Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Spelt Czech is not You're Fiend

For instance? That blog post title made it through Word's spell checker without raising any red flags.

Back when the First Reader was publishing regularly, he used to run his papers through a spell checker because he knew he couldn't spell. Initially he trusted this step to clean everything up. After a certain amount of mostly civil discussion about how using "they're is" for "there is" affected the credibility of his work, he started getting me to skim everything as a second check.

I've been reading a lot of indie sf/fantasy lately - books that the authors have released directly to Kindle without going through a traditional publisher - and I am becoming grouchy about the plethora of minor errors that are probably due to an over-reliance on spell checkers. A number of indie authors brush off criticisms of this sort of thing by saying, "Oh, everybody is down on indies for having too many typos when actually we're no worse than trad publishers!"

Uh, no.

That is: I don't care whether Indie Book X has more typos than Trad Book Y. What I care about is that Indie Book X had enough careless errors sprinkled through it to yank me out of the story on a regular basis. And the type of error was almost always a case of a legitimate word used incorrectly to replace the "right" word. And it's not just discreet/discrete or deserts/desserts, which three-quarters of the English-speaking world predictably gets wrong. It's happening with common words that I can't believe any marginally literate person would mix up.

"Her eyes shown with delight."

"Never mind the passed, let's talk about the future!"

"I have a grate idea."

"There's a general disquiet among the populous."

"I'm go to practice more next time."

I just don't believe that anybody who writes a pretty decent 80,000 word book is really confused about how to spell shone, past, great, populace, or, for heaven's sake, going. Okay, I might give them a pass on populace, but even if they're shaky on the correct spelling they should realize that populous isn't the word they're fumbling for. It isn't even the same part of speech!

What this looks like to me is that somebody ran a manuscript through a spell checker and didn't bother to read it afterwards. Because they believed all their problems had been solved? Or because they believe some of the cockamamie advice I've seen handed out, like,

"Don't worry about grammar, spelling, or typos. That's mere craft; you need to concentrate on inspiration."

Or the much-repeated assertion that "If a manuscript is perfect, you probably edited it sixteen times and squeezed all the life out of it."

Kicking the reader out of a story trance and into musings about what you probably meant to write is just not a good idea. I don't care if you got "just one little letter" wrong. (There's only one letter's difference between shone and shown) Relying on spell check to fix all your problems is lazy, and it turns nice, calm, easygoing readers like me into crabby ranting maniacs. DON'T DO IT.

(Here endeth the rant.)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Recursive Ransomware

Yesterday the First Reader got an email saying, in essence, "Are you concerned by the worldwide ransomware attacks? Get the latest fixes from Microsoft! All you need to do is click on this one little link..."

There's a kind of chutzpah in phishing to infect computers with the program you're warning them about.

You know, I miss the Nigerian con letters. At least they were entertaining.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Lies of Omission

In the family we call this "R.L.Moore-ing," after the great mathematician and teacher who insisted that it wasn't a lie if everything you actually said was the literal truth. One of my characters uses this in the current book: already self-conscious about being young for his position at 23, when he meets an Older Woman of 28 and she asks his age, he says, "I'm still on the right side of thirty."

I've come across a more practical application in Andrew Mango's biography of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In a passage about negotiating the withdrawal of foreign armies from Turkish territory at the end of the First World War,

"Pelle urged Mustafa Kemal to stop the movement of Turkish troops towards the neutral zone of the straits. Mustafa Kemal refused, saying that his government had never recognized the existence of the neutral zone, nor could he hold back his victorious troops. Unless an armistice was signed, they would march rapidly on Istanbul. But when Pelle had left, Mustafa Kemal turned to the Turkish journalist Falih Rifki and said with a smile, 'Our victorious armies... I don't even know where they are. Who knows how long it would take us to reassemble them.'"

That may come in handy during negotiations for the end of the war in INSURGENTS.

And it reminds me of a story that I consider the ultimate achievement in R.L. Moore-ing. The notebook I copied this story into has temporarily disappeared, dammit, so I may get some details wrong, but this is the gist of it:

Up-river from the British headquarters, some local warlord is making trouble. A young lieutenant is told to take a boat up river and tell the warlord to cut it out. "And what do I do if he refuses?" "It's not worth starting a war... I suppose you'll just have to turn around and come back."

Up the river we go, and in due course the lieutenant conveys the British ultimatum to the warlord. "And what if I refuse?" the warlord asks.

"In that case, I should, with regret, be obliged to carry out the second part of my instructions."

The warlord caved.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The joys of research

[Inner Cat: Waah. Do I hafta write a blog post? The new Megan Whalen Turner just came out.

Adult: And the rest of life did not conveniently go away. You also have to write the next scene, do something with the shrimp in the fridge, and pick up your books before the cleaners get here.

Inner Cat: But I haven't done anything interesting!

Adult: So? You've been reading some interesting stuff for background. Write about that. And if you're good, you may review Thick as Thieves on Friday. I know you'll have read it by then.]

What, your various identities never argue with each other? How boring.

So. Research for a science fiction book: it's not just about science. The three books in the picture are just a part of what I've been reading for INSURGENTS.

Starts off with guerrilla war in the mountains. Not exactly my area of expertise; fortunately the First Reader has half a dozen books on World War II in Greece. I started out with Ill Met by Moonlight, the story of how Patrick Leigh Fermor kidnapped a German general, and also read several other, less entertaining books. Quit when I decided I couldn't bear to read one word more about the rival resistance groups and how they undercut one another. That wasn't what I was looking for... but somehow it's worked its way into the story.

Part of the backstory of INSURGENTS is that on a world with just two continents, the green and inviting one has been settled. As its government grew more and more totalitarian, it began dumping political dissidents onto the other continent. Yes, I was thinking about the beginnings of Australia. And Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore - that's the second book in the stack, the one whose title you can't read - gave me lots of ideas about how the first deportees might have managed in that bleak environment. None of that made it directly into INSURGENTS, but I needed to know how the society developed before I could describe it. And... there's a lot of stuff currently stored in the back of my head that may recall a book of its own some day, about those early deportees. But not right away! I'm tired of backing up. It's confusing enough to have written AWAKENING first and then to realize I needed a book about events a generation earlier.

Now I'm getting to the part where the rebels, having (sort-of) won, have to create a government overnight to replace the colonial rule. Our own history is a grand source for that. But just to keep it interesting, I'm also feeding the subconscious huge dollops of the life of Ataturk (bottom book) who faced a similar problem after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. And again I'm getting more than I bargained for: in the story of the negotiations there's a beautiful example of lying by omission which I hope to steal for my own book.

More about that tomorrow. Gotta go talk to the shrimp now.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Whole lotta books review: Wine of the Gods

I'm about two-thirds of the way through Pam Uphoff's Wine of the Gods series and loving every minute. There are 31 books in the series now - I hope there will be more - so even somebody who reads too fast, like me, can enjoy her invented world for quite some time. Worlds.

The books are fun to read. That's the most important thing. The characters are mostly likeable, the plot twists and turns keep me guessing, problems are resolved believably.

And as a writer, I am insanely jealous of the complex universe she's created with its infinite possibilities.

Begin with a collection of genetically engineered children, some of whom can influence computers with their minds, and a corporation that's using them to explore gates to alternate worlds; in this telling, there are infinitely many worlds more or less like our own, but in a tree where splits occur with major astronomical events.

I don't want to introduce too many spoilers, but I have to tell just a little more to illustrate just how fine this device is:

Exile all genetically engineered beings to one of these alternate worlds, an unpopulated one, along with the non-engineered families who want to go with their children. Let them blow up the gate on their way out so that they're truly alone. Show them building a new society.

Jump forward a millenium or so, and look at the countries that have been formed and how descendants of the genetically engineered do or don't fit into these societies. By now, they've developed a lot of interesting abilities, and they call the collection of skills "magic" (you know, as in "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Thirteen of the original exiles appear to be functionally immortal, but due to brain damage during the exile they don't have very clear memories of how they got here. The collective subconscious has fitted them into archetypes and declared them to be gods. So as well as witches, wizards, and mages, you have the God of War, the God of Peace, the Goddess of Health and Fertility, and so on.

And you get some extremely amusing consequences when the God of War and the Goddess of Health get drunk together and decide to create a self-replicating wine containing all the useful spells they can think of.

Before the possibilities of Comet Fall, this new world. are even partially explored, Uphoff throws a wild card into the mix: Earth regains contact with the world of Comet Fall and decides to treat them like all the other worlds they've made Gates to, as a resource to be abused and exploited. (Hint: this does not work out well. For Earth.)

Getting dizzy yet? Here's another wild card: there is a third world with a small population of genetically enhanced people and a religion built around them. And they're interested in Comet Fall, too.

By Book Five everybody is spying on everybody else.

It's a beautiful setup. Uphoff starts small and then keeps expanding the original worldview. The possibilities for interaction between "magic" and engineering, the conflicts between the countries of Comet Fall, the conflicts between worlds provide an inexhaustible source of stories. And oh yes, there's another asteroid on a collision course with Comet Fall...

You see why I envy this? It's every sf/f writer's dream to build a world with so many possibilities that you never run out of stories to tell.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Foreshadowing with a brick

Foreshadowing. It's part of your dance with the reader, a kind of flirtation, like showing a bit of ankle to keep them hoping that a lot more will be revealed if they stick around. It's a promise to the reader: something really good is coming up! It's a way to tease the reader: bet you can't guess why soandso is suddenly doing suchandsuch! It's a way of making the implausible events of a story plausible: the protagonist who suddenly escapes a bad situation by climbing a sheer cliff will get a book walled, while the protagonist who used to be a climber until she lost her nerve after a bad fall will be much more believable. Not only are you expecting her to encounter that cliff, you'll be rooting for her to conquer her fears and do what you've already been convinced is within her abilities.

Of course, that last example works best if you can bring in her climbing history without slapping a big fat THIS IS GONNA BE IMPORTANT label on it. Maybe you show it in bits. She's excessively uncomfortable, to the point where it seems out of character, about visiting the rotating restaurant on top of a skyscraper. A "surprise" date where somebody takes her to a rock climbing gym does not go well. It doesn't take much; the object is to drop hints subtle enough that they won't appear as big red flags to the reader, but will give them an "Aha!" moment when the only way she can rescue herself and her friends is by going up that cliff.

Foreshadowing ploys change over time, and it's a good idea to be sufficiently familiar with current work in your genre to recognize what's being done - and overdone. In the seventies you could identify a Gothic romance by (1) the cover (blue tones, dark tower, girl in a negligee fleeing the dark tower) and (2) the near-certainty that at some point the heroine would say, "Had I but known...." Writers of Gothics may have destroyed HIBK as a foreshadowing device for all time.

What's inspired me to think about the virtues of subtlety and restraint in foreshadowing? I recently read a thriller by a writer who is infinitely more successful than I am, so how dare I criticize anything he's written? Well... this book starts with a tiger heist, the details of which are a lot of fun to read. Scenes with the bad guys throughout the book establish that they quickly kill one of their two tigers for body parts but keep the other one alive, presumably so its parts will still be "fresh" when they get around to it.

So... by the time this tiger has been kept alive and in captivity for 80% of the book, you KNOW it's going to eat somebody. And by the time it does get loose and chow down on a villain, you're not shocked. You're not surprised. You're more like, "So what took you so long?"

And I consider that a waste of a perfectly good tiger.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

How to write a blurb

Who, me? Uh-uh. Not my talent. Baen once invited me to write my own back cover blurb. The result was so awful that I understand there was an in-house memo saying, "Never let this woman near anything to do with publicity or marketing."

But the thing about doing that for which you have no natural talent is, you have to learn. So I've been scarfing down posts from Madgeniusclub with helpful suggestions for blurb writing.

Refining the draft

This is probably the single most useful article I've read. Dorothy Grant shares the process by which she and her husband work from a long blurb with too much information down to a short, punchy blurb with a good hook.

But what is it about?

Sarah Hoyt shares a collection of blurbs for the Cinderella story, aimed at different genres.

The agony of writing that cover blurb

Rowena Daniells discusses the agony of trying to fit a 100,000 word book into the Procrustean back-cover bed of 150 words or less.

Blurbs: Short and Sweet

Think getting down to 150 words is hard? Dorothy Grant challenges you to get it down to 50 words. And if you say "That's impossible," well, she has lots of examples.

I'm not at Dorothy's level of expertise yet, but at least I've got the blurbs for both books well under 150 words.


For generations Harmony’s totalitarian government has used the bleak continent of Esilia as a dumping ground for political dissidents. Now they’re surprised that the dissidents want to secede.

Gavrel is totally devoted to his colony’s battle for freedom. Isvel, daughter of the enemy’s invading general, knows exactly why Harmony should rule. When she is taken hostage by his guerrilla group, he has to draw a line between his personal inclinations and his duty to the insurgency, while Isvel has to remember her duty to escape. There can be no future for two people on opposing sides of this war – so Gavrel will just have to win the war.


Orphaned and taunted as an Unlicensed child, Devra grew up determined to expiate her parents’ crime by being the perfect citizen – which means never, ever questioning or defying the rules of Harmony’s totalitarian government. But when one of her students is threatened with “medical rehabilitation,” she finds that her personal values are incompatible with good citizenship. One instinctive act of defiance sends her on a downward spiral towards homelessness and unemployment. But at the very bottom, sometimes you meet someone who shows you a new way up….

What do you think? They're terrible blurbs, aren't they? I know they're terrible. But you should have seen the first drafts!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

High velocity

At least for me, it is. INSURGENTS has started coming into my head in significantly larger chunks - 2,000 to 3,000 words a day. It's exhilarating to feel the story taking off like this, and I'm grateful for it - much better than being stuck and unable to see the way forward - but these intense writing sessions do leave me feeling like the village idiot for the rest of the day. I may not have anything much to say until this pace slows down or I finish the book. Writing fiction has this in common with raising children: I'm nowhere near in control to the extent I expected.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Using what you don't know you know

A while ago this video was all over the Internet: 3D Printed House.

OK, it's a very small house. And it's the Russians, so it could be a Potemkin house, or they could be cheating in some other ways: maybe the printer only ran for 24 hours but they're not mentioning that it stopped every fifteen minutes for teams of plumbers and electricians. But it's also... the future.

And I wasn't ready for it. Here I've got one book in a series finished (AWAKENING) and I'm a quarter into the book that happens before that one (INSURGENTS) and I was only giving my 24th-century colonists the ability to print slabs of wall-like stuff that had to be hinged together. That's what you get for not keeping up with technology! Ok, not a vital part of either story, quick revision, now they've got building printers.

Now reading a tad more diligently, I came across a story about a 3D printed RPG. My son-in-law commented that that required them to print steel...

Mental headslap. Of course they can print steel. Even I, with nothing but a jewelry kiln and some basic modeling tools, can make steel shapes! The technology's been there for years. All you need is a base of tiny steel particles in a moldable binder and some way to heat the shape at the right time/temperatures to (a) burn off the binder and (b) sinter the steel. OK, there are a few other issues, but that's the basic idea.

It started with precious metal clay, you see, which gave jewelers fine silver or gold in just such a binder. That's been around for what, 20 years? And after that came copper clay and bronze clay and steel clay. Any of those "clay" bases can be thinned to make "ink" just by diluting them.

So... my guerillas in INSURGENTS have just stolen a printer that makes solar-chargeable blasters. And the steel "ink" to put in it. They may have melted their first couple of attempts (Hey: I know a LOT about failures with this material) but they are now figuring it out with the help of an antique jewelry-making book. I feel it's a happy combination of using what I know combined with what I just found out about.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Speed bumps

Nothing gets writers arguing faster than discussing optimal writing speed. (Well, ok... also contracts, advances, royalties, publicity, the future of indie, POV... what can I say? We like to bicker; it's so much easier than actually writing.)

When I'm avoiding work by browsing the Internet, I can find dogmatic statements concerning just about any writing speed you want to name. They range from "You're not a REAL writer unless you produce umpteen thousand words a day like ME," to, "Anyone who produces more than one book a year is shallow, careless, and just cranking out words mechanically."

I'd like to propose a new standard.

(1) Anyone who averages fewer words a day than I do is just a hobbyist who will never amount to anything.

(2) Anyone who averages more words a day than I do is just a hack writer who will never amount to anything.

There! Something we can all agree on.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Being Wen Redmond

That's just wish-fulfillment, of course. What I'm actually doing is imitating Wen Redmond. I recently bought her Digital Fiber Art. I've admired her work for years but hadn't realized how much she uses Photoshop to get her wonderful, colorful, complicated, layered images. Immediately I wanted to fool around with some of my own pictures in Photoshop to see if I could get similar effects.

After fooling around with Photoshop-generated backgrounds, I decided it took less time to make a colorful collage and scan it than it did to mess around in Photoshop trying to make one part of the background look like painted lace, another like torn paper, etc. I made a couple of quick and dirty collages using spray adhesive and my copious collection of paper and fabric scraps.

This is a snapshot I took in New England, of a deserted house under bare trees.

Next I applied the Stamp filter to get a strong black and white image.

I cropped the picture so that the large tree on the right was the dominant image, overlaid it on the pink collage using Multiply blending mode, and cropped again.

This weathered door was another snapshot taken in New England.

Because I wanted to keep the peeling-paint texture of the door, this time I didn't run it through any filters; I just overlaid it on the yellow collage. What? In overlay mode, what else?

I like the subtle, mystical effect of the overlay blending mode here - the door seems to be floating in space. Cutting away the image on either side of the door and inserting a contrasting layer made the floating effect even stronger. This cut's not perfect, but good enough for experimental purposes; if I decide to print this one onto fabric, I'll select the sides very carefully before doing anything else, and try out filling them with different colors and textures. I'm thinking a dark, cloudy sky might look good here.

And finally, here's a snapshot of a jali in Udaipur, layered in Multiply mode over two layers of the yellow collage (one rotated 180 degreea) and the top collage blended in Difference mode.

Nothing so great here, but with a bit more fooling around I think I might come up with something that would be interesting to print on fabric and then to embroider/bead/quilt.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Reaching a tipping point

I have to write a certain number of words before a book really 'comes alive,' for me. Part of it is getting to know my main characters better; part of it may simply be that it takes a while to persuade my brain that it really does have to turn itself on and generate a certain number of words every day.

It seems that I reached that point on INSURGENTS yesterday, at 9000 words. Today's 1,000 words were effortless; I could see and hear what was going on in the chapter, and all I had to do was type at top speed trying to get it all down. I love it when this starts to happen, not only because writing is no longer hard work, but also because writing in this mode seems to smooth out something in my brain. I become a nicer person, kind to children and small animals and actually willing to cook for the First Reader. I shouldn't be surprised if this actually alters something in my brain chemistry, generating endorphins like exercise or playing chamber music.

This shift is also why I had to have a sitter when the children were small. I'm really not safe to watch over small children in this mode, because I stop hearing and seeing what's going on in the outside world.

There's a temptation to go on and shoot for 2,000 or 3,000 or more words. I've done that in the past, when faced with deadlines, and it really doesn't work out very well for me. I can push it for maybe a week, but then I pay the price with several days of staring at the air and feeling like a total idiot whose brains have just been scooped out with a spoon. It seems my personal story-generating mechanism works at a rate of 1,000 words/day and that's that; if I speed up one week, I stop altogether the next week, so I'm not really that far ahead. And before anybody says, "But look at John Ringo," I would like to point out that I don't have the use of John Ringo's brain and his inexhaustible, high-speed story generator.

In any case - Hallelujah! Good Friday has been very good to me.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mass-produced protests

The morning after Trump's missile strike on Syria, there were already anti-war protestors in the streets. I'm not necessarily in disagreement with their point - I certainly don't believe any good can come out of our entanglement with that particular mess - but I do think they're rushing to conclusions. (The First Reader and I disagree here. He thinks 59 Tomahawks amount to a declaration of war; I think the message is more, "If you use chemical weapons, we will make you sorry." We'll all have to wait and see, I guess.)

But I am impressed by the speed and professionalism of these protests. Look at the picture. How did they get professionally printed signs less than twenty-four hours after the event they're protesting? That requires some serious organization to get the posters printed and distributed. (It's not just this one picture; there are plenty more, revealing a wide variety and distribution of posters.)

The fact of protests doesn't trouble me. The evidence of an unidentified organization behind the protests, just waiting for an event that can be protested, with the money and power to create very professional signs on a moment's notice and then distribute them across the country? That does trouble me. I'd really, really like to know where those signs came from.