Stella!

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Winter Storm Stella came through here yesterday and last night, and left a foot or so of snow behind, a lot of which is going to have to be removed from our driveway.  I give thanks for the presence in the household of our younger son, who shovels the driveway so we don’t have to – though what we’ll do when he departs onto the next stage of his Life Journey™, I don’t know.  Buy a snow blower, probably, if we can afford one.

At least we didn’t lose power – or haven’t lost it so far, let’s not get cocky, here – which means that writing and editorial work can go on unhindered.

Obligatory writing reference:  If you’re from one of the parts of the world where hard winters and deep snow aren’t a thing, do your research before writing about it.  And don’t trust film and television for a second, unless maybe you’re watching a Weather Channel documentary or the like; TV and the movies regularly have people running around in deep snow wearing outfits that would get them killed in the real world.  To be, however reluctantly, fair to the visual-media people, your actual effective cold-weather garments are about as far from photogenic as it’s possible to get, and nobody wants to turn their high-priced talent into a bunch of down-filled-parka-clad clones – but we toilers of the written word don’t have that problem, or that excuse.

If you don’t live in cold-weather country, and need to write about it, consider visiting some cold weather, if you can.  (If you’ve got a local friend, pay attention to what they tell you about what not to do.  If you’re a stranger to the area, double-check with the locals you do interact with – the tourist bureau, the waitperson at the diner, the clerk at the 7-11 – and if they say, “I wouldn’t go out there today,” believe them and stay home.)  Failing that, read some Jack London (“To Build a Fire” is a classic for a reason), or some Laura Ingalls Wilder (The Hard Winter), and take a moment to listen to the ballad of Frozen Charlotte.

Why So Much Online Discourse Sucks: My Theory

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It’s simply this: In order for local standards of civility (whether those be vanilla-custard bland or three-chili-pepper strong, it matters not) to be maintained, what’s required is vigorous, hands-on, and visible moderation. Simply providing users with a “flag this post if you find the content objectionable” button isn’t enough. All that does, so far as the user can see, is push the problem off onto a faceless, and possibly automated, minion someplace, for said minion to deal with, or not, according to whatever invisible algorithm may or may not be in place. This does nothing to chide the offending user, or provide immediate feedback to the offended user, or steer the discourse into a less offensive channel.

To do all that, you need a person — a name, a face (even if that face is a cartoon avatar), a consistent presence — to be on the spot and monitoring the venue for discourse that’s about to go toxic. A good moderator can defuse or shut down toxic discourse as needed; a great moderator can spot the warning signs far enough in advance to change the conversation before the toxicity gets a chance to arrive.

Done well — and it has to be done well, if it’s going to be done at all — this is a full time job, and not one to be undertaken by volunteers. If you want somebody to stare into the abyss 24/7 — or better yet, two somebodies, so that they can take enough time off to stay sane — you need to pay them for it.

And sooner than pay good moderators a regular wage, most commercial online fora will either close down comments altogether, or go to one of the now-standard automated systems that end up pleasing nobody.

Not because these sites are run for profit. But because they are run for profit by cheapskates.

Vampires and Shapeshifters

Madhouse Manor

Available wherever fine e-books are sold: Vampires & Shapeshifters by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald.

Contains:

Vampires and Shapeshifters: Short stories by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald Vampires and Shapeshifters

  • Bad Blood (short story)
  • Nobody Has to Know
  • Up the Airy Mountain
  • Ecdysis
  • Philologos; or, A Murder in Bistrita

“Bad Blood” is the short story that started it all; our first professional sale in the fantasy/SF genre.  Werewolves in high school and a camping trip gone horribly wrong.   “Bad Blood” eventually turned into a series of three YA novels.

“Nobody Has to Know” is a very short vampire story.  Its unique style got it featured in an English textbook in Australia.

“Up the Airy Mountain” is another short story in the Bad Blood continuity.  Werewolves vs. elves.  Features Val Sherwood, teen werewolf, and her best friend, Freddy Hanger AKA “Van Helsing in High School.”

“Ecdysis,” a shapeshifter story, introduces Orville Nesbit, a psychic detective, who I’m planning to have star…

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Business Cards, I Have Them

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bizcard

Now all I have to do is figure out the most effective way to deploy them.

Do I press them into the hands of all I meet?

Do I save them for giving out to people who sound like they might actually be interested in editorial services?

Do I stick them up on random bulletin boards?  (If I were selling a used snowblower, I’d tack a notice up at the local IGA grocery store, but that’s different . . . or maybe it isn’t.)

Do I scatter them broadcast over freebie tables and consuites at sf/fantasy conventions I happen to attend?

This self-promotional thing, it is tricksy and difficult, especially if one doesn’t have the natural temperament for it in the first place.

Consider This an Unsolicited Recommendation

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I have successfully obtained a refund for a piece of software that was on the netbook I don’t use any more. I had thought that when I purchased a year’s subscription that I would get a notification when it was time to renew, and would then need to do so manually . . . but no, it was an automatic thing, and the transaction went through about a week before Boskone, and nearly threw a monkey wrench into the works for that expedition.

I don’t like automatic updates. If my computer is going to change something or add something, I want to be present for the occasion so I can flip the switch myself.

The subscription charge was substantial enough that I went to the trouble of looking up the refund procedure, which – much to my surprise – turned out to be relatively painless and not to require actually talking to anyone at any point. So kudos to AVG PC Tune-Up, which I still have on all my working machines, for being prompt and efficient about the whole thing.

A Magic Set for a Young Person

Over at his blog, Jim Macdonald discusses how to put together a basic introductory magic kit for a young magician. (Magicians, like poets and mathematicians and ballet dancers, tend to start young.)

Madhouse Manor

Consider the Little Box of Magic Tricks from Barron’s.  I’ve seen the Ideal 100-Trick Spectacular Magic Show Suitcase well spoken-of.   Consider too Joshua Jay’s The Complete Magician Kit. The Klutz Book of Magic  includes props can be considered a magic set all by itself.

In my opinion, the best magic sets are ones you make yourself.  Hand assembled with love.  You know your own child the best.

The biggest bang for your buck (and the longest lasting benefit) is books. Two books should be on your list:  Now You See It … Now You Don’t! by Bill Tarr and Big Magic for Little Hands by Joshua Jay.

Props:  a set of cups and balls (you know your budget best — these range from inexpensive plastic ones (and some big-name pros use the three-color inexpensive ones in their pro acts; e.g. David Regal) up to OMG three-figure prices.

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My Theory on Villainy

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All good stories need a villain, or, more properly, an antagonist.  (“Villain” is so judgmental, really — not to mention classist, since its origins lie in the Anglo-French and Old French vilain “peasant, farmer, commoner, churl, yokel” (12c.), from Medieval Latin villanus “farmhand,” from Latin villa “country house, farm.” As always, the city folks write the books.)

An antagonist is simply one who opposes the main character, also known as the protagonist.  They’re often “the bad guy,” because readers like to identify with the main character, and prefer in most cases to identify with someone they can think of as “the good guy.”  It doesn’t necessarily need to follow that the antagonist, in their role as “bad guy”, also has to be a bad person; all that’s required is that they present a strong and believable opponent for the protagonist to, in most cases, overcome.

What’s primarily required in an antagonist, then, is competence — or, barring that, the kind of sheer unpredictability that makes them hard for an orderly protagonist to comprehend.  They can’t be insane, or at least not the kind of insanity that precludes an ability to function in the real world, and they can’t be stupid.  Otherwise, they become pushovers, and pushovers are boring.

On the other hand, an antagonist shouldn’t be endowed with the kind of supernatural intelligence that lets them make elaborate plans with lots of interlocking parts that somehow never fall prey to sheer bad luck, unforeseen acts by random bystanders, or the incompetence of minions.  (I see more of these than I’d like, especially in the visual media but also in books, so it’s possible that a lot of people disagree with me on this.  But I’m right and they’re wrong, so there.)

And finally, an antagonist should be a fully-developed character, with virtues as well as flaws, because nobody in the real world is ever all of a piece.  This means that as a writer, we have to inhabit our villains — empathize with them, if you will — as much as we do our heroes.  We have to know what it is they dread when the lights go out; we have to know their petty vices and their secret good deeds; we have to know the source of their greatest sorrow and their greatest happiness; in short, we have to love them even as we bring our protagonist in to destroy them.

If we don’t do this, we risk turning our antagonists into mere mustache-twirling marionettes, when they should be human beings.

(Or aliens, or elves, or self-aware computers, as the genre requires.  In short, people.)

How Long Did It Take You to Write That?

This is one of those questions, like “Where do you get your ideas?”, that people will keep asking writers – and like the question about ideas, it’s one that doesn’t have an answer, or at least not the kind of answer the questioner is looking for.

Even before I was a novelist, people used to ask me how long it took me to write my dissertation.   The only answer that I could give them – “Well, if you look at it one way, it took me three years.  If you look at it another way, it took me about three very intense months.  But I needed the three years first.” – somehow never really satisfied them, even though it was true.

The short story I finished just this past weekend is much the same.  In terms of actual putting-words-on-screen writing time, it took me about a week.  But this was a story for which I’d had the title and the central conceit rumbling around in my head for a lot longer than the three years it took me to write my dissertation back in the day – and not until last week did it take on enough shape that I could make a narrative of it.

(Why then, after all that time?  I have no idea. But when the Muse shows up with a plot and a theme in hand, only a foolish writer turns down the gift.)

Boskone, Day Two

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Jim Macdonald and I have a reading at 1 PM in Griffin, here in the Westin hotel, and we’re going to be reading a brand-new, just-finished short story . . . one that we’ve been mulling over for a long time, that finally came together in this past week.

If you’re here at Boskone, we’d be delighted to see you there.

I Think It’s a Rule

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If you’re driving into Boston from out of town, you have to get lost at least once on Massachusetts Avenue.

Normally, our GPS navigator saves us from this, but the rules caught up with us this trip, because the navigator went toes-up on us shortly before departure.  Fortunately, we were able to access Google Maps via my phone — not by using the phone’s web feature, because it doesn’t really have one, but by calling our younger son back in Colebrook and having him find the necessary directions and relay them to us.

After that mini-adventure, we made it safely to the Westin hotel, and our first programming item is a signing at 2 PM in the Galleria.  We’re signing alongside Ken MacLeod and Charlie Stross, so if you’ve got a book (or a short story in an anthology, or a bookplate, or whatever), feel free to bring it in and we’ll happily sign it for you.

And if you’re one of the people who mostly own our stuff in electronic format . . . if you can figure out how to get us to sign that, we’ll happily do that as well.

(Surely somebody, somewhere, has invented an app for getting author signatures on e-books.  Heaven knows, they’ve got apps for everything else.)