Some Days are Like That

You get a lot of stuff done — really necessary stuff, too — but none of it is writing-related, so you finish the day feeling like you haven’t done anything at all.

At times like these, it’s important to remember that taking the trash to the town dump is also a vitally important chore, because if it doesn’t get done, eventually the trash bags will take over the entire house and you won’t have any room left in which to write.

That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.

The Hazards of the New

The other day I tried a new recipe — Pollo Oaxaca, from — and as I did so, I had some thoughts about writing.  (Writers can relate almost anything to writing.  But it was my co-author who explained how a lime pie is like a short story.)

Although I’d decided to try this recipe, I still had misgivings.  For one thing, it was green.  Tomatillos, cilantro, and jalapeños, put through a food processor with some garlic and onion and lime juice, are never going to be any other color.  And green food is always an iffy proposition, even for an audience that will happily eat pasta with pesto (known around the house as “green slime sauce”, because, well, it is) and spinach lasagna and pork stew with green chiles.  For another, it was spicy — and again, even when you’re playing for an audience that likes things rather more spicy than otherwise, there’s no telling whether or not a particular combination is going to please.

It didn’t help that I’d had a recent experiment with a recipe for curry meet with a distinct lack of enthusiasm from all parties, including me.  (I’ve more or less decided that Indian food goes into the category of “things I will pay somebody else to cook for me.”)  There’s nothing like a recent lackluster effort to put one off of the idea of making another experiment.

Writing is the same way.  It’s tempting to keep the same list of known reliable dishes in regular rotation.  You know how to make them, your audience likes them, you tend to have most of the ingredients right there in the pantry, it’s all good.  Sometimes, though, you want to expand your range a bit — you want to do the writer’s equivalent of trying out a new regional cuisine, or some new ingredients, or a new kitchen technique.  Maybe you’ve always written romance, and you want to write a gritty, noir-tinged mystery for a change.  Or maybe you write hard science fiction, and you want to add a romantic relationship to all the rivets and equations.  Or maybe you want to try something risky with narrative voice or chronological order or point of view.

And you’re scared.  Because maybe your audience will devour it with glad cries of great joy, and demand that you add this one to the regular list.  But maybe they’ll taste it, and eat just enough to be polite (if you’re lucky and their mamas raised them right), and say that they’re sure you must have worked hard on it but they really don’t think it’s a keeper.  And there’s nothing you can say to that, because if they don’t like it, they don’t like it, and you don’t get points for effort in this game.

But the thing is, you have to try new things.  Otherwise, you’ll end up cooking the same dozen or so meals over and over again, and eventually your audience will get bored, and so will you.

(Oh.  Yes.  That chicken recipe I linked to up above . . . it was declared a keeper.)

Q and A

Dear Dr. Doyle:

What am I allowed to write about?



Dear Worried:

You’re allowed to write about whatever you damned well please.

You just have to be willing to accept the consequences.

In some times and places, those consequences may be political, and they may be severe.  In which case, good luck and may the blessings of whatever deity, if any, you prefer be upon you, because you’ll need them. In other times and places . . . somebody you’ve never met may say unkind things about you on the internet.  Which is no fun, to be sure, but on a scale of zero to “taken outside and shot” is maybe a three.

What should you do if strangers are saying unkind things about you on the internet?  Most of the time — nothing.

If you’ve actually screwed up, apologize.  Then get back to work and do better the next time.

If, upon sober reflection, you decide that you haven’t done anything you’re sorry for — don’t fake it.  Get back to work and don’t waste your energy on an argument that nobody’s going to win.

Remember — if you’re arguing, you aren’t writing.  Let your work make your arguments for you.

Peeve of the Day

Today’s featured peeve:  People who don’t know how to use “y’all” correctly when they’re writing — or, more accurately, trying to write — a southern dialect, and who persist in using it in the singular, rather than as the second-person plural that it properly is.

Because I have to say that I was born in Florida, was raised in Florida and Texas, and did my undergraduate work in Arkansas, and I’ve never in all my born days heard “y’all” used as a singular.

There are nuances, though . . . if I were to say to one person, “Why don’t y’all come over on Saturday night?”, the expanded version of that sentence would be something like, “Why don’t you and your significant other and all the kids (and Great-aunt Millie, if she’s visiting with you this week) come over on Saturday night?” Also, if I were to inquire of a lone sales clerk, “Do y’all have a left-handed frammistat?” I would be asking whether the store of which he/she is a representative had one in stock. If I said, “Do you have a left-handed frammistat?” I’d be asking whether he/she personally owned one.

I suspect that the reason “y’all”, like the coyote, is expanding its range where some other dialect formations are losing theirs is that while it’s marked for region, it isn’t especially marked for class — in the parts of the U.S. where it’s prevalent, it’s prevalent across the board.

This is a more common offense in television and film than in written fiction, possibly because legions of unsung copyeditors have been helping to hold the line. But even written fiction gets it wrong sometimes.

What He Said.

I was going to write a post about this:  ‘Libraries Have Had Their Day,’ Says ‘Horrible Histories’ Author.

But then I went on the road for a week, and when I came back the estimable John Scalzi was already on the case:  A Personal History of Libraries.

I can’t help but think that there are two kinds of people who believe that shutting down public libraries is a good idea:  the ones who, not being bookish people themselves, have no idea how important libraries are to people, bookish or otherwise, on limited budgets; and the ones who know exactly how important library access is to such people, and have their own selfish reasons for wanting to deny it to them.

(We need a better class of robber baron for this new Gilded Age of ours.  At least Andrew Carnegie built libraries, instead of trying to tear them down.)

Tying Up the Loose Ends

The hardest part of a novel, sometimes, is ending it.

Because you can’t just bring the thing to a halt at the end of the main action, no matter how greatly you may be tempted.  You have do the wrap-up, the bit where — if the book in question were a fat Victorian novel — the reader would be told who got married, and who took his prize money and bought a tavern, and who took off for Australia or the Yukon and was never seen again.  This would be the classic Where Are They Now epilogue.

How long should the wrap-up be?  Unhelpfully, the best answer is “long enough.”  A short story can wrap up in a single paragraph, or a single sentence.  A novel takes longer — the longer the main story, the more wrap-up time it’s going to need.  Tolkien is notorious for ending The Lord of the Rings four times before he’s done — taking the hobbits in stages back the way they came from Gondor to the Shire, closing all his parentheses in order.

Return from the Road

I’m back in the frozen north after a week in Boston and points south; regular blogging will probably resume tomorrow.

In the meantime, have a recipe:

Fresh Salsa

  • 1 onion, quartered
  • about 1/4 of a bunch of fresh cilantro (depending upon taste and how big your grocery’s bunches are)
  • 5 or 6 nacho jalapeño rings
  • red pepper flakes to taste
  • 4 or 5 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1 can of diced tomatoes with green peppers, drained (you could use fresh tomatoes, if you live where fresh tomatoes are plentiful and cheap and good.  I live in northern New England, where the local cookery tradition has a lot of recipes for what to do with green tomatoes that haven’t ripened by the time the first frost comes around.)
  • cumin, to taste (start with about a quarter-teaspoon and work up)
  • pinch of salt

Put the onion, garlic, cilantro, jalapeño rings, cumin, and red pepper flakes in the food processor.  Run it on pulse until the onions and other stuff are at the state of chunkiness you prefer for your salsa.  I like mine chopped fine but still recognizable as separate substances, not a unified puree.

Add the can of drained diced tomatoes.  Pulse once or twice more, carefully — you don’t want the tomatoes turning into a mush.

Remove the salsa to a container with a lid.  Add the pinch of salt.  Stir gently, put the lid on the container, and refrigerate it.

This will keep for several days in the refrigerator, probably longer — I’ve never had it stay around long enough to go bad, anyhow.


The novel, that is.  At 4:45 on Friday morning.

Now it’s Saturday, and I’m at Boskone, enjoying the rewards of virtue, which include sleeping last night for eleven hours straight.

I won’t be sending in the novel until around Wednesday, because I have to clean up the formatting first.  By the time I finished it in the wee hours of Friday morning, an entire chapter could have been replaced by the Declaration of Independence and typeset in WingDings, and I wouldn’t have been able to spot it.

What I’m Doing This Weekend

I’m going to be at the Boskone science fiction convention at the Westin Waterfront Hotel in Boston, is what I’m going to be doing.

My schedule:

Friday 20:00 – 20:50, Mythology in Science Fiction, Burroughs ( Westin)
How have myths and fables from our past affected SF writers’ development of fictitious off-world or future-world mythology? Are most of their myth systems just the old stuff dressed up with different names, or is anybody coming up with anything truly new? Does a mere hint of myth make an SF story a fantasy?

Saturday 12:00 – 13:00, Kaffeeklatsche, Galleria-Kaffeeklatsch 1 ( Westin)
Debra Doyle, James D. Macdonald

Saturday 16:00 – 16:50, The Two Sides of Gollum, Harbor I ( Westin)
Gollum is unique: there’s nobody quite like him in fantasy (or is there?) And in many ways, he is the true tragic here of the Lord of the Rings, evoking at times anger, contempt, and pity from the readers. The panel looks at the character of Gollum (whether Stinker or Slinker) and how he fits into Tolkien’s world and Tolkien’s story.

Saturday 17:30 – 17:55, Reading, Lewis ( Westin)
Debra Doyle, James D. Macdonald

Sunday 11:00 – 12:00, Autographing, Galleria-Autographing ( Westin)
Debra Doyle, S. C. Butler, James D. Macdonald

Sunday 12:00 – 12:50, Futurespeak: the Evolution of English and More, Griffin ( Westin)
Will English still be the world’s most widely used language 50, 100, or 500 years from now? How might it sound or be written differently then? Which writers are ut klude to tomorotalk?

So if I’m not posting here for the next few days, that’s why.


I’ve either got a slight but wearying cold or a bad case of three-scenes-left-in-the-novel — whichever one it is, it’s got me feeling cranky and distracted. (For example, I lay in bed for about five minutes this morning, on the cusp between sleep and waking, while my mind tried to settle on whether today was Thursday or Friday. Eventually I woke up enough to tell myself, “It’s Wednesday, stupid,” but yeah. Distracted.)

The problem with the three scenes left in the novel is that in order to make one of them work, I’m going have to go back and tweak about four or five other scenes, because in order for the character in question to do the thing he’s about to do, it turns out that he needs to know something that he currently doesn’t. I could just tell myself, “Assume the knowledge and fix it in the revisions”, but my mind doesn’t work that way. If I don’t go back and fix those bits, the scene will stubbornly refuse to gel.

At this final stage of the game, my distractability level is always high, because so much of my mind is somewhere else altogether. At times, this can bring on a blessed kind of tunnel vision, where all worries that aren’t the book fall away for a while; at other times, all it does is make me more likely to walk into both literal and metaphorical walls.