Author: DeAnna Knippling (Page 1 of 63)

Writing Craft: How to write faster and more often (more burning questions!)

(This is from my writing craft series; you can read more on Patreon. Please note that these first posts are about things that aren’t strictly about the craft of writing, but the craft of surviving as a writer, if you will, because I want to get them out of the way first.)

Faster.

Believe it or not, the secret of writing faster is to not write slowly. Whatever your normal typing speed is, that’s your normal writing speed, unless you’re doing something that slows you down. You can write as fast as your fingers will carry you forward—if you don’t get in your own way.

That’s a pretty big if, though.

Most of us have been taught to distrust ourselves, our perceptions of the world, our creative natures in general, and our imagination in specific.

And, unfortunately, most of us don’t actually start out knowing how to write professional-level fiction, and are trying to assemble a working theory from first principles…while we’re making up a story.

In theory, writing fast is simple. In practice, quite hard.

The tricks of writing faster come down to forcing or fooling your brain into not noticing that it’s typing faster than it thinks it should—then measuring the speed—then telling your brain that that is the new acceptable average speed.

The meat of writing faster is learning how to write, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel while increasing word count. We’ll cover learning how to write later in the book.

Some tricks still might help while you’re learning, though…

(Click here for tips on how to write faster, and more often!)

What Makes a Good Blog?

Blogging, in general, has overall strategies and individual tactics. I’m not going to talk about why to blog, what to blog in general (although I will touch on what to blog in particular), or how often to blog. This is just a blog on tactics. What makes a good blog? How do you sit down and write, right now, a satisfying blog post?

First: what is a blog post?

It’s not a news article; it’s not a diary entry. It is not quite a newspaper opinion piece, but it’s close: newspaper opinion pieces are much bigger in scope than your average blog. A blog ideally contains neither reasoned arguments nor ranting, although sometimes it does so.

A blog is a writer’s opinion on a topic—their thoughts, if you will.

And yet it is perfectly possible to enjoy a blog when you disagree with the opinion presented, and even if you know the facts are a bit off. And it is perfectly possible to hate a blog even when you agree with it.

A blog, then, is not merely a writer’s opinion on a topic, although without an opinion, a blog will feel flat, stiff, and uninteresting.

What makes a blog enjoyable? What makes it worthwhile?

The facts that are presented in a blog—really, even the topic of the blog itself—is more or less immaterial. It’s all about who’s writing the blog, not about what’s being written.

Your voice.

Whatever you write, however you write it, should carry your voice. But blogs especially should carry your voice.

A simple pattern for a blog is to make clear the facts or situations you want to discuss, give your opinion on them, then conclude that you’re right to do so. A perfectly good blog results.

You often see it in food-writing blogs: the recipe is explained; the author gives their opinion about how the recipe turned out, what adaptations they made to their source, and what they would do differently the next time; the author concludes that the food was eaten (victory!). Then comes the recipe, which many readers would prefer to read first.

There are other food blog patterns, like “let me tell you about my vacation, after which I cooked this thing” and semi-informative articles about food or health that seem fact-focused, but are mainly about hooking the reader with an opinion.

For an example of the latter, here’s a blog on selecting the best chickpeas at food-writing website The Kitchn: “I Tried 10 Different Cans of Chickpeas and There Was One Clear Winner.” It would seem like an informative, fact-filled piece. Several types of chickpeas are tested in various states: drained and uncooked, in hummus, roasted and crispy. In the end, one of the types of chickpeas is declared the winner.

Are the chickpeas tested in any sort of objective way? No. No metrics were mentioned. Are the chickpeas tested by a panel of experts? Also no. They were tested by “a group of testers” in a blind tasting—the same sort of situation as the taste tests between Coke and Pepsi in years of yore.

Was the blog written with an objective tone? Wow, no. It’s 675 words long. Thirteen of those words were I. Three mys. One your. Fourteen wes. Two ours. The blog is written with a personal tone, centered on the author and the testing group. About five percent of the words are personal pronouns.

Should the blog have been tested objectively, by a panel of experts, in an impersonal tone? I don’t think so; I enjoyed the blog that was there, and would have been less interested in a dry article. Will I rush out and buy the recommended brand of chickpeas? No. I thought about making some hummus, though.

Mmmm, hummus.

When reading the article, you might not notice that it’s written from an opinionated position. A journalist would notice, of course. But an average reader would probably not do so—unless they didn’t like the tone of the blog, or they disagreed with the opinion. Most people will simply be drawn along by the piece. It’s a solid piece, although not exceptional: the most action you’re likely to be inspired to do is to stop and think about food in general, chickpeas in particular, perhaps a specific chickpea brand or two, and wish that you had more time to cook—or feel proud that you were taking the time to cook.

However, the blog doesn’t contain a lot of personality, a lot of the author’s voice. You get a sense that you know someone has written the piece; it wasn’t generated by a computer. But who wrote the piece isn’t clear: they like chickpeas and would prefer their chickpeas to have a reasonably good quality. More than that is difficult to guess. And, for what the piece is meant to do, that is sufficient.

What interests me in a blog is when I can get a sense of who the author is, without the author having to describe themselves.—Some authors do describe themselves, at great length, and are amusing when they do so. The Bloggess has made a career for herself in describing herself and her (mis-)adventures, things that she likes, and (yay!) things that she doesn’t.  Other authors don’t describe themselves; Seth Godin always amuses me, even though he talks about you and about generalities far more often than he talks about himself or anything so specific as to have a location, a date, or a name. Here’s a fairly typical blog: “Of course it’s a difficult problem.” He goes on to say “All the easy ones are already solved.” His blog is a bit Zen, a bit oversimplified, even a bit patronizing—but I always enjoy it, and I admire the skill with which he reveals himself without actually giving you information about himself in the blogs (although he does provide more information elsewhere).

Those are good blogs. But what about the best blogs?

I don’t know about other writers, but here’s how it works for me: my most satisfying, “best” blog posts happen when the process of writing changes my opinion of what I write. Those are the fun blogs, the ones where I learn that ancient Romans used to ward off the evil eye with flying penises. This blog is one such blog post, too. When I journaled on this topic as an early draft, I completely missed the opinionated-but-not-voicy blog posts that are the mainstay of most “informative” blogs. I went searching for a random, typical voicy foodie blog, and almost facepalmed myself. Duh.

I feel like this post only livens up when I reached the point where I stopped regurgitating what I already had in mind to write. Before that, it’s stiff and uninteresting (in my opinion). A bunch of stuffy blather. I decided to leave the opening as it was, though, so you could see the difference. At least it’s clear, and it’s not too long. I hope it’s not so offputting that people skip this blog before they get to what I consider the good parts, but—well. I couldn’t blame them if they did.

The endings of blogs are always the worst for me. I usually scroll up to the beginning and see if there’s something I can steal.—No, not this time. It bores me. I’m just going to have to come up with an ending on my own. My past self didn’t leave me any bread crumbs to find my way home.

So let me just say that I’m glad I wrote this, even if it wasn’t what I expected to have written when I started. Viva la blog!

Like what you read here? More of the same at the Wonderland Press newsletter!

 

 

 

Writing Craft: Am I even a real writer, and other burning questions.

(This is from my writing craft series; you can read more on Patreon. Please note that these first posts are about things that aren’t strictly about the craft of writing, but the craft of surviving as a writer, if you will, because I want to get them out of the way first.)

This section contains questions that I have struggled with myself, or have heard more than once from friends, colleagues, and clients. My initial list was quite long; I could write a full-length book addressing questions that writers use to distract themselves from their work.

At the heart of each question is: But I’m tired.

At the heart of each answer is: I know. Give yourself a break, but don’t give up.

  1. Am I even a real writer?

If you are reading this book at all, you are likely a natural storyteller who enjoys stories in general, and, further, enjoys immersing yourself in your own stories, whether written or merely daydreamed. Asking “Am I even a real writer?” is neither useful nor appropriate. You are already marked, blessed, or cursed with a tendency to make up stories, and it is unlikely that you can remove that tendency. You can only bury it, at which point it will, like many repressed talents and emotions, cause you to make a complete ass of yourself on a regular basis.

If you don’t create something, no matter how bad it is, you’ll probably end up self-destructive, depressed, a burden upon those who love you, and an annoyance to those who don’t.

My advice is to buy the fancy journal and the too-expensive pen, and use those tools to write complete trash. You, and the world, will be better for it, even if none of your writing ever sees the light of day.

If you need it, you have my permission to write poorly, with no success or recognition whatsoever, upon whatever self-indulgent daydream suits you best.

Your writing is probably not as bad, or as good, as you think.

(Continued here.)

Why can’t I write high fantasy?

So I’ve always struggled to write high fantasy.

“High fantasy” was a term coined in 1971 by Lloyd Alexander, author of The Black Cauldron and other novels, to describe fantasy set in a secondary world that is not a version of the “real” world. The Lord of the Rings is high fantasy.

I like reading high fantasy; I just struggle to write it. (Unless it’s set in Wonderland, for some reason; I’ll take a guess at it in a minute.)

Example:

I designed a short story to be told about a 1920s-style secondary, high-fantasy world in which all the machines were really enslaved fae. The high elves ran everything; humans thought they were the lowest of the low, but then discovered that the machines that everyone took for granted were even worse off.

I couldn’t write it.

I ended up using the core idea about the machines for a short fantasy story set in 1920s Hollywood, where Baba Yaga sets herself to reclaim two house fae from a movie actress.

That story? Easy to write.

I remained mystified until I read an article by Emma Whitney called, “What Is It with Us and ‘Good Royalty’?”

She says that “good royalty” seems to be a big factor in YA fantasy set in secondary worlds. She posits that some reasons may be that we’re used to seeing monarchy in fantasy and have internalized it; that monarchy tends to make the scope of stories bigger; and that making people part of the monarchy gives them access to power, which makes stories move faster (so you don’t have to spend a lot of time with a poverty-stricken, uneducated newbie character).

It’s the second part that resonates with me: monarchy tends to make the scope of stories bigger.

That’s just it. I don’t like stories that have a big scope. I like stories about one person experiencing personal wonder, personal horror, personal mysteries. I love it when those things have wider implications, but please don’t start me out in a book by trying to save the world. I would much rather read about characters acting for small, petty reasons.

I am always going to like The Hobbit (where a story of small scope gets out of hand) over The Lord of the Rings, where the fate of the world was always at stake.  I like Stephen Brust’s Dragaera series, because when the tale goes epic, it also gets petty: an apocalypse happens because some arrogant (noble) dipshit thought he could control a pony nuke near a uranium mine, as it were.  Don’t tell them that I meant well…

In video games, I’m always looking for an excuse to reset a character or start over with a new one. (I just did this in Grim Dawn.) My favorite fairy tales aren’t the ones about kings and queens, but about the braggart tailor who killed “seven with one blow”–seven flies, that is. High-powered characters just don’t do it for me.

In case you were wondering, I see Wonderland as the tale of a girl who thinks power is just as crazy as anything else that’s going on: royalty is obviously corrupt, possibly horrifying (as in the case of the Red King’s Dream, in which if he wakes, we’ll all “go out–bang!–like a candle”), and all of the characters, Alice included, are foolish and petty.

I think the core of my issue is: I don’t trust the concept of “heroism.” People trying to do the right thing? Sure. But when I see a hero, I look for the sleight of hand; such stories always seem like propaganda to me.

I think the closest I’ve come to a high fantasy that works for me is The House Without a Summer. The main character is a marquis, the son of an earl.  The wealth, power, and magical resources are all high-leveled. The scope is the universe (potentially).

But.

Wealth and power aren’t just there to expand the scope of the story, but are the story problem itself: if it weren’t for wealth and power, none of this ever would have happened, and the characters could just leave. And the scope…well, the scope gets very small indeed.

All of which make me comfortable with the world of the story.

(Mostly; there’s one chapter that always makes me go, “This book is terrible! I should at least delete this chapter,” but that’s because I put my own hot-button fear and dreads in there, and my subconscious wants to avoid even having to think about it.)

Will I ever write “regular” high fantasy? Probably not. But I would like to be able to write in secondary worlds.  So thinking all of this through has me at least a little hopeful. It might not be that I can’t write well in secondary worlds, but that I have to be more careful about what stories and worlds I attempt them with.

Like what you read here? More of the same at the Wonderland Press newsletter!

New Release: The House Without a Summer

The House Without a Summer

Universal Sales Link | Goodreads

The year is 1816, in Northamptonshire. A red, spiderwebbed haze covers the sun. Temperatures drop, fields flood and freeze, grain rots on the stem. The people are starving, and even the wealthy and titled are affected by shortages. Sickness spreads as a red fungus overtakes fields, seals over windows, and infiltrates cellars.

On the way back from the Napoleonic Wars in France, Marcus, the younger son of the Earl of Penderbrook, returns to find his brother dead, the estate covered in fungus, and his father sinking into madness.

The last thing Marcus wants to do is be responsible for Penderbook; he wants only to spend the rest of his life playing cards, drinking, and seducing other men’s wives. But even the responsible life of an heir escapes from his grasp, as his brother’s body disappears, his father turns violent, and pale monsters horrify the countryside.

As Marcus pieces together the truth, he discovers a past more tainted with evil than he could have suspected.

From the family wine cellar to the folly behind the house—from the pond where he played as a child to the new cotton mill built along the stream—

None of what happens at Penderbrook is innocent.

And the monstrosities that have been committed may still be carried in Marcus’s blood…

A tale of transformation and terror, set in the year Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

A Sample from A House Without a Summer

Historical Note

The year of 1816 was known as “the year without a summer.” Across the world, temperatures dropped. Snows and frosts lasted until June, interspersed with heavy rain. Sunspots visible to the naked eye covered the sun. Crops rotted in the wet fields. When the fields were replanted, the crops rotted again.

Napoleon had only just been defeated. A plague of typhus spread across Europe, killing more people than the Corsican general had. Merchants bought up what stores of grain there were to be had, increasing prices. Farmers refused to sell their grain outside of their home districts. In Great Britain, what with one thing and another—including the ludicrous Corn Laws, designed to keep the prices of grain high—over a hundred thousand people died of illness and starvation. Food riots happened all across Britain and France.

To some, it was very nearly the end of the world.

The year before, the volcano Mount Tambora had erupted in what was then the Dutch East Indies. It was an eruption ten times as powerful as that of Mount Krakatoa in 1883. The Mount Tambora eruption was the most powerful one known in recorded history, at a seven on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. (Krakatoa was a six; Vesuvius and Mount St. Helens were fives.) So much gas and dust were thrown into the atmosphere that it chilled the surface of the earth for two years. Worldwide famine followed.

Painter J.M.W. Turner caught the strangely miscolored skies after the eruption. His paintings from before the tragedy, in 1814, depict skies of a cool, bluer hue; afterwards, at dawn and sunset, the skies in his paintings burned the color of blood, and in daylight hummed with an almost eerie golden light.

The light remained in its distorted colors for almost the rest of Turner’s career; he died in 1851.

The summer of 1816 saw Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelly in Geneva, Switzerland, telling Gothic tales with the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and the doctor John Polidori. The rains kept them indoors most of that summer. Mary Shelly’s ghost story was that of a resurrected man, and the mad doctor who brings the creature back from the dead: thus, Frankenstein was born. It also saw author Jane Austen beginning to sicken and fade from a mysterious illness, from which she died in 1817.

By September 1816, the snows had begun again. In fact, snow tinted red from volcanic ash fell in some parts Italy all throughout the year.

It was the Regency Era.

While the upper classes held their endless parties, balls, and operas, attended gambling hells, scrambled to make advantageous marriages for their daughters, and obsessed over French fashion, the lower classes rioted and starved.

Many people were convinced the world was ending.

Prologue – The Crystal Palace

It wasn’t until Miss Lucy Abbott had attended the Great Exhibition of 1851 several times that she began to truly understand what had happened in the year of 1816.

Decades had passed; the unendurable, mad year of 1816 had come to a close; those who had died had faded from memory for the most part, either disappearing as if they had never lived, or taking on the aspect of the people they ought to have been, rather than the blackguards they were. In particular, the reputation of the Earl of Penderbrook had been much ameliorated.

In Lucy’s secret heart of hearts, she suspected that she herself had been changed little by what had happened, although at the time she had felt herself to have been transformed entire. What she had lost seemed the world to her. But, both before the tragedy and after, she was as dark of mind and eye as ever; her heart still dwelled upon the injustices that she saw everywhere. But who might she have been, if events had occurred otherwise? A wife, a mother, and a fine addition to society—if somewhat macabre of humor and a little too interested in novels.

Until the Great Exhibition, she had supposed herself entirely recovered of her peace of mind. And indeed, the first several times she visited the Crystal Palace, home to the exhibition, she felt only wonder, sore feet, and delight.

But as the Great Exhibition progressed, her heart began to leap uncomfortably about in her chest: at the sight of certain too-familiar, yet altogether featureless faces; the smell of mildew and unwashed bodies; even the sound of a laugh, shrill yet commanding, that reminded her of the Earl’s.

As she wound her way through the endless exhibits collected by Prince Albert and his committees, she was forced to remind herself more and more often that she was not walking through the halls of Penderbrook.

Penderbrook was gone as though it had never existed.

Thank God.

When first the Great Exhibition had opened, she had gone to see it like everyone else: it was a marvel, a wonder, the gathering of all that was brightest and best in the world, the promise of increase and prosperity to all mankind. She went because she had been invited by friends. She went because she had always had more curiosity than sense. She went because she had an idea that she would like to set one of her stories there, or at least to gather the flavor of a hundred different countries around the world, so that she might set her stories anywhere, and at least have some hope of getting something right.

She was always in despair that a reader would catch her out in some hideous inaccuracy, although they seldom did, or cared.

The Crystal Palace was a shining edifice, grand and impressive, a hall made of steel and glass. She could see inside it as the carriage approached, the sea of humanity that entered it, and, through the glass, the bustle upstairs, and an endless row of booths. She was handed out her carriage, escorted inside, and treated with all civility. She was not so overwhelmed that she did not understand that she was being treated as visiting royalty in the hopes that she would write something favorable about the exhibition for the Press.

It was everything that she had hoped for, and she promised herself that she would return again and again, and the next time she would attend with a notebook and more comfortable shoes. Later, she remembered little of her first visit but a blur.

She continued to visit the exhibition, to take copious notes, to study, to dream.

This continued into October of 1851, when the exhibition was about to close. The sense of wonder still remained, but it was a frantic sort of emotion now, the kind of feeling that one gets when one stays up past one’s bedtime and had drunk just enough brandy to feel a certain amount of strain underneath one’s own merriment.

It was a twilight sort of mood.

The exhibits, over the course of the exhibition, became less and less well maintained. The upper tiers of British society began to absent themselves, and the exhibition put on specials for the lower classes to attend more cheaply. The halls were more packed than ever. Little things began to disappear, either stolen by thieves or preventatively removed by the owners, wary of thievery.

She began to feel a certain familiarity, not of the exhibition itself, but of some other place, which she could hardly remember.

Then one day she turned in the hallway around one booth to the next and did not recognize where she was. She was surrounded by pale figures rushing past her, not quite ghosts, but men and women with all the color washed out of their faces, as though they were illustrations printed on onionskin paper. They grimaced at her and at each other, baring their teeth. Her skin rose up in instant gooseflesh, and her teeth chattered against each other several times, shivering, before she clenched them together.

When she glanced back over her shoulder, the hall seemed familiar again. There was the new steam engine; there was the new type of lock that everyone had been so certain of no-one ever being able to pick! But of course it had been defeated by an American locksmith in a matter of days… In other words, she knew her ground. The phantoms had vanished, or rather been subsumed back into the people surrounding her, who seemed as perfectly ordinary as always.

But upon walking forwards a few steps, she shuddered again.

Penderbrook.

As the word came to her, she jumped back from a pale-faced gentleman who had come forwards to shake her hand. She had no wish to startle the man—he wished only to tell her that he enjoyed her stories—so she forced a laugh and quipped, “You made me think of my editor for a moment!” He laughed, and they chatted briefly.

She hoped that she had concealed her true emotions from appearing on her face.

At any moment, she expected to be snatched from behind, a cold limb twining itself about her shoulders.

Lucy…

You know you must leave, Lucy, before it is too late.

After her admirer had excused himself, she had been solicitously asked by her secretary if she wished him to find her a seat; she had gone quite pale. She clutched his arm, saying that she felt a bit dizzy and did not wish him to leave her side, lest she fall.

Do not let me vanish.

It had long seemed to her that she owed a debt to Penderbrook. Or perhaps debt was not the right word. But there was a part of her which belonged to Penderbrook, which she had always suspected would someday be reclaimed as its own.

Her secretary held his arm stiffly at his side, and she clung to it, near to weeping. The halls seemed to spiral about her, wrapping her tighter and tighter until her breath became painful in her chest. The sense of being pulled or called increased. The faces spinning past her seemed to leer at each other, every face turned into a kind of translucent, bloodless clay.

This place is dying, she realized.

The Crystal Palace was clinging to life as a drowning man might cling over-tightly to his would-be savior, causing them both to sink.

As Penderbrook had done.

And she, of all who were present, was perhaps the only one to understand the sensation, because she had felt it before.

She must not let it take her; she must not let it take her secretary. She would linger no longer.

Slowly, carefully, deliberately, she took a step forwards. The Crystal Palace pulled at her. Oh, how it pulled! Like softness, like warmth, like the stupor after lovemaking, like candlelight. But she knew what it was now, knew that it was only winding up its cocoon, tighter and tighter, seeking a place of safety and finding only self-destruction.

Lucy…

You must leave, Lucy, before it is too late…

Her secretary stopped her to ask, “Miss Abbott? Are you quite all right?”

“I have a desperate need of air,” she told him, and he led her outside of the Crystal Palace, to which she never again returned.

The building was pulled down soon after. They said it was to be rebuilt on the top of Sydenham Hill, to hold permanent exhibits.

But it was not the same place, and she ever after felt herself having very narrowly escaped indeed.

Want to read more? Click here.

Writing Craft: How to Study Like a Professional Writer

(This is from my writing craft series; you can read more on Patreon. Please note that these first posts are about things that aren’t strictly about the craft of writing, but the craft of surviving as a writer, if you will, because I want to get them out of the way first.)

Read; read wisely; study what you read.

We talked about setting goals versus establishing habits. Setting goals is one of life’s great meta-skills. We’ve talked about reading, and how to do it more often, and we’ve talked about reading wisely.

What remains is to discuss how to study what you read.

But before we do that, I’d like to talk about avoidance behavior, a term borrowed from psychology to describe the actions that a person takes to escape from difficult thoughts and feelings.

Avoidance Behavior and How to Avoid It

Avoidance behavior or “coping” is a blanket term for many different types of behavior that occur when you’re trying to avoid doing something.* It is not procrastination, per se, although procrastination can be a part of it.

I am not a psychologist, so I can’t speak professionally about avoidance behavior. I want you to be aware of the possibility of its occuring, though; I recommend researching the matter through other sources if you think avoidance behavior is a problem for you.

In short:

  • You want to accomplish something.
  • That something is difficult.
  • You find yourself avoiding the task.
  • You may also find yourself avoiding the task so thoroughly that, at the time, you’re not aware that you’re avoiding the task.
  • Later, you realize that you have been avoiding the task, or avoiding even thinking about the task.

If you have ever sat down to write and found yourself mysteriously cleaning house, cruising social media, or watching a movie instead, then you have experienced avoidance behavior.

(Continued here.)

Preorders Available for New Release – The House Without a Summer: A Novel of Gothic Horror

The House Without a Summer

Preorders Link

The year is 1816, in Northamptonshire. A red, spiderwebbed haze covers the sun. Temperatures drop, fields flood and freeze, grain rots on the stem. The people are starving, and even the wealthy and titled are affected by shortages. Sickness spreads as a red fungus overtakes fields, seals over windows, and infiltrates cellars.

On the way back from the Napoleonic Wars in France, Marcus, the younger son of the Earl of Penderbrook, returns to find his brother dead, the estate covered in fungus, and his father sinking into madness.

The last thing Marcus wants to do is be responsible for Penderbook; he wants only to spend the rest of his life playing cards, drinking, and seducing other men’s wives. But even the responsible life of an heir escapes from his grasp, as his brother’s body disappears, his father turns violent, and pale monsters horrify the countryside.

As Marcus pieces together the truth, he discovers a past more tainted with evil than he could have suspected.

From the family wine cellar to the folly behind the house—from the pond where he played as a child to the new cotton mill built along the stream—

None of what happens at Penderbrook is innocent.

And the monstrosities that have been committed may still be carried in Marcus’s blood…

A tale of transformation and terror, set in the year Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

Sample from A House Without A Summer

Historical Note

The year of 1816 was known as “the year without a summer.” Across the world, temperatures dropped. Snows and frosts lasted until June, interspersed with heavy rain. Sunspots visible to the naked eye covered the sun. Crops rotted in the wet fields. When the fields were replanted, the crops rotted again.

Napoleon had only just been defeated. A plague of typhus spread across Europe, killing more people than the Corsican general had. Merchants bought up what stores of grain there were to be had, increasing prices. Farmers refused to sell their grain outside of their home districts. In Great Britain, what with one thing and another—including the ludicrous Corn Laws, designed to keep the prices of grain high—over a hundred thousand people died of illness and starvation. Food riots happened all across Britain and France.

To some, it was very nearly the end of the world.

The year before, the volcano Mount Tambora had erupted in what was then the Dutch East Indies. It was an eruption ten times as powerful as that of Mount Krakatoa in 1883. The Mount Tambora eruption was the most powerful one known in recorded history, at a seven on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. (Krakatoa was a six; Vesuvius and Mount St. Helens were fives.) So much gas and dust were thrown into the atmosphere that it chilled the surface of the earth for two years. Worldwide famine followed.

Painter J.M.W. Turner caught the strangely miscolored skies after the eruption. His paintings from before the tragedy, in 1814, depict skies of a cool, bluer hue; afterwards, at dawn and sunset, the skies in his paintings burned the color of blood, and in daylight hummed with an almost eerie golden light.

The light remained in its distorted colors for almost the rest of Turner’s career; he died in 1851.

The summer of 1816 saw Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelly in Geneva, Switzerland, telling Gothic tales with the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and the doctor John Polidori. The rains kept them indoors most of that summer. Mary Shelly’s ghost story was that of a resurrected man, and the mad doctor who brings the creature back from the dead: thus, Frankenstein was born. It also saw author Jane Austen beginning to sicken and fade from a mysterious illness, from which she died in 1817.

By September 1816, the snows had begun again. In fact, snow tinted red from volcanic ash fell in some parts Italy all throughout the year.

It was the Regency Era.

While the upper classes held their endless parties, balls, and operas, attended gambling hells, scrambled to make advantageous marriages for their daughters, and obsessed over French fashion, the lower classes rioted and starved.

Many people were convinced the world was ending.

Prologue – The Crystal Palace

It wasn’t until Miss Lucy Abbott had attended the Great Exhibition of 1851 several times that she began to truly understand what had happened in the year of 1816.

Decades had passed; the unendurable, mad year of 1816 had come to a close; those who had died had faded from memory for the most part, either disappearing as if they had never lived, or taking on the aspect of the people they ought to have been, rather than the blackguards they were. In particular, the reputation of the Earl of Penderbrook had been much ameliorated.

In Lucy’s secret heart of hearts, she suspected that she herself had been changed little by what had happened, although at the time she had felt herself to have been transformed entire. What she had lost seemed the world to her. But, both before the tragedy and after, she was as dark of mind and eye as ever; her heart still dwelled upon the injustices that she saw everywhere. But who might she have been, if events had occurred otherwise? A wife, a mother, and a fine addition to society—if somewhat macabre of humor and a little too interested in novels.

Until the Great Exhibition, she had supposed herself entirely recovered of her peace of mind. And indeed, the first several times she visited the Crystal Palace, home to the exhibition, she felt only wonder, sore feet, and delight.

But as the Great Exhibition progressed, her heart began to leap uncomfortably about in her chest: at the sight of certain too-familiar, yet altogether featureless faces; the smell of mildew and unwashed bodies; even the sound of a laugh, shrill yet commanding, that reminded her of the Earl’s.

As she wound her way through the endless exhibits collected by Prince Albert and his committees, she was forced to remind herself more and more often that she was not walking through the halls of Penderbrook.

Penderbrook was gone as though it had never existed.

Thank God.

When first the Great Exhibition had opened, she had gone to see it like everyone else: it was a marvel, a wonder, the gathering of all that was brightest and best in the world, the promise of increase and prosperity to all mankind. She went because she had been invited by friends. She went because she had always had more curiosity than sense. She went because she had an idea that she would like to set one of her stories there, or at least to gather the flavor of a hundred different countries around the world, so that she might set her stories anywhere, and at least have some hope of getting something right.

She was always in despair that a reader would catch her out in some hideous inaccuracy, although they seldom did, or cared.

The Crystal Palace was a shining edifice, grand and impressive, a hall made of steel and glass. She could see inside it as the carriage approached, the sea of humanity that entered it, and, through the glass, the bustle upstairs, and an endless row of booths. She was handed out her carriage, escorted inside, and treated with all civility. She was not so overwhelmed that she did not understand that she was being treated as visiting royalty in the hopes that she would write something favorable about the exhibition for the Press.

It was everything that she had hoped for, and she promised herself that she would return again and again, and the next time she would attend with a notebook and more comfortable shoes. Later, she remembered little of her first visit but a blur.

She continued to visit the exhibition, to take copious notes, to study, to dream.

This continued into October of 1851, when the exhibition was about to close. The sense of wonder still remained, but it was a frantic sort of emotion now, the kind of feeling that one gets when one stays up past one’s bedtime and had drunk just enough brandy to feel a certain amount of strain underneath one’s own merriment.

It was a twilight sort of mood.

The exhibits, over the course of the exhibition, became less and less well maintained. The upper tiers of British society began to absent themselves, and the exhibition put on specials for the lower classes to attend more cheaply. The halls were more packed than ever. Little things began to disappear, either stolen by thieves or preventatively removed by the owners, wary of thievery.

She began to feel a certain familiarity, not of the exhibition itself, but of some other place, which she could hardly remember.

Then one day she turned in the hallway around one booth to the next and did not recognize where she was. She was surrounded by pale figures rushing past her, not quite ghosts, but men and women with all the color washed out of their faces, as though they were illustrations printed on onionskin paper. They grimaced at her and at each other, baring their teeth. Her skin rose up in instant gooseflesh, and her teeth chattered against each other several times, shivering, before she clenched them together.

When she glanced back over her shoulder, the hall seemed familiar again. There was the new steam engine; there was the new type of lock that everyone had been so certain of no-one ever being able to pick! But of course it had been defeated by an American locksmith in a matter of days… In other words, she knew her ground. The phantoms had vanished, or rather been subsumed back into the people surrounding her, who seemed as perfectly ordinary as always.

But upon walking forwards a few steps, she shuddered again.

Penderbrook.

As the word came to her, she jumped back from a pale-faced gentleman who had come forwards to shake her hand. She had no wish to startle the man—he wished only to tell her that he enjoyed her stories—so she forced a laugh and quipped, “You made me think of my editor for a moment!” He laughed, and they chatted briefly.

She hoped that she had concealed her true emotions from appearing on her face.

At any moment, she expected to be snatched from behind, a cold limb twining itself about her shoulders.

Lucy…

You know you must leave, Lucy, before it is too late.

After her admirer had excused himself, she had been solicitously asked by her secretary if she wished him to find her a seat; she had gone quite pale. She clutched his arm, saying that she felt a bit dizzy and did not wish him to leave her side, lest she fall.

Do not let me vanish.

It had long seemed to her that she owed a debt to Penderbrook. Or perhaps debt was not the right word. But there was a part of her which belonged to Penderbrook, which she had always suspected would someday be reclaimed as its own.

Her secretary held his arm stiffly at his side, and she clung to it, near to weeping. The halls seemed to spiral about her, wrapping her tighter and tighter until her breath became painful in her chest. The sense of being pulled or called increased. The faces spinning past her seemed to leer at each other, every face turned into a kind of translucent, bloodless clay.

This place is dying, she realized.

The Crystal Palace was clinging to life as a drowning man might cling over-tightly to his would-be savior, causing them both to sink.

As Penderbrook had done.

And she, of all who were present, was perhaps the only one to understand the sensation, because she had felt it before.

She must not let it take her; she must not let it take her secretary. She would linger no longer.

Slowly, carefully, deliberately, she took a step forwards. The Crystal Palace pulled at her. Oh, how it pulled! Like softness, like warmth, like the stupor after lovemaking, like candlelight. But she knew what it was now, knew that it was only winding up its cocoon, tighter and tighter, seeking a place of safety and finding only self-destruction.

Lucy…

You must leave, Lucy, before it is too late…

Her secretary stopped her to ask, “Miss Abbott? Are you quite all right?”

“I have a desperate need of air,” she told him, and he led her outside of the Crystal Palace, to which she never again returned.

The building was pulled down soon after. They said it was to be rebuilt on the top of Sydenham Hill, to hold permanent exhibits.

But it was not the same place, and she ever after felt herself having very narrowly escaped indeed.

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Personal Asshole Mitigation Plan

I have this theory about assholes; they’re people who have no interest in anyone other than themselves.

What I’m coming to realize is that they’re people who also have no interest in anyone other than themselves in the current moment.

As far as I can tell, assholes don’t have long-term plans, not even ones that will benefit their future selves.  They have a series of short-term, selfish, often secretive policies that tend to accumulate power, money, influence, and control—and that, in retrospect, look like plans. But they really just live in the moment.

If I’m right, this might help explain why assholes so often self-destruct, often taking other organizations and relationships down with them.

Here’s the pattern:

Assholes infiltrate existing organizations and relationships, acquire influence and control the way a dragon acquires a treasure hoard, and then do something incredibly stupid that wrecks both their own situation and the original organization or relationship. And then they try to shift the blame onto someone else—even when a sincere apology would save their ass.

It’s not that they’re stupid. It’s that they don’t see past the moment.

They cannot actually believe that the bills—particularly those with emotional or social rather than legal or financial consequences—will come due.

Assholes are incredibly clever and talented about short-term accomplishments.

They are incredibly bad at anything long term.

Think about the biggest asshole that you personally know. Think about what marks them as an asshole. What might come to mind first is the way they treat other people. Even when they put on an appearance of charm, they’re rude, they’re belittling, they’re manipulative.

But what’s really telling is to see how an asshole treats themselves: short-term thrills and pleasures, long-term self-sabotage.

In life, it’s hard to know when you’re dealing with an asshole over the short term. Assholes are good at the short term, and they’re good at coming up with policies that conceal their true behavior and motivations. They say all the right things, because saying the right things provides a low-cost, short-term benefit.

They’re not so good at maintaining long-term behaviors, though.

Over time, an asshole will reveal themselves.  The truth will come out.

But what should you do over the short term? Be suspicious of everyone? Trust everyone and let the consequences be damned? Trust people at first, then change your tune the second that the asshole turns on you personally?

I think those plans are flawed. Trusting people who are trustworthy is one of the biggest benefits a person can experience. Trusting people who are untrustworthy is one of the biggest tragedies—and ignoring red flags until someone hurts you personally is how assholes get surrounded by sycophants and shock troops. That’s how they protect themselves.

So what should you do?

I think I must have the word “victim” on my forehead, from how often I get stalked or “chosen” by some asshole. Slowly, over a great deal of time, suffering, and expense, I’ve learned a few painful lessons.

Step one of mitigating the effects of assholes on your life? Love yourself. Even if you don’t think you’re worthy of it. Don’t wait until you deserve it.  People who hate themselves, or tolerate hate from other people, are easy to manipulate. Hate generally doesn’t show itself by screaming or frothing at the mouth. It shows itself by contempt. Do not cooperate with contempt. When someone is rude “but only joking,” that’s a red flag of contempt.

Step two is to care for yourself first.  Ask yourself What do I need? and handle that first. What you want might be getting spoiled rotten. But what you need might be a glass of water and ten seconds to stop and think. When someone can’t let you have even that, your hackles should rise.

Step three is to recognize when people do, and do not, support you. It doesn’t have to be a lot of support. Support is when people are happy for your successes and sad for your setbacks. They don’t jump in with unasked-for advice. They don’t tell you what you should have done differently. They don’t guilt-trip you for not succeeding. When people smile if good things happen for you, that’s enough.

Step four is to draw boundaries. If it were possible to draw boundaries without being able to do the first three things on my list, I’d recommend you draw boundaries first. But it just doesn’t seem possible to say that’s your problem, not mine until you love and care for yourself and can tell the difference between charm and support.

Boundaries are the rules that define what’s your problem and what’s not. That’s all. They will not only protect you from assholes, but from the people who will do you harm even though they genuinely mean well. And, when you’re in the middle of a meltdown, maybe even from yourself.

Because inside every boundary you set is that’s my problem, not yours.

Step five is to commit, or re-commit, yourself not to self-defeat. Make someone else defeat you. Make someone else have to shut you up.  Make someone else have to say out loud what they want. Make someone else have to work their damnedest to get you to cross a boundary, to break a personal rule.

Don’t do it for them. Don’t assume, don’t listen to subtext, don’t pre-fail.

And finally, when someone throws up red flags, disengage.

Do not re-engage because they did something nice for you or because they said please.

Ask yourself if the red flag has changed.

If it has not, do not negotiate about your engagement.

A normal person can be negotiated with. There can be some give and take. Things don’t always have to be spelled out. You can rely on a normal person to keep an eye on the long term, and to understand that your relationship, whether personal or professional, is more benficial than any short-term win.

An asshole will never understand that. The only long-term good you can do for an asshole is to stand your ground. Giving them what they want will, because of who they are, only benefit them in the short term. They do not have an eye on the relationship, long-term benefits, or the greater good.

They just don’t have it in them.

You cannot control the behavior of an asshole. Everyone has bad days now and then—but assholes have bad lives. You can pity what an asshole has done and is doing to themselves. You can encourage them to do better. You can even take small, safe actions that support them without pandering to their short-term demands.

But you can’t pretend they will change, or that they will, over the long term, do anything other than try to sabotage you for their own limited, short-sighted benefit.

Don’t give them the opportunity to do so.

You’ll both be better off for it.

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Writing Craft: How to Read Like a Professional Writer

(This is from my writing craft series; you can read more on Patreon. Please note that these first posts are about things that aren’t strictly about the craft of writing, but the craft of surviving as a writer, if you will, because I want to get them out of the way first.)

If you would like to know the “secret” to writing better (which does not necessarily mean that you will publish or sell well), then here it is:

Read; read wisely; study what you read.

This statement is admittedly worthless as given, and of course there are other practical considerations like making time to write that we will cover elsewhere, but there it is: if you want to be able to improve quickly as a writer (or at least more quickly than most of your peers), you have to leverage your reading.

We will be breaking down the tasks into actionable steps in a moment, with “read” and “read wisely” in this section, and “study what you read” in Section 3.

First, however, because this section is about dealing with big-picture writing issues, a word on setting goals.

Goals vs. habits

You can set any goal you like, but if you don’t establish a habit to go with it, you won’t get anywhere.*

Telling yourself “write better” will not help you become a better writer. You have to have a plan. “Writing better” is impossible to achieve on its own, especially when part of writing better is reassessing what writing better actually means.

What “writing better” does as goal (in the absence of supporting habits) is create a vicious cycle:

  • You tell yourself to “write better.”
  • However, you don’t actually know what “writing better” means (yet).
  • No matter what you write, you naturally question whether you’re actually “writing better.”
  • Fame and fortune do not immediately arrive.
  • You don’t feel rewarded; therefore, you must not be “writing better.”
  • Conclusion: you must be a failure!

…and repeat.

If I wanted to sabotage someone’s career, I would tell them to “write better” and leave it at that.

(Continued here.)

Habit: The Chaos-Winged Butterfly of Change

Perhaps you’ve heard of the butterfly effect. It’s a term from chaos theory.

…perhaps you’ve heard of chaos theory. I had an extra slot that needed to be filled in college, and took a semester-long seminar on the popular-science version of what chaos theory was. Math was minimal. We read Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics by Gary Zukav, Emergence: From Chaos to Order by John Holland, Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick, and some other books I can’t remember now. Chaos theory is the idea that true randomness is rare, if not non-existent, and that instead of throwing our hands up in frustration at the vagaries of the world, we should be studying non-linear math, because fractals and Brownian motion (e.g., the movement of cream in hot coffee) and weather patterns are all non-linear, and we can study them now.

…and perhaps you’ve heard of non-linear math. As a non-mathematician, my best explanation is that non-linear math is when you plug a number N into a formula and get a result X, then put in a slightly different number, N+.01, and get result X time one bajillion. The results you get out of a formula cannot be described in a line or a curve, but are non-linear. This is where fractals come from. Pretty!

Anyway, the butterfly effect.

The butterfly effect describes a situation in real life where non-linear math applies, causing seemingly random results in the real world. Make one small change to the flapping in the wings of a butterfly, the theory goes, and you might create a storm. Nobody knows: predictions involving the weather don’t follow any kind of straight line.

We are, however, discovering how to describe and predict the behavior of non-linear results as a whole, if not in every specific instance.

Why is this important?

I’ve been trying to explain how habits work in several contexts, and I’m struggling to get past people’s ideas of what a useful habit is. It seems almost universal for people to say things like, “I’m going to lose weight this year!” or “I’m going to be more financially responsible!”

What I’ve observed is that saying those things is a type of self-sabotage.

Here’s the process:

  • Make some kind of resolution, like losing weight or getting rid of debt.
  • Break that resolution down into smaller steps that are essentially the same thing, only smaller: eat fewer calories today, spend less money today.
  • Fail to accomplish the resolution.
  • Waste time, brainpower, and happiness continuously trying and failing to accomplish resolutions.
  • Envy people who have accomplished something.
  • Ask them how they did it.
  • Ignore advice, because it doesn’t look relevant.

The problem is that most people focus on results and don’t actually figure out how they’re going to accomplish the result, either on the large or small scale.

We tell ourselves to be stronger, happier, or richer.

How?

Crickets.

There’s a piece of advice that circulates around the popular financial book circuit. It goes something like this:

If you stop drinking one fancy coffee per day at a coffee shop, you will become rich!

That particular piece of advice is predicated on a level of financial success that most people who are struggling financially can’t reach—but those books aren’t aimed toward those of us who can’t afford to drink a fancy coffee per day. For the books’ presumed audiences (middle-class people with a bunch of disposable income that they’re wasting), it’s reasonably good advice.

If a person who drank a cup of fancy coffee from a coffee shop every day followed this plan, they would:

  • Save the price of one fancy cup of coffee per day, and
  • Save the calories of one fancy cup of coffee per day.

Over time, this person would naturally lose weight and have more money, unless they make correspondingly stupid choices elsewhere.

Usually the books also talk about how to stop drinking that one extra cup of fancy coffee per day, with solutions like:

  • Buy an espresso machine ($100) or an individual coffee-pod maker (e.g., a Keurig) ($80) and make your own fancy coffee.
  • Ask yourself when you actually need a cup of coffee, versus when you habitually have one or just want the experience of drinking fancy coffee, and drink something else instead (like tea) for those other times.
  • Completely wean yourself off the coffee habit.
  • Switch to plain drip coffee (it’s cheaper).

The save-money-via-changing-your-coffee-habits plan can be extrapolated to something like this:

  • Determine one thing you’re not happy about and set a vague goal related to it (“be debt-free!”).
  • Determine one habit that might be related, and that seems relatively easy to control.
  • Find ways to change that habit that are actual actions, rather than just telling yourself to do less of that habit (except when going cold turkey, generally considered a radical, advanced, and unnecessary technique in the books I’ve read).
  • If that particular change doesn’t work or it’s too hard to stick to, try another one.
  • In short: don’t force yourself to keep a goal. Find a vulnerable habit, and change it.

For the right audience, it’s a good plan.

But let’s say you don’t have problems with coffee. Let’s say you have (ahem) problems with buying too many books. You have a house full of books that you picked up at used bookstores, thrift stores, flea markets, and friends who had to get rid of their books—free books! You have an ereader full of free books and books that you bought on sale. Once or twice a year, you buy new releases from your favorite authors, but mostly you go for books that are an excellent deal. You also check a lot of books out from the library.

(This is me, by the way. I also have the expense of research and business books that I directly need for my writing career, but let’s leave those aside.)

Guess which books get read?

The ones from the library.

Not the ones I paid for, or even the free ones. The ones I got from the library.

Why?

They have due dates.

I have spent years trying to establish healthier habits around buying books. I tried to limit the number of books per month I could buy. I tried to limit the dollar amount. I was serious about this.

I failed.

Things got worse: more books built up, more money spent.

Until I found the vulnerable habit. The library.

Right now:

  • Books I haven’t read yet: I can’t buy it even if it’s on sale, unless it’s not at the library.
  • Books I have read or books I can’t get at the library: I can buy it, but only if it’s on sale (under $4.99 plus tax).
  • For every library book I read, I have to read a non-library book (to use up my already-purchased books).

If I haven’t read the book yet, I don’t know if I want to keep it. If I have read the book, I know if I want to keep it, and I know whether I want a print copy (for books of my heart) or if an ebook copy would be better (as in, the thousand-page books that are just easier to read as ebooks).

I fudge the line for short story collections and anthologies. I’ll buy them without having read them, but only on sale. I love short stories, though, and I never give collections or anthologies away. I also sometimes fudge a line if a writer whose work I like has a sale. But those two things make up maybe $5-$10 a month, which is a figure I can live with.

Figuring all this out wasn’t an easy, mindless process. It was much more complex and time-consuming than going, “In 2020, I will buy fewer books!” I’ve been messing around with my book-buying habits since the last time we moved, in 2015. I’m not going to tell you how much money I spent on books, and I didn’t track numbers well or sort between fiction and research/business books, but the change in yearly book spending from 2015 to 2019 was at least $500.

My habits resulted in my goal being achieved, but I didn’t try to achieve my goal. I just kept an eye on it.

So, tentatively speaking, here’s what to do:

  • Identify a problem.
  • Guesstimate a goal.
  • Pick one small, doable action or rule that may or may not help achieve the goal, but you won’t have to work too hard at to find out. (If it’s pleasant to do, even better.)
  • Try that for a couple of months.
  • If you’re not seeing a change, try something else.
  • If you’re seeing a change but it could be better, tweak.

Don’t suffer. If you’re suffering, you’re burning up willpower. Burning up willpower almost always fails.

If you’re doing something like running marathons, you are going to suffer and burn up willpower and work hard, but if you make sure that you’re getting more pleasure out of running than what it costs you, then the same habit-determining principles should still apply.

What habits do is apply a non-linear solution to a problem. A slightly different solution may have greatly different results (for example, if I defined books on sale as “more than $1 off the original price,” then I doubt I would have saved much money; likewise, if I defined books on sale as “$.99 or less,” then I doubt I would have stuck to the plan—I would have been too frustrated with it—and I also would have spent more money).

Habits, in short, are how you nudge the chaos-winged butterfly. You can hope and dream all you want—you can set all kinds of unrealistic goals—but if you don’t nudge that butterfly, nothing will change.

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