six years

Yesterday The Eyrea celebrated its sixth anniversary! I feel like I should be baking a cake or something. It would have been more traditional to celebrate the fifth anniversary when it happened last year, but I was preoccupied with other things. Typical.

That first post is strange to read now, because it's talking about a very different cyberspace. At the time, I just wanted to get out of Facebook. Joining Facebook remains one of my biggest social media regrets, not because anything overly embarrassing happened, but just because it was a colossal waste of time. I didn't connect with any old friends, and most of the people I did connect with were, quite frankly, annoying. Since I haven't heard from them at all since, I can say that.

It's funny how desperate that first post was to prove there was life outside of Facebook (like the part reassuring readers we could still play Scrabulous).

Nowadays I just don't care. My network connections are much better now, both in the number of people and in their quality. People are much more interesting and pleasant when you're learning about them outside of 80s sitcom quizzes and Farmville. I'm more comfortable blogging now — the early counts of 18 posts per year have grown to 1-2 posts per week. Best of all, communities like Friday Flash are easier to find and connect up with outside of the big blue cage.

I like the blog format. I like how it lends itself well to short essays and flash fiction, the two forms I'm most comfortable composing in. I like the spirit of community it fosters. I like that I get to pick my own damn colour scheme.

Thank you to everyone who has dropped by and read something, and especially to those who leave comments. I hope you enjoyed the read.

More to come...

help your writing with video games part 3: minecraft in survival mode

If you don't already know the basics of how Minecraft works, you might want to at least scan Part 1 of this series. If you're just interested in using video games to easily create 3D sketches of settings, you may want to read Part 2.

Survival mode is where setting influences character behaviour, and character behaviour influences plot. Every survival mode game story starts with "how I survived the first night." In the case of the game I've been playing, I was materialised on a beach with some more-solid dirt hills nearby. It was around noon. Recall that Minecraft days are only ten minutes long.

It used to be right under that cactus

I started making a dugout with my bare hands. By nightfall, I'd made one just barely big enough to hide me from the monsters. I had no light, no way to make tools — nothing to do but listen to the monsters groan and bark outside. I had to sit through ten minutes of game time doing nothing.

At one point I got bored and made my dugout a little bigger. I heard something outside and saw two grey-glowing eyes peeking into the air hole I'd left open.

I closed the air hole with a spare block of sand and learned to keep quiet at night. Understand: even though I was just staring at my little Android phone screen, it was genuinely scary! Okay, I am a wimp, but beyond that the sound design and the darkness really do make for a scary experience.

So you learn what it feels like to be hunted.

After a few nights, I'd punched enough trees down (no tools yet) to make a log cabin. I built it at the top of a mountain, thinking this would be safer:

Without that torch, it would be pitch dark, even in daytime.
This was probably the stupidest dwelling I had. At night I had to close up the air hole, because not only did the monsters find me, but they circled the thing all night. I had to wait almost all morning before they wandered off and I could tear down log cabin.

The next place was another log cabin:
At least it had a pretty view.
This was where I finally able to build a crafting table, make a proper door for the dwelling (no more air holes!), make some torches (no more cowering in the dark all night!). I even threw some sand in a furnace (I made a furnace!) and made a small window facing the lake.

For the first time, I could watch the sun come up, signalling that the world was safe enough to venture outside of my little cabin. And that's when I learned to worship the sun.

I stayed several days in this cabin, but decided to give it up when spiders perched themselves on the roof and attacked me as I came out (the spiders are as big as you are in this game). So I dug into a nearby cliff with my new tools and made a three-story cliff house:
A home that needs stairs!
So, great, right? Nope. Monsters could (and did) walk right up to the front door and do things like detonate the walls. Or else they'd shoot arrows at me if I stood on the balcony at night, unable to sleep because monsters were near.

So I moved to the end of the cliff and made a higher house with more defences:
Now known as The Death Trap.
I made this place to be safer, and wound up making it more dangerous. It was build under a rocky overhang, and it got very, very dark at night in and around the house, no matter how many times I tried to eliminate the dark corners with torches.

A skeleton manifested on my balcony (which was lit with torches) and let itself into the living area. Skeletons and other monsters aren't supposed to be able to open doors, but this one did — I heard it. Then there was the time I was trying to expand the space a little and left one corner with insufficient light — and a zombie materialised. Plus, the doorway in was facing the wrong way: it faced east, so it was always dark first at sunset.

I had learned to value sunsets.

My current dwelling has a door that faces west, so the sun shines on it until the very last moment. It's built inside of a naturally-formed rocky tower, and its floor starts 15m above ground level. The stairway up to the living space is surrounded by a courtyard with a high wall. If I make it to the courtyard, I'm almost as safe as I am in my living space.
Virtually monster-proof.
This is the dwelling where "civilisation" has really kicked in. There are large, floor-to-ceiling windows facing each of the points on the compass:
I even used resources to make a painting!
It's bright and airy, even at night, and I built a rooftop garden so I can grow plants — even trees — and not have to worry about encountering monsters:
Most gardening happens at night — 25m up with cliff-drops all around.
The monsters have become way less terrifying and more of a nuisance. Recently I've been adding to the fortifications so they can't interrupt my sleep anymore (you can't sleep if monsters are nearby). In the "back yard" I've build a covered mine that goes down to the bedrock. I've found gold and other precious minerals. I now have a clock so I can, say, dig a tunnel underground without worrying about sun position all the time when I need to go home.

Even though I've found and smelted a decent amount of iron, I still mostly work with stone tools, because I've learned to appreciate scarcity. The cultural choice on this world is to stay low-tech unless absolutely necessary — the opposite of the real-life society I live in.

The playing field worlds are randomly generated. If I'd wound up with a different sort of geography, I'd probably value different things. One of my creative mode worlds has lots of water and little land, for example, so I chose to build all the buildings on the water, rather than on the land (think of Lake Town in The Hobbit). I don't think it's possible to play Minecraft without becoming at least a bit of a sun worshipper, though.

So: geography and other environmental factors build character values, which in turn determine character choices. Character choices drive the human-shaped parts of the environment, and alter the environment to suit the character. The character's relationship with their environment changes as the environment becomes more or less safe.

There's got to be at least a few stories in there.

help your writing with video games part 2: minecraft in creative mode

If you don't already know the basics of how Minecraft works, you might want to at least scan Part 1 of this series.

I really think Minecraft could be of use for a writer who is trying to figure out a complex physical space like a maze, a town, or the layout of a large dwelling like a mansion or a castle. This post walks through an example maze I built: a copy of the hedge maze at Hever Castle.

Hever Castle's maze is very uniform, with the paths between the hedges being about the same width as the hedges themselves. Judging from the photo, the maze is about 34x34 hedge-widths big. I translated that to 34x34 blocks, and built a 37x37 platform of sandstone to put my maze on, along with some wooden block markers to help with measuring things out:
The easiest thing to do seemed to be to start at the centre and work my way out. I grabbed one of the leaf block tools and started doing just that:
Once the maze was laid out, I went over it again and made all the hedgerows 3 blocks (3m) high. The Minecraft player avatar is 2m tall, so a 3m maze is high enough that you can't see over the tops of the maze when you're navigating through it:
The final result wasn't as beautiful as the real maze, but the maze path is the same. The next thing I did get back on the ground level and try it out:

The Hever maze isn't difficult, but it makes very efficient use of the area it covers. You basically wind up walking the entire space before making it to the centre:
The centre seemed a bit boring. For a story, I'd expect something interesting to be in the centre of a maze (more on that further down), but since this is just a demonstration I added a water fountain, some tables and chairs, and cake:
Well, so what? How does this help with writing anything?

I've now got an actual 3D model of a working, walkable maze. That means I can talk about blind alleys, wrong turns, and false exits from a working reference. Otherwise I'm stuck doing a lot of hand-waving and skipping transitional areas without knowing myself what's there. The reader will probably get lost in the narrative, but not in a good way.

I just made a rough copy of the Hever maze, but one could use it as a starting-point for a much richer world with more plot possibilities. Consider these options:
  • The maze is made of stone and has a roof over it like the labyrinth in the Minotaur myth. Or the maze is made of unbreakable glass, so you can always see outside and the centre, but you can barely make out where the walls themselves are.
  • The maze follows the same path as shown, but the centre is much larger and contains an entire castle. The castle's floor plan matches that of the surrounding maze.
  • At the centre of the maze is nothing but a trap door, and the door leads to... something cool, like a hidden city. Or another, different maze.
  • The maze's passages are streets, not paths. Replace the hedgerows with buildings. At the centre is the magistrate's building, or the market square, or...
Now, you may argue that any one of these things may be written about without creating a model or map first, and you'd be right. My counter-argument is simply that you'll do a better job of being consistent if you have a reference.

Furthermore, you might discover possibilities for conflict, plot points, and world-building that would have been harder to discover without the visual model.

To be fair, I'd guess that most writers would prefer a rough-and-ready version of their models, rather than some of the elaborately detailed (and beautiful) creations diehard Minecraft builders make. It's the difference between a film set and a real location. But even this very rough Hever maze copy only took about an hour and a half to create. If you're going to write a longer work with a complex landscape in it — a building with secret passages important to the story, say — isn't it worth it to figure out a physical structure that actually works?

Bonus: you can include a map or rendering of your model with the story so that readers can look at it. If the story has physical navigation as an important factor, readers enjoy that. Consider what The Lord of the Rings would be like without the map of Middle Earth in the end-papers.

Next week: notes on how Minecraft's survival mode can be used for ideas.

help your writing with video games

My brother Steve showed me Minecraft a while ago (back when it was still in alpha). He said I'd like it, but I try not to have too many time sucks around, so I didn't get my own copy. Then Peter Newman mentioned he was getting into the game, and I wanted a good game to play on my phone... That was the middle of January, and I've played it pretty much every day since.

The phone (Pocket Edition, or PE) version is a smaller world with fewer features, but the essentials are the same as the full version: you play in a "sandbox" (limited world) made of different types of blocks, scaled to be 1m cubed.

There are two basic modes of play:
  • Creative: there are no monsters, and no way for your avatar to die. You have as many blocks as you want, of whatever type you select. Your avatar has the ability to fly, which can come in useful for some of the construction work. The experience gets compared to virtual reality Lego a lot, which I think is fair. The landscape is created for you randomly by the app, and it is always a beautiful, sunny day.
  • Survival: there are monsters, mostly at night, and they are all trying to kill you. You start the game with nothing but your avatar's bare hands to work with, and have to build a shelter to hide from the monsters, and tools to work with and defend yourself with. The only blocks you have to work with are the ones you collect or fashion yourself. If your world is missing a type of block — my current survival game doesn't seem to have any lapis lazuli, for example — then you simply can't build with it. If you want to work with metals like iron or gold, you have to find some ore, smelt it, and then craft with it. It doesn't rain the way it does in the full version of Minecraft, but days and nights are ten minutes long each. You learn to run somewhere safe at sunset.
I hadn't been playing long when I realised that Minecraft could be a great tool for writers (really!). It gets you thinking about:
  • how geography and one's environment can shape culture and values
  • the history of civilisation
  • the place of monsters both real and imagined in history and mythology
  • "who's the monster?": whether the real monster is you, the human player, and what that means
  • aesthetics and architecture
  • how to plan out things in enough detail so that they work as you imagined
I'm not a writer who's very big on note-taking or diagram-making. I could see using Minecraft as a kind of cheap AutoCAD, though, for planning out things like:
  • house floor plans
  • labyrinth designs
  • town layouts
  • secret passages and rooms
  • re-scaling (lots of the creative designs in Minecraft are at a giant scale; the avatars are mouse-sized in comparison)
In the next couple of Tuesday posts I'll be taking a look at these and evaluating how useful they could be in practical terms. In the meantime, here's a link to Mashable's list of 25 amazing creations in Minecraft. It was fun to notice a lot of them are inspired by books!

will november just start already?

Confession: it really annoys me when I hear an author being interviewed and they talk about their characters as if they are real people. And not just real people, but people they know the complete past, present, and future of. It just sounds so lame somehow, at best eccentric and at worst delusional.

What makes it even worse is that this annoyance makes me a self-hating hypocrite, because that's exactly what happens to me.

Last year was my worst NaNoWriMo yet — 300 words for the month. There were excuses: overtime worked, Yule presents to knit, illness. That last excuse is especially weak since I'm always sick in November, but the others are weak too. The main reason, in the end, was writer's block.

I was writing other things, like Friday Flash every week, and the Tuesday serial which was running at the time. But the novel characters just didn't want to talk.

Now they are. Now they're talking so much they're telling me things that can't possibly be relevant to the story (or maybe it is?). Now they're even suggesting structural things, like how to name and organise the chapters.

It's got to the point where instead of the "why did I sign up for this?" dread I usually get before NaNoWriMo starts, I can't wait to get going. It's weird.

I'm going to try to stick to my original plan of getting some flash fiction done before November starts, and then sticking to the project plan I outlined as much as is reasonable.

50,000 words month or no, it will be good to Finish All the Things.

How are you doing with your writing plans? Or do you not use plans and just let the Muse arrive as she feels like?

we are all pro-technology

Every year, Lake Superior University provides a list of "banished words" — words or short phrases which have been overused, overexposed, or are just plain annoying. Utterances by businesspeople, politicians, and economists are especially prone to winding up on the list.

There's one word whose meaning has narrowed since the nineteenth century that I'd like to reposition, if not ban, and another related word whose scope has expanded at the same time. If I got total control over the English language for one day, as soon as I made sure everyone knew the difference between "it's" and "its", I'd make sure that "technology" and "luddite" went back to more accurate usage.

Let's start with "luddite". Originally it meant someone who disagreed with technology being advanced at the expense of people's jobs. Nowadays it just means anyone who doesn't consider themselves "technical".

Put it this way: if you remark on Twitter or a blog that you're a "luddite", you're in danger of being a hypocrite.

You're also not as eligible for sympathy as you might think. For every creative person who thinks that being a "luddite" is an excuse for a poorly-designed web page or a badly-formatted manuscript, there's at least one other creative who rolls up their sleeves and makes sure things come out properly.

Claiming to be a "luddite" in these matters is like a visual artist not bothering to learn what happens to canvas when you apply paint to it, or a quilter who doesn't bother learning about sewing machines (but uses them anyhow). If you're using the tools and materials, you should know about them. I'm not saying you have to learn to solder together your own motherboards; just that if you choose a computer as a means of expression, you should know how to do writing-related tasks with it, and know what best user practices are.

Now, on to "technology." When I was in high school, I saw a documentary that really opened my eyes about technology. The narrator explained that the purpose of the documentary was to explain how machines work. To this end, first the documentary was going to start with simple machines.

The first simple machine to be explained was a teeter totter (lever).

The second was a spring.

The third was a combination of those two simple machines: a doorknob.

A doorknob is a technological innovation. In comparison with the whole of human history, spring-controlled doorknobs aren't even that old.

"Technology" doesn't just mean computers, or cars, or radios. It doesn't only count if it's something you're not interested in.

And really: the average typewriter user in the 1970s knew how to change the ribbon, make basic screwdriver adjustments, and clean the machine's innards as necessary. They also knew how to change from Courier to Elite, black to red ink, memo paper to letter paper. They knew how to centre a title and right-align an address.

The average laptop/tablet/smartphone user should be able to do the equivalent. Nothing "technical" about it.

don't fear the adverb

The first time I noticed it was in Apple's ad campaign:

I remember having a conversation about it with a Mac power user friend of mine which went something like this:

Friend: I love the new Apple ad campaign. So elegant, so simple.

Me: [eyeroll] Yeah, except it makes them look illiterate.

Friend: How can it look illiterate when they're using photos of Mark Twain and Bob Dylan?

Me: Think differently. It's think differently.

Friend: Well maybe they didn't want to use an adverb. Adverbs are weak forms.

Me: It's still an adverb. Leaving out the suffix doesn't transform it into a non-adverb. The only word it could possibly be modifying in that two-word sentence is "think", which is unambiguously a verb. "Different" can't be a direct object or a subject, because it's not being used as a noun. Writing the sentence in natural order as "Different think" doesn't make any sense.

Friend: Oh whatever, but the sense is clear, and that's all that matters, right?

Me: Okay, so you're defending a company that's made its name on its design aesthetic and famously rigid attention to detail when they approve an ad campaign that gets the grammar wrong in a two-word sentence?

Friend: If Microsoft did the same thing you'd be defending them.

Me: Ah, no, because a) I don't use Microsoft products and b) I support choice in hardware and software...

If you know anything about the history of personal computing, you know we stopped talking about grammar then.

I don't know if it was the influence of the ad campaign, or if the ads were just illuminating that part of the zeitgeist, but it seemed that ever after that people were dropping "-ly" suffixes in print and speech. A neighbour a few doors down from me put a bumper sticker on his car that said, "Save the adverb". A lot of people who claimed to otherwise care about grammar and usage were claiming that the "-ly" suffix was going the way of "thee" and "yclept". They said it was "retrograde" to cling to it.

Let the record show: these people also tended to be the ones in my acquaintance who were completely okay with constructions like (dis)ease and inter/cut. Right.

That was then. Now telling writers not to use adverbs is considered standard advice — any adverbs, not just ones shorn of the suffix which tells the reader it's an adverb. Stephen King famously advises against them in On Writing, and other voices weigh in with their own examples.

The only legitimate reason I've found to chop out adverbs (general concerns about being too wordy notwithstanding) is that they are sometimes used to modify verbs which are too weak to show the action properly. Replace the verb with a more appropriate word, and the adverb is superfluous.

Example: He walked slowly down the street.

Change to: "He strolled -" or "He shuffled -" or "He dragged himself-" and get rid of "slowly".

Fair enough. However, I'd say in these cases it was never the adverb which was the problem, but the verb. The adverb swooped in and helped identify the problem, and got handed the blame for it. That's not a nice way to treat parts of speech.

To get rid of adverbs entirely is to get rid of an entire part of speech. Not a trope, or a convention, or a standard, but an entire chunk of natural language.

You may think differently, but to me that's reactionary and counter-productive.

are you victor frankenstein or professor utonium?

Victor Frankenstein's story is a tale well known. He collected corpses which suited his purposes. Then he dissected them, picked out all the good bits, and reassembled them into his modern Prometheus.

The resulting monster became more famous than its creator, both within the fictional story and in the enduring layers of meta­narrative, going so far as to steal his name.

Professor Utonium is perhaps not as widely known, but to be fair Frankenstein had a two-century head start on him. He's the father figure from The Powerpuff Girls, who decided he was going to create the perfect little girls from laboratory chemistry. (Apparently he skipped health class on the important days back in high school). He mixed sugar, spice, everything nice... but he accidentally added CHEMICAL X.

And it seems to me that both of these are good metaphors for the process of writing. They don't near cover all the major process types, but from where I'm standing they're two distinct processes which get confused a lot.

They're both analytical processes, in that you figure out what the guts are first and then work from there. But there's a difference.

The Victor Frankenstein writer is the sort of creator who's very comfortable talking about "beats" and plot points. They probably would be very comfortable writing for television. Just like Frankenstein was comfortable with grave-robbing at night to get his raw materials, they're perfectly fine with pulling from older known works and fashioning them into something new. Good examples of this kind of writing are... just about any kind of classic TV sitcom for starters, but also anyone who writes "classics" of any genre fiction (and when I say "genre", that includes "literary fiction*". There, I said it.).

The Professor Utonium writer does things a bit differently. They gather up all their basic elements and then see what happens when they drop in some Chemical X (or, as Erin Morgenstern put it, add ninjas).

I know I'm more of a Professor Utonium. I usually start with characters and a basic reason for them all to be together, and then figure out what's going on (the reason for the lab explosion) later.

Like most writing things, there's no "good" or "bad" way to be, so long as you get things done successfully. Frankenstein, Utonium, or someone else altogether, while it's useful to have some self-awareness about one's process, in the end it's whatever works.

*"Literary fiction" encompasses so much science fiction, historical fiction, and romance fiction that really it should be renamed something like "critically acclaimed fiction". Honestly, I've got a four-year bachelor's degree in this and I still don't see what's so special about it. We never talked about "literary fiction" when I was in university. Most of what we studied would count as "slice of life" or "psychological" fiction, with some historical (like Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year) or romance thrown in. And don't tell me "popular fiction" or "pulp" doesn't get counted, because Dickens and Cervantes among others are both canonical, and they were both pop fiction in their time. We used to joke serious fiction was pop fiction that had been around for a long, long time.

clarity vs. dumbing down

Last week I took a course for work on requirements gathering. We took all about how to elicit, verify, validate, and record requirements. One of the things emphasised (not surprisingly) was language usage. We were told to be clear, concise, consistent, concrete, and a whole lot of other adjectives that mostly started with the letter "c".

And for writing requirements documents, that makes perfect sense. But my brain working the way it does, I remembered something on a completely different topic while we were doing the pre-exam review on the last day.

You see, there's this documentary I like a lot, called In the Shadow of the Moon. They interview many (not all) of the Apollo astronauts, and show their responses intercut with footage from the various moon shots. I've never been able to catch it since, but the very first time I saw it, Michael Collins used a word which surprised me. It's not an unusual or rare word, but it is a polysyllabic one, and it's one that someone used to giving interviews would generally avoid. It's one of those words that falls into this weird hinterland of being only for "educated" people, even though pretty much anyone who finishes elementary school knows it.

That first time I saw the film and heard him say it, I wondered if he'd slipped up and forgotten the interview was for general public consumption. But then I realised something else was going on: he expected the audience to rise to the occasion. I'm convinced every phrase and sentence was being used to get the audience to turn their brains on, not just drift along. It was the opposite of the "dumbing down" we've become so used to in the last thirty years.

Just before the pre-exam shifted topics, I thought about the Lee Child novel I was reading. It was Killing Floor, the first in the Jack Reacher series, and it's remarkable for how Child uses vocabulary and sentence length. Here's the first paragraph as an example:
I was arrested in Eno's diner. At twelve o'clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.
The whole book is like that, a sort of See Spot Run with more plot and violence but no pictures. The writing makes Samuel Beckett's prose look purple.

I enjoyed the novel — after spending all day discussing the uses of UML diagrams in requirement verification, it was nice to treat myself to a little brain candy in the evening. But of course it got me to thinking some more about language.

Anyone with an opinion at all about writing will always tell you to choose simple, clear, and direct over complex, obscure, and tangential. I've always been a big supporter of this in writing: Hemingway over Foster Wallace. Beckett over Joyce. Camus over de Maupassant.

Simplicity can only go so far, though, and no farther. If it devolves too much, the writer has to make up for the lack of vocabulary with more words than necessary. I deliberately wrote "make up for" instead of "compensate" in that last sentence to illustrate.

I'm with the astronauts on this one: entice the reader to put their smartest selves forward, but do it in an accessible way. Who knows? It might give us all a chance to smarten up instead of dumbing down.

true believers: inclusion, geek cred, and stan lee

I started reading comic books in earnest when I was about eight. My dad would take me along to the local smoke shop when he went to buy cigarettes, or else my mum would drop by to get a lottery ticket, and if I was good and it wasn't too soon since the last time, I would be allowed to scan the rotating metal rack of comic books and buy one that cost a dollar or less. My mum tried to get me to read what she called "girl's comics" — Richie Rich or Archie & Veronica — but almost always I headed straight for the superhero comics.

Because I never knew when I would be allowed to buy one, I tended to avoid any multi-issue stories. Instead I just went by whichever cover seemed the most interesting. I wound up with random copies of Batman, The Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men, The Phantom, Strange Tales, and loads of others which only lasted a few issues and which I've forgotten the names of.

The teenage boys who hung out at the smoke shop thought it was very amusing that eight-year-old me in my dresses and white knee socks always went for the superhero and supernatural comics, and sometimes they asked me if I liked Marvel or DC better. I always told them Marvel. Truth be told, I was very loyal to some of the DC characters like Batman (Wonder Woman not so much, but that's because I got to see Lynda Carter play her on TV every week, plus see her animated every Saturday morning in Superfriends), but Marvel had one thing that DC didn't, and that was Stan Lee's Soapbox.

The Soapbox was basically a newsletter, telling comic readers what issues to expect next and which members of the Marvel "bullpen" were working on them. Each column had several topics, all of which were prefaced with "ITEM!". The concluding paragraph was always "Excelsior!". Comic readers were "true believers".

What set it apart from other promotional columns (DC sometimes ran one, among others) is that it was completely and utterly hilarious. I usually read it over five or six times before I could make it through without laughing out loud. I found out during the writing of this post that the columns have been collected in a book (might have to look into getting that). If you want a taste of what the style was like, there's some examples on-line at the Marvel web site.

What was amazing about reading the column is that it seemed just as applicable to me, sitting on my bed with my dolls shoved to one side so I'd have room to read, as to the teenage boys back at the smoke shop. You didn't have to have all the appearances of Wolverine memorised to read the column. You didn't have to remember the year issue #1 of X-Men came out. If you spent a lot of time wondering what the Sea Monkeys advertised at the back of the book really looked like or not, you could still read the Soapbox. You just had to be a "true believer", and even at age eight I knew Stan was using that term with a just a bit of hyperbole. The price of admission to the club was a buck for the comic — and if you didn't have that, having the wherewithal to borrow it from your friend who did manage to snag a copy was a good enough substitute.

But now: now agents and publishers complain if an author hasn't "read widely in the genre they are writing in", which seems to translate to "read all the same books the agents and publishers have". Now men at conventions think it's totally okay to judge whether or not a woman is a real geek or a "fake geek girl", completely forgetting that they too could fall down on trivia if asked the right questions. Now "noobs" are derided, as if some people sprung from their mother's womb already knowing the circuitry diagram for the R2D2 costume. Now there are rules about what you can and can't wear to show your geek cred, how fat or thin you can be during cosplay, how much you need to spend on cultural artifacts. You will be judged on whether you saw the first episode of Doctor Who with the new Doctor as it was broadcast, PVRed, or much, much later when you borrow the DVDs off a friend.

And to anyone who thinks anything in that last paragraph actually matters if enough caveats and howevers are layered onto it:

Fuck off.

That's from me now, and from eight-year-old me with the Hollie Hobby doll sitting next to her copy of X-Men. I don't need your approval.

I'm a true believer.

look! ew. depiction versus promotion

This post has been simmering for a while, but it's inspired by things like this*:
  • People dismissing Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy as a "rape fantasy".
  • The inside cover of a paperback edition of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Instead of the usual blurbs from glowing reviews of the hardcover edition, the publishers had chosen to use blurbs denouncing the novel as perverse, calling for its banning and for Banks' incarceration.
  • I don't know if his publisher ever thought to use them as blurbs, but what happened to Banks had already happened to JG Ballard.
  • An article giving an overview of Stephen King's writing career, noting that there was a period earlier on where he was accused of... ghoulishness, for lack of a better word.
What connects the dots? All of these authors write strong, graphic, disturbing stories. Sometimes, as with The Wasp Factory, most of the disturbing scenes feature the protagonist as the instigator of the horrors. In other stories like the Millennium trilogy, the protagonist doesn't start the conflict, but she finishes it — in kind.

Sir Philip Sidney argued that the purpose of fiction/poetry is to "teach and delight". I once had a story of mine criticised at a writer's group for failing to include a moment of moral redemption at the end. The critic insisted that a story wasn't complete until the reader got to see the protagonist learn from the error of their ways.

There's another way of doing it, of course. Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is a great example: the writer doesn't break tone to overtly moralise within the work. Instead, they arrange things so the reader is the one made aware of the wrong. It's a somewhat trickier path to walk down, because one has to have faith that the reader will be thoughtful and reflective enough to come to the hoped-for realisation, but when successful it is often more effective than overt lecturing.

Larsson is on the record for using the "show-don't-lecture" approach in the Millennium trilogy (okay, yes, some characters get used as mouthpieces, especially in the last book. This is a blog post, not a thesis). He definitely didn't set out to promote the brutal rape of wards of the state by their appointed guardians.

As for the rest of my list: authors can and have defended themselves in three basic ways. They can say that they wished to evoke repulsion in their readers for the purposes of teaching — a negative example rather than a positive one. They can claim that their emphasis was on "delighting", rather than "teaching" their readers. Or they can claim that they believe the Sir Philip approach to be wrong, and that there is more to literature than the imparting of morals.

Their detractors — the people who call for the books to be banned, and for the authors to be incarcerated and/or committed to the insane asylum — argue that not only have the authors failed to not provide positive examples, but they are promoting the negative, immoral behaviour by writing about it in the first place. And because these promotions of immoral behaviour are also immensely popular, they are an influence. And not only must that influence be stopped, but its creators must be punished.

Not surprisingly, since I'm writing this post, I come down on the side of the authors. I've never seen any evidence that describing the world solely in terms of sunshine and lollipops ever made it a better place. On the other hand, "A Modest Proposal" is remembered today for its effectiveness as an argument as much for its audacity.

I'm also very uncomfortable with the idea that anyone who writes something ugly or disturbing "enjoys" it and wants to promote it. Sometimes ugly gets written about because if it isn't, it will be hidden. To write only of sunshine and lollipops while at the same time decrying anyone who chooses to write about anything else to is steep oneself in an awful lot of denial. If you want to write about sunshine and lollipops, go for it, but don't think that gives you the right to piss in the cornflakes of someone who chooses to go about depicting their truth differently.

* Funny thing about the list at the top of this post — I wanted to include some women authors to even things up... but I couldn't think of any. I even called the ever-resourceful J-A, since she reads a lot of horror (horror writers tend to get targeted for this kind of hate), and she couldn't think of any either. We ran search queries on every major woman horror, science fiction, fantasy, and "controversial topic" writer we could think of for the better part of an hour and came up absolutely empty.

That's not to say there wasn't any hate out there for women authors. There was loads of hate. The difference was that no-one seemed to be calling for these women to be put in jail or the insane asylum for writing strong, disturbing content. That included a couple of major women authors we thought of who have been accused of promoting Satanism.

If you have any ideas on what the difference is  — why men authors seem to get the "lock 'em up" response more please leave a comment about it!

worlds beyond these: some final thoughts

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

This post is the fourth and final in a series. If you haven't read any of the other posts, at least have a quick read of Part 1. You may want to also read Part 2 and Part 3.

To sum up the previous three posts:
  • The five stages of grief are, in no particular order, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, and Anger.
  • Not all grieving people go through all five stages.
  • Some non-grieving people will go through one or more of the five stages when they discover someone else is a survivor.
Now, here's the fun part. Once I actually started this blog series and mentioned what I was writing about, I found out from someone I know who does grief counselling that the five stages.... are bogus. They're not the five stages of grief at all. There is no such thing as the five stages of grief.

What happened was someone defined them as the five stages of a patient dealing with a traumatic health event: a major stroke, say, or an amputation. Someone else stole the idea and applied it to grief. Except, while there is some overlap, they're not really about grief.

So when the grieving family gets back from the funeral home and the casserole the neighbour brought over is warming up in the oven, please do me and all the other survivors in this world a favour and don't make noises about the five stages. They are a fairy tale, and my own subjective experience tells me they do more harm than good. They make people who are already going through grief feel like they have to respond in certain ways that aren't even necessarily applicable.

The stages of grief that Western society has internalised since at least the 1980s are fiction. They have nothing to do with actual grief.

What if you are trying to write actual fiction? How does death and survival and grief fit in?

What bothers me the most about survivors in fiction is that grief tends to be a Chekhov's gun sort of thing. That is, it's only mentioned when it's going to become a plot point or the cause for a character trait. There are precious few major examples in fiction where someone has a dead relative just by-the-bye. At best, they're orphans to deny them a safety net of support.

When death and grieving do get mentioned, they tend to be what's called "complicated grief", which is another thing I learnt about while writing this series. Complicated grief is when someone is so overwhelmed by their grief that they can't function. People with complicated grief wind up taking time off work for months at a time. Grieving is an unusually long and difficult process for them.

Real-life people going through real-life complicated grief deserve support and empathy, but unfortunately for the majority of us who have "regular" grief (whatever that really is), complicated grief tends to show up in fiction more prominently. Think  of Hamlet's behaviour after his father's death, or Lear screaming on stage with Cordelia in his arms. Everyone I know who has gone through, um, "uncomplicated" grief has stories about being told they're "heartless" or "didn't really love" their deceased relative because they haven't been seen in public wailing and tearing their hair out.

And you know what? It's not fair, and it makes a difficult situation worse for those dealing with death and loss. It's a great example of a situation where fictional conventions overwhelm psychological reality.

One of the few examples of regular grief done well I can think of is in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, where Laura decides to reconcile with Rob in part because she just wants a break from feeling awful. Grieving is often like that. You can go out, watch a funny film, enjoy it, then go home and spot the dead person's favourite coffee mug on the draining board and just fall apart. A lot of people are perfectly fine getting through their day-to-day lives at school or work, and then they go home and cry. They're not "hiding how they feel", or "putting on a brave face for the world". They're just doing what comes naturally.

On the other hand, there's also this weird pressure to "get over it". Grief counsellors I'm in contact with have told me stories about clients getting told to "snap out of it" one week after the unexpected death of a close relative. This too gets depicted in fiction a lot. A character will grieve just long enough to make the reader feel sorry for them, and then they shift gears and move onto whatever the next emotional prompt is. Maybe there will be some mentions of the death sprinkled later on in the book for continuity.

The consensus is that there is no "getting over it" per se. Most people say they have adjusted to a new version of reality. There is no going back.

Running in a weird parallel with the "get over it" attitude is the threat that if you don't "get over it", you'll somehow be forever messed up and wind up with "issues".

Personally I'm uncomfortable with the idea of "changed" being equated to "messed up" once death enters the mix. Yes, there's some things I'm not into because my dad died when I was thirteen. I will never, ever watch Mamma Mia or anything else with a  "search for my real dad so I can be walked down the aisle by him at my wedding" plot. My father died exactly one week before Father's Day, so I tend to arrange my errands so I don't have to go out a lot when the Father's Day sales are in full swing.

But there's crippling personality traits based on past trauma, and then there's quirks. The fictional Indiana Jones certainly seemed to be a well-functioning character despite a strong phobia for snakes.

So I'm going to wrap this series up by challenging writers to step up their efforts to depict grief more accurately. If you want a resource, I strongly recommend reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. It's a doorstop — the copy I read was over 1,000 pages — but it's worth it, it's a great read, and you can always skim the parts that don't touch you. There are more than enough wonderful passages in it to make up for the skimmed parts.

worlds beyond these: part 3 (penultimate posting)

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

If you haven't read Part 1 of this series, you might want to go back and at least read the introduction before continuing here. There's also a Part 2.

Parts 1 and 2 got the crazy, ugly, incredulous reactions out of the way. This post covers reactions which are a lot more understandable, and which are a lot easier to generate empathy for.


It happens. A survivor could be having a perfectly nice conversation with someone, and they'll say something like, "How long have your parents been married now?"

And so you explain, as briefly and with as little drama as possible, and the person you're having the conversation with falls apart.

I have made people cry by merely saying, "My dad died when I was thirteen." I was just giving information; it was not my intention to make them cry, and they weren't looking for an excuse to.

All that's happening is that the person is so able to imagine the same thing happening to them they have a grief reaction. All you can do is reassure them and, if necessary, change the subject.


I mentioned in Part 1 my dad died of a heart attack. While the exact cause was never determined, he smoked. He had a lot of work stress. Even though he was strongly against any and all junk food (including a lot of food which isn't even thought of as "junk food" in North America), he had trouble keeping his weight at healthy levels.

Starting about ten years after he passed away (so around 1993), I began to encounter people who would quiz me for health details. Once the ones I enumerated in the previous paragraph came to light, they would declare he was a bad father who should have taken better care of himself. They would say he was no better than a father who willfully abandons his children.

I will not provide my entire counter-argument here, but I will say it is not for them to decide how fit a parent he was.

I always wonder what has happened to these people that they feel so strongly about passing judgement on someone they never met.


Sometimes when people learn what happened, they don't become sad or angry. They become fascinated with hypotheticals.

"What do you think your life would be like it that hadn't happened?"

"Do you think it was harder on you or on your brothers?"

"How much do you think that affects you today?"

The answer to all of the above is that I don't know, and that I'm not sure they're even answerable.


Those who have been keeping track of the phases will know I left out "acceptance". I can't think of anything to discuss there — people just say something along the lines of "I'm sorry" and then things move on.

The series wraps up next week with some reflections — including some things I learned as I wrote these posts.

I'm also going to tie this back to fiction writing, both to plotting and to characterisation. But more on that next week.

worlds beyond these: part 2 & some reflections

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

If you haven't read Part 1 of this series, you might want to go back and at least read the introduction before continuing here.

Li and John both commented that it would be a good idea to mark these as non-fiction. I've added it as a label, and put a note up top here and in Part 1 as well.

Part 2 is the second and last example dealing with denial. It's a little harder to explain, because unlike Part 1's example, I'm pretty sure I never got to witness the worst of it. It's sort of like reading a novel where the protagonist keeps on noticing people playing cards, but it doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything until two weeks later when you're trying to describe the book to a friend. I didn't put everything together until years after all these little snapshots of interactions occurred.

Part 2: More Denial

Snapshot A: church
I'm thirteen, my one brother is ten, and my youngest brother is four. So after my dad passes away, when it's communion-time at church, my mum goes up first, and then when she returns to the pew I go up with my ten-year-old brother. That way there's always someone old enough to be responsible with the four-year-old. Nothing more to it than that.


The whole time my mum is standing in line at the front of the church, the people behind us are whispering things like: "That's not allowed. A divorced woman taking communion... that's not allowed. Why doesn't the priest do something about it? Why doesn't he talk to her? Who does she think she is? I suppose it's the modern way... but it's not allowed. Well, if the priest wants to help her pretend..."

It was an open casket visitation. The obit was in the local paper. There was a church funeral. There was a condolences notice in the church newsletter. There were In Memoriam masses which were also announced in the church newsletter.
Even if they missed all that — Catholic congregations are big around here and you don't get to know everyone — there's no excuse.

I could have had a dad who was disabled and found it too difficult to physically make it to church.

I could have had a dad who wasn't Catholic but who agreed that the kids would be raised Catholic.

But no. They had to go there.

Snapshot B: music class interrogations
There's a girl, let's call her Vera, in music class. I only met her when I started high school. But she knows about me and my family a little bit, because her family is friends with my mum's hairdresser.

A couple of times a week, when we're getting our musical instruments out of their cubbyholes or putting them back, she asks me questions.

"Does your mum wear makeup?" she says.


"So, would you say your mum wears a lot of makeup?"

"Just lipstick."

"Do you think your mum is pretty?"

"She was a model in high school."

"You're lying."

"She wasn't a famous model. She modelled clothes from home sewing patterns."

"Did your dad know how to cook?"

"Yeah. He was good at it."

She laughs at me. "Oh yeah, sure. Hamburgers and hot dogs."

"His first job in Canada was working as a cook."

And on. Sometimes I'll interrupt her and ask what the point of all these questions is. She shrugs and acts like they're no big deal. They aren't presented like I've written them here — just one or two a day, a few times a week — but if the same question was asked more than once and I varied in my answer at all, I'd get grilled on it.

She says her hairdresser contact gave a different answer than mine. I ask her what the hell business it is of any of them and tell her I'm tired of being mined for gossip.

She says she just wants to know and that she doesn't mean anything by it.

The thing is, the incidents I described in Part 1 only started after the questions started. And Natasha and Vera knew each other.

I understand that there was a time (in some places that time is now) where a family that's been abandoned by one or the other parent will pretend the absent parent is dead. I get that. But I doubt very much that these pretending families will go through such an elaborate charade that they'll find a body to display at a funeral home for a couple of days, hold a church funeral for it, and convince the priests in two parishes to go along with the story.

Reading this post over again, it sounds like these things happened in a much smaller community than they did. We lived just outside of a small town until I was ten, but before my father passed away we moved to a suburb of 300,000 people. There were 1,800 people attending my high school the year I graduated, and the students who went there lived in two different municipal counties. The church where my dad's funeral was held had over 2,000 people in the parish.

There is a line where assumptions turn to malice. And I think these examples show two points that line intersects.

worlds beyond these: introduction & part 1

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

I've been wanting to write this for ten years. Just be forewarned that it's not about what you're going to think it's about from the next couple of paragraphs.

What it's not about is: death, grieving, my dad. Really.

Note, though, that the five stages of grief as outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler are, in no particular order, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, and Anger.

Note also these bare personal facts: my father passed away thirty years ago this past 12 June. He had two heart attacks in one day, it was sudden, and there was no prior medical history to lead us to expect this might happen.

He had just turned forty-eight on 27 May.

I was thirteen years old, and my brothers were ten and four.

But that is not what this series of articles is about.

At the funeral home, at the funeral itself, in the months that followed, we got to hear a lot about those five stages of grief, got to have our every mood and emotional reaction pegged as one of the five.

No-one mentioned one very remarkable thing, though: that those five stages are not just about what you and the other loved ones of the deceased go through. Other people who have never met the person who passed away react the same way. And that's when things can get very, very weird.

This series isn't about me. It's about everyone else.

Because it's about everyone else, I've changed names for the usual reasons. The point isn't to embarrass anyone, although in the case I'm covering in Part 2, I'd like to. The point is to consider other viewpoints.

Some of these examples are understandable. The trick for the survivor is just to ensure they're ready for it when it happens.

Some of these examples are as inexcusable as they are unbelievable. Those are the ones I'm putting first.

Part 1: Denial

It is two years after the funeral. I'm in the second year of high school, as is a classmate I've known since before. One day we're in the corridor at lunchtime, talking to a mutual friend whose parents are divorced. The mutual friend mentions she's going to see her dad on the weekend. He lives in another city now, so she only sees him a few times a year.

Natasha, my classmate, turns to me and says, "How often do you see your dad?"

"Pardon?" I say. The question doesn't make any sense.

"Doesn't he have visitation rights?" she presses.

"Visitation rights?"

She rolls her eyes. "Well, I don't think that's right. He's still your dad, and you should be able to see him when you want to."

I finally catch up. "Natasha," I say, "He's dead."

"Whatever," she says, and flounces off with the mutual friend.

There's more to it than that. Not only was Natasha at the recreation centre where my dad had his initial heart attack, not only did she see him borne on a stretcher into an ambulance, but she represented my class at the funeral. She was front-and-centre for the entire event, but here we are two years later, and she's asking about visitation rights. When I confront her later and remind her about the funeral, she just keeps repeating "I don't remember that", as if it makes it true.

Two years later again we're both in senior year and she tells me that once I turn eighteen, any visitation restrictions are null and void. I remind her again of the truth, again she claims not to have lived through her part, and we're back in our starting positions.

Part 2 and a reflection on Parts 1 & 2 will be posted next week.


This was the plan: Shelve the Tilly with the Others serial once it got to #50 (and its conclusion, natch), work on something else, and then start turning Tilly into a novel starting 1 June.

It was a good plan, but of course I wouldn't be starting a blog post that way if things had actually gone according to plan.

The "something else" I've been working on is coming along slowly, but it is coming along, and I'm loathe to interrupt it because I'm learning a lot of stuff. It's the first long-form piece I've ever done where I'm making myself figure out the entire plot before I start writing scenes in earnest.

One of the things I learnt is that I have a hard time with antagonists. Because, you know, they're the bad guys, and who wants to hang out with them? Readers, that's who. Not much of a story without conflict, after all.

So I'm sticking with my spreadsheets and notes for now. I still want to have the next draft of Tilly done by the end of this calendar year, but I'm not worried about delaying it. Tilly as a character has existed since the autumn of 2007, when she was created for a collaborative novel project I tried to get off the ground with five other people. (Despite our luck in having some brilliant writers on-board, it crashed and burned. I still think the method could work if people were willing to commit to it, but that's another blog post.) She's had the same biography and the same character arc the entire time; the difference with Tilly with the Others is that the action starts just before she moves to the Annex, whereas in the collaborative effort she was already there. The only thing I've changed is her last name, because "Zondernaam" is a better name for her and, as a name, has a very cool place in history.*

Writing-wise a lot of things have got better in the last year or so. I'm starting to learn how to write when I'm sick. I'm in less pain overall, but I've figured out a few ways to write while I'm in pain too. The one thing I haven't figured out yet is how to get more writing time in, but I keep trying.

*What is Zondernaam's place in history, you may ask? You could always Google it (although I just tried and couldn't find any references on the first results page, perhaps because I'm querying in English). Maybe I can cover that in another blog post too.

all of the above

A few months ago I took a science fiction writing workshop at the Bakka Phoenix bookshop here in Toronto. Before the session started, I wound up chatting with a woman whose first book had been bought by a publisher. She said some of the editing feedback from the publisher was making her uncomfortable. 

Not knowing the situation, I just said something neutral. Then she told me what the feedback was.

You see, she didn't have a romance subplot in her book, and the publisher said that readers expected romance to be present in books by women writers. She said it was expected at least as an element, if not the main plotline.

I have to admit, this is the last editing story I expected to hear at an SF workshop held in the 21st century, in the setting of a well-established SF bookshop no less.

Now that the SFWA flap and some other things have happened, I feel better about relating the story via blog post, because I've come to realise it's not an unusual story after all.

And that's made me wonder about a few things. 

Ten years ago, when I was re-establishing writing as something I did, a lot of people assumed I would be writing romance and/or erotica. That included people who knew what I read (science fiction, "literary" fiction, mysteries, paranormals). Because romance is what women write, isn't it?

Not this one, and not the writer I met at the workshop either.

So I'm left with two questions, which I tried Googling the answers to before I started this post, but couldn't find any references to:

1. Do male writers get the same pressure to include particular subplots in their work, regardless of genre, because it's believed readers will expect certain story elements when they notice the author is a man? It's tempting to say men are discouraged from writing outright romances, but... Nicholas Sparks. Or is that unfair of me?

2. Does this belief (that if it's a book by a woman writer a romance subplot is expected, if not a main plot) have reality backing it, or is it just another industry myth? I honestly thought this stuff would have died off around the time James Tiptree Jr. was revealed to be Alice P. Sheldon, but apparently that's not true.

What do you think?

#fridayflash: the welcome

One morning, when he had about eight years, the people he had always called Papa and Mama told him he had been found on their doorstep one morning, and now they could no longer afford to keep him. 

Even at the time he wasn't really surprised. He'd figured out long before that they were afraid of him.

He walked out into the dusty streets that day, eyes squinting against the glare of the white buildings, and picked his way past the merchants and beggars with purpose, but no particular hurry.

There were close calls and misadventures, brushes with police and perverts, but somehow he came out of it all more or less intact. By nineteen years (give or take) he had a more or less safe, regular routine.

He'd wake up just before dawn in whatever room he was renting that month. He'd steal some bread or fruit from the landlady for breakfast, slip out into the alleyway, and transform in the nearest shadow.

His animal form was a fox terrier, and the gods must have smiled when they granted it to him, because it was a perfect disguise. He was too small to be turned into food by a beggar, too non-threatening for the merchants to complain about him.

He would make his tour of the market, figuring out where the caliph's guards were patrolling that day. Then he would find another dark alleyway as far away from the guards as possible, return to human form, and choose an empty market-space in which to perform.

The performance itself was all sleight of hand — coin tricks, card tricks, making a walnut borrowed from a merchant vanish, or making the lentils from another merchant pour out of a child's ear. The merchants loved him because he drew a crowd, and the crowds loved him because they liked their entertainment to be clever.

Clever was what the performance was. He always restricted himself to sleight of hand, with no true magic used at all. The audience preferred to be impressed by his technique than astonished by the supernatural, and his early experiences had taught him it was not worth frightening people by showing them something they could not explain. His home city was on a high plateau, a place where "rain" was understood as a word, but never actually seen. Its citizens derived plenty of amazement from the mundane.

If the caliph's guards or the regular police spotted him, he would stop the show immediately and run to one of the many bolt-holes he had established around the city. As soon as he knew he was safe from any curious eyes, he would vanish that day's collection of coins and transform himself into his terrier form. Even if the police did find his hiding-place, they could find no proof of his earnings... or him.

Back in his rented rooms he would hone his secret talents, push himself to new mastery. There didn't seem to be much practical use for these skills beyond avoiding law enforcement, but he pursued them out of academic curiosity. Since, apparently, he was the only one in the world capable of these miracles, it seemed important that he know their extent and measure.

From time to time, for a fixed fee, he would perform at parties for the wealthier classes, never when the caliph was present, of course. His rich patrons would celebrate a matriarch's birthday or the arrival of the spice caravan, and he would make figs appear to pop out of gentlemen's coin-pouches. While he was delighting the guests, he would secretly revel in the lushness of the carefully irrigated gardens. Once he even performed next to a fountain, and clowned around a bit in the spray, much to the guests' enjoyment. It was the first time his entire body had been drenched in water.

The caliph enacted stricter laws against "mobs" and "sorcery". His performances at the market were interrupted more often; his private engagements at the homes of the wealthy more secretive. One time he was hired to perform at a wedding, only to have the police raid the house just before he was about to start. The hosts were devastated that their daughter's wedding had been ruined, and he wisely decided not to demand his fee.

After that the number of invitations to perform at private functions dropped sharply.

He was sitting at a café, nursing a mint tea in the sun-scorched morning, when a voice asked if he would mind company. He looked up to find the voice belonged to a woman whose long hair was a natural red untouched by henna — an impossible rarity in his part of the world. He decided she must be a foreigner, yet she spoke without the slightest trace of an accent.

She asked if he was the street conjurer she'd seen in the market, and although he thought that surely he would remember such a beautiful and unusual creature if she'd actually been present in any of the crowds, he said yes, and yes again when she asked if he performed at private events.

She smiled and said it was her birthday a week hence, and was he free to entertain her guests at the party?

He certainly was.

The afternoon of the appointed day, she met him in the main square, flanked by two men he took to be bodyguards. They led him down the narrow, dusty streets, through so many twists and turns even he lost track of where they were.

It worried him. The streets had been his home since he was a child, and he had the same unease a house-owner would have at finding a secret room.

At last they came to a heavy wooden door, which one of the bodyguards opened. The woman went in first, and smiled for him to follow her. He stepped into a small entrance-hall, followed by the guards.

There was a flash and a lurch, and he was shocked to discover himself standing in an orchard. It was colder than any day he could remember, and when he looked up he saw the sky was a softly marbled grey, and not the relentless blue he had always known.

And there was spray falling on him, just lightly, but he could see no fountain.

"You've led the caliph's men on a merry chase for years," said the woman. "It is strictly forbidden for a wizard to live in a non-magical city. Whatever made you decide to move there?"

"I was born there," he said. "At least I think I was."

The woman frowned. "You think... you don't know?"

"No," he said.

"Odd," said the woman. "Well, within our laws you're free to live here. I'm sure we'll find honest work you'll like."

He barely heard her. "Where is that coming from?" he said, trying to indicate the droplets with his hand.

"Where's what coming from?" said the woman. "I just see the rain."

He turned his face to the sky. "Magical."

with all due respect to mr. ellison

Harlan Ellison is one of the few writers who can make me cringe and admire him at the same time. Admire, because he's a master prose writer and an incredibly articulate speaker. Cringe, because sometimes, as much as I appreciate whatever argument he's making, ultimately I just can't agree with it.

Today I found this example on Twitter (an irony in itself):

I can agree with Ellison about not wanting the video clip included on the DVD for free. There's a tangible product, a clear line from content to supply and distribution, and so on. I can also see that he shouldn't have to go out and buy a copy of the DVD his work has been included on. The "oh, but you'll get publicity" line is just that — a line.

The part where I can't agree with him is when he starts attacking "amateurs" for making "professional" writers' business more difficult.

What Ellison seems to think of as a "professional" writer is someone who does nothing but write and publish. That is, someone who doesn't have a day job doing something else. Never mind that celebrated authors like William Carlos Williams made their income from day jobs. Never mind that families and circumstances can put up barriers that are impossible to break through. You've got to do it his way, or not do it at all.

Well, we all make our choices, although Ellison seems oblivious to how harshly different the consequences of the same choices can be for different people. Perhaps he needs to read what another professional writer, Virginia Woolf, described in her essay "Shakespeare's Sister." It was written in 1929, but a lot of what it has to say is just as true today.

And that's where the internet Ellison despises so much comes in. For the first time since the commonplace book was, well, commonplace, people can compose, distribute, and engage in content that is created by amateurs on an everyday basis. No longer do you have to hang out at the right café with the right clique and sleep with the right people (yes, plural, and if you've ever dealt with an artist's clique you'll know it's true) just to get five minutes in on open mic night. You can garner an international audience from the comfort of your own living room.

Sturgeon's Law says the vast majority of that amateur content will be dreck, and no doubt it is. But that still leaves an awful lot of excellent amateur writers.

The other thing is that the line between amateur and professional is and always has been blurry, which may well also make Ellison uncomfortable. Are you still an amateur if you've only had one book published (like Harper Lee)? What if you're massively rich, and bankroll yourself, but everything you publish loses money? What if virtually nothing you write gets published, or even finished, like Kafka?

And, because I'd like to stop writing this before I go into full rant mode, here's Monty Python making a few points for me:

everybody knows

I went to a school where over eighty per cent of the kids were fifth-generation residents of the county. For the entire ten years we lived in this particular area, we were known as "the foreigners" not-quite-behind-our-backs. My schoolmates would regularly take it upon themselves to inspect my school lunches and declare "that's weird."

Some weird things I brought to school were:
  • sandwiches made with cold cuts which were not bologna
  • sandwiches made with rye bread or French boule, not Wonderbread
  • sandwiches made with cheese which were not Kraft slices
  • sandwiches made with Wonderbread and peanut butter, but with home-made peach jam, not store-bought grape jelly
  • Swiss ladybug chocolates
  • Hopjes coffee candies
  • cookies that came from a deli, not the cookie aisle at the local A&P
The most memorable occasion was when my dad packed our lunches instead of my mum, and he decided to give us a hot meal of bratwurst slices and sauerkraut packed in a spare thermos so it would stay warm. It worked very well, but I had a crowd of about five kids eyeing my lunch and making comments. The next day a girl came up to me and solemnly told me that her dad said sauerkraut was only a topping for hot dogs, and that eating it in quantity as a side dish would make me ill.

"That's crap," I said. "We eat sauerkraut all winter at home."

That turned out not to be a very good defence.

Live and learn is the way the saying goes, and the thing I learned from the critiques of my lunches (besides that intolerance is truly irrational) is that while writing what you know is important, you have to give the reader a chance to understand.

Say your character has trouble with kudzu growing on their property and choking out the other plants, and say you want to make that a plot point. You can't just have the characters complaining about the kudzu, or making jokes about it, or mention it's killed the rose bushes. "Kudzu" is a totally opaque term if you've never encountered it before.

What to do? Well, mentioning it's a type of plant is a good start. I'm deliberately using kudzu as an example because the first time I encountered the word, someone had written a jokey piece about it with "the war on kudzu" being literally treated as a military action. At the end of the piece I could see it was supposed to be amusing, but I wasn't sure if kudzu was a dangerous animal or a quasi-military Japanese-American survivalist group. Maybe an isolationist cult that had militarised? I wasn't sure.

I definitely couldn't tell from the piece that it was supposed to be a plant.

Yes, there's search engines and dictionaries and encyclopedias which a reader can reference, but it's not likely they're going to bother the moment they get confused by your text. They'll either keep going, hoping for some context to let them puzzle it out, or else they'll give up and read something in which they can understand the references. Readers don't necessarily want the entire background on something they don't understand. They just want to be able to say, "Ah, okay, it's a type of plant" so they can get on to the next part of the story.

If you're not even giving them that, even something as humble and commonplace as sauerkraut will remain exotic and opaque.