Monday, Not Usual Speed

Well, the weekend was full of good food, I’ll grant it that. The dogs got a whole pile of corn chips apiece, and they were absolutely beside themselves with joy. It almost made up for the artillery barrages. Even though a majority of voters went for the fireworks ordinance, some douchebags just had to ruin it for everyone else. It wasn’t as bad as it’s been some years, for which I’m grateful, but I’m still vexed.

Hopefully it’s the last gasp of selfish knobs in this particular direction. I find myself hoping for the “last gasp” in many directions lately. I spent some serious time on the couch yesterday and finished reading Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India; it’s been some while since I’ve had the mental and emotional bandwidth to read history. (Pandemic and fascist coup will do that to one.) Whatever hope I have lately–and it’s not a lot, mind you–comes from history’s quiet insistence that the crowds in the streets will bring some manner of reckoning to those who seem unassailable.

Of course the book has its lacunae; James is a firm believer in the Raj’s “civilizing mission” (such as it was) so it’s interesting to substitute certain terms from the language of empire into the language of decolonization. Next up on the reading list is Meyer & Brysac’s Tournament of Shadows, and I’m sure I’ll have to substitute a few terms in there, too.

What I did not do this past weekend was work, or do much more than glance at social media. The world is merrily burning itself down whether I look or not, and I was at the end of my ability to cope. Certainly I’m still going to have to be careful; it will take very little to send me spinning into despair again. The lack of sleep from random fireworks at odd hours, making the dogs attempt to smother me in order to gain safety from my closeness, isn’t helping. But I’m sticking grimly to my scheduled runs, hoping to tire myself out enough to collapse and get some good rest when the douchebags stop lighting off cannon.

If I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to work, I should at least utilize it. I might even turn this bloody epic fantasy in on time–although that is a wildly optimistic thought. It will take a lot of tea, I’m sure. Fortunately, I have boxes and boxes standing ready, though only a few bags of my favorite chai masala. I’ve plenty of British Breakfast and a not-inconsiderable amount of Earl Grey, which should drag me through quite handily.

I won’t be quite at usual speed today; having to sleep with both dogs practically atop me sort of put paid to any real rest. But I can run, and that will both give me enough energy to get through the day and wear me out so I won’t bloody care if there’s stray crackles and booms to make the canines nest on me tonight. At least they sleep when they’re nestled as close to Mum as possible. It’s calming to know that I possess some power, however fitful, to soothe their fears.

Onward and upward, nolite te bastardes carborundorum, and all that. I would wish for peace, but that hardly seems likely; instead, I wish for strength.

Or just sheer stubbornness–always a favorite in these parts.

Tasty Victory

I did chana masala for the first time! There are a million recipes for it online, and I found one that uses cocoanut oil for “blooming” the spices, which I wanted to try.

The chickpeas were soaked overnight and simmered with lemon rind, olive oil, onion, and salt for a long while; about a half-hour before dinner, I began with more onions and spices in hot oil, then the crushed tomatoes. The resultant stuff went into the chickpea pot for the last simmer. I was nervous about the whole experiment–there were a lot of chickpeas to throw out if this went wrong–until the very end, when I dumped in the garam masala and stirred.

That was what it needed, and finishing with a little lemon juice just made it OMG WOW. My faith was utterly vindicated and restored at once, especially since the kids both pronounced this something they’d eat again. (They’d better, we have a lot of leftovers.)

So at least this week has contained one (very tasty) victory. Heaven knows I needed it, and I hope your week had at least one victory as well, no matter how small.

Onward to the weekend, then, once I get today’s work finished. (There’s always a catch…)

Love and Failure

I had to make the painful decision to close down the writing Substack lately, and this morning the notification went out to subscribers. I’m in mourning, I suppose.

I really wanted this experiment to work. It didn’t because pandemic, which nobody could have predicted, and the absolute mess made of pandemic response in the US, which anyone with two brain cells could have predicted when the election was stolen in 2016. It was never a question of if, it was only a question of when a giant disaster would occur, killing swathes of American citizens and enriching the criminal cabal still busily entrenching themselves in power and looting the public treasury.

I love doing writing advice. I love mentoring and helping fellow writers, I love sharing my expertise–such as it is, of course, since each path to publication is unique. And who knows, once all this calms down I might try the experiment again, with better results.

Failure is never comfortable. I keep reminding myself that if not for the pandemic and its associated cognitive load, if not for the terror lurking in my house, under my skin–because I am absolutely terrified my kids will get sick and need hospitalization we can’t afford–I would have energy for all my projects and experiments on the side. I hate the persistent feeling that I’m letting readers down by not being a superhero immune to fear.

Maybe I am a superhero, just not high-powered enough to do all this. I don’t know.

It’s a lovely grey morning outside, misty and perfect. Despite heartbreak and failure, the dogs still need walking, dinner still needs to be planned, and the paying projects still need to be nibbled at. I keep telling myself, like George Burns says, it’s better to be a failure at something one loves than a success at something one hates, but I still wish there wasn’t a bloody pandemic and I had a better chance at being a success at sharing writing advice. I’ll still do the occasional writing post here, but not for a while. Keeping all the other plates spinning is about all I can handle right now.

If you’ve had to shut something you love down because of all this bullshit, my heart goes out to you. It’s uncomfortable as fuck, and it’s all right to mourn. It’s absolutely natural and normal to grieve a project or experiment you had high hopes for. (And if you suspect I’m giving this advice partly because I want to remind myself, you’re absolutely right.) Let yourself feel it, if you can in a safe space; the only way out is through.

So I’m off for dog-walkies. Canine joy is a balm, and will help mend the cracks in my heart. Dogs are too good for us. *sigh*

Over and out.

Triage Endurance

I’m enjoying the morning Latin lessons more than I thought I would. Something about wrestling with lingua Latina before caffeine soaks in makes my brain feel sharper. Of course, the rest of me feels slow (stultae, even) before the caffeine soaks in, and I make far more errors than I like.

Latin for breakfast, French for lunch, Turkish before bed so sleep can hopefully help me retain verbs and grammar. I was doing German after dinner and Turkish before bed, but that was Too Much. I’d still like to study German some day, maybe when I’ve brushed up my French enough to read some Voltaire in the original.

Goals. I have them. Loads of them. Whether they’re achievable or not is an open question.

Instead of German, though, I think I want to go back to piano after dinner. I never thought I’d miss wrestling with Bach post cena, but here we are.

Mostly I’m trying to keep my brain busy so I don’t brood on current world events. I’m doing literally everything I can–social distancing, wearing a mask if I absolutely have to go to the store, washing hands, reaching out to friends, caring for my neighbors. It just doesn’t feel like enough, and I’m hitting empathy exhaustion on a daily basis.

I’d rather that than not caring at all, but still. If I tire myself out with work and study, the anxiety dreams are a little less fraught. At least there’s a delicate balance being held and I can sleep.

How are you doing out there, dear Reader? I meant to tell you the story of Big Barda, Boxnoggin, and the Birdfeeder, but Squirrelterror tales take a little more work than one might think. Maybe next week, because there’s more than one part. Knocking over the heavy iron pole and breaking a glass hummingbird feeder was only the beginning, and Barda’s got quite a mouth. Poor Boxnoggin literally could not believe some of the stuff she yelled at him.

Anyway… I do have something to say today. I was talking with a friend about the looming, constant empathy exhaustion yesterday, spurred by this Vice article, and she commented on the advice often given.

Exercise. Eat well. Sleep. Well, for one thing, the distribution chains are creaking under the load, fresh produce and “healthy” foods are more expensive than junk–by corporate design, I might add. And if you start nattering on about “bulk buying” and “just make your meals ahead of time” I swear I will start tossing things and screaming, because that takes energy too and a lot of people live in food deserts even before the distribution systems took the first giant hit of lockdown. Not to mention some of us don’t have the equipment to exercise in postage-stamp living spaces, and if your only time to get some sweat-effort in is the evening and you’re female, going out to walk or jog when men who might have mayhem on their minds and nowhere else to congregate can be hazardous to your health.

And sleep? Don’t even get me started.

I know the science says this is what helps, but it’s just not feasible for a lot of people. I agreed that while veggies and exercise might be the best, they can also be out of reach for the non-privileged, and a bit of wine and pizza on the couch might be all one can achieve.

And you know, that’s okay.

If you, dear Reader, need permission to do things science says might not be helpful but you know are helpful for you and within your means, consider said permission given. We’re in an endurance round of triage, and whatever gets you through is A-OK.

For me it’s it’s legal weed on Fridays before D&D with a group of close friends, and setting aside Sunday to eat whatever the fuck I want in whatever quantity I desire. (Last Sunday was the Great Molasses Cake experiment, and I think I put away half a two-layer cake just by my lonesome.) It’s also mumbling Latin in the mornings and watching weird YouTube fanvids because I don’t have the energy or brain-cycles for binging new shows. (Although I did make it through The Umbrella Academy recently, which is less misogynist on the screen than in its original format–not by much, but I’ll take what I can get.)

Whatever it takes to get you through this in one piece and of reasonable sanity is A-OK. Feel free to tell me about your coping mechanisms below–you might even find a couple fellow Readers saying “hey, that’s a good one, I’m gonna try it.”

I’ve finished absorbing some coffee and my head is full of Latin phrases, if not declensions. (Mostly involving a drunk parrot, thanks, Duolingo!) Time to take the dogs for a walk and let the night’s dreams settle into their proper places under the floorboards of consciousness. Yesterday was difficult, today promises to be only slightly less so.

It’s okay. We’ll get through it together.

Over and out.

Music, Noise, Work

The Society

Walking the dogs this morning, Matchbox 20’s Disease came through my earbuds, and I found myself thinking of The Society again. That was one of Delgado’s songs.

Man, I was so young when I wrote that. A few discerning fans had fun untangling the X-Men references in it, and I still like to think about Rowan and Del every once in a while. I didn’t extend the series because if I had, a character I like very much would have had to die, and I don’t want to feel it in my own body.

Best just to leave things precariously balanced where Hunter, Healer left off.

I do know what happens after all my books end. Sometimes I keep the information locked up in my head, a private playground. Other times I turn the situation a certain number of degrees and look at its contours, and another story tentatively pokes its head out, whispering have you considered it this way? Write about this.

Then Florence + the Machine’s Breath of Life came up, and I found myself thinking about The Black God’s Heart; I think that song is probably Nat’s. You haven’t met Nat yet; I haven’t written the book. But I’ve made a good start and I’m stealing time to work on it in the evenings, when I’m tired from the day and needing something I enjoy, not just a slog.

You can tell I’m serious about a book when the soundtrack starts to coalesce. It’s only a single indicator–I’ve written other books without soundtracks, just not very often. I do have just-plain-writing music, but certain songs help me slither into a character’s skin.

Writing is an exercise in focused, critical empathy. Imagining myself so deeply and profoundly in someone else’s shoes is on the one hand difficult, requiring imagination and stamina; on the other hand, it’s the easiest thing in the world because, well, empathy. It’s a normal human skill, most often shown in the flinch when we see someone else get a sharp pain.

I know there are plenty of empathy-challenged people. I also think even a grain of it can be strengthened with practice and care. Writers, of course, can gain a massive, overblown sensitivity.

It’s no wonder so many of us drink to deaden it. The cray that is publishing doesn’t help either, I suppose.

Music isn’t an absolute necessity; some books do very well with silence or some variant of white noise. (I also use the Noizio app sometimes, when I want a little sound but not tunes.) I find songs are most helpful when I’m, building a book–walking or doing housework while the subconscious engines work on arranging the story for me.

Writing isn’t solely about the typing, although that is an extremely necessary part. It also takes a lot of relaxed focus, letting the machinery below conscious floorboards grind away with enough fuel and grist to keep from overheating.

Anyway, the world is afire with greed and plague, but I’m still writing. There’s not much else I can do, and people need stories now more than ever.

Time to get back to work.


It’s Thursday, which means my paid Haggard Feathers subscribers have an open thread to ask questions and give comments on. Also, Crow’s Nest, Nest Egg, and Serial Time subscribers are about to get some very cool stuff in their inboxes this week…

Fewer Books of Less Quality

We are in the throes of the shopping season. Stress and tension are everywhere, from the aisles where tired, overstimulated children cry to the checkouts where overwhelmed parents, counting their pennies, feel the sick thump of what if I forgot someone or what if I can’t afford what Little Spawn wants? It’s just as bad online, too, and the usual “Should I have run a holiday sale, what price points are good, things are ordered and I have to stand in long queues to ship them” discussions are afoot on author loops and social media.

This year I’m also seeing a lot of discussions about ebooks. Specifically, the question “Should I lower my ebook prices in the new year?” has been asked at least five times (and counting!) on different loops and in different social media I’m privy to.

I’ve typed some shorter answers, but I figured why scatter them all over the map when I can put them all in one place?

So. Generally, my TL;DR answer is “…no.”

You already know my thoughts on the convenience of ebooks (without concomitant protections against theft) leading to massive entitlement and piracy. The convenience has YET another unpleasant aspect, made monstrous by Amazon’s business practices.

The race to the bottom in ebook prices is terrifying for any author trying to earn a living. The way the industry is currently set up, either you starve because your ebooks are priced too low for you to get a reasonable return on the investment of time needed to produce a quality product, or you up your production schedule and end up burning out, in the meantime risking cranking out heavily compromised texts that could have been great if you’d had the resources to take the proper time and care with them.

Or, if you price your books reasonably in line with the time and effort spent, you can be inundated with nasty emails calling you a sellout or accusing you of “taking advantage” of readers somehow. And, as a bonus, informing you that your books are going to be stolen in “protest.”

Fun times for all.

Here’s the thing: low across-the-board ebook prices are not good deals. You end up getting fewer books of less quality in the long run, not just because of writer burnout and starvation, but because that’s the way the business model is set up. That’s what it’s engineered for.

Amazon’s success means it’s been able to impose a number of conditions on the market. Amazon profits on volume when prices on ebooks are kept artificially low, because they don’t care what you’re buying as long as you’re buying a lot of it. Authors do not benefit–they work themselves into the ground or the grave, or they quit publishing because they literally can’t afford to keep going. That means readers don’t benefit either; the quality fiction you crave gets harder and harder to find because selling algorithm bumps is profitable as all get-out and/or because the writers experienced and talented enough to provide that quality fiction have been driven out.

Who does benefit from this? You guessed it–Amazon. They profit both coming and going. There’s a fresh crop of hopeful new baby writers willing to be fleeced each season, the plagiarizers and page-stuffers pay Amazon for the privilege to play, writers are working themselves into burnout, and it’s all going into Bezos’s pocketbook. The ‘Zon gets their cut of even a $.99 ebook, you’d better believe it, and enough of those going out the door is a nice chunk of change. Who cares if it’s readable, if it’s quality, if it’s what you actually wanted? You’ll buy anything, according to Amazon, as long as it’s cheap.

Now, Amazon’s done some good things, largely without wanting or trying to. I suppose you could find a few beneficial effects in any cancer if you narrow your focus enough, too. And I’m sure a lot of people will say “books are a luxury anyway, nobody who creates them deserves to make a living because it’s not a real job.” I’ve heard it all, from “all authors are rich anyway”1 to “but if books aren’t less than a dollar apiece people will HAVE to steal them, you just hate FREEDOM.”

But if you’re a fellow publishing professional looking for advice on ebook prices this fine holiday season, take it from someone who’s been in the game for a little while and saw the first explosion of ebooks and witnessed the race to the bottom afterward: Price your books however you damn well please. I’ve raised some of my prices recently to better reflect the time and energy spent on writing and taking the books through quality control; I haven’t been sorry and haven’t noticed any dent in sales. In fact, pricing my books to reflect the quality I try to put into each and every one has had a somewhat salutary effect, I’d say, because it’s clear I respect myself and my work and Readers tend to follow suit.

Trad, indie, and small publishers all refine price, discounts, and deals all the time. It’s part of the game, and self-publishers should do the same. There may come a time when I look at the industry and say “yeah, prices are outta control, I’m dropping mine.”

But today is not that day.

Amazon profits immensely from the race to the bottom in ebook pricing, and has been doing everything possible to keep it going. Nobody else gets a good shake out of the deal, and we’re all somewhat at the mercy of the elephant in the room. Until the rapaciousness of their business model provokes a reaction and a shakeup, it’s pretty much every self-publisher for themselves, not least because getting writers to work together for better conditions is like herding caffeine-crazed hyperactive felines.2

In the end, very little will change until readers are tired of swill choking the gunnels and their purchasing habits change as a result. When a market reaction comes, it’s going to be quite painful for a lot of people and I’m not looking forward to it. In the meantime, though, I’m going to price my books to reflect a fair value for my time and experience, and I encourage any of my peers considering the question this holiday season to do the same.

And I wish everyone, publishing pro, Reader, or anything else, a low-stress holiday full of good food and free of family or other arguments. This time of year’s awful on everyone; I say we all go to bed until New Year’s.

I know we can’t, but it makes me feel better to contemplate the prospect. Over and out.

From Bede to Leduc

So, I recently read Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. I’m fascinated by the transition between paganism and Christianity for many reasons, personal and scholarly; I tend to follow Gibbons in thinking the faith both profited from and contributed enormously to the fall of the Roman Empire1. The older I get, the weirder Christianity and its assumptions seem to me.

Of course, the older I get, the weirder any religion other than a sort of salad-bar paganism seems. There’s a great deal of “live and let live” when your gods welcome foreigners into the pantheon as a matter of course. If one must be religious at all, a diverse group of gods who are required to show ID if they want you to do anything at all for them and are understood sometimes as representations of deep psychological processes one is harnessing for one’s own therapy and use in becoming a decent person is hardly the worst way to go.

But I digress. (As usual.)

History is full of “holy what the fuck” moments, and I had one about three-quarters of the way through the Ecclesiastical History, in Chapter XVI. Bede was talking about Caedwalla’s2 military takeover of the Isle of Wight.

Here I think it ought not to be omitted that, as the first fruits of those of that island who believed and were saved, two royal boys, brothers to Arwald, king of the island, were crowned with the special grace of God. For when the enemy approached, they made their escape out of the island, and crossed over into the neighbouring province of the Jutes. Coming to the place called At the Stone, they thought to be concealed from the victorious king, but they were betrayed and ordered to be killed. This being made known to a certain abbot and priest, whose name was Cynibert, who had a monastery not far from there, at a place called Hreutford,  that is, the Ford of Reeds, he came to the king, who then lay in concealment in those parts to be cured of the wounds which he had received whilst he was fighting in the Isle of Wight, and begged of him, that if the boys must needs be killed, he might be allowed first to instruct them in the mysteries of the Christian faith. The king consented, and the bishop having taught them the Word of truth, and cleansed them in the font of salvation, assured to them their entrance into the kingdom of Heaven. Then the executioner came, and they joyfully underwent the temporal death, through which they did not doubt they were to pass to the life of the soul, which is everlasting. Thus, after this manner, when all the provinces of Britain had received the faith of Christ, the Isle of Wight also received the same; yet because it was suffering under the affliction of foreign subjection, no man there received the office or see of a bishop, before Daniel, who is now bishop of the West Saxons.

–Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Project Gutenberg.

I quote the entire (short) chapter because I had to set the book down and stare into the distance, just working this around in my head. I think I even mouthed “what the fuck” at Miss B, who was snoring heavily next to me, blissfully unaware.

Dogs, man. Anyway.

The murder of royal children is nothing new in history; the very concept of monarchy makes it somewhat inevitable. Dictators pursue the families of those who oppose them on kind of the same principle, with extra terrorization thrown in.

But what brought me up cold was imagining those kids. Just think about it–you’re a child, your family is murdered, you’re hidden and betrayed, then you’re going to be executed and you know it, and along comes this guy to browbeat you into swearing allegiance to his particular sky fairy and he won’t leave you alone until you do.

Imagine being Bede and thinking this story is not horrifying but actually laudatory and exculpatory of murder, and worthy of being held up as a moral victory for your “pacifist” faith.3

Christianity is wild, yo. And people say history is boring.

Other things–like Bede’s constant harping on the “correct” way of calculating Easter, and the reasons why–were interesting and in some cases eye-rolling, but this one particular nugget filled me with cold sleepless horror. I had to take some Violette Leduc right after, to get the taste out of my mouth.

Of course, I also had to read Carlo Jansiti’s afterword about how Leduc’s publisher bowdlerized Ravages and wouldn’t bring out Therese and Isabelle until Leduc stood to make money from it from another (less shitty) publisher, at which point the shitty publisher said “Oh, no, we never said we wouldn’t publish it!”4 Which filled me with incandescent rage. I suppose as an anodyne to Bede it was healthy enough, but hardly less wearing on the nerves.

I was going to head right into The Book of Margery Kempe, but I think I need to pace myself and am instead diving into Witchcraft and Demonology in Hungary and Transylvania, which I scored in the recent Palgrave sale. There’s only so much unfiltered medieval Christianity I can take at one go. Besides, the latter book is a collection of scholarly articles, so I can go hunting through the footnotes at leisure in a way the Kempe-dictated and priest-filtered book5 won’t allow.

I just… I’ve been thinking about that short chapter in Bede a lot lately. It hit me right in the feels, and I’ve never been so glad for modernity, imperfect as it is. Bede’s world was horrifying in several ways. Of course, life is still horrifying around the globe; I’m in an immensely privileged position (for many reasons) and grateful for it.

I want everyone in the world to be just as privileged as I am. More, even.

We can’t hope to understand or mitigate the horror without a knowledge of, and critical reckoning with, history. I think a lot about hearing Harry Turtledove talk about how on balance things are much better than they ever were, and he was absolutely right, but still, it’s awful enough and we can always do better.

Always.