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How to Study Fiction, Part 22: The Fall of the House of Usher

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Usher’s house keeps falling down, falling down, falling down!

Today’s adventure in wrecking Poe-etic houses is about content vs. pacing in sentences.  Why are some of the sentences longer than others?  And why are they placed in the order that they are?

Here’s the opening paragraph from “The Fall of the House of Usher” again:

1. (60 words – 10 punct.) DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

2. (22 words – 4 punct.) I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

3. (32 words – 4 punct.) I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

4. (80 words – 10 punct.) I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

5. (29 words – 4 punct.) There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

6. (22 words – 3 punct.) What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

7. (21 words – 1 punct.) It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

8. (42 words – 5 punct.) I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

9. (95 words – 14 punct.) It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Now, if you’re a beginning writer, one of the pieces of advice you receive is to not make every sentence the same length.  Yay!  Good advice.

But why?

The explanation you get is that it sounds weird and kind of boring/monotonous if your sentences are all the same length.  Fair enough; they do.

But that’s not the only reason.  Now that you’re an intermediate writer, it’s time to dig a little deeper, because going, “You should always have sentences of different lengths” doesn’t tell anyone what lengths of sentences to have, or why.  Should you have a range of long (20+ words) to super-long sentences (sky’s the limit), or a range of super-short (under five words, for example) to medium-length (fifteenish word) sentences?

And why?

Different sentence length do different things for a sentence, so it’s not like you can go, “I use longer sentences to lull the reader into a false sense of security.”  Hemingway used short sentences to lull the reader into a false sense of security; Agatha Christie used a variety of lengths to do the same.  This false sense of security, it’s everywhere!

So how do you decide?

Let’s look at the first sentence again:

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

The bare minimum content of this sentence is:

One day, I went to the House of Usher.

Next sentence:

I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

Bare minimum content:

It was depressing.

Third sentence:

I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

Bare minimum:

Not even poetically depressing.

Fourth sentence:

I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

Bare minimum:

Just depressing.

Fifth sentence:

There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

Bare minimum:

Bleah.

Sixth sentence:

What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

Bare minimum:

Why did I even feel that way?

Seventh sentence:

It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

Bare minimum:

No idea, but I couldn’t shake it.

Eighth sentence:

I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

Bare minimum:

Sometimes we just can’t know why we feel what we feel.

Ninth sentence:

It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Bare minimum:

But maybe if the house had been a little different it wouldn’t be so depressing, I thought, so I looked down in a pool of water at the house’s reflection and it was even worse.

To put the bare minimum interpretation together, here is the basic content of the first paragraph:

One day, I went to the House of Usher.  It was depressing.  Not even poetically depressing.  Just depressing.  Bleah.  Why did I even feel that way? No idea, but I couldn’t shake it. Sometimes we just can’t know why we feel what we feel. But maybe if the house had been a little different it wouldn’t be so depressing, I thought, so I looked down in a pool of water at the house’s reflection and it was even worse.

If you haven’t taken a moment to reread (or type in!) “The Fall of the House of Usher” lately, please do.

Throughout the story, the narrator sees–but doesn’t seem to understand–that the Usher family, and his friend in particular, have been engaging in self-destructive, irrational behavior, which probably includes incest.  The whole story, or at least one aspect of it, might be said to be an exercize in providing clues to the reader without ever resolving the mystery per se.  Why did the House of Usher fall?  What ruined it?  It’s a mystery, says the narrator.  Uh-huh.

But then again, I’ve been working a lot on how to add clues to a mystery; thequestion, “How can I hide something in plain sight?,” has been much on my mind.  So that is the aspect I’m going to address here, because it’s what’s obsessing me, not because it’s the One True Answer.

What you find, if you choose to do an independent analysis, will likely be different.

When I look at the content of the paragraph, I see a clue that’s hiding in plain sight.  The unnamed narrator sees what he sees, but, because he can’t explain it logically or doesn’t like what it implies about his feelings, tries to explain it away.  “Shut up, intuition!” says the narrator.

As I continued studying the story, I then kept an eye out for that kind of pattern and saw it everywhere.  Usher gives a hint and the narrator explains it away.  Over and over again.

I did not pick up on this the first time I read this story, or the fifth.  I typed it in, was therefore forced to slow down, and, when I started looking for patterns, had dragged up what I had understood subconsciously the first time to a conscious level so I could actually see it.

The way the sentences are written are readable, but not simple.  At some level, I suspect Poe wanted the reader to be able to read his story, but be at least a little distracted.

His sentence-by-sentence description focuses on the house.  The visuals of what he describes are the house.  But that really isn’t what the content is about–the content is about the narrator’s feelings.

Why doesn’t Poe focus on the narrator’s feelings?  Why does he uses his style to distract from his content?

From my perspective (which isn’t objective, but is in answer to the question of “how to hide things in plain sight” that I brought with me to this study), this story is about distracting oneself from unpleasant truths.

The content of the first paragraph is about distracting oneself from an unpleasant truth; the style distracts the reader from the unpleasant truth that sometimes we distract ourselves from unpleasant truths.

The lengths of the sentences are used as a tool to help accomplish the content of the story.  The two shortest, clearest sentences say, “Why did I feel this way?” and “Dunno.”  That which is clearest is also the most misleading.

So, to sum up what I learned about sentence lengths in this paragraph:

  • Poe may be using super-long sentences to screw with his readers.
  • Watch out if a sentence looks relatively straightforward.

Do you need to write this way?

No!

But you may want to steal the technique once in a while.  Studying like this is not about learning “the right way” to write, or even to analyze.  It’s about learning different techniques that you can then steal, period, end of story.  If your subconscious is like, “Ugh, I don’t even care,” then you won’t end up with the same analysis.  Your subconscious–your muse, if you will–will take you elsewhere.

The important part of studying any work at this level is to follow your muse, not mine.  Some authors will align their content and their sentence style so that their sentences make their content obvious.  Other authors, like Poe, will set up unreliable narrators (as in this story–who can trust a guy who lies to himself?).

What I want you to take away here is that asking, “Why are the sentences in this work the way they are?” is a question that can lead to all sorts of unexpected techniques which you can then steal.  Don’t limit yourself to saying, “Because they’re easy to read” or “Because you should vary the lengths of your sentences.”  That is often not the whole story.

And, as a reminder, don’t even think about this stuff while you’re writing.  It’s for analysis only.  Your muse will steal what it wants and use it when it wants.  Mostly where you’ll actually be conscious of this is when you’re editing and go, “Oh, I shouldn’t screw with that long sentence…I need it to lie to the reader” or whatever.

The more you know, the less you’ll screw up your work during edits.

Next time:  Let’s look at some paragraphs.  What are Poe’s paragraphs like in Usher?  How long are they? Do they vary?  I’m going to say they’re super-long off the cuff, because when I was typing them in, I kept going, “UGH JUST KILL ME I WANT TO STOP FOR THE DAY BUT I SWORE I WOULD FINISH TYPING IN THIS PARAGRAPH AND THAT WAS LIKE THREE KINDLE PAGES AGO.”

But let’s look at them anyway.  Who knows what we’ll find?

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

 

 

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 19: The Fall of the House of Usher

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Today is my first post exploring some analysis of “The Fall of the House of Usher”!  I’m going to focus on structural analysis, because that seems to be both the hardest type of analysis to find (at the moment I’m writing this) and involves some of the most interesting aspects about the story.  A link to the Project Gutenberg version of the story is here.

(I picked that version because a) it’s free, and b) because we’re looking mostly at structural level stuff, any typos aren’t going to be hugely relevant, so pointing back to an authoratative version that you have to pay for isn’t going to be all that important.)

BRIEFLY:  Structure, for our purposes here, isn’t going to be about plot structure.  There are a million books that will walk you through plot structure, and you should have read some of them as a beginning writer (and will likely have to continue to read them as an intermediate writer).  What we’re talking about is how the events of the story are put together and why.

A lot of people can tell you vaguely what “The Fall of the House of Usher” is about:  some dude, the narrator, goes to his friend’s house; the friend may or may not be nuts; the friend has a sister; she dies; the friend might have been having sex with her; the house falls down; the narrator escapes.

But how are those events (the plot) unfolded?  Which events are told in backstory and which in real time?  Which events are not told at all, but implied?  Are there any tricks to how the story is told that themselves reflect the content of the story?

Let’s find out!

(A note:  I’m super nervous about how this is going to pull off.)

The Fall of the House of Usher

Step one:  Reread the story!

Step two:  Type it in!  It is approximately 7,000 words long.  Don’t do this all at once.  Type in about one to two thousand words a day.  Don’t “fix” anything; just type it in the way you see it.  Note: you may want to adjust the width of the lines in the story so they’re about twenty to twenty-five words long, which is about the width of a modern book and is about as many words as a normal reader can comprehend without some sort of break.

Step three: Understand that Poe was a) writing for another time, and b) a genius.  You may not understand all the things at first glance.  I often found myself at the end of a day’s typing telling myself that I was never going to get this.

Step four:  Make some notes about what you observe about the story.  Whatever you observe about the story.  This will help clear your head so you can observe new things.

Step five:  When you’re done with that, let’s begin some structural analysis, starting with the pacing:

  • How long are the words?  What level of vocabulary are we talking here?
  • Can you hear an “accent” to the words that place the narrator’s background?
  • How long are the sentences?
  • Are the sentences straightforward or complex (a good rule of thumb is that complex sentences get a lot of punctuation)?
  • How long are the paragraphs?
  • How long is the story?
  • Do word lengths change?  Where?  Do they change back?
  • Does anything about the “accent” change?
  • Do sentence lengths change?  Do they change back?
  • Do sentence complexities change at all?
  • Do paragraph lengths change?
  • Is there anything that fundamentally breaks a pattern within the story?

After that, we’ll start asking bigger questions about the story, but when you first start doing structural analysis, it’s easier to start with the pacing.  Once you’re intimately familiar with pacing, the structural-level patterns start popping out.

Something to note: 

I’ve found that typing things in hasn’t lost its usefulness yet.  I expected to be able to take in everything I was studying without having to keep typing things in after a few months.

Five years later, I’m still typing things in, but I no longer need to stop and ask myself whether the sentences are long or whether there’s a change in paragraph length.  I look for other, more interesting patterns. But I had to start with the pacing; it’s hard to learn how to think this way, but it’s harder not to, if you’re trying to become a long-term professional writer, a master of the art.

As you become comfortable with a technique, you’ll be able to note when an author uses it without having to analyze it specifically.   But until you look at low-level structural questions in detail, it may be difficult to notice the higher-level techniques that I’m going to point out later.

“Where does she get this stuff?” may cross your mind a time or two.  The answer is, “She’s been typing things in for five-plus years now, and a thing or two sank in.”

A friend of mine once said that being a black belt in a martial art was where the learning really begins.  It’s also where you start studying masters instead of studying moves.

Same thing with writing.  We’re shifting from following rules to studying technique.  Beginning writers expect to have the rules and explanations handed to them on a platter; intermediate writers have to start becoming the people who can make the rules and explanations for the beginners.

Next time, I’ll go over the points above on pacing in the story, pointing out some things that I think might help give a sense of what to look for.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

Current Marketing Strategies

I didn’t have the time or energy to write a long post this week, but yesterday I ended up checking in with myself about what I know about marketing.  Admittedly, this isn’t much.  But when I started trying to bootstrap myself out of complete lack of sales, it was less, so I’m gonna count it a win.

Current marketing strategies, in order:

  1. Keep writing.  You can’t sell what you don’t produce.
  2. Keep studying.  It’s easier to sell a good book than a bad one.
  3. Don’t let the money fall out (keep it easy for people to find what they need and buy it).  MAKE SURE YOUR FANS & POTENTIAL FANS CAN GET IT.
  4. Keep networking.  A lot of my recent opportunities have come directly or indirectly from people I met ten years ago.
  5. Don’t sell plots, sell reader feelings.  People won’t remember your plots unless you make them feel the way they want to feel.

There’s a possible sixth but I’m still testing it out:

Don’t waste time on assholes.  They aren’t actually networking with you, helping your career, or providing any kind of support, even when there’s money involved; they’re using you and will, over the long haul, screw you over.  Make time and room for people who, when you do nice things for them, don’t make feel like you’re pouring your time down a gaping pit or that they’re blowing smoke up your ass.

I mean, obviously it’s a good idea–but is it a good marketing idea?

Pondering…

Want to get a list of plot ideas for stories within stories?  Sign up for my newsletter or Patreon and wait for January’s issue of the Wonderland Press-Herald, which is really just my newsletter but this morning I went, I COULD CALL THIS A NEWSPAPER WHICH WOULD BE FAR MORE AMUSING.  Anyway, click here.

How to Study Fiction, Part 18: Intro to some case studies on Poe

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

I really like looking at Edgar Allan Poe stories, not just because of the dark, Gothic subject matter, but also because he is such a nerd when it comes to structure.  I’ve been typing in a number of his stories lately.  I started with “The Cask of Amontillado” a while ago, but I think I’ve talked enough about that story by now.  Maybe I’ll type my analysis all up in one place when I turn this into a book, eh?  But the latest spat of type-ins started in November with “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  I’m working on a Gothic novel about a house and thought typing in Poe would help me stay in a Gothic frame of mind:  long, twisty sentences, thick paragraphs, big vocabularies, foreboding statements galore!

But of course I found more than that.  I think the reason that Poe is so interesting on a structural level is that he was also, perhaps even primarily, a master poet who worked in formal verse, uniting form and structure as he went.  (I suspect that one day he noticed the fact that a repeated word first becomes distorted, then loses meaning, in a process known as “semantic satiation” and decided to write horror poems in which both meaning and sanity decline simultaneously.  Check out “The Bells” for a good example.)

In his stories–as I’m rediscovering, in even more depth–Poe unites form and content so smoothly that sometimes it’s difficult to notice when it’s happening.  It is that smooth.  But once you see it, it’s like having a hidden image pop out, and you can’t un-see it.  Poe wrote some serious, dark-minded stuff…but often in his darker stories is a hidden joke buried in the structure.

Note, I’m going to take the stories in kind of the same order that I studied them, which doesn’t follow publication order, but rather my whim.  I could put them in order, but then I’d have to explain Poe-analysis things in story A when really I discovered them in story B.

When I start studying a story, I start by typing it in, basically until I get bored.  With short stories, I usually type the whole thing in–with novels, not so much.

Things I start looking for, more or less in order:

  • The feel of the sentences:  length, content, vocab, structure (short and direct, or long and twisted? lots of punctuation or not much? what kind of punctuation?).
  • The feel of the paragraphs:  length, content, structure.
  • The shift between the opening and the middle of the scene (going from setup to action).
  • The try/fails of the middle, how long they are, how many of them.
  • How the scene wraps up, how long it is.

At that point, I stop and ask myself what I liked or didn’t like about the scene, and what, if anything, else I noticed.  I also make a note of the POV character(s), any head-hopping, and try to sum up what happened in the scene, in general.  Why were all the elements of the scene in that scene and not another one?  That’s the general question I’m trying to answer.

Then I’ll move along to the next scene, either until I’m done or until I feel like I’ve picked up the author’s techniques in that part of the book.  I’ll keep re-reading (I never start studying until after I’ve read the story, and re-read it if it hasn’t been lately) until I get to something where I go, “WHAT WAS THAT?  HOW EVEN.”  Which is pretty often, honestly; if it sounds like I know everything about how stories get written sometimes, it’s mostly just because I’m running off at the mouth.  There is such a huge amount to learn, I don’t know if anyone can grasp it all.  It’s pretty normal to get intimidated once you start opening up the hood on these stories and tracing where the wires and gears all go.

A note about novels:  I’ll sometimes set up an excel spreadsheet so I can study how often POVs show up (for example, in Game of Thrones), or what types of endings each scene has throughout the book. It’s sometimes easier for me to see patterns when I can color-code them.  So if I’m working on a novel, I’ll make notes as I go, like, “What’s going on with all the POVs here?” and look at it later in a spreadsheet.

When I’m done with my first pass of a story (and answered any questions I might have via spreadsheet for novels, if necessary), then I’ll step back and go, “Why did the author make the structural decisions that they made?”

I cannot recommend attempting to make that kind of analysis without doing the typing.  It’s always tempting to try to pick something apart without really understanding it, but, when it comes to analysis, you can only reach as far as your pre-existing prejudices when you do that.  Type it in.  Some of the stuff I’ll be talking about is a freaking magic trick, and you won’t be able to see how it’s done without practicing it yourself first.  No matter how clumsy it makes you feel!

As I said last time, most of the time (especially in novels), you want to go with a structure that is pretty normal for the genre and subgenre you’re writing in.  Once you’ve pulled apart a few stories that fit that mold–the pop song structure of fiction–then it starts to become obvious when something is or is not following that mold.

The answer to the question, “Why did the author write to fit the mold?” is pretty simple:  they wanted to meet reader expectations.  They didn’t feel like reinventing the wheel!  The answer to the question, “Why didn’t the author write to fit the mold?” is usually pretty interesting, though:  it’s generally to solve a problem that they couldn’t solve within the mold, or to show off.  Sometimes both.

Next time, we’ll get into “The Fall of the House of Usher,” what a douche Usher was, and how Poe made everyone think that it was a story about incest without the narrator ever going there.

Free book and other curiosities here.

 

The Art of Lockpicking

On June 23, I went to an introductory lockpicking class, The Art of Lockpicking, hosted by Atlas Obscura and taught by Jeremiah Jensen.

It was held at the Lighthouse Writers’ Race Street location, which I’d never been to before.  It’s a charming location aswamp in parking issues, so I was late getting there.  Fortunately, although most of the people there were not writers, it was still like herding cats, and they didn’t start without me. (Whew!)  I want to say there were about sixty people, but that’s just a guesstimate.

Each of us received a lockpicking kit, a pen case big enough to hold the lockpicks (sneaky), and a clear practice lock, so you can see all the little pieces inside the lock.  And a piece of fine-grit sandpaper.  More on that in a bit.

The class started with a lot of rustling, scraping, and cursing as people tried to figure out how to use their lockpicking sets unaided.  Some of the people were actually able to open their locks!  I found out later that some lockpicking enthusiasts had attended, though, so I suspect that a) they were able to open their very easy practice locks, and b) they were teaching other people as they went.

As for myself, I resisted the urge.  I was late, it was time for the class to start, and if I started working on the lock I would either break something or not be able to pay attention to what was going on until I got it figured out.  Counterproductive.

Eventually we started.  The teacher was a tall man with a beard, tattoos, and a swirl of green hair on top of his head, named Jeremiah Jensen.  He had got his start with a practice set in high school that he never used–or, rather, he had dug out the practice set once he had started working at the lock station at Home Depot.

Here are the ethics of lockpicking, somewhat paraphrased:

  • Never open a lock without express owner permission.  It’s easy to break a lock.  HEY IT’S EASY TO BREAK A LOCK MAYBE DON’T DO YOUR FRONT DOOR ‘KAY?
  • Never help people who want to use your lockpicking skills in a criminal manner.
  • Be mindful of laws about lockpicking equipment.  It’s legal to have it in Colorado, but that’s not always the case.

Locksport is the art of lockpicking as a competitive sport.  The r/lockpicking subreddit is an excellent resource, including its own wiki.  (As with all things reddit, Read The F@#$%^& Manual before asking questions.)  Masterlocks are cheap and a good place to start, although you may be disappointed with how easily it is defeated.

The most famed year in lockpicking history was 1851.

It was London, and the Great Exhibition had just started up.  A sophisticated, unpickable lock had been created by Jeremiah Chubb.  Not only was it a damnably hard lock to pick, but if one nudged it just a bit too hard, the tumblers would jam in place.  A second key was required to unjam the lock, turning it the opposite direction as the key that would unlock the lock.  (This second key wouldn’t unlock the lock, just unjam the tumblers.)

An American gentleman named A.C. Hobbs picked this lock in about 25 minutes…as a warmup to a second lock, the famed Joseph Bramah safety lock, which had proved unpickable for about 60 years.

Hobbs picked it in 14 days, at the Great Exhibition.

Every lock since then has been crafted in the knowledge that cannot provide perfect security.

There’s always something.  (Here’s a link to an article about Hobbs’s challenge.)

We were then given a tour of the lockpicking set.  There were several tension bars, basically thin, l-shaped sheets of metal sturdy enough to turn the machinery inside the lock, but delicate enough to help transmit the vibrations inside the lock, to aid in sensing where everything is when you’re not working on a clear plastic lock.

Inside that clear plastic lock is a plug, or the turney bit where the key rests.  Resting inside the plug in the most inconvenient way possible are several pins held in place by small springs.  The pins are in two parts, with half of the pin above the plug, and half of the pin inside the plug.  If the pins are lined up exactly with all pins half above and half inside the plug, then the plug can be turned.

A key lines those pins up in their proper and convenient location.  With a little luck, a lockpicker can line the pins up manually.  The pins aren’t perfect, see, so you can nudge them into place one at a time, and, if you’re putting the most delicate amount of pressure on the tension bar, they’ll kind of stick in place.

The actual lockpicks come in several flavors.  Every lock (even two locks of the same brand and model) has its own personality; likewise, every lockpicker has their own personality.  So there is no “perfect lockpick,” only the right lockpick for that lock at that time, used by that person.

Our lockpick sets came with “hooks,” which looked as described, in which one pin at a time could be nudged in place.  They also came with “rakes,” which look like tiny key sections with triangle-shaped teeth that can be raked across the pins so that more than one pin nudges into place at a time.  There were some other tools, too, like a tiny set of tweezers for repairing and resetting pins after you’ve pulled a lock completely apart, and a fish-hook-shaped one that was for digging out busted pieces of key or lockpick.

“All right,” the teacher said.  “Now let’s work on opening our locks.”

Step 1: Insert the tension bar into the practice lock.  The plug in a pin lock turns clockwise only!  I’m left-handed, so this caused me issues at first, since the way I was holding it gave a counter-clockwise turn.  Delicately insert the short piece of the tension bar into the keyhole.  Turn it clockwise (lockwise?).  Gently.  GENTLY.  You will almost certainly turn it too hard at first.

Step 2.  Insert one of the rakes, preferably one with two or three top triangles. If you feel resistance to doing so, it’s because you’re turning the tension bar too damn hard.  What did I just tell you?  Don’t turn it so hard!

Step 3.  Move the rake back and forth so you can see the pins moving around in the practice lock.

  • If the pins aren’t moving at all, then you’re not touching the pins with the rake.
  • If the pins rise and fall, you are turning the tension bar the wrong way.
  • If the pins rise but do not fall, great!
  • If the pins rise so that you can see both pins, they’re up too far.  Release the tension bar and go “damn it!” as the pins drop back down.  You have to be patient about this.  Do not become so annoyed by this that you put too much tension on the tension bar.  Tension is not the answer here.
  • What did I tell you about that tension bar?!?
  • When the space between the two pins lines up with the plug on all the pins, victory!  You should feel the lock kind of give in your hand.  Increase the tension on the tension bar (finally), and the plug should turn inside the lock.
  • Congratulations!  You just spent like 45 minutes opening your first lock!
  • Now do it again!
  • Optional:  If your pick is sticking on the pins, you can give the pick a bit of a rub with the old sandpaper to smooth the points out juuuust a smidge.

Seriously, once I had the clockwise thing figured out, it only took about ten minutes.  (Your mileage may vary.)  But I wouldn’t expect to be able to pick up a practice lock and magically all better it in ten seconds.  There’s a real “feel” to it that you can’t know before you know it, which is annoying to try to explain.  (When I came home that night, I tried to explain it to Lee and Ray and failed miserably.) It takes time and intelligent trial and error.

The set we had was fairly cheap; a good site for quality premade lockpicks is Sparrow.  You can make your own tension bars from the metal strip on a windshield wiper and probably should.  You can also cut your own lockpicks using a template and a Dremel.

Some other notes:

  • Zipping is a lockpicking technique where you use a diamond (one point) rake by sticking it all the way in and pulling it out in a steady motion across the pins.
  • Rocking is a lockpicking technique where you use a city rake (it looks like a toothy skyline) to gently rock against the pins until the magic happens.
  • Single pin picking is where you use a hook to nudge one pin at a time, for more fussy locks, such as ones that have a…
  • A security pin, which is a pin specially build to jam into place if you screw around with it too much, causing you to have to constantly start over.  There are other tricks to annoy you on more sophisticated locks as well.
  • If it’s not a pin lock with one side of uneven teeth on the key, then it’s probably either harder or impossible to pick with a standard lockpicking set, and you’ll need more tools.  See the r/lockpicking subreddit.
  • The Victorian type locks are lever locks, and require different tools and techniques.
  • You can get a lot of vintage and uncommon locks at ReStore (locally, the Highlands Ranch one is especially good).
  • Check YouTube for helpful videos.
  • Hacker conventions almost always have a locksport alley, because people who love security…love all types of security.
  • Your new recommended reading list is A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh, and The Complete Book of Locks and Locksmithing by Bill Phillips.

I didn’t have any spare locks to practice on until Saturday this week, when I picked some up at a flea market.  I have yet to dig into them with the lockpicking set–my first non-clear locks–so I don’t exactly feel like a “real” lockpicker yet.  And it really makes me want to find out how to pick Victorian locks of the cheaper sort, the lever locks.  But I haven’t dug into that yet, either.

I feel somewhat changed overall, though.  Knowing that I can learn how to pick a lock quickly (well…) makes me realize that there are a ton of people out there who a) can do this, and b) will just break down or pry open doors and windows.  It’s happened to me before; someone broke into our house in 2015 as we were moving.  A prybar to the door with the real estate agent’s lockbox on it, and they instantly achieved free rent + everything we still had in the shed in the back.

Security is an illusion.  “Locks are to keep honest people honest,” as Mr. Jensen kept saying.

True.  It feels weird to be on the other side of that equation now, though.

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I Survived Denver Comic-Con, and All I Got Was This…

I survived Denver Comic-Con, and all I got was a stupid Nakitomi Plaza Parking Permit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actually, I got a few other things, but none of them cost more than a dollar.  Or were eaten before I left for home.

Friday:

I was on a panel for Indie Book Publishing with Marla Bell, Lisa Manifold, and Michaela Mills.  We could have talked about marketing for hours.  One of the things Lisa said stuck with me:  “Find your tribe.”

Yeah,  yeah, right right, says me, I’ve found it.  Then she said, “For your genre.”

D’oh!  I’m in several indie publishing groups, but nothing for indie sf/f, horror, or mystery.

Hmmm…sounds like it’s time to do some research.

Then came Letters Written From Hell, a pleasant sort of panel about what makes horror writers tick.  I moderated that one, and was sure to establish that horror writers weren’t nuts…or at least handled their issues better than the average bear.  That panel starred Shannon Lawrence, Jason Dias, Emily Godhand, and Patrick Hester.

We established that horror writers may be slightly weighted toward people raised Catholic (3 of 5 panelists), and that in a hypothetical novel written by all five of us, the audience greatly preferred to have Shannon as the psychotic antihero, and darling Emily Godhand writing the bad guy.  Apparently, readers like plot twists.  Who knew?  And also Patrick’s space spiders…

Friday’s panels were wrapped up with Favorite Horror Tropes, moderated by Melissa Sauer Locy, and also starring Veronica R. Calisto, Emily Godhand, Stace Johnson, and Shannon Lawrence.

Okay.  I’m gonna admit that I mostly blanked this one out.  There were soooo many people and my brain was kind of on static by that point.  I remember talking about child abuse and The Babadook.  That’s about it.

Friday photos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rincewind and Twoflower from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  I first spotted Rincewind from behind, circled around to check that it was a “wizzard” hat, slyly pulled out my phone, and said, “May I take a picture?”

“If you wait a moment, you can get Twoflower, too.”

!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not sure if these are particular furries or just furries in general.  But the girl was 100% delighted to get a selfie with them.  I couldn’t help but smile.

Saturday:

The first panel of the day was Creating Believable MonstersMatt Bille moderated.  He has a love of scientifically valid monsters that I just can’t equal.  The important thing to me is that the characters believe the monsters they face, not that the monsters could really exist.  But we discussed that ahead of time, and Matt handled the disagreements gracefully.  Also on the panel were Fleur Bradley, Veronica R. Calisto, Stace Johnson, and Shannon Lawrence.

Looking at my notes (I always bring paper to these things, because someone always makes a book recommendation that I regret not writing down), Xenomorphs are underlined twice and the word aliens has an exclamation point and a box around it, which cracks me up.

My favorite monsters were:

  • Hannibal
  • The Tunnbaq from The Terror
  • Zombies

Shannon Lawrence pointed out that all my monsters were either cannibals or were known to have eaten people, and that I should probably figure out why that was.  (I had mentioned earlier that my short story collection A Murder of Crows: Seventeen Tales of Monsters & the Macabre is full of cannibalism.)  But I already know the answer.  I’m a foodie; everything wonderful is delicious and everything terrible is rotten.  My stories always have someone vomiting in them, because that is the worst.

Then came Not Just Novels: Writing Different Lengths, where we talked a lot about short stories and the mysterious Novella and Novellette lengths, where nobody’s quite sure what they’re trying to accomplish (even writers).  The panel was moderated by Shannon Lawrence, and included Fleur Bradley, Jason Dias, Stace Johnson, and Carolyn Kemp, who was wearing a wonderful gothy steampunk costume that made me realize I wouldn’t recognize her to see her again.*  I become easily confused when people change their hairstyles, and I can rarely recognize people from their Facebook photos if they’ve done their hair differently.  At all.

Which is kind of ironic because I don’t keep my hair the same.  I have a bob, but it needs help; right now it looks like generic Mom Hair, so I have it pulled back in a ponytail.

*I looked her up online in her civvies.  I think I got it.

Saturday photos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

This gentleman seemed to be completely unaware of the possibility of this young and very hungry dino baby turning around and eating his face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mad Moxxi and Handsome Jack from the Borderlands series.  I reeeeaaaallly wanted them to do the voices, but they couldn’t do them.

“Hey, sugar…”

Other Saturday Stuff:

I met Paul Roman Martinez, who is doing a cover for an anthology that Jamie Ferguson and I are putting together–more news on that soon 🙂

I helped distract a baby on a changing table.  MOM powers took over.  He was like “Imma roll off this table,” and his mom was like “Oh no you won’t.”  So I stood there and distracted him while costumed characters walked behind us.  Which makes me more interesting then Harley Quinn, at least according to one six-month-old kid.

I stopped for lunch at a retro diner called Sam’s No. 3, where I sat at the bar with two people who spotted my badge and wanted to know if I was from that comic-book thing.  I told them that it was a farm & home show for nerds.  “What about all those costumes?” “It’s really just like supporting your favorite sports team.  Just for fun.”  I feel like I fought the good fight for nerdery, but did not win any wars.

Sunday:

I only had one panel on Sunday, the Black Mirror and the Evils of Technology Panel, which I moderated.  I assumed it was at 5:30 in room 405, because of course I did.  It was at 4:30 in room 605, which I checked at about 2:30, because I’ve lived with myself long enough to have learned to double-check things.

Now, I like the show, even though it also makes me miserable, but I only started watching it recently; my husband Lee told me that I’d hate it (based on the first episode).  But I had volunteered to moderate panels, damn it, and there I was, moderating a panel that was now no longer on the 400 (writer) track, but on the 600 (general fandom) track.

Which meant that almost everything I had prepared was no good.

Fortunately, my panelists were excellent.  They were Shannon Lawrence, Veronica R. Calisto, Stace Johnson, and David R. Slayton.  They adjusted on the fly in front of what looked like several hundred people.

Erk…but it was the best of the panels I was on, in my opinion, because everyone there was so filled with energy and delight–over a rather horrific show.

Sunday Photos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Local signage.  This might be my new motto.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Delirium, from Sandman.  It was too crowded to catch her shoes, which didn’t match.

Other Stuff:

You may have noticed that a lot of the panelists were the same–that’s because Shannon Lawrence did all the organizing to set this up, which turned out to be a lot more organization than she expected. Kudos to her.

Going into Denver Comic-Con this time, I carried the attitude that the con was just going to make me miserable, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again.  I had a great time, though, and feel like I learned quite a bit by observing people and what they loved, from their costumes to what they carried around with them.  I may write something up about that later.  But now I feel like I’d like to do this again, if I have the opportunity.  And I recommend going if you have the chance.

The Tale of a Book that Failed…


…or that at least didn’t succeed as hoped.

Once upon a time, I wrote a book for a ghostwriting client.  It was one of those dream projects that paid pretty well and that I had a lot of freedom on.  The only requirement was that it have some kind of sci-fi element to it.

The client and I went back and forth on what the book would be like.  I told him I wanted to write something cyberpunk-ish about an element of technology that had gone horribly wrong.  But not so much a gadget or a gizmo that had gone wrong…how about a drug? He loved the idea, and we went forward with designing the tale of a detective investigating an empathy drug gone wrong.  The drug ends up causing permanent and debilitating brain damage to the users–it makes them so empathic that they have trouble defending themselves from bad people–which a serial killer with a strangely apt sense of empathy (but no mercy) takes advantage of.

The Giver was born.

The client loved the book.

And then, somewhere in the middle of writing book 2 in the series, his business died.

Normally, I take this kind of thing in stride.  However, I had put a lot of myself into this book.  I’m the kind of person that gets targeted by life’s little sociopaths–or at least I was.  (I decided, not coincidentally, near the end of 2016 that it was time to stop suffering fools gladly.)  So when I heard this book would never see the light of day, well, I was disappointed, to put it mildly.

And broke, because suddenly I’d just lost my job working on book 2.

The client gave me a choice:

Take back the rights on book 1, etc., and write off all the money he owed me, or…get paid.

I took back the rights and decided to make something of what I’d written.

Here was my thought:

  • The book was designed to be published under a male pen name.
  • The POV character is male.
  • There were some sexist things I left in the text because I believed that the character would see the world that way, and I didn’t want my (female) name to be a distraction because of that.
  • And I’ve always wondered:  would it be easier to make sales under a male pen name?  I’ve heard that trying to publish romances under a male pen name is excessively hard*; maybe trying to publish cyberpunk under a female name would be similarly so.

Dean Kenyon was born.

The book came together, and I still liked it, so I published it May 7th and set it up for five free days on Amazon to start with, hoping to generate a review or two.  I sent it out to this list, crossing my fingers.

The giveaway went great.  I had previously run two similar giveaways for books under my me-name (DeAnna Knippling) and a middle-grade pen name (De Kenyon).  Neither one made half of the numbers of the Dean Kenyon giveaway.

And then…crickets.

I’ve advertised this book as much as I do my bestseller, but…I can barely get any views.  There are no reviews on this book!  I can’t get anywhere with it.

So, a month later, I’m just going to conclude that I can’t get the answers I want about the male vs. female pen names without reviews to help assure readers that the book isn’t complete crap.

I have to swallow my pride.

I wrote this book I really love.  It’s quite the adventure, a lot of fun in my opinion.  But I need help getting reviews out.
I’m going to hit up everyone I know and ask them if they’d like a copy.  And I’m going to try to wrassle up some reviews.

You are, of course, under no obligation to read the book.  You are even under less obligation to like it.  And, seriously, no hard feelings if you don’t review it.  (Although I will note that if you review it and hate it, it still helps me out, as strange as that might seem.)

But if you know someone who might be interested, I’ve got a free copy for them.  Just send them my way, at

publisher [at] wonderlandpress [dot] com

And I’ll send them a review copy.  Or send them to the Instastafreebie link.

Thank you, and wish me luck 🙂

*Except for the redoubtable M.L. Buchman, who uses his initials.

The link to the free Instafreebie copy (multiple formats) is here.  You can buy a copy here, but it’s only Amazon so far.

Mindsight:  Company Justice #1

No idea is so good it can’t go bad.

Frank Mallory is a private detective working for a new type of detective agency: a well-organized one. Private Eyes, Inc., has the latest in data analysis, training techniques, cross-discipline integration, illicit back-door deals, and cynical programmers who don’t care what they have to do as long as they don’t lose their benefits.  PEI has it all covered.

The right mix of idealism and plausible deniability can work wonders.

But that doesn’t mean that Frank’s in the clear when he starts work on a case involving the new designer drug Mindsight.  Mindsight is a miracle drug.  It won’t give you telepathy, but it comes close, triggering a wave of pure empathy that helps treat everything from domestic violence to schizophrenia.

The problem is, if you take too much of it, you’ll understand someone else’s point of view…all the way to death.

Of course a serial killer starts butchering Mindsight addicts.  As if nobody could see that coming.  All he has to do is ask nicely.  And maybe offer a little something the victim can’t refuse.

The real twist is when one of his victims fights back…and takes down a cop, saying that he admitted to being the serial killer before he died.

Frank’s hired to find solid, incontestable proof that the man, someone he used to work with, is actually the murderer, so a rich man’s daughter, the purported victim, can walk free.

Seems straightforward, right?

Right.

Book 1 in the Company Justice series, starring Frank Mallory.

(Some violence, not much gore or strong language.  Some unpleasant empathy moments.)

Reminder re: Failure

I don’t have much time this week to blog (a deadline is a week earlier than I thought it was!!!), but I’ll get back to the study series as soon as I can.

 

Failure is life’s way of telling you that you need to change.  Not necessarily that you need to completely dump all of your life’s plans and start all over again.  Maybe something small.

Maybe it’s just “stop being so damned impatient, keep getting better at what you’re doing, and just wait.”

We all have to scrape ourselves out of despair sometimes.  This week was mine 🙂

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Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference 2018 Wrap-Up

Books I was recommended:

  • Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh
  • The Silence, by Tim Lebbon
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman

This list is shorter than I like, but I do have permission to ask Jonathan Maberry for some good action/horror titles.

Book to Study:

  • The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler, as per Laura Hayden’s mystery class.

Books I would like to demand get written:

  • Nonfiction forensics book by Megan Rutter.
  • A book on…how to say this?  Disrupting your assumptions from an anthropological (and feminist) basis, by Kristy Ferrin.

Books I want to write:

  • The Writing Class, a meta-mystery about a class designing a murder mystery.  Laura Hayden taught a class on reverse-engineering a mystery and I was fortunate enough to sit next to someone who suggested the frame story.
  • A book on intermediate fiction techniques to start studying/picking apart.

Class I need:

  • I want Sue Mitchell to teach a “how to be a freaking presenter” class, because I am still screwing this up, especially every time a mic is involved.

Special thanks to:

  • Kameron Claire, who ranted about men hearing about something on the Internet and deciding they’re experts on it, while women undersell themselves brutally.  It was timely.  Fine!  I am enough of an expert 🙂

This is the first year that I’ve stayed in a hotel for a writers’ conference.  It was bliss.  When I needed to run off for a bit and hide, I could do it.  I didn’t even have to keep shouting, “This one is occupied” every five minutes as I hid in a toilet stall.  Linda Tschappat, besides having worked her ass off as the Green Room volunteer all weekend, made for an awesome roommate, too.

I got to hang out with Megan Rutter on Thursday as she took over the full morning session that she was supposed to share with Pete Klismet, who was in the hospital.  I learned more about jurisdiction than I thought I would ever need to know.  Now, as my husband watches Supernatural, I crack up every time they walk into the room and claim to be FBI agents.  That’s how unexpectedly amusing that information was.

Thursday afternoon I moderated Pam McCutcheon’s synopsis class, where we worked on log lines and back cover blurbs.  She was incredibly supportive and generous with her advice, and our small group positively bathed in all that attention.  How often do you get that chance?

I taught a class on Pacing, in which like five people walked out…and everyone’s faces were glazed over. As I spoke, I felt ashamed of every minute that I tortured people with the indigestible information I was delivering. But after the class several people thanked me.  I was more relieved than I can ever say.

I figured out a Story Game and tested it out on a few people.  I’ll blog about that separately.  It feels like its own private victory.

I went to Megan Rutter’s poisons class, which was jam-packed with info, but just made me realize I need to read up more on poisons.

As mentioned, Laura Hayden’s class on reverse-engineering a mystery was inspirational.  I absolutely need to write a mystery featuring a stalker as the amateur detective now (around which the writers’ class is framed).

I sat on a horror panel with Steve Saffel and Jonathan Maberry, and I’m not gonna lie, I was sure I was going to shit a brick.  But it went great!  In the end, Steve (an editor at Titan Books) said something like, “This just inspires me to buy more horror.”  Mission accomplished.  My fellow horror writers, you can thank me later.

I taught a class on How to Study – the same stuff that I’m blogging about here.  Obviously, I’ve been running out of time lately and need to finish blogging that.  I think that went better than the pacing class, but also it was hot in the room and I was telling people to do more work that wasn’t actually writing (ugh, I know), and so people weren’t as jazzed when they got done.  Except for one person…I won’t name her in case she doesn’t want to be called out.  She asked a ton of questions.  And I went, “She’s the one who gets published.  Maybe not soon, I don’t know.  But she does.”

I went to Kristy Ferrin’s Whores, Sluts, and Prostitutes class, which turned out to be a class on questioning your cultural assumptions.  At first I was a bit doubtful, but I soon began to see what she was doing.  A real “aha!” moment.  I just wish she had more time and gone on longer…

Mariko Tatsumoto gave a class on multicultural novels that was fun, straightforward, and practical.  I always feel like I’m putting a foot in my mouth when I’m including cultures I didn’t grow up with in my stories (I probably am), but this makes me feel better about how to research and winging it when I can’t find what I need.  Ahhhhh…

The rest of the time I spent talking.  Okay, I did do some hiding up in my room.  But mostly I stopped and talked to people.  How did your pitch go?  What’s a good copywriting book?  Everybody has an interesting bio, are you kidding me? You studied to be a paleontologist.  It’s a dark and stormy night…

The speakers were all good, the hotel was good, I suffered a little bit less than usual from imposter syndrome, and I can only feel grateful to the organizers and volunteers.  PPWC helped raise me up from a baby writer.  I can only feel proud of attending, and hopeful that once again they might have me back 🙂

 

 

 

Book Business Idea If You Want One: Tailored Indie Book Boxes

I’ve never understood Book of the Month clubs.  But then…I read a lot of books.*

I signed up for a clothes of the month club, basically.  AND WHOAH.  THEY SEND ME CLOTHES I LIKE AND I DON’T HAVE TO BE OVERWHELMED WITH ALL THE SHOPPING AND MORE OFTEN THAN NOT THEY FIT.

Am I willing to pay a premium for that?

Insert whimper-nod here.

Inspired by my clothes-of-the-month boxes, I’ve gone onto Amazon to look for more clothes.  Yay!  Clothes!

I have yet to buy clothes for myself from Amazon.  Too much stuff, no way to tell if it fits, NO accounting for tastes or quality, oh ye gods too much stuff.  Meh.

I’m not sure what that means for me, personally, but I think there’s room out there for a similar service that does indie books.  Indie book boxes, catered to your individual tastes.  Not “everyone read the same book this month” club.  But “I read some Le Carré the other day and liked it.  What have you got like that in indie?” club.  Say one print or e-book a month, selected by readers in the genre, with the option to hit a button and have the rest of the series sent to you automatically–all at once, when they come out, or one a month, whatever.

Charge the authors a nominal reading fee and Bob’s your uncle.

 

BUY MY CRAP:  I have a new short story out, “The Foundations.” When your basement is haunted in your brand-new house AND THE CONSTRUCTION COMPANY WON’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT.  Short horror story, 99c. Click here.

 

*I used to be part of the Science Fiction Book Club, back when I lived in a small town with an underfunded library and an hour’s drive to the nearest bookstore (and was like, “OMG!  Only an hour!” because we’d moved from somewhere even more remote).   This was before Amazon.  I still have my collected Amber series hardbacks.

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