Summer Hiatus

Holy hell, is it July already? I suppose pandemic time really has done a number on us. Anyway, I’ve been busy on Widows of the Empire, just about to finish the third draft. Just one more and . . . well, y’all get to read it. So, I’m giving myself a bit of a break and stepping away from the blog for the rest of the month. I’ll see you in August.

Until then, I’ll leave these two in charge.


Zaria already looks very skeptical, doesn’t she?

Weekly Read: Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War

Music, those who make it and consume it often think, is a universal language. A beautiful melody or an infectious rhythm or a soothing wash of noise doesn’t require any kind of verbal communication to enjoy. Surely if there’s something that can exist outside of the mess that is politics, music should be yet. Sadly, the takeaway from Jonathan Rosenberg’s Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War is that politics, like religion, poisons everything, in spite of anyone’s best intentions otherwise.

Dangerous Melodies examines this through a particular lens – the American classical music community and how it interact with the First and Second World Wars and the early part of the Cold War. In each era, political considerations informed what was played, by whom and where.

One of the fascinating things about the WWI section of this book (along with PANDEMIC, which of course covers that time period) is how fervent people were with regards to the war and the United States’ role in it. Of course, this was the period of the Sedition Act and the Supreme Court’s deeply horrible First Amendment law, but it really brings the xenophobia home when you hear about German musicians being interned for nothing more than their nationality.

German composers proved a particularly tricky proposition, since, at the time, the American classical music scene was heavily indebted to Germany composers and musicians. Wagner, of course, featured prominently in all this, but he at least had the good sense to be dead when the conflict began. Discussions about whether to continue to stage his operas or play his music were a bit more esoteric than those surrounding, say, Richard Strauss, who was both very popular in American concert halls and still alive to cash the checks.

If the issue during the First World War was what to do with Germans in general, in the Second World War there was some attempt to distinguish between garden variety Germans and actual Nazis. This was easier said than done, however, since some great conductors were at least Nazi-adjacent, if not actual (if unenthusiastic) party members. Their rehabilitation after the war mirrored those of their predecessors in the Great War – in that the result of the uproar had little to do with actual facts and more to do with repeated assertions of bad behavior (I shook my head reading how a judge in a court case involving one conduct admitted there was no evident to prove his alleged sin, but enough people believed it that it didn’t matter).

One odd part about the Second World War is that, at least as Dangerous Melodies tells it, is that Wagner came roaring back and was basically unscathed. To the extent the Nazis glorified him and tried to make a paragon of the Reich it didn’t impact his work being played in the United States. On the other hand, there’s no discussion of Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism, which would seem like a pretty good reason for programming other stuff while the Holocaust is happening.

Where the intersection of classical music and the two World Wars was largely about restricting what was played (with one notable exception I’ll discuss in a moment), once the Cold War begins the tables turn. The universalists gain the upper hand, only to see that universalism weaponized in the name of American foreign policy. American orchestras made numerous state-funded tours of Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain. At best this was benevolent cultural exchange, but there was also some hope that it might show the Soviets that we weren’t all a bunch of burger eating, beer swilling, country music fans, either.

As an aside, after I read this book I listened to the Wind of Change podcast. Done by Patrick Radden Keefe (he of the amazing Say Nothing), it’s a deep dive into the conspiracy theory that the CIA wrote the Scorpions’ late Cold War hit of the same name. It doesn’t really prove that, but along the way it talks about how the American government used the same kind of state-sponsored cultural junkets in more popular music forms, too – sometimes without the knowledge of the artists.

There was one composer whose career spanned the Second World War and Cold War to devastating effect. One of the most famous and celebrated musical achievements of the Second World War was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, called Leningrad. Premiering in 1942 it was seen as embodying the resistance of the residents of that city (now, once again, St. Petersburg) to a lengthy Nazi siege. There was even a kind of bidding war over the US premier! It was a big fucking deal in a way that I don’t think we can comprehend in 2020.

But when the Cold War began, Shostakovich was drafted into the Soviet Union’s culture war against the West. There’s an episode in the book where a conference arranged in New York – assailed by Red hunters for being anti-American – winds up becoming a mouthpiece for Soviet propaganda, giving a not particularly enthusiastic speech condemning Western music that he pretty clearly didn’t write. Shostakovich got both the highs and the lows, in other words, of political influence in music.

As it happens, after I read the book, I dug out my recording of Shostakovich’s Seventh I have by the Dallas Symphony. The liner notes go into a little more detail on his most famous work and its political impact. According to his memoirs, published in 1979, it wasn’t the war anthem people made it out to be (it “had been planned” before the war started):

Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism, any form of it is repugnant. Nowadays people like to recall the prewar period as being an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine until Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin.

* * *

Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad Symphony, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.

Where does that leave music and politics? As Shostakovich learned, they’re inexorably intertwined. Thinking that music can escape the taint of politics when nothing else can is a pipe dream. At best what music can do, better than just about any other form of art, is escape the shackles of the political sometimes and reach across barriers. It ain’t much, but it ain’t nothing.


On Writing For Posterity

One of the interesting things about life on an Internet forum is how cyclical it is. Since new people are always joining, and few of them think to do deep searches when they first arrive in the happy flush of finding the forum, some evergreen topics show up again and again. If you log in to the Progressive Ears forums tonight for the first time and think, “I’ll ask everybody what they really think ‘prog’ is!”, rest assured you’re not the first one. See also, “why are fantasy and science fiction lumped together” on any genre-related space.

Writers’ forums are no different. New writers are a combination of boundless enthusiams and depths of doubt that lead them to ask a lot of questions. Naturally, most of them have been asked and answered before. A favorite one of those, perhaps second only to worries about other writers stealing ideas, is a concern about writing something that feels “dated.” This tweet from Kyra Richardson earlier this year lays it out as good as any:


I’ve always thought that was an odd question to ask, but could never figure out why until just recently when it hit me like a two-by-four: it’s incredibly presumptuous.

Let’s be clear, when people talk about their writing feeling dated, they’re not talking about a current or modern audience. Few people worry that between the time they write the book and it’s published that the references will become dated. Instead, they’re talking about readers in the future, people who are going to turn to the book many years down the road, perhaps when the author is dead. They’re talking about writing for posterity, the kind of impact and success that every artist dreams about, but a vanishingly few actually obtain. It’s like a teenaged laptop musician working on his first track worrying about what he’s going to wear to the Grammys.

Lots of people write books. Even though lots of people also read them, the chances of any particular book being read by more than a handful of people is pretty slim. As a result, unless you already have an audience and think they might carry on for a while, worrying about posterity while writing a book is super presumptuous.

Write the best book you can. Tell the story you want to tell. Is it full of sly jokes about things that are popular right now? Don’t worry. Make it compelling. Give readers characters to care about. If you do all that, they’ll handle the references. If they care about the people involved, they’ll learn. It’s why I’ve learned a lot of very particular British references over the years – to fully understand Marillion (and others) lyrics.

Don’t worry about posterity. If you connect with readers in the here and now, you’re ahead of the game. Posterity will take care of itself.


Weekly Read: Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror 

This is an interesting book (more interesting than compelling, sadly, given its detached, journalistic style) to think about in these times. I actually read it a couple of months ago, but it’s crept back to relevance over the past couple of weeks. How could it not, given that it tells the story of the United States’ first concerted effort to deal with racial terrorism, which also gave rise to an unprecedented expansion of police power and tactics?

It’s the story of Hiram C. Whitley, who from 1869 to 1875 was the chief of the Secret Service. At that time, the Secret Service’s primary job was dealing with counterfeiters (it’s Presidential protection role didn’t come until ??) – which it still does, by the way (one of my great Fourth Circuit victories involved a counterfeiting case). When Whitely took over he broadened the Service’s mandate (via bureaucratic slight-of-hand and without Congressional authorization) into a broader criminal investigative unit with its sights trained the Ku Klux Klan.

Not that Whitley was particularly a crusader for human rights. Before the Civil War he did some work as a slave hunter and he essentially bought his first child. During the war he led a Union regiment in New Orleans with such brutality that his men nearly mutinied. He was a shameless self promoter who wasn’t above working outside the law when he thought it was justified. He tortured prisoners. He arrested men and executed searches without warrants. He was even involved in a Watergate-style burglary and scandal later in his career.

His most lasting contribution, however, is introducing the concept of the undercover work to American law enforcement. The idea that you had to use bad people – or at least good people pretending to be bad – to catch other bad people was scandalous. In fact, the book recounts how in one counterfeiting trial, where the case was built on undercover work, the judge actually gave the jury a cautionary instruction about how unreliable undercover officers were! If only we could get an instruction like that now.

If anything, Whitley seems like the archetype of a character we’ve become familiar with over the years from all kinds of police fiction – the cop who can’t follow the rules, but it still celebrated in the end because he gets the bad guys (a trope that’s getting some fresh looks these days). You can’t argue that Whitley’s targets were evil – not just the Klan by political machines in New York City were targets – but, as this review points out, none of those resulted in convictions, partly due to Whitley’s overreaching. One of my chief criticisms of the book is that author Charles Lane doesn’t really examine what Whitley’s legacy was or how he was an exemplar of lots of cops that came after him.

That’s why the book had come back to mind in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the related protests. As a society we’ve been conditioned to give cops the benefit of the doubt (there’s even a “good faith” exception the exclusionary rule for Fourth Amendment violations), mostly on the expectation that if they cross the line they’ve got a damned good reason. But lines are drawn for a reason and not everybody the cops cross the line to get are “bad guys” and, even if they are, they deserve the due process of the law, too.

I won’t say we can draw a direct line from Whitley’s abuses to Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck 150 years later, but there are definitely echoes there. If Whitely really was “Freedom’s Detective,” it’s worth wondering what kind of freedom it was and whether, too often, it’s been the freedom to behave badly in the name of doing good.


Which Details Matter?

World building is typically something we think is the concern of sci-fi and fantasy writers. If you’re going to tell a story set in a world that is either not ours or significantly different from it, you need to define those differences. But the truth is that all writers should be concerned with world building. Writers of all kinds of fiction need to flesh out the world in which their characters exist. Even if it’s the real world, it’s likely a part of it that the reader isn’t familiar with. Even non-fiction writers need to do the same – to build a place for their story to take place in order for it to make sense.

Of course, not everything about the world you’re working in is important for a reader to know. Finding the right level of detail can be hard, since you might send signals to readers that you never intend and actually mess up the world building you’re trying to do.

If you’ve read Gods of the Empire you know that Lady Belwyn has a music room. In an early draft I mentioned in one scene, as Hagan entered the room, that she was playing a “Colebeck etude.” I could have just said “etude” or even just named the instrument she was playing, but I thought throwing a composer’s name in would make it feel more like something from a lived-in world. Plus, it let me give a shoutout to the progressive rock world and name check Julian Colebeck, longtime keyboard player with Steve Hackett. To my knowledge, he’s never written an etude.

“But wait,” you’re saying. “I’ve read Gods of the Empire and I don’t remember anything about Colebeck in it.” You’re right, because I wound up taking it out. To a person, everyone in my writers group seized on the fact that there was a new name thrown at them when they read that scene. They wondered if this Colebeck person was important to the story. Would he come up again? Is this something important to remember for later down the road? Since the answer to all of those questions was “no,” I just decided to take it out. It’s at the point of the book where readers are still finding their feet on Oiwa and in the Unari Empire, so it was more important to remove a distraction.

My mistake, I think, was in introducing a variable that’s completely unknown without definition. If I was writing something in the real world – say, a sequel to Moore Hollow – and I had a similar character, I might have her playing a piece by Mozart or Liszt or Stravinsky. That would provide a nice little detail, but only because those names aren’t variables – they’re real composers who exist in this world. So long as the name is familiar enough for a reader to nod at it, that’s all you need. If you know those three names you can figure out what it’s saying about the character that she plays Stravinsky instead of Mozart.

But sometimes you need a reference to be just as fictional as your characters, even if your story takes place in the real world. In my opinion, it’s more distracting to try and avoid this than it is to take a sentence or two and define your fictional reference. This jumped out at me listening to The Getaway, an Audible Original by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen.


It’s about a woman, a press secretary in the wake of a losing campaign, who goes on a yoga retreat where bad things happen. She does so partly because of how this retreat was praised by an unnamed actress she follows on social media.

The first time this person came up the main character just called her “an actress she follows,” which I thought was weird. It’s important enough to mention that this influencer’s praise was part of the reason to go on the retreat, but she doesn’t have a name? All right, it’s a throw away. But the second time it came up it really annoyed me. And the third. And the fourth. This really does seem to be an important detail – nay, it’s critical to the fairly dubious setup! (needless to say I’m not recommending The Getaway) – yet the story doesn’t define it. It could be as simple as a name and that she’s the star of some TV series or movie. No need for more than that, but just something to suggest that this actress is a real person in this world.

As always, it’s a question of balance and where to draw the line. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to building your world, except maybe one: Does this detail serve the story? Does it deepen the reader’s understanding of the world or the characters? Okay, so that’s two questions, but you get the point.


New Short Story – “Puffery”

Remember last month when I said I was doing the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest? My first story, “The Nickel Tour,” was good enough to get me through to the second round. Now the results are in for that one and, well, I won’t make it to the third round. “Puffery” garnered an honorable mention, but didn’t place in the top 5 (out of 25 in the group). Given that it was outside my usual genre and style, I’m still pretty pleased with it.

For this round, my group was assigned to write a political satire on the subject of medical tourism, with a warlord character in it. After a false start I slipped into the right mode and wrote something that is definitely influenced by the time and place in which I wrote it. It also allowed me to create a character that I think I want do more with in the future.

Until then, enjoy!


Milo slipped into the Trapezoidal Office just as the Generalissimo said, “what’s in the bay?”

Advisors were arrayed around the room, each clutching papers and trying to hide behind one another. Milo didn’t even recognize some of the faces. He’d made the right decision not bothering to learn names. What was the point? They’d be gone soon enough.

“A plague ship, sir,” the Minister of Defense said.

“From America,” threw in Kevefe, the Generalissimo’s son-in-law. Educated in America, married to the Generalissimo’s beloved eldest daughter, he was the one the man always tasked with doing anything important, from managing the Generalissimo’s properties to trying to negotiate treaties. His title should have been Minister of Everything. “They’re having a plague. It’s whipping through the south right now, like Sherman a generation ago.”

The American south was the closest large land mass to Oflana, the small island the Generalissimo had made his stronghold. It wasn’t even at large as Charleston, the nearest American city.

“And why are they here?” the Generalissimo asked, putting his elbows on his desk. It was enormous, made of dark walnut with ornate carvings of mythical sea creatures on each leg. He  told people it was made from the beams of the British frigate that Sadont, the national hero of Oflana, boarded and captured when the island won its independence. He would take any opportunity to tie himself to that legend. The truth of the desk, so far as anybody could tell all, is that the Generalissimo had found it in an estate sale in Savannah during one of his “diplomatic” missions.

“Because we are a day’s steamship voyage from Charleston,” Defense said. “Perhaps two, depending on weather.”

The Generalissimo looked as confused as ever. “But why now?”

Milo knew how this dance worked. The Generalissimo worked through the problem in his own time and in his own peculiar way. Everyone would have their say, but he had to make the final decision, even if everyone else knew it was the wrong one. Milo decided he had to goose the process along.

“Sir?” He raised his hand like a grade school child.

“Yes, Minister of Information?” the Generalissimo said, slightly slurring his words.

“Sir, that ship is here because of what you said on the radio last week.” Every week the Generalissimo took over the island’s five radio stations for his Voice of Oflana broadcasts. Ranging from five minutes to five hours, depending on his mood that particular day, it was his chance to talk to his people, who had little choice but to listen.

“Last week?” The Generalissimo looked at Kevefe, squinting, like he was trying to dredge the memory from the depths of his mind.

“You talked about the plague in America, how their hospitals and doctors couldn’t cope,” Kevefe said. “Things of that nature.”

“Due respect, sir,” Milo said before the Generalissimo could move on, “it was much more than that.”

The Generalissimo looked at him, slumped in his seat, hands outstretched. “How much more?”

Milo took a deep breath. “You also discussed the medical system here on Oflana. You called it the best in the world.”

“Of course,” the Generalissimo said. “We only have the best things here in Oflana.”

Milo knew that might be true for the Generalissimo and his family, but that for the rest of them modern medical treatment was more hope than reality. He pushed on anyway, leaving truth bloodied in a ditch yet again. “You also said the plague would not strike Oflana,” Milo closed his eyes and quoted verbatim, “because it knows in its heart that we have the medicine to kill it.” It was times like this that Milo cursed his eidetic memory.


The Minister of Health sheepishly raised his hand. “Sir, that pronouncement may have been premature.”

“Are you suggesting I lied?” the Generalissimo said, slowly rising from his chair, his ever expanding girth straining the medal-covered white uniform he was wearing.

Health’s eyes went wide, but before he could defend himself the hammer came down.

“You’re fired!” the Generalissimo boomed, pointing to the door with great emphasis. “Get out!”

“Sir, I,” Health began to say.

“Do I need to call for Boze?” the Generalissimo said, invoking the name of his security chief, a massive islander who could snap Health, or anyone else in the room, in two.

Faced with a fate worse than termination, Health scurried out the door.

“If I even said that, about having a cure for the plague,” the Generalissimo said, returning to his seat. “I don’t think I said that.”

The advisors all exchanged wary glances. Milo just managed to avoid rolling his eyes. Not only had he heard the Generalissimo say those exact words, now the man had gone and fired the person who should be put in charge of dealing with that plague ship slipping into the dock.

“Rest assured, sir,” the Minister of the Interior jumped in, “our physicians will deal with this pestilence with care, skill, and strength.”

“We’re about to find out,” Milo said. There was a clock tick-tocking in his brain, knowing that the American ship was going to reach the dock in any moment. “Sir, that’s why they’ve come. They think there’s a cure here, and they’ve come to get it.”

Milo could tell that the Generalissimo was still missing some links in the chain. “Your broadcasts sometimes reach the American mainland. It depends on weather conditions, if I’m correct.”

Across the room the Minister of Technology nodded vigorously.

“In addition, although you expelled a number of American journalists last month, there are still a few foreign reporters here. I’m sure they heard your broadcast.”

The Generalissimo shook his head. “Deadbeat losers. Why do I let them come here and cause trouble?”

“They’ll be gone by morning,” Kevefe said with a wave of his hand.

“Er,” Milo said, lump in his throat, “that won’t solve the problem, sir.”

“Why not?” Kevefe glared at him.

Milo tugged at his collar. “They surely know that this plague ship is arriving. Anyone can see down into the bay from the city. And the ship is quite large.”

The Generalissimo leaned forward. “Larger than the Dominator?”

Dominator was the pride of the Oflan navy. For all intents and purposes it was the Oflan navy.

Milo chose his words carefully. “I’m no expert, sir, but I can say that it is not nearly as impressive as Dominator. Nonetheless, it’s carrying hundreds of people.”

“All infected?” At least something was getting through to him.

Milo shrugged. “It could be healthy people trying to escape from the plague. Or it could be sick people looking for a cure. We’ll only know for certain once they dock.”

The Generalissimo furled his brow. “Don’t we have radios? To talk to the ship?”

Milo wasn’t in the mood to handle this question, so he did what he had to do. “I believe that the Minister of Technology could best answer that question, sir.”

Technology shot Milo a look that said he would pay for this in the coming days. “Recall, sir, that the land-to-sea radios were damaged in the storm two years ago.”

“Ah, yes,” the Generalissimo said, “the great hurricane I turned away from the island.”

Hurricane Robert took dead aim on Oflana, turning off to the east and out to sea at the last moment. While it spared the island and the city the worst of the winds, the bay at the bottom of the hill had still been swamped by the storm surge. Hundreds lost their lives.

“Yes,” Technology continued, “well, sir, those systems have never been repaired.”

“Why not?” The Generalissimo said.

The truth was that the money went to rebuilding the swimming pool in the Generalissimo’s palace, but Milo certainly wasn’t going to say that.

“It went,” Technology started. He apparently thought better of it, too, the firing of Health still fresh in everyone’s memory. “I don’t recall specifically, sir. Regardless, there’s no way to contact that ship until it docks.”

Milo checked his watch. They had, at most, five more minutes to make a decision.

“Then how do we deal with this?” the Generalissimo asked, relaxing again. “Why not just send them back? I’ll defend my people against any threat. Keep that infected ship off our land.”

“That would look very bad,” Milo said. “This plague is fast acting. If there are sick people on that ship and they don’t get any kind of treatment they may die before they get back to Charleston. The press would have a field day.”

“The press hate me,” the Generalissimo said. “Even if we don’t send the ship back, they’ll say bad things. Lies and slander over and over again.”

Milo wasn’t about to get into this now, so he dodged the barb. “Is there another option?”

“We let them dock,” Interior said. “If they’re healthy refugees, we take them while stating this is a onetime situation. Any other ship will be turned back. If they’re sick, they go to the hospital and we’ll treat them the best we can.”

That was a bad option, too, Milo knew. It would lay bare the Generalissimo’s claims that the plague could be treated here. These people, if sick, would overwhelm the island’s small hospital and most likely die horrible deaths, but at least their ends might come with some dignity and care. “Sir, we really have to make a decision. That ship is about to dock.”

The room fell silent. Milo held his breath, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, waiting.

“Let them in,” the Generalissimo said, after what seemed like an eternity. “We are a generous people, are we not?”

“Yes, sir,” everyone else muttered without real conviction.

“Thank you, sir,” Milo said, bolting from the room. He couldn’t believe the man did the right thing, even if it was probably for the wrong reason. Milo ran to his office, rang the dock, and told them the news.

Shortly after he hung up, Kevefe knocked on his open door. “How are you going to sell this to the press? Before you’ve expelled the foreign reporters, of course.”

With the foreign press gone that would only leave the handful of Oflan reporters, none of whom were interested in doing anything but regurgitating whatever Milo told them.“I hadn’t thought of that yet,” he admitted.

Kevefe raised a finger and said, “I have one word for you.”

“One word?”

Kevefe nodded. “Puffery.”

Milo raised an eyebrow. “Puffery?”

“It’s a legal term,” Kevefe said, lapsing into his typical condescending explanation mode. “When someone makes a promise, say in a contract, and can’t keep it, that can be because they lied about the promise or they, let’s say, promised more than they could actually deliver. They puffed up their capabilities.”

“In other words, they lied to get the contract,” Milo said.

Kevefe stepped into his office and glowered down at him. “No, they innocently exaggerated their abilities. Are you suggesting that our physicians aren’t capable of dealing with this plague?”

“The best doctors in America aren’t,” Milo said, deciding not to answer directly.

Kevefe shifted forward, hands on Milo’s desk so that he was almost on top of him. “Are you calling my father-in-law, the Generalissimo of Oflana a liar?”

Milo wanted to, but knew he couldn’t. “Of course not,” he said, doing his best to back away from Kevefe. “Puffery. Yeah, I think I can sell that to the press.”

“You’ll prepare a statement?” Kevefe said, stepping back and composing himself.

Milo nodded. “And, of course, I’ll share it with you before it’s released.”

Kevefe stepped back into the hallway and smiled. “You’re a good man, Milo. Don’t know what we’d do without you.”

Milo took a moment once Kevefe disappeared to compose himself. He needed to prepare a statement for the press. And he needed to expel those foreign reporters. If he was lucky, maybe they would take him with them.


New Tune – “Dance Party in the Pirates Courtyard”

Last spring the Fourth Circuit held an oral argument session in Charleston, South Carolina, rather than its usual home in Richmond. I had to go down there to argue a case, so I took the wife with me and we made a little vacation of it. Charleston is a neat old city, full of lots of history and architecture.

One day, while walking around, we passed this narrow passageway:

PiratesCourtyard (Small)

Something about the sign grabbed me. It wasn’t for a restaurant or bar and wasn’t any kind of historical marker. It was just a sign designating this places as Pirates Courtyard.

Almost immediately I got a riff in my head. Being that musical inspiration is usually fleeting for me, I did well to keep it going until we got back to the hotel. I jotted down the idea and, at the top of the legal pad with the notes, wrote “Dance Party in the Pirates Courtyard.” Usually I pick a title from my long list of nonsense phrases I keep handy just for that purpose, but this seemed to fit the riff and gave me some idea of what might come next.

After many months, and some good lockdown time, I’ve finally completed it. Does it really conjure a “dance party”? Probably not. It’s too slow, has a “chorus” in 7/4, and has an ambienty piano bridge. But I like it and it’s my song and I’ll call it whatever the fuck I like!
Anyway, here it is – hope you enjoy:


Weekly Read: The Last Emperox

I like John Scalzi. I really do. I came to him via his blog, Whatever, before I read any of his books, so I kind of got to “know” him first before I knew his work. I like the snark. I like the politics (mostly). I like the open and honest way he talks about his writing and the business aspects of it. He seems like a very open guy who is helpful to emerging writers and still a complete geeky fanboy about established ones (and, for the few moments he stopped by my table at the WV Book Festival a couple years ago, just a nice guy).

I wish I liked his books better.

Late last year when I was putting together my list of favorite books from the last decade I was surprised that only one of Scalzi’s made the initial cut based on how I’d rated them on Goodreads. Redshirts, which wound up making the final list, was the only one I’d given at least four starts. I’d enjoyed all the others – there were no 2-star clunkers – but most things didn’t get beyond “like” to “really loved.”

I mention that because I really hoped that The Last Emperox, the last book in the Interdependency trilogy, would break through that ceiling. The first two books (I reviewed the first one here) had a lot of promise, but seemed rushed, like there was more in them. With the end in sight I’d hoped it would tie things together in a super satisfying way. Instead, it was more of the same – good and good fun in spots, but ultimately short of great.

The best part of The Last Emperox (and the entire trilogy) is the idea of The Flow. Analogized to a kind of river in space it’s the in-universe way of travelling between distant stars. It isn’t really FTL, but it works like it. The operative fact for the trilogy is that The Flow is collapsing, which is going to cut off planets from each other and basically dooming human civilization.

Against this backdrop the story of the trilogy is various people coming to grips with this. Some are trying to solve the problem, some are trying to profit off of it, and some are trying just do the right thing. This is fairly interesting and some of the characters involved are great. Kiva Lagos is a great, fun character to read about. The suddenly and unexpectedly enthroned Emperox Grayland II is pretty interesting, too, as are several of the supporting players (one is essentially a sentient spaceship). All good stuff.

The problem is that all these interesting people are racing around pushing the plot so hard that sometimes the books come off like extended Wikipedia entries. Part of this has to do with some things that Scalzi does repeatedly that don’t work for me (your mileage may vary, as they say). One is that something will happen – suddenly, with no warning (given who the POV characters are), and often violently. Then we’ll get a couple of characters talk about what happened. It’s like in-world telling instead of showing. Plots – in the sense of plotting, conniving, conspiring – are a lot more fun when you can see the gears working during the wind up. Just getting the incident itself with an ex post explanation isn’t very satisfying.

Another thing that happens repeatedly is that something happens to a character that should move them off the board – a conspiracy foiled or an assassination – that really doesn’t mean anything in the end. The evil doer caught in the act escapes, the target of death really escaped serious harm – all explained after the fact. It gets to the point that when a very major “death” occurs in The Last Emperox you can’t care about it very much because there’s little chance it’s real.

Those issues wouldn’t matter all that much if the ending wasn’t so underwhelming. As I said, the entire motivation for this tale is that The Flow is collapsing and civilization is at risk. Folks come up with a clever way to save it and . . . then we learn that will happen years in the future, after this book is over. So, yay? You think it’s heading for a galaxy-defining moment and it just doesn’t.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with this trilogy – it doesn’t feel like a complete story. It feels more like the first part of a larger trilogy (for epic space opera these books aren’t long), where a certain challenge is surmounted but the big one that would overarc the series has a lot of legs left to it.

I suppose that’s appropriate, though. The first two books mostly left me feeling the same way – I liked a lot of what they had to offer, but felt there was more there, lurking in the aether. I know the old show biz saying is “leave them wanting more,” but I’m not sure it applies to books – trilogies, especially.


My Characters Don’t Speak to Me

Creativity is a weird thing. A book is a book or a song is a song, but different writers can get to that finished product in lots of different ways. That’s made clear to me whenever writers talk about being pantsers instead of plotters. Pantsers, generally speaking, make it all up as they go along, without any great amount of planning, notes, and the like. Plotters, by contrast, do all that stuff before they start writing. I’ve learned, the hard way, than I’m more plotter than pantser. I admire pantsers for the way they write, but to me it’s as foreign an experience as it would be if I tried to write the last part of the Unari Empire trilogy in Tagalog.

There’s another group of authors of which I am not a part when it comes to the creative process. That’s the group who talk about the characters in their stories like they are independent, sentient beings. Some talk about how they don’t write dialog, they just transcribe conversations their characters have on their own. Others give their characters agency and talk about how they can’t control what they do. As at least one well-known writer put it:

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, reports negotiating a deal with his character Mrs. Coulter to get her to spend time in a cave in one of his books. Some authors have reported that their characters give them unsolicited advice about the writer’s own life!

I just don’t get this. One of the amazing things about writing fiction is that I, as the author, am God, in a big G omniscient and omnipotent sense. Characters only exist because I create them and they only do what I tell them to. Their words are my words. Does it means they always develop the way I first intend them to? No, but that’s me changing my mind, not them rebelling.

Maybe I look at it this way because I started writing seriously as a lawyer and in legal writing you’re at the whim of so many other things – the law, the facts, your clients. In fact, it’s my clients who behave the way some writers talk about their characters – with complete free will and a dazzling inability to control themselves.

I always figure that when writers talked about characters talking to them or doing things against the writer’s will it was a way for writers to deal with the vagaries of the creative act, with a heaping helping of metaphor baked in (we’re talking about writers, after all). But I’m apparently wrong and in the minority on this, according to recent research with authors from the Edinburgh book festival:

Researchers at Durham University teamed up with the Guardian and the Edinburgh international book festival to survey 181 authors appearing at the 2014 and 2018 festivals. Sixty-three per cent said they heard their characters speak while writing, with 61% reporting characters were capable of acting independently.

‘I hear them in my mind. They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’,’ said one anonymous writer. ‘They sometimes tell me that what I have in mind for them isn’t right – that they would never behave or speak that way. I don’t usually answer back,’ said another.

Beyond that, 15% of writers surveyed say even talked back to their characters. So, what, are they crazy? Not so much:

Even though some authors reported that their characters had a life of their own, the researchers were keen to stress that there was no question of writers confusing fiction with reality. When the academics rated the writers on how prone they were to hallucinations, they did not score differently to other samples of the population. ‘Hearing voices and other unusual experiences are not in themselves a symptom of a mental health problem,’ they wrote. ‘This shows that vivid imaginative states – including losing control of one’s own imagination – [are] a healthy and safe thing which is important for how some people create fiction.’

Then what’s going on here? Researchers think that these writers aren’t sharing a singular experience, but it’s more that they’re describing a myriad of experiences that occur during the writing process. In other words, to say “they hear their characters talk to them” really flattens the nuance of the issue.

There’s part of me who thinks like this guy, like I’m missing out on something:


I get what he’s saying. There’s something transcendent and beyond the realm of grinding craft when characters talk to you. You’re not just writing, at that point, your communing with the muse, you’re tapping into the essential forces of the universe.

But I don’t think that can be right. Neither he nor I are missing out on anything – we just work differently. Truth is, while there may be a wrong way to write a book, there are probably an infinite number of “right” ways, because what works best for one writer might not work at all for others.

So, I guess I’m fine with the idea that my characters don’t talk to me. In place of the psychic connection that others have with their creations, I’ll happily sit back and make mine do whatever the hell I want while theirs are wreaking havoc!


Sometimes Writing Is Just Filling In the Holes

I can only assume that no piece of art – novel, symphony, painting – comes out complete and perfect in one pass. Creators have to go back and fix things, right? If not I must be doing it very very wrong.

When I write a first draft it’s all about momentum. The goal is to keep putting one foot in front of the other moving the story forward. I’m not saying that I just slap words on the page with the intention to repair them later, but there is a sense of urgency to keep going. For my writing style, until I have an actual story I have a hard time nipping and tucking it into something that readers will (hopefully) enjoy.

As a result, sometimes there are times when I leave holes that need to be filled on a second pass.  A lot of times it’s a sentence or a paragraph, usually replaced with something in all caps like “WRITE SOMETHING EXCITING HERE.” That’s particularly true if I’m writing a chapter where characters get into danger and I know they’re going to get out, but haven’t figure out how yet.

What sucks about this strategy is that I usually forget I’ve done it until I come around for a second draft. For me a second draft is where I can make sure things that need to be connected and make sense. Wait, the bad guy in Chapter 5 was an expert marksman, but in Chapter 9 he can’t hit the broad side of a barn? That kind of thing gets fixed in a second draft, along with making sure characters develop like I want and such. And, of course, I fill in holes.

As I said, I usually forget about these holes, but it’s not a big deal to put down the virtual red pen, fire up the writing brain, and knock out a few sentences.

Sometimes, unfortunately, you get this:


That’s Chapter 34 of the first draft of Widows of the Empire. As you can see, when I came round on my second draft, there wasn’t anything there.

Did I panic? Just a little bit. It was one of those situations where I knew, generally, what had to happen in that chapter but at first pass I didn’t have a good idea of how it should happen. I don’t know what it was when I was in the first draft but the particular synapses I needed just weren’t firing at that point.

Did they fire later? Thankfully, yes, although not without complication. I sketched out what I wanted to happen in that chapter, then went back to my red pen and the rest of the manuscript, planning to write that chapter when I was finished. A day or two, tops, and that would be that.

Then the COVID-19 lockdown happened. I’m fortunate in that my day job is both essential (the wheels of justice may slow the fuck down, but they don’t stop) and I can do it safely from home, so my life hasn’t been upended nearly as much as it has for some people. Nonetheless, the change in my daily life, along with the existential dread of the whole situation, sapped my creativity. Literary creativity, anyway.

It took a couple of weeks, but I finally found the spark again and, in a few days, pounded out a chapter that I think is exciting and a little tragic. It moves the pieces along in a way that should deepen the main character involved. It felt good.

All of which is a long way of saying there is now a complete second draft of Widows of the Empire. And it’s waiting for my virtual red pen. Patience, my sweet . . .