Tag Archives: Questionable Minds

Magic in fantasy: use vs. works

Back last December on Camestros Felapton’s blog (I don’t remember the specific post) there was a comment about two ways of approaching magic in fiction: “it seems to me that some ways of thinking about magic are ontological/analytical, and some are teleological/practical. How does the magic “work” vs how the magic is used. Which is most important to you as a reader/reviewer/critic? Which is most important to the writers creating these systems? Which is most important to the people who live in the worlds created by the writers? There isn’t a single right answer.”

Stories about how magic works would include, of course, the many stories with magic systems: the Mistborn books, Alan Moore’s tedious Promethea comics (very much about his theories of magic), D&D novels. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry where wizards draw power from an individual’s life force. Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories. A. Merritt’s science fantasies.

The Silver Age Dr. Strange stories by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (who was probably the prime mover ont he project) are much more about how magic is used.  What’s important is that Stephen Strange uses magic to stand between us and the dark forces: Baron Mordo, Dormammu, Nightmare, Umar and Taboo, Tyrant of the Eighth Dimension.

Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books likewise focus on magic in action: the bad guys using it to hurt people, Harry using it to protect them, as in the first book in the series, Storm Front. In Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, what matters is Conan fighting the magic, not how it works.That doesn’t mean “magic has no rules” (the standard complaint by those science fiction fans who dislike fantasy). The Dresden books give us magic rules but the system isn’t the important thing; Ditko’s Dr. Strange stories use magic consistently, they just don’t spell them out. Conversely, stories that emphasize magic systems usually deal with how magic is used: the Lord Darcy stories are all about Darcy and his sidekick Sean using magic to solve crime.

Some stories are a mix of both. In Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, there’s a lot about the rules of magic; protagonist Norman wins because he’s able to analyze them logically and apply them more effectively than his adversaries. However it’s also about how magic is used: stay-at-home wives working sorcery covertly to advance their husband’s careers.

In Southern Discomfort I deal with the rules enough to keep things consistent but I’m much more interested in what magic does. In Questionable Minds, the rules governing psychic power are much more important. In Let No Man Put Asunder, it’s all about how it’s used: there are multiple character operating under different magic system so the rules are a free-for-all (though individual characters’ skills stay consistent).No real deep insights, I know, but I still find Camestros’ comment interesting.

#SFWApro. Images top to bottom by Rodney Matthews, Steve Ditko, Lee Macleod and Samantha Collins. All rights remain with current holders.

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Thinking a lot gets very tiring

Seriously. I put in a good week’s work and by the end of every day I feel wiped. Not quite as bad as Sgt. Rock, but still exhausted. But it is, as they say, a good tired. I even got in slightly more hours than I’d planned to, which will make up for whenever my schedule goes south later this month.

I added 4,ooo words to my rewrite of Let No Man Put Asunder. It’s holding together surprisingly well considering I’m really pantsing it — finish one scene, think what comes next, jump on that. It may turn out I’ve plotted myself into an unworkable hole but it’s going A-OK so far. Fun too.

I worked on Mage’s Masquerade which has reached the point I need plotting rather than pantsing. I think I’ve solved the main flaws in the last draft and I got halfway through the next one.

I worked on a werewolf comedy short story, Inherit the Howling Night, but I’m not sure there’s a story there yet. Or maybe ever. But I’ve thought that before and proven myself wrong after a few more drafts. Another (untitled) story — an unusual riff on Jekyll and Hyde — has characters and a message, but no real plot. Hopefully I can find one.

I finished Bleeding Blue and sent it off to F&SF. I admit I’m not hopeful — I’ve never gotten better than “Thanks, try again some time” but why not start off with a prestige market? And hey, even with a no, that’s my first finished short story of 2023, already subbed. Regrettably the market-guide website Ralan.com shut down this week — they were easily the best guide to which markets were open, when new markets started up and so on. There are alternatives but none I like as much.

I looked at Shopify, the online-sales app, and it should be doable to integrate it with this website. By the end of the month I hope to have stuff up for direct sale. Doesn’t mean anyone’ll be buying but as with F&SF, there’s no reason not to try.

And my new plan for managing email — basically devote an hour at the end of the week to going through whatever hasn’t been opened — is working well.The romance anthology Starlit Bridges is now out, with my Wodehouse Murder Case included. You can buy it in ebook or paperback. And I have more Con-Tinual panels available, one on writing in the Roaring Twenties, one on how to write psychic detectives, as in Questionable Minds.

#SFWApro. Covers top-to-bottom by Joe Kubert, unknown (sorry!) and Samantha Collins, all rights remain with current holders.

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The Three Faces of Dr. Jekyll: Movies

My novel Questionable Minds makes big use of Jekyll and Hyde, as I discuss in this blog-tour post. When I recently bought the 1931 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE on Blu-Ray, I decided to follow-up with two other adaptations, the 1941 remake with Spencer Tracy and 1960’s THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL.The 1931 version opens with Dr. Jekyll’s POV — his elegant house, his hands on the piano, his servants — after which the good doctor (Fredric March) lectures to a crowd of fascinated students and disgruntled old farts about how science will someday separate the human and the animal that intermingle with us, creating a superior person free of base instinct, able to rise to the heights of intellect and virtue. It’s a common Victorian view and expresses director Robert Mamoulian’s concept of Hyde as an evolutionary throwback, hence his brutish appearance in the still below with Miriam Hopkins.Jekyll isn’t all about the science though: he’s passionately in love with his fiancee Muriel (Rose Hobart) which is the root of all his troubles. He’s clearly ready to get it on with her but that’s not acceptable for an upper-class Victorian couple and her stuffy, overbearing father won’t allow them to speed up all rites, rituals and waiting periods that precede a Victorian marriage. When he meets sex worker/music-hall entertainer Ivy (Hopkins) she’s obviously up for relieving his sexual tension but though he likes the idea, he’s too good to stray from Muriel. But if he were to liberate the lower half of his nature, take on a persona that doesn’t care for convention, that couldn’t be recognized … And so Hyde is born.

Initially almost childlike — there’s a great scene where Hyde feels rain on his face for the first time and delights in it — Hyde stakes out his claim to Ivy fast. She’s intrigued to have a wealthy man to keep her, turned on some by his swagger … but before long the darker side of our buried self emerges. Hyde becomes an abusive gaslighter (if that sort of thing is at all triggering, neither this nor the 1941 film is the movie for you) and it’s obvious Ivy’s taking a long walk on a short pier. As for Jekyll, he’s ready to return to Muriel but Hyde is now too strong to restrain …

While this isn’t a faithful adaptation (which is good: Stevenson’s book is not cinematic), it captures the essential element that Jekyll wants to be Hyde; cutting free from respectability liberates him, though some of what gets free he’d prefer to keep caged. March, a Broadway leading man in light comic roles, wasn’t Paramount’s first choice for the role — they wanted John Barrymore, who played it in a 1920s version — but he’s marvelous, snagging the only Oscar acting award for horror until Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins is also very good as the tragic Ivy and the rest of the cast does solid work. Being a pre-code film, it’s also highly suggestive; this Blu-Ray restores several cuts made to please the censors on re-release, and also to trim it for length. “Do you want your eyes and your soul to be blasted by a sight that would stagger the devil himself?”


When Spencer Tracy took the role (according to the 1931 Blu-Ray’s commentary track) he wanted to play Jekyll as an ordinary man who succumbs to drink or drugs and starts living a wild life; that was too raw for MGM so they bought the rights to remake the 1931 version instead, then kept the earlier film from re-release for decades to avoid competition. The 1941 take is better than I remembered but still inferior to the March. The opening comes off almost like an attempt to refute its predecessor: rather than Spencer Tracy’s Jekyll giving a lecture, we have a clergyman (C. Aubrey Smith) celebrating Queen Victoria and how she’s helped England triumph over “gross sensuality.” Society’s prudery isn’t the problem, it’s Jekyll giving in to that gross sensuality that destroyed him.

This reflects the Production Code being in play but also MGM’s house style, which requires everything be classier and glossier than at other studios: where Ivy is a low-class woman in a low-class music hall, Ivy (Ingrid Bergman) here is a barmaid in a much more elegant venue. In any case, Jekyll’s initial issue is less sex than classic mad science complaints: nobody approves or supports his research into the boundaries between good and evil in our soul — the very fact he thinks science can tackle the soul is an outrage! His prospective father-in-law is an old-fashioned chap, shocked by the PDAs between Jekyll and his fiancee (Lana Turner, bland as usual), but he’s one of the good guys, not the stuffy, overbearing marplot of the first film. However, when Jekyll grows frustrated it occurs to him there’s one way he could become friends with Ivy without anyone knowing …

Unlike the first film, there’s no makeup change between Jekyll’s two identities. This is effective at times, such as Tracy’s facial expressions after his initial transformation, but the complete incredulity the two men are one and the same becomes baffling. However Tracy does deliver on a creepy, less overt abuser, constantly talking in a whisper when he’s Hyde but intimidating nonetheless. Bergman’s Ivy mostly doesn’t work: she can’t quite pull off the fun-loving working girl (her more tormented party girl in Notorious works better) and her accent is way off. However she’s amazing in the later scenes when a friend’s suggestion they go out for some fun is met by terror: what if Hyde sees me? What if he disapproves of what I’m doing? It conveys “abuse” without anything overt. Overall, though, not a patch on the 1931. “Your ideas are different than mine — it will be a charming experience to change them.”

Hammer took a shot at the story with THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960), starring Paul Massie as a Jekyll so obsessed with his research into human behavior he’s neglecting his wife Kitty (Dawn Addams) who’s consoling herself with Jekyll’s spendthrift friend, Allen (Christopher Lee), who has no qualms with banging Jekyll’s wife while also begging Jekyll to cover Allen’s gambling losses. In the best traditions of mad science, Jekyll tests his personality altering drug on himself and becomes Hyde (his beard disappears, then reappears when he turns back). A smirking, self-indulgent prick, Hyde flirts with Kitty and becomes a friend to Allen, who initiates him into the wild side of London life. However Jekyll’s smoldering resentment when he realizes Allen is cuckolding him soon becomes Hyde’s plan for revenge …

Wolf Mankowicz wanted to write this as an indictment of Victorian hypocrisy (which he assumed was a new take on the material) but the director wanted a different take and the disagreement (according to the book The Hammer Story) tanked the film. Backstage conflicts aside, I think that having made the love triangle the core of the film, they don’t explore that angle: what if Hyde makes a serious play for Kitty? Was Kitty always a bad girl or did she hook up with Allen due to Jekyll’s neglect? Instead the triangle just makes a distraction from the story rather than enhancing it. “That’s what your kind of woman wants in a man, Kitty — complete and utter freedom from shame.”

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders. You can buy Questionable Minds as an ebook or paperback.  Here’s an excerpt with my protagonist confronting Edward Hyde.


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A smoother cruise this week than last

I wrote a week ago that the first week of 2023 felt like a shakedown cruise. This week the ship seemed to stabilize. We still had a lot of distractions but the work went well despite that.

The big distractions came Tuesday. Snowdrop had peed on the couch the night TYG kept him indoors and she could still smell it. We had someone come in to clean the couch off, after which we and the dogs had to stay off it for several hours while it dried.

Unfortunately that resulted in me and the pups sitting on the other couch for most of the afternoon. It’s much harder to work on my computer around them — the couch arms are too high to rest the computer there for instance — so I wound up doing some research reading instead.

We also had someone come in to check out the chimney as well. It has some damage which make it unwise to use the fireplace so TYG wanted a price estimate on repairs. Suffice to say, repairs would cost more than we want to spend, given that we didn’t use the chimney much even when it was in good shape. However if either of us gets a big payday down the road we might reconsider.

Thursday I’d planned to run out to the library and pick up the new Elric book I’d reserved, otherwise the reservation would have expired. That turned into a much larger expedition as I also wound up getting Trixie’s prescription food from the vet, plus food shopping done, plus picking up a prescription. TYG is away this weekend at an alumni event out of town — she left mid-morning — so I’ll be sticking home with the dogs and not going out. That saves me having to crate Plushie — he gets up to mischief otherwise – or the slight possibility something happens to me while driving and then there’s no-one here for the dogs until Monday.

Anyway, that bulked up the trip until I had no focus left for work by the time I got home. Still, I did get quite a bit done this week:

I redrafted a story I last worked on a couple of years ago, before Undead Sexist Cliches, Aliens Are Here and Questionable Minds sucked up so much time. It’s a long way from good yet, but I see more potential in the tale of a ruthless, objectivist businessman and his mysterious nemesis. Currently untitled.

I got several thousand words further in Impossible Takes A Little Longer, getting a lot of Reveals out of the way before things move into the climax (Hitchcock recommended that, so nobody’s distracted from the action by waiting for exposition). I stopped when it became time to move against the bad guys because I’ve no idea what they’re going to do. Hopefully it’ll come to me when I resume.

My research reading involved a couple of urban fantasies I’ll be reviewing soon, Fae of Fortune by John P. Logsdon and Eric Quinn Knowles and rereading Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn. I prefer doing that kind of reading outside of writing hours but with so many to-do things distracting me, I compromised.

I got about 3,000 words further into Let No Man Put Asunder. I also read the first two or three thousand words to the writing group who gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up plus some feedback I’ll be discussing soon.

So go me! Let’s hope next week is as productive.

#SFWApro. Cover by Kemp Ward, all rights remain with current holder.

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Personal, Reading, Short Stories, Story Problems, Time management and goals, Undead Sexist Cliches: The Book, Writing

The password for 2022 is: recalled to life

Sitting here at the end of the year, it really feels that way. It was a good year for me and TYG in multiple ways.

It started out with lots of room to improve. TYG got a massive, urgent project in her lap starting in January and it kept her running at top speed through March. Then she spent a couple of months on another demanding project, after which she happily jumped to a new job with more pay for a less insane workload. Not that it still doesn’t get extreme but she has more free time to go out with me, go out with friends, sit and read and she’s relishing it.

Needless to say, when she’s happier and less stressed, I’m happier and less stressed. Plus I’m happier to see her happier.

And while covid is hardly gone — a lot of our friends finally came down with it this year — getting vaxxed and boosted has left us both confident enough to resume a lot of normal stuff like going to art museums and eating out. Not to mention finally visiting the North Carolina Zoo.

Coupled with TYG’s added time we’ve been having an official date night every week (usually on weekends) to do something couple-ish, whether it’s watching a movie, taking a walk without the dogs or playing board games. I think it’s really boosting the pleasure we take in our marriage (not that we were miserable before or anything like that).

One of my goals for 2022 was to end the year with more money than I started with. I managed that, partly because I signed up for Social Security early: the payout is slightly less but the added number of payments over the next few years compensates for that.

This was a good year for writing. I got some wonderful compliments on my work from one of my paying clients and I self-published or sold way more than any time in recent memory. For example, The Aliens Are Here is now out.Questionable Minds is available in ebook on Amazon or other retailers.The Savage Year came out at Metastellar. Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates is live on Metastellar. And I finished four short stories this year; my goal was six, but four is closer than I usually manage.

Plus, of course, I kicked off the year by self-publishing Undead Sexist Cliches, available as a Amazon paperback, an ebook and from several other retailers.

Along with my writing here I’m still blogging regularly at Atomic Junk Shop and doing panels for Con-Tinual.

Plus 2022 included the usual stuff — eating, reading, playing with pets, snuggling with TYG — and what used to be usual, such as visiting my family in Florida.

What lies ahead in 2023? Well no-one can be certain but I’ll be back with my hopes in my Sunday blog post.

#SFWApro. Questionable Minds cover by Samantha Collins, Undead Sexist Cliches by Kemp Ward, rights are mine.


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Questionable Minds: Nowhere to Hyde

Last week’s sample section of Questionable Minds gave the beginning of the novel. It’s the one I opted to use for the blog tour. The second section is from the middle of the book: Jack the Ripper has Sir Simon’s daughter Ann hostage and has offered to trade her for either Dr. Jekyll or Edward Hyde. Simon’s convinced he can use Jekyll lure Jack into a trap; Jekyll declines, so Simon drags him to Simon’s home by force.

I think the scene is effective though for obvious reasons I don’t think it’s as shocking for us as for Simon because we know about the true relationship of Jekyll and Hyde already. Excerpt comes after Samantha Collins’ cover.“Dr. Jekyll’s eyes fluttered open, then snapped wide. He scrambled up from the sitting room divan, eyes fixed on Simon, barring the path to the door. Simon forced himself to meet Jekyll’s eyes. “I’m sorry it’s come to this, doctor. But I must insist you join me for dinner.”

“You cannot begin to comprehend what you ask.”

“It’s only ninety minutes to wait—and every precaution has been taken.” Simon slid his life-preserver into his hand as Jekyll took a step towards him. “You won’t grass me again, doctor. I’m sorry, but my daughter’s life—”

“I don’t give a damn about your daughter.”

“Do you want to spend the rest of your life hunted by Jack the Ripper? Hyde was willing to chance my plan; are you less brave than he?”

“How dare you?” Jekyll’s fists clenched. “Hyde, courageous? You mistake the savagery of an ignoble brute for bravery!”

“Be that as it may—”

“Or is that why you stick up for him?” Jekyll’s eyes narrowed. “Because you envy that savagery?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t waste your time lying, Taggart, there’s not a man alive doesn’t wish to be Hyde in the back of his mind.” Jekyll hunched over, watching Simon like—he couldn’t say what. “Free of responsibility, acknowledging no law, no restriction, no duty.”

“What the devil are you talking about? Control yourself, Jekyll.”

“Control, ha!” Jekyll threw back his head and laughed. “Self-control is nothing but a measure of how greatly we fear our own desires. Look at me, always so pious around my little gaggle of whores—”

“Doctor, please!”

“Never admitting how much I wanted to squeeze those jiggling titties, feel their skilled, eager hands on my—”

“Good god man, I know you’re afraid—” Simon grabbed Jekyll by the shoulders and shook him hard “—but spouting balderdash won’t—”

Simon didn’t even see the blow that smashed into his jaw and sent him sprawling. He started to regain his feet, only to witness a sight that froze him on his knees. Jekyll’s delicately boned face was swelling into heavy, bestial features; his eyes seemed to sink back into his head. Hair and eyes darkening, skin coarsening, body shrinking even as Jekyll’s muscles grew hard and corded under his clothes.

It—isn’t—possible! A mesmeric illusion, or— Even as he thought the words, Simon knew them for a lie.

“Hello, Taggart.” Hyde bowed mockingly from within Jekyll’s coat. “I’d say it’s a pleasure to see you—but under the circumstances, I’d be lying, wouldn’t I?” Simon could only watch, mute and amazed, as Hyde rolled up the jacket sleeves. “Damn him. I bought a whole new wardrobe, and he disposed of it, so convinced he was he’d seen the last of me.

“Well, aren’t you going to club me unconscious? Or try? To save your poor, poor daughter?”

“You’re a murderer, a rapist, a blackmailer.” Simon backed away, out of Hyde’s reach. “Whatever Jack has in mind, it’s only what you deserve.”

“This may surprise you, but I don’t find that much of an argument.” Calmly, Hyde began on his trouser legs. “I bear you no ill-will for the effort, mark you—I’d do the same in your place—but I place too high price on my own skin to cooperate.”

“Ann is only a child. A girl.”

“That matters not a whit to me.” His eyes met Simon’s, and the shock, the impossibility of what had just happened, hit Simon once again. “Utterson and Poole looked much the same when they learned the truth—now, if you’ll excuse me—”

“I don’t think so.” Simon slid his gun into his hand. ‘”You won’t get very far if I put a couple of bullets into you.”

“And if I scream aloud to Jack that it’s a trap?”

“You’d have to be conscious for that. You won’t be.”

“I’m not easy prey, Taggart.” Hyde’s expression managed to be savage and calculating at the same time. “If we struggle and you kill me, Bolt will gut Miss Taggart like a trout.”

“Why? What does Jack want with you?” Wait. The Greek god at the opera. “He wants your power. The secret that lets you change your face.” Then Simon shook his head. “Bolt leaves his victims mindless; how did you survive?” And if the change is physical, why did I see Bolt’s true face at the Dovecote?

Hyde shrugged. “I’m not as other mentalists, Taggart, surely you can see that. Why not put down the gun, and we can discuss it like rational men.”

“You? Rational?”

“Where my own self-interest is involved, completely.” Simon didn’t move. “It would be to our mutual advantage.”

“I disagree. But talk if you wish.”

“As you will. Tell me, did you happen to catch that dreadful play about me last year? Where ‘Mr. Hode’ turns into a sniveling coward once ‘Dr. Stevenson’ finally draws a gun and stands up to him?

Hyde moved so swiftly Simon didn’t realize he’d thrown a vase until it knocked his gun hand wide. Before he could recover, Hyde was there, fingers closing crushingly on both Simon’s wrists, shaking gun and life-preserver free. Simon hit the floor with Hyde on top of him. Hairy, powerful fingers wrapped around Simon’s throat. “I don’t think it was true to life, Taggart—do you?”

#SFWA pro. Questionable Minds available as an ebook or paperback, so why not order a copy today?



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Does this really sell books?

One of the things I tried as part of a Questionable Minds blog tour (participants listed at the bottom of this post) was to provide a sample from the book the hosting blogs could post. As I know I’ve mentioned (but I can’t find the link just now), I waved between the opening section of the book and a later scene. So guess what? This week you get the opening;  next week you get the other. Sample begins after Samantha Collins’ cover illustration.“Simon Taggart’s plunge into the abyss happened in an instant.

Col. Moran, seated at the dining table on Simon’s left, had said something to the Duke of Falsworth about a fellow hunter Moran had known in India committing suicide. Falsworth snidely observed that given the man’s debts, hanging himself had been the only possible solution.

And suddenly Simon was standing in the drawing room again. Staring up at Agnes in her white nightgown, hanging from the ceiling with her tongue protruding, her face blackened. Rage consumed him at the memory, rage at the men who’d brought about his wife’s death. Pearson Bartlett, mesmerist. The Guvnor, who’d given Bartlett his orders. And behind them, the unknown man who’d paid to have Agnes slain.

It was the scent of mutton that snapped him back to the Montworths’ dining room, a scent rising from the porcelain serving platter levitating through the air before him. Steered by Amanda Montworth’s vril, the platter bore the roast saddle of mutton down the long dining-room table. Her grey eyes were fixed on the platter, of course, as levitators depended on sight to focus their vril. The eyes of her parents and eleven uneasy guests were also watchful as the dish approached the epergne, the massive candelabra at the table’s center. Simon knew he wasn’t the only guest imagining what a shower of spilled gravy would do to their formal black waistcoats, jackets and white gloves, or the women’s elegant dresses.

The platter clinked against the epergne and shuddered for a moment, but Amanda, brow furrowed, regained her mental grip. The platter ceased quivering, backed away and settled into the hands of one of the footmen, to be served a la russe, around the table. Amanda gasped slightly as she released control.

“There, isn’t that remarkable, Sir Simon?” Buxom Mrs. Montworth flashed a smile at Simon, the wealthiest of her guests. “I don’t know anyone with the strength of mind my Amanda has, do you? Well, not anyone who is anyone, shall we say?”

“Mother, please,” Amanda said. “This is embarrassing.”

“No, you did quite well.” Simon smiled politely, forbearing to point out that for all the money John Montworth’s ironworks brought in, in London society the Montworths were emphatically not anyone.  Amanda performing a servant’s duties only confirmed that, as the poor girl undoubtedly knew. “A strong mind is—an asset to the Empire.”

“When the turtle soup comes out, Amanda,” Mrs. Montworth went on, “I think you should levitate—”

“Oh, no, my dear Mrs. Montworth,” Simon said quickly, remembering soup spurting from a shattered tureen at another dinner he’d attended. Besides, Amanda had been embarrassed enough. “A girl as lovely and delicate as Amanda, no matter how strong her vril, should be careful not to overexert herself.” As Mrs. Montworth simpered and nodded, Amanda, who looked as delicate as one of her father’s foundry workers, smiled her thanks at Simon.

“That’s enough entertainment for this evening,” John Montworth said in his north-country accent. “Carmody?” Carmody, the butler, gestured for the footmen to resume their duties; it was a faux pas for Montworth to address a servant during dinner, but the past few minutes had utterly nonplussed the staff.

Simon considered Amanda sensible and good-hearted. It wasn’t her fault her vril manifested as a crude, physical ability, nor that her mother was as blind to the social graces as some men to colors. Fortunately, with several months before the start of the Season, the guests had few people they could gossip with—and there’d be much better gossip by January, when the Montworths presented Amanda at court.


“‘Preciate your help, Sir Simon.” John Montworth said, clipping off the end of his cigar as a servant filled Simon’s glass. The women had left the room moments before, allowing the men a half-hour or so to indulge themselves. “Mrs. Montworth’s dreadful proud of our girl having vril, she is—I try to tell her to be more discreet but—”

“It’s been a new world these past eight years,” Simon said, savoring Montworth’s peerless port. “Too new to have all the polite niceties of psychic usage down pat.” A courteous lie; everyone knew physical manifestations of mentalist power were completely inappropriate in society.

“You mean like yourself assisting Scotland Yard?” Thin, pallid Ronald Carpenter, Duke of Falsworth, smirked and blew a plume of smoke. “A man of your impeccable pedigree, mingling with the lowest orders? Gilbert and Sullivan could make a wonderful comic opera out of it if you ask me.”

“I don’t believe I did.” Simon’s anger surged up again, but the smile beneath his thin mustache stayed coldly formal. “And there is nothing comical about the beasts who use vril to prey upon others.” Like Pearson Bartlett, who could mesmerize a woman to put a noose around her own neck. “I do my duty to England, nothing more.”

His Grace met Simon’s cold stare, then looked away with affected unconcern. Dukes far outranked baronets, but Falsworth’s title was new, and the man was still insecure. A Taggart was never insecure.

“Men like your Inspector Hudnall have my highest respect,” Moran said to Simon. As usual the colonel had stuck with whiskey instead of port. “In the jungle or the London streets, it takes a sharp man to hunt predators successfully. And who’s better suited than you, Sir Simon, to the sport of hunting mentalists?”

“Hardly sport.” Simon replied. “Unlike you, colonel, I consider hunting man-eaters a public service, not an adventure.”

“But men like that are evolutionary dead ends,” Montworth said. “Thanks to Lady Helena, all mankind—almost all—will ultimately be elevated to a higher plane.” His glance had lit upon Simon at the “almost.” “The murderers, the butchers, the Varneys of the present day will become fairytales, like ogres or Bluebeard, in the world that is to come.”

It was a typical Theosophist sentiment, but Simon found he was in no mood to argue with it.”

And so it begins. Not so much of the horror that’s to follow but it gives the setting and shows where Simon’s character arc starts. Hopefully that’s arresting enough to keep people reading until we get some action — which will be the subject of next week’s post.

#SFWApro. Copyright to image is mine. Questionable Minds is available as an ebook or paperback


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Let No Man Put Asunder: Finding the Sweet Spot

So last month I finished the first chapter of my rewrite of my second novel, Let No Man Put Asunder. I rewrote it once some 15-20 years back; I’d have rewritten it again by now except most of the manuscript is gone. I did get a couple of chapters beyond the cutoff, but somehow every attempt to progress further hit a mental dead end.

This version though is a radical break. My protagonists, Adrienne and Neil, were mostly in good shape when the bad guys kidnap them into another dimension. To their surprise, it turns out that a weekend of death and danger (the story moved pretty fast) also gave them things that were missing in their life. Fresh adventures would have lain in wait …

New protagonists Paul and Amanda aren’t in such great shape. Mandy has been de facto mother for her five siblings and caregiver for her terminally ill dad since she was fifteen — as we learn in the first chapter, Mom decided terminal illness wasn’t something she wanted to deal with and walked out. However it’s been twelve years and Mandy’s recovered from Mom’s betrayal (but has not forgiven her at all).

Paul is in much worse shape as his big blow came less than two years ago. His academically prominent parents pushed him to excel from elementary on. He’s had no social life, has no idea who he’d be if he didn’t have his nose buried in books all the time, so finally he told them, right before senior year, he was taking a year off after college. When he arrived back at school Paul discovered his folks hadn’t paid his tuition, had broken the lease on his apartment and drained the joint bank account they used to provide him with ready cash. But no problem, just take back your foolish decision, son, and everything gets back to normal!

He didn’t take it back.

The Adrienne/Neil version had a first chapter set here on Earth, then we were off into other, wilder dimensions. I’m not sure that’s the way I want to go. The town of Blue Ivy, where Mandy and Paul meet in 1976, feels like a good setting. It’s a grimy industrial town but it also has several colleges, with the usual college/townie conflicts. It seems a shame to just forget about it and go elsewhere, particularly in America’s bicentennial year (I don’t know if I’ll keep using that year but if I do, I should be able to make something of it).

The trouble is, I don’t want to go the urban fantasy route. I enjoy reading books where the normal world is just a shell hiding a reality full of magic but I don’t seem inclined to write them. Southern Discomfort is closer to intrusion fantasy: the normal world works much as we see it but something magical has intruded in, disrupting things. In Questionable Minds there’s no hiding: the world is full of psychic powers but they’re being wielded in plain sight.  In Atoms for Peace the mad science that’s made the world so different from our 1950s is also commonly known. In Impossible Takes a Little Longer, super-powers are the same way.

If I set Asunder on Earth, I want it feel like magic is an intruder, not a regular resident. That was doable in Southern Discomfort because the magic almost all stems from the elves Olwen, Aubric and Gwalchmai and it’s limited to one small town in Georgia. Asunder has a lot more magical people running around with much flashier powers. And the different characters — Mountebank, Grainge, Cordelia Winters and Hypatia, to name four — don’t fit into the same magical mythos. They didn’t have to in the original version and I see no need to change that. But it would, again, make an odd urban fantasy

So do I go urban fantasy anyway and find some way to make it work? Go back to dimensional jumping and kiss Blue Ivy goodbye? Maybe make Blue Ivy some kind of Hellmouth where, like Sunnydale, things are weirder than the rest of the world?

There’s also the practical point that I’d like my protagonists isolated, at least for the first few chapters. That’s harder to do in a setting where they know everyone.

Normally I’d plunge ahead and pants these questions as I go but the first chapter ends with Mandy and Paul falling through a magical gate of some kind. I need to know where they land.

Wish me luck!

#SFWApro. Cover by Samantha Collins, rights to the image are mine.


Filed under Atoms for Peace, Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Uncategorized

Trends go in, trends go out, they turn you into sauerkraut

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I have no great skill at writing for the market — stuff that fits current trends and styles (see here for some discussion of that topic). The few times I think I’ve hit the sweet spot the editorial response is either “everyone’s doing that now” or “no, that’s not quite right for the genre.” It’s a topic I thought about recently in relation to Questionable Minds and The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. Both of them were a little more novel when I completed the early drafts, less so now. They’re still good (at least, Impossible should be when it’s done) but their relationship to the market has changed.When I finished Questionable Minds some twenty-plus years ago, steampunk was still in its infancy as a genre. Had it sold to anyone it would have stood out because being steampunk stood out, plus a psi-based steampunk book wasn’t something I’d seen done. It still isn’t, though I might be wrong about that (there’s so much steampunk available now I know I haven’t seen a fraction of it).

The point is, the reaction to a steampunk novel in 2022 is going to be different from if it came out in 2002. I’ve seen reviewers who are sick and tired of books all being set in London, for instance. Genre conventions and tropes have become more standardized; will not having dirigibles or more advanced technology be a turnoff for some readers? Is my novel more gaslamp fantasy than steampunk science fiction, and if so, will readers be annoyed I mislabeled it? I’m not agonizing over these questions — it really is a good book, after all — but they do make me curious.

Or consider my superhero urban fantasy, The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. When I finished the original novel back in the late 1990s, superhero novels were few and far between, particularly if you eliminate Marvel and DC tie-in novels. There’s a lot more of them now which means being a superhero story, by itself, won’t stand out. On the other hand nobody’s going to roll their eyes at the idea of a specfic novel about superheroes.

My treatment of superpowers is different in multiple ways (here’s one) from most of the superhero novels I read. But different, by itself, isn’t magic: it’s possible to be different, original, or unique and still suck. What ultimately matters is that the book’s good, not where it fits in the market. Because I can’t control the market, or predict what it’ll be like when Impossible is finally done. I have to think about marketing  — Questionable Minds was my first real attempt to do so — but my top priority is having something worthwhile to sell.

I have a feeling this post was a little rambling, which may reflect that analyzing the market, let alone fitting it, isn’t my strong suit.

#SFWApro. Cover by Samantha Collins, all rights remain with current  holder.

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Writing

Writing to sell (and a discount sale!)

No, not writing stories with an idea of what will sell sell, but things like cover copy, Amazon online blurbs, and ads. I put in a lot of work during the countdown to publishing Questionable Minds. I browsed Amazon ads when they pop up in my FB feed, and they pop up a lot. It was primarily to get a sense of how other authors push books online, though it’s also just part of my love for books in general. When I worked at Waldenbooks in the 1990s I’d read the back copy of lots of books just to see what they were like. “Men’s adventure” books, Sweet Valley High, Babysitters Club, serious literature. It’s one of the things I miss about bookselling — sure I could do it in a bookstore but I rarely have that much time.

The style in promotional copy has changed a lot. Author Gail Z. Martin (I know her from cons) says it’s due to Amazon allowing all kinds of searches so including really nitty gritty specifics about tropes and subcategories helps grab readers. Thus romances (I’ve no idea why I get so many — it’s hardly my first pick) break down into subcategories such as grumpy single dad, grumpy boss, grumpy neighbor, grumpy single-dad neighbor. Plus lists of tropes such as enemies-to-lovers, friends-to-lovers, bullies-to-lovers (that one makes me want to vomit), smoldering romance, sweet and gentle romance, frazzled single parents, etc.

So, here’s mine: ”

Enter a “steam-psi” Victorian world where newly discovered “mentalist” abilities are changing everything — and they’ve given Jack the Ripper a path to absolute power.

In Victorian England, 1888, some say Sir Simon Taggart is under the punishment of God.

In an England swirling with mentalist powers — levitation, mesmerism, human telegraphy — the baronet is unique, possessing mental shields that render him immune to any psychic assault. Even some of his friends think it’s a curse, cutting him off from the next step in human mental and spiritual evolution. To Simon, it’s a blessing.

Four years ago, the Guv’nor, the hidden ruler of the London underworld, arranged the murder of Simon’s wife Agnes. Obsessed with finding who hired the Guv’nor, Simon works alongside Inspector Hudnall and Miss Grey in Scotland Yard’s Mentalist Investigation Department. Immunity to telegraphy, clairvoyance and mesmerism are an asset in his work — but they may not be enough to crack the latest case.

A mysterious killer has begun butchering Whitechapel streetwalkers. With every killing, the man newspapers call “the Ripper” grows in mental power and in the brutality of his attacks. Is murder all that’s on his mind or does he have an endgame? What plans does the Guv’nor have for the Whitechapel killer? And if Simon has to choose between stopping the Ripper and unmasking the Guv’nor, how will he decide?

Questionable Minds is set in a Victorian England struggling to preserve the social hierarchy while mentalism threatens to overturn it. The cast of characters includes Dr. Henry Jekyll (and yes, his friend Edward Hyde too) and multiple other figures from history and fiction. It has a tormented, morally compromised protagonist, serial-killer villain, a devoted father-daughter relationship and a passionate but complicated love affair.

Trigger Warning: Multiple brutal murders. Nineteenth-century sexism and imperialism. A child in danger.”

I think it works. I hope I’m right. I’m also thinking of going back and redoing the copy for Atlas Shagged and Atoms for Peace and seeing if that can juice sales any. Can’t hurt! Questionable Minds is available in ebook on Amazon or other retailers. Or there’s the paperback.

And while I’m promoting myself, I’ll note that McFarland iscoffering 40% off all titles through November 28, including all my books such as The Aliens Are Here. Use HOLIDAY22 as the code at checkout!

#SFWApro. Covers by Samantha Collins (t) and Zakaria Nada.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Screen Enemies of the American Way, Writing