Friday, July 31, 2009

Don't Mess With Me (Please?)

hpdI have a recommendation for all crime writers: Attend a Citizen's Police Academy.

I did, and it was a fantastic way to see what police departments really do (the only better way might be to enroll in the real police academy and become an honest-to-goodness cop).

Many local law enforcement jurisdictions hold their own Citizen Academies (or some version of one--make a few calls, you'll be surprised). Mine was put on by the Herndon (VA) Police Department , where everyone involved was absolutely great--friendly, informative, generous. We met every Wednesday night for 12 weeks, and the sessions encompassed a wide range of police activities.

Undercover narc cops spoke to us about the seamy underbelly of the drug world, regaling us with some amazing stories and showing us what different drugs looked like, up close and personal. Gang specialists told us about dealing with different gangs and how to determine gang affiliation by inspecting tattoos. We watched a K9 unit demonstrate "take-down" techniques, and we hit the streets to work the RADAR and LIDAR guns (sorry Mrs. Peterson, but I clocked you going 48 mph in a 35 mph zone).

We went to the evidence lab and learned how to expose fingerprints targetwith superglue fumes, we observed the lie detector in use (excuse me, the polygraph), and we got to fire live weapons on the firing range. A word of warning: Don't mess with me--I put all five rounds in the inner circle, and it was the first time I'd ever even touched a real gun. Okay, I think it was from five yards away, but still...

Another highlight was our visit to the County Detention Center (aka, the jail). Talk about an eye-popping experience! We toured the whole thing--intake, processing, fingerprinting, breathalyzers, the holding cells, regular cells (pods, I think they were called), as well as the "special" cells. Fascinating, and mighty depressing.

While all those experiences were terrific, the topper was my ride-along with a police officer.


Come with me back to that Saturday night on the mean streets of Herndon...

We'd been cruising for about two hours or so, checking out the normal trouble spots, and we'd gotten the usual calls. Excessive noise at a sketchy apartment complex, some possible gang activity near the 7-Eleven, a D-and-D (that's drunk and disorderly, for all you, uh, rookies) at a local bar. Just your typical shift. Then the radio crackled to life again (notice how police radios always "crackle to life.").

There was a report of people--several people--running through the Community Center's parking lot with rifles. "Hold on," the officer beside me said. "This could get hairy." She flipped on the siren and we went roaring through town, cars parting to let us through. Screeching into the Community Center parking lot, we pulled up alongside a couple other cruisers, both empty, one with a door still flung open. Someone had left in a hurry.

The officer barked at me, "Stay here. Don't get out of the car."

I forced a nod, mouth too dry to talk. Of course, she didn't have to worry. I had no intention of following her into the night with a bunch of armed goons on the loose. shotgun

She grabbed her shotgun from the lockdown and raced off, leaving me all alone. 

My heart raced. What if the guys with guns doubled back and found me, by myself, a sitting duck in a patrol car? Would I become the unfortunate reason future ride-alongs had to be eliminated? I sank in my seat and peered out over the dashboard, hoping for reinforcements. Nope, just me and the empty police cars. I'd realized it before, but it hit home a lot harder in that moment. We don't pay law enforcement personnel nearly enough.

Luckily, the situation had a non-violent resolution. It turned out that the people running through the parking lot were teenagers wielding air rifles. No one got hurt. But, man, how easily could something have gone terribly, irrevocably wrong? In the dark, those air rifles were indistinguishable from real rifles. Some poor teenager's head easily could have been blown off.

I'll say it again; I heartily recommend attending a Citizen's Police Academy. Just make sure to wear two pairs of underwear on ride-along night.


(This entry has been “simul-posted” on InkSpot.)


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Random Numbers About Words

I'm a numbers guy from way back. Here are some random ones:

3 - Blogs I'm part of (A Million Blogging Monkeys (mine), InkSpot (group), The Thrill Begins (group - although I haven't posted anything yet!)

9 - Months until the release of DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD

Greater than 3, fewer than 20 - Completed manuscripts, in one form or another

4,814,527  - Technorati ranking of this blog on 5/23 (Yes! Top 5 million!)

1,627,525 - Technorati ranking of this blog yesterday (You love me, you really love me!) 

2000 - Daily quota, in words, when I'm writing a first draft (okay, sometimes it's 1500, depending on what I'm working on)

Greater than (or equal to) zero, fewer than 5000 - Actual daily words written when writing a first draft

101 - Number of digits of Pi my son recited in a Pi Day contest (this son)

50 - Number of times I check email, per hour (approx.)

What are some of your numbers?


Monday, July 27, 2009

Back It Up, Jack!

We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for the following public service announcement.


Go on, I'll wait a few minutes. Come on, just do it. You know you should.

Done? Good. You never know when those computer gremlins will decide to mess with you.

Here's my back-up routine, divided into daily, periodic, and archival routines.

At the end of every day, I copy the documents I've been working with (usually my WIP, an outline, and a "snips" file), onto a thumb drive. I thumbdrivealso copy a set of those documents into a file on my desktop called, appropriately enough, "backups." 

This gives me three copies of what I'm working on, one external to my computer.

Every so often, I will copy my documents to a second thumb drive. I'll also copy them to an external hard drive. This gives me some "extra" back-up, in case something goes seriously wrong.*

external hard drive Archival
When I've got a decent draft of something (or if I'm feeling especially paranoid about losing work product), I'll email stuff to myself. That way, I've got a copy saved on my ISP's remote server, which I assume they back up periodically, too.

I'll also burn my "final" documents onto a CD or DVD and put it in my safe deposit box at the bank.

And of course, in the event of catastrophic failure, there are always at least five copies of various printed, hardcopy versions I use during the revision process.

As you can see, I think I take the proper precautions to back up my data.


Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.


*I learned stuff like this when I worked at the Department of Redundancy Department.

**I love irony in my writing. In real life, not so much.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Gotta Party

My lovely wife came into my office the other day wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and some stylish, strappy, gold high-heeled sandals. "What do you think?" she asked.

"I think you're going to have a tough time playing tennis in those," I said, pointing to the shoes.

"Idiot. They're for your book launch party."

My book launch party? DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD isn't scheduled for release until April 2010. That's about nine months from now (or 251 days or 6024 hours, but who's counting?). Surely I don't need to be shopping for shoes yet, do I?

"Do I really need a launch party?" I asked my wife.

"Don't be silly. Of course you do," she said for the fiftieth time.

Actually, it's good someone's thinking about my book launch party. Every time it crosses my mind, I usher it out gently, like the little kid from down the street who keeps showing up in my living room with muddy feet. I mean, isn't one of the good things about being a writer not having to talk to people? (If my editor is reading this, I'm just joking. Sort of.)

A while back, my wife volunteered to organize the party; I didn't argue (not that it would have done any good). Fact is, I'm glad to cede control--I barely know the difference between a canapé and a can of peas, and thinking about hosting a party makes me break out in a rash.

Right now, she's working up a list of possible venues (if I get an idea, I let her know and she patronizes me by jotting it down, which is okay--I've been patronized before.)

Here's what we've come up with so far:

  • A bar/restaurant
  • A jewelry store (We'll emphasize the "diamonds" part, not the "dead" part.)
  • An art gallery (My idea--she makes a face every time I mention it.)
  • A local community center
  • Our house (This got nixed pretty quickly, but you never know. If we start cleaning tomorrow, we might be ready in time.)
  • Banquet room at a hotel
  • A local bookstore

Anybody have any other creative ideas? If you do, please leave them in the comments and don't worry, I'll be sure to pass them along to my wife.

After all, I'm not a complete idiot.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sticky Books, Part II

A couple weeks ago, I listed five books that will always stick with me (see earlier post). Here are five more:

The Firm - John Grisham. I think this book was the first mega-blockbuster book I read (Can that be true?) Great pacing.

my_side_mountain My Side of the Mountain - Jean Craighead George. One of my early favorites. How cool would it be to live off the land--alone, as a kid--on your own mountain? Awesome!

And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie. A classic mystery by a classic author.

Fletch - Gregory Mcdonald. Another great wise-guy protagonist.

Silence of the Lambs - Thomas Harris. Kept me turning pages all night long (as did his previous book, Red Dragon).


Monday, July 20, 2009

Loyal Friends

You can't be too rich, too thin, or have too many friends.

So where's the fastest, easiest place to pick up some new friends? facebookThat's right, Facebook. 

Every time I go on Facebook, I see the face of another "suggested" friend gazing at me from the top right hand corner of my home page. Will you be my friend? their expression seems to plead.

If I'm in the mood to make another friend, I'll click on the "Add a friend" link without pause. Sometimes, however, I'll consider the suggestion for a while. Do I really have time in my busy life for more friends right now? What if they call and need some advice? How will they handle rejection if I decline their invitation to catch a ball game? What if they need a little scratch to tide them over until payday? It's a choice fraught with responsibility.

[I've always been in awe of people who have a knack for "setting up" other people. That's why I'd love to meet the Matchmakers of Facebook. You know, those people responsible for selecting the suggested friends, for finding people specifically for me. I mean, the Matchmakers must really know me well. How else could they suggest people I might be compatible with?]

It's a bonus when I actually know something about the person suggested. Maybe it's an author I've read. That's worth a click. Maybe it's a guy I went to high school with. Sure, why not relive good times? Click.

Often, the suggested friend and I will have a lot of other "friends" in common. If we (cyber)run in the same circle, shouldn't we be friends with each other? Got to be polite. Click.

mosq The suggestions I like are the groups. How can you not be a fan of "I Hate Mosquitoes" or "Half Hour Vacation"? Click and click.

Sometimes, when I'm really feeling lonely, I'll hit the "see all" link. This takes me to 27 more suggested friends. Are all these people lonely, too, just waiting for me to become their friend? Can't disappoint. Click, click, click.

From day to day, I'll see most of the same names (and faces, it's FACEbook, after all!) in the line-up of suggested friends. But every so often, I'll see a few new candidates. Are these people Facebook newbies, or have they suddenly lost a few friends and are back on the scene, looking to pal around with some fresh blood? Whatever. I'm a sympathetic sort. Click, click, click, click, click.

Here's what I really want to know: Is my picture appearing on someone else's Facebook page--maybe even your Facebook page--as a "suggested friend?" If so, I hope you click on me.

I can always use another friend.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Man is King

BagofBones I just finished reading Bag of Bones by Stephen King. It's always an experience reading one of his books--a good one--and I usually can't stop thinking about what I've read for days. Bag of Bones was no exception.

Everything about King's work is unique. The voice, the setting, the characters, the plot. Killer dogs, talking cars, houses that seem to come alive. Witches, demons, werewolves, mind-readers, Tommyknockers--anything and everything macabre is in play and liable to come through the floors, thirsty for someone's soul.

Thirty years ago, King was one of those writers I admired. Today, he still is. I think it's safe to say he's contributed greatly to my desire to become a writer.

Thanks Mr. King!

Here are my five favorite early Stephen King books (before 1985): 200px-DeadZone

  • Salem's Lot
  • The Shining
  • The Dead Zone 
  • Firestarter
  • Cujo
  • Christine
  • The Talisman (with Peter Straub)

That's more than 5? I couldn't bear to leave any of these out!

What’s your favorite (early) King book?


Monday, July 13, 2009


Yesterday, I didn't boot up.

For the first time in a long time (when I wasn't on vacation, anyway), I didn't start up my computer.

And it felt pretty good.

On a typical morning, I'll fire up the laptop and get right to business. First, I'll check email. Then I'll check my website and blog traffic. Next, I'll go to Google reader and start cruising through all the blogs I follow. Then it's on to Facebook and Twitter and sometimes I'll even check to see if anything is happening in the world.

Finally, I'll get busy writing. Blogs, emails, notes, works-in-progress. Whatever. Most of my workday is spent staring at the computer screen. And even on the weekends, I'll always check my email and see what's going on in cyberspace. Whether it's for one hour or eight hours, I rely on my computer on a daily basis.

Except yesterday. I took a day off. Took a leisurely drive (ok, not so leisurely--I drove 8 hours to take my son to camp) and I went for a nice run (ok, not so nice--more like a plodding plod). I had a relaxed dinner (really!) and even got to read some of the Sunday paper and do the crossword puzzle.

All in all, a nice, peaceful day, with no computer.

Can't say I really missed it, either.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Resolutions for Review

I'm pleased to say that DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD has not received a single negative review. Of course, it hasn't even been released yet--still eight months to go.

So why am I even thinking about reviews? Well, many of my Midnight Ink fellow-authors have gotten great reviews lately, and I'm Midnight Ink clipa little worried I won't be able to keep up.*

In addition, the brouhaha in cyberspace has attracted my attention. In case you're not "fully connected" and haven't heard about these incidents, here's the short version: Several authors** have "sounded off" (on Twitter and in blogs) about some negative reviews in questionable ways.

I like to think I'm a positive and polite guy. Therefore, I am making the following resolutions, well before my first review:

  • I shall not be nasty to any reviewers, no matter how ill-informed, idiotic, or full of crap they might be.

  • I shall not make any public derogatory comments about any reviewers, or their mothers.

  • I shall not threaten any reviewers with bodily harm, Internet flaming, or voodoo curse.

  • I shall not tell any reviewers to stuff any object, large or otherwise, into any orifice where the sun don't shine.

  • And lastly: I shall thank any reviewers who take the time and energy to read and comment on my book. After all, there are lots of books out there and I'll be grateful if they choose mine.


* I also need something to distract me from my work-in-progress and I'm sick of playing Chess Titans.

**According to a Salon blog, three recent rageful authors are:
Alice Hoffman, Ayelet Waldman, and Alain De Botton. Hmm. Does it mean anything that all their first initials are A?


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Adios, Partner

frownLast Thursday, I lost a dear friend, one I've shared a special relationship with for the past four years.

My laptop died.

Writers know what a blow this is. What other object do you touch as much on an intimate basis? Every day, for hours and hours, my fingers danced (and rested and pounded and quivered) on that keyboard. It was the conduit for my writing, the instrument that let me express myself.

I already miss the way it beeped at me when it booted up.

My laptop was always there for me. Whether I was wrestling with a tough stretch of description (my bane), struggling through a poorly written synopsis, or slogging through pages and pages of info on some obscure website, my cherished laptop stood beside me, supporting me, cheering me on. Let's go, Alan, you can do it. I know you can. Keep plugging away!

At least I'm comforted by the thought it got to experience the sheer joy of typing THE END on several occasions.

I used it to write DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD (although it was called HIDDEN FACETS then--for some odd reason, my laptop wasn't very good at titles). I wrote first drafts, second drafts, third drafts, and tenth drafts of other projects. Query letters, synopses, bios, outlines, blog posts, to-do lists, limericks--you name it, I wrote it on my beloved laptop.

And now it's gone.

It was a four-year-old Toshiba, but I suppose that's like pushing eighty in human-years. It had an aged processor working at a slow speed, a small hard drive, and its limited memory just wasn't what it used to be. I guess it's in a better place now.

Thankfully, the end was quick and it didn't suffer. One minute I was surfing the Internet, and the next minute the display pixilated, then froze. I shut down and tried to restart it. Nothing. I thought maybe things had overheated, so I waited a while for everything to cool, then tried again. Still nothing. Holding back tears (and holding my tongue--children were present), I kept trying to revive it, but my hopes faded with every passing moment.

Finally, miracle of miracles, it sputtered back to life! My not-so-silent prayers had been answered. Relief surged through me (at the same time I was frantically backing up everything I could onto a portable hard drive). Maybe it had only been a fleeting ailment, like indigestion or some bizarre 24-minute computer virus.

A short while later, just as I had managed to get everything backed up, the display froze again. More attempts at resuscitation followed, but to no avail. Flatline. Had the perfect timing been simply a coincidence, or had it been a last, loving gesture from my dying laptop to me? I'd like to think it was the latter.

No matter how difficult it may be, I know I have to move on. My new laptop, an HP, has a much faster processor, a hard drive four times as large, and twice as much memory. It has tons of new features (at least new to me): text-to-speech (I'd always imagined my old laptop would speak with a calm, measured voice, like HAL in 2001), voice recognition (I hope it doesn't recognize all the words I use--that could be embarrassing!), and a web cam (maybe I'll broadcast myself writing in my jammies and charge people a few bucks a month to watch*). It also comes with a few cool games to spark my creativity when I get stuck (hello, Chess Titans!). HP Laptop

I'll have some things to get used to. The location of the various ports and buttons, the new operating system,** and, most importantly, the way the keys feel under my fingers. I hope I'll be able to adapt--only time will tell.

Of course, all I really want to know is if my new laptop can write best-selling manuscripts.

Here's to the beginning of a wonderful relationship.

*Does my agent get 15% of that?

**Does anyone know how to disable all those event confirmation requests in Vista?

This entry is “simul-posted” on InkSpot

(Comment thread there, too.)


Monday, July 6, 2009

Books That Stick

Recently, Rosemary Harris (author of The Big Dirt Nap) posed a question on Facebook: What are fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you? Not necessarily the "best" books, but memorable ones. So, here are five of mine, in no particular order:

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card. Great characters, great premise, great twist at the end. Couldn't get into the sequels, but this book is one of my all-time faves.

The Godwulf Manuscript - Robert B. Parker. I first read this book on the advice of my boss when I was working in Boston. It captured the town perfectly, and I'm always a sucker for a wise-guy private eye. And, as the first Spenser book, it hooked me for life. Thanks, Robert B.! It_cover

It - Stephen King. Pennywise freaked me out. Now I stay away from circuses, children's birthday parties, and grand openings at car dealerships--anywhere there might be a clown.

The Black Echo - Michael Connelly. The first of the excellent Harry Bosch series.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce. I read this in high school. Or should I say, I tried to read this in high school. Maybe the worst book I've ever read. Of course, I'm pretty sure I didn't understand a word of it (I never learned Irish, I guess). It helped foster my almost instant dislike of any book labeled a "classic."


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Danny Dunn: Good

Not too long ago, on the DorothyL listserv there was quite a lengthy discussion about the first mystery stories people had read (presumably as children).

A lot of authors and books were called out. The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins were all popular choices. Agatha Christie drew big.

When I was a child, I don't remember specifically concentrating on any particular "genre." All I wanted to read were good books. And, Freddy the Piglike many readers, I loved finding a new (prolific) author or a new (long-running) series. Some of my favorite characters/books/authors included Homer Price, several Beverly Cleary series, the Freddy the Pig series, Encyclopedia Brown (Donald J. Sobol just released another one not too long ago!), the Edward Eager Magic books, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler*, A Wrinkle in Time, and the Tom Swift series, just to name a few.

Perhaps my favorite books were those in the Danny Dunn series, written by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams. In them, Danny (along with loyal friends Irene and Joe) would get mixed up with some contraption his mentor, Professor Bullfinch, had invented. Then they'd have to save the world--literally. As a kid, how could you resist books with titles like these?**

Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint
Danny Dunn on a Desert Island
Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine
Danny Dunn
Danny Dunn and the Weather Machine
Danny Dunn on the Ocean Floor
Danny Dunn and the Fossil Cave
Danny Dunn and the Heat Ray
Danny Dunn, Time Traveler
Danny Dunn and the Automatic House
Danny Dunn and the Voice from Space
Danny Dunn and the Smallifying Machine
Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster
Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy
Danny Dunn, Scientific Detective
Danny Dunn and the Universal Glue

Any other Danny Dunn fans out there?

These books (and more, many more) helped foster my lifelong love of reading.***

What were some of the books you read as a kid?

*Don't remember if I liked the book, or just the title.

**List courtesy of Biblomania

***I'm sure the Danny Dunn books also appealed to the engineer in me, and I created my share of basement inventions, though I never could quite perfect the homework machine. I wonder if it's too late to work on a Novel Writing Machine.