Shout out to everyone who picked up free copies of my books at Smashwords during this July’s Summer Sale. Giving away hundreds of free copies of printed books can be a major marketing expense for self-publishing authors, but ebook giveaways are a low-cost alternative for those of us whose pockets are not as deep as those of the big boys at Penguin or Random House. This year, Smashwords made a deal to be acquired by another ebook provider, Draft2Digital, but many authors I talk to are not even aware Smashwords exists.
Just to be clear: I don’t work for Smashwords, and they don’t pay me to talk to about them. But I have been using them for years as an additional distribution channel for several reasons. I also want to cover some technical aspects of using Smashwords that authors should know before they dive right in and try it for themselves.
Increasing Your Distribution
First: While I like giving away free books in July and December using Smashwords, you don’t need to make them free. You can also set discount prices at a certain percentage of the list price, and you can use Smashwords to generate “coupon codes” to distribute to anyone you want. Although I don’t, it’s a handy tool for authors with an email marketing list or social media presence. I go with the “totally free” option because it gets dozens or even hundreds of books into the hands of new readers at no cost to me. Some of them write lovely four- and five-star reviews.
Second: While I am a big fan of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), they’ve always had gaps in their distribution. Amazon would—for obvious reasons—prefer that ebook readers stay within the Kindle environment rather than spend money elsewhere. Many years ago, I started using Smashwords because my friend in Australia preferred getting ebooks in the Apple/iTunes environment, and she could not get my books there. I did a little research and discovered Smashwords distributed to the Apple bookstore, so I set about learning how to use them. At the time, getting distribution through additional global retail outlets was, to me, icing on the cake. I really just wanted my friend to find the book!
Since then, I’ve realized that while KDP gets my paperback books into the catalogs that libraries can use, they don’t appear to be doing the same with ebooks. Amazon wants sales money for every single copy, and they don’t seem to care about people who check out free ebooks from public libraries and the increasing network of partner sites libraries use. (For example, Hoopla partners with the Pima County library system for ebooks, including graphic novels and comics. It’s just an app you download for free and log into with your library card credentials.)
Smashwords, on the other hand, distributes to ebook outlets such as OverDrive where libraries can buy ebooks. The Phoenix Public Library, for example, now has several of my ebooks available to check out because they buy through OverDrive. While readers can check them out for free, the library does buy them, so I got paid for those sales.
Plus, Smashwords allows you to set a different price for libraries than the retail price. Some authors might feel they should jack up the price for libraries, since a single library purchase can reach a theoretically unlimited number of readers. I take the opposite approach and lower my price for libraries, because not only do I love libraries and want to support them, but I am also a relatively unknown author who wants to make it easy for libraries to take a chance on my books without risking an arm and a leg.
One final bonus is that Smashwords will create an EPUB file that you as the author can download for free. So, if you want an ebook you can send for free to friends, family, reviewers, or contests, you can just get that file and email it to them. Anyone can get a free EPUB reader from Adobe, called Adobe Digital Editions.
While the sales, giveaways, and added distribution are great reasons to use Smashwords, you do need some technical knowledge to work with them. If you are still using Microsoft Word like it’s a fancy electric typewriter, then you don’t yet have the skills required to work with Smashwords—unless you hire someone like me to deal with it for you. Here are some of the major things I’ve encountered and overcome in my years of working with them.
First, Smashwords will accept two kinds of files. One is a completely and properly formatted EPUB file, and if you don’t know how to create EPUBs on your own, that will be a challenge. Programs such as Calibre can help, but most authors I work with lack the technical skills to deal with it—and good luck finding any classes on it. Adobe’s InDesign program can create EPUBs, but it is most often used by professional graphic designers and is about as challenging to master as Photoshop or Illustrator, for which most authors don’t have any training.
For those who aren’t Adobe experts, Smashwords will also accept a .doc file. That’s not the current version of MS Word files, which are .docx, but the backwards-compatible and increasingly outdated version of Word files from a simpler, bygone era. Current versions of Word can absolutely save files as .doc, and that’s how I do it. I work on all my manuscripts in the current version of Word, but when it’s time to make a Smashwords edition, I save them as .doc files. That process causes some changes; for example, if you formatted anything in Small Caps, it will become All Caps in .doc. So, this requires some formatting expertise to make sure everything looks right on the virtual page.
The process becomes more complex if you have images and illustrations in your books. I have run into so many problems with images not being displayed correctly after Smashwords crunches my .doc file through their converter. The only solution that ever reliably works the first time for me is to delete every single image, save the file, then re-insert every image from scratch and make sure all of them are formatted as being positioned “In Line With Text”.
Probably the weirdest image problem I ever encountered—and it only happened once—was when the converter robots kept renaming embedded image files in a .doc to something even they didn’t recognize, so then they couldn’t find them in the converted file. Eventually, I fixed it by downloading Smashwords’ resultant EPUB file, opening it in Calibre, and using a repair function in Calibre to fix the EPUB. Then I uploaded that version instead of my .doc file and, magically, it solved the problem. I’ve never seen that happen before or since.
But there are even more time-consuming design challenges with .doc files for Smashwords. I think they boil down to the fact that the robotic Smashwords converter has even stricter demands than Kindle, because you can get away with all kinds of things that make for perfectly readable Kindle ebooks but which are total failures at Smashwords.
A common challenge is the hyperlinked Table of Contents (TOC). If you have an intermediate skill level with MS Word, then you know how to link something in your TOC to a specific place in your document. That’s easy stuff. But what you might not realize is that MS Word has a tendency to fill your document with all kinds of bookmarks you don’t know about. These Hidden Bookmarks confuse the Smashwords robots and wreck your TOC, preventing Premium Distribution to other outlets. (Note: Smashwords will not tell you the TOC is broken, but instead say that the “NCX file” is bad. The NCX file is, in simplest terms, a separate TOC generated for EPUB files. But in all cases where my NCX was broken, my own TOC links got corrupted, too.)
I am not a noob when it comes to Word. I have been working with it at an expert level for more than twenty years, taken advanced college classes and corporate training on it, and taught other people how to use it. I have done things with Word that professional graphic designers have assured me are impossible—until I showed them how it was done. So, hidden bookmarks were not a mystery to me, and whenever I work with bookmarks, I make sure there is a checkmark in the little box that says, “Show Hidden Bookmarks”.
But what I did not initially realize is that the checkbox is useless if you don’t uncheck it first, then check it again. MS Word apparently needs to reset its brain with the uncheck/check process before it displays all the actual bookmarks so you can delete the garbage bookmarks one-by-one. My failure to realize this resulted in many of my more complex books being rejected for Premium Distribution, which is how you get into places like Apple and library platforms. After struggling, I contacted Smashwords support, and they helped me get a clue. These days, I know about the problem and how to eliminate it, and my books are all approved for Premium Distribution on the first try.
Bookmarks in Word are also crucially important if your book has footnotes. When I upload a compressed HTML file with footnotes to KDP, their robots automatically convert them to hyperlinked endnotes that appear at the end of the book. It’s super convenient. (How I make compressed HTML files for KDP would require its own tutorial.)
But the robots at Smashwords hate footnotes. If you’re pretty good with MS Word, then you already know that it only takes a couple of clicks to convert all your footnotes to endnotes using the References tool bar. But guess what? Smashwords’ robots don’t like that either.
It took me years to figure out a solution—even after reading all of Smashwords’ formatting documentation and watching multiple, useless YouTube tutorials about it. The solution to getting workable endnotes with Smashwords is—in the simplest terms I can put it—to create a bookmark at every place where you have a numbered note in the text, then create a bookmark at every specific endnote, then create individual hyperlinks from the note number in the text to the specific endnote, and finally create another link from the note itself back to the place in the text.
The bookmarks also need to be named with the prefix “ref_”. (Don’t ask me why; it just keeps the robots from getting confused.) So, my first note in the text is named “ref_001”, and the corresponding endnote is named “ref_ftn_001”. If you only have a couple of notes, this is child’s play. If you have, like I sometimes do, upwards of 100 notes, it’s a time-consuming, brain-numbing clerical task—especially since the pop-up window MS Word gives you to work in is roughly the size of a couple of postage stamps.
Anyway, this four-step process of bookmarking and hyperlinking will allow readers to click on a note in the text so they can see the endnote, then click on that to get back to the original spot in the text.
But what if your document already has linked endnotes because you made it in Word? Sorry, but it’s now full of junk that will confuse the robots. The actual first step that I discovered is to remove every single hyperlink in the document.
I started out doing that manually. But when I got to books with copious notes, I suspected there must be an easier way, and I searched for it online. The “easy” way turns out to be running a Visual Basic script to remove all hyperlinks. Even as a Word expert, I don’t find writing Visual Basic to be easy. Fortunately, I copied the script from someone else who was kind enough to post it on their blog. It was a lifesaver.
Now, you might not need to get that technical to remove a handful of links and insert a couple of bookmarks manually. As far as I’m concerned, that is simple stuff. But one of my books had more than 200 footnotes, and doing this manually just to get approved by Smashwords and have a viable ebook that readers could use reliably was a massive project that took hours of my time, research, and so much mouse-clicking that I’ll probably end up with carpal tunnel syndrome.
The things we do for art.
Do I love Smashwords? Absolutely. They got me into libraries, ebook outlets around the world, and the hands of many readers who would have never discovered me otherwise. But because I often publish books with massive amounts of images, footnotes, and complex Tables of Contents, I had serious technical challenges to overcome to achieve my vision.
Fortunately, I solved those problems. Now, I can help other authors get past them and distribute their ebooks on a global scale through channels that KDP alone cannot or will not handle.
One of the unaddressed, human problems for atheists is the concept of irrationality. While I feel that Richard Dawkins and his Foundation for Reason and Science are a good example of the intellectual trend that needs to become more widespread in America and across the globe, an appeal to humans to be completely rational faces an intractable problem. Despite our capacity for reason and rationality, we also experience life in non-rational ways.
While the scientific method often reveals an underlying order to the chaos we experience, we cannot say the universe itself is rational. Everyone knows what it is like to confront events in life that seem totally absurd. Entire movements in the world of art have sprung up to address this. No matter how much we want to believe that we could be completely rational beings, the human mind is a playground for irrational thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.
My observations of the behaviors of others and myself in my five decades on this planet lead me to conclude that a purely rational approach to life leaves out some important aspects of human experience. I believe this contributes to the persistence of religion, even in eras such as ours where organized religion, zealotry, and extremist fundamentalism produce or justify violence, suffering, misogyny, racism, and abuse. The evils committed in the name of religious good or faith remain unshakable to this day, and those of us who have opted out of our religious backgrounds find this both sad and perplexing. How, we ask, can people continue to cling to primitive, Bronze-Age ideas that breed hate and intolerance and prevent society from progressing towards more humane and inclusive goals?
Many before me have attempted to answer this question, so let’s consider the four most common evaluations. First, humans fear death. Religion offers comfort in the face of a universe that in no way cares about any individual, by creating deities who do care. Religion offers comfort in a universe where everything we are is guaranteed to end, by creating an artificial afterlife where we can live on.
This afterlife is often posited as a form of justice which is absent from the actual universe, an afterlife where “good” people are rewarded and “bad” people are punished. In real life, horrible people get away with horrible things while kind and decent people suffer. Imaginary concepts such as heaven and hell give comfort that there is a form of cosmic justice that exists beyond this world.
Second, humans crave order. Disorder is frightening. The unpredictability of life is frightening, and humans are not alone in this fear. Consider how stressed a pet dog or cat can become if their routine is disrupted, or if forces beyond their comprehension appear to threaten them. If you’ve ever seen a pet hide under a bed during a thunderstorm, or develop oddly unhealthy habits around grooming and eating to deal with stress, then you know what I mean.
In the face of this fear of the disorderly and unknown, religion grants the illusion of cosmic order and also creates an imaginary ruler of that order, one who can set things right or who has a master plan in which we can place our trust. This non-existent cosmic ruler also imposes a moral authority that sweeps away the supremely challenging ethical task of deciding for oneself what is right and wrong—a task plagued by the same disorder and incomprehensible complexity of the world we experience. Deciding for oneself is hard. Having an authority hand you the answers is easy.
Third, humans look for agency. Part of progressing from an infant to a socially mature adult is the realization that other humans and even animals are like oneself in that they have agency. Others can make decisions and choices, have feelings and thoughts, and presumably have some kind of experience of life that is conscious in the same way that we are conscious. Empathy is when we come to consider that the experience of others is something to be respected, understood, and treated with kindness, because we can imagine that we know what that other person or animal feels. Their pain is like our pain. Their hopes are like our hopes. Their joy is like our joy. Their problems are like our problems.
But as important as this empathy toward other agents is to social cohesion in groups—from the smallest tribe to the largest nation—the human mind also seeks to find conscious agency in objects and events which simply have none. A rock or a bolt of lightning or a gust of wind has no agency, but the human mind naturally wants to believe it does. On one end of the religious spectrum, this results in pantheism where every object possesses some form of consciousness. At the other end of the spectrum, it results in monotheism where every action of every object is guided by the conscious choices of some cosmic ruler.
In the middle of the spectrum lie various gradients of these ideas. Though none of them are true or even remotely provable, their allure is the comfort that we do not live in an unfeeling and unconscious universe, but one where we might affect the outcomes of events by supplicating these non-existent agents through prayer, sacrifice, good deeds, wars against non-believers, and many other actions which do not affect the physical behavior of the universe.
Our attempts to appease the gods might make us feel better, or they might lead to atrocities, or both. They might lead us to create monuments or overcome addictions. But they do not at all affect the underpinnings of the universe. We have been fooled by our own propensity to seek out agency in all things.
The fourth and final most common reason given for the continuation of religion is that humans seek power. The first three reasons all deal with feeling powerless against the workings of the universe and circumstance: death, impermanence, disorder, moral doubt, and non-conscious objects and events. But the fourth reason deals specifically with obtaining power over other humans.
There is no greater threat to man than man himself, and no greater source of fear. Religion offers a means to control those others whom we fear, and a means to mobilize or enslave others so that we might gain more power over them and pursue more power for ourselves. Religion empowers us to tell other people what they should be doing and justifies our violence against them when they do not comply. It empowers people in leadership positions to consolidate their social power not only by telling people what to do but by setting themselves up as the authority on what constitutes right behavior for all other people—usually in some bid to expand their personal or political empire.
In other words, because the first three reasons for religion meet basic emotional needs that cannot be met by a purely rational approach to life, the fourth reason allows those needs to be exploited for personal gain and a feeling of control in a universe over which we truly have no control.
While I respect and empathize with intellectual movements that embrace rationality, I doubt we can move forward as a species until we admit that a purely rational approach will never completely meet our psychological and emotional needs. Not until we accept that some kinds of non-rational experience are necessary to our well-being will we reach a more holistic, all-encompassing way of dealing with the lives we are born into.
Fortunately, we have those means within our grasp. In my life since abandoning the religious indoctrination I endured as a child, I have found ways to give free rein to the non-rational parts of my mind through various forms of art. Through poetry, music, and painting, I have found ways to express, confront, and integrate my irrational thoughts and feelings and the absurdity of human experience so I could feel like a complete human being. I often make art more through intuition and emotion than some kind of logical process.
But I have also found there is a balance between the rational and irrational. Music involves the study of scales and chords and rhythms, and it can often resemble mathematics. Painting involves analysis of techniques and the relationships between colors. Poetry involves studying language and what it takes to convey emotional meaning through words. Every art form has some rational component.
But there are stages in the process of creating art and appreciating art where you need to get into a non-verbal state of mind and allow yourself to be swept up in and overcome by the feeling. A mathematical analysis of a concerto will never completely capture the subjective experience of being moved to tears by hearing the music.
For the past eight years, I have also been writing fiction, and it is much the same. I have spent countless hours as a writer and editor analyzing things such as character arcs, story arcs, prose style, post-modern approaches to storytelling, nuances of punctuation and paragraphs, and how to say the most in the fewest words. But at some point, you need to stop analyzing and just write, to tap into some indefinable place in your imagination and go with the feeling so that the reader can also get swept up in that feeling and experience a story from the inside.
Of all the art forms I’ve explored, fiction might be the one most like religion because it makes order out of a disorderly universe. In fiction, unlike life, everything on the page should happen for a reason. In fiction, every detail matters and is relevant. In fiction, we can create a world in which justice prevails, death is overcome, and everything that happens is imbued with meaning—a world that is not at all like the one we were born into.
Granted, many authors like to subvert those goals to make a point about reality, and I appreciate why they do it. I often do it myself. A dose of reality and unexpected tragedy still makes for a compelling story that says something meaningful about our lives. But overall, I see fiction as imposing a meaningful order on life. Life itself is often pointless beyond the biological imperative to reproduce more life. But fiction can advance any point it wants to communicate. Like religion, it takes the incomprehensibly complex unknown and makes it knowable.
And unless we admit that not everything we humans need is met by rationality and find ways to meet those needs through art, the social progress desired by the rationalism movements will not be achieved.
After the events of The Second Omnibus, Meteor Mags and her hard-rocking space-pirate crew confront new enemies, old rivals, and the final fate of the interspecies band, Small Flowers. Permanent Crescent and Other Tales continues Mags’ evolution from a rogue pirate to a leader with far-reaching plans, and her choices will have major consequences for the future of the solar system. This collection contains six all-new episodes totaling 57,000 words.
Permanent Crescent: The Moon is about to die, and it’s all Mags’ fault. Join a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat as they confront a lunar death cult whose alien leader plans to take vengeance on humanity by destroying Earth’s ancient satellite.
Odonata’s Revenge: Mags faces double trouble when an alien menace and an ex-mercenary converge on Ceres to end the pirate’s life and steal her secret technology.
Infinite Spaces: Mags and her crew discover signals emanating from the depths of the subterranean ocean on Ceres and risk their lives in uncharted waters to find the source. What they find makes Mags reconsider her role in humanity’s evolution and the final fate of her universe.
Farewell Tour: A band of telepathic octopuses and their interspecies friends bring a message of liberation to the solar system one last time. Mags and Patches fight to rescue them from the forces of law and order.
One Last Night on Death World: On the last night of Gramma’s life, Mags takes her drinking at a west-coast bar to shoot pool and have fun. Between games of billiards, they discuss the future of the solar system and reminisce about their past, revealing details about Gramma’s childhood, her relationship with her piratical mother, and the development of GravGen technology.
Pieces of Eight: Mags and her friends in Small Flowers return to Earth to seek a new home for the dying octopuses, but what they find is not at all what they expected.
Might be unsuitable for children and other forms of carbon-based life.
On the last night of Gramma’s life, Mags takes her drinking at a west-coast bar to shoot pool and have fun. Between games of billiards, they discuss the future of the solar system and reminisce about their past, revealing details about Gramma’s childhood, her relationship with her piratical mother, and the development of GravGen technology.
July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions.The ebook is also available on Smashwords and coming soon to other major retailers.
About seven years ago, I started compiling notes for a Meteor Mags story that would take place on the last night of Gramma’s life and, through flashbacks, fill in a lot of details about Gramma’s history and how they relate to the main narrative in the series. While the series is ostensibly science-fiction, this tale was more like historical fiction.
If you’ve ever written historical fiction, you know it takes an incredible amount of research into historical fact. Otherwise, you end up with unintended anachronisms, inaccuracies, and all kinds of things any expert in your chosen time period will absolutely tear apart.
This problem almost killed my story.
Since it involves the history of billiards, I got involved in the history of France and a man named Francois Mingaud. He invented the leather tip we all now take for granted on a cue stick.
The first indication that I had serious problems was that my research turned out to be contradictory about when and where Mingaud was held prisoner, and the inaccuracy of him being imprisoned at the Bastille years after it was demolished was repeated in dozens of billiards-related websites where I sought information about his life.
I solved the discrepancy by emailing Mike Shamos, author of The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards (an excellent resource rivaled only by the work of his friends Victor Stein and Paul Rubino in the massive Billiard Encyclopedia). Dr. Shamos was kind enough to provide historical documents that set the record straight about Mingaud’s imprisonment. I am such a Wikipedia nerd that I corrected the mistakes in Mingaud’s article and included a note about why the widespread inaccuracy about his imprisonment was impossible.
That’s just one of the complications of the history I was trying to construct. Eventually, it all became so overwhelming that I relegated my story to being one of those ideas I would never get around to writing.
But last month, one of the authors from my old workshop group was kind enough to listen for a few minutes to all the reasons I had never written the story I wanted to. In the days that followed, I thought about those reasons; the chief of which was that I simply did not want to invest another year of my life researching the time period to write the novella I had planned.
As I have said many times before, being able to articulate our problems often leads to them solving themselves. I’m indebted to the author who took a few minutes to listen, because thinking about my so-called “reasons” led me to trying some narrative solutions to those problems.
I played with a few ideas, cut some scenes that were too involved and slowed the pacing, engaged a few characters to summarize events that could have filled a novel, and ended up with a short, fast-paced tale that accomplished damn near everything I ever wanted from the “sweeping historical epic” I would never get around to writing.
You can judge for yourself whether it succeeds or not.
I’ve written before about my love for various games of pool, so I have only one more thing to say about the title of this story. Years ago, I saw an infographic about the most-used words in book titles. People online ripped this thing apart as an example of the most cliché and crappy book titles.
So I came up with several fun titles based on that silly infographic and decided to use “One Last Night on Death World” as the name of a pinball/videogame Mags would have distributed on the west coast of the USA in the 1990s as a cover for her smuggling operations. (It’s introduced in a flashback in the previous story, Farewell Tour, which fills in the early years of the friendship between Mags and Alonso.) The name also fit the idea of Gramma Margareta’s last night on Earth, so I ran with it.
What did I learn from all this? First, it helps to have other writers to talk to when you are having problems with a story. Second, you can get a lot of mileage from emailing an expert on a subject. Third, the problems you encounter when telling a story can often be solved by taking a different approach to narration and engaging the characters to solve your problems for you.
I’m tempted to add a fourth lesson about “Stop making excuses and write the damn thing”, but I can’t help but feel that compiling notes for all these years until I had a chance to bend a sympathetic ear was the right decision. It was like I had been dissolving minerals in a solution for seven years and then all of a sudden—Boom! All it took was one little grain for them to gather around and become a crystal.
In addition to borrowing Francois Mingaud from real life, this tale guest-stars Scott Safran, a young man history also remembers for his accomplishments in a game. Both of their lives play out a bit differently due to meeting Mags and her ancestors. The hotelier Jonathan Hathaway is a complete fabrication.
Spidey was my jam as a young Martian. I must have crafted this masterpiece near the end of the 1970s, when I was five to seven years old. Clearly, I had a lot to learn about architecture and anatomy. Feel free to mock me now for those ridiculous hands!
Well into my early adolescence, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said, “A comic-book artist.” I designed different characters and drew them poorly, no matter how many drawing tutorials I attempted to follow. Eventually, I became reasonably okay-ish in various visual, musical, and literary art forms, but I still can’t draw sequential art to save my life — unless it’s stick figures!
Someone on Reddit suggested this could be a super-rare variant cover, so I ordered a five-dollar copy of the blank version of Non-Stop Spider-man #1 using some of the store credit I earned at MyComicShop in the last couple of months thanks to this blog’s readers. I’ll see if I can get this image printed on it.
In other news, I finished drafting episode 34 in the ongoing Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches this week, and I had a blast writing it. It’s really two stories in one. In the “present day” of February 2032, the interspecies telepathic band Small Flowers performs their final concert in the asteroid belt. That story is spliced with flashbacks about the musical friendship between Mags and Alonso, who is the only human in Small Flowers and one of the people Mags loves most in all the solar system.
July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions.The ebook is also available on Smashwords and coming soon to other major retailers.
Bonus points to anyone who gets my silly Spider-man drawing printed on a t-shirt before I do. Until then, Cadet Stimpy and I remain stranded on the planet Ballknob. We had to eat what was left of the ship.
The new short story I drafted this month has a brief description of something that resembles the “strange attractors” from Chaos theory, so I spent a little time refreshing my memory about Chaos. In the most general and oversimplified terms, Chaos theory is a study of how apparently orderly systems give rise to apparent disorder, and vice versa. It also involves fractals, which are fun, and they give insights into how very simple sets of rules can create enormous complexity.
My introduction to Chaos was the 1988 book Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. Along with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which came out the same year, I read it in 1989 or 90 when I was still in high school, and it blew my mind. It isn’t a mathematical textbook but a history of the pioneers in the field and their discoveries. It lays out the basic concepts in layman’s terms and how they apply to a vast array of disciplines that study dynamic systems, from the weather and animal populations to the human body and your heartbeats. It also has a lot to say about how a revolutionary, interdisciplinary field at first met with apathy or outright resistance from the scientific establishment.
If you don’t have the time to read the whole book, you can get a brief but engaging introduction to some of the concepts in the following video from Veritasium.
A few years after Gleick’s book made inroads into popularizing the topic with general audiences, Chaos reached the masses through the first Jurassic Park film, based on Michael Crichton’s exceptionally entertaining 1990 novel. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone from my generation who isn’t familiar with Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Ian Malcom and his famous line, “Life, uh, finds a way.” On the other hand, the film didn’t do much to explain real concepts of Chaos, and probably left people with the impression that it just means “Things can and will go very wrong, very quickly.”
That’s not so much Chaos theory as it is Murphy’s Law, but whatever. Science-fiction stories are notorious for latching on to the smallest shred of a “sciencey” concept and turning it into a fantastical plot device. I’ve written before about how the term “science fantasy” seems more accurate to me, despite being outdated. From piloting spaceships through wormholes, to nanobots that can magically do anything, sci-fi is mostly bunk science: a fantasy about something science-related.
I’m as guilty as any SF author in that regard, but I did want my current story to do justice to this one bit of Chaos. The characters encounter a phenomenon that at first seems wildly unpredictable; but upon closer examination, a type of order appears. While movement is unpredictable at any individual moment, the totality of the movement falls within certain boundaries or parameters.
That’s the oversimplified idea behind strange attractors such as the Lorenz attractor, which is usually shown as a two- or three-dimensional graph that helps us visualize the possibilities for a set of three non-linear equations developed by Edward Lorenz, one of the Chaos pioneers who was originally trying to use computers to model weather systems. While the solutions (or iterations) never repeat themselves exactly, the graph helps us see that they all take place within a certain “shape”.
Anyway, there isn’t much of a point to this post, except that Chaos is fun to learn about! For engaging introductions to the Chaos-related concepts of fractals, see the following two videos.
This week, I got the sad news that an author I worked with two years ago passed away. I helped her edit, design, and publish her memoir about how she transitioned out of a life of prostitution, domestic violence, and incarceration to create a non-profit organization that supports women in similar circumstances to make the same transition and build new lives for themselves.
At times, the memoir was absolutely heartbreaking to work on due to the severity of the abuse and trauma it described. But it was also an amazingly hopeful and positive book due to what she and her organization eventually accomplished in terms of helping other women in the community.
The author was also a joy to work with. I always enjoyed our conversations, and she had an unconquerable sense of humor. Even when we discussed the saddest topics or events, she always found a way to make us both laugh.
I am sad to hear of her passing, but I am glad I had the chance to help preserve her story in a book. I don’t know if other artists, authors, and musicians think about this as much as I do, but there is something satisfying about the idea that what we create will outlive us. Whether we have an important message to share with the world, or we are just making something entertaining to enjoy, we leave our mark on our society and culture. It isn’t necessarily immortality, but it is a kind of afterlife.
Years ago, another author I work with included a piece of advice in one of her books: “Focus on what you want to create.” That idea has carried me through many times of difficulty and doubt. Obstacles pile up, and it can be easy to lose sight of long-term goals when you get bogged down in dealing with the challenges of the day. But if you can raise your head above the floodwaters and focus on the legacy you want to leave behind, it puts today in a different perspective.
So, I intend to keep on writing, editing, and helping others make books. Those legacies will last long after we pass, and I am proud to have played a part in them.
Collector’s Guide:It’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It: From the Streets to Survival by Kathleen Mitchell is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Kathleen founded DIGNITY House in Phoenix, Arizona.
Mags facs double trouble when an alien menace and an ex-mercenary converge on Ceres to end the pirate’s life and steal her secret technology.
July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions.The ebook is also available on Smashwords and other major retailers.
Episode 32 in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches was intended to be 33, but I got bogged down in the original story for 32 and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. As you probably know, I don’t believe in writer’s block, because you can always write something. So, I re-directed my energy into what was speaking to me at the time, and I also worked to articulate exactly what my problem was.
My recent post on why Finishing Matters resulted from gathering my thoughts on why it is important to power through completing a draft. My post on the difference between Active Versus Passive Characters arose from trying to articulate why I wasn’t happy with the original thirty-second episode.
I realized that the episode’s problem was, at its root, that I had originally conceived the middle of the story as a plot that needed to happen to my characters, instead of a plot driven by character choices. I knew where the story started and ended, but I felt like I was enforcing a plot on my characters in the middle, and that was causing friction.
So, I set it aside and focused on something that’s been simmering on the back burner for a couple of years: introducing a new rival for Mags. It’s an idea I kept returning to despite numerous attempts and thousands of words that failed to excite me. But gathering my thoughts on active characters proved to be the key. Last month, I added to my massive pile of notes on this rival by asking questions and answering them, then dropping her into situations and letting her choose the outcome. I let go of the idea that I needed her to fit into some mold, and I let her choose her own adventure.
Several scenes I wrote for her ended up on the cutting-room floor. You will never read them. But the process of going beyond notes and writing actual scenes for her revealed what really captured my imagination about her, and I enjoyed getting to know her and anticipating what kind of choices she would make. She stopped being a thing I wanted to force into a plot and became a person who could drive a plot through active choices.
Once I began letting her choices take an active role in determining the plot, she became not just easy to write but an absolute joy. In the end, it only took me about a month to write the episode featuring her, even though defining who she was had been frustrating me for a couple of years. The breakthrough came when I started treating her the way I do Mags: not as someone who life happens to, but someone who happens to life.
Also, I wrote thousands of words you will never see about her childhood, her appearance, and her motivations. We might explore those things later in the text of the series, but the important thing was that I really needed to get to know her.
I don’t need to necessarily publish words about those things, but I needed to be able to confidently write from those things. The difference between the two is the subtext an author needs to have a firm grasp on a character. Not every detail about a character’s history needs to be explained through exposition to a reader, but the author needs to know those unpublished details to create someone who feels real, consistent, and grounded. You can judge for yourself how well I did.
On a more personal note, the episode briefly includes a billiards game called nine-ball. The game will always be dear to my heart because in 2006, I joined a nine-ball league at a local pub/pool hall. I had always enjoyed shooting pool, but I was terrible at it. When I joined the league, I started practicing regularly, using an amazing book called Byrne’s New Standard Book of Pool and Billiards. It had great, practical exercises and showed how to make shots from the most simple to the increasingly complex.
But learning pool from a book can only do so much, and it was through the generous instruction from other people on the league that I advanced enough to not be awesome but to at least not embarrass myself, and to win enough matches to feel a sense of accomplishment. When I played against casual players at other bars outside of league, I won more often than I lost.
The people in my league who guided me and showed me how to correct what I was doing wrong were not just my teammates but sometimes my competition from other teams I played against in matches. Despite our friendly rivalry, we were not enemies but people who enjoyed the same game and wanted to help each other improve, have fun together, and generally raise the quality of every player’s ability. For years, nine-ball league was my primary social group where I formed many friendships, some of which remain to this day. We often gathered for house parties, bar crawls, road trips, concerts, and other events.
In many ways, it was like the writer’s workshop I founded in 2017: a somewhat random assortment of people gathering around a shared enthusiasm with the aims of both helping each other improve and having some fun along the way. In both cases, my years with the groups helped me grow in ways that would not have been possible on my own.
These days, my billiards game is rusty from a lack of practice, but I still love to play. The same is true of my guitar skills. But if you ever wonder why I write so many billiards and concert or jam scenes into my stories, it’s because they are hobbies I have loved for many years, and I can’t imagine writing about a fictional world where they don’t play a role.
One of the greatest struggles I see aspiring authors encounter is with finishing a first draft. Finishing is an important part of the craft of writing, but maybe it doesn’t get enough attention. Let’s take a closer look.
Although I will offer advice and observations, there is no big secret. The key to finishing pieces is to finish more pieces. That might sound like an obvious tautology, but it runs deeper than that. Like everything else about writing, completing a work takes practice. If you aren’t seeing your pieces through to the end, you aren’t getting enough practice to strengthen this particular muscle.
It’s a bit like going to the gym. Imagine your workout involves doing three sets of an exercise, with some number of repetitions per set. What would happen if every time you decided to work out, you got dressed in your workout clothes, went to the gym, and did a couple of repetitions—then stopped? Maybe completing the workout seemed too challenging or boring, or maybe something else distracted you. Either way, you would get a lot of practice at getting dressed, but not the practice of completing a full workout. You’d be great at getting started, but you would not build any staying power.
Writing is like that. It’s important to keep going beyond the initial excitement of getting started so you can practice completion.
My writing-intensive courses in public policy were a huge help in this area. Every week, my classes required me to do a ton of reading then crank out several thousands of words before the week was up. I put a lot of time and energy into those papers, but I did not have the luxury of pondering them for months or years, agonizing over every word, or getting halfway done then deciding to do something entirely different. Even when I felt what I sent to my professor wasn’t my best work, I got a lot of practice going from start to finish in a very short time. Dawdling was not an option.
That being said, when a paper was on something that mattered to me personally, I reviewed my professor’s comments and criticisms and did a final round of revisions for my own benefit. Integrating feedback and critique was an important part of improving.
Finishing a draft even when it is challenging and you aren’t entirely happy with the result is still an important step because it gives you raw material to revise. It is always easier to start with something rather than start from scratch with nothing. When you have nothing, it’s easy to get bogged down in considering all the possibilities, spinning your wheels and not producing anything. But when you have something on the page, you can look at it and say, “Okay, I like this part, but this other part doesn’t work. Now I can see why, so let me work on fixing that problem.” You’ve narrowed down the infinite possibilities to a manageable revision checklist.
A friend who produces articles related to his artistic endeavors takes an interesting approach. He hires a copywriter to produce a first draft, then he completely re-writes it. He says it saves him a lot of time and effort in the early conceptual phases, and even when he is unhappy with what the copywriter produced, it’s a lot easier for him to start from a draft and be critical of it. If he sees something that isn’t said the way he would say it, that makes it easier for him to decide what he does want to say.
As a freelance editor, I often work on the flip side of that process. People might come to me with an essay or story they’ve drafted, but it has conceptual, grammatical, or structural problems and doesn’t feel professionally written. It’s up to me to “get” what they are trying to communicate, then rewrite the piece with clarity and concision. If I were assigned to draft a piece on the same subject from scratch, it would take a lot longer than the relatively short time it takes me to pull apart an existing draft and fix it.
I treat my own stories and essays the same way: Pound out a first draft, even if it’s a mess, then step back and look at it critically. If, for example, I feel daunted by the infinite possibilities of a scene in fiction, I just pick one and start banging away at the keyboard. Sometimes I get lucky and come up with something I love that simply needs tuned up and polished. Other times, I get something I don’t like at all or doesn’t quite fit, but I can articulate what about it doesn’t work. The process helps me conceptualize what would work so I can take a second crack at it.
In My Life As an Armadillo, I discussed the benefits of drafting an ending long before a story is anywhere near finished. I will just briefly reiterate here that knowing where you are headed with a story helps reduce the time you waste feeling stuck in the middle of it. When people are having trouble completing a draft, it’s often because they lack a sense of where the finish line is. It’s like trying to run a race without knowing what direction to run. You might end up running into the middle of the field, or into the stands, or into the toilets. That’s how it feels to be lost in the middle of a writing project. Do yourself a favor: Get clear on where the finish line is.
Finishing a draft, whether you love it or hate it, also positions you to get more practice in all the stages that come after: getting feedback, doing rewrites, making revisions, editing, and proofreading. You don’t get to practice those important skills if you don’t finish many drafts, and lacking practice in those areas will stunt your growth.
I have a ton of writings other people will never see, because either I feel they aren’t very good, or they ended up being something I didn’t feel was appropriate to share with the world. But finishing them gave me practice for producing the good stuff. Sometimes, people are trapped by the idea that everything they write needs to be brilliant, and they feel that if they write something unappealing, then they have failed.
That attitude is counter-productive. For comparison, consider what counts as an awesome batting average in baseball. Ty Cobb had a lifetime batting average of .366. That means he connected with the ball about a third of the time. It also means he failed to hit the ball two-thirds of the time! Do we look at that hit rate as a failure? Not at all. It’s a damn fine batting average—the highest in major-league history!
So if you write three things and two of them suck but one is a solid hit—not necessarily a home run, but something that gets you to first base—I’d say you’re doing well. Failure isn’t missing a lot of swings. Failure is not taking a swing at all.
Finally, consider that as your skills improve, nothing is stopping you from revisiting an earlier piece and improving or expanding it. I often return to something I wrote years ago and examine it in light of everything I’ve learned since I finished it. Maybe I now have a better grasp of what a failed poem was trying to say, so I rewrite it. Maybe I edit an old article to improve the quality of the prose. Some writers will even take an old novella and expand it into a novel, such as Orson Scott Card did with Ender’s Game, eight years after the short version was first published.
So, take a swing at completing a first draft. If you’re working in a longer form such as a novel, break it into smaller chunks: finish drafting a scene, then another, then a whole chapter, then the next. Keep going! The more you finish, the more practice you get with the entire process and seeing things through to completion. Over time, that practice will make you a stronger writer.
My favorite characters to read about and write about are active characters, especially when it comes to the leading protagonist and antagonist. I’m a bit more forgiving of passivity in minor supporting characters, but even they are greatly improved by giving them some active choices. The difference between active and passive characters is simple, but perhaps it doesn’t get enough attention.
With a passive character, the plot just happens to him. He’s going about his daily life when suddenly—BOOM! Plot events arrive and sweep him up in the narrative. When the main character or hero is passive, events are largely beyond his ability to affect. I often see this in stories that are plot-driven rather than character-driven, where the author has a potentially brilliant plot that needs to happen, and the characters are forced into it.
Active characters are ones whose choices drive the story. Active characters might make smart choices or foolish ones, selfish choices or altruistic ones. Those choices carry consequences that determine the events of the narrative. As I like to say about Meteor Mags, life doesn’t happen to her; she happens to life.
That isn’t to say that active characters are always in control. One of the most fun things about active characters is when they make choices that lead to their losing control. Take Dwight in Frank Miller’s Sin City story A Dame to Kill For. Every step of the way, Dwight makes choices that determine what happens next. But he is being manipulated by a femme fatale, and we as readers know that he really should know better. He is a delusional fool, but he is an active fool, and his foolish decisions lead to events spiraling out of his control and getting the ever-loving crap beat out of him several times.
Active characters can also be subjected to unexpected events. I don’t think anyone would accuse Meteor Mags of being passive, but the super-tornado that arrives in the middle of a heist gone wrong in Blind Alley Blues is an example of unexpected plot elements showing up to mess with her. Mags’ active nature leads her to see what opportunities the disaster presents, and she makes choices that bend the situation to her advantage. Plus, the reasons the heist goes wrong in the first place all relate to conscious, intentional choices made by her and other characters. They don’t sit around waiting for the plot; they are actively driving it by pressing forward with their agenda.
I’m a fan of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, and its protagonist Llewelyn Moss and its antagonist Anton Chigurh are great examples of highly active characters. Moss chooses to examine the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, then he makes one of the stupidest decisions I have ever read. Later that night, he decides to take some water to the last survivor of the deal, and that foolish decision leads to all the pain and suffering which follows. I have always found this choice a bit suspect and possibly out of character for Moss, but the fact remains that he makes it and must deal with the consequences.
On the other side of things, Chigurh is a cold, calculating, homicidal maniac who makes choices every step of the way. In his famous scene with a gas station attendant, Chigurh uses a coin toss to determine whether he will kill the attendant—a conceit that appeals to blind chance as driving his actions, even though he is the one actively initiating the situation. Near the end of the story, Moss’ young wife calls out Chigurh on this bullshit, telling him “It’s just you.” And it is just him, making choices that drive the plot.
No Country is one of my favorite novels because both Chigurh and Moss make active choices while trying to achieve conflicting goals, and nearly every event in the book is the result of these two characters working at cross-purposes.
Besides being characters who can create the dramatic intensity of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, and intensifying our emotional investment in seeing how such brutal conflict plays out, active characters earn our empathy and respect.
In comparison, passive characters seem like people who say, “Woe is me,” and blame anyone and everyone except themselves for their problems. Sure, we might feel sympathy for these downtrodden folks, but we can just as easily feel contempt for those who don’t take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. And if they passively succumb to their fate, they lack the initiative we expect from heroes. They might as well be the beach being pounded by the ocean with no true agency of its own for us to get involved with.
But when an active character makes choices, we respect her for doing something besides lying on her back and thinking of England while life has its way with her. We can respect her for, at the very least, trying to do something about her situation. We might not agree with her choices, and we might even see them as foolish, but we can feel invested in her attempts to achieve her goals—even when she fails.
When those choices arise from deeply held conviction, we are more likely to empathize. Peter Parker’s active choice to continue trying to make the world better as Spider-man is a good example, because being Spider-man tends to have nothing but painful consequences for his personal life. Parker’s choices often lead him to more suffering than many of us would be willing to endure, but he remains committed to trying to do good things, to protecting people less powerful than he, and standing firm as a force for good in a world threatened by evil. We not only respect Parker; we empathize with his struggle. We don’t just feel sorry for him; we feel sorrow with him. When he succeeds, we feel that success, too. We become emotionally invested.
None of what I have said should be taken as advice to abandon tight, compelling plots and write by the seat of your pants. The important point is that rather than designing plots that simply happen to passive characters, construct plots that are driven by the choices the characters make.
Characters need goals, and they need to make decisions they believe will take them closer to those goals. They also need obstacles in their path—both the external obstacles of circumstance, and the internal obstacles of personal shortcomings they need to overcome. What lies do they tell themselves? What misconceptions do they have? Even the most active character can harbor beliefs that keep her distant from her goal, even as she tries to move forward.
In my years as a workshop leader, I saw some stories about passive characters who had no clear, primal, compelling goal they were so intent on reaching that they would have died for it. They were just people trotted on stage so the plot could happen to them, and I found that I simply didn’t care. But even when presented with a story in a genre or style I didn’t prefer, I could easily get swept up in the adventures of an active character whose choices—whether right or wrong—defined and drove events. Those were the characters I came to care about and whose fates I became personally invested in.
So whether you see your stories as more plot-driven or more character-driven, realize the best stories are both: where the character choices drive the plot forward, so readers become emotionally invested in the outcome.
The Moon is about to die, and it’s all Mags’ fault. Join a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat as they confront a lunar death cult whose alien leader plans to take his revenge on humanity by destroying Earth’s ancient satellite.
July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions.The ebook is also available on Smashwords and other major retailers.
Permanent Crescent was the story I worked on while also putting together The Second Omnibus, so it bears the responsibility of setting the tone for what comes next. It was fun to write and took about three months based on notes I’d compiled throughout the year.
The first scene I wrote was a nice way to open the floodgates for writing, but it ended up on the cutting-room floor. You will never read it! I also drafted scenes which got heavily revised in terms of their points of view, tenses, and even which characters were involved. Hardly any scene survived in its original version.
As you probably know, I don’t believe in writer’s block. Even when I felt unsure about what direction to take for the story, I figured, “What the hell? Let’s wing it and see what happens!” Eventually, the results of that “anything goes” approach got ironed out into a single story.
After trying things a few different ways, I settled on three points of view to tell the story: the hero, her nemesis, and my standard third-person omniscient narrator for the series. I felt multiple POVs were necessary to convey the ways in which the hero and the villain are similar in their general attitudes but intractably opposed.
By letting both the protagonist and antagonist tell parts of the story from their unique perspectives, I hoped to draw parallels between the ways they perceive their world and their situation. Some hints are obvious, such as the way they both refer to “vermin”, but with each considering the other to be the vermin. Similarly identical phrases and judgments are woven into their narratives.
Several scenes are written in first-person present tense, which I rarely use. In Permanent Crescent, my intent was to use that POV to create a sense of immediacy, to put the reader in a moment where anything might come next. In Mags’ first-person scenes, she mostly abandons her conventions from the first two omnibuses where she wrote in a journal or a letter. This time around, she speaks more directly to the reader, and her only epistolary contribution is a journal entry from 1966 where she gives relevant background about developing artificial gravity.
Getting all that sorted was a world of fun, but writing the story took me to dark places involving crime, cults, and the human (and feline) condition in general. At some point, I realized I wanted Mags to narrate a few scenes in a pulpy crime/detective style. So, I re-read the entire Criminal series to get that flavor and tone in my mind.
Permanent Crescent also reflects my feelings about the kind of urban decay I’ve lived in or visited many times in my life. The descriptive scenes about lunar cities are basically me writing about neighborhoods I’ve had the misfortune to experience. If I had to pick one song that sums up everything about that, it would be Spinal Tap’s Hell Hole.
I was a bit disheartened to discover an anime series has already blasted the Moon into a permanent crescent. It’s getting so that you can’t even blow up the Moon without someone else having done it first!
Finally, I should mention how hard I tried to do the actual math for launching Patches out of a space cannon. I read a ridiculous amount of articles and papers about the problem, most of which were beyond my grasp. I tried multiple times to get scientists to help me, to no avail. I even created a spreadsheet full of formulas to do the math. At last, I needed to admit I had no idea what the hell I was doing.
But one way or another, we were launching Patches from a space cannon, and we damn well did it. If anyone wants to email the solution to me, I’d be thrilled.
A few years ago, I read a draft of a scene from the Meteor Mags stories to my workshop group. In the scene, our space-faring criminals turn on the ship’s radio in time to hear the DJ back-announce a few songs and say what comes next.
During the feedback session, one of my workshoppers asked, “How do you come up with all these crazy song titles and band names?”
I’m rarely stunned into silence on matters of writing, but that question hit me like the asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs. It took me a moment to realize that when it comes to music, I might as well be from another planet than some of my writing comrades.
My answer? “I didn’t make them up. Those are all real songs and real bands! And they kick ass!”
You can find a list of all the real songs the characters in the series have broadcast, performed, or just plain argued about on the unofficial soundtrack page of Mags’ website.
I like to think those songs might be played if Mags and Patches ever get made into a film or a cartoon. Nothing could make me happier than seeing and hearing Mags perform Porcupine Tree’s Trains as a solo piano piece in the dead of night by candlelight from Red Metal at Dawn, or her brilliant, butt-naked rendition of the Hoodoo Gurus’ Down on Me with a tribe of space monkeys and telepathic space octopuses in Small Flowers.
I have always felt that when the end credits roll on Mags’ first film, the song that must destroy the theater’s speakers is Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl.
It’s a fuckin’ barnburner.
I don’t know if Kathleen Hanna and the gang in Bikini Kill had in mind an even older song to which Rebel Girl traces its roots: a pro-labor, feminist acoustic jam by Hazel Dickens called The Rebel Girl.
Decades before Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter became a country-music hit in the States, multi-instrumentalist Hazel Dickens was singing pro-union, pro-people, and pro-women bluegrass songs in a folk-music vein, advocating through music and direct activism for America’s miners. She also eulogized her brother in song after he died of black lung disease.
Born into a coal-mining family, Hazel died in 2011, and you don’t hear about her very often these days. But she loved rebel girls, and I love her for that. The social problems she fearlessly addressed nearly a century ago have not yet been solved in our country, and maybe they will never be. But music gives me hope.
Most songs on the unofficial soundtrack page have a similar bit of history behind them and a thematic or emotional relevance to the stories. They appear in the text for a reason—even if the only reason is because Patches is obsessed with gangsta rap.
But my workshoppers were right to suspect that I have been making up a hell of a lot of other songs for my imaginary bands: the Psycho 78s (named after a line in the Misfits song Horror Business), the teenage Dumpster Kittens (who are some of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet despite singing about suicide, murder, interplanetary death armies, and nuclear infernos), and the Sterile Skins (a ska-punk crossover band that filled its choruses with the British “Oi!” despite being mostly Chicanos from SoCal).
But what I’ve never told my workshoppers (or anyone else, until now) is that for every imaginary song whose lyrics appear in the series, I put together real music.
And for that, I blame Greg.
Greg was the awesomest drummer I ever had the good fortune to share a house with, and it was a unique pleasure to hear him bashing away for hours in the basement. He was in a number of ass-kicking bands whose shows I enjoyed, and we’ve kept in touch over the years despite being thousands of miles apart now.
I miss that guy.
Back in 2015 or so, I sent him a message about how I wanted my characters to have their own unique songs, not just other people’s material they referred to. He told me, “Then you need to write those songs.”
He always had a way of cutting through my apparently complex problems with straight-forward advice.
That evening, I picked up an acoustic guitar and bashed out chords for the song that appears in the episode Whipping Boy. Ever since, I have done the same for every absolutely bonkers “imaginary” song that gets its lyrics printed in the series. It’s now a fundamental part of the creative process.
Whipping boy! What’s your name?
Whipping boy! A life of pain!
Maybe you should take the cash and run.
Maybe you should get yourself a gun,
before they kill your soul. Alright!
Most of the earlier songs can be played on a standard-issue acoustic guitar using basic power chords. After all, despite teaching several aspiring musicians about music theory and performing in small jazz combos, I still enjoy a straight-forward, punk-rock approach to songs you could perform drunk around a campfire.
But a few years ago, I got a baritone electric guitar from ESP. With its longer neck length and scale, and a weight that’s somewhere between a guitar and a bass, the baritone is designed to be tuned a fourth below standard guitar tuning, with a low A instead of a low E.
I tried that tuning, but after Wo Fat convinced me that C minor is the heaviest key in all eternity—and considering my love for Jimmy Page’s open-C tuning from Poor Tom on Led Zeppelin’s Coda—I tried a low C instead, keeping the standard string intervals from a normal tuning.
As far as C minor goes, one of my favorite heavy pieces in that key is Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Ukrainian pianist Anna Federova brings even more life to it than my concert recording of the composer performing it.
When I ran my C-tuned baritone guitar through a Logan Square Destroyer distortion pedal, ultimate heaviness resulted: crisp treble and gut-punching bass. I bought this pedal because I am a raving maniac for the first four or five Queens of the Stone Age albums (and their predecessor, Kyuss), so I thought it might help me get closer to that sound.
It did not disappoint.
To push heaviness a little further, I sometimes keep the C-based tuning but drop the low string to B flat—just like how you would tune to Drop D on a standard guitar. That gives me a power chord on the low three strings, and if I throw on a capo, I get some stupidly heavy sounds from the ESP in a variety of keys.
I am all about truly stupid levels of heaviness. If your riffs don’t give me permanent brain damage, then you’re wasting my time!
Maybe someday I’ll produce an album of these imaginary songs. But as much as I love to sing them, we need Mags or her teenage friend Sarah on the mic—not me.
I’m no brilliant singer, though I’ve never let that stop me from performing or recording. But I often fantasize about hammering the hell out of my baritone axe while someone more talented than me takes over on vocals. I like to think we’d give Alice in Chains a run for their money.
Happy Thanksgiving, Martians! This year I am thankful for ripping riffs and brutally heavy jams, for that annoying pain I get while building up my guitar callouses again, and for music in general. It remains one of the great joys of my life.
The Second Omnibus collects and updates volumes 7-10, plus two all-new stories, previously unpublished interviews, scenes, drawings, a mini-comic, and more!
In the aftermath of the disaster that nearly wiped out civilization on Ceres, a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat get set to throw the greatest birthday party of a lifetime—until alien death rains down from the sky!
Join Meteor Mags and her criminal crew, including the hard-rocking Psycho 78s and the teenage Dumpster Kittens, as they rage against the forces of law and order, struggle to control the future of the Asteroid Belt, and confront the total destruction of their beloved home on Vesta 4. Some will live, many more will die, and nothing in the Belt will ever be the same!
In fifteen episodes of relentless anarchy, sci-fi madness, and violent revolution, the pirate crew comes face-to-face with betrayal, annihilation, telepathic octopuses, evil space lizards, cybernetic murder wasps, game-changing technologies, objects of unlimited power, and much, much more! Strap on your battle armor and get ready to rock, because the asteroid-mining frontier is no place for the faint-hearted.
What readers are saying about the series:
“A violent, feel-good space romp. An irreverent, rocking series.”
“A lot of guns and bloody battles. Fast-paced and full of action.”
“Anarchy, asteroids, and rock music abound. A great read.”
“The swashbuckling spirit and generous—but murderous!—hearts of Mags and her cohort are endearing and engaging.”
Back in 2017, in the first few months of my writers workshop, I received feedback from a science-fiction writer I respect and admire. As you might already know, many of the first thirty episodes of the Meteor Mags stories take place from 2027 to 2030. The feedback I got was that science-fiction stories should be set at least forty years into the future.
I think the idea was that this buffer of time gives some plausibility to the development of “futuristic” technologies. It might be a decent rule of thumb for aspiring SF writers. But futurism isn’t a central concept or concern in Mags’ stories, and as a lifelong reader of comic books, I could list dozens if not hundreds of sci-fi stories set in the present or the distant past.
I won’t belabor the point but merely offer an example: The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra was published from 2012 to 2015, but that absolutely insane sci-fi epic was set in the 1940s through the 1960s.
You can probably think of many more comic-book examples, such as the 1980s Watchmen series set in an alternate 1980s universe. Or you can go back to early prose classics from H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley. Any fan of steampunk can come up with science-fiction tales set in the Victorian era, and any Ray Bradbury fan knows that many once-futuristic dates in The Martian Chronicles have long since come and gone.
Science fiction’s future is old news.
The Meteor Mags stories take place in a solar system that shares many aspects of ours but is clearly different. One of the more obvious clues is how asteroids are named with their number after their name: Our “4 Vesta” is Mags’ “Vesta 4”. Call it an alternate universe, an alternate timeline, a Marvel What If scenario, or, for you Robert Heinlein geeks, a “ficton”. I don’t care. It’s just where Mags lives, and while it sometimes offers a commentary on or satire of our solar system, it’s unique unto itself.
In terms of satire, a few examples come to mind. The Musical Freedoms Act of 2019 is an obvious satire of the “Religious Freedom” laws that recently plagued the United States. In Jam Room, Mags mentions that Ted Nugent ran for President in 2020 but was assassinated. In Hunted to Extinction, Mags concludes a parody of gratuitous female shower scenes in SF movies with a comment about the Alien franchise.
Her solar system and ours have a few things in common, but they also have many differences.
In terms of divergent timelines, the divergences go back at least a few hundred years in the backstories about how Mags’ ancestors affected the golden age of Atlantic pirates in the 1700s and the economic landscape of Europe in the 1800s. Some of those events have been specifically mentioned in the text, some have been implied or alluded to, and some remain in my massive pile of notes for unwritten historical tales.
The history of space exploration and asteroid mining were influenced by Mags’ presence in her solar system, especially in terms of her contributions to localized gravity control. I do not expect that humans in our reality will have a lunar base established in 2023 nor be mining asteroids on a massive scale a few years later. We certainly will not be colonizing Mars and building major metropolises there in our current decade. These “futuristic” concepts overlap our timeline and are a direct consequence of the existence of Mags and her illustrious and unusually long-lived maternal ancestors.
A futuristic approach to science fiction is based on the idea that readers expect a story that is set in the future of their personal reality where scientific and technologic advancements have materialized. It’s a place where our dreams and aspirations about tech have come true. It’s a fantasy about where our species is headed. We might be headed toward utopia or dystopia, but these are somewhat distant futures that science fiction speculates about; hence the term “speculative fiction”.
That isn’t my approach at all. My approach is to consider myself as being Mags’ biographer. That position gives me not just the future to play with, but the past. The events relevant to her life include—as Carl Sagan liked to say—”billions and billions” of years, from the earliest days of her solar system to the heat death of her universe.
Even that timespan and location is too limited. I’ve already published a story about Patches that suggests the end of the universe is not the end for Mags and Patches, and I have notes for a story where Mags gets a glimpse of every possible alternate universe where she existed.
So, we’re way beyond guidelines to set these stories at some arbitrary number of years in our future. They don’t take place there. They take place in the infinite playground of my imagination.
The series has always—first and foremost—been about the characters and their friendships through the insane adventures they encounter. The science-fiction aspects are far less important to me than that emotional core. My intent is not to make fantasies about future technology seem plausible. I only want each story to be fun—fun for me to write, fun for my characters to live though, and fun for the readers who might consider the adventures of a hell-raising, shotgun-wielding, piano-playing, feline maniac with an odd assortment of space pets to be a nice break from the drudgery of everyday life.
As I’ve said before: This isn’t science fiction. It’s rock’n’roll wearing science-fiction clothes. Feel free to take yours off and join the party.
They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and perhaps that statement is never more true than in the animal kingdom. In June, I posted a pre-publication draft of a story that involved a woman and a wasp attack. A couple nights ago, my sister called and told me an equally harrowing tale about how she had recently been attacked by a swarm of bees that came out of the ground! I knew some bees lived in the ground, but not massive hives of them.
In the same story, the narrator explained some of the more gruesome aspects of octopus reproduction—aspects I was unaware of when I first started writing octo stories back in 2015 or so. It turns out that in many cases, while the octos are getting their groove on, the female decides to strangle the male to death and eat him. That’s also her last meal, because she stops eating once she lays her eggs, and she dies around the time they hatch.
After twenty years in Phoenix, I thought I had seen it all. The monsoon season that peaks around August in Phoenix had done some terrible things to me. Once, I got caught on my bike in pitch-black night in a combination dust storm and rainstorm that was like a sheet of mud pouring right out of the sky.
Another time, I was trapped on my scooter in the middle of flooded streets, and cars and busses were trying to get past me in the dark, splashing massive waves against me, and I was pretty sure I was going to die before I got back to my lightless, powerless apartment to see if my cat was okay.
I guess at some point you just accept death as an option and keep going.
Tucson’s monsoons this year started earlier than I recall those in Phoenix rolling in, but they are no less violent. Last week, I got caught walking home from the store by a dust storm that turned the entire sky brown. Two days later, I got caught walking in one of the most insane rainstorms I have seen in twenty years. The big drops of sprinkles started in, and it wasn’t even minutes until I thought I was going to be knocked off my feet by the wind and drowned in the deluge at the side of the road. Cars and busses were pulling over because drivers couldn’t even see. By the time I made it home, I was drenched from head to foot.
So, Tucson monsoons surrounded by mountains and lightning, here is a poem for you. Now please stop trying to kill me.
Grey mountains perforated the underbelly of a great cloud that admitted no horizon, until nothing held back the rain.
City streets drowned, and vehicles lost their way, taking with them drivers, children, and families, until no one held back the rain.
The entire valley filled with rolling, churning torrents darkened by earth and history of earth, until no rim held back the rain.
No mortal knows what lies beyond, where only floodwaters venture. The deluge keeps her secrets well, and she never forgets the rain.
In the recent stories Antipodes and The Martian Revolution, things have not gone according to Mags’ plans and desires. In Dekarna Triumphant, she runs into trouble at the South Pacific station she founded back in Small Flowers. Mags thinks she has the situation all under control and expects Dekarna and the baby reptiles will be part of her personal army, but that rug gets pulled out from under her, and Mags must battle a fearsome nemesis whose rage is completely justifiable.
The resultant story is an ass-kicking freakshow full of brutality, but with moments of descriptive natural beauty.
With The Martian Revolution, I had an absolute blast returning to the heart of the series by featuring Mags, Patches, and Tarzi in a series of violent, vulgar, comedic action scenes. But after that, I felt emotionally drawn to the plight of my evil space lizard and how she rages against it.
I love how Dekarna is so remorselessly evil but is all about her babies! I love how she would stop at nothing to protect and feed her young, but she is the last reptile you want to mess with.
I think that’s why she makes a good villain for Mags, because Mags is the same way—just a more mammalian version. Mags would happily bulldoze a billion people into a ditch if she thought it would save her cat. Dekarna would do the same for her babies.
Finding that heart of the heartless reptile really brought her to life for me. I also empathize with Dekarna’s quest to be free and happy. She has been used and abused by everyone in her life—from her former commander to Meteor Mags—and every time she almost achieved freedom, some other asshole came along to enslave her. It reminds me of trying to make a living in my twenties. All I wanted was to be free.
That’s Dekarna’s life in a nutshell, and I wanted to give her a story where she was, at last, completely free. Free, unleashed, and totally fucking evil.
In the confrontation, Mags faces defeat. While I love it when everything goes Mags’ way, struggling against overwhelming odds and sometimes failing makes for a more compelling story, especially in an ongoing series. I’ve often felt that many of the early stories in the series made it too easy for Mags to get what she wanted. Though they are fun adventure tales, the dramatic tension isn’t very heavy. It wasn’t until the tornado in Blind Alley Blues that Mags really began to confront enormous, high-stakes problems she couldn’t entirely overcome. And that is where, in my opinion, the series began a major improvement.
So, I was a bit shocked by the reaction when I told a member of my workshop group that Mags would be totally defeated in this episode. The response was, basically, “You can’t do that!” I have never in my life heard anyone get so angry over one of my plot decisions.
It didn’t upset me or sway me, though. I mean, The Empire Strikes Back would have been a much less significant film if everything went great for Luke Skywalker at the end. Instead, his secret base is destroyed, his training is interrupted before he gets any real skill, his best pal is kidnapped and frozen, his scumbag nemesis turns out to be his dad and kicks his ass, he gets his frickin’ hand chopped off, and he falls to his doom.
Now that’s a story!
So, no, I didn’t change my plans for Mags’ defeat. But the angry reaction to those plans made me happy. It made me happy to know that someone else in the universe loves Mags so much that merely the thought of her being defeated would upset them! Because you know what? It upsets me too. Every time I throw a dramatic monkey wrench into Mags’ plans or write her into awful situations where she suffers pain and loss, it upsets me.
I think it was Alan Moore who said that no matter how much you love your characters, you must do horrible things to them. But that advice doesn’t make it any easier to do. I go through a whole range of emotions when writing about Mags’ struggles, including anger and sadness.
The emotional payoff for me comes when she triumphs, or is rescued by her friends, or maintains her (mostly) unshakeable attitude of rage and defiance even when the odds are against her. I like seeing what she’s made of. I admire her strength—not just her physical strength, but her emotional and intellectual strength—and I believe her qualities are best illuminated when she faces the greatest challenges.
I confess that in this episode, I intentionally “painted myself into a corner” by writing Mags into a situation she could not possibly escape. I did it on purpose, to make things more dramatic, but it was not a decision that made the writing any easier! That was okay because both Mags and I needed a challenge. But the result was that I eventually had the entire story written except for half of one scene, because I didn’t have a clue about how to get Mags out of what happened to her.
One of the recurring themes in the series is how Mags’ rash and reckless overconfidence gets her into trouble she can’t escape without the help of her friends. So, confronted with an insurmountable obstacle in writing this episode, I asked a friend for help. I explained the situation to her, and we brainstormed ideas for about half an hour. At the end, we had come up with an idea so bonkers, so absolutely insane, that I knew I had to write it. Even though I had my doubts about the idea, I couldn’t not write it!
Anyway, I wrote it, loved it, and the rest is future history. But like Mags, I needed the help of a good friend to make it happen.
Dekarna Triumphant is a kind of Empire Strikes Back ending to what will be the second omnibus collection of stories. It concludes a story cycle that began after The Battle of Vesta 4. In my reflections on Battle, I explained how that story essentially wrapped up all the ideas I originally had for the series when I first started writing it seven years ago. I mentioned how completing that story left me with a solar system where anything was possible, and I was looking forward to indulging my imagination with subsequent tales.
The twelve episodes from Hunted to Extinction through Dekarna Triumphant represent three or four years of playing in those fields of imagination, taking characters in directions I never originally planned, incorporating different narrators and narrative techniques, exploring the consequences of what the early stories established, introducing new concepts and characters, and bringing additional depth and growth to old ones.
And you know what? I loved every minute of it. I had a lot going on in my life that I was unhappy about, but writing the adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches was always a pleasure. I hope you enjoy their stories as much as I do, and I look forward to writing more. In the meantime, I’ll be putting together the second omnibus.
In case you missed my post from last month, I was invited by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to participate in the beta version of their new program for producing print-on-demand hardcover books. I promised you an update when the first, physical proof arrived. Guess what came in the mail today!
All I can say is that the book looks and feels amazing. It’s sturdy and way more substantial than I expected for a smallish 150-page book. The print options I chose were for white paper and a gloss finish on the cover.
Some folks believe you should use cream paper for fiction, but I have produced books in both cream and white, and the white paper looks and feels better to me. I also find the high contrast with black text makes white paper easier to read. I’ve produced books with both matte and glossy covers, and I tend to prefer the shiny gloss that really makes the colors vibrant. But matte finish is also nice, and I’ve gone with that several times when it felt right.
The binding is beautiful inside and out, and I love the way that about a quarter-inch of the cover color and design is visible inside the book when opened, where the cover wraps around the edges.
I think authors will be pleased when this hardcover option is available to everyone. I already feel the urge to make hardcover editions of about half a dozen of my books. I’d love to release the first Meteor Mags Omnibus in hardcover, but at more than 580 pages, it exceeds the maximum page count of 550 for a KDP hardcover.
Besides page count, authors will want to consider price points and profit margins. My paperback edition of The Singing Spell has a wholesale printing cost to me of less than USD $3. But the printing cost for the hardcover is $7.28. (Again, this is for a 150-page book. Longer books will cost more.) To sell the hardcover and make a reasonable per-unit profit on Amazon, I needed to price it at $14.95, as opposed to the $6.95 price for the paperback and the $2.99 bargain price for the Kindle ebook edition.
This doesn’t make much of a financial difference to me, since I design my own books, but authors who need to pay a designer to format the cover for a hardcover edition will want to consider whether they can recoup the additional expense with hardcover sales at a higher price than the other editions. Will their target market be willing to spend the extra bucks for a hardcover? It’s a question I can’t really answer for anyone without market research.
Either way, I expect my fellow authors and readers will be impressed with the quality of these hardcover editions, and I’m looking forward to the day when this program is no longer in beta testing but available to all self-publishers using the KDP platform.
My recent story about the Martian revolution in 2030 is a fairly quick read at only 16,000 words, but it took six months to finish. I’ll tell you a bit about what happened along the way—both the challenges and successes—but let’s start with the two main lessons I learned.
First: The more moving parts you have, the longer it takes to assemble the machine. When plotting a story with two or three characters in a limited setting, you have fewer things to keep track of. Seven years ago, I used to crank out first drafts over a weekend, from 5,000 to 15,000 words long. They took a lot longer than that to revise, but most of the first drafts went quickly.
Those were simpler times in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. Episodes had only three to six main characters in only one or two settings. Plus, I was free to make up things as I went along, because so much of the “universe” was unexplored, and I could invent unresolved plot threads on the fly to set up stories I wanted to tell in the future.
As the series progressed, it encompassed many more characters and settings, and those dangling plot threads needed woven into the fabric of everything we already knew about Mags’ life and her solar system. When writing about any event or character, I needed to bring my internal continuity editor on board to make sure I hadn’t contradicted any previous facts in the more than 300,000 words of established history.
Plus, I chose more ambitious settings as I went along. I started with what you might call “stock footage” for the early stories: things I’d seen in movies and comics that I basically stole or used as blueprints. But after boiling those stolen bits in my own kettle of ideas for a few years, they became a stew with a flavor all its own.
As a result, I sometimes needed to step back from writing the story and return to planning—which leads me to the next lesson. The suggestions I’ve given other writers for years once again proved their usefulness. Finding renewed success with so many of my basic methods reinforced my confidence in publishing them for a wider audience.
In My Life as an Armadillo, my recent book about writing and workshopping, I assert that writer’s block is a myth, because you can always write something—and I give suggestions about the fundamental, foundational pieces of writing you can do behind the scenes to overcome any feeling of being stuck.
I needed to take my own advice a bunch of times for The Martian Revolution. I reached points in the narrative where I realized I had not fully developed my own understanding of a setting or character. I needed to step back and write about those things “off the record”, behind the scenes. That empowered me to come back to the main narrative and write through several scenes and character-driven moments from a deeper understanding and keep moving forward.
Not that I wrote it all in order, from start to finish. Instead, I started from a series of scene synopses built from several thousand words of notes I’d compiled while writing earlier stories that led up to these events. From the scene summaries, I picked whichever I felt most emotionally drawn to when it was time to write.
The challenge of that approach is that you end up whittling down the unwritten scenes to the ones you feel the least emotionally involved with. But that helped me discover, as it has in the past, what it would take to get me emotionally involved in those scenes. After all, if I am not captivated by a scene as the writer, what hope is there of involving any readers?
To get to the emotional core of some things, I did a ton of exploratory writing and description of characters—not just physical descriptions, but about their true motivations, their likes, dislikes, strengths, flaws, histories, relationships with and feelings toward each other, even things that remain unspoken in the narrative but formed a subtext for my own understanding of these characters.
All of that takes time, and no one really gives you credit for doing it as a writer, just like no one gives you credit for studying an instrument for years and practicing for untold hours after giving a great concert performance.
But it wasn’t like I spent every day of six months working on one story. I published the previous collection (The Singing Spell) in October 2020, but then I needed to move at the end of January and didn’t have a place lined up. So, I packed all the stuff that would fit into a rented 10×10 U-Haul truck, threw out everything else, and drove to another city a couple hours away. I hoped for the best, but total disaster was also a possibility.
The resultant upheaval of my life made it difficult to focus on my story, so I decided not to worry about it. I found solace in writing about something every day. During my week in a hotel, I used my mini-tablet and wireless keyboard to type thousands of words of ideas for the next couple of episodes. During the subsequent saga of three weeks with no Internet in my new place, I revised and edited the collection of essays about writing and workshopping that became the book I published in March 2021. Sometimes I just wrote letters to friends to gather my thoughts.
Plus, my neglected blog needed a shot in the arm, and I had a million things to do to get my new life started and reconnect with my clients. In the meantime, I let The Martian Revolution simmer on the back burner of my mind, and every now and then I felt inspired to make more notes about it or write a scene. Those notes and the extra time proved helpful when I got around to finishing the first draft in mid-March 2021.
I never saw this as being “blocked” as a writer. It was more of a question about where to direct my writing and editing energies on any particular day during a series of life challenges that disrupted my groove. It helped that I had multiple ongoing projects to choose from, some of which were more analytical, some of which were more creative and free-flowing, and all of which were in various stages of development from brainstorming to hammering out a final draft.
Maybe that is the third lesson. I often meet writers who are struggling with a single work, and they feel disheartened when they run into obstacles in their life or with the story itself that prevent them from making progress. But if you have a few irons in the fire at the same time, you can usually find one that strikes your fancy on any given day. Not everything in the universe depends on your finishing your current novel or short story when you have a few of them to tinker with at once. Having options gives you freedom, and having options you truly care about means you can always find something to write.