Archive for March, 2016

TT: Reader, Reviewer… Writer?

March 31, 2016

JANE: So, Alan, recently I was thinking you’ve been retired for a while now.  Soon after you retired, we Tangented about the big event, and your various goals.

As I recall, you were going to move, get a dog, and start writing a novel.  I know the move happened and the dog was acquired, but how’s the writing going?

Antique Bottle of Mystery!

Antique Bottle of Mystery!

ALAN: Well, I started writing a time-travel novel, but it died. The characters were cardboard thin and they tended to lecture each other instead of having proper conversations. So I started writing a historical novel, which is actually looking a little more promising, but I got stuck three chapters into it.

JANE: That’s interesting.  You’ve been writing a review column for many years, and you faithfully manage to produce an interesting and humorous column every month.  From collaborating with you these last several years, I know you’re good at meeting deadlines.

So, what’s different about writing fiction?

ALAN: The hardest part is getting inside someone else’s head. The humorous incidents in my review column are all about me, and I’m already inside my own head, of course. But when I try and get inside another person’s head I tend to find lots of empty space there. And that translates into blank screens and blank sheets of paper…

JANE: Have you found any ways to work around this?

ALAN: Yes – I’ve joined a writers group. I’m hoping it will teach me something about character development by forcing me to do homework outside my comfort zone. Practice makes perfect!

I’m very lazy and I can always find reasons not to write. But if I have a deadline to meet, I then have a very good reason to write, and so I do. I really seem to need the stimulus of a deadline to force my fingers to the keyboard.

Have you ever belonged to a writer’s group?

JANE: I haven’t.  I did take one writing class in college, which I found valuable in making me actually finish something.  Up to that point, I’d tended to write until I got stuck or distracted, and then quit and go on to something else.   For that, the class was incredibly valuable.

You said you joined a “writers group,” but then you talk about “homework.”  That makes it sound more like a class to me.  I’d like to hear more about these assignments.

ALAN: I suppose it is a class, in a way, though it’s a very informal one. We meet on the second and fourth Friday of the month, and we always have to produce a piece of writing for the meeting. Lyn, the convener, sets us a task to work on between meetings. She calls these exercises our homework for the fortnight.

We’ve only had three meetings so far. For our first task, we had to choose an object from a set of things Lyn had dug out of goodness knows what dusty attic and write something about our chosen thing.  I chose a bottle.

Our second homework was to choose a picture from a set provided by Lyn and write a character sketch to bring the person in the picture alive. And for our third homework, Lyn wants us to write a story using the character we set up last time. That’s what I’m working on now.

I find it hard to imagine a writer’s group that doesn’t work like that, so I’m a bit puzzled as to how you think such a group would organise itself?

JANE: Most writer’s groups I’m acquainted with – second hand, you must understand – don’t have assignments.  Instead, the members bring what they are already working on and have it critiqued by the group.

For this reason, it helps if the members of the group are at least familiar with the conventions of the genre in which the others are writing – even if they are not writing in that genre themselves.

ALAN: By “conventions,” I presume you mean things like faster than light travel in SF stories or locked room mysteries in detective novels?

JANE: Something like that.  I suspect the issues are more subtle than that.

However, one thing your group is doing right – at least based on what I’ve heard – is insisting that all members bring a new piece of writing with them, if not every meeting, then every other meeting.  Many groups have gone belly-up because only one person brings anything new to share.

ALAN: Lyn was quite insistent about this. At our first meeting she told us that she expected us always to do our homework. She even told us that if we couldn’t bring a piece of writing to the next meeting then we shouldn’t bother coming to the meeting. And of course, nobody could stand the shame of that!

JANE: Respecting the need for a production requirement is the main reason I don’t belong to a group.  I don’t want feedback until a piece is completed, because I myself don’t know where a story is going until it gets there, and I don’t care to have anyone try to tell me.

 If I only wrote short stories, I could probably write a short story a month to bring to the group, but if I’m working on a novel, I would be unwilling to contribute anything other than a finished draft.

ALAN: There are ten people in our group, and meetings last for two hours. So again, Lyn insists that our pieces must be no longer than 600 words or so, otherwise we’d never get through them all in the time. She also wants each piece to be as complete as possible (i.e. not part of a longer work). I find that working within those constraints really stretches my writing muscles. I’m sure the discipline is good for me.

JANE: Absolutely!  Writing is a lot harder than even those close to the business realize.  Many years ago, I was chatting with Ace/Roc senior editor Ginjer Buchanan, and she mentioned that it wasn’t until she wrote a novel herself that she realized how hard it was to do.

(The novel was a “Highlander” tie-in, called White Silence, in case you wonder.)

Like you, Ginjer had done a lot of non-fiction writing, and had been highly praised as a fan writer.  And, of course, she’d read and edited hundreds of novels.  Nonetheless, she found writing a novel of her own a tremendous challenge.

ALAN: And she’s quite right. Fiction and non-fiction work quite differently from each other.

But now, using the newly acquired discipline that Lyn has enforced on me, I notice that we’ve reached our word limit. However I think we still have things to say, so let’s carry on with this again next week.


The Muse Makes an Unexpected Call

March 30, 2016

If last Thursday morning you’d asked me what I’d be doing Thursday afternoon, I might have said reading.  I might have said crafting.  The previous day I’d spent several hours figuring out how to make origami bunnies.  It seemed appropriate with Easter coming up.

Origami Bunnies and Evolving Story

Origami Bunnies and Evolving Story

I probably would have said I’d be putting some time into preparing for the new episode of the role-playing game I would be running on Sunday.  I certainly wouldn’t have said I’d be writing as fast as my fingers could move.

But that’s precisely what happened.

Afternoon came.  I’d finished my daily session of typing up the “handwritten project,” and was doing a quick check of my various social media sites before shutting down.  Something went by on Twitter that made me wistfully think: “I’d like to be writing a story now.  Something short that’s not for someone else.  Too many of my ideas lately have been novel ideas.  Short would be nice.”  My next thought was, “Well, why not?”

So I let my hindbrain wander.  Jim usually calls me around 2:00 pm.  By the time he called, I had grabbed a piece of scrap paper and covered it with a possible opening, as well as a few notes to myself.  I told him I might have an idea for a story.  He encouraged me, but didn’t ask for details, because he knows that talking about a story before I’ve written it often sours the idea for me.

After we got off the phone, I went to get my exercising out of the way so I wouldn’t be distracted by an awareness of a job yet to be done.  Then I started writing.  I wrote until I had to start dinner – and, actually, while cooking, until juggling the two became impossible.  Then I reluctantly stopped, mostly because I knew I couldn’t finish the story that night and wanted to have some energy come morning.   I’d written about 2,000 words.  Although I’d stopped putting words down, I kept thinking about the story all evening.

Friday morning, I took care of the e-mail that absolutely could not be put off, then started writing.  I wrote until my fingers were stiff, then took a break to go out with Jim (who had a half-day) for about an hour.  When we came home, I started writing again.  I was so completely absorbed that I lost all sense of time and place – except for the imaginary time and place developing under my fingers.  By late Friday afternoon, I had a rough draft done – just under 8,000 words total.

I don’t normally  work on weekends, but this past Saturday was an exception.  I was so excited about the story and so eager to have Jim read it, that I re-read and edited the manuscript that afternoon, losing a few hundred words as I tightened.  He then read it and, as we were cooking dinner, we talked about the story in some detail.

I also e-mailed my gamers, apologizing because I wasn’t going to be as prepared on Sunday as I’d hoped, and offering the consolation prize of my reading the story that had taken the time I’d meant use for game planning.  To my pleasure, they were enthusiastic about being read to, so Sunday’s gaming session started with a reading.  As I read the story aloud, I caught a few more typos – reading aloud is always a good way to proof, because you can’t skim.

Monday, I made the changes and sometime this week I’ll send the story out.  I’m not sure exactly where, but if I place it anywhere, you can be sure I’ll let you know.

However, whether or not the story sells, the really important thing is that I have written the first short story I’ve done in years for no other reason than because I felt like it.  Of late, I’ve had just enough “by invitation” work to fill my time and to provide a different sort of stimulation for my imagination.    While I’m sort of sorry not to have a set market, it was fun to write completely free of constraints.

And, no, I don’t regret the time spent earlier in the week on origami bunnies.  I actually think that concentrating on a completely new and different task proved helpful in loosening up my creative muscles.

Do I regret the time I spent planning for my game?  Again, no.  Actually, for this story, some of the planning I’d done for a previous game slid in sideways and provided me with my starting idea.  The story that resulted had nothing at all to do with the game, but the research turned out to be like a graft on a plant – flowering out something related to but completely different from the root stock.

So this week I’m back to typing up the handwritten project.  I’m almost done with it, then, based on my experience with this recent short story, I’m going to take the time to read the manuscript aloud to myself, just to see how it flows.

And between times, I’m going to allow myself time for crafts and reading and all the rest.  However, you can bet I’ll be ready to drop everything if the Muse comes to call.

FF: Bingeing SPQR

March 25, 2016

Last week I started re-reading John Maddox Roberts’ excellent SPQR mystery series.  This week, I kept going and probably would still be going if a few library books hadn’t come in!

I'm Adorable!  Put the book DOWN!

I’m Adorable! Put the book DOWN!

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Catiline Conspiracy by John Maddox Roberts.  Second SPQR novel.

The Sacrilege by John Maddox Roberts.  Third SPQR novel.

The Temple of the Muses by John Maddox Roberts.  Fourth SPQR novel.

Saturnalia by John Maddox Roberts.  Fifth SPQR novel.  Obviously,  I find these addictive!

Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan.  Audiobook.  Pretty fun.  I’ll definitely keep an eye open for the sequel.

In Progress:

The Storybook of Legends “Ever After High #1.”  Just started.  I mentioned this series in my WW about Action Figures a few weeks ago.

Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt.  “The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It.”  I saw this on the library shelf and was tempted.  I haven’t played D&D is about twenty years, but it’s where I started as a tabletop RPG player, a hobby I pursue to this day.


Origami books.  I am SO challenged by the patterns….

TT: The E-Book Elephant

March 24, 2016

JANE: So, last week, as we were ending our chat about e-books, you mentioned the elephant in the room.  I’m looking at it now, and it truly is enormous and complex.

Hello, There!

Hello, There!

ALAN: Yes – and it is also rather smelly. The elephant we’re talking about is Digital Rights Management (DRM),of course.

We spoke about this once before in relation to how DRM was created in an attempt to prevent piracy and I don’t see any point in going over that material again. But there’s one aspect of DRM that we haven’t discussed which I think is quite important.

If a book has DRM attached to it, I can’t edit it and tweak things. You may well ask why I’d want to do that…

JANE: I have a suspicion, but go ahead: Why would you ever want to fiddle with a published book?

ALAN: I’m glad you asked me that. The production values on commercial e-books are often appallingly bad. The books generally require a lot of proofing and adjustment of the layout to make them acceptable to my somewhat jaundiced eyes.

Publishers seem to have a naïve faith in the efficiency of the software that creates the e-books, and they don’t seem to realise that human intervention is required. If there is no DRM, I can tweak the layout to my satisfaction. Everybody wins!

I feel sure you agree with me about the necessity for careful proofing of e-books. Didn’t you mention last time that you’d used an e-book reader to review electronic versions of your own books?

JANE: Yes.  I had to do that because of the different formatting errors that show up in print vs electronic versions. When I was working on my books, I went over them carefully and repeatedly.  Many authors (and, sadly, ostensibly professional publishers) simply run the text through a converter and consider the job done.

ALAN: I’m sure that’s exactly what they do, and in my experience it never works satisfactorily. By the way, I think the effort you put into your own e-books was well worth it. They are the best produced e-books I’ve ever seen. Well done!

JANE:  Thank you.  I was lucky that Emily of E.M. Tippetts Book Designs was extremely patient with me.

Can you give me some examples of what annoys you so much in commercial e-books?  I’m sure I’d find it educational.

ALAN: The other week we were talking about the movie The Revenant and about how I went and re-read Roger’s novel Wilderness as preparation for seeing it. Well, I also wanted to re-read Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher. The events of the movie are a minor plot thread in that book. I no longer possess my original paperback, so I went to Amazon and bought an electronic copy (with DRM of course).

JANE: Ah, yes.  As I recall from our earlier discussion, Amazon frequently puts DRM into books, even if the original publisher does not.  Go on…

ALAN: The paragraphing was appalling. There was no indentation on the first line of the paragraphs and each paragraph was separated from the next by a huge number of blank lines. I read three pages, gave up in disgust and returned the book to Amazon for a credit.

If I’d been able to edit the book, I could have fixed those problems in seconds (I know exactly what causes them). But because of the DRM, I couldn’t do that. Therefore Amazon, the publisher and the literary estate of Vardis Fisher lost a sale.

JANE: That error would have driven me nuts, too!

Can you explain what formatting choice caused this?

ALAN: One of the elements making up an e-book is something called a style sheet that defines the layout of the text. Style sheets have a formal (though quite simple) descriptive language. The particular error I mentioned will probably be caused by a style sheet entry that says something like:

text-indent: 0;
margin-top: 10pt;
margin-bottom: 10pt;

Even if you aren’t familiar with style sheets, I think it’s easy to work out what those lines will do to a paragraph, and it’s equally obvious what you have to do to fix it…

There are other possible reasons for the bizarre formatting, but this one is the most likely.

JANE: Excellent explanation!  Even I could understand it.

I’ve had it said to me that readers of e-books have a high tolerance for errors, and that my pickiness is a reflection of my background in traditional publishing.

ALAN: I’m not completely convinced of that. I do know people who are willing to tolerate formatting problems in e-books. But I have a couple of friends who are even more picky than I am, and I consider myself to be almost anally pedantic about these things!

JANE:  Sadly, even in traditional, print publishing, the error rate seems to be rising, especially for reprints.  Jim purchased some reprints of Andre Norton’s “Witch World” novels in an omnibus edition and was horrified by the number of typos.

ALAN: Indeed so. And lately I’ve found that the copy editors (if they even exist) tend to be illiterate morons. I am so sick of seeing “could of”, “should of” etc. (And I’m also sick of seeing “ect” instead of “etc”). But with non-DRM e-books I can correct these solecisms as well.

JANE: I believe “could of” instead of “could have” has become American dialect/slang, but I agree with you.  It’s annoying.  I might use it in dialogue, but not elsewhere.

ALAN: Here’s another reason for wanting to edit an e-book that might amuse you. I have a paperback copy of What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown, published by Bantam in 1978. In the front it says:

“This low-priced Bantam book has been completely reset in a typeface designed for easy reading and was printed from new plates. It contains the complete text of the original hard cover edition.


(capitals in the original). As it happens, I also possess a first edition paperback of this novel published (by Bantam again) in 1950. This earlier edition mentions Idlewild airport. The 1978 edition updates things a bit and gives the airport its present day name of Kennedy. Therefore the one word Idlewild has been omitted. Maybe I could sue the publishers under the Trades Description Act?

If I had an e-book of the novel (I don’t) I must confess that I would take enormous delight in turning Kennedy back into Idlewild…

JANE: That’s fascinating…  It’s a shame that this happened so long ago.  It would be delightful to find someone who could explain the rationale.

ALAN: I imagine it was arbitrarily changed by some moronic editor who wasn’t aware that in 1963, one month after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Idlewild airport was renamed as a memorial to the 35th President. After all, since everybody knows there really isn’t an airport called Idlewild in New York, the mistake had to be fixed. Probably they felt very proud of themselves for spotting the “error” in the first place…

JANE: Are there any other common formatting errors that annoy you?

ALAN: Indeed there are. I often see paragraphs that break in the middle of a sentence (this is particularly common if the e-book has been made from a pdf document).  I also see paragraphs that are supposed to be separated from the preceding paragraph by a blank line, to indicate the passage of time, but which don’t have that separator.

JANE: Ah, yes!  Those are one reason my e-books use dingbats, those little icons, rather than blank spaces.  It’s a nuisance to work out which will send the subconscious message “pause,” and which sends “new scene,” but I think it’s worth it.

ALAN: Yes, I much prefer dingbats to blank lines and I do tend to insert them when I’m tweaking my e-books. Because I can!

JANE: I know that a number of our Tangent readers prefer e-books – and that a few have produced e-books of their own.  Maybe some of them can comment on their own experiences to fill out our discussion.

Happy Endings?

March 23, 2016

This past week, Jim and I watched The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, an animated film from Studio Ghibli.  If you haven’t seen the film and plan to, don’t worry.  I don’t intend any spoilers other than one that you could find easily by reading the original Japanese “monogatari” – what we would probably classify as a “fairy tale” – the title of which is usually translated as “The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter” or “The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon-Child.”  As with many fairy tales, the details differ, but the fact that the ending is not a precisely happy one does not.

Worth Devouring?

Worth Devouring?

We finished the film on Saturday.   On Sunday, we happened to see some friends who share our fondness for animated films.  Those of us who had seen the film all agreed that the animation – which is inspired by traditional Japanese brush painting – is incredibly beautiful.  The story has a wonderful opening, and an interesting twist in the middle.

However, when the subject of the ending came up, and we were trying to explain it to a friend who hadn’t seen the film, we were at a bit of a loss.  I think Rowan put it best.  “It’s not as if it’s horrible or anything.  It’s just that they didn’t give it the usual Disneyfied ‘happy ending.’”

Those of you who only know fairy tales only through their Disney interpretations might be somewhat mystified by Rowan’s comment.  A good example of how Disney frequently re-interprets fairytales for modern sensibilities is The Little Mermaid.  I discussed this story in great detail a few years ago, so I won’t go into it again.  You can read the about it here.

On Monday, I found myself thinking again about the movie, especially about the ending.   I’m conflicted.  I think I would have liked a happier ending for The Tale of Princess Kaguya, but not because the traditional ending was sad.  It was more because I couldn’t help but feel Kaguya’s fate was rather pointless.  Even with my previous familiarity with the story, I wanted to know both more about why Kaguya ended up on Earth and more about why she ended up…  Well, the way she did.

The interesting thing is, I think there is a valid argument for saying that the ending is happy.  Kaguya is spared a tremendous amount of pain, frustration, and misery.   Given that the court of the Moon is artistically depicted with some very Buddhist iconography, I don’t think detachment from mortal concerns can be overlooked as one version of happiness (or at least an fate worth attaining).  However, I couldn’t help but feel that in the story as interpreted by Studio Ghibli, Kaguya might have chosen an unhappier existence rather than the ostensible happiness she is offered.

Happy endings are a real issue for writers.  Readers will put up with a great deal as long as they are satisfied that, in the end, everything works out – if not happily, at least for some variation of “the best.”   I can think of stories I loved until the ending “ruined” it for me.  How about you?

FF: Romans, Masks, and Norse Gods

March 18, 2016

March came in like a lamb, but now is flirting with lions, so I’m glad I have good things to read.

Kel Conquers Chaos

Kel Conquers Chaos

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The King’s Gambit by John Maddox Roberts.  Audiobook.  First in the SPQR series.  I enjoyed so much that…  Well, see the next section!

The King of Chaos by Dave Gross.  Pathfinder novel. Characterization through battle after battle is possible.  Interesting.

Maskwork by Jennifer Foreman.  Part history of the form, part project book.  Entirely fascinating.  Maybe I should make a mask or two.  Could be a story in that.

In Progress:

The Catiline Conspiracy by John Maddox Roberts.  Second SPQR novel.  I have fond memories of events that are a prequel to this conspiracy, from back in the days when Walter Jon Williams was running an RPG with this setting.  I was playing a female doctor, and was called in to examine the possibly violated Vestal Virgin.

Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan.  Audiobook.  Turns out the Greek and Roman gods aren’t the only ones around.  The reader started out terribly.  Apparently, he thinks sixteen year-old boys are morons.  Smoothed out once adult characters entered the story.


Gearing up for a new chapter in my on-going RPG, so reviewing a lot of gaming material.

TT: E-book or Paper?

March 17, 2016

JANE: I just realized that this makes our 250th Tangent.  Can you believe it?

Kindle with PDF Tables

Kindle with PDF Graphs

ALAN: Really? My goodness me, don’t the words pile up when you’re having so much fun with them?

JANE: What’s great for me is that I still enjoy these chats so much.  Now, where were we?

ALAN: A couple of tangents ago you mentioned some early Walter Jon Williams novels that I was unfamiliar with, and you said that they had long been out of print, but that they were now available as e-books. I did a few clickety-click things, paid some money and now I own the e-books.

I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Indeed, the only “proper” books I’ve bought in the last few years have been your Artemis novels. Apart from those, all my recent reading has been electronic.

JANE: That’s interesting.  You’re not the only person I know who has become a serious e-book adopter.  My friend Yvonne is much the same way.

ALAN: I’ve also made a habit of reading newspapers electronically as well. In non-electronic days, I never subscribed to any paper papers (so to speak…) and I only purchased them intermittently. These days my habits have changed – I regularly read several electronic newspapers.

But the thing I really love about e-books is the ultimate one-upmanship that you can get away with. Take your fully loaded e-book reader to a meeting. Make sure to arrive slightly early, then sit there and read. When the person you are meeting turns up, all you have to say is, “I wasn’t sure if you’d be late, so I brought 5,000 books with me…”

JANE: That’s amusing!  Of course, it would be more impressive if you could do that by dragging a wagon lined with bookshelves behind you.  Or if you could grow enough heads to read all those books at once.

There isn’t a room in our house (other than the bathrooms, which are too small) that doesn’t have bookshelves in it.  We have a freestanding shed that serves as a library – something that is quite doable here because of New Mexico’s dry climate.  So, I suppose, we’d have much more floor space if we only bought e-books, but I don’t see that happening.

ALAN: I downsized my library dramatically when we moved house last year. The new house simply doesn’t have enough room for the 12,000 or so books that I had on my shelves. I kept a thousand or so important books, first editions and the like, and donated the rest to Rotary for their next book sale. They said they would have a special science fiction section in their sale next year…

JANE: Lucky them!  You should alert any local SF/F clubs of the opportunity.

ALAN: But that issue of the portability of e-books really is a major attraction. Before I retired, I spent a lot of time away from home. For at least six months of every year I was in this, that or the other part of the country. I don’t know what you do when you’re alone in a big city, but I go to the pub and read a book. Once I started taking e-books with me instead of paper books, my luggage got significantly lighter…

JANE: I don’t go to a pub, but I certainly do read a lot when travelling.

The thing is, I really don’t like reading books on a screen.

ALAN: If you are talking about a computer screen, then I’d agree with you. Ergonomically it’s all wrong. You have to sit in an awkward position and using the mouse or keyboard to turn the pages is uncomfortable at best. Even with modern touch screen computers, the action of reaching out to the computer screen just plain feels wrong.

But dedicated e-book-readers and tablets are ideal. You can hold them just like you hold a real book and you turn the page using almost the same hand and wrist action that you use on a real book. The only disadvantage is that you can’t (or at least you shouldn’t) read them in the bath.

So I don’t take baths any more…

JANE: Yuck!

ALAN: …I take showers instead.

JANE: We have a dedicated e-reader.  We decided we really did need one for purposes of work.  So many of the archeological reports Jim needs are published only in electronic format – often as pdfs.  At the time we bought ours, Kindle offered a slightly larger one (screen size 8” by 5.5”; overall size, with cover 10.5” by 7.5” ).

Steve (S.M.) Stirling let Jim play with his and Jim loved it.  He especially liked the larger size because he needs to look at charts and such, and reformatting, especially of a pdf, often didn’t work well.

Jim read several novels on it as well, including reviewing electronic versions of a couple of my novels for me.

ALAN: The pdf format is probably the very worst one for reading on a screen. None of the e-book readers reproduce it very well. And Jim is quite right – you certainly need a larger than usual screen for pdf documents. Have you used the device?

JANE: Yes, I have.  I’ve used it for reviewing electronic versions of my books Wanderings on Writing and Curiosities.  This was necessary, because the different formatting errors show up in print vs electronic versions.

I managed, but I wasn’t crazy about the e-reader.  However, I also felt it wasn’t a fair test of the device, since I wasn’t just reading, so I did read a novel.  Frankly, I wasn’t thrilled with the experience.  I read fast enough that clicking the e-reader page turning was a constant annoyance.  After all, you only get one page at a time, rather than the two in a print copy.

Also, If I wanted to go back and look for something (I think I was reading a mystery and wanted to check whether someone had just perjured himself), the search was a nuisance.

ALAN: Oh! I love the ability to search in an e-book. I use it all the time. It’s so much easier than flipping back through paper pages in the vague hope of catching sight of what you are looking for. It’s particularly useful when spear-carriers suddenly turn out to be important, so I need to remind myself when they first appeared.

JANE: I’m amazingly good at finding things quickly in a print text.  I find a search much slower.

Basically, I consider an e-reader a good tool, but I prefer paper.  If someone asks me to blurb a book, I insist on a paper copy or manuscript because I don’t want my annoyance with the interface to color my reaction to the text.

ALAN: That sounds like a good position to take.

JANE: That said, e-readers have a real advantage for people with poor eyesight, because it’s possible to choose a size and font that works best for that person’s eyes.  They’re also great for people who are weakened by illness.  A family friend told me that when she was ill, she finally read several of my bigger, fatter novels because of her e-reader.  Since she later died of that same illness, I felt obscurely grateful that the device gave us a chance to connect one more way in those final days.

Also, if I knew I was going on a long trip, I’d probably consider taking an e-reader along rather than weighing myself down the sheer number of books I’d need to keep myself amused.  As readers of my Friday Fragments know, I go through a lot of books each week – and that’s without the down time of waiting around in airports.

ALAN: Of course, as soon as you mention e-books, a huge elephant comes trumpeting in to the room. Shall we talk about the elephant next time?

JANE: You bet!  I love when we talk about elephants.

Different Brains, One Writer

March 16, 2016

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been working on two projects side by side.  One is typing up the mysterious “handwritten project.”  That’s the project I started last October, when I had been doing so much editing, proofing, non-fiction, and the like that I felt I’d lost touch with my fiction-writing self.

Splitting the Jobs -- and the Brain

Splitting the Jobs — and the Brain

So, rather like a certain swashbuckler in The Princess Bride, I decided to go back to the beginning.  For me, that was going back to writing by hand, rather than on a computer.  It meant writing without thinking about whether what I was doing was publishable or not, whether what I was writing was a short story or novelette or novella or novel, whether it made much sense at all.  Just writing.

I wrote like this from mid-October to mid-January, filling three notebooks of assorted sizes and shapes, and running pens of multiple colors dry.  In February, I started typing it up, mostly because I wanted Jim, at least, to be able to read it, and deciphering my handwriting would get in the way of the story.

This “typing” is more than just transcribing, since I’ve sometimes found a need to flesh out a segment, adding description or detail as needed.  In a sense, it’s a first edit of the piece.  That means in order to do it I’ve had to switch from what I think of as my “writer brain” to my “editorial brain.”

That’s fine.  I do this all the time, with every project.  But this time something different came up…

Because all I was doing was “typing,” and I still craved the pleasure of writing a story, I decided to get started on a piece I’d promised David Weber for a forthcoming anthology set in his “Safehold” universe.  I spent some time reviewing the setting, decided I didn’t want to write the story I’d initially planned, and came up with another.

Aside: As I’ve mention before, I’m an intuitive plotter, pretty much a “10” on a scale of one to ten.  This means that writing proposals can be dangerous for me because, once I know how a story is supposed to end, I tend to feel it’s done and not want to write it anymore.  That’s what happened here.

Once I had my new idea, I was pretty pleased with it, so I was surprised to find that the initial writing was going more slowly than I’d anticipated.  After a while, I realized that because I was starting each day with an hour or so of typing up of my handwritten draft, I had basically put my brain into editorial mode, rather than writing mode.  This tendency to stay in editorial mode was enhanced by my sense of responsibility to Weber’s setting, because I kept doing editorial things like looking up names of things or checking dates.

Eventually, I had to put my copy of Off Armageddon Reef to one side, resist the desire to consult the glossaries and notes Weber had sent contributors, and just go ahead and write the story, trusting that I could add those details when the story was done in rough.

As soon as I did this, my writing brain was set loose.  I became completely engaged with the story: living and breathing my characters, experiencing the situation I’d put them in not with my brain alone, but with my emotions.  I finished a rough draft of the story on Friday, and, as you read this, am awaiting Jim’s response.  The story should be off to Weber before the end of the week.

My personal adventure with having to harmonize the sides of my brain so that I could work on these two projects at once started me thinking again about how writers are frequently divided into two categories: outliners and intuitive writers  If you aren’t familiar with these classifications, I talked about them a few months ago here.

Now I’m wondering if the difference between these types of writing has to do with how much of the editing side of the brain the writer engages while creating.

 In my case, possibly because I had to learn how to turn off all the literary critical stuff I learned when working on my various degrees in Lit, I don’t write well when my editorial brain is engaged.  In contrast, I’ve noticed that outliners tend to have a part of their analytical brain engaged at all times.  They’ll happily tell you how this sub-plot will play into the main action sometime around chapter ten or how this character is meant to die tragically and wring the heartstrings of the reader in chapter four, as well as triggering the vendetta that will make the main character kill her mother-in-law in chapter eight.

My subconscious might be playing similar games, but I’m not aware of them until they start percolating out through my fingertips, often only shortly before I start writing.

I don’t know if I’m right or wrong about this theory as to makes a plotter rather than an intuitive writer, but I thought I’d toss the idea out there for you to play with…  One thing I like about it is that it allows for the sliding scale – how even the most architectural of plotter has the “ah-hah” moment where the story takes a different direction, while even the most intuitive of subconscious writers needs to stop and check for order and organization at some point.

Now, off to daydream my way into another story!

FF: Various Oddities

March 11, 2016

This week’s reading seems to include a lot of stories in which “oddness” is an element.  Even the historical novel…

Silver and Usagi Read

Silver and Usagi Read

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Od Magic by Patricia McKillip.  Audiobook.  Enjoyed, although nothing really “new,” in story conception from what she’s done well before.

Winter Door by Isobelle Carmody.  Sequel to Night Gate.  Continues story but has its own tale to tell.  I want to read The Firecat, but am going to need to hunt up a copy.

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King.  Turns what could be a typical “problem book” into something so weird that, oddly, it’s more real than realism.

In Progress:

The King’s Gambit by John Maddox Roberts.  Audiobook.  First in the SPQR series.  Time for a re-read!

Maskwork by Jennifer Foreman.  Part history of the form, part project book.  Entirely fascinating.  Digesting a bit at a time.

King of Chaos by Dave Gross.  Pathfinder sword and sorcery.  Just started.


Jim insisted I needed several special issue periodicals on David Bowie, so I’ve been dipping into these.  Fascinating to remember how long he took to become successful.  Would an artist today even be given the chance to have three failed albums before achieving moderate success?

Fame took a long time coming, and when it did it wasn’t everything he’d imagined.

TT: Continuing the Cross(over) Examination

March 10, 2016

JANE: So, Alan, last week we decided to stop speculating as to why authors write in a wide variety of genres and actually ask a couple.  I chose three authors I know here in New Mexico: Walter Jon Williams, John Maddox Roberts, and Pati Nagle.

Same Authors, Different Genres

Same Authors, Different Genres

Last week we took a look at how these authors got started.

When we were winding up, you asked me to ask our three authors why they ended up writing…  How did you put it again?

ALAN: I said, “Could you ask them why they’ve ended up writing the kind of things that their names are (these days) most closely associated with?”

JANE: Right!  That’s an amazing sentence…  Anyhow, I did, and here are their replies.

I thought I’d start with Pati, since she’s currently publishing in three different genres and has a name to go with each one: “Pati Nagle” for SF/F, P.G. Nagle for historicals, and  Patrice Greenwood for cozy mysteries

Pati said: “I love to read various genres, so I’ve also written in a number of genres. It’s like playing in your favorite fantasy worlds. A lot of writers start out writing derivative fiction set in the worlds of their favorite books/movies. With me it was Star Trek – I wrote a really terrible Trek novel when I was in my teens. I didn’t keep it; it wouldn’t have been publishable even with the serial numbers filed off. I realized years later that the main purpose of that ‘practice’ novel was to teach myself how to type.

“I’ve always got various ideas floating around in my brain. Which genre I write in next just depends on which one grabs me and says, ‘Write me now!’”

ALAN: That sounds like she just writes whatever the story demands of her, without really trying to force it into the “genre of the moment.”  How extremely sensible. I wish more writers did that…

Since Pati mentioned that a lot of writers start out by writing “derivative fiction”, I feel that I have to ask if you ever did that?

JANE: Well, I freely admit that I had a complex story I told myself that borrowed heavily from everything I loved, whether written or from television.  However, I didn’t actually write it down.

I wrote a story to fill in some of the gaps in the character backgrounds for the original animated Thundercats, to which I was seriously addicted as a counterpart to being a graduate student.

Now, back to your question…

For Walter Jon Williams, the path that would lead him to becoming an award-winning SF writer was a mixture of business and inclination.  He says:

“The market for historical fiction dried up, and I couldn’t sell.  Again, I was submitting across a number of genres, and it was the science fiction that sold.

“Many of my rejections during this period suggested that my writing was too weird or unconventional, so it’s lucky I ended up in SF, which is more open to such things.”

He added that SF/F appealed to him as more than a marketplace because: “It gave me license to experiment.  Unless you experiment, you don’t get better, and I’m always trying to get better.”

ALAN: One of the things I like about Walter’s books is that he seldom writes the same thing twice. He even experiments within the novels that make up an ongoing series. And now we know why!

JANE: I agree…

For John Maddox Roberts, the path that would lead him to Roman mysteries was also due to a combination of his interests, combined with the ups and downs of the business climate.  I quote:

“That first [SF] novel was followed by two more sf books, but the medieval novel was still out there circulating. By this time I had an agent, Eleanor Wood. Advances were low so I was looking for any work I could get. Signet Books was beginning an action-adventure line of books and the editor had had a look at my medieval book and asked Eleanor if I would be willing to write something similar, but set during the Crusades.  These books were to be published at very close intervals so I would have to write them fast. I wrote the first in twelve days and turned out three more within the next few months. I had a contract for six books, but Signet was sold and the new owners abruptly shut down the Action-Adventure line.”

ALAN: But how did he end up writing the SPQR novels?

JANE: Again, the business climate played a role.  John said than an element:

“…was the cyclical nature of science fiction – every few years a boom would turn into a slump. In the late 80s SF was in one of its slump periods and Eleanor asked if I had anything ‘different’ to send her. I turned up a few pages I’d started on several years before – a mystery set in ancient Rome. I wrote up a couple of chapters and an outline for the rest and Eleanor found a buyer at Avon books.

“My editor, John Douglas, was willing to take a chance on something this weird and the first of the series, SPQR, was nominated for the Edgar Award. Due to internal politics at Avon the series was badly mishandled and canceled after four books, but in the meantime they had become bestsellers in Europe, particularly Germany, and for several years I was writing primarily for German publication.”

JANE: As you and I both know, the series did eventually find a new American publisher, who brought the books out in hardcover.  John noted that: “The SPQR series is now up to 16 languages and is being produced for television in Germany.”

ALAN: Oh, no! I don’t speak German!

JANE: I’m hoping they’ll subtitle it in English…

John had another comment, specifically about writing mysteries that I wanted to share.

 He said: “Actually, I don’t understand the appeal of writing in a single genre. It seems limiting to me. Economically, mystery is dependable. Unlike the boom-and-bust cycle of SF and historical, the mystery market stays steady, for numerous reasons. Also, mystery is esteemed worldwide.”

ALAN: I’d never thought of that before, but he’s right. Nobody ever seems to feel ashamed or embarrassed if they are caught reading a mystery novel on the bus. That’s something you certainly can’t say about SF.

JANE: True enough.  At least for me, my writing brain doesn’t seem happy without an element of the strange and unreal.  On the other hand, the lines between the genres are becoming increasingly blurred.  Could be that one of these days I’ll come up with a mystery story that will make both sides of the bookstore happy.