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I caught him with his hands in the still…

(the reason the moonshiner gave for firing his assistant)

I was reading HEART COUNTRY, Kerry McGinnis’s second autobiographical book about droving and building a station (a ranch) in Northern Queensland. Now, it’s hard country, hard people… and oddly a high level of tolerance for differences and incompetence. Because you had to. That’s it. There is no-one else, so you have to live with what there is.

It also had fascinating glimpses into the life of Old Mac, Kerry’s father – who did his growing in the depression. I wanted to quote this bit verbatim because… well, you’ll see.

‘The war’s over, the depression finished. Why can’t you forget about it? I’m sick to death of hearing about it.’

‘You should have tried living it, girl.’ His voice was flinty. ‘And you’d have some reason to complain. You’ve got absolutely no idea what the soul-destroying futility of being unable to get work does to a man. You ought to be grateful to have a job and money coming in.’

The world has changed somewhat, hasn’t it?

Work is a kinda dirty word these days. The idea that it could be a privilege to be able to do so even more bizarre. To be able to be idle, and wealthy, naturally is the utopian ideal. Utopia, we’re told, is the ‘next big thing’ in sf.

Yet for people like my parents – who became young adults in the Depression – this dialogue rings true for me. It colored their lives and attitudes for the rest of their lives, and a fair bit rubbed off on me. My father could never have sat still and done nothing. He was always making, building, fiddling with, if he wasn’t actually at a paying job.

It took me years to get over the guilt of writing, not ‘working’. And, yes, I have ‘worked’ at manual labor, intellectual labor (a lot of it is like manual labor, very routine, and less exciting than you may imagine), and the ‘orrible jobs in between, which don’t need any real brain (but you can’t not concentrate, or you will mess up as a cashier) and don’t need any real skill with your hands, or strength.

Writing is work, if you do it properly. Mostly intellectual work, indoor, no heavy lifting, but yes, that can leave you tired too.

The world has become very much more about ‘rights’ and entitlements rather than viewing being able to work, to earn, as something you’re lucky to do, about ‘self-love’ rather than men owing a duty to their families to provide. About enjoyment for the sake of it, rather than as a reward for having done.

I fit pretty much 110% in the old camp. I don’t expect you to, or have any desire to dictate that as a way of life. I can no more give up doing, building, making, than I can give up breathing, without dying. As I don’t believe in the ‘directionality’ history, I suspect that the depression or a similar social disaster will come around again. It always has in the past, and no I don’t see that humans have changed, regardless of how technology has. Even if it has, and we move toward the socialist utopia where everyone can be idle… I think that being a builder, creator, worker, is not just in our society, it’s in our genes, at least for some of us. I’m not sure that we’re designed to be idle without blundering into self-destruction. I always wonder, when I read about utopias, how long before we tore them apart.

Which is why books about new frontiers, about building up from disaster, about colonizing new worlds are a favorite of mine, both to read and write. Solving problems, striving in itself, is a large part of the appeal for me.

I realize, though, that there is an opposite, just as there probably is middle ground. I blundered into a site the other day which was totally alien to me and my world-view – narcissist and self-absorbed in modern urban trivia and the flavor-du-jour of social (largely sexual) issues – All fashions, gay and bi sexuality, the joys of legal drugs to get stoned on in Canada, celebrities and their vapid lives, bits about trannies, raves, bizarre sexual fetishes, etc… I read some of it out of a kind of morbid and defensive curiosity. The more I read the more I became convinced the writers were targeting an audience who were urban, had never actually made or built anything in their lives, had no interest in doing so, and — if they were employed — worked reluctantly at those ‘orrible jobs, which required neither brain, nor brawn, nor problems solving. Indoor, no heavy lifting, urban, and that I am deeply grateful I don’t have to do.

I did find myself wondering if these Ark Fleet Ship B folk all suddenly were transported to a better place how long we humans could survive until terrible disaster (perhaps a plague contracted from a dirty telephone) overtook us?

Whatever: It’s an audience. A market segment, one which I suspect many of the Puppy Kickers who actually get around to writing service (as their social and political agendas and outlook seem the same). They’re welcome to it and them.

I’m writing for the kind of people who build, who strive, who contrive, who don’t wait for others – the Government or Acme Corporation’s Board of Directors — to decide to do for them (in both cases, at a fee), and whose pleasure comes from that doing. No wonder that they find little entertainment or to identify with in the books that please their antithesis.

And if there are none of them, I – and those like me, won’t sell any books.

I’m happy to leave it to that. One has to wonder why they feel only extermination will do for us.

I also wonder what the ‘next big thing’ in sf will actually be?


No thanks. You can have mine.

Bestsellers, and writing to market

Kris Rusch put out another excellent article on the business of writing Thursday. Cedar had some lovely commentary on it’s explanation of the market vs. the marketplace yesterday, which I encourage you to read along with the original article.

But when you, oh, indie authors read it, I want you to keep in mind the semantic drift of the word “bestseller.” In the world of legacy publishers, Bestsellers are rare creatures that the people who buy six books a year (usually in hardcover) know and buy. They’re household names, even if you don’t read the genre. J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Patterson, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, George R. R. Martin and Tom Clancy fall into this category.

When people who read more books start talking about bestsellers, they start using the NYT Bestseller List and the USA Today Bestseller list to indicate “People who move a lot of books.”  These authors include Jim Butcher, Larry Correia, Janet Evanovich, David Baldacci, Jeff Kinney, Mary Higgins Clark, Nicholas Sparks, Andy Weir, Rick Riordan… And yes, the line between these top two categories is pretty fuzzy. I read too much; I’d have to ask someone who only reads 6 books a year to tell me who’s in which.

When indies talk, they often tend to mean Amazon’s “bestseller in category” lists. Because the kindle sales rank provides a pretty straightforward picture on how well a book is moving (being tied to actual sales, and sales alone), checking the top 10-25 books in any sub category (or sub-sub-sub-sub category) and tossing the obvious outliers provides a pretty clear picture on the size of the reader pool and potential sales velocity of that niche.

Bestseller lists on Amazon, and the Hot New Releases lists, are as important for indie discovery as getting coop space like endcap displays in a brick and mortar store. The more you are seen, the more casual browsers will check you out and buy you. (In the vasty bazaar, this is the difference between main aisle placement and being tucked in the back, splitting a stall with poor signage with three other people.) So to say “I’m hitting the top 100 list in Space Marines!” is a big deal to a one-author publishing house, because it means their stall just popped up on a clearly marked aisle where a lot of browsers flow through. They’re definitely not the biggest or best stall on that aisle, and they’ll watch hordes of people flow past toward a new John Ringo or Tom Kratman, but there’s a much better chance some will turn aside, and eyeball him, pick up his sample, and say “Hey, why not? Looks good.”

The problem comes when indies try to talk to people steeped in traditional publishing, using the same words to mean these vastly different things. It’s like an American trying to do a South African recipe.

“Set oven to gas mark 3? Courgettes? waterblommetjies? Auugh! I thought I could do this just translating C to F and milliliters / grams to cups / tablespoons!”

One bit of friction comes when Kris is talking about writing to market. By which she means what she’s seen: writers sneering at a genre, then saying “It’s trash, but it sells well. I’m going to write some [knock-off] trash in line with what’s selling, and have a bestseller / make a million bucks.”

She got a fair bit of pushback from indies who mean, instead, “I’m going to look at the sub-sub genres, check the potential sales pool against number of items in market, and find an underserved market. (More sales on average than stuff available on average.) If it’s something I can do, I’ll try a story / trilogy in it, and see how it sells. Maybe it won’t work. Maybe it’ll break out and go big. Maybe it’ll barely sell; we’ll see.”

The difference in these two is as critical as the difference between a prawn and a parktown prawn. (One of these is a large shrimp; the other is a noxious cricket. I wouldn’t suggest trying to put the latter in your gumbo.)

She’s also writing from the perspective many of us hope to gain: a writer who’s been at this for decades. While not a household name like Grisham, she has a long career of good, solid books, novellas, and short stories across multiple genres and pen names. So when she’s talking about not chasing trends and writing to market, she’s looking at whether or not your book will still hold up and be sellable as intellectual property in ten to fifteen years instead of the money to be made right this month by publishing another knock off billionaire secret baby romance to fill the current market’s whim. (Actually, I think secret babies are out right now. Werewolves and other shifters seem to be the current flavor. If you’re reading post in the archives in 6 months, it’ll probably be different.)

I won’t say “Kris Rusch is absolutely right!!eleventy-one!” and I won’t say “Kris Rusch is wrong!! Pants on fire!”, because there are good arguments from the indie side on making hay while the sun shines, and good arguments on her side about having a series that transcends zeitgeist, is something you’re proud of, and can knock the dust off, give new covers, and still sell as fresh and new in 20 years.

What I will say is that I absolutely agree with her statement that you should write something because the idea viscerally excites you, and you love it. Whether you chose the category by market research and then cogitating on ideas and scenarios in the vein of that category, or you woke up to these two characters yelling at each other in your head and you’ll figure out genre after you get them decanted into a manuscript, write what you love. Storytelling is absolutely about the emotions, and your own will definitely come through!

The category may get them to come. Promotion to hit a bestseller list, or the Hot New Releases list, may get them to notice you and try you. But it’s your voice as an author, your spin on the world, and the way the story resonates that’ll get them to come back.

Writer, Market, Reader

What makes a writer? it seems obvious that a writer is someone who writes. Which would then follow that a professional writer is someone who is paid to write? But, oh, what is a real writer?

Now there we get into the area some people want to draw lines. Or in other words, the battle between the independent, and the dependents. The dependents would have it that the only real writers are the ones who were chosen to be supported by an entity known as a publisher, acting as a gatekeeper. The independents are less worried about what makes a writer ‘real’ than they are about writing, publishing, and finding that market which will mean they can write the next book in good conscience.

I came across Kristine Kathryn Rusch talking about markets yesterday, and was stuck as always by the clarity of her thoughts on this. You should go read all of it, but pertinent to my point…

There is no market.

There is a marketplace.

A wide-open marketplace that lets readers browse and find whatever is to their tastes. Think of one of those bazaars you find in major cities, the kind of bazaar that goes on for blocks and blocks. Sure, there’s a lot of fresh fruit currently in season, and some lovely woven scarves and some beautiful hand-carved bowls. But there are also one-of-a-kind items, from artists who might not be able to afford to be near the entrances, but you can find them if you look.

That expanded marketplace is new in publishing. Before, the gatekeepers controlled every single stall in that marketplace. You couldn’t find the lovely one-of-a-kind item even if you walked past every stall in every aisle.

Now you can.

What makes a real writer? Sales. Real writers get paid. Real writers don’t subsist on government grants for work they might produce in the nebulous future. Real writers know that they have fans who will happily buy the next book, and the next, and… Now, this takes a while. And it takes a lot of effort. Writing is no sinecure.

I love Kris Rusch’s metaphor of the bazaar. How are you, as a writer, going to stand out to the readers in this new, bustling marketplace? because this is how you will get paid, by attracting the attention of the readers. Now, objectively speaking it doesn’t matter if you’re a ‘bad’ writer in the eyes of the dependents who keep telling the independents (even those who take home six figures in a year) they aren’t ‘real’ writers. If you’re a ‘bad’ writer and people buy your stuff and beg for more, stop fretting over it and keep writing. Note that I am not talking about lack of editing, poor grammar, and plenty of typos. That’s not bad writing, that’s bad editing. That’s why you hire an editor, or at the very least if you’re at the beginning and can’t afford it yet, you find someone in the same boat and swap services with them. Both of you will learn from that process.

In order to stand out in the marketplace to the readers, you have to know the market. This is where many writers balk. They don’t need to know the market. That is what their publisher is for!

Um, no.

No, the writer doesn’t need to ‘write to the market’ but the writer does need to understand what the market is looking for, so the book that is produced can be marketed. I don’t know if that is clear.

evie jones spiritLet’s say, for instance, that I wrote a sweet Western Romance, and put it out there. With no other books under that penname, and no real promotion of that title, in a marketplace that has been conditioned to expect sex and lots of it in a romance title, my book with no sex would sink like a stone (it did). On the other hand I have been watching in delight as a young writer I know has been working diligently at breaking into the market. She’s flying in the face of urban fantasy expectations (and paranormal, which her work tends more toward) by writing sweet stories that aren’t heavy on the sex and who frankly remind me of an up-to-date Nancy Drew dealing with voudon, ghosts, and oh, she’s a witch… But I expect she will do very well, because I know there are those who have given up in disgust with the Urban Fantasy that focuses on sex first, action and story second, or maybe third and fourth after character angst (I’ve just been trying to read an iconic UF series and finally gave up in disgust). She is, really, setting up a booth with her wares in the marketplace and she’s different.

Different is good. But not too different. I’m thinking about craft fairs I worked in, years back. When the shoppers walked into them, they had certain expectations. If you were going to a church bazaar, you expected funny little old ladies with hand-crocheted tissue-box covers. If it was an upscale juried show, they wanted to see fine jewelry and prices that were at least three digits. Which isn’t to say that the grannies were selling bad wares. They were selling to their audience.

And how to do that? I’ll ask you what your thoughts are, and then in the coming week, we’ll take a look at the nuts and bolts of creating a product to sell. I’ll tell you one thing: it’s not all about the writing.

A Leftover Post

This post was originally published at the Otherwhere Gazette earlier this year. In the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers, I think you all might enjoy a bit of history. if you’re looking for reading material in between naps to aid your digestion of yesterday’s feast, you might check out this space opera series, or this sweet urban fantasy novella, or if you really can’t stay awake, this edgy short story

I mustn't forget one of my favorite space operas: Schlock Mercenary!

I mustn’t forget one of my favorite space operas: Schlock Mercenary!

Space and Opera seem to be an improbable pairing. Opera, a form of entertainment popularly known for being high-brow, and involving the ‘fat lady singing’ and the genre we refer to as space opera with the exploding spaceships and exotic galactic locales. So how did they come to meet, like chocolate and peanut butter? What is the origin of the phrase, as the earliest origins of space opera, and certainly today, involve no ladies (fat or otherwise) singing?

Last week, at the Mad Genius Club and later on my blog, I provoked a discussion on what Hard Science Fiction is, whether it is still relevant, and finally, a list of 18 Twenty-First Century Hard SF books recommended by those who read the genre. It was truly fascinating to me to see not only that there are varying opinions on what makes a science fiction tale ‘hard’ – that I had expected – but to see that some, indeed, many, have no real distinction of subgenres within science fiction.

If I had to break science fiction into parts, there would be three of them (yes, I know that I don’t have to, but you see, there’s this heart of a librarian which rumor has I keep in a jar on my desk…) comprised of Hard Science Fiction, Space Opera, and military science fiction. Or maybe not. Eyes list. I think I could take that further… but today is not the day.

Space opera, according to that trove of wisdom, TV Tropes, is:

“A space opera is a work set in a far future space faring civilization, where the technology is ubiquitous and entirely secondary to the story. It has an epic character to it: The universe is big, there are lots of sprawling civilizations and empires, there are political conflicts and intrigues galore. Frequently it takes place in the Standard Sci Fi Setting. In perspective, it is a development of the Planetary Romance that looks beyond the exotic locations that were imagined for the local solar system in early science fiction (which the hard light of science revealed to be barren and lifeless) out into an infinite universe of imagined exotic locations.

Space opera has a lot of romantic elements: big love stories, epic space battles, oversized heroes and villains, awe-inspiring places, and insanely gorgeous women.”

So how does this have anything to do with, well, Otello, or Mozart, or… any of the singing ladies? The answer is that it didn’t originally. Between Space Opera and old-fashioned ladies belting it out before swooning gaily, is another step. The derisive terms of ‘horse opera’ and ‘soap opera’ lent more to space opera than Wagner’s Valkyries.

The term Horse Opera predates Soap Opera by about a decade, and was first recorded in 1927, Soaps, of course, got their name from the soap companies that paid for the programmes to promote their products. The thing they have in common is the use – some would say over use, of clichés, tropes, and audience expectations. Hold onto that last, we’ll get back to it.

Opera lends the grand, the epic, the melodramatic aspect to all of these genres. They are bound together with the common thread of plots that are over the top, improbable, and far greater in many cases than the everyday man will ever face. From saving the honor of their family, to saving the town, to saving the galaxy, and beyond!

commodore grimes

Space Opera: the art of the improbable

Wilson Tucker coined the term space opera intending it as a pejorative. As so many others before have done, the weary unwashed who want stories to escape the workaday drudge seized on the term and made it their own. Millions now thrill to the space opera on the big screens, and demand authors to write more of their favorites. Far from being an insult, space opera is now big business. Audiences expect to have fun when they hear the term space opera. They don’t expect the author or movie maker to ‘count the rivets’ in the story, the science is very much in the background. With some space opera, you need to hang your suspension of disbelief out the nearest window, lean back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

Popular opinion has always been in favor of having fun. Indeed, as we see with the popularity of science fiction, in particular space opera, which is regarded as playful and enjoyable, unlike the more science-accurate Hard SF, people don’t mind learning a little with their entertainment. When the stories of Doc Smith gave way to the silver screen, Space Opera was there, going where no man had gone before. It made perhaps the greatest impact on global culture with the hit success of the Star Wars trilogy in the 1970s. It is certainly not going away anytime soon, even if detractors still try to cut it down.

So what’s your favorite space opera? What do you look forward to when you hear the term? Spaceships, rayguns, and singing ladies. Oh, no, wait, not that last…

Of the Making of Traditions

Thanksgiving, Turkey Day, Food and Sleep Day… Most Americans will spend most of today in some variant of a ritual that’s not quite 400 years old and still evolving: the turkey and the idea of the feast of thanks are probably the only constants.

That the day echoes English harvest festivals from the 16th century is no coincidence, any more than the way those festivals have their roots in pre-Christian harvest festivals (and transferred more than a few practices pretty much intact although the origins of them is long-gone). And yes, it is a whole lot more complicated than that, but it makes a decent enough starting point.

The thing is, practically any society-wide tradition you can name is is likely to be either a direct descendant of something much older or a spiritual descendant of sorts with its roots in one or more much older traditions. Celebrating and giving thanks for a successful harvest by means of either a feast or sacrificing massive quantities of food to a deity (in the case of the US thanksgiving, you could argue it’s both and the sacrifice is going through our stomachs).

The same thing is going to apply when writing: any fictional festival will have roots in one or more older fictional festival, including practices that nobody now really understands but still have to happen because it’s “traditional” (The corn dolly in many English thanksgiving festivals comes to mind – it’s a relic of using the last sheaf to make a talisman that would be ritually sacrificed the following year (and the harvest in question wasn’t corn as we in the US understand it: the English use “corn” to mean any kind of grain) and was – at least for some cultures – thought to be the winter home of the grain spirit).

We do this ourselves – the tale of the woman who always cut the end off the leg of lamb to roast separately because her mother did it and her mother did it, never realizing that the grandmother cut the end off because her baking pan wasn’t large enough to take the whole leg resonates precisely because we all do exactly this kind of thing. How many of the women here arrange their kitchens more or less the way their mothers do? Until I wound up with a kitchen that didn’t have the right configuration for it, I certainly did (tea towels in the third drawer. Never shalt they reside in the second drawer for that is for cooking utensils).

How many of us even stop to think that we do something because that’s the way our parents did the same thing? Of such are traditions made, and traditions followed until the meaning is lost become rituals.

Thanksgiving in the US is certainly well on its way to that: with the year-round availability of practically everything, seasonal foods have lost their meaning to the point that many people couldn’t tell you that the traditional thanksgiving dishes are all seasonal and mostly late-harvest items – particularly in the northeast where the tradition got its more or less official start.

And yes, you can thank northeastern USA (specifically Philadelphia) for that other US thanksgiving tradition as well – Black Friday

Threading The Needle

Theme, plot and meaning in your work.

Yes, I know, I know.  You’re out there going “but aren’t we all about the story and not the message.”

Yeah, of course we are.  If by message you mean the clumsy, stupid, predictable message you find in message fiction.

Full disclosure: I was an awful kid who begged for books in all occasions, appropriate and not.

I don’t remember going through a “children’s book” phase.  I might have, but I don’t think I did, as I learned to read by reading Disney comics (which are not “precisely” just children’s books.)   However even at seven and eight, when I was reading… mostly Mark Twain and westerns, if I remember correctly, I would beg mom for what was called in Portugal then “Historias da carochinha” (Beetle stories.)

These were books about the size of my palm and comprising maybe ten pages.  But hey, a snack is better than starvation.

They republished all the common fairy stories like Cinderella and the Princess and the Pea, and also a lot of little stories probably pulled from Victorian morality tracts.

The stories were good enough, most of them, even if they were sort of the reader’s digest version of the tales.

BUT at the end of each booklet there was a sentence saying: The moral of this story is X.

I hated that with a burning passion, partly because it was an insult to my intelligence and partly because if you have to make it that blatant, you’ve failed.

I’m not asking you to do that.  I’m also not telling you to write a novel with set pieces that all speak your lines and reinforce your pov.

I’m definitely not telling you to repeat what the largely insular NY publishing establishment wants to hear about the world.  Not only would it be an unkindness to reinforce their imaginary world, but you might as well be driving a truck, as repeat the series of meaningless, reflexive moves you’ve read in all these stories.

However, a novel is a long story (you might have noticed this, as it has a helluva lot of pages, right?) and for coherence and internal feeling of development, it needs to have … a line, for lack of a better word, from beginning to end.

My mom, getting few and far between jobs to design full wardrobes for the wives of soccer players about to go on tour (if only the Portuguese teams had been better) contrived to feed us (dad’s salary at this point was largely ornamental) by buying an automatic knitting machine.

She eventually found she liked it, and ended up making sweaters for fun, even after dad’s job started paying, until about ten years ago when it got to be too much for her.

If you’ve seen those machines here, they are mostly plastic.  This machine, acquired in the fifties, was all iron.  It has a sort of little rail a square contraption runs on, and the knit hangs beneath.  Mom would pull at threads with a little hook, run the contraption from end to end and back again, pull at some more threads.  The motion is not unlike that of a loom. (The sound is like a train.  Because we were very poor and mom liked to feed us and you know keep a roof over our head, when I was little she often worked 12 to 16 hour days on that machine.  This means it was the sound track of my childhood, and I wish I had recorded it as I’m sure when I’m old and ill, it would bring me a sense of security.)

Sometimes when I asked mom a question, I got back the answer “Shush now, this is a complicated pattern, and I’m pulling a thread through.”

Weirdly, I often see my work in terms of that machine.  My mom would come and pick me up at school and say “hurry up, I left a piece hanging from the machine.”  Years later I told the kids “Come on, I left a piece hanging from the computer.”  Not literally, but I picture a half finished novel as hanging mid-air, and I’m afraid of losing the sense of what it is.

And I pull the threads through.  Sometimes simple patterns and sometimes complex.  (Beware of complex patterns until you’re a master of the craft — at 23 books published, I still am not, but then I’m a slow learner.)

So what are the threads?

The threads that give a sense of unity to the story are Plot, Theme and Sense (you can say message, but sense doesn’t need to be a message you want to deliver to someone.  I’ll explain.)

I just finished devouring the Adversary Cycle of F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack.  (Burp.)

His plots are thriller plots — and if you wish me to complete the series on structuring your novel by giving the different structures used for different genres, I will — which usually involve a search for a mcguffin while someone’s life acts as the clock (“find the mystical blah by midnight or the kid gets it.”) He usually has more than one “problem” running at the same time,which again is a thriller trick to keep it moving fast.  The problems usually turn out to be related, which is not so much a thriller thing as an urban fantasy thing.

His theme is also urban fantasy.  It slowly builds a cosmogony that gives sense to the entire cycle of novels.  Butcher and Correia do this too.  It is less common in science fiction and fairly nonexistent in romance.  Sometimes it appears in a reduced form in thrillers or mysteries.  F. Paul Wilson’s cosmogony is notable for being urban fantasy with an atheistic background.  It could turn ugly and meaningless fast, but it doesn’t because the Sense or, if you will the message of the books is a sort of rugged self-sufficiency based on self-control and looking after yourself, those you love and even hapless strangers.

This looking after yourself and those who need you is also fairly prevalent in Butcher and Correia.

Now the reason I called it “Sense” and not message is that no one is beating you over the head with it.  There is no final line saying “And the moral of this story is…”

The “Sense” the feeling that pushes you to the catharsis (remember that a fiction story is an emotional experience, not just an intellectual one), is not a message.  It doesn’t need to say anything socially relevant (though self sufficiency and looking after others is, of course, relevant) or socially conscious, or socially bupkis.

It just needs to be part of the character’s drive and motive and something the character believes deeply in.

Why something the character believes deeply in?  Because otherwise you’re going to contradict it in myriad ways in the background, in little spots and jots you can’t pay attention to.  You can’t write at cross purposes to your belief.  You can try, but you’ll give yourself away and create an inferior work.

So, how do you thread sense and theme through?

Most of this is unconscious or at least subconscious for me.  It wasn’t till I was done with Darkship Thieves that I realized I’d rewritten Heinlein’s Coventry, only longer and er… politically different.

Of course that’s not all of it, I’ve been fascinated with bio engineering humans since my teens, when I read Simak.  And that is why the large, uber theme of my books, all together tends to be “Learning to be human”.  This is not something I do on purpose.  It’s something my mind leans to.

BUT at some point you’re going to sit down and whether at plotting, at writing, or at revising, you’re going to think “So what am I doing with this?  What emotions am I pushing?  What problems am I examining?”

When and how you do it depends on whether you’re an advance plotter, fly by the seat of the pants, or revise a pile of words into coherency (all of them are VALID methods of work, don’t let anyone tell you that you must do one or the other.  And btw I’ve used all three at different times on different books.)

However at some point you’re going to look at what you wrote (I’ll use that for the sake of brevity.  You might be PLANNING to write it) and you’re going to think “Um… I talk about ducks a lot.”  (No, no one’s theme is ducks, but this is easier to explain.)  “You know, later on, when the hero is stopped on the road, I’ll have it be because a bunch of ducks escaped from a duck farm, instead of that deer thing.”

The same with the “sense” of the novel.  Say your “sense” is “you should always be well dressed” (No, I also don’t think anyone does this.  Don’t know.  Don’t read chic Lit.  BUT it’s possible, right?) Well, should your crisis be about your character breaking her foot by falling on ice?  Or should she break her foot because she was wearing inappropriate shoes?  And how is she going to hide the cast now?

I’ll point out both theme and sense are a bit like garlic, which Nero Wolfe said in one of his books, about a trout recipe, that you should take a very little and rub it ON THE COOK, then get whatever residue that gets on the fish.

It’s very easy to overwhelm and become preachy and no one likes preachy*. (Particularly if you’re preaching about ducks.  What are you, nuts?)

Also try to be balanced even if you do have a point of view (like behinds, they are.  Everyone has one.)

Take Rome and Juliet.   You probably learned, as did I that it was against the medieval idea that parents got to arrange the children’s marriage.  So it is.  Kind of.  Sort of.

The final coda does point out that all are punished.  But the all probably includes the dead lovers themselves.

You see, the theme of the book might be romantic love versus arranged marriages, but the sense of the book is “haste”.  Everyone is in a goshdarned hurry, from the two idiot children, to Juliet’s idiot father, to, even the idiot friar.  They all want what they want and they want it RIGHT NOW which causes the accumulation of errors leading to tragedy.

And that sense of urgency, though sometimes present in adults, is very much a thing of young teens.  Which precipitates the tragedy but also makes you think about the importance of calmer cooler heads in ordering affairs of the heart.

It is also, at heart, a novel of very bad parenting including you know entrusting Juliet to a bawdy nurse.  BUT that might or might not have been intentional, since the plot requires her to be badly guarded.  OTOH it reinforces the sense of haste and the sense her father is not quite grownup either.

So if the message were there it would be “It’s best that love prevail, if you’re not too young and too in a hurry, but there’s something to be said for parents holding you back, unless of course they’re intellectual infants.  Oh, and keep an eye on your kids fer goshsakes.”

Note it’s not a “bumper sticker” moral but a complex one.

If you’re subtle enough, and think it through enough, so will yours be.  If your “sense” for the novel fits in a bumpersticker, you is probably doing it wrong.


1- Figure out the theme and thread it through WHERE APPROPRIATE.

2- Figure out the sense of your novel and thread it through WHERE APPROPRIATE and not in people’s faces.

3 – If your sense of the novel fits in a bumpersticker, you iz doing it wrong.

4- most of 1 and 2 come down to building believable characters that fit the story you want to tell, and then not violating their individuality.

5- if you end in a line saying “the moral of this story is” it’s likely you’re over the top and turning off readers.  Also it’s possible Sarah A. Hoyt will come to your house and hold your cats/dogs/dragons hostage till you stop being a wise*ss.

Next Week: Born that way, the character that suits the tale.

And let me know if you want me to do a post on “generally appropriate plots for different genres.”

*No one likes “and the moral of the story is” unless they are my elementary school teacher, who became enamored of it and started requiring we put it at the end of stories.  Now, after a unit on nature, she told us to do a story about interacting with nature.  And yep, all my classmates ended up with the sort of sappy-pious thing that goes “I will respect nature, because…”
You might have noticed I have some issues with authority.  Just a few.  So, to being with, I wrote about someone hunting a rabbit.  And second, I wrote, “The moral of this story is: don’t go hunting wabbits, because they’re wascally.”
I was in trouble for WEEKS.


One early morning during my undergraduate days, I walked into a Russian History class to find TANSTAAFL written on the board. Our professor stood in one corner of the class, watching as we staggered and lurched to our chairs and prepared for the lecture. As the other students looked at what he’d written on the board, there were murmurs of confusion and a few wondering if the prof was trying to tell us something in Croatian or some other odd language no one in his right mind would bother learning. No one save myself recognized those strange letters for what they were: “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”. That day, the prof gave us a lesson a number of people today would do well to learn. What you get for free does cost, whether you pay for it now or later. Plus, other people pay for it as well.

No, this is not a political discussion. I’ll save that for my personal blog. It does apply, yet again, to writing. Not that long ago, I came across a blog post by a writer of m/m novels talking about how she and others had been plagiarized by a person by the name of Addison Scott. It seems Scott took their books, changed the names of the characters but basically that was it. Then Scott put the books up for sale on Amazon, BN, Kobo, etc. I thought I had blogged about it but I’m darned if I can find it in my pre-caffeinated state. If I remember correctly, at that point Scott took f/m books, changed them to m/m and that was about it. In once instance, the book was almost verbatim from the source material with the exception of the last chapter where the male lead had sympathetic labor pains with his now-wife. That wouldn’t work in a m/m, so the chapter was omitted.

Anyway, this morning I was looking through my FB feed and found yet another author, this time Cat Grant, talking about how she, too, has been plagiarized by Scott. In this case, Grant’s book, Once a Marine, is the book in question. It seems Scott has published “Coming Undone” which is, from a quick look, a verbatim copy of Grant’s book — with the expected name changes. Now, it doesn’t surprise me to see Scott has done this. After all, she (he?) is already known as a plagiarist. What does surprise me is that, after being reported more than once to BN, Kobo and other outlets, I find books under that person’s name on and Kobo. Not surprising, to me at least, is the fact I found nothing on Amazon by Scott.

Here’s the thing. For all the bad mouthing you can find about Amazon online, it does take plagiarism very seriously. It also is very responsive to author concerns, at least it has been in my experience. If it thinks you are publishing something you don’t have the rights to, you get an email telling you that you have a period of days to prove you have those rights or the book will be taken down. If they suspect you of plagiarism, they will take your work down and then it is up to you to prove otherwise. Okay, the latter is more of a guilty until proven innocent but better than than having your work out there, selling and putting money into someone else’s pocket. You pay for that and so do your readers.

But it also shows something else I’ve come across when it comes to Kobo and BN. Both are slow, sometimes glacier slow, to respond to author concerns/requests. This is especially true when a third-party aggregator like Smashwords is involved. That adds one more layer into the communication mix and it gives BN, Kobo and others an out. They are contracted to work with that aggregator so they can and will wait for the aggregator to propagate the take down notice.

And that is if you are lucky.

As writers, we work hard to put out the best story we can. It is more than just writing what we hope is an engaging and entertaining book or shorter work. It is then editing it, formatting, finding the right cover, promoting, and all the other steps necessary to try to be successful in this business. When someone rips off our work, as it appears Scott is doing (look at the samples for Grant’s book and Scott’s and tell me then that there isn’t plagiarism involved), they are stealing from us and laughing at us as they take the money they earn off our work. Worse, they are stealing from our readers.

The response isn’t to add DRM. That is simply waving a red cape in front of the bull and someone will hack it before you can sign your name. The response is to be alert. To listen to your readers when they say they’ve seen something that looks an awful lot like your work. Then the response is to be swift and merciless in how you deal with the plagiarist. Report them to every outlet you find their work in. Show proof with your reports that they have plagiarized your work. Send cease and desist letters to them and, if necessary, file suit. This is your livelihood they are attacking.

It comes down to one simple premise, something a lot of writers tends to forget about. Writing is our work, our job and part of our livelihood. We should treat it just as seriously as we would any other job, any other profession, we might have. That also means letting other authors know if we suspect they have been plagiarized. Reporting to the sales outlet suspected plagiarism and making sure those responsible are dealt with.

Plagiarists are looking for that free lunch. The problem is, they don’t care that it isn’t really free. Someone — in this case, the author and her fans — are paying for it. That means it isn’t free. Perhaps, if the plagiarist is made to take responsibility for their actions, it is a lesson they will finally learn.

One can hope.

Brussel sprouts


I really don’t like Brussel sprouts.

I don’t like the taste.

I don’t like the effect on my gastro-intestinal tract.

And nobody – including me — likes the devastating farts I produce after eating them. There are worse things, of course. As a child I had the most wonderful black Labrador, who — besides being in my opinion at the time, the best dog in the entire universe –- was very good at lying quietly at my feet under the dining-room table. I spent a fair amount of time sitting at that table with things I had decided I didn’t like on my plate. I sat there until I decided I did like them. I was a very obstinate child, of very obstinate parents, which proves four things: 1) Some things are heritable. My kids are my parents’ revenge. 2) I didn’t like cold Brussel sprouts any more than I liked hot Brussel sprouts. Less, in fact. 3) A loving dog, especially a Labrador that will eat anything that comes from your hand, is a treasure to a small, obstinate boy. 4) Eventually, that too will come out, and when you smuggle your dog onto your bed every night, (through the window. My mother knew, but wasn’t telling my father. My father knew but wasn’t telling my mother. Family dynamics… a book in itself) you’re going to have to live with the consequences, or at least the stink.

Now, because Brussel sprouts are full of vitamin K which assists in blood-clotting… if you’re on blood thinners to keep you alive, they could just kill you too. This is very rare, but a lot less rare than being killed by carrots. I am sure if you try hard you can come up with several great forms of carrot-ssassination, but frequent carrots are really, really good for you. You know it is mandatory that when you puke, there must be at least at least seven pieces of carrot, and four peas, undigested, or the universe itself will fall down the singularity created by violating this basic law of physics. It is much healthier to eat them regularly than to force your body to store them for years against this evil chance.

Yes, I like carrots, and peas more than Brussel sprouts. I don’t love carrots, or peas. They range from good to Okay.

But no-one (or no-one with two working brain cells) could say I was Brussel sprouts-phobic. I don’t have an exaggerated and irrational fear of them (that is what a ‘phobia’ is). I certainly don’t hate them, or want you not to eat them. You’re welcome to as many as you please, my share too. Just, if they have the same effect on you, please don’t stand downwind or share my bed. I can even eat them if I have to. This too will pass. But I don’t like them, for good logical reasons.

And no, I have no interest in trying them over and over again just in case I get to like the taste of them. It’s pretty unlikely I will die from them, but if that’ll do for an excuse, I’ll take it. The truth is, I am not that interested in eating them, and if I never saw another one on my plate… I probably wouldn’t notice. I don’t care much, and most of the time now I can actually say ‘no thank you’ or leave them on my plate and still get dessert.

Yes, this does relate to books –as well as many things from taking in ‘migrants’ or refugees to eating undesired veggies.

I hear ‘transphobic’, and ‘homophobic’, and ‘Islamophobic’ a lot (I daresay we’ll have melanophobic and gynophobic any moment now). There may be some genuine exaggerated and irrational fear of any of these things. There can also be disinterest or plain dislike. It can even be quite logical for that individual. Honestly, telling me – or any reader – they are xyz-phobic not to want to read your book which is all about xyz… is only going to work, if I care what you think.

And if you’re going to know that I, specifically, think it.

That, I think, is where the disconnect between sales expectations and reality of many of those in NY Traditional Publishing – or those pushing for more Syrian migrants – becomes apparent.

Firstly, people may well not have the desire to open themselves up to the shrieking and attacks of the left-wing SJW’s by publically stating that no, they really have no interest in a book about xyz victim, that they don’t like them (and rationality doesn’t matter) and they’re not going to spend their money on it. They don’t have to say anything. They vote, in a kind of secret ballot. Money is a very sincere form of voting.

And secondly, people increasingly just don’t care. The ones pointing, shrieking, threatening, accusing them of being SCARED of xyz… are not people they respect, or whose opinion matters to them in least. Often they’ve managed to make themselves disliked by those who don’t care’s peer group. Often they have amply demonstrated they don’t have any credibility to criticize. Take John Scalzi telling folk that don’t want an influx of Muslim Syrian refugees that being frightened, ignorant and cowardly is no way to go through life… Hang on… is this the guy who worries about ‘microagression’ (or are we at nano-aggressions, or maybe even pico-aggressions), supports ‘safe spaces’ and needs a fainting couch for the terribly offensive word ‘pussy’ (my cat is not impressed), bans any dissent, and has no experience whatsoever of working or fighting with the people he’s talking about? A lot of the folk who do object have combat experience (or actually know people with that experience) some in the in the ME or Afghanistan. I know if I was looking for someone I could be sure wasn’t frightened, ignorant and cowardly, I’d bet on the latter group.

It’s not a ‘phobia’ we’re talking about. They might be wrong. That is possible. But you need credibility, you need to SHOW people, not tell them, or try to shame them, or bully them. If you can show them that your Trans hero is entertaining and likeable, if you can show them your ‘refugee’ is going to be a good citizen and integrate into their society… you can sell your book, get your refugee asylum. If you’re going to appeal to your authority, well, you need to be credible, be someone the reader can trust and respect.

If not… learn to disguise your Brussel sprout. One chopped up fine and mixed into a pot of molten lava conflagration Chili works pretty well.

And, yes, that’s good book advice too.

Five thoughts, loosely connected

First thought: the candle flame of the Enlightenment continues to flicker, as the West is being squeezed between the radicalized forces of the Honor Culture (Islamist jihadists) on one side, and the radicalized forces of the Victim Culture (Mizzou’s and Yale’s crybullies) on the other side. Guess who is stuck in the middle? Us. The Dignity Culture. The people who were raised right. The ones who do all the heavy lifting. We who don’t seek to be mortally offended at the drop of every hat, nor do we solve our grievances with suicide bombers. Because we have manners. Because we believe in restraint. Because it’s taken hundreds of years of hard work to get us to our present state of civilization. Because we know that the vast bulk of human history was spent trapped in a paradigm where rules, laws, and order, were whatever the local thug(s) wanted them to be. The Honor Culture desires very badly for us to go back to that paradigm. So does the Victim Culture, though they themselves would hotly deny it. I wonder how much longer the Honor Culture and the Victim culture have to punch us in our noses, and kick us in our shins, before we shove our hats forward and roll up our sleeves. Said the Dignity Culture to its unruly brethren, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

Second thought: I really hope we don’t go there. We went there from about 1938 to 1945, and those years remain a startling testament to the deadly efficiency of liberal democratic forces, once they’ve been sufficiently roused from their slumber. The Honor Culture thinks the West is weak, because the West has (so far) fought limited wars, with both hands tied behind its back — where being “nice” is more important than being respected. There may come a moment when the West decides that “nice” is a phantasm, and that respect is best achieved through fear. When that happens, the result will be awful violence the likes of which nobody has seen in generations. And the great majority of the dead will come from the rank and file at the Honor Culture’s base — not jihadis, but run-of-the-mill Muslims, who didn’t really care about the fight, one way or another. The jihadis will learn: the West doesn’t hold back out of weakness. The West holds back because the West knows it’s so bloody good at killing. Once that horrendous spigot gets turned on — a people, versus a people — it won’t turn itself off again until many, many millions of human beings lay dead. Some of us, yes. But mostly them. By a huge, smoldering margin.

Third thought: ironically, it’s the Victim Culture which is enabling so much of the Honor Culture’s narrative at this point. When all ills in the known universe can be laid at the feet of Western bogeymen, what other excuse does the Honor Culture need? The Dignity Culture’s very own cognoscenti report hourly on the heinous crimes of the West: runaway capitalism, rampant sexism, murderous racism, terrible transphobia, horrendous homophobia, you name it; a veritable salad bar of civilizational sins. Never mind that the Honor Culture has member states practicing some of the most egregious forms of racism, sexism, and homophobia imaginable. How many gay men did DAESH throw off the tops of buildings this week? How many girls in Taliban or Boko Haram territory, will be raped and beaten? Nevermind. The true enemy are Mormons! They hate children and families! 100,000 tweets say so! And as you know, Bob, Twitter is never wrong. It’s time to classify Mormons as members of a hate group! But don’t blame Islam for the attacks in Paris. Never, ever blame any Muslims for anything any Muslim does in the name of Islam. But God damn those evil, backward, hayseed, yokel Mormons — something really must be done about them. It’s overdue.

Fourth thought: the Victim Culture is not something that can be corrected from the top down. Even if the universities were to magically grow spines (and balls) tomorrow, the problem would persist, because children are being delivered to the academic door in a state of emotional chaos. They have not learned — as generations past learned — that knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom. Wisdom happens in that instant when the fine crystal of theory, shatters against the hard granite of reality. Indeed, this is the root of the Enlightenment itself. When Copernicus correctly pointed out that the Earth orbits the Sun, not vice-versa. When Kepler abandoned his cherished vision of a perfectly geometric system of planetary motion, for an accurate model that was consistent with observable data. That facts and evidence are not relative, nor set apart. The universe is both accessible, and knowable — regardless of your gender, your ethnicity, your sexual preference, or your economic station. There is no such thing as a “privileged” viewpoint. Doubtless Kepler and Copernicus would be brought up for hate crimes, in today’s rarefied campus climate. But the institutionalized insanity would melt away within a single generation, if Western parents would simply return to using phrases like, “No,” and “Too bad,” and, “Get over it.” Punctuated by a stiff swat to the butt of the child, when necessary.

Fifth thought: or perhaps, it’s not nearly as bad as all that. The so-called Information Age, exemplified by the World Wide Web, is prone to making mountains out of molehills. Regional happenings which actually affect very few people in any demonstrable way, are blown entirely out of proportion. Crises are manufactured on an almost weekly basis, by “news” outlets eager for clicks and eyeballs, or activists hungry for coverage and influence, or politicians eager to exploit the latest inflaming of public rage, sympathy, or fear. Sometimes, the newsmen and the activists and the politicans are one and the same — it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between their rhetoric. There is no “clean” outlet. Merely a vast array of outlets and voices, all with a specific slant, angle, or agenda. We conclude that those outlets which agree with our own internal beliefs, are the most accurate; while dismissing the others. Fact-checking can be nightmarish, because the Internet allows anyone to post anything, for any reason, and pass it off as “truth” even if it’s a ball of lies. So, is the Enlightenment really on its way out? Or are we merely seeing a squall on the sea’s surface, while the slow waters underneath tell a very different story?

My personal instinct, is to try to have faith — that everything is working itself out, as it should. But I worry about the world my daughter will inherit. If both the Victim Culture and the Honor Culture co-conspire to snuff out the Enlightenment entirely, humanity may have to endure yet another Dark Age: intellectually clouded, and brutally arbitrary.

Bow Wow Meow?

Just a few moments ago I rolled over, looked out the bedroom window, and thought “the sky is aflame… wait, I couldn’t write that because it could be taken in other ways than the sky was lit up by the sunrise in brilliant pinks and oranges holy crap I have to do Mad Genius.” I then jumped out of bed, headed for the office… and tripped over the dog. I managed to catch myself on the book case and keep from taking a header, and I managed to keep the yell inside me so I didn’t wake my still-sleeping husband.

Our dog is not big, but she’s solid. About 60 pounds of all-black muscle on short legs. So when she takes to sleeping stretched across the threshold of the bedroom in the dark, we both stub our toes on her regularly. It’s not her only quirk. The other one (ok, another one – I will spare you most of them) is that she can’t stand for me to be awake and her primary person, my First Reader, to remain asleep. So she will go whine and yip at him until he gets up unless I drag her out of the bedroom. It’s not that we don’t love her, in a way, but argh! she can drive us crazy.

Black lab cross dog

Tricksy, the portable black hole.

But this got me thinking again about what happens when mankind takes the big leap off this mudball into the stars. Who will go along with us? Pets are a luxury, and an expensive one. If we follow the old patterns of emigration with the tough scouts followed by the hardscrabble miners, and then the farmers foolish enough to take family far from civilization… it’s going to be expensive and luxuries are going to be few and far between, and more likely to be related to personal safety and comfort than having a ‘furbaby.’

Which isn’t to say that animals won’t go along nearly from the beginning. But I see that as more of a working role than a pampered pet. Mice may become the spaceman’s canaries, for instance. I’ve never had mice as pets (they were fox food when my parents were trying to raise Silver Foxes) but they are warm and soft and fun to play with. They are also easier on the ventilation system than birds would be – having spent a couple of years with parakeets in my office (they didn’t make the cut for performing in a magic show. Who would have thought that parakeets are among the few birds who don’t shut up when closed into a dark place?) I am very aware of how much airborne mess even a small bird makes.

I’m working on a book, originally intended to be a short story about a boy and his dog, that was inspired by a friend who travels the Internet as the Basset (beware the Drool). In it, I speculate that dogs did not make the first jump into space, and have become so rare in the colonized galaxy as to be unheard of. There are woolies, which make spectacular fleeces in colors to order. And there are beeves, which more closely resemble massive furry slugs than the hoofed and horned fore-bulls they came from. But there were no dogs… Because, if you think about it, a colonist on a spaceship needs a dog about as much as a hole in his hull. There is no ‘outside’ to walk the furry little monster in. His hairs and dander (even our flat-coated labX produces enough fuzz to make a new dog every week, it seems) will be a serious nuisance in the ventilation system. Now, when that colonist is on-planet, a working dog would be an asset. But until ‘stasis’ boxes or transport of frozen embryos or some such technology comes along, the big livestock guardian dogs like the Maremmas and Great Pyrenees are not going to do well on a space voyage.

Soldier and puppy

A Dog and his Boy (photo found on internet)

I have also written a story in which I speculate that cats don’t make the jump. Admittedly, this was set in the world I started with The Eternity Symbiote, and that wasn’t how I expect mankind to begin their journey to the stars – on an alien ship and leaving Earth in a hurry just ahead of a genocidal crowd. But I know how people are, and young soldiers (of which there are a large percentage in TES) will smuggle along a pet or three. The story I will be releasing soon is set about a century after that exodus, so there are a few animals, but the cat the girl finds is very unusual and it’s no wonder she wants it, after he jumps in her lap, curls up, and starts in with that rusty purr.

I’m not even getting into livestock, and the various other critters I’ve kept (or my kids have) through the years.

What do you think? Who will come along with humanity for that wild ride and why? How will kids manage to conceal and smuggle along that adorable kitten (and you know they will)?