Santa Explained

Over at the BBC, The Infinite Monkey Cage guys explain how Santa can deliver to so many homes in so little time.  Don't miss the comments, which raise some interesting issues.  (What happens to reindeer poop when it's travelling at near-FTL speeds?)

Audio version available here.


The 14th Doctor...

...should definitely be female.

Our housemate Tabbi likes to dress up on occasion.

I think this could be described as "Doctor Who Chique'".  (Tabbi's a big Who fan.)  I'd define that as, not necessarily duplicating the actual wardrobe from the tv series, but its flavor.  A varied mix of out of period clothing and/or clashing styles (bow-tie plus sneakers) that nonetheless works and looks good.  (Weird-good, sometimes, but good.)

Slow Words: Looking For Ebooks

(An earlier version of this post appeared as a comment on SF SIGNAL, where the question "How do you find good self-published ebooks?" was asked.)

I use my smartphone for reading ebooks, with apps for Nook and Kindle. I also use Overdrive to borrow ebooks from my local library. The smartphone screen is close enough to a paperback size that I don’t have trouble reading off it; other people find it difficult.

This is a habit I’ve only picked up in the last couple of years, but I find myself reading a lot more ebooks than hardcopy books nowadays.

Finding good self-published books: Sometimes a struggle. Easiest way is to keep an eye on experienced writers who are, more and more, bringing out their rights-reverted backlist as ebooks. (Walter Jon Williams, one of my favorite writers, has brought out most of his backlist as ebooks, including the non-sf nautical adventure novels from the start of his career.) You can catch up on a lot of older books this way, and the numbers are increasing.

Sorting thru new self-published works is a lot harder.

Ratings on Amazon and Goodreads are generally useless. Even the most awful books get mostly four or five stars. I think the psychology behind this is that giving three stars or less makes you a meanie, and people don’t want to be seen as a meanie.

Actual Amazon/Goodreads reviews are a little better, but not by much. Too many of the reviews fall into the same four-or-five-stars mental trap, and give gushing approval for writing that clearly doesn’t deserve it. I find it actually better to read the three-star reviews, when there are any; they tend to give a much more realistic idea what one can expect to find in a book.

There are a number of ongoing attempts to establish websites devoted to legitimate and intelligent reviews of self-published books, but none of them seem to have really gained a reputation or foothold yet.

My occasional column here, “The Brave Free Books”, reviews mostly-ebooks that I’ve gotten for free from author’s promotions, drawings, or other sources. I tend to follow a “toughlove” model of reviewing, so some books get high marks (Sam Torode's novel THE DIRTY PARTS OF THE BIBLE, for one example), while others… don’t (but get a lengthy explanation why their work was sub-par). Also, I’m a meanie.

Amazon’s “Look Inside”, and similar features elsewhere, is your biggest friend in the search for good self-published books. Being able to read a sample has saved me time and disappointment on multiple occasions.

Other things to look at are the covers and marketing blurbs. If a blurb is poorly written or boring, the book probably will be too. (This recent post dealt with the writing of blurbs, and why some failed and others succeeded in piquing my interest.)

A decently designed cover is a promising sign. If a writer is willing to take the time and effort to make the packaging presentable and professional, it may mean they also took the time and effort to make the book’s content worthwhile as well. (This doesn’t always prove true. One of the fantasy books I reviewed had a spectacularly good cover, but I was only able to read three chapters before giving up on the effort.)

Looking for good self-published works is a lot like looking thru a slushpile. Both follow a similar bell curve: On one end, there’s a fairly small (but memorable) amount of the extremely awful my-god-what-were-they-thinking flat out BAD books. Then there’s a big climb up a hill of Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time books, with clear problems in structure, plotting, characterization etc, books that needed a rethink or rewrite before they should have been published. Then the other half of that big hill, the As-Good-As books, works that are “competent”, that are “okay”, but that don’t have a distinctive voice, don’t do anything new or fresh, that are essentially imitative, and that in the end can best be categorized as “meh”. And finally the other small end of that bell curve, where the books are satisfying, well-crafted, and memorable.

It would be nice if sorting the wheat from the chaff involved less effort on my part, or if there were trustworthy sources to do a lot of that pre-sorting for me.  But the self-publishing world is still pretty much in its Wild West, Gold Rush hullabaloo days, so all the above is pretty much how I'm stuck doing it for now.   I expect changes in coming years, but I'm sure not going to place any bets on what form they'll take.


Christmas Baking: Gingersnaps

I've been making these gingersnaps around Christmas for several years, since Molly Birnbaum published the recipe on her blog My Madeleine.  I like gingersnaps in general, and these are the best version I've found.  The inclusion of whole-wheat flour in addition to white flour gives an extra richness to the flavor and texture.

Adapted from Kim Boyce(and Amy Scattergood)’s Good to the Grain

Wet ingredients:
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsulfured molasses (not blackstrap)
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 egg

Dry ingredients:
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon clove
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

To finish:
1/2 cup sugar

Mix together the melted butter, sugars, molasses, ginger, and egg.  Sift the dry ingredients into the same bowl.  Stir to form a batter.  Wrap the dough in plastic and chill for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, positioning two racks to the upper and lower third.  Grease two baking sheets.  Pour the final 1/2 cup of sugar into a bowl.

Pluck pieces of dough around one tablespoon in size, toss in the bowl of sugar, and then roll into balls.  Toss each ball back into the sugar for a second time, rolling them around until, as Boyce says, “they are sparkly white.”  Place each on the baking sheets, leaving at least 2 inches between them all. 

Bake for 10 – 15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the cookies are dark in color and even all the way across.  When out of the oven, immediately transfer to a cooling rack with a metal spatula. These cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to three days.  (That is, if they last that long.)

(Hint: The fresh ginger I had was fibrous enough it didn't want to grate well.  I minced it instead, then put the minced ginger and melted butter in the blender and pureed long enough to chop the ginger even more finely.)



A Little Flash Fiction For Christmas

by Bruce Arthurs

I'd never put up any Christmas decorations before.  But for Halloween, I always hollow out the middle of a pumpkin and stick a lit candle inside.  So I hollowed out an elf.



In the mail the other day came an unexpected Christmas surprise: A certificate from the Writers Guild of America, west, congratulating me for being one of the people whose work contributed to the "101 Best Written TV Series" list the WGAw recently compiled.  I got one of these certificates because of "Clues", the ST:TNG episode I wrote nearly 23 years ago.  This is pretty damn cool; I may frame this sucker and put it up on the wall.

Over on FILE 770, there's a photo of Scott Marc Zicree holding up his own certificate (also for work on ST:TNG), with a shit-eating grin on his face.  I'll settle for just this picture of the certificate and the list on the WGAw's website, but yeah, I got me one of those grins too.


Life After Dog

I finally remembered to stop by our vet's office and pick up the ashes for Madam Mim, our 14-year old Corgi we had put to sleep a while back.

She was a presence in our home for a long time.  It still feels a little odd to not have her lying at my feet whenever I sit down at the computer, or to have to step over or around her when she was sleeping (as usual) in a pathway.

I still catch myself starting to call out "Mim! Treat!" whenever I drop a bit of food in the kitchen.  Then I remember, and have to clean it up myself.



Slow Words: Some Thoughts About Self-Blurbing and Self-Promotion

Over on John Scalzi's Whatever blog, this week features his annual Holiday Shopping Guide, where he lets people post promotional comments and suggestions for holiday gifts.  Tuesday's category, 12/3/13, was for Non-Traditionally Published books.

Reading over the comments posted there by writers trying to promote their books, one thing is certain:  Writing blurbs is hard work.

From nearly 300 suggestions, I came up with a list of slightly over a dozen books that I'll probably take to Amazon and use its Look Inside! feature to get a closer look at before I decide to take a chance or not on actually buying any.

(With some traditional publishers and/or established authors, their previous track record can probably give a measure of reassurance that a book will be competently written and edited.  With so many writers in the self-publishing explosion of the past few years having only been self-published, doing a double-check to make sure they can write and spell on a non-embarrassing level is probably a good idea.  If you've been reading my occasional "The Brave Free Books" review posts, you know that some of the self-published books out there can get pretty, umm, non-rewarding to read.)

So only about 1 in 20 of the promos on Whatever caught my interest enough to want to check them out a bit more.  Not a great success rate, and I suspect I'm probably more generous than most in making such a follow-up list.  Why did one blurb work in catching my interest, and another nineteen didn't?

I'm an old, grumpy guy who's been reading SF and Fantasy for over fifty years.  So I'm kinda familiar with the standard plots and characters and tropes that have been used over and over in the field for generations.  What I try to look for these days, what I still hope for, is those works where the writer still manages to make a story seem fresh and different from the same old same old that constitutes the majority of books and stories published.

Sometimes that happens because a writer manages to present an especially vivid character or setting.  Sometimes it's because a plot takes unexpected twists and turns.  Sometimes it's because of a writer's particular "voice" or style in the sentence by sentence presentation.  Sometimes it's because of an injection of sheer what-the-fuckery and I just want to see if the writer can actually pull it off.

(Think of an average novel as a high-dive into a swimming pool.  Think of a better-than-average novel as a high-dive with a triple somersault on the way down.  Think of a novel with that WTFery I mentioned as a high-dive with a triple somersault while the diver also  sets themselves on fire and play "In-A-Gadda-La-Vida" on an accordion on the way down.  That last diver might crash spectacularly, but damn, I want to watch them try.)

So when I read a book blurb, I don't want to just be told what genre it is, I don't want just a general outline of the plot or a quick description of the main character, I don't just want to know what the book is like.   I want to know how a book is going to be different, I want to know how it's going to surprise me, how it's going to be something new for me.

Those nineteen-out-of-twenty failed blurbs?  When you come right down to it, they failed because they didn't communicate that difference or freshness I look for.  They failed because they bored me.

So how do you write a blurb that isn't boring?  Hey, I said it was hard, didn't I?

(One specific suggestion though:  Don't compare your book to other writer's books.  If you tell me your book is "like" someone else's, I'm probably going to think you're still searching for a voice and style of your own.  And if you tell me your book is like Fifty Shades of Grey... well, thanks for the warning.)

One of the other common suggestions found on self-promotion articles and blog posts is that you not only need to promote the actual book, but also promote yourself as an interesting person and writer.  Most of the self-blurbs made to the Whatever post failed to do this.  The best self-blurb there, though, the one that most caught my interest, did it very well indeed.  B. Thorn's post there said:

My e-novel “A Stringed Instrument” is up on Smashwords ($4.99, first 25% available as a free sample). It’s a modern-day romance story about two Australian women who fall into bed first and in love afterwards. 
You should buy it if you’re interested in the tensions of a closeted relationship and the contradictions of falling in love with somebody outside your orientation. Or if you want a story that combines affectionate erotica with plot and a little bit of humour. Or if you want my recipe for chicken soup. 
But the #1 reason you should buy it is that somebody told my very respectable aunt about it, and she bought it, and her first words to me were “So THAT’S what lesbians do in bed. I always wondered.” If enough of you buy it, that will help me live with the knowledge that somewhere out there my aunt is reading this and learning far too much about my personal life.  
P.S. Having lunch with my aunt on December 29. No pressure.

It tells enough, but not too much, about the plot.  And then it adds that little bit of WTF with the mention of "my recipe for chicken soup."  And then B. Thorn tells the anecdote about her aunt.  That not only establishes a bit of connection to B. Thorn's personal life, but it's so charmingly and amusingly told that it lets me know B. Thorn can  a) tell a good story, and b) that she has a "voice" of her own.  Contemporary romance is not a genre I usually read, but this particular post piqued my interest enough that I'll definitely check into the book a bit more.

(I've decided to use "Slow Words" as an uber-label for posts about writing and self-publishing for a while.  As always, I reserve the right to be inconsistent and changeable.)


The OTHER Broken Website

(Cautionary note: grumpiness ahead.)

With all the hoo-hah over the problems with the ACA's healthcare.gov website, the problems with another important website seem to have gotten little attention.  I'm talking about the "re-design" of the Science Fiction Book Club's website that was introduced several months ago.

(I call the SFBC site "important" because I've been a member of SFBC for over forty years, have bought probably a literal truckload of books from them over those decades, and it's been the source of a lot of books I and/or Hilde have enjoyed reading.  So, yeah, "important".)

Besides the general uglification of the website (what is it with the trend in the last few years to make webpages have more whitespace, use larger fonts and fewer words, make images bigger, and for some reason usually make the pages load or refresh more slowly?), there are a number of problems with the new design that range from annoying to crippling.  I made a list:
  • Items on your old wishlist no longer show price information.
  • The old wishlist items are still there, but the old "Add To Wishlist" buttons are missing.  You can't add anything to your wishlist, and if you remove an item from the wishlist, you can't put it back on.  The "Move To Wishlist" buttons on shopping cart selections have also gone walkabout.
  • When you try to browse selections, the new website sends you to a page where you have to pick and choose between various categories.  There's no "Browse All" option to look at their complete list.
  • When you do choose a category to browse, a lot of items not in that category are included in the results.  And not even necessarily in the sf/fantasy genre at all; a lot of general-history and military-history books show up in SFBC's results.
  • When you try to sort listings by "Author Name", it sorts them by the author's first name.
  • When you try to sort by "Release Date", it lists the oldest books first.
That list comes from the first time I tried the new website, in late September.  The list had one other problem -- book listings didn't link to an author's name or other books -- that actually seems to have been fixed.  Everything else on the list is still a problem when I tried using the site again several times in the past several days.

The site now seems to have an even bigger problem, one that makes it unusable for me:  Every time a webpage changes, it cancels my sign-in.  I literally have to sign-in again on every damned page.  The frustration level is so high when I try to browse offerings, or add books to the shopping cart, or God forbid actually try to checkout and give them my money, I just give up from exhaustion before I can complete a purchase.

(I was able to actually add books to the shopping cart, finally, by using my smartphone rather than the desktop computer.  So the new website works with an Android OS, but not with Windows?  But I don't like sending payments over the phone, and haven't been able to get that far with the desktop.)

The re-design went into effect a few months ago.  Are these problems affecting all SFBC members, or are they just particular to me?  Because if the problems are hindering a lot of members, I kind of expected to hear someone else's howls of outrage before now.

Or are old-fashioned hardcopy book clubs becoming passé, and frustrated members are just shifting their shopping to new-fangled, and frequently less expensive, ebooks rather than bothering to complain about the SFBC's problems?

(These same problems also seem to apply to SFBC's sister website for Quality Paperback Book Club, where I've also been a long-time member.)


Computer Woe

Looks like the motherboard on the old house desktop up and died a few days ago.  I've had a new desktop with better memory and other features sitting in a box for a while until I had time to get it set up.  I guess this is that time.

The regularly irregular posting schedule will resume shortly.


The JFK Assassination and I

In 1963, I was eleven years old.  I don't recall the JFK assassination being reported in school that day.  I remember getting home from school to find the TV on and my mother in front of it, watching the breaking reportage.

At eleven years old, I'd like to think I was old enough to feel shock, grief, anxiety, or uncertainty abut what the future might bring.

No such luck, folks.  The major feeling I remember from those days of non-stop television coverage was on Saturday morning, when my Saturday morning cartoons weren't broadcast.  I was shocked.  I was outraged.

At eleven, I should have been at least starting to get a sense of belonging to the outside world.  I should have paid at least some attention to more than comics and television and (occasionally) school.

But  my priorities then weren't what I now wish they'd been.  I was a self-centered little git.  I pay more attention to government and politics now.  (Though I must admit that sometimes I feel it's more from a sense of self-defense than actual interest).



Because cats, Internet.  Never the twain shall separate.




The Problem With Polyester

I used to have no problem wearing polyester or other synthetic fabrics, but I seem to have developed an increasing sensitivity to synthetics over the years.  I was reminded of this at work recently when the weather cooled and I switched from my usual all-cotton shorts to the polyester dress pants issued as part of the uniform.  After several nights wearing the dress pants, I noticed a fairly extensive rash on my legs.

I've noticed a similar rash developing under the upper cuffs of my socks, which are mostly cotton but have synthetic fibers and elastic in the upper areas.

This seems to be yet another annoyance of getting older.  Synthetic fabrics, once upon a time back in my twenties or thirties, tended to be sweaty and uncomfortable, but that was all.  Poly-cotton blends, like the uniform shirts I wore during my thirty years with the Postal Service, were tolerable for a long time.  But even the blended fabrics have been feeling itchier in more recent years; I always wear a cotton undershirt with the poly-cotton uniform shirts at my current job.

Don't really like wearing long underwear with pants, though.  I'll ask my bosses at work if getting some black cotton twill pants of my own for work would be an acceptable substitute for the polyester slacks.  As for the socks, it looks like I can get some organic cotton socks from a company called Maggie's Organics that use cotton-wrapped latex and natural rubber to keep the socks from sagging; they just cost twice as much as normal socks, *sigh*.

Probably not what they want me to wear at work.

I've actually seen this coming for a while, which is why the #2 entry on my list of Edicts To Proclaim when the Revolution comes and I'm thrust into my rightful position as Semi-Benevolent World Dictator is "#2: Polyester clothing -- BANNED!"

(Well, of course I'm going to end up as World Dictator some day.  Who else?  And when I say I'll be "Semi-Benevolent", at least you know I'll be an honest World Dictator.) (The #1 Edict will be "#1: Library overdue fines will be tax-deductible."  I keep my priorities straight, thank you.)

TusCon 2013

Hilde and the Tardis
(because Hilde would have made
a great Doctor's companion)
We made it to this year's TusCon, a small SF convention held each year in Tucson, AZ.  This year's was the 40th TusCon; we've been going since the mid-1970's, though we've missed a few scattered years for health reasons (usually when Hilde was having surgery or recovering from surgery).

It's a small convention, usually around 300-400 members.  This is about the ideal size for a convention where you know a lot of the people; small enough to actually spend a decent amount of time talking and catching up with old friends.  (The next level of convention runs about 400-800 members, where the odds of meeting new people are greater.  I find that cons over 800 people tend to be a little overwhelming; too many people, and the people you know tend to be busier and have less time to spend with you.  Over about 1500 people pretty much guarantees my staying home.  Even thinking about trying to attend a 100,000-plus event like the San Diego ComicCon fills me with horror.)

We came very close to turning around and going home right after getting to the hotel this year.  Not the convention's fault; the hotel's, the Tucson CityCenter Innsuites.  The hotel is an older one that's gone thru several changes of ownership over the years, and predates the ADA's requirements for handicapped access.  Several meeting rooms are still only accessible by steep stairs, and only one of the sleeping-room buildings has an elevator.  I knew this, so when I made our room reservations, I specified that the room either had to be one of the handicapped-accessible or at an absolute minimum had to be on the first floor.  The Tower building, with the only elevators, has the larger rooms and usually sells out first (especially when the weekend coincides with the University of Arizona's Homecoming football game, like it did this year).  I also made sure to guarantee the room with our credit card, so it wouldn't get sold out from under us if we were running late in getting there.

We got there, after a long drive made about an hour longer by multiple wrecks on Interstate 10, to find that the hotel had rented out all the first floor rooms.  The Tower building was completely sold out, and the only room available was on the second floor of one of the non-accessible buildings.

To say I was pissed is a bit of an understatement.  Adding to that pissitude was the attitude of the desk clerks, which boiled down to "Too bad."

If it hadn't been for the fact that we've known a lot of the regular TusCon attendees for a long time, we might very well have had to get back in the car and drive back to Phoenix that same night.  But we decided to at least say hello to some of the people we knew there before we said goodby.  And one of those old friends, Gay Miller, had a Tower room with elevator access, and was willing to swap into the second floor walk-up room offered by the hotel.  So we ended up being able to stay for the weekend after all.

No thanks to the hotel.  For one last bit of annoyance, when we checked out Sunday afternoon, the desk clerk, one of the same people on the desk Friday night, said "Thank you for cooperating with us to solve your room problem."  That left me speechless (probably a good thing, because the words that came to me later weren't polite).  There wasn't any "cooperation" involved.  The room problem was solved solely between us and Gay.   Except for "allowing" us to swap the rooms, the hotel did nothing to resolve the room problem; zip, zero, nada.

If the CityCenter Innsuites wasn't the hotel TusCon's been at for about the last ten years and probably will continue to be for at least several more years, I'd never go back again.

(While I'm on a good rolling rant about the hotel, I might as well mention that this was the first year where I've really started to notice how run-down the hotel's rooms and furnishings are getting.  All the chairs and furniture had torn upholstery or damaged edges, a nightstand drawer was missing its pull knob, about half the light fixtures were missing their lightbulbs, and the carpet had a noticeable sour smell; I think a previous resident of the room probalby vomited on the floor, and while it might have been wiped up, it never really got cleaned up.)

Once we got the hotel problem solved, the rest of TusCon was its usual enjoyable weekend.  We caught up with a lot of old friends like Gay, Curt Stubbs, Jim Webbert, Alice & Marty Massoglia, Gary Swaty, Jennifer Roberson, Liz Danforth, Letitia Rhodes, and others.  We also saw Bear Peters, Good Guy At Large, for the first time in I think at least fifteen years.

We don't usually see much of TusCon's programming (the upstairs meeting rooms cut our options considerably), but what we did see we enjoyed, along with the dealer's room and art show.  (For its size, TusCon tends to have a pretty impressive art show.)  We also spent time in the Con Suite, and at the Dark Ones party.  (The Dark Ones put on the annual DarkCon in Mesa.  We're thinking of trying to make it to the next DarkCon in January.)

The Tardis pictured above was built by members of an Arizona Doctor Who fan group, who had a table in the dealers room. 

And... home again Sunday afternoon.  (I had to work Sunday night.)



So this is what they mean by "starving artists"?

(This early version of The Grateful Dead dates from 1893.  From the National Archives of the UK, via The Commons on Flickr.)

And I found out today that the residual problems with my shoulder and arm now means trying to carve the annual pumpkin for Halloween here... hurts.  (It turns out pumpkin-carving uses a lot of upper-arm and shoulder movements, a lot of which fall outside the arm's comfort zone now.  Yes, this kinda sucks.) I usually try to do something fairly fancy and complicated with a pumpkin, but today I had to settle for a fairly simple and traditional eyes-nose-mouth design.  Even then, after cutting out the lid and scopping the insides, I ended up asking one of our housemates to do the facial cutouts.  Bummer.


Slow Words: A Manifesto for the Unprofessional Writer

Since edging back into fiction writing after breaking my arm last December, I've been reading a lot of on-line commentary about being a successful writer, both in regard to self-publishing and to the more traditional pathways to success.

I find myself a little uncomfortable with the most common interpretations of "successful".  These seem to involve (but not necessarily limited to):  Writing every day.  Writing a minimum number of words every day.  Writing a million words before your first sale.  Writing a novel.  Writing a series of novels.  Being paid for your writing.  Building a fan base with social media. Getting an agent. Reviews.  Having lots of readers. Qualifying for SFWA membership.  Making a living with your writing.  Award nominations. Awards.  Guest of Honor invitations.  The envy of others.

I think a lot of this loses sight of the primary goal of writing.  And that goal, that success, doesn't necessary involve any of the above.  You don't have to write every day, you don't have to make money with your writing, you don't even have to market it or publish it at all.  A lot of this confuses "successful" with "professional".

If you want to write every day, if you want to write ____ words per day, if you want to write novels or series or ten-volume trilogies*, if you want to have lots of readers for your work, if you want to earn an actual living from your writing, fine.  Great.   You want to be a professional writer.  Go for it.

But that's not why everyone who writes, writes.  Right? 

To be a successful writer, you only have to do one thing:

Write a good story.

That's it.  That's all you have to do.

If you're writing, the only audience you have to satisfy is yourself.

If you only ever write one good story, you're a successful writer.  Even if that story's manuscript goes into a drawer and is never read by anyone else.

Everything else is optional.  Publication, payment, readers, reviews, etcetera, are great; they can be considered "more successful", if you want.  But it's that initial act of creation, that bringing forth of something you consider worthwhile, that's the basis, the foundation, the rock on which everything else is built.

Write a good story.  That's all you have to do.

I don't write every day.  I don't write quickly.  I don't write novels.  When I've tried doing the "professional" thing, the results turn stiff.  Clunky.  The words become something I don't want to read.  The writing becomes anhedonic, something I can take no joy in.  The "professional" thing doesn't seem to work for me.

When I write something, I don't want it to be a  job.

That may make me an amateur, a hobbyist, a dilettante, an unprofessional.  But you know what?  That's just fine.  Because the stories I do write are usually good stories, and sometimes even damned good stories.  That not only makes me a writer, it makes me a successful writer.

A manifesto needs a list, and I've been making a few notes towards a set of guidelines and inspirations for those unprofessional** writers like me who don't write every day, don't always finish what we start, and don't overly fret or worry about marketing, publicity or other after-story concerns. 

So, the Slow Words Manifesto, Version 1.0:
  1. Write a good story.
  2. Write what you can, when you can, the best you can.
  3. Most story revision should take place before the first word is put to paper. 
  4. Story progress trumps word-count.
  5. Some stories aren't ready to be born.  Let them wait.
  6. Procrustes is not a role model.  Let a story find its own length.
  7. Don't "dare to write badly" if you can't recognize bad writing.
  8. There will always be other writers better than you.  So what?
  9. Read.  Read a lot.  Read widely.  Read with a critical eye.  Try to figure out why what you enjoy reading works, and what you don't doesn't.
  10. Write a good story.  (You can't say that too many times.)
I may expand on some of these pithyisms in future posts.

*These were five-volume trilogies twenty or thirty years ago, but, y'know, inflation.

**(My God, Bruce, how can you apply a nasty label like "unprofessional" to yourself?)   Because I'm not a professional in much of any standard way other than sometimes people will pay money to publish what I've written. Because "unprofessional" is a word that can be applied to part-timers, amateurs, and hobbyists. Because I resent that it's used as a term of disregard in so many instances. So I'm putting in a claim on "unprofessional", because "professional" has nothing to do with writing a good story.)

(photo from Smithsonian Institution, via The Commons on Flickr)


Some Men Just Want To Watch The World Burn

I'm just a little pissed at the current status of hostage negotiations in Washington, DC.  No, "pissed" doesn't cover it.  I'm enraged.

Are we really -- REALLY? -- going to let a batch of crazed extremists set off a fiscal bomb that may cripple, not just the American economy, but the world economy?   Because they think poor people don't deserve medical care?

This isn't just lunacy.  It's criminal lunacy.

Words like "extortion" and "sedition" have been used to describe the Tea Party congressmen behind this situation.  I think those words have meaning.  I think those words are accurate in this situation.

Those words are also the names of actual crimes.  I believe the Tea Party faction of Congress are criminals, with criminal intent, and actually in the process of committing criminal acts.

Which means it's not John Boehner who can put an end to this.  It's not President Obama.  It's this guy:


That is Kim Dine, Chief of the US Capitol Police.  It's his job to uphold the law, keep the peace, and protect the public on the grounds of the US Capitol.

There are crimes being committed in your jurisdiction, Chief Dine.  It's in progress at this very moment.   It's on your watch.  It falls under your authority.

You have a duty to uphold the law.  You have an obligation to protect the country.  You have an oath to honor.

Arrest these criminals, Chief Dine.  You have the authority, you have the duty, you have the moral and legal obligation.  Do your  job.  Save this country.  Save the world.

- - - - -

"Wait, what?  You can't arrest Congressmen!"

Really?  Because here's a photo of Congressman Raul Grivalda being arrested on October 8th:

Grivalda was arrested for taking part in an immigration protest and blocking traffic.   But there are dozens of Tea Party Republicans blocking the entire governmental process, and nothing is happening to them

That is unconscionable.  I want to see these criminal bastards in handcuffs, in custody, and in prison.

- - - - -

Well, I said I was enraged, didn't I?

For a unicorn chaser from a calmer voice, An American Editor has a very interesting post about "The Illogical Republican".  AAE usually posts about the business of being a professional editor, but in this particular post he uses that professional perpective to speculate that Tea Party extremists may lack a capacity for effective "self-editing" of their thoughts and beliefs.  Essentially, Tea Partiers have brains filled with bad writing.


The Government Shutdown Hits Home

We've been pretty lucky in that the government shutdown hasn't hit us directly up to now.  There are government resources we've used in the past that aren't available at the moment, but we're also not in dire need of them right now.

Our son Chris moved back from Nevada and in with us a few months ago.  He's been working as a security guard for years, but took Pharmaceutical Technician courses last year and did well in them.  He's been applying to pharmacy positions since he moved back in here, but hasn't had any luck so far.  So he decided to go back to security work again to have some income.

He applied to the same contract-security firm that several of our housemates work for, and was accepted.  But he had to renew his Arizona security guard license first.  He sent in his renewal application and fee just before the federal shutdown began.

The license renewal required a background check.  Whoops!  It turns out the federal database the background check goes through isn't unavailable while the shutdown lasts, but apparently the support system (actual humans) around that database has been reduced to essential personnel, causing a significant slowdown.  No wonder the new license (application processing usually takes about a week) hasn't shown up in the mail yet.  No estimate available on when it might

Besides affecting Chris, I presume this applies to anyone newly applying for security work with a firm that contracts out its services.  So unless you already have an up-to-date license, you can't get hired for most security positions without a long wait.

(This doesn't apply to me in my own security job, because my workplace hires most of its security personnel directly, rather than contracting with other companies.  No license required in that case.)



Over at Mess Nessy Chic, there's a cool photo gallery of old bookmobiles.

This one looks a lot like the inside of the bookmobile that came around the neighborhood each summer when I was growing up in the late 1950's and early 60's..

My primary source for books back then was my grade school library.  But the school library was closed during summer, and the city library was too far away to ride there on my bike.  So the bookmobiles that were sent around to outlying parts of the city each summer were lifesavers.

Since then, Phoenix and its outlying communities have established a number of smaller library branches around the metro area, so the bookmobiles aren't around any more.  (There are programs for shut-ins who can't get even to the branch libraries, allowing them to request books and have them delivered by mail.)

In their time, though, the bookmobiles were sort of the equivalent of the Internet.  If you couldn't get to a library or a bookstore, the books would come to your neighborhood.

Googling a bit, I find there now exists the Overdrive Digital Bookmobile, a travelling exhibit in a large tractor-trailer that travels from city to city, showing library patrons how to use the Overdrive program to download e-books and audiobooks from their local library system.  I use Overdrive frequently for the books I read on my smartphone.

(I also found out last week that an update to Overdrive now allows me to directly download audiobooks to the smartphone, which hadn't been possible before.   Whoo-hoo!  Used it last weekend to listen to Iain Bank's Player of Games while making my rounds at work.)

early bookmobile, Cincinnati, 1927

(link to Mess Nessy Chic via Regan Wolfrom's Speculative Fiction Writing Wroundup)


"Lucky 7" Cancelled, Because The Stupid

From EW comes news of the first cancellation of the latest TV season's new shows, "Lucky 7", about a group of co-workers who win a $45-million dollar lottery.  It was cancelled after only two episodes airing.

Predicting the cancellation was a pretty easy call.  I didn't watch either of the episodes, but from the promo ads I saw, the show made a fatal error in concept: It showed a bunch of ordinary schmoes having a truckload of money dropped in their laps, and their lives didn't get any better.  And got worse and more complicated, even.  (It looked from one promo that one of the characters was in trouble with a bunch of gang members even before the winning draw.)

The great appeal of Powerball, Mega Millions, and the other lottery games out there is this: We all believe, or at very least want to believe, that if we get a truckload of money dropped in our lap, our lives will get better.  The basic premise of "Lucky 7" (and of a very similar show, "Windfall", some years back, also cancelled quickly), that winning a lottery will make our lives complicated, painful and dangerous, is... I think this is an appropriate word... blasphemous.

The middle-class, the disadvantaged, the working poor, the people who actually buy the vast majority of real-life lottery tickets, don't want to see that story.  They don't want to see people like themselves screwing it up when good fortune strikes.  That's a lousy story from the git-go.  It's a horrible story to tell anyone.

(What we seem to like a lot better are stories of the rich and powerful and privileged whose lives are complicated, painful, and dangerous.  This is particularly evident in reality television, prime example probably being the "Real Housewives of..." shows.)

If I was going to try and do a show about a lottery winner, I'd make it about someone whose own life not only gets better, but who uses their winnings to try and make other people's lives better.  (Something like the 1950's TV series The Millionaire, although the benefactor in that series was an eccentric millionaire rather than a lottery winner.)  Because that's one of the other fantasies real lottery players have, that we'll not only be a lucky winner, we'll be a good winner.

(Disclosure: I buy occasional lottery tickets, though I usually wait until the jackpots are in the 9-figure range.)


Last Days of the Old Dog

Madame Mim, 1999-2013
I had our dog, a Welsh Cardigan Corgi named Madame Mim, put to sleep today.

She was fourteen years old.  She was already five years old when we adopted her in 2004.  She'd been raised by a show breeder, and won several ribbons at dog shows during her early years.  She was bred several times after retiring from the show circuit, the last time with complications that left her unable to be bred again and relegating her to "pet" status.  At which point we ended up adopting her.

She'd begun having health problems the past several years, including Valley Fever and a continuing/frustrating problem with incontinence.  She'd also been losing her eyesight and hearing, and was almost completely blind and deaf by the present day.  Hilde and I had been discussing the idea of euthanasia off and on for about the last year.

The last several months, she'd begun having what I called "fugues", where she'd seem to blank out and not respond for several moments.  Senility, perhaps, or some kind of neurological problem?  I don't know. 

But it was those fugues that finally made me decide it was time she needed to go.  So I took her in to our vet's, and held her while the injection was made.  She went quietly and quickly.

It was still a hard decision.  Should I have taken her in sooner?  Should I have waited longer?  I don't know.

It's unlikely we'll ever get another dog.  Both of us tend much more to be cat-people.   And, especially the last few years, I didn't feel like I was able to give Mim as much attention as she wanted or deserved.  Plus, now that Hilde and I are both in our 60's, we can't really take in new animals without some thought about what might happen to them if we pre-decease our pets.


Writing: New Story Completed

I finished a new story last night, "Beks and the Second Note".  This is the first story I've completed since returning to work at the end of July.  I'd been worried that losing 40 hours of free time a week, plus a few more hours commute time, would be too much of a time and energy drain to keep working on fiction. Looks like it's still possible, though not easy.

Bok Beks, the narrator of the new story, is a character I've written before.  He first appeared in "Beks and the Monkey", in a chapbook-size anthology, REQUIEM FOR THE RADIOACTIVE MONKEYS, abut eight or nine years ago.  There are a couple more incomplete stories about Beks in my old files, which I may get back to if this new one manages to find a home.

The Beks stories are mysteries, not my usual SF or fantasy.  Once you get past the Ellery Queen's and Alfred Hitchcock's magazines, it's harder to find mystery/thriller short fiction markets than for SF/fantasy.  For one thing, SF/Fantasy has several sites devoted to listing current markets for short fiction.  (Thank you, ralan.com.) There doesn't seem to be a good equivalent for mystery/thriller fiction; a lot of the listings I've found have been out of date and cluttered with dead links.  So, while I think the story's good enough to eventually find a home, it may take a while.  (I'll run it through the local library's monthly writers' workshop for critique before I actually send it out.)

In related news, the latest submission for "Julius Jeremiah and the Time Machinist", the SF story I finished a few months ago, came back with a personal note saying "This one's so well-crafted that I expect you'll have no trouble finding a home for it."  I hope that's just a nice compliment, and not The Kiss of Total Fucking Death.

To explain:  Back when I first started trying to write serious fiction in 1980 (1975's "The Return of Captain Nucleus" was written as a joke; I was surprised to get a check.), that first serious story, "Glorypain", eventually went to 45 markets.  About half those markets sent back rejections essentially saying "This is a very good story.  I don't want to publish it."  (One editor wrote a three-page letter telling me how good it was... and then didn't buy it.)  It eventually got really frustrating to get that kind of rejection back, to the point where I almost preferred to get a form rejection instead.

(I stopped sending "Glorypain" out after 9/11.  A large chunk of the story was set at an airport, and I never worked up the energy to try and revise it to reflect the new security environment at airports.)

I'm enjoying writing (and completing) stories again, after a long time of inactivity occasionally punctuated by fragments, false starts, and dead ends.  I'd enjoy it even more if the new stories (and a few older ones I've dusted off and sent out again) actually started selling.  (This is me being grumpy.)

(Typewriter image from Wikimedia Commons.  Originally appeared in advertisement in Weird Tales magazine.)


Night Visitor -- On Feral cats

There are about a half-dozen feral cats on the property where I work.  Because one of the VP's there is a cat-lover, a feeding station has been set up where they can get water and food.  The company also tries to do a neuter-and-release program with as many of the ferals as they can catch.  The population shifts over time, as the older cats disappear or die, new cats come in, and the occasional litter of kittens still shows up in a drainpipe or other sheltered spot in spite of the neutering program.

Most of the ferals are highly skittish about human contact, but a couple are more trusting.  This one, a gorgeous orange tabby will sometimes come up to within a few inches if you stand still.  (The photo is B&W because the night-time lighting on the site causes color photos to shift into a ghastly palette)

Besides disease, cars and other dangers feral cats face, our property is within walking distance of a large urban mountain-preserve/park that provides home to a fair number of wild coyotes.  Occasionally a coyote or several wander out of the preserve and find their way under the property's fence.  Mostly they're looking for the rabbits that make a home on the undeveloped acreage or by the driving range, but I've seen them stalking an occasional cat a few times.  Without success that I've witnessed, but that may be because while a cat may resemble a funny-looking rabbit, it's a funny-looking rabbit with a bad attitude and its own fangs and claws.  (It may also be that, in the case of some of the ferals who disappeared, the body wasn't left behind to be found.)

It's hard to socialize adult feral cats (why the neutered ones are put back where they came from), but if you can get one of the kittens young enough they can adapt easily to being a household cat.  (One of our Very Best Cats from about thirty years ago, a big old guy we named Sir Kay, came from a feral mother's litter.)

Update, 9/15/13:  Here's a post-sunrise color shot of the orange tabby:


BOOK REVIEW: Stealing Into Winter, by Graeme Talboys

I've gotten pretty jaded with fantasy novels over the years.  There are tropes and plot devices and character types that have been used over and over.  It's hard to find a new one that keeps my interest.

This one worked.  Even though the main character is a thief (how many times have we seen that in fantasy before?), the opening segment caught my interest.  We first see Jeniche in a prison dungeon as it starts to collapse around her, the result of an invading army shelling the city.  Between dodging falling stonework and having to fight another, psychopathic, prisoner in her effort to fully escape, the segment is breakneck, non-stop action, very well done.  It hooked me in.

Subsequent chapters begin to fill out the world Jeniche lives in.  It's an old world, largely fallen to pre-industrial levels.  (There are exceptions, like the dirigibles that show up late in the story.)  Ancient ruins, worn and eroded, are common, and one section takes place in a long-abandoned city now buried beneath desert sands.  This story may actually take place in a far-future, fallen Earth; there's a passing mention of huge windowless buildings that makes anyone who approaches too closely sicken and die.  (Nuclear power plants?)

What I liked about Talboys writing is that he doesn't explain everything.  The city of Makamba, where the story begins, is built up slowly in the reader's mind.  We learn some of Jeniche's backstory, and that of the other characters, but not all of it, and it's not delivered in a lump, but slowly, a bit at a time.   The buried city, and the world's deep past, remain largely a mystery.

One thing that some readers might find disconcerting is that there are time breaks between chapters.  Stuff happens during those time breaks, and it's revealed by subsequent dialogue and interactions between Jeniche and the group of monks and nuns she finds herself aiding in an epic journey across the world, pursued by elements of the same army that invaded Makamba.

I didn't mind that technique.  It made me pay closer attention to what was said, and how the characters acted towards each other.  If Talboys made me work a little to keep track of what was going on, and to figure out some of the backstory and history, I enjoyed the effort, and I'm hoping to see further volumes of Jeniche's story, and to learn more about her history and the forgotten history of the world she lives in.

(And it turns out, as I double-check info before posting this, that the second book, Exile & Pilgrim, is available for the Amazon Kindle.  There's also a hardcopy version, available from Amazon.uk.)

Stealing Into Winter, Graeme K. Talboys, 240 pages, Roundfire Books, 2012.


Grumpy Man

Interesting what you can do with your lower face when you leave your dentures out, no?

I had to shave off my beard again (my awesone, awesome, beard! *sob*) when I went back to work, but I decided to try leaving the moustache on.

Besides the obvious current resemblance to an Internet meme, when the moustache was still a bit thin, looking at myself in the mirror kept leaving me with an urge to tell people not to squeeze the Charmin:


And when it gets a bit fuller yet, there'll probably be a resemblance to yet another moustachioed gentleman:



The Brave Free Books -- August 2013

Being an occasional/monthly review of books and ebooks I've read for free, either through author/publisher promotions, giveaways or sweepstakes, or just because the authors value readers over income.

Some General Thoughts About Self-Publishing/Indie Publishing

I've been reading some of the free indie-published books available for a few months now.  Some of the books have been worthwhile, and wouldn't have been a surprise to see traditionally published.  Others... have problems.

There's a lot of advice, and a lot of "advice", out there about self-publishing.  A lot of it deals with marketing strategies, but that's putting the cart before the horse.

The first priority, the major priority, indeed the only priority until it's accomplished is this: Write a good story.

I take a lot of the conventional wisdom about learning to write that good story with a large grain of salt.  You don't have to "write a million words first".   You don't have to "write every day".  Et bloody cetera.

To write a good story, you have to read.  You have to read a lot.  You have to read widely.  You have to read critically, with an awareness beyond just the action of the narrative, an awareness and perception of how a story or book is plotted and presented and ordered.   You have to learn, even if that learning is largely self-taught.

(I may expand on some of these thoughts in a separate post.)

What I see in some of the self-published works out there are writers who haven't learned those lessons yet, or aren't diligent in applying those lessons to their own work.

For example:

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DIESELPUNK ePULP SHOWCASE, stories by John Picha, Grant Gardiner, Bard Constantine and Jack Philpott

Editing.  It's kind of important. 

The copyright on this ebook is in John Picha's name, so I assume he was the nominal editor.  I say "nominal" because the book seems more assembled than edited.  I say this particularly because the worst story in the book is John Picha's own "Pandora Driver".

The narrative in "Pandora Driver" switches from present tense to past tense.  And back.  And back again.  And again.  And again.  Not just between sections of the story, but between paragraph, and between sentences in those paragraphs.  And even sometimes in the same sentence.

One of the reviews on Amazon mentions how this story "switches from past to present"; it seemed to be mentioning this as a feature, not a bug.  No, it's just bad writing.  It's writing that's horribly, desperately, in need of revision and rewriting.  As the tense-changes continued, and continued, and continued, I eventually felt like I was being slapped across the face with every change.

I don't generally feel angry over bad writing.  This is an exception, because the excess of this story shows disrespect.  It shows disrespect not only to me as a reader, but it shows Picha's own disrespect for himself by allowing this to go out in public.  I don't know what Mr. Picha's experience is, or what access he has to writers' workshops or reliable beta readers who might have given him a heads-up about the story's problems,but this story was not ready for prime-time or even for the self-publishing market.

(I had other problems with how "Pandora Driver" was written, but the constant changes between past and present tense was the overwhelming problem.)

It was also disrespectful to the other contributors to this anthology.  Because the other stories in here were reasonably good pulp adventures set in somewhat-alternate universes.  But, for me, the problems with "Pandora Driver" were so overwhelming that it cast a pall on any enjoyment of the rest of the book.

Current Kindle price: Free.

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P.O. BOX ON THE MOON by Camilla Marks

Here's another example where the editing process broke down or was insufficient in the writing of a book.

It started out promisingly.  High-school student Persephone Miller is already trying to deal with the breakup of her parents' marriage, plus problems at school, when she finds a letter in the mailbox from someone purporting to be not only 1) the first astronaut sent to the moon in an alternate non-Neil-Armstrong timeline, but 2) trapped and forced to do the bidding of the evil Master of the Moon in that and numerous other timelines.  Eventually she's able to meet with the stranded astronaut, Andrew, in the brief periods he's physically present on Persephone's timeline.

There were some things in the earlier parts of the book that irked me.  For one, Andrew seemed to be something of a jerk, repeatedly telling Persephone there's so much about his situation she doesn't know... but he's not going to tell her.  For another, Persephone feels an almost-instant Bella-and-Edward Twilight-style attraction towards Andrew.  (Can we please bury that noxious trope once and for all?)

But Persephone was interesting enough to keep reading (though I thought her best friend Padme was actually more interesting).  I got the occasional impression that story elements and complications were being introduced without a clear idea of how they would be resolved.  But I was curious to see if everything could pull together at the end.

Ehhh... not so much.  The last section, where Persephone herself ends up on the Moon, doesn't work well.  Events and actions and resolutions feel rushed and improvised.  And when we finally meet the Moon Master himself, he is such a stiff caricature of a megalomaniac villain, with excruciatingly wooden dialogue, that one almost expects to see him twiddling the tips of a narrow black moustache and proclaiming "BWA-HA-HA-HA!!!"  After at least moderate attempts to imbue earlier characters with actual personalities, the final section reads almost as if written by a completely different writer.

The conclusion was... acceptable.  It felt rushed and forced, but the villain was defeated, disasters were averted or reversed, and if the ending was bittersweet, at least it looked like Persephone's life was back on track.

And then Camilla Marks decided to put in a twist-ending.  Which negated everything, and made the entire story an exercise in futility.  I'm not going to throw my smartphone across the room, but if I'd been reading a physical book, I might have.

The impression I got from POBOTM was that it was written "seat-of-the-pants" style, starting with the original idea of the mysterious letter appearing in the mailbox, but without a clear idea of how the story would develop or conclude.

I also noticed that about halfway through the book, more and more typos and editing errors began to appear.  This got to be bothersome.

Add in the rushed feeling of the final section, and I can't help making a guess that this novel probably started out as a NANOWRIMO project, with a last minute rush to complete the manuscript before that one-month deadline was crossed.  And that it received insufficient revision and editing afterwards, before being published.

I think NANOWRIMO is a great idea for a lot of people.  If nothing else, every November thousands of people don't hang out in bars or pool halls or on street corners.  But when you write an entire novel in a single month, you're probably not going to end up with a good novel.  You might end up with the possibility of a good novel.  But not without a lot more work.

When you finish a story, you need to  put it in a drawer for a while -- maybe a few days, maybe a few months -- and let it lie fallow long enough that you'll be able to go back to it eventually with a fresher eye and mind, better able to see what does and doesn't work, and what needs to be saved or discarded or rewritten.

Finding an honest group of beta readers, who'll give you their unvarnished opinions, is also a good idea.  (Don't ask your Mom to read your book.  You can ask your spouse or children, because if their response is just too damn mean, you can always divorce the spouse or disown the kids.  But if your Mom tells you your manuscript sucks, you're totally screwed.)

And edit, edit, edit.  The first half of POBOTM was pretty error-free, but the increasing numbers in the latter half tell me any editing was either done in an increasing rush, or that Marks started going into "my eyes glazed over" mode by that point and just didn't see the later typos and errors.  One recommendation I see over and over in self-publishing articles is to pay for a professional copyeditor to go over your manuscript.  I'm coming to agree with that advice more and more.

This was read free as part of author's promotion.  Current Amazon Kindle price $4.99.

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Before you succumb to despair, let me tell you there are self-published ebooks out there worth the reading:

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There's a sub-genre of fantasy I call "Fluffy Fantasy".  These are generally humorous takes on the various tropes and cliches of regular fantasy. (See many of Robert Asprin's or Simon Hawke's books for examples.) Sometimes they're affectionate twists, sometimes they're critical satires.  TWTFATVPP is one of the former.

Idwal the Farmer lives close by the most boring town on the map, and he likes it that way.  Things Happen, of course, despite Idwal's best efforts, and he finds himself sucked not only into adventures, but adventures in the company of an annoyingly self-centered Princess and endangered by the machinations of a disgruntled Wizard who's raised an army of the dead.  He's a reluctant -- very reluctant -- protagonist who eventually becomes an actual hero and Gets The Girl in spite of his most rational instincts.

This is not classic literature, but it's not meant to be.  It's an entertaining evening's reading by a writer skilled enough to keep the tone light and amusing throughout, but not pushing it so far as to drop into offputting silliness.  (I'm not sure if this is the same Daniel Fox who wrote the much more serious "Dragon In Chains" fantasy series, but it's certainly written to a professional standard.) 

E-book read free as author's promotion.  Current Amazon Kindle price $3.99.

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JUMP WHEN READY by David Pandolfe

There's a subgenre of fantasy dealing with "the Afterlife", of the world inhabited by dead people, either before or instead of going to the tradtional Heaven or Hell.  Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come, or Kevin Brockmiers's A Brief History of the Dead are some examples.

This is in a similar vein, for a Young Adult audience.  Teenager Henry has died in a drowning accident that looked like suicide to observers.  He comes to in the high branches of a fir tree, encountering the spirits of several other deceased teenagers.  In Pandolfe's version of the Afterlife, the spirits are able to create their own surroundings (similar to Matheson's book); there are limitations on how much they can interact with the real world, however.

Henry, besides dealing with his own death and the end of the normal life he expected to have, also has two goals: To let his family somehow know he did not commit suicide, and to protect his older sister Bethany from the online "friend" who turns out to be a predator.

David Pandolfe pulls this off nicely.  The narrative flows smoothly, the characters are well-presented and believable; it's a very professional, very entertaining and engaging story.  (Pandolfe's background includes teaching writing courses.  That probably explains a lot.)

The cover is also noteworthy, a simple but vivid image nicely representing the contents of the book.  It turns out to have been done by (I assume) Pandolfe's wife Samantha.  (Lucky fellow, to have another talented resource in the household.)

Read free as part of author's promotion.  Current Amazon Kindle price: $2.99.

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That's it for the latest installment of "Brave Free Books". 


Personal Update: Work and Podcasts

I've been back at work for three weeks now.  No major problems with the arm, so long as I take regular doses of analgesics to keep it from aching badly.

Before I went back to work, I'd started a practice of taking about an hour's walk each night, and listening to podcasts during the walk.  This was mostly for the various online SF magazines like Lightspeed and Clarkesworld that also do audio versions of some of their contents.  I've also been listening to the BBC Drama of the Week, which are usually interesting. Those walks usually let me listen to five or six hours worth of podcasts each week.

At work, I'm allowed to listen (so long as I only use one earbud) to radio or other audio while doing my night patrols.  It's a big help in staying awake in the wee hours.  So I've been listening to a lot more podcast material, adding other SF content (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex), NPR content like The Splendid Table, and I've also been trying out some of the audiobooks from Librivox.

Librivox is an interesting project, recording public domain books by crowdsourcing chapters or sections to volunteer readers.  Because of the volunteer nature, the quality of reading can vary a lot from chapter to chapter.  Some of the readers come across as very professional, with clear voices and enunciation; some of the other readers... well, it's nice that they volunteer for a worthy project.

But instead of five to six hours of podcasts per week, I'm now listening to probably at least twenty hours.  This turns out to use a remarkably large amount of the data limit on my smartphone, enough to put me over that limit.  Meaning extra charges.

Humph.  I upgraded to a larger data plan (5Gb instead of 2Gb), but I should probably try and keep a better eye on my data usage.   One thing I can try is downloading podcast material on the home computer and loading it onto my Droid before the work week.  I say "try" because I've tried loading library audiobooks (via Overdrive) onto the phone that way, and I haven't been able to get it to work. I'll have to give it another go.


So It Goes Over The Cliff

The Mary Sue reports that Amazon's Kindle Worlds, a program that licenses literary/media properties to produce (oxymoron alert!) "commercial fanfiction", has cut a deal for doing so with the estate handling the works of... Kurt Vonnegut.

Wait, what?  I double-checked the date to make sure it wasn't April 1st, and then the URL to make sure I hadn't ended up on The Onion's website.

Vonnegut had such a distinctive authorial voice, and style, and mindset, that I have trouble thinking that any Vonnegut-derived works for Kindle Worlds will be anything other than pastiche, rather than homage (or even passable imitation).

Vonnegut had such a distinctive authorial voice, and style, and mindset, that I have trouble envisoning a scene where someone in the Amazon Kindle Worlds offices would actually think the thought that, "Hey, let's license Kurt Vonnegut's work for the Kindle Worlds program!"

Vonnegut had such a distinctive authorial voice, and style, and mindset, that I have trouble envisioning anyone involved in handling his estate thinking the thought, "Hey, let's license Kurt's works to the Kindle Worlds program!  I'm sure Kurt would approve."

Well, actually Vonnegut might... not approve... but be phlegmatic about the idea.  Here's a quote of his:
"Go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something."

But you know what.  I'm not phlegmatic about the idea.  It just seems like a bad, sad joke.

Another Vonnegut quote, a bit more reflective of my reaction:
“Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music. I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”


The Arm: Back To Work, Finally

At the end of our last thrilling installment, the arm pain had improved remarkably for no discernible reason, enough so that the second shoulder surgery set for the end of June was cancelled, and I was referred to a physiatrist (musculature specialist) at Mayo for further evaluation and probable return to physical therapy for a while.

Between various scheduling, authorization and paperwork complications, I didn't see the physiatrist until July 19th.  The arm pain had continued at the reduced level, staying mostly in the lower half of that 1-to-10 pain scale doctors like to use, and with the use of aspirin and Tylenol several times a day, mostly in the lower half of that lower half.  And those lower levels keep me out of the Stupid Zone, where you can't ignore the pain and you can't think.

At those lower levels, I felt it was possible to finally return to work.  The upper arm and shoulder still feel stiff and sore a good amount of the time, but it's probably never going to be completely pain-free again for the rest of my life.  The doctor had a job-description sheet from my workplace, and we went over the list of tasks I need to perform at work, none of which I felt were un-doable.  (Some of them, involving high reaches or other extensive arm movements, need to be done with the left arm rather than the right, but they can be done.)  So he gave me a release to return to work as of July 22nd, within the right arm's limitations.  He also wrote orders for me to resume physical therapy for the next month, and scheduled an appointment for re-evaluating my progress in late August.

Then I had to contact the HR rep at work to see about actually resuming work.  Monday the 22nd I met with her and the assistant Security head, then went around the property with him to demonstrate that I was physically able to do the work required.  I didn't have much problem with any of the tests, so I got a call Tuesday morning to say I was back on the work schedule starting Thursday night.

Completed my first work-week back at work Sunday night.  No major problems.  The shoulder got stiff and sore a few times, but that was expected and I carried a small pillbox with extra aspirin/Tylenol tablets for those occasions.  So it looks like I'm a working stiff (heh) again.

The Arm saga isn't over quite yet.  My job isn't strenuous; it doesn't require lifting or moving any heavy objects, at least not any I can't handle left-handed.  But there's still a lot of stuff at home I'm not capable of without over-stressing the arm.  That's one of the reasons for going back to physical therapy, to try and get back some of the strength and stamina the right arm has lost over the months.  (The right arm is visibly thinner than the left, due to muscle loss from lack of use.)

So there'll probably still be occasional post about "The Arm" from time to time.   But, at least as of now, they should be farther apart in time and hopefully less dramatic than some of the posts have been.


A Hard Search For Hard Case Crime

Last week, one of Amazon's "Daily Specials" for e-books was offering a $1.99 price on a wide selection of e-books from Hard Case Crime.  The Hard Case Crime line, edited by Charles Ardai, has re-published a number of hard-to-find hardboiled works by writers such as Donald Westlake and Robert Silverberg, as well as new fiction in the hardboiled/noir tradition by a number of newer writers.  It's one of the publishing companies whose output I like to keep an eye on, so I was tempted to buy and download a number of titles to my smartphone's e-reader app.

But... I've noted in the past that I don't like Amazon's business practices, so rather than spend money there, I hied over to the Barnes & Noble website to see if the same discounted prices for Hard Case's books were being offered there.

Well, they were, but it was a hard slog to find the Hard Case titles on bn.com.  On Amazon's site, entering "Hard Case Crime" in the search window brought up a full list of HCC's available titles.  Reset the filter for "Low To High Price", and all the $1.99 titles were shown grouped together.

Not so much on Barnes & Noble's site.  Enter "Hard Case Crime" in bn.com's search box, and you end up with a scattered selection of ebooks, most with the word "Hard" in the actual title or in the description, and only a very few of Hard Case's books included.

B&N has an "Advanced Search" option available, with "Publisher" as one of the search categories available.  So I tried that, entering "Hard Case Crime" and got... zero results.

Wait, what?  Zero results?  How could that happen, when the first, regular, search had at least brought up a couple of Hard Case titles?

So I went to the page for one of those titles that had come up in the earlier search, and went down to the "Details" section.  Where I found that the listed publisher for the Hard Case title was "Titan".

Ho-kay.  So apparently Hard Case has a deal with Titan Books for distributing and marketing their books, much like DAW Books has a deal with Penguin.

But to find Hard Case titles on B&N's site, you have to enter "Titan" as the publisher.  If you don't know about the arrangement (I didn't until I ran into this), you can't search for Hard Case Crime under its own name.

When you do a "publisher" search for Titan, though, you end up with all of Titan's own titles (a lot of science fiction and other categories), with Hard Case titles mixed into the batch.

A list of categories appeared to the left of the search results, so I clicked on "Mystery & Crime" to narrow the search.  And finally I ended up with a list of mostly Hard Case titles (a few books from other arms of Titan also appeared).  Do another sort by price, and I finally had a list of the Hard Case titles on sale.

Well... not quite.  I noticed that several titles I'd seen in Amazon's search results weren't included in the B&N results.  One was David Schow's Gun Work.  A specific search for that title brought it up on B&N's site, but apparently it's not categorized as "Mystery & Crime" or "Thriller" like almost all the other Hard Case titles.  There were a few other titles in similar straits.

Why does Amazon give more inclusive, and a lot easier, search results?  That's simple:  On each product page for Hard Case titles on Amazon, after each title is the parenthetical addition of "(Hard Case Crime)".  So entering "Hard Case Crime" even in Amazon's general search window will trigger a hit on all those parenthetical additions.  Plus they list the publisher as "Hard Case Crime", not Titan.

I'd rather spend my money at Barnes & Noble than Amazon.   But it would be nice if B&N didn't make it so damn hard.

(I'm sending a separate copy of this post directly to Hard Case editor Charles Ardai.  This problem really needs to be fixed, because it means a damn good publisher is losing potential sales on the second-most popular bookselling site.)