Book Review – What They Deserve by Sam Hendricks

There’s this running meme that’s been popping up lately about talking on phone in the 50s and being concerned that the line was tapped. Flash forward to 2019 and you’ve got a woman asking Alexa, “Hey, wiretap, what’s a good recipe for pancakes?”

It’s possible to debate the ins and outs of tech like Alexa, Siri, whatever Google’s calling their robo-assistant lately, but it’s not possible to debate the unintended side-effects of having a box sitting in your living room that’s listening to everything you say. Nor is it wise to debate the fact that you just paid good money to give every advertiser on the planet direct access to your house.

Now, I honestly don’t believe big tech has any nefarious plans for Alexa beyond finding new and exiciting ways to sell you shoes and non-stick pans, but what if that weren’t the case?

Sam Hendricks took that scenario, shook it up a little,  and added a hefty dose of mystery and crafted something uniquely terrifying not because of monsters or the existential threat of nuclear annihilation, but because of the extremely close proximity to our own world. A world where tech can provide a sense of security, much like a wall that keeps the bad guys out and controls the sanctity of the Reformed United States.

It’s control that’s the key to the story. Walls can be climbed or flown over or even tunneled under, but a good piece of tech can be even better at keeping people under control. And it’s into that world that Hendricks drops us with a smile and a wave.

What They Deserve is relatively short story, along the lines of a novella, but Hendricks packs it full of information. In the tradition of good writers, she doles out bits of data a byte at a time rather than giving us a full tedious, historical dump. Aside from being a nervous-making tale of technological and tyrannical woe, it’s a fun story that might leave you wondering about the technology we use every day and how it could impact our lives. I’m sure Alexa will have more information about that, though.

Highly entertaining, well-paced, and fun. This could be the start of a great series, if Sam was so inclined to write it.

SEATTLE, WA: 2053.

Summer Wilkins, the official spokesperson for the Reformed United States, is still grieving the loss of her son when a shocking murder rocks the city. After her husband is implicated, she’s drawn into a rebellion that’s ready to do anything to find out the truth behind the new “Inevix patches” being distributed to the public. Murder, mystery, and politics abound as Summer finds out that the biggest secrets are being hidden in her own family.

Get your copy on Amazon or from Kyanite Publishing

Check out her blog

Follow Sam on Twitter

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Cycling Made Easy

It’s springtime, that magical time of the year where the birds chatter, it’s windy as hell, and everybody is throwing up their lists of favorite “affordable” bicycles for the year. A few that have popped up in my newsfeed define affordable as under $2000. I don’t know about you, but $2000 is still a chunk of change even if it is affordable in a sport where a new frameset alone can set you back $7000 for carbon fiber or titanium.

So, it’s spring and you’ve got that itch to go for a ride. Unfortunately, that tax money you expected to get back turned in a huge liability, so you’re strapped. You’ve got a few options:

  • Go to bike store and get a bike loan. Yes, they’re a thing
  • Go to WalMart and get a bike that may or may not kill you
  • Do a little digging and find a decent used bike that will suit your needs

Another option is to build your own. I’ll cover that in a little while.

I was at one of the local bike stores here in Albuquerque a couple of years ago looking for bar tape and QR skewers for a bike I was building and there was a couple in there buying a pair of mid-range bikes (at $3500 each), shoes ($100-$200 a pair), helmets ($100 or so and up), car rack ($200+), and clothes (ungodly expensive). So, I’m wating for the salesman to acknowledge my presence and wondering who in the hell walks into a bike store and drops nearly 8K. It turns out you can get bicycle loans. They’re just like car loans, or any other kind of loan, only they’re for buying bicycles.

Okay, car loans I get. I hate them, but they’re a necessary evil and since I tend to keep my cars until the wheels fall off and the transmission falls out, there’s usually a significant amount of time where I’m driving but own the car outright. In a place like Albuquerque where the city’s so spread out and the mass transit sucks, cars are good things to have.

But the fact that bicycle loans are a thing boggles my mind. Especially when it’s a multi-thousand dollar loan for someone who just wants to get into the sport. You know, get their feet wet and see if it’s something they’ll enjoy. From the sheer amount of used bicycles out there, I’m betting most people get the loan, ride for a few weeks, find out it’s hard, and give up. That’s a lot of money to try out something you might not get into.

Of course, not every bicycle in the bike store is a multi-thousand-dollar beast. And, contrary to what the nice salesman is telling you, you don’t need a top of the line bike to get started. Find something affordable and functional and see if you’re even really interested in riding. If you are, great. Upgrade at some point. If not, well, a $500 investment is a lot less than a $3500 investment.

You can also go to the local big box store and pull a bike off the rack for under a few hundred dollars. WalMart and Target both have bike sections filled with flashy rides with colorful paint jobs and fact sheets that advertise things like SiS! Disc Brakes! Super-light aluminum frame! Shimano! SRAM! Nearly 30 speeds!

What those fact sheets don’t tell you is the brakes suck, the components will break, and most people will never use that many speeds. Big box bikes are okay for toodling around the neighborhood. Just give yourself plenty of time to stop and don’t be surprised when the plastic brake levers bend and flex. But, let’s face it; that’s good enough for most people. If all you’re doing is casual rides around the neighborhood or along a trail, that $300 Schwinn is going to be perfectly servicable.

The only worrisome thing about big box store bikes is the components can be less than stellar. If you’re taking slow rides, no worries. If you’re planning on going faster or riding off road, or putting any kind of stress on that bike at all, bad components can be dangerous. Brakes that fail because the metal flexes too much or the pads are insufficient can kill you. Having to re-true wheels after every ride gets old fast. A frame that came apart at the seams because the welding was crap can end a ride quickly.

On the other hand, I had a buddy back in high school who broke a Specialized frame by hitting a rock on a trail. When he contacted the company about a warranty, they said, “You were riding off-road? That wasn’t what he had in mind. No warranty.”

It was a mountain bike.

Perhaps teh best way to find the new ride of your dreams is to do some digging. Those people that dropped all that money on brand new bikes so they could try out the sport? They probably dropped out and are selling those bikes at a fraction of the cost of new bikes. People who get really into cycling also love to upgrade constantly (guilty) and sell off the old stuff. You can find used bikes all over the place that, with a little elbow grease, can ride just as well as they did when they were new. Check your local Craigslist, sporting supply stores, eBay, Pinkbike, the classified. I can almost guarantee you, someone is selling a bike that would be great for you for far less than you’d pay new. Plus, it’s a kind of recycling (pun intended), so that’s pretty cool, too.

A final option that most people probably won’t go for is to build up your own bike from scratch. The upside is you can get exactly what you want and if you dig around Craigslist and eBay, you can build it for a lot less than buying a complete bike. It’s also a fun project, great experience, and teaches you how to maintain your own ride. The downside is you need some specialized tools like crank pullers, bottom bracket tools, headset presses, and things like that. Fortunately, those show up on Craigslist and eBay all the time, too. It’s not for everyone, but I’ve built three bikes now and I love the process of building and tinkering almost as much as riding.

For those wondering, here’s my latest creation. I found the frame on eBay for $250, components from Craigslist, eBay, and Nashbar before they went all weird. It rides like a dream and even though it’s got mid to high end parts and a carbon fiber frame, cost about $800 spread out over a couple of years. Still pricey, I know, but buying a bit a time over months made it easier. With cheaper parts and frameset and a little digging, a good bike can be built up for about $500 or so. Plus, when something breaks, you’ll know how to fix it because you put it on there in the first place.

ridley

I know people love their bikes. If you’ve got a pic or a story, put it in the comments. I’d love to see your ride or hear your story.

Book Review – The Clockwork Detective by R.A. McCandless

Steampunk was never really my bag. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of detailed explanations of how clockwork and steam power and mold the world. At some point in some Steampunk stories, the tech gets advanced enough that you find yourself reading about how tiny switches bring intelligence to artificial creations. When that happens, I often wonder why the hell the author didn’t just write a cyberpunk story and call it good. Maybe it’s the lusty allure of pocketwatches and good old-fashioned steam-powered cars. You know, all the stuff we see every day, only run by analog water vapor.

Those are the stories where it’s obvious the author was just trying to cash in on the steampunk genre rather than adding something unique to it.

I’m pleased to say The Clockwork Detective doesn’t fall into that trap. There are a few descriptions of a steam-powered world – Aubrey’s leg, the dirgibles that plow the skies like iron ships across an ocean of air – but mostly R.A. McCandless just lets the story be the story. As a result, it’s not the tedious read that some Steampunk falls into.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not knocking the entire genre. There are some great stories out there that use the Steampunk world as a character unto itself, but there are others that just shove a story into that world and describe every gear and steampipe mercilessly while leaving the reader wondering why it was so important that the antagonist drove a clockwork El Camino.

R.A. takes the genre in a different direction. Some stuff clicks and clacks, but mostly the story is about the story. He’s also done something I hadn’t seen before in a steampunk novel.

Urban fantasy, as a genre, tends to blend the mundane world of right now with the magical world you only find when you’re tripping balls behind a 7-11. There are normal El Caminos, there are 7-11s, but there are also magical things like ghosts, devils, and all manner of bugaboos either lurking in the shadows or running hot dog carts on Central Ave down by the university. Again, getting stuck in the details in urban fantasy is easy trap to fall into and the best at the genre manage to make it work.

What R.A. has pulled off with The Clockwork Detective is an effective blend of Steampunk and Urban Fantasy. I’d say Steamfantasypunk, but that’s a mouthful and no one would ever think it’s cool enough to become a thing, so let’s just say it’s a new direction in Steampunk and call it good.

And that’s exactly what this book is: It’s a great fusion of two disparate genres handled with the deft touch of a master who really believes in what he’s doing. That belief shines through in a text that draws you in and keeps you in its world even after you close the book. Well-written, engaging, and flat-out fun to read. This is a perfect summer book that doesn’t shirk its responsibility of taking the reader to new places and letting them wander around in a fleshed out world.

It’s like tripping balls behind the 7-11 without the fear of the dreaded brown acid.

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Aubrey Hartmann left the Imperial battlefields with a pocketful of medals, a fearsome reputation, and a clockwork leg. 

The Imperium diverts her trip home to investigate the murder of a young druwyd in a strange town. She is ordered to not only find the killer but prevent a full-scale war with the dreaded Fae. 

Meanwhile, the arrival of a sinister secret policeman threatens to dig up Aubrey’s own secrets – ones that could ruin her career. 

It soon becomes clear that Aubrey has powerful enemies with plans to stop her before she gets started. Determined to solve the mystery, Aubrey must survive centaurs, thugs and a monster of pure destruction.

Get your copy on Amazon

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Check out his blog

How To Get Your B.S. In Martial Arts

Anyone who’s been involved in martial arts for any length of time can tell you there are a lot of schwag schools out there that will promise you the moon and deliver a back-alley ass-whooping. For some reason, the martial arts seem to attract a lot of self-aggrandizing whack-jobs who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground but talk a good game.

History is replete with names like George Dillman (who says he can shoot Chi balls out of his hands), Count Dante (the self-proclaimed “Deadliest Man Alive”), Frank Dux (whose lofty tales inspired Bloodsport) and countless others.

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I’d love to have a Black Dragon Fighting Society T-shirt.

Unfortunately, people like Dillman, Dante, and Dux have watered down the fighting arts to the point of fantasy fit only for Wuxia stories and high fantasy fanfic. Meanwhile, MMA has captured the imagination of the country and the rallying cry has become, “If it doesn’t work in MMA, it’s crap.” And stuck in the middle are a whole bunch of systems that are really damned good at what they do, they’re just not geared for MMA’s ruleset. So, just to get this out of the way, Dante, Dillman, and Dux can all suck it for spreading their nonsense, but the rest of the traditional arts deserve a bit more respect than “If it doesn’t work in MMA, it’s crap.”

A few days ago, I was reading an article I found posted in a martial arts group on Facebook. The article was about the five worst martial arts on the planet and how they were totally useless. I see articles like this every now and then and they all lay out the author’s distaste for varying fighting arts. Among other systems, Wing Chun, Kung Fu, Aikido, Ninjutsu, Krav Maga, Karate, Shaolin, Sumo, and Tae Kwon Do are common entries in these lists.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I have seen Wing Chun, Shaolin, and Kung Fu in the same list. For the unitiated, Kung Fu is basically a blanket term for the Chinese fighting arts which includes styles like Shaolin, Hun Gar, and, yes, Wing Chun. Always be wary of authors who aren’t even familiar enough with what they’re dissing to get the names right.

Articles like these include a variety of reasons why this, that, or the other style is a waste of time, but most of them come down to the fact that no one has ever won an MMA title using that system or that system didn’t work very well in MMA.

Wait. Let’s back up a second here.

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MMA is a sport style. Don’t get me wrong, the people that do it are talented, tough, and I wouldn’t want to walk into a ring with any of them, but the whole of MMA is geared around keeping fighters intact, alive, and able to fight again. For a thing that bills itself as no holds barred as close to real fighting as you can get, it’s still a sport system. And that means things like poking the eyes, punching the throat, and doing all manner of nasty things is forbidden. And for good reason. You can learn to take a punch or a kick and shake it off, but a thumb in your eye is a whole different ballgame.

Not to say that people don’t get seriously hurt in MMA, just that the rules are in place to minimize the number of times a fighter gets crippled in the ring. The idea is to pit a fighter against someone roughly his or her size and approximate skill set. It’s a great test of skill, truthfully, because it eliminates a lot of variables and focuses on the fighters.

Less sport-oriented fighting covers a different kind of ground. Most of those aforementioned Chinese systems grew up in a different kind of arena and they focus on doing the most damage in the smallest amount of time and getting the heck out of danger’s way while the opponent is still clawing at their eyes and wondering why their throat doesn’t work anymore. They’re largely upright styles because you don’t want to go rolling around in a Shanghai alleyway and, besides, the guy you just kicked probably has some buddies lined up waiting to break your knees.

Krav Maga grew out of fighting Nazis. It’s a nasty, mean system designed to keep someone alive in a harsh environment where the opponent’s waving a broken bottle in your face. It’s wartime stuff, modified to be a little friendlier to civilians, but at its heart, Krav Maga shares the same philosophy of get in, hurt someone badly, and get away. Kenpo has the same philosophy, as do a lot of traditional arts, because traditional arts were about survival, not winning in the ring.

SparseNervousInganue-size_restricted

Not a whole lot of guns in MMA. I’m also not sure I really like this technique, it’s fast, but it doesn’t get the gun offline very much.

There are, of course, outliers. Sumo is pretty against Sumo and not much else, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone offering Sumo classes for self defense. It’s a very ritualized sport, seeped in tradition, and does what it does very well. But pushing an opponent out of the ring or getting them off their feet does not translate well in MMA’s fighting world.

Which leads us to everybody’s favorite punching bag: Ninjutsu.

ninja

Ninja costumes work everywhere.

After a spate of increasingly bad movies in the 80s, Ninjas took on a strange reputation of being the ultimate badasses. Schools claiming to teach the secrets of the Ninjas popped up in every strip mall in the country, and enough books to deforest the Eastern seaboard were published about the subject. Here’s the deal: Ninjas were real, they had some capable fighters (and doubtless some true badasses), but Ninjutsu is about a whole lot more than fighting. It’s movement, it’s concealment, it’s a lot of sneaking around, and if you want to get traditional about them, Ninjutsu was about stealing state secrets and assassinating people. Fighting skill was important, but it wasn’t as important as being invisible. Any school claiming to teach traditional Ninja fighting arts should be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t doubt that there are some out there, but the vast majority are run by guys who got their training from stuff they found in the classifieds in the back of Black Belt Magazine.

In the end, it’s important to realize what the goal of a system is before you start saying it’s worthless. MMA is cool, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of fighting and a lot of its ground and pound stuff is flat-out dangerous to do outside of the ring. In the ring, it’s just you and your opponent. Out of the ring, it’s you, your opponent, his buddies, some drunken idiot who wants to get in on the game, and probably the cops. Going to the ground in a situation like that is begging for a head-stomping.

And, let’s not forget, MMA itself is comprised of things learned from those traditional martial arts. So, if MMA is your bag, go learn it. It’s definitely useful, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the perfect system. It’s the perfect system for what it’s trying to be.

On the other hand, everyone should take a good, hard look at MMA training techniques and realize a couple of hours a week in the dojo ain’t gonna make you a pro fighter. There’s no reason Wing Chun, Shaolin, or Krav Maga can’t be effective; they’re all fine systems. Because, in the end, it always comes down to the person doing it. Practice, practice, practice. Train, train, train.

And you still might get your ass kicked.

And now, your moment of Zen.

ninjaspit

Ninja spit is made of bad breath and tiny shurikens.

WATWB – Your Monthly Shot of News That Doesn’t Suck

Contrary to what most people think, the American system of incarceration – and possibly the world’s – isn’t predicated on the notion that jail is revenge. It’s supposed to punishment, sure, but in addition to safely stowing away people who could cause harm to society, incarceration is supposed to be about paying for a crime. One would think after a jail sentence, the crime might still be there, but it has been paid for. Done. And, arguably, the person who was in jail should no longer be considered a criminal.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works and we see lots of people shrieking “I hope you get raped in prison” at everyone who gets tossed in the can. As if gang rape was part and parcel of the criminal justice system. To make matters worse, once an inmate is released, it’s difficult to get a job and go straight because even though the crime has been technically paid for, former inmates are still considered criminals in the eyes of society. This leads to high recidivism rates because, hey, if you can’t get a job it’s damned hard to get luxuries like food and a place to live.

Now, it’s likely the criminal justice system will continue to spiral down into anarchy, at least until a lot of things change. And part of that change has to be in the way we view former inmates. Rather than mindless brutes, there are some clever folks in prison. Take, for instance, the prison debate team at Eastern New York Correctional Facility who recently not only beat Harvard’s debate team, but they beat the Cambridge debate team. Not bad for a bunch of guys who don’t even have Internet access.

Additionally, the ENYCF debate team, rather than having to dodge jocks in the hallways, has the support of a large portion of the prison population. They are, in their own way, celebrities.

We could argue whether or not being on a prison debate team is helpful in reforming prisoners, but you have to admit that it’s better than getting out of prison with B.S. in Violent Crime, and M.S. in Bodybuilding, and a PhD in Going Right Back To Prison. At the very least, debate encourages critical thinking, argumentation without resorting to childish nicknames, research skills, and presentation skills, all things which will be more useful than killer biceps.

Read the whole story here.

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And now, your moment of Zen.

pinkpanther

Book Review – Echoes of Olympus Mons by Eric Malikyte

There aren’t that many sci-fi horror stories that I’m aware of. Someone please correct me one what I’m missing because I really enjoy the genre. On the movie end, I can think of Event Horizon, the original Alien (Aliens, great as it was, was more action than horror) and, uh, Predator, I guess. And, let’s face it, Predator was just a badass retelling of Beowulf with an alien and guns, which is why it won the Academy Award for Best Movie Ever Made.

I’m sure there are more out there, but those are the only ones that come to mind.

Anyway, like I said, the sci-fi genre is rife with possibilities for some good horror stories, especially ones that introduce a brand new kind of bad guy. That’s why Eric Malikyte’s Echoes of Olympus Mons was such a treat. It wasn’t just that it was well-written with some suberb character development and a hefty dose of science, it was the fact that he came up with a monster that hasn’t been done before. I won’t spoil it by telling you, but it’s a genuinely unique take on sci-fi horror.

Malikyte keeps you guessing throughout the book. Even though the action is spelled out, he leaves enough wiggle room to make you wonder if what’s happening is really happening or not. He paints us solid, real characters who are far from perfect charicatures, and gives us a vision of Mars that shows a red planet that frankly doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us.

If you enjoy well-written horror that doesn’t go over the top and descend into straight gore – although there is plenty of that – pick up Echoes of Olympus Mons and get ready to spend a few nights with a book you can’t put down.

olympusmons

Once they see you nowhere is safe.

Olympus One colony students Hal Leon and Akio Sato have made history. Their invention, a camera that images dark matter, has had its first successful test; but what it reveals may put human life on Mars in jeopardy. 

Hal believes that the strange animalistic silhouettes hidden in the dark matter web prove his theories. The wiry, inhuman forms appear to look to the sky at some invisible threat before they’re wiped away by a wave of nothingness that resets the dark matter web to normal, until it all repeats again—a never-ending cycle. 

That is, until something else appears in the dark matter web, and students and colonists alike start dying under mysterious circumstances. Can Hal and Akio figure out what’s causing these grisly murders, and does the dark matter camera somehow hold the key to the mystery?

Get your copy on Amazon

Check out Eric on Twitter

Check out his website

↓7↑8

We’ve watched Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive To Survive recently. Let me say it introduced me to two things about Formual 1. First, those drivers are fucking amazing. Anyone who can thread a needle when they’re strapped into a massive engine on wheels going 200+ MPH is incredible. Second, F1 has some spectacular wrecks. There were scenes of guys hitting a wall at 195 MPH, or flying upside down over other cars, rolling several times, and skidding to a halt in something that only barely resembled a car.

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Robert Kubica’s crash in 2007. He survived.

The truly amazing thing was after those crashes, the drivers not only walked away, but got back in a car the next day and kept racing. I was in a car in a friend back in the early 90s when a truck shoved us off the road. To this day, I’m leery of being next to big rigs. And not just because I’m worried that they’re a bunch of cross-dressing pill-hounds hopped up on every goofball imaginable.

Fear is a natural thing. It’s what keeps us alive. The first time you burn yourself you realize fire is a bad thing to play with. The first time you get kicked in the teeth, you learn to keep your guard up. It’s a natural survival mechanism and something to be respected. No one likes to be hurt, so we avoid things that will cause pain. Simple.

The problem is, any F1 driver would probably tell you that crashes are a natural thing in car racing. Just like anyone will tell you fire has some valid uses and any fighter will tell you sometimes you have to take a blow to get in position to land a better shot. Being completely risk-averse will land you a nice position on your couch, surrounded by all manner of security mechanisms, watching the world pass you by while you slowly turn into a non-entity getting more and more entrenched in your ways until all that’s left for you to do is squawk about how thing should be.

In other words, survival mechanisms can keep you alive, but they can also keep you from living. Change is inevitable. Shit happens. Whatever. Pick your aphorism.

Sometimes things kick you square in the balls and steal your wallet. At that point, you can lie there holding your nuts and grumbling about how there’s never a cop around when you need one or you can get up, kick out your mugger’s kneecap and steal his wallet.

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This has nothing to do with the text, I just think it’s funny.

Which leads – in a roundabout, profanity-laden way – to the point. I’ve written about how Twitter has become a haven for writers before. For the most part, that still rings true. Sure, there are some dicks out there, but that’s true of everywhere and most of the writers on Twiter are decent folk. They’re happy to listen, dispense advice, and generally be supportive. To a point, anyway.

There’s always that one person who’s going through a crisis of faith in their writing. It happens. You wake up at 3am, convinced you’re a no-talent hack. If you’re like most of us, you fret about it for a bit and then remember there are plenty of no-talent hacks doing all manner of things successfully and go back to sleep. Some people perseverate to the point that it becomes all-consuming and there are only so many times you can say, “Let it go, everyone goes through this” before it gets to be too much work and you go back to looking up dog videos. Especially, when the problem is painfully obvious. For instance, if there’s a fundamental disconnect with your writing style – say, you only want to write in Mayan Haiku – then you either need to change it or accept that your audience is going to be limited.

I get it. It sucks hearing something you poured your heart and soul into isn’t working. It’s the 200mph smack into the wall or the fist in the teeth. It hurts. But if you really want to do something, there are going to be times when you have to work at it. And that means you have to dust yourself off, get back in the game, and learn to get better at it.

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Got an interesting story (that doesn’t name names), tell it in the comments…