Wow – Above and Beyond

06.02.11 | Permalink | Comment?

On a Thursday back in 2006, Private Channing Moss was manning the gun on his unit’s Humvee in Afghanistan when they were ambushed. In the midst of the battle, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired into the vehicle, striking Moss.

He should have died instantly, but he didn’t. The grenade didn’t go off. Instead it lodged in his body.

His commanding officer called for a medevac helicopter, leaving out the unfortunate fact that Moss could blow up and kill everyone around him at any time. The helicopter crew found out when they arrived; Army policy forbids carrying a wounded man with ordnance in his body.

They took him anyway.

There’s an Army protocol for surgery involving unexploded ordance; had the doctors at the aid station followed it, Moss would have bled to death. Instead of isolating him and operating on the other wounded soldiers first, they ordered all nonessential personnel out of the building and started in without delay.

You can guess the rest. They saved Moss, who was still gravely wounded but out of danger. After several months of recovery and rehabilitation he was able to walk to receive his Purple Heart.

Yeah, they did the same thing once on an episode of M*A*S*H, and later on Grey’s Anatomy, but I’m a sucker for stories like this. To save Private Moss, a lot of people risked their lives when they didn’t have to. But I guess that’s what they do.

Basketball, Sports

NBA Finals: Repeat or Revenge?

05.31.11 | Permalink | 1 Comment

When the playoffs started, I didn’t hold out much hope for the Dallas Mavericks. In fact I thought it was probably 50-50 that they would be beaten by the overachieving Trailblazers. The Mavs persevered in that series, and then surprised pretty much everyone by absolutely destroying the Lakers. Add in a convincing series against the Oklahoma City Thunder (sure, lots of people picked a Dallas-OKC west final) and they’re back to the main stage.

The main reason is Dirk Nowitzky. He is shooting the ball from all over the court as well as anyone I have ever seen, though I missed out on Larry Bird’s prime. He is absolutely unguardable right now. The Miami Heat will be forced to get the ball out of his hands and make Dallas’ role players win the game.

Ah, the Miami Heat, Dallas’ opponent back in 2006, now the Three Amigos. Like Dallas, they had mixed results in the regular season, and they have also turned it up in the playoffs, and with the return of Udonis Haslem – an excellent role player – they may have someone who can slow down Dirk.

Hopefully this time Dallas won’t have contend with the refs as well. Yeah, yeah, the Mavs choked away their lead in Game 3, and Miami plainly won games 5 and 6 – but the refs handed Game 4 to the Heat. Still bitter? Yes I am! I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but the free throw disparity in that game was ridiculous, and on the deciding play – the Dwayne Wade drive that ended up with the game-winning free throws – the foul was called not by the two referees at the Miami basket, but by Bennett Salvator at half court. And in spite of the fact that there was no replay that showed Wade being gently caressed, much less fouled.

Well, now Dallas has another chance. If Dirk can keep up his level of play, if the role players can make their shots and prevent a few on the other end, and if the refs can lose the desire to stick it to Marc Cuban… then we might have a series worth remembering.

Me, Short Stories, Writing

Published Again: “Grace, Period”

05.04.11 | Permalink | 3 Comments

My story “Grace, Period” is now on-line at Plots With Guns. I had a lot of fun reading it and you should all go check it out.

Liner notes:

This story is a sequel of sorts to “Goodnight, Gracie“, also published at Plots With Guns. Do not go and read it, though, as it contains certain spoilers for “Grace, Period”.

Though there’s plenty of adult content – sex, violence, and, especially, profanity – this story was intentionally styled as the sort of thing you might see in Ellery Queen’s or Alfred Hitchcock’s, if they ran this sort of thing, especially in the pacing. This isn’t a dirge, a long, lonely plod to a tragic ending; it’s a mambo. Conga line, everyone!

The story takes a few jabs at the bookselling world, but it’s not really a satire. More of an in joke for those who follow publishing new. I’m not really suggesting that strong-arm tactics could save bookstores. Although now that I think about it… The specific “bix box” bookstore I describe is modeled after the Borders where my writing group meets.

With the exception of Tommy Roccaforte, all the Italian names here are taken from well-known drummers:

Pete Morello – inspired by Joe Morello, jazz drummer for Dave Brubeck, who inspired me to use these names. Sadly, he died before this story was published. My all-too-predictable reaction was, “Joe Morello was still alive?!?”

Sal Porcaro – Jeff Porcaro, founding member of the rock group Toto and noted session drummer. He played on albums by Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, and many, many others.

Vito “The Libido” Fontana – DJ Fontana, Elvis’s drummer. DJ is from my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, and was the house drummer for the Louisiana Hayride, where Elvis first gained popularity.

Carlo Garibaldi – David Garibaldi, drummer for the influential funk group Tower of Power.

Finally, if you have half as much fun reading this story as I had writing it, well, you had fun. This story was as much fun to write as anything I’ve *ever* written. I hope it shows.

Books, Reviews

THE RED RIGHT HAND, by Joel Townsley Rogers

04.05.11 | Permalink | 2 Comments

Everyone saw the death car as it roared down the sleepy country byway, the demented tramp laughing at the wheel, Inis St. Erme sprawled beside him, already dead or dying. A family saw it as it swerved to strike their beloved St. Bernard. An artist saw it as it sped through his semi-circular drive, scattering his easels and grinding the paintings beneath its wheels.

John Flail, however, did not see it, as it ran him down from behind.

And, more remarkably, Henry Riddle did not see it either, despite the fact that the car he himself drove sat stalled at the entrance to Swamp Road, at the other end of which the car was found. A half-dozen witnesses saw the car, with St. Erme slumped to the side, his arm hanging down against the door, but Riddle did not.

The horror would not be real until they found St. Erme’s body, and it was Riddle himself that found it, as a hastily assembled group searched the swamp near where the car was discovered. Half-sunk in the muck it was, with only an arm visible. An arm without a hand.

The reader can see as well as Riddle that all the signs point to one man as the killer. But Riddle won’t believe it, so he sits writing in a dead man’s house and tries to find another explanation, an explanation that sounds at first like a madman’s raving, but then, incredibly, it begins to make sense. And the reader begins to doubt his own sanity.

This brief description doesn’t do justice to the oddness of Joel Townsley Rogers’ 1945 novel The Red Right Hand. The oppressive atmosphere of insanity pervades every scene, every word even (though I never actually though myself insane; no more than usual, anyway). To my mind the novel was clearly influenced by Cornell Woolrich, and not just in the tone – outrageous coincidences abound, for example, and the ultimate explanation is bizarrely far-fetched. The last twenty pages essentially rewrite every single event that precedes them. And yes, there’s a damn good reason that right hand is missing.

In fact, the solution is so convoluted that I think Rogers made a mistake. The killer does one thing that he would never have done had he known… but by that time, he did know. Also, it was half an hour after I finished the book that I realized who one of the bodies belonged to.

This book doesn’t have Woolrich’s propulsive narrative drive – the first forty pages are slow going – but once it got moving I couldn’t put it down. It’s certainly not a great book, but it’s a really good one, and it’s very much out of the ordinary, so if you like your mysteries mixed with a little horror (two great things that go great together), this book will fill the bill.

Books, eBooks

Creating a Kindle Book with Mobipocket

03.15.11 | Permalink | 7 Comments

Over the past year I’ve created a few Kindle books for my friends Victor Gischler and Steven Torres, and along the way I’ve learned a few things about the process, mostly through trial and error. Here, then, is the condensed version of the wisdom I have learned along the way:

  1. Download Mobipocket Creator. Mobipocket was purchased by Amazon a few years ago, and it’s the native format for Kindle books. It’s not the best eBook creator – my favorite is Sigil – but all of the others use the EPUB format, and there are various problems converting to Kindle.
  2. If you don’t have a Kindle, download the Kindle Previewer. This little program will save your butt many, many times. If you haven’t checked your book on either the Previewer or the Kindle itself, don’t publish it!
  3. Create your cover art. You don’t have to be a brilliant artist to do this. The limit of my art “skills” is taking a stock image and slapping on some text. Here are a few tips:

    — There are many sources of stock images on the web. My own favorite is Shutterstock. Deviant Art is a good source of artwork in addition to photographs. You can also find an image you like in Flickr and contact the artist to purchase the appropriate rights.

    — The final size of your cover art should be 800 pixels high by 600 pixels wide. Having said this, I urge you to actually work with the largest size image available. Just make sure it has a 4:3 ration of height to width. For example, the cover for Killing Ways 2: Urban Stories began life at a resolution of 5461 by 4096, which is within a fraction of 4:3.

    — The image editing program called Paint is included with every copy of Windows, and does a decent job, but if you don’t have anything better you may want to download GIMP, the Gnu Image Manipulation Program. It’s free, and quite powerful. GIMP has one particular function that Paint doesn’t – you can create layers for each of your design elements – for example, the title text, the author’s byline, and the base image itself. This makes it very easy to change something if you don’t like it.

    — On the Kindle, images tend to look darker than they do on your PC screen, even in the Kindle previewer. For dark images, you will want to increase the brightness.

  4. Convert your document to HTML file(s). I prefer to create one file per chapter (or story), as it makes editing them easier. I’m not going to go into all of the details of editing HTML but here are the basics:

    — Do NOT just export from Microsoft Word to HTML. When you do this Word basically opens the file, pukes in it, and walks away trying to look nonchalant.

    Instead, create a new empty text file. If the sections will have names that naturally indicate their sequence (“Chapter One”), rename the file to “Chapter One.html”. If the names aren’t in sequence, put a number on the front to indicate the order. For example, if you first story is named “West, Texas”, the file name would be “1 – West, Texas.html”.

    — Once the file is created, copy all the text from your original document and paste it in the file. This will give you nice, clean text, but will remove all the formatting. You’ll need to add the HTML tags on your own. Your title should be surrounded by <h2> tags, for example: <h2>West, Texas</h2>. If this is a multi-author anthology and you need to include a byline, use <h3> tags.

    Each paragraph should be surrounded by <p> tags:
    <p>Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York.</p>
    In Notepad you can easily find where your paragraphs begin and end by pulling down the “Format” menu and turning off Word Wrap. Be sure to save your changes when done.

    — As I said, pasting plain text will remove all the formatting. You will need to find all instances of italic, bold, or underlined text and surround them with, respectively, <i>, <b>, and <u> tags. Word will let you search for specific formats. Press Control-F to bring up the Find dialog, then click the “More” button. In the expanded dialog click the “Format” button, and click “Font” from the pop-up menu. Then you’ll be able to find all instances of italic or other formatted text.

    — If you want to include images in the contents of your book – author photos, perhaps – put them in the same directory as the HTML files and include them in the HTML text using an image tag:
    <img src="GrahamPowell.jpg"/>
    Again, that image must be copied to the same directory as the HTML file that contains the <img> tag.

    — Now you’re almost done. Include the following code at the beginning of each HTML file:
    <title>Chapter Title</title>
    <style type="text/css">
    p {text-indent: 2em}
    h1 {text-align: center}
    h2 {text-align: center}
    h3 {text-align: center}

    Replace the text “Chapter Title” with the title of the chapter. Now paste this code at the end of each file:

    The first code block indents each paragraph by the width of two em-dashes, and centers all the text inside the <h1>, <h2>, <h3> tags. The second block closes all the HTML tags.

    Yes, creating clean HTML is the most tedious part of making the book, but it’s very important if you want your text to be formatted correctly and consistently.

  5. Now you’ve created your cover art and the HTML files that will make up the content. You’re FINALLY ready to create the book in Mobipocket. Launch Mobipocket Creator and create a new publication. You’ll be prompted for a name. Enter the title and click “Create” to accept the defaults for the rest:

    — Mobipocket will now take you to a list of files included in this publication. At first it will be empty. You can click the “Add File” button or just drag and drop all your files onto this space. If you drag and drop them they will probably not be in the right order. To reorder, click on a file name and use the up and down arrow buttons to change the order. When you’re done you should have a list of all your files in the correct order:

    — Now you’ll need to add any images that appear in the body of your book (note: this does not include the cover). You can either copy them to the publication’s directory yourself, or simply add them the same way you added the HTML files, then remove them. Adding them copies them to the directory, but removing them does not delete them. If you don’t remove them, each image will appear on its own page in the finished document.

    — Now let’s add the cover image. In the links on the left-hand side of the display, click “Cover Image”. This will display the “Add Cover Image” button. Click it and select your cover image:

    Click the “Update” button at the bottom of the page to save your changes.

    —Next up: the Table of Contents. Click the “Table of Contents” link in the left-hand column, then click the “Add a Table of Contents” button. You can change the header text if you want to. Since we used the <h2> tag for chapter headings, we’ll use that to generate the entries in the table of contents. If you have multiple levels, for example “Book One”, “Chapter 5″, you can use different size headings and have them appear in heirarchical order. But the simplest is just to use h2. Please note you don’t need to use the angle brackets:

    Click the “Update” button at the bottom of the page to save your changes.

    — Now click the “Metadata” link on the left side. At a minimum, make sure you enter the book’s title and the author’s or editor’s name. Fill in as much other information as you like:

    As before, you must scroll down and click “Update” or these changes will not be saved.

    — Before we can complete making changes to the book, we’ll need to build it. Click on the “Build” button on the toolbar at the top of the window. Don’t choose to use compression or encryption, just click the “Build” button in the middle of the page:

    Once complete, click “Go back to the publication files”:

    — Now, click on the “Guide” link on the left-hand side. The guide sets up certain landmarks inside the book that the Kindle uses for navigation. The “coverpage” item is set automatically, and once we built the book, the “toc” item is also created. The “start” item tells the Kindle what to display when a reader opens a book for the first time. By default, this is the first page of content from the first file (in this example, “1 – West, Texas.html”). If this is a collection of short stories, you may want the reader to begin at the table of contents instead.

    To do this, click the “New Guide Item” button. In the “Type” column, select “start”. This will automatically set the item title to “Startup Page”. Next, copy the file name from the toc item and paste in into the same field for the start item. This filename should be mbp_toc.html and is generated automatically:

    Add additional items as required. As always, click the “Update” button or your changes will be lost.

    Now click the “Build” button and rebuild your book. You are nearly done.

  6. The final step is to edit the Table of Contents. This step is only required if you will need to set up categories or headings for your stories.

    Once the build is complete, make sure the option “Open folder containing the eBook” is selected and click “OK”. You’ll see a folder that looks something like this:

    You’re looking for the file named “mbp_toc.html”. Click on this file with the right mouse button and select “Edit” from the pop-up menu. This should open the file in Notepad. Again, general HTML editing is outside the scope of this article, but you can modify this file as required. Do not edit the links, however, as these are required for the table of contents to work.

    Once you have finished editing this file, rebuild the book before you make any more changes to the book. If you make any changes, the table of contents will be automatically regenerated and any modifications will be lost.

  7. Preview the book. Be sure to check the cover, the table of contents, and every single page. Have your friends and family check it. The more eyeballs go over it, the more chance you’ll find all the errors, and there probably will be some. If so, correct them, rebuild the book, and check again.
  8. It’s Miller time! Your book is complete. Upload the finished with extension .prc to Amazon, along with your cover image. Watch as your bank account swells, along with your head.

Obviously I can’t cover every possible combination of elements you might want to use, but this should help you avoid the most common pitfalls.

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