A new short story:
Part I: Dreams in the Long Dark
Part II: Co-Orbital
Part II will be up in a few weeks.
So a few updates on where I am with fiction writing, since it’s been over a year since The Water Lily Pond dropped.
I know this sounds like excuse-making but, honestly, I’ve written more in the last year than I have in any previous year. That’s almost 40,000 words written in a year when I have been very busy with work and family and probably wrote a couple of hundred thousand about the election. So the purpose of this post is to just let you know: you’ll see the results soon.
Update: After writing that, I had some second thoughts on Perfect Justice. The story is the first I’ve written in epistolary form. But … this being the internet … I’m thinking of getting creative in its presentation. Hyperlinks and readthroughs might make it a little more fun for the reader.
A magician’s job is to fool you. But the secret of magic is that you are the one who does the actual work. The magician appears to do things and your mind, conditioned by millions of years of evolution, completes the trick. So a ball is not really passed from hand to another but your mind makes it pass. The lady isn’t actually sawn in half but your mind makes her seem to get sawn in half.
Writing works the same way. I put words on the screen but they are a skeleton of an idea. The real work is done by the reader, who fills the spaces between those words with his own imagination and thought. I write seven simples words: the old man sat in a chair. And your mind fills in his appearance, the shape of the chair, whether it is a table, whether he was wearing hat (he was). You do the work.
As such, I am usually a little too close to the trick to be fooled. I write fiction that I hope people like. I string together words that I hope will create tension or horror or amusement or joy. But it’s hard for me to know. I know the ball isn’t really the other hand. I know the lady hasn’t really been sawn in half. So I rarely feel those emotions myself. I know the effect I’m looking for. But I can’t really tell if the slight of hand has worked.
On rare occasions, however, the slight of hand works on me. The ending of the The Water Lily Pond is one of those rare occasions. I’m about to do another full edit in preparation for making it available in paperback. But the ending is the one thing I know won’t change at all.
Watch this space.
(With apologies to Stephen King, he wrote about similar concepts in “On Writing”.)
So I’d been resisting the temptation to watch Netflix’s smash hit of the summer, Stranger Things, since everyone I knew was watching it. But I was going to cave eventually. And with a lot of code to run and a lack of interest in this year’s movies, I finally caved. If you want to know whether I liked it or not … I’ll just tell you that I binge-watched it in two days.
The series is very good. I’m curious to see how it will watch a second time without a binge, but I found it to be moving, tense and thrilling.
The series has become most famous for its 80’s nostalgia and I will admit that this aspect of the series is done very well. It’s not just that it has oblique references to 80’s pop culture; it’s that it feels like the 80’s. The music, the title sequence, the color palette, the set decoration, the homages to films like E.T. and Alien. Sans the CGI, this could easily have been something made by Spielberg or Cameron (after you watch it, you can check out this video which goes through some of the more direct 80’s homages).
But 80’s nostalgia will only get you so far, as Hollywood is finding out right now. What really makes the series good is that it’s just … good. It lays its foundations down in strong characters who are well-written and well-acted. Ryder and Harbour are particularly good but all the actors do well. It has a decent and intriguing plot*. And it shrouds this all in metric tons of atmosphere. I give it a strong recommendation, even to people who are not necessarily fans of sci-fi or horror. I was hooked by middle of the first episode.
This year has been awful for movies. Almost every big blockbuster has been a disappointment. But television — particularly shows produced by the “other studios” like HBO and Netflix — has been getting steadily better and better. And Stranger Things is definitely one of those good shows. I’m looking forward to Season 2.
(*The plot bothered me because for the last few weeks I’ve been sketching out a similar plot for a new story. The story — working title Oddish — takes place in a college town not a million miles different from State College. It focuses on residents of the town who find things happening that are not scary or alarming (at least at first) but just odd. I don’t want to give away too much since it may never be written or may go in a different direction. But any writer will understand why I was both elated and saddened to see that Stranger Things shares a lot of elements with Oddish.
Oh well. Maybe I’ll turn my attention back to Dreams in the Long Dark.)
So … I’ve written a novel.
Here’s the too-long-didn’t read version of the post: You can check out an excerpt here. You can buy the book here. I’ve published it with Kindle Direct Publishing, the world’s easiest vanity press. This means it can be read on any platform — Kindle, iOS, Android, Mac or PC. And at the time I post this, the book will be on sale for the next four days for the low low price of … absolutely free.
I think it’s good. And I hope you will too. If you like it, please tell everyone!
Now for the long version:
Over the last few years, a number of reporters and writers have turned out to be serial plagiarists. Oh, they don’t admit this. They’ll say they forgot to put in quotemarks or that rules don’t apply to them. But if you and I did that, we’d be kicked out of school. Or maybe not.
The most recent accusation is CJ Werleman. His excuse has crumbled now that researchers have dug up over a dozen liftings of text from other people. But I want to focus on his excuse because it is illustrative:
The Harris zombies now accuse me of plagiarism. From 5 books & 100+ op-eds, they cite 2 common cliches and two summaries of cited studies
This sounds reasonable. After all, there are only so many ways you can state the same facts. And when you look at the quotes, if you were of a generous disposition, you might accept this response. The quotes aren’t completely verbatim. Maybe he did just happen to phrase things the same way other writers did.
But I find this excuse unlikely. In a great post on plagiarism, McArdle writes the following:
A while back, Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, pointed out something fascinating to me: If you type even a small fragment of your own work into Google, as few as seven words, with quotation marks around the fragment to force Google to only search on those words in that order, then you are likely to find that you are the only person on the Internet who has ever produced that exact combination of words. Obviously this doesn’t work with boilerplate like “GE rose four and a quarter points on stronger earnings”, or “I love dogs,” but in general, it’s surprisingly true.
I’ve tested this and it is true. With a lot of my posts, if I type in a non-generic line, the only site that comes up is mine. In fact, verbatim Google searches are a good way to find content scrapers and plagiarists.
Whenever I site anyone on the internet, I will link them, usually quote them and then, if necessary, summarize or rephrase the other points they are making. I try hard to avoid simply rewriting what they said like I’m a fifth grader turning in a book report. So when you hear someone using the excuse that similar ideas require similar phrasing, it’s largely baloney. If two passage of text are nearly identical, it’s very likely that one was copied from the other.
I’ve become more sensitive to plagiarism since I’ve become a victim over the last ten years. I’ve had content scraped, I’ve had my ideas presented as though they were someone else’s and I’ve had outright word-for-word copying (on a now defunct story site). It’s difficult to describe just how dirty being plagiarized makes you feel. I even shied away … at first … from making accusations because I was so embarrassed. Here’s what I wrote the first time it happened:
Plagiarism is not just stealing someone’s words. It is stealing their mind. It is a cruel violation. The hard work and original thought of one person is stolen by a second. The people who have lost their careers because of plagiarism have deserved everything they’ve gotten and I am now determined, more than ever, to make sure I quote people properly and always give credit where it’s due.
Plagiarists need to be called out. Words are the currency of writers and, for many, how they make their living. Plagiarizing someone is no different than stealing their car or cleaning out their bank account. In fact, I would argue that it’s a lot worse.