On the importance of stabbing your readers in the brain


There’s nothing like the first week of the new year for self-improvement, which is why Target promptly hustles their Christmas stuff to the Clearance Ghetto and fills in the “seasonal” space with organizational stuff and books on how to lose weight by buying diet books.

I generally don’t read inspirational blogs. And by “generally don’t read” I mean “avoid like a leper’s punchbowl.” But even otherwise sane and sensible blogs that dedicate themselves to building a better birdfeeder will go a little nuts come the new year, and start linking to inspiring things somewhere, which mean that I in the last few days, I have been repeatedly urged to “celebrate Nature’s gifts!”* and “honor the creative spirit that dwells within each of us.”**

I may be a bad artist or a bad gardener–actually, I KNOW I’m a bad gardener–but these sentiments mean nothing to me–actually they aggravate me–because once you start trying to dissect them, there’s not actually anything in there.

It’s not that I am opposed to thinking that Nature is awesome. Nature IS awesome. Nature does more in ten seconds on a Tuesday than I do all year.  But if what you’re trying to say is “Really enjoy that vegetable garden!” then just SAY it. “Take a walk in the woods because it’s just so damn awesome,” works for me. “Squee over those wild turkeys, you lucky bastard” is a personal favorite.  “Build a rain garden so you don’t waste rainwater.” “Don’t dump paint in the river because it makes fish sad.” All quite laudable! But “celebrate nature’s gifts!” is a Hallmark card of vague sentiment attached to an empty cardboard box.  The wrapping is pretty but there’s nothing THERE.

As for honoring the creative spirit that ostensibly dwells within each of us…look, I am not saying you should hold your creative spirit down and beat it with rubber chickens.*** But if what you mean is “don’t knock your own art all the time,” then SAY THAT.  If you mean “Take a class or a workshop and stop telling yourself that you’re too shy or too awful and you’ll fail so you shouldn’t bother,” then say it! Say it specifically! (Actually, that’s one that ought to be said quite a lot, and hardly ever is.)  If you mean “Make your own art and quit worrying that if you branch out from the scrapbooking pages, you’re Doing It Wrong, and I know it’s scary, but if you can get past that first couple of steps, the world is your giant screaming oyster!” then, again, say it! There are people out there who could stand to hear ALL those things, and some of them probably have “honor the creative spirit that dwells within” on a rubber stamp already and use it on the envelope they use to pay the power bill and it hasn’t done them a damn bit of good.

I suppose what I am getting at is that I am very tired of saccharine sentiments that could mean anything and everything and that are supposed to make us all warm and fuzzy and excited to go out and do meaningful stuff, because I think most of us wind up stopping at the warm and fuzzy and never go DO the meaningful stuff, and then another year rolls around and another load of sentiment is dumped on us from people who mean well but who have bought into this notion that you can assemble magnetic poetry out of the words “dream” and “gift” and “nature” and “creative” and “love” and it will mean something profound.

Concrete examples. Concrete. A vague generalization is a pile of Styrofoam peanuts, a specific example is a knife. You are trying to stab your readers in the brain.**** Do not stab with fluff! Fluff does not stab! No matter how much you rub it on a grindstone, it will not take an edge!

(I realize you want to reach the widest audience possible, but trust me, some things will reach a terrifyingly wide audience who all think they’re alone. Case in point–every time I mention the animals-starving-in-cages dream, people fall out of the woodwork going “Holy crap, OTHER PEOPLE HAVE THAT?!” Merely stamping “dream!” on old photos of grumpy girls with paste-on fairy wings doesn’t do that. Knife in the brain, people. Knife. In. The. Brain.)

Be encouraging. It’s a rough world, we should all be nice to each other. But for the love of bunnies, be specific.



Got a bit carried away there, didn’t I?


*I have no idea what this means. Possibly we are supposed to throw small parties for pinecones. Glitter and white glue may be involved, in which case I can’t help but think the pinecone would prefer to keep its dignity.

**I also have no idea what this means, but somehow I bet it doesn’t involve sitting in an unheated studio with a nude model, trying desperately to get that one funky line where the forearm swirls into the elbow down before the model cramps up and has to move.

***Unless you’re into that.

****In the nicest way possible!

Truth, Beauty, and not worrying about it

I was very sad to learn yesterday that a writer I greatly admire, Eva Ibbotson, had passed away in October.

If I could write like anybody in the world, the obvious choices would be Gaiman or Pratchett, or possibly Stephen King, since I quite like money. But honestly, I’d probably pick Ibbotson.

Of course you only get to write like yourself.* But Ibbotson’s world was so…kind. Which seems like a strange thing to say about books where the Nazi occupation of Vienna is a frequent backdrop, but there you are. Kindness is a surprisingly scarce commodity in writing and worldbuilding–there’s a lot of twee crap out there, but it’s really not the same thing.

I think the best way to explain this is to bring up Phillip K. Dick.

As I’ve said before, I can’t stand reading Philip K. Dick. Won’t do it. His plots were brilliant, I freely acknowledge his genius for coming up with Cool Plots and working out the ramifications of precognition and murderous androids, but I can’t stand his characters. They are all terrible people. I don’t just mean flawed, I mean they’re really quite awful people.

I said this to a friend of mine once who said, rather surprised, “But they’re so human!” And I will not question his accuracy on this—they may well be very human, but they aren’t any humans I know or would willingly associate with. If you recognize your friends in a Phillip K. Dick novel, it might be time to change your name and move to another country.

Also, you might want to watch out for pink lights. Just sayin’.

Ibbotson, on the other hand, writes about people that I know.  Her minor characters are particularly brilliant. The elderly anthropologist forced to flee Vienna who spends her days haunting the British museum and muttering about mis-classifications but is unwilling to say anything because she’s a guest in the country and she doesn’t want to be rude. The mother who makes daily pacts with God that she will be Good if only her daughter is returned safely. The young revolutionary who is terribly worried about her clothing and the proletariat, in that order. These are real people. I know these people. I don’t always like them, but I know them, and they behave far more like people I know and people I am related to than anything that ever dreamed of electric sheep.

And most of them are kind, or mean well, or try hard. And most of the people I know are also kind, or mean well, or try hard, and yet most of the fiction I read is littered with people who do none of these things, and while I recognize that the world is often very unpleasant and there are very bad people out there, I am very drawn to Ibbotson’s characters, because I recognize them from the chunk of world that I personally inhabit.

I’m not saying it’s perfect. Her antagonists are very very bad (delightfully loathe-able, actually) her heroines are very very good and somewhat undifferentiated and tend to fall into the virtuous-poor-girl-with-unquenchable-zest-for-life model. Frequently they are kind, loving, good, self-sacrificing, charming and generally beloved. In the hands of a less skilled writer, they would be exceedingly cloying. (Probably for some readers they are still gag-inducing, I grant you.) But the minor characters more than make up for it.

And it’s not all a bed of roses, either–her books make me cry on a regular basis, often over those minor characters. The elderly gardener who still says goodnight to his wife every night, despite the fact that she’s been dead for ten years, always chokes me up. There’s a lot of that.

More than that, there’s a…thing.

If you meet a writer at a cocktail party and he tells you he’s a student of the human condition, ninety-nine times out of a hundred he is self-published, and not because it’s the sexy new business model of the future.** Furthermore, you are dealing with a person who describes themselves in phrases like “a student of the human condition” and thus you should probably immediately excuse yourself to go find more tiny food on a stick or raid the veggie with ranch dip before all the baby carrots are gone. Alternately, feign death.

I am skeptical of claims that writers are somehow in touch with truth or more observant than the rest of us, because I have spent too many days wearing my shirts backwards and with socks stuck to my back, and most of the writers I know give me the impression that they, too, have known the shame of stowaway socks.  Great truth and all that strikes me as so much blither-blather designed to add to the mystique. (I cannot believe that any of my long-time readers still believe there is any mystique–if by some bizarre chance you do, please tell me, and I will tell you about the weird way the skin grows on my little toes in an effort to banish it forever.)


That said.

Some authors do this thing. Actually, it’s a lot like Boneclaw Mother’s thing–an occasionally painful insight, but a very clear one, rephrased in a way that you wouldn’t have thought to phrase it, but which you recognize the truth of immediately. It’s kind of like comedy, really–telling you something you already knew but didn’t quite realize you knew, in a way that’s funny, except that authors aren’t required to be funny all the time.  Pratchett does that frequently, to the point where we practically expect it now, which has its own problems. Gaiman has his moments. Even King has his moments, bizarrely enough, although sometimes I think he’s just firing in the dark and sometimes he nails it and sometimes it goes bafflingly wide.

This is not essential to good writing. Let me stand up and say that now, in case you’re about to start obsessing over whether your story contains Vital Human Insight. There are authors I love that never hand me those weird little truths. They just tell a damn fine story, and I read them over and over again and love them dearly.  (Literary fiction is a lot more obsessed over this than genre, I suspect.)  Don’t worry about that.

But Ibbotson occasionally nails a phrase or something, and it just…works. She describes an unwanted and inconvenient mongrel as having an unshakable conviction that he is deeply loved, and I know that dog, because he lays under my desk and farts while I write.  She describes a character has having the vulnerable hollows at the back of the neck that prevent the parents of small children from killing them, a phrase I read aloud to Kevin, who knew exactly what she was talking about. She describes rubbing the place behind the ears where large dogs keep their souls, and of course anyone who knows a large dog knows that spot perfectly well. (These are the easy ones that I can pull out of context, but she does it a lot. And well.)

I wish I could do that.

I don’t even want to be able to do it for the sake of truth or beauty some noble crap like that. I want to do it because if you do it right, it hits the reader over the head and they spend the next week wandering around composing rambling incoherent blog entries about it.

But at the end of the day, I don’t think this is something you can try to do. I think you either do it automatically, or it doesn’t get done. And Ibbotson started writing when she was fifty and had herself fled from the Nazis as a child and perhaps some insights are only available when you have put in fifty years of dues and had terrible things happen to you. I don’t know. Honestly, it’s not something to worry about, because I suspect you could choke up on it really easily and produce some really constipated prose.

Still I’m very sad there won’t be more from Mrs. Ibbotson, though. She never got all that much traction in the US, and it’s a damn shame, because she deserved a lot more recognition. If you can find her books, either the children’s or YA stuff, it’s worth the read.

*Actually, this isn’t quite true–I just learned through idle flipping at the bookstore that Charles de Lint wrote two pulpy books for Phillip Jose Farmer’s Dungeon series, which I actually READ back in the early nineties, and which were pulptastic and fairly awful and had no magical homeless people anywhere. (I think there was sex and brontosauruses, and given that I was in middle school, this was all that I asked out of a book. Also, cyborgs.) This felt sort of like discovering that Clive Barker had written Sweet Valley High books back in the day. But I digress.

**No offense intended to those who self-publish for all the right reasons. There are, however, wrong reasons. Lots of them.

NanoThingyMo Wrap

Welp, looks like we’re here at December 1st, so time to cast an eye back on what I got done for Nanofimo this year.

…not as much as I wanted to, really, but stuff definitely DID get worked on, so it’s all good.

Out of three projects I wanted to get to the next stage, I got one send-to-agent ready.  The short story stalled out entirely–I still think it’s a great idea, I just don’t know HOW to do the next bit. The Thing With The Goblins actually got a good bit of work done–added about 8K, hit two of the mental landmarks I was aiming for, so that’s definite and substantial progress, and I’m a lot closer to the end.

Perhaps the best bit is that I got about halfway through the next Dragonbreath script. That’s not due until January 3rd, but owing to the going-to-the-coffee-shop-and-sitting-down-and-writing-goddamnit that I started doing two or three times a week for Nanofimo, it’s a heckuva lot farther on than I expected to be.

So, all in all–not quite all that I hoped to get done got done, but some other stuff DID get done, and generally I think it came out pretty well.

Also, there were like fifty-odd Dragonbreath illos and 7 Digger and a coupla paintings in there too, so I’m really not beating myself up about productivity last month.  Ganesh willing, the coffee-shop writing habit will stick, and that’ll be a good outcome no matter what.

The NaNoFiMo Report

A little over halfway through the month, and time to check in on my National Novel Finishing Month goals!

Which…are…um. Still goals. Yes. Haven’t forgotten them, have gotten a little done…not as much as I’d hoped.

I got the Thing With The Hedgehog up to the point I wanted early on, and it’s getting a couple of once-overs from friends before I ship it out to my agent—Penguin has bought three books I haven’t delivered yet (and they haven’t paid me an advance for yet) and the next major series after Dragonbreath is likely to be another comic-fusion thing (please god, let them want to buy it!) so we’re not exactly in a hurry to sell ANOTHER stand-alone–either I’d have to write another zillion words while doing everything else, or I’d be looking at a delivery date sometime in 2013 or so. Never hurts to have a solid project ready to go, though.

Managed to tack about 3K onto The Thing With The Goblins. It is definitely a novella, and we are rather closer to the climax. I know mostly what happens, I just don’t know quite how long it’s gonna take to get there. Hopeful that I’ll finish by the end of the month, but not really counting on it–still, if I can get another 7K on it, I will consider that a respectable showing, and that should get me pretty close to the end, possibly to the point where I can finish by the end of the year.

Kinda stalled on The Thing With The Birds. Realizing that I probably have to be Stephen King to do the next bit. Not sure how much of that I can channel.

So, um…one out of three ain’t bad. I guess.

On the bright side, I have gotten a LOT done on Campbreath, which is the, y’know, Actual Paying Project, and which is now 1/3rd done or thereabouts.  Even if I don’t hit all three of my NaNoFiMo goals, that’s a very solid showing on THAT and will keep me from having to write the whole thing in a single terrifying weekend in late December. (Don’t do this, kids. It’s not healthy.) So I think the writing has generally been a success, even if it hasn’t been as much as I’d like on the FiMo projects.

I also need to do three small framed pieces by the 26th, for the holiday art show at the local gallery.  And of course Digger, and of course, the continued three-Ghostbreath-a-day illos, plus this one great painting idea I had recently, and…yeaaaah. At the end of the month, I may not have gotten the full NaNoFiMo done, but I will certainly have gotten a LOT done, and sometimes you take what you can get.

How I Got An Agent, Revealed!

Okay, since a couple people asked, I will tell you the story of How Ursula Got Her Agent.

I will say first, however, that this is not normal.

In fact, it was such a stroke of stupid dumb luck that I kinda feel bad telling this story because it’s sort of like telling the story of how you found a suitcase full of small unmarked bills and went out and bought a car with it–it’s amusing, but it’s also such bizarre and undeserved good fortune that anybody in the audience is more than welcome to hate me for it, and I will understand and sympathize and add that I probably deserve it.

It is, however, rather typical of how my life goes, particularly since the dominant note in the whole thing is my profound ignorance of what was going on.

Way back in 2006 or so, Sofawolf Press was publishing Digger collections, and I was paying the rent as an illustrator. They were also working on publishing Black Dogs, but–I want to stress this–I had no plans of being a writer. I was an artist. I had done a little writing in my youth–didn’t we all?–and I had written my Obligatory Fantasy Novel back then, but I was not a writer. I had done nothing to seek publication from anybody but Sofawolf, who I’d known from doing cover art and generally being buddies. I did not know anything about mainstream publication. I had heard of literary agents in much the same way I had heard of garials and king-of-herring–I knew they existed, but I didn’t know anything much about them.

I knew writers. My buddy Deb, aka Sabrina Jeffries, was a writer. I knew a couple more people who wanted to be writers. It seemed like a nice job, but, y’know, I could sort of draw and this comic thing was kinda workin’ for me, and I was very clear on what writers did, which was write a lot, which I did not do.

One day Deb goes to a romance writer’s convention, where at a high-powered dinner of authors and agents, she tells an amusing anecdote about her Wacky Artist Friend.

She is sitting next to a very nice woman* named Helen, who, after the laughter dies down, says something in passing like “Artist, eh? Does she do graphic novels? That’s what everybody’s asking me for right now…”

Deb wracks her brain, remembers something about a wombat, and says “I think so. I’ll send you a link to her website when I get home…”

A couple of weeks go by, and Deb calls me up as I am in the middle of packing the house to move and says “Ursula, do you want a literary agent?”

I said–and I know I said this, because Deb has never once let me forget it–“Huh. Sure. What the hell.”

Deb facepalmed on the other end of the line and said “Ursula, when somebody offers to get you an agent, you do not say “Sure, what the hell.” You say “Wow, Deb, that would be amazing! Thank you so much!”

I repeated this dutifully, and then asked “What do I do with an agent?”

“We’ll worry about that later,” said Deb. “You do that webcomic, right? Have you won any awards?”

It had. I named them.

“Anything else?”

I wracked my brain and said “Uh…it was mentioned in the New York Times?”

There was the sound of another facepalm. “The New York–you never told me–that’s huge!”

“So I’m told,” I said, another line which Deb (who tells this story given any shred of opportunity, and has much better delivery) has never, ever let me forget. (Look, I was trying to pack at the time!)

“I’ll put all this in the e-mail,” she said, and hung up.

I thought “Huh,” and went back to work and thought no more about it, because what was I going to do with a literary agent? What did they do, anyway? Also, as I said, I was packing, and you have to wrap each of the plates in newspaper, and you KNOW what that’s like…

A few weeks slid by, we moved into the new house, we did a lot of re-painting and one day I got an e-mail from Helen saying “I have been to your website, I love your art, the little descriptions are so zany, can I call you, do you have an agent?”

I sent back a polite e-mail saying “I’ve never even spoken to an agent, but here’s my number.”

About thirty seconds later, the phone rang, and when I picked it up, she said “You are now speaking to an agent.”

“I will update my resume!” I said brightly.

There was a brief pause while she down-shifted her expectations of my intelligence.

Then she explained that she really really liked the art, she particularly liked the weird little stories, they were vastly entertaining and quirky, and had I written anything longer and could I send her samples?

So we went back and forth for a bit, and I sent her Digger and I think Irrational Fears. She found them interesting. She would call while flipping through my gallery and throw out random questions involving what we could do with this or that idea in the way of turning it into a book of some sort.

This was all very flattering, and it was an exciting couple of conversations, but I had no real idea what to make of it.

She was particularly interested, however, in the painting I did ages ago of Nurk the shrew, though, and I’d said I was going to write a children’s book about it someday–had I?

Well, no.

Could I?

“Sure!” I said, with the optimism of the completely ignorant. I still had no idea what you DID with an agent, but this woman seemed extremely excited and she had called THREE TIMES and had a very forceful personality and was also extremely complimentary and I hated to disappoint her, since apparently there was a chance she could be my agent, and I had picked up from Deb that this was probably a good thing even though I still wasn’t real clear on what they did.

“How soon can you have it?” she asked.

I panicked. Um. What was a good time frame? How long did it take to write a book? Oh god, what if I asked for too long and she got bored or got hit by a truck or I proved that I was some kind of irrational prima donna with no work ethic?

“Can I have six weeks?” I asked finally.

There was an unidentifiable noise from the other end of the phone, and she said, very generously, “Take eight.”

I wrote it in six weeks, and then spent the next week having neurotic fits about it, and then finally sent it out at seven weeks, in case she wanted to make any revisions, because that’s what you do in the illustration biz, which I was used to–optimally you send it in before the actual deadline so that the revisions also come in under deadline. (This was really not that super-human a feat–Nurk is a VERY short book. I wouldn’t try to do a regular novel in that time frame. Probably. Well, if Helen asked, I might try.)

Then I fretted for about two days, and she called say that it was great and she was very happy with it and would send it out and I plucked up my courage and asked “Does this mean you’re my agent now?”

There was a splutter on the other end of the line and she said “Yes! Of course I’m–WHY? Did another agent contact you?” (I think that’s the tone she uses on recalcitrant editors. It is alarming.)

“No–no, I’m just–I wasn’t sure…I mean…is this how it works?”

There was another pause while Helen again down-shifted her notion of my intelligence. “Yes,” she said. “I am your agent. If anybody asks if you have representation, you send them to me.  I can write up a contract if you want, although generally I don’t, since we both know it.”

“Cool!” I said.

…and that is how I got an agent, without having actually written a book, based on Deb’s anecdote, weird little blurbs at the bottoms of my art and a couple of samples of Digger, and despite my own absolute and total ignorance of what they did, what they were for, and why I wanted one.

Helen has been my agent for four years now, has sold nine books for me, flew me out to California for the Eisners, and has generally been very kind about my continued abysmal ignorance of normal author-agent behavior, and has not taken more than minimal advantage of my frequently unrealistic work ethic, although I hear that she once told an editor “You don’t understand! If you tell her to write a book, she goes home and writes it!” which apparently is not how it normally works, although I’m still not clear on alternatives, but apparently it surprised the editor too, so god knows how other authors do it.  (If you can do this, though, it’s a good thing! I think! I have no idea!)

I eventually went on-line to research how you get an agent and that’s when I learned that this is absolutely not how you get an agent, and then I started to feel guilty, like I’d jumped the line, but about that point she sold Nurk and then I was too busy revising and getting divorced and moving all over hell to worry about it again for awhile, and Deb made a lot of soothing noises, and has also been very helpful in unraveling the vast mysteries of publishing. And also other friends of mine got agents by conventional means, so, y’know. It’s possible.

I still feel a little guilty, now that I try to tell the story, because this is totally NOT how you get an agent. (It’s a lot easier when I’m telling this story in front of a live audience–it comes up a lot in Q&A, and my delivery is better and I can do funny voices and I know people are laughing at it because I can HEAR them, so I don’t feel like one of literacy’s greatest monsters.) But that’s how I did. I am aware that it was an absurdly unlikely stroke of luck. And now that I have one, I am very glad I do, because she has totally and utterly changed my life, which I tell her now and again, and if you can get an agent by whatever method, they are absolutely worth it.

And now I guess I’m a writer.

So, y’know.

*This is true for the value of “nice” that defines agents, which means that in the line of duty she is ruthless, savage, and has the tenacity of a terrier, but is generally quite a decent human being.

Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch…

"Inu Red" 5 x 5

NaNoFiMo proceeds apace, although I have actually spent more time working on the next Dragonbreath than on the stuff I was meaning to finish.  Still, Campbreath does have to get done by January 3rd, and if I end the month with that manuscript written and only one of my other three goals finished, I’m not gonna cry too bitterly.  And I’ve gotten another 2K or so dropped on the Thing With The Goblins. (Hardly anything on the Thing With The Birds, alas.) But the month is still young!

Although it seems to be screaming by at a truly shocking rate. Dude. Mind you, this whole year has been stupidly rapid, and I have a glum feeling that this is just the pace of my life now and days will not slow down at all and I will soon be in a nursing home going “Wait! Wait! Wasn’t it just June 2014 just a minute ago?”

Prior to that, however, have some quick art that was laying around and didn’t get scanned and didn’t get scanned and HOW IS IT NOVEMBER ALREADY!?


One nice thing about it being November is that the weather has finally decided that it is fall, which means I get to break out some of my fingerless gloves and wear scarves, which I delight in, as this means I have two more sources of completely inappropriate unmatched color! So when I write in the coffee shops now, between the wild socks and the dead-muppet scarf and the fingerless gloves and the patchwork jacket, I probably look a bit like a colorblind magpie.

Which is fine. I am an artist. I get to be eccentric, even if I don’t have a lot of money. I save looking classy for book signings and gallery openings. Nobody knows who I am at the coffee shop.

One less than nice thing about the weather is that this is the season of Really Dry Skin, so I just broke into my very last jar of Villainess “Smashing” body creme and slathered down.  I smell a bit like a Red Hot.

"Owlet" 3 x 5

Anyway, the originals of these are for sale cheap on the Originals for Sale page–they’re too small to do as prints, I fear, but they’re quick little sillinesses anyway.

The Cow in the Apartment and the Ghost of Steampunk Future

So in the last week or two, there were a fair number of posts ’round the blogosphere that could be pretty much boiled down to “I am bloody well sick of steampunk” and “Steampunk is awesome, don’t be a hater.” (I am not linking to these because some of the parties have since recanted, extended olive branches, etc, and while I am happy to beat a dead horse on MY blog, it is bad form to drag those lamentable equines to other people’s parties.)

I am late to the party, as usual. For awhile, this was because I didn’t have much of an opinion–I think very reasonable people can quite reasonably be sick of steampunk by this point, I myself am very very sick of zombies and vampires and the revelation that apparently zombie steampunk is the Next Big Thing made me do a Digger-style facepalm. Kevin is sick of steampunk, and mutters darkly about dieselpunk being far niftier, and I respect this position. But I myself am not sick of steampunk. I still think many of the visuals are fantastic, I think the costumes are neat, and I am not a costume snob and thus do not get terribly bothered by the stylistic same-ness that troubles some of the genre, and when somebody rants about just slapping a gear on anything to make it steampunk, I smile and nod and mentally plan out my next garden project in my head. It is a matter of unconcern to me. Steampunk has twenty years of cloning to do before it achieves the stylistic uniformity of Ren Faire Wenchdom, so far as I’m concerned, but that’s really neither here nor there.

I did finally discover that I had an opinion, though, about one specific part of the debate.

It was pointed out–and with justice–that the 19th century was a pretty awful place for a whole bunch of people.  This was when Dickens wrote. This was the rise of factories and industrial pollution, and there was an exaggeration of already horrible social class dichotomies and miserable rookeries and child labor and squalor of really epic proportions.  (One of the best books I’ve ever read about this was “The Ghost Map” by Stephen Johnson, which included descriptions of things like “By the way, they’re keeping cows in apartment buildings!” and so forth that were downright mindblowing. Also, cholera.)

Steampunk generally does not address this. Steampunk is very shiny and involves brass and usually wealthy people drinking tea and shooting airship pirates and smuggling things and (sigh) apparently killing zombies now. The horrors of gaslamp London are more likely to be Cthulhu-esque, the nod to poverty is probably a Lovable Urchin or perhaps someone who speaks briefly but bitterly about growing up in squalor, but has nevertheless taught himself to move in polite society and which fork one uses to eat pickled dormouse brains.

So then the argument goes something like “What the hell, what is wrong with you people, the past was a bloody awful place, what did we fight the American revolution for anyway if you want to be a British aristocrat, and if you MUST deal with the 19th century, why doesn’t somebody write the great Dickensian steampunk work that deals with the horror and the rookeries and the cows being kept in apartment buildings!?!” (Also, cholera.)

I read this argument for more squalor on the airships and went “Oh, hmm, good point, there really isn’t any Dickensian steampunk dealing with the horrors of early industrialization and squalid class warfare, somebody should write that!”

Then I went away for a little while and did other things, and (FINE! I was running prints and leveling my Oddish* so I could take on the Pokemon League, are you HAPPY!?) and something in the back of my brain said “Somebody could write it, but you sure as hell wouldn’t read it if they did.”

Wise voice.  I applaud this sort of thing in theory, but I am hardly going to curl up with a copy of The Jungle for fun.  Feel free to dismiss me as shallow–it’s fine. I’ve made peace with that. And it’s not even just that I’m shallow, but when I ran down the number of good readable fantasies that I have enjoyed that handled squalor and the crisis of class dichotomies well–handled it as a major, serious part of the book, the driving force, not a footnote in somebody’s background–and I came up with Perdido Street Station and Paula Volsky’s Illusion.

They’re both great books, and you should read them. But given the sheer quantity of fantasy I’ve read over the years, the fact that those were the ONLY two I could think of is kinda telling. Pratchett could do it well, and occasionally does, but it’s Pratchett, and that’s another standard entirely. I’d give Tepper an outside shot, but then we’d have to have the big revelation halfway through where it turns out the Artful Dodger is actually an alien and will shortly be devouring Oliver Twist preparatory for his metamorphosis. (Hmm, actually I’d probably read THAT.)

But anyway, I couldn’t write it. Give me a cow in an apartment building and the cow and I will sit and stare at each other for awhile and eventually I will excuse myself and leave, feeling vaguely embarrassed and concerned for the cow, not more cognizant of the general brokenness of a system that requires farm animals being kept in apartment buildings so that people can eat.  If the Ghost of Steampunk Future came down and told me that Tiny Tim would die if I did not write the Great Dickensian Steampunk Novel, I would begin making plans for the Timothy Cratchit Memorial Foundation, because it ain’t gonna happen. That is not the sort of story I tell. I am not a Big Picture writer. I write about individual hedgehogs or dog-soldiers or iguanas with glasses.

There are authors who can mark each sparrow’s fall. I’m the kind who names the sparrow Bob and talks about what he had for breakfast.

There are better and different authors than me who could do it, and maybe do it well. But that’s not an easy thing to write. Go too far over and you get preachy and unrelentingly grim, go too far the other way and you get flippant, and I can hardly judge anybody who doesn’t want to write the horrible squalid book about labor organization in the rookeries because I couldn’t write it and I probably wouldn’t read it and I can’t think of many authors who could make something out of it that would grip me enough to overcome that. (Largely the same authors who could write a zombie novel I’d read, actually–the short list of people from whom I will read ANYTHING.)  I’m not saying that all fantasy is escapism, because that does fantasy a horrible disservice, but I will say that judging a genre as young as steampunk for not having produced such a book yet is pretty unkind when there’s a definite dearth of apartment cows in fantasy as a genre, and fantasy’s been around since the days of dreadful pulp.  (Can’t remember that many in SF, either, although I’ll give military SF the benefit of the doubt and say that undoubtedly there is scads of well-written Dickensian labor organization on alien worlds and I am merely missing it.)

It occurred to me somewhat later than anybody getting het up about steampunk’s unrealistic portrayal of the 19th century probably doesn’t read a lot of Regency romance either, ‘cos if you’re miffed that the airship isn’t dirty enough, boy howdy, you don’t even want to look at Georgette Heyer.

And that led me to thinking that if I ever do write a great steampunk novel, I’m gonna have a heroine who takes snuff. Snuff is underutilized.

And that was about as far as I got before I ran out of printer toner and had to get back to work.

*He’s a Gloom now! I call him Odd-Bob.

Moving right along…

Yesterday was actually surprisingly productive, all things considered. Obligatory Dragonbreath done, ran more prints, then took the laptop out to Starbucks and sat there for two hours until I had gotten The Thing With The Hedgehog to the cut-off point and written the synopsis for it. One goal down!

I seem to be becoming a coffee shop writer. This is kind of annoying. I never was one before. I know it happens to a lot of people–over time it becomes easier to work without the myriad distractions of your own space, which I have filled with Lots And Lots of Distractions–but I didn’t expect it to happen to me, and I feel a vague sense of miffedness about it. Will I eventually be crashing in remote cabins owned by friends when I need to finish a book?

Still, the work gets done, and that’s the important bit. However it gets done is immaterial.  And there’s a cafe in town with booths with plug-ins for laptops, free refills, and terrible service, so you can kill two hours there fairly quickly before anybody thinks to bring you a check (or in some cases, a menu.)

And I finished poking at a painting, which is always a good thing. Although I may have destroyed a second one by second-guessing myself. We’ll know once the paint has dried enough to paint over it again…

Gorman's Rabbit IV

Generally I get sick of variations on a theme after about three paintings–sometimes two, sometimes just the sketches–but I keep coming back to these.  (There’s a very large deer woman painting hanging on the wall of the stairwell that I really need to photograph at some point, as it defies scanning due to sheer size…)  With this one, I think I decided that the figure needs to be a little larger in proportion to the space–the rhino filled the space more thoroughly, and that adds something to it. But doing it on collaged manga was kinda fun and gives it a nice subtle visual texture.

Anyway, prints available, original is for sale, drop a line about pricing, etc.

Meanwhile, it is time to take a shower and go put on real pants and get to work.


Despite some moderate insanity today, I have not forgotten that it is the start of November and thus of my personal NaNoFiMo!

I have set myself three goals for this month.

1. Finish that one short story (henceforth known as The Thing With The Birds.)

2. Finish a half-finished thing (most likely the novella known as The Thing With The Goblins. It has Sings-to-Trees and is the precursor to Elf/Orc, so while I don’t promise that Elf/Orc will ever be continued, if I can get this done, it will be a step closer. On the other hand, it’s always possible that I’ll get inspired on one of the others and slather words on it instead. Still.)

3. Get the one YA novel (The Thing With The Hedgehog) to a good cut-off point (I know where that is, even!) and write the outline for the rest of the book and generally beat it into a shape where I can send it to my agent to ask if she can find somebody to pay me to finish it.

Okay. That probably won’t add up to 50K words, but I’m not real worried about the final word count–I’m worried about getting these projects to a point where I can move them on to the next stage of their existence.  Two of them have been hanging far too long, and the short story will fall off my radar and join the legions of unfinished projects if I don’t get cracking on it, so that’s the goal.

#3 is probably gonna be attainable in short order–I put in a thousand words on it today, and finishing one scene and poking it with a stick a few times will get it to the cut-off, and then it’s just outline. Really, a solid day or two on it should see it through. The other two will take however long they take, but I’m optimistic.

Meanwhile, I have to continue doing either a Digger & 2 Dragonbreath illos or 3 Dragonbreath illos a day, five days a week.  And write about half of the next Dragonbreath book–Campbreath–which is due January 3rd and which I’m not even figuring into the writing time yet.

Needless to say, now that I have all this writing to do, I am madly inspired to paint. Because that’s just how it works. But there’s something to be said for painting that feels like you’re getting away with something, so I’m not gonna complain.


Well, boys and girls, we are headed towards November at a truly shocking pace, and that means it’s time for Nanowrimo!

I have never understood the hate for Nanowrimo in some quarters.  Editors, yes. Editors, as my buddy Mur points out, have every reason to despise Nanowrimo because come December 1st, their slush pile swells to the size of New Zealand. I would therefore suggest that anybody attempting to write a book in November spend a coupla weeks revising before you inflict it on anyone else.*

But that aside, I think Nanowrimo is great. It gets people writing who would otherwise just maunder about wishing they’d write their book some day. It’s a manageable chunk of time. It’s a manageable chunk of words. There is passionate enthusiasm in the air. And anybody who says it’s not how professional writers write can kiss my ass.

As it happens, I myself write in furious spurts of thousands of words over the course of a week or two, and then I stare out the window for awhile and put a coupla hundred words here and there. Then I shove the manuscript in a file and go work on a painting. I find the manuscript again six months or a year later, go “Wow, this was actually good!” and then write in furious spurts and add another ten thousand words or so, and then I stare out the window so more and shove it back in a drawer.

If I am intelligent, at some point in this process, I send it to my agent and say “Can you find somebody to pay me to finish this?”

The answers so far run along the lines of:

1) Yes, I love this.

2) You’ve definitely got something here, give me an outline for the rest of the book.

3) Hmm…I like this, but I have no idea how to sell it. It may have to wait until you’re famous. I’ll see what I can do, though.

4) I’m very, very sorry, but this freaks me the hell out and I don’t want to work on it. (Hey, it happens!)

and my personal favorite:

5) I could probably write “Option Proposal” on this e-mail and have the movie rights sold before Penguin gets us the contract for the next Dragonbreath Book.

So my system actually serves me very well, half-assed as it may be.  (Two of those described books sold, that last one will likely be the post-Dragonbreath project, and I may wind up releasing those others as e-books or something if I ever get them done.)

But I’m tired of having so many unfinished books. It makes me a trifle neurotic to have all those stories hanging there undone.

Thing is, I can finish a book on a deadline without a problem. Five Dragonbreath and one Nurk down, and I grant you, they’re short-short books, but nevertheless, you give me a deadline and I will work methodically to meet it and turn it a script by the end. And I can write a book, and finish a book, and there’s at least a mathematically possibility that it will be a commercially viable book, if not a runaway bestseller.

So this year, with that in mind…I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo.

Instead, I’m gonna invent NaNoFiMo. National Novel FINISHING Month.

The world doesn’t need me to slap words on another book for awhile and then shove it in a drawer. I already have over a half-dozen third-of-a-book scripts in my hard-drive. Some of them I know I’m not the person to finish (the thing with the barbarian gynecologist I can’t do yet…maybe in ten years…) and some aren’t worth finishing or would require more rewriting than I care to contemplate, but there’s still three or four or five that I could DO something with. The one Bluebeard story with the hedgehog, say, or the kid with the armadillo familiar, or maybe the thing with the goblins, because Kevin really wants to read the rest of that one.

That DO something might be “give it to my agent” or if she has no interest in it, it might be “release as e-book.”  I’m not gonna worry about that bit. I’m just gonna set myself the deadline and FINISH one of those suckers already.

So. NaNoFiMo. For those of us who don’t need to START another damn book, we need to knuckle down and finish one of the ones we’ve got.

*I say this as a person who’s had a character’s eye-color change ten times in three chapters. Do as I say, not as I do.