Floater

You may not enjoy this type of thing, but I find it oddly relaxing. This is a fairly simple patch in VCV Rack. Three FM-type sine oscillators are playing a convoluted pattern in a subset of 19-note equal temperament. You’ll see the patch itself near the end of the video, but I blunked out the patch cords to make it look prettier.

There are lots of ways to make microtonal music, lots of FM-type sine oscillators, and lots of ways to do LFO modulation, all of which you’ll hear in this video. There are also lots of ways to do polyrhythms — but I suspect the Mog Network module, which is the mastermind in this brief piece, is the only device that can produce what we might call embedded poly-structures. The pattern of notes is not at all random, it’s entirely determinate, but the pattern is not easy to grasp by listening. You can sense it; but what is it?

The same patch could be used to make a conventional 12-note-per-octave piece, but I claim it would be a lot less interesting. The tuning here is exotic and perhaps unsettled, and that contributes to the musical effect.

This is an example of what I call wohnzimmermusik (living-room music). It’s meant to be heard in the home. Something of the sort might work in a small experimental music venue, but it’s the absolute antithesis of concert music. Possibly that’s a reflection of a new musical culture, and that may be a good thing. I enjoy playing concerts, but making music at home is more energizing creatively.

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What’s Old Is New Again

Unless you’re a certified Old Guy, you probably don’t remember the Ensoniq SQ-80. I had one in my home studio for a while, on loan to Keyboard from Ensoniq. Long-term loans of hardware to the magazine were pretty common in those days (late ’80s). One of the perks of being a staff writer was that you got to take the toys home and play with them.

Even at the time, the SQ-80 was not what you’d call a luxury item. Ensoniq’s marketing mandate was to do stuff that was — well, let’s not say “cheap,” let’s say less expensive than the competition.

This week Arturia released their software clone of the SQ-80. I didn’t expect to be thrilled, but the 20-minute demo download showed off a sparkling sound. I’m going to try to work out a deal to write a review. Reviewers do still get free licenses for software, usually. Not that I need any more software synthesizers!

Why am I bringing this up? Because the Arturia SQ is just the latest wrinkle in a massive trend. Over the past decade or so, developers have released, one after another, literally dozens of software clones of vintage hardware synths. And the trend shows no sign of slowing. Also this week Cherry Audio released the Mercury-4, a clone of the Roland Jupiter-4.

Korg has a whole Legacy Collection that bundles their best-known hardware instruments (the M1, the Wavestation, and so on) as software. Their Polysix (see below) and MonoPoly are available as Rack Extensions in Reason. Arturia and Cherry Audio are not the only companies that have dropped clones of the beloved ARP 2600. And how many Prophet and Minimoog clones are there? I don’t want to think about it.

Typically, these instruments are tricked out with a few modern features — not just MIDI compatibility (which goes without saying) but polyphony, a few effects processors, patch storage (again, that goes without saying), and maybe oscillator sync and some extra filter modes. But most developers put considerable effort into duplicating not just the front panels but the actual sound of the original instrument. Component modeling of oscillators and filters is a thing.

I’m not complaining. I loved the original instruments, and I’m happy to see them living on, especially in such convenient and affordable ways! Nonetheless, the trend is worth looking at. Why is this happening?

To be sure, new software instruments are also going strong. It’s not as if we’re stuck in a time warp. But apparently manufacturers find it hard to resist the temptation to bring back half-forgotten hardware like the SQ-80.

Not least important, vintage clones get a big boost in the marketing process. It’s easier to explain the product if it’s something your potential customers may already know about. Some of them may have owned one and wish they still had it. (I’m in that category.) Others may be young enough that they’ve only heard the legends from their elders, but even then, there’s a coolness factor if you can show off to your buddies that you know all about the 808.

Plus, let’s face it, synthesizers and synth heroes were big thirty years ago. Pop music is a different game today. Part of the appeal of the old instruments is that they let you imagine, if only for an hour or two, that keyboard mastery matters. Forget about the beat — listen to that fat filter!

From a strictly musical standpoint, an instrument with limitations may be a better choice than an instrument that will do absolutely anything. The instrument guides you down a specific path rather than inducing option paralysis. The ARP 2600 didn’t even have two ADSR envelopes; it had one ADSR and one AR. The hallowed DX7 (recreated with 97% fidelity in Reason’s now-discontinued PX7) only had sine waves, not a long list of wavetables in a drop-down menu.

It’s a nostalgia trip, but it’s not just a nostalgia trip. And it must be working. People must be buying these instruments. If they weren’t, why would the companies keep producing them?

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1 + 1 + 1 = 27

I’m a bit of a modular synthesizer addict. A synth with a great sound is of course a wonderful thing, even if it has only a few knobs and switches — but I like nothing better than to connect signal sources to destinations in odd ways so as to create a sound that the instrument designers never anticipated. When I see a synth with one LFO, my reaction is, “Why aren’t there three?” When a modulation matrix has a measly six routings, I’m insulted. There ought to be at least 24.

Happily, the world of software-based musical instruments is well supplied with modulars. We’re living in a golden age of modular. Every company has its own ideas about design, so there’s no shortage of peculiarities to sort through, but there’s something for every taste.

I’m not going to try to do a full-on comparison of modular instruments here. That would require a book. (Oxford University Press agreed that I should write the book, but their offer of an advance against royalties was insultingly small, so I had to turn the deal down.) I’ll just offer a few random observations to whet your appetite or confuse the heck out of you.

One of the best software modulars is also, counter-intuitively, one of the least expensive. VCV Rack is mostly free, though there are some paid “premium” modules in the collection. The ecosystem of third-party developers is quite large, and some of the modules are quite exotic — and not always well documented, I hasten to add. Or documented at all. But the big downside of VCV is that at the moment it’s a stand-alone program. It won’t run as a VST plug-in in your DAW. An upgrade is scheduled for November 2021 to add that capability, but the new version is going to cost $99.

My experience with VCV upgrades is that when 0.6.x graduated to 1.0, a number of cool modules were left stranded by the side of the road. Those third-party developers were not all on board. As the months went by, most of them revised their code for 1.0, and because VCV is mostly an open-source community, if a developer abandons a cool module someone else may be motivated to pick it up. I expect the same time lag to happen with the release of 2.0, so I’ll certainly keep 1.1 on my hard drive when I upgrade.

Here’s a strange fact: VCV is natively 16-note polyphonic. Many of the recent entries in the modular sweepstakes (notably Softube Modular and the new Multiphonics CV-1 from AAS) are limited to monophonic operation. That is, you can set up multiple signal paths so as to play chords, but each oscillator or filter is going to produce a single musical line. The same thing is true of the Complex-1 module in Reason. Reason itself is of course polyphonic; or rather, most of the synth modules in it, either native or third-party, are polyphonic — yet the CV/gate implementation on Reason’s back panel is monophonic. Arrggh! The base installation of Cherry Audio Voltage Modular is strictly monophonic, but they do have some premium modules that introduce polyphony.

In this day and age, monophonic operation is a bit baffling as a design choice. Sure, there’s some user overhead in helping your users learn how to do modular polyphonically, but the advantages are huge. VCV is not only less expensive and equipped with a lot more cool modules, you can play chords. How do those other systems hope to compete? One of the earliest software modulars, Native Instruments Reaktor, is natively polyphonic, by the way, but developing your own patches in Reaktor is not an exercise for the faint of heart.

The advantages of any software modular over a hardware system are massive. You can save and load patches. If you own a given module you can instantiate it a dozen times in a single patch (not possible with hardware, obviously). The cost of software (ignoring the cost of the computer) is a tiny fraction of the cost of a hardware modular. And because developers don’t have to stock parts or pack their devices in shipping boxes, they can devote more attention to building odd but wonderful modules.

As one illustration of oddness from among dozens I could show you, here’s the Mog step sequencer in VCV Rack.

Doesn’t even look like a step sequencer, does it? Every step (that is, every hexagon) has two trigger inputs and four trigger outputs. Each hexagon steps alternately through its internal value and its external connections. Patterns of notes that are dozens of steps in length are all well within reach, though perhaps not so easy to envision in advance. It can play several lines at once, sending them all to a single oscillator, and the lines can interact with one another.

Let’s compare that to a step sequencer in Cherry Audio Voltage Modular:

Eight steps. The gate output can be switched on or off for each step. Bo-o-oring. Can it go backwards? Play steps at random? No and no. There’s nothing actually wrong with this module, except that it reveals a want of imagination. And imagination is what modular synthesis is all about.

Maybe I should write something about the insane world of VCV Rack’s envelope generators. Maybe I will. You want 16-step envelopes with conditional logic? There’s only one modular instrument that will do that (well, maybe two if you program your own envelope generator in Reaktor, but that would be a nightmare).

Down the rabbit hole. Would you like some more tea?

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Happily Ever After

Truth-telling time: I’m kind of burnt out on fiction. Both reading it and writing it. The thrill is gone.

As a reader, I’m too much a writer. When I read, I notice the holes in the plot, the atmospheric digressions that don’t really add anything, the occasional bit of slipshod syntax.

On top of which, I don’t care about the characters. I can’t think offhand of the last time a character’s struggle or situation aroused a stronger reaction in me than, “Oh, that’s interesting.” When something highly dramatic happens — a fight to the death, let’s say — I’m painfully aware that my emotions are being manipulated by the author. The fight is agonizing, but it’s also supremely annoying, because it’s both a horrid cliché and not real.

As a writer, I feel I’ve said everything that I want to say. And who cares? Nobody. I have a really interesting fantasy whodunit on my hard drive, and I’ve submitted it to several agents and a couple of indie publishers, without even hearing a whisper of interest. This makes no sense at all, because it’s a good story and I’m a perfectly decent writer. But there it is. Why should I keep on beating my head against this particular wall? Writing novels is not that much fun.

So the Oblong Blob may be about to pivot and become my electronic music blog. I do have a music blog, but I haven’t used it much in recent years. I could import a bunch of stuff from over there and also write about new discoveries.

Synthesizers are a kick, folks, and that’s the truth. We’re living in a golden age of electronic music. Computers are fast enough to do extremely complex processes of sound synthesis, and several dozen manufacturers are hard at work producing amazing new instruments.

Twenty-five years ago, on the staff of Keyboard, I was well immersed in the world of electronic music, but at that time the softsynth revolution was only a dim and flickering light on the horizon. After I got laid off in 2002 I continued to write reviews for Keyboard, and also for Electronic Musician and other magazines. But then those magazines’ parent company (by then they were both owned by the same corporation) dropped a new contract onto their freelance writers that I found unacceptable. So I drifted out of the reviewin’ game. Fortunately for us all, the industry has managed to thrive even without my tender attentions.

One advantage of writing reviews is that you get the software for free. For the past few years I’ve been paying normal consumer prices for the new goodies I pick up, because I had no legitimate reason to request special treatment, and it would have been both arrogant and unethical to do so. (A few companies still lay stuff on me, and I am extremely grateful!)

Today I have more software synthesizers than I could ever conceivably use. But the endorphin-producing activity is not composing music, though I do that from time to time. (I also have four extremely capable digital audio workstations, which is fairly silly, because you only ever need one.) What’s exciting is learning new software. Most people may find this baffling, but it works for me. Of course, if the software makes beautiful sounds that’s vital too. I have at least one amazingly powerful synth that I never touch because its sound is, frankly, butt-ugly.

Today I downloaded a demo of the Arturia SQ-80 V. The original SQ-80, which resided in my living room on loan from the manufacturer for a while back in the ’80s, was clever at the time but quite primitive by today’s standards. So why would anybody revive it? Well, what’s old is new again. Arturia is not the only company whose recent instruments are directly inspired by vintage designs — generally with a generous side helping of 21st century features. Annoyingly, Arturia’s demo times out after 20 minutes, but that was long enough for me to realize it’s a great-sounding instrument and to wonder who might like me to write a review of it.

Because I don’t want to keep shelling out the bucks for all these instruments. There are too darn many of them! I may in fact have to buy a new hardware controller; manufacturers don’t give those away. And maybe new speakers — my midfield monitors still sound good to me, but they’re more than 30 years old.

See, the thing is, this stuff is fun. And if it ain’t fun, why do it?

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Hubble Trouble

For some years now I’ve been poking at some basic questions. There might seem to be little connection between the theory of evolution and the twin disciplines of physics and cosmology, but I’m fascinated by both. The physiology of the brain, too, and maybe a side order of history and anthropology. What ties these fields together is that they all address questions like, “What’s going on here?” “What is this world that we’re living in?” “What’s real?”

Today I’ve been re-reading a book by Bjørn Ekeberg called Metaphysical Experiments. Truth be told, it’s not a very good book, but it’s a useful exploration of a basic question, which we might articulate as, “Why is modern cosmology such an absurd mess?” It would have been a better book if he had chopped out most of the long digressions into the history of philosophy, which quite aside from being only marginally related to his central thesis are so freighted with esoteric terminology as to be all but unreadable.

To make matters worse, on page 150 he gets one of the basic points about cosmology wrong. He asserts that the too-fast rotation of spiral galaxies is what inspired the notion of dark energy — but no, those observations lead to the hypothesis of dark matter, not dark energy.

All that aside, his thesis is that modern physics and cosmology are, at root, a set of self-fulfilling prophecies — a sort of math-bedazzled folk-tale. He makes a pretty good case for this. He points out, I think correctly, that physicists and cosmologists start with a theoretical framework that is entirely abstract, and then convince governments to spend billions on experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider, which are explicitly designed to find evidence that will support the existing theories. Evidence that doesn’t support the theories is simply jettisoned. The data is massively cherry-picked.

Physicists and cosmologists are wedded to what is essentially an article of faith, namely that the universe can ultimately be explained using a single set of mathematical principles, a set of equations that absolutely dictates the structure of the world that we observe. When the observations don’t coincide with the theory, various fudge factors are introduced. By now we’ve reached a point where the whole structure is more than a bit jerry-rigged. The fudge factors are welded together using equations that are certainly far beyond my comprehension, yet the structure continues to creak and groan.

The philosophical point, which Ekeberg nods at but doesn’t dig into, is this: Why should the universe be constrained to operate in a mathematically consistent way? What exactly would force even a single proton to behave in the manner predicted by an equation?

For that matter, why should the universe even be logical? The rules of logic were laid down by the ancient Greeks 2,500 years ago, and without the benefit of even a single scientific experiment. Logic works very nicely at the level of ordinary human affairs: Either the goat is up in the tree, or the goat isn’t up in the tree. There’s no logical way for the goat to be both up in the tree and not up in the tree. But a proton is not a goat, and neither is a galaxy.

I wouldn’t want this to be read as a dismissal of all scientific discoveries! I’m not indulging in crystal-gazing here. Molecular biology is a lovely thing; right now it’s giving me some protection from a nasty virus, and I’m very grateful for that. The dynamics governing global warming are not a fantasy. But these fields of research are a whole lot closer to home than those sheets of red-shifted galaxies that Edwin Hubble’s theory assures us are billions of light-years away and receding at a rapid clip. Ekeberg’s thesis, which I’m inclined to agree with, is that the people who think they have a handle on what’s going on in those galaxies — they’re the ones who are crystal-gazing.

I’d like to know a lot more about this stuff. Without being forced to learn the math, I would hope. My own view is that dark matter is the new phlogiston. Phlogiston, for those of you who haven’t been following the history of science, was a substance that was thought at one time to explain combustion. It was observed that after something burned, it was lighter than before. The theory was that this was because the phlogiston had flown off into the air. Eventually it was discovered that a few types of material actually got heavier when they burned, which raised the terrible possibility that some phlogiston had a negative weight. Eventually the whole theory was abandoned. But that’s kind of what we have now with dark matter. It has never yet been observed to exist, and there’s no theory about what it could possibly be. It’s a wild guess that is inserted into cosmology in order to explain some observations while allowing the existing theory of gravitation to be kept intact.

Eventually, I predict, dark matter will go the way of phlogiston. Unfortunately, I probably won’t live long enough to be able to say, “I told you so.”

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Intensity

Conflict: It’s what makes a plot a plot, right? Well, maybe. Just about every how-to-write book ever penned will drill you on the importance of conflict. And indeed, what you’re told is not wrong. But today I want to look at it from a slightly different angle.

Consider a scene in which your protagonist gets into an argument with a stranger in a bar. They step outside and engage in a bout of fisticuffs. Noses are bloodied, knuckles bruised. And then, when they’re both so weary they can hardly lift their arms, one of them says, “Ah, hell, what are we fighting about, anyway?” They embrace one another and stagger back into the bar, each of them insisting on buying the other a drink.

Was there conflict in that scene? Technically, yes. You can’t have a fist fight without conflict. And yet it amounted to nothing. Nothing was at stake in their fight, and nothing was resolved, because nothing needed to be resolved. Maybe there’s a plot point, if they start as strangers and this is how they become fast friends, with consequences that appear later. But it’s not conflict.

I’ve started thinking that a better term to use, when developing or evaluating a plot, is tension. What is the source of tension? That a father despises his son? That a seemingly wealthy man is secretly bankrupt? That a child has been kidnapped? The possibilities are endless — and none of them can be resolved with a fist fight.

A deeper analysis suggests that there are two types of tension — intrinsic and extrinsic. By this I mean that the source of tension will be either inside your lead character (it’s intrinsic to the character’s life), or outside, in the lead’s environment.

When the tension is intrinsic, your lead character must resolve the tension. Failure to do so will lead to physical death, a tragically destroyed life, or deep emotional pain. When the tension is extrinsic, the lead may feel perhaps some lingering regret, but his or her life will not be altered in any meaningful way.

The classic murder mystery uses extrinsic tension. If Miss Marple — or, for that matter, Lew Archer — fails to unmask the murderer, nothing in her or his life will be much changed. Even in a story as epic as Lord of the Rings, the tension is arguably extrinsic. At any point Frodo could say, “Oh, this is just too much trouble. Here, you take the ring.” His personal investment is minimal.

In a thriller, on the other hand, if the lead character fails to solve the plot problem, death and dismemberment will swiftly follow. I don’t read a lot of thrillers, so I don’t have a good example at my fingertips. E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, however, is a decent example of intrinsic tension in a literary novel. The point of tension, which unfolds very gradually, is whether Lucy will marry the wrong man. There seems to be no way for her to avoid it! The tension is intrinsic because her life will be irrevocably affected by the marriage.

Writers of mysteries employ some shopworn methods to create a pretense of intrinsic tension. The police lieutenant can be relied on to threaten to get the private detective’s license revoked. Sometimes the detective will actually have handcuffs slapped on, or will be beaten up by the bad guys (but see the bit about fist fights, above).

In a cozy mystery, the standard method for introducing what appears to be intrinsic tension is for the victim or the wrongly accused to be someone the sleuth cares deeply about. This increases the sleuth’s emotional involvement in the story, but really the tension is still extrinsic. The endangered-loved-one ploy only produces intrinsic tension if the endangered loved one is an actual spouse or the sleuth’s own child. A sister, a cousin, a stepchild? No, that’s still extrinsic.

I’m belaboring the point because I’m trying to come up with a plot for a new mystery. It occurred to me that my last two books (While Caesar Sang of Hercules and a new one that is not yet published) have intrinsic tension. I like intrinsic tension! I enjoy reading mysteries in which the tension is extrinsic, but when it comes time to dream up my own plot, my heart wants something more. Something that grabs the protagonist’s gut and won’t let go.

When I was working on my first novel, many years ago, one of my personal mottoes was, “Put your lead character’s ass in a meat grinder — and then keep turning the crank.” That’s how to do intrinsic tension.

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One Size Fits All

Okay, I’m peeved. The indie publisher to whom I submitted my novel took only two days to reject it — and the reason they gave is that my word count is 110,000, and they have a 100,000-word maximum.

This absurd. It’s also insulting. What they’re saying, in essence, is that they don’t care how good a book is. If it doesn’t fit within their rigid parameter, they’re not interested. I’m glad I found out how dumb they are before I got involved with them; when I get over being peeved, I’ll be grateful.

We can interpret their objection to the extra length in various ways. (Interpreting form-letter rejections is a lovely pastime.) Possibly they’re just so swamped with queries that they will seize on any reason to toss a manuscript aside rather than consider it. I have some sympathy for this difficulty, because I know it’s all too real. The implication, however, is not pretty. The implication is that all publishable novels are interchangeable — that the quality of a particular story is irrelevant.

Possibly their editorial team is so inept that they wouldn’t know how to suggest to an author that an otherwise publishable novel be slimmed down to the desired word count. The hard work would be on the author’s end; all the publisher would have to do is say, “Gee, we like this. Can you trim it?” The fact that they didn’t say that can be interpreted to mean (a) they don’t know how to work with authors, (b) their adherence to their criteria is so rigid that they didn’t even read the synopsis or the opening chapters, or (c) they did read the synopsis and the opening chapters and are now lying about their reasons for rejecting the book. None of these is a good look for a publisher.

Another possible interpretation is that their business is operating on a shoestring and they’re terrified that adding an extra 40 pages to a 400-page book will turn a profitable release into a loss. The implication, here again, is not pretty. The implication is that their marketing and promotion is not muscular enough to make up the deficit, no matter how good the book is.

See, if they had said, “Your opening chapter is too intense for YA, and also it’s confusing,” that would have been a valid reason for rejection. I would have said, “You’re probably right about the intensity, but there’s a vital in-story reason for the apparent confusion.” And then we could have a meaningful discussion about ways to revise the story, and they could end by saying, “No, that’s not going to work for us.” That would be entirely reasonable. It would also be courteous and respectful.

But of course such a thing never happens. To the publisher, novels are a commodity. They could be buying and selling bananas. An agent will cheerfully tell you, “I fell in love with this book!” (Or, more likely, “I want to find a book I fall in love with.”) But for an agent, the words “in love with” mean exactly the same thing as, “can be sold to a publisher.” It’s all bananas.

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Who Do You Trust?

Between the empyrean heights of traditional (corporate) publishing and the fetid swamp of self-publishing lies the broad swath of prickly undergrowth where lurk the monsters of the indie press. I’ve been looking at a few indie websites this week, and reading cautionary tales. I did actually end up submitting a query to one of the indies. Perhaps inadvisedly. More on that below.

If your view of indie presses is through rose-colored lenses, you may want to jet over to Writer Beware. The material on that site will surely fill you with both fear and loathing, and that would be healthy for both your sanity and your literary prospects.

Many things can go wrong when an unsuspecting author signs a contract with an indie. Your book may be published with the wrong cover, or with chapters bound in from some other book. It happens. Your royalty checks may never arrive. When the publisher goes out of business, you may be unable to get the rights to your book reassigned to you — and yes, that can happen even if your contract specifically says you get the rights back.

Some indie publishers provide a decent service. Some of them have good intentions but lack a good business model. Some of them are jut plain crooks. I’m not going to trot out a check list of warning signs; read the Writer Beware site for that.

The publisher I decided to submit to has several things in its favor. First, it has been in business for eight or ten years. This indicates a certain level of stability. I used Amazon’s Look Inside to read the opening pages of a few of this publisher’s books, and the writing seemed well above average. The staff appears, with names, photos, and bios, on their website. (Never trust a publisher whose identity remains hidden.) Most important, perhaps, this publisher charges the author no fees up front. Instead, it pays royalties. That is, it’s not a vanity or “hybrid” publisher.

In general, I would strongly recommend against paying a publisher to publish your book. There may, however, be legitimate reasons why you would pay a publisher up front. For instance, the publisher may offer a combined package that includes cover design, interior layout, and e-book formatting, none of which you’re equipped to do yourself. The publisher may also offer in-house editing services, and if their editors are good (no guarantees on that score!), your work may be the better for it.

The problem with this business model is that once you have sent the publisher your fat lump of money — and we’re talking several thousand dollars — they have no incentive to follow through on any of those promised services. Their “promotion and marketing” may consist entirely of sending out a mass email that nobody reads. Their “editor” may be a recent college grad who knows less about editing fiction or English grammar than your Aunt Martha.

What you want is not a publisher that makes money selling services to authors. You want a publisher that makes money by selling books to readers.

After submitting my synopsis and opening chapters to this publisher, though, I went back to their website and thought a bit more about their personnel. The Editor-in-Chief claims to have years of editing experience, but her bio doesn’t mention a single company she has ever edited for, or a single book project with a major publisher that she has ever seen through to publication. She apparently spent ten years on the board of a volunteer-run non-profit dedicated to helping writers. As a credential, that’s pure piffle.

Her bio, the bio of her second-in-command editor, and the bio of the editorial assistant all mention their pets. This is undoubtedly intended to make the staff seem more human or approachable, but when you mention your cat’s name and don’t mention any paid position you have ever had in the publishing world, nor anything of your own that has ever been published … well, that’s not a good sign.

It’s also the case that the gal who is designated the copy-editor for this particular publishing outfit lists no qualifications whatever for her position. Having been a professional copy-editor myself for more than 25 years, I may be able to teach her a thing or two. Publishing should be a two-way street, after all.

And this is the company that rose above the pack to the point where I went ahead and sent them a query.

Now, I want to be clear about this. This publishing company may be both effective and entirely reputable! I may end up signing a deal with them (if they offer a reasonable contract), and it might work out very well for both parties. All I’m saying, to switch up the metaphor with which this essay began, is that indie publishing is a bit of a minefield. If you’re not watching your step, something may go boom.

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Nice While It Lasted

My Facebook account appears to have been hacked. Either that, or there’s some gigantic fuck-up in their software. Part of the problem is that I have two accounts — Jim Aikin and Jim Aikin Author. The Author account is still (as of this moment) functional. But when I try to restore access to the personal account, Facebook’s software keeps directing me over to the Author account. The personal account now has an email address at hotmail, which was never me. Their system wants to send the reset code to that email. Well, not gonna do that.

Sad to say, I rely on Facebook for a significant part of my social life. I get into random conversations with people, keep up with my friends’ lives, watch a few groups, and so on. But my Author account is deliberately devoid of political rants. That’s why I have it. It’s a sort of pathetic P.R. ploy. It leads to approximately zero sales of books, but that’s why I have it.

I have a couple of ideas about how this situation may have arisen, but I’m not going to share them here.

I was thinking tonight about ways to jump-start my face-to-face social life. Maybe this is the kick in the pants that I needed. Oh, wall. Sayonara, Facebook. It was nice while it lasted.

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Glorp

The whodunit I’m developing has a couple of elements that tag it as part of the cozy sub-genre within the mystery genre — a small, picturesque New England town and an amateur sleuth. It has, however, a narrator who is rather distinctly different from anything I’ve seen in the cozy department. So I’ve been dipping into some published cozies to see how my story would stack up if I were to toss it in an agent’s slush pile.

With precious few exceptions, the books on the cozy shelf are just dreadful. Now, I read a lot of mysteries. I even enjoy bad mysteries (notably those by Erle Stanley Gardner, which are dreadful — and I’ve read all of them more than once). I can’t force myself past 40 or 50 pages of a typical cozy. And the genre is so firmly defined that they’re all pretty typical.

This is not to slag Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books. Technically they’re regarded as cozies, but Christie antedated the current genre by many years. Miss Marple is very readable.

The two chief shortcomings of the genre are characterization and tone.

Cozy writing is never sharp. It’s flabby. Even when dramatic events are unfolding, the tone lacks urgency. Here’s an example, drawn from Facials Can Be Fatal by Nancy Cohen. In yesterday’s blog post I was praising Cohen’s how-to-write-cozies book, so you can safely assume I’m not singling her out for abuse. To set the stage, you need to know that Marla owns a beauty shop and the “day spa” (whatever that is) next door. She has been summoned to the day spa, where a customer has just died while being treated to a facial. 911 has already been called.

She swallowed uneasily, anticipating her husband’s reaction. Would Dalton, a homicide detective with the Palm Haven police force, arrive on the scene when he heard the address from the dispatcher? From previous experience, she knew that unattended deaths were investigated. That would apply in this case since the aesthetician had left the client alone.

There are several problems here. First, introducing the fact that the viewpoint character’s husband is a homicide detective should not be done in an appositive phrase in the middle of a murder scene. That’s just not the way to do it. Second, when you’re standing within feet of a corpse and have just “tamped down the bile in [your] throat at the clammy feel” of the corpse’s skin, you don’t swallow uneasily in anticipation of your husband’s reaction. That’s the wrong physiological response to a bit of uneasiness that is, in the circumstances, not likely to be nearly as significant as the already nauseating presence of the corpse. Third, what reaction does she expect? The paragraph does not tell us. Why would her husband be anything less than sympathetic and supportive? Fourth, in a scene that ought to have considerable dramatic impact, phrases like “previous experience” and “unattended deaths” and words like “aesthetician” and “client” are distancing. They push the reader away from the scene rather than providing immediacy.

You want flabby writing? There you go.

The characters in cozies tend to be blank spots with names attached. Surprisingly often, there’s no description at all of the character, just a name. When there’s a description, the men tend to be “hunky.” The descriptions of the women tell us more about their hair and clothing than about their demeanor. The conversations are usually long on generic blah-blah-blah; neither the subject matter of the dialog nor the tone of voice conveys anything that would provoke the reader to keep reading.

But of course readers do keep reading. By the millions. Cozy authors seem to be doing precisely what their readers want. A reasonable analysis would suggest that the readers want to spend a couple of hours hanging out with people who are just as boring as they are.

An unusually stark example of failure to describe a character can be found in Checked Out for Murder by Allison Brook. The sleuth is a librarian, and the library (a large old house that has been converted) is haunted by a ghost that only the sleuth can see. The ghost is named Evelyn. We have this sentence: “Evelyn perched on the corner of my desk, her favorite pose whenever she paid me a visit.” But … but … is Evelyn translucent or solid? Is she young or old? Does her voice echo oddly, or is it distorted as if it’s coming down a long narrow tube? Is she wearing a sheet? Brook never says.

I did a quick catalog of the characters in half a dozen cozies. Almost without exception they’re white. This is interesting, because so many literary agents will tell you they’re looking for diverse authors and diverse voices. Somehow the cozy authors don’t seem to have gotten the memo. Cohen’s opening chapters do include a Hispanic hairdresser and one who is “dark-skinned,” and the sleuth herself has a Jewish background, but this is unusual in the genre, and Cohen gets extra points for it. I didn’t spot anybody in any of these books who is disabled. Kate Carlisle’s Once Upon a Spine is set in San Francisco and includes a couple of men who co-own a bookstore … but they’re brothers-in-law, not a gay couple. Yeah, Kate. Sure. We believe you.

The amateur sleuth is usually a woman. Her boyfriend or husband is usually in law enforcement. This is a twofer: The author gets both the snuggle scenes and inside information on the crime from the same character. The sleuth always seems to have a pet, usually a cat but sometimes a dog. Brook’s librarian actually puts her cat in a carrier and takes it to the library with her every day, which leads to a flatly preposterous bit of action that would take too long to explain.

I could twist my own novel a little further and turn it into a satire of the cozy. It wouldn’t be hard to do, and on some level that would be richly satisfying. And my God, somebody needs to do it. This stuff is too rich a vein of glorp to be ignored.

The trouble is, satire is not a serious form of fiction. I don’t really want to do that to my young sleuth. She deserves to be taken seriously. So I have this half-finished rough draft, and it’s never going to be marketable as a cozy, because it’s too good. It’s too strong, too original. It doesn’t fit the genre template. Yet in some sense it’s still a cozy. It’s neither fish nor fowl, and I’m not sure yet what to do with it.

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