Archive | October, 2020

Should We Expect Miracles?

21 Oct

It’s a clever slogan – “expect miracles” – but by its very definition, you can’t expect a miracle. And yet, we hear about miracles everyday and wonder, “Why shouldn’t I expect one? It happened to him, why not me?” The reason? Miracles aren’t cheap.

The slogan was about a medical charity for children – what’s more noble than that? We can and do deliver miracles daily in modern medicine. A disease that would have killed someone five years ago is treatable today. Surgeries that would have required two weeks of inpatient recovery are now outpatient procedures.

But here’s the sad truth – medical miracles are expensive. I was talking with Tom, a former potentate of the Shriners, which operate a chain of children’s hospitals that specialize in many diseases and offer their services free to kids who are suffering from them. He told me that their daily money requirement to keep their services operational is $2.3 million US. Daily. Here in Arizona, they don’t have a Shriners hospital, so they spend $22,000 (weekly?) just transporting the 800 kids here to their locations in Los Angeles, Galveston, and Salt Lake City.

At the same time, their own membership is decreasing. Here in Phoenix, they went from 6000 members thirty years ago to a present number of 1100. They’re trying to downsize from their large halls to more reasonable facilities; and due to escalating rents, those are often not there. Since they don’t need inpatient facilities anymore they’re trying to get rid of their specialty hospitals in favor of specialty clinics which already work with children’s hospitals to give kids the free help they need.

Miracles costs money. Since this post is running too long, let me answer the obvious answer to this question tomorrow. Otherwise, what do you think? Should we expect medical miracles? What are we willing to pay for them? Put your answers in the comments below!

Your Call to Cthulhu is Important to Us, Please Hold

20 Oct

I’m not a big fan of American horror, but I do like the psychological fear (usually present in foreign horror films) element, if it’s done well. Cthulhu touches on that nameless horror, that unseen fear, that tinge that comes right before you turn on the lights. Now put that in a banal setting like your workplace.

That’s the beauty of this short story anthology, Corporate Cthulhu, which deals with that fear of the bureaucratic, the fear of being out of the loop, and the terrible consequences if you DO know.

Of course, I’m prejudiced because one of my stories, Shadow Charts, is part of this anthology. I took my experience from having worked in hospitals for 11 years and put it in a story about an inner-city hospital hiding a strange secret; patients check in, they don’t check out. I actually set it in an old hospital building I worked in (it only recently got demolished)… so I think it works great!

However, there are several other stories I enjoyed in here. Boedromion Noumenia by Andrew Scott was insanely well researched and very creepy. Incorporation by Max D. Stanton was excellent. And there are twenty more of these!

So I really suggest you pick up this book and let me know how my story… and others turned out! By the way, what do you think of Cthulhu as a subgenre? Is it played out, do you enjoy it, not your thing? Let me know in the comments below!

Burke and Elmo are Stalking Me

19 Oct

So yesterday, I wrote a post about how James Burke really changed the way I looked at history, so I had to download a picture of him to explain who he is. Now his picture is hiding out in my picture folder, staring at me, looking at me like I owe him something.

I should be doing something to promote my book, but instead, I’ve got this science reporter staring at me. I feel like James Burke is saying, “Why aren’t you trying to figure out how to drain copper mines in Cornwall?” Well, James, I don’t live in the 18th Century, nor do I work as a handyman at the University of Edinburgh. He’d probably reply, “Not everything is the steam engine,” and I’d agree, and tell him I’ve got fifteen other things to do today. So he keeps staring at me.

Also, Elmo, God of the Ocean is wondering when he’s gonna come out of his electronic hibernation. “Sorry, Elmo, I found your cool picture, but haven’t found a post to go along with it.” So he’d say (in that high pitched voice), “Silence, mortal! You will find room in your blog post for me. Ha ha ha!”

Okay, Elmo, you win. May this electronic sacrifice be pleasing to you on Mount Sesame. Oooh, Sesame Street meets Clash of the Titans. That might be the weirdest damn fan-fiction ever. No… wait, no it won’t. I’ve read Star Wars meets My Little Pony sex fic – nothing beats that. (blink) And now I’m got that image in your head. 🙂

A picture of Conan the Barbarian’s father always has something wise to say, but he’s telling me to teach my son about the Riddle of Steel. I tell him, “I’ve got this picture of him with a sword. Does that work?” Conan’s father looks annoyed. Then again, he never -not- looks annoyed, so… win?

Gee – I really didn’t have anything to talk about today! I must be running out of the topics I’ve been writing down to… well, write down in my blog. I guess I’m a little gunshy after the “controversy” I got over “furbabies.” What topics would you like me to cover? Let me know in the comments below!

Baroque Tuning

18 Oct

Somebody once observed to the eminent philosopher Wittgenstein how stupid medieval Europeans living before the time of Copernicus must have been that they could have looked at the sky and thought that the sun was circling the earth. Surely a modicum of astronomical good sense would have told them that the reverse was true. Wittgenstein is said to have replied: “I agree. But I wonder what it would have looked like if the sun had been circling the earth?”

James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed

I love James Burke – he created several documentaries that really challenged how I viewed history. In fact, the quote is from The Day the Universe Changed, which explains the history of thought. People did not think the same throughout history – fundamentally different ways of viewing the world – because if someone tells you the sun goes around the earth… well, it looks that way, doesn’t it? Common sense. Let me give you a minor revealation to me that the way things now are not how they were.

James Burke – the man, the myth, the legend.

I have perfect pitch – most days, it’s a curse rather than a blessing – because although it helps with singing, it also means you notice everyone else’s singing is slightly off tune. I know what note the refrigerator is humming. Oi.

So once upon a time, I went to my stepbrother’s house and was jazzed that he had a harpsichord. He owned a church organ company, didn’t have kids, and being a musician… of course he had a harpsichord. This was the most bad-ass thing a young 14-year-old Marcus could imagine; forget the baby grand piano in the corner, this is a #*$%&@ harpsichord!

So I’m playing a minuet that I had memorized that had to have been played on a harpsichord when it was composed (by Nannerl Mozart, Amadeus’ sister). I’m playing it on this cool instrument and I’m disturbed to hear that it played flat. So I go through the piece and look over at my stepbrother and ask, “What’s wrong with the harpsichord?” He smiles and pointing to a strange block at the right end of the keyboard, he says, “Oh, I left it on Baroque tuning, that’s why it sound flat.”

Baroque tuning? I wondered. Yes, it turns out that there was no standardized pitch until 100 years ago. They did what I do to tune my guitar; pick one tune for the low note and make sure all other strings are tuned in relation to that one. To explain, the note A is set at a modern standard of 440 hertz (that’s what the tuning fork does). Although there was no standard back in Mozart’s day, most musicians came to a consensus and said – on average – the tuning of an A note was around 410 hertz. So an A today would have sounded like an A sharp.

The sound of many of the great composers’ work is going to sound flat to modern ears. This is a minor detail, but it made me question how we perceive many of things in the modern world.

Have you ever had a minor revelation like that? Did you know no one thought to standardize piano tuning until 1885? Do you think that’s a good thing? Let me know in the comments below!

Balancing Unusual and Formula

17 Oct

So getting ready for @nanowrimo in three weeks means that I need to get my story idea ready. Although I’m usually a “pantser,” after my last story, I realized I really need to plan out where I’m going with my next story. So welcome to the world of mystery templates.

Because I realized my sci-fi story was turning into a mystery, I figured I needed a mystery template. So I found the “Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula” which will give me the structure I need to plan out my story. The first chapter made me realize that “Oh, just shooting the victim doesn’t really help.” Although most of my story was planned to be the chase of the villain, not as much the search, I realized that I need to set up clues for the hero to identify the villain later.

So moving onto Chapter 2 shifted my perceptions on where to start my story. Don’t start it on the frontier planet, with the hero brooding over the victim’s death – actually SHOW the murder, show the world that the hero comes from, show WHY the hero cares. I know – this sounds obvious, but I’ve always found that the hero(s) need to have backstory, which means to me, “Why should I start from the beginning?” I’m always a fan of getting to where the action is, not the build-up. But in mystery, the build-up is ALSO the action.

Then Chapter 3 tells me to start a sub-plot; check, already had that planned. However, I’m not to the frontier planet that I want the reader to go to. So I’m realizing I need a sidekick for my hero as a way to explain to the author how we get from urban planet to frontier planet. It also allows me to develop the hero and start to get to the nitty gritty of what makes this character–and their universe–really cool.

So I need to figure out Act II – direct the investigation towards a conclusion which later proves to be erroneous. My original plan was to make everyone on this frontier planet a suspect, since a) there’s less people and b) why would someone move to a hell planet when you live in virtual paradise? So everyone there is trying to hide from something. Think Alaska. 🙂

This where I’m currently stuck, because this means I need to flush out the folks who live on hell frontier planet. Act III, where the sleuth figures out he’s on the wrong track… that’s going to be easier once I figure out the other suspects.

What do you think? Am I on the right track with this formula? Do you like templates? Do you despise them? Let me know in the comments below!

Unclaimed Territories

16 Oct

While I’m planning for my next story project, I’m realizing that this story is really more of a mystery than just the outlandish sci-fi that I’m used to. So to plan this monster (and make sure I don’t repeat the mistakes of my last book), I have to use a mystery novel template. However, I’m facing a completely different set of rules, and it makes me a little nervous.

It reminds of the term “unclaimed territories,” which sounds more obscure than “undiscovered country” or “unknown lands.” In Maine, most of the thick mountainous, forested land is referred to as the “Unclaimed Territories,” due to the fact that under the (now repealed) Homestead Act of 1862, this land was so difficult to use that no one claimed their allotment… or few stayed on to keep it in their family. So instead of creating vast swaths of national parks (like they did here in Arizona), they just call it “public land” and do the same thing they do here – the state gets to permit logging companies to harvest trees on a cyclical basis.

So how do I claim the territory of “sci-fi mystery?” When researching this, I actually found “Frank Gruber’s Foolproof Formula” first, written by an author of the pulp era, and then I found the 12 chapter template. So let me focus on the tricks first. Well, you need a crime. Check – that’s the motivation for the hero. However, Frank pointed out that to keep the reader’s interest, it has to be unusual. This is an ongoing point – anyone can write murder on the train, but the “why” and “only your sleuth can solve it” is the important part.

So this really inspired me – Gruber goes on to make the point that the hero AND the villain need to be larger than life. They need to be colorful and powerful to keep the reader interested. So that made me realize that I should reframe my characters to touch on that. I’m already creating an ultra-tech universe in which people can be larger than life (and frequently are), why not expand on that?

It’s the term “unusual” that really attracted me. I’m not a big fan of mystery, so for me to pick it up, it HAS to be unusual. Sherlock Holmes is a high-functioning sociopath who gets into drugs when he’s bored. Cadfael is a herbalist monk in 12-century England. I’ve read other historical mystery before because I like the setting – I’m crap at figuring out the mystery. So I’m seriously adapting my story idea to embrace the unusual… which with ultra-tech, isn’t going to be hard.

I’ll get into the 12-chapter mystery plot structure next post, but what do you think? Should I embrace the “unusual” in my book structure? Was my last book TOO unusual for you? Let me know in the comments below!

Leafblowers in the Mist

15 Oct

I wake really *#@$&$* early. My job has a lot of East Coast clients, so living in Arizona means I have to start work two hours earlier than most office jobs to match. So I open my window… and am welcomed by the droning sounds of lawnmowers and leafblowers. Can you find zen in the modern annoyances?

You would think this would be a weekly problem (my complex mows our lawn on Wednesday), but in my case, it’s daily. I live next to a golf course (public – I’m not in a gated community) so they have to get that grass to a razor sheen with their Mower After GOD! ™ and drive around the 20-acre plot with that beast before the slightly less insane retirees get to the course to start their tee time.

This sound – even when not near my townhouse – is a constant drone for a good hour and a half right as I’m starting my day. During the summer, this is less of a concern, because in Arizona we can’t open our windows at 5 am because it’s still 90 degrees then. However, fresh air is a wonderful thing, and in September it was finally cool enough to open the windows for the first couple hours of the day.

Now that I have the setup, can I get in the contemplative mood to enjoy my morning work routine with the leafblowers going? Yes. It’s a simple issue of mind over matter; “if you don’t mind, it’s doesn’t matter!” 🙂

Okay, it’s a bad joke, but it’s true. When I practiced meditation, I went to the multi-faith chapel at the hospital I worked at, because it was the perfect quiet space. Only one problem – they were doing construction on the floor above. So every minute, you’d get some grinding sound. Did I give up and go back to lunch? No. I started to use the grinding sound as my meditative focus and it worked great. Since I expected – now needed – the sound, it was welcome and allowed me to focus better.

Of course it’s not like I have a choice. If it wasn’t the leafblowers, it’s the cars on the highway-pretending-to-be-an-interstate 2 miles away, which you can hear all the traffic on a clear day. Or someone will have a traffic accident within a three mile radius and you’ll hear all the emergency vehicles. So embrace your modern distractions… because honestly, you don’t have much of a choice. 😀

Am I off track here? Have you embraced the distractions to find peace? Or have you found more effective ways to block out the noise? Let me know in the comments below!

Improving Your Author Visibility

14 Oct

Today’s blog post is brought to you again by my good friend, Ed Stasheff, who has been working as a small press publisher, editor, and author for years.

In yesterday’s post I explained how editors, when faced with several excellent stories competing for one open slot, may take the author of the tale into consideration.  Specifically, we look at the author’s popularity (through number of previous publications and social media following) and their demographics.  While these criteria do tend to slant in favor of popular, established authors over talented but unknown beginning authors, there are some things new authors can do to balance things out.

Have a Social Media Presence

The more social media followers you have, the more might buy a book or magazine that published your story, and thus the more sales the publisher might make.  Editors pay attention to these things.  At the very least, have Facebook and Twitter accounts, but more platforms is always better.  If you have a separate author page on Facebook, that’s even better. Presumably all that followers that page are interested in your writing, as opposed to a personal page where a large number might be acquaintances with no interest—or even knowledge—of your writing career.

Have an Author Website

If an editor is going to research you as an author, make it quick and easy for them to find all the information about you that they need.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, detailed, or even ad-free—seriously, we don’t care about that.  There are plenty of places where you can build a simple website for free (although it’ll probably have ads).  A blog is a bonus, even if it’s not updated regularly.  If you have a common name like John Smith, make sure the landing page of your website introduces you as “John Smith, a fiction author of (genre name)” so that we can instantly tell we’ve found the right person, instead of wondering whether or not John Smith the Accountant from Wisconsin is you.

Link to your Social Media Accounts from your Author Website

Editors rarely have the time to check all social media platforms for all authors who submit manuscripts.  Personally, I check for a website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and that’s it—so if most of your followers are on Instagram or TikTok, I’ll probably miss it.  However, if you make it easy for editors to find all of your social media accounts by having prominent (i.e., toward the top) links to them on your website, we can quickly and easily count ALL your followers.

Have a Bibliography on your Author Website

Sure, we editors may often consider an author’s number of previous publications a measure of their name recognition or popularity, but… how do we know what you’ve written?  Personally, I use Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, and the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (isfdb.org).  No one location will have a list of all your publications, though, especially since there are so many obscure magazines and e-zines out there.  So help us out and have a page on your website dedicated to your complete bibliography.  Categorize them by novels, short stories, and poetry.  Include not just the story’s title, but also the anthology/magazine it appears in, the date, and (if known) the publisher.

To conclude, all these things will help make you more competitive (or at least appear to be) compared to more establish authors.  My final bit of advice is that taking these steps does require a time commitment—possibly a major one.  If you’re serious about building up your fiction writing career, it may be worth your time.  On the other hand, if you only jot off a story every now and then and occasionally submit it here and there on a whim, it may not be the best use of your time… at least, not yet.

If you have any questions, leave them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them quickly.

Editors Evaluating Authors

13 Oct

Today’s blog post is brought to you again by my good friend, Ed Stasheff, who has been working as a small press publisher, editor, and author for years.

I mentioned in my original guest post that when a magazine or anthology editor has read through the slush pile of submissions and eliminated the bad and mediocre stories, there will almost certainly be more excellent short stories than can possibly fit in that anthology or magazine issue. Consequently, editors have to whittle down the excellent submissions based on criteria that have little or nothing to do with the story’s quality.  I also mentioned in last week’s post how editors keep an eye out for stories that contain interesting variations on the publication’s theme.

This week, I’ll mention three other things that editors research to choose between equally excellent stories.  These criteria, however, aren’t about the story, but about the author.

1. Previous Publications

Readers are more likely to buy a book or magazine when the cover displays an author name or two they’re familiar with.  Although it’s hard to gauge an author’s popularity, one metric is the number of their previous publications.  The more stories an author has published, the more likely they are to have name recognition and a following.  So if I’ve got two excellent stories I can’t decide between where one author has three publications and the other has thirty, I’ll probably go with the more established author.

2. Social Media Following

This may not apply to big publishers like Penguin/Random House or Simon & Schuster, but for small and indie publishers (and there are thousands) this is crucial for sales.  You see, when an author gets a short story published in a magazine or anthology, they almost always post about it on social media when the book is released.  A small percentage of their followers go on to buy the book.  Therefore, the larger a social media following an author has, the more sales will be made in the first week after release (which is vital to the book moving up the search rankings on Amazon).  Consequently, if I have to decide between two equally excellent stories where one author has 500 followers and the other has 5,000, I’ll probably pick the author with the larger social media following.

3. Demographics

This is sex, gender, race, ethnic and/or religious minorities, sexual orientation, and physical and/or mental disabilities.  There has been a lot of backlash over the last several decades against genre anthologies being dominated by straight white cis men.  Consequently, many editors (not all, but a lot) these days at least try to have some degree of diversity among their authors.  So sometimes if I have to decide between two equally excellent stories by authors with a similar number of previous publications and near-equal social media followers—but one author is a woman or minority—I’ll choose that author.  It doesn’t happen very often, true, but it does occasionally come into play.  Now, keep in mind this isn’t just about politics—people with different backgrounds and experiences often bring different viewpoints and perspectives to the fiction they write (which goes back to the need for variation in an anthology’s theme).

You may have noticed a bias built into this selection process: popular published authors are more likely to get published again, while unpublished or new authors—even talented ones—are less likely to get published at all. And you are perfectly right. This is exactly why it is so hard for new authors to break into the fiction-writing field.  But the good news is that there are some things a new author can do to help level the playing field in their favor.  I’ll get into that in tomorrow’s post.

But what do you think? Do these points make sense for you? What tricks have you used to get past the gatekeepers? Let us know in the comments below!

Bad Husband, Good Father?

12 Oct

I seem to live my life in commercials (compared to my son who lives life in musical numbers), because I keep picking up nuggets of confusion and blogging about them. So in today’s online therapy, here’s the fun phrase I overheard: “Bad husband, good father.” Really?

At first blush, this is perfectly understandable. As the son of divorced parents, there is a huge difference between a father who’s there for you versus a father who’s not. To quote another commercial, “Your kids don’t need the perfect parent, they need you.” Simply being there makes a HUGE difference. My dad was in the Navy, so he physically couldn’t be there, but he tried as best as he could through letters, but there was a big difference. So I have a lot of appreciation to those divorced dads who stay in the same area, make sure to take the kids half the time, continue to be a parent even though they’re no longer married to their mom. To the kid, their relationship to your mom is less important. At first…

However, parenting is just another relationship, just like marriage – there are different needs with adults than with kids. So naturally, a relationship with your spouse is exponentially more difficult, because your needs are different and often harder to fulfill. If the kids wants junk food, and you refuse to give it to them, sure you’re got a tantrum for a few minutes and then life goes on. If your wife wants you to stop X, and you don’t want to stop X, this will continue on and on for… weeks? Months? Years? That lingering “tantrum” will poison your relationship for a long, long time.

That poisoned relationship will affect your kids, whether you like it or not. I certainly remember the day my parents divorced – it was done remotely, again because my dad was in the Navy – but it made an impact on my life. That anger can make things difficult for everyone in the family. Even when you stop that behavior, or start doing something to mend the relationship, it’s hard to forget that anger. For the one trying to change, when that anger is still directed at you… what’s the incentive to keep with the change?

Man, that was vague! I guess what I’m trying to say is that… yes, you can be a good father but a bad husband, but it’s preferable to try and be both. I’ve been married 14 years and I find it a wonder that anyone stays together. Relationships are hard work. However, being a good father is… a little easier. It’s still difficult, but it seems to be easier to keep your kids happy than to keep your wife happy.

Then again, my kids are only becoming teenagers now – I’m sure that as they become young adults, they’ll get more of those adult complexities, and they’ll hate me half the time too. Then they’ll become parents and they’ll forgive me, just like I forgave my father, because it’s only once you’re in their situation that you understand what your parents went through.

What do you think? Is there a happy medium you can make between all your family members? Or do you find relationships with children harder? Let me know in the comments below!

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