Monday, August 21, 2017


    There are guys who are born with a wrench in one hand.  They can change their own oil, rewire a trailer, diagnose mechanical problems, change spark plugs and "points" (whatever those are) - some of them can even take a thing apart and put them together again and the thing will still work!  These guys go on to become auto mechanics, aircraft technicians, lawn mower repairmen, architects, carpenters, and other occupations that make far more money than us history teachers.

    Then there are guys like me.  I am the reason those guys exist.  On a good day, if I take my time and am very careful, I can change a tire without setting the car on fire.  If I'm lucky.  And there my mechanical abilities come to a screeching halt, not unlike a Hefty garbage bag full of cream of tomato soup hitting the pavement after being dropped from the top of AT&T Stadium.  Seriously,  I'm not only the reason mechanics exist, I'm the reason they get paid so well.  I am a helpless hostage to their skills.  They can do by nature stuff that I could not do if you waved a million dollars under my nose and got Anne Hathaway to stand on the sideline and cheer me on in a French maid uniform . . . but I digress.

    One example:  Earlier this summer I was mowing my lawn (DON'T even get me started on mowing!  I am a sixth generation Texan, and I don't mind a hot dry summer. In fact, I look forward every year to the lawn turning brown and dying and the soil turning to concrete by mid-July, so I can put the mower in the shed till next spring and devote my time to far more important pursuits, like figuring out the next plot twist in GAME OF THRONES or waiting for the lake to drop far enough for my favorite arrowhead spots to come out of the water.  But this year we have had nearly a foot of rain in August - AUGUST, when it's supposed to be a hundred and six degrees outside!!!! - and my lawn was beginning to resemble the Amazon basin until I spent four hours cutting it down to size this afternoon.  Did I digress again?  I think I did.  Where was I?  Oh, yeah, I need to close these parentheses!)

    Anyway, I was mowing my lawn a month or so back, and my lawnmower threw a belt.  Where it threw the belt, I do not know - it looked like the belt was still there, just not doing its belty job, which was to make sure my blades turned rapidly and cut the nasty green stuff that just won't quit growing this year.  But my friends all said it had "thrown a belt," although none of them could tell me how far the throw was, who caught the belt and whether or not the runner was safe.  At any rate, with only a tiny amount of my vast yard actually mowed, my riding mower had been reduced to the world's slowest four-wheeler.  So I did what any red-blooded American male utterly devoid of mechanical aptitude would do: I went on Facebook and griped about it.

    Here's where one of my friends jumped in - I'll call him Dave because, well, his name IS Dave.  I was in mid-rant about having to take the mower to the shop and spend money I didn't have, and he said: "You don't have to take it to the shop, it's a simple fix."  I said: "For you, maybe.  I have a hard time figuring out which end of a hammer to use."

    He then adopted that tone (I presume, our communications were all written, but in my mind he was speaking in that slow, sonorous voice that a shepherd uses to persuade a particularly dense sheep that it can cross a trickle of water in the pasture without being eaten by crocodiles) which people with mechanical aptitude use to make guys like me feel particularly useless.

    "It's SIMPLE," he said, "you just loosen the thermo-weeble gasket with a sonic screwdriver until the particle flange detaches from the warp core.  Then you take your tricorder and use the basic principles of leverage to crawl through the Jeffreys tube and re-attach the belt to the servomotor, being sure not to unhook it from the router."

   Now Dave might argue that he said no such thing, and he might be right, because what he was telling me seemed to be written in a rare dialect of Sanskrit spoken by drunken Hindu monks who took language lessons from drunken monkeys.  In other words, I couldn't understand a word of it.  He went on to try and break it down into even simpler terms, using a combination of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Hebrew folklore to show that to anyone with a shred of mechanical aptitude that changing a drive belt was a simple, five-minute job - a job that a moderately well-trained chimpanzee should be able to do.  In the end, I meekly shredded my man card and put the mower on a trailer and took it to the shop, where they ("they" being members of a sinister society of guys like Dave who understand how mechanical things work; it's a form of black magic) did mysterious mechanical things that made it work again.

    But that was not this summer's only attempt to drive home the fact that I was born with less mechanical aptitude than Donald Trump has grace and good manners.  A couple weeks back, me and my friend Danny hooked up my faithful vessel, the Water Turkey, for a run down to Lake Limestone - only to find that my trailer lights were as dead as the tradition of wearing petticoats to Ft. Lauderdale during spring break. Now, I had actually wired the trailer myself originally - well, technically, me and my friend Ray wired it.  To be COMLETELY honest, Ray wired it while holding out his hand and asking me to give him the necessary tools, which I sometimes actually located in six tries or less!  When that set of lights went bad after two lake seasons, I took the boat trailer to a local shop and had it professionally rewired. That was over three years ago, but now the trailer had gone dark again.   Danny plugged and unplugged the connector that hooked the trailer's lights to my SUV's electrical system, studied it a moment, and said "Well, I think you've either got a short or a ground wire not doing its job."  Not wanting to appear ignorant, I nodded in solemn agreement that, yes, there was a short wire on the ground not doing its job, even though I looked on the ground and didn't see a wire anywhere.

    "Can you fix it?" I asked.  "Sure," he said, "but you should be able to do it yourself.  Just get a groundwire connector, a thermo-weeble gasket, a pair of seismic pliers, some eclipse glasses, and a proton generator.  Hook the trailer to a superconducting supercollider, give it a jolt of dilithium, and you should have lights in no time."

    I looked at him in astonishment, because he was speaking (apparently) the same dialect of Sanskrit that Dave had used when telling me how to fix the drive belt.  Finally, turning over those arcane phrases in my mind and wondering how on earth he had memorized so much of the Necronomicon, I said "Well, we could just drive it on down to the lake and work on it later, right?"

    "Sure," he said.  Despite my best attempts to turn the conversation to arrowheads, women, the Civil War, a recent uptick in dog hickeys, and the startling drop in the price of imported tarantulas from Brazil, Danny kept coming back to how easy it should be for me to fix those trailer lights when I got home.  Finally I broke down and admitted to him that, no matter how many times he repeated it, I still had NO idea what he was talking about.  He looked at me the way I look at 8th grade students who for the life of them cannot seem to recall that Grant fought for the Union and Lee for the Confederacy!  I was going to give him my man card, but then I remembered that I shredded it in shame when I took my mower to the shop.  So my boat trailer still has no lights!

   I think I'll invite Danny over, and offer to grill pork spare ribs if he'll rewire the trailer.  I might be mechanically illiterate, but I can do pretty good things with cut up pieces of dead pig - enough that I might even be issued a new man card.

    Mechanical aptitude.  I think it's a cult!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

BOOK SIGNING ETIQUETTE FOR DUMMIES (Because Writers Have Feelings Too!)

   As of this month - on August 14th to be precise - I have been a published novelist for three years.  During those years I have done about a hundred book signings, give or take a few.  I thoroughly enjoy getting out and presenting my works to the public, and if a store is busy I generally manage to have double digit sales.  I love meeting people, talking to people about my books, and above all, I love it when someone reads the back of the book blurb, and their face lights up and they say: "I love stories like this!"

   However, I must admit there are a few things people do that drive me nuts.  I really do believe that most people are decent and polite, given a chance.  But lots of folks have never actually met an author peddling his wares and aren't sure how to handle the situation.  SO, for all you non-writers out there, here are some things you can do to make sure an aspiring new novelist doesn't go home in tears from his or her first book signing!

   1.  GIVE THE WRITER A MINUTE OF YOUR TIME.  Chances are that slim novel lying on the table there (OK, OK, mine are not that slim, I know!) represents months, if not years, of effort.  Composing a story, writing it down, editing it, looking for an agent, looking for a publisher, wrangling over cover art, purchasing copies wholesale (which often represents a huge investment from a person who doesn't have a lot of cash) - none of this is easy.  Even if you have zero interest in the person's book, take a moment of your time, let them tell you about it, and congratulate them for getting this far!

  2.  DON'T THANK THEM FOR NOTHING.  When I see someone come into the store where I am signing, I have a standard line that I use (with minor variations): "Good morning!  Would you like to check out my new novel?  I'm doing a book signing today!"  I get all kinds of responses, but the one that drives me up a wall is when the person looks right through me and says: "Thank you!" without ever making eye contact - and then walks right past me!  Excuse me, but what on EARTH did you just thank me for?  Seriously, even "Sorry, I don't have time right now!" is better than that.  Writers are people, show them a little courtesy.

  3.  AT LEAST THINK ABOUT BUYING THE BOOK.  I get that not everyone is a reader (although that fact makes me very sad).  I realize that not everyone relishes historical fiction with a Biblical twist, which is what I write.  But still, everybody knows somebody who reads!  And, as I always say, a signed first edition makes a marvelous gift for Christmas or someone's birthday.  Besides, who's to say that the struggling young author sitting at that table might not be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling?  Heck, that signed book might be WORTH something someday!  Nearly all writers start at the bottom, doing what I've been doing for three years now - sitting at a table trying to persuade total strangers to buy their books. Give'em a break and plunk down a twenty.  You won't miss the money in a week, and you may be the only sale they make that day!  (It doesn't happen often, but it has happened to me, and it's a real kick in the teeth to drive fifty miles and not make a sale!)

  4.  IF YOU BUY THE BOOK, REVIEW IT!  Writers LOVE feedback!  Negative or positive, Amazon and Goodreads reviews mean that people are actually reading and reacting to what we have written.  The only thing worse than looking at your book's Amazon page week after week and realizing that your sales rank hasn't budged is looking at your book's Amazon page and seeing that no one has reviewed it in weeks.  I've been fortunate - my books have generated 67 Amazon reviews and I have only ONE negative review.  Goodreads folks are a little more picky, but even there all four of my books are in the 4 point range out of 5 possible.  We love reading your comments, so go ahead and post a review.  Tell us what we did right.  Tell us what we did wrong.  Tell us you love us.  Tell us our writing is less comprehensible than moose drool.  Just tell us SOMETHING!

  5.  DON'T WASTE OUR TIME.  The only thing worse than having someone blow by you without a word is having someone sit and talk to you for thirty solid minutes, asking you all kinds of details about your book, reading the back and the prologue, and then NOT making a purchase!  We love visiting with you, but ultimately, a writer at a book signing is "on the clock."  We are there to make money for our selves and our families, and most of us are not rich.  So if you're going to take up a big chunk of our time, go ahead and make that purchase!

   There are probably some other things I could list, but these are the things that drive me nuts when I am sitting at a table trying to make a sale.  So please, follow these simple rules and you will make your local author a happy camper.  OH! - and speaking of making a sale:  Here is a link to my that will take you to all my books on Amazon.  Because online sales are important too!