Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Live from New Orleans at Pen To Press Writers Retreat

Hi all! I’ve been in New Orleans for three days now, having possibly the best time ever as a writer and meeting all kinds of cool people. I’m at the Pen to Press Writers Retreat and staying with my friend Marcia Wall, who is cool beyond cool for letting me stay with her for free in her French Quarter walkup. (I’m paying for it with my thighs, though. She lives on the third floor and the stairs are steep.)

What can I say about this thing? First of all, if you’re even slightly interested, GO. Yeah, you have to apply and get accepted and all that, but I’ve learned more about writing COMMERCIAL FICTION, FOR PUBLICATION, than I ever did in my four years of college. See, writing commercial fiction is an entirely different animal from writing papers for ENG 405, Advanced Composition, which is the kind of class where most of us learned how to write. There are rules. Even if you know the rules (which I did, mostly, but not all of them) there are certain fine points you’ve probably missed along the way. This is like a master class in writing commercial fiction. If you’re doing something wrong, the teachers are going to find it and help you fix it. That’s worth every cent this cost me, which was, by the way, plenty.

It’s a little like the difference between going to law school, or at least as I understand the going-of to law school, versus going to paralegal school. I’ve never been to law school but I’ve lived with three different law students at various times. They tell me that in law school, they hand you a bunch of cases about A Concept. They then expect you to wade through these hundreds of pages of material and find out A. what concept you’re supposed to be looking for in the first place, which for me would be the big hurdle, and B. the rights and wrongs of that concept. For example: Here are a bunch of cases about contracts. A. The concept I’m looking for must be due consideration, and B. Due consideration means anything that would induce a reasonable person to enter into the contract.

This is why I never went to law school. (Well, that and not having $90 grand in my back pocket.) Paralegal school is better. In paralegal school, they just flat-out tell you “Hey, due consideration means anything that would induce a reasonable person to enter into the contract, and here’s a bunch of cases where they discuss that.” In short, it’s exactly backward, and a far easier way to learn about the law, if you ask me.

(By the way, if I’m wrong about the definition of due consideration, feel free to correct me. I’m sitting at a gyro cafĂ© on Royal Street not far from the Hotel Monteleone and kind of in a world of my own, so concepts legal are not lighting up my brain the way they would normally. One of my instructors, Hank Schwaeble, is an attorney, though. Legal jokes have been flying around all week.)

This is a lot like that. Writers often hear, “Omit needless words” as the first commandment of writing commercial fiction. Rarely does anyone get to “how.” We spent the whole first day on “how.” Don’t use attributions other than “said.” Better yet, don’t use attributions at all. Don’t use backstory. Don’t use adverbs. And on and on. I can probably drop my word count by a good ten grand using some of this stuff – not, mind you, that I’m stupid enough to drop my estimate to the agents I’ll be meeting on Friday.

Oh my God, I’m meeting agents on Friday. EEP!! I’m very nervous. But then, I’ve survived three days of having F. Paul Wilson as one of my instructors, and that’s gotta be the equivalent of, like, an aspiring artist getting painting lessons from Picasso. Just not painting my nose by accident has been a victory. But so far so good. So I should be okay.

Everybody wish me luck!!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Guest Column: The Gulf Oil Spill

Hi all! My cousin Kyle, who is awesome, is an oilman. Not a Texas oilman, exactly -- more of an Alaskan oilman. He also happens to work for BP. I asked him to give us his take on what happened in the Gulf of Mexico recently, when eleven men died trying to bring us fuel and plastic products and a potential environmental catastrophe was unleashed. Here's what he had to say.

It's been a very emotional month for most BP employees. What happened on the Deepwater Horizon and the subsequent spill will have far reaching effects for every single citizen - politically, environmentally, economically. The science and technology that is required to drill in ultra deep water is both amazing and immensely complex. It's difficult to describe, but the cumulative scientific knowledge and skill required to do this is second to none - this is NASAstuff.... not outer space, but inner space exploration. It is extremely difficult and it is very dangerous work. If anything, the public is not getting a crash course in the risks we take to "fuel" our life styles. There needs to be honest and open debate about the risk / rewards of the life styles we lead, because the Gulf of Mexico is a very prolific hydrocarbon basin and our most important source of domestic oil, but it also contains some the richest bio-mass and bio-diversity in all the known oceans.

The sequence of events is still not clear, but in most accidents like this there is a cascading string of events that ultimately lead to catastrophes. In all operations in BP safety is always first. So, imagine the reaction of all the BP employees when this happened.... the safety culture here is very deep and very real. When planning for deep water drill holes we try to anticipate and mitigate all the known and typical problems we experience while drilling including the dreaded blow-out. This was a shocker to me.

Known: There was a blow-out. First, you have to understand the pressures involved in deep water drilling. Pressure is the key and its what you need to control - it will kill you if you don't and it will kill you fast. Controlling pressure is a balancing act of sorts and very complicated, but while drilling we use weighted muds to hold back the pressure. If the mud is too light - hydrocarbons will enter the well bore at higher pressures and you get a kick. If you don't control the kick and it gets away from you a blow-out can occur if the blow-out preventers don't activate. If the mud is too heavy, drilling fluids can leak off in the the rock formations. If you lose too much fluid, the weight of your mud column decreases and again hydrocarbons can enter the well bore to create a kick and a blow-out can occur. These are the basics and it's important to remember.

Known: The Blow-Out Preventer didn't operate as designed. This is tantamount to having the wings fall off a jet liner. Wings are not supposed to fall off airplanes.... but in rare events they do. The 48-ft 450 ton BOP was designed to withstand and bleed off a 15,000-psi kick. If the BOP was compromised in some way, this pressure rating could be much lower. From what has been made public, the pressures experienced on the deep water horizon was at a minimum of 6000 psi moments before the blow-out.

About BOPs. The BOP can pinch or shear almost anything to prevent a kick reaching the surface. However, most BOPs cannot shear drill collars and some specific tools (I don't know much about this BOP). When running drill collars and tools across the BOP, pressure is monitored very, very closely and the mud is well circulated and circulation rates are observed to make sure there are not abnormal circulation rates which can be an indication of a kick. Also, most BOPs are in a default closed position - deadman trigger so to speak. Hydraulic pressure is used to actually keep the BOP from closing shut. Why? If communication is lost with the surface and the hydraulic pressure drops to the BOP, it will automatically close and shut in the well. In this case, the BOP might have been compromised. It is critical to the investigation to retrieve the BOP to see why it didn't prevent the release of oil.

Known: This blow-out DID NOT occur while drilling. Drilling was completed and the crew had cemented the last section of casing called the completion. Most exploration wells are plugged and abandoned after the evaluation - this requires the hole to be cemented-up and properly capped. At this point a well has no more utility. This particular well, however, was a very prolific producer and we chose to complete the well and put it on a long-term production test. The well was being prepared for a sub-sea tie back to a nearby existing production header on the sea floor. So, rather than cementing the hole, the well fluid (remember the drilling mud) was being displaced with sea-water. This is standard procedure when preparing a well for production as the drilling mud can damage the productivity of the well.

Speculation: The crew of the deep water horizon thought they were dealing with a stable well. Clearly, this was not the case. The entire well was now completely cased - drilling activity was over. Then the wings fell off - something went terribly wrong.

Speculation: Blow-out occurred so quickly the night tower crew didn't know what hit them. If they knew they lost control of the pressure below them, they might not have had time to react. A blowout is the uncontrolled release (kick) of crude oil and/or natural gas from an oil well after pressure control systems have failed. Blow-outs are violent and destructive. As the gas moves up hole the pressure decreased and the gas bubbles in the column expand and accelerate. Near the surface the rate of gas expansion can reach super-sonic speeds. The gas release at the surface will create a gas "wind" which can destroy equipment and kill. The wind of methane gas at these pressures could be as fast as 300 mph!!

Speculation: The gas somehow got into the the drill-string. The most plausible theory I've heard is that the final string of casing collapsed around the drill pipe forcing fluids up the drill pipe and through the last string of casing to the surface. Did the cement fail? Did the cement disaggregate methane hydrates? Was the casing not to spec? How this could happen is unclear, but this would be a very, very rare event given the stage of the operation they were in. Perhaps, the weight of the sea-water in the well (the drilling mud was displaced) wasn't heavy enough to keep hydrocarbons from entering the now completed well. It's hard to really say.

Known: In the end the BOP was compromised somehow and could not prevent the blow-out. Clearly, if failed to shut all the way.

This is really all I know. I'm not going blame any one company for this. As the operator of the well, BP is responsible for the clean-up and will need to provide answers to the public. In the end, it's my hope that logic, cool heads, and honest debate can occur, but at this point I don't expect more than political theater and finger pointing.


Jen speaking: I'd like to hope that we can go a little farther than that and talk about our fondness for petroleum products, as well as alternative sources of energy. As of right now, nobody has come up with a better idea, and I expect offshore drilling will continue. We need to think about how much of that we want to do. And let's not forget that eleven families are without their fathers, sons and brothers today. People die to bring us oil, and not just in war zones.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Stop Using These Phrases Immediately.

Don't argue with me, this is a matter of national security. We must ban these phrases from the lexicon or the entire nation will implode. The list of phrases to be banned immediately includes but is not limited to the following:

"From Wall Street to Main Street." Yes, I know the President said it, but he said it once. One time. The way you hear it crop up every time somebody talks about the subprime mortgage scares or potential banking reform, you'd think either one actually cared about the other one, or even weirder, it suggests that there are some individuals, hardy souls all, that travel between the two with all the fluidity of a stingray gliding through the depths. Stop using it. There are no such creatures. Can this phrase.

"Spill, Baby, Spill." It was funny the first hundred or so times somebody Twittered it. It stopped being funny about a nanosecond after eleven people died and most of the Gulf of Mexico turned into a giant greaseball. Besides, the perfect green energy policy that's going to solve all of our problems without creating new ones hasn't been invented yet. Unless and until you have the solution, can this phrase.

"People are our most important asset." Yeah. Tell everybody who's been looking for a job upside of a year the same thing. Can this phrase.

"At the end of the day." What in hell does this even mean? It's not the end of the day if it's the beginning of the day, and even if it's the end of the day, does that automatically mean that a problem is solved or a solution is at hand? I dunno. You don't, either. Can this phrase.

"Firestorm of controversy." Well, it's good to know that every controversy produces a firestorm. What about the ones that don't, though? What about the ones that just politely provoke chatter over teacups? I lived in San Diego once and I saw a firestorm or two, and when I did, there was no controversy whatsoever. The only objective was to get the hell out of the way immediately. So, enough already. Can this phrase.

"Clinging to life." I think most of us cling to life, don't you? I certainly do. I'm rather fond of my life. I don't know anyone who carries their life in a bag at arms' length, or just sort of lets it hang around taking up space. Can this phrase.

"Flurry of activity." You mean like snowing? I think of a flurry of activity as somebody having a seizure, myself. Can this phrase.

"Coalition government." Let's face it, all governments are coalitions. If they weren't we'd have a problem. People get elected, and then they have to find a way to work together. Unless you're in the U.S., of course, and then you have the coalition government and...

"The party of no." Yep, this one refers to the Republicans, but only this time around. Next coalition government it might be the Democrats traveling from Wall Street to Main Street while the economy clings to life and our most important asset chants, "Spill, baby, spill." Look, however well deserved it may be, it's been done to death. Can the phrase. Can "Done to death," for that matter, before somebody launches into a flurry of activity. And I'm hanging up my grammar police badge for the week, thankewverymuch.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Pardon my offlineitude, but I was busy dodging zombies and ducking psycho-slashers at Texas Frightmare Weekend. 72 hours of back to back horror flicks, memorabilia, moments with the stars, filmmaking tips (Texas has a thriving film industry, in case you didn't know that) and lots of other cool stuff. I mean it was horror film groupie heaven. This is me with the car from Christine. They wouldn't let you lie down in front of it and try to crawl away for some reason (security, maybe).

Saturday morning there was an outbreak of zombified corpses shuffling through Irving and muttering, "BRAAAAAAAINS!!" A number of colorful costumes were in the offing including these two very realistic-looking ghostbusters:

And of course there were horror movies, which was what I went there to see in the first place. I did not know this, but apparently films shown at film festivals are only very rarely optioned for distribution - which means the festival may be the only place you get to see it, unless you buy the DVD from the director/producer. Where possible I'm including a link for where to buy or view the flick or to find out more about it. Many of these are made in Texas by Texans, and a lot of love (and money) goes into them. Anyway, check 'em out.

The Retelling - A murder mystery with ghosts. What could possibly go wrong? Charlie and his family are visiting his ailing, blind grandfather for the summer, and there seem to be ghosts around the house--or are there? Three stars. Check this one out if you can find it.

Blood Night: The Legend of Mary Hatchett. High school kids try to rouse the ghost of a mass murderer from her grave on the anniversary of her death. What could possibly go wrong? Yet I surprised the heck out of myself by really liking this one. Slasher films are not my cuppa at all, but this one was funny, scary, sexy and genuinely sad in some places. Four stars. Definitely check this one out.

Sweatshop - Friends set up a rave at an abandoned sweatshop that just happens to be crawling with cannibalistic beings and a big helmeted guy who looks way too much like Pyramid Head from the Silent Hill series not to at least be an homage. What could possibly go wrong? Half a star to this one - it's basically a splatter film set to bad techno music - but if you like that sort of thing, go for it.

Curious Stories, Crooked Images - Three short films by director Rodrigo Gudino. The first one was by far the best; a man and his psychiatrist explore why he's so afraid to go into his own attic. The second one ran like a bad after-school special and deserves to be forgotten; the third one, in which a photo changes the longer you look at it, is creepy and unnerving to say the least. Three stars for the whole deal; drop No. Two and it's definitely four stars.

The Final - Filmed in Dallas! A group of kids who were outcasts in high school lure the popular kids who caused them such grief into a private party of torture, murder and psychological horror. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty. Nice homage to Audition in there, though, and while it wasn't my favorite, it certainly had some good lines. Three stars.

Spirit Camp - Think Friday the Thirteenth meets Bring it On. A group of high school cheerleaders go on their annual retreat at a camp where a psycho-slasher once roamed the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Another one I surprised myself by liking. It's silly and a bit ridiculous but still genuinely scary in places. Four stars. Check it out.

Before I sign off, here's one more pic - me with a couple of iconic baddies from horror films past. What an awesome weekend. Can't wait until next year!