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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Slideways: A Bodysurfer's Manifesto

[This appeared in the Honolulu Weekly issue of Nov 9-15. And I admit the title is homage to Sideways, Alexander Payne's movie about the Santa Ynez/Barbara wine scene. And why not? His newest film The Descendants is the best-ever about Hawaii...]

I’m a guy with a mind/body problem. A bookworm as a child, I loved hiking trips but suffered literary withdrawal pangs. High school football battered my teens and pickup basketball and flag football consumed my twenties, when I wasn’t sitting at a desk writing fiction. The older I got, the more things fell out of alignment, producing back spasms, broken noses and writer’s block, often all at the same time. This could have been a problem without resolution, if bodysurfing hadn’t come along to save me.

Bodysurfing is one of those rare things that are commonplace, transcendent–even ecstatic–and pretty much impossible for human beings to screw up. Maybe the only such thing.

First, anybody can do it, in theory. You get in some water with waves, throw yourself forward and just sort of fall. Do this at Waimanalo with kids, throw in a tutu in a muumuu and you can feel the love.

Once you add bodyboards and surfboards, though, you lose the vibe. I blame the tools: they give the riders the armor that allows them to feel aggressive and threaten mayhem to clear a path. Anyone who’s been at Makapuu after school lets out knows the feeling.

So, the second great thing about bodysurfing is lack of gear. You can bodysurf naked. Even if you really want to pimp your chassis, you’re still limited to a swimsuit, fins and a hand-board or a McDonald’s tray.

Lack of gear keeps bodysurfing pure. For instance, I stopped by Local Motion in Hawaii Kai last weekend after they called to say they had Duckfeet in my size. I’ve bought fins there since, well, forever–1977, probably. The last few years, I have loved Da Fin. But after my calves kept cramping in bigger offshore surf, I began to alternate with the longer-bladed Duckfeet. It’s a system.

But that’s the extent of my gear, two sets of fins. Now peek into a board surfer’s closet: rash guards, short johns, long johns, booties, hoodies, and that’s all before we get to the boards themselves: potato chips, shorties, quad thruster shorties, triple-quad thruster shorties, spoons, swallowtails, guns, longboards, tow-ins and standups… Oh, and wax.

Which leads to the third great thing about bodysurfing: It’s not a great big capitalist shuck. There’s no money in it. Nobody gets rich doing it, although a few swimfin innovators may have done well. (I hope so: they deserve it.) The lack of capitalistic fervor spares us magazines, videos, girls in dental-floss bikinis and cadres of vacuous dudes expounding on their relationship to the tube. Bodysurfers regret none of the latter, except when we floss alone at night.

The fourth great thing about bodysurfing is it’s hard to teach. That means: no surf schools. Something about bodysurfing just has to happen in the mind. From summers stranded on the East Coast, I’d say that fewer than one person in any hundred at a mainland beach is capable of making that leap. I say this because I almost was one of them.

My dad was a former lifeguard who loved bodysurfing and Hawaii. He actually found a handful of little jobs to do in the Islands so we could all come out in 1969 and bodysurf and snorkel to our hearts’ content. We were a California family of six crammed into a Datsun with all our wet swimsuits flapping like flags from the radio antenna.

He took us to Poʻipu and, in particular, to Doc Brennecke’s Beach–now gone, then a shrine–a gift of a beautiful sand crescent dedicated to the bodysurfers of the world. In ‘69 there was still a sandy bottom, unlike now, and a wave you could catch all day and even under a full moon. That night, it was just our large family and a large Hawaiian family. We drifted together in the waves in the dark, paired off naturally by age, chatting and taking waves. My partner was a younger girl who, after a half dozen waves, said, “Why do you go straight in? You can go slideways, you know.”

Slideways, the word delighted. And connected. Once I got the hang of it, a brand new waterworld opened. A few years later, I would end up meeting my local surfer wife in Iowa. I revisited Makapuu and Poipu and Sandy’s, tackled Point Panic and Ehukai, pancaked Pounders. I’ve taken to bodysurfing anything that moves: hurricane Long Island, 61-degree Brittany. Winter nights in New York City, drinking Scotch, I’d study the technique of the master, Mark Cunningham in Robert Pennybacker’s video, “Waves to Freedom.”

Over the years, I’ve learned to merge mind and body in ways that leave me fulfilled instead of black and blue. Even when I go over the falls, bodysurfing has, so far, never let me down.

Don Wallace is author of One Great Game and Hot Water.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Waiter, There's a Spy in My Soup!

Paranoia strikes ever more deeply these days, but this is a world-changer if ever I saw one: a drone the size of a fly that flies and yes, looks like one, too. The photo comes from something called the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Micro-Aviary.

Study it. Now go to the window overlooking your front yard and take a closer look at that pile of dog poo lying there on the grass by the curb. What if that's the mothership?

Life will never be the same, at least until they invent over-the-counter counter-drone spiders.

Thanks to Mike Reizman for the image, the pointer, and his ever-vigilant coverage of the Drone Wars.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Jobs Death Underscores Need For Job Creation

That's all I want to say about Steve Jobs, in a nutshell.

But of course I have to add something, and there is something appropriate: listening to how younger people are responding to the words of SJ, in particular to the Stanford Commencement Speech linked below, I'm tremendously encouraged that he makes so many want to do the right thing with their lives.

Today we're hearing that note--what might be called The American Note--in the voices of strangers, people I only know from Facebook, old pals, even a curmudgeon or two.

My 25-year-old son just me wrote a spontaneous paean to going out and doing what his heart tells him to do. Curiously, mischievously, he also cited the words of Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner in yesterday's press conference: "If you look at the U.S. economy today, I'd say the biggest risk we face is institutions not taking enough risk," Geithner said at a Senate Banking Committee hearing.

Any echo of FDR's classic line after Pearl Harbor, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," was certainly intentional. But I think this is one case where we feel a convergence taking place--and by that I am by no means excluding "Occupy Wall Street" and the "Arab Spring"...

Friday, September 30, 2011

We Midwife Mark Osmun's Press Release: Piggybacking Onto Public Domain Dickens

In a smart move, Mark Osmun recently ePubbed his prequel "Marley's Ghost" along with its source-code, Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol." In a series of Facebook posts, I pointed out to Mark he seems to have created a genre and ought to stake a claim to it. Here's his press release, which, I now realize, I can claim to having midwived. (I believe that is the right usage):

Thanks to the advent of e-publishing, there’s a new trend coming to the publishing world―prequels, paired with their public domain originals. The beginning of the Literary Two-Fer.

Publishers may have thought of this before (say, pairing Ahab’s Wife with Moby Dick) but discarded the notion: the increased page-count would wreck the bottom line.
But that hurdle is gone now.

First to realize this new e-pub advantage is Mark Osmun, author of Marley’s Ghost the 2000 prequel to A Christmas Carol. First published traditionally and reaching #126 on Amazon’s bestseller list, the novel went out of print. So Osmun brought it back, first as a print-on-demand book (via Lulu) and then as an epub book for Amazon’s Kindle ( But this time, he added all of Dickens’s original Carol, a perennial bestseller.

“There’s no added cost in producing both books together,” said Osmun, “so why not give readers both novels?”

In addition, the marketing potential increases dramatically. Since A Christmas Carol is a perennial bestseller, pairing it with Marley’s Ghost gives readers a bonus at no extra cost and helps Osmun’s sales.

Look for mainstream publishers to jump on this strategy once they learn of it ( perhaps Wide Sargasso Sea & Jane Eyre; Wicked & The Wizard of Oz; Finn & The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, etc.).

Upon hearing of the new approach, author Don Wallace (One Great Game) quipped, “Imagine the possibilities: my bawdy limerick, plus The Bible as a bonus. But he's (Osmun) done it and now the floodgates are wide open.”

“The trouble with being the first to do something is that it’s not a trend until others follow,” Osmun said. “But watch: others will follow. It just makes too much sense.”

Marley's Ghost & A Christmas Carol

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Moneyball" - The Social(ist) Network Manifesto

Our review of the Brad Pitt vehicle "Moneyball" ran in the Honolulu Weekly today. Knowing it would tap the sports-nut latent in every reviewer in the land, we decided to take a different approach (and use the royal "we"). Our philosophy, whether for essays or at the plate: hit 'em where they ain't.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How Do We Write (and where do we put it) in These Fragmented Times?

Sean at ReadHeavily asked how we keep writing in times like these. I've enjoyed his relentless appetite for books and thinking about writing, which is not the same as the relentless promotion so many "literary" commentators are doing. This man reads rightly, I decided. He deserves an answer. So I went ahead and cooked up my own Theory of Writing Everything... "Writing is spread, for me, over a grid of outlets, like butter over porous bread, like jam on an English muffin, and I just try not to think about not writing while writing anything, with one rule: make it worth reading." Wrote that before breakfast. Disclaimer: My metaphor could change when the noon whistle goes off and I start thinking about lunch. ILLUSTRATION: First page of "While Watts Burned" as written and annotated on Belle Ile en Mer, September 1994.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Hawaiian Music Documentary Released!

From the publisher of Bruddah Iz, the singer of the much-sampled ukulele version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", comes the musical documentary event of the season (ahem): Those Who Came Before: The Musical Journey of Eddie Kamae. I wrote the documentary last year working closely with Eddie, his wife Myrna, and director of photography Rodney Ohtani, with editing by Lisa Altieri and a majestic voice-over by chanter Kaupena Wong. It was an all-star crew that had worked together on 9 previous documentaries and I count myself blessed to have had the chance to work with such rich and historic material. The film was a closing selection of two film festivals in 2010: the Pacific Rim Film Festival in Santa Cruz, Calif and the Honolulu International Film Festival, where it also was screened "on the beach" at Waikiki on a balmy Saturday night in October. I won't be shy here: order the DVD and help preserve the legacy of Hawaiian music. It's a wonderful story of serendipity, fate and obligation to one's people that resonates strongly at this particular time in our society.

Monday, September 05, 2011

What's the Laziest State/Country/Company?

Here's a quiz: what TV show/state/country/company is this economist talking about? "...they prefer to receive low quality provided that they too can in exchange deliver low quality without embarrassment. They develop a set of oblique social norms to sustain their preferred equilibrium when threatened by intrusions of high quality. We argue that cooperation is not always for the better: high quality collective outcomes are not only endangered by self-interested individual defectors, but by ‘cartels’ of mutually satisfied mediocrities." Your candidate(s) may be legion. "The Office." Dilbert. I voted Hawaii, then a couple of employers, then realized the possibilities were limitless. Then I worried about myself, that I would end up in these places. Worried about the rub-off. Then I realized I was writing this on Labor Day. Big sigh of self-congratulation. Answer: Italy. From the blog, Kids Prefer Cheese, at:

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Red Flags," a REAL novel about Vietnam

Hell no, I didn't go. My number was 80, so I could've gone. My local draft board sure wanted me to--my vice principal at Long Beach Poly, Ed Eveland, was top hand there and personally refused by C.O. application with a stern, "I can't let you do this to yourself."

My other bona fides for reading a book about Vietnam? Well, first, let me explain why I think anyone would need permission or approval. It's because of Rambo, the movies, and all the vets blamed for being psychos or drug addicts. It's because of every Hollywood screenwriter who needed a cheap and easy backstory, whether for a hero or a villain. It's because of the writer friend who drank late into the night and said, heavily, "I should've gone and I didn't and I missed the formative experience of my generation. Now I'm afraid I'll never write a real book."

Yes, he talked like that. Drink makes us stupid and also, unfortunately, quotable.

My bona fides: I reviewed about 20 Vietnam novels for Kirkus Reviews during the Great Nam Boom, roughly from 1984-92. I reviewed books by veterans, mostly. I also read everything about the war I'd fought against, as a lifelong captive of military history.

Dad was an Annapolis grad. His classmates were family friends. One spent a good portion of the war in the Hanoi Hilton. We talked on the front steps before he left when I was a teenager and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution had just passed. "This is not going to be a good war," he said, resplendent in whites.

I already knew that. By ninth grade I'd read The Quiet American, The Ugly American and Sarkan, a novel set in a Vietnam-like country. I knew that we would be the clumsy, plodding, self-sabotaging bureaucratic occupying force. Raised on WWII war movies that exalted the outnumbered Americans fighting the occupying hordes--because who would ever make a movie about a country that ground down its opponents through sheer industrial might, as we did, in WWII?--I knew in my guts how this script would play out. Hollywood gets a lot of blame for prettying and exalting war, but in the case of Vietnam, more often than not, they got it right. Just try to watch The Green Berets (1968) with John Wayne, then rent or download, if you can find it, Go Tell the Spartans (1978). What a difference a decade makes. What a difference the truth makes.

This is a lot of throat-clearing to get to Red Flags, a novel of Vietnam that is somewhat mischaracterized by its publisher as a crime-and-detection story set in a war we think we know. Yes, there is a crime and there is a pair of detectives, military CID guys going undercover in the bush outpost to find out the identity of a drug smuggler in the Central Highlands. But the real crime is Vietnam, the war, and not just the American presence, or the French before that, but the ethnic-racial internal war waged by the Vietnamese on both sides against the aboriginal Montagnard tribes.

The story is credibly told, after a teaser of a prologue, and the writing relaxes into brilliance once the main character, Erik Rider, is in country. This story never leaves the jungle and its people: the CIA guy, the regular Army guys, the corrupt Vietnamese Army officer, his VC and NVA counterparts, the missionaries, the grunts, the flyboys... The whole sick crew is ably represented, but without the broad brush-strokes. And best of all, though Red Flags is full of the details of drug smuggling, and the reason dope is an underlying theme in every Vietnam story, this isn't a doper's fantasy out of High Times Magazine, the way some Vietnam fiction and film has been, including the two blockbusters, Apocalypse Now and Platoon. (I love the former and tolerate the latter.)

If you love a book written for all the right reasons--i.e., not to get rich, or inflate one's masculine cred, or to get your ticket punched, as they called it over there--then Red Flags will reward you. Unlike many Vietnam books, and most war books, it will appeal to readers of either gender. If you are a woman reading this, yes, there is a woman character (whew!) and she's essential to the story. (There are actually several, including a Montagnard wife and mother.) Red Flags is a love story, no doubt about that.

If you are a quasi-botanist or -naturalist or -anthropologist, or simply appreciate sharp and accurate description, Red Flags will finally describe Vietnam in a way that sticks with you. The author, Juris Jurjevics, says he read a thousand books about Vietnam and I believe him. But he wears his learning lightly, as they say.

And, if you are an obsessive about war and military history, like me, then you will appreciate the way tactics and weapons are employed in the service of the story. If you aren't an obsessive, you'll appreciate it even more, because, while weapons abound, there are no gratuitous passages for the Second Amendment wankers. (Though they will snap up the scenes when Rider and a LURP team go after a VC commander, as I did.)

Now, for the comparisons. Red Flags joins Herr's Dispatches, Caputo's Rumors of War and Stone's Dog Soldiers on the top shelf. Also Steven Wright's now overlooked Meditations in Green (which I reviewed out of the box for Kirkus) and John Laurence's massive memoir The Cat From Hue, which is, to my mind, the best book about Vietnam besides Red Flags for a modern reader who wishes to approach the war without the intrusive echoes of Coppola's and Oliver Stone's films.

But Red Flags' closest affinity, for me, was not a book about Vietnam, but one about an obscure conflict in South America that also involved tribes and missionaries and mercenaries: Peter Matthiesson's grand moral tale, At Play in the Fields of the Lord.

Red Flags is by Juris Jurjevics, who is, let it be transparently noted, an old friend and even a former publisher of mine (Hot Water, Soho Press, 1991). He has written a true book, a real book, suffused with love for those caught in the machinery of war and politics and corruption.

As were we all, pal, as were we all.


Red Flags is at all your finer, and harder to find, bookstores and websites:

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Peasants Under Glass: How We Ended Up In France, Part I

It is universally acknowledged that among the excuses and justifications for buying a house abroad, which for most dreamers means Provence or Tuscany – those most popular destinations on the World Heritage List of Truly Romantic Landscapes – is that here, at last, you can shake off your stoic, stodgy, perpetually winterized and repressed self and find brilliant weather, real life, tasty food, valuable antique furniture, slow wine and true love – or, at least, great earthy rip-snorting sex – among the tan and tasty local truffle people.

And it’s all true, I’m sure. But we’re talking about Brittany here. A dark and stormy coastline of brutal rock-cliffs and deadly 40-foot tides. A fogbound coast on the latitude of Labrador. A land of sheep. Mussels. Seaweed. That smell of mudflats at low tide.

Still, we bought a house here, on the island known as Belle Ile. To be precise (transparent, as they now say): we bought a ruin. And spent the next 25 years renovating, or not, depending on our income.

I guess this still slots us firmly in the genre snidely referred to as “gastro-porn” and “reno-porn” and “euro-porn” and, for all I know, “cougar-porn,” honesty compels me to set a few things straight. First, when what we now call tourism began in the early 1800s, and pale lumpy potato-and-beer people started spending springs in the South of France and Italy, they were fleeing nasty, cold, poorly ventilated houses in dirty, muddy, smoky Northern European cities. While this does not quite describe our beautiful house, nor our beautiful village, I could show you a couple of Belle Ile abodes that fit the description of dirty, muddy, smoky. It’s a rural island, after all; cows still outnumber SUVs, for now.

Second, Mindy and I don’t have any excuses. I grew up in Southern California, a place known for its fine weather and tanned, trim bodies. Mindy grew up in Hawaii. So one of the first and most common questions thrown at us by puzzled bystanders is, why didn’t you just stay put? What have you got against California? Hawaii?

It’s a good and fair question, much as we hate hearing it.

To answer it properly, I’m finding, takes some soul-searching. Also some searching of our culture, our time, our country. It’s been 25 years now, and counting, and the short snappy answer that feels honest and right and cocktail-party-ready still eludes me.

One thing I can say with reasonable confidence is that we made the decision before we had the facts in. It was a true leap of faith, or of impetuosity, the kind of impulse that leads young men to get tattoos and young women to get their noses pierced. But we weren’t exactly youngsters when we made our leap. At 33 years of age you’ve pretty much used up your allotment of stupid moves, right? But it turns out that we were just getting started. It turns out we had untapped reservoirs of stupid moves.

And so, as David Byrne of Talking Heads sings in that song about beautiful houses and beautiful lives: How did we get here?

***More to Come***

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Reagan October Surprise Outed in Pilot's Letter: the GOP's deal with Iran's Ayatollah to destroy Carter

Did Ronald Reagan steal his election against Jimmy Carter by making a deal with Iran? That's the substance of the October Surprise conspiracy theory, ever since the Ayatollah let the hostages go in time for Reagan's inauguration. And now, it's the subject of a an email making the rounds of an informal group of private airplane pilots, most of them well to the right of Attila the Hun.

I'm on the list because I grew up with a lot of these guys. And, I admit, I'm their token liberal. They send me the worst of their birther, truther, race-baiting world and I sift it for what will emerge a month or two later in the mouths of Fox and then, by credulous repetition, the mainstream media. For instance, did you know that a video of Obama performing in a porno movie was definitely, absolutely, about to surface a week before the election? That's the level of their discourse on a bad day.

Why, then, do I continue to listen? Why would I make an exception on my shit-detector? First, because Nixon went to China: by which I mean that sometimes the right just can't help but do the right thing. In this case, proudly and obliviously tattle on itself.

Second reason: because when these guys talk flying, it's always fun. I like pilots. They go places and do things we earthbound mortals never dream of. Example? My cousin built a DC-3 from parts in the desert of Arizona, flew it up to the Yukon, and landed it on sandbars in rivers as part of his day's work. Then he sold the plane and went back to Arizona and did it again. Lived in a tent in the desert and put a DC-3 together, bolt by bolt, out of mothballed junkers.

Pilots are wild and crazy guys with mad skills and maverick personalities--oh, wait, that's the plot of Top Gun. But it's true. So, this pilot, in a letter detailing his career flying hot into every drug-CIA-Hezbollah-controlled LZ in the world, drops a curious boast into his tale:

"And now that our beloved 40th president has passed on I can tell you that in fact (with my apologies to Michael Reagan) the October Surprise was true. The October surprise for those of you that don't remember happened during October of 1980 when Reagan and Bush were running against Carter and Mondale. George Bush was flown in a BAC 111 one Saturday night to Paris to meet with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Bush offered the Khomeini a deal whereby if he would delay the release of the hostages held in Tehran until Reagans inauguration, the administration would supply unlimited guns and ammunition to the Iranians.

"In order to get Bush back for a Sunday morning brunch so that nobody would be alerted to his absence he was flown back in an SR-71 from Reims field near Paris to McGuire AFB. Of course Reagan won, the hostages were released and one of my jobs in Cairo was to deliver those arms from Tel Aviv to Tehran.

"Unfortunately, the first airplane in, an Argentinean CL-44 was shot down by the Russians just south of Yerevan and Mossad who was running the operation didn't want to risk sending my 707. The arms where eventually delivered through Dubai, across the Persian Gulf and directly into Terhan."

Good story, right? Lots of authentic detail. Love that "morning brunch" line. And there's one cool plane, the SR-71 Blackbird, for those who like cool stuff. (That's the plane used as a base by the X-Men in the first two movies, by the way.) Finally, you've got to love how he drops in the treason of ex-CIA chief GW Bush and candidate Reagan. Just, you know, by the way.

But, of course, it can't be true, can it? Of course not. The New York Times has investigated it, along with everyone else. And we've heard enough about birth certificates and other wackjob obsessions to give us a shiver and recoil reflex.

But can it be within the realm of possibility? Can it be taken as new information that means the case should be, perhaps, revisited? I think so. Or, at least, why not? If we've got the stamina to listen to Weinergate for a week straight, surely we can go back and revisit a little hanky-panky involving terrorists and Presidents.

Don't look at me that way. Sure, I can smell the manure. But that's the cologne of most people living on the fringe.

My response to the email was to thank the sender and to ask the group their opinion about the proper punishment for treason against a sitting President. I may have said it with more pith, but you get the idea.

But to return to the question: is it true? Hell, how would I know? But the rest of the letter is full of the sort of good-ol-flyboy derring-do that I personally have had come through my filter as a journalist. Google "Eugene Hasenfuss" if you want an idea. My particular beat as a tyro journo in the 1980s in Miami was go-fast boats, though, so if you want to meet my friends -- kidding! not friends! -- Google "Ben Kramer" or "George Morales" or "Don Aronow" and you'll see the kind of folks I encountered. I lunched with these guys. Drank Diet Coke. Watched mysterious doings at Opa-Locka Airport at 2 a.m. once and got very scared.

Two of the above were murdered, one, Morales, after he gave up the goods on the Iran-Contra scandal, and the BCCI bank's relationship to Iran and the CIA. If you can remember that far back, you may recall Oliver North and others took the stand and were then convicted of perjury for lying about the arms trades. It was a depressing scandal, par for the times, and one for which Pres Reagan was rightfully blamed (and, I think, insufficiently punished).

There is more. But I don't think it helps my case to reveal my accidental associates, even the one that got me on an FBI list. For a year or so a couple of agents would just drop by my office at Hearst and pay me a friendly visit, just to make sure my boss knew I was under their microscope. I don't think it helped my career.

It's probably not helping this story, either. The October Surprise is history. Finito. Over. And that's the problem, ultimately. We're tired of the truth being outed, again, only to have the prophet being revealed as another nutcase. Or someone who sends Tweets of his junk to coeds.

The attitude of see-no-evil, hear-no-evil was elevated to a doctrine recently by newly retired New York Times editor in chief Bill Keller. In last Sunday's NYT Magazine Keller wrote a column, "A Theory of Conspiracy Theories," and admitted that he had a delete-first reflex when it came to conspiracy theories -- even though he knew this meant he could be missing out on the one that is actually true.

Here's the url of his piece:

Keller's point is valid. I'm sure he was overwhelmed by these emails and letters. I'm sure he was right to dismiss 99.99% of them. But that other .01% is the problem: I think having someone look into the crazy stuff was part of his job. He was the face of the world's best "paper of record" -- and if he could accept the joke evidence of Iraq's WMD at face value and plump for the invasion, maybe he owed us a couple of fringe investigations. Just saying, you know?

The problem, as Keller knows, is that conspiracy theories deal in Black Swan events, those that lie outside the world as we know it. We who live in a White Swan world would go nuts if we had to think about the possible existence of Black Swans. We can't handle the truth, as Jack Nicholson's character says in "A Few Good Men."

By definition, then, the only people who are going to stumble over Black Swans are those who are outside the pale. Loners. Cab drivers. Misfits. Greek hedge funders who develop their own data and realize Bernie Madoff can't be delivering 15% returns for 20 years straight. Those kinds of wackos. And being wackos, by Bill Keller's and others' lights, nobody believes them. Until we've invaded Cuba or assassinated Patrice Lumumba or John Edwards' baby takes a bow in the Enquirer.

The Black Swan is real, but beneath the gaze of the curators of our reality. That's why they make great movie plots, like "Three Days of the Condor," "The Parallax View," and seemingly every other movie ever made. But do you ever stop to think how many of those movies end up with the truth exposed in the pages of... The New York Times?

And so we close by freely accepting that today's post, by Bill Keller's lights, makes me a wacko. Just for bringing it up. Just for entertaining the notion that new evidence might arise in the strangest of places.

But it's the pilots, I keep thinking. That's what makes this letter different. Those wild and crazy pilots...


John Lear gave this talk on July 9th, 2004 to a group of fellow pilots in Las Vegas at the "Hangar of Quiet Birdmen" or QB meeting. Each month one pilot in the group gives a 15 minute talk on his career.

John Lear on John Lear:

One of the anguishes of advancing age is losing old friends. The upside of that, though, is that I get to tell the story my way because there is
Nobody still around to say otherwise.

I learned to fly at Clover Field in Santa Monica when I was 14. However
Before I got to get in an actual airplane Dad made me take 40 hours of
Link with Charlie Gress. I can't remember what I did yesterday but I guarantee you I could still shoot a 90 degree, Fade-out or Parallel radio
Range orientation.

When I turned 16 I had endorsements on my student license for an Aero Commander 680E and Cessna 310.

I got my private at 17 and instrument rating shortly thereafter. The Lockheed 18 Lodestar was my first type rating at age 18. I went to work for my father and brother flying copilot on a twin beech out of Geneva Switzerland after I got out of high school. Dad was over there trying to peddle radios to the European airlines.

However just after I turned 18 and got my Commercial I was showing off my aerobatic talents in a Bucker Jungmann to my friends at a Swiss boarding school I had attended. I managed to start a 3 turn spin from too low an
Altitude and crashed. I shattered both heels and ankles and broke both legs in 3 places. I crushed my neck, broke both sides of my jaw and lost all of my front teeth. I managed to get gangrene in one of the open wounds
In my ankles and was shipped from Switzerland to the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque where Randy Lovelace made me well.

When I could walk again I worked selling pots and pans door to door in
Santa Monica. In late 1962 Dad had moved from Switzerland to Wichita to build the Lear Jet and I went to Wichita to begin work in Public relations until November of 1963 about 2 months after the first flight when I moved
To Miami and took over editing an aviation newspaper called Aero News. I
Moved the newspaper to El Segundo in California and ran it until it failed. I then got a job flight instructing at Progressive Air Service in Hawthorne, California. From there I went to Norman Larson Beechcraft in Van Nuys flight instructing in Ercoupes.

In the spring of 1965 I was invited by my Dad back to Wichita to get type rated in the model 23 Learjet. I then went to work for the executive aircraft division of Flying Tigers in Burbank who had secured a dealership
For the Lear.

In November of 1965 my boss Paul Kelly crashed number 63 into the mountains at Palm Springs killing everybody on board including Bob Prescott’s 13 years old son and 4 of the major investors in Tigers. I took over his job as President of Airjet charters a wholly owned subsidiary of FTL and flew charters and sold Lears. Or rather tried to sell them. It
Turns out that I never managed to sell one Learjet in my entire life.

In March of 1966 2 Lear factory pilots Hank Beaird, Rick King and myself set 17 world speed records including speed around the round the world, 65 hours and 38 minutes in the first Lear Jet 24. Shortly after that flight I
Got canned from Tigers and moved to Vegas and started the first 3rd level airline in Nevada, Ambassador Airlines. We operated an Aero Commander and Cherokee 6 on 5 stops from Las Vegas to LAX. This was about the time
Howard Hughes moved to Las Vegas and I was doing some consulting work for
Bob and Peter Maheu.

The money man behind Ambassador was Jack Cleveland who I introduced to
John Myers in the Hughes organization. Cleveland and Myers tried to peddle
The 135 certificate to Hughes without success and Jack ended up selling Howard those phony gold mining claims you all may remember. I went back to Van Nuys and was flying Lear charter part time for Al Paulson and Clay
Lacy at California Airmotive, the Learjet distributor.

That summer I started a business called Aerospace Flight Research in Van Nuys were I rented aircraft to Teledyne to flight test their Inertial Guidance Systems. We had a B-26, Super Pinto and Twin Beech. I think we
Lasted about 4 months.

I then went to work for World Aviation Services in Ft. Lauderdale ferrying the Cessna O2 FAC airplanes from Wichita, fresh of the assembly line to Nha Trang in Viet Nam with fellow QB Bill Werstlein. We were under the 4440th ADG Langley VA. and hooked up with a lot of other military pilots ferrying all manner and types of aircraft.

Our route was Wichita to Hamilton, Hickam, Midway, Wake, Guam, Clark and then in country. The longest leg was Hamilton to Hickam an average of 16 hours, no autopilot, no copilot, and one ADF. We also had 3 piddle packs.
Arriving in Nha Trang we would hitch a ride to Saigon and spend 3 days under technical house arrest, each trip, pay a fine for entering the country illegally, that is being civilians and not coming through a port of entry, catch an airline up to Hong Kong for a little R and R and
straight back to Wichita for another airplane I flew this contract for 4 years.

During some off time in 1968 I attempted to ferry a Cessna 320 from Oakland to Australia with the first stop in Honolulu. About 2 hours out from Oakland I lost the right engine and had no provisions for dumping fuel. I went down into ground effect (T effect for you purists) and for 3 hours and 21 minutes flew on one engine about 25 feet above the waves and made it into Hamilton AFB after flying under the Golden Gate and Richmond bridges. An old friend Nick Conte, was officer of the day and gave me the
royal treatment. Why did I go into Hamilton instead of Oakland? I knew exactly where the O club was for some much needed refreshment.

In September of 1968 between 0-2 deliveries I raced a Douglas B-26 Invader in the Reno Air Races. It was the largest airplane ever raced at Reno, and I placed 5th in the Bronze passing one Mustang . It was reported to me after the race by XB-70 project pilot Col. Ted Sturmthal that when I passed the P-51, 3 fighter pilots from Nellis committed suicide off the back of the grandstands. In the summer of 1970 I helped Darryl Greenamyer and Adam Robbins put on the California 1000 air race in Mojave California.
That's the one where Clay Lacy raced the D7. I flew a B-26 with Wally McDonald.

I then started flying charter in an Aero Commander and Beech Queen Air for
Aero Council a charter service out of Burbank. They went belly up about 3 months later and I went up to Reno to work for my Dad as safety pilot on his Lear model 25. After my Dad fired me I was personally escorted to the Nevada/California border by an ex-Los Angeles police detective who worked for Dad and did the muscle work.

I went back down to Van Nuys and was Chief Pilot for Lacy Aviation and was one of the first pilot proficiency examiners for the Lear Jet. In the summer of 1973 I moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia as Chief Pilot and Director of Operations for Tri Nine Airlines which flew routes throughout Cambodia forKhmer Akas Air.

I flew a Convair 440 an average of 130 hours a month. We had unlimited quantities of 115/145 fuel and ADI and were able to use full CB-17 power (which was 62" for any of you R-2800 aficionados). In November of 1973 I
moved to Vientianne, Laos and flew C-46's and Twin Otters for Continental Air Services Inc. delivering guns and ammo to the Gen. Vang Pao and his CIA supported troops.

We got shot down one day and when I say we, Dave Kouba was the captain. We were flying a twin otter and got the right engine shot out. Actually the small arms fire had hit the fuel line in the right strut and fuel was streaming out back around the tail and being sucked into the large cargo opening in the side of the airplane and filling the cockpit with a fine mist of jet fuel.

I held the mike in my hands, "Should I call Cricket and possibly blow us up or...?" (Some of you may remember "Cricket"... "This is Cricket on guard with an air strike warning to all aircraft".) But Davy found us a friendly dirt strip and we were back in the air the next day. When the war came to an end in 1973 I moved back to Van Nuys and started flying Lears
for Lacy again until October when I went up to Seattle and sat in on a Boeing 707 ground school for Air Club International on spec.

3 weeks later I ended up in the left seat of the 707 with a total of 8 hours in type. Air Club begat Aero America and we flew junkets out of
Vegas for the Tropicana and Thunderbird Hotels. I left Aero having not been fired and in the summer of 1975 I was Director of Ops for Ambassador Airlines flying 707 junkets also out of Vegas. After that airline collapsed I moved to Beirut, Lebanon in September of 1975 and flew 707's for 2 years for Trans Mediterranean Airways a Lebanese cargo carrier.

It was a very interesting job in that they had 65 stations around the world and you would leave Beirut with a copilot that had maybe 200 hours
in airplanes and fortunately a first rate plumber and off you'd go around the world. My favorite run was Dubai to Kabul, Afghanistan with a stop in Kandahar. Kabul is a one way strip, land uphill and take off downhill, it was 6000 foot elevation with no navaids.

During those 2 years I made many round the world trips and many over the pole trips. In 1977 I moved back to Vegas and was Director of Operations for Nevada Airlines flying DC-3's and Twin Beech's to the Canyon. In September of 77 I was called to Budapest for another CIA operation flying 707's loaded with arms and ammo to Mogadishu.

Leaving Budapest then refueling in Jeddah we flew radio silence down the Red Sea trying to avoid the MiGs based in Aden, whose sole purpose on earth was to force us down. The briefing was simple. If you guys get into
trouble DON'T CALL US. Back to Vegas in December of that year I was hired as Chief Pilot for Bonanza Airlines operating DC-3's and a Gulfstream 1 from Vegas to Aspen.

After that airline collapsed I was hired by Hilton Hotels to fly their Lear 35A. In my spare time I flew part time for Dynalectron and the EPA on
an underground nuke test monitoring program. I flew their B-26, OV-10, Volpar Beech and Huey helicopter. I also flew the Tri Motor Ford part time for Scenic Airlines. In 1978 my Dad passed away and his will left me with
one dollar, which incidentally, I never got.

In 1980 I ran for the Nevada State Senate district 4. I lost miserably only because I was uninformed, unprepared and both of my size 9 triple E's were continually in my mouth.

I got fired from Hilton shortly after that and moved to Cairo, Egypt to fly for Air Trans another CIA cutout. After the Camp David accords were signed in 1979 each country, Egypt and Israel were required to operate 4
flights a week into the others country. Of course, El Al pilots didn't mind flying into Cairo but you could not find an Egyptian pilot that would fly into Tel Aviv. So an Egyptian airline was formed called Nefertiti Airlines with me as chief pilot to fly the 4 flights a week into Tel Aviv.
On our off time we flew subcontract for Egyptair throughout Europe and Africa. All this, of course was just a cover for our real missions which was all kinds of nefarious gun running throughout Europe and Africa which
we did in our spare time.

And now that our beloved 40th president has passed on I can tell you that in fact (with my apologies to Michael Reagan) the October Surprise was true. The October surprise for those of you that don't remember happened
during October of 1980 when Reagan and Bush were running against Carter and Mondale. George Bush was flown in a BAC 111 one Saturday night to Paris to meet with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Bush offered the Khomeini a deal whereby if he would delay the release of the hostages held in Tehran until Reagans inauguration, the administration would supply unlimited guns and ammunition to the Iranians.

In order to get Bush back for a Sunday morning brunch so that nobody would be alerted to his absence he was flown back in an SR-71 from Reims field near Paris to McGuire AFB. Of course Reagan won, the hostages were
released and one of my jobs in Cairo was to deliver those arms from Tel Aviv to Tehran.
Unfortunately, the first airplane in, an Argentinean CL-44 was shot down by the Russians just south of Yerevan and Mossad who was running the operation didn't want to risk sending my 707. The arms where eventually delivered through Dubai, across the Persian Gulf and directly into Terhan.

During the 2 years I was in Cairo I averaged 180 hours a month with a top month of 236 hours in a 31day period. I spent a 6 week tour in Khartoum flying cows to Saana, North Yemen in an old Rolls Royce powered 707.

Back in Las Vegas in December of 1982 I sat on my ass until I was out of money, again, and then went to work for Global Int'l Airlines in Kansas City, another CIA cutout run by Farhad Azima, an Iranian with a bonafide Gold Plated Get Out of Jail Free card flying 707's until they collapsed in October of 83.

During the summer of 1983 the FAA celebrated its 25th Anniversary at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City. There was much fanfare and speech making and 2 honored guests. Bill Conrad from Miami, Florida who had the most type ratings, I think over 50. And myself. I had the most
airman certificates issued of any other airman.

After Global's collapse I went to work for American Trans Air flying 707's. I wrote their international navigation manual as MNPS for North Atlantic operations was just being implemented and became the first FAA
designated check airman for MNPS navigation. ATA then added 727's and then Lockheed L-1011's. For a very brief time I was qualified as captain in all three.

After getting fired from ATA in July of 1989 I became a freight dog flying DC-8's for Rosenbalm Aviation which became Flagship Express and after that airline collapsed I was hired as Chief pilot for Patriot Airlines out of
Stead Field in Reno, flying cargo 727's from Miami to South America. After getting fired from Patriot I went to work for Connie Kalitta flying DC-8s then the L-1011 on which I was a check airman. Kalitta sold out to Kitty Hawk International which went bankrupt in May of 2000.

I was 57 at the time and nobody is going to hire an old f*ck for two and a half years except to fly sideways as a FE so I turned in my stripes and ever present flask of Courvoisier. Except for one last fling in March of 2001 where I flew the Hadj for a Cambodian Airline flying L-1011's under contract to Air India. We were based in New Delhi and flew to Jeddah from all throughout India. There was absolutely no paperwork, no FAA, no BS and for 6 weeks we just moved Hadji's back and forth to Saudi Arabia.

One final note, in October of 1999 I had the honor and extreme pleasure to get checked out in a Lockheed CF-104D Starfighter. My instructor was Darryl Greenamyer, the airplane was owned by Mark and Gretchen Sherman of
Phoenix. It was the highlight of my aviation career particularly because I survived my first and only SFO in a high performance fighter.

One other thing, somehow I managed to get the following type ratings:
Boeing 707/720/727, Convair 240/340/440, DC-3, DC-8, B-26, Gulfstream 1,
Lockheed Constellation, Lear Jet series, HS-125, Lockheed L-1011, Lockheed
L-18, Lockheed P-38, Martin 202/404, B-17, B-25, Grumman TBM and Ford Trimotor.

I also have single and multi engine sea, rotorcraft helicopter and gyroplane, and lighter than air free balloon. I never got all categories
having missed the Airship. And in case you are interested many, many airmen have lots more type ratings.

What I did get, that no other airman got, was most FAA certificates: These are: the ATP, Flight Instructor with airplane single and multi engine, instrument, rotorcraft helicopter and gyroplane and glider. Flight Navigator, Flight Engineer, Senior Parachute Rigger, Control Tower Operator, A&P, Ground Instructor, Advanced and Instrument and Aircraft

I have 19,488 hours of Total time of which 15,325 hours is in 1,2,3 or 4 engine jet.

I took a total of 181 FAA (or designated check airman) check rides and failed only 2.

Of the thousands of times I knowingly violated a FAA regulation I was only caught once but never charged or prosecuted.

The farthest I have ever been off course was 321 miles to the left over the South China Sea in a 707 on New Year’s day 1977 on a flight from Taipei to Singapore. The deviation was not caught by Hong Kong, Manila or Singapore radar and I penetrated six different zero to unlimited restricted areas west of the Philippines. I landed in Singapore 7 minutes late without further incident.

How, you ask, did I get so far off course? The short answer is I was napping at the controls. I have flown just about everywhere except Russia, China, Mongolia, Korea, Antarctica, Australia or New Zealand.

I am a senior vice-commander of the American Legion Post No1 Shanghai, China (Generals Ward, Chennault and Helseth) (operating in exile) and a 21 year member of the Special Operations Association.

Now some of you may be asking why so many airlines collapsed that I worked for and why I got fired so many times. My excuse is simple. I am not the brightest crayon in the box, I am extremely lazy, I have a smart mouth and a real poor attitude!


Monday, May 23, 2011

Reality Show for Long Beach Poly Football: Read the Book First

With ESPN touting "Fourth and Forever" and its upcoming debut, football fans and Friday Night Lights junkies may want to check out the book that got an inside look at the Long Beach Poly Jackrabbit program way back in 2001.

One Great Game: Two Teams, Two Dreams, in the First-Ever High School National Championship Football Game covered the build-up and season of the Jackrabbits, who've sent the most players on to the NFL of any high school, and that of the Concord De La Salle Spartans, arguably the best high school football program ever, holders of a 151-game win streak. The collision of the two teams, both ranked No 1 and No 2 by various polls, became a national event with live coverage by ESPN and Fox Sports, which broadcast the game. Its success as a game and as a media event launched the current widespread coverage of high school sports that has transformed the experience in ways both good and not so good.

I don't know much about "Fourth and Forever" -- they had their chances to talk to me, and didn't, though they did read the book. I hope they got it right. And I offer them my hedged congratulations.

Here's the link to "Fourth and Forever" -- congrats to all Polyites involved...

And here's a link to One Great Game:

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Kanye West First to be Raptured on May 21

Dateline Honolulu 10:42 AM -- Rapper Kayne West is the first person to officially take leave of Earth in the predicted May 21, 2011 Rapture, according to witnesses in Hawaii.

Persons familiar with West's neighborhood in the exclusive Diamond Head area of Honolulu were the first to notice he had been Raptured. West had rented a mansion there to escape the controversy over his behavior at the 2010 Video Music Awards, where he crashed the stage after Taylor Swift was given the Best Female Video award. His presence in Honolulu only became known when he allegedly crashed his $185,000 Porsche into a neighbor's garage at speeds estimated to be in excess of 50 mph. (See above photo of crashed Porsche.)West walked away from the accident and later reported the car had been stolen.

Neighbors professed ambivalence over West's disappearance, confirmed by a line of a dozen size 12 1/2 basketball shoes lined up on the sidewalk on Hibiscus Drive, all attested to have been worn only once by the rapper. Some claimed he tried on the pairs of shoes one by one until he found the best fit for take-off. Others said these were rejected after a fitting and that West chose to wear black Bally dress pumps.

"Excuse me, but after the s*** he's pulled, I think it's entirely appropriate for this sorry-a** excuse for a rapper to be Raptured," said one visitors to the yard sale hastily created to auction off West's Hawaiian possessions. Lines of buyers stopped traffic for hours as they fingered West's castoff colorful shirts, fancy baseball caps, and a selection of baggy pants.

Friday, April 22, 2011

P.S. I Love You (Self-Publishing)

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about self-publishing and using myself as a guinea pig took a manuscript all the way from file to "book". Here, below, is the next installment of the story: a P.S. that assesses what worked and what, if anything, didn't.

The entire blog has been run on the site as a 5-part series this week. I'll run the fifth part to give a sense of flow as it reaches the P.S. The story itself can be found at, or by title and author: The Skins of Our Ancestors by Don Wallace.

How to Publish a Book in 8 Hours #5

By Don Wallace

This is the final installment in a five-part series.

In the morning, my eight years of publishing drought had ended. There was more to do in terms of proofing and other tying up of loose ends, including downloading Kindle’s Mobi and Adobe’s Reader programs to make sure that The Skins of Our Ancestors would meet their standards. But the book was done. All that remained was to set a price.

The Skins of Our Ancestors is a 24-page story. It’s dense and a bit of a risk. It was meant to anchor a whole book on my upbringing in a half-Southern/half-Northern family in Southern California during the racially turbulent ‘60s. I decided it was worth more than free, more than a 99-cent download from iTunes. The Newbie guys, Barry and Joe, had talked about the importance of pricing an e-Book low enough for it to be an impulse purchase. But this was a major chunk of my life and my output. Yeah, that’s worth $2.99.

My royalty breakouts will vary. From it’s possible to get a pure 70 percent. Retailers like Amazon and B&N and others take a bigger share, around 50 percent. But these are terms much, much better than legacy publishing offers authors on e-Books (around 14.5 percent after all their surcharges are applied).

In the coming days and months and years, we’ll see how it all plays out. But right now, the magic number is eight. As in eight hours from e-Book newbie to author.

My next step? This experience has me wanting more—now. I know that’s a danger with self-publishing; let’s call it THE danger. If you start ladling slop into your stream of books and publications, you’ll do yourself no favors.

Still, I’m not going to stop now. I think a story a month sounds right. Some will be free, some will be 99 cents. All will be from my archive of unpublished work—nothing just riffed off. I think it’s important to reserve a kind of writing for e-Book publication, writing that promises more than the shoot-from-the-hip stuff that fills the web today. Call it premium, or estate reserve, or private label.

Or call it literature.

I also think this may be the route I take with my six-novel series, The Log of Matthew Roving. So maybe that’s what I’ll be putting up six months from now, around September, the traditional fall season in publishing. I’ll need that much lead time, given that the 500 page novel is 25 times longer than The Skins of Our Ancestors and will require a lot of formatting and re-formatting . . .

# # #

Postscript: The initial experience of formatting and designing a book was such a head rush that it was surprisingly difficult to await the approvals that are normal in the publishing process. Smashwords is very clear about there being a time lag while your “published” work goes through both a computer-generated and a human vetting process. They mentioned two weeks as a possible time frame.

As soon as I pushed the final “Publish” button, however, I began to pace and rant. Two weeks? I wanted it NOW.

Funny how the Internet has made us into such babies. In the legacy print world I would’ve settled back and begun to write another novel while my manuscript was in preparation. In three months my editor might send me a set of notes, if he or she were so inclined. Six months later, I would’ve received a set of galleys and begun the proofing process. Nine months later, bound galleys. And after a year, with a fanfare of trumpets, the book would have been born.

E-Books come in a variety of formats. Print books only come in one, paper. Smashwords offers a thorough and, so far as I can tell, unique service in making the 10 most popular formats available. If your book makes it through all the protocols for all the formats, which include handheld mobile devices such as smartphones, you’ll have covered all the bases.

This is what makes Smashwords, in theory, a killer app in e-Publishing. It sure beats, which only sets your book up to be sold through the Apple iBookstore. At this time, it doesn’t look as if Apple will be able to reach an agreement with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Sony, and other distribution channels. While this could change (and undoubtedly will evolve), I think Lulu is aimed at Mac cultists. Macs are great, but the e-Book reading world is greater.

In the case of my “book,” The Skins of Our Ancestors was immediately available, in one digital format, if you were persistent and tek-savvy and could figure out which format was viable. I couldn’t. My pal Charlie could. He bought it, bless his heart. Nobody else could, or did, so sales remained at the loneliest number for two weeks while the Auto-Vetting program ground its mysterious gears.

But then, after two weeks, the approvals came through. Now all I had to do was assign new ISBNs to the book, which Smashwords offered to sell me at a no-markup rate. Then Smashwords would submit the book to Amazon and other outlets that required an ISBN. The ISBN would also get me a listing in Bowkers, the book catalog.

Today I will get those ISBNs, and in two more weeks the book will be as published as anything electronic can be these days.

This is both remarkable and sobering. We have witnessed the remarkable part. Sobering is the realization that, yes, if I can do it, anybody can. The spectre of a gazillion self-published books hovers like a horde of locusts in the sky. There are about to be more books than we know what to do with. People won’t be able to find us, quality won’t necessarily be distinguishable, in this mass.

My other worry is that Smashwords will become so successful that they’ll be overwhelmed. That’s always a problem with the free model. Book approval time might stretch out, distribution might crash. It happens in the digital age. These guys have created an amazing product with a brilliant, Facebook-style kind of crowd-sourced philosophy. They are doing no evil, that I can tell. Here’s hoping they have the backing to keep their servers running (or get some soon).

My immediate concern now is the same for any author: marketing. How to keep from getting lost in the mass of e-Books. E-Book authors are my new tribe, yet they are also my rivals. It seems as if we’ve created a monster, unless we as a tribe immediately set up our own system of filters and hierarchies and reviews and schools and clubs. This is already happening.

This is a good place to leave the topic of e-Publishing, with a cloud of locusts darkening the sky but a great shining city on a hill lying before us, where authors find readers and everybody gets a fair royalty.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

How to Publish a Book in 8 Hours

What It Means to Be a Writer Today, Part 8

How To Publish a Book in 8 Hours

Yesterday it had been eight years since I published my last book, One Great Game.

Last night I published a book – an e-book – in eight hours. And therein lies a tale of gee-whiz, uh-huh, whadayawaitingfor and what-the-hell-I’m-going-for-it. Now I’m going to tell the story so you can go for it, too.

Like most writers who’ve been at it awhile, I have my frustrations with publishing. I didn’t grab the brass ring on my first go-round, nor my second. But drawing on my novelist superpowers, I kept at it. Because I became a magazine editor and a journalist, I was forced to encounter publishing reality on a daily basis. In other words, I learned to make sausage. Early on I vowed not to lose my connection to the purest kind of writing, which is also, duh, the least remunerative.

For the past year I’ve been reading everything I could find about the future of publishing, in particular anything to do with electronic publishing. My goal was and is to start my own e-Pub imprint. My reasons were grounded in glorious self-interest. I wanted to publish and be damned, as they used to say. For five years before the meltdown of 2008, I’d worked on a book that was to launch a six-part seafaring series having to do with the American Revolution, time travel, and the twelve-year-old boy who has to save our young democracy while wrestling with the whole slavery deal. I finished it just in time for my agent to take it out into the teeth of an economic gale, where The Log of Matthew Roving sank without a trace. (Although reports of its death were, it turned out, premature: you can check out the preliminary sketches for the project on my website,

At the same time, my essays and short fiction weren’t going anywhere, or else advancing at a snail’s pace: one memoir in Harper’s every four years, one Op-Ed or essay in the New York Times every two years, and silence from everyone else. I didn’t like my odds of breaking through before having to switch to false teeth to chew my filet mignon.

Like most people my age, I like to think of myself as an original rock n’ roll surfer-rebel-voodoo chile. Time to prove I still had my mojo, I decided. Having worked inside magazines and started magazines, including a prototype for book-reading fools like me that was to have been published by Kirkus Reviews, I figured I knew as much as I needed to know.

I was wrong about that, actually. There was lots I didn’t know and still don’t. But I knew what the hedgehog knows: that my patch of grass was changing forever. The future was slipping away from the legacy print houses.

Yesterday’s adventure began with my finding a story on Twitter, which I only began using seriously a month ago. It linked me to Laura Miller’s article in about e-Book publishing. (I’ll list her url and any others at the end of this piece: I don’t want to break up the flow here.) Miller put four links at the bottom of her story. One was this epic 13,000-word discussion of self-publishing between two guys I’d never heard of: Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. There went my day. Their Newbie’s Guide to Self-Publishing is the Common Sense of this publishing revolution. Between Miller and Eisler/Konrath I found myself at the website of a free e-Pub site called It was 3 p.m., I’d just come back from a sweaty walk, I had the taxes to do and dinner to cook. You can guess what happened next.

During my walk I’d tried to think big. Should I take my 500-page seafaring YA novel and throw it up there? How about my mystery novel about a women’s college basketball team whose coach is murdered? How about the first novel in my poi-noir “Hawaiian Hell” series. How about…

Something shorter. A novella or long story. As a test run, but one I could stand behind. Yeah, and being shorter maybe I’d have a chance to see it published before the week was out. I registered with Smashwords and read their calm and matter-of-fact explanation of how they worked. I searched through my WordPerfect files for a story or memoir. It had to meaty, it had to be good. I didn’t want to come out with anything half-baked.

A title leaped out at me: The Skins of Our Ancestors. I was surprised: I thought I’d lost it during a computer meltdown a few years back. I hit the Publish button. There were steps, beginning with one rule that must not be broken: read Smashword’s Style Guide and follow its 25-step process to the letter.

I’ve written a couple of technical manuals in my time. This one gets an A. (Even though some gremlin seems to have messed up a few paragraphs, I could piece together what they meant to say.)

Smashwords only works in Word. I work in WordPerfect, which is a writer’s program but increasingly out of step. So my first step was to strip out any WordPerfect formatting, indents, italics, and so forth from the file that was The Skins of Our Ancestors. Even if you write in Word, though, you’ll have to do this, too. As Smashwords explains, they need your textfile to be utterly basic to be perfectly and easily converted so it works across the many e-reader platforms. Because my file began as WP5 and was saved as WP9 and WP10 before converting to Word, I knew it had to be incredibly dirty. So I chose the Nuclear Option, copying the text into a Microsoft Notepad file, which acts like hydrochloric acid. Then I copied that melted-down text into a new Word doc.

But I wasn’t through. There was still debris in my file, so I followed the Style Guide and cleaned the thing two more times. Then I had to learn to go into the Change Styles folder, make sure nothing was selected except a left indent option, and set that as my new Default. Again, the Style Guide was as intuitive a companion as I could’ve desired. I owe a major lobster to Smashmouth’s technical writer, Mark Coker.

All this reading and uploading and stripping took about two hours and a half. It was highly intensive, eyes-pressed-to-the-screen kind of work. But I was caffeinated and stoked. I could feel my words transforming themselves. Alchemy was in the air.

Smashwords requires two things of a writer: that you do it their way, and you read the damn Style manual. Their way means: no fancy fonts, no experimental spacing or text games. They do give advice on formatting text blocks, charts, images, etc, but all I could say after scanning those steps was, “Thank god I’m a fiction writer,” and “We’ll just stick to words, now, if you please.”

They do require you to do a basic cover, and in fact they give off a vibe that without a competent-looking one your book isn’t going to be placed in their Premium Services category, which is how you show up on Amazon, Barnes&Noble and Borders.
How to create a cover? I figured I’d just upload a picture and slap a title above it.

I’ve taken a lot of digital pictures since 2005, professionally and personally. I was glad I’d gotten into the habit of taking pictures without people in them. (It’s amazing how faces ruin a good landscape.) In this case, I found a shot I’d taken of the oceanfront in my hometown, Long Beach. Since my story was partially about my Long Beach roots, the shot had resonance.

As a magazine editor, I also knew the shot had room for cover lines. The best real estate on a magazine cover is upper right, and this shot had a clear channel all the way down the right.

But when I read in the style guide I’d need a single-image cover sized ideally at 500 pixels wide and 800 high, I knew I was in trouble. My laptop didn’t have any fancy design programs in it, although the Microsoft Office suite undoubtedly had tools. But I’m leery of these internal MS programs; they rarely work as advertised. Third-party programs are usually created by real people to solve read needs in real time, and sure enough, the Style Guide mentioned one, called I linked, downloaded the program, it opened without requiring me to reboot (I had so many files open at this point that would’ve probably sent me off to bed) and I figured out which button to click to put my image up as a background. (It’s called Layer.)

Then I accidentally closed the color palette function and never did find a way to open it. I hit the “T” for text in the toolbar (memories of making magazines late at night guided my fingers) and discovered I’d somehow selected pink. Oh well! To help make the pink pop I found a function that allowed black striping inside the letters. But the sunny ocean backdrop swallowed the title. I knew it would be rejected by Premium Services. And I needed Amazon, etc.

It was late, and I broke to dump some previously cooked chicken sausage into a pot with a can of tomatoes, then chopped some baby bok choy into it. While that was heating Mindy wandered downstairs and put on water for pasta and made a salad. I wandered back to the screen. There was a list of commands in a box on, including one that said “Invert Image.” I hit it.

At the top of this blog I hope you’ll see my original photo, before I downloaded The “Invert Image” drained my photo of color and turned it into a negative image. It was noir, it was eerie, it was California’s bright shining myth turned inside-out. It was perfect for my story, which was about black-white relations during the Civil Rights crisis of the mid-1960s.

On the inverted image I happened to type in the first words in lower-case and immediately knew this was the way to go. Ditto for my line-break choices. Suddenly the pink looked real good. Subtle. For pink.

Mindy and I ate dinner with the preoccupied expressions and disjointed conversation common to writers on deadline. She went upstairs to finish her email blast, I went to my screen. Let the publishing begin!

I worked on into the night. A copyright page was required, in a certain style. An author page on Smashmouth’s site needed creating; I was prompted to get a PayPal account, another download which again didn’t require me to reboot. I was reeling a bit as I went through the extensive required formatting and proofreading pre-pub tests. It was 11:30 as I registered and edited and checked indents over and over.

Finally, I uploaded the clean document and pushed Publish.

And was rejected.

But the Style Guide was right with me. If my MS Word 2010 file ended in a “docx” then I had to re-save it in another , probably older Word file that ended with “doc.” Naturally Word doesn’t tell you what those file endings are when you’re doing a Save As, but I guessed Word 2003-2007 because somewhere in the guide the author, Mark Coker, had mentioned that this was his favorite conversion program.

Always pay attention to your tekkie. The file was accepted, uploaded to Smashmouth, and the “Meatgrinder” process, as they call it, began. I was number 323 in the queue and could just walk away, brush my teeth, and go to bed.

In the morning, my eight years of publishing drought had ended. There was more to do in terms of proofing and other tying up of loose ends, including downloading Kindle’s mobi and Adobe’s Reader programs to make sure that The Skins of Our Ancestors would meet their standards. But the book was done. All that remained was to set a price.

The Skins of Our Ancestors is a 24-page story. It’s dense and a bit of a risk. It was meant to anchor a whole book on my upbringing in a Southern/Northern family in Southern California during the racially turbulent ‘60s. I decided it was worth more than free, more than a 99-cent download from iTunes. The Newbie guys, Barry and Joe, had talked about the importance of pricing an e-Book low enough for it to be an impulse purchase. But this was a major chunk of my life and my output. Yeah, that’s worth $2.99.

My royalty breakouts will vary. From it’s possible to get a pure 70 percent. Retailers like Amazon and B&N and others take a bigger share, around 50 percent. But these are terms much, much better than legacy publishing offers authors on e-Books (around 14.5 percent after all their surcharges are applied).

In the coming days and months and years, we’ll see how it all plays out. But right now, the magic number is eight. As in eight hours from e-Book newbie to author.

My plans now? The e-Pub imprint I’ve dreamed of is already a reality, and I’ll have more news on that soon. But this experience has me wanting more, now. I know that’s a danger with self-publishing; let’s call it THE danger. If you start ladling slop into your stream of books and publications, you’ll do yourself no favors.

Still, I’m not going to stop now. I think a story a month sounds right. Some will be free, some will be 99-cents. All will be from my archive of unpublished work—nothing just riffed off, like this blog. I think it’s important to reserve a kind of writing for e-Book publication, writing that promises more than the shoot-from-the-hip stuff that fills the web today. Call it premium, or estate reserve, or private label.

Or call it literature.

I also think this may be the route I take with my six-novel series, The Log of Matthew Roving. So maybe that’s what I’ll be putting up six months from now, around September time, the traditional fall season in publishing. I’ll need that much lead time, given that the 500 page novel is 25 times longer than The Skins of Our Ancestors and will require a lot of formatting and re-formatting…

Thank you, Smashwords.

The Skins of Our Ancestors is at

Thanks to Jane Friedman, whose Twitter RT started the ball rolling.

Thanks to Michael Maren for telling me to write this blog. To Laura Miller. Here’s her Salon piece, with great links at the bottom:

Finally, here’s to Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler. You really have to read Joe’s blog with the 13,000 word Q&A:

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

What It Means to Be a Writer Today, Part 7: Who Wrote the Book You Loved?

Who Wrote the Book You Loved?

By Don Wallace

Who are the greatest writers of the 20th century? I nominate the following:

Constance Garnett, C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Francis Steegmuller, Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman, Edwin and Willa Muir (with Eithne Wilkins and Ernest Kaiser), Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Robert Bly and, I don’t know, maybe the three score guys from the Hampton Court Conference convened in 1604 by King James.

So, yes, I asked a trick question. But if you read in English, like me, then much of the literary greatness you drank so deeply from in youth was a potion filtered through the copper-coiled consciousness of a translator. And if you accept the greatness of the authors above—Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Turgenev and all the other Russians, Proust and Flaubert, Marquez and Fuentes and Llosa and the other Latin Americans, Kafka, Borges, Hamsun, and God—why not give credit to their translators? Because those are their words you’re reading.

As someone with more skin in the writing game than is wise or healthy, I’ve always found this disconcerting.

I remember first getting this sinking feeling when in college, reading Flaubert and Stendahl. Not having had a lick of French at that point, beyond pronouncing “escargot” once or twice (and “condom” a bit more often), I struggled with the archaic Victorian English until the thought hit me: what if these translations were like those 1950s movies with Maurice Chevalier, whose heavily accented English would be parodied in the later Pink Panther movies with Peter Sellers? Once I had the thought, the giggle would just not go away.

With my fragile literary consciousness at risk, I shelved the idea. But it has resurfaced over the years, particularly when I catch myself aiming for “the literary.” I get this fear that I’m simply writing in a style like those dubbed foreign movies where everyone, no matter what nationality, speaks in a tony BBC accent. Has the fear killed off a couple of stories? Yes, and good riddance to bad rubbish, as someone might say on Masterpiece Theatre.

Now, I love translators, generally. I wouldn’t be here without them—on the page, I mean. But leaving aside their indispensability and noble sacrifice on behalf of art, their ubiquity and their concealment in plain sight does bring up an inconvenient question:

Who wrote that book you loved?

The author, you say. Really? How can you tell? Do you read (French, Russian, Hebrew, etc.)? Okay, then. The translator. All foreign literature in translation is like these movies with which Hollywood is currently infatuated, the ones where James Franco or Matt Damon or Leo DiCaprio get themselves inserted into someone else’s body in another time zone. To save the world or get the girl, which amounts to the same thing.

Only, how do you know that when you’re reading Borges you’re not really kissing Matt Damon? Now there’s a thought. Hope you enjoyed it.

Anyway . . . just once I’d like us to admit that we’ve always accepted the greatness of these “great” books on faith. I understand the reasons. I mean, nobody goes to the rack and looks for books with a “Fair-to-Middling Foreign Classic” sticker on the cover. And yet, that’s what you could be getting, if the translator is a dodo or the editor ran out of money for adjectives. Or, as happened to most of the books in translation that I grew up on, the moral code of the times insisted on bowdlerizing all the good parts.

My beef here is that “greatness” which is actually mediocrity (in any case, but here specifically in translation) lures us away from finding our own soul’s path, our craft’s best practices and our own extra-authentic style. And, dude, falling in love with the “wrong” “great” literature can so spoil your groove. As Glen Beck might say, and hopefully will soon: reading foreign novels in English brings your babies ever closer to the clutches of that secret international puppet-master class.

Okay, so I sound paranoid. I hope it comes off in a fun way. And maybe this sounds a little hectoring, as if I’m now going to sniff and say that if you can’t read Nabokov in Russian then you really can’t claim to have read him at all. Well, nope, I’m not going there. Let me repeat: I love books in translation. It’s just that . . .

Come a little closer. Tell me something. Hmm? We’ve established that you wouldn’t have gone near these books unless they’d been certified “great” beforehand. In other words, it’s indisputable that you accepted a definition of “great” before you ever read a single transmuted sentence. Now, this surely influenced your reception of the work, did it not?

In science, that’s called a failure to control for bias. In literature, it’s called Norton Classics.

But we’re not here to deny the judgment of the jurists; our beef is with prose that takes the easy way out, by adopting the mannerisms, style and subject matter of the consensus great and famous. I’m not indicting the prose of the “greats” in translation, but of those writers who fall under their sway and never, ever emerge . . .

Hey, relax. I’m not prosecuting you—I’m interrogating my younger self.

I guess, more and more, the way imitation turns into something original fascinates me. When you’re young this is experimentation, right? Experimentation: the word that exonerates pot-smoking Presidential candidates and promiscuous young writers. I remember reading Joyce’s Dubliners and Borges’ Ficciones one rainy weekend and the next thing I knew, my characters spoke in Irish accents while dipping in and out of alternative universes—all in suburban Long Beach, California, ca. 1970.

After awhile, though, I was bothered by how easily my sincere flattery became impersonation. The infatuated writer turns creepy, like the stalker in “Single White Female” or Bergman’s “Persona.” The theme from “The Twilight Zone” begins to play in the background . . .

Time here to pause. Reflect. Become afraid. Very afraid. But don’t worry, I’ll be back. We’re not done here. Not by a long shot.

Because the question will not die: Who really wrote the book you loved? Raymond Carver—or Gordon Lish? Thomas Wolfe—or Maxwell Perkins? James Patterson—or a string of J. Walter Thompson vice-presidents?

Monday, April 04, 2011

What It Means to Be a Writer Today, Part 1: The Good News

Part I, The Good News

By Don Wallace

Sitting here in publishing limbo, bracing ourselves for waves of change and tidal surges of destruction, we may feel compelled to ask what exactly did we get ourselves into when we decided to be writers. After all, the consensus of media and other anointed commentators seems to be that the whole writing game is over. To give it a catchy, twitterable title: “Print is Dead, The Book is Toast, And William Shakespeare Were He Alive Today Would Be Writing For HBO and Doing Slam-Tweet Contests–LOL!!!” None of which is refutable.

As this new year dawns, Borders may already be in bankruptcy. E-books surpass print books in sales. And somewhere, in a rude straw-filled library carrel, another would-be writer slouches toward a coffee break. Another would-be writer pauses in making that latte (skim, extra espresso shot) to mentally jot a note about a story unfolding in her head. And in far-off Colombia, a coffee grower’s cocaine-addicted son is typing as fast as his fingers can fly, chasing a vision that nobody can deny and may even get him admitted to an MFA program in the U.S.A.

That’s the beauty of this thing of ours. Publishing may be going to hell, or heaven, who knows. But writing goes on. Writers stumble on their vocation every day.

In future posts, I’m going to try to stick to one topic: What it means to be a writer today. It takes chutzpah to call this first post “The Good News,” but what the hell, it’s a new year and the slate is clean and as I will soon point out, even the “bad” news is good.

As to where I’m coming from, always a valid question with writers on any subject, I figure that in my own way I’m in a perfect position to judge the current scene. I’ve been at the writing thing for my entire adult life, I’ve straddled the academic and “real” world, written for a living and for no reward except the rapture, been inside the beast called publishing, lived on both coasts and in the middle, and I’m not a big success.

I think that last is crucial: success ruins writers in terms of advice. Either they tell you stuff to discourage you (because they’re so unique, and you’re so jejune) or they make it seem so elementary that you feel you’ve been a slacker not to have written and published at least a trilogy by the time you’re twenty-five.

Now for the good news. First, location does not matter. Sure, all the media attention makes it seem so necessary, somehow, to get published before you’re twenty, acquire a quirky ethnic or foreign accent, pal around with the future famous, grow a scruffy beard, and move to Brooklyn or even better, Williamsburg. Well, no. Most of the so-called great writers didn’t come from New York or do their great work there; most still won’t.

If you drag yourself across the country because you think Brooklyn will water your roots, by all means, do it. Rude shocks make for better writing. But thanks to the creative destruction of the publishing mechanism, times were never better for getting your work out into the readersphere.

Second, the door is open. The above-referenced creative destruction is opening a million or more doors for those who, for the first time in history, can bypass the filters that publishing used to weed out the hordes of would-be writers. Not to knock the hard and ill-paid work of agents (the first filter) and editors (the second filter) and publishing executives (the third, hidden filter), but the world they made was never a meritocracy of literature or even storytelling. It was more like a bodyguard working the velvet rope at Club 54. The amount of slush pile submissions was simply overwhelming. And depressing. There was no way to sort it without adopting the most callous triage.

In the end, most books were published by word of mouth–a friend who knew a friend passed along a name, someone sighed and said, “Okay, I’ll take a look.” For those who had really powerful friends, the process was easier and the results often were meretricious: in the ’50s, white males in snap-brim hats apparently had a field day, effortlessly drinking martinis and smoking Chesterfields and single-finger typing huge novels; in the ’80s, any reasonably pretty daughter of a CEO who could put her hair up in a chignon and pout for a photographer could publish her slim volume of stories. (Not to be unfair to pretty daughters of the rich, but writing is a zero-sum game when it comes to reviews and column inches of press coverage, and Daddy’s empire also monopolized attention.) Today, you don’t need to be anybody’s daughter, or white, or male. You just digitize and self-publish and flog that blog of yours. It can happen to you.

Third, the field is clear. Nobody is stopping you. Because the value that the marketplace attaches to books is always much lower than the effort it takes to produce them, those with the drive, obsession, mania or serenity to keep writing and improving (and self-editing) can just motor along and watch the wrecks of wannabe writers pile up on the roadside.

If you start out writing at twenty, by the time you hit forty you’ll be among a very select group–those who kept going. Not that this promises any satisfaction other than that. But as an indicator of mental and psychic engagement in the world, chasing a dream is much better than sitting around wondering where it all went.

That’s enough good news for one day.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Am I a Genius? Are You?

It’s got to be the least useful question a writer can ever ask him- or herself, and yet—all right—it’s one we’ve all asked ourselves, even while suspecting we already know the answer (if you have to ask . . .) and thus guaranteeing a day of feeling absolutely wretched. So let’s get it over with:

Yes, you’re a genius.

And now you owe me, big-time. I want a big lobster and a gushing blurb when you’re famous.

The whole genius label, like the current passion for the word passion, makes me want to find my inner curmudgeon, take my walking stick off the wall and go hit something, like a cute puppy or the first daffodil of spring. To growl and say, Damn geniuses! Have to talk to the gardener again about letting them into the garden.

But it’s hopeless. We’re in the self-esteem business. And we live in an age when egos inflate and hover like Zeppelins over the Zuiderzee. To dare to raise a pen to paper, ego and self-regard and even a dose of early gushing praise are probably necessary. Still, a steady diet of fatuous self-appreciation can make you awfully unpleasant to be with and contribute to the most ridiculous, bloated, flatulent work. Unless you really are a genius.

The question of genius is a serious one, once we get over the junior high clique aspect. What makes someone really good? Really really good? The best? Can we quantify it? Graph it and fill in the squares? Turn the job over to Watson, the IBM supercomputer?

Well, we know the answer to that. Yes, of course. Maybe it’s Don Foster, the guy who can find a new Shakespeare sonnet in a shredded phone book using a software program. There’s just no question that someone somewhere is already doing it, pouring the relationship of fancy words, complex sentences and the occurrence of the semi-colon into an algorithm that will yield incontrovertible truth; every time.

We also know this, too, will pass and the question will remain: what is genius?

I first heard it applied to someone I knew when I was 19 and a singer in a rock n’ roll band. My best friend from childhood came up to Santa Cruz for a visit, heard us practice, and said later, in an awe-struck tone, “I’ve never met a real genius before.”

He was talking about our rhythm guitarist/songwriter. Boy, were my feelings hurt. Even if Peter wrote 90 percent of our material and could play an instrument. You see, I made really really good James Brown-like grunting sounds exactly where they were needed. For a white boy from Long Beach, that’s genius. Just not genius enough for Mike.

Mike is still my best childhood friend, but hurt feelings are why I’m going to dispense with the genius tag and replace it with something his mother, Trudi, once said of someone who was on a roll: “Why, his hair’s on fire!” I think this is a more useful appellation, because it connotes talent plus energy plus volatility plus combustion. You can just see Beethoven, sitting at the piano bench and his hair’s on fire. William Blake, you know the man’s hair is definitely on fire. And so forth. Frida Kahlo? Even her unibrow is on fire.

So we leave genius to the critics in the next century. Right now, in our lifetime, whose hair is on fire? That’s the question.

And now, quickly, I’m going to put myself in the jury box and answer the question, “Who among writers you’ve actually met was a—that word—you know. Whose hair was on fire?”

As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, I hit a pretty good era for writers. We had Jim Houston running the program, William Everson doing “Birth of a Poet” in a giant teepee, George Hitchcock publishing Kayak, a free weekly, Sundaz, that ran a short story a week thanks to fiction editor Lou Mathews, Gurney Norman writing a serialized novel in the margins of The Whole Earth Catalog, a large group of fine printers including my pal Tom Killion, a seriously literary bunch of professors up the Hill including my personal Virgil, Norman O. Brown, and a slew of young and old writers milling around the community and classrooms. As a fumbling apprentice, I soaked it all up indiscriminately.

There was plenty of talent in the room, all kinds. Many of us went on to publish. There are some real successes among us. But you know what? Nobody’s hair was on fire. (I think Norman O. Brown’s tonsure was singed, but his writing was academic and interpretative, even if Love’s Body and Life Against Death are among the few books I can think of that actually take you step by step into a different reality than where you started.) Once in awhile Gary Snyder came padding through the forest in roadkill moccasins and you knew greatness had passed. But Snyder kept away from scenes. He was like Obi-wan Kenobi, making himself invisible.

At one point I worked as a busboy-runner at the Oak Room on the Pacific Garden Mall, an outdoor café that was the center of the scene. One sunny day I served a table of writers, including my advisor, Jim Houston, and a handful of others, almost all of them in the UCSC-Stanford orbit, the heirs of Wallace Stegner. A fly on the wall, I hung around picking up elliptical gossip and collecting empty glasses and bringing fresh pitchers.

The talk turned to a guy they all knew, apparently. I gathered he was someone they cared about and had come up through the ranks with. And now, well, he’d hit the skids. He was going to be at the university to give a reading, but his drinking had become a terrible handicap and career-wise he was really blowing it. How? By writing too much, a couple of short stories a week, most of them undeveloped, sort of sketches. And publishing too much, too fast, in any little review that would take him. In places like The Chico Review, Humboldt Review, when he should be massaging one perfect story to showcase at The New Yorker or The Atlantic.

Yeah, poor Ray Carver. Now there was one guy whose hair was definitely not on fire.

See you next week, when I take the “hair on fire” roadshow to the Iowa Workshop.

Note: This post also appears on the We Wanted To Be Writers website and on my Bright City Writes blog -- because the book is gearing up for pub date and the Bright City blog will accompany the launch of our digital publishing house, Bright City Books.