Recent Reading: The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill

Okay, so The Crane Husband is a short novella by a new-to-me author.

Lovely cover. For whatever reason, I just find this really appealing, even though the pale letters vanish somewhat against the paler components of the background. Regardless, I still really like this. Lovely cover, lovely presentation by, let me see, Tor. Ah ha, I bet this was a Tor novella; I’m sure you all know has been publishing original novellas for some time. Here’s the description:

A fifteen-year-old teenager is the backbone of her small Midwestern family, budgeting the household finances and raising her younger brother while her mom, a talented artist, weaves beautiful tapestries. For six years, it’s been just the three of them—her mom has brought home guests at times, but none have ever stayed. Yet when her mom brings home a six-foot tall crane with a menacing air, the girl is powerless to prevent her mom letting the intruder into her heart, and her children’s lives. Utterly enchanted and numb to his sharp edges, her mom abandons the world around her to weave the masterpiece the crane demands.

In this stunning contemporary retelling of “The Crane Wife” by the Newbery Medal-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, one fiercely pragmatic teen forced to grow up faster than was fair will do whatever it takes to protect her family—and change the story.

I think this description is a little misleading, or maybe quite misleading. I’ll explain why in a minute. First, let’s look at the way this story opens:

The crane came in through the front door like he owned the place. My mother walked slightly behind, her hand buried past her wrist in his feathers. He was a tall fellow. Taller than a man, by a little bit. I watched him duck his head down to pass through the low doorway leading into our elderly farmhouse. His stride was like that of any other crane, all dips and angles, forward and back, and yet. He still seemed to carry himself with an unmistakable swagger. He surveyed our house with a leer. I frowned.

Very atmospheric! We can see already that this is probably going to skirt the edges between fantasy and magical realism, which it does.

I see Barnhill is a NYT bestselling author, which for me is rather more a disincentive to pick up a book than otherwise. This novella has a laudatory quote from Laura Ruby, which is good – I would like to re-read Bone Gap one of these days – and another from Catherynne M Valente, which isn’t exactly great from my point of view because although anybody can see Valente is an extraordinarily gifted writer, I don’t actually like her stories. I picked up The Crane Husband in paper at the World Fantasy Convention. Now that I’ve read it, I feel it has two counts against it:

A) The plot only works because the protagonist is quite slow on the uptake, and

B) The ending is at best on the dark side of ambiguous.

I am actually okay with ambiguous endings (though probably less okay with that kind of ending than I used to be). But in this case, I wouldn’t say the ending is just ambiguous. I definitely think it’s way over on the grim side of ambiguous. If I were picking a story to compare this to, I would suggest The Changling Sea by McKillip, which is a fairy tale, though not a retelling; and told beautifully; and has an ambiguous ending that is much, much more solidly on the happy side.

Don’t read the rest of this post unless you’re okay with big spoilers for The Crane Husband, and for that matter much less important spoilers for The Changeling Sea.




You remember how, at the beginning of The Changeling Sea, Peri’s mother has drifted out of touch with the world following the death of Peri’s father, and how at the end the mother comes back into the world and reestablishes her relationship with Peri? If you don’t remember that, here is the opening paragraph of The Changeling Sea:

No one really knew where Peri lived the year after the sea took her father and cast his boat, shrouded in a tangle of fishing net, like an empty shell back onto the beach. She came when she chose to, sat at her mother’s hearth without talking, brooding sullenly at the small, quiet house with the glass floats her father had found, colored bubbles of light, still lying on the dusty windowsill, and the same crazy quilt he had slept under still on the bed, and the door open on quiet evenings to the same view of the village and the harbor with the fishing boats homing in on the incoming tide. Sometimes her mother would rouse herself and cook; sometimes Peri would eat, sometimes she wouldn’t. She hated the vague, lost expression on her mother’s face, her weary movements. Her hair had begun to gray, she never smiled, she never sang. The sea, it seemed to Peri, had taken her mother as well as her father, and left some stranger wandering despairingly among her cooking pots.

There you go. This element is fundamental to the background in The Changeling Sea, and the resolution of the story shows how the mother has finally moved toward recovery. The relationship between Peri and her mother has been repaired, not as though nothing had happened, but as though something important had been broken or lost and has now been recovered.

Well, though this setup is quite similar in The Crane Husband, that’s not how the ending works at all. I mean, at all.

And this is worse because in The Crane Husband, at the end, the mother abandons not only her fifteen-year-old daughter, but also her little son, who is six; and besides that, the central relationship between the protagonist and her younger brother is broken off sharply and does not get repaired. This is not exactly how I prefer a story to end. Almost every decision Barnhill makes about how to handle the ending is a decision I dislike.

The crane is defeated. That part is good. But it’s far too late. The mother leaves, which was strongly foreshadowed and besides, the mother was almost entirely absent anyway, so that’s okay. The little brother is separated from his sister and goes to a foster family, which is all very well, but we find out in the epilogue that he ran away from the foster family when he was fifteen and disappeared, so obviously his life was unhappy in some very important ways. The reader is not given any sign that he is actually okay. He is just gone. The protagonist of the story, who is never named as far as I can remember, is a highly competent person who is fine on her own, sort of, except to me it seems plain she is not fine. She thinks she is fine. I disagree. She completes the shattering of her family by rejecting her mother right at the end, or that’s how I interpret this ending.

What with all this, the protagonist does not “change the ending of the story” in the sense of changing it from a tragic ending to a better ending. The crane is dead, but nothing is saved. The ending looked like it was going to be bleak and yep, it’s still bleak, just in a (slightly) different way. The family is still destroyed, every relationship broken, nothing saved from the wreckage.

Did I say the ending was on the dark side of ambiguous? Thinking about it now, as I write this, I’m changing my mind. It’s not ambiguous. It’s dark. This story presents a problem that cannot be overcome in time to save the family; love that is unbearable and broken; relationships that irretrievably shatter; a nameless protagonist who is highly competent and yet unable to save anything she loves; and all of this against a backdrop that showcases the implacable and impersonal destruction of personal history and the roots of families – but the long history of this family is also shown as implacable, impersonal, and destructive.

Wow, this is getting darker and darker.

This story is beautifully written. It’s an interesting retelling of the fairy tale of the crane wife. But the dark tone pushed me away hard, so I did not engage with the story on an emotional level, only on an intellectual level. I appreciated the protagonist on an intellectual level, but I only sort of liked her. Her commitment to protecting her brother and saving her mother, that part is fine. But her ineffectuality is difficult to take, especially because ineffectuality is something I just detest in a protagonist.

All the elements were in place for the protagonist to act much, much more quickly than she did. She spends a lot of time not acknowledging the obvious truth that the crane is the man and the man is the crane, and yes, the setting is more or less contemporary, but even so, this was VERY OBVIOUS. If she had acknowledged that more quickly and implemented the exact same solution, but earlier, then the ending would have been, or could have been, much better.

Unlike with other stories, I don’t feel that the protagonist is ineffectual because the author lacks the skill to redesign the plot in order to make her effectual. As I’m sure the author has every bit of the skill she would need to do anything, I’m left to conclude that she deliberately chose to draw a world where it’s impossible to win, and worse, a world where winning wouldn’t get you anything worth having because the history of the family is based on abuse, and family bonds are seen primarily as bonds, particularly as bonds for women. The family is shown here as something to escape, in particular for mothers to escape, and if you actually have something worthwhile within the family, too bad, because here we see a situation where even the best family bonds are shown as inevitably and irretrievably shattered.

I literally did not realize how dark I found this story and how awful I found the world drawn here until I wrote this review. But, now that I’ve laid out what I think the heart of the story actually is, I guess I would call this a fairy tale retelling that falls into the grimdark category. I hadn’t previously been aware of any book that occupied the intersection between those categories, but here we are.

No matter how pretty the hardcover book is, this is one I’ll be giving away. Also, though I know someone here commented that they found Kelly Barnhill’s books worth reading, I don’t think I will ever be inclined to read anything else of hers.

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Update: Still in the middle, and will be for a good while yet

So, I was thinking, just where IS the middle of a book? How long are you stuck in the middle after whizzing through the easy opening? I think I have decided that the middle begins once you have introduced the protagonist and many or most of the important secondary characters, introduced the world, and presented the protagonist with the initial problem. Once you’ve done that part, you’re out of the opening and moving into the middle. The early middle is often hard for me because this is where you’re moving into the actual body of the story and sometimes, if you’re a discovery or intuitive writer (Hi!), you’re not sure what the story is. You’re figuring out the story right at this point, and that’s why if I write chapter five, then delete and rewrite it, repeat repeat, that’s not surprising at all. (Thankfully, that doesn’t always happen. But it’s not unusual.)

The middle then stretches out and out and out some more, most likely with a series of problems that increase in severity (unless you’re writing a slice-of-life story or something). Then you hit the climax, which may be one scene, I guess, but is perhaps more likely going to comprise a series of scenes that increase in intensity. But the moment you hit the climax, you’re out of the middle.

So the middle is really, really long. That’s true even if the story isn’t three times longer than usual. (It’s repeatedly true if the story IS three times longer than usual, which is why Tasmakat really has three connected climactic arcs, not one.) I fully expect the finished draft of Silver Circle, after the initial hard cut, to be at least 150,000 words. That would be a great length and I will be happy if it winds up anywhere near that range. That means that I’m expecting the first draft, pre-cutting, to be at least 180,000 words, and longer would not surprise me at all. I won’t cut it in half unless the finished draft, post cutting, is over 180,000 words. That would not surprise me a lot either, but we’ll see.

I’m at 125,000 words, so I’m in the lead-up to the climax. It’s a long lead-up with lots of moving parts that will all need to come together. I’m trying to appreciate each and every moment when some element suddenly clarifies – like I just figured out this weekend how to knock Justin and Keziah out of what might have been a safe position and get them moving. I wasn’t sure how to do that given a problem that ought to have been solved. Fortunately, I can have that problem remain solved because there’s a different problem that can force them to move … too vague, never mind, but anyway, I’m about to send them toward the endgame and then go back and get someone else moving in the right direction. I keep breaking up chapters that get too long, by the way, so I’m now listing 40 chapters in the Headings part of the navigation pane. Of those, the first 26 chapters are finished or at least properly started. A couple others are also started because I’m still working on some chapters out of order. The last two chapters are probably going to be short denouement (I WISH I could learn to spell “denouement” right the first time, but I think that is a hopeless dream).

All this and also Thanksgiving was nice. Great weather on Thanksgiving Day, so all the dogs got to go to the park and I left the door open so the kittens could come and go as they liked most of the day. Magdalene discovered a place she could get out of the yard, so it sure was convenient that they have learned that a loud clang of spoon against pot lid means COME GET A TREAT. She whizzed back into the yard through the hole and up the stairs and into the house, I put canned food out for her and for Maximillian, and then I got big rocks and fixed the hole. As I type this – it’s Sunday – it’s much colder and drizzly, so a little bit of outdoor time is all the kittens want. They keep poking their heads out and saying ick, then very sensibly coming back in.

I haven’t made your pumpkin cheesecake, Pete, but it’s on my list. I did make Danishes with a tart apple filling to compliment the cheesecake filling, so that was pretty much my fancy dessert for the weekend.

What’s coming up:

Later this week, I’ll be posting another “which is real?” ChatGPT challenge, this one structured a little differently. I’m also pulling out various books that are amazing for one reason or another, the kind of thing that text generators are never going to be able to produce, and I’ll be highlighting those, so keep an eye out for that.

If you instantly thought of something you’d like to highlight that way, you can certainly plan either to share it in the comments of a relevant post OR just direct my attention to it and I’ll take a look and probably highlight it in a future post.

In the meantime, forward with Silver Circle!

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Not interested in being frozen, thanks

A post by James Davis Nicoll at Five Stories Featuring Cryonics and Suspended Animation

Purveyors of cryonic preservation have a problem: As long as customers are content with storing bodies at temperatures cold enough to liquify nitrogen (or colder), all is well. However, as soon as someone starts muttering about the end goal of waking frozen clients, the issue arises that nobody knows how to do that. In fact, freezing itself can damage human cells beyond repair. Humans being less robust than tardigrades, the humans have a deplorable tendency to remain quite dead despite the intense desires of the company that froze them. People are so inconsiderate.

However, even if cryonics were not just an expensive way of storing corpses, it still might be problematic for any number of reasons.

And then the stories, with comments.

I assumed Cryoburn would be here, and so it is. It’s far from my favorite Vorkosigan book … hmm, maybe I should put those in personal order someday … but it’s surely the best-known cryonics story at this point.

The other one I recognize here is “Time Heals,” by Paul Anderson, but the cover is actually showing an image for a story I quite liked, “Call Me Joe,” which also must be included in the collection. “Time Heals” sounds like a real downer, but I wouldn’t mind re-reading “Call Me Joe.” I like the idea of the powerful, sensual cat-centaur body, I guess.

Anyway! At the moment, not remotely tempted to have myself frozen. I wonder how big a thing that is these days? The NYT, which is the first article that pops up, says about 500 people have had themselves frozen so far. Not exactly a fast-growing industry. How much does it cost? About $200,000 for the full body, evidently, and there’s all this about trusts and organizations that keep track of your preserved body so it doesn’t get abandoned or whatever. I can readily imagine the sort of system LMB drew in Cryoburn. Get cryonics to catch on and you’re talking big money both for the process and for the storage.

Having yourself frozen does seem to me to be psychologically similar to the Egyptian mummification, which was also about avoiding death and getting yourself set to live forever, in a way.

I can see different ways stories might go using this element, but personally, if I ever used cryonics in a story, it would undoubtedly just be a plot device to get my characters into an interesting place; eg, coldsleep on a slow colony ship or something like that, so it wouldn’t be a story about cryonics as such.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Good morning! Happy Thanksgiving if you’re American; happy Thursday if you’re not, either way, regardless, I do hope you have many things to be thankful for this fall!

Big things went well for my family this year, most importantly Mom coming through cancer #1 and then cancer #2 really well (REALLY well).

I’m also happy about the kittens, who continue to be delightful. I’m not (obviously) a bit happy that someone dumped them, but I’m happy with the result. The kittens have reason to be thankful as well, as I am spoiling them rotten:

Kittens insist I turn on the faucet because they do not like the many water bowls that are always clean and full.

Kittens now have a nice ceramic water fountain so they do not have to pester me to turn on the faucet.

Also, I’m grateful that my dogs are great with tiny baby kittens, especially Naamah, and that Haydee and the kittens have become buddies.

Haydee and Maximillian have become particular friends, but sorry, I don’t have a good picture of her chasing him around outside, which is a favorite thing for both of them. The kittens chase each other too, don’t get me wrong, but Maximillian definitely goes out of his way to prompt a chase, while Magdalene is more likely to go her own way. They are all very gentle and careful with each other. Haydee pretends to bite the kittens and they pretend to swat her, but judging from the lack of yipes and hisses, they are all kidding.

Like all puppies everywhere, Haydee is confounded by the cats’ ability to go right up trees and then laugh at them from a branch twenty feet over their heads. I’m no longer especially worried that a kitten will fall off a high perch. They’re very athletic and competent and they go up and down trees quite casually. Magdalene shows no sign that she wants ever to jump out of the yard, and Maximillian only jumps out to come see what I’m up to, so with a little caution on my part, he stays in the yard. They are not going to be happy about cold weather, but they have lots of toys and each other, so I think they’ll manage.

Of course, I’m also happy with the books that came out this year: Tano, Tasmakat, and the Tuyo World Companion, and also No Foreign Sky and Invictus Captive and Crisis. What an intense year, and I am SO GLAD readers have mostly given my SF novels a thumbs up, with the Invictus books sitting at 4.7 and 4.8 stars respectively (WHEW!) and NFS at a perfectly acceptable 4.5. I was not at all confident about any of the SF books, for different reasons, so these ratings are a big relief and also provide motivation for me to go on with books in these worlds. Which is great, since the worlds are sitting there and it would be a shame not to do more with them.

I was (obviously) much more confident about Tasmakat, and the TWC was pretty much just for fun, but it was also a relief to see readers mostly liked Tano because I wasn’t as sure about that one. I am personally SO HAPPY that Tasmakat is out. I spent the whole first half of the year thinking OH I CAN’T WAIT and I’m still really happy about this one going live. I love thinking about readers diving into that one and hitting certain moments, especially, you know, that one scene.

I’m reasonably thankful Silver Circle is kind of going well, but I must admit, I would also be more thankful if I were finishing up a draft this weekend rather than still hacking my way through the middle. At least it’s the later part of the middle.

And just to finish off this post, let me add that I’m grateful to all the other authors who wrote books I discovered this year, including Heather Fawcett and Jennifer Cruisie, who I believe were the standout discoveries for me this year. I’m also grateful to everyone who recommends books here, because I would not have read anything by either author, or by many others, without your recommendations. So thank you for that!

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The Vanilla Protagonist

Neat, fun post by Jennifer Cruisie at Aargh Ink — The Vanilla Protagonist: A Grimm Problem

After reading this post, I would like to watch Grimm; I just don’t generally watch things, even things that sound good, because I’m doing other stuff with my time. Also, I can’t stream anything. You know what, I think I’ll just pick up season one in DVD form. There. Someday.

What does Cruisie say about this show?

The new season of Grimm has started, and I’m still hooked; in fact, I think it’s gotten better. I’m trying to figure out why because there’s so much about I shouldn’t like. The romantic relationship is too Mary Sue, the Wesen-of-the-week bit should be getting old, and sometimes the plots don’t quite work (“Quills,” I’m lookin’ at you). But the biggest flaw, the thing that should be the dealbreaker, is that the protagonist, Nick, is one of the most vanilla heroes ever written. The actor playing him does a good job, but there’s only so much Good, Truth, and Beauty I can take in a protagonist before I wander off. Yet I’ll be logging onto Hulu every week to see what happens to him next. Which brings me to the big question: Why?

The rest of the post constitutes the answer, and I have to say, Cruisie makes the show sound terrifically appealing. Especially Renard.

Cruisie’s final theory:

Although I really am anti-Vanilla-Hero, there is one theory I’m still considering: Given Grimm’s offbeat plots and the cast of characters for whom “strange” is an understatement, it’s possible that stories like this need a vanilla protagonist just so there’s one plain, uncomplicated thing in the plot for viewers to hold onto. I’m not completely sold on that theory, but I am sold on Grimm so clearly the Vanilla Hero is no longer a dealbreaker for me.

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Which is real?

One of these excerpts shows an actual excerpt from a real novel. The other is a fake excerpt generated by Chat GPT.

Which is real?

Excerpt 1:

In the ancient realm of Hokkaro, Empress Yui, revered as The Phoenix Empress, Daughter of Heaven, the Light of Hokkaro, and the Celestial Flame, ascends the grand throne with a regal grace that commands the attention of all who gaze upon her. The courtiers, draped in silken robes, bow in unison as the empress moves through the ornate corridors of the palace.

The grandeur of the Celestial Palace mirrors the magnificence of Yui herself, whose presence radiates an ethereal warmth. Her ebony hair, adorned with golden phoenix feathers, cascades down her back like a river of darkness, contrasting with the resplendent golden robes that drape elegantly over her shoulders. The delicate diadem on her brow glows softly, a testament to the divine lineage she carries.

Empress Yui’s eyes, pools of wisdom and kindness, survey the realm with a discerning gaze. Her subjects whisper of her innate connection to the heavens, a belief reinforced by the legend of her birth—an event accompanied by the flight of a fiery phoenix across the celestial canvas.

In the court, where politics and alliances are as intricate as the patterns woven into Hokkaro’s legendary tapestries, Empress Yui navigates with diplomacy as her compass. Her decisions are tempered with compassion, for she sees the struggles and dreams of her people as intimately connected to the fate of Hokkaro itself.

Excerpt 2:

Empress Yui wrestles with her broken zither. She’d rather deal with the tiger again. Or the demons. Or her uncle. Anything short of going north, anything short of war. But a snapped string? One cannot reason with a snapped string, nor can one chop it in half and be rid of the problem.

When she stops to think on it—chopping things in half is part of why she’s alone with the stupid instrument to begin with. Did she not say she’d stop dueling? What was she thinking, accepting Rayama-tun’s challenge? He is only a boy.

And now he will be the boy who dueled One-Stroke Shizuka, the boy whose sword she cut in half before he managed to draw it. That story will haunt him for the rest of his life.

The Phoenix Empress, Daughter of Heaven, the Light of Hokkaro, Celestial Flame—no, she is alone, let her wear her own name—O Shizuka pinches her scarred nose. When was the last day she behaved the way an Empress should?


Let’s try that again. Which is real?

Excerpt 1:

The wind roared in my ears as I leaned forward on the sleek sportbike, my fingers wrapped tightly around the handles. The asphalt blurred beneath me, and the adrenaline surged through my veins. I was JD Marshall, and racing against Viv Nixon was a challenge I couldn’t resist.

Viv, with her fiery red hair and a reputation for tearing up the track, was the only rider who could match my intensity. The rivalry between us had grown with each race, a friendly competition that pushed us to our limits. Today was no different – the sun hung low in the sky, casting long shadows across the winding road as we revved our engines, waiting for the signal to start.

The air crackled with anticipation as the flag dropped, and we shot forward like arrows released from a bow. The sportbikes beneath us roared in unison, engines blending into a symphony of power. The road twisted and turned, demanding precision and skill. Viv pulled ahead, her bike hugging the curves with an effortless grace that always left me in awe.

But I wasn’t one to back down easily. I leaned into the next turn, feeling the G-force pull at me. The thrill of the race was intoxicating, a dance between man and machine, where split-second decisions could make or break you. Viv and I weaved through traffic, each of us seeking the perfect line, the optimal speed.

Excerpt 2:

My red sportbike breached a thick wall of opaque heat radiating off the pavement. To my left, the pristine blue waves of the Pacific Ocean. To my right, towering walls of gray-brown rock and boulder. Behind me, closer than ever before: Vivien Nixon, a yellow projectile hurtling forward at almost impossible velocity.

We’d raced each other in these canyons hundreds, if not thousands, of times. I had every curve, every line, every crevice memorized—and used them to my advantage. Even the seemingly insignificant angles of shadow and light were weapons at my disposal.

Our machines equal, only strategy and technique separated us—and perhaps the intangible will to win.

Entering a straightaway, Viv made her move. In my rearview I could see her foot stabbing downward, downshifting into third. The sound of five thousand RPMs rattled inside my helmet as I watched her yellow streak blast by me.

Instinctually, I matched her technique: Downshift. Accelerate. Overtake. She was not going to beat me.

In an instant, the road narrowed, and we were even. A blur of yellow and red intertwined.

And then came the curve. Our two bikes, cornering at breakneck speed, inches apart along the cliff’s edge.


One More Pair: Which is real?

Excerpt 1:

The pulsating rhythm of the music throbbed through the crowded room as I navigated through a sea of bodies. The air was charged with excitement, and the dance floor beckoned with its promise of fleeting connections. Amidst the swirl of laughter and movement, he appeared—a boy with hopeful eyes and an outstretched hand.

“Hey, would you like to dance?” he asked, a shy smile playing on his lips. The sincerity in his voice was unmistakable, and for a moment, I hesitated. But as I met his gaze, I knew I had to be honest.

“Thank you, but I’m going to sit this one out,” I replied, my voice gentle yet firm. His hopeful expression faltered, and I felt a pang of guilt. “I appreciate the offer, though.”

He nodded, a mix of disappointment and understanding in his eyes. “Okay, maybe next time.”

I offered a small smile, hoping to convey that it wasn’t a rejection of him as a person, just a choice in that moment. “Definitely, maybe next time.”

As I walked away, I couldn’t shake the feeling of having disappointed someone. The music continued to pulse, the dance floor alive with the ebb and flow of people lost in the rhythm. I found a quiet corner, watching the kaleidoscope of emotions on the dance floor, grateful for the courage it took to be honest about what I wanted.

Excerpt 2:

I didn’t even notice the young groomsman from earlier approaching until he was right beside me.

“Want to dance?”

I turned, taking him in: the short hair, those blue eyes, the black bowtie I’d picked up earlier loose, but not undone, around his neck. “No, thanks.”

He looked surprised and—I realized, horrified—embarrassed. “Oh. Okay.”

“I’m working,” I said quickly, stepping over his last syllables. Now we were both blushing. “For the wedding planner. So I can’t—”

“Oh, right.” His face relaxed. “I didn’t realize—”

“I know, it’s fine.” I looked at the floor, tucking a piece of hair behind my ear. “Thank you anyway.”

He smiled then, and there was something about the way it changed his face, taking it from cute to outright charming, that suddenly made me wish I could say yes. To a boy, and a dance, and to also having that chance, one night, to be away from everything. We stood there a minute, until the bridesmaids nearby opened up their circle, whooping, and pulled him in. I walked over to the table I’d seen earlier, collecting the glasses and putting them on a nearby tray. Underneath one of the chairs was another penny card, face down, and I picked it up, rubbing my finger over the coin. When I looked back at the dance floor, the boy and the bridesmaids were gone.


Oh, actually, let’s do one more!

First Excerpt:

A sudden tremor rumbled through the stone floor, sending vibrations up through the spines of the dusty tomes. The library fell into an uneasy silence as students and scholars alike exchanged puzzled glances. I felt an instinctive pull, a magical resonance that drew me toward the towering bookshelves.

Turning the corner, my eyes widened at the scene that unfolded before me. A vast window, long obscured by ancient tapestries, now revealed the sprawling landscape beyond the library. And there, against the backdrop of the distant mountains, soared a creature of mythical proportions—a dragon.

Its scales shimmered with an otherworldly iridescence, catching the sunlight and reflecting a kaleidoscope of colors. Wings that spanned the horizon beat with a majestic rhythm, casting shadows over the land. I stood frozen, spellbound by the sheer magnificence of the creature that had graced our world.

Gasps echoed through the library as other students joined me at the window, their eyes widening in awe and trepidation. The dragon circled in the sky, its movements graceful and deliberate. It seemed to sense our collective gaze, and for a moment, our eyes locked.

In that instant, a surge of ancient magic passed between us, a silent understanding that transcended words. The dragon wasn’t a mere creature; it was a guardian of the arcane, a living embodiment of the enchantments that wove through the fabric of our world.

Second Excerpt:

The crisp air of the mountainous realm of Draconia sent shivers down my spine as I ascended the stone steps leading to the fabled Dragon’s Peak, on my excursion to observe and document the legendary dragons said to inhabit the high reaches of these peaks.

As I reached the summit, the panoramic view took my breath away. The mountain range stretched far and wide, and the azure sky above seemed to touch the snow-capped peaks. A sense of awe and trepidation filled me as I realized the gravity of my quest.

Suddenly, the air stirred with a powerful presence. I turned, and there, against the canvas of the cerulean sky, a dragon unfolded its colossal wings. Its scales gleamed like burnished gold, and eyes that held the wisdom of ages met mine. My heart raced, a mix of fear and fascination coursing through me.

The dragon descended with an elegance that defied its massive form, landing before me with a ground-shaking thud. I could feel the warmth radiating from its scaled body, a stark contrast to the crisp mountain air.

“Lyra of the Arcane Academy,” a resonant voice echoed in my mind, as the dragon inclined its head. “Welcome, seeker of knowledge.”



Will the Real Book Please Stand Up



In the first pair, Excerpt 2 was from The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera. The first excerpt was generated by asking for a third person present tense story about Empress Yui, The Phoenix Empress, Daughter of Heaven, the Light of Hokkaro, Celestial Flame. I felt I had to tell ChatGPT to match person and tense in order to be fair. That didn’t make a lot of difference in this case. It’s screamingly obvious which is fake, isn’t it?

In the second pair, Excerpt 2 was the beginning of Devastation Class, a YA space opera by  Glen Zipper and Elaine Mongeon. Excerpt one was generated by ChatGPT in answer to the prompt “first person story about JD Marshall, and Viv Nixon racing sportbikes.” This time, I actually don’t think it’s nearly as obvious which one is fake. It is possibly relevant that I don’t think the excerpt from the real book is especially interesting or particularly well-written. However, you all picked the first one as fake, right? Do you know why, or was that a general feeling?

In the third pair, Excerpt 2 was still the real one. This time it was Once and For All, a YA contemporary romance by Sarah Dessen. I think it was pretty obvious that the first one was fake. Yes? No?

In the final pair, they were both fake. I realize that’s not exactly fair, but did anybody guess that? I think ChatGPT was doing far better with first person than third person. It seems to want to write story summary rather than story if permitted to write in third person. That’s much less true for first person.

Suppose you were reading slush at a publishing house. Would you have immediately pegged the fakes as fake? All of them? Would you have immediately rejected them as pretty terrible, fake or not? I think all of the fake ones are using a lot of clichés — but so are both real YA excerpts. Not as much, but there are definitely phrases I’d peg as clichéd. Does that mean I’d reject them immediately as fake? Or just as not very good? Or would I turn the page?

I would not turn the page for either of the real YA novels, probably.

I think that The Tiger’s Daughter stands way, way out as genuine. If I’d been handed all eight excerpts and told only one was real, I’d have picked this one. I would, however, have been mildly surprised if someone told me the excerpt from Devastation Class was fake. What makes it look real? Downshift. Accelerate. Overtake. This set of three single-word sentences does not, to me, look like something ChatGPT would do.

Did you notice that ALL the fakes have nothing but complete sentences? That’s not true of ANY of the real novels. I’m not particularly impressed by Once and For All, but it’s got much more interesting sentence structure than the fake. I wonder whether a detector could sort out real from fake based on nothing but this one characteristic, at least for fiction?

ChatGPT is also pretty bad at creating a sense of place. Devastation Class shows this pretty well. The setting of the real book is much more interesting and also the author doesn’t seem to forget that the race is happening in a setting. The fake doesn’t really have a setting at all. There’s a sun in the sky and a racetrack, but that’s all we see of the setting in this excerpt.

What does this mean?

Well, I don’t know what it means. BUT, I think if AI-generated books start to replace some real books, it’s going to be pretty bad books that bite the dust first. Any novel that creates a sense of place and has anything remotely interesting about the prose style is going to remain way better than text-generated fake books until the generators learn to quit writing in complete sentences all the time, and also start to remember that the story is happening somewhere. All this is besides having a coherent plot and compelling characters, which is also not going to happen for a good while, probably.

I will leave you with an excerpt that is wildly unlike anything a text generator is going to produce probably ever:

I was minding my own business in beautiful downside Wanderweb, having just managed to mislay my cargo for the right price. My nighttime man had talked me into bootlegging again, and damsilly stuff it was, too – either maintenance manuals or philosophy texts. I never did figure out which, even with sixty hours time in Firecat between Coldwater and Wanderweb to stare at them and Paladin to read them to me.

So I was making my way around Wanderweb, free, female and a damn sight over the age of reason, when I saw this greenie right in front of me in the street.

He was definitely a toff, and no stardancer – you never saw such clothes outside of a hollycast. He was lit up like Dream Street at night and wearing enough heat to stock an Imperial Armory besides. And this being scenic Wanderweb, land of enchantment, there was six of K’Jarn’s werewolves and K’Jarn facing him. I was of the opinion – then – that he couldn’t do for them before they opened him up, so, fancy-free, I opened my mouth and said: “Good morning, thou nobly-born K’Jarn. Airt hiert out to do wetwork these days or just to roll glitterborn for kicks, hey?”

K’Jarn looked up from pricing Tiggy Stardust’s clothes and said, “N’portada je, S’Cyr. Purdu.”

K’Jarn and me has known each other ever since I started running cargos into Wanderweb Free Port and he started trying to boost them. For once I should of took his advice. But, hell, it was seven-on-one and I’ve never liked K’Jarn.

“Like Imperial Mercy I will. Yon babby’s my long-lost lover and my maiden aunt and I’m taking him home to Mother any day now. Fade.”

He might have, except that just then one of K’Jarn’s wingmen got restless and took a swipe at the glitterborn with a vibroblade. Tiggy Stardust moved faster than anything human and swiped back and I burned K’Jarn before he could mix in. K’Jarn dropped his blaster, not having a hand to hold it with anymore, and left on urgent business. So did everybody else.

Business as usual in wondertown and not enough fuss for the CityGuard to show up. Except for the deader Tiggy made and another I didn’t have time to get fancy with, me and him was alone and he wasn’t moving.

I went to see if there was anything left to salvage. He snaked around and then it was me down and staring up at an inert-blade knife as long as my thigh while he choodled at me unfriendly-like.

I can get along in flash, cant, and Trade, but I couldn’t make head nor hind out of his parley, and I thought at first I’d hit my head too hard. But then I knew that what I had actually gone and done was the stupidest thing of my whole entire life. I’d rescued a hellflower.

This is one of the most wonderful novel openings in the history of SFF. Recognize it? It’s Butterfly and Hellflower by Eluki bes Shahar, not available in ebook form, but the paper omnibus edition I linked to is available right now and cheap right at the moment and if you don’t have this in your library, you should grab it while you can. If you’re interested in prose style, that goes triple.

UPDATE: Thanks to Sarah Wynde, because after she said the ebooks existed, I tracked them down WHICH WAS NOT EASY, AMAZON, what is with that? And here is the link to the series page for the ebooks.

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Update: Laptop woes, but also: Murderbot, yay!

Continuing technology woes: I’m taking my laptop back to the shop this afternoon, because they didn’t solve the problem. Or, I mean, they did. The solution held for 24 hours. The battery is now back to losing 25% of its charge per hour (at least). Tolerable, but good lord, and the machine is still under warranty, so let’s by all means get it fixed. The little spare I’m borrowing is fine for the meantime, and this time I’ve arranged to borrow it in advance, so the whole thing should be much less annoying overall.

As for progress … for the first time, I’m considering the possibility that I may be breaking Silver Circle in half. I mean, yes, I’ll be cutting it. But jeeze, it keeps stretching out and I’m still not even close to the endgame. In fact, I’m so far from the endgame that I’m still not sure how to get from where I’m standing now across the Chasm of the Uncertain Middle to the peak over there in the distance where the endgame is located. Visualize a chasm filled with mist. There’s a figurative bridge down there somewhere, I trust.

Well, who knows. I don’t need to make that decision immediately. Just as well, as coming up with subtitles will be a challenge if that turns out to be necessary.

Oh, I’m at 112,000 words, by the way. The question is therefore whether I’m looking at another 70,000 words (which would be fine) or another 112,000 words (which would mean I probably break the story in half). In either case, I’m assuming I’ll be cutting at least 30,000 words because that’s almost invariable when the book is this long.

Meanwhile! I read the recent Murderbot novella. I bet a lot of you have as well. What did you think? I liked it, but not as well as the previous novel. This novella begins directly after that novel and concerns the same basic players, right down to the colonists affected by the alien contamination.

The novel, I felt was slow and just okay until Murderbot gets aboard ART, finds ART is not there, and meets the hostiles. Then we have one of the best Murderbot lines of all time. (“First angry, then afraid, then dead. Is that the right order?”) This happens pretty early in the book.

This long novella, I felt was just okay until … I don’t want to spoil anything … until about the halfway mark or maybe a bit farther in.

One thing puzzled me kind of a lot — what happened to the colonists who were most affected by the alien contamination in the previous book? Are they all dead? Because everyone seems to be interacting with the colonists as though that set of colonists isn’t a problem anymore, and I don’t really understand that? Once I was farther into the story, I kind of forgot to wonder about that, but as you see, the question has now recurred. Maybe I missed something. Did anybody pick up something that would explain that?

I did not mind the [redacted] thing. I thought that was fine, and the way Murderbot handled it was fine. That was believable and added a complication to the way Murderbot felt about itself in a believable way.

I would have liked the novella more… I’m not sure … I think I would have liked to see more of Three, whom I liked a lot in the previous book; and more between Ratthi and Tarik, partly because the revelation about Tarik’s background really caught me. I was instantly very engaged by Tarik and wanted to see lots more about him. This is EXACTLY the kind of thing that makes me create a new character of my own: a guy sort of like Tarik, with that kind of background, only much more centered in the story. Plus I like Ratthi and I would always like to see more of him.

I LOVED the solution Murderbot came up with. That was absolutely perfect and I did not see it coming at all, and then I loved how that element played out in the story. And everything after that was fast and fun, so that was my favorite part of the novella — everything from the time Murderbot had that inspired idea to the end.

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Let’s make a cheesecake

Someone asked me for my favorite cheesecake recipe. It’s hard to pick, so here are my TWO favorite cheesecake recipes. One exemplifies the category of baked cheesecakes; the other the category of unbaked cheesecakes. I included variations for each.

Absolutely Classic NY Style Cheesecake

1 C vanilla wafer crumbs
3 Tbsp sugar 4 Tbsp butter, melted  

4 8-oz pkg cream cheese, softened
1 C sugar
3 Tbsp four
4 eggs
1 C sour cream
1 Tbsp vanilla  

Cherry pie filling or whatever you like

The easiest way to make vanilla wafer crumbs is with a food processor. Quite fine crumbs are desirable. Combine crumbs, sugar, and melted butter. Press onto bottom of a 9-inch springform pan. Bake at 325 F for 10 minutes. Set aside and raise the oven temp to 450 F degrees (yes, really).

Combine cream cheese, sugar, and flour, mixing at medium speed until well blended. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Beat in sour cream and vanilla on low speed. Pour over crust. Bake at 450 F for 10 minutes. Lower oven temp to 250 degrees and continue baking for one hour. Remove from oven, run a knife around the edge to loosen the cheesecake from the rim, and cool completely. Chill thoroughly before removing rim of pan and serving. Serve with cherry pie filling, raspberry sauce, or whatever.


  1. Is the cheesecake done?

If you followed the directions, probably! But oven temperatures vary, so it’s hard to be sure. A largish area of the center should be wobbly and appear not quite set when you take the cheesecake out of the oven. That is perfectly normal.

  • How can I prevent cracks?

If the cheesecake cracks, that means it’s a little overdone. It will be perfectly fine, just a little unsightly. Cherry pie filling is good for disguising cracks.

Baked cheesecakes are actually super thick custards. To be sure they don’t overbake, they can be baked in a water bath, like any other custard. You put a big pan of water in the oven to heat, then wrap the springform pan REALLY TIGHTLY with waterproof aluminum foil, and set the springform pan into the water bath for the entire time it bakes. This will probably prevent cracking. It is a certain amount of trouble and I once had the aluminum foil leak, so I mostly don’t bother, especially since I don’t care that much if the cheesecake cracks.

  • Can I make variations on the theme of classic cheesecakes?

The basic proportions for a baked cheesecake are one 8-oz package cream cheese, ¼ C sugar, and one egg. Those ingredients 3x makes a typical cheesecake. You then add flavorings and variations as desired.

The flour in the above recipe is to compensate for the large amount of sour cream. A smaller amount of sour cream can be added without additional flour, or the sour cream left out and a couple Tbsp of lemon juice added plus some lemon zest could be stirred into the batter. A cup of pumpkin can be added to half the batter and then the pumpkin batter swirled with the plain batter in the pan. Raspberry sauce can be swirled into the cheesecake batter in the pan.

You can combine one pkg cream cheese, ¼ C sugar, one egg, and as many miniature chocolate chips as you like and then use that as a filling for chocolate cupcakes, which are really, really great and you should try that.

Exceedingly Easy No-Bake Chocolate Cheesecake

1 C chocolate wafer cookie crumbs, OR 1 C vanilla wafer cookie crumbs plus 2 Tbsp sugar and 2 Tbsp cocoa powder.
4 Tbsp melted butter  

1 envelope unflavored gelatin
¼ C cold water
2 8-oz pkg cream cheese, softened
¾ C sugar
1/3 C cocoa powder
½ tsp vanilla
2 C miniature marshmallows
1 C heavy (whipping) cream, whipped. Don’t add extra sugar as you whip the cream. It’s an ingredient, not a topping.  

Combine the crumbs, or crumbs plus sugar and cocoa, and the melted butter. Press into bottom of 9-inch springform pan. Bake at 350 F for 10 minutes.

Sprinkle gelatin over cold water in a little bowl. Microwave for thirty seconds or so, until warm. Stir. Microwave 30 seconds or so, until very warm. Stir. Set aside.

Combine cream cheese, sugar, cocoa, and vanilla. Mix with electric mixer until well blended. Add gelatin mixture in a thin stream while mixer is running. (No need to be obsessive. I never have any problem with the gelatin failing to get mixed in properly.) Fold in miniature marshmallows. “Fold in” means gently, with a spoon. Fold in whipped cream.

Pour cheesecake filling over crust. Smooth out. Decorate with extra miniature marshmallows or grated chocolate or both. The easiest way to grate chocolate is just to run a vegetable peeler down the edge of a chocolate bar. Chill. Remove rim of pan and serve.

Alternately: skip the crust and spoon into little glass dessert dishes.

For unbaked cheesecakes, the basic proportions are 1 envelope gelatin, ¼ C water, 2 pkg cream cheese, ½ C sugar, 1 C whipping cream, whipped. The extra sugar in the above recipe is because the cocoa powder is bitter. You can therefore use the basic ingredients and swirl in raspberry sauce or some other fruit sauce, caramel sauce, whatever you like. You could use make half the recipe without cocoa powder and add cocoa and extra sugar to the other half, then swirl the two batters together in the springform pan or alternate them in dessert dishes.

Although the marshmallows can obviously be left out, they’re pretty great in this cheesecake and I keep miniature marshmallows around just for this use.

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Is NaNoWriMo a good thing?

My answer: Sure.

I don’t have to explain why I think so because Patricia Wrede captures why NaNoWriMo is a good thing in this post right here.

The value of NaNoWriMo isn’t in the amount of great literature it encourages; it’s in getting people past some of the really basic process problems that prevent so many of them from sitting down and doing it. A lot of these are problems with confidence or with overthinking the process of writing—everything has to be perfect; it’s perfectly reasonable to spend an entire day deciding to add a comma, and the entire following day deciding to remove it; the first draft has to be perfect; the outline has to be perfect; the writer has to chase down and develop every interesting new character and/or subplot the minute it occurs to them; none of the writing will be any good if it isn’t “inspired”; the writer isn’t good enough to even try writing a novel (though how they think they’re going to get good enough without ever writing anything is beyond me).

That is the perfect way to express why NaNoWriMo is a great idea. I completely agree that fear of not doing it right is a big reason a lot of people hesitate to start writing, which of course is one reason I am so mistrustful of the whole idea of writing advice and so against aspiring writers looking for, asking for, or reading a lot of advice about writing. I think the constant deluge of advice makes it harder, not easier, to write; and I really strongly suspect that a lot of people would have a much easier time and also write better if they would quit asking for advice and look at actual books to see how certain techniques are used effectively in practice.

Patricia Wrede then goes on:

Because of all this, I generally advise doubters to go ahead and try, provided that a) they are pretty sure they are not the sort of writer who is going to be devastated and/or convinced they have failed if they only make it to 49,997 words in 30 days instead of 50,000, b) they are not going to worry that they have “done it wrong” if some stranger online says so (even if they made the 50K words), and c) they have never done it before.

I hadn’t thought of that, so absolutely yes, do not do NaNoWriMo if you’re prone to agonizing about failure. Personally, I think you’re doing great if you’ve:

a) started a new project and you’re at 25,000 words. Yay! That’s a real achievement!

b) finished a new project, which only took 25,000 words. Yay! That’s a real achievement!

c) Wrote 28 sonnets, one per day on most days. Yay! That’s a real achievement!

I sure wouldn’t get hung up on whether I actually made it to 50,000 words or more. That is not the measure of whether good things happened in your writing life during November.

As an aside, laptop problems = no words at all for me this morning, argh. It’s supposed to be beautiful this afternoon, much nicer than the rest of the week. I may take dogs out to the park and forget writing for the day.

As a second aside, there’s absolutely no chance I’ll finish Silver Circle before December, AARGH. However, maaaaybe before the semester ends? Surely before January? We’ll see.

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Writing a novel in 13 steps

Thirteen is such an interesting number! Why not lump a few steps together and call it ten? Or break a couple items apart and call it fifteen? Maybe I’m alone in preferring multiples of five; I don’t know. Anyway, this post at Writers Helping Writers caught my eye because of the number thirteen, so maybe that was a sensible choice after all: Write a Novel in 13 Steps

I’m betting I use … maybe … one or two of these steps. Let’s take a look —

  1. Choose your best idea … … … … or, for heaven’s sake, any idea. It can be really hard to pick something to work on!
  2. Prewriting
  3. Mental Prep
  4. Writing. … … … … I think I would just start here.
  5. Celebrate the first draft … … … … This is a step? I totally do this!
  6. Pause
  7. Read straight through
  8. Revise
  9. Get feedback
  10. Revise
  11. Edit … … … … some of these could certainly be lumped together. Revise and edit are the same thing as far as I’m concerned.
  12. Polish and proofread
  13. Final read

I think the final read is dispensable, because the endless rounds of proofreading encompass that.

Fine, okay, so, Rachel’s streamlined list:

  1. Choose an idea, any idea, for heaven’s sake just pick something! Throw a dart! Flip a coin!
  2. Write the novel. Good luck with the middle part!
  3. Celebrate the completion of the draft. YAY!
  4. Big revision you’ve known for ages you were going to have to do. That entire chapter you knew you were going to cut? Cut it now.
  5. Read straight through, doing smaller revision, cutting, and proofing as you go. All the editing you’ve known for ages you would have to do? Do it now.
  6. Pause, ideally.
  7. Read straight through, doing hopefully minor revision and cutting.
  8. Send to early readers
  9. Revise according to feedback from early readers.
  10. Proofread. Proofread some more. Proofread some more.

Ten steps. The pause is dispensable if you’re looking at a tight deadline.

As far as I’m concerned, step two — write the novel — deserves to be blown up into a ten-point list of its own. Or maybe a twelve-point list.

  1. Write the opening. Looking good!
  2. Write the next couple chapters. Looking good!
  3. Write the early middle.
  4. Cut the early middle and rewrite that part.
  5. Repeat step four.
  6. Hack your way through the rest of the middle. Start making notes about stuff that will need to be fixed later.
  7. Thank heaven you’re through the middle. Write the climax.
  8. There, whew! Reward yourself by writing the falling action chapters.
  9. Yay, finished draft! Celebrate!
  10. Cut all the stuff you know you really ought to cut. Trim throughout.
  11. Make all the revisions you started thinking about in step six.
  12. Read straight through, polishing as you go.

I know this is a personal list, but I sort of feel the majority of authors agree with me about the middle. Have I mentioned I’m in the middle of Silver Circle? Ugh, I hate the middle part.

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