Thursday, September 25, 2014

Loro Parque: Zoo Extraordinaire

This summer, my family and I went on a 14 night, transatlantic Disney cruise. Gaining an hour's sleep a night as we changed time zones was cool, but the highlight of our cruise was the Loro Parque zoo. Warning: this is more photos than I've ever put in a blog entry, but we took hundreds.
There was no premade excursion for this, so we had to roll our own. The taxi ride to the park costs about 100 euros round trip (you have to bargain), but takes you over volcanic peaks so close to the clouds you can touch them. Over the half hour drive, you get to see a city nestled into the mountainside, black beaches, and banana plantations. Loro Parque has more birds that any zoo in the world, dolphins, jellyfish, orcas, a white tiger, and more penguins than anywhere outside Antarctica. Plan to spend at least three hours.


 The killer whales make a point of splashing the first dozen or so rows. The zoo sells ponchos for 6 euros a piece, but they don't help. When that wave hits, you get soaked, and everybody else laughs.

But the major attraction, the one that awed everyone, was the penguin habitat. My son's first movie was March of the Penguins, and apart from a recent fondness for dragons, it is still his favorite animal.

Picture a horseshoe-shaped moving sidewalk. In the center, is a two-story, glassed in habitat the size of a football field.

They have what seemed like a dozen species of penguin on rocks, surrounded by imitation ice floes and water teeming with fish. The temperature is kept at zero and lights are dimmed to match the cycles of Antarctica.

As we entered to the strains of Vangelis' instrumental Antarctica, we were stunned to see snow coming out of the holes in the ceiling. Pierce's smile couldn't have been any wider. (He took many of these photos.) The penguins napped and played on the rocks, but rocketed through the water like torpedoes, leaping like dolphins. We went through for a second pass and sat in the bleachers, still amazed. As we stared, they came up to stare back at us.

As they say in the credit card commercial: Having your son's childhood idol come up to him nose-to-nose to say hi: priceless.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Twelve Thousand Books

I am reminded of an episode of The Simpsons where Bart is forced to write "I will not celebrate meaningless benchmarks" one hundred times on a blackboard. I reached 250 Goodreads ratings and 150 Amazon reviews. This month, I also hit sale number twelve thousand for e-books, for which I am extremely grateful. This was roughly distributed as:

  • 7300 for the Jezebel's Ladder hard sci-fi series.
  • 4100 for the Doors to Eternity epic fantasy series.
  • 400 for the Ryoku series and spinoff in the contemporary/urban magic world.
  • 200 for the other five books I wrote combined.

Since I just finished the last book if the Jezebel series (Senescence), I'm planning a big event for the release in early October, but I'm treading water while I wait for editing feedback. This is a good time for reflection.What did I learn in the last three years, and how will it change me as a writer going forward?

  1. A good series is your bread and butter. I have no idea what book I will write next, but I should plan for a series. They sell 10 to 14 times what a standalone does. I already have an idea for a Jez spinoff set on the moon. The self-aware computer expanding over the entire lunar surface is likely to be a major backdrop. Over my upcoming vacation, I'll write up some notes and see where it leads.
  2. If I research what I'm passionate about, I'll find something there to write about. Writers make connections in the weirdest places. Learning keeps my brain active and the subject matter alive/realistic. I've written on everything from djinn to space colonies, and it's all fun.
  3. Stick with your target audience. If they don't want something, people get mean, even when it's free. When Jez was number 4 on the free sci-fi list, a lot of people took a chance and downloaded a copy without reading the blurb. Those people weren't my audience or demographic. As a consequence, I got three scathing reviews that week that took months to recover from. On a related note, always watch your tags. Someone with a financial interest added a false BDSM tag to take readers to the top twenty books in that category. One reviewer got a little peeved when my book didn't deliver in that department. Even stranger, after months on the top one hundred sci-fi, Amazon ate Jez's sci-fi category on a routine pitch update. The problem took months for a friend to spot, and the book never achieved its former rank on the chart.
  4. My style changes over time. This is a good thing. It's much easier now for me to strike a note and carry it through a scene. Each time I attempt something more difficult or pick a new editor, I learn more about the craft. A year after I release each book, I go back and polish in order to incorporate what I've learned since. I always like the characters and flow, but I am sometimes embarrassed by word repetition, dialog tags, or some other small mechanics item. Lately, I think that I may be growing more as an editor than as a writer.
  5. Every new book is like betting on a horse race. As a writer, I never know what will sell. My YA books haven't sold squat, despite the fact that my kids loved them. LE Modesitt warned me not to try to be all things to all people, but I wanted to share an adventure with my son, Pierce. I still have a decent hit ratio. My highest rated book ever (4.8/5) and the one that has garnered some of my most loyal and vocal fans is "Foundation for the Lost." However, it just doesn't sell. After devoting time to this issue, I have decided that first, the book belongs in Urban not Epic fantasy. Further, the cover, which brings most people into the parlor to shop, needed help. Renee did exactly what I asked, but I asked for the wrong thing. Since the chess pieces on the cover may have turned people off, I asked her to update the cover. She squeezed me in on her birthday. (thanks!) Here's the before and after for Foundation:

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Cover Reveal: Senescence

I'm on what should be the last three chapters of the finale of the Jezebel series! The characters still keep surprising me with innovative solutions to modern problems. High level edits are done on the first half of the novel. I hope to hand the rest over for edit before Labor Day. Target for release is October 1.

Senescence is the final stage of life, where cells can no longer regenerate--the fate that awaits us all when we stop growing and changing. The starship Sanctuary has returned home after twenty years to a strange and hostile world. Stewart is sent as an ambassador to see if Earth still has the capacity to change or whether the crew will let the world suffer the consequences of corporate policies. Billionaire geneticist Laura Zeiss holds his fate in her hands ... and thereby the planet's. Will she choose to become of the rulers of a decaying world or risk everything to save a naive young man? When Stewart finds out her secrets, will he still want her help?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Global Connections

For the past four weeks, we've had an eleven-year-old girl staying with us from Northern Ireland--Amie.
She'll turn twelve next week, the day we take her to the airport to return home. Tomorrow we're throwing her a birthday party with an Adventure Time theme cake. Amie did a poster board for the fair, in a category called Global Connections, reserved for children who spend time in other countries and share their experiences. She won a reserve champion ribbon. As I supplied the photos and the editing, I'm reproducing some of her essay here.
[ In this photo, she's eating fresh strawberries she picked herself with whipped cream. For the first morning, she was homesick, but after that, she and my daughter Emily were too busy. ]

The family that I am staying with here in America are Tammy and Scott Rhine, their two children Emily, who is ten, Pierce, who is twelve, and their three pets: Angel, Ninja, and Clay. They have been so nice and so welcoming, and it’s great to be staying with them. [ She is standing second from the left in the photo. After several hours of delay in Chicago, she fell asleep about ten minutes into the drive home. ]

I got the opportunity to come here from the Children’s Program of Northern Ireland (CPN). I heard about CPNI from one of my teachers from my primary school, Brooklands. He told the p7s could go so I signed up for it. I have never been to America,  so its been a great experience.

Back home I live in the city, and here I’m in the country. It’s a big change but the country is beautiful. It’s also a lot sunnier here. Some of the things I like about America are: it’s very warm, strawberries, candy, chocolate chip pancakes, swimming in the lakes, horse riding, and tubing. Things I dislike are: long drives, mosquito bites, and all the insects. [ Photo of the girls waiting for fireworks to start on the Fourth of July. ]

[ photo of the girls with the quilt Tammy helped Amie make for her bed--also a reserve champion winner at the fair. Last photo is of the donuts, cinnamon rolls, and caramel rolls Tammy made from scratch with them.]
Mum tells me that my Irish accent is starting to fade.
In America they use different words for some things:

Northern Irish
winding up
you all

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

County Fair Photography

This week is our county fair. My children, in 4H, have been busy readying all manner of projects. I stayed up till 4 a.m. on a work night with my wife to quilt Amie's nine-patch. She's our exchange student from Northern Ireland. (more in another blog entry) The next day, I helped the children narrow hundreds of photos from the year down to five each. Then I had to edit, crop, print, and mount each. Here is a sampling of this year's entries. All the photos below won blue ribbons. We'll find out today if they won anything bigger.


Her favorite photos have always been of pets and flowers.


He managed to capture the dragonfly wings in sunlight--not easy to do.


 She had a "Twilight" theme this year.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Cover Reveal: Shaman

Here is Renee's latest, the cover for Behind the Walls of Sleep 2: Shaman.
Daniel is training to become a shaman and living on the Dakota reservation with his grandfather. As a member of the thunderbird people, he can visit a shared dream world and meet others like himself. Over summer break, he takes a road trip to New Orleans to rescue a sixteen-year-old girl from the Dark Tree Coven. Daniel knows he’s going to be grounded, but promises his cousins that the adventure will be worth the punishment.
What follows reads like a Native American “Blues Brothers” with a trained raccoon.
“We have the raccoon and the police gear. All we need is a net, an acetylene-propane torch, forty feet of rope, a Bavarian cream doughnut, Karo syrup, and red food coloring.”

Sioux, shaman, dream, dragon, YA, adventure, coming of age

Friday, May 23, 2014

Making her Quilt Racks

In the movie Phenomenon, John Travolta demonstrates he likes a certain woman by buying all her handmade chairs so that she'll come back to visit him again. My wife watches bad sci-fi with me, and I listen to romance books on iPod with her. We call it buying each others' chairs, which builds a relationship. We were engaged for eighteen months and have been married for twenty years. That exercise never stops.

 My wife loves to quilt. She has both children entering the fair with quilts of their own. Although I don't sew, I help program and repair her quilting machine. Last year, her brother Brian and I put together a prototype wooden clamp bar to hang her quilts. This year, for Mother's Day the kids and I bought everything we would need to make a decorative light box for displaying her quilts. It became a family project.

We started with an existing design from a magazine and modified it to use a decorative valence with leaves and a solid oak frame with a routered bottom. She wanted the whole thing stained like cherry with three coats.

The design was modified to be two-thirds the height, half the width, and use an LED to be one-third the weight. It should use less than two dollars of electricity a year.

After trying to router oak without a router table, we gave up and bought pre-routered trim at the proper width. (We now own the table for future projects.)

 I made all the corners mitered with the chop saw and used a wooden biscuit to reinforce the corners. The glue said, "Dries in 30 minutes." Never believe what you read. We had to reglue that corner because it broke apart. Once I put both layers together, that reglue mess made the inside too big. I had to cut them apart and saw new holes. I staggered the layers to hide the panel that holds the light in a recess. However, gluing and holding would be almost impossible to achieve by hand in such a confined space, so I bought a nail gun. Then I had to go back to buy brads that were an eighth inch smaller.

 Mounting this to the wall was tricky. I pre-drilled the back support bar for the 12.5 degrees needed for the main board, not the higher, staggered valence. So we couldn't mount it to the wall until I redrilled every angle through the same hole. This also meant that the screws had to be half an inch longer.
Total time for the adventure: 3 weeks.
Cost... well let's just say I may be selling these to Tammy's quilting friends... in addition to the dozen I'll be making for around the house and her office. Of course, there will be some design changes for many of the others, but Tammy is very happy, which was the point of the exercise to begin with.

After all, she does proofread every one of my books.