Saturday, April 30, 2011

Joaquin Alone

The other day, I spotted a young boy climbing on the back of a pickup truck in a grocery store parking lot. He appeared to be about three years old, and he was alone. He played around the vehicle, sticking within a couple of feet of it. A woman walked by carrying a bag of groceries, and I asked her if the child was hers. Surprised, she replied, “No, he’s not mine.” Another woman responded the same way. This annoyed and worried me, that a boy so young would be left by himself.

“Where is your Mom?” I asked. The boy looked at me and said nothing. “What’s your name?” No reply. Soon two employees wearing orange store aprons came out and tried to find out who he was. “¿Quiere es su nombre?” they tried in Spanish. Nada.

I called 911 on my cell phone, and there was no answer after about twenty rings. Now that was disturbing. I hung up and tried again, this time reaching a 911 operator. She asked detailed questions, and I volunteered the plate number of the vehicle. A police cruiser would arrive soon, she promised.

Meanwhile, another boy showed up, a plump fellow aged eight or so. He cheerfully talked. “He’s my brother,” he said. “His name is Joaquin. I’m Miguel.”

“Are you boys alone?”

“No, my Dad’s in the store, shopping.”

“Is your Mom there too?”

“No. She’s in jail.”

“Oh. You know, Joaquin is much too young to be left alone.”

“He’s not alone. I’m watching him.”

“You weren’t. He was alone for quite a while.”

Miguel shrugged. “I just went inside to the bathroom. I was only a minute.” He’d taken a lot longer than that, and he looked too young to be responsible anyway.

A couple of us adults stayed with them until their father came out with his groceries. He was a burly man with a smile, but I sensed it unwise to provoke him. “Gee, we were worried about this boy,” I said, nodding toward Joaquin. “He was all alone for a good while.”

“No, he wasn’t. Miguel was watching him.” Clearly they were both too young, but it seemed time for me to stop talking. They drove away, and about five minutes later a patrol car showed up. The officer and I chatted and said he would visit the man’s home to make sure the boys were okay.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Z is for Zee final post the A-Z Challenge, that is. This has been a lot of fun, trying to come up with short, interesting posts on whatever subject occupied my fevered brain. This month I visited far more blogs than I used to and far fewer that I'd hoped to. A quirky Internet connection is to blame, as some of the A-Z blog links came up slowly or not at all.

This experience has inspired me to blog more often, and I plan to visit all 1,200 or so A-Z participants in due time.

Longer days and a livelier connection, that's what I need.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Y is for Yahoo!

Yahoo because this is my 25th blog post this month and because I've just published my third novel, a murder mystery entitled Little Mountain. It centers on a murder that takes place among the Cambodian refugees here in the United States. It's available in paperback and on Kindle via Amazon at this link, and I'll be writing about it in future posts.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

X is for Xanthippe

I had to go to my Merriam-Webster for this one, because not a whole lot of words begin with X. Xanthippe, it seems, was the ill-tempered wife of Socrates. Therefore, a Xanthippe is a shrewish wife. Am I the only one who didn't know that? Probably, as I am often the last to learn such things.

The question is, how can we writers use this nugget? In a murder mystery, perhaps?

Through the walls I heard the screams from the Professor's apartment.
"You've been seeing that coed again!"
"Maria is a Ph.D. student. We were merely discussing her research."
"Over what? A glass of ouzo?"
"I have always been faithful to you, but only the good Lord knows why."
"And what's this on your jacket? Feta cheese? You had lunch with her, didn't you?"
"For God's sake, Julia!"
"I'll bet she nibbled your kalamatas!"
"What do you mean by that?"
A shot rang out.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

W is for What an idiot

A year ago, a neighboring town got a horrible shock with the murder of a woman, her husband, and their business partner who were shot as they entered the couple's home. The couple were due in court the next day because they were suing a man over a business matter. Wouldn't you think the man being sued would be the obvious suspect? Since we live near Juarez, I speculated that the perpetrator had hired a killer who crossed the border, did the deed, and drove home, never to be found.

Surprise, surprise. This week the police arrested Mr. Obvious on three counts of first-degree murder, based largely on a tip from the only apparent witness. Said witness drove Mr. O. to the victims' home. Mr. O. then drove the victims' car downtown, where he abandoned it and was picked up again by said witness, who drove him to a public park. Mr. O. carried a bag into a public toilet and came out without it, perhaps believing that the police would never, ever think to look for his semiautomatic weapon in the septic system.

Duh. Apparently the cops knew their man a long time ago and have just working to build their case. This evil man killed three people who were by all accounts fine citizens. What an idiot.

Monday, April 25, 2011

V is for Very

Very is such an overused word. I edit a lot of book reviews and notice that some writers use it a lot. Okay, so do I. One of the many items on my editing checklist is to look for that word and determine whether it's necessary--probably 90 percent of the time my answer is "no." Very is an intensifier that often adds little meaning. Bill Gates is very rich? Okay, I'll give you that one. I love you very much? Yes, we'd better keep that one handy. But trust me, it's a word that bears scrutiny.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

U is for Unique

Somewhere in grade school, I learned that some adjectives are not subject to comparison. Unique means one of a kind, so if you and I are both unique, you cannot be more or less unique than I. People often take unique to mean unusual.

A couple other examples are anniversary and desperate. How often do we hear of the one-month or six-month or the one-year anniversary of an event? However, an anniversary by definition is an annual event. And desperate, I learned, means without hope. We will conduct a desperate search for survivors, by which we mean anxiety-filled. If it were literally a desperate search, then hope would be gone and the search pointless.

Oh yes, literally is another one. We may say we were literally blown away, but that's not likely to be true except in a tornado or on a battlefield. Okay, no one is going to say "I was figuratively blown away," but I would be literally delighted to hear it.

Language evolves, in part with careless usage by local TV news announcers. Words mean what people want them to mean, and then one day the dictionary accommodates the changing usage.

Friday, April 22, 2011

T is for Testosterone

Surprise, surprise...our neutered male cat has excessive testosterone. That explains some of his aggressive behavior of late. He gave my wife a fairly nasty bite on the arm today, and that's a first. He's due for an ultrasound on Monday to ferret out the physical source of the problem. Luckily for George, he is normally a sweetheart whom we wouldn't give up for anything. So we think if the vet can get his testosterone level down, we think he'll be okay.

Have you seen that TV ad asking men if they have "low T"? Maybe we could make some money selling off George's surplus.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

S is for Self-publishing

S could be for so many things, of course, such as syringe-feeding George, one of my handsome Bengal cats. The poor guy has been through a lot lately and faces an uncertain future, but for now he's perked up considerably after a few days of force-feeding by his owners. But more on my feline pal in another post.

So much has already been said about self-publishing. Whatever its merits, the practice is certainly shifting the publishing dynamic by weakening traditional publishers and booksellers and devaluing the literary market. Agents have served as gatekeepers by screening out work that's unready or even unreadable, so what does reach traditional publishers meets certain standards.

Today, all you need is a computer, an Internet connection, and a word processor, and you too can be an author. Standards? Who needs 'em?

It's not that simple, of course. The standards are still out there, but if you self-publish there's no one to hold  you to them. More than once I've heard people say they'd self-publish first, then get the story "picked up" by an agent or publisher, who would clean up any problems with the manuscript.

Um, no. Not on this planet.

So as one who has three self-published books (after having three agents and no traditional publishers), I'd like to offer an incomplete, unordered list of tips to potential self-publishing authors:

1. Don't hurry your work. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. And no matter how inspired you feel, your words are not gold. Be willing to revise.

2. Write because you love to write. Don't write to get rich. With the former, you'll generally be happy; with the latter, you'll generally be disappointed. (I know, J. A. Konrath is an exception, but your name isn't Konrath, is it?)

3. Get objective critiques. Don't ask for comments from your parents, sibs, spouse, lover, or anyone else who has an emotional stake in making you happy. That gets dicey.

4. Read the masters in your genre. Observe how they handle dialogue, description, transitions. Analyze their plots.

Oh, wait...that advice applies to writing in general, doesn't it? Yeah, it does. You have to be your own gatekeeper. In other posts I'll offer more specifics; meanwhile, if you stick to these basics, your self-published book will be superior to 90 percent of the self-pubbed stuff out there.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

R is for the Road to hell

Stephen King cleverly tells us that the road to hell is thickly paved with adverbs, those modifiers of verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They don't always end in -ly, although they often do. (In the previous sentence, always and often are adverbs.)

Adverbs get a bum rap, in my opinion. Like salt in our suppers and passive voice in our writing, they are essential to our language but are easily overdone.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Q fills the gap

Last night I awoke thinking to make my Q about Quitting and how that's a Bad Thing. My inspiration came from a woman who had committed to a local group to run a major project, then got her knickers in a twist over an unrelated issue and promptly quit, leaving many people in the lurch. I was going to mention my first job, where my boss admonished me that "Winners never quit, and quitters never win." Life is never as simple as a slogan, though, and I've quit more than you want to know.

Then there is the topic of Query letters, briefly considered and quickly discarded. I don't do them well and don't need them for my self-published novels.

No doubt there are plenty of good Q topics, but none I feel competent to write about, except that Q fills the gap between P and R.

Monday, April 18, 2011

P is for Pop-up windows for your blog links

If you have a link in your blog, you might like it to open up in a pop-up window so your visitor doesn't leave your site. Just click on Edit HTML, find the text being linked, and change it like this:

Sunday, April 17, 2011

O is for Osculation

Osculation and its attendant repercussions play a not insignificant role in modern fiction--in the romance genre to be sure, but also in many murder mysteries. Tough-as-nails private eyes often engage in osculatory actions in their off hours or after they've offed the awful villains. As a writer, I find I must osculate frequently with my wife in order to keep the details clear in my mind. Of course, an occasional Noodle (see yesterday's blog post) helps as well.

The writer must stay sharp.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for Noodling around

Hmm. N is for Nabokov? No, I never read him and have nothing to say. Necrophilia? Nightshade? Noodle soup? Nattering Nabobs? Negative. So I'm just Noodling around, looking at other folks' blogs and writing a little Nonfiction about the Sixties, which I remember unfondly. Since I missed out on both Vietnam and hallucinogens, some may say I wasn't even there, but I do recall a whole lot of upheaval. The progress of the civil rights movement and the technology generated by the space program are the main pluses I can think of from that decade. But the political murders and the war thoroughly poisoned the atmosphere.

Someone please help me. There must be other major events/phenomena that justified the Sixties. Oh yeah, the Beatles. What else?

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Murder

One evening last year, several of us writers met at a friend's house out of town. My friend Dora said to us, "Did you hear about the awful shooting?"

We hadn't. Dora had just seen one of the victims at a Sister Cities meeting the night before. Apparently the woman and her husband stopped to run an errand on their way home from that meeting, then met up with a business partner. The three drove to her house, and when the woman went inside an intruder shot her. The woman's husband was shot apparently as he tried to help her, and then the business partner was shot as well. All three died.

Police have revealed little so far, but what is known to the public is that the woman and her husband were suing someone and were due in court the day after the murder. Any witnesses or clues are either non-existent or a closely-held secret. Juarez, Mexico, called by some the world's most dangerous city, is less than an hour's drive away.

Another triple murder occurred at a local bowling alley twenty years ago, and that case remains unsolved.

Many of us love murder mysteries when they are figments of our imagination. We transport ourselves into a world of make-believe mayhem and then maybe share the tale with friends if we enjoy it. Then real mysteries come along and don't necessarily reach neat conclusions. They might in time provide grist for the novelist's mill, perhaps with location and circumstances changed. Can you think of any murder mysteries that were clearly inspired by real events?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Writing when you’re stuck

Here is a blog entry I wrote for Dawn Goldsmith last summer, entitled Writing when you’re stuck:

If you’re not a professional writer, then writing is one of those activities you wedge into your day when you can. My friend Patty used to get up at 4 or 4:30 every morning to work on her novel until her husband and children got up. Then she would get herself ready for a full day’s work as a bank officer, come home to cook supper, then dash off to school committee meetings. Patty’s writing friends admired her, but we never wanted to emulate her.

Others keep saner schedules but set aside specific times for writing and perhaps specific quotas of words. Still others put writing on their to-do list or simply get to it when they can.

If you accomplish everything on your list, you have imposed a sense of order on your world (or your list is too short). Writing is usually one of the items on my list, but often it has no special priority and gets done after the daily errands or not at all.

Email is one of the great interrupters, followed by Twitter. I always marveled at the great advantage of email that we can write each other at any time, and we can read your messages at any time. But if that’s the case, why do I feel the compulsion to check for messages a hundred times a day? Maybe it’s a need for affirmation that there’s a cyber-someone who thinks I’m important.

Yesterday I decided to abandon Twitter and my 750 or so “followers.” It had seemed like a good venue to advertise my books, but in fact it’s a tsunami of trivia with little of value floating by. Simply checking out the invitations to follow others takes up time better spent writing.

This morning I determined to finish my monthly Southwest Senior column about Las Cruces writers before looking at my email once. While it wasn’t difficult, it did require a conscious decision on my part to disturb an ingrained habit. Now it’s finally done.

Now suddenly there is a vacuum in my schedule. It won’t last, of course. A jumble of jobs both worthy and unworthy of my time will try to fill the void, and eventually they will do just that. For now, though, my office is silent but for the hum of the hard drive. Even my neighbor’s dog isn’t barking—is she all right?
This should be the time when my fingers fly, pausing only occasionally to let the keyboard cool down. So why am I staring at the screen, waiting for the thoughts to come? Can it be that literary bête noir, writers’ block? Maybe I should stop for lunch and think about it.

That raises a question, though: What do you do when you’re stuck? One trick that’s worked for me is to open a new file and write about the problem. In a draft of a novel I’d write a note to myself: This is the character and this is the situation, and now I don’t know what to do with him. He can’t just hang around, but has to earn his keep by advancing the story. Think about what the character wants and about possible roadblocks. Maybe your hero is having it too easy, in which case it’s high time for an unwelcome event. What if he wins the lottery? Think about the possibilities: he suddenly has too many friends or loses them all; he hosts a party where someone O.D.’s; he becomes a target for criminals. Meanwhile, all he ever wants is to retire and build houses for Habitat for Humanity.

In other words, if you get stuck that’s a good time to brainstorm. Ask yourself “What if?” and see where the answers take you. The event doesn’t have to be disastrous or even negative, but it should keep the story from moving in a straight line.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a knock at my door.  I’ll be right back…

(note: Twitter and I have since made up.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

L is for Little Mountain

We came home from a trip on Sunday, and two boxes of books awaited me--copies of my brand-new murder mystery, Little Mountain. Wahoo! My plan is to do a nice roll out, including a blog tour and all that. Meanwhile, though, because I need to use the letter L for something in the A-Z Challenge, let me make an offer: For $15 (the list price of the book) I will mail you an autographed copy of Little Mountain. I will pay for shipping.

Send me a private email to desertwriter1[at], with "Little Mountain" in the subject line. In the body, send me your mailing address. I will reply with mine. Then just mail me a check for $15, and I will send the book right out.

So what's the book about? A Cambodian refugee has become an American citizen and a homicide cop in Lowell, Massachusetts (I used to live nearby). He investigates a brutal murder of a Cambodian man that churns up memories of his life under the Khmer Rouge, and his search for the killer may be his own undoing.

Monday, April 11, 2011

K is for Keeping visitors on your blog

Normally, when visitors click a link on your blog or web page, they will leave your blog. Wouldn't it be better if they didn't leave you?

All you need is to have the link open in a separate window. Just follow these simple steps:

1. Click on the Edit HTML button and locate the link, which will be structured like this:

2. After the second quotation mark and before the closing bracket, type a space, followed by

Your code now looks like this:

Sunday, April 10, 2011

J is for Journal-keeping

If you're between writing projects or find yourself at a loss for what to write about, try keeping a journal. Since it's only for your eyes it can have anything in it, but consider it as a place for any number of notes and ideas that you can develop when the time is right. Mine began in the early '80s when my family first came in close contact with Cambodian refugees in the Lowell, Massachusetts area. I'd had nothing in mind at the time, but the notes came in handy when I began writing fiction later in the decade.

If you don't know how to start, the web has some good resources such as

Saturday, April 09, 2011

I is for Ideas and where they come from

Where do story ideas come from? Our own lives provide a rich trove of material, whether from our own experiences or from our observations. We read the newspaper, watch TV, learn about other people's troubles and maybe get an we jot a few notes on our computer for future reference, and then come back to it every now and then. I have a file named ideas.doc with random one-liners that may come in handy some day. They might be possible story titles, character names, "what if" scenarious, snippets of dialog I've overheard somewhere. The idea isn't necessarily to use them all--I don't--but to not forget them and to have a grab bag to dip into.

It's said that Tom Clancy's idea for The Hunt for Red October came from a small news article about a missing Soviet submarine. One day in the early 1980s I heard an NPR report about Cambodian refugees coming to America. That led to an association with some of the refugees and to my eventually incorporating the experience into two novels. At work years ago I overheard two women talking about shaving their legs. One woman said, "If I had legs like yours, I'd get a guy to shave them for me." I scribbled a note right away, and it patiently sits in my idea file, waiting for the right time to use it.

So ideas can come from anywhere. Use them only as starting points, though. Never feel like you have to stick with "what really happened." That only matters for non-fiction.

Friday, April 08, 2011

H is for HTML characters on your web page

Do you need a cedilla or an umlaut or one of those Ls with a line through it like the Polish language uses? Okay, probably not very often. But when a foreign word calls for it, you'll look much more knowledgeable if your blog uses it. So here is a link to the codes for all of these characters:

You'll need to click on the Edit HTML button

Thursday, April 07, 2011

G is for George on Prozac

George, staring at one of his staff
Our Bengal cat George has been unwell lately. We've had him and his sister Gracie since they were weeks old, and now they're six. Lately he's been much quieter than usual except in the middle of the night when we're sleeping, and he's turned sullen (apparently) and aggressive toward Gracie, who's a sweetie. He's in the habit of grabbing her by the neck and holding her down, sometimes looking as if he wants to mate, though they're both neutered. Blood and urine tests at the vet haven't turned up anything, and we're in the process of trying some pheremone diffusers in the house to try calming him down. Today he's better, so maybe the diffusers are kicking in. Also the little guy goes on Prozac tonight. Maybe we'll mix it in with an evening martini.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

F is for the Fantasy page of Deirdra Eden-Coppel

I don't know Deirdra, but she just honored me with her Creative Blog Award. Thank you, Deirdra!

Visit her blog at

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

E is for Essays unfinished

Going through some old files, I came across a couple of paragraphs I wrote in January of 2006. It was meant to be the beginning of an essay.

My mom died in the hospital a couple of years ago, on a day of perhaps too-invasive tests to find the cause of internal bleeding.  I’d stopped by on my way home from work just to check up on her, only to hear from a doctor that she was minutes away from death.  To be with her in those last unconscious moments was both my privilege and my heartache.

Now she lies next to my dad, and they are finally at peace with each other.  What else is left but fond memories?

Monday, April 04, 2011

D is for (re)Discovery

Isn't Facebook great? My wife and I are traveling to South Carolina to see an old friend and his wife. Nancy, Charlie, and I were all high school classmates in Massachusetts nearly a half century ago, and Charlie and I had lost contact for most of that time. Then last year we rediscovered each other on Facebook (thank you, Mark Zuckerberg) and they came to visit us in New Mexico. Charlie took Nancy to the Junior Prom, in fact, so I wound up marrying his prom date. He and I both married well.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

C is for Creating your own ebook

You can pay someone from $50 to $150 to format your book for Kindle, or you can do it yourself. All you need is time, patience, and free software. The following is a general outline of the steps to take, and doesn't cover every specific. (The same or similar method may work for the Nook, but I didn't try that yet.)

The tools I used are:
--Microsoft Word (or you can use OpenOffice, free from
--Mobipocket Creator
--Mobipocket Reader

Both Mobipocket applications are free and downloadable from

1. Open your document file in Word or OpenOffice.
2. If you haven't finished all of your edits, finish them before proceeding.
3. Save your file in .doc format (not .docx or .rtf) with a new name. Leave your original file unchanged.
4. Make the following changes to your document:
     A. Use only a standard font such as Times New Roman.
     B.  Use tabs for paragraph indents.
     C.  Use an extra line break between scenes.
     D.  Put a page break at the end of each chapter.
     E.  Delete all headers and footers, including page numbers.
     F.  Replace em dashes with double hyphens, because em dashes don't display properly.
     G.  Get rid of any unusual formatting.
5. Save your file in filtered html format. (Filtered html allows you to create a web page that is still editable as a Word file, though with limited functionality.)
6. Upload the file to Mobipocket Creator.
7. Upload a cover image to Mobipocket Creator.
8. Click the Build button.
9. View the completed file using Mobipocket Reader.
10. Go to and sign in to your Amazon account, then follow their instructions.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

B is 'Bout changing the price of your Kindle title

A friend asked how to change the price on his book that he published on Kindle. Here is how:

1. Go to and sign in with your Amazon account.
2. Click on the Actions button associated with your title.
3. Click on Edit Book Details.
4. The first screen that appears isn't what you want, so click Save and Continue. The second screen has a place where you can reset the price.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Bouillabaise and books

We're guests this week and next in the Carolinas, so my A-Z Challenge is doubled for a while as I use my hosts' computer but focus mainly on socializing with them. They had three inches of rain just before we arrived, but so far we haven't seen any of that. Last night our hosts cooked up a bouillabaise of shrimp, corn, soft-shell crabs, and mussels. Mmmm-mm!

My new mystery, Little Mountain, is out. A box of copies has arrived at home, but I'll be too busy for a grand whoop-de-do rollout until our return. Much more about that later.