Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sherly, You're Joking

I recently saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie. And I liked it. But not the way you're thinking. If you want to see a great action movie, by all means take in Game Of Shadows.

But the movie reminds me of a local restaurant called Twisted Rooster. They have on the menu a sandwich they call a Reuben sandwich, and it's a great sandwich with coleslaw and Russian dressing--but it's not a Reuben sandwich.

Game of Shadows is a cool Steampunk 007 movie. I'll buy Sherlock Holmes being an action hero, but he's not a spy--he's a private eye. And I'll buy into Mycroft Holmes being a gubmint official, but he's not a diplomat--he's a mathematician. The shaken-not-stirred character is cool, but not Sherlock Holmes.

It's someone else.
Just as Sherlock Holmes is not a Steampunk 007, Mycroft Holmes is not a Victorian M.

The considerable powers Mr. Fry brings to the role were significantly underused. When he played Jeeves to Hugh Laurie's Wooster, I saw the makings of an excellent Sherlock Holmes. The years and Mr. Fry's expanding waistline has made him into a perfect Mycroft, but he was used largely for comedic effect in this movie. He didn't really do anything significant--just like M does in your typical 007 movie.

I once had the occasion to know several cryptanalysts and cryptologic mathematicians. They manifested the very sort of smarts one would expect of the Holmes brother who went into mathematics. Sure, there's deep involvement in a nation's intelligence community, but it's an armchair sort of thing that you saw in the Tom Clancy stories where a roomful of analysts debate the significance of a radio intercept or a satellite photo--not the parkour-style chasing about that you'll see James Bond do.

I had altogether expect Mycroft to be heading the codebreaking effort against Moriarty's notebook, not Dr. Watson's lovely bride.

Other quibbles. Dr. Watson was mustered out of the military because of a war wound. In the canon he has delicate health, but in this movie he walks with a limp. A limp that goes away when he's dancing, or when he's running. Hmmmm.

Then there's Mycroft's nudism. It has comedic effect, but it's altogether gratuitous--unless you were wondering about Mr. Fry's middle-aged spread. Like wise Sherlock's aversion to horses? Where'd that come from? Arthur Conan Doyle had no problem making Sherlock an expert swordsman and boxer, why would he stint with horsemanship?

Moriarty is some kind of Lord of War (without the cocaine), and he's aiming to start a World War by sabotaging some kind of peace conference that reminds me a lot of a Star Trek episode.

Finally there's Rivendell on the Reichenbach falls. This is Rivendell.:

This is the Reichenbach Falls where Holmes and Moriarty have their final conflict:

Notice any difference?

I happened to like the Lord Of The Rings, 007 movies, Star Trek and the Wild Wild West, but I will never confuse them with Sherlock Holmes.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Does Bad Writing Exist?

This seems a ridiculous question until asked to define bad writing.

Months back I was reading about how John Locke sold a million books and his response to his critics is unique. He doesn't engage any assertion that his books might be poorly written. Instead, he shrugs and says the haters are simply not his market. There's some virtue in this way of thinking and it is a paradigm shift.

Yet I think this paradigm has its limits. I've tried to follow two commandments in my writing:
  • Thou shalt be interesting.
  • Thou shalt be clear.
Honor those two commandments and I have no quibble with John Locke. Otherwise, I suppose bad writing does indeed exist: It is writing that is unclear and/or uninteresting.

Give Catnip To Cats and Dognip to Dogs
So, are you cool with a writer interrupting a narrative with an extended treatment of discrete mathematics complete with equations? No? Would that constitute bad writing because it's uninteresting? Doesn't Neal Stephenson do that? Or how about an extended political monologue? Didn't Ayn Rand do that?

Mathematics and libertarian politics are--to some readers--what Elmore Leonard calls "the stuff people skip." To other readers the stuff is pure catnip. Some people are bored to tears by that which titillates others. This makes the first commandment of being interesting an audience-dependent thing.

The writer needs to know who's going to be reading his work before he can know how to keep that first commandment. Thus, if you are in any way inclined to read my work, please tell me about yourself.

Don't Make Enemies
 I may surprise you, but less than 100% of the people reading this supporter the Whig Party, belonging instead to the parties of Lincoln and Jefferson. Reflect for a moment on your response to someone writing something that's identifiably from the other side. The contradictory politics distracts from the writing and from the story. There is absolutely no good reason to alienate the 50% of the book buying public who belongs to the other party. (Or in my case the 100%.)

In addition to politics there's religion. Not that many of you are Zen Baptist Puritans, and if you make your book into a tract for Something Else, I'll probably toss it against the wall. Good and evil are concepts that are non-denominational and non-sectarian. C.S. Lewis wrote from a Christian perspective, but nobody would call Narnia a heavy-handed tract because he engaged his readers at the level of good and evil as it runs through the center of human nature. He didn't engage in Bible thumping because it would alienate everyone who doesn't think the Bible to be God-inspired.

There are zero-sum games. I can think of a few topics of conversation that always end badly, because no matter what position I take, the issue is so polarizing and the passions so strong, that someone on one side or the other will be so angry, I'll create an enemy. The only way to win these games is to not play. I just won't go there.

Don't Be Evil
There are some things that warrant nothing less than complete, unequivocal condemnation. Period. Pedophilia? The Ancient Greeks may have tolerated it, if so they deserve whatever hell they're burning in. Nazis? Only Mel Brooks can joke about Springtime for Hitler.

Sometimes you can be ambivalent about gray areas. People of good faith disagree about whether such and such is acceptable behavior or not. That's not the case here. The writer needs a moral compass that's magnetized enough to sense when there is a consensus that a thing is wrong and must not be treated ambiguously.

A friend was deeply offended by a "romance" novel that depicted rape and pedophilia with too casual a treatment. I'll take my friend's word for it that the work stunk. I thought it unworthy of the time and bother of condemning it. But my friend grabbed hold of it and brought every cannon to bear in deprecating the work in the harshest possible terms. If the work was merely bad, she would not be so motivated to badmouth it, but the work was evil, and my friend felt a moral obligation to condemn it as evil--like Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick.

Personally, I noticed this a couple years ago when I revisited Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter stories. Since these are all in the public domain, I reformatted them to look good on my Sony Reader (This was in my pre-Kindle phase.) I read a few of the novels and then ran into something I hadn't noticed when I first read the books when I was a teen. John Carter's son--the protagonist of whatever novel I was reading--owns slaves, and the antagonist insinuates himself into the young man's household as a slave. Who should I root for? I don't approve of slavery, even fictional slavery on another planet. I put the book down and haven't read anything else by Edgar Rice Burroughs since. 

Don't Be A Writer
Shakespeare said, "the play's the thing." Same goes for the narrative. Your reader is not going to want to read beautiful words. S/he wants to read a story. The words of a story are like the wires holding up Flash Gordon's spaceship. They have to be there, but it's better if nobody notices them. Clear writing is like clear spring water: It is transparent. It is invisible.

I've goofed around trying to write in a style or voice that's congruent with the time and place of the POV character. This is a mistake. Yeah, it's cool to write like a Victorian. I rather like the old stuff better than I like the new stuff. And this lets me write like what I prefer to read. But I hear people remark about the words and I realize they're not thinking about the lifeless body hanging in the locked room . Fail.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

After NaNoWriMo Then What?

My daughter won NaNoWriMo over a year ago. She didn't do it this year. And after she finished her novel, she put it in a drawer or something. It hasn't seen the light of day since. She won't let me see it.

I don't think she's unusual. And I think that's a shame. It's easy to figure that after writing with such intensity the writer will want to kick back and rest for a bit. And after that the manuscript is easy to leave in the desk drawer to languish.

Instead of languishing, something else should happen. Or maybe it should languish if the novel is really bad. Who's to say? That's tricky, because sometimes what I think is a bad novel is regarded quite highly by someone else. Or vice versa. In olden days, it was very easy to know what constituted a good novel: someone in New York would take it from a slush pile and declare it publishable. Maybe it would sell, too.

I think that after November finishes, all those novels submitted to should be read by someone. They may not be ready for public consumption, but they should be read. And this got me thinking about A Proposal for Improving Ebooks that I posted a few weeks back.

Suppose someone were to create an e-reader program that runs on iPads, Android tablets, PCs and Macs, but this e-reader program is tied to a server. The reader signs up to read someone's NaNo opus, then goes through it adding annotations identifying typos and--more pertinent to Nano--providing feedback to the author of a more editorial nature. This feedback, like the novel, would not be made public, but would go from reader, to Internet server, to author with only those things the reader and author want public seen by anyone else.

Alternatively, writers and readers can using something like Google Docs, specifically Jae-Sung Lee's Pinfolio, to give readers editable copies of the novel. But I have never been able to work this way. I think the only person making changes to the novel should be the author. And the reader should only be making annotations that are for the author's eyes only. The author alone should be responsible for doing something about these annotations.

My current thinking is that someone needs to lash up a prototype e-reader to give readers a feel for what I have in mind. And mockups of the server screens with diagrams that illustrate the processes of finding/choosing readers by writers and hooking things up to the NaNoWriMo people. This would give the NaNoWriMo author a system to take his work to the next level.

What do you think?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Balancing Act

I watch too much TV. But it is not a total loss, because I can see how a lot of stories come together and see what works and what does not work. I include "reality tv" and historical documentaries among the stories I see. One key element to storytelling I've discovered is "balance."

I read a lot of blogs. Another guilty admission. Some are hyperventilating about the clear and present danger presented to the republic by the democrats. Or by threat to democracy by the republicans. For the purposes of this note, they're interchangeable. Here's another domain where "balance" makes the difference between success and failure.

We see balance in Ferris Beuller's Day Off when Ben Stein is giving one of the economics lectures from his days as a professor. The lecture is pure info dump. It's dry. It's boring. Ben Stein works it perfectly in his deadpan voice. We all instantly remember being in a class we disliked and think, "Mr. Herrin was never this boring." There is not the slightest hint of humor or humanity in the presentation. It is completely out of balance with too much "info." That's how they made it boring on purpose.

I'm suggesting that anyone who writes must balance competing forces and hold them in tension. Lose balance, and you become a dull lecturer, or you become a wild-eyed fanatic--like the guy at the gun show who claims Obama is a Keynesian. You have to balance the info with some aspect of humanity.

At the opposite side of balance is the Discovery Channel's Gold Rush or USA Network's Psych.  In the former, there's a lot of eye-rolling drama and precious little information about gold mining. I am interested in that show to learn how to find gold-bearing ore, how to separate it, and so on. But I have to put up with drama about these guys who couldn't find their shadow on a sunny day as they flail about. This is OK. Everybody's human and a few mistakes are to be expected. But if I want that much drama, I should be watching Cheaters instead. Even Cheaters has some useful information about how surveillance ops work. The ratio of info to drama has a different balance point on Gold Rush than it does on Cheaters. Similarly, Psych is a detective show about a character Shawn who solves crimes and clowns around while everyone on the set rolls their eyes. Here the balance to monitor is between crime-solving and clowning around. If he clowns around too much, the show becomes as intolerable as Ben Stein's economics lecture.

When writing something, you have to gauge where the balance point is. Writing a story about the Holocaust? There's no space for clowning around, even if you're Jerry Lewis. You can use a little dark humor to evoke a wan smile, but not laughter.

The vital difference is balance. Approach your story asking what aspects are held in tension. Then ask what sort of story your readers are expecting. In a large enough marketplace there are a few sick individuals who laugh at the Holocaust, but the majority are revolted. Some aspects of your story will be radioactive and you'll want to avoid them at all costs. More likely, your story will reach a broad spectrum of tastes ranging from boffins who want to hear more of Ben Stein's lecture to goofs who aren't interested in anything but the next train wreck.

We have to know our audience and what balance point will best resonate with them.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Drama Is In The Verbs

One thing I've learned about writing is that the drama is in the verbs. Consider two sentences:
  • He ran quickly down the hill.
  • He dashed down the hill.
Clearly, dashing and running quickly are equivalent expressions in that they convey the subject doing the same thing in the same way. But don't you agree that the latter is more dramatic than the former?

I tell anyone who'll listen that "adverbs are not your friends" and this is one reason for that. When I encounter a lame verb-adverb combo, I ask if my treasure store of vocabulary contains a fitting verb that can replace it.

I don't recommend the writer ever rely upon the Thesaurus, except as a reminder for words you already know. Every word carries nuance that the writer needs to fully understand or s/he risks foolishly saying something unintended.

This is particularly important when writing the action scene. Every word counts in an action scene. Here's something I'm working on now:

Makeda sprang forward as Nell leapt to her feet. She wheeled on the Nubian, drew her stunner and cut him down. He convulsed and fell in a heap with his sword clattering on the floor.

Note the verbs: sprang, leapt, wheeled, drew, cut, convulsed, and fell. Can you imagine how lame it would be to replace these verbs with adverbial phrases like "ran quickly?"

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Comparing Kindle DX models

Sadly, a couple weeks ago, I pulled my Kindle DX from its protective case and I discovered the 5-way control button had spontaneously cracked. I contacted Amazon and they sent me (for a little more money) Kindle DX Graphite--the newer model DX. As you can see here:

They wanted me to send back the old-broken unit, so I thought I'd record my side-by-side experience while I had them both in hand. The original unit is on the left, the new DX Graphite is on the right. (If you know what to look for, you can see that the 5-way control button has cracked. I hope Amazon used a better quality plastic in the Graphite.)

My son and I had a little argument about the display quality. Had it improved? If so, how much? My subjective opinion was that it was subtle, but a small improvement. Nevertheless, the argument prompted me to use my microscope to find out.

The following images show the e-ink display under a low-magnification:
The first image was taken of the older Kindle DX. The second image was the newer DX Graphite.

I also compared the displays with high magnification:

To be fair, my Kindle DX is years old and my DX Graphite is brand-spankin' new. Will the DX Graphite display quality degrade with time? I don't know. Ask me in a couple years.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Proposal For Improving eBooks

Every book can have typos. Sadly, the rate at which typos occur--especially in ebooks--has increased at just the time when it might be easiest to report them. Books today are written on word processors with spell checking, but even the best spell checker won't catch a substitution of one valid word for another valid word--like there and their, or where and wear. And repairs

There are systemic reasons why ebooks often have a higher rate of typos than conventional books. This can be traced to the workflow of typesetting and printing that catches typos without propagating fixes back to the writer's original manuscript. This file is in turn converted to ebook formats.

I think we should turn the workflow inside out. Let's produce ebooks first, put them in front of a lot of alpha-readers' eyeballs to find typos, then propagate bug reports back to the writer to fix before typesetting and printing.

The trouble with the last paragraph is that it can be tedious to mark a typo in an ebook and report it back. I think technology can make this a lot easier and it can streamline reporting. Amazon could tweak their Kindle software to do this fairly easily, and if they get the @author thing working, it might be turned to this purpose. However, since Jeff Bezos doesn't take orders from me, I think we should modify an open source reader program--since we have the source. Pick one that runs on any Android device--cell phone, rooted Nook Color, or tablet. Maybe a Kindle Fire if Amazon doesn't get in the way.

To this application a programmer could add code to mark a word or words, where it appears in the text, what the problem is, and who the reporter is, pack it up in a well-formatted message, then transmit the message via the web to the writer. Bonus points for macro commands for the writer's word-processing program that will position the text at the location of the error as indicated by the report. And the reviewer's notes inserted as a comment.

The publisher could circulate advanced review copies to alpha/beta readers who'd use this system as indicated to improve the work's accuracy.

Since I'm a programmer all this seems very feasible to me. But I've learned that if I'm the only one interested in making something happen, progress goes very slowly. Does anybody else think this could be useful?

Leave a comment if you think so. If enough votes are in favor, I'll see about next steps.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Can Sherlock Holmes be an Action Hero?

If you read many mystery stories, you'll note a couple sub-genres: Cozy and Hard-boiled. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple is a little old lady who collects clues in her knitting bag and solves the mystery with her razor-trap mind. Conversely, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe sticks his nose where it isn't wanted and gets out of trouble with hard fists and a hot gat. Now that we've got that out of the way, I have a rhetorical question:

Is Sherlock Holmes a cozy detective or a hard-boiled detective?

The answer is not as obvious as you might think. In 2009 friends complained about all the fisticuffs of Robert Downey, Jr. in the Sherlock Holmes movie, because they thought it improper for a cozy detective to be busting heads. At first, I was inclined to agree. But that my agreement was predicated upon impressions created by Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone and a parade of similar screen depictions.

When I reflected upon the Arthur Conan Doyle stories I'd read the impression became less clear. Yes, he fills his pipe, catalogs cigar ashes, and plays the violin--cozy behaviors. But he also goes haring off with revolver in hand. When Sherlock Holmes springs the trap on his quarry, he is likely to subdue him physically.

Sherlock Holmes is both a cozy detective and a hard-boiled detective. And he is neither.

It is useful to reflect upon the reason for this. Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887. Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler were not yet born. The cozy and hard-boiled categories did not exist until well after Sherlock Holmes was established in the public mind.

This is not true of the film treatments with with we are familiar. The screen adaptations are written and the performances are interpreted much later with well defined cozy/hard-boiled categories in mind. We've seen cozy elements imposed upon the film treatments that are only latent in the canon.

By way of analogy, before the boffins distinguished between six-legged insect and eight-legged arachnids, people could use the word "bug" in a way that perfectly equivocated the two categories. The Sherlock Holmes of the canon similarly equivocates the categories of cozy and hard-boiled detectives.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Public Service Announcement

I apologize for writing something only tangentially related to writing, but it has to do with eBooks,  Kindles, and stuff.

Ebooks will change the way books are read and published. This threatens some of the not-poor who will have to change the way they do business. Just ask Borders books. It also will disrupt patterns of power distribution between writers, agents, and publishers. None of this should be news.
Do-gooders often like to write hand-wringing essays about The Poor. I recently read here and here that the widespread adoption of ebooks will freeze out poor children from reading. And you probably know that Amazon as dropped its prices to $79 for the normal Kindle, and $199 for the Fire. Now add one more component to this equation: public schools.

When I was a kid the nicest and most expensive books I ever saw were my textbooks. They were glossy, and colorful. Now, I just read here that public school systems are poised to save a lot of money in storage space and shipping costs by switching their texts to ebooks.

Can these savings subsize Kindles for public school children? One of Newt Gingrich's more outrageous ideas was to give laptops to homeless people. I still think it's ridiculous. But it makes sense to give Kindles to disadvantaged school children with their ebook texts.

I can see some very well-heeled corporations spending millions demonizing this idea. But there are even more millions to be made by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and/or Apple switching public school children from dead-tree texts to ebooks.

Update: I hear that the Indian government is moving forward on something along these lines.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Taxonomy of ArtPrize Entries

I've devised a crude taxonomy of #ArtPrize entries.
(If you don't know what ArtPrize is, come to Grand Rapids, MI and find out!)

1) The unkind title of the first category is Refrigerator Art. Some people took Garrison Keillor seriously when he said all the children are above average. And the unhappy truth is that some people have no business entering their work in ArtPrize. Though everyone is God's special unique snowflake, not everyone is able to produce something worthy of display. I'm not saying anybody should be excluded, but maybe loved ones could stage an intervention.

2) The second category is the Monumental. Some artists have genuine talent and they deploy this talent in the service of The Cause. In Soviet Russia, these would be larger than life depictions of the New Soviet Man, working in a factory or driving a tractor. In China, you'd see a five-story Mao leading the Long March. But in Grand Rapids, MI we've got a number of competing religions, like Sorting Recyclables, Empowering Disadvantaged Youths, and Restoring The Ten Commandments. Each of these partisan interests inspire larger-than-life submissions.

3) The Propaganda category combines the worse elements of the first two. It beats the Propaganda drum so furiously that it never gets around to executing any good-looking art. It's just there, declaring some message in the most heavy-handed way imaginable without the slightest breath of humanity or humor. It can be produced by a crowd of 6-year-old draftees or by some too-earnest "artist" toiling away in his garret. Is it Art? I dare not deny that, but you can't deny it's propaganda.

4) My favorite category is the Science Demonstration entry. The Good Lord put some really beautiful phenomena in the laws of Mathematics and Physics, and some boffin will find a way to render that tangibly in an ArtPrize entry. Bravo to you. You've got my vote, because I'm a boffin wannabe myself. Same goes for the engineer who lashes together software and hardware to make some pleasant interactive blinking lights and sound effects. These guys are like the Wizard of Oz, tweaking their balky devices to make them work while saying, "Pay not attention to the man behind the curtain." I salute the man behind the curtain.

5) Then there's the Crafty Art category. What can you make with an unlimited number of toothpicks, ten-penny nails, coins, legos, cigarette butts, win corks or push-pins? Anything! And they usually look wonderful. They're a gimmick and I love gimmicks.

So far, I've described categories of ArtPrize entries that have varying chances of winning. Now I'll describe the one category that is a Sure Fire Loser

6) The Sure Fire Loser category is different from all the other categories. Entries in this category reflect something appealing in nature or humanity. And they do so beautifully. But what makes them a Sure Fire Loser is that they could easily fit on a wall of my house. Nobody is going to vote for this over a 10-ton flying pig, or a 50-foot woman. I could never put a Public Service Announcement over my couch and entries in this category won't attract the partisans' votes. I don't want to dust a million toothpicks formed into the shape of Sonic the Hedgehog no matter how cool that would be. But that painting of a bucolic pasture or that stained glass rendering of dogs playing poker would be welcome additions to my home.

That's where I think #ArtPrize is the best. It takes guys like me who would never consider buying anything from an artist, and it puts the notion of Buying Art into the realm of the possible. The artist who executes a Sure Fire Loser will give his or her card to someone like me. I'll never be able to buy a Rembrandt, but Rembrandt is dead and there are starving artists who'll benefit if their universe of customers expands to include fellows of questionable artistic pedigree such as myself. These artists should be numbered among the winners of ArtPrize.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Publishing, Ebooks, and Saving Money

The world is changing. Used to be that a few large corporations held unassailable monopolies on what you could read. They decided what got published, and what didn't. Since they were in the business of making money, they reasonably made decisions to maximize profits. Thus some amazing prose from some obscure genius would get tossed out of the slush pile while some porn star's ghost-written memoir would be fast-tracked. I'm not ragging on porn stars, just pointing out that in the traditional model, the corporation had a limited number of opportunities and it chose what maximized profits.

Is this what you want?

If you don't yet own a Kindle or a Nook get one. If you've already got a tablet computer or smartphone it'll cost you nothing to download the Kindle application.

No, go do it now. I'll wait.

OK, now that you've got a Kindle you're going to want to put something on it. And if you don't have a bunch of free ebooks from Project Gutenberg, you're missing out on a huge value.

When you go out looking for free ebooks from Project Gutenberg, you may notice some other ebooks are for sale. Amazon sells lots of them and most of them are about $9.99 (or they were until Apple won the right of traditional publishers to charge more). If you keep looking, you'll see there are tons of books that are free. And others like my story, The Aristotelian, that are $0.99.

There are a LOT of ebooks for $2.99 and under. A whole lot of them. It boggles the mind how many. How come? Because of Kindle Direct Publishing a lot of writers are bypassing traditional publishers and selling directly through Amazon. All the jobs that traditional publishers did are being done by the authors themselves. Or not being done.

Traditional publishers have a name for this kind of thing, vanity press. And since it undermines their profits they've done their best to discourage it. Oh, Mr. Bookseller, you don't want to carry that title, it's self-published. Same for newspaper reviews. Like it has cooties.

And there's a grain of truth in that narrative. A traditional publisher pays for editing, an editor is supposed to go through the text and do proof-reading to flush out any typos. Self-published work can sometimes skip this step, and statistically, you're more likely to find typos. Moreover, an aspiring writer may be so in love with his story, s/he'll disbelieve any report that it's not wonderful. Writers are dreamers who tell lies for a living and before they'll tell you any lies, they tell themselves lies about themselves and the quality of their work. If any writer says otherwise, reread the last sentence. Hence, some self-published works are unworthy.

You can find lots of cheap ebooks, but you won't necessarily want to read all of them. Whereas $0.99 much money, there's time. An ebook must be worth the time it takes to read it. Plus the time it takes to decide to buy it, plus the time it takes to find it.

What to do? The Traditional Publishers have a solution they'd like to push on you. Simply pay them $9.99+ and they'll decide which titles are worthy and which are unworthy, and they'll decide what you will like, too. And they'll tell you to do things their way or you'll drown in an ocean of self-published dreck.

There is another way. I go to flea markets, yard sales, and thrift stores to save money. I also sort through bins of CDs at Dollar Stores. Looking for bargains is like hunting. You take what you find with no guarantee up front what you'll find. You have to enjoy the hunt to sort through nicknacks at an Estate Sale. If you watch American Pickers, Cash & Cari, or Antiques Roadshow on television, you'll understand. I realized just recently that schlepping through a long list of cheap ebooks is just like this.

But there's a difference. When you're at an Estate Sale, and your search turns up some unrecognized treasure, you snap it up for yourself. If there's two, you grab it, too. And you brag to your friends at what a great find you acquired. All they can do is envy you. Conversely, with ebooks there's no limit per customer. You can download it, and your friends can, too. Or your friends can report to you what treasures they've uncovered!

Everybody wins, except traditional publishers who'd rather charge you $9.99+ and tell you what to think.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Monster Hunter Alpha

I’m a troll, but not in the sense you’re thinking. I live under the bridge—the Mackinac Bridge. This is what Yoopers call denizens of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Yoopers? That’s what we call denizens of the Upper Peninsula. Michigan is schizo that way.

But us trolls often find an excuse to go “Up North," because the U.P. is just cool. Yeah, it’s cold, too. I’ve been to the U.P. a few times, but I generally try to include a literary pilgrimage of it. For instance, after I read Steve Hamilton’s “A Cold Day in Paradise (Alex McKnight Mysteries),” I made my way up to Paradise to get a look at the lay of the land.
And this summer, I went out of my way to visit Big Bay, MI where the events of John D. Volker’s “Anatomy of a Murder” took place.

Last time I went up to the Kewanaw peninsula I took a tour of the Quincy Mine in Hancock. I didn’t go underground, but I did see the building where they had the big steam hoist. I think this is where Larry Correia’s book “Monster Hunter Alpha” takes place. I’m not sure because Mr. Correia has set the story in Copper County, MI and the town of Copper Lake. Neither place exists. Too bad for the Hancock Chamber of Commerce.

The UP is different. It’s a little like Canada with guns, being quite far north and all. I’m told Finnish and Cornish miners settled the region. I was also told that the two major religions of the area are Lutheranism and Communism, but I don’t quite believe that. One aspect of the UP that stands out are yooper girls. You know how the Beach Boys sang about California girls? Something like that is going on. There’s a distinct, recognizable set of traits that are shared by many yooper girls I’ve met.

The best thing about Monster Hunter Alpha is the red-headed yooper girl, Detective Heather Kerkonen. Larry Correia has done a good job with this character. This is one of Mr. Correia’s strengths: limning distinctive, compelling characters. In this case, Heather is a cop who feels protective of her hometown.

The trouble in Copper County, Michigan is werewolves. Lots of werewolves. The town absolutely reeks of them. And that’s when Earl Harbinger, the red-neck who runs Monster Hunter International drives into town with a truck full of ordnance. Do you like guns? No? OK, you might want to read something with metrosexual sparkly vampires instead. But I like guns and I like stories with guns and gunplay. I liked this story.

I loved Louis L'Amour'swriting. He often followed a pattern: the gunfighter comes to town and he takes a shine to the girl. Similarly when Earl Harbinger meets Heather Kerkonen he asks her to dinner. His interest is not romantic, but she thinks so and turns him down. Earl Harbinger’s core competencies do not include seducing yooper girls. I suppose you could check out sparkly vampires for that. Earl does know how to punch out a monster, though.

Larry Correia does a nice job of capturing the character of the UP and the people who live there. I’m already sold on the Monster Hunter franchise, but putting the story in the UP was icing on the cake. Buy and read Monster Hunter Alpha so Mr. Correia can write more faster.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Monster Hunter Vendetta

If you have not read Monster Hunter International. Stop. Go read it. You can buy it here. MHI is an origins story and a lot of characters get introduced with a lot of mystery about their backstory. This is good.

One of the characters in that story is Agent Franks. One thing Larry Correia does well is maintain tension between different characters on the same side. And Agent Franks is someone everyone on the side of goodness loves to hate. It is easy because he represents the soulless, amoral US Federal Government agency the Monster Control Bureau. The avatar of this agency is Agent Franks.

Monster Hunter Vendetta is set up at the end of MHI when the Feds nuke one of the elder gods (you know those unpleasant beasties from H. P. Lovecraft). And that makes him mad. And he blames the protagonist of MHI, Owen Pitt, and he puts out a contract on him.

In the course of MHV we learn a lot of back story. Why Agent Myers hates the hero's boss. Why the hero's father-in-law unleashed hell. All this courtesy of "the shadow man," a necromancer who is the elder god's hitman. There's a lot of betrayal in MHV and manipulation.

But the thing I found most entertaining was learning about Agent Franks and HOW we learn about Agent Franks. Imagine an atom smasher. What's its purpose? To disclose the essential nature of atoms. How does it achieve this purpose? By throwing things at atoms with more and more energy. Then study what flies off the high-energy impacts. Such it is with Agent Franks.

After the Feds realize they've got a problem with a necromancer who's taken the contract on our hero, they assign the job of bodyguard to Agent Franks. Every time something really bad goes after the hero, Agent Franks steps up and gets trashed by it. Since we don't like Agent Franks, we don't mind much. Though, as we grow to understand him better and after he saves the hero's life a few times, we're willing to cut him some slack.

Betrayal is a big theme in this novel. Who's spying on whom? Some guys we hate come off more sympathetically. And some guys we sympathized with turn out to be less honorable than we'd wish. Sort of like life.

Larry Correia puts a lot of humor into his stories. I loved his one-liner about the Stig. If you liked the trailer-park trash in MHI, you'll love the ghetto bangers in MHV.

All in all I recommend this novel to everyone who loved MHI.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Why Mycroft?

When I sat down to write a Sherlock Holmes story, I wanted to do something counter-intuitive. So, I wrote The Aristotelian with a mind to stick to the canon, but upend everything I could. For instance, we admire Sherlock's detective prowess. Let's start with someone deprecating it! Thus, Sherlock's father introduces the notion that policemen are undesirable characters--necessary--but undesirable nonetheless. Everyone gets upset with Sherlock's cocaine use, but perhaps his habit is not out of control, and other things bother his family more. We know from the canon that Sherlock thinks his brother Mycroft is smarter than he is. We know Sherlock is disappointed by Mycroft's disinterest in detection. Perhaps his family could be disappointed by his interest therein.

Then there's Watson, faithful Watson. I figure he's a 100-watt mind who only seems dim in juxtapose with Sherlock's brilliance. Let's show Sherlock before he's reached the peak of his powers, but just as arrogant. Like any teenager.

But we read Sherlock Holmes stories to be dazzled by brilliant characters who solve puzzles that perplex us. Thus, I decided to include a locked-room murder in The Aristotelian.

I love smart characters and nominally write about folks smarter than myself. Thus I decided to not only put Mycroft in this story, but to write it from his point of view. Smart guys can be insufferable, so I decided to keep Mycroft uncomfortable and insecure in his detective role. He knows detection is Sherlock's turf, but he doesn't want the kid to show him up.

Probably the biggest reason for centering the story on Mycroft is his vocation as a mathematician and cryptanalyst. Since I studied both subjects I figured that I could write from that perspective with a geekish flair.

Mycroft presented some problems. In The Adventure of The Greek Interpreter, Sherlock claimed his brother was a competent detective, but he never says what gave him that impression. I wrote The Aristotelian story to show how Sherlock came to think so.

Sherlock also maintained that his brother has no ambition and no energy. I wondered how Mycroft might have created this impression. The easy explanation is that Mycroft is lazy.

In the spirit of turning everything upside down, I started work on a second Mycroft story to explain how Sherlock might come to think this. After writing several hundred words, I realized this story would not fit into a short story. Thus I decided to write Steamship To Kashmir.

You'll find the opening scene of Steamship To Kashmir at the end of The Aristotelian if you can't wait until this fall.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Monster Hunters International

I'm not particularly interested in some literary genres except to mock them. After reading one such example I was tempted to write a story wherein a bunch of good ole boys from the Nazarene Church link up with a gang that cooks Meth and a Vietnam vet with a metal plate in his head to light into cthulhu with guns, lots of guns. I planned to end the story with someone asking if cthulhu tastes like chicken. (No, more like lobster.)

Trouble is that Larry Correia beat me to it. He didn't write this story, he wrote a much better one.

This weekend I picked up Monster Hunters International (MHI) and I had a ball. The author, Larry Correia, is a certified gun nut. He knows his AK-47 from his M1911 (wish I did). The premise of MHI is that werewolves and vampires and all the rest are kept secret by the government and various companies like MHI go fight evil on commission.

I never got into the creepy H.P. Lovecraft thing, either. Particularly, where the protagonists of these tales are powerless in the face of Ancient Evil. The pattern of such supernatural stories was boringly similar: bad guy is unfazed anything else except some gimmick--a silver cross or a wolfsbane garland or something. Most traditional stories have the protagonist wasting a lot of time figuring out what that gimmick is--then using it in the last reel of the movie.

Mr. Correia breaks this pattern. His evil monsters can be hurt by the gimmicky things, but they are also susceptible to high powered weaponry, explosives, and the physics of a desk pushed out a 15-story window.

Did you notice that I said evil. It's rare these days to read something where the antagonist is actually characterized as evil. (C. S. Lewis wrote about this in The Abolition of Man.) And it's rare nowadays to read where a religious character isn't canon fodder (if he's a fool) or the antagonist (if he's not). Mr. Correia violates both contemporary shibboleths. (Two of the protagonist's friends are a Las Vegas stripper turned hunter named Holly and a Baptist named Trip who's still a virgin. I just know those two will be hooking up.)

MHI is delightfully un-PC. At one point the hero channels Reagan cabinet member James Watt's most infamous line. But in a good way. The Government in this novel never shows up until it's too late, never acts sympathetically, and never intentionally does the right thing. In this novel, the Gipper's words ring loud "Government isn't the solution. It's the problem." That said, this is a ripping good yarn, not a political tract.

This book reads like military SF. I was often reminded of Into the Looking Glass and the rest of the Looking Glass series by John Ringo, and Travis S. Taylor. In fact, all you'd have to do is switch around the details a bit, and the Looking Glass enemy is a lot like the Elder Gods evil here. And I think that's on purpose.

Is MHI an awesome novel? Yes.

Could it be more awesome? It would take a nuclear zeppelin bristling with Gatling guns.

But that's another story.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Some geekish diversions

It occurred to me that you all might like to see the improved preview of's record for The Aristotelian.

Here's a bit of geekish fun. Point your smartphone at this picture and ask Google Goggles or your favorite QR/barcode program to decode it then follow the link.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sherlock Holmes before he was famous

Katherine Tomlinson at Dark Valentine magazine has graciously consented to let me cross-post this interview.

Sherlock Holmes as a teenager; his brother Mycroft called home to talk him out of his new hobbies…

Victorian adventure ensues in Steve Poling’s new story The Aristotelian (with cover by our own Joanne Renaud). Available for 99 cents at, the book is the first in a planned series.

Steve Poling stopped by Dark Valentine to tell us a little about the book and what he has planned for the Holmes boys.

DV: The Aristotelian is an engaging romp. How long did it take you to take to write it?

SP: Thank you. It came together over a couple months in fits and starts. I had lost interest in writing, and wrote it as an exercise to get back in touch with what I loved reading most. I’d always thought Mycroft’s supposed laziness a cover for something else that Watson never knew and Sherlock only suspected. For instance, the metal filings on Mycroft’s sleeve is not indicative of locksmithing.

A singular character such as Sherlock Holmes must have had a singular family life growing up. It was a joy exploring it.

DV: I love that Mycroft tells the story. Why his point of view?

SP: Because I studied mathematics in school and minored in philosophy, I identify more with Mycroft or their father than I do with Sherlock. I take a perverse pleasure showing a formidable, yet immature, Sherlock Holmes getting in trouble.

DV: In fact, why Sherlock? Are you a longtime Conan Doyle fan?

SP: I’ve liked the Sherlock Holmes stories since I was a youth. I like pretty much everything I’ve read of Conan Doyle, but particularly his Holmes stories.

DV: What kind of research did you do to make the period come alive?

SP: I’ve been interested in the Victorian era ever since I started reading steampunk. Obviously, reading period literature is a big deal. I have three shoe boxes of photographs passed down through the family. The oldest are the most interesting. And Dr. Google has been very helpful in answering the questions that came to mind. I had the great good fortune to visit the Sherlock Holmes museum last summer, and that gave me a feel for the neighborhood of 221b Baker Street.

DV: Our colleague Joanne Renaud did the cover. How did you find her artwork?

SP: The credit belongs to Dr. Google. An image search string for “steampunk” restricted to the site yielded a number of delightful images, the best of which was done by Joanne. I was pleased when she consented to do the cover for my story.

DV: Will there be more adventures in this series?

SP: Yes. The Aristotelian is Mycroft’s application to the Diogenes Club.

Circumstances did not allow him to submit this application to the Duke of Denver until several years after the events described therein. I am in the midst of writing Steamship to Kashmir, Mycroft’s first adventure as a member of that institution. I anticipate that the archives of the Diogenes Club hold records of additional adventures by Mycroft and other members as well. For instance, I hear rumors that the missing volumes of Lewis Carroll’s diaries are stored there.

DV: Who are the authors you enjoy reading?

SP: I go through phases with different authors, and serially obsess thereon.

It depends on the genre. For starters… Dorothy Sayers, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Michael Connelly for their mysteries. And John Scalzi, H. Beam Piper, and Jerry Pournelle for their SF.

DV: What’s next for you?

SP: I am writing the manifesto. This web site will enable readers to find the best ebooks in their price range and provide links to purchase them. It will also enable authors or publishers to promote their works, and enable reviewers to sort the wheat from the chaff. It also hopes to bring together editors and illustrators with authors before publication, and enable readers to note typos in ebooks after publication. Technology is disintermediating traditional publishing. In so doing, traditional tasks of rating works and editing them are not being done– hopes to crowd-source these tasks.

In short, I’m trying to save civilization.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Fuzzy 2.0

In 1964, H. Beam Piper took drop-cloths, laid them out to catch the blood, then blew his brains out. He died thinking himself a failure. He had no job or prospects, his agent wasn't answering his correspondence. He did not know that his agent had died without notifying him that he'd made several sales.

Conversely, John Scalzi is a successful and influential science fiction writer. Mr. Scalzi has taken the characters and the setup of one of Mr. Piper's best novels Little Fuzzy and written his own version of it, a novel Fuzzy Nation.

Though I have been a fan of Mr. Piper's for many years, and have loved several of his novels and short stories, I had skipped over Little Fuzzy. Last week I got a free ebook edition and read it. It was marvelous and shame on me for not reading it years ago. My plan was to read both Mr. Piper's and Mr. Scalzi's books then compare and contrast.

I think that Mr. Scalzi is the better writer of the two. He's taken the elements of Mr. Piper's original work and rearranged them in a pleasing fashion that uses fewer moving parts, and that ramps up more conflict more effectively.

But I liked Mr. Piper's novel a lot more, because I prefer Mr. Piper's future more. I identified with Jack Holloway better as a hermit than as a disbarred lawyer. Mr. Piper's future is dated in places--like when he has film developed--but in other ways it is more advanced with reliable lie detectors and too-cheap-to-meter nuclear energy.

Mr. Scalzi's future is a strange place where people go hundreds of light-years to mine anthracite coal. I suppose if you want to grind an axe against despoiling nature through strip mining, this is one way to do so. But I don't think fossil fuels have the energy density to muscle a starship across interstellar distances. And I don't think a spacefaring civilization will strip mine another planet as cheaply as it can mine what's in the asteroid belt. Don't science fiction writers these days think about science?

Conversely, Mr. Piper's future is one where nobody worries about lung cancer from smoking and hovercars apparently are equipped with Mr. Fusion reactors. And when Jack Holloway shows a fuzzy how to smoke a pipe, it's a courtesy, not a crime.

Mr. Scalzi's lawyers are a lot different from Mr. Piper's lawyers. When the stakes are very high we expect the bad guys to lie cheat and steal, but not the good guys. Mr. Piper's good guys won't perjure themselves, but Mr. Scalzi's do so and we excuse their malfeasance because they're on our side. Conversely, Mr. Piper makes it abundantly clear that the judge won't be on their side, or our side, but on the law's side.

Each novel has a deus ex machina in the climactic court-room scene where fuzzy sapience is decided. Mr. Piper does so with a bunch of space force marines who present surprise evidence. Mr. Scalzi does so with a video camera that she assures the misbehaving corporate types is being watched by daddy who'll spank whoever misbehaves.

What makes me grumpy about Fuzzy Nation is not that Mr. Scalzi wrote a bad book, he wrote a wonderful book. Contrasting the two novels told me more about how the culture has changed in the last half century. And it has not been for the better.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Aristotelian

This is an excerpt from The Aristotelian, on sale for the low, low price of $0.99.

Circumstances of the Inquiry

I was well into my studies in Trinity College when I was called home by my father. It was just a month after Mother’s funeral. Her passing was ghastly business. I cannot bring myself to express more than the fact that my brother was the one to find her body.

I found my father in his drawing room. Comfortably ensconced in a wing-backed chair, he faced the fireplace with a blanket over his legs. He was reading the small volume of Plato he kept in his coat pocket.

“I came as quickly as I could, Father,” I said, announcing my presence.

He looked up and slowly drew himself back from whatever realm it is where ideal forms reside. “Mycroft. Good. Have a seat. Let me look at you.”

I sat down in my usual place.

“No, sit in your mother’s chair. She has no further use of it.”

Mother’s chair was the twin of Father’s and it framed the other side of the fireplace from his. The fire grew warm on my legs as I waited for him to explain the letter he’d sent.

“I want you to reason with your brother, because I have found my own arguments ineffectual. I’m afraid that Sherlock has become an Aristotelian.”

I narrowed my gaze at this. Surely Father would not call me away on something so trivial. He understood my look.

“It is not as you are thinking. Sherlock has taken an unhealthy interest in ‘particulars.’ He’s been collecting all manner of botanical items, pollens, leaves, bits of soil. He’s even taken to collecting the ashes from guests’ cigars. I think he had acquired an unhealthy obsession.”

“I must admit that sounds a bit eccentric, but harmless in itself. Has he quit eating or abandoned his studies?”

“No. In fact, he’s become quite the violinist in your absence.”

“Finally,” I muttered, remembering the painful sounds he had made when last I’d been home. Returning to the problem at hand, I asked, “What then is the harm?”

“There are other things. He has started running with an unsavory crowd, equal parts criminals and policemen. I can’t say that I approve of his associations. I fear for Sherlock’s character.”

I’ve never had much cause to pay much attention to policemen. I thought them a rough lot and given the nature of their profession and their clientele, I had not sought out the friendship of any. I regard the police a necessary evil of civilization and I believe Father’s opinions were even less charitable.

There is a sort of unearthliness about my family. Mother kept the home and it’s a good thing, too. Otherwise, we’d have all starved to death of forgotten meals, or frozen to death having forgotten to light a fire. In her absence, Father had engaged a woman named Hudson to keep body and soul together.

This unearthliness tends to undervalue the necessary aspects of civilization. We take for granted the rough men in police uniforms at home who chase criminals and our rough men in army uniforms abroad who bear the unpleasant aspects of the white man’s burden. I rather think that the Empire would fall apart if a Holmes were put in charge of it.

Nevertheless, Sherlock’s associations with criminals and policemen were equally abhorrent in Father’s estimation.

“Aside from this Aristotelian obsession with particulars, and his somewhat base associations, has Sherlock taken up any vices you think injurious? Gambling, women, drink?”

Father sighed and shook his head. “Nothing of any consequence. He has recommended cocaine to dispel ennui, but the way it makes my heart race reminds me of my corporality. A Platonic dialogue is a much more fitting stimulation.”

“What would you like me to do, Father?”

“Talk to Sherlock. Try to convince him of the folly of his obsessive cataloging of phenomena, turn his interests from those aspects of human nature which are low and wicked. At the very least, try to pique his interest in astronomy or even physics. He has expressed an interest in enrolling in Sidney Sussex this fall as things stand now.”
I sniffed at this, grateful at least that he hadn’t expressed an interest in one of those colleges at Oxford. “If Sherlock will listen to sweet reason, I’ll dissuade him of his ‘Aristotelianism.’”


It is a simple matter of ordinate affections. One bears an ethical obligation to love the good and hate the evil. These just sentiments belong in the heart of one’s character. The cultivation of virtue is something good citizens of the Empire have pursued as long as there has been a British Empire--and before that the Romans and before them the Greeks understood this. I had to find a way to bring this to Sherlock’s recollection. For all learning is but recollection.

I found him in the stables, devilling about with several small glass jars collecting vile samples from the floor.

“Sherlock,” I strode toward him, hand extended in greeting. “How are you?”

He looked up, his eyes darting back and forth, to me, to his sample jar, to the pile of muck he’d been poking through. Automatically, he extended his hand to shake. When I noticed the state of Sherlock’s soiled hand, I quickly withdrew my own.

“What ho, Mycroft! You are a pip. You won’t want to shake my hand until I’ve washed it. Give me a moment.” He looked down again, and finding something of interest to him in the pile of dung before him, he shoved it into the jar and sealed it. “You are back from Cambridge, but not before visiting a locksmith and I see you arrived on the morning train and had eggs for breakfast.”

I brushed the incriminating brass filings from my sleeve and looked down to see the bit of dried egg yolk that I’d incompletely cleaned from my vest. Not wanting to disclose Professor Babbage’s project, I let his error about the locksmith pass uncorrected. “You’ll have to pick through my scat to ascertain which jam was on my toast.”

“Then it was Blackberry.”

“That was obvious from my remark. Now wash your hands and explain why my little brother has taken to picking through horse manure.” I tendered a half-hearted smile.
He chuckled as we made our way to the house and the pump. I worked the handle. The leathers had been replaced, because now it held its prime quite nicely. Sherlock rubbed his hands beneath the running water and worked extra lather from the soap up his wrists. Then he cleaned each of the jars, which he had taken pains to seal before we’d left the stable.

While he did this, I put thought to my brother’s actions. “Why are you interested in knowing what the horses in our stables have been eating?”

He dried his hands on a towel we kept beside the wash pan. “Not so much what they’ve been eating as when.” With his hands dry, we shook properly.

“You wish to know how long the hay was in the alimentary, my dear Sherlock?” I asked. Most of my vices can be attributed to Mother’s influence, but I charge my fondness for puns fully to Father’s account.

“No, how long the dung has left the alimentary, my dear Mycroft. I want the elapsed time since elimination.”

“And therefore infer when a horse passed a particular point?” I asked.

“Exactly.” The edges of his mouth twitched indicating he’d caught the double entendre.

“I presume your interest in bits of random flora in the area is similarly motivated.”

“I have taken an inventory of the wild flowers and weeds extending in a five mile radius from this point,” Sherlock said.

“That’s a lot of work. I doubt your interest is academic. Would you explain to me why you’ve undertaken this study?” I should not have bothered asking. I had a very good idea what his answer would be, but I didn’t want to deny him whatever catharsis saying it aloud could provide.

“To learn who killed Mother,” he said.

First Post

Welcome. This web site is intended to provide a launch pad for each of the stories of the Diogenes Club. If you're familiar with the canon of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, you'll recall that Sherlock Holmes told his friend Watson that the members of this club didn't do anything useful.

I think that Sherlock Holmes was able to eventually penetrate the secret of the Diogenes Club. But if he did, he didn't tell Watson. While most of the members of the Diogenes Club would feel right at home at P. D. Wodehouse's Drone's Club, a select few were occupied with exploits more technically demanding than Bertie Wooster's pranks.

I always thought most highly of Mycroft Holmes, but he only appeared in three stories of the canon. I'm aiming to remedy this. The first installment is "The Aristotelian" that consists of an explanation to the Duke of Denver (of Norfolkshire, not Colorado) of Mycroft's qualification for membership in the Diogenes Club.

The second installment is under construction. "Steamship to Kashmir" occurs seven years after "The Aristotelian" and it has another closed-room murder and an international manhunt.

Those more worthy than I: