Author: DeAnna Knippling (Page 2 of 63)

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.



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.


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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Announcing Amazing Monster Tales Issue #3: It Came From Outer Space!

Announcing Issue #3: It Came From Outer Space!

Hello my Earthling! Hello my starling!

Hello my space-time alien gal!

It Came From Outer Space! is a baker’s dozen of tales about creatures from outer space who may or may not have boldly gone where they really shouldn’t have. Tales of aliens who test the creatures of Earth…tales of Earthlings who test the creatures from other planets…aliens who attack…aliens who defend…and aliens who are a little too close for comfort.

Prepare to discover realms at the furthest edges of human imagination.

From the depths of outer space…

To the depths of the sea…

To Portland…and beyond!

Amazon • Barnes and Noble • Kobo • Apple Books • Universal Book Link • Goodreads

The Stories

Jason Dias brings unusual aliens to the table in “Day of the Raptors,” with a tale of aliens who left Earth millions of years ago…only to return and find that the wrong species had taken over the planet! Evolution has led our planet down some mysterious and ancient pathways that could save or damn us all…

“The Mysterious Artifact,” by DeAnna Knippling, is an homage to the early female pulp writer Francis Stevens, a.k.a. Gertrude Barrows Bennett. In this tale, two siblings pick up a mysterious object that whisks them away to a mysterious world that seems all too familiar.

In another pulp-style tale, jetpack flyboy extraordinaire “Daring” Dorian Pace encounters a plot by Nazis to capture an alien and take over the world! “Cape Disillusionment,” by Charles Eugene Anderson and Jim LeMay, is the quintessence of an alien invasion tale, full of glorious adventure.

“The Queen’s Captive,” by Debbie Mumford goes into the depths of space to a place where humanity is unknown—or at least misunderstood, by an alien race that would rather take humanity for granted.

Rebecca Hodgkins’s story, “You Are Not Alone,” is a short tale of the unlikeliest of locations in which to find an alien…and the inevitable consequences of that discovery!

Alien tales often make for excellent calculations on where the line between humanity and other is—and whether that’s important, as in Thea Hutcheson’s “Adding Up the Cat Numbers.”

Calculations—and recalculations, due to an unexpected event—take place in Travis Heermann’s deep-space story “Void Song.” What humanity needs as we explore the universe isn’t fail-safe systems that cannot adapt to the unforeseeable…but is it possible to become too adaptable?

Shannon Lawrence’s “Incident at Ben E’s” is set at that most alien of human locations: a children’s birthday party. At a certain place with cheap pizza, lots of very loud games, and animatronic monstrosities that are worse than anything from outer space…or are they?

An engineering/military team is sent to an alien base as a “backup plan” for a vital diplomatic mission—one that may be intended to fail—in Ron Collins’s story, “Building a Bomb.” How far will they go to carry out their mission?

Robert Jeschonek’s tale, “The Greatest Serial Killer in the Universe,” is the kind of story that makes you wonder what the main character, Luther James Paraclete, will get up to next…because you can’t keep someone with that much talent down for long.

“War and Marketing,” by Stefon Mears, is set on Earth, where an alien invasion has everyone stumped: just what do the aliens want? It’s up to a man with a talent for finding things to come up with a solution.

Sometimes even the aliens don’t know what they want, as in Jamie Ferguson’s “Time to Play,” a tale of a visit from outer space that has unintended but dire consequences to Earth, and the way that humanity begins to slowly corrupt those who cannot die…but there’s still hope…

Meyari McFarland’s “Old Friends from Out of Town” is a tale of the friends of a human who come to visit during a family reunion—friends that she met when she was the first surviving explorer of a new planet. What new adventures will she encounter among her friends, after all this time has passed?


Paul Roman Martinez designed the cover and the Amazing Monster Tales masthead. He also writes and illustrates for The Adventures of the 19XX, including graphic novels, the board game, and more! You can find Paul at his website, or on Facebook.

Find It Came From Outer Space!

Amazon • Barnes and Noble • Kobo • Apple Books • Universal Book Link • Goodreads

Amazing Monster Tales

Amazing Monster Tales is a series of monster anthologies full of fast-paced action-adventure stories. Whether you love monsters or fear them, they are the coolest! This series features a mix of classic monsters and monsters that you’ve never seen before!


Writing Craft: Are you ready to publish? A relatively sane self-assessment.

(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.)

The bare minimum of being ready to publish is as follows:

  • You know how to legally make money at publishing books.
  • You know how to legally write books.
  • You know how to legally obtain art and other design material for your books.
  • You are comfortable releasing the material.

These are the basic elements of what you need to be ready to publish. Everything else, from formatting to cover design to marketing to managing your social media, you can get help with. But if you don’t cover these four points, you will eventually have problems on a rather large scale.

The first time you address these issues will probably be uncomfortable. A lot of work and research are hidden in each item. Most people who aren’t already running a business will find some of the material difficult to learn (although which parts are difficult will vary).

The focus of the rest of this book will be on the last point: getting you comfortable releasing your material.

But before we can do that, let’s talk about making your business legal…

(Continued here.)

A Visit to Monet

In December of last year, I went to the Denver Art Museum exhibit of Oscar-Claude Monet, an Impressionist painter who died in 1926.

I’ve been trying to attend the bigger exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum over the last few years. I’ve seen Van Gogh, Dior, Rembrandt, Degas, more. It is, first and foremost, an overwhelming experience: first you have to get there. I find driving in city center to be intimidating at the best of times. I normally take the light rail from the Mineral Station to Union Station, and then take the 16th Street pedestrian bus to the Civic Center Station, and walk to the art museum from there.

But it was cold, and damp, and I had bronchitis. I was too stubborn to stay home, but I was not too stubborn to drive. After a few near-misses and wrong turns, I parked, walked over to the Leven Deli Company, had lunch, and walked over to the art museum. I showed my ticket (with these big exhibitions, you have to reserve a time slot ahead of time, or risk missing your chance to see the exhibit) and wandered around for a few minutes until it was time to begin.

I entered the exhibit with about fifty dear strangers, all of whom wanted to see the same thing at the same time, while holding an audio track player up to their ears. What we so intently studied was art by a Monet who competent but not yet identifiable as himself. We saw art by Eugene Boudin, Monet’s mentor, who was also part of the Impressionistic movement and was one of the first French painters to pain en plein air, or outside, in the weather, under the light.

On the one hand, Boudin’s paintings are enjoyable: fresh, vivid, full of technique that allowed the artist to pain very quickly, yet still feel realistic. His work was full of color, and mood, and light.

But soon the path of the exhibit led us away from Boudin.

We studied Monet’s landscape paintings. At first, they contained human figures. One of my favorite paintings of the exhibit was The Beach at Trouville (1870), which showed the boardwalk, houses and churches to the right, tinted golden by southern noon sunlight, and beach-goers in full dress: suits, parasols, dresses with tiers of ruffles. The clouds, the sea are natural colors, the sand is everywhere, boards are warped—and the flags in the background, amusingly, have been caught by the wind at different strengths, so that the ones in the rear of the picture sag, while the ones nearest the painter flutter.

Then the artist begins to reduce the importance of the figures, and finally to skip them altogether, in favor of architecture and nature. He began painting the same scenes repeatedly—he had been doing so previously, but now he began painting series of the same scenes, in different seasons and weather, deliberately, to be shown together. He painted the shimmering colors of light and shadow, and their effect upon plants; he painted the same shimmering colors onto the water; he painted those colors onto the London fogs; he painted the same shimmering colors onto the snow. By the time I left the exhibit, it was difficult for me to see a flat hue, even on a white wall. To see the paintings was to be initiated into a different way of seeing color itself: and that was overwhelming, too.

Finally, he began to focus in upon his garden in Giverny. He planted roses, he designed paths and views, he dug ponds. His most famous paintings, of water lilies, were designed by him personally, from the roots up.

Monet’s art had always been the art of the close-up versus the far-away. To see the paintings in real life is to see how generously open he was about his technique. It seemed as though he had no embarrassment about the impressions he made turning into uninterpretable lines, smears, and dabs upon closer inspection. Some artists seem to fear being “found out,” with their technique being so exact that one is never quite sure whether one is looking at a photograph or a reflection. The Impressionists, of course, flaunted realism as a convention, but Monet seems to have cared even less than usual about exposing the artificiality of his work.

In fact, one of the things that most impressed me was that no two paintings used the same techniques. Dawn might require not just a particular set of colors, but a particular pattern of dry, soft daubs. A stormy noon of intermittent light might require heavy jabs at the canvas, paint laid thick and sharp.  Two paintings of the same scene might almost make you think they had been done by two friends sitting side by side, but certainly not the same painter. It’s only from a distance that the style seems remotely consistent.

And then we come to the room with the lilies.

There’s a short film showing Monet at one of his lily canvases. It’s an enormous canvas, and he’s standing very close to it, turning back and forth between canvas and pond. I’m not sure which particular lily painting he was creating—I forgot to write it down—but it seems almost like a work of magic. He never steps back from the canvas to see what it is that he has painted at a distance. It’s almost as if he isn’t worried about its overall appearance anymore.

By the time I looked at the lily canvases, I was tired and my feet hurt. I was tired of listening to narrators giving me this or that invaluable information about the canvases. I disliked being surrounded by constant throngs of not-terribly-polite people. I was thirsty. My back hurt. I needed to pee.

I had been in the exhibit for three hours by that point.

What caught me then about the lilies wasn’t their colors, or their shapes, or the techniques that had been used. It was the sense that none of it was quite real, and was not—and had never been—an impression of anything that had actually existed.

The colors and shapes had become concepts. Existence was reflection; solidity was transience; boundaries were fuzzy and didn’t quite line up with the edges of things. Some of the edges of the paintings had been left exposed, revealing the canvas, and sometimes had been painted so the canvas showed through in edges throughout.

The colors were beautiful, yes, but they were not real.

I had pushed myself to the point where I felt like I was looking at an artist’s subconscious experience of the idea of reality itself, as though he had painted so attentively, and for so long, that he had begun to glimpse the Matrix, as it were, underlying what he saw, and knew no other way to communicate that.

Also, he was developing cataracts.

I wandered through the souvenir shop, almost bought a small magnet of The Beach at Trouville, didn’t, got a cup of coffee, sat, drank it, felt better.

Most of the attendees had gone by then. The rooms weren’t empty, but I had outlasted most of the visitors. I went through the other exhibitions—Treasures of British Art, Shantell Martin, and The Light Show—which I particularly liked. Pieces showed or used different types of light: shadow puppets, interior design, reflective surfaces, mythological embodiments of light (and darkness), and mirrors, including a mirrored tunnel that was supposed to depict the journey to the afterlife, if I recall correctly. I had to wear shoe covers, which made the glass underfoot feel liquid as I walked.

It was cold, icy, and wet when I left. I took a picture, my brain still overwhelmed by subtleties of light and color.

And went home.





Writing Craft: Lessons In Fiction for the Working Writer

(Patreon Page)

I’ve been talking about it for a while in various formats: writing a book on the craft of writing. The idea both excites me and makes me anxious enough to feel sick to my stomach. (Me? Write a book on writing?!?)

But the time has come. I’m not the best writer ever, but I am in the right spot to write a book on writing, at least for writers who have read all the beginning-writing books and are having issues moving further forward. This isn’t a book for grand masters of the craft. It’s just a book for people who are entering the messy middle of writing, and who feel as lost and helpless I did, when I first entered that realm. I’ve written over 50 novel-length works of fiction now, both under my own name and for my ghostwriting clients. I have a solid place from which to begin this project now, and if I put it off any longer, things will just feel weird.

So: Writing Craft has begun.

Because it’s me, I’m first putting the book up as a set of blog posts. Lots of people have commented to me in person that my writing blogs are interesting and helpful, so I know the format works. I also appreciate comments when I can get them.

However, I’ve learned over the last year that instead of trying to please every reader, I need to focus on the readers who support me. Readers who support my fiction can buy books–but writers who support my craft posts can’t (yet). I debated whether or not to post the blogs on this website concurrently with Patreon, but eventually settled on drawing a boundary between publishing promotional posts for free, versus publishing other types of content. I’m doing a bunch of work that won’t sell my fiction books; I should get paid for it somehow.

I’ve restructured everything (see The Plan, below), am rewriting and re-researching posts, am putting my big-girl professional panties on, and am moving writing-related posts over to Patreon. Later, the same material will come out in ebook and print, but that may take some time.

I will still be posting on my blog, but the posts here will be reader-focused posts rather than writer-focused ones (promotional posts, in other words).  I may put up teaser craft posts here on the blog to help gather up new patrons; I haven’t decided yet.

New posts will go up on Patreon at least every other week, possibly more often if I think of something that isn’t on The Plan that I have to get written down before I forget.

Without further ado…

The Plan:

Individual books:

  • Cover
  • Copyright
  • Table of contents
  • Intro to series
  • Intro to book
  • BOOK (by numbered section): Vocab as necessary, What I’m gonna tell you, The main point of the section, broken down into steps as necessary, Summary, including action items, What’s next
  • Fundamental assumptions section, short rehash of Vol 1.
  • Analysis examples for current volume, as necessary.
  • Worksheets/study projects/sanity checks, as necessary.
  • Resource list
  • About the author
  • Also by
  • About the publisher
  • Newsletter signup
  • Thanks

List of books:

Volume 1: Are You Ready to Publish and Other Burning Questions

1.  Are you ready to publish? A relatively sane self-assessment.

2. How to read like a professional writer (studying).

3. An in-depth discussion of fundamental assumptions, like what to write, reader focus, expectations, imposter syndrome, meta-skills, emotional breakdowns

Volume 2: Writing for an Audience, and Not Just Jotting Down the Movie In Your Head

1. The Principles of Writing Fiction Code: Immersion, Information, and Structure

2. Elements of Immersion

3. Elements of Information

4. Elements of Structure

Volume 3: Dragging the Reader Into Your Story

1. Writing from the Five Senses (and More)

2. How to Write Setting (Basics)

3. How to Write “The Rules”

4. When to Write Immersion Details

5. How to Write an Opening Hook

Volume 4: Keeping the Reader Trapped In Your Story

1. The Character in Your Head vs. the Character on the Page

2. The Elements of a Point of View Character: Background, Opinion, and Presentation

3. Inside Voices vs. Outside Voices

4. Dialogue Tricks

5. Camera Tricks

*Note: I will research a “Writing the Other”-style checklist for the appendix on this one.

Volume 5: Telling Them What You’re Going to Tell Them, Telling Them, Then Telling Them What You Just Told Them

1. One Simple Trick to Boost Your Writing: Tell Them Sooner

2. Basic Scene Structure

3. When to Tell Them What You Want Them to Know (tagging)

4. Clues: When to Tell Them What You Don’t Want Them to Know

Volume 6: Pacing: It’s All in the Timing

1. What is Pacing?

2. Story- and Chapter-Level Pacing

3. Paragraph Pacing

4. Sentence Pacing

5. Word Choice and Other Patterns

Volume 7: Keeping the Reader Up All Night

1. What Makes the Reader Turn the Page?

2. Endings of Chapters: Cliffhangers

3. Endings of Books: Riding Off Into the Sunset

4. How to End a Book When You’re Writing a Series

Volume 8: Getting Away With What You Want to Write, Part 1: The Big Picture

1. Plot vs. Structure.

2. Basic Plot Structure and the Obligatory Joseph Campbell Rant

3. Big-Picture Structure Questions: POV Characters, Story Lengths, Genre

Volume 9: Getting Away With What You Want to Write, Part 2: Down in the Weeds

1. Basic Conflict Structure: The Beat

2. Basic Scene Structure: Putting Openings, Beats, and Closings All Together

Volume 10: Steady As You Go: A Rough Guide to Editing

1. The Trap of Constant Revision, and Possible Paths Ahead

2. The Story You Expected to Write, vs. the Story You Actually Wrote

3. What Actually Went Wrong, and How (and When) to Fix It

4. Are You Ready to Edit Other People’s Work?

5. Rules of Thumb: Critique Groups and Other Feedback, When to Start Over, and Other Reasons to Despair

Volume 11: Writing Like a Magician: Hidden Elements of Fiction

1. Subtext: The Text That May Not Be Written

2. Clues, Red Herrings, Foreshadowing, Hints, and Misdirection

3. Subplots and Other Hidden Structures

4. The Biggest Secret of All: Theme

Volume 12: Getting Away with What You Want to Write, Part 3: Special Topics in Pacing

1. Writing Fast-Paced Scenes

2. Writing Slow-Paced Scenes

3. Writing Suspense

4. Writing Action

5. Writing Comedy

Volume 13: Writing Synopses and Other Sales Materials for Fun & Profit

1. The Fundamentals of Selling Books

2. What Are You Selling? Translating the “Unique Selling Proposition” Question

3. Who Is Your Audience?

4. Guidelines for Synopses

5. Guidelines for Query Letters

6. Guidelines for Book Description and Cover Copy

7. Guidelines for Ad Text

Volume 14: So-and-So Is Selling…Why Not Me?

1. First, Write Good Books (WIBBOW and Writing for Money–or Not)

2. Speed vs. Productivity (Research)

3. Production & Publishing: The Basics

4. Promotions & Marketing: The Very Basics (Genre)

5. Running a Business: The Very Very Basics, Plus, Not a Lawyer


Asshole Theory, Part I

Note: If you’ve seen this before, well, I decided to write this up again; I can’t remember if I posted it here earlier or not, or just posted it on my newsletter. Anyway, I added/changed a few points, based on observations. 

As I look back over the lessons I learned in the previous year, the main one that strikes me is establishing my asshole theory.

Here’s my theory:

About one in four people are assholes.

I got this from walking along a high-traffic, easy-to-access bike and foot trail in Colorado, a place where there are no bars on the cell phone and no one to help you but your fellow travelers. One particularly bad day, I started waving at people. At everyone.

About a quarter of those people who weren’t listening to music or talking to someone else didn’t acknowledge the greeting. They made eye contact. They just didn’t react, or reacted negatively, with contempt.

Colorado, I might note, is a friendly place, where greeting other people is the norm. And I wasn’t doing this in Denver, but in a remote location where it was in the best interests of people to wave: I might be the person who had to get help in case of an accident, after all.

I acknowledge that some people might have waved who were, at heart, assholes, and some people might not have waved who weren’t. But, after several times of doing this, I felt pretty secure in the general proportions. Men, women, people of my race, people not of my race, little kids, old people: it all seemed to run to about one in four people going, “Even though it’s in my best long-term interests to extend some kind of minor acknowledgment of other people’s existence, I won’t.”

(Men will tend not to smile if they were with female partners or if I was with a male partner; I stopped counting those responses. I also didn’t count it if a big group passed by, and only one person greeted me, in case the social dynamic was such that one person was the public “face” that day. Also, people with fishing rods are almost universally not assholes, which is pretty cool.)

What was so game-changing about this theory was that I only just really started to set, and maintain, boundaries this year. Which means that previously, no matter how much I complained or whined or dragged my feet about it, I would, given enough time and pressure, would do what other people wanted to do.

And it was wrecking my life.

The details are still too hot and painful to me to recount in much detail, but to sum up: a lot of people who were my family and friends took advantage of me in ways that made me miserable, broke, and lonely.

Me being able to say “This person is an asshole, that is, a person who thinks mainly or only in terms of selfish, short-term gains, or is controlled by an asshole and is therefore also not reliable” was a relief.

People wanted things. They lied about what they wanted and why they wanted it. They guilt-tripped me, gaslit me, emotionally and verbally abused me, and blame-shifted it all on me.

I was able to go, “It was never about me. This person is an asshole.”

It was a relief.

Side note: I’ve been reading books about sociopathy and narcissism, and it seems pretty standard for the authors to say things like, “about one in twenty people are sociopaths” or “about one in twenty people are narcissists.”  If they’re not exaggerating, that means about one in ten people is a diagnosable narcissist or sociopath. But it’s hard to tell; sociopaths and narcissists tend not to believe that the problem lies with them, and even when they do, admitting a diagnosis like that can get you fired or ostracized.

Time passed and I blocked a lot of people on Facebook. I started to ask myself how I could learn to live with assholes. How to cope. Obviously, with such a big percentage of the population being assholes (at least, by my perceptions), some sort of strategy is necessary: you can’t live your life without having contact with at least some assholes.

I didn’t have a clue what to do at first, but I did start noticing some patterns:

First, the person would go completely overboard building up a bank account of goodwill. Normal people tend to try to do nice things for other people when it doesn’t interfere with their lives. Assholes try to smother you with how impressive the amount of benefits you will receive if you’re their side.

Second, the person would try to manipulate me. Because I didn’t have good boundaries, this would generally work, even though I would pretend to independence—while chewing my fingers until they bled.

Third, the person would become upset because they didn’t feel as rewarded by whatever they got out of me as I felt from what I got out of them—but it didn’t take much to make me feel rewarded, where they had a much higher bar to feeling rewarded, and it didn’t last very long.

Fourth, the person would try punishing me, since establishing that bank account hadn’t worked.

Fifth (usually after several cycles of varying tactics), the person would lash out at me to make me leave without having to actually tell me to leave.

The “story” would then shift so that I had been gaslighting, abusing, and manipulating the asshole all along.  Poor thing!

When I started reading books about narcissism, what I was seeing became not a surprising discovery but old hat, with corresponding terms like “love bombing” and “discard phase.”

In a way, it was reassuring to find out that I wasn’t discovering anything new. But it did make me wonder: why?

It’s not like assholes do a bunch of research before they start acting the way they do. What is it that makes assholes, who, at heart, are really only united by not waving back at strangers on a public trail, behave so similarly, both in the short term and over time?

My theory was incomplete…

I’ll write more of this later, but the article was getting long. If you liked this, try signing up for my newsletter, here. If you’re a writer, please check out my ongoing craft posts here, on Patreon.


Best Books of 2019

For some people, 2019 was a difficult year to get anything read. For others, such as myself, 2019 was a great year for reading. My year, as a reader, was made great by two things:

  • I survived some difficult periods by retreating into books.
  • I planned ahead to make sure I had interesting, well-chosen books to read when I was too upset or depressed or whatever to do anything but read.

Which is not to say that my plans always worked.

The big plan that didn’t work out as anticipated was to read more diverse work, both in the sense of reading authors who weren’t like me, and in the sense of reading more deeply in other genres than horror and mystery.

It was harder than I thought. Like, ridiculously so.

I realize this essay is going to alienate some people—that me, writing down whether or not I met my own reading goals on my own time without preaching about how other people should do the same—is going to alienate some people. Some people will be strongly tempted to contact me to tell me that none of this should matter, or that I’m overthinking things.

Let me state clearly here that it’s important to me, and that if you need to complain about people who think, you may be reading the wrong author.

In 2018, my goals were to get through several best-of lists in horror and crime fiction. It resulted in reading a lot of books that I hated, particularly in the horror genre, where aggressive, offense-intended sexism and racism are often the order of the day, mostly written by Dead White Guys from America and Great Britain. I feel that reading my way through those best-of lists was truly worthwhile (for example, reading 120 Days of Sodom in 2018 made me realize that most people who set out to be offensive are pikers in comparison), but I needed a palate cleanser this year.

My first pass, in early 2019, was to come up with a list of a hundred books that I wanted to read. I divided them into the following quarters:

  • White Men Writing in English
  • White Women Writing in English
  • People of Color Writing in English
  • Books in Translation

And I decided to keep an eye on several best-of lists as well.  Lots of them: a reader-generated list of gothic fiction, NPR’s best-of horror list, the SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks lists, and a list of early crime fiction selected by HRF Keating. Oh, and I was going to magically find time to read a lot of nonfiction somehow. And graphic novels. And new releases.


By June I had read fewer than a third of the books I had on my list, almost no nonfiction, almost no graphic novels, and no books written within, I don’t know, the last decade. I had read a hundred books (one of my superpowers is speed reading). Just not the ones I planned to read.

I tried again, wiping off the list the books I’d read and the books I’d started but couldn’t finish.  Despite my plan, I mostly fell back to my Dead White Guys again, even when I was mostly skimming and hate-reading books to finish them.

(Side note: I decided I can’t read Tananarive Due’s books. She’s excellent, but her stories are about women who are ongoing victims of abusive narcissistic assholes and these women don’t recognize that’s what’s happening, and I finally decided I didn’t need to feel like screaming “Get out you fool” and twitching with PTSD for entire novels at a time. If that’s your sort of thing, I highly recommend them. But they can’t be on my list anymore.)

By November, it was clear that the same pattern was going to emerge: not a lot of nonfiction, graphic novels, or recent work, and a disproportionate amount of Dead White Guys.  This is not to say that the books by the Dead White Guys were objectively—or even subjectively—worse than books by other types of people, just that, after a while, they get me in a rut.

For example, let’s take “Some asshole causes harm to the people around him, mostly written from the perspective of the asshole” as a plot.  It’s a pretty common plot. (One famous example of this is The Shining.)

I read books featuring this plot:

  • White Men/English: 30
  • White Women/English: 9
  • People of Color/English: 9
  • Books in Translation: 9

The assholes didn’t have a specific gender. I didn’t count books where this was a subplot, just the main plot.  It’s not that those books were necessarily good or bad, or that they rewarded or punished the asshole in question; it’s just that I got tired of playing “yes, yes, plot twist, the narrator is the main problem here, I got it.”

There are other ruts. This one in particular got on my nerves.

(Side note: At least one of those white men was a trans man, which made me slap my forehead and realize another area where I was falling down.)

This year, I read:

  • White Men/English: 110
  • White Women/English: 56
  • People of Color/English: 31
  • Books in Translation: 40

Which is lots better than I did in 2018. (There may be errors in counting here, but I’m not dedicated enough to debate them.)

The logic inherent in my categories is that, in the U.S., about two-thirds of us are white and non-Hispanic, and about a third of us aren’t, with about half and half men and women (and half of two-thirds is one third).  I also just like to read books in translation, so I threw that in as another category, to turn my thirds into quarters: the math was easier.

I didn’t track LGBTQIA+ people, Jewish people, handicapped people, or a bunch of other things that I now kinda regret. The main thing I started with in 2018 was going, “I read mostly Dead White Dudes, and I’m getting tired of it.” Then, of course, once I started tracking numbers even after I decided to do something other than read mostly Dead White Dudes, there I was, still reading mostly white dudes, dead or otherwise, and reading too many “written from the perspective of an asshole” books.



I gave myself a budget to-be-read (TBR) pile of 30 books. A book a day is rather ambitious even for me, but I knew there would be a certain number of books that I started and didn’t want to finish or didn’t feel like reading that month after all, and I wanted some wiggle room.

I went through the house, my Kindle, my phone, and the books on my nightstand, and added those to my November list. Then I added the books I thought would come in at the library before December. Then I went, “This is already a disproportionate number of White Dudes.” Because it was.

So I filled out the rest of that list with other types of people.

November went okay.

  • I read more nonfiction than I had been reading, although most of it was writer-related business books rather than the ones I had planned.
  • Graphic novels: on track.
  • Best-of lists: making less progress, but still some on each list.
  • Proportions: 10 White Guys, 8 White Women, 4 People of Color, 3 Books in Translation. Still not great, but better.

December went even better.

  • Nonfiction I fell down on, but did get some read. The books that I have on tap for nonfiction tend to be either in print, or ebooks that I bought. However, what I read first is books that are due back to the library, and books in ebook format (I can read on a Kindle after my spouse is asleep without keeping him up, but the lamp and page-turning sounds of paper bother him).
  • Graphic novels: on track.
  • Best-of lists: on track.
  • Proportions: 6 White Guys, 5 White Women, 6 People of Color, 2 Books in Translation and 8 volumes of a graphic novel in translation.

In conclusion:

Writing these numbers out feels surreal.

I’ve been trying to stop reading mostly Dead White Guys for a year now, and have made improvements but haven’t reached my goals yet, because apparently changing my reading habits is harder than it looks. A white woman, determined to change her reading habits and having the access to the books needed to do so, was unable to successfully do so in the course of a year.

Although she did make strides.

In case you missed a newsletter, here were my best books of 2019:

Proportions: 5 White Men, 1 White Woman, 4 People of Color, 2 Books in Translation (with two fudges on the numbers; 4/1/3/2 if you leave out the fudges).

Disproportionately, the books that I liked (compared to the total number of books I read) were written by people of color. And three of them I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t assigned myself the task of reading more people of color; they weren’t on best-of lists (Mongrels is on the NPR best-of horror list).

In the sense that my tastes have been broadened and my life enriched? This year was obviously a success. In the sense that I still read too many books with the same plot, ehhhh…better than 2018, at any rate.

And finally…

My favorite book of the year? A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar. It was magnificent, and I wish it were being picked up for an HBO series or something. It brutally mocks Hitler, serves as an analysis of why pulp fiction was both good and horrible with a lovely homage, is packed with super-dry humor, and has one of the world’s perfect endings.  Mwah!

Like this post? It, and more like it, can be found in the Wonderland Press Newsletter!

New Release from Blaze Ward Presents: I Like My Science…MAD


I Like My Science…MAD
(Blaze Ward Presents Book 2)

Universal Sales Link | Goodreads

Come with us on a twisted journey of science gone wrong and gods rising to threaten us all. Of private detectives on the moon and dieselpunk ladies saving the day. Academics making dark pacts and taking vengeance into their own hands. Mad.

Includes my story, “The Legends of Castle Frankenstein.”

What is the true story of Castle Frankenstein, the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s famous novel? Was there ever a mad scientist? A monster? A pursuit across the Arctic ice? Because there is a Castle Frankenstein, and you can go there and walk around the ruined stones, poke around in the forest, and eat lunch.

The legends that get told by the people who work at Castle Frankenstein are strange, but the layers leading downward into the truth are stranger.

And stranger…

An alchemist with no soul. A mysterious object falling from the sky. Terrified peasants with pitchforks and torches. An eerie whistling that echoes through the forest. A fallen tower. The elixir of life.

How much is real? How much is just legend?

And just how much of it are the locals covering up?

Let me tell you a story about Castle Frankenstein.

Not the novel written by Mary Shelley but the castle, which actually exists.  Once, years ago, I went to Europe on a Wanderjahr, a year where I toured all over Europe, sketching architecture and seeing parts of the world that weren’t Iowa.  I fell in love that year, had my heart broken, and saw some things that blew my mind.

And, while I was there, visited the actual Frankenstein Castle.

Let me just say, straight off, that the legends you hear about the place are fake.

In case you haven’t heard the fake legend, let me get you caught up on it so I can tell you the real one.  Frankenstein’s Castle is nothing but ruins now, but it was built in the thirteenth century in order to keep an eye on the bandits in the area.  The Baron “von und zu Frankenstein,” was actually a guy named Conrad Reiz; the family eventually died out in the early sixteen hundreds.  The castle was sold to another noble family, the Landgraves of Hesse-Darmstadt, who, having better things to do than take care of the place, started to let it fall into ruin.

The landgraves aren’t the mad scientists in this scenario.

But there was one.

Johann Conrad Dippel was born at the castle in 1673 and was later hired on as a professional alchemist.  Back then there really were such things as professional alchemists.  He created a formula that was supposed to be the Elixir of Life: a nasty, sludgy black liquid that was supposed to extend the life of the user to one hundred and thirty-five years.

In the fake legend, Dippel blew up one of the castle towers while making the elixir of life, then offered to trade the (now ruined) castle in exchange for the recipe.  The landgraves refused. Dippel went elsewhere with his discovery, eventually using his elixir of life to help create a synthetic version of Prussian blue pigment—which was a huge deal at the time, considering that you used to have to make blue pigments by grinding up lapis lazuli stones, literal jewels.  So trading a castle for the recipe to a cheaply manufactured pigment might not have been a bad idea at the time.

However, Dippel was no misunderstood hero.  He was a complete asshole.  He would dig up corpses and perform anatomical experiments on them.  Aha, you’re saying.  Just like in the novel.  Right, but it gets weirder.  One of the things he tried to do was switch souls between bodies using funnels.

Not living bodies, mind you.  Just dead ones.

Dippel was so off-putting that the benchmark of religious oddity at the time, Emanuel Swedenborg, called him “a most vile devil…who attempted wicked things.”  This from a guy who believed that he could freely travel between heaven and hell and speak to angels, demons, and the dead.  He also claimed that Dippel tried to sway people away from Christianity and “take away all their intelligence of truth and good, and leaving them in a kind of delirium.”

Finally, Dippel decided it was time to put his money where his mouth was and drink his elixir of life, after which he promptly died.

Afterwards, this elixir, known as Dippel’s Oil or bone oil, was used as an insect and animal repellant and was even used in World War II as a chemical warfare agent.  Dump some oil in a desert well, and the water would be undrinkably foul, but not actually fatal (Dippel’s death to the contrary).  Which meant that using it wasn’t a violation of the Geneva conventions.

How much of the above is true, I can’t say, other than that Dippel didn’t blow up a tower, because there weren’t any.  They were added during the nineteenth century, long after his death.

There are other cool legends about the castle that have nothing to do with the “Frankenstein” story.  For example, there’s a fountain of youth that only married women could use, and then only one day a year and only if they performed a feat of bravery.  The original St. George versus the dragon story possibly happened in the area.  And Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied might have been murdered nearby, of which the fat ladies of Wagner’s operas doth sing.  A section of the forest, the Odenwald, has magnetic rocks that screw with compasses.  The area is so famously weird that the Ghost Hunter International crew even filmed an early episode at the castle.  Every castle has its ghost, often headless, and sometimes they’re nuns.  The devil has a dozen landmarks named after him.  Witches are everywhere.  Some of them are like, “Black cats?  Pffft.  Hold my beer and watch me turn into a pig.”

Mary Shelley was known to have come within ten miles of the castle two years before she wrote her book, but never saw the castle itself.  But the coincidences between the legend and her novel seem too much to ignore completely.

As in, the book’s called Frankenstein.


But, as I said, that’s not the real legend, just the fake one.

Want to read more? Click here.

New Release from the Uncollected Anthology: Crossroads Hotel

Uncollected Anthology: Crossroads Hotel

Universal Sales Link | Goodreads

Negotiate a convention of funeral directors and order a grilled cheese sandwich. Discover how walking upstairs can change your life or a watch can end it. Park your car out of the rain and unpack your suitcase. Just don’t piss off the kitchen staff. 8 stories where fate controls the front desk!

Includes my story, “Memento Temporis.”

It’s thirty years to the day that Jim lost the love of his life, Laina Jarvy, back in 1929. Now a colleague’s wife has a gift for him: a watch that will take him back in time to save Laina, and instructions on how to use it.

Jim’s willing to pay whatever price is necessary to save her–but the offer that he’s given in the past, at the mysterious Crossroads Hotel, smells more than a little like yesterday’s fish.

Is he about to save Laina?

Or get stiffed?

I drove carefully on my way to the hotel. The last thing I wanted to do get in a car accident.

In my pocket was a yellowed piece of paper. The thing had to be decades old. It had some instructions on it, and an address to a place called “The Crossroads Hotel.” I had hired a car, a 1927 Moon Sedan manufactured in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a brand-new car, but I had some trouble adjusting to the old-timey controls.

In my pocket beside the yellowed piece of paper was a pocket watch. It looked like a Lalique piece, and about as delicate as a perfume bottle. The front was studded with moonstones and enameled with a design of bats and witches. The bats and the witches sort of faded into each other, so it took some investigation to tell where one started and the other ended. On top of the winding-stem, for the chain-loop, was a snake eating its own tail.

Inside, the watch face was more unusual than I care to explain. The watch had nothing to do with telling the time, and everything to do with telling time what to do.

I had come from 1959, all the way back to 1929. Thirty years.

Science hadn’t brought me here. Aliens hadn’t crash-landed in the Nevada desert, bringing time-traveling technology down to mankind. A nuclear explosion hadn’t knocked me for a time loop.

Instead, I had borrowed a pocket watch from a woman in 1959. Nancy Mattson was the wife of a junior colleague at Concordia University, in Portland. She had a wide brow and a cleft chin. You could just as easily imagine her in a suit and tie as a cocktail dress. She had that kind of mannish face. She was a good hostess—kept the vodka in the freezer box and was never afraid of putting out the sardines or Tabasco sauce.

I don’t know how she knew to give me the watch, but she did.

It was that time of year again, July 16th. I wasn’t teaching summer classes and I didn’t have anything to get me out of bed in the mornings other than running out of cigarettes on my nightstand. It was the anniversary of her death—the woman who should have been my wife. I had lost Laina in Portland thirty years ago, to the day. Now instead of being a young writer with promise, I was a middle-aged professor with leather patches on his elbows to cover up the fabric getting worn through.

I had been invited to a faculty dinner-and-drinks party at Mike Mattson’s house, and I had accepted on the grounds that being bored to death by faculty summer gossip would be less fatal than being home alone that night.

About eight o’clock, Nancy pulled me aside by the drinks table. “Jim, you look like death warmed over. Whatever is the matter? You didn’t get fired, did you?”

“It’s that date again,” I said, swaying a little. I hadn’t gone easy on the ice-cold vodka. Or the sardines. I must have been a real jewel. “Thirty years now. Christ, I shouldn’t have come tonight.”

“That date?” she asked. “What date?”

And, there and then, I was drunk enough to tell her what had happened…

Click here to read more!

New Release: Crime du Jour!

Crime du Jour: 31 Tales of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality

Kindle | Goodreads

A crime a day keeps the injustice away.

31 very short tales of crime and criminals, from Aggravated Assault to White-Collar Crime, for those days when you need to escape from law and order…

…and through the loopholes to the dark side of justice.

These are the same stories as in the October 2019 series below, but now with an introduction, more editing, and a convenient ebook format.  The ebook is currently exclusively on Kindle as I do some sales testing, but probably won’t stay. Please contact me if you need a non-Kindle verion and are willing to leave me a review on Goodreads or Library Thing 🙂

The major change is to the Homicide story, which is now renamed “The Little Old Ladies’ Club” and has the ending reworked, because I hated it. C’est la guerre.

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