Sunday, February 19, 2012

Stay tuned (but avoid holding breath)

Shortly after my last post last week, chaos of an almost entirely good kind (CAEGK, which sounds like a noise a cat makes bringing up a hairball) erupted into my life.  This is rather like what some other writers refer to as a Sekrit Project, which is probably a reference to something or other that I missed along the way.  Anyway, can't talk about it yet, will be great if it happens, and won't know for a couple few weeks I think ... but I should be back on the regular job around Wednesday or Thursday, and all blogs will resume normality shortly after that, including Part III of the probably 4 parts of the global warming/carbon sequestration noodling.  Faithful correspondents, you too are remembered, but it will be a while before there's a note there, as well.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Father Lucifer, a novel in progress: End of Chapter 3

Father Lucifer, a novel in progress: End of Chapter 3:

Night was rushing across the sky, swarming over the last glints of sun that poked out between the mountains, with a chill coming on. Stacy pressed close to me and I put my arm around her. That was nice.

"Here's the thing," she said. "I had this idea that I could get away from my idiot parents and steps, once and for all, if I could just make one good score. You know how good that can sound."

"Oh, yeah. Thought you said it wasn't drugs."

"It wasn't."

I thought for a long second about several things I didn't want to think about, and decided to stay real neutral. "So the deal went south."

"Way south. The people I was dealing with knew my old history, and it was too late to back out."

I didn't know her old history but this didn't seem like the time to ask.

She rubbed her head on my shoulder. "It's just hard to tell you about it, is all. I know you would never judge me but the whole thing is dumb and embarrassing, and I just hate to think about telling you."

"Then don't," I said. "Tell me when you want to, if you ever do. Doesn't matter to us being friends." It's easy to be all understanding and shit when you have no idea what you're talking about, and don't want to.


So at last the hard comes to a boil ... I'm grateful to those of you who stuck with the slow start of this thing, because it really was something I wanted to try. Mysteries, especially series mysteries, are about character, and in this case Hal is pretty embedded in a community, an idea the police procedural guys developed very heavily, but it's there in all the hardboileds -- look at Crumley's vivid town of Meriweather, Montana or at the world surrounding Matt Scudder. So I resigned myself to starting a slow one and hoping some people would find the permanent cast interesting enough while they were meeting them. But the wheels have turned, the spring is sprung, and from here on there's going to be some action.

Special nod to Ellyn X, not her real initial, who dropped me a note saying that she just liked the characters and didn't care if the mystery EVER got started. Me too, Ellyn, but who are we two against so many?

So, see you all next week, and till then, happy mayhem!

The very model of a modern science fiction novel (Part II of the series)

All right, so I said I'd have more "tomorrow" and as it happens it's now the day after tomorrow.  That kind of thing happens when you write about the future.  Today, something about what the model is trying to do; tomorrow or the next day, a discussion of the model itself, and then probably after that a pulling-together to show why I think there's a story in there.

If you haven't read Part I, you might at least skim through it to get some idea of what carbon sequestration is (taking carbon out of the air and putting it someplace where it doesn't come back for a while), why I want to come up with a simple model and what I intend to do with it (figure out a world that might be an interesting setting for fiction), and also a bit about where I stand on the whole climate change issue (off to the side, making up stories).  A couple of people who have read Part I should also have been sent to my grouchy Ten Form Letters post, so if you feel that you need to denounce me for not agreeing with you about climate change (in any direction) or pat me on my head for agreeing (ditto), go skim through that first; on the other hand I've also had a couple friendly emails that pointed me to more and better resources.

All right, about that modeling thing: as I said before, I like to make up imaginary worlds, and I somewhat prefer imaginary worlds in different times to imaginary worlds in different places, i.e. I think it's more fun to build futures than planets.  Usually the future comes first, and then I get some idea of how to put some of my stock cast into some part of it where they can play out something interesting (yes, I admit to having a stock cast. Comes of that theatre background.  The same actor who plays Melpomene and Teri in the Century Next Door books also played Garsenda and Laprada in the Thousand Cultures and Pikia in In the Hall of the Martian King and Acey Carlucci in the Daybreak series.  Come to think of it, it's been too long since she had a starring role.  Hmm.)

Naturally, in the same way an actor prepares a role, I think about questions like how old a character was when key things happened, and how that shaped the character's outlook.  We all know that people who were teens during the early, worst part of the Depression are substantially different from those who were teens  during the Reagan years, and that the impatience of the GI generation because they had to take a few years out of their lives for something much bigger and then suddenly jumped back into a world with tons of big things to do, is very different from the impatient striving of Gen Y, who always moved along fast in their school years and during the boom,  and are now in a work world where nothing is moving very fast.  The same actor cast as a character that was born in 1910, 1922, 1967, or 1990 will bring his/her individual characteristics to the role, but needs to overlay them heavily with the character's presumed back story.

Digression on some pet peeves: This, incidentally, is one of those things that sometimes annoys me with sf writers who either have 25-year-olds in 2050 who appear to have been eight in 1985 (to judge by their childhood memories of TV cartoons and pop songs their big sister listened to) or conversely the stories set in 2025 in which a 25-year-old remembers the first day of first grade when his dad flew him to school on a jetpack.  Equally incidentally, it's also why I'm less bothered than some about the "small casts" in the oeuvres of some writers; so all the wise old pompous poops in Heinlein are the same guy, and all the stolid old not-too-brainy captains in Conrad are a different same guy, and the bright, sensitive, crushed boys in Dickens are very alike – have you ever noticed how all the characters played by Robert De Niro have a certain alikeness?  One might even see some resemblance between Andy Serkis's Gollum, King Kong, Caesar, and Captain Haddock, even through the motion capture process – all of them creatures more sensitive and perceptive than they should have been for what the plot wanted of them, and ultimately self-aware that their better qualities have not really been their friends, but must be lived up to anyway.  The problem is not the smallness of the cast, it's the smallness of the actors … Okay, end of the pet peeves, and onward.

Anyway, for science fiction work, there are several things I try for in a model.  I want it to be:
Simple enough to hack (in that good old sense in which to hack means "to master and be expert in the use of"); if further down the road I realize I'm not quite in the right future for the story I want to tell, I want to be able to retro-fit the model, and I don't want to have to rebuild from scratch.
Surprising, at least to me, in some aspects.  I want something to jump out of it that I never thought of, because there's a good chance that readers won't have either, and my longtime readers tend to value being taken somewhere they haven't been before.
Rigorous, meaning there are many things that just can't happen within the scope of the model as written.  If you were to model a world where the Germans won the Second World War (oh, god, no, not another one), you 'd have to start with the number of Germans and production available at the start of the war, and by the time the last Allied power surrendered,  they'd have to be fairly worn down (or it would have had to be a very, very long war).  That means in turn that global occupation couldn't involve having six Gestapo officers in every elementary school or every little town in New Hampshire having its own Gauleiter with a wife, kids, and buxom blonde-braided secretary.  The ratio of occupiers to occupied is so tiny that in any model of Naziworld (look, just don't do it, 'kay? We've all been there too many times already) there should be an enormous rate of winked-at noncompliance, chronic rebellion and secret networks everywhere, and so on.  If everyone's got a fusion generator in the basement and unlimited electric power, you can't have gasoline priced out of reach for the average family, because you could buy a Sears Gasmaker and destructively distill your garbage and lawn clippings into methanol. 
Progressive.  I don't mean oriented toward progress; I just mean things change over time enough so that life 20 years before is not too much like life now (or life 20 years from now).  Oddly enough, the first time I remember running into that was a fifth grader reading Peter Dickinson's Heartsease (it's the middle book of a trilogy, go read them all), which is a fantasy novel, but a girl in her teens in an essentially feudal-level village has an abrupt memory of having been in a centrally heated, electric-lighted house on the Christmas when she was nine.  This is where I got the notion of little tricks like having the teen slang in Orbital Resonance signify old-fogeytude in Candle, or that Giraut Leones, in a world where the springer is deploying rapidly, finds public transit faintly old fashioned in the first book, but by the fourth he just accepts that most new buildings don't have doors.
Consistent and plausible, both internally and externally.  That's part of my reason for modeling in the first place; coming up with a world and future that hangs together and can be a reasonable outgrowth of ours, or of a divergence point. (Or both.  The world of The Century Next Door is essentially one where a large number of nightmares in the weapons labs in 1988, when I was writing it, were developed very rapidly and deployed very quickly because of big global wars in the 1990s and 2040s.  The first book was written while that was still possible; the second book didn't get written till the mid 1990s.  It was a bit as if I'd written a  future history that involved two big wars in the near future in 1912, and then everyone had worked things out peaceably in 1914; all that stuff about poison gas, bombing raids, machine guns, and so on would be exciting but no longer plausible, so I might make up a situation where some nutcase shot the heir to the Austrian throne and everyone had signed secret treaties and honored them …)
Tragic.  This is the hard one but the most important.  Great stories come from tradeoffs between good things, and it's nice to have at least the possibility of greatness.  In Giraut's future, there's no poverty as we know it but humanity may succumb to couch-potato-hood; in The Century Next Door, One True really does make most of the people loyal to it into much better people than they would be as severe-PTSD refugees, at the cost of their free will.  Jak Jinnaka's world is colorful and exciting (it was created to be) but it produces amoral creatures of pure ambition like Jak and Princess Shyf, and betrays and crushes the decent people who keep the system running like Dujuv.  So somewhere at the heart of the model, there needs to be a tradeoff that is heartbreaking.

Some of you will have noticed that there is nothing in there about fitting my politics or depicting a world I want to live in or any of that.  In fact my list doesn't even include high probability, and I don't care much about it.  The real world includes some pretty extreme unlikelihoods – if there really are Many Worlds, it seems to me that there must be many more of them where the Mongols swept all the way to the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean,  leaving a Mongolistic Earth in the same way that Alexander left a Hellenistic Middle East; or  war was averted in 1914, and we're all living under some weird racist-colonialist-internationalist structure; or after the uproar of the late 1980s, there was an effective coup, a brutal series of purges, and a Soviet Union that is still with us and still the first thing the American president thinks about when he gets up and the last thing before he goes to bed.  They all seem likelier to me than the world we got. 

The worlds I draw are could-bes where my cast can play out something interesting; the modeling is a way of making the could-be-ness put stress and pressure on the "something interesting," the same way that the net makes tennis interesting, or the relative paucity of rhymes and variety of intrinsic meter in English shapes our poetry, or those eleven guys trying to stop the ball carrier are why people watch football, or gravity and physiology set the limits that make dance so fascinating. Anyone is free to watch, cheer, stay and gripe, or leave and announce they want their money back, but that's what the game is in this stadium.

All right, onward to the model I built, how it works, what it seems to show …

Sunday, February 12, 2012

About models and math, semiotics and stories, global warming and sequestration, and my next book (Part I of a series)

I've been doing one kind or another of modeling and simulation, and a lot of different things with statistics, for money, for more than thirty years.  (Never enough of it, by the way, so if you want to talk about what modeling and stats can do for a business, you can look at my blogs in TheCMOSite and AllAnalytics, and there's an e-mail link here.)  Much of my future-building and world-building comes out of that.

The truth is, many times, I write stories set in a world that I think is interesting because it retro-finances all the time I spent jacking around with the models and stats.  I take comfort in the fact that Tolkien often made up the languages first and only then got around to using them in stories.  (Unfortunately I can't quite get Bob Dylan's voice singing I said "You know they refused Jesus too?" and he said, "You ain't him."  out of my head here). 

Back in 1991, the nice guys at NOAA released their hurricane models (astonishingly crude by present standards), and I played around with them on a Microsoft Excel 3.0 spreadsheet on a Mac SE, figuring out ways around the limitations of that nifty little gadget, and leading eventually to my writing  Mother of Storms and having a whole lot of interesting adventures along the way. 

These last few years I've had an acute interest in carbon sequestration, which is an interesting side-branch for those of you with an interest in the whole atmospheric-carbon/climate change issue. 

If the term is unfamiliar—I'm surprised at how many people I know who seem not to have heard it—the idea is that if atmospheric carbon is an issue in keeping the planet fit to live on, then in addition to reducing how much carbon we release into the atmosphere, we (as in humanity) could also take some carbon out of the air, in a large variety of ways I'll talk about in more detail later, and then stuff the carbon someplace where it won't come back for a while, i.e. sequester it.  There's already some controversy in just calling it "carbon sequestration." I say carbon instead of carbon dioxide-and-methane because in both cases it's the carbon that causes all the trouble, and there's no reason I can see to waste resources sequestering perfectly good oxygen or hydrogen.  And "for a while" is a highly contentious issue because "a long enough while" is what defines sequestration.  Almost everyone would say holding your breath is too short a return-to-atmosphere time to count as sequestration and would agree that injecting scavenged carbon beneath advancing tectonic plates (about 100 million years to return to atmosphere) is long enough to call sequestration. Just about everything between is contested.

I've written a couple of short stories about strange things that happen because the world tries carbon sequestration in one form or another – "Rod Rapid and His Electric Chair" (available: Amazon, B&N, direct from me) and "The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees" which still has a little while to run exclusively in Engineering Infinity but will be joining the short story collection pretty soon.  Those first little games with the idea have been essentially Frankenstein stories (even though one* point of "Gasoline Trees" is that monstrousness is how you make it and what you make of it); those are a natural kind of story to tell about any new technology, and might even sometimes be truthful.  We do often fail to foresee,  and sometimes we think we're acting for high rational purposes but we're actually calling up Forbidden Planet's "monsters from the id."**

And although I have weeks to go on the current novel, since long experience has taught me that having a "next" to anticipate is essential to finishing, I'm doing some shopping for a next, and have some ideas for a novel that involves carbon sequestration, so a few days ago I started playing around with it, and this led to some thoughts I found interesting enough to blog about.

Getting the nuisance part out of the way right  now, since people seem to require declarations of position before they decide to read on, I suppose I am now supposed to either say that I "believe in" human-caused global warming, or conversely that I am a "skeptic" (or "denier" if you play for the other team.***).  My actual view will probably give no satisfaction to anyone, which is why I think it's probably a good starting basis for a longer work of fiction.

As a modeler who has looked at several of the models, I have to say that some of the most prominent global warming models are very well done, and that the less adroit ones have taken a pounding in peer review and appear to be losing influence.  There are people who object to the whole idea that we can learn anything from computer modeling—they should stay out of airplanes; how do you suppose they are designed nowadays? There are people who think that only a perfectly specified model with every number and function  in it nailed to nine nines can teach us anything, and they should stop listening to weather forecasts and give up a large number of medical innovations since about 1995.  There are people who get worked up about tautology – in  a reasonable sense every computer model is a repeated tautology, and I refer you to Chaim Perelman's The Realm of Rhetoric for a review on why the classical view of tautology does not hold up any better (or worse) than classical physics has. But as a modeler, I accept the essential value of working with a good model, even where data and understanding are incomplete, and the published models look like more than good-enough models to me; I've billed people for worse work and collected without shame.

As a statistician, I am compelled to say that the statistical basis for global warming is shaky because the data are necessarily shaky.  There will never be enough non-shaky data within the time we have to make any decisions, because:
1.     the good stuff doesn't go back very far and the older stuff has an unknown but large number of problems, but
2.     it's the data we've got; many, many times I've been called in to extract information from a bungled study or poll, and that is a statistician's life; if you ski moguls, don't complain that the ride is bumpy,
3.     it is by no means clear that better data was ever possible, in two senses:
a.     the limits of the instruments and their positioning; if Arrhenius had convinced people back in 1896 to monitor global climate systematically, it is by no means clear that having many more recording thermometers, barometers, and air samplers world wide would have given us better data, only more of it.  (As poll analysts frequently mutter,  asking 1200 people the wrong question does not improve the result from asking 100 people the wrong question).
b.     There are mathematical limits imposed by the way in which the poorly-sampled huge domain of overall global temperatures, gas concentrations,  and insolation has to be projected onto the range of an immense array of individual measurements.  (If I  just lost you in the math words: I recently blogged over at All Analytics about what domain and range are, and a friend told me the piece was "almost painless."  I want that on my next book jacket).  Just about any effect smaller than whole continents going up in flames tomorrow is going to produce very fuzzy, messy, ambiguous data, and statisticians don't like that. (By contrast, environmental factors that affect human mortality, conditions that affect traffic accidents, and news stories that affect voting, offer easily sampled tight domains that project very nicely into compact, explicable ranges – which is why stats people like working with those, and sometimes acquire the view that all data should be like that or not analyzed at all, rather like a child who will only eat mac and cheese because s/he knows exactly how it tastes and how to eat it with a spoon).

So as a statistics person, I look at global warming and say, "Wow, now there's a mess to sort out.  Glad I'm not the one that has to." But the world has never been arranged for statisticians' convenience*****, and very often important issues force you to work with crummy data, at which point you suck it up and do your best.  (And expect that there will be some quibbling with whatever you did, so don't do anything you'd quibble with yourself about; that way at least one person will always approve of your work).

A slightly heretical admission for one who deals so much in quants: Sometimes anecdotal evidence is better than the statistical.  As a church member, I've seen pencil and paper surveys elicit an overall response of, "It's all so great! Don't change a thing!" simultaneously with one usually-super-positive key member muttering angrily in the corner, and the lone angry mutterer was in fact a much better reflection of where we were.  In the business world, I've seen sweeping decisions based on one encounter with one customer, ignoring all the carefully analyzed data, and sometimes that works.  (Knowing when that will work, I guess, is what makes that particular businessman the success he is).  Sometimes an anecdote is so awful  or so wonderful that it weighs very heavily, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Anecdotes, in my experience, tend to be at their best and most valuable when they come form people who have long, intimate experience with the subject matter (e.g. knowing that the one angry person is critical to how the church functions, or that one customer has articulated an opportunity that was never even considered in the questionnaire).  And much of the anecdotal evidence that the world is getting warmer is of this kind; a guy who has gardened the same back yard for 40 years finds he can plant three weeks earlier and harvest two weeks later.  A serious fisherman for twenty years, who keeps a fishing diary, sees his water temps going up, slowly and haltingly, but up. People who lived for years with sea ice right up to the shore barely seeing any on the horizon.  Photographs of  glaciers then and now, fruit growers who spend much less on smudge pots, hunters who see warm-climate birds further north and south or later in the year, and the number who seem to be seeing it – this impresses me quite a bit.  (There would actually be a way to aggregate all that via statistical semiotics, for a few million dollars, if anyone wanted to hire me).  Of course exceptions crop up because statistically you expect them to.  In a realigning election, there's always somebody's Uncle Jack who moved in the opposite direction; some three-pack-a-day smokers make it to 95 before a bus hits them; that's the nature of stochastic behavior.  "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."  But anecdotal evidence in quantity is data (just messy, hard to process data) despite the claims of some people's sigs.

As a statistical semiotician, specifically, and to some extent as a fiction writer, I see something more tangled to unravel: a collection of stories into which the (admittedly cruddy) data is fit, and in the long run that is probably more significant. Although we hope our guiding stories are based on facts, it is the story, and not the facts, to which people respond at the deepest level.  (Some of you are now thinking of the last minutes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and those of you who are not should see it sometime soon, as it  will make you a better person).  There's an internationalist narrative about how finally there was a global menace so big that everyone had to give up nationhood, and learn to prefer a world run by well-educated suits filling out complex forms.  There's a narrative of hubris where human beings are finally learning that nature always kicks back harder so we've got to learn to stop kicking it (and hubris is great story material).  There's a narrative of the Jimmy Carter/puritanical sort in which it's just better and more moral and gosh-darn nicer for people to wear natural-fiber sweaters, eat whole grains, shower once a week, and so forth, and global warming is just the latest reason for everyone to be mildly uncomfortable in a virtuous sort of way.  Over on the side that doesn't believe the world is getting warmer, there's a narrative in which the internationalists are going to confiscate all private business and order every business person to hire a Muslim transvestite who will spend all her time haranguing him, or the same vast conspiracy of evil scientists that is always out there taking over the world has just dreamed up global warming to get power. 

I haven't actually seen a story that attracts me on any side of the question.  Maybe I just don't like sweaters or I have a hard time picturing the climate scientists I know as Leninist agents, but there's no narrative that I want to sign on for, so far.   That's a plus, for me; I want something new for the novel, and it's going to mean going back to the facts, including some catalog of what we don't know yet and what we can never know, and building from there. So I have a pleasantly difficult task in front of me, and I'll be wandering through it in this and the next few blog posts. 

So suppose we just ask, is it getting too warm, how warm is it getting, and what's to be done about it?

Well, summarizing the above, the models are well thought out, and the balance of evidence is that it's getting warmer, and that a very large number of things having to do with the wild world***** are getting worse because of it. I don't believe we can yet rule out a possibility that processes connected to solar variation play a larger role and human-generated gases a smaller one than is being estimated, but while that might be highly relevant if we were holding a trial ("Your honor, I demand that we release the human race immediately and prosecute the sun!"), it is much less so if we are contemplating action or even purposive inaction. 

This is because I'm more than willing to bet my planet that atmospheric carbon is at least a temperature increase amplifier.  (If the music is too loud, I know it's likely a combination of the singer and the amp, but if I can turn down the amp, that's what I do). 

We don't have to have created/emitted any of the extra heat trapping gases (likely though it is that we did)—they're still undesirable to have around.  They mean more rapid heating no matter where the change in heat starts or comes from.  If by any chance we arein a long term low solar cycle, this only changes the amount of time we have to work with, not what needs doing (though it may give us a wider or narrower range of options for exactly how to do what needs doing).  Minima are followed by maxima, and whether the next solar maximum is in a few years or a hundred, it will be a bad idea to have the gases around, the equivalent of having a big  leaky gasoline tank next to your house in a dry forest; the tank may not start the fire but if one starts you'll wish you didn't have it.  Even if the solar minimum is low enough to significantly cool the Earth, we don't want the eventual recovery to be a massive backlash; a faster temperature rise is likely to result in more chaos and species loss, and a very fast one could trigger massive weather events.  (Did I happen to mention Mother of Storms is coming out  again with a new cover this year?)

So, as I said before, carbon sequestration is on my mind, and I don't find the stock narratives about global warming very interesting.  I'm not going to find any new ones that I do like immediately, knowing how my mind actually works, but one way that works for me to stir the pot, prepare the road, water the soil, and mix the metaphor is to try to get some sense of scale and proportion and what must matter, the unignorables of the fictional world that is trying to be born. 

For example, the model that led to A Million Open Doors and the other Giraut books suggested a universe of unimaginable affluence, where literally the poorest people had more of the good things in life than Bill Gates could have today, but also one where most people lived in concrete boxes. 

The Century Next Door model, a very different kind, pointed me toward one of the central artistic interests in that series: how close the extraordinarily wonderful lies to the equally extraordinary horrible. St. Francis and Genghis Khan were almost exact contemporaries; so were Einstein and Stalin, and Henry the Navigator and Gilles de Rais. Caligula and Christ could have met as adults and neither was very long-lived.

And of course Mother of Storms was sort of a long meditation about how things move and transition from what state to another, and what it means for the system to have more to process than it can,with greater and greater volumes of information, money, and matter moving faster and faster. (I suppose I could have titled it A Hymn to Bandwidth or maybe The Year of Turbulence.)

So where I'm going, tomorrow I hope because I must get to other things today, is to walk you through one of my modeling exercises, which I built to see if the commonly given numbers for human-produced carbon make sense (they do), how things look for the next hundred years in light of that model (bad but not impossibly bad), and the what and why that might go into carbon sequestration (because, fundamentally, I'm not a particularly virtuous planetary citizen; gigantic bizarre engineering projects with huge unforeseen consequences are fun to read about, and that's what I'm after. Those who wish a sermon on our evil wasteful culture, or a denunciation of the manipulating one-worlders, can doubtless find it elsewhere).

So besides whatever intrinsic interest there may be in the model, or in the creative process, at least tomorrow we'll be talking about screwing around on a planetary scale, and making bigger messes than history has provided so far.  (Always assuming I get that part done tomorrow).


*any decent story not only has more than one point, it has more points than any one reader or the writer is aware of, and contains some number of contradictory points as well.  If you can say the point of the story, meaningfully, the story is not worth the bother.  You may quote me to your English teacher, or to either Rationality Guy or Theme Girl at your writer's workshop, but I will not beat them up for you.  Especially not that English teacher, as they are vicious, cunning, and treacherous on the mat.

**Now that we apparently don't have ids anymore, where are we supposed to go when we need a good monster?

*** There's a useful distinction between denier and skeptic that is made by perhaps 1% of everyone involved, so we'll skip it here, but you can find it discussed in thoughtful and not-so-thoughtful places all over the web.

**** Nor for the convenience of waiters, house painters, undertakers, mothers, traveling salespeople, or shepherds.  The few rich people I know well assure me that it wasn't arranged for their convenience either, but I think they may be lying.

*****"oh, for god's sake, Barnes, why the wild world and not just wilderness?" I hear an impatient reader say.  Because wildness happens all over the place all the time, and intertangles with our lives, and we are blessed by it; wilderness is grand stuff but most of us can have only very limited encounters with it.  The wild world exists where anything is wild – the fox you see crossing the road in suburban dawn, the frogs and turtles in the irrigation canal, the complex web of animals and plants in a farmer's hedgerow or a borrow pit, the unbuildable ravine where a coyote lays up for the day.  The wild world is in vacant lots, in the city treetops, possibly behind the wainscoting if you've got mice.  And it blesses you when you see it, whether it's as quiet as a prairie dog watching from his hole in a vacant lot, or as spectacular as a peregrine picking off a pigeon in a public square.  And it seems to me that the wild world is threatened at least as much by global temperature rise as true wilderness; when the rising temperature drives the dissolved oxygen too low for walleye in a big recreational reservoir, we're not losing wilderness, but we're losing a source of wildness in our lives.  If there's less snow cover in city park, my chances of seeing an owl hunting there by moonlight are reduced.  Admittedly, these are selfish pleasures, but what natural pleasures aren't? Who else experiences the pleasure besides the self?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Father Lucifer: Beginning of Chapter 3 is up

Father Lucifer, a novel in progress: Beginning of Chapter 3: Chapter 3

The Tree Trunk Grill was not some diner they fixed up to be all nostalgic and shit. It was your basic college dump, with a worn out counter, low enough to have regular chairs at it, and booths around the outside that were about half naugahyde and half duct tape.
"Tiny Tim" Brady, the old fat guy that ran it, was this big‑ass sports fan. Also a very enthusiastic one. But only for the sports and teams he approved of: football and basketball, DU Pioneers, CU, and the Denver pro teams. A minor‑sport tiny‑college player like me was normally invisible to him, except when he felt like being a jerk to an ex‑con, or trying to mack on a girl who was a third of his age and half his weight. Unfortunately he felt like doing both tonight.


For those of you hoping for some violence, we'll be getting to that next week. Meanwhile, one more episode of muttering creepiness and potential evil and all that. But we'll have some good old honest brutality soon.

The effect that I'm not sure about, but trying for, is sort of borrowed from the genre of fairy tales. Famously, and pointed out by everybody since the mid 1800s, fairy tales begin in a mundane world (wood choppers and huntsmen and all that) and then lurch into the magical realm (or romance, to use the older word for "a space where everything is complex and meaningful and symbol is fused onto reality.") So what I'm trying to do here is to give Hal a too-complex, too-busy, ordinary life, and get a large cast of characters introduced because that's the kind of social world Hal lives in. That means a slow start, which is assuredly uncommercial. Thanks to all you patient people who have kept reading ... really, truly, we are almost at the Gates of Romance.

Meanwhile, though, here's more of Hal and Stacy and the surrounding cloud of impending ominous mystery.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Correct and enhance this list! Win acknowledgments and egoboo!

I didn't intend to let the matter of covers for my short stories go as long as it's gone; I even have a keen-o trademark for Metrocles House now.  The problem, basically, was coming up with something consistent that I could execute quickly and that would be a workable template for all the short stories in the series.  This is especially true because I'll be starting to roll out more in the short story collection next week; I'll be popping out 2-3 more stories, also without formal covers, but the cover-making process will be underway and I'm aiming to have all short stories with covers by April.

It is an odd fact that ebooks with covers sell better despite ebook covers being somewhere up there for uselessness with male nipples, but perhaps I am underrating visual variety  and the capacity to amuse.

For those of you coming in late, you can find the logically named John Barnes Short Story Collection, which currently has 7 titles:
direct from me here (mobi (Kindle) or epub (most other readers))
here on Amazon
or here on B&N.

The collection will be on iBooks eventually, too, I think, but for the moment the direct epub versions work fine on iPhone and iPad, and are easy to download.

So ... after much thought, I've come up with a formula: three story-relevant objects will appear in a still-life kind of arrangement over a story-significant background.  The title will be up top, "John Barnes" below the title, and the Metrocles House trademark across the bottom. 

This leads to the problem of coming up with three objects and a background, all story-relevant, for each short story in the collection.  And as I looked at it, I thought to myself (it's actually quite hard to think to other people unless you are telepathic), "Self," I thought, "the readers may have better ideas than this."  So here's the chart of the 7 already released and the 3 soon to be released short stories, and what will be on their eventual covers; please feel free to kibbitz in, particularly if you know the story and can see a better idea already.  Obviously I need the most help with the ones labeled "something or other", but all improvements are welcome suggestions.

Story # 1 is Poga, and the cover will be a cloth with an anatomically correct human heart drawn on it, something or other, and car keys, against a background of the Rocky Mountains.

Story # 2 is Every Hole is Outlined, and the cover will be the equations of the Lorentz transformations, a laughing baby, and something or other, against a background of stars.

Story # 3 is Rod Rapid and His Electric Chair, and the cover will be a baseball glove, a polygraph, and a book, against a background of Earth from space.

Story # 4 is The Lost Princess Man, and the cover will be wine glass, blaster, and tiara, against a background of a spiral galaxy.

Story # 5 is An Ocean is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away, and the cover will be stalker, a space helmet, and something or other, against a background of Mars, probably from surface?  A stalker, by the way, in the context of the story, is one of the little robots that looks like an upright stick with a camera head and follows the filmmaker around, shooting at his direction.

Story # 6 is Things Undone, and the cover will be a seeing eye dog, a summation sign ( ), and something or other, against a background of ... Denver skyline in dotted lines? Gambling odds board?.

Story # 7 is The Quiet Guy It Always Was, and the cover will be a red stiletto heeled shoe, horn rimmed glasses, and handcuffs, against a background of a dive bar? an  alley? a library stack?

Story # 8 is Under the Covenant Stars, and the cover will be a US passport, a winged spacecraft that is not the shuttle, and something or other, against a background of ... this one is hard. A steeple against the night sky? Big house in Georgetown? LEO view of Earth?.

Story # 9 is Finalities Besides the Grave, and the cover will be a handheld ray weapon that looks like a recording device (I don't really like this one because, obviously, if it's a piece of spy gear, it shouldn't be obvious what it is), a hypodermic, and something or other, against a background of something that suggests a mass grave? Shredded and tattered American flag? Folded karate gi?.

Story # 10 is My Advice to the Civilized, and the cover will be a hand holding a pen and writing, an airplane, and something or other, against a background of mountain pass?

I'll keep you all posted on this, and for those of you who have already bought short stories, I'll figure out some arrangement so that you can get an "update" with a cover when those become available (thanks to the miracle of modern electronics, I can verify who you all are ...), just in case you're one of those folks who would like it better with a cover.   (Hey, that's another note I'd find interesting -- why do people like there to be covers on ebooks?  Anybody got a thought about that?)

The Book Doctor's Little Black Bag: Understanding and dealing with sentimentality

The Book Doctor's Little Black Bag: Understanding and dealing with sentimentality:

Symptoms and diagnosis:

The editor complains that "the story ought to be gripping but it's so sentimental I want to puke."

The agent says, "I've been trying to sell it, every editor says it's way too sentimental, and I kind of wonder about my own taste because I like it so much."

Readers of all sorts, professional ones and supportive friends, say, "I was really into it till it turned all sentimental."

One way or another, every outsider reader slings that dreadful word sentimental at the work. And the writer says, "But how can it be sentimental when it's exactly what I feel? Am I supposed to write stories without feeling it at all? Or just be so cool that I bore myself? Why am I not reaching people with what I think is the most important thing in the story?"

When anyone tells you your work is sentimental, they are likely (but not certain) to be right. Many readers have excellent radar for sentimentality, in my experience. The trick is to understand what it is, nail its exact cause in this case, and see why it's presenting the way it is. Once you do that the fixes are obvious to the eye (but may be miserable to the glandular system).


This one took forever, even though it's the shortest one so far, because it's the least mechanical thing to fix. One person's emotional intensity is another's sentimentality, but some people have better judgment than others for it, and so there's kind of an uneasy three-corner-or-more deal between the writer, reader, and middlefolk (like editors, book doctors, critics, etc.) to get to that "enough but not too much" point. And explaining "enough but not too much" takes more thinking than just laying out a procedure that will move things along. So it was a battle the whole way to make the ideas reasonably clear, and I'm not sure I won.

If you write, and you've written a lot, you'll have been picked on at one time or another for sentimentality; see if there's anything over there that helps.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

End of Chapter 2 of Father Lucifer, a novel in progress, is up

Father Lucifer,  End of Chapter 2:

Gayle arrived looking terrified and excited, like anyone starting a job they have big hopes for and really need. I introduced her to Breit. He stared a hole in her shirt while he emphasized that everything on the menu was to be called only by the godawful obscene name he'd given it.


This process is being quite an education for me in some different and interesting ways.  Right now I'm editing material from a proposal that I finished in early 2006, scraping some of the not-quite-right-anymore slang off and doing a lot of condensing.  The condensing is where I'm learning things -- it's routine work I've done in the book-doctoring gig for ages but usually each section is something like my characteristic length of 3500 words (actually about 3100-3700, but the average is very close to 3500; for more about characteristic lengths, see this piece and just keep reading. ).  I'm finding that I'm getting the hang of a technique for packing a characteristic "next to last draft" short-medium scene of  3500 words into a characteristic "final" scene of 2300.  This involves many interesting dynamics but I think really works wonders for the scenes.

One reason the scenes got so long was the creation by committee process; the two later drafts that I abandoned, reverting to the first one with reasonably well-developed characters, were attempts to get things through my agent's review process.  He likes cerebral detectives and is always a bit queasy about the type that simply find someone who knows something and beat the shit out of him till he tells them something.  

Scene I have always wanted to read: 

"So, Watson, I see nothing of significance in Dr. Attlee's trouser cuffs, the stains on his shirt, or the trim of his hair."  
"Well, Holmes, are we stymied, then?" 
"Not a bit, dear fellow!  If you will begin sharpening your excellent scalpel, and perhaps heat it a bit in the lamp, I shall remove Dr. Attlee's clothing and tie his knees apart, and then with simple procedure I believe -- why, Dr. Attlee, you appear to wish to tell us something.  Let us remove your gag."

One of many inspirations for Hal Dimmesdale was what I thought a reasonable question: what if Archie Goodwin had despised Nero Wolfe, which I always thought would have made a great deal more sense?  Or what if Mike Hammer had had Archie Goodwin's job?

But I was trying to run this idea through a whole Wolfe pack at my agent's office, and every time I did a draft, the complaints multiplied, because people wanted Breit to be attractive, and eventually lots of scenes that should have been at shorter lengths had swollen to 3500s.  (Which is probably my favorite scene length of all).  And now, as I delightedly mow back the mess, and various scenes shrink to better lengths, Breit returns in all his slack-jawed-gaping-at-women's-chest-ed-ness, Hal can honestly loathe him, and I'm still having fun.  I hope you few but increasing followers are too.