Thursday, March 5, 2015

On Immortality

I've read it is impossible for a human being to imagine their own death for more than a few seconds - something about the more primitive parts of your brain flipping a switch that says, "Forget it, dude. You're gonna live forever, man." The primitive part of my brain always sounds like Tommy Chong after a pound of weed, not sure why.

We can't think in detail about our own demise.... It's a survival mechanism: quit worrying about dying and get on with living. Like most adults with the mind of a juvenile, I've always figured the game is rigged in my favor - in short, I'm immortal.

A couple of weeks ago, I started getting dizzy. I mean really, really dizzy. As in, you're six years old, just ate five chili dogs and rode the Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair ten times. That kind of dizzy.

Now, I've had this before, and I just figured I had an inner ear infection. A round of antibiotics would perk me right up, so I went to the Urgent Care. My least favorite Nurse Practitioner, we'll call her Nurse Sourpuss, was on duty. She doesn't like me and I don't like her - mainly because I wouldn't get blood work when she asked for it years ago. I don't like needles, she doesn't like sniveling man-children.

Nurse Sourpuss looked in my ears and then grumbled, "They're fine."

Then she listened to my heart, "You need an EKG."

What is it with Sourpuss and tests? I wondered. But, I agreed to it because there's no needle involved. There is sticky tape that hurts when they rip out your over-abundance of chest hair, but I'm only needle-phobic.

The EKG technician came in and wired me up. He was cheerful, talking about this and that. Then he ran the test.

So, let me clue you in on something. I have Asperger's Syndrome, which means I have a hard time interacting with people in a social setting. Over the years, I've learned to talk to normal people, trained myself to read visual cues in their facial expressions and actions. It's sort of like learning a foreign language.

The technician was reading the EKG chart, and he went silent. He quickly left the room. A few minutes later, he came back and ran it again. He read the new chart. Then he started dropping stuff, ripped the tape off in a hurry, managed to tangle the leads trying to get them back on the EKG cart. He beat a hasty retreat out of the room.

You didn't have to be a mind reader to know something was amiss.

Nurse Sourpuss came back in, only now she wasn't sour. She was smiling, and not her normal velociraptor smile either. Sometime in the last ten minutes, Nurse Sourpuss had found her bedside manner.

Oh, crap, I thought. This ain't good, Bubba.

"I was afraid we might have a coronary issue, and it turns out we do. I'm getting you in to see a cardiologist immediately - either that or you can go directly to the hospital, your choice."

"Uh, so this is serious?"

"Life threatening."

Whoa. Those are two of the heaviest words someone can drop on you: life threatening. The imaginative part of my brain kicked into overdrive: death, funeral, will they play AC/DC on bagpipes like I've always wanted? Then the switch got flipped and I'm hearing Tommy Chong's voice, "Hey, man, she like didn't get the memo, man. We're immortal, man."

"Shut up, Tommy, this is important. It's life threatening."

Turns out I have something called Atrial Fibrillation. Without being too technical, the bottom two chambers of my heart are beating normally, while the top two chambers are beating like a frightened rabbit on crank. I didn't feel it till it got so bad it started affecting my balance. The problem is this can cause a blood clot, which in turn causes a stroke.

Now, I always figured it would be my weight that did me in, and it certainly isn't helping matters, but it turns out this is inherited. My aunt has the same thing, and she runs about two miles a day.

Lots of things can trigger an episode of AFIB. For me, it was Valentine's Day chocolate - I put away a large Hershey bar for breakfast one morning, then had two more before lunch. Caffeine can do it as well.

Alcohol can also trigger it, which made me remember the last time I had a dizzy spell. It was the morning after I put away a double martini in Long Island.

I'm getting better through medication. I now abstain from caffeine, alcohol, and chocolate. I even went for blood work. They got a thimble full of blood out of me before I passed out, and I call that progress.

Turns out I'm not immortal. I have an expiration date, but through modern medicine it may be extended a bit. Please, somebody remember AC/DC on bagpipes. I don't ask for much, just a little Back in Black and Dirty Deeds with a highland flair.

And, if worse comes to worse, I've told my wife to have my head cryogenically frozen. A thousand years from now, they'll thaw me out and put my head on a robot. It's gonna be cool, man.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Thoughts on Winter Hiatus

Forty years ago when I was in elementary school, there was a wonderful time of year that stretched from early December through early March. Growing up in Swords Creek, Virginia, on a dirt road meant the first December snows gave us a nice, two-inch thick ice layer above the gravel and red clay. If we were fortunate, and in the mid to late seventies we often were, this ice layer would remain in place for the better part of four months.

Ice meant no school. And, no school, even for a kid who loved school, was a wonderful thing.

Russell County had numerous dirt roads such as the one I lived on, many of them narrow twisting things that were hard to navigate even on a good day. A school bus had no hope of delivering cargo in ice, so the students stayed home, sometimes for six weeks at a time.

Snow days were filled with sledding, sometimes down mountainsides and into ravines that make the adult in me doubt the sanity of the nine-year-old. There was the time when I hit a mogul with my aluminum bowl sleigh, flew about six feet into the air inverted and landed on my head. I remember a crunching sound, after which I lay on my back for a few minutes in the deep powder.

My mother wanted me to be a doctor someday, so I was bombarded by biology texts from an early age. I understood the spinal chord ran down through the vertebrae, and crunching noises were not a good thing. I did a quick inventory: still breathing, that was good. Heart beating. Yep. Wiggle the fingers. Very nice. Wiggle the toes. Yep.

I survived, needless to say. Although forty years later if I bend my neck back it makes a very disconcerting popping sound.

The rest of the time was filled with reading, playing, listening to the radio (1973-1983 had better music than today, sorry millennials), and watching TV. In short, it was fun, it was restful, and I miss it.

Nowadays, I can't stay home on six-week long snow vacations. There are obligations. But, I still feel that call to hibernate through the winter months.

This year, I took a break from writing until mid-January. Sinead is on hold. Writing about nineteen-year-old assassins is challenging. Instead, I'm about 25% through Valkyrie: The Road. It's post-apocalyptic fiction set in the world I created in Turning the Darkness. It's almost writing itself.

Afterward, I will return to Sinead, but I have a feeling there's going to be a detour. I woke up one morning with a story about this man named Garrett in southwest Virginia who decides to become a bounty hunter. He doesn't talk a lot, but there's a whole slew of other characters around him who talk a great deal. I think I'll write down their story and see where it goes.

After a nap. It's cold outside.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Hope in Perilous Times

So often these days, I find myself troubled over the course of our nation. Then we do something like this: an American rocket liftoff delivering a space capsule, capable of carrying a crew, to an altitude of 3,600 miles above the earth. We haven't sent a crew capsule into that high an orbit since Apollo. I am reminded of Apollo 8, which launched 46 years ago this month. It was the first manned flight to leave earth orbit, enter lunar orbit, and return. The year was 1968, a year that had seen the Tet Offensive in Viet Nam, the murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis, the murder of Robert Kennedy in San Francisco, the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia, and rioting at the 1968 Democratic Convention. It was a year of hardship and strife, but, as it came to a close, Apollo 8 gave us something else: a view of the earth from lunar orbit along with a recitation from the book of Genesis on Christmas Eve, 1968 televised to the entire world, and, along with that, hope.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Smashwords is the Devil

Smashwords is the devil.

Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh. Let me rephrase that statement: Smashwords can be darned difficult to work with. Let me explain.

Like most indie authors, Amazon is my friend. It's a huge company, and they throw a massive amount of money and talent at the web software used to create Kindle books from word processor documents. My typical pattern is to write my book directly in Createspace format in Microsoft Word. When the final edits are done, I simply upload my Word document to Createspace and let it churn out the print version.

I then take the same Word file, tear out the fancy formatting I sometimes do, drop caps for example, and upload the file to Amazon.

Churn, churn, churn - Kindle edition ready for the masses.

Life is good, life is serene, and I can go watch The Walking Dead in peace.

Recently, I decided to venture beyond the safety of Amazon and offer my books on Smashwords. Why? Amazon is great for print versions and Kindle, but they only support their own e-book format. There are many other systems out there: Barnes and Noble Nook, Sony, and Apple to name a few. Admittedly, there are Kindle apps available for many of the other e-readers that will allow you to read Kindle files; however, what I really want is exposure in as many e-book stores as possible.

Going through Smashwords gets me listed in their library, as well as Barnes and Noble, Apple, and many others.

Sounds like a plan, right? Oh, if only it was that simple.

Smashwords has put, shall we say, a little less money and effort into their document to e-book converter than Amazon. This isn't surprising, Amazon could buy Smashwords with pocket change. It usually takes me about four tries to finally get everything right on a Smashwords submission. Here are a few gotchas to watch out for:
  • Smashwords hates your Table of Contents. Delete it before you upload.
  • Smashwords hates page numbers. Delete them.
  • Smashwords hates your name and the book's name in the header. Delete them.
  • Smashwords hates to flow text around images. Put them in line with the text... or delete them.
  • Smashwords hates links to your Amazon page. Delete them.
  • Smashwords hates .DOCX files. Make like it's 2003 and save it in .DOC format.
Once you do all this, you will probably get through the first machine scan of your file and the book will go live... but, you're not done yet. Now, the humans get involved.

Before your book can go to Premium Status where it is offered on other publishers' sites, a human being actually goes through it. And, they find stuff.

Worse yet, the results you get from the conversion sometimes looks terrible.

After putting Nine Fingers through the grinder for the fourth time, I saw something that caught my eye: I could upload my file in .EPUB format.

Now, .EPUB is the format used by Sony and several other e-reader makers. And, it just so happens there is a wonderful free program called Calibre which will take your Microsoft Word file and convert it to .EPUB. There are tons of features and settings allowing you to fine tune the finished product.

The best part? You don't have to wait for Smashwords to churn your file over the web. Calibre can generate an .EPUB in seconds.

I tried this out with Nine Fingers, and it was fantastic! I fixed all my formatting errors in just a few minutes.

I then uploaded the .EPUB file to Smashwords and... it failed.

Huh? Smashwords's site put up this incredibly cryptic error message about manifest files and strict requirements from Apple, and then barfed.

No! It was perfect. 

After a web search, I found the problem. When I opened my .EPUB on my computer, Calibre tried to add some sort of manifest file to the document. Smashwords doesn't like that file.

The solution? After you check the .EPUB and make sure it looks right, generate it again, but, this time, don't open it. Just upload it.

Ahh, bliss.

Once your book is approved for Premium Status, life is good. You will find yourself in all the e-book libraries.

Smashwords needs work on their publishing process. Little things like Table of Contents and page numbers should be handled by their software and ignored. As they mature, I think you will see the entire process become easier and more streamlined.

One other thing about Smashwords you might want to know: the formats they publish are unencrypted. As a matter of fact, by default, Smashwords will offer your book in all the e-book formats as well as PDF and plain text.

That means your book could be easily pirated by a chimpanzee with a See and Say.

Now, if I'm Stephen King and one of my grocery lists could pull in a seven figure advance, I wouldn't publish on Smashwords, because I would lose a lot of money to piracy. Indeed, you will not find Mr. King on Smashwords.

However, I am not Stephen King, and my advances couldn't buy a bag of groceries. If little Vladimir in Tashkent manages to score himself a free copy of Nine Fingers... well, I hope he enjoys it and gives me a nice review.

Smashwords can be a real test of your sanity; however, the satisfaction of being able to triple or quadruple your market exposure more than makes up for the struggle.

My fellow authors, when you are ready to swim in the deep water without the safety of those Amazon water wings, just remember you might have to work at treading water.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Common Core Math, or Yeah! Let's Make Math HARDER!

I stink at math. Always have.

In elementary school, I did fine until division. Addition, subtraction, multiplication - that was all good, but division and I were like oil and water. My Mom worked with me for hours after school trying to help me with it.

What got me over the hump with division was when I was finally able to visualize the actual operation of division in my head: seeing the top value divided into parts by the lower value.

What I didn't understand at the time was that I am a 'Visual Thinker', one of the myriad fun possibilities of falling on the Autism Spectrum. I don't think in words, symbols, or sounds, I think in pictures.

I learned at an early age to form words to describe the moving pictures in my mind, which has served me well over the years. When it came to math, division became a visualization of a machine. Put the bottom number in slot A, top number in slot B, and keep turning the crank for the proper number of decimal places. Simple.

Of course, this all fell apart for me when it came to Algebra. It was all symbolic, and I couldn't visualize it. Luckily, there were steps to solving these problems I could memorize which got me through high school with a 4.0.

Geometry and Trigonometry were child's play - I could visualize it all.

So, I graduated high school looking like a math whiz, when in reality I understood nothing about Algebra.

Little did I know on the first day of engineering school at the University of Virginia I was going to come face to face with the demonic overlord father of Algebra: Calculus.

We didn't get along well.

What followed was five years of wailing, whining, skipped classes, dropped classes, and embarrassment. Looking back on it now, many of my professors had the patience of saints. Honestly, if I hadn't been a gifted programmer, I think they would have happily sent me home, and I wouldn't have blamed them.

I can still remember the day sometime in 1988 when everything suddenly clicked. I was staring at my Calc II book literally not understanding anything on the page when I looked at a derivative and suddenly saw graph lines converging and three dimensional solids casting shadows on two dimensional planes below them. The visualization engine had finally made sense of what the symbolic math was trying to say.

I laughed out loud. After five years, I had finally seen what my first year professor was trying to explain to me. 

The Common Core Math debate brought all this back to me. I've looked at the methods being used to teach simple addition and subtraction - they're arcane. I don't think it will work for kids on the autism spectrum at all.

This appears to be yet another attempt by 'education experts' to 'level the field'.

It means 'enforcing mediocrity'.

Kids excel at different things. Some kids are math whizzes, some are great at history, some are great at art.

But just because some of us were really bad at math, doesn't mean you have to attempt to force everyone to be merely adequate at it. Make sure that all kids get to an acceptable level, but don't hold back the kids who are really good by forcing them to follow ridiculous rules that won't help them should they meet the Calculus demon.

I don't understand why this is such a difficult concept to grasp.

I've had a successful career as an engineer. Given my questionable math skills, I probably should have chosen a different field. However, I was a stubborn techno-geek who wouldn't quit even when I probably should have.

I succeeded in the end not because my teachers dumbed things down, but because they actually taught me something. Maybe we should get back to that.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Revised: Book Schedule

Earlier this year, I setup a schedule for my writing. Of course, I've abandoned it for the most part.

The new revised schedule is:

Sinead: Manhattan - Late December, 2014
Valkyrie: The Road - February, 2015
Dark on the Mountain - May, 2015
Hope: Exodus - August, 2015
Coal Fire - November, 2015
Sinead: Unity - February, 2016
Valkyrie: The Haven - May, 2016
Hope: The Column - August, 2016
The Devils of Beckham - November, 2016
Sinead: Revolution - February, 2017
Valkyrie: Cannibal War - May, 2017
Hope: From Hell - August, 2017
Progenitor - November, 2017
Sinead: Endgame - February, 2018
Valkyrie: The Light - May, 2018
Hope: Full Circle - August, 2018
Expedition - November, 2018
Falcon, Eagle, and Dove I - February, 2019
Demon: The Watcher - May, 2019
Redbud Revue: Beginnings - August, 2019
Falcon, Eagle, and Dove II - November, 2019

That's the five year plan. It'll be fun to see if I stick to it. Ever wonder what it's like to have twenty-one stories going at once in your head? It's loud. Very loud. Kind of like monkeys howling in your brain.

Sinead: Manhattan is the first of a four part series. Sinead Landry is a character from my first book, Vales Hollow. In this book, Sinead is attending college in New York. She's the typical nineteen year old, only she's been trained as an assassin by the CIA's best, Janey Smith.

Someone is murdering prominent men in Manhattan, and when one of her professors is killed, Sinead realizes this is the work of a trained assassin. She investigates, but will the truth she finds be a blessing or a curse?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Nine Fingers

My latest novel, Nine Fingers, is now available on The Kindle version can be ordered here, or you can order the paperback here.

Something horrible is killing people on central Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway. Is it a rogue bear? Or, is there a serial killer on the loose in the small town of Bedford?

Ward Rickman has come to town looking for an old friend. When he finds him, he hopes to kill him before more innocent people die.

Because, Ward knows the parkway killer isn't a crazed animal or a serial killer. He knows his nemesis is a mixture of both.

And, he knows something else: only a werewolf can stop another werewolf...

Only $3.99 for Kindle, $12.99 for paperback.

Also, for the next five days, the prequel short story, Nine Fingers: The Tucson Ripper, is available for *FREE* on the Amazon Kindle - get your copy here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Walking Through Charlottesville

Once while walking, I came face to face with a tiger.

No, seriously, I did.

And, no, I wasn't in Asia. I was on the north end of Charlottesville, Virginia.

I attended Engineering School at the University of Virginia back in the 80s and, on weekends, I liked to walk. I would usually start out in the morning and walk five miles to the mall (it was the 80s, man). I'd hang out at the mall till evening, then walk halfway back to take in a movie at one of the theaters off Hydraulic Road.

I'd usually get back to my dorm after midnight.

If you saw me back then, you would have thought I was a hippy. I had long curly hair down to my shoulders and a beard almost to my chest. And, there was a very good possibility I was barefoot on the sidewalk.

I remember walking up route 29 toward the mall one day in 1984. I guess I was pretty dishevelled looking. A guy was walking on my side in the opposite direction, and he looked like a thirty year older version of me.

He said, "Hey, man, can you spare any cash?"

Let me explain something about nineteen year old me: I didn't like to talk to people. They freaked me out. A hobo who looked like me freaked me out even more.

I opened my mouth, and what came out was an echo of his voice, "No, man, I'm flat busted myself."

He smiled, nodded, "Ain't it the truth all over, man? Peace, bro."

"Peace," I said.

That's when I learned the value of at least washing my clothes. Hobo dude probably couldn't afford the laundromat, but I had no excuse.

Anyway, about that tiger.

I had spent the day at the mall. I probably left the record store with a cassette tape or two. I'd like to say I was one of the cool kids listening to pop - but, it was probably something nerdy like Alan Parsons.

It was after dark when I left, and I usually followed the old 'walk on the left facing traffic' rule, which means I was walking on the opposite side of the four lane than I had been that morning.

When I walk, I normally disappear into my own head. I pay attention to the traffic, but not much else.

It was dark and there was the ever present smell of car exhaust.

I was walking up a small hill when I heard a growl.

I looked up to see a Bengal Tiger, about eleven feet long from its nose to the tip of its tail. It was lying on the ground about five feet in front of me. It's eyes were sort of a dull yellow. The tiger's paws were enormous, about the size of a dinner plate. You don't really appreciate the size of a tiger until you almost step on it.

Did you ever wonder what you would do if you came upon a tiger in the dark? Would you run, scream, wet yourself? I didn't do any of the above - trust me, I'd tell you if I had soaked the old BVDs. I've already told you I was an occasionally smelly hippy, a little incontinence wouldn't embarrass me.

I simply froze, which is probably the smartest thing one can do when faced with a tiger. Can't outrun one - at least I can't.

I looked at the tiger, and it looked at me. It gave me another growl, I think to show off those pearly white fangs.

Right about then, I heard hysterical laughter coming from a gas station a few yards up. Turns out the tiger had been at this Exxon all day as a publicity stunt. The tiger handler and the owner were busting a gut. I then saw the thin metal chain attached to a collar on the tiger's neck. The other end was anchored in rebar driven into the ground. At that point, the tiger rolled over - I think it wanted a belly rub.

I didn't oblige.

Another night, I was walking back to the dorms. There was a shopping center on Barracks Road, and I had almost reached it about 2:30 AM one morning. There was an overpass there where route 250 crossed route 29.

I heard crying as I walked under the overpass. A girl about my age walked by. She was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt, and she turned left onto the bypass after she passed me.

What was a teenage girl doing walking alone at 2:30 in the morning? And, why on earth would she walk up to route 250? At the time, there wasn't much in that direction. It certainly wasn't the way you went back to the university. I watched her walk up the entrance ramp until she went out of sight.

I often wonder about that night. I wish I could go back and ask that kid if she needed help. Of course, I probably scared her half to death - I looked like what most people were afraid of running into under an overpass at 2:30 AM.

I thought about these experiences this past week with the disappearance of Hannah Graham from downtown Charlottesville. As the father of a teenage daughter, I pray for her safe return.

I only ventured into downtown on foot a few times. There was little to interest me there.

I do remember being cautioned first year to avoid the area east of UVA hospital. Unless you were going to the Trailways bus station or Amtrak, there was little reason for students to venture there.

Hannah Graham was apparently confused after leaving a party and ended up walking in that direction when she thought she was headed back toward the university. At this point, no one knows what happened to her.

The part that haunts me was the security camera footage that showed her running after passing under the railway bridge - it reminded me of the crying girl I passed in 1985.

There are no coincidences. The people and things we encounter even in passing are there for a reason. An unfortunate we encounter who needs a helping hand, a tiger that shows us the wonder in the unexpected, a lost person who needs our help - these are not coincidences from blind chance. They are opportunities to learn from and to help others.

It's a pity we often don't see this until years after the fact.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Memories from Buchanan County

A lot of people hate Facebook. I have to say, I have days when I don't want to look at it. People fight and argue - and, I'm just as guilty as anyone else.

But, then, there are days like today.

Baptism in Bull Creek circa 1919. Bull Creek Old Regular Baptist Church, Buchanan County, Virginia. Courtesy of Forest Stiltner.

My cousin, Forest Stiltner, posted a picture of a baptism on Bull Creek in Buchanan County, Virginia, from around 1919. The church was the Bull Creek Old Regular Baptist Church, and, when I saw the name, I was transported back in time.

Not to 1919 - I'm not that old. But sometime in the 1960s. You see, I used to go to that church with my mother and grandmother. I've been to many churches since those days: Southern Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran - but, the experience of that church when I was a child has stuck with me my entire life.

The building was small and simple. And, I was never there when it wasn't full. You'd arrive early in the morning, take a seat if you got there early enough, stand if you didn't. The preaching would start, and it wasn't just one preacher - it would be several. They would take turns. The message among them might be the same or different, but the one thing I can remember was they always seemed to be happy.

There was no band, no multimedia experience. The preachers were not professional theologians; they were coal miners, carpenters, and shopkeepers. The only time I remember seeing a collection plate was when someone needed help, or when they raised money to build a shelter so the elderly people could sit in the shade when they had "dinner on the ground".

There was no air conditioning - imagine being four years old in 1969 inside the church on a summer day, a couple of hundred people packed into it. I can remember lying with my head on my grandmother's, Ressie Bowman's, lap. The ladies all had simple fans: a wooden stick with a piece of cardboard stapled to it. The cardboard would have a Bible scene on the front, and perhaps Psalms 23 on the back.

My grandmother, or "Ma" as my cousins and I called her, would fan my face. I can still feel the cool breeze drying the sweat on my forehead.

The singing in an Old Regular Baptist Church is hauntingly beautiful. They sing many of the same hymns you know, but they sing them in a very different way. It's called "Lining Out" or "Hymn Lining". The song leader will chant a line of the song, and then the congregation will sing the line back in a long, drawn out, drone. It goes back to our roots in Scotland.

An example of and Old Regular Baptist "Lined Out" Hymn

I can remember hearing words in the songs I couldn't identify. Many years later, I discovered many of the words to the hymns were being sung from memory, and passed down from previous generations. These words were old Gaelic words, Welsh words, sometimes German words.

A hymn can tell the history of the people who sing it.

After church, we would drive to my great aunt Flowerny's or Uransa's house in nearby Convict Holler (at one point, there had been a convict camp there, and the name stuck). Sometimes, we would go to my great grandmother's house, which you reached by crossing a swinging bridge of steel cables and wooden planks over a creek. The bridge was narrow and went up at a steep angle from the road to the hillside.

After visiting, we would drive back to our home in Russell County. On the way back, there was hamburger steak at the Rainbow Drive In, or, in later years, a roast beef sandwich at Hardee's.

Today, my work involves 'ones' and 'zeroes', flashing by in digital creeks. The world is more complex now. There are work projects and publishing deadlines. But, what I wouldn't give to sit beside my grandmother in that church once more.

One day, I'll set one of my novels in Buchanan County. I have one in mind about the nearby town of Harman. It's a horror novel, and it terrifies my wife to the point she can't listen to me read aloud the few chapters I've written. That may seem strange to you now, knowing how much I love the area. But, you see, horror novels aren't about death, they're about good versus evil and an appreciation for life - and those are things I learned from my grandmother and a little church on Bull Creek.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I Finally Understand the Whole Ghost Writing Thing

I love independent authors. There are a great many undiscovered Kings, Bradburys, and Faulkners in the world. I'm proud to be on a first name basis with several of them.

These folks will be legends if they get about five minutes of attention from a publishing house. You can find them on Facebook hocking their wares and/or selling their books on Amazon at the obligatory $0.99 or $2.99.

Take a chance - you might become a fan.

I keep an eye on the author groups on Facebook, and I've found some real gems.

Over the weekend, I stumbled across the synopsis of a book with the associated ad copy that really caught my eye. The premise was phenomenal! A little fantasy, a little horror, a little alternate history - it was a great idea, and I rushed to Amazon to get the book.

Five pages in, I understood why there is a need for ghost writers.

Five pages... of narrative. An action scene, related in narrative. The action scene was told in a single paragraph ten lines long - a single, ten line, *sentence*. I almost wept.

The characters were flat - literally identifiable only by name. We didn't see the character's point of view, only the narrator's flat relation of events.

Now, this wasn't some opportunist who thought he would throw a few lines down on the page and see how much cash he could rake in. It was obvious he had a story he desperately wanted to tell - he just had no clue how to tell it.

This is an example of someone who needed a ghost writer: someone who could take a great idea and mix it with great writing. I think we sometimes look down on ghost writers and those with great ideas but lacking in ability. Why doesn't the ghost writer come up with his own ideas? Why can't the idea person learn to write?

I think most ghost writers do have their own ideas, but maybe those ideas are not mainstream enough to be commercially viable.

And, I do think it is possible for someone to develop their skills as a writer. However, it's sometimes a long and difficult road.

I was approached to ghost write about twenty-five years ago. The idea man was a co-worker, and he had come up with a great idea: an autistic child with a gift for puzzles cracks a government cypher, and the protagonist must protect him from evil forces in the government that either want to kill the kid to protect their secrets or use him as a weapon.

I turned it down, although I thought it was a wonderful concept. At the time, I had enough ideas rattling around in my own head. I didn't want to take on someone else's project.

I encouraged him to write it himself, but he gave up in frustration.

Several years later, I saw the idea on the big screen almost to the letter in the movie "Mercury Rising." My first thought was that my former co-worker had somehow sold the idea. Unfortunately, he hadn't - someone else had come up with the same plot line.

I've seen this several times over the years. I met a guy in a writers group who slipped into a deep depression after he had written three unpublished books in a series about a boy who goes to a magic school to become a wizard. He was just beginning to look for an agent when J. K. Rowling introduced us to Harry Potter.

Ideas are great, but execution is everything. If you have an idea for the next great American novel: write it. It's not easy, and it will take time. If you don't have the skills, take a class, join a writers group, write everyday (even if it's just meandering blog posts like this).

If that doesn't work, find a ghost writer. Just make sure they can write more than narrative and can make a character step off the page.

And, please, have both your names on the book as co-authors. Unless you're a multimillionaire who's going to pay an obscene amount of money, share the credit.

If you are a multimillionaire with a great idea and an obscene amount of money for a ghost writer, call me.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Right Thing

There was justice tonight in the small town of Damascus, Virginia. Justin Miller's bid of $6816.00 was accepted by the town in exchange for his K-9 partner, Emmy.

His was the only bid, and the Damascus Town Council voted unanimously to accept it.

Does it surprise you there were no other bids?

It shouldn't. Who in their right mind would have wanted to take a dog away from its owner? All the police departments who've commented on the auction wanted nothing to do with it. They know the bonds between partners like Justin and Emmy are not meant to be broken.

I can only imagine the relief Jack McCrady and the town council are feeling now. As my dad says, Mr. McCrady's mouth was writing checks his butt couldn't pay. He thought he could hold a dog hostage and get away with it, but he underestimated two things: Justin Miller's resolve and the unwavering support of over 240,000 people from all over the world.

Ninety-five of those people who signed the petition were from the town of Damascus. The population of Damascus is only 800.

Don't worry, Jack. By the time election time rolls around again, I'm sure everyone will have forgotten this whole nightmare. Most likely. Then again...

Tonight, democracy worked. The people spoke and a tragedy became a triumph. The good guys won, and that doesn't always happen. Nights like this give me hope.

Good luck, Justin and Emmy.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Tomorrow is the Day

Tomorrow evening, the fate of Emmy, Justin Miller's canine partner, will be decided in the small town of Damascus, Virginia. For those of us who've been following the events of the past few months, Emmy and Justin's plight has never been far from our thoughts.

Over 239,000 people from all over the world and from all walks of life have signed Justin's petition on I've read through the comments people have left on the petition. The sentiments expressed all show the emotional impact this story has had on each of you.

Wendy Fees of Lagrange, Ohio, summed it up:
There is no question that this dog should stay with Justin. This is a living being, that should not be sold to the highest bidder !!!!

Over the past weeks, I've told you about the mayor of Damascus, Jack McCrady. You know what kind of man he is. Here at the eleventh hour, I won't belabor the point. He's had the opportunity to do the right thing, but he has preferred to hide.

Tomorrow night, the bids will be unsealed at the meeting in Damascus, and Justin, along with all of you, will learn Emmy's fate.

I won't speculate on what the future holds.

But, for the 239,000 who've made a stand and for the people who've donated to the fund, I want to say this: there is a nobility in standing up for what's right, in fighting city hall, in being a voice against the wrong we see in this world. You've made your voices heard, not for recognition or accolade, but simply because it was the right thing to do.

I will say a prayer for Emmy tonight. I hope you will all do the same.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lies and Subterfuge

The date of the meeting to determine Emmy's fate has been changed to Sept. 5. Jack McCrady is back to his old tricks, lying about the necessity of following a sealed bid process and saying Justin may not get Emmy.
Folks, my old friend Charles Bundy found this:
"federal grants XX C.F.R. XX.32(e)(1) states that "equipment" with a fair market value of < $5000 can be disposed of by local authorities at their discretion. This starting bid of 3000 implies that no public auction need take place. Unless of course this is a whim of the mayor and town council."
And, that's the smoking gun: there was never a reason for this auction, which the Town Attorney knew full well when this line of BS started.
Lies and subterfuge. This is something Jack McCrady knows all too well. And, the local media is letting him get away with it.
But, we cannot.
I noticed the mayor and town council have removed their email addresses from the Damascus website. Looks like they don't like emails. So, please feel free to contact them at the following:
They may have already changed these, but it's worth a try.
While you're at it, here's a few emails of people in local media who are aiding and abetting this behavior:
Jack McCrady and his henchmen think they can hide. They can't. Please contact anyone you know in Damascus who owns a business and urge them to get control of Jack McCrady before the town suffers economically for his ill-conceived vendetta.
There is only one outcome we will accept.
Just give the man his dog, Jack

Saturday, August 23, 2014

And the Numbers Keep Climbing

I looked at Justin Miller's petition on yesterday, there were over 130,000 signatures.

Less than twenty-four hours later, that number has climbed to over 151,000. In less than a day, 21,000 people have joined Team Emmy. 151,000 is almost three times the population of Washington County, where this little drama is playing out.

People are sending me messages, telling me they are going to be at the Town Council meeting on September 8. Many of them are planning to drive for hours to get to the small town of Damascus.

Oh, Jack McCrady, what a can of worms you have opened.

Jack, do you remember back in 2007 when you made the unfortunate remark "Damascus does not need a Veteran’s Memorial"? You went to the town council to attack the group who called you out on that little gem, Jack. You don't like it when people have the nerve to stand up to you. You came in as a private citizen and demanded action against Discover Damascus for daring to quote you. But, then you've always been a politician, haven't you, Jack? You don't like being exposed to public scrutiny.

But, like a very clumsy hiker in a cattle pasture, you just keep stepping in it. Crusading against veteran's memorials, being soft on crime, and now holding a dog hostage? Jack, you must have one heck of a campaign staff to spin all this.

You came unglued when a small group in Damascus scrutinized you, I can't imagine how you're doing with 151,000 people looking at you with contempt.

By September 8, how many people do you think will have signed the petition, Jack?

So, I'm going to try once more, Jack. It's time to man up.

Accept Justin's bid now.

Just give the man his dog, Jack.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Is Damascus Finally Seeing the Light?

Well, it looks like Jack McCrady is finally listening. In his latest interview, McCrady has stated he will accept Justin's bid as long as it covers the cost of a new dog and training for a K-9 officer. Justin has raised more than enough for that, so barring any political shenanigans, Emmy should be returned to Justin sometime on or after September 8.

That's the date of the next town council meeting where the sealed bids will be opened.

If I was a trusting sort, I would believe this was a done deal - but, I'm not. You see, I've seen enough of Jack McCrady's brand of politics over the last week to believe this might be a smokescreen to make us all go away, with a bait and switch at the end.

Jack, 140,000 people are watching, and every minute that number is growing. There can be only one outcome here.

So, here's a counter-proposal for Mr. McCrady: cancel the bidding, and accept Justin's offer today. Then, Jack, we'll all go away.

According to Justin: "The bids on Emmy will be concluded on September-08-2014.  That is the Damascus Town Council meeting located on West Laurel Avenue at the Town Hall in Damascus.  It is open to the public."

I believe the meeting starts at 7:00 PM.

It's a five hour drive for me to get to Damascus. But, I'm thinking about it. Been a while since I was in Washington County, might even take a little walk on the trail while I'm there. I might even sit in on the council meeting to see democracy at work. I think I have time to make myself a 'Save Emmy' t-shirt.

Just give the man his dog, Jack.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Hello, Mayor McCrady, are you awake?

As many of you know, yesterday I sent a letter to Jack McCrady, the mayor of the small town of Damascus, Virginia. Mr. McCrady is getting a lot of attention because of his vendetta against Officer Justin Miller and his K-9 partner, Emmy. Justin had a long standing agreement with the police department that Emmy would be turned over to him should he leave the Damascus Police Department.

Jack McCrady is refusing to honor that agreement, stating the dog is town property and would be put up for sealed bid auction.

Justin took his plight to the Internet and raised the $3000.00 to pay for Emmy literally overnight.
Over 100,000 people believe that it is wrong for the town to try to separate the two officers.

A dog is not town property. Dogs are pack animals that bond to their owners. Separate them, and they suffer, just as humans suffer when they are separated from those they love.

So, Justin went to the town and told them he could pay.

But, Jack McCrady keeps raising the price. It must be his contractor roots. It's obvious Justin's offers for Emmy will never be accepted.

Because, you see, it's not about the money. It's about retaliation.

Jack McCrady seems to have a problem with the police. He's stated the police of Damascus are "too well trained." Of course, he made that statement in closed session - wouldn't want folks to hear he's soft on crime.

One hundred thousand of you have spoken, and Jack McCrady and his cronies are getting scared.
They're going through third parties to tell Justin, "take it easy on the town." Damascus relies heavily on tourism, hikers mostly.

You see, hikers love the great outdoors. And, a lot of them love dogs. When they hear about a crooked mayor and a corrupt town council holding a dog for ransom, those hikers are going to vote with their wallets.

So, yesterday I contacted Jack McCrady. A lot of you read my letter. I was hoping for a reply I could share with you.

Of course, I didn't get one.

I also sent the letter to WCYB and the Bristol Herald Courier. No response from them either.

Finally, I sent it to the entire town council of Damascus. Again, no response.

Jack  McCrady and his pals are in hiding. They think we'll give up. He thinks he can sell Emmy and this will all go away.

But, we're not going away, Mr. McCrady. You can hide, thinking this will all blow over, but you'll be hiding for a long time. We're going to be there every time you crawl out from under your rock, every time you're in the paper, every time you appear in public. And, we're going to be saying, "Give the man his dog, Jack."

We will not rest until Emmy is back home with Justin where she belongs.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An open letter to Jack McCrady, Mayor of Damascus, Virginia

An open letter to Jack McCrady, Mayor of Damascus, Virginia, addressed to Mr. McCrady, the Bristol Herald Courier, and WCYB TV. Now, I doubt either WCYB or the Bristol Herald will even acknowledge I've sent this letter - they haven't done "Jack" since this started. But, we can hope!

Hi, Jack,

Bet you never dreamed you'd be this popular, eh?

Jack, I'd like to ask you and the Damascus Town Council to accept Officer Justin Miller's bid for his partner, Emmy. Mr. Miller has been able to secure substantial funds which more than cover the town's $3000.00 investment in the dog. So, your original excuse for not turning over ownership is no longer valid.

I know you see Emmy as a way to extract some revenge - it's obvious you don't like it when people disagree with you. But, Jack, you need to look at the endgame here: there is no scenario in which you win.

If Mr. Miller had been asking to purchase his patrol car or some other piece of equipment, we wouldn't be having this discussion. But, when you mess with someone's dog, you're going to get a lot of negative attention.

And, Jack, it's only going to get worse. Your name and the town of Damascus is being tweeted all around the world right now, and they're not talking about the Virginia Creeper Festival.

Although, the word creep is popping up here and there.

How do you think the town is going to react when organizations like PETA and the ASPCA start getting involved? How about when school kids in Washington County start wearing their 'Save Emmy' t-shirts?

It's a bad situation, Jack, and it's only going to get worse. You're on the wrong side of it, and that fact is not going to be lost on the people of Washington County.

You're looking like a mean, cold hearted politician, Jack. And, you don't have a leg to stand on.

It's time to man-up, Jack. Time to swallow your pride and live to fight another day. You made a tactical blunder, and now it's time to own up to it. Schedule a press conference at town hall, invite Justin Miller, invite Emmy, invite the Bristol Herald, and invite WCYB.

Make a show of it, shake Justin's hand, smile for the cameras. Accept the check from Justin with a big grin.

Just give the man his dog, Jack.


Tony Bowman

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How in the Heck do I Stumble onto this Stuff?

This morning, I got an email from involving the plight of former Damascus, Virginia police officer Justin Miller and his K-9 partner, Emmy. Justin and Emmy are a team. They trained together, they worked together - Emmy and Justin are part of a pack, and, while humans can sometimes separate themselves emotionally from such a relationship if they have to, dogs can't.

Earlier this summer, Justin resigned from the police department. It was his understanding that when he resigned his dog would go with him. A dog is not a police cruiser, not a shotgun, not a uniform - the relationship between a K-9 officer and his dog is one of symbiosis. They work together as a unit.

The Damascus Town Council had a much different view. Emmy was county property, and as such, she would be auctioned off to fill the coffers. Minimum bids were set at $3000.00.

So, Justin took his plight to the internet - but, to his credit, he started out with an attempt to raise money to buy Emmy. He has $8000.00 already thanks to folks like you with big hearts. When it looked like he would make his goal, he approached the mayor and town council and told them the good news.

Enter the villain of this story, politician Jack McCrady. McCrady is mayor of Damascus, and he has informed Justin he will most likely not get Emmy even if he has the high bid. No explanation of why. Just because.

Justin has since raised the stakes. He setup a petition on that very politely asks the Damascus Town Council to honor his bid.

Justin Miller is a nice guy, and by all accounts he and Emmy were exemplary officers who served with distinction. Justin doesn't have an agenda, he's said if there is any money left over in the fund he's going to donate it to local animal shelters. He hasn't said a word against Jack McCrady or the town council.

And, if this was the end of the story, you could simply go to and join the over 100,000 people who've pledged their support for Justin and Emmy. You could donate money to the fund, and you could pray with the rest of us for a happy ending to this dog story.

However, there's a lot more going on in Damascus than a bureaucratic jerk playing politics with a man's dog.

You see, Justin Miller isn't the only police officer to step down recently in Damascus. Police Chief Bill Nunley stepped down effective August 1st. The reason: because Mayor Jack McCrady and the town council are refusing to replace officers who resign. Bill Nunley doesn't believe he can adequately protect the town with the limited resources being allocated by Mr. McCrady and his ilk.

Now, evidently there were adequate funds before Mayor McCrady showed up, but not now.

I thought it might be interesting to see what the mayor's platform had been before entering office, and
I found this:

In an interview with, McCrady had this to say about his ambitions as mayor.

What is your primary goal once in office?
 ...To initiate programs that will offer residents incentives to restore older homes and to construct new ones.

"initiate programs that will offer residents incentives to restore older homes and to construct new ones." Would it surprise you to know Jack McCrady owns a contracting business? I wish I could say it surprised me, but I'm a cynic.

Now, I grew up thirty miles from Damascus. I'm from Russell County. I don't know Justin Miller, nor have I ever heard of Jack McCrady before today. I don't know Mr. McCrady's political affiliation, nor do I care.

What I do know is Mayor Jack McCrady is a jerk. He is holding Emmy ransom for $3000.00. I also have serious doubts about the intelligence of a public official who publicly pledges tax revenue for home renovations while also proudly relating the fact he owns a contracting business. One stop shopping here folks, get your incentive money and pay it out at the same time. Make that check payable to the honorable Jack McCrady.

The people of Damascus have spoken, Mr. McCrady. You and your cronies are back in office, with carte blanche to do your worst. But, Jack, old buddy, you're looking like a first class horse's ass right now. I think there's 841 people in Damascus, and over fifty percent of them must have supported you.
Over 100,000 people are standing behind Justin Miller and Emmy. If you had a political advisor, he'd be whispering to you, "Give the guy his dog, Jack." Because, you'll never make it to the state house with "hates dogs" attached to your bio, and, everyone knows, the state house is where you make the real money.

Monday, August 18, 2014

It's 4:00 AM, Why Won't My Kid Sleep?

This morning at 4:00 AM, our daughter finally decided to go to bed. Now, many of you are probably
saying, "What an awful parent! Make her go to bed."

Heh, heh, yeah...

Sara is autistic. There's a laundry list of symptoms that go along with the Big "A". I really wish we could have ordered them a la carte:

"Hmmm, let's see. I'll have the OCD and phenomenal memory, please."

Trust me, no one would ever say, "Oooh, I'll take the insomnia!"

For the first five years of her life, Sara slept no more than three hours per night - and that was on a good night. Those three hours were rarely in a row, and they never began before about two in the morning.

My wife took the brunt of this, I confess. I sleep like the dead. Literally. I die in my sleep about ten times per hour according to the sleep study.

Laurie was up with her constantly. In Vegas, we had a Little Tykes swing with an attached sliding board in the house. The theory was if you had her exercise enough, she'd get tired and go to sleep. I can still see Laurie helping Sara climb the ladder and slide down at 3:30 in the morning.

Then came the miracle supplement, Melatonin. All natural, non-habit forming, same as eating a Thanksgiving turkey with a side order of non-narcotic bliss. Melatonin, the sweet sound of it.

Melatonin at 10:30 PM meant one sleeping child by 11:00 PM. And, for the first time in her life, she slept through the night.

And, that sleep wasn't just mana from heaven for Laurie and I. A developing brain needs sleep, and Sara's autistic behaviors began to improve after she started getting a normal eight hours.

Last week, we started reading about possible hormonal side effects from Melatonin, so we stopped using it to see if she could maintain a normal sleep pattern. The first couple of nights went fine, but last night and the night before? Not so much.

Now, there are positives to her insomnia. I get a lot of writing done while she's awake. Laurie got to watch almost the entire first season of The Vampire Diaries yesterday (Don't judge, we're between Game of Thrones and Walking Dead season here, folks - and, at least the Mystic Falls vampires don't sparkle.)

We finally broke down and gave her a tiny, tiny amount of Melatonin at 3:30 AM. At 4:00, she emerged from her lair carrying two handfuls of Christmas socks (I don't know, it's the whole obsession cycle thing. Next week it might be magic markers - anything is better than her obsession with tampon applicators. Try explaining that one at Olive Garden.) Christmas socks in the hands coupled with a loud proclamation of "Go to bed!" means she's ready.

By 4:30, she had fallen asleep in her bed with Cinderella playing on her small television. One of us has to stay awake till we're sure she's out - Sara has a tendency to wander. There's only so much reliance you can put on security systems, multiple locks, and a hyper-vigilant wolf hybrid on the first floor. Besides, the dog had a long night as well.

Laurie finally went to sleep, and I waited Sara out. Luckily, I had last night's episode of The Strain on the iPad. Somebody needs to teach that old guy how to clear a room. He was scaring me to death turning his back on doors to rooms he hadn't checked yet. Sure enough, he ended up surrounded by vampires right around the time my Sleeping Beauty gave up on Cinderella and, finally, went to sleep.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Nine Fingers: Tucson Ripper

The story of Nine Fingers does not begin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, it begins in the south side of Tucson, Arizona.

Rodrigo Diaz has gone insane. At night, he prowls the streets of the south side, ripping his innocent victims to shreds in back alleys.

During the day, he torturers and devours others he has abducted.

The police believe he is a serial killer. But, he is actually something far worse: Rodrigo Diaz is a werewolf.

Ward Rickman has come to Tucson to track down an old friend - track him down and kill him.

Because Ward knows something the police don't: It takes a werewolf to stop a werewolf.

Nine Fingers: Tucson Ripper

The lead in novella to Tony Bowman's terrifying new novel Nine Fingers.

Available soon for free download on Amazon, Goodreads, and

Sample first scene from Nine Fingers: Tucson Ripper

Loud noises bothered Rodrigo Diaz. He hadn’t always been so sensitive, but that had been before. Everything was different now.
    The high pitched screams cut through his brain like an ice pick through his eye. “For the love of God, will you shut up?”
    There was a whining noise from the corner of the room. Rodrigo didn’t look up, he was intent on slicing into the meat of the woman’s thigh without cutting into a vein. She could bleed out from such a wound, and the succulent taste of the meat would be ruined.
    “You’re a monster,” the other girl said, she of the high pitched scream.
    He laid the filleting knife down and looked at her.
    She met his gaze, but only for an instant. Her watery eyes stared at him through running mascara and ruined shadow.
    He smiled at her, his red eyes glowing in the darkened trailer kitchen, “Yes.”
    Rodrigo felt no emotion when he said it, no anger. He agreed with her.
    He turned his attention back to the naked girl nailed to the kitchen table.

What is it about Autism and Television?

Our daughter, Sara, has moderate autism. She has difficulty forming complete sentences to express herself, and she sometimes uses the wrong word to describe an emotion.

"Angry" always comes out "Scared." I don't think she's actually frightened when we pass by K-Mart without stopping for magic markers, but I'm fairly certain she's angry. Many people who are deep in autism-land fixate on inanimate objects (e.g. magic markers).

Sara also fixates on TV.

It started with a hideous creature known as Caillou. Yes, that cute little bald cartoon character on PBS.

My wife and I know every line of dialog ever spoken by Caillou in every episode. We know his little sister, Rosie, is terrified of clowns. We know he is afraid of the dark because of the "Scratchy monster."

I've thought about writing to the government of Quebec (where Caillou is made) and begging them to please make it stop.

We also know every verse of every Wiggles song. Australia, please take pity on us - I sometimes hear Rockabye Your Bear in my sleep.

A few years ago, we bought Sara a touchscreen computer. She hates the keyboard and mouse, but watching her with a touchscreen is like watching Liberace with a piano. Her fingers dance and slide so fast they seem to disappear.

She can navigate YouTube and pull up her favorite cartoons without typing a single letter in a search box.

I've watched her, and this is how she does it: she starts at a root video in favorites, like Caillou's Afraid of the Dark. YouTube puts suggested videos on the right, and she remembers which videos lead to which other videos. She has a road map in her head she constantly updates and refines.

I've seen Sara get a song in her head and begin to hum it in the living room - "Baby Mine" from Dumbo is one of her favorites. She will then go to her computer. Tap, tap, tap, slide, slide, slide - Tap. "Baby mine, don't you cry..."

My greatest hope is she will develop an interest in Predator movies and Scandinavian Goth music. Tap, tap, tap, slide, slide, slide - Tap. "There's something out there, Pancho. Something in the trees, and it ain't no man. We're all going to die..."

My wife, Laurie, and I will high five. It's going to be epic.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Writers Groups, Worth It?

My idea  of the perfect writers group.

Ask authors about writers groups, and you're likely to get some strong opinions. Some people swear by them, some people swear at them.

Personally, I love them. And, I especially love critique groups.

Over the past twenty years, I've been in at least nine from North Carolina to Pennsylvania to Las Vegas. There's no better place for a beginning writer to improve their knowledge - notice, I said knowledge, not skill.

Skill comes from doing. It comes from writing everyday, even if you're just writing curmudgeonly blog posts like me.

But, knowledge, such as "What the heck is an Oxford comma?" That's something you can learn from a writers group.

Most critique groups follow a similar format. At each meeting, a few members are scheduled to present their work. The author is expected to provide copies in advance for the other members to read and comment on, and, usually, the author reads their work in front of the group and each member has the opportunity to provide feedback.

I'm a big fan of reading aloud - many sentences look perfectly fine on paper, but sound like monkey dirt when vocalized.

So, what do you get from opening yourself up to criticism? Plenty. For fifteen minutes, you get a captive audience for your work. You can tell by the grimaces, groans, giggles, and gasps if what you're doing is working. Hopefully, these will occur in the spots you want, and not in places you don't.

For myself, I know I've done my job if people mumble, "You're one sick puppy, Tony." For horror, that's the reaction you want.

For romance, it probably means you need to re-work.

The word 'critique' scares a lot of people. The prospect of being ridiculed by a group can be terrifying.

In twenty years, I've never seen anyone ridiculed. People make suggestions, and they'll point out glaring mistakes.

My friend P.T. McHugh nailed me on a sentence I wrote: "The setting sun set the blue horizon ablaze." Setting...sun...set - I swear, I never saw it until P.T. pointed it out. Frightening.

Of course, the next week I got P.T. on a section of his novel where he had a Catholic mission serving meat loaf on Friday.

Friday? Make it fishsticks, P.T.

People are not mean in writers groups. The old adage about an armed society being a polite society holds especially true in critique - because, sooner or later, everybody reads.

I get a lot from the feedback I receive in writers groups. Do I follow it all? No, but I follow quite a bit of it.

But, I have a confession - the main reason I go to writers groups is research.

Writers must do three things to stay relevant: they have to write, they have to read, and they have to *observe*.

It's all part of "writing what you know." At the beginning of the year, I wrote a book called Vales Hollow. The main character, although I swear she didn't start out as the lead, is a sixty-three year old ex-CIA assassin named Janey Smith. She's brash, she's sociopathic, and she steals the scene every time.

Now, I'm not a CIA assassin who was in Saigon when the US pulled out. How did I write Janey and make her believable?

I was in a writers group in Las Vegas about ten years ago. Three people in that group were writing about their experiences during the Viet Nam war.

The first was a craps dealer in Vegas who had been in the Navy stationed near Saigon. He was writing memoirs about his last days in Saigon - it was very well written, and I hope he went on to be published. His words put you in Saigon during those last days, and I've never forgotten the sense of foreboding in his prose.

The second two were a husband and wife who had been in the CIA up through the late 60s. He was in poor health, and she was writing their memoirs. They were a little bit James Bond and Moneypenny, a little Maxwell Smart and 99 - my wife, Laurie, and I were mesmerized by their stories. They never admitted to having actually been spies, but they talked about the spy business with a twinkle of mirth in their eyes. Yeah, we thought they were spies.

When I started populating Vales Hollow with characters, Janey Smith dropped down out of the rafters with her handy stiletto and sniper rifle. She told me a story about how she turned a flamethrower on the file cabinets of CIA headquarters in Saigon before catching the last helicopter out.

Our characters are conglomerations and extrapolations of people we have known. That's what makes them true, and truth is what we're after. Janey only worked because she felt like a real person.

Would I have come up with Janey Smith without those three wonderful people in Vegas? Probably, but she wouldn't have had the same depth. You can only get that from experience or from observation, and writers groups are great for observation.

From my perspective, you can't go wrong with a writers group. Whether you're looking for help, looking for feedback, or looking for characters.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Dogs Chose Us

The noble Catahoula in her natural habitat: hiding under the kitchen table in the
 hope someone will drop bacon.

We share our house with a red wolf / mastiff hybrid known as a Catahoula Leopard - the state dog of Louisiana. I say share our house because she isn't a pet. Starla is a member of our family, although she would most likely argue we're actually part of her pack.

She's a powerful dog, a little over a hundred pounds of muscle with inch long fangs and curious webbed feet. She has hooked claws for climbing trees. Ranchers use Catahoulas to herd cattle, hunters use them to track bear and wild boar.

We use her to fetch rubber balls, sticks, and to play tug of war with pieces of rope.

She's a sweet natured gentle giant. Sometimes we play tug of war and she'll accidentally touch my hand with one of those inch long fangs - it gives you pause. When she senses this, what follows is a deluge of slobbery licks, "Didn't hurt you, did I?"

Given her sweet nature, I wondered what kind of protection she would be. Shortly after getting her from the rescue, I got my answer.

I took her for a walk one night near our home. The park was dark and deserted, and I noticed she seemed very vigilant. On the way back, a guy on a motorcycle pulled up to the park walkway. He was talking on his cellphone and clearly having a bad night from the words he was using.

Starla watched him as we passed, looking back over her shoulder as we walked.

We were about fifty yards away when he evidently heard something on the phone he really didn't like: he threw his helmet on the asphalt path and it made a very loud cracking sound.

I turned, not knowing what to expect. The guy was walking away in the opposite direction - no danger to us.

To Starla, however, this was a different story. She had turned, putting herself between me and him. Her muscles were tensed, hair on her back standing straight up, head low, ears back, fangs bared. The sound echoing from her chest was something akin to a diesel locomotive.

The wolf had come out, and she was ready to rumble.

I knelt down beside her, scratched her ears till she calmed down. Good dog, very good dog.

When I'm at work, I don't have to worry about my family's safety. The wolf's not at the door, she's behind it. She has licks and nuzzles for her pack, but the wolf doesn't take any crap.

The question came to my mind: why? What makes this descendant of the wolf want to be near us, form packs with us within days if not hours? They're stronger than us and better equipped to defend themselves. Their senses are sharper. A little more brain capacity and opposable thumbs, they'd be pouring their own kibble.

So, why us? Scientists tell us wolves were domesticated between 15,000 to 33,000 years ago. One of the leading theories is they were curious about us. We had warm fires, we weren't half bad at forming packs ourselves, and sometimes we drop our food - heck, occasionally, we even give it to them on purpose.

In short, dogs chose us. Every other animal we've domesticated in some fashion, but dogs chose us.

It's a mutually beneficial relationship. They help us hunt, keep us safe, work with us, and keep us entertained. We throw the ball and occasionally drop bacon.

Many of you will scoff, certain that we domesticated dogs just like we did cows, pigs, and chickens. And, maybe there's some truth to that. But, if so, they domesticated us right back.

Dogs are used everywhere as therapy dogs for ailments ranging from PTSD to epilepsy to panic attacks. You see, we have a very curious reaction when we're part of a dog's pack: we calm down, our heart rate lowers, and our overall brain chemistry gets better. Sometime over the last thirty millennia, we became part of a symbiotic relationship.

So, the next time you're sitting with your schnauzer, poodle, mutt, or goofy Catahoula leopard - just remember you might have chosen them, but they chose you as well. You're part of their pack and you can learn a thing or two from them: play a little, love a little, protect your family with your fangs bared, and keep your eyes open for dropped bacon.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Divergent, or "Yeah, I liked it, wanna make something of it?"

Okay, so I'm not the greatest proponent of the Young Adult (YA) genre on the planet. What I write gets a solid "R" rating most of the time, though I suppose "Turning the Darkness" would have landed a grudging "PG-13" from the powers that be.

I tried to read a Harry Potter book once, but I fell asleep. (Yeah, that's right, bring it - I refer to Tolkien as "Bored of the Rings" as well.) I thought "Hunger Games" was lame, film and book version.

And, "Twilight"? Don't even get me started.

Now don't get me wrong, there's good and bad in every genre - my buddy PT McHugh writes some kick ass fiction in his "Keeper of the Black Stones" series. It's great stuff, and I would recommend it to anybody out there.

But, in my view P.T. is a voice in the wilderness of teenage angst.

Last night, my wife and I were looking for something to watch on television. Since we ditched cable, we have to pick our shows from YouTube, NetFlix, Hulu, and Amazon. While sifting through the Internet, we happened upon Divergent.

I read the synopsis: YA. We both rolled our eyes. But, there was nothing else on, so we gave it a try.

For two and a half hours, we were immersed in a gripping, action packed dystopia. It came as a total shock.

The heroine was intelligent, her only super power was her mind wasn't as easily controlled as those around her. She trains as a soldier, and spends a great deal of the movie getting the crap beat out of her - she doesn't start out as someone who kicks ass and takes names, she gets there through personal growth. Wow, what a concept.

Now granted, there's a lot of over simplification - if this is their army, Chicago is *doomed*. I picture these hordes led by folks like Toe Cutter from The Road Warrior outside the walls. Sooner or later, these hippies have had it. And, the treatment of the war games probably left anybody who played Halo scratching their heads.

But, the film worked for me, and I don't say that often.

I'm going to read the book.

Drive In Theaters - Anybody in Hollywood listening?

Over the weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to a drive-in theater near our home in Raleigh. Not many drive-ins left in the world, which is a shame.

This particular theater was built in 1949. The screen was made of sheets of corrugated tin painted white. The panels had been repaired numerous times over the last sixty-five years - this is tornado country after all. The combination projection room, bathrooms, and snack bar looked pretty much unchanged from the Harry Truman days.

The only nod to new technology was in the form of an FM radio transmitter to replace the corded window speakers. Amazing the number of people who used to drive off with the speaker still in the window - must have cost the old theaters a fortune. With FM, the movie sound is piped right through your car stereo.

Admission was seven dollars per person to see a double feature of Planes: Fire and Rescue and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Did you get that? $3.50 per movie, folks. And, every dime of that went directly to the movie companies. The only money the drive in makes is on $1.50 hot dogs and $2.00 hamburgers.

Of course, this is why drive-ins are failing. The big cineplex's can pack hundreds of people into a dozen theaters for four or more shows daily. They also charge $12.00 per movie and $8.00 for popcorn. Cha-ching.

Drive-ins show two movies per night, three nights per week.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love the cineplex: air conditioned, comfy seats, big tub-o-cola. There are no mosquitos and the windshield doesn't fog up.

But, there's something profoundly American about a drive-in. Before the movie, kids get to play on the playground below the screen in their pajamas. Bats buzz the screen picking off mosquitos, and the roof of this theater is a canopy of stars.

So, if there's anyone in Hollywood listening, how about cutting the drive-ins a break? Lower the cost of the film rental for these icons of American history. I did the math in my head the other night. The theater ended the night with a loss. You don't need an MBA to know a business can't run like that for long.

And, the next time you go to the movies, check out a drive-in instead.

About Tony Bowman...

Tony Bowman writes Horror, Science Fiction, and Thriller novels from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina.

He is a native of the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, and grew up in Butcher Knife Holler (or, "down on Butcher Knife" as the locals would say). It was a magical place where witches, bigfoot, and UFO's were considered fact and no street lights blocked out the view of the milky way at night.

Tony learned to read through comic books like Creepy, Turok: Son of Stone, and Superman. Later, he devoured the works of Heinlein, King, Bradbury, and Koontz.

His beautiful wife Laurie is his biggest fan, and his beautiful daughter Sara is his inspiration.

Tony has a few books to write, hopefully you'll enjoy reading them.