I read Cultures and Beyond, The Art of World Building 3, by Randy Ellefson. I reviewed the prior two volumes, Creating Life and Creating Places, when they were published. Each volume is a comprehensive discussion of its subject, useful for new writers and surely for established ones too. I have been writing and selling novels for more that half a century, and I have been learning things here. I recommend all three for background reading for those who are serious about the worlds they create. The present volume is amazingly informative about the several aspects of culture, covering armed forces, religions, supernatural aspects, languages, and everything in between. It even lists all the American military ranks. Take a supposedly minor aspect, creating names. I have a small collection of books of names, which I use for my characters, trying not to duplicate myself too often, but I see I am an amateur in this respect. Naming names can be a science! Every section of this volume is similarly detailed. I am not sure whether reading it would cure the dread Writer’s Block for those who suffer it, but if a writer runs out of inspiration, reading this book well might restore it. Certainly it should be on the shelf, as it were, ready to check when uncertainty threatens.
I read The Sleeper’s Serenade, by Jacob Oakley. Fisherman Jedren is seduced by a lovely largely anonymous woman, who later brings him his infant son, whom he names Harpis, as he feels the mother is more harpy than woman. Twenty one years later Harpis captains his boat The Sea Goat, which takes some passengers. One of these is the gnome Wren, and he is perhaps a more important character than Harpis. He belongs to the Syndicate, a secret organization dedicated to the service of the ruling elite. His importance becomes evident when pirates raid the boat. Wren’s magic animates the corpses of the recently slain crewmen, who then turn and fight the enemy. Enemy dead are also reanimated to fight beside them. Soon the pirates are in retreat as their numbers drop. Harpis also turns out to have magic, unifying the living crew members to fight savagely as a unit while Harpis sings. The main portion of the novel shows the machinations of devious figures, who come close to destroying the home kingdom before Wren and Harpis manage to defeat them. It is a hard-hitting story, with gritty bloodshed and ugly magic, evidently one of a series featuring Harpis.
I read The Evil Rotten French Fry, by Gary S. Opas. Knowing the time it can take to write a novel, I suspect this was written before the coronavirus hit the scene. Coincidence or not, this is about a pandemic that isn’t taken seriously at first, so spreads phenomenally. It is not quite like other pandemics, however. This one is designed in a laboratory, to infect a specific family. But it gets away. The victim develops an insatiable taste for tomato juice, and grows potato sticks on his/her head. He projectile vomits on his target, who is then infected. Apart from some initial confusion and tiredness, it seems to have no other ill effects. In fact there comes to be a kind of camaraderie of victims, whose potato sticks can embrace each other when two infected heads get close enough. Eventually a victim gets annoyed and hires a sharp investigator to run down the source. That becomes its own story. This is a lighthearted adventure, no great strain to assimilate unless you happen to hate french fries.
I read Little Boy Lost, More Tales of Youth Disrupted, edited and illustrated by Ronald Linson & Deidre J. Owen. I reviewed their prior volume, Little Girl Lost, last OctOgre; that was 13 tales of girls, while the present one is 15 tales of boys. As before, not all the subjects are children: they range up to about age 18 or older, depending on special circumstances. Some stories are cute, some horror, some strange. Some themes are reasonably conventional; some are impressively original. It is not feasible to comment on all of them individually, so I’ll mention those that struck me in passing. This does not mean that the others are unworthy, just that my tastes are individual. “Someone Else’s Shoes” by Fiona M. Jones features young Elvis, who is a clone of the famous singer Elvis Presley, raised by adoptive parents so he can grow up to resume an interrupted singing career. But he stops speaking, then disappears. What went wrong? Well, in effect he was wearing someone else’s shoes and didn’t want to be channeled. I can’t speak for the original Elvis, though he was my contemporary, about half a year younger than I, but I suspect this is about the way he would react. Creative folk don’t like to be channeled. “Ride the Ride” by Piers Anthony—yes, that’s me—is about the fear of the boy inside the man as they approach a horrendous roller coaster ride, but are rescued by the supremely calming intercession of a mysterious woman who joins them. They both love her, but she turns out to be a ghost. Regardless, they don’t want to let her go. Not all ghosts are spooky. “The Inspection” by Jeremy Thackray has refugee children from all of history hiding in a church. The problem comes when inspectors want to send them home, where they may soon die. This is one powerful story. “From the Trash” by Marie Vibbert is a tricky murder mystery relating to a boy lost on a moon station. Is the woman who finds him tough enough to save him? “Killing Miss Pope” by Ken Goldman is a story of vengeance. Stephen stutters and is called retarded by cruel teacher Miss Pope, ruining his education when he is actually fairly bright. I relate to this, because I evidently suffered from dyslexia before that was fashionable, so I was I think considered retarded, and it took me three years and five schools to make it through first grade. Only when I got out on my own did I manage to score, and today I think few but literary critics consider me retarded. I think such a critic is a work of art finely fashioned from fecal matter. Schools can be like death camps for creative children. Yes, I made sure my dyslexic daughter did not get screwed like that, though it took some heroic measures like yanking her out of her first grade school so the teacher could not destroy her, and later interceding in college. I was once an English teacher myself; when I make a point to the folk in charge, they ruefully know I am correct, and action follows. “The Great Gumball Machine” by John B. Rosenman tells how a boy wins a special gumball that can give him an ideal future career. But he is justifiably cautious; not every gift is ideal. “Shy Boy” by Don Noel. Harold secretly loves the girl next door but lacks the courage ever to approach her. Until fate intercedes. “The Prince’s Choice” by Mark F. Geatches. Prince Monroe, 16, must choose his future bride from a dozen girls selected by his parents. All are remarkably lovely and qualified, but he fixes on the youngest, Maya, who is barely 13. And his parents send her away. He can’t oppose them directly, but he remains steadfast in his choice. An interesting conflict of wills. I relate because fate eventually steered me to a marvelous woman who did not exist when I was young. “Monster in the House” by Tim Mendees is an ugly horror story, as Kenny, 12, finally manages to fight his way past the monsters that invade his house. Of course it’s not quite that simple. This one made me wince, and not just because monsters constantly tormented me when I was a child. “Everything Under the Sun” by Noah Grace has a most interesting background situation. The authorities have special watches that can stop time, so that they can investigate crime with no apparent time passing. But there is a penalty: the investigator ages while the world does not. Thus the protagonist is a woman who has mothered her 7-year-old daughter for 14 years. Investigators seem to age rapidly, and become eager to retire so they can age normally. This is a take on time that I never thought of, and if it is original with the author, I congratulate him for skunking me imaginatively. Overall, this is another remarkable collection of stories of many genres, with lovely illustrations for the editions that have them. It stirs memories and emotions, as my reactions indicate. Publication date is June 18, 2020.
A reader asked me for writing advice, and I got into a spot essay that should apply to just about any aspiring writer, so I’m running it here without reference to his name:
Many folk dream of making it as writers, as you do, and as I did. But few actually make it, about one in a hundred, and this is not necessarily because of lack of talent, but the cruelty of the market. For example, when I demanded that my first publisher honor its own contract and pay me due royalties, I got blacklisted for six years, lied about, and even a writers’ organization tacitly sided with the publisher. I am still not in good repute in some quarters.
It was a supreme irony that when that publisher cheated one too many writers, and got sued, and the proprietors had to flee their own company, the new editor discovered that he, too, had been cheated, and invited me to contribute to the reformed publisher. That was when I wrote A Spell For Chameleon, starting the Xanth fantasy series that in due course made me a best seller. But few cheated authors get such breaks. I’m not saying that all publishers cheat, but there are sharks in those waters and the average writer is largely on his own.
I labored to help make it possible for any writer to get published, and today that is the case, thanks largely to the Internet. But sales are generally small. Don’t expect to make any significant money writing. Do it only for your own satisfaction. Then hope you get lucky, as I did.
To answer your specific questions: 1. For your routine, try to do some creative writing every day, even if only a hundred words. Keep it going, day by day, until you get there. If one project doesn’t move, try another that may move better; don’t let a balky text stop you. 2. Don’t pay an editor to edit it; this is apt to cost you more than you will ever make in sales, and not all professed editors are truly competent. Edit it yourself, or have a literate family member go over it, then shop for a publisher. I maintain an ongoing list of electronic publishers and related services at HiPiers.com you should find useful. If you get a publisher, they will edit your manuscript to the extent they deem appropriate. Avoid any publishers that want you to pay for anything, unless you get into self publishing. Check changes closely, but don’t make a scene unless they do something like turning your innocent girl protagonist into a call girl. 3. The best way to get your story out there is to get a good publisher who can properly promote it. It will help if you turn out to be a good and exciting writer, but that’s not enough. Competition is fierce. You need to get lucky.
Regardless, my best to you. Some new writers do score.
Now another letter, but first a bit of background. Thirty-two years ago, a twelve-year-old school girl, Jenny, was crossing the street at the designated time and place, supervised, when a drunk driver crashed through and took her out. Fast action and intensive care saved her life, but she remained in a coma several months, barely responsive to others. The drunk driver had no remorse; they had to arrest him and haul him in from his fishing excursion to make him attend the hearing; as far as I know he paid no penalty for what he had done. I call him a burro sphincter; translate that as you please. Jenny’s mother, desperate, hoped that a personal letter from her favorite author would rouse her so that she did not sink into permanent oblivion or death. It was a long shot, but what else was there? So she wrote to the author, me, and I responded by writing Jenny a nice letter. They read it to her—and it did bring her out, and she re-entered the human world. But that was when it became apparent that she was almost totally paralyzed. She could wiggle one toe, and move some fingers of one hand; she couldn’t talk. That put me in a crisis of conscience. I had done what I thought was right, but had I actually sentenced Jenny to a life of imprisonment in her paralyzed body? So I did what I could: I wrote to her weekly, trying to entertain her with minor personal details of my own life, maybe providing her a vicarious experience of a better condition. Time has passed; her mother died, my wife died, but my weekly letters to Jenny continue. A reader reads them to her, as she can’t hold them herself. The published book Letters To Jenny consists of my first year’s letters to her. At once point a studio considered making a movie of the story, but that fell through. So now, as it were, it is just Jenny and me, the world indifferent. It is a one-way communication; she does not respond, being unable to type, but her family says she still likes the letters. Thus this week’s letter, one page long as they all are.
You’ve got to stop worrying about the coronavirus! Even if you don’t speak of it, your mother hears you, and that sets her off, and she has to try to reassure you that she’s not gong to let it happen to you. So here is one more Mr. Butts comic, which she barely slipped by the guardian angel, who is getting downright suspicious. He thinks she’s trying to sneak cigarettes into Heaven; good thing he doesn’t know the truth, that she’s trying to reassure you. Be reassured, think nice thoughts, so she can relax at last. Not that she was ever good at relaxing, but this makes it worse. No, she’s not threatening to tear off your head and—never mind. And stop trying to work the Jumble word puzzle on the back of the Curtis comic. If your reader catches on that you’re not paying attention, she’ll be annoyed. She’s not here for her health, you know. [NOTE: Jenny’s mother smoked, and I teased her about it, pretending that the animated cigarette Mr. Butts in the Doonesbury comic strip was her favorite character. Now I say that her main annoyance in Heaven is that it bans smoking there. You know, smoke is for Hell. The facetious threat she made to Jenny was something like “If you don’t stop that, I’m going to tear off your head and shit down your windpipe.” She was remarkably expressive when annoyed.]
This week’s Monstrously Huge News is that the star jasmine flowers, which had finished out their season by the end of last month, abruptly resurged. First there was one flower, then more, and more, until the top day there were 432!! That’s a new record. This morning there were only 260 as it subsides. I knew you’d be amazed and thrilled. Other flower news: remember the one I need to use a mnemonic to remember? Aga lion? Aga tiger? Aga leopard? Ah! Aga pantha. Just one plant is blooming this season, and its first flower of the developing cluster has opened, with six lovely blue petals. We also have one honeysuckle cluster. Yes, Xanth has the Heaven-Can-Wait Honeysuckle that mesmerizes bees; ours lacks that magic. Ah, well. Maybe next season. [NOTE: That’s in Xanth #46, Six Crystal Princesses, not yet published.]
Other news: Cheryl got me a new hose sprinkler, as the old one could no longer be turned off, making things messy. The new one works beautifully. Isn’t that exciting? You’re so good at concealing your excitement that sometimes you fool me, at least for a moment. No, I’m not going to splash you.
Carroll and Lina Wren are gone, and so are their hatchlings; the nest is empty. I hope that means they matured and flew off together, not that a snake called. And on this morning’s exercise walk I spooked two deer. They bounded off around a turn, and I heard a crash. When I caught up one was lying on the ground beyond the fence; it must have caught the top and crashed down. I hoped it wasn’t badly hurt. Then on the return trip it was gone. What a relief! Bye, deer. [Our local wren species is the Carolina Wren, hence the names. As for the deer: I may have spoken too soon, because next day, about a quarter mile on up the drive, a grown deer turned up dead, the vultures congregating. Cheryl and I dug a pit and buried it. So it may have been injured, walked a way, then died. I hate that kind of scene, but it is nature. We could have left the carcass to the birds, but elected to intervene to abate the developing smell.]
There is a kind of minor sequel to the Jenny story. One book of mine one woman read was Letters to Jenny. She wrote me a fan letter because of it, and that started a 24-year correspondence. One thing led to another, and now MaryLee and I have been married a month, thanks, perhaps, to Jenny. Fate can be devious.
I receive solicitations to include links of many kinds here in my HiPiers column or on my Links page. I try to restrict them to the purpose of this site, which is to promote my books. But sometimes my other interests get in the way. Courtney McNally asked me to check his beginner’s guide to house plants. I like plants, and now have a number in pots that will soon be planted in the sunken garden we made from the old swimming pool. So plants are part of my life, and not just because I am a vegetarian. So here is the link to his guide, which covers all manner of plants, such as money plant, air plant, African violet, Zebra, snake plant, spider plant, rubber, and many more. If you are considering getting house plants, this may be where to start. https://www.myjobquote.co.uk/blog/beginners-guide-to-house-plants/.
NEW SCIENTIST had an article on the evolution of sexuality, which says that same-sex attraction isn’t an evolutionary paradox. Sexuality varies continuously from hetero to homo, and has a range of social functions that include play, social bonding, affiliation, barter, conflict resolution, dominance, and appeasement. It says this applies to both straight and gay sex. My attitude is that some religions choose to claim that sex is only for procreation, nothing else. They are wrong. Animals have sex only for breeding, sometimes coming together only when the females are in heat: screw her and begone. The human species is a bit more enlightened, recognizing that sex can be a social lubricant that facilitates group dynamics, and contributes to the survival of the species by enabling larger groups to work together.
NEW SCIENTIST says that arachnid (that’s spiders) intelligence is changing our ideas about brains and consciousness. The mind of a spider may even extend into its web. Yes, the web could be regarded as a giant sensory organ. They wonder whether spiders can be conscious. I say of course they are, as are the six-legged insects. Consciousness must be a relatively simple feedback mechanism, and when they discover its secret, conscious robots will follow. They already exist in science fiction.
I have a recent problem. I used to write my fiction, read books, watch videos on DVD or Blu-Ray, and handle necessary chores. My time has been monopolized by things, and I have read no books I bought, watched no videos, and written no fiction in the past month. I have four novel-length projects, including being one chapter into Xanth #47 Apoca Lips, all of which are stalled. When my wife Carol died we got into a massive housecleaning, as she had not been an apt housekeeper. In fact our insurance dropped us because of the condition our house had fallen into. We also converted our long-defunct swimming pool to a sunken garden. These projects are nearing completion, and the time they are taking should be easing off. The house is back up to spec, and we can live without the insurance. The coronovirus is partly to blame, as I now have to handle my own email instead of letting my daughter do it, and transcribe my written notes to correspondents. The email system seems to be cursed; it intercepts my letters, deleting words, sentences, paragraphs, or the whole thing, so that I have to start over. When MaryLee tries to bail me out, it does the same thing to her. So correspondence that used to take minutes now takes frustrating hours, and I am seriously behind on some of it. Yes, I typo a lot, partly because I am now working with three different computer systems, two of which lack my version of the Linux keyboard so I type touch where the functions used to be and no longer are. I now have a programmable ergonomic keyboard that should solve that problem, once I get time to get familiar with it. Regardless, my Linux systems never pull such stunts, only the Windows system I inherited from my wife. Maybe it’s mad at me for remarrying. In due course that balky system will be gone, but at present it’s a time consumer. New marriage is another culprit; MaryLee and I can’t just hug and kiss in passing; it can be hours before we separate from incidental contacts. Maybe that will ease off in time, but no, we’re not going to hurry it. Another thing is my reading. I try to help other writers as I can, and part of that is reading and reviewing their novels in the hope that this will facilitate their publication and success. I am a slow reader, and a novel can take me a week to get through. The novels have been piling in, and I still have two to go. So just as I finally had to pull the plug on sending signed pictures, when they got to a regular 50 a month and were appearing for sale on eBay after being obtained free from me, I have to act to reclaim my working time. On deck are two more novels to review, Into the Lair and Elf Righteous. After that I will not be taking any more for some time. I expect to resume writing this month, and to watch some videos with MaryLee. [After I wrote that, we watched Terminator: Dark Fate, commencing the new order. That’s a hard-hitting story with some interesting twists.] In short, doing what I want to do, rather than having all my time taken by what others want me to do. I am old; as I like to put it, the average American man my age is several years dead. I don’t know how much time I still have to live, and I want to enjoy it. I also want to do my bit to help save the world as we know it, so that humanity will have a future other than the slow apocalypse of global warming, despite the destructive efforts of some contemporary politicians. If this seems selfish, so be it; enough is enough. You have been advised.
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