Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Homemade Pizza Humor

My husband is wheat-intolerant, so I make gluten free crusts from scratch. Recently, the result (although delicious) was way too greasy, so I used a paper towel to blot up the extra fat. My husband insists I have discovered "the face of Cheesus." I think it's a Rorschach ink blot test, subject to many interpretations. What do you see in it?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Boxing Week Sale at Book View Cafe

Book View Cafe offers many yummy ebooks at half off -- including some of mine (Jaydium, Northlight, Azkhantian Tales, and Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life).

Downloading is simple (if I can do it, anyone can), and there are step-by-step instructions on how to load the files on your ereader. Plus, the book files will stay on your computer, yours forever.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Holidays Wishes For You

Happy Everything and Merry Always. 

with love from Deborah

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Kindness of the Season

Amidst the wishes of merry this and joyous that, I am reminded that for far too many of us, the winter holidays are stressful to the point of crazy-making. The pressure to buy things we don't have money for, or even if we do, the pressure to find "just the right present" sends us into a frenzy of consumerism. Most of us eat and drink far too much, don't exercise enough, and in general let good intentions go by the wayside.

Then there are the family dynamics. The winter holidays are like putting dysfunctions old and new on steroids. Under the guise of ho-ho-ho bonhomie, whatever has been hurtful and unresolved resurfaces. Alcoholism and abuse emerge from the shadows. Unhealed wounds re-open.

The shortness of the days and the difficulty of getting fresh air and sunshine add to the gloom. Instead of green leaves and flowers, we find ourselves surrounded by frozen slog or mud. If we have any predisposition at all to Seasonal Affective Disorder, it perks right up.

To resist all this, we need black-belt self-care, not just for ourselves, but for the people we love. Kindness, simplicity...slowing down. Breathing. Stretching. Reflecting. Taking the time to feel what we need to nourish our bodies, our mind, our spirits.

The best holiday gift we can give is to be fully present with one another. To do that, most of us need reminding that we ourselves are precious. When our hearts are open, not only do we become fully alive, but we inspire and complete the aliveness of those around us.

In this, and every season, be peace. Be joy. Be love. Be yourself.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Tajji Diaries: Rainy Day Dogs

First, a confession: the title is misleading. Every German Shepherd Dog we’ve owned has not cared at all about rain, even Oka, who thought water on the ground was poisonous. Puddles, lakes, the ocean – not going there. But water from the sky seemed to be unworthy of notice. It is, however, noticed by the resident monkeys, who have devised utterly senseless rules regarding what must be done before entering the house.

First, the rubdown. There is no need for this from the dog’s perspective. German Shepherd Dogs have double coats: an outer coat of long hairs that form a water-repellant layer, and an inner coat of soft, fluffy fur. (When bathing the dog, it takes forever to wet the inner coat and even longer to rinse it and even longer to dry it. Fortunately, GSDs “blow their coats” – explosively shed the under layer – twice a year, so there’s no need to bathe them often.) So the dog’s skin is dry and warm while the outer coat gets covered with drops of water. Tajji sees no reason why she must be massaged with a towel, but she enjoys it anyway. Then comes the belly and inner sides of her legs, also fine. Then lower legs and paws.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Midwifing a Story: Beta Readers and Critiquers

A “story midwife” is someone whose insightful feedback helps the writer to make the story more fully what it is intended to be. A while ago, I wrote about Trusted Readers, the unsung heroes of this process. Sometimes they receive thanks in the Acknowledgements page of a novel, but rarely for a short story. Now let’s talk about more visible helpers: beta readers and critiquers.

Most of the time, there is little functional difference between beta readers and critiquers. Both read a story in draft form and respond with comments and analysis. Unlike a Trusted Reader, a beta reader or critiquer is usually either a writer or someone knowledgeable about the internal workings of fiction, like a professional editor. So the feedback may go more along the lines of technical criticism and less a generalized “this didn’t work for me.” A  beta reader acts like a Trusted Reader-with-expertise, whereas a critiquer focuses on pinpointing weaknesses and often suggesting solutions, many times in a workshop or other group setting. For this blog post, however, I’ll use the terms interchangeably.

Critiques often take place in a structured setting, such as a workshop. My first experiences with exchanging critiques were done through the Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, a by-mail-with-newsletter forum run by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury (back in the 1970-90s or a little beond, if I remember correctly). I’ve also attended ongoing face-to-face workshops, as well as weekend groups at conventions. All have involved both giving and receiving critiques. Like many writers, I have cultivated a small group of “go-to” beta readers. Although it’s often not stated explicitly, the understanding is that over the course of time, each of us will critique a story from the other. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book Giveaway: My Holiday Gift to You

12/13/2014 Update. The giveaway is over. From my standpoint, it was an enormous success. Many happy fans, which makes this writer happy, too. I hope you'll consider reviewing the books and telling your friends about them. Word of mouth is the best promotion, and that means a happy publisher and MORE books.

Blessings of the season to all, 

'Tis the season to express our gratitude for friends and family, and to share many wonderful things -- gifts, memories, fun times...books! I offer my readers a selection of my books in thanks for their enthusiastic support. I'd likely keep writing even if no one every read a word, but there's immense satisfaction in hearing that my stories have touched the hearts of my readers.

The deal:

1. Send me an email (click "Please Let Me Hear From You," upper left, with your choice of books and a mailing address. Limit one of the starred books or two of the unstarred ones. In your email, let me know if or how you'd like the book signed (to you or someone you're giving the book to, or just a signature). If you select a starred book, give me an alternate title in case I'm out of them. (First come, first served on the limited quantities.)

2. I'll pay domestic mail, although contributions ("Donate" button waaaay down on the lower left) for postage are most welcome. I'll split postage for overseas.

3. Autographed bookplates (great if you already have my books!) - let me know how many you'd like.

4. Should you feel moved to review the book, that would be most welcome.

The books:

 Zandru's Forge (Clingfire #2 but works as standalone) (hardcover)
Hastur Lord (standalone) (hardcover)
*A Flame in Hali  (Clingfire #3) (hardcover)
*The Children of Kings (standalone) (hardcover)
The Children of Kings (mass market paperback)
*The Heir of Khored (Seven-Petaled Shield #3) (mass market paperback)
*Collaborators, my Lambda Award Finalist sf novel (standalone) (trade paperback)

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Tajji Diaries: Treat!

The foundational concept behind positive training techniques is that behaviors have consequences. Pairing a desirable behavior with a reward increases the likelihood that behavior will be repeated. (Punishment, or an unpleasant consequence, is far less effective because while it may decrease the frequency of the undesired behavior, it also increases the response of fear, which makes it harder for the animal to learn anything.) In working with dogs, we often use food as a reward. Since human language means nothing to a dog, we need a means of communicating “Yes, you did the right thing!” 

Food is a primary reinforcer because it’s a basic need, and yummy food lights up the brain’s pleasure centers. To more accurately identify the desired behavior, we can use a secondary reinforcer (like a clicker or a word such as “Yes!”) that we then associate with the primary reinforcer. (Click = treat.)

Food is not the only possible reward. Depending on the dog’s temperament, a suitable reward might also be a favored toy, something to chase, or praise. I saw this in the mother of the puppy we owned a couple of summers ago; she was so play-driven as to be oblivious to food but would immediately respond to commands for the chance to play with her favorite toy, a ball on a cord. Whatever it is, the reward must be something of high value to the dog.

Folks attempting to train their dogs with reward-based training can run into problems because they don’t use sufficiently yummy food. Kibble isn’t going to cut it for most dogs, especially if they’ve already been fed and aren’t hungry. Think of it this way:

You’re wandering around a playground, trying out various equipment. Some things are just plain fun, like whooshing down the slide. Others, meh. But when, in your ramblings, you jog a hundred feet, someone hands you a nickel, is that going to make you eager to repeat it? How about if someone hands you a dollar? Twenty dollars? A thousand dollars? Or, in food terms, a stalk of celery versus a Godiva chocolate (versus a whole box of Godiva chocolates). In training, the treats must be sufficiently yummy to that particular dog to elicit the “Wow, let’s do that again!” response.

Friday, November 28, 2014

[links] A few nifty links for Friday morning

Neil Gaiman takes on fairy tale stereotypes: "You don't need princes to save you," says Neil Gaiman, speaking about his new fairy tale, The Sleeper and the Spindle. "I don't have a lot of patience for stories in which women are rescued by men." And so, in his slim, gilded, wicked book, a beautiful young queen calls off her own wedding and sets out to save a neighbouring kingdom from its plague of sleep.

Yogurt lives up to its rep as a healthy food: Yogurt was linked to a significantly lower risk of diabetes. And this was true even after controlling for factors linked to diabetes risk like body mass index (BMI) and diet. The team then pulled in data from previous studies to add to theirs, and calculated that 28 grams of yogurt per day was linked to an 18% lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

We've got a candidate for life outside of Earth: Scientists think Europa is the best candidate for life outside Earth in the solar system because life depends on three key ingredients - liquid water for chemical reactions, essential chemicals and an energy source - and Europa seems to have all three.

Dogs and humans co-evolved. The scientists found that dog owners' aroma actually sparked activation in the "reward center" of their brains, called the caudate nucleus. Of all the wafting smells to take in, dogs actually prioritized the hint of humans over anything or anyone else.

In memory of Jay Lake's wonderful [linksalad]

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Winter Reading, part 2

As the end of the year approaches, my stack of to-be-reviewed books grows ever taller. I realized to my horror that I am rapidly approaching the point of not being able to remember what I liked or disliked about each story. So here are reviews of varying lengths for your amusement – and hopefully a few will pique your interest enough to check out the books themselves.

The Soul Mirror by Carol Berg (Roc, 2011). I’m an unabashed Carol Berg fan. I love her world-building, her characters, and the way she puts a story together. This series is new to me, and I inadvertently started with the second “Collegia Magica” book – and had no difficulty at all, so seamlessly did Berg weave in all the backstory I needed. Sometimes, I find a biiiiig book daunting, but in Carol Berg’s case, it’s fantastic because I want to spend a long time in her world. This is Renaissance/Gothic/romance/fantasy with echoes of Jane Eyre and Hamlet (a young woman with a great deal of common sense and without morbid self-doubt, with lots of skeletons in the family closet, but determined to solve her sister’s murder). Oh, and ghosts. Complex like dark chocolate. Addictive. 

The Specific Gravity of Grief, by Jay Lake (Fairwood, 2010). Written when Jay was still struggling
with metastatic colon cancer, this fictionalized version follows another cancer patient as his life disintegrates. “Long ago, when he was fat, happy and colorful, the ragged man used to joke that perhaps it was his purpose in life to serve as an example to others. While he still believes that might be true, these days he is more inclined to think that his purpose in life is to absorb the pain of others. A modern day sin-eater, with cancer the bread of error.” Wise, passionate, generous – just like Jay. Cancer sucks.

Fortune Made His Sword, by Martha Rofheart. A well-done, absorbing fictional account of the rise of Henry V. The cool thing is that the author was a theatrical actress, well versed in Shakespeare’s “Chronicle” plays. I can imagine her going, “There’s a lot more to say about this king – I’ll write a novel!” What could have been drek turned out quite lively, filled with colorful settings and interesting characters. Check it out if you enjoy historical fiction.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Gifts of Darkover Table of Contents

Here's the lineup for the next Darkover anthology, to be released in June 2015. I'll show you the cover once it's finalized. I'm very pleased with how the anthology came together.

Introduction: Darkover, An Evolving World, by Deborah J. Ross (editor)
Learning to Breathe Snow, by Rosemary Edghill and RebeccaFox
Healing Pain, by Jane M. H. Bigelow
Blood-kin, by Diana L. Paxson
The Tower, by Jeremy Erman
Stonefell Gift, by Marella Sands
Compensation, by Leslie Fish
Green Is The Color Of Her Eyes So Blue, by DeborahMillitello
Renegades of Darkover, by Robin Wayne Bailey
Memory, by Shariann Lewitt
A Problem of Punishment, by Barb Caffrey
Hidden Gifts, by Margaret L. Carter
Climbing to the Moons, by Ty Nolan

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Career Chat: Day Job

“Don’t quit your day job until you have contracts to support you for the next 2 years…” or “Don’t quit your day job period.” I’ve heard variations of this advice – applicable to musicians, dancers, and visual artists as well as writers – many times over the years. But what is a day job and which one should you choose?

Assuming you are serious about a writing career, a day job is a source of reliable income that does not impair your ability to write. Some of us come to writing with an established occupation; others, especially young writers, are beginning both their writing careers and their other occupations at the same time. Some begin writing once they have retired, for one reason or another, from their previous occupations. All face the uncomfortable reality that very few writers, even seasoned professionals, can support themselves, let alone their families, on their writing income alone.

Of course, some writers can and do. Some get up in the morning and churn out words for 8 to 10 hours a day. They write three or four novels a year. Others have attracted such enthusiastic readers that even one or two novels a year generate enough sales (or sufficient advances, if sold on contract) to pay the bills. Although once upon a time, it was possible to earn a meager living with short fiction (a story a week, with lots of markets), I know of no writer today who can do that.

So the reality is that, one way or another, you are going to need a second source of income, whether you are starting out or you’ve been doing this for decades. What sort of work should you look for, assuming you have a choice? There is no one answer that is right for everyone.

The most import characteristics of a writer’s day job are that it generate sufficient minimal income, which will vary from person to person and the cost of living in various areas, plus whatever other resources the writer has; and that it leave sufficient time and creative energy so that the writer can actually write.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

[link] Larry Brooks on Story Structure and "Going With the Flow"

Larry Brooks has one of the clearest explanations of story structure I've read. He calls it "story physics" -- the basic underlying rules for generating a satisfying reading experience, no matter what the genre. In general, he's not an advocate of "pantsing," that is, writing whatever pops into your mind without any idea where your story is going. I began writing that way, and had to learn to revise and revise and revise. Then I learned to use story structure principles as a diagnostic for where my story wasn't working. The more experienced I become, the earlier in the process I reach for those analytical, structural tools.

Brooks says, 

Organic storytelling — pantsing — is certainly a viable way to find your story, and to get it into play in a story development sense. But be clear, that’s all it is. If you stamp “Final Draft” onto a manuscript that hasn’t, in fact, landed on the optimal structure for the story you are telling, then you are putting your dream in jeopardy.

I like that he recognizes that some of us need that seat-of-the-pants experience. He talks in terms of finding the story, but it can also be crucial to the joy of writing and therefore to the nurture of our creative muses. But we also want the thrill of "nailing" the story exactly right, and to do that, we need more than very cool ideas. We need to understand how to put them together, how to present them, in the way that enhances and makes them all work together -- the "flow."

One of the things that delights me about this concept is that it seems to rely not on some artificial set of rules, but on an understanding of how the human psyche works. The Greek playwrights understood this. So did Shakespeare. So did Jane Austen.

So can you.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Winter Reading, part 1

As the end of the year approaches, my stack of to-be-reviewed books grows ever taller. I realized to my horror that I am rapidly approaching the point of not being able to remember what I liked or disliked about each story. So here are reviews of varying lengths for your amusement – and hopefully a few will pique your interest enough to check out the books themselves.

Tin Star by Cecil Castelluchi (Roaring Brook Press, 2014). First, a disclaimer. I met (and instantly adored) Cecil (a she-Cecil, not a he-Cecil, sometimes known as Miss SeaSkull) at Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in 2011. This story, she says, was inspired by all the space science we learned together. I got to be one of her early readers, so I had seen a rough draft of this story before. But one of the cool things about the passage of time is the sense of reading the story for the first time, maybe a story a friend told you about so you have some idea what to expect, only what is there is so very much better than what you r/e/m/e/m/b/e/r/e/d expected. Tin Star delighted and absorbed me at every turn, and I honestly can’t say whether any of my comments had anything to do with the marvelous finished product. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all Cecil’s doing! So here’s the skinny: Tula Bane, a young colonist from Earth, is left for dead on a space station, home to a host of alien races. As she learns to survive without friends or resources except her own wits, she plots revenge on the colonist leader who betrayed her and blew up the ship carrying her family. With deceptive simple language, Castelluchi takes us on a journey of growing up and learning what it is to be human. Highly recommended for adults as well as teens.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013). I was a little behind the curve in checking out the Collaborators, as Deborah Wheeler, in which humans make contact with a gender-fluid alien race), I was particularly curious about how Leckie handled the topic. Her alien race is binary gendered, but gender is not important or even a thing to be noticed; hence, the universal use of the feminine pronoun, leaving it to the reader or members of other races to guess who is which. I can see why readers got excited about this novel; it’s a very, very competent debut novel. It certainly grabbed and held my attention. The one thing I felt uneasy about was that the sense of a moral center was very slow in development, and on the way, there were too many times when I just couldn’t connect with any of the characters. Leckie pulled it together at the end and it might not bother other readers, so this is a highly personal quibble. I will look for her future work, but probably not set in this world. Well worth checking out, especially if you like military science fiction.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Midwifing A Story: The Trusted Reader

Some writers do all their work in isolation. They are the creative hermits of the literary world.  When they get an idea for a story, they tell no one. This isn’t always the misplaced fear that the other person will “steal” their idea. Few ideas are so strikingly original that they have not already been told in a myriad variations. Even if the other person were to write a story on the same idea, the stories would have different executions. Knowing this doesn’t seem to make a difference. Some folks just work better alone. I’ve heard some of them say that if they discuss a work in progress, the very act of telling it aloud dissipates the creative energy: they’ve told the story, so there’s no reward for writing it. Some of them never improve as writers, but others seem able to teach themselves and to produce work of quality.

I’m not one of them.

First of all, I am, as the French say, “très sociable.” I flourish with regular chats with other writers. More importantly, I learned early on in this business that if I am left to my own devices, I will come up with the most dreadful poppycock and think it’s great. My stories will have plot holes you could ride a tyrannosaur through. And let’s not mention grammatical atrocities, inconsistent characterizations…you know the drill. Fortunately, my second and third drafts are a whole lot better than the drivel I throw together as a rough draft. I revise a couple of times, just to get the words on the page into some correlation to the story in my head, before I let anyone else see it.

At some point, however, I need feedback. I need an ally. Better yet, several. I benefit from having a “story midwife” to help me with the process of pushing and squeezing and ruthlessly pruning a story into the form that is most true to my creative vision.

A “story midwife” is someone whose insightful feedback helps me to make the story more fully what I intended it to be. It is not a person who rewrites my work to their own agenda, sabotages my writing efforts in order to make themselves feel good, or who goes about claiming credit for having salvaged or inspired my work. These things happen (and they’ve happened to me), but they’re not only not helpful, they’re potentially devastating. All these things happen because the person reading the story has motives other than being of help to the writer. These folks are often unsuccessful writers themselves.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Meditation for Today

It’s been a brutal year for me in terms of stress. Some of it was outright loss, other parts happy but pushing me over the edge of tolerance, for stress  too, which is a loss of calm. Whatever is happening, I keep up the mantra, “This too shall pass!” 

Life sometimes sideswipes us with occasions for rejoicing or unspeakable tragedy, but hard times run in cycles. It’s important to find ways of reminding ourselves of this rhythmic nature. Outward-facing periods of great vigor and challenge are followed by periods of apparent stagnation. These fallow times can feel like the pits of despair when nothing seems to be changing (except for the worse) and no matter how hard we engage with the problems in our lives, we seem to make no discernible progress. Winter is never going to end; all our senses convince us of it. We are never going to find “the one,” or sell that first story. And we’ve heard enough tales of folks who actually never do find a partner or make a sale that we are sure we belong in that group. As the days shorten and snow or rain turns into mud, we become even more certain the sun will never return.

That’s when I need black belt survival tools. My mantra (above) is one of them. Here are some others that work for me.

  • Every day, I speak with someone who loves me.
  • I try to do a daily act of kindness in a way that I will not be found out.
  • I try to begin each day with trust and end it with gratitude. These can take whatever form seems good to me on that day.
What helps get you through winter blues?

The painting is by Karl Roux (1826–1894), public domain.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Tajji Diaries: Learning to Play

One of the joys of providing a retirement home for our new-to-us seeing eye dog, Tajji, is watching her re-discover the behaviors of a puppy. For most of her adult life, Tajji performed a job so difficult that it’s beyond the ability of most dogs. Seeing eye guide work is highly unnatural for dogs. They must learn to be visually vigilant and to scan for obstacles well above their height; what is perhaps more demanding is that when in harness they are not allowed to explore the world of smell, a dog’s most vivid sense, or to interact with other dogs. In effect, they work blind and dumb.

Now Tajji’s work is re-engaging with the natural world of dogs. Whenever possible, we let her sniff the “bulletin board” left by other dogs (and other creatures – we live in a rural area, so she’s also smelling raccoon, skunk, squirrel, bobcat, coyote, and most likely mountain lion, as well as the various domestic cats and dogs on the block).

We’re also learning how to play together. Our last few dog, also a German Shepherd Dogs, had high prey drive. He would run after anything that moved and when that drive was engaged, would prefer to chase rather than to receive food treats. Tajji, like all dogs, notices movement, but she is less captivated by it. She will chase a ball in a field, but we get the feeling the primary joy is just the freedom to run wherever she likes. At first, she wouldn’t bring the ball back. I wonder if that wasn’t in her behavioral repertoire or if it felt too much like work, like having to do what her handler commanded. We dealt with the issue by bringing lots of balls to the field. She’d run after one and then play “keep-away;” when she’d begin to slow down, we’d throw a second ball, she’d chase and keep-away that one while we retrieved the first. We didn’t force her to obey. The goal was play, not training. You could almost hear the gears turn in her mind as she became more willing – of her own free choice – to deliver the ball back to her monkey when she wanted it thrown again. Now she mostly brings it back as opposed to never. She has also figured out how to play fetch in the house by presenting us with one of her stuffed toys while we are at the dinner table. Since we wouldn’t get up and chase her, she came closer and closer to us. When one of us could reach the toy where she dropped it, we’d throw it into the living room, where she’d bound after it with gusto. Now, more often than not, she will bring the toy to our hands. And she lets us know she’s had enough simply by not bringing the toy back.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Tajji Diaries – Unexpected Help

Tajji on the fieldIt’s been a while since I posted our adventures rehabilitating our retired seeing eye dog, Tajji. We’ve had her about 8 months now and she has made progress on her reactivity to dogs (and sometimes people) that made it impossible for her to continue service work. Most of our focus has been on learning to read her signals of distress and teaching her ways of self-management as we keep her safe.

Our promise to her was that she would never have to work again. Guide dog work is not only stressful psychologically and physically, it amounts to sensory deprivation for the dog. A working guide dog cannot follow normal canine behavior or even respond to the richness of sensory input that a normal dog enjoys. Dogs, even “sight hounds” have keen olfactory senses, but a working dog is taught not to sniff. Imagine Tajji’s delight when we not only permitted but encouraged her to sniff while on walks! A working dog must be constantly alert (hypervigilant) for dangers to her handler, and must make rapid decisions. We let her take her time assessing a new situation, removing her as best we can when she shows signs of discomfort. (In our reactive dog class, we modify this by giving her simple, pleasurable tasks like nose targeting or eye contact to help her reduce her own anxiety level.)

Because we never ask Tajji to do seeing eye harness work (nor could we -- we do not own such a harness, and her front-clip harness of soft webbing is quite unlike the rigid one she used to work in), we do not encounter her trained behaviors very often, other than manners and basic obedience. One notable exception is that she has been taught not to move when she is lying or sitting and a person approaches. This makes sense in terms of letting the blind person know where she is (and will be in the next minute). Our other dogs have scrambled out of the way, especially at night. Tajji doesn’t budge.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

[link] Juliette Wade's "Dive Into Worldbuilding" on Economics

Hot new author Juliette Wade holds regular Google hangouts on various aspects of world-buildings. Her most recent discussion was about economic systems. Here's a snippet of her summary. If you scroll down, you can click to watch the conversation.

One of the really critical things that can grow out of understanding how people are paid, and in what form, is a sense of how the social system works and where crime arises, and why. I spent a bunch of time working out how different members of the Varin undercaste would be paid, and when I did, it really changed everything about how I understood them. The trash workers, who are paid in cash, are naturally subject to attack by thieves who wish to make off with such an easily reusable form of money, so they band together into gangs to protect themselves. The prison workers are paid almost no cash, but have their housing and clothing and food paid for by their employers, which makes them into a sort of undercaste "impoverished nobility" - because they are taken care of, but they are trapped in their situations with no ability to flex to circumstance. The crematory workers are paid in housing and clothes, but not food - and they receive cash, because it's not a job most people want to do. The association of their work with death makes it so that nobody wants to steal their "death money," but at the same time, they are something of a pariah class even inside the undercaste. The real value in exploring this kind of thing in detail is that critical story elements like crime and the need for self-awareness in the street, for different social groups, is motivated and explained on a really basic level, and the world's sense of reality is immeasurably enhanced.

Small details of economics lead to enormous consequences for the success of your worldbuilding.

Genre, anything that takes us away from the realities of our own world, makes a great vehicle for questioning how we do what we do. It allows us to move outside our assumptions and privilege groups. Research on our own world, and its cultural subgroups, is super valuable here.

Currencies are all about belief. We discussed a real-world situation where some economics professors were able to bring hyper-inflation under control in Brazil, by creating a second currency whose value was constant while the other currency's value fluctuated. By paying people in the stable currency, they were able to create a real sense among the public that the currency was stable, so when they finally converted to it, the hyper-inflation problem stopped.

We also talked about magic as an economic system. Magic is a resource, and if it's not used properly, you can end up with Magic Inflation. If magic has no cost of use, and is too easy to use, it ends up being used all the time, to the point where nothing you can do magically will have any value because it's all just to common and easy! What is the price of magic? This question can not only be practical, but an incredibly good driver of conflict in your story. A great example of magic used as an economic system is in Janice Hardy's The Healing Wars. Reggie told us about her work in progress, Spectra's End, where magic can't be counted on because talents are too random and can't be replicated; when people with a magic skill die, their ability is lost and people have to fall back on real world solutions.

Consider also the money vs. time equation for your society. Who has money? Who has time? It's hard to be a person with both, and even for those people, they may be paying in some other form.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Tomato Harvest - Two Easy Sauces

We think of autumn as a time to harvest pumpkins, but around here, it’s bonanza time for tomatoes, as well. Our tomatoes don’t get going until midsummer because the night time temperatures are still too low. The plants just sit in the ground and shiver. Long about October, they are in full swing and we’re wondering what we were thinking to have planted so many. A bowl of cherry tomatoes sits on the kitchen counter, ready to grab for snacks, and every dinner is accompanied by a salad that’s mostly fresh tomatoes. What to do with the rest? Make pasta sauce, of course!

The usual instructions call for dipping tomatoes in a bath of simmering water, then peeling the skins, and either scooping out the seeds or running the cooked pulp through a food mill, ricer, or sieve. I’ve tried the water bath technique, and find the prospect of standing over a steaming pot, getting my fingers burned, and sweltering in late summer heat less than appealing. So I’ve devised or adapted a couple of simpler, less painful approaches.

Method 1: One Pot, Food Mill.

Wash your tomatoes (this goes without saying, but is even more import if you, like we, let our tomato plants just sprawl all over the place, of particular merit when growing ginormous varieties like Mortgage Lifter; as the fruits ripen, place a plastic lid of appropriate size to shield them from ground moisture) and chop them into big pieces. Fill up a big pot. Do not add water.
tomatoes fill the pot
Heat up the pot, stirring to avoid burning as the tomatoes release their juices and to mix up the more- and less-cooked chunks. Once everything is more or less juicy, reduce the heat and simmer on low for hours. And hours. Really. Open the windows and bask in a cool place, stirring every half hour or so. It will thicken as it reduces down to a fraction of its former size. When it’s however thick you like it, let cool a bit.

tomatoes cook in pot

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Special: The Love Sonnet of Zombie Genghis Khan

This post first came out in early 2013, for Mad Scientist Day, but it's perfect for Halloween as well. Enjoy!

For the past five years, I have been on assignment to track down and interview the most hideously
putrid, merciless brain-eating zombies in the world. Common sense must lead us to conclude that no matter how mild and benevolent the victim has been in life, the zombification process will inevitably render him degenerate and violent. Even the most tender-hearted and refined of persons will turn single-mindedly murderous. I do not say this to offend those of delicate sensibilities, but to remind the gentle reader of established fact.

I am not the only reporter with this goal. My colleagues have also been investigating the fate of history's most bloody and heartless criminals. Many of these candidates perished without the benefits of zombification. Soon, I discovered that of the many possibilities, an increasing number had already been claimed.

In desperation, therefore, I extended the scope of my search. I ventured across trackless wastes, toxic and otherwise, through jungles filled with vampiric mosquitoes and dangers even more vile, into caverns measureless by zombies and finally to the wind-swept steppes of Central Asia. There I sought one of the most infamous butchers of the ages, the man destined to become the notorious zombie of all times.

Zombie Genghis Khan.

Here, then, is the interview the world has been waiting for!

D J Ross: Mr. Khan? Mr. Khan, might I have a moment of your time? No, please do not brandish your spear in my general direction. I'm here to bring your immortal words to readers across the world.

G. Khan: [indecipherable]

DJR: Brains? No, I wish to hear about your exploits, particularly since your resurrection as Zombie Khan. What were your thoughts upon awakening from the dead?

G. Khan: I have brains.

Monday, October 13, 2014

[rant] Ebola: Why We Need Research Funding

It's no surprise that folks who think the government should not spend money on anything have targeted such agencies as the National Institutes of Health. After all, the private sector has created the world's best health care, right? (sarcasm glyph) But public health is about a whole lot more than decent sanitation to prevent typhoid or antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. It's about continuing research into prevention -- vaccinations -- and treatment of diseases we don't face in our ordinary lives. Like Ebola, once viewed as a serious but remote disease, something to use for action/thriller movies like Outbreak.

People who suffer from rare disease know all too well that the private sector -- for profit pharmaceutical companies -- rarely invest their research dollars when there is a small market for a drug or a population of patients who can't afford expensive treatments. Ebola had both strikes against it, plus it happened to people "over there" -- black people, at that. We are all one world, and if compassion doesn't inspire us to address diseases like this with the same fierce dedication as those closer to home, than the ease of transmission across oceans and continents should. "Over there" can be our own backyards in a matter of days. We have a much more robust health care system than do the African nations where Ebola deaths are mounting, but we as communities are just as vulnerable. Here, as there, those who care for the sick are not only most critical in stopping the spread of the disease but are the most vulnerable in terms of becoming its next victims.

What if we as a nation, with all our scientific and medical knowledge, backed by the financial resources of our government -- the way we collectively fund such things -- had continued our search for effective treatments and vaccines? What if we had been able to ship those treatments to Africa when the current Ebola outbreak started? What if every health care worker -- there and here -- who might come into contact with an Ebola patient were vaccinated? How many lives would have already been saved?

Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, said that a decade of stagnant spending has "slowed down" research on all items, including vaccinations for infectious diseases. As a result, he said, the international community has been left playing catch-up on a potentially avoidable humanitarian catastrophe.

"NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It's not like we suddenly woke up and thought, 'Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here,'" Collins told The Huffington Post on Friday. "Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would've gone through clinical trials and would have been ready."

It's not just the production of a vaccine that has been hampered by money shortfalls. Collins also said that some therapeutics to fight Ebola "were on a slower track than would've been ideal, or that would have happened if we had been on a stable research support trajectory."

"We would have been a year or two ahead of where we are, which would have made all the difference," he said.

Test tub design by Heatherawalls, public domain.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Convolution: What makes a good con from an author’s point of view?

For the last few years, I have rarely attended a convention where I couldn’t commute from home, and they are few, so I was delighted to invited to attend Convolution, a fairly new convention, held at the Hyatt Regency near the San Francisco airport. It was a bit of a drive, but Dave Trowbridge, my lovely spouse, was invited to be a guest, too, and that meant help for the long, late trudge home over twisty mountain roads. For both of us, the convention was an enjoyable, stimulating, and worthwhile endeavor. 

The first thing both of us noticed was the quality of the programming: interesting topics over a wide range of interests. Every event (panels, autographing, reading) that I was included on was something I wanted to be on. The logistics were supportive, too: when I commute, I often face the challenge that the programming folks do not listen when I ask to have my panels grouped together. These folks paid heed, and gave me a wonderful lineup of events. The panels were scheduled every 2 hours, with half an hour for break or wending one’s way along the loooong periphery of each floor. 

Registration for guest panelists was smooth and uncomplicated, despite the fact we got there early on Friday afternoon, when chaos typically reigns over convention organization. The Green Room – often a place I dash into and out of because of the loud monologs by a few folks who treat it as their private preserve – was a welcoming place, in no small way due to the warmth and friendliness of the volunteers staffing it.

As a result of having many panels at the same time and the remoteness of the locations, many events were sparsely attended. (Not all, as Dave told me that one of his panels – Religion in SF – was packed.) At first, I found this a bit disappointing, until I wandered into the GoH klatch (informal discussion) and found myself in a room with 4 other people and Tanya Huff, so I have decided it did have its compensations!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

[link] Art Holcomb on Steps Toward Becoming a Professional Writer

I knew Art Holcomb decades ago -- gosh, have we been around that long? -- and always respected his insight into writing and publishing. He's a guest blogger over at Larry Brooks's "Storyfix" and has some interesting things to say. He doesn't address how to write, but rather the equally important question of what attitudes and habits comprise a professional attitude.

My favorite is Don't Wait For Perfect. Perfect is the enemy of done. And it's also toxic to the creative space so many of us need -- the self-confidence to try new things, but the insecurity to look critically at what we've done. Being a writer (for me, anyway) is a high-wire act, holding that paradox. Perfectionism slams me into paralysis. I have to be willing to be incredibly imperfect in order to take the risks to be great.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Convolution Schedule

I'll be a guest panelist at Convolution, Hyatt Regency Burlingame, September 26 and 27.

Friday 2-4 pm The Classics of SF:There is so much to read already with the new stuff, so how do you advise a new reader about SF's great heritage?

Friday 4-5. The Unpanel. A facilitated listening workshop that turns the panel inside out. Everyone gets a chance to speak without interruption on a topic chosen by the facilitators after learning how to really listen.
We've offered this event at several other conventions, with great appreciation from participants. Usually we ask, "Talk about a book that inspired you" or some other topic just about everyone has something to say about. What makes this event different from the usual panels is that every person has uninterrupted time, and everyone gets to listen carefully and deeply to every other person.

Friday 8-10 pm. Reading (from Lambda Literary Finalist novel Collaborators).
I'll have copies to sell, too.

Saturday 10-12 am. Book View Cafe. Members of the cooperative publisher talk about their work, their art and what exactly a cooperative publisher is, anyway.

Saturday 3-4 pm. Autographing.

Saturday 4-6 pm. Handling Rejection in Writing. Sometimes your skin just isn't that thick. How to cope with a chorus of "No" on the path to a "Yes!"
I'm moderating this one, which means it will be fantastic!