Time Keeps On Slippin’, Slippin’, Slippin’…

Stories about time travel have been a staple of science fiction ever since H. G. Wells invented the idea. The obvious advantage of the time-travel tale is that it allows the writer to drop a modern human, a character whose knowledge and attitudes will be comfortable for readers, into an unfamiliar world. Also, ancient history is full of drama, not to mention culturally meaningful events.

Nothing in contemporary physics suggests that time travel is possible, so really we’re dealing with fantasy, not science fiction. But all science fiction is fantasy, if you want to get technical about it. SF is a sub-genre of fantasy in which we’re supposed to pretend that the events being depicted could actually take place. With unicorns and vampires, the pretense is transparent, but in SF we’re supposed to convince ourselves that we’re not pretending.

The science fiction genre is jam-packed with pseudo-tech that has no plausible basis in reality. Off-loading your consciousness into a computer so you can live forever, there’s a good one. Utter balderdash, but a few writers have run off toward the goal-posts brandishing it in triumph. Telepathy, same deal. Novels with telepathy are considered SF by convention, but they’re fantasy.

The trick in writing SF is to make it seem believable. If you want to write a time-travel yarn, for instance, you’ll need to come up with an angle on the paradox problem, also called the grandfather paradox. What happens if you go back in time and kill your grandfather before your father was conceived? There are three or four possible routes around this roadblock, and you can choose the one that works best with your story, but you can’t avoid choosing one and sticking to it.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I’m thinking about the messy problem of the inertial frame of reference.

In a typical time-travel story, the lead character hops into the time machine and emerges at some point in the past, either at the same geographical location or at another one that the writer proposes to use as a setting (such as, perhaps, Jerusalem or the London of Jack the Ripper, both of which are popular choices). But where was London in 1888? Saying, “It was right where it is today,” is not quite good enough.

What inertial frame of reference does your time machine use? This is a question in physics.

Let’s suppose it’s the gravitational field of the Earth. Plenty of mass there. You can have some magic physics so your time machine will operate using the Earth as the frame of reference. Unfortunately, the Earth is spinning at a rate of about a thousand miles an hour. Let’s suppose you try sending your time traveler back in time by one hour. Depending on how far your time machine is from the equator, your time traveler is going to step out of the machine (or force-field, or whatever) as much as a thousand miles east of where you expect her to be. If the time machine is in New York or Japan, the time traveler will end up in the ocean.

Okay, you can add a super-computer to your time machine so as to compensate for that. Now you’re moving your time traveler through both space and time, so you get an effective teleporting device for free. That could make for a good story, and you’re welcome to write it if you like.

But wait: Is the Earth really a valid frame of reference? What if the Sun and its planetary system are the frame of reference? In that case, a chrononaut who travels an hour into the past will emerge in outer space, because the Earth is traveling around the Sun at about 67,000 miles per hour. Also, if the solar system is the frame of reference, no matter how good your super-computer is at tracking where the Earth was or will be, you can’t make time jumps of a century at all, because at that time-scale the solar system is chaotic. The gravitational pull of Jupiter and Saturn will have somewhat altered the orbit of the Earth, and there’s really no way to calculate how.

And then there’s the galaxy. What if the galaxy is your frame of reference? In that case, the Earth is moving through the galaxy in a spiral shaped like an enormous corkscrew, and the gravitational fields of nearby stars have to be taken into account. Also, the galaxy itself is in motion relative to … well, relative to other galaxies, which are also in motion.

One of the odd things about the universe is that there really isn’t an inertial frame of reference, other than in a strictly local sense. To quote Alan Watts only slightly out of context, “This is it.”

But don’t let that discourage you. Go ahead and write your time-travel novel. There are some great ones! And nobody but pedants like me will pause and say, “No, but wait….”

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Halfway Through Doomsday

The local library is starting up its science fiction book club again, using Zoom. I was happy to join. This month’s discussion will be of Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It’s all about pandemics, and that’s obviously why it was chosen. I was happy to hear that we would be reading it, because I have the book on my shelf, and my memories of it are fond. Time for a re-read.

This time around, my patience is wearing thin. The basic idea of the book is sound, but Willis is far too self-indulgent. The paperback is 575 pages long, and I reckon that at more than 200,000 words. It could have been trimmed, and should have been, to 150,000 words at most. Either that, or the plot should have been beefed up.

Before I get to specific criticisms, here’s a brief synopsis.

It’s the year 2054. Time travel has been invented, but it works in a limited way. (This is good. We don’t want the technology in SF to be easy.) The academics at Oxford are sending researchers back in time to learn first-hand about history. The way it works is, the technicians drop the researcher through to some physical location at some point in the past, with a possible error, which on average is small. After a couple of weeks in the past, the researcher returns to the “drop point” and is scooped up.

A grad student, Kivrin, is keen on the Middle Ages. She has managed to work the academic bureaucracy to the point where she is making a solo drop to 1320. This is preposterous. It’s good novel-writing technique, because it puts young Kivrin in grave danger, but why not send three or four people at once, in order to fend off possible dangers while gathering a lot more data? Am I really that much smarter and more conscientious than Oxford professors?

If they sent three researchers together and then something bad happened to the others so that Kivrin was left by herself, that would be rising action. But alas, ’twas not to be.

At the moment Kivrin is being sent back, a mutant virus breaks out at Oxford. The technician who set up the drop is the first victim. He seems to fear that something has gone wrong, but he’s also feverish, hallucinating, and incoherent. Oxford is shut down in quarantine. More cases appear. Mr. Dunworthy, who is Kivrin’s faculty mentor, is worried that something may have gone wrong with the drop, because the tech is babbling about something being wrong, but it’s Christmas, and between Christmas holiday excursions and the quarantine, no other techs are available to look at the equipment and figure out what, if anything, the first tech keeps babbling about.

Kivrin, meanwhile, finds herself in dire straits in the Medieval midwinter. She has somehow caught the same virus before she left, and is terribly sick for a number of days. She’s found in the woods and brought back to a tiny village, but because she was feverish when found and carried off, she has no idea where the drop point is, and the man who found her and brought her back has ridden off on an errand, so she can’t ask him.

After 280 pages, that’s the extent of the plot. Dunworthy is getting exactly nowhere in his attempt to find a tech and discover what may have gone wrong with the drop. And Kivrin is getting nowhere in her attempt to find the drop point in order to go home. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of other stuff is going on — stuff that amounts mostly to filler. And the real crisis has not yet been unveiled. What is actually going on is that Kivrin wasn’t dropped into 1320. Due to a huge technical error, she was dropped into 1348, the year the Black Death reached England. But she doesn’t know that yet, and neither does Dunworthy.

Nor, obviously, does the reader, although Willis’s hints are not very subtle. Kivrin has been thoroughly inoculated against all sorts of diseases. And yet, in trying to diagnose her own influenza and pneumonia, she reflects that she can’t have the Plague, because the symptoms aren’t right. This is bogus. She thinks she’s in 1320. The Plague wasn’t anywhere near England in 1320, so there’s no reason for her to dwell on it even for a moment.

The chapters in Oxford in 2054 are burdened with Willis’s not very effective attempts at humor. Dunworthy’s life is being made miserable by Gilchrist, the head of another department and the official supervisor of the drop. Gilchrist is a one-dimensional character who never does anything but carp, fume, and rant. Then there’s Finch, another one-dimensional character, whose role in the proceedings is to continually complain to Dunworthy that the residence hall is running out of food and toilet paper on account of the influx of detainees who are being housed there. The phone lines are jammed, so communication with the world beyond the quarantine perimeter is unreliable. And as if that weren’t enough, we have Mrs. Gaddson, a furiously overbearing woman who runs around threatening to sue the university over the shocking conditions that her student son is being subjected to. And then there’s the American bell choir, who can’t play their Christmas concert because of the quarantine but they need a room to practice in, and Finch won’t assign them one.

I could go on, but I think my point is clear. None of this lumber has anything to do with Kivrin’s actual quite difficult situation. It’s just a way of filling up endless pages.

Kivrin, meanwhile, recovers from her flu and is now saddled with taking care of the noblewoman’s two daughters, pesty Agnes and bossy Rosamund. They go out riding and Agnes brings her puppy along in the saddlebag, which causes problems.

Writing realistically about modern people’s encounters with other cultures is always a problem for writers, because of the language barrier. Willis manages to handle the linguistic challenge gracefully — an Oxford don would give her high marks. Kivrin has some sort of bionic implant that can translate Middle English. At first it doesn’t work, so the locals say things like, “Thin keowre hoorwoun desmoortale?” The savvy reader may, after a few bits of this, be able to understand it better than Kivrin does. If you rearrange the spacing there, you’ll have, “Think you her wound is mortal?” But before long the implant starts working, so the story can meander onward, ever onward.

I’m not the only critic of Willis’s work. The wikipedia page on her more recent work, the two-volume story Blackout/All Clear, which is also about Oxford’s history department sending time travelers, contains this criticism: “Unfortunately, the bulk of Blackout is taken up by Polly, Mike and Eileen’s individual realizations that they’re trapped in the past, with each caught in a state of seemingly perpetual denial about their circumstances. Instead of acknowledging the blatant truth of their predicament, they concoct endless mental scenarios as to why their gates won’t open…. Willis goes on for pages with her protagonists repeatedly ruminating about the same ‘what ifs’ over and over (and over) again. It may be understandable in the beginning of the story as the characters adjust to the magnitude of their situation. But it soon becomes apparent that this is what constitutes drama in Willis’ universe and it never stops.” Another critic had this to say: “There’s little overall tension, and the time-traveling historians come over as both panicky and amateurish – an undesirable combination, one might think….”

Willis has won a lot of awards, and her eye for historical detail seems to be very good. What one misses is rising action. She seems to be content to put her characters in difficult situations and then leave them there, trusting that readers will continue to turn the pages wondering how it’s all going to turn out.

She also leans too heavily on comic relief. One well-rounded comic character in a book of this size would be welcome. Three of them, all one-dimensional and annoying (but not for a moment lovable), no. That’s not good. Terry Pratchett does wonderful comic characters, but they’re more complex and more lovable. Who wouldn’t love Nobby Nobbs? Gilchrist, Finch, and Mrs. Gaddson just aren’t in that class. And when you’re not even in the same class as Nobby Nobbs, you really do have a problem.

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Quick Tip(s)

I may add to this post from time to time, as more things occur to me. We’ll start off with just one quick tip:

Never throw away your old files. Archive everything. Even the stuff you’re sure you’re never going to need.

This afternoon, while revising a chapter in my current WIP, I realized that my detective was about to start interrogating a suspect on a subject for which he no longer had a foundation. In adding power to an earlier chapter, I had replaced a not very exciting scene with one that had more tension. Unfortunately, the scene I cut provided the springboard for the scene in the later chapter. A certain character is a bit of a financial charlatan, and that’s important, because his financial troubles may have motivated him to commit murder. So the gossip about his feud on money matters mattered.

Fortunately, I had a supposedly complete 2nd draft (now two years old) on my hard drive. Grabbing the missing scene, fiddling with it a bit, and finding a place to put it took only half an hour or so.

Scrivener, which is the software I use for writing fiction, makes archiving easy, but I’ve been renumbering chapters and moving things around. Finding that scene in one of the dozens of Scrivener snapshots would have taken longer. I went straight to the draft I had exported from Scrivener in 2018.

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The Next Step

So, you’ve written a book. You’re convinced it’s really good — the type of thing a mainstream publisher would love to publish. What’s your next step?

This question came up today in a Facebook writers’ group. Great source for blog topics, Facebook. This particular group has the term “literary agents” in its name, and a newbie had the impression the group would be a place to find an agent. If only it were that easy!

If you’re in that boat, I imagine you’re hoping to find a short cut to success. Really, there aren’t any short cuts. Well, maybe one, which I’ll get to in a moment. But basically, it’s a grind. Assuming you want to try to get your foot in the door with traditional publishing, and aren’t sure where to start, possibly I can offer a few tips. You won’t like them, but here they are, for better or worse. Nothing in what follows will apply to self-publishing or to the you-pay-the-publisher services. This is about going for the big leagues.

Traditional publishing (the kind that gets books into bookstores) is an intensely competitive business. Before you start writing, or while you’re writing, you will need to study the market. There are two reasons for this. First, you don’t want to be using old-fashioned, threadbare ideas — a frequent misstep among amateur science fiction writers. Second, you want to know what the criteria are for your genre.

The length of the manuscript is a basic criterion. You won’t be able to sell a mystery that’s 50,000 words long, or 150,000 words. Publishers won’t be interested. You may be outraged by this cavalier dismissal of your wonderful book, but get over it. In addition, there are taboos in certain genres to do with explicit sex, levels of violence, and stuff like that. So do your market research.

You’ll probably want to have your manuscript proofread (by a professional, not your cousin Bernie) before you submit it. No matter how good your story is, an agent is going to toss it on the reject pile very quickly if there are typos or grammatical errors, or if it’s formatted in some weird way. Getting a couple of beta-readers to read your work and make suggestions is not a bad idea. But let’s say your manuscript is solid. You’re ready for the next step.

Here’s the short cut I was talking about. If you happen to know, personally, an author who has succeeded in traditional publishing in your genre, you may very politely ask this author if he or she would consider reading your manuscript and possibly, if they feel it’s good, recommending it to their agent. This may or may not work. The author may politely decline. But as long as you’re polite and professional, it never hurts to try.

Yes, you will need a literary agent. Mainstream publishers simply don’t look at direct submissions from authors, not in the fiction field. (I’ve sold several nonfiction books to specialty publishers without an agent, but that’s a story for another time. Let’s stick with fiction here.) The agent knows which acquisition editors are looking for books of your type. The agent can pitch your book using terms the editor will understand. When it’s time to negotiate a contract with the publisher, your agent will — we hope — understand contract law and the norms of the market, and will get you the best possible deal.

So how do you get an agent? I’m told agents do sometimes attend conventions. It’s possible to meet one at a panel discussion, at a party, or in an elevator, and pitch your book. I’ve never tried it, so I can’t testify how well it works, but I know the personal touch is important. This is where the phrase “elevator pitch” comes from, by the way. You’re in an elevator and you have 30 seconds to pitch the agent on your book. That’s two or three sentences, tops. What do you tell them that will entice them to think your book might actually be marketable?

If you’ve struck out on personal contacts and aren’t able to attend a convention, you’ll have to fall back on the exhausting process of pitching agents via email or web form. I’m sure this type of pitch can work — but bear in mind, this is a statement of religious faith on my part. I have not a shred of evidence to back it up. Nonetheless, like life after death, it’s all we have, so we’re all hoping it will lead to something good.

At this point, your search engine is your friend. Search for literary agents in your genre. You’ll find a number of links. You’ll also find aggregator pages with lists of 20 or 30 agents. Some of the items in these lists will be out of date. The agent will have moved to a different agency, or the contact link may be dead. That’s life.

Make a spreadsheet containing all of the relevant information on 20 or 30 agents who say they’re looking for books in your genre. For each agent, list the agency name, the agency URL, the agent’s name and contact info, the precise things that agent wants to see, the date on which you submitted your query, and the results (if any).

If you don’t know how to make a spreadsheet, it’s pretty easy. I’m sure Microsoft Office has one. I wouldn’t use Office if you paid me. I use LibreOffice.

Be sure to read the agent’s statement of desiderata with care! Some agents are looking for YA, others only for adult fiction. Some are seeking literary fiction, others aren’t. Almost none of them will represent plays or poetry. Many of them claim they’re especially excited about reading manuscripts from marginalized voices (meaning, gay and trans writers and writers who are not white), but whether that will give you any extra credibility I wouldn’t know.

Some agents are closed to submissions “until February” or whenever. You may want to make a note on your desk calendar about that, because you may still be agent-hunting in February. Some agencies are large, and you’ll have to choose one particular agent to submit to. If one agent in the agency passes on your manuscript, you may or may not be allowed to submit to another agent at the same agency. Their web page will tell you that. The web page will also tell you whether you can expect a reply in every case, or whether “no reply means not interested.” Some will say, “If you haven’t heard from us in two months, send a brief follow-up email.” Make a note of that in your spreadsheet.

Once you’ve identified some agents who look like good prospects, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and send them exactly what they’re looking for. If they want a one-page synopsis, send them a one-page synopsis. If they want to read the first five pages, don’t send them 20 pages! If they don’t want to receive emails with attachments, don’t use attachments.

Many agents use an online service, such as Query Manager. You fill out the fields in the form on the web page, attach files (properly formatted!), and click Go. Then you wait.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you’re special, the agent’s normal rules for submissions don’t apply to you. You’re not special. You’re hoping to develop a professional relationship with this agent, so act like a professional. Don’t try any tricks. They’ve seen all the tricks, and they don’t appreciate having an author try to manipulate them through trickery. For instance, if your synopsis is written in a way that deliberately hides the ending of the story, because you’re hoping to make the agent eager to read the whole thing, that’s trickery, and you’ll fail. Put the ending in the synopsis.

The one exception I would make to the above guidelines on submission is this: If an agent says they won’t look at materials that are simultaneously submitted to other agents, just ignore that. Go ahead and submit to them simultaneously. (And don’t tell them you’re doing it.) If you happen to get a positive response both from that agent and from another agent, then you have a wonderful problem to solve. Choose the best agent and tell the other one you’re very sorry. No harm done.

Simultaneous submissions to agents are the norm. Send out as many queries as you can manage. And use the spreadsheet to keep track of the responses.

Above all, you need to understand that agenting is a tough business. It’s a 100% commission business, which means that if an agent tries to sell your book to a publisher and fails, the agent will make no money for the work they put in. (And by the way, you should never have to pay an agent up front for their work. Legitimate agents do not ask to be paid by the author. They make their money when the book sells.) Because it’s a 100% commission gig, the agent will very, very seldom take a chance on representing a work that’s quirky, exotic, or in any way outside the mainstream. They only want to represent manuscripts that they have a reasonable expectation that a publisher will want.

The other factor to bear in mind is that every literary agent receives dozens of queries every week from hopeful authors. Out of that flood, an agent may take on two or three new clients per year. Or none. The agent can afford to be picky, and has to be. A manuscript will be chosen by the agent only if it is exactly what the agent is hoping to see, and only if the author treats the agent as a fellow professional.

While you’re waiting to hear from agents, go ahead and start writing your next book. And try not to give way to discouragement. If it was easy, everybody would do it!

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The View

The prevailing view of point-of-view in fiction is that, having chosen a particular point of view, the writer ought to stick with it — if not throughout a novel (which may not, depending on the nature of the story, be practical) then at least until a chapter break. If that’s not practical either, the writer is advised to insert an empty line, to alert the reader to the fact that the text is switching to a new POV.

Switching to a new POV without indicating via a line break or chapter break that one is doing so is called “head-hopping.” This is a pejorative term.

The idea that one ought to keep the POV consistent is not bad advice — but it’s not a rule, it’s just a fashion. If you understand what you’re doing, you should feel entirely free to do what you need to do. If an editor complains, just tell the editor to take a flying leap.

My impression is that POV shifts were not considered anathema by talented writers in earlier times. Virginia Woolf is generally considered a fine writer. If you open up her novel Mrs. Dalloway, you’ll find a point-of-view shift in paragraph 4 of chapter 1. The first three paragraphs (and the initial sentence of the fourth) are in Clarissa Dalloway’s POV. Woolf then shifts, for one long sentence in the middle of the paragraph, to the POV of a neighbor, Scrope Purvis, who observes her standing at the kerb. The third and final sentence of the paragraph shifts again. The start and end of this brief sentence are in Purvis’s POV, but the middle clause (“never seeing him”) is in Clarissa’s.

Woolf does this in order to give the reader an exterior view of Mrs. Dalloway. It’s simple, it’s effective, it’s unobtrusive, and it is absolutely a case of head-hopping.

The one caution I would add would be to emphasize: Don’t do this in a casual or sloppy way, or without realizing you’re doing it. Do it because it contributes to the effect you’re trying to achieve.

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When Enough Is Too Much

Tonight I was looking at book covers on Amazon. I happened to click the Look Inside for a certain book, partly to see the cover image in a larger display and partly because the description of the book was rather interesting. I’m not going to mention the name of the author or the title of the book, because there’s no need to drag the guy down. But his opening paragraphs … hoo, boy.

Here’s the opening:

Halting to rest, Devlin Wilson, PhD, leaned back against the cold boulder and drew in several extended gulps of air. He was struggling with the change in altitude, combined with the exertion required to scramble over and between the sharp-edged slabs along the trail.

The fact that the author felt the need to mention, in the very first sentence, that his lead character has a doctoral degree is not a good sign. “Halting to rest” is needlessly wordy. But the rest of the stuff in this paragraph is not actually awful. It’s at least concrete. I might quibble that a gulp of air is always going to have the same size, because it’s limited by one’s lung capacity, so “extended” is perhaps an inauspicious adjective, but we’ll let that one slide by.

Here’s the next paragraph:

Wiping perspiration from his brow, Devlin squinted into the bright rays of sunrise beginning to shine over the ridgeline and fished for the water bottle holstered to his belt. He swallowed greedily before dragging the fleecy sleeve of his jacket across his mouth and restoring the bottle.

Oh, dear. It seems odd to me that his jacket sleeve has fleece on the outside, but I’m not a mountain climber. The opening participial clause, you’ll notice, has him wiping the perspiration from his brow while simultaneously fishing for the water bottle, which is a bit unfocused. It’s a dangling participle. I might question whether rays are beginning to shine. The day is beginning, but the rays are not beginning; they’re just there.

But the big problem here is filtering. The author could simply have said, “Sunrise shone over the ridgeline.” Adding the fact that the viewpoint character squinted at the sunrise (or into it) is called filtering. It’s poor technique. And “restoring the bottle” is too much detail. The reader can be relied on to assume that.

And then it gets bad:

Focusing attention on the GPS tracking device he now held in his left hand, Devlin peered at the screen to judge how much farther he needed to climb. The flashing red ping of his target destination was roughly a mile ahead and another 600 feet higher in elevation.

At this point, the writer’s status as an amateur stands out in bold relief. The reader does not need “he now held in his left hand.” However, given the fact that in the previous paragraph we’re told he put the water bottle back in its holster, we may be entitled to wonder whether the GPS device leaped out of his pocket and into his hand of its own accord. A suggested rewrite would be, “He pulled the GPS device out of his pocket and peered at the screen.” There you go.

You’ll note, also, that the flashing red ping is not a mile away and 600 feet higher than he is, though the sentence alleges that it is. The ping (is “ping” the right word? a ping is a sound) is right there on the screen of the device he’s holding in his hand. What the paragraph should have said is, “The flashing red ping showed that his destination was still a mile ahead and 600 feet higher.” The phrase “higher in elevation” is fully as bad as “held in his left hand.”

And then:

Gathering his energy, Devlin stepped forward to resume his ascent, disappearing into the shadow of the mountain’s jagged profile. As he trudged on, his anger grew more pronounced.

The phrase “stepped forward to resume” is like “now held in his left hand.” It’s needless detail. The phrase “disappearing into the shadow” is a viewpoint shift. Devlin is the viewpoint character. Did he disappear from his own view of himself? Doubtful. And does a profile have a shadow? Probably not. Finally, we discover that he’s angry. Not only that, he’s been angry all through the preceding three paragraphs, because his anger is now becoming more pronounced, and yet the reader was not given a hint about his anger. Whether “pronounced” is a good adjective with which to describe growing anger I’ll leave you to decide for yourself.

None of these mistakes was necessary. A good line editor or a decent critique group would have flagged most of them instantly. When I read this kind of prose, I can’t help suspecting that the writer was so enamored of his work that he didn’t feel it necessary to have anybody critique it.

He’s got the active vocabulary part, I’ll give him that. Jagged, trudged, squinted, holstered, greedily, dragging, peered, to judge, exertion, scramble, sharp-edged slabs — these are all very serviceable words. Active writing. Good job. The unresolved problem is the manner in which the words are deployed in sentences and paragraphs.

In four short paragraphs, this writer has managed to warn discerning readers away from his book. Possibly the story he’s going to tell is actually interesting, but who is ever going to find out? After an opening like this, discerning readers will pull the rip cord.

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Ticket Price

I’m not sure how much I’ve spent on self-publishing novels, but I’m starting to have a bit more sympathy for writers who would like to get their work out into the world and have limited resources. Everybody makes money in this business except the writer!

I’ve just spent about $2,000 on a professionally designed website (now live at jimaikin.net). There will be some ongoing fees associated with that, I’d have to dig out the emails to find the numbers. And then there’s cover art, editing, and proofreading.

Today I commissioned an artist friend to do a painting for the cover of While Caesar Sang of Hercules. That’s going to cost $800. Proofreading will cost another $600. Hiring someone to do page layout would cost a thousand bucks or so, but I can do that myself in InDesign. My subscription to InDesign is only $20 a month, but if I only use it twice a year that’s still another $120 or so per book, and maybe more. ISBNs are cheap. I bought ten of them at one go, and they’re now in use, so next month I’ll have to buy another ten.

While I was working on the Leafstone saga (see those book covers up there? buy the books! buy the books! you’ll love them!), I spent $5,000 on a developmental edit. I’m not sure it was worth quite that much, but I’m glad I did it. The editor’s comments definitely strengthened the story. I paid a friend several hundred bucks for scanning the pages of The Wall at the Edge of the World so I could do a new edition. And of course both Wall and the Leafstone books have professionally designed covers, though those covers cost less than a painting would have. Paintings are expensive.

Can you do it without spending a nickel? Sure you can — but the results are not likely to look as good as you’re hoping, and your potential readers will notice the poor quality. You can write in LibreOffice and format the book interior there, exporting a PDF that Amazon can use for page layout. You can design your own cover using GIMP, which is free. You can manage the e-book formatting using Calibre. But unless you’re a talented graphic artist, your cover will look amateurish. Unless you’re a professional editor, your prose won’t be clean.

I’m a professional editor. I didn’t even think to mention that. I’m certainly capable of making mistakes, so having others read the manuscript is always a good idea, but I don’t make the kinds of errors that an untrained author is likely to blunder into — verb tense shifts, bad punctuation, dangling modifiers, and so on. If you’re not an editor, plan on spending another grand getting your manuscript scrutinized. Grammarly and other software “solutions” will not help with this. Don’t even think about using one of them as a substitute for professional line-editing and copy-editing.

I don’t expect ever to break even on book sales. Fortunately, I don’t need to. But at a certain point a couple of years down the road, maybe I’ll have enough books out that I can start to build a little marketing momentum. That would be nice.

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The Dreaded Info Dump

Self-appointed pundits on writing (an august fellowship of which I’m a card-carrying member) will often instruct aspiring writers that an info dump is a terrible thing. You’ll be advised to spoon-feed your readers by sprinkling bits of info here and there, in palatable, bite-size chunks.

This is bad advice.

In the first place, it’s easier for the reader to absorb and remember a chunk of related information when it’s presented coherently, in a block. When it’s strewn out higgledy-piggledy, the reader must grapple with a more formidable intellectual challenge. On top of which, if you adopt this strategy you’re going to have to interrupt the action again and again and again in order to shoehorn in bits of relevant information. Interrupting the action is a bad thing, so it’s usually a good idea to interrupt it only once and then get on with the story.

Having said all that, I will cheerfully acknowledge that a lot of amateur writers handle their info dumps very badly. There are at least three ways to screw up an info dump: (1) Put it in the wrong place. (2) Write it in a way that’s boring or confusing. (3) Tell the readers stuff they don’t actually need to know.

If you start with a dramatic opening scene and then drop back, on page 2, to lecture the reader on the thousand-year history of your magic kingdom, complete with the names of dynasties, cities, and wars, you’ve managed to commit at least two of those sins and probably all three. Any info dump that contains a shovelful of new names should set off the alarm bells hard-wired inside your writer hat. Any info dump that drops into the middle of a dramatic scene, likewise. Info dumps belong in the low-energy pauses between scenes.

And don’t neglect to use colorful writing. I offer as an example an unabashed info dump from my next novel, While Caesar Sang of Hercules. This passage is at the top of chapter 9: We’re already 30,000 words into the book, but at this point I pull the camera back in order to give readers a better rounded picture of the world in which the action is taking place. The passage below segues into a specific scene — the people walking along the street. Here’s the info dump:

The town of Puteoli lay baking under the fierce disk of an August morning sun. Along the docks, sweating longshoremen toiled up the gangplanks of broad-beamed freighters, grunting beneath amphorae that sloshed and gurgled with wine bound for Hispania and olive oil on its way to Palestine. Grain from Africa poured like dusty gold down chutes into waiting wagons while the ox-drivers cursed their fidgeting teams. Crates of ceramic tableware from Cosa were carried in one door of a warehouse, while marble statuary from Corinth left by another door.

During the reign of Nero, Puteoli was the busiest port on the Italian peninsula. It lay at the northwest corner of the largest natural harbor on the west coast, the vast bay of Neapolis. Neapolis itself had been settled by the Greeks hundreds of years before, at a time when Rome was no more than a farm town on some hills beside the Tiber. It was called Neapolis — New City — because the Greeks who settled it had come down the coast from an older Greek colony at Cumae, where Apollo still spoke through the mouth of the Sibyl. Neapolis lay ten miles east of Puteoli, along the northern shore of the bay, and from the road that joined them could be glimpsed, back among the trees, the tomb of Publius Vergilius Maro, the foremost poet of the age.

East of Neapolis the shore of the bay curved southward along the flank of slumbering Mount Vesuvius, on whose green and fertile slopes stood the villages of Herculaneum and Stabiae, and off a little to the southeast the thriving town of Pompeii. Curving around from east to south, the low hills extended seaward in a broad peninsula that pointed at the rocky jewel of Capreae, the island where the emperor Tiberius had secluded himself during the second half of his reign, brooding in the halls of his magnificent villa and sometimes having unlucky visitors thrown from the cliffs. Opposite Capreae, on the cape to the west of Puteoli, the town of Misenum provided harbor and headquarters for the Roman navy.

On the streets of Puteoli, on a hot August morning, one might hear five languages spoken within five blocks. One might see bearded Jews jostling black Numidians and blond Gauls, or purchase gems from the Pyrenees and antique religious curios dug up along the banks of the Nile. One might, standing at a corner, watch a shuffling line of galley slaves chained at the ankle, or a crisply striding detachment of the Praetorian Guard, or possibly a loose and straggling throng, more than fifty people including family, friends, and household servants, all following close behind a young widow and her father as they walked to the forum to hear the reading of her husband’s will.

The widow wore a traditional robe of mourning, the upper part of her face hidden behind a veil….

That’s an info dump. It doesn’t interrupt the action — it’s a prelude to the action of the chapter. It serves to anchor the reader firmly in the time and place, in a way that would have been awkward to manage if I had tried to spin the information out here and there. True, the reader already knows the story takes place in Puteoli, but until this point in the novel, that’s just a word. Now it’s anchored. Most readers will already know about Pompeii, so referring to the “green and fertile slopes” of Vesuvius anchors the reader in time as well as space.

I’m egotistical enough to claim that the writing is okay too. Varied sentence structure, colorful words, stuff like that. The book may be out by the end of the year, assuming I self-publish it. Gonna talk to a cover artist tomorrow.


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You Want It When?

Does self-publishing still have the stigma it used to have? Thanks to the digital revolution, it’s certainly easier and less expensive to produce dreadful books than it used to be, so there are a lot more of them. On the other hand, the world of conventional mainstream publishing has become so log-jammed that here or there a few decent writers are likely to say, “All right, then: I’ll do it myself.”

I seem to be one of those writers.

I have a very nice historical mystery on my hard drive. I’ve worked hard on it. Three beta-readers have gone through it and made some useful suggestions. I’d certainly like to see it in print from Penguin or Minotaur. But no matter what tactics I deploy, that’s not likely to happen. First you need an agent. And an agent only wants to see books that she thinks she can probably sell. My lovely mystery has an unfortunate feature: It’s 155,000 words long. That’s too long for the market — and I’m just plain not willing to disembowel the story in order to get it down to 110,000 words. When I submit it to agents (and yes, I’m pitching it to a few of them), they’re going to look at the word count and send the query straight to the reject pile.

I don’t blame agents for this, not really. A literary agent is in a 100% commission business. If they agree to represent a book and then can’t line up a publisher, they earn exactly nothing for all the work they put into it. That being the case, they have to be ultra-sensitive to publishers’ needs. A publisher will be reluctant to take on a long book both because of the higher cost of production (paper, shipping, and so on) and because they feel, rightly or wrongly, that their customers won’t want to pay the higher price for a longer book.

But let’s say after a few months I find an agent. And then after a few months the agent finds a publisher. And then we spend a few weeks negotiating a contract. And then the publisher wants some rewrites, so that soaks up a couple more months. And then the publisher puts the book on their list, where it’s queued up behind a bunch of other books. If everything goes exactly right, the earliest I could possibly see the book in print would be in the publisher’s spring 2022 list. More likely, fall 2022 or even spring 2023. And that’s if everything goes exactly right. If it takes me a year to find an agent and the agent then takes six or eight months to find a publisher, we could be looking at fall 2023, three years from now.

Instead, I could hire a proofreader and a cover designer, have their work in hand within a month, spend a couple of weeks laying out the book in InDesign, and have the book up on Amazon before the end of 2020.

Is there a downside to this?

The catch-phrase is “market penetration.” According to some theories, the book will sell a lot better if a New York publisher is behind it. And that may be true. On the other hand, the publisher will still be insisting that I roll up my sleeves and get active in the publicity effort, and my profit per copy will be more like 5% of the cover price, as opposed to 50%. If I’m going to walk up and down on the sidewalk wearing a signboard that says, “BUY MY WONDERFUL BOOK” (or the genteel digital equivalent thereof), maybe I’d rather rake in the medium bucks myself.

Waiting two years may make a lot of sense if you’re a young author hoping to make a career out of (as Lawrence Block puts it) telling lies for fun and profit. But I’ll be 72 in a couple of weeks. I may or may not be able to continue writing for another 20 years. Hell, I may not be able to continue writing for another 20 minutes! Probably somewhere in between, but when you get to be my age, building a career is not something you worry about. Whereas, on the other hand, seeing your book in print has a certain visceral appeal.

There’s also something to be said for not having to make editorial changes that you find distasteful. I want to tell the story my way, thank you very much. Not because I have an ego, though of course I do. My reluctance is because there are certain subtleties embedded within the story. I don’t want them disturbed — subtleties of character, tricky little plot relationships, or just taking the time to set a scene properly rather than rush into it like the proverbial bull in the proverbial china shop. I want my published work to be something I can be proud of.

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The Moral of the Story

Thought-provoking questions pop up from time to time in Facebook writers’ groups. The other day someone wondered whether a story should always have some sort of philosophical subtext, or whether it was okay to just tell a story and not try to add a deeper layer of meaning.

There’s always a deeper layer of meaning. It’s unavoidable. When writing a story, an author always brings to the table his or her understanding of or beliefs about what is good and what is evil. A story inevitably takes a moral stance.

The writer may not be aware of this. A writer who adheres to the morality of conventional Christianity, or for that matter the morality of Disney movies (which is not very different), may never think to question the story’s moral stance. If anything, that’s likely to make the morality more glaring and the story, in consequence, far less interesting.

The real universe, as far as we can determine, is entirely amoral. It’s just a place where squillions of tiny particles amass in larger structures for a while, and then sooner or later the larger structures fall apart. That’s all that’s going on. Human ideas about good and evil are part of the mental equipment bequeathed to us by evolution; they don’t derive from anything in the natural world — other than from our own species’ past, which is certainly part of the natural world, or was.

But let’s say your story attempts to articulate this fact. You write a story whose stance is that there is no such thing as good or evil. In that case, your story will quite obviously have a subtext. Moreover, it will have a moral subtext. Rejecting the ideas of good and evil is a moral stance. You’re taking a position in opposition to humans’ bitterly stubborn conceptions of morality.

What weakens a story, I think, is the attempt to highlight its view of good and evil. One doesn’t want to become preachy. Stories that too readily trot out conventional moral views also tend to be weak, and that’s true whether or not they’re preachy. In a good story, you’ll quite likely find a deeper, more nuanced view of good and evil.

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