The Thirty Minute Blogger

Exploring Books and the Writer's Life, Faith and Works, Culture and Pop Culture, Space Science and Science Fiction, Technology and Nostalgia, Parenting and Childhood, Health: Physical and Emotional ... All Under the Iron Hands of the Clock and That 30 Minute Deadline

Monday, December 14, 2009

Back in Business

After a brief hiatus to finish a semester at seminary (part time M.Div. student, full time worker) and upgrade my access to the Internet to high speed from dial up (was I the last holdout?), Michael and the New Baby is back in business.

First of all, let me wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah and a very Merry Christmas. Also good will to all of all faiths and lack thereof at this time of year. Bless you all.

Second, after finishing a semester studying the Old Testament prophets, I have to say, the situation in 8th century B.C. Israel and the 21st century United States are disturbingly similar in the abuse of the poor and powerless by the wealthy and powerful. This led to Israel's downfall. I hope we will be able to avoid the same.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Observations Made at the National Zoo with Our Kids

The Parable of the Monkey House

Walking into the monkey house, one man quietly gazed upon the large, dark male gorilla. The beast was at peace while all around him was bedlam. The crowd outside his cage hooted and shrieked, made odd faces, pointed and waved, all in a vain attempt to attract the attention of the recumbant beast. Within the cage a TV flickered and sang, but it was ignored as well. The man stared into the eyes of the ape, marveling at the intelligence within them and pleased with himself for noticing. Then the man saw a curious thing. The ape’s eyes usually wandered over the crowd, without finding anything of particular interest. Suddenly, however, the ape sat up straight and his eye’s tracked something unnoticed by the man, something moving from left to right at the back of the crowd. A moment later, the ape relaxed again and his eye’s wandered.

The man was curious now and wondered if this would happen again. What had suddenly gotten the beast’s attention? Watching the gorilla, the man soon saw something again attract the ape’s attention. Quickly, the man followed the gorilla’s gaze. Across the back of the room, a beautiful woman crossed from one side to the other, noticed by no one other than the gorilla, and the man. The man chuckled to himself, mere coincidence he thought.

Still, the man was curious and continued to watch the gorilla as the crowd came and went, making odd monkey noises and gestures which were of no interest to either ape nor man now. Again, the gorilla’s attention was captured. Again, a beautiful woman crossed the room, a different woman than before. Three times this happened while the man watched. Shaking his head, humbled by the experience, the man left the monkey house. The gorilla, mere object of curiosity when the man arrived, proved to be much more, able to find beauty among his captors even as they ridiculed him with their foolish japes.

Information and Belief Collide: Confusion Reigns

Two books I've been reading lately have helped sum up one of the problems of our time.

From Harold Evans' book My Paper Chase, I read: "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." --James Madison to W.T. Barry, August 1822

However, in Joseph Blenkinsopp's book, A History of Prophecy in Israel, I discover that the later prophets were backed by such a long tradition of prophecy and so many prophets with divergent views (prophecy varied by time and circumstance) that the average hearer was not sure what to believe and often ignored prophets out of confusion.

Things are exacerbated today. We have a huge onslaught of information, all conflicting and endlessly streaming and knowledge that should govern is submerged in a flood of opinion and visceral response. Oftentimes we throw up our hands and respond, "Oh that's just your opinion" and then turn to our favorite information outlets (so many of them can't be termed news with good conscience) for our own tailormade point of view. In doing so we run the risk of ignoring vital information and being ruled by ignorance and fear. Things are too dangerous today to do that. What a bind we find ourselves in!

Any solutions out there? Anyone wish to impart some real knowledge?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Challenging Quotes in Polarized Days

The following quotes are from the book, Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road by Paul-Gordon Chandler. This book presents the story of Mazhar Mallouhi a Muslim follower of Christ who is introducing the loving Jesus he knows to the Islamic world. These provide food for thought for all, religious and non-religious folks alike, who feel the urge to become invective spewing bomb throwers. Read these, take a deep breath, think twice, repeat:

"We have reduced ourselves to religious, to denominations, to confessions...instead of following my Palestinian compatriot from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth." Elias Chacour (The Palestinian Archbishop of Galilee) [p. 127]

"...some ... believe they have the whole truth and therefore assume others can have no truth at all. However, as Mazhar says, 'we do not own the truth; the truth owns us.' Consequently, Mazhar is very grateful for all truth found anywhere ..." (Consider this carefully all angry adherents of faith and non-faith before calling others hell-bound or superstitious fools.) [p. 95]

"God walks in the Holy Scriptures seeking people." St. Ambrose [p. 147] (Not one special group of people or another, all people.)

"Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,/There is a field. I'll meet you there./When the soul lies down in that grass,/the world is too full to talk about./Ideas, langauge, even the phrase 'each other' doesn't make any sense." Jalal Al-Din Rumi, a 13th century Muslim Sufi mystic [p. 73] (Shhhh...)

"All truth, by whomever it has been said, is from God's Spirit." St. Ambrose (who baptized and discipled St. Augustine of North Africa) [p. 73] (Makes drawing lines in the sand seem a little silly, no?)

Less contention, more dialogue, more truth discovered, please.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Disney World Secrets

Oh, by the way, if you're going to Disney World, there are a few extra things you should know.

Now, the most important secret is for grown ups. If you find yourself in any of the parks "in distress" of the digestive or intestinal sort, there is hope for you. Go into any of the shops and quietly ask if they have something to take. From behind a counter they will bring a small box filled with remedies you need. Little double pill packets of Immodium AD or Tums or some other chemical salvation. Long flights and eating on the fly will get you every time. But you have to know to ask because nothing is out in the open. The illusion that everyone is having a Zippity Doo Dah day is always maintained.

Another essential secret concerns breakfast. If you're staying in the hotels, the breakfast food opportunities are vast and varied. However, remember, this is Florida. It is hot. You will be in and out of that heat all morning. Consider twice before eating anything heavy. Better to stick with cereal, toast, or fruit rather than having to ask at a shop for relief later on.

Finally, in the food department, you can eat at Disney on a budget. There are some beautiful and wonderful restaurants of course, but you didn't come for those did you. What you need to know is that two adults can easily eat from a single large salad with slabs of chicken thrown in and do very nicely indeed. For finicky young eaters, we found the found the peanut butter and jelly sandwich pockets (that's not what they're called but they're sandwiches with the ends sealed shut, they're from Smuckers and little kids love 'em) to be salvation.

Oh yeah, one more thing, if you're in the Epcot Center sphere, taking the ride, and you see a night scene with beautiful starry panoramas, don't be a doofus and take a flash picture. You'll ruin the effect for everyone, be roundly cursed, and end up with a picture of a curved white wall. Spare yourself the ire!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Disneyland and Disney World Still Great Vacation Spots for Kids

Hey parents, set aside the postmodern sophistication and jaded view of the world and take your kids on a Disney vacation. Sure, corporate Disney is huge and owns a lot, but the Mouse still puts on a good show.

But you do need a disclaimer. I don't work for Disney. Disney doesn't pay me (I should be so lucky). But, I grew up as a red blooded all-American Mouseketeer and a religious "Wonderful World of Disney" viewer (8 pm Sundays). I watched Walt give us eager 1960s kids a tour of Disneyland (there was no Disney World then) and really, really wanted to go. We went when I was 13 and my brother was 7 ... despite being a teen (especially since nobody I knew was there), I loved the place. I still do.

Disney makes it easy for families. Purchase their package deal (check on prices, we last went in 2003) and you get your airfare, room, and pass to the Kingdom all in one. You won't need to worry about transport from the airport to the park either, Disney has you covered. A bus meets you at the airport and whisks you off to the park. Once there, busses get you to whichever park you want to visit (I'm speaking of Disney World here as that is my point of reference as an East Coast parent). Once inside, the monorail system will take you to all the parks Disney has to offer. It's simplicity itself. Save your pennies and take the 5 day package. You'll be able to visit all 4 parks without rushing and have a fifth day to relax at the water park there midweek.

A word to the wise, however. Wait until your youngest child is at least 6 years old. I've seen too many parents dragging around a kid far to young to enjoy the place and nobody wins in that situation. Everybody is mad at each other, the kid ends up in tears, the parents are red-faced with frustration (we paid good money for this darn it ... now enjoy yourself!!!), and not even Disney magic can defeat that. If your youngest is around six, you'll want to rent the Disney double stroller. Your child sits in one side, your gear rests in the other, and you get to move at an adult pace without the little one wearing out. Our daughter was able to go from park opening to park closing at 10 pm using this system. Best of all, as you move from park to park, you pick up a new stroller at each park but ... if I'm remembering correctly ... there's no fee after the first rental charge. It's a beautiful thing.

Of the parks at Disney World, The Magic Kingdom, Epcot and the Hollywood Studios are our favorites. Plenty to do and see. Surprisingly, the kids loved Epcot (our daughter felt it was the world of shopping) and our son loved all the twists and turns in each "nation." Epcot is best at night by the way.

Best of all, all the favorite rides (Space Mountain and Mission to Mars are musts if you don't have health issues) have fast pass features. You reserve a time with your card (which is also your room key so don't lose it) and enter a short line at the appointed hour. Works like a charm. You've also got to ride "It's a small world" and the Mexico pavilion ride at Epcot (which is the Spanish version of It's a small world") for the "cheese" factor!

When you come back, let me know what you liked best. Also, if you've got stories to report from Disneyland, I'd love to hear them. Why, "because we like you", just like the ol' Mickey Mouse Club members used to say when they closed the show!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Christian Moderates and Liberals, Find a Way to Speak UP, PLEASE!!!

For far too long, Christian moderates and liberals have given the public podium, the airwaves, the television broadcasts, the blogs, ... and every other public media over to the conservatives. Amongst conservative Christians, the ones who really make a splash in the 24 hour news cycle are the most strident voices, those who tend to alienate others rather than show them the love of Jesus, the ones who cast Christianity as a very private club rather than Jesus' healing message intended for all. It's time to speak up in every way possible.

The general sentiment tends to be that Christians of moderate to liberal persuasion don't want to speak up as they don't want to be associated with the far right folks on the airwaves. This is a problem. How do we ever change peoples' minds and redefine Christianity in the minds of others if we don't speak up? We know we are called to witness to others. We know we are instructed to help others and let them know who inspires us to help. We have been so quiet for so long that when others generalize about us and characterize us all as conservative fundamentalists, no one speaks up to deny this or to offer another point of view. Check out the blogs railing against Christianity if you don't believe me and you'll see the trend there. It's all on us to change this view of us, who we are, and what we believe. Today I say a Facebook post for Dr. Pepper that makes a clever evolutionary joke including their soda. The title of the article boldly stated Christians protest this Facebook page. Well, let me tell you, this Christian has no problem with what Dr. Pepper has done or with science in general.

So, I'm asking you to find a way that plays to your strengths to speak out and let others know there are other kinds of Christians out there than those who now have the mics and the public attention. I've chosen to start a little project of electronic evangelism on Hub Pages. You can see what I've done under I admit it's a small start. But in a few months, ten articles from a more moderate to liberal Christian have (last time I checked) been read over 620 times. It's a small beginning. But, if each of us does our part and speaks out in the ways that play to our God-given strengths, we stand a chance of presenting Christ's loving message in a different voice from the strident tone currently reaching the public and shaping opinions at the moment. Give it a shot. We've got a lot to gain ... and too much to lose.

NOTE: Since this was written, I've extended the project into this blog site with my Good News From Christianity posts. Baby steps for now. But I'm learning and expect to expand outward more soon in bolder ways. What about you? 

God bless you.

Scientists: Communicate Better on Climate Change!

The new Pew Research poll is out. Only 57 percent of the populace in the U.S. believes climate change is real. This is down from 77 percent in 2006. AND only 36 percent believe humans are responsible for the mess. Okay guys and gals, scientists who are paniced by the implications of global warming, it is time for you to speak up clearly and directly to the general public. But first, get out there and speak with people. Find out what they really think. You'll discover there are many out there who think this is just you opinion and they have plenty of scientists who feel otherwise in their pockets. Others will tell you this is part of the natural entropy of the universe ... things just fall apart. So, it's time to listen and the to communicate. You all need to find yourselves another Carl Sagan, someone who speaks clearly and engagingly on the topic who can get through to people before it is too late.

For the 36 percent out there who feel humans are responsible, is holding rallies across the nation this Sunday, October 24, to raise awareness about global warming. Be a part of one near you if possible. Speak up and let people know how you feel.

It's time to talk folks. In fact, it's overdue.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Star Trek XI Coming to the Small Screen for Christmas

I'm ready to see it again, twice over the summer just wasn't enough. Star Trek XI, the movie the reintroduces the original cast (with new, young, strong actors and actresses who look like they just came out of Star Fleet Academy training) to an new generation of potential "Trekkers" and gladdened the hearts of longtime fans, will be out on DVD on November 17. Enterprise will be surely warping through many a Christmas afternoon or evening this year!

Please note, however, there is at least one scene that is too intense for younger viewers. I know a 13 year old who found herself squirming through it ... so be careful parents.

If you didn't see this film over the summer, now's your chance to catch up on the action. For you skeptics who roll your eyes and pooh-pooh, you really should give this one a try. Sure you're skeptical after the franchise blew its warp core with the ill-fated "Enterprise," preceded by the lack-luster and all too long lasting "Voyager," but it's time to put all that away and move on. Yes, there are standard sci-fi ploys involved, including time travel and alternate universes (hey old Spock and young Spock meet without destroying universes, which is a nice twist). But get over it, see the film, and you'll most likely find you enjoy yourself in spite of your jaded skepticism.

What makes this Star Trek different is ... well, it's a really good movie first and a Star Trek movie second. The characters are a fresh look at the original crew, updated for today. You see the original characters in the new cast, but you also see them given new depth and taken further. I won't bore you with all the details, but let's take a brief look at one character, Lt. Uhura. In the original series, Uhura was basically a switchboard operator who fell to the floor and shrieked when the going got rough. Today's Uhura does a lot more. She's a zeno-linguist, talented, tough, and passionately in love with one character who ... well never mind. I don't want to spoil things for you. Never once when the going gets tough does she fall to the floor and shriek.

Dr. McCoy is fantastic and played to cranky perfection. The rest of the cast is equally entertaining and gives new twists to their old roles. The ship is beautiful and detailed. The secondary hull is very mechanical, engineering is a maze of hardware and piping, the shuttle bay appears voluminous.

The interactions amongst the crew are enough to keep you thoroughly entertained if you're a fan. Then you still have a villain. He takes a back seat to the crew in some ways but provides plenty of action and thrills as a deranged Romulan playing the 23rd century equivalent of Captain Nemo, gunning for whole planets instead of slave ships to assuage his wrath and pain.

For those of you who grew up with the original series and have seen the much-loved episodes look a little dated over time, rest assured (that is if there are really any of you out there who haven't seen this movie on the big screen already ... if there are where were you this summer .... are you all right, did you fully recover?!) there are no singing hipsters in this version, the camera does not zoom in and out at the red alert panel when trouble is coming, and a damaged ship does not tilt on the screen to indicate serious damage has occurred (I always wondered, since space has no real up or down but only out, from whose point of view was the suffering vessel tipped?), but all of the fun and plenty of new technology are packed in for your entertainment.

So, come November 17th, buy this Sci-fi movie for a friend or loved one. Make it a Star Trek Christmas for you ... and profitable enough for Paramount to do it again with the same crew and director soon!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Writing a Children's Book, Part 3: Characters

While the plot gives your children's book structure, the characters truly drive the story. If you have interesting characters a child can relate to, a main character that your readers will quickly care about, and supporting characters who are rich and surprising, your story will go far.

In the beginning, you introduce your characters to the readers. Let's focus on the main character. At the beginning, you need to establish who the main character is and how he or she thinks by how that character acts, interacts with others, and responds to whatever problem faces him or her. For beginners, it is best to make the main character likeable. Antiheroes are harder to write and relate to ... and they don't crop up all that often in children's literature. In Michael and the New Baby, the main character is awakened early by the very problem that he will have to grapple with ... and come to terms with ... over the course of the book, the new baby in the house who wakes him up early with a loud cry. We quickly get to know Michael as he navigates through the day and understand the various aspects of his fear.

Give your main character some depth. Likes and dislikes, favorite objects, particular outlooks on the world, unusual quirks and fears all add dimension to your characters. You don't want one dimensional action figures, not even in a story for young children. If a character has no other purpose in life than to follow the plot, you have yourself a boring, one dimensional characature rather than a character. (You'll quickly realize you probably need to create for yourself something called the author's "bible" in which you create an entire back history for each character and a listing of all of the necessary traits, clothing, objects associated with the characters, etc., so that you can keep it all straight. It seems like busy work ... and most of it truly will not end up in the book ... but it will help you flesh out the characters, give them depth, and develop connections between them that you might not have come up with otherwise.)

To give your main character as sense of reality, give that character history. Make references to the character's friends, to incidents that occured in particular locations, to his or her favorite spots, foods, etc. Have others refer to things that have happened between them or to anticipated events to occur later in the day/week/month, etc. All of this gives a sense of a richer world surrounding your character.

Other characters need to be more than one dimensional stick figures who move into and out of the set to propel the plot forward. They too need to have a past, need to have feelings and complications that give them depth and interest. Nothing is more boring than a series of characters who are paper cut outs readers are simply waiting for something to happen to (like in a bad slasher movie where the only thing you wonder is how a particular character will die, not whether or not he or she will survive, because the writer gave you no reason to care about that character). My antagonists in the story, the oddly named Stinky Roos (again, this was initially written to amuse a 6 year old boy and the name just stuck), have a bit of history to them and a variety of characters with a variety of jobs and roles to play. They represent for Michael what he is becoming by succumbing to his fears rather than facing them. They are exaggerations of the angrier emotions and thoughts Michael is facing and help Michael, the main character, see that those fears can and should be mastered to avoid ending up like the cantankerous Stinky Roos and that babies just aren't that bad!

Giving your character an interesting prop to work with at the begining of the story adds a certain amount of interest. Readers will wonder why the character always carries that item around. Then later in the story, the character can put the object to good and surprising use later on. However, don't cheat. Make sure to incorporate that object at the beginning of the story. Otherwise it'll just feel like you're cheating by springing the object later when needed and are just coming up with a feeble way to get yourself out of a corner you've painted yourself into. Handled well, you'll make readers curious. Handled poorly, you'll end up with eyerolling.

Give your characters depth, make the main character likable so readers have a reason to feel concern about what happens to him/her and can root for the character, and give them history. Make a character's bible to keep it all straight. Do all this and then your characters can help carry the story!

We Didn't Hurt the Moon

When the LCROSS spacecraft crashed into the moon at 5,000 miles per hour, the Centaur rocket booster created a crater 93 feet across. The plume produced, however, was not visible from Earth as it was hidden behind the rim of a 2 mile high crater wall. That crater was created by a rock far bigger than any spacecraft we have ever launched into space. The moon is hit regularly by rocks large and small as may be seen by its pockmarked visage. We are small, the moon is big. We will do it no lasting damage beyond littering tiny portions with some techno-debris ... which we might be able to clean up if space agencies receive the necessary funding to establish human bases there.

When the comet fragments of Shoemaker Levy 9 impacted Jupiter, each of the 14 strikes released the equivalent energy of all of humanity's nuclear weapons exploding at once. Jupiter's response to what would have wiped life off the face of the Earth ... 14 dark smudges that disapated over time. So, rest assured, we are small, the universe is large, the LCROSS impactor caused no lasting harm. For more on the LCROSS mission, visit the Universe Today website or NASA. Either one will be glad you came.
So have no fear, the moon of Good Night Moon and other beloved stories is intact and rising in the night sky. Lovers may go out on warm nights and "rope the moon" for each other just like Jimmy Stewart. The much loved "man in the moon" does not have a rocketship sticking out of one eye, forever disfigured while sailing across the night sky. Nor is the moon now about to leave orbit to drift haplessly among the stars as it did in "Space 1999." But soon, very soon, we may know if water ice hides in that deep dark crater at the moon's southern pole. And that, given how important such water ice could be to the future of human spaceflight, is worth a little dust up to discover.

Speak with Care, People!

We are living in a highly polarized world. There are over 6 billion of us and we're feeling the stress. Resources are limited and all too often hoarded by those who need them least. In the technological West we are burning the candle at both ends and up the middle as we are led by the nose by the gadgets that are supposed to give us more free time ... and a paperless office ... both of which turned out to be cruel jokes. We seek out the latest gadget while folks in struggling nations face starvation. We're sitting on a powder keg ... and many of us light matches almost every time we speak, some with malice and others without any forethought at all.

Before you speak, or email, or blog, or Tweet, pause for a moment of reflection. Think about whether the opinion you are about the express or the words of wisdom you intend to impart will edify or enrage people. Will what you say build bridges of understanding or walls of hatred? Go for the bridges.

The other day I heard an evangelical say in a news piece that his version of Christian faith was the only one to "take the Bible seriously." As a member of one of the more moderate to liberal Christian denominations, I was irritated and failed to hear the speakers subsequent points. He'd lost me on a few ill-chosen words. In point of fact, Christianity uses the Bible as the foundation of the faith and all serious, practicing Christians take the Bible very seriously. Scripture interpretation methods differ from those of the evangelicals, but, let me repeat, all take the Bible very seriously.

It is far too easy these days to alienate one another, especially in the charged atmosphere we all live in. Decide today not to add to the anger, not to build walls, but to build bridges instead. Avoid the knee jerk rhetoric and common wisdom, refrain from the cruel jokes and barbed remarks, and instead speak in ways that will extend joy, establish peace, and build bridges.

Take a moment to remember what your mother taught you, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." Words to live by ... and it may be words that keep us alive or drive us to extinction.

Have a blessed day.

Fiji Island Mermaid Press: Home of Tiny Books

All of you who are passionate about books need to take a look at the website faomously known by the acronym FIMP (Fiji Island Mermaid Press) and run by print artist Marc Snyder. The artist's work as a printmaker may be found there (which is really impressive) ... but, and you bookish sort have to be wondering where I'm going with this, you really need to check out FIMP's miniature books! They have toured at shows, been purchased by museums, and are available to the lucky few who have signed up for the prestigious FIMP Book of the Month Club. Made from a single sheet of paper reduced to measurements that make them miniature books, these tiny volumes have a lot to say. Some books are serious statements about politics, culture, and other burning issues of the day like the book titled Makes a Lousy Gift! 6 Things You Shouldn't Give That Special Someone, while others are pure whimsy. As a long-time member of the book of the month club, I highly recommend stopping by FIMP and checking it out. Let him know I sent you. Hell, let me know you went!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Celebrating Twilight Zone's 50th Anniversary!

Let's hear it for Rod Serling. It was 50 years ago this year that Rod first brought us his thought provoking and always entertaining Twilight Zone. The series that dared to ask the truly thought provoking questions of the day and to deal with hot issues couched in strange settings and unusual circumstances. Rod grappled with life and death issues, heaven and hell issues, end of the world issues, and far more. He showed us aliens who manipulated a sleeply little neighborhood until the frightened neighbors blamed each other for the strange events taking place on their street and turned on each other. Too bad today neighborhood violence is common in so many areas without any need of alien influence. He showed us a man who returned to the small town where he grew up on a nostalgic journey and discovered he had returned to the days of his childhood. He tried to tell his young self to enjoy those years and live them to the fullest ... with tragic, Twilight Zone results. Serling dealt with difficulties in the workplace, difficulties in relationships, and so much more. Personally, I thank him for making the stories accessible to teens as well as adults. Twilight Zone was a staple of my teenage years.

To celebrate I recommend the DVD box set if you have deep pockets. Parents, take the time to watch these episodes with your older kids and talk with them about the issues afterwards. You could do far worse for shared TV viewing than that.

If you are the more cerebral sort, check out the book Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man by Gordon F. Sander. It was published in 1992 and remains a very good read. You'll come to understand the complexities ... and the foibles ... of the creative genius behind the series. You'll also find some really good photos of Rod himself included.

Thanks, Rod, thanks for everything.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Writers: Finding a Publisher Basics

All right readers, the votes are in. You all prefer articles on writing issues so that will be the focus. So, you've written a book and now you need to find a publisher ... or you have a terrific New York Times best seller idea and want to pitch it to a publisher. What do you do?

It all starts with information. You begin the process by checking out other books in your genre. For this, you'll need your local library. Yes, you can check for books on your subject on Amazon if you are so inclined, but you'll still want to see physical copies of the books before you make your choices to see how each publisher handles the material and the layout. Go to the library (or bring their card catalogue up on line if they've gone high tech) and gather up an armful of books in your genre or on your topic. Check them out and see which publishers had an approach that is most to your liking. Go to the copyright page and get the full name of each publisher whose work you like. By taking this route, you've narrowed the field considerably before you take the next step.

Now, go back to the card catalogue and locate the most recent copy of the Writer's Marketplace that your library has. Look up each publisher who caught your eye. The Writer's Marketplace will give you a rundown on how each publisher operates and how they accept submissions. It will tell you if you need an agent to approach them. If not, it will tell you if the publisher accepts entire finished manuscripts or if they are looking for a proposal letter, an outline, and a few sample chapters instead. This is absolutely essential information as you do not want to waste your time contacting every publisher in the business hoping someone will like what you have written.

The most important step in this process, however, is to follow whatever steps the publisher asks you to take with great precision. Each publisher does things differently as each has developed a particular system that works best for them. Send them something that doesn't follow their guidelines and in most cases, your manuscript will be rejected. Why? Because your manuscript will take them more time than they are willing to spend on it if it doesn't conform to their guidelines.

Good luck.

Michael and the New Baby Message in a Bottle!

J.S. Brooks Presents goes all out to promote the book with the small town, message in a bottle approach. Right now a flyer is posted on the community bulletin board at the local Acme. Yes sir, I'll try anything!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Joys of Sharing Your Work With Your Kids

I write and edit books for a living ... along with going to seminary part time and filling in as a licensed American Baptist pastor for pastors who are off for a week's vacation ... and have had the opportunity to write some unusual and interesting books. From time to time it means plunging into fields I don't know very well and bringing myself up to speed quickly. Since many of the book involve antiques or collectibles, the quickest way to bring myself up to speed is to interview the collectors as I shoot their collects. (Yes, copious research is also done, but the interviews are more fun and always engaging.)

Some years back, I was given my most unusual assignment. A collector's guide to the Pokemon card game was desired as the publisher, who was then experimented with moving into the world of pop culture collectibles. Personally, I knew nothing about Pokemon cards other than my kids watched the cartoon and that the cards did indeed exist. So I bought a 60 card pack and read up as much as I could. While I learned the basics, I had not mastered the ins and outs of the material. So, I gave the cards to my resident expert, my ten-year-old son, and let him fill me in on all the details. Fortunately, knowing the game rules was not required for this project as the written rules seemed largely incomprehensible to my adult mind. My son scoffed and quickly informed me nobody actually read the rules. The rules of the game as played were passed down from one kid to another by word of mouth.

Illumination was dawning.

To make a long story mercifully short, my son helped me organize the cards into their various decks, organize the book into its various chapters, and in the moment I enjoyed best, he was my most critical editor. He really took the job seriously. He was encouraging but he was also stern when he discovered errors. He had all the makings of a top notch editor if I do say so myself. It was a wonderful experience we were both able to enjoy together and a great opportunity for my child to truly help me with my job, an experience that made him feel pretty good at the time and even better when I handed him the finished copy of the book.

So, whenever possible, find a way to include your children in your day, even into some facet of the work-a-day world where they are not usually allowed to enter. You'll both be likely to find the experience memorable.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Artists: How to Get Your Artwork Published!

If you are an artist who has submitted work to many juried shows and book calls, this article is not for you. Click on the picture of my book, Michael and the New Baby, buy a copy, and go away. I thank you.

Now, if you are an up-and-coming artist who would love to see your work published in a book along with the works of many other artists, both emergent and successful, here are some tips to help your submission get selected.

To set the stage, you are informed that some author or other is writing a book on the art form you create (perhaps ceramics, printmaking, or glass blowing). You would like to have a shot at having your work selected for inclusion. Here are a few simple steps that will give you a better shot at inclusion and the notoriety inclusion in such a book brings.

1. Make sure you obtain a copy of the submission form. This form will inform you in detailed terms (if the author is worth his or her salt that is) exactly what is being looked for in terms of images and text. Don't rely on the description of a friend or associate of what is on said form, get the actual form itself. If you have any questions about what's on the form, it pays to contact the author and clarify the issue right away to make sure you get the submission right. Be polite in that call or email. If you aren't, I guarantee the author will remember your name and that won't work in your favor.

2. Once you have the submission form, follow it to the letter. Make sure to include everything the author is seeking.

3. Make sure the images are at least as large as the author asks for. Mostly authors are seeking digital images today because they are easier to work with. Authors will be asking for a fairly high resolution image (perhaps 350 or 400 ppi at a 4" x 6" image size). Take that seriously as the better the image quality and size, the better your artwork will look in the book and the more likely it is to be selected. If you aren't familiar with digital cameras, find someone who knows photography well and can take professional looking photos of your work for you. Art books are photo driven and the better your image, the better your shot at inclusion in the book. One quick pointer in the realm of the digital camera: if the camera looks like a 35mm camera and has lenses that may be changed, it is more likely to be of sufficient ppi (pixels per inch) to take a large enough photo. If it looks like a little rectangle and has a fixed lens that slides in and out ... or worse, is built into your phone, it will not have high enough resolution to create a competitive photo.

4. As an artist, writing may not be your forte. Nobody can be good at everything, after all. If you have a friend who is a writer, you might want to recruit this friend (pizza and beer makes a good bribe) to help you write your artist's statement (which can be reused many times for different judged events by the way) and photo captions. Make sure to proofread the finished statement several times, each time looking for something different. On the first pass, make sure you have included all of the information the author asks for (the author knows what he or she intends to convey in the book and doesn't ask for these things without a specific purpose in mind). On the second pass, check the grammar. On the third pass, check the spelling. Nothing conveys a poorer image of you and your abilities faster than lots of spelling and grammar errors. I know it's not fair, but it's true.

5. When you send in your submission, send it to the author's attention and include the title of the book project on the envelope (or in the subject line if the author accepts email submissions). The author may have several art book projects in the work and will be thankful not to have to guess which project your submission belongs to.

6. Following all these steps carefully will give you a much better shot at inclusion in the book project. Miss any of these steps and you are likely to have your submission rejected. Basically, it boils down to this: if you make the author's life easy by providing all that is asked for quickly, your chances for inclusion go up significantly. If you make the author's life hard, I can guarantee you that unless the author is having trouble finding enough artists for the book, your submission will be rejected so fast it would make your head spin, no matter how impressive your artwork.

7. One final thing: if you are selected for inclusion in the book (lucky you, congratulate yourself), the author will send you a release form which says the author has your permission to use the photo (or photos ... really lucky you) in the book. Sign and return this legal form immediately. If you don't return the release form, you will discover later that your work was not included in the book after all. Why not? Because the author didn't have the legal right to publish your work because you forgot to sign the form!

Good luck on your next submission.

Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11 A Moment for Reflection and Prayer

In 2001, I was in the office editing some photo captions when the news came across NPR that an airplane had collided with one of the Twin Towers in New York. The information was sketchy at first and I imagined a small, fixed wing aircraft impacting the tower much as a small plane had done way back when to the Empire State Building. Soon after that the reports came tumbling in one on top of the other. It was a passenger jet used as a guided missile. Then a second hit to the other tower, then the Pentagon, finally the passenger jet dropping from the sky in Pennsylvania. It was a day of unimaginable horror and incredible evil. It was a day when we saw just how badly hate can twist souls and what people are capable of when they give themselves over to darkness. Everyone in the office was in hollow-eyed shock. Work ground to a halt as the reports kept coming in and we all waited for the next hammer blow. We realized we were descending into madness and war.

The sky for the next few days was strange. No jets rumbled over on their way to the major international airport close by. No con trails crisscrossed the sky. On the clear days, the sky was just such a large, empty expanse.

I vividly recall reassuring my children that our small town would not be on any terrorist's hit list. I hated to see that fear and doubt cross their minds.

And so, I take a moment to pause and pray. I pray for all the families of all the victims everywhere. I pray for the families of policemen and women & firemen and women lost that day or over the months to what they inhaled as they tried to save lives. I pray for all who fell and all who grieve the loss. I pray for all the fighting men and women overseas and at home struggling to follow orders and keep us and themselves safe and sane in unsafe and insane situations. I pray to God that there will come a day when the human heart is no longer twisted by hate and madness will no longer lurk in the dark recesses of the human mind. I pray that one day we might all do what God would have us do and help each other with open hands and greet each other with open arms. I pray for an end to grinding poverty, hunger, and injustice -- an end to all these and every other man made cruelty which torture so many lives and twist so many souls with hate. I pray for all who work in every little way, often without notice, to bring peace into a war torn world. I pray for all peacemakers everywhere. Please join me in this prayer.

I hope this finds you well, whoever you are, when you read this. I wish you love, joy, and the peace of God, the peace that passes all understanding.


Readers: You Have Great Power!

My mild-mannered alias writes antiques, collectibles, and art books for a living. In a former career, I was an archaeologist. Just the other day, an archaeologist wrote to me to tell me how useful my books on ceramics were to her in her work. This made my day, my week ... you get the idea.

Readers, you have great power. If you like an author's work, let the author know through the publisher or an author's web site, blog spot, etc. You have the power to lift spirits and keep a favorite scribbler returning to the keyboard to turn out something else you may love. Use your power.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility ...

Better stop before Stan Lee gets after me ... or Disney now.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Michael and the New Baby First Royalty Check

We here at J.S. Brooks Present ... celebrate the arrival of the first royalty check for Michael and the New Baby. The sales are modest and we will be actively seeking new venues to get the word out. We'll be looking into contributing copies to libraries locally, seeking venues for book signings, etc. Still, we're enjoying the moment.
Have a blessed day and a great Labor Day weekend.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Writers: Don't Overlook the Obvious

There come times in the lives of all writers that we dread ... those awful moments when we need to write but don't have a clue where to begin or what to discuss. It may be a book project (fact or fiction), an article, a class project, or some other assignment we've undertaken and now regret. The mind draws a blank and reels, the page remains empty, and flop sweat beads the brow and slicks the palms. What the heck do you do now?

You write about the obvious. Simple? Yes and no. So many times some of us writers tend to overlook the most obvious points we are writing about because we are so familiar with the subject matter. Surely, we thing ...wrongly it turns out... everybody knows this or that tidbit of obvious information. Naturally, I don't have to cover that ground! And then we're stuck. Or worse, we gnash our teeth when some other writer boldly states those obvious facts, figures, stories, etc. and receives accolades for them! Then we seethe and pound our foreheads against the keyboards and wonder why we didn't think of that.

Here's an example. I've written numerous books on antiques and collectibles, along with this children's book that inspired the creation of this infrequently visited blog (thanks for stopping by actually), and I had written four books on one particular nineteenth century ceramics line. I felt I'd covered it pretty well and was done with the subject. Then the publisher came to me and asked if I had leftover images from the four volumes. I told him I did and he suggested I write a pocket guide to the subject. Since the publisher is also my boss, I agreed. Then I was stumped. After four volumes, what was left to write about? Sweat began to bead my brows and slick my palms, until I had that oh so simple inspiration, state the obvious. Define the basic terms for the newcomer to the field. Identify the different dish forms used (the average Victorian dinner set had 101 pieces so there was plenty to work with). When I was done, I'd covered all the most basic of basic information. That little pocket guide sold quickly and well.

Never overlook the obvious. It always makes a solid foundation for an article or a book and many people really won't know the information you have, in your research, written off as too obvious for words.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Seeking Artists Leads to Curious SPAM

As an author and editor, I've been seeking artists for a book project. I've done this on several occasions and the results are wonderful. I hear from artists all around the world ... well, except from Africa but I'm working on that. The problem is, every time I do this I end up getting unusual SPAM as a result. These unwanted ads come in a few choice categories. They are:

1. enlarge your penis to attract women

2. buy Canadian drugs

3. buy a diploma online

4. Marina assures you she is a real girl and she wants to talk to you

Does this speak to the life of the average artists or does it reflect what people think of folks who seek them out for book projects? It's a mystery. Any insights out there?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Book News and Other News

It is heartening to hear of sales of the book, Michael and the New Baby, to the target audience and positive response to the book's message. For a first time children's book author, this is a thrill! The reports are rolling in.

In other news, we here at M&NB took a three day news hiatus while attending to other important business. For matters of sanity and calm nerves, I for one highly recommend the experience from time to time. While it's essential to keep up with the antics of our nation and world, it is a welcome relief to take a little time off from the info flow and just live a small, human life and experience the world around you wherever you are.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

America's Losing Her Mind!

Collectively, we're losing it folks! Divide and conquer is working well and today the suckers are born far more often than ol' P.T. Barnum ever counted on. Our technology and entertainment has divided us up into itty-bitty special interest groups and has warped our sense of reality.

We've confused entertainment and propaganda for news and are reaping the whirlwind as a result. I never used to believe that what appeared on TV and in movies could sway America's beliefs. However, I never counted on the relentless, ever present barrage of garbage that would pour forth from all of our clever high tech devices every hour of every day. News services crumble, declared unprofitable and are replaced by polarized, opinion services catering to one wing or another (far left or far right). Worse, many have come to confuse entertainers for journalists. Rush and Anne, Steven and Jon, they're all entertainers. They have one job to do, amuse some people enough to keep up their ratings. Yet many make the mistake of taking what they have to say as truth and allowing themselves to be guided by such. Folks, we're following a bunch of pied pipers and headed for a collective drowning in lunacy.

Don't believe me? GOOD! I'm blogging. I'm no journalist! This isn't news. This is my opinion. Still, I challenge you to listen to what people are saying at the water cooler, listen to what the "common folk" who make it on the news with one claim or another are stating as fact. A lot of what you'll hear is bizarre and void of common sense. Worse, you'll find many positions utterly devoid of any sense of community or sacrifice or service to others.

In my humble opinion, if we keep this up, the unreality of "reality TV" will soon become our collective reality ... and we'll all be completely, totally, utterly lost and ... perhaps ... barking mad to boot.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Writer's Alert: Book Material Given Away Free!

Writers take note, the British government has released its UFO files online. Here is a quick and easy source of material for a book on a subject that is currently in vogue. However, you have to be quick. Interest peaks for this topic every 30 years or so, the 1940s, the 1970s, the 2000s. Write your material now and find a publisher soon or you'll have to shelve your opus for another generation to wait for the next round of true believers to be born and reach book buying age.

That's a truth that really is out there!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Discerning 3-year-old Approves of Michael and the New Baby!

Yes, it's true, Michael and the New Baby has been given the thumbs up by my wonderful, intelligent 3-year-old niece! (I have several wonderful, intelligent nieces, but only one who is three.) While the story was written for my six-year-old son, I can now honestly and happily report that the 3-year-old crowd will love it too.

For her appreciation of a well written tale, and her emphatic pronouncement afterward that she does NOT want to be a Stinky Roo, my niece is awarded the very first, soon to be highly coveted Digital NO award. Congratulations.

If you too wish to be awarded the rare Digital NO, send in your stories of children who have appreciated Michael and the New Baby. The best testimonials will win!

The Politest "Piss Off" I've Ever Recieved!

In my real life in the work-a-day world outside of children's book authorship, I'm a writer and editor for a publishing house. I am currently gathering artists in four disparate fields for four different books. In the process, I spend a lot of time contacting a variety of organizations online to get the word out. One particularly high end organization made me laugh out loud. They had the politest way of telling me I'd never hear from them that I'd every read. When I sent them my email, the response was "We will contact you at our convenience." The graphics accompanying this "piss off" line were impressive as well.

Needless to say, I've never heard back from those folks, and don't expect I ever will.

If you've found even more elegant ways to be blown off, let me know. Who knows, they may come in handy some day.

If you leave a message, I promise to get back to you sooner than that!

Celebrating a 40th Anniversary

It's time to start pumping some new hot air into this ol' blog. There's one week left in my intensive Introduction to New Testament Greek class so I don't have much time ... but, let's celebrate a 40th anniversary.

It was 40 years ago this year that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Forty-one years ago that was the stuff of science fiction alone. Arthur Clarke, Issac Asimov, and others had written about lunar bases, lunar exploration, lunar mining, etc. but nobody had actually set foot on the lunar surface. Forty years ago, before the lander touched down, nobody was entirely sure if the LEM would sit on the surface or sink beneath a sea of dust. Forty years ago humans for the very first time looked back on Earth from the surface of another sphere to see our beautiful, majestic, and utterly unique (as far as we know) world floating in the incalculably large sea of space.
Further, 40 years ago, for the first time in human history, one individual, Michael Collins, was cut off entirely from the human race as his command module took him around the "dark side" of the moon. Radio communication was cut off and Collins was completely alone as no human had ever been before. Even an individual stranded on an island alone is still in the midst of humanity. Michael Collins was also the first who would have to come home alone if the ascent engine of the lunar module failed and left Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stranded on the lunar surface.
Personally, 40 years ago this year, I was ten and missed seeing the historic first steps on the surface of the moon. I'd fallen asleep waiting for them to open the LEM's hatch. I've seen it many times since, but missed the original "one small step." Ah well.
Oh, by the way, Jim Slade, the illustrious illustrator for Michael and the New Baby, covered the American space program for many years, from Mercury through the space shuttle ... among other things. Did a terrific job too if I do say so myself ... which I do!
So here's to Buzz, Neil, Michael, the whole NASA team and all of humanity for that one giant leap. And here's to doing it all again soon ... and to taking that next giant leap to Mars. May we have the nerve, the will, and the foresight to do so!

Photo of the lunar surface as seen from one of the LEM's windows courtesy of NASA

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sloggin' Thru Blogging: The Hot Air Dilemma

There is a certain depressing truth about blogging that no expert has taught me. I learned this one all by myself. A blog is like a hot air balloon. When heat is added, the balloon rises as we all know. When there is no heat, the balloon slowly, slowly sinks to the ground. A blog is just the same. When you put a great deal of material into it, that material acts as hot air and the blog rises and is noticed floating in the blogosphere. When you have to be away for a while, despite all the hot air you have pumped into it, the blog sinks back into obscurity. The descent is far faster than the rise.

This blog will descend for a while. I am away taking Introduction to New Testament Greek for my Masters of Divinity degree. This is a six week intensive course. As of this writing, I am two weeks in.

See you when I rise again after the summer semester ends.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Fascinated by UFOs? Check This Out

Back in the 1970s, when I was a teen, there was a UFO craze around 1977 (30 years after the purported Rosewell, NM event). Well, it's been 30+ years and people are again interested in UFOs, mixed with a heavy dose of conspiracy theory. Check out this site, which I was alerted to by Universe Today (a wonderful online rundown of space activity) and see what has been called U.S. Air Force Personal UFOs in action.

This strange flying vehicle is called the X-Jet. See it in action by going to: Then ask yourself the following: Were these jet pods developed with technology taken from crashed UFOs? Or is this just another weird device, like the personal rocket pack, that is going nowhere fast ... outside of James Bond films? How would you like to fly your own personal little UFO?

Me, I think they look like the old Dick Tracy flying trashcans without the shower head nozzles around the base actually. Still, it would be fun to fly one!

The truth is out there ... sort of.

Friday, July 3, 2009

See Pixar's UP!

Gather up the kids, borrow a friend's kids, or boldly go to the theater without kids to see Pixar's newest offering, UP. This is a movie that will delight the kids and reward adults who took them ... or adults who came alone. There's plenty of adventure for the kids and amusing dogs who talk through technologically enhanced dog collars. The dogs say just about what you'd expect and are frequently distracted by squirrels. The new child actor who plays the young scout, Russell, determined to help out Ed Asner's character, Carl Fredrickson, an old balloon salesman living alone and lost in the past, and earn his last merit badge is wonderful and honest in his emotions.

For adults, however, the story of Ed Asner's character is wonderful. There is a ten minute or so wordless montage that takes you through the life of this man and his wife from childhood, through marriage, and her demise (I'm not giving away much there by the way) that is as moving as it gets. Be prepared to cry (or struggle hard not to guys) several times in this film. It's far more emotionally moving for adults that my wife or I expected.

Whether you see this film in 3-D or not hardly matters. The story is wonderful and the animation is beautiful. When Carl lifts his house off its foundation and sends it flying south toward Paradise Falls in South American chasing after the adventure he and his wife long sought, the effects are powerful indeed. There are times where, if you have a fear of heights, you will have that fear activated for sure.

I'm keeping this short so as not to give away anything. Go see for yourself! Take your family and go.

If you need to see more before you're convinced, go to and see some of the images and renderings I couldn't legally use here. If you love animation, you'll soon be convinced!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Writing a Children's Book, Part 2: The Plot

No single article can give you all you need to construct a tight and engaging plot. I recommend a book series by Writer's Digest Books called The Elements of Fiction Writing for would-be first time novelists, short story writers, or children's writers. For this topic, you want the book simply titled Plot. That said, here are a few elements you'll need to consider to drive your children's story and keep it an engaging tale kids want to read.

Your story has to go somewhere and do something. You can't have some fluffy animal friend hopping randomly around a field today and expect that to sell your story. On the most basic level, your plot needs a beginning, middle, and end. It also needs a stage to take place on.

Let's look at the stage. This may seem fuzzy and nebulous and you might want to blow it off to plunge ahead with your story. Don't. You need to create a world for your characters to inhabit and for the plot to unfold in. It needs to be a place with rules that can't be broken so the reader can trust your story ... but they can be some pretty imaginative rules and leave lots of room for magical moments and strange twists. Remember Bartholomew Cubbins and the Oobleck? Old King Derwin of Did gets his mystic men to create a whole new weather for him. In Michael and the New Baby, my main character's nemeses abscond with him to Stinky Roo Island which is located a left turn from everywhere and the island is really a world all its own with rules set in stone by the perpetually obstinant inhabitants, the Stinky Roos (a name intended to amuse a 6 year old boy).

Now, with your world in place, you need a problem for your main character or characters to solve. This is where generating your original story idea is vital. Remember you need an engaging topic you are interested in and you know to be a pressing concern for children. In Michael and the New Baby it was the issue of becoming the older sibling when a new baby arrives and the constellation of worries that goes along with it. These worries were personified by the world I created and the characters in it and they were confronted and overcome by the main character one after another in a rising series of crises.

That's next. Once you have your world and your problem to address, you're going to need an interesting opening that moves the story along. The opening has several jobs to do. The opening must introduce the characters of the story, tell the reader quickly about their personalities, and make the main character likable enough the reader is going to be concerned for that character's well being. The opening sets up the problem to be faced throughout the book by plopping readers right down in the middle of it. In Michael and the New Baby, Michael is rudely awakened in the early morning by his new and crying little sister. Up on the wrong side of the bed, this sets Michael up with a bad mood and a cascade of events that lead to his arrival on the island and pressing need to escape the clutches of the Stinky Roos who are determined to make him one of their own as his ill temper matches or surpasses their own and they admire that. Have a care here that the opening isn't too exciting and wild. After all, you do need a climax and it does need to be more engaging than the opening. Make that opening too exciting and extravagant and you might never top it and leave the readers disappointed.

You need a point of view through which the story is told. In children's fiction, it should be the child who is the main character (child human, child dog, child bunny, child Creature from the Black Lagoon, it doesn't matter). The main character also needs to be the person who feels the situation most pressingly and painfully and has the strongest desire to resolve the problem, whatever it may be. Here's a common problem with new children's writers. You're adults and your writing for children. Your basic instrinct is to have some adult come in and help your main character solve the problem or have that adult solve the problem in some sage and all knowing way for the child. TRASH that idea right now, quash that instinct violently if need be. This is a book for kids and the kid who is the main character needs to solve the problem. No kid wants to read a story with an incoming adult with all the answers. A kid wants to see a kid win and overcome. That's such a novel change from most of daily life for a child that it is immediately engaging. Michael has to find his own way to defeat the Stinky Roos and return home with a new perspective. An ancient Roo does give him a clue, but the solution is up to the child.

The rest is mechanics and is best covered in the recommended book. Briefly, you need rising action that leads to the main crisis near the end of the book. Each crisis that leads there needs to be a bit more serious than the last. The main crisis needs to be the big one and it needs to be engaging. While in full blown novels you have misdirection, new directions, sub-plots, and twists and turns galore, the children's book has to be more streamlined in its approach, especially if it is a short picture book like mine. Longer novels for older children can be more complex, think Harry Potter here.

Also remember that the character needs to drive the story forward, and dialogue is often the vehicle to get you there. Make sure the conversations are interesting and actually drive the plot forward. Ignore the temptation to include little complexities you developed during world building just because you like them. If they don't move the plot, shelve them.

When you get to the end, stop. I have and I will.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Writing Articles For Magazines and Newsletters That Sell

For years I've written articles for magazines and journals dealing with antiques and collectibles (but not under this pen name). There are a number of things you must consider when writing an article for publication. First, the most obvious point, you need to write to your strengths. You need to write about something you know. For me, this was simplicity itself as writing antiques and collectibles books is what I do for a living and these books became the wellspring of my article ideas and my basic source material. This served two purposes: the books provided me with plenty of material to work with and the articles allowed me to make many readers aware of my books in print. As the publisher was always mentioned in my tag line, it was a win for everyone.

The next thing you need to consider is which source to write for. I recommend you never write an article on speculation without a magazine or newsletter chosen to receive that article. The reason it is useful to know in advance which publication you are writing for in advance is that once you know the source, you can read several issues of the publication and then tailor your writing to their style and readership. If you have not yet made a name for yourself as a freelance writer, I suggest you choose a source that publishes frequently, like a newsletter or trade paper that publishes weekly and accepts freelance material. The more frequently an publication is published, the hungrier they will be for new material and new writers who may potentially become reliable writers who may be returned to time and again (your goal).

Next write a proposal letter (see my previous blog post). After your article idea has been accepted, then move forward with the article as follows.

Review the writer's guidelines for the publication that has accepted your proposal and follow them to the letter. Make sure you do not exceed the word count and do not deviate from any other requirements the organization requires. Once you've done that you are ready to write.

Consider yourself to be writing for someone who is very interested in your topic, is intelligent and curious, but knows nothing about the subject. You won't be able to get into great depth in any topic in an article, so you might as well cover the basics well so as not to leave anyone behind. Throw in some interesting and unusual facts for people who are more familiar with the topics of course, but mostly stick to the basics.

In the antiques article, here is the basic format. Introduce the subject under discussion with a brief history of who developed the item under discussion and during what time span. Follow this with a basic examination of the item under discussion, including materials the antique or collectible was made of, the forms it came in , how it was decorated, any distinguishing marks it has (manufacturer's marks in the case of ceramics, my specialty), and any marks that might be left over from manufacture.

Once you have covered the basics, you can launch into a discussion of interesting features with whatever word count you have left. In ceramics this would include changes in forms and decorations over the years or decades of production, which items are common and rare and why this is so, and warnings over which rare items are being faked and imitated today. This might be followed by some advice on collecting and pricing that will enable the newcomer to begin searching for the items with some sense of confidence and a logical approach. Of course, if you have written books on the topic, this is also the place to shamelessly suggest new collectors need some good reference books on the topic. In the tag line about the author you will include you have a book on this topic, list the title, and the publisher and price.

If the publication wants photos to accompany your article, make sure you can provide images you own the copyright to (i.e. pictures you have taken yourself that you have permission of the owners to take and display) and that are of the proper size required by the publication.

A final note, don't bother getting fancy in your writing. I tried this in a very well known, upscale market magazine in an opening paragraph that appeared to be completely in the style of the magazine. The result was that the article was accepted but the opening paragraph was removed by the editor without comment. I never did that again and the editors have all been happy with my work.

In another article we'll talk about the contracts and what to watch for.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sloggin' Thru Blogging

There is one thing you ought to know, new bloggers, that they don't tell you. Once you've succeeded in creating 24 posts in two months, you have to keep the production level up. If you don't, your blog will quickly slip from notice by the search engines. Once that happens, you'll quickly note that people just don't stop by anymore. So, if you are serious about blogging, you need to know that it will take time, you need lots of interesting posts, they need to be brief, and they need to keep coming. Will it get you noticed and draw people to your site regularly. That depends on your tenacity and the quality of your product and how much time you have to pour into the endeavor.

Good luck!

Control Firearms Access for Your Kids' Sakes

I write this with a heavy heart. A friend of mine (no names will be used here for reasons soon to become painfully obvious) was working the emergency room as part of a seminary chaplaincy program. This dreadful tale of personal loss drives home the point that, despite the ridiculously heated rhetoric, we need to do much more to keep guns out of the hands of children. Our cities have become war zones and young children there are going up developing war zone survival strategies. One child leaps into any convenient trash can when the first bang echoes off the walls of the buildings around him. He prays hard that no stray bullet will find him and remains in that trashcan until all is quiet on the street once more. It doesn't make for pleasant childhood memories. So much for the innocence of youth.

This story starts on a playground. A young mother has run and errand and left her son at the local playground with friends and their moms. As she rounds the corner at the end of the block, she sees a teen on a bike pedal over to her son. This teen looks her in the eyes, glaring with hatred, reaches into his jacket, pulls out a handgun, and shoots her son through the head. The murderer pedals off down the street unchallenged. The mother rushes to her son, gathers him up, and through sobs heads for the emergency room.

My friend, on duty as chaplain assistance that day, sits with that weeping mother after she receives the news. Her son was dead before he hit the ground. His death was senseless. All that my friend could do was be a support for this grieving mother and be there for her in her darkest hour.

We hear a lot of hollow rhetoric these days. We are told we all need our weapons to keep us safe from the bad guys. Folks, there is absolutely nothing that mother could have done differently if she had been armed. Was she to act preemptively and gun down the bicycle rider for his glare before he acted? We've seen as a nation how well preemptive violence works. Was she to commit rough justice in the streets, sending a hail of bullets after that deranged kid while her son lay bleeding on the ground? Our current laws are not enough. Policemen and women are gunned down regularly by people carrying armor piercing rounds in weapons that have the police far outmatched. Lunatics steeped in hatred are arming themselves and setting off to shoot down the innocent in public places like schools and the National Holocaust Museum. This is all madness. If for no other reason that for the sake of your own children, demand better, more effective gun control for our nation.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The International Space Station Celebrates!

Congratulations to the world scientific community, to all the participating nations, and to the many astronauts, cosmonauts, engineers, and space agency staffers who have made the dream of the ISS a reality. It may not be the gigantic spinning wheels in space depicted so elegantly in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but as the International Space Station celebrates ten years aloft, there is much to be happy about. As of this year, the full crew of six is able to inhabit the largest space faring human-made structure ever to ply the vacuum. The ISS is not only the second brightest object in the night sky, but under the right conditions, she is also visible in the daytime when that impressive array of solar panels reflects the light just right.

We've learned a lot from the ISS. Science is conducted there each and every day. We have learned that humans actually can build complex structures in orbit and that the components made by different nations will function together when assembled. For those of you who have attempted to put together anything with badly translated instructions originally written in some other language, you know this is no small feat. Recently, ISS astronauts captured an erupting volcano in its earliest moments and Earth scientists are scrambling to study the photos and learn new things. The ISS is also equipped with robots. They may not be "Robbie" or "Gort" but the robotic arm and the more massive robot for swapping out batteries and other massive objects are saving ISS inhabitants a lot of time on spacewalks these days.

On a light note, the ISS crew enjoyed this year's blockbuster movie, Star Trek, from 220 miles high. That's got to be a first of some sort.

Each and every day, this construct of the U.S., Russian, European, Japanese, and Canadian space agencies orbits at 250 miles above the Earth at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour, completing sixteen trips around the planet daily.

For much more about the ISS at ten years old and its rapidly approaching completion, go to: Of particular interest is the fly through one of the astronauts provides. The early components have a small, cramped feel about them while the most recent Japanese science lab has a large, spacious, Sci Fi feel to it. The trip is fascinating.
[Image courtesy of NASA]

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Publisher for Nonfiction Writers

There is one publisher out there who is always looking for new material and to enter new, promising niches. If you write in any of the following areas:

  • antiques and collectibles
  • military history
  • the arts and artists
  • how to carving, wood turning, scroll saw art, and various craft books
  • lifestyles topics including home improvement, landscaping, etc.
  • regional ghost investigations and ghost stories

Schiffer Publishing is the place to go. You can check them out at: There you will find instructions for writing a book proposal for the publisher. My advice to you is to follow those instructions carefully and to the letter.

There are a few things to remember if you propose a book project to Schiffer Publishing or any other publisher. First, remember to include your full name and all contact information with your proposal. Your proposal will not be pursued if the publisher doesn't know who you are or how to contact you. If you submit a proposal via email, make sure to include an obvious, clear subject line with your name and the fact that this is a proposal letter included. Remember, publishers get as much junk mail as you do. Without a clear subject line, your wonderful proposal could very well end up in the SPAM folder and will never be seen again. Make sure your proposal letter is clear, direct, and to the point (see my previous post on how to write a successful proposal letter). Make sure you have read and reread your proposal letter (don't just use spell check and let it go ... there are way too many mistakes spell check can't catch) before you send it out. A poorly written, badly spelled proposal letter will get all but the very best ideas pitched into the circular file without strong consideration. Make sure any promises you make in your proposal are promises you can fulfill. Finally, once you have submitted your proposal, resist the temptation to follow up with additional emails or phone calls asking whether your proposal has been considered yet or not. Schiffer Publishing gets many proposals and it takes a while to give each proposal due consideration. You do not endear yourself to a publisher by nagging them for results and will more than likely be rejected if you follow this course of action.

If your proposal gets you a book contract, make sure you can fulfill the contract before you sign it. Take it very, very seriously as your ultimate goal is to develop a long and healthy relationship with your publisher that will net you more than one book!

Good luck to you in your efforts to find a publisher.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Take the Family to a Trolley Park This Summer!

Large scale amusement parks are fun, no doubt about it, but let's face it, they are also expensive for penny pinching families dealing with recessionary times. So, if you're looking for family fun this summer, try one of the nation's remaining "Trolley Parks" instead. Trolley Parks were created in the nineteenth century as hot destinations for picnics and recreation, making use of the new high technology of the day to get there, the trolley. Cities had their parks close by and people used them in great numbers until the Great Depression of the 1930s and the advent of common car use closed many of these parks down. Here's a list by state of the former trolley parks, now amusement parks, that have survived the test of time with a combination of classic rides and new additions to keep them going:

  • Canobie Lake Park: Salem, New Hampshire

  • Quassy Amusement Park: Middlebury, Connecticut

  • Midway Park: Maple Springs, New York

  • Sea Breeze Park: Rochester, New York

  • Dorney Park: Allentown, Pennsylvania (if you're a Pennsylvanian, you're in luck, you have more former Trolley Parks than any other state)

  • Lakemont Park: Altoona, Pennsylvania

  • Waldameer Park: Erie, Pennsylvania

  • Kennywood: West Mifflin (read as outside Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania

  • Bushkill Park: Easton, Pennsylvania

  • Camden Park: Huntington, West Virginia

  • Oaks Amusement Park: Portland, Oregon

These parks were established from as early as 1879 (Sea Breeze Park) to as late as 1908 (Quassy Amusement Park). We're going to focus on Kennywood. Why? Because my family and I have been there. Also, my parents went there when they were dating. Furthermore, as a one time archaeologist I have an affinity for old things and Kennywood, located outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is on the National Register of Historic Places for the number of wonderful, perfectly preserved and fully functional old rides dating back to the early 1900s to go along with their rides of much more recent vintage. Finally, check out the prices. You can get in for under $35 a person, which is a pretty good deal for an amusement park these days.

Go the the Kennywood website and you'll be able to find hours, rates, and directions, so we won't bother with that here. Here's what you need to know about the park. Kennywood is located in a town with some age on it and it shows a bit. The parking area also provides you with a view of the park that is ... well ... a bit underwhelming and may concern you a bit. The worry is dispelled when you enter the park. The grounds are beautifully maintained, the rides are wonderful, and there is no difficulty in finding ways to keep yourself busy all day long.

Leave your sense of twenty-first century sophistication at the gate and try out some of the classic rides. Take a spin on the Kangaroo. This is a simple, early twentieth century rides where the cars roll around a circular track, rise up one slope, and go airborne for a few moments. Sounds simple, possibly even dull? Yes? No! It's been around for close to a century for a reason.

For me, several trips to the bumper cars are mandatory after a long drive to the park. It's cathartic for any driving adult and great fun for kids who get to drive and crash all at once. I saw one dad ride the bumper cars with his cute little two year old daughter. She was blissfully oblivious to the Mr. Hyde-like transformation that took place behind her. Daddy helped her into the car, strapped her in with him, and then his hands curled around the steering wheel and he let out a deep and heart-felt "bwa ha ha" laugh as he prepared to leave the world of careful adult driving behind in favor of the demolition derby. Trust me, the simple pleasures can be the best, especially if you have a long daily commute to work. Make sure you have family and/or friends in the other cars. It's more satisfying to have people you know to take aim at!

Check out Noah's Ark while you're at it. Thought the Ark was stuck on a mountain top half a world away, right? Not at all, it's at Kennywood. A classic walk through fun house sort of thing that rocks back and forth as you explore, it also has a surprise ending. I'll never tell, so go see for yourself.

But you really want to know about the coasters, don't you? Kennywood has plenty of them. In the 1990s, they built a steel coaster to keep up with the times called the Steel Phantom. The most interesting feature of the Phantom is it makes use of a natural ravine in the mountain side Kennywood is perched on, yes Pittsburgh is located in the mountains, to create a drop of 225 feet that is a little startling. However, the older wooden coasters are the stars of the show in my book. The Thunderbolt, built in 1968, makes good use of the ravine as well. In fact the Thunderbolt takes you from zero to full speed immediately as you car drops off into the ravine right at the start, which is a blast.

For a classic coaster ride, check out the Jack Rabbit, built in 1921. It's over 2000 feet of wooden fun with a 70-foot high hill to keep things interesting. Restored in 1991, the ride is beautiful. However, for showmanship, check out the Racer, built in 1927. The Racer has twin tracks that keeps two trains running parallel to each other for much of the ride. Kennywood claims the Racer is one of the most beautiful of the racing coasters ever to have been built and I'm not going to argue. The loading platform facade is also magnificent. It is a large structure that is impressive to look at and cleverly hides much of the ride from future riders until they are getting close to trains themselves. You hear the roar and the screams but you don't see the ride.

I have a special fondness for Kennywood as this is the first park where my daughter rode roller coasters. The beauty of the place is they have a lot of entertaining rides, with many of them being not too intense for younger children. There are also a carousel and water rides, and much else you would expect from an amusement park. But, let me stress once again, check out as many of the old rides as you can. They may be quaint compared to the high tech rides at the giant parks and may not do barrel rolls or vertical cork screws, but they will make you laugh, especially if you take a teen along who feels it is beneath his or her dignity to ride such a contraption. The grumbling only adds to the fun.

Have a great time this summer with the family. And in the evening, read the youngsters Michael and the New Baby. Hey, I've got to try to sell my book, don't I?!

If you have great memories from Kennywood or one of the other former Trolley Parks, write me, I'd love to read about them. I'll post the best.

[Historical information for this post came from and Opinions and personal experiences related are entirely my own, provided without any prodding or guidance from any outside source.]

The photo is of the Kangaroo in action.

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