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!

More Than Meets the Eye

It’s time to talk for a minute about description.

A story needs description, as part of the process of enabling readers to re-create the imagined world of the story inside their own head.  In science fiction and fantasy narratives in particular, description does more than just paint a picture of a slice of contemporary consensus reality – it’s part of the world-building, the process by which the writer calls into being a fictional milieu which is not part of contemporary consensus reality at all.

Most journeyman writers can manage telling the reader how things look and sound.  We’re used to filtering our experiences of the world through the senses of sight and hearing, and those details come easily to mind.  But effective description needs to involve all the senses, including smell and touch and taste.  In practical terms:  if your characters are standing out in the snow in the middle of a snowstorm, their feet are going to be cold.  And if they’re in the common-room of a busy tavern, they’re going to be smelling the burning logs on the fire, and the sweat of the patrons, and the scent of whatever good stuff is cooking.

(A quick tip:  If you really want your description to connect with the reader on a straight-to-the-animal-brain level, go for the sense of smell.  The right remembered scent – the fishy, salt-water smell of the wind off the ocean; the crisp, almost spicy smell of birch logs burning in a wood stove; the smell of nervous sweat and recirculated air in the cabin of a jetliner that’s waited for too long on the runway – can carry the reader exactly where you want them to go.)

Bear in mind, though, that lush sensory description can get overdone.  There’s no need to give absolutely everything in your narrative the detailed treatment –save it for things that are important to the story because they advance the plot, illuminate the theme, or reveal character.  Because if everything gets the detailed-description emphasis, then nothing is going to stand out.

He, She, It, Them, and all Their Friends

English pronouns are a mess, and there’s no getting around the fact.

We’re missing a second-person plural in the standard dialect, which hinders translation into and out of languages that have it.  All the possible alternatives – y’all, youse, yez, yinz and so forth – are strongly marked for region, or social class, or both, and using one of them would inject unintended meanings into the text.

We used to have some dual pronouns to go along with the singular and the plural – pronouns for “the two of you” and “the two of us” – but those were gone by the late Anglo-Saxon period.  (We know English used to have them because they turn up in Beowulf, in the passage where Beowulf and Unferth are having their disagreement about what actually went down during Beowulf’s youthful swimming-match with his friend Breca – Unferth says “the-two-of-you did such-and-such” and Beowulf counters with “the-two-of-us did something-else.”  One of the accidental uses of poetry is that it can act to preserve old words and old usages, fixing them in the amber of verse and scansion.)

These days, the lack that’s most keenly felt in the pronoun department is the need for a gender-neutral third-person pronoun.  There’s less and less patience for the old-fashioned “everybody/he” (as in “Everybody took his tray into the dining room”), and not much more for the clunky if more accurate “everybody/he or she” (“Everybody took his or her tray into the dining room”), and the purists aren’t going to throw in the towel anytime soon on the issue of  “everybody/they” (Everybody took their tray into the dining hall.”

There are a number of coined gender-neutral pronouns in circulation these days – ze, zhe, zie, and others – but no one set appears to be gaining an advantage over the rest.  (Though they have given rise to a new etiquette rule for the twenty-first century:  “Call people by the pronoun they prefer, not the one you think that they ought to prefer.”)

My money, though, is still on “they.”  It has historical precedent in its favor, it’s in current colloquial use across a variety of regions and social classes, and using it doesn’t require a commitment on the speaker’s part to any particular social or political agenda.

Why Grown-Up Writers are Still Paranoid

There are a lot of reasons – ours isn’t a job famous for encouraging a sense of security at the best of times – but this sort of thing is one of them.

A middle-school teacher in Maryland has been placed on administrative leave and “taken in for an emergency medical evaluation” based – if the news reports coming out of the town are to be believed – on the fact that he wrote and published a science-fiction book involving a school shooting some 900 years in the future.

Is it a good book?  I don’t know; based on the fact that it appears to be either self-published or published by an exceedingly small press, my guess is probably not.  But dammit, if we’re going to protect art from oppression and restraint, we shouldn’t get to throw in an “only if it’s really good art/the kind of art we approve of/not just mere entertainment” clause.  Just because the Muse does not love all of her lovers equally does not mean that all of her lovers should not be equal under the law.

Is the guy in fact crazy and/or a danger to himself and others?  Again, I don’t know . . . and the people whom I suspect are in the best position to know, to wit the students he interacted with on a daily basis, aren’t in a position to say anything.  Not that anyone would listen to them if they did, unless what they said supported the official line.

(Students know that this is how the world works.  To quote Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky, “You’ve been here six years and you expect things to be fair? My hat, Beetle, you are a blooming idiot!”)

And the fact that the Sheriff of Dorchester County is going around saying things like, “He is currently at a location known to law enforcement and does not currently have the ability to travel anywhere,” without specifying what sort of location it is, and why the writer in question is unable to travel, is – especially if you’re a writer yourself – downright unnerving.

Because it means that if you’re a writer, and at any point get entangled for some reason with the law, or with politics, or with the ever-hungry 24/7 news machine, then anything you have written can and will be held against you.  Even if you made the whole thing up.  Maybe even especially if you made the whole thing up.  People who can do things like that with their brains aren’t normal, after all, and probably shouldn’t be trusted.

Nobody ever promised us that this job would be easy.

They never promised us that it would be safe, either.