Summer Daze

‘Tis the season for muggy, oppressive weather, the kind that saps the energy and destroys the initiative . . . not the best kind of weather in which to be doing revisions, but still, revisions must be done.

A few of the things that get taken care of in revision, at least by me:

Turning a suitable number of semicolons into either periods or commas, as appropriate.  I am, as I’ve admitted here before, one of those writers with a tendency to love semicolons not wisely, but too well, and getting rid of at least one in three isn’t going to hurt the story and will probably improve it.

Double-checking the continuity, in order to make sure that characters don’t refer to things other characters have told them before they’ve actually been told, and similar stuff.  When you’re the bead-stringing, rather than the linear, sort of writer, this is a matter of particular concern.

Getting rid of any zero-draft filler material and placeholders that may have lingered in the text even through subsequent iterations.  A tertiary character may have been referred to as [NameOfCharacter] while the plotline was still being spun out, for example, and now that he’s been promoted to Bob the Delivery Guy it’s a good idea to make certain that all the instances of square brackets have been cleaned up.

Generally smoothing out any sentences that are still too bumpy for my liking, and fixing up anything else that doesn’t feel quite right.

All I can say is, it’s a good thing that I like doing revisions.  I’d hate to be doing something that I didn’t like, here in the hazy humid days of summer.



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

Imposter Syndrome, in Full Cry

To be a writer is to have imposter syndrome.

It’s not surprising, really.  Our vocation, and often our livelihood, depends upon convincing people whom we will most likely never meet to put credence in things which we have cobbled together out of our experiences and the experiences of others (if we have not, in the case of us genre romancers, made them up out of whole cloth – having first also made up the cloth as well.)  Small wonder, then, that we tend to lie awake in the grey hours before dawn, fretting that this time will be the time when our knack fails us, and the readers will see us for the shameless fakers that we are.

(The Anglo-Saxons had a word for that sort of grim insomnia: uht-ceare, meaning “the care or worry that comes in the period just before dawn,” or as a modern-day shrink might put it, “pre-dawn anxiety.”  Smart people, those Anglo-Saxons.)

This is why literary writers worry that they are writing for a narrow and diminishing audience, and their works will never find the wider recognition that serious writers got in times past; and why writers of popular and genre fiction worry that nobody is ever going to see anything in their work except the surface of it, and all their thematic and, yes, artistic concerns will go forever unnoticed and unappreciated; and all writers, everywhere, worry about money.

(This post brought to you by the short story rejection that arrived in yesterday’s e-mail, and by the concomitant necessity to nerve myself up for picking another potential market and sending it out again.)

A Position Statement, of Sorts

You-the-reader have the right to read anything you want.  I can’t stop you; furthermore, I don’t want to stop you, and I think it would be morally wrong to try and stop you.  And that includes reading stuff I don’t like, by people I don’t like, saying things I don’t like.

You likewise have the right to not read anything you don’t want to, and I have no moral right to make you read anything.  No matter how worthy and important and good for your soul I may consider it to be.

You also have the right to say whatever you please about whatever it is that you’ve read, and I have no moral right to stop you.


If you’re going to make public pronouncements on the quality or value of a work, and you’re planning to say anything more than, “I do not intend to read this book because I disapprove of the author and disagree with his/her views” . . . then you have a moral obligation to read the damned book before you say anything.

A Good Thing.

I don’t make political statements very often, mostly because I’m the civics equivalent of a Christmas-and-Easter churchgoer:  I vote in elections, I pay my taxes (crankily, but the IRS doesn’t care about my state of mind so I don’t feel obliged to be faux-cheerful about the process), I serve on a jury if I’m called.

 Further than that, I don’t usually go.  If I’m going to make a statement about something, I generally prefer to let my stories do my talking for me anyhow.

So believe me when I say that signing up at (which I did, with only a day to spare before the deadline, because I am a horrible slacker when it comes to doing paperwork, even electronic paperwork) caused me to be exceedingly grateful to the President and to the Democrats in Congress, because – like a lot of freelancers – I’ve had to go bare-naked to the wind as far as insurance goes, far more often than I’d like.

And let me say right now that a writer who doesn’t take the chance to serve on a jury when it comes along is falling down on the job. It’s an invaluable research opportunity.

It’s Been Cold.

I blame this year’s March weather for my laggardliness in posting new stuff.  Normally, by this time of year we’re already in the segue from winter to mud-time (which I used to think was a season invented by Robert Frost for poetic purposes, and then I moved up here); this year, we’ve had nights in the double-digits below zero Fahrenheit as recently as this past week, and the snow is still two feet deep in the front yard.

It makes it hard to work up energy for anything beyond the absolutely necessary, so it does.

One thing I did accomplish, though, because it didn’t require anything much beyond shifting some pixels around:  I took advantage of Google Drive’s recent lowering of prices for extra storage to pick up the 100-gigabytes-for-$1.99/month deal, and then spent a couple of days backing up my photo and image files to the cloud.

Backing up text is easy – text is compact. If you don’t have your working files saved in two or three different places (two different drives and at least one offsite backup is a good minimum), then you’re courting disaster.  Image files, though, and video and audio files, those are big.  They take up lots of room on any physical media you might want to store them on, and they transfer from one medium to another at a crawl.  Which is why up until a couple of days ago I had my image files stored in the virtual equivalent of a single shoebox.

Now, at least, I’ve got them stored in a couple of shoeboxes, and one of the boxes is on a shelf in somebody else’s house.

Where I’ve Been

Working, mostly, and dealing with the usual late-winter hassles.

February is almost always a thin month around the household, budget-wise:  the winter electric bill (this being far northern New Hampshire) is enough to make strong women weep, the registration and auto inspection (and the associated necessary repairs) come due at this time, and no matter how careful I am to line up sources of income for midwinter, something always comes around to knock my plans into a cocked hat.  If the plans themselves don’t fizzle out like damp firecrackers, then some unexpected expense leaps out of the underbrush and shouts “Stand and deliver!” like an 18th-century highwayman.

Also, it’s been cold.

But here – in lieu of a half-formed rant on the decline of the past perfect tense, or another round of homonym peeves – have a recipe.

Spicy Stir-Fried Ground Beef

(My source for this recipe called it “Korean Beef,” but I suspect it’s approximately as Korean as my Great-Aunt Nellie.  What it is, though, is cheap and fast and good, and everybody in the house likes it.)


    1 pound lean ground beef
    1/4 cup brown sugar

    1/4 cup soy sauce
    1 Tablespoon sesame oil
    3 cloves garlic, minced
    1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
    1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
    salt and pepper
    1 bunch green onions, sliced


Heat a wok or a large skillet (but it works better with a wok) over medium heat. Brown the ground beef in the sesame oil. Add the garlic towards the end of browning and cook for a couple of minutes. Drain the fat.

Add the brown sugar, soy sauce, ginger, salt and pepper and red pepper. Simmer for a few minutes to blend the flavors. Serve over steamed rice and top with green onions.

If you like things really spicy, as we do here, you can throw in some Szechuan chili paste, or Korean hot red bean paste, or sriracha to up the octane.

This feeds three people amply, and four people reasonably.  More than four people, and you probably want to up the amount of ground beef and adjust the other ingredients accordingly.

The Better Part of Valor

If you’re going to get into an internet flamewar, my first word of advice to you as a working or aspiring writer is . . . don’t.  No matter what you say, you’re going to alienate at least some of your potential readers, and not necessarily the ones that you’d want to alienate, either.  You can just as easily get ripped up one side and down the other by the people you think you’re supporting.  Better to keep your mouth shut and let your work speak for you.

That said, even if you don’t go looking for a flamewar, sometimes the flamewar finds you.  Resist, in that case, the urge to leap at once into the fray in your own defense, or in defense of a friend.  Hasty words in the physical world vibrate in the air for a moment, and – absent the intervention of recording technology – are gone; hasty words on the internet will stick around and haunt you forever.  Some variation on “You make/[Name] makes some telling points; I’ll need to think about them for a while before I can respond properly” is a useful reply, and the kind of thing you can keep ready against a time of need.

Sometimes, though, neither silence nor delaying tactics will do.  In that case, here are a few things to remember:

There may come a day, possibly in another century or so, when the words “strident” and “shrill” can be effectively applied to human discourse, but that day is not now.  For the foreseeable future, the use of these terms should be restricted to descriptions of fire alarms, police whistles, and piccolo solos.  Their deployment in any other context will result in Critical Argument Fail.

There was a time, for a couple of years several decades ago, when the term “politically correct” was an effective descriptor of a certain attitude and outlook on the world. At that time, it was an in-group term for the excessively zealous and doctrinaire who were, nevertheless, on the speaker’s own side — but it didn’t take long for the word to escape from that closed circle into the wider community, at which point the other side seized upon it and made it their own.  The use of the term in its original sense is no longer possible; any attempt to deploy it will, again, result in Critical Argument Fail.

And if you don’t know by now that the use of “hysterical” will generate an automatic Critical Argument Fail, then I will charitably assume that you’ve had an incredibly sheltered internet upbringing.

Either that, or you’re doing all of this stuff on purpose, in which case you’re on your own.

The Better Part of Valor

As a matter of principle, I believe that a writer should be free to pick his or her subject matter from the entire range of human experience — even when the premise in question is such that, if it were an objective in one of the tabletop Squad Leader games I used to play, it would be one that a smart player wouldn’t even think of attempting without at least six to one odds in favor, not to mention a +8 leader counter and a couple of Sherman tanks. And possibly off-board artillery and some close air support.

As a matter of practicality, on the other hand . . . at some point in the process, there needs to be somebody who’s clear-eyed enough to look at the project and say, “Sweetie, it would take the second coming of Truman Capote to pull this one off, with William Faulkner riding shotgun and Quentin Tarantino bringing up the rear with a video camera — and frankly, my dear, you’re nowhere in that league.”

And everybody concerned is going to be happier if the verdict is delivered before the project goes to press, rather than after.

Three and an Outline

Or, what goes into a typical query package:  three chapters and an outline of the novel in question.  Plus the cover letter, of course.

It shouldn’t really be necessary to say that when we’re talking about “three chapters” what we mean is “the first three consecutive chapters” and not some random collection of chapter highlights . . . but the conversations I’ve had with slushpile readers have convinced me that yes, it is necessary.  (No, not for you, of course . . . but there’s always somebody who doesn’t yet know the customs of the community.  And we were all of us clueless once.)

Likewise, by “outline” we don’t mean the I-II-III/A-B-C/1-2-3/a-b-c format that our high school teachers sweated so hard to insert into our resistant brains.  What “outline” means, in this context, is a five to ten page synopsis of the novel in question, usually single-spaced, giving the main arc of the plot, the important characters, and something about the setting and general milieu of the story.  If there are important plot twists and revelations, mention them here; your potential agent or editor is not worried about spoilers.  Customarily, in an outline, the plot is narrated in the present tense — rather as though you were telling a good (and non-spoilerphobic) friend the story of this really nifty movie you saw last night.

Writing an outline is not fun, at least not for most writers.  The best way to get through it, I find, is to grit your teeth, tell yourself “It’s not an art form, it’s a sales tool,” and push on through.

As for cover letters — briefer is better, generally.  Include the title and word count and a short description of your book (“a cozy mystery featuring a retired card sharp”), relevant publications if you have them (“three short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine“), and relevant personal information (“I made my living for twenty years as a Mississippi riverboat gambler.”) But the single most important thing you can put into your cover letter is your return address and telephone/email contact info.  There’s nobody quite as sad as an editor who has found a good manuscript . . . and has just discovered that the title page with the author’s address on it has gone missing.

Don’t make an editor cry.  Include a cover letter with your full contact information, even if all that the letter itself says is the prose equivalent of Roses are red/Violets are blue/This is a book/That I’m sending to you.