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Avoid Montony

Expect this post to be all over the place, and probably to make less sense than usual (an achievement I grant) because I’m dealing with a probably terminally ill and much loved old dog. I’m trying to avoid him having any more discomfort than necessary in treatment, and that’s meant very little sleep for the last four nights. We do what we must, and he trusts me absolutely, and I can only do my best to live up to that trust. It will mean opening the door into summer, when he is in anything more than temporary, curable pain. It’s not something any decent man finds easy.

Anyway: to entertain, and possibly make my fellow writers think and improve their sales.

‘May you live in interesting times’ – an ancient Chinese curse (well, possibly merely invented by Eric Frank Russell – but true none-the-less. EFR saw human psychology too clearly… but is monotony so great?  I mean…

From things that kids write in their school-books –‘When a man and woman get married that is called monotony.’

Heh. Speaking as 35 year veteran… that probably isn’t all that accurate if you’re still married thirty-five years, or at least you know to keep your yap shut, before it becomes rapidly less monotonous. No, seriously, humans are strange, but mating for life isn’t actually that strange. Trust me. I’m a biologist. Humans are kind of fixated about sex. This is, in purely biological terms, a good thing… unless you consider extinction of the human a good thing. Because that ‘monotony’ seems to have worked pretty well at producing a comfortable civilization, albeit with things like New York. (Which the dolphins (according to Douglas Adams, who would know) consider to be signs of lack thereof.)

Look, biology has a whole sub-branch entirely dedicated to sex and sexual strategies. So do most book-shops. It’s labelled ‘fiction’, in case you’re looking. Because biologists can escape political correctness to some extent they can be quite realistic and pragmatic about sex, about things ordinary people just don’t talk about because we like to pretend it just isn’t so.

Biology can talk cheerfully about sizes and physique of males and females, and what effect that has, and what male territory means to females and why social display exists and what it does. They can talk about cheating – of both sexes, and how their strategies differ, and numerically how common it is… And very little of it is politically correct. Take size difference between the sexes. In strongly polyandrous species like the anglerfish for example – the female is large, and males small. In polygamous cichlids like the appropriately named Pseudocrenilabrus philander – the male is substantively larger than the females in his harem. And females are attracted to the fish with the biggest and best territory, as well as the highest level of aggressive braggadocio. Humans – had anyone the courage to talk about it without someone shrieking and throwing tantrum — would probably classify as ‘weakly polygamous’ as the size difference between males and females isn’t particularly large. So monogamy is actually quite close to normal for us, and as we’re still surviving, works, at least well enough to increase our numbers. For various good biological reasons (see cheating and the cuckoo syndrome) both sexes are biased to think it a good idea… especially in the other sex.

Oh. What’s the long words about parrots? I’m sorry. I should have explained. Pollygamy: That’s what a psittaciphage finds the flavor of his food to be. Moan-a-gamy is the complaint uttered as a result. I hope that is clearer now? And Polly-am-are-us is someone who self-identifies as a parrot. Polly-and-rye is a drink you probably should avoid. Isn’t biology wonderful? And don’t ask me why Polly wants a cracker, because that’s got me… What is she going to do with a cracker? Ahem, to continue more seriously about books and writing.

Now, we’re in the business of selling books. And for most of us that means to as many people as possible (although there is a niche for targeted books for small groups. To put it simply 100% of 0.1% of the population may make you a better living than competing with a lot of other authors and ending up with 0.00001% of the 20% of the population who like that broader category. Typical here is the local interest book. CHANGELING’S ISLAND is a runaway bestseller here – having sold to more than 10% of the population. If we had the population of Melbourne I’d be rich. And I couldn’t have written that book.) Sex interests many of us  (and obviously most in the same way, or we’d be extinct. We’re selected to the same attractants. Generation after generation: Those who aren’t, have failed to breed). The US elections are none of my business, but it’s pretty obvious to a disinterested observer that candidates genitalia and sexual issues are things that are getting a lot more traction in the media than healthcare and jobs. Therefore I presume people must care, or at least some of them do.

So to entirely ignore sex in your books, or to entirely ignore sex the way biology and evolution shaped us to respond well to, is probably going to limit your market. Unfortunately, despite the evidence that someone 4 foot tall and five wide with a face like a bulldog and breath to match, and all the grace, charm and humor of an enema… and several million dollars (or casting choice for a movie, or a publishing contract), being incredibly attractive to a surprising number of mates whose physical appearance suggests prime breeding stock, this just doesn’t sell.

A mystery… well, not really. Books are fiction and to some extent wish-fulfilment exercises. Happy fantasies – by and large most of us are neither wealthy nor powerful nor famous. Nor, frankly, are most of us the epitome of fertile pulchritude (yes, actually, once again the biologist – a fair number of the chosen features of handsomeness or beauty translate as sign of a healthy mate, good genes. Although, it is fair to say fashion screws around with that a lot.) So: depending on the target market, the sex that sells is probably a far cry from the unpleasant reality of wealth and power. Remember: we are in the game of selling illusions, dreams and hopes. Like the super-attractors that catch fish (things that look like the prey, but are just about 10% bigger) what many of us are looking for a rose tint – not bright crimson glasses.

This of course is where target can change the nature of the book. Jane Average may love a book where someone not too far from Jane Average gets her fantasy (I gather that’s some of the appeal of Fifty Shades). And likewise Joe Average’s fantasy is probably not taking out the garbage for Mz. Dominant who thinks he’s a doormat. I suppose one of my weaknesses is the daydream that neither Joe nor Jane are that average (despite appearances) and when the crunch of the story comes find this out. But then, I’m a hopeless romantic. Men have been dying for those ideals for millennia. I’m not sure what the biology, genetics or sense of that is!

But whatever you do avoid monotony. Even monogamy needs to be interesting.

It takes a lot of rocks to get to the candy

My wife and I coordinated our Halloween costumes this year, to correspond with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! She’s Lucy, complete with red witch hat and green witch mask; both custom-made — my wife is just talented as hell like that. My outfit, on the other hand, is far simpler: Charlie Brown — to include the white sheet with way too many eye holes. A family friend commented to me (tonight, at the local ward party) that all I needed to complete my portion, was a football, and a paper sack filled with rocks.

I’ve use the sack-full-of-rocks analogy before, to describe what it’s like being an aspiring author. Especially back in the days before dignified independent publishing existed. You either vanity-published, or you did the hard chore of sending your (paper!) manuscripts off to editors. As well as agents. In exchange for (paper!) rejection letters. Lots, and lots, and lots of rejection letters. I still have a fairly large three-ring binder, stuffed with all the paper slips I’ve ever received. As of 2016, I think my electronic rejections have reached or exceeded the paper number. Many hundreds, or more. I’ve lost count, to be honest. And they’ve not stopped, even with a robustly healthy publishing track record to my credit.

When you’re new, it occasionally seems like Lucy is eternally yanking the ball away. No matter how hard you run at it, you can’t connect. You just end up flat on your back, wondering what the hell is wrong with you, or your work. What’s the issue? Do you really and truly suck? Or is the system somehow broken? Maybe, stacked against you?

The truth is that publishing is now easier than it’s ever been. But success? In the words of Kevin J. Anderson, success is as hard as it always was. Maybe, I would add, harder? Because there are more people publishing prose — in the English language, in the 21st century — than at any other time in history. Thousands of new books and stories are launched every single day. The removal of editors and agents as the sole gatekeepers of the industry, means that literally everyone can take their books and stories directly to the marketplace. Which is a bit like having hundreds of new NASCAR drivers merge onto the track every hour, on the hour. And the track is infinitely wide.

It’s enough to make even a competently optimistic author throw up her hands and utter, “Good grief!”

Here’s the good news, as non-intuitive as it may sound. Getting rocks in your sack helps you get better.

No, really, it does. Even if you’re an indie author. Because this is what forces you to work. To not stay put, churning at the same level of authorial acumen.

My hundreds of rejections have been hard. They’re still hard. But they’re a reminder to me that there is always room for improvement. And especially in the beginning, when I honestly and truly did not know what I was doing — I still have many of those old manuscripts, believe me, I know how appropriate it is that they never saw print! — rejection was a limiter against which I had to push myself. And it also taught me humility. In addition to appreciation for the eventual wins, when they came.

But only after my sack had filled up with rocks, year after year.

Yeah, I get it. No sane person gets a sack full of rocks every single year, and doesn’t experience moments of severe doubt. I was getting ready to throw in the towel by 2005 — after over a dozen years of rejection — when my wife said to me, “If you let this dream go, you have to replace it with an equal or better dream.” I ultimately couldn’t do that, because I couldn’t turn off the story-generator in my head. Even if my storytelling chops weren’t yet good enough to take what was happening in my head, and smoothly translate it to words. So I redoubled my effort. And I switched up my style. Moving from third-person to first-person — especially for short stories — was a huge win for me. Uncomfortable as hell, at first. But it was the necessary move that helped me bump my short work into entry-level professional territory. So that by 2010 I had stuff under contract, with more on the way, and a bona fide career was launched.

And because I still had all those sacks filled with rocks, I could look at them and relish the (then, new) candy suddenly being thrown my way.

I still relish the candy, because it’s more common now, and of a higher quality, more often. I’d not appreciate any of this, without my requisite sacks of rocks — earned over my proverbial first million words of “practice” prose.

So don’t feel like it’s a thankless chore, if you’re still getting rejections, or your indie work is dudding in the marketplace. For whatever reasons, you’re still not connecting (yet!) with that football. It may take you a few more (or a lot more?) manuscripts, to hone your intuitive storytelling capabilities to the point that your prose is capable of doing what you need it to, in order to consistently entertain an audience. Be it the audience of the editor or agent, or the audience of the open marketplace. Again, thousands of new “drivers” merging onto the NASCAR oval every day. You’re not alone. Most of those people won’t stick. Bottom line. They won’t get traction, and will move on to some other endeavor. The way to win on the oval, is to simply keep going around and around and around. Ensure that you never take yourself out of the race. Keep showing up on those porches and front stoops, your paper sack open and ready to receive what’s coming to you. It doesn’t make you a blockhead, if you try and fail. You’re only a blockhead if you try, then fail, and assume that trying was pointless. Or that somehow, magically, everyone else who is getting candy, knows the secret launch codes or something.

There’s no secret. Just effort. And patience.

Don’t expect it all to come to you at once. Accept the setbacks and the mistakes. They are only fruitless if you don’t learn from them — if they have not shown you some way you can do better.

Because when the wins do come . . . believe me, you will experience satisfaction unlike almost any other.

Used Spaceship for Sale: missing Szyxcnik rotor Qewst engine

Or something like that.

I was car shopping a while back, and had joked on Facebook that hundreds of years in the future, not much would have changed about the process, only how DO you test-drive a starship? I mean, if you hit foldspace and just… Disappear into a cloud of scintillating dust, the used ship salesman will just tuck your stack of credits deeper in his pocket and turn his attention along with Brillo-Ray enhanced smile onto the next suckers in line.

Of course, the fact that I was shopping on a very small cash budget which limited me from even having to deal with Smarm, the purple alien dude, you know, the one with the tentacles on his upper lip? Anyway, that meant I was dealing with the jokers who advertised a car at one price, knocked a grand off it when I showed up to drive it, then when I got back from the test drive, had another guy there, who informed me he was selling the car for his dear old Auntie. Then he offered to call a friend who was a notary, as I’m looking at the name and feminine signature on the title, and cocking an eyebrow at the wall of testosterone in front of me. No, he wasn’t willing to meet me at the BMV to have it notarized, or at my bank… I’m not sure how I got away with a straight face, but the dude was quite disappointed when I texted him later saying my husband wouldn’t let me buy that car. Handy thing, that husband card. Playable even when not married, if you’re dealing with strangers.

But I am married. Married with kids, which is why up until yesterday we were house hunting. I was reminded of the scenes in Rolling Stones (the Heinlein book, not the band!) where the family was checking out the ships. In that future, like the one I’m working on for my nascent Tanager series, house shopping and vehicle and storage and trailer are all wrapped up into one package deal. Which has pros and cons if you think about it. I drove home yesterday towing a trailer for the first time in my life. It was a little bitty trailer, but no one died, so achievement unlocked – and it got me thinking. What happens to people like us in the future?

I’m not a big believer in the post-scarcity world of Star Trek, where everyone is happy with a cubicle in a ship, no windows, no choices (unless you are the Captain and even he got orders although following them was not his strong suit). Where are the tinkers, the tailors, the peddlers? The roving ship like the Serenity, carrying what cargo it can and making ends meet with a budget and a plan? The Rolling Stones, meeting new friends and working hard to feed the family?

I don’t think there will ever be a shortage of people like me, like my family, who work hard, earn our way up, and sometimes have to go car – er – ship shopping on the cheap. And I’m betting that shade-tree mechanics will morph into dark-side of the asteroid garages, long after the origin of ‘garage’ is lost in the mists of the Milky Way.

But to go back a bit, when we were looking at houses we weren’t necessarily looking for what the ‘average’ (you know, normal is just the high point on the gaussian curve. Us, the Odds, we’re on that steep slope off to the side, slipping happily down shouting Wheee! As we go) people want in a house. We need room for books. But not a TV, because we don’t own one. We want a big kitchen and space in the dining room for a table we can game on. We eyeball the windows and think about the light coming in, in terms of lighting for photography and art. And we do the normal stuff, too, like wanting a place in the country rather than in town, and googling to find out how close the local library is… Oh, well, maybe not that last. I mean, I do, but I can’t speak for normal.

All this is fun to think about in terms of story. Regular folks, making their way in life, and the plans they make to keep house and hearth warm. Then, we throw rocks at them, metaphorically, as authors. What happens when you scrimp and save and put down a deposit on that spaceship, only to have the broker disappear? What happens if a war breaks out and soldiers are quartered on your ship? Or if alien fungus starts spreading and you’re under quarantine?

I’ve got to do something to distract myself from the prospect of packing and moving, after all.

Shotgun Creation


The thing about writing, that thing (with just one weird trick, done to death, man is that horse beaten) that nobody (everybody) tells you is that it’s simultaneously the easiest thing to do, and the hardest. Putting words on paper is easy. Crafting a story is less so. Working the kinks and bugs out of a draft less so than that. And so forth, literally ad nauseum.

And while it’s not purely internal, which is to say, each writer doesn’t necessarily have to re-invent the wheel (there are numerous guides of greater or lesser notoriety, to include our humble offerings), that sure seems to be in large part the method employed. I’d love to be able to write like certain of my friends. And, to an extent, I could. I could force myself into a specific mold such that all the correct boxes were ticked at the proper times. I’d almost certainly end up with something that could charitably be called a novel (or literary vector of choice).

It would almost certainly kill my peculiar voice, though. Or at least mute it to the point where the story would be wooden and unpleasant to read, regardless of how polished and pretty.

Much of what I do as a writer seems geared toward (slowly) chipping away at the learned behaviors and detritus of years in order to reveal the clean, streamlined process by which I best produce (and mostly easily (though I can’t for a second believe that those are necessarily conjoined (apologies for the nested parentheses (apologies for the apologies…)))) *cough*

Now, as far as your process goes, you’re likely (I hope) farther along than I am. And if you aren’t (I hope you are. I’m a pretty low bar, as standards go), there are any number of techniques available, many of which I’ve even discussed in previous posts. Some at length. Some simple ones are the Pomodoro technique, deliberately crafting a physical space conducive to creation (I’ll spare you pics of my office. Children. And toys. So. Many. Toys.) as well as the never-popular Pulling the Internet Plug, followed by the (absolutely necessary) Butt-in-Chair Time. And read. Read, read, read.

Now, understanding how your own soul shapes the words that flow out of your imagination into some semblance of order on the page, I’m going to be less helpful. Sarah claims that no genre is safe from her, and I’m inclined to believe it. I find myself ranging all over the fantasy and scifi spectrum (barring hard SF. I don’t have the background, and right now the time/energy to gain it). I know writers who’ve made their nut in a specific subgenre, and others who’ve spent years shaping a specific world before turning to something else. Or not.

Essentially, what I’m getting at is experimentation. This applies not only to process, and genre and subgenre, but also to technique. Wednesday, Sarah wrote on making your characters real. I don’t know that I can speak to that, as the people I write are people, regardless of how much or little they’ve chosen to reveal to me (ungrateful cusses. *looks around* but beloved  cusses, with many excellent qualities). World are similar. I follow my characters around with an invisible camera, relating their shenanigans to the reader.

One significant trick I learned from Dean Wesley Smith is focusing on a specific writing technique for a story. Make sure you get the sensory information into every page. Whether it’s a mention of the odors you characters smell, or the vivid colors around them (or drab, if that’s the way you roll, you dystopianist, you), or the moan of the chill wind between the weathered slats of the abandoned homestead in which your people are sheltering for the night, give the reader anchors for their imagination. And then, let the reader know the character’s reactions. That low moan, that sends a prickle up the spine of your hero, that recalls the hunting cat that terrified him as a child.

As I stated above, these things aren’t *hard* per se. Deliberate practice will teach you what you need to learn, and build upon the skills you’ve acquired to date. The hard part is something likewise peculiar to you, the individual writer. It may be that you simply don’t have the time or energy because of your stage of life. *cough* But these things change (the only true constant in the universe) and so will your process. Now go forth, and blast away until you understand how you best work. Then blast some more.

Of History and Trajectories

A while back, I was on an alternate history panel that posed the question of whether there’s a momentum to history or whether there are places where someone’s decision or a matter of chance can change the outcome. I think this was a Ravencon panel earlier this year, but the year’s been sufficiently… interesting I’m not going to guarantee this.

My first instinct when I read that question was to answer “yes”. Events – which get recorded as history – do have momentum. It’s not a specific direction or what some would call progress, but the cumulative outcome of untold numbers of individual decisions, each made by someone who thought it was the best choice they had at the time. Many of those decisions aren’t even conscious – driving is largely an activity of habit, which is why if you’re not paying attention you can find yourself headed to work on a weekend.

To really understand how this works, you need to have a good understanding of how people work – and that many of them make their choices by methods alien to you but perfectly sensible to them. There are rules of thumb that can be followed: if there’s no strife or hardship we as a species tend to sit back and get lazy. Without intense competition – usually expressed in the form of war against the neighbors – there’s a tendency to stagnate.

Naturally, this makes war a favored plot device.

As a pantser I tend not to use it because a properly handled war takes some serious strategic and logistic nous – and to really do a fictional war justice, there needs to be at least two different styles of strategy (corresponding, more or less, to the preferred styles of the lead generals on each side). After all, different cultures will have different priorities, which means they’ll choose different targets and different offensive and defensive tactics.

All of which explains why most mil-SF leaves me not so much cold as lost. I’m not the sort who can geek over that sort of thing.

That doesn’t stop me looking at an alternate history in which some minor twist of events leads Hitler to avoid the mustard gas injury he suffered in the First World War, and as a result not become completely barking mad over the next twenty five years.

No, I haven’t started writing it. I don’t want to start: something like this is going to be thoroughly unpleasant and ugly, and besides, while the scenario is interesting, I don’t really have a character to work with.

Although an alternate history where the Bavarian Army checks Hitler’s citizenship and ships him to Austria instead of letting him enlist might be interesting in its own way… Of such small things are huge changes made, but not necessarily where we can see them or with consequences we can guess at by any means short of hindsight.

That the end of the First World War would lead to another war within a generation or so was screamingly obvious. It was also obvious from the mid 1800s that the mess of treaties and mutual defense obligations across Europe and the European colonial holdings would cause a war sooner or later, especially with so many of the powers of the day happily engaging in all manner of brinkmanship and gunboat diplomacy. That’s the momentum of events at work.

What nobody could predict was what would set this powder keg of rivalry and unstable regimes tumbling into chaos.

Of course, we know what did set it off today, and we could legitimately claim everything from 1914 through 1990 as the Great World War – because what happened between 1918 and the start of Imperial Japanese expansion or the more conventional 1939 invasion of Poland was far from peaceful, and the staring match between the USA and USSR with its not-quite-regular “oh shit we’re all gonna get nuked” moments wasn’t exactly a time of peace either.

But then, we don’t yet know whether the time from 1990 until a few years from now, or maybe tomorrow, will be known as a quieter period between the next explosion of hostilities. Or even if we’ll manage to scrape by without another round of worldwide war. All of which makes history and the question of what might have happened such fertile story-fodder.

Because, once the ball lands on the one daisy in the field of grass, it’s easy to say that this was phenomenally unlikely, but that ball had to land somewhere, and the daisy was one of many equally likely (or unlikely) locations when the golfer teed off. As the ball arced through the air, the pool of possible locations shrank, until the daisy got splatted.

If we writers can make our fiction feel like this is going on in the background at the same time as we give our protagonists a resolution that’s both fitting and not obvious from page five, we’re doing pretty damn well. Pratchett did this beautifully. I hope one day I’ll figure it out.

Making It Real –As They Live And Breathe

Sorry this is late.  I just woke up late after date-night with husband.  I think it’s part of the changes of this second-maturity that we have to figure out ways to relate to each other again.  Being that we’re both workaholics, we’d never actually see each other, if we didn’t make it a point to take time off together.  So, date night once or twice a week.  It usually involves walking in the park, or going to a museum.  Might or might not involve dinner, but involves going somewhere that serves coffee and tea.  And talking plots, because we’re workaholics and Dan is going to Nanowrimo.

Anyway… so.  Characters and how to make them real.

I’ll start by saying that I’m the least qualified person to teach you this, so if you don’t get some things, you should go ahead and ask, or say it’s somewhat different for other people.

You see, characters are the one thing I get for free.  Only they probably aren’t.  I probably learned to create characters through my lonely and bed-ridden childhood, by having not just imaginary friends but entire imaginary families and once a city, all with different personalities, because who wants to play with herself forever.  (Don’t answer that.  Also, go wash your mind out with bleach.  That’s not what I meant.)

However I’ve been in and out (I confess mostly out) of writers’ groups for twenty years, and I’ve taught so many workshops I’ve forgotten some, as well as having a number of mentees, so I am somewhat aware of how other people do this, and of tricks to get there.

Today we’re going to talk about how your characters aren’t like you, or aren’t necessarilly like you.  One of the biggest idiocies in writing is to condemn first-person writing (like the Wally did) because you assume someone writing first person is just writing themselves.  That is, in a way, a triumph in the story teller’s art that their character is so real they think it’s you.  (No, I’m not Athena.  That girl has issues that have come home carrying issues.)

However, it is a normal failing, and not just of newbie writers, and not just in first person, that you either think the character is you, or you bleed your opinions into the character even when they’re supposed to be the opposite.

What I mean is, for instance, I’ve seen writers who are lecturers in college trying to write someone who is … oh, a dishwasher repairman, say.  They invariably write this person as slow witted, or simple, or prejudiced, or–

This is a college professor’s view of dishwasher repairmen, and not how dishwasher repairmen would view themselves.  And it’s perfectly possible to write a smart and resourceful and non-bigoted dishwasher repairman.  Not being bookish doesn’t mean you’re sub-human, and many people who had no interest in tertiary education and counted themselves lucky to escape the enforced bookish learning of high school are highly observant, very good at spatial and mechanical reasoning, and THEY would think college professors are boring, a little mad, and bigoted in their own way.

It’s normal and human to judge others by what we are.  But just because someone fails in your area, you shouldn’t write them as dunces.  At any rate, even if they were, they wouldn’t THINK OF THEMSELVES as dunces.  But there is such an infinite variety of processing in the human mind that it’s impossible to say where dumb starts and just “really different” begins.

For a number of years my best friend was a physicist.  (I’m not sure we’re friends anymore, not because I don’t want to be, but because she’s closed herself off.  There are reasons.  But it doesn’t make it easier. This too feeds into characters, and to this also we’ll come back later.) She often could explain things I didn’t get in magazines and scientific reports, and translate it in layman’s terms.  And then one day I handed her an article in Reason which struck me as particularly significant.  I think it was on literary criticism.  She handed it back, because she said her mind didn’t bend that way and she couldn’t get it past the opening paragraph.  It was gibberish.  And then I had to translate it.

Which means, if you write a character who processes differently from you, respect that character. Imbue it with good qualities.  Try to look at the world through HIS eyes.  No one is perfect, and no one has the exact same preferences as you.

So, let’s start.  Some people interview characters for the role they want.  That’s fine if that’s how you do it.  If you’re like me there’s no story without character, and story starts with “first there is pain, which drives the character, which drives the plot.” And then I usually write a few chapters in which I’m getting to know the character, and after which I mostly discard those chapters and start again.

Either way let’s say you have a character who is different from you.  Learn them. Study how they’ll react.  If they’re really very different from you, in a station in life/profession you’ve never tried, you might have to hit the net and look at blogs by people like your character.  As you do, try to get in their heads.  This is, I think, akin to being a method actor.  You start where you are and think yourself into a character.

Say you’re a city person and are trying to think yourself into the head of a medieval woman.  You’re going to have to understand several things, because even if your character also lives in a city, cities were not what they are now, and most people still had food they grew in the backyard, most people still had far more contact with “nature” than you would, most would think completely differently.

Research goes without saying, but then there are certain basics you must establish:

1- Your character would be far more conversant with death than you are, particularly death of children and cute fuzzy things.  She probably killed her own dinner at least a few times (animals were often sold alive, because of no refrigeration.  If she’s a housewife, she’d have killed animals more than once.) If this bothers her, you not only need to give us a reason, you need to show us other people being puzzled by her.

2- Your character will be used to far more physical effort than you are.  Even if it’s just walking, she’ll walk a lot more than you do in an average day.  The concept of exercise being good for you (or anyone) would be a foreign one.

3- Your character’s idea of cleanliness will not be the same as yours.  Dirt and contamination is either something you can see, or it’s religious/superstitious, not yours.

4- Your character is unlikely to consider solitude, nature, or a retreat to either  as a good thing.  Those places are dangerous.  Safety is in the cities, or near other human habitations.

This is a surface thing.  There is a lot more and if you want to get the full scope, you’ll read biographies of the time, or even contemporary texts.  (I do.)  BUT the point here is that you need to keep these characteristics in your head the whole time.

I don’t because I pretty much put them on the character, and then let it/her/him carry that burden.  BUT if you don’t get characters for free (think about it, that has some advantages.  You’re not saddled writing whichever crazy person comes into your head at three in the morning and won’t shut up.  Yes, I’m talking about you.  You there, in the backbrain with the wings.  You’ll have to wait your turn d*mn it.  There are a dozen ahead of you.) you might want to make lists of the characteristics that are most different from you, and then a general personality profile (some people do this in the form of an interview.)  Then familiarize yourself with it and try to stay with it while writing.  But even if you’re me and you get characters for free, things of you, yourself, will drop in, and so…

And so, before you revise read that profile again, and be aware of it for the revision.  Does your character, who is an utter introvert, while you’re an extrovert, really enjoy a party with no idea of how uncomfortable it is to be around that many people?  Does your character who is a good horsewoman not even think about her horse when she arrives somewhere? Does your character suddenly and for no reason you can give in the story, quote from your favorite book?

This must be weeded in revision.  The good thing is it can be, and in writing no one can tell if you fixed it in post.

Next Week: Remember your characters are like you (yes, I do enjoy confusing you.  Why?)

Exercise: write a short scene from the pov of a SYMPATHETIC character who is as unlike you as possible.



Of reading and buying and other things

This past week has been busy. I’ve been pounding away at the keyboard, adding a new opening section to Dagger of Elanna, one I think better serves the overall story arc. I’ve been looking over edits, not only for my own work but for someone else as well. I’ve had meetings and other “normal life” distractions. So, when it came time to blog this morning, I worried I might not find anything to write about. Wrong! The problem turned into narrowing it down.

Okay, let’s get the important part out of the way first. If Hell hasn’t frozen over, it is definitely experiencing a cold wave. After all, the Cubs AND the Indians are in the World Series. What other explanation can there be?

The first item to catch my attention this morning was yet another “study” — and I use that term loosely — supposedly confirming that boys don’t read as much and don’t comprehend as well as their female counterparts. This particular study was done by Keith Topping, a professor at the University of Dundee. What set my B-S meter off where this study is concerned was the method of collecting data.

The studies drew on data from a computer system used in schools across Britain to test the progress of pupils’ reading. First, a pupil reads a book either at school or at home. Next, the pupil takes a computerised quiz of five, 10 or 20 questions depending on the length of the book. Then the pupil and teacher receive immediate computerised feedback from the Accelerated Reader programme, with reports detailing the books read, the number of words read and the book’s reading level – along with the child’s level of comprehension, as indicated by the percentage of correct answers in the quiz.

Now, there is so much wrong here that I’m not sure where to begin. We don’t know if these books were assigned by the school or if they were books chosen by the students and approved of by the school, etc. My guess is they were books assigned by the school. Then there is the fact that this sounds like it is nothing more than standardized testing. My guess is these questions were multiple choice or true-false questions. I don’t know about you, but I did lousy on those sorts of tests. There are studies out there showing the problems with that sort of test. Add in that you aren’t giving the student a chance to explain their answer or expound upon it.

Studies like this are pet peeves of mine. I had to fight to get my son to read after his third grade teacher turned him — and other boys in his class, as well as a few girls — off of reading by using it as punishment. She purposely chose books for them to read that she knew they wouldn’t enjoy. Why? I have my guesses and they aren’t fit to print in this blog. But by her own words, she did it to punish them. Her reasoning? They had been reading things she hadn’t approved of.

As I said, it took me more than a year to get him interested in reading again. I’ve described the process here before. Basically, one of the youth librarians at our local library — a wonderful woman who also worked at one of the local schools — turned him on to manga after asking him what he enjoyed. Imagine that. She wanted to know what interested him. Now he is an avid reader. He reads fast, retains what he reads and he enjoys it. But, like me, give him a multiple choice test over what he read and he will freeze. It isn’t because he didn’t read and digest what was in the book. It’s because his brain doesn’t work that way.

Instead of taking shortcuts and using second and third-hand data, the researcher would have a better chance of proving his point if he had conducted the tests himself. If he had used a mix of computerized and discussion questions. But no. It was easier to do it this way. I suspect it also fit his narrative better but that’s just me. Oh, and it might help to ask the boys what they want to read instead of handing them a “classic” or something similar.

The next piece that caught my attention centers on Barnes & Noble. Leonard Riggio is once again in charge of the bookseller. In an article published by the New Yorker, Riggio makes several comments that left me shaking my head. According to the article, Riggio wanted to scale back the size of the stores years ago. But, because things were going well then, it didn’t happen. Now, the company is left with these huge stores at a time when smaller, much smaller, locally owned bookstores are returning to the marketplace.

Then there is his comment about what the real difference is between the smaller stores and B&N. According to the New Yorker, “The only thing that he believes distinguishes new-generation independent bookstores from Barnes & Noble is better food and drink, which is something he hopes to capture in the new concept stores. Those stores will have Scandinavian-looking cafés with fully licensed bars, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”


Sorry, but no. The real difference between the smaller stores and B&N comes down to two things. First, stock. The smaller stores are BOOK stores. The customer knows the moment they walk into a smaller, locally owned store or chain that the emphasis is going to be books and magazine. You know, stuff you can read. They don’t have to wade through displays and aisles filled with knick-knacks and toys and puzzles and who knows what else before they get to the books. The second difference is the staff. In the smaller stores, the staff usually knows the stock better, they have a passion for books and — gasp — they will order something for the customer if it isn’t in stock. I finally gave up trying to order anything from B&N because I got tired of having to educate them that there are books out there that weren’t on their shelves.

As for the cafe and being able to buy a drink — or three — as well as full meals? Sorry, while it is nice to grab a cup of coffee while shopping, I don’t go there to eat. From a merchant’s point of view, there are going to have to be safeguards put up to make sure those who buy liquor don’t go wandering the store. Those same safeguards have to be in place to make sure the liquor doesn’t go outside the shop. The easiest way to do that will be to make sure nothing leaves the cafe and that sort of defeats the purpose. How often do you see someone at B&N buy their coffee or tea and then go wandering through the rest of the store?

The New Yorker hits the proverbial nail on the head with this, “Riggio may be missing the bigger lesson of independent bookstores and the intangible experience of shopping there. The independent bookstores that have proved successful are uniquely suited to the community they’re in.” Unless and until B&N recognizes this, it will continue to struggle. As long as it continues to use a system where what sells in major markets determines what is on the shelves and for how long in other markets across the nation, he fails to get the “uniquely suited for the community they’re in” aspect.

Finally, there was this:

“The No. 1 consideration of where someone will shop is how close it is to where they are,” he said. “It has nothing to do with pedigree or branding. If there’s no bookstore close to them, they’re more likely to buy online. If there’s one close, they’re more likely to buy if it’s a block away.” His target market is the same as other book retailers: young, educated customers, and women with small children.

First, not only no, but NO. Price is often the defining determination on where a customer will buy a book. Indie bookstores have come to understand that they have to do something to get customers through the door. They do this in a number of ways. Part of it is location. Foot traffic is important. Part is ambiance. Part is staff. A lot of it comes down to this — once the customer is in the door, they make him feel important and welcome.

As for the target market, what? What about those who are older and have disposable income and time to read? Those customers are the ones more likely to buy a physical book than an e-book. They have more time to go to the bookstore and browse and, duh, make impulse buys than a mother with kids in tow.

And folks wonder why I have little faith that B&N will survive long term.

What are your thoughts?

And now for the mandatory promo bit.

Witchfire Burning (Eerie Side of the Tracks Book 1) is now available for purchase.

Long before the Others made their existence known to the world, Mossy Creek was their haven. Being from the wrong side of the tracks meant you weren’t what the rest of the world considered “normal”.

Normal was all Quinn O’Donnell wanted from life. Growing up on the “wrong side of the tracks”, she had been the only normal in the family. The moment she was old enough, she left and began life as far from her Texas hometown as possible. Now she has a job she enjoys and a daughter she loves more than life itself. Their life is normal, REALLY normal, until her daughter starts calling forth fire and wind.

Quinn knows they must go back so her mother can help five-year-old Ali learn how to control her new talents. But in Mossy Creek nothing is ever simple. Quinn’s mother has gone missing. Secrets from Quinn’s past start coming back to haunt her.

And the family home is more than a little sentient.

Can Quinn keep everyone — particularly Ali — safe? And will she ever get back her illusion of normalcy?

Witchfire Burning is the start of a new series. However, it takes place in the same town as Slay Bells Ring and some of the same characters are present in both. Both have a little bit of mystery and a little bit of romance. Witchfire adds in an urban fantasy note as well. While it wasn’t a book I had planned when I sat down at the beginning of they year to figure out my publication schedule, it’s one that decided it needed to be written and I had a blast doing it. I hope you guys all enjoy reading about Quinn and company as much as I enjoyed writing about them. Also, for those who prefer print versions, it should be available in approximately two weeks. I’ll make an announcement when that version is ready.

Also, Skeletons in the Closet, a novella in the same series as Witchfire, will go live on Amazon later today, fingers crossed.

Where is the future of the Wally?

Here am I, in the esteemed company of such luminaries in my field as Larry Correia and John C Wright, as winners of the Wally Award, an honor I will treasure – because it isn’t every day I find myself lumped with authors that I try to learn from and imitate, and I hear some terribly tragic news.

There’s no doubt that being singled out by none other than Damien Walter of ‘The Grauniad’, a newspaper whose reputation for unbiased journalism is only rivaled by Pravda, legendary for its typos and grammos (hence Grauniad, rather than The Guardian), and with research and factual quality which is mentioned in the same breath as News of the World and Beano (although they cannot seriously compete with Beano in the opinion of most people of an IQ above ‘sheep, dim (Merino)’) and whose sf/fantasy correspondent’s effect on the sales and livelihoods of sf and fantasy authors has been equated with file 770. The last comparison I feel unfair, because despite Damien’s tiny readership, his attempts to harm my career and ability to make a living, he actually had some effect on my sales, with his hatred of my unread work improving sales for me. It is for this reason I find the news that the floundering ‘Grauniad’ (the Venezuela of mainstream print media, which is running out of other people’s money) seems to have dispensed with his services, so sad.

I mean, without Damien condemning our books – plainly unread, because he simply had no idea what they were about – how are people supposed to find and try the next ‘Wally’ winners? A surprising number of readers contacted me to say they had tried and enjoyed my book as a result, and that anyone condemned by Damien in the same article as Correia or Wright had to be worth trying.

Let’s not make this the last ever Wallys! I think we ought to get a Sad Puppy program together to petition The Guardian to beg him to come back. For the sake of the next generation, for other struggling writers. For the children! (Okay, not the children. The Guardian probably won’t be there. Most mainstream mass media are so distrusted (About 1/3 of people believe what they read there, and that only gets that high because about half of their political fellow-travellers do) and are thus losing so much advertising revenue they’re all exsanguinating.) Never has there been a reporter who better captured the ethos and quality and integrity of his mass media outlet. And without him there, there will be no more Wally awards.

To end this sarcasm with a serious note. Damian attempts to teach writing, and like a stopped clock… or possibly a day-by-day calendar stuck on Feburary 29… Someone pointed out that he actually said something semi-sensible for once.

Reading helps. If Margaret Atwood had read more sf (or any) she would not have made her eternally mocked ‘Squids in Space’ stupid statement. But aside from that, by reading with a learning eye, you as an author can work out how – or how not to do things. Even reading thing you DON’T enjoy can help you to understand their audiences and learn their techniques and skills. If you can’t divorce your emotions and personal prejudices enough to get their heads – how can you do it effectively for characters (unless they end up as endless echoes of you)? It might have helped Damien – who is not what anyone could call a successful widely-read fiction author – if he’d actually read those books, even mine.

I’ve learned a great deal from books I did not enjoy as a whole (or even in part.) I read catholically (And not just A Pius Man) but literally anything and everything. I’ve sat with Barbara Cartland, and Ann Leckie (I found more pleasure in the former, and not much in either) and tried to reverse engineer the process and methods of the writer. It’s actually easier in books you don’t enjoy, and get carried along with than the ones you do. The latter, the commercial successes – especially those that had nothing in the way of push (they are genuine ‘people’s taste) are vital.

But you can learn from anything.

Read more.

So: what have you read that you didn’t like – but did give you something of value as a writer?

New Author Earnings Report out!

Interesting times, interesting results. After two and half years of constant growth, this time we see the first contraction for indie market share. Trad Pub’s big five showed a very slight gain in unit sales, but most of the market share went to Amazon’s own publishing arm, and a smaller amount to uncategorized single-author publishers (mostly indies).

On gross revenues, most of the lost market share went to small and medium publishers, with a smaller amount to amazon Pub.

Having the what, we’re left to speculate on the why, and how. Causes may include, but are not limited to: Amazon’s Kindle first program, pushing their own new releases; Bookbub’s increasing percentage of big and medium press slots as opposed to indies (and increased price raising the barrier to the fewer slots left); Amazon’s new promoted/sponsored search ads; consolidation of indies into small pubs; the stars being in the right configuration for C’thulu to rise from dead R’lyeh; other factors unknown at this time.

From a personal perspective, we put out the last book with a small publisher. After negotiating on contract terms, I have to say I was very pleased both with the contract, and their abiding by it. It’s been a relief to have someone else handle the formatting, cover art, even the back end on creating an audiobook edition, while Peter and I were concentrating on surgical clearances, surgery, and recovery. Brings The Lightning has done very well for a western – while not selling as well as his popular military scifi, it has done a lot better than we expected for a genre that’s been declared “dead” for years. There will be more!

How has your summer and fall gone, for sales and discoverability? What have you found that’s helped, or hurt, or simply changed?

The Squishy Sciences

Also stinky, and bitey, and often toxic… Biology and chemistry are not usually what come to mind when you start to talk about science fiction. But for me they are the most familiar sciences. I couldn’t calculate an orbital escape trajectory from Jupiter to save my life… But when someone on the book of face asks about CRISPR and why humans aren’t extinct yet, I can comment on that. And I plan to write about it, in time and when my life settles into something approaching routine. Might be a few months.

In the meantime, I will muse on a few topics that may be of interest to other writers. We do not yet have the ability to line-edit our genome. Or that of any other organism, for that matter. Using CRISPR/Cas9, we can knock out genes, we can use RNAi to knock genes down, and we can force genes/cells to overexpress, all of which are handy tools in the bioengineer’s lab. Add to that an attitude like one of my genetics professors, who was talking on this subject, bouncing around at the front of the lecture hall. He stopped, threw his hands out wide and proclaimed “I don’t care if it is right or wrong, it’s cool!”

We have mapped the entire human genome, true. However, the genome is not interchangeable with a gene. Genes make up a mere 1.5% of our genome, and frankly, we’re not clear on what the other 98.5% does. Most of it is non-coding, but that doesn’t mean that it’s useless. Stripping out all the ‘inert’ genomic material wouldn’t result in a more efficient organism, just a dead one. On top of this, we are still figuring out which genes do what. Genetic redundancy is fantastic for an organism, allowing them to survive a loss-of-function mutation, but it leaves the scientist tearing her hair out. In paper after paper I have read recently for molecular biology, researchers discuss how they knocked out a gene, but still the phenotype found a way around it. Wings, for instance. Wing development isn’t reliant on just one gene in most cases. Knocking out a specific gene trying to get a wingless critter might simply get you one with deformed wings. Or wings on the wrong thoracic segment. Or… No visible result at all.

Will editing our genes lead to the extinction of the human race? Not likely, except in some deranged Green’s wet dream. Will it change us? Could be. I do believe there have been plenty of stories about the human race becoming something ‘other’ than homo sapiens. I’m not going to say that will happen. For one thing, gene therapy may or may not be permanent. We are still trying to grasp epigenetics, the cell’s memory. Some traits are passed on, others aren’t. Some persist for generations, other fade in a few replications.

So much uncertainty. One thing I am sure of: someone, somewhere, will meddle, thinking they have a firm grasp, and they are going to find out the difference between grasping a nettle, and grabbing a jellyfish. John Ringo’s essay on the Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse is a must-read. My story on Zombie Maggots, written around the same time, also touches on the consequences of well-intentioned science gone very wrong (it’s available as part of the free eBook Twisted Mindflow on my site).

As for me? I’m not living in fear. Idiots we will always have with us, especially the morons who think we can breed for intelligence. We don’t fully grasp why people are ‘smart’, have trouble quantifying what ‘smart’ is, and remember that non-coding DNA? Well, the difference between a chimp and a man is less than 1% of the genome. But those differences, called Human Accelerated Regions (HARs), are located near neural development regions. Not in them, no, just near. What does this mean? We don’t know yet. I’m sure there are theories (I haven’t tried to find out) and I’m sure some fool will experiment trying to create a Superman. Which is where fiction comes in. Exploring the big questions. What if? What happens if this goes on?