Introduction: The Thirteen Weeks Novel Writing Program
Week 2: First You Catch Your Idea
Week 3: The Plot Wars
Week 4: How to Find the Time for Writing
There is this state you enter in writing that is really hard to explain to anyone who has not entered it. However, I’ve found out that it is something that happens to all creatives, and I’ll try to explain it to you here, in case you’re new to this and have never felt it.
It bears explaining because when it first starts to hit you might very well feel like you’ve gone around the bend.
As I’ve confessed here I started out as a very tight plotter. No, not when I first started writing. I know very few authors who are tight plotters when they first start out. You sketch a page, write a beginning, you don’t even have a clue if you’re writing a short story or a novel, and you just keep writing a paragraph after a paragraph, and finally go “Whoa! I have such and such a length.” At which point you look it up – something that in my day involved, of course, going to the library and consulting the writer’s market, but which can now be done on the net – and decide that you have a short story, a novella, a novelette or a novel. (Don’t worry too much if you’re concerned about what on Earth all those things mean. They are mostly marketing categories and are passing from this world even as we speak. Epublishing and print on demand are sweeping all that away.)
What your story was unlikely to have – beyond the words – was a coherent plot. Yes, there are people who are freaks of nature and have read so much that their stories naturally fall into a plot-pattern that makes sense.
I wasn’t one of those people, despite having read about six books a day (give or take) between the ages of ten and thirty.
I started with the idea that in a story things happened. So things happened to my character, but they never led anywhere in particular. People got attacked, defeated their attackers, had breakfast, took showers, went shoe shopping, got attacked again…
I didn’t know that wasn’t a plot. It was, after all, a lot like reality, where – regardless of whether you are afraid of being attacked or not – you still have breakfast, shoe shop, take showers, talk to friends, etc.
But plotting is not reality. Reality doesn’t have to be coherent or presented to any purpose – but a story does, because otherwise, what is the point?
This week has been very bad for writing. By now I hoped to be twenty five thousand words in. I’m not.
If you keep in mind that when pushed and under the gun — such as when I got an invitation for an anthology and had an afternoon in which to deliver – I can and have written eleven thousand words in three hours, it seems as though there could be no possible excuse. And there isn’t.
I can give you all the reasons for why I’m not further advanced than the first few pages of the novel.
First, my time has been horribly cut up. But then, when isn’t it? Mostly I write in the intervals between cooking, cleaning, shopping for groceries, helping my sons with whatever project needs help, helping my friends with whatever project needs help, looking over page proofs, editing, running promotions on my self-published stuff, keeping track of the labyrinthine tax and business law affecting small businesses, getting exasperated at the news, trying to get in at least an hour of physical exercise… Sometimes it’s a miracle I write at all.
A lot could be said about women and women’s role in a family, and how much I do, and not prioritizing my profession over the day to day of family routine. Most of it would be wrong.
I know for a fact, talking to my male writer friends, that the ones who stayed home to write – i.e. were lucky enough to have a wife who could support them – faced the same pressures as any woman. It’s not a sexist thing, but an example of trying to make it in a field that very rarely pays and even more rarely pays well.
In my long, long apprenticeship (thirteen years before selling my first short story, but keep in mind that for a lot of that time I was barely writing, and rarely submitting because of this process) when it seemed highly unlikely I would ever sell, if the choice was between writing a new chapter or really cleaning the kitchen, a spit-shine (only not literally, because yuck) of the kitchen always won out. The kitchen, after all affected other people now. Writing another chapter on the novel merely fractionally increased the chances of my selling a novel and since those chances were minimal to begin with, to write or not to write was not a question.
You have your killer opening, you’ve polished it nicely. At least if you’re like me, you can’t help polishing a bit every time you look at it. You’re now fifty pages in, and everything seems to be going too slow, and you’ve lost track of where you were going, and you start to panic and think you’re doing it wrong.
This happens whether you are a plotter and had everything exquisitely planned in advance, or you’re flying by the seat of the pants and have clue zero what actually works.
Once you have the first few pages of the book ready, and you are aimed more or less in the direction you will go, you start feeling everything went wrong and the idea you had to begin with is completely impracticable, and… and… and…
Keep calm and carry on. Take deep breaths. The experience you’re having is uncomfortable but completely normal. It’s sort of like having a root canal. Just because it’s unpleasant doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Trust me.
What is happening at the psychological level is that you’ve now set yourself on one course to write your novel, and part of you – you know, the part that thought writing should be a really exciting adventure – is sitting back there going “What? This is all there is? This is not fun.”
It’s bad enough if you’re making it up as you go along, because you can just have the nagging feeling something has gone wrong, and not know what.
It’s worse, if you’re an outliner, you might have had that opening happening much faster. Writing an outline is much like dancing would be if there were no gravity. You can make your character do anything and – because it’s impossible to plot all those details without making the outline longer than a novel – you don’t know what the opposition is doing precisely.
Then you come to write, say a jail escape scene, and gravity hits you with a thud. Your character can’t do that unless you wish to make the opposition almost comic-opera stupid. So you have to make her escape more difficult, every step more negotiated.
The bad news is that at this point, you can’t tell. All of us professional novelists have read a third or a half of a novel we started long ago and put down unfinished and thought “How in heaven’s name did I think this made a good beginning?”
On the other hand, we’ve also all read beginnings we abandoned long ago and thought “Wow, this is really, really good. Yes, I am better now, but this has sparkle and life that pulls me right in.”
The problem here that when you’re less than a third (I’m less than a fifth) into a novel, you truly can’t judge it. Worse, the friends who normally read stuff for you also won’t be able to tell you if it’s any good or not.
All the writing books concentrate on beginnings and endings. Very few of them consider the middle, or even the middle of the beginning.
This is sort of akin to concentrating on your flight experience by making sure you have a good take off and a good landing and not caring in the least if your pilot decides to do loop-de-loops in the middle.
There are reasons for this, of course. I read somewhere that most of the fatal accidents in flights occur at takeoff and landing, and the same thing sort of kind of applies to a book.
If you fail to capture the reader’s interest within the first few pages, you are clearly not going to make a sale. And if you end the book so disastrously that the reader feels cheated and wants to throw things at your head, you’re probably never going to make another sale to this person (and might have to wear protective head gear while traveling in their region.)
But just because the moment of takeoff and landing, and the moments of starting and ending a book matter, it doesn’t mean that what goes in the middle is irrelevant.
I mean, consider the idea that you buy a flight to Poughkeepsie in the fine state of NY. Perhaps you have a hankering to visit the historic Vanderbilt Mansion.
Suppose that your plane takes off beautifully, and lands beautifully, but instead of taking you to the Queen City Of The Hudson, the pilot decides it’s less trouble and much better for all concerned if he flies a few circles around the airport and then lands you back where you started.
No one would be that silly, you say?
Ah—you clearly haven’t read some of the books I’ve read.
It is actually a fairly common mistake, particularly of rookie authors, still uncertain of their plot, to put all the might of their limited craft into starting and ending the book, but having what I’ve grown to call “Something goes here” middles.
The problem is that, in writing as in flights, if you’re going around in circles, no matter how entertaining you make the trip, calling out all the landmarks, if your book is going nowhere, people notice. After a while your reader starts asking “is this all there is? Is she running from the bad guys again? Haven’t we seen this before? But… nothing is solved.”
Don’t tell the SPCA, but writers have the oddest relationships with their pet cats (even pet cats they don’t have.)
When a writer is struggling with a piece of work, she’ll tell you she was vacuuming the cat, or he’ll say he was bathing the cat or… I prefer to say I’m rotating the cat, because it’s an activity no sane person would find necessary. It doesn’t accomplish anything and it annoys the cat. A perfect image for writerly procrastination
I once read an article by Terry Pratchett lamenting the demise of the typewriter as a tool of the trade, because it took away one of his favorite ways of wasting time before getting down to writing proper. He apparently used to take a q-tip and alcohol, and clean the little metal raised letters, to make sure the impression was really sharp.
Being of a different generation I could tell him that we young whipper snappers can find just as many ways to waste our time.
For instance, I’d been known to remove all the keys from my keyboard and wipe both keys and base with bleach wipes, an activity good for consuming an hour or two, and give you an impression you accomplished something.
What drives this is a fear of the blank screen. Facing that screen is hard, even for — particularly for — a novel you have outlined, researched, but not started yet.
There is an undefinable sense that once you save that first paragraph the fate of the novel will be sealed for good or ill. Before that you don’t know if the voice will be tender, poetic, funny or brisk, but once that first paragraph or page is saved, some of those options will have vanished. You can no longer think of this novel as the best comic-romantic-tender-brisk-fantasy-mystery-romance-science-fiction ever to grace the world. Choices will have been made, and you are stuck with them.
This is not exactly true. I usually revise my beginnings after finishing the book. But it does limit some possibilities anyway. If you write your beginning as a comedy then in the next scene have your character stumble on a serial killer’s lair and describe it seriously and graphically, you’re going to have people run screaming. (And not just because it’s a serial killer.)
So writers will try to find “legitimate activities” to put off the fell moment of typing in words.
The thing is, most pro writers don’t have to look around for silly activities. When pros – particularly these days – say they’ve been rotating the cat, what they actually mean is that they’ve spent their day in a dozen “little” activities and failed to write.
This is because the writing life is much like herding cats.
I usually struggle with the “voice” of the novel at the beginning of it. I write and discard several beginnings before I finally find the way it wants to be told.
It’s not always true. The beginning of A Few Good Men came to me loud and clear while I was doing something totally different. The sentences were there, words and all:
The world celebrates great prison breaks. The French territories still commemorate the day in which the dreaded Bastille burst open before the righteous fury of the peasantry and disgorged into the light of day the innocent, the aggrieved, the tortured and the oppressed.
They forget that every time a prison is opened, it also disgorges, amid the righteous and innocent, the con artists, the rapists, the murderers and the monsters.
Monsters like me.
I knew who the character was at that moment, and what he meant, and the whole novel was right there in my mind.
I wish it were always that easy. My beginnings are usually so difficult that once I’ve got three chapters down I have done half the work needed for the novel.
And not only do I have a particular voice, composed of word choice, setting, and character, but each novel has a particular voice, a tone that brings it the most to life. Again, it is word choice, setting, character, and mood plus – in the beginning – setting the right hook to draw the reader in.
Imagine Tom Sawyer told in the tone of Wuthering Heights and you’ll see what the wrong voice can do to a novel.
Most books aren’t told in the wrong voice – not exactly.
My son is a singer. Not professional, but he sings around the house all the time.
If he knows we’re going to get upset at his singing – say I’ve already told him I have a splitting headache – he sings in a muted half-tone.
Most writing on the market is written in that muted half-tone.
The difference is hard to explain. Oh, the half-tone is obvious when my son is singing, but let’s step it up. Let’s say he’s singing while doing something else, not giving it his full attention. It still sounds pretty good. You might think that’s his best, until you hear him singing and putting his whole soul into it. And then you stand there in awe and go “oh, the other was a pale shadow.”
Writing is like that too, and until you see the real thing you might not realize the other is a ghost.
You get better at finding a book’s proper “voice” as you practice more. This is often observable in the writing of popular authors. (For this, it’s best to choose someone first published more than twenty years ago, when you were still allowed to serve your apprenticeship in print.) They were good enough – perhaps better than most people – when they first were published. But when you read early works, it’s like they’re singing through cloth. The voice you know and love is there, but somehow muted. It’s not till you get to their middle work, when they’re at their peak, that you get their full, glorious voice with no muting.
I sold my first novel, Ill Met by Moonlight, fifteen years ago at a workshop on the Oregon Coast run by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.
The proposal was created at the workshop as an exercise. This being the dark ages, and the workshop house lacking internet connection, I wrote about something I knew really well: Ill Met by Moonlight (and the three books that followed, now available as an Omnibus) attempts a magical reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s biography.
The problem: my confidence in my knowledge lasted until I sold the proposal. Then I panicked and bought thirty more books on Shakespeare, to keep company with the forty I already owned.
This is because a writer’s need for research isn’t exactly sane or logical.
Part of it is, of course, a search for information. My books always need research, and often more research than is immediately obvious.
Of course when writing science fiction, I buy the latest books on whatever will be in the novel — terraforming, or space flight, or genetic engineering. However, plotting details also often require research. Say there is a battle in the novel – I will read accounts of historical battles for the strategy and the feel. Or say that my character survived some horrible personal event – it helps to ground the novel if I read the biographies of people with similar experiences, or even clinical articles about similar cases.
For the book currently in the works (“Through Fire,” book two of the Earth Revolution), I find myself reading a lot of books about or set in the French Revolution.
The problem when you start doing that kind of research is that there is a nearly infinite number of resources, and you can get lost in them. By definition you research things you’re interested in, so of course you want to keep reading about it. Also, as long as you’re researching, you can claim to be working really hard, and you can delay having to face the blank page (or screen).
Twenty years ago, I knew people who had spent fifteen years researching a foreign country, had traveled to that country, and owned enough books on it to stock a large municipal library. All without writing so much as a word of their proposed opus.
Periodically I run into these same people at writers’ events or local libraries. They will accost me with the enthusiasm of new converts wishing to share religious revelation: they just discovered a fascinating fact about the country where their novel will eventually be set; the history of this or that region works wonderfully with their plot; did I know that such and such a ruler had a horse exactly like the main character’s horse?
Time And Writing Wait For No Man (Or Woman)
Believe it or not, when you’re a freelance writer, even if you’re working for someone else, you’re still expected to manage your time.
So let’s start by admitting we’re not going to have a novel ready in 13 weeks, since most of you – I presume – haven’t started.
The reason for this is that I was going along and doing preliminaries to the “13 weeks” posts when my editor – wisely – thought perhaps you guys needed to know when to expect the posts. Ahem. Being a writer, this had never occurred to me. One sometimes forgets that not everyone lives in one’s head.
So… we are still in the preliminary posts. I think I have two more, unless questions arise. And then we’ll start the countdown of 13 actual weeks, from beginning page of novel to end.
By then you should have a notion of whether you want to plot or fly by the seat of your pants, what your projected novel length is, and how to plan how much you need to write each week.
See, when we talk about planning your timing, in writing, it means two things: the timing of events in the novel, and the timing of your writing so you can deliver on deadline.
And yes, I’m aware that just like a lot of you will have different preferences when it comes to how a novel is timed – slow and languorous, or a mad cavalcade from beginning to finish – a lot of you will have this idea that you don’t time when you write, it just sort of happens when the muse descends from heaven and sits on your shoulder to whisper sweet nothings in your ear.
For the record, I’ve never met a professional, working writer who works on the muse-installment plan. There are some who will tell you they do in public. This is part of what we call keeping up the mystique, also known as “baffling the mundanes.”
To Plot or Not To Plot
The closest you come to holy wars among writers is on the matter of plotting versus pantsing. Pantsing is a highly technical term, roughly translating as “flying by the seat of the pants.” Plotting in this case means working out the details of your story in advance.
Should someone ask you if you’re a plotter or a pantser, you might think it is just a matter of curiosity; but be careful how you answer. Whatever your answer, there is an even chance that if your listener is a writer — and even if he isn’t — he’ll have strong opinions on how you’re doing it wrong.
The only people without strong opinions on this are people like me who started as strict plotters, became somewhat looser plotters, and now find themselves as pantsers. It is not an unusual journey even if the opposite trajectory is almost unheard of . I have the theory that plotters who become pantsers after a number of books have in fact internalized the structure of a novel so well that the subconscious is pulling its own weight.
Plotters defend their method of work as resulting in tighter, cleaner books, and pantsers defend theirs as letting unexpected genius shine through more often. And yet, I know many plotters whose work has sudden, unexpected surprises, and many pantsers whose plots work as precisely as a Swiss watch.
So, instead of telling you the way you should work, I’m going to assume you’re an adult and know yourself best. Besides, if you start out one way and it doesn’t work, you can always change.
What I’m going to tell you — quickly — is how some people write plot outlines, and then how other people write without mapping plots in advance.
Writing A Novel In Thirteen Weeks:
If you’re going to write a novel, you have, of course, to start with an idea. Just like if you’re going to make a shepherd’s pie, first you have to catch your shepherd.
One of the questions I always get — in every panel, in every interview, at every con — is: “How do you get your ideas?”
The normal answer is: “I get them from [insert random, remote/small town].” I use: “Hays, Kansas. But it will cost you a dime, and you have to send a SASE.”
The sad thing is that I could possibly sell ideas and never reach a point where I have none to sell. Like with everything else, ideas are something you train yourself to have, and once you start having them, you have them all the time. You’ll be Standing On the Corner, Minding your Own Business (the infamous SOCMOB that guarantees you’ll be jumped by “two bad dudes”) when an idea will jump out of a nearby dumpster, and there you have it.
For instance, the other day in my blog comments, commenter CACS mistyped “High School Cemetery” instead of “High School Chemistry,” and there was immediately a boarding school for vampires (children with special needs) in my head.
So, was that idea enough to write a novel?
Probably not, because it doesn’t interest me enough – but what you also have to understand is that the boarding school for vampires is not an idea for a story. It is an idea for a setting. I still don’t have an idea – and it is the idea that determines whether it’s a novel, a short story, or just a passing, throw-away detail in another story.
Let me explain: What you have there has no characters, no conflict, no… story. It’s at best a spark of a story, even if for a fantasy reader (or writer) it comes freighted with all sorts of implied problems like “do they have classes at night?” “What do they do for the cafeteria — a blood bank?” etc.
The Run Up
Or, In Which Things Have Already Gone Wrong
What happens very often when one decides to write a novel is: everything goes wrong.
It is a well-known fact to those who participate in National Novel Writing Month in November* every year that it seems to attract bad luck. One year, I had a pet die, a relative die, the roof over my office leak, and the printer develop a fatal short. I haven’t participated since because I’m afraid my livestock will die — I don’t have livestock.
The last two weeks haven’t been quite so bad, but I’ve got a lot of unexpected work, ranging from short stories to blogs to promoting my new book A Few Good Men, at the same time as one of my sons brought home something “interesting” from school that made 15 hours of sleep per day irresistible.
So — and this is part of successfully writing a novel or completing any project — we’re adapting to changed circumstances and carrying on.
Let’s start with frequently asked questions which, hopefully, will lay out what you need to know before tomorrow, when I will explain my method and schedule. And then we’ll have a post on ideas and how to work an idea.
Can you write a good novel in thirteen weeks? I don’t know. I can. The shortest time I’ve taken to write a novel was three days, which so far happens to be my best-selling novel. (Alas, work for hire.) And I’ve written a novel in five years. That novel remains to this date – deservedly and mercifully – unpublished. While the idea isn’t bad, it will take some serious rewriting to make it readable, the sort of rewriting that turns it into a trilogy and gives it new characters.
If you go on the evidence of the market, you’d do best to write a novel in a shorter time than thirteen weeks.
My average novel takes a little over a month, but I don’t count research and outlining and run up at the thing (which means finding the right voice and all that).
So thirteen weeks is probably about right, particularly since I’ll be doing my usual thing and writing other things in the evening, as well as editing a couple of other novels.
While it is tempting for the amateur to think that the quality of a novel is directly proportional to how long you take to write it, as far as I can tell there is no correlation. At least in terms of readability and salability — which is my definition of quality for this project — there were authors like Rex Stout, who had a long-lasting career and who wrote his novels in an average of a week per. There are also authors like J. K. Rowling, who is reported to have taken three years to write Harry Potter. There is of course Tolkien, who took more than a decade to produce his works. There simply is no correlation between quality and time.
You write a novel in as long as it takes to get the novel written. And that’s all there is to it. Even now, even in my case, some novels will appear to me fully-formed and with some I have to struggle for every word.
“The other” was any character of a different color/culture/sexual orientation. Weirdly, sometimes “the other” was a woman. (For some reason right now the only “other” I can remember was the dead Chinese in Effi Briest.) On cue, as instructed, we could spill rivers of ink on the “exclusion” denoted by this and that passage, on the ignorance of the individual of a certain race/culture/sexual orientation.
We learned from our professors that the objectification of the other and making it into something strange and wonderful or else threatening and dangerous were all part of the xenophobia of our forebears. Of course, the way to respond to this lack of enlightenment was as codified as the sounds of disgust we were supposed to make at the idea of objectifying “the other.” The response was, in fact, supposed to be the putting down of our own culture and the elevating of this “other” because he WAS other.
[As far as indoctrination goes, I preferred the times in elementary school when our teacher would solemnly instruct us to deface the pictures of the three Filipes (the three Spanish Kings of Portugal) in the history book. It was more open and honest and not supposed to make us hate ourselves.]
I hadn’t given this concept of The Other much thought – like other things from undergrad (and grad) humanities, I let it pass from me with no regret and perhaps a little relief – until yesterday.
You see, yesterday I read Charlie Martin’s post on the rumor that Republicans want to ban tampons. Now, the rumor started in a satire post, but here’s the thing: PEOPLE BELIEVE IT. They believe anyone in their right mind, much less anyone writing the Republican platform, would include phrases like “because it is unnatural for women’s bodies to be penetrated by objects.”
It brought to mind all the trolls I have met at every conservative blog I’ve ever been part of. Most of the blogs I take part in are of a Republican/Libertarian bend, which means basically that if you were to come in and try to discuss incest, we tie ourselves in knots, not wanting to deny anyone their liberty to do as they please, but suggesting that perhaps the power imbalance between parent and child would make the relationship problematic. Or if you bring up drug use you find yourself in an earnest argument over whether people should be allowed to snort cocaine during class, and would it make a difference if it were a private college.
(It’s not that we libertarians don’t have morals: a lot of us are religious and have iron clad morals FOR OURSELVES, we just honestly don’t believe we have the right to impose them on others, unless the cost of forbidding something is greater than the cost of allowing it. I can, have, and do argue both ends against the middle on why murder probably shouldn’t be a crime.)
HOWEVER we vote Republican (usually… Unless it’s a really safe year and we decide it’s a good year for a statement vote, and—stop it. I live in CO. My vote for Harry Brown did NOT almost make Al Gore president. Particularly not in the district I was in which went for Gore big time, anyway.) And we want a smaller government and a withering of the welfare state.
I know it’s become fashionable to say something or other is “chicken soup” for the “something or other” soul. I almost said that about Temporary Duty, then I realized it wasn’t true. Ric Locke’s book doesn’t heal you as such. Instead, it perks up your sense of wonder and sets you dreaming as you did when you were very young and had just discovered science fiction.
I first became aware of Ric Locke’s book, Temporary Duty, through a mention in Instapundit and I emailed Ric — I don’t even remember why. He sent me his book. I read it, thought “wow,” and set it aside.
Then I met Ric at Fencon, and he asked me for a blurb for TD. At which point I thought I might as well do a review. So – here’s the review which would fall under “pimping my friends” and might if I meet Ric a few more times. Right now, we’re just friendly acquaintances.
Ric Locke’s Temporary Duty is science fiction for the soul. Not that it’s in the slightest bit spiritual or about the supernatural.
It is about the first contact between an interstellar-faring species and humanity. The humans who get contacted are officialdom and eventually two low-ranking military men get assigned to serve in the alien ship, to prepare the ship for the detachment of troops who will go with the aliens on a voyage. (Here you must excuse me for using – I’m sure – all the wrong terms. I’m having trouble accessing notes on my kindle, and the reason I never write anything even vaguely military is that I make a salad of official designations.)
Through an intentional bureaucratic trick, the two end up staying aboard and visiting other worlds with the traders.
This is the barest of schematics for the novel, but Ric actually has a few surprises build in there that I don’t wish to give away. We’ll just say that reading the novel brought back the sense of wonder I thought had vanished from science fiction. It made me feel about 12 or maybe 13, in a good way. I felt the same wonder and amazement I used to feel while reading The Adventures of Captain Morgan.
To an extent, it is because it’s the same type of book. It taps into the “young man makes good” mythos going all the way to Babylonian legends.
In another way it’s a serious book of social analysis and critique, all of it wrapped in a bang up adventure. And I liked the way his aliens answered pervasive story telling like Star Trek. Let’s just say there is a reason that Temporary Duty is one of the finalists for the Prometheus Award.
All that said, let me say I know why it wasn’t bought by one of the major houses. The beginning is pure wonder and takes time to develop our understanding of the world, as the main characters learn the language, etc. A lot of the golden-age SF worked that way. The sense of wonder was built slowly, by layers, while the characters discovered things they didn’t know about themselves and their environment.
These days, story telling requires a gun held to the head of the character in the first page – metaphorically if not realistically. There has to be something hanging over your head. Or, of course, it has to be a long disquisition on post modern philosophy with the barest trappings of fiction. Thank heavens, Ric’s story is neither of these. And thank heavens we have indie publishing which allowed this story to be published and allowed me to read it.
Now, kindly, go and buy his book, so that he’ll feel inspired to write the second one. You see, he left a lot of puzzling hints, including an implication humans came from the stars (made me feel about 12 and reading Space Engineers) and I want him to write more about that universe and explain at least some of it.
So, go get it. You won’t regret it.
*crossposted at my blog According To Hoyt*
My friend Francis Turner who writes the blog L’Ombre de l’Olivier sent me an email about protecting my computer from virus attacks. This was particularly germane since a recent weekend was devoted to weeding out #1 son’s computer. Since #1 son is far more computer competent than I am, and has never before been hit, it seems to me I’m at considerable risk.
And, of course, over the holidays, you end up shopping at some iffy sites, because sometimes those are the only ones that carry the barbarian-princess-in-only-chain-mail calendar that you know the men in your household will love.
So, in the spirit of keeping your computer safe for the holidays, here is the email Francis sent me:
We (the company I work for — ThreatSTOP) have come up with a simple way to see if your computer is under the control of someone else, that is to say whether it is running a “Trojan” or “botted”. It’s a simple download that anyone can run and get a report at the end.
The app is important because malware writers these days can regularly avoid (and even disable) antivirus so you may have no idea that there’s a banking trojan on your computer until suddenly you discover that you just sent all the money in your online bank account to some guy in Romania. This is pretty much guarranteed to ruin your holiday season if it happens and it isn’t fantasy, it’s happened to thousands of people and small businesses (see http://krebsonsecurity.com/2011/11/title-firm-sues-bank-over-207k-cyberheist/ for example).
Let your holiday shopping be merry and safe.
Dr. Tedd Roberts generally approves of commerce and enterprise. He is however disturbed by the ever-earlier opening trend on Black Friday:
The frank truth is that lack of sleep produces many of the same mental effects as being drunk or high, and Black Friday will be staffed by employees operating on too little sleep. The busiest retail day of the year is also the day when clerks and shoppers both are at the greatest risk of making serious judgmental errors at potentially high costs.
The factors that could lead to serious lapses in judgment include:
- Sudden shift from working during the day to working during normal sleep hours.
- Long work hours
- Difficulty in sleeping during the day
Many stores are opening at very early hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Shops which normally open at 8, 9 or 10 AM will open at Midnight, 3 or 4 AM. The employees will have to report to work 5-8 hrs early than normal, in fact, they will start work during the times of the day when they are usually asleep and all bodily functions are at a minimum. It is as if they had suddenly traveled from the U.S. to Europe, with all of the symptoms of jet lag, without the elapsed time.
After quoting some studies, he asserts that:
When sleep deprived, it is difficult to form and use short term memory – such as ringing sales and making change. It is also difficult to make critical decisions, such as identifying shoplifters or when to allow exceptions to sale terms.
Essentially, people who are sleep deprived show many of the same impairments of a person with a legally impaired blood alcohol level even though they do not show the same physical effects [Citek at al., Journal of Forensic Science, September 2011, volume 56, number 5, pages 1170-1179]. While factories, shops and offices that normally operate evening and night shifts have employees who are accustomed to working in the dark hours of the morning, most retail employees (and shoppers) are not. Thus, not only are your employees working impaired, your customers are shopping and driving while impaired. The increase in traffic incidents and police responses on Black Friday is commonly attributed to the size of the crowds, however, the increasing trend of early opening and sleep-deprived public has to be be compounding the problem.
While I don’t think he has any chance at all of being heard, not in a year when retailers are being simultaneously squeezed between the recession and competition from online stores, perhaps I should note that having retailers stumbling around and not quite able to engage the customer as they should, besides having sleep-deprived customers finding themselves back home with two hideous sweaters and a pint of Castor oil and wondering how this happened, will only push people to shopping on line more. Sometimes, perhaps the response to unfavorable results shouldn’t be to do more of what brought those results about.
I’m routinely asked “How do I break into writing?” by hopeful, starry eyed new writers. It is remarkably hard to answer — partly because the field has changed so much since I first broke in, and partly because it is in the midst of a change, from one state to the other and, like all things in flux, one can only guess at its final shape.
However, because I was once a hopeful, starry eyed new writer, I decided to attempt an answer. The result looks a lot like one of those pick-an-adventure books from the seventies.
There are a few things you must understand about publishing right now and which are non-debatable:
- No one knows anything.
- Publishers and Agents are in trouble, mostly because they’re avoiding making necessary changes.
- The old model of “it’s not so much what you write but what you are that will determine your success” is still very much in place.
- Most publishers are not most writers’ friends.
Given this, this is the best advice I can give:
1- In most cases, don’t get an agent. They don’t have the power they used to in the field, and they’re getting desperate and a little insane.
1.a. – I have a good friend who is an agent, and I MIGHT still sign with him if I were a newbie. I can’t imagine him doing anything business-insane. OTOH I don’t believe he has that much pull. No agent does. Even the “powerhouses.”
1. b. – If you’re writing nonfiction this might be different. I don’t know that it is (and feel free to chime in any of you who do) but I’ve had the impression it might be. If your agent is THE field expert on eighteenth century furniture and represents every author who writes about it, and you’re writing about it, it might be a good thing to have him represent you. It will give publishers an assurance you are the real article and know what you’re talking about.
2 – If you think you have a property and/or you’re the type of person who thinks he/she can do well in traditional publishing, send queries out to publishing houses. Yes, the old “no unsolicited submissions” is still in place, but I understand it’s honored more in the breach. At any rate, if you go to a writers conference or a small sf con in, say, NYC, and pitch to the editor who then says to send it in, your submission is no longer unsolicited.
2.a. If you sell read that contract like a hawk. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff being done.
2.b. Make them cross your palm with silver. When I broke in I heard the lowest advance for which they promote was 25k. G-d knows what it is now. (This is not always true, though, if you’ve become friends with an editor, even a minor one, you might get promotion for your 4k book.)
2.c. Be prepared to promote, and be aware this only REALLY works if you have a “platform” that’s at least tangentially related to your book. Also, if you don’t have kids or a real life. Even my “blog tour” for DST ate most of a year and was responsible for how late the second book in that is in coming out. Not complaining. Without it, there might NOT be a second book. OTOH it still ate a whole year.
My friend Dave Freer, over at Mad Genius Club has a blog about Political Correctness in literature. I confess I have agreed with him ever since I was first trying to break into writing and found myself reading manuals on how to be politically correct in my writing.
I’ve learned to use the execrable he/she or worse, they instead of he in the type of sentence that now goes “one shouldn’t do that, lest they” simply because it’s not worth to endure screams of outrage over what’s at worse inelegant and agrammatical. And the type of person who thinks her worth lies in not being referred to under a generic “masculine” pronoun – as dictated by the rules of most indo european languages — inevitably also things screaming about it is an act of civic duty if not virtue.
However, the more serious issues of the thought-binding rule of political correctness over literature have come to disgust me.
It is hard not to stand and cheer at Dave’s comments, including:
What neither of these definition set out is that PC is prescriptive, imposed from above, decided on by a self-selected group (usually those who shout loudest, and have a stake in establishing ‘victim’ status, and yes, by those in power. The PC-police – especially to writers, are the self-elected judges, juries and executioners. They can destroy your career, your livelihood at a whim, there is no appeal, or due process in the first place, and their hate campaigns will indiscriminately attack you, your friends and your family. You have no redress. You’d be far more fairly treated as a woman accused of adultery in Pakistan, let alone by any better justice system.
Their rules are intrinsically imposed – because if it was by broad consent or popular, you would not have to police it or even suggest it – which is why the Zuky interpretation comes in as wholly inaccurate. No-one had to tell everyone to wear yellow ribbons, or jump on anyone who didn’t. Nor were the controlling powers (ruling politicians, and in our field, publishers and editors, decreeing this. They followed a popular sentiment for their own ends, not enforced the sentiment). Of course, reading a little more of Zuky’s posts heesh probably didn’t share the sentiment, and thus felt that anyone else being able to express them shouldn’t be allowed. Yes, tolerance at its best.) Which is another defining feature of the way this operates: It is one way traffic. Those selected for deliberate non-offence are free to abuse those declared ‘bad’, as is anyone else. It sets up a clear hierarchy of who has most ‘right to redress’ (AKA privilege) as a victim. It has no sunset on those privileges. If your great great grandmother was a designated ‘victim’, and you – with just 1/16 of her blood now live in a mansion and enjoy special privileges as result, which set you far above Joe Average, your grandchildren will still have that 1/64 of DNA outvoting the rest and insuring that they can stand in front of line. And to those who have set the orthodoxy, even the questioning of individual points, let alone the concept of top-down prescription, is not PC and must be disciplined away. Very Stalinist, and a little historical research should show why that is a bad idea.
I can’t do Dave’s article (or his books) justice here. Please read the whole thing.
… or I won’t be when the thirty days for contract expiration run out.
First of all, because dropping one’s agent in publishing is a lot like a Hollywood divorce, particularly when you’ve been together for eight years, as Lucienne and I have, I’d like to say it’s not her; it’s also not me; it’s the field and the way it’s changing (and how fast.) Lucienne was the best agent I ever had and is also a talented YA writer whom I can tell you without reservations to check out. (And now it’s not a conflict of interest.)
Part of me wants to sit around in a robe all day eating rocky road ice cream. (Inadvisable, since I need to finish Darkship Renegades and also because I’m not allowed marshmallows on this diet.) I haven’t been unagented since ’97 and every time I dropped an agent before I secured one first. This time I chose not to do so because I think an agent won’t help. I could be wrong, in which case I’ll shop for an agent sometime in the future. However for now I’m alone, working without a net.
For the last year I’ve had a growing sense that something was wrong. Part of it was the response to two novels I sent out. The responses were slow and often rude, not just to me but to my agent. I’ve been a writer with no status or hope before and never got responses like that, because the publishers respected my agent. Now publishers don’t seem to care. Mostly they’re publishing bestsellers. It’s the only way they think they can survive the next two or three years.
Why do I think only the next two or three years?
Because agencies themselves are betting that’s all they’ll last.
The agencies are still selling – and well – the books of bestsellers, because that’s what the houses want right now. This is misguided as I think the bulk of their income is still from midlisters. It’s akin to the restaurant that decides that they make the most money off deserts, they in fact lose a little money off ribs, which brings in most of the customers. So they’re going to take out ribs and serve only appetizers and deserts. (And then they are shocked when the bottom line crashes.)
While it’s misguided for publishers, it will take a while for the financial effect to be felt. But it’s being felt by agencies. Us midlisters are by and large a low-work lot, who get our own contracts and keep on going. So we were a good “bulk” money maker for an agent. But now the big houses don’t want no stinking ribs.
Agencies are feeling the pinch from this, and in response they’re doing something which the agency Lucienne works for just did.
Yep, they’ve started their own digital publisher.
I know I’ve said here in the past that this was the logical next step in digital publishing. Agencies already sift through slush. They already promote their writers, to greater or lesser extent. So, why not transition?
Years ago, when reading P.J. O’Rourke’s Eat The Rich, I came across his description of train travel in Siberia, where the train seemed to have been built to maximize discomfort and lack of hygiene. He compared this to travel in the US and I realized suddenly that Portugal, while not as bad as Siberian trains in the USSR was about halfway there: i.e. Portuguese trains had a restroom, maybe. And the way the employees treated you was with the kind of unconcern reserved for serfs.
Yesterday, on the leg back from a hellish journey, I realized that US airlines are now halfway between Portuguese railways of old and the old USSR. And it makes me wonder: what is going on here?
Air travel became a nightmare around 2002. I thought it was because the airline industry was recovering from a severe blow and restructuring, and it would get better.
I was wrong. I was actually seeing the airline at the best it would be in the next ten years. And every year after it gets worse.
Even “what can we get away with” on the part of employees doesn’t explain, say, my last trip.
The latest flights were from Denver Atlanta with a rented car to attend a convention in Chattanooga. We chose Frontier because their Denver hub makes it cheap and convenient. Or so we thought. And because they were the one airline we hadn’t had an hellish experience with.
No, the problem wasn’t hail damage to their planes. Such disasters happen. It’s why they have insurance. It’s what came AFTER that.
Since they cancelled over a dozen planes – at 10:30 am for damage incurred at 2 am – and they have our phone/email to notify us, with perhaps a little more time to react.
BUT not only did they not cancel it till the last minute. Oh, no. They ALSO accepted checked luggage. First the plane was delayed, then finally cancelled.
Then we were told that the luggage would go on to its destination by next available plane UNLESS we asked to have it removed. Since we changed flights to Nashville, we wanted our luggage. Only, of course, it took three hours to request to have it removed. And by the time we did so, it was already in Atlanta.
There followed two days, while I was at a convention with no clothes or makeup, of LYING to us and saying they had FedEx-ed the luggage to the hotel. Eventually someone confessed it was still in Atlanta and the grand plan was to have us pick it up on the return trip. An hour and a half later they did what they should have done two days before and put it on a plane to Chattanooga.
On Monday on the shuttle to Atlanta we joked about the returning leg being cancelled. Then we got there. It had been cancelled. First they told us it was because of another storm in Denver. When a fellow passenger with a cell phone proved them wrong, then said it was still because of the same hail storm. AND THEN they claimed the problem was weather and they would not help us with hotel and/or food. We managed to get hotel after much argument, but when you add the shuttle to and from two airports, the dinner in Atlanta and dealing with luggage loss we’re out $500 again.
I will not fly Frontier again if I can help it, and I will never fly anywhere I can drive. Is this the effect airlines intend to have on their customers? Why? How do they think they’ll survive?
(More complete and possibly less coherent account here)
Do you know why your kids prefer computer games to reading? Oh, sure, part of it that they’re more visual, more immediate. But that alone doesn’t explain the decline of reading over the last few decades. No, not even our wretched schools explain that.
For all those decades, our society has told the kids reading was good for them and “important.” They’re not stupid. Of course they don’t want to do that. Now, TV and computer games, those are bad for you and therefore they must be fun, right?
I got told that reading was a time-wasting, no-good folly. I got told books would rot my brain. I got told I thought too much and lived in cloud cuckoo land. And I read every chance I got and in the most unlikely places to do it. I did the same with the kids. It worked.
But I had to fight against the schools. The schools wanted to give them candy and burgers for reading x-number of books. They wanted to make them participate in “readathons.” They wanted to make them feel that reading was difficult and important, and writing was performed by magic creatures with messages or something… At the same time, of course, publishers were selecting for worthiness (sometimes wordiness too, but not often. They tended to be minimalists) and message and “importance.” Is it any wonder fewer people read? It’s a wonder people read at all.
And we need to get the word out: reading is fun. You have to be careful, or you end up doing too much of it, and you don’t sleep enough, and you neglect your work. You learn too much and you think too much, and then you don’t fit in right, and you start finding sitcoms boring and predictable. And then you won’t get your friends’ reference jokes. Oh, sure, you’ll have other reference jokes, but who will you share them with? – gasp! – not those WEIRDOS who read, right? Reading could ruin your life. You know that guy with the disheveled hair and the reddened eyes in your class? Yeah. He looks like he just tumbled out of bed because he didn’t sleep last night. He was up all night reading a book. He’s a bad influence. Stay away from him.
Look, the gatekeepers are still there, but we can get around them. Let’s curl up in the big easy chair with a trashy book and kick off our shoes. I have chocolate with marshmallows, and not a hint of broccoli in sight. (And yes, in future there will be reviews of those trashy books.)
A more wordy (though not necessarily worthy) version of this post is at
According To Hoyt