The Blog Slog

You can also use alt text to say shitty stuff to people. Asshole.

My buddy Bryan pretty much invented a Blogger for himself out of php back in 1998. It connected to a site called Disturbance, a combination journal, rant factory and review of the world at large. Bryan taught me the trick of commenting out various parts of an entry so only your friends could see them: Went to the in-laws’ for Christmas. It was interesting, to say the least.<–my wife is a psychotic and each day with her is an agony that even suicide won’t erase–>  Of course, anyone who knew how to view the source could do that, but most of the “reading public” was oblivious.

Back then, people thought putting your stuff online was weird. It also looked really bad in AOL, so how could anyone even read it?

I started my first real blog Joshery back in 2001 or so on Blogger. I had the Uberhaus site up long before that, but it was HTML and FTP, so it didn’t really count. Blogger was great. There was this tiny self-referential community of people who read and commented about each other’s posts. Some of them were great writers. Some had interesting lives. Some were hilarious, some were so depressed that subsequent comments were all in the form of some kind of intervention (DON’T JUMP, DUDE, etc). None of it was terribly topical, but it was interesting.

The question of “Why?” was always answered “Why not?”  Why not write an ode to my cat? Why not talk about how I get kicks out of stepping on the scale holding a pair of dumbbells and setting them down so I can know how it feels to drop fifty pounds? WHY THE HELL NOT?

But then it started to become a Thing. Everybody had a blog. I think everyone believed the answer to the question “Why” was “Because.” Because I can make money. Because I need to promote myself. Because my agent told me that my fans want to connect with me (yeah, right.)

It’s all so… icky.

But it’s not all bad. You know why? The comments. Not the real comments. The paid-by-post comments. Here is one I have gotten maybe twenty variations of.

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I have a problem. They can fix it.  It might be a browser problem. It might be SEO. Or the good ol’ penis.

There are these, too:

I’m not sure where you are getting your information, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic information I was looking for this information for my mission.


Hi! I found your blog on AOL.Its really comprehensive and it helped me a lot.

There are lots like that. Copy, paste, repeat. The comments have nothing to do with the content. They always employ curious spelling and curiouser syntax.

Aweseme info. I used to spend a lot of my own time water skiing and being associated with games. It was possibly the best time of my past along with your blog kind of reminded us of that amount of my life. Cheers

But my favorites by far are the weird, semi-coherent machine-made ones that still manage to retain a human touch.

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These are usually larded with HTML links and keywords.

I mean, who pays these people to do this? Is this what it means to start your own business?



Travel + a poem


Guess where I am?  Yep. 500 miles per hours, the speed at which (according to John D. MacDonald) a .45 bullet travels.

Travel is always strange for me. Strange and delightful. Perhaps this is because airplanes are one of the only places where I see large groups of people reading books (albeit “airport books.”). I make my way down the aisle and I see people engrossed in paperbacks and hardbacks of all kinds. The guy next to me is reading Jim Gaffigan’s book on food. I saw somebody else reading The Goldfinch.  There’s also lots of Jim Patterson and even a Tom Clancy. How is he still a thing?

The commonplace miracle of hurtling across the continent at 38,ooo feet is in itself a tired subject, done to death in thousands of comedy routines, movies and stories. Now we’ve gone after the rose-hazed past, too. Don Draper sipping an old fashioned out of a glass while smoking a cigarette in the first class section of a Boeing 707.

Yet it still fascinates me. My notebooks are full of entries jotted down while in an airport or on a plane. I remember the awkward telephones jammed into the headrests of planes, the handy credit card slot and the telescoping wire. You’ll never believe where I’m calling from! THE PLANE! Right?”

I’ve been at an impasse in my novel. Well, not actually an impasse. More like a dark road in a deep forest where I stopped and looked around and the living shit scared out of me. Unfamiliar territory, the breadcrumb trail behind me fast disappearing. And wouldn’t you know, deep in the guts of O’Hare at six o’clock on a Saturday morning I saw a glint of faraway daylight through the trees and started writing my way out.  The path became illuminated and I remembered where I was going after all. Of course it is a first draft and maybe much of this will be trashed. I know that at the least it will be rewritten. But it’s movement.

Finally, I will leave you with a poem I wrote last year while on an airplane. I was doing a lot of traveling at the time. Hope you like it.


In And Out of Airplanes

The axles smoke uphill,
buckets of black slush sluiced judiciously
when the road turns steep

lest the animals balk
pulling harder against the traces
stop all together, strand the traveler

red faced and raging. The staved
bucket instead swings from a pintle
grease black, wrought and hammered iron

I touch the side of the jet
hunch into its narrow belly
nodding hello, eye the rows

breathe the cycled air stale.
Some magazine said three
out of four Americans believe

they will find their soul-mate
next to them on an airplane.
Maybe true if their souls lie

in wait, eager for the chance to jump,
hot grease on the griddle, spatters
pooling solid as they cool

Thomas Berger

Having just concluded reading Little Big Man to my daughter, I have a new and deeper appreciation for Thomas Berger. For whatever reason, he has been largely ignored by modern literary culture–so much, in fact,   that I was unaware he died back in July.

The man wrote twenty-two novels of many different types, each one a paragon of technique, character and story. In the Updike tradition, he wrote four books featuring the same character seen over the course of several decades. He wrote a detective thriller, a few different takes on modern life, a couple of westerns and an Arthurian epic. He was versatile, he was consistent, he was prolific.

Yet, his titles neither sold as well as that of many lesser writers  nor garnered the praise heaped upon others like Updike or Saul Bellow. Another favorite of mine, Trevanian aka Rodney Whittaker, was equally ignored but at least had three spectacular bestsellers to make up for it. Stephen King is a hell of good writer and rich as Croesus. Dan Brown is hands-down the worst writer I have ever seen succeed (outdoing Stephanie Meyer and Tom Clancy) and he’s hugely popular.

Berger’s writing is accessible, complex, rich and hilarious. He writes dialog better than almost anyone. So why was he ignored?

Well, here’s a theory from the Atlantic. What do you think?


What now?

The flurry of the NaNoWriMo is over and I now stare at 50,000 plus words that may or may not have advanced my plot. I find myself bogged down in that bitter middle part of the novel. You know the part of Huckleberry Finn just before the Duke and Dauphin come aboard? When I first read it, I got the feeling that Huck and Jim were drifting into a siding. They missed the turn in the fog and the story was, to me, going nowhere. Enter these two crazy characters who propel the book along for quite a spell and then, once they’re gone, we’re back in a weird boxy no-story place. I got the feeling that Twain was sick of the whole damned thing and threw Tom Sawyer into the mix because he was at a loss as to how to finish up what had started so well.

It was my introduction to disappointment in a novel, something that has repeated again and again.

Maybe it’s that I don’t have the finely attuned concentration to give a novel my all from end to end, or maybe it’s elevated expectation at fault. Whatever the cause, I have found the bulk of novels I read tend to sag in exactly the same place. This is bad enough as a reader, but as the person responsible for the monstrosity it’s far, far worse. I find myself pursuing false starts and silly asides, hoping for that glimmer in the woods that shows me the road out. Maybe I need to take a break, but I don’t think so.

I’ll get back to you on how this turns out.

More about NaNoWriMo

Great blog post about this by  Karen Rawson


There are two kinds of writers in the world: those that do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and rise to the challenge of producing 50,000 words in November, and writers that spend the month coming up with excuses why this is not sensible, practical, rational or useful.

I’ve always been in the latter camp.

I mean sure, I could write 50,000 words in a month. But who wants to read a book composed of “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” repeated 5,555 times?

Then, the Beast showed up. “Best Friends for Never,” he said in a phlegmy whisper.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ll write it. Someday. Like when it’s warmer. When the bills are caught up. I’ll take some vacation time—next year maybe. When I’m caught up on my sleep. And laundry. Better yet, when my youngest is out of elementary school and I don’t have to haul my oldest to band practice at 6:30 am. Or when I’m retired.

“Write it now,” he said. He let out a stale stream of cigarette smoke and flicked some ashes on the rug.

“I don’t even know what happens. I mean it’s just an idea.”



I was late out of the gate, starting on November 5th. For a few days, I juggled 400 words at a pop and questioned the point. And then: BOOM.

I got it. I got what NaNoWriMo is really about. And no, it’s not a contest. And no, it’s not about discipline and it’s most certainly not about perfection. It’s about opening the door wide. And in the process of opening that door, you need to slam your inner critic hard against the other wall. (Mine left a long lipstick streak down the door jamb before she fell unconscious.)

And when that door is open, well that is when the story happens.

As of today, I’ve got 20,000 words. And while it it’s pretty unlikely I’ll win NaNoWriMo this year, I have to say I’ve already won. I’ve got a story that’s making me breathless and I can’t wait to finish it. And the fact I won’t get done by November 30th isn’t because it’s not there—it’s because there’s not just enough time. So when November goes and December comes, I expect to be still happily click-clacking away on Best Friends for Never.

Congratulations to all of those who have completed NaNoWriMo and to any and all that have taken the challenge. Best of luck in taking your novel to the next step. And to those writers who always put entering NaNoWriMo right up there with pushing a shopping cart to the top of Mount Everest, consider this: what have you got to lose?

An interesting piece on genre fiction

It’s again respectable to write genre fiction. I think that this is one aspect of the demise (or at least rethinking) of Big Publishing that can be construed as positive. The whole idea of genre stemmed from the need to market to specialized segments, but I think it gave rise to unhealthy prejudice. “I don’t like historical fiction.”  Say that and you remove from your canon the superlative Patrick O’Brian novels, Wolf HallThe Luminaries and hundreds of other beautifully written books. “I refuse to read fantasy” rules out the splendid Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. A dislike of war fiction eliminates A Farewell to Arms, The Things They Carried and (ahem), my own book.

Here is a great article about it from the New Yorker.

Writing Crap


It’s November, and all over the world writers have chained themselves to their desks, dining tables, library kiosks, Moleskine notebooks and whatever else with one common goal: to write crap. A lot of crap.

Every writer worth a shit syas the same thing: first drafts are awful. You need to push through them, get whatever it is onto the page. You mention Papa Hemingway’s rosy recollection of banging out The Sun Also Rises  in six weeks?  Well, he may have done that, but rest assured that the revision left very little of what he wrote during that time intact. But what of Kerouac and On the Road, you say? Didn’t he write it all in one amphetamine-fueled spell, using a huge scroll of butcher paper? Maybe. But somebody edited the damned thing. Or maybe it’s not as good as you remember.

Just accept that it’s going to be crap and get on with it. That’s the whole point of November, as far as I am concerned.

Elmore Leonard has a few rules to keep in mind that might make the crap less crappy. It won’t help with plot holes or inaccuracy, but it might make for less frustration:

Never open a book with weather.
Avoid prologues.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

About revision, he is more succinct:

Read it closely and take out the boring shit.

So write away, writers. Write crap every day. Know that’s it’s crap and write it anyway.

But dear God, please don’t show it to anybody.

Running Traps


Not what you call a season exactly
running long as it does especially
taking into account all the varieties
of trapping

Drowners are common and easy
road-lines set in drainage and culverts
under bridges where you can see from the truck
The law says each trap must be set in at least eighteen inches of water
The law also says touching another man’s trap is a felony
this provision designed to keep  activists
from breaking into mink farms and setting the animals free
passed by the legislature before a single case went to court.

We piled into the truck, buckets and chain in the bed
chomping on donuts while the wipers smeared small rain
The old man is retired, invited me out on my day off
I in my office clothes, him in camo waders and waterproof poncho

First bridge trap was empty and the other gone,
dragged on its chain Christ knows where
but in the third a medium-sized coon caught by the rear leg
covered in black mud and mad as hell

I stood up on the road, watched the old man sliding down the mud gully
pull the little Chinese .22 revolver out of his vest
a cheap pistol he got in a swap since he is a felon, the cylinder held in place by a sinker nail
loose and rattly, prone to misfire and only accurate from a foot or less

got right down in his face and held out that gun, pulled twice before it fired
the critter crouched into a prowl, all hopeless menace and black mud
the little pop ringing in the drain pipe choked with flood trash, sticks and moss
dropped boneless, red jet arcing out between his eyes purple in the black water.

The old man heaved up and waded to check the other traps
and that old varmint raised himself too, Lazarus in matted fur, blood bubbling
terror and mud and rage, pawing his face like he could fix it. I called the old man back
and he put another in its ear and when the raccoon fell this time it was dead for sure

half in the water, head down, body writhing in some dread dance they never show on TV
The old man took him by his paw, said “Son of a bitch, he’s been here before”
showed me the chewed off foot from some years-ago narrow escape
tossed the carcass into the truck bed, worth eleven dollars at any furrier in town



I was on the phone with my brother yesterday and he mentioned talking to an old veteran of B-17 combat who was a docent at the Evergreen Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. The old guy told him that the oxygen systems needed to be cleared of CO2 lest it build up in the system. I had never heard this, never come across it in the hundreds of hours of research I put into this project. I knew foul odors got trapped in the oxygen system, that it could be dialed all the way to deliver pure oxygen at very high altitude, that the men took their masks with them when they left the plane. But nothing about clearing C O2.

One thing I have learned in the writing of this novel: there is always more to learn. I also learned to check things out. Memories fade, and wartime is apt to cause either exaggeration or understatement depending on who’s talking.

So I went to the source. I present here the bible of all things B-17


For those wanting information on the famous Norden, you’ll need to find the separate document that goes into detail about that super-secret device.