Category Archives: Writing

Sherlock Holmes: I Never Make Exceptions

Once again I’m getting inspiration for a blog post from the quotes on my Sherlock Holmes mug (available via the Philosopher’s Guild).

Holmes states in The Sign of Four that “I never make exceptions. An exception disproves the rule.” Once again, I think there’s useful advice for writers in that (but also some bad advice).

Most obviously, whatever rules you set up for your fantasy world, you need to follow them. If cold iron cancels magic or kills fae, it has to do so consistently. If your hero lives by an oath of nonviolence or non-killing, he has to stick to it (Superman writers in the Silver Age keep forgetting he doesn’t kill and having him blow up enemy spaceships or the like). If you do make an exception you’d better explain it logically. And you have to make readers care: I have a hard time worrying that someone’s violating rules the writer made up, no matter how impossible the characters say it is.

The same principle applies in real life. I read a thriller back in the 1990s which went to great lengths to provide realistic detail on bombs,, their effects and how to disarm them. So at the climax having the protagonist caught when the bomb blows off but turn out to be standing just far enough away it simply lifts her off the grounds and drops her unharmed with tousled hair … it didn’t fit.

Similarly, He’s Just Not That Into You annoyed me by setting up a rule — guy doesn’t chase a girl relentlessly, he’s not interested — but then it breaks its own premise in the various romances.

In marketing, I take the quote two ways, one valid for writing and one not. As countless how-to articles have observed, never assume that your manuscript is so awesome that an editor will ignore that it’s the wrong length/genre/style. Even though some people do break the rules, it’s wise not to assume we can get away with the same.

The not-valid is the insistence I also see in how-to articles that whatever genre you’re writing for, you should mimick what everyone else is writing. As I discuss at the link, that’s not always the best idea and sometimes a bad one.

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And the triffids shall inherit the Earth! One book, one movie

Until I rewatched it for Alien Visitors, I had no idea the 1963’s DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS was in color. But before I talk about that, I want to talk about the book it’s based on, which I read for the first time this week.

John Wyndham’s DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (yes, the Midwich Cuckoos guy) is set in the near future (of 1951) marked by orbiting satellite weapons (a popular worry of that era, figuring in both The Space Children and Invaders from Mars) and by triffids. ambulatory carnivorous plants. Their origin is unknown — the thinking is some kind of Soviet experiment — but while vicious, they’re easy enough to manage and the oil they produce is incredibly useful in industry (I’m not sure if it’s purely industrial or also used to replace cooking oil). Our protagonist, Bill, is a biologist who works with triffids. Having recently been splashed with triffid venom he went into the hospital temporarily blind. In a very effective opening, Bill notices the hospital is silent. Nobody moving, no nurses rushing up and down the corridors. Something’s wrong. There’s no traffic noise outside.

It turns out Bill got a lucky break: the light from the meteors burning up has stricken everyone who watched the meteors blind (Bill later speculates this is actually the result of an orbiting satellite weapon). With the vast majority of Brits (and the world) now blind, society collapses. Bill meets up with Josella, a young novelist notorious for her racy first book and together they navigate the increasingly nasty environment. People are looting, killing, raping or trying to launch a new society as a dictatorship. Bill feels torn between the impulse to help the blind and the realization he can’t keep them alive long; all he’ll be doing is making it harder for himself and Josella to survive. The triffids further complicate things. They were easy enough for sighted individuals to manage — fire is obviously effective — but now? They’re cutting loose from the triffid farms, reproducing rapidly and killing.

The triffids are the coolest thing in the book. They come across as (possibly) intelligent but extremely alien, both physically and in whatever passes for their mind. There are lots of them, their poison sting can kill a human easily but shooting and stabbing don’t do much good against them. And unlike the film, they’re not hamstrung by special effects. The human threat is much more conventional, familiar from lots and lots of post-apocalypse stories, before and after this book. It’s serviceable though.

The worst part of the book, like Cuckoos, is the sexism. Josella and Bill fall in with one group of survivors that declares that every woman who joins their group will have to bear children (men can earn their keep by labor, but not women), Josella assures Bill it’s no problem. All women want to be mothers, just like the women of Midwich didn’t mind being impregnated by aliens without their consent. That’s just what they’re like.

While it’s a much less irritating point, even though one group includes a busload of pre-meteor blind people, it never occurs to Wyndham they’d have good advice for the formerly sighted on how to deal with the crisis.

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1963) simplifies things by having triffids dropped on the Earth by the same meteor shower that blinds everyone. Howard Keel as the hero recovers his sight in time to find, as in the book, chaos, panicked blind mobs and suicides; accompanied by a young girl he rescues, he sets off to find some sort of safe haven. People are a threat, but the triffids here are worse. Meanwhile a married pair of scientists in an old lighthouse besieged by triffids work desperately to find a solution.

This is a fun film, but suffers from me seeing it right after the book; for all its faults, the book is better. The movie is much more conventional, a straight 1950s monster film, right down to the heroic triffid-fighting scientists and a solution out of H.G. Wells — seawater kills triffids! Earth is saved! The book ends with confidence we’ll reach that point eventually, but it’ll be a long time. Here we end with the menace effectively finished, and a lot more sighted survivors than in Wyndham. I actually find that more plausible, but it also lacks some of the drama.

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My instincts were, unfortunately, correct

While the rule of thumb is that we shouldn’t be visiting the doctor if it isn’t necessary my teeth need more care than they used to so I went to the dentist for a cleaning Tuesday. Turned out I was right to go: I have a cavity but we’ll be able to fill it before it decays all the way to the nerve. Phew! That said, not at all looking forward to going back in next week.

Despite the dental visit, I managed to put in a full week of work, so recalibrating my schedule is still working. A lot more of it was watching movies for Alien Visitors than I’d planned; I’ll have to watch for that in the future. But I did get other stuff done: proofing footnotes for Undead Sexist Cliches; making it halfway through the final proof of Questionable Minds, plus talking with my cover designer; Leaf articles; and writing more of the text for Alien Visitors.

I’d planned to concentrate my Alien Visitors work so that I’d be watching movies about kids and aliens in a clump, then ET superheroes, alien invasion films, etc. Unfortunately the Netflix DVDs that were supposed to arrive Monday never appeared (I’ve requested replacements) so that threw me off and my viewing was rather random. I could have viewed most of the films on Amazon but they were all for a fee so I chose to wait for Netflix. Perhaps that was an error.

Oh, and I sent in my sales tax for the previous quarter. Annoyingly, the sale of one Amazon print-on-demand copy translates into a $1.66 payment but the minimum fee for paying sales tax online is $2. I lose money. Still, I’d sooner have the sale.

One of our neighbors was out of town this week so TYG or I walked her dog at lunch (the puppy sitter has to work during the day). Wednesday I came across a vulture disputing the rights to roadkill with a couple of crows. The vulture won.

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“We really like your story” followed by “but …”

So my latest rejection, for No One Can Slay Her, said a lot of nice things about the atmosphere, the magic, the characters, some of the 1950s period detail. But … there was a lot they didn’t like (though happily they didn’t find any flaws in the mystery plot, something I’d worried about). Mostly matters of taste — the details they disliked I think work for the story — but it still added up to a no.

Which is fair enough; actually more than fair, because taking the time to write a detailed critique is quite generous of them (I know the editor. They have a lot of demands on their time). But still it’s frustrating, like one I got a couple of months ago for The Schloss and the Switchblade (really liked the story but no room for it in the upcoming issues). Even when they like my work, there’s a but. And no sale.

Of course, pretty much every story I’ve ever written has gone through at least a half-dozen markets, often much more, before someone accepts it. Sometimes after rewriting based on feedback. Sometimes with no changes. So I’m not discouraged. On the other hand, pretty much every story I’ve ever written has gone through at least a half-dozen markets, even though the eventual acceptance means it’s good enough to get published. Why, oh why can’t I find the right market earlier?

It’s particularly frustrating this year where my only sales have been reprints. I’m seriously considering that when I finish with Questionable Minds and Undead Sexist Cliches I just take everything that isn’t sold and put them into a short story book with some of my published works. As I do a lot of historical fantasy, I could call it Magic and History — okay, I should call it something better than that but you get the idea. We have No One Can Slay Her from the 1950s, Glory That Was and Impossible Things Before Breakfast from the 1970s, Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates in the 1980s, plus published work from the 1930s, 1950s, 1960s, early 21st century and one from the 1600s.

The downside is that my self-published books don’t make me much money. The best sales have come from when I visited cons and handsold them and god knows when I’ll get to do that again. Short fiction is hardly a lucrative field but the money from magazine/anthology sales is usually better than self-publishing them. Then again, it’s also a great deal of time researching markets, submitting, researching and submitting again … at least I’d be done with that and the stories would be published, available for reading.

Well it’ll be a while before my current projects are done, so I’ll see how I feel by then. And until that point, I’ll keep submitting.

And I’ll close with a photo of Wisp sitting on top of the heated cat-house we bought for her, somewhat blurred by sunlight on the back window.

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Another productive week, woot!

So far my recalibration effort has proven successful. Not perfect, but overall much more productive.

I finished Chapter Nine of Undead Sexist Cliches and the afterword which means … holy crap, I have completed this draft. It doesn’t seem quite real to say so. I still have to check footnotes; read the manuscript aloud one final time; and index. But that’s more like mopping up than writing. This will be a cool milestone once it registers that I’ve actually done it.

I got several chapters done on Questionable Minds, but not as many as I hoped. And man, 90,000 words is a lot to proof-read! Still, the journey of a thousand miles and so on …

I didn’t get much writing done on Alien Visitors but I watched some movies and TV for the book, and began breaking down the listed movies into the various categories. The Alien Invasion chapter has a really insane long list, of course (even given most of them will be just noted at the end), while other chapters are a lot lighter. I’ve no idea what to do about that yet; as I’m focusing on only one movie a chapter, maybe it doesn’t really matter. I also read a fair amount of a book on the history of UFOs that’s turning out to be quite good.

I also got my Leaf articles done, and did an over-the-phone tryout for a radio drama (no pay, but it should be fun).

Oh and Trixie’s rehab appointment shows she’s mostly in good shape. Her surgery is holding up but there’s a slight deterioration in her knee, so we need to reduce her jumping and running up stairs for a couple of months. And she’s now over 10 pounds, which is too heavy; it’s easy to forget but because she’s so small, a little treat can add up to a significant number of calories. But she can still take good long walks so that will help get some of the weight off, I hope.

Hard to believe she was a tiny five-pound dog back when we first met my little angel.

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I celebrate the recalibrate

So as I said a week ago, I’m trying to run my schedule much more tightly to ensure I get everything done. My first week went well. If I didn’t allocate my time as precisely as I’d hoped, I still got more done on the Questionable Minds final draft and the footnotes for Undead Sexist Cliches than I have the past few weeks. To break it down:

•I completed my usual quota of Leaf articles. There was a problem because one of the finished ones got wiped from the database but the editors took care of it so I’ll get paid for it. I greatly appreciate that.

•I got about halfway through Chapter Nine of Undead Sexist Cliches and I finished proofing the footnotes to Chapter One.

•I got several chapters done on Questionable Minds. Annoyingly, Word kept doing random, arbitrary things to my document (shifting the justification for the whole thing when I only wanted to center one line, for instance) so I put the whole thing back into Scrivener. Then I’ll export it to Word when it’s done and see if that works better.

•I watched several more movies for Alien Visitors and got a good start on the ETs and Children chapter. It’s a tough one as the range is much wider than the focus of the ET pregnancy chapter, which concentrates on the rape aspect. Kid/ET movies range from the sweetness of E.T. to the nightmarish Invaders From Mars to the goofy teenagers of Pajama Party. Still, I’ll get it worked out.

That’s pretty good given I had to devote Tuesday afternoon to multiple errands: library books back, doggy meds picked up, eye doctor appointment, checks to deposit. That way I can give myself a thorough cleansing once for all the trips.

I’ve also taken over as organizer of the local Shut Up and Write Durham! meetup which is currently virtual. Our first organizer had to move away; the second ran out of steam; now my fellow writer Allegra Gullino and I will try to run it together. I’m not sure I set up next Monday’s meeting right, as it’s not visible on the site (I have to go to the link for the specific meeting) but we’ll get it figured out.

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Research: Known and Unknown

In a post on Wicked Cozy Authors,  James Ziskin discusses research and being alert for what you don’t know. We may think we know/remember details, but we can be wrong, so check it out. Which got me thinking of a classification I’ve seen in business advice articles, dividing challenges into known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns and unknown unknowns.

Known knowns are the stuff we know, and we’re confident in our knowledge. I know a shit-ton about comics from the Silver and Bronze Age (and quite a bit about the 1980s) and quite a lot about movies. I also have known unknowns in these areas, gaps in my knowledge I’m fully aware of. My knowledge of comics for the past decade is considerably weaker; if a list of comics published in 2015 were important to a story, I know I need to go research it.

Unknown knowns is stuff we could know but we don’t realize it. In business, this is the stuff your team knows but you didn’t check with them, or the things you could look up in the relevant wiki … only you didn’t. I don’t know it’s as much of an issue when we’re working on our fiction, by ourselves.

Unknown knowns is where we can really get stuck, because that’s the stuff we don’t know we don’t know. For example, we remember X clearly, but it’s actually Y. We assume we know how CSI or high-tech security works because we’ve seen it on TV. We assume that it’s perfectly normal for an average fiftysomething man to date a twentysomething beauty because we see that pairing in movies. Or we simply assume our personal experience and worldview is typical of everyone. I have some examples here.

The best solution? As Ziskin says, check out everything. Question our assumptions. Be conscious even experts and professionals may be wrong. Historical novelist Gary Jennings, for instance, mentioned in an article that when working on a novel about a 19th century circus, he’d talked to a trapeze artist who had no idea how different his line of work had been back then.

We may still fall into error, but at least we can reduce it to a livable level.

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Recalibrating myself like a precision timepiece!

So I accomplished about 50 percent of my goals for September which is pretty much where I’ve been running for most of this crazy year. My biggest disappointment is that I went way over budget due to the various dog and cat vet bills. On the other hand, there was a time when if I went over budget I actually went negative; that I’m not in that financial space any more is pretty cool.

Writing went pretty well. I didn’t get very far on Questionable Minds but I rewrote Chapter Eight of Undead Sexist Cliches, the Alien Pregnancy chapter of Alien Visitors and watched a ton of movies. I did not get as far as I wanted proofing the Undead Sexist Cliches footnotes (though I have found several errors, demonstrating that I’m not wasting my time) for the same reason my Questionable Minds work was slow: I save that for the end of the day and I frequently wind up dealing with the dogs at that point. And they’re hyper. So focus goes away.

Plus I got my quota of Leaf articles and blogged at Atomic Junkshop about how much of the Superman mythos I grew up with got tested out first in the pages of Superboy. Case in point, Bizarro. And as my Shut Up and Write! meetup group seems to have died, I’m looking at reviving it with a friend of mine as co-organizer.

So for next month I’m going to try running a very tight ship. I’ve planned out my schedule including vet and doctor appointments and I’ve been much more precise in what I’m doing in each period. Out of two writing sessions a week on Alien Visitors, one will be watching movies, one will be writing the chapters. With Undead Sexist Cliches, one session will be working on Chapter Nine, one will be footnotes, reading the early chapters aloud and such. That was I should get the work done even if the dogs bedevil me. The more progress I make, the sooner I can get back to doing some fiction.

I’m not as good at multi-tasking as I used to be so trying to write while I’m watching films doesn’t go well. Instead I’ll use the time for things I can do: exercise, cooking, baking bread, maybe writing bills. That’ll squeeze a little more time out of the day.

When I was younger I used to obsessively micromanage my time this way, but I don’t feel like that this time. I feel relaxed and reasonably confident I can make this work. We’ll see if I’m right.

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Classifying characters

I have a strong fascination with systems for classifying characters, like my born great/achieve greatness/have greatness thrust upon them post from some years back. I don’t really use them that much when I’m writing, but they still interest me. So here are a few.

The original DC Comics RPG from about 30 years ago broke down heroic motivations into five categories.  They uphold good (Superman). They fight evil (Batman and Spectre). They’re burdened with unwanted power (Cyborg. The Doom Patrol. The X-Men). A sense of duty (Green Lantern). The thrill of adventure (Green Arrow. Warlord)

My friend Gray Rinehart posted a list on his blog (I don’t have the exact link) of how characters respond to outer and inner expectations:

  • Upholders struggle to live up to what other people expect of them, and their own standards.
  • Obligers meet other people’s expectations, but resist setting internal, personal standards.
  • Questioners follow their own code, but resist outer expectations.
  • Rebels push against other people’s rules, and against their own standards.

John Rogers discusses levels of corruption on his blog Kung Fu Monkey in relation to his TV show Leverage but I think it’s also useful as an assessment of how bad a character (or a real person) is.

1)You discover your business has done something bad and harmful (your new product has harmful side effects say). You put a stop to it, make restitution and acknowledge the error. Or on a personal level, you do something — cheat on your spouse, say — but you stop, confess, don’t do it again and don’t dig yourself in deeper defending yourself. Overall, you’re a good person (subject to just how bad your actions were); you sinned, but instead of excusing it, you’ve done your best to atone and resume walking the walk. For example, William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama who resigns his post when he fails to live up to his own standards.

2)You did something wrong but you don’t admit to it. However you also don’t repeat your error. So (again depending what you did) you’re still a decent human being.

3)You don’t admit it, and you also don’t try to control it. For example, you know if your old lover shows up, you’re going to sleep with them, but you don’t take any steps to avoid being alone with them.

4)You actively doing stuff — selling tainted products, sleeping with strangers on trips out of town, cutting corners on regulations — while holding yourself as a respectable person. The higher the risk of harm, the worse you are: if you hide a 10 percent risk your nuclear plant will cause cancer in the neigbhorhood, that’s bad but it’s not as bad as if there’s a 60 percent risk.

Rogers does a much more entertaining breakdown, so check it out.

Foz Meadows and I use a similar classification scheme for Bad Boys (hers) and Bad Girls (mine). The ones who makes a good romantic lead, “the rebel – is defiant, confident, anarchic; a counteragent to the conformity, he breaks rules, laws and established social mores alike, both on principle and for the joy of it.” They push the protagonist to rebel too, against everything that’s strangling them in their lives. Next come the ones who see the protagonist mostly as a possession or a source of sexual satisfaction, but don’t care about them much beyond that (see either of the original posts for examples). And then the ones who are abusive, manipulative, treat you like shit or talk you into murdering or stealing for them. And that goes even if they’re charming and/or beautiful and/or the sex is incredible; that may explain why the protagonist can’t quit them but it disqualifies the for the happy ending.

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Yesterday, I played hooky

I had to drive to the doctor Thursday morning for my flu shot. I combined that with dropping off library books and running an errand for TYG. By the time I got back I just didn’t feel like working, so I stopped. I didn’t even attempt to justify it with anything productive, I just sat and read the rest of the day. Felt good, even though it meant I once again got nothing done on Questionable Minds.

Well in fairness that’s not just because of yesterday. The dogs have been getting fidgety in the middle afternoon, so I take custody from TYG. Unfortunately they were consistently too fidgety — maybe because of confinement? — and I couldn’t get any of the little odds and ends done that I schedule for late afternoon (extra work on Questionable Minds, checking footnotes for Undead Sexist Cliches). If it keeps happening next week I may just stop work and resume in the evening.

That said, I did finish Chapter Eight of Undead Sexist Cliches, and I got a lot of work done on the Alien Pregnancy chapter of Alien Visitors. I will have to watch myself, though — it would be very easy to just fill up my writing time with watching movies even though this book is supposed to be less labor-intensive than my previous ones.

And of course, I got my Leaf work in, and blogged at Atomic Junkshop about Joe Simon’s bizarro 1970s series Prez (a rewritten version of an earlier post here).And now the weekend! Even if I’m not going anywhere or really doing much, it feels good to get here.

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