May Newsletter: Waste and Sacrifice

There’s a certain mental trap.

You’re drawing a map of a far-future Quebec. Or maybe you’re trying to determine a sound change from Proto-Indo-European to Ancient Thracian. In this case,  I was rejiggering an outline.

Wealthgiver had hit a block. I’d pulled our hero into the lightless subterranean corridors of the Cult of Hades, okay. He’d come to terms with that and had his first language lesson. The Prophetess liked him. But then what?

Pavlina said I should go right into the steamy sex scene. It’s got masks. I’m excited about it. But, no, our hero needs to try to escape first, because…because why? Because he’s a defector from the Russian army. He felt madness closing in around him, and he got out of there, even though it meant abandoning a patient to his death.

Yes! That feels right. And it’s only 9:30. I have until 11 when I have to go downstairs and take care of the girls. Plenty of time.

So now, when the protagonist is again surrounded by madness, of course he’ll try to hit this new nail with the same old hammer. He’ll try to escape, but it won’t work, because it’s the right solution for the wrong problem. That will for him to change – he’ll inflect. A new solution! That’s the sex.

But that won’t be the end of the story, because love with the Prophetess is the right solution for the right problem, but the protagonist isn’t yet the right person. That’s another inflection. After that, he’ll be solving the right problem with the right solution as the right person, but…uh…

Now it’s 9:45. That’s okay.

Okay, Dan, think of it in keystone scenes. We have our hero being pulled under the earth. Keystone 1. We have sex with the hereditary sibyl, vessel of Persephone the Light Bringer, the Fruit Bearer, Maiden of the Mountain. Keystone 2. Then there’s the echolocation fight…no, that’s not a keystone scene, that’s an “action scene.”

Now we have two keystone scenes (come back to the third later), two inflections (come back to that third later), and what about the action scenes? Before I finished writing them down I was thinking about the arcs of the other characters, the three phases of the Eleusinian Mysteries: Descent (káthodos), Fasting (nêstis), and Ascent (ánodos),* and how my outline is mirrored around the mid-point of the story. Every scene has a mirror image…but did I put the mid-point in the right places? What if I move the midpoint and re-number everything?

It’s 11. I should be downstairs with my kids, but I have all these questions open! If I stop now, I won’t be able to remember what I was doing. I don’t remember what I was doing. But there’s this logical problem, and it’ll just take a moment to solve. Now its solution reveals that logical problem. But that ripples back to the first one.

I’m moving things between four documents and an email. I’m scattering slightly different copies of the same sentence all through my manuscript. The outline is in tatters. How can I come back to this mess tomorrow? I have to clean it up! It’s 11:30, it’s 12, I have classes I have to prepare for and children who need a father, but I have to I have to I have to

I finally managed to wrench myself out of my chair at 12:20. I stumbled to the bathroom, frantically chewing my writing-reward chocolate. It was an hour and a half later than I wanted it to be, and I’d made approximately zero progress. And this wasn’t the first time. I wanted to rage at myself. I wanted to tear my hair and scream.

But for the first time that morning, I made a good decision. I hugged myself. I said, “Good job. You did a good job.” I swallowed the chocolate and waited for my eyeballs to stop vibrating. Then I wrote in my journal. “I got caught in a loop.”

Congratulations. I had successfully discovered a certain type of failure.

Did I not like it? Good. I determined to use that pain to push me to repeat my mistake. Do the hard work of figuring out what will happen in the story, not the easy work of juggling classification schemes. Cut yourself off at 11 like you’re tripping a circuit breaker. Read your journal from last week before you start work this week and see the pitfalls ahead of you. Spend your afternoon writing time on outline rejiggering, and leave the morning for writing. Keep yourself open. Let the water flow through you.

None of this self-advice was new to me. I’d been meaning to do editing and outlining in the afternoon, but every day when the time came, I always found something easier to do. After the Great Rejiggering Crisis of ’21, though, my discipline came easily. If I started writing in the afternoon as well as the morning, then all that time I burned was worth it. Not wasted, but sacrificed.

Last week, I got through three chapters. I am on track to finish this draft by the end of the month, and send it to you.

In other news…

Levski’s Boots“‘s anthology, Tales from Alternate Earths 3, will be out on September 3rd. If you want an early look, though, consider reviewing an Advance Reader Copy. Tell me if you’re interested.

I finished the serialization of Petrolea, which you can read in all its completeness here.

I probably won’t do something like this again. It didn’t bring much traffic or generate much buzz as far as I can tell. But I did make a connection with one reader, which is more central to my mission than “traffic” and “buzz.” Next time I’ll figure out a way to connect with people and make some money.

And speaking of making connections and not making money, I’m very excited about this youtube series I’ve started with my friend and mentor Paul Venet. We’re collaborating on teaching business communication and creativity, and we’re discussing books on those subjects. The first up was Becoming Fluent by Richard M. Roberts and Roger Kreuz, so go and see our review and response. Add your own.

I went to the Sofia Book Fair! It was full of people! People who aren’t in my family? Those people are real? I was in Lockdown for a long time. Ah, but the reason I risked my well-I-at-least-got-the-first-dose immune system on those suppurating crowds was because Emil Minchev launched his new book, Must. If you can read Bulgarian and have read the first three books in the series, go buy this one. If not, well, you have some homework now.

Hey, did you catch that reference to future-Quebec? Yes, Simon, Jason, Artyom, and I are working on the First Knife Sequel. We do have a map, some percentage of a script, and some very toothsome character designs by Artyom.

Here’s a fun little conversation electric fungi.

The Centuries Unlimited is still out being shopped. Fingers still crossed.

We’re coming up on Interchange‘s launch. July 20th Have you ordered your copy yet? Hmm…

And finally, I think I can share the date for the launch party for Interchange. It’ll be on July 27th (Tuesday) at 7pm Bulgaria Time. Place: virtual! Our host, the Magers and Quinn Bookstore of Minneapolis, MN. They’ll give me a link, and I’ll give it to you. We’ll also have book give-aways and other prizes, so stay tuned.

And finally, some stuff I (really!) liked:

The Shadow Out of Time, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Colour Out of Space by H.P. Lovecraft

I got these three stories bundled together in a Penguin Classic volume.

As with most of the horror stories I read, I loved the beginnings and was frustrated with the endings. Why didn’t these narrators do anything? Their victim-hood becomes a parody. A man has talked in his dreams with beings from the beginning and the end of the history of intelligent life on Earth, then discovers his dreams might be real. He says: “For was not this whole experience…a horror beyond all reason?” How about an honor above all reason? How about a wonder? We can cower in the fear that nothing can be alright again, or we can find faith that it will be.

The Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Haley

I liked A Champion of Mars enough to read this one, even though I don’t like zombies. Now I remember why I don’t like zombies. I had trouble sleeping after reading this book before bed. That would have been bad enough, except that the zombies didn’t seem to have anything to do with the worldbuilding. They were just plunked in there, apparently at the whim of some godlike post-human or AI. The novella was very well written, and there were bits of some interesting meditations on the nature of the decay of man’s works over time, and what that means for our work now, but I didn’t see much new.

Beguilement (The Sharing Knife)

A fun, cute re-read after a long time. I remember hearing somewhere that The Sharing Knife was Bujold’s attempt to follow the romance formula (meet-cute, will-they-won’t-they, etc.) If so, she does a splendid job. The lovers are sweet, their courtship is interestingly difficult, and most importantly for me, there’s something else going on besides sex.

The world of the Sharing Knife is deceptively simple. It looks like Little House in the Big Woods with monsters and magical forest people, until you realize that those forest people are the descendants of sorcerer-lords whose magic nearly destroyed the world a thousand years ago. There are big, high-stakes problems cunningly entwined with the characters’ relationship. The solutions are complicated and tricky.

How to Win Friends and Influence people by Dale Carnegie

The great-granddaddy of self-development/marketing/management advice books. Its advice is still good: be generous to other people, praise them honestly, remember that their wants are as important to them as yours are to you. I also very much respect the way the book was written – based on advice given to successive crops of students, then modified based on their feedback. That’s real.

At first, I didn’t realize it had been written in 1936 (the references to Roosevelt, Lincoln, and Al Capone finally clued me in). So, yes, it has become out-dated. The places where the advice doesn’t hold up any more are the places where so many Americans started following it that the rest of us developed counter-strategies. The world moves on, creating space for the next generation of self-development books.

The Godel Operation by James L. Cambias

A very fun book. It reminds me a bit of the singularity stuff from the 2000s, but written with more heart than most. An ancient AI (who may either be a war criminal, a hunter of war criminals, or both) shepherds his well-meaning but dimwitted human buddy through a solar-system-wide treasure hunt. The plot sagged a bit in places, and there were a few places where I wish we’d dug in more (like the climax). First-rate world-building though. After seven or eight thousand years of civilization, every place, art-form, technology, and social structure has become a revival of a response to an imitation of a splinter-faction of a cult built around a myth based on a rumor about something that still happened centuries after the present day. There is an awesome sense of deep time, which doesn’t stop the ephemeral fluttering of human emotions from finding their meaning.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

Oh man! Why did I wait so long to read this book? Well, because I thought its medical horror stories would trigger me, that’s why. But it turned out to be much lighter than I thought it would be.

Bulgakov manages to talk about some fairly hideous stuff (emergency tracheotomies, heroine addiction, the Bolshevik Revolution) with just the right mixture of humor, pragmatism, and that’s-just-how-it-is shrugging to get the message across without scaring or depressing you.

Things fall on us. We try to deal with them. We end up accomplishing something. Maybe it’s not what we hoped it would be. But how boring would life be if it were predictable? What matters is the crisis is behind you. Now go take a nice, hot bath.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy


This is the best book that I have ever read.

This is what you can achieve with fiction. This is what you can do as a human being! The depth of compassion and insight. The unflinching way Tolstoy nails our human failings to the wall. How we can make ourselves and each other miserable, but keep reaching for something better. He knew our hunger.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Fun, fast, and interesting. Like a spaceship powered by algae.

I very much admire the way Weir experiments with each book. It’s clear he’s stretching himself. In The Martian, he wrote harder-than-hard SF. In Artemis, he expanded his cast of characters. In Project Hail Mary, he dialed down the number of characters (although it’s clear he’s learned something about writing relationships) and upped the stakes. This is an end-of-the-world scenario.

Weir also brought back the tight focus on a character struggling with nature. This clashes a bit with the enormous, existential threats he deals with, but there’s a twist there that I found very satisfying.

And it’s funny in a different way from either The Martian or Artemis. I was reminded of the Bobiverse, but rather better.

Borrower of the Night by Elizabeth Peters

Light and fun. Very ’80s. I don’t like Vikky Bliss as a character as much as I like Elizabeth Peabody, but the Bliss books do atmosphere better. In this case it’s gothic, complete with ghosts, animated suits of armor, and a lonely tower room where scheming witched hunch over their Ouija boards. Welcome to Schloss Drakenstein! <peal of thunder!>

The Craftsman by Richard Sennet

Recommended to me by Paul Venet. This book finally did yield to me, but only after I’d gnawed on it for four or five months. Sennet is an academic’s academic. He’s never met an Ancient Greek word or outmoded social theory that he didn’t think was relevant to the discussion. But he really does have something important to say.

There is something about making things. It can fulfil you. You make something and you think, how could I have made it better? You try again with a different process. And again. From object you have process, practice, ritual. A person’s life.

Sennet’s insights and advice are practical. He gives you a way to think about what you’re doing, and how you’re improving it. As hard to chew as this book was, it gave me an ingredient missing from such very useful books as Greene’s Mastery and Knapp and Zeratsky’s Make Time. The Crafstman specifically targets what to do once you’ve mastered a skill: stand on top of it so you can reach the next one.

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

A re-read. Pratchett is one of those authors that grows with you. This time around I was taking notes as he wove together the mystery (who’s screwing with the Patrician this time?), the plot (will our hero save the day and get the girl?), and the merciless excavation of the human instinct to be bored by vitally important information.

Pratchett had some things to say about the free press, all right. I wish he were still alive, so he could tell us what to do with Facebook.

Phew. That’s a lot of books I read last month. Fingers crossed I can get through both Wealthgiver and The Confessions in June.


*I just spent about half an hour making sure I got the Greek right.

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