Good Tech, Better Tech, Really Good Tech

I’m as fond of toys as the next she-geek, but Really Good Tech — as in, the stuff that gets replaced at once, no question, if and when it ever dies — is something else again. In my book, to qualify for that title, the piece of technology involved has to:

1. be better than I am
2. at something I really hate doing
3. that nevertheless is usually my job to get done anyway.

This rules out my e-book reader, much as I adore it, because it just facilitates something that I’d enjoy doing regardless of the tech involved. The same goes for my crockpot, no matter how much I rely on it, because I could always fall back on the dutch oven if I had to. In fact, there are only four items, at the moment, that make my Really Good Tech list:

  • The computer/word processor/printer combination. Not for writing, but for turning what I write into a submittable electronic or paper MS. I’m enough of a dinosaur to remember the bad old days, when it would take me half an hour and an unconscionable amount of White-Out to produce a single page of submission-quality typescript. There’s a reason I didn’t start getting published until we got our first computer, the Atari 800 of blessed memory.
  • The GPS for our auto. Because it used to be me riding shotgun with my lap full of maps and triptiks, frantically doing arithmetic (at which I suck) in order to answer urgent questions like “How many minutes until our next exit?” and “What’s our current projected arrival time?”
  • The dishwasher. Because it maintains the fragile barrier between us and total (as opposed to merely partial) household disarray, and without it I would fall behind in the dishwashing and never catch up again.
  • The rice cooker. Because while it only does one thing, it does that one thing right every single time, whereas rice cookery by any other method, for me, is a project with only about a 50% chance of success.

I’ve been giving considerable thought to adding the electric wok to the shortlist, but I’m still on the fence about that one.  I could fake stir-frying in a different pan, or I could adjust my meal plans to make up for the loss if I had to, and besides, I kind of enjoy cooking and I’m not all that bad at it . . . on the other hand, I really like having a proper wok.

The observant reader will have noticed that only one of the items on the Really Good Tech list has anything to do with writing, and the one that does, has more to do with the mechanical end of the job than the creative end.  All you really need for the creative end are the contents of your own head and some means — pencil and paper, typewriter, dictaphone, computer, whatever you’ve got handy — of getting them fixed in permanent form.

For the mechanical end, there’s no magic in either retro or cutting-edge technology.  Use whatever tech you like and can afford and are comfortable with, so long as it can get your material to the marketplace in a form that the marketplace can handle.

The More Things Change

I’ve said for a long time that the generic publishing-industry headline is “Big Changes Ahead for Publishers; Writers to be Adversely Affected.” Most working writers — like self-employed freelancers in other fields — have by necessity got their strategies fine-tuned to meet the current conditions.  Any change in those conditions is going to make their strategies unstable or unworkable, and they’re going to have to devote time and thought to changing them, instead of spending that time and thought on writing.

Understandably, this does not make writers happy.  It’s hard to concentrate on long-term strategy when you’re dealing with the fact that a previously-reliable part of your income stream has suddenly dried up or gone wonky. The body and brain have this inconvenient habit of insisting on “Food — now!” without caring whether or not there’s money in the bank to pay for it.

It’s All in Your Head

Or too much of it is, anyway.  When it comes to stating — or not stating — the obvious, it’s possible to be too subtle for your own good.

I’m talking here about the kind of excessive subtlety that leads to what are sometimes called “head stories” — which is to say, the particular kind of flawed story you get when there are elements of it that are so obvious to the writer that they aren’t mentioned in the text.  They never make it out of the writer’s head; hence the name.

But readers can only read texts, not minds.  If you don’t put that material down on the page — or don’t at least put down enough of it that they can reasonably infer the rest — then they won’t ever know that it’s there.

If you’ve got something crucial to your story that you want the reader to work out by inference from the clues supplied, then you need to, first, make certain that you have in fact supplied enough clues for the reader to draw the desired inference; and second, make certain that you give the reader confirmation at some point that he or she has interpreted the matter correctly.  (This confirmation is one of the strings that can be usefully tied up in the story’s denouement.)

How many hints or clues are enough?  As always with writing, it depends — but three is a nice round number.  Western-influenced people tend to regard three as significant and memorable; we show it in sayings like “Third time’s the charm” or “Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action.”  If something is called to our attention three times, we’re going to assume that the writer had a reason for waving it in our faces like that.  Also — when supplying the clues, remember that you have privileged knowledge that the reader does not; therefore, what is screamingly obvious to you may not be so to anybody else.

As a general rule, the answer to the question, “Am I being too obvious here?” is usually, “No.”  If you are being too obvious, your first reader or your editor will probably tell you.

In It for the Long Haul

It’s one thing to write a polished, even gripping, opening chapter (since opening chapters are the ones most frequently workshopped and otherwise shown around, they’re usually the ones that get the most feedback.)  It’s another thing to maintain that level for an entire novel.

Unfortunately, structure and pacing are important to editors when they get around to judging the whole book.  Editors want to see whether a writer can sustain interest through the long middle parts without letting the pace of the story flag,  and whether he or she can avoid getting distracted by unnecessary details and by subplots that go nowhere,  and whether he or she can resist the temptation to skip important plot and character stuff and rush the story in haste to get to the end.  They also want to see if the writer can in fact end a book effectively — not winding things up too fast, not dragging the end out too long, not failing to supply a sufficiently impressive fireworks show for the grand finale.

In truth, however, messing up the middle of the book is far more likely to be fatal than not being absolutely perfect at the end.  By the time the readers have reached the final chapters, they’ve invested enough time and thought in the story that a lot of technical problems with the ending will be forgiven, just so long as the readers don’t feel cheated of something they’ve come to feel is owed to them by the story.  Any number of really good writers have wobbled on the dismount, as it were — Tolkien ended the Lord of the Rings trilogy at least three times before finally letting his readers stagger off into the appendices, for example, but most of his readers don’t feel cheated by the excess.

But this is why editors want to see the traditional “three chapters and an outline” even for query letters, and why the first thing they’re going to say, when you eventually get a nibble, is, “Send me the whole book.”

The Nature of the Beast

Most writers (and by that, like most writers, I mean “most writers who are like me, but not the other ones”) don’t spend a lot of time before or during the writing of a particular piece in fretting about whether it’s straight science fiction/fantasy or magical realism.  We write the story, and worry about determining its genre afterward — or we let the editor and the publisher and the readers worry about it, which is easier, and lets us get on to the next project.

There are a lot of theories about the difference between straight science fiction/fantasy  and magical realism.  For my money, the big difference between the two is that in straight sf/fantasy the non-realistic elements are meant to be regarded as actually there and actually happening (the elves are real and physically present elves; the spaceship is a real spaceship and not — or at any rate, not just –a metaphor for escape; the zombies really are a shambling undead menace and they really do want to eat your brains); but in magical realism, the non-realistic elements serve mainly as extended metaphors.

That’s an incomplete definition, of course.  In my more cynical moments, I suspect that in the end the determination of the story’s genre will be done by whatever market you sell it to.  If it goes to one of the mainstream markets — places like The New Yorker or The Atlantic (hey, why not think big?) or one of the literary magazines — it’ll probably be classified as magical realism, or possibly as “slipstream” if they’re trying to be genre-friendly.  If it goes to one of the sf/fantasy magazines, then it will be known as sf/fantasy for the rest of its natural life.

My own inclination, with an edge-case story like that, would be to try for the mainstream commercial magazines first, on the grounds that while they’re a long shot, they pay really well and publication there brings instant recognition.  After that, unless I had a strong reason not to want my story identified as sf/fantasy, I’d probably bypass the literary magazines and go straight to the sf/fantasy mags, because by and large the literary magazines pay more in prestige than they do in cash.

It used to be The Atlantic Monthly, but they changed the name after they stopped putting out twelve issues a year.

Thought for the Day

The shape of a good story in usually implied in all of its parts, including the beginning.

It’s always a good sign when the reader is able to guess at that ultimate shape from reading the first two or three chapters, rather like a paleontologist inferring the shape of a T-Rex from a couple of bones.  Conversely, if the animal as ultimately reconstructed turns out to be wildly different from the one suggested by that first handful of bones, an acute observer may well conclude that something went wrong — either in the final assembly, or in the selection of parts.

Most readers are more acute observers than you might think.  And writing a story whose front end promises something that the rest of the story doesn’t deliver is a prime route to reader disgruntlement.

Follow-Up: Apple-Pie Order

Because I can’t hand out physical samples in a virtual world, the apple pie recipe:

Apple Pie

  • 5 large apples or 9 small ones (about 1 and 3/4 pounds — a mixture of two or more pie-apple types is best), cored, peeled, and thinly sliced.
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 T cornstarch
  • 1 T butter
  • 1 tsp grated lemon peel (fresh!)
  • sprinkling of fine tapioca

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

Line a pie pan with pastry.  (Use what ever pie crust recipe suits you.  These days, the store-bought uncooked pie crusts from the refrigerator case, that you unroll from their waxed-paper wrappers, have reached a respectable level of edibility, which is a good thing if you’re in a hurry, or if you’ve never had the proverbial light hand for pastry.)

If you’re making a two-crust pie, moisten the edges of the lower crust. Sprinkle the bottom of the pie crust with the fine tapioca.

Mix together the sugars, spices, and cornstarch.

Fill the pie crust with the thinly-sliced apples:  Place slices around the edges of the pie pan, then pile the rest in layers.  As you make the layers, interleave the apple slices with sugar, gratings of lemon, and dots of butter.

Top with either the other pie crust (pricked or cut to vent steam) or with streusel (see below.)

Bake 15 minutes at 450; lower the heat to 375 and cook another  25-30 minutes.

Serve hot, warm, or cool (if it lasts that long.)


  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2 T sugar
  • 1 T cinnamon
  • 1 cup flour

Cream butter; add sugar and cinnamon mixture alternately with flour.  Blend until crumbly.

The most recent apple assortment we’ve been using is a combination of Granny Smith, Macintosh, Rome, and Lady Alice apples.  These are all good baking or baking/eating apples.  What you don’t want are Red or Golden Delicious, or any of the other varieties that are meant to be eaten out of hand rather than cooked.  They will make your pie filling turn out mushy, and you don’t want that.  The filling in a good apple pie, like the prose in a good short story or novel, should be crisp and toothsome.

(Admit it.  You were waiting to see how I was going to work in the obligatory writing reference.)

The Return of Pie

We had apple pie for dessert tonight.  My husband and co-author is the household’s designated piemaker, and he does a mean apple pie.  One of his secrets: using two or more different types of apple.  Tonight’s pie featured a couple of Granny Smiths, a Macintosh, and two large Rome apples.  Why more than one type of apple?  Because it give a depth and complexity of flavor that you just don’t get in pies made with a single variety of apple.

And this is related to writing, how?

Just as a pie is better when it’s made with more than one variety of apple, a novel is better when it doesn’t just have a single mood or tone.  Horror is made more frightening by being lightened from time to time with humor; adventure and mystery can often benefit from a dollop of romance.  The contrast works to add depth, and the relief of tension lures readers into a momentary security.  And it’s the momentary security that makes them jump even higher when the surprise twist comes around.

Why Mary Sue?

(As opposed to Marty, Gary, Sebastian, or Tom-Dick-or-Harry Sue.)

Well . . .

To begin with, Mary Sue was first identified in the wild in her female form, and therefore her name provides an umbrella term for the whole category. If a reader says of a male character, “He’s just another damned Mary Sue,” a listener familiar with the terminology will have no trouble figuring out exactly what the problem with that character is.

In addition, fanfic, where the term originated, was historically (and still remains) heavily though not exclusively a female activity.  It’s one of the few areas of endeavor that I know of where the default pronoun is in fact “she.” The Mary Sues that show up in fanfic are more likely to be female on that account.

Finally, male characters in popular fiction are more or less expected to be larger than life; nothing cultural is transgressed against when that happens. On the other hand, watch out for those sensitive, quiet, intellectual male characters, especially those of artistic bent. When looked at carefully, they often bear an uncanny resemblance to, if not the author, at least the author’s much nicer second cousin.