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Firejammer: Go Get It!

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I’m not the fastest writer in the world. If I were even modestly faster than I am, I would be a lot better-known. So as a side project while I hammer on my new fantasy novel Dreamhealer, I went back to a short novel that sat in a box for forty years. After rather more work than I expected, I uploaded it to Kindle yesterday, and Amazon approved the ebook edition last night. (The print edition is still awaiting approval, since I had to fix an issue with bleeds and the cover image.)

Behold Firejammer. I hate to call it my “new” novel, but I’m sure it’s new to all but a vanishingly small number of my readers. $2.99 from the Kindle Store, no DRM. It’s a humorous romp very much in the style of Keith Laumer, the author I imitated heavily while just getting out of first gear as a writer, back in high school. I dedicated it to him, since no other writer (with the possible later exception of Larry Niven) influenced my fiction as much as he did. Firejammer‘s mission is pretty much the same as the mission of most of Laumer’s writing, especially his Retief stories: Give the reader a wild ride, with some laughter thrown in for good measure. No sermons. No literary pretensions. Just good crazy fun.

As with most of the things I write, the story has a backstory. In 1977, I began selling stories to the late George Scithers, editor at Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (IASFM). Some time in 1978, he told me that he and his publisher were about to launch a new SF magazine, one slanted to a slightly younger audience, and intended to capture the atmosphere of some of the better SF pulps, like Planet Stories. It would be called Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine. He asked me if I had any suitable concepts. Inside my head something was screaming hell yes!!! but I politely answered that I did, and would get to work on it immediately.

I did. I had gotten an idea in high school while turning into the parking lot at a Target-like store called Turn-Style (now long extinct) at Harlem & Foster Avenues in Chicago. (Yes, I remember the moment that clearly.) I was 16 at the time, and took some notes on it, but never actually started writing.

Now that I had a nibble on it, I started writing. I wrote. I wrote. And I wrote some more. I was still writing when the first issue of the new magazine appeared. I was still writing when the second issue appeared. I finished it in early 1979. I sent it to George Scithers, who informed me that, alas, the magazine had been canceled. I did due diligence and sent it to all the other existing SF magazines, all of which rejected it. The reason (where stated; I got a form slip from Fantasy & Science Fiction) was that it was just too long, by about, well twice. Maybe more. And yes, at 27,000 words, it was sitting square in the middle of what I would come to call “that hideous length.” It was too long for the magazines and too short to call a book. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. However, in 1979 I had other things on my mind: Xerox had offered me a promotion and relocation to Rochester, NY. So it went into a box of manuscripts and didn’t see daylight again for a long time.

It came out of the box in 2000, when POD services like began to appear. I trimmed it down to about 25,000 words and did some heavy edits. I even started talking to artists about a cover, figuring that I could throw in enough of my previously published short works to bring it up to a book of about 70,000 words or so. I played with that idea for a year or two. Then Coriolis collapsed, and once more, I had other things on my mind, like moving to Colorado. So back in the box it went, where it stayed until several years ago. I did some more rewriting, then had to set it aside (back into the box it went) because we had decided to move back to Arizona. That was a multi-year endeavor, and so totally involving that I had completely forgotten I rewrote the story in Colorado in 2015. I expected to take a piece of what (by now) I considered juvenalia, and rewrite it for the modern market. When it came out of the box earlier this year, I realized that I had already rewritten it.

So what was I waiting for? As time permitted, I created a print book design, tinkered with the layout, made some more edits, laid it out as an ebook, and finally found a cover image on WikiMedia. The image is an eruption of Stromboli, in Italy. Stromboli is my all-time favorite volcano. (Can anyone guess why?) I resisted my temptation to keep tinkering with it, but resisting temptation slows me down even when successful. So more tinkering happened.

Which brings us to yesterday’s uploads. Amazon approved of the ebook cover and body. I’m still waiting for approval on the paperback. The ebook is up there on Kindle and ready to (molten) rock.

Now it’s back to work on Dreamhealer, which is well on and should be finished this summer. So in the meantime, have fun–and don’t forget to leave a you-know-what.


The Cunning Blood Is 20 Years Old

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Hard to believe: I finished the first draft of The Cunning Blood twenty years ago today, on March 27, 1999. I created a progress spreadsheet and used it to store a word count for every day that I added to the manuscript.The spreadsheet does not cover the whole novel. I created it when I was about 50,000 words in. There is a date on every entry, which allows me to gauge how often I wrote, and how much I wrote on any given day. My maximum word count was 5,162. My minimum was 33. The median was about 1,800. The total finished word count for the first draft was 135,680, which grew to about 143,000 after some edit passes and a couple of added scenes for continuity’s sake. I don’t remember when I started writing it, but I’m pretty sure (based on some emails I shared with friends about the project) that it was sometime in October 1997.

That book was hard work.

What boggles me today is how much of it was concocted without my conscious knowledge. Through most of the story I was not just flying by the seat of my pants; I was flying without any pants at all. I frequently had no idea what a chapter would contain until I started writing it. It got worse than that: I did not know that Geyl Shreve would detonate a long line of LPG gas tank railroad cars with a pocket missile until three paragraphs before she did it. There was a little planning here and there, but not much. As best I can figure, the novel self-assembled somehow in my subconscious, and came out pretty clean with almost no outlining or planning ahead of the current position of the cursor. I had to exert some force-of-will toward the end, when I was way past my target length of 100,000 words and part of me still wanted to toss in new story arcs and new characters. (That’s a problem I have to this day.)

I learned a lot about how to write a novel, that’s fersure.

I mention all this history here because a lot of people think that because the novel was first published in hardcover in the fall of 2005, that I wrote it in 2004. Uh-uh. I sent it to several publishers between 1999 and 2005 without much luck. Betsy Mitchell of Aspect (an imprint of Time Warner now belonging to Hachette Group) was polite and encouraging, but ultimately turned it down. Tor responded to a query and requested the manuscript–and then ghosted me. Really: After I sent the manuscript to them in March 2001, I never heard from them again. Ever. I sent email queries, which were never answered. I finally sent a written letter withdrawing the manuscript from consideration in July 2002. I didn’t get a response. They did not return the manuscript. Just silence. Dead silence. My long, gradual entry into the SF indie camp began that summer, and I’ve never looked back. These days, Manhattan needs writers way more than writers need Manhattan.

I eventually sold the novel to a small press in the Chicago suburbs, and they did a pretty good job with it, especially in terms of getting reviews. I got a rave in Analog, and a strong endorsement from Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, along with other very good press. However, I’m not entirely sure that the hardcover ever saw the inside of a bookstore. (The Colorado Springs public library did buy two copies, which astounded me.)

Some of the problems selling the novel may have been due to what little politics I put in it, which had a libertarian slant with a huge footnote: I’m willing to admit that there is no such thing as utopia, and did not portray either Earth nor its prison planet Hell as fiat utopias. Nor were they dystopias. All societies have problems of one sort or another. As the Sangruse Device put it in the story: There are different kinds of freedom, and different kinds of imprisonment. I’m not sure I could state the novel’s theme more concisely than that.

It doesn’t matter. I was exploring ideas. I was not preaching any sermons. I had a big potful of ideas and was having fun with them. I had set out to write the ultimate action/adventure hard SF story. Judging by reader reactions since 2005 and (especially) since the ebook’s release in 2015, I think I succeeded.

Publishing a trade paperback edition through CreateSpace at the end of 2018 finally brought the project to a close. It’s sold well: up in the thousands, all editions taken together, and probably made me more money as an indie title than it would have under a big Manhattan imprint.

The big question, of course, is what to do next. I’m 77,000 words into Dreamhealer, and starting to pull all the plot threads together. I hope to finish it before the end of May. After that, well, it’s either something about the drumlins or The Molten Flesh. People have been pestering me for a sequel to The Cunning Blood since it first hit print in 2005. (My alpha readers have been pestering me even longer.) I have a couple of characters and a concept, plus a growing pot of ideas. I don’t have a plot. I tried to outline it. My subconscious basically said, No deal. (Right brains can be funny that way.) I may not know how any of the story goes until three paragraphs before I write it. That strategy has worked before. It’s worked (with greater or lesser success) all through Dreamhealer, though I’ve had to take a whip to my right brain here and there to keep it on task. Do I trust my subconscious enough to try it again?

Do I have a choice? Heh. We’ll damned well see.

Public Domain Day 2019

January 1 is Public Domain Day in the US. By that I mean, according to current US copyright law, old material will begin entering the public domain again yearly. On the first day of 2019, all works published in 1923 will enter the public domain. This quirk in the law is due to provisions in the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998 and unless Congress starts screwing with copyright terms again (and they probably will) works produced in 1924 will enter the public domain in 2020, those produced in 1925 in 2021, and so on. You can read lots more about it here, though in truth I’ve known about it since 1998. Funny how fast twenty years go when you’re having fun!

Now, I’ve just finished a recent original ebook called Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves by Fenton Wood. It’s the first of a series of YA boys’ books taking place in the Yankee Republic, which is a sort of alternate history America where boys are still taught traditional values and aren’t kept prisoners in their homes until they’re fifteen or sixteen. In Wood’s book, a group of young teen boys (12-14ish) built a pirate radio station to serve their little town in the mountains. There’s some truth here: Turn young teen boys loose, and they can do amazing things. I’ve been building radio transmitters since I was 12. I built a junkbox telescope at 14 that helped win Carol’s heart three years later when I showed her Saturn’s rings in her driveway. Several of my friends were doing a lot of the same. Today, you get in trouble for letting your kids walk to school or to the park, or (in some places) ordering chemical glassware for chemistry experiments.

But I digress. The point I’m making is that “boys’ books” were very popular in the 1920s. A lot of them (along with an enormous amount of other material) will now be going into the public domain yearly, unless the law changes. When I read Pirates of the Electromagnetic Spectrum, the first thing that came to mind was a book on my shelves called Boy Scout Electricians or The Hidden Dynamo that I got at an estate sale for 35c. It was published in 1913, and has been in the public domain for some years now. It’s a potboiler, a little breathless, and awkwardly written, like most boys’ books of that era, and in truth until the era came to an end in the 1950s. Being in the public domain means that we can do any damned thing we want with them. So…why not edit them to improve the writing and make them better books? Far too much current YA fiction cooks down to dystopian bummers. Some people enjoy those. Many don’t. I certainly wouldn’t give that stuff to my kids, if I had any.

This is not a new thought of mine, and I suspect others have thought of it too. A lot of pulp-era material fell into the public domain years ago for lack of copyright renewal. On reading some of the pulp scans I’ve downloaded (remember my series on the pulps?) I reflected that with a few days’ work I could make them much better and more readable. It would be a very interesting experiment. Note that I don’t mean merely republishing them as-is (this is done all the time) but improving the writing and possibly (where it makes sense) updating them a little.

A lot of the stories from the pulp era were written quickly, paid their authors very little, and can be painful to read. But they’re also full of action and ideas, and cardboard characters can be fleshed out with a little skill. Some that I’ve read evoke a place or a period very well. They could become engaging entertainment with a little work. I’m sniffing around Project Gutenberg’s SF bookshelves for an experimental subject, and it’ll be interesting to discover what pulp-ish fantastic fiction goes into the public domain this coming Tuesday. Suggestions welcome.

Excerpted from Old Catholics

Context: Back in 2004 I began a novel about a priest who resigns from the Roman Catholic church and falls in with a little house church in a Chicago bungalow. The very eccentric Old Catholic Parish of St. James and St. Julian of Norwich welcomes him and makes him one of their own during a cold Chicago winter. I never finished the novel and don’t quite know what to do next, but the excerpt here is the first half of St. JJ’s Christmas celebration. It captures the whimsy and gentle human comedy that I was reaching for. I posted a slightly earlier excerpt here on Christmas Eve 2013.

I’m alone this Christmas Eve, looking after poor Mr. QBit. Carol is in Chicago. I think I’m going to take another run at the story a little later today. Something made me start this, and I have 38,000 words down. It’s probably the strangest thing I’ve ever written as an adult. I don’t even know how it ends. Maybe I should finish it and find out.

Christmas Eve’s late afternoon was clear but very cold, and the sky’s rich blue was fading by the time Suzy parked the Volvo behind Schwartz’s Shoes. When they rounded the corner from the alley onto Campbell St, Rob saw Deacon Dan and PJ working on something set onto a shoveled-out circle in the middle of the snow-covered front yard. Rob had expected a crèche, but it was not a crèche. Atop a tripod was a black device that Rob slowly recognized as a small telescope, the little stubby computer-controlled type that he had seen advertised by Fry’s in every Saturday Chicago Tribune since before Thanksgiving. Over the end of the telescope someone had pulled a bright blue foam hand with the Chicago Cubs logo on it, its foam index finger pointing straight up.

Rob paused on the sidewalk, Suzy still clutching his arm and holding herself close to him against the chill. PJ waved to them, smiling. Dan nodded solemnly, with the pompom on his ratty stocking cap batting forward and back.

PJ stood to one side, tapping on a tablet computer. “Wi-Fi’s good now. Ok, here goes. I hope.” The little telescope began to pivot around, its motors whirring softly. The blue foam finger purred down from the zenith and swung toward the east. It came to rest at last, the motors falling into silence with the finger aimed at the front door of a bungalow across the street.

“That ain’t a star,” Dan said.

“That’s where Sirius would be if we could see it. It’s only just barely risen. I guess we need another star.” PJ tapped on the tablet. The telescope went into motion again. “The second-brightest star in the sky is Canopus.”

Dan made a face. “What dipshit would name a star Can o’ Pus?”

“It’s ancient Greek.” The foam finger again came to rest, now pointing down into the dirty snow beside the front walk. “Named after Menelaus’ navigator. It’s below the horizon. I don’t think we can see it from here.”

“Not if we’re lookin’ in the goddam dirt.”

PJ was pinching and spreading an area on his tablet that might have been a star map. “We need to skip the next three. I don’t see how to skip stars in this app.”

“I coulda gotcha an iPad for ten cents on the dollar, but no…”

PJ’s voice was resolute. “It’s Android or nothing. I only use closed systems when somebody’s paying me.”

Sensing that an argument was being held back while they watched, Rob nodded to both men and headed for the little house-church’s front steps as quickly as Suzy’s spike heels could manage. The front door was ajar. Taped to the wood below the leaded glass lights and the Robert Lenz icons was a hand-lettered sign reading:

“Come in! There is always room at Christ’s table!”

There was muted clatter and muffled conversation from the little kitchen at the back of the house, and the smells Rob would expect at one of Chicago’s famous North Side ethnic restaurants: sauerkraut, onions, orange zest, melted butter, baking bread, cinnamon, fried fish, mushroom soup. Rob hung Suzy’s coat on the peg behind the door and shook off his own, thinking that he also smelled pickled herring and the sharp tang of horseradish.

Between the last pew and the bungalow-church’s front windows was a long folding table close-set for eight. The chairs were simple folding chairs with much of their pale green paint worn away, and the tablecloth was rough white linen with tattered edges. The tablecloth seemed lumpy somehow. Rob leaned down and saw yellow-green straw peeking through small holes in the cloth. The plates were simple white china, and although the utensils were silver, they were not all the same pattern.

Mother Sherry blundered down the hall from the kitchen, edging past TV trays bearing crock pots and electric skillets. She held a cardboard box of plastic wine glasses.

“Hiyee! We’re so glad you could make it! Merry Christmas!”

From down the hall, Mrs. Przybysz’s voice was crystal clear: “It’s not Christmas yet!”

Mother Sherry leaned forward and lowered her voice. “It’s Mrs. Przybysz’s night, really. I’m still trying to figure out what all the, uh, traditions are about.” She cocked her head toward the front door, and (presumably) Deacon Dan and PJ searching for the first star of evening. “Dan found fresh hay somewhere for under the tablecloth. Mrs. Przybysz said it all had to be green, and he spent this morning picking the dead stalks out of it one by one. Those catfish fillets you’re smelling were swimming around in our bathtub until Dan cleaned them after lunch. You should see our kitchen. Boy.”

She launched off around the corner and began placing plastic wine glasses beside each plate. Rob and Suzy threaded their way up the hall, Rob resisting the temptation to lift each lid along the way to catch a little more of the delicious smells that hung above them. Suzy was an excellent cook, and he was hardly a stranger at good restaurants. Still, the fare of his daily bachelor life ran heavily toward peanut butter and microwaved bratwurst. To be invited to this sort of home-cooked feast was not an everyday thing.

As they approached the kitchen, they got the impression that Mrs. Przybysz was having telephone conversations with three or four people at the same time. Once they rounded the old wooden door, they realized that she was quite alone.

“Mona, look, I told you last year, cinnamon ain’t what it used to be. The crap I get at Jewel you have to throw in with a shovel.” The old woman held no phone. She was turning sizzling fish filets on a large pan on the stove. Her apron was pulled tight, and her hair was up under a lace cap. When she spoke, she was looking at the counter to one side of the stove. “Vietnam? Like hell I’ll use spices from Vietnam. My nephew died there. Look him up. You’ll get an earful.”

Abruptly, Mrs. Przybysz spun to one side and lifted the heavy glass lid from a stock pot. “Thanks, Virginia. You’re better than a timer.” She peered into the pot. “This still looks thin to me. Whatcha think?” For a second or two there was silence. Rob blinked. It almost looked as though a smiling woman’s face had appeared for a moment in the roiling steam rising from the pot. “I know, I know. Lowfat sour cream just doesn’t do the job. It was on sale. My mistake.” Mrs. Przybysz set the lid aside and tapped some flour into the pot from a measuring cup. She plunged a long-handled wooden spoon into the pot and stirred. She glanced briefly out at the deepening darkness outside the kitchen window. “We don’t have half an hour. The boys will spot the gwiazdka any minute now and everything had better be done.” The wooden spoon paused. “Unsweetened yogurt? I think we have some here. Will that work? Hmmph. Ok.” The old woman crossed to the careworn refrigerator and began rummaging around on its shelves.

Mother Sherry trudged up the basement stairs into the kitchen, a bottle of wine in each hand and a third tucked under her arm. She edged around Mrs. Przybysz and handed one bottle to Rob. “I keep praying for a miracle: another hundred square feet in this place. God created the whole universe from nothing. How hard could it be to give us a little more nothing?”

Mrs. Przybysz pushed past Mother Sherry while tearing the foil seal from a yogurt cup. The wooden spoon was soon at work again in the steaming pot. “God’s working on it. I told you that last year. Give Him some time.”

Rob heard the front door open and close, and feet shaking off snow. “We got it! Scapular! Right over the light pole!” Deacon Dan stomped his way up the hall, triumph on his battered face.

PJ shook his head. “No. Not ‘scapular.’ Capella. Alpha Aurigae.” The young man waved the tablet in the air as he pressed into the kitchen. “Right ascension five hours sixteen minutes. Declination forty-six degrees. Approximately. But close.”

Mrs. Przybysz laid the wooden spoon down. “Gwiazdka. The first star of evening. Good work, boys. Now go wash your hands and help me carry food.”

Bishop Hughes stepped into the kitchen from the sacristy, in a black cassock with a purple stole. “My friends! Welcome again! Veni Emmanuel! As the prophet Nehemiah told the Hebrews: ‘Eat fat, drink sweet wine, and send portions to those who have nothing, for this day is holy to our Lord!'”

There was a half-empty can of lard on the piled-high kitchen table. Rob looked down at the bottle Mother Sherry had handed him. Mogen David Concord Grape. Yup. Nehemiah could relax: St. JJ’s had it covered. Wigilia supper could now begin-if the community could somehow squirm their way out of the tiny kitchen.

Odd Lots

  • Our pool cover kept the pool at tolerable temps (mid-high 70s) until a few days after Halloween. Then the nights got cold fast, and we finally removed the cover, cleaned it off, rolled it up, and put it in the shed. Water temp is now 62 degrees. I’m sure I’ve been in water that cold, but as a successful retired person, I reserve the right not to do things I did gladly when I was in seventh grade. As for when it goes back on in the spring, well, I’m working on that. We’ll see.
  • QBit is still with us, though he’s a little grumpy and not moving as fast as he used to. He does not appear to be in pain, but we’re having the mobile vet check him again at the end of the month.
  • We’ll be watching fistfights about this for years still, but ongoing research is pushing consensus strongly toward the hypothesis that low-carb high-fat diets accelerate metabolism. This happens to me almost every day: Twenty minutes after my nearly zero-carb breakfast (two eggs fried in butter, coffee, sometimes bacon) I feel warmer and start to sweat under my arms.
  • From the Things-Are-Not-Working-Out-As-We-Were-Promised Department: When we bought our house here in Phoenix in 2015, we immediately replaced nearly all the interior lighting with LED devices. Three years later, they’re dying like flies. (Several died within the first year.) Probably half of the incandescent bulbs we had in our Colorado house survived for all the 12 years we lived there. More efficient, yes. Long-lasting, well, I giggle.
  • The Center for Disease Control warns Americans not to eat Romaine lettuce in any form. A particularly virulent form of e. coli has been found in lettuce sold in 11 states, but since the CDC doesn’t know where all the infected lettuce came from, it’s advising consumers not to eat romaine at all.
  • The Dark Ages began with real darkness: In the year 536 a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland covered Europe in volcanic smog. Crops failed, famine was everywhere, and soon came Justinian’s Plague, now thought to be bubonic plage. By the time the plague faded out, half of Europe was dead. I find it fascinating that we can identify periods of prosperity by looking for lead dust in ice cores, meaning that people were mining precious metals. After nearly vanishing after 536, lead levels didn’t reach the norm again until 640.
  • “Reading is like breathing in and writing is like breathing out, and storytelling is what links both: it is the soul of literacy.” –Pam Allyn
  • Statuary in ancient Greece and Rome was not always blinding white, but was often painted and sometimes gilded, and restorations of the colors are startling to moderns. Here’s an excellent long-form piece on how old statues likely appeared when they were created–and why many historians reject the idea of painted Classical statuary.
  • Too much caffeine triggers the release of cortisol, which in large quantities over a period of time leads pretty directly to heart disease. Modern life is cortisol-rich enough enough without downing 6 cups a day!
  • Some ugly stats quoted by Nicholas Kristof: “38 colleges, including five from the Ivy League, had more students from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%. Over all, children from the top 1% are 77 times more likely to attend Ivy League colleges than children from the bottom 20%.” Legacy admissions have got to go.

Blogging Vs. Social Media

Wow. I think I broke another record for not posting on Contra. My last entry was July 7, which brings us to five weeks now. People aren’t asking me if I’m dead (like they used to) because most of them see me on Facebook and Twitter. So yeah: I’m not dead. I’ve just been elsewhere.

And that’s an interesting issue, especially now, at 66, when I have a far more limited supply of personal energy than I did ten or even five years ago. This being summer doesn’t help: My office is the warmest room in the house, and I simply don’t function as well with an ambient temp in the 80s. Mornings are my best times largely because they’re the coolest. Mornings are also when I work on my commercial writing projects, like Dreamhealer and FreePascal From Square One. Fiction is hard. Dreamhealer in particular has been rough, and there are times when I regret having started it at all. But 55,000 words is too much to just toss in the trunk. It will be finished. I only wish I had finished it a year ago, which was my original if excessively ambitious plan.

The key question is this: To what extent is Contra a bad use of my time?

Or, more to the point, my (limited) energy?

I don’t look at my logs much anymore, because I know what they’ll show: Script kiddies endlessly trying to brute-force their way into my instance of WordPress, plus fifteen or twenty visitors a day, and a few odd bits that I’ve never entirely understood. I suspect posting less often than I once did cuts the numbers down, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than a few hundred visitors a day, even when I was posting almost daily, unless I posted something that went viral, like my Sad Puppies summary or my analysis of EasyBits Go.

So why have I stopped posting here on Contra? This: I get more attention when I post on Facebook or Twitter. And attention is what it takes to sell indie books. Posting a promo tweet about one of my books almost always generates a sale or two. Posting something about one of my books on Contra rarely does. I’m guessing that Contra is a saturated market: My diehard fans have probably already bought everything I’m offering. It would help if I could crank out three novels a year, but if that were possible it would have happened a long time ago.

Blogs have lost a lot of the magic they had fifteen years ago. The magic went straight to Facebook, in large part because Facebook has machinery to help people find you if you want to be found. (Or even if you don’t want to be found.) If you’re a writer, especially an indie writer like me, being found is the hardest single part of the game. The blogs that continue to thrive fall into two categories: Political blogs, which satisfy our insatiable need for tribal reassurance, and single-topic blogs with fairly narrow and reasonably popular topics. The sort of general-interest blog that was my 20-year vision for Contra still exists, but is written largely by people who are already well-known for other reasons.

Another issue is that politics has infected virtually every topic you could name, including many that interest me, like nutrition, climate, genetics, education, and health insurance. It’s almost impossible to write about those topics without attracting comment harpies, or more general tribal hatred than I care to deal with. I was astonished at the anger I evoked by cautioning people to calm down after the 2016 election, lest their rampaging hatred ruin their health or literally kill them. This remains an issue: Once you’ve given yourself permission to hate, hatred is delicious, and few people can overcome that deepest of all primal hungers.

My overall goal is to write articles that won’t piss off potential readers of my fiction, and the range of appropriate topics for that kind of writing grows narrower over time as the filth that is politics seeps into damned near everything.

All that said, I’ll try and post here a little more often. I’m considering redesigning Contra (or paying someone to redesign it) so that it becomes a more general directory to everything I have online. I’ll post shorter blog entries more often, and long-form essays not as blog entries but as standalone articles listed in a sidebar. I may have to cross-post short entries on Facebook for those who don’t read Contra. Given its limitations, Twitter will remain a sort of Odd Lots repository, along with links to longer works. (I will collect my Twitter Odd Lots and post them on Contra from time to time.)

I’ve done tolerably well as an indie author since I posted the ebook edition of The Cunning Blood in July 2015. I intend to write indie fiction for the rest of my life, and solving the problem of discovery is a huge part of the challenge. I dislike Facebook and Twitter, for the sake of their ideological bias and privacy failures, but actual experiments have shown that they work. The experiments will continue. If I learn something useful, you’ll find it here–and other places too. A usable author platform requires more than one leg to be stable.

Hose Wars, Part 3: I Love It…But I Hate It

This is a series. Start here if you haven’t already.

Yes, I’m back. I didn’t pause the series because I was tired or busy. I was waiting because I wanted more data to analyze. So as of this morning I had four weeks in with the S10, and I decided to see what the trends were, and talk a little more about the experience itself.

In terms of what it was designed to do, the ResMed S10 Autoset is a complete win. If you recall from Part 1, my headband sleep study indicated an AHI of 36, meaning that over the time I was tested, I experienced and average of 36 events an hour. The events are of various species, some of which I still understand poorly. The biggie is obstructive apnea (basically, your soft tissues close your airway temporarily) which encompassed most of the events reported by Sleepyhead, assuming you include “Clear Airway” events with OAs. (I’m still trying to determine the precise difference between the two categories.) I’ve logged relatively little hypopnea (abnormally slow or shallow breathing) and almost no Cheyne-Stokes respiration. The machine is not capable of identifying central apnea events (which are basically an EEG issue) so I have no data on those.

And leaks. Lordy, do I have leaks. Still working on that. Fortunately, the S10 can tell what’s a leak and what’s some sort of breathing irregularity. It reports the leaks so I can try different things to minimize them. Useful, and some engineering is in process. Much of leak management is actually hose management, and the engineering lies in keeping the hose from pulling on the mask. I’ll describe what I end up with after I end up with it.

Now, results. For the first three nights, I tried the full-face mask I bought. It kept me awake, even with a Belsomra pill in me. I took a leftover clonazepam pill to knock me out a little more, and I managed to sleep. However, I have no intention of becoming dependent on a benzo just to sleep with a bigger mask. The USP of Belsomra is that it doesn’t disturb sleep architecture to the degree that benzos and the Z-drugs do. If I can’t do a mask on Belsomra, it’s unclear that I can do APAP at all.

So everything hinges on the “nasal pillow” mask I bought. It’s not exactly comfortable, but I’m able to sleep with it strapped to my face. It’s a ResMed AirFit P10, and has a very good reputation. I may try others as time allows.

Now, I can fall asleep with it…and sleep for about six hours. After six hours, the Belsomra is leaving my system, and there’s no longer enough to keep my orexin receptors neutralized. So come about 3:30 or 4, I can no longer fall back asleep. (I’ve been getting up twice a night for bathroom breaks for 25+ years, usually at 1:30 and 4.) Keeping the mask on if I’m not sleeping does nobody any good, so after my second bathroom break, I take the mask off and shut the machine down. This gives me 6-7 hours of treated sleep, plus another hour or two of untreated sleep. It’s not a perfect solution, but it may be the only solution I can manage. Even bad sleep is better than no sleep, and I’ll take whatever benefit from those last two hours that I can.

The improvement in my AHI has been spectacular. From a sleep study AHI of 36 I’ve gone down to an AHI of less than six on all 28 nights. And on only two nights did it go over 5. Most nights it’s less than 3. Last night, I had only four events across 5.53 hours with the mask on, for an AHI of 0.72. That’s not shabby. In fact, an AHI of less than one is considered no apnea at all. I don’t know why I have more events on some nights than others. That’s a subject of ongoing research.

There have been some weirdnesses. My prescription called for a pressure of 6-18 cm. (The S10 supposedly adjusts pressure to what it needs to clear an event.) What I found is that at least once a night, the pressure was up above 17, and I felt like I was being blown up like a balloon. I would wake up completely, and become so annoyed that I had a hard time falling asleep again. Not useful. So I set the machine to vary only between 6 and 13 cm. Now there are no excursions above 13, and from the graphs I can tell that I can sleep when it’s pumping in the vicinity of 12 cm. Median pressure is 7.7 cm. Given the reported AHIs, nothing of value was lost in the adjustment.

Now the bad news: APAP has taken all the pleasure out of sleeping. It’s a hard thing to describe. I’m aware of the mask as I try to fall asleep. It’s a constant irritation, and without the Belsomra I don’t think I would sleep at all. Relaxing completely is difficult. Maybe it’ll get better with more practice, but after 28 nights I’m thinking that whatever I’m experiencing now is what I’ll be experiencing for the rest of my life, which is nothing if not depressing. I’ve begun looking forward to the final two hours of the night as my reward for suffering through the first six hours.

I’m not sure what, if anything, can be done about this.

Now, one can’t argue with results. I don’t feel like a 10-year-old again, and I’m good with that. I wouldn’t mind feeling like a 20-year-old, but I’m not getting that either. The improvements are incremental but real: I’m getting more ideas, spending more time reading, and more time at the keyboard. I don’t feel a great deal more energetic, but something is getting the work done, and I can only credit that to better sleep.

I’m not sure there will be a Part 4 to this series, but when insights become available I’ll report here. So far…

…so good.

Hose Wars, Part 2: To Breathe, Perchance to Leak

This is a series. Start here if you haven’t already.

I’m not a good sleeper, and never have been. When my publishing company (now mostly forgotten) collapsed back in 2002, I developed severe insomnia. I was getting as little as three hours of sleep per night, often less, and sometimes none at all. After a couple of weeks of this, I started to hallucinate cute little cartoon devils doing calisthenics at the foot of my bed, along with other things I’m not sure I can describe. Sleep isn’t optional. I sometimes think we sleep in order to dream undisturbed, and that dreams are somehow where our humanity comes from. If we can’t sleep, eventually we start to dream while we’re awake.

My big fear in starting APAP therapy was that I couldn’t sleep with a mask on my face. Had I been a better sleeper, I’d probably have begun thereapy years earlier. I was given two masks: One covered my nose and mouth. This is called a “full-face” mask, even though it doesn’t cover your eyes. The other is harder to describe: It’s a little plastic thing on an elastic strap that inserts a couple of cushioned tubes into your nostrils. These are called “nasal pillow” masks, and they’re a great deal less intrusive than full-face masks.

The whole point of CPAP/APAP therapy is to push enough air into your nose to keep your airway open, and to open it if by some chance it closes. For this to work, you either need a full-face mask so that if your mouth opens it won’t matter, or with a nasal pillow mask you need some way to keep your mouth closed. There are chin straps of various sorts and other things lumped into a category called “headgear.” Yet more stuff to tie myself up in; no thanks. I did the obvious: I used that blue surgical tape you buy at Walgreen’s to tape my mouth shut.

It worked. It worked, at least, until the machine upped the pressure for some reason. The higher pressure blew the tape off one corner of my mouth, which became a massive air leak, one noisy enough to wake me up.

This is my problem in a nutshell: APAP is noisy and uncomfortable, and keeps me awake. The noise I’m getting used to, at least the fairly modest noise from the machine itself. Leaks are a separate issue. I sleep on my side, which means that both kinds of mask eventually contact my pillow. I can position myself carefully when going to sleep, and that generally works. But if I squirm around even a little while I’m asleep, my pillow nudges the mask to one side, making noise, or (with the full-face mask) spraying air into my eyes. That wakes me up in a hurry.

To keep me asleep despite masks and leaks and hoses flapping around, the doc gave me a prescrption for a sleeping pill called Belsomra (suvorexant.) It’s the first of a new class of insomnia treatments that target the orexin receptors in the brain, rather than the GABA receptors. Pills like Ambien (zolpidem) target GABA, and force you to sleep. If you take one and don’t hit the sack, you’ll start dreaming anyway, and say or do dumb things. The orexin receptors keep you awake. Interfere with their operation using an orexin antagonist like Belsomra, and the signals to stay awake go away. You drift off. I’ve taken Ambien, and it always felt like a whack to the back of my head. Boom! I’m out. Belsomra has a gentler touch, and from what I’ve read, it doesn’t affect sleep architecture (i.e., the different stages of sleep like REM) nearly as much as more preemptive pills like Ambien.

It’s expensive, but very fortunately, Medicare covers it. And so far, it’s done a pretty fair job keeping me asleep in spite of mask issues. As for mask issues, there’s a third sort of mask that I’m going to buy and try: A nose mask. This is like a smaller full-face mask that only covers your nose. It may not be any better than nasal pillows, but it’s cheap enough to do the experiment and be sure.

I’ve found that there’s a downside to blowing air up your nose. A couple downsides, actually, but there’s one big one, and that’s where I’ll start next time.

Hose Wars, Part 1: Overview

ResMed S10 AirSense 500 Wide.jpg

About a year or so ago, the bottom began to fall out of my supply of personal energy. At the time I assumed it was due to my age, or to all the effort I was pouring into our move down here from Colorado Springs, selling the Springs house, fixing up our Scottsdale house, and so on.

Now, virtually all of that stuff is done with…and my energy hasn’t come back.

I started a decent new novel at the end of 2016, and while I got off to a pretty brisk start, I’m now 42,000 words in and making little progress. I have other projects that I’ve done some work on, however, writing is the most difficult thing I do. It’s also the most important to me personally. If something starts getting in the way of my writing, I have to get to the bottom of it.

So it was that in February of this year I did a sleep study. I’d had one done at a Colorado Springs sleep clinic in 2010, but the wires and electrodes and everything kept me awake so much of the night that the pulmonologist declared the study inconclusive. To have a sleep study, well, it helps to be able to sleep.

Sleep study tech has gotten way better in the last eight years. I went down to the sleep lab and picked up a gadget that was something like a stiff but adjustable plastic headband. The part that contacted my forehead had a tacky, silicone-y feel to it, and embedded in the silicone were several electrodes and an LED oximeter. There were no wires and no separate electrodes to get tangled up in, like I had in 2010. The electrodes provided some EEG functionality, and the oximeter continuously monitored my blood oxygen, which is an issue I’ve had for some years. (It was one reason we no longer live at 6700 feet.)

The headband gadget was remarkably comfortable, at least compared to the ratsnest they trussed me up in back in 2010. I was able to sleep on my side, which I’ve done now for probably forty years. (When I sleep on my back I tend to compress the ulnar nerves in my arms, which makes them go numb and then prickly when I wake up.) I took a new-model sleeping pill (I’ll come back to that) and managed to sleep for almost the entire night while the headband gathered data.

The good news ended there. I returned the headband device to the sleep lab, where they downloaded the data and sent the reports to my pulmonologist. I had an AHI of 36, which means I stopped breathing an average of 36 times an hour across the seven hours that I slept with the thing on my head. Basically, I stopped breathing every…two…minutes.

No wonder my blood oxygen was excursing down into the low 80s.

Breathing is good, and tech steps in where nature fails. I was given a prescription for a ResMed AirSense 10 Autoset APAP device (above) and was fitted with a couple of face masks. Laying hands on the actual machine involved a surreal struggle with insurance paperwork, but I finally got it, and about ten days ago I started using it. For the first week, my average AHI was…3.67. That’s literally an order of magnitude better than what the headband reported. Last night was my best night yet, with an AHI of only 2.44.

The AirSense 10 records data on a standard SD card. There’s a clever open-source reporting utility called Sleepyhead that you can install under Windows, Mac, or Linux. There’s a Linux binary for Ubuntu 14.04, or you can rebuild from source. Here’s the wiki for the software, with a link to the user guide. (The software is written in C++, alas, or I’d be tempted to tinker it.)

Sleepyhead aggregates your data by day, week, or month (or just “always”) and presents a number of graphs for the stats gathered by the machine. There’s also a feature to report oximetry data, but I don’t have a recording oximeter yet and haven’t tried that feature, which is described as “cranky.”

I’ve read a number of people report that starting in on CPAP made them feel like ten-year-olds again. This has never been a longing I’ve had (what, go through puberty twice? I think not!) and in truth the improvement I’ve felt so far has been, speaking charitably, incremental. The road has been rocky, and I’m going to have to divide the full story into several entries. Stay tuned.

Writing Magical Systems

The first argument I ever had with a girl I cared deeply about involved the nature of magic. As I described back when I first released my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities , Lee Anne thought of magic as moody, ethereal, and completely impossible to predict. I thought of it as a sort of immaterial engineering. This disagreement turned out to be the least of our problems; she was 13 and I was 14, with all that that implies.

Fifty years later, I released an entire novel about magic. It has roots in that argument. I did try it her way: In 1974 I wrote a story (“Whale Meat”) containing Lee Anne-style magic, and although I’m happy with how it turned out, it was murder to write and isn’t one of my favorites among the things I’ve done. Ten Gentle Opportunities explored (among other things) how magic might be similar to software. The key is that magic should (ideally) be an internally consistent system, and not just Harry Potter-style abracadabra in which you can pull any damned rabbit out of any damned hat. I thought long (50 years!) and hard about what a magical system might be and how to create one. If you’re a writer, a distillation of my notes might be useful. Perforce:

There are three Big Questions you need to ask yourself as you take on a task of designing a magical system:

  • What is the source of magical power? Where does it come from and how do you obtain it? In Larry Niven’s Warlock stories, magic is an inherent property of the created world, an essence present everywhere but which may be depleted by use over time, like a seam of coal. Aleister Crowley (a real guy, if an unutterable nutcase) created a system of sex magick, which was powered (as best I can figure) by orgasms. In Ten Gentle Opportunities, magical power emerges from a fully-developed pineal eye, which is present in a small fraction of humanity and must be perfected by practice and study. The magical force itself is drawn from primordial chaos, and is inexhaustible. In some systems, magical force emerges from sacred or cursed artifacts, and in others from alchemical concoctions. Can magic be stored somehow for later use, or use by ordinary people? Stypek stores ten nuggets of magical force in stasis inside a wand made of “wereglass,” which is dense and scary and serves a plot point more than the magical system. (Sometimes you have to do that.)
  • Who is able to manipulate magical power? Magic is sometimes the purview of explicitlty magical beings like elves, fairies, pixies, etc. Sometimes it’s a skill that may be learned by anybody. In my system, it depends on a genetic talent that mundanes don’t have and can’t obtain. Spellbenders like Stypek, in fact, are incomplete magicians, in that they can examine and change magical spells but can neither draw magic from chaos nor send it back when no longer needed. (Unwanted or abandoned magic can cause all sorts of problems, like animating corpses into zombies.) Can one magician do things, or does it take some sort of cooperative effort? (One flashes on Crowley’s sex magic.) Can multiple magicians do bigger or more difficult things working together? (This was the case in the classic Witches of Karres.) Are magicians specialists? (Larry Correia’s are; see below.)
  • What are the limits of magical power? This is the big one, kids. Magic that can do anything is…boring. Stories engage us by pitting characters against challenges and their own limitations. A magician who controls magic without limits can’t lose and so isn’t especially interesting. One of the best modern magical systems is what Larry Correia built into his Dark Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. Magical persons are specialists, sorted into numerous categories by the nature and limits of their power. Some teleport. Some command electricity. Some influence weather. Some heal. Some control gravity, and so on. All of these powers draw on personal energy, which the body creates from food and rest, and when that energy is used up, the powers fail for a time until the body can restore its energy levels. All magical/super powers must have limitations. Superman has Kryptonite. Green Lantern’s lantern doesn’t work on anything colored yellow. (At least this was the case when I was reading my friends’ comics in the first half of the 1960s.) Sometimes magic is tied to the Classical Elements, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Aether. (Brian Niemeier’s magical system includes but is not limited to this.) You can be as clever as you like, but your magic must have quirks and limitations.

Answering these three questions in detail will get you well over halfway to a usable magical system. Create a notefile (what I call a mumblesheet, a marvelous term coined by the late and much missed George M. Ewing) and put your concept down in outline (or at least bullet list) form. If you have any kind of imagination at all, writing descriptions of your magicians and their skills will bring out further insights that will make the system interesting. In my system of magic, the difficulty of creating magical spells depends on the complexity of the spell–though perhaps not the way you would expect. Complicated spells are easy, but simple spells require enormous skill and are almost impossible to change. (Stypek is a spellbender, and changing spells–call it magic hacking–is his one big trick.) One of the novel’s conceits is that Stypek’s magic is literally object-oriented programming: Spells have properties and methods, which magicians and spellbenders can see and manipulate in the air in front of them. Others have drawn the parallel between magic and software before me, especially Rick Cook, in his Wiz series.

Your magicians should be quirky too. In my system, a fully developed pineal eye opens in the foreheads of magicians once they hit puberty. The eyes begin as red, and then with practice and study progress through the spectrum toward violet and then adamant (diamond-clear.) Expertise classes are named after gems that show the color of the class.The further toward adamant the eye is, the more powerful the magician. Adamant magicians are the baddest-assed; ruby-classers are poseurs, or dabblers of little power who can force mice to dance and that’s about it. In spellbenders, the pineal eye never erupts at all, and at best looks like a birthmark in the middle of the forehead.

Magical systems need quirks and limitations, but be careful not to make the system so complicated that readers have a hard time grasping it. I got a couple of emailed complaints about Stypek’s magic being hard to follow, but my beta readers had no trouble with it. (One did advise me to quit tinkering with it, and he was right: My first impulse is to throw new ideas into a story every time I go over it.) Some of your readers will just roll with it, especially if the plot and characters are compelling. Others will complain. That’s how writing fiction works. Roll with the criticism, and learn what you can from it.

It helps to ask yourself what sensory impressions accompany the generation and/or use of magic. Does magic make noise? Stink? Cause migraines? Shake the floor? Radiate colored light? Probably the best way to get a handle on this is to write a couple of scenes of your magic system in use. Not everything will work, but the stuff that does work, add to the description of the system. With some luck, the scenes may later find homes as short stories or scenes from a novel.

Finally, the three words that ought to be on every writer’s wall: Just write it. Trust your subconscious. If you’ve laid enough groundwork, you’ll get a story out of any reasonable system of magic. Be diligent and you’ll get several. Throw your back into it, and you’ll get as many as you want. Skills, challenges, discoveries, and interaction with other people are the building blocks of all fiction, especially genre fiction, and double-especially SFF. Magic embraces all of these.

Go for it.