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Fear is the Mind-Killer

I’m posting this because so many people are so anxious over COVID-19 right now. If even one person is helped by these reflections, it’s worth it. So here is my own modest take.

We’re in uncharted waters, experiencing a black swan event, and it’s natural to be anxious and afraid. But fear doesn’t help. Let’s take a clear-eyed at look at where we are, and where we might be going.

California is, as expected, now under lockdown, and more and more states will join us in the coming days and weeks. It’s going to be a trial. I don’t for a moment think the lockdown will be over in two weeks, more like at least six. National Guard deployments nationwide are imminent, primarily to help with logistics but serving the dual purpose of making it obvious to those – and there are many – who think the whole lockdown exercise is BS that this is real, and serious. The image of soldiers on our streets is troubling and not one we’re used to, and the conspiracy people are going to have a field day: expect misinformation and lies about government takeover and all the usual nonsense. Like the nurses, doctors, utility workers, police, and so many others working selflessly through this crisis, the military is on our side.

As testing becomes more available and widespread, we’ll see a massive spike in the number of Americans infected. This is going to rattle a lot of people, but it shouldn’t – those infections are there right now, but invisible, and identifying those infected is a key part of managing this pandemic.

There are, to my mind, two overriding threats from COVID-19: first, the very real danger of healthcare resources being completely overwhelmed; and second, that we let our anxiety and fears overwhelm us.

We’re all, including myself, anxious, because we’re dealing with unknowns. A lot of unknowns, and a very fast-moving situation, shouted at us from every corner, 24/7. Everything, from our freedom to our livelihood to our very lives, seems threatened. It’s scary. But civilization is not ending, and the vast majority of us will get through this just fine.

Just two winters ago, in the awful 2017-2018 flu season, I came down with a fever and the worst cough of my life and it was three weeks before I was well. 61,000 Americans died of that flu, and just under a million people were hospitalized. I guarantee that if we’d had the real-time numbers and statistics on infections and deaths on our screens and newsfeed every minute of the day, that would have caused mass panic. The only differences are that we’re used to the flu, despite the fact that it mutates every year and can quickly turn deadly, and that COVID-19 has a maybe 10x higher mortality rate, along with a host of other unknowns. All that said, the mortality rate of the current virus is still very low, perhaps averaging 2%, with advanced age and co-morbidity factoring into many of the fatalities.

I say this not to minimize the dangers, but to help us keep a sense of proportion and not give in to irrational fear.

And since stress and anxiety only weaken our immune system, there are a number of steps I’m taking, and I offer them here in the hope they might help you too.

1. Limit your media intake. Severely! I avoid TV news/video news altogether, because (i) humans being primarily visual creatures, video is hardwired to our brains in a way print and text aren’t; and (ii) the platform is geared to hard-hitting, second-by-second, amped-up crisis effect. Instead, I get my news from text sources online and am now limiting it to twice daily rather than checking it all the time. Seriously. Stop piling on the stress, you don’t need updates every hour, and for God’s sake don’t click on every COVID-19 headline or link you see, especially on social media!

Remember: it is the business of news organizations, even the best ones, to keep our attention by making us feel threatened. Informed is good; fearful is not.

2. Eat well and exercise. Even under lockdown, Americans are allowed out for walks and runs, and there are lots of floor exercises you can do at home to keep fit, along with a slew of new free workout apps and more for your phone and on the web. Exercise is a terrific way to lower and manage stress, and will help your immune response. I also drink wine at meals because I enjoy it (hell, I’m Italian!) and it helps me relax.

3. Get a lot of rest. Try thinking of this whole clusterfuck as our fast-paced society hitting the pause button for a much-needed break. Take advantage.

4. Income, or lack of it, will be a huge stressor for many, but this is being addressed at the Federal level and help will come soon in the form of direct deposits. There’s also an order in place for up to twelve months of mortgage repayment relief via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and I’m sure other lenders will follow. Forced eviction blocks are in place or coming in many states. Utilities are going to be far more understanding of late payments. The Federal government has finally got it, and is acting aggressively and in a largely bipartisan manner. Help is coming.

(Speaking of politics, this is absolutely not the time for partisanship, blame, or finger-pointing! We’re all in this together, and we’ll only get out of it together. Try to be part of the solution and not exacerbate the problem.)

5. Make the time fun. Listen to music, read, cook, play cards and games, do jigsaws, be creative. These things will all help your mood

6. Phone, Skype, and videochat with your friends to keep some sense of community. You’re probably already doing this.

7. Pace yourself, be realistic. This is going to take a while, and believing it’ll be over in 2-3 weeks will only lead to disappointment

8. Cut people more slack than usual. Every one of us is feeling some anxiety, and kindness and understanding are key right now.

9. Look beyond this. This crisis will mitigate, then end. Lockdowns will be relaxed as the pandemic comes under control, and we’ll start getting back to normal. There’ll be a huge collective sigh of cautious relief and life will resume. Stores, restaurants, and bars will reopen. As more infected people recover, we’ll begin to build at least immunity in the population, which means less infection spread next season (as long as the virus doesn’t mutate too much). Early next year, there’s every likelihood we’ll have a vaccine.

10. Longer-term, we may as a society even learn something good from this. Try to take a positive picture. You’ll feel better for it!




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“A Fistful of Dynamite”: Director Sergio Leone’s Overlooked Masterpiece

Fifty-five years ago, in 1964, Italian film director Sergio Leone took the film world by storm with the release of A Fistful of Dollars. In the process, he singlehandedly created the spaghetti western subgenre and established Clint Eastwood as a screen icon. Initially panned by critics in Italy, Fistful nonetheless found a cult following; American critics, on the other hand, got the joke, and the rest is history.

Fast-forward to 1971. After three more westerns (For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; and the glorious, epic, Once Upon a Time in the West) a tired Leone once again took to the dusty hills and arroyos of Andalusia, in southern Spain, to make the final, and most mature, of his western masterpieces.

I’d known of this film for many years, but somehow — despite being a lover of the subgenre — never got around to seeing it until this week, when I found it on Amazon Prime*. If you’re also a Leone fan, I can’t recommend this film highly enough: it’s jaw-dropping, spellbinding, and hugely entertaining.

A meditation on and a critique of both oppression and revolution, the film is visually sumptuous, with many sequences of sheer art — if you’ve seen Once Upon a Time in the West, you’ll get my drift. Coburn and Steiger’s (the latter fresh from In the Heat of the Night) acting is flawless. And Ennio Morricone’s score contributes a perfect, teasing, brilliant counterpoint to the action and the dynamic tension of the film, which balances tongue-in-cheek and sober social commentary.

Set in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution, the film, whose main themes are friendship, the dawning of social conscience, and class struggle, opens with a quote from Chairman Mao**:

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

Enter Rod Steiger as Juan, a raggedy-assed and apparently illiterate Mexican peasant; he soon turns out to be a wily bandit, modeled on the character of Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with a gaggle of bastard sons for a gang. The first scenes of the film see an increasingly feverish, near-surrealist scene in which Juan is degraded and humiliated by a stagecoach full of rich upper-class Mexicans, who soon get their comeuppance.

As the bandits loot the stagecoach, an explosion up the trail interrupts their business. Moments later, James Coburn appears on a vintage motorcycle from a cloud of dust, very much in the manner of The Man With no Name. The initial face-off between these two is priceless, and Coburn soon reveals himself as Irish Revolutionary John Mallory, a man not to be toyed with on account of the fact that his duster coat is lined with enough dynamite and nitroglycerin to reshape large parts of the landscape.

As the plot develops, the continuing tension between the two protagonists develops into a strong, if unacknowledged friendship, and the initially simple story grows around them. One of the movie’s set-piece scenes, depicting a massacre of revolutionaries by the army, is straight from World War II… as is the German colonel who is the film’s rather surreal antagonist.

The movie’s name went through some interesting changes. In Italy, it was released under the title, “Giú la Testa,” which in English approximates, “Get your head down.” Originally titled, “Duck, you sucker!” in the U.S., the title was later changed to “A Fistful of Dynamite,” to tie in with Leone’s Dollar films. In France, where the film did very well, it was named “Once Upon a Time… the Revolution.”

The genesis of the film was equally tortuous. The screenplay was originally written for Jason Robards and Eli Wallach, who’d respectively starred in Leone’s previous epics, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but ended up with James Coburn and Rod Steiger in the leading roles. Additionally, Leone didn’t want to direct the movie himself, but after three other candidates (Sam Peckinpah was the second) didn’t pan out, and at Steiger’s insistence that Leone direct the movie, he finally acquiesced.

The review site Rotten Tomatoes gives A Fistful of Dynamite 91%. Brilliant, thoughtful, visually rich, and immensely entertaining, this is a film that deserves to be seen.

Are you a fan of Leone’s work? Have you seen this film?


* You can watch the movie here on Amazon Prime, or buy it here in various formats

** It’s worth mentioning that the Mao quote, along with several scenes, was cut from the initial 1972 release as they were deemed too politically sensitive for U.S. audiences. The film was banned in Mexico until 1979 as offensive to both the people and the Mexican Revolution.


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The Paleotech Trap

In my current read, a terrific crime novel written in 1990, I can’t help a wry smile creeping onto my face at the quasi-reverential aura which surrounds the shiny new technology of the time — computers running MS-DOS, DNA tests that take weeks to return, and not a cellphone in sight. The phrase “electronic mail” is current, and a hack is a “database violation.”

The same thing is very noticeable in long-running TV series dating from the 1990s such as Friends (1994-2004), which in just a ten-year span saw the characters go from wielding boxy portable landline phones to (dumb) cellphones; Chandler, around season two or three, is an early laptop adopter. Or the even longer-running Midsomer Murders (1997-present), in which the police computers go from using massive and clunky CRT monitors to today’s state-of-the-art tech.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the exponential rate of technological progress dates a story or show terribly fast, giving it a shimmer of history, of a fossilized world. It’s becoming increasingly hard to envisage a modern world without all-pervasive digital technology — and yet, that world is just three decades in our past.

Portraying the present isn’t so much the issue, as audiences accept a story’s temporal context. But accurately setting a film or story in the short- to medium-term future is full of pitfalls. The real-world consequences of Moore’s Law pose a particular problem for Science Fiction writers, whose work can come to seem laughably dated or, worse, wildly inaccurate to their audience in a handful of years: the safest thing today is to place the story so far in the future that Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) applies.

This was a concern when I was writing my first novel, Sutherland’s Rules (2013), but I was fortunate enough to be positing a scheme whose tech still passes muster, though real-time satellite mapping of even small moving objects on land and sea is about to change that, if it hasn’t already. Still, I’m glad I made a particular point of not fetishizing the early smartphones of the day: having got my start in Science Fiction, I knew the risks I ran.

As both a writer and editor, I’m probably hyper-aware of details that wouldn’t bother most people. But as a reader and viewer, I can honestly say I’m forgiving. If the characters and story have me hooked and the author is competent, everything else becomes secondary.

But let’s not fetishize today’s technology. It’ll be history before you know it.

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Witches and Warlocks and Gunpowder, oh my!

I’m not a Halloween guy, nor much of a fan of things twisted and scary. I delight in complimenting little witches and warlocks and spidermen and ladybugs on their great costumes, but the holiday itself I really don’t care for. I confess I find it hard to understand its appeal to anyone over thirteen, except that dressing up and walking around with a gang of your besties at night would definitely be fun. But the candy and cobweb stuff? Meh. 

Of course, I wasn’t brought up with Halloween. When I was a kid in London, October 31st, though acknowledged and known as all Hallows’ Eve, which had its origins in the Celtic Samhain, was a non-event unless you were a pagan or a super-devout Roman Catholic. The big harvest time festival of my childhood was Guy Fawkes, aka Bonfire Night, which occurs on November 5th.

The Guy Fawkes festivities mark the capture and execution of the plotters who wanted to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James in order to restore a Catholic king to the throne. But as a child, I confess I believed the celebration, with all its rockets and roman candles, catherine wheels and bangers, was really in honor of what might have been had the gunpowder plotters not been discovered, and instead succeeded. Clearly, like all children, I was an anarchist to my core.

My reading and viewing habits today just skirt the edges of the horror genre. I’m a little impressionable: as a child, I remember having difficulty sleeping after reading the Sherlock Holmes story, The Speckled Band, late at night (the reveal with the bell cord…omg!). And the 1961 Roger Corman movie of Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum with Vincent Price scared the daylights out of me.

Now, I do love Stephen King’s work, but curiously not the books other fans hold up as masterpieces (aside from The Stand, which is genius): I far prefer King’s less graphic and more psychological ouevres, like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, and Duma Key, to the gory shockers Carrie and The Shining, to name a few.

It’s odd therefore that in late 2014 I ended up writing Black Easter, a suspense/horror novel of sorts featuring ritual magic of the darkest kind, demonic possession, and human sacrifice, not to mention inventing a whole new demonology to drive the book. What can I say but that I don’t care to use off-the-shelf pantheons and cosmologies, and inventing your own is a lot of fun. Especially when you can bring in a shimmer of Lovecraft without actually adopting his cosmology wholesale and ending up with a fanfic piece.

If you like Halloween and supernatural fiction, and haven’t read it, Black Easter is on sale at Amazon all this spooky week for just $0.99. Grab it now and make it a week of demon worship and reading past your bedtime! And while you celebrate the spook-fest, I’ll be giving early thanks that I never lost a single finger or eye to the mad fooling with fireworks and rockets of my long-ago childhood.

Happy Halloween!

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INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Loreth Anne White

Loreth 250hLoreth Anne White is an award-winning author of romantic suspense, thrillers, and mysteries. She has won the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Romantic Suspense, the National Readers’ Choice Award, and the Romantic Crown for Best Romantic Suspense and Best Book Overall. In addition, she has been a two-time RITA finalist, a Booksellers’ Best finalist, a multiple Daphne Du Maurier Award finalist, and a multiple CataRomance Reviewers’ Choice Award winner. Her most recent novel, In the Waning Light, is a finalist for the 2016 RITA Awards (category: romantic suspense). A former journalist and newspaper editor who has worked in both South Africa and Canada, Loreth now resides in the Pacific Northwest with her family.

DC: Loreth, thank you so much for joining me for this Under the Covers interview. What attracts you to the romance genre? Would you call yourself a Romantic?

LAW: If you mean a Romantic in terms of the Romanticism movement—where weight is given to intense emotions and intuition, the evocative and atmospheric, the past, the sublimity of nature, the individual, spontaneity, as opposed to the purely rational or scientific, then yes, I think I’d call myself a Romantic. (smiles)

A romantic world view in this sense is evident in many genres of fiction, I think, from drama, to gothic/horror, to thriller, to literary, to romance. But being a romantic in this context doesn’t necessarily mean believing in a ‘happy ever after ending’, which is how the publishing industry does define the romance genre—essentially stories of two people overcoming obstacles to falling in love, and ending with a HEA, or a promise thereof.

I’m drawn in particular to the romantic suspense subgenre of romance, where danger and intense emotions can fuel or thwart that journey toward a romantic partnership, and where the stakes are love or death.

DC: You had a sixteen-year career as a journalist before you took to writing fiction. Not all writers find that an easy transition. How did you find your voice as an author?

LAW: Turning to fiction felt like a homecoming of sorts. I certainly found making up stories a whole lot more fun that attempting to tell the truth … or, perhaps, there is even more truth to be found in fiction than ‘news’?

DC: Cold wilderness areas like the BC wilds and Wyoming are frequent settings for your stories. What’s the fascination?

LAW: I’ve written almost as many stories set in hot locales as cold ones—the Congo jungle, several in the Sahara desert, Botswana, or other parts of Africa, and I do like writing those steamy, oppressive, or burning settings as much as the dark and frigid ones, However, editors have been more inclined to ask for my bleak Nordic-toned or wilderness gothic type concepts. So, possibly, the answer is simply that they sell better.

DC: Are you an optimist about humanity and society?

LAW: If anything I’m a pessimist, or, as I like to think, a realist, and perhaps this goes back to your question about what draws me to romance, and to fiction in general, because in writing fiction you can control the outcome. You can make the ‘good’ guy triumph over ‘evil’ You can conquer the heinous villain, catch the criminal, help the deserving heroine survive against impossible odds. You can give meaning to, and create order out of what otherwise often seems like a harsh randomness in real life.  It’s perhaps a way of trying to make sense of it all.

DC: Some characters in both reality and fiction—I’m thinking of psycopaths and serial killers—are so far beyond comprehension as to seem utterly devoid of any humanity or ability to feel, to empathize. They seem to represent pure evil in almost a Biblical sense. The number of crimes committed by this type of criminal seems to have risen exponentially in recent decades in Western societies, certainly far outstripping population growth rates. As an author who’s researched these personality types, do you have any thoughts on the reasons for this, and what drives these types?

LAW: I don’t know that serial murder is on the increase. Actual statistics are hard to come by, and conversely, I’ve seen it argued that serial murders might actually be on the decrease, and that the general public’s fascination with serial killers might have already seen its peak.

Certainly, serial murder did come across as being on an exponential rise for a period of time, but I also don’t know how much of that might be attributed to technological/digital advances in linking these crimes, and labeling them as such. Or how much of a role sensational media reporting and the rise of the fictional serial killer might have increased general awareness. Perhaps this even inspired crimes—life imitating ‘art.’

The fact that serial murderers appear devoid of humanity and are unable to empathize in the same way as most people is probably what gives them appeal in the first place. They are not the fantastical monster of a horror novel, but they’re real people who could live next door, or rub knees with you on the bus, or work in the cubicle beside yours. They are essentially Human Beasts, and for those who love their fiction to scare them, who want to feel fear at a safe remove, this kind of cold-hearted, ‘evil,’ human monster will be tough to top.

DC: Tell me about your Black Dog—your black Lab, Hudson.

LAW: Hah, my Black Dog is my daily smile, my exercise, my exasperation…a perpetual lesson on living large and in the moment.

DC: You began your career around a decade ago writing mainstream romance for Harlequin and have progressed to being known for romantic suspense/thrillers like your hugely successful 2015 novel, A Dark Lure, and your most recent work, In the Waning Light. These are dark, intense works featuring psychopathic killers and severely traumatized protagonists. What led you along this road?

LAW: I think it’s a natural extension of my earlier romantic suspense works, a way of exploring craft in a deeper way, trying something new, bigger, darker, and Montlake has given me a venue to do this in way I was not able to accomplish with my old publisher.

DC: Like many romance authors, you’re enormously prolific; in 2010, when you were writing for Harlequin, you published six novels in a single year. Today you still seem to average two longer and much more complex novels a year. In addition to this you have a family life, enjoy the outdoors, travel, and maintain a high profile on social media. What suffers? What do you struggle to make time for and wish you could?

LAW:  Coming from a journalistic background I was used to sitting down every day and producing a lot of words. However, I consider myself a fairly slow writer compared to a lot of other authors out there—my goal this year is to work smarter, and to be more focused when I do sit down at my computer for a writing session. And if you ask my husband what suffers when I’m on a particularly nasty deadline, he will say it’s him! He’s a saint in that respect. The only other thing that might suffer is a social life, but having a hectic social life is not a priority for me…or, perhaps staying in tune with current affairs in the way that I was used to.

DC: Your more recent novels are multilayered, tightly-plotted thrillers with solid, believable, characters. How much do you know about the outcome and the plot arc when you begin a novel?

LAW: I’m a plotter/planner. I need to nail the character conflicts and have the novel’s outcome and major turning points in mind before I can relax into the writing of the words—just  as one might plot an overland journey from, say, Vancouver to New York, marking your nightly destination points on a road map. However, if I do come upon an intriguing side road, or meet a surprising character along the way, I will explore these things, and often the resulting detours lead the novel in an entirely new direction and change the end game.

DC: You spend a lot of time outdoors and have had close encounters with bears. How do you handle them?

LAW: With great respect and caution! And I do carry bear spray when we head into the interior where the bears can be more predatory and carnivorous than our local bruins are. Mostly I’d like to avoid meeting those bears.

DC: Beyond skiing and the outdoors, what’s your favourite leisure activity?

LAW: Hands down, the ocean and open water swimming.

DC: What do you like to read? Any favourite authors?

LAW:  I love narrative nonfiction and biographies, and the fiction I have enjoyed of late includes works by, Tana French, Tami Hoag, Laura Lipmann, JoJo Moyes, Kate Atkinson, Patricia Highsmith, Liane Moriarty, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, Mary Kubica, Elizabeth Haynes, Erik Rickstad, PD James, Jo Nesbo, Camilla Lackberg, and Tim Johnston.

DC: Despite being a very successful novelist, you’ve mentioned wanting to overcome some writing fears in 2016. Can you talk a little about these?

LAW: I have what I like to think of as bigger, or more mainstream story ideas that I’m hungry to explore, yet I’m afraid I won’t be able to meet my own expectations for them. It’s like the old Schrödinger’s Cat experiment—the cat is both alive and dead until you look in the box, then it’s one or the other.  Similarly, both success and failure are possible until I actually sit down and tackle those stories in my head….then will come the proof, and my fear is failure as an outcome. It’s far more comforting to dabble with dreams. (smiles)

DC: Your recent books would make terrific movies. Have you had any interest from the industry or had any books optioned?

LAW: Thank you! I have had interest from both Hollywood and major studios in the UK, including an offer, but no deal yet.

DC: What can your many fans look forward to next?

LAW: Coming from Montlake on August 16 is In the Barren Ground, a dark, atmospheric romance and police procedural with gothic/horror overtones set in a remote fly-in community just south of the arctic circle. I’m working on a police procedural romantic suspense series, and also a suspense novel on the side. Haha, I know—don’t laugh!

DC: Loreth, thank you so much. Here’s wishing you every success in the RITA Awards!


Loreth loves to hear from readers.

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For news of new releases, advance reader copies, and giveaways, sign up for her newsletter here

Did you enjoy this interview with Loreth? Let us know with a comment!

Read my own review of Loreth’s “A Dark Lure”

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with science fiction/tech thriller author and futurist William Hertling, live right here on Saturday April 9!

The full UNDER THE COVERS interview calendar is here



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On Rewriting

I used to hate rewriting.

As any writer knows, it’s not over when you write, THE END. It’s a glorious moment, to be sure, and one to be savoured—but what it usually means is that you’ve completed the first draft and will soon be getting to grips with the dreaded rewrite.

Writers come in all kinds. There are those of the down-and-dirty first draft persuasion whose prose floods onto the page so fast they can barely keep up. I know authors whose early drafts don’t even come with punctuation, with hash signs or XXX marks peppering every page as placeholders for a word they can’t think of in the instant. I admire these people for the sheer energy and momentum of their attack—they can often get 4,000, 5,000, or even more words on the page in a day, but I don’t envy them the task of rewriting—it’s going to be even more work than the first draft! That said, it’s easier to strip down and rework rough writing than prose that’s almost good enough to publish already.

Which would be the way my first drafts tend to be. I manage around 1,500 words on a good day. Not a lot: I think and compose in the process, and don’t plot ahead. But the prose is clean. The upside of my method is that I don’t have to do a great deal of rewriting; the downside is that teardowns in which large structural changes need to be made and entire scenes or chapters recrafted are more painful, since it’s hard not to be somewhat invested in prose that already has  a good shine on it.

Today, as I approach the end of the rewrite on my new suspense novel (working title: Black Easter), I’ve come to look forward to and even enjoy the process of rewriting.

Why? Because it’s where the magic happens.

This novel was, for various reasons, the devil to write—and given that it concerns itself closely with Hell, (and no, not your usual Hell, as I have a whole new and twisted demonology for the reader), this is probably appropriate.

The rewrite began no easier, and at first I struggled to engage the correct gears. Stephen King compares writing a novel to rowing across the Atlantic in a bathtub: you’re alone, and most of the time you’re out of sight of land. It’s dark, and there are storms. Fear and self-doubt pluck and worry at you constantly. As is so often the case with writers, especially novelists, despair is never far away. You know you suck, and pretty soon the whole world will know it, too. Maybe you should just bury the manuscript and take up origami.

And then, at the darkest hour, magic happens. A character suddenly reveals the motive for which they said something, took some action, or made a key decision. You see a connection between two story events that casts an entirely new light on a pivotal plot point. You understand why you wrote a particular scene that seemed to have no immediate meaning at the time. You realize that you have two characters transposed, that one should be doing this particular action, not the other. Your characters that looked like stick figures suddenly take on form and solidity.

Before long, the entire work which felt like a pile of dry, lifeless bones just yesterday has come to life in your hands. Tendons and muscles appear from nowhere, and the loose collection of bones tautens and snaps into an ordered skeleton. Flesh begins to cover it, it acquires a face; and pretty soon your formerly dead creation is breathing and moving and talking. Despair turns to elation, defeat to victory.

What’s happened of course is that your muse has delivered the goods. By just keeping at it and showing up at the keyboard, your subconscious mind (and that is the muse, the place where the magic happens) has had the time and been served sufficient material that it’s now delivering the output to you in the form of insights, explanations, connections.

I believe that most writers—except perhaps those who indulge in very detailed outlining and plotting in advance, to the point where their process is more mechanical than organic—rely largely on the subconscious to do the heavy lifting. When I write my first draft, I have an idea of where my plot may go, and often extensive notes on my characters, but I really can’t see very far or deeply. Characters will do things I don’t quite understand at the time, and the plot will take odd turns I couldn’t have foreseen. This doesn’t mean I have no control: I do hold the reins, but loosely; and on the whole, I find I hardly ever need to tighten them and rein in the team—they seem to know where they’re going better than I do. Somehow I get to the end.

My point here is that what’s happening is an information upload from the writer’s subconscious to their conscious mind. I believe that in the first draft the conscious mind is putting down on paper a somewhat garbled version of the narrative that the subconscious, the muse, actually has worked out in great detail (this correlates nicely with the “found object” school of plotting). In the rewrite, the muse looks over what the conscious has put down on the page, laughing in some places and frowning in others. It then goes off to have lunch.

After a little more time in which you might find yourself spinning your wheels and considering those origami classes again, the subconscious returns from lunch and starts really delivering the goods. Suddenly you’re energized. You slap yourself upside the head and wonder how you could have been so an ass to not see this, and get that so wrong. You make the connections, your fingers fly on the keyboard. The magic is happening.

And those rewrites I once feared are something I’ve begun to look forward to.


How do you feel about rewrites? Have you experienced this same magic?








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BayCon 2014

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Baycon 2013 Indie Publishing panel

BayCon, one of the biggest Bay Area Science Fiction conventions, is held each Memorial Day weekend at the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara, CA. BayCon is a lot of fun for adults and children alike; there’s a full programme of interesting panels, plenty of hands-on activities for younger guests, as well as costuming, Klingons, Space Marines, a Regency Dance, and the fabulous Slave Auction. This year’s writer Guest of Honour is David Weber, creator of the celebrated “Honor Harrington” novels.

I’ll be attending, and am on four panels this year as participant/moderator:

1. Building Your Writing Community on Friday at 5:00 PM in Bayshore

So you’re thinking about writing but don’t know how to start. Or you have a manuscript but you’re not ready to show anyone. This panel will discuss how to identify where you are in the process of finishing your book, different types of writing groups and how to utilize them, when to recognize when your work is ready for beta readers, and how to give and receive critique with grace and encouragement.

(moderating; with Adrienne Gormley, Setsu Uzume, Beth Barany, Laurel Anne Hill, Dan Hope)

2. When Good Food Turns Evil on Saturday at 2:00 PM in Lawrence

At one time, margarine was touted as a healthier alternative to butter. This ended after the dangers of trans-fats was discovered. There are still differing opinions on what makes a healthy diet, even after decades of research. What highly touted food items might not be as healthy as you think? Join the panelists as they chew the fat on this topic.

(moderating; with Christine Doyle, Sydney Thomson, M.D., Laurel Anne Hill)

3. Self Publishing: Where does it fit in the Literary Food Chain? on Saturday at 3:30 PM in Ballroom A

Between Amazon and Barnes & Noble, self-publishing has taken off; no longer the classical vanity press, often seen as the redheaded stepchild. Is it? Should it be? Where does this fit in the food chain, or is this about to become the Shark?

(moderating; with David Friedman, Kyle Aisteach, Emerian Rich, Ursula Vernon)

4. Surveillance and the End of Privacy on Sunday at 11:30 AM in Bayshore

Between government surveillance of citizens and ubiquitous cameras, is privacy a lost cause? What can you do to preserve your privacy? 

(with Jason Malcolm Stewart, David Friedman, Griffin Barber)

The link for BayCon 2014 is

I hope to see you there!



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Why We CAN’T All Get Along

A couple of days ago, as the US Supreme Court prepared to visit the interminably vexed question of gay marriage, I had an interesting exchange of views with a Facebook friend I deeply respect, Michael Potts, Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C.  A Christian of a powerful intellectual bent, Michael expressed the view that “we can’t go on the way we’re going without the culture war turning into something more than a metaphor”, and that the eventual solution might be a move towards setting up semi-autonomous communities of like-minded individuals.

The same idea—taken a bit further—has been floated by a number of individuals, including some libertarian billionaires. Their proposals essentially envision de facto city-states with their own governments and laws, sometimes with the goal of creating tech hubs just outside US territorial waters so as to circumvent the US visa requirements which are increasingly threatening to put a brake on a strongly resurgent tech industry. Other groups driven more by ideals than business considerations just think it would be really cool to experiment with new types of social order, and I confess the idea holds great allure. Most of these ideas involve seasteading, the locating of these new communities on manmade islands or even simply recycled oil rig platforms.

There are strong arguments both ways. At the same time as I think our only hope as a society, even as a species, is to learn to compromise, reach accommodations, and work together with a shared vision, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that this is a lost cause. It seems to me that conflict and struggle are so deeply hardwired into our primate psyche that there isn’t a hope in hell—absent forced external tampering or thought control, and none of us want that—of ever resolving our deepest differences. Not, at least, within a pluralist, democratic system, and least of all within a dog-eat-dog capitalist society with free speech and free media. And we know how well the alternatives worked.

I remember back in the early oughts talking to some fellow who was worried about the “black helicopters” and the UN’s “New World Order,” a popular right-wing meme about the Antichrist forcing free nations into a single world government. I pointed out that the maps of Eastern Europe were being redrawn every few months, it seemed, in the wake of the collapse of communism, and that the exact opposite was happening, with people everywhere who’d been welded together under strongmen like Tito wanting instead to secede and govern themselves.

The internet has of course added fuel to this particular fire, both directly and indirectly, with traditional media forced to ratchet up controversy and partisanship to compete for a shrinking audience. And while I—an extreme social liberal on many issues—would like to think that we can reach accords on the issues that divide us, and daily hear Rodney King’s impassioned words, I know the chances of this ever happening are close to zero.

The irony perhaps is that while we of social liberal or true libertarian bent (as opposed to the neo-libertarian conservatives) are willing to let others live the way they want and not impose our ideals on them or dictate their lifestyles, it’s just about impossible for a devoted Christian to take that stance. Much as it drives me nuts, I refuse to take the easy way out of the rabid atheist and absolutely dismiss their worldview. While deep religious faith  may to me be at best a comforting crutch and at worst delusional,  to others it’s part of who they are. And you can’t demand respect without giving it, however grudgingly. We can disagree with someone without making them the enemy.

In conclusion, I’m going to quote Christian White, one of the protagonists of my recent thriller, “Sutherland’s Rules,” who finds himself pondering these same issues in the hills of Afghanistan after a narrow brush with death, and has just been reassured by an Afghan friend that “God is good”:

There were times when he’d have given body parts for real faith, for the comfort and unburdening it would bring. As a consequence, he thought about faith a lot, to the point where sometimes he felt downright stalked by God, as if God really needed him to believe, wanted his pathetic soul.

But try as he might, whatever powerful feelings he might have in the throes of fear and need (and didn’t everyone have those? Didn’t finding yourself in a foxhole turn everyone into a believer?), he couldn’t overcome his rational doubts. And you couldn’t fake these things, couldn’t fake belief. Oh, he knew plenty of half-assed believers, people who used church as a social club and mouthed religion as a good gambler might hedge a bet, and they seemed content enough. Not him. You didn’t try faith on like a pair of shoes, walk around in them a while to see if they fit before committing. If it wasn’t genuine and from the heart, it was hollow. And any God worth believing in would see through that.

Yeah, we’re never going to get along. It might well be time to experiment with some new social structures, because the current ones, and maybe even the whole edifice of western democracy, is threatening to burst at the seams. Expect a strong backlash from governments when the first city-states become viable.

Your comments are welcome.


Floating semi-autonomous communities

My own earlier post about tolerance and America’s culture wars

Michael Potts’s excellent, thoughtful blog  (As a sample, check out this terrific post in which he addresses Christian misconceptions about Goth culture )


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Panverse, Publishing, and Hollywood: I’m Back.

Last night my wife and I watched the 1997 Science Fiction film, “Contact.” And, like 95% of the SF movies I see, it annoyed the living hell out of me. Why? Because it was a copout*.

The movie was a copout because it took no risks. In a genre where you can do anything, here was yet another contemptible example of the failure of imagination, the refusal to take risks. The movie fails largely by resorting to tedious tropes: the ambitious politician, the evil, scheming intelligence baron, the tedious attempt to reconcile the dichotomy between faith and science, the heavy-handed, tired message that humanity is at a crossroads between self-destruction and transformation. Oh, please. We knew all this five decades ago.

In trying to reduce the ineffable mystery of being to a comforting, human scale, the movie manages only one thing: to reassert traditional, even Christian values and fill the viewer’s mind with a bland mush—which, comforting as it may be to some, gets us nowhere. It’s the cultural equivalent of the heliocentric view of the world. Given the choice, I’d prefer to watch something like “The Core,” which, though truly awful, is at least honestly and unpretentiously awful, and actually provides a good deal more entertainment value.

The last good SF movie I saw was the 1971 Tarkovsky film, “Solaris” (my impressions of which can be found in this post). Beyond being a daring, exceptional film by any standards, “Solaris” was true Science Fiction because it rejected convenient tropes and succeeded in communicating the inexplicable strangeness of the universe and the ultimate isolation of the human condition, rather than trying to simply comfort the viewer and rake in maximum bucks. “Solaris” was art; “Contact” was visual junk food. And no prizes for guessing which made the most money.

Publishing today has just about caught up with Hollywood. Art and vision long ago went out the window, taking theme and relevance with them. Like Hollywood, no novel gets published without being heavily breathed on and hammered into formulaic conformity by several people, which likely include at minimum the author’s agent, the publishing house’s editor, and the marketing department. The result—at least in genre publishing—is an interminable deluge of fast-moving, relentlessly formulaic stories which are all event and movement without much content. If a story doesn’t conform to the iron requirements of genre and category dictated by marketers (e.g., no Romance without an HEA—happily Ever After—ending stands a chance of publication); if a protagonist isn’t relentlessly proactive; if the characters don’t all change in direct conformity to the industry-standard arc; if  the ending doesn’t resolve with all the  plot strands tidied up; forget it. Under these parameters, many of the  world’s greatest classics and most thoughtful, interesting novels wouldn’t ever see print today.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course. Once in a while, a standout will get through, like, say, “The Good Fairies of New York,” but those are very likely coming from an indie press or self-publishers.

And therein lies the only hope for risk-takers and nonconformist writers who put art, integrity, and theme front and center. Because if it doesn’t fit the suffocating template of Big Publishing’s category and genre obsession, it isn’t going to be published. I know too many good writers, even agented, Name writers, with excellent mss. that don’t stand a chance with the majors.

Which brings me to my own venture, Panverse Publishing.

I started Panverse in 2009 because I wanted to provide a venue for new SFF writers working at novella length, a then very underserved niche. As an example of how shortsighted even the relatively open SF market can be, I had the incredible fortune to be offered—and was delighted to publish—Ken Liu’s searing novella, “The Man Who Ended History,” which went on to receive terrific reviews and was nominated for both the  Hugo and Nebula Award. How telling that it took an unknown to publish it.

After publishing three annual anthologies of five novellas each, stories from which garnered several award nominations and one win (The Sidewise Award for Alan Smale’s 2010 novella, “A Clash of Eagles”), as well as a collection of short stories titled “Eight Against Reality,” I published my own bittersweet travel memoir, “Aegean Dream.”

“Aegean Dream” had been with my then agent over a year; but despite her best efforts, and several nice notes from editors saying how they loved the writing, nobody would touch it because it (i) didn’t conform to the saccharin “A Year in so-and-so” travel memoir formula, and (ii) at 135k words, it was at least 40% too long for the market category.

With zero advertising and no bookstore presence, “Aegean Dream,” published in both digital and POD edition by Panverse, sold almost 4,000 copies in 2012, was #1 book in both Greece categories on Amazon UK for over three months, and is looking set to sell strongly again in 2013. In addition, I was approached by Poland’s largest travel book publisher, Pascal, who noticed its success in the UK and are now in the  process of preparing the Polish language edition, due for release in July.

After a great deal of thought, I decided to call it a day with Science Fiction as both a writer and (with rare exceptions) as a publisher, for two reasons. First, as a lifelong fan and voracious SF reader, I’m rather disappointed by what’s going on in the field today (not much, IMO); secondly, it’s too limiting. And not just SF—any genre is limiting. When our very lives don’t observe genre boundaries, why on Earth should fiction? Readers, in my experience, are far, far smarter than most publishers give them credit for: they largely don’t give a fig about all the formulas, templates, and constraints the industry’s barons and gatekeepers typically try to impose on them—readers want a good book which is both well-written, well-produced, and which, most of all, entertains them, period. And if it breaks a few “rules,” and still works, all the better.

So, after much consideration, Panverse has moved from simply publishing SFF anthologies and my own work to being a real indie press. We have six novels and one nonfiction title coming out this year, and more scheduled for 2014. We have no separate imprints, no genre or category restrictions—our single and overriding mission is to publish books that absorb, reward, and stimulate the reader. Books that make the reader think, that affect them, that surprise them. Books that are about something rather than just being a breathless succession of events; books that are well-written and produced; books that stick with the reader long after the story ends.

The first Panverse title of 2013 is out, and it’s my own caper/thriller, “Sutherland’s Rules” (reviews at Amazon, Goodreads, et al). Best described as an intelligent caper/thriller with elements of the police procedural and the spy novel, finished off with just a shimmer of the fantastic, “Sutherland’s Rules” moves fast and introduces the reader to characters I hope they’ll enjoy and remember. Most of all, the novel is about something—in fact, several “somethings”—beyond the externalities of the plot; please check it out, and read an excerpt here.

As the year progresses, I’ll be posting more about Panverse’s upcoming books, my own work (I’ve just begun on the next novel), and, as usual, my occasionally eccentric and even contrarian musings on life. If you care to send your friends a link, I’d be absolutely delighted. You can also find both myself and Panverse Publishing on Facebook and Twitter, and of course sign up for this blog’s feed via the “Follow” link on left sidebar.

Thanks for visiting, and come back soon!

* The original Carl Sagan novel was rather more interesting, but not much.

What’s your take on this?


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Heads Up!

I’m breaking radio silence, friends, for two important announcements here. It’s my week for promotion, and I’d be very grateful if y’all could give me a helping hand with the following by copying/circulating to any friends who like to read? Thanks so much!


My small press, Panverse Publishing is getting ready to run some big prize giveaways for the holiday if we can reach 500 FaceBook likes by December 15. All Panverse’s FaceBook and Web friends will be eligible.

Please help us reach our 500 likes quickly by sharing this with your reader friends and asking them to like Panverse publishing. Prizes will include signed print books, digital books, and (for the writer friend or family member) a critique by the editor. There will also be a secret surprise gift, which will remain, uh, secret.

Panverse is on track to publish six new titles in 2013. Whatever flavour of fiction you like, you won’t be bored. We have some really fantastic books coming in 2013, covering the gamut from Science Fiction, through Caper/Thriller, into Paranormal and Dark Ages Romance, and even one nonfiction title. What do these have in common? Story. Wonder. At Panverse, we’re readers first. We read the way YOU do, and publish books that keep you glued to the page.

Don’t use FaceBook? You can still navigate to our website at and drop us an email using the address on our ‘Contact’ page, with the simple subject line, ‘Prize Contest’

And as if that weren’t enough…

AEGEAN DREAM, my own UK bestselling nonfiction book from Panverse about a year on the actual ‘Mamma Mia!’ island of Skopelos, is FREE on Amazon Kindle for the next 48 hours–why not grab a copy for yourself or a friend?

AEGEAN DREAM is a true story of sun, sea, skulls, friendship, love, betrayal, corrupt institutions, striptease, tragedy, soap, Pierce Brosnan, and President GHW Bush… what’s not to like?

FREE for 48 hours at Kindle US and Kindle UK, as well as Kindle wordlwide.

Thta’s it, and thanks for reading! I may even have to write a post sometime…   😉

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