How Do Characters Come to Life?

I always say that my stories start with a character and a question, and that’s true. I always have an imaginary person in mind when I start. Often I feel like I know them very well. Sometimes it takes the entire first “zero” draft for me to get a grip on what/who they are. That’s largely what the rough draft is for. (Well, that and hashing out something that approximates a plot, but that’s another posting.)

Sometimes, though, usually with a secondary character, I’ll write a line or a bit of dialogue almost at random, and that will make the character click into perfect focus. Suddenly, I’ll understand them perfectly.

An example of this is a character who appears in the sequel to Aluminum Leaves. Ilsanja is Trevian’s Langtree’s jilted fiancé. She is, or was, a close friend of his younger sister. Ilsanja plays an important role in the sequel and in the third book as well, but when I first imagined her in 2013, she was a flat character, just an avatar of a social-climber.

Back then, I wrote a bad short story with an unhappy man named Trevian Langtree as the main character. Nearly all of the ideas for world-building and character conflicts that make up Aluminum Leaves and Copper Road are in it, just poorly-defined. Trevian is a rebellious, brooding young man at a crossroads in his life, although when the story opens he doesn’t know it. He, along with a childhood friend and his “pledged bride,” Ilsanja, is going to a fair in a small town close to their home. The fair, and the town, is the scene of one disillusionment after another. I wanted to show that Ilsanja and Trevian are at odds from the point the story starts; she is jabbing him with the social weapons at which she is adept, opening flirting with his friend, giving Trevian cool, polite stares whenever he speaks. To be fair, Trevian is sulking and he isn’t much better.

I knew that the marriage of Trevian and Ilsanja was not a love match; it was an arranged marriage, a way to combine two fortunes and two sources of political power in the boomtown where they lived. I knew that Trevian hated everything about that and felt trapped, but I didn’t really know how Ilsanja felt about it all. At first I was focused on decking her out in high-fashion clothes and making her cooly mean, which I achieved. But she was still… a suit of fancy clothes, not a person.

There was some action in the plot, when Ilsanja is kidnapped for ransom and Trevian, using his newly-discovered magical powers, rescues her. Ilsanja began, slowly, to swim into focus for me; she is drugged and abducted, but she’s not a passive damsel-in-distress, and once rescued, her intelligence and observational skills help Trevian and the sheriff identify the mastermind. The rescue doesn’t bring Trevian and her closer together, though. It cements Trevian’s decision to go where his magical ability takes him.

The two of them have an argument at the end of the story, and it’s only then that I really got a handle on Ilsanja. First of all, she acknowledges that Trevian saved her, and she’s not grudging about it. Then she goes on to say that he is a fool for leaving her.

“You don’t value me,” she says. And click! I knew who Ilsanja was.

She’s a woman who knows her own worth. Ilsanja is not a vapid social-climber. In fact, she’d not a social climber at all. Me typifying her that was at the beginning of the story was creative laziness. Ilsanja is near the top of the hierarchical heap in her society already and she knows it. There’s nowhere she needs to climb. She has a specific skill-set. She plans to put it into practice building a life and position for Trevian and herself, but Trevian’s vision doesn’t match hers. I might not have liked Ilsanja’s values, but she had some, and they were deeper than “must have this year’s stylish hat.” I may not have agreed with her goals, but she had goals, and Trevian’s actions create a crisis in her life just as much as they do in his. She is a secondary character, but in that argument scene I think I did capture the moment when she sees that her toolkit won’t work in this situation, gives up trying to persuade him, and moves on.

Now it’s years later, and Ilsanja is major character in the sequel to Aluminum Leaves. The way she and Trevian broke up was a thread in the first book and in the second, circumstances – another crisis—throw them together again. Ilsanja has moved beyond Trevian, though. Her teenaged “hobby” of raising trail horses had become a profitable business for her; she’s weathered (mostly) the scandal of being dumped and is still a social leader. And she is a woman who knows the worth of things. Now, as a better-realized character, she must decide whether helping Trevian and his family is worth the embarrassment and battered pride she risks by doing it. This creates genuine emotional suspense (at least it does to me, and I hope it will in the book.)

I’m so glad she said that line!

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In Which Marion Does a Bad Thing

I did a bad thing, and I still feel the effects of it hours later. I hope I bounce back, but this may have traumatized me for life.

(Trigger warning for icky sexual material.)

You know how in horror movies there are certain things you scream at the screen? Like “Don’t go down there alone!” “Don’t split up!” “Don’t open the book!”

I opened the book.

The book was a mass market paperback, fairly new, with a newish cover. I think it had a young woman, maybe in a white nightgown or dress, on the cover, but like many bad experiences, I don’t remember exactly. The author’s name was Virginia Andrews. (For some of you this will be a clue.) The title was Flowers in the Attic.

I assumed (never assume!) that this was some kind of reimagining of the creepy cult classic from the 1970s. (It wasn’t. It’s a reprint.) And so I opened the book at random, and before I could stop myself, my gaze lit on words in a row and I read them.

Oh, good Lord.

Holy Christmas Cake*.

Sweet Mother of God.

Who knew?

Who knew that the original, aside from being creepy and sick, was this bad?

The book opened, or I opened it, to a page where a woman is standing in an attic. A shadowy voice says — no, wait, that’s not fair. There isn’t a shadowy voice. There’s no such thing. A voice speaking in italics orders the woman to take off her blouse which she does. The first-person narrator notices that Mama doesn’t wear a slip or a bra, and as the blouse is removed, she sees why: Mama’s back is covered with whip-marks. Or, no, “puffy, blood-encrusted welts against her creamy white skin.” Most of Mama’s creamy white skin is covered with welts and most of them are encrusted with blood. It’s really lucky that none of that blood got on the blouse, especially since there was no intervening fabric.

Intellectually I know that the paragraph I read could not really contain both “blood-encrusted welts,” and “creamy white skin” seventeen times each. The paragraph wasn’t that long. It was probably only two or three times each. Or four. Or maybe five. It seemed like a lot. Especially “creamy white skin.” Especially in the sentence that reads something like “… Mama’s creamy white skin that Papa used to touch so gently.”

Oh, ick. Ick, ick, ick.

If the words had a scent, these would give off the stench of decomposing flesh released from a recently uncovered mass grave.

You know how, if you’re in an accident, like a fall from a horse, or something with your car, or maybe even just with a friend who gets hurt, you sometimes think you’re doing something very rational, but a couple of days or maybe a week later you look back and say to yourself, “Wow, I really wasn’t thinking clearly?” Well, I wasn’t thinking clearly, because I pulled my gaze away from the terrible,terrible words on the left hand page and let myself look at the right hand page and then I read another paragraph!

In this one, cackling, whip-wielding grandmama takes gleeful credit for whipping Mama, and then launches into a diatribe that explains what’s going to happen in the rest of the book, and her motivations. There’s a sentence that goes something like, “Shelter, food and water we will dole out… but no love, warmth or compassion.” Okay, fans of creepy overwrought sadomasochism, there you go. Because this is how people talked in 1979. Or 1957, when the story allegedly takes place.

Grandma tells us that she gave Mama thirty-five lashes, one for every year of Mama’s life. Here is a plot question; Mama is a grown-up. Now widowed, why has she brought her children back to her hateful mother and father? Why not, I don’t know, rent an apartment? Get a job? Whatever? But, no.

Um, okay.

I have, now and then, picked up copies of the various Fifty Shades books and read entire paragraphs, and I have to say in comparison, E.J. James should be a contender for the Booker Prize.

Never mind that the story itself is icky and disgusting… so are random sentences that snare the reader who carelessly opens the book.

And this book is reputed to have sold over 40 million copies. It’s been made into a movie more than once, and I think it might be a a TV show even now.

I opted out of reading this book when it came out. People where I worked told me about it. One of them warned me, earnestly, about the incest, which I thought at the time wouldn’t have bothered me. (That was before I read “…creamy white skin that Papa…” etc.) Another reader, a fan, told me about the doughnuts, though, and that helped me decide that, um, no, not for me.

I had no idea until today just how very Not For Me the book was.

But again, big cult hit, so big that when Andrews, who wrote the book as “V.C. Andrews” died, an entire stable of writers churned out gothic-incest sequel after sequel with titles like Petals on the Wind (that might have been written by Andrews herself), and Thorns in the Outhouse and Doughnuts in the Attic. They went on for years! Years and years, decades even!

(Okay, except for the “Petals” one, those aren’t actual titles.)


Anyway. I closed the book and put it down before the infection could spread any farther. I figure if I read a couple of really good books immediately, I may have a full recovery. But just… Wow.

Don’t go into the basement alone. Don’t split up. And if the book looks like a reprint of some disgusting thing from much, much earlier in your life, that you didn’t want to read then, don’t open the book. Learn from my mistake.

*Courtesy of Orphan Black, “Holy Christmas Cake” is one of Alison Hendrix’s expressions

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Cons I’ll be Attending in 2020

So far, there are at least 2 conventions in my immediate future.

I will be at FOGCon in Walnut Creek, Ca, March 6-8, 2020. More importantly, I think, Aluminum Leaves will also be there, courtesy of Borderlands Books, who will have it on consignment. Borderlands is longstanding genre bookstore in San Francisco with great staff, a great history and a tradition of supporting emerging and local writers. It took me two days to work up the courage to call them, and the experience was not merely painless, it was pleasant! They were encouraging!

May 28-31, 2020, I’ll be attending the SFWA Nebula Weekend in Los Angeles. I’m working with the convention bookstore manager to find out if they will carry Aluminum Leaves there.

I haven’t registered yet but I plan to attend ReaderCon again since last year’s was so much fun. And AtomaCon was a blast (pun intended.)

I’ll update you!

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Dublin Murders: Lose the Damn Wolf

Dublin Murders, the latest adaptation from Starz, disappoints. It’s based on two Tana French novels, In the Woods and The Likeness. The premise is that two deeply troubled Dublin Garda cops, both outsiders, are partnered and solve murders, only see “deeply troubled” above. It doesn’t end well.

I always try to separate an adaptation from its source material. For several reasons here, it was especially difficult, but I’m going to give it a try. Series One (and I assume the only series) of Dublin Murders has eight episodes in which British copper Rob Reilly and female copper Cassie Maddox try to solve two different murders. There is a third mystery in the story which I’ll get to in a minute.

Before I start listing all the things I didn’t like, I want to address the things I did. I liked the cast a lot. Sarah Green and Killian Scott, who play Cassie and Rob, are each brilliant and each fully embody their characters. Conleth Hill plays the Superintendent, who seems to dislike all his detectives. He does an awesome job of constantly insulting and demeaning Maddox while simultaneously automatically assuming she’s the best D on the squad, which is hard to sell, but he manages. On the occasions when Cassie calls him out on his sexism he seems genuinely bewildered. Tom Lawlor-Vaughn plays another cop, Frank Mackey – maybe a Superintendent?—who ran Cassie when she was undercover in another division, and he manages to create a character where the writing fails to give him one, so good job there.

I love the locations. The show was filmed in northern Ireland, so, good on you for that one too.

What disappointed me was the storytelling.

The series serves up three mysteries. The first one is in the story’s present day, which I think is 2006. A young woman from the suburban neighborhood has been found in the woods, on an ancient stone altar that has been excavated as part of an archaeological dig. The area, and the woods, are slated for removal for a road. The naked body of Katie is found posed on the altar. This is Mystery 1. About three or four episodes in, Frank Mackey appears and yanks Cassie off this headliner case to investigate the murder of a woman who looks exactly like Cassie and is using the “legend” or fake identity that Cassie created for herself when she was undercover. Mystery 2. And then there’s the Ur-Mystery, the disappearance of two neighborhood children from Katie’s neighborhood, last seen playing in those very same woods, in 1988. Three children, Jamie, Peter and Adam, went into that woods that day. Later, one of them, Adam, was found screaming and amnesiac, his shoes covered in blood (not his own) his T-shirt in shreds, with no knowledge of what happened. Both Rob and the neighborhood reach the conclusion that Katie’s death is somehow connected to the disappearance, and a search begins for the adult Adam, who, it turns out, is closer than you might think. This is not really a spoiler since we learn it in Episode 1: Rob is Adam, whose parents sent him away to a British boarding school in the months following the disappearance of his friends. Cassie, who’s in the know about this, points out that investigating Katie’s murder will put Rob’s fake identity at risk. Cassie immediately works out a plan where she will act all “feminine” and get the vapors and say she can’t work on a child murder, casually sacrificing her career to protect her damaged partner. This is the first stupid thing we see Cassie do. It isn’t the last.

Of course, if they bow out of the case, the show ends, and we’re only at Ep One. Instead, Rob decides that they are they are the only ones who keep the truth from coming out, and so they agree to see the case through.

For a couple of episodes, the show gets good. Rob and Cassie are both good, observant detectives. They are good interviewers and they work well together. Plenty of possible suspects are served up and the show squeezes in a subplot about the road, the people who want to stop the roadway and protect the trees. There’s a brief holdover of a case Cassie worked undercover, which hangs around like a stalkerish ex for a couple of eps.

In case we might have somehow missed that Rob is a traumatized mess, though, we soon start seeing Rob’s self-destructive behavior outside of work hours. Here is one of the most annoying things of the show; Rob dreams or hallucinates a wolf stalking him in his apartment. A wolf.  We get more and more surreal flashbacks to the 1988 disappearance. Rob has dug out the old evidence boxes and is arranging the evidence in a fetishistic way… do you think we could figure out that he was troubled without dragging in a dog-actor? Rob, and really only Rob, has decided the death of Katie is somehow linked to the 1988 disappearance in the woods, even though the only thing these two crimes have in common is location. “They’re linked, they’re linked, they’re linked,” Rob chants, and of course he thinks they are because he’s, you know, obsessed, but they really aren’t. It’s Rob’s focus on the connections that suddenly brings Adam back into the public’s consciousness. This was good character development and good writing, and we didn’t need a big wolf-shaped neon sign to help us understand that Things Are Getting Weird Here.

I started worrying then, but I didn’t get really worried until Rob burns down his relationship with Cassie in  a predictable fit of self-destructiveness, and Mackey swoops in to carry her off to work a completely different case. And then Mackey sets up a baroque and unnecessary undercover sting scheme where Cassie impersonates the woman who was impersonating her, or at least her fake identity (got that?). I’ll address the adaptation issue in the paragraph below, but there is almost no excuse for Mystery 2 in Dublin Murders. They have forensic evidence that “Lexie” was murdered at the fancy country house owned by a guy named Daniel, who invited four young people to live there with him and created a creepy kind of commune. Pretending that “Lexie” is alive and having Cassie play her is a stupid way to address the murder… and it sidelines Cassie from Mystery 1.

(As you might guess from the name The Likeness, the “Lexie” murder is just about how French’s book sets up. In the book, physical evidence is thin, and there is a better pretext for Cassie to go in. If Starz had chosen to devote an entire series to The Likeness, they might have made Mystery 2 work.)

For about four of the eight eps we watch Cassie and the others prance around a fancy country house, getting drunk, getting high, and sometimes going into town to harass the townsfolk who don’t like them. Daniel is some kind of a puppet master, but not very well defined, and spends most of his time pointing to things in the house and saying “Mine, mine,” like the seagulls in Finding Nemo. Cassie pokes and provokes the other housemates, and does fatally stupid things at the order of the script, because otherwise they can’t make the denouement of this transparently thin subplot work. (In a house where the primary suspect in a murder goes around saying, “This is mine, that is mine, this is all mine,” let’s talk about where Cassie decides to hide her gun, for instance.)

But since no one, including the showrunners, really cares about Mystery 2, it wraps up surprisingly quickly, and we go back to following Rob as he flails about and finally, nearly, solves the murder of Katie. Or, he does solve it, but doesn’t completely uncover the criminal mastermind who is running the murderer. Then he does that too, but the mastermind will only talk to Cassie, and then the mastermind blows Rob’s cover as Adam.

Now we’re roaring down to the dark and Irish ending. Cassie and Rob both colluded to keep Rob’s real identity a secret. Rob has physically attacked a couple of fellow cops. He sexually assaulted his landlady in a drunken state, he warned off a potential witness in the case of Katie’s death, and he keeps seeing a wolf. Rob’s a mess. Cassie shot a man to death in self-defense; she plans to blow the whistle on Mackey for his half-baked scheme; but really, since she’s the woman, she’s going to carry the consequences of Rob’s behavior. Both these cops should be gone from the job because they’ve got no ethics; however, at the end Cassie is back with her good boyfriend, who tells her everything’s going to be all right (although why he thinks that is anyone’s guess), and Rob, facing disciplinary action, is sent off somewhere into the hinterlands. I guess this is so that they can cobble together a Series Two, God help us.

But I haven’t gotten to the worst part yet. (Hard to believe, I know.) Rob runs into Mackey as the loggers and dozer-drivers arrive to start stripping the forest. Mackey gets a few snarky lines, and Rob asks him if they’re found any bones. Nope, no bones. Mackey did find this cool rock with a petroglyph though. It’s some Celtic folkloric character called The Child-Taker. He offers it to Rob, who refuses. Rob walks away, and Mackey stares into the woods, where a wolf stares back. It’s something old and dark and supernatural, and remember? We set this up, yes we did, back when Rob hallucinated a wolf!

Yes, yes, we get it. You couldn’t trust yourself with the Ur-Mystery so you made up a pathetic supernatural element to fall back on.

It’s nearly impossible to talk about how irritating those final images are without talking about the source material. In the book, the Ur-Mystery is never solved either. French took a big chance with that, in a debut novel, but she had the writing chops to make it work literarily even if we were all mad at her for it. She didn’t scrounge around to find a folkloric creature to hide behind. It might indeed be the woods itself, the ancient trees, the darkness, the ancient interconnected web of growth that is indifferent to humanity, but whatever it is, it doesn’t hand out rock business cards. What drives Rob into his particular literary-style madness is the never-knowing, and honestly, the tropes that cheapened his character from the start in this show begin and end with that stupid wolf.

To restate; the show is gorgeous and many actors deliver excellent performances in a thin story that relies too heavily on its cast to make up for poor storytelling. The supernatural element was badly foreshadowed with the wrong predatory animal, and Mystery 2 is a bad distraction with no value of its own. I hope Tana French got a good payday for this, and I hope Starz stops here before making things even worse.

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The Books We Got for Christmas, 2019

It was a banner year for books! I’ll start from the bottom and go clockwise, finishing up with the two “pocketbooks” in the middle.

Ravenmaster is for me. It’s written by Christopher Skaife, Yeoman Warder of the Tower and London, and the tower’s raven master. It’s first up! I can barely wait.

An Unkindness of Magicians, by Kat Howard. I know nothing about this book, but, man, that title.

Shapeshifters, a History, also for me (I see a theme emerging.) This is a history of the mythology of shapeshifters, a good reference book.

West with the Lightning, a history of the Pony Express, by Jim DeFelice, is for Spouse, from me. The Pony Express was short-lived, but captured our imaginations. I think he’ll be interested to find out the history behind the legendary messenger service.

The Starless Sea is Erin Morgenstern’s long-awaited second novel, after The Night Circus. The cover resonates with Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I plan to start it right after I finished Ravenmaster.

The Abalone King of Monterey was given to me by Matt and Suzanne; local Monterey/Salinas history. Looks like fun!

An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson is a Longmire book. It’s a misfire as a gift, since Spouse has already read it. I’ll have to return it in trade for a Longmire mystery he hasn’t read.

The book on the very end of the loop is not prose; it’s a journal my friend Linda brought from India. It was paired with a pen made from a coriander branch. If that doesn’t provide inspiration, nothing will.

We always get each other a stocking stuffer pocketbook, usually used, to read over New Year’s, and then we trade off. From left to right, Susanna Gregory’s A Deadly Brew is an historical mystery, while Laura Lippman’s Another Thing to Fall is a mystery/thriller and seems to be part of a series, although we haven’t read anything else by her.

That’s it! That’s my report. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find out what it’s like to wrangle ravens in the Tower of London.

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Christmas, 2019

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The Wheel of the Year

2019’s been a hell of year, hasn’t it?

It’s nearly solstice and I planned to write an introspective piece on the year, mainly because I never did my “Things I’m Thankful For” column. When I sat down I was immediately confronted by the gaping rift in 2019, at least for me. Personally, it has been one of the most successful years of my life. It’s hard to reconcile that with the shrieking, blood-and-entrails horror-movie that the year has been in the rest of the world.

I believe that history is cyclic, but I believe that the trend of those cycles is toward positive progress. I also believe in physics, and reactions. The progress toward inclusiveness, compassion and equality awakened fear in a lot of people, and they came back with that “equal and opposite” thing. It helps their cause that much of “inclusion” included globalization, which was another way for large businesses to exploit people. And it helps the reactionaries, those whose fear drives them to hatred and violence, that large moneyed interests supported them, and that other nations were able to compromise our electoral system.

In 2019 we saw firsthand what President Obama warned us about with Citizens United, and what privacy activists warned us about with large social media platforms. And we were reminded that money’s first loyalty is always to money.

We can recover from this, and we will, and we will regain the ground that has been ripped away from us as long as we don’t get mired in a defeatist-fest where we act like this is the end of things. That said, the way back isn’t going to be short, or pleasant.

For me personally, 2019 was a different kind of a year.

I had a book published! A real live book that I could hold in my hands. And some people read it!

I had a couple of stories come out in anthologies in 2019, too.

I went to ReaderCon for the first time, and met a writing god, John Crowley.

We remodeled the living room into a beautiful library that provides tranquility and spiritual nourishment (and a place to stack the wrapped Christmas presents!).

We had several delightful visits from our friend Sharon, and spent Thanksgiving with her son and daughter in law. We had a great time.

It wasn’t all good. I’m still nagged by one or two health issues, even though I’m been good about getting exercising, kept some weight off, and have my blood pressure controlled even if it is through medication.

And I got to evacuate my house at 3:20 in the morning, which was a frightening experience even though it all worked out well.

The Kincade Fire evacuation had a good side for me; Spouse and I both got to know our immediate neighbors a little better.

I am working hard on the first sequel to Aluminum Leaves.

I continue to live my fantasy of working in a bookstore, at least one day a week.

So, personally, 2019 wasn’t a pollution-spewing tire fire. It was… well, it was pretty good, and I am very grateful.


Solstice night is the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. It’s often cold. People celebrate the holiday with light and warmth, welcoming back the longer, warmer days that let seeds germinate and grow, and provide light for hunting, cooking, raising the kids, living. Winter solstice is a holiday of hope. In the darkest time of the year we seek light, and we live confident that the light will return.

For me, I’m not confident what “the light” means. I hope for the best for the 2020 elections but I fear the worst. In this, I’m not alone. What the light returning means for me is that I have to – and I will – hold onto my compassion, by passion, my strength. I will reach out to my friends and my community. I will do what I can to help those who need it.

It is, at least, a mixed blessing to live through a time you know will make it to the history books, and that’s what we’re doing. That’s what 2019 was. It’s been a hell of a year. And, slowly, the wheel will turn. And we’ll survive to see it move, and the light return.

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Reading the Field

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a friend who is a developing writer who plans to write science fiction. We started talking about who they had read, and it emerged that they haven’t read the field recently. They’re a fan of the golden age and pulp-age works and some New Wave.

“It helps if you read the field,” I said.

“Really? Why?” they said.

I’ll admit, that stopped me in my tracks.

Why read the field? Why read what’s being published now in a genre you enjoy and want to share in? My knee-jerk response would have been, “Well, why wouldn’t you?” That really isn’t responsive, though. There are reasons to read the genre in which you plan to write, and reasons to read current of at least more recent works.

Award-winning books in the field tell you what fans, or fellow-writers, think is noteworthy, well done, original and/or entertaining. Like any award in the entertainment fields, the Hugos, the Nebulas and the Dragon Awards are all subjective. If you wanted to argue that they are susceptible to cronyism, political manipulation and groupthink, I wouldn’t disagree. At the most crass and materialistic level, though, it helps to keep an eye on what’s popular, and what the popular writers are doing for marketing purposes.

Staying with the crass and materialistic for a moment, “comps” are one thing agents use to decide if they want to represent a work or a writer. If you haven’t read The Fifth Season, The Calculating Stars, or Record of a Spaceborn Few, you’re going to have trouble comparing your work to those. And if you say, “My work springboards off of Robert E. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers,” you may have a hard sell on your hands unless you’re talking to Baen.

Reading the current field can save you from those embarrassing blunders, where you think you’ve come up with a story that is, like, totally, breath-takingly original– Hah, she’s an AI! Betcha didn’t see that coming! –only to have every submission whirl back to you like a boomerang because this is a story that editors have seen forty-seven million times.

As much as speculative fiction plays with the future (or alternate histories) it, like all fiction, exists in dialogue with current social issues. I’d argue social, scientific and technical issues. A modern-day writer in the USA isn’t going to make the mistake, for instance, of writing a story set in the future in which an inventor creates an elaborate device that allows you to contact anyone in the world, download information instantly, get directions and even watch movies and TV on a handheld device. That’s a cellphone; almost everyone you know has one now.

What you might do, however, is come up with a clever idea where people engage in more and more outrageous and dangerous behavior to drive up their approval ratings on some sort of social media platform. Maybe people with high approval/recognition scores even get perks from corporations, stores and name brands because of their recognition. You might this this is fresh and new. If you had read the field, you’d know that it isn’t.

If you’re not reading the current field, you may think your story about migration caused by a warming planet and rising oceans is innovative. It isn’t. It would really help you out if you’ve read recent works that dealt with global warming, so that your story takes an approach that is  new, speaks to you personally, and hasn’t been done and overdone.

Another reason to read the field? Inspiration. The arts exist in dialogue and community with other art forms, and with forms within their field. Reading a tough, thought-provoking series like N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth may spark a thought, a completely random one, that’s going to lead to a breakthrough for you. The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal’s inspiring alternate history book might make you wonder what life on earth would be like, if an asteroid did the kind of damage she imagines. Her books deal with going into space; there’s plenty of room to play with the changes people make to survive and thrive. If science article or tech articles can inspire, why not the literature of the field?

If you have thoughts about why you should read your field, I’d love to see them in the comments. If you believe being current is unnecessary, I’d like to see your thoughts about that too.

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The Mystery of Royalties

In the past, royalties were as mysterious to me as alchemy. Now I have some though, so I have undertaken a study of these arcane payments.  I’m here to report out to you what I have learned.

The Oxford Dictionary defines royalties as payments made to a patent-holder, author or composer of a work for each use of that work, or for each copy sold of that work in the case of books. For most writers this is a percentage of the cover price.

With books, writers usually get paid in two kinds of ways; royalties, and advances against royalties. The Big Five/New York publishers; Hachette, MacMillian, Simon and Schuster, Penguin Random House and Harper Collins, almost always pay an advance. As the name implies and the full name states, this payment is against future royalties. If you get $50,000 up front for your book, the publisher takes a bigger chunk of your royalties until they recoup the $50,000. Many advances are split into two or more payments; one (half) on signing the contract, the second when the book is delivered, or published, or whatever the contract says.

Legally, if the writer has met their part of the contract and delivered the book, the publisher cannot demand the advance back if the book doesn’t earn enough for them to recoup it. If the writer fails to deliver, they can (and have) demanded the return of the advance.

If a book doesn’t “earn out its advance,” though, the author is no longer considered a good risk. As a reader, have you ever found a series you liked, that ended abruptly mid-story (no, I don’t mean George RR Martin’s epic, but other ones)? That might be because the books were not good earners, and the Big Five publisher doesn’t particularly care that there are thousands of ardent fans waiting for Book Three.

Smaller presses and indie presses may choose to offer no-advance contacts. This is mainly a way to be sure they stay profitable and are able to pay their writers what they promised. A shoestring operation isn’t going to embrace the idea of fronting money for something they haven’t seen yet.

And how much is a royalty, percentage-wise? I think this can change from publisher to publisher, but in my case it’s something like this:

  • for hardcopy books, 10% of the cover price. For every hardcopy of Aluminum Leaves sold, I get $.69.
  • for electronic books (Kindle) I get 50% of the publisher’s proceeds. Amazon takes about 30% off the top (I assume that’s the same for hardcopy books) and the remainder goes to the publisher. I get half of that. Let’s say it’s 35% of the purchase price, which sounds awesome, until you remember that ebooks run between $.99 and $3.99, and Amazon chooses to set the price. I make (I think) 3 ½ cents on each $.99 cent Kindle sale. At $3.99 I’d a little better. I would make over a dollar! I don’t think Amazon has offered Aluminum Leaves for $3.99 yet, nor ever will.
  • add into that mix Kindle Unlimited. KU offers the first ten pages of a book for free. If you read them and you’re hooked, you can buy the Kindle book. Amazon tracks the number of pages read, applies a formula and uses that to give the publisher a figure and a payment that represents, in Amazon’s mind anyway, the number of books that were sold via KU. It’s probably not quite the actual page count of the book.

Royalty payments are made either quarterly or semi-annually, and the payments usually come at least a month (more likely two months) after the quarter ends. This is to let the publisher adjust for returned books, and, let’s face it, any business is going to hold on to Accounts Payable money as long as they can to squeeze out those few pennies of interest. In my case, the pay schedule is addressed in my contract, and so far, with one payment, they’ve followed the contract.

So, that’s what I’ve learned so far. This doesn’t address things like audio rights, about which I know nothing. Maybe I’ll have more to share later on. As for now, I got my first royalty statement and my first royalty check, and I can take Spouse and me out to dinner, as long as it’s at a food truck or the burrito place, and Spouse springs for the drinks.

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The SFWA Nebula Reading Suggestions

When I met John Hartness at AtomaCon, he told me that he had put Aluminum Leaves on the SFWA suggested reading list for the Nebulas.

I’m excited to be on this list. The Nebula is voted on by SFWA members, but being on the list is a definite plus. It raises the profile of the story, and that can only be good.

Take a look at the list, and then flip over and browse the novels list. Great books on here!

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