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21 Mar 06:00

Navigating the Ocean of Story (2)

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Gunby Ursula K. Le Guin


Adina: I read your work over and over in sheer fascination at the lyricism you manage to put into everything, the descriptions, seemingly simple lines, characterizations. When I look at my own writing, no matter how hard I try, it feels flat. Simple question that feels a little silly, but how do you build that skill? I feel I don’t have enough words to manage the poetry in prose that I want to reach for. How do you suggest I build that?

UKL: The way we build up any skill is by doing something, thinking about it, doing it over, doing it, and again, singlemindedly, till it gets so deep in our whole mind and body that we can do it without rules, without recipes, without conscious thought. Playing the piano or playing soccer, dancing the tango or making soup, skill is the product of experience.

In the case of literary writing, the experience isn’t only that of writing. Reading is fully as important. Real writers read. They read a lot, and they read the best stuff they can find. You learn an art by doing it – and in the case of literature, doing it means reading it as well as writing it.

If you feel that you “don’t have enough words” to do what you want, the best way to get more words is by reading them – reading whatever you love to read – and writing them. Live with words, play with them, work with them, till they begin to do what you want them to do. You probably don’t really need any more words than you have. You just need to learn how to let them speak in your true voice.

It will take a while. And there is ALWAYS more to learn.

Nicole: I have a question about world-building in fantasy/sci-fi (that is, using cultures and worlds of your own invention):

How do you determine which aspects of a world/culture are best described overtly and which should be implied?

It seems to me, broadly speaking, that finding a good balance between those two approaches is what helps immerse readers in the world of a story, but I find I often struggle with world-building.

I have been writing seriously for about five years, and I have had about ten short stories published, mostly in nonpaying markets. I am a beginner looking for ways to improve my writing.

Bayla: I’ve been writing fantasy for a number of years, and I consistently feel that my world-building falls short. I tend to world-build in pieces — culture, money, religion, maps — and yet there always seems to be some piece that feels like it might not fit. Any tips on creating rich, believable worlds? How do you go about doing it? How much do you rely on the way cultures in our world actually work? Do you spend a lot of time building the world before trying to write the story set within it? I never seem to stop worrying that my world will feel “wrong” in some of the details, even if it’s in a wholly created universe.

UKL: I put your questions together, Nicole and Bayla, because they’re pretty similar. Unfortunately, like Adina’s question, they are very general. Generalities about writing are – generally – either platitudes or hokum.

So I’ll try to answer your questions by inventing a planet called Teg and a place in it called Horb to use as examples of world-building.

How to find the balance between how much to describe and how much to imply?

Well, consider how much you can imply in a description.

“Horb is on the coast of the southernmost of the nine continents of Teg” — This general description implies very little.

“The traders take their windships out of the ports of Horb as soon as the ice barrier melts in the austral spring, carrying voor-pelts and diamonds to Veu and other continents” — We learn, as we did from the first sentence, that Horb is on the coast of a southern continent and that there are several continents; we also learn that it’s icebound in winter, that it has a long-established trading economy, that there are creatures called voor whose pelts are valued elsewhere, that diamonds are also valued, etc…

The difference is in specificity. What’s important is to know what you want to tell about Horb, and then tell it by “embodying” it in concrete, vivid details – packing your sentences with specifics, not with generalities.

How much to rely on the way cultures in our world work?

This largely depends on whether you want your readers to be comfortable on Teg, or challenged by it.

“Vig spurred his horse through the narrow streets of Horb at a gallop, drawing rein only at the Palace gate.” – Well, here we are in Horb in the European Middle Ages, all very cozy and feudal. Nobody has to do any thinking about it at all.

“Vig argued with his reinsteed for a while at the entry-fold of Horb, but it was useless; Hul hated the city, she would wait here, and Vig would have to walk.” – This can’t be fully understood by easy reference to any Earthly society. A disagreement between a man and an animal is understandable, but an equality, perhaps an actual discussion, between them is implied that is not familiar on Earth. And what is an “entry-fold”? The reader will learn what it is, but may have to wait a while. Lazy readers find waiting uncomfortable. Fortunately, a lot of sf readers expect to be challenged, and will suspend comprehension in hopes of a good pay-off. Just be sure they get the pay-off.

Do you spend a lot of time building the world before writing the story?

Yes. I do.

If Teg or Horb differ in any important way from the world-as-we-know-it, the implications of that difference have to be thought through pretty carefully beforehand. If not, anomalies and huge inconsistencies will multiply, visible cracks will appear in your Secondary World, and your story will fall into one of them.

Reading around for pleasure in anthropology and travel books can raise your consciousness of of how vastly human societies differ (let alone alien ones), and what a vast difference just one element of a culture can make – the existence or non-existence of a technology, or an assumption, or a gender….

But, having thought out your society and technology and all, don’t worry too much. You can fake quite a lot or leave it unsaid, so long as your world looks and smells and tastes real, so long as it has complexity, emotional weight, and integrity. If it is real to you and grows more real as you write it, if you’re living there as you write — you’re well on the way to making it real to your reader.


17 Nov 11:57

When’s the right time to write a story?

by Juliet

As is so often the way, a few things cropping up in rapid succession got me thinking. One was interviewing Brandon Sanderson at Fantasycon last month, when (among many other things) we talked about the way you need to wait until a story idea is ready to be written.

This was already in my mind after turning up the original proposal I sent to my then agent and editor, outlining the Aldabreshin Compass sequence. Or rather, not outlining nearly as much of it as I vaguely recalled.

And then of course, Sean Williams had written that very interesting guest blog post here on things he’s learned, taking the long view as he looks at his writing career thus far, for lessons to apply to his work yet to come.

So you can read my experience and conclusions on learning to let the seeds of a story ripen in full over on Sean’s blog.

Meantime, I’m aiming to get my Alien Artefacts short story written just as soon as I can carve out some time from VATMOSS stuff. Not to mention the ongoing ebook project.

08 Sep 18:47

The Book Smugglers’ SFF Roundtable

Kate Elliott is one of five fantasy authors, all of whom have new novels out, who participated in The Book Smugglers’ recent SFF in Conversation roundtable. Together with Zen Cho (Sorcerer to the Crown), Aliette de Bodard (The House of Shattered Wings), Cindy Pon (Serpentine), and Tade Thompson (Making Wolf), Elliott discusses how culture and history inform their respective writing, expectations of SFF Western audiences, and diversity within the genre.

We have curiosity, imagination, and empathy for a reason: To build gates and windows into places that aren’t us. Story creates connection.

Court of Fives is set in a fantasy world inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt, the history of Hawaii’s annexation and cultural renaissance, the sports/obstacle course game show Sasuke/American Ninja Warrior, and the 19th century novel Little Women. Across time and regions, cultures have met and mingled and influenced each other, and as the child of an immigrant I think that mindset of how things connect and how they change each other is what I often bring to my writing. I’m always exploring the crossroads.

Read more at The Book Smugglers.
SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers where guests talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. “Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF.”

Mirrored from I Make Up Worlds.

09 Apr 17:43

The Characters Discuss Their Author

by Elizabeth

Conversations about the author–the characters being conceived almost as actors in a green room, let’s say–are not unknown in the writing world.   (A thunderstorm just popped up on top of us.   Blame all typos on my instinctive twitch when a close strike hits.)   So here’s a conversation between characters from some of my stuff…all of them already know one another, because they all live in my head, where they can move from series to series, book to book, kibitz on the writing process and then go find their favorite watering hole to dissect “What that woman is doing now!”

Since this is the Universes blog,  they’re actually on the station, and their end of the restaurant bar always has a few of them hanging out in it.  Today, it’s predominantly science fiction characters; the fantasy ones have taken an excursion trip to someplace where they feel more at home.   The Universal Eavesdropped App is working; you don’t have to crowd up close (and I wouldn’t advise it.)


“She’s always had a mean streak, you know.”  Heris Serrano leans back.  “She showed it even before I woke up as a disgraced officer in Hunting Party.  Every single book, she finds someone to pick on.   It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how ethical you are–”

“You?  You’re claiming you’re a perfect straight arrow?”  Livadhi glares at her.  “You forget, I’ve known you before she picked you–you of all people–as protagonist.   If she’d picked me–”

“You’d still have been a traitor.   She’d never have picked you.   Her protagonists are at least ethical, or on their way to being.”

“She picked that idiot Luap, in that other universe.”  Rafe Dunbarger tosses back the rest of his drink and sets the glass down hard.  “If you want to talk about character FAIL.”

“Other universe different rules.”  Everyone draws back a little from the scarred veteran of one of Author’s lesser works, Vargas.  He doesn’t come in often, but he exudes danger at a level that means he will never be anyone’s buddy.   The bouncers across the room are watching, their shoulders tight.  He’s caused trouble before.   Over by the door his former captain  shows up, a little translucent, the way the characters who die are, when they come into this place.   Everyone hopes Major Sewell won’t come before the captain talks Vargas into going somewhere else.  Vargas and Sewell in the same place mean a fight.

“Making my point,” Heris Serrano says.   “What are you here for, Vargas?”  As always, her voice is a little too clipped, a little too sure that she has a right to be in charge.

“Reminding you officer types who really does the fighting,” Vargas says.  “Reminding you that you don’t own this place or that woman’s mind, and the stuff she writes, though complete garbage, is our pay.  I lived through my story; you lived through your story; your whining makes me puke.”

“You like her?” Rafe asked.  His arm twitches; everybody there knows a blade just dropped into his hand.   Everybody knows he’s been itching to try knife-fighting with Vargas and nobody wants to be in the spatter zone.

Vargas shrugs.   “Doesn’t matter, though frankly I wouldn’t waste time with her in person.  Too old, too plain,  not my type at all.  Classical music, ye gods.  Horse riding.   Reading all those thick books about stuff that probably never happened.  Swords–well, all right, though a machete’s more practical.  But for me, a skirt that’s experienced enough but not wrinkly.  And smells good.”  He leans back, arms on the back of the settee, taking up more space on purpose.  “But as a writer, she’s OK for me.  I been in other stories, the dumb mean NCO with the criminal background, written down below the real me, and she’s given me a way to be as dark as I am and yet–I’m telling the story.  And I look way better than Sewell.    I keep hoping she’ll pick me up for another one, without him–” He stops in mid-sentence.

Carl has come to the table, bringing a chill.  “C’mon, Gunny, let’s go look for some real entertainment.”

Vargas shrinks, bringing his arms down, sitting up straighter.  “Captain.  Just having a little chat…”

“I know,  but we need to go now.”    In an instant, the completely substantial Vargas and the almost completely insubstantial captain are gone.

The others settle back into their seats.  “It’s not ever going to happen,” Rafe says.  He has put the knife away.  “She’s not going back to that setting again.”

“She should come back to ours,”  Heris Serrano says.   “There’s a lot more she could do.  Sure, the younger ones might find another series to transfer into, but what about the older ones?”

“Like you?”  Livadhi sneers.  He often sneers now, with no need to disguise his true nature.

“Like Lady Cecelia,” Heris says, not looking at him.  “She still likes horses, but she hasn’t made a place for people like Cecelia in the new series.”

“Thank all the gods,” Rafe says.  “I rode a horse at summer camp once.   They smell, they can hurt you badly, and they’re ecologically unsound.”

“I don’t know,” Ky says, settling into the chair beside him.   “I had fun on horses.  I tried to talk her into including horses in this new book, but she’s really stubborn.   Does not listen to characters.”  Around the tables, nodding heads.    Mutters of “Right” and “That’s the truth!”

“Is it finally done, Ky?”  Heris asks.

Ky shakes her head.  “Not quite.  Editor hasn’t approved it.  Got my fingers crossed one particular scene won’t be edited out.  Vargas would like it; she has that mean streak and I got to make use of it this time.”

“You did last time, when you killed Osman.”

“Yeah, but this time she had a different twist to it.  You’ll see.  I hope.”

“Have you ever wanted to do something she wouldn’t let you do?  Or is it more she pushes you into doing what you don’t want to do?”   The man they know as “the Professor” is now at one end of the table with a tankard of beer.  He looks like he should be with the fantasy characters, but he’s firmly in the SF group and hasn’t been cast in the others.

The answers come thick and fast, tumbling over each other and it boils down to “Both” but more “pushing” than “stopping.”

“She threatened me with losing the lead,” Ky says.  It’s the first time she’s admitted this; until she was cast again in the new book, she wasn’t about to admit that blot (even if only potential) so early in her career.   “Said I wasn’t putting all of myself into it, and she had to know my worst secret.”

“She does that,” Heris said.  “And she won’t let you off the hook.”  More nods around the table and then everyone is looking at Ky expectantly.

“What?  You think I’ll tell you ghouls?  So you can ruin my next contract?  Forget it.”  She turns to Rafe.   “I think I hear her calling us.”

“Chicken!” the others chorus as Ky and Rafe vanish.





09 Apr 00:25


by Elizabeth

Well, probably. Sortakinda done. At 1:30 this afternoon, I made my final staggering plunge through the muck and mire to the finish line, having untangled various tangles and discovered yet more typos. I’d been up until 2:30 am Friday morning (NOT, mutter mutter, going out to photograph peak bluebonnets and plains nipple cactus, mutter mutter) and was back up before 8, unwillingly settling in to work again. Yesterday was gorgeous, clear and just cool enough. Today was mostly cloudy, so less temptation to go out, but a lot of stiffness and temptation to go back to bed. Which I did after coming to the end for the umpteenth time.

For those who think they’d really like to see all the drafts, especially the stuff thrown out…no, you really wouldn’t. OK, some of you, the kind who would be glad to be handed the kitchen waste cans after dinner so you could decide if the chef cut off a millimeter too much or too little of the fat on the rack of lamb, and whether the nubs of the carrots looked fresh…you might enjoy it. But most of us are far better off not knowing, so the story itself can come onstage, twirl about, do some high kicks and leaps, and disappear again without being encumbered by the “mistakes and accidents of surgery” (book type, at least.) (And yes, I have a real book titled Mistakes and Accidents of Surgery, written by a surgeon for the education of medical students, so they can avoid being in the next edition.)

I’ve had a nap. I’m going to eat supper–leisurely. I am not staying up late to work on the book, which is what I’ve been doing night after night until after midnight. Tomorrow, if it’s not pouring rain, I’ll be out in the field with binoculars and camera. If it’s pouring rain, I’ll be knitting and cooking. And another nap will be taken.

So now, what bits of science-y stuff can I add to your end-of-week reading? Well, there’s the report in this week’s NATURE that Daylight Savings Time isn’t good for most people, that we are neurologically wired to _not_ adjust to the twice-yearly demands to change our circadian rhythms. I’ve been saying that for years. It gets harder every year to recover from the process. Someday when I’m old and crankier, I’m going to quit paying attention to it at all. (Who cares when an 80 year old gets up, eats breakfast, etc? As long as you stay out of a medical facility, which I have every intention of doing.

There’s a fairly stupid (my term) gleeful commentary by one Adam Briggs, who not only favors the “sugar tax” now being imposed in some countries, but thinks the next target should be red meat, because red meat has a big carbon footprint. As a grassland ecology citizen scientist doing prairie restoration, this is taking an H-bomb to a mosquito. There are people who tout a vegetarian, if not vegan, diet for all as being the solution to feeding a global population. Those people are not ecologists. In terms of red meat, those people are not grassland ecologists.   (As it turns out the “cut” function doesn’t work as well in this theme as it did in my earlier themes, you’re stuck with the rest of the rant…but I will put in a visual barrier, though it’s not an actual cut: TO AVOID THE REST OF THE LONG BUT INFORMATIVE RANT, STOP READING HERE. )

Grassland is a valuable biome for many, many reasons: it’s sustainable with minimal fossil fuel use in management, it is excellent at erosion prevention and control, it transports rainwater into groundwater better than other soils, providing well-filtered springwater and thus cleaner streams, and it sustains its herbivores at levels that provide quality protein for human use. Converting natural grassland to cropping risks increasing soil erosion, nutrient dumping into water courses, removal of groundwater for irrigation, and desertification with encroachment of shrub species as a transition before full desertification. This happened in the United States, leading to the Dust Bowl. This has happened in Africa and Asia; the disappearance of the valuable mid-continental surface waters in Asia (Caspian and Aral seas) is due to the conversion of native grassland to agriculture using irrigation. Converting natural grassland to heavily populated cities, suburbs, industrial parks, etc. destroys all the ecosystem benefits that the natural grassland provides (lawn grass requires supplemental water and does not move rainwater into the groundwater.)

Natural grasslands–especially mid and short-grass–should be maintained for their many region-wide ecological services, and to do that…you need grazers. Grazers fertilize the grassland at a healthy level (low intensity, infrequent in a well-managed grassland.) Grassland needs to be grazed at a sustainable level to keep it grass land. You can attempt to mimic the effect with mowing, but mowing requires the use of fossil fuels, which contributes to global warming, and leaves more plant debris on the ground, rather than converted into fertilizer. Grazers need their population managed to prevent overgrazing (which is injurious)…which means either a size range of predators (some for the mice, some for the large herbivores) or human intervention. Hence: grass-fed grazers, which provide quality protein for humans as well as wolves, foxes, various wild cats. Whether wild or domestic, these animals can be managed for the health of the grassland ecosystem and their innate reproductive rate means that harvesting meat is both necessary and sustainable.

Taxing red meat to drive up the price will make it harder for low-income people to get the good complete protein they and their children need, while putting more pressure on owners of existing permanent pasture to convert them to cropland or sell to developers.

Yes, there’s a lot wrong with how meat is produced: cutting down rainforest is a bad idea. Feeding cattle corn and soybeans instead of grass is a bad idea, both ecologically and for the animals and those who eat them. Soybeans and corn both use more water than native grass (as well as needing the use of fossil fuels during their cultivation for livestock feed.) And eating grain and beans instead of grass and forbs mixed produces meat with a different protein/fat composition, as well as non-natural gut flora that is more dangerous to humans. Cheap mass-produced meat from cattle fed unnatural feeds and crowded so they require antibiotics and hormones…a bad idea. But damning red meat because of how it’s currently produced is stupid, and risks losing more of the planet’s important grassland biome.

Instead, sustainable production on natural, existing grasslands should be promoted, from farmers in Cumbria and Wales in the UK feeding out lambs to ranchers in the US West selling beef direct off the prairie.   Production close to consumption is a better goal–and will lessen the carbon footprint more– than eliminating an entire category of food (and its supporting ecosystem.)   Two principles top the list: water resource management as the foundation of maintaining a health grassland ecosystem, and ensuring adequate food for the lowest income citizens first.


03 Feb 11:16

Submitting Like a Man

by Steven Harper Piziks

Steven Harper PiziksI found this blog extremely interesting.

The short version is, an editor realized that when she rejected a manuscript but said she liked the author’s work and wanted to see more of it, male writers were more likely to send something else right away, while female authors often waited months to submit something–or never submitted anything at all.  Men, the editor muses, seem to be more focused on getting their work in front of an editor, while women read too much into the editor’s letter: “Is it rude to send something else right away? Will I seem desperate?  Maybe I should wait a while so I don’t seem pushy.”  And then they don’t submit, or they wait so long to submit, the editor forgets who they are.

Let me chime in to say: DON’T WAIT.  If an editor rejects you with a letter that basically says, “This isn’t what we’re looking for, but I like your work and would like to see more,” the unwritten addition is, “and do it now, before I forget who the heck you are.”

Editors (and agents) are sumptuously busy.  They receive hundreds, even thousands, of manuscripts every month.  If one pauses to say she likes your writing, YOU HAVE HER EAR!  But it won’t last long.  All that busy-ness will overwhelm her shortly, and she’ll completely forget that delightful little piece you wrote about your grandmother’s hilarious hoarding habit.

“But,” you ask, “if my writing was so delightful and she liked it so much, why did she reject THIS piece?”

Who knows?  Maybe it was too long or too short for her current inventory.  Maybe your protagonist was a were-kitten, and she already has a whole bunch of were-kitten stories and can’t use another one for a couple years.  Maybe you sent an historical fantasy piece, and they don’t publish historical fantasy.  Maybe the writing was almost there, and the editor thinks your next piece might make it.  Ultimately, WHY DO YOU CARE?  Send the next freakin’ piece, and send it NOW!

Look, a manuscript is your job interview with an editor (or agent).  Based on your work, the editor will decide whether or not to hire you.  If you had applied at a traditional job and at the conclusion the interviewer said, “You’re not quite what we need for this position, but I like your qualifications, and we have another job coming up that might fit.  You should apply for it,” what would you do?  A) Wonder if it’s too pushy to apply for the job right away and decide to wait a few months instead; or B) Rush down to Human Resources to make sure your application lands on the interviewer’s desk within the hour?


Send something else, and send it NOW.

–Steven Harper Piziks

DANNY on sale now at Book View Cafe.

Danny Large


02 Sep 11:15

Query letters

by Patricia Wrede

Query letters are trickier than they ought to be, considering that they are only one page long. The fundamental problem is that everyone who sends out a query letter is desperate, and that includes writers who have long publication track records. Because the reason you’re sending out a query, whether you’re Jane Wannabe or Jane Austen, is that you have an unsold novel that you really, really want to sell (or get representation for).

Desperate people do desperate things. In extreme cases, they get “creative” – they print their murder-mystery query on the back of a photocopy of the game board for “Clue,” or they put colorful little stickers of stars and fireworks everywhere they say something they think is important, or they write their query in LOLCATZ or emoticons. All of these are one-way trips straight to the recycle bin (whether that’s a physical wastebasket or the electronic symbol in the corner of your computer screen).

Less desperate people write query letters that sound like the teaser blurb on the back of a novel: lots of generalities, giving away very little of the plot. “A thrilling fantasy romance with mystery elements that will keep you on the edge of your seat and have you reaching for the tissues” does not actually say anything about the plot, and in fact gives the impression that the author wants to keep as many genre doors open as possible.

Do not do these things. Instead, try applying some of the following principles:

  1. Follow the directions.

If the publisher/agency guidelines say to send your literary and science fiction queries to Joe, your nonfiction and mystery queries to Jane, and your Romance and men’s boxing novel queries to Zoe, do not send your Romance to Jane, your SF novel to Zoe, or your nonfiction to Joe. If the guidelines say they want a letter and one-page outline, send them that. If they say to include the name of your high school math teacher, include it.

Some incredibly huge number of queries and submissions get rejected every day, out of hand, because the writer decided that the rules didn’t apply to them. So even if you are absolutely, positively, certain-sure that your query will work better if you send a two-page letter, or a portion-and-outline, or a picture of your dog instead of the letter the guidelines ask for, don’t. Think of it as a test to see if you can follow directions.

Oh, and if they ask for a query letter, they mean one normal letter-sized page (or the equivalent in email). If they say they don’t look at email, don’t send them one.

  1. Tell the truth.

If you have written a horror novel with a romantic subplot, don’t claim it’s a Romance. If you’ve written a Romance set on Mars in 2218, don’t claim it’s science fiction. Most especially, if you have written a novel in one genre and put in elements that you think are compatible with some other genre that you do not read, don’t query your second genre unless and until you’ve read enough of it to understand it.

Most people who run afoul of this principle don’t know that they’re not telling the truth. They started with the idea of writing a tense thriller focusing on the way Joe rescues the President, and didn’t notice when the focus changed to the President’s daughter and her relationship with her Dad. They picked a bloodthirsty warrior as their main character, worked really hard at doing a truthful, realistic portrayal, and are amazed when 90% of their readers think she’s the villain.

So try to look at your work as if you were coming at it fresh; if you can’t manage that, find somebody who knows nothing about it and get them to read it, then ask basic questions like “Who do you think is the hero? The villain? What genre do you think it is? How would you describe it to somebody else?” If their answers don’t line up with your intentions, go back and look at your story again, and rewrite your query accordingly.

  1. Stick to facts.

“This is a funny, fantastical novel with engaging characters that will truly inspire and enlighten everyone who reads it” provides the editor with the following facts about what you are submitting: You have written a novel; it has some characters. Neither of those things is particularly useful for an editor or agent to know, and everything else in that sentence is your opinion about your book. Likewise, saying that your story is riveting, cool, important, sexy, charming, cozy, or sweet provides no actual facts about your book.

Facts about the book include word count and that it is finished/completed. Facts about the story include the name of the main character(s), the central story problem and its solution, the place and time where the story takes place, and as many of the major turning points as you can fit in what remains of your two paragraphs. Subplots and minor turning points are also facts, but you don’t have room for them.

Comparing your story to the works of other writers, as in “…in the style of Jane Austen” is generally problematic. If you compare your work to well-known or bestselling writers, you look conceited; if you compare your work to writers who have sold less well, the editor may be unfamiliar with them, which is likely to make them feel grumpy. Grumpy editors are not inclined to ask for manuscripts, especially if they think the manuscript will make them feel stupid.

  1. Keep it specific.

The things that make your story unique are the specifics. “A young wife rejects her boring husband and has a series of affairs” could describe any number of books; “Young Madame Bovary, bored with the French countryside and her earnest physician husband, tries to satisfy her longing for the glamor of Paris through a series of increasingly indiscreet affairs, which eventually destroy her” can only be one.

In a query letter, adjectives are often necessary. You only have two paragraphs, and it takes a lot less space to write “The lovely Miss Bennet” than to spend several lines specifically describing Miss Bennet’s willowy figure, wide gray eyes, oval face, high cheekbones, etc. On the other hand, heroines are usually assumed to be lovely, so in a query the writer can ditch the first two words and just write “Miss Bennet.”

This leaves a little extra room for replacing “After a long, dangerous journey to…” with “On the journey, they are attacked by bandits, caught in a landslide, swept away by a flood, and kidnapped by pirates before reaching…”

You need to be specific, but you don’t have to be detailed – in fact, you can’t be, because you only have about 150 words in which to convey the key points in your book. Remember, if you can give a perfectly accurate and complete summary of your entire 100,000 word manuscript in 150 words, you probably have a lot more padding in your book than you want to believe. Also, everyone else is in the same boat.

  1. Make it correct.

Spell check your letter or email. Then proofread it. Then give it to three English-major friends to proofread for grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Fix it and spell check it again. Double-check the facts. Oh, and did you spell your name correctly? How about the agent’s/editor’s name? The typos you miss are always in the worst possible places…

23 Sep 11:00

Little things

by Patricia Wrede

The subject matter of a story is seldom what really makes it interesting to a reader. A great idea that can be summed up in one tantalizing sentence may attract attention, but what keeps the reader going past the first page is a combination of the subject matter, the way the story is told, and whatever the particular reader brings to the story in terms of life experience, curiosity, prior knowledge, personal taste, and a dozen other things. The writer can only control two out of those three things, the subject matter and the way the story is told, and of those two, the subject matter is the least important. Done right, the hero/heroine’s struggle to save a stray dog or repair an old house can be riveting, while his/her desperate attempts to save the universe can end up being dull and boring.

Yet a lot of writers, especially genre writers, seem to believe that the only stories worth writing are “big” stories and/or wildly original ideas. They act as if no readers will be interested unless the hero/heroine isn’t dealing with shattering, life-changing events…preferably large-scale events that affect the whole town, the whole country, or the whole world.

Which is fine, if that’s the kind of story the writer is interested in writing. It becomes a problem when writers think they have to write about something big…especially if they define “something big” as Saving The World, when what they really want to write about is the way their main character deals with finding a birthday gift for their kid after a car breakdown has just wiped out the family budget. And it’s a problem because, in my experience, 95% of writers do a better job when they are writing about things that interest them, things they love reading, things they want to write about.

Doing the best possible job is important because, as I mentioned earlier, it’s actually more important than the subject matter. A well-told story is more likely to sell and be read than one that is clumsy, regardless of how original or dramatic the fundamental idea or situation is. It’s just a bit less obvious to some folks what “well-told” means when the central story problem is small, quiet, and personal rather than world-changing.

The basic technique for getting the reader involved is the same in both cases: presenting the reader with a character who is interesting and/or sympathetic, and for whom this particular small, quiet, personal problem is important for reasons that are understandable and believable. It isn’t necessary to exaggerate the importance of saving a puppy into something that must matter to the whole world, or even to all the other characters in the story. In fact, when the writer suddenly throws in the fact that the alien starship will destroy the Earth if they don’t get that puppy back in good shape, it usually doesn’t work very well (though it would be a fine twist in the right sort of comedy).

The reason upping the ante with an alien threat doesn’t work is that what the main character has, presumably, been caring about in the story so far is the puppy, not the whole Earth. Sure, anybody worthy of being a main character ought to care about the Earth being destroyed, if only because they will go up with it. But if the writer has done a proper job of getting the reader involved, the reader is already invested in the well-being of the puppy. Yeah, we also care about the Earth not getting blown up, but that’s not the story we thought we were reading. The focus of the central story problem has shifted so abruptly that it gave everybody mental whiplash.

Usually, this kind of thing happens either because the author got cold feet halfway through the story and decided their original small idea just wasn’t enough, or because the author got to a point in the plot where some major twist had to happen, and to them “major” means that it must be large-scale, regardless of the context so far. But “a major turn in the plot” always has to be considered in the context of the story that is being told. If the plot revolves around an eleven-year-old kid trying to get a pet puppy, the big twist has to be “big” in the context of the story. It needs to introduce an obstacle that seems insurmountable to the eleven-year-old protagonist. Getting mugged by the school bully, who takes the money the kid was going to use to buy the puppy, would work just fine, because it is a problem that is in the same scale as the story. A sudden threat to blow up the Earth is a lot harder to make work in a book about saving a puppy, because it’s almost always too big for the story so far. Sometimes, proper foreshadowing and setup can make it work, but only when the aliens are the real central story problem…in which case, the book isn’t actually about saving a puppy at all.

The other common reason for this kind of whiplash-inducing shift in mid-book is that the author has had a great new idea halfway through, and never goes back to harmonize the two parts of the story. When this happens, one can go back to the first half and put in some setup, so that the change in focus is more gradual and satisfyingly foreshadowed; one can tone down the second half so that it is closer to the tone and scale of the first half (OK, the aliens aren’t threatening to blow up Earth; they just want the puppy as a pet for one of their kids); or one can separate the two ideas and write one story about an eleven-year-old who wants a puppy, and a different story about an eleven-year-old who saves the world from alien invaders.

Of course, there’s a long tradition of opening books with a relatively small problem that leads the main character deeper and deeper into the weeds, until the true, world-shattering threat is revealed. Unfortunately, this really only works when the world-shattering threat is meant to have been the central story problem all along, and has been properly foreshadowed. By the time Frodo gets out of the Shire, I doubt that there’s a reader left who really believes that the central story problem is getting the Ring to Rivendell, even if they couldn’t guess from the number of pages left.

20 Feb 01:17

Umberto Eco, 1932-2016

I will never get over the time he managed to open a book with an untranslated, unglossed wall of text in Hebrew, for an English-language novel, and the book became a famous international bestseller.

He visited my college, way back when, and read from Baudolino, which was his work in progress at the time. He read the chapter first in Italian, which I do not really speak and faked less well then, and after the standing ovation had died down he read the chapter again in English, which was entirely unnecessary, because everyone there had understood every word he said. It was a bit in which there is a rockslide, and you could hear all of it in the language: the initial dropping boulders as the protagonists' feet set them off, the pauses as they tried to slow down and tiptoe and move through the area more carefully, the ominous crackings underneath the pack animals, the sliding overwhelming crashes and the overall roar as the land fell down into the valley and they all went with it... I mean here that if you played this chapter to somebody who didn't know it was speech, they would register the noises, the way the syllables work together, as being an onomatopoeic depiction of a rockslide, regardless of the actual semantics. It wasn't as good in English-- I don't think Eco translated it himself, because he wasn't really English-fluent-- though the translator had clearly known what was supposed to be happening and made a valiant attempt. In Italian it was one of the two or three best readings I have ever heard a person give, revelatory, the kind of thing that expands the possibilities of language itself.

Afterward we all stood in a line for autographs, and I attempted to express something of how impressed I was by that reading, mostly I think by waving my arms a lot, and then something happened which was even more memorable, and which I am probably not going to manage to express in a way that makes it make sense.

None of the words I can use to flatly describe this situation have any of the right connotations. None of them. Even when I just limit myself to physical descriptions of actions taken, you're not going to get it, because they sound completely wrong. But I am going to have to start there.

Umberto Eco grinned at my hand-waving enthusiasm and attempts to say something about Greek and Latin poetic meters (both of which he had used in the passage in question), shook my hand, kissed my hand, signed my book, looked intently and delightedly down the front of my shirt (I have a chest tattoo; my default shirts have a lot of cleavage) for at least thirty seconds, and moved on to the next person in line.

You now have the wrong impression.

Here is an attempt to unpack the situation:

Me: *is enthusiastic and delighted in a language Eco does not speak, using vocabulary which is international, because the names of Greek and Latin poetic meters are basically recognizable no matter which modern language you are speaking*

Eco: *understands that I am being enthusiastic and delighted in a language he does not speak, and recognizes the vocabulary which means that I have understood and am happy about a specific, honestly rather esoteric aspect of the complicated thing he is trying to do*

Eco: *shakes my hand, making eye contact, firmly, in a manner which emphasizes that he is pleased to meet me and happy to hear what I have to say, but which also indicates his inability to continue the conversation in the manner which he would like and which would be the logical followup*

Me: *realizes oh of course he doesn't speak enough English for this what was I thinking gah* *starts to feel and look slightly embarrassed*

Eco: *kisses my hand, maintaining eye contact, indicating firmly that no! no! you should absolutely have said that! I am so glad that somebody understood and took the time to comment on that aspect of my work, and I am genuinely grateful that we are interacting in this way! I respect you very much for bringing it up!*

Eco: *signs book* *hands book to me with air of 'now that required bit is over with'* *manages to communicate to me, as far as I can tell psychically, 'I do not want to stop interacting with you, but there are all these other people, and we have this language barrier! What can I do that will register as a continuation of genuine human contact, be fast, and indicate admiration for you and this situation? I know!'*

Eco: *looks down my shirt for at least thirty seconds*

Line: *moves on*

Me, internally: oh my lord he actually managed to do that in a way that indicated that he was genuinely doing it as a stand-in because he respected my intellect. I... I believe him. That was... that was actually what he meant. I have never been leered at so politely in all my life. How did he do that. How was that not creepy. That was... that was not creepy in any way (and this was back when my PTSD and general skittishness were way the hell worse, especially in public and when I didn't know people). How.

A friend, right afterwards: So how was meeting Eco?

Me: He looked down my shirt! It was--

Friend: HE WHAT.

Me: No! It wasn't like that, it-- I am never going to be able to adequately explain this to anybody, am I. *sighs*

And from that day to this, no one has ever leered at me in such a non-creepy, intensely affirming, intellectually welcoming, genuinely supportive and delightful manner. I wouldn't believe it myself if he hadn't done the thing with the Italian reading immediately previously. But anyone who can do that is some kind of ludicrous language wizard; I think he could have done that reading literally anywhere on the planet and they would have understood it. So him doing the wildly impossible again right afterwards somehow seemed, well, a bit more likely.

I have spent the rest of my life proud and delighted that I was once ogled by Umberto Eco. Truly, the world has lost something in this man.

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11 Mar 06:44

Five for Friday: Five Bits of My Art

I could use some happymaking things right now, and I have been looking back through my art for pieces to make into/make back into fridge magnets, so here's a tiny survey.

The Old King's Crown

I always wanted a version like this, that looked ancient with the rainbow the only spot of color. It took three programs but I did it.

My favorite of Wolf's songs is The Old King's Crown, and over the years I've drawn a bunch of versions of this sequel/illustration image. This is one of the earliest, edited years later to redo the rainbow crown. I like the combination of subtly shaded hand drawing and vibrant supernatural rainbow.

Metropolitan Girls

Metropolitan Girls, 2000 BCE (2004)

I sat down one day with, of all things, a piece of cardboard out of a pantyhose package, and made this, still one of my favorite drawings. I wanted to convey the intricate cultural and ethnic diversity of the Mediterranean Bronze Age, and I tend to draw women by default. SO I drew a bunch of pretty maidens in pretty clothes, because. :)

Minoan Youth


I included this as an example of my sketches meant never to be colored in. It's just a sketch of a vivacious boy bouncing along. (Also, note his body proportions, which are rather more feminine than they should be, strictly speaking. His waist is high, his arms are long, his jaw is narrow, etc. I just like drawing women.)

Iris upon the Rainbow


When I got back into drawing in 2012, after some years of drawing only infrequently, I downloaded a wonderful program called Paintbrush, basically MS Paint for Apple computers. I made this in that program. I mean, the basic shape of her was drawn by hand and scanned -- I can't draw such shapes with a mouse and I don't feel like I should buy a tablet. (Maybe when E gets a little older I'll get her a tablet...) If you look closely at the stripes on her dress you can see that they are 'spraypainted', dark colors speckling a ehite background. It took something like a month to draw all that. It's so worth it.

New Minoan Recursion Picture

destined to become a recursive artwork

As if I needed any more projects, but... the other day I was thinking about two of my obsessions, the Minoans and recusrive images. I really love the pictures of people holding pictures of themselves, ad infinitum, so I managed to draw this girl and, once I've cleaned up the image and added her jewelry, etc, I'm going to put a little version of her on her hand... then shrink the whole thing and put it onto her hand, twice over, for at least three if not four layers of recursion. (If I can I'll do more.) Maybe I'll make both a color and a B&W version of this.

(in my copious free time.)
17 Feb 20:24

"As a child of immigrants my cultural capital isn’t viewed as important, just exotic."

“As a child of immigrants my cultural capital isn’t viewed as important, just exotic.”

- Accidentally laid out what everything I write about is actually about in a short piece from ages ago. (via jasondike)
25 Feb 06:40

Concise History

by wjw

Hey, it’s Bill Wurtz’s History of Japan!  Which is concise and funny and, so far as I know, accurate.


16 Feb 04:05

Astronaut graffiti found in Apollo 11 command module

by livius drusus

Smithsonian staff have discovered graffiti written on the inside walls of the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia. The command module, the only part of the Apollo 11 spacecraft to return to Earth after Neil Armstrong took that giant step for mankind on July 20th, 1969, was transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1970. It is on display in the Milestones of Flight Hall but visitors and scholars can only see the outside of it. To allow people to explore the inside of the historic vessel, experts with the Smithsonian’s 3D Digitization Program have been 3D scanning the command module. It was during the scanning process that the notes left by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins during the first manned lunar landing voyage were seen for the first time in 50 years.

The writings include numerical calculations, a calendar, labels and notes. One panel to left of the sextant and telescope has figures and other notes copied from Houston mission control audio transmissions. Researchers will compare the notes to recordings and transcripts of the voice transmissions to determine who took the notes, when and what the figures mean. Initial comparisons have already found that the notes on the right side of the lower panel are coordinates sent from mission control that were estimates (inaccurate ones, as it happens) of the Lunar Module’s location on the Moon. The main control panel is also peppered with notes, mainly numbers, which will also be compared to mission control records in order to figure out their meaning and author.

Some of the notes show how the astronauts had to think on their feet and improvise a little once they were in space. NASA had detailed lists of where everything was to be stored and there are stowage maps on the walls of the command module. The astronauts took liberties with the plans, however, and wrote their own labels on several of the lockers. One of the stowage lockers, for example, was meant to store equipment related to the waste management system, but the astronauts repurposed it to hold filled urine bags from launch day before the waste disposal system was operational. They wisely labeled the locker with its contents so there would be no nasty surprises.

The calendar is my favorite because it captures the very human excitement of the moment. It’s a small rectangle with two rows of seven boxes. Nine of the boxes have dates in them, the dates of the mission, July 16th through 24th. All of the dates are crossed out except for the last one. Splashdown day never did get crossed off.

“As curator of what is arguably one of the most iconic artifacts in the entire Smithsonian collection, it’s thrilling to know that we can still learn new things about Columbia,” said Allan Needell, curator of space history at the museum. “This isn’t just a piece of machinery, it’s a living artifact.”

Laser scanning the interior and exterior of this living artifact has not been an easy task. Made primarily of aluminum alloy, stainless steel and titanium, the Apollo 11 command module is one big reflective surface which the scanners have difficulty reading. Add to that the complexity of the dashboards with their multiple small, delicate switches and indicators and buttons and the standard 3D capture tools weren’t going to cut it.

Because of the complicated nature of this scan, the Smithsonian 3D team brought in its technology partner, Autodesk Inc. Autodesk, a leader in cloud-based design and engineering software, deployed specially designed equipment to scan the artifact, and its advanced Memento software was able to process complex data from multiple 3-D capture devices to create one highly detailed and accurate model.

The model is a work in progress at the moment. It’s scheduled to be completed in June when it will be uploaded to the Smithsonian’s excellent site. That same month a major renovation of the Milestones of Flight Hall will be finished and the Apollo 11 Command Module will be temporarily taken off view. It will go back on display in 2020 in the museum’s new, state-of-the-art Destination Moon exhibition. The 3D model will be used to create an interactive display for the new exhibition.

Here is an early preview of the 3D model still in progress.


17 Feb 04:19

Lost cantata by Mozart and Salieri found in Prague

by livius drusus

A long-lost composition co-written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri has been rediscovered in the Czech National Museum in Prague. German musicologist and composer Timo Jouko Herrmann found the piece last month while doing research on Antonio Salieri in the collection of the Czech Museum of Music. It’s a libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Venetian priest and poet who wrote the librettos for three of Mozarts most beloved operas — Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte — and published by printer to the Imperial court in Vienna Joseph von Kurzböck. Very unusually for a libretto, this one includes the sheet music in a simple piano arrangement. Mozart and Salieri’s names do not appear anywhere in the pamphlet, only their initials in the musical notation identifying which measures were written by which composer. There is also a third composer credited, one Cornetti, who is unknown under that name.

The piece is entitled Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia (“For the recovered health of Ophelia”) and was written in 1785. The Ophelia in question was Nancy Storace, an English coloratura soprano who was friends with and muse to both Mozart and Salieri. The daughter of Stefano Storace, an Italian double bass player and composer who would become the musical director of Vauxhall Gardens in London, and Elizabeth Trusler, daughter of the owner of the concert venue Marylebone Gardens, Nancy was a musical prodigy from a very young age. She gave her first public performance when she was eight years old and debuted at London’s Haymarket Theatre the next year. Her older brother Stephen was also a child prodigy, taught by his father to play violin so expertly that by the age of 10 he was performing the most complex, difficult pieces of the time.

Stefano sent Stephen to Naples to study composition and in 1778 Nancy and her parents joined him there. Nancy traveled to Venice to take voice lessons from composer Antonio Sacchini and began getting professional gigs, rapidly rising from minor parts to leads and becoming something of a sensation. While still a teenager in 1782 she performed the role of Dorina in the Milan premiere of Giuseppe Sarti’s opera Fra I Due Litiganti Il Terzo Gode, a part that Sarti wrote specifically for her, to great acclaim.

When in 1783 Austrian Emperor Joseph II decided to put together a company dedicated to performances of Italian opera buffa (comic opera), he snapped up the 18-year-old Nancy Storace for his prima donna. Her brother Stephen came on as a composer. The inaugural production of the emperor’s new Italian Opera company was La Scuola de’ Gelosi by Antonio Salieri. Nancy played the lead role of the Countess. She enchanted audiences and composers alike with her talent and beauty.

Stefano Storace had died in 1780 or 1781, so Nancy’s mother Elizabeth went with her children to Vienna in 1783. Elizabeth arranged for her daughter to marry composer John Abraham Fisher who was 22 years her senior, more than double her age. It was an unmitigated disaster. Within months after their wedding on March 24th, 1784, rumors were flying around Vienna that Fisher was physically abusing Nancy. Emperor Joseph banished Fisher from the city and that was the end of the marriage, but the consequences of this ill-fated match far outlasted it.

In June of 1785, Stephen Storace’s first opera, Gli Sposi Malcontenti premiered with Nancy in the lead. Suddenly, in the middle of an aria, Nancy lost her voice. The performance had to be cut short. A few weeks later she gave birth to a daughter, Josepha Fisher. Elizabeth Storace wanted nothing to do with the child. She left her with a foundling hospital and reportedly announced that neither she nor Nancy cared if Josepha lived or died. The baby girl only lived a month.

It took Nancy five months for her voice to recover enough for her to be able to perform again. On October 12th, 1785, she returned to the stage singing the part of Ofelia in Salieri’s opera La Grotta di Trofonio. To celebrate her return, Mozart, Salieri and the mysterious Cornetti (possibly Nancy’s brother Stephen) composed Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia. Unfortunately Nancy’s health was not fully recovered. It’s a testament to how beloved she was that Mozart and Salieri both tweaked their operas to accommodate her new vocal limitations. Mozart worked with her on the music for The Marriage of Figaro which debuted on May 1st, 1786, with Nancy as Susanna. He had to lower the pitch of certain parts to ensure Nancy’s voice would hold up.

Less than a year later, Nancy left Vienna to return to London. Mozart wrote the aria Ch’io mi scordi di te? (“You ask that I forget you?”) for her farewell concert in Vienna on February 23rd, 1787. Nancy Storace went on to have a very successful career in London, but her voice never was the same.

We know from period newspaper ads that copies of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia were printed and distributed in Vienna by music publishers Artaria & Co., but none were known to survive. Not even the text of Da Ponte’s libretto, a 30 stanza pastoral poem, could be found. The rediscovery of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia underscores that Mozart and Salieri were on good terms in 1785, even though a few years earlier Mozart had written in letters to his father of his frustration with the Italian cabal at the Viennese court. He thought Salieri, Da Ponte and other Italians who had the ear of the Emperor were blocking his ascent, but by 1785 Mozart was well-established and was working closely with said Italians. Salieri would go out of his way to express approval of Mozart’s work, even directing performances of several of his compositions.

Nonetheless, decades after Mozart’s premature death rumors were rife that Salieri had poisoned his rival. The rumor was immortalized in art when, six years after Salieri’s 1825 death, revered Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a verse drama Mozart and Salieri that posited Salieri as the bitterly jealous poisoner of the greater man. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov set the play to music in the opera Mozart and Salieri, and playwright Peter Shaffer based his 1979 play Amadeus on Pushkin’s drama. That in turn was adapted for film in the Oscar-winning movie of the same name directed by Miloš Forman. So now when people think of Mozart and Salieri they think of a rivalry unto the death, when in fact the two men were on quite good terms. When it came to Nancy Storace, they were even collaborators.

And now, possibly for the first time and certainly for the first time in centuries, here is Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia by Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri, played on the harpsichord by Lukas Vendl.

I can’t speak Czech and there are no functioning English subtitles, so I have no idea what this Czech National Museum curator is saying, but she flips through the pages of the rediscovered work very slowly and the quality of the film is good enough that you can get an excellent look at the libretto and the fold-out music.


19 Jan 17:20

Why aren’t there more women in the SFF section?

by Mary Robinette Kowal

During my travels, I started to notice that SFF sections in airport bookstores had disturbingly few women. So at a certain point, I started taking photos and counting. In this informal survey, only 18% of the books on sale were by women.* I should note that gender is not the only disparity in bookstores, it was just the one that I could count while waiting for an airplane.

This is what the airport SFF sections in bookstores look like.Survey of gender in SFF bookstores

It’s easy to chalk this up to something like, “Well, women don’t write as much SFF.” The problem is that I know that the gender breakdown for published SFF in the US doesn’t support that.  According to Strange Horizons, in 2014, 53.9% were by men and 42% were by women and non-binary authors.

So why, then, were the numbers so disparate?

Fortunately, after one of my tweets, Christine Thompson, the buyer at Barbara’s Bookstore reached out. This is the only bookstore that got in touch with me. (And please note, the improvement in their numbers after I brought the matter to her attention.) She agreed to sit down with me and talk about the problem.

As we talked, it became clear that the fault doesn’t rest with a single source. It’s the result of a ton of decisions, each of which is probably fueled by unconscious bias and then reinforced by a feedback loop.

For instance… When airport booksellers are stocking books, they look at multiple factors, one of which is the print run numbers. Higher print runs mean that the publishers have more faith in that book, ergo, it will probably sell well.

When publishers have an investment in a book, they are more likely to invest co-op dollars in it. Which essentially means that they pay for endcaps and placement of certain authors. Those books sell better, because they are out in front of readers.

SFF has a long history of bestsellers written by men. So men often have higher print runs, which means… You see the cycle?

And while one can say that it’s all economics, and it’s about what people want to buy, it’s much harder to buy a book that’s not in front of you. And certainly, not all men get huge print runs. Being a guy doesn’t guarantee a stellar publishing career, but… it does stack the deck 82% in their favor.

One of the questions that came up was: “Is it the big houses?” They are the ones with the co-op dollars. I have no idea what the gender breakdown of SFF is by publishing house, but Christine thought that might account for some of the disparity. The big houses are the ones with the most money in the way of co-op dollars and print run sizes. Smaller houses might create the parity in terms of publishing numbers, but with smaller printruns might have a harder time getting representation into stores.

It happens again when you look at which books get reviews. Again, this is a major source for discovering new authors.

But the final thing that came up in our conversation was that, even if a bookseller wants to improve the representation in their store, it’s difficult to do so because catalogs aren’t sorted by gender.  This… this is something we can fix though.

We can crowd-source a list.

That’s right. You can help crowd-source a list of women and non-binary authors in SFF in order to help book buyers create a more balanced list for their stores. Because this disparity is reinforced by reviews, which focus on authors who are publicly identified as male, it is difficult for booksellers to discover authors who are not male identified.

(tl;dr: There are a lot of guys in the bookstores. Please don’t use this list to tell us about guys, even if they’re LGBTQ.)

So, you can add books written by women and non-binary authors through this form. (Don’t worry about duplicates, I’ll clean up the list periodically, since it’s sortable.)

You can also use the list as a discovery guide.

If you had asked me, before I started this informal survey, if a young woman should choose a male pseudonym, I would have said “Absolutely not.” I am less certain now.

*Methodology: I counted the total number of authors. Then I counted the women. If I couldn’t tell and/or didn’t know, because the author used initials or a gender neutral name, I counted them as male. The reason I did this, instead of leaving them out, is because I was looking at the perception of gender rather than actual gender. If a woman is making choices to obscure her gender, that says loads about the current environment.

Edited to add: Ro Smith, in comments, has made an excellent point about how my methodology contributes to the erasure of non-binary, agender, and genderfluid authors. When I am counting this year, I’ll be counting the three categories Ro suggested: Stereotypically male names, Stereotypically female names, and gender-non-specific names.  I encourage anyone who is also counting to do the same.

The post Why aren’t there more women in the SFF section? appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

22 Dec 06:31

OK, I have a lot of questions -- especially about how John Boyega is the only person in the new faux!Empire who learned how to use speech contractions, where did he learn that? who in Stormtrooper Training 101 taught him about jokes and sarcasm? important worldbuilding questions! -- but I don't caaaaaaare because it was so much fun and the new cast are all so charming and the characters all like each other so much?? EVERYONE LIKES AND RESPECTS EACH OTHER. Basically the new trio is just one enormous mutual admiration society. Much affection, many hugs, I'm looking very much forward to Star Wars Episode 8: The Hugs Strike Back.

Also nine-year-old Becca, who watched A New Hope and spent all her time worrying about the poor conscripted Stormtroopers, is feeling SO VINDICATED right now.

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22 Dec 13:00

The Dirac comb or Sha function

by John

shaThe sha function, also known as the Dirac comb, is denoted with the Cyrillic letter sha (Ш, U+0428). This letter was chosen because it looks like how people visualize the function, a long series of vertical spikes. The function is called the Dirac comb for the same reason. This function is very important in Fourier analysis because it relates Fourier series and Fourier transforms. It relates sampling and periodization.  It’s its own Fourier transform, and with a few qualifiers discussed later, the only such function.

The Ш function, really the Ш distribution, is defined as

sha(x) = \sum_{n=-\infty}^\infty \delta(x-n)

Here δ(xn) is the Dirac delta distribution centered at n. The action of δ(xn) on a test function is to evaluate that function at n. You can envision Ш as an infinite sequence of spikes, one at each integer. The action of Ш on a test function is to add up its values at every integer.


The product of Ш with a function f is a new distribution whose action on a test function φ is the sum of f φ over all integers. Or you could think of the distribution as a sort of clothesline on which to hang the sampled values of f, much the way a generating function works.


Next let’s look at a function f that lives on [0, 1], i.e. is zero everywhere outside the unit interval. The convolution of f with δ(xn) is f(xn), i.e. a copy of f shifted over to live on the interval [n, n+1]. So by taking the convolution with Ш, we create copies of f all over the real line. We’ve made f into a periodic function. So instead of saying “the function f extended to create a periodic function” you can simply say f*Ш.

Fourier transform

Now let’s think about the Fourier transform of Ш. The Fourier transform of δ(x) is 1, i.e. the function equal to 1 everywhere [1].  (The more concentrated a function is, the more spread out its Fourier transform. So if you have an infinitely concentrated function δ, its Fourier transform is perfectly flat, 1. You can calculate the transform rigorously, this this is the intuition.) If you shift a function by n, you rotate its Fourier transform by exp(-2πinω). So we can compute the transform of Ш:

Fourier transform of sha = \sum_{n=-\infty}^\infty \exp(-2\pi i n \omega)

This equation only makes sense in terms of distributions. The right hand side does not converge in the classical sense; the individual terms don’t even go to zero, since each term has magnitude 1. So what kind of distribution is this thing on the right side? It is in fact the Ш function again, though this is not obvious.

To see that the exponential sum is actually the Ш function, i.e. that Ш is its own Fourier transform, we need to back up a little bit and define Fourier transform of a distribution. As usual with distributions, we take a classical theorem and turn it into a definition in a broader context.

For absolutely integrable functions, we have

\int_{-\infty}^ \infty \hat{f}(x) \, \varphi(x) \, dx = \int_{-\infty}^ \infty f(x) \, \hat{ \varphi }(x) \, dx

where the hat on top of a function indicates its Fourier transform. Inspired by the theorem above, we define the Fourier transform of a distribution f to be the functional whose action on a test function φ is given below.

 \hat{f} : \varphi \mapsto \int_{-\infty}^ \infty f(x) \, \hat{ \varphi }(x) \, dx

As we noted in a previous post, the integral above can be taken literally if f is a distribution associated with an ordinary function, but in general it means the application of the linear functional to the test function.

As a distribution, exp(-2πinω) acts on a test function φ by integrating against it. From the definition of a (classical) Fourier transform, this gives the Fourier transform of φ evaluated at n. So the Fourier transform of Ш acts on φ by summing the values of φ’s Fourier transform over all integers. By the Poisson summation formula, this is the same as summing the values of φ itself over all integers. Which is the same as applying Ш. So the Fourier transform of Ш has the same effect on test functions as Ш. In other words, Ш is its own Fourier transform.


We haven’t been explicit about where our test functions come from. We require that xn φ(x) goes to zero as x goes to ±∞ for any positive integer n. These are called functions of rapid decay. And the distributions we define as linear functionals on such test functions are called tempered distributions.

The Ш distribution is essentially unique. Any tempered distribution with period 1 that equals its own Fourier transform must be a multiple of Ш.

* * *

[1] All Fourier transform calculations here use the convention I call (-1, τ, 1) in these notes on various definitions. This may be the most common definition, though there are several minor variations in common use.

Consulting help with Fourier analysis

23 Dec 12:55

John Cleese’s Advice to Young Artists: “Steal Anything You Think Is Really Good”

by Josh Jones

So you want to be a rock and roll star? Or a writer, or a filmmaker, or a comedian, or what-have-you…. And yet, you don’t know where to start. You’ve heard you need to find your own voice, but it’s difficult to know what that is when you’re just beginning. You have too little experience to know what works for you and what doesn’t. So? “Steal,” as the great John Cleese advises above, “or borrow or, as the artists would say, ‘be influenced by’ anything that you think is really good and really funny and appeals to you. If you study that and try to reproduce it in some way, then it’ll have your own stamp on it. But you have a chance of getting off the ground with something like that.”

Cleese goes on to sensibly explain why it’s nearly impossible to start with something completely new and original; it’s like “trying to fly a plane without any lessons.” We all learn the rudiments of everything we know by imitating others at first, so this advice to the budding writer and artist shouldn’t sound too radical. But if you need more validation for it, consider William Faulkner’s exhortation to take whatever you need from other writers. The beginning writer, Faulkner told a class at the University of Virginia, “takes whatever he needs, wherever he needs, and he does that openly and honestly.” There’s no shame in it, unless you fail to ever make it your own. Or, says Faulkner, to make something so good that others will steal from you.

One theory of how this works in literature comes from critic Harold Bloom, who argued in The Anxiety of Influence that every major poet more or less stole from previous major poets; yet they so misread or misinterpreted their influences that they couldn’t help but produce original work. T.S. Eliot advanced a more conservative version of the claim in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” We have a “tendency to insist,” wrote Eliot, on “those aspects or parts of [a poet’s] work in which he least resembles anyone else.” (Both Eliot and Faulkner used the masculine as a universal pronoun; whatever their biases, no gender exclusion is implied here.) On the contrary, “if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”

It may have been a requirement for Eliot that his literary predecessors be long deceased, but John Cleese suggests no such thing. In fact, he worked closely with many of his favorite comedy writers. The point he makes is that one should “copy someone who’s really good” in order to “get off the ground.” In time—whether through becoming better than your influences, or misreading them, or combining their parts into a new whole—you will, Cleese and many other wise writers suggest, develop your own style.

Cleese has liberally discussed his influences, in his recent autobiography and elsewhere, and one can clearly see in his work the impression comedic forbears like Laurel and Hardy and the writer/actors of The Goon Show had on him. But whatever he stole or borrowed from those comedians he also made entirely his own through practice and perseverance. Just above, see a television special on Cleese’s comedy heroes, with interviews from Cleese, legends who followed him, like Rik Mayall and Steve Martin, and those who worked side-by-side with him on Monty Python and other classic shows.

Related Content:

John Cleese Explores the Health Benefits of Laughter

John Cleese’s Eulogy for Graham Chapman: ‘Good Riddance, the Free-Loading Bastard, I Hope He Fries’

John Cleese’s Philosophy of Creativity: Creating Oases for Childlike Play

John Cleese, Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers Trash Priceless Art (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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23 Nov 12:22

Mathematical alchemy and wrestling

by John

David Mumford wrote a blog post a few weeks ago in which he identified four tribes of mathematicians. Here’s a summary of his description of the four tribes.

  • Explorers are people who ask — are there objects with such and such properties and if so, how many? …
  • Alchemists … are those whose greatest excitement comes from finding connections between two areas of math that no one had previously seen as having anything to do with each other.
  • Wrestlers … thrive not on equalities between numbers but on inequalities, what quantity can be estimated or bounded by what other quantity, and on asymptotic estimates of size or rate of growth. This tribe consists chiefly of analysts …
  • Detectives … doggedly pursue the most difficult, deep questions, seeking clues here and there, sure there is a trail somewhere, often searching for years or decades. …

I’m some combination of alchemist and wrestler. I suppose most applied mathematicians are. Applications usually require taking ideas developed in one context and using them in another. They take often complex things then estimate and bound them by things easier to understand.

One of my favorite proofs is Bernstein’s proof of the Weierstrass approximation theorem. It appeals to both alchemists and wrestlers. It takes an inequality from probability and uses it in an entirely different context, one with no randomness in sight, and uses it to explicitly construct an approximation satisfying the theorem.

I thought of David Mumford’s tribes when I got an email a couple days ago from someone who wrote to tell me he found in one of my tech reports a function that he’d studied in his own research. My tech report was motivated by a problem in biostatistics, while he was looking at material structural fatigue. The connection between remote fields was a bit of alchemy, while the content of the tech report, an upper bound on an integral, was a bit of wrestling.

25 Sep 23:57

Elizabeth David's Pizza al Tegame: Excellent Home-Made Pizza In Like Forty Minutes Total

So we had some mushrooms, as one does, and I was thinking about things to do with them, and I thought pizza, but for various reasons I couldn't start cooking tonight until Ruth got home from work, and all the pizza dough recipes I have take about two hours to rise. Which would have us eating at approximately the time Ruth likes to go to bed, when you add in actual cooking time.

I looked through Elizabeth David's Italian Food, because if there was a pizza variant that would rise faster it was in there, and discovered pizza al tegame, which is an entirely unyeasted pizza, requiring no rise time because it is fried. So we went from zero to dinner in about forty minutes, and this may be the best homemade pizza I have ever had, though it also tastes very different from any other pizza I've ever had period, in a way it's very hard to put a finger on. It's definitely a thin-crust pizza, of course, but it's doughier than most thin-crust, and, I mean, if I was handed this object without having made it, I would obviously call it a pizza, but it feels as though there ought to be another word. I look forward to trying it with other topping combinations, though I'm writing down mushroom because that's what we had.

Elizabeth David's Pizza al Tegame (Fried Pizza), expanded from Italian Food, pp. 123-4

Allow one 7" pizza per person, if serving nothing else.

For 2 7" pizzas:

2 tomatoes or one can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
1 clove garlic, minced
about 15 baby bella or button mushrooms
black pepper
fresh or dried basil
1 cup flour
2 tsp. baking powder
shredded mozzarella cheese
about a cup of olive oil (don't worry, it really doesn't either stick or seep in)

a frying pan of about 9" diameter

Chop and seed the tomatoes, or drain the canned ones. Get as much liquid out as you can, because you're going to be frying this, and any tomato liquid that gets into the oil will spatter and be dangerous and frightening.

Mince the garlic, and toss it with the tomatoes in a bowl, with a good pinch of salt, and black pepper and basil to taste (bearing in mind that the tastes will become stronger the longer you leave it). Set the bowl aside.

Stem the mushrooms and wipe them off with a paper towel thoroughly. Do not allow water anywhere near them-- just keep wiping until you feel all right about it. Break them into chunks with your fingers, or slice them fairly thickly.

In the frying pan, heat less than a teaspoon of olive oil over high heat, enough to barely coat the bottom if scraped over it with a spatula. Get that near the smoke point. Put the mushrooms in, in one layer, trying not to crowd them. Leave them strictly alone for one solid minute. Cook, stirring, for another two minutes, removing them from the heat instantly if you see them giving off any liquid. Steam is great. Liquid is bad. Once they look cooked, pour them into another bowl, toss with a little black pepper (NO SALT, it will make them weep) and set aside. Turn off the heat for now, and wipe any egregious mushroom residue out of the pan.

I found it easier to make the crusts one at a time because then I didn't have to split the dough, but that's me; you can do them all at once.

Anyway, for each crust, take 1/2 cup (1/4 lb.) of flour, make a well in the center of it, add 1 tsp. baking powder and a generous pinch of salt, and stir in 2 tablespoons of water. Mix it with your hand, adding more water by drops if needed, until it makes an elastic dough. Knead it for a few minutes, although not so long as to become tough, and roll or pat out into a 7" round. You can leave the round sitting for a few minutes without it drying out, but if it's going to be more than that I would recommend covering it with plastic wrap.

Take about a cup of olive oil, or enough that it will come level with the top of your disc of dough, and heat it over high in the frying pan. While it's heating, line up next to the pan your tomato mixture, your mushrooms, your cheese, your crust rounds, a cover for your pan, and a couple of plates to transfer the pizza to.

When the oil is nearly smoking, add a pizza crust, and cook, turning down heat if it seems to be going too fast, for 3-5 minutes or until golden on the bottom. Flip it. Apply the tomatoes and then mushrooms carefully with spoons in the classical pizza fashion. Cook another two minutes, and then add a thin layer of the cheese. Cover the pan until the cheese is all melted, about another three minutes. The total cooking time of each pizza is about ten minutes.

Remove from pan-- a slotted spatula is a help here-- and onto plate. Note that leftovers will have the crust toughen, so get them eaten within a couple of hours, ideally while still hot.

Elizabeth David say "An excellent variety of pizza if carefully made," and I entirely agree.

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31 Jul 20:20

Fresh vs. bottled key lime juice in a pie. A tasty, tasty experiment.

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Why, yes. I *am* making a key lime pie from scratch.While I’ve been visiting my parents, I’ve been making the occasional pie. The first night, I made a key lime pie and my youngest niece, who had never experienced one, fell in love with it. Not surprising. So, I made one the next week. It is one of the easiest pies to make, and people rave over it.

And then I spotted key limes at the grocery store.

I’d been using Key Lime juice and wondered how much of a difference using fresh limes would make. I knew it would be different, but would it be the sort of difference that only a foodie notices, or would it be apparent to everyone. So last night my dad and I juiced a pound of key limes. By hand.

At this point, I figured, if I were going to go to all that trouble, I should really make the pie from scratch and skip the sweetened condensed milk. I hit google to find out how people made key lime pie before sweetened condensed milk and… discovered that they didn’t. To my surprise, it’s been around since the 1850s. According to David L. Sloan, leading expert on key lime pies, “This pie was invented to use condensed milk. William Curry made his fortune in hardware. He provisioned ships. He brought the first condensed milk to the Keys not long after Gail Borden invented it in 1856.”

Huh. So! Without regret, I cracked open my sweetened condensed milk and got to work.

The first thing you notice about fresh key lime juice is that it has a floral character that the bottled stuff doesn’t have. Does that show up in the pie? Yes, it does. It is has fuller, more floral taste and even my dad noticed the difference. Next up? Lemon ice box pie, and I’ll be squeezing the lemons.


2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk
1 cup key lime or regular lime juice
2 whole large eggs

In a bowl, whisk the condensed milk, lime juice, and eggs. Pour into graham cracker pie shell. Bake at 325 degrees for 15 minutes. Chill for two or more hours.


The post Fresh vs. bottled key lime juice in a pie. A tasty, tasty experiment. appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

30 Aug 00:05

The moonlight it was dancing on the waves, out on the sea


All righty, then.

This is a post about magic.

As some of you may know, I have long, on-going (unrequited) love affair with the Maine resort town Old Orchard Beach.  So great was my love that, against the advice of Practically Everybody, I wrote three books (Carousel Tides, Carousel Sun, Carousel Seas) set in a just-slightly-different Maine resort town -- Archers Beach.  The major differences between the two towns, besides some liberties taken with the coastal geography, and a very little smudging along the edges of history -- one of the differences is that, in Archers Beach, magic works.

Sort of.


For some people.

And for others, who may not be, precisely, people.

The other difference is that, in Archers Beach, things are starting to turn around for the town, as the residents find renewed hope, and the energy to take up their destiny.

In Old Orchard Beach, over the years of our relationship, hope had been lost, and the residents had stopped believing in destiny.  I say this with love, and also with the understanding that love does not blind us to the loved one's faults.

An example. . .One of the centerpieces of the Carousel books is -- surprise! -- a carousel.  An old, hand-carved wooden carousel populated, granted, by some Very Odd animals, but, yes a carousel.  A carousel, in fact, that had been modeled (in the author's head) on the P(hiladelphia) T(obaggon) C(ompany) (#19, I do believe) that had been in place the very first time Steve and I visited Old Orchard Beach, many years ago.

The machine was in need of some upkeep, but old wooden carousels are expensive to keep up, and the sea air is kind to no machinery built by man.  But, it was running, the band organ was playing, and -- oh, it was grand.

The next time Steve and I got down to Old Orchard Beach, maybe a decade after that first visit (stone broke, no gas money, you know the drill), we found a changed scene.  The PTC machine was gone, and in its place was a fiberglass carousel, not as old, obviously, and. . . not very well kept.  You could see the poles shudder when the flying animals went up and down; you could hear the cranks grate.  Worse, oh, far worse!  The band organ, which had been ragged, but working, had been left too long unprotected in the seaside environment.  It was mildewed, it was cracked, it was peeling. . .it was. . .heartbreaking.

Now, the carousel in Old Orchard Beach -- the Chance Menagerie Carousel, is its name -- is part of an amusement park.  And, well. . .let's just say that, as went the carousel, so went the amusement park.  It was a sad, sad place, the last time I had been there at length, in 2012.  It needed -- oh, paint! and maintenance, and. . .hope.

Now. . .back in 2010, right around Halloween, Jeanne Bartolomeo, who at that time owned an art gallery in Old Orchard Beach called Beggars Ride, kindly put together a launch party in the gallery, for Carousel Tides. One of the surprising number of people who attended that party came up to me, excited by the town and the book, which she had already read as an ebook, and said, "I want to see it!"

"See what?" I asked her.

"The carousel!  I've already been to Bob's and the Pier, Tony Lee's and I have to see the carousel!"

Oh.  I cleared my throat.

"I'm so very sorry," I said.  "You can't see it.  It's. . .not there."

She stared at me, and I could see the betrayal creep into her eyes.

"You made it up?" she demanded, and I could see that she was hoping that I'd deny it, but. . .

"Yes," I admitted.  "I did.  I made it up."

In the same way, I made up the. . .revival of Archers Beach.

Or. . .not.

See, this year, Steve and I are doing a weird little split vacation at the ocean.  He and I were down at Old Orchard Beach together Thursday afternoon and evening; I came home to be with the cats, and Steve is doing a bachelor weekend at the ocean.  Monday, we'll swap places; he'll come down on Thursday, and Friday we'll shift all of us back home.  The reason Thursday is important in this is that there are fireworks on the beach every Thursday night during Season, courtesy of the amusement park.

So, anyway, we went to see the fireworks Thursday night, and after that, we wandered 'round the corner to look at the carousel. . .

. . .which has been completely revamped.  The panels were new; the rounding boards were new; the mirrors shone!  The sweeps were lit, and not only that! The lifting poles no longer shuddered; the cranks moved with quiet authority, and!

The band organ.

The band organ had been. . .restored.

And it was playing music.

I burst into tears.  Honest to ghod.  It was. . .it was magic.  See for yourself.


band organ before 1


band organ after 1

Carousel Before:

Hippogriff before

Carousel After:

hippogriff after

We walked through the whole park, and we noticed new paint, and bright new lights, and a feeling of hope amid the crowd.

When we came to the arcade, I said to Steve, "I want to visit Grandma."  I always visit Grandma when I'm in Old Orchard Beach.  If I have a quarter, I'll pay her to read my fortune.

Now, since Forever, Grandma has been shoved in a dark corner next to a service door in the arcade.  I walked right to the place, only to discover that!

She was gone.

I turned around, found Steve some distance behind, shaking his head and pointing.

They'd moved Grandma out into the main corridor.  They'd cleaned off her case, and they'd fixed the light.  Someone had.  I saw this because there seems to be an. . .addition to Grandma's bracelet.  A charm with names on them.  Steve and I are in disagreement.  I say the charm is new; a marker from the people who paid for her restoration.  Steve says there was always a charm.  I don't have a picture after, but here she is, last time I saw her:

grandma before

And so that's it.

Who says there's no magic, any more?

Today's blog post title brought to you by Loreena McKennit, "Beneath A Phrygian Sky".  Here's your link.

26 Sep 04:32

Last night I dragged [personal profile] genarti, [personal profile] jinian and [personal profile] gaudior to go see Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a musical about the inspirational romantic connection between a down-on-her-luck electric violinist and the legendary turn-of-the-century polar explorer.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me begins with Our Heroine Kat recording a video for the dating website Cupid's Leftovers, in which she explains that, although her passion is writing avant-garde modern operas, everybody thinks her opera is terrible. However, she has just finished writing a FANTASTIC score for a video game --

KAT: And if I have to write music for space, I will not write BORING music for space!

-- which contains all her FEELINGS about ADVENTURE and EXPLORATION and ELECTRIC VIOLINS! Even if it's just for sad pasty video-game-playing teenage boys (because only pasty teenage boys play video games, right? Though, to be fair, I believe that a person who has hitherto spent their career writing avant-garde modern opera would believe this.)

Alas! Kat's dating video is cut off by a call from her boss informing her that EVEN THOUGH her music is really good, she's very difficult to work with and therefore he is firing her and won't be using any of it.

Also, Kat's apartment is freezing, her baby is crying in the next room, and her deadbeat ex-boyfriend drunk-dials her from his touring Journey cover band. LIFE IS NOT GOOD.

However, just as Kat is spiraling into the depths of despair, she is interrupted by a phone call from -- ERNEST SHACKLETON!

KAT: ???
ERNEST SHACKLETON: I heard your music in your video on Cupid's Leftovers and it was so full of FEELINGS ABOUT EXPLORATION that it has INSPIRED me as I set out for my POLAR EXPEDITION! Anyway, I, ERNEST SHACKLETON, will call again soon!

(ERNEST SHACKLETON always says his name in allcaps. This a thing about ERNEST SHACKLETON which I find 100% plausible. The guy who plays Shackleton is basically channeling a really endearingly hammy mix of Sean Connery and Tim Curry in Muppet Treasure Island and I love every minute of it.)

This is followed up by calls from Ponce de Leon, also inspired by Kat's electric violin of exploration feelings, who sings a brief seductive tango --

PONCE DE LEON: I want to make you my QUEEN de LEON!

-- and Jacques Cousteau, who it turns out just has a wrong number. But anyway, back to ERNEST SHACKLETON! Kat eventually figures out that she can Skype him and video calls into his polar expedition, where he explains cheerily that his ship the Endurance has been trapped in the ice for several months now.

ERNEST SHACKLETON: Anyway, I, ERNEST SHACKLETON, have wonderful news!
KAT: You can break free from the ice?
ERNEST SHACKLETON: No, we're still completely trapped by polar ice, BUT! I'm learning to play the banjo! My darling, LET'S HOOTENANNY.

And hootenanny they do, in a banjo-electric violin duet, with the actor playing Shackleton green-screened in beautifully in front of archival stills of the Endurance.

ETA: I found a demo of the hootenanny! Sans electric violin, but: "I know it's unusual getting a call from a dead explorer, but please, my love, believe in me -- for I, ERNEST SHACKLETON, believe in you!" Which kind of sums up everything that is charming about the show.

(We wondered if the banjo was historically accurate; at this juncture, I am delighted to report that Shackleton DID IN FACT insist on carting his 14-pound banjo with him during the entirety of the two years that his crew were trapped in Antarctica. Bless you, Shackleton.)

Anyway then Shackleton's ship is completely crushed by the ice and sinks, which is pretty astoundingly rendered onstage through the use of archival footage. (Sidenote: the amount of archival footage that actually survived from that expedition blows my mind a little. Just the fact that they actually managed to hang onto the film all that time! Anyway.)

ERNEST SHACKLETON: NEW GOAL! We're going to march ACROSS the ice until we find open water!
KAT, INSPIRED: I'm coming with you!

At this point Shackleton decides to be no longer bound by the limitations of Skype and emerges from Kat's fridge, and the entire stage breaks out in blizzarding because Kat is on this journey for REAL.

So the next approximate hour of theater is basically the story of the Shackleton expedition + Kat, and actually turns out to be quite a really well-done and moving evocation of heroic struggle against all odds, serving double duty as a metaphor for how incredibly hard it is to a.) be a single mom b.) have a career in the arts c.) do both at the same time WAUGH.

(Sidenote 2: So for about the first half of the show I had the Shackleton expedition confused with Scott's Terra Nova expedition, which meant I was convinced everyone was going to die tragically and FEELING SORT OF CONFLICTED about the use of this as a metaphor for noble artistic struggle. Historical record spoiler: Shackleton's expedition is the one where everything went wrong but everyone performed extraordinary feats and miraculously survived anyway! JUST FYI. IN CASE YOU WERE CONCERNED. AS I WAS CONCERNED.)

Anyway: a lot of desperate struggle against near-impossible odds, some mutual inspiration via music, and a few polar makeouts later, the Shackleton expedition is rescued at last!

ERNEST SHACKLETON bids Kat a fond temporary farewell, Kat sits down to ponder the valuable lessons she's learned about life, and! then! Ponce de Leon jumps out of Kat's oven and rips his shirt open in a reprise of ATTEMPTED TANGO OF SEDUCTION!

KAT: Um, I'm sorry, but me and Ernest Shackleton are kind of a thing now ....
PONCE DE LEON: ERNEST SHACKLETON has LIED to you! He's a womanizer! And! He's MARRIED!
KAT: You're lying!
PONCE DE LEON: Check his WIKIPEDIA PAGE! -- no, scroll down.
KAT: Oh my God, he IS married!

Then ERNEST SHACKLETON shows up on Skype to defend himself, and he and Ponce de Leon get in a FIGHT over KAT'S LOVE, and they DUEL, and then Ponce de Leon shoots ERNEST SHACKLETON dead!

...and while Kat is still reeling from all this, her douchebag ex-boyfriend shows up and tries to move back into her life!

HOWEVER, Kat has achieved enough personal growth through her adventures to tell him that she is in love with ERNEST SHACKLETON, who MAY OR MAY NOT EXIST, and throw her douchebag ex out of the apartment and face the hard road that she must walk alone but will walk with pride and self-respect! But without a job, apparently, that plot thread is just totally dropped.

And then she and ERNEST SHACKLETON climb triumphantly into the fridge together, AND CURTAIN. (In an I think accidentally unfortunate piece of symbolism, they leave Kat's baby behind on the floor. Oops.)

As we sat around at a bakery at the end of the show, I asked my companions what their most important takeaways from the show were that I should make sure to note down in this write-up.

[personal profile] gaudior: I really appreciated that Kat's struggle to get through the challenges of her life was treated like as much of a heroic quest as Shackleton's polar expedition!
[personal profile] jinian: I was a little confused structurally by the fact that the plot thread about her job was completely dropped?
[personal profile] genarti: It was really good for a while but WHY PONCE DE LEON

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
22 Sep 14:14

Your Editor Is Not Your Boss

When I was a baby writer, I think I really did believe that my editor (and my agent) were my bosses. Now, I realize this is not true. While it’s also not true that I was a writer am the boss of my agent or editor (the relationship is more like a partnership), I’ve experienced several different editorial relationships.

1. The editor who knows everything (or rather, thinks that they do).

2. The editor who is trying to keep their head above water in the company.

3. The editor who somehow reads your mind and knows your book better than you do.

4. The editor who wants to shoehorn your book into a better selling form.

5. The editor who is a committee, and therefore never accountable for any advice or decision.

6. The tentative editor who suggests very, very gently and never insists.

7. The editor who never responds until ten minutes before the deadline.

8. The big-shot editor who is bigger and more important than you are.

9. The editor who inherited your book from a predecessor and hates it (and possibly you by extension).

10. The editor who is about to leave industry for something that pays better.

I’ve made accommodations to editors just to keep them happy. I’ve done revisions that I didn’t believe in because I hoped it would sell the book (and sometimes did). I’ve been terrified of a phone call with an editor because I was worried I wasn’t good enough. I’ve sent in revisions sure that they were perfect, and sure that they were terrible (neither was true).

But I think what I’ve finally come to is something like a real understanding of the way it should work between an editor and an author. I’m in charge. Sorry if that makes me sound like a diva. But it’s not a marriage. We are not equal parties. I don’t have to make my editor happy. I don’t have to listen to my editor’s advice. My editor is not always right.

Yes, sometimes a book will be cancelled if an editor doesn’t like the revisions you’ve done or if your vision and theirs are revealed to be completely different. This has happened to me and it is painful. It can be expensive. But there is really no other way around it and trying to make small changes to avoid it just delays the inevitable.

Of course, your editor can be a huge advocate for you at your house. Of course, you may end up being friends with your editor. But this does not mean that you should ever as a writer do what your editor says if it isn’t right for your book. If you don’t have that sense of–”Oh, yeah, that’s what I meant in the first place” or “What, you mean that wasn’t already in the text?” or “Wow, that’s the truth that I wasn’t willing to dig at quite yet,” then stop making changes.

Maybe you’re thinking that I can say this because I have more clout than a beginning author or that I can say this because I’ve gone through years in the industry and I’ve developed enough of a sense of where I’m headed that I trust myself more than I trust other people. And maybe that’s partly true. But I do wish sometimes I could go back and just tweak a few things in some of my early books because I changed things an editor thought I should change without really believing in it one hundred percent. And I was right.

So, your editor can be your ally, your friend, your soul mate. Your editor can be brilliant. But your editor is not always right. And your editor is most definitely not your boss.
09 Aug 16:34

moiraj @ 2015-08-09T12:34:00

Now Harper wants to control where Canadians travel. Basically, he plans to decide which countries are breeding terrorists and ban Canadians from going there.

Interesting campaign strategy. "Vote for me and I'll strip away even more of your rights."


ETA: Someone else pointed out exactly what Charter right he wants to violate.

Constitution Act, 1982:
6. (1) Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.

Also, no one is in any doubt of what shades of skin the people suffering from this violation will be.
24 Aug 18:44

The Hugos, the Puppies, and why this is more important than just a rocketship

by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’ve seen conversations about how the Hugos are “just a rocketship” and that people shouldn’t be so invested in getting an award. And while that might be true on an individual basis, the Hugo awards themselves are a reflection of our society. I’m not just talking about science-fiction and fantasy fandom, but our larger society.  Now, since the Hugos are dominated by English speaking North Americans, I’m mostly going to be using US-centric examples, but these general trends are true in other places as well.

One of the things about fiction in general, and even more so with SFF, is that it tends to reflect the zeitgeist of the culture. For instance, during the “golden age” of SF, the United States, and much of the world, was focused on space. When you look at fiction of that era, it tends to be dominated by space exploration. During the Cold War, we saw a lot of post-apocalyptic worlds that were nuclear wastelands. Now? When we see post-apocalyptic worlds it’s because of a climate disaster.

In addition to reflecting environmental concerns, the awards also reflect what is important to the voters. Not just in the books that they vote for, but also in the books that they choose to read. In recent years, people have become aware of the imbalance in representation in SFF and are seeking to address it. This is happening in other fields as well — science, gaming, film, politics… but we are always most aware of an issue in our own community. So when people are seeking out books by underrepresented populations they are doing so because it’s important to their close community and also in the larger society.

Historically, every time there’s an advance in the rights of a disenfranchised group, whether that’s women’s lib or desegregation, there’s a corresponding pushback by the dominant group because it feels like it is losing power.

What we’re seeing with the Hugo awards is that readers & writers who have not been represented in SFF (women, PoC, LGBT) are becoming prominent because of a larger zeitgeist that is trying to redress historic imbalances. Again, we see this in other communities as well. The pushback by the various Puppy contingents matches other historical pushbacks. On their side, they think that fiction is being dominated by “checkboxes” rather than quality, which is the same reaction people had to hiring women during women’s lib or minorities during the civil rights movement.

The reason that the Hugos are more important than just a rocket ship, is that the Puppies also reflect the larger societal pushbacks that we’re seeing against women, PoC, and LGBT. So the Hugos represent a battle in a much bigger fight.

That’s why not just a rocket ship. The Hugos are a reflection of our culture. So the battle that we’re seeing isn’t about “what fiction is best” but rather “what future do we want to live in?”

The post The Hugos, the Puppies, and why this is more important than just a rocketship appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

05 May 20:44

Thoughts on manners: Being “reasonable” and being angry

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Manners are such an amorphous term. They are often equated with etiquette and which fork you are using at the table. But in the Regency, manners had a different and distinct concept, which I find very useful.

Manners are an outward expression of your opinion of others.

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is described as, “his manners, though well bred, were not inviting.” What this means is that though he was correct on all the points of etiquette, the way he executed those points made it clear that he disdained the people to whom he was speaking.

I’ve been thinking about this distinction a fair bit recently, in regard to a number of conversations going around on the internet. I’ve been getting emails from people, or comments on my blog, thanking me for being “reasonable” and “classy” in my responses to various upsets, most recently around the Hugo awards. What disturbs me about these is that the people writing to me don’t seem to understand that I am angry.

Because I am not raising my voice, people are mistaking my manner.

When I appear calm, and collected, it is easy to discount my reaction because my manner tells you that I am calm. It reduces the urgency of the situation. My manner seems to suggest that I am not angry, when I very much am. I may begin quietly, trusting that the other person will respect my concerns. But when I am not listened to, when my words are discounted, then my manner must change. I must express my outward opinion by yelling.

Telling someone that they need to moderate their tone to be taken seriously, ignores the fact that they have likely been expressing their opinions in a moderate tone for quite some time and haven’t been taken seriously. For instance, women and people of colour have been feeling excluded from SFF for decades, and have felt unsafe for decades. This is not a new situation. What has changed is that people are at the point where they are yelling. Their manner is expressing their feelings and those feelings are full of rage.

The thing is… the reason that I can be “polite” and “reasonable” is because other people are expressing the anger for me. I have the privilege of being quiet only because other people are bearing the burden of our shared fury. Without the people willing to shout, the concerns would be dismissed. Look at the suffragette movement. Women had been talking about equality for hundreds of years before that, and it wasn’t until the early 1900s when women began breaking windows and chaining themselves to buildings in protest that the cause was taken seriously. Then the “reasonable” women were able to negotiate, because their sisters had borne the burden of shouting to create a space in which their words could be heard.

This is, I think, something that is really important to understand: Being quiet does not mean that one is any less angry. And if you want to deal with people who are “reasonable” it is important to listen to them the first time they express their concerns.

And when you do? Listen with respect, because that is the correct manner.

The post Thoughts on manners: Being “reasonable” and being angry appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

31 May 22:33

For the past -- two years? I think it's two years -- [personal profile] aberration and I have been VERY SLOWLY watching our way through Queen Seondeok. We finally managed to finish it. Literally the day before she left the country for two years. PRIORITIES.

Anyway, Queen Seondeok is an extremely epic show that is very, very loosely based on the life of Korea's first queen regnant, who ruled the kingdom of Silla from 632-647 AD. I say loosely because there is, for example, no evidence that the historical Queen Seondeok spent the first third of her life in exile and then cross-dressing as a boy, but, like, why not? WHY THE HECK NOT.

This is Deokman, our plucky temporarily cross-dressing heroine! She kind of joins the army but she's not really .. very good at it ... though she's good at other things! One of the things I really like about Deokman, actually, as well as the series as a whole, is that she was raised in a trading camp in the middle of the desert, and that a lot of her tactical advantage in the early parts of the series comes from, like, knowing lots of languages and having a broad cultural perspective and soaking up information from all around the world! There's a huge plot point that hinges on the fact that she's the only person in Silla who knows how to make curry! I have a whole post in me about how I would like to see more historical fiction and epic fantasy that focuses on the importance of trade, please and thank you.

(Also, while we're talking cross-cultural perspectives, let's all take a moment to appreciate Queen Seondeok's views on the customs of the great Roman empire:

"What on earth are you doing?" "GRABBING YOUR BUTT, AS WE ROMANS DO." Rome: just a giant butt fixation, basically.)

This is Tiny Deokman with her twin sister, Princess Cheonmyung. Cheonmyung is raised in the palace while Deokman is raised in exile while everyone pretends she never existed, because of prophecy and reasons.

This leads to one of my favorite plots in the series, which, like -- ok, you know that Han/Leia plotline, when the scruffy rogue meets the plucky rebel princess, and they have to go on a road trip together, and they spend the entire time squabbling and learning to love each other? Except in this case they're SECRET TWIN SISTERS, and also the only way Deokman gets them out of trouble is literally by throwing tantrums until everybody's too annoyed to kill her. Tiny Deokman is amazing. I love her so much.

This is Lady Mishil, the main antagonist, murder concubine/political mastermind/power behind the throne/would-be-queen.

How do I even begin to describe Lady Mishil? Lady Mishil is flawless. She has a husband, a boyfriend, and a couple of useless sons who all sit around in family meetings vying to impress her. Her eyebrows are probably insured for $10,000. One time she took over the entire palace in a military coup, and it was awesome? It was pretty much awesome.

Even Deokman is like, 'I mean, like, she's flat-out murdered many people I care about, but...damn.'

At one point Mishil looks like she might be getting the worst of a political scheme for the first time in her life, and Deokman turns up in a huff to give her a pep talk, like, "MISHIL I AM DISAPPOINT, WHY AREN'T YOU CRUSHING HIM RUTHLESSLY, YOU'RE BETTER THAN THIS."

(I stole this screencap from [personal profile] shati, btw, who has a whole post about the beauty of Mishil vs. Deokman here.)

This is Kim Yushin. I'm so happy I was able to find a screencap of him with this rock because this rock is his FAVORITE THING. He likes to hit it with a stick. Yushin is one of those boring characters who after a while becomes endearing precisely because he is so boring. Like, he's not very good at everything that's important in this show, like scheming and politics and propaganda and mind games, but he's very good at being honorable and single-mindedly hitting things with sticks! And judgy faces. He's also quite good at judgy faces.

In theory, he's Deokman's first love interest/the eventual focus of a love triangle between her and her sister Cheonmyung. In practice, they're both like "no, seriously, you can have him" "no you" "NO YOU" while Yushin sadly goes to hit his favorite rock with a stick one thousand times.

This is Bidam, Deokman's love interest #2. He loves murder! Like, not kidding, he's a literal sociopath. His favorite thing is murdering people; his dream is to become Deokman's murder concubine. His backstory angst is about how his father figure stopped loving him because tiny Bidam just murdered too many people. I LAUGHED OUT LOUD.

I don't actually mind the murder; if he had kept being a cheerful sociopath, we would have no problems. The problem is the last 10-15 episodes when he becomes a constantly sobbing sociopath. "Is he gonna murder that person -- no, no, he's just going to cry again. STOP WHINING, BIDAM."

But the last ten episodes are frustrating for a number of reasons -- for a start, everyone grows a really terrible pasted-on beard and it's HUGELY DISTRACTING. Also, a solid 60% of the best characters are dead.

The first fifty are great, though! Sisters, mothers (and adopted mothers), dramatic female nemeses, cross-dressing, politically important curry, and Mishil's eyebrows: content I am always here for.

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
30 Apr 04:52

Prescriptions, Paradoxes, and Perversities

by Scott Alexander

[WARNING: I am not a pharmacologist. I am not a researcher. I am not a statistician. This is not medical advice. This is really weird and you should not take it too seriously until it has been confirmed]


I’ve been playing around with data from Internet databases that aggregate patient reviews of medications.

Are these any good? I looked at four of the largest such databases –, WebMD, AskAPatient, and DrugLib – as well as psychiatry-specific site CrazyMeds – and took their data on twenty-three major antidepressants. Then I correlated them with one another to see if the five sites mostly agreed.

Correlations between, AskAPatient, and WebMD were generally large and positive (around 0.7). Correlations between CrazyMeds and DrugLib were generally small or negative. In retrospect this makes sense, because these two sites didn’t allow separation of ratings by condition, so for example Seroquel-for-depression was being mixed with Seroquel-for-schizophrenia.

So I threw out the two offending sites and kept, AskAPatient, and WebMD. I normalized all the data, then took the weighted average of all three sites. From this huge sample (the least-reviewed drug had 35 ratings, the most-reviewed drug 4,797) I obtained a unified opinion of patients’ favorite and least favorite antidepressants.

This doesn’t surprise me at all. Everyone secretly knows Nardil and Parnate (the two commonly-used drugs in the MAOI class) are excellent antidepressants1. Oh, nobody will prescribe them, because of the dynamic discussed here, but in their hearts they know it’s true.

Likewise, I feel pretty good to see that Serzone, which I recently defended, is number five. I’ve had terrible luck with Viibryd, and it just seems to make people taking it more annoying, which is not a listed side effect but which I swear has happened.

The table also matches the evidence from chemistry – drugs with similar molecular structure get similar ratings, as do drugs with similar function. This is, I think, a good list.

Which is too bad, because it makes the next part that much more terrifying.


There is a sixth major Internet database of drug ratings. It is called RateRx, and it differs from the other five in an important way: it solicits ratings from doctors, not patients. It’s a great idea – if you trust your doctor to tell you which drug is best, why not take advantage of wisdom-of-crowds and trust all the doctors?

The RateRX logo. Spoiler: this is going to seem really ironic in about thirty seconds.

RateRx has a modest but respectable sample size – the drugs on my list got between 32 and 70 doctor reviews. There’s only one problem.

You remember patient reviews on the big three sites correlated about +0.7 with each other, right? So patients pretty much agree on which drugs are good and which are bad?

Doctor reviews on RateRx correlated at -0.21 with patient reviews. The negative relationship is nonsignificant, but that just means that at best, doctor reviews are totally uncorrelated with patient consensus.

This has an obvious but very disturbing corollary. I couldn’t get good numbers on how times each of the antidepressants on my list were prescribed, because the information I’ve seen only gives prescription numbers for a few top-selling drugs, plus we’ve got the same problem of not being able to distinguish depression prescriptions from anxiety prescriptions from psychosis prescriptions. But total number of online reviews makes a pretty good proxy. After all, the more patients are using a drug, the more are likely to review it.

Quick sanity check: the most reviewed drug on my list was Cymbalta. Cymbalta was also the best selling antidepressant of 2014. Although my list doesn’t exactly track the best-sellers, that seems to be a function of how long a drug has been out – a best-seller that came out last year might have only 1/10th the number of reviews as a best-seller that came out ten years ago. So number of reviews seems to be a decent correlate for amount a drug is used.

In that case, amount a drug is used correlates highly (+0.67, p = 0.005) with doctors’ opinion of the drug, which makes perfect sense since doctors are the ones prescribing it. But amount the drug gets used correlates negatively with patient rating of the drug (-0.34, p = ns), which of course is to be expected given the negative correlation between doctor opinion and patient opinion.

So the more patients like a drug, the less likely it is to be prescribed2.


There’s one more act in this horror show.

Anyone familiar with these medications reading the table above has probably already noticed this one, but I figured I might as well make it official.

I correlated the average rating of each drug with the year it came on the market. The correlation was -0.71 (p 3.

This pattern absolutely jumps out of the data. First- and second- place winners Nardil and Parnate came out in 1960 and 1961, respectively; I can’t find the exact year third-place winner Anafranil came out, but the first reference to its trade name I can find in the literature is from 1967, so I used that. In contrast, last-place winner Viibryd came out in 2011, second-to-last place winner Abilify got its depression indication in 2007, and third-to-last place winner Brintellix is as recent as 2013.

This result is robust to various different methods of analysis, including declaring MAOIs to be an unfair advantage for Team Old and removing all of them, changing which minor tricylics I do and don’t include in the data, and altering whether Deprenyl, a drug that technically came out in 1970 but received a gritty reboot under the name Emsam in 2006, is counted as older or newer.

So if you want to know what medication will make you happiest, at least according to this analysis your best bet isn’t to ask your doctor, check what’s most popular, or even check any individual online rating database. It’s to look at the approval date on the label and choose the one that came out first.


What the hell is going on with these data?

I would like to dismiss this as confounded, but I have to admit that any reasonable person would expect the confounders to go the opposite way.

That is: older, less popular drugs are usually brought out only when newer, more popular drugs have failed. MAOIs, the clear winner of this analysis, are very clearly reserved in the guidelines for “treatment-resistant depression”, ie depression you’ve already thrown everything you’ve got at. But these are precisely the depressions that are hardest to treat.

Imagine you are testing the fighting ability of three people via ten boxing matches. You ask Alice to fight a Chihuahua, Bob to fight a Doberman, and Carol to fight Cthulhu. You would expect this test to be biased in favor of Alice and against Carol. But MAOIs and all these other older rarer drugs are practically never brought out except against Cthulhu. Yet they still have the best win-loss record.

Here are the only things I can think of that might be confounding these results.

Perhaps because these drugs are so rare and unpopular, psychiatrists only use them when they have really really good reason. That is, the most popular drug of the year they pretty much cluster-bomb everybody with. But every so often, they see some patient who seems absolutely 100% perfect for clomipramine, a patient who practically screams “clomipramine!” at them, and then they give this patient clomipramine, and she does really well on it.

(but psychiatrists aren’t actually that good at personalizing antidepressant treatments. The only thing even sort of like that is that MAOIs are extra-good for a subtype called atypical depression. But that’s like a third of the depressed population, which doesn’t leave much room for this super-precise-targeting hypothesis.)

Or perhaps once drugs have been on the market longer, patients figure out what they like. Brintellix is so new that the Brintellix patients are the ones whose doctors said “Hey, let’s try you on Brintellix” and they said “Whatever”. MAOIs have been on the market so long that presumably MAOI patients are ones who tried a dozen antidepressants before and stayed on MAOIs because they were the only ones that worked.

(but Prozac has been on the market 25 years now. This should only apply to a couple of very new drugs, not the whole list.)

Or perhaps the older drugs have so many side effects that no one would stay on them unless they’re absolutely perfect, whereas people are happy to stay on the newer drugs even if they’re not doing much because whatever, it’s not like they’re causing any trouble.

(but Seroquel and Abilify, two very new drugs, have awful side effects, yet are down at the bottom along with all the other new drugs)

Or perhaps patients on very rare weird drugs get a special placebo effect, because they feel that their psychiatrist cares enough about them to personalize treatment. Perhaps they identify with the drug – “I am special, I’m one of the only people in the world who’s on nefazodone!” and they become attached to it and want to preach its greatness to the world.

(but drugs that are rare because they are especially new don’t get that benefit. I would expect people to also get excited about being given the latest, flashiest thing. But only drugs that are rare because they are old get the benefit, not drugs that are rare because they are new.)

Or perhaps psychiatrists tend to prescribe the drugs they “imprinted on” in medical school and residency, so older psychiatrists prescribe older drugs and the newest psychiatrists prescribe the newest drugs. But older psychiatrists are probably much more experienced and better at what they do, which could affect patients in other ways – the placebo effect of being with a doctor who radiates competence, or maybe the more experienced psychiatrists are really good at psychotherapy, and that makes the patient better, and they attribute it to the drug.

(but read on…)


Or perhaps we should take this data at face value and assume our antidepressants have been getting worse and worse over the past fifty years.

This is not entirely as outlandish as it sounds. The history of the past fifty years has been a history of moving from drugs with more side effects to drugs with fewer side effects, with what I consider somewhat less than due diligence in making sure the drugs were quite as effective in the applicable population. This is a very complicated and controversial statement which I will be happy to defend in the comments if someone asks.

The big problem is: drugs go off-patent after twenty years. Drug companies want to push new, on-patent medications, and most research is funded by drug companies. So lots and lots of research is aimed at proving that newer medications invented in the past twenty years (which make drug companies money) are better than older medications (which don’t).

I’ll give one example. There is only a single study in the entire literature directly comparing the MAOIs – the very old antidepressants that did best on the patient ratings – to SSRIs, the antidepressants of the modern day4. This study found that phenelzine, a typical MAOI, was no better than Prozac, a typical SSRI. Since Prozac had fewer side effects, that made the choice in favor of Prozac easy.

Did you know you can look up the authors of scientific studies on LinkedIn and sometimes get very relevant information? For example, the lead author of this study has a resume that clearly lists him as working for Eli Lilly at the time the study was conducted (spoiler: Eli Lilly is the company that makes Prozac). The second author’s LinkedIn profile shows he is also an operations manager for Eli Lilly. Googling the fifth author’s name links to a news article about Eli Lilly making a $750,000 donation to his clinic. Also there’s a little blurb at the bottom of the paper saying “Supported by a research grant by Eli Lilly and company”, then thanking several Eli Lilly executives by name for their assistance.

This is the sort of study which I kind of wish had gotten replicated before we decided to throw away an entire generation of antidepressants based on the result.

But who will come to phenelzine’s defense? Not Parke-Davis , the company that made it: their patent expired sometime in the seventies, and then they were bought out by Pfizer5. And not Pfizer – without a patent they can’t make any money off Nardil, and besides, Nardil is competing with their own on-patent SSRI drug Zoloft, so Pfizer has as much incentive as everyone else to push the “SSRIs are best, better than all the rest” line.

Every twenty years, pharmaceutical companies have an incentive to suddenly declare that all their old antidepressants were awful and you should never use them, but whatever new antidepressant they managed to dredge up is super awesome and you should use it all the time. This sort of does seem like the sort of situation that might lead to older medications being better than newer ones. A couple of people have been pushing this line for years – I was introduced to it by Dr. Ken Gillman from Psychotropical Research, whose recommendation of MAOIs and Anafranil as most effective match the patient data very well, and whose essay Why Most New Antidepressants Are Ineffective is worth a read.

I’m not sure I go as far as he does – even if new antidepressants aren’t worse outright, they might still trade less efficacy for better safety. Even if they handled the tradeoff well, it would look like a net loss on patient rating data. After all, assume Drug A is 10% more effective than Drug B, but also kills 1% of its users per year, while Drug B kills nobody. Here there’s a good case that Drug B is much better and a true advance. But Drug A’s ratings would look better, since dead men tell no tales and don’t get to put their objections into online drug rating sites. Even if victims’ families did give the drug the lowest possible rating, 1% of people giving a very low rating might still not counteract 99% of people giving it a higher rating.

And once again, I’m not sure the tradeoff is handled very well at all.6.


In order to distinguish between all these hypotheses, I decided to get a lot more data.

I grabbed all the popular antipsychotics, antihypertensives, antidiabetics, and anticonvulsants from the three databases, for a total of 55,498 ratings of 74 different drugs. I ran the same analysis on the whole set.

The three databases still correlate with each other at respectable levels of +0.46, +0.54, and +0.53. All of these correlations are highly significant, p

The negative correlation between patient rating and doctor rating remains and is now a highly significant -0.344, p

The correlation between patient rating and year of release is a no-longer-significant -0.191. This is heterogenous; antidepressants and antipsychotics show a strong bias in favor of older medications, and antidiabetics, antihypertensives, and anticonvulsants show a slight nonsignificant bias in favor of newer medications. So it would seem like the older-is-better effect is purely psychiatric.

I conclude that for some reason, there really is a highly significant effect across all classes of drugs that makes doctors love the drugs patients hate, and vice versa.

I also conclude that older psychiatric drugs seem to be liked much better by patients, and that this is not some kind of simple artifact or bias, since if such an artifact or bias existed we would expect it to repeat in other kinds of drugs, which it doesn’t.


Please feel free to check my results. Here is a spreadsheet (.xls) containing all of the data I used for this analysis. Drugs are marked by class: 1 is antidepressants, 2 is antidiabetics, 3 is antipsychotics, 4 is antihypertensives, and 5 is anticonvulsants. You should be able to navigate the rest of it pretty easily.

One analysis that needs doing is to separate out drug effectiveness versus side effects. The numbers I used were combined satisfaction ratings, but a few databases – most notably WebMD – give you both separately. Looking more closely at those numbers might help confirm or disconfirm some of the theories above.

If anyone with the necessary credentials is interested in doing the hard work to publish this as a scientific paper, drop me an email and we can talk.


1. Technically, MAOI superiority has only been proven for atypical depression, the type of depression where you can still have changing moods but you are unhappy on net. But I’d speculate that right now most patients diagnosed with depression have atypical depression, far more than the studies would indicate, simply because we’re diagnosing less and less severe cases these days, and less severe cases seem more atypical.

2. First-place winner Nardil has only 16% as many reviews as last-place winner Viibryd, even though Nardil has been on the market fifty years and Viibryd for four. Despite its observed superiority, Nardil may very possibly be prescribed less than 1% as often as Viibryd.

3. Pretty much the same thing is true if, instead of looking at the year they came out, you just rank them in order from earliest to latest.

4. On the other hand, what we do have is a lot of studies comparing MAOIs to imipramine, and a lot of other studies comparing modern antidepressants to imipramine. For atypical depression and dysthymia, MAOIs beat imipramine handily, but the modern antidepressants are about equal to imipramine. This strongly implies the MAOIs beat the modern antidepressants in these categories.

5. Interesting Parke-Davis facts: Parke-Davis got rich by being the people to market cocaine back in the old days when people treated it as a pharmaceutical, which must have been kind of like a license to print money. They also worked on hallucinogens with no less a figure than Aleister Crowley, who got a nice tour of their facilities in Detroit.

6. Consider: Seminars In General Psychiatry estimates that MAOIs kill one person per 100,000 patient years. A third of all depressions are atypical. MAOIs are 25 percentage points more likely to treat atypical depression than other antidepressants. So for every 100,000 patients you give a MAOI instead of a normal antidepressant, you kill one and cure 8,250 who wouldn’t otherwise be cured. The QALY database says that a year of moderate depression is worth about 0.6 QALYs. So for every 100,000 patients you give MAOIs, you’re losing about 30 QALYs and gaining about 3,300.

27 Mar 11:35

How to tackle the European Union if you’re used to living in the SFF universe…

by Juliet

A few not entirely serious observations on my trip to Brussels this week – but I’m not entirely joking either.

1. Familiarity with the apparently M.C. Escher-inspired architecture of SFF convention hotels will make the European Parliament building much less daunting.

(Radisson, Heathrow – Sheraton, Boston – (the old) Ashling, Dublin, I’m looking at you…)

Yes, we did get spectacularly lost but only the once, so I gather that actually makes us more legitimate as campaigners, not less.

Mind you, when you are wandering round the EU Parliament and wondering how exactly to find a way out, it’s probably best not to think too much about the similarity between that institution’s logo and the one from er, The Prisoner…



2. The SFF convention rule of 6/2/1 is a good one to adopt. That’s six hours sleep, two meals and one shower in any twenty-four hours.

Those two meals may well end up being a working dinner and a working breakfast. And I do mean working – not just some excuse for a feed at the public’s expense.

Our first event on Tuesday was Clare Josa presenting our findings to the European Internet Forum, thanks to the support for our cause from Vicky Ford and Syed Kamall, both UK Conservative MEPs. Clare was one of five speakers invited to talk about barriers to European hopes for a digital single market to 90-plus people from the European Parliament, the Commission and businesses which will be directly affected. They all had interesting and relevant things to say and everyone was listening, not just eating.

There’s a whole corridor of dining rooms in the European Parliament where all sorts of these dinners were going on, getting people together. The following morning they were full of different groups of people having breakfast, swapping information and making plans about mutual concerns before heading off for a full day’s work in their respective offices.

On Wednesday we were guests at just such a breakfast, hosted by Eurochambres, where Clare presented our case again to a different group of MEPs and Commission officials. Talk across the croissant and coffee cups immediately turned to the nuts and bolts practicalities of getting this issue onto the official agenda, who to enlist in which Commission offices and across the different political groupings. Catherine Bearder, Lib Dem MEP had already done a lot of work on making sure this was being raised as a cross-party and international issue, to counter any idea that this is a purely Tory concern being raised for domestic political consumption. Nothing could be further from the truth.

3. Think Vulcan not Klingon.

European politics isn’t two-party-confrontational. Think infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Table thumping and shouting, or expecting any kind of ego-stroking, will get you nowhere, not least because it just wastes time and no one has that to spare. The MEPs and their staff who’ve been helping us will be tackling upwards of twenty issues simultaneously at any one time.

One reason we’ve got so far and so fast with this is we have all our facts and figures prepared to show the damage being caused by this unworkable system and we let that information speak for itself. We weren’t there to play the blame game but were focused on working towards solutions. So were all the people we met.

And Clare’s presentation wasn’t far short of a mind-meld. There wasn’t a digital projector available so none of the speakers at our various meetings could be tempted to try Death by PowerPoint but the way Clare made our case was as far from that as it’s possible to get. She invited our audiences to imagine themselves as digital entrepreneurs setting up a successful business in 2014 and then took them step by step through the shock of discovering the successive costs, complexities and outright impossibilities now demanded by these new regulations. The sound of metaphorical pennies dropping around the rooms was deafening!

4. It can help to be a hobbit who just wants to get back to The Shire.

As well as being asked about the EU VAT issues, we were both asked at various times about ourselves, our wider involvement in politics, our plans…

Well, we just want to get this sorted out so we can go back to running our own businesses. It’s as simple as that.

Which isn’t to say it would have been a particular problem if we had said we had plans to set up some digital microbusiness organisation or had political party ambitions ourselves – but it does make life much more straightforward when the people you’re dealing with realise you don’t have any other agenda they should (perfectly reasonably and legitimately) be taking into consideration.

5. Just go with the plot-convenient co-incidences.

Another reason we’ve got so far so fast is I happen to live in the UK Prime Minister’s parliamentary constituency. So I was able to make a constituency surgery appointment to brief my MP, David Cameron, personally about the problems this new regulation has created. He got it. We’ve found this time and again over the past few months – whenever we’ve been able to make the case in person, that penny drops within minutes.

Establishing this connection has opened doors for the campaign and got us invaluable practical support, not least for this trip to Brussels. No, I can claim no credit for this. There is no time travel involved which might explain why I moved to Witney in 1985 just to set this up!

And no, this absolutely isn’t a party-political issue. We’re dealing with the Conservative party at the moment because they lead the current ruling coalition in the UK. We’ve also had great support from the Greens and from the Lib Dems in Europe, notably Catherine Bearder who just happens to be based in Oxford, so I met her as well and once again, that penny-drop moment as we talked has made all the difference.

Another useful coincidence is the presence of Nicholas Whyte in Brussels. Those who know him in SFF circles are probably vaguely aware that he’s worked in and around (though not actually for) the European Parliament and Commission in various roles for a good few years. This means he’s been an invaluable source of practical information and support as we’ve begun to engage with European legislation policies and procedures.

Personally, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to head off to Brussels without his encouragement. When he first said, ‘you’ll need to come over to the Parliament—’, the squeak in my voice as I said, ‘really?’ probably startled passing dogs…

6. Settle in and prepare for further developments and surprises in the next film/series/book in the franchise.

We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress. This problem is being discussed at the highest levels now. There’s still a great deal of work to be done. Space stations and battlestars aren’t quickly or easily manoeuvred.

But even the smallest person can change the course of the future. And the more people who join in, the more change we’ll see.

(Some background for anyone coming late to this story – I am part of a grassroots campaign group EU VAT Action which is pressing for review and revision of the new EU VAT regulations on cross border digital sales which threaten tens of thousands of small businesses and are already doing untold damage to any hope of a digital single market to benefit customers and sellers alike.)