Wednesday, June 28, 2017

It's always fun when a novelist describes something and you suddenly recognize a place you know. Well, ok, if they're describing Trafalgar Square that's not so exciting. But if they talk about the street of shops selling strange fabrics for the theatrical costumers, or mention the fish and chips shop where the girl doused your chips with vinegar even while asking if you wanted it, there's a little thrill of recognition and the book becomes suddenly more real.

I've just discovered that Lynne Reid Banks wrote two more Cupboard books after the three I knew about (starting with The Indian in the Cupboard) and I'm making up for lost time, currently almost through the 4th book, The Mystery of the Cupboard. (Yes, they're children's books. So? The back cover says "Ages 9 up" and I qualify.) This one is mainly set in the Dorset countryside, with occasional visits to an unnamed small town. And I just read,

Omri and his dad walked out into the village square. There was a sort of little house - just a roof on four stone pillars - where you could sit. This was nicknamed Georgina after the woman whose memorial it was.
Now, we spent a couple of weeks in Dorset in, oh, must have been around 1990, because the girls weren't in school yet. We rented a place in Beaminster and cruised around the area: I have vague memories of long walks in the country, watching enough of a cricket match to send me into a mild coma (cricket can do that to me really fast), taking the girls and my father to a pebbly beach, and experiencing the Great English Traffic Jam of (approximately) 1990, when a truck bashing into the corner of a village store tied up traffic in all of southeast England for several hours. Not much else.

But when I read that paragraph, I said, "Steve!" (He'd hogged the book and read it first.) Did you realize this book is set in Beaminster?" Because all of a sudden I remembered that little shelter.

The internet is a wonderful thing. It took less than five minutes to find pictures of the shelter and the information that it's nicknamed "Julia" after the woman whose memorial it is.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

On passing for normal

I've been reading an old post on Sarah Hoyt's blog in which she opines that if you're a writer, your friends and family will think you're insane, and if you write science fiction and fantasy, that just adds another layer of weirdness. Had to laugh because this is almost the exact opposite of my experiences!

If you want people to think you're insane and/or terminally weird (not that I can imagine why anybody would want that, unless you're Odysseus avoiding the draft), just try taking your writer's mind through graduate school, university faculty, and a couple of software development companies and trying to pass as normal. Try as I might to be careful, I kept having these conversations in which the other party would eventually stop and say, "You have a really interesting fantasy life, don't you?"

And it wasn't a compliment.

In the last such job I made an all-out effort to pass. No more obscure rock band T-shirts. Gray suit, check. Good shoes, check. Makeup, check. Toothpicks to prop my eyes open during meetings. Refrain from screaming when the tech writer rearranges your sentences to make them euphonious rather than true. All that and I still blew it.

I'd been taking the Visiting Professor to give his talks at two universities in the area. I had to drive him because he didn't like the car the company had rented for him. I forget what make it was, but he claimed that in his country only pimps drove that make of car. He kept making heavy-handed, unfunny jokes about this and calling it "The Pimpmobile." This got old quickly.

All I said, on the way back to Austin that night, was, "If you like, I can drop you off somewhere on East 11th and you can get an up-close look at some American pimpmobiles while you're trying to persuade a taxi to come down there for you."

Couple of days later I heard that one of my colleagues had asked him, "What did you think of Dr. Ball?" And he'd answered, "She's very intelligent, but kind of weird."

By contrast, once I came out of the closet as a science fiction & fantasy writer, the normal people around me relaxed considerably. Because now "weird" was just what they expected of me. I fit into a group they thought they understood and everybody was a lot happier.

Sometimes the road to "normal" is very, very crooked indeed.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Ransomware out of thin air

Twice in the past six months I've had my browser (Chrome) seized by ransomware. (The second time was ten minutes ago.) In both cases I was able to recover by shutting down immediately, waiting a few minutes, and restarting. But it makes me nervous.

I try to practice safe browsing: never click on unverified email links, avoid sites I suspect to be dodgy, etc. Again, both times it happened I was doing nothing unusual; this time, reading another writer's blog which I visit frequently.

Anybody else have this experience? Any ideas what I should do to avert the ransomware demons?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

They can smell fear

I've been doing some minor surgery on Awakening - cutting some irrelevant scenes, moving others around, and so on - and now I need to read the whole MS and reassure myself that it still makes sense. And being a 20th century troglodyte, I cannot evaluate my own book just by looking at it on a screen: I need that stack of printed pages so I can read the MS the way I've always read MSS.

My Epson spent day before yesterday coming up with new and creative ways to make printing the MS a major PITA:

"My heads are clogged, you have to waste ink cleaning them."

"I'm out of yellow ink. This has absolutely nothing to do with printing black, but I'm going to sit here with my arms folded until you get me a new yellow cartridge."

"Paper jam!"

"I did 10 pages. Now I'm out of black ink."

"Ooh, you touched my plug. Don't you remember you have to insert it just so to actually get electricity from this wall outlet?"

"Say, how about I print everything after page 82 in red?"

Actually, I think the red ink was caused by a mistake I made in Word, and I think it's fixed now, but I coulden't risk testing that hypothesis until I recovered from the urge to pick up the printer and hurl it out the window. Now it's time to find out. Wish me luck.

Update:

After another 45 pages it has now decided that it cannot continue printing black text unless I give it a new blue ink cartridge. Pfui. Blue and magenta cartridges now on order.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Cut it out already!

I’m tired.

Last Wednesday was a tipping point for me: the shootings in Alexandria, the Left’s vile reactions, the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.

Not that I have anything useful to say about Grenfell Tower. But the rest of it?

Nobody who’s been paying attention to the escalating violence on the Left was surprised by the Alexandria shootings. Shocked, yes. But surprised? In the last year we’ve seen riots and attempts to shut down Trump campaign events, individual Trump supporters being beaten and harassed, a speech at Berkeley canceled after protestors broke windows and started fires, a professor at Middlebury College assaulted for the crime of standing next to Charles Murray, a parade in Portland canceled due to threats of violence toward Republicans who dared march in the parade, a college in Washington terrorized by bullies who march around the campus swinging baseball bats, repeated death threats towards Republicans in Congress and their families.

All this backed by a steady drumbeat of vile invective. Trump is not a legitimate president. Trump should be assassinated. Rublicans should be lined up and shot. Trump should be impeached and then executed. (Huffington Post). Hey, look at my neat model of Trump’s decapitated head! (Kathi Griffin.) I want a rhino to fuck Paul Ryan to death. (Joss Whedon.)

I’m tired of this prolonged temper tantrum.

The very people who screamed that Trump was a direct threat to democracy because he said he might not recognize the results of an election… have been, ever since November 8, refusing to recognize the results of this election. “Not my President!” they cried. And they have had ever so many great ideas. Who can forget, “Let’s dress up like giant vaginas and march on Washington to protest Trump’s vulgarity?”

Did I mention that I’m tired of this?

And I’m just as tired of the limp-wristed Republican response. We deplore the mobs and the violence. We write articles about Democrats saying outrageous things and point out that if a Republican had said the same things, the media would crucify him.

This has absolutely no effect on the ranting, raving, insanely screeching mob.

I am beginning to wonder if anything less than reciprocal violence will make a dent in their righteous anger.

I'm not rooting for reciprocal violence. I want to see this country return to a place where we judge ideas by debating them, not by trying to kill our opponents. But you know what? The people on the Left who are raising this ruckus should hope even more that this country goes no farther down the path of political violence. While screaming about fascism and accusing everybody and his brother of being a Nazi, they are themselves creating the conditions that lead to a totalitarian state.

And that will be much, much worse than the imaginary fascism they’re yelling about now.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Bangity-bang-bang

The first time I heard this joke it featured military training exercises in the Soviet Union. There are two groups of soldiers. The first group is told that they're infantry, but the army doesn't have rifles or ammunition for them to practice with. They are handed sticks and told "Just point these and say bangity-bang-bang."

Off they go, marching against the other group and chanting "Bangity-bang-bang" with all their might.

Guy in the back notices that as the two groups meet, the other groups' soldiers are literally walking over his group.

As the opposing group gets closer, he hears: "Tankity-tank-tank...."

What brought this to mind? I just saw a Wall Street Journal article (paywall, sorry) from last week discussing the sorry state of European armies.

"Soldiers in Germany’s Light Infantry Battalion 413 near the Baltic Sea coast complained last year that they didn’t have enough sniper rifles or antitank weapons or the right kind of vehicles. During exercises, they told a parliamentary ombudsman, their unit didn’t have the munitions to simulate battle. Instead, they were told to imagine the bangs." (Emphasis mine)

Tankity-tank-tank. Bomba romba bomba. Who put the bomp in the bomp ba bomp ba bomp...

Excuse me. I'm just going to go off and giggle quietly for a while.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Review: Dorothy Grant's Scaling the Rim

I have just two gripes with this book: (1) it's short and (2) there isn't a sequel (yet: I still have hopes.)

And I probably shouldn't complain about its being short, because the length is about right for the story. I didn't feel anything had been truncated or left out: I just wanted to keep reading!

This book is a delightful science fiction adventure story with an interwoven romance. Grant has an admirably light touch; the romance is interwoven with the adventure without slowing the pace, the world and the relevant politics are made clear without infodumps, the writing evokes the sense of a frozen world without stopping for lengthy descriptions. A sequel would be welcome, but I'll buy anything I can get by this author.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Strange attractors and snakebots and Madame Defarge, oh my!

Niraja Lorenz is just one of the talented and innovative fiber artists whose work will be exhibited at Highfield House June 25-September 6.If you're in New England, or plan to be there this summer, don't miss this exhibit on Cape Cod. (Hmmm. Cape Cod. Ocean. Coolth. Wonder if I can convince the First Reader that we should vacation in New England this summer for a break from Austin's hundred-degree heat marathon.)

Next up is a video of a snake robot, no kidding! Watch this little guy tackle the stairs at the Spectrum office. And if that's not enough for you, try this extremely cool video of an amphibious snakebot from Japan. I am so having one of these in the next book. Well, maybe not in Survivors; it would have to be forcibly injected into the synopsis. But there is a definite place for a snakebot in the urban fantasy that's coming up after I finish the Harmony trilogy.

Remember Madame Defarge knitting at the guillotine? I never realized that she was emulated during the two world wars by knitting spies who encoded train schedules, troop movements and other secret information into innocent-looking scarves, hats, and sweaters.That might be trickier to pull off today, since you rarely see women knitting or doing any other handwork in public...but I'm already thinking about a quilt. Hand quilted. In Morse Code. Now, how to use this?

And finally,the stupidest thing I've seen this week: intersectionality meets quantum physics. Oh, good grief. I've been waiting for somebody to tell me this is a hoax. Apparently, though, it's for real.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Finished!

I typed the last scene of Insurgents a few days ago, proofread the draft and sent it off to my one beta reader. Now trying not to breathe down her neck just because I'm in the process of scheduling it with a cover artist and formatter. If she persuades me that major surgery is needed, I'll have to put my preferred dates back; but I'm pretty sure that won't be necessary.

Pro tip: never try to proof an entire book, on the computer, in one day. It's bad for the eyes and worse for the temper.

And, of course, it's not like I'm twiddling my thumbs while waiting. I'm proofreading the follow-on, Awakening, and plotting the third and probably final book in this series (working title Survivors), which I hope to start writing at the beginning of July. This is going to be a tricky one. I need to show a collapsing society (Venezuela is giving me plenty of inspiration here) but I don't want to write a grim, depressing dystopia. Actually, I don't think I can; the funny keeps breaking out. I'm working on a sort of comedy of manners against the background of collapse and failure. There will be some grim bits - it's never fun when a society starts consuming itself - but I hope to balance the sadder parts of the story with scenes of my characters coping with whatever I throw at them.

Jury's still out on whether I can pull this off.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Isis Condemns Kathy Griffin for Cultural Appropriation

Via Duffelblog:

RAQQA, Syria — The self-proclaimed Islamic State has issued a statement condemning self-proclaimed comedian Kathy Griffin, accusing her of “cultural appropriation” after she posed for a photograph with a mock severed head of President Donald Trump. The group, which has been protective of its brand ever since taking over vast swaths of Iraq and Syria and establishing itself as the premier beheading agency in the Middle East, said it was deeply disturbed by Griffin’s “ignorant and offensive” use of a “sacred Islamic State tradition.”

There's more. Read it all. It's the only remotely appropriate response to That Picture that I've seen. And no, I'm not going to post a copy of That Picture. You've seen it. We don't need to keep gawping at it. (Unless we are the Secret Service, which is supposed to take such things seriously, God help them.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The book I’m not going to review

Looking for new writers invariably means kissing a lot of toads. Usually I just sigh and give up somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, saying, “It may be somebody else’s cup of tea, but not for me.” Occasionally, though, I come across a book that is so annoying that it really tests my vow not to throw my Kindle at the wall. The book I’m not going to review today was one of those.

I’m not going to review it because for all I know, the writer is a perfectly nice person who just didn’t have a beta reader to tell him, “Sorry, this is not ready for publication.” And I don’t like holding people up for public obloquy.

But the writing, dear God, I wanted brain bleach long before I’d passed my eyes over even 10 percent of the text. It is so full of things Nobody Should Ever Do to a Reader. It would take too long to describe all the offenses against the English language, so I’m just going to mention the most annoying one: Pushy adjectives.

That’s what I call adjectives that the writer throws in to tell you how to feel about something without going to the trouble of actually describing it. Within the first few pages our heroine had melted metal sheets with “incredible temperatures,” had taken an “incredible leap.” A little later something “had done some incredible work on her health.” Someone else’s trigger finger “released a volley of countless slugs.” And there was a “merciless army” at the door. Oh, and somebody was guilty of “hateful preaching.” The expectation of sudden death was “heartbreaking,” and so was somebody’s rage.

The relentless bombardment of push adjectives was even more annoying than somebody writing in ALL CAPS. I felt that the author was shouting at me, “This is amazing and you’d better believe it! These characters feel deeply and so should you!”

That is… a very poor substitute for actually amazing me.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The predictable demons

It usually happens when I'm about 3/4 through with a book. I wake up one morning knowing that this particular book doesn't even deserve to go on a slushpile, it's a farrago of nonsense, it's boring, nobody will ever want to read it.

This time it's happening when I have only a chapter and a half to go on INSURGENTS. Possibly because this book is shorter than my usual, the internal demons were goofing off and thinking, "Oh, we don't need to attack until she reaches 75,000 words." Unfortunately, it seems that somebody blew the alarm whistle: "She's not going to get to 75,000 words on this book! Fire when ready!"

So here we are again, and the only way forward is through the Insecurity Demons. Arguing with them does no good; I simply have to get my head down and adopt the attitude that I don't care what they say about quality, I'm going to finish this thing. Today I've done 1600 words in that mode. It's not fun. But sometimes it's necessary.

The demons usually STFU after it becomes clear that they're not able to stop me writing. But this time I'm so close to the end that they may be able to keep it up for the rest of the book.

Full speed ahead. And damn the torpedos.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Book Review: Megan Whalen Turner's Thick as Thieves

Yes, I know I was going to post this review last week. I had forgotten that I always read Megan Whalen Turner’s books twice through, once to enjoy the story and again to appreciate the tricky structure. Thick as Thieves was no exception.

How much can you say about a book that is the perfect vehicle for its story? As always, Megan Whalen Turner’s prose is clear, luminous, limpid. If you think of a novelist’s prose style as a window through which you see the story, hers is a windowpane so clean that you hardly know it is there. Like Mary Renault, she gives voice to an archaic period (she keeps saying on the basis of technology it’s a fifteenth-century world, but it feels much more like classical Greece to me) not by dragging in archaic words and phrases, but by stripping modern English of whatever shows modernity. She’s a master at avoiding contractions, slang, neologisms – anything that might yank the reader back into present time.

In all this, Thick as Thieves is like her previous four books in this world. As always, she presents us with engrossing characters, a story that keeps reeling us forward, and – dammit – a surprise at the end. I know Megan Whalen Turner’s tricks by now and yet she still surprised me.

To hell with the style, you say: what’s it about? On the surface, it’s an escape-and-pursuit story: the slave Kamet, on learning that his master has been poisoned, and knowing that slaves are routinely tortured in an investigation, flees the city but finds his path to freedom blocked by determined pursuers, “accidents,” and suspicion. On another level, it’s a story of a slave becoming a free man in a much deeper way than simply striking off his chains. And it’s a story of an unlikely friendship growing between two very different men.

And as in her previous books, Megan Whalen Turner adds depth and resonance to her story with her invented mythology and literature. Thick as Thieves differs from previous books in drawing from the culture of her Medes rather than from her Greek-ish city-states. The prose story is punctuated by brilliant pastiches of something very like the epic of Gilgamesh, highlighting a friendship between two mythic beings that is very like that between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. She’s pulled it off once again: Thick as Thieves is at once an adventure story, a story of change and growth, and a reflection on the relationship between gods and men.

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.

INSURGENTS

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.

AWAKENING

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.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Washing garbage

I hate it when I have to throw written words away. Hate, hate, hate it. I try to get it generally right the first time, and if that doesn't happen, I'd rather delete a passage when revising the complete first draft, by which time I have forgotten just how much work it was to write that scene the first time.

Sometimes, though, there's no reasonable alternative. I've been struggling with the first three chapters of INSURGENTS (working title). At first I thought it was just the pain of starting to write again after several weeks off; when I start a new book I always mope around the house for the first few days complaining that I've forgotten how hard it is to write. So I didn't immediately recognize the Second Law of Writing, which is that if you are agonizing and struggling to write a scene there is probably something wrong with it. After all, these opening chapters did everything I wanted them to: show a rebel raid on an outpost, bring my two main characters together, set up that they're going to have to stay together for some time whether they like it or not, and create a new problem for the rebels arising from the raid.

The only problem was that it wasn't believable. The outpost was seriously undermanned for no reason, my secondary character had no good reason for being there, the ruse that made the raid possible wouldn't work, even if it did the raid would only succeed if the invaders did a whole slew of stupid things... Well, I fixed this and explained that; asked my First Reader to take a look at it; he pointed out some new problems; while he was reading I noticed some other problems.

Then I realized that I was putting patches on top of patches to save a structure that was unsound in the beginning.

That's when you're "washing garbage." When, no matter how much you change words and dialog and insert explanatory background, you're still working with a fundamentally flawed idea. And it's still going to smell like dead fish and coffee grounds no matter how often you wash it.

So, this weekend, eleven thousand words went into the recycling bin and I spent most of my time reading books on guerrilla warfare and IED's in the hope of shaking a new idea loose. (If anyone's interested, the book I found most useful was The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War and the least useful was Mao's Guerrilla Warfare.

Now, I hope, I've got an entirely new surface plot with the same deep plot (those things I wanted to accomplish in the opening chapters) underlying it.

Let's see how hard it is to write this version.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Appearances are improving

So ok, it was something about the snazzy new theme I was trying to use. Reverted to a simpler model and now my posts are showing up.

The blog may look different from day to day as I fiddle with the settings, trying to persuade the thing to show exactly what I want it to show and make it legible. This seems like a good time to do that since I expect both of my loyal readers have given up on me in the past couple of years, so nobody's going to be discombobulated if the labels list suddenly bursts into flames or a dragon pokes his head through the middle of the latest post.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Two years later

It has been almost exactly two years since part of my spine collapsed and with it, much of my life. There's nothing so boring as other people's back problems, so here's the executive overview: months flat on my back because I could neither stand not sit without excruciating pain; trying every remedy suggested until my last hope was surgery; months looking for a surgeon who would tackle the problem; more months in bed recovering from surgery; physical therapy; pneumonia setting me back months in the recovery process.

No, not a fun time. But I am extremely grateful for the miracle that is modern American surgery, without which I would have been a permanent invalid. Now, thanks to the insertion of a new spine segment composed of titanium and cadaver bones, I'm just a grouchy old lady who ought to get back to doing the PT exercises regularly. (Yes, the corpse bones thing is kind of creepy. But just imagine how much creepier it must feel to get a heart transplant!)

A funny thing happened on the way to recovery. For some years I had felt burned out as a writer and was doing nothing but fiber arts and other craftsy stuff. Now the stories are starting to bubble up in my head again.

And the world of publishing has changed since I drifted away. The Kindle was just a gleam in Jeff Bezos' eye back then; now e-books are everywhere and my bookmarks list overfloweth with advice for writers who want to try indie publishing. I've always been a little bit curious about how my books would sell if they weren't printed and distributed by somebody who had decided in advance something like "midlist, not worth pushing." Not that I have any gripes with any of my former publishers; I'd just like to try this indie thing and see how it works out. This seems like an auspicious time to start.

This is, of course, assuming that I can not only write the books but also deal with cover art, blurb, formatting and all the other details that a publisher handles for you. I think I can. But that may be a degree of optimism bordering on hubris, given that I've been fiddling with Blogger for over an hour and have not yet persuaded it to show a blogroll in the sidebar.

Whoops... Preview shows text and blogroll; when I hit publish, neither appears. Time to save this draft and try again tomorrow, I guess. t