The Call of The Weird


“There was a little boy, who wouldn’t go to sleep.”  Thus began my older son’s favorite book in the entire world.  It’s called Night Cars and I read that book so often that until very recently I could recite it all from memory.  Not so much now.  It’s been too long.  But I probably could get to it prompted here and there.

He was a year and a half when that became his favorite book, and I read it almost every day for a year.  It was the story of a little boy and his dad (the mom was never mentioned, but given it was all set at night, it’s possible the mom was asleep like a sensible woman) who lived in a downtown apartment. The little boy didn’t want to go to sleep, because it was a snowy night and there were all sorts of interesting things outside the window: people! Dogs! Police cars! Fire engines!

My son was not overfond of sleeping. Like most smart kids, he was afraid he’d miss something vital. So he didn’t nap, and getting him to sleep at night was a problem.  Mostly, he fell asleep by collapsing wherever he happened to be (I once cooked dinner entirely by stepping over him, as he slept in front of the stove.)  He’d go from running around to curled up on the floor, and then you had to decide: did you pick him up oh so carefully and take him to bed, risking his waking up, or did you leave him there.  The difference, usually, was whether it was daytime or nighttime.

And nighttime sleeping depended greatly on what was exciting, going on outside our window, which was in the heart of Colorado Springs, and looked across the street at shops.  There were people there all night, and yes, fire engines and police cars and dogs.

In the morning, in the book, dad takes his son across the street, gets a doughnut for the son and a coffee for himself. This was often our morning routine with the addition of my getting a bagel. (Depending on money. I mean, most of the time we had breakfast at home, but there were days we had money, and why not.)

You can see why son loved this book, right? He was young enough, I’m not a100% he didn’t think it was about him. Maybe. He’d probably have asked why it was dad and not mommy, who was the usual designee for staying up late, since dad worked outside the house.

His brother, born while we lived downtown, grew up till he was 8 in a tiny mountain town. His favorite book was William Allingham The Fairies, to the point that it was on my mind when I came up with my first published trilogy. You see, I was in a situation where I couldn’t reach for references, and I remembered that poem.  So, not only did the fairies intrude on poor Shakespeare, but the title of the book, now called Ill Met By Moonlight was Down the Rushy Glen.  The publisher changed it. The other two titles are still Allingham lines.

Note we still had Night Cars, but Marshall showed no interest whatsoever in it.  Was it because we didn’t live downtown?  I don’t know.  Could be because he likes more structured poetry. (He does, btw.)

Admittedly when you’re very young you like reading about what you know and sounds like your life, because, well… where is your imagination going to come from?  You can’t really go anywhere in your mind. You have no idea how other people live.

In fact older son’s first story (soon to be out, revised, in his collection.  I need to UPLOAD that!) was a heartbreaking story about adopting a child. Only he had no idea how one adopted a child, so it was like the humane society (where we’d adopted a cat.)  He was eight. What did he know? (When I explained the story changed. So… it’s actually more poignant.)

For those of us who live mostly in books, a lot of what we know about the world is from books. It expands our thinking, our realm of possibilities. Little by little we know more of the world. Most of us learn early on that sometimes writers are full of sh*t. Sometimes through lack of research, mind, but sometimes because a lot of time has passed and life/place is different. I can’t imagine my parents letting me and my friends go on the unaccompanied camping trips of Enid Blyton’s protags, for instance, but never mind.  More importantly — I think — through reading we learn how other people think, how other people are in the world. It’s an opportunity to slip into that space behind the eyes. NOt naked, of course. Your own space-behind-the-eyes goes with you and colors everything. But it’ the closest you’ll get to really GETTING someone else, short of an afterlife of some sort.

Which is why most of us do it. Maybe. Well, I do it because I’m ADD and without audio books I’d never take walks or clean the house. Not enough interest in those.


What this is all about…

My most recent publisher had a bad habit of calling me when I sent a proposal in and going “But what is the book ABOUT?”

I don’t know. Maybe other writers write like that. I can usually tell you the percipitating incident for the book erupting in my head. It’s usually something like “I was reading a book with cloning, and it was legal, so entire people were created for body parts, and I was thinking “Dear Lord, no. Given the ability to develop the process further, you just do body parts, or whole bodies without brains. Raising a human for this is too difficult and expensi–  Wait, what if it’s illegal and you have to hide it by pretendin–”  By the time I left that diner, the back, blank pages of the book contained the first few chapters of the novel.

What does it mean?  Oh, you could say it means that making things illegal makes them worse. BUT that’s not how the book turned out, and it means a lot of things, none of which have anything to do with the precipitating incident.  And that’s one of the clearer ones.  A lot of my books start because, you see, there’s this voice in my head and it’s not mine, and it’s telling a story.  Or I wake up with a sentence running through my mind.

My vampire book (BTW, right now in a story bundle) you could say is about compounding with evil. You give in to evil, and you give in to evil, and you give in to evil, and what does that make you.  It is echoed throughout the series till the last book, and I swear if the bundle does well the second book (the difficult one) will be out in two or three months. I have maybe a week of work in it.

But when the book came to me, I had no idea what it meant (BTW I can see now why it attacked when it did, because it was just before I came out politically.  You figure it. Use paper and pen if you need to.)  I just know I had to park really far away for art class, and then came back, in the August heat, and sat in the car, and my last situational thought as I turned on the car was “Damn, I’m hot.” And then there was an entire trilogy in my head.  By the time I got home and went to my desk, the first few chapters poured out of me and I typed a few other scenes to Kate Paulk on AIM. It was like, it was all there, and I could zoom in on certain scenes.

What did it mean? I didn’t know. I just knew it was there.

Again, what is this about?

Well, this week for various reasons, but mostly because I’m fighting an attempt by the stupid virus to come back (It is a stupid virus. You shed IQ points as you sit there, and all you want to do is sleep) I didn’t do all my posts as I’m trying to on the Sunday night. So, I was going through potential blasts from the past on… Wednesday? night.  And I came across a bunch of them about Human Wave and how someone (obviously eventually on the other side) wrote posts on it, talking about how we shouldn’t read just for fun, and how we need to write the other and… all the arguments which have become so familiar.  “You must write the other.” (Except of course, you can’t write the other, because it’s appropriation.)

This morning, I woke up and I’m reading a mega-bestseller unfamiliar to me.  This is because I can finally read something that IS NOT a regency romance (more on that later) and more specifically Austen fanfic. Which must mean despite the annoying virus, I’m getting better in the essentials.

Anyway, because this guy is famous and a mega bestseller, he has a prologue on the book explaining how he came to write it.  And I read it in disbelief.  He was tried of characters with problems, so his character is perfectly sane, has no problems at all, doesn’t need/want anything.  Yeah, bub. The character himself says that in the first chapter…

Which proves the character is not particularly introspective, and frankly neither is the writer.  Because the character is angry. It radiates off him. And the reason he’s angry is the reason the writer was angry when he wrote it.  The fact they’re both oblivious to this is actually fascinating.

Anyway, there’s the point — look, I’m uncaffeinated — there are two sides to writing — and to reading — one is the “you do this because you do it. The call of the weird comes up, and bam, you write it.” The other is “You must write this or that to illuminate the blah blah blah.”

I suspect there are two types of writer. Perhaps there are two types of reader too.  I have no problem reading the second type of writer in non fiction, but in fiction there are books I start and go “This is dead” or worse “why are you lecturing me.”  Most of the time, though, I just go “boring” and move on.

Mostly, there are things that appeal to me, and things that don’t. And things that appeal to me at different times — of life, of circumstance, sometimes different times of day — I get stuck in reading ruts.  Normally I live somewhere with sf/f some adventure, some thrillers.  If I’m stressed and real life is way too complex I mainline cozies.  A little above that in spoons and it’s historical mysteries. A little below and it’s regency romance or austen fanfic.  Note I’m not saying these are below in skill. Some are. But some aren’t. I’m saying they’re below in the emotional investment they require of me, because if I’m reading Pride and Prejudice Fanfic, I know how it’s going to end and 9 times out of ten what the details will be. I don’t have to try to figure if a character is good or bad. I read the name, and I know.

It’s easy to figure out with kids (because their life experience and triggers for things are so short/few) why a book appeals and one doesn’t.  Well, unless you know, it’s my younger kid.  It might have been the poetry and the big words, for all I know. He used to memorize poetry. Get drunk on it. Yes, he wants to be an engineer. Life is like that.

So when someone says they designed their book to appeal to x or educate x on y or whatever, there are two choices: Either they’re lying, or they think they really did this.

But whether the book actually does what it was intended to do? That’s chance. And the call of the weird. And how “alive” it is. And when it hits. And how it speaks to the reader.

Sure you can “design” books and take a prescriptive approach and say people SHOULD read your book because it’s good for them.

But fiction doesn’t work like that.  Fiction takes you somewhere.  And it’s all a matter of if the reader and writer want to be there.

So… write it. Put down your clipboard and just write it.  With luck, a lot of people want to follow you there.  And if not, write another one.

Me?  Well, there is this guy and he has a dragon egg in a colony planet.  And there’s this woman who was just arrested in NYC under Mayor Giuliani’s attempt to cut down on the selling of fake amulets by the curse men.  And…. well, you see? I have to go write.



276 thoughts on “The Call of The Weird

                    1. It’s true. I was supposed to be working on the fourth book in my urban fantasy right now. Instead, I’m thigh-deep in a retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” and it’s all HER fault.

                    1. Yep, around her one doesn’t have to wonder about the reputation of writers as somewhat off-kilter, and Odd…

                      And every now and then, we get to enjoy the fruits of said oddity. I wonder what that one’ll turn out to be?

                    2. Oh, that was a terrible typo. I meant “around here”, not around her. Sarah, please not a mountain of carp! That was supposed to be self-deprecating humour, not pointed solely at you!

                  1. Well done my fine Ox. Saves me the trouble of finding some way to tweak herself. She’s much more productive when she gets spun up.

                1. 1. I presume this is similar to “bad ox” but even.. er.. worse?

                  2. As if plot bunnies weren’t problem enough… plot oxen?

                  3. ‘Plot-taur’ joke would go here, but ox slow.

                  1. 4. I call ’em ‘plot bugs’ because it hurts so much when they bite.

                    Of course, the ones with stingers are the worst…

                  2. >> “1. I presume this is similar to “bad ox” but even.. er.. worse?”

                    Oh no. Better. MUCH better. 😉

                2. Urp. Do I dare mention that poetry (at least what I call poetry) is very much engineering? Just with language instead of beams, bricks, circuits, whatever.

                  Walking away very, very quietly… I need to add that to the notes for the “Iambics” short anyway.

                    1. suburbanbanshee, the Chesterton book sounds interesting. I found one at Amazon on ‘Chesterton as mathematician’–is it that one, or another one?

                      (for some reason, this system won’t allow show me a ‘reply’ option directly on your post.

                    2. They will appear in the Reader function of WP, but the threading there is more confusing, so we are left with decent threading to 9 layers (of WP hell as RCPete asks) of direct replies, or sometimes confusing threading (to get here to reply took several “Show X Replies” usually 5, so a “Load more comments (Showing 22 of 152)” find the root reply, show 5, and again etc) but ability to reply direct.
                      Reader is also where the individual Like button resides that allows likes to comments not replying to you.

                    3. There is another one by the same author, published more recently.

                      Look also at the, I think, subsidiarity one. Free the wild moniad might also be of interest.

                    4. Re: lack of reply buttons: WordPress only allows replies to go to a certain depth. (counts) looks like 9 levels (or is that the 9th circle of WordPress?) deep is it.

                  1. Ran into this meme the other day

                    You pick a phrase, you pick a rhyme, repeat the sound another time,
                    Five iambs, then an extra beat will do ya.
                    Another rhyme, a rising note – congratulations, you just wrote
                    Another goddamn verse to Hallelujah.

                    try getting that stupid ear worm out of your brain…

                  2. I’ve been reading sonnets. Iambic pentameter… and then Shakespeare goes and does something that perhaps scanned at the time and no longer does and I’m trying to sort this out… And the rest of my brain is rolling its eyes and muttering things about why TXRed was not an English major (despite teaching my fellow English Honors sufferers a crash course on how to scan poetry and diagram sentences as a college freshman.)

                    1. I find that in many poems as well as older (18th and 19th century) hymns. My classic consternation is in the first Stanza of Blakes “The Tyger”

                      Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
                      In the forests of the night;
                      What immortal hand or eye,
                      Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

                      Eye and symmetry, should the latter rhyme with the modern pronunciation of eye? Or should eye be pronounced EE to rhyme with Symmetry? Or is it some kind of half rhyme my dim brain doesn’t get? Or is Blake writing in some English dialect I am unfamiliar with (Like Bobby Burns writing in Scots dialect). I do waste a lot of brain cells on idiocy like this.

                    2. The consensus seems to be that Blake (like many Georgian and Victorian poets) was pronouncing “symmetry” in poems differently, depending on the needed rhyme. You continued to hear the symmet-try, memor-rye, etc., in Cockney songs, folksongs, et al.

                    3. For reading aloud, few poets match Vachel Lindsay. ‘The Congo’ has a fantastic rhythm ( though horribly un-PC sentiments). ‘Abraham Lincoln walks at midnight’ is powerful, and ‘General William Booth enters heaven’ is great, too.

                3. *bursts out laughing*

                  I’m sorry, Sarah, but this comment, for some reason, made my day.

                  Lots of love, virtual hugs, and warm drink of preference.

                  -a sleep deprived Shadow, who is dealing with a teething baby, and at the same time suddenly in full on ‘IS SHE BREATHING *stare*’ mode

              1. >> “Dying in someone else’s sleep might be something of a puzzlement.”

                This sounds like a Psychonauts subplot waiting to happen.

            1. …peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming in terror like his passengers.

              And Ox, my cows want to have your calves.

        1. Nah – that is merely my blessing.

          And my curse.

          It’s just my nature to be unnatural, with a mind so twisted I routinely meet myself coming and going and often bite myself on the butt.

          1. That seems more alliterative than simply saying caustic. I was, I confess, intensely influenced in my literary pretenses by heavy exposure as a youthful wallaby to the stylings of Stan Lee.

                1. Sodium bicarbonate might seem
                  A chemical quite generic.
                  Yet it has the curious property
                  Of being amphoteric.
                  It can neutralize an acid;
                  It can neutralize a base.
                  Whatever some chemical’s pH is,
                  It adopts the opposing case!

    1. >> “This is a comment. I shall just leave it here while I go take a nap.”

      “This is my comment. There are many like it but this one is mine.”

      1. Ceci N’est pas un commentaire .
        Not sure if that’s the right form for a comment on a post. Last time I took french was in the lat ’70s so had to depend on Google for that word…Best not to offend the french they’re rather… well picky … about their language.

  1. One individual asked me “why did you write this or what is the purpose of this story” about a story that I posted on Baen’s Bar (in the Slush Pile conference).

    While not as driven to write as Sarah, to me it was “just a story I wanted to tell”.

    If the story is enjoyable, why does it matter “why the author wrote it”?

    1. Why did I write this story? To entertain people.

      And to make money.

      Ideally, lots and lots and lots of money. Scrooge McDuck money.

        1. I’d have to see a citation on that. Like writing movie scripts, that leads to a high payout in, I suspect, a low number of cases.

    2. I wrote it because these characters were living rent free in my head, and they were bad tenants who kept trashing the place and making a ruckus at all hours. I had to build them another place to live in order to get them out of there!

    3. Don’t remember which famous S/F author whose work is read and studied in school. But one of the questions the reader needed to answer was “Why did the author write this book?” One answer was “because my mom needed new shoes.” Don’t remember if it was the daughter or granddaughter was in the class. Question got no points. Next thing the teacher is getting a note from the author. “No. Really. We needed the money for kids shoes, that is why I wrote the book.” Question re scored to full points.

      1. I remember vaguely that similar reasons were why Stephen Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time – what I forget were the exact reasons why. Food on the table and being able to afford to send his children to school, I think, were the reasons.

        For the most part, the reasons why I want to write down the stories are: The characters are yelling, the scene refuses to let me sleep, and once it’s down on at least a notepad, I can sleep.

        1. So, two reasons:

          1. Money (That’s What I Want)

          The best things in life are free
          But you can keep ’em for the birds and bees

          Now give me money (that’s what I want)
          That’s what I want (that’s what I want)
          That’s what I want (that’s what I want) yeah
          That’s what I want

          Your loving give me a thrill,
          But your loving don’t pay my bills

          Now give me money (that’s what I want)
          That’s what I want (that’s what I want)
          That’s what I want (that’s what I want) yeah
          That’s what I want

          Money don’t get everything it’s true
          What it don’t get I can’t use

          2. The voi Voices In My Head made me.

  2. a lot of what we know about the world is from books.

    A lot of what we can envision about the world is from books. Well, books and movies and TV and radio dramas but they all begin with somebody at a typewriter (of one sort or another.)

  3. Has your ‘call of the weird’ led you back to Dark Fate recently? I found 11 chapters, but the story feels far from finished.

    NOT trying to tell you what to do, but if you write more I will gladly read it. Or, might we see it in a Monster Hunters anthology?
    Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!!

    1. You’ll see it with something like an ending in the next MHI antho.
      The problem with Dark Fate is that it’s dependent on the publisher accepting it. This has been made clear to me is a “not happening.” So….

      1. Apropos of absolutely nothing: How have sales on Guardian gone, compared to other books in the series?

        I’m about forty percent through the audiobook and find the reader … meh. She isn’t bad but she isn’t particularly right either. A good reader is engaged in the story and this one seems to be merely reading it.

        It is a problem I’ve noticed seeming to afflict female readers more than males, but that might be simply a matter of what I am prone to having read to me.

        Some books that would logically be read by a female are almost impossible for a “read-aloud” — f’r instance, Pride & Prejudice with its five sisters plus assorted other young ladies of comparable background and class, seems to present a serious challenge for any reader trying to keep the speakers distinct and separate.

        Other books have less problem of that sort, of course; I’ve an excellent reading of To Kill a Mockingbird — although it is a bad recording. One side of one cassette sounds like it was read into a metal trashcan!

        1. It is, however, sometimes a mistake to think that a book with a male POV character cannot be eead effectively by a woman.

          Case in point; my Lady and I both love the King short story ‘Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut’ it is narrated by male characters, indeed Maine Old Farts. Yet my Lady has an audiofile of it being read by a woman who is as perfect with the story as John Cleese is when reading SCREWTAPE.

          Go figure.

          1. It’s like anything else. An actor or actress with skill and knowledge can make a story come alive. Someone who does not care or does not know how — will kill a story.

              1. For an interesting experiment, look into the set of Narnia readings:

                The Magician’s Nephew narrated by Kenneth Branagh
                The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe narrated by Michael York
                The Horse and His Boy narrated by Alex Jennings
                Prince Caspian narrated by Lynn Redgrave
                The Voyage of the Dawn Treader narrated by Derek Jacobi
                The Silver Chair narrated by Jeremy Northam
                The Last Battle narrated by Patrick Stewart

                and compare the readings. Michael York does a perfectly fine job reading the book, sounding rather like a lovely older uncle. Each of the others gives a bloody good performance of their book, grasping that the project is not a mere process of reading a book aloud.

                The set is readily available unabridged and, if you shop about (and especially if you don’t mind used) not terribly expensive for seven novels.

                I find myself not particularly caring for Full Cast Performances, preferring a single reader. In part it is because there is almost always one member of the cast whose performance doesn’t sell, but primarily because a single reader — when that is a good reader, as with James Marsters’ readings of the Dresden Files — just seems more integral to the storytelling.

      2. If you had only been properly subservient, tugged the forelock, and knelt in the presence of your betters you could simply have become a once upon a time author who got relegated to the occasional anthology short story. But no, you had to make statements that were of all things actually true and factual about certain aspects and participants in the traditional publishing world. Including stuff that pertained to the smallest and arguably the least evil of the mid level publishers existing just under the threshold of the big five tradpub.
        Evil woman! You shall never be taken to dinner on their dime again.
        Now just set your Portagee hiney down and crank out half a dozen best sellers for the indie market. I’ll even edit them for you at my friend discount rate. And then once Amazon deposits several millions of dollars into your bank account we can consider buying B&N up for chump change and turning all those coffee shops into functioning book stores.

      3. I found Guardian to be an immensely fun read. I’ve been binge-reading everything I can because of the mother-lovin’ recovery time associated with foot surgery (and the doctor said while I am healing, I am not healed, so I’ve been sentenced to another 4 weeks in the comfy chair) and MHI in general (and Guardian in particular) are helping me keep what passes for my sanity.

        I really do have to write some reviews, if only “It’s damned good! Buy it.”

        1. I’ve reread Guardian at least four times now.

          It is a testament to Sarah’s portrayal of Julie that every single time I read it, in that particular scene where the line is “My world ended” that I burst into tears.

          Not just because I can understand that line, but because I’m stabbed with the pain of Julie’s agony every. single. time. I’m utterly immersed in Julie’s POV.

          It’s glorious.

      4. AW… sad about Dark Fate. I kinda knew it wasn’t likely, but I still held out (some) hope that it would become a full book. I really liked what we’ve gotten so far. Sigh, oh well.

        Congrats on Guardian though. It is as good as I knew it would be. I made the mistake of listening to it first (I had a lot of driving to do, so I had a lot of listening time, but not a lot of reading time), so I’m waiting a few months for the audio to drain out of my head before I read it so that I can really enjoy it properly.

        I know you don’t have control over such things, so please don’t take this as blaming you, but I almost wish Oliver Wyman could have read Guardian. Maybe it wouldn’t have been perfectly Julie’s voice but at least it would have had the same overall feel of the other MHI books. And an argument could be made that Wyman’s reading of Julie dialog in the other MHI books means that kinda IS Julie’s voice. Hell, I’d even re-buy the audio book if there were an Oliver Wyman version, not that I think they would ever do that.

        1. Too late now, of course, but Wyman could have easily been the reader. Most of the entities with whom Julie interacts are male or supernatural; only* Grandpa’s nurse, Dorcas, Lucinda and, of course, Mom are female and Wyman has already provided a voice for most of those.

          Better, far, to have a male reader who is actually effing competent than a female reader who is merely not bad. Ideally, MH:G would have a competent female reader but the relevant element of that standard is competent, not female, as demonstrated by Bronson Pinchot’s reading of Grimnoir’s female characters and Tristan Morris’s Black Tide Rising performance.

          *I am being the forgetting – is the Fata Negra rep female or is that only in the non-canonical Grant story?

            1. Sigh. So sorry to note that Grant’s been shot from the canon, at least for the elements of that tale. So dark a fate.

  4. “compounding with evil”

    The pharmacist was not a bad man. Well, not particularly as such men go. He never poisoned anybody. He might have gotten particularly upset at the sort of person that makes a left turn without the use of his vehicle’s turn signal. But that sort of thing was hardly the kind to imperil one’s soul.

    Yet when the chance to find a cure for the incurable comes his way, he grasps it without fully considering the consequences. Now there are imps in his laboratory and there might just be a balrog in the cold storage. Such is the trouble when you’re compounding with evil.

      1. I know, I know. Puns are the lowest form of humor and all that. Also, not a story, just a back cover tagline.

        Muse collective: This is the second week in two years he’s worked less than eighty-five hours. Let’s let him write a bit.

        Also Muse Collective: I know! Let’s give him a new plot hook to play with!

        Evil Muse Collective: And make it a massive groaning multi-book plot that covers science fiction, fantasy, zombie apocalypse, time travel, horses, not-dogs, psychology, and… stuff. Because we’re the Evil Muse Collective, that’s why!

        At least the covers should be easy, should they make it to that point and not self destruct.

        1. I must disagree; puns require a large and varied vocabulary, a deep understanding of humor and language, and the wit to be able to whip them out with the ease of breathing and perfect timing. (My husband is very good at puns.)

          And *chuckle* Yeah, evil muse collective is a great description. Sometimes, they argue. A lot. And then things get… complicated. Multi-book plot indeed!

            1. Actually, Ben Jonson was more known for it. He once bragged that he could make a pun on any subject, only to be instantly asked for one on the Queen.

              “The Queen is not a subject! She is the Queen!”

          1. I rise in support of Brother Lane. The pun is a low and cheap form of humour, lacking wit or verve, doing nothing to illuminate the frailties of the human condition. Its practitioners are the vilest of scum, planting their verbal whoopee cushions where the unsuspecting will sit upon them.

            No matter what other graces might seem to save them there is no redemption for the punster, a creature beneath even the satirist and the advocate of irony. The lowest circles of Hell are not punishment enough for them!

  5. What does it mean?

    It seems to me that it is a damned poor sort of book that can only mean one thing. When read one of Heinlein’s juveniles as a teen it meant one thing, when I read it as an adult it meant another and when read it as an old [coot] it meant another still. And that is not to say it didn’t mean something different when I read it at fourteen than when I read it again at fifteen or at sixteen.

    When you decide that a book must mean something (other than something so broadly defined as to conjure infinite ambiguity) you almost immediately eliminate all nuance, all complexity, all universality. Even a theme as simplistic as “Freedom is good and Liberty worth defending” evokes questions about the definitions of Freedom, of Liberty, and of the nature of Defending and whether defending something doesn’t entail its sacrifice and even destruction. After all, as is oft noted: soldiers sacrifice their freedom to defend ours.

    When a publisher asks, “What does it mean?” I suspect the underlying question is “How can we market this thing?”

    1. Cures boils and soothes aches? Mitigates the effects of gout? Can enhance your performance in bed and make you wake up refreshed and full of energy every time? Gauranteed to make you wiser, your wife prettier, and your children less noisome?

      1. If we accept the premises of the deconstructionists, the author would be the last person to know what it means.

        1. That is, if we accepted what we think they say are their premises, which is silly, given we haven’t deconstructed what they said.

      2. Quote

        Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
        By Order of the Author Per G. G., Chief of Ordnance.v

        End Quote


    2. > What does it mean?

      It’s the kind of question people ask to try to make themselves sound Deep and Thoughtful, but actually says “I’m an ass.”

      However, it’s always tempting to spool out five minutes of babbledeyflab and see if they realize you’re yanking their chain.

      The only “meaning” any sane publisher would be looking for would be “about how many people might pay money for this?” But that’s not how publishing workd…

    3. I just started Podkayne of Mars [revised edition] after a hiatus of several decades. Older Pete is developing a different take on it than young Pete did, though it’s early pages, yet.

      And I have the dead-tree version of the post-mortem Stranger in the queue.

      1. I don’t think the various major bits were originally supposed to be connected together, and it has all the preaching of “Stranger in the Strange Land” plus all the infodumpery of “Farmer in the Sky.”

        I re-read it a couple of years ago, and realized why I hadn’t bothered since originally reading it in 1975 or so…

    4. It can be a bit sad, too, when people insist in reading their private delusions into it. . . but alas, probably inevitable. (I once read a book about movies where the author insisted that every war movie was an anti-war movie because it depicted war as unpleasant as some point.)

        1. Of war movies not starring John Wayne.

          I remember an online group I was involved in when Saving Private Ryan came out, cheering that civilians, on seeing the depiction of the Normandy landing would appreciate the bravery of our soldiers.

          I maintained, in opposition, that they would decide “war is too terrible a sacrifice to make!” and become even more anti-war.

          It seems that, in the words of philosopher Harry Nilsson, “You see what you want to see and you hear what you want to hear – dig.”

  6. I have a book from Great-Grandmother the school teacher titled, “School Dialogues,” copyright in the 1850s if I remember correctly. These are skits meant to be read aloud by the students, and they are the “you ought to read,” category. In fact, they are Edifying Stories for Young People. Too many people here and now may be trying the same thing. Better to tell a good story and trust any “message” you have is part of the whole, not the sole reason you put fingers to keyboard (or whatever).

    1. ERIC, OR LITTLE BY LITTE or ST. WINIFREDS, OR THE WORLD OF SCHOOL. Kipling skewered them in STALKY & CO.. Out of simple curiosity, I have tried to read a couple of the most famous Improving Works of the Victorian era, and It’s a wonder so few children of that era grew up to be axe murderers.

      But, the same thing applies to the Improving Works of the model era. I remember the Relevant Teen Novels of the ’70’s. I never DID make it all the way through one. Like LES MISERABLES, they inspired me with an overpowering urge to throttle each and every character. Someday, someone with a stronger stomach them mine will write a history of such drivel. Possible titled ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, ANOREXIA McWHINEYPANTS.

      I can still remember reading editorial after editorial bemoaning the fate of Children’ Literature and the poor sales of such wonderfully relevant books. And I also remember thinking; ‘Why would kids read any of this codswallop? Playing on the freeway would be more fun.’

        1. Other than STALKY the only Boys School Stories I have ever read that didn’t cause nausea were Owen Johnson’s ‘Lawrenceville Stories’. They weren’t as subversive as STALKY, but the bots sounded like boys, and the ‘moral’ aspects weren’t terribly intrusive.

          TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS is so tiresome that I have to wonder what on earth its competition was like for it to cast as long a shadow as it does.

          1. TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS is so tiresome that I have to wonder what on earth its competition was like for it to cast as long a shadow as it does.
            People curious about the backstory to the Flashman books, perhaps?

            1. It’s a bit of a footnote now, but it is considered by scholars of English Literature to be one of the reasons the Boys School Story had as long a life as it did. It was a pretty successful genera in its day. TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS is considered the first, though it had roots in previous novels. It stayed strong until WWII, and traces of its legacy can be seen in the ‘Magic School’ subgenera, of which the most successful (though hardly the first) has been the Harry Potter series.

              Tom Brown is certainly better than ERIC, OR LITTLE BY LITTLE (which came after), but it’s hard to see what made such an impression.

        2. Did she have any Surtees? I chased him down after having my curiosity piqued by STALKY and other mentions in Kipling. Amusing, but I feel that to get the most out of them I would need to understand foxhunting society a good deal better.

      1. axe murderers

        No, several grew up to be far worse than that. They became Major Generals. Tommy and myriad of his fellow soldiers became unavailable for comment.

  7. Most of the time, though, I just go “boring” and move on.

    Would that be like Evil Willow’s “Bored now.”?

    I sometimes have a hard time with those questions.

    I’ve spent more than a month hung up on the current chapter of a fan-fiction story, because I’m not sure how to write this one part. I’m not sure whether I’m telling the story, or beating the readers over the head with a message.

    The story is about a woman from another world who has lost all of her memories. In Chapter 9 she has questions about sex and the other main character tries to answer them, both from his own perspective (well, mine, really) and in terms of our society’s perceptions. Trying to explain what she shouldn’t say, and why, without imposing his attitudes on her.

    I’m making that a major theme — he tries to give her the information she needs to make her own choices, instead of telling her what is right and wrong.

    Still, in some places it can be hard to tell when story starts turning into message, and how much message is too much.
    At my house, the ‘things that go bump in the night’ are cats.

    1. Would that be like Evil Willow’s “Bored now.”?

      Now I’m imagining pulling an Evil Willow on the authors of some of the books we read in high school. I wouldn’t really want to flay any of them alive. I just like to imagine inflicting some of the suffering on them that they did on me.

      1. They did not inflict suffering on you. They wrote for people that like that stuff (brain bleach NOW). The school system inflicted the suffering by making you read them. (School system(s) delinda est).

    2. “In Chapter 9 she has questions about sex and the other main character tries to answer them, both from his own perspective (well, mine, really) and in terms of our society’s perceptions. Trying to explain what she shouldn’t say, and why, without imposing his attitudes on her.”

      And my Node of Perversity opines that y’all should just dump the answers, and have him respond, “Why don’t I just show you?”


      1. It’s not the right time. He’s preparing her for a public appearance, on the news. Here’s the lead-up:

        “Ah. I wondered. Okay, what kind of sex is normal? What kind do you do?”

        “Nnnng—“ He could not formulate a coherent reply, reminded yet again that here was a woman utterly lacking in social boundaries. An outsider altogether alien to our society who would do, and say, whatever popped into her head, blithely unaware that there were thoughts she should not express. He had about an hour to instill some notion of restraint in her mind, lest she commit some ghastly faux pas in public and torpedo their chances of getting anybody to help them.

        She giggled at his unease. “Come on, I deserve to know something, don’t I? You know everything about me. Well, as much as I do, anyway.”

        1. Interesting answer. It would certainly complicate life if he thought of saying that, and even wished he could.

        2. *snickers* Yeah, a discussion of the Sacred and thus Secret is probably not going to sink in…
          would she have the concept of ‘taboo’?

  8. “Which proves the character is not particularly introspective, and frankly neither is the writer. Because the character is angry. It radiates off him. And the reason he’s angry is the reason the writer was angry when he wrote it. The fact they’re both oblivious to this is actually fascinating.”

    There was a mystery series I read (from ARCs when I worked at a bookstore) set in the South, some major city. And the protagonists were completely and totally messed up—divorce, adulterous liaisons with the ex, money issues, life issues in general. And around about the fourth or fifth book, the plot took them into The Backwoods. And at one point, one of the protagonists is thinking about these poor benighted religious/wrong political persuasion folk were, and how awful their lives must be.

    And yes, the author seemed to be entirely oblivious to the implicit irony of someone whose life is a garbage dump speculating how awful and unhappy the lives of people not like her must be because they are Ignorant Hicks™. (This was back 15 or more years ago, so it wasn’t Not Woke™. But oh lordy lordy lordy.

    1. Garbage dump is kindly, when dealing with 99% of all Noir imitations of Hammett and Chandler. Raging dumpster fire in back of an ammonia works is more like it. I think that’s what makes the film ANGEL HEART so effective; the character is a known and familiar type, and DESERVES to be condemned to Hell.

      There are a handfull of exceptions. Spencer. Travis Magee (I didn’t LIKE the books, but I understood why somebody might). But compared to the Continental Op, Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe, they are second rank and the rest are mostly a great deal worse.

  9. So when someone says they designed their book to appeal to x or educate x on y or whatever, there are two choices: Either they’re lying, or they think they really did this.

    Eh, they might mean “I was having hella fun with this idea.” And “I designed it to educate on X” sounds so much fancier.

    After years of reading you guys talking about how a character walks up and demands to be written, I had a villain show up in a dream…and I’ve actually gotten something out of him! I didn’t make him, I just got introduced!

    It’s kinda fun. ^.^

    1. “Having hella fun with this idea” and also “designed to educate” was the reason why Matthew Reilly wrote Troll Mountain. He says so outright. He also says that it has a message, but unlike the usual message fic these days, none of these things interfered with the story in the least.

  10. >> “compounding with evil”

    ALICE: “‘Compounding with evil?’ How does that work?”

    BOB: “Oh, if you have some evil to spare you can put it in a savings account and let the interest earn you more over time. Then THAT evil earns interest as well so it kind of snowballs.”

    ALICE: “Huh. Do you earn a lot?”

    BOB: “Well, interest rates are pretty good right now but the economy is being flooded with so much new evil these days that experts are predicting massive devaluation.”

    ALICE: “How much new evil are we talking about?”

    BOB: “Antifa alone are pumping out kilonazis of the stuff every week.”

    ALICE: “Ouch.”

    BOB: “Yeah, bad time to invest.”

    ALICE: “That’s alright, I didn’t have any evil to spare anyway. I can barely make it through the month on what I’ve got.”

    1. Interesting instead of the compound interest DGM go I heard compounding to be that thing a pharmacist does to mix a special drug. Probably way to much time with elderly cats that needed a variety of compounded medications…

    2. I think it was more along the lines of compounding drugs — add a little of this, a few milligrams of that. So, mixing several different, select kinds of evil to get just the right effect.

      Other folks just dump all the evil in a big pot and stir it up. I think they’re impatient to get it out the door before it gets stale.
      Long ago, when men cursed and beat the ground with sticks, they called it witchcraft. Now they call it golf.

    3. You really can compound evil that way. Pretty much.

      But evil is never devalued. a) because absolute Good does exist b) we always have choices of good or evil c) those choices matter.

      1. But come the Glory Day all debts are paid and all accounts settled, and woe unto him who has an evil balance in his ledger.

  11. “But what is the book ABOUT?” is the worst question to ask of a work of fiction. It’s about PEOPLE or ‘taint worth the ink. PEOPLE ain’t simple, and making them simple results in the infamous “cardboard characters.”

    1. Entertaining readers and getting the darn thing out of my head so I can do what I’m supposed to be doing, that’s what it’s about.

      (Although, as I was re-reading the draft of _Fountains of Mercy_, I really started to wonder. For Reasons.)

      1. BTW, I just finished Miners. It’s gooooooodddd!

        Muses about when Familiars start leaking into the Merchant’s universe. A great-hauler familiar? Runs away, quickly!

        1. Thank you! The next one is started, but _Eerily Familiar_ sort of kicked it aside and told me I need more research. Dang, but the muse was right about research. And I’ll never look at gourmet pink salt quite the same way after reading that little article.

    2. Cardboard characters can be fun, if handled by somebody who entirely fails to take himself seriously. Pretty much everything David Eddings wrote (that didn’t end up on the remainder table) was full of ‘em. They aren’t great Novels, or even that good Fantasy, but they’re fun, and I go back to them regularly.

      And he has fun with language. Not on the level of Sir Terry, certainly, but he does get a few good ones in. One that sticks in my mind (and it may not be original, but it IS used perfectly); the Company are traveling through a country that is being stirred up by a fourth-rate Robin Hood type, and they see him galloping along a ridge. The absolute Zorro/Pimpernel/Robin Hood cliche, right down to the black cloak and floppy hat.

      “What does he thing he’s doing?”

      “Oh, wronging rights, depressing the oppressed, and having a thoroughly good time for himself.”

  12. “Why did you write this?”
    Because it wouldn’t shut up and I needed the brain space. More the fool me, it let in half a dozen more on the way out.

  13. “Why did you write this?”
    Because of the several things the voices in my head were telling me this was the most socially acceptable. Which tells you how nasty the other stuff was 🙂

  14. Whenever I hear “What is the book about” and know they mean ‘theme’, I sigh. What’s wrong with a story without theme? Oh heck, literature and women’s fiction is strewn with ‘slice of life’ and no theme. But write S&F and it’s gotta have a ‘theme’.

    Add in realizing “High Concept” really meant “Simple Story” was a huge piece in the puzzle of understanding how PR , publishing, and media works. High Highfalutin phrases to mask simplicity. Meanwhile “Low Concept” is convoluted, while “It’s Gilligan’s Island in SPACE!” is High Concept.

    And yes, I understand about how stories just ‘come’. Scenes come a lot. It’s taking the scene and turning it into a full story is where I usually stall.

    1. And yes, I understand about how stories just ‘come’. Scenes come a lot. It’s taking the scene and turning it into a full story is where I usually stall.

      Oh, yeah. Some scenes, even whole chapters, just pour out onto the screen. Other times I sit staring at that blank space, asking it “What comes next? Who says it? How does that lead into the next part of the story?”

      I call the hard parts ‘mortar’. They’re what stick the scenes together and make them a story. If my mortar is crappy, the story falls apart.
      Mrs. Tweedy! The chickens are revolting!

      1. I sometimes think theme is something others see more readily than the author when it comes to fiction. Non-fiction, thesis is baked into the cake.

    2. Everything has themes. They just show up.

      However, if you realize you have a fun and interesting theme, you can fiddle with the decor in your story to point to it, argue with it, lead away from it, and generally play subliminal motif games with your reader. Just like Homer and those guys.

      But if you do not see one, don’t worry. They are just hiding in the walls until you turn your back.

      (That said, a lot of today’s literary analysts are so full of BS that cow pastures want to clean them up.)

      1. I had the rather bizarre opportunity to hear an art critique pontificate on one of my pieces. It won second place in a state wide high school contest. I was proctoring the exhibit. The ribbon attracted people to it. The critique began talking about how the lines were drawn lightly with crayon to show the ephemeral nature of life. I was thinking, “I couldn’t get the *^*%%$ old crayon to lay down more pigment!”

        1. A friend of mine experienced much the same. He painted a piece on depression, only to come to the gallery and be archly informed that ti was about “Man’s inhumanity to man.”

          Years later, it was still something of a joke. I could be peering at a shopping list written in scribbled cursive, and be on the phone with him while at the grocery store. “Gordon? What’s this line right below the eggs mean?”
          “It means man’s inhumanity to man!”
          “Post-modernist grocery list gets you audience interpretation instead of artist’s ingredients! Um… I see a… number 4? Something before that is underlined?”
          “Oh! Buttermilk. Get buttermilk, not whole milk, for the recipe tonight.”
          “Ok, cool!”

        2. In one of Asimov’s Only a X00 books, he told of a critic’s informing Asimov just what the author meant in a particular novel. Not sure if the critic knew he was explaining Asimov to Asimov. OTOH, I’ve encountered people with such arrogance. Hmm.

          1. The version that I remember had the critic not knowing that he was talking with the author (Asimov).

            Based on my memory, Asimov ended the conversation with a comment of “what do I know, I’m just the author”. 😉

              1. Well Res, I don’t have a cite to confirm my memory and I can imagine some critic say some thing like what you remembered. 😀

                1. I’m reasonably sure it’s in the “100” book (looks at book case) which I no longer have on hand. The memory is a bit faded; it’s been a lot of years since I read it.

        3. The family has a running joke about one of Picasso’s pieces, which is a chair piled with various artist’s junk – cups with paint-clogged water, with filthy brushes poking out of it, stained rags, etc.

          The joke is that Picasso was working on something else and the art critics came in, saw the chair and started pontificating on the various ‘artistic meanings’ they drew on it. When they turned to Picasso and praised him for his brilliance, he just ran with it, since hey! Money!

    3. “A theme? This isn’t a Byzantine Alt-H, so why would it have a theme?”
      (And then find out these critics have no idea what that means.)

      1. My books usually have a theme. It’s often a problem I’m wrestling with. I’ve been known to say “I think in fiction.” But to see the theme I need to finish it first.
        Though in Darkship Revenge as in Guardian it’s pretty obvious the theme is “Motherhood” or “Child rearing.”

    4. Gilligan’s Island in Space is something I actually remember. It was awful. Mind bogglingly awful. Hardly surprising; Gilligan’s Island was pretty bad, and the tv business ‘s concept of ‘Space’ was worse. Put them together, and you have a bullet train trainwreck.

      1. On “Gilligan’s Island being very bad”, in Jack Chalker’s Dancing Gods series, one of the magic world characters has VCRs of all the episodes along with a battery powered VCR player & TV.

        The character gets captured by an evil sorcerer (a Master of Zombies) who recharges the batteries of the player & TV in order to see why the other character values the VCRs.

        Unfortunately, the Zombies can’t get enough of Gilligan’s Island and their Master can’t stop them from watching the show.

        One of the characters born on our world decides that the show found its perfect audience. 😈

  15. To be fair, I understand why publishers ask the above question, myopic as it may sound at first. (And I can tell you first-hand, they’re a ton more considerate than film and television producers.) In visual media, it’s called the pitch. A pitch is a two-three sentence description of the story, typically directly referencing other stories the would-be producer is familiar with. Like, say: “Under Siege” – it’s “Die Hard” on a boat. Or “Rambo: Last Blood” – it’s “Taken”, but in Mexico (apparently). A pitch tells the people down the production and distribution chain what kind of cover to slap on the story, what to scribble on the blurb, and what shelf to put it on in the end. And, speaking from daily experience, these people usually have the imagination of a grape, so it’s just about the most complex description they can work with.

    On the writer end, I reckon it’s like being a masterful chef, preparing an exquisite dish combining flavors from all around the world, with precise attention to detail and supreme dedication, inspiration and emotion… and then having your restaurant manager ask if it’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner, so they know where to put it on the menu.

    All in all, yeah. it’s annoying, if not downright painful for a writer to be asked a question like this. Sadly, as a story is not just a work of art, a continuity of concepts, a tale of events in the worlds of the mind, but also a marketable product with all the dirty details that entails… it gets asked. There’s no nice way to go about it, and it’s crap like this that’s the reason most people in media production are more jaded than a Chinese mummy. Still, for those who learn to live with it, and whose vision is far greater than such trivial indignities, it’s little more than a mandatory rectal probe before a space flight. It’s not a part of the journey that anyone can forget, but it’s also not the part that’s truly the most memorable, let alone the most meaningful.

    1. No, it’s not, Indy. I’d given them the pitch. I KNOW pitch. Writers learn it too. Google “elevator pitch.”
      No, this was “What is the philosophical point of your book?” Because I, personally (not other people mind) was supposed to have one.

      1. No, this was “What is the philosophical point of your book?” Because I, personally (not other people mind) was supposed to have one.

        Oh, that line… Yeah, that one’s even worse on the crap-o-meter, at least in film and television. It’s usually a sign the producer organization – could be a network or studio or such – is aiming to establish or maintain some kind of moral or philosophical image about itself. And it’s being all politburo about it.

        (Per the chef metaphor above, it’s like being asked about whether the dish is vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, fat-free, nut-free, cruelty-free, non-allergenic, vitamin-rich, etc., or if it can ever be mistaken or accused of being otherwise anyway.)

        Networks nowadays are downright paranoid about losing advertiser revenue or otherwise getting a bad rep, and I guess book publishers might have followed suit, only with “sensitivity readers” instead of focus groups etc. And don’t get me started on Corporate Social Responsibility…

        On the off chance it really is more of a general purpose question, I guess it can still be tied to some forms of promotion, if primarily the pretentious ad-speak used in some fiction launch events. Like “ooh, could this be the next Great American Novel” or some such. Still a load of fertilizer in my opinion, but slightly more benign than usual.

        1. No, this was “What is the philosophical point of your book?”

          “Isn’t it obvious? I would think only the most deplorable of sexist, racist swine would need that spelled out, and I, for one, would never deign waste my time explaining anything to such a person!”

    2. A pitch tells the people down the production and distribution chain what kind of cover to slap on the story, what to scribble on the blurb, and what shelf to put it on in the end.

      The (to me) delightful Brit-Com As Time Goes By has a story arc (beginning Season 3, occupying much of Season 4 and wrapping up, IIRC, in Season 5) covering a Hollywood adaptation of the lead character’s memoir into a mini-series for American TV. The observations of what American studios do to works they’ve bought, and how little they value writers, provide trenchant comedy.

  16. I wrote this book for… Is actually easy to answer; I possess a mirror in the bathroom. The fact that I edited it and proofread it (and asked my husband to do that, too), and published it?

    Well, that’s not really writing for people. That’s like the first time you oh-so-nonchalantly leave the door open so the cat who’s been so insistent she wants Out can actually see what Out is like. (Unlike a book on Amazon, though, Kili-cat quickly realized Out has barking dogs. She wants NOTHING to do with actually going Out, now. Except when a bird lands on the bush outside the window.)

    And did I even really write it for me? Well, I wrote it, so it’s mine, so I can say that… but then again, I just wrote pages up on pages of an elaborate lie that can make you feel like you’re someone else who never even existed, in a planet far, far away. What is that if not a lie… and why are you asking a liar and expecting the truth?

    1. Writing for George is a good thing, too. Washington, that is.

      Not that he’d read it, being dead and all. But folks might give you a slip of paper with his face on it. Not a bad deal, if you ask me. *grin*

      1. I am perfectly fine with slips of paper with George’s name on ’em! Will entertain for beer money!

        Best form of entertainment, too, for introverts. I can hide back here behind this monitor, and still manage to entertain others without having to do it live or in person…

  17. What is it about? “I had to set Japanese civil society on fire to stress the MC in the precise way I wanted. So, there are some themes with a wide audience that you can understand as being the central thrust of the story. If any single one had been the key goal, I might’ve been able to do the design trade offs much more easily. I felt my way to the specification, and am mostly clueless. Except for the stresses I was under.”

  18. Editor: “But what is the book about?”

    Me: “Hell if I know. Let me know when you’re done reading it.”

    Editor: “Read it? Why would I do that.”

    Me: “Because I’m paying you a percentage of my sales to do your job?”

    Editor: “Oh, another demanding author eh? Listen pal, that’s not how this works.”

    Me: “So, how does this work? I do everything, and you keep my money?”

    Editor: “Now you’re getting it.”

    1. And once it’s published, then you get

      The English Teacher: “The blue curtains in this scene represent the character’s depression and world-weariness, and the dark stairwell his slide into self-destruction.”

      The Author, when writing: “Okay, I need to get him out to the car. He’s gonna look first for any tails… I better add some room description. Curtains, since he has to move them aside. Smell? Nah. Colour. Blue, that’ll do. Okay, now getting him down and out to the street, so I can set up the ambush scene.”

      The author, in front of the English class: Curtains? What? They were curtains? What did they mean by being blue? Uh, that they’re bloody well blue?

      1. True story (at least according to one of my English profs – not the one described below)…. (I can’t remember either the name of the poet or the title of the poem, sorry!)

        Back when he was an undergrad, some famous poet came to his school and performed a reading. After the reading, there was a Q&A session, and the head of the English department got up and said something to the effect of, “My favorite poem of yours is [TITLE OF POEM] (sorry, the name escapes me). Tell me, what inspired you to use the puppy as a metaphor for your own childhood?”

        Poet looked at her like she was nuts and replied something to the effect of, “What are you talking about? I wrote [TITLE OF POEM] because I wanted to write a poem about a puppy. The puppy doesn’t represent my childhood. It’s a puppy. Period. Dot. End of story.”

        Whereupon most of the students in attendance burst into wild applause.

        1. I vaguely recall a similar story told by Dr. Asimov — it must have been thirty, no, forty, no, ummm … removes shoes … err, quite a long time ago — about him sitting in on a lecture about one of his books and being amazed at what the lecturer had “found” in the story. Rising to question the interpretation, Asimov was startled to have the lecturer snarl back at him, “What would you know? You’re only the author!”

          1. Or Astrid Anderson (Poul’s daughter) replying to the a question about why he (Poul) wrote a particular story with, “I needed braces,” and being failed. Until Dad came in and explained he rally did write that story because Astrid needed braces . . .

  19. Publisher: “Why did you write this book?”

    Author: “Bwah-hah-ha! Wouldn’t you like to know! it is Phase One in my Master Plan for World Domination, and those who are with me shall be rewarded richly, while those who attempt to thwart me will meet destruction and despair! Hah-ha-ha-hah!”

    1. *snicker* It’s because I want to seduce readers metaphorically, and lead them by easy stages into an interest in American history! And perhaps make them see how awesome and radical the American experiment in self-government actually was, in the context of the times! *bwah-hah-hah*

      1. Snork! She said “seduced!”

        I wrote this for the same reason lusty hot lewd randy women send you email offering to sell you pictures, except I’m a better writer than photo model.

        1. “A few years ago a Mr. Applegate approached me and offered a deal: in exchange for my immortal soul I would gain fame and wealth beyond belief. I had a choice between the standard Robbins Pledge or a Kardashian Contract.”

          “Are you trying to tell me you wrote this book because …”

          “The Devil made me do it, yes! By the way, I get commissions on referrals ,,,”

  20. “What does it mean?”

    Oh LAAAAAWD does that question bring back memories.

    When I was an undergrad, I escaped my chosen Institution of Higher Propaganda with a B.A. English (Writing Concentration). As a writing major, instead of a thesis, we had to write a certain number of pages of original material over the course of our final semester as part of a “Senior Seminar” class. Me being me, and not knowing any better (I was a naive fool back then, too stupid to keep my conservative/libertarian mouth shut on a campus that glorified Social Justice being chief among my many errors), I decided to write an action thriller novel.

    Well, the professor who “moderated” this class was a total fruit loop. If you wrote a creative piece – any creative piece – that wasn’t poetry written in the style of her two favorite poets, you’d get whatever you’d handed that week returned to you with “I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY” or some variation thereof in big letters of the fist page of your copy.

    Once we finally started working on our respective pieces, we had to turn in 4-6 pages of material each week, and Professor Froot Loop would pick one or two students to read excerpts from whatever we’d turned in for that week. Well, one week, she asks me to read part of mine, specifically an action scene that ended with a grenade rolling between an unfortunate Evil Mook’s legs and splattering him all over the ceiling.

    Froot Loop thought I’d used incredible imagery of the poor mook’s death scene and wanted to know “what it meant.”

    Right away, I knew exactly what she meant — what is the hidden meaning allegory, or substance (she was BIIIIIIG into that bull-shite) in poor unlucky Ivan (bad guys were Rooskies) getting splattered all over the roof. But I couldn’t say that since I knew it would affect my grade in a severely negative fashion, so I feigned ignorance.

    “Uh, it means that the Russian merc got blown up.”

    “No, no, what does it mean?”

    “Uh… Ivan have very bad day?”

    No, no, what does it mean?”

    “Uh… if you throw a grenade in a room, make sure nobody throws it back?”

    “No, no, what does it mean?”

    And back and forth for a good few minutes before she finally got the hint and let the matter drop.

    Lawd how I do not miss that school….

      1. I took a certain road in the wood; no more, no les. Isn’t that what the poet said when he got tired of the question?

    1. Yesterday, upon a stair, I realizes the cupboard was bare!
      So I wrote and wrote, and wrote that work there.
      Now various types, always preening,
      Blather on about its Hidden Meaning.
      I care not if they advance or retreat.
      What matters is: Today, I eat!

  21. It means that character won’t be in the story any more?

    Definitely won’t be getting any more dialogue!

    Unless it’s a ghost story…

  22. If anyone asks me that, I’m afraid the answer will have to be “Because I just wanted to go to sleep!”

  23. One of my nephews liked sad books as a young child. The librarian informed his mother that she’d never had a request for sad children’s books before. I got the little guy a copy of The Little Match Girl and The Clown of God.

    1. The Clown of God. I think I wore that one out, and it is probably why I love Renaissance art so much. And yes, it is sad, but it isn’t.

  24. At least I don’t have literary critics trying to find hidden meaning in my programs. I only write them for the computer and any future maintenance programmers. There’s no “This SQL select statement reflects the intersectional struggle of the masses to find the daily meaning from the media schema tables and returning only NULLS to their existence….”

    Then again I recently told a colleague I was going to have to get a replacement case of WTFs from Costco after reading some legacy code. When he asked who’s mess it was, I replied the author was standing in front of him…

    1. Long ago, I had to work on some of my old code. After a couple of hours I wanted a time machine, to go back and kick myself in the ass.

      Ever since then, I’ve written about one part code to three parts comments and documentation. It helps.
      Softwere? Would that be programs written under a full moon?

      1. Yes. In 35 years of coding. I might have been guilty of that a time or two in my first few years. My first 17 years, I was the only developer/coder working on my programs. The last 12, I was one of 6 coders working on the same code. I drove the guys nuts when they’d come to me asking for an explanation because my answer was always “don’t know, what does the comments say?” Whether the code was right or wrong, it had “this is what this new piece is doing, why, and how”

        1. I’ve run into some programs where the author thought the top-level comments (done in a wall-o-text in the header) were an adequate substitute for documenting individual functions. Abandoned one hobby-project attempt at switching a DOS program to Linux when I realized that understanding the myriad functions was going to take longer than starting from scratch.

          Some of the work projects I did were to generate programs that could be used as templates by other programmers. That was a challenge. I did not want to be subject to a back alley design review by pissed off programmers.

          1. “UPG” (Universal Program Generator) – been shelved by Datalogic since 2007. Original by Percon. Allowed programmers to write C programs for DOS based Falcon handheld computers with scanners (competitors Intermec/Symbol), without knowing C. Because, you know, DOS was dead.

            I took over, in ’96, 6 months before release, and worked on it until the 2.5 release in ’02, when PSC (bought Percon ~1999) was under the courts for the bankruptcy. Programmers didn’t exactly use the code generated as templates, but if they knew C well enough had areas they could add their own code that was inserted into the generated code.

            1. Oh. That senor programmer would hate me.

              We were suppose to put change comment in program header with date, initials, change ticket #, client code requesting change, or GEN (generic), then explain change. Then every place code was touched it was date stamped. Obsolete code was commented out & date stamped. OMG if major changes!! Comments beyond that were rare. My changes … depends. Simple stuff, lacked comments. Code where concept was complicated got a detailed comment of what/why/how.

            2. Well, he did have a certain point. You debug the CODE, not the COMMENTS — I have seen people waste a lot of time before realizing the issue was getting that wrong.

              1. Certainly there seem to be a number of people attempting to debug reality via the comments in other fields, but I don’t think omitting them would’ve helped much.

        2. I drove the guys nuts when they’d come to me asking for an explanation…

          I have a similar situation where the younger guys, who haven’t been here for years and years of patching new functionality onto old code, when they ask “Why was such and such coded this way?” My answer is always “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

          Mostly because I don’t want to have to go through years of “Code did this thing, but the client needed it to do THAT thing in this and this case but not that other case.”

        1. Works and is understandable? It’s a bloody miracle! (Rather, somebody put thought and effort into it. Bravo!)

      2. I have some code at work that I wrote as a relatively newby programmer. It’s awful. Whenever a change needs to be made, I cringe at how horrible it all is. I’ve been wanting to re-write the whole thing for years. BUT… The code works (actually more reliably than some of the newer code) so the company won’t give me time to do it. Sigh… it could be SO much better, I could add a plugin architecture allowing us to add functionality without having to dip into the main code, all sorts of things! but nope. Boss says leave it.

        1. Yes. Been there. Done that.

          The only time something like that gets changed is when it has to change because process changes. Or you upgrade tools, suddenly it doesn’t compile (at which point neglect to point out the simple fix that keeps the old code in play …)

          Inherited a few too, where not allowed to rewrite, no matter how PIA the process was. Until you couldn’t do something because of the way that section was written. No. Cases I’m thinking of, there were no quick fixes.

          1. One “major” COBOL program where I once worked would had to have been completely replaced rather than modified.


            Some idiot used “Alter Paragraph”. Thus when studying the logic flow, the programmer had no way of knowing if “Go To Alpha Paragraph” would actually go to “Alpha Paragraph” instead of some other Paragraph.

            On the other hand, the company isn’t in business anymore (for reasons other than its Data Processing department).

              1. COBOL Programs don’t deserve your hate.

                Now some SOB COBOL Programmers deserve more hate than is humanly possible to generate. 😈

                One idiot programmer got fancy with “Perform Until” so that somebody trying to study the program flow would think “This Program Can’t Work”. :wow:

                I didn’t have to maintain that one. I was told to study it to learn the Database Calls.

                I learned the Calls but wrote a program using the calls that was much easier to understand than That Idiot’s Work!

                1. Well to be fair. It was a 40 year old COBOL program that had (at least over the last 10 years) had people maintaining it who knew the target subject but didn’t know design and programming. Latter learned by working on this program. Spaghetti code didn’t come close. More like a bunch of young kittens got into the yarn barn … had FUN … and didn’t document, anything.

                  Then to put the straw that broke the programmer, it was compiled on, for XENIX, then the hardware for that broke. Couldn’t replace with hardware that XENIX would work on. Had to upgrade to UNIX, which broke a whole lot of things. Turns out XENIX compile could run on UNIX OS, but it had to be compiled on XENIX machine. Had a XENIX machine at another location. So, head over to the other location, special trip, install COBOL, test compile. Head back to home office. Now all changes have to be sent to the other site compiled, the executable returned and installed on main machine, over 1200 baud dialup … All during the time when growth model statistic changes had to be implemented into the code, and tested, for the new year data growth modeling. Plus the samples taken over the year uploaded and pulled into the flat file. All while praying the other XENIX hardware, which was older, doesn’t fail … and, as usual, everything was behind.

                  In the past would have just bit the bullet and the code would have been compiled using the UNIX COBOL, fixed what needed fixing, and tested the existing data. BUT testing was an 18 month process. We were already in the middle of rewriting the entire system to incorporate “new” GIS systems and SQL, not in COBOL, and expected that to be done & tested within the 18 month cycle … THEN the division assets were sold, and none of the programmers were hired (as programmers) by either of the two companies that purchased the division. This was all after the year-end stuff was done, so that headache didn’t get dropped (immediately) on the new suckers, I mean their IT. But the rest of the process was.

                  Yes. Not COBOL’s fault. But still …

                  1. FYI. I got that job because I knew not only the program target subject, but because I was a programmer, and had degrees and experience in both subjects. After 6 years working on it, it was pretty well document if not 100% unsnarled (time). Made the rewrite a lot easier.

    2. “And this particular series of allocations represents the author’s existential despair at ever getting the standard template library to behave in a sensible manner and her decision to reimplement everything from scratch…”

    3. For those who know Forth, this is terrifying.
      I once encountered this (in a *functioning* device, mind you):

      : WordName R> R> SWAP >R >R ;

      It did NOT have an explanation, nor a warning, nor a disclaimer (“You are not expected to understand this.” is the classic)

    4. I’ve been known to add stories, occasionally complete with plotlines, to my comments when it helps to put what the code does into language one of the younger programmers can understand (at my age, they don’t get my movie quotes or other cultural references)

  25. Sorry, but when I saw “his character is perfectly sane, no problems”
    I just flashed back on a self-published writer who had the perfect, no problem female character who literally saved civilization and didn’t understand why it didn’t take the world by storm…

  26. By the way, Ocracoke Schools (MS & High School) have a place to hold classes starting Monday and NC 12 on the island may re-open in November.

  27. I am days late to this (fighting off a recurrence of the lung crud and also work. And frantically trying to finish a downstairs room ’cause the nursing home is sending grandma 3 weeks early), but…

    I purely HATED it, when I was an art student, that whole stupid rigamarole of “But what does it MEEEEEAAAAANNNN” when my view of the whole thing was one of two approaches: 1.) it’s a pretty picture. I like it, it’s something I want hanging on my wall because it pleases me, or 2.) It’s an illustration of a story. Doesn’t really matter what story, but there’s a mini-story in the picture. No, it doesn’t have a deeper meaning. No, it’s not a commentary on something. It’s a picture illustrating a story I liked (whether a story of my own creation or someone else’s).

    I was good at coming up with the symbolism crap in English classes, because I’d been forced into doing it all the way back in grade school. But art school in elementary/middle/high school is largely more focused on “learning the tools” and so while there is SOME of the “oh, this has MEANING” going on (usually political or sexual, because for some reason it always has to be those. Or both), it’s still largely focused on “learn how to do the art.”

    But at the college level…

    I came away from it all with the firm conviction that one should NEVER attend university for something one loves. I’ve barely been able to pick up a brush, pen, or pencil since because for YEARS after I was plagued by the “But this doesn’t have any MEEEEEANNNING and so it is worthless” gremlins. (Still am, but finally am feeling like fighting back, and started a landscape a couple weeks ago. It’s going slowly, because I’m now fighting a near-decade of ‘dry creative well’, but. It’s going.)

    And I *hated* having to create art that I did not love because everyone else insisted that it had to say something. All I wanted to do was create beautiful things I liked, not something that had a ’cause’ or ‘spoke to’ some agenda or other.

    Had I a time machine, I would go back and slap Younger Self upside the head and tell her to do one of three things: Stop with the associate’s degree in graphic design, OR if going to a 4 year uni do a major in computer programming with a MINOR in design, OR just go get apprenticed to become an electrician, make a more-than-decent paycheck, and do all the art how YOU want to do it on your days off.

    1. Yes. Me too. Programming not an option, for me, not fall ’74 (not if winter ’75 class any indication). Accounting? OTOH path I took put me in programming by ’84 … Art school was never an option. Cousin, OTOH … just now at almost 63 is getting back to her art work after getting her art degree. After reading your experience. … I wonder.

      1. If I had gone into programming/art minor…man, given how many desperate pleas I’ve seen over the years from businesses looking for someone who could both write HTML code AND design something? I coulda written my own meal ticket.

        I still plan to learn to code, if only for my own satisfaction. Having discovered the joys of Udemy (and most especially their sales), I’ve got a whole SLEW of courses in things.

        ::glares at wilting self-discipline:: Now I just need to do it, heh.

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