Archive for September, 2017

Supporting the Short Stories…

Most of my readers, I suspect, associate my name with books that are, shall we say, substantial in length and scope. Some may know that I occasionally have written shorter works, and a few may recall that a long, long time ago, for the first ten years of my writing career, I only wrote short fiction.

At present, I’ve written and had published forty-five short works of fiction, mostly short stories, but including two novellas, and that total doesn’t include the novella I later expanded into a novel. By comparison I just turned in the manuscript for my seventy-fourth novel [Endgames, the sequel to Assassin’s Price].

Back in 1972, when I’d just sold my very first story to ANALOG, I had no idea of ever writing a novel, and I might never have written one if I hadn’t essentially been forced to by Ben Bova, the then-editor of ANALOG, who rejected another story of mine (one of many that were rejected) with the note that he wouldn’t consider another story of mine until I wrote a novel, because he felt I was primarily a novelist, rather than a short story writer. That was an incredibly perceptive observation because he’d never seen any work of mine in excess of a few thousand words.

I took his advice, and as the cliché goes, the rest was history… and lots of novels. But I never lost the love of short fiction, and occasionally wrote a story here and there, usually, but not always, by request for anthologies. But stories, even brilliant outstanding stories, cannot sustain a writer in this day and age, as they could in the 1920s and even into the 1940s. I did a rough calculation, and all of my earnings from short fiction, and that includes the two book collections, total roughly half of what I now receive for a single fantasy novel.

This is an example of why, so far as I’ve been able to determine, there are essentially no full-time F&SF short-story writers making a living wage. So I was very fortunate to have gotten Ben’s advice and just smart enough to have taken it… and equally fortunate that readers have liked the books I’ve written.

All of which brings me to another point. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve agreed to write a story for a kickstarter anthology from the small press Zombies Need Brains, entitled The Razor’s Edge. The neat thing about the anthology is that half the stories are written by name authors and the other half are selected from open submissions. I’ve finished the first draft of the story, and that’s good because it takes me much longer to write short fiction, but it won’t see print unless the kickstarter is funded, which it isn’t at present. Also, you won’t see new stories from other favorite authors, and even more important, you won’t be giving a chance to new authors.

Yes, I’ll be paid, but it’s not much, and I wrote the story for the story, not for the very modest sum – and that’s definitely true for pretty much all the name authors. So… if The Razor’s Edge is something you might like, or if you want to give some up and coming authors a chance, pledge something at the kickstarter [ The Razor’s Edge Kickstarter ]. I’ll appreciate your efforts, and so will a few new authors, some of whom might graduate to writing big thick books that you might also like in the future.


There’s the old saying that goes “it isn’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, but what you know that isn’t so.” All too often what we know that isn’t so lies in the preconceptions that we have. Because erroneous preconceptions are usually feelings and/or beliefs that we seldom examine, we run far greater risks with them than with what we know we don’t know.

Of course, one of the greatest erroneous preconceptions is that we know something that we really don’t, as recently demonstrated by Donald Trump’s statements about how easy it would be to fix healthcare and taxes, neither of which is amenable to a simple “fix,” at least not without totally screwing tens of millions of people.

Erroneous preconceptions by U.S. military leaders about how the Vietnamese would react to U.S. forces were the one of the major factors in why the U.S. became mired in one of the longer-drawn-out conflicts, yet military figures seem to have the same problem in Afghanistan, and it appears that this is also a problem with U.S. views on both China and North Korea, because too many U.S. leaders have the preconception that people from other cultures think of things in the same way – or they look down on others and draw simplistic conclusions based on arrogant assumptions.

On a lighter note and in a slight digression, I’ve gotten several reader comments about Assassin’s Price to the effect that those readers were upset that an imager wasn’t the main character, and several said that they couldn’t get into the book because of that. I can understand a certain disappointment, if you’ve been looking forward to a book about imagers, but… every synopsis about the book mentions Charyn, and Charyn is definitely not an imager in the previous two books, and he’s much older than the age when imagers manifest their talents. In addition, the book is still an adventure, and it still has imagers… if not as the main character. These readers had such preconceptions about the book that they couldn’t really read and enjoy what was written.

The older I get, the more I’ve seen how preconceptions permeate all societies, but it seems to me that in the U.S., erroneous preconceptions are on the increase, most likely because the internet and social media allow rapid and easy confirmation bias. What tends to get overlooked is that human beings are social animals and most people have a strong, and sometimes overpowering, desire to belong. Social media allows people, to a greater extent than ever before, to find others with the same mindset and preconceptions. This allows and often even requires them to reinforce those beliefs, rather than to question them, because in most groups, questioners are marginalized, if not ostracized… and that practice goes much farther back than the time of Socrates.

Trump’s hard-core supporters truly seem to believe that he can bring back manufacturing jobs and that the U.S. would be better off if all eleven million illegal immigrants were gone. Neither belief holds up to the facts. Far-left environmentalists believe that the world can be totally and effectively powered by renewable energy. Not in the foreseeable future if we want to remain at the current levels of technology and prosperity. Pretty much every group holds some erroneous preconceptions, and pretty much every group is good at pointing out every other group’s errors, while refusing to examine their own.

And, at present, we’re all using communications technology to avoid self-examination and to blame someone else, rather than using it to figure out how to bridge the gaps and recognize the real problems, because you can’t fix a problem you refuse to acknowledge, nor can you fix a problem that only exists in your preconceptions. Nor, it appears, at least for some people, can they even get into a book in a series that they like because the main character doesn’t fit their preconceptions.


Over the past several years, I’ve heard a number of variations on the theme that the younger generation doesn’t need to learn facts, that they just need to learn methods. I have to disagree – vehemently!

The younger generations not only need to learn, if anything, MORE facts, and those facts in their proper context, more than any other previous generation. Those who disagree often ask why this is necessary when computers and cloud databases have far more “storage” than the obviously limited human brain.

In fact, the very size of computer databases are what makes the need for humans to learn facts all the greater. That’s because of a simple point that tends all too often to get overlooked… or disregarded. To ask an intelligent question and to get an answer that is meaningful and useful, you have to know enough facts to frame the question. You also have to have an idea of what terms mean and the conditions under which they’re applicable.

While the computer is a great help for “simple” research, the computerization of research sources has often made finding more detailed information more difficult, particularly since algorithms often prioritize search results by popularity, which can make finding more out-of-the-way queries difficult, if not impossible, if the searcher doesn’t know the precise terms and key words necessary.

Already, there are too many young people who don’t know enough arithmetic to determine whether the numbers generated or shown by a point-of-sale terminal or a computer screen are even in the right ballpark. And from what I’ve seen, grammar checkers actually are inaccurate and create grammatical errors more often than they correct errors.

Then there’s also the problem of trying to use computers when they shouldn’t be used. Trying to get directions from Siri while actively driving qualifies as distracted driving. It’s fine if a passenger is arguing with Siri, but anything but that if the driver is.

Then there’s the problem that surfaced in the last election. When people don’t have a long-established in-depth personal store of knowledge and facts, they’re at the mercy of the latest “information” that pops up on the internet and of whatever appeals to their existing prejudices and preconceptions. And that doesn’t serve them — or the rest of us — well at all.

Literary Pitches… and Timing

I’m committed to do a story for The Razor’s Edge, an anthology from the small press Zombies Need Brains. The theme of the anthology is about just how little the difference is between the freedom fighter and the insurgent and the question of when fighting for a cause slips from right to wrong… or whether that’s just a matter of perspective.

As part of the PR for the anthology, the editors asked the contributing “anchor” writers if they’d be willing to write a blog post on one or all of the topics of creating an elevator pitch, a query, or a plot synopsis for one of their projects.

This posed a problem for me. Strange as it may sound in this day and age, I’ve never done any one of those things in order to sell a book or a story. I will admit that I’ve often managed to develop a plot summary or an “elevator pitch” for at least some of my books – after they’ve been bought… and I’ve hated doing either, and still do.

Why? Well… some of you who read my books might have a glimmering of an idea, but my personal problem is that any “short” treatment of a book – whether it’s an elevator pitch, a query, or a plot synopsis – has to focus on a single element. For what I write and how I write it, this is a bit of a problem, because focusing on a single element tends to create massive distortion of what I write.

Sometimes, questions help, or so I’ve been told. And some of those questions might be: What’s the most important facet of the book? What’s the hero’s journey? To what kind of reader does it appeal? The problem, for me, is that such questions make what I write come off as one-dimensional.

One of my most popular books is Imager, the first book in the Imager Portfolio. It features Rhennthyl – or Rhenn, who at the beginning of the book is a journeyman portrait artist in a culture vaguely similar to 1840s France, except with later steam-power. Rhenn is a good artist, good enough to be a master, but it’s likely he never will be for a number of reasons, and especially after the master painter for whom he works (under a guild system) dies in an accident that may have been caused by Rhenn’s latent magical imaging abilities.

Now, the book could be pitched as “young artist develops magical abilities and gets trained by mysterious group to use magical imaging powers.” And if it had been pitched that way, it would likely have flopped as a YA imaging-magic version of Harry Potter, because Rhenn is far more deliberate, not to mention older, than Harry Potter. Also the Collegium Imago makes Hogwarts look like junior high school.

Imager could also have been pitched as “a magic version of Starship Troopers,” since it does show the growth and education of a young man into a very capable and deadly operative, but Rhennthyl is operating in a far more complex culture and society, and one that’s far more indirect than what Heinlein postulated.

Then too, Imager could be pitched as a bildungsroman of a young man in a world where imaging magic is possible. And that, too, contains a partial truth, but ignores the fact that Rhenn’s basic character is already largely formed and many of his problems arise from that fact. Such a description also ignores the culture.

Because I never could find a short way to describe any book I wrote, not one that wasn’t more deceptive than accurate, I never did pitch anything I wrote that way. I just sent out the entire manuscript to a lot of people, and, of course, it took something like three years before someone finally bought my first book.

And… for some kinds of books, as it was in my case, letting the book sell itself may be better than trying to shoehorn it into a description or pitch that distorts what the book is all about. Now, authors aren’t always the best at describing their own work, but over time, I discovered that even my editors had trouble coming up with short pitches. So… if those who read your work also can’t boil it down into a pitch… then it just might not be a good idea.

Free speech?

The extremes of free speech on both the left and the right, as exemplified by Middlebury and Berkeley and then Charlottesville, bring home a point that no one in the United States seems comfortable to discuss.

In a working society there can be NO absolute freedoms. Particularly with regard to “free speech,” this seems to be an issue that has come up time and time again, its lessons only to be forgotten for a generation or two, until some extremist, or extremists, push the limits of “freedom” beyond what a working free society can permit.

Sometimes, society overreacts, as in the Schenck case in 1919, when the Court disallowed the use of the First Amendment as a defense for a socialist peacefully opposing the draft in the First World War, and sometimes, as in 1969, it reacts in a more moderate fashion, when the Supreme Court’s decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio effectively overturned Schenck by holding that inflammatory speech – and even speech advocating violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan – is protected under the First Amendment, unless the speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

One could certainly argue that the neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, who not only chanted vile and racist slogans, but many of whom also carried weapons, were using speech and those weapons to incite lawless action. By the same token, armed protesters opposing the BLM at the Bundy ranch weren’t just relying on words but weapons. But what about the numerous speakers on college campuses who have been shouted down or who have had their appearances canceled because the protesters didn’t like what they might have said?

The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

It seems to me that the neo-Nazis, the Bundys, and all too many of the campus protesters weren’t exactly in accord with the right “peaceably to assemble.”

Back in 1945, the political philosopher Karl Popper published The Open Society and Its Enemies, in which he laid out what he called “the paradox of tolerance.” Popper argued that unlimited tolerance carries the seeds of its own destruction and that if even a tolerant society isn’t prepared to defend itself against intolerant groups, that society will be destroyed – and tolerance with it.

Extremist groups, by both definition and by their very nature, are intolerant. The real question for any society is to what degree their intolerance can be tolerated and at what point must it be limited. The simplest bottom line might well be what the Supreme Court laid down in the Brandenburg decision – that speech directed at inciting lawless or violent action is not permissible, and that includes the violence of protesters which denies those they oppose the right to speak… provided, of course, that the speakers aren’t inciting lawless or violent action.

Do You See What I See?

That phrase comes from a Christmas carol (not Dickens’s A Christmas Carol), but it’s also an appropriate question for both readers and authors.

Over the years I’ve been writing, I’ve been pummeled and praised from all sides about the philosophic underpinnings of what I write, and called, if sometimes indirectly and gently, “every name in the book.” At times, it may have been merited, but most times, it’s because the reader and I don’t see the same thing.

There’s another old saying – where you stand depends on where you sit. And where you sit depends also on where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and what you’ve seen, really seen.

I now live a comfortable life. I admit it, but there were more than a few times when the money ran out before the month, so to speak, and there were a few times when there was no money and no job, and months of pounding the pavement and sending out resumes and following up leads. I’ve been hired, and I’ve also been fired. For all that, I always had a roof over my head, and one that didn’t leak, or at least not much. I’ve been married, and divorced, a single custodial parent with four small children, again married and divorced, and, thankfully,for the past twenty-five years, very happily married.

From my time in politics and in the business and consulting world, I’ve also been close enough to gilded world of the very rich and very powerful, briefly passing through it on assignment, as it were, but I’ve also been in mines, factories, refineries, and in worn-down farms deep in Appalachia, in the near dust-bowl plains in parts of Colorado and Kansas. I was an anti-protest protester during the Vietnam War, and then I was first an enlisted man and then an officer in the Navy… and a search and rescue pilot. I’ve seen grinding poverty off the beaten track in South America and Southeast Asia, and I’ve seen incredible showplaces of now-vanished British nobility and the Irish ascendancy.

I started at the bottom in grass-roots politics and ended up as a fairly senior political staffer in Washington, D.C. I’ve run my own businesses, not always as successfully as I should have, from the first one doing fairly physically demanding manual labor to white-collar regulatory consulting. Along the way, there were stints as a life-guard, a radio DJ, and several years as a college lecturer.

That’s why what I see may not be what some of my readers see, but all good writers write from what they know and where they’ve been, and if you read closely, you can tell where an author’s been… and often where they haven’t.

The Time-Saving Waste

Recently, a certain university insisted that tenured and tenure-track faculty turn in their annual required faculty activity reports in electronic format in order to save time. This particular university requires extensive documentation as proof of faculty activities and teaching skills, but set out a helpful format, theoretically supported by a template, as well as a tutorial on how to comply with the new requirement.

The result was a disaster, at least in the College of Performing and Visual Arts. The template did not work as designed, so that faculty couldn’t place the documentation in the proper places. Even the two faculty members with past programming experience couldn’t make the system work properly. The supposed tutorial didn’t match the actual system. In addition, much of the documentation required by the administration existed only in paper format, which required hours of scanning, and to top it off, the links set up by the administration arbitrarily rejected some documentation. Not any of these problems have yet been resolved, but the time spent by individual faculty members is more than double that required by submitting activity reports in hard paper copy, and more time will doubtless be required.

Yet, this is considered time-saving. To begin with, the system was poorly designed, most likely because the administration didn’t want to spend the resources to do it properly. Second, to save a few administrators time, a far larger number of faculty members were required to spend extra time on paperwork that has little to do with teaching and more to do with justifying their continuation as faculty members, despite the fact that even tenured faculty are reviewed periodically.

Over the years, I’ve seen this in organization after organization, where the upper levels come up with “time-saving” or “efficiency” requirements that are actually counterproductive, because the few minutes they “save” for executives create hours of extra work for everyone else.

This tendency is reinforced by a growing emphasis on data-analysis, but data analysis doesn’t work without data. This means that administrators create systems to quantify work, even work, such as teaching, that is inherently unquantifiable, especially in the short term. When such data-gathering doesn’t result in meaningful benchmarks, instead of realizing that some work isn’t realistically quantifiable in hard numbers, they press for more and more detailed data, which not only wastes more time, but inevitably rewards those who can best manipulate the meaningless data, rather than those who are doing the best work.

Output data for a factory producing quantifiable products or components is one thing. Output data for services is almost always counterproductive because the best it can do is show how many bodies moved where and how fast, not how well or effectively the services were provided. Quantification works, to a degree, for a fast-food restaurant, but not for education, medicine, law, and a host of other activities. Yet forms and surveys proliferate as the “business model” invades everywhere, with the result of wasted time and meaningless or misleading “data.”

And yet the pressure for analysis and quantification continues to increase yearly, with administrators and executives failing to realize that their search for data to improve productivity is in so many cases actually reducing that very productivity. Why can’t they grasp when enough is enough?

The Decline of the Non-Imperial Empire?

In her book, Notes on a Foreign Country, Suzy Hansen points out that the United States has created an empire that Americans, for the most part, refuse to believe exists. From the beginning, she writes, “Americans were in active denial of their empire even as they laid its foundations.”

An empire? Surely, you jest?

Except… the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad, while Britain, France, and Russia, in comparison, have about 30 foreign bases combined. More than 300,000 U. S. troops are deployed not only in those 70 countries, but in 80 others as well. In effect, the U.S. dollar is the default currency of the world, and English is either the primary language or the back-up language in world commerce.

So just what is the difference between an undeclared and unacknowledged empire and one that declares its imperial status, as did the British Empire or the Roman Empire?

There are doubtless a number of similarities and some differences, but I’d say that the principal difference is that, in denying its status as an empire, the United States is minimizing, if not denying, its responsibilities to its territories and dependencies. Over the last two and possibly three decades, in pursuit of perceived American “interests,” the United States has effectively destroyed country after country, as opposed to the two decades after World War II, when the primary interest was rebuilding nations, if only in order to create an economically and militarily strong coalition against the USSR.

Exactly how has either the United States or the world benefited from the chaos in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Somalia, in all of which we’ve had troops fighting and resolving nothing? We intervened… and then decided we couldn’t afford the cost of putting those countries back together again. We didn’t behave responsibly, and we haven’t been exactly all that responsible for the care and needs of the veterans we sent there.

Have these interventions been good for either the U.S. or the world? The list of fragmented countries across the world is growing, not declining, and now the American president seems to be picking fights with neighbors and allies alike.

In the last election, in a sense, we had a choice that I’d caricature as one between “Big Momma” and “Caligula.” The American electorate chose Caligula as the lesser of two evils. Now, before everyone jumps on that, I’d like to point out that when Caligula became the Roman Emperor, everyone was initially pleased. He was a change from the severe, dour, and often cruel Tiberius. He was outspoken and outgoing, but he had no sense of morals, propriety, or responsibility, and he definitely couldn’t manage money, and he lavished money on pleasure palace after pleasure palace, some of which would have made Trump’s Mar-a-Lago seem small and even tawdry.

Now, we have a government that’s abandoning its responsibilities to its citizens, not only in terms of health care, but in terms of basic fiscal responsibility, just as the Roman Senate abandoned its responsibilities. After that, the Praetorian Guard assassinated Caligula, and the last vestiges of a government being responsible to the people dissipated, and the Empire began the long slow decline, although that wasn’t visible immediately as the territory conquered expanded for a time, just as the number of countries in which our soldiers serve continues to expand.

Just how much of that history might we see repeated… or at least rhyme, as Mark Twain put it?

The Razor’s Edge

As mentioned elsewhere, I’ve agreed to write a story for a military science fiction and fantasy anthology entitled The Razor’s Edge, which is one of three anthologies to be published by the small press Zombies Need Brains and being funded by a kickstarter.

The Razor’s Edge explores the thin line between being a rebel and an insurgent in military SF&F, while Guilds & Glaives features slashing blades and dark magic. The third anthology – Second Round — allows readers to travel through time with Gilgamesh in a time-traveling bar.

If you’d like to help bring these themes to life, you can back the Kickstarter at and find out more about the small press at!