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Steam The Windows, Lock The Door

Or Aunt Sarah’s Clinic on how to write sex if you absolutely must.

In this case we’ll assume you’re not writing erotica, but sex as part of a larger, non-sex-oriented work. These rules don’t apply to erotica (well, most of them don’t.)

I’ve actually written erotica a dozen times or so, one of them markedly unsuccessful in my view even though it sold. (Yes, yes, yes – moan :-p – I actually will publish these ahem works eventually, probably as their own collection with all sorts of warnings on the cover. Well, the works I can, since most of them were work for hire. Which means I need to beef up (eh) the rest before I can publish a collection. It will happen. It’s just not urgent, so you can stop shouting now, now, now, now!) But erotica is its own thing, and the levels of description you’ll engage in for it are completely different.

First of all, as in real life, before you do something you’ll regret, ask yourself: do you need sex?

I mean do you need it right here, in this story or book?

There are several reasons to write sex into a work, and some are good: sex is expected in this type of genre. For instance Paranormal Romance, and even to an extent urban fantasy; or your publisher wants this book/story to have sex (I’ve been forced to write explicit sex into one book because of this); or, and to me this is the best, and sometimes the only legitimate reason: the book won’t work if there is no sex.

For whatever reason, at whatever level, your character needs sex to come to full character arc. So. You have to include sex.

At this point, and before regret sets in, you should ask yourself: what level of sex do I need.

The first one, which a lot of you worry about and mark your books as adult because of, is not really sex. This is the level of sex in most science fiction books. She takes off her clothes, he takes off his clothes, cut to the afterglow. Or a level beyond that, what Heinlein sometimes did, have a couple of lines of dialogue during sex enough you get what they’re doing.

Then there is a level beyond that, where you hear enough to know darn well what they’re up to, sometimes with details.

So, if you forgive me, an example of this from Soul of Fire:

A louder sigh broke the silence, and Miss Waringtons voice said, Why, Lord St…. Peter! I thought you didnt eat people.”

“For you, my dear, I will make an exception.”


Is this how its normally done?” in Miss Warington’s voice.

I dont know. I never… You see, I was afraid I would change and incinerate my lover.

Oh, milord, youre not that hot.

A gurgle of laughter from St. Maur. Shut up, baggage. Im trying to romance you.”

This is all from the POV of a listener, and I want to make it clear that in most other genres this doesn’t even count as sex. In fantasy and science fiction, though, it can be enough.

Okay, so you need more than that. (Stop shouting more, more, more, it’s distracting.)

Then you are faced with several problems, like for instance, making sure that your characters need this too. (No, their shouting “give it to me baby” doesn’t count) and that you’ve developed them and their relationship to a point it’s logical to do this, and also that you keep the readers with you all the way (all the way, baby!)

At this point there are several things to keep in mind:

  • If your character/relationship is ready and this is necessary for the plot, there are a whole lot of emotional things that need to be there along with the in and out, and out and in. That is, don’t forget you’re doing this for reasons of character development (it’s what she said! Shut up wretch.) and keep that character development going along with the physical actions.
  • You know how porn movies (I hear. I’m not visual) airbrush things and shoot things from angles? Yeah. You need to do that too, to make it alluring. Be in the moment, think of what your character is seeing/feeling and see it and feel it through his senses. You might not be into blondes, but he is and he’ll go on about her pale skin with a pink blush or whatever. Be there. Feel and see what he feels and sees.
  • Let the tension rise. Make it gradual. Make the reader stay with you till the consummation. In writing as in real life, slam bam thank you ma’am is a bore.
  • Use all five senses (that’s what she said! Shut up wretch!) It’s okay to have similes to get this. Stuff like “She felt warm, like warm bread on a cold day” gives you taste without getting too specific.
  • Use images. This is the equivalent of focusing on the fireplace while they’re having sex, but done right it works. Let us face it, the act of copulation is unaesthetic and unless you’re involved in it, (and sometimes when you are) its rewards aren’t purely physical. What I mean is, it’s not tab a and slot b, but what the character is feeling, which could very well be pleasant, like she relaxes, or odd, like he feels as though he’s been struck by lightening.
  • Naughty words. No, I don’t mean the ones your characters shout, though they can, if that’s what they’re into. I mean the ones you use to describe what’s going on.

In modern romance you’re encouraged to use clinical terms because it’s less silly than “his throbbing lightening rod.” To an extent I’ve found they’re right. The clinical terms are largely invisible. The exception is when writing historical. Clinical terms can seem totally out of place there, but you’ll have to figure out what to do. (In vampire musketeers I settled for “member”.)

Over and done. If your book is not erotica, make sure the sex doesn’t take a disproportionate amount of book time. If you like what you’re writing you might weigh it too heavily. (It’s easy to think it’s interesting to others if it’s interesting to us.) Or if you’re embarrassed by what you’re writing, you might rush your fences and write too short, though the scene is a pivotal one.

The only way to make sure you did it right is to get a trusted second reader. And in this case, no, your mom REALLY isn’t appropriate.

And that’s about all the help I can give you. Remember to write sex in private and wash your hands when you’re done.


I’ve had a series of conversations I took part in this week, and in them answered, or helped answer, some questions that I thought applicable enough to repeat them here. Writing, publishing, cover art… it’s all fodder for the blog, right?

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who is also a writer (at some point I need to sit down and tot up how many of those I have) and we were talking about world building. He was telling me he was going to make me blush, because he’d been talking to his wife about my work and they concluded that I build my world around my characters while he writes a world and then peoples it. Both work, he pointed out. I sat back and pondered on this. He’s a long-time gamer, and furthermore, the DM for his group.

A DM, Sanford tells me, runs the game. He sets up the situation and determines whether the actions of the players are successful and what the reactions of the encounters are. I can certainly see how this would translate very well into storytelling. Probably with a lot more control over his characters than I can possibly have. I’m a pantser. I fly through my worlds by the seat of my pants, no IFR available. For the non-plane types in the audience, that means Instrument Flight Rules, opposed to Visual Flight Rules, and it applies rather well to my style of writing.

I can’t outline very much. I can do a little, rough out the framework of the terrain that lies ahead of my characters. But most of the time I am writing what I ‘see’ and hear in my head. This can be a challenge if I have a character who isn’t talking to me for some reason. And yes, my worlds do revolve around the perceptions of my characters. I have a tendency to not know more about the world my character lives in than they do – since I write largely SF and fantasy where I’m making up the worlds.

The question was posed in one of the groups I belong to on facebook, “Do authors here have author-blogs or websites? How essential do you think it is for a newbie to get their own site early (before publishing)? Also for those of you who have established sites, could I get a link to check them out?” I’ve written at length here on the Mad Genius Club about the way I blog, and my motivations behind it. Some of that is formed by a conversation I had with Peter Grant when we first met at LibertyCon 25. He was telling me that he’d blogged for a few years (I can’t recall the exact number, 3-4 years I think) before releasing his first book to build a large fanbase of people who wanted it. I think that’s an excellent idea, but it’s predicated on a couple of things. First, Peter was giving his readers good content. The blog he runs, Bayou Renaissance Man, is very interesting to follow as he dances from gun geeking to social commentary to just plain funny stuff. It is rarely on ‘writing and publishing’ and the few posts I can remember seeing on those, he admitted up-front that it was inside baseball and possibly not of interest to his readers. Because here’s the thing. We’re fascinated by all topics connected to writing and reading. We’re writers, after all, or working on it. That’s why we come to the MGC (that, and the sparkling wit and scintillating commentary). Ahem…)

However, unless you are marketing to writers, filling your blog up with posts about writing is not going to build a terribly big fanbase. I modeled my current blog schedule (and went to a daily post soon after talking to Peter, although it wasn’t consciously connected)  on this thought: building a broad base of people who come to my site to get interesting material. I give them value for their time, and in return, they have a trust relationship with me that means they are far more likely to lay some money down and take a chance on my writing. I blog on writing once a week, and vary it enough that I hope it’s not boring. I also blog on food, art, social stuff, and random bits that catch my attention as they flutter by (shiny! and if you doubt that, take a look at the list of topics on a day I do link round-up based on my open browser tabs! LOL) with the occasional book snippeting thrown in for good measure.

I’m a big fan of what I jokingly term the Jim Baen school of marketing: the first hit’s free. By snippeting the first quarter of the book, I should have hooked (or I need to hang up my author hat in disgrace) the reader well enough that on release day they are waving green folding stuff at me. But just snippets won’t bring the readers in, either. So, all the other stuff that I blog on does serve a purpose. The acronym WIBBOW, would I be better off writing? is yes. Blogging is writing. It’s just not paid writing, in a direct sense. Do you have to blog? No, you don’t. It will make building and maintaining a fanbase a little more challenging, but it can be done and blogging regularly isn’t for everyone.

Speaking of which, I have paying work to go do. So I’d better get my gear tidy and head out there… I will be back this afternoon to check on you all in the comments, so keep the sparkling and scintillating down, you hear? I don’t want to find this blog had burned down when I was out.

The Women Other Women Don’t See – Keith West

*As all of you know we here at MGC are writers of inequity who try to minimize how much we write for no pay.  This includes shamelessly capturing other people’s posts and using them — with permission. —  Keith gave me permission to reblog this, so ya’ll be nice and leave him a comment on his blog.  It is a most excellent post.  Interestingly, recently I’ve been looking for stories from the thirties and forties (pour raisons a moi meme) and was surprised how many of them were by women.  Which tells you even I underestimated female presence in sf/f in the early days – SAH*

The Women Other Women Don’t See – Keith West © 2015 Keith West – reposted by permission.

Trigger Warning:  Humor, Snark, Truth, Thoughts That Might Be Different Than Yours.

In case you’re wondering, yes, the title of this post is a riff on the James Tiptree, Jr., story “The Women Men Don’t See”.  And yes, there is a book review buried in here.  I’ll provide the pertinent information about the book later.  First, though, some of men

I’ve heard for years that there were virtually no women writers in science fiction and fantasy before [insert date du jour here] because they were discriminated against by all the men in the field and had to use masculine pseudonyms or initials if they wanted to write sf/f.  The actual date when this began to change is something of a moving target and depends loosely on the age of the person making the statement.

This belief is pretty widely held in the field, to the point that it’s almost holy writ.  And while men have spread this myth, women tend to be the loudest in voicing it.

I’ve always been skeptical of it because it just didn’t fit my observations.  I began reading science fiction (and later fantasy) in the late 70′s and early 80′s (late elementary, junior high and high school, in other words).  Because my father monitored my reading to make sure it was age appropriate, I tended to read a lot of older stuff because I knew it was more likely to pass muster.  Fortunately, at that time older science fiction and fantasy was pretty easy to come by.

Asimov Presents the Great SF Vol 1There were a number of anthologies edited by Robert Silverberg in my 7th grade junior high library.  The Del Rey Best of series was just wrapping up, and DAW’s Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF series was just getting started.  Plus many older works were available in paperback reprints or in second hand book stores.

Know what I found in those volumes, especially those edited by Silverberg and Asimov?  Women writers. Margaret St. Clair.  Julian May.  Mildred Klingerman, Carol Emshwiller. Miriam Allen deFord.  Katherine McLean.

I was blown away by “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras.  I felt like the central character (who was not the narrator) could have been me.  I tracked down Children of the Atom, the mosaic novel of which “In Hiding” is the first section when I discovered there was an SFBC edition.

At some point, I’m fairly sure I was still in elementary school, I found an old reading text.  For those from different educational backgrounds, these are basically anthologies, similar to those of the university level, that contain grade appropriate stories or novel excerpts along with some discussion questions and writing exercises.  Why do I mention this?  Because it contained the first story in Zenna Henderson’s series about The People (which was begun in the 1950s).  The book was old enough in the late 1970s that it was no longer in use as a text, which would probably give it a publication date somewhere in the 1960s.  (BTW, part of this series was adapted as a TV movie in 1972 for ABC and starred William Shatner.)The People

Know what was well represented on bookstore shelves at the time (again, I’m limiting the discussion to late 70s-early 80s)?  A number of women writers.  There were plenty of titles by Andre Norton, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Kathryn Kurtz, Evangeline Walton, Doris Piserchia, C. J. Cherryh, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jo Clayton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Tanith Lee, Vonda N. McIntyre, Jane Gaskell, Chelsea Quinn Yarbo, and others who have faded into the mists of time and memory.

My point is that I never considered that women writers weren’t part of the field.  I took it for granted that they were.  After all, I had no trouble finding (and enjoying) their work.  Or did I imagine reading those books by Phyllis Eisenstein, Patricia McKillip, and Jane Yolen?

It was only later that I was told that women weren’t part of the field until “recently”.  Really?  I hadn’t realized Anne McCaffery, Pamela Sargent, Judith Merrill, and Kate Wilhelm were such Johnny Jane come-latelies.

I was also told any science fiction and fantasy authors who wrote for the pulps in the 1930s and 1940s had to hide their sex from the editors and readers.

C L Moore chin on hand

For example, there was C. L. Moore, who was forced to use her initials so editors would buy her stories.  Except, uh,…no.  She used her initials because she started writing after hours at the bank where she worked.  This was the depths of the Depression, and she was supporting her elderly parents.  She was afraid that if her employer found out she had a second income and how she earned it, he would fire her.  Moore is on record as saying so as early as the 70s.  There is also abundant evidence that her gender was known to fans and editors within the first couple of years of her career.

Then there’s Leigh Brackett, who had to hide behind a man’s name.  Except that she didn’t.  Leigh is her birth name.  Brackett had an impressive body of work in the pulps in the early 40s but then her output slowed, becoming sporadic until her death in the late 1970s.  But not because she was ostracized, discriminated against, or blacklisted.  She had moved on to more lucrative fields, namely screenwriting.

Brackett had written a hard-boiled detective novel which caught the attention of producer Howard Hawks.  Hawks hired Brackett to co-write the screenplay for the film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Her co-author was a studio hack, now what was his name…oh, yeah, William Faulkner.  (Yes, that William Faulkner.)  Among her screen credits is the film Rio Bravo, starring an obscure actor named John Wayne.  (Perhaps you’ve heard of him.)  Brackett wrote screenplays for several of his movies.  The last thing she worked on before her death was the first draft of a little movie entitled The Empire Strikes Back.

Leigh Brackett

Not to put to fine a point on it, Brackett moved on from writing for the pulps because her talent was recognized by someone who could pay her what her stories were worth.  Brackett also mentored some kid named Ray Bradbury, who completed “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, which she was working on when she got the assignment of The Big Sleep.  He not only finished her story but also went on to have a minor career in the field and openly acknowledged Brackett’s influence on his own writing.  Maybe you’ve heard of him as well.

I never bought into the idea that there were few women in science fiction and those few had to hide their sex, nor did I buy into the myth of a patriarchy who actively tried to silence female voices.  But I never realized just how many women wrote for the pulps until I read Partners in Wonder by Eric Leif Davin.  I’d read his earlier book, Pioneers in Wonder, which is a history of some of the early sf writers of the pulps.  I found Pioneers in Wonder to be informative, interesting and insightful.  I expected Partners in Wonder to be similar, a brief history of a few early women writers.

Hoo, boy.  Was I in for a surprise.

Partners in WonderPartners in Wonder
Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965
Eric Leif Davin
Lexington Books, 431 p.
hardcover, $125.88
trade paper, $47.98
kindle, $33.49

No, you aren’t reading those prices wrong; they’re not typos.  Lexington is a small press in the UK.  And this book won’t be light reading.  I’m not expecting anyone to rush out and buy it at these prices.

But that’s beside the point.  Davin is a historian at the University of Pittsburgh, or at least he was when this book was written (2006).  So some of the things he says about the current state of the field might be a little out of date in places.

Davin, like I said, is an academic, and as such takes an academic’s approach to the material, in this case a cultural historian’s approach.  What that means is that I’m going to try to attempt to summarize his results and acknowledge up front that I may get some technical points wrong.  And make no mistake, this is an academic book.  There are footnotes, or rather, end notes.  Davin documents his information.  He doesn’t take the predominant historical narrative of the field at face value but checks everything.

Startling Stories Vulcan's DollsDavin examined every issue of every science fiction and fantasy magazine published in the US between 1926 and 1965, looking for women writers.  First he limited himself to magazines that were devoted to either science fiction or fantasy (and admits there were women who published science fiction and fantasy in general fiction magazines that aren’t included in his count).  Second, he only counted authors who could be verified as female.  Any author with a gender neutral byline or who used initials who couldn’t be verified as female weren’t included.

Davin goes into detail in his chapters, describing and/or quoting some of the authors at length.  He also conveniently provides tables and summary figures in Appendices.  From 1926-1949, 65 female authors published 288 stories in 20 magazines (i.e., all of the genre magazines of the period),  From 1950-1960 another 138 female authors joined the field, for a total of 203 women writers who together published a total of 922 stories.

Miskatonic University Press Weird Tales compendiumThese figures don’t include women who published in Weird Tales.  In The Unique Magazine, 127 known women writers published 365 short stories and serials, or 13.45% of the fiction.  These figures do not include female poetry authors (63, or 40% of the poets), nor do they include authors of indeterminate gender.

I could go on with the figures, but I won’t.  I sense that some of your eyes are starting to glaze over.  I think you’re starting to get the idea:  although in the minority, women were a significant portion of the active writers during the era of “patriarchal oppression.”  Davin provides brief biographies of 133 of these women.

And Davin doesn’t limit himself to just women authors.  He also lists 26 women who edited science fiction, fantasy, and weird magazines between 1928 and 1960.  Included are Cele Goldsmith (Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories), Dorothy McIlwraith, (Weird Tales), and Bea Mahaffey (Other Worlds) of the swimsuit fame that got Resnick and Malzberg removed from writing for the SFWA Bulletin.

Midwest Fandom

In addition, Davin shows that women were active in fandom from the very beginning of organized fandom (Chapter4).  One of the ways he determined how active women were in fandom was through the letters columns in the magazines.  Which resulted in something I found amusing.  Isaac Asimov is on record for stating that male fans didn’t want females invading their space.  According to the letter columns of the time, it seems that the only fan who held that opinion was… Isaac Asimov.  A number of males fans welcomed their female counterparts.  As did the editors, something Davin goes to great lengths to document.

And in Chapters 8 and 9, Davin examines (respectively) anti-Semitism and racism in the field, and shows that these things may have been exaggerated, especially where accusations against a certain editor are concerned.

I’ll stop here.  There’s a great deal of detail in the book, which I won’t try to reproduce.

I will address two more points.  First, the science fiction women wrote has always differed from the science fiction men wrote, especially in the 1950s.  Whereas male oriented science fiction of the time focused on exploration, that of women tended toward empathy and community and was often set in some type of utopia.  This is less true these days as gender roles have blurred in the intervening decades.  Davin refers to this as “First Wave” feminist fiction, which he distinguishes from the Second Wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Mildred Clingerman

The second, and in some ways more important point, is why have all of these women writers been forgotten?  Davin offers several contributing things.  First, science fiction at the end of the 1950s (there were almost no pure fantasy markets at the time) moved from being a magazine (and thus short story) oriented field to a novel oriented field.  For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, many women writers didn’t make this transition.  There was a significant drop in the number of female science fiction authors in the early 1960s.

But I think one of the major reasons that many of the women writers from before the 1960s have been forgotten is that they wrote the wrong kind of science fiction and were not recognized by women who came later.  Here’s what Davin has to say:

…for political reasons Second Wave feminists did not believe science fiction had a female past.  They were not able to see back, beyond the early-Sixities contraction, to that female past because their mythology said it had never existed.  And one does not seek something one believes does not exists. (p. 307)

…many women who came into the field with a working knowledge of only Second Wave feminist science fiction, denigrated the Fifties female counter-culture for its somehow “inferior” emphasis on “hearth and home”…Thus, asserting that only their own overtly-politicized version of women’s science fiction really mattered, they disparaged and denigrated the vast bulk of early women’s writing. (p. 309)

Davin concludes

The counter-cultural concerns and worldviews expressed in First Wave women’s science fiction are just as valid and important as the themes, concerns, and sensibilities found in male or Second Wave feminist science fiction.  We are talking about such concerns as human interdependence and the struggles for emotional connection, we are talking about cooperation, and community…Surely cooperation, altruism, and community are worth writing about.  And First Wave’s women science fiction writers did exactly that. (p. 310)

Davin takes his fellow social historians to task for taking the narrative of the science fiction and fantasy fields as being a sexist patriarchy at face value without verifying the narrative with actual data.  He’s right to do so.  As Davin shows in his book, with actual numerical data, that myth ain’t so.

Women have always made a significant contribution to the field ever since science fiction as a genre came into existence.  They contributed as fans.  They contributed as editors.  They contributed as writers.  To say otherwise is to marginalize their contribution and their work.  Especially if you’re pushing an agenda.

Some of the authors and stories Davin goes into detail about sound interesting, even some I know I will have major philosophical differences with them.  I’d like to read them.  To some extent that’s possible.  I’ve got collections or novels by some of these authors, and copies of old pulps that contain other stories.  I’ll be looking at them from time to time, starting with the next review post.

Update:  The same day I posted this, Kristine Kathryn Rusch announced a new project she’s working on to bring the work of many of these women back into print.  You can find out more here.

Kris, thanks for doing this.  Most of these women who have faded into obscurity were excellent writers, and I want to read more of their work.

So What Is Hugo-Worthy Anyway?

Apparently what makes “good enough to be worth a Hugo award” isn’t all that clear.

To be fair – or rather, reasonable, since fair is one of those things that stops having any kind of meaning outside of preschool – it’s rather difficult to come up with anything resembling objective standards for fiction. For non-fiction, yeah it’s possible, but they won’t be everything – standards like “is factually accurate” are objective, but the prose is still going to be subject to personal opinion.

That said, I can say what my standards are and what I use to decide if something is worth nomination or awarding. Oddly enough, while I was considering what my standards are, I realized that they are almost independent of whether I like the piece or not. I don’t know if this is unique to me or not, but I’ve read books that ace every one of my standards and I’ve utterly loathed them.

Of course, I do use the term “Kate-normal”, so I may be the only person in the known universe for which this is true.

So. What I look for when judging quality in narrative fiction (this mostly doesn’t apply to poetry and non-fiction and it sure as heck doesn’t apply to art) is this (in approximate order, even):

  1. Early immersion – I read a hell of a lot, and I find it very easy to become immersed in a piece. The earlier it drags me in, the better. If I don’t get the immersion, the interplay of the technical factors (prose quality, characterization, plotting, foreshadowing, etc.) isn’t handled well enough to do it. I’ve read pieces where I liked the premise and characters, but the craft wasn’t good enough to generate immersion. I’ve also read pieces that I hated but were well enough done to hold me despite that.
  2. Immersion is maintained until the last word – This is important: if something throws me out of immersion, it’s a serious technical flaw (because, yes, I’ve actually analyzed this. It could be a plot flaw that runs the piece into a bridge abutment. It could be something that breaks a character. It could also be prose so damned obtuse it sends me running for a dictionary – and I read Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series without needing one.
  3. There is a plot – I wish I didn’t have to include this, but I’ve read a few too many novels that don’t have one. They have characters that have stuff happen to them. Note that a deliberately plotless piece can meet the grade if the characterization and prose is good enough and there is some other payoff in place of the plot.
  4. There are characters – Again, this should be obvious, but there are alleged novels where the alleged characters are nothing but ciphers being moved according to the author’s wishes. Again, it’s possible for a really skilled author to produce a work without any characters, but it’s bloody difficult and I’ve never seen it done well enough to justify a Hugo except in extremely short short stories.
  5. There is foreshadowing and it doesn’t jump up and scream “Look! I’m foreshadowing something.” – A plot twist where readers are all “WTF just happened here?” is not a plot twist, it’s bad writing. Similarly a plot twist you’ve watched approaching from chapter 3 is not a plot twist, it’s bad writing. Especially if you’re using mystery forms.
  6. There are no gaping plot holes. J. K. Rowling, I’m talking to you, here. The bandaid you taped over your plot hole in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was bad craft and your editor should have made you fix it. That alone was enough to throw me out of immersion in that book.
  7. The prose is invisible. This needs some explanation: the prose needs to be polished enough and reflective enough of the content and pacing that it helps maintain reader immersion instead of having clunky phrasing that throws a reader out of the story. The only really viable exceptions I’ve come across are in shorter works where the prose can sometimes serve as a character in itself. And Stephen Donaldson? In the Thomas Covenant books, the prose was invisible while I was reading it. If I can manage that, but your prose has me trying to parse out what the hell you meant by that sentence, then the problem lies with your prose.
  8. The pacing is appropriate. Appropriate is the key thing here. A gentle period-style romantic fantasy is going to have quite a different pace and rhythm than a sweeping space opera adventure. Which will be different again from a mystery. And so forth. Pacing mismatches lead to either “It’s boring” or “There’s too much going on”.
  9. The piece has an emotional payoff. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a happy ending, but it should have readers emotionally invested in what happens. If I finish a book and I don’t care about the ending, it failed. If I disliked the book, there’s a good chance the ending made me angry because at some level there’s a sense of “that wasn’t supposed to happen” – but that doesn’t mean I think it’s a badly written book.

So that’s the list of the things I consider go into a Hugo-worthy piece of fiction. Those of you who are more experienced with non-fiction, art, and TV/Film might like to add some suggestions of ways to judge in those categories in the comments.

And supporting members for Sasquan, don’t forget: review the WorldCon 2017 Site Selection bids and pay your $40 to vote for the one you prefer: you’ll get automatic supporting membership for WorldCon 2017 before the price goes up.

Socially Responsible Writing

Before I write this, I must admit to curmudgeonly and cross-grained status. My response to “you shouldn’t play in the middle of traffic” has been “Says who?” ever since I can remember. The only way to stop me darting across roads without warning was for mom to read me never-ending stories of gruesome accidents, because just laying down the law wouldn’t work.

So, when a co-panelist in a panel said that from now on she would write violence realistically (so as not to encourage it, I presume) because it was the “socially responsible” thing to do and what we all should do, my spines went up, and I got my fight face on, and except for my husband giving me the “can it” sign from the front row, I’d have told her that was sort of like Christian fundamentalists saying we should only write stories that support the gospel and I wasn’t going to play along with her, any more than I’d play along with them. Because contrary. And cross grained.

But because Dan kept me from fulminating (he’s no fun!) I had to sit there and stew, which means thinking through the assumptions of the whole idea of “socially responsible writing.”

The particular instance she was citing just makes me roll my eyes for several reasons: 1) you’re not going to stop violence by not writing about it, or not writing about it in an “enticing” manner. Humans are a violent species, or we wouldn’t be the dominant species on this planet. Pacifist cave men left no descendants. 2) Real violence is considerably less “dangerous sounding” than fictional one. In fictional violence, for instance, if you spray a room with a machine gun, you’ll have dozens of corpses. In real violence, it’s quite possible you won’t even have wounded, except where hit by glass fragments from a window, or something. (Stupid Maoists didn’t realize recoil would point their machine guns at the ceiling. This is what you get when rich little boys play at revolution.) 3- If you depict realistic violence, you might be giving these people a leg up on avoiding the sort of mistakes that prevent their violence from being lethal. Like idiot gang bangers who hold their guns sideways, like in the movies, and therefore jam them more often than not. Tell them not to do that, and you’re increasing the deaths.

However, she’s not the only one. One of my colleagues, and not the only person in the field to do this, edited older stories (and they’ve edited older movies) not to show people smoking. This comes under the heading of rewriting the past. I want no part of that “social conscience.” First, because even if smoking is as bad as they say it is, then removing it from old movies and books will avoid showing new generations how an entire society can succumb to a bad habit because it’s portrayed as “cool.” Second, what if it isn’t as bad as we think? Most of the hazards of smoking seem to be linked to tar and burning tobacco. We already have a means of delivery that doesn’t involve tar, and tobacco itself can have mildly beneficial effects in things like treating bi-polar disorder and anxiety, not to mention some very mild but not irrelevant effects in preventing pneumonia.

To blindly assert it is always bad – or rewrite history to show it as always bad – is a disservice to future generations, on all fronts. It is imposing our view of what is good for them (and for EVERYONE) on them, without allowing them a decision.

And that gets us to the core of what I really hate about the notion that we should be “socially responsible” in our writing.

Whose society, buddy? You and whose indisputable truth? You and whose immortal philosopher? You and whose army of righteousness?

A decent writer writes not only for his time but for the future. I grant you, at my level it’s unlikely, but I wouldn’t be the first writer to enjoy more popularity 100 years after death than while alive.

The assumptions of what is right and wrong will by then be completely different. Please note that Shakespeare’s political propaganda, though still co-opted by various contemporary regimes, is far less strong than his “universal to the human condition” plays, and that if he’d written only the “Tudors are teh awesome” plays he’d probably be only another Elizabethan author we have to trudge through.

An exhortation to write socially responsible fiction is an exhortation to believe the values we right now believe are “socially responsible” are immutable, now and forever. It betrays an immense hubris and the certainty that now, at last, we’ve reached the pinnacle of humanity’s social consciousness.

It is an invitation for future generations to laugh at you.

But more importantly, it is futile.

Writers don’t have that kind of power. A lot of us, over time, working in concert, or at least towards the same goal, might make some difference. One of us (Heinlein) can make a difference to a lot of people (Heinlein’s children. More than he could have sired biologically.)

But part of the reason the ball moved so far in the culture wars was the collusion of gatekeepers and politicians (not a conspiracy, mind, but just that they’d all drank the same koolaid.) It was their agreement to an unspoken set of rules – unspoken because obvious to them – which informed their every decision.

In this, they weren’t very different from Catholic Europe, where every work of art supported the Church’s narrative. Until the reformation shattered it all apart.

And that’s part of the point – these coordinated (though not enforced, except in terms of editors choosing things they thought “socially responsible”) narratives are historically very fragile. They usually fall apart the minute there is credible back-talk. And you can’t put them together again. And future generations point and laugh, as they do at Piers Plowman.

To exhort one to write “socially responsible” fiction is to believe in that utterly bizarre idea that history comes with an arrow from less to more enlightened and “progressive.” It is a basic fallacy of thought and philosophy.

It is also futile.

Writers write what excites them. I can’t imagine struggling to finish a novel I didn’t believe in. (Or rather I can. Those never happened.)

If they write to push a message they’re not fiction writers, they’re pamphleteers. Real-politik art

suffers (and makes you suffer) from the same basic wooden and stultifying character, whether made my Nazis, Communists or earnest Enviro-evangelists.

It’s all squarish humans gazing lovingly onto the inevitable glorious future. It is by definition no human who ever lived.

And it’s nonsense. And usually proven untrue, also, before the ink is dried or the stone cuts weathered.

For the sake of art, for the sake of craft, for the sake of your potential future readers, don’t write socially responsible. Write what you feel, what you love, what resonates through you like the pounding of a drum in an utterly silent midnight.

Write YOUR book, not society’s.

Society will take it up or not, as it pleases. But famous or ignored it will be your book, the book only you could write, not a collection of fearful, echoing and appeasing shibboleths based on a view of a future that might never come.

Are Indies Really That Bad?

Yesterday, Kate, Cedar, her first reader (Hi, Sanford!) and I were taking about what I should write about today. It would be easy to do another Hugo related post. Goodness knows there is enough ammunition out there. But I wanted to do something else. The only problem was I couldn’t figure out what to write about. So, I did what I often do. I went trolling through my Facebook feed to see if anything caught my eye. It didn’t take long for me to find something. Of course, it also raised my blood pressure and had me gnashing my teeth, never good things.

Anyway. . . .

Here’s the set-up. An traditionally published author was bemoaning the fact that she had bought an e-book and had been so disappointed in it. It had been touted as “If you love Jim Butcher, you will love this” or words to that effect. Seems this particular author adores Jim Butcher’s work and found this particular book sadly lacking. Okay, I can get that. Those are big shoes to fill. But she didn’t leave it at that and that, dear readers, is where my issue with her begins.

coverforvfaFirst, she didn’t say where she saw the book touted in such a way. Was it a cover quote, given to the author by someone else? Those are always tricky. I know. Our own Sarah gave me a cover quote for Vengeance from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 1) that compares VfA to early David Weber. The quote thrilled me because I knew Sarah meant it. But it also scared me because I knew there would be those who wouldn’t agree — and I was right. Several of my reviewers have said they didn’t see it. But that’s okay. The quote was Sarah’s opinion and one I was honored to have received.

But we don’t know if the Butcher quote was a cover quote or it was part of the product description written by the author or if it was part of an ad campaign. If the author or publisher was foolish enough to compare the work to Butcher, well, that is just asking for trouble. At least it is in my opinion. That’s like walking up to someone with your dog, who just happens to be the world’s ugliest dog ever, and telling folks it looks just like Lassie and expecting them to agree with you. If, on the other hand, it was part of ad copy, well, the condemning author should have known better than to take it at anything more than hype.

Second, and this is my real issue with the complaining author, is when she went on to point out that it had been an indie published book. Okay, fair enough if she had left it at that. But no. It seems if she had known it was an indie book, she never would have bought it. It seems she thinks indies, at least “unknown” indies, should never publish until they submit a book to a traditional publisher and have it accepted and published. Then the unknown indie author will know she is good enough to call herself an author. Yep, you read that right. Each of us who indie publish, should go the traditional route first — and successfully land a publishing contract — before self-publishing. That will get rid of all the dreck out there if we do.

Fair is fair, she does admit there is some dreck being published by traditional publishers but that’s okay. It made it through the gatekeepers.

Now, how many problems are there with what she proposes? A number but let’s just discuss the major ones. To submit to most traditional publishers, you have to do more than send your manuscript to the publishing house and wait for them to get back to you. You have to find an agent first. From everything I am seeing and hearing right now, it is as difficult — if not more so — to find an agent as it is to find an publisher. So, you can have your manuscript out for months, even years, trying to find an agent, especially since so many of them do not want you sim-subbing your work to other agents. Then, assuming you get find an agent and come to an agreement, you have just signed away something in the area of 15% of all your earnings, plus expenses, to someone and often for the life of your work’s copyright.

Now your agent starts to try to earn money for both of you by submitting your work to publishers. This is yet another waiting period of months or more in all too many cases. Assuming they do manage to land you a contract, yet another waiting  All this could add up to two years or more from the time you start shopping your book around. What are you supposed to do in the meantime? That is something the reviewing author didn’t address. However, since she feels you shouldn’t self-publish until you have that contract, my guess is she thinks you can now self-publish because you are, by her definition, “good enough”.

And here is the big rub. Most publishing contracts include the right of first refusal. What that means is the author won’t be able to self-publish while waiting for their traditionally published book to come out. There have been a few examples where a publisher has require an author to return their advance and has canceled the contract because the author — gasp — indie published something while waiting for their traditionally published book to come out. The publishers say it is to prevent diluting their brand but it is more simple than that — they want to control the author’s career. Sorry, but no.

But let’s look at it another way. There are very limited number of slots available for new authors with any given publisher. Big Publisher isn’t about to give up a Stephen King slot for a nobody. Besides, as the reviewing author said, these same wonderful traditional publishers have published dreck. But we are to trust them to decide if we are good enough to self-publish or not.

Give me a break. Anyone who starts off by saying they wouldn’t waste their money on an indie book loses credibility. That is especially true when you realize there is a growing number of indie authors who make good livings off their work. Add to that the fact that traditional publishers troll the best sellers lists for indie authors to try to entice over to the traditional side of the business. Finally, there is a little bit of responsibility any reader has to have when choosing a book, no matter how it came to the market. You don’t take sales copy at face value. You check the reviews. You look at the sample. You check to see what else the author has put out.

Are there bad indie books out there? You bet. But there are bad traditionally published books as well. Being indie does not, on its face, make a book less of a book than one that is traditionally published. For an author to say differently leaves me wondering if said author is scared by indies and by the success so many have had.

Making a living, and things that may interfere with it.

I believe it is Memorial Day in the US.

I am not American, but I am aware of debt of gratitude owed. We should never forget. Without those dead, it would be a very different world, and one I am glad I don’t have to live in or leave to my children.

I often notice these days it is those who have gained most, who treat that sacrifice with least respect. (Think about what the Nazi’s stood for, or the Communists. Women, ‘PoC’ and Homosexuals were not well treated. Neither were a lot of other minorities) Ironic, I suppose, that they are free to treat it with disinterest so as a fruit that sacrifice, of that service. Ah well. That’s the way of things.

Most of people then – as now – just wanted to live their lives. They were happy to let others do the same… well, except for the people who weren’t. Eventually people had to go to war to preserve live-and-let-live. I am proud of their courage, and grateful for their sacrifice.

For those among us among the living, unless we’re some kind of parasite we have to make a living to enjoy the liberties so hard-bought. I write. I do a bit of farm labor, now and again. I’ve done a fair number of other jobs along my way, some boring, some secure, some freaking awful. Some muddy and some bloody… you might say I’ve managed an interesting life. There were times when it bored me silly (and I took the often risky decision to move) and when I had to do work I loathed (and when I could, I moved). We’ve been fortunate enough never quite to get to needing charity (but it’s come close) helped along by the ability and knowledge of how to live off the land. Behind me stand long generations of hard hunting men, who would consider me a pussy, but I can feed myself and my family quite well, thanks to them.

Writing is still what makes most of the actual money, which pays the taxes which keeps the soldiers and their families fed (which I am happy to add my bit to), and Government bureaucrats fat and telling us what to do, maybe even chips in a bit to provide welfare for those who can’t or don’t work. This is true of any writer who needs to sell to survive. If you can’t sell your work, you’re in strife, possibly your family is in strife (if you have one) and it hurts a load of other people, including parasites and pointless government functionaries, whose only value-add to society is that they exhale plant-food.

So: Being able to make a living is pretty important to a writer (or at least one that has to sell to live), and there really is no medium or long term gain in stopping them doing so. For most writers (not the few bestsellers perhaps, or those who rely on a check from academia, or a lover or parent, or a government handout, but the rest) it’s a tough, tough road. Don’t kid yourself, writers tend to earn far below the minimum wage, and work more hours, with more heartbreak than… for example, manual labor (I should know). Given that: We should look rather harshly on anyone who takes their grudge – whatever it is, and says ‘gee I don’t like Joe Writer. I can’t get at him any other way, but let’s hurt his ability to make a living. That’ll teach him.’

And likewise, as authors, we would want to avoid having that done to us.

A sort of MAD to assure a reasonable degree of decent behavior… you’d think.

Of course the problem, as always, is one man’s reasonable behavior is another’s red flag. And of course given modern internet anonymity, the access the internet gives, real power differentials, and the various ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ cards (you’re a racist/sexist/homophobe – which require no evidence and are potentially a trump) and ‘my-power-is-so-great-I-don’t-have-to-be-nice, there are bound to be problems. The other issue is there’s a vast divide between the live-and-let-live, and those who say it’s their sandbox, and only for them and those they choose, by the rules (which they change to suit them – ergo, suddenly producing the ‘unwritten rules’ of the Hugos and so on).

So far, to best of my knowledge, the Puppies, both sad and rabid, and their followers have avoided attacking things which make people a living. They’ve asked people to NOT take it out on the authors who have been pressured into stepping out of Noms. They’ve spoken out against punishing Tor Books despite the Neilsen Hayden’s and friends attacks on ‘Making Light’. No-one has called for a boycott or blacklist of David Gerrold, or Glenn Hauman, or to have their reputations tarnished and Amazon reviews deliberately lowered.

That’s of course NOT true in the converse. And while there’s been some passive-aggressive ‘semi-plausible-deniability’ ‘who will rid us of these turbulent puppies’ basically from the get-go it’s been attacks on the ability of the Puppy organizers and the nominees ability to make a living. We’re immoral destroyers (we obeyed the rules to letter. Patrick Nielsen Hayden broke the embargo rules with absolute impunity, not a word of criticism offered. Rules are only for little people.) who break every convention of good behavior (David Gerrold, the MC of the event, has been campaigning relentlessly against the Pups and the nominees – which is so far outside the canon of ‘acceptable behavior’ as to be a light-year beyond the pale). They organized smears on Entertainment Weekly to label us racists and sexists – which the magazine had to redact because they’re demonstrably untrue. It didn’t stop the smears mysteriously cropping up in ‘friendly’ outlets across the English Speaking world. Gerrold and TNH carefully listed all the nasty things –exclusion from Cons, denial of space in publications, editors closing doors to subs, reviews being denied… that just would happen to us. All things that would, had to, affect the puppies ability to make a living. Not one of them said ‘hey, these people have families. They’re human too.’ In fact we had phrases flung about putting us down. Untermench. Then we have Glenn Hauman calling for people to use the Hugo package for a way to game the Amazon rankings against the puppies. “Oh, and to answer the title question: what do you do to rabid puppies? You put them down.”

The Hugo packages have gone out – and so we start to see some of the responses of the loyal camp-followers. Yes, the fake reviews are up on Amazon. Yes, reviews by people that crop up on… the strangest places, associating with and cheering on the very people who happened to mention they’d like these turbulent puppies done in.

That’s of course the surface. The rest of the instructions are being followed too, I am sure… at least as far as they can. And of course many of their camp followers are in positions of authority and power in their circles. Take this fellow in the UK – he’s the reviews editor for Vector – the British Science Fiction Association, and has been a judge for some Awards. I’d guess a pup’s chances of getting fair or honest review from him, or a fair judgement in an award would be on a par with my chances of falling pregnant. He is telling the world I am actually insane.

I’m shocked. Do you think I’m the sort of man who wears a seagull on his head? Next thing he’ll tell you there’s gambling in Rick’s Casino.

Tch. Even if it is an actionable libel, insanity is relative. Honestly, look some of mine. I come from a long line of people I’m sure Martin Petto would consider insane. Of course I’m rather proud of the sort of ‘insanity’ that would stand up to the British Empire with a few thousand men (my great uncle was Koos De La Rey) just for a start. I was curious about someone who could be this much of camp-follower, obeying orders so well. He works, according to himself in the ‘public sector’ (aka he’s a bureaucrat working for government or local government) in London for the last ten years or so: “only another forty to go” – he sound like he absolutely adores his work and has made really happy life choices… Google brought me to someone in a freedom of information request of the same name handing out grants (presumably to the kind of people who you ask for this sort of information about) dealing with Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes.

If this is the same fellow I can actually understand why he hates the like of me, even without instructions: If I was running his Government I’d have him on the dole in a week. I’m a migrant. I could be hated, instead of having about 15% of the population of the place actually taking time off to come and cheer and congratulate us for becoming citizens. But I read Nino Culotta’s (John O’Grady’s pen name) “They’re a Weird Mob” before emigrating and took it to heart, and did my best to follow the very politically incorrect advice and fit in, do my best to learn the local ways, speech and conduct, and to be grateful to be allowed into Australia. As a result people are happy to meet us more than half way – we love it here, we like them, we’re very involved in work (not leading – only an idiot tries to come in and take over, just working) in the island’s volunteer groups (from Meals-on-wheels to the Returned Service League to the CWA) and even a trip to into the supermarket to buy a box of matches can take half an hour, but I can see FIFO would put him out of a job. And I suppose a ‘public sector’ drone looking to another 40 years at it, would regard my life choices as barking mad, just as I would his as unbelievably tedious. Well, he’s doing a great job of following RH’s playbook – which is his crowd’s playbook, and trying to break down any resistance. No wonder he hated ‘we build’. I think they should be very proud of him. And he’s dead right, put me under Amanda and Cedar (Amusing that he’s discriminating against two women who have succeeded without any affirmative action, but I suppose that would spoil his illusion of being better at feminism because he’s male). I amazed at his perspicacity on this one subject, given his track record. It is a bit of disappointment really. I was going to keep a close eye on what he positively reviews in future, as a great guide to exactly what I would rather avoid. But now I know he does get something right.

Or for another example, well, Tom Knighton captures it well here. NK Jemisin’s rumor-starting skills are nearly on a quality par with her re-tweet fan… Clamps. Her ethics too.

If you’re planning on making a living writing, being a Puppy nominee (even if like me you didn’t actually know you were one – yes, I should pay more attention. I had a book to write) is probably a bad choice, especially if you want to be one of the dahlings of the Publishing establishment. You’d be better off kissing up on Making Light. Or writing fake low star reviews or starting rumors to as many people as possible how vile (and insane) the pups are. When you fail to find anything – make shit up. That’s well respected by the Anti-puppies.

Of course there is a big world outside Traditional Publishing (which is steadily shrinking – which is why I support the Sad Puppies) and, while they’re trying to poison that, they at least don’t control it.

And besides, even if there wasn’t… I’d rather choose Aslan than the Sunless Lands.

I hope our side doesn’t gravitate to their level. I think it may happen and that will hurt a lot of people who just want to write books and leave it be. But eventually there comes a point where can no longer stand aside. We work for our living, and we need to defend that.