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Homework for SF authors: NASA’s glory years

It still surprises me just how many would-be science fiction authors know so little about the period between 1945 and 1985. Oh, they know about the moon landings, sure. The names of Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin come readily to mind. But can they tell you which pilot was the first to Mach 2? Or which plane he did it in? Which test aircraft could beat Mach 5, and needed a reaction control system to help it fly beyond the atmosphere? Can they state with surety what Operation Paperclip was? Without rushing to Google the details on their cell phones? Can they recognize the voices of astronauts like John Young or Bob Crippen, just from hearing a few seconds of CAPCOM tape recorded the morning of April 12, 1981?

These might seem like superfluous details. In the era of the International Space Station, astronaut derring-do has become entirely too ho-hum. Many people take the space program for granted.

But I happen to think that every science fiction writer worth her salt owes it to herself — and her readers — to take a wayback machine voyage to those crucial four decades, during which humanity did something it had literally never done before.

NOVA: “To The Moon” — Produced in 1999, this excellent two-hour NOVA special does a brilliant job portraying the drama of the Mercury, Apollo, and Gemini programs, during which the United States kicked the race (with the USSR, for the Moon) into high gear. Not only does this special cover the vast technical challenge faced by the engineers and scientists tasked with building the rockets and spacecraft which would go the distance, it also contains priceless interview outtakes from various astronauts who offer their candid opinions about their missions, the political capital invested in those missions, and the danger they each faced every time they climbed through the hatch for yet another launch. Attention is also given to the Russian side of the race, with fresh details (then) on the ambitious Russian N-1 super-booster — a Saturn 5 equivalent which sadly (for the Russians) never overcame its technical faults.

SPACEFLIGHT (narrated by Martin Sheen) — A four-part 1980s series that not only covers Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but also the years leading up to manned spaceflight, as well as the post-moon phases of Skylab, and the Shuttle Transportation System. Like the NOVA documentary above, this series includes a great deal of interview footage, some of it quite rare.
Episode 1: “Thunder in the Skies” covers the genesis of organized rocketry, how these civilian efforts got rolled into the military, and the post-WW2 years when the pursuit of ballistic missile technology dovetailed with the famous Right Stuff years of Edwards AFB, where the various x-planes made and broke an endless number of records.
Episode 2: “The Wings of Mercury” covers the President Kennedy era, during which manned spaceflight became a central pivot of the Cold War between the United States, and Soviet Russia. Including the frustrations and problems experienced by the politicians and administrators charged with getting a young NASA rolling. Interviews with both Mercury and Gemini astronauts are numerous.
Episode 3: “One Giant Leap” covers Apollo’s roots in President Kennedy’s famous challenge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and how that pressure ultimately resulted in the deaths of Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. Rising from its ashes, Apollo would ultimately put 12 human beings on the Moon. Also included are details on the fascinating Skylab flights, as well as many more astronaut interview clips.
Episode 4: “The Territory Ahead” covers the shuttle program, with special emphasis on the (then, at the time of production) recent Challenger disaster. The second half of the hour spends its time discussing the (then) plans for military use of space, against the backdrop of nuclear war. There is also speculation regarding the projects which would eventually become the Hubble Telescope, and the International Space Station.

I should also point you to these many official NASA films, detailing the Apollo series. If you can get past the mildly dated production values (narration, as well as music) they’re marvelous windows into the Apollo program. Featuring spectacular footage of flights, flight prep, launches, animations regarding experiments and mission profiles, and so forth. Hard to believe this was all half a century ago!

Link for Apollo 4 is here.
Link for Apollo 5 is here.
Link for Apollo 7 is here.
Link for Apollo 8 is here.
Link for Apollo 9 is here.
Link for Apollo 10 is here.
Link for Apollo 11 is here.
Link for Apollo 12 is here.
Link for Apollo 13 is here.
Link for Apollo 14 is here.
Link for Apollo 15 is here.
Link for Apollo 16 is here.
Link for Apollo 17 is here.
Link for Apollo-Skylab 2 is here.
Link for Apollo-Skylab 3 is here.
Link for Apollo-Soyuz is here.

Beyond history lessons, there’s also a lot to be learned from play-by-play of the missions themselves.

An enterprising soul, using the alias lunarmodule5, has been uploading some brilliantly-edited videos to YouTube. Using both authentic audio and video, as well as still imagery — interlaced with skillful CGI — these videos are about as close as most of us can get to actually sitting in the cockpit of a space shuttle, or riding atop a Saturn 5 rocket. These are not documentaries, as much as they are highlight reels. Of particular note is the reel for the Apollo 12 flight, including full command module commentary prior to, during, and directly following the lightning strikes which almost caused a mission abort. Also of note is the segmented full-mission upload covering STS-1, the original launch of the shuttle Columbia. We hear a tremendous amount of pre-launch chatter between the crew and mission control, as well as get a front-row seat for STS-1’s two days in orbit.

Now, you might think CAPCOM tapes are an extremely pedestrian way to learn about spaceflight. But I happen to think that the CAPCOM tapes are the most revelatory, because they provide a candid picture of how a modern space mission is conducted. From the moment the crew sit down to breakfast before the launch, right through touchdown at the end of the trip. Including all the minutae that must be monitored by the staff on the ground — checks and guidance without which no modern space mission could ever succeed. It takes thousands of people to put a spacecraft into low earth orbit. Imagine the staffing needed for a truly ambitious voyage to Mars, or beyond.

Essential facts, data, and — best of all — food for thought, for any science fiction author.

Even if you’re not particularly “hard” in your approach to your stories. It never hurts to have these kinds of details rumbling around in the back of your brain, while you conjure up stupendous stories of interplanetary, interstellar, or intergalactic adventure.

Because the truth is that space is very possibly the most challenging environment humanity will ever face. Of all the planets we know about, the only one guaranteed to be friendly — with relatively safe temperatures, water to drink, and air to breath — is the Earth.

When we go anywhere else, we’re going to be taking it all with us. Our food. Our oxygen. What we drink. The clothes on our backs. The tools we use, including space suits — which are essentially self-contained miniature spacecraft. And if we’re not taking it with us, we’re hoping to find the raw resources (on the other side) capable of sustaining us in artificial habitats, once we’re there. To include ores and other things we will need to manufacture new artificial habitats.

After almost 60 years of putting people into space, we’ve gotten pretty good at it. Enough so that fatalities are extremely rare, and your average astronaut being sent to the International Space Station can pretty much guarantee (s)he’s coming back down without incident. Again, thanks to the effort of thousands upon thousands of engineers, scientists, and support and administrative staff.

But just because we’ve gotten good at a thing, does not mean it’s not hazardous. Or expensive. Two huge factors when you (as author) create space-worthy civilizations of the future. It takes a hell of a lot of “oomph” to put people into space. In terms of logistics. In terms of intestinal fortitude. And in terms of the technological and human-specific hurdles which must be overcome.

Such as: how well do you think you would adapt to spending 14 days trapped in the front seat of a compact car? You have to wear the same clothes the entire time. There is no privacy. Nowhere to use the toilet. You get your food and drink from tubes and small packages. You cannot take a shower or a bath. Sleeping is hard. And you must be constantly prepared to do technical, challenging tasks involving equipment which may or may not be working the way you expect it to work. While trying to tamp down potential worry that your compact car might not get you back through the atmosphere in one piece, when the mission is over. And you’re doing this all right next to your side-seat co-driver, who is in the exact same predicament.

That was the job of Gemini 7. One of the most unglamorous — yet vital — pre-Apollo flights. Which proved human beings could function in space long enough for a full-fledged moon mission.

What will a Mars mission entail? A mission to Jupiter? Neptune? The Oort Cloud? The nearest stars? Or stars much father away?

Understanding the nitty gritty of the NASA glory years, can give a science fiction author proper grounding in all the problems that will be faced by such (as yet) imaginary ventures.

It really is not as simple as Star Trek or Star Wars make it seem.

Case in point: the space shuttle was never a souped-up airliner. Because a Boeing 737 doesn’t have to be able to fly in an environment where the wings and tail don’t work. Nor does a 737 have engines powerful enough to boost it to orbit, using super-cooled fuel in such large quantities that the fuel outweighs the plane itself many times over. Nor does a 737 have to be able to survive three-thousand-degree (F) heat while deceleration from a speed of 18,000 miles per hour.

The shuttle — even though it did not take us anywhere we had not been before — was the world’s first reusable spacecraft. In this regard, it was several orders of magnitude more complex and expensive than a 737. Both in terms of designing the thing, and in terms of operating it. How much more expensive and difficult to operate would the shuttle have been, if it had been armored and armed for warfare in space? Like the spacecraft in a science fiction movie? How much bigger would it have to be, to voyage to the Moon? Or beyond? What kind of engines would it need? What sort of fuel would those engines burn?

These are the kinds of mundane (but necessary) questions that a science fiction author begins to ask herself, once she retraces the steps taken from 1945 to 1985. They are the kinds of questions which will enrich your stories immeasurably, and give your SF tales the sort of gripping authenticity that will make the challenge of space flight — space exploration, space warfare, and so much else — become real for your readers.

Lastly, familiarity with space history also humbles us. Because space history is a reminder of what real death-defying heroism looks like.

How such heroism walks, talks, and gets the job done.

I suspect we desperately need these reminders. As writers, and as a culture too.

Trendy Trendsetters, All

There are trends, and then there are trends.

Look at it this way: you could be trendy and buy jeans with fake dirt on them, for $425. Frankly, I raised an eyebrow when I first saw this go viral, because it’s an interesting psychological study. We are, culturally, fetishizing the working man. Think about it. It’s like guys buying used women’s underwear. It makes them feel like they’re sexy. Dirty pants? Sexy also, I guess. I mean, look at this book cover, and tell me that guy isn’t wearing dirty pants. For that matter, it you scroll through the romance listings, you’ll quickly note that there are some strong trends, and two of them are rich guys (who presumably could afford the fake-dirty jeans) and tough guys (who presumably don’t need no fake-dirty jeans). There are a LOT of writers putting out stories for the trends. But what happens when the trends end?

I suspect there’s a growing market segment that would like to see more sweet romance. I know I hear that from people I talk to – and the one romance I’ve indulged in, I kept sweet. Not just because my Mom and grandma were going to read it (Hi, Mom!) but because it worked better for the characters. I didn’t see a need to write to a trend. I’m not knocking it – there are writers making a ton of money because they are playing to the market and surfing the wave. I just can’t do it myself.

But then there are other trends. The ones that slowly build, and build, and then suddenly take off like a rocket. Susannah Martin interviewed Brad Torgerson and I about the self-publishing trend, and I highly recommend you click on over to her article.

But don’t forget to come back here after!

It’s not that I have anything else exciting to say… Oh, who am I kidding. I have a book.

Persistence has paid off, and two long years after the publication of my last novel, my seventh novel is now available for sale. It’s not out in print yet – that will be about two weeks from now. I could probably just not bother, but it is rather nice to hold this hefty chunk of paper in one’s hand and say ‘I wrote this.’ Right now, I’m looking at all of you out there, readers, because I know most of you are also writers. Two things: one, don’t give up on the story even if you feel like you can’t do this, or you can’t do this fast, or life is in the way of it happening. Keep working on it when you can. I got to a few points with this book where I was doggone good and ready to give up on it. Even my First Reader couldn’t help much, he was too close to it. In the dedication I thank my Mom, and one of my best friends, who both read it as alpha readers (before it was done) and egged me on to finish it. Mom actually was reading it as I wrote the end, because I was working on it in a shared Google Doc file. It was funny to see her colored cursor following mine as the words came out on paper, er, screen, and to have the comments in the side bar when I goofed up, or she wanted clarification on a thing. I wouldn’t recommend that for most situations, but it really did help me finish. I had to, so Mom could read it all!

Second, whack your inner perfectionist on the head and gag her. This book isn’t what I started out to write. Which is not to say that I don’t think I’ve produced a good book – it’s not the book I’d intended. It grew organically in ways I didn’t expect. But Cedar, I can hear you say, you’re a pantser, don’t they all go that way? Sort of. Only they don’t all take two years to finish. I think the longest I’ve taken before this is the Eternity Symbiote, and it’s got issues, being my first novel written and with a half-assed ending. I changed, as a person, my life was radically different, by the ending of the tale. That affects my writing. And that’s why I needed the reassurance from early readers that yes, I was on the right track, and no, I didn’t need to scrap it all.

My main concern was that the pacing was too slow, and that the characters would develop erratically. In the end, I think that although there’s not a lot of action – and by that I mean exciting combat scenes – the pacing does work. And I think that the growth arc is consistent. But I couldn’t see that while I was in the middle of it. I encourage you to not rely on your own perceptions if you are working on a similar problem with your writing.

Oh! Check out the awesome blurb Dorothy Grant created for the book!

When the starship’s captain died midway through a run with a cargo of exotic animals, the owner gave first mate Jem one chance, and one choice. The chance: if he successfully runs the trade route solo, he’ll become the new captain. If he fails, he’ll lose the only home he’s ever known.

And the choice? He’s now raising an old earth animal called a basset hound. Between station officials, housebreaking, pirates, and drool, Jem’s got his hands full!

Remain Calm

We’re Just Fine

Some news on the publishing front from the literary boffins at Al Grauniad. Apparently, ebook sales in the UK are down 17%. This, while print sales are up 6%, according to this article (corroborating, if drier information here, which I’ll revisit, as well).

There’s a mess of op-ed muck gumming up an otherwise useful article on interesting trends in the publishing industry. Of course, the relevant information would only take a paragraph. Two at the outside. I gave you the first half at the top, though the author of the Guardian’s shining example took to the bottom of the second paragraph to get to the point. The rest of that space was taken up with lauding the tactile joy of book destruction.

My father taught me to respect books after one of his that I lent out came back more or less destroyed. I think I replaced it. I sure hope I did, though it’s been a few decades. I should buy him a book. Well, I should write him a book. The chat we had certainly changed how I treated his. Dog-earing pages and breaking book spines are pleasures? Those are killing offenses where I come from, but apparently that’s what indicates bibliophilia for the author. YMMV, I suppose.

The author spends a great deal of space bashing the Kindle. She even recruits an ally from inside the publishing industry to help. “It was new and exciting … But now they look so clunky and unhip, don’t they?” It would seem new versions of the Kindle are so terribly difficult to find that the Guardian felt the urge to take a shot at a more-than-decade old piece of hardware.

The agent quoted above goes on to speculate that readers want “trendy tech” and that Amazon just doesn’t have that. MGC’s own Amanda Green is the proud owner of a Kindle Oasis, and spent a few minutes of her precious time talking it up to me this morning. It sounds mighty impressive. She’s charged hers twice in the month and more since she got it. The accompanying carry case contains a secondary battery that greatly extends its battery life, and at 5.6″ x 4.8″ x 0.13-0.33″, it’s more than small enough to fit into a pocket. I could probably load an entire family’s worth into one of my kilt pockets, and have room left over.

The second article linked suggests readers are giving up ebooks due to “screen fatigue.” Now, I get that. I stare at a screen for several hours each day, whether I want to or not (good, solid exercise) and it can get pretty tiring. But that’s a 28” monitor with fairly bright lighting. That’s not E-ink on a paperwhite screen. A screen with LEDs that illuminate just the surface of the screen, for those of you who read after bedtime.

The first article goes on to suggest that readers are buying fewer devices upon which to read, and apparently that translates to fewer ebooks bought. It’s not explicit, but they sure seem to want me to make that connection. I don’t really understand why. I mean, if I get the Oasis I’m now lusting over (don’t mind the drool) I’ll be working to make sure that lasts me at least a few more years than the cited trend from ’12-’14. It’s expensive, and I don’t want to have to buy another one terribly soon (no matter how shiny newer models might be). I expect most readers share my outlook. I’ve had the same phone for three years, and unless the OS leaves it useless, will likely use the same one for another three. It works, and I don’t want to pay for a new one.

The next several paragraphs are a paean to the magic of printed literature. Well, sort of. I guess books-as-objects are now being celebrated again. One thing I’ve learned in my adventures in publishing is my sense of taste isn’t mainstream. The thing now is apparently to use books as a sort of objet d’art, the centerpiece for temporary displays recorded (as everything these days) and uploaded to Teh Interwebs. There’s even a hashtag.

I tell the truth, this writer kinda boggles. I love attractive books as much as the next writer, but mostly what I love is the information. The story, the use thereof as a means to transport my psyche to somewhere I’ll never go physically. Also, I have a toddler, and a soon-to-be-toddler, and nothing pretty is safe unless it’s locked up. In a chest. In another state. And even then…

The author make the interesting observation that children’s books and cookbook sales haven’t transferred to digital as well as other genre. I, for one, am shocked. Wee Dave is astonishingly deft for a nearly-three-year-old, and he manages some of the strangest physical combobulations. Especially when it comes to objects. The notion of handing him a brand new Oasis to read on makes me outright twitchy.

Similarly, I’m not clear that trying to use an ereader while cooking is a good idea. Kitchens are notoriously liquid-prone environments. Also heat, direct and indirect. Knives, spices, meat tenderizers, oh my. Then again, I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. Suitably planned out. But there are plenty of reasons people wouldn’t get children’s books, especially, in eformat. Reasons that suggest there’s something at work besides “people don’t like ebooks as much as they used to. Back in the old days.”

I’m going to skip a bit. Honestly, you should go read the article. At least skim it. It’s an entertaining insight into the publishing industry, if nothing else.

Next, the author makes the staggering claim that digital publishing isn’t the enemy of print publishing. My jaw dropped. And then I read on. It seems augmented reality events and audiobooks are the evidence thereof. I can’t make this up.

But then, after a digression about a cheap ebook’s accidental success as a marketing tool for the print version, comes the most important paragraph in the entire article.

The figures from the Publishing Association should be treated with some caution. They exclude self-published books, a sizable market for ebooks. And, according to Dan Franklin, a digital publishing specialist, more than 50% of genre sales are on ebook. Digital book sales overall are up 6%.

That’s right. The data from the Publishing Association ignores self-published ebooks. In point of fact, digital sales are actually up.

It’s traditional publishing that’s seeing a slump in ebook sales. The trads, who price their ebooks in the trade paper to hardcover range, who include digital rights management code in their ebooks, who actively work to discourage readers from buying their wares in digital. The rest of us? Well, it would seem we’re doing fairly well. I’d like to see more data, honestly, though I wouldn’t likely have time to do anything with it.

Frankly, both articles linked feel a lot like a desperate Chip Diller, screaming that all is well. No, really, traditional publishing is doing Just Fine. Thanks for asking. I said We’re Fine.

Fun With History and Language

The collision of history and language is a whole lot of fun for a writer (it’s fun for other folk too, but damn does it ever make good world-building fodder). I got reminded of that this week when I stumbled over one of Eric Raymond’s posts  talking about how creoles form. Of course I immediately jumped on the classic Torpenhow meaning Hill Hill Hill (with each syllable meaning hill in a different language) (with the optional extra of Torpenhow Hill to make the place hill hill hill hill just for fun) and promptly ran into a whole list of tautological place names.

Then there are the place names that sound tautological and aren’t, like Townsville in Australia (named in honor of a gentleman by the name of Towns) and many of the place names derived from native languages (Wagga Wagga and friends) because many of the tribal languages don’t have intensifiers like ‘very’ and so on: instead the usual manner of indicating that something is important is to say it twice. So the most important person is the big big man. The local language translates the name as “many crows” with “wagga” for crow being repeated to indicate that there are a whole lot of them.

This of course can lead to more interesting place names and richer backstory embedded in one’s fiction, as well as the option of some Pratchett-esque scenes in which the representatives of the invaders, doing their survey for the equivalent of the Domesday book, head over to the village and ask one of the locals (speaking slowly and loudly, of course) what the name of that hill over there is. While pointing at it.

Local probably says “hill” in whatever his language is. We’ll say he says ‘tor’, which is one of the Celtic family of languages. Invader (for the sake of argument, Cumbric because that’s the language of origin for ‘pen’ meaning hill) duly notes the feature as ‘tor pen’.

Fast forward a few generations, or a few dozen, and the invaders have married in, the dialect spoken by the locals has shifted to something that’s not really either of the origin language (a creole, in other words) and everyone thinks of their hill as ‘torpen’. To many of them, it’s not really something they think about, it’s just what the place is called.

Then the next set of invaders, this lot Norse, come by to survey their new territory. So we go through the point and ask in a slow, loud voice, and the local says the invader is pointing at ‘torpen’. So our Norse invaders inform their leader that this is the village at Torpen Howe. There’s our three hills.

The other interesting aspect of this is that apparently when multiple language merge into a creole because these people are living effectively next door to each other and need to communicate, the result tends to be simpler than either of the origin languages, and the pattern of simplification is to ditch specialized grammar and use the position of the word in the sentence to indicate its role (otherwise known as subject-verb-object).

Yeah. This is why English has near-synonyms for everything (usually with different class connotations, generally following the rule that the fancy, upper-class one is of French origin and the lower-class version is the Old English version), and why English has managed to drop the idea of gendered nouns as a formal part of speech (although we haven’t simplified to the point of not having grammatical gender in pronouns – yet) as well as the notion of changing the spelling of the word depending on whether it’s the subject or object.

Some languages do that to people’s names. The Manx Gaelic form of my name is spelled Katreeny if it’s the subject of a sentence, and Chatreeny if it’s the object. This English speaker would have hell’s own time with that. Mix that in with the languages that have formal address and intimate address (English dropped that one 400 years or so back: thee/thou/thy etc was the intimate address, you/your the formal), or worse multiple layers of address that draw distinctions most USAians wouldn’t consider worth making (like hell I’m going to address my lead with a more formal pronoun just because he’s my lead) and you’ve got something that’s going to sound and feel very different, and will give the impression of a much deeper culture.

I’ll leave it to you to work out how to convey that in English, which has largely discarded all of that in favor of becoming what’s probably the world’s most advanced trading language.


Recently I was trying to talk to a friend who was one of the beta readers on a novel, along with a dozen other people.

My friend was the only one who returned the book with “needs to be completely rewritten.  This is not a novel.”  It appears everyone else returned it with “not my thing, but it is very well written.”

Of course, under the Sarah rule of thumb, if only one person complains you ignore him/her and my friend was in near hysterics because this person, who is a mutual friend, will now think she’s being evil or has it in for the writer, or something.

The catch there is that my friend is the only writer in the bunch of beta readers.

I was reminded of this yesterday as someone dropped by my blog to chide me for a typo (would you believe, a green grocers apostrophe? Yep, it’s one of my pet peeves, too, but the fingers have a mind of their own.) He said he normally wouldn’t have mentioned anything, but the author is an author, and a well-regarded one (that last was news to me, but okay.)

It brought home to me again that writers talking about writing, and lay people talking about writing mean completely different things.

First, typos happen. I have a friend who used to work for a scientific publisher, as the head of a team of copy editors.  Because he’s very exact, he had each of his team initial each paragraph after they proofed it.  And yet, there would still be typos when it got to him.  This is because humans don’t have it in them to be exact, and because typing is largely muscle memory.  In my case, I’ve determined I type by taking dictation from my head.  If I’m tired, I started exchanging words that sound alike to me (because accent) like leave and live.  If I’m exhausted my fingers invent their own language.  For instance, the only f sound in the alphabet is ph.  So I phall phatally phorward.  I don’t know why, but my older son has the same issue (can this kind of typo be genetic.)  If I’m TRULY out of it, like at the end of a three-day novel, I type entire sentences in reverse, something I couldn’t do if I TRIED.  My fingers are weird.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

It is a mark of the amateur novelist that there will be no typos at all in the manuscript.  This is because the manuscript has been gone over a hundred times.  It is also the mark of the amateur novelist that there will be no life in the manuscript.  This is because the manuscript has been gone over a hundred times.

However, when you have first readers who aren’t writers, you need to be alert to “what they think we do” (like those posters with, you know, what my mom thinks I do, what I really do, etc.)  The general public thinks the first qualification of a professional writer is to be sort of a super spelling and grammar person.  We are extremely good with written language.  We never make a mistake!

(At that you should be grateful, because now we have computers, and before that typewriters.  My grandfather, otherwise an intelligent man, once told me that I’d never be a writer, because my handwriting was impossible to decipher.  Apparently, in the times before typewriters — in Portugal, at least — we were also supposed to be expert calligraphers.)

In fact there is a not inconsequential overlap between writing fiction and dyslexia.  No one is absolutely sure why, but there is.  As in, more of us are dyslexic than of the general public.  Also, in matters of grammar and punctuation, we are much like the rest of the public.  We’re often uncertain where commas should be, and each of us has a theory of how to apply them.  Except me, of course, I missed punctuation day in all seven languages, so I punctuate by guess and golly.

Because I’m a writer, and writers have fledgelings while they’re still fledgelings themselves, as we all trudge around looking for someone with just a little bit more of a clue to show us an inch more of the way towards craft mastery, I’ve read manuscripts at all levels of professsionalism, from raw beginner to best sellers (yeah, I have bestselling friends.  Yeah, sometimes they too want to know if a scene or a chapter, or a plot works before mailing it in.)  Typos, grammar mistakes, dropped words and haphazard commaing (totally a word) happen at all levels.

However, when readers-who-aren’t-writers tell you “it’s very well written” or “it’s beautifully written” what they mean in fact, is that they found no typos or grammar mistakes.

If you let yourself be lulled into a sense of false security by this, and slap your manuscript up on Amazon, you’ll be riding for a fall.  You could have written how to boil cabbage for 400 pages, but provided all your letters are in the right place, and your punctuation works, amateurs or lay people will tell you “it’s beautifully written.”  In fact your manuscript could BE boiled cabbage.  They’ll still tell you it’s beautifully written provided it accords with the rules of the English language.  And, by the way, in passing, yeah, that can be a problem too.  If you’re writing dialogue, or first person, or whatever, sometimes you have to break the grammatical rules for it to sound “alive.”  People do talk in sentence fragments and run on sentences ALL THE TIME.

But the part you should pay attention to is “it wasn’t my type of thing.”  If a group of readers who have enjoyed your work in the past are all telling you that, no matter how grammatical your work is, you’ve misfired.

Your job is not to make sure every comma is in place, there are no spurious apostrophes, and no letter got misstyped.  Your job is to take the reader on a journey of the mind.  Your job is to make sure people live through the story, ideally as vividly as if it happened to them.

To mind the commas and the periods, the articles and the conjunctions is your copy editor’s job.

Your job is to start with a gripping sentence, then introduce details of your world as the story unrolls, and do it so sneakily, so stealthily, so exactly right, that people are captured in the story and would rather continue reading than eat, sleep or make love.

Your job is to be gripping.  Leave the copy-editors to take care of the typos.  You are the writer, and only you can weave the spell that will make readers live in your world for a little while and care about non-existent people as though they were their dearest friends.

THAT is a “beautifully written” novel.

Now go do that.





What do you want?

As I was preparing for today’s post, I cam across a couple of things I thought I’d share. The first is a perfect example of one of the problems facing traditional publishing today. The second is a post about why it’s a great time — sort of — to go indie. Both are, in my opinion, things we need to think about.

Last week, the Buffalo News posted an article about Gov. Andrew Cuomo. No, it wasn’t about his politics. Instead, it was about his book and how much he’s made — and how many copies the book has sold. But before we get into the finance aspect, a little background. Cuomo was elected governor of New York in 2010 and took office January 1, 2011. His book, All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life, was published by HarperCollins on October 4, 2014. Even assuming HarperCollins pushed to get the book out as quickly as it could, I doubt they had the book for less than a year before publishing it. So, at most, Cuomo had been in the governor’s mansion for two years when the book came out. And this is where things get interesting.

Now to the money. According to the Buffalo News, Cuomo has made, to date, $783,000 for writing his book. The publisher is reported to have laid down a first run printing of 200,000 copies of the book. Now, based on all that, you’d think the book sold well, possibly going into second and third printings, right?


The book has sold approximately 3,200 copies since publication. As of the time I’m writing this post, the hard cover price is $8.45, more than a buck less than the e-book price (which is still set by the publisher at $9.99. More on that in a moment).

It is more than fair to say the book tanked. HarperCollins basically through Cuomo under the bus for the poor performance of the book back in 2015. It seems Cuomo didn’t tour to promote the book and turned down media appearances. They were surprised, I tell you, surprised. They thought he would do at least some promotion. That, it seems, is one of the main reasons the book didn’t sell as expected.

Riiiiight. Putting on my cynic’s hat, I could say HarperCollins never really expected the book to sell. They paid all that money to Cuomo as a legal bribe. But that’s the cynic and I have no proof of it. However, I’m not the only one that thought came to. Google the book and its poor performance and you will see a number of others who have thought the same and have made no bones about it.

Taking off my cynic’s hat, this poor performance is indicative of some of the problems in traditional publishing. HarperCollins didn’t consider the fact Cuomo isn’t all that popular outside of New York. Considering the low sales numbers, I wonder if he is all that popular outside of NYC. They made the mistake of paying on inflated and unrealistic expectations just as they did with the initial print run. As for the promo claim — or should I say no promo? — pardon me while I laugh. I’m sure if you asked Cuomo, he would say HarperCollins didn’t promote the book that way he thought they would. They expected Cuomo to do the promotion. Welcome to the world of publishing. Publishers, at least some of them, promise to promote a book and their idea of promotion is not the same as the author’s.

The long and short of the story is, however, a simple one and it is a cautionary tale. Publishing cannot continue to pay huge advances and guaranteed payouts to political darlings and Hollywood-types, giving them outrageous initial print runs without doing at least a simple market review first. How much money has been lost by traditional publishing houses like this? More importantly from a writer’s point of view, how many mid-list writers, those who have pretty much guaranteed sales of a certain figure book after book, have been dropped because publishers feel they can’t afford to keep them and how often has this happened AFTER a book has bombed by someone like Cuomo?

Next up is this post about why it’s a great time to be a writer, sort of.  I’ll leave you to read the post but the short version is simple. If you want to go traditional, not much has changed. You can keep slogging for months and years, trying to get your work picked up by an agent and then on an editor’s desk where you can hope to get a contract. While there is nothing wrong with this, the length of time it takes to break in this way is a negative, as is the declining number of bookstores.

Then there’s indie publishing. That’s the great part. If you have the drive and you have a book finished, you can publish it now. There’s no waiting to shop the book around, looking for an agent and then a contract. You make it the best book you can, slap a cover on it and push the publish button.

Of course, there’s a but. There’s always a but and that’s where the “sort of” comes in. To be successful as an indie, you have to work at it. You have to take on much of what the traditional publisher does. You have to make sure your book has a great cover, is well formatted and edited. You have to market it. You have to do the accounting and pay the taxes. In other words, you have to remember that this is a business. It’s a lot of work and there is no guarantee that you’ll be a “success”. However, there is an advantage in that you aren’t at the whim of a traditional publisher, held to releasing a book only according to their schedule.

The decision as to what is best for you is, of course, up to you.

Now, since I’m an indie, here’s a bit of promo.

Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2)

Plots form, betrayals are planned and war nears.

Cait Hawkener has come to accept she might never remember her life before that terrible morning almost two years ago when she woke in the slavers’ camp. That life is now behind her, thanks to Fallon Mevarel and the Order of Arelion. Now a member of the Order, Cait has pledged her life to making sure no one else falls victim as she did.

But danger once more grows, not only for Cait but to those she calls friends. Evil no longer hides in the shadows and conspirators grow bold as they move against the Order and those who look to it for protection. When Cait accepts the call to go to the aid of one of the Order’s allies, she does not know she is walking into the middle of conspiracy and betrayal, the roots of which might help answer some of the questions about her own past.

Looking forward, looking back.

Science Fiction particularly is, at least in theory, about looking forward…

But that may not be right direction for a writer – or even a society.

I’ve been re-reading THE COLOUR OF MAGIC – Sir Terry Pratchett’s first Diskworld book – which is really 3 novellas loosely strung together. It’s an absolutely fascinating exercise, in that you can see the writing of one great masters of comic fantasy work evolve.

I freely admit to being a fan and one who in my inept fashion used his writing as a role model (along with Douglas Adams and Tom Sharpe) for writing humor. No, I am not in the same league – my best are pale shadows of his first and, bluntly, worst. But that doesn’t stop me learning rom him and from this – because I promptly went back to my old manuscript cupboard and did something I would advise any writer to try. Actually in a broader context it applies to relationships, politics – whatever. Life in general.

I dug out really early book I wrote, never sold.

It was a great thing to do at several levels. We are often so busy pushing as hard as we can at the current book, current chapter current page… that the bigger picture gets lost.

Firstly, it was – at least in parts – moderately bad. I could see, now, how to improve things I just didn’t know how to do, back then, as well as things where my skills have increased and improved. I’m no Pratchett, but yes, I have got better at some things.

Secondly I could see how far I had come. That was very comforting and yes… to use that stupid newspeak word, empowering. I have improved and grown in skill. It was also a sharp lesson, and not of the ‘empowering’ kind. It was painfully obvious just how hard I had tried to make up for that lack of skill with effort, with sheer hard push and enormous depth of research and development of those characters (I wrote 3 page bios of each character. I haven’t done that in a while).

Oddly, one of the things that was very clear was that I’d lost the path I had found – which wasn’t a bad path. I find even at a micro-level, within a book (or chapter) sometimes I just need to go back. Sometimes just to think it through again, take a slightly different tack. And sometimes at a deeper level yet – reading this I realize that I need to go back to re-read Tom Sharpe before I write another funny fantasy.

The other thing that burned out of that manuscript that I’d lost – thumped out of me by the saga of battering my way through trad publishing and the horrible ‘in’ cliques of sf… was that incredible enthusiasm. Now… well that’s become dogged determination and sheer obstinacy. That’s… admirable, perhaps, but less attractive to some readers – particularly the younger ones than enthusiasm. I shall have to go back and try and recapture it – because it is readers I write for, and I kinda think they pick tone too.

Anyway, so there is my brief piece of useful advice for the aspiring writer, the no-longer quite so aspiring writer, and people in general. It’s worth looking at where we’ve come from. And sometimes – says the guy who grows his own food and shoots/catches or rears his own food – the right way direction is back. Maybe that’s what is happening across the world.

Anyway, talking of back, tomorrow (America’s afternoon) we have the Anzac Day dawn service. The forecast is for rain and misery. I will be going as always, despite it, to play my part in remembering the fallen. Wars didn’t stop for rain, and neither should the honors. I won’t be replying to posts as a result.

Don’t Derive to Market

LawDog has gotten a slim but gut-bustingly funny volume of his police stories off to his editor, and is now oscillating between writing down more tales of Africa, working on an urban fantasy… although, can you call it urban when it’s in small town Texas?

(Picture a satyr before a rural-county Texas judge. “You can’t sentence me! You don’t believe in me! I’m a mythological creature; I can’t exist!” “Boy, I saw weirder things than you in the sixties. Now, you’re up for theft, public intoxication…” )

…anyway, and half a dozen other projects that keep crowding into a writer’s brain. As we were discussing life, the universe, and everything (including him yelling at the “police gear up for a raid” scene on tv, “Why are you loading your weapons? Why are they not already loaded?”) , he paused to ask why certain books in a genre we’ve both read feel so… divorced from reality, and so thin.

Ah, LawDog, says I, the word you’re looking for is “derivative.” The kindliest interpretation is that the true groundbreakers in the field created a field, because the subgenre barely existed, or was still coagulating, when they wrote this weird thing they loved. So they were widely read, and drawing on a lot of different sources, and pulling together many different things. Then came authors who loved the world the first one created, and wanted to put their own spin on it. So they drew on other sources, or re-interpreted the first one’s sources as well as the first author. But then, then came people who loved the second wave of authors, and hadn’t read outside the subgenre… and so their pool of resources and interpretation to draw on is extremely shallow and limited compared to the first or second wave.

This extreme shallowness is often seen in fanfiction, where the inexperienced writer loves their one show, but hasn’t done any digging into the source materials the writers pulled from to create that show and world. If all you know of Meiji period Japan comes from Kenshin, then you’re not going to have a very great pool of knowledge on how and why that world works… and when a writer fills in the gaps with their own world and assumptions as they wander off script, it’s often profoundly wrong (including one fanfic assuming Kenshin was set during Europe’s Dark Ages… because feudal! *facepalm*)

Kris Rusch has a slightly different take; she says the original groundbreaker slipped past the gatekeepers somehow, and when it proved to be a breakout success, the publishers looked around to find similar books that were written on spec by people who just loved the genre. When they started being published, and there was a large demand, then other writers would jump on the bandwagon, briefly read the top books in the genre, and crank out something in a similar style without knowing or loving the genre. This is the sort of “writing to market” that she decries.

With the indies slipping past the gatekeepers, the truth is probably a mix of these, and other reasons. How do you make sure that you’re not falling prey to this?

1: Go Deep. Read the oldest depths from which your genre sprang, not just the last 20 years. Find the good stuff that inspired the books that inspired the books and films that inspired you.

Jeffro Johnson started reading his way through Appendix N – the list of sources Gary Gygax listed as his inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons . Many, many a current fantasy novel treats Dungeons and Dragons as the foundation of their world, upon which you can either build, or try to subvert (with a brief nod to Tolkien, who came before.) The retrospectives are now a category up on the Castalia house blog:
or in kindle book:

What he found was nothing like the “standard fantasy novel” you get now, and nothing like the stereotype of “pulp scifi” that some quarters burn in effigy without ever having actually read. It’s worth reading some of what he found as a transition – but even more so, it’s worth reading everything on Appendix N itself! ( )

(And let me sigh here and note that when following this advice and reading Jack Vance’s Tales of a Dying Earth ( ) I had to keep breaking out the dictionary. I thought I had a fairly good vocabulary, but if this was the stuff “the common man” enjoyed in the 1950’s, my nose has now been painfully rubbed in just how far our education system had fallen by the time I went through.)

2. Go Deeper. Go back to the original legends, myths, histories, trading routes, wars, cultures…

Alma Boykin recently posted a snippet of a fantasy that’s been battening around her brain as the result of reading academic papers and monographs on medieval trade:

When’s the last time you saw something like that, compared to “He paid five copper for the meal, and two silver for a room.”?

3. Go wide. Read about things far outside your field. Orson Scott Card is reputed to have said one of the best ways to get inspiration to is to pick something you don’t care about at all, and then research it in depth.

For example, Peter’s first published book, Take the Star Road ( ), was partially inspired by The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. ( )

Here’s another for you: Rory Miller is the author of the highly interesting book Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence ( ). Last night, as Peter was reorganizing books from one bookshelf to another as he moves the reference books from Things for Westerns to Things For Fantasy, another book by Miller popped up on the couch. Violence: A Writer’s Guide. ( ) I didn’t even know this thing existed. But it is an excellent breakdown on what motivates people to violence – from the office gossip (manipulation to get their way) to the bullying SJW (aggressive posturing and speech to get their way) to assault, to murder… and what those people think of other’s use of different levels of force. It’ll definitely force you to think through the eyes of a character completely unlike yourself, and in doing so, make them more real and alive.

4. Go and do yourself.

There is no perfect substitute for actually going to a place, or doing a thing. Because in the going and in the doing are a thousand sensory details, rhythms, habits, minutiae, large-scale considerations, environments, and people that you can use to make your writing come alive.

If you’ve never shot a gun, go to a range and take a basic pistol course with an instructor. You’re going to find it’s as close to the movies as… as, well, most people’s courtships are to Adam Sandler’s romantic comedies. Many police departments offer citizens academies or ride-a-long programs, which prove that real life is nothing like TV, either.

Go hike the unpaved trails, and discover that moving from point A to point B through different terrains is a while lot different than driving. Take a flying lesson, a sailing lesson, or go whitewater rafting. Get your fishing license and learn to fish, or find a climbing gym and get coached through a climbing wall. Ride a horse, or take a horsedrawn carriage ride. Learn to fence. Hey, it’s research! And it’s learning, growing, stretching yourself in ways you haven’t done before, or done in years. Do a chef’s tasting menu, try a flight of wine, go on a distillery tour… check your local area’s tourist literature, and play tourist in your own home state. You’ll turn up the most random and fun things to do – and if you ask more questions, you’ll find people who are passionate about something love to talk about it, and can tell you more than you dreamed existed.

Art is the synthesis of all our knowledge and worldview, mixed with “what if?”, “and then what happens?”, and a creative spark. So increase your knowledge, enrich your worldview, and throw a lot of new experiences into the mix. What comes out will be all the better for it!


You won’t be successful at writing. 

You will never be successful at writing as long as you measure yourself against someone else’s yardstick. Your success has to be yours, no one else’s. You can’t write like Heinlein/Correia/Nuttall – only they can (or could, since I don’t think zombie Heinlein actually exists, no matter what Sarah says). Sure, you can go look at Larry Correia’s list of writers, and figure out where on the alphabet you fall. But the honest truth of the matter is that the only way for you to be successful is for you to write. You don’t have to write 10,000 words a day to be a success, or even a thousand. If, like most of us, you are juggling the writing, family, and a career or something, then you know that there are days you can’t keep all your balls in the air.

Some writers are really spectacular jugglers. They can keep six flaming torches aloft, and spin ’em under their legs and the rest of us are all gaping, or peering through our fingers with hands over our faces flinching because dang, that’s gonna hurt if he misses… Look, I know some folks who eat fire, or juggle with it, and they didn’t pick up the chainsaws and say ‘look, Ma, no hands!’ and not mean it. They started out slowly, with things like scarves that float a little and give you plenty of time to get your hands in the right position before you have to grab.

Writing is like that. Sure, there will be days your wordcount is in the thousands, but there might also be a week with no words at all. Instead of beating yourself up, pick up the balls and start again. Keep your eyes on the balls in motion, because if you’re looking at the floor all the time, you’re going to miss them. If you’re looking at the dude with the flaming chainsaws, you’re going to feel like a failure, and you’re not.

For one thing, we don’t all write the same stories. Thank goodness. How boring would that be? Each one of us has a different voice, a style all our own, and only we can tell that story in that way. Is there a market for it? Who knows? You won’t, until you put it out there. The beauty of Indie Publishing is that you can put it out there, for very little or no capital expenditure, and find out if there’s a market. If there isn’t, you shrug and move on. But you’re still a success. Why? Because you wrote that. You finished it, and you put it out there. Success is not about how much money you get, it’s about the completion.

Money is good, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be trying for money. It’s a great milestone of ‘readers like me!’ and ultimately it’s what tells us how successful a story is. But you, the writer, are a success when you write something. When you don’t write, or when you ditch all your stories before they are complete, then you fail. It’s what makes you a writer, not how much money, or who publishes you.

Now that you’ve succeeded in writing a story, what comes next? Write another one. And another, and…. you get the idea. If you want to make money, if that’s the goal of this juggler’s act, then you need to have more than one story out there. Simply put, readers want to read, and having read, they move on to the next book. One is not enough. I’m not sure where the point comes in that volume creates it’s own momentum – at six novels, I had it for a while, and then lost it when I didn’t keep publishing. Momentum is important.

Does that make me a failed writer? No, I think not. I still have fans. I have a book that should be out already, but has been delayed while I added a new career to my juggling repertoire. I have more stories in progress (including a children’s book that unfolded in my head today nearly fully formed. Weird how that works, after years of saying I’d never be able to write one). I am a successful writer. I’m a slow writer, now, managing a thousand words a week rather than a day as I once did. But I’m not trying to make a living as a writer – that would change my goals. I want to up that wordcount, but for the moment other things have priority. I’ll creep slowly back up to adding the writing ball into my daily juggling.

In other words, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t manage pro-level output on a daily basis. Push yourself, but don’t burn yourself out. Set a manageable pace, and don’t quit. When you drop the writing ball, pick it back up, and instead of rushing, slowly work up to speed. If you rush, you’re more likely to make mistakes. And you don’t want that with a flaming chainsaw, really you don’t!

I Quit!

I. Quit.

No, no, not MGC.

But I’m taking a hiatus from my big series and trying some new things this summer.

Now, why would I do a silly thing like that? Well, it’s pretty simple. I’m a (nearly) complete unknown and as such my sales numbers are low. And since I’m in this for the money–yeah, I’ve got an husband bringing home the bacon, but he’s teetering on the brink of retirement, and I’d really like to bump up the projected (post retirement) household income. That means I need to do a number of things. Marketing . . . I’m also working on. But another (and much more fun!) thing I can do is broaden my fan base by publishing in other genres.

But how is a writer of a huge series to break the bad news to her fans?

Well it depends. If the series is at a natural stopping point, it’s easy. This is one of the advantages of an overarching Mega Problem. Once it’s solved, you can give your readers a brief glimpse into the Happily Ever After and then quit.

Hahahahaha! As if!

And the more popular, the more fans will want you notice that there’s a problem behind the problem and keep going.

In my case most of the stories are stand alones . . . but it’s one big saga with a fair amount of background that builds up. But there’s no clear cut end point. It’s just a Cross-dimensional Multiverse full of potential. It has been mentioned that it would make a great SF soap opera.

So again, why quit?

There’s a dozen reasons.

I need to broaden my reader base, so getting out of this specific sub- genre and into Time Travel, Space Opera, and Urban Fantasy sounds like a good idea. I mean, Regency Romance may sell better, but I seriously doubt I could tempt any of those readers to try my older work . . . where SO and UF have plenty of overlapping interests with my old series.

And then there’s the challenge. Something that will stretch my knowledge base and send my research in a new direction. Time Travel hurts my head, BTW. And I have zero knowledge of how Law Enforcement actually works. Which is really necessary when you’ve got a thin blue line standing up against demonically engendered werewolves. Space Opera will be the easiest, what with me being a space fanatic. All I have to do is check that what I know really is so. Ouch! Our knowledge of reality changes so fast it’s easy to fall behind.

I recommend this to all writers. It’s too easy to get into a rut, to coast. “Oh, I know everything about this Universe, after all, I created it. I don’t need to research anything!” Too easy to depend on the character building you did in the previous books and leave your character flat and uninteresting. Or viciously attack and maul him, to give some space for Mr. Perfect to (re)grow. Kill her, because you’ve come to hate her.

It’ll be a good separation, a refreshing vacation. I’ll come back to the Wine of the Gods with a new perspective, new enthusiasm.

I’m breaking the news to my fans gently. Umm, because, being an addict of my own series, I seem to have, umm, let me count. Oh bloody . . . eight stories in the pipeline. Not counting the novella that’s out with the Beta Readers. That will be published next month. So while I’m going to write other stuff this summer, I’ll also get out at least one more big Wine of the Gods book sometime this fall, and the rest at reasonable intervals. So it’s just a slow down, not really quitting.

I can get over this addiction. I can stop any time.

Can you? Tell me how that works, eh?

And, being unfortunately well acquainted with my subconscious, as soon as I post this, it will pop a story into the frontal lobes, crack the whip and make me write it . . . What’s that? Xen teams up with Ebsa, Ra’d . . . and Eldon! To defeat the Cyborg Empire!

Oh, just kill me now!
But first, buy a 99¢ short story. I promise I won’t leave [spoiler] in [spoiler] for too long.