The Trap

Plotted genre fiction follows certain conventions. If you don’t understand the conventions, you’ll flounder around and get nowhere, or at best produce novels that nobody but your friends will want to read.

While working on my first novel, an aphorism that I found useful was, “Put your hero’s ass in a meat grinder — and then keep turning the crank.” I don’t know if I read that somewhere, or if I made it up. Looking back 40+ years later, I know Walk the Moons Road wasn’t a very good novel, but Del Rey bought it and published it, so I guess I was doing something right.

Lately I’ve been thinking about plot in terms of The Trap. It’s when the jaws of the trap snap shut that I know I have a story I want to write. The trap is when the hero absolutely has to do something that is absolutely impossible. If the hero can just shrug and walk away, it’s not a trap. If it’s easy to get out of the trap, the story is trivial. A big iron bear trap is what a book needs.

The jaws of the trap don’t have to snap shut on page 1. In my most recent novel, Woven of Death and Starlight, the trap snaps shut on my young heroine in chapter 6. There’s a hook in chapter 1, for sure, because chapter 1 is a flash-forward, but it’s the dilemma that she is plunged into in chapter 6 that inspired the book. That dilemma, that impossible situation, was what convinced me I had to write the story.

The nature of the trap depends on the genre, of course. If you’re writing a romantic comedy, the trap may be that Betty loves Dave but Dave is married to Sue. That’s a gentle trap, but it qualifies. Fortunately for you all, I don’t write rom-com.

What inspired me to write While Caesar Sang of Hercules was the murder in the opening scene. It ended up in chapter 2, because I had to do a build-up, but I knew I had to write about it. The real trap snaps shut on a different character, and it kind of builds up over the course of a few chapters. The hero is a young man who is a slave. He’s in love with the heroine (she’s in the opening scene), but he knows his love for her is hopeless because she’s well-born and he’s a slave. And then she’s accused of murder — and swiftly convicted. He sets out to find the real murderer, even though he knows he’s risking horrible penalties (being flogged would be less awful than some of the other things that could happen) and has nothing at all to gain. And then things get complicated….

In The Wall at the Edge of the World, the trap snaps shut on Danlo before the first chapter. He’s in an impossible situation emotionally, living in a sort of nightmare utopia, and he knows there’s nothing he can possibly do to change it. But then he learns that maybe he can change the world he lives in, maybe just a tiny bit, and it’s still impossible, but he knows he has to try. That one got bought and published too (by Ace), and I’ve reissued it in a handsome new paperback, with a new cover but without changing more than half a dozen words.

Right now I’m developing a plot for the prequel of my Leafstone epic. Or trying to. And I don’t know what the trap is. The main exterior events in the story are pretty much fixed, and that’s a problem for the author. Two powerful cities are going to have a war (with lots of magic), and they’re going to destroy one another. One of the rulers of Garath is going to escape the devastation, and he’s going to be carrying two vital magical artifacts. This has to happen, because his great-great grandson is an important character in the main epic, and has one of the artifacts, and is questing for the other. But where’s the trap in the prequel? I have to find the trap.

I started thinking about this while reading Jennie Nash’s how-to-write book Blueprint for a Book. Her first step is the question, “Why write this book?” The only answer I know is, “Because the jaws of the trap have snapped shut.” The hero is in a dire situation that absolutely demands resolution. But when the exterior events are fixed — and fixed, what’s more, in a way that means the hero has failed to save his beloved city — the trap may have to be something internal to his character and his emotional predicament. He’s running away! Thousands of his loyal followers are dying horribly, and he’s running away! How can this possibly work within the conventions of plotted fiction?

It’s a tough nut to crack. But as I used to tell my cello students, “If it was easy, everybody would do it.” In the case of self-published fiction, of course, everybody is doing it, most of them badly, but that’s a topic I’ve already ground into the dirt. No need to dwell on it now.

Why write this book? Not just because it’s the prequel. It will be the first book in the series, and it has to stand on its own two legs. If the author is telling readers, implicitly, “Keep reading — the cool stuff starts 400 pages later,” that’s a fail.

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Game Changes

Last year I participated in the Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp). There are prizes for the top entries, and people are asked to donate to the prize pool. I knew I would likely win some prize money (and I did), so contributing cash didn’t make much sense. Instead, I offered to write some synthesizer music, up to five minutes, for one of the winners.

Autumn Chen selected my prize for her game “The Archivist.” It’s a rather gloomy story, so I needed to compose some gloomy music. I pitched her half a dozen sketches, she selected three, and after a few months of delay, today I finished the mixes. There were all done in Reason, using quite a variety of synths and a few sound processing tricks.

Perhaps a word of explanation is warranted: My hearing is not that great anymore in the high frequencies, so while working on the mixes, I cheated a little. I boosted the highs so I could hear them better, and then turned off the boost before capturing the final files. If these tracks are too crispy, or not crispy enough, hey, I’m doing the best I can.

If you’re authoring interactive fiction and would like to talk to me about music, you can email me or send me a message on the forum.

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Put Me In, Coach

Apparently book coaching is now a big thing. Dozens or hundreds of coaches have hung out their shingles on the Web. The deal is, if you’re writing a novel, or would like to, you can hire a book coach, who will guide you through the process.

My apologies to John Fogerty for the title of this little essay. His song was about baseball. Also, my apologies for the occasional use of clichés. But if you don’t know what “hang out your shingle” means, that’s not my problem.

I’ve been looking into coaching. Not doing it, though I’m sure I could; hiring a coach. I probably don’t need coaching, had never, in fact, heard of such a thing, but I definitely need a source of support and enthusiasm to keep me from getting discouraged about writing. Someone suggested I might hire a coach, and I’m always happy to consider new possibilities. So here we are.

Indie authors hiring indie editors has been going on for some years now. Some editors are good, some are not, but they do fairly specific things. For starters, they read your completed manuscript. Developmental editors look at the big picture — your story, your world-building, your themes, and so on. Line editors help you polish your style. Copy editors (the term can also be formatted as copy-editors or copyeditors, and don’t ask me to split the infinitive on which is correct) make sure your grammar and punctuation are up to snuff. Proofreaders check for typos, missing quotation marks, consistent spelling of weird fantasy names, and so on. You should hire them in exactly the above order.

Book coaches don’t read a finished manuscript. As you’re working on your book, you send them chunks of 20 or 25 pages. Then you have a Zoom call with them, where the two of you discuss the various things they have noticed and commented on in your chunk. For this service, twice a month, you can expect to pay anywhere from $400 to $1,000 per month. If it takes you six months to write your book, you could end up in the hole by $6,000. Or more; I’m sure $1,000 is not at the upper end of the range.

The nature of the comments the coach will make on your chunk is unknown. Is the coach doing a developmental edit? A line edit? Possibly both. Secretly running your text through a grammar checker? That wouldn’t surprise me. But to do a decent developmental edit, an editor would have to read the whole book, and you haven’t written the whole book yet! The coach’s comments about your story are likely to be a crap shoot.

Coaches are not licensed. Some of them are just starting out. Most of them are not published authors, so their understanding of the multifaceted craft of fiction is not likely to be either comprehensive or incisive. And how would a client be able to judge the value of a coach’s comments? I’ve done free introductory interviews with a couple of coaches, and I have two more scheduled for tomorrow. After chatting with the first two for, in each case, half an hour, I have not a clue whether their talents as editors are astounding or nonexistent.

The bad news is, it doesn’t matter. Over the years I’ve seen a fair variety of fiction by aspiring amateur authors. Some of it had promise, but I can’t think of a single manuscript I’ve ever read that had me thinking, “Wow, this is professional-level work!” This is a polite way of saying that most of it was dreadful.

The scribblers who are producing this material are the clients of the coaches. And it doesn’t matter what the coaches tell them. It doesn’t matter whether the coaches know what they’re talking about, because these writers are never going to achieve anything anyway, in the way of literary art. What we have here is a classic case of the halt leading the blind. Or vice versa, I suppose.

I think one question I’m going to start asking coaches is this: “Have you ever coached a writer through a manuscript that, when it was complete, was taken up by an agent and published by one of the Big Five publishing houses?” I’ll bet the answer will be, “No.” But then, I’m not interviewing any of the thousand-bucks-a-month coaches. Their services would be well beyond the limits of my budget.

Why do you want to write a novel, anyway? There are so many more rewarding things to do! I’ve talked with people whose main inspiration for writing a fantasy novel was that they played D&D. The only response one can make to this admission (silently, of course), is, “Oh, fuck.” That’s like saying your inspiration for entering the Boston Marathon was watching Road Runner cartoons.

The rise of AI text generators is only going to make this trend worse. People are going to be asking ChatGPT to write a fantasy novel based on their latest D&D campaign. “Are going to be”? What am I saying? I’m sure they’re doing it already.

Somewhere in all this, the original purpose of fiction has been not just degraded but entirely lost. Fiction is when people tell one another stories — stories that matter to the teller, else why would she be telling them? There is no way to fake it. If your story doesn’t matter to you, a coach is not going to be able to help you make it matter.

Also, just because it matters to you does not mean it will ever matter to anybody else. If you want it to matter to your readers, learn the craft. A coach is not going to teach you the craft in two half-hour Zoom calls every month. Thinking a coach will get you there is just plain stupid. Nonetheless, book coaching proliferates. As P. T. Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute.

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Running on Empty

This is why we can’t have nice things:

This ad has been running in my Facebook feed since I joined a couple of writers’ groups. Fifteen minutes a day — think of that! And you can write your best-seller on your phone! If you go to the website (I dare you), what you’ll find is a beautifully crafted sales pitch that reveals absolutely nothing about what’s in the app. The entire pitch is aimed at people who wouldn’t know good advice on writing fiction if it jumped up and sank its teeth into their butt.

The main reason this is worth complaining about is that clueless wannabe writers are sucked into thinking they can get somewhere with this kind of idiocy. They then go out and write a “novel” that nobody but their mother could love, and upload it to Amazon. Or spam dozens of long-suffering literary agents with it.

The publishing pipeline is clogged with the effluvia produced by writers who think they’re going to get somewhere with a system like this. And what’s just as bad, some readers will buy their work and read it, and not see that it’s bad! The taste of the reading public is being degraded. We would all be better off if nobody encouraged these people to try writing novels.

I’m seeing ads for AutoCrit too. AutoCrit is more ambitious, and on that account more to be excoriated. If you select the fantasy page in AutoCrit, you’ll be told, “When you become an AutoCrit member, you gain access to an exclusive and powerful feature – the ability to compare your work to books by some of the most successful fantasy authors of all time.” Yes, they’re claiming their software will produce a meaningful comparison between your hopeless drivel and the work of George R. R. Martin.

AutoCrit claims to “remove the frustration from the editing process.” Unfuckingbelievable.

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Notes from the Underwear

How do you feel about info-dumps? The term itself is clearly pejorative. How can a dump ever be good? But how do you help the reader understand what’s going on if you’re not allowed to pause the action while you explain what’s going on?

I’ve become active in a couple of Facebook groups for writers of fantasy. One of the participants was sort of ranting about how she hates info-dumps. She feels information should be parceled out a bit at a time, dusted lightly into the scene as if it were a sprinkling of powdered sugar. (That’s my image, not hers.)

I suggested that if a dramatic scene has been set down on the page, if the stakes are clear, it’s okay to pause the action for as much as a full page in order to fill in any back-story that’s really necessary. Parceling out information a bit at a time is actually rude, because you’re asking the reader to construct a coherent understanding in their head by connecting the dots. And finding the right places for those dots? Not easy. But she stuck to her guns, by golly.

So I wandered over to Amazon and had a look for her books. Nope. She hasn’t published a single novel. This is a red flag. Opinions, as the saying goes, are like assholes. Everybody has one. What’s worse, the legions of the clueless — by which I mean aspiring unpublished authors — have no clear way to determine what advice is good and what advice they should ignore.

I asked her politely if she would be willing to share a few chapters of her work so I could understand better how she deals with parceling out information. And then, crickets. The idea that she should demonstrate the validity of the idea she was espousing was apparently just too radical.

My advice is, buy a stack of how-to-write books published by major publishing houses. Then, read the books. No, a blog about writing is not an adequate substitute; blogs are like assholes. (No, wait. Do I mean that?) Most of the things I say to aspiring authors are based as much on what I’ve read in how-to-write books as on my own experience.

In another discussion, a writer said he’s worried about his second and third chapters being too slow-paced. The same aspiring pundit rushed to assure him that a more relaxed chapter was okay after an exciting chapter. I, on the other hand, suggested to him that if he’s sensing a problem with those chapters, he’s probably right. I suggested he brainstorm some ways to make those chapters more dramatic.

Writing a novel is hard. There are so many, many ways to do it wrong! Last night I revised the opening chapter of The Leafstone Shield. It’s much better now than in the published version. At some point I’m going to have to issue a revised edition, but that probably won’t happen for a couple of years. I have a fair amount of experience as a writer of fiction, and I still screw up. I get things wrong, and then I dream up reasons to tell myself it’s really okay.

Rule Number One for writers of fiction: Your book is not as good as you think it is. It’s just not. But this is not a reason for despair; it just means you need to roll up your sleeves, dig in, and make it better.

Most aspiring authors don’t want to do that. When you point out problems, they get defensive. They want to be told that their work is wonderful, that it only needs a few little tweaks and it will be ready for the New York Times best seller list.

Yesterday I read the opening two chapters of a fantasy novel that an unpublished author is working on. There was a lot of not terribly original world-building, but there was no plot. Also no fully dramatized scenes, just scraps in which not much happens. Those two chapters need to be thrown out. The writer needs to start over. But I’ll bet you $5 she won’t want to do that. She’ll come up with reasons why the material needs only a few minor tweaks.

And here’s a delightful (?) bit, a post from a person in one of the fantasy writers’ groups: “I have no idea where my story falls on the charts of what genre of fantasy it is. Is there someone who would be willing to read my first chapter (I can’t remember exactly but somewhere between 4,000&5,000 words) and book outline in exchange for me beta reading up to 10,000 words for them? Someone who is knowledgeable about fantasy genres and would be able to tell me what genre it fits into.”

The rock-crushing problem with this is that the writer has not researched her own genre enough to know how her story fits within the genre — and yet she thinks her primary problem is market positioning of the existing manuscript.

Am I too old and cynical? Sure. If you’re not cynical by the time you’re 35, you’re just not paying attention. And I passed the 35 mile mark half a lifetime ago.

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Staying the Course

This is going to be a personal journal entry, along with anything else. It’s about writing — specifically, about writing novels — but it’s about a difficulty that maybe doesn’t get talked about enough.

Having noticed that I’m not dead yet, I bethought me perhaps to assay the authorship of yet another book. I have several projects on my hard drive, in various stages of disarray. The one that seems most promising (or doable, which is much the same thing) is the prequel to my Leafstone epic.

The epic is those four book covers up at the top of the blog. Buy the books! Read them! Enjoy them! We will now return you to your regularly scheduled broadcast; no more promo, I promise.

Writing a novel is hard work. You don’t do it one day at a time, that’s for sure. It requires commitment. It requires grit. There are days when you wake up filled with reluctance and disinterest, not wanting in any way to write. So you think, “Well, I guess I could go over what I wrote yesterday and tidy it up a bit.” Then after you do that, you think, “Maybe I could write one or two new paragraphs.” This is a way of priming the pump. At the end of the day you’ve written another 2,000 words, and it was a good day.

But there are also times when the story just plain isn’t working. The process grinds to a halt, because something in the plot outline needs to be ripped up. This can cause the writing to stall for months or years.

I may not have years. I might not even have hours; that’s what it’s like when you’re over 70. But I may have years. I just don’t have years to waste, that’s all. In order to keep the writing process moving forward, I need a reliable source of emotional support. A cheering section, if you will. One or two people — I don’t need a fan club. But writing is a solitary business. I need someone that I can grouse with, bounce ideas off of, and so forth. In the absence of support, I too easily get discouraged.

I have no family, so I have to cast the net more widely.

It has been suggested that I join a critique group. Hang out with my peers! But this is not a great idea, for two reasons.

The second reason, which I’ll get to below, is that they’re not my peers. The first reason is because I’m not really looking for critiques. I know what I’m doing. A second opinion is always welcome, but the critique process is largely irrelevant. In any case, the critique groups I’ve looked at (or joined) in recent years tend to want you to submit 2,500 or perhaps as much as 5,000 words per group meeting, and they meet once a month. At that rate, it would take two years or more for the group to read through a 120,000-word novel. That would be useless! If I had a completed manuscript, why would I let it sit on the shelf for two years while the group reads it? And if it’s not yet complete, why would I submit it to the group at all? Too much can change. I might have to revise chapter 3 after I draft chapter 20, so a critique of the draft of chapter 3 would be rendered irrelevant.

No, I don’t need critiques.

Or do I? Maybe I do. Even a person who is a terrible writer can sometimes make a good suggestion about someone else’s work. But the word count limitation is a real problem.

The other issue is, to be brutally honest, that the people in the critique groups I’ve looked at are, without exception, hapless amateurs. After seeing bits of their writing, I would not trust their enthusiasm about mine. And if they expect mutual support for their efforts, as of course they would, there would be no way for me to support them in an honest way. How could I support someone who really ought to step away from the word processor and study writing for a few years before they ask anyone to read their work?

I think the prequel is likely to be pretty good. And there are two follow-up books, for which I’ve made masses of notes. The four-book series could turn into a seven-book series, if I live long enough. But that’s not likely to happen unless I have a little cheering section that can keep me moving forward.

When you’re younger, it’s easier to keep yourself going by imagining a glowing future. You can kid yourself by fantasizing about those glowing reviews and fan letters. But I can no longer entertain that vision. It just isn’t believable anymore. I need something closer to home.

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Rabbits in the Wallpaper

I have a weird double attitude toward the tenuous tenets of mysticism. On the one hand, I’m a hard-headed atheist. Scientists have investigated paranormal phenomena at great length, and there’s just nothing there. But on the other hand, weird things do happen.

I don’t mean rhe weird things (“miracles”) you can read about in a book. I mean things that have happened to me personally. Having nothing better to do this evening, I thought I might share a few of them with you. Make of them what you will.

Very occasionally, there’s a moment when the cosmos seems to be making a meaningful, personal comment about something I’m doing or thinking.

Now, the hard-headed atheist in me calls this the rabbits in the wall paper effect. The idea is, if you stare long enough at a stretch of wallpaper that contains nothing but randomly distributed blobs of color, your mind will soon see patterns. You’ll see the silhouette of a rabbit in the wallpaper, or a three-legged buffalo, or a clown with his head bent over sideways. The human brain is quite adept at finding patterns that appear to be meaningful, even in data that’s not meaningful at all.

There are sound reasons in evolution why our brains do this. Consider: You’re sauntering along the floor of the jungle, minding your own business, and suddenly overhead you catch just the barest glimpse of something on a tree limb. Your brain very quickly assembles the disjointed scraps of visual data and reports, “Hey, there’s a leopard up there getting ready to pounce on you!” So you run.

In reality, there may or may not be a leopard. But the cost of a false positive (thinking you see a leopard when there isn’t one) is trivial. The cost of failing to notice that those tiny bits of visual data do actually spell “leopard” is catastrophic in both personal and evolutionary terms. Your genes will not be passed on to the next generation. So our brains have evolved to see patterns and jump to useful conclusions about what they mean.

In modern life, most of us will never encounter a leopard. Wallpaper with random blobs of color isn’t too common either. But every day we’re likely to encounter hundreds of randomly distributed events. The probability that one or two of them will appear to be deeply meaningful is actually rather high.

On the other hand, here’s a story for you.

I’ve never had any great success in sustaining an intimate relationship. When I was younger I did have sexual relationships with several different women at different times. I was even married for a year or so. But for reasons that needn’t detain us at the moment, the relationship thing never quite made sense to me at a deep level. I kept trying, but it just wasn’t working for me.

I barely remember the name of the last girlfriend I had. It was 30 years ago. I think her name was Kathryn. We dated for a couple of months. I was living in an apartment complex in Cupertino. The last time I was in bed with her, it was a hot summer night. The window in my bedroom was open. And from across the walkway, from the open window of an apartment in the next building, floated the sound of a violin playing the melody of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

You may or may not know the tune. It’s kind of a chestnut of the classical repertoire. I had played it in a couple of orchestras when I was growing up. You may or may not know that the title, in English, would be “A Little Night Music.” But here’s the point of the story: The melody was being played, by that solo violin on that particular evening, very, very badly. It was pathetic! I had never heard a violin from across the walkway before, and I never heard one again afterward. But on that particular night, when my final attempt to be intimate with a woman just wasn’t working very well (and for the record, no, I’m not talking about impotence), the universe chose to serenade me with a truly sad, useless rendition of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

I felt at the time, and have felt ever since, that the universe was saying to me, “Is this what you really want?”

The thing about these weird coincidences is that they do seem to pop up at the most meaningful moments. Carl Jung called this synchronicity.

Here’s another story. This one dates back to about 1978. I was driving from Cupertino down to Los Gatos. A friend of mine had invited me to a party. I was mulling over, in a mildly puzzled way, the questions I’m posing in this little essay. It occurred to me, as I was driving along, that the scientific view of the world is, after all, just a bunch of ideas in people’s heads. The only place where science ever exists is in people’s heads. And likewise the view of the world as magical or mystical — it’s all in people’s heads. It struck me, then, that I could choose which view I would entertain.

At that moment, a traffic light ahead of me turned red, and I braked to a stop. Directly ahead of me was a car whose custom license plate read IM CHAOS.

I am not making this up. It really happened. The universe was telling me that what’s outside of our heads, what’s out there, can be relied on to conform neither to the strictures of science nor to the rosy wishes of the magically inclined. It’s all chaos. Beyond that, of course, the universe was commenting directly on what I was thinking. And why not? Chaos can do that.

Ready for another? This is one of my favorites.

You need to know two things. First, my mother was a bit of a pack rat. She saved my first grade report card, for instance. Second, during my years as a musician I’ve explored fairly extensively a variety of alternate tuning systems — musical resources in which there are more than 12 notes within an octave.

My first experience with these alternate tunings came during my senior year in high school. This was in 1966. Though still in high school, I was playing cello in the Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay) orchestra. A student who was a music composition major at Cal State had chosen to write as his senior project a piece in quarter-tone intonation; that is, with 24 different notes in each octave. He figured it would be easier to get quarter-tones out of a cello, because the strings are longer than on the violin so the notes are more widely spaced. So he wrote a piece for several cellos, and I played it in his senior recital.

I had no contact with this composer after that. Barely remembered that I had played at that recital. In 2011, my mother had recently died, and I was going through her things. I found a concert program from the Cal State orchestra, from 1966. It brought back a hazy memory. “Oh, yeah, that bassoon player. I played that quarter-tone piece in his senior recital.”

Less than 24 hours later, the composer not only emailed me but sent me an mp3 of the recording of the piece I had played. My email address is not hard to find; that’s not the weird coincidence. What’s weird was the timing and the connection with unusual tuning systems, which has long fascinated me.

These incidents were so meaningful, so personal, that it’s rather difficult to say, “That was just a coincidence.” I can’t quite buy the idea that it’s just rabbits in the wallpaper, because it seems to happen (again, not often!) at key moments. The distribution is not random.

What’s very clear is that this type of phenomenon cannot be investigated scientifically. You can’t take it into the laboratory and run tests in which you change one variable and observe the results. Such events are, by definition, one-offs. They’re not repeatable.

But then, nothing in life is repeatable. The idea that anything at all can be repeated is a fond illusion. Heraclitus said, “You can’t step into the same Nile twice.” Nor can you catch the same fish twice. It’s always a new fish. But I promise you, those aren’t fish stories. Unless the universe is deliberately playing unfathomable games with my memory, these things really happened.

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Start Making Sense!

I’m cursed with a mind that wants the elements of a novel to actually make sense. Surprisingly often, there are wide gaps of illogic in the plot of a mystery. This somewhat hampers my enjoyment of the story.

My insistence on a sensible plot also gets in the way of my own writing. When I find myself staring in dismay at a plot I’m concocting, confronted with the realization that there’s a real difficulty, I may have to set the whole project aside, at least for the time being. Occasionally, clarity will later emerge, but no guarantees.

Tonight’s little essay will contain a serious spoiler for one of the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters. If you don’t want to read the spoiler, stop now.

Still here? Okay. The novel in question is called An Excellent Mystery. This title turns out to be ironic on a couple of counts. First, there is actually no murder in the book. This is very rare in the genre, but it’s kind of cool. There is, however, a mystery.

Now to the spoiler. Two Benedictine brothers arrive at the monastery in Shrewsbury where Brother Cadfael hangs out. The setting is England in the 12th century, and a civil war is going on. The two newcomers, Brother Humilis and Brother Fidelis, are refugees from the destruction of their own monastery off in Winchester. Like Cadfael himself, Brother Humilis came late to his religious calling. Like Cadfael, he was a soldier in the Crusades. Unlike Cadfael, he was horribly wounded. The author treats his condition gracefully, but it’s clear that among other things he has lost his reproductive organs. He is faithfully tended by Brother Fidelis (“faithful,” get it?), a young monk who is mute.

A bunch of stuff happens, involving a young woman who has been missing for three years. She was affianced to Brother Humilis before he took vows. He sent her a message releasing her. We may imagine that the messenger let it be known what his condition was. The young woman then, apparently in disappointment, went off to become a nun, but she never arrived at the nunnery. It’s a mystery! Is she dead?

Of course not. “Brother Fidelis” is actually the young woman. She has disguised herself as a man (or, I suppose, as a teenage boy) and become a Benedictine monk so as to care faithfully for the man she could no longer marry. That’s the substance of the plot. This “young monk” is seen again and again throughout the story, and only at the very end, when the wounded man dies, does the author reveal what has been going on. (I figured it out 50 pages earlier. Ellis Peters is not very subtle about her plotting.)

Here’s the problem, though: Benedictine monks in the 12th century had, really, no possessions of their own, and darn little in the way of privacy. Peters never goes into detail about their need to, uh, urinate and so forth, though in The Sanctuary Sparrow there’s a mention of the monastery’s “lavatorium” and “necessarium.” We can reliably guess that the necessarium didn’t have booths with doors that would close. It was probably a row of holes in a bare plank, and a trough beneath the plank. Anybody who hauled up their robes to use it would be rather visible. And would they have washed only their faces, hands, and feet in the lavatorium? I’d guess they would have disrobed at least partially, some of the time. After all, they’re all men, right? Nothing to hide.

I’m willing to believe the young woman is flat-chested. I’ll even go so far as to agree that somehow none of the other monks notice that she never needs to shave. But, well, there’s another basic difference between men and women.

How is she to dispose of the bloody rags every month, without any of the other monks noticing? Where does she even get the rags? From all we have seen of monastery activities in the Brother Cadfael books, the monks are thrifty, because they’re living in poverty. If a garment gets torn, it gets sewn up again. There are no spare rags just lying around for the taking, and if you only have the one precious rag, you’re going to need to rinse it out several times every month in the lavatorium. Also, not to be gross about it or anything, but one would expect there to be an odor, especially if she’s only washing her hands and feet.

Ellis Peters was the pen name of Edith Pargeter. A woman. She could hardly have been in ignorance of this difficulty. The excellent (?) mystery is really how the monks, one and all, failed for three years to notice that “Brother Fidelis” was menstruating. And perhaps the third excellent mystery, the third irony of the title, is how the author expected that her readers wouldn’t think to ask that question.

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Sticks & Stones

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine on Facebook was hating on J. K. Rowling. As far as I know, my friend is a very nice person; I tend not to collect a following of wackos. My friend said Rowling had called trans people “Death Eaters.” I’m morally certain she never said anything of the sort, but I try not to jump to conclusions. I asked my friend to provide a link to a reputable source for his accusation.

He said he would do so, but after that, crickets. He produced no link.

In the course of her rather sensible essay on trans issues, Rowling mentions that someone literally faked a tweet and screen-captured the fake, making it appear she had made some sort of awful statement that she never made. I’m pretty sure my friend was suckered by a despicable tactic of this sort.

What interests me is not anything that Rowling does or does not believe. You can disagree with her all you like. As long as you do so in a rational manner, I will support your right to disagree. It could be an interesting discussion.

What concerns me is the irrational hatred that is directed at people who don’t toe the party line with respect to one issue or another. This is certainly the case on the right, but it’s also a distressingly common tendency on the left.

Now, it has to be said that people on the left are generally much more firmly in touch with facts. The QAnon bunch starts with complete fantasies and then starts advocating violence. People of the woke persuasion are (again, generally speaking) starting from an easily verifiable view of actual oppression. With facts. I can certainly understand that the facts are upsetting, and that bringing about social change is very, very difficult. So their frustration makes sense.

The problem, it seems to me, is this: More than occasionally, people who are trying to overcome oppression start flailing around and attacking anybody who doesn’t agree 100% with their ironclad view of what’s right and appropriate and justified — their view of what’s essential in order to overcome oppression. They’re not interested in having a respectful discussion. They don’t want to use logic or take account of facts that might lead them to moderate their views. If you dare point out an inconvenient fact (as Rowling has done), you become The Enemy. The gloves are off. They will attack you mercilessly, up to and including suggesting that violence be used against you to shut you up.

This afternoon, in what I thought was a discussion of gendered pronouns, I was accused of being an old, ignorant white guy. Well, okay, I’m old, that’s true. I’m also about as white as you can imagine. But neither of those facts has fuck-all to do with the topic of pronouns. The person who used this phrase was simply being abusive.

That’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Rather than stick to the topic at hand and have a rational discussion — a discussion in which, gee, I might even learn something from him and moderate my view — my interlocutor went on the attack.

In fact, I’m not ignorant about gender issues. I don’t talk about it much (a lifelong habit of reticence), but I identify as part of the trans community. I’m not transgender per se, and the details are none of your business, but I have a lot of experience in this area and a tidy little stack of books on the subject of trans identities.

But that’s not the point either. The point is, our culture, our collective psyche if you will, seems to have tumbled off of a cliff into a swamp of irrational animosity. This kind of thing is dangerous. Even if it doesn’t lead to actual violence (and most of the time it doesn’t), it prevents us from learning from one another. How can we move forward and make the world a better place if we can’t discuss our differences in a calm and rational manner?

I don’t just mean I might be able to teach the other person a thing or two, if only he had been able to listen without hitting the big red button. Maybe yes, maybe no. Beyond that, I might have learned from him if he had been able to explain his thinking in a calm way. By attacking me, he forfeited the possibility of giving me the benefit of his ideas.

I’d like to hope that this trend will reverse itself. But I don’t see much prospect of that happening.

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Emotions in Gear

I like reading series mysteries. Rex Stout, Ross Macdonald, Tony Hillerman, Sara Paretsky, and many other authors, even (God help me) Erle Stanley Gardner. Right now I’m re-reading the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. There’s something comforting about a series mystery. You know, more or less, what you’re getting into, but there are always fresh surprises.

I’d like to write a series. Or at the very least, I’d like to have the manuscript of a first novel in a series that I could pitch to an agent in the hope, however dim, that the agent would like it and sell it to a publisher.

I’ve self-published a couple of mysteries, While Caesar Sang of Hercules (historical) and Woven of Death and Starlight (YA fantasy, but also a whodunit). You can find them on Amazon if you spell my name right. In both cases, I tried to come up with a sequel, but my ideas for stories never caught fire. And I know why. In both of those books, the main character has a serious personal predicament that is emotional in character.

An emotion-laden problem is not a plot kernel that can be repeated. Only in soap opera can a character be run again and again through one emotional wringer after another.

In mystery series, the sleuth stands somewhat apart from the emotional turmoil of the case. Various authors handle this emotional distance in various ways. Lew Archer is almost a movie camera; he seldom reveals his feelings about anything. Archie Goodwin gets into emotional tangles, but those are with his boss, Nero Wolfe, not with the people he’s investigating. Brother Cadfael has active compassion for the people around him, but the emotional tangles of the stories are not his tangles. V. I. Warshawski does get tangled up in other characters’ emotions, but not in a way that’s healthy or even personal. She’s just a raw nerve.

Series sleuths do face personal physical danger, but that’s a different thing. It’s a convention of the genre, and in the end it’s not very interesting.

Right now I have an idea for a sleuth who I think could work very well in a series, if only I could see how to set it up. I don’t think I can make her a Brother Cadfael; she’s too cynical. She wouldn’t make a good Lew Archer; she has too much attitude. She wouldn’t make a good Warshawski; Warshawski is just tiring, and I don’t want to go there.

If I give her a personal emotional difficulty, she won’t be viable as a series sleuth. But if I don’t, I may not feel moved to write her into a book. The days when mysteries were just puzzles to be solved (as in Agatha Christie) are long gone. Readers crave a little soap opera.

Ellis Peters is fond of using star-crossed lovers. At the end, Brother Cadfael has somehow arranged it that the attractive, well-meaning young people can come together. That might work — but arranging for lovers’ stars to be crossed is a lot easier in a historical than in a modern setting.

I’m not sure what direction to go. I do like my sleuth, though. I think you’d like her too.

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