What Do Verdicts Mean?

Recently there was a small kerfuffle in parts of the atheist blogosphere over, of all things, the guilt of innocence of Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky, you’ll recall, is the long-time assistant to legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno who was convicted on dozens of counts of child sexual abuse related to his position there. I’m less interested in the specifics of this case than I am about one particular argument made that raises an interesting question about the criminal justice system.

Things kicked off with a review in Skeptic magazine of a book, The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment, which argues that Sandusky’s trial was tainted by recovered memory therapies and led to a wrongful conviction. The book’s got favorable blurbs from memory expert Elizabeth Loftus and false confessions expert Richard Leo, two names that make my defense lawyer ears prick up. The review was then favorably discussed by some of the atheist heavyweights, including Jerry Coyne and Daniel Dennett.

Others in the atheist blogopshere pushed back, wondering how skeptics could defend Sandusky. While some offered take downs of the review itself, others simply argued that the issue was settled because of Sandusky’s convictions. The leading proponent of that position was PZ Myers who wrote (links removed):

They’ve published a defense of Jerry Sandusky! Look, Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of child sexual abuse. He’s a convicted pedophile. The prosecution brought in a long train of witnesses and evidence of criminal behavior spanning at least 15 years and 10 victims, and this case found him guilty in a community that was full of fanatical Paterno/Sandusky defenders. Anyone remember the riots and protests when the Paterno empire fell? You can’t have a witch hunt when the targets are regarded as holy saints — the evidence was just so overwhelming and undeniable that even angels by repute could be defrocked at last.

Myers may be right about the weight of the evidence, but what I’m more interested in is the idea that because Sandusky was convicted at trial that it’s somehow wrong to examine the evidence against him. After all, the jury has spoken, right?

Except we know that juries get it wrong. Not all the time, certainly (and an overwhelming number of cases never get to a jury anyway), but enough for it to be a concern:

In the past quarter-century, the work of dogged attorneys and advances in forensic science have exonerated more than 2,150 men and women, 161 of those from death row. The Innocence Project, a New York–based nonprofit founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992, has freed more than 200 people and spurred the creation of numerous smaller organizations around the country devoted to the same mission. (From 2012–2015, I was the director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles.) By some estimates there are tens of thousands more wrongfully convicted prisoners languishing behind bars.

Given that, what kind of deference should the public give to guilty jury verdicts?

A quick aside on non guilty verdicts. It’s hard to read anything at all into those, since there are so many reasons why such a verdict could be returned. Maybe the prosecution completely failed to prove its case, or maybe it couldn’t meet the final hurdle to of reasonable doubt. Or maybe the jury nullified in light of sufficient evidence. With a not guilty verdict it’s hard to say much beyond “that guy hasn’t been convicted of anything.”

Back to guilty verdicts – what kind of weight should the general public give them? I may lose some of my defense attorney cred for this, but I’m going to say a lot. The law likes to use lots of “rebuttable presumptions,” things that are taken as true, but can, with sufficient evidence, be shown to be false. For example, in Federal court if you’re arrested on just about any drug offense there’s a presumption that you should be held without bond. You can argue your way out, but it relieves the Government of the need to argue your way in.

I’d grant guilty verdicts that kind of presumption because it’s the one time when a group of people are given one job only – evaluate the evidence presented and, using the filter of the judge’s instructions, determine whether the defendant did it or not (whatever “it” is). Everybody else in the courtroom – the lawyers, the judge, the spectators, the press – all have other things competing for their time and attention. Only the jurors have the clear job of listening to every word of testimony, looking at every exhibit, and deciding what it means.

It’s not a full proof system, for sure. The jurors only hear the evidence presented in court, so if the defendant has a shitty lawyer or a prosecutor who is pushing the boundaries it could present a skewed view of the case. In addition, the rules of evidence pare down the universe of facts that a jury can consider, leading to situations where the “well informed” are “those outside the courtroom.” And, finally, the case itself might be tangential to whatever the defendant is really accused of doing. That Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion does little to show, one way or the other, that he was a mob boss.

Which is why I think a rebuttable presumption is the way to go. It’s perfectly right to say because he was convicted of dozens of sexual abuse counts against children, Sandusky probably actually molested them. But it’s not an ironclad guarantee, as Myers and others seem to suggest. Those who would rebut the presumption, however, have a lot of heavy lifting to do.

The_Jury_by_John_Morgan

The Jury (1861) by John Morgan, via Wikimedia Commons

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Weekly Read: The Road to Jonestown

There’s a passage in Jeffrey Toobin’s book on Patty Hearst where, after the heiress is captured, her kidnappers demand the Hearst family set up a from scratch program to feed the poor. Various groups come out of the woodwork to try and run the program, including Peoples Temple, the cult led by Jim Jones that, a few years later, would mostly die out in the Guyanese jungle. Toobin presents it as a freakish aside, the intersection of two infamous historical figures. After reading Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown it becomes clear that there wasn’t anything freakish about it – Jones and his followers could have pulled it off.

That is, perhaps, the most interesting thing about Guinn’s book, which takes a deep dive into the founding of Peoples Temple and the founding, if you will, of Jim Jones. Born poor in rural Indiana Jones gravitated toward two things when young – social justice and fire-breathing religion. Neither of his parents were religious, but he had a neighbor who was constantly on the prowl to recruit souls for Christ and she exposed Jones to her church. He took to preaching and honed a miracle-working approach in Indiana that would serve him well for decades. It was also the spark of the dark charisma that would lead to so many more than 900 dead in Guyana.

Fact is, Peoples Temple got things done for people who were too often left behind by society. Jones and his followers helped drive desegregation in Indianapolis. Both there and later in California they ran nursing homes, drug treatment programs, and, yes, food giveaways. All those programs were successful (at least as successful as other similar programs) and properly run.

The problem was that, from the beginning to the end, Peoples Temple was always the fiefdom of Jim Jones. All the good work came at the expense of a staggering cult of personality that merged with Jones’s rising paranoia (aided, no doubt, by a cocktail of drugs he used to work and sleep) to make for one of the more frightening cults in recent history. Jones was Father, at the very least, and perhaps God herself (or some reincarnation of past holy figures, like Buddha or Jesus) and the only one who could save his people from the destructive world around them.

At first the destruction was nuclear war. That was reason Jones moved Peoples Temple from Indianapolis to California, setting up shop in a rural area north of San Francisco that supposedly was far enough away from primary targets that, with favorable winds, residents could survive a nuclear attack. That fear didn’t keep Jones from barnstorming around the country on a fleet of busses doing revival shtick, however.

The threats quickly became more personal. There were defectors from Peoples Temple, people who either saw Jones for the con man he was or simply grew tires of giving everything they made and owned to the organization. To Jones each was a potential villain, providing fodder to the press or authorities about what went on in the increasingly secretive group. Journalists started to close in, too. The final straw was a group of former members who focused on getting other family members, including children, out of the group who, they claimed, were being held against their will.

Although Jonestown itself had been founded earlier, these existential threats are what drove Jones and most of his followers there well before the settlement was ready to support them. Harsh conditions, piled on top of Jones’s paranoia and iron grip over his followers, soon degraded into homicidal/suicidal tendencies. Jones simulated an attack on the compound and later staged a mock suicide, just to make sure everyone reacted in the proper fashion. By the time San Francisco-area Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in November 1978, the keg was set to blow. Ryan and several others were murdered at a nearby airport, while Jones led the mass of his followers in Jonestown to their death via a mix of cyanide and Flavor-Aid (not Kool-Aid, to set the record straight).

More than 900 people died in Jonestown and there’s always been some controversy over what label to apply to it. Jones called it “radical suicide” (?), but given that at least a third of the dead were children it’s easy to say that many of the deaths were flat out murders. Beyond the children there’s evidence that some adults were held down and injected with poison, rather than having drunk it on their own. Still, hundreds of people, at least, appear to have willingly laid down their lives when Jones said so.

The big question, of course, is why? Guinn doesn’t do much evaluation of the aftermath of Jonestown or bring in any kind of experts to attempt to explain it. Instead, he lets the work he’s already done, showing how Peoples Temple developed, do the work. What he shows is that people really believed in Jones. Some believed in his commitment to social justice. Others came at it from a more religious angle, drawn in by the healings and such that Jones performed on the revival circuit. Because once your religion has primed you to believe miracles exist, why would you doubt the con man that actually says he performs them? Regardless, they believed in Jones and the outside world gave them just enough reason to buy into his paranoid rants. More than anything else, they let Jones come to define their world, to the exclusion of any critical thinking or close examination of what he was doing.

It’s hard not to think of Donald Trump while reading The Road to Jonestown. Not because Trump is going to lead us into ritual suicide (with a side of murder) anytime soon (we hope), but because of the freakishly similar way Trump and Jim Jones interacted with the outside world. To Jones’s followers he was the only person who could solve their problems and save them from the injustices of the world. Trump during the campaign repeatedly expressed similar sentiments. Jones never failed – he was only failed by underlings or thwarted by shadowy outside forces. Likewise, Trump never backs a loser and is constantly doing battle with the “deep state” or “fake news.” More than anything else, Jones and Trump share a complete aversion to dealing with reality. That way lies madness, as Jones and others have proven.

Hopefully, we’re not all on the road to Jonestown again, without quite realizing it.

RoadtoJonestown

Our Dogs Are Nudists

Last year was a transitional one when it came to canines in our house. In late summer we lost our one-eyed Chihuahua mix, Maia, when her constellation of medical conditions finally caught up to her. After a few weeks with an empty house, we worked with a rescue organization in Ohio and adopted a pair of fuzzy little people, Kalindi (l) and Zaria (r).

Pups

As you can see, they’re both Chihuahuas and both pretty tiny. To add to thing, Kalindi is short haired. It being winter and everything, the wife pushed almost immediately to get them each a sweater to help keep them warm when they went outside.

Now I should say I’ve never been a big fan of dressing dogs up. The dogs never really seem to like it and they tend to look silly. And, frankly, it makes it more difficult to rub their bellies. I mean, what’s the point in having dogs if there isn’t copious belly rubbing taking place? Still, our old Min Pin, Uzume, had a couple of sweaters that did seem to keep her warm, so I wasn’t completely opposed to the plan. That the vet suggested it might not be a bad idea certainly decreased my chances of successfully opposing it.

So for Christmas both dogs got sweaters (along with treats and toys – we’re not monsters). After they had been successfully deployed, my wife took a picture.

Pups3

As it stands, that will prove to be the only photographic evidence that Kalindi and Zaria once had sweaters. That’s because it’s become clear that they don’t particularly care for them. They didn’t protest initially and didn’t provide any resistance when the wife and I put them on. They even wore them around for a while and seemed to be enjoying the extra warmth.

Then the stripping started.

It wasn’t an immediate thing. Indeed, the little beasts seemed to enjoy their sweaters. Then, things started happening. Kalindi is fond of balling up under a blanket (ironically, purchased in Mexico years before I ever thought I’d have Chihuahuas to snuggled under it) and, lo and behold, when she emerged from her slumbers one day her sweater was about halfway off. She didn’t fight to get it the rest of the way off, but you could tell where she was headed.

I don’t even know where and how Zaria got hers off. It just . . . was, as some point.

Naturally, we put them back on. There was no fuss or protest, but a few hours later, both of them were off again. Even after we went outside without them during our recent frigid spell, neither pup seemed interested, although they’re very passive aggressive about it.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that our dogs are nudists and want nothing to do with civilization’s “clothes.” Fine my me – easier to rub bellies!

Pups4

The Fate of The Messenger

Last month you’ll recall I talked, in rather gushing form, about The Messenger, my project for National Novel Writing Month last year. It was a bold experiment in terms of craft – I was flying by the seat of my pants, rather than working in my more plotted out way – and in terms of style – it was to be a sci-fi romp, something a bit more fun and light than my normal stuff. November was great – I “won” NaNo – and December was all about finishing the thing up.

Well, let me tell you, December sucked. In the words of my perhaps ancestor Robert, things gang aft agley. Hard.

I expected progress to slow down some, without the motivation of NaNo breathing down my neck. For about two weeks I did pretty well, but soon enough my lack of planning caught up with me. Mind you, I didn’t even know how this story would end when I started it, which is startlingly rare for me. Even if the middle bits are squishy I usually start with an idea of the beginning and the end. The more I pushed into The Messenger the more I realized I didn’t know where it was going.

I also started to worry more and more about continuity in the story. Things are always a little out of whack with first drafts, but usually I have copious notes to fall back on. Here I didn’t and it made it easy to get stuck in particular scenes, since I had to dig back through what I’d already written to try and tie things up. More often than not I was finding that I couldn’t tie them up, not in this draft anyway.

So, just as things were getting a little grim, the Christmas break showed up. I was off the entire time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, as was the wife, so plenty of time to finish up The Messenger, right? First I got sick (Merry Xmas, huh?), then the wife took her turn. Any motivation I had for writing dried up quickly. All the doubts I was having about whether I could finish this draft piled on and, as sometimes happens, The Messenger became a smoking crater. It’s dead, at least as a complete first draft.

What does that mean going forward?

Well, for one thing, it means The Messenger is on the back burner for the time being. Hopes of having a solid draft just in need of polishing are out the window. It will take some serious work to get right, work that I’ll be putting in on The Orb of Triska and its sequels for the near future.

For another, it means my experiment with pantsing proved one thing conclusively – I can’t do it. I went out, performed without a net, and fell flat on my face. Oh well, lesson learned.

Another lesson learned is that, maybe, writing big space-based science fiction isn’t for me. I never intended for it to he “hard” sci-fi. In fact, it has a disclaimer at the beginning about how it’s more “Dr. Who than Dr. Asimov” and sticklers looking for strict scientific accuracy should look elsewhere. Nonetheless, when you start flinging characters (of various species) across the galaxy things to worry about pile up. It’s entirely possible that The Messenger may wind up as a fantasy, rather than spacey sci-fi, story.

I still like the basic story of The Messenger. I like some of the things I created to fill in the universe in which it was told. None of that’s going to go to waste, but I can’t say it’ll wind up being what I intended it to be going in. That’s the frustrating joy of writing – almost all the time you wind up with something other than what you intended.

Failure

Writing Resolutions for 2018

Happy New Year, everybody!

Happy-New-Year-Memes

I figured now was as good a time as ever, and this as good a place as any, to set out some goals for the 2018 writing year. I’ve done the same in the past in private and it’s a good way to crystallize my plans, even if they don’t all come off in the end. So, what’s on the agenda for this year?

The Water Road Box Set

Now that The Water Road trilogy is complete, it only makes sense to put together an omnibus version that combines all three books in one convenient package.

2017-525 Front Page Box Set

The plan is to make the box set a Kindle exclusive, thus returning The Water Road trilogy to Kindle Unlimited. The individual books would still be available from Amazon and all other outlets.

Interviews

Last year I decided to try and do some interviews with other writers. I’ve done a few and thought they were fun and interesting and wanted to see if I could repay the favor. I wound up doing 19 interviews with all kinds of writers from all over the world. It was such a rewarding experience that I’m going to do more this year. I’ve already got about a half dozen people lined up.

More Short Stories

I’ve got a couple of finished short stories that need to find homes, so I’ll keep trying to shop those around. I’ve also got a pretty decent backlog of short story ideas, so while I’m polishing longer works I’m planning to knock out a few new short stories. Someday, down the road, there will be enough to make releasing a second collection of short stories a reality. It will include a couple of stories set in the universe of The Water Road.

Speaking of collections, look for The Last Ereph and Other Stories to get a spiffy new cover (done by someone who is not me) sometime this year, too.

Orb of Triska Polishing

Last year, you’ll recall, I finished the first draft of a novel in a new series, The Orb of Triska. My main job for 2018 will be getting that polished up and finished. Once that happens, I’m not quite sure what the next step will be. I may get it ready for publishing, with an eye toward releasing it in 2019. I may sit on it until another book or two (of the planned seven) is done. Or I may shop it around to see if any agents/publishers are interested. A lot will depend on when it’s “done” and how I’m feeling about it then.

Write The Scepter of Maril

Regardless of what becomes of The Orb of Triska one goal for later in the year is to start work on the second book in the Empire Falls series, The Scepter of Maril. If all goes well, it should be my NaNo project for 2018.

I think that about covers it. If you’re wondering about a certain other project I’ve talked about before – I’ll have some info about that in a couple of days.

Author Interview – William D. Richards

For the final interview of this year we’re off to New England to talk with sci-fi and fantasy writer William D. Richards.

 Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I am William D. Richards, a powerful being who has command over multiple universes!  At least that’s what my characters think. Otherwise, I’m just an average guy with a strange vocation who mows the lawn every once in a while and enjoys a dram of fine scotch.

I’ve lived in New England all my life, living in various parts of it at one time or another.

I write whatever strikes me as interesting. Mostly fiction, on occasion I dust off my old journalistic credentials and write something non-fiction and informative.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

I just released my newest book, Aggadeh Chronicles Book 2: Dragon, two months ago.

The first book, Nobody, introduced us to the protagonist, Nem Aster. Nem is a person who finds himself way over his head in the events going on in the Aggadeh Empire and the world around it.

The reader doesn’t get a really good feel for who Nem is. I did this on purpose. The reader gets to know Nem at the same time the other characters in the story get to know Nem. Like getting to know a new friend, you only get a little bit here and there. Over time, you start to collect enough of these pieces to put together a more complete picture of who this person really is.

Since that’s the plan with Nem, how much does the narrative of the series revolve around unlocking his character?

The narrative of the series is focused on the story that is happening, of which Nem is at the center. Unlocking just who this nobody is, is just a part of that story. But it does help drive the plot. As other characters begin to discover the truth about Nem, the story begins to drive to the conclusion.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

Mainly science fiction and fantasy. It was science fiction that got me interested in reading and that’s what I grew up with. I preferred it because it really pushed my imagination beyond the envelope.

From the moment I discovered writing, my stories focused on life with the elements of the fantastic. Exploring other worlds, meeting beings that were different than we are, having adventures that went beyond the mundane.

Covers

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

Briefly’? You realize you are asking this of a writer?

When I get an idea, it is usually a scene of some sort connected to a bigger story. I write out this scene. Often this scene is dialogue between a couple of characters. It might be just one quote from a character. Or it could be something far more complex like an entire chapter. One thing in particular is that there is a specific emotion that the character is feeling.

The idea is a small thing, like a singularity. The story simply explodes out of it. When I’m ready to write it out as a story. I try to figure out what happened to get to that scene and then what happens after the scene. That becomes the story.

If I’m feeling really strong about the story, then I’ll just start writing it. The narrative, dialogue, and plot just come out as I start writing. This is the seat-of-the-pants style of writing. However, as I write, I will add notes about the various characters I create on the fly so I have those references.

If I don’t have a strong feeling for the story, I’ll describe it to myself. I’ll just tell myself what this scene is, what happens here, what is driving the characters. It’s so passive it’s pathetic. But this is more like writing notes and outline than actually writing the story. The manuscript for Music on the Wind is written like this. It’s all descriptive and filled with tangents and dead ends. When I’m ready to write it, I’ll read through these notes and then choose the best parts and start writing them as active narrative.

For Aggadeh Chronicles, I actually wrote articles about the various locations of the world of Aggadeh and the various people. It reads more like a social studies book than anything. I even wrote out one of two books that appear within the series. One, Tales of the South Seas, is one of the books that Ophelia steals during the course of the story. Tales of the South Seas as a book about the sexual practices of the Islanders of the Southern Archipelago in Aggadeh. It turns out that Ophelia has a habit for stealing x-rated books from the various libraries when she goes on state visits. Each character has a story. The notes are over 100,000 words long. All that before I even began to write the story in earnest.

Where do those initial idea scenes tend to wind up in the final story? Beginning? Ending? Some major turning point?

Those scenes appear where they need to be in the story. Oddly, the very scene that I imagined when I first came up with the idea of the story might not ever appear in the story because I can’t see where it would fit. It doesn’t mean that I’ve completely thrown it away, but that the story has evolved from the initial concept enough that the original scene lost its place in the narrative.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

Nem is the second oldest character I have in my repertoire. I first created him when I was in junior high as part of a much darker story that eventually evolved into Aggadeh Chronicles. There are a number of images from that original idea that are still in Aggadeh Chronicles. I may write that story as a bonus when I’m finished with Aggadeh Chronicles, just so fans of the series can see what its origin looked like.

Nem is an outsider. His name literally means “nobody.” Nem is short for nemo, which is the Latin word for nobody. He doesn’t really fit in or belong, a feeling a lot of creative people deal with in their lives. And it is a feeling that a lot of teenagers struggle with as they try to figure out who they are and how to fit in with the society around them. The fact he’s lasted this long in my imagination should be a pretty good indicator.

Ophelia is another favorite of mine. She is a lady just waiting for the opportunity to break out and be herself.

I initially created her just to be a romantic interest for Nem in Aggadeh Chronicles, but as I wrote out my notes about her—writing her backstory—she became a much more interesting character.

For one thing, she has a cache of dirty books that she has stolen from various private libraries she has visited. Someone of her social standing steals dirty books! The moment that came out, she went from being a side story to a main part of the story.

We get glimpses of Ophelia here and there in Nobody and Dragon. But we finally get to meet her for real in the third book of the Aggadeh Chronicles series, Oracle.

How long had Nem hung around in your head before you began writing a book about him? In that time how had your conception of his character change?

Nem has been bouncing around in my mind as a character since I was in my early teens. I only really started writing him into a story six years ago, so that’s a lot of time.

Nem as a person hasn’t changed too much. But his circumstances have. Originally Gahvel Nem, he was a street rat turning to thievery to survive. The street children in Balon are a homage to Nem’s original character. The Nem Aster that appears in Aggadeh Chronicles had an easier early life with a loving family and a home. But both are outcasts from society for various reasons. Gahvel because he was a thief, Nem because of his interactions with dragons. Both are the key to the survival of their worlds.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

There are so many, I don’t know where to begin! I’ve had to research so many oddball, weird, unsettling, creepy, and illegal things, I am sure the FBI has an extensive file on me. One that sticks out in my mind: codpieces.

Yes, the humble codpiece. The willy wallet, peter pouch, schamkapsul, etc. No, I do not have one nor do I ever intend to try one on, thank you. But it does make for a humorous scene…

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

I already knew how the industry worked when I decided to step up and write full time. My first career out of school was as a journalist. Because I always daydreamed about writing a book, I kept researching different publishers and the industry in general. So I was all over the publishing industry from one end to the other. I knew how things worked and what to expect.

My big mistake? I didn’t actually write that story.

I saw how the industry worked and how difficult it was to get something published. I also knew how long it would take me to write something. The investment in time was just something I couldn’t do. I had to write articles, find work, and try and earn money so I could just survive. There was no time for creative writing.

I struggled, getting nowhere, until I finally left the writing industry. Only then, unhappy in the last job I landed, did I actually start writing again.

It felt SOOOOOO good to finally open my mind and let all this stuff come flowing out! Once I started, I just couldn’t stop. Story after story began to dump out as I wrote everything down. At lunch on my Palm Pilot, on the train using my laptop, I just wrote and wrote. What amazed me was how little spare time I dedicated to writing and just how much I actually wrote! The notes for roughly five different stories totaling over 400,000 words.

At this point, I knew I was going to write a book.

The issue again became, “When?”

I left my last job and then spent all my time looking for a new job—there were none to be had. A friend popped up with a business opportunity and I jumped at it. There was no time for writing. We got off to a good start, but the economy pulled the rug out from under our feet.

As it came crashing down around me, I had no prospects for the future. It was only then that I came to the realization that the only thing I had left was to actually sit down and do what I had always dreamed about doing: actually write a book.

My advice to others:

Just WRITE!

Set aside some time for yourself for each day so you can just sit down and write a story without feeling guilty about not doing other things. Write because you enjoy writing the story, not because you have to. Don’t set a deadline by which you have to finish writing. That kind of pressure can kill off your creative urge. Instead, treat the writing sessions as a reward for getting other things done during the day. Enjoy the sensation of your fingers dancing on the keyboard as you watch the words appear on the screen.

Don’t worry if your writing is good or not. Just enjoy the story that is coming out of you and follow it to the end. You can fix the rough parts and the passive parts after you have finished the story. (It’s called editing!)

Just write!

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

It would affect my writing life immensely: I would build a house that is optimized for writing. I have a number of ideas for that, including outdoor writing places. Little nooks and crannies where you can have quiet conversations, share some tea or fine scotch with friends. Space enough to entertain friends and family for the holidays.

Whatever is left over I would invest in a dividend producing portfolio to generate income to pay the bills between books. (This is a whole other subject for new writers, delving into the business of being a writer, especially if you are self-published.)

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

This question would have been a lot easier had you asked what was my favorite book or what books influenced my own writing.

At the moment, I am reading Hunt’s Elements of the Mind and I am quite enjoying it. I really liked Hunt’s Dark Wing series and I am looking forward to the next installment in that series that he is working on right now. Hunt is a historian and his attention to the connections and details really weaves his stories together.

I am also reading Donna L. Armillei’s Shock of Fate. It’s her first book and that is always the toughest for a writer, especially when that first book is the first book in a series. Readers just don’t want to touch it until the whole story is complete. Donna has a great story idea aimed at the Young Adult audience, but I think readers of any age will enjoy it. You want to discover a new author? Buy Donna’s book and discover her for yourself!

What do you think you’re next project will be?

Oh, I don’t have to guess at the next project. I know what my next projects are.

At the moment, my primary focus is on the Aggadeh Chronicles series. I am now working on Oracle, the third book in the series and I’m pretty far along with the manuscript now. With the arrival of a new computer, I am aiming to have the manuscript finished by spring so we can finish the editing for a summer release. Much, much faster than the four-year wait readers had between books 1 and 2. (The delay the result of my earlier computer being destroyed in an accident. I had to borrow time on someone else’s computer to finish the manuscript. Four years! UGH!)

Another project I have is a science fiction under the working title of Privateer. The protagonist, shipwrecked in space by pirates, comes across a derelict ship in an uncharted star system in the far reaches of space. While the derelict has enough supplies that he could live out his lifespan, that is not what he intends to do. Can he repair the ship enough to get it moving again?

Another project I have is a fantasy titled The Science of Magic. It looks at magic in the modern age as a young man unexpectedly finds himself in the profession of magic.

Learn more about William on his web site.

Weekly Read: Station Eleven

Usually when a book is set in a post-apocalyptic world, it’s telling one of two stories. Either it’s the story of the fall – how did society get into this fucking mess? – or it’s the story of the gritty challenge to survive just after the fall. Few stories contemplate what might happen a decade or two later, once basic survival is figured out. What then?

That’s the brilliant conceit of Station Eleven.

Sometime in the near future a global pandemic called the Georgia Flu (named after the country, not the state) roars across the planet killing off 99 percent of humanity. Using a time skipping narrative worth of an early (aka “good”) Atom Egoyan flick, Station Eleven tells the interlocked stories of several survivors trying to make sense of an empty world about twenty years in the future.

Note the word “survivors.” These aren’t just people lucky enough to be immune or otherwise avoid the flu. These characters have made it a couple of decades in this new world and have become competent at getting by. If they hadn’t, they’d be dead. Instead, they’re able to devote themselves to larger questions. How important is art and culture in a post-apocalyptic world? Pretty damned important is the answer, one I’m not compelled to argue with. It would have been nice if “art” meant something beyond Shakespeare and classical music, but it is a limited sample, after all. If there’s a Travelling Symphony out there in a wastelands doing King Lear and playing Mozart, I’d like to think there’s a band knocking around playing King Crimson and Zappa, too.

The other big question that rears its head over and over again is how much these people should remember the world as it was and try to pass along information about that world. Two decades on there are adults, either born shortly after the flu or who were young children when it happened, who know nothing of electricity and the Internet and flying aircraft. Is telling them about what they’re missing inspirational, something to make them rebuild? Or is it calcifying nostalgia, dragging them down? Theories are floated and arguments are made, but nothing’s decided. How could it be?

The time-skipping structure works really effectively. The goal isn’t to reveal some big secret, to build to a Shamalan-style “a ha!” moment. Instead it’s a way of drawing connections between characters, even as they become spread around the modern world. It leads to some disjointed spots – there’s one character in particular, front and center in the beginning just before the flu hits, whose story doesn’t really seem a part of the rest – but otherwise it’s a treat.

Where the book falls down a bit is in the overall arc of the story. As I said, there are no big moments and the closest thing to a bad guy is dispatched cleverly, but without it feeling like it’s the moment it should be. That and one section set among survivors at an airport (later turned into a “museum of civilization”) that drags on too long keeps Station Eleven from being knock out of the park great.

This isn’t a gritty survival story. It’s not a whodunit about why the world came to an end. It’s a lyrical, atmospheric, meditation on what it means to be alive in a world where so many others aren’t. Big thoughts, ones worth pondering for a bit.

Also, it led to perhaps the greatest Goodreads Q&A I’ve ever seen:

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Needless to say, that’s not at all what this book is about. Good thing, too.

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Author Interview – Jeffrey Bardwell

For the penultimate interview of this year we’re back in the USA with epic fantasy & steampunkist Jeffrey Bardwell.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

My name is Jeffrey Bardwell and I write under that name. I was born in Virginia, but have bounced around the USA in the last decade or so. I write speculative fiction.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

My most recent project is developing my own secondary fantasy world: geography, cultures, history, the works. I call it the ‘Metal vs. Magic Universe’ and primarily focus on the conflicts between those who cast steel and those who cast spells. The latest book in one of the current ongoing series set in this universe is Hidden Revolt.

Broken Wizards cover

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

I mostly write epic fantasy steampunk. I love the wide breath of options, from the brimstone dragon reek to the shrill whistle of science.

I was in a discussion recently about what “steampunk” really means as a genre – what does it mean to you? What’s the difference between steampunk and fantasy (or even alternate history) set in a late 19th-century type environment?

Steampunk probably means something different to me than most authors. The genre classically hearkens to the Victorian Era, but my fictional evil steampunk empire is more Late Medieval Era. It’s second world fantasy, but a good analogue from our own history would be to ask what if the Dark Ages never happened and Rome just kept going and innovating machines and technology? There’s also a strong whiff of magic in the world in other countries, so gas lamp fantasy might be more accurate to denote a story that combines magic and metal. However, each element is championed by separate societies: the one character who combines an affinity for both in one person is condemned and outcast.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

First, I file the idea away for later. I typically have a backlog portfolio overflowing with ideas and after I select one, I try and get a feel for the main characters’ interweaving arcs. This builds into an outline ranging from minor notes to entire scenes. Then I write the first draft, intently micro revising the previous day’s work as I go.

Soon, latent themes begin to emerge. Often inspiration strikes at random and new, minor developments push off the beaten path as I’m writing. Despite all the exploration and improvisation, the overall map and the destination remain the same.

Once the initial draft is done, I send it to an editor and/or several beta readers. Editing is a two pass system: first, the story is examined for large-scale flaws such as narrative flow, character motivation, internal consistency, and tone. Once every scene is polished and every characterization nailed down, the second pass examines small-scale issues like spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

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Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

My favorite character is Styx, a tall automaton made from wood with brass fittings. His life truly begins when a young wizard finds his puppet body abandoned in the woods and accidentally-on-purpose gives him a soul. Styx has the innocent wonder of a child, but the down-to-earth nature of a wise, old man. He’s seen it all . . . he just wasn’t cognizant at the time.

First, is Styx named after the band or the river? Second, was he one of those ideas around which other things were built or was he a “minor note” that grew into something larger?

Styx is certainly undergoing a rite of passage throughout the series, so the allusion to the river from Greek mythology is appropriate. However, the true root of his name is just a childish misspelling of “Sticks,” the epithet after which the large wooden automaton names himself when he learns to think and speak. He is definitely a minor note whose gentle leitmotif is slowly rising with a strong crescendo.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

The weirdest subject was looking up the original programmable clockwork automata build by Heron of Alexandria, Jacques de Vaucanson, and Henri Maillardet. This research helped me to ground Styx’s designs and the hypothesize the functionality of mechanized armor. Though, to be fair, I would have looked in them eventually regardless. Clockwork robots are cool.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Don’t neglect the actual time for writing among all the other trappings of a modern indie career. Outsource what you can when you can however often you can.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I would use some of that money to buy ads for my series loss leaders and boxed sets, run those ads, and then take a vacation overseas, which would use up more of the money. Then, when I got home, I’d use a little more to hire a personal assistant. The rest I would invest in mutual funds, bonds, and real estate.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

Anything by Terry Pratchett.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

My next project will be taking my epic fantasy steampunk universe into space after fast forwarding the clock a millennium or two.

Check out Jeffrey on Amazon, Facebook, or at his website

Genre Bias Rears Its Ugly Head – It’s Science!

While I was of NaNoing last month an interesting bit of news came out with regards to science fiction and other types of fantastic literature. Put simply – people don’t put as much effort into reading those stories as other types.

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The study went like this:

Their study, detailed in the paper The Genre Effect, saw the academics work with around 150 participants who were given a text of 1,000 words to read. In each version of the text, a character enters a public eating area and interacts with the people there, after his negative opinion of the community has been made public. In the ‘literary’ version of the text, the character enters a diner after his letter to the editor has been published in the town newspaper. In the science fiction version, he enters a galley in a space station inhabited by aliens and androids as well as humans.

After they read the text, participants were asked how much they agreed with statements such as ‘I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the character in the story’, and how much effort they spent trying to work out what characters were feeling.

The results were, on the face, disappointing:

‘Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality, despite the fact participants were reading the same story in terms of plot and character relationships,’ they write. ‘In comparison to narrative realism readers, science fiction readers reported lower transportation, experience taking, and empathy. Science fiction readers also reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally, and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.’

Readers of the science fiction story ‘appear to have expected an overall simpler story to comprehend, an expectation that overrode the actual qualities of the story itself’, so ‘the science fiction setting triggered poorer overall reading’.

In spite of some of the breathless comments I saw online the study does not, as someone points out, imply that reading sci-fi makes you dumber, but implies that people who don’t like sci-fi won’t give it its full attention. It’s nice to have some science to back this up, I guess, but is that any surprise?

That’s the whole reason literary writers, whom I’ve complained about before, don’t like admitting that they write sci-fi or fantasy. This came up against just recently after I finished Emily St. John Mandel’s really excellent Station Eleven (Weekly review forthcoming). It’s a story about survivors of a global pandemic striving to maintain a life that’s something beyond mere survival. It’s a quintessential piece of sci-fi (or, more broadly, speculative fiction), although the author is having none of it:

Thus when Station Eleven was nominated for the National Book Award – it also won the Arthur C. Clarke awards, so take that! – some eyebrows were raised. But when something that is “literary” is it prevented from being something else? I tend to agreed with this:

And yet confusion reigns in this debate, which feels strangely vague and misformulated. It remains unclear exactly what the terms ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’ mean. A book like ‘Station Eleven’ is both a literary novel and a genre novel; the same goes for ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Crime and Punishment.’ How can two contrasting categories overlap so much? Genres themselves fall into genres: there are period genres (Victorian literature), subject genres (detective fiction), form genres (the short story), style genres (minimalism), market genres (“chick-lit”), mode genres (satire), and so on. How are different kinds of genres supposed to be compared? (‘Literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction,’ one senses, aren’t really comparable categories.) What is it, exactly, about genre that is unliterary—and what is it in “the literary” that resists genre? The debate goes round and round, magnetic and circular—a lovers’ quarrel among literati.

Listen, I get the concern of writers like Mandel – slap a “sci-fi” or “detective” genre label on a book a certain group of people won’t take it as seriously. But rather than run away from the tag and deny the reality of what you’re writing, why not embrace it? Doing so would help smash conceptions about what genre fiction is and can be. Stand up for the slighted genre kids, rather than lean into the bully who just wants to put them down.

Does The Room Piss You Off, Too?

If you’re any kind of movie nut you’ve heard of, if not seen, The Room. Released in 2003 it was written and directed by Tommy Wiseau, who also played the leading role. It is famously bad. I’ve seen it referred to as the “Citizen Cain of bad movies.” Its badness is so noteworthy that it’s the subject of a new (much better, by all accounts) movie, The Disaster Artist, directed by and starring James Franco as Wiseau.

I’ve seen The Room and it’s as bad as advertised. In spite of that, or really because of it, it’s become a cult favorite, so much so that it’s actually made back the initial money spent on it (north of $6 million, all from Wiseau). Not because people actually like it, but because they revel in its awfulness. Wiseau seems to have made his peace with this, but it kind of pisses me off.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve said over and over again that a person’s response to art, what they like and don’t like, is deeply personal. In addition, I’m fond of enjoying stuff that consensus suggests sucks, what generally get called guilty pleasures (I hate the term). I, for example, have a deep affection for lots of movies people consider lousy that tend, for some reason, to involve Max Von Sydow (Victory, Dune, Flash Gordon). I like them because I like them, in spite of the fact that most people don’t. I’m cool with that kind of thing.

But from what I’ve read from people who have made The Room a cult favorite it’s not because they see it as an undervalued gem. Nor does it appear to fall into the “so bad its good” category, as everybody involved takes the thing completely seriously. No, it seems that people just really enjoy watching an artist fail, enjoy watching a horrible product because it’s horrible.

There’s a Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s dentist (a very pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston) converts to Judaism and proceeds to tell lots of jokes of Jewish people. Jerry seeks out a priest to tell him of his problems with this.

As a mere consumer of pop culture I’ve got no problem with people interacting with The Room in any way they want. As a producer of it, as a writer, it kind of pisses me off that people take such enjoyment in something they know, and will admit, sucks. I know so many people – musicians, authors, visual artists – who put their heart and soul into their work and make good, but completely overlooked, stuff that it honks me off to see something celebrated because it’s bad.

My plea, I suppose, is this. If you love The Room because you really like it – which is a perfectly valid way to feel – then, by all means, go ahead and love it. But if you’re interest in it is merely to be part of the cool crowd that knows all about it because it’s horrible, spent your energies elsewhere. Try a new writer, stream a new musician, go to a local gallery. There’s good – even great – stuff out there waiting for you if you’re willing to look for it.