Monday, June 30, 2008

A Distinct Possibility

Seen on a car in downtown Huntington Beach:

Bush has The Ring
I have to admit this would explain a lot. Occam's Razor and all that...a

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Two Days of Peace, Love, and Neil Innes

Or, anyhow, two days of Neil Innes. You can keep the Peace and Love.

The occasion was the Annual Mods & Rockers Film Festival at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre. American Cinematheque is a nonprofit film society that operates two major theatres in the LA area (one in Hollywood, the other in Santa Monica).

Grauman's Chinese Theatre is world-famous--it's the one with all the celebrity handprints (and sometimes other body-part-prints) in the cement out front. Grauman's Egyptian Theatre, only two blocks down Hollywood Blvd, is more striking than the Chinese Theatre, but it had fallen into such disrepair that in the mid-90s the city sold it to American Cinematheque for $1 on the understanding they would restore it to its original Art Deco glory and reopen it for public screenings. American Cinematheque put $15 million into the renovation, and the result is a gorgeous hybrid of Old Hollywood and modern tech.

For those benighted souls amongst you who don't know of Mr. Innes, I offer this brief resume. He was one of the founding (and continuing) members of the magnificent Bonzo Dog Dada Band (later known as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the Bonzo Dog Band, or simply The Bonzos). If you aren't familiar with the Bonzo Dog Band you are culturally deprived, but I won't try to describe the band--you'll have to check for yourself. (The albums Gorilla, Tadpoles, and Let's Make Up and Be Friendly are highly recommended as introductions.) because there is no one else like them. Some explain the Bonzos by describing them as the British equivalent to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, but the only commonality is that both were utterly original.

Innes and the late, magnificently peculiar Vivian Stanshall were the most prolific songwriters of the Bonzos. Among the fine songs they penned was the faux-Elvis number "Death Cab for Cutie," which since has been adopted as the name of one of America's best recent bands.

Neil Innes then went on to write or cowrite much of the music for Monthy Python, including "Brave Sir Robin" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Innes plays Robin's minstrel--and also the forehead-whacking chanting lead monk, as well as the followers who are crushed by a cow and, later, by a Trojan Rabbit catapulted from the castle by French soldiers.) Innes wrote for the Pythons in their last season, and also toured with them and provided musical interludes (including his well-known song "How Sweet to be an Idiot").

After the Python heyday, Innes and Eric Idle formed The Rutles. Innes wrote more than a dozen brilliant Beatlesque songs and starred in the movies The Rutles: All You Need is Cash and The Rutles II: Can't Buy Me Lunch.

Since then, Innes has been involved in dozens of projects and a series of solo albums, and has toured both in Europe and the US. But although everyone in the music business knows him, his public profile has never been high--partly because he loathes the celebrity racket.

Innes and his strange relationship to fame and obscurity is the topic of the new film The Seventh Python, and we attended the premiere at the spectacular Egyptian . The film was followed by a Q&A session with director Burt Kearns, writer-producer Brett Hudson, and a somewhat diffident and embarassed Neil Innes.

This is turn was followed by the world premiere of Neil Innes' short 1963 art-school thesis film (untitled, but starring Viv Stanshall, "Legs" Larry Smith, Roger Ruskin-Spear, and Yvonne Innes), and the evening was rounded out by the world premiere of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band 40th Anniversary Concert film. Three world premieres in one night--a long, five-hour evening.

But even that wasn't the end. Neil came back the next evening to play a benefit concert for the theatre. We'd seen him on his last tour, but the low-key concert at the Egyptian was even better than his tour show--probably because of the friends-and-family feel of the whole affair.

So my brain is Innes-saturated this morning. Not a bad way to be...but I wish I could stop humming the Rutles song "Cheese and Onions" for a few moments.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Scary MA in Creative Writing Offered

Offered by our own Jenn Ashworth, to be specific. Why bother with college when you could spend the same sum and get all of this? Not only will Jenn get you through the academic bits faster, her course also gives you a preview of the first part of your career.

Unfortunately, many of us live too far away; there's presently no good distance-learning method of locking someone in a cellar.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Putter-inners and Taker-outers

Yeah, yeah, I know the formula:

Final Draft = First Draft – 10% (or even 20%).

Heard it from Gordon Lish first, and then Stephen Koch, and then Stephen King, and I’m sure if I looked I could find it plenty of other places, probably even from additional Stephens.

Unfortunately, I seem to be a putter-inner. It isn’t that I write lean, spare prose that needs flesh added to its poor bones. Far from it. I tend to digress so much I might be Tristram Shandy’s love child, had he managed to get around to it.

But, when editing time comes a-knocking, the problem doesn’t seem to be that I have written too much, but rather that there are things that need additional complication or explication. I do cut some in the second draft…and after I do so, people come back to me and say--as if we're in a poorly written movie scene about a relationship breakup--that there seems to be something missing. I add things back; I elaborate, I slap in new chapters, I put back scenes and chapters I had previously cut.

I’m not talking about a skinny puppy here to begin with. Shock and Awe ran 105,000 words in first draft; after critiques, it stretched to 116,000 words; and after I worked through it with the estimable Will Atkins, it ended up somewhere around 121,000 words.

And now I’m going through the same process with two other novels. It’s not because I don’t cut anything; it’s just that the net effect is for my novels to grow in every revision.

What's up with that, huh?

(Nota bene transatlanticum: What is called "take away" in the UK is called "take out" to the left of Bermuda. If you prefer, I suppose the title of this post can be translated to "Putter-here-ers and Take-awayers")

Thursday, June 19, 2008

All Too True

Thanks to Creative A for drawing my attention to Dennis Cass's crushingly accurate video about book publicity:

Bad Movies versus Bad Books

I really enjoy a painfully bad movie--you know, Ed-Wood goodies like Plan 9 From Outer Space, or baffling, incompetent curiosities such as Robot Monster (see picture to left). If you can manage a ludicrous script, clumsy acting, poor directing, and bad production values simultaneously, I'm all yours.

One of my friends, who can't understand how I can bear to watch these disasters, said, "I just don't get it. What's the point in watching bad movies? You don't enjoy reading bad books!"

That's not entirely true. As I made clear in an earlier post, I am a big fan of Atlanta Nights, the worst book ever written. But, then, Atlanta Nights was composed by a team of professional writers with the stated intent of writing a horrifically bad novel. (They succeeded. You could teach novel writing by having pupils study Atlanta Nights and figure out what's wrong with it. It's brilliant.)

The famed novella The Eye of Argon is in that class as well, but I've always thought the attention devoted to it was rather mean-spirited. Yes, the little I've read of it was awful--but it was written by a 16-year-old. Hounding him about it forever seems wrong. I wrote a few things in my adolescence (that is, a couple of years ago), and I wouldn't want them following me around for decades. Or at all.

There are upper limits on the incompetence in a book. If the language skills are below a certain level, you can't make enough sense out of it to tell it is a bad story. Fiction is a participatory medium, and in the face of the incomprehensible the reader just stops.

But film--ah, film is a passive medium, and you can sit back and let it roll by. Unless someone had their hand over the lens of the camera, there are images. one after another. It may not make sense; it may even be painful. But on and on it flows. While a bad book is usually unreadable, a bad movie can be compulsively watchable. And you can experience it with friends!

The wonderful thing is that movies are costly and collaborative. Even a cheap bad movie requires significant sums of money and the commitment of dozens of people. All this energy raises a truly bad movie from merely inept and uninteresting to a full-on fiasco, the artistic equivalent of the destruction of Pompeii. How can you look away from that?

Any fool can write a bad book. But to create a bad movie...well, as Hillary says, It Takes a Village.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Mad Dogs, Englishmen, Golfers, and the Occasional Writer

In the last post, from far out in the desert, I promised pictures.

Above is a picture that is not from the desert, but from my little town of Huntington Beach just before we left. The jacarandas are in bloom, and here's the parking lot at a local school. (I always like the jacarandas a little later than this, when they have covered the ground in solid purple, but I didn't have time to wait for that.)

It was a lovely 75 F when I snapped that shot in HB, but out in the desert it got up to 112 F, which is a bit on the warm side. Rancho Mirage is just a little inland of Palm Springs, and Palm Springs is a lovely place to visit in December, but why anyone would live there year-round is a mystery to me.

Nonetheless, there are people out there in the summer. Not only out there, but engaging in physical activities such as golf. Not I. All I could manage during the daytime was to sit in my airconditioned room and tap fitfully at my keyboard.

To give a point of reference, here's a shot of the grounds of the Rancho Las Palmas Hotel. (The writing retreat was originally set out here, a quarter-century ago, because it was so cheap during the summer. No more. Now there's golfers, and that involves money.)

I admit it's a nice-looking facility. And those mountains to the rear are part of the huge Santa Rosa Wilderness Area, where you can travel for days and see nothing but a few Bighorn Sheep. But, once again, not a place to go in the summer.

But, enough of trivial matters such as recreation and geography and physical survival. On to important issues such as publication. As I mentioned, RN Morris has bullied his way onto American turf once more, making a mockery of our Revolution and exposing us once more to the threat of taxation without representation. And the people at Penguin USA have seen fit to distribute his book far and wide--even unto the uninhabitable desert.

And here's visual proof: Two admiring fans at the Rancho Mirage Borders...

...and a half-dozen copies sitting on the New Mystery shelves at the Barnes & Noble's in Palm Desert (third shelf down in the pic).

Congrats, Roger. Your plans for World Domination are moving ahead smoothly.

(At least they didn't insist on retitling it "The" Vengeful Longing...)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hello from Rancho Mirage

I'm in the desert.

No, not the middle of my novel, though I'm there as well. I mean the actual, non-metaphorical desert, with cactus and creosote bushes. A little inland of Palm Springs. And, in June, that means temperatures of over 108 Fahrenheit (42.5 C for you metric geeks). Back home at the beach, it means 78 F (25.6 C) and luscious.

But out here it means the Annual Palm Springs Writing Retreat. Note that it isn't a "writer's retreat." Nope. "Writing retreat." Write, get critiqued, read, give critique. Have a few drinks (and make sure you drink 20 oz of water per alcoholic beverage) and go write some more.

Unlike the usual process of hammering out words and getting a reaction months later, here people read you the next day. Instant Karma. The feedback might be valid or invalid, but either way it's about as instantaneous as it is likely to get. That might not be what you want day to day, but for a week or so it's luxurious.

Rancho Mirage used to be...well, a Rancho. Out here on the edge of habitability, between Palm Springs and the more questionable towns of Indio and (dare I say it?) Mecca, California. It's hard to imagine that anyone, even those addled by the sun, would have decided to settle here. But the town has grown and grown and they have laid down golf courses and shopping centers, and now, by god, there is a Borders within walking distance and a Barnes & Noble within staggering distance, and though between ariconditioning and water wastage the resource footprints look as though they were made by Pleistocene megafauna, it is definitely civilized.

Let me tell you how civilized. June 12 was the US pub date for RN Morris' Dagger-nominated A Vengeful Longing. And, after we stumbled out of our late Zinfandel-addled dinner, I led a little troupe of my fellow writers through the Borders on the way back to our hotel, and, voila!--A Vengeful Longing sat there upon the shelves. In MiddleOfNowhere, USA. and I have pics to prove it. (I'd post them right now except I don't have that little wiggly USB object that connects my camera to my computer. So you'll have to wait.) Tomorrow I'll manage to get to Barnes and Noble and snap some shots there, too, assuming they've managed to get them onto the shelves. (If Borders is Germany speedwise, Barnes and Noble is Italy. It will happen--but will it happen on pub date?)

Roger ought to be patting himself on the back (assuming he can get the cat to move). In readership terms, this is the true middle of nowhere, yet AVL has penetrated even here. A Londoner selling a book about 1860s St Petersburg within a short hop of Death Valley...well, it's a bit odd, and it makes one want to move to Kuala Lumpur just to test the reach of Porfiry Petrovich, redux.

Meanwhile, I'm in the desert, with a baker's dozen of other novelists. All of them are pretty damn good, and some of them will be on your radar screens soon.

Pictures when I get back home.

Pacing, Tempo, and the Dangers of Critique Groups

I’ve been reading director Sidney Lumet’s fine book Making Movies. He’s always been one of the most meticulous, hands-on directors, involved in every stage of the cinematic process. And he keeps on going: at age 83, he just released Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead to considerable acclaim.

Making Movies details every step of the moviemaking process, from rehearsal to lighting to camerawork on down to editing, sound mixing, and adding a score. This is a great book for novelists for two reasons. First, it makes you grateful you aren’t making movies (and Lumet himself wonders why anyone who wrote decent novels would ever move into a collaborative medium like theatre or film). Second, many of Lumet’s thoughts on process and technique are directly applicable to writing. Here’s some of what he says in his chapter discussing editing:

The more cuts, the faster the tempo will seem. That’s why melodramas and chase sequences use so many cuts. Just as in music, fast tempo usually means energy and excitement.

However, an interesting thing happens. In music, everything from a sonata to a symphony uses changes in tempo as basic part of its form. Typically, a four-movement sonata will change not only its musical themes in each movement, but also its tempo in each movement and sometimes even within each movement. Similarly, if a picture is edited in the same tempo for its entire length, it will feel much longer. It doesn’t matter if five cuts per minute or five cuts every ten minutes are being used. If the same pace is maintained throughout, it will start to feel slower and slower. In other words, it’s the change in tempo that we feel, not the tempo.

Physics people talk about motion and time in terms of calculus. The first derivative with respect to time is velocity; the second derivative is acceleration (or deceleration)—the rate of change in the rate of change. A story that moves forward at only one pace begins to seem as if it isn’t moving at all; it's acceleration and deceleration that the reader feels.

I think good critique groups can be useful to the beginning writer. They can give feedback on many important basics; above all, they allow the writer to establish whether he or she is able to hold the interest of readers for the length of a chapter.

Once you can write a killer chapter, however, I think critique groups become less useful, and sometimes dangerous. Since they tend to move chapter by chapter, each new submission is viewed in the light of previous submissions, but not in the context of a book. Often the comments are that this new chapter isn’t as fast-paced (or conflict-filled, or exciting, or sad, or lyrical, or sardonic, or whatever) as a previous submission. The group process tends to push for homogenization of your book. As Lumet notes, an unchanging element, even if initially exciting, gradually becomes a drone.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

I Won and I Lost

As I mentioned in an earlier post, two authors I adore were competing for the Orange Prize this year--Patricia Wood and Rose Tremain.

The bad news is that Patricia didn't win...this year.

The good news is that Rose did.

The really good news is that they were on the list in the first place. Congrats to both of them...

...and keep in mind that this was Dr. Wood's first novel. As they say in the islands where she resides, her next book probly even mo' bettah!

How NOT to Write a Novel--the other one I promised

How NOT to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Midlist Author by David Armstrong.

The subtitle is more accurate than the main title. Unlike the previously reviewed book of this title, Armstrong doesn't really spend much time telling you about craft, good, bad, or otherwise. Instead, he does two things: first, fills you in on his experiences as a writer, and, second, repeatedly advises you not to write. His refrain is an anti-Nike exhortation: Just Don't Do It.

I had to buy this book after reading one of the more idiotic Amazon reviews ever written (and that is no mild praise). The reviewer gave the book one star, and started with:

I ordered this once, the order got cancelled, and I hurriedly ordered it again, so eager was I to read it based on what I'd heard. What I'd heard was wrong. In addition to rambling on about himself and/or nothing, Armstrong offers only warmed-over advice from other published books on writing. That's right, he's done no original research with any primary sources whatsoever...

What on earth is a "primary source" in this context? Armstrong's "primary source" is his own career as a novelist, and that seems about as primary as you can get. But the reviewer is right in one regard--the book is mostly Armstrong "rambling on about himself." And very instructive rambling it is.

I'll tell you upfront: this book is dead-on depressing. Oh, it has the usual downer statistics and cautions, but Armstrong's candid recounting of his writing career is what really hits home. Five novels (I see a sixth has been published since this book was released). Great reviews. A shortlisting for the CWA Dagger for Best First Novel. A contract with HarperCollins.

But small sales, small print runs, minimal income. Then being dumped by both publisher and agent and starting all over again after four novels...

There's also a fine chronicle of random disappointments and humiliations; and, just to let the reader know it isn't just a black cloud floating over his particular head, he brings up folks from the canon, such as Barbara Pym, and points out that despite critical acclaim for her first half-dozen novels, she was dumped by her publisher and couldn't find another for fourteen long years, and succeeded in finding a new publisher only three years before her death. (Once she found a new publisher, six more novels were published, three of them posthumously. One only hopes that there is an afterlife from which she can look down.)

Most writers who don't get reviews assume the lack of exposure leads to meager sales. This clearly isn't true, and Armstrong is a case in point: good reviews, minor sales. He hints that promotion might be the culprit, but after looking at some of the disastrous zillion-dollar promotions here in the US that result in remainder rates of more than 50%, I'm inclined to doubt that promotion makes all that much difference either. What does? Who knows?

Books about the tribulations of a writer's life usually follow the Pandora's-Box model of keeping lovely little Hope at the bottom of the pantheon of evil, and console the reader with platitudes about how life-enriching writing has been, and how, if the author had it all to do over again, he'd happily tread the same road. Armstrong, to his credit, doesn't trot out this tired old ploy. Instead, he sticks throughout to his invariable advice: Don't Do It.

This is not a cheery book; indeed, it left me quite disheartened. But for those interested in the writing life, it's also a fascinating book.

Meanwhile, I'm going to buy a copy of his first novel, Night's Black Agents. It sounds quite good.

Friday, June 6, 2008

How NOT to Write a Novel (My favorite books on writing)

Ahem. As it turns out, there are two books with this title, the other, earlier one having been written by British novelist David Armstrong back in 2003. So I Amazoned that one into my greedy hands. I'll post on it in the next few days.

How NOT to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.

From the back cover:

aaa"What do you think of my fiction book writing?" the aspiring novelist extorted.
aaa"Darn," the editor hectored, in turn, "I can not publish your novel! It is full of what we in the business call 'really awful writing.'"
aaa"But how shall I absolve this dilemma? I have already read every tome available on how to write well and get published!" The writer tossed his head about, wildly.
aaa"It might help," opined the blonde editor, helpfully, "to ponder how NOT to write a novel, so you might avoid that very thing!"

This book was published only recently, but I have no hesitation in adding it to my list of favorites: any book that can make me laugh--and read passages aloud to any victim foolish enough to venture near--is a book I will reread.

The authors are both novelists, and Mittelmark is an editor. Both the editorial and fictioneer sides are on constant display; not only is the editorial exasperation with bad storytelling obvious, but every point is illustrated with a few paragraphs from a story dummied up as an example (and some of these are truly hilarious).

The authors don’t claim they can teach you to write well, nor do they list rules that must be followed. What they do is give train-wreck examples of how not to do things if you want your novel published.

The book follows the format of a brief title, an elaboration subheading in italics, a horrible demonstration of the mistake at work, and then a discussion. Examples of titles and elaborations are:

“And One Ring to Bind Them!” Said the Old Cowpoke
Where the author switches genre in midstream

The Cheerleader
Wherein a sidekick exists solely to admire the hero

The Crepuscular Handbag
Wherein the author flaunts someone else’s vocabulary

Said the Fascinating Man
Where the author tells you what you think of his dialogue

Reading Over Your Shoulder
Wherein the characters seem to hear one another’s thoughts

Hamlet at the Deli
Wherein the character’s thoughts are transcribed to no purpose

Prince Charming Doesn’t Deserve Me
Wherein the bad boyfriend is more sympathetic than the protagonist

The examples of how to not do it are to the point, but they also provide delightfully gratuitous gems, such as the way Leonard Cohen keeps popping up (he appears, for instance, as all twelve members of a jury in a poorly rendered dream sequence, and again as a tattoo on the desirable woman in a sex scene). Charmingly misused words are slipped in for color, as in The air was dry and scented with the exotic krill and catamite sold in the souk.

A pair of full extracts (title, subheading, example, and discussion) are given on the authors' website. Although any of my favorites from the book are too long to quote, I can't resist pulling out a few bits from The Deafening Hug (The unintended love interest). After an example passage that strongly suggests a hug between a brother and sister is more than sibling affection, they note:

Sometimes the author is the last to know. It is all too easy to create a love interest where none is wanted. We call this the Deafening Hug for obvious reasons, and for reasons just as obvious, it should be avoided. Versions include:

[…]Alice in Lapland. Any undue interest or physical contact with children will set off alarms. If you do not want your reader to think he is dealing with a pedophile, dandling of children on knees should be kept to a minimum by fathers, and even more by uncles. If your character is in any way associated with organized religion, whether he is a bishop, a minister, or the kindly old caretaker with a twinkle in his eye, he should not even pull a child from a burning building.

We’re Going to Need a Bigger Closet. Male friends hug, toast their friendship, and later stumble drunkenly to sleep in the cabin’s one bed. The reader is way ahead of you—they are secretly gay, and nothing you say later is going to change his mind. If you do not intend for them to be secretly gay, have Alan sleep on the couch.

The authors also introduce "The Gum on the Mantlepiece," the dysfunctional version of Chekov's famous dictum about storytelling. The "gun" becomes "gum" when something is portentously introduced but turns out to have no significance to the story:

The good news is that as a writer of fiction you get to create your world from scratch. The bad news is that because you create your world from scratch, everything in it is a conscious choice, and the reader will assume there is some reason behind these choices...

...[D]etails that would go unremarked in real life--a quick glance across the room, the lyrics of a song that's playing when you enter a bar--take on much greater significance in fiction. If you have to run dripping from the shower to sign for an unexpected package, its probably the gardening clogs you forgot you ordered from Lands' End. But if your character is interrupted in the shower by the arrival of an unexpected package, it tells your readers that the package will unleash a momentous chain of events.

Even if you never need the advice found in this book--even if you're not a writer--here's a truly entertaining examination of how to do it all wrong.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Crude Oil and Gasoline

Much as I hate to let my day job intrude into the real world of writing, I see so much confusion about oil and gasoline these days that I have to say a few words about how oil is turned into the oil products people actually buy and use. Most of you will want to stop reading right here.

You've been warned.

Crude oil is generally referred to as “sweet” or “sour.” This relates to the sulfur content of the crude (the stuff that would give you acid rain if you burned it). Some crudes, such as Malaysia’s Tapis, have as little as 0.03% sulfur by weight, while others, like Venezuela’s notorious Boscan, have as much as 5.5% sulfur by weight (which means about 19 pounds of sulfur in every barrel of oil!)

Sulfur is bad stuff, so most countries have restrictions on how much of it is allowed in products. But most of the world’s supplies of oil are sour; sweetish crudes are concentrated in only a few locations (West Africa, North Africa, East/SE Asia, and the North Sea). All things held equal, sweeter crudes are nicer to work with--but sulfur standards in the US and Europe on gasoline and diesel are now so stringent that everything blended into gasoline or diesel needs to be desulfurized first no matter how sweet the crude is.

Crude oil is a mixture of hydrocarbons of various lengths. The more large molecules, the “heavier” the crude; the more short molecules, the “lighter” the crude.

Smaller molecules boil at lower temperatures. The first thing that happens in a refinery is the crude is heated to about 650 F and then run into a distillation tower that splits it into boiling ranges. A typical crude oil yields something like this

LPG (less than 100 F): 2%
Light Naphtha (100-200 F): 8%
Heavy Naphtha (200-350 F: 10%
SR Kerosene (350-450 F): 10%
SR Diesel (450-650 F): 20%
Heavy Fuel Oil (650 F+): 50%

The SR Kerosene is desulfurized and turned into jet fuel. The SR Diesel is desulfurized and turned into various grades of diesel fuel.

Where’s the gasoline? Nowhere. In modern refineries, the Light Naphtha is run to a desulfurizer, and then becomes a gasoline blendstock. So the direct yield of gasoline from a typical crude, assuming you have a naphtha desulfurizer, is about 8%--but even then, the octane of most Light Naphtha isn't high enough to be gasoline by itself.

But the Heavy Naphtha can be desulfurized and then put in a unit called a catalytic reformer. This unit rearranges the molecular structure of the naphtha and raises the octane, but it also destroys some of the naphtha, so if you put in 10 barrels, you may only get 9 barrels of “reformate” out.

The reformate plus the desulfurized Light Naphtha gives us perhaps 17% yield of gasoline from a typical crude. Since the US demands 52% of every barrel as gasoline, this obviously poses a problem.

Furthermore, the US uses almost no Heavy Fuel Oil—the stuff burned in oil-fired power plants or giant ship engines. Heavy Fuel Oil is only 5% of the US oil demand, but about 50% of the yield from a typical crude, so there is a huge surplus of this produced from a typical barrel.

A lot of people get riled up by the fact that gasoline and diesel cost so much more than crude oil. Well, Heavy Fuel Oil (also known as Residual Fuel Oil, Resid, Bottoms, Bunker Fuel, Bunker, C, and a host of other names) sells for less than the crude it is made from (because the stuff isn’t good for much; it’s main competition is coal).

If half of the output sells for less than the price of the crude, then guess what? The other half will sell for more than the price of the crude, even before factoring in the cost of the refinery.

The answer to the imbalance between supply and demand of Heavy Fuel Oil is “cracking,” the generic name for any number of technologies that split large molecules into smaller fragments, turning Heavy Fuel Oil into material that boils in the naphtha, kerosene, and diesel ranges.

In the US, we have about 17 million barrels per day of distillation capacity, but there is nearly 10 million barrels per day of cracking capacity sitting behind that, waiting to bust up the Heavy Fuel Oil into material to make lighter products.

Neat, huh? The only problem is that cracking technologies are complex and hugely expensive. A single large cracking unit and its auxiliary processes costs hundreds of millions of dollars—sometimes as much as a billion dollars. In addition, the sulfur and other contaminants are concentrated in the heavier materials. So converting Heavy Fuel Oil into lighter products is expensive—and uses a lot of the energy contained in the oil. And, guess how that capital cost and energy loss is paid for? Yep. Higher costs for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

In sophisticated refining centers like California and Texas, the heaviest, sourest crudes in the world can be converted to ultraclean gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel. Despite what some pundits say, there aren’t any crudes that are inherently unsuitable to make into gasoline, except in those countries—mostly in the Third World—where refinery capacity is still based on simple distillation alone and desulfurization hasn’t been added. The lmitation isn't the crude, it's the refining capacity.

Refiners tend to prefer lighter, sweeter crudes, and pay more for them. There was a time decades ago when many refiners in Europe and the US could only run sweet crudes, which was why Colonel Qaddafi was so important in the 1970s (Libyan crude is very sweet). But now most refineries have been upgraded with cracking and desulfurization. Refiners in Houston and Los Angeles run a vast volume of heavy, sour crudes every day, some of it so heavy it's almost asphalt—and turn most of it into gasoline and diesel.

Recently there have been weird comments swirling around the web that even if Saudi Arabia increased its crude exports it wouldn't help the situation in the US because Saudi Arabia produces "the wrong kind of crude to make gasoline." Given that the US imports about 1.5 million barrels per day of crude oil from Saudi Arabia, this obviously can't be true--no US refiner is going to import crude that can't produce gasoline. But if you simply look at the profile of US crude imports, you will find that the average of our crude imports are both heavier and more sour than Saudi Arabia's crude oil exports. Saudi Light Crude would be a big step up compared to the junk we import from Mexico and Venezuela.

For a modern refinery, there is no "wrong kind of crude to produce gasoline."

I'd say more, but then I'd have to start charging my daily rate.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Who Gets Reviewed?

An amusing post from Charles Lambert, wherein he reveals the fatal mistake most of us made in our publicity campaigns.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Problem Isn’t Where the Problem Is

A friend, who is both a novelist and an editor, notes the points at which she puts down a manuscript—the times when she is not so drawn by the narrative that she needs to keep on reading. She thinks this is important information for the writer: here’s a soft spot, a point at which she was no longer compelled to keep reading.

On the face of it, this seems like a sound idea. After all, when someone’s attention wanders, doesn’t that suggest there’s a problem? And wouldn’t pinpointing that problem as to page be useful information?

My sig other Pamela scoffs at these notions. First, she observes, the point at which she puts down a book is a better gauge of her own tiredness or preoccupation than of anything to do with the book. Next, novels are awkward to read in manuscript: whether they are bound (and therefore unwieldy) or unbound (and therefore a pile of papers), it’s not the same experience as reading a nice, bound book. If you don’t believe it, try taking a manuscript into the bath with you. (I’d add that the spacing and font of a bound book drag the eye through the pages with greater ease as well; traditional manuscript format is laid out is for the convenience of people such as copyeditors who want to make notes all over the pages.)

Nonetheless, I pay attention when someone identifies the point where they stopped reading and went to make a sandwich. There’s information there—though whether it’s information about the reader or the book is uncertain.

In the world of movies, the pros have a rule of thumb: When the audience gets restless or bored, the problem you need to fix will be found about ten minutes earlier.

I suspect something like this is afoot in many novelistic problems as well. I can’t say that the problem lies X pages prior, but losing someone’s attention is a cumulative process, and when someone is no longer engaged, it probably isn’t because they hit an unengaging paragraph or page or even few pages. Readers aren’t TV viewers with remote control in hand, ready to flip the channel. It takes a while to lose their allegiance. Is there a lack of tension? Well, tension shouldn’t happen sentence by sentence. Setting the book down is a symptom, but the problem that needs to be fixed is most likely somewhere many pages before.

Playwright Paddy Chayefsky--he of Rubber Ducky fame--once said something to the effect that he’d never seen a problem in the third act that could be solved without fixing the first act.