Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Invasive Critters

A lot of people don't grasp just how bad invasive animals can be.

One of the most significant problems is large snakes in Florida. At one point, Burmese pythons became popular as pets - and thus people did not realize just how big these snakes get. So, people released them, they became established, and now we're seeing drastic drops in mammal populations in the Everglades.

One common theme in science fiction is colonizing planets and introducing Terran species. A number of writers have explored the negative effect this might have on the alien world.

So, would Terran species out-compete native species? The answer is obvious: It depends. It depends on the state of the ecosystem. (And other writers have explored the results of the inability of Terran species, including humans, to compete with the natives).

Which way would it go? Here are some things to consider:

1. The age of the alien world. In general, the age of the world, at least in part, determines the complexity of the ecosystem.

2. Whether the life on the planet is based on the same amino acids as Earth life - if it is not, then colonization *requires* the destruction of the alien ecosystem *or* significant alterations to introduced Terran species - including humans. There's a story there.

3. Whether there has recently been a mass extinction event. Do humans arrive right after a major volcanic eruption, asteroid strike or other crisis? (One interesting concept to explore would be a major volcanic eruption cooling the planet, humans arrive and think that's the normal climate...)

4. How similar the gravity, day length, and atmospheric composition are to Earth. The more different they are, the more likely it is that native life will choke out introduced Terran species.

Of course, you can also tweak all of these various factors to get the result you want.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Powerful Words

I was thinking about censorship today, mostly because somebody told me a school board in Arizona has banned 'The Tempest'.

Banning a Shakespeare play? Seriously?

But that reminded me of the entire fight over Mark Twain and a certain word. You know the one. It begins with 'n'...and it is a powerful word. It is a frightening word. It is a word white people are literally afraid to ever use...the only person I've heard use it in the last six months was black.

There are other powerful words, too. What about the one that has four letters and begins with f? See. don't want to use that one either, do we.

I would also call these 'heavy' words. They have a lot of weight to them. And, yes, we are often afraid to use them.

These are words that at least some of the population perceives as 'evil'. So, should we use them in writing?

The answer, in my mind, is yes. If you are writing something set in the antebellum South, then you need to be unafraid to use the n word. It's not a powerful word in that context, it's a normal, every day word. Everyone used it. Including Sam Clements, whom we know as Mark Twain. There may well be words we use now as normal, every day words that in the future might develop power and become words people fear. Harry Turtledove is unafraid to use racist terms when it is appropriate in historical context, and he certainly sells enough books. In a modern setting, however...be careful. Some editors will remove these terms even if they're being used by bad guys to highlight how bad they are...and one can't blame them for doing so. It might reduce sales.

As for swear words...if your character would use them, use them. I used to know somebody who actually used swear words as punctuation. She used so many of them they lost their power and when I was talking to her, I stopped even hearing them. I don't know that I'd ever write a character like that, though. Why? Because if you use them sparingly, you preserve their power. And then when you do use one, they carry an emotional load that can be useful. A character who never swears doing so is a perfect 'show'...it shows the reader that the situation is Really That Bad.

Which brings me to a final point. The more you use a powerful word, the less powerful it becomes. By avoiding using these words, we give them power and weight. Perhaps, then, we need to actually think about using them more...

Friday, January 27, 2012

Protecting The Children

This is something I think about a fair bit. What triggered this post was G+ opening its doors to 13 to 18 year olds.

In this country we have an obsession with protecting anyone under 18 from exposure to 'adult' material. (Never mind that the age of consent is lower than 18 in some states. The UK also has the same stupidity - you can legally have sex at 16 but can't watch a porn movie until 18).

Now, as far as it goes, that can be dealt with. Porn shouldn't be on open networks anyway - it should be clearly marked so that those who want it can find it and those who don't can avoid it.

However, many parents consider anything related to homosexuality or gender issues to be 'adult material'. I seriously know of parents who don't want their little darlings to know gay people even exist.

Frank discussions of abortion and related issues? Definitely 'adult' material. Because of this, the presence of minors can have a chilling effect on speech.

Unfortunately, the obvious answers don't work. You can't mark the profiles of minors as such without letting the predators know exactly where to find them.

I personally will not dumb things down because there might be minors present, but this probably means uncircling and possibly even blocking people I know to be under age...not because I feel what I say is unsuitable for them but because one parent might. Even if that parent is doing something I consider unhealthy, I have to respect them.

On the other side of the coin, I like talking to teenagers. They're often a fresh breath of air. I don't want them to be barred.

I like the suggestion another user proposed - the ability to mark posts as 18+. The problem is, that Google probably feels that their ban on adult material/nudity covers it. It really doesn't, just because some parents are overprotective.

Well. We keep plodding along, I suppose.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cultures and Cowboys

A vital capability for most writers is to develop an understanding of other cultures and how they operate. Unless you only ever write stories set in your own home country and time (a perfectly legitimate course of action if that's what you want to do), you need to learn about how other people live.

One of the things I've dabbled in is writing westerns - my story 'Ellis Ridge' is in the zombie western anthology Zombist and I'm about to start working on another one.

However, as a horse lover, I've always hesitated about cowboy culture. I grew up in the old fashioned English hunt school of riding - which is also pretty harsh and one of the things I learned very quickly was that abuse, fear and beatings don't really achieve anything.

But I was also told that cowboys abused their horses. When I heard about bronc busting, I was horrified. (Colt starting classes still horrify me...they seem entirely too rushed and dangerous). I heard that cowboys use harsh bits, sharp spurs and even will put a horse on the ground to cow it and break its spirit. The impression I got was that cowboys were all about 'breaking' horses and only a few understood how to 'start' them. Even though I'd been around people who used harsh methods including turning a crop over and beating a horse overhand (something I have never done as an adult), I believed it was completely wrong to break a horse's spirit...and I knew what beatings could do to a horse. I knew they could create a machine.

Then I rode with a cowboy type who took riders into the wilderness. His horses were not machines, but I figured, well, obviously he isn't the type to beat them into submission. He wore spurs, but seldom seemed to actually use them.

So I kept to the thought that 'putting a horse down' was only ever abuse, that bronc busting was about creating cattle chasing machines...

Then I met G. I've mentioned him before - a tough, foundation-bred ranch type Quarter Horse. He's one of the soundest horses I've ever handled. G is, to be blunt, a stubborn, dominant brat. I rapidly realized that the only way to deal with him and stay safe was to be the Boss Mare. (And despite that, he still threw me...quite deliberately and simply because he was mad with me about something). He would try to scrape me off on the arena wall. He would throw mini-tantrums in which he'd balk...he'd be trotting along apparently happily then just stop dead. For no reason. He would deliberately refuse to canter on the correct lead just to make a battle out of things.

I learned to be the boss mare...to be the assertive leader with that horse. To stare him down when he was in one of his dominant moods. To never let him step out of line...until I needed him to.

And I worked something out. You can't chase cows with a submissive horse. You need a dominant one. You need a horse that if a pissed off steer comes at it will stand its ground.

The reason cowboys used the techniques they did was not because they were cruel, but because their horses were all like G! And far from being 'broken' or 'ruined' by his handler and rider being dominant...G thrived on it. All of his spirit was still there, but when handled correctly...that is to say firmly, with immediate correction and immediate reward...he would use it for you, not against you.

The incredible horse-human partnership of the cowboy was and is built out of correctly applied dominance and assertive leadership...not to break the horse's spirit, but to build partnership so that when the time came, all of that dominance and stubbornness in the horse could be unleashed in a controlled manner to get that dang steer into the pen.

The point is that sometimes we misunderstand other cultures, and sometimes what seems to us to be 'wrong' is actually 'right' - for them. Now, I don't condone torture, mutilation, infanticide, etc. But when writing, even those wrongs have to be understood and worked with because they can, after all, become part of a good story.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is Society Safe?

Survivalism is right back in vogue, just as it was in the Cold War. They don't call themselves survivalists any more. They call themselves 'preppers'.

I try not to worry about civilization collapsing - I have a pretty clapped out thyroid and can't survive without my medication, so I definitely wouldn't last long in a true collapse.

Do I think one is likely? Surprisingly enough...no. I do think that economic change is inevitable. I do think that things may well get worse before they get better. But I don't envision a post-apocalyptic scenario (why is it, by the way, that after the apocalypse there are shortages of everything but gasoline and tires? Seriously, watch any cheap post-apocalyptic movie). I don't envision a new dark age.

However, I do think we need to be careful. We need to make sure that the most vital information of our civilization and technology exists in secure archives in hard copy. In Roger McBride Allen's The Depths of Time series characters visit a great library on the moon...and they mention a second book depository in the outer system. Hard copies. Books.

We need to address the concerns of the people taking to the streets, so we don't end up with a violent revolution that could lead to worse. We need to start working on economic principles that don't depend on artificial scarcities of necessities.

I understand the preppers. Heck, I share some of their fears...although some people want to see society collapse, I don't. And there's nothing wrong with stockpiling canned food in your basement. You never know when you might need it.

But I think their fears are as overblown as those of 1960s survivalists.

On the other hand, civilization collapsing always makes for a good story.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Finished another story last week. Have one to work on this week, although I haven't quite decided what to do with it yet.

Submitted this year's ABNA entry - which no doubt won't do very well. I'm still working on the art of the pitch and historically genre fiction has not done as well as mainstream stuff in the contest, especially in the adult section. But it's always worth a try.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy Chinese New Year

It's the year of the dragon. Which is, of course, the luckiest possible year...so much so that some Chinese couples resort to fertility treatments to try and make sure their kid is born in it.

So, let's hope that the dragon brings luck to everyone in the year to come. I know quite a few people who could use some. Heck, this entire country could use a bit of luck.

Happy Dragon Year.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A tribute...

To those creative professionals whose work we either never notice, never think about, or notice only when they screw up.

Many people know the names of the best comic book artists - but not the wonderful colorists and letterers who are also vital to the industry.

How about all the cameramen, sound guys, grips, gaffers and best boys who are needed to make a movie?

Editors of novels. We notice the editor's name on an anthology, but on a novel? Do you even know who edited your favorite book?

So, I'm taking a moment to give a shout out to the 'behind the scenes' people. The people who correct a writer's spelling errors. Who put those little finishing touches to the art or to the CGI monster. Who make sure to catch the actor's good side.

To all of you. Thank you.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Harvesting Clones

It's an old sci-fi/horror staple. People raising clones so they can harvest them for 'spare parts'. In the classic vision, the clones are kept healthy but uneducated until it's their time to be euthanized. Legally not considered humans.

It's a great staple, if you need a story idea that speaks to technology overruling humanity - and let's not forget that what Frankenstein spoke to that same theme.

It's also Never Going To Happen.


There is absolutely no way anyone will ever grow an entire clone body for spare parts.

Instead, in the future, stem cells will be harvested from the person needing the 'spare part'. Some people may bank their stem cells in early adulthood. A 3D printer will be used to make a scaffold and then the stem cells will be encouraged to grow into the new organ, limb, nose, ear, or whatever you need. Need a new heart? Not a problem. Harvest the stem cells and if you can't last out until the new heart is grown, you'll be equipped with a prosthetic for the interim. Amputees will only have to live without the limb for a few months or even weeks while the replacement is grown. As the techniques get better, the replacement organ will be grown without any genetic defects. A perfectly healthy kidney, from your own cells so it cannot be rejected, lacking whatever problems caused you to need it.

Clone harvesting will never happen because it will not be necessary.

How close is this future? How close is a future in which somebody can just order new organs and have them grown in a lab? In which dialysis will be a temporary inconvenience? Surely this will be something for our grandchildren?

Nope. On January 13, a man had a lab-grown trachea installed to replace the one destroyed by cancer. He was not the first (he was the first in the United States). This procedure is approaching routine. Similar techniques have been used to replace damaged ears. Both organs have in common being mostly cartilage.

Scientists have worked out how to use a 3D printed scaffold to regenerate bone. Organs are next. Maybe we will be able to give people new eyes within a couple of years.

A lot of what science fiction has predicted is thus obsolete, including the cyborg who has things replaced because they were lost (as opposed to, say, replacing an eye with a mechanical eye that is better. Still plenty of stories there).

Oh yes, and although we can't replace brains, autograft stem cell research offers opportunities for repairing them...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I was going...

...to show you this really cute picture....


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lost Treasures

Anyone interested in the history of science will be interested in this article: http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2012/0117/Scientists-find-lost-Darwin-fossils-in-gloomy-corner-of-British-Geological-Survey.

They found Darwin's specimens...shoved away in a dusty corner where nobody went very often.

Thing is, this kind of thing happens all the time, whether it's somebody going through an old VCR collection and discovering one of the erased Doctor Who episodes, or Antiques Roadshow finding a lost master (Which has happened more than once).

I think the message is to keep your eyes open, observe, and open your mind to what you might discover. You never know what it might be worth.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Creators And Piracy

For those who haven't seen it, the White House response to the SOPA petition included language suggesting that we need to do something about piracy ourselves.

Here are a few of my constructive thoughts:

1. Bearing in mind that many people who pirate intellectual property are either broke (can't afford to pay for it) or don't want to spend money on an artist they don't know, make samples of your material available for free. Make this legal free material as obvious as you can. Point people to it. Then make sure that as much of it as possible links back to a place to buy more of your work. You can also use advertising to potentially get a bit of revenue. (Asking for donations is tricky - PayPal only allows non-profits to use their Donate button and has cracked down lately, and Google Checkout has the same policy).

2. Avoid the use of egregious DRM. If the pirated version of your software is worth more than the version you're asking people to pay for, then people who would otherwise buy the legal version will pirate. Is it truly necessary for your stand alone video game to require an active internet connection at all times to play?

3. Look for ways to make the legal version worth more. This can be as simple as treating your customers nicely and responding in a timely manner to questions and support requests. If somebody told you their ereader was stolen with their only copy of your book on it, what would you do?

4. Be somebody people want to give their money to. Don't be an asshole on social media, but don't be afraid to be real, either. Don't respond to bad reviews, don't spread dirt all over the internet, don't get so plastered drunk at cons you do something stupid. Treat everyone like a potential customer - because they are.

5. Act like your material is worth paying for. Don't be one of those artists who goes around being all holier-than-thou about not being paid. You deserve to be paid. Expect it, without begging or being arrogant about it.

Any more thoughts?

Friday, January 13, 2012


There's a picture circulating on the net that includes this quote from Albert Einstein:

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid."

You know. I can totally get behind that. I'm a writer. I like to think of myself as a good writer. But I am lousy at math (to the point where I had to give up all thoughts of a career in science). I'm not very good, perhaps surprisingly, with linguistics and languages other than my mother tongue. Oh, and I can't draw.

But I can write. I can type 100 words per minute (rather handy for a writer). I'm pretty good at riding a horse, too. And I can explain things in a way people understand.

If you judged me by my ability to draw, I would go through my life believing I was stupid.

There are all kinds of intelligence out there. And society needs all of them. We need writers, mathematicians, translators, artists, photographers, auto mechanics, landscape gardeners...

So, my challenge today is to value those who are intelligent in a different way from you are.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Thoughts on debates

One of the things that the internet has become is an open forum for debate. The problem being that many people don't actually know how to debate.

It seems likely to me that the average person's only exposure to debates is campaign debates and/or courtroom dramas. Those who are actually taught to debate tend to end up doing tournament debates.

All of these debates have something in common - they have a winner and a loser. We often say that a candidate for President 'lost' a debate. A lawyer is trying to convince a magistrate or jury of the truth as his client sees it. And, obviously, if you're in a debate competition, you want to win.

On top of that, if people have had no debate training...they come in all guns blazing, desiring to 'win' the debate and often not actually having a clue how to. Before too long the thread has degraded into personal attacks and discussion of Hitler.

However, lately, I've been noticing something of a trend...people who actually have a clue as to what they are doing. I have even seen people who appear to have been born in America beginning to grasp the dialectic style of debate in which person one proposes the thesis, person two responds with an antithesis and the group tries to find the solution or middle ground - the synthesis.

Why is this happening? I'm fairly sure that American public schools aren't teaching debate more - and certainly not dialectic debate, which is far too strong associated with Karl Marx and dialectic history to be tolerated by most Americans.

Then it occurred to be. Could it be that people are tired of adversarial debate and ad hominem attacks? Not because of bad debates on the internet, but because it seems that our politicians and public figures do almost nothing else these days.

Are people tired of mud slinging campaign ads, partisan politics, budgets being held hostage to 'moral' ideas? Are people tired of conservatives acting as if the liberals are taking all their rights away whilst liberals threaten to move to Canada?

Are people finally starting to try and find a better way forward for dialogue? I hope so...it would be really nice to see this spread through our society with people learning to negotiate, compromise, and respect everyone's rights (even, yes, the right to be a racist homophobe - providing you don't commit actual crimes as a result).

Let's hope so.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Just a thought, but when was the last time you read a science fiction novel set in a genuinely better world?

Doesn't happen often, and the reason is that better worlds are boring. Dystopias are both far more fun and, sadly, far more likely.

When I was in college I listened to a speech by a proponent of classic Utopian theory, and I immediately asked the obvious question: Who's going to empty the trash?

Of course, the answer in my own mind now is 'The robots'. But still...how do you make a fair and just society that still works with human nature? With our tendency to form hierarchies, with our need for charismatic leaders, with the complications that come from our fairly high level of behavioral sexual dimorphism?

This is a question for science fiction writers - and for everyone else. But writing about such a society would be...boring.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Forward Motion opens Amazon Store

I'm a semi-active member of an online writer's group named Forward Motion.

The group's administrator just decided to create an Amazon Store. This store contains all the books I am in...and a bunch more from other group members, in every genre imaginable.

Check it out here: http://astore.amazon.com/forwmotiforwr-20

Monday, January 9, 2012


Science fiction writers make predictions. I'm going to make one right now. Actually, I've been thinking about this, for a while, but this article from a UK blog reminded me.

Right now, people buy an e-reader for about 100 to 200 bucks. Or they buy a tablet or smartphone and put the app on it.

The Kindle and Nook apps for smartphones are free. Why? Because they want people to buy content.

So, here is my prediction:

Within 5 years, people will not buy e-readers. E-readers will be so cheap that they will be routinely given away by content distributors.

The first company to make this move will be Amazon, which will start offering a free e-reader with a two year commitment to its Prime service, which now includes a 'Netflix for books' style lending library. Said free e-reader will most likely be the e-Ink reader currently priced at $79 or its next model replacement.

I predict this move will occur in time for Christmas 2012 (if not sooner).


Friday, January 6, 2012

Publishing red flags

Every so often, I like to remind that there are people out there who either set out to scam writers or don't know what they're doing and have contract terms that are highly unfavorable.

The latest couple of notes:

1. Any publisher who's web site commiserates with you on how hard it is to get published is either a thinly veiled vanity publisher or a frustrated writer trying their hand at publishing.

2. There is absolutely no need for any publisher to demand an exclusivity period on a short story of more than one year. Six months is the standard, but one year is fine if it's, say, an annual anthology and they're trying for 'until the next book comes out'. I recently saw a publisher asking for a fifteen year exclusivity period (with no royalties involved, even). If it's over a year, don't sign. These days, there are so many things you can do with your back list. Also, never sign over full rights unless it's a ghost writing deal or the like and you are being paid very well. Never sign over any rights on permanent exclusivity. Do not sign over ALL of your subsidiary rights - I have signed over audio rights to an e-zine, but usually only if there is extra payment involved. But an ezine does not need your movie rights. (And yes, I have seen this). Some of it, I think, is people on all sides not properly researching how copyright works. But some of it is people out to exploit writers.

3. There is a scam circulating right now that is aimed at erotica writers. These people are advertising on Craigslist and writer's boards offering $20 a story. They then turn around and put these stories on Kindle Direct under their byline. Apparently, they're making enough to get the $20 and then some. This is generally less than 1 cent a word for the writer - and you might make more money just putting them on Kindle Direct yourself. I've seen this cropping up in multiple places. I don't recommend taking less than 1 cent a word unless it's a very difficult-to-place story and you can get some good editing out of the deal.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lessons in Assertiveness and Leadership

At the barn I ride at there is a horse known only as "G". Yeah, that's his 'official name'. His real name is Gooseberry, but nobody actually calls him that.

He's not always called G either...he's been called Glutton, Goofball, Ear Extensions, The Brat and on occasion 'That Horse'.

Last night he was in fine form. In a fairly short period he tried to scrape his rider off on the arena wall, bucked several times (and I don't mean little hop bucks either) and threw himself through high speed ninety degree turns. This was all a blatant attempt to intimidate the teenaged girl riding him into getting off. Because that's what G does.

G's pedigree is a litany of names familiar to cutters and ropers: Wimpy, Three Bars, King, Skipper W and the (in)famous Joe Hancock. He was bred in Missouri and really has no place in an English barn in Maryland. This is a horse that was bred to stare down and dominate a steer. In the absence of steers to dominate, he tries to dominate humans. He's stubborn, dominant and possibly smarter than you are.

I watched his performance with a sigh and my hand twitching towards my helmet and chaps. I then went and had some 'words' with him. (No, don't worry, they didn't involve a whip - but they did involve a stare down. Yes, you can stare a horse down...although most won't try to compete. This one will. Then I got on him and...let's just say he tried a repeat performance, but the session ended with him doing what I asked, albeit with his ears back and a sour 'I hate you' expression on his face. (He reminded me of a teenager being forced to clean his room).

The secret with dealing with animals like G is calm assertiveness. And with horses, you can't fake it. You can't just pretend you aren't scared of them - because they can hear your heartbeat. Studies have proved that equines can sense anxiety, fear and anger on the part of their handlers and react to them. You have to actually stop being scared. (This also goes for dealing with horses that are scared of their own shadow...)

I don't make New Year's resolutions, but I came to a decision last night - to try and be more assertive. And it's no good to pretend not to be scared...I have to learn not to be scared. I have a very strong fear of social rejection that tends to cause a vicious cycle in which my reaction to the fear makes people reject me, justifying the fear.

If I can learn to stare down eleven hundred pounds or so of solid muscle and attitude, then I can learn to deal better...more assertively and with less insecurity and anxiety...with my fellow human beings. I won't say try, because I have to go beyond trying. Maybe I can deal with my stage fright while I'm at it...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Thoughts on reviews.

It's always nice to see a four and a half or five star review on Amazon, but why don't more people review?

I know why. They're lazy. I know this, because I don't often review on Amazon, although I do tend to post (generally very belated due to the state of my to be read pile) reviews here on this blog. (I also seem to remember reading something about Amazon frowning on publishers reviewing 'similar items', but I can't find it now).

But I think there's something else going on. There are very few reviews...but they're all good reviews. I wonder if customers are afraid to write bad reviews? Are they worried they might get snapped at by the writer? (Some writers are unprofessional enough to do this). Are people caught up in the 'If you can't say anything good, don't say anything at all' mindset?


Tuesday, January 3, 2012


I had no ideas for today's blog post and was surfing around the net looking for inspiration, and found this:

Steve Jobs Action Figure

Okay, it's the Daily Mail, but the toy itself appears to be real.

Seriously. I like my Mac, but I wouldn't go that far...

Monday, January 2, 2012

Happy New Year!

So, it's 2012, the year the world ends. (I am going to be heartily tired of that before December 22 dawns. Wait, I already am heartily tired of it).

No, I don't have any New Year's resolutions. I'm so bad at them I stopped bothering years ago.

If you're looking for something to start the New Year off with, how about Comets and Criminals #2, which contains my story 'The Emperor's Grandson' and is available direct from the publisher in Kindle, ePub and PDF versions.