Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Highway Just for Me

We had lots of good news today. Mary Ann called me into the house to watch her dance a jig. She'd gotten notice that she had won first place in the Hubbard Museum, Landscape photos. Of course, that changed our plans. She has to head off to New Mexico in a couple of days to attend the awards ceremony, at the same time as she's rushing to finalize another set of photos she's sending off. I'll be staying in town to attend the World Fantasy Convention.

So, I was designated to go get her tires fixed and an oil change on her vehicle. But first, we headed off for a nice lunch to celebrate. On the way, we noticed that SH 130 had just been opened. It had a temporary sign up saying no tolls for now.

This is big news for us. A major junction in this massive highway system is very near our house, and taking the new highway makes a significant difference. Heading into town goes from stop-and-go 30-45 mph roads with lots of lights and stop signs, to 70 mph and no stops. Further, we have this streamlined access in all three major directions from our house, into Austin, into Round-Rock, and over to Georgetown. It's a highway made just for me.

So, heading off to get the tires, I took SH130 down to highway 290. It was smooth and fast. After getting the tires, I took Mopac to SH 45 to Round-Rock to our oil change place, and then 45 back to home when I was done. It easily cut an hour or more off the chores.

Of course the toll-free honeymoon only lasts a couple of months, so I've heard, but I'll be ordering the TxTag as soon as I can.

Monday, October 30, 2006

RV Work


Immediately after World Fantasy Con, we're heading down south to a bird festival of some kind that Mary Ann will be attending. So I have just a couple of days to get the RV ready for another trip. I didn't think there was all that much that needed to be done -- get an oil change while we're home, and refill the gas and propane tanks.

But last night, while checking out the system, the heater failed to come on. Fueled by propane, it's a necessity when camping out in the winter months. We have a little electric heater as well, but (1) it's not as powerful as the propane and (2) it only works when the RV is plugged into an electrical system. Since we take advantage of free overnight parking at Wal-mart's and highway rest areas, we'd be out of luck if the propane system didn't work.

I took the RV to get the oil change, but the failure of the heater nagged at me. Playing with the thermostat, I could hear the faint click as the slider went past the trigger point, but there was no roar of the flame, and no blower. I got out the tools and began opening up the access hatch to the heater. Mary Ann suggested we take it into the RV repair place, but I was worried that we'd not have time to get it fixed before we had to leave.

Well, I did at least discover a tiny collection of ants under the access hatch, but they didn't have anything to do with it. My other worry was that the mouse (still at large by the way) might have chewed through a wire. I was preparing to get out the voltmeter to check the wiring when the disconnect switches caught my eye.

Up above the doorway is a little shelf that's not good for much of anything but a place to store plastic bags, trash sacks and aluminum foil. But what's bad is that it's also the location of a pair of master disconnect switches. I suppose they put them there so that you can shut down all the power as you walk out the door when stowing the RV for the season. Unfortunately, it's also a place where a sliding box can accidentally hit one of the switches.

I clicked the auxiliary power switch, and there was no noise. I hit the main power switch and there was a distinct click. Almost immediately, the heater roared to life. Zip-lock strikes again.

On other trips, we've had unexplained failures that eventually turned out to be accidental disconnects. The problem is that the symptoms were all different. I didn't suspect the switch because other 12volt electrical things were still working, like the overhead lights and the thermostat. It appears that the thermostat gets it's power from the auxiliary system and the heater gets it's electricity from the main battery. I guess. One of these days I need to trace out all the strange wiring in this place. We have Main Battery, Auxiliary Batteries, Inverter 110Volt power, Shore cable power (from the park or the generator), and ignition switched 110V power. And maybe a few other variations as well. Nothing is as simple as on or off.

At least it was a quick fix. But then I had to put the heater back together.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Agent Quest

Larger publishers seem to be getting away from reading slush. I reviewed my database of markets and was discouraged at the number. Currently most of the big names are off limits unless I manage to meet one of the editors at a convention and snag an invitation to submit.

That has pushed me into searching out small publishers. There are hundreds, but that's its own kind of swampland. I collect names and begin to visit websites. Again, it's less inviting than I'd hoped. The small publishers with a good reputation are overwhelmed with submissions. Many say 'Closed for now'. Others are smaller than I can use. I'm not out to publish one book. I have many manuscripts ready to go. I'm much better at writing the books than selling them. A publisher with one book per year in its list doesn't do me any good. I need someone anxious and able to handle many books, a whole series.

So I hit the database of Literary Agents. I found a new one and culled a list of about fifteen agents that, on the surface, handle my kind of book. Yesterday, I put together six submissions, and after church, I'll be back at it.

I've hunted for agents in the past, but for the most part, I believe I was doing it wrong. From the current guidelines, it looks like submitting to an agent is identical to submitting to a book publisher. You try to entice them with one book. Previously, I wrote up a letter to agents that attempted to sell myself, and my portfolio of manuscripts. I think that's why most of those queries vanished without a trace, and for the most part, without even a reply.

This time I took my "alien nanobots take up housekeeping in a high school girl" book and packaged it with a polished pitch. What do you think?

"It wasn't tree sap that fell on fat highschool senior Deena Brooke in the forest; her body was changing, shedding weight and giving her new, frightening abilities, but the only person who could help her understand the alien infection, Luther Jennings, had deep secrets of his own that put them both in danger.

Lightning took off the top of giant redwood, but only fat and slow Deena Brooke was caught by the falling branches. Bruised and contaminated with dripping gray goo, everything changed. She healed fast, began losing weight faster than any diet, and started feeling a craving for zinc. She had a calculator in her head, mysteriously knew the Periodic Table of Elements inside and out, and could analyze any metal at a touch, but at least she was getting the attention of puzzled Luther Jenkins, the cute new guy in her class. Only when she started overhearing people's cell phone calls in her head did she realize Luther was on the run from the mob and needed her, just as she needed him. She liked changing from fat to athletic, but new changes and strange urges kept coming, and while Luther's analytical mind helped her explore these alien nanobots, their friendship strained and broke his carefully cultivated false identity. When his 'aunt' was captured by the mobsters desperate to regain the items stolen by Luther's father, Deena felt compelled to join Luther in an 800-mile road-trip down the coast to Malibu to rescue her. Her control over her body grew rapidly, allowing her to become the ideal girl she desired to be, but was she controlling the nanobots, or were they controlling her? Was she being turned into a weapon aimed at the human race?"

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Little Brown Mouse from Illinois

When we were camped by the Mississippi River, we picked up a stowaway, a little brown mouse. Mary Ann noticed him first, and I messed with the vents, attempting to locate the way he'd gotten in. A good hider, there were stretches with no sightings, so I was hopeful he was gone when we left. I saw him make a dash for the under-dash area as we drove to Oquawka .(I like that little town. It'd make a good location for a story.)

But once we were home, and I set up in the RV as my office, I started seeing him again. Not good.

Now, I have no ill will toward mice. They're cute. My daughter even had a pet rat for a while. But mice are destructive. It's their nature. It's hard enough keeping this RV in good shape without sharp little teeth gnawing on wires or tubes.

So, the mouse had to go. I made noises. That did little good, but I had to give him the choice.

I bought mousetraps. Two different kinds. He seems to ignore them. I changed the bait. Still no action. Poisons work, I know, but I do not want a dead mouse rotting away in an inaccessible spot under the dash.

I've started keeping my air-pistol at hand, just in case he presents himself.

But for over a day now, there's been no sign of him. Has he left? Is he just reading the ill feelings in the air and hiding?

We'll have to see. For now, the traps stay at ready.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Home Rules


We're back home at Hutto, and I've had two serious realizations. One, the grass is really tall! I'm going to have to do something about that here in a day or so.

Two, I've only been gone 19 days! It certainly feels like two months. I've noticed this many times before. Life is just richer on the road. It seems like decades since I worked regular hours at Motorola, but that was only 2002 (I think).

If I'm living three times the life by being on the road, that's where I ought to be.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Talimena Thrill Ride


I would have said "Roller Coaster" but that title has already been taken.

Finding our way back to home base, we've been taking little side-routes -- trying to stay scenic rather than fast. On the border of Arkansas and Oklahoma, there's the Talimena Scenic Byway. We've taken it before, so we thought it would be a pleasant alternative to an Interstate. Starting as highway 88 in Arkansas and ending as Oklahoma 1, it rides the a long mountain ridge. Fall colors were at their peak, at least on the Arkansas side as we hit the ramp in Mena.

And it was a steep ramp. The RV's engine whined and labored the whole of the Byway. Getting up those slopes required it to rev high in low gear, and then once we hit a downslope, I had to gear down or risk burning the brakes.

There were lots of other cars too, and hundreds of motorcycles. It was a clear sunny Saturday in the hight of the Autumn display, so everyone with two or three wheels from hundreds of miles around came out to enjoy the air.

We were the only RV on the road. And I know why.

But after a lovely picnic overlooking the lakes and fields below, watching hawks and vultures soar beneath us, we headed on down into Oklahoma.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

iTunes 7 Skip Count


A new feature appeared in iTunes7 that I've been wanting for a long time. Just as it tracks your play count, it now also counts the number if times you've started a song, and then skipped on to the next one. Of course, it's just started building that information, so it won't be really useful for a while, but eventually, I'll be able to build really great smart playlists.

The whole goal, for me, is to create an automated playlist that will genuinely reflect the songs I want to hear, out of the 2600+ songs in my library. Currently, I have elaborate playlists that use my rating, my playcount, and the length of time the song has been loaded into my library to calculate Best and Best Guess collections. These I rotate by least recently played and it does a good job. But I'm really looking forward to being able to calculate the ratio of play count verses skip count as an additional measure of how much I really like a song.

I guess I could also use skip count to locate those songs I really never listen to as well and just remove them from the library -- but hard disk capacity just keeps getting cheaper, so maybe I won't.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Where's Ben Affleck?

Today, I'm watching the cold rain on the Mississippi, and trying to write the blurbs for my latest novel. It brings to mind the 1999 movie "Forces of Nature" where Ben Affleck played a professional blurb writer. He had some fancy name for it, and Sandra Bullock's character called him a blurbologist.

I could sure use a blurbologist right now. I've spent most of the day on two paragraphs, and I'm about to throw one of them out. It's hard work writing a novel. But then you have to write it again in vastly condensed versions. In my idealized vision of the world, I thought the author would write the novel and some professional publisher person would make the blurbs. Maybe that's still true in the big leagues. But as I scout out newer and smaller publishers, it seems that a blurb is needed to sell the book to the editor, and with some, they expect multiple sized blurbs for the actual cover copy to sell the book.

So, time to take a break. Write a blog entry or go for a drive. I need to let my mind decompress.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Lazy Day by the Water


Cue Ol' Man River on your iTunes and listen to William Warfield as you watch that river keep on moving along.

Today was a relaxation day. Of course, Mary Ann worked on her photo stuff, and I researched publishers, but we had no events to attend, no schedules to keep, and no miles to make.

We just did our thing, and watched the river out the front window. The big events were a couple of large barges that made their way south. And of course, watching the birds on the river -- seagulls and white pelicans out in the middle, and great blue herons up close.


This guy fished right up close to us. He completely filled the binoculars. It was fun watching the fish keep on wiggling as it went down his throat. Sorry for this photo. I had to use manual focus because of the raindrops on the windshield, and it didn't quite do the job.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Beside the Big River


We're camped beside the Mississippi at the Big River State Forest in Illinois. This site is mostly deserted this time of year, but I like it that way. I have fond memories of this place. After the World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis in 2002, we stopped here and camped. In the back of my mind, I've considered that the starting point in Mary Ann's serious nature photography. She was shooting a consumer Olympus back then, but she took some wonderful photos of a Sun Pillar from this campground.

This is my photo, believe me hers was much better. It's hanging on our wall at home.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Shooting Chicago


We arrived at the waterfront of Chicago for two reasons. One was so that I could verify a few points in my latest novel, and two, so that Mary Ann could take some building pictures to sell to the stock photography agencies. Those goals combined in a riverboat cruise up the Chicago river, with elaborate commentary about the skyscrapers and the history of the city. We also took photos from the museum area and up at Montrose Harbor.

This is a common sight for me, Mary Ann viewing the photos she's taken by blocking out the daylight with her coat.

Did you know the process of looking at your photos on the little screen on the back of your camera is called 'Chimping'? I bet it's because you hear people saying "Oo! Oo!" as they do it.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Windy City


The next location on this trip is Chicago. I need to scout out the waterfront downtown to verify some points in my latest novel. Mary Ann wants to get some photos of the skyline. A check of the weather showed the possibility of snow, so we pulled up roots yesterday and headed north, hoping to settle in before bad weather arrived in the Chicago area.

The drive was nice. I had a cross-wind the whole time, and in an RV that's significant, but it was manageable. Mary Ann called ahead and found a campground named 'Windy City'. Maybe that wasn't the best choice.

We arrived before dark and settled in. The plan was to stay put all of Thursday and maybe Friday, if the weather was bad, and head into town once it cooperated.

The main problem is the wind. Yes, there was a touch of snow this morning, but it's gone now. But the wind is still gusty. Normally, that isn't a problem, but we have this satellite dish for our internet service.

It's like a net that catches the wind. On a house, firmly mounted, the Direcway dish wouldn't move much, but on an RV, the whole vehicle rocks on the suspension with every gust of wind. Watching the signal strength shows it changing from mid-fifties to twenties with each shake. And thus our internet connection drops in and out several times a minute. Web pages stall out. Downloads take forever. Frequently, my laptop reports that the internet is down.

I've adjusted the dish pointing a bit, and it's better, but as long as the winds blow in Windy City, connections will be iffy.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Still Circling in St. Louis

Shortly after my last post, we hopped in the Jeep and drove over to the waterfront where Mary Ann could get a good set of sunset pictures of the Arch and the skyline. In our rush, I hit a chug-hole too hard, pushing a marginal U-joint over into Imminent Failure Mode. I could tell something was wrong, seriously wrong, as we drove to supper. Come next morning, I limped at barely legal minimum speed on the highway to the nearest Jeep service center, Dave Croft in Collinsville. We got in line without an appointment and they promised to work it in.

We went ahead and rented a car, not knowing how long it would take. Mary Ann had several chores to take care of and I can work anywhere, so we were content to spend a few days next to the Arch if that's what it took.

But then, barely mid-afternoon, we got the call. They had diagnosed and fixed my Jeep and it was ready to be picked up, ahead of schedule and under their quote. Nice. We dropped Mary Ann's schedule and picked it up. Drives nicely now -- better than it has in the last couple of months.

This pushed her activities closer to deadlines. She had a large set of photos to mount and send to a Museum in New Mexico. (Yes, we're doing all this in the RV.) Also, she had magazine submissions to send off. We were almost back on schedule when she received an email from a stock photo company that needed her immediate attention.

The last stage of the process was to send off some sample photos. She needed serious bandwidth, Now! Neither the RV's satellite nor the cell phone was good enough, so we hopped in the Jeep hunting for a Starbucks. Through evening drive-time, we drove. The first was going to close too soon, but she found another. I headed back to the RV park to wait until she was done. (I don't drink coffee.)

All this is set-up. Imagine me, in the Jeep, dropped into evening drive-time in downtown St. Louis, winding through twisty roads. Overcast sky, so I lose my sense of direction. The GPS gives me a compass arrow, at best, but even with that, I find myself heading west when I need to go east.

A couple of loops later, I manage, finally, to get back to the RV camp. I just hope I can find her again when she calls.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The St. Louis Roller Coaster


Today, Archon 30 ended and it was time to move to a new location for the night. From previous trips, we knew that there was a good RV campground over on the river, just across from the arch. It was associated with a casino, but I could overlook that. I'm not a gambler. I looked up the relatively simple directions and headed back east towards the Mississippi. I should have begun the trip with more dread.

Many highways, many interstates, all converge at one bridge. You can see in the Google Map image how the roadway is braided like rope. Crossing the river is a trial. Since I come to St. Louis at least once a year, I have had many opportunities to discover how easy it is to take the wrong branch. In places, every one of the lanes are equivalent, even though they branch and re-join. In other places, you'd better be in the correct lane well in advance or you'll never make it.

This was a sunday afternoon and traffic wasn't heavy, so when I realized I needed to get all the way over into the left lane for a left exit, Mary Ann following in the jeep behind me thought I was having engine trouble as I swayed the RV across multiple lanes and dodged cars, trying to get to the right place. And then, I managed to take exit 2B instead of 2A, and was forced to head across the MLK bridge (the upper bridge in the image), into downtown St. Louis. So looping around I headed back across the bridge, looking for an exit, any exit, that would get me off of the St. Louis Roller Coaster Ride.

Finally, I pulled off on some city street in the middle of East St. Louis, a most desolate and abandoned place. A quick conference with Mary Ann, and she took the lead, as we drove up and down the old streets, looking for our destination. The buildings were abandoned, the street lights were turned off and stop signs put up to take their place. But eventually, we reached the Casino Queen.

But we weren't home yet. Following the Jeep, I drove into the casino's parking lot and looped through tight places until the security guards showed up and offered to guide me over to the RV place.

So, finally, we are parked for the night, in that triangular parking lot in the upper center of the image, just below the MLK bridge.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Con Ideas

Every science fiction convention I attend has numerous events, generally one hour in length, with several simultaneous tracks of events. This time, I appear to be stuck in the YA track. Writing YA, Tolkein and YA, Reading Harry Potter, etc. That isn't all I'm doing but it's well represented. If I wanted to be elsewhere, I certainly had my opportunity. Well before the Con, the programming schedulers sent out a questionnaire asking what I'm interested in, and what I'd consider talking about. The floor was also open for new ideas. At the time, I couldn't think of any.

This time, as I have an idea for an event, I'll just blog it and pull it back up the next time people ask.

What about a world-building show and tell? There have been many presentations about the process of world-building a fictional universe. This variation would invite convention attendees to talk about their own worlds for, say, ten minutes each.

I have talked to many potential writers over the years and some of them have spent many reams of paper and long hours building elaborate worlds for some novel or game they'll write eventually. Honestly, many of these people will never actually write the story. But what if they had the opportunity to present their world for other eyes.

I got the idea while listening during the Tolkein panel discussion. How many years did he have just Middle-Earth, with no story to go with it? Maybe out there, someone is building something just as wonderful, and all they need is a push to make it happen.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Listening on the Road

It's a thousand miles from Hutto to St.Louis, and I spent the bulk of it listening to podcasts. Most of the time I was catching up from episode 94 through 110 of Home Town Tales. I learned about ghost stories, Big Foot, Hollywood scandals, and how to choose a tattoo. It's certainly one of the most rewarding of the podcasts out there and I seriously intend to submit a few Hutto home town tales sooner or later.

The other one I listened to was Military History Podcast, and am now up to speed on the life history of Napoleon. Later on in this trip, I'll catch up on Perlcast, and FurledSails.com. Ideally, I should listen to them as they arrive, but in real life, I can't spend the time unless I'm at the wheel for hours at a time. It's perfect for road trips.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

On the Road to St. Louis

Tonight I'm parking at the Worlds Largest McDonalds.

It's a turnpike service area that straddles Interstate 44, built like a bridge over the highway. I'm parked in among the big rigs. It's noisy, but I'm used to it. I'm hoping to get off on an early start, maybe after a McDonalds breakfast.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Archon 30, My Schedule

I've seen the events I've been scheduled for at the convention in a few days, Archon 30 in Collinsville, just across the river from St. Louis. It looks like I'll be busy.

Thu, 4:00pm HI - Monroe Reading
I've not done many readings lately, so I'll have to think hard about what to read. While I have no doubt my voice will last, I have to make it worth while for the listener. What would be best, I wonder? Part of a novel, or a complete short story?

Thu, 6:00pm GC - Marquette A (Young Adult) Round Robin Reading, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"
And then again, will my voice hold out? One hour of rest, and more reading. At least I'll have help.

Thu, 8:30pm GC - LaSalle Lobby Autographs (1/2 hour)
Sometimes, I spend a whole autograph session watching others, and then out of nowhere, someone shows up with something for me. I'll have to remember to bring my colored pens.

Fri, 1:00pm GC - Mississippian Writing for Young Adults - How Hard can it Be?
At last, a topic I am intimately familiar with.

Fri, 1:30pm GC - LaSalle Lobby Autographs (1/2 hour)
A second autograph session? Probably a scheduling error. Make a note to discuss with programming.

Fri, 4:00pm GC - Illini (Young Adult) My Precious - Tolkien for Teens
I was likely just past my teens when I first read the Hobbit. I can remember it took me a few pages to get into the spirit of it all. However, today's teens have probably seen it all on the screen.

Fri, 7:00pm GC - Ballroom D6 Building the Perfect Beast - Your Ultimate Computer
I wonder why they included me on this one. I haven't constructed my own computer since the S100 days.

Sat, 2:00pm GC - Illini The Great American Short Story - Does It Exist Anymore?
The question is, what is a 'Great American' short story?

Sun, Noon GC - Ballroom A Theocratic Dictatorships - The new boogieman or rehash of "Dune"?
Are we talking fiction here, or world events?

It will interesting, I can tell. I haven't had this many event scheduled in one convention in some time.

And there's a bonus. When I sent in my 50-word biography, they must have notices all the nice things I said about Mary Ann, because they scheduled her as well.

Mary Ann Melton:

Thu, 8:00pm GC - Marquette A Living in the Shadow (The Spouse's Panel)
Ha! She doesn't live in anyone's shadow. I bet she has fun with it.