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Just how far is Down?

And is it out?

As we head off for Zimbabwe for my younger son doing his re-affirmation of vows thing (basically, they got married here, and now are doing it all over again, with the whole 9 yards for all the people who couldn’t be here.) Heaven help me, I’ll attempt to post the next two Mondays, but their internet access is intermittent. So is electricity. Water relies on boreholes. Sewage and many of the things we regard as normal are… different. Security… varied.

But, at least on the surface, despite indicators suggesting life should be worse than First World survivalists imagine it could be, if things in the First World get a fraction more unstable, life appears… quite normal there. Yes, it obviously isn’t, but really Somalia proved one thing to those predicting the collapse of civilization: We are a long way up the ladder, and before things go so far that the few are supposed to be forced to rebuild, drawing the good and great, purging away the dross in the furnace of that change… well, it’s a long long way. Further than most First World people realize possible to go and still function. Before ‘down’ is out, the real bottom has to be reached. And it never got there in Somalia. Yes, as some of the really nasties are finding out once the fighting gets there, the ordinary people will quietly inform on them, and will welcome a change. But the top hyenas are still surviving, still continuing to wreak havoc, still impeding rebuilding.

Apocalypse is the stuff of sf (and fantasy) and it’s also something traditional publishing is supposed to be facing. If I have a message for the new year from the old year… Down is a long way. And the old order is not out until it’s buried, and you have hammered a stake through its heart. That’s as much true for apocalypse tales, as it is for politics, nations, or publishing (and all of those may be good or bad… depending on your point of view!).

Anyway, here is wishing you all the very best of writing and reading for the New year. May 2013, somehow, see turning points in all that is bad.

And I can’t wait to be back, posting from my Island again.


On Holidays

Hi, everyone. I’m off on Christmas vacation. My first post of the new year will be on 11th  January.

Feel free to post to an Open Floor.

For a bit of entertainment, here’s a great link to a list of the Top Ten private space vehicles.

In the mean time, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I hope Santa brings you all a flying car.

All the best,

Chris Mc

Losing what you get free

Hello. My name is Kate, and I am a pantser. I’m also – or so I’ve been told – ridiculously talented, in the sense that I get rather a lot of things ‘free’.

This is not the advantage it seems, so please put down those knives and let the grudges lie for a while. Sarah’s said before she rather pities the industry Dahlings because they’ve been told how wonderful they are and been isolated from any real critique or comparison, so they usually end up believing what they’re told. That means when things don’t work for them, they have no idea how to fix it.

The talented have much the same issue: if you get it free, you understand it at a level where it’s not in your conscious awareness. The issue here is that it may never have entered your conscious mind in the first place.

This is not at all unusual. Think of the last time you drove anywhere with more than your vehicle on the road. You know which of the other drivers aren’t at their best and could be a risk. You make multiple snap judgements every second based on the movement of the other cars around you, the way your car moves, and everything else you’re aware of. As often as not, not one of these hits your conscious mind. That is usually worrying about something totally different. Or carrying on a conversation with the other people in the car. Or looking forward to getting home.

If someone asked you, you’d say you didn’t do anything special during the drive, and you didn’t. But if something odd happens, and you’re thrown back into concentrating on driving, it gets much harder until you relax again and your subconscious routines take over.

Now, the learning to aim the car and use the pedals smoothly took practice, but the rest? You’ve been doing that all your life, as a pedestrian, as a passenger, so shifting context to do it as a driver is easy (have you ever noticed how rarely people bump into each other even in really crowded areas?) But what is it you’re actually doing?

You’re interpreting the movement of each of the sometimes more than a dozen cars in your field of vision as though they were an extension of the body of the driver, and running that through your personal body language interpreter, with input from and reference to your standard of “good enough” driving. Based on the results you’re making small adjustments to the pressure of your foot on the gas pedal, whether you need to use the brakes, how much distance between you and the vehicle in front, how fast you’re going and the exact direction you’re going in. Try doing that through your conscious mind in less than one second.

Moving back to writing, much the same thing happens when you don’t have to think about something – if you can sit down and have publishable or near-publishable first draft emerge, most of the grunt work is happening at the subconscious level. More than that, you may not know how to make it work, consciously. I certainly don’t.

To wit: the most recent chapter of my current WIP is horribly infodumpus with faceless heads expounding in an empty room. Why? There was a crapload of information that needed to happen, the “right” version of the chapter didn’t want to happen, so what emerged was very bland and dull. I didn’t see what I needed to do to fix it until Sarah’s post yesterday – because I usually get this stuff free. My characters pace, or they fiddle with stuff, or they’re doing something else while they’re talking. They’re not just sitting somewhere earnestly discussing. Maybe the fact that one of the characters is actually a ghost had something to do with it. I don’t know. But because I usually get it free, I had trouble seeing how I’d screwed up and what I needed to do to fix it.

This is why beta readers matter. You do have beta readers, right?

It’s also why technique books written for and by plotters are good. Sometimes if you – like I do far more often than I like to admit – get yourself tangled up in a corner somewhere, consciously using the techniques the way (I suppose) a plotter would can get you out of the mess. Or if things flat out aren’t working, you can brute force them by “being a plotter” for a while. Trust me, after you’ve been through and cleaned up your work, and had someone you trust help you edit it, you won’t know which bits were done which way any more than your readers will. Like with anything else, you use the tool that’s best for the job at hand (which is also why the toolbox needs more than a rusty old hammer in it).

Of course, with the things you get free, you actually have to work harder to do them well by numbers as it were. This is because when it’s working for you, you’re doing the writer-equivalent of driving on autopilot with your subconscious running the show. When you’re doing it the plotter way, all of that processing has to be done by your conscious mind, which is slower and tends to have trouble keeping track of a dozen or more threads that need to be juggled just so.

So envy not the pantser for being able to pull fully formed plots with interesting characters and descriptions from her nether regions. When that ability fails her, she has more trouble than you’d think.

Describing The World

*Sorry to be so horribly late.  Today there are some health things we’re dealing with, and I guess I was really tired yesterday, because I slept very late.*

It was a blue night, stretching, velvet smooth above the Earth.  Silence swathed the garden like a cloud.  Here and there, now and then the shrill chirping of crickets rose.  Fragrance of roses surrounded Guinevere, and made him wish it were less pronounced…

You see, Guinevere was a cat and rather more interested in the smell of tuna.  (Apologies to my son for borrowing Guinevere, the oddly named Siamese from Cat’s Paw.)

Right.  (Picks up glasses from lectern.)  I’ve been asked to do a post on how much description is enough.

This is sort of being asked how much water it takes to make you wet.  Depends on what you’re wearing, how the water is applied and what you mean by “wet” – wet all over or just your head?  Your feet?  What?

Description is hard, but then everything about writing is hard.

I started out, I think, like most people – putting no description in at all.  This was a problem since I was dealing with what was essentially an alien civilization (it was modified humans, in the far future, but it comes to the same.)  That meant when I said “table” the reader would fill in the usual table and then when my characters sit or kneel on the floor to use the table, the reader would be scrambling like mad to change the mental picture.  (This is why even if I find/get those files, rewriting will happen, at least of the older ones.)

EVERYONE kept telling me that I needed more description.  So I started putting it in with a trowel.  (Read my Shakespeare series sometime, though arguably there I already a glimmer of what I’ll call “the secret to description.)

Like with every writing defect I try to correct, I way over corrected, and then had to walk my way back to a reasonable use of description by rough road and slowly as such things must be done.

So, what can I share form my journey.  Look at my example abroad, does it cue anything, until I mention Guinevere is a “he?”  Of course it does.  You think Romance of the more traditional form of fantasy, or at least a fantasy with a poetic streak. Of course it can also be used the way I did, to bring a sudden and startled laugh when you hit the end.


Rule one: Description is a tool.  There is no correct way of doing description, do it in the way that will carry your story forward and bring the reaction you want in the reader.


But what if you just don’t have any description?  Well, I can’t imagine that being appropriate to any but some of the more post-modern of experiments in story telling (Yes, I suffered through some of those in school.)  Before you do that be very aware that the reader will fill in everything you don’t describe with whatever is standard for HIM for that particular place/person/object.  Say you mention Winston Churchill, we’re going to see the iconic picture of him addressing the nation, not Winston Churchill as a young war correspondent.  If you mean the latter, make sure you describe him.


Rule Two: Not describing is also describing.  Your reader will “see” something when you say nothing.  Be aware what that something will be.  (Sometimes you need beta readers for this.)  If they’re not seeing what you want, use more description, targeted at the important points.


When is description too much description?  Well, if you are describing every detail of, say, the sand on the beach, unless one of those grains of sand is poisoned, you’ve gone too far.  Everything you give that much attention to will be illuminated and made central.  So unless it is essential to you that your reader sees EXACTLY what you want – leave well enough alone.


Rule Three: if you are going on and on with description, make sure it is about something that matters to the plot.  Because the reader will assume it does.


What if you just have the wrong description?  By which I don’t mean you’re not describing what you see in your head, but what you’re describing is causing the wrong reactions.  Well, it helps again to remember that not every reader is you.  People have certain built in reactions.

If your characters are going to make sweet, sweet love in the morgue, you might want to soft pedal the smell of formaldehyde and all the toes with tags.  Mention them some distance from the arousal (But what if it’s a really BIG arousal?  Well then you’re bragging.  Shuddup now.) and when you’re leading us to the love making, concentrate on describing his/her soft skin, beauty, etc. and perhaps the chill as pertains to the other/s partner/s in this folly warming him/her up, etc.  Sensations and all, but very little about the corpses.  Most people don’t think “dead bodies make me hot” and those who do are likely to be locked up.  You aren’t angling for fan letters from Levenworth.


Say you want the reader to realize how hungry the character is, describing the taste and smell of things is good.  But if you want the reader to be charmed, don’t describe the taste and smell of a charnel house.  It’s not rocket science.  You’re presumably human or you can at least pretend to be.  Other humans react similarly.  Usually.  (Unless you’re in Levenworth for killing people and engaging in necrophilia.  Then assume other humans react DIFFERENTLY.)


Rule Four: Suit the description to the reaction you want from the reader.


Sometimes description that is not strictly needed can be used to “anchor” a scene.  Most of us have seen cups of coffee.  You could just tell us that Joe and Mike are drinking coffee, and then go on for pages of dialogue.  Two problems with that.  A) the pingpong of he said, and he said gets really boring (besides getting confusing.)  B) it’s easy to slip into almost non fiction reading mode, and following the argument in the discussion while forgetting that it’s two characters having this discussion and that we care about these characters (presumably) and that they’re “real” human beings with feelings, etc.

Anchoring the dialogue with actions helps.  Joe pours coffee.  It is hot and scalds his tongue.  Mike passes him the sugar.  Etc.  Just every few lines of dialogue, it allows us to know who is talking.  And it gives us a sense it’s a real scene, not just a dialogue taking place in someone’s head.


Rule Five: Little seemingly irrelevant bits of description can act like anchors, and remind us the character “exists” in the middle of long stretches of dialogue or exposition.


Which brings us to the end – this is for advanced describers only, so you want to start practicing now, for when, you know, you get there – using little bits of otherwise irrelevant description as a way to convey information and advance the story.  If Joe loves his coffee black and slightly burnt, that tells us something about his personality – or at least most people will assume so.  If Mike spills coffee all over the table and then tries to mop it with his coat sleeve, it tells us something more.  If Mike comes to the meeting with egg on his tie, it tells us yet more.  If Joe’s hair is perfect, not a strand out of place, it also tells us something.


Rule Six: Feel free to put in what might sound like irrelevant description if, at a crucial point in the story it gives us a clue about what the character is thinking, how nervous he is or simply who he is.


That’s about all I can tell you.  As with everything in writing, all I can promise you is that practice makes perfect.  I’m one of those people who has trouble with this, trouble believing the simple act of doing something over and over makes you better.


But having gone to the Van Gogh exhibit at the Denver Museum of Art and reading about his method (which was basically exactly that, doing things over and over again, trying to get better and experimenting to see what works) I can tell you it works.


Go and do.





Romantic men, part II

The title of my last piece got me thinking. Yes, I know, you could smell the wood burning so you knew the grate brain was turning over. I am sure other people still have wood-fired boilers powering their steam-driven brains too.

It struck me, that, based on the popularity Downton Abbey, what women really wanted in a man was someone else to do the cooking dusting and washing-up for them. Oh and a toffee-nose accent. I can do that at a push, but real life confirms that most women choose to marry — and stay married to — ordinary men, who excel at flatulence and beer rather than hot potato accents and Champagne, and who are not precisely the acme of gentility. In fact, observation suggests that women often crowd around the sort Downton antithesis, which may may explain why genetic selection has not evolved men of us into weak-chinned but ever so noble chaps with spiffing accents.

Now as someone of the heterosexual and male ilk, I honestly don’t really know (any more than heterosexual women would know precisely what pushes male buttons. Males are generally less subtle than women and easier to watch, but they too play to the audience.) just what makes some men the romantic daydream, and some really nice-seeming, keen-on-relationship guys seem to have a kind of really nice-seeming girl repelling fields. The converse seems as true – I’ve met -as a happily married guy a lot of single women where I wonder if the males on the planet have lost their minds – and a lot ‘orrible baggages with some poor guy, where I _know_ at that particular guy lost his mind (and probably his money, and self-confidence). It’s rather like books: there is a perfect match for each person out there somewhere but so often it gets missed. So I was curious: just what is the dreamboat? It does seem to change with every age – I look at the idols of men in paintings from the 16th century and wonder whether it’s just tastes or if women were uglier then? Look at the film stars of half a century ago… not all of them wear it well… and some do. Look at tastes in traditional African society, and Naomi Campbell would have been the girl on the shelf, desperately trying to fatten up. Apparently this was true in Scotland, or at least in the Hebrides too, which has its own genetic possibilities.

And is the dreamboat romantic hero something in real life and something else entirely in print? So: opinions please. I want to write them right. Is appearances or is all in our heads? I’ve tried –

should be a link to one of my romances (I cut it to 99 cents. I’d make it free but I would have to take it down from Smashwords) and I’d be curious to know from anyone who read whether he was romantic hero or not? The physical description is sparse. And before you ask, there is no sex.

And a Merry Christmas to you and all of yours!

Weird Planets

exoplanetThis year has produced some amazing discoveries in the planet-hunting arena.

Notable among these is the announcements of more ‘super-Earths’.

The planet HD 40307g is the most distant from its sun of six planets found in its system, and takes 200 days to orbits its star. At seven times Earth-mass, bets are on as to whether this planet is rocky or a Neptune-like world. Astronomers put it at about 50:50. The system is around 42 lightyears away. Not only does it orbit in a habitable zone, the target system is also close enough to potentially image directly in the future using the next generation of space-based telescopes. Bring it on!

Gilese 163c is another planet in its stars habitable zone, also estimated at seven times the mass of the Earth. The planet orbits a red dwarf slightly dimmer than old Sol and zips around it in 26 days [red dwarfs are the most common star type in the Milky Way].

Other discoveries showed planets where you least expect to find them – in multiple star systems. Solving multiple-body problems like that give even the most brilliant mathematicians a severe headache. But that does not stop us from seeing what’s out there.

The gas giant PH1orbits a pair of stars that are part of a four-star system [in this case it would orbit the centre of mass of the two stars]. The first planet found in a four-star system. It is bigger than Neptune, and easily big enough to host rocky moons approaching Earth-size. Unfortunately its location makes it too hot for liquid water – its temperature is estimated to range between 251C to 340C (484-644F).

The best thing about PH1 is that it was discovered by two amateur astronomers as part of the Planet Hunters program. So non-professionals get to play too!

A number of binary systems with planets have now been found, some with planets near the habitable zone, such as Kepler-34b and Kepler 35b. Each would get that double-star sunrise, just like Tatooine. Both planets are big, and around 5000 lightyears from Earth. So no exploring just yet.

As for the closest planet, that is a rocky planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B, 4.2 lightyears from Earth. No need to pack the swimsuit – unless you like doing laps in lava. It orbits its sun in a little over 3 days at a distance one tenth of Mercury’s orbit. Ouch.

What were your favourite discoveries of the year?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

How Dark is Too Dark?

This week’s events don’t help with this post, not because I feel any great need to add my opinion to the uncounted other ignorant opinions floating around (they’re mostly ignorant because most of those commenting don’t possess enough of the facts to be anything else, and that would include anything I chose to say). Rather, I’m in the middle of a very dark sequence in the current work in progress, and find myself wondering how far I should go.

I snippeted the opening of this piece a few weeks ago, and it’s grown to some 35k words in the intervening time, so it’s definitely one that insists on being written. The thing is, I have a lasting fascination with evil, particularly the borderline when dark becomes evil and vice versa. The question of when ruthlessness or even cruelty is necessary and when it moves from that to evil is a question I somehow always end up exploring no matter what I write, alongside the ability of evil to act in service of good. Big surprise, a lot of what I write shades very dark indeed, so much so that friends tell me if I think something is “creepy” chances are it’s frigging terrifying.

Because of that I tend to flinch when I write the darkest places. Not because it scares me, but because I don’t want to send my readers running screaming into the night. It’s counterproductive. I want them reading my book and wanting more, not cowering somewhere vowing to flee the moment I should appear.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. A little bit.

Between that and my tendency to get frustrated with the “evil for the sake of being evil, let me kick that puppy to show you how evil I am” cartoon evil that infests so many books (largely I suspect because their writers don’t really understand evil), my villains tend to be… realistic. Sometimes too much so. They have motives that humans can understand and those motives get shown. Sometimes those motives are things that leave normal people wanting to scrub inside and out (that piece hasn’t been published for complicated reasons), but they are right for that character for reasons that are usually fairly complicated.

Fortunately this piece is first person. I don’t have to get inside the POV of the villain. Except that I do, for reasons involving a magical gestalt and my main character being in the kind of horrible situation where dying is unquestionably the better option. My friends know that when I write this kind of thing they’re likely to get angsty messages, not because I’m scaring myself but because I’m worried by not being scared. By how easily I can slide into the mind of a character who has lost his humanity so profoundly he sees nothing wrong with courting someone while he’s torturing them.

So how much is too much? I’ve never been one for loving descriptions of every drop of blood, but the psychological dynamic keeps pulling me back. The emotions that go with the pain are something I dance around in damn near everything I write, one way or another, and I don’t know where the line between enough and “oh god no” is. Or even if it is.

Thoughts? Suggestions? “Keep away from me you crazy psycho woman?”