Stroke Awareness

I'm posting this infographic about stroke symptoms because the issue arose in my own life this last week.  One of the other security guards had a stroke at work last week (not during one of my shifts, for which I'm grateful) and has been in hospital since then.  Treatment and application of the new "stroke-buster" drugs have brought about considerable improvement, but he'll be in rehab for a considerable while yet.

Pretty alarming.  Even more alarming because the guy is only 42.   (My own son turns 40 this year.  Whoa-a-a....)

If you ever start having these symptoms, don't try to "tough it out" or ignore what's happening.  The more quickly the "stroke-busters" are administered, the more damage they can prevent.  Quick treatment can make the difference between returning to normal life, ending up in a wheelchair, or death.


Slow Words: A Not-So-Sweet Non-Romance


C.S. (Susanne) Lakin has written a number of novels from her heart; none of them have been particularly successful or renumerative.  She got tired of, especially, that latter part.  So she researched what genres and subgenres sold especially well among self-published books, and found that "Sweet Historical Western Romance" had a reliable buying audience even without labor-intensive or expensive marketing and promotion.  ("Sweet" is a euphemism for "No Sex" in this context.)  She'd never read or written in that genre before.  She found books by one of the most popular authors in that subgenre, "deconstructed" one of those novels, and used what she learned to write her own, COLORADO PROMISE (published as by "Charlene Whitman").  That book has been making fairly steady earnings since its publication.

Lakin went on to write an article about that experience, and the article was published recently on Joel Friedlander's The Book Designer blog.   Another version of that article appeared on writer Barbara Rogan's blog.  Both got a lot of appreciative comments.

A-a-a-nd... some not so appreciative comments.  Including several from Debra Holland, the author of WILD MONTANA SKY, the novel Lakin deconstructed.   Apparently, there was some degree of contact between Lakin and Holland before Lakin began writing her own SHR novel.  Exactly how much seems a little uncertain, and it also seems a little uncertain how clear Lakin was about the process she was using to try and emulate Holland's success.

Holland's first comment, on the Book Designer blog, was very -- very -- politely phrased, but with a clear undercurrent of some annoyance.  A later comment, on Rogan's blog, was rather more forceful about Holland feeling, umm, under-informed about exactly what Lakin had planned to do.  Lakin chimed in with her own replies, also growing increasingly testy.  Various commenters, both defending and criticizing Lakin, have added to the discussion.

As Internet arguments go, so far it's actually been pretty mild.  If I was trying to make a video version, it would be filled with eyerolls, significant glances and glares, haughty chins, impertinent sniffs and long sighs, ending with simultaneous flounces by everyone involved.  More like something out of a Georgette Heyer novel, rather than, say, John Ringo.

(The John Ringo version would have bullets, blood, and things that go *BOOM*.)

A few points in response to the whole situation:

I wish Lakin wouldn't use the term "deconstruction" for the process she used to study the SHR genre and Holland's particular novel.  "Deconstruction" has an established meaning in academic Literary Theory.  For a bumper-sticker version, Deconstruction tries to find the meaning behind the meaning in literature (or, more exactly, the contradictions in meaning) (or, ultimately, the impossibility of a clearly defined meaning).  A fairly plain-English explanation of the theory can be found on this webpage from Bedford St. Martin's.  A more jargon-ridden definition can be found here on Wikipedia.  (Deconstruction Theorists tend to use dense, complex, jargon-heavy writing when writing about deconstruction itself.  Critics sometimes speculate this is to disguise the fact that Deconstruction Theory has no clothes.)

What Lakin seems to have done with WILD MONTANA SKY is what I'd call a "breakdown" of Holland's novel into its essential structure.   This is not the same as copying or plagiarizing, but it seems to be more than "influenced by" or "in the style of".  As an example, both books open with the first chapter from the female protagonist's view, and the second chapter from the male protagonist's.  In both books, the female protagonist is an Easterner for whom unexpected circumstances compel a move out West, where she's a fish-out-of-water.  And, as the genre requires, both books are set in a historical period in the Western United States and involve a romance.   So the books are similar in overall plot and character progression, but not identical.

(I'm basing these comparisons on the "Look Inside!" excerpts available on Amazon.)

Larkin's actual process in breaking down Holland's book is a little vague at this point.  I'll have a bit more to say about that further below.

But "deconstruct" is definitely not the term she should use for that process.  It conflicts, badly, with a long-established meaning.  (Also, the word "deconstruction" raises, in a lot of people's minds, the image of Artsy-Fartsy Hoity-Toity Ivy-Tower Academic Snobs; it's not a "positive" word by any means.)  It makes my fingers go *twitch* and try to reach for a red pencil when Lakin misuses the word like that.

A number of other words might possibly be used to better effect.  How about "evaluate", or "study", or "modeling", or "analyze"?  (I think that last one may be particularly appropriate.)  Or, if you want to go a little more metaphorical, you might describe such an analysis as "How To X-Ray A Book -- Discovering The Anatomy Of A Novel".

Studying other people's books as education and/or guidance in writing your own is a long-standing tradition.  There was some well-known writer -- Roger Zelazny, perhaps? -- who, when starting his writing career, re-typed some of Theodore Sturgeon's stories to gain a better understanding of the choices Sturgeon made in plot and character and words.

"Formulas" and "Master Plots" have also been around a long time.  Lester Dent, who wrote many of the Doc Savage pulp-magazine stories under the Kenneth Robeson housename, used his own Secret Master Plot to turn out reliably-written adventure stories.  David Eddings had a checklist of elements to include in his fantasy novels.  When I was trying to sell movie scripts back in the 1990's, there were screenwriting how-to books that advocated, variously, a 3-part, 7-part, 12-part, and 21-part structure to screenplays.  So there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Lakin taking apart Holland's book and trying to write something similar or even with the same underlying anatomy.

But there are two aspects of this contretemps that leave me a little uneasy:

I think Lakin probably didn't give herself enough time to consider all the aspects of her project.  In particular, she didn't give enough thought to Debra Holland's end of the experiment.  Holland seems to have had only a vague idea of what Lakin intended to do with WILD MONTANA SKY.  One of the specific complaints that came up was that Lakin had asked Holland for the name and contact info of the cover artist for Holland's books; when the artist was contacted, Lakin reportedly claimed to be a friend of Holland's and told the artist Holland would be just fine with it if Lakin's bookcover resembled Holland's covers.  (Images below)  Other people have been uncomfortable that in Lakin's original articles, mention of Holland's name and book-title were left out.

It's a matter of courtesy, and openness, and professionalism.  If you're going to model the structure of your book on that of a specific book by a specific author, it behooves you to show that author more than a widow's-mite of respect.  I think Lakin was deficient on this point.  It's pretty clear that Holland certainly feels she was treated unprofessionally and with a lack of respect.

(The easy lesson here may be that, if you're going to model your work on another writer's example, pick a dead writer.)

Lakin is one of those writers who push heavily for writing quickly and publishing lots.  (She has a blog for writing advice, and critiques manuscripts in addition to her own fiction.)  Some writers do well with that sort of regimen.  (I'm not one of them, as my Slow Words Manifesto makes clear.)  I think in this case that attitude, that rush to publish, may have come back to bite her in the butt.  She'd have been better served to have sat back, taken a deep breath, and taken more time to think about her experiment and its possible ramifications and consequences.

The other thing I'm uneasy about is that Lakin's experiment comes across as, well, kinda cynical and mercenary.  And not just because, hey, she wanted to write something that would sell better than the fantasy books she'd put her heart into and actually, you know, bring in a respectable income.  Even if said something was in a niche genre of which she was, at first, almost completely ignorant.

But what makes me most uneasy, what comes across as even more cynical and mercenary, is that Lakin has said, based on the success of her experiment, she's going to be publishing a "how-to" book, explaining to others how they too can find a suitably well-selling subgenre, "deconstruct" (*twitch*) a novel from that niche, and use it as the basis for their own work.

And she's going to base this how-to book on... one sample?  On the sales success of one book?   That's... bad science.   One sample isn't even a statistic; it's just a datum.  A successful experiment is one that's repeatable.  Lakin should repeat her experiment with several books, or half a dozen, before she writes such a how-to book.  As currently conceived, the testing of Lakin's experiment will be done by the people who buy her how-to book.   That's worse science, and bad how-to writing.

I'll be a bit blunt here: Ms. Lakin, if you really publish such a one-sample how-to book, I will feel embarassed for you.

And if Lakin does publish such a how-to book, I certainly hope she'll take the time and thought to put in a chapter dealing with the issues of openness and professionalism that have come up since her articles were published.


Chasing Down "Chasing The Sun"

I've been seeing commercials for watchwigs.com, promoting an online series of scripted dramas, concentrating on women's stories.  But what really stuck in my memory was the striking music backing the montage of snippets from the shows.  Some Googling finally found the song used in the commercial, Louise Dowd & Richard Salmon's "Chasing The Sun".  Several versions are posted on YouTube, but the one below seems the best:

Very nice.  I'll have to check out some of Louise Dowd's other music available online.

While trying to identify the song, I also got a better idea what the watchwigs commercial was about.  WIGS is a YouTube channel with a number of shows presented as five-to-ten-minute video serials, some standalone short films, and documentaries.  They're using "name" actors like Jennifer Beals, and the production values look very good.  I'll hazard that WIGS* (slogan: "Where It Gets Interesting".  I can't help the snarky thought that "Where Our Acronyms Suck" might also be suitable.) is one of numerous attempts to find an audience for scripted drama online, with a fair amount of money and talent put into the project. 


Weird Food -- You Got Capsicum In My Coffee Creamer!

I will occasionally see something weird at the grocery store that I can't resist picking up andtaking home to try out.  International Delight puts out a line of flavored coffee creamers, in the usual flavors (Hazelnut, etc.) and some less than usual ones.  But those have all been on the "sweet" spectrum of flavors.

This new flavor, Vanilla Heat, is the first I've seen that uses a flavor generally reserved for the savory spectrum: This is vanilla-flavored with the addition of a chili-pepper flavor.

It's... pretty weird.  I like sweet, and I like savory.  But I generally don't like them together.  A couple of exceptions: Picadillo, a Spanish ground beef dish flavored with capers and/or green olives, vinegar and (yep, really) raisins.  And I've liked some of the salty-sweet snack crackers and chips from various producers.

As a coffee creamer, though, vanilla-and-chili doesn't really work that well.  The whole point of a coffee creamer, in my experience, is to mellow out the bitterness and occasional "burnt" flavor of coffee, especially the dark-roast varieties.  So the basic creamer calms down some of the flavors going into your mouth, and the added "sweet" flavors also help cover up those less pleasant aspects of drinking coffee.  (No, I don't do black coffee.  Ever.)

The chili flavor in Vanilla Heat works against that calming aspect of the creamer.  It excites and stimulates your taste buds, and not in a way I expect or enjoy.  It also leaves a mild "burn" in your mouth and/or throat.  I don't mind that type of burning sensation when I'm eating Mexican food or other spicy dishes, but it's not what I look for in my coffee.  (I tend to use enough sugar and creamer in my coffee in general that it comes closer to dessert than beverage, in some people's view.)  So overall, I have to say that Vanilla Heat fell solidly into the "Try It Once" category for me.

It reminds me of an old product called Cajun Cola, the story of which was profiled in a very interesting article in a 1990 issue of Inc magazine.  It was a "spicy cola" with a chili kick, and it sold very well... at first.  What the producer of the cola failed to realize was that a spicy cola was essentially a novelty item, and that most people would try it once or a few times and then go back to their standard cola drinks.  After a while, less than a year, sales tanked, and Cajun Cola died and went to the Museum of Failed Products.

International Delight's website lists Vanilla Heat as one of their "Seasonal" offerings.  From other reviews online, it seems to have gone on the market back in September.  I can't help wondering if it's being offered this last holiday season was an example of test marketing.  (Phoenix's diverse population makes it a popular city for companies to test-market new products.)  Personally, I'll be just as happy if they try out a different flavor next holiday season.


Why I Live In Arizona

Because the picture on the left
is what the weather is like in Arizona right now,
while the picture on the right shows the kind of weather
Midwestern and Northeastern states are having.
(The image, from Flickr Commons, actually comes from
 an old visit-sunny-Florida campaign.  But it'll pass for Arizona.)
I have never, ever, enjoyed being out in icy or snowy weather.  ("But the snow's so pretty!"  So is flowing lava, but I don't want to play in it.) 
I'm a traditionalist: I want my water to be liquid.  The only time I've lived someplace that had snow in the winter was during my Army service, when I spent two and a half years assigned to Fort Lee, in southern Virginia.  That area would get a thin layer of snow and occasional icy roads for about one month out of the year.  I would barely leave the barracks for that month.  (The unit I company-clerked for had its admin offices on the first floor of the barracks building, and an attached mess hall, so just about the only time I ever had to actually go outside was to deliver the unit's daily Morning Report to Battalion HQ across the street.)
There are two types of people:  Those who want to live on Tatooine, and those who want to live on Hoth.  I'm a Tatooine man.
(There used to be three types of people, but... well, we don't like to talk about Alderan.)


Remembering Al's

(This originally appeared as a comment on a Jo Walton post at tor.com.)

Back in my teens, when I was first really getting into science fiction, the go-to used bookstore in Phoenix, AZ, was Al's Used Books. Al's was in a shabby building in a bad part of town with bad parking. But it was a big storefront; where the average used-book bookstore held maybe 10,000 or so books, Al's held 300,000. The space inside, except for narrow aisles, was completely filled with bookcases, tables, and floor-to-high-ceiling shelves on the walls. There were scattered fluorescent lights on the ceiling, but most illumination came from the big windows at the front of the store. The floors were bare concrete, no tile or carpet. If you'd asked for a cup of coffee there, they would have called the police to report the lunatic that had wandered into the store.

If you were looking for a specific title, Al's wasn't where you wanted to go. The proprietors sorted books by genre and that was it; books to be shelved were shoved into the closest available space in that genre section. When you went book-hunting at Al's, you hunted.

But for someone still fairly new to SF, looking thru those shelves and shelves and shelves of science-fiction paperbacks (hardcovers were a fairly small minority of the available selection) was kind of wonderful. Because you could go into Al's with two or three titles in mind to look for, and by the time you staggered up to the cash register several hours later you'd have made a couple of dozen serendipitous discoveries you hadn't known you wanted.

(This was in the late 60's/early 70's, long enough ago that you could eventually see almost every paperback since the start of paperback publishing a few decades earlier pass thru Al's. If not on one trip, then possibly on the next few trips there.)

I eventually got out of the (inconvenient) habit of going to Al's, shifting to newer and newer books as I got older. But I still held fond memories of the many books I'd discovered there. So it was still a shock when, sometime in the 80's, I happened to be back in that bad neighborhood on other business... and saw the storefront where Al's had been was now selling used appliances instead of used books. (Part of that shock was because I wasn't the only local SF fan who'd been a regular customer of Al's, and I would kind of have expected to hear of Al's closing a lot earlier.)

Not Al's, but this looks a lot like
the shopping-at-Al's experience.


My Year In 2013

And why not add my own gobbet of spit to the year's-end tsunami of "Best of" lists and retrospectives for 2013?

2013, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

Start with the Bad:  The biggie for the year was recovering, such as it was, from the bad arm break and shoulder injury from December 2012.  I wrote a series of posts throughout the year (see all the "The Arm" posts here) detailing the various ups and downs on that front.  At year's end, I still have trouble and pain from that shoulder; if I don't remember to take a couple of hefty aspirin/Tylenol tablets several times a day, I notice.  Oh, how I notice.  (A small pillbox is now an obligatory part of my pants-pocket inventory, along with wallet and car keys.) 

Range of motion and strength for the arm are still significantly compromised.   I figure I can still do about 80% of what I used to without more than mild discomfort, then about another 10% involving stronger reaching and grabbing and lifting that I can do but have to work thru discomfort/pain to do so.  And then the last 10% beyond that, which the arm just plain Don't Do Dat Shit No More.

It is what it is.  I deal with it.  But sometimes I deal with it by feeling broken and fragile and old.

Which leads into the Ugly:  In 2013 I got yet another year older.   This happens every damn year.  What is up with that shit?  In a sensible universe, you'd be able to skip that whole aging schtick once in a while.  Somewhere, there's got to be a button you can click for a drop-down menu that includes "Stop Aging" or even "Get Younger" options.  I'm getting a little tired of looking in the mirror to see some grumpy-looking old guy with a receding hairline and advancing wrinklage looking back.

But, hey, let's end this post with something a little more upbeat, the Good:  2013 was the year when I started writing and marketing fiction again on a moderately regular basis, after falling out of the practice back around 2006.  Ironically, it was in large part because of the broken arm and subsequently being off work for months that I started up again.  I've found myself enjoying the process again, enough that I've tried to continue writing even since going back to work at the end of July.

Concurrent with starting to write fiction again, I seemed to enjoy reading more this last year.  I've delved into the explosion of self/indie-published books that have come out the past few years.  That experience has been mixed.  I've found a few gems, some pretty decent books, but also a large proportion of books that should have been worked over and rewritten more before publishing, and *sigh* a few that just made me cringe.

(The self-published work I enjoyed most this past year was THE DIRTY PARTS OF THE BIBLE by Sam Torode, a picaresque bildungsroman set in 1930's Hobo America with a slight supernatural element.  My own review here.)

Among works from traditional publishers, I found myself reading ebook versions, or listening to audiobooks, more than printed hardcovers or paperbacks.  Primarily this is because I have my smartphone within easy reach on my belt almost every waking moment; with several reading apps installed on the phone, I have access to a choice of books -- there are about 50-60 books downloaded to the phone at the moment, plus I can borrow library ebooks and audiobooks via the Overdrive app --  without having to carry around an additional bulkier object to read during free moments.  Convenience trumps physicality.

My favorite traditionally-published books this year was an older one from 2001, Pat Murphy's ADVENTURES IN TIME AND SPACE WITH MAX MERRIWELL.  It was fun to read.  This 2010 review by Tansy Rayner Roberts says pretty much everything I'd say in a review of my own.

And so ends 2013.


(I've mentioned it before, but Tatsuya Ishida's SINFEST
is one of my favorite webcomics, including the traditional year's-end sequence
\when Death goes on the hunt for Father Time.
Big archive, large cast of characters, long backstories,
and multiple plotlines, but worth the effort to get into.)