Category Archives: Writing

The tide has turned and caught me at full flood! (#SFWApro)

So as I mentioned a while back, I picked up three different paying gigs in addition to Screen Rant: the Leaf project (now wrapped up), freelance work for a network of legal papers and money management how-to articles for GOBankingrates. Only the latter two of the four never assigned me anything.

But then the week before my trip to Greenville, GOBankingrates asked if I was up for an article. I had to pass until after the trip, but earlier this week they called again. So I took the assignment (how to get pre-approved for a mortgage). The information was simple enough — it’s similar to the stuff I’ve done for Leaf — but like Screen Rant, they have their own format and style rules, and getting it written to comply with them consumed a lot of time. Not that they’re unreasonable, but it always goes slow the first time I try to follow a style guide. But it’s done, and assuming no problems, it will work out to a great hourly rate.

But all that work on mortgage pre-approval sucked up a lot of time I’d have spent for fiction. And the irrational conviction I Have No Time, I Can’t Get It Done when I have a tight deadline kept me up early. Plus I was working on two Screen Rants, this week’s (not out yet) and a big Wonder Woman article due in a couple of weeks. So it was a little frantic.

And today, the early rising got to me. I went to sleep right after lunch and when I woke up I just lay down with the pups for another hour. Then read for another hour instead of writing. I was in overtime for the week, so I don’t feel bad about it, but I almost never blow off an afternoon even so. Guess I was more tired than I thought.

So what did I get done?

•I reread Undead Sexist Cliches — the Book, because I did almost nothing on it last month and I needed a better sense of what I’d already covered.

•I got another 5,000 words done on Southern Discomforts.

•I had a great idea for my short story, Trouble and Glass, that will resolve some of the problems I’ve been having with it. I’d hoped to actually work on the text, but that time got lost in the nonfiction push.

•I was supposed to talk on the phone with someone I applied to for another nonfiction gig. And that we jumped to phone is a good sign, I think — however, life intervened on his end. Next week, hopefully.

On top of which I managed to keep up exercising, and to give the kitchen a really thorough cleaning while the dogs were in day care (it’s not the best way to spend my dog-free day, but it beats having them try to nose around me while I’m spraying cleaning products).

Next week, now that I know to budget time for the GOBankingrate, perhaps things will go smoother. We shall see …

Oh, and Digital Fantasy Fiction just reprinted my short story He Kindly Stopped For Me. If Death knocked on your door and asked to use your phone, how would you react? Feel free to check out the Story Behind The Story from when it first came out.

Cover art by Jack Kirby, all rights reside with current holder.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, Screen Rant, Short Stories, Story behind the story, Time management and goals, Writing

Nice guys and girls (#SFWApro)

A standard rule of thumb in writing fiction is that nice characters aren’t interesting. They’re boring. They’re dull. They’re the kiss of death for reader interest. Much like being “nice” is the kiss of death for arousing anyone’s romantic interest in real life (dating books equate it to being bland, dull, passive). They’re something close to Ralph Bellamy’s character in His Girl Friday, a clueless hayseed dimwit who obviously has no hope of competing against Cary Grant’s roguish protagonist.

I think I disagree. Setting aside the people who aren’t genuinely nice (which is obviously a great approach to building a character), there’s no reason nice people can’t make good, interesting characters, if they’re written well.

For example, in one of LJ Smith’s Night World books, the angsty werewolf protagonist is assigned to bodyguard a witch who is absolutely a nice person. She helps people with their homework. She’s generally helpful. She cares about other people. And after the threat from the bad guys is resolved, she finds a way to pair up her bodyguard with another werewolf she’s hot for but can’t have. Which is I think the first key to writing nice characters. Make them active. Have them actively help people, not just sit around being smiling and happy.

•Give them something to do besides be nice. They’re nuts for Bollywood films. Or Lovecraft’s fiction. Or quantum physics. Nice is more interesting if it’s one of their defining traits, not the only one.

•Nice doesn’t mean being a doormat.

•Nice doesn’t mean lack of passion.

In short, you write nice characters like any other characters. Make them rounded, make them interesting.

In Famine where Abundance Lies I think Helen qualifies as a nice character. She’s honest, happily married, a Christian who walks the walk. But she’s also coping with an insane job in IT, intense demands and an overbearing boss (plus the supernatural). I think she qualifies — we’ll see what happens as the story goes out (I’m currently rewriting it).

Nice! It doesn’t have to be the kiss of death.

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I had a fabulous weekend. What happened next will shock you! (#SFWA)

Last weekend was awesome. Friday (apr. 28) I drove down to Greenville SC to visit my friends Neil and Courtney (that’s their dog, Watson, in the photo) . Every year there’s a Mensa trivia contest, Culture Quest, and I go down and play with them rather than with the local Durham teams. No disrespect meant to them (they often outscore us), but it’s nice to spend time with people who know me from back before I moved up here.

We hung out and lay around a lot, watched movies (see tomorrow’s reviews) and TV (Westworld, which will get a review of its own eventually), competed in Culture Quest, visited the Greenville Zoo (very nice!) and Neil’s comic book store plus hitting the Greenville library’s book sale. Everything’s cheap and the last day everything’s half-off the cheap price. There’s more stuff to do, and sometimes I’ve spent the whole week there as the Greenville Mensa gathering takes place the following weekend. This time, though, I came back Monday, planning to come back with TYG for the gathering on Friday.

(A brief aside: Gaffney, SC is on the way and has a ginormous water tower painted into a peach. It’s a real shock seeing it when you’re not prepared, like someone in a movie confronting a giant kaijin).

So I spent the three days I had to work concentrating on my Screen Rant column, and doing some more research reading for Southern Discomfort. Plus taking time out for Plushie’s noon eye appointment on Thursday.

But then Thursday morning Trixie suddenly sat on the ground midway through her walkies and refused to budge. She didn’t eat when she got home. And she was lethargic and withdrawn, which is very un-Trixie. We called and got a 10:30 appointment at our vet. Unfortunately they were slammed so TYG had to leave and take Plush dog to his appointment while I waited on Trixie’s results.

The long and short of it: Trixie had eaten something (cloth, hair, grass) which had filled up her stomach. Fortunately it had passed out by 4ish. However we still have to wait and see whether it passes out her intestines or sticks (which could require surgery).

I was still fairly comfortable with boarding Trixie at the vet’s for the weekend, but TYG wasn’t. She volunteered to stay behind and watch Trixie while I went to Greenville, but I decided I’d be too worried about Trixie (and guilty about leaving) to enjoy myself. So I stayed. I wasn’t happy with the decision, but I wouldn’t have been happy going either …

While the stuff hasn’t passed out yet, Trixie is back to her normal high-energy self again, so yay! And I did get a little extra work done (submitted a couple of stories, applied for an editing gig, worked on Trouble and Glass for the first time in forever) which made me feel less disappointed in my choice. I do miss seeing all our Mensa friends though. But Trixie’s my little girl, so there you are.

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Filed under Personal, Screen Rant, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Writing

April goals: No covering myself with glory (#SFWApro)

Goals accomplished: 45 percent. My lowest so far this year. Even given I spent a week sick, I should have done better.

Part of the problem was that I still had the last of my Leaf work to wrap up, which took a lot of time. And then I compensated by focusing heavily on Southern Discomfort, which meant lesser stuff — marketing, short stories — didn’t get done. I’d have caught up (maybe) last week, but the sick thing kicked in. Likewise lots of little things — exercise, for instance — got lost here and there in the rush.

I did get 25,000 words written on Southern Discomfort, which is great, and I finally saw Sex for Dinner, Death for Breakfast out in hardback. Plus my Screen Rant columns were all turned in.

May will suffer from having very little time this first week of May. I got back Monday from visiting friends (details in this afternoon’s post), I’m taking today off (details later), and I had multiple appointments and errands during the three work days. But I think I’ve calibrated tasks to time available effectively. Or so I hope.

For your entertainment, I’ll conclude with a cover by Richard Courtney (all rights retained by current holder). Michael Moorcock novels often promote imaginative covers though I’ve seen wilder ones.

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Incest. Nostradamus. Vagina dentata. It’s my WTF time travel films Screen Rant column (#SFWApro!)

Which is very cool. Ever since Now and Then We Time Travel came out, I’ve been pitching various venues on a time-travel movie column of some sort. And now, finally, I got to do one! 15 truly weird time-travel films, 10 horrible and five good. Dimension 5 is on the not-good side (in case you were wondering).

I think my writing style for these continues to improve, too. “Jason Voorhees with a katana” is a nice turn of phrase, even if I do say so myself. All rights to poster image remain with current holder.

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I do not think all interpretations are valid (#SFWApro)

So as I noted last week, Mary Robinette Kowal wrote a recent blog post about revising a novel after getting some feedback on how she handled race. In which she made the observation that it didn’t matter what her intentions were — ” Once the story is out of my hands, each individual reader’s interpretation is valid and correct.” I really disagree with that. I get that in context, her point is that if the story comes out racist, it doesn’t matter why she wrote it the way she did, which makes sense. But the way it was phrased — no, sorry. Not all interpretations are equally valid, or automatically correct.

Some people interpreteed Steve Ditko’s art on the Silver Age Doctor Strange as the result of his drug experiences. Nope.

Some people assumed Birth of a Nation was historically accurate (though Woodrow Wilson probably did not call it “history writ by lightening“). Lots of people probably thought the happy slaves singing away and loving their master in countless later stories of antebellum life were true to life.

Some people thought the black characters in Hunger Games were white, though I suppose that’s more reader incomprehension than interpretation.

Right-wing pseudo-historian David Barton interprets the Gospel parable of the vineyard as Jesus saying we shouldn’t have minimum wage. Wrong again.

Lots of people interpret events in stories as reflecting the author’s personal experience. Sometimes that’s right, sometimes it’s wrong.

Or consider The Pooh Perplex, Frederick Crews’ delicious send-up of literary interpretation (all rights to cover remain with current holder). One mock-analysis of the Winnie the Pooh books applies a Marxist interpretation: “After luring the worker Pooh into his home with never-paid promises of honey, the capitalist rabbit traps him in the doorway and uses him for one week’s unpaid labor as a towel rack!” A Christian exegesis shows that “obviously” Pooh is fallen man, Christopher Robin is God and Eeyore is Jesus (he’s suffering, he’s humble, he has a nail driven into his butt, could Milne be any more obvious?). Would Kowal argue that interpretations this batshit, if made in good faith, are valid? And I don’t think that’s a totally unreasonable argument — I have seen some pretty weird Christian and Marxist interpretations over the years.

(And by the way, I highly recommend Pooh Perplex to anyone and everyone. It’s hysterically funny).

And Strange Horizons has an excellent argument on why the standard interpretation of James Kirk as a lecherous tomcat is total bullshit.

I don’t mean that “no interpretation that disagrees with the author’s view can be correct!” Some subtext crops up whether or not the author meant it that way. For example the Legion of Super-Heroes’ first black member, Tyroc, came from Marzal, an island inhabited by isolationist blacks. His joining the Legion was meant to add diversity, but there’s some unintended subtext to the story that shows the Marzalians were irrational to think there was any racism in 30th century Earth — no, they were the real bigots not to trust white people!

Or consider the classic Teen Titans plotline, the Judas Contract. When the story shows fifteen-year-old Terra smoking, drinking and bedding Slade Wilson, AKA Deathstroke, the point is that she’s a very, very, very bad girl. Not that Slade Wilson is a slimeball statutory rapist (when the Titans’ Changeling brings the subject up with Wilson, Slade treats it as a matter of jealousy — did he sleep with Changeling’s girlfriend? — and nothing more).

So I don’t consider “well I didn’t mean it that way, so your interpretation is wrong” to be a valid defense. Necessarily. It’s one of those things where I’d take it case by case, interpretation by interpretation.

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The Witch-Hunters (#SFWApro)

So a couple of weeks ago I was writing about the argument that showing elves/mutants/cyborgs/metahumans as a discriminated minority is a bad idea for various reasons. And I said that discrimination against mages or witches fit into a different category as it’s not racial or really a metaphor for race. People in Europe have a long history of burning or otherwise killing witches; in some parts of Africa, people are persecuted today for witchcraft (whether that’s the best translation for it); and in the US the fear of Satanists Among Us is alive and well (and people have gone to jail for being part of nonexistent Satanic child-molester rings). So I don’t think making “mage” an oppressed minority is all that implausible.

Yet at the same time, I almost never enjoy seeing stories that involve persecuted mages hunted by the holy church or torch-wielding mobs or whatever in this setting does the hunting. And I realized that’s partly because in fiction it often is treated as a racial thing: magic is an innate, mutant-like talent and the humans react to it like the classic “mutie hater” in X-Men.

That’s not really how it happens. Witchcraft and wizardry in European tradition (beyond Europe I’m not confident enough to opine) aren’t things you are but things you do. Lots of people claimed to be witches, conjure folk or a “cunning man”, and many of them were tolerated/admired/feared in their community for years before things blew up. Not because they’d suddenly discovered Goody Pringle or the Widow Smith was a witch but because they’d supposedly done something that went beyond the pale. In Europe, it was typically that they’d allegedly signed a pact with Satan or attended the sabbat; in England, it was usually that they’d performed maleficium, actually used magic to harm someone.  Cover by Cardy, all rights remain with current owner.

That isn’t to suggest that the witch-hunters were right, or reasonable. Ultimately they killed hundred of people — British “witchfinder general” Matthew Hopkins played a role in 400 witch convictions — none of whom had magical powers. Witch-hunters are much, much more dangerous than witches and kill far more people. The same way that while Satanists molesting or abusing children would be a horrifying thing, it never happened. Mike Warnke did not participate in human sacrifice. The 1990s campaign against Satanism destroyed far more lives than any Satanists around at the time did (so if you’re writing about magic of some sort in the real world, please avoid stories where, say, there really were Satan-worshipping witches at Salem)

Even Christianity’s attitude to magic has changed over time. For the first millennium or so, the Catholic Church considered claims that magic worked or that someone could summon a demon to curse you to be heretical — no-one but God and his chosen agents could perform such wonders! This changed. One theory is that after the Inquisition began hunting heretics, it soon found there weren’t enough heresies to stamp out. So they went after witches, much the same way some police departments will use SWAT equipment on routine calls because SWAT class emergencies don’t happen that often.

So if there are laws against witches, they may not constitute an absolute ban on magic. Or any ban on magic, rather than the abuse of magic. A midwife/cunning woman who’s known and liked by everyone may have no troubles — but if there’s a problem with one of the births she attends, that could change (check out the 1996 The Crucible film, which captures perfectly how grudges and slights can trigger accusations of witchcraft).

I think there’s more story potential in a complicated response to magic than the kind of mindless idiocy Monty Python and the Holy Grail sent up so well.

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