One More Time: Would you turn the page?

Okay, this time, I typed “#1 bestselling space opera book” and got to Amazon’s bestseller list for this category. The very top book in this category was #20 in a series. I have never read anything in this series nor anything by the authors. They definitely aren’t household names and definitely haven’t kickstarted anything at 40 million dollars or anything like that.

However, this page in not from that book. I backed up to the first book in the series, which has a bestseller rank of 2287, which the Publisher Rocket sales calculator tells me is about equivalent to selling eighty copies per day. It’s #3 in science fiction space opera as I type this. Close to 11,000 ratings, average of 4.4 stars.

Here’s the first page (or so):

***

The rain slammed down in hard, unrelenting sheets, rattling on the rental car like bullets and almost drowning out the rhythmic thump of the wipers. In one hand, I held my phone, a custom-built unit that did everything I wanted and nothing I didn’t. Its screen, and the glow from the dashboard, offered the only steady light. Beyond the windows sprawled nothing but rainy gloom, split by sporadic flashbulb bursts of lightning.

My phone wasn’t why I was here, though. At least, not directly. I really was just using it for light. It was the thing in my other hand that had brought me to this place, at this time, sitting in an idling car on a gravel driveway with water sluicing from puddle to puddle.

Another flare of lightning blew apart the night. Its brief crystalline glare etched the shape of a farmhouse and a fence, beyond them a barn, and beyond that the rolling fields that had been my family’s land for — hell, I wasn’t sure how many generations. At least four. Maybe five.

Until recently, it had all been my grandfather’s. God’s green acre, he called it, a rambling farm granted to my family by the railroad at the end of the Civil War. The tracks still ran along the west edge of the property, in fact —

Another flash of lightning. This time, my gaze stayed inside the car, on the documents unfolded in my lap. They looked important, all purposeful text and signatures and seals embossed right into the paper. They even felt important, much heavier than the paper alone. They bore down with the weight of meaning.

Of course, any document starting … being of sound mind, do hereby bequeath … was weighty and important. These papers were a bridge, vaulting from one generation to the next. Or, in this instance, the generation after that. In any case, they were an end, closing another chapter of my father’s lineage, bringing it right up to date. But they were a beginning, too.

… being of sound mind, do hereby bequeath all property and goods and chattels above and below the surface of Blackthorn Farm, address County Road 1100, Pony Hollow, Iowa, United States of America, (Earth), to my grandson, Clive VanAbel Tudor III.

***

What do you think? I think this is pretty catchy. I could totally nitpick, but I think the inclination to do so is largely because the “would you turn the page?” thing makes me super-critical. I would wonder whether we need all that about the phone. I might suggest that some of the transitions are a bit clumsy (especially when moving from the phone to something else). Nevertheless, supposing I had this sample sitting on my kindle app and opened it and started reading. I’d turn the page.

What does this opening have going for it that the previous super boring opening lacked?

A) It’s almost all story, and the part that is backstory is much better integrated and far more interesting. Even though the protagonist is sitting still, there’s more of a sense of movement and more of a feeling of individuality to this opening compared to that one. The storm itself is providing some sense of movement, but you know what else is contributing? The sense of anticipation of the story opening. That anticipation is provided by the will.

B) When we have a line about “above and below the surface,” we don’t need the description to tell us that a starship (or something exciting) is definitely located below ground somewhere on this property. However, the description does in fact tell us that, and that sets up this thing with the will. Take a look at the cover and presentation of this book:

I thought this book was probably self-published, but it looks like it came out from a very tiny press, which in some cases is kind of a subset of self-published, I think. It’s Variant Publishing, with a catalogue of about 120 SF titles from about 10 authors. I would be surprised if this isn’t a co-op of some kind. Looks like they’re doing a good job.

Here’s the description:

When Van Tudor returns to his childhood home, he inherits more than the family farm.

His grandfather used to tell him fantastic stories of spacemen and monsters, princesses and galactic knights. Little did Van realize, the old man’s tales were more than fiction. They were real.

Hidden beneath the old barn, Van’s legacy is waiting: a starship, not of this world.

With his combat AI, an android bird named Perry, Van takes his first steps into the wider galaxy. He soon finds that space is far busier and more dangerous than he could have ever conceived.

Destiny is calling. His grandfather’s legacy awaits.

This is really good description. It is short, the bolded lines are eye catching, it’s catchy, it’s fun, it tells the reader exactly what kind of story to expect. Anybody who would like this kind of story is probably going to pick it up, or at least pick up a sample. I’ve been getting samples of these books so I could type in the excerpts, and I didn’t delete this one, or even remove it from “downloaded.” I left it at the top of the downloaded books and samples on my Kindle app.

Do I think the writing is super great?

C) The writing is not that great. My phone wasn’t why I was here, though. At least, not directly. I really was just using it for light. It was the thing in my other hand that had brought me to this place … why is this here? How about, “I held my phone so the light shone on my grandad’s will, balanced on my knee.” That would be much more direct and clear, avoiding all this “it was the thing” stuff.

However, if a reader is interested in a fun, probably fast-paced story about a guy being jerked suddenly from ordinary life and tossed into a baroque galactic society, then I think this page gets the job done.

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Finished! For real this time. Also, puppies are getting cuter and cuter

Okay, in one way this weekend was not that much fun, as I developed a mild cold. However, it was (and is still) mild enough that it isn’t really distracting or enervating, so that’s good. It also provided a solid excuse to stay home ALL WEEKEND and go NOWHERE AT ALL, which I always appreciate, though it means I’ll have to run errands after work sometime this week. But it was worth it! Because I ripped through the rest of the primary revision for RIHASI and will now be sending it to the first set of early readers.

Naturally this means I added words. That’s why I wanted to cut first, so that looking at the wordcount going up wouldn’t drive me berserk. It’s really really long, however. If I add more during secondary revision, I’ll be trying to trim at the same time, but it’s definitely going to wind up at least 170,000 words.

My feeling is that it’s great and doesn’t need any revision! However, this never proves to be quite true, and sometimes it turns out to be VERY not true, but we shall see.

And, once we DO see, then I will be able to put the book up for preorder. I do not want to be scrambling desperately to get it ready to go, and of course the puppies are distracting, so I want to set the drop date far enough in the future that I can safely meet it without stressing myself out too much. That will actually be a month (or so) after RIHASI drops at my Patreon, so I have to remember to add a minimum of three weeks to the necessary lead time. It will certainly be great to be able to put this cover on view at Amazon.

And the audio version will go into production about the same time it drops, probably. I’m looking forward to that too.

I’m happy with the 7 completed audio chapters I have for MARAG so far. That audiobook probably won’t be available this month, but I expect it will be next month. Oh, and also, if you’ve left a review for MARAG, thank you! It’s up to 83 ratings, I see, which is pretty good for less than a month. Top notch star rating too. That’s going to be really helpful for promotion later this year. Not to mention that it’s personally satisfying!

Whoever suggested I write a story about Sinowa and Marag getting together, I sure appreciate the suggestion. I wouldn’t have thought of writing MARAG if you hadn’t suggested it. Anybody here or anybody at my Patreon should feel free to make suggestions.

Meanwhile, I’d like feedback on this, so if you’re so inclined, please vote —

Do you want a character list at the end of every book for the foreseeable future? Was that a good thing to put at the end of MARAG?

Do you want to have the names of familiar characters included in a character list at the back of every book?

Meanwhile! The puppies have started exploring the outdoor world. This rock here is where I sit to keep an eye on them, which may be why four of them gathered here when they decided they were ready for a break.

Look closely — do you see Magdalene inspecting the new puppies? She has decided they are basically harmless. One of these rubies went up to her in the living room and wanted to pull her tail. I distracted the puppy with a toy, but Magdalen didn’t swat the puppy, only withdrew to the back of the couch. I’m *almost* relaxed about the potential for accidents involving cat claws and puppies.

One more, because the b/ts are hard to photograph, but this one sat up and looked cute at the right time. I’m not sure which this is. I can’t tell the difference without looking at the white spot on the chest. I can tell the rubies apart by picking them both up — Little Ruby is definitely smaller than Big Ruby — or by looking at the hind feet. Big Ruby has rear dew claws, not desirable, but whatever, at least I can tell them apart.

Awww

Puppy names: I haven’t totally decided for all of them, and I’m trying to stick to a 25 character rule so I don’t wind up paying an extra fee. But I’m not that concerned about the extra fee, so I’m thinking of:

Black and Tan #1 — Anara Sestina Starlight Way — I really like this name for a black puppy, even though Swinburne is pretty depressing as poets go. “Starlight Way” isn’t the name of the poem or the first line, or for that matter the last line, so I’m not totally committed to this name, but I do like it a lot.

Black and Tan #2 — Anara Serenade A Little Night Music — a little over the length, but I really like the name. Although it doesn’t suggest an easy call name, unless you pull something out of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Ruby #1 — Anara Suite B Clair De Lune, and yes, I might change my mind and add the full “bergamasque” and pay the extra fee again. Also, I’m not sure about this name because “Clair De Lune” is a peaceful piece of music and this ruby puppy is not quite as much a hellion as the other one, but she shows definite tendencies in that direction.

Ruby #2 — Anara Symphony Ode To Joy — this is the puppy I plan to keep. She has a couple basically cosmetic issues; eg, the extra dew claws on the rear feet and a (very small, unimportant) umbilical hernia. But I don’t plan to breed her, so I don’t care. I really like her hellion nature. And she should be beautiful.

Blenheim — Anara Another Summer’s Day. Here’s the full poem, below. This is Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets. You can see the line I picked is the last line. This isn’t nearly as familiar as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” but on the other hand, it’s Emily Dickenson, so I mean, there’s that. And I like it. She’s a much more uplifting poet than Swinburne, that’s for sure. And I do think “Day” is a cute name.

A Something in a Summer’s Day

A something in a summer’s Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer’s noon—
A depth—an Azure—a perfume—
Transcending ecstasy.

And still within a summer’s night
A something so transporting bright
I clap my hands to see—

Then veil my too inspecting face
Lets such a subtle—shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me—

The wizard fingers never rest—
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes it narrow bed—

Still rears the East her amber Flag—
Guides still the sun along the Crag
His Caravan of Red—

So looking on—the night—the morn
Conclude the wonder gay—
And I meet, coming thro’ the dews
Another summer’s Day!

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Is it time to retire the defective detective?

A post at Kill Zone Blog: Is It Time To Retire The Defective Detective?

My instant response: YES YES YES It was time to retire this painfully cliched protagonist AT LEAST twenty years ago.

Let me tell you about the detective in this gritty, realistic noir-ish detective novel: He is about fifty. He is alone. He is an alcoholic, semi-recovered, or self-destructive in other ways. His wife left him and took the children. Probably she left him because she wanted to be the center of his attention 24/7, never mind that someone was killing girls or whatever. She could not cope with the detective working on actual crimes when he should have been arranging special candlelit dinners for two. This shows how sensitive she is and how insensitive he is. He has almost no relationship with his children, who appreciate how sensitive mom is compared to dad. Now here he is, as I said, alone. He barely gets through is days. He is cynical and hopefully competent, though maybe not.

This is Everydetective. I encountered this exact detective innumerable times, in every single gritty, realistic, noir-ish detective novel I picked up until I completely stopped reading that kind of novel. My impression is that the wife is usually a bigger component of this Everydetective’s current life in movies, so the audience can watch the marriage crash and burn on stage, because wow, that’s so much fun.

This is PJ Parrish. This is actually two coauthors. What do they say?

Now, we all love a flawed protagonist. Their personal journey is a parallel track that runs along side the main murder plot and creates interest and empathy. But man, does everyone have to be addicted, divorced, friendless, childless, and beset with demons from their screwed up childhoods? Do we really need another detective whose only steady relationships are with Cutty Sark and John Coltrane?

Spoiler: WE DO NOT LOVE THIS PARTICULAR FLAWED PROTAGONIST. We are very, very tired of Everydetective.

Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, gambling, or just plain paralyzing depression or grief, a large segment of the mystery writing community frequently writes broken protags. Some of these characters have been very critically successful. I have sort of a different take. I tend to regard emotionally damaged protags as a bit of a crutch.

Response: YOU THINK?

PJ Parrish then offers a quick discussion of cliches vs tropes. Without going into the distinction, I will just say briefly that in my opinion, a cliche is a badly done trope. No tropes get old if they are handled well. Readers who like whatever trope will like endless iterations as long as they are handled well. This is no doubt true for this kind of Everydetective as well; it’s just that I find that character unendurable and the surrounding characters equally unendurable and the plotlines that follow Everydetective through the destruction of his life worst of all.

I doubt I will read anything in the gritty, realistic, noir-ish detective genre ever again. I know absolutely for sure that if I am reading a detective novel of any description, the moment Everydetective picks up a bottle in the hope of drowning his sorrows, mentions his divorced wife or his estranged daughter — it’s always a daughter — or wakes up alone in a grungy setting, I’m not only done with that particular novel, but with that author.

In other words: it’s like grimdark. I’m one hundred percent not interested and I never will be.

Also: unlike grimdark, I don’t think it needed to be that way. Grimdark is intrinsically grimdark. But gritty, realistic, noir-ish detectives do not have to be Everydetective. That, in my opinion, IS INDEED a crutch.

For a less diatribe-ish take, you can click through and read the linked post.

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Why your flashbacks aren’t working

A post at Jane Friedman’s blog: Why your flashbacks aren’t working.

I think getting into and out of flashbacks can be quite challenging. If you’re telling the story in simple past tense, when do you switch to past perfect? And then do you stay in past perfect through the whole flashback? Even if it’s pretty long? And if you shift from past to past perfect to past to story present (which means simple past tense again), how exactly do you make that work?

That was a nuisance in MARAG, by the way. Chapter 1 is Sinowa’s prologue, but then Chapter 2 starts with a flashback that serves as a prologue for Marag, and yes, and early reader pointed to weird verb tenses through there, and yes, I focused on cleaning that up and trying to handle verb tenses so smoothly that no other reader would ever notice the verb tenses at all. Hopefully I succeeded, since, I mean, it’s a little late to mess with the verb tenses any more now.

But I’m not sure that’s why flashbacks might not work in a broader sense. That is, I can think of other modes of failure that are worse. I am thinking about this before reading the linked post because some failure modes really leap to my mind. Maybe yours, too.

A) We started in story-present, got into some exciting situation, and NOW, whoops, we are having a flashback.

And not just for a paragraph or a page. No. We are stuck back here in the flashback for MANY pages, maybe the first half of the book.

I hate this. No matter how long the flashback lasts, I will not forget where we started. I do not like being dragged away from story present, especially at a cliffhanger moment, but actually I don’t like it period. This is just not a structure that works for me.

Except if you do it really well. Zelazny used the most remarkable flashback/flashforward technique in Doorways in the Sand. That’s how to handle this kind of technique — lean into it and do your best to make readers appreciate what you’re doing.

B) I don’t care. Whatever led the character to this point, here he is.

I don’t really want to know how he got here. Multiply this times a thousand if he is a villain. I absolutely, totally do not want to see any of the villain’s backstory. You, as the author, may find the bad guy interesting. You, as the author, may want me to be sorry that someone killed his dog when he was four. Too bad. I don’t care.

If you want to tell me something about anybody’s backstory, that character can tell a relevant anecdote about that in story-present. That works fine. if someone killed his dog when he was four, I will be very mad at them. I’m thinking of an incident in Ilona Andrews’ Burn For Me series. This is a great series because they are great writers and they would never in a million years screw up a flashback, by the way. They really showcase how to slowly reveal backstory in this series, which I do highly recommend.

Those are my biggest problems with flashbacks. Now, what does the linked post say?

You have too many flashbacks. Most interesting advice here: If you’re using lots of flashbacks to tell your story effectively, consider whether you may in fact have a multiple-timeline story. (Learn more about multiple timeline stories.) Link from the original.

The flashbacks are in the wrong place. Focus on flashback-prologues, usually a bad idea. Counterexample offered in the linked post of a flashback-prologue that does work, thus making the point that everything can work if handled well enough.

The flashbacks go on too long. Pacing issues.

They are clunky and obvious. “He remembered, as if it were yesterday, or “The scene played like a movie in her mind,” or “Suddenly she relived the moment when…” Yes to all this, and then the problem isn’t the flashback, it’s the clunky writing, which is probably going to be everywhere, not just in the flashback.

 The flashbacks don’t move the story forward. I do find this an amusing critique, not that this is wrong. Perhaps this would be better phrased: The flashbacks are unnecessary to the story / serve no purpose. The post notes, that the flashback should materially and essentially shed light on the character(s) and their arc in the main story, advance the main story with essential information, and/or raise stakes.  In other words, there’s a reason for it to be there.

The flashbacks aren’t directly relevant to the main story. Sounds like a subset of the prior point to me.

The flashbacks confuse readers.

OKAY. So: admirable use of flashback: Whispering Wood by Sharon Shinn.

This, you may recall, is a book I really loved and also a book where I noted the particularly elegant and effective use as flashbacks.

While we’re on the topic, here’s a prior post about flashbacks, in which I explained why I put two flashback chapters in SUELEN and how much I focused on smooth entry and exit of flashbacks in The Year’s Midnight.

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Would you turn the page of this bestselling SF novel?

Okay, full disclosure: This isn’t the #1 bestselling SF novel right now. It is, however, pretty high up in the charts and #1, #2, and #3 in its three categories. I won’t tell you what those categories are just yet. Let’s start by just purely looking at the first page without knowing anything except that it’s a popular SF novel.

Oh, I’ll also mention that I’ve never heard of the author, so with luck most of you haven’t read this already and can also judge the first page cold.

***

On the anniversary of his wife’s death, Sam Anderson visited her grave.

It was a crisp spring morning in Nevada, with dew on the grass and fog rolling through the cemetery. In one hand, Sam carried a bouquet of flowers. In the other, he gripped his son’s hand. Ryan was eleven and strong-willed and introverted, like his mother. After her death, he had withdrawn, spending even more time alone, playing with LEGOs, reading, and generally avoiding life.

Counselling had yielded little help for Ryan. At home, Sam had searched for a way to get through to his only son, but he had to admit: he wasn’t half the parent his wife had been. Most days, he felt like he was simply reacting to his children, making it up as he went, working on a mystery without any clues.

He hoped the visit to Sarah’s grave this morning would be the start of turning that around.

Same’s daughter, Adeline, gripped Ryan’s other hand. She was nineteen years old, and to all outward appearances seemed to have coped better with her mother’s passing. but Sam wondered if Adeline was just a better actor than Ryan or himself. He worried about that too, about her bottling it all up and carrying the burden of unaddressed grief.

Last night, he had seen a glimpse of her hidden rage. Adeline was still furious with him over the evening’s argument. So angry she wouldn’t even hold his hand or look at him. Hence, Ryan walking between them.

But she had agreed to be there that morning, and Sam was thankful for that.

They walked in silence through the cemetery much like they had floated through life since Sara’s death: hand-in-hand, trying to find their way through it all.

Fog drifted in front of the headstones like a curtain being drawn and opened. Across the cemetery, sprinkler heads rose and began deploying water. The cemetery likely cost a fortune to irrigate out in the Nevada desert, but of all the problems Absolom City had, money wasn’t one.

At the edge of the grass, Sam thought he saw a figure watching them. He turned his head, and yes, there was a man there. He wore a dark uniform, though Sam couldn’t make it out from this distance. Fog floated in front of the man, and when Sam looked again, he was gone.

***

My first reaction: Wow, this is boring.

My second reaction: Wow, this is passive.

Once again, let me show this snippet and boldface all the “telling.”

***

On the anniversary of his wife’s death, Sam Anderson visited her grave.

It was a crisp spring morning in Nevada, with dew on the grass and fog rolling through the cemetery. In one hand, Sam carried a bouquet of flowers. In the other, he gripped his son’s hand. Ryan was eleven and strong-willed and introverted, like his mother. After her death, he had withdrawn, spending even more time alone, playing with LEGOs, reading, and generally avoiding life.

Counselling had yielded little help for Ryan. At home, Sam had searched for a way to get through to his only son, but he had to admit: he wasn’t half the parent his wife had been. Most days, he felt like he was simply reacting to his children, making it up as he went, working on a mystery without any clues.

He hoped the visit to Sarah’s grave this morning would be the start of turning that around.

Same’s daughter, Adeline, gripped Ryan’s other hand. She was nineteen years old, and to all outward appearances seemed to have coped better with her mother’s passing. but Sam wondered if Adeline was just a better actor than Ryan or himself. He worried about that too, about her bottling it all up and carrying the burden of unaddressed grief.

Last night, he had seen a glimpse of her hidden rage. Adeline was still furious with him over the evening’s argument. So angry she wouldn’t even hold his hand or look at him. Hence, Ryan walking between them.

But she had agreed to be there that morning, and Sam was thankful for that.

They walked in silence through the cemetery much like they had floated through life since Sara’s death: hand-in-hand, trying to find their way through it all.

Fog drifted in front of the headstones like a curtain being drawn and opened. Across the cemetery, sprinkler heads rose and began deploying water. The cemetery likely cost a fortune to irrigate out in the Nevada desert, but of all the problems Absolom City had, money wasn’t one.

At the edge of the grass, Sam thought he saw a figure watching them. He turned his head, and yes, there was a man there. He wore a dark uniform, though Sam couldn’t make it out from this distance. Fog floated in front of the man, and when Sam looked again, he was gone.

***

Nothing here is interesting enough for me to care who the mysterious man in the dark uniform might be. I don’t care about Sam or his children either. Why doesn’t this opening work for me?

A) If you’re going to have a static, slow, or passive opening, which is FINE, then please, let it be that way because you are setting the scene, not because you are telling me about the children’s states of mind. None of these people are real to me yet. I don’t care about their states of mind.

B) Please, please, please do not indicate that you think being an introvert is a psychiatric condition in need of treatment, or that reading is a problem that needs to be corrected.

C) Is the author under the impression that mothers don’t feel like they’re making it up as they go alone? Because my impression is that all parents feel that way almost all the time.

D) These short paragraphs would be fine for a blog post or anything else that was going to be read online, but there is nothing remotely interesting about any of these paragraphs, so there is no reason whatsoever to make them all so short. This is ten paragraphs in four hundred words.

E) This is just plain boring. This is the most boring of the various first pages I’ve posted recently, here, here, and here, and it’s not even close. A better writer could write this scene in a much more engaging way. This could involve leaving out everything about the children’s states of mind OR it could involve following the overused but admittedly sometimes relevant advice to show rather than tell OR it could involve getting to the mist-veiled figure in the second sentence OR it could involve just more engaging sentences.

What is this? It’s a novel called Lost in Time, which is currently #1 in the Time Travel category, which, granted, is probably not that huge a category.

This author, AG Riddle, has written about ten novels, it looks like, so this is not their debut.

This book is #1200 or so overall in the Kindle store, which is very solid, let me tell you, especially for an ebook that costs $12. The sales calculator at Publishers Rocket suggests that this sales rank means this book is selling about 100 copies per day. I would certainly be happy if any of my books were selling that well, especially at that price. It has about 20,000 ratings, with an average star rating of 4.4.

I absolutely swear that I am not deliberately picking books with unimpressive openings. I am definitely starting to wonder how long it will take for me to hit a popular book with an opening I love.

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Writing advice on Threads

This is a post by Chuck Wendig: THREADS HAS WEIRD IDEAS ABOUT WRITING AND PUBLISHING, SO HERE ARE SOME OF MY OWN

He starts this way:

The one thing that you have to know is, the algorithm really does rule all — which means that when someone has a WEIRD IDEA or a CONTROVERSIAL TAKE, people responding to it or quoting it for “the dunk” instantly help that thing spread. The system is designed to see fire, and when you say, “Hey, look, fire,” the robot then pours gasoline on it.

(The robot is not here to help.)

As such, you tend to get just truly nonsense ideas about writing and publishing — bizarre opinions and worse, absolutely batfuck advice, often given by people who would seem to have little to no actual credit in the writing and publishing space. It’s like asking driving directions from someone on a different continent.

This is funny, and of course I immediately wonder what opinions and advice he has in mind. He doesn’t give specific examples — that is, he makes up his own:

You’ll be scrolling through Threads and you’ll see someone say, like, “If a sentence has more than one comma, it’s a bad sentence.” Or, “Agents don’t really read queries; the only way to get an agent’s attention is to enter their home at night through a pet door, and leave your manuscript in the refrigerator, topped with origami rose petals made with Post-It notes, scented with your zesty authorial pheromones.” Or, “You can’t have potatoes in science-fiction.” … And then, then, all day long you get Comma Discourse, or Don’t Stalk Agents Rejoinders, or Fiery Debate Over Sci-Fi Potatoes. 

And I have to admit, I did chuckle a couple of times, although I winced too, because I can very easily imagine earnest writing advice making the rounds: If a sentence has more than one comma, it’s a bad sentence. That sounds just like the sort of Earnest Writing Advice (tm) that gets passed around in writers’ groups, then takes on a life of its own, and for the next fifty years people think there’s some rule about not having more than one comma per sentence because somehow they don’t notice that in the real world, real authors pour those little curvy suckers into sentences by the bucketful.

Anyway, Chuck then proffers writing advice of his own. Here is a selection of my favorites:

1. Write the thing you wanna write. … Life is short and art is weird so go on and lean into it.

4. Don’t kill all your darlings. Darlings are nice. We all deserve our darlings.

6. There’s a lot of [writing] advice out there. It’s all bullshit. [That was a comma, but I’m truncating this one at the point I feel a period should occur.]

7. When your process is failing you, change your process.

9. Your writing, your story, isn’t a product, it isn’t quote-unquote “content.” … Writing and storytelling is art.

Twenty-five total, many longer. I mean, I cut all these short too, but some are longish paragraphs.

I’m not on Threads because good Lord above, who has the time? I do Facebook a very tiny amount and Twitter (OR WHATEVER) less than that and Bluesky less still, meaning maybe a few minutes per week, and that’s it. I do not want to be bombarded by political outrage OR by the deaths of much-beloved pets, and sometimes I see three or four “my much-beloved pet just died” posts within a minute after starting to scroll through social media and I understand posting about that (really!) and I always leave a sympathetic comment (of course!), but jeez. But I’m semi-tempted to join Threads [no, not really — ed.] just for the wacky writing advice.

I don’t check Chuck Wendig’s blog very often either, but he certainly can be funny.

Also, don’t kill your darlings. Darlings are nice. We all deserve our darlings.

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Update: Much Progress On All Fronts

Okay, so highly satisfactory progress this past week, especially this weekend. I’ve got just a couple more chapters to read, cut, and revise. I’ve cut, I’m not sure, about 20,000 words, which is enough to make me feel better about the length (it’s now about 170,000 words and will be cut to about 168,000). I’ll be adding some words when I write the epilogue. I’ve realized some important things about the epilogue, which was one benefit of doing this cut/revision before writing it, of course. I’m going to try to keep the epilogue short, though of course it will probably go longer than I would prefer. Regardless, the draft will obviously wind up under 180,000 words, which was the important thing. It will probably wind up longer than TUYO, which is startling.

TUYO is 160,000 words, by the way. TARASHANA is 210,000 words. TASMAKAT is 310,000 words, which (as I have admitted previously) is completely insane and I should have broken it into thirds. But the story itself would be the same length regardless, of course.

NIKOLES is about 74,000 words, but it’s essentially two novellas linked together, about 37K each. KERAUNANI is 110,000 words, but again, two novellas, this time braided together (it’s hard to decide how to handle putting together linked novellas). Each of those novellas is therefore about 55,000 words, . SUELEN is 73,000 words, which a lot of people would consider a novel, but given the length of the main novels in this series, I’d still call it a novella.

TANO is 120,000 words — anybody would call that a novel. MARAG is 125,000 words — again, definitely a novel, though I’m a little amused to find that the pace is so fast that some readers are perceiving it as a novella. Or maybe because it’s an “additional work” rather than a “main series work.” I wonder how readers will perceive RIHASI, given that it’s an “additional work,” but is plainly going to be longer than TUYO? I don’t think it’s as propulsive as MARAG, but I’m not necessarily the best judge.

Regardless, I still have 25 notes about revision, but that’s ten or so fewer than I used to have, so there’s that. And some of the remaining notes will be fast to handle. Offhand, I would guess I’ll be sending the complete draft to early readers probably this weekend, or maybe next Monday. That’s satisfactory.

AFTER THAT, I will finally finish the story about the boys who climbed the rainbow. If you read the first part, I hope you liked it! It has been impossible for me to tear myself away from RIHASI to finish it. That is definitely the thing I will pick up as soon as I send RIHASI off for comments.

I’ve been really happy about the comments about the first chapter here and at my Patreon, by the way. It never occurred to me that I might post early chapters there AND THUS GET VALIDATING FEEDBACK, but look at that, that’s a really useful side-effect of having the Patreon! I am often nervous about a new book, this nervousness lasts until I get comments back from early readers, and gosh, now I have comments and that makes me feel much more secure about this book. I’m really happy you all like Rihasi when you first meet her. That definitely bodes well for the full novel.

***

Meanwhile! The puppies are exactly five weeks old today, and personalities are juuuuust beginning to emerge. While personalities will continue to emerge (really fast!) over the next few weeks, I now have early impressions about two of the puppies, as follows:

I’m pretty sure about that ruby girl!

The thing about this ruby — this is Ruby Girl Two, aka The Big Ruby, who is, despite that sobriquet, the second-smallest puppy. The thing about her is that she is VERY, VERY CONFIDENT. Look at this:

Ruby Girl Two chases Great Uncle Conner down the hall. He is a little blurry because he is backing up fast. He is backing up because the instinct not to hurt tiny puppies is strong and he is just meeting her for the first time, which is when that instinct is strongest. At this point, the male dogs can be trusted to recognize puppies as puppies and not hurt them, which is why I’m letting the ruby run at Conner.

The puppy is not particularly aiming for Morgan, by the way, even though Morgan is obviously in front of her. She is bouncing toward any dog who is nearby, with complete confidence and great enthusiasm. None of the other puppies would try this (yet). They are all sitting inside the puppy room gazing out at the Big World. Three others have ventured a few inches out of the puppy room, but then they retreat. You see why that hesitation would be adaptive, of course. In the wild, a puppy like Ruby Girl Two might easily follow the big wolves too far from the den and get herself into serious trouble. It’s far better for puppies in the wild to hang back until they are more physically capable. BUT, for a domestic dog, it’s different. I love seeing this kind of confidence. This, it is already clear, is a puppy who has been “born socialized.” She thinks the world is her oyster. If I keep her (practically certain, I love this attitude!) and show her (I will if she is beautiful enough, but nearby shows only), then she is going to strut into the show ring with complete aplomb and a LOOK AT ME attitude, perfect for a show dog.

I think the smaller ruby, Ruby Girl One, Little Ruby Girl, is also going to be a bit of a hellion compared to the bigger puppies, but I’m not sure. I’m at least pretty sure she isn’t going to get bullied. I think the black-and-tans may be be more middle-of-the-road, but again, I’m not sure. That Blenheim puppy is as big as the black-and-tans, substantially bigger than the rubies. But, if any puppy is going to be bullied by his littermates, it’s him. He could become more assertive, especially as he learns he can take advantage of his bigger size. But at the moment, he is plainly more gentle than the others and rather too inclined to let both rubies bully him. He may do best with Haydee and Naamah, who can be trusted to be gentle with a tiny cousin.

I am now just assuming I will lose half an hour multiple times a day because I will be gazing at the puppies and letting them nibble my fingers and encouraging them (the other four) to leave the puppy room. Also, increasing cleanup duties until they’re able to run outside on their own, at least three or four weeks in the future. They have also entered the Maximum Cuteness stage, which will last for a good few weeks. I plan to enjoy it as much as possible.

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Over at my Patreon —

Just letting you know that I’ve dropped the first chapter of RIHASI over at my Patreon, in case you’d like to click over and read it. I know not everyone likes teasers! I don’t usually read them myself! But if you enjoy teasers, there it is!

It’s coming along, honestly! Despite puppies and eclipses, I’m close to halfway through the first cut / primary revision.

I’m also posting more puppy videos and pictures at my Patreon than appear here.

Yes, I had to figure out how to get videos off my phone so that I could post them; yes, that was annoyingly indirect; yes, YouTube videos explaining simple things in simple words are helpful for those of us who don’t know that the Google drive is a thing you can use to email yourself videos that can’t be attached like a normal picture.

Anyway, short puppy videos probably every couple of days at my Patreon for the next little while, as they grow and change and get tremendously cute and delightful.

Meanwhile, here’s a cute picture I took this morning. This poofy dog bed is meant to keep the puppies from getting on the tile, because they have a little trouble walking on tile. However, they apparently decided it would be a fun thing to climb, defeating the purpose but creating this cute scene. Only the rubies could have gotten up there; the others are too fat to climb on something like that.

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Do not let anybody tell you not to use all the words

It’s not just “delve.” Here’s a list of the 10 Most Common ChatGPT Words

I’m not that likely to use the word “leverage” because I’m seldom talking about the uses of levers, which is almost the only context in which I would probably use that word. However, I am seriously now going to make an effort to use “delve,” “resonate,” and “tapestry.” As a side note, I knew of someone who named a beautiful dapple-gray horse Tapestry, and I thought that was such a beautiful name for that horse.

Image from Pixabay

But back to the topic. Look! Look at this article! Top 10 ChatGPT’s Favorite Words and How to Avoid Them

Emphasis mine. For crying out loud! How to avoid them! Well, God forbid you should use words that ChatGPT uses! How can anybody let themselves be bullied into not using words?

Here’s a thought: use ALL the words, and also write in such a way that no one could POSSIBLY think your text was generated by ChatGPT or any other text generator. Then, if anybody dares to suggest you’re generating text, I suggest bringing back the civilized response of a cold stare and an even colder, “I beg your pardon?”

What is the online version of that response? Is there an emoticon that indicates, “You’re a complete twit and should shut up because you’re embarrassing yourself”? If there’s not an emoticon for that, we need one. This is the exact situation in which to deploy such an emoticon.

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Appositives

So, as I mentioned in a post the other day, I recently attended a brief workshop on AI, with emphasis on what it can do for students and – as you might imagine – on what students should not do with it. I’ll be attending another workshop soon, this one with emphasis, I’m pretty sure from the promotional materials, on how great a tool AI will be for teaching! students! critical! thinking! skills.

If you guess that maybe I have doubts, this is true. Saying “The student can use AI to generate ideas!” or “AI can help a student organize a paper!” sounds a lot like saying, “So they don’t have to use their own brain, how neat!”

Also, there is this new study: ChatGPT linked to declining academic performance and memory loss in new study, and while my first reaction is, you guessed it, “Really? Can I see your methodology?”, my second reaction is, “Of course, what else would you expect?”

I am not actually viciously opposed to all possible use of AI, by the way, in case you might have gotten that impression. I hear it’s good for rapidly handling a mass of data, and no doubt that’s useful in many contexts. I’m horrified by AI hallucinations in medical diagnoses and advice, however. Also, the idea of getting AI to generate ideas so you don’t have to go to all the trouble of generating your very own ideas sounds, how shall I put this, somewhat less than useful, particularly as – from what we’ve seen in AI trying to generate fiction – you’re likely to get super-clichéd garbage ideas mixed with falsehoods.

However, my actual point here is: one comment made at the recent workshop is that ChatGPT in particular is very fond of appositives; so much so that this is one feature by which its generated text can be recognized.

I hadn’t noticed this.

What (you may be asking) is an appositive? If you don’t quite recollect the term, which in fact I didn’t, I’ll give a brief rule-of-thumb definition after a series of examples. And where am I getting these examples? From the chapter on appositives in Virginia Tufte’s book Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, where she offers and discusses many examples. Here are a few:

***

Over the last decade William Langewiesche has been fascinated by the modern-day frontier – those wild places that stubbornly defy all efforts at control.  – Philbrick, “Waterworld.”

The Antigua that I knew, the Antigua in which I grew up, is not the Antigua you, a tourist, would see now. – Kincaid, A Small Place.

He lumbered into the city room, a big guy in his middle twenties, wearing a suit too dark for the season, and the disconsolate expression of a hunter who has seen nothing but warblers all day.  – Thurber, “Newspaperman.”

One of the great poets, Milton is also one of the least read. – Untermeyer, The Lives of the Poets.

Mr. Somerville – a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great – was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing – namely, to write mere English.  – Churchill, A Roving Commission.

Modern houseboats being what they are – sinfully luxurious is what they are – it ought to be enough to run them lazily around back rivers and bayous. The last thing anybody needs is a national championship houseboat race. – Whall, “A House is Not a Hotrod.”

They helped create a special memory of my father – my gossamer memories suddenly given vivid shape and form and color.  – Kunhardt, My Father’s Country

***

Okay, you see what all those sentences include? They include a phrase that renames, redefines, or expands on a noun or noun phrase. It’s the renaming or redefining that makes an appositive. This is the short form of the definition, remember. I don’t actually care a lot about the details because life is short and I’m not planning to teach a class on syntax and style any time soon. (Though that might be neat.) Quick rule of thumb, therefore: an appositive renames, redefines, or expands on a noun or noun phrase. They’re set off with commas, with dashes, with colons, or sometimes they’re set as fragments after the main sentence. They usually, but not always, come after the noun or noun phrase. Here are all those sentences again, this time with the appositives bolded:

***

Over the last decade William Langewiesche has been fascinated by the modern-day frontier – those wild places that stubbornly defy all efforts at control. – The appositive here is defining “modern-day frontier.”

The Antigua that I knew, the Antigua in which I grew up, is not the Antigua you, a tourist, would see now. – The appositive is redefining Antigua; repetition is common in appositives.

He lumbered into the city room, a big guy in his middle twenties, wearing a suit too dark for the season, and the disconsolate expression of a hunter who has seen nothing but warblers all day. – The appositive is expanding on “he,” a very boring noun, so that the appositive is doing all the heavy lifting.

One of the great poets, Milton is also one of the least read. – An inverted appositive, coming before the noun on which it expands.

Mr. Somerville – a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great – was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing – namely, to write mere English. Expanding on the noun.

Modern houseboats being what they are – sinfully luxurious is what they are – it ought to be enough to run them lazily around back rivers and bayous. The last thing anybody needs is a national championship houseboat race. – Delightfully expands on the noun phrase, and if I were teaching a class on syntax and style, I would use this sentence, because it is great.

They helped create a special memory of my father – my gossamer memories suddenly given vivid shape and form and color. – Expands on the noun phrase “special memory.”

***

Okay, so after this comment at the workshop about appositives, I told ChatGPT to generate a student essay on an excruciatingly common topic. Basically every student taking English Comp I thinks this would be a great original idea for an essay.

Please write a thousand-word essay on the impact of modern technology on student performance in the classroom.

If you happen to be taking English Comp I or if you know a student who is, please please please do not write, or allow anyone you know to write, an English composition essay on this or any similar topic. I promise you, the instructor has seen ten thousand iterations and is deeply bored with every possible variation on this theme.

I will spare you the thousand-word essay. It’s pretty obviously generated, but the interesting thing, given the workshop, is that having read the whole thing pretty carefully myself, I see … no appositives at all.

Yet this claim about appositives is definitely made here and there. Here, for example:

I’m going back to my generated essay. I’m still not seeing any appositives. None. I’m tempted to paste it in below so you can see what you think, but a boring thousand-word essay about this extremely boring topic, I mean, if you want to see it, let me know and I’ll paste it into a comment, but otherwise, no.

I will pull out one sentence, however:

Educators can promote digital literacy skills by incorporating media literacy and information literacy into the curriculum, teaching students how to critically evaluate online information and navigate digital resources responsibly.

Emphasis mine. Honestly, I can’t even be bothered to roll my eyes.

Obviously integrating text generators into the classroom will not encourage critical thinking. I can think of assignments that would actually do that, such as having students generate an essay on a topic where they are a genuine expert and then analyze the generated essay for falsity and misleading statements. Lots of students are experts in something or other. Use that. Or maybe have the students deliberately try to get the text generator to spit out something they know is false. Or generate fake essays using two different text generators, or the same one twice, and compare style and accuracy. Or have each student both write AND generate an essay, then hand both to a different student, and have each student try to figure out which essay is the real thing and which isn’t. Or have the students pick a particular book they like, summarize it, then try to get an AI text generator to write something similar, and analyze the differences between the real thing and the fake. Then discuss the results, maybe assign something like a written explanation of the differences between human-generated and AI-generated text.

My very strong expectation is that practically no teachers will assign anything like the above. No, teachers will wave their hands and chant “We’re teaching critical thinking skills!” and then they will either turn a blind eye to plagiarism from text generators or else they will try to prevent plagiarism, neither of which will have anything to do with teaching critical thinking.

Well, we’ll see.

Meanwhile, now I bet you’ll be noticing appositives for a while. I know I will be!

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