September 9th, 2009


[links] Link salad fumbles its way into another hump day

TIny frogs living within the flowers: [ | LiveJournal ]

lt260 forwards this comment from Joe Haldeman on the bookless library — More here. Sigh. Am I just a dinosaur?

Massachusetts Marriage Still Doing Fine — The nation's lowest divorce rate after six years of gay marriage. Wow, marriage is certainly an institution under siege there.

More on the Obama "socialist indoctrination" scandal — Or, arrant and opportunistic Republican hypocrisy, documented example number 1,257,440 (or so).

The mainstreaming of crazyBad Astronomy Blog on the Obama school speech kerfuffle. He says it better than I could, including: I'm tired of ignorance held up as inspiration, where vicious anti-intellectualism is considered a positive trait, and where uninformed opinion is displayed as fact. Conservative discourse has gone beyond self-parody in this age of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, yet the conservative viewpoint is still the lede on tv talk shows and news broadcasts.

Obama and the Bureaucratization of Health Care — Speaking of the conservative lede, here's the Wall Street Journal with Sarah Palin. The stupid, it burns. Just for a start, it's not like health care isn't overbureaucratized now. Look at the percentage of private healthcare dollars that go to overhead, versus public healthcare dollars (ie, Medicaid).

?otD: If you kiss a prince, does he turn into a frog?

Body movement: 10 minutes of stretching and meditation, 30 minute stationary bike ride
Hours slept: 6.25
This morning's weigh-in: 230.0
Currently reading: The Real Wizard of Oz by Rebecca Loncraine; The Other Lands by David Anthony Durham

Originally published at


[process] On predicting story length

bridgetcoila asked in comments here:
Do you generally have an idea of how long something will be when you start writing it?

It's an interesting question. The answer, to some degree, is related to the concept of "span of control" which I've previously discussed on a number of occasions. That is to say, in my admittedly subjective experience every story has a natural size.

That natural size arises from a number of factors, and can be deliberately distorted for reasons of muse or craft, but I think it always underlies the text. Some of this has to do with the structure of the idea. So, for example, consider the following:

Flash fictionup to 1,000 wordsTypically deals with a single aspect of character, setting or plot, highly economical prose
Short story1,000 to 7,500 wordsOne or two point of view characters, moderately realized setting, a single plot arc, tight prose
Novelette7,500 to 17,500 wordsDetailed or multiple point of view characters, detailed or multiple settings, more than one plot arc, tight prose
Novella17,500 to 40,000 wordsDetailed or multiple point of view characters, detailed or multiple settings, multiple complex plot arcs, expansive prose

These are at best rough approximations the story lengths and their characterizations, but they do express a sense of natural size — in other words, the general richness and complexity of the idea going in gives me pretty significant hints about how long the story (or novel) will be.

For what it's worth, I also find there are "golden lengths" for certain types of stories. I have no idea if this is broadly true, but it seems to apply in much of my own work.

Short story4,000 to 6,000 words
Novelette10,000 to 12,000 words
Novella18,000 to 22,000 words

Note that I frequently violate the above considerations of length and complexity, even in my own work. For example, my SFnal short story "The Cleansing Fire of God", a 4,500 word alternate history space race with heavy religious and political overtones, was described by my first readers as an entire novel jammed into very few words. The story completely overruns the above matrix. It's dense.

Contrast that with "The Sky that Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black", another SFnal short story which at 4,200 words is about man sitting in a room with a paintbrush in his hand. There's very little character development, only two pieces of action in the whole plot, and the story hinges on a simple decision. Structurally, this one could have been written as flash. Yet it's one of my most popular and successful short stories. And the story falls short of the above matrix by most measures.

Another way I think about story sizing is market requirement. If I'm asked to submit a 4,000 word short story, my first draft will typically be 3,800 to 4,200 words long. That's a span of control effect (per my comment at the head of the post), and definitely a learned behavior on my part. But it's very useful, as it ensures I'm doing the right work for the right market, without wasting effort or undershooting.

And sometimes I'm just flat wrong. I've occasionally embarked on short stories and written novellas. Likewise, I was rather notably wrong on the first draft of Endurance, which fell almost 30% shorter than I expected it to, missing that initial mark by 40,000 words.

The tension here is between muse and craft. That's a dynamic tension, not a destructive one. Almost all consistent commercial writers (and I very much include myself in this category) have achieved a pattern of craft that grants considerable conscious control over the writing process. The muse drives the idea and the voice that make that process come alive and become engaging. Sometimes the muse gets out of its cage and rampages across the page. Those are often the most difficult and interesting stories, but also the most unpredictable.

The arc of my career has been the slow fusion of muse and craft. One of the best signifiers of this is my ability to (usually) predict the length of a piece of fiction just as I start writing it.

Your thoughts?

ETA: Important note. As with all my analyses of process and the craft of writing, this is post-facto. When I'm approaching a text in initial draft, it's just words on a page. None of this sort of thing is consciously in my head, at least not after an initial decision as to what sort of piece I'm writing — ie, flash, novelette, novel. I very strongly believe it to be a mistake to overplan work before the words hit the page. This thinking can be very useful on revision, or for contemplation of the writing process as a general rule, but for me at least, it poisons the draft to self-consciously write.

Originally published at


[process] Being Jay Lake, or not

Sometimes when I talk about things that have happened in my writing career, such as selling a high profile story, or being featured in a very nice market, people will say, "Well, yes, but you're Jay Lake." As if the condition of being Jay Lake is some kind of hall pass or rolling exemption from the rules by which mere mortals are constrained. It's almost always well meant, and usually intended to be funny, but that thought discounts both you and me.

It discounts you (if you've said it or thought it) because it excuses you from your own agency in whatever mythic feat of mine is under discussion. If writing a million words or making more than $10,000 a year from short fiction or selling 250 short stories is something only Jay Lake can do, then you don't have to worry about whether or not you did it. Not that I think you should be worrying. We're all different writers, with different processes, different goals, and different paths. But what you shouldn't be doing is fencing yourself off from some forms of achievement because they're reserved for special people.

It discounts me (when you've said it or thought it) because it assigns my successes and triumphs to the category of unusual events for which no one is responsible, like winning lottery tickets or finding buried treasure. That does a profound disservice to all my hard work and effort. I got serious about writing, as in regular workshop attendance and story submittals, in 1990. I sold my first short story in 2001. That's eleven years of wandering in the wilderness that all aspiring writers emerge from, working my tail off, collecting my rejections and trying, trying, trying to get better. Add to that my first small press novel sale in 2004, my first trade press novel sale in 2005, and you can see my arc is years-long.

Yes, I've taken an eccentric path into my career. Yes, I've been unusually lucky in some respects. But any rules you might think don't apply to me now only look that way because I've spent two decades mastering them, and learning how to turn those rules in my preferred direction where possible. I wasn't born being Jay Lake the author. I had to earn it, just like everybody else.

To my mind, "you're Jay Lake" ought to be an inspirational statement. It is for me, and I'm damned proud of it. And I don't work any less hard today, or gnaw any less thoroughly at "the rules" than ever I did in the years before I sold a word. Want to be like me? Sit down and write. That's what I do.

Even better, be like yourself.

Originally published at


[photos] Trapezoidal bricks

The other day, I saw this fireplace, and realized I was looking at trapezoidal bricks. I can't think that I've ever noticed trapezoidal bricks before. Bricks are, after all, noted for their consistency, their regularity, Collapse )

Since I can't imagine anyone making such odd shaped brick forms as one offs, these must have been kit fireplaces sometime in the past. But what the heck do I know, I'm not an architectural historian? Or are these everywhere, and I've just been oblivious all these years?

ETA: I do know what a keystone is, and how an arch works. I just always thought of them as masonry, not brickwork. Or at least, not brickwork with trapezoidal bricks. Clearly a flaw in my education.

Originally published at