Monthly Archives: April 2009

Slaying the Dreaded Video Game Beast

best-plane-shot The latest in my mad quest to do every challenge in The Dangerous Book for Boys with my sons in a year…Today I gave my son the choice between learning to make paper airplanes or playing his new Mario Party 8 game on the Wii. Gabe chose the Wii, leaving me to build the planes myself. Frankly, though, I was a little skeptical about the DBFB’s claim (page 2) that these were the instructions for “the greatest paper airplane in the world.” Recently my wife made a Rachel Ray recipe that purported to be “the world’s best chicken salad sandwich.” While it was “delish” it wasn’t even the best I’d ever had, and certainly not the world’s best. Sorry, Rach.

So that is why, despite my son’s non-interest in the subject, I felt the urge to continue on with my mission-to determine if this, truly, was the best paper flyer on the globe. The Dangerous Book for Boys, by Conn and Hal Iggulden, provides instructions for two planes-the more primitive Bulldog Dart and the world’s greatest Harrier. Figuring I’d better start simple, I began with the Bulldog Dart and immediately ran into a problem that is surely going to dog me through this next year. I’m terrible at following directions. If the directions tell me to do one thing, I will invariably do the opposite, although I am trying my best to follow them. Nor am I particularly handy or mechanical, even when I can comprehend the directions.

But I managed to build a fairly serviceable Bulldog Dart, thanks in large measure to the simple but highly useful line drawings that accompany the instructions. Feeling buoyed by my success, I turned my sights on the sleek and stylish Harrier. It begins the same as the Bulldog-by folding a piece of 8 1/2 x 11 piece of office paper lengthwise in half and turning the corners inward-but then spins off into a variation of its own. The Igguldens make a point of saying how simple these planes are to build, and that they fly better than more complicated designs. The problem for me was that by step four—fold the triangle over the corners? Huh?—I was  lost.

I was building the planes on the kitchen table near the TV where Gabe was playing Wii-my ulterior motive being to see if my craft project could lure him away from his electronic stimulation. I called him over for help on the Harrier and Gabe, who, unlike his father, has a strong tactile intelligence, took a quick look at the illustration, told me what I was doing wrong, and returned to the Wii. Even with his advice I folded the paper this way and that and before long it was a mess of folds and I had to start over.

On my first go-round with the Harrier I reached step four before needing Gabe; this time I made it to step five before calling him over. “You’re welcome again,” he said to me after fixing my error. I completed the sixth and final step on my own, and I had done it. I had built the Harrier. Now it was time to see if its performance lived up to its billing.

For me, it did. It was truly amazing, the best paper airplane I’d ever built. I went to the top of our stairs and set her off on repeated test flights. On its best flights it rose and dipped and made curlicues in the air, one time ripping across the living room and past the open kitchen door where Gabe, still absorbed in his game of Wii, even noticed it.

If the Harrier were a chicken salad sandwich, it truly would be the world’s greatest. But as for my subtle ploy to get my son off the Wii, it didn’t work. Paper planes could not compete with Mario Party 8, and I never could interest him enough to get him to leave his video game. His attitude changed, however, after we went to pick up his brother at band practice. When we came home Hank started on his homework and Gabe, much to my pleasure, asked me if he could build an airplane too. While appearing to be bored by it initially, something about what was going on—maybe the sight of that sleek Harrier swooping past the kitchen door—had intrigued him.


We built Harriers together on the dining room table while Hank finished his homework and Jennifer cooked dinner. We flew them off the top of the stairs and then went outside to the driveway. Gabe’s Harrier actually spun around in the air and came back to him, another promise made by the Iggulden brothers that they delivered on. Afterward we painted our planes with Crayola pens—mine with Von Dutch-style black and red pinstripes, his with a red, turquoise and black color scheme. But we found that the painted planes did not fly as well as the plain white ones, perhaps because the ink weighed down their paper-thin wings.

The next morning Hank said he’d like to learn how to build a Harrier too. The younger brother taught the older one how to do it, and we all flew planes in the driveway and yard before walking to school. Gabe now keeps all the planes he’s made (about twenty at last count) on his dresser, and he has strung ribbons through the wings of a dozen of them and hung them from the ceiling of his bedroom. planes-above-bed1“You’ve created a paper airplane mania,” my wife said to me. Yes! Victory!

One more small victory: The other night, while setting the table, Gabe folded the napkins in the form of Harrier planes.


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Making a Bow and Arrow: Boys’ Rite of Passage?

More from The Dangerous Quest: “At some point,” says The Dangerous Book for Boys on page 35, “you may consider making a bow and arrow.” Actually, in all my life I have never considered making a bow and arrow until now, until I began this rather strange quest with my sons.

After reading the book’s instructions on how to make a bow and arrow (they go on for four pages, with illustrations), I was so utterly stumped that I felt that, in my heart of hearts, there was no way I was going to be able to do this thing. Not just make a bow and arrow, but every hard task in the book-building a tree house and making a go-cart and tanning a skin and all the rest of it.

Nevertheless I have not given up—not yet anyhow—and I recently read a couple of excellent young adult novels that have given me a new perspective on what making a bow and arrow might mean to my sons. One of the books was Blood on the River, an historical novel about the settling of the Jamestown colony. The author Elisa Carbone has won awards for her writing and deservedly so, for she tells a wonderful adventure story grounded in the actual events and people of the Virginia settlement. Mrs. Julie Seymour, Hank’s fifth grade teacher, assigned the book to all her students, and after Hank was done with it he recommended it to me and I read it.

A boy, Samuel Collier (a real-life personage), narrates the story. Samuel is the page of Captain John Smith and travels with him by ship to the New World where he, Smith and the other colonists encounter Native American tribes that are both friendly and not so friendly. (Pocahontas belongs to the former group.) Samuel lives for a time in the village of the Warraskoyack Indians and learns, among other useful skills, how to make a bow and arrow.

“Kainta teaches me how to peel the bark off the sapling,” writes Carbone in the voice of Samuel, “cut notches for the bowstring, and string it with strong gut. We make several arrow shafts from straight, thin wood. He shows me how to make an arrowhead, chipping a piece of rock until it is in the right shape. It is a slow process…but finally I am able to make my first arrowhead. Then I tie it to a shaft and balance the shaft with feathers so that it will shoot straight.”

Samuel talks about the power and pride he feels in doing this, and similar to what the Iggulden brothers recommend in The Dangerous Book for Boys, he uses his self-made bow and arrows to hunt a rabbit. “The next day the three of us go hunting,” Carbone/Samuel writes. “We walk quietly through the white forest, stalking rabbits…They [his Warraskoyack guides] want me to shoot, to have a chance to make my first kill. Silently I pull out an arrow and string it on my bow.” Then, to paraphrase Chick Hearn’s famous radio announcing call for the Lakers, he shoots and scores! And they have rabbit stew for dinner.

Making a bow and arrow-and then shooting, gutting, skinning and eating this wild game-is clearly a rite of passage for young Samuel, as it is for 13-year-old Brian Robeson, the protagonist of another superb young adult novel, Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. After seeing me read one of Hank’s books, his younger brother Gabe recommended one of his favorites, Hatchet, to me. I read it too, being struck by the fact that late in the book the fictional Robeson makes, yes, a bow and arrow.

“He had sat a whole night and shaped the limbs carefully until the bow looked beautiful,” writes Paulsen. “Then he had spent two days making arrows. The shafts were willow, straight and with the bark peeled, and he fire-hardened the points and split a couple of them to make forked points, as he had done with the spear.”

Traveling to see his father, the 13-year-old Robeson is in a small airplane that crashes in the Canadian wilderness. The pilot dies, and the boy must fend for himself in the north woods without food or survival gear. He builds a shelter, learns to make a fire using his hatchet, and shoots a fish in a lake using his self-made bow and arrow. “With his bow, with an arrow fashioned by his own hands, he had done food, had found a way to live,” writes Paulson. “The bow had given him this way and he exulted in it, in the bow, in the arrow, in the hatchet, in the sky.”

So this is what I am contemplating doing with the boys: making a bow and arrow and possibly going out to hunt with it. I was talking about this at dinner the other night, and I mentioned how hard it would be to do this. “But if we get stuck,” I said, “I know where there’s a bow and arrow shop in Martinez.”

Gabe brightened immediately. “We can go buy one,” he said. “Yeah,” added Hank, “and say we made it.”

“Right,” said Jennifer, listening patiently to this conversation. “I think that’s the spirit they’re going for in the book.”

Need to catch up on the latest adventures in our Dangerous Quest? See the entire quest to date, archived for your entertainment pleasure right here.

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Magazine Excerpt of Operation Bullpen

Autograph Magazine is running an excerpt from Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History in its current issue. Read it here.

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Interesting World, I’ll Say!

After reading my recent post how Japanese novelist-turned-agent Yukari Watanabe Scott is using blogging and other new media to sell Operation Bullpen to Japanese publishers, magazine editor Kimberly Cole writes,

“I enjoyed your recent post, ‘Bullpen Going Japanese?’ My daughter is a novelist finishing up her MFA in Creative Writing at University of Virginia. She wrote a novel two years ago that has generated some interest among agents, but no takers. It’s a little on the short side, and a little on the “hard to market” side, in that the protagonist is an adolescent, but the subject matter is a little too rough for most YA publishers.

“Anyway, she just got a contract from an Australian imprint of Simon & Schuster that is publishing books in a serialized format. Each month, the author “blogs” about the upcoming chapter and readers can send in questions, suggestions, etc.  At the end of the novel, they publish the hardback using the web site traffic/commentary as a preliminary marketing push. Interesting world for writers these days.”

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How to Write a Successful Query

Last week I appeared on Scott Shafer’s radio program, The California Report, on KQED-FM, and it prompted some thoughts, curiously enough, about query letters.

What’s a query letter? A query letter is basically a short, succinct sales pitch that writers send to newspapers, magazines and websites to see if they’re interested in their idea. If they like the idea, the hope is they’ll hire you to write an article about it. For Scott and The California Report, I was pitching him about appearing on his radio program. This is what I said to him in an e-mail at the start of this year:

“Dear Scott,
How are you? It has certainly been a while since I had contact with you and your staff, but I wanted to throw my name back into the mix as a possible guest for your show. The last time I heard from your staff I was writing a book, Wheels of Change: The Amazing Story of California and the Automobile, which will be published by Heyday Books in the fall of 2009. That book took a huge amount of research and time, but I finally finished it and now I get to think about and do other things again.
The 2009 baseball season is coming up in April, and you may want to do a preseason look at the California major league teams as you have in the past. If you do, consider me as your possible go-to guy in this regard. I’m also tapped into other pro sports and activities with good California stories that may interest you. In any event, I hope all goes well. The show sounds wonderful as ever and let’s have a great 2009.”

Now, I want you to do some compare and contrast. Around this same time (actually, a while before) I sent a query to an editor at The Writer Magazine, pitching him on another type of writing I do: scriptwriting for business conventions. This is what I said:

“Dear Editor,
“Every freelance writer needs to consider business conventions as a possible market for his or her work. A number of companies in a variety of fields hold annual conventions, and many of them hire writers to script the on-stage speeches and other segments. Convention scriptwriting pays well, involves travel around the country, and is both exciting and demanding.
I have written scripts for two business conventions in Kansas City and New Orleans. In addition, I have written articles for a variety of publications and published 17 books. For this article I would draw on my experiences as a scriptwriter and interview other freelancers who have also written for conventions. I will provide details about the business convention market, how freelancers can get jobs at conventions held by Apple, Microsoft and other companies, and advice on scriptwriting. Interested? Call me at [my number], and thank you for your consideration.”

Neither query I would describe as brilliant, but which one is better? The second is professional and to the point; it tells who I am and my experience in the field; and it touches on how writers-the main audience for The Writer-would benefit by hearing about this topic. But the first query is far superior because of two simple words: “Dear Scott.”

I know Scott Shafer, I’ve been on his program before, and he’s a friendly fellow who likes baseball. That doesn’t mean he’s necessarily going to go along with my pitch, but at least I’ve got a fighting chance with him. On the other hand, I know no one at The Writer and sent my query to the “Editor.” (I sent it to the top editor there but for some reason did not use his name.) One sure sign that it had landed with a deathly thud was the nearly three months it took for an associate editor to finally get back to me. But Scott and his producer Suzie Racho, bless their hearts, remembered me, got back in touch, and Scott and I spent an entertaining few minutes on the air giving a preview of the upcoming baseball season in California. I’ll have more nuts-and-bolts advice for writers about queries and pitch letters in a future post. In the meantime you can listen to our segment here.

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