Look! A Link!

My spouse and co-author, James D. Macdonald, has some new posts up over at his blog:

One on the start, a hundred years and two days ago, of the Great War, as they called it during the twenty years or so before it became unpleasantly clear that they were going to have to do it all over again, only louder and longer and with more atrocities.

One with a Smashwords coupon code for a free short story by the two of us.

A brief note on Yog’s Law.

And all you need to know about the plot of Great Expectations, in three stanzas.

Go.  Enjoy.

A Handy Trick

Naming characters is always a hassle – I can’t get mine to settle properly in my head until they’ve been correctly bemonickered – and most writers have their favorite resources for the job.  Baby name books and web sites are always good, especially for tales set in contemporary consensus reality, and if your interest is more historical, sites like the Social Security Administration’s Popular Baby Names page will let you search for popular American names by decade going back as far as the 1880s.  I’m sure that other countries have similar resources; the SSA page just happens to be the one I know about firsthand.

If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, though, you’ve got problems.  Good science-fictional names, if you’re going to put some thought into them, are part of the worldbuilding:  You have to make some complex calculations about the probable ethnic makeup of your future society, for example, and about possible changes in naming styles (the all-whitebread science-fictional future is, if not yet completely dead, definitely moribund, and a good thing, too; and while it’s not likely that we’re ever going to see a resurgence of multi-word Puritan-style virtue names of the Praise-God Barebones variety, there’s always the off-chance that some future society may produce dimpled tots named Respect-for-the-Rights-of-Others Herrera or Earth-is-not-the-Only-Planet Jones.)

But if you’re writing fantasy, at least of the pseudo-western-medieval variety, there’s at least one good cheap trick out there:   Grab a copy of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, and steal from there.  Go right past all the too-familiar major characters, and head for the ranks of (sometimes literal) spear-carriers, of which there are a good plenty.  This will give you lots of names which look vaguely western-medieval without belonging to any specific name-hoard, and which can usually be sounded out and pronounced by the average reader.

Because It’s Been a While

Here – have a recipe.

Monkey Bread


  • 3 cans of buttermilk biscuits
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Open up all three cans of biscuits and cut each biscuit into quarters.

Next, combine the white sugar and the cinnamon in a 1 gallon zip-lock bag and shake it to mix them up evenly.

Drop all of the biscuit quarters into the bag of cinnamon-sugar mix. Seal the bag and shake it until the biscuit quarters are evenly covered.

Fill up a bundt pan or similar baking pan (we use a panettone mold around here.)

Melt the two sticks of butter and the half cup of brown sugar together in the microwave, or in a saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Once the brown sugar/melted butter mix has become one color, pour it over the pan full of biscuit pieces.

Bake for about 30-40 minutes until the crust is a deep dark brown on top. Then remove it from the oven and allow it to cool on a wire rack for about 15-30 minutes.

Turn it out onto a plate; pull it apart with two forks to serve.

This is the quick and easy version.  You could get fancier, I suppose, by making up a batch of sweet yeast dough, either by hand or in a bread machine, cutting or tearing the risen dough into approximately 36 pieces, and forming the pieces into balls which you then coat in cinnamon sugar as above.  Then put them into the baking pan and allow them to rise a second time before going on to the melted butter and brown sugar step and proceeding with the recipe from there.

But in all honesty, the biscuit version tastes just fine, and is a whole lot faster and easier.

(Also:  I have no idea why it’s called “monkey bread.”  One theory is that the bread takes its name from a fancied resemblance between the pattern of the stacked lumps of dough and the pattern of the bark on the trunk of a monkey-puzzle tree . . . but I think that may be stretching it.)

Today’s Peeve…

…is a spelling peeve:  the confusing duo of capital and capitol.

Capitol is the building: The state capitol is an imposing granite structure with a golden dome.

Capital is the city that’s the seat of government for a country or state or similar region.  The paperwork needs to be sent to the state capital.

Capital is also the spelling for just about every use of the word that doesn’t refer to the big building with the fancy dome.  Usually, these words have something to do with being at the top or the head of something:  capital ships are the most important ones in the fleet; capital funds and assets are the ones you start with; capital crimes are the ones that you could lose your head over; and so forth.

As for the fact that the state capitol is usually in the state capital . . . these things are sent to test us, and to remind us that while the spellchecker may be our good friend, it’s not necessarily our most reliable friend.

In Praise of the Naïve Reader

Critics often speak, somewhat condescendingly, of the “naïve reader” – one who doesn’t have the benefit of an awareness of literary history, or of training in criticism and literary theory, or of an extensive knowledge of literature as an art form.  (In other words, a reader who isn’t a critic or a scholar, but a common-or-garden reader for pleasure.  Joe Six-Pack, or his sister Jane, spending their beer or appletini money on a book instead.)

I’ll admit, there’s a pleasure to be had in writing for an audience who knows all the inside baseball of the thing.  I’ve done it myself, at least once.  The short story “A Death in the Working” (originally published in Murder by Magic, now available in Two from the Mageworlds) plays with three different sets of inside knowledge:  the established canon of the space opera series I co-wrote with my husband James D. Macdonald, the traditions of the Golden Age country-house mystery story, and (the part I had the most fun with) the tone and format of various scholarly editions of literary works, especially those in the Methuen Old English Library, where the footnotes would often take up more room on the page than the actual text.

Nevertheless, the most gratifying comment I ever got on the story wasn’t an appreciation of all that insider geekery; it came from a reader who said that they’d like to read more stories about my fictional detective and his cases.  (I sometimes toy with the idea of taking that reader up on their request; but science-fiction/fantasy mystery novels are enough of a niche market that I don’t know if the gain would repay the effort.)

When I think of naïve readers, I also think of the fellow grad student in Old English who admitted to translating the final section of Beowulf with tears in her eyes, because in all her survey courses and the like they’d only read the first part of the poem, and so she didn’t know that – to put it in ROT-13 just in case anybody reading this is in a similar position — Orbjhys trgf xvyyrq ol gur qentba va gur raq. Or I think of a friend’s account of watching a performance of King Lear a few seats away from an older couple who had clearly never encountered the play at all before, who reacted to the blinding of Gloucester with profound shock and dismay.  Or I think about my great-uncle Jake, a huntin’, fishin’ good old boy from Arkansas – albeit one with a college education – who once said to his medievalist great-niece, “That Beowulf . . . he was a mighty hunter.”

Art is about getting people where they live, and a naïve reader will provide you with a response that’s unmediated by other people’s expectations of how they should react and feel.  It’s all very well to be the critics’ darling, but treasure your naïve readers as well . . . they will tell you a different kind of truth.

One More Day

Tomorrow – 15 June 2014 – is the last day to apply for this year’s Viable Paradise Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop.

So if you’ve been wavering back and forth all spring and part of the summer on whether or not to apply, it’s time to pull up your socks, format your manuscript, and get in that application before the deadline.

The jellyfish are calling . . . ask not for whom the lighthouse blinks; it blinks for thee.

Every Writer’s Nightmare

The recent news out of Wisconsin is the sort of thing that keeps writers awake at night . . . the unhappy knowledge that once we’ve turned our fiction loose into the wild, we have absolutely no control over what other people may do with it.

Oh, we’ve got a certain limited amount of control over – or at least a fighting chance at controlling  other people’s attempts to make money from it, but the money isn’t where we get the real nightmare stuff.  The nightmares come from the thought that there’s no way a writer can stop it if somebody out there decides to like their work for all the wrong reasons – like Charles Manson liked the Beatles, or like those two girls in Wisconsin liked the manufactured urban legend of the Slender Man.

Nor does it help us to resolve to be good citizens and not write the sort of stuff that might cause other people to do bad things, because there’s never any way to tell what story might or might not interact with the contents of somebody else’s head in a toxic fashion.  Our cautionary dystopia may end up mirroring somebody else’s secret ideal; our careful exploration of the depths of the human psyche may end up validating somebody else’s long-suppressed and destructive rage.

And those are the cases that we know might get risky.  When somebody gravely and dangerously misreads something that we intended to be a bit of entertaining fluff or an adventurous romp, it makes us wonder why on earth we picked this of all ways to pursue art and earn a living, instead of going out on a lobster boat or washing dishes in Joe’s Open-All-Night Diner.

I don’t know of a solution to this problem.  All I can think of to say is, write what you want and write what you must – but be aware that you can’t always control the consequences.

Somebody Else Explains it So I Don’t Have to

Over at The Toast, a clear and excellent explanation of why English pronouns are the screwed-up and confusing things that they are, and why grammatical gender isn’t the same as actual real-people-doing-real-things gender, and how we got the confusing mess we have today:

A sample (on the subject of how third person singular “they” fell into grammatical disrepute despite a long history of pre-existing usage):

But then, in the late 18th century, grammarians started recommending that people use he as a gender nonspecific pronoun because they was ostensibly plural, as part of the grand tradition of awkwardly shoehorning English grammar into Latin which has caused many of your present grammatical insecurities, and which I’m totally sure had nothing whatsoever to do with the patriarchy.

The rest of it is just as good. Go, read, have fun.


Time to start watching the skies . . . my co-author and I have a short story coming up on Tor.com on July 2.

We sold this story back in early December of last year, after having worked on it, off and on, for longer than I care to contemplate.  We’d take it out, tweak it a bit, get to about the halfway point, get stuck, and put it aside again to work on something else.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.

Finally, though, it clicked . . . we rethought a secondary character, threw out all the scenes that were trying to pull the short story out of its intended shape (when you’re primarily a novelist, your mind will sometimes insist on serving up novel-type scenes even when you don’t want them), and figured out who our bad guys actually were and what they were really up to.

After that, really, finishing the story was a snap.

The moral of the story?  As usual:  Don’t give up.

And sometimes, the cure for being stuck is to start throwing stuff out until what you’ve got left feels right.

(Don’t trash your out-takes, though.  See The Adventure of the Five Chapter Nines.)

A Friendly Reminder

Applications for this year’s Viable Paradise sf/fantasy writer’s workshop close on June 15th.

VP is a one-week residential workshop, held annually in the autumn on Martha’s Vineyard – eight instructors and twenty-four students, all in it together for the whole week.  (Why one week?  Because not everybody who wants and needs the workshop experience is at a point in their lives where they can spare six weeks or a month away from whatever it is that they normally do with their time.  But just about anybody can manage to hack free a week if they absolutely have to.)

We’re also the workshop that features lighthouses and (the weather permitting) luminescent jellyfish.