Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Dance Macrame by Stephen King

You must understand, Jim is working on a paper comparing sexuality and the vampire mythos in Bram Stoker's Dracula and Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot. King himself addressed this dichotomy in his 1980 nonfiction overview of the horror genre, Danse Macabre. My copy has mysteriously vanished from my library (damn you isabel) and copies of older King books are silly expensive.

After the write-in, I stopped by BSR Books in Granite City to chat with the owners and check on their stock of my books. I managed to buy only four books, which is restraint for me. At one point, I texted Jim.

Fun times with autocorrect.

ME: Warning. I am hanging out in a used bookstore.
JIM: See if they have dance Mac.
ME: ?
JIM: The boom I bedbugs
JIM: The book I need
JIM: Dance macrame
JIM: Shit you what I need for the book report
JIM: Know what I need
ME: This is going on Facebook.
JIM: Nooooooo!

Alas, they did not have Danse Macabre. Or Dance Macrame, a Stephen King book as yet unknown to me. But the Booming Bedbugs is my new band name.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Parade Rest

All media reports indicated that there would be a gigantic storm this evening. Meetings were canceled; it was right up to the deadline whether the Veterans Day parade would go on. This was important, because Boy's Scout troop helped carry the giant flag with the Edwardsville Lions.

The evening turned out marvelously.

BOY: By the way, it didn't rain a DROP on the parade, you liar.
ME: Hush you.
BOY: You were all about the rain.
ME: Look, Spawn, it's not my fault. We in the press actually know squat-all about predicting the weather. Air pressure, humidity, whatever. All we know how to do is read the National Weather Service report and tell you people what they say. File your complaints with them.
BOY: Rain. Hail. Tornadoes. Stormageddon.
ME: National. Weather. Service.
BOY: YOU said -
ME: I said what the National Weather Service said! So everybody go out and buy milk, eggs and bread,* and the worst thing that happens is everyone has French toast for a day.
BOY: Can we have grilled cheese?
ME: Sure. Go make it. And make one for me, too.
BOY: Mother! ME?
ME: Yeah, you. You know how many grilled cheese I've made for you in the last sixteen years? You are so deep in that favor bank you'll never make yourself even.

* We were once accused of getting kickbacks from the grocery stores for reporting an impending snowstorm. My bribe check must be in the mail.

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Saturday, November 07, 2015

Writers die of exposure

"If you want to take an author's hard work, and then use it to generate a profit, but you are not willing to pay that author in any way, shape, or form besides allowing them to sign their name to the piece, then you are exploiting that author. Pay them by the word, share your ad revenue, and by all means try to get a good deal on the work, but do not simply swipe it, post it online, and then roll around in the money like some kind of political cartoon."

This terrific quote comes from Neal Litherland's blog The Literary Mercenary, which is an awesome blog name I wish I'd thought of using. It's drawn, of course, from the ongoing discussion about paying authors, as if that's such a radically bizarre concept that we just started questioning whether people should be paid for their work.

I've seen Uncle Harlan's famous "Fuck you, pay me" clip from Dreams With Sharp Teeth about twenty times in these discussions, because it's exactly on point. As Harlan says: do you pay the cameraman? Do you pay the guys who schlep the merchandise on and off the trucks? Then you also need to pay the writer, because that's where your whole project starts.

And writers need to stop giving it away for free. As Harlan says, the amateurs make it hard for the professionals, because they'll do it all for free, and then no one can make a living. Why should HuffPo pay Wil Wheaton for his excellent column, when they can get some desperate sad sack to do write a lesser column "for the exposure" - and they will have no difficulty finding that sad sack, because we have been conditioned to think that words mean nothing and the writer's talent is worthless, so just be happy someone wants to read you. We are conditioned to think that writing is free, and thus writers die of exposure.

I'll add this to it, because I think there are some well-meaning (if naive people) creating anthos and magazine projects "for the love" who are not cartoon villains. They see "for the love" anthos posted everywhere, they may have been published in a few themselves, and they truly believe in their project and want it to fly. They may feel defensive, even attacked in this ongoing discussion, simply because the state of the industry has devolved to such an extent it never occurred to them that paying the authors was not optional.

But here is the hard truth, folks: if you care about the project, if you care about the art, you are ethically required to work author pay into your budget from the start. Don't say "we hope to start paying authors as our project grows." Don't say "we will pay authors a share of the profits after we make back our expenses." Start from the philosophy that you have to pay the authors and artists, just as you have to pay for the printing, layout, ebook conversion, web hosting service, postage, ad space and anything else that comes with producing your project. 

Authors come first, not last. If you don't have the money to pay the authors, you don't have the money to do the project. 

That doesn't mean it's dead. It means you have to work harder. Kickstart that baby, start a Patreon or some other preorder/crowdfunding mechanism. Raise the cash for upfront payments and plan to pay royalties to your writers. It doesn't have to be a lot - no one ever paid a mortgage solely on short story revenue. Pro rate is still 5c a word for fiction, which boggles the mind, but flat fees count.

The simple fact of paying the writer for his or her words shows that you deem those words to be of value. If you don't value the words enough to pay their creators, how can you expect anyone else to value your project? And if you, the writer, give away your work for nothing, how can you expect the next editor will decide you're worth paying? 

Value yourself, value the work. Pay for what you get, and insist on the same in return.

Links are malfunctioning today. Find Litherland's blog here:

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Thursday, November 05, 2015

Annual Rant: Remember Remember the Fifth of November

... or, please don't.

It seems I will end up running a version of this column this every year, because ever since Alan Moore's damn graphic novel became a damn movie, we're going to see people running amok in V for Vendetta masks advocating freedom from oppressive evil government forces because popular culture is more important than, y'know, historical fact. Or something. We are a fact-aversive society now, and wearing a cool-looking mask now takes the place of useful action.

So let's get this straight:

• Guy Fawkes was not trying to overthrow a theocratic, repressive government; he was trying to create one. King James began his reign by offering religious freedom, at least the best that time period could envision. Only after constant threats of violence if he did not convert to the Catholic faith personally, and the Bye Plot, which was a failed plan to kidnap the king and hold him until he agreed to reinstate the Catholic Church as the sole faith of England, did James get cranky and begin persecuting Catholics.

• The November Plot was to assassinate King James, to kidnap and install Princess Elizabeth, all of (I think) eight years old, because she could be easily controlled. It was not the work of anarchists who believed in no government or freedom from oppressive government; it was exchanging a monarchy for a totalitarian theocracy. They also tried to convince Spain to invade England and ignored the pleadings of the Pope, who thought it was a bad idea to reinstate Catholicism by violence.

• The Fifth of November was not a heroic martyrdom of patriots; it was a failed terrorist plot. Fawkes was caught attempting to blow up Parliament, not just King James. If it had succeeded, hundreds of innocent people would have been killed, including all of Parliament.

• The "remember remember" chant grew into popularity in England cheering the failure of the plot, not supporting its aims. It ends by cheering on burning Guy Fawkes at the stake, though that didn't happen; Fawkes managed to kill himself on the way to his execution, though his effigy was burned on Nov. 5 each year for centuries.

• The fact that Fawkes' face mask has been used by Anonymous and Alan Moore wrote a graphic novel in which a terrorist co-opts Fawkes' image to blow up a pastiche of Margaret Thatcher's Parliament does not make the Fifth of November a holiday for freedom. The gross misunderstanding of the November Plot is one of the reasons I dislike V for Vendetta so much.

• I personally don't intend to remember remember the Fifth of November. I'm not even British.

Instead, I like what Joy Coop posted a year or two ago. It's a saner, smarter and less historically cranky response than my grumpification:

Forget for the moment Guy Fawkes was trying to institute theocracy, and instead take the modern-day meaning of the day: DEFY SOMETHING IMPORTANT TODAY! Whether it's your own stubbornness, procrastination, or laziness. If it's something that should have been said months ago. Make a positive change you once thought impossible.

Making a positive change sounds like a good thing to me. Maybe it's the weather, the state of the world, or just the blah that seems to envelop everyone after Daylight Savings, but the level of crankiness within and without seems to reach epidemic levels at this time each year. Once again I've seen a number of posts from people angry not about politics or family drama, but about other people's happiness. Angry about hearing Christmas carols too early. Angry about the gleeful and overcaffeinated Nanos typing madly away at their novels. Angry about other people being happy.

So instead of remember-remember yet again and posting images of that damn mask as though it makes you a warrior for justice, let's forget a failed terrorist plot in another country centuries ago, and let's make a positive change today. Pick a nonprofit that needs volunteers for the holidays. Call someone you've meant to call for a long time. Give your family extra hugs and tell them you love them. Donate your extra cash to a cause. Don't have a cause? Find one! 

Hell, if you have no other ideas, buy a few flowers and go to the poorest cemetery in your town. Place your flowers on graves that don't have any.

Do something to make the world a better place by sundown than it was when you woke up this morning. I don't know of a single religion that would call that a bad goal. To hell with Guy Fawkes. 


Tuesday, November 03, 2015

In which Elizabeth serves cheese with that whine...

Nope, not talking about the KKK "outing" that should have caused waves of shame across the internet, but the internet is shameless. Or my annual rant about Guy Fawkes masks, though I'll probably be unable to resist reposting my column yet again. Not even whining that Halloween is over and I am officially in Holiday Mode, but everyone else is still in Grinch Mode, so I have no one with whom to sing Christmas carols.

No, I'm going to complain because my wrists hurt.

Yeah, somebody toss a fiver to Joshua Hart with the X-ray eyes, because last week I gave in and went to the ortho clinic in Chesterfield. There is a tiny fracture in the right wrist and there is serious tendon damage in both, thanks to my graceful pratfall in front of the Doubletree Hotel during Archon. So I'm supposed to spend four to six weeks in matching wrist braces and undergo physical therapy twice a week.

There are a few problems with this plan. One: I find it damn near impossible to type in the braces. Yes, I know if I just keep doing it I'm supposed to get used to it. I don't think so. I type as much as 12 hours a day in a heavy work day, between day job and night job (not to mention whiny blogs). It's not actually that I can't type - I can't type quickly and accurately, both of which are rather essential for a reporter. Oh, the typos.

Two: The braces force me to use my hands in different ways, and they make it hurt more. I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to feel worse using the damn things than when I fling them off in frustration and let my hands roll free. If I had to strap such things onto my wrists, they could at least look like Wonder Woman's bracelets.

Three: PT is during the work day. I cannot express what a pain in the ass that is. Whine whine whine. My first appointment is tomorrow - er, today, by the time you read this. I intend to ask them about exercises I can do at home without coming in too often.

It's weird. I didn't remember how much I use my hands until they were limited. I should have remembered from Arm-ageddon in 2007* when I threw a blood clot in my right arm and lost the use of it for three weeks. Talk about crappy typing (and household chores were pretty much out the window).

I have an easy out: Jim's insurance is hella better than the crap insurance I had before we got married, but it's still health insurance and by definition sucks. Physical therapy is $30 a visit. Multiply that by 12 visits and the answer is hell no. Jim's FSA is almost empty and mine's been empty for months (which definitely means we need to increase our contributions next year). I can't possibly afford that, so it'll have to be fewer visits or for a shorter period of time.

Did I mention I'm working on a book? But I had to call it quits early tonight, because it was getting too painful. Pass the cheese.

If the PT doesn't help, doc says they'll try an MRI, but I can't imagine the bill for that one. So if you have good thoughts to spare, send a few healing vibes my way, and maybe I'll spare you the Christmas carols for a few more weeks.


* You better believe I made all the puns. "First, do no arm." "Mostly armless." Stop looking at me like that.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Wash your spirit clean

There is something magical about the quality of light in the early morning when it is filtered between trees that weren't planted by any landscaper.

I came late to hiking and backpacking; my parents took us on one or two camping trips when I was young, but Dad's idea of camping was (and still is) a four-star hotel on a golf course. I didn't really start camping until I was in college, a few rowdy trips when I didn't know what I was doing beyond the instructions in a book I found in the library.

But my first husband was not particularly fond of the outdoors. He said his family's idea of camping was a sleeping bag and a fishing pole. If you didn't catch anything, you starve, and you can just sleep out under the stars and eat bugs like a man. No wonder I could never get him into the woods.

The call of the wild. Eventually I took it upon myself to begin hiking and backpacking solo. And I fell in love with it.

The light, you see. That strange ethereal quality you only find in places where fluorescents have never shone. The silence isn't really silent - there is the rustling and murmur of living things all around you. The stars never shine so brightly anywhere near civilization as they do in the woods, and there is a quality to the air that fills you with energy - with light, even.

I went alone, because my husband wouldn't go and my son was too small. It was my escape, my soul replenishment. It was what I did on that one solitary day off I had every month when it was my turn for the weekend - I'd get a weekday off to compensate, and my son would be at day care. Off to the trails. A weekend here or there, hiking the Whispering Pines trail or along the Meramec River. Funny thing, those whispering pines really did whisper. It's a funny trick of the wind.

One blazing-hot August afternoon I climbed Goat Cliff alongside the Mississippi, which ends at McAdams Peak. It's not a long hike - less than seven miles - but you gain and lose a lot of elevation in those seven miles. It was 100 degrees that day, and I drank every drop of water in the bottles in my pack and sweated it all out my skin climbing to the view at McAdams Peak.

My god, I miss it so.

I got older, and health problems intervened. The plantar set in, making it harder to walk, then a knee injury two years ago pretty well ended my hiking. I kept my subscription to Backpacker and tried to switch to car camping, figuring I could get small doses of the outdoors while I tried to get back into shape, to disappear once more into the woods with everything I need on my back. Those hours-long day hikes shortened into short strolls through the Missouri Botanical Gardens, which always gave me something lovely to look at while I wandered.

This comes to mind sometimes, and always with a true sense of regret and loss. Today, it's because REI has announced it is staying closed on Black Friday. There's the usual internet kerfuffle about it: some lauding the decision, others cynically sneering that they must have had crap sales. REI's website says they want to encourage people to go outside on that Friday most people have off work. As a Midwesterner, I must admit a slight snicker; after all, it's pretty dang cold by Thanksgiving, guys.

I have gotten soft, I guess.

REI says it believes getting outside makes all our lives better. They're right. Somehow in the last several years, I've gone from a woman who disappeared onto the trails every day off to a woman who sees the sun so little she has a critical deficiency of vitamin D. Camping has become something I do on the Fourth of July only, despite my best intentions to Get Out More, and the unwavering support of my husband. I even allowed my membership at the Gardens to lapse.

I'm not so foolish as to insist that my husband and I will definitely go hiking the day after Thanksgiving. Yes, we are both off work, but you cannot roll back time that quickly, and I'm not in the shape I was back then. But some things are too important to lose from your life even if you find yourself in poor health on the dark side of forty. There has to be something we can do, even for a few hours.

Opt Outside isn't the worst idea I've read all year; it may be one of the best. Maybe it won't be too cold for us to do something. Maybe we are slowing down, but that shouldn't mean stopping. We can do this, can't we? There is still light to be captured, and the trees still whisper.

Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. 
-- John Muir, 1915


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Decisions, decisions

Since I'll be leading a group of diligent Nanowrimo folk, I suppose I ought to work on something myself.

I know many people dislike Nano, and I wouldn't try to argue it with them. For some people it works as a kick in the pants to really dig in on a project. For some people it's distracting and leads to lousy writing habits. And for some people whose lives regularly interfere with their writing, Nano provides them with an escape to give them leave to work on their passion - the spouse and kids can't tap them on the shoulder if they're at a write-in.

For me, it is an opportunity to focus on writing, as opposed to the business of writing. I am sorry to say that between my daytime profession, my own promotion, travel, the Literary Underworld and the Eville Writers, I spend probably 2-3 times as much time on the business of writing as I do on actually writing. For Nano, that gets flipped, and if that is the only benefit I draw from it, it's very much worth the effort.

I have to choose between two projects this time. There's a novel I've been working on between other projects for years, and this is an opportunity to drive a stake through its heart and finish it. It's been far too many years, and this shows what happens when I try to work on something "in my spare time." Insert laugh track. It's a fun novel, and one I think you all will like a great deal.

Alternatively, however, I can work on the final chapter of the Blackfire trilogy. I intended to save that for next year, but during the Fall Deathmarch, I heard from many voices asking when I will finish that series. The short version is that the publisher for the Blackfire novels went out of business, so I will need to find a new home for it before I can complete it. Thus, it was kind of backburnered this year, with my focus on the Nocturne Infernum release.

Project A or Project B? Dither dither dither. Yes, I could write both, if I were Superwoman. And I will write both, but not in a month!

I'm looking forward to it, whichever I choose. It will be nice to dig back into the writing part, after so much travel and promotion, selling and signing. With the exception of one small holiday appearance, I have no such obligations from now to late February. I wonder how much I can get done in that time?