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How Much Backstory is Enough?

I’ve been thinking about backstory lately, and just how hard it is to judge the right balance.

I think part of the problem is that it can come down to a personal choice. Depending on the preferences of the reader or critiquer giving the feedback you can get either no comment, a request for more information, or a desperate plea to cut! Cut! All for the same piece of work.

One of the crit groups I was in had no other writers working on fantasy. That was good when it came to clarity and brevity, but the sort of atmospheric description that often makes a fantasy manuscript was pretty much taken as unnecessary padding by this group. It’s hard to stand in the face of such united feedback, even if it is dead wrong for your manuscript. I learned a lot from that group about putting in only what was necessary and cutting sections that described the same thing from different perspectives. But, based on that experience, I really started to think about the point of view of the person giving the feedback and making some real judgements about whether the suggested changes would take me in the direction I wanted to go.

The rule of thumb is to cut backstory to an absolute minimum in the beginning of the story. It’s a good maxim. I try hard to do this, but there are limits. Many of my worlds, particularly the fantasy ones, have lots of new concepts and terms that need to be explained from the beginning for the story to make sense. I’m caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. I’m still trying to puzzle that one out.

The other thing that makes me unsure about this is that many stories seem to launch straight into huge sections of backstory/reflection and work well and also find commercial success. In this case it is almost always supporting the establishment of character, rather than the world, but it’s still backstory.

I guess I fall into the same trap as any writer who has spent a long time building a world and getting excited by the concepts – I love to talk about it! And I tend to talk about it on the page. ‘Oh, I have to mention. . .’

But how much backstory is enough? How do you decide?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

The things to avoid

Now that I’ve beaten back Comodo’s insistence that Mad Genius Club is EVIL! EVIL! and got access back to the site (I’m glad I got rid of the bloody thing. Bastards took over DNS routing and didn’t reset it when I uninstalled. That’s just plain bad manners), I can return to your regular Thursday dose of things weird and Kate.

Since we’ve had a flurry of ‘state of the industry’ posts, I’m going to leave that topic lie and talk about something else altogether: things that writers need to avoid while working on the draft.

No, it’s not a prescriptive list of “thou shalt not”. It’s more a case of “these things have effects that can bugger around with your subconscious”. Since a big chunk of writing in the draft phase is convincing/cajoling/tricking/coercing your subconscious into giving up the goodies it’s holding onto (at least if you’re a pantser like me) and letting them show up on the page, anything that interferes with doing that is something you want to avoid.

For me, there is music that’s good to write to and music that – no matter how much I love it – I simply can’t have on when I’m writing. My no-nos include any music that gets an emotional reaction from me (because the emotional swings in music aren’t going to ever synch with the emotions the work in progress needs to have, and the emotion of the music will override what should be happening in the story), music that forces me to actively listen (I can have music as background or actively listen – but some pieces insist I listen. Those will kill writing progress dead), most music with vocals in English (the words throw me out of the writing trance – although there are exceptions to this).

Music that doesn’t fall into the “don’t write to this” list is mostly neutral – I can have it on and it doesn’t help or hinder.

Then there’s a small set of music that kicks my subconscious into gear and makes writing happen.

Of course, the same issues apply to things other than music. Some people work best when they’ve got nice big chunks of uninterrupted time. Others do best fitting their writing around everything else and getting a few words here and a few there. The goal is two-fold: work out what actively blocks your ability to write and avoid that, and work out what helps and try to make that happen. If you can only do one of those at a time, start with finding your blockers and working out how to avoid them.

This is why I have several playlists of writing music. They’re eclectic as hell, but they’re entirely music that’s good to write to. If it ain’t in the playlist and I’m writing at home, it’s not going to be played.

For me another blocker is conversation – so even if I haven’t got music going, I’ll put on the headphones as a “do not disturb” signal.

Of course, my biggest issue when I’m not squeezing writing in around other things (preferably when I think I shouldn’t be writing – damned subconscious!), is getting distracted. I’ll go to look something up and four hours later I haven’t added a single word. One day I’ll get to rehabbing the low-distraction Linux box and run it as the writing machine again. Everything is set up except that it needs to have the drive scanned, cleaned and the operating system loaded clean (not the biggest issue), and that it needs to be vacuumed out because the cat fluff is making it overheat whenever I start it up (this is the big issue – it means I have to pull the box out from under the desk, take the cover off, find the right tool for the vacuum and clean things out… then because the rest of under the desk is such a cat fluff repository, vacuum that… And so it goes. Yeah I’m lazy. And I procrastinate. Besides, most of the writing that’s happening at the moment happens in odd moments when I’m at work, on paper, in longhand. I’m just transcribing which is brainless enough that I don’t really need the focus.

Anyway. Odd Kate-rambles aside, identifying things that get in the way of your writing and either removing them or routing around them matters. I can testify that the little blocks can very easily turn into mighty “thou shalt not write” chains if you don’t.

The Improbable, the Impossible, and the Painful


I was talking to my husband the other day – it is an habit of mine – about how this life of mine is very badly plotted.  What I mean is, if the indie thing was going to be possible, it should have come about when I was young and could work twenty hour days and never feel it, not when I’m fifty and find myself suddenly having to do writing, publishing, cover work, in addition to my regularly scheduled traditional career.

Of course, this is by the way of fatuous whining, because truly, who can say how things would have gone, should indie have been available while I was serving my apprenticeship?

Who knows?  I might never have worked at perfecting story telling.  Given the nature of my first book, I might have sold ‘alpenny, two penny the rest of my life.  Or – again given the nature of my first (written) book – it might have gone viral and become a mega bestseller overnight and I might have written in it the rest of my life, in between telling my secretary to bring me a cup of earl gray.

Who knows?  Things come when they come.  The only thing you can say for the future is that it’s never what we expect.

Would it have been less painful to keep up my schedule at any previous time in my life?  Just about.  Except maybe when the kids were tiny.  Would it have been better?  Who knows?

The history of writing is full of people who blundered into it because it was “sort of like embroidering a cushion” – Agatha Christie – or who wrote because their main career path was blocked by illness – Heinlein and others – or who wrote on the side while doing other stuff.

What it is rarely full of is of people who wrote in ideal circumstances, with everything blessed by fate.  Oh, that happens, mind you.  In the last twenty years, when publishers suffered from the cute illusion that they could pick the winners and the losers, it happened a lot.  But it doesn’t last.  Even if technology hadn’t come along to upend the game board, other things would have happened.  And the darlings of fate are never resilient enough to keep fighting through Dave Freer’s mud floods (Thank you for that image, my friend.  Apt as always.)   The few darlings I know go under as soon as the water turns a little cold, let alone filled with mud – or sharks.

And even if they keep struggling, they rarely see the need to change their angle of attack.   They rarely think: I’ll write it differently/I’ll package it differently/I’ll publish it differently.

Those whom the publishers wish to destroy they first give a dreamboat ride to.  No, that is not true, but you could almost say it.  The ones blessed by the invisible hand of publishing often make it to the mid-high reaches, but none of them are going to become iconic.  (Which, due to the tight control on distro in the last twenty years means there are few to non iconic figures today.  Except Baen.  That’s something else.  Someday, when we’re at a con and have time, remind me to talk to you about the difference between mystery readership and sf readership and how much of it – I think – hinges on Jim Baen.)

Let’s face it, making a living with the word piano (yep, I stole the expression from Rex Stout, and I intend to ride that stolen pony every chance I get.  Deal) is never a path of high likelihood.  Like other artistic professions, if you work really hard, learn every chance you get and never slack off, you stand a good chance of dying of middle age in the gutter.

So, it’s improbable, and when you add in the handicaps and distractions of most of the people who do make it, it’s almost impossible.  It’s almost always painful.

And yet we have this idea – I know, I did, and sometimes still do – that if it is right it will all align perfectly, and that it will all come together.

That idea is dangerous.  It is what destroys your chances of making it.  Because when the current pulls, you just let go.

I know some of you out there are fighting currents much stronger than mine – mine right now is two boys in college and massive worry about money and a body that keeps falling apart.

This post is to let you know that not only aren’t you alone, but you might be blessed.  Those burdens you’re carrying help you stay focused.  There is a lot to be said for staying hungry.

Look at the work of your favorite author after they “made it” – it’s often worse than apprentice work.  Because they made it, they don’t need to try.

I know you often – I often – feel like Tevia in Fiddler, blessed with five daughters.  And yet, whether you believe in G-d or in blessings, it might be a blessing all the same.  It might be what makes you an extraordinary writer.

Swords aren’t forged over a pleasant heat and with gentle strokes of the hand.  They’re forged over infernal heat, with hammer blows.

So, hoist up your pain, shoulder the impossible, turn it into merely improbable.

You can swim through the mud floods to the other side.  It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be pleasant.  You won’t be unscarred.  But others will see you and do it.  And after a while someone will build a bridge.

And I hear the grass is green on the other side.

Choppy water ahead

Sometime in the last week, I came across a blog post where someone talked about going into a newly opened Barnes & Noble and how surprised they were by what they found. The store had opened in the space once occupied by a Borders, iirc, and the blogger had had high hopes for the new B&N. The only problem was that, when they went inside, there was little to show that it was a “book” store. A large portion of the main floor was taken up with a display and sales station for the Nook and various accessories for it. Even upstairs, the number of books available seemed to be a great deal smaller than they should have been. Fewer shelves, fewer books, fewer displays. Oh, but plenty of toys, stationary, etc.

As I read the post, I was torn. Part of me was thrilled to know that BN had moved into the large digs and was giving a neighborhood back its bookstore. But another part of me could only shake my head and say that this is part of the problem with the bookselling industry — and with publishing in general. The big box stores haven’t yet figured out that big doesn’t necessarily mean better. Folks don’t go to a bookstore like they do to a Walmart or Target. They go for books, magazines or newspapers, not necessarily for toys, etc. Perhaps instead of opening such large stores with a huge overhead that includes, rent, utilities and salaries, BN should be looking at smaller stores, possibly even boutique stores. It is time for them to realize the old business plan doesn’t work and they need to find something new.

Now, I get that BN is having to face this sort of decision on all sides. It’s no secret that they are having trouble with the Nook arm of the business. It hasn’t made them the money they’d hoped for. There’s been talk about spinning that part of the company off, even talk of selling it. In an attempt to boost sales, for a limited time this month, BN is giving away a free Nook Simple Touch with the purchase of the Nook HD+. The free Nook is an e-ink device usually priced at $79. The Nook HD+ is their answer to the Kindle Fire HD and the iPad. Unfortunately, BN has been a day late with its dedicated e-readers from the beginning. Problems with the HD+ interface and hardware has some folks waiting for the next version to come out. Whether customers will see this giveaway as a great deal or as desperation by a company in financial difficulties  has yet to be seen.

If that, along with the falling sales from their physical stores, isn’t enough, BN is now in a battle with Simon & Schuster. The internet has been alive the last week or so with authors talking about how BN’s choice to either not stock their books or to not reorder them is hurting their sales. The basis of the problem is the contract renegotiation between BN and S&S. According to the New York Times, BN has cut back “substantially” on the number of titles it is ordering from S&S. While the company is still ordering, albeit in lesser numbers, titles from the so-called best sellers, the orders of books from lesser known authors are reported to be basically nil. The more well-known authors are worried that their books aren’t being given as advantageous placement in the stores as they’ve enjoyed in the past. The end result is less money in the pockets of the publisher and that means less money in the pockets of authors — and, since the traditional publishing industry lives and dies on Bookscan numbers, it means there may be some authors who will not get new contracts because their sales figures were hurt by this dispute.

Since this is an ongoing contract negotiation, no one is really saying exactly what the problems are between BN and S&S. “Unnamed” sources who don’t want to go on the record allege the issues include BN wanting to pay less for the books it stocks while receiving more for prominent display space. If true, you can’t blame BN for flexing its retail muscle and trying to get more money from the publishers. It is the last major bookseller chain in the country. That makes it a huge cog in the wheel of physical book distribution. Also, according to the NYT, BN has told S&S that at least one other publisher has already accepted the terms it is insisting on in the new contract.

But there appears to be another issue at the core of the conflict as well: which party will bear “the financial burden of e-book discounting” now that S&S has agreed to settle the price fixing suit brought against it and other publishers by the Department of Justice. This has to be an issue with as much, if not more, importance for BN than the issue of payment for display space. As I noted above, their Nook arm of the business hasn’t taken off the way they expected. The company has invested huge amounts of money into its digital arm and without much impact in the digital market. I doubt they can match the discounted prices Amazon (and Apple eventually) will be offering on e-books from the publishers who settled with the Department of Justice. Since the company is already bleeding cash, it has to find ways to slow the flow and start plugging the leaks.

Unfortunately, the bookseller and publisher aren’t the only ones who will be impacted by this dispute. Readers are impacted because the books they want aren’t going to be as easy to find from their preferred retailer. It’s possible, at least in the short term, that Simon & Schuster e-books may even disappear from the online store. (Whether the Amazon haters want to admit it or not, BN has also removed the “buy now” button for e-books before.) But it is the authors who will pay the ultimate price. BN is the main source for Bookscan numbers for the sales of printed books. Every S&S author should be quaking in their boots because of this. New contracts are offered based on those Bookscan numbers. If those numbers drop below whatever the magical number du jour happens to be, many of those authors may find themselves cut loose — and not just by S&S. Other publishers look at Bookscan numbers before signing an author. Oh, the dahlings of publishing and the so-called best sellers probably won’t hurt too badly, at least not in the long run. But the mid-listers, those few who still have contracts, and the new authors will.

The only thing I can say is that this is yet another indication of just how the industry is changing and how the old guard is still trying to cling to the old way. Where everything will finally shake out is anyone’s guess. Will publishing survive? Yes. But in what form I have no idea. All I can say is now is the time to make sure the hatches are secured, the engines fueled and everyone is ready to bail because the sea is getting choppy yet again. As we wait for calmer seas in the sea of traditional publishing, go explore what small presses have to offer and look at what your favorite authors may be bringing out on their own. It’s amazing the number of authors who are now bringing out their backlists.

Shifting mudbanks

A writer always faces the the same problems as anyone wanting to achieve a nice quick dash to the fine rewards to be reaped if you were strong enough to collect them… on the far bank of a 300 yard wide tidal river. Oh and for most of us, that’s with 50 ponds of lead weightbelt around your waist, which kind of precludes simply swimming.

Still, if you choose your time and place, the tide is out, the strip water is narrow, and not over neck deep and not moving too fast… You can do it.

The truth though is that is only a dash if you have a boat, a full slack tide, and someone else to carry the weightbelt and start the outboard, or at least help paddle. Otherwise, well…

In theory, that was what publishers did. They owned the handful of boats, and their steersmen knew the shoals you had to pass. For a mere 40% or so of the rewards (the other 50% going to shoals as fresh mud) If you were one of their darlings they gave you a steersman, an outboard, and plenty of fuel. If you were just one of the hoi polloi that none-the-less got one of the boats – possibly with paddles, or at the bottom end, at least a leaky canoe. If you could bale with your cupped hands and paddle with them, you had some chance. You’d be tired on the far side, but alive, and able to gather a few rewards before having to do it all again. The darlings would look at their nice fat pile of rewards carried down to boat by the servitors, and sneer a bit at your in adequacy and preen a bit about how great they were.

If you didn’t have a publisher, you had, at best, a chance to wade through the thigh-deep glutinous mud, and most likely the tide would catch you before you got across. Every now and again some strong soul would time it right and manage it.

Only there have been some severe floods upstream, and the resultant washout has moved the mud. It’s only knee-deep mud now. And, in the flood, huge amounts of debris came down, submerged logs are still floating in the full tide, the boats all got damaged, and most of the fuel got lost or got water in it. And most of the boatmen don’t know where the mud-banks are, many got fired because the business isn’t strong, and some nicked the paddles (their editing, proof reading and cover skills) when they left.

The flood, of course, is the shift to e-books, and debris is the remains of the brick-and-mortar book trade and the new online retail environment. A few years ago those were nice clearly deliminated mub-banks, dominated by Barnes and Noble shoal and Borders shoal, with a handful of other minor players that those two hadn’t devoured. As the boat-men and boat-owners prefered to have to steer past those two shoals, rather than steer through hundreds of lesser ones, they’d happily added extra mud to them. That was 70% of what you had to get through… and the mud was impenetrable unless you had a boat to sail over the top. Your chances as a writer of wading through the independents to the other side was slim. In fact if your leaky canoes struck against one of those two banks, you were probably going to drown. I know this because Barnes and Noble refused to take one of Eric and moi’s early books in hardcover, and then again DRAGON’S RING.
It was pretty hard paddling and dragging ourselves through the gluey mud that got us to the far bank at all, and the rewards -despite good sales outside that venue – were decidely smaller.

Things have changed. Despite the huge and bitter protests from the boat-owners, the big shoals are actually smaller now. Amazon at 27% of total sales (according to Bowker quoted here) – is now the biggest shoal. If you can’t get past that, you will struggle. Barnes and Noble – which is a lot tougher to cross is 16% and down from 17% and fighting bitterly for more mud – not from their rival, Amazon, but from the boat-owners. The victims – besides Simon and Schuster and B&N market share, are largely the smaller publisher-published authors. The poor beggars who got a leaky canoe in first place, or at best a dodgy old rowboat and a map. It’s very noticable that SFWA, many of whose members are badly hurt by this is not pulling B&N’s buy buttons or delisting S&S as qualifying market.

The sweethearts who got a speedboat and boatman, and plenty of fuel are still getting them… except the fuel quality has turned to fairly dodgy, as suddenly B&N and Amazon are demanding 8 months notice and lots of online goodies, so they can eat the pre-sales. So I’ve come across industry darlings – as well as the hoi-polloi like me, moaning bitterly that their marketing and planning come to naught (A minor example from me – the blurb for STEAM MOLE and CUTTLEFISH

contain an error – date – which arrived from the proposal, not the book. I’ve tried to get it fixed, and perhaps so has the publisher. They also got the release date wrong – meaning the build up I planned for the last week… was… over befor it started. That was the date the publisher gave them. It changed but Amazon it seems was not prepared to. No-one, of course saw fit to tell me) because the big players do what they please. Of course the boat owners are now in dire trouble and really not able to refuse.

The interesting part about all of this, is that it is actually possible to wade across the river right now. And wading (with the help of a broken paddle from one the many ex-editors, proof readers, cover artists, which make really good sticks to keep you upright.) can bring you across as well as some boats Of course, it’s a long hard wade, and the rewards aren’t always large.

As I did here.

But it is possible without drowning.

The mudbanks are still shifting. Hopefully none of them get too big.

Two Spacecraft Crash into Moon Mountain!

Yes, really! But not by accident.

On December 17 2012, NASA’s twin GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) spacecraft were steered into a mountain near the Moon’s north pole. Both were about the size of a washing machine with a mass of around 200 kg (440 lbs). The aim here was to squeeze one last bit of science out of the spacecraft and take a look at the Moon’s interior.

The crashes alone could not achieve that. The twin impacts created twin plumes, but another spacecraft had to be on hand to analyse what the nature of these implied for the Moon’s composition. In this case it was NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

In the case of the NASA team driving the LRO it was a mad scramble to get the spacecraft into position to observe the impacts. LRO’s team had only three weeks’ notice of the ultimate position of the two GRAIL’s resting places and had to make sure their baby was on hand to focus on the columns of ejecta.

LRO was about 160 km (100 mi) from the lunar surface when the two spacecraft made impact. Because the site was in shadow at the time of the impact the LRO had to wait until the plumes rose high enough to be in sunlight before making its observation. In this case, the LRO used the LAMP instrument (Lyman Alpha Mapping Project), which is an ultraviolet imaging spectrograph. The LAMP saw mercury and enhancements of atomic hydrogen in the plume.

The results are interesting because the presence of mercury was also noted from the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) impact in October 2009, however that impact was at the bottom of the Moon’s Cabeus crater, which has not seen sunlight in an estimated billion years and is likely to be quite cold.

Now two craters around 4-6m in diameter dot the side of the unnamed mountain at an elevation of around 700m above the surrounding plain, around a third of the way up the 2,500m tall massif. Each has a faint, dark ejecta pattern. The dark ejecta is unusual since  impact craters on the Moon are usually bright. One theory is that the dark pattern is a result of the spacecraft remnants being mixed with the local materials.

If Elon Musk can get the price of space travel down by his claimed factor of 100, then maybe I can send my old washing machine up to the Moon for a scientifically relevant impact. Now that would be something.

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

Kate Paulk Is Not Permitted To Associate With The Likes Of Us

Sorry — I completely forgot till now — which tells you a lot — that Kate had asked me to post.  See, her computer has decided that Mad Genius Club is virus infested (not that the rest of us can see!) and won’t let her in.

She wanted me to post an open thread, usual rules (No hitting, no spitting, no knives, no guns and if you bled on the sheets, have the grace to do the laundry before you leave.  Er… I assume those are the rules, right?)Meanwhile, here is the beginning of Consensual by Kate Paulk.  It’s earc version, but I couldn’t find the finished file.  (I’m not batting 1000 today.)

In my excitement to post the sales-bait below, because, well, I want to see the third, and Kate is highly inspired by cash, I forgot I meant to encourage speculation on why Kate’s firewall won’t let her talk to us:

Has it found out we’re space aliens?

Is it a snob?

Does it think we’ll lead her into the ways of perdition?

Other ideas?



1. Consensual Encounters

Nothing says you’ve left normal reality like walking into a hotel lobby and seeing a Clone Trooper chatting with a Sith Lord. The sign on the back of the Clone Trooper’s armor, ‘Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies. Tonight. Room 1226’, was really just corroborating evidence.

The lure of Dark Side cookies notwithstanding, I took myself to the reception desk and got signed in. I’ll give them this: the staff didn’t seem at all upset by the strangeness manifesting in their hotel. Maybe it’s a southern USA thing, but none of the southern con hotels I’ve been in have ever been anything less than welcoming.

Well, unless the convention was sharing space with one of the more fundamentalist religious conventions. But that’s another story altogether.

ConSensual being one of the bigger southern conventions, I doubted that would be an issue. It was held in one of those sprawling southern cities that takes about five times the land area of a northern city to hold the same population, and usually has so many hotels it’s not hard for any one event to make an exclusive booking.

Whatever they do with them outside the convention season isn’t my business.

I can never keep the hotels straight. This one was one of those modernist faux-elegant jobs with lots of shiny metal and glass, a multi-level gallery area where all the ballrooms and convention areas were, the inevitable bar and house of bad coffee, and the tower containing the actual rooms off to one side.

Since it sat in the middle of one of the less salubrious parts of the city — or at least it looked that way coming in on the airport shuttle — I expected there would be some interesting late night encounters.

I dropped my backpack off in my room: as always, several levels away from the party floor. I’d been able to book the northern side of the hotel this time. After the last con, where a murderous lunatic had crushed garlic into the air vent and opened the curtains while I slept, I was a little paranoid about sunlight and other things.

Yeah, I’m a vampire. I drink blood. Most of the rest is myth, but I am violently allergic to garlic, and while I’m old enough to go walking in the sun that doesn’t mean I like it.

I’d also taken the precaution of registering and signing for my room with one of my alternate identities. I keep a few for backup, in case something happens. Last con, it had, with a vengeance. You don’t get more something than a nutcase performing ritual sacrifices so they can summon Himself Below.

Anyone looking for my hotel room using the name I was registered in with that con would find precisely nothing.

My room was decorated in modernist Hotel Awful, complete with the kind of paintings on the walls that made you wonder who was having who on. This set looked like someone had splattered paint around, ridden a bike through it, then cut up the canvas and sold the results. A similar pattern adorned the bedspread and the upholstery on the chairs. At least everything else was basic beige.

One thing I’d learned from years going to cons, it was always possible to get more mind-bogglingly tasteless.

Back in the lobby area, I braved the con registration queue to collect my badge and the little plastic bag with the program and half a dozen flyers, then scanned the area to see if any of the immortal regulars had arrived yet.

The usual mix of convention exotica mingled and chatted, some costumed, some not. The inevitable Klingons clustered with Clone Troops and Imperial Stormtroopers — possibly giving tips on how to hit the side of a barn at point blank range. A woman in what could only be described as Regency in Space chatted with a White Witch whose pointy hat was at least as tall as she was. The construction had to be reinforced with wire because there was no other way it could have stayed upright. The thing probably made a functional antenna, and with the way the wide brim drooped to cover her ears I gave it maybe half an hour before people were speculating it was an alien mind control device. I knew she was a white witch because her hat and dress were white. She even had a white wand, although thankfully it didn’t have a star on the end. That would have been too much.

This being the south, there were any number of corseted women, although all of them seemed to have forgotten that the usual location of a corset is under the clothing. The inevitable uplift certainly distracted the fanboys. Precisely why the corsets should be paired with tied on wings that could be either butterfly or fairy wings depending on your viewpoint wasn’t something I intended to investigate. Some things are best left to the imagination. Or preferably, forgotten altogether.

At least there were no chain mail bikinis yet. Hopefully with the hotel air conditioning set to the typically southern preference of ‘glacial’, there wouldn’t be any. Not that I was holding my breath or anything.

Well, not until I saw who was sitting out front, eying the con-goers with the kind of disapproval that should have had them dropping dead of sheer fright.

He wasn’t here for the con. I’d bet my life on that. I might never have met him, but everything I’d heard about him suggested that he’d find fen irritating at best, and most of the authors offensive. What he’d think about the publishers — particularly the demonic ones — didn’t bear scrutiny.

I hoped I was wrong, and he was just some random businessman who happened to have a rather strong resemblance to one Vlad Tepes, also known as Dracula. The closer I got to him, the less likely that seemed.

For starters, he was definitely a vampire. I can pick most immortals by scent: it takes a vampire older and stronger than me to mask the faint cold smell of my kind, and then… well, nothing smells of nothing at all. No scent meant old, powerful, and probably not with good intentions.

He was also the right age — five hundred years, give or take a few. Him being awake in the middle of the day meant only that he’d grown strong enough to tolerate daylight and lose the sense of time that protects younger, weaker vampires. For a vampire his age to tolerate daylight, he had to be stronger than most, which fitted with the bits and pieces known about the man. If this truly was Dracula, the likelihood of him limiting himself was somewhere close to the chances of the sun rising in the west.

I could reasonably assume that he had given up his favorite means of execution: this wasn’t an era when putting people on sticks and letting them die slowly was something that could be done discreetly. That didn’t mean he hadn’t found other ways of torturing people who got in his way.

All of which meant that since I was the only immortal regular around, I had to warn him off. Joyous.

At least this didn’t count as saving the world. Once was enough for that.

He watched me through eyes that slowly grew wider and more intent as I approached. Not that I bothered to hide what I am, since there wasn’t any point deceiving anything weaker than me and anything stronger would see straight through that kind of deception. It’s one of those woo-woo tricks that always struck me as kind of silly.

He wasn’t hiding anything either, and he was stronger than his age would suggest. From what I knew about the man, he was probably about as pissy and stubborn as I am, which tends to make a vampire get stronger faster than normal. Something about not giving up when you’re beaten.

It wasn’t really that obvious who he was: his hair was unremarkably short, and he was clean shaven, which did a lot to change his appearance. It’s just that when someone gets as much infamy as Dracula does, just for being a vampire, it’s worth my while to make sure I know who he is and what he looks like, in case I run into him.

Stoker might have been way off on a lot of things, but it’s worth making sure. Sometimes there’s a seed of truth in all the nonsense, you know?

The upholstery here looked like white leather. I’d be willing to bet it was a good looking fake. Like they were in every hotel I’d been in, the chairs were that awkward not quite comfortable enough to stay in but damned hard to get out of shape which I swear is custom designed just for hotels.

I nodded in his direction. “Staying long?”

His control was damn good, I’ll give him that. He didn’t so much as twitch. “I was not aware this region was claimed.” His accent was one of those not-quite-British accents you sometimes hear from people who started with a British accent and travel a lot. Not bad for someone from the ass end of Eastern Europe.

Of course, with five hundred years to play in, you can learn a language really well.

“As far as I know, there aren’t any claims.” I’m the first to admit I’m kind of an oddity even for vampires, but the last I’d heard staking out territories — yes, I’ve heard the puns, more times than I want to think about — never really took hold in the Americas. It’s only been the last hundred years or so that there’s been enough people reliably in the one place to support a vampire outside of a handful of cities.

Most of the vampires I’d come across were more or less vagabonds, moving from place to place in a kind of circuit to avoid being too obvious. Once you get into the habit of being on the move, the things you need to settle start looking like too much trouble.

He studied me without comment. Slight pressure against my mind, a bit like an incipient headache that never quite materializes, told me he was probing me. I let him. It wasn’t like I had anything to gain or lose in forcing a confrontation.

Eventually I inclined my head in the direction of the Sith Lord and the Clone Trooper. “I’m here for the convention. There’s a fair few immortals who attend, and we have an informal agreement. Nothing that attracts attention, nothing that harms the guests.”

I don’t know if what I got was a smile or not. His mouth made the right shape, but nothing else changed. “A sensible precaution, under the circumstances.”

I shrugged and spread my hands. “It works. There’s a few of us who keep an eye out, one way or another.”

“Our kind?”

Score one for me. He was a controlled bastard — getting surprise out of him was a definite win. “Nah. You name it, there’s one or more of it here, or will be.” I grinned. “Trust me, I’m probably the best of us you could have run into.”

One eyebrow rose just enough to make a noticeable change of expression. “I would have said being warned off by an elder was impressive enough.”

That was one for him, although I’d be damned if I was going to let him see it. One of the reasons I put up with what was at the time a long and uncomfortable ocean journey to come to the Americas was the way the Europeans were so hung up on class. Being an elder vampire just meant that I was good at not dying. It didn’t make me something you paid tribute to. “I’m not warning you off, just letting you know the convention rules.” I smiled, not showing my fangs. “Call me Jim.”

That’s not my real name, of course. I’m not sure that you could say I’ve got a real name, since I’ve used a whole lot of names over the years, and I don’t remember the one my parents gave me.

He gave me the kind of look that said better than words he wasn’t impressed. Not that I looked all that impressive: I don’t dress fancy unless I’m in costume, and I hadn’t replaced the Olde Worlde Vampire getup after the last con. Right now I was wearing sneakers, jeans, and a gray tee with a logo showing two dragons playing ‘snap the wishbone’ with an armored knight. Oh, and sunglasses, of course. I looked like a paler version of the typical male fan.

After a while he said, “Victor Drake,” and offered his right hand.

I shook it. “It’s a pleasure.” He was still young enough — or held his name in high enough esteem — to use variants of his name. I generally aimed for generic when I built an identity, something not quite as obviously anonymous as ‘John Smith’ but nearly as invisible.

‘Drake’ gave me a thin smile. “I am here for several days on business.” He handed me a business card.

Call me warped, but I had a hard time not laughing. For Vlad Dracula — sorry, Victor Drake — to be the owner of a timber and hardware chain was the kind of darkly ironic twist that hit my sense of humor where it lived. Score another one to him.

His smile was actually more genuine this time. “It keeps me occupied,” he said mildly. “These days my old amusements would not be well received.”

I could think of a few places where making human popsicles would do a lot of good — and a few people who deserved to be human popsicles — but that was beside the point. “True. Times change.” I shrugged. “Personally, I’ll take the security hassles and the like just to have the modern plumbing.”

Drake actually laughed. “You have a point. Modern cities are much less malodorous than their historical counterparts.”

Modern cities typically didn’t turn the local rivers and streams into open sewers, or throw so much ash and soot into the air everything was covered with a thick layer of black filth. Progress and technology might have their disadvantage, but from my perspective the overall result was so much better it made the drawbacks seem pretty minor.

I grinned. “Precisely.” Levering myself out of the Hotel Awful chair took some doing. “I hope your business trip goes well.”

He inclined his head in a gesture that mixed amusement and acknowledgment. “As do I.”


2. A Well-Earned Trophy

I wasn’t exactly inclined to trust Drake, but it was none of my business what he did so long as he did it away from the convention and the hotel. The city was large enough for two vampires for a weekend.

After another meander through the lobby and registration area showed no-one I recognized except as vaguely familiar faces, I started looking for an empty seat so I could check out the program and see if there were any interesting panels scheduled. Instead, I got Sean’s presence in my head. He wanted me to head to the parking garage, so he could show me something.

No, not that something. Sean’s a werewolf, and besides, when he changes shape I get to see it all anyway. He shouldn’t be able to drop messages in my head like that — and wouldn’t have been able to if the silly wolf hadn’t offered his own blood to help me heal from garlic poisoning. The link that gets made when I drink lasts until one of us dies. That’s not the problem: that the link means I can control him if I choose to is.

Typical of the wolf to use it like a blasted cell phone. It’s a good thing I like the silly fur-face.

The elevator to the parking garage was hidden behind a maze of turns in narrow corridors with concrete walls. They’d been done with fake stucco to make them look like stone, but it didn’t take more than a cursory look to tell the difference. I guess guests who had the audacity to park their own cars weren’t as valuable as the ones who’d pay through the nose for valet parking.

Okay, I admit it. I’ve considered buying a junker and driving it to a local hotel just to see the look on the attendant’s face. Who hasn’t?

The elevator doors opened after a short wait, spilling out a collection of humans, oversized suitcases, and what I could only class as weird shit. Presumably the latter was destined for the dealers room, since the odd-shaped bags and boxes didn’t have any other use I could see. Once it had disgorged its cargo — which seemed about twice what the elevator could hold — I stepped in and hit the button for the garage level Sean had dropped into my head.

Someone had left a gassy gift in the elevator. A noxious one, too, adding rotten egg gas to the already unpleasant odors of sweaty human, tobacco, and cheap perfume. There are times I wish my nose would shut down in self-defense.

It was warmer and liquid air humid in the basement levels. The sweat smell lingered, mixing with gasoline, oil, and various mechanical odors. I’d still rather breathe that than recycled digestive system.

“Over here, Hickey!” Sean waved from somewhere at the far end of the basement — there were so many cars in the way it was difficult to say for sure just how far back he was.

I didn’t hurry. The wolf had probably retreated to the air conditioning inside the car. Hard to believe that two weeks ago it had been cold enough for a jacket — although the fact that we were something more than a thousand miles further south might have something to do with the difference. Small wonder every con hosted its very own flavor of con crud.

Sean’s car wasn’t anything special: one of the mid-range Ford sedans, originally silver and now a kind of gray, old enough to have collected its share of dents and scrapes. What he had hanging off the rear view mirror was something else altogether.

The wolf sat in the driver’s seat with the door open, grinning up at me. If I leaned that way, I might find him attractive: dark blond, the kind of wiry physique you get when you’re burning calories at speed, and the inevitable shit-eating grin. As always, his hair looked like he’d been running his fingers through it.

He wore jeans and a too-tight tee he’d probably picked up at Goodwill. Between his tendency to forget to keep his claws in when he scratched himself and unexpected shifts, Sean went through tee shirts like they were disposable. I’d never asked, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he bought in bulk at Goodwill. Why spend a lot on something you’re going to ruin in one or two uses?

That wasn’t the problem. His rear view mirror sported a shriveled up set of demonic equipment. Yeah. That equipment.

I could understand him keeping it for a trophy, seeing as he’d bitten it off the demon in question, but he really didn’t need to advertise.

It’s not like it was subtle, either. Even dried up like that it was larger than human average. And no, I don’t go around measuring. I see people’s thoughts when I’m not actively blocking, and for whatever the reason that particular piece of human equipment seems to get an awful lot of fond thoughts.

Frankly, I’m glad I mostly don’t need to deal with that any more. If I drink something other than blood I need to let it out a couple hours later, and sometimes when I’m well fed and like the lady I can rise to the occasion, but that’s about it. No embarrassing semaphore acts, no getting led around by the wrong head, none of that.

“What do you think, Hickey?” Sean asked. “Should I bring it in to show off?”

I sighed. “Wolfie, unless there’s a lady werewolf for you to shake your tail at, people are just going to think you heard about head hunting and got the wrong head.”

“That’s what I like about you,” he said with a grin. “You’re such a cheerful, encouraging kind of guy.”

I shrugged. “Practice.”

Sean wagged a finger at me and climbed out of the car. “Guess I’ll leave old ugly’s gear there. Funny thing, no-one’s even tried to break in since I hung it up there.”

“Did anyone ever try before?” Werewolves might not piss on their possessions to mark them, but that didn’t make them any less protective of whatever they regarded as ‘theirs’.

He grinned and popped the trunk. “Not that you’d notice.”

*     *     *

Sean didn’t have much gear with him: enough to fill a big duffel bag, and a backpack for toting whatever he picked up during the con. Both were the same anonymous green-gray canvasy material that’s cheap and sturdy and looks like everyone else’s gear.

The wolf probably picked his out by scent.

We didn’t say much until we’d found his room — pretty much the same as mine, although he was a couple of levels lower and on the southern side. The sideboard and bedside chests looked classy but the dark wood veneer probably hid chipboard or something equally cheap. The usual fancy booklets sat on the sideboard beside the TV.

If this hotel was typical of the breed, they’d include a long list of amenities that cost extra — basically anything that wasn’t your bed and shower. I found it amusing the way they’d advertise high speed Internet but charge you an arm and a leg to actually use it.

None of them had managed to outdo one I’d stayed in where they charged you an arm and a leg — and wanted the same amount for dialup as they demanded for broadband.

I’ve got one of those neat little netbooks that have gotten popular in the last few years because they’re so small and light, but even though I bring it with me it doesn’t get much use at cons. There’s too much entertainment happening elsewhere.

Having to get it de-garlicked after the last con didn’t help. It’s amazing how the stuff lingers.

Sean dropped onto the bed and flopped back. “Have you seen any of the regulars?”

“Not yet.” I shrugged. “You’ll want to be a bit careful of the instincts, though.” Werewolves normally didn’t get on with vampires. Sean made an exception for me. “Dracula is staying here — he’s using Victor Drake.”

The wolf let his breath out on a low whistle. “I thought he was a legend.”

“Apparently not.” So far in my experience those legends tended to have some kind of truth buried in them. What that truth was usually differed a lot from the legends, in ways that usually ended up biting someone in the butt. As often as not I was the someone concerned.

“Huh.” Sean considered what I’d said for a bit before he said, “So what’s he like?”

I should have seen that coming. Sean had all the curiosity of a puppy, and about the same level of restraint. Okay, it mostly manifested around pretty women, but still… I should have expected him to want to know about the world’s most notorious vampire.

“He’s a cold bastard,” I said with a shrug. “Self-controlled like you wouldn’t believe, doesn’t give much away. Pissy, too.” That last wasn’t exactly something I’d observed, but rather an inference from the way he’d regarded my interference.

“Just like you, then.” Sean grinned, taking the bite out of his insult. “So what’s he doing in the neighborhood?”

“He owns a hardware chain specializing in wood.”

That got the wolf laughing. Like me, he had a pretty good idea of the history of the Dracula myth, although he hadn’t studied it the way I had. “So long as he’s not sticking it up anyone’s –”

“I doubt it,” I said dryly. “That gets noticed.”

He chuckled. “You’re such a prude.”

I shook my head. “And you’re a shit-stirring bastard.” We’d had this discussion a few times now. I’m not a prude, I just don’t see any need to get that explicit. The wolf likes to tease me about it, so it’s become something of a running argument.

“It’s fun, too.” Sean rolled off the bed and stood. “Any other fun people to avoid?”

I shrugged. “I haven’t looked at the program yet.” I pulled it out of the bag and flipped through to the guest list. “Well, unless you want to get involved in the latest round of capitalist versus communist hostilities, you probably want to avoid Red Zimmerman and Daniel Sanderson.” Zimmerman was probably the genre’s most notorious communist sympathizer, where Sanderson was equally loudly gung-ho pro-American-style capitalist. Neither that nor their wives stopped the two men carrying on a secret war that was… well. It wasn’t under the bed so much as under the bedcovers.

The wolf’s teeth looked sharper than they should be when he grinned.

“Let’s see… guest of honor is — oh dear God. Ren Savant.”

Sean’s groan echoed the one I wanted to give. “Maybe there are gas masks in the dealers room?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I wasn’t planning on getting that close.” I flipped through the guest list and biographies ranging from pompous to ridiculous. And stopped. “Christopher Marlowe?”

Okay, it’s not like the name is off-limits because there was an Elizabethan poet and playwright of the same name, but still… It was a trifle snobbish to use that name in fiction, even if you owned it. “Yeesh. Next we’ll have Bill Shakespeare roaming the cons.”

Let me tell you, the wolf’s giggle isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s a true psychopath giggle, low-pitched and quite evil.

I shrugged and looked on. “Hm. New agent I don’t recognize, fellow called Mike Onyx, is on a couple of panels.”

“Are the Bostings on any?” Sean wanted to know.

I flipped through the panel listing. “Yeah. Some silly twit has given Natalia the sex panel again.”

Sean’s eyes lit up. “Cool! Who’s she dissecting this time?”

It would be a dissection, too. Natalia, being a reformed succubus, was dangerous on most panels, but she was sheer hell for anyone who didn’t have her sense of humor when she was on a sex panel. “Some woman who does paranormal romance, one of the Interchangeable Feminists, and they’ve got Sanderson as the sacrificial male.”

“That’s a definite, then.” Sean’s grin belonged on his wolf shape, not the human one. It had too many teeth for a human. “What are these people on?”

“Self-delusion.” I’m not sure if I sounded bitter or just dry. The fact is, most of the field is crazy. What varies is how much.

The wolf shrugged. “Probably. Let’s go see if anyone else has shown, hm?”


3. How to Handle a Drunk Vampire

The crowd had thickened considerably when we returned to the lobby and registration area. This wasn’t just a metaphor — there was no shortage of oversize fen. Despite the typical fan being more intelligent than the human norm, there was plenty of mental denseness around too, most of it deliberate.

Not that this was in any way surprising: there’s a very special kind of stupidity only the highly intelligent can manage, and it’s most likely to show up amongst outcasts. You don’t get much more social outcast than a science fiction convention. It’s the ghetto of the intelligent and socially inept.

Sean’s nose had to be at least as overwhelmed as mine. Any number of cheap perfumes and aftershaves mingled with the smell of bathing-optional lifestyles and the after-taste of a veritable potpourri of recreational substances. It took concentration to pick up the brimstone tang that told me at least some of the demonic regulars were here.

Editors, probably. Most of the genre publishers were dominated by demon editors. Real demons, doing their part to spread misery and despair. They certainly weren’t doing much to spread good books — your average demon has no taste.

I couldn’t smell anything that suggested Raph was here, although I knew the angel planned to attend. Whether he’d have a new con squeeze or he’d bring his pet succubus wasn’t something I wanted to speculate about. What Raph’s actual job was wasn’t something I wanted to know. I preferred to leave fighting demon lords to the people who were most qualified for it.

Not that I’d been given a choice. Raph was pretty close about the rules he had to keep to, so all I really knew was that he didn’t like having to watch me fight and not be allowed to help.

A group of Australians — the accents gave them away — were setting up a table with a bunch of promotional goodies, presumably to publicize some convention or other. From the conversation, I gathered that they’d got themselves a grant from their government that covered their expenses. They seemed to think it was a sweet deal, and I couldn’t blame them.

Who wouldn’t like to be paid for what amounted to a long vacation interspersed with partying?

I meandered over to the dealers room, which naturally wasn’t open yet. From the look of things booksellers would be in the minority. I saw trolleys laden with clothing, costumes, jewelry, weaponry… And a few with books. I didn’t recognize any of the dealers except the skinny weapons merchant who I think was also a Crown author.

So far so good. I’d been here several hours and hadn’t seen anything foreboding. No blood magic implements in any of the dealers wares, no ritual sacrifices, and best of all, no corpses. Victor Drake didn’t count: he wasn’t part of the con. If he did something stupid, so long as he didn’t do it to any of the con-goers it was no business of mine.

I started to relax a bit. I could hang out with the wolf, meander through the parties with Natalia and her family, and generally enjoy myself while arranging enough assignations to get myself fully fed. Perfect.

It couldn’t last, of course.

When I extracted myself from the crowd so I could breathe properly, without the feeding reaction too much humanity evoked, I saw… Well. It was in the bar, laughing loudly in a tenor that had the distinct timbre of a vampire’s voice — humans don’t hear it, but there’s a kind of extra resonance there — and it was very, very drunk. It was also a Sight to Behold.

Editorial demons were probably drooling enviously over the fashion sense, or lack thereof.

I drew closer, keeping my face as neutral as I could: usually very. The drunk vampire had auburn hair with that slight too-good-to-be-natural tint, and was nominally male. While I approached, he pushed long fingers into his right eye. What emerged was a glass eye, one of the reasonably good quality ones — although they’re not made to be treated like that.

He held it over his victim, a human who was so totally wrapped in vampiric mind-games he probably wouldn’t have jumped if someone hit him, and said with mock solemnity, “I have my eye on you, my friend,” then laughed again.

“Gross.” Sean sounded as though he was trying not to growl.

I nodded. It looked to me like this was one vampire who needed to be put out of everyone else’s misery. Not that I’m being judgmental, mind you, but someone who makes jokes that bad, even when they’re staggering drunk — and I really, really did not want to know how much alcohol a vampire had to drink to get drunk — does not deserve to live.

With his eye back where it belonged, the vampire was one of your pretty-boy types. I guess he’d been changed somewhere in his mid-twenties, but he looked like he was barely out of his teens. He wore an expensive three-piece suit of the faux-gothic persuasion, which would have been tasteful in black or dark gray. In blood red, which clashed with his hair, it was just… wrong. The hot pink shirt didn’t help.

Yeah, there’d be demons in awe at his fashion sense.

The human he was gracing with what passed as his wit was a typical fanboy of the skinny variety, mousy and unremarkable if you excused the look of ‘freshly landed fish’.

It wasn’t until I got even closer that I realized the vampire was something in the order of four hundred years old — plenty old enough to know better. Considering how long he had to have been drinking to be this drunk, I was amazed I couldn’t see any… well, leakage.

It’s not that being a vampire makes you lose bladder control, it’s just that when you don’t use your bladder that much you don’t recognize the ‘time to empty’ signals.

Oh, and I wasn’t trying to scare the drunken fool. I hadn’t done anything to conceal my approach, but I got within a couple of feet of him before he realized I was there, and spun around with what I hoped was a quote from some Elizabethan play. It sounded like it, all “What, ho,” and an accent that was a lot more guttural than modern English. Which I could have dealt with, if the vampire’s bladder hadn’t chosen that precise moment to decide it had suffered enough abuse.

*     *     *

I helped him to clean up — I’m not that much of a bastard. Besides, getting him to his room and into somewhat less eye-watering outfit also gave me plenty of opportunity to find out just what kind of idiot I was dealing with.

The wolf, damn him, found reasons to be somewhere else.

On the whole, that was probably a good thing, because the kind of idiot I was dealing with was the worst kind. I can deal with a reckless vampire. I can even deal with a reckless drunk vampire. A reckless, drunk, vampire author is pushing it.

I had to fight the urge to scare him sober. That would mean taking a sip, and I wasn’t touching blood that full of alcohol. “Christopher Marlowe.” The Marlowe, of course. Sixteenth century playwright, died young with a knife in his right eye, under circumstances that could be called suspicious only if you really wanted a major understatement.

Obviously the ‘died’ part wasn’t true. As for the rest, well… It was a brutal era.

He smiled, looking boyish and surprisingly vulnerable. “It isn’t that unusual a name.”

I was seeing things. Marlowe did not bat his eyelashes at me. Metaphorically or otherwise. “Around here? No.” Not when you saw people calling themselves ‘Rainsong’ — and that was one of the milder ones I’d seen. “That’s not the problem.” I folded my arms and didn’t quite glare at him while he sat on the bed fumbling with his shoelaces.

“Oh, please.” Marlowe knew sarcasm, even drunk. “Do try keeping your nose out of other people’s affairs. It’s ever so refreshing.”

“I don’t care what you do in private, or what you do it with.” Although from what I knew, during his official life the ‘what’ had been mostly Mrs. Palm and her five daughters. Or perhaps given Marlowe’s entirely too obvious leanings, Mr. Palm and his five sons. “You’re not in private.”

Fortunately, Marlowe had been so obviously staggering drunk no-one was likely to think I was sleeping with the twit.

“We are now.”

He was not trying to make a pass at me. “Nope. There’s a bunch of fen who saw me hauling your drunk ass here. They’re probably assuming I cleaned you up and left you here, since I’ve got a reputation as kind of a cold bastard.” That was stretching things a bit. For the most part I avoided attention altogether.

Marlowe finished tying his shoelaces and smiled triumphantly.

“People might not know what you do in here, but they know who goes to whose room, when, and make guesses about why. Someone goes into your room and doesn’t leave, you’re in trouble.”

He looked honestly confused — one in his favor, I suppose. It meant he didn’t normally kill his meals.

I didn’t give him time to think about it. “I don’t know — or care — what you’re used to, but here there’s enough immortals on the con circuit that we’ve got some rules. Nothing in the hotel, and nothing that attracts attention.”

He pouted. “I’m an author, sweetheart. I’m supposed to attract attention.”

“Not the kind that wants to shove something sharp through your heart and chop your head off you aren’t.” How had he survived? Marlowe did not have anything like the kind of self-control a vampire needed to avoid the howling mobs.

On second thoughts, I didn’t want to know how he’d survived. I know most people are stupid, even the smart ones, but I preferred not to have the evidence in my face. No matter how Marlowe had managed to avoid the mob, it had to be something that would make me wince.

He levered himself to his feet. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was thin enough that he gave the impression of being tall. Part of it was vampire glamour, of course. Even when we’re not trying to, we project a certain amount of what we are. “Ah.” He smiled, and even drunk as he was it was the kind of knowing, sarcastic smile that set my teeth on edge. “Jealousy.”

“Hardly.” I didn’t try to conceal sarcasm. “I just prefer not to have to clean up after childish idiots mess themselves in public.”

*     *     *

I shouldn’t have been surprised that Marlowe followed me back down to the lobby. He was the type to do things just to piss someone off.

Fortunately for my self-control, the Bostings were just done checking in when I got there. “Natalia!”

She turned, and smiled. “Jim!”

Even a reformed succubus packs a powerful hug.

Don Bosting shook hands, as did the two Bosting spawn. It was — of course — Ricky who asked, “Who’s the vision behind you?”

Natalia dropped her suitcase. “Kit!” A moment later, Marlowe was getting the Natalia hug. I think his eyes would have crossed if the right one hadn’t been glass.

I winced and shook my head. I should have guessed she’d know him. Natalia knew everyone.

“Long time no see, playboy. Are you still drinking yourself stupid?”

Marlowe smiled. I have to admit it was a sweet smile — he was definitely a charmer when he wanted to be. I hoped there weren’t any incubi around. “Your friend there seems to think it’s unwise.”

“Oh, pooh.” Natalia wrinkled her nose. “Jim’s a stick in the mud.”

All three Bosting males looked at me. Given that they’re all something over six foot, and Don and Anson are built like the proverbial brick outhouse, it’s kind of like being stared at by a wall. Ricky’s just as tall, but he’s got more of a dancer’s build, or a fencer’s.

I spread my hands. “That is Christopher Marlowe.” I wasn’t going to ask where Natalia had met him. It didn’t matter.

Three identical looks of narrow-eyed disbelief met my comment.

“He’s drunk. I just got him cleaned up after he… lost it.” I shrugged. “I didn’t mean to scare him.”

Ricky snickered. “Poor Uncle Jim. You get the best weirdoes.”

“Tell me about it.”

Anson shook his head. “He’s a vampire too?”

I nodded. “And heaven help whoever turned him.”

“Don’t be nasty, Jim.” Natalia’s accent was on tour again. “Kit’s a sweet boy.”

Both Bosting spawn rolled their eyes. Don just sighed. “Another one of your exes, dear?”

Natalia laughed. “Not really, no.” She twinkled in our general direction. “I’m just pleased he’s writing again.”

I wondered if he knew his editor was almost certainly a demon, and decided not to ask. Natalia could babysit Master Marlowe. I had better things to do.

And if you haven’t read the first book, it’s

Write The One You’re With

So, a question I keep getting from all of you – beginners, middle-pros and everyone in between is: how do you finish a story?  How do you stay with it till you finish it?

The answer of course is “you just do.”

However, most of you start hissing and throwing rotten tomatoes when I say that.  So, instead, let me explain a little.

When I was a young writer, knee high to flash-fiction, I attended the Professional Writers’ Workshop taught on the Oregon coast by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.

I learned all sorts of things at that workshop, including Dean telling me to stop (for the love of heaven) worrying about my word choices, because even if I made the occasional mistake, it wasn’t that bad.  (I think what he said was “your words are good enough.”)

You might underestimate the level of relief from this, but up till then it took me about a month to write a short story.  When I came back, I started doing a short story a weekend.  See, I’d been writing the basics in a day, anyway.  But I was polishing the language for a month afterwards because I was afraid when my stories hit the editorial offices they went “ESL.  Come and listen to the funny foreigner” then did dramatic readings…

The second thing Dean said though was, “All stories, no matter the length die at the halfway point.  If you push past that, they come to life again, and no one can tell where they stopped.”

Although I hate to disagree with the man, because he has a truly spectacularly bad habit of being right, he’s wrong about MY stories.  They usually die a third of the way in, then again at two thirds.  Which means books like the vampire musketeer which are really a story in three books are no end of fun.

There are various reasons the story dies, though and none of them are real.

You know exactly what I mean about dying.  You’re going along, can’t wait to get to the computer to write more, and suddenly the story goes flat and there are a million other stories in your mind, and at least one is WAY more attractive.  You have a feeling this is, no matter what you do, a very bad story.  You want to ditch the whole thing and go do the litter boxes.

This can go on for days, unless I take myself in hand and force myself to continue.  Again, it helps to know the way it feels isn’t “real.”

The story isn’t (necessarily) bad, and it’s not (necessarily) boring, and it’s as interesting as it was when you started (yes, siree.)  It’s just that you’ve made compromises to get it where it is.  You can’t put a whole world on paper, no matter how much you try, and if you managed it, it would be unreadable.  So you’ve chosen to show this, not that, the other thing, not the other one.  And by that middle of the book you’re feeling disillusioned.

Then there’s of course the fact that if you’re in the middle (or a third in) you know how hard it was to get there, and the though of going through the same.  As Shakespeare said, in prettier words, it is easier to go back than to go the rest of the way.

This is why many people rewrite the first half of their book to death (don’t do that) or abandon the book and start another, convinced that they don’t have what it takes to finish.

This isn’t true.  You have what it takes – or at least you do if you already wrote half.

Just keep that in mind.

Give yourself a break.  Go for a walk.  Get a coffee.  But, at the end of it, come back – preferably before the end of your writing time.  Sit down.  Write.

Yes, the first few pages after the “death” of the book will feel like pulling teeth.  Promise yourself some reward if you do x number of pages.  Then keep doing it.

For me, usually, the whole thing comes to life again within twenty pages, and fifty pages later I’m again fully engaged.  (At least when writing a novel.  I don’t notice the death so much when it’s a short because I write very fast.)

There’s nothing wrong with the started story.  And abandoning it for a new sexy thang would be like Henry the VIII trading wives and never getting any happier.

Write the one you’re with.  The other one can wait.

Bonfire, anyone?

Most of you know that I’ve been working on a novel that attacked me about six weeks ago. Yes, attacked is the correct verb because that is exactly what it did. At the time, I was almost 50,000 words into a suspense novel I’d been working on — and was late delivering — and had finally figured out what the problem was. Then, during the middle of the night, the stealth novel hit. It’s obvious now, in retrospect, that the plot had been percolating in the back of my mind for awhile. But when it first hit, all I knew was that it came storming into my head and took over.

In the time since I’ve started “seriously” writing — in other words, actually letting my babies go instead of hiding them under the bed — my writing process has been fairly consistent. An idea would come to me, I’d make a few plot notes (usually somewhere between 5 – 10 pages) and I’d sit down and write. The actual writing process consisted of sitting somewhere with my laptop or, when I still used a desktop, pulling out the wireless keyboard and working. Pen and paper were relegated to those times when something would come to me as I worked that I wanted to jot down so I didn’t forget it.

But not this book. Oh, no. This book turned my process upside down. For one thing, it is the closest thing to actually pantsing a novel I’ve done since the days when I was writing and shoving everything under the bed. To be honest, I’d quit being a true pantser long before then. By the time Sarah forced me to show her something I’d written, I’d started the move to what is part pantser and part plotter.

As I said, this book didn’t want to tell me what was going to happen from one chapter to the next. Because of that — and because it required me to write each chapter out longhand before either dictating it into Dragon or transcribing it — I fought this book tooth and nail. Sarah has listened to me whine and bitch and the nicest thing I’ve called it is the dreckish of dreck. Why? Because it wasn’t conforming to the process I was comfortable with and because it wasn’t exactly the sort of story I’ve written before.

But I pushed through. Part of the reason is because the book just wouldn’t leave me alone. Usually when a plot hits me like this I can make a few notes or write a few pages and it will go back to sleep until I have time to get to it. This one wouldn’t. It took all my other projects hostage, tied them up, gagged them and locked them in the basement. Whenever I balked at finishing, it threatened to take one of my other projects and drop it down a deep, dark well.

So I kept at it and I finished the novel the end of last week. I put it aside for several days and gave my head time to come up for air. I worked in the yard, did some work around the house and some much needed work on an author event our friends of the library group is hosting this Saturday.

And I discovered this book continues to break the rules I’d become comfortable with.

Morbid curiosity had me breaking my first rule of editing. I never, ever look at something I’ve written unless there is at least a week in between finishing writing and when I print the pages out. My preference is to let the novel sit for a month. That gives me the mental space I need to look at what I’ve written with fresh eyes and that, in turn, lets me see what is on the page and not what I think is on the page. I’ve found this has helped me realize when information is only in my head and not on the page for the reader. It also helps me see technical problems that need to be fixed.

But, staying true to form, this book poked and prodded at me enough yesterday morning that I converted it and put it on my kindle. Okay, I’ll admit it, I also printed it out, but those pages are pretty much untouched so far. I can’t say the same for the kindle version of the rough draft.

What I discovered has been interesting. It didn’t take long to realize I’d dropped two cookie crumbs that help explain the main character’s motivation. The problem is that I didn’t pick them up later. So I’ve made notes about where to go back in and correct that problem. I might not have left Johnny hanging off the cliff at the end of chapter 3, but these little bits will make the main character’s motivations more understandable. I also have another character’s father being dead at the beginning of the book. Later, he and the character’s mother are in Ireland and later still they are in Florida. So, either the mother travels a lot and carries hubby’s ashes — or body — with her or dear old Dad is a zombie. While either explanation would fit another book that has been on the back burner for awhile, it doesn’t fit this one. So, I’ve made a note to go in and fix that as well. Of course, there are also the inevitable comma faults and misspellings to correct, but that is part of my life.

Those problems aside — and they are typical of what a lot of pantsers encounter on the first edit pass — the book doesn’t suck. Mind you, I’m my own worst critic and I know it. So this feeling that what I’ve written, and fought at every step along the way, isn’t horrible is new. It is also scary. I can’t help wondering if I’m just deluding myself and this book is the worst thing I’ve ever done. There is the very real desire to shove the book under the bed — or, better yet, to use it as fuel for a bonfire — and never let it see the light of day. But I won’t, at least not yet. I’ll send it off to my beta readers after I finish the first edits. It will be up to them to tell me if it is a cabbage or a worse.

But before I do that, I have to finish the edits and I will be adding the first chapter or two to another book at the end. I can hear you guys asking why I’m doing that when I’m seriously considering burning the manuscript. The answer is multi-fold. When I write, even if I’m on the first draft of something, I tend to put it into a format as close to conversion ready as possible. If I’m OCD about anything, it’s that. For another, if the betas like the novel I’m sending them, I want to know if they’d: 1) read the sample chapters, 2) if the sample chapters are interesting enough or intriguing enough that they’d go looking for the book they are excerpted from, and 3) if the answer to the first two is “yes”, then it will make me have to finish the book the chapters are excerpted from.

And, yes, the real reason is that this latest novel has informed me it is the first of a series and I’m hoping that by writing the opening chapter or two of the next book, it will behave better than this particular book has and will let me finish the project that was interrupted. No, I’m not holding my breath, but I am hoping.


While dealing with the frustration of fighting my computer back to life (the moronic company sold me the wrong software) and searching through my post for the address of a friend who offered help, I clicked on a link that took me into my books Goodreads…

Which is something I avoid with some care, but like any poor soul taking that first step to perdition… I looked. Like any addictive thing, the first taste was sweet, made me feel good. And as this is writers site, a piece of advice I will give unto you is: don’t do this.

Don’t read amateur ‘reviews’ of your work. Actually don’t read reviews. Professional ones are often just as bone-headed or, occasionally more so (some have reputation for snark which they think makes them more trustable… an interesting piece of logic, because it means snark becomes part of the house style, and gets ignored), so unless the reviewer sends it to you, probably only happening if they’re very kind to your book (would you send an invitation open warfare from your own address? No. Not unless you’re stupider than pond-slime. Yes, there are some…) don’t read those either. But it is really very hard to ignore. It’s hard when you’re new to this and want to know, desperately, that you’re getting it right, and it doesn’t get any easier. It’s hard for me after?18 books, and many reviews. We all hanker after that positive feedback, that reader who got it and loved it. That reader who felt it the best book ever… But, well, It’s too late to take any value from it, and it can sour days or weeks of writing progress, for no benefit. Yes, that positive review can make you glow. But… well, the value is suspect. It’s opinion and worth what any opinion is – good or bad.

The trouble is one man’s best book is another man’s incomprehensible garbage (I had one reviewer moaning how the background – to the third book in the series – was not filled in. Twit hadn’t realized there were two prior books). And there is no getting around preconceived notions (the reader who ripped into me for writing a South African-born woman just like an American. Ignorance! I had no way of telling the critic that I’d spent ten days in the US, and my whole life in South Africa, and if I was ignorant about any kind of women, it was American ones) and plain stupid (my favorite was the person who complained that the style in A MANKIND WITCH was so different to THIS ROUGH MAGIC, but that it wasn’t surprising seeing as it had a different author. At least professional reviewers are not taken in by the co-author fiction, and know that the name listed first is there sell books and fool computer systems, and last listed is the person who wrote the book… And while these reviews can make or break your sales, it’s like being a farmer: you can prepare your soil, plant the right seeds, put on the right fertilizer, and the right weedkiller… but you can’t make it rain. And I suspect many reviews are pretty sheepish (I’ve benefited from this, when one influential reviewer loved a story (for a reason that never crossed my mind, and I certainly never intended) and amazingly similar reviews followed like UFO sightings after the release of Alien.) You just smile and wave…

The problem of course is you do NOT have the right, or even effective ability to reply, and their missing the point or being ignorant or not liking the cover (yes, there are people who judge books by their covers and who score them down for that) or disbelieving the hero’s approach to romance (really ladies, you may not realize that shy, inexperienced young men do not take a direct approach. Actually, often they won’t approach at all. Which means you don’t know it happened… but it’s real. Ask a bunch of guys. You’ll find almost every one at some time fancied/lusted for a girl somewhere/sometime in their past, but didn’t actually get up enough courage to speak to them. Just because your experience only lists are the ones that make a pass at you, really doesn’t mean that another 20 didn’t want to, or even just wanted to speak to you, but only found themselves looking at their shoes and blushing and muttering. And they’re soppier and more idealistic than is easy to deal with too.) is something they can tell the world and… well, you can dream of boiling them in oil, but really, you can’t even find the one who says he quite liked the book, let alone explain what ‘being damned with faint praise’ for something you sweated your guts out for and wept over means…

There is only one answer (well, besides having a glee club that rushes in and post sycophantic adoration -and most of us don’t have that.) and that is to leave it well alone. Oh and to come up with special imaginary horrible ways of putting the dear reviewer who should have stuck to the complexity of ‘Janet and John’, or the thrills of ‘See Spot Run’ (are these references that mean anything to you? Or is this last in foreign country translation?) to terrible torment. Personally I favor making them watch re-runs of Oprah, with their eyes tooth-picked open while slowly boiling them in a large pot of rancid spermacetti oil, tied to a bean-bag (serious backache recipe) – over a cinnamon scented tea-light candle – to make it last 30 repeats… possibly to the sound of endlessly replayed Justin Bieber songs. The scary thing is some might like it…

So: lets have some fiendishly appropriate tortures…;-)