The Free Speech Bargain

Every so often, a voice from the back row asks the plaintive question, “In today’s publishing climate, what am I, as an [insert identify marker or lack of one here], allowed to write about?”

Okay.  Here’s the deal, at least as far as the US of A goes*:

You’re allowed** to write about anything you damned well please.

And everybody else – your mom, your best friend, all the other people in your writers’ group, your editor, the New York Times Review of Books, and total random strangers on the internet – is allowed to say out loud and in public what they thought about it.

The thing about the deal, you see, is that it goes both ways.  And a writer who can’t handle the deal is probably better off pulling an Emily Dickinson and keeping their stuff locked up in their dresser drawer for posterity.


*The world is a large and varied place, and I make no claim to pontificate for all of it.

**With the usual narrow exceptions involving nonexistent fires in crowded theatres, and the like.

 

Sometimes It’s an Analog Problem

For the past few days, I’ve been having really bad audio playback problems on my desktop computer – sounds dropping out, sounds being fuzzy, dialogue on videos suddenly becoming harder to follow.  Because we’d just had a fairly large Windows 10 update, and because I’d just said “The hell with waiting for the bad news, I’m going to switch over to the Firefox 57 Beta now,” I went about searching for a cure for the problem in my Firefox and Windows setups, to no avail.

Then this afternoon I finally wised up, and bethought myself of the maxim that when in doubt, one should always switch in a known good piece of hardware and see if the problem persists.  So I dug out my emergency earbuds (I hate earbuds, so I never use them unless I have to; earmuff-style headphones suit me much better, and keep my ears warm in winter to boot) and unplugged my headphones – whereupon I got a good look at the headphone jack for the first time in a couple of weeks.

And lo, the jack was visibly bent several degrees off true.

I blame the cats, who are in the annoying habit of leaping from the top of my desk to the floor and catching the headphone cord with their hind legs on the way.  I will have to buy a new pair of earmuff headphones this afternoon, and I can see a pair of cordless bluetooth headphones in my future as well.  (I can cheap out on regular wired headphones, because they all break eventually and don’t really get much sturdier until you get into the $100-and-up range, but the wireless ones don’t have anything like the battery life I’d need until they’re well into not-cheap territory.  Also, my desktop computer is sufficiently elderly that I’ll also have to throw in a bluetooth adapter to make it work.)

Anyhow – I plugged in the earbuds, and gave the sound another try.

Yep.  Dead jack on the old headphones was the problem source.

So.  Immediate solution:  earbuds.  Short-term solution: new headphones.  Medium-term solution: wireless headphones+bluetooth adapter.  Long-term solution: New desktop computer.

It’s always nice to have a path mapped out.

Harbingers Ahoy!

First Tree Color SmallerThat tree in the front driveway that I was talking about the other day is now showing its first patch of color.  Summer is now officially (for local household values of “official”) transitioning into autumn.

We have also recently taken in our first batch of gift zucchini. Likewise a couple of locally-grown tomatoes, which promptly went into BLT sandwiches.  Raising tomatoes up here in northern New England is a triumph of hope over experience every time; they have to be started indoors, and once they’re out in the garden, it’s a race between them and the first frost.

(A harbinger, by the way, was originally a person who went ahead of an army to arrange for lodgings, going back through Old French to Old Saxon to a couple of root words heri and berga – meaning, respectively “army” and “a fortified place.”  The latter is the same root that shows up in a lot of place names, since for a long time, historically speaking, “city” and “fortified place” were more or less synonymous.)

Another Sign of the Changing Times

Our printer died the other day, somewhat to our surprise. It was an HP Deskjet 6940 — in other words, a fairly sturdy office model — and it really shouldn’t have reacted so badly to having been taken for a car ride to Peabody, Massachusetts, and back again.  But react badly it did; once reconnected to our household setup, it steadfastly refused to communicate with the desktop computer.

We did all the usual things to confirm its defunct state:  We switched in a known good USB cable, to make certain it wasn’t the cable, and it didn’t work; we switched in an old but working college printer left behind by one of our various offspring, and it did work, to the extent that it would install and communicate with the desktop computer (it had paper take-up issues, and its ink cartridges were several years old, so it wasn’t good for anything other than diagnostic purposes); we ran all the troubleshooters and checked for updated drivers; all to no avail.

It was time, we admitted, to go printer shopping, and so we did.  I wound up ordering a refurbished Kodak Verite 55 from New Egg; I’ve had good luck with their refurbished stuff before.  Also, the printer in question was on sale that week for $34.99, which meant that even if it turned out to be a dud, I wouldn’t be weeping hot tears over its demise.  Nor would I feel unduly guilty if we decided at some more wealthy point to upgrade to a more expensive model.

The printer in question is low-end enough that by the time we’ve gone through a couple of replacement ink cartridges, we’ll have spent more on ink than on the machine itself.   (It’s the “don’t make your money selling razors; make your money selling razor blades” principle, I suppose.)  But it doesn’t matter.  We don’t actually need an iron-thewed workhorse of an office printer that can do 600-plus pages in an afternoon without breaking down, because it’s been over a decade since we last submitted a novel in hardcopy form.

It’s all electronic now, and I don’t miss it a bit — not the wrestling with a stack of loose paper that wants to slump over into an uncollated pile; not the necessity of keeping an eagle eye on the printing process to make certain that no blank pages or skipped pages get through; not the wrestling with paper jams or the inevitable discovery at page 550 that you’re out of ink and the nearest Staples is an hour and a half away and already closed for the night.

Other people can wax nostalgic over their old-school office-quality printers†, or their IBM Selectrics or their Smith-Coronas, or their one true fountain pen, or their perfectly-trimmed goose quill, but not me.

In this case, at least, technology is my friend.


Okay, I’ll admit to looking back at my first Epson MX-80 dot-matrix with fond remembrance; that printer was built like a tank, and survived both a transcontinental move and an international move without failing, and was our printer of choice for first drafts for a long time after that.

It’s Dr. Doyle’s Question and Answer Time!

Q. Are you really a Doctor?

A. Yes.

I got my Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, back in the Dark Ages 1981. My primary field was Old English, and my cognate field was Old Icelandic, which makes me the sort of person who once stayed up until 2 in the morning reading a book on historical linguistics for fun. Old Icelandic is a great language – we get “to egg (somebody) on” from there, as well as “ransack”, plus a wonderful verb that we don’t have in English but sometimes I wish we did, ydda (“to show the point [of something] on the other side [of something]”; as, for instance, a sword and someone else’s back.)†

Q. What on earth are you doing here, then?  Shouldn’t you be off in an ivory tower someplace, instead of writing fiction and editing other people’s novels for pay?

A. Hah.  Don’t I wish.

I finished my degree at about the same time as Academia started devouring its own young.  The need to hire lots of new-minted scholars every year to teach the glut of baby-boomers and draft-avoiders was coming to its end, and colleges were starting to use spreadsheets and do the math and figure out that they could hire adjunct faculty (aka “temps with doctorates”) and avoid the extra cost of insurance and other perks, and tenure-track positions got scarcer and scarcer.  (Also, colleges realized that you could dangle the prospect of tenure in front of a new hire, and they’d run after it like a greyhound after a mechanical rabbit for five or six years of high toil and low pay, and then you could turn them down for tenure and start the whole process up again with the next victim.)

So I became one of the science fiction and fantasy field’s renegade medievalists, instead.

Q.  Well, that explains the writing, I guess.  What about the editing?

Money, at least in part.  Writing can pay well, but it always pays irregularly, and almost all the writers I know do a lot of other different things to fill in the gaps.

As for why this, in particular:  Teaching (and marking up essays) was something I learned how to do as a grad student and teaching fellow at Penn, and while at the time I thought I didn’t like doing it very much, I eventually figured out that what I actually didn’t like was working on stuff written by people who didn’t want to be writing it.  (I’ve graded freshman essays, and I’ve read slush – unsolicited manuscripts, for those not conversant with the lingo of the trade – and I’m here to tell you that as bad as slush can get, at least it’s all written by people who are willingly putting words onto paper or pixels onto screen.)

Working with people who are actually interested in improving what they’re doing is, on the other hand, fun.

Q. Do you only work with established writers and self-publishers?

A.  Heavens, no.  I’m just as happy to work with writers who are at an earlier stage of their development.  As I say on my “about” page, I can’t promise that their  work will publishable when we’re finished, but I can promise that it will be better than when we started.

Back when I was laboring the the fields of freshman composition, under whatever name it was being called at the time – Introduction to Rhetoric, Expository Writing, or plain old English 101 – I often found that while working with the one or two natural A-level students in the class was easy and refreshing, at the end of the semester I got more satisfaction from having helped a high-B+ student move on up into the A range, or from helping someone who started out as a C- lift themselves up to a good solid B.


†I’ll freely admit that I picked Old Icelandic for my cognate field because I liked all the bloodshed and violence in the great sagas. But my geekhood is safe – my other big interest was subordinate clauses in Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Me and Walt Whitman and Alfred Noyes

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d….”

Come down to Kew in lilac-time . . . .”

Lilac

Walt Whitman lived somewhat south of here, and his lilacs bloomed in April, the same month that Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter, and that four years afterward saw the end of war and the funeral procession of an assassinated president:

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d
women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces
and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices
rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around
the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs — where
amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

American lilacs, at least of the poetic variety, have carried that freight of connotation ever since. British lilacs, on the other hand, lead a more upbeat poetic life:

Go down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
  Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer’s wonderland;
  Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
The cherry-trees are seas of bloom and soft perfume and sweet perfume,
  The cherry-trees are seas of bloom (and oh, so near to London!)
And there they say, when dawn is high and all the world’s a blaze of sky
  The cuckoo, though he’s very shy, will sing a song for London.
The nightingale is rather rare and yet they say you’ll hear him there
  At Kew, at Kew in lilac-time (and oh, so near to London!)
The linnet and the throstle, too, and after dark the long halloo
  And golden-eyed tu-whit, tu-whoo of owls that ogle London.
For Noah hardly knew a bird of any kind that isn’t heard
  At Kew, at Kew in lilac-time (and oh, so near to London!)
And when the rose begins to pout and all the chestnut spires are out
  You’ll hear the rest without a doubt, all chorusing for London:–
Come down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
  Come down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer’s wonderland;
  Come down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)

The lilacs in the yard next door are blooming as intensely and fragrantly as any of Alfred Noyes’s, as are the ones in front of half the other houses in town, not to mention the ones by the Congregational Church and the Civil War Memorial. Which comes back around to Whitman again, and the funeral train heading west from Washington to Springfield.

More items of cultural metaphor taking up space in my local reality.

Once Again, Robert Frost Was Right About New England

“Nature’s first green is gold….”

In other words, the trees have finally leafed out.

When I was a cheerful young undergrad going to school in Arkansas, I thought that mud-time was something that Frost made up for poetic purposes; likewise, the birches bending “to left and right/Across the lines of straighter darker trees.” Then I moved up here, and realized that he’d been making his poetry out of sober observation all along.

As do we all, even if we’re writing stories set in worlds completely of our own imagining.

I Haven’t Vanished From the Internet

I did, however, sprain my wrist a while back, which put a crimp in my keyboarding for a while there.

By way of apology, have a recipe, with bonus family anecdote:

Jake’s Mother’s Teacakes

1/2 cup shortening (probably lard, originally; latterly, Crisco)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
2 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla

Cream shortening and sugar.  Add egg.
Beat thoroughly.
Sift flour and baking powder together.
Add dry ingredients alternately with milk.
Add vanilla.
Chill, roll, and cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter.
Bake on greased sheet in a quick oven (350-375 F) about 5 to 8
minutes – the time varies according to the thickness of the cookies.  Until the edges start to brown, anyway.

The “Jake” in question was my great-uncle on my father’s side, making his mother my . . . great-great-aunt?  Something like that.  Anyway, when my father was growing up, he used to walk over to her house, with his dog following along after him, and she would make these cookies for him, and the dog would get some, too.

Then my father graduated from high school and went off to college, leaving his dog behind.  The dog, for his part, continued going over to Jake’s mother’s house . . .

. . . and Jake’s mom would bake these cookies for the dog.

They’re a not overly sweet cookie that keeps well, and dunks nicely in tea or coffee or milk.

Why Authors Go Mad, Reason Number I’ve-Lost-Track-By-Now

Author Seanan McGuire (who is also Mira Grant and I think somebody else I’ve forgotten) has just received — on a tight deadline, of course — a beyond-the-copyedit-from-hell copyedit: The copyeditor did a global search and replace of “which” with “that.” Among other gross incompetencies.

And there isn’t time to scrap the copyedit and send the MS back out to somebody better.

People wonder why authors sometimes drink heavily. The amazing thing, actually, is that more of them don’t.