Why I Am Not A Successful Urban Fantasy Writer


So before you go ahead and take my Urban-Fantasy writing group’s side in throwing me out into the mall food court by the Chinese food stand with the unsettlingly outgoing staff let me explain my work-in-progress. The important thing is the premise. If you don’t have a premise all you have is a bunch of characters milling around. I’m going ahead and assuming that’s literary fiction. I don’t know, I can’t be bothered reading stuff.

So here in this story that’s just on the edge of tomorrow and the limits of possibility, how about a story built around the new digital genie of tomorrow? And it’s a digital genie based on the Freemium model. Yeah, don’t your eyes light up at this prospect? Because you can already hear the digital genie reporting, “You can modify the results of your last wish in 23 hours 58 minutes! Or you can hurry that up by spending 10 Sigloi. Did you want to buy a small bag of Sigloi, a medium bag of Sigloi, or a large bag of Sigloi?”

And I wasn’t even done cackling at my genius when some spoilsport asked, “Sigloi? Really? You can’t just say a bag of coins like every other stupid game like this ever?” and someone else asked, “What is your problem? Are you just in this to research … freaking ancient Persian coins? Is ‘Sigloi’ even plural or is it supposed to be ‘Siglois’ and it doesn’t look any more like a real word the more we look at it”. The person who brings windmill cookies to all the meetings asked whether I see writing as anything but an excuse to do weirdly specific bits of research. “And it’s not even deep research,” she pointed out. “You just put ‘ancient Persian coin’ into Google.” I explained how I did not: I use DuckDuckGo. The conversation was not productive.

My scene speculating this would come to the genie saying, “You don’t have to buy Sigloi! You can earn them by completing a quest! Your first quest: match these advertising slogans up to the fast-food companies that use them and share the results on Facebook!” before four of the group flopped over and played dead until the bookstore sent the Children’s Books section manager around with a push broom to nudge them.

I was barely through describing the central conflict of the book. It’s one of the digital genies coming face-to-face with the partially developed open-source clone digital genie project. There’s all kinds of deep philosophical questions about identity that raises if you don’t actually think very hard about deep philosophical questions. So it’s perfect for my kind of writing! I especially liked the scene where developers complain about people reverting the open-source genie back to the first wish. They say “it screws up the machine-learning routines plus we all see what you’re trying to do there”.

This prompted a customer to quit his project of reorganizing the books in the Computers section to fit his tastes and berate my failure to have the faintest idea of how revision control works. I pointed out that I could well learn plenty about how revision control works except it’s too boring. And the head of the writing group said, “How can a person who owns multiple books about the history of containerized cargo and has opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of them call the center of your own book too boring to learn about?”. Plus the bookstore café people came over to ask what all the shouting was about.

So just before they threw me out the group organizer asked, “Do you have even the slightest idea of what Urban Fantasy is?” No, I do not. I guessed it’s, like, the protagonist is coming to terms with learning she’s part-Billiken while she teaches English as a Second Language classes to zombies in-between her relationship troubles with Bigfoot, who’s always being called off for some crisis at his tech startup company.

They picked me up to evict me more effectively.

Oh but if Bigfoot’s tech startup is involved in the digital genie project then it all counts, right? They have to let me back in now, the rules say!

Why I Am Not A Successful Secret-History Writer


I had gotten nearly one-third of the way through the logline for my next book before the reading group tackled me, sending the manuscript flying into the air and threatening a turnover and significant loss of yardage. But I reached up mightily and regained possession and while it didn’t help me gain the down any, I was able to eventually make my voice heard over the howls of preemptive and I think unjustified pain.

So it starts with ancient alien astronauts and see that’s about where my group started to scream. I didn’t even get to explain how I didn’t mean this in the racist way where we suppose that, like, the Egyptians of thousands of years ago couldn’t think of “pyramids” without help. I don’t see why anyone figures ancient peoples needed help thinking of the idea of “build stuff using stones”. It’s not like they had a stone shortage.

Anyway, my premise — stop tackling! — is how what if ancient astronauts did come to visit the Egyptians in the era of the great pyramid-building phase? Only the aliens don’t use their advanced technology to help the Egyptians build pyramids. Instead the Egyptians are able to use their pyramid-building skills to give the aliens much-needed guidance on how to get their advanced technology to actually work? And then came another round of tackling and a question about “the heck are you thinking” and “even if there is some non-offensive way to do this” and I know, I know. But I’m willing to do the work to treat this material responsibly. I’m like this close to looking up like what millennium was the great pyramid-building boom and getting a book about what Egypt was like as close to then as the branch library has, so you know my sociology would be not provably wrong and that demonstrates my story to be worth telling!

And I can answer questions about how the pyramid-building era of Egyptians could have stuff to tell alien astronauts about their technology. Who are we to figure that they wouldn’t have stuff to teach the other thems? I mean at a responsible, appropriate tutoring rate. I figure any species sophisticated enough to traverse the stars is too ethical to take someone’s consulting advice without fair compensation. If they don’t I don’t want them in my creative universe anyway.

So what do the aliens need help on? Oh, heck, I don’t know. It’s alien technology. It’d be futuristic even today. How am I supposed to go into details? Maybe something about sphere-packing. That’s a mathematics problem about how you can stack together balls of the same size so there’s the least possible wasted space between them. And the best way to do this turns out to imagine you’re the grocer seen in the comedy putting oranges out on a huge stack for the hero to send the villain crashing into. That is, make pyramids.

Now obviously I don’t mean to say the Ancient Egyptians had some supernatural powers of pyramid-building. I think we’ve got a decent idea of roughly how they went about pyramid-building. But imagine you’re an ancient astronaut and you’re put down somewhere with a big pile of stones and a sense that it’s important to start making pyramids. What would you start out by doing? Exactly. There’s all these little skills that you pick up by practice. You don’t just start out at the top of your thing-stacking game. You start out with what seems obvious and you share tips with outer people who want to do this stuff well, and you try some of what they do, and you get it a little wrong and maybe it works out all right. Eventually, you’re a master of the thing.

And that’s what I figure the Ancient Egyptians would be giving in this cultural exchange that I’m sure can be written up into a culturally sensitive and not at all insulting novel. I’m saying I think that issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine was premature in leaping off the shelves and slapping me senseless and into a balled-up mound of flesh over by the board games. I bet my next draft changes everything.

Is this even secret history? I don’t know what to call it. I just mean stuff we don’t realize happened because there was a lot of stuff that happened and we can’t hear about it all.

Why I Am Not A Successful Fiction Writer


So we begin with the Ken Russell’s 1975 documentary Tommy about the pinball cult growing out of Roger Daltrey mostly not looking directly at stuff. The cult was going great with people showing up at pinball holiday camps right up to the point they were expected to play pinball. I agree some of those old electromechanical games were brutal, but the mass riots were overreacting. Not really sure what they were expecting. They were expecting free love, by which “they” I mean “guys” and by which “free love” I mean “women don’t get to say no”.

Thing is, it was a worldwide utopian cult. The movie only shows one getting rioted into oblivion. But they showed the giant world map with light bulbs for all the camps all over the place. That sort of stuff doesn’t die easily. Not if you’ve reached the point you have a giant world map with light bulbs. When you’ve got past where you can do a poster from Staples with push-pins you’ve got too much momentum for one day to bring you down. There’s going to be true believers who aren’t going to be shaken off. They’re going to gather somewhere. So it’ll be in some place just rural enough that they can afford the property taxes, but just urban enough that people who want to join the utopian cult can rest assured if the free love doesn’t work out they can still find a department store.

So we follow one in I’m going to go ahead and say west Michigan. A bunch of dreamers who figured they were gonna take it, and go on having pinball contests for tourists who wonder why it doesn’t look like it did in the movie. “We’re fundraising to build a garish arena,” the guides would say. “We’ve almost got enough to build a shoe.” The tourists look on, wondering why the competition still doesn’t look quite like the movie. “Have you had anything at our snack bar?” the guide tries to direct people. “It’s quite good.” It isn’t, but it’s cheap and what, you’re going to schlep all the way to Ludington for lunch?

Anyway, they would offer “silverball” hoagies. They’re meatballs tinted silver. Well, they’re vegetarian meatballs, made of cracked wheat or something late-70s like that. They do something to so it seems exactly like meat when the right person makes it, and just an exotic substance someone can put in their mouth if they choose to, whenever anyone else makes it. Comes with cheese and, if you also buy a roll of color film, a 15-cent discount. Also, yes, baked beans, but you mark yourself as a total doof if you ask for them.

The color comes from a shocking amount of colloidal silver dosed into the “meat” balls, and eventually results in an investigation by the state into just what they’re doing buying that many boxes of dragees and grinding them up. “We don’t eat them regularly, we just feed them to strangers!” is the embarrassing quote that makes every statewide TV station during the 1985 trial for whatever the heck they were up to. The cult gets vindicated when the jury establishes that no, nobody takes the dragees off a cookie or cake before eating it, why would you do that? But it’s a blow to the cult’s attempts to get out of the “free love” image. Figures.

And there’s schisms, of course, because there always are. Electromechanical versus solid-state, obviously, because the early solid state games are totally different from electromechanical pinball machines in ways that are obvious to someone who’s not a pinball aficionado, what with the solid state games having electronic buzzing noises instead of bells. And then I bet when they got into modern games, with dot-matrix displays and complicated rule sets. Let me explain that to people who aren’t pinball fanatics: these are pinball terms. They mean things.

So I figure this gets to the present day, when the unleashing of the new Star Wars game — a game of such unbridled complexity that the only response to it is to sit down and weep some — the camp decides, yes, they’ve done all they can do. It’s time to close up. The last days of the last utopian pinball cult present scenes of such John McPhee-esque piquancy that they’re not even remotely pleasant to read.

My beta readers described it as “I guess what we were getting in for when we let you know we picked up that Murakami book we never did read” and “shocklingly involved arguments about whether it’s ethical to tilt your own ball away as seen from the perspectives of different decades so I guess that’s a thing?”, so hey, I’m in a good place now!

Why I Am Not A Successful Alternate-History Writer


So, it’s an alternate history where everything is like it was here, only instead of the gold standard countries drifted to the gold dragon standard. It’s 1893. Industrial-capitalism-driven finance, as embodied by J.P. Morgan, has after decades of fighting reached a tentative but solid-looking peace accord with the nascent environmental movement, as embodied by John Muir. But danger is mounting. The Granger movement is pressing hard for the re-adoption of silver dragons as a foundation for currency outside South Asia. And the so-called Treaty of Oyster Bay may collapse against the deepening of the balance-of-payments crisis in Washington. As Grover Cleveland fends off appeals from the Bryan wing of his own party, and arranges his own secret and possibly illicit cancer surgery, Muir and Morgan have to work out whose sides they want to be on, and what they want to press for, before the endangered North American Gold Dragon is lost forever.

My fellow reading group members described it as featuring “oh Lord even more words?” and bringing up memories of “how much my head hurt as a kid when I asked my parents what it meant that, like, France was buying Japanese Yen”. Other comments included, “do the dragons even do anything?” and “did you have to call it the Bland-Allison Act? Is that even a joke? What is this thing?” and, in what I consider a glowing review, “can you at least have a dragon eat Prescott Hall or something? Please?”

In the first sequel it’s 1898 and rumors of a major cache of gold dragons coming out of the Yukon threatens to scramble the worldwide recovery from the Panic of 1893. The rush of American settlers into northwestern Canada presents great new challenges to the meaning of Canadian — and Alaskan — national identity, just as biologists find their understanding of the development of dragons challenged by the extreme-cold-weather breed’s anomalous sides. The new potential for Canadian self-determination calls into question the whole constitutional settlement of the British Empire, at a time when Australia and New Zealand’s needs for local constitutions and the stirrings of a new war with the Boers occupy Her Majesty’s Government, and the scientific minds try to square paradigm-shattering data about evolution and thermodynamics into their worldview.

My beta readers describe the roughed-out novel as “incredibly many words between cool parts that have dragons” and “are you working out some crazypants obscurant flame war with somebody about this Lord Carnavon [sic] guy?” And when I bring new chapters to a group session at the bookstore people’s eyes light up and they hide behind the Coffee Table Art books and do that thing where they playfully feign tossing manuscript pages into the fireplace! The kidders. They have to know by now I know there’s a grate over the fireplace.

Now the second sequel is set in the early 1910s and pulls back from the questions of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Dominions and prospective Dominions to more closely examine United States monetary policy. Between the influence of the Populist movement on American politics and the passing of people like Morgan, the public’s coming around to accept the need for regularized, boring systems that can handle dragon-related crises instead of trusting that Great Men will somehow be found when needed. And so it’s a struggle among the followers and students of the previous generation’s greats to exactly work out the parameters of the Federal Preserve System.

I only have this in a roughed-out form, mostly notes on my laptop. But already Scrivener is so excited by this it’s set my computer on fire and several of its programmers have come around my house to holler at me at six in the morning, every morning, for a week now. But even they have to admit that the couple chapters I’ve written “don’t read nearly so much like a manifesto as I expected” and “wait, so, like, are banks just keeping dragons in vaults or something? Like, can tellers go in back during lunch and pet one? Do bank robbers come out with nests of dragons?” I don’t know, but that might be interesting if I can find space for a side story that petty in what I figure’s going to be a 700,000-word book!

Now I know all this sounds great, but I know my readers are trying to be nice so the stories aren’t that compelling. At that I still think the publisher might not have thrown me out on the street and kicked me in the back if I hadn’t insisted on naming it The Origin of Specie trilogy. I’m sorry, but her suggestion of The Gilded Age is a great title but it would need a story set in the 1870s to make the title sensible and I can’t think of anything sensible for that era.

PS no stealing my story, I e-mailed it to myself in an attachment I haven’t opened yet so I can prove it’s mine.

What You Missed, At Lunch


Here are some of the things you missed at the fast food place during lunch:

Karen-with-a-y (we don’t know either), the cashier, is explaining the new Reuben sandwich to Craig, who’s never liked Reubens, although not to such an extent that he’d volunteer to jump into an alternate timeline where he sandwich was never invented. Actually, sometimes he gets a Reuben just because he enjoys how much he doesn’t like the taste or the texture or anything about it, especially grilled. Karen-with-a-y is explaining that their particular Reuben substitutes a chicken-based bologna-like substance for the corned beef, and uses cheddar in place of Swiss cheese, and the sauerkraut is replaced with a very dry cole slaw, and they’re making it with bleu cheese dressing. At this point Craig is just dragging out questions about what else is substituted because as far as he can tell the only actual part of the Reuben left is the rye bread, and he’s about to learn they’re serving it on a kaiser roll instead. Neither knows why the billboard out front spells the sandwich “Rueben”.

Underneath the ventilation system pumping enough heat to melt the styrofoam cups, the Books We Were Supposed To Read In School literary society is going over this month’s text, E M Foster’s Howards End, to correctly rank the order in which each character needs to be punched senseless. Mary-Lane, trying desperately to remember any of the characters from the book she’s spent the last two weeks reading, nominates “the fellow who’s starting a little automobile factory”, which draws general support as definitely deserving to be in the top five at least. A careful examination would reveal that they seem to be bringing a character from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons into the book, and not really fairly at that, but then Helen-with-an-e (no idea) is still sufficiently angry at Alec Clare from back in Tess of the d’Urbervilles that this drives the entire conversation, and everybody agrees he’s the most punchable character even in the eight books they’ve read since that one. While agreed to this point, Jack finds he is completely unable to deploy the trivia he found instead of reading the last quarter of the book, that the words “here”, “our”, “thought”, “through”, “Tibby”, and “why” all appear in the book 126 times each. James-with-a-j (as you’d expect) meant to agree to all this more prominently but found that a little too much work and settled for putting slices of lemon in his Diet Coke.

Carol is repeating to her group the story of how she went out of her way to warn the person watching over the self-service check-outs at the supermarket that someone, not her, abandoned a bag of frozen shrimp by the start of the check-out lane, and something should be done about that. She expects her friends to be more in agreement that the ages she spent at this — others would estimate it at about ten seconds — are probably why she’s been running behind schedule all month. While her heroic acclaim is slow to come everyone does agree that the shrimp shouldn’t have been abandoned like that and certainly somebody ought to have done something about that.

Vladimir, who had been staring at an empty table with a pile of napkins atop, has noticed that a button’s popped off his winter jacket. He’s never buttoned his jacket, not even when he tried the jacket on in the store, because he’s always afraid of buttons popping off and now to have it just come off by itself feels like a particularly unnecessary insult on the jacket’s part. He buries the loose button in the jacket pocket, which he never uses because he’s always sure he’ll forget whatever he’s put in there, and discovers the button that came off the other side of the jacket last winter that he resolved to get sewn back on just as soon as he thought of it. On reflection, he can’t figure where either button should go.

Pamela, taking her order out, crossed the street not because she needed to but because cars in both lanes of the road opposite saw her and came to a full stop. Given this attention it was too embarrassing to keep going where she actually meant to be.

Overall it was probably less awkward to bring lunch today.