About Writers, reading, writing technique

Firsts: Fists, Flirtations and Befuddlement

This could, I hope, become an ongoing series, but not all written by me. Anyone can take a turn, and it will be more interesting for the variety. It springs from Mimi’s recent suggestion that someone should post  some first paragraphs from novels or short stories.  Discussion, consideration, ratings and arguments could follow after in the comments section. It sounded like fun to me.  As an extra-added attraction, I’m not going to name the author or the book. Of course, some you (or some of you) will know instantly. Others may puzzle. They all come from books I enjoy or admire. Some are rather plain, others audaciously unconventional.

The title of the post is just me goofing around.  After all, a good first paragraphs can knock us on our ass.  It can seduce into opening an unknown door.  It can dazzle and baffle in a way that makes going forward our only choice.

Those are, of course, only three possibilities.

 

1:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

(break)

I begin with an unbeginning. Or maybe with an unfinished ending. The confusion of the first three lines could seem to some as mere artsiness for its own sake, just fancy word-flinging, but that’s too easy a dismissal. This massive books creeps in from the mist and the smoke, entering our consciousness like some misshapen beast. During its 800 pages, it will find and lose solid footing in reality a dozen times.  The “All I know, you know” paragraph lays out themes and images that echo throughout the rest of the text. The semantic twists of this obscure list knock us off stride before we even begin, but that is only too appropriate for a novel that will never stop lurching and turning (careening and grinding) all the way through to the

2:

First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.

HERE IS A SMALL FACT.  You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

(break)

Another appealingly unconventional beginning. This was actually a very popular novel a few years ago, which only goes to show that you can begin a novel any way at all and still succeed in engaging the reader’s attention, as long as you know and trust your craft.

3:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

First, picture a forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

(break)

Such juicy writing!  They say don’t begin with description. This book rarely stops describing things. There’s very little dialogue. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the main character is the one seen here at the beginning—the forest itself. The last sentence could be a motto for the whole novel.

 

4:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are know for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him. 

(break)

So quiet. So simple. So ominous.  In very few lines, two characters have already been given weight, contour, and personality.  I particularly like the language, which is at once idiosyncratic, arcane and lovely.

 

5:

I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three of four months you’ll be back in the swing of things. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but to live as though a future life were waiting for me?

(break)

I particularly like the notion of failing to die, almost as if something monstrous had happened.  This was a quirky and troubling little novel. I think the opening does a nice job of setting the reader ill at ease.  (Question: Why “were waiting for me” instead of “was waiting for me”? Some foreshadowing that his future life is somehow plural?)

6:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

(break)

Yes, this a novel—a novel that happens to begin with 99 lines worth of heroic couplets.  The rest of the novel is several hundred pages of commentary by one of the least reliable narrators you will ever meet. The poem itself is marvelous, playful, and heart rending. The commentary is a whacky tale of political intrigue by a madman who uses an academic exercise as an excuse to tell his own (perhaps) delusional tale.

All right. Enough from me.  Can anyone identify the openings? More to the point, how do these work for you? What thoughts do they inspire?

 

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About Writers

Twenty-Three Rules for Writers

The muse babbles, as she usually does. Crouched on my kitchen table, she scrapes a long crumpled feather smooth, then clacks the stony hinge of her beak.

I retrieve a pair of mismatched tumblers from the drainboard and crack open a bottle of J.T.S. Brown. Straight up, no ice. She never takes ice. I wait, sipping, while she slurps, her black tongue lapping in noisy swipes. Once, I would’ve waited with pen clicked, notebook ready. Now I just wait, knowing better.

These late night sessions used to be more frequent. It seemed I could almost conjure her appearance by act of will. But they were never what I thought they ought to be. Like a lot of writers, I always imagined the muse dictating stories in my ear, using me as a vehicle for her divine inspiration. Only my muse isn’t like that. I have to be the one who, between drinks, coaxes her back to the table and gets her talking again. But nothing she says ever really makes sense. Her stories are tangled skeins; her language is an obscure bramble. Half the time, it’s pure gibbering. I’m never entirely sure that she isn’t just yanking my chain.

And that’s the problem with divine beings. To her, you are the illusion, you are the dream. It’s no certainty that she’s even noticed you.

So I don’t hope for stories or sense anymore. I don’t take notes. I don’t toil long into the night after she leaves, burning with vision. Maybe, days later, I’ll remember some phrase, some notion which seems to have no point of origin, no history. Maybe she didn’t even say it, but it had to come from somewhere. I only know it might be important because I can’t quite put it out of my mind.

So I thought I’d share a few here, in this pleasant purgatory. Frangible axioms of dubious origin. Inscrutable proverbs. I collect them, doncha know. I figure they might prove useful one day, when I’m beating my head against some stubborn hedge of verbiage, or trying to thread an impossible prosodic needle.

Apply at your own risk.

Twenty-Three Rules for Writing:

1. Holes. It needs more holes.
2. Time is an exquisite, aching mirage.
3. Celebrate evanescent things.
4. It is, just maybe, possible.
5. Hew doggedly to the wrong path.
6. Make mouths in the wall so it can speak more light.
7. All desire is holy—and indecent.
8. Jump off the cliff.
9. Admit nothing.
10. Crack the door open; don’t go in.
11. Only details.
12. Defend the indefensible.
13. Sneak out the back door; re-enter through the skylight, shattering.
14. You don’t have to give them anything.
15. You have to give them everything.
16. Words will waste you, pal.
17. Gather tiny miracles.
18. It’s already broken. You can’t make it any more broken.
19. Add clutter.
20. Vamp for a while.
21. Sing into the handsome demon’s mouth.
22. Dream in the face of oblivion.
23. End it here. End it now.

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About Writers, reading, writing technique

Orson Welles With His Mouth Full of Crackers

The other day, someone on Facebook posted this challenge: “Quick, without thinking about it too hard, what’s the first, most memorable piece of character description that comes to your mind?”

I didn’t think about it too hard. What popped into my mind was: “He had a voice like Orson Welles with a mouthful of crackers.”

I knew it was from Raymond Chandler. It pretty much had to be. After a little digging through the dusty paperbacks, I found it: The Little Sister, Chapter 15.

If you’ve never read The Little Sister, I envy you a little. (Also, why the hell not?) It was Chandler’s fifth novel, and he was at the peak of his form. It may not have been his most elegantly written or most cleverly plotted, but that thing is bursting with gonzo energy.

It is, in modern parlance, cray.

It was Chandler’s Hollywood novel—swimming pools, movie stars, a guy running around sticking icepicks into people. Typical stuff. But this is Chandler. What matters is the writing, specifically the dialogue. Most specifically, the dialogue between Phillip Marlowe and Orfamay Quest, the prim, mousy girl from Manhattan, Kansas, who has come to Los Angeles to find her brother, Orrin. Everything about the case seems wrong to Marlowe, but he doesn’t have anything else to do. After much back and forth, he manages to pry a 20-dollar retainer from her tight little fist and sets off to find her brother.

I don’t want to give you any more of the story than that. Instead, I want to look at one chapter, number 15 to be exact. I could just say “go here and read it” but that wouldn’t make much of a post. For no other goddamned good reason other than my own self-indulgence, I present the entire chapter (Canadian Public Domain version) only slightly annotated. I hope you enjoy it:

Chapter Fifteen
She came in briskly enough this time. Her motions were small and quick and determined. There was one of those thin little, bright little smiles on her face. She put her bag down firmly, settled herself in the customer’s chair and went on smiling.

(I love the energy of this description. We’ve met Orfamay already, way back in Chapter One, but we don’t know what to make of her yet. The tumble of adjectives—small, quick, determined—and especially the wonderful cluster “thin little, bright little”—puts us on our guard. They are sharp and bristly. Orfamay is not to be trifled with, no matter how innocuous and innocent she may pretend to be.)

“It’s nice of you to wait for me,” she said. “I bet you haven’t had your dinner yet, either.”

“Wrong,” I said. “I have had my dinner. I am now drinking whiskey. You don’t approve of whiskey-drinking do you?” (Marlowe is ready to spar.)

“I certainly do not.” (So is she.)

“That’s just dandy,” I said. “I hoped you hadn’t changed your mind.” I put the bottle up on the desk and poured myself another slug. I drank a little of it and gave her a leer above the glass. (There is a game going on. It is not the game Orfamay thinks it is. Ultimately, it isn’t quite what Marlowe thinks it is either.)

“If you keep on with that you won’t be in any condition to listen to what I have to say,” she snapped.

“About this murder,” I said. “Anybody I know? I can see you’re not murdered—yet.”

“Please don’t be unnecessarily horrid. It’s not my fault. You doubted me over the telephone so I had to convince you. Orrin did call me up. But he wouldn’t tell me where he was or what he was doing. I don’t know why.”

“He wanted you to find out for yourself,” I said. “He’s building your character.”

“That’s not funny. It’s not even smart.”

“But you’ve got to admit it’s nasty,” I said. “Who was murdered? Or is that a secret too?”

She fiddled a little with her bag, not enough to overcome her embarrassment, because she wasn’t embarrassed. But enough to needle me into taking another drink. (The nimbleness of Chandler’s prose is awe-inspiring. He establishes character with such quick strokes.)

“That horrid man in the rooming house was murdered. Mr.—Mr.—I forget his name.”

“Let’s both forget it,” I said. “Let’s do something together for once.” I dropped the whiskey bottle into the desk drawer and stood up. “Look, Orfamay, I’m not asking you how you know all this. Or rather how Orrin knows it all. Or if he does know it. You’ve found him. That’s what you wanted me to do. Or he’s found you, which comes to the same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing,” she cried. “I haven’t really found him. He wouldn’t tell me where he was living.” (This is important to the bigger plot. Orfamay has presented herself as the caring sister, tracking down the wild brother who really needs to just come back to Kansas and be nurtured in the bosom of his loving family. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her insistence that “he wouldn’t tell me anything,” hints deftly at her real reason for being there.)

“Well if it is anything like the last place, I don’t blame him.”

She set her lips in a firm line of distaste. “He wouldn’t tell me anything really.”

“Just about murders,” I said. “Trifles like that.”

She laughed bubblingly. “I just said that to scare you. I don’t really mean anybody was murdered, Mr. Marlowe. You sounded so cold and distant. I thought you wouldn’t help me any more. And—well, I just made it up.” (A nice feint from Orfamay, but Marlowe isn’t buying.)

I took a couple of deep breaths and looked down at my hands. I straightened out the fingers slowly. Then I stood up. I didn’t say anything. (The drama of the sentences is understated and yet perfectly clear. No explication. No internal monologue.)

“Are you mad at me?” she asked timidly, making a little circle on the desk with the point of a finger. (Still dancing.)

“I ought to slap your face off,” I said. “And quit acting innocent. Or it mightn’t be your face I’d slap.”

Her breath caught with a jerk. “Why, how dare you!” (Her favorite counter-punch, but even she knows it’s a not a haymaker. She’s just playing for time.)

“You used that line,” I said. “You used it too often. Shut up and get the hell out of here. Do you think I enjoy being dared to death? Oh—there’s this.” I yanked a drawer open, got out her twenty dollars and threw them down in front of her. “Take this money away. Endow a hospital or a research laboratory with it. It makes me nervous having it around.” (Love that bit.  Even in 1940, twenty bucks wasn’t a real retainer, certainly not for the amount of time he’s already put into the case. But the dirty secrets of the Quest family have everything to do with money, and Marlowe’s hip to that already.)

Her hand reached automatically for the money. Her eyes behind the cheaters were round and wondering. “Goodness,” she said, assembling her handbag with a nice dignity.  (Assembling. Nice.)  “I’m sure I didn’t know you scared that easy. I thought you were tough.”

“That’s just an act,” I growled, moving around the desk. She leaned back in her chair away from me. “I’m only tough with little girls like you that don’t let their fingernails grow too long. I’m all mush inside.” I took hold of her arm and yanked her to her feet. Her head went back. Her lips parted. I was hell with the women that day. (Classic Chandler.)

“But you will find Orrin for me, won’t you?” she whispered. “It was all a lie. Everything I’ve told you was a lie. He didn’t call me up. I—I don’t know anything.” (Even when she’s leveling with him, she’s still playing him.)

“Perfume,” I said sniffing. “Why, you little darling. You put perfume behind your ears—and all for me!”

She nodded her little chin half an inch. Her eyes were melting. “Take my glasses off,” she whispered, “Philip. I don’t mind if you take a little whiskey once in a while. Really I don’t.”

Our faces were about six inches apart. I was afraid to take her glasses off. I might have socked her on the nose.  (Fantastic. Marlowe was such a perfect confusion of tough, cynical veneer and soft, almost prudish, interior. Humanity tends to disappoint him, but he’s too much of a romantic to ever truly give up on it.)

“Yes,” I said in a voice that sounded like Orson Welles with his mouth full of crackers. “I’ll find him for you, honey, if he’s still alive. And for free. Not a dime of expense involved. I only ask one thing.”

“What, Philip?” she asked softly and opened her lips a little wider.

“Who was the black sheep in your family?” (Finally. Marlowe is not the know-it-all, smart guy, love-em-and leave-em detective. He’s actually is a nice guy. We’ve know him for four novels now. If he’s sparring with Orfamay, it’s because he knows that she’s more dangerous than she appears. Not that there isn’t some genuine feeling when she says “Take my glasses off… I don’t mind if you take a little whiskey once in a while.” In some ways, she really is the innocent, at least about matters of the heart. She really does want Marlowe to kiss her. But she’s also running a different game, and Marlowe knows it. He’s just not sure what it is.)
She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me. (Also a classic Chandlerism.) She stared at me stony-faced.

“You said Orrin wasn’t the black sheep in your family. Remember? With a very peculiar emphasis. And when you mentioned your sister Leila, you sort of passed on quickly as if the subject was distasteful.”

“I—I don’t remember saying anything like that,” she said very slowly.

“So I was wondering,” I said. “What name does your sister Leila use in pictures?”

“Pictures?” she sounded vague. “Oh you mean motion pictures? Why I never said she was in pictures. I never said anything about her like that.”

I gave her my big homely lopsided grin. She suddenly flew into a rage.

“Mind your own business about my sister Leila,” she spit at me. “You leave my sister Leila out of your dirty remarks.”

“What dirty remarks?” I asked. “Or should I try to guess?”

“All you think about is liquor and women,” she screamed. “I hate you!” She rushed to the door and yanked it open and went out. She practically ran down the hall.

I went back around my desk and slumped into the chair. A very strange little girl. Very strange indeed. (That’s an understatement. In spite of everything, Orfamay intrigues him. He’s even a little touched by her. He’s in shopworn Galahad mode again, only this time around, the damsel isn’t really in distress.)

After a while the phone started ringing again, as it would. On the fourth ring I leaned my head on my hand and groped for it, fumbled it to my face.  (Love that.)

“Utter McKinley Funeral Parlors,” I said.

A female voice said: “Wha-a-t?” and went off into a shriek of laughter. That one was a riot at the police smoker in 1921. What a wit. Like a hummingbird’s beak. I put the lights out and went home.

(I always thought this was just a nonsense joke but Utter McKinley Mortuaries still exist, a fair number of them, around the Southern California area.)

And THAT is the entire chapter. I urge you to go read the whole book. You won’t be sorry you did.

Meanwhile, what’s the first, most memorable piece of character description that comes to your mind?

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book promotion, book reviews

Ten Thousand Page-Reads. (Or K.U. For Dummies)

The title of is this post is possibly enigmatic to most, but to anyone who has a book or books signed up on Kindle Unlimited, the reference is clear.

What’s a page-read? What’s Kindle Unlimited?

Okay. For those who don’t know already: when you publish an eBook on Amazon, you have the option of signing it up with Kindle Unlimited. That means Kindle Unlimited subscribers—for a ten dollar monthly fee—can download and read your book for free, (as well as all the other eBooks signed up with Kindle Unlimited) and you, the author, receive a payment for each page read.

Yes, they can keep track. No, you probably don’t want to think too hard about that.

How much per page? Amazon sets a new rate every month, but then it also adds a certain amount from the Kindle Direct Publishing Select Global Fund (which—if I understand it correctly— is based on the total number of pages read of all KU books by all KU subscribers.) Bottom line? It varies slightly from month to month, but as a ballpark figure, I assume about 45% of a penny per page. And, KU is actually fairly generous in the way it counts page reads. My book Spark runs 345 pages in paperback. KU counts it as 408 pages. (For the record, a complete read of Spark on KU earns me about $1.80. Selling the ebook earns me about $2 in royalties.)

One important rule: if your ebook is signed up for Kindle Unlimited, it must be exclusive to Amazon. You cannot sell it on Kobo or Barnes and Noble or Smashwords or anywhere else. For many authors, this is a deal breaker. It’s also the reason why most actual publishers do not use it. They don’t want to cut off any potential sales avenues.

In practice, KU is made for independent publishers. And while exclusivity may be distasteful for some authors, most ebooks sold in the global marketplace are sold through Amazon. (I heard 70% somewhere, but don’t ask me to back that up.) Personally, I didn’t find it a difficult decision. I am happy to have my independent titles on KU.

Being signed up with KU also allows you to run promotions, including making the book free for up to five days out of every ninety. If you promote your giveaway, you can end up with thousands of downloads. Both times I’ve given Spark away, I’ve topped 3,000 downloads. This may not seem like anything to crow about, (and I’ll address that question further on). But let me just focus first on the immediate results of that kind of giveaway. Both times, it has resulted in a small sales spike after the giveaway. (Very small in real numbers. The first time I think I sold 12 copies, the second time only eight. But compared to my normal sales, which can include months of goose eggs, it’s a spike.)

In addition, giveaways get me page-reads on KU. Faced with a temporarily free ebook, some subscribers choose to download it through KU rather than downloading it for free. It makes no difference to them, I suppose. It’s free either way. But it makes a big difference for the author. During the month following my last giveaway, I topped 10,000 page-reads. This is roughly equivalent to 25 people reading my book all the way through. It also means I made about $45 in royalties.

Now just for a bracing dose of reality, I know most of the 3000 people who download my book onto their Kindle or their cell phone are NOT going to read it. A lot of those folks have hundreds of free books stored up on their devices, and they keep adding new ones, which probably only serves to bump the older books lower on the priority list (newer books are shinier books). The only reads that we can be sure of are the ones that come through KU and the ones that leave a review, or at least a rating, on Amazon or Goodreads.

My giveaways have generated a few reviews on Amazon and some ratings on Goodreads, but very few. Reviews are rare enough anyway, but I think they are even rarer for readers who download the books for free. I had a review of Flight of the Wren after my last giveaway of that book—a terrific review—that actually said:

“This is a great book! Usually I don’t write reviews for the free/cheap books I get from the various email groups because they are not usually worth reviewing.”

It’s just human nature, I guess. We tend to value things in direct relation to the price we pay for them, and we sometimes assume that free stuff is free because nobody would pay for it. So the whole giveaway thing is not an unqualified positive. Sure, I would prefer it if people were buying the books and lavishing me with reviews, but that ain’t happening. At least this way, there are people reading the books. Some of those people are going to like them and will maybe read the next one.

Some of them might even pay real money for the privilege. Crazy, I know, but it could happen.

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Research, world-building, writing technique

So You Want To Build A World

“You see, to be quite frank Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect. It tbpolaroidwas a bit of a botch job you see. We only had seven days to make it. And that’s where this comes in. This is the only map of all the holes. Well, why repair them? Why not use ‘em to get stinking rich?”

–Randall from Time Bandit

 

So you want to build a world, eh? Are you ready to be God? Because that’s what you’re doing. Creating a world, populated with millions of beings. They’re your responsibility now. What happens to them—well, that’s on you, isn’t it? And more than that, you owe it to your readers to create a functional world, an elegant mechanism guided by a clear plan and exquisite craftsmanship, a Swiss watch kind of a world.

Or—maybe not.

I know. A lot of writers LOVE world building. They revel in creating dossiers, elaborate histories, mythologies—even whole languages. It’s part of the fun. And backstory can certainly add depth and richness to a narrative, making it more believable, more real, more engaging.

But how much is really necessary? All fiction writing is world building. You set the stage, you paint the backdrops, you provide the props. You populate that world with living, breathing people, give them history, put flesh on those dry paper bones so that they rise up off the page. And no matter how closely your fictional environs hew to the real, recognizable world, it is new. You built it.

Of course, mostly when writers talk about world building, they mean a different world, and more often than not, they mean speculative fiction. I’m including fantasy under that label, as well as science fiction. Fantasy, of course, is replete with maps and legends. Sci-Fi is lousy with parallel histories (what if the Dutch empire never fell?) and distant planets where the not-quite humans behave in curiously human-like ways.

It’s tempting to want to create full and complex histories for your worlds, those impeccable mechanisms, but how much of that is really necessary? Elaborate backstory may engage you, the author, but how much does the reader really want? Or need?

Generally, it’s the small details that grab our attention and lock us in. When Robert Heinlein, in Beyond This Horizon, wrote the famous sentence “The door dilated,” the intention was to inform the reader—in a casual, unobtrusive way—that we were in a future world. The door opens like the dilating iris of an eye, and no one comments on it or wonders at it, because it is not, in this fictional world, remarkable. It’s rather a joke these days—because honestly, what a ridiculously elaborate way of opening a door—but that tiny sentence accomplishes a lot, and does it with panache.

And that’s admirable. I’m not opposed—at all!—to complex writing, but the ability to draw a reader in with an elegant, concise bit of description (three words!) is something we can all envy.

I’d like to hear about any examples of world building that you found particularly effective and inventive and memorable. I’ll start with a few of mine:

In Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany, the novel’s most prominent alien species doesn’t just enjoy food at mealtimes, they also enjoy licking small rocks. Rocks are served with meals, and the natives savor the taste of different minerals. The novel’s human protagonists also take part in rock licking, because it’s polite. Stars in my Pocket is a big, complex novel with scads of world building—but it’s this one detail in particular that remains with me, even decades later. It wasn’t important to the plot at all, but that single, concise detail locked me in. I knew I was in another world.

(This example also highlights another important point: don’t neglect the mundane things of life. Food is primary to all life as we know it, but all-too-many science fiction writers reduce food-of-the-future to cubes of protein-rich gelatin or synthetic versions of chicken curry and sweet-and-sour shrimp. Dull. Unless your world is a grim dystopia where dull food symbolizes the dreariness of life, have some fun. Eating is too sensual and visceral an experience to be wasted on drab victuals.)

Another example of notable and elegant world building: in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly, characters speak English, of course (it’s American television, after all) but they are always dropping in bits of Mandarin. It’s never explained, never even really commented on. Everybody just knows a lot of  Mandarin, particularly swear words. All of which suggests—simply, elegantly—that the political landscape of the Earth has changed a lot. (There are websites out there dedicated to translating the Mandarin bits of Firefly, much of which is hilariously weird and inappropriate, from “Filthy fornicators of livestock!” to “Stupid inbred stack of meat.”)

If I’m making any kind of an argument here (and that’s certainly arguable), it’s that less really can be more when it comes to world building. You don’t need to provide a treasure trove of details, just a few that sing out to the reader. They’ll fill in the rest with their vivid imaginations. And you don’t need to work out everything to be convincing. We live in a world where we frequently experience confusion and uncertainty. If you really think the world is a rational, well-ordered place, I’d suggest that maybe you aren’t paying enough attention. It’s comforting, I suppose, to believe that some kind of higher order underlies the fabric of creation, but—rules of physics and mathematics and biology aside—there isn’t a whole lot of empirical evidence to support that belief. Your world might be more believable if it mimics this uncertainty, if everything doesn’t fit together just so. The universe, as Time Bandits tells us, is a bit of a botch job. And God (god? who?) is, undeniably, inscrutable. Since you are God now, I invite you to follow his (her?) example. Nobody likes a tight-assed, control freak deity. Let your world breath a little.

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book promotion, book reviews

This Way Madness Lies, But So What?

There is probably no more ill-advised pastime for a writer than to engage with his or her negative critics. Reviews are what they are, and any response on your part will only make you seem thin-skinned and defensive. Not everyone is going to love your books, so get over it and let it go.0

Nevertheless, I’m presented here with a rare opportunity. Friend, fellow writer, and notorious gadfly Mimi Speike found fault with my new book, Whisper Blue. Now this, I promise you, is not an attack on Mimi, who I love and admire. In fact, I appreciate and cherish her honesty. Nor will it, I hope, degenerate into a series of mere ripostes and touchy rejoinders. Mimi and I have already exchanged opinions via email and remain the best of pals. Her criticisms are insightful and thought provoking. Do I agree with them? Well, no, because I have my natural arrogance to fall back on, not to mention a fair number of favorable reviews to take comfort in. So why am I focusing on a bad review? Just naturally a contrarian, I guess.  But dissent will nearly always spark a more interesting discussion than agreement. So, what the heck. Let’s rumble!

Mimi: “Your prose style, as usual, is flawless. (I had to include that bit. -AG) I do have some problems with the plot. The uncomplicated style says to me YA, and I do believe Miles’ rather mumbo-jumbo rationale for the odd business would fit nicely into the mouth of a fascinated-with-psychic/not-overly-critical teen.”

A fair point. I wrote back: “If Miles’ explanation for Whisper’s manifestation seems a little addled, well, he’s a little addled, and it seems like exactly the kind of explanation he would come up with. (He needs an explanation, because he’s a rationalist.) It may not make a lick of sense, but it’s at least a self-consistent construction (really, almost more a science fiction explanation than a ghost story one, which fits Miles’ personality.) In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you or I find it believable, just so long as Miles (nearly) does. It’s a bandaid on the gaping wound that has sundered his reality. The fact that it barely works is, well, just as it should be.”

I didn’t add, but will here, that I think Miles’ explanation is actually pretty good, certainly well in line with some of the norms of paranormal fiction. But therein lies one of the bones of incompatibility betwixt Mimi and myself. She really doesn’t care for paranormals, and I obviously do.

Mimi: “I do not find gut-wrenching emotion, that jumps off the page. You tell us that your characters are stunned, upset, all that, but where is the out-and-out frenzy? (On Marieka’s part. We’ve already written Miles off.) Especially with a first-person telling, it would be so easy to show.”

Yes, and I’m afraid there isn’t a lot to say on this point. My natural tendency is to soft-pedal emotion and to minimize introspection, even in first-person. It’s just a personal preference, which Mimi astutely recognized later in her critique, saying: “But that means interior stuff, and I understand that is not your impulse.” And she’s right. It really isn’t. Too often, the examination and explanation of why-my-characters-are-feeling-what-they-feel only clutters up the landscape, making it more difficult for readers to feel what they feel, which is more what I hope will happen. Some people can do the introspection thing very well and to great effect. Me, not so much. I won’t walk away from a poignant moment, but I prefer them to be few and far between.

As far as me telling rather than showing, well, I don’t actually have a problem with telling. It is part of writing. But as far as me telling rather than showing the emotions of my characters, particularly Marieke, I disagree. For the most part, I think I did as little of either as I could reasonably get away with.

Mimi: “Taylor James says, ‘The story is fast paced.’ I would think that fast paced here is not a desirable thing. I say you need to immerse your kooks in a slow-simmer soup, and let them stew in it but good, with plenty of reflection. Instead we get mysteriously matter-of-fact reportage. Everything moves too fast, for my money.”

Again, we are simply at odds here. I love a slow-simmer, and I expect nothing less from Mimi’s own epic cat-o-many-tales, Sly. But…that isn’t Whisper. I wanted something agile enough to slither and scurry up the lattice of plot and emerge with a “what just happened here?” feeling. So fast-paced pleases me. As does “mysteriously matter-of-fact reportage.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Mimi: “I buy that a once alive girl might be called up from the dead, but a totally made-up one? I wish at least that Miles had found a mention of a child who had actually existed, and had created additions to the story that just happened to be very close to the truth. (Wouldn’t that be way stranger? And it would solve the problem of reporters digging into a lie.) A demand, by a side-branch descendant of the clan, to know how he came by a piece of information that had never been disclosed, a connection he is able to verify, may be what sends him over the edge.”

A fascinating angle, and in a conventional ghost story, a wholly valid point. But Whisper isn’t really a ghost story. And…well, I’ll quote from my own email reply: “The book isn’t about voodoo or mental illness or even about the madness of the internet crowd. It isn’t even about Marieke and Miles and Mama Jay. It is about the relationship between fiction and reality. The central metaphor of the book is that a fictional character can become as real as a flesh-and-blood person. This is an emotional truth, of course. Who hasn’t experienced that? In Whisper, the metaphor is made real (that’s what paranormal and fantasy fiction do, they treat the metaphorical as if it were an actual thing.) In Whisper’s case, even the meta-metaphor is made real. It’s a work of fiction about a work of fiction coming to life. That, really, is what I was interested in. Miles’ fiction—particularly Wisteria’s diary—the reports on the web, even Stokes’ stories about James Randi are all stirring this same pot. For that reason, it’s absolutely essential that Whisper be fiction, not a real girl. That would completely undermine the metaphor.”

Of course, that metaphor didn’t work for Mimi, and I have no one but myself to blame for that. Assuming we really need someone to blame, which is arguable.

Okay, one more point. Mimi: “We never get a satisfying resolution, just a hook-up with the professor. Okay, I guess the gris-gris around her neck is the resolution. Marieka has caved. She is a convert to tinfoil-hat beliefs, is now generating her own delusions. It’s either that or a mass-hypnosis situation. A buy-in is the easiest, neatest option.”

And that, I guess, was a swing and a miss on my part. Marieke’s gris-gris never smacked of tin-foil hat conversion to me, partly because I don’t regard voodoo as any more delusional than most of your standard religions, but also because Marieke’s appropriation of one of its trappings doesn’t necessarily make her a believer. In her own private way, she’s trying to deal with what she has seen and experienced. If I were to sort it out (and no, I never did, because it seemed perfectly natural to me) I’d say she wears it out of respect for Whisper, and maybe for Mama Jay as well. But if that didn’t come across to Mimi, then perhaps I could’ve done better. But people who go to my books looking for satisfying resolutions are probably going to be disappointed. Emotionally satisfying? Well, I hope so. But plot-resolution satisfaction? Not always one of my priorities.

And, perhaps, this just wasn’t going to be Mimi’s cup of tea, no matter how well I prepared and presented it. Near the end of her email she apologized for “being anal about making sense” and that, may be the crux of our failure to connect. There are things about Whisper Blue that don’t make perfect sense. That’s not an accident, it’s a choice. Paranormal fiction appeals to those of us who like floating in that shadow realm between the real and the other. We are drawn to those uncanny lands, where the various layers of reality rub up against other, twining about, until they become, maybe, interchangeable.

I can’t say whether I achieved that with Whisper Blue, but if you want to find out for yourself, it is available at Amazon,  Kobo,  Barnes and Noble, other places as well. I think it’s good, but I’m open to discussion.

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Uncategorized, writing technique

Me and Hemingway

The other day, this blog post appeared in my Facebook feed with the title:  “This Surprising Reading Level Analysis Will Change the Way You Write.”

Once you get past the clickbait title, it’s a pretty good post. The reading level analysis the post is talking about is called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, a method developed in the 1970s for evaluating the difficulty of a text. Basically, it analyses a text for complexity and assigns it a reading level.

Just for kicks, I fed a brief, randomly-selected chapter from my newest book, Whisper Blue into the analyzer over at ReadabilityScore.com and clicked analyze. My score?  A whopping 4.1. Fourth grade reading level. Ha! Shows what an erudite elitist I am! The analysis of Text Quality said I had:

—5 sentences with 30 or more syllables
—20 with 20 or more syllables
—3 words with 4 or more syllables, and
—no words exceeding 12 letters.

And this, really, is ALL that Flesch-Kincaid analyzes. Long sentences and long words get you a higher grade level score; short words and short sentences get you grammar school scores. A reductive metric if ever I saw one, but Flesch-Kincaid was never meant to be more than a very rough guide. There’s really no judgment involved. It’s simply a crude measure of complexity. And you know who else wrote at a fourth grade level? Ernest Hemingway. How about Cormac McCarthy? Fifth grade. Likewise Jane Austen. Tolstoy? Fitzgerald? Stephen King? Yup. They all, apparently, wrote for middle schoolers.

Obviously, these sorts of grades tell us a lot more about the test then they do about the texts. And the whole thing points out some of the difficulties involved in using any kind of standardized approach to evaluating creative work. For example, the analyzer at Readabilityscore.com also includes a tally of three of the best known No-Nos all writers should avoid: use of the passive voice, adverbs, and clichés. My score was 7 passives, 1 cliché, and a whopping 68 adverbs!

Yoiks! I suck! Only, I don’t really. In the first place, a large amount of the text I selected is dialogue. And normal human speech is riddled with adverbs and passive constructions, not to mention clichés. And in the second place, most of these adverbs weren’t bad adverbs, and most of the passive constructions weren’t even passive.

Example—the site flagged the following phrases as passive:

“maybe I shouldn’t be encouraging him.”

“Everything was going to be all right.”

“One minute I was dismissing the whole thing as mumbo jumbo, the next I was withdrawing a hundred dollars from the ATM, just in case.”

These aren’t passive. Apparently, when the search algorithm sees a construction like “was going” or “was dismissing” or “be encouraging,” it mistakes auxiliary verb constructions (such as continuing action) for a passive constructions.

As far as my copious use of adverbs, here are a few examples (the underlined words were flagged as adverbs):

There you go.”

“That’s probably exactly what happened.”

“That old fake had us jumping around like a couple of citified rubes, but it was all just a show!”

“You are not going anywhere three nights from now!”

Adverbs are not evil. Yes, it’s awful when writers overuse those dreaded -ly constructions, especially in dialogue tags. But adverbs expressing place (there) or time (now) really don’t get my critical dander up. I suppose probably is modifying exactly, (adverbs can modify other adverbs) but then why didn’t they flag exactly, which is an adverb of manner? And I’m not at all sure which verb, adjective or adverb just is supposed to be modifying in the third example.

Needless to say, this isn’t very useful as a writing tool, but there are a lot of sites like readability-score.com out there. Usually they let you try it out for free—paste some text and have them identify the alleged problems. Then, after you’ve used your share of free samples, you can sign up and pay for membership. I’m not sure what readability-score.com charges for membership, but even as a free service, it seems slightly overpriced. And it isn’t simply that it misidentifies the passive voice—I’ve seen human editors do the same.

0The problem is more one of attitude. Grammar and syntax have rules, but there are endless subtleties. Even if the website correctly spotted adverbs and passive constructions, the suggestion that adverbs are always wrong, or that the passive voice is always a weak choice, is simplistic at best. You should be aware of what your are doing, at all times,, and make good choices but following boilerplate suggestions for improving your prose is only going to produce boilerplate prose.  Good writing is clear, evocative, and surprising—and no algorithm is going to make that happen for you.

(By the way, If you’d like to check it out for yourself, my paranormal thriller about voodoo and cyber-ghosts and the mass hysteria of the crowds is available at Amazon, Kobo, and other places. I think you’ll like it. No matter what your reading level is.)

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About Writers, book sales

Study Finds Number of Writers May Soon Exceed Readers

Industry insiders report that the number of downloads from amateur authors now exceeds the number of consumers who are actually interested in reading them.

“Readership has been declining for decades, of course,” said an industry insider who wished to remain anonymous. “What with television and the internet and the proliferation of flash mobs, there are simply too many readily available forms of entertainment out there. Plus, they’re all so much easier than reading. Let’s face it, reading requires a lot more effort than just staring at something.”

Though the trend toward shorter, easier entertainment has been developing for a long time, it is an entirely different trend that now threatens to overwhelm the American book reader: the growth of self publishing. Ever since the advent of ebooks and self-publishing services such as Kindle Direct Press and Smashwords, the number of books being published has ballooned. In 2015, the number of self-published ebooks was anywhere from 600,000 to 8.2 million depending on whose sources you believe. When pressed for an exact number, a representative at Amazon told us, “It’s hard to know for sure. By the time we finish counting, the number’s already obsolete. We can’t keep a handle on it.”

“Writers are usually readers,” our anonymous source added, “and there’s part of your problem. A lot of those folks who would formerly have been reading are now working on their seven-part epic fantasy series or writing Kidnapped by One Direction fan fiction. It’s a real quandary. It’s like with photography, or being a singer-songwriter. Way more people want to produce their own albums than will ever want to buy them.”

Indeed the tsunami of new fiction may well be unstemmable. “In many cases, authors aren’t even asking for money anymore,” according to our anonymous source. “They’re giving the books away for free, just begging people to take them.”

Unfortunately for would-be authors, free may no longer be a sufficient discount.

“Good lord!” one reaimg_5974der told us, “My kindle is stuffed with free books! If I started now, I couldn’t read them all. But there are so many more out there! Everyday, my email gets more mailers with more free stuff, and it’s kind of hard to resist. It’s so frustrating!” She added, shaking her head, “Besides, I’m already hours behind in my Netflix binge-watching. There just aren’t enough hours in the day!”

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About Writers, writing technique

Oh Spark Divine (more or less)

Always, in the process of writing, I am convinced that I am grasping toward greatness. It seems like the most important thing in the world. Even when I’m laboring through an uncooperative first draft and obviously mired in muck that will all have to be cleared away in the second, I feel like what I’m doing is vital and rich and worthwhile.

The final product is never quite what I expected. Don’t get me wrong, I love my own books, but they are all drastically flawed. They inevitably grow up in ways I didn’t really plan or expect. I’m enough of a control freak that this always bothers me a little, but I also know it’s unavoidable. In fact, it’s a good thing. It means your work has life and energy. So you say goodbye to your little book, wish it well, and start your next book, full of the fresh misguided conviction that this time you’ll see it through all the way and it will be perfect and magnificent.

That’s how it is for me, anyway. And probably it’s for the best. Without a deluded sense of self-importance, how would I find the energy to lift pen to paper?

Probably to the reader, a book like Spark seems like a frolic, a trifle. For good reason. It is a frolic. It is, in its own way, trifling. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My first professional review (all right, it was from Publisher’s Weekly, but it was only a contest, and the book was never published) called my book “sprightly”—it had a “sprightly tone.” At first, I wondered if that wasn’t just a bit belittling. Sprightly isn’t, perhaps, the most dignified adjective to apply to work of literature. But eventually I appreciated it. I even came to embrace it or at least the playful energy it implies. Even in a serious story, prose can frolic a bit. Nabokov could be sprightly. So could Melville, not to mention some of my other personal favorites like Delany and Tiptree. It implies, I think, both facility and agility.

Or maybe I’m just trying to put the best face on it.

Consider Spark. It’s certainly got a light feel to it, but structurally, the novel’s tone is inverted. Even subverted. The apparently serious story with the apocalyptic overtones (the pocket universe, the skulks, the Duchess) is absurd, almost parodic.  And it’s ultimately trivial. It doesn’t amount to anything. Meanwhile, the apparent trivia of day-to-day life—boyfriends and basketball and friendship and loyalty— that is what the story is really about. That, obviously, is what really matters. That is what lasts.

Said another way? (big theme here, watch out):  The great machinery of the universe is inscrutable and inexorable. When we get too close to it, we are often threshed. We, threshed, rise up, dust ourselves off, and start reconnecting the fragmented bits of our reality. ‘Cuz that’s life.

Does this hifalutin bit of analysis mean I think Spark is a Great Book, worthy of term papers and Spark(ahem)Notes? Naw. Of course not. When the great cataclysm approaches, and the Powers That Be prepare the rocket-propelled time capsule, filling it with those Works of the Once Great Human Race that will justify our existence to the unknown civilization that finds the floating space library, Spark will not be onboard.

But this sad truth does nothing to quell or belie the impulse behind the writing. I don’t set out to write immortal books. I mean, who does that? I may hope for greatness, but mostly I think of a story, and if it intrigues me enough, I start writing.

But that process is, all by itself, magical and amazing. It’s amazing that we want to do it. It’s magical that we can. We are homo scribens, the race that writes, the storytelling species. Locking into that impulssvechae means messing around with greatness, with divinity. My goofy novel came from the same place as Lolita, as The Poisonwood Bible, as Moby Dick. In those quiet, passionate moments, when we’re dancing on the third rail of creativity, we catch a lightning glimpse of an immortal face, we hear the nonsensical muttering of the muses.

How can we come away from that experience untouched by greatness?

Those muses, those angels, do have a message you know, a very simple one:  We are here. We are real. And all of our twisting, writhing, passion-filled, agonized creations are nothing but a reflected bit of that seemingly infinite light. A candle flame’s worth. Without even meaning to, without even understanding, we are passing on that message.

They are here. They really are.

 

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blogging, book promotion, Stories

Writing DaysZ 6

The TV news team is telling me that one presidential candidate sold state department favors and the other plans internment camps for immigrants. Neither assertion is true, of course. They’re just straw man arguments. But a vigorous debate follows in which both candidates are trashed as though the assertions were true. Straw Men. They’re everywhere, like alien bug-eyed-monsters, grabbing our attention. Which is what straw men do, grab attention. “Straw man n. 2. An argument or opponent set up so as to be easily refuted or defeated. – American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition.” It’s the first step of spin.

Bob vs the Aliens
To read Writing DaysZ 1-5, go to ROFLtimes.com/BvA.pdf

Debatable Arguments

+++They found the railroad handcar under an overhang behind the waystation. Bob and Piper grunted frantically, trying to inch it to the tracks before helicopter gunships could roar overhead. Old Spice rummaged through a wooden chest, tossing out items apparently deemed useless.
+++Piper dodged a wrench. “Spice!”
+++“Give us a hand,” Bob said urgently, quietly, “They’re coming!”
+++“No they’re not. The helicopter noise has stopped. Oh-” He held up an oil can. “Look!”
+++“So they landed in the town. In a few minutes, they’ll be airborne again and headed here.”
+++Spice began squirting oil on everything about the handcar that looked like it might move. “It’s Never Too Late to Prepare for an Emergency!” He smiled at them. “That’s my family motto.”
+++Bob repeated the phrase and squinted at Spice, “That’s the dumbest motto-.” The handcar lurched, screeched and began rolling. The three of them manhandled it onto the tracks and Bob and Piper pumped the seesaw handles while Spice squirted oil on every part that moved. Ahead, Bob saw a heavier stand of trees that promised shelter. Behind, he heard a helicopter lift off in the distance. The car gained speed to about twenty-five or thirty miles an hour and became easy to pump. But it was hardly escape velocity. He felt trapped in a slow-motion video. Trees blocked their view just as the helicopter approached the station behind them. “Keep going! They’ll overfly the track after they don’t find us at the station.” To ease the tension, he told Piper, “Spice was a doofus back home. Weren’t you, Spice?”
+++Spice looked up from something he was fiddling with. “Doofus?”
+++“An incompetent person,” Bob winked at Piper, “Foolish or stupid.”
+++She winked back. “Ignore him, Spice. You don’t have to talk about your family.”
+++Spice sputtered and stood. “That was not my fault! Really,” he implored. “It was the genetic alteration that I underwent for the Earth Mission. I was just trying to let her down easy.”
+++“Who, Spice?” Piper soothed. “Who were you trying to let down easy?”
+++“My fiancé,” he told her in a somber voice. “She deserved to know that my new body found her repulsive. So, I sent her a message. I followed all of the appropriate protocols for use of the family communicator, too. It is expected that the recipients of a personal message from my family will know who wrote it without a signature.”
+++Bob chuckled. “You sent her a message?”
+++“I chose my words carefully.”
+++“Oh, Spice! Is that’s how she found out you were breaking up with her?” Piper shook her head in dismay. “You texted her?”
+++“I wish.” The Alien slumped. “I accidently sent the message to the wrong person. But my fiancé, at least, knew who wrote it when she read it in the news.”
+++“Oh, Spice! Who did you send it to?”
+++“My father’s mistress. She was, how do you say it? Pissed at him.”
+++In the silence that followed, Bob rolled his eyes heavenward to see a helicopter flying in whisper mode arcing over the trees at the railcar. He grabbed the ray gun from his pocket and held it pointed skyward against his mouth and licked it frantically as ropes dropped around them and they were rushed by armed men dressed in black bulky outfits making loud, guttural, sounds. Abruptly, the helicopter veered away, trailing behind it one man still clinging to a rope.
+++“Where are you going?” asked one of the three men who had made it onto the railcar.
+++The answer came over his harness speaker. “Going for a beer. That was a roadhouse we passed back there. Coming?”
+++“Hell yeah man. We’re in.” The men jumped and rolled smartly to a standing stop behind the railcar. As the helicopter landed to pick them up, they turned and waved goodbye with their guns.
+++Bob looked at the ray gun but it was already fading away in his hand. “Wow,” he breathed.
+++“See.” Spice beamed at him, “I told you it would make attackers stop bothering us.”
+++“I just wished it had a trigger. Firing a ray gun by licking the red spot is stupid, Spice. I was too stressed to remember where the spot was. I had to lick the gun all over!” He made a face and spit.
+++“Don’t be trigger-happy, Bob.” Piper smiled at him like she was proud of him. “You saved us.” That made him happy. They spent the day taking turns, one keeping lookout while two pumped the handcar. No more helicopters came at them and although easy enough, the pumping was eventually exhausting as none of them were used to prolonged physical exertion. At dusk they were happy to see the lights of a small town.
+++“That’s New Haven,” Spice said. It’s not on any of your maps yet. But it popped up last week on our planet survey as a fast growing town. We can find accommodations there for the night.”
+++The lights in the town resolved into campfires, cars and people; adults, children and dogs, even some livestock. Where the rails crossed over a small stream, they were waved to a stop by men with fishing poles. “Hold on there,” one called in a pleasant but firm voice. He helped them to stop the handcar before it rolled onto the trestle.
+++“Thanks, friends.” The man held out his hand. “That contraption would make such a racket going over the bridge, the fish might stop biting. I’m Andy.”
+++Piper hopped down and shook his hand. “Glad you were able to help us stop in time, Andy. I’m Piper. We would like to spend the night here.” She turned and introduced Spice, who landed beside her, and Bob, who stayed on the cart. “Spice here is an Alien and Bob back there,” she pointed with her thumb, “Is Bob.”
+++“I see,” the man glanced at Bob before warmly shaking Spice’s hand. “Welcome! It is a pleasure to have you with us.”
+++“I thought all you Aliens left,” one of the fishermen said.
+++“That’s Skeeter.” Andy waved the man over. “Skeeter’s our Sheriff and resident greeter. Say,” he grinned at them, “You’re just in time for the debate. Let Skeeter get you a bite to eat and settled in.”
+++After some eating, greeting and refreshing, they watched older kids pile wood on one of the campfires to turn it into a communal bonfire. Early fall chilled the air. Overhead, star swarms lit a clear night sky. People gathered, some climbing up onto a vehicle. “Declared debaters,” Andy informed them, helping them climb up with him onto a flatbed truck. He raised his hands for attention. “The subject of tonight’s debate is, ‘What Happened?’”
+++“Is that an Alien?” a woman asked.
+++“Yes, and by the rules of New Haven, he is accepted like everyone else.”
+++The woman sounded agreeable, “Well, OKAY I guess.” To the chuckling of others, she added, “We accepted my ex-husband.”
+++“Back to the point,” Andy acted as the debate moderator, “What happened?”
+++“Well,” a thick looking man began, “I know we accept him and all and I do, but.” He paused and looked around. “You all know the collapse began when the Aliens arrived.” Bob loosely estimated maybe a couple hundred people watched the man point out Spice. “I’d like to hear what he has to say about that.”
+++With tense eyes turning on him, Spice seemed to shrink. He whispered into Bob’s ear, “Correlation is not cause and effect.”
+++“Excuse me,” Piper stepped forward. “We are Piper and Bob, Alien Companions. Due to the subtleties of the English language, and given the importance of clear communication in tonight’s debate, the Alien has asked us to translate for him. Allow me to introduce Old Spice, Earth Mission Commander of the Aliens.”
+++Spice genuflected as best a spherical being could, holding the pose longer than expected. Only when the crowd went silent did he rise to his full three-foot height, somehow making it all seem majestic. The thick man gave him back a short bow.
+++“What did he say, Bob?” Piper prompted.
+++“The Alien says their timing was unfortunate and unrelated to the circumstances on Earth when they landed.”
+++“Use his name, Bob!” To the amusement of the crowd, Piper kicked him. “Damn, man! Try to make him sound human.” They laughed at her. “Well, people, we need answers, not scapegoats. What do you really think happened?”
+++“You can’t fool me!” a man screamed.
+++“Ignore the screamer,” Andy told Bob, “He’s crazy. He’s not screaming at us. Herb screams only at himself.”
+++“Take your hands off that!” the screamer demanded.
+++Bob winked at Piper, “He’s talking to himself.”
+++“We already know what happened.” A young man spoke from the roof of his SUV. “My family lives in this car because the rich stole everything away from us. Away from all of us! The top one percent sucked up all of the oil with their planes and their helicopters and their yachts and moved their companies overseas and we’re left with no jobs and no homes and cars with no gas to live in.”
+++“Counter?” asked Andy. “Who wants to argue differently?”
+++“Scapegoating,” said Spice.
+++“What’s that mean?” the young man retorted.
+++“The word is from a Yom Kippur ritual,” Bob explained. “The high priest would symbolically lay the sins of the people on a goat’s head.”
+++“So?” the man huffed. “I know what I’m talking about. I listen to public radio.”
+++Stepping in smoothly, Piper said, “Spice is saying that blaming a group is no answer.”
+++“Scapegoating a group is just a way of setting up a straw man argument,” Bob elaborated. “Meaning, anyone in the group can be attacked for supposedly sharing the groups’ alleged sins. It’s a way of saying, ‘Politicians are greedy liars and can’t be trusted. That lets you attack anyone who is a politician.”
+++“Exactly!” The thick man nodded and smiled. “It was the Koch brothers!” He rotated slowly, nodding to the crowd, arms extended with palms up to bring them to his understanding. “They’re greedy billionaires. You can’t trust ’em! And we all know they are lying Republicans.”
+++“That’s plain crazy talk!” shouted a woman. “What about that billionaire George Soros? FOX News already exposed him as a Democrat. You gotta be crazy to trust a man who’s both, in the top one percent and a Democrat.”
+++“Stop that!” Herb screamed. “You can’t pee here.” That caused a slight commotion as people next to Herb drew back.
+++Spice seemed confused. “Scarcity drove up the price of oil,” he told Piper and Bob, “And you people kept buying it anyway. Now, not enough is left to power your needs. It was all very human and predictable. Why the blame?”
+++Bob shook his head, “Bad arguments, they’re everywhere. Let’s get out of here.” On the way out, they passed a sign someone had posted next to the fire, “Debate Tonight, Beware of Trolls.” In the distance, Herb screamed, “Time’s up!”

Yesterday was “National No Texting Day.” In what bubble in whose mind did that make sense? Makes me wonder how many people texted the info to their friends yesterday. That’s the thing about mind bubbles. They hold ideas that make sense when you think about them but burst when exposed to the real world.

Mind Bubbles
 … to be continued
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