Free Live Book Mentoring

Rex Jameson's inspiring little tirade on KB has convinced me that I should dust this idea off and get on with doing it.

One of the parts of my job that I most enjoy is discussing (usually via Skype) with my authors their ideas for their next work. (I habitually do this at no extra cost.) In the last 6 months I have had discussions with a couple of writers via email who were just seeking advice, or a sounding board, for their next books. I try to provide as much help as I can, free.

So, I'm now offering initially 4 hours a month of free book mentoring. This will be in two individual sessions (for the same author or two different authors), via Skype.

The principle is that you tell me about your book, and we go from there.

It's of direct benefit to me as it exposes me to more of what writers are currently working on (so I can keep up with the zeitgeist), and as I said above, I enjoy it. It is of direct benefit to you if you are a writer (or are working to become one, like the rest of us), as you get advice and (yes) opinion from a full time literary editor.

Contact me via my email that you can find on my website or message me via Kindle Boards.


Lavazza Mattino, from the fridge.

In the Bialetti Cuor di Moka, nearly filled with coffee.

With half a teaspoonful of Van Houten Cocoa powder (not mixed in).
One large sugar lump in a glass, sprinkled with a little cinnamon.

Hot coffee is poured over it.

Single cream to the top of the glass.


A little beverage fetishism after lunch.


It's only dancing; how to describe music, poetry and fighting

I have edited, and am editing, quite a few books that contain music, poetry and fighting.

Rightly so, all three appear in all genres of literature. Sometimes they are treated well. Sometimes they are not.

Because music subsists in a different medium, none but the most avant garde of authors attempts to describe it note-by-note. It is an easy and natural choice to attempt to describe music through the experience of listening, and the sentiments and emotions—even the physical responses—it provokes. This meets with mixed success, but this indirect approach is at the very least not guaranteed to fail. An author cannot, through words, convey the sound of music.

In A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess hedges his bets; he selects music that he knows than many of his readers will know, and that some of them will know well. In this way, he knows that at least some of them will be able to hear the actual sound of the music as they are reading it. But he also knows that many will not. So he also conveys the experience of listening, through the main character's (rather visceral) responses to the music, and even manages to convey the progression through different passages of the symphony. This is great writing not because (for most people) it succeeds; it is great writing because it tries.

In The Poet Trap, I discussed the difficulty of convincing the reader that your protagonist is a great poet. It is as problematic to convey the experience of reading or listening to great poetry as it is of music, unless the author happens to be a great poet. It may not surprise you to learn from a literary critic and editor, that I know enough about the mechanics and techniques of great poetry to be able to imitate it if I really need to. But in a novel, that would only be of any use if my protagonist was a plagiarist or an imitator. If he is to be a great and original poet (which I am not), I will have to treat his poetry the way Burgess treats music.

I could, on demand, write a stirring battle song, or an elegy; these are formal and to some extent, formulaic. They also depend (or rely) for their impact on context; my elegy will move you if the events of the story around it are mournful or wistful; my battle song will raise your fighting spirit if the troops, enthusiastic, are preparing for their heroic charge.

But in either case, the reader can manage without the actual text of the poem if the author can carry the him along in the spirit and the experience.

Books generally describe fighting more often than they describe music, poetry or dance. I sometimes think there ought to be a Muse for fight choreographers. This would serve as a guide for all those writers in every genre who want their fights to go beyond the couple of blows that are usually enough in real life.

I was once a teenage boy, my feminist mother's efforts notwithstanding. I had a phase of geeky fascination with the differences between theatrical combat and real life combat (anything from a bar-room brawl to an epic battle). This has provided me with two possible approaches to editing fight scenes in literature. I can criticize my author's (almost) inevitable blow-by-blow accounts by telling them in what way what they have said is impossible*. I daresay I have browbeaten one or two of them with what is possible, what is superhuman, what is rule-of-cool. There's probably a blog post in there somewhere, but of rather restricted appeal.

OR, I can beg them, please, for heaven's sake, no blow-by-blow. Blow-by-blow is for boxing the enthusiast, listening to the fight on the radio (or, if you know your communications history, over the telephone).

Blow by blow can work if your book is specifically martial arts oriented. In this case, you still shouldn't describe each blow**, but instead employ, sparingly, technical terms; allow your adept to 'execute a skillful renzoku waza, but be caught out by his opponent's katsugi waza'. From time to time. By all means, in a martial arts oriented book, let the protagonist spend hours perfecting his tenchinage, and explain what it is in detail as this will serve to reinforce the protagonist's own dedication to his discipline.

BUT where fighting is integral but not central (the book has lots of fighting in it, but it is not about fighting), describing every blow has the effect of slowing down the actionIt is well worth estimating, when you are writing a fight scene, how long the fighting actually took, and how long it took to read the description of the fighting. In a boxing match, the cadence*** is relatively slow; in an organized bareknuckle it is faster; in a sporting fencing match it goes in sudden fits; in a back-alley brawl it is very fast indeed, and usually over in five seconds or less; drunken bar-room brawls really can last almost as long as they do in the movies. This is because men are stupid the participants are drunk, so they move slower, fewer blows connect, and they feel less pain. This prolongs the engagement artificially, so you can take your time and maximize the comic effect or the pathos as you prefer.

But those shorter engagements need shorter descriptions. I do have a kind of rule of thumb. It is that if you are trying to write a realistic engagement, if it involves only two people and is neither sport nor theatre, it should be over in three blows or less****. In which case you can say, after it is over, what one or more of the blows were:

I thought I'd take him by surprise but he know what I was and he saw me coming, and as I picked myself out of the the trashpile I berated myself for not expecting him to have a big right-hook.

When Sharliise slapped the dagger off her neck it caught the soldier’s face, and he lost his hold on her long enough for her to get her boot dagger and thrust it into his gut repeatedly. After he stopped moving she stepped back and away, shaking.

1 is an example I just wrote. 2. is from Jack Shilkaitis' upcoming novel Apostasy, slightly edited by me.

Longer engagements that seek realism are only longer because they involve more enemies. Unless you are describing a battle between two armies of Samurai, battlefield engagements involve everyone fighting everyone else.

A sequence of engagements in rapid succession (let's imagine Robin Hood is escaping from Nottingham Castle and the alarm has been raised) can and will become really really dull if every single one is described, even if it is described as briefly as the examples above.

Longer engagements involving only two people don't happen in real life except when they don't really want to kill eachother (this happens more often than you might think). GK Chesterton deals with this very deftly when describing a rapier duel between determined but well-matched opponents. Father Brown (our hero) goes away and comes back during the fight, all the while hearing the clatter of rapiers.

SO I advise, encourage and exhort (gotta love that word) my writers to treat fight scenes like they would treat music and poetry and, especially, dance. Dance is the another art that is impossible to do justice in the written word. But you can say what it is like to watch; you can say what it is like to experience it (to do it yourself).

And you can use the same techniques you use to describe music, poetry and dance to describe fighting. And you should.

It goes to the way that we experience events; especially events that affect us emotionally, and events that provoke excitement. We don't experience fighting blow-by-blow. We experience the big hits, that we land or that land on us, but all the stuff in between; the feints, parries and glances; the sizing up and circling, we forget in the glorious or inglorious moment of the deciding blow. And a literary description of a fight has to FEEL that way.

* some of my authors are already familiar with the abbreviation abinamw – A BOW IS NOT A MELEE WEAPON
** the word 'blow' is rather special, as although it's origin is in a word for striking, and therefore attack, it was used to translate French, Spanish and Italian combat manuals which used the words coupcolpo. This word does not always mean an attack, and quite often suggests a ploy or gambit, offensive or defensive.

*** average rate at which offensive blows are delivered
**** yes, "less". No, I won't lower myself to that particular debate. YKWYA 


Two People, Two Voices; Author, Reader and Narrators

Yesterday, I addressed the matter of measurements. Today I cut to the heart of Damon's question, reprinted here:

The [friends] think it's distracting or that it's wrong because it's not Gortogh's actual thoughts but the narrator who is not a character (or should not be at least) in the story.

Damon's friends, and indeed, his wife, are complaining about his use in narration of an expression that he uses in everyday speech:

n feet long if it was an inch!

which he then goes on to echo and repeat (one repetitions and two echos in three paragraphs; see yesterday's post for details).

They complain that they hear Damon's voice narrating, and that this intrudes on the point of view that is presented, weakly, in the passage, the POV being that of the goblin (see yesterday), Gortogh.

Setting character points of view aside for a moment; who or what is the narrator?

I contend that the narrator is not the author. The author is a real person, who sits in front of a screen for much of the day, spending anything from 50% to 95% of his time "researching" (surfing the 'net), and anything from 50% to 95% of the remaining time cleaning his fingernails and staring out of he window. The remaining time is spent tapping away at the keyboard with 20% to 100% of his fingers. (I use 90%).

The narrator is voice, chosen by the author, in which to tell the story. Sometimes, though not always, the narrator is also a character in the story. In Sherlock Holmes, Watson tells the story, and Conan Doyle uses Watson's voice to do this, however he takes care to write as Watson would write, not as Watson speaks. Fairytales are traditionally told in the "Mother Goose" voice; a benevolent parent who is all knowing and gentle, even when dealing with violence and death. Tolkein uses this voice for The Hobbit, but in LOTR he uses a more worldly voice, though no less authoritative. Chandler popularized the use of vernacular in the first person; but notice that while both Spade and Marlowe are voluble and opinionated in their narration, they are sparing and occasionally monosyllabic when speaking. Narration is not about how people talk; it is about how they narrate.

It is one of the great arts of the author to choose, establish and maintain the narrator's voice. Narration is not the same register as normal speech nor as normal writing (essay or letter writing, f'rinstance). Nor is narration character nor point of view dependent. The author makes choices about what the narrator knows and what the narrator chooses to reveal. The author makes choices about how the narrator communicates to the reader. I describe the narrator as a voice. The narrator can't be called a person - as the author seldom if ever narrates as himself. The narrator isn't a character, even if he is presented as such; Watson is himself narrating, not living, the events. Spade reacts in his narration in ways that he does not react in his action, and in any case he doesn't always tell you everything. This is the author's choice.

The author is one of the people. The author's choice of narrator is one of the voices.

The other person is the reader. Reading, the reader "hears" the narrator's voice. Even if the author is excessively skilled or gifted, however, the voice the reader "hears" narrating will not be identical to the one that the author hears while writing. The reader brings to the book all his personal baggage, all his reading history, all his listening history; this colors the narrator's voice that he "hears"*.

The reader is the second person. The reader's narrator is the second voice.

Characters are subjects, objects, agents or agonists of the story; they are ciphers rather than people. Indeed, in French, we describe a convincing character not as 'realistic' as we might in English, but as vraisemblable - literally "able to seem true". This trueseeming is the test of a good character.

Narration presents Points of View (POV). A POV is a narrator's choice, and is used to control the flow of information to the reader, for a particular effect. Strong POV has two main purposes: to limit the amount of information available to the reader to what the character knows, and: to bring the reader into closer sympathy** with the character. Weak POV serves to keep the reader's focus on a specific character without limiting it.

Sometimes strong POV feels like the character is telling the story even when the narrator employs the third person.

The POV known as "omniscient narrator" can pick and choose between strong and weak POV's, depending on the requirements of the narrative.

The issue Damon encountered with his beta readers is a special case. They know him. As a result they can't help hearing his voice when reading his work. When his narrator uses as distinctive idiom that Damon likes to use in everyday speech, they find it intrusive because Damon's voice (the author) interferes with their personal narrator (reader's narrator). This won't happen to readers who don't know Damon. That is not to say that it is not a good indication that the author should, perhaps, revisit the passage in question (or ask his editor to!), and see if the narrator's voice needs to be made more consistent.

My initial reaction (see yesterday) is that an interlude is a good opportunity for the author to play and experiment. I may change my mind depending on how closely the events of this section interlock with the events of the story proper.

* I'm using scare quotes here because many, possibly most readers, don't actually hear a voice in their heads while reading, at least not consciously, unless the author has made a specific effort to make that happen. However it is something like hearing, for which English doesn't seem to have a word.
** In lit.crit., sympathy does not imply liking or identifying with a character, only that you recognize what the character feels.


Waits and Measures

With a title like that, this could be my Eats Shoots and Leaves; pity English doesn't spell phonetically.

I am indebted, not for the first time, to Damon Courtney, for his question that I seek to answer here. It is a question that is in two parts; the first part is relatively easy to answer and provides the guideline that I call "Edit note 10: grain". The second part cuts right to the heart of the process of narration, and the process of reading—although the answer to Damon's question is more prosaic. Here's his question (hacked about a bit since it was in an email with an attachment):

[Damon says:] I showed the Prelude [to Book II of the series Dragon Bond] to a couple of friends who will be acting as beta readers on this book, and there has been some debate over a line or two. …

[Here's the passage in question - teaser for those of you who have read the first book]

The ogre chieftain’s greatsword had to be at least six feet long if it was an inch. At least it looked that big to Gortogh. It was hard to guess while it was in mid-air and swinging for his head. Also, he was sitting on the ground, and things always look bigger from the ground. Probably why the ogre looked ten feet tall himself.

Gortogh shoved with his feet and managed to roll back as the giant blade slammed into the ground, digging deeply into the impression previously occupied by his backside. He finished his roll and bounced to his feet in what would have been an impressive display of balance and grace if he hadn’t been forced to immediately stumble back another step to avoid losing his head. He steadied his feet and sized up his opponent.

The ogre chieftain was ten feet tall if he was an inch. And he was grinning a big, yellow-toothed grin as Gortogh tried to get his balance. He backed up another step and felt a shove in his back as one of the goblins ringing them in a circle pushed him back in. The ogre wasn’t even paying attention. He walked around the circle with his arms wide and his sword held high.

The [friends] think it's distracting or that it's wrong because it's not Gortogh's actual thoughts but the narrator who is not a character (or should not be at least) in the story.[end of question]

The underlined parts are the bone of contention. Measurements of any kind are, in fiction, not generally friendly to free flowing narrative, and Damon's beta-readers object to this use of measurements; I think they are right to raise the issue; I'm not sure that I agree that there is a problem*. Here's what Edit note 10 has to say:

Editorial note 10: grain

The grain of a description is the amount of detail you give. As someone who plays D&D, I am aware of the importance of small details (like load weight or distances), however I draw your attention to the following that I was given as an example some years ago:

"Eric found he could just stretch far enough to reach the key, and freedom"

The above is the rewritten sentence. Below is the original:

"Eric found that his arm was just long enough to reach across the thirty inches of cold stone floor to where the keys lay, representing freedom."

In moments of drama, less detail is more, and the phrase "just far enough" is emblematic of this.

Keeping accurate count of enemies can fall into this category. It's rather like how many bullets Harry Callaghan has left in his Magnum. The count matters to the plot.

Giving measurements of characters or locations is usually redundant.

Usually. But a Prelude (or to give it its more usual name, a prologue) can be in a different narrative style, and indeed a different narrative logic, from the main work. Damon is taking the opportunity to have some fun, experimenting with using repetition to exaggerate the size disparity between Gortogh (a goblin**) and the ogre**. Furthermore, we can consider that at least six feet long if it was an inch is a colloquial idiom, rather than a strict measure, and hence sidesteps the guideline of Edit note 10.
I will address the question of narrative consistency in my next post.
*   There are probably improvements to make; this is a beta-draft after all.
**  goblin  is a small to below average sized intelligent humanoid monster.  Ogre is usually larger or much larger.


Editor–writer writer–editor

Does an editor have to be a writer? Does a writer have to be an editor?

The answer is probably predictably simple. An editor of fiction should know how to write fiction and should, IMO, continually practice fiction writing, even if he doesn't seek publication. I don't think you need to be a great writer to edit great fiction. I have edited writing whose creation would have been beyond my capacity. But because I am attentive and conscientious; because I have a firm grasp of the fundamentals of storytelling; I can pretend to some ability to make a potentially great book into a great book.

A writer, a great writer, need not have any ability to edit whatsoever. He can get away with having only a loose grasp of the fundamentals of storytelling — or at least, be unconscious of his understanding of it — provided he has the support of an editor! He certainly need not know anymore than rudimentary punctuation and basic grammar. He can even be illiterate, if he knows how to work a dictaphone*.

It has been said in another place that there are writers seeking to supplement their income by editing who do not have the ability but assume that they do because they have met with some success as writers (or even if they haven't). This is probably true. But there are plenty of writers who are also skillful and effective editors. If I tend to think of Derek Prior as a writer rather than as an editor it is only because I have edited a couple of his books.

Being a good editor probably contributes something to the quality of his writing, but the two skills do not go hand in hand. Personally, I prefer editing to writing, and I think that no matter how good a writer I become, for the time being, I'm much better at editing.


There's never been an easier time to be a writer, if your definition of writer is as broad as mine**. My generation was the first to systematically use a computer in the office in place of a shorthand-typist. I can type much much faster than I talk, which is probably why my blog posts are often long and rambling, whereas when I talk… no, wait, when I talk it's long and rambling too.

Either way, the computer is an easier and faster way to write than a typewriter which is easier and faster than a biro (see footnote on 'dictaphone') which is easier and faster than a quill. Independent epublishing — I hope the rest of this sentence is obvious.

Whenever you take something out of the hands of the feudal elite; whenever you democratize something, you open the floodgates to diversity, mediocrity, rubbish and fraud. So I'm going to add something to my definition of a writer**. To be a writer you have to care about the quality of your work, and care about the experience of the reader.

This is turning into another one of those everybody needs an editor tirades. Sorry. I'll try to qualify it a little. Even if (like Derek) you are a good editor as well as a good writer, you can still benefit from the aid of an editor. Every writer can improve by working with an editor, even if only from time to time.

That sounds so pedestrian. That probably means it's truer than most of the pretentious pontification you find on my blog.


* 'Dictaphone' ought to be capitalized, and in a newspaper or magazine, or any non-fiction text, I would capitalize it; it was the name of a company that produced dictation machines. The same applies to 'hoover'. In direct speech in fiction, I would not normally capitalize these, as they have become generic terms through usage.

** I think you can call yourself a writer as soon as you've turned a profit from writing. Even if it's only one dollar.


Reader Satisfaction

You've got your big idea, you've worked through a few scenarios in your head, you reckon you're starting to get an angle on your main characters, so, you're ready to sit down and either:
  • start writing
  • start planning out the story
Before you do, you still gotta ask yourself one question:

"Why am I writing this?"

Very very very very broadly speaking, I find three main reasons for writing, as follows:

  • I wanna sell books and make some money
  • I wanna write a great work of literature
  • I wanna be a great author
These three are not mutually exclusive, but let's face it, if you mean to write a work of great literary fiction, even if you succeed in writing the next Alchemist or Captain Corelli, satisfying your readers is still elusive. No matter how many people declare that you have given them a new and special experience, there will always be plenty for whom your book just doesn't work. If you want to write literary fiction, please please do. There isn't enough of it out there. But you will find reader satisfaction very hard to plan for.

If you want to make money, you will have to give the reader an experience he already knows he likes. If you're really good, you can surprise and challenge him occasionally, but the readers who buy a lot of books (who are also the ones who buy the most literary fiction) mostly buy genre pulp.

Don't get me wrong – I love genre pulp. And indeed, book lovers love genre pulp. Only snobs and old school critics look down on it. More fool them. Graham Greene wrote pulp. Michael Moorcock wrote pulp. I bet you can think of more examples.

In genre pulp you can aim for reader satisfaction. Each genre has its conventions, its cliche tropes, but that isn't what I'm talking about. It's part of it. The part that the writers of television dramas trying to emulate Joss Whedon understand.

Writers of television drama want to squeeze as many episodes out of a good idea as they can, and keep the audience figures as high as possible for as long as possible. Sometimes the audience sticks with them a lot longer than they expect, and because they aren't Whedon, they run out of ideas and things either get silly (Lost) or endlessly reboot (Heroes).

And if you want to make a living out of writing, isn't that exactly what you want to do?

Where novel writing differs is that you aren't a faceless team of contracted writers. You're one writer, speculating. And inevitably, putting yourself into your work. And, I hope, caring about your readers and their satisfaction. You care what they think of you.

At the same time, you aren't beholden to studio execs and their shareholders. So when an idea has run its course, no matter how successful it is, you can let it go, and move on. Same if it doesn't work.

So you can produce pulp, but you can afford to care about it, to be personal, to be literary.

Great novels don't arise from great ideas. They arise from great stories.

In the same way, great pulp arises from complete stories. Stories that are "tight". A tight story is one whose narrative follows a strict path; nothing is missing, nothing is redundant. It need not always be clear to the reader, but by the end of his journey, the end of the experience, the reader must feel that not a single moment has been wasted; there have been no blind alleys, no tangents, no holes – no matter how often he might have thought something was a blind alley or a tangent or a hole; at the end, the reader has to realize the reason for it, and the reason must be part of the story.

Often, tangential episodes are justified by writers as "character establishment/development".

If you want reader satisfaction, character must be subordinate to story. Don't be lazy: tell the story through character development and develop character through the story.

Tight stories also don't have anything essential missing.

Identifying what's missing can be the hardest part of the literary editor's job, but more often than not, it consists of the following: somewhere between seven tenths and nine tenths of the way through, the crucial events of the book reach a sort of partial closure resembling an interlude: a big battle has been won, but the Big Bad is still at large; the terrorist plot has been thwarted but the corrupt politician behind it has yet to be unmasked; the party of adventurers have managed to get through the Fire Swamp, through the Maze of Death, across the Bottomless Gorge of Probable Doom, defeated the Dragon, but now they have to work out how to get all that treasure back home, and when they get there, they still have to depose the Wicked King who sent them on this suicide quest in the first place. You get the general idea.

At this point, time suddenly jumps forwards. Sometimes it does this through a nice neat plot device, like the protagonist spending a few days in hospital, or an Uneventful Journey™. You can get away with this from time to time. Not more than once every three books. Often, though, it happens in fits and starts throughout the last quarter of the book. I call this 'end in sight' syndrome. The author knows what happens at the end, and knows that he's on the home straight. And as everybody knows, the biggest rush and author can get is having written. If you did your word count for the day, you feel awesome. If you completed a book, you feel awesome for several days. Authors chase that high. I see them doing it, when I read the last four chapters. You skip merrily through, ticking off the checklist of what has to happen to make the end happen. And you sell the readers very short.

I sometimes think that authors should, when they have about 15% left to go, leave it, and start work on the sequel. They should then re-read everything, and write the ending slowly and carefully, maintaining the same pace and excitement that they had before.

Very few readers will like you if you rush the ending. Plan the ending for maximum reader satisfaction. Execute it with precision and care. Readers don't get their kicks from finishing a book. If they really like your book, they aren't in a hurry to see "the end". The increasingly common practice of putting the first chapter of another book as a promo at the end takes advantage of this; the reader who is enjoying himself wants to keep reading.

How do you go about planning for reader satisfaction?

That question is for a creative writing course, rather than a blog post. Possibly it's for an editing session; certainly it's for your writing club/group/whatnot. What you do depends on your genre and on your story idea.


I give free advice on designing a story for better reader satisfaction. Send me your story outline via my website.


Politics - Gender Politics - Author responsibility

I've always found Rush Limbaugh creepy. And not funny. So I don't listen to his broadcasts. That's freedom, isn't it.

But I was raised a feminist. These days I believe that freedom is more important than equality, but fighting for equality is sometimes the same as fighting for freedom. The current Republican climate, though intensely silly seen from this side of the Atlantic, is also cause for concern, increasingly so, in the light of the Republican Party's current attitude to women.

I have chosen therefore to be mildly political with the excuse that an author should have a heightened awareness of the potential for his language to connote at the same time as it denotes; the potential for his language to be misunderstood or taken maliciously out of context; the potential (far more than most realize) to reveal the author's underlying attitudes and assumptions. When you write a story, you aren't taking a story out of yourself and putting it on the page. You are putting yourself on the page through a story.

On Feb. 29, Limbaugh said, "She [Fluke] wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex."

As I say, I don't think RL is funny, generally. So in criticizing him, I have to examine my bias very personally. If I had broadcast remarks like that, it would have been out of a desire to be funny, and I might not have seen how it might have made people feel bad; having said that, I would not have singled out one individual the way that he did. I would have generalized it to something like "these people want to be paid to have sex" - to me that still sounds unforgivably extremist; deliberately associating birth control with prostitution. 

Forget the ad hominem for a moment, and consider what you do when you say "paying for someone else's birth control is like paying them to have sex".

Women who take control of their own reproduction are being responsible. They are being adult. They are controlling their own selves and their own future. Women are denied birth control either by societies that can't afford to provide if for free (rare, but they do exist) or by societies where women do not have the same freedom of self determination that men do.

Women who are paid for sex are, in the vast majority of cases, abused, exploited and severely at risk of major harm. They are not free. They are not responsible. Does anyone think that women who are paid for sex are in control of their lives? That they think it is the best way to provide themselves with a secure future?

Apparently, this is what the Right wants at the moment. For women to feel disenfranchised. For women to have no control, no contribution to make. Associating birth control with prostitution goes straight down that line. Make women ashamed of the freedom they've fought for, so that they deny it to themselves. Same technique as preaching 'abstinence' ;  same technique as telling girls not to dress like sluts if they don't want to get raped. Shame is what keeps women subjugated even in countries where their equality and freedom is statutory.

So even without the ad hominem, this 'joke' reveals RL's attitude to birth control, and to female sexual freedom. His apology is not a change of attitude. It is of no value to his public. It is of less value still to Sandra Fluke. If he wants to apologise to her, he should damn well do it in person, so she can chuse to accept it or not. I would.

If you have political attitudes, and not everybody does, they will come out in your writing. You can't, and arguably, shouldn't, prevent it. You should, however, be aware of it. It doesn't matter if you are writing about Dragons, Spaceships, Vampires, Zombies, zombie-dragon-vampires-in-space, your politics will out, and they will offend someone.

I may be an outspoken defender of author freedom, but there is such a thing as right and wrong even in our apparently free and wildly creative domain. It is right to know how your own real world attitudes seep into your writing, how it manifests itself, what it reveals about you.


I know an author of heroic fantasy in whose work the only women you ever see are either black-and-midnight-hags or random corpses. I know a sci-fi author where the only women are occasional eye-candy. These may be extreme examples, but authors can learn to mitigate this. E.E. "Doc" Smith was well aware of his own inability to write convincing female dialogue, so he had his secretary write most of the dialogue. That may be an extreme case too, but a revealing one.

Me, I'm incapable of writing convincing all male dialogue. I also can't do those action sequences that I think of as the long big punch-up. That might sound a little like a boast but it really is a handicap. really. honest.


Weird Words #5: Checked / Checkered

This one is a personal favourite of mine, if only for the non-existent confusion it doesn't cause.

Everyone I've ever heard either says:

"A checked shirt."


"A checkered shirt." (I'll get to the spelling).

And they say it quite without thinking. Noone, to my knowledge, chuses between these two words, and rightly so. They mean the same thing. Their etymological path is intertwined:

Checker (often in UK 'chequer') is the earliest known English word for a chessboard, and may have been what chess was called in English originally. (The word "chess", that we also get via French, was a later arrival). This suggests that a checkered pattern is one that resembles a chessboard.

Check is a word associated with chess and chesslike situations, and may have been adopted to describe a pattern of squares independently of checker or as a shortening of checker. Either way, both have survived to the present day.

The spelling chequered is often favoured in the UK as it follows the rule that words "borrowed" from French preserve French spelling, though in this case it is a late normalization, and part of a deliberate and rather infantile attempt by the British to differentiate themselves from the colonials. Don't even get me started.

If you really really wanted to be really really fussy, you could argue that checkered ought to be reserved for fabrics that really resemble a chessboard, whereas checked can be used for anything using a regular pattern of squares. I don't think it's necessary.