Category Archives: Writing

Is Our Writers Learning? The Coming of the Terrans

Leigh Brackett’s THE COMING OF THE TERRANS collects five of her Martian stories written from 1948 (Beast Jewel of Mars) to the early 1960s (The Road to Sinharat and the luridly titled Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon). They suit my love of pulp perfectly, and I think there’s enough of interest to make them worth a blog post of its own (obviously)

The stories are set on Brackett’s decadent, dying Mars, starting in 1998 with Beast Jewel (the story doesn’t include a date so I’m guessing either Brackett or the editor assigned dates for the book). Said jewel is part of the ritual of Shanga, which a Martian cult uses to regress humans, allowing them the chance to slip the bonds of civilized behavior and act out their fantasies of sex or violence without inhibition. Burk’s lover became addicted to Shanga and vanished into the cult; Burk now follows her. This has its risks because he’s experienced the addiction himself. And after a certain point, Shanga followers begin to devolve into their ancestral forms. The Martians, an ancient race who despise their human occupiers, take great joy in this.

The final story, set 40 years later, is Road to Sinharat. While the title lost city is certainly a great pulp invention, the story itself seems more in tune with the mood of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when colonies were declaring independence right and left. Earth is determined to take over Mars’ slim water resources for the Martians’ own good, bringing the best of Earth’s technology to bear. As the protagonist struggles to prove, this has happened before, and it didn’t work well.

Brackett’s Mars is a good example of how to borrow from another writer without ripping them off. Her Mars is clearly shaped by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planetary adventures, which Brackett freely acknowledged. Like Burroughs’ Barsoom, Brackett’s Mars is a once great world, now dried up and dying. But ERB’s Martians were stoic, proud, passionate warriors. While Brackett’s Martian barbarians fit that mold, city dwellers are corrupt, decadent, frequently malicious but in small petty ways (rather than duel, they’d knife you in the back). Coupled with Brackett’s lusher style of writing (she’s definitely the better wordsmith)it feels very different.

The stories also show that amazing worldbuilding isn’t necessarily necessary for a good story (I include the modifier because I know a lot of readers value detailed worldbuilding more than I do). Brackett’s Mars isn’t all that alien; the stories of sinister cults, lost cities and ancient super-science aren’t that different from the stories other pulp writers told about the Third World. Mars could almost be Egypt under British imperial control: we have the sinister ancient cults, the angry resentment of the natives, the decadence, the secret ancient wisdom — standard pulp portrayals of far-off lands. But that doesn’t bother me much (YMMV of course); the stories are still good, and Brackett doesn’t make it feel as if it’s “just” the colonized Middle East (the dead seas, the dwindling canals, they all give it an alien feel).

But I think that also shows why so many people do find specfic from the olden days so distasteful. Mars isn’t the British Empire but the tropes are there; I know some people who don’t like them used for the Third World don’t feel they’re improved by giving other planets the same treatment. The hero of Sinharat is a “white savior” doing for the natives what they can’t do for themselves. I still like the stories, but I can understand if someone else took issue with them. But for me, the charms outweigh the flaws.

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Getting nibbled to death by ducks beats defeat by doggie diarrhea

So after my disappointing performance last month, I was cheered to be doing better this week. I got close to 10,000 words done on rewriting Impossible Takes a Little Longer Monday and Tuesday morning. And by going through my morning routines immediately when I wake up early, that ensured I’d get my meditation, stretching, exercise and such taken care of even if TYG and the dogs came down earlier than usual (like most small dogs Plush and Trixie translate any sort of exercise as body language for “Please, jump on me and snuggle!”).

Even after going to the eye doctor Tuesday I didn’t get thrown off my stride — I segued into my Leaf articles for the day after I got back.

But around 3:15, Trixie began doing her I Really Need To Go dance, which is not usual; they stick pretty dependably to the schedule. Her poop was very runny, and then an hour later we had to go through this routine again (this did not make for a productive end of the day). Then there was nothing until after I left for writing group, so I hoped it was just a momentary problem. Outside of needing to go, she was her normal, energetic self.

Uh-uh. Got to bed after group at 11pm. Woke up 12:15 to Trixie’s claws clicking as she paced in front of the bedroom door. I took her out — oh, this was during the recent cold snap so it was below freezing. Which was unpleasant in itself, but it also made the process that much longer because of the bundling up time. But she pooped fast, then we came in and fell asleep in the spare bedroom, to avoid waking TYG by going back to our usual sleeping quarters.

3:15, up again. Apparently I pulled Trixie in too soon because 3:45, out again. After which I couldn’t get back to sleep. We made a vet appointment later in the day, and it didn’t appear anything was seriously wrong. Vet’s orders were a few days of bland food, some probiotics and they seem to have done the trick.

However getting around 4.5 hours sleep and that chopped into bits, on top of my usual sleep deprivation, left me glassy eyed and useless the rest of Wednesday. Wednesday early morning was another wake-up call from Trixie — no poop, happily, just peeing and wanting to get extra outdoor time. So Thursday not much better. Plus a couple of contractors coming in. Plus we kept Trixie at home instead of in doggie day care. Though it was interesting to see how snuggly she got without Plushie around. She’s more or less conceded him the rights to my lap, but with him gone she made it quite clear I should allow her to sit in her royal throne, so to speak.

Today was another early morning, just from general insomnia. And then Trixie came down early so she could go out and take a solid poop (woot!), which threw my schedule off, and what with that and a couple of other things. I managed to get a couple of Leaf articles done and that was about it.

Fingers crossed next week will be back at least to average performance. Normally I’d expect so, but I’m feeling a little jinxed right now.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, The Dog Ate My Homework

February staggers to its finish

So my goals accomplished for February as 51 percent. Not surprising given all the distractions and my trip to Mysticon. This week, for example, my late return Sunday meant I got up even later Monday than expected. Because of TYG’s crazy schedule I had extra dog care demands the rest of the week, and I felt weirdly wiped out after Mysticon (I wondered if I came back with con crud but it feels way too mild). Thursday I just threw in the towel and worked on various non-writing projects (dealing with insurance, cleaning, disposing of some old medicines).

While 51 percent isn’t catastrophic, it’s dismaying how little writing I got done. Lots of Leaf which is important, because it pays the bills. But next to nothing on any books or short stories. And yesterday I got one rejection (for No One Can Slay Her) and another story came back today when the magazine folded.

So for March, I’m tinkering with my schedule again. First off, while reducing the frequency I check email has helped, I think I need to start budgeting time for email. It still takes quite a bit of time to get through it all so I should get over my illusion that it’s like five minutes every time I check. Accepting it’s .5 to 1 hour a day will give me a more realistic perspective on how much time I have for everything else (I intend to squeeze some of my other mundane activities like writing pitches and hunting for markets into the same time period, which should be doable).

I’m also going to try cutting back to just one email session, at the end of the day, unless I see something important when I check my phone. After about 3:30, my brain really gets worn out a lot of days. Part of that is having spent much of the day with Plushie in my lap, though I’m not sure if it’s the loss of personal space or the odd positions I wind up sitting in.

Second, I’m accepting that for a while I’ll be spending more time on dog care during the week. I think I can compensate by cutting back my break times mid-morning and mid-afternoon (evenings, for various reasons, don’t work so well). We will see.

Hopefully that will get results. Today went pretty well: I got some more work done on our taxes and Only the Lonely improved a lot from the previous draft. In my first couple of drafts, I kept my protagonist, Heather, almost completely in the dark about what she was involved with. I changed that, but now I’m changing it back. I’m also applying a lot more pressure to Heather from other sources, financial and legal. If I keep ratcheting that up, I think it’ll fly. Eventually.

On the Wisp front, I opened the deck door wide one afternoon when Trixie and Plushie were in doggy day care and then went into the kitchen to get her food. Not only did she not come in and explore, she found this disconcerting enough she retreated to the deck stairs. So not a house cat any time soon, I suspect, no matter how curious she seems about us.

To wrap up, here’s a cover by Greco (whoever that is — obviously not “El”).

#SFWApro. All rights to cover image remain with current holder. Photo is mine.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, Story Problems, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Writing

It’s like 10,000 short stories when all you need is a finished draft

So one of my goals this month was to finish a third short story, following No One Can Slay Her and Rabbits Indignateonem last month. I settled on Only the Lonely Can Slay, in which a mystery woman offers to kill my protagonist’s abusive husband for five bucks (yes, there’s a fantasy element).

It didn’t happen. Partly because I’m not a fast writer, but also because, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, the schedule I blocked out for February suffered the death of a thousand cuts. Plus I lost three days traveling to Mysticon. So I don’t feel I massively screwed up, which doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

Part of the frustration is that I have so many short stories in various phases of completion, it’s hard to know which one to focus on. Which leads to the nagging fear I picked the wrong one. Would I be finished (or closer to finishing at least) by now if I’d concentrated on Bleeding Blue or Pro Bono instead? Is Only the Lonely a dead end? Am I wasting my time trying to finish it?

It doesn’t help that I know from experience my unsuccessful early drafts usually evolve into something good via repeated rewrites. But not always; a lot of drafts on my computer will probably never reach final form for one reason or another. So during the intermediate rewrite phases, there’s always a fear I’m just spinning my wheels and the story will never gain traction.

It’s like … a crazy maze (thank you Jack Kirby for that visual). And I don’t know which of my stories will lead me out (hopefully most of the ones I have under construction) and which will do it fastest.

I definitely didn’t get an answer this month. Hopefully March will do better.

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The magical Mysticon tour

So a week ago I headed up to Roanoke to visit some friends and then attend Mysticon, the Roanoke SF con, as a guest. TYG refers to my friends, Sam and Roxanne, as “the ones with all the books.” Hmm, I wonder why?

I actually wasn’t sure I’d make it because winter weather slapped Roanoke and its airport with snow. But I flew it into Roanoke on time and Sam got me home. As you can see, they did indeed have some snow.

And my bedroom window makes for great morning-light shots.

Annoyingly, I have to stop in Charlotte Airport (I have friends who find it hilarious the airport identifier code is CLT) rather than go straight to Roanoke. But I did get to see a gelato display that looks amazingly like, well, rainbow-colored poop.

Hanging with my friends was all about chatting, reading, and watching a video Sam made back in his Air Force days (nothing I can describe easily but fun to watch). And then Friday, Roxanne drove me into Roanoke and the con.

I had more fun than last year, because I now know more of the authors from Illogicon or the 2018 Mysticon: Jason Gilbert, Melissa McArthur, Stuart Jaffe, Alexandra Christian and a few others. I got to meet Wendy S. Delmater, who edits Abyss & Apex, which published my stories Affairs of Honor and One Hand Washes the Other.

I told the con organizers that I was willing to moderate any panel I was on … and I did. Which was a surprise, but it just meant thinking out a larger number of questions in advance. The other panelists said I did a good job, so I’m satisfied.

The panels? Writing Contemporary Fantasy, Using World Mythology in Fantasy, Time Travel and the Butterfly Effect, Surprisingly OK (a Sherlock Holmes/Sherlock panel), and a panel on the right POV for getting into your characters’ head. I also participated, again, in the author dating game (I did that at Illogicon) but once again I wasn’t picked. This time I played Monty from The Wodehouse Murder Case; maybe next time I’ll go as “Big Johnson” Galt from Atlas Shagged.

I also sat in on a couple of panels about self-publishing and indy publishing. I think I learned quite a bit.

And I sold books! I’d brought along copies of Atoms for Peace and Atlas Shagged and I sold them all. Darin Kennedy let me share space at his signing table and it moved them much more effectively than just mentioning them on panels did (though I did sell a couple to someone after the author dating game). I was smart enough to have plenty of small bills for making change, but hadn’t prepared for anyone to use plastic. Fortunately Darin and Stuart Jaffe found a work-around, but next con I go to, I’ll be ready!.

There was, of course cosplay. Michael Meyers below, was standing in a dark hall when two teens ran in and saw him. Holy crap, the shrieking that ensued. The real Michael would be proud.

The woman below was a composite Wonderland character.

And here are a few more images

The cake was a salute to Steve Jackson, RPG designer. VERY tasty. My compliments to the baker.

I was also pleased the hotel brought in one of the local coffee shops to provide coffee and (more importantly) tea. I wish they’d brought a little more — the British Breakfast was used up by mid-Saturday — but as it was pouring rain, I wasn’t going to trek to the coffee shop up the road.

Finally, after my panel Sunday, I headed home. An epic voyage I’ll talk about on Friday.

#SFWApro. Photos are mine. Right to cake design resides with current holder.



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Once again, life thwarts my plans

Which is to say, this was a busy week in the non-writing areas of my life.

Wednesday we had the electrician come out to check some of our outside lights. That turned out to be more time-draining for me than I’d expected, as it was a constant “go inside and turn on the lights … turn off the lights … turn them on again …” It paid off (he identified the problem), but it took more time than I’d expected. And left me with very little time to concentrate on anything before the dogs went on afternoon walkies (I settled for research reading, which doesn’t demand creative thought). After that we had the guy in to repair the washing machine; I’m happy to say that after dealing with two other companies, Wright Appliance finally seems to be competent.

This morning I had unexpected extra dog watching, and at noon I had one of my appointments for the Alexander Technique, the body training I’ve been doing since last year.

It’s not just the time each side activity consumes, but the time it takes to get refocused on writing again. And I’m still too slow in my Leafs. Plushie’s neediness in the evening makes it very hard to make up the time then.

I did get a bunch of Leaf articles done, and even going slow, the pay is good. I got some more work done on both Let No Man Put Asunder and Impossible Takes a Little Longer, though those were the big casualties of this week’s lost time. But Impossible definitely works better in first person, as I said last week. However both of them reached a point where the relatively slight plot changes I’ve made so far have suddenly forced big changes in the next scenes. That stumped me quite a bit.

I submitted Fiddler’s Black to a new market, which means all my shorts are out. It’s been a while since that happened. And Southern Discomfort went out to five more agents.

I rewrote Only the Lonely Can Slay a couple of times, but there’s still something missing. It might be that Heather, my protagonist, needs more at stake, or maybe something else? I feel frustratingly close to what I want but I can’t quite jump across the last mental boundary to get there. I may send it out as is to a beta reader or two to get some insight.

So that was my week. On the plus side, I’m not battling a giant monster on a Silver Age Jack Kirby cover!

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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, Time management and goals, Writing

Assorted writing and reading links

So a writer declared on Twitter that if you’re writing while keeping your day job, you’re doing it wrong. John Scalzi disagrees.

Five red flags to look for in contracts.

A look at law and freelancing. It includes links to a 2018 California court case making it harder to classify employees as contractors and a proposed change to Texas rules that would benefit employers.

Atomic Junkshop on the excitement of reading comics and paperbacks in the 1970s. From the same site, a post of mine about the myth that successful creators are good from the start.

Why Marvel got sexier as the Silver Age moved along. Look at John Romita’s Mary Jane below for an example.

You can’t trademark a generic word like “booking” for a travel site. Unless, a court ruling says, you make it a domain name first.

A Q&A with comics veteran Roy Thomas.

For years, Disney’s comic books didn’t divulge the names of the people who worked on them (the company preferred the illusion that Walt did it all). Here’s the story of how Carl Barks, the creator of Uncle Scrooge, finally got some attention.

Captain America, horror comics host?

Hybrid authors publish traditionally and indie both. Hybrid publishing isn’t the same thing.

Brian Cronin rips into the assumption that white male leads are a natural choice, whereas anything else is suspect.

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A newspaper op-ed that doesn’t understand journalism?

Ever since the 2016 election, the “Trump safari” has been a recurring feature of newspaper journalism: let’s go talk to some Trump voters and try to understand them. Let’s explain how they’re uneasy with changes in their country and the way they’re losing ground in the economy. Let’s help big city liberals try to figure them out.

Which is not a bad thing in itself. But as countless liberal bloggers have pointed out, it results in coverage of white working-class voters and never say, what black working-class voters in rust belt cities want. Nobody ever suggests that the Trump voter needs to have their stereotypes about big-city liberals challenged. And the stories just keep coming, over and over.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed column, Jill Abramson suggests it’s all a failed effort: “there is little evidence that reporters have fulfilled their pledge to report on and reflect the interests and values of the people who voted for him. There have been some good dispatches from the heartland, but too often what is published amounts to the proverbial ‘toe touch in Appalachia.'” Why? Because they’re big city reporters coming in for a brief visit. The only way to get real answers is from someone who actually lives there, “to bring their audience up close to the different and difficult realities of life in rural America.”

Urgh. As a former journalist, I cannot begin to describe how clueless and trite I think this is. Okay, I can begin to describe it, because that’s why I’m writing this post.

First off, I agree that the loss of local coverage or locally based correspondents anywhere is a bad thing. If you don’t have someone attending city council or county commission meetings every week, and send reporters only when something major is happening, a lot of stories fly under the radar. Lots of things happen that people will never hear about. That’s bad because a lot of stuff that affects people happens in low-key meetings: development decisions, spending decisions, new policies.

And if you’re just doing a “toe touch’ yes, that can make it harder to give context. If an issue crops up again and again — in Destin, where I worked, that would have included traffic and beach erosion — a regular reporter gets perspective (institutional knowledge as they say). It’s a lot harder if you only attend meetings once in a quarter.   But that’s true of everything that doesn’t get regular coverage. Lots of regulatory agencies don’t undergo the coverage they used to. Fewer local newspapers have reporters in their state capitals. There’s no reason to single out rural America as uniquely worth of an added spotlight

And “toe touch” doesn’t automatically equal bad reporting. It’s the nature of reporting that you often have to learn about an issue/community/person really quickly to write the story; full immersion isn’t possible, or necessary. If Abramson wants to cite some examples of how Trump safaris are getting it wrong, fine … but she doesn’t. So what’s the point? Is she upset the articles aren’t sympathetic or understanding enough? Because as someone who used to live in Trump country and knows lots of Trump voters, I don’t feel any more sympathetic about them than the legendary big-city liberal reporters. And why exactly are Trump voters worthy of more coverage than, say, black workers in the rust belt? Small-town voters in Ferguson? Orthodox Jews in NYC? Homeless people in LA?

The only reason I can think of is that as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, these people have a lot of grievances and white grievances have to be taken seriously.

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Today I got that nibbled to death by ducks feeling

But first, a look at Plush Dog nuzzling with Tito, new sibling to Lily, the dog up the street we sometimes dog-sit for.

The feeling of having one’s day eaten up by multiple little distractions is in some ways worse than having one big project. With one major distraction, like a repair, I can block time and when it’s over, it’s over. Today, though, I had multiple distractions: washing-machine repair guy (third one we’ve dealt with, first one I feel good about), arranging an electrician appointment for next week, upgrading our security system, doing some research on the cost of a replacement washing machine (probably won’t be necessary), providing extra dog care … plus Plushie completely freaking out over the repair dude being In The House (we fenced off the area so the pups couldn’t get in his way).  And talking on the phone is not the best thing for my strained voice. However it’s definitely growing stronger every day so I must be nursing it sufficiently.

Despite that, it was a productive week. Though novel writing is still going slower than I want, and Leaf articles are taking way too long (not their fault, it’s me). So what did I get done?

I rewrote the first chapter of Impossible Takes a Little Longer in first person. It’s closer to urban fantasy as a genre than anything else, and first person is the default setting there. Plus I found I could work in a little more needed information with first-person narration.

I finished the first chapter of Let No Man Put Asunder and read it for writer’s group. The feedback was, as always helpful. As my voice frayed a little by the end of the reading, I skipped out on the usual hanging out after. A shame.

I sent a Southern Discomfort query off to five agents, queried two magazines about articles and one newspaper about an op-ed column.

I submitted A Famine Where Abundance Lies, and I may have found a publisher to submit Questionable Minds too.

I rewrote the story Neverwas, which is now titled The Impossible Years. It’s definitely closer to being readable, but I still lack the ending I need. I rewrote Only the Lonely Can Slay, and it’s coming along well. Here I have the ending and the general structure but I need more obstacles for my protagonist, Heather, to overcome. I was working on another draft today, when all the ducks began nibbling.

And I did my usual array of Leaf articles to help put bread on the table. I gave up on doing any of those today too, but I got them in, and some requested rewrites, every other day this week.

It’s helpful to write all that down and see that despite my feeling right now, I had a good, productive week.

Below, Plushie lets the greyhounds at Piney Woods Park know that he’s the boss of this cell block.

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Nonfiction, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals

A blood heir, a fraud and other writing links

I haven’t read Amelie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir, but Zhao pulled it pre-publication after criticism that the book is racist. Depending who you talk to, this was a good decision or a massive injustice; Slate does a good job covering the issues

Thriller author Dan Mallory allegedly advanced his career by lying a lot. On Twitter, editor Ruoxi Chen vents that Mallory can fall upwards while women of color in publishing are stuck going nowhere.

How to write superhumans well.

Isabel Cooper argues Tolstoy was wrong: all happy families are not alike.

Netflix and other streaming service are pumping out new content. That’s nevertheless leaving writers and actors worse off financially.

As the media landscape keeps splintering, is Paw Patrol the last kiddie mega-hit?

Another day, another slice of toxic fandom.

In Finland, they don’t do small talk. I think cultural details like that could add a lot to a fictional setting.

Julie Moffett on writing Y/A that’s geared to actual teenagers.

Does Kevin Spacey’s recent attempt at a career-salvaging video violate the House of Cards copyright?

“There is no shame in comfort, in paying your bills, in eating food and enjoying the shade from a ceiling which itself is underneath a roof. You may even be likelier to make great art while comfortable, because you aren’t desperate.” — Chuck Wendig on the starving writer stereotype

Switching subjects, here’s a photo of a husky puppy I met in Petco recently. Very sweet, very recognizably puppyish in its motions. TYG was much amused it pooped all over the floor a few minutes later.

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