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Farewell to the Island

vpxiGayHead Light




The Viable Paradise workshop is over for another year.  We had writing and music and pancakes and jellyfish and a sky full of stars.  (Also, if you were me, lobster tacos at the Lookout restaurant, and I just have to say, that was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted done to a lobster.)

The photo, by the way, is of the Gay Head Lighthouse on the Cliffs of Aquinnah — one of the five lighthouses on the island.  (The others are East Chop, West Chop, Edgartown, and Cape Pogue.) It’s called “Gay Head” because the headland there is a multi-hued clay cliff.  Obligatory literature reference:  The harpooneer Tashtego, in Moby-Dick, was a Native American from Gay Head.

If you wanted to apply to VP this year and couldn’t make it, next year’s applications open on 1 January 2015.

Busy busy busy

If posting is kind of sparse for a week or so, it’ll  because Jim Macdonald and I are down on Martha’s Vineyard, where we’ll be teaching at the Viable Paradise sf/fantasy writer’s workshop.

As usual, we expect to learn as much as we teach.  There’s something about hanging out with a bunch of fellow writers and talking about technique and craft and what Edward Gorey so aptly referred to as “the unspeakable horror of the literary life” that works that way.

Of Course It’s a Good Post; After All, I Agree with It

Jonathan Owen, over at Arrant Pedantry, on twelve common mistakes made by people who write about grammatical mistakes.

Fair warning, for those who want it:  Like most scholars of linguistics, he’s a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist.  (As the header of this post suggests, so am I.)  If descriptive grammar is the sort of thing that makes your milk of human kindness go all sour and curdled, you probably don’t want to go there.

Gently Does It

Or, yet another cause of reader disgruntlement.

Readers – especially readers of fiction — don’t like being pushed to a particular conclusion.  They want to feel like they got there all by themselves.

Writers, on the other hand, often have specific conclusions that they want their readers to reach: this character is good and noble, and should be loved and respected; that other character is bad and wicked, and deserves whatever bad fate is coming to him or her; this course of action is socially useful and morally desirable and worthy of emulation; that other course of action is thoroughly despicable and morally bankrupt, not to mention just plain tacky.

The urge to make all of these things crystal clear to the reader is a hard one to resist.  But resist it we must, lest our stories end up sounding like the adventures of Goofus and Gallant of Highlights for Children fame.  (Surely I’m not the only person out there who as a young reader used to fantasize about staking out the insufferable Gallant over an anthill?)  I’ve talked before about the dangers of over-subtlety, but this area is one of a handful of places where the big danger lies in the other direction.  When you’re luring the reader to your desired conclusion, you need to be subtle as all heck about it – plant the necessary clues well in advance, but don’t point at them while you’re doing it, and for heaven’s sake don’t have your protagonist monologue about your conclusion afterward.

If you find it hard to tell whether or not you’re being over-obvious – and most of us do, at least some of the time – the answer is the same as it is for worrying about being over-subtle:  Find a trusted beta reader, preferably one who’s coming at the story cold, and ask them.

Then trust their judgment and fix the problem.

This One Brings Up Some Interesting Ideas

A blog post over here, by author Erica Smith, about the ever-present tension in historical fiction/historical romance writing between historical accuracy and reader entertainment.  Do follow the outbound links; they lead to yet more discussion and commentary by other writers in the field.

It’s an ongoing matter of contention, apparently, and (to my eye, at least) yet another angle on an old argument.  Classical tabletop wargamers used to (and for all I know, still do) debate for hours about the relative virtues of simulation and playability – the more accurate the simulation in a particular scenario, the less evenly-balanced the game.  Likewise, back in the days when I was active in the Society for Creative Anachronism, the “fun versus authenticity” debates were a staple of the local discourse.

I’m a big fan of fun and playability, as a general rule (otherwise, I’d never have been able to watch the historical flashbacks in Buffy and Angel with a straight face); but I’m also a fan of historical fiction and romance played according to the strict rules of the game, which includes taking into account the fact that people in the past were not men and women just like us only in funny costumes.

I suppose it’s kind of liking both authentic, straight-from-the-source Italian cooking and the spaghetti-and-meatballs your born-and-raised-in-the-heart-of-Texas mother used to make at home.  Which one you want on a particular day depends a lot upon how you feel at the time . . . and they’re both of them good, too, just as long as you remember that they’re not the same thing.

Public Service Announcement

Have you gotten your flu shot yet?

Jim Macdonald (my husband/co-author) and I got ours last week, as part of our prep for teaching at the Viable Paradise workshop a couple of weeks from now.  A gathering of writers from all over the United States and, in fact, the world — the last time I checked, we had a couple of students coming from overseas, plus a couple of Canadians – is a prime site for the exchange of seasonal maladies, and we didn’t want to be the folks who brought the flu to the gathering, nor yet do we want to bring a sample home.

Our immunizations were covered by our insurance policy (thank you, President Obama, from the bottom of my freelance-writer’s heart!), and yours probably are, too.

Do your bit for herd immunity, for the sake of the allergic and the immunocompromised, who might like to get the shot, but can’t, and who rely on the rest of us to keep epidemics at bay.

A Moderate Glow of Accomplishment

My co-author and I finished a short story the other day.  We’re mostly novelists, so every time we successfully finish a short story, I feel the pleasant glow that comes from having carried off something that doesn’t come naturally.

If you’re one of the novel-writing breed, writing a novel is a lot easier than writing a short story.  It just takes longer.  That by itself, though, is enough to discourage a lot of writers who would be more comfortable working in the longer forms.  If you try something new and ambitious with a short story and it doesn’t work, you’re only out a couple of weeks or so of work – maybe  a month, if you don’t write fast – but if you try something new and ambitious with a novel and get the same result (or lack of it), you’re likely to be out six months or a year, maybe longer, of hard labor.

All I have to say about that is:  The writing life is not one for the risk-averse.

(And there are all kinds of risk-aversion.  The same person who’s willing and eager to bungee-jump off high bridges may freeze up completely at the thought of putting their made-up stories down on paper and asking strangers to pay money for the privilege of reading them.)

Another Nifty Digital Archive

Because the past is another country, but sometimes you can visit it through pictures:

The CARLI Digital Collection, “established in 2006 as a repository for digital content created by member libraries of the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI) or purchased by the consortium for use by its members.”

You can find all sorts of stuff in there, from a photo of the 1908 Pinckneyville Fire Department to a shot of the interior of the Voss Brothers Bicycle Shop in Peoria, Illinois, circa 1920.  They’ve also got Civil War era letter collections, an archive of material dealing with the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair. a collection of plans and drawings for Pullman passenger cars, and lots and lots of campus newsletters and alumni magazines.

It’s the sort of place you can wander around in for hours.

More Mindless Cookery for Distracted Writers

Because there are some days when all you want to do is shove some ingredients into the crockpot and leave them alone for six or eight hours.

(I’ve been having a week like that, full of necessary but distracting things like purchasing a new car – well, to be more specific, a new-to-us car.  Now that we’re no longer transporting our offspring to and from college on a regular basis, there’s no need to continue nursing along the 18-mpg mini-van, so we’ve got a nice 27-mpg hatchback instead.)

Tonight’s dead-simple entrée is Crockpot Chicken Paprikash, which makes no claim to be authentically anything, other than dead simple.


  •     2 medium onions, thinly sliced
  •     1 teaspoon kosher salt
  •     1 tablespoon sweet paprika
  •     1 teaspoon hot paprika (or 1 T plus 1 tsp of whatever paprika you’ve got, plus a pinch of cayenne pepper)
  •    1 garlic clove, peeled and halved
  •   1.5 – 2 pounds boneless chicken thighs, cut up
  •   1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  •   1/2 cup chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
  •   1/2 cup sour cream


In the slow cooker, stir together the sliced onions, the salt, the garlic, and the paprika. Spread the mixture evenly over the bottom of the crock.

Layer the chicken on top of the onion mixture.

Add the stock.  Cook on low for 6-8 hours or until chicken is tender.

Stir the sour cream into the sauce.  Serve over egg noodles.

Optionally, you can cut up and add some mushrooms to the paprika-onion mix.  Very few things are not improved by adding mushrooms.  (The things that aren’t improved by adding mushrooms are usually improved by adding chocolate.)

Besetting Sins

All writers have them – those prose tics they exhibit when the going is either too fast, or too slow, for them to notice the word-by-word; those all-too-easy-to-fall-back-on scenes and tropes that can take the place of carefully-crafted or character-driven plotting*; those personal or political agendas that will take advantage of an unguarded moment to turn sneaky fictional persuasion into open polemic.

One of my own sins is a horror of being too obvious about things.  Taken too far – as will happen, sometimes, despite all efforts to the contrary – this results in a story that lacks clarity because a lot of the necessary connective bits only exist inside my head.

So I’ve had to make a rule for myself:  When in doubt, spell it out.

It’s a useful rule, at least if you’re me, or if that particular writerly sin is one of yours, as well.

Generally speaking, I find that if I have to ask myself, “Self, are you perhaps being a bit over-subtle right here?”  the answer is usually, “Yes.”

Also – as I tell myself from time to time – don’t worry about being too obvious.  It’s actually fairly hard to be too obvious, and if you are being too obvious, trust me, your editor or your beta readers will let you know.

(And if you’re Vladimir Nabokov or James Joyce or Gene Wolfe, then you’re playing a different game altogether and a different set of general rules apply.  Also, you’re probably well beyond needing advice from me on anything, though possibly a good recipe or two might still be useful.) 

*Not that “carefully-crafted” and “character-driven” should be taken as mutually exclusive!

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