Retrospective: A Year in First-of-the-Month Blog Posts

New Year’s Day
My mother always used to say, “What you do on New Year’s Day, you’ll do for the rest of the year.”

Son of Comma-tose
As I’ve mentioned before
, a lot of comma usage is a matter of individual style and taste.

What’s in a Name?
It’s a sad fact that short stories and novels have to have titles.

Chasing the White Whale
An outside observer, surveying the existing canon of the science fiction genre, might well be forgiven for asking, “What is it about sf writers and Moby-Dick?”

More from the Department of Nifty Stuff
Because writers, as I’ve observed before, are intellectual packrats who gather up odd bits of information just in case they may need one of them someday: The scholarly hairdresser who figured out how to do the Vestal Virgins’ seven-braid hairdo also takes on 18th-19th century papillote curls — the “curling-papers” we read about in period fiction.

The Benefits of Forethought
A line of thunderstorms rumbled through northern New England late this afternoon, knocking the power out in our town(among a whole bunch of other towns) for over four hours, right about dinnertime.

The Return of Mindless Cookery for Distracted Writers
Another dead-simple recipe for nights when your brain isn’t up to anything more elaborate.

How Long is a Piece of String?
I finished a short story this evening, just barely making the deadline.

Sultry Weather
Hot and humid, with thunderstorms happening in random places that aren’t here.

Back from the Road
I’m back in town after a long weekend in Montreal (lovely city, and in fact closer to us than Boston); in lieu of anything more substantive, have a couple of amusing links:

Now This is Neat
A Roman-era sculpture of an eagle with a serpent in its beak has been found at a development site in the City of London.

Peeve of the Day
Today’s peeve, gentlebeings and fellow wordsmiths, is that pair of weasel words, “somehow” and “something.”

Back Again

Returning from the land of holiday distraction….

I have a new pair of L. L. Bean fleece-lined slippers.  My feet are warm.

The various and assorted Christmas gifts for the various and assorted family members were all properly appreciated (which is always a relief — all it takes is having a gift-choice turn out wrong once to make you twitchy forever afterward.)

The Christmas dinner crown roast of pork turned out well, as did the five different pies, of which we still have about two slices each of apple and cherry left, and maybe four slices of blueberry.  The maple cream and the pumpkin are both gone, gone, gone.

And I need to get back to work.

A word to the wise: If you’ve got a pair of young twins, and they both, separately, tell you that they want a particular thing for Christmas . . . do not decide that it would be a good idea to get one of it for them to share. Just don’t.

Another Nifty Thing

People at the University of Turin (and at the University of Pisa, and at the University of Mississippi, among other places) are digitizing the Vercelli Book, and the beta version is now on-line.  The Vercelli Book is the Old English manuscript that contains, among other things, the poem known as “The Dream of the Rood” — “A Vision of the True Cross” would be a more accurate title, in my opinion, but custom is custom.

Seriously, folks, I would have given my eye-teeth for something like this back when I was studying Old English in graduate school.  And the on-line grammars, and the on-line dictionaries . . . I counted myself fortunate, in those days, that I was able to convince my parents that copies of Bosworth-Toller (the big fat dictionary for Old English) and Cleasby-Vigfusson (the equivalent for Old Icelandic) made excellent Christmas and birthday presents.  Given their size and weight, they also made excellent doorstops.

Why are Italian universities spearheading the Vercelli digitization project?  Well . . . the Vercelli Book is called the Vercelli Book because it lives in the library of the cathedral in Vercelli, Italy.  How a collection of Old English poetry ended up in Italy nobody is certain, but it’s been there since the 11th century at least.  (Things became unsettled, to put it mildly, in England during the latter part of the 11th century; it’s possible the manuscript left home at that time.  But nobody knows for sure.)

We’ve come a long way since the days when putting together a grammar or a dictionary or a variorum edition meant working with stacks and stacks of index cards.  God, I love technology.

More from the Department of Nifty Stuff

Why didn’t I know before now that the Oxford English Dictionary has a blog?

(Where I learn, among other things, that my birth-year new word is “noshery.”  I suppose I could try again and get a different one, but that would be cheating.)

And then, from YouTube, there’s this:  a song about Jólakötturinn , the Icelandic Christmas Cat (who is Not a Nice Kitty):

I think we have here an explanation for the Christmas Sweater tradition….

Amusements for the Coming Solstice

I could have saved this for posting a bit closer to the day, but by that time we’re going to have a house full of people and I’ll be lucky to get up a few sentences griping about punctuation trivia.  That being the case, herewith a few of my favorite winter-holiday stories and characters from both written and visual media:

  • The visit from Saint Nicholas at Christmas in Nazi-occupied Holland in Hilda Van Stockum’s The Winged Watchman — I read this one when I was a kid, and it helped start me off on my ongoing fascination with history and the people who were part of it.
  • Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, whose arrival with gifts for the Pevensie children signals the end in Narnia of “always winter and never Christmas.”
  • The New Year’s feast at Camelot that kicks off Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  For those who feel up to tackling the thorny Middle English dialect of the original, there’s a text on-line here. My co-author and I liked it so much, in fact, we wrote our own short story about the events of that particular Arthurian feast, “Holly and Ivy.”
  • The third-season Christmas episode of Supernatural, for the way that it combines the Winchester brothers’ childhood memories of The Worst Christmas Ever (everybody has at least one of those in their memory book) with the sense of impending doom that hung over all the episodes of that particular season, and still manages to finish up the episode on a warm, if bittersweet, note.
  • The first Die Hard movie.  (Of the others in the franchise, we will not speak, except to say that I’m happy Bruce Willis has a long-running franchise to keep his own Christmas stocking full.)  Underneath all the blood and explosions, it’s a romantic comedy for the Christmas season . . . how often, after all, do you get a rom-com where the hero is literally willing to walk barefoot over broken glass for the sake of his one true love?

Peeve of the Day

Today’s double-barreled peeve:

It’s not “making due”, it’s “making do,” as in “I don’t have any heavy cream so I’ll just have to make do with half-and-half.”

And it’s not “tow the line”, it’s “toe the line.”  The line in question is not a length of rope that’s being used to pull something along; it’s a line drawn in the sand, or on the sidewalk, or any place else where people are expected to arrange themselves along it in conformation with the wishes of some outside authority.  “In this office, you don’t complain if you want to keep your job; you shut up and you toe the line.”

More From the Department of Interesting Stuff

A couple of interesting links:

The British Museum (with help from Microsoft, who did the digitization) has released over a million images from books of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries onto the internet.  A few of the highlights are here.

With the end of the year coming up, a lot of people are posting their best-reads of the year list.  Science fiction author Fran Wilde has an interesting one, here.  Full disclosure:  my co-author and I have a story on the list.

Structural and Cosmetic Renovations

There are two kinds of writers, the ones who like cats and the ones who don’t   the ones who prefer music while they’re writing and the ones who need absolute silence the ones who find revision to be at best a painful but necessary chore and the ones who think that it’s the best part of the writing process.  What there aren’t, though, are successful writers who never revise at all.  Those rare writers whose first drafts come out submission-ready usually turn out to have gone through the whole process in detail inside their own heads before they ever start putting down words on screen or paper.  But even the writers who enjoy the revision stage of the process have parts of it they like better than others.

There are, as it happens, at least two different kinds or stages of revision.  One is major structural revision, the sort of work that involves disassembling large chunks of the manuscript and putting them back together in a different configuration, often with new material added in.  This can be a tough job, because it requires holding in your head both the story as it currently exists and the story you want to morph it into, all the while doing the cutting and pasting of the old stuff and the creating of new stuff.  The advent of word processing has made this part a lot easier — time was when “cut and paste” was not just a metaphor, it was the literal way the job was done.

I was around for the tail end of that era, when the “paste” part had been replaced by “transparent tape”, and if you did the work carefully enough and had access to a good Xerox machine, you didn’t have to retype the whole thing all over again.  But within a year of my finishing my dissertation, we had our first household computer-and-printer lashup, and I was happy to bid the old ways goodbye.

The other main type of revision is the line-by-line and word-by-word tweaking of the piece in question, with the goal of making it run as clearly and effectively and, well, tunefully as possible.  This is the part that I’ve always liked best, playing with the words and the sentence rhythms and the paragraph beats, getting the sounds of the piece to fall into line.  (Other people, it’s only fair to say, find this part to be not much better than drudgery.  It takes all kinds.)

And after that, of course, you come to the kind of revision that isn’t really revision at all, it’s stalling.  When you get to the point where you’re putting commas in during the morning and taking them out again in the afternoon, and then going back the next day and rewriting half of the same sentences with semicolons and then reverting them to commas again — at that point, my friend, you’re mostly working to put off the day when you’re going to have to rename your “NameOfStory working draft” to “NameOfStory final version” and get the thing out of the house and into somebody’s submissions queue.

A Recipe — and Some Thoughts on Theme and Incident

First, the recipe, which is a variation on your basic Alfredo sauce.

Hot and Spicy Alfredo Sauce

  • 1/2 cup of butter
  • 1 cup heavy cream (light cream is fine as well)
  • 1 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon of crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco
  • 1 clove of garlic, crushed
  • 1/4 tablespoon of salt
  • Pepper
  • A dash of cayenne pepper


Cook the butter, the pepper flakes and the garlic in a frying pan over low heat until the butter melts. Wait until the garlic turns transparent. Now add the cream and stir well, add 1 cup of the Parmesan cheese and blend. Remove from heat, add Tabasco, cayenne, salt and pepper and stir well.

Toss it over your pasta and add the remaining Parmesan cheese.

As you can see, this begins as a standard Alfredo sauce, but it has hot red pepper added to it in three different forms.  In much the same way, a standard plot may be made more complex and interesting by the addition of exciting ingredients — pirates, maybe, or political shenanigans, or the sudden discovery that one of the parties involved in a relationship is not necessarily what they seem to be.  What things should be added will depend on the base story, of course; a realistic narrative of suburban angst and adultery, for example, is unlikely to have a plausible reason for the inclusion of pirates (though if such a trick could be carried off, it would be awesome.)

Then we come to the next stage of the recipe, in which we make the hot and spicy pasta Alfredo into a more substantial entrée:

Hot and Spicy Chicken Alfredo

Take about a pound of chicken tenders, or a boneless chicken breast.  (I suppose you could use boneless thighs, if you like dark meat, but I tend to save the thighs for more slow-cooked dishes.)  Cut the meat up into 1-inch chunks.  Put a bit of oil in the pan you’re going to be using for the sauce, and saute the chicken chunks until they’re white clear through.  Remove them from the pan, and proceed with the recipe as above.  Add the cooked chicken chunks at the end, just before tossing the sauce with the pasta.

By adding the chicken, you’ve made your pasta dish heartier, and more full of protein.  (You’ve also stretched one pound or less of chicken to feed several people, if that’s your primary concern.)  In the same way, you can make your spiced-up standard plot more substantial by working in some meaty thematic material — the issues the story is thinking and talking about that aren’t the basic plot or the exciting details.  And like the cooked chicken, the thematic material needs to be there and waiting before you start messing around with the basic plot (aka the standard sauce) and the exciting details (aka the spices.)