Fun with Cyanotypes (aka Sun Prints)

I am subject to enthusiasms, especially when it comes to making things.

The most recent bee in my bonnet was making cyanotypes. Many people know them as sun prints: you get (or make) special paper, expose it to the sun masked with something interesting, and get a beautiful blue and white print.


This enthusiasm started with wedding research. I’m getting married in September, and a recently married cousin gave me a ridiculous stack of Martha Stewart wedding magazines. Although very pretty, they yielded surprisingly few ideas.

One idea that did appeal was cyanotype place cards, done up with ferns and whatnot.

I did a bit of research, and established that although pre-treated cyanotype paper ran roughly a buck per sheet, there were lots of great how-tos on-line explaining how to do it yourself.

I ordered the chemicals . . . and then we bought a house and moved and six months went by.

That may not sound like the proper course of an enthusiasm, but I’m not quite that obsessive.

Rob and I finally got around to mixing the chemicals up a couple weeks ago. There are two separate chemicals involved, green ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. Mixed separately with distilled water, they are fairly stable. Once combined, they become UV sensitive, and should be used to treat your paper or fabric reasonably promptly.

I’m not going to go into the details here – we followed the excellent how-to on instructables.

There are a bunch of other how-tos on line.

We used rice paper instead of watercolor paper. It took the solution beautifully, but was somewhat delicate when it came to rinsing the completed prints.

First we treated the paper, then dried it. Apparently you can do the prints on a wet medium, but that has complications.

We then locked the paper away in a light-safe box (cardboard box wrapped in a trash bag, stored in the basement) and waited for a sunny day.

That could have been a long wait in Washington in winter, but we got lucky.

We got a sunny two-hour slice, and made the most of it.

We started by printing a test strip that indicated that the best exposures would be between five and ten minutes, depending on the desired shade of blue.

Then it was off to the races!

We printed some ferns:





We printed a couple photographs, printed out on transparencies:


We printed some blackberries:


For the natural-object prints, it was important to pin the materials down with a piece of glass. Even so, you can clearly see where the leaves and stems were not pressed down firmly.

That could either be a bug or a feature, depending on your outlook. We chose to consider it a feature!

The hardest part was rinsing the prints. As mentioned above, we used rice paper, which has many advantages but is rather delicate when wet.

I rigged a wash basin with a laundry basket and a hand-held shower nozzle. It worked pretty well, although if we left prints in too long they formed some signs of wear.

The whole thing was a blast, and offers lots of options for further fun.

You can print on fabric as well as paper, and it is color-fast (although you have to be careful about what detergent you use).

There is a great book on the subject:

Blueprints on Fabric by Barbara Hewitt

My enthusiasm has temporarily run its course, although this summer I’ll probably do some fabric.

I would recommend cyanotypes to any craft-minded person. It would be great fun with kids, too!


Terrible Things Happen – Should We Write Them?

This week’s shooting of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill got me thinking about just how many terrible things happen in the world, and the degree to which that should – or should not – be included in a work of fiction.

So far 2015 has seen mass killings; people killed or brutalized by police; people killed or brutalized by terrorists and extremists; and the standard run of murder and assault. And those are just the headline-worthy woes. If you get into the weeds of day-to-day prejudice and violence . . . well, why get out of bed in the morning?

I don’t think I’m the only one who finds it soul-crushing.

And yet it is happening, it is real, and ignoring it does not seem to be the answer.


Should We Include Such Things in Fiction?

I have mixed feelings on this.

Depicting hate-driven violence can help acknowledge that it is a real problem in our society. Such depictions can also be sickening and pointless. Of course, that is part of the point, but if I had run across the Chapel Hill shooting in a work of fiction – three nice young Muslims, two of them newly wed, gunned down by a hate-filled white atheist – I would have wondered why the author had chosen to include such a pointless horror.

However, we live in a world where such things are, horribly, a reality, and completely ignoring them does not seem to be the answer.


What to Include and in What Degree?

In a way “should we include it” boils down to two separate questions. What should we include, and how much of it should we include?

For example, if a work depicts prejudice, is it going to focus on the subtle day-to-day prejudice that is so insidious, or is it going to depict an all-out hate attack?

I think the “what” depends somewhat on the type of story, but humans being humans there is almost always some sort of prejudice available for consideration. I think it is a valuable thing to address in some form, whether it is class-based, age-based, race-based, gender-based, or something else. Really, “what” to include comes down to thinking through the dominant groups in a work, and how they would rub along together.

The “how much” can be a little trickier, and is likely to be more dependent on the type of story. If a religious war is central to the plot, then terrorist attacks are perfectly appropriate.

In a character-driven story where prejudice is a background element, rather than a major part of the plot, I think that keeping it to a background noise level is appropriate. It still acknowledges the problem. And really, that is the degree of problem that can realistically be addressed.

I think the truly horrific attacks grow out of the fertile soil provided by general prejudice. If the general prejudice were not there, these attacks might not occur, or might manifest in a different way.

I think it is very important to acknowledge the existence of prejudice, and to consider the impact it has on various members of a story.

I don’t think that the prejudice ever needs to escalate for its inclusion to be valuable.


Back Handed Inclusion

Many of us are uncomfortable with discussions of prejudice. Racism, religious prejudice, sexism – they are all loaded.

One thing that science fiction and fantasy bring to the table is the ability to mirror our world at safe remove.

For example, I’ve always found it interesting when a work of sci fi replaced inter-human racism with xenophobia against aliens.

It is sad that we have to go to an alternate reality to have a proper discussion about our irrational fears and biases, but at least we can take advantage of that safe space!


Thoughts on the subject? Please comment!

Writing and Feedback

This last week I stiffened my spine and sent my YA fantasy book out to beta readers. It got me thinking about the problem of writers and feedback at different stages of the writing process, and different levels of experience.

Feedback is both important and pitfall-ridden.

There may be the occasional writer (Kafka?) who can write amazing stories with no feedback. Most of us need someone else to help figure out what’s working and what isn’t.

The sad irony is that the less experienced a writer is, the more important feedback can be – and the harder it can be to get.


The Problem of Feedback

Feedback is vital, but sadly there is no guarantee that it will be good or appropriate.

Bad or inappropriate feedback can be extremely destructive, especially to a beginning writer who doesn’t have much perspective.

My brother was hot to write after college. He made a good go at it, writing daily and treating it as a job. He got the draft of a fantasy novel together, and handed it out to friends and family for feedback.

Among others, he gave the novel to our high school English teacher – a teacher who had done an excellent job of teaching us to analyze literary works. She also happened to favor literary fiction.

She . . . was not impressed.

Fair enough.

The problem was that my brother valued her opinion very highly, and the way she stated the problem was not “you need lots of practice” or anything more concrete; it was “you need to experience life before you try to write.”

It is true that life experience helps in writing, but unfortunately the teacher’s feedback caused my brother to simply stop writing.

Many very successful authors wind up trunking their first four or five or eight novels. Had my brother kept going, he might well be published long since.

The thing that I find most striking about this is that the feedback was given with the earnest desire to be helpful. And it stopped my brother cold.

How destructive, then, is malicious feedback? Wrongheaded feedback? Feedback that is trying to convert a story from one species to another?

This is all marginally less problematic for a more experienced writer with more perspective, but from all I’ve heard, the doubts never go away completely.

So, what to do?


Safe Feedback

There are a lot of potential sources of feedback out there. They vary significantly in risk.

I think that a beginning writer – or an especially insecure writer – should stick with the safest of these.

Indirect Feedback

Bad direct feedback can be extremely destructive.

Fortunately there are ways to get information about writing and editing that don’t involve exposing your precious work to the withering scorn of others.

The most effective of these is to let someone else expose themselves instead, and then look for useful information in the feedback.

The “Share Your Work” forum on AbsoluteWrite is a great place to do that.

You do have to be signed up officially, but aside from that you can hop on immediately.

Hopeful writers will post chunks of work, usually first chapters or short stories.

Anyone on the forum who is interested can then comment.

Some of the comments are impressions, some are line edits. Some are excellent, some are largely useless.

These critiques provide three valuable things:

  • Information on mistakes that you may well have in your own work.
  • A view into the range of opinion – there are often completely contradictory pieces of feedback.
  • A way to improve your “eye” – and then apply it to your own work.

It is a fine crash course in basic editing, and it provides no risk to the observer.

Safe Feedback

The ideal is to get feedback from a known safe source – someone who will give useful information, and isn’t at risk of crushing you.

This is the ideal. I don’t know how you could find such a source without risk – but if you have a source of safe and effective feedback, value it!

Usually the best you can do is to get feedback in a safe environment. When I attended Viable Paradise, they made it very clear that the critiques should be honest but gentle. If you are considering a workshop or course, try to find out about the flavor of the critiques.

There are some groups that seem to pride themselves on being harsh – apparently equating quality with toughness, and toughness with brutality.

Avoid these!

Write Write Write!

The last safe approach – the one I used for the first couple years – was to simply write. A lot.

Although guided and conscious practice is ideal, any practice is good.

There are many ways to improve the efficacy, including looking at books on writing and editing. I found “Self Editing for Fiction Writers” especially helpful, since it gave concrete examples out of well-known fiction.

Dangerous but Potentially Effective

There are many sources of feedback that can be risky but may have a significant payoff in terms of helpful information. In seeking these out, honestly consider how thick your skin is and how committed you are.

If they say you stink in the harshest way possible, will you be able to keep going?

If so, go for it!

Writing Groups

Many of my fellow students at Viable Paradise had had excellent experiences with writing groups. If you can find a group of like-minded writers, it can be a good source of feedback, while also giving you the benefit of thinking critically about other writers’ work.

There are three major potential problems with a writing group:

  • You’re all beginning writers. This doesn’t render it useless – chances are that you’re all rabid readers, which means you’ll have at least some useful opinions on each others’ work. However, you won’t come along as quickly as if you have a more experienced source of advice. It is a somewhat bigger problem if you are intermediate or advanced, and everyone else is beginning. Then you’re at risk of becoming the teacher. Gratifying, but not as helpful to you.
  • They’re mean. Usually it isn’t everyone who is mean, but all it takes is one brutal person.
  • They don’t read your kind of stories. Writing is writing up to a point, but if you write fantasy and your writing group is made up of literary fiction writers – or vice versa – you won’t be able to effectively evaluate the quality of the story, or give good advice.

Beta Readers

This is where I am!

The risk level varies quite a bit. I minimized it by drawing many of my beta readers from my Viable Paradise cohort – so I know that they at least have some background in kind but useful critiques. I also supplied the first couple chapters to help verify that they were a good match with the story. I want to make my story the best it can be – not change what kind of story it is. So it helps if they like the type of story it is!

So. Fellow writers – good, especially if you have some sense of their likely style.

Friends. Well . . . risky.

It helps if you know they like the type of story you wrote. Even then, think through what will happen if they never give you feedback, or if they give you terrible feedback.

I gave my first completed/edited (now trunk) novel to my then-boyfriend to beta.

He never told me what he thought. I suspect he only got a few chapters in.

It probably wasn’t very good – it’s a trunk novel now – but that silence was almost as damaging as a brutal critique. Maybe more so, since it just left me hanging.

It isn’t a coincidence that I stopped writing for a year or two.

Fortunately I moved on!


My critique experiences at Viable Paradise were very helpful.

Depending on the workshop, it can be a very beneficial experience.

Just do your homework. Most workshops – standalone or associated with a conference – have been around for a while, and will have a known personality.

The participants vary from year to year, so it is always possible a bad egg will sneak in, but this is a comparatively safe resource since there is usually some sort of moderator.

Online Critiques

After you’ve gotten indirect feedback for a while by observing or providing critiques online, you can give it a whirl yourself.

There are a number of online critique forums, including AbsoluteWrite and Critters.

The biggest risk with these is that someone can be brutal – it’s somewhat luck of the draw – but they are usually somewhat regulated, and try to promote playing nicely.

I had very good luck when I submitted things to AbsoluteWrite. I would recommend it – but it is likely to be most helpful once you have the fundamentals down and are trying to refine your craft.


Actually, that goes for pretty much all of these except the indirect feedback method.


Other Opinions?

These thoughts on feedback and where to get it are drawn from my own experience, direct and otherwise.

Thoughts or opinions? Please share!

Writing and Life

One of the challenges of being a writer is integrating writing into day-to-day life. The vast majority of writers – aspiring and published alike – have a day job, a family, hobbies, and chores.

And, sadly, they still need to sleep. I think that is a great oversight on someone’s part.

I have no idea how people manage to have a day job, children, and a writing career. In my case, it’s a somewhat simpler question of balancing a job, writing, and the rest of life.

Even so, it isn’t easy.

No Time to Write!

I think the most important realization is that it isn’t a question of time.

It is a question of priorities.

I think I first heard that observation on Writing Excuses. I find it valuable because it re-frames the question. Instead of asking “however can I get more than the standard 24 hours per day that everyone is allotted,” it urges the would-be writer to take a look at their priorities, and consider where writing fits in the stack.

It is a useful exercise to consider both your real priorities and your wished-for priorities.

For example, maybe you want your priorities to be:

  • Work
  • Writing
  • Family
  • Chores
  • TV

But looking at your use of time, your priorities are actually:

  • Work
  • TV
  • Chores
  • Family
  • Writing

This is not a happy thing, but until you recognize it, you won’t do anything about it. You’re most likely to just keep thinking wistfully that it would be really nice to write, if only you had time.

You do! You just have to give up TV (or games or gardening or books or whatever-hobby) in order to get it.

Are you willing to do that?

It is ok to say no.

It is your life, and if you want to place a hobby above writing, that’s fine.

If you want to place your family above writing, that’s probably healthy from many standpoints.

If you want to place your day job above writing, that’s good for your financial well-being.

But don’t say you don’t have time.

Acknowledge your priorities. Own them. And if you don’t like them – well, change them!

That easy, right? Um. Yeah.

The Writing Habit

There exist binge writers, who spill out a book in a month or two, and then don’t write again for a year. Recognize NaNoWriMo?

Don’t get me wrong, I think NaNo is great – it gets people to really try writing out – but after my first NaNoWriMo in 2007, I didn’t write again for months.

There are a few rare writers who can actually operate this way, but if you’re playing the odds, it is much better to build writing into your daily life as a habit.

My first successful run at the writing habit was to do half an hour a day, every day. If I missed a day, I had to make it up. It actually worked pretty well; it got me a full, edited novel. A trunk novel, yes, but a novel nonetheless.

The big benefit of that kind of system is there isn’t any question of whether you’ll write.

There is no, “Hmm, do I feel like writing today? Nah.”

It’s “Dang, I don’t really feel like writing, but I’ll put in my half hour.”

And the amazing thing? Even if you don’t much feel like writing, you can still wind up with quite a good session. For me, about 90% of the time when I don’t feel like writing, if I just sit down and do it, it will go fine.

The big disadvantage of that particular system is that it’s easy to watch the clock. There were times when it was going pretty well, but I would hit time and stop because there were books to read and gardening to do and dinner to cook and . . . !

I wish I could give a variant of this that worked for everyone (or even for me all the time). My best suggestion is to try different approaches.

I have been doing editing for the last few months, so I barely remember what my last successful approach was, but it boils down to something like this:

  • Write or edit every day.
  • Put in a minimum (minimum, or great shame!) of 15 minutes. Target forty-five minutes to an hour, more if on a roll.
  • If it’s a poor session, try to make it up the next day.
  • If it’s a really good session, sock up the extra time. Note that I don’t usually “use” the saved up time, unless I’m purposefully “saving up” because of a known lull in writing (a work trip, vacation, holidays). But I can feel all virtuous and happy about all that extra time.

There are all sorts of ways to play with this.

  • Minimum word count instead of minimum time (although that risks the writing of crap).
  • Minimum time for the week, allowing fewer but longer blocks of time (although that’s harder to establish as a habit).

The big thing is to observe how you’re doing with the goals, and whether they’re working.

  • Do you question your writing time?
  • Do you feel guilty if you don’t write?
  • Do you write before you settle in to <perform random unwinding hobby>?
  • Are you getting your writing time in?
  • Are you happy with how your empirical priorities are stacking up?

These last two are the most important. For me, the first three are good, because those regulate whether I’m actually doing my writing – but everyone is different. Plenty of crazy night owls wait and do their writing after the family is in bed.

They’re nuts, but whatever works.

Life Happens

The other important thing with a well-maintained writing habit is to acknowledge that life happens.

You will get sick. Work will go crazy. There will be a family emergency. You will go on vacation.

There is a threshold where your priorities will change, and you may not get your writing in.

That’s ok.

The important thing is to recognize what’s going on, and try to manage it.

For me, it’s important to not slide into it. A crazy week at work? Fine, I’ll still do my writing.

A crazy month at work, plus sick? Well, maybe it’s time for a break – with a date to resume.

What I don’t want to do is skip writing once or twice a week . . . and then two or three times a week . . . and then most days . . . and then wake up to realize I haven’t worked on a story in six months.

If I skip a couple days, I take a hard look at what’s going on in my life, and either buckle down and get back to writing anyway, or allow myself to take a break.

This last summer, for example, I bought a house with my fiancé, cleared out my house in Seattle, got renters, and moved out to our new home in Port Angeles.

Did I write during the nuttiness?

I took a 3 month break.

But it was conscious, and when the dust cleared it was lovely to get back to writing. It felt like I was getting back to my “normal” life.

There is risk to stopping, but I think that if it is deliberate and controlled, the chances of starting again are much greater.


The thing that has worked well for me, and many of the writers I know, is to find a writing schedule that can integrate into day-to-day life. You’re in this for the long haul, and it’s best to keep that in mind.

When reviewing your priorities, try to keep in mind that it’s not an all-or-nothing thing.

Writing is important to me.

I have cut into my reading time in order to pursue it.

I could write more if I didn’t read at all.

I could write more if I never watched movies.

I could write more if I quit gardening.

I could write more if I made Rob do all the chores.

I could write more if I reduced my day job hours.

I am not going to do any of that, though, because in the long term it would shake my balance, and I might get knocked out of my writing habit in the resulting correction.

Better slow and steady and consistent.

Other Opinions?

These thoughts on writing/life balance are drawn from my own experience.

It is something that I think all writers struggle with. Have thoughts or opinions? Please share!

Temporal Descriptors in Fantasy

It is easy to take time for granted.

We live in a world where we are very conscious of the time. We have accurate time at our fingertips. We use time at a minute level on a regular basis, and we can get the time at a second and millisecond level quite readily.

Time can easily be one of those things that a fantasy writer throws around without really considering. I certainly did.

“I waited a few seconds.”

“Give me five minutes.”

“I was due to meet him at 3 o’clock.”

“It had been seven hours.”

All of these are the sorts of phrases that drop into the text without really thinking about it. They are commonly used in our culture, and to not use them requires a conscious decision.

As part of my large-scale world-building review, I have been thinking a lot about time. What degree of granularity is appropriate for my story? How do they measure time? How conscious are they of time?

In deciding how to handle time in a story, there are two major factors: how much does time matter in the story’s context, and what are their options for measuring time?

As part of figuring this out, it is helpful to know a little bit about how temporal descriptors developed in our world, and what timekeeping devices have been like throughout history. Stealing like a thief is always a fine option in world building!

How Long is an Hour? 

Things like hours have not always been considered constant. Because an hour is made up of 60 minutes in my world, it is easy to assume that a standard of unit of time is, of necessity, going to be constant.

Not so.

Depending on how you measure time, an hour can vary. For example, if you get an “hour” by evenly dividing the daylight time, an “hour” will be much shorter in the winter than it is in the summer.

As odd as it seems to us, that was quite standard in many parts of the world – including Medieval Europe. In fact, they had two different sorts of time. Solar time, which varied, and time “of the clock”, which didn’t.

I find this notion of parallel – and differing – temporal metrics quite amazing. Of course, once you know that temporal measures don’t have to be constant, you have to decide whether you want them to be constant in your world.


So how did we wind up with hours, minutes, and seconds anyway?

Two ancient civilizations are at fault.

The Egyptians first divided the day into two twelve-hour chunks. That’s the duodecimal component. They primarily used sundials, so they were one of those temporally-variable cultures noted above. It was actually the Greeks who came up with the idea of fixing the duration of an hour, to make certain calculations easier. You can thank Hipparchus for our current 24-hour system. But I digress.

The Sumerians were the brilliant folk who did sexagesimal calculations, giving us the base-60 calculations for minutes and seconds. The Babylonians adopted the system, and gifted it to the Greeks.

Of course, minutes and seconds were not in common use for many centuries. Whether to have seconds at all is a question every fantasy author should consider.

When I was thinking about this question myself, I became preoccupied with the terminology. Where did minute and second come from, anyway?

It turns out that it was originally:

  • First minute (60 seconds)
  • Second minute (1 second)
  • Third minute (1/60 second)
  • Fourth minute (1/1/60 second)

The last two were only ever of interest to a slice of European scientists, in the time period before the milliseconds and nanoseconds took over.

Ways of Timekeeping

A society’s options for time keeping is going to have implications for what temporal granularity makes sense for that culture. It may also influence the most appropriate jargon.

Here are a few examples:

  • Sun and stars
  • Water clocks
  • Sand timers
  • Candle clocks
  • Mechanical clocks

The next thing to consider is whether there is accurate time but at a large scale (e.g. a town clock); globally accessible but inaccurate time (the sun); personal but relative timekeeping (e.g. a sand timer); or accurate personal timekeeping (a pocketwatch, etc. – which is extremely new-fangled in the larger scheme of things!).

To some extent you can mix and match these options.

How they keep time is going to have ramifications.

For example, accurate and compact timekeeping is necessary for measuring longitude accurately.

Case Study

 My novel is set in a society with roughly 16th century technology. Town clocks seemed reasonable, as did small but inaccurate devices such as sand timers or candles. I went with sand timers – although it’s worth noting that sand timers imply a degree of sophistication when working with glass.

Which verbiage to keep?

I decided to change hour to bell, since the bells are how everyone hears the time. I might still change it back to hour, since most people will consider “hour” invisible, and “bell” makes itself felt.

I tried to get rid of “minutes” for a while, but frankly minutes are really hard to eradicate. I eventually decided that at their level of sophistication – and regimentation – it was reasonable to have something more fine-grained. I may change my mind about it, but I feel that any alternative would be so obtrusive as to be problematic.

I did get rid of seconds. I really don’t think seconds have any place in a pre-industrial society, unless there are scientists involved. Fortunately it’s relatively easy to swap out “seconds” with “breaths” or “moments”, depending on context. Most of the time “seconds” aren’t actually being used as a strict temporal measure – they’re being used to give the sense that a small amount of time has passed.


Most of my information came from Google, thanks especially to:






Review: The Martian

For this week’s review, I bring you The Martian, by Andy Weir. It is a near-future Sci-Fi, set within the next few decades.


The premise snagged me right away:

Mark Watney is stranded on Mars after his mission is aborted.


He is a member of the third mission to Mars. The most junior member. A huge storm blows up a few days after the mission reaches Mars’ surface, forcing evacuation to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle). En route through the storm, Mark is hit by an antenna and knocked out.

Through a series of freak events, Mark’s crew members think he is dead.

Through a series of even freakier events, Mark actually survives, in spite of his suit being breached.

The MAV almost tips over in the storm’s high winds, and the crew is forced to leave – or risk being stranded on Mars.


So, Mark is on Mars. He has shelter, and he has food for now – enough for a year. The catch is that the next Mars mission isn’t due to arrive for four years, and he has no way to communicate with Earth.


The book is about Mark’s efforts to survive, and NASA’s efforts to retrieve him.

It was clearly meticulously researched. Umpty-nine things go wrong, and there are a corresponding umpty-nine clever fixes, each carefully grounded with detailed explanations. I’m enough of an engineer that I enjoyed the explanations, and appreciated the effort that went into them. I wasn’t quite enough of an engineer to read the explanations as meticulously as they were written.


I was impressed that the author was able to keep the tension and pacing through 369 pages of things almost killing Mark (and maybe actually killing him – wouldn’t want to give away the ending!). If the story had been on earth it would have been easy to hit the “oh, come on now!” point, but this is on a harsh planet, over a pretty fair span of time. With that background, the Murphy’s Law effect seemed inevitable instead of forced.


The story is split into first-person chapters from Mark’s point of view and third-person chapters looking at what’s going on back home.

I admit that I was a bit taken aback the first time I hit a third-person chapter, mostly because the first five chapters/48 pages were in first person. At that point I thought the whole book would be in first person.

That moment of “er – wait a minute!” was my biggest beef with the story. It definitely threw me out for a whole twenty seconds.

However, the third-person parts on Earth gave an important perspective. I think it would have been possible to write the whole book from Mark’s point of view, but that would have missed out on some wonderful emotional and dramatic moments.


My writer-self wonders whether Andy could have slipped a third-person Earth chapter in earlier. Perhaps something in third person showing his fellow crew members or Earth responding to Mark’s loss. But that would have weakened the logical sequence of point of view.

As it is written, the book only introduces a point of view shortly before it is “connected” to the rest of the story. The Earth point of view picks up very shortly before they discover Mark is alive. The crew’s point of view picks up very shortly before they are told Mark is alive.


Anyway, the POV management was an interesting aspect. Aside from that very first jolt, I thought it was quite effective.

I often get annoyed with multi-threaded books because I almost always like one thread better than the other. In this case, I was never sorry to leave one viewpoint and get shunted to another – they were all interesting.



The Martian is a great survival tale that has some neat engineering and excellent plotting/characterization.

It is Andy Weir’s first published novel. I look forward to seeing what he writes next!

New Effort – Reviews!

I’m going to start working the occasional book review into my weekly posts. Working on my own writing craft has made me more conscious of certain aspects of books. When reading for pleasure, I still try to look at books as a reader first, but the writer is always lurking in the corner.

These reviews will try to balance the reader view with the writer view – hopefully to useful effect.


The Martian – Andy Weir

Fun with Revisions

I have been busy revising my YA fantasy novel for the last month.

I came away from Viable Paradise wanting to strengthen the cultural and historic foundation for my world. I spent the first month doing research; I have been integrating the fruits of that research ever since.

It isn’t that I’m adding or changing that much, but each 10-200 word snippet has to be judiciously inserted, and then massaged to match the 2nd-4th draft quality of the rest of the work.

It is fun, but it is slow going.

I went through and tagged all the spots that I wanted to tweak. This last week, I have been bobbing up and down between having 27 and 30 sections to modify. That is down from about 50 at the start, but I seem to have hit the dreaded Editing Plateau.

Part of that is the tendency of the edits to proliferate: insert a detail about the city in section X. Realize that section Y should have further exploration of the same thing. Add section Y to the list.

Part of that is my reluctance to officially check off the changes. I go back and re-read each insertion. Edit. Tweak. Re-read. Allow it to rest. Come back. Re-read. Edit.

Some of them have been pretty easy to finalize. Others have been in draft form for several days, and will remain so for a little while. Inserting information while avoiding info dumps can be tricky, and I sometimes have trouble telling whether I have crossed the line.

That’s what beta readers are for, though!

My other struggle is coming up with substitutes for slang.

I love language, especially the weird mutt that is English, but some of my favorite words and phrases are too vividly vernacular to play in a fantasy setting. It is an interesting problem.

It is always a judgment call whether it is appropriate to use certain kinds of slang in a work of fantasy. If you view it as a translation, you have more leeway, but there is still a limit.

There were a number of terms or idioms that I used originally that I have now marked for substitution. In some cases I’m having trouble coming up with a reasonable/interesting substitute that will be easy to understand.

The one that is currently giving me fits is bigwig. There are lots of great (approximate) equivalents: high muckety-muck, big kahuna, nob, nabob, VIP.

None of them are remotely suitable.

So now I’m trying to come up with an equivalent that is actually appropriate for my story’s culture, that will be easy for the reader to pick up.

I’m toying with something based on military structure, armor, or weaponry, since the nobles in the country come from a martial culture. I could potentially go with a crossover term such as “brass”, which has the advantage of not being completely unfamiliar, but also comes with baggage.

I will probably wind up cutting my losses on some of the slang, either going back to the regular word (e.g. changing “green monster” to “envy”), or letting the real world slang slip through.

I’m hoping to finish up the current round of edits in the next week or two, so that I can put out a call for beta readers. We’ll see how I do with preventing the edits from proliferating. I have “finished” it before, surely I can again . . . ?

My First New Year’s Resolution!

I have never made a New Year’s Resolution.

January 1st isn’t an especially good time to start things, at least for me. I’m usually backlogged with work and projects from the holidays. The weather isn’t great. I just want to stay at home and catch up on things.

All that said, I am going to break my long-standing tradition and make a New Year’s Resolution.

I resolve to update this blog once a week, regardless of what else is going on in my life, for at least the next year.

I want to work blogging into my schedule, and this seems like the kind of goal that actually works well with the major January 1st benchmark.

There are lots of things that I have been meaning to talk about, but I have a full and happy life. That’s mostly good, but it means that “talking about stuff” tends to fall off the back burner.

So. Weekly blog commitment.

Anyone want to jump on the bandwagon?

Happy New Year!

How I Benefited from Viable Paradise

If you missed it, here is my intro to Viable Paradise.

I think that everyone who attends Viable Paradise gets something a little different out of it.

For me, the benefits were many and varied. In no particular order, the most important benefits from my point of view were:

Sum Up . . .

Meeting other writers

I had never been to a writing workshop. I have yet to go to a writing conference. As such, Viable Paradise was my first opportunity to really get together with other writers, and talk life and writing. To all those other writers, slaving away in isolation: find yourself some in-the-flesh writers to talk to! It’s great.

Part of that was being able to talk writing and craft, and swap advice and tips.

Part was having a natural conversation starter – which, for an introvert surrounded by large numbers of people (N > 3), is very helpful.

My fellow workshop-goers were a delightful bunch of people – as were the staff and instructors. I have never had such an easy time chatting with so many people.

Getting a crash course in writing and publishing from the pros

This is the obvious-from-the-outside benefit, and it was great.

The talks were made up of collegiums and lectures. The collegiums had an instructor leading them, but relied more on discussion and Q&A from the students. The lectures had a primary presenter, but there were always multiple instructors in the audience, and they would often give their input on the topic. That was especially helpful for getting a sense of different writers’ approaches and opinions. Writing process topics brought an especially wide range of experience.

The actual talks were on a bunch of topics. I would broadly divide them into “how to write better”, “how to develop better content”, and “how to manage the writerly life”.

“How to write better” topics covered all sorts of craft information. Things like how to express character emotion without telling. These talks distilled a compendium of intermediate and advanced writing knowledge, and gave a practical high-points version with Q&A.

“How to develop better content” topics covered various aspects of background and story that would help a story to be more compelling and believable. Not how to express it, mind you – that was the craft section – but what to put in. Some topics were more pertinent to SFF, such as things to consider when world-building. Others covered more general considerations, such as common mistakes dealing with injury and death in fiction of all sorts.

“How to manage the writerly life” topics covered everything from tricks to use in getting unstuck, to maintaining health (mental and physical) in a solitary, sedentary, slow-paced task.

I am not going to go into detail on the content. That would be a week or two or three of daily posts, and I’m doing well to manage weekly or monthly.

Besides, it will be a goodly while before I feel fit to “teach” any of it.

Socializing with the pros and enjoying them as real people

The instructors did not just float in from on high for the critiques and talks. They joined us for meals and hung out in the evenings.

They all turned out to be nice people who love writing, and also love lots of other things.

I especially enjoyed the sing-alongs that took place in the latter part of the week. They may have occurred in the first part of the week, too, but I was doing my homework.

It was important for me to have a chance to see the instructors as peers and human beings.

Based on the interactions I enjoyed at VP18, I will be far less likely to freeze up or go “fan girl” when presented with a writer or editor whose work I admire.

 Meeting other writers at a similar stage in the process

It was great meeting the pros.

In many ways, it was just as wonderful being able to talk with other writers at roughly the same point – give or take a year or two.

They represented writers who could understand my situation, and provide sympathy and support in a way no one else could.

Those a little further along in the process were in the position of being able to give glimpses up ahead.

I had a very nice chat with Fonda Lee about the process of getting an agent and getting her first contract.

The staff at VP were also primarily writers and alums. That gave another bunch of people who could give a glimpse a little further along.

Reading and analyzing a broad range of work

My class included the gamut of SFF writers, from hard sci fi to epic fantasy. That meant that reading for critiques was impressively varied, as were the results of the short-story writing exercise.

It’s well and good to say that you can read all of that at home.

It’s technically true, and some people probably do that.

I admit I usually read a fairly narrow subset of SFF, simply because my time is limited and I’m reading to unwind.

It was lovely and mind-expanding to read the whole range.

I would have read much of it for pleasure, but not all of it.

It was good practice analyzing something that didn’t “grab” me. The fact that I wasn’t the target audience didn’t make it bad, and it was a very interesting exercise to try to look at the strengths and weaknesses analytically, without letting “like” come into it.

Gaining a future pool of potential critique partners

One problem I’ve been struggling with is how to find people to help me beta read my work.

I have some friends who are willing to help, but that’s a very narrow audience, and none of them are writers.

The internet has lots of writers, but it really has too many.

Having a group of friendly people who I can ask to beta is great. I don’t expect all of them to do it – wouldn’t want all of them to do it – but even if two or three or four of the twenty-four are happy to swap reading duties, that puts me way ahead.

Learning I can spin a short story out a bunch of random prompts

I had never finished a short story.

I’m a natural novel writer, because I keep spinning the story out and out and out.

As part of the week’s exercises, we had to write a short story using some rather bizarre prompts.

It was traumatic for the first few minutes, but tremendously liberating after that.

The short time frame and some advice on story arcs actually allowed me to produce a workable short story. My first!

Going forward, I’m hoping to mix the occasional short story into my writing work, between novels. It will be great practice, and is not something that I had considered since my last failed attempt to write a short story . . . some six years ago.

Getting feedback on my writing

For me, getting feedback on my writing was a huge benefit.

I had been working largely in isolation, and hadn’t been able to determine whether my stories were engaging, interesting, or generally something anyone would want to read.

It was wonderful – albeit scary – getting in-person critiques from fellow writers.

We each had our work critiqued by a group of students and two instructors. We also got one-on-one sessions with two additional instructors.

For me, this was one of the most valuable parts. It isn’t that anyone said anything truly earth-shattering about my chapters – mostly I got some food for thought about where to build up my world, and feedback on things people were interested in, or concerned about.

It was just wonderful to know that people enjoyed my chapters.

I’m oddly blind with my writing. I’m not alone in this, but I don’t know that all writers suffer the problem as seriously as I do.

It isn’t that I think my writing is bad.

It’s that I can’t tell.

Oh, I can tell whether the writing is grammatical.

That the scene follows logically and is well based.

That the characters are consistent.

But is it interesting? Would someone keep reading after I unchained them?

Beats me!

So it was very beneficial to get real, live, honest feedback: enough flaws to feel real and give me something to work on, but also plenty of encouragement, affirming that I have something!


Sum Up

So, that’s what I got out of it.

Writing buddies.

A list of things to work on.

Beautiful memories.


That doesn’t capture everything, not by a long chalk, but it covers the high points.

Updated 11/19/14 to include some missing links.