I cannot testify that writing a book is like giving birth. I’m a guy, and I’d sound pretty dumb saying something like that. I will say that it’s like pushing a living thing out of you, despite the fact that you don’t have any exits that a logical person would think right for the task. And I won’t presume to talk about what happens after the miracle of childbirth, other than I hear that it’s hectic. But on the literary side, once you’ve finished writing a book you can then relax, have couple of drinks, and look at your family for a few days. Then the real work starts, because the book you just wrote is an abomination that would make any reader weep acid and bite off his fingers so he’s never again tempted to turn a page.

Enter the miracle of editing. I think of it as teaching my book to walk, to play well with others, to tie its shoes, and to stand up for itself. Maybe a little orthodonture if it’s lucky. Killers might chase the hero of my book a thousand miles, and in editing I realize they have no reason to chase him past the first hundred yards. Perhaps I use the word “macaroni” three times in the same paragraph. I might have written some stuff that’s just plain dumb. A few determined rounds of editing can transform my book from a wretched semi-hominid into a respectable literary creature.

Truman Capote said that “finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” Give me an amen, brother. After all that editing, I feel like my book and I have spent a year together in a trench across from the Chinese army. I don’t want to let go. I dread saying, “I’m finished with you, you’re as good as you’re going to get. Let’s send you to agents and publishers who don’t care about you at all, and who may even hate you worse than smallpox.” My first novel is now being shopped to some fine agents, and every time I send out a query a sliver of my soul withers.

To distract me from my grief, I now spend my evenings editing my second novel. I’m on my third round of edits, and I hope it’s the last until some editor at Del Ray tells me my plot sucks and I need to fix it before they publish me. I hope for this even though no one at Del Ray is even aware I exist, so I think I deserve points for optimism. Anyway, this edit has taken a while because my book is long.

My first novel was 80,000 words, which is a respectable length. I figured I’d push myself with my second novel and go for 100,000 words. When I realized I needed another subplot, I cranked my estimate up to 120,000 words. When my hero told me he didn’t want to fall for that blond girl and to go screw myself, I gave up on estimating how long this thing would be. I finished at 180,000 words. As a point of comparison, that’s about the length of the New Testament. My novel has funnier dialogue than the New Testament, and fewer lepers. They each have the same number of world-shattering cataclysms.

I’m 150,000 words through my edit, and my fiercest enemies have fought me through every paragraph. They are the evil “adverb” and the baby-murdering “dialogue attribution.” I use these when I’m lazy, and they advertize my laziness by making my writing lame and squishy. And what are they?

Think about your meanest English teacher, the one who made you read The Scarlet Letter, and remember the things she told you. At one point she said that an adverb modifies a verb, or sometimes an adjective. In the sentence below, the word “confusingly” is an adverb:

“He confusingly explained to his readers what an adverb is.”

Why is that adverb bad? It’s not bad, it just turns the sentence into a blundering literary rhino. Try this:

“He baffled his readers with a lousy adverb explanation and an obscure rhino reference.”

“Baffled” does a better job than “confusingly explained.” At least I think it does. I’m not alone, since that literary heavy hitter Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the highest rooftop.”

All right, let’s move on to this dialogue attribution business. When a character speaks dialogue, you have to let your reader know who said those amazing words that will soon appear on t-shirts and a Facebook meme. You can do that with the reliable “he said.” But you have so many alternatives from which to choose. You could write: he uttered, he grunted, he howled, he moped, he exulted, he agreed, he snorted, and many more. Aren’t these cool?

Well, maybe not. When I use them I’m just avoiding the work of explaining in detail what’s going on. For example, I may write:

“My dialogue attributions are awful,” he groaned.

That’s literary laziness. It’s the equivalent of tossing in a clump of dishwasher soap and flushing instead of scrubbing the toilet. By the way, I like to describe writing it relation to common household tasks. I think it puts all of this writing bullshit in the proper context. Here’s an alternative dialogue attribution:

“His forefinger punched the backspace key a few dozen times. Then he snatched his Red Bull and hurled it across the room, missing the cat by a foot. Dropping his head to the desktop with a smack, he said, ‘My lousy dialogue attributions are kicking my ass.’”

The lesson for me in all this is to not spend my time coming up with fun alternatives to “he said.” I should just use “he said” and instead spend my energy on real writing.

So, how does that play out in the book I’m editing, the title of which is No Good Deals, by the way? Here’s an example of a sentence that tortured me last night:

“’I’m bloody tired of you talking obsessively about monuments!’ Stan yelled angrily. ’I totally hate the idea of you finally getting a monument!’”

You can see that some of the characters in my story might or might not have monuments built to them. That’s got to be good. When No Good Deals is published, as I’m certain it will be someday, monuments are a good reason to hurry out and buy a copy. However, here’s the edited version:

“’Damn you! I don’t even want a monument. If you’re having a monument, that’s the last scum-flicking thing I’d want,’ Stan said. ‘I’ll pay children to throw shit at your monument after I’m dead!’”

I think that’s a decent edit and also a good example of my character’s level of sophistication. I already feel one step closer to getting this baby published.

All the reason I need to eliminate adverbs from my life.

My wife doesn’t need booze or drugs. She has a kitchen. She herself slew it and brought it home, and it gives her a bigger thrill than any intoxicant, or jewelry, or fuzzy little mammal ever born. It’s not so much the cooking she loves as it is being in the kitchen and looking at it. She likes talking about it too. She created the room over several years. She plastered the pale yellow walls. She painted the cabinets cobalt blue one winter, holding heaters next to the oil-based paint so it wouldn’t bubble and run. Michelangelo could not have been prouder of the Sistine Chapel.

One thing marred her happiness, like a serpent in her garden of good things to eat. The floor was covered by scarred, pus-colored linoleum tiles that would shame any prison camp barracks. My wife considered the matter with immense gravity, and she conceived a plan in which she would dress that floor in magnificent red tile. I approved of course. It sounded pretty, and even had I wished, I lacked the force of will to deny her. She charged out to find red tiles of the particular shade she wanted, but no one—no one—sold them then. Red tiles were out of fashion, and they were expensive to make. If no one wanted to buy them, then no one was going to make them.

I found that disappointing, because I knew she really wanted them. I suggested nice brown tiles, or maybe terra cotta. My wife was unconvinced. Perhaps I wanted to just smear the kitchen floor with excrement and let it dry instead? I recognized this was sarcasm, and I recognized she hadn’t given up. I’d seen her like this before. She was going to have red tiles, or every other person on earth was going to die.

Sometime later, as we watched television, we saw a Pier One commercial. She shot up from the couch like Old Faithful and said, “There! Those are my red tiles!” The commercial depicted the inside of a Pier One store, and indeed it sported red floor tiles of just the shade she wanted. I breathed a warning that this was a set for the commercial and not an actual store, but that didn’t matter one damn bit. These tiles existed, and if they existed then she could find them. And when we walked into a Pier One store a bit later, she proved me wrong by pointing at the floor, which was covered with her tiles. I acknowledged my lack of faith.

My wife asked the register clerk where she could buy the floor tiles in the store. The clerk asked if we were serious, and my wife affirmed that we were. The clerk said that she didn’t think we could buy them, and she turned away to rearrange some boxes. I’m sure she hoped we’d go away and ask somebody else if we could buy the store’s heating unit or something. My wife asked again, louder, and the clerk took two steps away from us and paged the manager.

The manager handled this better, pulling on a fake smile and confirming that we couldn’t buy this tile. My wife asked how the manager knew this. Had anyone else ever asked to buy the tile before? The manager said he was positive that no one had ever asked that, and his fake smile kind of melted like that oil-based paint on our cabinets. She asked where the tile came from. The manager, who must have gotten high marks in conduct as a boy, said he didn’t know. She asked him who he would ask if he needed to find out, and just like the register clerk he punted. He called his district manager. And he put my wife on the phone.

I could only hear my wife’s side of the phone conversation, but it sounded like this:

“Where can I buy the red floor tiles you use in the stores?”

Indistinct buzzing of a voice on the other end of the line.

“Yes, I’m serious.”

Buzz buzz buzz.

“Well somebody has to know where they come from. Can’t you call someone?”


“Oh, I’m sure you can. Who buys these tiles?”


“I’m certain that’s true, but I bet you can figure it out if you think about it.”

Buzz… buzz buzz buzz… buzz.

“Great, could you please give me their number?”

Buzz buzz buzz buzz!

“Okay, could call them for me? I’ll call you back this afternoon to see if you reached them.”

Buzz… buzz buzz… bz-bz-bz, bz-bz-bz, bz-bz-bz-bz.

“Thank you! Goodbye.”

My wife turned to me, and I took a step back. She looked like a lioness that had just dragged down a wildebeest. She said, “Let’s go home. I have the number of the people at Pier One who build the stores.”

Over the next three days my wife talked to the following people:

-A secretary in the Pier One Capital Projects division who bonded with my wife over herb growing techniques.

-A manager in the Property Development and Renovation office who gave my wife anything she wanted because he had to go pee.

-An Executive Vice President in the Store Construction branch who thought the whole thing was so damned funny that he gave her the buyer’s number and wished her luck.

-A buyer in Purchasing who was perplexed by how my wife got her phone number, so she coughed up the name of the tile company before she really thought about it.

I would have given up at least three times before this point and taken the “smear shit on the floor” option. My wife still looked neatly pressed and determined. Then the Pier One buyer mentioned that the tile company was situated about fifteen minutes from our house. My wife was within striking distance of her prey.

A nice sales rep at the tile company told her that this tile was made exclusively for Pier One. No, he couldn’t sell it to anyone else. No, they didn’t make exceptions. No, there was nothing he could do. No, there wasn’t anyone he could call, or anyone else she could talk to. No, he didn’t like to grow herbs.

I felt bad for my wife. She’d come so far, just to be crushed now. Then she asked the sales rep, “Isn’t there anything at all like this that you can sell me?” And the sales rep offered to sell her “seconds.” These were tiles that didn’t pass inspection because their color might be slightly off or something. And they were cheaper than any other tile we’d looked at. They may have been cheaper than shit. She almost broke her jaw saying yes.

My wife borrowed a truck and picked up the tile. We started opening boxes and realized why we got them so cheap. Twenty-four boxes were about the right color and size, but twelve boxes were two shades darker and an eighth of an inch larger. There was no way we could lay this tile and make it look decent. I wilted. She just puffed up to even more impressive dimensions and sat in the kitchen with a cup of Earl Gray tea and her thoughts.

The next day my wife called a friend who’s an interior designer, and she explained our problem. Our friend laughed as if this was no harder a problem than a plaid shirt with a striped tie. She directed us to a tile man she said could lay this tile and make it look like it was meant to have different colors and sizes, rather than like it was designed by a baboon smoking dope. And within a few days the tile man had done this thing, and my wife luxuriated in the kitchen she’d wanted, striven for, and smashed through every conceivable obstacle to secure.

My wife has convinced me forever that if she really wants something, she will attain it with the inevitability of space junk falling into Earth’s gravity well. In fact, if the eccentric scientists of the world possessed her determination, the Loch Ness Monster would be jumping through fiery hoops at Sea World right now. And this is a good thing. Maybe I can convince her to really, really want an in-home theater, a Ferrari, and a recreational flamethrower.

Sometimes my wife lounges here and contemplates her kill. Nice job on the tile, too.

I have friends who text one another while sitting in the same room. I am not kidding. Now I admit that I text like a maniac. The texting plague infected me pretty early, considering that I’m an old guy. It happened when I figured out if I didn’t start texting I’d become as irrelevant as a traffic light in Juarez. I haven’t reached my friends’ level of text addiction, but without texting I would have missed a lot of critical messages. Here are some of the ones I’ve received in the recent past:



: – )

Do you need some quick cash for bills and expenses? You can get up to $1500 tomorrow!

That’s awesome!

Just kidding!

Do you feel like you have had a major ass whipping?

We’ll bring pie

Missing any one of those communications might have smashed my life to tragic splinters like a tornado ripping through Santa’s Toyland. Instead, I have been spared idiotic blunders and hollow uncertainty because somebody invented texting and somebody else sold me a phone plan with unlimited texting, because I sure wouldn’t pay a nickel apiece for the damn things.

However, now that we text as habitually as chimps pick lice, the wicked side of texting has manifested. We not only text while cooking, listening to our bosses, and sitting on the toilet, we also text while driving. We look down to be sure our thumbs hit ROTFL instead of EEYOR, and then we’re barreling through the Applebee’s parking lot.

The solution is obvious. No, we should not pass laws banning texting while driving. That would keep us from texting, which is insanity. Instead, I challenge those who invented texting to employ their powerful technical brains and create cell phones that let us just speak into our phones, which would turn the speech into text and then send the text message. That would let us keep one hand on the wheel and one hand on our caramel macchiato. Problem solved.

Or, I guess it’s mostly solved. When we receive a text we have to look at our phone and punch a button or two. That presents a lesser danger, but we still might smack a careless bicyclist or something. We need to apply the same technology in reverse, rendering an incoming text into speech and allowing us to look at the road, the obscene gas prices at 7-11, and the jogger who’s wearing not much more than a string bikini. Problem solved. Again.

But I sense an opportunity here. Since we’ve gone so far as to employ speech on both ends of the message, let’s push it to the logical endpoint. Skip the text altogether and just let us speak at the cell phone, enabling the recipient to hear us as we say the words. We could say, “JSU B4 U CMMT CS,” while dodging SUVs, and our friend could immediately say, “BMOTA U ID10T,” in response. In fact, this could be made to work almost in real time and could approximate live verbal communication. That would of course be the ultimate logical extension of safe texting technology.

Isn’t this a wonderful age in which to be alive?

Too good not to use...

As an actor, I love being onstage. If I could manage it, I’d spend all of my acting-related time onstage. I despise rehearsals. The only thing I hate worse than rehearsing is sucking onstage. So, I rehearse and try to forget that the Jim Butcher novels will be picked over by the time I get to Half-Price Books tonight. It’s not exactly cutting off my ear or cultivating a heroin addiction, but it’s suffering of a sort.

I’ve just survived six weeks of rehearsal, and before diving into the eight-week show I started wondering about things. I did not wonder why I spent time practicing old skills I’d already mastered, and I did not wonder why I practiced new skills until my corpse could execute them, like frog’s legs jumping in a frying pan. That all made sense. But I did wonder why rehearsal, which is so good for me, feels nothing like performing in the show.

Well, everybody knows that you’ve got to train, practice, learn, get educated, and so on. I could find about 100 billion quotes on the subject, and only 110 billion humans have ever been born. But once you’ve trained to do a thing, you then have to do it for real, unless you’re my cousin Dave, who gets by just fine living over his mom’s garage and playing X-Box. The real world is a tricky place when it comes to doing things. Different things work in different ways.

For example, let’s take something I learned and then did in the real world: digging ditches. Effective ditch digging requires a surprising amount of learning, at least if you want to be able to stand up at the end of the day. I admit that learning to dig a ditch when I was 12 years old took a lot less time than learning the alphabet when I was five, but I still had to concentrate on what I was learning. Once I mastered the skills and started digging for real, the experience was different. I had to pay a certain amount of attention to not smash a toe, but my brain had plenty of time to think about football and that car I was saving up to buy in five years. So ditch digging = low learning curve, low analytical requirements, and high potential for daydreaming.

Let’s jump forward a disturbing number of years to another thing I learned and did for real: statistics.

(To digress, it may seem odd to you that I can like acting and statistics at the same time. Yet I like all the math, and perhaps that does reveal psychological issues. You may sometimes hear physicists mocking sociologists about not being real scientists. How can you call sociology a real science when it studies people, who are appallingly random compared to, say, quarks? On the other hand, how can you call physics a real science when it studies quarks, which are appallingly random compared to the number 4? Mathematics is the only true science, and you can imagine what the mathematician in me thinks of the actor in me. I have a superiority complex and an inferiority complex about having it.)

I studied statistics for a moderately long time. During that period I probably could have learned to dig ditches about two thousand times. I found it sometimes challenging, and for a while I thought I’d be happy to die if I never had to hear about Bayes’ Theorem again. Eventually I applied these skills in the real world, and just like in ditch digging the experience then changed. I didn’t need to worry about smashing a toe with a poorly wielded normal distribution. But I had crammed a lot of statistics knowledge into my brain, and now I had to solve real problems by releasing that knowledge, as if I were the world’s most anal-retentive graffiti artist. I had to concentrate on the mechanics of it. It just wasn’t possible for me to calculate an analysis of variance and daydream about my girlfriend at the same time, and I’m not sure that would have been a compliment to her anyway. So statistics = high learning curve, high analytical requirements, and low potential for daydreaming.

So let’s get back to this acting thing. It does not take long to become a bad actor. Any four-year-old trying to hide a broken vase will prove my point. It takes hard, thoughtful training in acting techniques to turn you into an actor that people like to imagine killing, and with more hard work you can make audiences merely hate you. With more exhausting effort you can develop the skill to make audiences first unaware of your existence, then be indifferent to you, and then find you inoffensive. After an amount of training equal to several doctorates in ditch digging, you can at last entertain people, or at least remind them of someone they once liked. That’s how it worked for me, anyway. I’ve seen other people skip straight from vase-hiding to entertaining people in just the time it took me to learn the alphabet.

But when I get to the real world, audiences don’t like it if I bumble around looking for my mark. They get confused if I dither over my character’s motivation, especially when his motivation should be to say the damned words that the author put down on the damned paper. Maybe I’ve mastered the individual techniques, but I can’t be thinking about techniques while I perform, because the audience wants more than a collection of successfully-executed techniques. That’s something they could get by putting the script and an acting book together in a blender. So acting = high learning curve (at least for us remedial types), low analytical requirements (no one cares which hand I use to hold Yorik’s skull), and high potential for daydreaming. And that’s the trick for me—daydream potential is my tool for making something happen that’s fun, unexpected, unexplained, and won’t make the audience imagine killing me.

So as I ride towards opening day, I do so on the back of my new acting mantra:

“At rehearsal, think about work. At work, think about magic.”

And I can always fall back on statistics. Or ditch digging.

If I go back to digging ditches, I'm hiring this dude as an apprentice.