Monday, May 19, 2008

Street Cred, circa 2008, 1944 & 1928

I'm not an FBI agent, but I got to play one this month. I just finished off the "FBI Citizens' Academy," which was my opportunity to learn about the FBI, what they do and who they are, without the absurd filter offered by Hollywood movies and over-the-top TV shows. (CSI, Numbers, etc... you know who you are.)

After six weeks of learning about anti-terrorism efforts, gangs, organized crime, counterespionage, bank robbers and cyber-crimes, on our last day we moved to the local police firing range for the most eagerly anticipated session: firearms training.

That's right. I got to blow stuff away.

The first picture here is me shooting an MP5, the standard issue FBI "long gun." MP stands for "Machine Pistol", which simply means this is an automatic rifle that shoots a pistol round. (In this case, a 10mm round. It can also shoot a 9mm round, but that "rattles going down the barrel" according to my instructor). Automatic is a bit misleading here, and it's possible I'm using that term incorrectly. "Semi-automatic" means a weapon shoots one round (one bullet) with each pull of the trigger, without the operator having to cock the weapon or take any other action for each shot. "Automatic" means the weapon just keeps firing rounds as long as the trigger is pulled. A machine-gun is an automatic weapon; a typical pistol (such as a Glock, which I also shot), is semi-automatic. In the case of the MP5, it has a two-shot burst function, which automatically shoots two rounds with each pull of the trigger. Yes, that's fun. But the second round definitely does not land where the first one did, thanks to the kick of the first shot. But it lands close enough.
(I was the most accurate for the day with this weapon, landing a "right-between-the-eyes" single round shot on our paper target.)

The second photo is the FBI's standard issue "sawed-off" shotgun. It's a three-shot, pump-action model with a shorter barrel (13") than the public can purchase (most shotguns have an 18" barrel). The shorter barrel is less accurate, but the FBI prefers it because it's easier to handle when getting out of a vehicle. This puppy has a kick on it, but it was easy to shoot. I took the standard approach, aimed for the biggest part of the target, and bam, pump, bam, pump, bam. Three solid hits. Where on the target? It's a shotgun... it doesn't matter where. In this photo you can see one of the targets we were using. His name, apparently, was Will. (Think about it...)* By the end of the day, poor Will was completely missing from the shotgun target, and the steel backboard itself was bent back to the point all you could see of it was a tiny tip. And people were still hitting that, three-for-three. Like I said, with a shotgun, "where" doesn't matter.

The third picture is a World War Two "grease gun." Yes, this gun is sixty years old. It's a pure machine-gun. It doesn't do anything except automatic. Pull the trigger and bbbbrrrrraaaaapppp, the bullets fly out. According to our instructors, this weapon was used by Allied tank soldiers, and also dropped behind enemy lines to resistance fighters because it was so cheap to manufacture (about $12 per gun at the time). It's called a "grease gun" because it looks like the grease guns 1940's mechanics used to lubricate automobile parts. The main thing I learned about this gun was to hold it steady and use short bursts. As soon as you squeeze the trigger the gun starts dancing upwards; my first time with this gun, I could hear the "spang-spang-spang" as the last of my shots hit the backstop's roof. "You, and your house, pal!" This gun was so much fun, I shot it twice.

Lastly, you'll see a genuine Thompson machine-gun from 1928. That's right, a Tommy gun, the star of many a gangster movie. This particular model is called an "overstamp 1928." It was made for the U.S. Navy in 1921, with the ability to shoot over 800 rounds in a minute. The Navy decided that was too much ammo in too short a time, so in 1928 the manufacturer reconfigured the weapon to a rate of about 650 rounds a minute, and stamped an "8" over the old "1" at the end of the date. All I can say is, 800 or 650, either way the target's a goner.

Obviously, I didn't shoot anywhere close to 650 rounds. We used a clip of 10 rounds. It doesn't take long to fire 10 bullets with a Tommy gun. Rat-a-tat-tat, you're done— but so is the target.

If you're familiar with the Tommy gun, you may have seen photos of the big round drum magazines that look a little like a black cheese wheel stuck under the bottom of the barrel. We didn't use one of these because a gun with a fully-loaded drum magazine weighs 45 pounds (!). Imagine trying to aim a sack of potatoes, and you'll understand why I was happy to take a pass on that experience. 

As a writer, it's important that I seek out new experiences; every one is another tool on my belt to add depth to my stories. I may not be writing a novel about the FBI today, but tomorrow... who knows? Someday I might want to describe the experience of shooting a grease gun; now I can, because I've done it.

And yes, it was just darn cool.

--- Howard Shirley

*Our instructions were to "Fire at will." Yeah, old joke, and a groaner. That's life for Will.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hopeful Writer & the Unsolicited Manuscript (Part 3)

It's a trilogy! (So read Parts 1 & 2 or you'll be even more muddled than everyone else.)

Our story so far: 955 A.D. It is a time when men were knights, days were dark, and everybody was therefore thoroughly confused. Hopeful Writer and the Knights of the Library Study Table have embarked on a grand quest to find a publishing house. Following the SCBWI-Mercia Regional Conference (and a confusing encounter with the terrifying Agent), they have decided to brave all and seek the publisher themselves.

Cue dramatic music.

Hopeful Writer & the Unsolicited Manuscript
Part 3
by Howard Shirley

Exterior, wide shot. Low hill in foreground. A tall, imposing castle rises from a high ridge in the background, silhouetted dramatically against the sky. HOPEFUL WRITER, EAGER ILLUSTRATOR, NUMBED FINGERS, SINCERELY the SUBMITTED and REPETE the REJECTED, enter the scene from the foot of the low hill, backs to the camera. They struggle to the top of the hill and stop.

Cut to close-up of HW, EI, NF, SS, RR staring into the distance.

HW (pointing): At last— the Publisher!

EI.: The Publisher!

NF: The Publisher!

SS: The Publisher!

RR: It’s only an imprint.


Cut away to exterior, below the walls of the castle. The Knights of the Library Study Table approach.

EI (looking around): There doesn’t seem to be a door. Not even a drawbridge.

RR: Of course not. It’s a closed house.

HW: I always wondered what that meant.

SS: Maybe they’ll take a query?

NF: We can try.

HW: I’ll do it. (Looks up at castle, calls out) Excuse me! Hello?

Cut to shot looking up at battlements. The ASSISTANT ASSOCIATE EDITORIAL ASSISTANT (AAEA) appears.

AAEA: What do you want?

HW: Greetings! Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?

AAEA: I’m the Assistant Associate Editorial Assistant.

The KNIGHTS look at each other, trying to puzzle this out.

HW: Greetings, most noble “Assoc...” no, “Edit...” no, that’s not it either... Greetings most noble sir... (NF kicks him)... Madam! I mean, Greetings most noble madam! We are four...

SS: Five!

HW: Five! Uh, humble writers on a quest to find a home for our manuscripts, a quest bestowed upon us by The Agent Him (NF kicks him again)... uh, HERself.

EI: You know, I’m not a writer yet. I do illustrations, so maybe it is four.

HW: So we four writers...

EI: And an illustrator!

HW: Right. And an illustrator would like to respectfully submit our manuscripts to your house.

SS: Oh, well put!

AAEA: No thank you. We’ve already got one.

HW: She says they’ve already got one.

Cut to AAEA inside battlements. The ASSOCIATE ASSISTANT EDITORIAL ASSOCIATE (AAEA 2) is sitting out of sight of the KNIGHTS.

AAEA: I told them we’ve already got one.

AAEA 2 (snickers)


NF: They’ve already got one? What’s that supposed to mean?

EI: One what?

HW: A manuscript, I guess.

RR: But they don’t have any of ours. I think it’s just a stalling tactic.

SS: A stalling tactic?

RR: To see if we’re persistent. A weeding technique.

NF: Maybe if we try a different editor?

HW (to castle): Is there anyone else we can talk to?

AAEA 2 is now standing on the battlements, and AAEA is out of sight.

AAEA 2: No. Now go away, or I shall reject you a second time.

EI: Is that the same person?

NF: It doesn’t look like the same person.

SS: I know the turnover rate in publishing is really bad, but this is ridiculous.

HW: Did anybody pick up the latest edition of Writer’s Market at the conference?

RR (holds up book): Door prize!

NF: Well, look her up.

HW (takes book, thumbs through it.): It says here she’s the “Associate Assistant Editorial Associate.”

EI: So, she is who we queried the first time.

NF: No, that was the Assistant Associate Editorial Assistant.

RR: What’s the difference?

AAEA 2 (from battlement): Wash room privileges!

HW: So, what do we do?

EI: Send chocolate?

SS: Wrap it in gold ribbon; catch her eye.

RR: Just tell her we saw her at a conference.

NF: Did we see her at a conference?

RR: Could have. They all blur together after awhile.

NF: The editors, or the conferences?

RR: Both.

HW (to AAEA 2): We, uhm, heard you at a conference. Will you at least take a sample?

AAEA 2: Oh, all right. Lob one over the transom.

NF: Over the what?

RR: She means to send her something without an agent.

SS: I thought we just did that.

EI: No, that was the query. This will be a sample.

SS: Oh.

(Suddenly something strikes RR on the head. RR falls over.)

HW: Repete! Are you okay? What hit you?

RR (lying on ground, holds up a piece of paper tied to a rock; weakly): Submission guidelines.

SS: Way to take one for the team, Repete!

NF: We’d better follow these exactly.

EI (opens paper): These are very odd.

HW: Where are we going to find that much chocolate?

RR (from ground, weakly): Little help, please?

Cut to full shot of AAEA 2 looking over the battlements. AAEA peeks above the edge.

Cut to shot of woods; no one can be seen. Sounds of typing, cries of “More paper!” “Paper jam!”“We’re out of toner!” “HOW much is this costing us in ink?!?”

Cut to extreme close-up of a wrapped package tied up in gold ribbon. The package is labeled: “Requested at Conference You Were At This Year. Really.”

Cut to shot of KNIGHTS, all helping to carry the package.

NF: Do we have enough postage on this thing?

RR: Postage? We’re not using postage.

NF: Then how are we going to send it?

HW: Just like she said. We’re lobbing it over.  All right everybody, on the count of four!

SS: But there are five of us.

EI: But I’m the illustrator. That makes four.

RR: Will you guys quit yammering and help toss the package?

(They begin swinging the package back and forth to the count.)

HW: One! Two! Three! Five!


HW: Right! Four!

They toss.

Cut to wide shot of package sailing through the air and over the wall.

Cut to shot of AAEA and AAEA 2 watching the package.

AAEA 2: Nice lob. I didn’t think they’d have enough postage.

AAEA: Fetchez le voche!

AAEA 2: What?

AAEA: Sorry, wrong idiom. Get the you-know-what.

AAEA 2 (thumbing through French-English dictionary.): You want a cow?

AAEA: No! Look, I already apologized about the idiom. Get the you-know-what!

AAEA 2: Oh! The you-know-what. Gotcha!

Cut to KNIGHTS. They’re sitting on the ground, looking bored.

NF: So, what’s the response time on this publisher?

SS: Did anybody check Verla Kay?

SFX: Loud “twang.” Whooshing sound.

EI: Wait. I think I hear something!

Knights look up.

Cut to extreme close-up of falling package.

Cut to Knights, looking in fear.

KNIGHTS: Ah! Flee! Run away!

Knights run.

Package hits RR on the head.

RR: Like I didn’t see that one coming. (Falls over.)

SS: Neat! Who included the return postage?

NF: Seemed like a good idea.

RR (from ground, weakly): Oh yeah. Terrific.

EI: What’s in it? Revision notes? They want the manuscript?

HW: I’ll open it. (Takes package.)

RR (from ground): Don’t mind me. I’m all right. Really.

HW (opens package): It’s a rock.

SS: That’s what I’d call a solid rejection.

EI: But there’s a note.

NF (reading): “Thanks for the manuscript. We needed the fire starter. P.S. The chocolate was delicious.”

SS: Well, it’s very personable. Maybe they’d like to see something else?

RR (from ground): Mind if I move first? Like, to a bunker?

HW: We’ve got to get it past the associate assistants. Make the editor-in-chief want the book.

SS: I’ve got it! Listen up, here’s what we do...

Cut to battlements. AAEA and AAEA 2 look over in curiosity again.

Cut to forest. More cries: “Dang! The printer needs a new drum!”  “Geez, might as well buy a new printer!” “This is all tax deductible, right?”

Cut to close-up of new package. The knights carry it up near the castle, then place a big sign on it.

Cut to sign: New Original Manuscript By J.K. Rowling. Seriously.

The knights sneak off.

Cut to knights watching from bushes.

Cut to castle. A portion of the wall opens, and AAEA sneaks out, looking around for watchers. Seeing none, she picks up package and sign and sneaks back through opening. It closes.

SS: A secret passage! I knew it!

NF: Okay, now what?

SS: Oh, it’s simple. The big editor will want that one. He’ll read the letter, where we apologize for the Rowling bit, and he’ll be so impressed by our cleverness that he’ll read the manuscript, and...

HW: Wait. What letter was that?

SS: The cover letter.

HW: I didn’t write a cover letter. (to NF) Did you write a cover letter?

NF: Not me. (to EI) Did you?

EI: I’m an illustrator, remember? Art speaks for itself.

RR: Oh crap.

SFX: Loud “twang.” Falling noise.

KNIGHTS: Flee! Run away!

The knights run.

A package hits RR on the head.

RR: Why did I bother to get up? (Falls over.)

NF: My, that was fast.

SS: Ya know, I don’t think this is the right publisher for us.

RR (weakly, from the ground): What was your first clue?

HW: Well, we’ve been thoroughly rejected. What do we do now?

NF: Same thing we do after every rejection.

EI: Try to take over the world?

RR (from ground): Python, not Pinky!

NF: Attend another conference.

ALL: Right!

SS: Hey, there’s still some chocolate in this package. Anybody want a coconut creme?



A Knights of the Library Study Table Production.

This is a work of fiction. All characters in this production are entirely made up. Really. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

No actual writers were harmed in the making of this film.

RR (voice over): Speak for yourself. Those packages hurt.

Fade to black.


SUBTITLE: What? Don’t start this again!


The tale is done, but the quest never ends.

--- Howard Shirley