Cantina Quote o’ the Week: Sydney J. Harris

Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.

 -Sydney J. Harris

I know two things about Sydney J. Harris: the above quote, and that he ended up on Nixon’s shit-list Mark II.  Those are enough to make me like him a lot.

This quote has very serious overtones – when I think of inaction in the face of injustice, especially.  But it also correlates well to “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,” which are words to live by when you’re trying to get something done in a corporate setting.  That makes this an all-purpose quote.  Use it well.

It’s the Apocalypse, Isn’t It?

Sorry, but under the circumstances, Los Links shall have to wait until tomorrow.  Allow me to ‘splain.  Or sum up.  After all, it’s the apocalypse, and we haven’t got much time.

The Gnus among you are probably already aware of Chris Mooney and his history of, how to put it nicely, being an utter fucktard when it comes to all matters framing and his habit of so rabidly hating the Gnus that he happily falls head-over-heels for lying, sockpuppeting sociopaths who tell him what he wants to hear.  And then spends most of his time deleting comments on his blog that a) would’ve shattered his dream or b) were the least bit critical of him.  And when forced to admit he’s a dupe, snivels he couldn’t possibly have known, even though all he had to do was listen to a few folks who were telling him that he’s a dupe.  And that coming after a long history of blacklisting people (yes, plural) and being an utter fucktard.  I’d already written him off after the Great Frame Wars of 2009; the Unscientific America debacle just put paid to the whole thing, because here we had a man who obviously couldn’t get a clue even when hit simultaneously by dozens of clue-by-fours, so by the time he’d got dicked by Tom Johnson, I’d been conditioned by his own actions to merely point and laugh when Chris Mooney appeared on the scene.

In fact, it took me years to unfreeze toward Sheril Kirshenbaum because she’d been so tainted by that whole affair.  Chris Mooney, though, never displayed any reason why I should give half a tug on a dead dog’s dick about a single thing he said.  He’d killed his credibility a dozen times over and done bugger-all to get it back.  If I clicked on an unknown link and ended up on one of his posts, I’d experience physical revulsion, compounded after reading a few paragraphs. It got to the point that I couldn’t stand to see his smarmy, smiling face, so I blocked him on Twitter just so his Colgate grin wouldn’t show up in retweets and put me off my grub.

(And for those who think I’m being too harsh, just click a small selection of the links above and tell me where the rat bastard’s ever proven himself trustworthy.  Criticism is fine, but deceit, blacklisting and endless whining, plus taking forever to make even a minor course-correction after being taken in by a con, all the while proclaiming Gnus the Enemy of All because they told him he can stick his framing where the sun don’t shine – no.)

This has been a rather long introduction to the apocalypse.  You see, not five minutes after I’d become so fed up with seeing Chris Mooney’s mug plastered all over my Twitter feed by the people who still, for reasons unknown to me, sometimes take him seriously, blocked his butt, here was this tweet from Bora:

I was waiting for this schism for years – Mooney leaving Nisbett behind: http://bit.ly/gvrmgW Good for Chris.

I couldn’t help myself.  A schism between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum?  I had to see!  And, to my horror, I found myself cheering Chris Mooney on.  Because while I have no respect for Chris Mooney, I actively despise Matt Nisbett.  And Chris dispatches a particularly idiotic bit of Nisbettian dumbfuckery with aplomb.


Credit where it’s due and all.  I decided I’d grab it for Los Links.  Look, just because I think a man is a shit-for-brains doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a small spark of intelligence when it manifests.


But that is not why I believe it’s the apocalypse.  This is:

Psych Evidence that Supports New Atheism http://bit.ly/esNCVw Mooney is really on a roll today, isn’t he?

Oh, how that must have hurt him!  To have to admit, after so long kicking and screaming and howling that those evil, evil New Atheists would ruin absolutely everything ever, that he was actually not correct in this assumption.  Of course I had to click through to his bloody blog twice in one day.


You can tell it pains him.  He clings to his final remaining shred of plausible deniability, trying very hard to believe (without adequate evidence) that we are still icky and wrong, even though he was wrong:

In general, I believe what we know about human psychology runs contrary to the New Atheist approach and strategy. However, I do my best to follow the data, and here’s a study that suggest at least one aspect of their approach may work. The tactic finding support here is not necessarily being confrontational–that would tend to prompt negative emotional reactions, and thus defensiveness and inflexibility towards New Atheist arguments–but rather, making it more widely known that you’re actually there–as “out” atheists try to do…

Oh, Chris.  Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris.  Gather your crow recipes while ye may, because you shall be forced to eat a banquet’s worth of it one day, and you have proven today might be man enough to swallow it.  After, of course, kicking and screaming and refusing to do so for too many years, but still.  At least there’s the possibility you’ll hold your nose and do it.  Bravo, sir.  Bravo.

But, despite this minute concession, he still misses the point by a country mile.  We must be forgiving, he’s always had terrible aim.  But there’s the fact that, for a subset of people, being confrontational does go a long way toward snapping them out of religion.  I’m sure some clever dick (or vagina) will do a study someday – perhaps already have done, for all I know, considering I’m not as well-read in the psychological literature as I should be – and prove even to Chris’s satisfaction that he’s full of shit.  But even saying he’s not.  Let us be generous and grant him the conceit that shouting the truth at religious people without sparing their feelings never, ever works and only makes them dig their Sunday-shoed heels in.  He still misses the fucking point, even so.

Because, you see, New Atheism isn’t about bringing the true believers into the bright light of reason.  It’s about telling the damned truth without sugar-coating.  It’s about breaking the spell.  And you do not, cannot, do that by treating religion with respect and deference.  If you treat religion as a thing to be respected, you end up with religion still thinking it’s a thing that is entitled to respect.  And what does religion do when it and everyone around it believes it is entitled to respect?  It demands respect, it attempts to force itself on the masses, it insists all to bow and scrape to it, it bullies people and sullies science, science education, and secular government, and it basically runs around believing it owns the place.  Non-believers are treated as something nasty to be scraped off society’s shoe.  And people who don’t believe or don’t believe all that much end up silent and cowed, because no one has told them in no uncertain terms that religion deserves no such respect, is due no such deference, and moreover needs to be ushered firmly out of the public square. 

We have no problem with doing so politely, but if it kicks up a fuss, we reserve the right to boot it in the arse.  And religion has a distressing tendency to kick up fusses.  Ergo, we apply the judicious toe to the nether regions.

There’s also the bystander effect.  This atheist, for instance, would not be an out-and-proud atheist without the New Atheists.  I wouldn’t be here in love with science and defending it against fundie fuckwits if it weren’t for those evil, evil gnus.  I wouldn’t even have understood there was a problem.  So no, standing up and shouting in believers’ faces may not work directly on them all the time, but it sure as shit can be effective with people like me.

There’s room for gnus and for the softer, fluffier, make nicey-nice with the believers sorts in the battle to keep creationist hands off our science.  Nothing in the rules says we can’t use all of the tactics at our disposal.  And if the accommodationists would just stop sniping at gnus long enough, they might come to see the value in a good-cop-bad-cop strategy.

I will know that the apocalypse has truly come the day Chris Mooney realizes all that and apologizes for being such a massive shite to his fellow atheists.  Not holding my breath on that one.  I want to live.

But it’s nice to see him take the first step on the long road.  We’ll see how far he gets before he decides it’s too far to walk.

Wellsprings of Inspiration Part I: Novels and How-To

Glacial Till asking about how I became a blogger and Nicole asking about my long-term writing goals got me to thinking about inspiration.

Inspiration doesn’t always come standard.  There are times when the magma chamber’s emptied, and there’s a dormant phase before the volcano’s ready to erupt again.  I’ve gotten used to those phases, resigned to them, one might say.  But I don’t sit idle.  Magma chambers don’t fill all by themselves.  There has to be a source.  And I’d like to talk about some of those sources.

We’ll skip childhood, although I reserve the right to revisit the authors who set my feet on this road in some future musing.  And we’ll just have a shout-out to me mum, who spent a good portion of her young life feeding stories to an insatiable kiddo.  Without her, we wouldn’t be discussing writing, because I wouldn’t be a writer.

Right, then.  We should start with Robert Jordan.  I hadn’t planned on writing fantasy.  Hated fantasy, in fact, until a friend forced me to read The Eye of the World.  When I finished that book, I knew what I had to do.  I had to write fantasy.  And the later books in the Wheel of Time have kept me on that road.  Robert Jordan taught me the importance of building a richly-detailed world with vivid characters.  And because of him, I don’t fear writing maclargehuge books.

Another Robert, R.A. Salvatore, planted my feet further along the fantasy road.  You wouldn’t think that a series of books based on a roleplaying game would be all that special, but if you think that, you haven’t read The Dark Elf Trilogy.  Fiction, I learned, and particularly fantasy fiction, was an excellent way of exploring the really essential issues, the ones too tough to face head-on.  And yes, Virginia, you can write a pulse-pounding sword battle.  I once stayed up finishing one of his books by candlelight because the power had gone out right in the middle of one of those battles, and there was no way in the universe I was going to just set it aside until the sun rose.  That’s how intense he writes ‘em.

Another friend foisted Neil Gaiman’s Sandman on me.  Before I read Preludes and Nocturnes, I wasn’t a comic book fan.  After, I was.  Spent an entire afternoon in Phoenix going from bookstore to comic shop in search of absolutely everything he’d ever written up till that point.  Neil Gaiman showed me the power of myth and how to weave it through stories, and why it’s so very important to do so.

When I made the decision to write science fiction and fantasy, I decided that getting a book called How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card might be an excellent idea.  To this day, it remains one of the most valuable how-to-write books I’ve ever read.  And since that had been so good, I picked up Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead to see how well Orson practiced his preaching.  Pretty damned well.  Speaker for the Dead remains one of my favorite books of all time.

The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman taught me the value of a good anti-hero.  I still think it’s one of the absolute best trilogies in all of science fiction and fantasy, and I feel very sorry for people who haven’t read it.

Connie Willis blew me away.  Absolutely left nothing but scattered atoms behind.  One of my major goals is to become the kind of writer that writers like Neil Gaiman and Connie Willis read, because then I’ll know I’ve made it.  I mean, we’re talking about a woman who can tell you, the reader, something the narrator doesn’t know when writing in the first person.  I didn’t think anyone on earth had writing chops like that.  She also got me interested in science fiction per se, because in her hands, it’s far more than just rivets.  She showed me it’s possible to be funny and profound and tragic, sometimes all in the same page.  She’s amazing.

Lynn Flewelling and her Nightrunner series showed me it’s completely possible to write kick-ass, non-preachy gay characters.  I’m indebted to her for that.  And for the best brothel scene ever.  I love those books.  They make me feel that all’s right with the world.

Terry Pratchett honed my humor skillz.  And showed me that it’s possible to mix science and magic to excellent effect.  And created some of the characters I love most in this world.  Sam Fucking Vimes and Granny Bloody Weatherwax, people, that’s all I’m saying.

Warren Ellis did things to my brain with Stormwatch and The Authority I’ll spend the rest of my life sorting out.  His Jenny Sparks is one of the most hardcore female characters ever written by any author anywhere in the world.  And he did with superheroes what no one had ever done before: he dodged away from the tired old vigilante or forces-for-good wanker tropes and headed straight for, “We’ve got this immense power.  We’re goddamn going to use it to make this world a better place.  Under our terms.”

Which leads me to J. Michael Straczynski’s Rising Stars, another superhero comic that went where no superhero comic had gone before.  That one forces you to face issues and questions and dilemmas that most superhero books are too busy beating up the bad guys to pause and consider.

And no comic book paen would be complete without mentioning Warren Ellis again: Transmetropolitan.  Killed my fear of taking characters to an extreme, that did.  And I want to be Spider Jerusalem when I grow up.

Back into regular books…. I love reading the gritty stuff, but I’m not particularly good at writing it.  What I really, really want to be able to do is write symphonies with words.  And there are a few authors who do a particularly fine job of that.

Rober
t Holdstock’s Mythago books weave a peculiar kind of magic.  Incredibly haunting stuff.  Utterly mindbending.  And I had the bizarre experience of reading Lavondyss for a second time after years away, and it seemed like the entire book had changed.  I sometimes wonder: if I open the book again, what will I find?  What will it have become?

Patricia McKillip writes some of the richest, most lyrical books I’ve ever known.  Just read The Book of Atrix Wolfe.  That’s all I ask.

And Guy Gavriel Kay.  Oh, reading him, it’s like sailing a sea of sound and sensation.  It’s like a voyage home through fantastic places.  When I read The Lions of al-Rassan, I knew, just knew, that was the way I wanted to write.  Not what, mind, just how.  I want my words to flow and dance like that.  I want to leave my readers with that feeling, a bit of delightful melancholy, a glorious uplift. 

But how to get there?

There was this one book on writing, the one single book I believe every aspiring author, no matter what genre, should read.  It’s called Writing the Breakout Novel.  I almost didn’t read it because the title sounded too much like that schlocky foolproof-method-for-writing-bestsellers! bullshit that’s so often foisted upon the unwary.  But I picked it up, and read a few pages, and realized this was something altogether different.  It utterly changed my perspective.  Donald Maas isn’t talking about a formula for flash-in-the-pan fiction.  He’s talking about writing the kind of novel that endures for generations.  When I read that book, it forced me to reassess everything I’d ever planned to do, and put me on a new trajectory.  I was able to figure out what my stories were all about, really, at core.  And it gave me the patience to go back, strip everything down to the fundamentals, and start rebuilding from the ground up.

Finally (and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), J.R.R. Tolkien.  This is a nice transition from Part I to II, because I didn’t like Tolkien until I’d seen Peter Jackson’s masterpiece.  I mean, really, seriously, didn’t like Tolkien at all.  But as you’ll see, those movies got right down into my soul.  I saw on screen what I’d always hoped to do in print.  This led me to attempt The Lord of the Rings again.  This time, loved it.  But I didn’t stop there.  I read other books by him: Tree and Leaf, Father Giles of Ham.  I read books about him: biographies, letters, essays by authors inspired by him, books on how he’d created Middle Earth.  I learned about his languages and his motives and all of the things he’d done to make that world come alive.  It was quite the education.  And that was when I went from being a two-bit hack to being someone who could actually begin to craft a story.

So there you go.  There’s some of my major influences.  Next episode, we’ll move on to the movies and television programs that have inspired me, some of which have filled the magma chamber to such a degree that we’ve ended up with VEI-8 eruptions.

Liesegang Banding: Automatic Art

So this one day, on Twitter, Callan Bentley posted this

The best Liesegang banding you will see today is here http://bit.ly/fgzbBO and here http://bit.ly/gFjQja.

Had no earthly idea what Liesegang banding was, but if Callan says it’s the best, you know it’s something good.  So I clicked through.  Do it.  Go on.

Amazing, isn’t it just?  Made little lights go flash for me, because it turns out I’ve spent a lot of time surrounded by Liesegang banding.  It’s all over the sandstones in northern Arizona, and we used to sell bits of it in our bookstore, coasters and bookends and such.  It’s marketed as “picture sandstone.” The patterns are gorgeous.  When I saw stacks of coasters at the rock shop near Gingko Petrified Forest State Park, I had an acute onset of terminal nostalgia and bought some.  Lovely!


One o’ mah coasters.  Just look at that Liesegang Banding!

And now I know what caused those incredible patterns.  Well, sort of.  We haven’t quite figured out the processes that cause Liesegang banding.  And by “we,” I don’t mean me and my cat, although the two of us don’t quite understand it.  No, the whole scientific community is still scratching its collective head over the particulars.  But we’ve got some broad understanding.  It’s not a complete mystery, just one of those mysteries that keep scientists happy and busy.


In the meantime, we get to look at the pretty results.  Imagine my delight when, in a Google search for Liesegang banding, I got led to none other than Brian Romans’s very own blog, and this gorgeous field photo:


Liesegang banding, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada (© 2009 clasticdetritus.com)

I spent my teen years galloping over rocks very like those, magnificent Jurassic sandstones formed from ancient dunes.  I thought the pretty stripey colors, all of the yellows and mauves and reds and deep dark browns, happened at the beginning.  But no!  That came later.  First, you had your dunes, then you had your sandstone, and then along came groundwater, dissolving all those lovely iron-rich minerals like hematite, and precipitating it out.  


Then, after a great many years and a general dry-out, you get wildly-patterned formations like the above, and some bugger comes along to quarry them for things like this:


Mah other coaster.  I like the way the Liesegang banding resembles the dune fields the sandstone formed from.

It’s not just sandstone that gets your Liesegang bands.  It can happen to tuff, too, and even man-made things like lime mortar (but only the Roman recipe stuff that’s aged 14 years and similar).  All that’s required is something suitably porous.  The phenomenon was first noticed in blotting paper by a man named Frederic Ferdinand Runge in 1855 – he was so taken by his “self-painting pictures” that he wrote the book on them.  But he failed to take the world by storm, so it was left to Raphael Liesegang, futzing around with photographic chemicals forty-one years later, to rediscover them.  In one of those wonderful scientific accidents that leads to discovery, he dropped a crystal of silver nitrate onto his gels and saw concentric rings form.  Instead of throwing the mess out, he wrote papers about it.


In nature, things aren’t so neat as his concentric rings.  Liesegang bands appear as, of course, bands, but also rings, spirals, and spheres, oriented in various directions, with younger sets cutting across and sometimes dissolving older ones.


One of the most fascinating things about these bands is that they’re formed by a self-organizing process: they don’t need a template for their patterns.  They’re not directed by something living.  They just happen.  All of that beautiful, artistic complexity is the result of simple, mindless processes.  I find that enthralling.  The power of physics, chemistry and geology to combine and form such patterns is amazing.


Wonderful ol’ world, innit?

Goodbye, Our Sarah Jane

Elisabeth Sladen, the actress who played Doctor Who’s Sarah Jane Smith, died of cancer today.  Russell T. Davies gives a worthy tribute to her here.  All I’ve got is this clip from YouTube that doesn’t do her justice, and some fangirl memories.

She was brilliant.  So very brilliant.  I’d never known her – my obsession with Doctor Who begins with Series 1 – but the instant she appeared on the screen in “School Reunion,” I didn’t need my friend to tell me she was someone special.  You didn’t have to know who she was.  She just blazed out from the screen.

It would have been such an honor to have gotten a chance to meet her.  I have to agree with Steven Moffat:

“Never meet your heroes’ wise people say. They weren’t thinking of Lis Sladen.”

We’re all going to miss her terribly.  One of the best companions ever.  She was brilliant.

If scientists ever manage to build an actual TARDIS, I can guarantee there’ll be one hell of a queue forming to go back to shake her hand.

Dana’s Dojo: Sensory Deprivation and How to Avoid It

Today in the Dojo: Using senses other than sight in writing.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. 
     -Anton Chekhov

I had a very strict routine when I left work in Tempe, AZ:  I punched out at lightning speed and race-walked through the parking lot to my car, threw my bags in the back, lit a cigarette, and tried to get my little car airborne.  I didn’t pause for anything except traffic.  My entire focus was narrowed on one goal: get home in as few minutes as possible.  My only thoughts: will I get to the end of the road before the light changes?  Avoid the slow people on the freeway?  Find a parking space close to the house? 

One night, however, I stopped dead as I reached for the car door, frozen.  Not with cold, of course: this was spring in the Sonoran Desert, which meant air conditioners were already blasting.  I didn’t know at first what had stopped me, until I took a deep noseful of the typically polluted, dry, acrid and unpleasant Phoenix air and smelled – orange blossoms.

I stood transfixed in a darkness lit by saffron-hued street lamps and the bluer glow of our parking lot lights, staring at the low clumps of trees rising from the incongruous strip of grass between our lot and the road, sucking down draughts of petal-scented air.  My balance shifted from flat-footed to nearly on my toes, as if my pounding heart was trying to pull me up into the black sky.  Usually, I only noticed the air enough to determine it’s temperature – it’s never a good idea to linger too long with Phoenix metro air.  But I was feeling its texture now – cool, stirring with the breathy breeze that carried the scent of the blooms from somewhere, soft with a rare touch of humidity.  My first thoughts skittered along wild courses of where? and how? and is it real?  I searched the night for orange trees and saw none.  But I could tell from the richness of the scent that this wasn’t a coworker’s perfume wafting across parking spaces: nothing but pure, living orange blossoms smell like that.

I’d almost forgotten the keys in my hand and the weight of my backpack dragging at my shoulder.  I stood by the rear fender of my car, pulling in as much of that scent as I could, mouth opening in a wondrous grin.  I knew that Phoenix had orange trees, often planted as hedges and spilling their pale orange-yellow fruits onto the road where passing cars squished them into mush, but I’d never expected to actually smell them bloom through the haze of dust and ozone and exhaust and other, less pleasant big-city odors.  Now my mind swirled around thoughts of beauty, and spun out associations at lightning speed: my mother, who spent her life searching for really authentic orange blossom perfume, would love this.  How could I get a scent like this into my story, where there are no oranges and I can’t even use association because the characters have no experience with oranges?  And this must be what an evening in the Court of Oranges smells like.  That took me back to one of my favorite books, The Walking Drum, and one of the most sensual scenes I’ve ever read: walking into the Court of Oranges in Cordoba, Spain, with everything so richly described that I could feel the dust on the paving stones, listen to fountains splash, and draw the scent of blooming orange trees deep into the soul of myself.

My consciousness filtered out the sounds of the Valley Metro bus laboring down the road, coworkers’ cars starting up, any sound except the rustle of leaves as the breeze stirred them.  I barely saw anything except those gently waving branches, and the way the light danced off of their shiny green leaves and shadowed the grass beneath.  I was experiencing magic in the heart of Tempe – the usual business of the city had no place there.  It’s a good thing we had good security in our parking lot, because if someone had decided to step out of the darkness and rob me, I would have just passed my purse over and shushed him.  Or possibly grabbed his arm and danced him around shouting, “It smells gorgeous out tonight!”  It could have led to a whole new school of self-defense: hug your robber, he won’t know what to do. 

I finally shook myself out of it.  I could have stood there all night breathing in the scent of orange blossoms, but my cat wouldn’t have been pleased, and I needed to get home and get this down in my mind.  I needed to be away from work.  But oh, how I hated leaving that scent behind.

Why this extended description of a very personal experience?  Because it was a great way to show you the power of scent to change a mood and preconceived notions.

It seems like 90% of the writers out there don’t use all of their senses when they’re writing.  5% of the ones who do mangle it.  The remaining 5% – well, they weave such a tapestry of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste that you live their worlds in all dimensions.  You experience everything.  And that experience lingers in your mind long after the story is over, to be pulled to full consciousness again years later on a metro Phoenix city street in the middle of the night by the scent of orange blossoms.

We want to be that 5%, don’t we?  So let’s get started on figuring out how to do it.

Don’t Let the Thugs of Sight and Sound Shove the Other Three to the Far Back Corner

We live in an age where the magic of movies and television predominate.  Those mediums have only two senses: sight and sound.  We see the picture and hear the sounds.  Other senses can only be suggested: characters can inhale the fragrance from a rose, savor a good meal, spit out something gross, fan themselves when it’s hot and shiver when it’s cold… but it’s still all sight and sound.  Unless, of course, they’re rhapsodizing on the scent of the rose or the taste of the food, in which case you probably want to beat the living crap out of them until they shut up and get on with the show.

Movies and television can’t make us experience the other senses, only suggest.  And usually, they’re such a visual feast, with the sound coming thick and fast, that the viewer doesn’t have time for more than a fleeting impression of bad, good, warm, cold, painful, soft, or otherwise.  I mean, come on – during that hot bedroom scene, were you really smelling the intermingling of sweat and perfume and feeling the silk sheets slide under you, or were you just salivating over the hot the actor/actress/both?

Admit it.  You were feasting your eyes, maybe enjoying the soundtrack and the moans, but you weren’t experiencing the rest. 

Prose writers, on the other hand, have the power to evoke all five senses directly, and bring them to vibrant life in such rich detail that the reader experiences them too.  We are not restricted to being able to present only sight and sound directly and have to imply the rest.  Yet what do we do?  Visualize scenes, throw some sounds in, and merely hint at the rest, nine times out of ten.

So we must push the thugs of sight and sound aside.  We need to beat them with mighty sticks until they fall to their knees and shuffle into line.  They are powerful – they need to be at the forefront of most scenes.  But just a little bit in front.  Humble them.

If you must, write several scenes from the point of view of a deaf and blind character.  Believe me, this will make you pay attention to taste, touch and smell, unless you are a coward and have them imagining what things must sound and look like.  In that case, STOP BEING A BLOODY COWARD.

Now.

Walk around with earplugs and a blindfold if you have to (along with a person who will ensure you don’t step over the balcony or get run over by a train you never heard coming).  Dinner time is not the only time to taste things.  Being in a rose garden or a cesspit is not the only time you’ll smell things.  Touch is more than being in contact with items – it’s also the feel of the air on your skin, the sense of large or small things around you. 

When I was writing “Charity Cases,” I had to shut off sight.  I’m in the POV of a blind man, after all.  Sound actually took back seat to feel as I wandered around the house in artificial darkness.  I could tell what room I was in by the way it felt – hallways felt smaller than the living room whether I was touching the walls or not.  Stepping on cat litter in bare feet took on a whole new meaning without visual distraction.  I wouldn’t have needed hearing to tell me when I went outside: the feel of open spaces and moving air, the smell of pine trees and dust, the taste of pollen in the air, would have told me as much.

Really experience things.  Pollution leaves a haze in the air, but it also has a taste and odor of its own.  So does clean a
ir.  If I was out in the rain, I could tell you whether it was pine country or the heart of the city from the taste of the raindrops.  I can tell you where we are from the way it smells – wet buildings smell far different from wet trees, damp clean sidewalks a lot different from moist earth or dirty asphalt.  Notice these things.  Don’t relegate taste and smell to the dinner table.

Want to get across the idea that it’s humid or dry?  Each kind of air feels different.  Dry air makes your skin feel dusty and tight.  Humid air feels soft, sometimes slick.  It even tastes different – the sandy taste of the air in Phoenix becomes clearer, sharper with an underlying plant-oil tang when it’s getting ready to rain.  Have you ever considered describing the weather in terms of taste like that?  You should.  It’s an excellent tool.  Don’t just smell the coming rain, taste it.  Feel your skin starting to plump.  Unless of course you live in a humid climate, in which case it probably won’t be as intense a sensation as it is to a desert dweller.

Character has zits?  Excellent.  Don’t just show them.  Feel their oily ooze and their squelchy bumpy texture.

Once you have sight and sound properly humbled, let them come crawling back, and then weave them in with the rest.  You’ll have a properly complex description once you do.

Words = Associations

I mentioned the 5% of writers who use all senses but don’t use them well.  Here’s what I mean:

The odor of roses.


The scent of roses.


The smell of roses.

We’re keeping it simple here.  Which one had the most positive associations for you?  Which word came closer to evoking the richness and delicacy of a full-blown rose?  I can pretty much guarantee you it wasn’t odor.

We associate odor with bad.  OdorEaters insoles to kill foot stench.  Oust to eliminate odors from the air.  You don’t even have to add the word bad to odor to get the wrinkling nose and the idea of stinky. 

But we associate scent with something positive or at least neutral.  Perfumes are called scents.  We have pine-scented, berry-scented, and lavender-scented products for everything from bathroom cleaners to candles.  Scented oil fans to make the room smell lovely.  If we say a product is scented, we’re not associating a bad scent with it.  It’s supposed to be pleasant.

You also don’t want to talk about the smell of something if you’re trying to wax poetic over how good it smells, because smell is a dual-purpose word.  It could smell good or bad.  In this context, it passes no judgments.  It just says roses smell without implying how the author or the character feels about that smell.  For all we know, the roses don’t smell like anything much at all.

See how tricky that is?

Be very, very careful with your sensory words.  You’re passing judgments.  You want to make sure those judgments are the ones you want the reader to make.

I’m now going to play a dirty trick on you by way of Louis L’Amour.  Louis won’t mind if I quote him.  If his estate does, well, the work is properly cited and it might sell a book, so they can deal.

First, the adulterated version:

It was hot at noon in the Court of Oranges.  The air was filled with the odor of flowers and the sound of water.  There was a crunching of sandals as the white-robed thousands walked into the mosque.  Above them the palms threw shadows on the orange trees, and fruit peeked through the leaves.


There were four big basins in the Court of Oranges and water poured into them with a faint trickle.  The air felt still and hot, thick with the smells of jasmine and rose, and along the walls were hibiscus, large red flowers beside others of light gold or white.

Not bad.  Not bad.  We’ve got sight, sound, smell and a touch of touch.  Everything’s described well enough to get the idea of what it all was like. 

But it is a poor, sad thing compared to the real version:

At noon in the Court of Oranges the sun was hot.  The air was heavy with the scent of flowers and lazy with the sound of running water.  At noon in the Court of Oranges there was a shuffling of feet as the white-robed thousands moved slowly into the mosque.  Above them the palms cast slender shadows over the orange trees, and golden fruit shone through the glossy leaves like the Golden Apples of legend.


There were four great basins in the Court of Oranges and water tumbled into them with a pleasant, sleepy sound.  The air hung still and hot, thick with the scent of jasmine and rose, and along the walls were hibiscus, great soft red flowers beside others of pale gold or white.

                -from The Walking Drum by Louis L’Amour

I didn’t change all that much in the adulterated version, but the differences were huge anyway, weren’t they?  The first didn’t flow like poetry.  It didn’t evoke such specific images and associations.  The feel of things was quite weak.  Even the sounds didn’t weave around us quite so intensely, and the visuals were frankly lacking.  We didn’t really even smell the flowers – they were odorous, but that was about all.

Louis was very specific in his word choices and details.  First, it wasn’t hot.  The sun was hot.  That gives us the glare of hot sun off of stones and skin without having to go into great detail.  The sun being hot rather than merely the air changes everything.

The air could be heavy with scent, but Louis chose to fill the air instead.  Filled evokes a different sense than heavy.  Heavy implies weight bearing down.  Filled implies we were sated, content. 

We’ve already discussed scent vs. odor.  Now you’ve gotten to see it in action.  Smells better when it’s not an odor, doesn’t it?  And the air being lazy with the sound of running water is different than just the sound of water.  Sound means little unless it’s specific, and even running water wouldn’t have done here alone: it needed to impart a lazy feel to the air.

Crunching sandals and people walking is a far different thing than shuffling feet as people walk slowly.  The first is brisk.  Folk don’t walk briskly into mosques, not when there’s such a press of them.  Walking slowly, shuffling, implies the proper humility and reverence for this holy place.

I could go on, but you have the idea.  Word choice is vital when you’re using all five senses, or even just a few.  It’s like weaving a tapestry: you don’t simply choose red thread, you go for carmine or scarlet or vermilion, and that choice affects the whole rest of the weaving.  So does the choice between wool, cotton or silk thread.  So does… well, I won’t lecture you on different looms and such.

Words have associations.  Concrete things and words evoke more than general ones. 

Unusual Marriages You’d Never Expect Would Work

We’ve all heard leaves whispering or rustling or chuckling.  How about hissing?  Slithering?  Do they do that?

Yes, they do.  Depending on what mood you’re in and whether you like wind in the trees.

Can a rose smell bad?  Certainly, if your lover gave you a bouquet of heady reds and then dumped you in the middle of an expensive restaurant, leaving you wit
h the check, the public humiliation and no ride home. 

Dirt tastes wonderful?  Certainly does, if you’re a farmer moving from a poor farm to a rich one, or a bloke who has just hit the ground and avoided death by a millimeter.

Everybody can have babbling brooks and silky hair and delicious cuisine.  Your challenge is to look for new ways to say the same things, or combine a sense with a thing you’d never expect but which happens in real life.  Taste the pine sap, don’t simply smell the alpine forest.  Let the silk be clammy and uncomfortable.  How does love taste, or boredom sound, or eagerness smell?  Figure it out, then make it so.

In fact, I challenge you to make a list of clichéd sensory descriptions: babbling brook, running water, and so forth. Then pair them with new words.  Babbling trees.  Trotting water.  See what comes of it – could be something useful.

And if you’re at a loss, go experience the world with all your senses.  Next time you fall in love, focus on how it tastes.  Next time you drink wine, concentrate on how it makes your nose feel.  What does utter darkness look like?  What does bright light sound like?  Believe me, you can find associations that work.

The Babbling Brook Might Grate on the Troubled Soul

Remember that the emotions a character is going through is going to influence their sensory impressions.  You will not feel the same way about the babbling brook if it reminds you of your chattering coworker that you fled to the mountains to escape.  Speaking of those majestic peaks, they’re kinda broad at the bottom and tiny and bald on top, just like the boss who’s always looming over you, and those damned trees are clustered at the edge of the glade like all of those damned jackals who are just waiting for you to fuck up so they can pounce on your job…

See how that can take a clichéd pastoral scene and give it a whole new meaning?  Same sights.  Same sounds.  Same smells.  Completely different experience.  Completely different way of describing it. 
Conversely, in the worst moment of your life, that brief whiff of jasmine might be the only thing that gives you hope and strength.  A pleasant scent may have just become your life raft in the middle of a very stormy sea.

What I’m getting at here is that sensory impressions in and of themselves aren’t all that useful.  What really makes them pop is the character experiencing them, and what their experience of them says about themselves and their condition.

Sensory impressions are also an under-used way of showing changes over time.  For instance, when I was young and immortal, hot breezes and bright sun made me feel free and energetic.  Now, they just remind me that sun and dry air are aggravating the wrinkles developing all over my face, and sapping what little energy I possess to boot.  I loved the desert in summer when I was young.  Now, it just makes me weep for clouds, rain and cool green climes.

Snow was exciting.  Cold was crisp, sharp, tasty.  Now it’s blocking the driveway and making my work shoes miserably soggy, and as far as eating the stuff – well, I know how much pollution it had to fall through to get on the ground.  They don’t have a Brita snow purifier yet.

Could be just the opposite for a character of mine who grew up in freezing cold Minnesota winters and moved to the desert so they would never have to see a cloud or snowflake again.  Or for the middle-aged bloke who discovered a passion for skiing at age forty-five and owns an SUV to boot.  Snow?  What great stuff!  And so tasty, too!

I think I’ve given you enough to get you thinking about how the senses can do so much more than just show you’re aware that things get seen, sounds get heard, food gets tasted, flowers smelled, and various and sundry touched  You’re now ready to move on from simple embroidery to full-blown tapestry weaving.  And you’ll create a work that engages all five senses for the reader, and lingers on in the mind long after the final page is turned.

People With No Understanding of Fantasy Probably Shouldn’t Review It

I have now, like every other fantasy fan with tits on the planet, read Ginia Bellafonte’s risible review of HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones.

I’ve spent most of the week now trying to determine which planet she’s from.  I’m still not sure.  It hasn’t got the same color sky as mine, and the fact that she seems to think rape, incest and other varieties of less-than-romantic sex are thrown in to Martin’s harrowingly gritty books just to give the ladies something to love frankly concerns me.  I have to question the psychological health of a woman who thinks that’s the sort of erotica women go for en masse.  But never mind that.  What’s even more ridiculous than her bass-ackwards ideas of why GOT will have sex scenes is her insistence that Martin’s epic is somehow about global warming.

Yes.  Really.  Here, for those who don’t want to give her the satisfaction of another page view, is her take on the whole thing:

Here the term green carries double meaning as both visual descriptive and allegory. Embedded in the narrative is a vague global-warming horror story. Rival dynasties vie for control over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros — a territory where summers are measured in years, not months, and where winters can extend for decades. 

How did this come to pass? We are in the universe of dwarfs, armor, wenches, braids, loincloth. The strange temperatures clearly are not the fault of a reliance on inefficient HVAC systems. Given the bizarre climate of the landmass at the center of the bloody disputes — and the series rejects no opportunity to showcase a beheading or to offer a slashed throat close-up — you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. We are not talking about Palm Beach. 

I have to wonder why Blogger doesn’t offer Comic Sans as an option, because any passages quoted from Ms. Bellafonte’s review deserve to be in said font.  Who here has read Martin’s series and thought it was about global fucking warming?   She obviously hasn’t.  Read the series, I mean.  And after that bizarre last sentence, which upon fourth reading still makes no sense, she drops the global warming question all together and instead asks why the show’s even on HBO.

Because, Ms. Bellafonte.  It is an epic series conducive to adaptation, popular with huge swathes of male, female and otherwise-gendered people.  It’s such a gripping story that even those of us who hated it – literally hated reading it – had to keep reading, and are ready to beat George R.R. Martin bloody (sparing his hands and skull) if he once again delays the release of the next book.  Some people at HBO, David Benioff chief among them, believed in its potential and saw the project through.  And HBO stands to rake in the cold hard cash, because, and this is important, not everyone is a sneering, fantasy-hating, too-avante-gard-to-live genius-in-her-own-mind lackwit with culturally piss-poor female friends such as yourself, Ms. Bellafonte.

I mean, seriously.  Not one of your female friends could clue you in?  You have never met one single, solitary woman who would prefer The Hobbit over the latest navel-gazing based-on-the-author’s-pathetic-excuse-for-a-life schlock offered up by book clubs that only seem to exist in order to make people who like good books cry?  Not even one?  Do you even leave your house?  Do you even talk to other women?  I have to wonder.

You apparently belong to that pathetic subset of the human population who think it makes them unbearably hip to bash fantasy at every possible opportunity.  You see armor and dwarves, and you’re in instant sneer mode, too busy looking down your nose to look beneath, at questions of what it means to be human and what morality is and how twisted society can be that would make your hair curl.  Fantasy can be brutal.  Fantasy can be uncompromising.  And it can make us think in ways we never would have been able to think if the issues had been presented through any other medium.  Unfortunately, it can’t get through to the likes of you, Ms. Bellafonte, because you seem to be operating under the assumption that this isn’t something good girls should like.  Your fucking loss.  And believe me, it is a loss.

Upon rumination, I can only come to the conclusion that your review is the result of a pathological hatred of fantasy combined with a serious lack of insight into the vast majority of your fellow females.  It seems to me to be a cry for help.  You should meet some new people.  People like me and my lady friends, who think nothing of spending an evening geeking out over shows like Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, and (oh, yes) Game of Thrones.  Speak to women who would move to Middle Earth in one second flat if given half the chance.  Listen to women whose bookshelves groan under the weight of more fantasy tomes than can be listed in one small blog post.  Your sample size has been skewed by the fact your head has been firmly lodged up your posterior.  There are legions of female fans of fantasy and science fiction.  And two things you should have realized before penning something so incredibly stupid from start-to-finish:

1. We don’t appreciate being told we don’t exist.  And

2.  Trying to review a genre you’re clueless about leads only to humiliation.

Keep this in mind the next time you plan to heap scorn upon a show you’re reviewing.  Especially if HBO decides to do a Thursday Next series.  Because, while Martin’s fans can be brutal, Fford ffans are just downright terrifying.

P.S. I get the impression from your article that you must have obtained a college education of some description.  Were I you, I’d be asking for my money back. 

For further entertaining dissections of one of the dumbest reviews in the history of television reviews, see:

George R.R. Martin’s brilliant response (and delightful shout-out to his fangirls).

Annalee Newitz explains why the show’s actually targeted at women only.

Geek With Curves demonstrates why you should not piss off someone whose next tattoo is inspired by Joss Whedon.

Margaret Hartmann demonstrates the art of the short, sharp smackdown.

And our own Stephanie Szvan digs in, plus bonus story!

I’m sure I’ve missed about five gajillion.  Pop your faves into the comments, and/or any ranting you feel moved to.  Epic length comments welcome.  We are talking about fantasy here.

Gather Round, Ye Aspiring Authors, For a Cautionary Tale

By now, you’ve all had a good laugh at Jacqueline Howett’s expense, right?  It’s been a few weeks since her flameout went viral.  If you missed it, go check out the comments on this review, wherein the self-published author with, shall we say, such unique grammar and spelling goes down in flames over a review that wasn’t so bad, actually.  I mean, the reviewer could have eviscerated her book.  All he did was make some measured critical remarks about her technical issues.  She then proceeded to explode all over the comments section, alienating readers, agents and editors whilst providing endless entertainment for lookers-on.

Alas, she is not the only author who throws tantrums when things don’t go her way.  And that brings me to the blood and bone of this post: if you can’t take criticism, don’t fucking publish.

Seriously.  I mean it.  Shop your shit around to your friends and family and leave it at that.  Don’t present your baby to the world and expect everyone to love it as unconditionally as you do.  It’s not going to happen.  Be realistic.  Even huge-name authors like Neil Gaiman, Sue Grafton, and John Grisham get bad reviews.  For every hundred people who worship their books, a handful hate them.  If you think you’re going to be the exception to that rule, you are in no way ready for public consumption.

If you’re willing to risk people saying mean things about your baby and decide to publish, you need to set your own expectations.  You will get bad reviews.  And the proper response to those is: “Thank you!  I appreciate you taking the time to read my book and share your opinion.”

Really.  It is.  If you can’t do that, either don’t read the bad reviews, don’t respond at all if you do read them, or don’t bloody publish in the first place.  Have I emphasized that enough yet?

Bad reviews aren’t that bad, really.  For every reader who’s turned off, there’s another who’ll buy your book just because they want to see the train wreck for themselves.  And they might end up liking it, and telling everyone they know that the reviewer was a brain-damaged idiot, and then some of them will end up buying your book, and you’re golden.  Why, then, make an absolute ass of yourself by throwing a screaming tantrum?  You’ll lose far more potential readers that way.  Nobody wants to spend their money on a WATB.

An author really needs to have a thick skin.  All creative people do.  Not that all of us do, obviously, but it’s best for all involved if you at least try to grow one.  Learn how to take criticism.  One bad review is just one person’s opinion.  Don’t take it as a personal attack.  And if dozens of bad reviews pour in, well, then it’s time to do a wee bit of soul-searching, see what the common complaints are, and take a moment to stand back and assess yourself and your writing, because, much as you hate to admit it, they might be right.  You will never, ever improve as an author if you can’t use negative and critical feedback to hone your writing skills.  And you’ll never make it beyond vanity publishing if you lash out at anyone and everyone who says anything the slightest bit negative.

The truth is this: you don’t have to publish your book.  If you do, other people are under no obligation to actually like it.  Deal with those facts now, before you’re faced with negative feedback you weren’t prepared for but should have expected.

Oh, and if your grammar and spelling are that atrocious, invest a few hundred bucks in a good freelance editor before self-publishing.  Your book and your readers will thank you.