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Dec. 4th, 2013

Review of Lilith's Brood: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago (Xenogenesis Trilogy)

This morning I finished the first of the Butler trilogies that I bought yesterday, the Xenogenesis Trilogy.

It looks like the book was well-preserved in the transition and not full of the kind of OCR errors that typically annoy me. There were only few things that slipped through the copyediting/proofing stages, things such as starting a sentence with "He" instead of "The," and just a few of those. Those few probably came right over from the prior edition.

Ms. Butler's prose was well-executed. The style was a modern, transparent style that in no way got in the way of the story. The books were very readable, and while not necessarily an edge of your seat read, still good page turners. For this reason, I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.

I found her explorations of the novels' themes to be fairly shallow and also morally repugnant. I'm spoilering the reasons, but I'll say if you have issues with rape, these may be books to avoid.

[Spoiler (click to open)]

The basic plot of the first novel is this:  The humans (the US and the USSR; the book was written in 1987) have made the planet uninhabitable. The specifics aren't given, but it is later mentioned that the ozone layer has been destroyed or at least damaged to the point that the planet can no longer sustain life. Fortunately, some helpful aliens have come along to save what's left of humanity. For a price.

OK, pretty standard fare, there. You can do good things and bad things with such a premise. And this is where the story becomes both fascinating and horrifying: The aliens in question, the Oankali, propagate and improve themselves through merging with other races using genetic engineering that comes as naturally to their third sex as breathing. They call this process Trading. Each race takes on genetic improvements from the other.

Of course, the chilling part is that this Trade takes place whether the "trading partner" agrees to the Trade or not. The reader isn't privy to any detailed info on prior Trades, but humanity isn't given any option other than: Participate in the Trade, become an alien sex slave, or stay in stasis and be experimented on.

Enter Lilith: She's carefully chosen to be the "Judas goat" for Humanity. She is awakened, acclimated to the aliens (who incite irrational terror due to their weird appearance, something I don't buy as presented), and tasked with awakening her choice of 40 out of 80 candidates to repopulate an Earth that's been restored by the Oankali. They'll live in Amazon jungles, with no technology other than simple tools. She is manipulated, and knows she is, and resents it. Humanity will be wiped out within one generation through interbreeding with the Oankali. I suppose an explanation of Oankali mating is in order:

The Oankali family group consists of three units: First, there is a male and female pair that are closely related, usually brother-sister pairings that have formed a close (as in on a biological process) bond in childhood. (BTW, this isn't the morally repugnant part at all, I'm getting to that.) The pair is joined by a member of the third sex, an ooloi, which is unrelated. The ooloi mixes the genetic material of the male and female, ensuring that bad traits aren't passed on (guess they don't have the chicken line breeding chart) and inserts the fertile egg in the female, who carries the baby and has it in sort of the usual way. Aside from being the mixologist of the group, the ooloi also provides all of the pleasure. In fact, once a male/female couple bonds to an ooloi, they develop an aversion to touching each other. There will be no cuddling unless an ooloi is in the middle. There is a physical connection: the ooloi inserts filaments into the bodies of the male and female, which allows it to manipulate their biology, including healing, making design tweaks to DNA, and giving pleasure by making the body create endorphins or the alien equivalent.

Humans are simply added as a second male/female pair in the typical Oankali group. That's after they're drugged with pheromones, then chemically addicted to an ooloi against their will. This happens to Lilith: she's bonded to an ooloi, Nikanj, against her will. But hey, he's a nice guy, so she learns to live with it.

Later, she's given a present by the same ooloi, a male who will become her lover among the group of candidates for awakening and recolonization (and breeding; you only go to Earth if you want to breed). Her lover is later introduced to Nikanj. Who proceeds to engage him in alien pleasure-giving (sexual stimulation, and conditioning) against his will. Later, the ooloi comes back for round 2, which will involve Lilith, Joe and Nikanj. Joe refuses, and here's how it goes:

He pulled his arm free. “You said I could choose. I’ve made my choice!”

“You have, yes.” It opened his jacket with its many-fingered true hands and stripped the garment from him. When he would have backed away, it held him. It managed to lie down on the bed with him without seeming to force him down. “You see. Your body has made a different choice.”

He struggled violently for several seconds, then stopped. “Why are you doing this?” he demanded.

Ah, your lips are saying no, but since I've drugged you, your body is telling me yes!

And the part where the male and female gain an aversion to touching each other? Nikanj lets them find that out for themselves.

Aside from being a rapist, Nikanj is a pretty good guy. He actually loves both of his victims new partners. He's not violent. (He uses chemicals, not clubs.) He has a very strong sense of family, and wants what's best for the greater good (of his species). He doesn't rob them of their free will (just lets Stockholm syndrome take care of that over time.)

Eventually, all of the humans who are awakened are paired off and each pair given over to an ooloi. They're then sent to train to live off the land in the jungle. Many of the other humans view Lilith as a Judas and hate her. Those that don't quickly develop Stockholm syndrome and resent their addiction to their monstery new lovers become increasingly violent. One of them commits murder and a couple of really good attempts at murder. He's sentenced to life in stasis. The rest of the rebellious humans are allowed to colonize earth. Except Lilith. She'll be used to prep more groups before she's allowed to go to Earth. Of course, once they do so, many of them promptly leave the Oankali, and are allowed to. They'll not be able to reproduce unless they mate with an alien group, but they'll be allowed to live and die without too much interference from the aliens.

The first book ends with the news that Lilith will be stuck training more groups. Who will likewise grow to resent and hate her. It doesn't mention the groups splitting off, but this is what Lilith wants in the first book. She urges the people she's training to learn how to live off the land, and to escape at the first chance they get once they're on Earth.

At this point, I thought I had read a really good set up for a series. I thought perhaps we'd get to see some more of Lilith's friends, who might form a meaningful (or futile) resistance movement. What I got was more of a validation of the alien viewpoint. Which could have been OK had two things happened: one, that both sides of the conflict were explored meaningfully, and two, the aliens learned that rape is rape. It doesn't matter if it's "nonviolent" or not.

This didn't happen. The humans were portrayed as miscreants throughout. The men tended to form rape gangs, and women became trade commodities. When salvaged metal was used to make guns, it was implied that guns caused violence. Sure, they had machetes and axes, but guns made killing so much more convenient that people became killers because of the guns. Hybrid children became a hot black market commodity because humans couldn't have children, so hey! let's steal some! And every human group was on board with this.

 Humanity can be bad. It can be especially bad in groups. If you want to see just how bad humans can be, read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. But there are internal logic problems to boot:

1. The aliens are utterly terrifying to humans because they're roughly humanoid (two arms, two legs a head and a torso) with masses of worm-like or snake-like sensory appendages that wave around. OK, that's just a walking snack tray for my bearded dragons. But apparently, it's enough to make every single rebel human completely xenophobic and to also fill their hearts with hatred and give a good number of them the urge to also treat their fellow humans like trash.

2. Not that many humans survived, but the numbers were in the thousands. Lilith was carefully selected to not be a xenophobic asshole. Then she was given a sample of 80 carefully selected humans to pick from. All of Lilith's picks (she seems to have a talent for it) show that the psych profiles she was given by the Oankali were accurate. And yet she ended up with a huge number of xenophobes (hey, you can pick from eighty out of several thousand, but we forgot to weed out the xenophobes!), murderers, and rapists. Even if she was given a huge portion of xenophobes, having so many murderers and rapists doesn't follow logically. Which leaves authorial intrusion suggesting most men are rapists and we're a murderous lot by nature, neither of which is true. Shallow.

3. Humanity's fatal flaw is that we have Intelligence and Hierarchical Thinking. This combination is deadly because we can create a means to destroy ourselves and our hierarchical thinking pushes us to then use that means. This is shown on a macro level with the (presumably nuclear) holocaust, and with guns causing violence among the human resister (book term) villages. Of course, our peaceful (they only kill you on accident) aliens also constantly exhibit hierarchical thinking. Remember, the ooloi give all the pleasure. In the first book, it's strongly suggested that the ooloi have more influence in group decision making (major decisions require a consensus among all the Oankali). In later books, the author backpedals on this, essentially turning the aliens into date-raping Mary Sues who can do no harm.

4. You can apparently build a functional family with strong long term (centuries long) bonds by addicting the new additions to sex/stimulation and then relying on the Stockholm effect and the illusion of freedom to manipulate them in to compliance. The entire concept is just fucked up. Yet that's how the core family group -- Lilith's -- is formed. The second book has about a thirty or so year time skip, and the next about a hundred year time skip. Each one is told from the first person POV of one of Lilith's hybrid children. Lilith is just as happy with her situation in the second as in the third. She only makes a token objection to one of her hybrid ooloi offspring pulling the same shit that Nikanj pulled on her to trick a couple into mating with it. Even the ooloi date rape isn't completely free of physical violence, as the victims are restrained while the physical connection (penetration analog) is made, though in some cases, time is taken to let pheromones lull the victim. But if expedience is required, the ooloi will just grab 'em. Kind of like a male lizard.

5. One issue not touched on at all is that the Oankali are looking for breeding groups, which means that homosexuals are presumably doomed to an eternal slumber in suspended animation. The aliens seem to value family bonds and also seem to want the male/female pairs to be two people who love each other, which leaves out pairing up someone who isn't attracted to the opposite sex. Since only breeding groups are taken to Earth (at least potential breeding groups), I'm assuming any homosexual humans found are simply kept in suspended animation. There are a few cases of individual humans living among the Oankali in the first book, but the impression is that they are doing so as early steps in learning how to deal with humans so that the breeding groups can be set up. So, one angle on the situation is left unexplored. That's not an internal logic problem, though, so I guess my list here has its own internal logic problem.

Overall, the trilogy was very readable, and is probably worth reading, but it missed some major beats for me. It could have been much better.

The big question on my mind is whether I wasn't satisfied with the story due to execution or authorial bias. If the latter, I'll have to stop reading her work, if the former, then it's either just me (the series gets really good reviews in general) or she just fumbled things a little bit, which happens to everyone.

I'm looking forward to reading her Patternist novels and the short story collection I have sitting on my Kindle and finding out. Ms. Butler's stories do have the ability to draw you in quickly and keep you reading.

Dec. 2nd, 2013

The Haul

Picking through the sale books today took a while. I may not get to the non-fiction.

Here are my picks for fiction:

Lilith's Brood, Octavia E. Butler (Xenogenesis Trilogy 3-in-1)
Seed to Harvest, Octavia E. Butler (Patternist series 4-in-1)
City of Truth, James Morrow
The Continent of Lies, James Morrow
The Lyra Novels, Patricia C. Wrede (5-in-1)
Bloodchild and Other Stories, Octavia E. Butler
The Dreaming Jewels, Theodore Sturgeon
In the Suicide Mountains, James Gardner

My electronic to read pile is becoming a mountain.

Happy Cyber Monday!

Hope Turkey Day was fun for everyone. The wife and I went to see our niece and the rest of the inlaws. There was food, there was a board game (Ticket to Ride; I won), and I managed not to fall into a food coma until I got home. I managed to throw my sleeping out of whack.

Didn't make it to 500k yet. I think I can make it if I can produce 16k words a day for the rest of the month. Ah, well, getting back to it starting today. I think I may actually start doing the whole word count thing here again. It may keep me honest, and at least I'll have something to journal about. I'm pretty horrible about journaling. I'll try to write something every week day.

Amazon is running a Cyber Monday deal on Kindle books, so I'm looking them over. The discount is,of course, a lie. The percent discount is based off of the highest print price for the books, not the Kindle price -- but there are still some pretty good deals. I'm pretty sure I'm going to load up on Octavia E. Butler. I've been meaning to read her for a while now, and hadn't gotten around to it due to the size of my "to read" pile. I just read the sample chapters for Dawn, and couldn't put it down. Guess who's going to the top of my "to read" pile?

I finally got off my butt and went to get a prescription for reading glasses. My eyes have been going downhill since I hit 41 or so, but I put off getting glasses until my other health issue cropped up. I should have gone earlier this year, but kept getting distracted. It's amazing how much clearer everything is now. I'll finally be able to work my way through my physical "to read" pile without having to resort to a magnifying glass.

I still have good distance vision (20/15), so I constantly do the glasses down the nose thing. My wife seems amused by that.

If anyone needs something copyedited/proofread/read, shoot me a message. My crit group is kind of slow lately, and I want to sharpen my copyediting skills a bit. I guess I could do that by reading almost any indie-/self-published Kindle book, but I'd just as soon help out a friend.

Jul. 19th, 2013

Antisocial Media, A False Start, and Seat to Chair Lessons

So much for making more regular posts! I'm so very bad about this social media thing.

Mainly, it's because I don't like to post if I don't have something to say. Or at least, if I don't think what I have to say is worthwhile.

But I decided to stick with it, so here are some random ruminations. There may be more to follow. I don't want to use up all of my material on one post, after all.

During April and part of May, I managed to put down about 20k words on the novel I was working on. Then I shelved it. Without getting into specifics, the problem was that the situation wasn't at all suited for the character. I knew where I wanted the character to start, and where I wanted the character to end up, but chose the wrong road. No harm done, aside from wasting June and two-thirds of July re-thinking the plot and the world building. It was still good practice, and a positive experience in approaching a novel.

I know I said earlier I wasn't going to talk about the novel until the draft was done. Well, that draft is done! Short draft, but hey. Besides, I need something to talk about, so cut me some slack.

I've never been much of an apply butt to seat type of writer. I don't write every day. I don't feel like I have to write the stories in my head to avoid my brain exploding. Some might see that as a lack of dedication, but really, it's just basic laziness.

It's kind of difficult to finish a novel length work in any reasonable time frame if you're too lazy, though. So, I tried to develop some habits that will help me get the job done more efficiently. The first step here was keeping a log of my writing sessions. I jotted down the time when I started, and the time when I stopped, then made note of the word count, and made an entry onto a page in the research section of my Scrivener file. I didn't set any specific goals, other than to try to get in as many writing sessions throughout the day as I could, regardless of length.

Length of the writing sessions turned out to be an interesting point in productivity, and Dean Wesley Smith's blog is partly responsible for some experiments I did there. In a nutshell, Smith doesn't believe writing should be an event. In other words, you don't have to set aside a large block of time to have a productive writing session. If you write for ten minutes, or fifteen minutes, at a stretch, you still get X amount of words done, and you still make progress. Keep doing that a bunch of times throughout the day, and it adds up. Do that every day, and it adds up.

Another point of Smith's is not to wait until you're in the mood, or your Muse inspires you, or for any other omen. Just write. Even if the words aren't flowing, write something down. It turns out that most of the stuff I wrote when I was "off" wasn't any worse than the stuff that I wrote when I was "on," so there's some truth in writing only when inspired being bunk. (The astute observer may note that the story did falter, but that's just one draft. I could still finish it, but it wouldn't quite be the story I want to tell. So, the writing didn't suffer directly for any lack of inspiration.)

Something interesting that I learned, is that whether I write for only a short session, or for a longer one, or whether I'm writing in a blaze of inspired glory or while with a nagging headache, I seem to always fall into the same range on my hourly word count. Time of day doesn't seem to matter much, even though I'm really very much not a morning person and tend toward insomnia.

In short, butt to seat works, but you (or at least I) don't have to chain your(my)self to your (my) desk until you (I) meet a daily quota. It's OK to get interrupted, to wander away from the desk, etc., as long as you (I) wander back and get in a couple of hours of writing a day.

So, I'm going to publicly set a goal for my word count. This will include first drafts of novels, and short stories. Edits won't count, only new stories.

Someone (Bradbury?) once said that it takes a million words to become a good writer.

So, my goal for this year is to become a half-ass writer: 500,000 words.

Am I insane? Probably. It does seem like an awful lot of work for someone as lazy as I am. Plus, I have a move to get ready for by the end of September (apartments suck, I'll save that rant for another day), and I'm still not in the greatest of health, though I continue to recover.

But realistically, if I do what I did in April and May, it should be doable. It's only around 3k a day.

I found out I average about 1,250 to 1,500 words per hour, regardless of conditions. My worse hour was right at 1,000, and done with a raging headache to see if I could do it.

So, 3k a day is anywhere from 2 to 3 hours of work.

I can spread that two to three hours out through the entire day.

I won't be spamming my daily word counts. I'll post if I complete a draft or if I hit a significant milestone. Nobody really wants to read word counts.

Apr. 9th, 2013

Reading List and What I Did Last Week

Earlier, I mentioned that I was going to try to keep on top of three things:

1. Making regular LJ entries.
2. Writing regularly.
3. Doing more reading.

So, today's journal entry takes care of number 1.

In yet another post, I said that I wasn't going to put up any boring progress reports.

So, the novel, which I shall call BotW, is off to a start. I spent most of last week ironing the kinks out of the plot, and getting a basic plan of attack set up. Hope that wasn't too boring.

As far as the reading side of things, I knocked off a few paranormal romances, and perused a couple of other books, which I put down. I'll only comment on the fiction, here.

The fiction I put down:

Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz. I didn't get far. Normally, I love Koontz's style. He usually writes with a clear style that doesn't get in the way of the story, like Asimov, or more recently, Jim Butcher. His stories usually pull you right in and are hard to put down.

In this case, he's adapted a completely different style. It's not bad, per se, but he throws a lot of disparate details at the reader up front, and the staccato rhythm of many short sentences and paragraphs is exhausting. I haven't been feeling well lately, and a big part of that is fatigue, so it's just a bit much to take in. Another issue with the Kindle edition is that the margins are HUGE, causing lines to wrap about every four to six words. That's with the text set to a size that's readable without the glasses that I know I should go get but haven't had the energy to deal with getting. (About a 12 pt font size.) The short line wraps are also tiring.

I'll pick this one up again when I feel better. It seems to have promise, but it requires too much energy right now. (I'll also check on a regular Kindle instead of my tablet to see if the margin issue shows up there as well.)

The fiction I haven't put down:

Blood Faerie, by India Drummond. Just started this one. It's my current read. I'm at the verrrry beginning, but so far so good. The production values are very nice, here. Great cover, no proofing gaffs, good layout for Kindle. One thing that threw me at first was a detective referring to police as "coppers." That was jarring until the setting was established as somewhere in the UK. I'm going to go ahead and assume that "copper" is common use over there and leave it at that. I still haven't figured out if this one's a straight up urban fantasy or an urban fantasy paranormal romance. It seems like the former.

The fiction I finished, a Paranormal Trifecta:

I was really hoping for a post titled "A Pair a Paranormal Romances" after finishing up Switched and Simply Irresistible, but then I read "Iron Shoes", which also turned out to be a paranormal romance, and blew it.

In the spirit of a trifecta, I'm going to cover these in order from first, second to third:

First Place: "Iron Shoes" by Kathleen J. Cheney. I think the center piece here is the well-developed setting and the use of the fantasy element to define the two main characters. Another big plus is that over the length of the novella, the relationship between the two characters is grown fairly naturally. There's an immediate attraction, but the characters put some effort into building the relationship. Good relationships take work. I kept picturing Mother Hawkes as Dame Maggie Smith playing the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey.

Second Place: Simply Irresistible by Kristine Grayson (aka Kristine Kathryn Rusch).  This is the first in the Fates Trilogy. Says so right on the cover. The first thing I noticed is that the author doesn't cleave to the heroin's POV. It's written in the third person, and switches between the narrator, the female lead, the male lead, and the villain. The external plot seems to take the center stage over the romantic plot for much of the book. The whole thing was an entertaining, fun read, so that was fine by me, though it seems to go a bit against genre conventions. (Or not. I don't read a lot in this category.)

There were only two problems I saw in the book. First, the relationship lacked any real conflicts or roadblocks to be overcome. In fact, they fell in love at first sight because they think almost exactly alike. (And I'm fine with the love at first sight thing in the context of the book. It's the "Fates Trilogy" after all.) The second was poor copyediting and proofing. There were a couple of continuity glitches a copyeditor should have caught, and I counted (by way of highlighting them as I saw them) eighteen proofing gaffs. A few of those might be arguable as stylistic choices, but the remainder were still very distracting. Overall, I had to give a one shouldered shrug to the editing. (The pet overused phrase, which I didn't bother to count. She pulled a Meyers there.)

Third Place: Switched, by Amanda Hocking. There's one thing that puts this book in third place: Trilogy syndrome. Hocking doesn't give us a story here, she gives us a beginning of a story. P.T. Barnum may have said to always leave them wanting more, but you've still got to give them something. The book pretty much ends near the beginning of Act 2.

Look, here's the deal: The Lord of the Rings is one big story. It's broken into three books. This is probably why some people think it's OK to tell an incomplete story over the course of a novel, with the excuse of it being a trilogy. (The three very short books in The Vampire Diaries trilogy are a prime example of this. They should've been one book. The show is far better, by the way.) The only reason that one story was broken up over three books was because of binding issues when it was originally published. Novels, even in a trilogy, should give you a full story. If there's a larger story that plays out over several books, that's fine. But when I want to check out a novel by a new author, what I'm looking for is to see if she can tell me a story. Not the beginning of a story. A whole story.

Rant aside, her writing style was clear. I saw no technical issues that stuck out*, like repeated phrases or words, or copyediting or proofing problems.  Her reason for changlings was inventive. The relationship and overall story were simply too slow to develop. Still, I can see why she became popular. I'm not a particular fan of the genre and had no problems getting through the book. I'm inclined to read more, despite feeling gypped by getting only the beginning of a story. (This is a personal preference, though. I suppose a whole bunch of readers don't share that one, judging by her success.)

So, that's my foray this week into paranormal romance. My only other, to my knowledge, was Twilight. (Which, repetitions aside, and dislike of the protagonist aside, were not bad, IMO.) I'll probably continue the two series later. I've still got a load of recent purchases to get through. After Blood Faerie, I'll start digging into Wool.

*Her dialog could use some work, and there are a couple of rough spots here and there, but nothing that gets in the way of the story too much.

Apr. 3rd, 2013

Dialogue Daze

Writing six way dialogues can become brain numbing.

It's a good early exercise in finding each character's voice, though.

Apr. 2nd, 2013

What's on my Kindle

Actually, I have two Kindles, and they have a ton of stuff on them. What I'm going to give is a list I've put on my Nexus 7's Kindle app. Sometimes we have to sacrifice a little accuracy for the better headline.

While I'm here, I'll plug the Nexus 7. This is Google's Android tablet. It has a decent 7" screen and a very good price to power ratio. Possibly the best, but these things change so fast, it's hard to say. I'll say this, the Android installation that it comes with is very clean, and very functional. It's far better than my phone's Android OS. If you're looking for a bargain tablet, it's a great deal. (Though it's not quite as nice as an iPad. We've got one of those, too, but the wife won't let me read with it in the tub for obvious reasons.)

I have the original Kindle and the Kindle 2. Both are very nice for reading out of doors, on the bus, in a car, etc. But our apartment is dim, and I don't really like the little clip on light. When the Kindle first came out, e-ink displays had a pretty decent advantage for readability over traditional light-projecting displays, but I think the quality on any newer tablet or phone screen is high enough now that eye strain isn't an issue. It really comes down to pixel density, which they all have in spades over what was available only a few years ago.

Steering back on track: One of my resolutions with getting back in the saddle was to increase my reading, to help stimulate the old brain pan. So, without further adieu, here's what I've loaded up for now on my tablet:

  • Simply Irresistible, Kristine Grayson (aka Kristine Kathryn Rusch) (Wanted to see how she does paranormal romances; general fan of hers)

  • Switched (A Trylle Novel), Amanda Hocking (Had to see it. Latest sample is less eye-gougingly in need of a proof reader)

  • Under the Dome, Stephen King (I don't really remember loading that one up, but since it's there, it's getting read)

  • Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz (I always liked Koontz, wife found this series, recommended it)

  • Children's Writer's Word Book, Alijandra Mogilner (Reference, seems decent)

  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (Classic I never got around to reading as a kid)

  • The Lord of the Rings (One Volume), J.R.R. Tolkien (Got an itch to read it again)

  • Celtic Fairy Tales, Joseph Jacobs (Inexpensive collection)

  • English Fairy Tales, Joseph Jacobs (same as above)

  • Europa's Fairy Book, Joseph Jacobs (same as above)

  • Gauntlgrym: Neverwinter Saga Book 1, R.A. Salvatore (Not a huge fan of the franchise, but the upcoming MMO looks promising, and this is the backstory for it, so checking it out)

  • Blood Faerie (Caledonia Fae, Book 1), India Drummond (Found her blog. First book's free. Let's see if she can get me hooked.)

  • Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1-5)(Silo Saga), Hugh Howey (Another indie success story, going to see what the fuzz is about)

  • Odkins: A Fable for All Ages, Dean Koontz (I like Koontz. Found this looking for fairy tales.)

  • Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain (Has some interesting thoughts on sub-scene units that Marshall cribbed for The Marshall Plan)

Mar. 30th, 2013

Really, Ukraine? Found me already?

I just received the following e-mail notification:

"We noticed that someone logged in to your LiveJournal account from a new device or location. Detailed information about this login:

Country: UA
Internet service provider: Kyivstar PJSC
IP address:"

I guess Ukrainians don't have anything better to do with their time. Sheesh, two whole days of activity on here, and already hacked. They don't seem to have done anything. It may have been an automatic tool just trying to scrape info. But keep your brains peeled, folks.

Mar. 29th, 2013

Hair of the Dog that Threw Me

OK, time for a trip down memory lane. I'll try to remember to wake you up at the end.

As I mentioned in my prior post, I'm getting back into writing. Throwing myself into it. I'm also trying to get into a habit of journaling, so I'm going to draw this post out just a little bit with some recollections.

My first foray into fiction writing was sometime in grade school, along about fourth or fifth grade. We were given that old chestnut, "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" as a writing assignment. Even at that tender age, I'd written a couple of those. This time, I gave a pretty accurate account of a boat trip I took with my uncle and his family on Lake Eerie. I also tossed in a giant squid, and illustrated it.

The bug bit me again when I was in junior high (8th grade) and had a very good English teacher named Mr. Erickson. By this time, I'd already become a voracious reader, but I kept the writing to school stuff. I had friends, sports and was starting to notice girls, and . . . well, if nobody asked me to write something, I wasn't going to. But I did enjoy those creative writing assignments.

A couple of years later, in high school, I started getting more serious. My reading tastes had been firmly established in classic SF and Fantasy. I had a good local library, and tore through all of their books on writing. I kept notebooks full of false starts, or interesting scenes, but never really finished anything. I was still putting the jigsaw puzzles of techniques together. I was acquiring tools, but hadn't yet become a carpenter, or plumber, or even an apprentice anything.

This was the very early to mid-80s. The IBM Selectric was still the go to word processor. I hated typing with a purple passion. My English teachers all demanded typed papers, and I had no idea how to touch type at the time. But I muddled through. I still kept my scribblings in various notebooks.

The Fall after graduating from high school, I entered the Army. I continued to devour books by the truck load, but writing slowed down. At times, the job seemed more than 24/7. I did, finally, learn to operate a typewriter. I was proud to graduate typing class with a speed of 35 words per minute, all caps, with no numbers! It only took two months of extra lessons.

I did manage to get a hesitant start on a story when I had a quiet duty assignment, in a room with a typewriter, but I spent most of my creative energy on drawing, and learning illustration in much the way I'd learned some writing basics in high school. I'd always liked to draw, and it didn't require the concentration that writing did. Barracks life (that is, being penned up with a bunch of overgrown children) wasn't conducive to having any quiet time.

I got out of the Army, went to college, then went to work. That was a couple of years without any writing other than for school. I'd tested out of most English classes, but still had to take some classes with a writing component, so did a series where I'd study a particular novel in depth. That got me a bit primed for writing, but between classes and working a couple of jobs at a time, I wasn't quite ready to jump back in to writing. I was still getting my Writer magazine, and checking my market lists, and reading the pulps.

Fast forward to about 1996. I was working as a computer technician, and reading the pulp genre magazines that were left, and seriously thinking about getting published. By this time, I had shed some of my illusions, such as the prospect of actually making a living wage off of writing short fiction. I knew that ship had sailed. I'd seen many of the pulp digest magazines I'd used to read dry up throughout the 80s and early 90s. I'd seen the shrinking shelf space for speculative fiction novels. However, my plan of action was still seriously outdated.

The old model for building a career as a writer, as I saw it, was to publish some short fiction. This would help get your name out there, and increase your chances of getting your novel read. So, rather than starting out with novels -- and I knew these two forms required disparate skill sets -- I started out trying to master short stories. (I still haven't. Not by a long shot.) I got my market lists, and wrote my stories.

By now, I had been working with computers long enough to have developed modest keyboarding skills. My girlfriend at the time (and my wife at the present time) could type an impressive hundred words a minute. By my reckoning, I was probably sitting around forty wpm, but at least I knew half of the number row. She thought I was a lot faster than that, because most of her coworkers were around fifty, and I sounded faster. (She sounded like a teletype machine.) So, we loaded up Mavis Beacon to see who was right. Turns out I was pushing out 65 wpm average, and my best ever score after a little practice was 85 wpm. (That was a one time, caffeine-fueled manic type fest, that shall never be duplicated.)

The future was here! Compared to my high school hunting and pecking days, I'd become some kind of man-machine hybrid, capable of putting dozens of characters on a page in the correct order.

That was the first major impact technology had: The ability to put out a clean manuscript to send out.

It was around 1996 that I discovered Speculations, and it's web forum, The Rumor Mill. This was a great place to get even better market information and to network and discuss writing with like-minded, serious writers. One of the goals of my picking up with Live Journal again is to renew and maintain those contacts.

I think the last story I published was around 2003 or 2004. It was a short short that sold to a webzine run by a fellow RMer. My writing production had trickled to a halt due to the stress of underemployment, and then due to a move to another state.

But something else also happened about that time: I realized that the market for short fiction -- and especially for short fiction in the genres I preferred -- was dismally small. I'd always dreamed of getting at least enough sales to make pro status in the SFWA. There is a certain validation to having professional editors accept ones work. And no work of art is complete until it's viewed by someone else. (Mothers not withstanding.)

Short story markets seemed like an increasingly more difficult barrier to breach. I found myself floundering, and trying to write to the markets instead of write what I enjoyed reading, simply because there were no markets for the classic types of stories I'd grown up with. No, that stuff was cliché.

I decided to focus instead on novels. That meant going back to the drawing board in some ways, and re-thinking my approach to writing. I started working up ideas for novels, and more importantly, ideas for novels that could potentially be series. Getting one written was a tall order. Life seemed intent on making me notice it. Work sucked. Our pets started dying on me. I lost ten bearded dragons (like my avatar -- still have her), six leopard geckos, and some beautiful and expensive snakes to what turned out to be a moldy apartment. (Those snakes representing a valuable breeding project shot to hell.) We moved yet again, into a brand new building. I'd spent most of the time since I'd stopped working on learning how to build websites, and put up a couple of them. I continued the freelance web stuff, and focusing my attention on honing those skills until around 2010.

That's when I made a couple of decisions, including rebooting my LJ account and trying to reconnect with people from the old RM community.

The first decision was that I was going to put the skill sets I'd acquired since my old career had tanked to use for me, not for anyone else. Trying to sell services to small businesses just wasn't that productive. It can be done, but the work and stress required were not things I wanted to deal with.

The second decision was to focus 100% on my writing. Whether that be for writing SEO copy for sites I own, or producing fiction, I'd make a solid attempt to do what I'd dreamed of doing since high school, and making a living from my words.

As mentioned earlier, I got sidetracked right after making this resolution. Goodbye resolve, hello Percocet and Depends.


So, a few things have changed since I was away this last time.

Ebooks (that looks dumb, wish I had a style manual handy) have taken off. The number of dedicated ebook readers, smart phones and pads of various makes has skyrocketed, computer monitors have increased in quality to the point that reading serif fonts on screen isn't quite as eye-gougingly annoying, and people are getting used to digital media.

Along with that, there seems to be a resurgence in short fiction markets, both on the web, and in ebook reader formats. There are more web zines on the SFWA pro qualifying list than I ever expected to see. Most of them look very slick, and as professional as anything a major publisher has attempted.

Getting an novel published with a major house looks harder than ever, and the terms are worse than ever, if what I'm reading is to be believed. Since it's not just authors, but also national press commenting on some of these issues, I'm inclined to think things on that side ot the aisle are as dismal as they look. (Please correct me if I'm wrong. I'd like very much to be wrong.)

Self-published isn't quite as dirty a word as it used to be when you had to go the vanity press route. But if you don't like that word, we can call it "indie" these days! It's trendy! It's hip! You can be the next Amanda Konrath or J A Hocking! Or, you can quietly earn a nice income stream if you can produce professional quality work and build up a backlist.

I'm smart enough to disregard the outliers when it comes to any ideas of making money. But when I read the blog of someone with the industry experience and died in the wool pragmatism of Kristine Kathryn Rusch, I have to believe that it's possible to build up a modest readership and make a little money at this writing thing. Provided you treat it like a business. Provided you can produce professional quality content. Provided you can package that content in a professional level package.

So, here's my plan in the nutshell:

1. Write the darn novel instead of talk about it.

Edit: I'll worry about the rest later.

And then there are those short fiction markets. There are new markets that actually publish stuff I like to write. While I'll be focusing on the novel, I'm going to also try to find time to send out a few short stories. Because having someone validate your work by paying for it is still a nice feeling.

Engage All the Senses! (Including common sense.)

I think that anyone who has submitted a manuscript or three (or dozens, or hundreds. . .) to an editor has been implored to "engage all the senses" or something very similar.

Sometimes this is coming from a market with a more literary bent, and sometimes from well-meaning genre market editors, usually at a semi-pro level. While I think it's a good idea to engage all the senses, I don't think it's ever a good idea to engage them all at once.

We need to remember when setting a scene, that it's not necessary to go into excess detail, nor is it necessary to include extraneous information to create a cornucopia of sensory delight. Or overload. Writing should be clear, and vivid, but not impose itself on the reader's mind's eye, in my opinion. Sometimes a quick sketch that captures just the minimum of detail, the suggestion of motion, the strongest lines, can convey more than the most painstaking example photorealism.

It's also good to keep in mind that we all filter our senses. When we chose a POV character, we are presenting our worlds through the senses of that character, and in turn, through that character's own filters. For example, when a female acquaintance of mine was involved in a traffic accident, she recounted that the woman who rear-ended her was boisterous and pushy, the location of the accident, the damage to both vehicles, including the color of the other car. She didn't tell me about the humidity of the summer day, or how the exhaust fumes hung heavy at the intersection, making the air stifling and stale, nor did she tell me about a single visual or auditory detail that didn't pertain to the incident. She did get across the emotional impact of the event and the basic details.

Generally, sight is our most important sense for getting along in the world, but we even tend to filter it when recalling an incident. We focus on the most important details, and in extremes of stress, when the fight or flight instinct kicks in, we get tunnel vision. Hearing gets filtered even more, to the point of auditory exclusion under heavy stress. If I wasn't filtering out the clacking of my keyboards as I type this, I'd probably drive myself nuts. (Crap, now I can't ignore the key clacking...) Strong scents can overwhelm us, but we can filter quite a bit out after prolonged exposure. (There's a truth behind a certain phrase about one's own...) It's also the sense that best triggers memories. Hearing and scent both serve as back up early warning systems in the event we miss an important cue with our eyes.

We can engage touch, taste, pressure, temperature or any other sense I've forgotten to build a more complete picture, but when we build such a picture, it should be of something important to the narrative.

Of course, there's the very real chance that I"m wrong. Let me know what you think.

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