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Posts by Cedar Sanderson

Why Do You Read Books?

I had a conversation recently with a colleague about technical writing. One of my chemistry professors had told me that I should pursue technical writing, rather than chemistry as a career. My colleague, who was manager in all but name of a chemistry laboratory for the last year, pointed out that it’s a good thing I didn’t take that advice. The best technical writers, he said (and I agreed) have some experience in what they are writing about. It’s not that you can’t be a technical writer and not have done the tests, or run the instruments. It’s that if you have no hands-on in the field, you are only going to be able to have a shallow understanding of what you’re writing about. Read more

To Thine Own Self Be True

In light of yesterday’s post by Jason about the whole WorldCon thing, and conversations I’ve had with friends recently, in addition to learning more about the history of Fandom: Breendoggle, the rampant child molestation at cons, Kramer of DragonCon… I have not seen the seedy underbelly of the big, old cons myself. My con experiences have been few, and fun, and that’s when it hit me.

I’m not a Fan. 

Furthermore, I don’t want to be a Fan. I shudder at the idea of meeting a SMOF – those jerks attacked my friends, and when I joined the fight, came after me and my family. I stepped back to protect my children, and in doing so, gained some perspective. Not only do I not want to be a part of their club – never did, when it comes down to it – but I object to the notion that authors have to join with these despicable types in order to succeed. No. A thousand times no. I reject that utterly. Read more

A Bright Future

As we tremble on the brink of turning the calendar over to a new year, I’ve been doing a little thinking about the future, as we are all wont to do at this milestone in time. But before I got into the deep waters, I came home from work yesterday evening and didn’t want to do much of, well, anything. There was a brief conversation with my husband, and he reminded me that we really wanted to see the latest movie release, Bright. So we grabbed our winter coats, wallets, and packed up into the car to drive the twenty minutes to the nearest cinema…. Read more

Psst… Wanna Idea?

The age-old question for the writer of ‘where do you get your ideas?’ can be a little confusing for some of us. My problem is more like ‘I have too many ideas. Want one?’ and the First Reader always has some on tap (to which I often respond, well, then, you write it) because although sometimes his ideas spark my mind, sometimes they don’t. Which is, of course, why you can’t give ideas away. It doesn’t work that way.

I can have an idea, think that it would work just fine for a story, but if the idea doesn’t come along with captivating characters and a setting, then I don’t have a story. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Having the story come along…

And even then, if the scene blows up my brain all vivid and compelling, and you’re thinking ‘what comes next?’ that’s still not enough. You need a scene, a setting, some characters… and a plot. The plot is usually where it dies for me. I’ll write a few pages, and sit back and think about an ending. An arc of story… and there’s nothing there but thick grey fog. I’ll set it aside, and sometimes it’ll come back to me and say, hey, look, there’s more… like a cheap magician showing you his tricks.

These days I don’t have the time or the patience to run down many of these bunny trails. I will try to stick to the work in progress and plod along toward completion. But once in a while when I’m really stuck, I’ll give in and start to write an idea up. And even more rarely, it’ll surprise me by pulling me along and revealing the plot slowly until I can see that yes, I do have enough there to bring it to completion.

The genesis of Ten Pigeons was a funny twitter account I follow, A Crime a Day. It’s not meant to be humor, or at least I don’t think it is. I suspect it’s meant to highlight the crushing number of rules and regulations that surround us and make it literally impossible to exist without breaking a law somewhere, somehow.

Crimes2

Of course, I look at their feed and immediately think ‘there have got to be stories behind some of these!’

crimes

From the mundane to the bizarre, there are hundreds of ideas here. And one of them sparked an absurd conversation in my head that is slowly becoming an entire novel. It all started with ten pigeons…

Ten Pigeons

“It is illegal to import more than ten pigeons a week, unless they are from Mexico.” He blinked at her through thick lenses while she tried to digest this pronouncement.

“Mr. Gaush, I have no intention of importing pigeons. Not even Mexican ones.” Lauren Middling leaned back in her vintage office chair and looked at him. He showed no signs of going away and leaving her alone again in her office, and she was long past wishing she hadn’t invited him in.

“Of course not. Pigeons are very messy. I mean that everything is illegal, somewhere, to some extent.” He crossed his hands over his paunch and reminded her of a pensive owl.

“I’m sure it is.” She wasn’t going to ask him for examples. She was afraid he’d give them to her. He seemed like the kind of man who would have a bottomless font of such trivia. “You came to me because you were afraid you had committed a crime, if I understood correctly.”

He had been slightly incoherent on the phone, and Lauren wondered (not for the first time) if she had too finely developed her pity gland. It served her in her job from time to time as she dealt with grieving widows and bereft parents, but it left her vulnerable to people like William Gaush.

“I am, very afraid.” He leaned forward, his eyes big behind their magnifying glasses. She wondered idly just how bad his prescription was to justify those lenses. “Ms. Middling…”

“Miss.” She interrupted him. “It’s Miss Middling.” She was retro, from the polished wood and velvet-cushioned chair cupping her derriere to the green-shaded lamp on the desk between them.

He blinked in surprise, which was a perfectly normal reaction to her naming preference in this post-modern era. “Miss. Miss Middling…” He faltered like a toy that had wound down.

Lauren prompted him again. “It had to do with your mother’s death.”

The man across from her in the panelled office didn’t look like a murderer, but she knew from experience they mostly didn’t. Murderers, that was. He was short, portly, with a cherubic face and those ridiculous glasses. Dress him in a tuxedo and he’d be a dead ringer for a penguin.

“Yes, er, well…” He found the thread of his thoughts again. “She passed two weeks ago, you see.”

Lauren raised an eyebrow. She found it very effective at getting people to keep talking, while words made them lose their place. He obediently kept going with his story. “I live with… lived with her. I have always, except for one time…” He looked away, briefly, and she sensed that while there was more story there, it didn’t seem to pertain to the case in front of her. “We shared bank accounts.”

“And you are uncertain if you can withdraw funds?” She asked when he fell silent. That was simple enough, and certainly not unprecedented.

“Oh, no, the executor assures me that my salary… oh, I should explain that I was paid for her care, of late. Anyway, I was assured that until the will is probated, I may continue to draw my salary. And I am the sole heir, so it matters little once probate is complete.”

“So what is the crime?” Lauren was feeling wasted time trickle past with more than a little impatience.

“Well, I’m not sure it is a crime.” Gaush stared at her for a long moment. Then he blinked, and went on. “You see, yesterday morning a very large sum of money was deposited into that account.”

“I see.” Lauren wasn’t sure what, but she did understand his concern. “Have you spoken to the bank, Mr. Gaush?”

Perhaps he wanted to know if it were legal to simply stay quiet and hold onto the funds.

“Oh, yes. I keep track of it online, and I went right over to my bank when I saw it. They were able to tell me that it wasn’t a mistake, and the monies originated via a wire transfer from the Caymans.”

Lauren wasn’t up on her non-extraditing countries and banking shelters, but it seemed to her that the Caymans were considered one. It was unlikely that it was an insurance payout, in that case. She asked anyway, but he simply shook his head. “I have all her papers, and there was an insurance, a small one, but it will not be paid until after probate.”

Well, then. This was interesting. She leaned forward over the desk. “Mr. Gaush, what is it you would like me to do for you?”

He settled back into the chair, and a hint of a smile swept over his lips so quickly she nearly missed it. “Why, Miss Middling, I’d like you to find out where it came from. Then, if it is a crime, we shall report it.”

Lauren pulled open a drawer. “I will conduct a preliminary investigation before I commit to a full-scale one. You are not,” She looked at him through her lashes, sternly, “my only client.”

She put the contract on the table between them. “My usual rates are $100 an hour plus expenses.”

“Oh, you misunderstand me.” William Gaush changed visibly before her eyes. He leaned forward, almost across the desk. His eyes were very bright behind his glasses. “If you discover that it is fully legal, I shall split the funds with you. Half and half. If they are illegal…” He shrugged and leaned back. “I shall of course pay you the going rate. But I must have a full investigation, no half-measures.”

“Really, Mr. Gaush,” Lauren was done with the little man, and ready to politely eject him from her office and life.

He interrupted her. “Perhaps you would like my bonafides.”

He opened the soft attache case he’d carried in and leaned against the chair leg. The piece of paper he extracted was slid across the desk top alongside Lauren’s contract. She turned it over.

Despite her best intentions, she gasped. It was the statement from his bank, with the amount of the deposit neatly highlighted in bright yellow.

He was leaning back in her chair, now, with a definite air of the cat who’d been in the cream on his face. “I am told you are an up-and-coming investigator, once a bright young lawyer, but now perhaps…” He waved his hand to indicate the small office. “Despite the brave front, struggling a little to make your brand-new agency get off the ground. Five million dollars would be quite the injection of capital.”

 

But it’s Been Done

I came across a discussion on social media recently, where a friend and promising young author was talking about a story idea he was working on. In the conversation, another person came along and said “oh, that’s been done already.” My friend was deflated and discouraged, but immediately fired back up, angry for this human raincloud having come along to drip on his parade. Which was good, because Joseph Capdepon is a name you’ll see on book covers soon and they will be worth reading (I have had the privilege of beta reading some of his work).

Here’s what Joe said about it (the man has a gift with words):

 trying his best to push someone away from writing a story because someone already used the tropes I will be using.

Reading his comment still pisses me off, especially coming from him.

You want to piss off, or at times, seriously crush the will of a writer? Tell them someone else wrote what they are writing. Because when I am brain storming an idea, what I really want to hear is how another author has already written my story, thus inferring that I shouldn’t write it.

Well, you can go fuck yourself, because I’m still writing it.

But my comment on the thread, and then the genesis of this post, was:

Write it. Write it better. 

It doesn’t matter if ‘it’s been done’ because there is nothing new under the sun, and that isn’t intended to be a depressing blanket statement of ‘why should I try, anyway?’ Every author brings their own voice to a story, weaves their own elements in that make that story new and unique and good to read. Yes, even if it has been done before. If you ever take part in a conversation like that and are seized with the impulse to say something like ‘it’s been done’ bite your tongue! Young writers need encouragement, not to be discouraged from writing out the stories in their heads. My daughters talk to me sometimes about fanfiction, and that’s sort of the epitome of ‘it’s been done’ but still I don’t tell them to stop reading it, or the one that attempts to write it – heck, I encourage her to write. She’s got fans of her bits of tale, and it’s not nice to leave fans hanging for the next chapter forever.

I digress. I see this a lot in reviews – or just in casual comments about my books (and others, but my own carry that personal little sting) that ‘oh, this is just like…’ and you’re sitting there thinking ‘but I’ve never even read/watched/played that!’ And that happens because there are common tropes and themes to any fiction that parallel human character and history and other influences. But the reviewers and discussions are not (usually) meant to disparage the book, it’s just that being human, they look for patterns and points of comparison. Humans aren’t always the fans of originality they say they are. The readers like (I know I do!) what they like, and they enjoy seeing certain themes in books. Like the bad guys losing, and the hero getting the girl, and… you catch my drift.

While I was looking up something for the Arthur Clarke article I wrote yesterday, I ran across an WH Auden quote that suited this topic beautifully. I memed (meemed? Memify’d? mememememe…. ok. enough of that) it so it could be shared. Because this is something I want all writers to keep in mind.

In short (and it is short, sorry. I’m dealing with something that feels like the flu, although hopefully isn’t. It’s just annoying) write what you want to write. Infuse it with your own voice, bring it to life, and remember – plots are like empty suits of clothing. They may delineate the form, but it’s what’s inside that brings the full thing into the world.

Or maybe that’s just the fever talking. Don’t let the naysayers get you down. Your authorial voice is yours, and you shouldn’t change it for anyone. If you want to tell a story, write it. Make it your own. It will be better for that.

 

Science Fiction in our Genes

I wrote earlier this week about science fiction, adaptation, and the human species over on my blog. in a nutshell, I’d written earlier about genes and how animals raised in captivity adapt to being in close quarters so quickly that it’s not really a viable option to raise an endangered population up to replace wild populations that are in danger of extinction. So what does this have to do with humans? Well, the conversation went something like ‘people who like to live in cities are weird’ (I’m shortening and paraphrasing) during a discussion about the coasts of the US, and how they have a tendency to vote a certain way. But, if you think about it, and I do, urbaniztion of a population does indeed do things to it. Similar things, I think, to the effects felt on a captive population of, say, butterflies. The butterflies get smaller wings, heavier bodies, and the ability to lay more eggs. So in effect they are going to do well in a cage where they can’t fly far, and would be easy prey for predators if they were put out of their nice safe cage.

Scientists are studying the effect that urban areas (generally defined as >300,000 people) have on plant and animal species. It’s no real stretch to imagine that living in a metroplex would affect humans as well, especially the poorer, less mobile parts of the population. And this is without even moving into the realm of science fiction. These studies have seen the effects of adaptation in as little as two generations – in my original article I was working off the premise that large effects of  captivity were seen in Drosophila in eight generations: in human terms, 150 years. But two? A mere 30-40 years? (yes, thirty. Look at average primapara age for the inner-city populations).

All this is native to our design for adaptation and evolution of the genome, the in-built system to keep a species thriving in changing environments. If you don’t adapt quickly, you die – which was a larger part of what led to the passenger pigeon extinction than human predation on that species. Now, how about human tinkering with our own genes? We can do it – we’ve known that for a while, gentle readers. But a new paper on Crispr tells the tale of genes switched on inside an adult allowing that model organism (a mouse, in this case) to express genes they had been unable to do before, which led to the self-treatment of diabetes, kidney disease, and muscular dystrophy. This is exciting on so many levels, one of which is that this was done without having to completely break the DNA (a double-strand break) which means that the inadvertent introduction of mutations is not a concern.

Now, leap off this mudball and into the realm of science fiction. We see that if we do not maintain genetic diversity and gene flow between populations, we risk extinction. The ability to quickly adapt and overcome has long been a human realm. But what, as our populations grow larger and our urban areas soak up the majority of the humans on this planet, will happen to that diversity? What if we became like the passenger pigeon, and when sudden catastrophe came (a pandemic, an alien invasion, what-have-you) we were unable to adapt? The answer lies in the stars. But to get there, we’re going to have to adapt again and again, and our populations, like the urban rats of New York, will evolve and differentiate. Not enough to become separate species, unless we really start tinkering with Crispr… although as writers and speculators, we know that’s going to happen, don’t we? Humans will experiment, and they will experiment on themselves. I mean, it’s only a matter of a few years since the theorist about Heliobacter pylori decided to prove his hypothesis by drinking a beaker of that pathogen and giving himself ulcers. And another one ingested internal parasites on purpose to prove that they would put his autoimmune disease into remission. We’re crazy, we humans.

Which means that to write science fiction we have to think crazy, like a fox. To imagine the weirdest thing we can, and then take it a step weirder. There’s a whole field of stories that suddenly seems prophetic as we begin to truly understand the tools we have now, and the reality of epigenetics. Lamarck, who proposed the giraffe’s neck had become so long because it was necessary to reach the higher leaves (the ones out of reach of the eland and the gnu, which makes me think of Kipling’s stories), was laughed out of science when Darwin’s theory was all the rage, but in the long run it turns out that he was more right – and our genes more complex – than scientists at the time could possibly have imagined. Now, keep in mind that although we are now able to manipulate our own genome, and we have begun to grasp that natural selection is not always the random pattern once theorized with the epigenetic understanding that we are shaped by our ancestral diet and environment, we still do not fully understand what genes do.  there are a few genes we can point out and say x does y. However, the vast number of them interact in complex and mysterious ways. We can’t just say, snip that gene out and cure cancer! because that’s not how it works.

Which means that in terms of story and speculation, we have worlds of room to draw conclusions and create plots that could be possible, or utterly wrong, but it’s so much fun to take the bleeding edge of science and play it out into what might be. What’s next?

Success Breeds Success

It seems like a trite observation, but if you think about it, there’s a lot of truth to it, as there is with so many sayings we dismiss as ‘trite’ or ‘overused’ or ‘cliche.’ Think about it both in terms of storytelling as a writer, and in terms of business as a writer.

Remember Dumbo’s magic feather? There are a lot of things you can say about Disney, but one thing you can’t say negative – the man knew how to tell a story. That ‘magic’ feather gave the baby elephant the first successful flight, but once he had that success firmly grasped, he discovered he could succeed over and over without the ‘magical’ assistance. I know I’ve seen this same trope used in other stories, and we accept it to some extent, and why?

Because we know it works. Look, I used to get myself motivated on days when I didn’t just have a to-do list, I had a list of my lists. That gets daunting, fast, especially when some of those action items are small, wriggly, and fuss when they don’t get fed (and oh, by the way, feeding station is attached to me). Challenging, and there were days I felt like I just. Couldn’t. Even. So I’d play a game with myself. I’d pick something to lead off the list that I knew I could do. Even on the worst of days, I could do this one thing. Because I knew that if I did that one thing, I could do another, and another, and I wouldn’t go to bed at night feeling like I’d gotten absolutely nothing done that day. I knew from painful experience that waking up feeling like I was worthless and useless would only send me further and further down the rabbit-hole.

Reality is that we’re not always going to succeed. However, if we can succeed in a little thing, we can persist and build that into a big success. If we’re writing a space opera, the kid that succeeds in scraping a job on the spaceship, even as a cabin boy, can build that success to becoming captain, and then admiral, and then Master of the Universe!!! Muahahah… ahem.

You see how you can use a small success to build a story. It’s sort of the opposite of the try-fail sequence. Someone who is so low and broken, they can’t even afford a lime slurpee, how are they going to become the Beautiful But Evil Space Princess (sorry, Sarah, I couldn’t resist)? By succeeding in something. Maybe that first one is rehabilitating the Grand Dark Duke’s orphaned kitten with the broken leg. It takes a lot of work to hand-feed a kitten, I’ll have you know, and keeping one still with a broken leg? Wow… might seem silly, but you can play that for laughs and show the character’s determination and ability to persevere in the face of the near-impossible.

How about you as a writer? I know a lot of people who want to be a writer, and they have reams and reams of half-finished stories. So for them, that first success is going to look like finishing something. Even a piece of flash fiction. I started out thinking I couldn’t possibly write more than 5K words. Just couldn’t do it. Now? I know I can do that, and I can wrap up a 300K+ word trilogy with fans asking more, more? That’s a boost to my authorial ego, and it’s one I can use to build into another successful book finished. I started that out by finishing just one story. Getting just one story (a tiny one, only about 600 words long) published. Finding out I could succeed as an Indie author/publisher.

So how do you start succeeding? As an author, you can start writing every day – or at least on a schedule. Right now, with my full-time job taking a lot of my time and energy, I’ve been surprised to discover I can fit in writing time on the weekdays, but the weekend? Forgetaboutit. That’s family time and I just can’t pry loose the time and mental energy to put words on the screen (at least, not fiction). So pick what works with your schedule, if that’s every day, 5 days a week, 3 days… I wouldn’t go with less than three days. Treat it like exercise. Schedule it, and do it. Set small goals at first. If you fail, you’ll find it that much harder to succeed: but be persistent. Just like your hero has to face-plant a few times before you let him win, you’re going to go through the same cycle.

Once you have gotten that daily writing habit, work on finishing something. A story, then a novel – it’s a snowball that will eventually get out of your control, and then you start on other snowballs. Like publishing, and marketing, and so on and so forth. In time, if we follow that snowball’s trail, we’re finding you the Queen of Ice Fort reigning supreme over your snowy castle. Which is a successful independent publishing house, with residual income from backlist, and side-income of associate ads, and other stuff. Or maybe that’s just me. I don’t expect this to make me into a millionaire. I do expect it to be a profitable hobby until I’m ready to retire (again) and make it even more successful. Trust me, if I can do this, you can, too. I think I don’t need to get into my background again, but I will if I have to *waves fist* don’t say you can’t! I know better. You can. And if you can do the little thing, you can step up on it and do the bigger things.