Went up today at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show (requires subscription). The accompanying illustration by Wayne Miller really is lovely, and I had a surprise: my story is also read aloud by Mr. Card himself (the link is on the sidebar of the above-linked page, halfway down).
Author Archives: John P. Murphy
Today’s lessons: Science fiction and bacon are strangely linked (Just ask John Scalzi) and Twitter is strange.
This all started the other day when Cat Rambo brought up bacon pie on Twitter. It was a joke, I think, but I suggested that bacon jam might work well in a pecan pie, one thing led to another, and the fine folks at The Bacon Jams sent me a sample to try it out.
Pecan pie is one of my favorite pies, so this was no great sacrifice. Now, I would like to be one of those people who can make a perfect pie crust from scratch and it’s beautiful and flaky and tender. But I am not one of those people, and fortunately there is frozen pie crust at the nearby Trader Joe’s.
I say “fortunately”, but it really was not actually all that fortunate in the event. I thawed the crust, and took it out and start to unroll it. It is not unusual to have a crack or two in this process. That’s OK, you just sort of smoosh it together, and if you’re lucky there’s not really that much repair work.
Today, it turned out, was not my lucky day. In fact, this was kinda ridiculous. The other crust was like this, too. Fortunately, I picked up something else at Trader Joe’s that helped tremendously.
On the advice of the resident Maker of Real Pie (my fiancée), I smashed the strips together into a ball, let it rest in the fridge while we had dinner, and then rolled it out again.
There we go.
While that was blind-baking in the oven, I assembled the filling. I combined a couple different recipes, using Alton Brown’s version as a base. That’s:
- Three large eggs, beaten well.
- 6 oz light Karo syrup (not Lite) and maple syrup (mostly Karo; maybe 1 oz B-grade maple, for flavor)
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp vanilla extract + a couple dashes of Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters
- 3.5 oz brown sugar and white sugar
- 4 Tbsp melted butter (cooled so it doesn’t cook the egg)
This stage would have gone much more easily had I sifted the sugar a little better beforehand, but otherwise was unremarkable.
Once it was ready, I assembled the pie.
Bottom layer, about 2/3s of the jar of bacon jam, spread unevenly. I wanted the liquid filling to be able to get down into the bottom so that the pie would stay together, and I generally like a less-homogenous slice of pie: every bite a little different.
After that came the nuts. I had a bit of a quandary here. I had an 8oz bag of pecans, which is what the recipe for a 9″ pie usually calls for. But I didn’t know how much volume was taken up by the jam. And worse, thanks to having to re-roll the pie crust (and then not using pie weights when blind-baking) the crust shrank, giving me still less volume. So I eyeballed it, and probably managed about 6.5 oz.
I poured the liquid filling over that, and had a half cup or so left over. I poured it over some of the remaining nuts in a ramekin. (I shall call you… Mini-Pie)
And then baked! Our electric oven is terrible, so it wound up taking almost 40 minutes. And then it was, like all pecan pies, basically napalm in a crust. So I let it sit overnight.
But you know what that means: pie for breakfast!
All told, it worked out pretty well. I was expecting the bacon part to be saltier than it was, and that would have helped make it stand out more, but in retrospect that less-salty aspect is probably what one wants out of a jam. If I were to do this again, I would either add salt or use a more savory version. Also, Alton Brown’s recipe calls for a little bit of bourbon along with the vanilla. I left it out here so as not to overpower the bacon, and that was the right answer, but I could also have stood to reduce the vanilla a tad. Maybe a drop of liquid smoke? I did like the maple syrup, but one has to be careful with that, since it affects the consistency of the pie. The Lee Brothers cookbook recommends sorghum syrup in place of Karo; that might be a good compromise.
Anyway, there you have it: bacon jam pecan pie.
One of the most popular search terms for people coming to this blog is, “if you can measure it, you can control it,” in just those words. They go to a page on this site with a different (correct) formulation: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t control it.” There is a critical difference between the two (in a way that’s related to writing as well).
There’s a whole class of things that we can measure but we can’t control. Probably more of them than the things we can control, really. We can measure the position of the moon, but nothing to change it. Measurability may be a necessary condition, but it is not a sufficient condition.
The trouble is, the proper formulation doesn’t quite get it right either. As stated, measurability is not actually a necessary condition. There are lots of things we can control that we can’t measure: just ask someone swinging blindfolded at a piñata, or walking through an empty room in the dark.
In James Harrington’s original phrase, when he says “control” he really means “intentional control”, and is getting at improvement. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” is a more broadly defensible statement, and more true to Harrington’s original point than the piece that gets quoted. Of course, “Measure” is a tough word, too. Usually it means metrics: something you can convert into numbers. You have a number representing some aspect of your product or process, and you can interpret that number so that you know that one value is good and another bad. Say, number of light bulbs broken out of so many manufactured. You can then experiment and try various things, and then judge success or failure according to how that number moves.
There are statistical tools as well that will help you determine whether that number really did move. Chebyshev’s equality tells us how often we can expect values some number of standard deviations away from the process norm, and if we see lots of values well away from the mean, then we can perhaps conclude that we have changed the underlying process to one that will in the long run break fewer light bulbs. (To my writing friends, this has a direct correlation to Jay Lake’s Bathtub Theory of Writing Success.)
But proof is not always numerical in nature. Sometimes it’s simply boolean: I had test cases that code needed to match, and they did. Or I had a story that I wrote, and it sold. More often, it is qualitative. Oftener still, the real ultimate measurable goal (selling stories or software, or getting follow-on research funds) is just too remote to be immediately useful. Even when I can’t put a number on success, though, I can still evaluate success or failure, so long as I spent thought beforehand on what would constitute success. If I wait until I’m done, well, I’m only human: the temptation is great to define success such that what I just produced qualifies.
In my day job that’s usually what it means, because while I can’t put a number on code or research, I can’t just take on a task, noodle at it a while, and then throw confetti and declare the task succeeded. I have to defend it, and have ready answers to the question, “How do you know you’ve accomplished what you set out to do?” And sometimes a single day’s success, or even several weeks’ success, is not sufficient proof.
Programmers have it easier in this regard than writers do: even when unit testing and similar procedures can’t be applied (such as with UI programming) it’s possible to write scripts and workflow descriptions to describe how something ought to work. Art students drawing or painting from life can visually compare their canvas to their subject. Researchers and writers have it a little tougher: both are carving out new ground (well, new-ish) and it is not only tempting to define success such that the current effort passes, but there are more opportunities for it. (This is one of the reasons I’ve found my current research project to be in some ways refreshing: the project sponsor insisted on having a description at the beginning of the process for what success would look like, and while living up to that has been difficult, it has kept things focused)
This is also, I think, why I have come down so firmly as a writer on the side of outlining. The story I’m working on right now has a two-page outline describing the story as I want it to unfold, but also the effect I want each scene to have. In mysteries, for example, it can be very useful to have a specific effect in mind: “At this point the reader should think the butler did it.” Making that explicit is also a way of evaluating the goals themselves. No mystery reader is ever going to believe that the mysterious death really was an accident; listing that as the goal for a scene is an opportunity to scrub that and pick something else. Training myself to write outlines in this way has been difficult: very often I’m just writing the skeleton of a story instead. But when I manage it, it makes the writing process so much easier.
Finally, I want to point out that determining whether I achieved a goal is a separate thing from determining whether what I produced is *good*. Much of my work is good, even when it fails at its task: solid, elegant code that does not crash, but that nevertheless does not achieve my goals. I would say, in fact, that one of the biggest struggles in moving from a student programmer/researcher to a professional (and, as well, from a hobbyist writer to a professional writer) was in coming to the realization that “good” is not good enough. It is necessary, but not sufficient.
It might be briefly depressing to think that “good is not good enough” but that turns out to be the key to improvement. By assigning goals to your code or your scenes or any other effort, you can know in what way you need to be good, and in what way you need to be better. Even simple practice sessions can (and arguably should) be goal-driven. If measurement is the key to improvement, then goals are the locks.
I’ve noticed that the “My Fiction” page has gotten some attention lately, and I felt I ought to clarify how I handle sales announcements. Basically, I’ve decided that it’s most prudent not to announce a sale until I’ve signed a contract.
Most short fiction contracts are straight-forward, but there are occasionally things I would balk at: reserving the right to anthologize a story without additional payment, for example, or an excessively-long exclusivity period. The markets I submit to mostly don’t have these problems (or are willing to negotiate), but there’s always the chance that I’ll want to retract an accepted piece. Announcing the sale before I’ve seen the contract makes me nervous, then.
I do, however, update the “My Fiction” page (upper right) when I get an acceptance notification. The purpose of that page is to let people know what’s out and what’s coming out, and to give new visitors a sense of what I write. I fill in the publisher when I get the contract, and the rest of the details when it’s available.
A short piece, to new market Lakeside Circus. LC is a quarterly ebook magazine publishing a short novels’ worth of short fiction four times a year. My story Still Life, With Orange will be in the inaugural issue; subscriptions are on sale at a pre-launch discount at the moment ($20/year currently). Mine is an experimental piece, more like Whalefall than my mysteries but on a much smaller and more personal scale, dealing with some things I’ve been thinking about lately. I like the effect I got with it.
I thought I’d announced this here already, but I don’t seem to have! My novella “Claudius Rex”, an SF homage to the Nero Wolfe mysteries, has been sold to Paper Golem Press‘s Alembical 3 anthology.
This was a hard story to sell, due to its length (~36,000 words after several go-rounds with Paper Golem’s talented editors Lawrence Schoen and Buck Dorrance; many short fiction markets list 4,000 words as their sweet spot) and I’m delighted it’s found such a very nice home. I have the two previous anthologies in this series, and found them to be of very high quality; I’m very much looking forward to appearing in this third volume.
I’m still awaiting word about release dates. These things do take time, but I’ll be sure to post when I have more information. I’m keeping an email list as well; let me know if you’d like to be on it.
[ETA: oops, looks like I only have hard copies of the previous Alembicals. The *Curcurbital* ebooks I have, however, are quite nice.]
The Urban Dictionary has listings for two sayings related to the removal of hair from animals. Writers are fond of the phrase “cat waxing“:
an industry term for procrastination by writers, with heavy connotation of trying to justify the activity as something that “had” to be done. Usually activities that can arguably be considered productive, such as household chores or (highly tangential) background research. The term mocks the behavior of scraping the bottom of the bucket for excuses of diminishing quality.
For example, you’d be working on your novel, but the kitchen really needs to be cleaned, then you can get back to the novel. Oh, and then the lawn needs to be mowed. And the bills really ought to be alphabetized today. And, um, the cat needs to be waxed!
Engineers have “yak shaving“:
Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem which solves a problem which, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you’re working on.
So, for example, you’re working on your novel, but in order to continue you really need to print it out. But the printer’s out of ink, so you need to drive to Staples. But you can’t find your keys in this mess, so you need to clean your office. But you can’t put away all this yak-shaving gear that’s cluttering things up, because you haven’t shaved the yak. So it may look like you’re shaving a yak, but really you’re working on your novel.
Setting aside the obvious connection, they both mean similar things to the writer: I’ve got my manuscript open, but I’m doing something else. There is an interesting difference, however, in terms of the utility of the task. Cat waxers are doing something arguably productive, but unrelated to the task at had. Yak shavers acknowledge they’re doing something that looks unproductive, but insist that it must be done in order to get to the task at hand.
Now, I frequently find myself doing something other than what I’m supposed to be doing: blogging about dipilating fauna, for example. It is vitally important to determine whether one is collecting cat hair or yak hair, I would argue. Partly because classifying the procrastination is a delightful form of meta-procrastinating. But also because knowing what you’re doing can help you decide whether you really ought to be doing it.
If you find yourself cat-waxing, ask yourself: Is this really the more important task? If yes: Does it really have to be done now? If yes: BEFORE you finish this task, decide what your next task will be ($10 says it’s “writing”) and stick to it.
If you find yourself yak-shaving, ask yourself: Am I really blocked by this task? If yes: Is there another way to get around this block (or the block one level or two levels up)? If not: Is this something I could do more efficiently later (combine two trips to Staples, for example, or save the office cleaning until my normal early-afternoon slump), and is there another writing task that I could make progress on in the meantime?
Now, as an exercise for the reader, I ask: Is my writing this post an example of yak shaving or cat waxing?
I’m a devoted listener to the podcast Writing Excuses — despite their claims to the contrary, they really are that smart — and found their most recent episode, on Middle Grade fiction, to be fascinating. (Defining Middle Grade is contentious, but loosely, it’s fiction for kids 9-12: think Charlotte’s Web, the first Harry Potter book, or the Hardy Boys)
In particular, they discussed the difference between young adult and middle-grade fiction in terms of how they deal with the status quo: Middle-grade fiction tends to focus on some danger or event with the resolution being a return to normalcy. The family is reunited, the adventuring child comes home again, the pig is saved, the bad guy is defeated and everything can go back the way it was.
Conversely, young adult fiction tends to be more interested in blowing apart the status quo, of achieving some revolution. The corrupt regime is toppled, the farm boy is crowned king, bacon is invented, the bad guy is defeated and nothing will ever be the same again.
I started thinking about how this applied to mystery fiction, and found that it’s actually a useful way to divide the genre (sort of) and to think about individual plots and their goals. You can do a rough split in this way between the cozy intellectual Golden-Age mysteries with genteel consulting detectives and the gritty noir-style thrillers with hard-boiled PIs. In both cases, there is usually a crime being solved, but the attitude and payoff are different. The status quo preservers tend to treat the crime as an aberration to be corrected, an offense against the natural order of things; the inciting incident is “something bad has happened.” The payoff is a return to some semblance of normality, with the innocent vindicated and the guilty punished, and generally a sense of relief and satisfaction. The villains are ordinary-seeming people, even heroic people, who have become corrupted and so need to be removed. The status quo upheavers treat the crime as the natural outcome from a corrupt system; the inciting incident is sometimes “this terrible situation is brought to my attention” but usually “enough is enough!”. The payoff is in seeing a change in the system portrayed, a sense of justice done (legal, moral, and/or social), and a sense of hope. The proximate villains might be similar to the other stories, but in the background there are shadowy criminal organizations, corrupt governments, pervasive inequity, and oppression.
As an example of the former form, consider Sherlock Holmes, who is all about maintaining the status quo. He is for the most part uncritical of the social and legal order (indeed, his brother “is” the British Empire in a very real sense, we’re told). A Sherlock Holmes adventure starts with a disruption or a strangeness, and ends in explaining it. Any irrevocable changes to the status quo (notably, a death or two) are accomplished by the villains. Holmes may scold the Bohemian king (or Poirot the Middle Eastern prince) but wouldn’t dream of exposing him. Even where the goal of the protagonist is an explicit change in the world — such as the disruption of Prof. Moriarty’s criminal empire — the structure of the story revolves around thwarting a particular plot (The Valley of Fear and others), or being assaulted by Moriarty and prevailing at cost (The Final Problem). Moriarty’s empire is enough of the status quo that the campaign to uproot it just doesn’t fit the format of a Sherlock Holmes Story. Other examples in this vein include the more cerebral and episodic mysteries: Hercule Poirot or Nero Wolfe, say, or TV shows like Columbo, Monk, or Castle.
As an example of the latter form, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels nearly always involve his detective upending some ingrained injustice, big or small. The world is imperfect, and people feel powerless to do anything about it, or moneyed interests are keen on keeping things this way. Something stinks, and the hero’s going to do something about it — maybe only something small, maybe only helping this one person — but something will be done to make the world stink a little less. The quintessential Spenser novel starts with a little guy getting crushed in the wheels, and Spenser (the wiseass, the guy who doesn’t like following orders, the guy whose friends in high places are secret disgusted with the status quo) comes in and blows the whole thing open. He doesn’t always do much, and he occasionally has to violate principles, but at the end the world is a slightly better place than it was before. Even in his ensemble-oriented books, like A Catskill Eagle, the personal upheaval that represents the wrong in Spenser’s world happens offstage and long enough before to have become accepted enough to be the established state of the world: he’s still rebelling, not reacting. Or, to use one of the founding documents of the genre, consider Hammett’s Red Harvest, where all the authorities in a town are so corrupt that the place is called “Poisonville” and the protagonist is so disgusted that he takes the whole damn thing down. The structure of a story in this vein involves a lot of world-building, with the character doing a lot of learning about the world rather than about the crime. The Harry Dresden books (for that matter, a lot of urban fantasy in the mystery vein) follow this form.
There are important complications to this division. One of the grittiest subgenres of crime novel is that of the serial killer. In a sense, these are all about quashing a scary threat to everyday life, and the minor themes tend to be all about how lives are disrupted and people are too scared to go about their normal routines. Thinking about plots in terms of their relation to the status quo, the serial killer detection subgenre seems to be further divided in two: a back-to-normality sub-sub-genre where a new serial killer is known (and leaves a calling card, for example) and the population live in fear; and an upheaval sub-sub-genre where so-called everyday deaths are actually the work of one already-established villain, and the complacent authorities must be woken up. One intriguing set of stories that I’m having a hard time classifying is certain more modern interpretations of Jack the Ripper as a member of the aristocracy. That (or certain spy stories) is the closest I can come to finding of a true fusion between the two forms: I feel like the protagonists are trying to uphold and restore the status quo by the surgical removal of one small element of it.
Another important complication is the ongoing series. Very often, especially in television, a series of mysteries will have episodes with the goal of returning to the status quo, and an overall arc of needing to overthrow some narrow aspect of it. Castle does this in two ways: more traditionally, of course, is the shadowy conspiracy behind Beckett’s mother’s murder. But also (and I owe the Writing Excuses folks for this insight; I think Mary Robinette Kowal in particular) the romance arc is also an upheaval of the status quo! My current favorite example, though, one I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about lately, is the ongoing series Hannibal. In it Hannibal Lecter is suitably entrenched to possibly be considered part of the establishment (and acts to entrench himself further), and thus the resolution to the overall series arc must needs be a major upheaval — and as you would expect when each episode is a move toward the status quo, and the status quo is rotten, each of Will Graham’s pyrrhic triumphs further entrenches Dr. Lecter.
In this vein, I can think of a number of examples in the mystery/crime genre where the episodes are status quo-seeking and the overall arc is disruptive, but I’m having trouble thinking of the reverse. Straying outside the genre, there’s Band of Brothers, which could be seen as individual episodes involving dislodging Nazis, with the overall goal of getting home to a normal life. But that’s a stretch, I think.
When the overall plot is about returning to or disrupting the status quo, the sub-plots can independently support that with a similar goal. For example, in PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, there are very often two parallel plots: 1) Wooster’s chum gets himself into a pickle and needs to be extricated, and 2) Wooster himself has sparked discord between himself and Jeeves vis some sartorial perversion. Such a scene or subplot can also be a thematic clue: The beginning of Rex Stout’s Gambit shows Nero Wolfe doing something he ordinarily would abhor, burning a book, because it has committed crimes. Like solving a murder, it’s an act of justice, and presages him solving the mystery of the story by doing something he ordinarily would also abhor, compromising a dinner (though not with himself at the table, which would be a bridge too far).
On the other hand, using a subplot with the opposite goal can mix things up a bit. Normalcy-seeking mysteries can be a bit of a downer at the ending (after all, murders can’t be undone) and having a forward-looking subplot often entails upending some part of the status quo — remember earlier, that often such plots end on a hopeful note. Romance plots or friendship plots can add an optimistic element at the end, a sense that the overall effort was good for more than just justice. With upheaval mysteries, efforts against shadowy conspiracies often don’t result in a total upheaval, only a small success and a minor respite; actually solving a crime (even if it turns out to only be the catalyst for other efforts) can provide some sense of finality and resolution.
This brings us to the end, and the role of the status quo frequently determines when the story ends. If the story is seeking a return to normalcy, the story is done when the crime is solved. There might be some aspect of the case still to explain (or subplots to be wrapped up) but in general things proceed very quickly from the moment the culprit is fingered. I feel that noir and hard-boiled stories, by contrast, tend to have more meditative endings, going on for pages or even chapters after any crimes are solved.
So what do you all think?
As I mentioned earlier, I have moved cities: I’m still in more northeastern New England, but in a more built-up area. Among other changes, I have a much larger office than I had before, with two nice big east-facing windows. I also have almost no furniture, having gotten rid of much of it in the process of winnowing down old and junky possessions in preparation for the move (a remarkably liberating experience, I must say!) Right now, I’m using a desktop on a small square table, and a laptop on a TV tray.
I’m already putting together plans for a standing or even walking desk, for the day or two a week in which I’ll be dayjobbing from home. But because I have so much space, I was thinking that I would like a dedicated writing desk. Having never had such a space, it occurs to me that I don’t really know what I want from one!
Right now, my writing process tends to be laptop-centric: my laptop has the most comfortable keyboard for long-term typing, and has programs like Scrivener installed. It is also the machine I usually access the Internet from, which is occasionally unfortunate, but it does mean that all of my research is right there. I do a fair amount of drafting by hand, depending on where I am in the process, and also try to carry index cards with me to jot ideas down. There have been times in the past when I’ve liked working on a nice big sheet of newsprint or a whiteboard, but have not had space for that previously.
I’m leaning toward having a broad/deep work surface where I can push the laptop back to have room for pen and paper, or remove it entirely (either to a side tray or a shelf over the desktop) to work with a piece of newsprint. Maybe a couple of short shelves on either side of the desk; maybe a couple or drawers. Another possibility is some manner of easel standing next to the desk, or a whiteboard or corkboard over it. I really like the look of rolltop desks, but I’m not sure how well one would actually work for me. Room for a cup of coffee would be nice, though I do try to limit my consumption of alcohol and caffeine while I’m writing (I try to avoid associating any chemical with writing, lest I one day have to stop/curtail it, and then find that I can’t write without it) I think I’d rather sit with my side to the windows instead of sitting facing them, though glare on my screen might make me change my mind.
So, while I look at furniture and whiteboards/corkboards/easels and other options, I’m curious about your workspaces. What do you like about them? What do you find conducive to your writing? What do you wish you could change?
10. I wasn’t kidnapped by aliens, exactly — they did ask politely, and it’s just a matter of infinite improbability that the Thraxxi phrase for “Would you like to toil in our Crisco mines?” sounds a lot like the English phrase “Would you like ice cream? There’s some in our van.” That took a while to resolve.
9. Ascending into the Greater Disembodied Unified Unconscious wasn’t the hard part; getting out of it (after the GDUU turned out to mostly involve longing for bacon and arguing with itself about Dr. Who) without tipping my mental hand that I wanted to leave, was a long process involving a fake bacon-spirit and a poisoned bow tie.
8. Bringing a cell phone to Orthanc ought to have been a time-saver, but it turns out that Gwaihir is really hard to spell, and Googling “giant eagle” gives you the grocery store for like the first thirty pages of results. Fortunately, the Pittsburgh night manager came through in a pinch. (*fistbump*)
7. I don’t want to go into it, but let’s just say that one should never pick a polysyllabic safeword when playing with very-short-duration time travel.
6. If I’d been paying attention, I’d have noted the lack of capitalization on “hot pocket dimension” before walking through the door. (I still think that would be a great name for a convenience store, though)
5. Found a magical portal in the back of a deep closet; tumbled gently for what seemed like forever, buffeted by hot winds that felt like magical hands, lowering me to safety. Spent a month stuck in a noisy boiler room, eating mice. (Mice might have been magical talking mice. Wasn’t really in the mood.)
4. Was discovered to be the savior-hero foretold since the beginning of time to die valiantly in battle saving a village full of assholes. The invading army really appreciated my help carting off the villagers’ stuff, and I only recently sobered up enough to drive home.
3. Thought they were just poor spellers, advertising their low-cost “Thyme Travel Vacation”. As it happens, farm tourism is a lot of fun. Not boring at all, not even three weeks in. Did you know there are over a hundred varieties of thyme? I’ve seen them! Here, I have a brochure. No really, I insist.
2. I’m not actually sure what happened. The last thing I remember is seeing a guy in a black suit with a little pen-thing that flashed a bright light. Also having a sprained wrist, and my pockets being full of something unsettlingly like mucus.
1. Selling a house, packing it all up, and moving an hour and a half away? Turns out to be a lot of work.