February 11, 2013

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Why is the Internet panicking about used ebooks?

So Amazon now has a patent on a technology to sell used ebooks.  There’s been a lot of outcry about this, which has me somewhat conflicted.  On the one hand, it seems prone to abuse.  It seems like it would cheat authors out of money.  The author in me does not like this idea.

On the other hand, Me-The-Reader kind of likes the idea of being able to sell off “used” ebooks the way I do used paper books.  I’m done with it, I bought it, it’s mine, I should be able to do with it as I please.

Right now, unless I missed some information, all that exists is a patent application for a technology.  There seems to be no plan for the implementation of it yet that’s circulating.  No one quite knows the details of how it would work, except that it will be Bad for Authors since it means that books can get sold that the author won’t get money for.

My assumption is that there will be a mechanism in place to solve most of the technical issues such as making sure that the copy being sold isn’t still being read by the original owner, etc.  Those are not the issues that concern me.  The idea that copies are sold that don’t make money for the author are also a little suspect since you can have used paper books and libraries and all that, and those aren’t bad for authors in the same way despite not granting royalties anymore.  I’m also ignoring the sticky legalese that will crop up around what is being sold (licensed vs owned), because that’s for smarter minds than mine to figure out.

The things that do cause me concern are the following:

  1. Locking Into Amazon infrastructure:  I love Amazon.  I have a Kindle, use Kindle apps, buy non-electronic things from them, etc.  Yet if I own a thing I buy from Amazon and want to re-sell it, I don’t have to use Amazon to do so.  I suppose it makes some small sense that selling the Kindle books I have would require some input from Amazon to make the transfer of book from my account to someone else’s, and that they’d probably need a Kindle as well.  However, if Amazon is taking more than a token cut of the price for administration then I’d be unhappy.  They don’t get a cut of the paper book I sell at a garage sale.  And what happens if I want to give the book away?  Why would I or the recipient have to pay a fee for a “free” book?  And if Amazon is getting a seller’s cut why wouldn’t the author get one as well?
  2. What is “Used”: When dealing with re-selling items, you have to deal with the fact that they are in fact used–in other words, they have had wear and tear on them.  While a book can be read many times even as the spine breaks and the pages yellow, there’s no doubt that the condition of a used item factors into its cost.  An ebook has no such effects upon it.  You can easily strip out the notes you’ve made, the bookmarks you’ve added, and it is fresh and clean as brand new.  I’m not trying to argue specifically about the idea that something must have a shelf-life to encourage buying new versions, though there’s a small part of that.  It’s just that in this case, a book’s price won’t change based on its condition.  Meaning instead of selling my $8 paperback for $1 to my friend, I could sell it just as easily for the same $8 I paid for it because my reading of it produced no evidence upon the (lacking) physical item.

I don’t know that there’s an easy answer to the question.  I think that in the increasingly digital media world that selling “used” versions of video games, movies, books, and music will eventually happen because I can’t see that the market would ignore the option forever unless there were laws preventing it.  I’m not sure how I feel about that yet.


February 7, 2013

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Why go to a writing workshop

Because they’re awesome, that’s why.  Want to know more?  Read about it on Unleaded:  Fuel for Writers.


January 28, 2013

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Odyssey Writing Workshop Deadline Approaches

In 2005, I attended the wonderful Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, NH.  It re-wired my brain so I looked at stories differently–after six long weeks, I could put together the pieces of stories into something coherent.

The key to Odyssey is Jeanne Cavelos.  Unlike the other big six-week workshops, Odyssey has one person who sees the whole process through.  Jeanne has been an editor at one of the Big Six, a writer, and has plenty of experience teaching.  While the guest lecturers are great, Jeanne’s constant watchful eye and patient manner help beat all the information into your skull.

The deadlines to apply are coming up!  Get writing!

Next Workshop: June 10 through July 19, 2013

Next Deadlines: Applications for Early Action due Jan. 31, 2013

Regular Application Deadline–April 8, 2013


January 21, 2013

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Why We Write in Coffee Shops

It used to be with a typewriter in a garret, but now the image of the writer is of the corner table at a Starbucks with laptop and latte. Pre-industrial writers locked themselves away in monasteries  Ok, not exactly the order of events but you get the picture–writers who get away from their homes and hide away to suffer the pains of writing in silence.

It may seem counter-intuitive that the coffee-house writer is locked away alone when they are surrounded by the hubbub of a busy place. Yet it is that hubbub white noise that protects the writer. In a crowd, one can actually be solitary and observing.

And even better, the coffee shop writer has some wonderful benefits that go beyond the easy access to snacks and drinks.  There’s no laundry to be done, or desk to be cleaned out, or pets that need petting, or any of the million of distractions that are hard to ignore at home.  Because at home, we have a limited amount of time to get things cleaned and organized and family to make happy.  It’s much harder to put those distractions aside when they are right there in your face demanding attention.

The coffee-shop writer does have other hazards that might not be there at home.  The food and drink that’s so easily available is expensive and generally not very good for you.  The wifi is generally just as ubiquitous and hard to turn off as at home.  You can’t control the temperature of the room, or the comfort level of the seating.  There will be days where the place is filled with screaming children, adults yelling into cell phones, people who interrupt your work to ask how you can possibly be working in this place, and the like.

Still, I like writing in coffee shops.  I don’t drink coffee and avoid the pastries, but I always try to buy something and am extra nice to the staff for the privilege of taking a table for a few hours.

Toastmasters for Writers

If you aren’t aware of what Toastmasters is, you’re missing out on a great opportunity. We writers tend to be introverts and lean on the more socially awkward side of parties. Even the exceptions who are outgoing and good with meeting and talking to new people may not have much experience with the public speaking arena. And no matter how comfortable you are with any skill, there’s always more to learn. That’s what Toastmasters is all about–the art of public speaking.

Toastmasters first started to help businessmen get over their fears of giving presentations and speeches but it has grown beyond that to include leadership and other skills.

How does this help writers? If you are going to be a successful author, you will spend time giving readings and talks to promote your books. You will go to conventions where you might have to speak off the cuff on a panel, or do a presentation. Not all these situations can be planned for, either. A con panel that was supposed to have 5 panelists ends up with just you. You end up moderator when yours doesn’t show up. You have to fill in for another guest who is absent. Toastmasters can get you ready for all these.

I sort of stumbled into Toastmasters. A coworker recruited me to take a Speechcraft class they were offering. I went in afraid it would be a repeat of the Speech class I took in college. A required class to graduate, which I took under duress when “shy” was my primary personality trait. The teacher made sure that we didn’t get over any of our issues by having arbitrary grading that often had little to do with our presentations and more to do with his own biases. (“You tried to say that animals have intelligence, and I don’t agree. That’s a one letter grade deduction.” Direct quote.) Instead, the process of doing and learning through feedback was emphasized. A safe place to practice where you get help to make it better, and rewarded for trying.

Sounds a lot like a writing group helping each other through submission and critique, doesn’t it?

The Disability Writing Challenge

Linda Adams has thrown down the gauntlet. Are you ready to take up the challenge?

The idea comes from a discussion within a Cat Vacuuming Society meeting about how hard it is to find well-done examples of disabled characters in fiction. This isn’t even about getting the portrayal right, though that’s part of it. The fact is that many stories don’t even bother to have anyone disabled at all, as protagonist or villain, sidekick or spear-carrier. Why is that?

It’s Easy, and It’s Hard

I think that one reason we don’t see a lot of disabled characters is simply we forget. We don’t see other examples in our fiction. Rarely does a major character appear on a TV show or in a movie who has any kind of real disability. The few who do usually have the disability as the main plotline. The character in the wheelchair has to overcome his/her angst about it, or has to be a moral inspiration for someone else. Or even better, it is used as an objective lesson in victimization.

In addition, many writers may not really know anyone with a significant disability. It isn’t something they’re aware of except, ironically, when it comes up in fiction. When creating characters, many writers draw from those around them (real life and what we consume through media). Without disable characters all around us, we don’t instinctively use disabilities in the building blocks of our stories. It’s easy to just forget it’s an option.

Also, there’s a bit of fear of getting it wrong. We can make up alien races and elves and sentient computers, but those people aren’t going to review us harshly if we get the details off. We can do research, but there’s always going to be that doubt that we’re outside our understanding. It’s easier to just say no.


As writers, we’re often bombarded with the idea that we can’t put anything into a story that isn’t a significant part of the story. This is true…and misleading. It means, don’t have a side trip to the swamp just to show off that part of the map. It doesn’t mean that every time you make a character not a WASP American Man you have to justify it by making it Important To the Story. Just as you can have women characters, or African-American, or Gay, or Elven, or whatever characters without spending 5000 words and Three Major Plot Points and A Character Arc on it, you can add in disabilities.

(Note that there are still some people who actually will say that race and sexual-orientation and all those traits also require justifications and purposes for their stories. Is it a surprise that disabilities also fall in that category?)

It’s also hard because a disability is an inherent limitation on a character, and not one we’re used to thinking about. It changes how the character has to approach their problems. The wheelchair-bound can’t climb that steep mountainside, and the guy without an arm may not be able to hold his own in combat. A blind character or a deaf character is missing a crucial sense–no reading the secret map or eavesdropping on conversations.

Other disabilities are hard to write for other reasons. Epilepsy and severe migraines, for example, are ailments that can happen almost at random (or with specific triggers) in real life. It is very difficult to set up a situation where the episodes don’t feel like the author is contriving the circumstances or otherwise ignoring the disability entirely. Instead, the author must build a lot more into the character’s day-to-day adaptation which can admittedly be even harder to pull off without slowing down the story.

Genre fiction has it even harder. Many fantasy stories are set in pseudo-medieval settings, meaning that most disabilities that we can manage today just don’t have the infrastructure to support in pre-modern times. Science fiction and fantasy magic settings have technology and magic which can often eliminate disabilities entirely (ST:TNG’s Geordi LaForge was blind, but could see just fine with his visor). Does it count as a disability if it is magi-teched away completely?

The Challenge

Just because it is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile to do. If you aren’t into diversity for diversity’s sake, do it to improve your writing skills. Challenge yourself to broaden your horizons (and that of fiction as a whole).

Take a story you are already writing. Make one of the characters disabled–and don’t make the story about that. It’s just a detail, like hair color or eye color.

Go read the full challenge, and go forth and write.

As a bonus, go see how a good author does an autistic character: Michelle Sagara’s Silence.


April 22, 2012

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A Review of the Explosionist

This is a book I bought off reading the sample on my Kindle.  I’d bought it last July, and just hadn’t gotten around to reading the book yet.

The Explosionist, by Jenny Davidson

I don’t read a lot of YA, but the sample was quite intriguing.  There’s explosions!  (As you might expect from the title).  I thought originally that it was steampunk, but it isn’t that kind of alternate history at all.  There’s certainly a lot of of technological changes, but not of the sort that fits the steampunk sub-genre.

The alternate history is different from what I’ve seen elsewhere.  The turning point is the Battle of Waterloo (here, Napoleon wins), and this causes a rippling effect on the political structure of the world.  Now, in 1938, Europe is unified and has conquered England, and Scotland is part of the Hanseatic League made up of the Scandinavian countries and assorted others outside of Europe’s rule.

Much of that is revealed only through snippets here and there as it becomes important to the story.  Some is never explained in any detail — I know Napoleon won, but not why or how.  I don’t agree with all of the leaps of logic Davidson makes about how the world would turn out.  While I love the idea of a Scotland that stays free because of its explosives factories, I’m not sure how that came to be, and it nagged at me in places that I didn’t know.

There are two other big world changes.  One, spiritualism is real (though often faked)–people can and do actually talk to the dead, including the main character.  This is handled really nicely and realistically.  For example, at the beginning of the book there is a seance.  But before the medium can start, she’s strip-searched to verify she literally has no tricks up her sleeve.

The other big change I’d like to talk more about but it would spoil some revelations later in the plot involving a group called IRLYNS.  This was both an incredibly cool (in an evil way) and also really hard element to buy.  The problem was that it isn’t explained enough for me as a reader to understand how it worked.  Almost was, but not quite.

You’ll perhaps notice I haven’t mentioned the protagonist by name.  That’s because sadly she was the least interesting thing about the story.  I liked Sophie well enough.  She was smart, but in the end she wasn’t active.  YA can fall into a trap between having the adults too distant or too controlling, and I think this story erred on the side of too controlling.  While there was certainly plenty in the middle that Sophie was the main force behind, the book’s plot consisted of a murder investigation and hidden political agendas.  That made it quite difficult for Sophie to drive the events, especially toward the end.  She manages to be present at the climax, but more though chance than choice.  This took away a lot of the tension and made the throughline seem more random than driving to an inevitable conclusion.

In the end, I did enjoy reading it for the setting, but the character and plot left me unsatisfied.  If you read books primarily for the former, go for it.  If you are like me, however, and read mainly to engage with a character, pass this one by.


March 2, 2012

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Defending Your Writing Time

A friend and I have a standing Sunday date–we meet at a local coffee shop and write for hours. We spend the time between bouts of typing discussing the craft, doing mini-critiques, bouncing ideas around, and other writerly behavior. It’s fun and productive. For her, this may be the only time she has to write all week. For me, while I try to keep going in between, I rarely get large solid blocks of time to use solely for writing.

Yet even this one afternoon is usually under fire. I need to go to the store, there’s laundry to be done, etc. This week, there’s a museum exhibit that ends on Sunday that I’d like to see and another friend (also a writer) to attend. But this is the problem, you see. There’s all kinds of shiny things in addition to chores and whatnot that want to creep into your life and steal that time.

This other friend, this other writer, wasn’t pleased that we couldn’t go on Sunday to the exhibit. She didn’t say it, but I could see her wanting to pull out the list of justifications. It’s for research. It’s just this once. This is the only day to do it. Etc.

But even he “research” excuse has a fatal flaw. It isn’t writing. It isn’t putting words on paper. That is what this time is set aside for–to write. And it isn’t “just this once.” Every week is a new challenge to this time, to keeping it for the purpose I want to put it to.

There are always going to be other things to do besides write. It is up to us to defend that time even in the face of cool things to do–and when faced with the challenge, to not give in to the excuses. Pen to paper, hands to keyboard, will get you farther than research will, even at the museum.

Because all the research in the world won’t get your story written.


January 18, 2012

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SOPA, PIPA, and Why Black(outs) Matter

The information blackout, that is.  Lots of websites joined in.  As usual, I’m late to the party, and I’m not actually going dark, but I would like folks to think about the importance of what is being done–it isn’t, as has been claimed, a stunt or a misuse of power.  It is meant as a sign of what will happen if SOPA and PIPA, in their current forms, will cause.  The abuse of power is what would happen if the power was given to big corporations without the sort of normal checks and balances laws require.

Closing down a website voluntarily is hardly an abuse of power.  Being able to close down a website because someone linked to someone who linked to a site that is black-listed because it violated vague rules?  That’s abuse.  As someone wise once said, “A vague disclaimer is no one’s friend.”

I actually kind of value the ideal hiding underneath SOPA/PIPA.  I want my intellectual property protected.  I want to be able to deal with people who steal from me, even if they live in other countries.  I want them held accountable.

But SOPA and PIPA aren’t about me, not directly.  They’re about people with millions of dollars, and legal teams, and the sorts of forces that I don’t have.  If I were self-published, I’m not sure SOPA and PIPA would even grant me the authority to do what a big corporation can do under the laws as written.

I admit it, I’m no legal scholar.  And I didn’t follow the brouhaha from the very start, thinking that it was mostly the normal sort of Internet over-reaction that happens on a regular basis.  Yet as I tried due diligence to track down the Other Side of the Story, which I always like to have, I have yet to find anything to convince me that the alarm is, if anything, understated.  SOPA and PIPA would be fine in a perfect world (one that ironically still has IP theft).  But our world isn’t perfect.  It has PEOPLE in it.  And people do dumb things, and malicious things, misguided things, and occasionally the right ones for them, that aren’t necessarily right for anyone else.

The big question of course would be:  will they stop piracy?  I laugh at that one.  Sure, if the Internet created intellectual property theft.  But fake VHS tapes existed long before the Internet existed.  Heck, you could probably buy pirated DVDs long before most people had really known what was up with that Web thing.  The Victorians had to deal with hacking on the telegraph.  Cervantes lamented back in his time about people pirating copies of Don Quixote and even writing bad sequels that make the fake Harry Potters produced in China look lucid.  (I’d look up facts and make links, but Wikipedia is blacked out.  Damn them and their abuse of knowledge power.  Or something).

Want to know more:  go to https://www.google.com/landing/takeaction


January 15, 2012

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A Sandman, an Elephant, and a Hedgewitch walk into a bar…

Ok, not really.  But I had a Sampler roundup that was eclectic for this week.

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

I’d heard of this series before, but hadn’t read it.  Since the first one is on sale for 99 cents, I thought I’d give it a shot despite descriptions of it that made me wonder if it was for me or not.  I like the more interesting takes on urban fantasy in its current definition, but I’m also a little worried this will be on the too-gruesome-for-Jen end of things.  (I’m squeamish.)

The sample was fascinating.  A good example of how to get us involved and interested with a character.  Just the right amount of exposition so we kept up with what’s going on, without taking a long-winded way of explaining everything.  The voice is strong and I believe in the character.

I vote this as a buy, especially at the price.  It may end up being too squishy-bits for me, but for now, I’ll read on.

The Hedgewitch Queen by Lilith Saintcrow

I’d tried a Saintcrow several years ago.  I was, I admit, a little put off by her name, which seemed a little over-the-top.  Still, she seemed popular enough.  I picked up what I thought was the first in one of her series, but turns out it was the third (I think).  It had the infodump-the-past-few-books’-plots problem which drives me nuts about series.  (Mostly it makes for a worse introduction for a new reader by slowing things down, and annoys readers who’ve read the earlier ones.) It didn’t capture me at all.

Still, this one is also on sale (2.99) so I thought I’d try it out.

The first line is the kind that draws you in “If not for a muddy skirt, I would have been dead like all the rest.  Dead–or worse, perhaps.” (Ok, that’s technically two lines).  While the French names and such (I can’t yet tell if this is a faux Europe or a “real” Europe–is it supposed to actually be our world or an alternate one) is annoying (because I didn’t take French and get lost in what I’m supposed to pronounce or not), I find myself entranced by Vianne and her predicament.

The thing I like best is how, when she comes upon a horrific scene which may or may not be a murderer, she acts.  She’s absolutely terrified and panics–she’s not the sort of woman who has any experience with these things.  But she takes her terror and channels it intelligently, and does the one thing that’s right and will protect her.

The exposition is a little heavy at times, but it is necessary to get us into the world and just when it would put the story into a grinding halt, it pulls back and we get on our way.  The promise of the first (2) lines isn’t yet fulfilled, but it has done its job wonderfully.  It set up a weighty and ominous portent that keeps the otherwise light beginning from becoming too fluffy.

Most of all, it got me reading, kept me reading, and there I am at the end of the sample, dying to read more.

A buy!

Why Can’t Elephants Jump? by New Scientist

This is a collection of questions and their answers, from the Last Word page from the New Scientist magazine.  I’m a both a sponge and fount of random information, so I thought this would be a lot of fun.  I haven’t read the other books in this series, but it isn’t as if there’s a story to follow, so jumping in at any point is fine.

The formatting is annoying, however, enough so that I won’t read it digitally.  The questions are in italics, with the asker’s name in bold, then where the person is from in normal text.  Without any white space to separate it, the answer follows directly under that–actually, there’s several answers, all running right after one another.  The answerer’s name is also bolded, but everything else is in normal text.

Except that everything after the section header is also indented from the left about an inch.  An inch of my limited Kindle’s screen.  Also, the first paragraph of any answer does NOT have a paragraph’s first line indent, making it run flush with the location of the previous answer.

All in all, ugly.  Sorry, New Scientist but what looks pretty in print may end up cluttered on screen.  I may check it out again in hardcopy, but I so rarely read hardcopy nowadays that isn’t likely. It may not bother anyone else, and it looks like fascinating information, but there you go.