Current Reading: The Oceans and the Stars by Mark Helprin

I haven’t actually read this all the way through. It’s going to take a while for me to get through it because I don’t have a lot of time for reading, but it’s both good and interesting, so I thought, you know what, maybe I won’t wait till I’ve finished it, maybe I’ll mention this book now.

Just a few days ago, I saw something about this book, The Ocean and the Stars, and thought in surprise: Why have I never looked to see what else Mark Helprin has written? I mean, why did this never even occur to me?

I actually know why: It’s because I read A Winter’s Tale when I was in high school or thereabouts and that was long, long before you could hop on the internet and check out an author’s page on Amazon. [Pausing here to regret that I didn’t buy Amazon stock in 1998. Alas!] Anyway, that’s why. But it never occurred to me to check when I re-read A Winter’s Tale later, either, and I do wonder why not. Turns out Helprin has written a fair number of books, with The Oceans and the Stars being the most recent. It came out last October, it’s got 1200 or so ratings at Amazon and a 4.6 average star rating. Here’s the description:

Mark Helprin, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, presents a fast-paced, beautifully written novel about the majesty of the sea; a life dedicated to duty, honor, and country; and the gift of falling in love.
 
A Navy captain near the end of a decorated career, Stephen Rensselaer is disciplined, intelligent, and determined to always do what’s right. In defending the development of a new variant of warship, he makes an enemy of the president of the United States, who assigns him to command the doomed line’s only prototype––Athena, Patrol Coastal 15––with the intent to humiliate a man who should have been an admiral.
 
Rather than resign, Rensselaer takes the new assignment in stride, and while supervising Athena’s fitting out in New Orleans, encounters a brilliant lawyer, Katy Farrar, with whom he falls in last-chance love. Soon thereafter, he is deployed on a mission that subjects his integrity, morality, and skill to the ultimate test, and ensures that Athena will live forever in the annals of the Navy.
 
As in the Odyssey, Katy is the force that keeps him alive and the beacon that lights the way home through seven battles, mutiny, and court martial. In classic literary form, an enthralling new novel that extolls the virtues of living by the laws of conscience, decency, and sacrifice, The Oceans and the Stars is nothing short of a masterpiece.

***

To which my response is: Fast paced, huh? I definitely have doubts about that. But I believe the rest of this description is probably true. I picked up a sample immediately. I though I would add it to the list of books to read after I eventually finish SILVER CIRCLE, but I actually started reading it (slowly), so let me tell you about it.

Here is the first page of The Oceans and the Stars. This is a prologue.

***

Snow falling upon water makes a sound so close to silence that no heart exists it cannot calm. It fell across the Chesapeake and in the harbors and inlets and far out to sea, surrendering to the waters with the slightest exhalation and a muffled hiss. Though few are there to see it, in winter this happens often.

In the construction and maintenance of warships in Virginia’s Tidewater, now veiled in steady snow, engines throbbed, cranes swivelled, and barges plodded over black waters. The spacious anchorage of Hampton Roads is ringed by naval stations, air bases, and shipyards making up the largest concentration of naval might in existence. Interwoven with civilian cities and commercial waterways, this sinew of steel is a world of its own. Even so, its powerful present cannot overwhelm images that upwell from the past: the sails of the French fleet in surprising bloom off Yorktown; the Monitor battling the Merrimack; and within living memory the Battle of the Atlantic, when ships burned offshore and corpses washed up on the sand.

From these docks and quays millions left for the World Wars, half a century of cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East. And for the scores of thousands who did not return, the flat coast of Virginia was the last they would ever see of their country. In summer and from war to war, as their ships passed by, young sailors would fall in love with girls on the beaches even though they could hardly see them.

None of this can be erased. Absorbed in their tasks, people do forget, but ofttimes spectral images suddenly appear. Across the water in the vast shipyards, cascades of sparks rooster-tail from the darkness of a cavernous shed or beside a massive hall. As if descended from the flash of guns, they seem to escape the underworld so as to insist upon the eternal presence of battle. And a warship heading out, as in uncountable times before, can arrest a watcher onshore as the ship speeds toward harm’s way across the world and far from home.

***

I realize I’m biased because of A Winter’s Tale, but I was hooked by that first couple of sentences about snow falling into water. The prologue is just about twice as long as the bit I posted above. What is this prologue doing? It is establishing atmosphere. That’s what it’s doing. It’s also setting up a tense situation way in the future. The story is going to be an extremely extended flashback that will circle around to the moment captured in this prologue; then the story will completed in that moment, in an epilogue. I haven’t read the epilogue yet, but I’m certain that’s going to be the structure.

Regardless, for once the prologue barely matters. I’m willing to follow Helprin into this novel no matter how he starts it. But that first paragraph about snow didn’t hurt either. I never personally highlight when reading, but you know what? I highlighted that paragraph. I’m not alone. Popular highlights shows me that 88 people have highlighted that paragraph.

Snow falling upon water makes a sound so close to silence that no heart exists it cannot calm. It fell across the Chesapeake and in the harbors and inlets and far out to sea, surrendering to the waters with the slightest exhalation and a muffled hiss. Though few are there to see it, in winter this happens often.

I mean, that is lovely.

I’m thirteen percent of the way through the book, I’m highlighting especially beautiful passages or striking lines, and so far I’ve highlighted seven such passages and lines. Which is a lot, considering that, as I just said, I don’t generally highlight at all. But these are passages that either I want to come back to and admire, or they are examples of writing craft that I might want to pull out and used to illustrate a post sometime, or both.

The sea was speaking to him in silence. Its message was: as your spirit rises to fill the place of appetites and illusions, take stock and be comforted, for all time is lost in the oceans and the stars. You’ve left behind the things of life on land that shield you from a truth the sea will not let you forget — that you are first and last a spirit, that you are alone, and that this can be borne.

Wow.

Also, next time I’m doing a post on telling vs showing, I will remember this book. SO MUCH TELLING. And very beautiful and effective telling it is, too. This novel could be used to illustrate telling, properly handled. I sort of think I’ve referred to A Winter’s Tale in that context too.

If I were teaching a class about novels and the craft of novels, Helprin would be a good choice for discussing (a) telling vs showing and how to use both effectively; (b) how to use telling to establish setting, which is customary; and character, which is something that draws finger-wagging from hither and yon, so a counter example would be good; (c) how to establish atmosphere; (d) how to use a prologue and epilogue to frame a story; (e) how to write poetically; and (f) how to write with power. The paragraph I highlighted is poetic and powerful.

I’m going to do a post soon about powerful writing. This book is going to provide one example.

Meanwhile! If you, like me, are thinking, OMG, JULY, UGH, I HATE HEAT, LET’S HAVE WINTER, then let me remind you all that the Ur-Winter Novel is indeed A Winter’s Tale. There’s no other book in the world that can compare for making readers long for snow.

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Recent Reading: Penric and the Bandit

Okay, Penric and the Bandit was a charming addition to the Penric novellas, decidedly better than several of the more recent novellas.

Let me see, what are all of the Penric novellas? Okay, they are, in order:

Penric’s Demon

Penric and the Shamen

Penric’s Fox

Masquerade in Lodi

Penric’s Mission

Mira’s Last Dance

The Prisoner of Limnos

The Orphans of Raspay

The Physicians of Vilnoc

The Assassins of Thassalon

Knot of Shadows

Demon Daughter

And now this latest one, Penric and the Bandit.

They vary a lot in quality. If I were sorting them out, let me see …

Penric’s Demon, Penric and the Shamen, Penric’s Mission, Mira’s Last Dance, The Prisoner of Limnos, The Orphans of Raspay, The Assassin of Thessalon –> These are all really good. There may be some quibbles, but they’re all excellent.

Penric’s Fox is okay. I would put Penric and the Bandit at about this level. It’s fine. I liked it. It hit certain tropes I like a lot. It’s simple and straightforward.

Masquerade in Lodi suffers from a SCREAMINGLY OBVIOUS bad guy. Knot of Shadows did not really work for me. For some reason, I’m not sure why, neither did Demon Daughter. The Physicians of Vilnoc was frankly boring. It was a grinding slog of continual sorcerous healing and exhaustion, without nearly enough of lively Desdemona.

So, given I wasn’t all that keen on the most recent couple, I was happy with Penric and the Bandit. Especially because, as I say, it hit tropes I like a lot. It was simple, but a simple redemption plotline works for me. I think Bujold could have done a bit more with it — I mostly mean, I know what I would have brought out more if I’d been writing it. But I liked it.

Also, I was feeling fairly crappy the day I realized this novella was out, so I was happy to take a day off and just read a Penric novella and not even look at my laptop.

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Update: progress is progressing

Well, that was a weekend, huh? I’m holding somewhat grimly to my determination never, ever to post about current events or especially politics, but wow, occasionally that does become something of a challenge. So if you wonder if I was too buried in fictional worlds to notice big events, no, not that buried.

But back to fictional worlds, and in the clear understanding that this particular blog is in fact going to remain oblivious to politics and current events —

So, lots of progress!

The past week did start slowly because … I may never have mentioned this, but a good while ago, my mother had shingles, and it lasted ten months and was highly unpleasant. I made a mental note then to get the shingles vaccine sometime after I turned fifty, and then of course I put it off and put it off and then last week I bumped into a guy who’s had shingles (so far) for four months and I thought Time to quit waiting. So I got the shingles vaccine, and in case you haven’t, let me add a public service message:

The current shingles vaccine is a two-shot series and it’s a lot better than the old vaccine. You don’t have to repeat it. Protection is better than the previous vaccine and also apparently permanent. So if you’re over fifty, let me just mention that for older people, shingles is often worse, often lasts a long time, is sometimes permanent, and is quite painful and unpleasant. Now that this much better vaccine is here, you might want to arrange to get vaccinated.

But! Either the second vaccine made me feel sort of crappy the next day or else just by random chance I felt sort of crappy the next day. I do get crashing headaches fairly often, and generally I grit my teeth and take a lot of Excedrin and move on through the day, but this past Wednesday, I was also experiencing muscle pain and general malaise, so I thought You know what, never mind, and picked up the most recent Penric novella. Review to follow, but that was a nice way to spend a couple of hours when I wasn’t going to get any work done anyway.

Also, even though the first part of last week was slow and I didn’t get a lot done, things started moving much better on Friday as, for the first time since I picked up Silver Circle at the beginning of June, I hit “flow” rather than slogging forward. I don’t know why; lots of exciting things have been happening all the way along, but maybe I’d just been working on it long enough to get this story back into the foreground. Something else that helps is that I’ve figured out what I’m actually doing with the epilogue and I’m looking forward to that, so that’s pulling me forward.

Anyway, moving from the slog-forward feeling to the in-flow feeling has kicked up writing speed and (obviously) made writing a lot more enjoyable.

Questions you might well ask:

1) So, how many chapters did you need to do when you picked up Silver Circle in June?

Eight or so.

2) So, at this point, about how many chapters do you still need to do?

Eight. Or so.

What keeps happening is that I write a chapter, break it in half, move the first half back a bit, and renumber the rest of the chapters. OR, I suddenly get a neat idea, chuckle to myself, and write an unexpected short chapter. Then I drop that into place and renumber the rest of the chapters. At the beginning of June, I had 48 chapters, of which all but eight or so were finished. Not just the final eight needed to be written, either, but several chapters in the middle plus six or so at the end. Plus the epilogue.

Now, I have 54 chapters, of which the final seven plus the epilogue remain.

I’m really, really glad that I have filled in some earlier chapters, because holes in the middle are unaesthetic and those holes were bugging me.

3) How many words have you written since the beginning of June?

About 60,000. A little more.

4) About how many words do you expect still lie ahead?

About 30,000. Probably a little more.

5) How are you making that estimate?

About ten-fifteen pages per chapter except the penultimate chapter will be long for sure, so call that 30, equals about 95 pages, round up to 100, which is about 30,000 words, give or take.

6) It’ll probably go longer, right?

Probably, but I’m now hitting 4000 words per day, not 2000, so it doesn’t matter. As long as I keep anything close to that pace, I should finish by the end of the month, or very nearly. At 4000 words per day, that would be 60,000 words by the end of the month, and I’m not likely to have underestimated the final length by THAT much.

7) How long do you think the story will wind up?

I’m at 172,000 words as of this morning, so just about 300,000 total, probably. Although I expect to do some trimming, I don’t expect to do a lot of trimming. That’s because I’ve already done some and because most chapters are pretty much chock-full of action. But it’s fine if it does go over. If both books are 150,000 words, that’s fine. If they’re 175,000 words each, that’s fine, though I’ll be surprised if that happens. Regardless, I’m not concerned about it.

8) Has anybody died yet?

Yes.

9) AAAGH! WHO?

That’d be telling. Sorry.

10) Is anybody ELSE going to die?

I don’t know. I’m a discovery writer, remember? I won’t be sure till I’m at the end.

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I write like …

Have you heard of this? It’s a website where you can paste in text and it tells you what famous author it thinks you write like. This is a funny and interesting thing to try! Sure, I Write Like, tell me who I write like.

TUYO –> I write like … Neil Gaiman.

RIHASI –> I write like … Dan Brown. Ha, ugh, no, I don’t think so!

KERAUNANI –> I write like … Kurt Vonnegut.

You’re picking completely random authors, aren’t you?

TANO –> I write like … Mark Twain.

Really?

NO FOREIGN SKY –> I write like … Arthur C Clarke. Well, at least it can tell this is SF rather than something else.

Yes, this is obviously random. That’s really a bit disappointing! Let me try to find something a bit less random and possibly even somewhat vaguely rigorous. Okay! Here is a different site: WHO DO YOU WRITE LIKE? The former link is to a research page. Here’s the casual non-research page that does the same thing.

Okay, this site declares it’s using public domain works and therefore you’ll get results that compare your writing to authors writing a long time ago. What results do I get this time?

TUYO –> I write like … Samuel Pepys. Sort of like. The similarity goes from -1.0 to 1.0. Pepys — whose work I have never read — looks like about a 0.45 for me. The first author here whose work I’ve actually read is GK Chesterton. That’s about a 0.4. I don’t write much like Charles Darwin. Well, of course not, honestly they should divide fiction from nonfiction, I bet I have written work that is in fact a good deal more like Darwin than TUYO is! My eye wants to interpret those numbers as correlation coefficients, which also range from -0.1 to 1.0, but although that seems like a reasonable interpretation, I don’t know if that’s what they actually are.

Let me try RIHASI, which of course is in a different style. Does this instrument think so? —> I write like …. Lucy Maud Montgomery. Never heard of her. Correlation (or whatever) is almost 0.5. Second is John Muir, whom I’ve heard of, but I don’t think I’ve read anything by him. Pepys has moved substantially downward. Philip K Dick and Jane Austen are now in the top five.

How about NO FOREIGN SKY? –> I write like … Here’s Lucy Maud Montgomery at the top again. That’s interesting? Who IS she? OH! Anne of Green Gables! I’ve never read it. John Muir has shifted downward, Jane Austen downward A LOT. None of the correlations are as high as 0.5.

Let me try one more — THE FLOATING ISLANDS, because of course that’s MG/YA, so let’s see if that comes out at all differently. Oh, look, Lucy Maud Montgomery moves down ten or fifteen places, with Willa Cather moving to the top. Interesting! She wasn’t close to the top for the others. I’ve never read anything of hers either, but as she won the Pulitzer, I sure don’t mind being compared to her. Again, about a 0.5 correlation.

I have no idea what the highest correlations might be for authors dropping ten thousand words or so into this tool. That information doesn’t look like it’s available. That’s too bad. I’d be interested. I’d actually like to read their methodology section, assuming they’ve written papers on their results.

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Poetry Thursday

You’ve possibly realized I’m doing my best to choose poems that aren’t actually familiar to me, that happen to catch my eye for one reason or another. I’ve been finding them, so far, by googling things like “classic but little-known poetry,” and it’s frustrating how the top zillion hits will return “The 31 best-known English poems” or whatever. Not sure why “little known” or “lesser known” is so hard to get.

I’m specifically looking for beauty of language and for themes that aren’t bitter or grim. Sad is fine. I’m not especially keen on modern poetry that shows neither beauty of language nor beauty of theme. Also, modern poems are of course not in the public domain, and I don’t want to step on copyright issues; therefore, classic or older poems.

If any of you happen to have a favorite less-famous shortish poem that you would like to share, by all means email me with the title and author or drop your suggestion in the comments.

Now, today, here’s a lovely short poem I’ve never encountered before:

This poem is called Looking at the Moon and Thinking of One Far Away,”  by a Chinese poet named Chang Chiu-Ling, who lived from roughly 678–740 A.D. and was a distinguished poet during the Tang Dynasty:

The moon, grown full now over the sea,
Brightening the whole of heaven,
Brings to separated hearts
The long thoughtfulness of night….
It is no darker though I blow out my candle.
It is no warmer though I put on my coat.
So I leave my message with the moon
And turn to my bed, hoping for dreams.

***

Here’s another poem by the same poet: “The Willow-Leaf”

***

I am in love with a child dreaming at the window.

Not for her elaborate house
On the banks of the Yellow River;

But for a willow-leaf she has let fall
Into the water.

I am in love with the east breeze.

Not that he brings the scent of the flowering of peaches
White on Eastern Hill;

But that he has drifted the willow-leaf
Against my boat.

I am in love with the willow-leaf.

Not that he speaks of green spring
Coming to us again;

But that the dreaming girl
Pricked there a name with her embroidery needle,
And the name is mine.

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Dumb moves

A post by James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog, which ties in nicely with a recent post about how novels fail: How to Avoid Dumb Moves

We’ve talked before about the TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) character. That happens because it violates a rule (yes, I said rule): Every character in every scene should make the best move possible in pursuit of their agenda. Violation of the rule results in the dumb move, and readers hate that.

Very true, very true. How does Bell suggest avoiding character stupidity?

Oh, there’s no suggestion in this post other than having all the characters always make the best move they reasonably can in pursuit of their specific goals. Bell refers to this as “acting at maximal capacity.”

Well, I don’t necessarily agree. It’s actually perfectly fine and reasonable and, come to think of it, essential for characters NOT to always make the best move they can. That’s because every time a character does something self-sacrificing, that act could very easily be defined as “not the best possible move.” It’s true that this depends on shifts in the character’s agenda, but still. I mean, what if it goes like this:

Character A — “I’m going to win! Watch me crush my rivals!”

Character B — struggling

Character A — “You know what, maybe I should step back and let Character B win.”

This looks to me like Character A choosing not to make the best possible move in pursuit of their agenda. Unless you track the agenda as it changes, and then maybe?

But to me, nothing about this seems all that helpful in avoiding character stupidity. The author isn’t (generally) setting out to write a stupid protagonist. Character stupidity generally happens because the writing process goes like this:

a) I need xxxx to happen, so the protagonist needs to do yyyy.

b) Protagonist does yyyy.

c) Hmm, does that seem okay? Maybe that’s a dumb thing to do?

d) I will add this justification to make it reasonable that the Protagonist does yyyy.

e) Did the above work? Oh, it’s good enough! I’m moving on!

And then what the author needs in the worst way is to have an early reader point to the story and say, “What the hell is this when the Protagonist does yyyy? That’s idiotic.”

To this feedback, the author’s reaction should be, “Damn, I guess the justification totally did not suffice. I’ll have to come up with a different justification for the protagonist to do yyyy, or else come up with something else for the protagonist to do.”

Which is practically always possible.

This is identical to feedback about problems with characterization, by the way. If an early reader says, “What the hell is this when the Protagonist does yyyy? He would never do that!” then that’s precisely the same. An act that is severely out of character is exactly as bad as an act that is severely idiotic. I don’t think there’s much an author can do to avoid either, except —

First, become aware of (e). When you notice yourself thinking that something is good enough (barely), that something is passable (if the reader isn’t too picky), then stop right there and fix that. That will give your early readers less to do and make the revision substantially less painful.

Second, when you fail to notice that your plot justifications haven’t quite done the job and an early reader points this out, take that seriously.

I think it’s probably relatively rare for the author to have a protagonist do something stupid and NOT try to justify it. I think it’s probably relatively common for the author to say, “Oh, good enough!” when it isn’t good enough.

Of course, that’s based on my experience. For all I know, lots of authors just don’t notice when they have a character do something blindingly stupid and therefore don’t try to justify it. I just find that harder to imagine.

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Over at Patreon, plus here, puppy picture

Okay, obviously I’m not posting particularly regularly at my Patreon. The place to find regular posts is here.

However, I’m doing occasional posts over there, and the one I just put there this morning is about progress with Silver Circle and possible completion and release dates for that. It’s a public post, of course. Click here to visit my Patreon.

Wow, this is much too short a post to just leave like this.

Here, have a puppy picture: Haydee and Joy, curling up together on the deck.

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Whoa, serious pushback against the future of AI

Anybody else happen across this? It’s a post by a guy named Ed Zitron, whom I hadn’t heard of previously, as far as I can recall.

The post starts this way:

A week and a half ago, Goldman Sachs put out a 31-page-report (titled “Gen AI: Too Much Spend, Too Little Benefit?”) that includes some of the most damning literature on generative AI I’ve ever seen. And yes, that sound you hear is the slow deflation of the bubble I’ve been warning you about since March

The report covers AI’s productivity benefits (which Goldman remarks are likely limited), AI’s returns (which are likely to be significantly more limited than anticipated), and AI’s power demands (which are likely so significant that utility companies will have to spend nearly 40% more in the next three years to keep up with the demand from hyperscalers like Google and Microsoft).

This report is so significant because Goldman Sachs, like any investment bank, does not care about anyone’s feelings unless doing so is profitable. It will gladly hype anything if it thinks it’ll make a buck. Back in May, it was claimed that AI (not just generative AI) was “showing very positive signs of eventually boosting GDP and productivity,” even though said report buried within it constant reminders that AI had yet to impact productivity growth, and states that only about 5% of companies report using generative AI in regular production.

For Goldman to suddenly turn on the AI movement suggests that it’s extremely anxious about the future of generative AI, with almost everybody agreeing on one core point: that the longer this tech takes to make people money, the more money it’s going to need to make.

Zitron goes on to take apart the whole idea that AI is the wave of the future, at least the near future. He’s certainly vehement. I don’t know enough about this subject to have an opinion, but vehemence and good writing will get you a long way with me, so I found this post persuasive.

What makes this interview – and really, this paper — so remarkable is how thoroughly and aggressively it attacks every bit of marketing collateral the AI movement has. [Economist Daron Acemoglu of MIT] specifically questions the belief that AI models will simply get more powerful as we throw more data and GPU capacity at them, and specifically ask a question: what does it mean to “double AI’s capabilities”? How does that actually make something like, say, a customer service rep better?

And this is a specific problem with the AI fantasists’ spiel. They heavily rely on the idea that not only will these large language models (LLMs) get more powerful, but that getting more powerful will somehow grant it the power to do…something. As Acemoglu says, “what does it mean to double AI’s capabilities?” 

It’s a long post. Here’s the conclusion:

The reason I so agonizingly picked apart this report is that if Goldman Sachs is saying this, things are very, very bad. It also directly attacks the specific hype-tactics of AI fanatics — the sense that generative AI will create new jobs (it hasn’t in 18 months), the sense that costs will come down (they’re haven’t, and there doesn’t seem to be a path to them doing so in a way that matters), and that there’s incredible demand for these products (there isn’t, and there’s no path to it existing). 

Even Goldman Sachs, when describing the efficiency benefits of AI, added that while it was able to create an AI that updated historical data in its company models more quickly than doing so manually, it cost six times as much to do so.

The remaining defense is also one of the most annoying — that OpenAI has something we don’t know about. A big, sexy, secret technology that will eternally break the bones of every hater. 

Yet, I have a counterpoint: no it doesn’t. 

… That’s my answer to all of this. There is no magic trick. There is no secret thing that Sam Altman is going to reveal to us in a few months that makes me eat crow, or some magical tool that Microsoft or Google pops out that makes all of this worth it.

There isn’t. I’m telling you there isn’t. 

This is the first time I’ve seen a post like this, though for all I know people have been pushing back for months, or all year.

It sounds to me like there’s a real chance that this time next year, we’re going to be basically in the same place we are right now: a whole lot of ridiculously bad pablum “content” will have replaced fairly bad, generic “content” currently written by people, a whole lot of students will be trying to cheat on their English papers, a whole lot of so-called professionals will be trying to cheat when writing up their junk so-called research, and AI will be useful for crunching huge data sets and probably not a lot else.

That’s an interesting prospect. Getting rid of fake content on the internet may be a real problem, but a lot of what is called “content” is already useless and awful, so … is that going to make a big difference? If people in general are less enamored with using generative AI to diagnose patients (where it may very well hallucinate) and in general are better at ignoring fake content, then that sounds like probably a good thing?

Beats me, but the linked article is perhaps worth reading.

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Update: Checking out popular highlights

All right, so the TUYO sale ran from the 2nd through the 6th, and of course I scheduled it there because RIHASI was releasing on the 2nd.

Comments about RIHASI:

Thank you for leaving reviews! I have never had a book stick at 5.0 stars for that many reviews; I can now tell you that if you have ONE four star review out of 51 five-star reviews, Amazon will round that down to 4.9 nine stars even though the average is actually 4.98. This is actually fine with me because honestly, 5.0 even was starting to look almost unbelievable by that time. The book is now at 70 ratings (as of 10AM Monday morning), and an average of 4.9 stars, with 37% of ratings accompanied by reviews — a very high percentage. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the extraordinarily thoughtful reviews many readers are writing.

RIHASI stayed well up in the top 10,000 Kindle books until yesterday and now is gradually sliding downward. It was up in the top 100 Action and Adventure Fantasy category for the same period. This, in case you don’t know how to judge these numbers, is not nearly enough to get the book as Best Seller tag, but it is very solid.

I will add, I buy my own ebooks via Amazon, and do you know why? Because it’s neat to look at the popular highlights, that’s why. It doesn’t take a lot of highlights to trigger the popular highlights feature — three will do it. Let’s have a quick tour of popular highlights in the Tuyo series —

TUYO — the most popular has 63 highlights. It is this: “Every man is glad to stop looking for the truth when he’s handed a lie he likes better.”

NIKOLES — the most popular has 14, and this is definitely one of my very favorite lines: “If you’ve made mistakes, well, you’re young yet. Eventually you’ll get used to that and it’ll stop being such a shock.”

TARASHANA — the most popular has 31, and it is “Arguing with a man too much will make him think he must hold tight to his first opinion.”

KERAUNANI — has a 6-way tie; every popular highlight has just three votes. That moment with Pir in the hayloft stood out for readers; three of the lines that got highlights are in that conversation. Here’s one of those: “Something like this, there’s less blame to go around than it looks like right now.”

SUELEN — the most popular has five. It’s this one: “Those voices, that song, made him feel that sorrow might lie at the heart of the world, but not inconsolable grief.”

I will add, I had that line, cut the scene or paragraph that included it, kept the line itself in a separate file, and eventually made a place for it because I really liked that line. All these are lines I personally like a lot. I’d be quite startled if readers were highlighting a line that I didn’t like much myself.

TANO — the most popular highlight has 20 highlights: “The moment in which it is most difficult to hold your tongue and your temper is the moment this is most important. Failure to hold both at such moments makes it hard for you to think clearly and easy for a man who disagrees with you to dismiss your opinion.”

TASMAKAT — I honestly think everyone is going to remember this line. I loved this line and this whole conversation. This line has 23 highlights. “It is not given to any man to know what great terrors or wonders, what small griefs or comforts, what hollow failures or shining victories may lie before him. Perhaps you would do best to wait for each coming dawn before you step into the day that has arrived, and for each sunset before you judge the darkness of the night.”

MARAG — the most popular highlight has 14. “Every mistake you have ever made lies in the past. This is the day you face now. Put your attention to this day and this moment, not to anything that lies behind you or before you.”

RIHASI has been out for just one week. Has that been enough time to pick up any popular highlights at all? Yes, because it doesn’t take many. There are four highlights for this line: “Rihasi had decided she did not need courage; she only needed meticulous planning and a calm expression.”

Good to see! I don’t think that’s my personal favorite … oh, no, I can indeed think of some other lines I would particularly pick out. It’ll be interesting to check in a year and see if some of those are showing up in popular highlights.

Obviously the lines that appear as popular highlights are almost all advice one character is giving another, and it’s nice to know it often seems like good advice! Suelen’s line is more poetic than advice. Rihasi’s line establishes her as a character — it’s about who she is as a person.

I sent a copy of RIHASI to Eric Lowe, by the way. I hope he enjoys the stab stab stab scene!

Audiobook progress:

I’ve just listened to Chapter 9 for RIHASI and Chapter 3 for THE YEAR’S MIDNIGHT. I hope I’m hitting Approve for both by the end of the month.

Audiobook narrators can be really impressive, by the way. Who do you think might be most challenging in RIHASI? I’ll tell you who I was most anxious about: Bereket. And Lord Aras, who has to have the same tone he has in other audiobooks, but Bereket is such a specific type of character. I was worried the narrator might not get him right. Turns out I need not have worried: He sounds perfect. I might have laughed out loud when Kior said, “If you’ve got a lot of friends,” and Bereket drawled, “I’m a friendly man.”

How about TYM? I hadn’t thought of this at all, but it’s obvious after the fact — Lord Death. HOW do you voice Lord Death? Well, it turns out the narrator managed.

Both projects are going really well, and yes, I think I might wind up with whiplash from going from one to the other and then back to SILVER CIRCLE. Which, yes, I also hope I will be finishing up by the end of the month.

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RIHASI — quick comments

Okay, so, first, many thanks to everyone who has taken time to write a review so fast! Currently, nearly a third of all the ratings for RIHASI are accompanied by reviews, which is an immense proportion. That’s not going to last – as more people read the book, the proportion is going to drop toward the normal tenth or so – but I’m very certain these reviews are helpful in multiple ways, plus of course I am just so happy that readers are so positive about RIHASI. I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a book stick at 5.0 stars this long. I’m aware the rating can’t stay perfect for too much longer, but I now fully expect RIIHASI to settle at something like 4.9 stars, maybe 4.8 stars, and stay right in that range somewhere. I was confident readers would enjoy it, but seeing the proof of that is still thoroughly satisfying, believe me.

Second, I’m really curious about how many readers catch on about Kior’s backstory before the reveal. There are clues, so if you missed those on the first read, I bet you’ll spot them the second time you read the book. I also tried to provide plausible wrong alternatives to confuse the issue, because while I thought it would work for readers who caught it, I didn’t want it to be too easy! Two of the early readers got it; the rest didn’t; that seems to indicate that this element worked pretty well as a mystery. Plus I do think the story works just fine whether a reader catches on or otherwise because this isn’t actually a murder mystery. You’ll just react to certain elements differently depending on whether you’ve guessed or not, probably.

Third, I wonder if anybody has noticed something else? No one has commented about this as far as I know, but MARAG and RIHASI are actually a related pair of stories, even though one is a prequel and the other a sequel. Or, I could say, Sinowa and Rihasi are similar people in really essential ways, even though they’re obviously so dissimilar in more obvious ways:

A) They both belong to the Sun, and

B) They are both implacable.

The former attribute is emphasized in MARAG because Marag herself sees this and notes it in so many words. That’s because Marag is, essentially, a priestess, so she is obviously going to perceive the way the Sun stands above Sinowa. But it’s there in RIHASI even though Kior doesn’t pick it up the same way. There are a fair number of important moments when the Sun really does throw down his light upon Rihasi. The Sun is definitely standing above her in the same way, even though it’s more subtle.

Meanwhile, implacability is emphasized in RIHASI, where Kior notes it in so many words at important moments. But it’s there in MARAG too; it’s just that Marag doesn’t think of it exactly that way. The quality she thinks about is surety, but implacability is in there too. You may not remember, but Goru inNakeyo uses that exact term when he says, near the end, “I do not imagine many men are as implacable as you are, Sinowa inGara.” He’s right about that.

This does make me wonder what Sinowa and Rihasi would think of each other if they met. That’s not a hint. I have no specific plans to have them meet, though who knows, it could happen. I just wonder if they would perceive each other as kindred spirits in this essential way. That would be kind of strange for them both, probably.

I have no specific plans to write another book from the Rihasi/Kior points of view, though obviously if I suddenly thought of a keen story that would work from their points of view, I’d be happy to write that story. This is true for most of the secondary characters, of course. I will say: Rihasi is going to be important, obviously, so we’re dead sure to hear references to her, at the very least. More than that, she’s likely to remain closely associated with Aras and/or Sekaran, so sure, we might meet her again, probably during Tathimi’s stories.

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