Category Archives: Writing

Sherlock Holmes: “Any truth is better than indefinite doubt”

Like some of the other Holmes quotes I’ve blogged about this one’s getting two interpretations. One for writing, one for the real world.

If you’re curious, the quote comes from the short story The Yellow Face (art at left by Sidney Paget). Holmes’ client is convinced his wife has some terrible secret, possibly an affair; it turns out she’s caring for a mixed-race daughter, having married a black man back in the U.S. Holmes reassures his client at one point that getting a definite answer will make him feel better than worrying endlessly about what’s going on.

I think it’s true in life in a lot of ways, such as getting a name put to your health problems. Or knowing for sure whether your job will survive the next round of firings; one of the things I learned writing Leaf business articles is that when management doesn’t say anything, rumors fly and people expect the worst.

In writing, it’s simple: sooner or later we have to make a decision. Working on Only the Lonely Can Slay I realized I needed more tension and pressure on my protagonist, Heather. So I decided a couple of drafts ago to have someone accuse my protagonist of murder. That didn’t work. But now I know it didn’t work and I’m trying something else. Sitting and debating which way to go just isn’t workable — we’ve got to put something down or there’s no story. Unlike real life, we can always take it back.

Of course this is a lot tougher with novels where my “that doesn’t work” sometimes comes 40,000 words in and forces me to change everything that came before. But again, it’s better than leaving the story unformed in my head forever.

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Old ventures and new

Another good week, huzzah!

Part of the credit goes to TYG. When possible, she’s been doing her morning work upstairs in the bedroom, with the dogs. They’re much quieter up there so she gets to snuggle with them without Plushie demanding attention by climbing on her laptop. That leaves me free to work without distractions too, which is a great start to the morning.

My Leaf articles have started back up, so I didn’t get to put in as much time as I’d expected on personal projects. On the plus side, it’s income! And I’m writing them faster than the last load I was doing, so that’s good.

I’ve worked on Impossible Things Before Breakfast to the point where it’s good to go for the writer’s group. I don’t think it’s close to being done, but I need feedback to figure what it still needs. I hope to revise it again next week for a possible reading at the end of the month (I’m far enough down the list it’s a probable no, but I want to be ready). I also worked on Only the Lonely Can Slay but I’m still running into the same problem: great first third, but after that there’s no tension. I may have found a way to fix that this week, but maybe not.

I also redrafted several chapters of Impossible Takes a Little Longer. Switching to first person is definitely improving the book, but there’s a lot at the start (a secondary villain’s initial attack on my protagonist, for instance) that no longer makes much sense. I have some thoughts for fixing that stuff but I’ll wait until the book is done. I don’t want to end up stuck on revising the first chapter over and over.

I got another rejection on Schloss and the Switchblade, but I also sent out one of my other stories to a different market.

I submitted my old steampunk novel Questionable Minds to a small publisher. While I’m anticipating publishing it myself, it did sell once (the publisher folded) so I won’t give up if there’s an opportunity.

And I finally submitted a Space Invaders query to McFarland. They said to send them a proposal so I may be starting film book #6 before long.

And the weather has been beautiful. Warm enough for shorts, but not really hot, though I did start carrying my water bottle when I go cycling. As you can see, the clover is responding to spring.

Other blossoms, though, have had their day.

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The taxman cometh! And so did the pollen!

Durham has heavy pollen this time every year. This year it got really heavy.Running down the gutters after a rain.

Washing off the driveway.

Even turning our dogs’ leashes yellow.

It got so bad that even though I’m on Claritin (to avoid rashes from all the grass pollen carried on the pups’ coats), allergies laid me low mid-week. This was a regular problem a couple of times a year back in Florida but I’ve never had it here before. No sneezing, just this insane draggy feeling that nothing in the world would be better than lying down and watching television all day (trust me, that’s not normally a thing I say). So that cost me a day and a half.

And then about two days went to taxes. I had almost everything figured out, but the state income tax form wouldn’t let me enter data on the computer so I had to print it up, then write it out. Then print it out again to fix my mistakes. I suspect it will come back to me: the NC Department of Revenue scanning system is much stricter in how it’ll take data than the IRS, so most years I’ve had to re-enter my return because of some technicality. But it’s done, so that’s good. We’re paying in this year, but that’s primarily because I made more money than I expected and didn’t have to pay estimated taxes, so we got socked with a bigger bill than usual. Ouch. And our printer is slow, which drew the process of printing the forms out longer than it should have. Next year I shall take steps to avoid that.

In the remaining time, I did some research reading for the Undead Sexist Cliches book and got some useful feedback from beta readers (one yet to come). I got a lot of work done on a redraft of Impossible Things Before Breakfast, though I still lack a good finish. And that was pretty much it. But taxes needed doing before Monday, like it or not.

Wisp has been an erratic presence on the deck. She’s still not showing up regularly for her meals the way she used to, and there’s another cat we caught eating at least one of the meals we put out. As Wisp has fought to drive off strange cats before, I’m guessing she’s getting food at someone else’s house and so can afford to turn up her nose at ours. Even though someone else might be better situated to take her in, I do feel a twinge of jealousy at the thought.

Trixie has had a hacking cough the past couple of weeks. It’s mostly faded, but we kept her home from Suite Paws day care this week just in case. Much as I enjoy a dog-free day, she’s pretty easy to handle when she’s by herself. But if the hack doesn’t go away, we’ll call the vet next week (I’m wondering if it’s pollen-based).

I’ve also realized that one reason I have trouble focusing after lunch is that Plushie likes to settle into my lap, then stretch out, rather than curling into a ball. This usually puts me in a position that, while not exactly uncomfortable, it strains my body enough that I have a hard time focusing (Trixie’s position on either side of me sometimes makes it worse). I like Plushie curling up in my lap, but I’ll have to position my legs so he can’t expand out.

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Filed under Personal, Short Stories, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Undead Sexist Cliches: The Book, Writing

The Bird King and the power of setting

I like G. Willow Wilson’s comic books, and I really liked her first non-graphic novel, Alif the Unseen. I was confident I’d like her second novel, THE BIRD KING, but while it had its moments, I was overall disappointed. And I think the setting is a big part of that.

I don’t think articles about writing, particularly specfic, discuss setting quite as much as we discuss world-building, the ways we create and establish the setting. One’s a matter of craft and skill, the other’s a matter of judgment and taste. Perhaps that’s why it’s not discussed as much: it’s one thing to thumb down “as you know, Steve, our occult research project is devoted to mastering the laws of magic” as objectively bad writing (telling people what they already know) but the merits of setting are more subjective.

As noted at the Alif link, I liked that book partly because it had a setting I rarely see, inside a modern Middle Eastern nation (and focused on the country and its people rather than how they relate to the US). The mash-up of computer hacking with Islamic mysticism and folklore made the setting even weirder. And as someone who’s read several IT/fantasy mash-ups, I think it’s much harder to mix the two than it looks.

Wilson’s opening setting is great: 1491 Granada, a Muslim stronghold about to fall to Ferdinand and Isabella, creating a united Spain. Not that the ancient Muslim world is that unusual a setting but Wilson’s a Muslim and makes it feel fresher than most portrayals. The core characters are good, too: Fatima, a slave concubine serving the sultan and Hassan, a gay mapmaker whose maps can alter the world they portray. Like Lucy in The Twelfth Enchantment, Fatima is a formidable, capable protagonist without being at all anachronistic. She resents being a slave (Wilson discusses this in an interview) but at first it’s the best she can do. After she and Hassan go on the run, she’s determined not to be anyone’s property again.

They have to run because the sultan’s negotiating surrender terms. Luz, a point woman for the Inquisition, makes it clear that Fatima and other Muslims will have to convert or die; Hassan, as both a “sodomite” and a sorcerer of some sort, won’t be that lucky. They have to run.

And that’s where the book turned me off. Hassan and Fatima’s desperate flight isn’t as fresh as the scenes in Granada. They could just as easily have been Protestants fleeing Catholics, Catholics fleeing Muslims, or refugees fleeing a conqueror; the landscape wouldn’t change much. And despite the presence of a jinn, it’s a very low-level magical setting, close to a straight historical story. And I’m not fond of those (see what I mean about taste). The long slow journey across Spain to the Island of Birds drained the interest out of me. (It didn’t help that religious fanatics creep me out to the point reading about them makes me genuinely uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the result of living in the Bible belt much of my life. Maybe not). I also wish Wilson had played around more with the power of maps (I have an interest in maps), like the opening scene in which a general gloats that Granada is already part of Spain on the maps.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that setting is important because it shapes our expectations about the story. An attack by a knife-wielding Martian, a knife wielding Gold Rush claim jumper or a knife-wielding killer in a Los Angeles alley can all offer the same level of danger, but they engage us (or don’t) in different ways.  We can use setting to put a fish out of water, or to contrast with the story we tell; Peyton Place became a best-seller in the 1950s partly because it’s sex-and-scandal plot contrasted with the New England small town setting (I’ve discussed other angles of setting here and here). Even an old, familiar setting can be fresh with the right take. But Bird King‘s setting just wasn’t right for me.

#SFWApro. Cover by studiohelen.co.uk, all rights remain with current holder.

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New frontiers in time management!

Yep, once again I have tinkered with my time management approach and found something that works. At least for the moment. But after the constant distractions of February and March, it feels great to be productive again. If I were Dali, all my clocks would be firm, hard, erect … er, I’ll be in my bunk, okay?

For one thing I don’t have any Leaf articles at the moment, which frees up time to do other stuff.

For another I decided to break up my 35-hour week into 20 hours of actual fiction writing and 15 of other stuff: submitting queries, doing major replotting work, paperwork, working on nonfiction (along with Leaf, whenever it starts up again, I’m working on a proposal for a new film reference book. And I’m always hopeful other stuff will come along), research reading, blogging. This was the first week I tried it and it worked well. I had another Alexander technique session mid-week and it was much easier to not lose any fiction writing time this way.

It’s not perfect. It’s very easy to wind up spending the whole non-writing afternoon blogging or doing research reading instead of drafting queries. However so far it does seem to work, and it reduces the amount of deep thinking I do at the end of the day, when I’m at my low point. And if I have to use more time for fiction writing because I have an imminent deadline or something (someday …), I can adapt.

As to actual accomplishments:

I finally found an ending for Only the Lonely Can Slay that I like. It still needs a lot of work, but I have a story arc I can build on, instead of tossing it out every time and starting over.

I have a story arc for Impossible Things Before Breakfast (formerly known as Neverwas) too, but the last quarter is ultra-vague. I know the ending (Susan and Hal save the world and find each other) but I don’t see how to justify it yet. I’ve also lost a lot of the weirdness of the earlier drafts in building up Susan/Hal; I think that’s the core of the story, but I want some of the weird stuff back.

I redrafted Bleeding Blue, following the rather dark story line of my first draft (the ending’s upbeat, though). I really hadn’t intended to write dark, but that’s where my mind is going. The story arc, though, is a mess, more a string of incidents than a plot. So more work!

I did about 4,500 words on yet another novel, Good Morning Starshine (spec-fic/rom-com). I wanted to replot it too but didn’t get very far.

I drew up a query letter for Space Invaders, a book on alien-invasion movies and TV I was working on a couple of years ago (the academic publisher I was dealing with decided on massive cutbacks, so no go). I’m still deciding where to submit it but my query letter is, if I do say so, awesome.

It’s a good start to April. I shall endeavor to live up to it the rest of the month.

#SFWApro. All rights to Dali’s The Persistence of Memory remain with current holder.

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Competing with the dead (and other writing links)

I don’t really buy Ernest Hemingway’s statement that success as a writer requires being better than the dead writers who proceed you. Author Fonda Lee has another take: in terms of bookstore shelf space, she and similar rising writers are squeezed out of shelf space by dead guys such as Robert Jordan and JRR Tolkien (the comments on Jim Hines’ post are good too). Which ties into this post too.

Vellum and Vinyl suggests that manic pixie dream girls are fine, the boyfriends are the problem.

Rick Riordan on how Hollywood mishandled the Percy Jackson series.

A solution for getting unstuck: five more (pages/minutes/chapters/whatever)

The Houston Chronicle investigated veteran reporter Mike Ward’s work for possible false quotes. They searched for 275 people quoted in his work and 122 could not be found.

I haven’t seen Alita: Battle Angel, but this review still seems to make good points about writing to set up a franchise vs. writing a movie.

Just how much did the late Stan Lee co-create for Marvel? Spoiler: lots.

Author Amber Royer discusses action scenes and SF worldbuilding

How filmmakers used to fake newsreel footage.

Some years back, undercover TV reporters went to work for Food Lion and filmed staff changing expiration-date labeling. There was a huge hue and cry declaring that the reporters had acted unethically and reporters must never be allowed to expose corporate misdeeds again (okay, not how they phrased it). This discussion of Al Jazeera posing as a gun rights group to expose both Australian politicians and the NRA argues there are times subterfuge is justified. I’m in agreement.

Deadspin argues that Netflix isn’t changing the world of broadcast TV, it’s become interchangeable with it.

A history of Harvey Comics, speculating about its effect on child readers. Below, the map of Harveyland.

A short history of the word retcon.

Positive and negative goals for characters

Oracle claims its Java API is copyrighted, and Google’s been violating copyright. Google says it’s fair use. The tech industry sides with Google.

Copyright issues are among the reason a French court has invalidated Google’s terms of service for Google+.

The U.S., China and intellectual property.

An Irish sandwich chain, Supermac, convinced an EU court to invalidate McDonald’s Big Mac trademark in the European Union.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Kirby, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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My answer was ‘recalled to life’

The use of the Dickens quote in the title is my way to say after close to two months of lackluster performance, I had a good week of writing.

The biggest accomplishment was that I finished a draft of the Undead Sexist Cliches book. This was a minor landmark because it’s the first coherent draft. I kept shifting back and forth in earlier drafts on how to break things down, which fact or anecdote went in which chapter and frequently repeating myself. Now I think I’ve honed it so that it has a logical structure. There’s the introduction (about why I’m writing it, and about sexism in general). A chapter on “everyone knows men and women are different” which is the bedrock on which most of these cliches rest. A couple of chapters on why feminism is supposedly evil. One on why all the heroes have to be men. One on rape cliches (probably the largest), one on sexual harassment and one on sex and relationships in general. I may expand them with more examples of sexism, but I think the set-up is solid.

Next up: beta reading! I sent it out to a couple of friends, one in the writing group, one generally interested in this sort of thing. Both women, because the one thing I can’t provide is a woman’s point of view. I might ask a couple of others (I’ve asked one more beta, but haven’t heard back). And then, after I get their feedback, the revisions begin.

It feels really good to have made significant progress on something.

I also mailed out three short stories (one already came back), found a possible market for one of my older novels (hopefully it’ll go out next week), submitted a query for a column (no interest), and put up a couple of items on eBay. They’re movie posters from some of my movie books, so I count that as writing time — and I’d be quite happy to get rid of them productively (i.e., putting them in the trash is just a waste).

I also got back to my regular exercise routine, which had tanked with everything else during March. It looks like I’ll make about 50 percent of my March goals at best (I may accomplish a couple this weekend). However I rearranged my schedule some, and I think that helped. I’ll blog more about that next week.

Wisp, alas, was not happy with us leaving her for last weekend’s Mensa trip. Whether it was not getting her food on the schedule she’s used to or having our neighbor come over to put the food out (Wisp’s still pretty cautious — I could easily see her having a Stranger Danger reaction), she’s gone back to staying invisible and quiet (the photo’s an old one). Usually we don’t even know she’s there until after the food is eaten. Hopefully having us put out food regularly will restore her confidence in us; she did show up one evening and stare at the dogs through the window so she’s not completely alienated.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Undead Sexist Cliches: The Book, Writing

Making choices and Southern Discomfort

“In a world where all fundamental laws can be rewritten, it is also illuminating which of them aren’t.” says Mimi Mondal in the Hindustani Times. Her point being that worldbuilding in specfic always has political overtones. A world where being gay is unremarkable and acceptable is a political statement, but so is a book that doesn’t have any gay characters.

Which seems like a good launch point for discussing how I’ve handled such questions in both Atoms for Peace and Southern Discomfort. The first is an alternative history in which SF-movies of the 1950s are everyday reality; in the second, one small town has been changed by the presence of two elves as the unofficial leaders since its founding. As a result I changed some of the real world in each book, but not all of it.

In Atoms for Peace women have made huge gains compared to our reality. Much like WW II, the government needs them to make up for the manpower shortage caused by men entering the military or the National Guard. A lot of people still give lip service to the 1950s standards of our world, and plenty of people feel like that’s the way the world should be, but in practice women get to see a lot more adventure than they would have in our timeline (no disrespect intended to those real women who pushed the envelope).

Black Americans, however, are doing worse. Blaming integration and civil rights activism on ET agitators works just as well as blaming it on Communists did. In our 1950s, the federal government’s response to civil rights was influenced by the need not to look better than the USSR (Jim Crow did not serve that end); in Atoms for Peace that pressure is removed. So it’s not looking good.

Gays? Well nothing’s changed for them; they’re still in the closet and still barred from serving in the federal government (though some people are willing to turn a blind eye if the gay’s got valuable skills).

That’s all reasonable, I think, but Mondal has a point it reflects  my writing choices, not some abstract analysis. I write a lot of women into my stories; I don’t use PoC as often. So it’s not surprising I focused on changes that improve women’s lives. I probably could have made bigger and more positive changes to civil rights too (I really don’t see gay rights budging much), but I don’t like the idea of making everything better — it feels way too utopian. So I made my call.

In Southern Discomfort, by contrast, the big change was race. The black residents of Pharisee County have been better off than most of the south, but they’ve still had to deal with slavery and Jim Crow. The role of women and gays in Pharisee isn’t much different from the real world.

As with Atoms for Peace I think that’s a plausible set of changes, but I could have rationalized different ones. With Olwen McAlister around, women could have easily been given more respect. The McAlisters aren’t bothered by anyone’s sexual orientation, so it could have been a more gay-friendly community than typical for 1973. But again, I prefer better-but-flawed over utopian in my alt.Earth settings.

Good decision? Bad decision? Too limited in rewriting the fundamental laws? Wish I knew.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, all rights are mine.

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i bounce back, at least a little

Not a stellar week, but more productive than last week. I still didn’t have the presence of mind to focus on fiction so I returned to my Undead Sexist Cliches book. I got about 11,000 added words done. That felt good. And I got my Leaf articles done for the week.

And that was about it. Added dog care used up some of the time. So did a trip for a car check-up (unnecessary as it turned out; things were fine). And Tuesday, both pups freaked out because the gutter cleaners came and that meant STRANGER DANGER! HE”S MAKING NOISES! HE HAS A LADDER! DADDY, DO SOMETHING! That kind of thing makes it really hard to work.

I did, however, finish my first post at Atomic Junkshop in a while, dealing with what comic books on DC’s Earth-One were like.

Plus I seem to have maxed out my body’s insomnia tolerance. I still wake up early, but my naps have been getting a lot longer.

However, we’ll be doing some fun stuff this weekend, and I’m confident next week will see some real improvement.

Below, a symbolic photo of a flour arising amidst winter’s detritus Deep, aren’t I?

#SFWapro. Photo is mine, please credit me if you use it. Comic book panel by Carmine Infantino with Joe Kubert inks, all rights remain to current holder.

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Happy birthday to me, and to my blog!

Sixty one years today. My goodness. And I continue to be lucky that my health concerns have been minor and not life-threatening or seriously disabling. That’s not something all my friends can say.

This looks to be a quiet birthday. I’d intended to do something special, but with TYG’s crazy schedule that’s not really practical, so it’ll just be a quiet dinner out, FB birthday wishes and gifts. But we have several unrelated social activities coming up this month so I’ll still be having fun. And there’s always next year (or so one can hope).

I realized earlier this year that I started this WordPress blog 10 years ago. It was actually my third shot at blogging. First came a personal blog on LiveJournal, but my blogging community there dried up as everyone found Facebook could provide the same sort of connections. Overlapping with LJ came a writing blog on MySpace, which lasted until MySpace stopped doing blogs and erased all the content. Even before that, I’d started cross-posting at WordPress; MySpace had the obvious disadvantage that only members could read it. Great for friend networks, not so good for promoting my writing.

While I didn’t know it at the time, 2009 was a transitional year. I’d been dating TYG long-distance for about six months when I started at WordPress and it looked like we were in it for the long haul. I loved my reporting job, but the company”s cheapness was making my finances less and less workable. I was working on my third film-reference book for McFarland (Screen Enemies of the American Way) and selling short stories occasionally.

A year later I was engaged, living in Durham, and starting as a full-time freelancer. Now we’re married, own a house, and share our lives with Plushie, Trixie and (sort of) Wisp. While I miss my Ft. Walton Beach friends, life is definitely better.

I suppose my biggest regret, in hindsight, is that the fiction-writing side of my life hasn’t improved as much as I’d like. I still sell stories, but I hoped that in a decade I’d be selling to bigger (and better paying) markets. Or selling more frequently and faster; it still takes repeated submissions to multiple markets before any of my short stories finally sell. Southern Discomfort isn’t drawing any instant agent attention; I don’t know it will do any better with publishers. Not that I expected to be a JK Rowling-class household name, but I hoped I’d see some improvement over a decade.

But I am paying my share of the bills with my writing and I do get to stay home with Plushie and Trixie all day, even if they do sometimes drive me crazy (as I write this Plushie is loudly demanding I Do Something about Wisp sunning herself on the porch). And even if the stories don’t sell, they do get written, and I wrote them. And that’s cool.

#SFWApro. Action cover by Curt Swan, all rights to both images remain with current holder.

 

 

 

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