Cantina Quote o' The Week: Xenophon

Excess of grief for the dead is madness; for it is an injury to the living, and the dead know it not.


You know what, forget Plato.  Xenophon was a much better writer, and reading his Memorabilia was a sheer joy.  He lived an interesting life, which included palling around with Socrates, being a mercenary, and getting his ass exiled from Athens likely for both of the above (Athens, it seems, didn’t appreciate mercenaries if they weren’t fighting for Athens).  Most people turn to Plato for their Socrates fix, but Xenophon knew him too, so if you’re tired of pompous assery, go Xenophon.

The quote above strikes me as a soldier’s quote.  It’s good advice for us all.  Remember it when my time comes: I want the cantina flowing with drink, laughter and love.  None of this maudlin sendoff stuff, m’kay?

Cantina Quote o' The Week: Xenophon

Los Links 2/11

That’ll learn me.  I didn’t build Los Links throughout the week, instead choosing to throw links into a scattered heap and sort them out later.  Wot a mess.  And I feel I’ve missed some important things, but I haven’t got the faintest idea what they are.  My wetware is nonfunctional, people.  I’m in the midst of reading three books, one of which is warping my brain severely, one which is stretching it, and one that is making me want to throttle Simon Winchester for his inordinate fondness for cliffhangers.  This is all by way of apology to those I’ve shamefully neglected this week.

We’re in need of a good guffaw, methinks.  Which is why we’re leading off with Neil & His Magnificent Oracular Journal. Seriously, people.  Click the link.  Read the warning.  Shake the Oracle.  It’s hysterical.

The Brewing Kristol, Beck Feud…: “In the case of U.S. policy towards Egypt, the dynamic is well beyond left vs. right. Instead we’re seeing (a) those in the U.S. who support the protesters, their calls for sweeping democratic reforms, and Mubarak’s ouster; (b) those who support Mubarak and fear his unknown replacement; and (c) those who believe caliphates run by zombie Islamists, the Illuminati, and the Loch Ness Monster are coming to steal your car.” (The Washington Monthly)

Mosses That Move and the Rocks They Reveal: “This further explains why geologists flock to newly blasted road cuts like flies to honey, and further why they carry around rock hammers* for splitting rocks to see what they truly look like. It also explains why I get nervous around them when they get that glimmer in their eyes suggesting that if they could napalm the countryside in their research area, they would.” (The Artful Amoeba)

An Abbreviated Numerical History of the Great New Madrid Earthquakes: “750,000,000: Years ago, approximately, when the supercontinent Rodinia began to break up, during which the New Madrid Seismic Zone is thought to have formed.  The NMSZ is a reactivated fault system that was initially formed when what is now North America began to split apart, or rift.  The rift failed, although the NMSZ provides a lasting reminder.” (+/- Science)

The myth buster: “In 1953, Evelyn Hooker, PhD, applied for a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) grant to conduct research on ‘normal homosexuals.’ During this period of American history, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was seeking out communists wherever he suspected they might be lurking; homosexual acts were a crime; bomb shelters were springing up in backyards; and the term ‘normal’ homosexual was thought to be an oxymoron. A variety of medical and psychological treatments to “cure” homosexuality were employed, including ice pick lobotomies, electroshock, chemical castration with hormonal treatment or aversive conditioning. Gay parties were raided by the police, particularly in election years when a crackdown on ‘sexual perversion’ was seen as a positive step in the fight on crime.” (Monitor on Psychology)

Bullseye: “It is also clear to me that the so-called ‘skeptics’ are allowed to make up whatever they want at will without consequence, and create a large but ill-thought out laundry list, and that we must play this game or else we’re being ‘dogmatic.’ If a climate scientist make one mistake, or a date gets screwed up in the middle of a 1000 page document about glaciers, it will receive international attention. However, if ‘skeptics’ toss out 8 conspiracy theories, 10 logical fallacies, and 17 arguments with ZERO thought put into them, then it is a good thing that we get to hear all sides. Then, when one item on the bucket list is knocked down, they can just jump tot he next item. In the meantime, they are just as valid as everyone else’s idea, since the criteria for acceptance is 101% certaintly in everything.” (Open Mind)

Pondering Landscapes: A Chat with BLDGBLOG Author Geoff Manaugh: “A few years ago I stumbled upon the fantastic web site BLDGBLOG and have been following it closely ever since. BLDGBLOG is curated by writer Geoff Manaugh and is wonderfully difficult to describe. Geoff explores ideas of the interaction of our designed/built environments with landscapes and natural processes. Geoff kindly took time out of his schedule to sit down and ponder a few questions I had about his work. I hope you enjoy it.” (Clastic Detritus)

Best of the Ice Caves, Mt. Erebus, Antarctica: “Descending into and exploring the ice caves on Mount Erebus has to have been the most surreal experience of my entire trip to Antarctica this past field season. Now that I’m back from the ice, I’ve had time to sift through all of my photos and those of my colleagues, and I’ve picked out the very best of the ice cave photos from Erebus Expedition 2010-2011.” (Science Friday)

Of Bad Odors and Good Yarns: “I was sitting in on a class at Harvard the other day, taught somewhere in the ancient warrens of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, listening to a lecture on molecular evolution. The professor, a tenured Harvard biologist and museum curator, was talking about a particular group of genes in Drosophila. But first he said something surprising: he never liked biology as a kid. ‘It was always about Drosophila,’ he told the class. ‘I just couldn’t get excited about flies.’”  (Tooth & Claw)

The New Atheism: “But this, quite evidently, simply will not do. We still go back and  back, and when we get to the end of a chain of traditions, we find someone with a pen! A human being, just like you and me! So the church, just like the Muslim authorities, took some human writings, no matter how fenced round with sanctity, and then elevated these writings to a stature they simply do not and cannot possess.” (Choice in Dying)

Pakistan floods: Predictable or predicted, but a disaster nonetheless: “So the Pakistani government did forecast the flood – at least four days out – in plenty of time to get people in northern Pakistan’s valleys out of the way. The problem was not with the meteorological and hydrologic science either internationally or in Pakistan. Instead, disaster was ensured when flood warnings were not taken sufficiently seriously by regional authorities, media, and residents.” (Highly Allochthonous)

Friday Fault Photos: Fault Scarp at Fairview Peak, Nevada: “On that same gray day in early December that MOH and I found flow-banded rhyolite, brecciated rhyolite, tuff, fossils, and Earthscope, we made our way up the wide, gravelled, but unmarked road to the fault scarp on Fairview Peak.” (Looking for Detachment)

Stand Back! “Ah, rocks. How I love pounding on you.” (Outside the Interzone

A Look at the Marcus Landslide in the McDowell Mountains of Arizona: “For those aware of the special appeal in ‘seeing’ long-gone events and the power of geologic observation in resurrecting such events, the Marcus landslide is a truly wonderful story.” (Earthly Musings)

Los Links 2/11

Confessions of a Female Misogynist Vol. 1: So Wrong About Writers

So, ScienceOnline 11 sparked a small revolution.  I first noticed a small rumbling: celebration that over 50% of the participants were women.  Then the rumbling turned into an eruption, as women and allied men started going “Well, then, why are the women so invisible WTF?!”  For a selection of links on that topic, see here.

And then, along comes this study (h/t) showing that while women mix it up, men overwhelmingly read fiction by men.

This has forced me to examine my own history of misogyny.

“But Dana,” you say, “your profile pic is a woman!”

Look, just because I’m female doesn’t mean I can’t have a rather dim view of my own sex.  And I believe I know where it came from: I hate being female.  I’m pretty sure it has to do with the plumbing.  I’m one of those lucky gals whose time of the month feels like – well, I don’t quite know how to describe it.  Put it this way: when I had my first kidney stone, the doc told me the women who’d been through labor and stones said stones were worse.  I figured childbirth must be a cakewalk, then, because the kidney stone wasn’t half as bad as the cramps I dealt with every month.  Three days of crippling misery.  I won’t go into details.  Suffice it to say, it was enough to make anyone loathe being female.  It’s gotten better with age, thankfully, but it’s still an ordeal.

That could be part of what turned me off to the feminine mystique.  Then there was my upbringing.  We had a grand total of three or four girls in my neighborhood.  One of my earliest memories ever is standing at the end of our driveway, holding the handlebar of my trike, watching a solid wall of boys zip by, and wondering where are the girls?!  Then I hopped aboard and joined the melee.  From the age of three on, I spent about 2% of my time playing dress-up with the one worthwhile chick in my neighborhood, and the remaining 98% climbing trees, skinning knees, getting muddy, and playing war games with the guys.  Ever since, the vast majority of my closest friends have had dangly bits.  The guys get me.  We share most of the same interests (excepting sports and dating women).  The girl friends I had were usually tomboys like me, or if they weren’t, they had minds sharp as Toledo steel under the makeup.

So, due in part to the kids I ran with and the evil nature of my lady parts, I tended to neglect the wonders of womankind.  And I ended up rather blinded to the fact that there were, in fact, quite a few women out there kicking arse and taking names.  I’ve got billions of examples of that.  But we’ll start with where I first realized I’d been seriously losing out by neglecting my own gender: science fiction and fantasy.  I had this semi-conscious bias toward male writers for the longest time.  I suppose I was afraid that if I picked up a book written by a chick, it would bore me to death.

Here’s why I should’ve known better: Meredith Ann Pierce.  I picked up Birth of the Firebringer at a bookfair when I was a wee little lass.  To this day, I consider it one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.  Her unicorns weren’t fluffy, sweet creatures with rainbows shining out of their asses.  They were hardcore, utterly realistic, and not soft at all.  And she put them through some serious shit.  If you want to read something mythological yet harrowing, this is one of the first books you should pick up.  I give a lot of lip service to Tolkien, because he was the one who made me get serious about worldbuilding, and Jordan, because he was the one who reignited my love for fantasy when I’d totally lost it.  But Meredith Ann Pierce is responsible for the fact that some of my main characters are also kick-ass unicorns (I shall not lie), and as I write, she’s usually lurking there at the back of my mind somewhere, reminding me to make the fantastic real.  That passage in the wyvern’s cavern?  I can still feel it, smell it, hear it, see it, even taste it – it was probably the first thing I ever read that engaged all of my senses.

And why I never knew it was a trilogy I’ll never know.  I’ve just bought the other two books.  This is turning out to be an expensive post…

Right.  So, when I hit puberty, I entered a bit of a desert – most of the authors I remember reading were guys.  Hardy Boys, y’know.  Okay, some Nancy Drew, too, and of course Agatha Christie.  But most of my great loves were men.  Then I got back into fantasy, and eventually started discovering that women could write some remarkable stuff.

People may scoff at role-playing novels, but damn it, Elaine Cunningham writes some awesome fantasy.  I first got introduced to her via Elfshadow.  Silly-ass name for a book, you might think, and bound to be fluffy, but if you think so, you haven’t read Elaine and you haven’t met Arilyn Moonblade.  Talk about a strong female character.  Ye gods.  She showed me that being female and skinny did not mean automatic wimp.  Not by half.  I still adore those books.  I will always adore those books.  Even the fluffy bits have  a nice, sharp edge.

(Yes, I know – there’s nothing wrong with fluffy and feminine.  But that’s just not how I roll, m’kay?)

I came across Melanie Rawn in the time-honored manner of poor bookstore employees everywhere – I took home a stripped copy of her first Exiles book.  One word: intense.  It’s been many years since I read it, but I still remember being fascinated by the harshness of it.  And the politics are certainly what one might term cut-throat.  Not a gentle read.  And I like that.  I don’t like authors to go easy on their characters or their readers.

I came across Octavia E. Butler because Orson Scott Card couldn’t stop singing her praises in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and since I wanted to write SF, I figured I’d best pick up a copy of Wild Seed.  I did.  And he’s write – few people handle exposition as masterfully as Octavia.  Few authors leave you haunted for so long.  My greatest writing regret to this day is that I didn’t get into Clarion the year she was teaching.

I’ll be honest on this next one: I haven’t got much use for C.J. Cherryh.  I’ve tried to read The Dreaming Tree twice, and only finished it the second time out of sheer stubborn determination.  Not my cup of tea, although I can’t quite pinpoint why.  So when a friend lent me The Paladin, I almost didn’t read it.  But then I did.  And I include it here not just because it’s a good book, but because it has one of my favorite paragraphs of all time: A man got older.  A man got wary of caring for things too deeply.  A man got wiser and ended up on a damn mountain.  A man could die alone up here.  And yes, a female writer could write a male POV.  Who knew, right?  And maybe someday I’ll get over The Dreaming Tree and find out C.J. Cherryh wrote other things I like.

And now, we get to the women who have, more than any others, created worlds that swept me right away.

Connie Willis was another one of those stripped-book discoveries.  I took home Fire Watch.  I didn’t like science fiction much until hers.  I didn’t think women wrote kick-ass science fiction until her.  And how I hated time travel stories until I read hers.  She has, by turns, put me through more laughter, tears, and paradigm-shifting experiences than probably any other author, Neil Gaiman included, sad to say.  She makes me think harder than very nearly any other author I’ve read.  Just don’t ask her to write about Women’s Issues.  You’ll quite possibly regret it.

Speaking of stripped books, that’s how I stumbled upon Patricia A. McKillip.  The Book of Atrix Wolfe was just this slim thing that looked mildly interesting, so I dragged it home.  When I’d finished, I felt as though my soul had just been put through an industrial blender.  I believe I hyperventilated a bit.  My darlings, that ending made me lose my breath in shock.  Not a bad shock, mind you.  One of those mind-blowing, life-affirming, my-gods-the-world’s-a-harsh-barstard-but-so-damned-amazing shocks.  I’d never read another writer who could be so implacable and yet so lyrical.  She’s one of the most beautiful writers I’ve ever read.  Her words – well, they’re beyond my paltry skill to describe.  They make me think of honey and pearls and all sorts of precious jewels, even while she’s putting her characters through utter hell.  There are few writers in this world with the chops of Patricia A. McKillip.

As for The Book of Atrix Wolfe, the ending still knocks me breathless every time.  Even though I know what’s coming.  That’s the mark of a truly outstanding book, that.

(Note to authors who hate people getting their books for free: it should become clear at this point that giving away a book or two is a good idea.  Just ask my shelves full of Connie Willis and Patricia McKillip and Melanie Rawn, among many others, many of whom probably wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t been hooked risk-free first.)

C.S. Friedman, people.  I don’t remember how I came across her.  I read the Cold Fire trilogy, and I will tell you something: no one I’ve read before or since has ever managed to so perfectly pull off an anti-hero.  Ever.  And then, as if it wasn’t enough for her to kick arse at writing fantasy with a little science fiction flavor, I read In Conquest Born and discovered she’s one of the best science fiction authors out there.  I felt bruised and battered and bloodied after the spaceship chase scene.  She’s one of the few people I’ve read who can pull off space flight and make it feel utterly authentic.  And she pulls not one single damned punch.  You won’t catch her giving her characters an easy time of it.  She’s cruel.  I like that in a writer.

Dos mas, and then this unexpectedly long post shall come to an end.

I came across Susanna Clarke by way of Neil Gaiman.  She wrote a short story for the Sandman Book of Dreams called “Stopp’t Clock Yard.”  Neil wrote little introductions for each story.  For this one, he said she writes like an angel, and that this was the only chance he’s ever had to actually read a Sandman story.  He was incorrect in one particular: angels only wish they could write like Susanna Clarke.  It was the only story in that book that read like a real and true Sandman story.  I read it every New Year.  And for years, all I had was that and a handful of other short stories, with only the glimmer of a novel on the horizon, and I suffered.  Oh, how I suffered.  No one else writes like Susanna Clarke.  Then she came out with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which for a time caused this atheist to experience heaven – until I finished the book.  Now I’m suffering again as I wait for the next one.

And, finally, we round out my incomplete pantheon of favorite female SF writers with Lynn Flewelling.  I picked up Luck in the Shadows on a whim, figuring I had nothing to lose.  Besides, I’d read the first paragraph, which meant I’d read the second, and by then putting the book down had become as impossible as splitting an atom by taking a dull knife to it.  I’ve loved a lot of characters in my life, but rarely so much as I’ve loved Alec and Seregil.  And there is no one yet who’s topped her brothel scene.  So for two books, we had rip-roaring action, sheer fantasy fun with some of the greatest characters evah, and for her third book she brings us – politics?  WTF?  Only she’d somehow managed to make politics fascinating.  Not to mention, the introduction to that book still elicits a belly-laugh from everyone I subject to it.  She’s one of those writers who could produce a novelization of the phone book that would be thought-provoking and hilarious.

Before these women, I’d considered writing under initials and hiding the fact I was female.  After them, I decided fuck the initials, and fuck hiding my gender.  Women SF authors kick arse, too, damn it!  And I shall be proud to be one of them.  And all of the silly concerns I had about not being taken seriously because I’m a woman have melted right away.  A bunch of these women rank among the most highly-respected and award-winning authors in the genre.  Being a woman is no problem.  The real requirement is to be a great author, no matter whether your naughty bits dangle or not.  And identifying as a female author doesn’t mean I have to restrict myself to female characters (several of the above have happily written from the POV of male characters as well as female, without apologies or explanations).  It doesn’t mean I have to obsess over hair, clothes and boys.  I can be the author I want to be, without apology or explanation, without hiding behind gender-neutral names and ambiguous bios.

And because of these women, I became less of a misogynist.  Despite my evil uterus.  So, if you’re looking to expand your horizons and make your bookshelves groan a bit more, you could do worse than starting with them.  While you’re at it, expand my horizons and mention your favorites in comments.

Confessions of a Female Misogynist Vol. 1: So Wrong About Writers

Oregon Geology Parte the Seventh: There's a Light…

So far, we’ve devoured delightful geology at Astoria, Ecola State Park, Hug Point north and south, the world’s shortest river, and the Three Capes Scenic Loop.  Truly a six-course meal!  Now, ’tis time for dessert.  Herein, we see the light and discover that water is a right bastard.

We’ve arrived, my darlings, at Cape Meares, and it’s only fitting that we look back upon where we’ve been.

Looking Back

Click to embiggen, and savor the view a moment before we dig in.  The closest bit is Maxwell Point, and in the far distance, you can see the long, jutting finger of Cape Lookout.  Cape Kiwanda is tucked in between the two, out of sight but certainly not out of mind.

You are standing on yet more Columbia River Basalt.  Do try to contain your surprise.

Right, then.  Let’s have a look around.  “Why do we have to look at more basalt, Dana?” you may wail, and I shall answer you: Not only are the views outstanding, but there’s a bloody fantastic lighthouse here, one that stares you in the face as you walk down the path:

Eye-to-Eye With a Lighthouse

I cannot tell you how awesome it is to get that sort of view of a lighthouse.  It just doesn’t happen very often.  But that’s not all!  Water does all sorts of interesting things round here.  Did I mention the upside-down waterfall?

As you’re walking toward the lighthouse, you may occasionally feel a sensation that makes you think sprinklers are on somewhere.  There’s a mist, you see, being blown upon the breeze.  And it’s not until you get a view of the cliff…

View of the Cliff

…that you realize what’s actually happening:

Falling Up

That’s right.  The wind’s strong enough here to take that diminutive little waterfall and make it fall up.  Flings it right over the shoulder of the cliff. 

After you’ve amused yourself watching the waterfall fall down, then up, down-up-up-down at the whimsy of the wind, turn your attention to the cliff proper.  Here is a cove where you see 200 feet worth of basalt.  Four different Grande Ronde layers, in point of fact, though I had a hard time picking one from the other (haven’t yet developed a geologist’s eye).  Look close enough, and you’ll see some poorly-developed columnar jointing and even some billow basalts.  It wears a cap of the Astoria Formation, not quite as jauntily as Cape Kiwanda sported its tree cover, but rather like dude wearing a serious sombrero.  Or maybe a bowler.

Ye Olde Cove

Events here were no less chaotic than elsewhere: basalts plunging into sedimentary layers and ocean after a hot four hundred miles, and this cliff displays the results rather nicely.  It’s a jumbled mess. 


Looks to me like we’ve got blocks and breccia and contact metamorphism, oh my!  Here’s a closer view:

I Gotcher Contact Metamorphism Right Here

That’s a face probably only a geologist could love.

The events that created that cliff were mind-bogglingly violent.  When I look at it, I’m seeing a red-hot wall of lava rolling into the sea, great gouts and clouds of steam hissing and roaring as the basalt plunges through mud and sand and slakes itself in the sea.  There was probably a gawdawful racket, explosions and boiling water and all manner of excitement.  If I had a time machine, this is most assuredly not a spot I would’ve been visiting fifteen or so million years ago.  I’m a wuss.  I can’t even convince myself it’s a good idea to hop on a boat and take a lava tour in Hawaii, and that’s the kind of piddly little eruption the Columbia River Basalts would’ve laughed derisively at.  They would fart in Kilauea’s general direction.  They would taunt it a second time.

Water had the last laugh, though, and it’s laughing loudest.  This is an excellent place, one of the best in fact, to see the power of water.  Look down.

Most Excellent Wave-Cut Bench

That, my darlings, is an excellent example of a wave-cut bench.  Used to be solid cliff, that did, before the water got hold of it.  And you can stand there and watch the waves worry away at it, flinging themselves at it over and over, streaming off, and coming back for more.  Here, you see?


It’s even busily excavating a cave whilst carving its bench.  Basalt may be hard, but water’s relentless.  It carves and cuts until cliffs fall down and go boom, then it turns the remnants to sand and uses them to attack the next bit, and so on.  Remember what I said about it being a right bastard?  ‘Tis.

But it’s so beautiful.

Streaming Back

Here it’s attacking another wave-cut bench on the other side of the cape.  Now you see it:

Magnificent Wave-Cut Bench

Now you don’t:

White Waters

And do keep in mind, this is what the water was up to on a reasonably calm day.

At the tip of the cape, you’ll see Pillar and Pyramid rocks.  They’re bits of the old head that the ocean hasn’t finished deconstructing yet.

Pillar and Pyramid

Love the face in Pyramid Rock.  Looks like a gnome being gnawed and a little put out by it all.  These are wildlife sanctuaries, and you can enjoy the wildlife if you like, but I was fascinated watching the water wrap around the base of Pillar Rock.

Waters Circling Like Wolves

I stood there for ages, watching the waters circle the base of the pillar, splashing up against it.  One day, I’ll understand more about how waves behave when they encounter an obstacle like this, and it’ll be even more fascinating than it was at that moment as straight lines curved and bent and traveled around and around, as if searching for a weakness.  One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, that.

From Cape Meares, you also get a better idea as to why the Three Arches Rocks are called that.

Three Arches Rocks

Looked quite different from Oceanside, didn’t they?  Suzanne told us they would, and she was right.

Of course, you should take some time off from watchi
ng hydrology attack geology and go visit yourself the shortest lighthouse in Oregon.

Cape Meares Lighthouse

There’s a tiny little gift shop in there, and it’s quite wonderful.  I may dedicate a post all to its own self someday.  I love how it nuzzles up against the basalt cliff on that notch, there.  Probably is not so pretty and peaceful when storms are bouncing boulders around.

So, a long long time ago in an Oregon Geology post far, far away, we talked a bit about landslides.  Here, you can get a feel for how slidy the sedimentary slopes are.  Peruse this view from the south bit of the cape, and note the bald patches where even the Pacific Northwest’s insistent flora hasn’t managed to hold on:

Bald Bits

Yes, I’d love a house with that view.  But I’d be a bit nervous about waking up with the fishes, or with a big blanket of mud, depending on what slid where.

And that, my darlings, is it.  We’re about to leave the coast and head inland, where we shall see – prepare for a shocker – more basalt.  But what basalt!  A great gorge carved through it, and a river, and waterfalls, and we shall speak of floods the likes of which you’d best hope you’ll never see.

Before we head inland, we shall impose upon the intrepid companion to take his best shot:

Moi With Coast

Just imagine, my darlings: all that lovely scenery around me used to be so much molten rock.  Amazing, isn’t it just?

Oregon Geology Parte the Seventh: There's a Light…

Dana's Dojo: Authors as Anglers

Today in the Dojo: Making that first sentence/paragraph/page hook the reader and reel them in.

I feel like I just grabbed a big juicy worm with a right sharp hook in the middle of it.
-Lyndon B. Johnson

Readers are like fish: they’re always nibbling, but if you want to catch one you’ve got to use the right bait, and you’ve got to have a hook in it. Without a hook (or if you use a weak hook), the best bait in the world won’t help you. Readers will nibble a bit, spit out your bait, and move on to the next guy who’s using one of those really nasty barbed hooks that go in but have to be cut out with a filleting knife. It’s no use complaining that your bait is steak while his is Spam. Readers don’t care. If they’re not hooked, you can’t reel them in no matter what kind of delicacies you dangle in front of them.

Equally useless is the hook that’s attached to a weak line. Your hook’s only as good as the line that holds it. So we’re going to take a look at both elements here: the hook that jerks the reader out of their quiet browse and makes them come along, and the line that ensures they can’t break away from you with only a really clever hook as an annoying memento.

The Elements of a Good Hook

First, make sure that you’re using good quality steel. Secondly, make sure you’re using the right sort of hook for the right sort of fish…. I’m sorry, I’m forgetting myself. We’re talking metaphor, not actual fishing. But these two things are true: your hook must be quality stuff, not so flimsy it snaps at the least bit of tension (like the reader asking, “Is this worth $7.99 plus tax? I could get a really good hamburger instead). And your hook must be suited to the target fish. You wouldn’t go fly fishing with a marlin hook. You probably won’t try to hook a literary reader with a horror novel hook.

So, here are the elements as far as I can identify them:

1. Strength. Your hook has to stand the abuse the reader will hurl at it.

2. Suitability. Your hook should suit the type of book you’re writing (which will in turn dictate the type of audience you’re looking for).

3. Sustainability. Your hook can’t be a one-hit wonder. It’s got to stay embedded in the reader’s flesh throughout the whole first chapter.

4. Intrigue. Your hook has to intrigue the reader, just like the perfect dry fly intrigues the trout. In the case of a hook, it should raise questions that absolutely must be answered if the reader ever wants to have any peace again.

5. Originality. Your hook should be unique. Not tricky, not flashy, but unique. This hook has to say, “I’m different from all of the hooks you’ve seen before.”

6. Disguise. Obvious hooks will only entrap the naive. The rest of the population has been taken for a ride before and is a little suspicious of shiny metallic things. The less your hook looks like a hook, the better off you are.

So let’s dive in and have a nice close look at all these elements.


Courtesy of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol:

Strong hook: “Marley was dead: to begin with.”

Weak hook: “Scrooge, the owner of a counting house, was sitting at his desk and counting some money.”

The first hook has force. It has impact. It has power. The second is flabby, weak, passive, and about as interesting as the ingredients list on a can of tuna.

A strong hook gets in the reader’s face. It may not be obvious, but strength radiates from it. It commands attention. It’s powerful enough to launch a whole novel. A strong hook is active. Don’t be swayed by the fact we have a passive verb in the first hook (was): this is an incredibly active hook. It’s not mumbling around, it’s shouting out a fact: Marley was dead from the very beginning, folks, and how he got that way and what happened next is going to blow your mind!

Not that Dickens would have used that kind of language, of course, but you get the idea. A strong hook doesn’t just lounge there. It may not be moving much, but it at least gives the impression it’s about to explode. And then it does.


Courtesy of Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Suitable hook: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.”

Unsuitable hook: “Last night I dreamt of the dead wife my husband kept in his closet.”

What’s wrong with the second hook, you ask? It has all the right elements. It’s strong, intriguing, original, and all that jazz.

But it’s totally unsuited to a literary novel about the process of discovery and the slow unfolding of a horror that haunts one still. Your hook needs to suit your book. This is more a matter of what tone you take than what event you use as your hook. Start as you mean to go on. You’re making a promise to the reader with your hook. Don’t promise them a tabloid expose when what you’re delivering is a mood piece. Don’t begin with a shooting or a car crash if those are just minor events that don’t impact the main story. And that brings us to


Courtesy of Dick Francis, The Edge

Sustainable hook: “I was following Derry Welfram at a prudent fifty paces when he stumbled, fell face down on the wet tarmac and lay still.”

Unsustainable hook: “I was following Derry Welfram…”

Yes, folks, that’s right: the exact same hook can be completely unsustainable. In the first instance, the fall of Derry Welfram starts a chain of events that pulls the reader along like the engine of the train the characters board. Now imagine this opening hook in a book where Derry Welfram’s untimely demise was just a side note to a love story. The main character goes home, says, “Wow, life’s short” and thinks no more of it as he dials up his girl.

This book can handle a hook full of fireworks because the events only get bigger from here. In the hypothetical instance, the hook can’t be sustained. It drops out of the reader’s mouth. You got them in with a death, but you can’t hold on to them with a boy-meets-girl story after that. If you can’t sustain the tension of the hook throughout, you need a different hook.


Courtesy of Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Intriguing hook: Shadow had done three years in prison.

Not-intriguing hook: Shadow was a very nice person inside.

Your hook should immediately start a flow of questions in the reader’s mind. Note that every hook I’ve shown (the authentic ones, not my lame interpretations of same) makes you question something. Who the fuck is Marley and why is it so important he’s dead? Why is this woman dreaming of Manderly? What was this joker doing following Derry and why did he fall down? What’s Shadow in prison for?

The questions can be life-and-death, or just niggling curiosity, or anything in between, but a good hook intrigues the reader, makes them start questioning why things are as they are, happened as they happened, what’s going on… And then, after that initial line, the hook keeps on making the reader ask questions even while it answers the first. It keeps the intrigue level going. It ratchets up the tension by piquing the reader’s curiosity.

Humans are nosy buggers: we just have to get the dish. A good literary angler knows that and uses hooks that won’t stop pressing the curiosity button. Before the reader knows it, the hook’s set deep and they’re being reeled in with no say in the matter.


Courtesy of Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Original hook: “A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.”

Cliche hook: “Money makes the world go round.”

You may have noticed that the other hooks I’ve used don’t seem all that original (although, Dickens’ was terribly original for it’s time). But go on Amazon, look up the books, and you’ll see in their first paragraphs that they are very original indeed. They don’t rely on tired old scenarios for their intrigue, or if they do, they describe them in ways that are just a bit off the beaten track. Kurt’s just one of those who hits the ground running.

You won’t want to go for strange for the sake of strange, but you do want to present something new to the reader. Tired old situation like money-grubbing? Find a hook that describes it as no one’s ever described it before. It doesn’t have to be as unique as Mr. Vonnegut here, but you do want to give expectations a twist. Play with the reader’s expectations. Give your Inner Editor the sack and let your Inner Lunatic take over. Let your own voice come through, and you’ll find something nice and original.


Courtesy of Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)

Disguised hook: There were four of us – George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking and talking about how bad we were – bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.

Blatant hook: My friends and I didn’t know when we hatched this scheme for a boat trip up the Thames that we would nearly perish several times along the way.

Either hook works, of course, but the second one blares a bit. It doesn’t leave all that much to the imagination – we know these blokes are going to go boating, and we know that it’s going to be fraught. The first lulls the reader into lounging about with the folks involved, seems to promise us some amusing conversation about hypochondria (and does), and doesn’t give away the fact that this conversation is directly responsible for getting these blokes into the boat where all of the hijinks ensue.

The jaded reader is going to look at that second hook and say “Aha! This writer is trying to force me to read their bloody book. Well, I know exactly what happens – it says right here on the back cover.” And they’ll huff away with their nose in the air.

Shiny hooks are nice and all, but sometimes what you really want is a hook that sets itself without the reader ever knowing what’s going on. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that every hook has to yank the reader kicking and screaming into the story.

On the Importance of Using the Right Sort of Line

So, you’ve hooked the reader and given that little jerk that sets the hook. In fact, your first several paragraphs, probably the whole first chapter, are going to be focused on the hook, making sure it’s worked so deep into the reader’s flesh that escape is improbable at best. And it’s a damned good hook. The poor bastard can’t get it out of his mouth no matter how hard he struggles.

Which is all well and good, but what happens when you get to the end of the first paragraph/page/chapter and the reader discovers that your custom-made hideously-expensive hook is attached to an off-brand fishing line sold by the local 99 Cent Store?

You’ll lose ’em, that’s what.

A good hook is only as good as the story that follows. The rest of the prose has to live up to the promise of that hook, or eclipse it. This is why we spend so much time studying the craft and getting it right. This is why you can’t spend all of your writing time creating the best hook the literary world has ever seen and then attach it to a story unworthy of it.

Writing is a lot like angling, but it differs in one important respect: if you don’t catch readers, you can’t stop by the market on the way home and have the butcher throw some fresh readers your way so you can honestly say you caught them.

So make sure that your hook is paired with the right line. The only way to do this is to work your arse off and read as much of the best as you can. You have to practice and discard horribly deformed efforts until you finally cast that one perfect dry fly, attached to a line of such strength and lightness that no reader in the world can possibly break free once hooked.

Gone Fishing
Dana's Dojo: Authors as Anglers

No, I KNOW I'm Odd

I don’t think there are many call-center workers whose main rave about their new computer is the fact that it can pull up 5 pdfs at once without breaking a sweat.  There’s probably only a small subset of laypeople who would get so excited about finding a treasure trove of papers on the South China Sea Summer Monsoon that they have to get up from their computers and do a victory dance.

Yeah, I’m that weird.

I get asked at least once a month if I’m in college, because I’m either hauling in a ton of tomes to take notes from or babbling about some aspect of science that just captured my imagination.  “Nope,” I have to answer.  “Just research.”  Whether for a blog post or a bit of the book I’m writing doesn’t really matter.  Fact is, I do this shit for fun.  And I love it.  If I didn’t, I could blog about bullshit and I’d just make shit up willy-nilly for the novel.  Other authors have done it before, with some measure of success.

People frequently don’t believe me when I tell them I don’t want to go out because I’m looking forward to delving into something dense, technical, and sometimes containing equations.  The only other folks who understand are usually in grad school or headed that way.

We got into a brief conversation about television at work recently.  One of my coworkers told me 30 Rock was a great show.  I had to admit I didn’t know what 30 Rock is.  He proceeded to explain, and then told me I should watch all these other sitcoms.  “Haven’t got the time,” I said.  He told me I could make the time.  Sure, I could.  I could get even further behind on my science-blog reading than I already am (too much great stuff!).  I could set the novel aside at the height of the winter writing season.  I could put the papers down, shelve the books, and sit in front of the boob toob to catch up on pop culture.

Yeah, and I can quit smoking any time I want, too.  My cat could stop randomly trying to kill people.  And we could have a winter without rain in Seattle.  Yup.

We’re all odd in our own special ways, but there are moments when I realize how out of step with the general herd I am.  It’s not easy to notice sometimes.  You, my darlings, my dearest online friends, you’re usually raving about the same things I do.  You start drooling the moment Callan Bentley posts his Friday Fold, you can’t wait for Seafloor Sunday, you laugh your arses off at astrology.  Data delights you.  You wax enthusiastic over various and sundry science papers and you get your geek on.  Among you, I don’t stand out so much.  No, it’s more like jogging behind, trying to keep up with your science geek awesomeness.  And those of my readers who aren’t scientists at least appreciate the beauty of it, enjoy reading up on how the world works, and can spend a few hours lost in more than the latest pop culture phenom.

That’s why it’s such a rude awakening when I get to work and these conversations are going on wherein I’m reminded that no, not everybody’s a geek.  In fact, the vast majority of us aren’t.

And I’m just not sure how to talk to people like that.  So I don’t, usually.  I have a more nefarious scheme.  I’m going to write a novel that’s salted through with science-y goodness, and the readers might not even notice it at first because they’ll (hopefully) be so caught up in the characters.  I’m hoping to hook them.  I’m hoping to lure them.  And then when they burble something about how realistic this bit was or how did I possibly imagine this other bit, then I’ll pounce.  A-HA!  SCIENCE!  Yes, Victoria, there is such a thing on Earth as a solution valley.  Yes, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our imaginations, but fortunately, science has discovered quite a lot of them.  That’s what I hope to get across: the universe is a fascinating place without me having to make up a lot of shit. 

(And I just found another pdf that has me drooling while I looked for a good link for solution valleys.  ZOMG.)

The corollary is that finding this fascinating shit out is fun.  It is rewarding.  And it’s a far better use of one’s short time on Earth than obsessing over Survivor.  Although if that’s your bliss, fine, follow it.  Not all of us can be geeks.

But, y’know, I’m odd, so I think I’ll just go curl up with some improving book and get my geek on, thanks ever so much.

No, I KNOW I'm Odd

Tomes 2011: Inaugural Edition

Those of you who’ve been with me for a bit know I started a project last year wherein I report upon the books I’ve recently read.  It’s been upsetting to some, as it causes unplanned additions to reading lists.  I do feel your pain, believe me.  But I can’t not talk about books, so the suffering shall continue.

Tomes 2010 has of course been retired.  Time now for the maiden voyage of Tomes 2011.  Without further ado, then:

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Mountain Geomorphology

This is not the type of book you buy for a casual perusal.  It’s written by experts for experts.  It doesn’t make concessions for laypeople.  That said, if you’ve done some extensive reading of the popular literature and cut your teeth on science blogs, you’ll understand at least 40% of this book.

It’s got everything: from defining what a mountain is to how they evolve, functional and applied mountain geomorphology, and global environmental change.  I learned things from this book that changed many of my perspectives on mountains, and the information in it comes trickling back at odd times to inform something else I’m reading.  I’ll be reading this book again in a year or so, when I’ll understand more, and referring to it more than once in the future.  If you want to know how mountains work, and aren’t afraid of actual science, this is an excellent resource.

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Never actually wanted to read this one.  I know the story of Krakatoa: big boom, no volcano.  Seen a program on it, hadn’t I?  Read up on it in other books about volcanoes, even so.  Then I read this bit about the book by Suvrat Kher and decided I’d better read it after all.

It’s a rich read: full of history, geography, economics, and all sorts of interesting cultural bits.  Only problem is, you know this nice, quiet, pretty island volcano is about to explode spectacularly and kill a great many thousands of people, and it seems to take forever getting there, and then when it does it seems like it should’ve taken longer.  I think Simon didn’t linger for ages over every single detail of the eruption because it’s been covered elsewhere, but I wouldn’t have minded a wee bit more detail.  That’s not to say there wasn’t quite a bit – there was.  I’m just being nitpicky.

Aside from my impatience with getting to the big boom, though, it was an excellent read.  It’s definitely the kind of thing I plan to chuck at people who don’t know and don’t think they’d like to know geology, but are easily sucked in by big flashy volcanic eruptions and all of the other bits.  “Oh,” I’ll say innocently, “you’d like to read about big explodey things?”  Or, “Hey, there’s this great book about colonialism/Java/natural disasters/whatever,” and then slip them a copy and run away sniggering, because by the end of it they’ll have had an education in plate tectonics they won’t soon forget.

And really, there’s just something utterly remarkable about the thought that an island over 2000 feet high and several miles in diameter could simply vanish over the course of a morning.  That the sound of it blowing itself apart could be heard clearly almost 3,000 miles away.  We’ve been lucky, we modern humans, that we haven’t witnessed many events so huge in historical memory.  Krakatoa is an uncomfortable reminder of the enormity of such things.

In short: if you haven’t already, just read the damned book.

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The Alps: Europe’s Mountain Heart

I bought this book because it’s desperately difficult to find anything affordable on Alpine geology in this country.  It’s got a whole chapter devoted to the geology of the Alps.

Was rather a bit shocked to discover the authors were deceased.  They died before the book came out.  This led me to speculations about all sorts of alpine accidents and so forth, but Nicholas, at least, died of a perfectly ordinary tumor at age 81, and Nina (though I can’t find an obit for her) seems to have lived to a good age as well.  So this book becomes a memorial to lives well lived, and it’s clear from all they say about the Alps that they lived very full lives indeed.  They loved these mountains.  They loved everything about them, and that love comes through very clearly.

You’ll learn loads more than geology.  There’s biology and climate, and there’s whole chapters devoted to humans and history.  You’ll find a new way of looking at the Mona Lisa, you’ll come away with a deeper appreciation for all of the folks (including women!) who looked at big pointy bits and said, “Hmm, bet I can climb that,” and you’ll discover all sorts of things you may not have known before.  Such as, Mark Twain didn’t much like the Alps.  And too many people have intruded too much war into them.

I wanted more geology, so I got a bit impatient with the rest, but I feel my appreciation for the rest growing.  It’s good to know things about places and people.  And while it’s not written in the most poetic prose on the planet (whereas the Introduction was), it’s clear and simple and at times unexpectedly intimate.  A good read, indeed.

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Western Islamic Architecture

This is perhaps a bit too concise an introduction.  The book is all of 38 pages of text if you don’t count the introduction.  It covers several countries and over a thousand years of architecture, with a rather heavy emphasis on mosques and palaces.  And the author has a distressing tendency not to define terms very well.  There turns out to be a glossary, but as it’s one page sandwiched between the notes and the bibliography, I didn’t find it until after I’d finished the book.

Those flaws can be overlooked.  But what I have a rather harder time forgiving is the fact that the accompanying images are all squashed in at the back, so when the text refers to this or that figure, you have to go hunting for it.  By the time you’ve found it, you’ve rather forgotten what the text had to say about it.  This may not have been as much of a problem if this wasn’t my bathroom book, but it still would have been annoying if I’d been reading straight through.  Having to constantly interrupt the flow in order to reference something that could just as easily have been printed on the facing page didn’t help me enjoy the experience.

Those flaws in mind, it’s not a bad introduction to Islamic architecture.  It’s just that there’s probably better.  So unless you, like me, find this on a clearance shelf for a couple of bucks, don’t bother.

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The Graveyard Book

As obsessed as I am with Neil Gaiman, you would’ve thought I’d read this book when it first came out.  But alas, I did not.  I kept meaning to, but other things always got in the way.  But then I read Livia Blackburne’s series of posts using The Graveyard Book to illustrate various writing techniques (and remind us all that Neil Gaiman is a genius), and I decided it was time.

I began the book at 2:15am.  I put it down a couple of times to smoke and pee.  I finished it at 6:45am.  And promptly did not fall asleep for most of the rest of the morning.

Let me admit something: I like Neil’s non-kids stuff better.  But this was a perfectly excellent read.  You’ll get a great sense of it from reading Livia’s posts, and I haven’t much to add to those except to say, once again, Neil Gaiman is a genius.  The characters, the setting, the scenes, the beautifully fluid narration, the turns of phrase, the delights, the horrors, all of combining into the kind of book that made me turn the clock face away so I could forget, just for a little while, that I was supposed to be sleeping at some point.  It wasn’t what I expected.  It was far more.

And Dave McKean’s illustrations are the cherry on top.

It’s rather a mistake thinking this book is a children’s book, incidentally.  British authors, even expat British authors, have this idea that kids are tough enough to take the tough stuff.  Which means, of course, that at times you, dear adult, will wince, because he’s just hit you in the jaw with a haymaker, and he did nothing to pull the punch.  There was a point at which I actually looked at the back for the recommended reading age, because I thought the Newberry Medal embossed on the front might have been a strange practical joke.  But Harper assures me it’s meant for readers 10 & up, so maybe American publishers have finally decided kids aren’t such delicate flowers.  Or maybe it’s just because Neil Gaiman said so.

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From Words to Brain

This is my first-ever Kindle purchase.  It’s horrible.  Not the book, the fact ebooks are this easy to download.  It took me all of a minute or so to download Kindle for my PC, and then something on the order of 30 seconds or so to download the book, and then I’d already read the damned thing in an hour and a half.

It’s a good thing so many ebooks are cheap, because this is going to become an unfortunate habit.

Anyway, about the book… Writers in the audience should go purchase and read it forthwith.  It’s three bucks, it’s a quick read, and it’s got neurocience related to storytelling by an actual neuroscientist who’s a storyteller.  You think all those how-to-write books are necessary?  Well, this one’s more necessary than most.  Go.  Download.  Read.

And if you think you can’t because it’s neuroscience and you’re no scientist, you don’t know Livia Blackburne, then, do you?  You won’t run into a bunch of incomprehensible jargon.  You’ll get the gist no matter what, so don’t worry about it.  What you need to know is how brains react to stories.  How else are you going to write a story brains will react to?  By slogging through a thousand books on how to write when you could just read this one?  Puh-leeze.

If you’re not a writer, it’s still a good read, because you’re a reader.  Don’t you want to know what your brain’s up to while you’re immersed in a good tale?  Yes, you do.  You’ll know more about that after this book.

Research is ongoing, and if we’re lucky, Livia will expand on this book for us and really dig in.  This is a good introduction to the field, true, but it’s like one slice of cheesecake.  It’s hard to stop at one slice.  One would, in fact, like a whole cheesecake all to oneself.

Right, then.  That’s enough to be get
ting started with.  I have several more very nearly finished, and I’ve just downloaded my first Kindle book, so tell your wish list to let its belt out a bit.  Otherwise, it might become very uncomfortable indeed.

Tomes 2011: Inaugural Edition

It's a Matter of Life and Death

Neil Gaiman tweeted a link to this article recently.  It’s about a young woman who died, alone and in pain, of a heart attack, because she didn’t have health insurance.

As imperfect as the Affordable Care Act is, it’s a step closer to ensuring that people like Melissa don’t die so needlessly.  And I’d rather see us take that step forward than make no move at all.  I’d rather see us make progress toward the day when there are no more tragedies like this.  We need to start somewhere.

It’s a matter of life and death.

It's a Matter of Life and Death

Cantina Quote o' The Week: Jean-Paul Sartre

Life begins on the other side of despair.

            –Jean-Paul Sarte

If you’ve never read Sartre, don’t do so unless you’re ready for a head trip.  The Existentialists aren’t an easy read on the best of days, and Sartre was a master of the philosophy, which means you’ll walk away feeling as though your brain has been pounded, stretched, stomped on, and pureed by many large men in spiked boots.  However, there are many truths in Sartre’s existentialist worldview, including the fact that hell is other people – and spending an eternity with them in a room filled with Second Empire furniture.

I highly recommend No Exit.  Then, if your brain isn’t suitably pummeled, try Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf.   Then consider that I read both of these when I was still in high school, by my own choice, and you might begin to understand why I’m a little weird.

Cantina Quote o' The Week: Jean-Paul Sartre