My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, April 30, 2021

Best Stand Alone Modern Sci Fi (Book Recommendation Results)

The results are IN!

Our book rec conversation about stand alone science fiction (written after 1980) came up with a decent list for your TBR lists. From Brin and Russell to Asimov, these are the favorites of many. 

I'm just going to drop this list and run. I have to get all my tax documents to my accountant in the next two days (all my crowdfunding and side gigs make my taxes way too hard to do on my own). This is why my "heavy" posts were at the beginning of the week this week. I will get our Master List updated this weekend (but you can go look and see what the results will look like, as well as check out our previous Book Rec convos). Plus, don't forget to go back to the original conversation to see what people said about the books they loved.

One small note. A LOT of people recommended books that weren't stand alone. I didn't take those nominations, and they aren't on this list. I won't finger wag too much here about following directions except to say that if you submit your writing to a venue, you're going to want to follow THEIR submission guidelines to the letter. Here, I will simply say to hold on to these great book recommendations. I'll be coming back around in time to do the best single book in a series.


Earth, D. Brin (2)

Snow Crash, N. Stephenson

Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, S. R. Delany.

China Mountain Zhang, M. F. McHugh

House of the Scorpion, N. Farmer

Silently and Very Fast, C. M. Valente

Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected, S. Popkes

The Positronic Man, I. Asimov and R. Silverberg

Story of Your Life, T. Chiang


Six Wakes, M. Lafferty 

The Gone World, T. Sweterlitsch

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Help! I Need My Confidence Back (Mailbox)

I need my writing confidence back! What should I do? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple each week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. I will gladly try to deal with existential crises with a checklist.]  

B asks:

Hi Chris,

When I was a kid, I wrote so much. I even shared some of my stories with friends. I was so proud of my work. I longed for the day I’d be a published author. When I was in high school, I began writing what I hoped would be my first published novel.

However, I was never satisfied with any draft. I revised and revised and revised, but it never satisfied me. However, I couldn’t get myself to stop working on it. Cut to almost 8 years later (Yeah…I know…long time) and I decided to give it one more shot. Last summer I booked a motel room and spent a few days alone to write. But after that, I decided to stop trying for this one.

Nowadays, I find it tough to write. I’ve started a few projects, but end up tiring of them quickly and hating my own work. I feel my characters are bland and one-dimensional, no matter how many “character charts” I consult or create. I feel my protagonists are too perfect no matter the flaws I give them, I feel like my antagonists are too “evil laugh while twirling mustache” no matter how relatable I try to make them. I feel my plots go nowhere. I worry about how descriptive I’m being; too descriptive or not descriptive enough. At the end, my passion for the project dies like a match burning out.

This all started after I called it quits on that 8-year struggle. Is there a way out of this slump, and to get my confidence back as a writer?

My reply: 

B, the only way out is through, but let's see if I can give you some suggestions that are worthy of a blog instead of a bumper sticker. I'm sure if you wanted that shit, you could have just found a webpage that generates a new random platitude every time you click. ("Be sure to measure twice and cut once.") 

If I had twenty minutes to talk to you about this, I could ask some follow-up questions, and probably drop some wisdom targeted better than a Facebook ad after you've been spent a week talking about a product you need near your smartphone. I have some suspicions based on the way you worded your question, but I'm going to lineup most the usual suspects nonetheless.

The only one I think you're getting to skip, B, is "are you trusting in the process of revision." A lot of folks wonder why their rough drafts don't feel ready for publication, and I'm often put in the position of saying "because you're not done; in a very real sense, you've handed me half a story." In your case it seems like you're doing the revision, but it isn't helping. There are some questions about the rigor of your revision I could get into (it's gotta be more than just pushing a few commas around) but that might be a better subject for another article.

The first thing I'm going to ask anyone in such a long and profound writer's block is if they really want to write. Don't just answer this off the cuff. I know you want to want to write, but you have to figure out if you really want to write. What would it feel like to just put down the pen (or computer) and go on with the rest of your life? Or what would it feel like to write for fun and pleasure and never again worry about being a published author? Take some time with this question. Ask yourself what it was about being a "published author" that you really wanted. Because I'll tell you, B: for a lot of folks there's some validation and affirmation and street cred (and maybe fame or money) that they think of when they imagine what being a published author is going to be, but they really don't like actually writing that much and it leads to some very acute frustrations and—if I may be so bold—hypocritical ambitions. And given how long it takes to reach those bellwethers and how long you'll work without them, it's easier to get them in other ways and forget the writing. Sometimes the worst thing we can do for our confidence is continue to grind our gears doing something we don't really like.

It's really okay not to write

Okay, that's not the issue. You really really wanna write. You did some soul searching—you looked deep within your very bowels—and it's not fame, money, or glory that you want but really the act of writing itself, and it's okay if this "published author" thing takes another five…ten….fifteen years. Or maybe NEVER. Because what is really important to you is writing for its own sake. Let's move on then. 

Okay. Okay. Let's move on.

he next thing I'm going to ask, B, based on the way you worded some of your difficulty with portraying heroes, villains, or describing things, is if you're reading. And I don't mean if you're reading at all. Some of it might be trying to overlay more sophisticated writing on the core of a character you thought was a great idea when you were a teenager, but it sounds like the principal frustration you're experiencing is a gap between what you want and what you're trying to describe, and that comes from not reading.

Most artists get that they need to live and breathe their art. Painters go look at other paintings. Musicians listen to music and can barely suffer silence. Filmmakers watch movies constantly. It is particular to would-be writers that you find this bizarre paradox of being reluctant to read. But you HAVE to read. You have to read constantly. You have to read voraciously. You have to read in sips and gulps and long pulls like you are dying of readingthirst. Trying to only write without reading is like trying to ONLY breathe out. It just can't be done. And those who try are doomed to struggle with why the concrete language doesn't ever seem up to the task of describing what is in their head. 

In your case, B, I would read the sorts of things that you are frustrated you can't write: complicated villains, nuanced protagonists, the perfect amount of description, and pay close attention to how the writer achieves this effect. Then go and see if you can emulate that process. Every book on your shelf is a personal writing lesson if you read with "How did they achieve this?" in mind. 

Just don't forget to read for pleasure too.

"Shelob totally ganked Frodo??? NO WAY!"

My next bit of advice is to forget attempting to publish something for a while. In fact, make sure you know that, whatever happens, you will NOT be publishing what you write. (You can go back much much MUCH later if you happen to write the great American novel.) Literally…write with NOT publishing in mind. Fuggedaboutit. 

Fall in love with writing again. Go back and find the magic that first attracted you. Forget about that book you just can't get write or being a "published author" or whatever. Leave behind the sunken cost and the sense of obligation. Just write for fun again. See what happens. Enjoy the sheer pleasure of creating characters and worlds.

Look, I'm the first person to arch an eyebrow when someone who wants to be a professional writer (as in someone who wants writing to be their JOB) says, "I can't write if it feels like a chore." Of course your job feels like a chore sometimes. (If they want to write only ever when it feels good, that's awesome, but then accept that it's more of a HOBBY.)  But there's also something to that. If you aren't enjoying it, it'll just beat you down. Try starting small, and write a little every day without any sense that it has to "go somewhere," and see if you can't find some of those reasons you fell in love with writing in the first place.

I know this sounds like "rekindle your marriage" advice…I do. But it's kind of true. Just take writing out on some fun dates again. Let writing pick the position. Order writing something from Zanzibar. And then fuck it gently in…oh wait, this is a Tenacious D song. 

If you're still struggling, my next bit of advice would be to finish something. It doesn't have to be this novel. In fact, it would probably be a lot easier on you if it weren't. A short story. An article. A vignette. Whatever. Write something and feel what it's like to say "that's done," and let it go. It won't be flawless. But it will be done. And you will get a sense of what it means to be done and let something go into the world covered in artistic imperfections. (Letting it go can mean sending it off for publication, putting it online, letting some friends look at it, or just letting yourself preen in the glory of a job well done if you're not ready to be read yet.) The usual way writers bend is to not do ENOUGH revision, but sometimes it goes the other way, and for you, it may be that the act of revision is becoming a sort of "crutch" to never have to put your work out there. If there's always one more thing you hate that needs retooling, then you can just endlessly be not ready. And that is its own pitfall. Learning what it feels like to get something as perfect as it can be and then put it out there and move on will build confidence in your ability to do that more. Maybe even enough to know what you have to do to get that old manuscript to "done."

Lastly, I want to make sure someone besides you is reading your work (and maybe even those old revisions of your manuscript, B). Most writers think their shit doesn't stink. They don't even want to be EDITED, nevermind have to do a serious revision or—GOD FORBID—a rewrite. But that overconfidence is typical, not universal, and sometimes the pendulum swings the other way. We can be our own worst critics. And I'd like you to find out if this is really awful writing, or if you—who have probably read your story fifty times and know everything that happens and are bored by things that would delight a first-time reader and critical of things a first-time reader wouldn't even notice—are really being fair to it. 

Could be that someone saying to you "Holy shit! This is really good. Why isn't this published??" might be exactly the confidence boost you need. Just make sure it's not your mom, BFF, or someone who wants to bang you.

I think it was a good idea to put your high school idea away in a drawer for at least a good long foreseeable future. I would absolutely make sure that was higher priority advice to a broader audience. (You hear that, broader audience? B's got the right idea.) But I also mention it because—and I might be wrong with this—it feels to me a little like maybe you've "stopped fighting" more than "let go." But it's actually really good not to get too deep into the sunk-cost fallacy with our older works, and sometimes the things we thought were a good idea when we were teenagers are…not so hot. There may be NO way to retool a scene so that it works or redeem a character that was badass when you were 15, and part of the tension and frustration you may be having is that unconscious realization that it's going to take more than tweaking a few knobs here and there, and you haven't yet come to the conscious realization that this can't be "retooled" into something workable.

If your protagonist goes around unabashedly kicking the ass of your Cobra-caliber, evil-laugh nemesis all the time, you can't just give them a flaw (or a single redeeming characteristic respectively) and call it a day, or let them get punched in the face a couple of times and suddenly the outcome is uncertain and you have dramatic tension. 

If you're going to revisit this work, you're going to have to restart from the ground up. And probably you need as much emotional distance from that manuscript as you can get. Maybe someday, a much more experienced version of B will show up, pull that out of the drawer and know if it's got some good "bones" for a total rework. Although it is just as likely that in the fullness of time, you will come to laugh (lovingly) at the lot of it, but at the same time realize that bits and pieces of it have shown up in a dozen things you've written since. 

But at the "worst," it will be a thousand great lessons that you can never unlearn.

Now it's possible there's something different going on, B, and you could try all of this to no avail, but in medicine there's an idea that if you see hoofprints, "think horses before zebras." Which means it's probably not something exotic so much as something simple. I'm guessing if you get through this list, you're going to be feeling a lot more confident. Maybe not about that book you've been tooling for eight years (that MIGHT be a lost cause), but about writing in general.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Facebook Ban (Guess I'll See You Tomorrow)

I caught a 24 hour Facebook ban for this. 

Apparently FB algorithm bots just crawl for keywords and don't actually know the difference between saying something and saying someone said something. Which seems like an absolutely critical failure on all possible levels if you're leaving your censoring to bots. 

Anyway, 95% of my blog visibility is through FB, so there's really no point trying to get the article up that I had planned if I'm not going to be able to post up when I'm done.

It'll be up tomorrow, and if I need to, I'll wrap the thing I had planned for TOMORROW around to the weekend or slap it up on Thursday even though that's my day off.

In the meantime, I'll work on my taxes, take the rest of the day to finish this post instead of trying to bang it out in the next hour (hur hur "bang it out"), make something for lunch that doesn't come in a cardboard box, and maybe even take a nap. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Writing in Transition (Personal and Meta)

I'm doing something a little different today. Because Writing About Writing is standing at several different junctions between a metric BUTTLOAD of upheaval right now. I've got admin posts that need posting, and I've got half-written content that could go up with just a few hours of finishing and revision.

But instead I want to take a moment both to tell you what's going in the next few weeks as we move out of this terrible pandemic and into the next phase of this blog, all while, of course, giving you some homespun-writer-wisdom on the whole thing.

First of all, you may have noticed that this is going up on THE FOLLOWING MONDAY instead of the Friday when it should have. My clients dropped by with the kids I nanny for four hours and that was pretty much "Kiss Friday Goodbye" energy. This is as symptomatic of the pandemic transition as anything, since the kids were here so a housekeeper could get in my clients' house (while they socially distanced by being here), and my clients sprang it on me because they totally forgot after their second vaccination kicked their asses. One factor (vax brain fog) definitely won't be a problem again and the other (needing to leave the house so a cleaner can get in) likely won't be a factor in a month or two.

One of the tensions we've been articulating here at Writing About Writing for almost 15 months is the (true and valid) perception that artists are not always "content creators"—that is to say that we can't always just pound out ever more content like we are a machine with no other purpose. We have existential crises in the middle of pandemics. We have emergencies come up and sometimes we have to step up to the plate, for over a YEAR, to deal with circumstances beyond our control. We have bad days. We have bad weeks. We sometimes even have, in the case of a two-dose vaccine taken three weeks apart that knocks you to your ASS, bad months. All with the backdrop of this almost impossible year. 

But we're also on the ol' capitalism train just like everyone else, and to survive, sometimes we have to acknowledge some stone-cold realities about how one makes it as a writer—particularly if one wants an income from it.

"Your value and worth as a human being is ABSOLUTELY not measured by your productivity, but sometimes—especially if you're a working artist—your ability to survive capitalism can be."

And I've written about that a LOT this last year. Both that a writer has to be willing to be compassionate with themselves, and that a writer who wants to capital-M "make it" probably has to know when to crack the whip over themselves and not be too nice. I think we're all a little sick of that refrain. So I'm not going to retread it one more time.

We're down to a week—JUST ONE MORE FUCKING WEEK—before some of the changes start, and though they're not going to be instantaneous, "everything back to the way it was," they should start to make a proper blogging schedule easier pretty quickly. 

And that made me think about how difficult transitions have been for as long as I've been writing. They're difficult to me as a human, but they are particularly difficult to me AS A WRITER. Especially when it feels like you're just sitting around waiting for something major to change. 

Transitions are really fucking hard.

If there's one drum I pound endlessly around here, it's that folks who want to take their writing to some "higher level" or "make it" should try to get themselves in front of their writing ALMOST every day ALMOST at the same time every day (if that is possible). And one of the hardest things is dealing with transitions.  

The vast majority of successful artists thrive on routine. There is a huge rainbow of diversity in what that routine IS (from thirty minutes first thing upon waking to an eight-hour day done at an office to ten pages whether it takes two hours or twelve), but almost all have some form of it, and their work suffers egregiously if and when they don't maintain that routine. Despite the biopics that tend to put the influence on the French Riviera and the parties and excesses and the parts that aren't boring work—or at most cram the 80% of a working artists waking hours into a montage—most artists (and almost all with a name you'd recognize) work hard and maintain a routine. Both because the muse tends to bring the mojo when it "finds you working," and because if your life gets too interesting (as this last year and to a lesser degree the last five can attest to), you get distracted.

When you're in a routine, you sort of want to know it's going to be your Forever Routine™. Or at least your In The Foreseeable Future Routine™, and it can be really hard when you know a major change is coming. Doubly so when the routine shift feels like your life is about to begin. Waiting for a schedule change to kick in or a job to start (or end) feels like if you really get into the groove, you're just going to have to completely rewrite the grove. In those moments when you're just waiting for your life to change, it can be really tough to keep up with discipline. 

Why not just take it easy and hit the ground running after the change happens, right? 

The best advice I can give you is to stay the course until and unless it's impossible to stay the course (and only you can ever know that). Believe me when I tell you this is one more of your brain's little tricks to get out of anything creative the minute that it starts to feel like actual work. It's right up there with the greatest hits like, "You can't do this if you're not feeling it (and you're not feeling it)," "I'm too busy to write, so let's just go play that MMORPG for five hours," and "I can't really write until we get a dedicated office, which will take at least two years…prolly more." 

Waiting for the greatest schedule shift of all time is a lot like being a few weeks out of a terrible breakup or a lot like working 30- 40-hour weeks on another job that you can't get out of (for whatever reason) before you write a word. I'm not here to judge your choice, but if you keep with it when it's hard, then all that discipline is still there when it's a lot easier (or is part of your new routine). And maybe you even feel like John Carter jumping on Mars. 

Perhaps more significantly, the fine edge of craft is something you don't want to let dull. Maybe a week off won't make you a significantly worse writer, but you might find that your ability to sit and write has dulled, or that your craft feels a little slow and sluggish. It's analogous to the reason a professional athlete doesn't sit around doing absolutely nothing during their sport's off-season—even if all they do is go for a jog to keep up their metabolism. It's related to the reason that in high school band, each fall most of the band had lost a couple of months of their edge from the spring before. Because only a few of them had spent the summer practicing. The rest of us had to catch up. Just getting our embouchures back into shape took a couple of days….and forget about hitting that high note we were nailing last June. It's going to be mid to late October before you get your edge back. No wonder I was third chair….

Transitions are hard, but your best bet is to keep something—SOMETHING—going through them. 

Plus life has this way of….eating your writing time if you're not defending it with a poison-dripping spork in one hand and an Uzi with incendiary rounds in the other. If you're not careful…if your priorities aren't very clear….if you're not making space for your writing, then when your schedule shifts, you may find yourself with too many commitments and wondering exactly what the heck just happened. Suddenly that perfect oasis for writing comes preloaded with a bunch of other shit already horning in on it. I wish I could tell you how many "perfect schedules" I waited around for in my 20s and 30s only to find when they got there that I was distracted by other things and "out of shape" when it came to both my discipline and my craft. 

If, in this last year, one thing has gotten through, I hope it is this: Your value and worth as a human being is ABSOLUTELY not measured by your productivity, but sometimes—especially if you're a working artist—your ability to survive capitalism can be. Your legitimacy as an artist is not measured by working every day, but whether you "make it" (by whatever bellwethers that means to you) will probably correlate strongly with how much work you do. Horrible upheavals happen and you are a human being, not a content assembly line. But the only way to reach the dreams of being a successful writer (again, accounting for the fact that "success" is something only you can define) is to write things for people to read/enjoy/become fans of/pay you for. 

But let's get into the meta….not because I think anyone angrily expects me to keep up with an update schedule during a pandemic, or even that I think that as many as 1% of my readers are paying attention to my update schedule more than to click on a link when the preview looks interesting, but because I've promised a look under the hood to the (very) few who care, even when I've got half the engine held together with toothpicks, duct tape, paper clips, and bailing wire. 

  • I'm moving my day off to Thursday for the duration of this phase of the pandemic. I was doing Wednesday because that's the day everything started up, but invariably I've been able to get up, get  something cleaned up and posted on Wednesdays before I head to work. But it's THURSDAY that I come home after a 20+ hour shift (where, yes, I get to sleep but also it's next to a two-year-old so…) and I'm exhausted and need a four-hour nap and by the time I've gotten sleep, food, showered, and am ready to write, it's like five or six…and that's here on the west coast. True, the kid is starting to self soothe and go longer and longer without needing to be fully held and put back to sleep and bed. And my "relief pitcher" nanny starts to phase in the next couple of weeks, which will likely change the impact of both Wed and Thurs. But as long as that overnight shift is still happening, it's going to be Thursday I take off.
  • This week is backloaded for me with nanny hours and taxes. (Gotta get my paperwork gathered by May 1st and that's always a several-hour process.) So I'm going to be reversing the usual update schedule. You'll see another "meaty" post tomorrow, and then the rest of the week will be some of the admin stuff I still need to do. (With Thursday being off.)
  • Friday is the new adjusted date for the results of our current book recommendation nominations: Best Stand Alone Modern Sci Fi. So you have a couple of extra days to get over there and tell people about the books you like and why.
  • I've made it! The pandemic isn't necessarily "over" by any means, but my 60- 70-hour weeks are about to be. My schedule is due to change in just a few more days. But it won't change overnight! People's full efficacy dates around me are staggering in, and the backup nanny wants to phase in. I've got some boundaries that are the longest I'M going to wait, but they give people a lot of leeway to meet me halfway and time to get there first. Likely it will be more like the next three or four months just keep getting gradually more and more handleable and my writing time will start to go up. It also usually takes about a week or two for a change in my schedule to start affect my output, so I imagine even if there's a sudden lurch of improvement, it'll be a bit before readers would definitely notice. I'm hoping for something a little faster than watching-the-grass-grow improvement, but it is probably going to be gradual.
  • I'm not going to put up an appeals post this month. I hate asking for money when I haven't been knocking a few out of the park, and it's been a tough month. Of course anyone who wants to be a Patron is welcome…or make a one-time donation if monthly isn't possible. But I won't be making a whole post about it.
  • I want to thank everyone who hung through the last 15 months—especially those who help keep the lights on around here. I've tried to practice what I preach but Jesus Tittyfucking Christ has it ever been difficult.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

FB Compilation (Top of March)

Thank you for your patience while I skipped a couple of days due to my second vaccine. I cleared my schedule, got my second shot, and it turned out not to be so bad past the first day. (First shot was worse—possibly because I HAD covid last year and that was my second exposure.) But I took the time off anyway since I haven't had any from BOTH jobs since the pandemic began. 

For years, I didn't count all the bite-sized chunks of writing I was doing on Facebook as "writing." But it's a post here and a post there, and sometimes I spend hours a day working on that writing, so it's high time I acknowledge that fact that it "counts."

Here is a collection of the best statuses (and a few of the most popular memes) from my public Facebook page over the period of March-1st through March-15th. (You're welcome to follow me there but read up in the Facebook FAQ [last question] if you want to send me a friend request.) 

We have finally (mostly) caught up, so this will be the last Wednesday of a special post for these. We're going to go back to taking Wednesday off. (These posts will show up every two weeks but on some other day.) Of course, it's not TOO much longer before some of this pandemic chaos starts to ebb and I add Wednesdays right back into the mix, but at that time we're likely to have a whole different update schedule.

The idea that free speech cannot include the decision to STOP saying something is ridiculous. Not printing new books is NOT the same as burning the old ones, and books are taken out of print all the time for FAR more frivolous reasons. It's not like you can't see those images. It's not like those were the most popular of Seuss's books. Shit, I hadn't even ever heard of any of them. They're not Green Eggs and Ham and The Lorax

And this is all pretty rich from the people who literally burn books, boycott artists, refuse to bake a GD cake, and cancel just fucking everything they don't like. 

Some people don't realize that they're really just flat out, transparently, openly, not-fooling-anyone BEGGING to keep their racism.

Abuse experts: "Predators can be incredibly charming—especially to everyone around their victims. They may groom those around them to believe they are faultless. They will fool everyone. That is how they move among their prey." 

People: "Not me. No predator is going to fool me. I will trust and verify like a pro when someone speaks out. And I know credible when I see it!”

Victim: "X happened. I have receipts."

People: "Couldn't be. He's way too nice."

Conservatives: "Free market. Capitalism. Invisible hand. Most natural system. Free market. Star-spangled freedom. Unfettered capitalism. Best. Country. Evah!"

Typically marginalized groups: "Okay, but the problem with relying on market forces—"

Conservatives: "MARKET FORCES! DON'T LIKE IT? VOTE WITH MONEY! INVISIBLE HAND! ~sings the national anthem at top volume~ OH SAY CAN YOU SEEEEEEEE……"

Companies: "Market research shows it's no longer profitable for us to produce bigotry. We're going to adjust to market forces by doing the absolute minimum to establish goodwill."

Conservatives: ~NAZGUL SCREAM~

I used to think the mayor/governor who wouldn’t listen to the science because it was “tourist season” was so hopelessly overdone and contrived.

Medicine/Science: "Numbers are down. Our efforts are working. We're getting things under control. Just a little further."

Government: "Numbers are down? Huzzah! REOPEN IMMEDIATELY!"

Medicine/Science: "That'll fuck up everything we've done. The numbers will go right back up. You must understand that if we can just get them all the way down and keep them down ONCE, this thing starts to die out because it has nowhere to go. Only a very few people will have it. And we will have entirely new tools to fight it besides opening and then grudgingly closing again a month later when cases spike. You can't take your parachute off halfway down because you're not going at terminal velocity anymore. Do you want vaccine-resistant strains? Because this is exactly how you get vaccine-resistant strains."

Government: "Numbers down! Huzzah! REOPEN IMMEDIATELY! The vaccine will save us all."

Science (to a sobbing Medicine): "At least the days of bleach and UV injections are over."

As a writer, my income is considered freelancer, so my stimulus check is going to be probably somewhere around 1/2 to 1/3 of the taxes I owe. 

Not very sexy, literally giving it RIGHT back, but I don't really like a lot of THINGS anyway. 

Note: If you'd like to help me with my tax burden (or just to help keep the show going and getting better), you can make a one time donation through Paypal, through Venmo at chris.brecheen@gmail.com, or—my personal favorite—sign up to be a patron for a dollar or few a month and even get some rewards like selfies or newsletters. 

Listen, I'm totally here for your accountability and "Great, now for the next step towards socialism" rants, but if you act like the Child Tax Credit, extension of unemployment benefits, and direct stimulus with a 100% GOP (and even some DINO) opposition are NBD, this is my stop. And if you can look at that and say there's no difference between the two parties….I won't be waving fondly as you pull away.

A few of my meatspace friends and a couple of other folks on here [my Facebook page] are pretty liberal themselves, but maintain friend lists with lots of folks from their lives of broad interests, so I get a sense of how the "ground campaign" talking points are shaping off from the right. 

One thing I've noticed over the last four years is that the variation in these folks' arguments has narrowed. Almost as if they were getting their boilerplate comebacks from the same few places. 

Recently they're all talking about how awful the stimulus package is, and….I shit you not, they are using the exact same strings of words. Like THE EXACT SAME PHRASING even. It's like when the GOP whips the party to stay on message and you can't ask about a senator's dog barking in the background without a ham-fisted segue into Benghazi. Except it's just regular people doing it.

In places with open carry laws, people who walk around with weapons are not surprised to have a certain number of folks avoid them or move their kids to safety, especially if they're just sort of pointing a rifle at the ground and it's not a pistol in a holster. It has nothing to do with that person (not really). People just don't feel safe around someone who can unintentionally or casually kill them, and they really don't want those they love exposed to that risk.

So maybe don't act so fucking surprised-Pikachu-faced if your refusal to get a Covid vaccine affects your social life. You're putting people in danger. More danger than they would be in if they avoided you. So that's what they're going to do.

Men: "So I looked this up on six different peer-reviewed websites ranging from academia to the dark web, and what I found was that according to the most recent theories of particle physics, which I brushed up on so I could understand this, and two interviews I conducted of particle physicists, if the quantum flow is high enough, which it would be by being focused through a crystal, the velocity to impact ratio should be enough for a lightsaber to cut through vibranium according to the established canonical properties of each—which I have listed in the attached spreadsheet from all official sources—and so clearly my Jedi should have advantage when fighting Captain America…."

Also men: "Why isn't there an International Men's Day*?" 

(*There is. It's November 19th. It's literally in bold and big font as the first result of a Google search.)

Amazon.com refusing to allow a perfectly cromulent, guidelines-abiding negative review on one of its own products is peak Amazon energy. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Inside Scoop

In a few more weeks, as May's many respites begin to seep into my bones, I will once again be able to reliably do more than one thing a day on the writing front, but right now (after over a year of reaching further down than I knew my "further down" even went), it is almost all I can do to get up, get showered, and slog to my other job. 

After 14 months, it's as if my willpower has sat down in the mud and refused to a SINGLE step further without a hug and a day off. 

Which is just to say that I'm getting the Inside Scoop newsletter out to my patrons today and that's about as much as I'll be able to pull off with a nanny shift thrown in there. 

[And as a small note to folks who are contributing at the Newsletter level, during the pandemic, the Inside Scoop has cannibalized the regular newsletter every three months, so we'll be back in May. But the good news is, this is probably the last time that is going to happen!] 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Two Orders of Important Business (Meta/Admin)

Hi folks. 

I've got an overbusy week at my other job this week, so I'm going to mention two quick things that I wouldn't normally get a chance to dedicate a whole post to (but are important).

First the really important thing that is always an issue but has been more of one lately….

I'm getting a lot of notifications of failed payment attempts. Usually I get a handful, but it's gone way up lately. Of course, if you are thinking of pausing or cancelling your contributions, I understand. (It's been a tough year for everyone, and my nanny schedule has meant you aren't getting the best of me.) However if you intend to be a donor, it might be worth a quick check. This month, I'm sorry to say that around 10% of my income isn't actually getting to me because of failures in charging various credit cards.

If you have signed up to be a monthly donor, either through Patreon or through Paypal as a recurring payment, it would be super awesome check to make sure the payment you have hooked up to the payment processor is still valid. 

Second is an issue related to our current Book Recommendation Post (for stand-alone science fiction written after 1980) and some of the recommendations I've been seeing. 

We're getting a lot of prequels, sequels, parts of trilogies and other books (sometimes with the caveat that they COULD stand alone). These recommendations may be very good, but they will be appropriate for OTHER book rec posts. (One of our categories is specifically "best could-stand-alone book in a series.") So please stick to stand-alone books or I'm afraid I'll have to skip your recommendation for the compilation

I'm going to extend the nomination period until…well in theory until Friday, but it might be until next week. Friday I'm going to be getting my second dose of Pfizer first thing in the morning, and that might be all she wrote for a couple of days. So if you've put a book on there that is part of a series or has a sequel, you may want to replace your current recommendation with something that will be accepted. 

And this isn't really one of my orders of business, but I wanted to remind you all that we're less than three weeks out from some scheduling changes that are going to give me more time to write, and you should see that affecting blog output right away. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Breath Before (Personal/Meta)

I had a good week last week in terms of writing, and I hope everyone enjoyed what I was able to bring to the blog. There will be more weeks like that after May 1st. And then there will be weeks even better than that. And then even better. 

This week, however, we have to go off our usual update schedule. 

We're down to the last three weeks before things really start to change. It's been theoretical and hypothetical and "yes, but who knows when" for so long that there's a sense that it isn't actually real. Fourteen months of pandemic are finally drawing to a close. And while many people's pandemics WILL go on while we struggle with vaccine discourse and try to get shots into the arms of everyone, and it'll be a while before anything is back to normal (or even a new normal), my own personal air/fuel mixture of writing to nanny hours is on the brink of starting to go back to where I've spent the last 14 months frustrated out of my mind was simply unattainable. 

Last week both was a rare opportunity and came at a price. My clients on the nanny side were able to give me a reduced schedule, and I sacrificed a lot of other work to keep posted blogs going up. This week is going to be a bit opposite. 

There are now a lot of posts backing up in the queue like Best of and our Book Recommendation Conversation, and given how tough this week is going to be, it's a good time to clean that out. It's clients' payroll, so they need me more than usual, and I get my second Pfizer shot which might be a few days of "effectively" sick. (There's a chance my first vaccine hit, which SUUUUUUUUUUCKED, will be the worse one—that seems to be a common outcome among folks who had Covid—but there's also a chance it will be even WORSE.) Plus I have a few things behind the scenes I still owe patrons

There will still be a post every day, and most of you who don't follow our update schedule pretty closely won't even notice. But I like to keep transparent for anyone who thinks that writers don't have wonky weeks or sometimes phone it in a little bit. 

We're in that instant before everything starts to change. That last moment before the jump. When time slows and almost stand still, and you take the one last breath. 

Friday, April 9, 2021

Do You REALLY Need a Cover Letter? (Mailbox)

How important is a cover letter with short story publications?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox." I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Though I regret to inform you that I may not always provide you with the answer you want to hear.] 

Just a note before I jump into this question. My queue of questions isn't EMPTY, but I can kind of "see the bottom," and like a cat, I'm absolutely sure that this means I will soon run out and perish. So if you've got questions for me, now's a good time to send them.

Malk asks:

Do you really need a cover letter filled with accolades? Shouldn't a good story be a good story no matter who writes it? 

I have a book that everyone I give it to really likes when they read it, but I can't get an agent—not one I would take seriously—without a cover letter with a bunch of short story publications. The thing is, I hate short stories. I hate writing them. I hate reading them. I don't want to do it that way. My book is good. It'll sell; I just know it. Do I really need a cover letter? Is there any other way?

My reply:

There are absolutely other ways, Malk. You seem like a RECRUITING POSTER for self-publication. Edit that monster and spend a year or two doing self-promotion instead of spending that time trying to shop it. Chances are, you'll make more money and have more readers when all is said and done. However, I'm going to assume from the way this question is worded that you want the "street cred" and affirmation of a gatekeeper's nod and traditional publishing.

You can also fill your cover letter with different kinds of writing accolades than published/recognized short fiction. If you are a journalist, for example, an agent may take a chance on you based on a cover letter of journalism awards and career laurels. They may even give you a good-faith read if you have experience in freelance writing, technical writing, blogging, or anything that can show you are a capable wordsmith who has delighted a reader or three in the past.

Not so much with that either?

Why doesn't that agent just sit down and read your book (that is totally awesome, if they'd just give you a chance) and be swept away….even if you don't have some well-populated cover letter?  What's up with that?

The short answer is because every one of a hundred other people, who have sent this agent an entire novel to read, feel exactly the same way about their work. Does this agent read a hundred and one novels, probably 99-100 of which will be utterly unpublishable, in good faith? (And I'm not saying YOU don't have a catchy start, Malk, but I can't tell you how many people say some variant of "Stick with it until at least chapter six because that's when it really gets good*.") You're talking about a year's worth of work to maybe come up with one viable client. Or does said agent maybe come up with some way to figure out which ones they should glance at a couple of pages and which ones they should give a good and proper gander?

[*Bit of advice that doesn't have anything to do with this post? If "that's where it gets good," then that's where your story should start. And you should figure out some other way to get the desperately important information of the first five chapters in there.]

So how does this agent haze a hundred people who all swear that their farmer vs. the dark lord story (who ends up being his FATHER!) is the best and that all their friends love it?

First….a story.

I don't know if this is still the case, but when I was at SFSU, there were two literary periodicals. One that the undergrads ran and managed with heavy faculty oversight, called Transfer, and one that the grad students ran and managed, called Fourteen Hills. (I was the managing editor of Transfer for one semester and believe me, I have seen some SHIT. But that semester is not what this story is about.) Transfer was RUN by the undergrads, but it still solicited submissions almost exclusively from graduate students. And while Fourteen Hills was considered more prestigious, Transfer wasn't slumming it.

One semester I submitted something to both magazines. To Transfer, I included who I was….really. Chris the undergrad from their very own English (with emphasis in Creative Writing) program just submitting a story. To Fourteen Hills…..well okay, listen. This might sound a little underhanded, but I was already sort of aware of the point of this story and I was trying to test something. SOOOOOOOoooooooo I might have maybe made up a persona. Graduate of University of Cornell (a really REALLY good MFA program), and frequently published author. 

Transfer- Rejected

Fourteen Hills (the DEMONSTRABLY more difficult publication to get accepted to magazine)- Accepted

Same pedagogy. Same faculty teaching the students. The offices are down the hall from each other. But the HARDER one accepted my work. Because they thought I was somebody.

Of course, I withdrew my submission from consideration. I didn't need the kind of heat that getting caught could bring down on me before my writing career had even begun, but it proved the point I was trying to make. 

The quality of writing does matter, of course, but getting someone to pay enough attention to give your work an actually good-faith read can come down to whether they think you are any good. Critical reading is a skill, and it's HARD—that's why you have to write papers all damn day in English programs doing it; and if someone doesn't think the writing is worth their dedicated effort, they're not going to be paying attention enough to see what a writer is trying to do. There were things I was doing with the language in that piece that the rejection letter from Transfer didn't even mention and the acceptance letter from Fourteen Hills gushed about. When you approach something like it might contain really good ideas, you see a lot more of what's there. When you approach it like "Pffft. Whatever," you won't even notice when something really good might just need a spit shine polish to be spectacular. 

Writing is an impacted industry. There are way way WAY more people who want to be writers than there are book deals, publishing contracts, or even people willing to do a close, thorough, and good-faith read, and most of the people who aren't your friends or trying to bang you are going to pick that manuscript up looking for a reason to put back down unless they already think you're the shit and THEY will look the fool for not picking up on some subtle thing you were doing.

I've seen this bear out in a creative reading class (and presumably it happened in more than just the one I was in). The instructor handed out two short stories. Half the class got one that said at the top that was by a writer in a different class of the same program. The other half a got story attributed to a multi-award-winning author who we might not have heard of but who was well known in the literary world. We started discussing the pieces in tandem, and half the class is ripping theirs to shreds and the other half is doing this amazing analysis of the language, and the prose rhythm, and the deep imagery. The discussion questions were designed very carefully to keep us off of content and on prose quality.

It took about five minutes for us to realize that we were discussing the same piece. It was not written by a student in another class. But those of us who had been told it was never even approached it as if it might have had something to say. (Our first lesson in critical reading.)

Should it be this way? No. Is it? You betcha. 

When most folks read something by someone they know has been published, they approach that work with a bias. They assume there's something there, and may even further assume that if they can't see it right away, they should read closer. Agents (who it's worth mentioning at this point don't get paid until/unless the writer does) know this. They know exactly how hard it is to close a book deal and make a commission. At least all the ones who ~checks notes~ you "would take seriously" do. Given how many submissions they get and how labor-intensive each submission is, they try to figure out who will have the best chance of getting them paid.

It's a little bit like how, when you're dating for keeps (not just fucking around), you don't give three full dates to the person who wants to travel when you don't, wants kids when you don't, and wants someone they can do "everything" with when you enjoy your independence. Like maybe, yes maybe, you are walking away from the absolute love of your life, but more likely, you want to be spending your Friday nights exploring things with someone who is more likely to work out.

Or maybe a better analogy might be assuming you are a good candidate for a job if your resume/CV includes having done smaller parts of that job before. And having no experience….isn't good. Sometimes it's easy to forget that publishing is a business and publishers make business decisions. 

And it turns out that short stories are a PRETTY good indicator of who writes good novels. Who knows how to turn a phrase. Who knows how to clean up copy. Who knows how to deal with publishers professionally. Who can almost certainly handle being edited. Who (obviously) know how to be economical with their words.  

Is it perfect? No. But like Newtonian physics in a quantum world, if you presuppose that writers are better at writing longer works when they have a few short story accolades under their belts (and that they're not if they don't), you will get HIGHLY USEFUL RESULTS.

Of course there are exceptions. Celebrities, ex-politicians, and people who have been near these people can usually jump straight to a book deal (especially if it's a kiss-and-tell-all), as can many people with sort of "preconstructed" networking webs like popular seminar facilitators or motivational speakers. Also people who know agents can often get their book looked at through sheer nepotism without a cover letter—the better you know the agent, the higher the chance of it.

But for most of us plebs, unless we want to take our chances with the slush pile (and I absolutely promise you that we don't), we absolutely need an agent and that means that short story publications and/or literary recognition that form a good cover letter are really the price of doing business. 

Unless you want to go non-traditional publishing. But that's a whole other kettle of fish, Malk. 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Best Stand Alone Modern Sci-Fi [Last Chance to Recommend]

What is the BEST stand alone science fiction book (or short story) written AFTER 1980?

This is it! The last call for nominations (or seconds of existing nominations) that will go on our compilation page. While I work behind the scenes to finish up my Inside Scoop newsletter for that tier of patrons, you all take the last swing at our current book recommendation conversation. 

Remember there are no more polls. We just have a conversation about some good books. Next week (Tuesday probably), I will publish the two lists: one of "undersung heroes," (the books that aren't the best but that you love and want to see more people know about), and the BEST, which will have no ranking other than being listed in order of which got the most seconds.

You can also check out our growing Master List for great recommendations in lots of different categories! (It's also a great way to see the what the results of participation here will look like.) Come check it out!

Please remember to go to the original page to drop your nomination (and familiarize yourself with the rules if you haven't yet). If you put it anywhere else (including a Facebook comment on this post) it will not be counted.

Thank you all for your input. I've really love reading all your comments about the books you treasure and why.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Facebook Compilation (Bottom of February)

For years, I didn't count all the bite-sized chunks of writing I was doing on Facebook (particularly during "interesting times) as "writing." But it's a post here and a post there, and sometimes I spend hours a day working on that writing, so it's high time I acknowledge that fact that it "counts."

Here is a collection of the best statuses (and a few of the most popular memes) from my public Facebook page over the period of Feb-15th through Feb-28th. (You're welcome to follow me there but read up in the Facebook FAQ [last question] before you send me a friend request.) Once we've caught up, these will only land once every two weeks or possibly even less often if it's a slow month.

A status to the people who were shaming folks happy to see that Rush Limbaugh died

Look, you don't get to pioneer the proto-Trump conservative ideology of saying whatever you want and thinking that the more upset liberals get, the better you're obviously doing, including advancing conspiracy theories, cheering the idea of rising up against the government, naked racism, misogyny, and other types of bigotry and even making fun of HIV/AIDS deaths, and then get some sort of "speak ill of the dead" pass. You just don't.

And if you're one of the ones trying trying to tone police that shit, I would strongly consider you find something more useful to do…like rearrange your sock drawer.

"Holding them accountable" is worthy and noble, and nothing a politician should evade because they have a (D) after their name. But I am so, so, so, so weary of leftists who use clickbait titles as their outrage porn and literally won't even read the article because it might be nuance.

So weary.

I'm not saying the initial wave wouldn't suck (especially the secondary effect from an initial collapse of infrastructure if more than 10% are killed right off), but most canon zombies are going to be roughly as dangerous as wild animals once humans sort of figure out what stymies them (any situation where a human can get roughly five feet up from a zombie using complex skills like tools or climbing, heavy metal doors with a bolt, wearing the only three-ish layers of clothing that would prevent a human bite from penetrating your skin—transmitting through bites is actually really ineffective, which is why we don't see a lot of rabies cases—having literally no defense against counterstrikes, not having the SLIGHTEST sense of self-preservation, and I'm sorry but the claw/bite-proof tanks and planes and body armor of the military are going to kick their undead asses when we fight back). Roughly as dangerous as a wild animal is not to say zero danger, especially if you live in the country, but a few precautions and most of us don't sit around thinking grizzly bears or crocodiles or venomous snakes or hippos are going to WIN.

I've got a story percolating where they only get that slow and animalistic as their body decays, but a fresh zombie that hasn't experienced muscular or brain decay can run, use tools, put on armor, hide, HUNT, reconsider, work with other zombies, hold basic conversations, and have flashes of the person they were, and even access their memories and skill sets. In fact, there's NO outward sign when they first turn, AND THEY WILL EVEN SHAME YOU FOR SUGGESTING IT.

Of course it's also steampunk and there are ninjas and pirates, but….we'll get there.

There's a lot to be said about zombies as an American genre monster. (Loss of individuality is one of our greatest fears.) And I think the creepier idea would be that that loss comes slowly instead of all at once. Like….being radicalized into a violent mob.

My views are pretty centrist in most of the western world. 

If you are an extremely conventionally attractive woman in your 20s with like twenty-five friends (all dudes) who just got on Facebook yesterday and wants to launch a burgeoning sex work career (which I have absolutely no problem with, and I will protect you from SWERFs in my space), but you also happen to want to be friends with me because, I guess, you think writers are awesome or something, I apologize for jumping to conclusions and rejecting your friend request.

HOWEVER….like everyone else who wants to be my friend, you should be tossing me a PM with that request and letting me know that you're an oxygen-loving human who isn't here just to pick a fight about social issues.

Tonight I had to come up with the name of an Inn on the fly, and the image that jumped into my head was a donkey chewing on grass. 

"The Inn of the Munching Ass," I said. And then, "Oh god!!! No! Wait!" 

But it was too late. The players refused to accept any other name. We settled on the fact that it was The Munching Donkey but it had a reputation and even some of the employees would say "Welcome to Ass Munchers" if the boss wasn't around.

This is why you don't ask a revision-dependent writer to come up with all that clever shit impromptu.

I am officially throwing a curse*.

May every one of you who bought up the PS5s to flip them and gouge people end up with a dozen sitting in your closet that you can't sell for any more than half what you paid for them. May Sony find wonk in their hardware and fix it, leaving you with obsolete, defective units. May your early returns turn to ash, and you take a BATH on your exploitative investments.

(*Please note that I do not actually have the ability to curse anything. Certainly not officially.)

The most unrealistic thing about the MCU is that the villains so rarely have multimillion-dollar P.R. departments that convince about half the world that it is they (the villains) who are right, and further convince the 90% of the other half that even though they're bad, physically attacking them is the real evil—thus making the heroes terrorists. 

I mean, that's definitely one of the trope plots for a single arc, but if you look around the world at who is LITERALLY being super villain evil by ratcheting up the price of things people need to survive like water and electricity and insulin, you see that actually ALL of them are basically engaged in these PR psyops and have state protection, and no "hero" who stopped them would get their reputation back by the end.

U.S.- destabilizes region, backs coup attempts, engages in psyops, sanctions the shit out of the place

Capitalists- "This is what happens when you have socialism. It’s why it can’t ever work. It’s just a bad system."

Leftists- point out problems inherent in capitalism

Conservatives, Moderates, Liberals- sitting in lotus pose My child…. What simple eyes you see the world with. This is not TRUE Capitalism™ you decry. No TRUE Capitalism™ would do this. Only by ascending to TRUE Capitalism™ can you see its perfection as an ideology is marred only by its imperfect earthly expressions, and thus is entirely above your feeble reproach.


People who insist that Gina Carrano got "punished" for having conservative believes are confessing to you exactly what they think are INTEGRAL parts of conservative beliefs.