Leonard Nimoy, Mr. Spock, and boldly going

I remember hiding behind the rocker in our family room during one of Captain Kirk’s innumerable kissing scenes back in the 60s. I was probably seven or eight years old and my brothers and I always hid from them, screaming, “Yuuuuuuuck!”

Spock from Star Trek (the original series)

Spock, courtesy of Memory Alpha (and Paramount)

I never really got over that urge when it came to Kirk. When I was fourteen, though, I fell head over heels for his first officer, Mr. Spock, who was on Channel 44-WTOG with the rest of the Enterprise crew every weekday afternoon.

My son, who grew up on Star Trek movies in the VCR and is still nuts about Transformers, is mourning Leonard Nimoy, who died Friday, as a wise paternal figure of his childhood, lost now.

Meanwhile, I find that I’m mourning him in that nostalgic and vaguely “oh shit” way that comes with watching as, one by one, the crushes of my youth grow old and die. That will be me someday.

But let’s give our major youthful crushes their due. Spock was a great character! Half human, half alien, he had been brought up to be logical, but was ultimately just as driven by the desire to belong (and mate! Eeek!) as the rest of us. He spoke to every nerdy kid who never quite fit in but wanted to. He spoke to all the hapless virgins who either weren’t ready for sex yet or didn’t have a clue how to get any. He suffered from a kind of species-wide Asperger’s Syndrome before any of us had ever heard the term.

And yet he was sexy as hell.

I’m not sure why. I think some of it was simply the way Nimoy inhabited the part. He had real intensity. Or maybe it was because less is more. Spock could be counted on not to slut around every chance he got like a certain other senior officer. If Spock fell in love with a woman, it was more than a roll in the hay, even if his love was doomed because, you know, spores.

Enterprise orbiting a planet

USS Enterprise, courtesy of Memory Alpha (and Paramount)

Star Trek inspired me to figure out how to take the city bus to the Clearwater Public Library so I could read Star Trek books and then, when those ran out, work my way through most of the other science fiction and fantasy novels in the teen book section. That was a great introduction to some wonderful writers (especially Ursula LeGuin). And it forced me to learn how to navigate the outside world on my own, which built confidence I would need for later adventures.

After all, if the Enterprise crew could explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations, I ought to be able to get downtown, even if I did occasionally take the bus to the projects by accident. (That was educational, too.)

I won’t even go into the writing Star Trek inspired, or the many friends it made me, but I’m not sure I would have developed the confidence to publish my fiction without it.

So, Leonard Nimoy, here’s to you. Thank you for the inspiration. Thank you for making a supporting character on a doomed television series so damned fascinating that the whole planet mourns your passing. I hope that you’re still out there somewhere, exploring strange and wonderful new worlds on the other side.

How to get the Sunday paper out of your snow blower

I’m interrupting the novelist stuff to share a practical tip today, because I couldn’t find the answer on Google myself. So I called the guy who tunes up my two-stage snow blower, and he told me what to do, because he knew today was a rare break in the frigid temps and he couldn’t get here. (Thank you, Lawnmower Guy!)

Has this ever happened to you?

newspaper-jammed snow blower auger

The Sunday Times Union and its wrapper, intimately involved with my snow blower’s auger.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a licensed expert and make no claims to be. This just worked for me. Do any of this at your own risk.

  1. It has just snowed, which means it’s cold and wet out, so put the clogged snow blower away and finish your job another way.
  2. Unless you have a heated garage at your disposal (lucky you), wait for the next warm, dry day (20’s and sunny counts as warm where I live) and put your snow blower in the sun (and in a dry spot) to thaw a bit.
  3. Make sure it is OFF. Completely off. And has been for a while. If you want to be extra sure, take the wire off the spark plug. I couldn’t find my spark plug, but I was assured that the auger wasn’t going to suddenly come to life and take my hand off as long as the machine was indeed fully off. (If it’s an electric machine, obviously UNPLUG it or remove its batteries.)
  4. If you can, lift the machine off the ground a bit. I used two bricks to support mine. If there isn’t any gas in it, you can turn it on its side. But of course there probably is gas in it — you were using it before you ran over the paper, weren’t you?
  5. If it’s not thawing fast enough, set your hair blow dryer on low and aim it at the clog. (Obviously, don’t do this if there is any question of the dryer or its cord getting WET.)
  6. Just start peeling away layer by layer, piece by piece.
  7. After about five or ten minutes of this, the remains of even the thickest Sunday paper will drop out with in a big, satisfying clump. You might even be able to rescue a few coupons, if you’re into that. (I’m not that into that.)
    Snow blower cleaned out.

    Yay, all done! It took me less than ten minutes. Note the purple blow dryer at the bottom, and the sheer pins in the middle of each of the blades’ axles. Also, note the bricks.


  8. Check to see if the shear pins have broken. If so, replace them, because that side of the machine will not function without them. (Everyone who owns a machine should know how to do this — keep spare shear pins on hand. Usually there’s a compartment on your snow blower to hold these for you.)
  9. Start it up again, run it enough to make sure it’s okay, and then put it away.
  10. Hoorah! You’re ready for the next snow. Which in my case is tomorrow.

From now on, I’ll do the front walk by hand, at least until I’m certain there’s not a newspaper under the snow.

By the way, the other great hazard for snow blowers, according to my lawnmower guy, is rubber doormats. I’ve also seen garden hoses mentioned online. So it might be worth making sure both of those are safely out of range before the snow starts.

The other big tip? Don’t let old gas sit in your snow blower for too long. Use fresh gas you’ve treated with STA-BIL® Fuel Stabilizer (or some other additive) to run it. (Put old gas in your car — it can handle it.) STA-BIL® and others like it keep the ethanol that is now part of our gasoline supply from doing bad things to your small engine, especially in the off-season. This is true of lawn mowers as well.

Yes, someday we’ll need those again. There will be grass. Have faith!


A fun interview, a BigAl review, and a shameless bribe

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Currently in Kindle Select, with a promotion coming later this month.

This week I was fortunate enough to enjoy two big events in the life of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, my second novel.

First, BigAl of BigAl and Pals reviewed it very positively. Of course, like most reviewers he also notes that it may force you to ponder things you never wanted to. That may make this book harder to sell than The Awful Mess, which is easier sailing once you get past that pesky committing-adultery-with-a-married-priest thing.

Later in the week I had an interview on The Indie View, which asked some great questions. I enjoyed answering them — though it was something I did a while ago, so it was a little funny to see that some of my ideas (for example, about how to market the book) have already changed.

They decided to highlight the one bit of name dropping I did, so I’m going to assume that was clever somehow, and keep going. Yes, I used to sit in Marilynne Robinson’s living room while her husband Fred Miller Robinson, then a professor at UMass/Amherst, taught the undergraduate creative writing workshop I was taking. I remember being impressed that they were so hospitable with a bunch of scraggly undergrads. (I was of course even more impressed later, when I read her first novel, Housekeeping. Amazing book for those of you who appreciate beautifully-crafted literary fiction.)

That shameless bribe I mentioned

I’m trying to grow my subscriber list, so in order to entice you to join it, I offer the following:

  • As I’ve noted before, this year I’m going to award a $20 online bookstore gift certificate (Amazon or whatever you prefer) to a random person drawn from the subscriber list each quarter. So at the end of March, somebody’s getting one. The list is still pretty small, so your odds are way higher here than they are in other lotteries. (Sorry, family members, you are disqualified.)
  • cover for Motivated Sellers

    “Motivated Sellers” – a prequel to The Awful Mess

    I’ve finished the short prequel to The Awful Mess that began with “After that Slap.” (Those of you already on the list may remember this.) It’s in production at the moment. It’s now called “Motivated Sellers” and I will soon make it available free to all members of my reading list. You get to spend some time with Winslow and Bert and watch Mary’s real estate agent dodge that issue of how the house smells. And then I’d love it if you’d let me know whether you think I should make it available to the general public or not.

Those of you already on the list know I don’t send a lot of email. Right now if you want blog posts, that’s a separate subscription. I may combine the two lists, just so the update people don’t forget who I am. Blog posts only come every two weeks unless something exciting is going on. (I tried doing it weekly again recently and while I enjoy it, I find it takes a major amount of time that really ought to be going to fiction writing.)

And yes, spring WILL come

forced blossoms and primroses

Some flowers to help us survive winter!

I want to end on a cheery note for those of us suffering through the worst winter in decades in the American Northeast (as I write this, it is snowing AGAIN.) I forced these branches from a sick tree in front of the house into blossom this week. It’s a reminder that those buds out there really will swell and break into flower and leaf someday.

Want to try it yourself? Cut some branches, put them in water — maybe with a teaspoon of hydrogen peroxide to discourage bacteria — and be patient. It took about three weeks, and I had just been about to dump it all as a failed experiment when I noticed the buds swelling. Forsythia and willows are the easiest to do this with, if you have those. But fruit trees can work. I used to do it with ninebark, too. If you hammer the ends of the branches flat that is supposed to help them take up water, but I didn’t bother with that.

Those are primroses underneath the branches. I picked them up at the grocery store on sale this week. (They are often on sale about now.) If I keep the spent blossoms pinched and keep them moist, they should continue to bloom for quite some time.

Stay warm and think spring thoughts!


Goodbye, ABNA. Hello, Kindle Scout. (For some.)

As I wrote last year after my own experience with it, I thought Amazon Publishing’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award was a brilliant way for them to acquire new authors of quality work, usually without the fuss of agents, while building engagement among its self-published authors and readers.

But last year, it turns out, was the final year for ABNA. This January Amazon announced that it has essentially replaced it with Kindle Scout, an ongoing submission process in which authors can put up their books in pursuit of a contract with Kindle Publishing.

How it works

Kindle Scout How It Works -- Amazon illustration

Illustration from Amazon’s Kindle Scout “How It Works” page

Authors upload a copyedited Word manuscript, a short blurb, a description, a cover, and a bio plus author photo, and try to get readers to nominate their book for publication.Those who generate enough buzz to get noticed and meet Kindle Publishing’s editorial requirements might just be accepted for publication with a small advance and what I would consider reasonable contract terms for authors who don’t mind being exclusive to Kindle.

Kindle Scout appears to be a similar to ABNA in that it forces authors to pursue social engagement. It’s also much faster than ABNA — in thirty days, a work has either made it or not (though it may take a little longer to get the final word, and then it goes into production). Certainly, it’s a route to publication that is much faster than a search for an agent and traditional publication.

There’s also an incentive for readers to check those books out — they get the book free if a book they nominated is accepted for publication.

Those are all good things.

But I’ve also seen ABNA fans complaining about some big changes:

  • Books cannot have been published at all before, not even self-pubbed, except in avenues where no money is being earned. ABNA was awash in already self-published books (including mine and the one that beat mine and the three other semifinalists in General Fiction last year).
  • The only genres welcome are romance, mystery/thriller/suspense, and science fiction/fantasy. (Edit in May of 2015: Amazon has added “literature and fiction,” which includes contemporary fiction, action and adventure, and historical fiction)
  • Authors must have US social security numbers or tax ID numbers. So most foreign writers need not apply. (Edit: But I’m told there are ways to work around this.)
  • There’s no formal set of feedback on the excerpt for those who make the first cut, and no Publishers Weekly review of the whole manuscript for quarter finalists (not that this was ever quite as exciting as it sounded).
  • There’s no official social component for contestants who want to discuss the process with each other, though I’m sure authors will find other ways to discuss and collaborate.
  • It’s not obvious how any given book is doing, unless it makes it to the “hot and trending” list. There’s a definite limit to how much you can flog a book to your friends and family, so authors with an existing readership are at a distinct advantage — surely a benefit to Amazon.
  • Authors take on all the cost and risk of cover design, while Amazon gets to sit back and see what works. Most submissions I see appear to have professionally designed covers, so people are obviously investing in this. (Of course, that means  they’ll also be all set to publish whether they win a contract or not.)
  • Quite a few authors say they will miss the motivation of the yearly deadline for ABNA. Kindle Scout is a rolling process you can begin at any time.

I suppose there may also be some ineffable damage done to an author’s relationship with her local bookstore or potential future agent or editor if she were to be published exclusively by Amazon, but ABNA and Kindle Select are just the same in that. (I also suspect all parties concerned would quickly get past that if they thought there was money to be made.)

I left Kindle Select with the first novel last spring and haven’t regretted it. While I haven’t exactly burned down the town at the other retailers, my last 99-cent promotion did bring in some very nice extra crash from Nook and iTunes (especially Nook), making the advertising investments that much more profitable (especially since BookBub and Fussy Librarian carry all the links, not just Kindle). And I feel a bit less vulnerable to sudden changes like the advent of Kindle Unlimited, which has impacted the income of many indie authors.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Currently in Kindle Select, with a promotion coming later this month.

I do still have the second novel in Kindle Select to begin with because I still think it’s the best tool to get this book discovered and reviewed. I’ll be able to judge whether I was correct about that by next month (assuming it’s a title that can gain any momentum at all), but in the meantime I’m just working on another book. As most successful authors will say, it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time and money on promotion until you have enough titles out that they can cross-sell each other.

If you have other wisdom or opinions on ABNA or Kindle Scout, feel free to comment!

Which reminds me: A fellow author I respect recently told me I’m making a big mistake associating myself so clearly with self-publishing when my stuff could pass as professionally published. I told him I would miss the interaction with other self-published authors far too much to try to pretend I wasn’t indie. (Also, I told him I just can’t keep my big mouth shut. I fear this may be the one big thing I have in common with all my heroines so far.)

Happy publishing, however you get it done!