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Category Archives: Writing

Most of this blog is about writing, so most of the posts will be categorized, ‘Writing’. You can select this if you don’t care about anything that’s not writing.

Tagged 777

Oh, it’s been forever since I last posted. The reason for that: I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my Crandall novel A DEATH IN DEEP SPACE — which is done! Really, seriously, ready-to-show-people done. Man, that’s weird to type. I’ve been working on that story in one form or another for five years, starting from a novelette that formed the basis of the longer novel and resurrected in a novel draft two years ago.

Anyway, I seem to have been tagged by my friend A. T. Greenblatt to actually show people some of my recent work, and to challenge a few other folks in turn. The “rules”: ‘The rules are simple: Post 7 sentences of your work, start on page 7, count 7 lines down. ‘ OK, I can probably handle that. As it happens I have the Scrivener document open for my next project already, a Claudius Rex mystery with the working title THE WRONG CLIENT, starring Claudius Rex and kind of an enormous run-on sentence.

“My apologies that I cannot join you in person. I
rarely ever leave my home in the Caribbean, least of all for
Boston where it is cold and damp.”
That was a lie, of course. He’d incorporated in St.
Martin–as a corporation, I mean, not any kind of physical
manifestation–but otherwise he existed in Boston as much as he
could be said to exist anywhere: his main routines were executed
by a small experimental device in the brownstone’s basement, a
location that a dozen spy agencies would not only kill to know,
they’d even say ‘please’.
“Ah, hello,” said a squirming Polder. “It’s, um, a pleasure
to meet you, Mr. Rex.” Again with the hand, but at least he
seemed to catch himself before offering it to an empty desk.

And now I get to tag three other folks… How about Nathaniel Lee, and my Viable Paradise roommates Micah Joel and Peter Sursi. (If you don’t want to post on your own blogs, I’ll be glad to host!)

 
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Posted by on 26 October, 2014 in Writing

 

Story Up: No Body

My short story “No Body” was published today in Penumbra e-zine’s October issue, “Paranormal Adventures”, alongside several other excellent stories by talented authors (several of whom are friends of mine, which is always nice). At $4 for 7 stories, I’d say it’s well worth the price.

Penumbra_Oct14Cover-500

As for my story, this one’s a bit of a departure for me. It straddles the line between dark fantasy and horror, two genres in which I very seldom write. Needless to say, it’s quite a bit darker than my usual stuff, but I’m happy with the effect.

 
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Posted by on 1 October, 2014 in Stories, Writing

 

Story Up: Death in a Tin Can

My science fiction/mystery novelette Death in a Tin Can went live on Amazon this morning — only 99 cents, or free for Kindle Unlimited readers! This story is a special one for me: it was my Viable Paradise audition piece, and benefitted from advice from our talented teachers and my talented classmates. It’s been sitting in a drawer for a long time because I wanted to do something special with it. I think this counts: it’s my first foray into self-publishing, and I’m about ready to start shopping around my novel with the same detective. If the short does well, that will be useful information.

As always, I’m grateful to anyone who passes the link around, tells their friends, or leaves a review.

 
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Posted by on 30 September, 2014 in Stories, Writing

 

Write What You Know

There are many reasons a writer puts pen to paper. Some do it in hope of fame and fortune, others to show off how clever they are or make people laugh, others to scratch an itch or exorcise a demon, others just to pay the bills. I’d say there are as many reasons to write as there are writers, but I fear I would underestimate. But nearly everyone who seriously writes, who takes the time and effort to finish and polish stories — and especially novels — has something to say.

I know most of my readers aren’t writers, but I’d like you to perform the following thought exercise anyway. Think about the threat to your life that worries you most. Is there cancer in your family? Is your kid looking kinda tired lately? Are you nervous about being attacked by dogs when you’re out on your walk? Are you worried that someone might come into your workplace and start shooting? Whatever it is — and however realistic the fear, because I know fear isn’t always rational — keep that in mind. Kind of roll it around a bit, see if you have something to say about it.

Now, as the second part of this thought experiment, I’m going to tell you that you’re not allowed to talk about that fear. You might have something to say about it, but other people are worried about that thing too, and your talking about it makes them nervous. Or, to soften that, you’re only allowed to talk about it in ways other people approve of. Not everyone wants to have a frank discussion. Not everyone appreciates black humor or vivid descriptions of unpleasant things. And if you do talk about it in ways others disapprove of, the authorities might take you bodily away, your employers might disown you, and the media might make you out to be deranged and dangerous.

Does that bother you? Are you sitting there thinking, what’s the point of having freedom of the press if you can’t even talk about the things that worry you? Or are you tapping your feet and saying, “Yeah, I know you’re talking about Patrick McLaw, so spare me the theatrics”?

Anyway, yes I am talking about Patrick McLaw, the teacher who was placed in “mandatory medical evaluation” after it was discovered he had written two science fiction books involving large-scale school shootings, The Insurrectionist and Lillith’s Heir. [Edit: see update below] It seems to me that a teacher might have a few thoughts on the subjects of school shootings, might have something to say on the subject. Never mind that The Insurrectionist seems to be, according to its description, about the race to prevent a second shooting, the police and school board seem to have decided that a desire to write about a thing is equivalent to the desire to do a thing. They are punishing Mr. McLaw for writing about something that, presumably, he has great cause to have strong opinions about.

Other people have ably addressed the civil rights issues in this, and in any case I doubt most of the salient details are public. I’ll leave the subject to others with greater ability and information. I want to talk about this as a writer: in particular as someone who writes murder mysteries. Yup, I think and write about killing people and getting away with it. I entertain myself and others with stories about murderers who are only barely caught, sometimes only by luck, because being only barely caught makes the story more interesting and exciting.

This effort is not without consequence, of that I am morally certain. Copycats have lifted plots from the greats in my field, transferring them from the fiction reviews to the obituary page. Millions of people have read or watched thousands of murder mysteries over a hundred years. There is little doubt in my mind that real people have died because other people read an Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle or Dorothy Sayers novel and thought “I could do this, and then I’d be rid of that jerk next door and nobody would be the wiser.” It is possible (though, since I work in science fiction, unlikely) that someone will do the same with one of my murder plots.

I say this not out of pride nor out of shame, or because I think anything ought to be done about it, I say it because I think it to be true and because the truth is worth talking and thinking about. We write and read about poisonings, bludgeonings, shootings, stabbings, drownings, and all manner of terrible deaths. Murder is a crime that worries, fascinates, repulses, and even sometimes delights us (depending on who gets the wrong end of a particularly spectacular stick). It is entertainment, but it is more than that: it is a part of our culture’s way of dealing with mortality. It reminds us on the one hand that we and our loved ones too shall die, possibly by violence, but also reaffirms a shared belief that life is important and that violent death should be avenged.

This is not to say that art must have noble purpose, or any purpose at all. On the contrary, just as some people can learn the wrong lessons from anything, some people can be inspired to great things by anything, if only they are exposed to it. Even art with malicious or senseless intent can produce beauty and insight when observed by the right person. Even if the only aim and effect of art is enjoyment, well, enjoyment is important too.

They say to write what you know. Here’s what I know: Our civilization and our culture do not work when we are afraid to talk about the things that worry, fascinate, repulse, or delight us — even when the things that delight me, repulse you. Perhaps especially so. Among its other many virtues, fiction allows us to practice our own emotional reactions in a safe environment to disasters (and joys!) great and small; that requires a writer who is able and willing to write convincingly about those things. It is important, even vital, to be able to read about unpleasant and dangerous things if one so chooses; in which case it is just as important to be able to write and publish about unpleasant and dangerous things.

 

[Update: the LA Times is reporting that authorities in the case are saying that Mr. McLaw's books have nothing to do with the current situation. That seems to be a contradiction to the original local reporting. It's certainly plausible that a local reporter got things very wrong. In any case, much of what I said was in response to the reporting, which I felt implied that it was justified to take these actions over books like these, and in response to some comments on that reporting]

 
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Posted by on 2 September, 2014 in Writing

 

A Journey of a Thousand Miles

… begins with purchasing a treadmill. Which I have just recently done and installed as the main part of a walking desk.

Treadmill desk

Treadmill desk

I have been noticing for a while now that my writing output has been dropping off. At first, I chalked it up to my move last summer, and then my change in focus from short fiction to novellas and novels, but in terms of words written it’s just not even close to what I was doing two years ago. I’m coming to think that my general loss of fitness in the last year has had a larger effect than I thought. I’ve been tired and sluggish, and it shows. I’ve been spending a (tiny) bit more time in the gym, which has helped the sluggishness, but itself consumes time.

I’d been reading and thinking about walking desks for a while now, and after some experiments in reading and playing video games on the gym treadmill to confirm that I could concentrate and interact with something complicated, I bit the bullet. The treadmill is a Rebel 1000, and so far I’ve been very pleased with it. The desk is an IKEA Hemnes secretary, which I had already been using as a standing/sitting desk; I put it on bed risers, which put the top maybe an inch above optimal height for typing on my laptop, and a few inches too high for a desktop keyboard (which it is anyway too shallow for). I just hung a whiteboard behind it, and will be pushing up against the wall a bit more to use that more comfortably. My plan is to use this setup for a month or so to a) make sure I actually am able to use it in the long run before I invest in more bulky/expensive furniture, b) get a good feel for what I need out of it in terms of height and surface area, and c) make sure that this is really where I want this furniture to live.

Since the treadmill arrived about two weeks ago, I’ve been progressively spending more time on it while working and web-surfing and so on. I’m at the point where I can generally walk for an hour or so without noticing that I’ve been walking that long. My ideal walking pace seems to be about 1.1 mph, though speeding up and slowing down for brief periods can help break things up a bit. According to my Fitbit (attached to my sock, since having my hands/wrists on the keyboard tends to deaden the jostling its accelerometer needs to detect footfall at my waist) I had been averaging 5000-6000 steps per day (2-2.5 miles) and since then about 8000 per day (> 3.5 miles). My hope is to get that average to about 5 miles per day during the week.

As to writing, my hope is that I’ll generally have more energy, as I used to when I more regularly went to the gym, and that by getting some of my exercise while I work I won’t have to decide between exercise and writing in the evenings. Either way, I’ll make a note to update in a month or so.

 
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Posted by on 3 August, 2014 in Writing

 

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Really, Amazon?

I’ve been sitting on the fence about this Amazon/Hachette thing for a while. Mostly because I just don’t give a damn. As far as I can tell, it’s one big company against another in pretty much standard big-company negotiations, moderately more amusing than most because each party is trying to suck in its gut and call itself “the little guy”.

This last letter from Amazon, though, contains a bunch of things that piss me off. And this is my blog, so I’m going to rant. Let’s start off with the thing that pisses me off the most: “Unjustifiably high”.

OK. Prices are high. But that word “unjustifiably” bothers the hell out of me. It’s an absolute, a blanket word. And it bothers me when that word comes from a bookseller, because it completely elides the bizarre concept that one book might actually be different from another.

News flash: Some books are different from other books. They might be different in ways that justify different pricing. Maybe, gasp, even higher prices.

Let’s approach this from the simplest metric, of length: everyone can agree that one book can be longer than another, right? If Tor released the Wheel of Time as a single ebook, should it suddenly be $9.99? It is, after all, widely touted as a single story (as I’ve heard a billion times since it got put on the Hugo ballot); what’s so magical about being in one volume instead of a dozen? Forget the “small number of specialized titles” weaseling; it’s pretty plain that they think the vast majority of ebooks should be $9.99 or less (they even begrudge that last penny to make it ten bucks!) Thanks to the strong focus on series in SF, fantasy, and mystery, just about everything I read is part of a series that could be packaged like that. Or what about the Lord of the Rings, or Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear pair? Both were originally single works split up because of mechanical printing constraints. Should The Fellowship of the Ring ebook be $3.33 because it’s only a third of a book? And if you allow that a combined ebook of the Lord of the Rings “can” be more than an X-note, what about the latest doorstop from George RR Martin? Sometimes $15 or $20 or even $30 might actually be a justifiable price for a single ebook based purely on the qualities of that book.

But wait! A 200,000 word book entertains me longer than a more standard 80,000 word book. Should the maximum for most books actually be $4.99, so that the maximum for the longest books is $9.99? Enquiring minds want to know, Amazon! Or is the policy that a book is a book, a Commodity Unit Of Entertainment, not to be price-differentiated except by discount?

Length is also useful to argue because, as Amazon points out, books compete against video games and TV, and those things all consume time. Time’s a good one! The Big Lebowski DVD costs $6.99 on Amazon ($9.99 if you prefer to partake in the video equivalent of e-books and watch online.) The run time for the Big Lebowski is 2 hours. I’m not the fastest reader in the world, but it takes me at least four hours to read most books. Should books be $13.99 (christ, what is it with that last fucking penny? Is it bad luck?) since by this metric they’re twice as entertaining as The Big Lebowski?

Since Amazon brought up video games, why not look at the thriving indie scene against which books are competing for reader time? There’s no one magic price for games. Some games are longer, better, more of a sure hit, or just incurred more costs that need to be recouped in order to produce the next one. Letting the blockbusters charge their higher prices opened up a space at the low end for indie games, many of which are just as good but lack a marketing budget or an art budget, or just have to be shorter because the indie developer can’t go that long between releases. (That’s something that indie authors should think a LONG DAMN TIME about before cheering for Amazon against Hachette, by the way.) More than that, a higher price lets a developer signal, “We think this game is so good that it’s worth a higher price.” And that’s a very important statement to be able to make about an artistic work.

Look. Amazon is probably completely right that when you adjust pricing, the sweet spot for volume vs. profit for most books is around ten bucks. So what? For some books it’s probably lower, and for some books it’s probably higher. It all depends: some books or shorter or crappier than other books. That’s the problem with doing large-scale analysis and treating a class of goods like a commodity: the individual differences wash out. But as an author, I live in those individual differences. If I ever self-publish a novel on Amazon, I’ll pay very close attention to their price analysis… and then make my own damn decision based on a combination of their analysis, my subjective valuation of my own work, my comparison of it to the prices of similar titles, and my own desire to experiment with price and see for myself what the sweet spot is for my work and my audience. I might screw up, I might strike it rich, Amazon might decide I’m too stupid to do business with. Many things could happen. I’m a grown-up, and will do the grown-up thing: whine about it on Twitter and circulate petitions.

That’s what really rubs me the wrong way: this notion that it’s Amazon’s job to prevent anyone from screwing up. If I’m publishing through Hachette, and Hachette prices my books too high, then that’s between me and Hachette and my readers. Thanks for the price elasticity data, absolutely, but it’s none of Amazon’s damn business. What if I decide that my professional strategy is to write books that only appeal to millionaires, and sell them for a ton of money apiece like that thousand dollar iPhone app? I may be bloody stupid to try it, but who the hell is Amazon to tell me I can’t? I can screw myself by selling for $.99 a copy, but not by selling for $99 a copy? They can decide to carry my books, or not: I think that’s the limit of Amazon’s right to unilaterally poke its nose in.

(Now, that said. There IS an argument to be made here that putting prices too high invites piracy and so cuts into Amazon’s expected return on its very small investment in putting up a web page and thirty cents worth of disk space for your book. But they’re not making that argument, probably because it would shine a spotlight on just how vanishingly little work Amazon does for its profit per ebook. 35 percent to the author who spent 6-18 months (what’s that in GRRM years?) writing it; 35 to the publisher who edited it, commissioned cover art, and marketed it; 30 to Amazon who …put up a fucking web page?? You want to talk marginal costs per copy, Bezos? Sure, let’s talk marginal costs per copy.)

Their whole post is a smokescreen. Even if everything in it is absolutely true, it’s all completely beside the point. Here’s what I see behind it: Amazon sells everything at a discount, and it’s bleeding money. So, they want Hachette to bring down their prices at all vendors closer to the price point Amazon picks, so that Amazon doesn’t have to discount as much to sell at the price it wants to sell at. It’s good old-fashioned squeezing the suppliers just like every other bookseller does (or would if it could); it’s standard business, and I respect that. Just don’t cloak yourself in sanctimonious bullshit while you do it.

And since any post criticizing Amazon is taken as pro-Hachette and anti-independent author, I present the traditional running of the caveats: 1) Hachette has shown evident incompetence in every single stage of this whole nonsense, at all corporate levels. The main difference is that Amazon’s bullshit comes in little easy to kick piles like this, while Hachette is more of a pig lagoon. If they’re so stupid in their pricing that Amazon doesn’t think it worth selling their books, that’s Hachette’s fault and it’s not up to Amazon to strongarm them into saving themselves. 2) I rather like Amazon’s practices taken as a whole. I buy a lot of stuff there, including books, and other than the sanctimonious bullshit PR posts, they’re engaging in standard negotiations (which, now that I think of it, is also standard negotiations!) I, like Amazon, am large and contain multitudes. 3) If you feel the need to knee-jerk protect Amazon from any criticism whatsoever, especially if you feel that criticism of Amazon threatens your livelihood (as some have claimed) then you need to rethink the adjective “independent”.

(EDIT: It was pointed out that my earlier post on Amazon and used e-books might also be of interest)

 
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Posted by on 30 July, 2014 in Writing

 

The Fault in our Chars

I had reason to recall this morning The Strand’s interview with Rex Stout (which is itself very much worth a read) and noticed an interesting interchange I wanted to comment on:

McALEER: Did Archie hang up the picture of Sherlock Holmes that is found over his desk, or did Wolfe put it there?

STOUT: Did I say that at one point? I was a damn fool to do it. Obviously it is always an artistic fault in any fiction to mention any other character in fiction. It should never be done.

First, that’s one of the most insightful questions I’ve ever seen asked in an interview, and I’m disappointed that he ducked it. Second, Stout’s response: That is quite a strong way to put it!

As it happens, I did it three or four times in Claudius Rex, in several different ways. First and most obviously, there is the Jeeves Series of Artificial Personal Assistants, of which version 5 comes in for some unfair criticism. But there are also references to Sherlock Holmes, and a number of oblique references to Stout’s work. On reflection, I disagree with Mr. Stout, not only out of self-defense. I think he was wrong.

First, I want to take a step back. There are two ways to make mention, in a work of fiction, to other characters in fiction. First is the way I had done (and as Stout had done), which is to recognize them as literary figures. Somewhere in Nero Wolfe’s study you may imagine a leatherbound copy of A Study in Scarlet. At some point after all the hullaballoo, Andy Baldwin hopes to get back to reading Fer-de-Lance. In other words, acknowledge that your world does not deviate so far from the real world as to remove those literary works.

The other way is the cameo, where mention of a fictional character is made in such a way that implies or makes explicit that in this world that character is or was a real person. That portrait of Sherlock Holmes (which I interpret as the bibliophile Wolfe’s homage to a fine body of fiction to which he may have a particular attachment) has spawned a number of theories that Wolfe himself is descended from the Great Detective, for example. For that matter, Holmes is a prime target for this sort of cameo because of the framing device of Watson’s publishing his stories, and Doyle’s occasional in-story mention of them. 

The latter method holds more dangers, I suspect. (I’m setting aside the question of the advisability here, and just looking at the effect.) In general, I would not do it in a long piece, especially of speculative fiction. It’s hard enough work to build a world’s rules and keep them self-consistent. Importing a character from another work, however obliquely, risks importing a few rules as well. For the most part, that’s not a big deal — when Kowal’s Glamourist Histories have subtle Dr. Who cameos, for example, that just adds pleasure for the reader who noticed, it doesn’t damage the story. But if I were to, say, have a brief appearance by a character who is obviously Superman (even if not named) in a story with some kind of public disaster, I run the risk of a reader expecting that Superman character to play a role, and being disappointed or confused when that doesn’t happen. Or, if in a science fiction story I describe a passing ship with a long body, two external nacelles and a saucer mounted on the front, people might chuckle about the obvious Enterprise cameo… but they’ve also been subtly primed to expect, say, transporters. Or even just introducing genre confusion, like by having a cameo from a fantasy series in a science fiction or non-speculative story. Readers are in some ways like infants: clue-gathering machines learning at an astonishing rate how they should expect the world to work.

Oddly enough, there’s a variant on this that I’ve seen a lot, where the author him- or herself makes the appearance. I don’t see it as often anymore, even in time travel stories, with one exception: HP Lovecraft. With the case of Lovecraft, this is often a specific way to imply that his story rules apply to that universe. Which, if you think of it, makes absolutely no sense. At least, I think it makes no sense. Shouldn’t the opposite be the case, that his presence indicates that in this world his creations are fiction? If George Lucas appeared, you would expect any lightsabers to be props, right? So if you see HP Lovecraft, then you are clearly safe from Cthulhu. (There’s your safety tip for the day)

Anyway, back to the former method. I disagree with Rex Stout that it’s inherently an artistic fault to mention other fictional characters in a work of fiction. Our culture is in large part a product of our fiction, particularly if you’re writing about technical fields. If your character uses a flip phone, you’ve kind of made a Star Trek reference whether you want to or not. The worry about readers confusing what’s real in a world from what’s fictional is genuine, but it’s possible to outright swim in references to other character without once making your readers wonder whether those characters are real in your world (see Michael Underwood’s Geekomancy series). Even without that, references to fictional characters like Yoda or Sam Spade or Iago are just as much a way of grounding the world and characterizing its people as are references to sports teams or city landmarks.

At the same time, I do feel that there is a nebulous danger there, and I’m still probing a bit at why. In Claudius Rex, again, I made explicit references to Rex Stout’s books (and strongly implied that at least one character was familiar with them)… but I shied away from making references to Robert B. Parker’s books, even though they also were an influence on that story. That was a gut reaction that I haven’t entirely dissected yet, but which I think was the right decision. Partly my feeling is that they’re too recent — The Godwulf Manuscript (the first Spenser novel) came out only two years before A Family Affair (the last Wolfe novel) — and that recent fiction somehow has more of a new car smell to it? Maybe recent fiction is like recent politics in how it throws readers out of a story. The more I think of it, though, the more I think that for a novella set in Boston, any reference to a Spenser novel risks spilling over into cameo territory just because in those novels the city of Boston is a strong character. They are about Boston as much as they are about Spenser and Susan and Hawk. I therefore invoke Parker’s characterization of the city at my own risk, lest it clash with mine.

Maybe that gets back to Stout’s original point. Perhaps he was overbroad in his terminology out of embarrassment at having made a mistake, and meant only that it was a fault to refer to Sherlock Holmes in a Wolfe novel. If that was the point, then I can see it: it is an unsubtle way of telling the reader to whom they should compare Nero Wolfe. Sherlock Holmes was one idea of a genius; Nero Wolfe is another — and those ideas clash in ways that Stout didn’t seem interested in exploring. Like everything in fiction, though, there is a tradeoff. If only we knew whether Wolfe or Archie hung that portrait, that would have been a small price to pay…

 
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Posted by on 6 June, 2014 in Writing

 

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