Category Archives: Writing

The First Law of Evil Magic

Brandon Sanderson’s first law of magic (which I’ve blogged about before) is that “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” Lately I’ve been wondering if that works the opposite way: does the ability to make the conflict unsolvable require the reader to understand magic? Like a horror story where the magic is all evil, and all on the bad guys’ side?

I’m inclined to say yes. It doesn’t have to be hard magic (Sanderson’s term for a system of magic with clearly defined rules) but it does have to have internal logic. Though neither readers nor the protagonist may understand the logic until the protagonist gets it in the neck.

For example there was an episode of an anthology series on VH-1 some years ago in which the devil (Roger Daltrey) traps the protagonist into playing a magic guitar. The strings cut his fingers, the blood forms the notes but if he survives to the end of the song he gets to keep the guitar. Only when he reaches the end, it’s some musical symbol that says “go back to the beginning and repeat.” He’s doomed.

That story was definitely soft magic. We have no idea what rules bind Lucifer, other than being obligated to honor the letter of whatever pact he makes (a staple of any “deal with the devil” story). If the protagonist won and Satan killed him anyway, that would make sort-of sense (he’s the Devil, after all) but dramatically it falls flat.

Or consider a movie from 2009, Drag Me To Hell. Protagonist refuses an old woman a loan; woman places curse on protagonist that threatens to destroy her life. We eventually learn some of the rules by which the curse can be broken because that gives the protagonist her endgame: follow the rules, save herself. It doesn’t work but providing the rules provides the suspense.

For a story where magic has no rules, there’s the classic Twilight Zone episode It’s a Good Life. Billy Mumy (above) plays a little kid with the reality warping power of the Infinity Gauntlet. He wishes it, it happens. Why no, a small child having that power doesn’t end well for anyone around him, how did you guess?

We get no explanation how Mumy got his power or how it works. But for the purpose of this story, that’s okay. We know going on that he has absolute power, so again, we have a clear understanding of the rules.

Victoria Feistner’s excellent Melanie in the Underworld in Love, Time, Space, Magic (the anthology with my short story Leave the World to Darkness) seems like an exception. It involves an Orpheus-like quest to free someone from the netherworld, but even though Melanie follows the rules, she loses. That works because the story ultimately isn’t about freeing her lover, it’s about accepting that he’s gone and dealing with the loss. All of which is foreshadowed early in the story so it doesn’t come out of the blue.

So I guess Sanderson’s law applies here too.

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Diversity is fun! Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

One of the standard argument against diversity from the “anti-SJW” contingent is that adding diversity is the opposite of fun. Thinking about minorities and discrimination and worrying about whether your book is too white is just too damn serious and too-PC and it kills all the excitement and adventure.

HEROINE COMPLEX by Sarah Kuhn shows, to the contrary, that diversity can add fun to a book. The stuff I enjoyed most involves protagonist Evie reminiscing about her life as a Japanese American, alongside her strongminded bestie, Annie.

Getting mocked for bringing “weird” food to school in their lunchboxes (and noticing the same kids who sneered at them grew up into foodies who love Asian cuisine). Endlessly rewatching the movie Heroic Trio because it showed Asian women who were superheroes.  Annie’s tossed-off remark when Evie has to impersonate her that sure, Annie’s Chinese and Evie’s Japanese, but white people won’t notice the difference. Stuff like this, the little minutiae of Evie’s life, gives the book a different flavor from most urban fantasies.

The book is set in San Francisco a couple of years after a demonic portal opened, serving as the trigger event that endowed certain people with superpowers. Annie re-invented herself as Aveda Kevadra, demon-slaying superhero — essentially a standard butt-kicking urban fantasy protagonist, but doing it publicly rather than in the shadows, and milking it for celebrity and fame. When she’s injured during a fight, she recruits Evie to step in for her, aided by a little illusion magic. Trouble is, Evie’s spent her whole life clinging to the shadows, happy to be Aveda’s personal assistant rather than in the spotlight. Not only does she have to endure the public eye, but new demonic attacks force Evie to demonstrate she has powers of her own (fire throwing). Now what?

It’s a good set up, and “shy character forced to bloom” is a story that appeals to me, but Evie was just too miserable for me to connect with. She hates her job, has no sex life, struggles to remember why she and Annie are friends, feels miserable in her own skin and hates being a metahuman freak (that’s way too overdone in comics for me to like it here). It’s nice when she and Annie/Aveda finally get their mojo back, but up to that point, Aveda’s such a jerk I kept wishing Evie would slap her soundly instead of putting up with it.

Evie’s boyfriend is so hyper-rational he felt like he’d wandered over from Big Bang Theory. Evie’s sister Bea goes from a teenager with a drinking problem to cleaning up her act overnight. And while I realize the villain’s meant to be an idiot, I still couldn’t buy “I’m going to explain my evil plans while the hero wriggles free of my trap” as a climax (I promptly went back and re-edited the climax of No One Can Slay Her to avoid the same).

The Asian-American elements, though, remained fun and entertaining.

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I’m getting those colored lights going!

Title is a paraphrase of Jean Kerr’s play, Mary, Mary. It’s a sort-of way of saying that while I’m zonked, I had a very productive week (if you want to figure out the context, I recommending reading the script or catching the stage play — the movie version is disappointingly dull).

While insomnia frequently allows me to get some extra work in, and at an hour of the day I’m not dealing with puppies, this week it was as much a hindrance as a help. TYG came back from her trip last weekend with the equivalent of con crud so she’s been coughing in her sleep pretty much every night (the cough’s lingering although all the other symptoms are gone). I sleep way too lightly not to wake up when she coughs, and then I can’t get back to sleep because she’s still coughing. And once I’m up, I can’t seem to get back to sleep at all.

I have the freedom to take naps throughout the day, whenever I want, but I can’t nap long enough to make up for the sleep I missed. I suppose I should have slept somewhere else, but I’m not sure it would have helped. TYG’s coughs are loud!

Despite all that I had a productive week. I resumed work on articles for Leaf so I have some money coming in, which is nice. Although due to being so tired, they kept taking much longer than I’d budgeted for them. That was frustrating. Another week I might have tried putting in extra hours to compensate, but I was too wiped.

I finished No One Can Slay Her (finally!) and submitted it, as well as sending off Rabbits Indignateonem, a flash fiction I finished last week. I also submitted queries for one article, one op-ed and sent Southern Discomfort to a few agents. I haven’t quite decided how I’m going to work submissions: at what point do I give up on agents (assuming I don’t land one) and submit to publishers directly? But I’ll figure it out.

I’m really pleased about this. Submitting stuff usually stops cold when I’m working on Leaf articles, and if I don’t submit, I don’t sell. So this is a big improvement.

I didn’t get much done on Impossible Takes a Little Longer. The rewriting is still going much slower than I anticipated, and it wound up being the main victim of the added time spent on Leaf articles. However the replotting for Let No Man Put Asunder went freakishly well. It actually left me wondering if I was doing something wrong, but on reflection, it’s just a very different book from Impossible or Southern Discomfort. Those both have rather tangled, non-linear plots; Discomfort has a large cast with several POV characters. Asunder has two first person narrators and a fairly simple set-up: freak event happens, two people caught in it become targets for a mysterious villain and they end up running across the multiverse to escape.

So other than lack of sleep, I think I’m grading this week as an A.

Below a couple of photos I took during an early morning drive recently.

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Sherlock Holmes: “Never guess. It is a shocking habit.”

Once again it’s time for a Sherlock Holmes quote about writing (even if he didn’t know it) based on my mug from the Philospher’s Guild: “Never guess. It is a shocking habit, destructive of the logical faculty.”

Holmes, of course, guessed all the time. He’d hear an account of the case and formulate a theory by the time he got to the crime scene. I’d say that counts as informed (at best) guessing. And frequently he got it wrong, as in The Yellow Face; what he guessed was a case of blackmail was actually a woman hiding her mixed-race child from her second husband.

As to writing, I think of it two ways. Only one is good advice.

The good advice applies to getting our facts right, one of the topics I panelled on at Illogicon last weekend (more on that tomorrow). If it’s important to the story, don’t guess about what the law is, how doctors treat a stroke victim, how they played chess in the 10th century (the queen was a weak piece, moving one square diagonally in all directions). Get the answers. For Southern Discomfort I had a scene in the final draft where St. Luke’s Hospital is dealing with a string of paralysis cases. I’d assumed they would treat them as a mysterious plague of strokes. My friend and MD Heather Frederick said no, they wouldn’t automatically assume that. Figuring out a more plausible response vastly improved the story.

Sometimes guessing is the only option. We don’t know much about what life was like for our earliest ancestors. We don’t know what Lincoln’s own plan for Reconstruction would have been. We can only guess what JFK would have done in a second term as president. According to one of my co-panelists, there’s no floor plan for the Bedlam asylum, so he was free to make it up (within reason).

Doyle himself was often sloppy about the Holmes canon. As he admitted later, he wrote Silver Blaze with zero knowledge of horse racing; people who did wrote to him afterwards and said most of the characters would have been banned from racing for life after what they’d done.

Now, the bad advice: when we’re drafting or plotting stories I think it’s perfectly okay to guess. I’m not sure it’s even possible to avoid it.

Unless we’re writing something based very closely on true-life incidents, we’re making it up as we go along. Even if we outline everything before we write, that doesn’t mean “Shelob captures Frodo” follows automatically from “Frodo enters Mordor.” We have to think of potential options and guess or intuit what the right one will be. Sometimes we’re wrong and have to go back and fix or rewrite or replot. Sometimes we’re spot on.

But even when it feels perfect, we can’t be sure there’s not a better option we didn’t even think of. As Henry Petroski says, engineers can never be sure their design is perfect. It’s always possible there’s a better one. Same with writing. I’m pleased with Southern Discomfort but it’s possible there were twists or scenes that would have worked better than the ones in the finished volume. I’m guessing there weren’t but I don’t know for sure. As Petroski also points out, money and time limit design options: to get anything finished, at some point we have to say “this is it,” or “this is good enough” and not worry about what might be better. And hope it is, indeed, good enough

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Hello, I must be going

I was supposed to finish up Southern Discomfort by now. But a surge of added dog care shanghaid me. I will have it finished later today, but I have no time for a longer post.

Here are photos of the dogs as a reminder they’re adorable even when they’re inconvenient.

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Fans, critics, and editors; a few links

Aquaman director James Wan asks his fans not to harass people who dislike the movie and non-fans not to send him their negative reviews.

The Mary Sue discusses fans who think creators are obligated to take the story where the fan wants: “In reality, creators owe you a story, and not to be deeply offensive. That’s about it.” Fans can get particularly PO’d if their preferred ship isn’t the one the show goes with.

From fans to critics: the perennial debate over who gets to decide which books are good.

And how about artists? What’s the difference between an homage and a swipe?

And editors: here’s one editor’s analysis of Milo Yiannopoulis’ book before Simon & Schuster passed on it.

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He looked at the future and went mad!

So as I mentioned yesterday, nonfiction squeezed out a lot of fiction writing time in 2018. And the same was true for 2017. That year it hit me hard because I just assumed I’d have a short spurt, then it would fade away. So I skimped on fiction during the spurt … which didn’t go away. Which is good for my bottom line, but not so good for (strikes Byronic pose) my creative soul.

This year I did a better job balancing them at first, but like I said yesterday, the demands of Screen Rant and Leaf combined ate into a lot of time. So now that I’m looking at a year without any Screen Rant (probably plenty of leaf though it’s not guaranteed), and ready to balance fiction and nonfiction better, just how much fiction can I get written?

Answer: probably not as much as I put in the goal list. My plan is to rewrite Impossible Takes a Little Longer over the first two months while I replot another novel. Then try and write a draft of that one almost as fast. And a couple more. These are all old books I have worked on many times in the past, so the basics are there (characters, concepts, setting). It’s just revising the plots (“just” does a lot of work in that sentence, some of them need a lot of work), and in a couple of cases updating them; one of them actually starts in a contemporary setting and that’s changed a lot from the last time I tackled it.

And if I can’t work out a good new plot? Time to say goodbye and bung them into the trunk. On to newer stuff!

Plus I want to write twelve short stories this year. That’s really optimistic; it takes me forever to shape them from the first draft into something usable. But as I said yesterday, I don’t have any sort of reward/penalty system in play, so it’s not like I have anything to lose. Pride? Maybe. But I didn’t get any short stories finished this year and I’m not walking around kicking myself. So I think I can take it.

I was worried that Southern Discomfort running a little into the new year would gum up the works, but I don’t think so. I’m soooo close to done.

I have a bunch of other goals, writing and otherwise. They range from finishing reading John LeCarre to finding my sister Keri’s burial place (she died at about seven weeks).  In fact it’s an insanely long list. And a really huge list of January goals based on them, but that actually makes sense. As we all know, it’s easy to start off the year with high aspirations, then we lose focus. So I might as well make maximum use of the January vigor. We’ll see if that works.

And yes, having fun, relaxing and enjoying life, undefined though those goals are, are definitely on the list.

Here’s to 2019. I hope it’s awesome for all of you. And me too.

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2018 was not the year I anticipated

So out of 103 goals of varying complexity and importance, I accomplished 53 percent of them. That’s consistent with my performance for 2016 and 2017. As I don’t give myself any rewards for achieving them, I’m satisfied with the percentage. I set my list high, after all (rewards make a good incentive, but it’s hard to find something I wouldn’t do for myself or buy for myself anyway).

The bad news is that my creative output really fell way short of my aspirations. My top goal was to finish Southern Discomfort and submit it; didn’t happen. I wanted to finish four short stories; I didn’t manage any. I only occasionally pitched nonfiction pieces to any markets. I didn’t finish the Undead Sexist Cliches book.

The main reason was that my steady freelance gigs got in the way. Which is not a bad thing—I made well above my writing income goals for the year—but working on Leaf articles and Screen Rant took a lot of time. Particularly as the minimum Screen Rant listicle got longer and some of the topics got further away from my areas of expertise (like finding 17 secrets about the Nick TV show Victorious). Even though Screen Rants are fun and they gave me a chance to play with my writing style, I gave up the gig in the summer; it was just consuming too much of my writing week and Leaf, while duller, paid better.

I have learned from this. It’s the main reason I haven’t started submitting one nonfiction proposal in my files to publishers yet: I think it would just consume too much time and I’d like to do a lot more fiction in 2019.

I did self-publish the paperback edition of Atlas Shagged and Atoms for Peace, though, and I’m quite pleased with them. And I stuck to my goal of only checking email three times a day during work. And I finally got around to putting a PayPal donation link in the sidebar. Oh, and it occurs to me I don’t even bother setting any goals about staying as a full-time writer: barring disaster (which can’t be eliminated of course) it seems like I’m secure in that path.

In nonwriting goals, I kept the bird feeder filled, used sunscreen regularly when walking the dogs or bicycling and bicycled almost once every week (even discounting the weeks the weather didn’t permit it, I didn’t make the cut, but I’m doing better than last year). I called my elected officials off and on, and wrote them a couple of times, though I doubt it did much good (nor blogging about their pathetic performance). I traveled outside Durham several times, mostly with TYG (Mystacon was a solo act, on the other hand) and I got to see my brother and niece in October at my dad’s 90th birthday shindig.

Goals aside, it was a good year (not counting the frequent train wrecks emanating from President Shit-Gibbon). I snuggled with dogs and TYG, spent more social time than last year with friends, read a bunch of books and watched a lot of movies. I hung out more with the neighbors on our cul-de-sac and kept my weight to a reasonable level (not so much this past week, but that’s normal). I turned sixty and threw myself a birthday party (usually it’s just me and TYG). I enjoyed seeing my family (it’s not like they’re just a checkmark on a list) and catching up with my niece for the first time since she became an adult.

Next year I intend to keep having fun. But with more fiction. Details tomorrow.

Happy new year everyone.

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The Dismal Dregs of Defeat! Okay, delayed victory, that’s not so bad

Well, Southern Discomfort will not be wrapped up by midnight on the 31st. However, it will definitely be done next week (barring illness, exploding computer, etc.) so I can live with it. It would have been nicely symbolic though.

Thursday did me in. One of the car dashboard Danger lights was flashing so I took it in Thursday morning. Trouble was I woke up very early as I so often do; as I was going to have to drive the car and I prefer to do that when I’m not exhausted I kept trying to go back to sleep instead of getting up and writing. Didn’t work, but I did grab enough shut-eye to make it to the dealer and back (and in the best tradition, the light went off as soon as I got there. They couldn’t find anything wrong either). But I was pretty wiped, and the day was not productive. I still made it past 85,000 words this week so the end is in sight (it’s currently at slightly over 96,000)

So as there’s not much else to talk about, let’s talk about time management.

A while back I decided to give the pomodoro method another try. This is the one where you spend 25 minutes completely focused, then five minutes doing something else; every four pomodoro half-hours, you take a longer break. I committed to doing at least one day a week that way, adjusted for the facts of life (if I followed the formula exactly I’d wind up taking the dogs for lunch walkies late. Bad idea).

It’s proven quite effective at focusing me. Even when I’m not actually running the pomodoro timer (i.e., my phone’s stop watch) I’m concentrating better. As I’ve mentioned before, whatever time hacks I try usually run out of steam but for the moment this one’s working. If anything, I’m having trouble with remembering to take breaks if I don’t use the timer. Contrary to pomodoro theory it is, in fact, possible to keep going longer than 25 minutes. However I do find my mind fritzing and getting muzzy a lot sooner, so I’m trying to avoid that. Giving myself a break is a smarter move.

A second trick I’ve found effective is keeping a short list of my most important tasks. Not necessarily immediate tasks or complicated ones but ones that have to be done for whatever reason. Having the list and marking it off works better than mixing them into my calendar app or my general list of monthly goals.

Another time tactic I’ll be imposing on myself in January is starting the day on time. Even when I wake up ultra-early, I usually start my morning routines (exercise, Yoga, breakfast, tea and TV) about the same time (5 AM roughly). But it’s very easy to watch a little extra TV or sit around playing on my computer and not start the actual work day on schedule (7 AM or 7:30 AM depending on whether I’m doing exercise in the morning). I think meeting the official start time will help my focus in the morning. And obviously make a little more space in the day for productive work. It’s particularly important because due to TYG’s schedule I’m often doing more dog-wrangling in the morning so every little bit of time gained helps.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Southern Discomfort, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals

Skating along the edge of victory

So this week the only thing I worked on was Southern Discomfort. Well except, Thursday, when I was exhausted and spent the day working on my insanely ambitious goals for next year (I’ll get to that in a future post).

I wrapped up last week with slightly over 50,000 words. I’m finishing this week with slightly under 70,000. Given I have five work days left before 2018 ends, it’s possible I can finish, but I’m not quite as confident as I was last week. Especially as I’ll be working around other holiday distractions. But it’s conceivable I can make it.

I’d be better off, obviously, if I’d spent yesterday working on the book too, but cumulative insomnia finally left me worn out. Last night I took an Ambien, this weekend I should get some solid sleep in (I usually do when I don’t have to work the next day), so fingers crossed. If worst comes to worst, I can wrap it up first week of January without disrupting my other writing plans too much.

While I’ve had a lot of tidying up and cleaning up to do — making sure the reactions and conversations flow logically from moment to moment — I haven’t run into any major plot problems since last week. That’s good; hopefully it’ll stay that way as I work through the rest.

Wish me luck.

Oh, and I’ve had a couple of Christmas-themed posts up at Atomic Junkshop. One on the way Christmas sucks movies to it and one about A Christmas Carol as a story of loneliness

And the Science Fiction Research Association Review gave a great review of Now and Then We Time Travel (“Sherman has put in lots of hard work and produced a very useful reference that is fun to sample—open it to page 125 to find Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971 stop motion television special with the voices of Vincent Price and Danny Kaye) followed by Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). There are many similar delights of juxtaposition.”)

While I hope that leads to a few more sales, getting such a good review is a delight in itself.

And here’s a photo I’ve been meaning to post for a while. I batted a pillow at Plush dog but instead of chewing it as he usually does, he simply stared at me. And looked adorable doing it.

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