Category Archives: Writing

The week, the ducks, the month, the rain

So Hurricane Ian reached us today. Bad, and a downed tree took out the power for a couple of hours, though nowhere near as bad as that gorgeous Pat Broderick cover.

This was one of those weeks where I was nibbled to death by ducks. Three morning appointments — automotive, dog evaluation, booster and flu shots — which coupled with the problem of getting started later in the morning (as I mentioned last week),  takes big chunks out of what’s normally my most productive time. Tuesday, when I took the car in, it was early enough that doing anything after we finished with the dogs just didn’t seem worth it — I’d barely be able to focus before I had to leave.

The car is VW Golf, one of those subject to the rigged emissions system, and a dealer email said it was due for the second part of the government-mandated fix. Surprise! — when I got to the dealer the service department took a look at the car’s history and said we’d already gotten the fix. So I blew the morning for nothing.

On the plus side, I am boosted and flu-protected. All those chumps who declared covid is no worse than the flu must never have had influenza because the two times I had it were unbelievably horrible.

Work, you say? Better than I’d have expected. A lot of promotional work on Questionable Minds, which I hope to wrap up next week. I sat down and re-outlined the next draft of Impossible Takes a Little Longer and dang, it looks very promising. I’ve upped the stakes, added some plot complications and I’ve thought of one twist that might lead to a sequel, as well as removing a plot thread that wasn’t fitting well into the book. I finished Don’t Pay the Ferryman, now retitled Shadows Reflected In Darkness, and submitted it to Fantasy and Science Fiction. I’ve never succeeded with any of my submissions, but perhaps this will be the time. If not, it’s short enough (under 4,000 words) there are several other potential markets.

I also posted on Atomic Junkshop about DC and Marvel discarding potentially good characters; blogging about The Unwritten Vertigo series; and last week speculating whether even “ordinary” people in the DCU and MU are superhuman by our standards.

And a Con-Tinual panel on mythological tropes is live on Facebook.

And in really good news, my new MacBook Air arrived at the Apple Store last weekend. It is sooo nice having a computer where the keyboard doesn’t stick constantly, and a battery that lets me go untethered.

So productive, but those wasted hours always frustrate me. Ditto for the month: I got nothing done on Impossible before this week and I’d planned to do a lot. Nor did I get any rewriting done on Obalus. Of course, with my stuttering keyboard, taking Snowdrop to the vet, etc., that’s understandable.

Bring on October. Fingers crossed for more writing done

#SFWApro. Questionable Minds cover by Samantha Collins. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Story Problems, Time management and goals, Writing

Questionable Minds and Victorian pseudo-science

One of the things that fascinates me about the Victorians is the way they combined major scientific and technological breakthroughs with crackpot pseudoscience.Not that they saw it this way themselves, of course. The theories they embraced seemed just as rational and scientific as evolution, which was one of those breakthroughs. For example, criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso developed a theory that criminals were atavistic throwbacks to a lower level of evolution — i.e., black or Native American. Savages with minds too primitive to grasp the principles of law that came relatively easily to white dudes. Science historian Stephen Jay Gould wrote (I forget in which of his books) that this had a real impact on criminal sentencing: obviously a superior man who, say, killed his wife in a fit of jealousy shouldn’t be sentenced the same way as a career criminal who killed routinely.

Cynthia Eagle Russett’s Sexual Science shows how Victorian scientists studying gender differences though they were being perfectly rational in exploring the roots of women’s inferiority. Was it their smaller brains? Their immaturity (obviously the lack of beards showed women were like immature men)? The way reproduction drained energy from their brains? The fatal flaw in all their theories was that they started from the assumption women were self-evidently less intelligent than men; that assumption warped all their supposedly objective science (I get into this and later sexual-difference theories a lot in Undead Sexist Cliches).

Victorians believed in spiritualism, phrenology, aether and that masturbation could reduce you to idiocy (draining too much bodily energy to think). They believed in a variety of psychic powers loosely classed as “mesmerism,” as Alison Winter details in her book Mesmerism.

Mesmeric theories are the ones most relevant to Questionable Minds, though by the time the novel begins, they’re looked on as crude, clumsy efforts to tap vril, the psychic energy that fuels mentalists’ powers. Lombroso comes up when someone describes Edward Hyde (yes, the Mr. Hyde) as looking like one of Lombroso’s evolutionary throwbacks. And Theosophy founder Helena Blavatsky helped work out the current system for developing mental powers (as I posted about before) — so perhaps her mysticism isn’t as much mumb0-jumbo as in our world.

If/when I write the sequel (let’s see how well this book does), it’ll be interesting to explore more of the Victorians’ odd beliefs.

#SFWApro. Covers by Samantha Collins (top) and Kemp Ward (bottom).

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The law of Proteus: all things change

When I started October, one of my goals was to push my daily output up to six hours of writing from 5.5. Not a huge increase, but an extra 2.5 hours a week isn’t anything to sneeze at.

I’m a little surprised that it worked: I’ve been able to keep up work at that pace, taking breaks so that I don’t fry my mind before work ends for the day. Though the distraction such as dragging Snowdrop to the vet

mean I’ve wound up putting in less total time each week than I normally do. Still, putting in six hours a day in October — far fewer events scheduled — should produce good results.

But as I’ve mentioned before, when you’re living with other people, time management is never smooth. As TYG’s job became increasingly demanding the past couple of years, she’s been getting up earlier — easier to get stuff done when nobody at work is awake to demand help — and going to be earlier. Now she’s in a job which is much less of a pressure cooker. She’s staying awake later and getting up later. Having adjusted to her early cycle, I’m now having to adjust back.

Well, not “have” to. But I like going to bed with her and snuggling, and so I’m staying up later. As I can’t get my body to get up much later — that’s always been a weakness of mine — I sometimes wind up shortchanged on sleep. Then, because TYG’s rising later, we take the dogs out later (dawn shifting later in the morning plays a role in that too) which pushes the time to start work later in the morning.

The best solution would be to start work in the stretch between me finishing breakfast and the dogs coming down. That’s hard to make myself do because I have no idea how much time I’ll have and it’s difficult to start something knowing I might have to cut it short at any second. That may be what it takes, though. I’ll give it a shot next week.

Workwise, this was a routine week. A bunch of articles of Leaf, another of those accounting articles — and my client absolutely gushing about how much they liked last week’s article. That’s always nice. Oh, and I got a request to do an advance review for Questionable Minds so I sent that out Tuesday. Now I just hope they like it …#SFWApro. Cover by Samantha Collins, all rights remain with current holder.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, The Dog Ate My Homework, Writing

Writing, censorship, reading and watching: assorted links

“The fear of having your show or movie deleted on an executive’s whim — a growing reality for many, including Katai — is compounded by the fact that in the post-DVD digital age, viewers may never be able to access the shows again. Showrunners might not even have physical copies of their own work. And that’s not the only downside for creators.”

I agree with Paul Campos: if reporter Maggie Haberman knew Trump refused to leave office before it happened but held back the information for her new book, that’s bad and probably unethical journalism.

The WaPo bends over backwards to show the new owner of Politico is politically deeper than bog-standard Trump dude (“Do we all want to get together for an hour in the morning on November 3 and pray that Donald Trump will again become President of the United States of America?”). Similarly the magazine Evie pretends that being anti-feminist is edgy rather than spouting Undead Sexist Cliches (“Evie has long stressed the notion that women should only engage in “feminine” exercise, discouraging lifting heavy weights, and written about why women shouldn’t, in its words, ‘work out like men.'”).

“Censorship is the desperate rear-guard action of a movement that has already lost the fight for hearts and minds.” Which doesn’t mean it can’t do a lot of damage, as noted at the link.

A high school newspaper published a Gay Pride issue so the administrators shuttered the journalism program.

An OAN host thinks Nazi book burnings are a role model for America.

I’ve often wondered about the number of urban fantasies that treat the Catholic Church as the thin holy line between us and the forces of darkness (and rarely cover the church’s documented dark side). An article on Catholics in horror films looks at how the same dynamic happens in horror films, and how the church in real life uses its standing to perpetuate abuse.

Marvel editor Tom Brevoort on watching creative people work when they’re supremely gifted.

All rights to image remain with current holder.


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Suddenly abortion’s not about “states’ rights”

Much like classic defenses of slavery and Jim Crow, talking about “state’s rights” in abortion debates is a way right-wingers can duck saying what they actually want. Except Lindsey Graham has now called for a national 15-week ban, which the bill’s disingenuous title describes as late-term abortions.

No surprise, at least not to me. The forced-birth movement has never made any secret that what they want is an end to abortion, not merely to return the issue to state government. But given how much pushback the Dobbs decision has already generated, Republicans are not happy Graham has played this card pre-election. Shakezula agrees it’s a lousy political move although some political pundits are struggling to explain how it’s a win for Republican strategy. As witness it’s inspiring more young women to vote.

So no surprise either that Repubs continue lying about what they want. Marjorie Taylor Greene, for instance, insists the right to abortion (and gay marriage) are perfectly safe. As Alexandri Petri snarks, they’d like you to believe they don’t support Graham’s anti-abortion position (“We just want to ban abortion first in one state, then another, then another, and we want to do that 50 times in total — until all the states have banned abortion! “)

Yesli Vega, a Repub candidate in Virginia, recycles another old lie, that rape won’t get you pregnant: “it wouldn’t surprise me, because it’s not something that’s happening organically. Right? You’re forcing it.” This is both wrong and irrelevant: if Vega opposes abortion rights for rape victims, it wouldn’t matter if it’s only one or two people who lose their rights (I’m sure she doesn’t think aborting only a couple of babies is acceptable). She’s factually wrong about rape and pregnancy, but I imagine the point is the same as with the late, unlamented Todd Akin — if rape doesn’t produce pregnancy, women who say they were raped are just lying sluts so obviously no abortions for them!

Meanwhile the Family Research Council lies that abortion is never life-saving. They then whine at being called out for lying — and yes it’s a lie.

Fellow Virginia Republican Jennifer Kiggans grumbles that Dems “are trying to make that the issue to deflect, right, from all of the issues that voters really care about. They’re trying to distract with these shiny objects like the abortion issue.” How dare women inconvenience Kiggans’ political career by caring about their lives?

As for the idea touted by some right-to-lifers that red states will up their support for mothers and children, well, no.

And finally, Baptist News looks at the convoluted interaction of abortion and original sin. And here’s a profile of one activist who helped make abortion an issue.

I go into forced-birth bullshit in more detail in Undead Sexist Cliches, available as a Amazon paperback, an ebook and from several other retailers. Cover by Kemp Ward, all rights remain with current holder.

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Clawed by Cats! Clobbered by Computers!

No, not literally clawed, thank goodness. Neither Snowdrop nor Wisp seems inclined to get physical, even when the dogs get in their grill. But Snowdrop did tear up a chunk of writing time for me this week.

As our cats live outdoors most of the time, catching them for the annual checkup is hard. We caught Wisp in July and now it’s Snowdrop’s turn. We couldn’t get him last week but I’d already made a backup appointment for Tuesday the 13th. Monday night, while I was hosting my Shut Up and Write Zoom group, TYG called me down. Some years back she bought a pole-and-lasso contraption to catch Wisp, but it never worked — until now. However, ensnaring Snowdrop in the loop did not get him into the cage for transport so she needed my help.

Eventually we caged him, but not before he’d astonished up by running up the blinds on the French doors and then up the outside of a bookcase. Of course, once he was caught we were in for hours of plaintive meowing, and more in the morning. So my regular morning routine went out the window, plus I was the one who had to take him to the vet (my freelancing schedule is way more flexible than TYG’s time).

It used to be they’d tranquilize the cats before examining them, but they’ve moved away from that now. Which is good, except that meant I stuck around with Snowdrop instead of coming back hours later. You can see him below, looking at me and hoping for rescue. He didn’t get it.To my surprise, he didn’t put up a fight at all, but let the vets examine him, give him his shots and so forth. He’s in great shape (yay!) and not overweight (yay again!). I took him home, then we let him out in the backyard. He didn’t bear us a grudge and was quite happy to accept petting later.

Now, as to the computer: my laptop has been suffering from keys sticking for a while but it’s been getting really bad lately. I cleaned out the keyboard with compressed air but it didn’t improve things enough, so Monday I ordered a new laptop. Arrival: Wednesday.

Or so I thought. Because I added memory, they couldn’t just take one off the rack and the delivery date is Oct. 5. I didn’t realize that — they didn’t exactly highlight that detail — so Tuesday afternoon after getting back from the vet I just blew work off, ditto Wednesday morning. Why work with a glitchy keyboard when I’d have a smooth-operating computer so soon?

That’s a couple of days I won’t get back. I’m annoyed at my inefficiency, though I still finished one of my paying accounting articles. And I got most of my advance promotional work for Questionable Minds done Monday. I also posted at Atomic Junkshop about the New Mutants team and Richard Powers’ cover art.For really good news, I got my payments from Draft2Digital for a couple of books that sold this summer. And my golem article came out in Jews in Popular Science Fiction at last.I haven’t read it yet but the table of contents looks interesting.Being published makes up for a lot. Have a great weekend everyone.

#SFWApro. Rights to book covers remain with current holder.

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Two strange weekends in a row. But good strange

Labor Day weekend, as I mentioned before, I took off to chill after finishing Aliens are Here. But I don’t think I mentioned how strange it felt to not be doing anything for five days (Sept. 1-5). A little blogging, yes, but no other writing. I rarely take vacations that long and it’s always when I’m going somewhere, which means I don’t just lie around and read or take walks.

Of course, I did do things — shop for food, cook — but still, it was unbelievably relaxing to let myself off the hook for anything more than that. As TYG was out part of Saturday, I couldn’t do much because I had to keep an eye on the dogs. That helped me give myself permission, I think.

Then, last weekend, I attended my first Mensa event since 2019. It was the Atlanta Mensa gathering; I’d been invited because they had a time travel theme and the organizers wanted me to speak on time travel on film. How could I resist? Though work kept TYG away (we could probably have managed it, but by the time we knew that, I’d already had to book the flight).My talk went great, even though I managed to erase the outline I’d saved on my phone. Fortunately I’d practiced enough and know the material enough that I could do it even without notes. Beyond that I got to hang out with my fellow Mensans, eat some good food — the vegan meal Saturday night was so good, apparently even the meat-eaters in the Atlanta group wanted that restaurant to cater — and participated in a quiz or two. Didn’t win but one question asked for a Batman villain with a time-themed name. I gave them four (Clock, Clock King, Time Commander, Calendar Man).

I must admit, though, the socializing was a little overwhelming after so long without. Sure, I was at ConGregate and ConCarolinas this summer but cons are primarily about activities — selling books, sitting on panels — with socializing squeezed in wherever possible. In gatherings, the socializing’s the priority. I spent a lot of time re-energizing alone in my room.

Oh, I also got my first case of acid reflux in years, due to eating chocolate cheesecake late at night. With no other food in my stomach to cushion the shock. But it was very good cheesecake.

I had no problems with my flights though the airport was packed both times. I used to laugh at myself a little for always following the “get there two hours before the flight” standard. I don’t laugh so much any more.

Below, a closer look at that chocolate cheesecake (with a brownie on the side).

#SFWApro. Comics cover by Gil Kane, rights to images all remain with current holders.

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“You have the habit of not necessarily looking for implausibility but of not avoiding it if it’s useful.”

The title quote is from the Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary I watched a while back. It’s one of several quotes and discussions that stuck with me now that I’ve finished the relevant book, HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT.

Francois Truffaut established himself as a serious filmmaker with his first movie, The 400 Blows. He was also a serious thinker about film, one of several future directors who started by writing for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema which made the radical claim for the time that some American directors were serious artists too. He saw that Hitch, whom America’s Serious Critics dismissed as a gifted but commercial director, was also a serious artist, which led to the book, a biography of sorts starting from Hitchcock’s childhood and working through his career, film by film. It’s fascinating reading even if I don’t agree with either man at times (Truffaut considers Under Capricorn a neglected classic, for instance).The opening quote strikes me as good advice for writers. Going and looking for implausibility might not be productive but if it’s useful, why avoid it? The Fast and Furious series is a good example: the movies are engaging when we have our heroes, say, driving off towing a money vault in Fast Five but a lot less successful when they’re taking on a Russian submarine base in The Fate of the Furious. Diminishing returns and all that (though obviously it didn’t kill the series).While I’ve heard Hitchcock discuss the difference between suspense and shock before — a bomb going off suddenly is a shock, knowing it’s there and counting down is suspense — his discussion of Vertigo added weight to it. The studio thought the ending lacked drama so they wanted a big reveal that Kim Novak was not merely a lookalike for Stewart’s lost love but the same woman. That’s shock; revealing it to the viewers much earlier, as Hitchcock did, is suspense: can she keep up the impersonation or will Scotty (Jimmy Stewart) catch on?

The two men inevitably discussed Hitchcock’s view of MacGuffins — that it doesn’t matter what the bad guys are out to steal or the good guys trying to protect, except that it puts the plot in motion (as I pointed out recently, that’s how I think about the anti-mind control drugs in Black Widow). This raises the risk that when the reveal comes, the audience will be disappointed; Truffaut observes one way Hitchcock deals with this is make the reveal a couple of reels ahead of the climax so it’s not too important to the finish.

But of course the real focus of the book is Hitch’s movies; I rather wish that I’d had this book handy all the way through so I could read the discussion while the film is fresh. Truffaut has the eye of both a critic and a movie maker so we get very interesting discussion of key moments, strengths and weaknesses and film quality. I do think some of Hitchcock’s analysis is skewed by his notorious control issues: he thinks the actors’ role is “to do nothing in an interesting way” rather than act — leave it to Hitchcock’s camera work and set design to tell the story. Unsurprisingly Truffaut, one of the originators of auteur theory (the director’s control makes him the true author of the movie, not the actors or the screenwriter) seems to agree. In Rear Window, he argues, Jimmy Stewart doesn’t have to act: Hitchcock simply shows him watching the neighborhood, then cuts to the scene and we imagine the reaction because Hitch has primed us to see what he wants on Stewart’s face.

I strongly disagree Stewart isn’t acting in that film. But the idea it’s all in the hands of the director and his storyboards must be appealing when you are the director; Truffaut quotes Hitch saying that “I dream of an IBM machine in which I’d insert the screenplay at one end and the film would emerge on the other.” Possibly that also influences Hitch’s view that silents are better than talkies — dialog is theatrical, getting in the way of pure film.

But even where I disagree it’s a fascinating book.

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Questionable Minds: Meet the villain

We meet the primary villain of Questionable Minds at the end of the first chapter. First we encounter my protagonist, Simon, at a tense dinner party. Then we meet Polly Nichols, a broken down woman desperate to turn a trick so she’ll have money to pay for a bed for the night.

Unlike the real Polly Nichols — the first victim of Jack the Ripper — this Polly is a mentalist, a “human telegraph” with the power to read thoughts. Trouble is, Victorian snobbery, as I’ve mentioned before, believes the lower classes are fit only to wield gross physical powers such as TK or firestarting (AKA levitation and incendiary). A woman at the rock-bottom of the social order isn’t to be trusted with telepathic ability so she was turned out of the Academy with only a little training.

The result? Polly has a half-formed ability that only picks up thoughts about her, and only negative ones. Her power amplifies even the slightest, fleeting touch of resentment or discomfort and convinces her she’s despised. She’s alienated from everyone, and she’s miserable.

Then she meets Jack and falls in love. Instantly. She happily follows him to a dark spot on the street where he butchers her (I do not use the term casually. There’ll be a trigger warning for violence against women). She’s too happy to resist.

Scotland Yard’s Mentalist Investigation Department initially turns down the Nichols case: there’s no sign that Jack used any sort of mental powers and that’s their field of interest. Simon, however, has the freedom to investigate unofficially and learns some strangely suspicious details. Still, the MID has bigger fish to fry, a telegrapher who’s obtained documents about important international negotiations — the odd murder of one mentalist is hardly in the same league. But then a second murder happens. Psychic probing reveals the victim was in love, so in love she let the murderer kill her. And it’s only getting worse from there.

In the first “finished” version of the novel, I had Jack’s POV crop up in multiple scenes throughout the book, giving some explanation of his motive and showing his mindset. The brutality of the killings is a ruse, to distract the police from his real agenda — but Jack’s POV scenes show he’s lying to himself. He’s a raging misogynist and he’s getting off on cutting women up.

That still comes across, I hope, despite my cutting out most of Jack’s POV scenes. In the years since I wrote the earlier version, I’ve come to dislike villain POVs. Not always, but with serial killers in particular it’s pretty tedious stuff. His superiority, his gloating about the sheeple around him who are his unwitting prey, etc. My guy’s definitely not like that, but even so I wasn’t sure the scenes were necessary. I cut almost all of them.

That’s about all I can say without giving away major spoilers, so I hope it’s enough.

#SFWApro. Cover by Samantha Collins.

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First week NOT working on Aliens Are Here

It went okay, given that I was off Monday for Labor Day and took most of today off for social activities.

With Aliens Are Here in the bag, I figured the thing I needed most to catch up on was the promotional activity for Questionable Minds. I’ve signed up for a blog tour and spent much of Tuesday and Wednesday prepping materials for that — book blurb, blog posts, stuff like that. I also contacted a couple of book bloggers to ask for reviews, though I think I’ve left it too late.

I also submitted a couple of stories and two queries for nonfiction articles.

Thursday — wait, I forget if I mentioned I’d submitted my short story Impossible Things Before Breakfast to a friend’s anthology. It’s a collective anthology with all of us giving feedback on each other’s stories, selecting the cover, etc. Based on the feedback I’ve been rewriting the story, and it’s done. I didn’t agree with all the suggested changes, but the ones I did follow improved the story. The others, not so much, but that’s typical with more than a couple of beta-readers.

However there were multiple disruptions Thursday so I lost my focus after that. I’d hoped to work on Don’t Pay the Ferryman — I’m thinking the final title will be something like Smiles in Dark Mirrors — but no. Next week, for sure, unless I get some Leaf articles to work on.

I was also slowed down by my computer keys sticking a lot. We ordered some compressed air and I gave the keyboard a blast this morning. I think it’s done the trick so I can postpone buying a computer a bit longer.

One good thing: based on the amount of time I put in proofing and indexing The Aliens Are Here, I figured I might be able to up the time I spend writing during the day. I managed six hours both days which is only a half-hour more but that’s 2.5 hours a week. However it does make it harder to get blogging done.

And speaking of blogging, I posted at Atomic Junkshop about indexing and why Marvel’s Sgt. Fury doesn’t measure up to even a bad WW II movie. Jack Kirby’s cover is for Sgt. Fury #5, the focus of my post.

#SFWApro. Questionable Minds cover by Sam Collins, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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