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I’m a Quitter

Hangs head, shuffles toe in the dirt.

So, um, yeah… About that.

I picked up the habit over thirty years ago. The deal is, once you start, you can’t stop. Not that anyone ever taught me that. They don’t say these things to your face. It’s just expected, you know? Once you crack one open, there’s no turning back. Later in life, especially my early adulthood, I’d have several going at a time. Because I couldn’t quit. Even if one was difficult to swallow, you just kept chugging until the end.

And I thought everyone was like that. I’ll tell you now, I was shocked the first time I learned that some people abstain. I mean, dang. Who could live like that? It had to be horrible. Like wandering parched in the middle of a river, unable to take a drink. What a barren lifestyle. And still, I couldn’t quit.

There were times I wanted to. Long, dusty, dry ones that seemed to have no end in sight. Weird ones that made no sense at all. Anachronistic ones I just wanted to hurl against a wall with force… But by gummy, if I started a book, I had to finish it. Them’s the rules, right?

It wasn’t until I was a young mother, and somehow found myself a volunteer Slush Reader, that I learned the dire necessity of quitting. Faced with an avalanche of reading material, a toddler, a nursing baby, and a budding small business to run, I had no choice. I read on the computer while the baby fed, but that time wasn’t unlimited, (days it felt like it was. She was a hungry kid, and now that she’s half a head taller than I and wearing a size twelve shoe, I know why)  so I learned to read three chapters in before quitting. Forcing myself to slog through to the end made reading a chore and painful. Far from being a trove of pleasures, I was learning the hard way that not all books can be read to the end, much less should.

What brought this on? Well,on Facebook Joshua Hocieniec, in a conversation about Neil Gaiman’s American God’s wrote: “I’m no quitter! Though I am feeling like I have a couple of better books that I could be reading instead.”

He’d been slogging though the book, hoping it got better, and finally asked online for some encouragement. I couldn’t offer him that – I’ve never read anything of Gaiman’s – but it made me think about quitting. I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading over the last week. Some of it was sheer escapism, after a grueling couple of months finishing up the degree. Some of it was the hope that if I prime the pump, my own stories will well up, and a little part of it was researching since I’ve been reading non-fiction and fiction. But as much as I am binge-reading, I’ve been quitting. I quit reading a series when it became badly edited, repetitious and mean-spirited (non-fiction set in a hospital ER). I quit reading a book when I was so bored I kept falling asleep on my tablet. I quit reading another book because it was so dated the cop procedures in it would only be useful if I were to write a historica.. coff, a book set in the mid-1970s.

In this day and age, with reading material so bountiful it’s almost unimaginable… Did you know you can find the whole Conan series for free on Amazon in one handy collection? Sherlock was free yesterday, too! Anyway, there’s no need to cling to whatever text is handy. Gone are the days you had to read the soap bottle (if you still must, I recommend Dr Bronner’s) or the cereal box. Now, I can prop my phone up next to the bowl (hm, I have a hankering for cheesy grits now) and access an unimaginable library to my ten-year old self. I’m living the science fiction future and it’s chock full of books!

This poses a problem, though. I’ve gotten old enough to confront my own mortality and recognize that I have limitations in life. I’ll never be able to read All the Books. I may not even be able to read all the books physically in my house as I write this. Certainly not all the books on my eLibraries in various places. I’ll die with books unread, and confronting that makes me react in way that may seem a bit childish to some. Faced with the bitter reality, I’ve become a quitter. I want to eat my dessert first. To savor the Good Books, and scrape the equivalent to dog poo sandwiches into the trash bin, then click the empty trash button. Life is short. Too short to waste my precious time on bad books. So yes, I’m a quitter.

But enough about my habits. What books are you addic… Er, overly fond of? Let’s bring in the New Year with joy, escapism, and shenanigans between the pages!

Titles From A Parallel World

So, since we’re all a little busy with end of the year and (trust me) crazy stuff, I turned younger son and his timo-streamo-thingy-magic loose and he got some titles of members of MGC from a parallel world.  Some of this make perfect sense with the people we know and love.  Others, not so much.  For instance, I’m fairly sure mine comes from a world in which I took that post-grad thing at Brown instead of getting married.

Anyway, I thought I’d give you a few of these, and then you can come up with parallel world titles for your very own and other writers….

shave-legs

This one either comes from a very strange world, or our very own Pam Uphoff is out Chucktingling Chuck Tingle, over there.

cowboy

And all I can say about this one is … WHAT?  And also, maybe “I’m so glad he met Barbs in this world!

sharks

Another one that’s… UH?

police

This one I could almost see.  Almost…

child

Cedar, this is fiction, right? RIGHT?

pixie

This I KNOW is fiction.

space

And this… Kate, are you all right?

bastards

THIS one however, is probably just a sidestep

alien

As for this one… Brad, when are you writing it?

fishing

And now I’m going to er… run before my colleagues see this.
If you need me, I’ll be in my bunker.

On The Breaking of Dams

Unlike Sarah and others I’m not sufficiently professional to be able to force my way through writing something when there’s no ‘there’ there. It’s not a case of waiting on a fickle muse for inspiration so much as nothing being good enough to go on that page, not having any idea how to move the current plot line forward, and in extreme cases, falling asleep as soon as I fire up the word processing software.

My brain is an evil, deceitful SOB and does things its way no matter what I think about it.

Invariably, when something like this happens, I can backtrack to probable causes only after said problem goes away. I’m not ready for that yet, but I can state confidently that the writing dam has indeed broken, and I’m finally doing something other than futzing around with intermittent fanfic (there’s no commitment, the egoboo is nice, and it keeps me in some degree of practice).

The thing about this – and it goes for all of us who write because we have to – is that when something like this happens, it’s seriously bad for us. We storytellers need to be able to keep telling our stories, or it drives us insane (possibly more insane in my case, since my base level of sanity has been kind of questionable for a very long time). It’s not a coincidence that mental illness and extreme creativity cohabit far more often than mental illness and just about any other trait. Heck, I’ve seen theories that the level of creativity where you’ve got to get that shit out of your head and onto paper (or word processor or whatever) is actually a form of mental illness where the person who has it is able to channel it into something constructive.

If that kind of creativity is the ability to channel mental illness into something constructive, then it makes sense that losing the ability does bad things: it removes the socially acceptable outlet for what one could call quirks, which in turn causes a build-up of a kind of social pressure. Certainly all my worst episodes have happened when I’ve been facing this kind of blockage and unable to find a way to break it.

I’m actually rather relieved I’ve managed to hold myself together through this one and not collapse in a screaming heap (usually a soggy one, since I tend to short-circuit all intense emotion to tears) (and let’s not go into why I had to go back and edit that so I didn’t write ‘heaming screap’).

Not that I’m out of danger yet. Ten days running of decent (five hundred words or better) output doth not a novel make. But it feels like the dam has broken. Tension at the back of my neck has eased off, as if something opened in there (don’t ask. I don’t understand what’s going on, just what it feels like to me).

As for whether it’s worth it, time will tell.

In the meantime, enjoy a wee snippet for the day before the day before New Year’s Eve.


Low Earth orbit, mid April, 2018

Knight-Commander Friedrich Eiriksohn von Uberhalden am Feurichen auf Leuringen frowned at the projections showing which of the planetary leaders had received his message. His head ached: a country boy from the first world of Prussia-in-exile should not ever need to send that kind of ultimatum no matter how far he had risen from those modest origins.

It was honor enough for him to have been raised to the rank of Knight-Commander. To command a ship of the Holy Order and have God’s grace shine on him and his crew and guide them to the long-lost homeworld… That was a miracle.

A miracle mixed with sorrow, for the Holy Nation of Prussia no longer existed on the homeworld.

Friedrich’s stomach knotted with remembered horror at the thought. The nation and Order whose ideals had given humanity hope for over seven hundred years had been blotted from existence, demonized and turned into a byword for hate-filled war-mongers. Prussian achievements were claimed as German, yet given what the translators had made of the homeworld’s information network, Germany could not be considered a successor state to Prussia. It might share the name of the first Germany, but it was such a cringing, weak excuse for a nation forever apologizing for the abominations of the conflict they called the Second World War.

And the Prussians, the Prussians who’d resisted that dreadful regime, their reward had been to lose everything, even their ability to take pride in their heritage.

None of which made the decision to decloak any easier. The message was – thankfully – not his doing. The wording had been sent by grav pulse from the Lord Grandmaster on Leuringen, along with permission to purchase the Prussian heartland from Poland and Russia if they were willing, or to take it by force if not.

Friedrich prayed the leaders of both nations would choose to sell the land.

The Order protected humanity in exile, shepherding the lost souls taken over the centuries by Dracaener slavers, the millions descended from the slaves, bred in captivity to do the dirtiest, coldest work that Dracaener automatons were too delicate and too expensive to do. Friedrich readily admitted that the Order’s guidance might not be as good as perhaps could be imagined, for they were all still mortal and subject to mortal frailty, but all the Masters from the very first, the Blessed Lord Sir Konrad von Kolberg, had given their hearts and souls to their cause.

And, not infrequently, their bodies and their lives.

To wage war against humans… The mere thought ran counter to everything a Knight of the Order strove to be.

Driving that Truck

At the risk of being called truck-o-phobe again, writing is not driving a truck.  Except when it is.

I was talking to a friend last night.  Both of us are hard workers, perhaps compulsively so, and we were lamenting the fact that we can’t just “put in x hours” and the book will be done.  That’s not how it works.

Oh, yeah, I know, I seem to be contradicting what I told you before.  You know, when I say when it seems like the book is dead and you can’t go on, go on, afterwards you won’t even be able to tell where you were phoning it in.  This is true.  I know there was a place in A Few Good Men (written in 2 weeks) where I came to a stand still for two days.  I honestly can’t remember where it is, and I have trouble finding it.  I reasoned myself back into the book, and then I finished.

I’m not contradicting what I said before.  There is a difference between a major stoppage and a minor one.  There is a difference between stopping and not being able to go on, there is a difference between writing only with inspiraction, and writing when there’s nothing forever.

Let me start at the beginning: I’m not sure I believe in talent — you know that — simply because I couldn’t define it for you.  Nor would I undertake to tell someone starting out  “you have no talent, so stop trying.”  The same way I wouldn’t tell someone starting out “you’re talented, keep on the way you’re going.”

If there is talent, it’s an exhalation of personality and intellect that no one, least of all me can point at and say “There is talent.”

I tell beginners “You’re doing THIS right.  Your weakness is THIS.  The way to combat it is THIS.”  In the rare case I find one that is almost perfect, I say “How many manuscripts do you have under the bed?”

So let’s leave talent aside.  A book or just the act of writing starts with desire.  You desire to write (Heaven knows why.  Maybe our mothers dropped us on our heads?) and you desire to write well (for most people.)  So you work at it, till you can tell a story that people want to read.  And then you continue to work at it.

The individual work starts with inspiration.  The inspiration might be as simple as “hey, I could write a thing like that thing combined with that thing and I bet people would love it” or it might be (often is for me) a presence in the head, a fully formed character with a story to tell.

However it comes, something about that idea makes it compelling to you, and you HAVE to write it.

I once heard that event he greatest saints go through periods where they can sense G-d, where as far as they’re concerned he’s withdrawn from them and from the world, a winter of the soul, bleak and cold.  And they say the way to get through it is to continue working as if they could feel Him, as if they knew He was there.

Writers hit winters of the inspiration as well.  And most of the time the answer is exactly the same as for saints.  You use the craft you learned, and you do the best you know how to continue the story, and inspiration comes back.

Dean Wesley Smith says this happens to everyone once per novel.  Usually in the middle.  Being speshul, this happens to me twice per novel.  One third in, then one third from the end.  (As everyone knows about the novels I was writing in public on these blogs, and more on that later.)

Finding that out was the key to becoming a professional.  For 15 years, I bridged that gap.  I pushed on.  The novel lived again and was finished.

And then about five years ago something went weird.  I could come up with stories (ALL day long) I could even see the story, finished, in my head.  I just couldn’t write it.  It’s like there was no force compelling me to write.  Not even the force of “we’re broke and they’ll pay when I give them this.”

This is where writing isn’t like driving a truck.  I couldn’t.  I’d sit in front of the computer, and nothing happened.  I couldn’t force myself to do it.

Because of when it came, I thought I was just burned out.  But this burn out, if it was that, had weird characteristics.  I could think of the story, but not of elaborations.  Say this is the story of a man who finds a dragon.  Okay, he found the dragon, he’s either happy or unhappy with the dragon.  The end.  I found myself at a loss to give him a family, friends, a dog named George.  I had the concept, and… nothing.  I could write short stories.  They conform this format better.  I could write non-fiction pieces.  I could not write novels.

Through Fire, just started, hit a wall.  I managed to edit Witchfinder.  But the wall was still there.  Ideas came, I jotted them down.  The last book written from beginning to end in a long drive was A Few Good Men, and then gradually things got more and more difficult and the wheels came off.

I could clean the house.  I could do enormous amounts of work in anything that required just physical work.  I could do art.  I couldn’t write except for short stories, and sometimes those were difficult.  Instead of the day they normally take me (unless I’m in the middle of a novel, because “switching heads” takes time) they were taking weeks or months, and it was like passing each word out through a tiny crack in a brick wall.

That problem had physical reasons, which we’re working on.  I was seriously hypothyroidal, which apparently affects ability with words first, at least with many people.  I’m recovering from that.  I’m happy to report the words are back, and I no longer feel like I’m trying to  write word per word.

Now my problems are more mundane.

Writing is not like driving a truck.  Except where it is.

Long distance truckers need to learn things, like not to let themselves be distracted behind the wheel, and also that no matter how heroic you are, you need to rest enough that you don’t crash by falling asleep behind the wheel.

I’ve been having long distance trucker problems.

Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine.  We’ll call her A.  A. was so excited when her first book came out (indie) and made her money, and so in need of money, and had so many books under the bed that she set a goal of two books a month.  I mean, most of them only needed revising.

Then she looked at the schedule and froze in fear.  Which meant she blew the first deadline.  And now she had two books in two weeks….

To make a long story short, she never wrote, that whole year, and it was only when she discarded the insane schedule and gave herself permission to write slower that she started writing again.

I’m having similar problems.  I am so late, I have so many blown deadlines, I want to write everything yesterday.  The results have been less than stellar, particularly over the holidays.

Here’s some things to deal with your trucker problems.  To begin with, trucker problems aren’t like a novel dying in the middle.  They’re more like an extended cat rotating jag.  You’d rather do anything than sit down and write.  Your guilt and shame over the whole thing drive you away from the stories.

If you’re having trucker problems, take a deep breath.  Then take a day off.  No, I know a day off won’t fix it.  But it will help.

Then have a serious talk with yourself.  You’re not a machine.  When you fail, it just means you’re humans.  Reset your schedule.  Go with the sane “I’ll write x number of words a day” — be it 200 or 6000.  I know writers that work at each of those speeds.  Once those are done, I can go on if I feel like it, or I can go read a book and clean the house.”

Read.  You got into this because you love books.  Read.  It helps.

Refill the well, whatever that means to you.  Read a good book, listen to a good song, go for walks, snuggle your sweetie, go to a lecture, sign up for a course on brick laying.  Whatever allows you to feel whole and like you.  You have to have something to pull from before you can pull.  You need to be rested and well, before you can drive that truck.  Or you’re going to crash.

Then work.  And block out the time you’re working — this is the other truck driver issue I’m having.  I keep getting interrupted, yeah, I know, the holidays — and try (good luck, mine don’t) to make your family understand a two minute interruption is going to cost you an hour or so of getting back into the novel, and too many interruptions make it hell to work.

But most of all, remember, you’re not a machine, and you’re not a slave.

Sure you can accomplish amazing things for a while by being an *sshole to yourself, but in the end it stops working.  You break down.  And then you won’t be able to work at all, or to accomplish anything.

Cut yourself some slack.  Take a half day a week off and don’t even think about writing.  Take time to read a book, or watch the kids play.  Let yourself be human and fallible

Because it is your humanity and fallibility that make your work unique. It is they who keep you alive and sane.

You need your full humanity to drive that imaginary truck on a road you invent, to the place where stories live.

Drive that truck!

An old snip, some promo and an achy shoulder

I hope everyone has had a wonderful — and safe — holiday season so far.

I’ll admit that I’m going to wimp out on the blog today. Part of the reason is I have a promo going on and today is the last day for it. Part is the injured shoulder is making it more and more difficult to sit and type. So, I’m going to fall back on giving you guys a snipped from one of the novels I have for free on Amazon today and then links to it and the other books currently free.

This snippet comes from Nocturnal Origins (Nocturnal Lives Book 1).

Some things can never be forgotten, no matter how hard you try. The memory remains, forever imprinted on your soul. It colors your perceptions and expectations. It affects everything you say and do. It doesn’t matter if the memory is good or bad, full of life and love or pain and death. That memory remains until the day you die – if you’re lucky.

If not, the memory haunts you for all eternity.

Detective Sergeant Mackenzie Santos knew that bitter lesson all too well. The day she died changed her life and her perception of the world forever.

It didn’t matter that everyone, even her doctors, believed a miracle had occurred when she awoke in the hospital morgue. She knew better. She knew she had died.

It hadn’t been a miracle. At least not a holy one. Ask the poor attendant who’d run screaming from that cold, desolate room in the hospital basement, when Mac had suddenly sat up, gasping for breath and still covered with too much blood. He’d been convinced a demon from Hell had risen to come for him.

Mac couldn’t blame him. As far as she was concerned, that was the day the dogs of Hell had come for her.

Now, standing in the alley behind Gunn’s, one of the most fashionable restaurants in Dallas, Mac closed her eyes and prayed. She suspected what lay ahead. She could almost smell it – not quite, but enough to know what was there. Sweat trickled down her spine and plastered her thin cotton shirt to her back. Her stomach lurched rebelliously and she swallowed hard against the rising gorge. She had to keep control. At least for the next few hours.

Easy, Mackenzie. Just take it slow and easy.

She opened her eyes and drew a deep breath. She knew it was bad. Two uniformed officers, hands on knees, vomited into the gutter. There was no black humor, no conversation, nothing. In fact, other than the sounds of retching, the scene was eerily quiet; it felt almost like a dream. A nightmare.

She took a few more steps. The harsh, unmistakable stench assailed her nose, warning her what she’d find.

Unless the restaurant had dumped several hundred pounds of raw hamburger out to spoil in the summer heat, a dead body lay at the far end of the alley. That was bad enough. Then she felt as though she were enveloped in blood, and her stomach rolled over once again.

Oh, God.

Jaw clenched, she stepped forward. Never before had it been so hard to approach a crime scene. Not even when she’d responded to her first dead-body call a lifetime ago. She hadn’t hesitated then, not like this.

But she was different now. She knew what sort of horror awaited her. She’d seen it before and it haunted her. Haunted her because it touched something in her very few suspected even existed, something she tried so desperately to hide. The beast within fought for dominance, called by the smell of blood, the sight of raw flesh.

She mustn’t lose control. Not here and certainly not now. She blew out a long breath and slammed her mind shut to the horribly enticing sights and smells. Even as she did, the nightmare that had become the core of her existence clawed against her all-too-fragile self-control as it fought for release.

Focus on the job, Mac. Just focus on the job.

Finally, satisfied she wouldn’t lose control – yet – she nodded once. It was time to get to work.

*   *   *

Also available for free today:

Hunted (Hunter’s Moon Book 1)

When Meg Finley’s parents died, the authorities classified it as a double suicide. Alone, hurting and suddenly the object of the clan’s alpha’s desire, her life was a nightmare. He didn’t care that she was grieving any more than he cared that she was only fifteen. So she’d run and she’d been running ever since. But now, years later, her luck’s run out. The alpha’s trackers have found her and they’re under orders to bring her back, no matter what. Without warning, Meg finds herself in a game of cat and mouse with the trackers in a downtown Dallas parking garage. She’s learned a lot over the years but, without help, it might not be enough to escape a fate she knows will be worse than death. What she didn’t expect was that help would come from the local clan leader. But would he turn out to be her savior or something else, something much more dangerous?

*   *   *

Wedding Bell Blues

Weddings always bring out the worst in people. Or at least that’s the way it seems to Jessica Jones as her younger sister’s wedding day approaches. It’s bad enough Jessie has to wear a bridesmaid dress that looks like it was designed by a color blind Harlequin. Then there’s the best man who is all hands and no manners. Now add in a murder and Jessie’s former lover — former because she caught him doing the horizontal tango on their kitchen table with her also-former best friend. It really is almost more than a girl should be expected to handle. . . .

 

Words are all we have…

Show me!
Never do I ever want to hear another word.
There isn’t one I haven’t heard.”

(Lyrics from the musical ‘My Fair Lady’, songwriters Alan Jay Lerner; Frederick Loewe)

Well now, there’s a challenge for the average writer. All we have is words.

I wanted to talk about word choice, about the power of words and of how how Eliza’s complaint does shape our writing… and why using words of power for trivia… does not make trivia important, it destroys the words.

It is like calling your dictatorship ‘the People’s Democratic Republic of whatever’. The words are picked for baggage of meaning they carry – a tool we writers use all the time. The problem of course is that Orwellian Newspeak like this is our worst enemy. Not only do the words fail for their new and adopted meaning, but they lose their old meaning and connotations. Just as ‘gay’ was once a term applied my clan, for their cheerful exuberance (everything is relative. This was in Scotland, and according to my Scots grandmother, purely related to their behavior when taken by drink or fighting, or, more commonly, both) and was adopted to its modern use for its useful baggage of connotations. Did it work? Well, I recently heard kids sneering at a reluctant participant in their cheerful exuberance not to be so gay… so I think a fair answer is no, not really. It’s lost the old meaning completely to most people, and the new one now means pretty much what the terms it replaced. What was shown in the new usage was not the old meaning. There is no magic in the word, but in what people associate with it, and that can easily be destroyed.

Someone in the Apartheid Government must have thought 1984 was an instruction manual, because they tried it a lot, changing what they called black folk and the administrators who applied the system. The problem with the euphemisms is they changed the words… but that was all. Strangely enough the words had no special magic and did not instantly make the world approve. They showed by their actions just what they meant by those words.

We’ve had a lot of it lately in politics and puppy kicking (the two are basically interchangeable a lot of the time). People using words for their power… in places where they’re hopelessly inaccurate and inappropriate. ‘Hitler’ or ‘fascist’ or ‘racist’ or ‘homophobe’ or ‘sexist.’ Now, these are powerful words with substantial implications, and certainly used correctly had negative impacts on the people they were used against… But the words themselves are not magical. Use them in your book today… and well, if they’re used merely as weapons against people who the user dislikes and disagrees with… pretty soon that’s all they’ll mean. In fact they may well come to mean the opposite…

As a practical example: as one of the Sad Puppies I was called all of the list above. Now, I worked out I’ve been involved in some kind of first responder volunteering for damn near 40 years now. These days I’m a volunteer Ambulance officer. That means if there’s that car crash in the middle of the night, there’s a reasonable chance that I’ll be first into that vehicle, trying to do my best for the injured. Now according the puppy kickers I’d crawl into the upside-down, half-crushed vehicle and see the bleeding individual and say “Are you homosexual? Or not white? I can’t tell if you’re a woman (odds are good my fellow volunteer will be, and every one of them is someone to ride the river with) so what sex are you? I need to know before I check your airway and deal with the bleeding and do my best to rescue you.”

Injured car crash victim being unconscious, and having an obstructed airway fails to fill out the lack-of-diversity checklist I have to carry to live up to the words applied to me by the commenters at File 770… oh dearie me.

These words mean nothing to me. Whether that’s NK Jemison, or Vox Day hanging by that seatbelt, I’m still going to do exactly what I would have done – which is the best I can possibly do to save lives and help the injured, in order of the first aid guidelines – which don’t actually have anything to do with sex, sexual orientation or skin color, or even politics, but relate to giving the victims the best chance.

The words have not lived up to their ‘magic’. The ‘show’ doesn’t match them. It’s not the show that will change. I am what I am, and do what I do. There is ample evidence of that, contrary to the words used because they were powerful and the user wanted to harm someone they didn’t like and disagreed with. Yes, I know. I saw the video of the woman who thought it better to have her pizza cut into 8 pieces and not 12 because she couldn’t eat twelve pieces. There are people that stupid that they will rather believe the words than the ‘show’. There are people who can’t understand simple probabilities too. But despite them, what will happen is that the meaning of the word will change to what it shows.

If you think about it, that’s… not a great idea. Someday someone MAY literally be like Hitler, or a neo-Nazi. It’ll be a trifle awkward, then, if the words come out merely meaning ‘someone I don’t like and disagree with’ – especially if you’ve shown you’re a nasty, malicious piece of work, prepared to use these words for your own gain. You’re more likely to make readers assume the opposite is true and you’re being your normal ‘delightful’ self and projecting and lying again.

And this of course feeds through into writing. Writing popular fiction that gets readers eager to buy takes a skillful suspension of disbelief. Now, the truly great writer can make the reader at least for the duration of the book accept something he or she knows is not true. But – speaking as one of the not great, it’s a task best woven on a loom of truth, with some threads of fiction. If you’re going to portray a place most readers know is a rustbelt city, decaying, with no work available, and 80% black population… If you write it as that, and weave threads of fiction and perhaps even threads of truth about positive aspects which are less known… you’ll have a chance at suspending disbelief.

If you start trying to use the magic words like ‘thriving’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘multicultural’ they won’t work. The show (as it exists) in the mind of the readers, does not match the words. At best they’ll TBAR your book. At worst other writers will support the same magic words and soon they’ll be understood as what is shown. That’s been the weakness of PC scripted writing: not that it necessarily had poor goals, but that magic of words is weak, and can only shift reality by microns, but reality can shift the meanings of words by miles.

If you want your book to change the world and all you have is words, be prepared to move it a hair’s breadth. That you can do. Try for a league, and you’ll probably hurt what you wished to do instead.

Christmas past, present, and future

Secret Santa struck early this year — thanks (I suspect) to Larry Correia and Co., of Writer Nerd Game Night fame. I received a 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, as well as 5th Edition Player’s Handbook. Both of which have stunning production values, including mountains of full-color glossy interior art. Gaming certainly has come a loooooooong way since I received my boxed copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, back in 1981. I still have the dog-eared Basic manual, though the box itself deteriorated and went to the dumpster a long time ago. Looking through my small heap of D&D material — prior to 5th Edition, my most recent purchase seems to have been the 1989 2nd Edition Advanced D&D Player’s Handbook — I was overcome by an almost overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Largely because of the artwork that adorned those old D&D pamphlets and hardbound manuals.

I’ve said it before — in conversation with Bob Eggleton — that I am not necessarily a fan of the hyper-realistic science fiction and fantasy artwork that has become common in the era of digital painting. It’s not that such artwork isn’t amazing. It is. But there is a quality to the older-style art (which typified so much about 1970s and 1980s SF/F publishing) that I call better-than-real. And by that I mean the artwork projects a kind of mythic quality. Telling so much without words. Luring the reader (or player) into a new adventure, with fantastic, otherworldly imagery that doesn’t try to replicate reality as much as it surpasses reality.

Segue: does modern SF/F storytelling surpass reality? Or dwell too much on it? Good question.

It’s been a long time since J.R.R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs first amazed their respective audiences. Hell, it’s been a long time since Frank Herbert, or Anne McCaffrey, or Robert Heinlein appeared in the pages of a magazine like Analog. Modern SF&F authors are constantly staring backward at over 100 years of robust SF&F storytelling. We’re expected to be aware of it all, recognize its influence on everything we’ve consumed or modeled our own work on; for decades. And this pushes us relentlessly to innovate: style, taste, content, subject matter, all of which makes the field ever more esoteric. Because there is so little “new” left over for us to play with.

As I’ve said several times in the past two years. We (the field) don’t have any common touchstones anymore. Even Dungeons & Dragons is no longer the centerpiece of nerd life that it once was. Because the number of paper-and-dice role-playing games has exploded since the 1970s. Not to mention the monumental success of digital role-playing games. You can pass right through adolescence, and never roll a D20, nor have to make a saving throw — on paper.

Looking at the old D&D material, though, I felt strangely reassured. Some of the old magic (of Christmas 1981) came roaring back at me, for Christmas 2016. As if 35 years ceased to exist — in the blink of an eye — and I could see everything fresh again.

Not an easy thing to do. Or at least it’s not easy for me. I am no different from anybody else. I feel the gravitational pull of my years. My generation has never known a time without ever-present SF/F saturation — in our games, our movies, and our books. It’s been everywhere, and in everything. Tens of creators turned into hundreds of creators, and hundreds of creators turned into thousands of creators, and now you have tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of creators all feverishly blazing away on various forms of SF/F. Each of us hoping to be on the next big wave. Create the next blockbuster franchise. More SF/F product being produced by more competent, creative people than at any time in the field’s whole history!

How the heck does a person hope to stay afloat in that kind of media storm? Movies and books and games and stories, relentlessly pouring forth with ever-greater volume and velocity, each year.

Yet, it must be pointed out that Dungeons & Dragons has persevered through it all. As a coherent, definable product. With a coherent, definable fan base that now spans at least three generations, or more. And it’s not the rules that hold people rapt. It’s the idea behind the rules. Of a bold hero — or heroine — standing at the black maw of a crumbled castle’s gate. Inside may be horrors, or riches, or both. There’s only one way to find out. Draw your sword. Motion your companions forward. Adventure awaits.

I think this is largely true of the best novels, and novel series, too. Stylistic innovation, thematic allegory, topical relevance, these are a bit like the rules of a role-playing game. They may define how the game gets played, but they are not the heart of the game itself. Timelessness requires tapping into the audience’s desire — to explore that proverbial ruined keep on the outer marches of the civilized frontier. Wealth. Romance. Danger. Conquest. A chance to prove one’s worth and ability. See things no one else has ever seen. These are components every society has — woven into the fabric of its ancient myths. As modern storytellers we are faced with a similar task. Can we present the readership with a compelling adventure? Will that adventure matter to the readership, when all is said and done?

Tolkien pulled it off. Orson Scott Card pulled it off. J.K. Rowling pulled it off.

You can probably name at least half a dozen others (on your personal list) who pulled it off.

If you’re like me, you’re trying to pull it off yourself.

My sense is that too many of us spend too much time with our eyes on the rear-view mirror — afraid of being accused of borrowing too much. Or devoting frenzied effort to cross-mashing what has gone before, in our desire to manufacture something original.

Dungeons & Dragons was hardly original. It lifted liberally from Tolkien.

And became the king of an entire genre of games — reigning to this very day.

I need to spend more time looking at my D&D stuff. As a reminder — of the eternal magic contained therein. Timeless. Ready to be unleashed within any number of fertile imaginations. Regardless of age, gender, or ideological inclination.

There’s a lot to be said for crumbling castles and darkened gates.

Good Eve

Cedar’s disclaimer: I am not a poet. This is strictly for fun, and should not be considered a serious attempt at poesy. 

Disclaimer the second: I blame the Evil Muse for this. 

 

Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even my spouse.

I sat at the keyboard, fingers poised in the air,

Waiting and wondering if my muse would be there.

 

The teens were all quiet with earphones on heads,

The pre-teen was napping  with dog in their beds;

And the spouse was all settled with Kindle in hand,

so I could finally write my book’s last stand.

 

When out in the drive arose such a clamour,

I sprang from my desk to see who had the hammer.

I swore to myself as I ran to the door,

Wond’ring how my family such a noise could ignore.

 

I grasped the doorknob and felt it melt away

At my touch, revealing a landscape so gray

My eyes strained to make out any detail at all.

Slowly, I could see something through the mist, so small

 

And then it was there in front of me, so quick

I jumped back and knew it wasn’t St. Nick.

It must be my muse! Finally, he had come

And I whistled, and shouted, and offered him rum.

 

He was riding in a convertible sleigh, jet-powered

And when he landed in front of me it towered

Over me and the door hissed out on hydraulics

Making me rub my eyes and wonder about alcoholics.

 

He was dressed in a space suit, a chrome one that made me gulp

And I opened my mouth to point out I wasn’t writing pulp,

But he laid his finger alongside his nose with a wink,

And I shut my mouth again and wished for a drink.

 

His eyes – full of starlight and empty as the universe – twinkled brightly

The cheeks were pale, the lips turned up tightly.

The helmet concealed any sign of a beard,

Overall, I decided, my muse was quite weird.

 

He held a bag in one hand, and now that he’s down,

He held up the other, and opened it with a frown.

From it he pulled, with a shake and a wiggle,

Something like an anemone that just made me giggle.

 

He looked up at me, and gave me a shake of his head

Before putting it back, then pulling an envelope out instead.

Without a word, just a wink of his eye,

He handed it to me, and leaped back to the sky.

 

I stood there, gaping, and ere he was out of sight

I heard him call out: To all a good night!

I looked at the card in my hand and unsealed,

Opening it slowly to my eyes it revealed…

 

The plot to my novel! I sprang back to my desk,

My husband, befuddled; my teens, statuesque.

My fingers were flying, and I shouted ‘Thank you!’

As Christmas was coming and my muse had come through.

 

Now that that’s out of my system… I have a question for you, gentle readers. As the New Year is approaching, what would you like to see more of here at the Mad Genius Club? Any how-to’s you are in need of? Tips, tricks, and ideas? Let us know in the comments! And if you’re looking for a last-minute gift, remember, ebooks are easy to give, and don’t require a dedicated ebook reader, they can be read on a phone, or a tablet, or a computer, or… 

 

Here a snippet, there a snippet

(Kilted Dave is suffering the pre-holiday ritual so many parents have past and present. His two precious little ones are ailing. Nothing serious, just enough to make them — and the rest of the household — miserable and tired. So I volunteered to jump in and help out. The only problem is, I’m pre-coffee and don’t have a topic. Sooooo, I’m going to do what any good writer would do. I’m going to post a snippet and then link you to the book. After all, I’m sure there’s at least one Christmas gift you still have yet to buy. Yes, shameless plug but, as I said, I’m still pre-coffee.)

Witchfire Burning (Eerie Side of the Tracks Book 1)

It’s never easy going home, especially when you left under less than ideal circumstances. But that’s the situation I found myself in. It might never have happened if it weren’t for my daughter, the light of my life. Four months ago, Ali turned five. A month after that I finally admitted she presented challenges I didn’t know how to deal with. Fortunately, at least in some ways, my mother did know how to handle my special little girl. Like it or not, that meant returning home to Mossy Creek, Texas, smack dab in the middle of the buckle of the Bible belt.

And that made life very interesting for the citizens of Mossy Creek where normal was not something you encountered every day.

So I called my mother, scheduled a leave of absence from work and made our plane reservations. There were a few stops and starts and the trip had been delayed twice. But now our bags were packed and Ali and I were about to walk out the front door. That’s when my pocket started vibrating. Well, to be honest, it was the cellphone in my pocket that started vibrating but you know what I mean. For a moment, I considered ignoring the call. I knew from the ringtone it wasn’t my mother or any of the rest of the family. As far as work and most of my friends knew, Ali and I had already left town. Even so, years of conditioning had my hand digging into my jeans pocket before I realized it.

“Momma, we have to go!” Ali tugged at my free hand, pulling me toward the door.

“Hang on, sweetheart.” I glanced at the display, recognizing the area code if not the number. “Go make sure you didn’t leave anything you want to take with you. This won’t take long. I promise.” I waited until she raced toward her bedroom before answering the call. “Hello?”

“Moira Quinn O’Donnell?” a woman asked.

“Yes.” A hint of concern fluttered in my stomach. She might have been calling to sell me siding or solar panels or the like but I doubted it. Something about her voice not only sounded serious but official. Besides, she had used my full name, something very few knew.

What can I say? When you grow up with the name Moira and your mother insists on the proper Irish pronunciation and you live in Texas, let’s just say it is easier to go by your middle name, especially if that name is easily pronounced.

“Ms. O’Donnell, my name’s Carli Sanderson. I work with Julianne Grissom.”

My brows knitted into a frown. “What can I do for you, Ms. Sanderson?”

“Ms. O’Donnell, I don’t want to worry you, but have you spoken with your mother recently?”

That flutter of concern spiked and I swallowed hard. Whenever someone started a statement with “I don’t want to worry you,” it usually meant there was something to be worried about. If that wasn’t enough, Julianna Grissom and I were friends going back to childhood. If trouble wasn’t brewing, the call would have been from Annie Caldwell. Julianna Grissom was her very professional, all attorney persona. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Then I looked toward the hallway, making sure Ali was still safely in her room. Whatever was going on, I most definitely did not want to worry her.

“I spoke with her two days ago. Why?”

“Ma’am, Ms. Grissom asked me to check with you. We don’t know any of the particulars, only that the Sheriff’s Department attempted to do a welfare check on your mother after she failed to meet friends yesterday. While there’s no evidence of foul play or, to be perfectly honest, of anything being wrong, they haven’t been able to make entry into the house to be sure.”

I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I had a pretty good idea why the deputies hadn’t been able to enter the house. Unless I was badly mistaken, they hadn’t even been able to enter the yard. That was just one of the reasons why I’d moved to Montana more than ten years ago. In Mossy Creek, when someone said you lived on the wrong side of the tracks, they weren’t talking about your financial status or social standing. Far from it, in fact. Life in Mossy Creek had been different from the day the town was founded. Mundane mixed with supernatural and, well, my mother might not be Serena Duchamp but she had been known to cast more than a spell or two.

Then there was the house. I swear it is more alive than a lot of folks I could name. If it did not want to let someone in, nothing, not even a battering ram, would get the doors open. The only thing keeping me from panicking was the belief the house would not keep help out if my mother needed it. Me, it never hesitated to try to lock me out. But Mom belonged there and it would protect her.

At least I hoped it would.

“What can I do?”

“Ms. Grissom said you were coming to town today. Is that still your plan?” Sanderson asked.

“It is.” I glanced at my watch. Ali and I were going to have to hurry if we wanted to make our flight. “Assuming no problems with our connecting flight, my daughter and I should be in town by five.”

“With your permission, I will let the sheriff know. Ms. Grissom would like you to stop by the office when you get here. Hopefully, we will know more by then.”

“All right.” I thought for a moment. “Have you checked with either my sister or my brother to see if they’ve heard from our mother?”

“They are my next calls, ma’am.”

“All right. Tell Ms. Grissom I will give her a head’s up when I reach Dallas.” I didn’t wait for her to respond. Instead, I ended the call and stuffed the cellphone back into my pocket. I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach but there was nothing I could do about it, at least not until I reached Mossy Creek. But it did necessitate a slight change in what I packed and in my plans not to check a suitcase.

“Ali, you about ready?” I called from my bedroom as I knelt just inside my closet. There, bolted to the floor, was a safe. Inside were my service weapon, several other handguns along with my badge, ID and a few other items. Blowing out a breath, I retrieved an HK .45, pancake holster, ammo and my badge and ID. “Ali?” I repeated as I secured everything in a small, hard-sided case which I locked and then dropped inside my bag that now would have to be checked.

“Momma, can I take Ruffles?” She stood in the doorway, a battered teddy bear almost as big as her in her arms.

“No, baby. Not this time. Why don’t you take Freckles instead?” I asked, referring to a smaller but equally beloved teddy bear.

“Okay.” She grinned and raced back to her room.

Five minutes later, we pulled out of the driveway and I did my best to put Sanderson’s call out of my mind. This was Ali’s first plane ride and I knew she was excited. The last thing I wanted was to worry her. After all, as far as she knew, this was a fun trip to see her grandma. She did not need to know that grandma had apparently gone missing and we might not be able to get into the house because it didn’t like me.

Heaven help me, how was I going to explain the house, not to mention everything else, to a five-year-old?

***

Witchfire Burning takes place in the same “universe” as Slay Bells Ring and Skeletons in the Closet (Eerie Side of the Tracks). Slay Bells Ring hints at the supernatural that is a part of Witchfire Burning and Skeletons, well, Skeletons is something else. It has humor, the supernatural and dead who return to their homes the day after their funerals. They aren’t zombies but they aren’t alive, not in the strictest manner of speaking. Oh, and one of the characters sends the Catholic priest who came to exorcise her and the rest of the family running back to his parish, after giving him a lecture about how no self-respecting demon would possess the body of an old woman. Of course, Granny still regularly attends Sunday services, reads the Bible and is a good, God-fearing woman. She just happens to be dead. And she’s the “sane” one of the family.

 

Lessons of 2016

Yes, I know the year still has a week and change to drop another bomb or three (metaphorical only, please) on us, but I doubt the lessons this writer has learned from it are going to change that much.

The first and most obvious is that when it comes to life, you can’t win, you can’t break even, and the only way out is in a box. The steady stream of boxes containing beloved figures this year (along with a few bastards) made that point rather forcefully.

You can – and bloody well should – do your best to make your part in things as good as you can, and to improve the general state of affairs for everyone else in some way. I personally suspect that whatever measure the ultimate judge of our lives chooses will include the question of whether we tried to help those who could not help themselves (those who refuse to help themselves are another matter and an argument I don’t want to have right now), whether we tried to choose the paths that did the least harm to the fewest people while aiming for the greatest good to the greatest number of people.

It’s a fuzzy sort of thing to be looking at, but let’s face it, I’m a writer. I have cats. Fuzzy is inevitable, and usually purrs.

Seriously, if there isn’t a place in whatever afterlife might exist for those of us who entertain people and make them a little happier for a while, it’s not the kind of afterlife I want to be part of. The person who’s at the bottom of the pit and ready to give up can be convinced to hold on just a little longer by a book or something that entertains them and gives them reason to hope. It doesn’t matter if what does this is the latest literary masterpiece of angst or a piece of shameless pulp fiction: if it does that job, it’s helped to save that person’s life.

Another lesson that got hammered in is that life does not have to make sense. If it had to make sense, things would be very different. There are times when I’m so pissed off about the way things happen because if I wrote a fraction of that into a book I’d be laughed out of the room. Just one of the WTF events of 2016 would be enough to have people giving me the hairy eyeball. I mean, in what sane universe would anyone dare to openly assassinate a Russian ambassador? That’s asking to have yourself and everyone and everything you care about turned into glowing dust.

Okay, they might go easy on the glowing, what with the general attitude to nuclear weaponry and the fact that most of the world’s stock is kind of elderly, but the Russians have a history of taking this kind of thing seriously. In the form of “do not pass Go, go directly to gulag” seriously if you’re lucky (for meanings of lucky that do not include the biggest mercy of a quick death you weren’t expecting).

Now, the conspiracy-minded (or authorial) sorts could easily turn this into an act intended to spark a war between Russia and Turkey (“that thing in Syria? That’s not a war. This is a war.” followed by four and twenty MiG jets, a pocketful of ICBMs and a whole lot of mess kind of war that would leave Turkey thinking of Afghanistan as the pinnacle of civilization). It would make a fun sort of thriller, now that life has demonstrated that yes, people can be dumb enough to do that and think it will make their point.

But on the whole, this is on the same level of “were you thinking?” as invading Russia in winter.

There is a slight whiff of hope, thought, which comes from these unlikely and bizarre events: if anything can happen, there is a possibility that it will happen, and as all Pratchett fans know, million to one chances crop up nine times out of ten. It’s very important that the probability be exactly a million to one, though. Anything else obeys the normal laws of physics and statistics. Only at precisely a million to one will the laws of narrativium kick in, and the biggest lesson of 2016 is that narrativium actually can defy physics, mathematics, gravity, and reality.

So maybe, just maybe, if enough of us believe fervently enough that life will make sense, it could actually happen.