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Writing around challenges

Sarah spoke about one kind of challenge yesterday. I’m facing an entirely different kind – after many, many years with relatively unchecked access to the internet and my external brains (the – alas, finally deceased – PDA, the tablet, the cell phone, the kindle, the flash drive with all my writing files on it, the Eee…. you get the picture) I’ve got work with a company that is not primarily a programming place (It’s primarily data entry and printing out checks. Lots of checks. Payroll processing.) and is very strict (aka paranoid) about letting anything capable of data transfer into their systems.

That means no cell phones in the building. No tablet. No kindle. No flash drive. No PDA. No CDs. No DVDs. If I want music I need to bring in a separate player (that can’t take USB input or anything other than “play a disc”). Also, no instant messaging (not even internally – which is really weird for me. Everywhere I’ve worked has used IM for communicating among co-workers. Not here), no social ANYTHING on the internet. Hell, I went looking for long names and names that used diacriticals for some testing, and those sites were blocked. I’m having withdrawal symptoms (but I’m enjoying what I’ve seen of the job so far, so not too bad).

Of course, this also means that I can’t write on the computer at work. No flash drive to save it to (no anything else external, either, and cloud stuff is right out). So I’ve taken to carrying a notepad with me, and scribbling – longhand – bits and snippets of the current WIP when I get a bit of loose time during the day. It’s… different. I haven’t written longhand since I got my first computer 15 years go. I type faster than I can write these days, and my typing is a hell of a lot easier to read. My handwriting is… interesting. It needs interpretation more than reading. More than that, though, I can’t write for long. The muscles in my hands are so out of practice that after a quarter of an hour or so, I start to cramp.

Weirdly, this is actually helping. I write a kind of sketchy not-even-first-draft that doesn’t so much get transcribed as it gets used as a framework to hang the real first draft on when I put the day’s scribble into the computer at home. There’s not much wordage going in, but there’s progress and it’s not bad. So that particular challenge seems to have been accepted.

Next challenge – keep at it so I can write for longer before my hands start giving me hell.

Herding Ducks

Before we enter today’s scheduled ramble, let me point out for those of you tuning in from other continents and nations that we Americans have a weird relationship with ducks: we have all our ducks in a row, we take to things like a duck to water, we become sitting ducks, and things are as easy as duck soup and we – and our time – often gets nibbled to death by ducks.

As an immigrant, I can say that I fully expected to come to the states and find the country awash in ducks: Mallards in the garden, domestic ducks in the cellar and a duck in every pot.  However, other than the iconic V shape of ducks flying overhead when the seasons change, the US might be one of the most duck-free countries in the world.

Which just goes to show that language – and humans – are irrational.  Which goes to show…

Which goes to show that the part of writing that involves managing yourself can be very troublesome.  Because basically what is happening is that you are both employee and manager.  Which means both sides of the equation have the same biases.  It also means when you’re ill, you’re both ill at the same time.  And you have no perspective on it.

I’ve expounded here, before – still am – about how you should keep your nose to the grindstone.  There are reasons for this.  It’s too easy to be what the French called une malad imaginaire – sort of an hypochondriac, but less severe.  You don’t think you’re dying of something dread.  And you don’t even think you’re sick exactly, but you’re draggy, and you’re working against he current and you say “baffle this!” and go off to do something that doesn’t require concentration or mental power or whatever.  Or you just take a nap.  Next thing you know a year has gone by and you haven’t worked.  It’s distressingly easy to do.

Writing is an occupation that should put paid to anyone’s ideas that they are fully rational.  No matter how much you THINK you want to write something, or that you know exactly to the last iota how it should go, the truth is that most writing for most people – at least fiction writing – involves a negotiation with the subconscious to get it to play along and play nice.

So, I established the rule that I must AT LEAST try to write every day.  It doesn’t always work.  Depending on how little my subconscious wants me to work on something – or on whether it’s desperately trying to communicate I’ve gone wrong and failing – my body has developed the ability to do a good imitation of sleeping sickness.

Because of this – because the boss part of me knows the employee part of me very well – I tend to get exasperated, assume I’m malingering and try to bully through, even though at times it’s like pulling teeth.

There have been times when my suspicions of my – apparently maligned “employee side” – have been unjustified.

For instance, in the period I now refer to as “hormonal madness” I finally got the point that there was something organic wrong when I literally couldn’t remember where I’d left the characters from one screen to the next.  That those books – mostly the musketeer mysteries – are mostly coherent tells you how hard I was working to contravene my body.  It took me that long to figure out that there was something PHYSICAL wrong, because there were psychological reasons for my issues, too – like the fact that by that time I knew giving a book to Berkley was like throwing a baby down a volcano.

Over the last year I’ve been having some of the same issues – in that I always feel sickish and foggy-brained, and forcing myself to work has become increasingly difficult.

Some of this, I think, is that my house had gone from semi-functional to non-functional and I can’t work in a mess – I just can’t.  My well trained housewife-conscience comes out and reproaches me.  That’s taken care of.

But the house work was also an attempt to do something useful when I couldn’t concentrate.  And the inability to concentrate…

Well, there might be other reasons.  This post is so late because I have a doctor’s appointment, and had to do some stuff in preparation.  BUT I think I found one of the reasons.

I’ve been waking in the middle of the night nauseated and with heart burn and having trouble going to sleep again.  Given my age, I assumed “hormones.”

Well… that might not be PRECISELY right.  Last night I slept surprisingly well, and this morning I woke up clear-headed.  It was in a way like when the kids first slept through the night and I woke up going “Oh, wow, I remember this feeling.  This is awake.”

As I was dressing, I noticed a rolled up t-shirt on my husband’s bedside table.  I asked him about it and he explained.

You see, he used to have bad apnea, before we went on low-carb and he lost 130 pounds.  After five years of increasingly worse symptoms – which affected me too, though most of the time I wasn’t aware I was being kept awake, just that I had heart burn and nausea all the time, and was gaining weight.  (You see, I can’t sleep at all, if he’s not in the bed.  It’s a dysfunction.  Deal.) The reason was that the noise was just enough to keep me from being FULLY asleep – he had a sleep study and got on a CPAP.

But as he lost weight, the CPAP gave him too much air.  And he wasn’t having a real issue.  Sort of…

Except over the last year I’ve been aware of its creeping back – in the sense that I would wake up now and then and hear him stop breathing then start again, explosively.  This always happens – now – ONLY when he’s sleeping on his back.  The problem is the years with the CPAP trained him to sleep on his back.

He’s been stumbling through the day, and having some of the same issues I have, which led us to believe that it might not be hormonal and…

Last night he was reading about home-made remedies for apnea and read about sewing a rubber ball to the back of your shirt, to make you uncomfortable if you turn on your back.  Well, he didn’t have a rubber ball, and he’d need me to sew it, anyway (I think a rubber band might work as well) so he rolled up a t-shirt and put it in the middle of his back.  It worked.  He didn’t stay on his back, and I seem to have slept fully.  And the difference is like night and day.  Because even a minor sleep disturbance – of the sort where you’re not aware you’re not in deep sleep – repeated night after night takes a toll on your mind and your functioning and your health.

So, if you’re trying to work as hard as you can, but can’t quite defeat the problem, consider that there might be something wrong with you and that to get your ducks all in row, you need to not be a sitting duck and go get a check up, or examine the health of those around you to see if it’s possible you too are suffering from their health.

Because it’s too easy to get nibbled to death by ducks without noticing it.

Work hard, and try to make that shifty employee side of you work.  But be kind to yourself too.  (And be kind to our web footed friends, too, while you’re at it.)


The inmates are trying to run the asylum again

Yep, that’s right. The inmates have managed to get out of their cells and are running around loose. Now, most days, it is pretty entertaining to watch. After all, they usually are either pointing at the sky and screaming about how the aliens are coming and taking over the world, or they are burying their heads in the sand and doing their best to ignore the changes needed to be made in order to survive. But today, well, all I can do is shake my head and wonder how long this current farce will run before the final curtain falls on it.

Let’s start with what has to be one of the most mind-boggling pieces I’ve seen in a long while. I have to give a hat-tip to one of our readers for pointing me to this link. Think about this. Your local bookstore — and not a chain store — manages to get an in-store signing set up with an author who has a book coming out from a major publisher. The store does a magnificent job promoting the event and manages to pre-sell 450 copies of the book by mega-best selling author. (These copies are to be autographed by the author) So the store calls the publisher and places the order.

Does the publisher jump up and down and offer to send the books out post-haste? Hell no. They’ll only ship the store 200 copies. Doesn’t matter that the books are pre-sold. Doesn’t matter that the store will pay up-front for the books. The publisher isn’t going to to budge. It doesn’t matter that this will be a PR debacle for the store, the author or, duh, for the publisher.

Well, here is where I tip my hat to the store and to the local Target. The store owner went down the street, talked to the powers that be at Target, and got the books needed to finish filling the pre-orders (300). Target even sold them to the owner at a discount. Epic win for both the indie store and Target and massive epic fail for the publisher.

Now, what reasonable business would turn down a pre-paid order of 450 units of a $30 item? I can’t think of any, especially not one that is suffering slumping sales. But the publisher did. It was worried about returns. The books were pre-paid so there wouldn’t have been any returns. But that little bit of information mattered not. Nor did the fact that the author, who is described as a “major best seller”, would not be pleased to find she had been cut out of hundreds of sales by her own publisher.

So, you have to ask yourself how often this sort of idiocy occurs and how many sales publishers cost themselves and their authors because they can’t see the forest for the trees?

And then there is the spin as publishers try to convince themselves that they are making up  lost ground. An example is this article about Penguin’s so-called profits last year. According to figures released by Penguin, total sales rose 1%. Sales, not profits. As a counterpoint, operating profit fell 12%. Add to that the fact Penguin expects e-book sales to slow this year and you have to wonder how they see these figures as being anything but troublesome. Yet, we are told that the powers that be feel Penguin came out of this “pretty good”.

Maybe I am having trouble seeing the forest for the trees, but a 12% decrease in operating profits coupled with a forecasted slow down in e-book sales (the one segment of the business that has continued to grow by leaps and bounds) would be something I’d be worried about. But then, I’ve never been a corporate cheerleader.

And then there are the indie booksellers who have filed a class action lawsuit against Amazon and the Big Six over DRM. My first issue with this is that there are only three plaintiffs to the suit, so I’m not sure they will qualify as a “class”. But that will be up to the court to decide.

My biggest issue is that this suit is only aimed at Amazon and none of the other online e-book retailers — like Barnes & Noble, iBooks/iTunes, Kobo, etc. If these three booksellers are really worried that applying DRM to e-books restricts the sale of e-books, shouldn’t these other retailers be included as defendants? Oh, wait, it’s only Amazon because the DRM applied means only the kindle line of products can read the titles.

But wait, aren’t the vast majority of these titles also available in DRM’d epub versions through, etc? I guess that doesn’t count. We’re just supposed to turn away from that little bit of information because it doesn’t fit the scenario that these booksellers want us to believe.

However, even if their allegations are true, so what? Aren’t companies allowed to produce products and sell them wherever they want? Sure, there are limitations like not violating exclusivity agreements — oh, wait, we aren’t supposed to think about those either because that would fly in the face of what the plaintiffs allege.

Don’t get me wrong. I feel for indie booksellers. But this isn’t the way for them to win back patrons. Worse, if this case does go to court and they lose, they will more than likely liable for court costs, not just for themselves but for the six publishers and Amazon. Do you really think the retailers will be able to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and costs and stay in business? Of course, that will be Amazon’s fault too — at least in the eyes of the haters.

Instead of stomping their feet and holding their breath like a couple of pouty kids, these booksellers need to be looking forward. How can they work directly with publishers or authors to sell e-books? What are they doing to promote local authors? More importantly, sit back and wait and see what happens in the DoJ’s price fixing case against Apple (in case you’ve missed it, the five publishers have all settled). There will be changes coming from that, not only for Apple and the publishers but, in all likelihood, Amazon as well. Take a lesson from the bookseller mentioned at the top of this post. Instead of whining and whinging, that bookseller went out and did something to turn what could have been a public relations nightmare and a big hit against the store into a positive.

My word I am battling with access to this blog. I’m away in Melbourne helping a friend pack his container for his retirement to the island. 

He’s a nice guy but his way of packing is to  pack things into a container, and close the door and call it done.

 Which…. as many of the items he wants in are not naturally inclined to fit together in the closest possible packing… means he gets relatively little into a container.  More than if he’d just left everything behind, but um… not anything like the most possible. What he’s packed is like the average novel. Mostly air with occasional objects.

Barbs and I have spent a lot of our lives packing to go away – or move house (the life of an Ichthyologist is fraught with poverty and moving jobs. A bit like writing really, you’d think I’d learn… And a lot of the time it has been pack and move ourselves, and fit as much as possible into small vehicles. You learn, if you have the talent, to look at what you have to pack and how you can fit various bits into the spaces. And to look at a space and work out how, by twisting that recliner through multi-demensional space you can make it fit, to occupy that bit of space best.  It’s 3 D Tetris with irregular shapes.

That increases the number of items vastly and excludes most of the air. It’s still the same container. 

It’s a character trait. It spills into your writing. If you gave the same scene to my regular co-authors and I, I know mine would be a 1/3 the length of one, and  2/3 of the other. It’s not always a strength, of course, but it does make for fast paced books with a lot in them. 

It gets worse of course because I cannot resist packing IN things. If a cupboard or a dishwasher has to go… it’s full. And if it is full of glasses say, each glass has smaller items in it. Like nested Russian dolls but with disparate items. 

It takes me a lot longer to pack than it takes my friend. But I can pack so much that there is almost no air. And if you unpack hastily… there is a reasonable chance of missing 2/3 of the stuff which is IN the bigger items, and the items that are in them.  Which is something I can’t help doing… whether cooking or writing or packing…

I like it. Love discovering authors who do this. It’s obviously not everyone’s cup of tea. So how about you? Do you do this? Do you like reading it. Do you know authors who do it well?

(I will try to reply, but it’s difficult.) 

The Return of Air-Breathing Engines

I was reading recently about the Skylon space plane. A pretty cool name, which reminds me of those robotic guys with the light bouncing back and forward where their eyes should be  – the vintage Cylons of Battlestar Galactica.

The Skylon spaceplane is a concept for a Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) plane, which has been a holy grail for the aerospace industry for many decades.

Although the theory of payload Vs rocket mass takes concepts in the direction of multi-staging and non-renewable spacecraft – such as the good old Saturn V and modern equivalent the SpaceX Falcon 9 – the ability to reuse the same spacecraft also makes good economic sense. All rocketry components are damn expensive. Besides it’s such a damn cool idea to be able to get into a spaceplane at the local airport, taxi down the runway and blast into orbit.

What may make this particular SSTO dream feasible is the return of the air-breathing engine. Some of you might remember the HOTOL concept from the 1980s.  The moniker stood for Horizontal TakeOff and Landing. I remember being really excited about this joint venture between Rolls Royce and British Aerospace, but apparently funding was cut in 1988 due to serious design flaws and lack of advantage over contemporary launch systems.

Like HOTOL, Skylon features air-breathing engines that use oxygen in the atmosphere as the fuel oxidant [it later switches to liquid oxygen in space]. The majority of fuel tankage is reserved for hydrogen, removing one heck of lot of weight compared to say a shuttle with its big external tank of hydrogen and oxygen. One key feature of the Skylon’s SABRE engines is the cooling of the intake air, which enables a doubling of the efficiency.

The estimated top speed of Skylon is over 30,000 km/h. This gives the craft plenty of scope to fill the niche left by the ill-fated Concorde, with sub-orbital flight times of around 4 hours from London to Sydney. Having suffered through two 30 hour flights to the USA in economy I can’t wait.

The initial goal is to carry payloads to space stations by 2022. English developer Reaction Engines hope to have a working prototype flying by 2016, and a fleet of the craft over the next decade. They are impressive craft. Each will be approximately 82 metres in length with a price tag of around $1.1 billion US.

The spaceplane is a very sleek looking craft. Check out the wikipedia page for graphics.

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

Enriching the soil

A big part of SF and Fantasy writing is the world-building – creating the illusion of an entire culture out there that exists independently of the story you’re telling. If the illusion is well done, the piece feels more solid and will often be much stronger even though the world-building doesn’t directly impact the characters or plot (it does, and should, impact them indirectly by informing their choices and their view of how their world works – Athena Hera Sinistra’s shock and confusion dealing with Eden in Sarah’s DarkShip Thieves is a good example of how this works).

So how do you do it?

The reality is that many authors “cheat”. Just as plots are borrowed wholesale from history and have the serial numbers filed off, so too are settings. The best borrowings enrich the story soil by working with the plot and characters to make the whole piece stronger. Pratchett’s Discworld books are probably the best example of this: Ankh-Morkpork is sufficiently developed that the city is damn near a character in its own right, complete with interesting history, landmarks, and of course the river Ankh. The broad base of a medieval European city is there, with the Discworld version of early Victorian industry, and such a collection of bits and pieces from different places and times that the effect is much like a place that has grown and evolved from its earliest settlement.

Just how much Pratchett has borrowed from different parts of history (and any other field of knowledge he can get hold of) is astonishing. I’ve yet to encounter an obscure bit of historical trivia that wasn’t at minimum a throwaway line in a Discworld book – but I doubt Pratchett is going consciously “Oh, I’ll do a piss take on the Peelers next.” No, what he’s doing is absorbing an eclectic mix of odd facts (he said at the last North American Discworld Convention that he collects books of obscure Victoriana and history) and they take a twist in his brain before emerging into something that looks and feels fresh – but if you look you can see the original source there. The clacks in Going Postal did exist. They were used in France about 50 years before the telegraph got started – but not quite the way Pratchett revisioned them for the Discworld.

There’s also explicit borrowings. I won’t spoiler anything, but Sarah’s A Few Good Men has very strong echoes (deliberately) of the American Revolution. There are hints there of pre-revolutionary France as well – also deliberate, and Sarah has said that Liberte Sea City will have a French-style revolution which will end about as well as the real one did (badly). Those who know their history will find A Few Good Men and its direct sequels have a much deeper resonance for it. Oh, yes. Buy the book. It’s that good.

My method is to not explicitly borrow anything, but to set up resonances. If a culture has names that sound vaguely Celtic, they’ll have cultural patterns that follow the appropriate Celtic model, and their history will have echoes of one of the Celtic nations. Similarly English-y names will go with an English-y culture and an English-y kind of history. If I want it really alien, I’ll use patterns that I’ve built myself and build in stressors to the culture that force it in a direction likely readers will find very unfamiliar. What I’m doing is letting people’s subconscious pattern-recognition do the heavy lifting for me – and I have no shame about this. If there’s something that’s not likely to be in the common view of “what medieval English life was like” (as an example), I’ll do the groundwork so it doesn’t surprise Joe Reader too much. Otherwise the general idea, however incorrect it is, is enough to give the feel of something bigger.

Yes. I admit it. I use tropes and collective ignorance to hook my readers and leave them with something a bit more than they expected. Go thou oh lazy writer, and do thee likewise.




The Element Of Surprise

When did we become convinced that what people want from books is, to quote a friend’s title “Free surprise in every box”?

Yes, like the rest of you I love O’Henry and his surprise endings, and I became very fond of Jill McGown (who either has died or been sidelined as a writer, as her series stopped abruptly) because she could present three plausible solutions, before turning it all around, with known facts, and make the final solution shocking and yet logical.

However, I also re-read a lot of books and if what I were looking for was surprise, that wouldn’t happen.

But because I’m Odd, let’s say that it’s a fallacious theory, because if people wanted “a surprise in every box” sagas, fairytales and romances wouldn’t be NEARLY as popular as they have been/are throughout history.

Honestly, I think this obsession with “you must have an unexpected ending” (which I got often from editors in NYC) comes from two things:

1 Editors read a lot of submitted manuscripts (or at least they used to, when this came about, and get very bored.  So to them an unexpected ending was a bonus.)

2 The sixties made everyone think that entertainment had to have “redeeming value.”  Most of the time, of course, they meant a “social message” but they were willing to settle for something that upended your expectations.

Again, I want to point out I’m as fond of the unexpected ending as anyone else, except for two things: I think I stopped reading science fiction – for about ten years, I came back with Connie Willis’ Lincoln’s Dreams – because the “unexpected ending” either made no sense whatsoever (and then they all turned into fishes and swam around…) or wasn’t unexpected (And then a meteor wiped out the entire human race, which had it coming, the end.)

Before that, at least in my limited experience, science fiction and fantasy (like other genre literature, say romance and mystery) had certain parameters for the ending which it adhered to.  These parameters varied, depending on the sub-genre you were writing.  For instance, in Romance there is the Regency (they marry at the end), the contemporary (they marry and have a baby at the end), and the grittier contemporary/sometimes supernatural (they have a qualified happy ending, but you know they’ll be in trouble next book.)  In mystery, there’s the cozy (the villain is caught and often commits suicide, dies accidently, so you don’t have to go into the nitty gritty of trial law, etc.); the procedural (where the solution has to conform to “can it go to trial”?) and the noir/dark (the villain is found but escapes, or was not really a villain and hangs.)

In science fiction, likewise, there was the man adventures in the stars, which follows the poor boy/girl makes good (Heinlein, by and large); the post apocalyptic (things are bad but we survive.  Weak characters die/go mad.  This is similar to the colonization of new planets novel); the revolution against unjust regime (The God Machine; The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.  Characters survive/achieve their objective.  There’s deaths and pain along the way.); the discovery of a new process/idea/way and its improving or changing mankind (Characters usually survive and in the end have adapted to the change in things.  Sometimes profound epistemological questions are posed along the say, see City by Simak); the alien invasion (some humans survive/get through – always with deep thoughts about what it means to be human.  At least the good ones: The Puppet Masters; They Walked Like Men.)

I think the first time I realized something was seriously wrong was while reading a colonization novel, where the weak character didn’t die/go mad, but the leader did.  This leaves the colony leaderless, and then they all die.  Having read four hundred pages to get to “and they all died after going insane” made the book go against the wall with explosive force.  There was no thought-provoking anything, unless you consider “life sucks and then you die” and “humanity doesn’t have what it takes to go to the stars” thought provoking.

And then the rot spread.  One by one all the books went to Surprise!  And nine out of times it wasn’t, not really.  It was only a surprise in the sense of bait and switch, but once you’re used to bait and switch, you expect it and it’s not a surprise.

Soon every book was doing it.  And I quit reading SF, until I was wooed back and then found Baen.

I think this was about the time the generation came in who “knew” there were right and wrong ways to think, and their job was to raise the consciousness of the public.  Since they could allow no dissenting voice, they couldn’t get the thought provoking frisson that way, so they had to introduce some other element to “keep interest.”  Most of the time that was “Surprise!” which wasn’t.  (When that failed, they went to graphic violence for no purpose [which means no mil sf] and increasingly deviant sex – the example being the bestseller series that has an eight year old girl cut herself for sexual pleasure.  And, of course, sex sells.  Sort of.  Though you have to get increasingly more kinky.  They’re trying.)

I say it is our duty – as Human Wave Authors (and readers) – to replace the “there must be a surprise” expectation with the “makes you think” expectation. That makes it meaty but keeps it from being vapid.

So, surprise the gate keepers.  Write Human Wave.  Make it good.  Show them that thoughtful and deep (but not boring or drippy) CAN do well.

THAT will surprise them!