by the Republican Congress, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act which forces the postal service to put aside billions of dollars to pay for the health benefits of employees it hasn't even hired yet, something no other government or private corporation is required to do! Without this stupid law, the USPS would not be nearly bankrupt… it would have a $1.5 billion profit!

Annoyed? You should be.   Apathetic? Leave now.   Angry enough to tell your senators and representatives you want them to rescind this insane statute and allow the USPS to operate as it had prior to 2006? Then click here to contact your Congressman. The U.S. Postal Service has a long and proud history, dating back to Benjamin Franklin (the first Postmaster General) and the days of the Pony Express carrying mail by horseback in relays to stations across the prairies, plains, deserts, and mountains of the Western United States. Then again, they shoot horses, don't they? 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Blistering Barnacles!"

I read Steven Spielberg is releasing a Tintin movie. Film adaptations seldom live up to their source material, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Tintin was a childhood friend and I look forward to reuniting with him.

I first encountered Tintin in the pages of Children’sDigest. Every month, an issue of the digest-sized magazine would arrive in my mailbox, filled with puzzles, games, and stories but the first feature I would turn to was the Tintin comic strip. Belgian artist Georges Remi, under the pen name Hergé, created Tintin in 1929. What made Tintin a brilliant strip loved worldwide was a combination of clean artwork, quirky characters, and good storytelling that included a balanced mix of humor and adventure.

Tintin was a teenaged newspaper reporter who appeared in about two dozen books (what we would call graphic novels today) that have been translated into dozens of languages and sold worldwide for decades. Some of these stories were serialized in the now defunct Children’s Digest. Tintin was idealistic and inquisitive, traits most boy could relate to, and which often led him into trouble and adventure.

Tintin’s assignments took him all over the world, under the sea, and even to the moon! Tintin’s character was clever but somewhat bland, yet his adventures were enlivened by his unusual coterie. His entourage included the cantankerous, usually drunk and short-tempered Captain Haddock uttering pseudo-curses like "Blistering barnacles!"; the addlebrained and hard-of-hearing inventor Professor Cuthbert Calculus continually mishearing what others said; the incompetent, derby-wearing twin detectives Thomson and Thompson (who can be distinguished by the fact one lacks a ‘p’ in his name); and his faithful dog, Snowy, a whisky-drinking white fox terrier. Each adventure added quirky guest stars to the cast.

In many ways, Tintin served as an inspiration for my own Halos & Horns series. It’s easy to watch archangel Gabriel berating demon Lucifer as he taps into his cask of Merlin ale and conjure visions of the Boy Scoutish Tintin lambasting the whisky-chugging Captain Haddock. Like Hergé, I blend humor with adventure and drama. Halos & Horns has some very funny scenes and lines, but it is not strictly a humor series, any more than it is straight drama, or an action-adventure saga, but rather a blend of all three. Following Hergé’s lead, I’ve packed Halos & Horns with a variety of quirky characters embroiled in adventures across several locales, finding themselves in both dramatic and humorous situations. I hope my characters and stories prove as enduring… and endearing… as his have.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Worth A Second Look

In a previous post, I told you about the eStorybooks that were selling well. Today, I'd like to shine the spotlight on three of my favorite short stories that have been neglected by Kindle purchasers.

The plot: Reporter Sylvia Bartow has only one hour to make sense of the patchwork quilt of interviews that has consumed the past three months of her life, as she waits to interview condemned killer Max Crenshaw - one hour before the hangman's noose silences his lips forever. Is it time enough to unravel the truth, and to learn the secret of the Butterfly Lady? 

Why I like it: I used a unique storytelling technique. As the reporter waits to meet the condemned prisoner, her mind flashes back through a series of interviews she conducted with different individuals about the case. The flashbacks are presented  as vignettes told by the interviewee from their point of view. There is some foreshadowing that portends the surprise ending.

Next, is Kil-ger.

The plot: If you're a SF post-apocalyptic fan, this one will be a treat for you. By day, Kyle Marsden leads an idyllic life in the suburbs with his wife and daughter. But at night, Kyle slips into a post-apocalyptic world gone mad - populated by animalistic ravers who rape and plunder at will; joyriders, scion of society's elite who kill for sport to relieve their boredom; and rogue cybernetic mercenaries called Kil-gers. But what happens when Kyle's nightmares merge with his idyllic existence?

Why I like it: Again, the storytelling technique stands out. Kil-ger was a challenge to write because the story transitions multiple times between two time periods with two very different moods. The trick was to maintain a smooth flowing story while the reader -- through the protagonist -- undergoes a jarring change in surroundings from idyllic suburbia to post-apocalyptic madness and back. The surprise ending leaves the reader pondering how far man's humanity can be stretched before it is lost.

The last one for today is The Encounter.

The plot: An elderly man, armed only with his wits, confronts an gun-wielding young man burglarizing his home.

Why I like it: The plot is what makes The Encounter exceptional. It's plotted like a two-man play. The Encounter is an intellectual thriller. An old man is trapped in his home by an armed punk a third his age. He can't expect outside help and he cannot physically overpower the thug. His only hope for survival is to outwit his younger, stronger opponent. With only two characters and one setting (a kitchen), the dialogue and interaction form the basis of this riveting thriller.

I like to think each of my stories is unique in some way. These three tales stand out because of the level of writing styles employed. I hope you'll give them a try. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Big Brother is Watching What You're Watching

The Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 makes it illegal to disclose which videotapes an individual has rented, unless he or she has given informed, written consent at the time the disclosure is sought.

This means you can rent a copy of Lesbians in Leather Bondage from your local video store, mail order vendor, or Web site and not worry your prim and proper neighbors will give you awkward glances at the supermarket (so long as you’ve kept the volume down; walls being thin, of course).

More importantly, it also means the government will not have access to which videos you watch, or which books you buy online or borrow from libraries. Big Brother will not be able to demand a list of what media you are reading, viewing, and listening to. This harkens back to the days when the government spied on citizens to ferret out Communists within American society. In the 1950s, American citizens were punished for their political beliefs. Blacklists were drawn up to deny work to writers and actors based on their political ideology. The government realized it could discern what you believed based on what you read.

Congress even set up the House UnAmerican ActivitiesCommittee to interrogate leading citizens for any inkling they may have read the “wrong” books and periodicals, or listened to the “wrong” ideas advanced by those espousing opposing ideologies. Careers were ruined. Lives were shattered. It was the greatest witch hunt since the days of Salem. Massachusetts, where in 1692, hundreds of American citizens were tried for allegedly practicing witchcraft and 20 were executed. In the 1950s, witches had a new appellation: Communists.

When America regained its collective senses, it realized the Founders had drafted the Constitution with an inherent right of privacy, necessary to secure all the other rights the document bestowed. The right to privacy, free from government intrusion, was a prerequisite to independent thought and the formation of opinions and beliefs.

Privacy is an individual right and the decision to relinquish one’s privacy should always rest with the individual, not the government or profit-oriented businesses. If you want to share every aspect of your life – where you are, what you do, what you are reading or viewing – with the world on Twitter or Facebook, that is your choice… but no one else’s.

Netflix is backing a bill in Congress that would amend the Video Privacy Protection Act. If the video streaming corporation gets its way, Facebook users will be able to see which movies their friends and family are viewing. The bill allows consumers to give one-time blanket consent online for a company to share their viewing habits continuously. That’s right: one mouse click to relinquish your privacy forever. And guess what? The bill passed the House of Representatives last week (December 6, 2011). It now awaits passage in the Senate and then the president’s signature to become law.

This is corporate greed at its worst, eroding our civil liberties in the quest for more profits. If the Senate passes the bill as currently written, the revised law would vitiate your control over information collected about you while empowering corporations to develop and share detailed customer profiles.

Ignore this blog and let another of your civil liberties disappear. Or preserve your rights with a single mouse click by contacting your U.S. senators and telling them to vote against the amendment.

(For more information on the right of privacy and the Video Privacy Protection Act, refer to my book, Issues in Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law, 6th ed.).

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Banned By The BBC?

This month marked the return of Nicola Stapleton to EastEnders after a 17-year absence, resuming the role of Mandy Salter

The former “wild child” returns as a stripper. She certainly looks a lot, ahem... different, from how I remembered her, so I hopped into my time machine (YouTube, for the uninitiated), and found this clip of her from 1992 

in which teenage Mandy lets slip the phrase “a bunch of wankers acting like Cockneys.” I was surprised at the number of YouTuber comments expressing shock that line had slipped past the BBC censors.

No, it’s not what you think. Get your minds out of the gutter so mine can float by. The term cockney refers to working class Londoners who have a distinctive accent and dialect. It’s a perfectly benign term. However, the BBC has described “wanker” as “moderately offensive” and in  2000, a British research study ranked wanker as the fourth most severe pejorative in the English language (which I have to question, as I’m sure I’ve been called at least a dozen worse words).

A wanker is British slang for a loser or layabout  -- one who makes as little effort as he can possibly get away with, and wastes his time… how shall I put this politely… wanking a certain bodily appendage.

In my novel Paved With Good Intentions, the demon Lucifer and angel Gabriel (disguised as a demon) have snuck into Hell to search for Chrysanthemum when they stumble upon a group of demons having tea (picture the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Hell). Lucifer hastily introduces his friend, struggling to create a demonic name and function for the disguised angel:

“May I present my friend, um… er… Wanker, the demon of masturbation!”

Gabriel momentarily looked askance at Lucifer, then extended his hand before quickly withdrawing it, sensing his hosts’ reluctance to shake hands with the demon of masturbation.

American readers don't get the joke and British readers will be offended. I guess that scene has killed my chances of ever seeing Halos & Horns adapted by the BBC. Sigh. (Of course, there is always ITV…) Meantime, I’ll have to settle for watching Nicola Stapleton playing a skimpily clad stripper on Eastenders. I’m such a wanker.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Looking for the Perfect Holiday Gift?

Wondering what Lucifer is planning on giving Samantha for Christmas? Maybe an engagement ring? Or possibly this lovely Halos & Horns logo necklace! It's the latest addition to our line of Amber Ware available through our affiliation with the good folks at Cafe Press. You can see the entire line of Amber Ware (and we'll be adding to it regularly) at the Amber CafePress store or by clicking the Amber Ware tab at the top of my blog.

(Now you can let that special angel in your life know she's in your thoughts... even your naughty ones! And read Halos & Horns, Book 2: And A Child Shall Lead Them, to see what Lucifer actually gives Samantha for Christmas!)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kindle Fire

I took the plunge on Black Friday and purchased a Kindle Fire. I'll report back periodically on my impressions. So far, I'm disappointed with the limited allotment of storage space -- roughly 6 GBs. Amazon counters music and videos can be streamed from the cloud, but I presume one would need to be within WiFi range. Also, the concept of storing other data, like documents, on someone else's server raises privacy concerns.

U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass), a trailblazer in Internet law, is asking Amazon for details on how Kindle Fire user data is collected, stored, and used. We all know customer information (demographics and buying habits) is the new currency of the Information Age. Kindle Fire's proprietary Silk browser splits page rendering between the device and Amazon's cloud-based AWS servers. Markey said he is concerned about Amazon's capability "to collect and utilize an extraordinary amount of information about its users' Internet surfing and buying habits."

Amazon counters "customers have the option to turn off the cloud acceleration feature of Silk. In that 'off cloud' mode, Web pages go directly to a user's device rather than pass through AWS servers, and customers still enjoy a good browsing experience."

All well and good, but I've read that on three different Web sites, none of which explain HOW to turn off the cloud acceleration feature. (Yes, the default is set to spy mode).

So here's how you do it. From the Kindle Fire home screen, tap the Web tab. The Amazon Silk web browser launches. At the bottom of the browser, tap the menu button, then tap Settings. Scroll to Accelerate Page Loading and uncheck the box. If you later decide you want Amazon honcho Jeff Bezos as your Big Brother, just recheck the box.

As for the Kindle Fire, the screen is absolutely beautiful, although I'm still having trouble with the touchscreen. Either it requires multiple taps to perform the desired action, or else a mere accidental brush will send me on a journey through Kindle land. Setting up Internet connectivity was an unsuccessful three hour ordeal, made palatable by a lovely young Amazon support rep (Hi Brianna!). I later figured out the key was to whitelist the Kindle's Mac ID on my router. Brianna told me I get a free month of Amazon Prime, but frankly I don't see the appeal. It gives me two-day shipping on books and selected free streaming videos. If I want a book shipped faster than the usual 3-day USPS (which is quite sufficient in most cases), I'll just download the e-book version. Other than "How to Stop a Plumbing Leak", there aren't many books I can't wait three days for. As I told Brianna, "I'm sitting in front of a 60" plasma TV; why would I want to watch movies on a tiny Kindle screen?"

My impression, so far, is the Kindle Fire exists as a tool for Amazon to sell product to Fire owners. Other tablets may be better for general use. But for reading e-books, it excels. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Internet Law In India

Just found out about this nice book review from India of Issues in Internet LawIt concludes by saying "Such a book would be immensely helpful if introduced in the curriculum of Indian schools. It would help young students obtain an insight into the dynamic jurisprudence of Internet law. With the number of India’s Internet users increasing, it is imperative that schools adopt this book in a way which would help young students gain knowledge about the various issues involving the Internet."

The book review, by Rodney D. Ryder, appeared in the Indian Journal of Intellectual Property Law last year but I only learned of it this week. News travels slower from across the world, lol.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The High Springs Herald

The death of an institution is often as painful as the loss of a person.

"I'm gutted," I told Ronald Dupont, Jr., publisher and editor of The North Florida Herald, after learning of the newspaper's recent demise.

The Herald, previously known as The High Springs Herald, had printed a weekly edition since 1952. I learned the last edition had rolled off the presses four weeks ago. It had a print circulation of 3,300 (roughly the size of High Springs, Florida) and its Web site receives an average of 2,000 unique daily visitors. The paper's coverage are included the towns of High Springs, Alachua, Newberry, Fort White and Jonesville in Alachua, Columbia and Gilchrist counties.

"The Herald meant a lot to many of us," I told Dupont. Long before Dupont had purchased The Herald, I had interned at the paper, when it was under the helm of publisher Bob Sharkey. Two years ago, Dupont had invited me to revisit the paper and regale his staff with tales of my tenure at The Herald. It was on my "One Day" list of things to do; I thought I would wait until I had collected all of my journalistic experiences into a book and hit High Springs with copies. I still plan to write the book, but I'll have to cross the visit off my list.

Dupont cited the recession as the reason for the closure, noting in the past two years paid advertisers had reduced the size and frequency of their ads or gone out of business. I suspect, from a gander at the paper's Web site, local politics may also have played a role.

It's not the first time The High Springs Herald has folded. Charles Hesser published its first incarnation in 1928 but like now, an economic downturn, in that case the Great Depression, forced the paper's closure in 1933.

In 1941, three weeks before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, A.E. Wilson revived The High Springs Herald but it did not survive the decade. Then, in 1952, Elbridge Cann began publishing The High Springs Herald, which had been continuously published until last month.

Cann retired in 1960, turning the reins over to Laron Cain and Bob Sharkey. After Cain had a heart attack, my old boss Bob Sharkey and his wife Jill took over the paper. From 1975 through 1979, two editions were printed: The High Springs Herald and The Alachua Herald, and my articles appeared in both.

In 1991, the Sharkeys sold The Herald to Campus Communications Inc., the parent company of The Independent Florida Alligator (the student newspaper of my alma matter, the University of Florida). Dupont purchased The Herald in January 2009.

This January, I plan to blog about some of my experiences at The Herald. Until then, I shall mourn the loss of a piece of my personal history.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

It's Sunday...Do You Know Where Your Newspaper Is?

"Shhh!"  I'm about to reveal a little known tidbit about myself: my secret avocation as a practical joker. When the local newspaper interviewed me after my book Randoms had been named a finalist for the NIE award, I rushed out and bought a dozen copies of the paper to clip the article and mail to friends. (I know, it's a sad commentary I have only a dozen friends, or at least a dozen who can read). After retiring my scissors, I was left with 12 thick copies of the Sunday edition. Being a nice guy, I left one on my neighbor's doormat. She took it inside. This seemed an efficient way to get rid of the excess newspapers, so I left another on her doormat. She took it in. Later, she went out to the store; another Sunday edition was waiting when she returned.

For the next three days, whenever I saw she had taken in the newspaper, I left a replacement on her mat. She couldn't imagine where all these newspapers were coming from. When I had run out of all dozen editions, we happened to meet outside and we chatted, as neighbors do.

"I"m so mad," I said. "I'm canceling my newspaper subscription! I'm paying for home delivery but it never arrives! I must have called the newspaper a dozen times. Those liars swear they keep delivering it and that one of my neighbors must be stealing it. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? What kind of lowlife neighbor would steal someone's newspaper off his doorstep?"

She turned red as a beet and slunk away, trying to figure out how to dispose of the evidence without me noticing a dozen Sunday editions in her trash.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Lost in Translation?

The Amazon product description for my eStorybook "The Leprechaun" reads: "A drunken Irishman stumbles across a man he believes to be a leprechaun, who shows him the true treasure he already has but doesn't appreciate. A short story for all ages by Keith B. Darrell. 4,041 words."

Unless you happen to stumble across an obscure site called Leprechaun Books.

On that site, the wee folk appear to have toyed with the description: "A inebriated Irishman stumbles opposite a male he believes to be a leprechaun, who shows him a loyal value he already has though doesn’t appreciate. A reduced story for all ages by Keith B. Darrell. 4,041 words."

"Reduced" story? If that isn't the leprechaun's pot calling the kettle black...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Domino Theory

Something to ponder as you gather with your families for your Thanksgiving feast:

In the November 28th issue of Time magazine, Dheepthi Namasivayam writes: “With debt ballooning and investors in panic, policymakers may need to make tougher choices than ever before in allocating tax receipts. Will they fund health care benefits for old ladies, buy more tanks or hire more teachers?

This started me thinking. In 1971, the Soviet Union proposed a conference of the five nuclear powers (the USSR, the USA, France, Great Britain, and China) to discuss nuclear disarmament. In 1973, the UN adopted a resolution to reduce military budgets. The two superpowers, the Soviets and the Americans, signed a number of treaties (like the SALT and START treaties) to reduce the number of weapons in the world.

We are in the midst of an unparalleled worldwide economic crisis. Greece and Italy may default. The Euro may collapse. The United States has lost its Triple A credit rating and is mired in a depression. China’s housing bubble is cresting. The global economy is more interlinked and interdependent than at any time in history – which means we can expect to see a domino effect when large nations’ economies fall. No country is safe. And no single country can ride to our rescue this time. We are all in the same boat… and it is sinking fast.

Maybe it’s time we (the citizens of the world) all started cooperating with each other to solve this mutual problem. Do we (all nations) need health care for our citizens? The answer is yes. Do we (all nations) need teachers to educate our younger citizens? The answer is yes. Do we (all nations) need to buy more tanks and weapons of mass destruction? What if, instead of spending our scarce resources (money) on funding newer and better ways to kill each other, we cut or eliminated our military spending for the next five years? We keep the weapons we have (which could blow up the planet 100 times over) but simply stop buying new ones; bring home the troops; close bases in lands where we’re not at war; and end those wars we’re in. And when I say “we”, I don’t just mean the United States… I mean every nation on Earth.

What I’m proposing is the radical idea that we place a five-year moratorium on trying to kill each other, and use the trillions of dollars in savings to restore the global economy. Every nation could divert its military budget to rebuilding infrastructure, educating its populace for the 21st century, and waging wars on diseases like cancer and diabetes instead of on other humans.

Whether we, the citizens of the world, tumble as individual nations like dominos off the precipice or collectively cooperate toward a common goal of global peace and a return to fiscal stability, if not prosperity, through mutual, multilateral reduction or moratorium on military spending is a decision we must make now. Across the would, beginning with the Arab Spring and continuing with the Occupy movement, citizens are demanding their governments stop behaving like bickering children and assume responsibility for the citizens they govern. With the world economy teetering on the brink of collapse, let us all stare into the abyss and ask – and answer –  the question: “Will we fund health care for the sick and elderly, hire more teachers, or buy more tanks?”

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Junior High Was Never Like This

When I was in eighth grade, I wore bell-bottoms, like most boys then. If I had come to school in high heels wearing makeup and earrings, I would have been teased and probably beaten up – not just that day, but likely every day throughout the school year. But I wouldn’t have been shot in the back of the head by one of my classmates. Larry King wasn’t as fortunate to have grown up when I did.

Larry was an eighth-grader attending an Oxnard, California junior high school at a time when guns, rather than pencil cases, are de rigueur for students. Larry, 15, made no secret of the fact he was gay, openly gay, even flamboyantly so. Again, when I was in eighth grade we had strict school dress codes that forbid boys from wearing short pants (in Florida, no less!) so we would wear two sets of clothes each day: our dress clothes for school, and our casual clothes (jeans and sneakers) for after school. Society and the media placed less emphasis on sex and sexuality among adolescents back then and homosexuality was a closeted issue, so if we had gay classmates, we never knew they existed. We certainly couldn’t judge by their apparel back then. I believe schools should have liberal dress codes – not too restrictive, but short of “anything goes”. There’s a point at which fashion can become distracting in the classroom, and boys dressing in high heels wearing makeup and earrings constitute a distraction – but that should not be a capital offense.

Brandon McInerney was a 14-year-old classmate of Larry’s. He didn’t like homosexuals in general, and he didn’t like Larry in particular. Brandon did like Nazis, however. Police found Nazi-inspired drawings and artifacts at his house. I don’t like Nazis and I don’t like Neo-Nazis. As Americans, we fought a war against the Nazis, because everything they stood for was the antithesis of what America stands for and believes in. The idea of Neo-Nazis living in the United States is repugnant to me. They are un-American. If you truly believe in and support the Nazi ideology, than you should pack your bags and get the hell out of America. You don’t belong here and we don’t want you here.

Brandon came to school with a gun because we live in a society where 14-year-olds have access to guns. When I was 14, the world was a different place. We had pellet guns and BB pistols and slingshots, but not handguns that fired real bullets. None of us could get our hands on a real gun; hell, we were lucky if we could get our hands on a copy of Playboy!

Brandon calmly sat behind Larry during their computer lab in school, pulled out his gun, and fired two bullets into the back of the 15-year-old’s head. When boys teased Larry, he would tease them back by flirting with them. One student said Larry had flirted with Brandon the day before Brandon shot him. Larry died two days later. Brandon pleaded guilty yesterday to second-degree murder. I’m not a California lawyer, but the facts of the case sure sound like premeditated murder to me. But anyway, the plea means Brandon will serve 15 years in prison for murder.

Brandon was initially charged as an adult. There was no dispute during the trial that Brandon fired the fatal shots. The trial ended in a hung jury. Several jurors said Brandon should never have been tried as an adult. I disagree. He should have been tried as an adult, convicted, and sentenced to death for premeditated murder. The jurors, and many members of the public, argue a 14-year-old is too young to be put to death. I say, why not? A 14-year-old executed a 15-year-old with no compunction. Why should he be spared the same fate he dished out?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Authors Occupy Wall Street

Several weeks ago, I added my name to the growing list of authors expressing support for the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The full list of authors can be found at

On Tuesday, at the behest of NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, police launched a military-style surprise raid on the protesters in Zucotti Park. Police prevented reporters from entering the site to report on the removal and how it was handled, a clear violation of the First Amendment. Even news helicopters were banned from the airspace above the park. NY police also ordered doormen to keep residents inside their homes so they could not watch the raid from the street. House arrest of US citizens? This was not ordered for "public safety" but rather to avoid public scrutiny of the raid and the tactics.

Didn't work, though. An MSNBC stringer was at the park and captured footage of the raid on her cell phone.

Occupy Wall Street had a court order allowing protesters to return. Bloomberg refused, saying he hadn't seen it. Millions of other people had seen it, however; the court order was published on The New York Times website. Guess Mikie doesn't read the Times. After all, that's the millionaire mayor's competition. He owns Bloomberg News -- even if he still hasn't grasped all the annoying little details of that troublesome First Amendment thing.

Yesterday, an 84-year-old woman was pepper sprayed by police as they raided an Occupy Seattle protest site.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, during an appearance on a BBC radio show, confirmed a suspicion that a series of raids on protest sites may have been part of a coordinated effort by the federal government. “I was recently on a conference call with 18 cities across the country who had the same situation," Quan said.

Journalist Rick Ellis claims a Department of Justice source told him the Occupy raids were "coordinated with help from Homeland Security, the FBI, and other federal police agencies."

If the federal government is conspiring to suppress the First Amendment rights of citizens to assembly peaceably, then we need to be concerned.

The First Amendment also prohibits the government from impinging on the right of Freedom of Speech. The protesters will be heard; if not in Zucotti Park, then elsewhere, but they -- and their message -- will return. You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Politically Incorrect

No sooner had I posted the previous post than I came across the same topics being discussed on Tess Gerritsen's blog, Novel Rocket .

I have had readers confuse my characters' words and philosophies with my own. If I have a character who is a misogynist or a racist, that does not mean that these characters represent my views. As an author, I must write in many different voices, and rarely (at least in my fiction) are any of those voices my own.

If an author is writing about murderers, rapists, and drug dealers, it would be unrealistic not to expect to hear curse words within their dialogue. If the protagonist is a prostitute, there may be graphic references to sex or more colloquial phrases used to describe certain body parts or sexual acts. If a character is a racist, especially if the story is set in a racist environment, readers may expect some racial epithets coming from the mouths of certain characters. But keep in mind, you, as the reader, are hearing only the words of the fictional characters, not the views of the author.

Just as an actor may bear no resemblance to the role he plays, an author may bear no resemblance to the characters he writes. Yet you, as a reader, may still find some stories offensive. I have written stories dealing with domestic abuse, torture, bestiality, drug addiction, war, politics, religion, totalitarianism, assassination, homosexuality, gay prostitution, insurance companies, drunkenness, death, the Holocaust, murder, egotism, loneliness, dementia, aging, and racism, to name a few. Often my stories are raw. I don't sugar-coat and I avoid euphemisms. My characters don't say "gosh" and "darn". I write for grownups, not children. Those easily offended by mere words or concepts, should not read my books. I won't mind; I’m only irked by the hypocrites who complains about my use of “bad words” or “blasphemous ideas” but rave about HBO’s “True Blood” or “Deadwood” - there is more sexual deviancy and foul language in one night of viewing HBO than in my entire body of published work.

For those interested in the topic, there’s an ongoing discussion on political correctness in the Kindleboards Forum.

The other thing that irks me is the Ten Percenters. These are the folks who read the 10 percent preview on Amazon, or only read midway through a story or novel, and proceed to render a judgment based on a partial reading. One cannot evaluate a work until it has been read in its entirety, and placed within its overall context. For example, if you watched only the first two-thirds of the Bruce Willis movie “The Sixth Sense” and wrote a review based on that partial viewing, without having seen the ending which places everything else in the film in context, you would have missed the whole point of the story.

So, don’t confuse the author with his characters, and read a story or novel through completely and judge it in its proper context.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

From the Mailbag

I learned a long time ago not to publish email addresses on web pages because there are nasty spammers out there who use things called "scrappers" to collect email addresses off sites to add to their mailing lists. Yet, my clever readers have figured out they can email me through the Amber Book Company website. (Hmm, since the email link is listed in every book and ebook, maybe they're not that clever, after all). Nonetheless, on occasion I receive emailed questions that I feel deserve a wider audience, so from time-to-time I'll peruse the mail sack and post a few here.

Q: I read your posts on Dark Shadows and I was a fan of the series too. Would you ever consider writing a Dark Shadows story or book?

A: I might consider it but it will never happen. Dark Shadows is a licensed property and legally I can't market a Dark Shadows story or book without authorization of the rights holder. I don't write "fan fiction", although I did come up with a premise for a Dark Shadows tale but that's as far as I can go.

I enjoy creating my own characters and universe and working with them, so I hope to create a generation of ardent "Halos & Horns" fans who are as enthusiastic about my fantasy series as I was about Dark Shadows.

Q: Are you an ax-murderer? You must be a depraved person to have created a character like Nathaniel Thornhill in "Paved With Good Intentions".

A: Readers must learn to distinguish an author from his characters. It's fiction; they aren't real people. A fictional character is not a portrayal of the author. If I write about a cannibal, it does not mean I am writing from personal experience of dining on passersby. If I write about a rapist, or a sadist, or a murderer, it does not mean I am one. I do a great deal of research to make my characters appear realistic, but they are not real and they are not self-portraits. It reminds me of soap opera actors who complain fans would accost them at restaurants and lambast them with a harangue about "their" despicable behavior toward another character on the show, not realizing the TV show was make-believe and its characters actors.

Having said that, I do believe Nathaniel Thornhill is the most evil character I've written; and that's saying a lot, considering he is a mortal who appears in a book filled with vampires and demons from Hell. Most of my villains have some redeeming quality that humanizes them, but Thornhill was pure evil.

Q: Do you worry about offending readers?

A: No. I don't set out to offend anyone, but everyone has some topic or concept they find offensive. If a writer censors himself in a futile effort to be nonoffensive, he will produce only pablum.

Pablum is defined as "worthless or oversimplified ideas" and "a soft form of cereal for infants". I write for grownups.


Keep sending those emails! I'll need more material for another blog soon.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Sense of Wonder

My favorite TV show is Dark Shadows. Not the 1990s remake, but the original supernatural soap opera I used to run home from school every afternoon to watch. School let out at 3p.m. and only a large field separated the schoolyard gate from my house across the street. If I was able to avoid detention and outrun the after-school bullies, I made it home in time to watch. There was no videotape back then; if you missed it, it was gone forever.

We tried hard to preserve the ephemeral experience and make it tangible. Posters, trading cards, comic books, paperback novels, and even records (vinyl, for you kids reading this); anything with an image from the show that we could hold in our hands became a treasured keepsake.

Dark Shadows was unique. There were only three networks, and all ran soap operas during the day, but while the other soaps concerned themselves with doctors and lawyers, trysts and affairs, and drama and infidelity, Dark Shadows revolved around vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, and alternate universes – which rocketed it to the Number One spot for the teen demographic. It was also the first soap opera to switch from black & white to color (not that I noticed; we didn’t own a color TV).

It was escapism fantasy and for many years I thought I was alone in my love and appreciation for the show. Turns out there were other fans who were still passionate about the series decades after it went off the air. Like Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, who are filming a new Dark Shadows movie right now; and like an intrepid coterie of fans who brave the New England winter each year to gather for a weekend at the mansion seen in the series.

Last year, I was supposed to do a reading of my story, “The Vampire on Elm Street”, at a Halloween gathering at the mansion, but developed laryngitis from the 40-degree weather. This year, circumstances prevented me from attending, but I made sure that story and others would be available to the attendees by producing a limited edition book of my supernatural tales to help in the ongoing effort to raise funds to restore the mansion.

I wrote an introduction entitled “A Sense of Wonder” that has never (and most likely will never) appear anywhere else, so I thought it might make a good blog entry. So here it is:

A Sense of Wonder

I thought the next story, “The Vampire on Elm Street”, would be perfect for Dark Shadows fans, but I almost changed my mind about presenting it.

I had written a Valentines Day story (also in this book) about a boy who falls in love with the ghost of a colonial girl. It had a cemetery and a hill with a big cliff overlooking the lapping waves in Newport, Rhode Island… sound familiar? My colleague shared it with her 14-year-old and reported her daughter loved it. I mean, she raved about it. “You should make it into a book,” she said. Sensing I had a new fan in the making, I gave my friend the story you’re about to read to share with her daughter. A week later, I asked what her daughter thought of it.

“She hated it.” Ouch! “She said it was too childish.”

That surprised me, because most of my stories aren’t suitable for children, and I considered “The Vampire on Elm Street” to be my Young Adult, all-ages, G-rated short story. A negative reaction from my target audience gave me pause.

Then it dawned on me. The story’s target audience isn’t 14-year-olds. Like most teenage girls, she heard the word vampire and was expecting “Twilight”— brooding, self-obsessed teen vampires in love with adolescent girls like herself. She was disappointed because there were no teenagers in the tale for her to relate to; instead, it centered on a group of eight-year-old kids and, in her mind, that made it “childish”, because when you’re trying to prove you’re growing up, the last thing you want to be associated with is little kids.

But when you’re our age, it’s just the opposite. We yearn nostalgically for our “second childhood”. The “good old days”… do you know when the Golden Age was? The Golden Age is 10. When you were 10-years-old and filled with a sense of wonder. When the wall between reality and imagination was gossamer thin and anything was possible. Unlike Fox Muldar, you didn’t need to “want to believe”… you simply did.

Today, we pop in a Dark Shadows DVD and sit outside the story, laughing at the quivering sets and distracted by the actors’ botched lines. It’s still a great show, but the viewing experience is completely different from the first time we saw it: on black-and-white TV sets, when we raced home from school to be transported into the story; we didn’t notice the shaky sets and blown dialogue because, at 10, or eight years old, we were filled with an abundance of innocence, boundless imagination, and a sense of wonder. We believed in vampires and witches. Barnabas and company became a part of our young lives because we believed.

A Vampire on Elm Street” isn’t about vampires. It’s a nostalgic trip back to the Golden Age, when we still had an abundance of innocence, boundless imagination, and a sense of wonder. It’s about what is was like to be one of those kids who raced home to watch Dark Shadows. And that’s why my friend’s teenager didn’t get it. Nostalgia is appreciated not by those fleeing childhood, but by those in search of the elusive path back.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Angel or Devil?

Is your baby a sweet angel or a mischievous tyke? Maybe a little of both? Then, the new Halos & Horns baby bib is just what you need! It's the latest addition to our line of Amber Ware available through our affiliation with the good folks at Cafe Press. You can see the entire line of Amber Ware (and we'll be adding to it regularly) at the Amber CafePress store or by clicking the Amber Ware tab at the top of my blog.

(Now you know what baby Alaric was wearing in Halos & Horns, Book 2: And A Child Shall Lead Them!)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Forget Zombies! Beware the Google Panda!

“You’ve been Panda-slapped,” my SEO guru explained to me. Understand, this was the man who, when Facebook was a distant rival to MySpace, had “poked” me and, failing to get my attention, “thrown a cow” at me. So, being Panda-slapped sounded like a fun new app; it wasn’t.

I was reviewing the Web traffic on several of my sites and had consulted him when I had noticed a disturbing coincidence. From January to June, traffic was relatively stable on all the sites; then, it dropped off about 30% in July – on all the sites. Still, it was summer; maybe people decided to visit the beach instead. But, in August, traffic fell another 60% and remained down 90% in September from previous levels. Not just on one site, but on all my Websites!

My first thought was it might be a server issue, but my SEO guru diagnosed the situation immediately. It was a Panda attack. Ironic that something so devastating would be named after the adorable bears from China. Almost as ironic as a company with the motto “Do No Evil” engaging in an evil, capricious assault on millions of small business owners trying to survive the Great Recession. Google claims an honorable intent: eliminating spammers and so-called “content farms” from its search results. It launched Panda, a series of monthly examinations of Google’s ranking of Websites. If Panda determines a site is “low quality”, the site loses its ranking in search results, falling to the bottom of the rankings or even being deleted from the results.

The laudable idea was to eliminate spam sites by designating them as “low quality”. The problem is, Google lacks the proper criteria to tell a spam site from a legitimate site, so it relies on certain factors that have resulted in “collateral damage” – legitimate Web sites being lumped in with the content farms. E-commerce sites are particularly at risk of being miscategorized. Estimates are more than 40% of all Websites have been affected, so far. Some businesses have lost so much traffic, they fear bankruptcy.

SEO blogger Mark Munroe writes: “Panda is, by far, the most significant change in the algorithm I have seen in the 8 years I have been optimizing for search! New sites that get off to the wrong start can have their domain poisoned from and they will never know.  Businesses that have been on the web for years can be destroyed overnight.” He adds, “this went far beyond the (content farms). Most Q&A sites, almost all the shopping comparison engines, travel, automotive, local, ecommerce, UGC dominated sites, large dynamic sites as well as small sites with a collection of completely unique content” are affected.

For example, Panda penalizes a site if it lacks repeat visitors. One of my books has its own Website. People come to that site for information about the book, click the link, and buy it. They have no reason to return after they’ve purchased the book. The site acts as it should and the purchaser is happy; but since the purchaser never returns (remember, it’s the only item for sale on the site), Panda penalizes it as a “low quality” site.

Blogger Adam Audette, of SearchEngineWatch writes, “Panda is a profound change to Google’s algorithm, and it's no surprise that there are sites out there being hurt that may not deserve it. Panda has left sites starved and depleted of traffic, crushed in its wake.  There is too much bloodshed out there. I don't remember a Google algorithm that has done so much damage – so much collateral damage.”

Collateral damage. Do no evil. Did I mention Google Panda reportedly shows a marked preference for brands (Big Companies, like Amazon) and paid advertisers? It’s only the small business owners who need fear Panda; you know, those folks trying to stay afloat in the worst economy since the Great Depression. The ones who work from small storefronts or even their kitchen tables.

“Businesses that have been on the web for years can be destroyed overnight.”

Collateral damage.

Do no evil.

    Next: Part 2

Monday, October 10, 2011

Don't Sweat It!

Winter is coming; are you prepared? There's still time to order your Halos & Horns sweatshirt! It's the latest addition to our line of Amber Ware available through our affiliation with the good folks at Cafe Press. You can see the entire line of Amber Ware (and we'll be adding to it regularly) at the Amber CafePress store or by clicking the Amber Ware tab at the top of my blog.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Take Gabriel and Lucifer on the Road with You!

How cool is this? The Halos & Horns logo on a Ceramic Travel Mug! It's the latest addition to our line of Amber Ware available through our affiliation with the good folks at Cafe Press. You can see the entire line of Amber Ware (and we'll be adding to it regularly) at the Amber CafePress store or by clicking the Amber Ware tab at the top of my blog.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

It Worked For Wile E. Coyote

You may have noticed I haven't written lately on my blog. That doesn't mean I haven't been writing; the opposite is true. I believe authors should focus on writing books and blog in their spare time, rather than place their emphasis on blogging. After all, my books are far more interesting than my blog. I mean, just say the word ... "blawg" ... doesn't that sound, well... you know? So if you don't see me posting here, it means I'm slaving away over a new novel or more short stories.

I've just completed the third book in the Halos & Horns series, To Hell In A Handbasket. It's almost 80,000 words (which would fill quite a few blogs) and picks up moments after the startling conclusion of Book 2: And A Child Shall Lead Them. I don't want to spoil the ending of Book 2 for those who haven't read it (and if you haven't, why not?), but suffice it to say I received a lot of email asking how I was going to plot my way out of the corner I had painted myself into. It reminded me of the dilemma they faced on "Dallas" when the producers decided to bring the dead and buried Bobby Ewing back onto the show. At the time, I wondered how the writers would pull off that trick. Unfortunately, they punted and devised that horrible "the whole season of episodes  was all a dream" excuse. Hopefully, I've done a better job.

A much better example of "how do I write myself out of this mess" was the sequel to the movie "Beneath the Planet of the Apes." I remember watching that in the theater and seeing them blow up the Earth. That definitely ruled out more sequels, I thought. But the clever writers allowed Cornelius and Zira to escape back in time, giving us "Escape From the Planet of the Apes", two more sequels, and a TV series.

Of course, we all know from growing up with Road Runner cartoons that when you paint yourself into a corner, you simply paint a door on the wall and open it. It worked for Wile E. Coyote.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Amber Ware Is Here!

Back in 2007, I launched my first Young Adult novel (mercifully out of print) at the Miami Book Fair. As you can see in the photo below, we had printed special Amber Book Company T-Shirts to draw attention to our booth. It worked too well: nearly everyone drawn to the booth inquired about buying the demo shirts and few were interested in the actual books (on the display table, below the shirts). If everyone who tried, unsuccessfully, to buy the Amber logo T-shirts had purchased my novel, it would have been a best-seller.

We've worn the shirts at various events, and over the years created some prototypes for internal use: a great tote-bag with the Amber logo on one side and all of our books on the reverse, and a super-sized coffee mug adorned with Amber's smiling face. Sometimes, we've given away promotional items (like the refrigerator magnets with the cover of Randoms) at book signings but, most of the time, I have to tell fans the promo items are not available for sale. (Then, I hint the books, however, are, lol).

Yet, I keep getting asked for Amber T-shirts and other merchandise so, through affiliation with the good folks at Cafe Press, I'm pleased to announce a new line of "Amber Ware". If we had limited it to clothing, we'd have named it "Amber Wear", but we've added some really cool wares besides shirts. As I type this, I'm sipping out of my Amber Coffee Mug and staring at my Amber Totebag, which I never leave home without. Seriously, the totebag is incredibly durable and holds a lot of books! (It's even been to the beach!) I'm easily spotted on airplanes because the versatile Amber Totebag is always one of my carry-ons.

You can see the entire line of Amber Ware (and we'll be adding to it regularly) at the Amber CafePress store or by clicking the Amber Ware tab at the top of my blog.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Just Published: SHARDS!

Tales of Cutting Edge Speculative Fiction!
Softcover edition. 542 pages.

Finally! Shards was published in August, on schedule, however Amazon has only now gotten around to listing it for sale on its site. So far, Barnes and Noble is still running behind, so the only place to buy it online is from Amazon. Clicking the cover will take you to the Amazon page. Shards is available only in softcover - it will not be available in hardcover or e-book formats.

Shards is the ultimate short story collection, clocking in at 542 pages. By my count, it comes to 150,693 words comprising 61 short stories. Here's the blurb:

Keith B. Darrell traverses multiple genres and dimensions, guiding the reader to a wondrous universe of speculative fiction in which he has loosed the gremlins of his imagination. Leading the reader through realms of fantasy, horror, science fiction, satire, nostalgia, urban fiction, and other genres, he has tapped into the zeitgeist, chronicling the exploits of ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. His tales hold a funhouse mirror up to society and force us to recognize ourselves in the reflection. Filled with pathos, they cross all genres and are alternately poignant, nostalgic, humorous, cautionary, and even terrifying. Keith B. Darrell’s stories flow effortlessly. Do not be deceived. They are raw. They are politically incorrect. And they will take you from your comfort zone into a modern day Twilight Zone.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Do Blogs Die?

The previous post got me thinking: What happens to our Web pages after we die? Who "turns off" our Facebook profiles or writes "fin" on our blogs? Do they outlive us indefinitely, becoming Flying Dutchmen of the Web, forever roaming the Internet? As blogs and social network profiles proliferate, how many will outlive their creators, leaving the Internet populated by both the living and ghosts from the past?

In five or ten years, when you notice someone on your Facebook profile you haven't heard from in ages, maybe you should "poke" them... just to see if they move.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

This Was A Mistake

I was stumbling through the Web when I landed on a blog on Tumbler. It was an interesting blog written by a 17-year-old entitled “The Frustrations of Being A Writer”. It had some astute observations, coming from such a young source, although I had to smile at the phrase “during the first couple years of my career”. Still, I enjoyed reading the blog, so I started exploring other blogs on Tumbler and came across this:

I landed on a blog that had only one post: “This was a mistake.” As a writer, I recognized the power of those four words. Dozens of potential stories popped into my mind, all beginning with those four words:

“This was a mistake,” he thought, as he pushed the red button, launching the missiles. “It had to be a mistake.” But his orders had been clear. Thinking was outside his pay grade.

“This was a mistake.” She stared at the gun in her hand and watched the blood envelop her shoe.

“This was a mistake,” she said, gathering her discarded clothes.

“This was a mistake,” the renowned scientist said, but it was too late to turn back. The experiment had begun.

“This was a mistake.” He looked down at her and wished he could take back the last 10 minutes of his life.

And so it goes. That’s how we writers think. So, I saw the lone blog post and my eyes drifted to the “About” box. “Just a 15-year-old kid that thought maybe he could meet some other teens and make a few net friends.” Fair enough. So how to explain his “This was a mistake” post?

My first explanation was frustration. Maybe he tried to set up a blog and couldn’t get it up and running, and just gave up. Or maybe he had had a blog but deleted all the posts because he didn’t get any followers or, as he phrased it, net friends.”

Then, it occurred to me he might have revealed too much personal information in his blog. “This was a mistake.” Maybe something embarrassing or that should have remained private was posted in an unthinking moment, and that information had now gone viral among his circle of friends and classmates. I thought back to my high school days and tried to imagine how dreadful it would be to be forced to sit in a classroom surrounded by classmates who had read excerpts from my diary the night before. Had he let slip the name of a secret crush or doubts about sexuality, or some admission of a past misdeed?

The writer inside me imagined more scenarios. “This was a mistake.” Had I just read an online suicide note? Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers. There are about 11 teen suicides every day. My instinct was to reach out to him, but then I paused. Was I reading too much into his words, attributing a finality to them he never intended? Should I, an adult, even contact a teenager online? Would that be viewed as improper or even creepy? Would I later be saying of my well-meaning intentions, “This was a mistake?” Then, I realized the post was three days old. If it was an online suicide note, it was probably too late.

I checked back a few weeks later. There were no new posts. I hope he just gave up on his blog, and not on his life.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

One Day

A friend of mine died, I learned today.

She was not the first friend I’ve lost, but her death was made more meaningful by two facts: I had known her a long time and she was my age.

For 18 years, I saw her every day. We had moved into the same building a few doors from each other and although we became neighbors by chance, we soon became friends by choice. She was a single mother, raising a little boy. Occasionally, I would help him with his math homework, or keep him out of trouble. There was a day in particular, I recall, that earned me his ire. He was about 12 and I caught him playing with fireworks behind our building. I confiscated them and he was irate. How dare I take his firecrackers! He had paid for them with his own money! I had no right… I told him he had 10 toes, 10 fingers, and two eyes, and I was ensuring he would still have them at 6pm when he mother got home from work, at which time I would turn his stash of firecrackers over to her and she could give them back to him, if she wished. I did, and she didn’t.

By today’s standards, some parents would have berated me for interfering with their child, but she didn’t. She thanked me. They moved away a few years ago and I lost touch with them. Until today.

Living near someone for 18 years, you might think you’d know all about them, but you’d be wrong. People are multi-faceted and there are always sides you don’t see. One afternoon, shortly before she moved, I saw her holding a sketchbook. I never had an inkling she could draw. She showed me her sketches and they were good. No, they were outstanding. I told her she could have a second career as a children’s book illustrator. She replied she hoped to do it “one day.”

I knew what that meant. When I was a reporter, most of my colleagues were daytime journalists and nocturnal aspiring authors. They all had a novel in their desk drawer they were working on, and had been working on for years, or decades. They all planned to publish it… “one day”.

I’ve had this discussion with a writer-friend. He believes it’s best for writers to wait until they have matured as writers before becoming published authors. He thinks it’s best to keep those novels locked away for 10, 20, or 30 years because (hopefully) a writer’s skill will improve with time, so one should wait and only publish one’s best work.

After he said that, I read Harlan Ellison’s 50-year retrospective short stories collection and was amazed by Ellison’s growth as a writer over a half century. My friend was right: I would be viewed as a better writer if I wrote for the next 50 years and then published only the last 10 years of my oeuvre. The flaw, of course, being that I would be dead by then, long before my work was published. My writing would end up in a desk drawer, eventually discarded; or like my late friend’s wonderful drawings that the world will never see.

When I tell people I’m a writer, they often respond they’re writing a book, too. They plan to publish it, one day. For me, one day is always today. I may be destined to write the Great American Novel “one day”,  but in the meantime I’ll publish what I write, as I write it; for wouldn’t it be a shame if everything I wrote before then were never seen because I had waited, one day, too long?

Rest In Peace, my friend.
No man knows the hour of his death;
Too early or too late?
Premature publication, or might
Posthumous obscurity await?

Friday, August 5, 2011

And So It Goes...

I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five when I was in school; but then, I didn’t attend Republic High School. Republic High is in Missouri, the “show me” state, unless what you’re showing is certain literature, in which case I suppose it becomes the don’t show me that! state. You see, the school board there banned  (yes, they still ban books in 2011) the Vonnegut classic, as well as two other books.

Actually, after a vote, the good village elders, oops, I mean school board, decided to let one book slip through. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, an award-winning book about date rape, made the cut because, in the words of School Superintendent Vern Minor, only one page was used to “tastefully” describe the rape.

Now, I have not read Speak, so I cannot say how Ms. Anderson described it, but I have never before heard of any rape described by anyone as “tasteful”. Never.

On the other hand, I have read Slaughterhouse Five. As a reader and future author, it changed the way I (and others) looked at storytelling. Vonnegut’s nonlinear approach was groundbreaking. But, according to Superintendent Minor, “The language is just really, really intense. I don't think it has any place in high school ... I'm not saying it's a bad book.”

Perhaps Superintendent Minor has never overheard Republic high school students talking in the school parking lot, or the locker rooms, or maybe he hasn’t heard the lyrics of the music they listen to, or seen what they watch on HBO. But he’s right about it not being a bad book: Slaughterhouse-Five was ranked 19th on Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and Time Magazine listed it as one of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923. I read it in the 20th century too. Guess those poor Republic High kids are just growing up in the wrong century.