Thursday, December 31, 2009

White Christmas

Did any of you share our record-setting pre-Christmas snowstorm? Any significant amount of snow before January is rare here. Last Saturday we got about two feet, and the roads were so inadequately cleared the next day that our Sunday services were canceled, which has never happened at that church before. Interesting how the conventional images from "White Christmas" and Currier-and-Ives art override reality in the popular mind. We visualize Christmas with snow even in areas like this one (mid-East-Coast) where it seldom appears on schedule for the holidays. My late stepmother, who grew up in the tidewater region of North Carolina and lived all her adult life in Norfolk, Virginia, both with a very slim chance of snow on Christmas, nevertheless held a fanatical devotion to the whole "White Christmas" ideal. Well, this year we had one, with plenty of inches still left over on Christmas from the snowfall almost a week earlier. I'm reminded of a story by Connie Willis—not in the MIRACLE collection I mentioned last week—from ASIMOV'S, called "Just Like the Ones We Used to Know.” The collective unconscious, primed by constant hearing of that song, causes snow to blanket the entire country, including Florida and Los Angeles. You can read the story here:


Has anyone here produced some holiday fiction? I've had only one actual Christmas story published. It's in the Jewels of the Quill anthology CHRISTMAS WISHES:

Christmas Wishes

Called "Little Cat Feet," it's based on the legend that animals can talk on Christmas Eve. A teenage runaway on Christmas Eve meets a stray cat who helps her out of a desperate situation.

However, I do have a vampire novel that takes place during the Christmas season, CHILD OF TWILIGHT, sequel to DARK CHANGELING:

Child of Twilight

The cover shows my twelve-year-old, human-vampire hybrid girl—also a runaway—feeding on a rabbit in the snow. I'm rather fond of it.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thorium - The Real Hope For E-books?

The Real Hope For E-books
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Green's the thing.

This blog entry originally published in December 2009, is still valid in 2019.  Much work has been done with Thorium, and in 2018, the BBC did a story on India mining beaches for Thorium.  And, in 2018, I'm seeing comments by owners of all-electric cars (LEAF in particular) saying they pay less per mile than with gasoline.
Notice the black background on this blog?  Black with white letters takes less electricity to render on your monitor than white with black letters. Read green!

The problem of e-books vs traditional publishing isn't just a green issue -- it's a writer's worldbuilding paradise!

Devon Monk, the author I raved about last week got me thinking about electricity, magic, technology and worldbuilding.

And before that I pointed you to a twitter-based worldbuilding exercise by a group of writers and a publisher creating an anthology.

Then I ran into an article I will point you to at the end here. It crystalized a vision of "the" future for me, and I think you can use this to build backgrounds for your own fiction.

My blog entries on give glimpses into the mechanism of a writer's mind, so let's retrace my reasoning a step at a time to look at the whole seething, bursting phenomenon of the e-book infrastructure and its ecological sense.

This applies to all the information available via the internet and to it's "green" component and a thousand questions SF/Romance has not yet addressed that I know of (please drop references to great SF/Romance on the comments here!).

It's still very problematic whether the budding trend toward e-books, e-music downloads, feature film downloads, the indie film makers distributing free downloads on the internet ( is a Yahoo news story about this phenomenon) the whole web 2.0, cloud computing direction and the changing business model of writers which I've written about here ...

...along with the "paperless office" writers and publishers are adopting, is actually greener than the old fashioned method of hauling paper around the world.

On Cloud Computing, see this page (in an article on failing to succeed) which shows graphically how the business decision making process can go awry (look at the table under the picture of the black box):

And remember as I indict government decision making below, I'm NOT advocating the decision making system used by bussiness either. Focus your mind on the decision making processes used in our world, and how any little change in those processes might change the world you set stories within. This is basic sociological science fiction using futurology.

In the Worldbuilding By Committee article linked above, the Twitter group kept coming back to the idea of replacing government with a corporation, i.e. a Company Town for the venue for these stories. That has been done, and well done, so here, I'm trying to get writers to think outside the box we normally don't even know we're inside of.

Ask the next question. That was Theodore Sturgeon's motto when it came to SF writing (he wrote the Star Trek episode Amok Time that started the whole Spock phenomenon). He was a good friend of mine and an influence on my SF writing. Here's where I discussed that.

So when doing futurology, you need to "ask the next question" not just find an answer and stop thinking. E-books and green tech are fraught with next questions to ask because both are driven by government decision making (e-books and copyright; green tech and our power supply).

If not government as we know it, or corporations as we know them, then what? To find "then what" take a close look at what has gone on in this world since 1950 and the rise of the buzzword ecology (yes, the SF magazines of the 1950's obssessed on "ecology").

The problem with all "green" tech is electricity and what it takes to get enough of it to make the products that are supposed to be greener. E-book reader screens are very dirty to make. Batteries are worse! (you gotta read Devon Monk's novels)

The carbon footprint of say a KWH of electricity produced by a solar panel has to include what it took to make the solar panel array, transport and install it and maintain it (every time the service guys come out, it costs gas for their truck, etc) PLUS how fast the panel wears out (like lightbulbs, a solar panel only lasts the time the manufacturer builds into it on purpose).

I found out a shocking thing when shopping for additional attic insulation.

The solar panels they sell in the USA (as of 2009) are (by Fed law) not allowed to be as efficient and long-lasting as the ones sold in Europe.

The ones sold in the USA lose (I think it was) 20% of their ability to produce electricty in (I think) 10 years but are rated to last a longer than 10 years. Whatever the figures were, they're different in 2010. The exact figures are unimportant. The point here is that government makes these decisions and shapes our world in ways that most people don't know about. (that insulation salesman wasn't supposed to tell me that fact because he also sells solar panels).

In other words, you'll be thrilled the year you install a solar panel and probably won't notice the gradual fall-off of production of electricty you can sell back to your utility (if your local utility is set up to buy it back) over time. But the good deal you got on install turns into a real bad deal with time, and you never know that if you lived elsewhere you could have gotten a better deal.

You never see the carbon footprint (or any of the other exotic and seriously toxic pollutants) generated when the panel and its components are created, assembled, transported to a warehouse, sent to another distribution point, etc etc until it's installed on your property. Then of course there's the gasoline needed to tote it away when it dies. Then landfill problems. Recycle doesn't always recover as much as is expended doing the recycle; it depends what you include when you calculate.

The whole idea of plug-in commuter cars depends on CHEAP electricity that's cleaner to produce than what we have now.

At the moment it costs more for enough electricity to commute to work than it costs for enough gasoline to commute to work, and running cars by plug-in electricity is dirtier than gasoline.

The Obama initiative to create the "smart grid" and replace our electrical distribution system is really great, and I'm all for it no matter what it costs (frankly been irked that it wasn't done 20 years ago, but we have better computer controllers now).

That smart grid will reduce the cost of electricity, but Big Brother will be able to deny you electricity if you misbehave (brown-out a single house that's over-using, and nevermind that they have someone on hospice life-support equipment).

But we do need to rebuild the grid, and smart-grid is the way to go.

If you read Devon Monk's novels, you see why I'm thinking about the grid! You have no idea how romantic this grid-tech stuff can be if you don't read novels like Monk's!

But which way to build a "smart grid" is a decision that will be made by the same government process that gave us the decision to disallow U.S. residents from having the same high efficiency solar panels Europeans can buy. Will our grid be as smart as other countries? (build that world, don't argue for or against my assuptions here. Don't get distracted by your opinions. Ask The Next Question and build a fictional world from those questions.)

Yet smart grid is not enough. We need to be able to feed that grid with a lower pollution footprint. (Yay, Magic!)

Next Question: Do we really need a cleaner power source? What if we don't find one?

Well, 2010 is (in the USA) a census year, but population actually grows every year.

And that's what's been happening. Population has out-grown our energy production capacity, not just because each individual pulls more from the grid but because there are more of us. Substantially more! (some undocumented; some with pirating taps into the grid too -- smart grid will find them and cut them off).

The 2010 census may find 330 million of us in the USA. In 1960, there were just over 179 million in the USA.

I haven't tried to hunt down the stat on how many KWH/year each USA person used in 1960, but just looking at my own life, it was a LOT less than today, however frugal I attempt to be. I use an electric toothbrush that's got a rechargable battery. An unthinkable concept (even in SF novels) in the 1960's. And back then, I had a manual typewriter.

I have seen stats bandied about that indicate how our gasoline and electricity use per person has risen over these decades. The USA is really shamefully profligate in usage.

But what do we use, and what do we get for it? Is our usage worth it? Do we produce a profit from all this convenience? And how do we reduce our total footprint in absolute terms while still increasing our population at this rate? Because the world can't support this current world population (nevermind the growth) if we all use power the way the USA folks currently do.

I saw a TV feature retrospective last week showing that the world population will reach a full 7 billion by 2012 and rise to 8 billion only 16 years later. That's a 1 Billion population increase in 16 years. Population increase is geometric, you know. The interval it takes to produce a billion more people will get shorter and shorter.

In the 1950's collapse of the entire world ecology was predicted by 2050, due to overpopulation and that was without the intense rise in usage of gasoline and electricity.

Today the boogey man is Global Warming. Tomorrow it will be something else, food crop fungus, the extinction of the bees, -- remember acid rain?

With more people, "human activity" will have greater and greater effect on ecology.

It doesn't matter (for a worldbuilding writer) what aspect of global resources maxes out first - collapse is collapse and our population growth and increasing technology has us headed right for total collapse because of our primate-based habit of tossing our trash (pollution from energy use, non-biodegredable packaging, or even just sewage) aside and expecting it not to come back to haunt us (like dropping a bananna peel from a tree and forgetting about it).

I've seen bragging statistics about how much manufacturing has increased the efficiency of gadgets and cars so they do the same but use less electricity. Oh we are so good! But, there are so many more of us that the total amount of oil and electricity we use is still growing at a rate that will reach a maximum and not be able to grow any more even though the population still grows.

We either have to drastically reduce population or reduce our standard of living.

SFF/R writers find neither alternative acceptable. Love is. And the less time we spend working, the more time there is for love.

So since Love Conquers All, it better get conquering real fast.

We need a cheap, abundant, non-polluting, non-nuclear waste-to-store-forever, non-weapons grade Uranium producing, non-fetus-mutating, source of POWER.

And the astonishing fact is that we have indeed had that magical source of POWER since the 1950's and have turned away from implementing that magical technology for political reasons (according to the article I found).

Maybe this article nails the causes for that turn-away from the "real" solution, maybe not. Maybe this scientific article is actually pure fantasy. I don't know and for the purposes of this worldbuilding excerise it doesn't matter.

But I do vaguely remember reading probably in the 1970's that the Thorium nuclear power plant technology had failed, and it would be impossible to use.

According to this article that I just found last week, that was not true. According to this article the choice to fuel atomic power plants with Uranium was made because the government wanted to make war not love in the 1960's, and that statement itself could be politically slanted. It doesn't matter. We're thinking SFR here.

Personally, I enjoy love more than war, even in fiction. I do know there are those who don't feel that way, and huge lucrative industries (such as video games) are founded on feeding the lust for destruction. But maybe there's marketing room for another industry based on SFR?

If this article explains what happened in the 1950's to the 1970's correctly, the huge power-crunch we are in right now could have been avoided if government hadn't meddled in the business decisions of the power industry.

Here's the article for you to judge for yourself (there are some other articles you might want to look at linked on that page too), and while you're reading think about the the consequences of allowing government to decide the direction of the health care delivery system by the same mechanism used to decide the direction of the power-delivery-system's development. Remember, conflict is the essence of story.

And a prior ABC News story on the topic of using Thorium instead of Uranium in nuclear power plants:

See? It doesn't matter which party or which politicians are in charge. It's the decision mechanism that needs a "next question," more than politics or ideology.

As a voter, would knowing about the law against you having an efficient solar panel installed on your house, or about forcing you to use nuclear power from Uranium rather than from Thorium to power your house or car, make a difference in what you say to your congressman at town hall meetings? Conflict is the essence of story. Marriages are made and broken by these kinds of conflicts involving larger world-girdling issues (population explosion; pollution; political ascendancy).

The worldbuilding writer can slice and dice that decision mechanism and create whole new political systems. Devon Monk just used the usual, ho-hum corporate structure and barely acknowledged the government structure that supports the corporation's rights to patents and profits.

The only innovative thinking in the Allie Beckstrom universe is the idea of conduits of magic akin to the electrical grid, and the magic grid isn't even "smart."

The SF of the 1960's would not have accepted worldbuilding that was so rudimentary.

I'm still searching for writers of today who will not stop short of asking the next question like that. When you build a "world" you can't just change ONE thing about our current world and call it Fantasy or SF.

Why? You saw how there's a connection between the kind of solar panel you can buy, the health care system, and nuclear war potential connected to power generation. That's our real world. Any fantasy world must have that property too -- connections. If one thing changes (magical conduits beneath certain neighborhoods in the city), that will change everything else a little bit.

Devon Monk hit on a lot of the changes that her magic-technology would bring about, but left out other things that would be impacted. In defense of her work, I have to say that she is less than a generation into the new technology. However, if you think back only 20 years to 1990, and the attitude of publishers toward the field of e-books then as compared to now, the attitude of retailers toward amazon and online merchandising then as compared to now, you see that the changes created by a single technological innovation come faster, and are more pervasive than depicted in the Allie Beckstrom novels.

When you're building your world, don't stop thinking. Ask The Next Question.

Understand the links between apparently disconnected trends and forces in our real world, and create a pattern of links just like our real world pattern among the postulates of your constructed world.

Revealing those hidden connections and patterns of links is what Art is all about. Show don't tell how the real world is connected by building your world to reveal that pattern.

Here's an exercise, just for fun.

Delve into the issues of human nature that produce the kinds of people who end up in charge of those government and business decisions, and the kinds of motivations that drive people into politics. Create a character with 6 problems to solve.

Now postulate an alternate universe where the Thorium - Uranium choice was made by a different mechanism toward a different objective from different motives than the articles I've mentioned show in our everyday world.

Postulate a world where there's no pollution, and no real difference in energy usage and convenience gadgets between USA and the poorest tribal regions of Afghanistan. What happens when everyone in China can freely access the internet and all the opinions rampant around the world?

Would we have a drug and slave trade grossing enough cash to buy governments if thorium power plants were the standard around the world?

Would human population have exploded even faster and be at just as great a risk of destroying the world as we are now? What resource would we max out instead of energy? Space to live? Oxygen? A lot of people today are worried about the drinking water supply. Do we drink enough water to keep our kidneys healthy or grow plants to ward off vitamin deficiency?

Do this exercise a few times. You have plenty of time. You can do it in the shower.

I think there's a feature film script here for a political historian writer, tracing the decision making process that went on between 1950 and 1970 (McCarthy Hearings; Korean War; Viet Nam War; Feminism (talk about genies and bottles, but your constructed world needs a set of macro-issues and trends like that).)

In that atmosphere of the '50's to '70's, the road of human history forked in a sharp V, and we went down the Uranium branch of that V.

Remember the fabulous film about Madam Curie, a woman physicist with a real, original discovery, and how politics buried that discovery for so long? How could it be that Weinberg's life so focused on the technology of thorium use hasn't been made into a similar movie?

Why did Al Gore win the Nobel prize for An Inconvenient Truth? Shouldn't that inconvenient truth be that this global warming issue could have been avoided had the Thorium - Uranium decision gone for Thorium?
Wouldn't a movie about Weinberg's life have been a Nobel type subject? Who better than a politician to implement the creation of such a deep expose of the political decision making process?

How did that Uranium - Thorium engineering decision happen in the political arena?

And of course the real burning question: Is It Too Late?

Can we rescue the world by going Thorium now?

Can love conquer political decision making?

Is it enough to "win" on the thorium issue? Don't we need to win on the issue of the kind of decision making process we rely on?

Just look what happened this past weekend with an attempt to bring down another passenger plane. After the attempt nearly succeeded, then (and only then) the authorities "decide" to increase security for the homebound holiday travelers. Talk about locking the barn door!

The terrorist objective is to wear the larger enemy down by luring them into wasting resources. One lone person making a single bold move, with the effluvium of an organization behind him, costs him a few hundred dollars and his life -- but costs the larger enemy millions of dollars. That's a successful terrorist move.

There's a 1950's novel with the same title that Marion Zimmer Bradley used, TWO TO CONQUER. It was by Eric Frank Russell and postulated an imaginary terrorist organization that cost a planetary government (of aliens who didn't know much about humans) enough to almost bankrupt it. In actuality it was only one human man cleverly planting "evidence" of a "movement" by spreading slogans around. When caught and imprisoned he invented whole cloth out of pure imagination a non-material partner with nearly magical powers, and sold himself to his jailers as a powerful threat. It bought him enough time to get rescued.

The novel (written by an author with real world experience in these matters) explained the tactics of the terrorist as clearly as several currently popular (and old classic) TV shows explain the confidence rackets so you can armor yourself against being taken as a mark. (Mission: Impossible, Remmington Steele, and today White Collar).

Why is it that government's decision making mechanism leads us to increase security after a terrorist feint, rather than before an actual move?

Here is a quote from a comment posted on a Newsweek article about the US Terrorist Databases at's the comment:
I invented a holistic semantic system that is far superior to what the U.S. Government is using -- in the words of many of their own specialists, and leading scientists in CS, but to date we have had no luck in overcoming the adoption barriers facing small and emerging technology companies attempting to resolve serious problems. One recent blog post of mine might be of interest:
How to prevent the Fort Hood tragedy, by design.">
Another paper written in laymen's language is a use case scenario developed specifically for the DHS:">
We've invented the solution, but it has yet to be adopted, despite a significant amount of direct communications at decision levels in the past three admins.
Mark Montgomery
Founder - Kyield

See what I mean about worldbuilding from the patterns available in our real world?  Keep asking the next question.

Why is it that government's decision making mechanism leads us to focus and expend resources on a failed attempt to bring an aircraft down rather than watching for a real thrust coming from the other direction? (haven't they ever read any classic romances where the pretty girl or a thrown stone distracts the castle guards and the miscreant sneaks right into the castle past the distracted guard? I loved the TV show, Zorro!)

The worldbuilder needs to look at the pattern of these breaking-news Events and analyze the forces causing the behavior of large institutions (government, corporations, or non-profits) just as the writers of those old TV shows make the behavior of individual guards clear.

So ask the next question. What does it take to go greener and accommodate a larger population? What happens if we don't go all-e-book paperless office? Why is there such resistance? What would have to change to melt that resistance? Why doesn't government trick us into going all e-book the way it tricked us into going all-Uranium?  Where is the glitch in government decision making?  Corporate decision making?  Find it. Change it. Change everything in your universe to match.  Write a story in that universe. Win the Nobel Prize for PNR! 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
6 arguably greener e-book titles; 4 on Kindle

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Holiday Cheer

A merry Solstice, Yule, Christmas, and Kwanzaa and belated happy Hanukkah to all!

If you’re in the mood for SF and fantasy holiday fiction, I recommend MIRACLE AND OTHER CHRISTMAS STORIES by the inimitable Connie Willis (author of time travel novels DOOMSDAY BOOK and TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG). Here’s the Amazon link; I hope it works despite its length:


Come to think of it, this season seems to lend itself to fantasy fiction. Telling ghost stories used to be a winter tradition in England. The best-known Christmas classic, after all, is a ghost story, and another one is a film about angels and alternate realities. Sunday night we watched the George C. Scott version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL again. That was my favorite adaptation until the Patrick Stewart version came out. They’re both excellent. There are so many retellings of the story in both the original and updated settings. I’m fond of AN AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CAROL, starring Henry Winkler, with the plot transplanted to a small town in the U.S. in the early twentieth century. A DIVA’S CHRISTMAS CAROL, featuring a female “Scrooge,” a black singing superstar named Ebony, is surprisingly good, IMO.

Well, we’re off to dinner and the “midnight” service, where my husband sings in the choir. We are wimps, I guess; our Christmas Eve “midnight” starts at 11 p.m. (with preliminary singing at 10:30), which is quite late enough for me.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Recommending Devon Monk

So yesterday I recommended a writer who's working the edges of publishing, without the Manhattan powerhouse behind her titles ( but she is easily a match for any of those writers).

That post is:

And today I'm going to point you at a writer who's doing Fantasy for RoC, which has become a dominant player in the adult Fantasy field which is toying with the edges of Paranormal Romance, believe it or not. Action Romance.

This is very much like Linnea Sinclair's mixture of Romance with Science Fiction, only with "Fantasy" instead of "Science".

There are fully developed characters with huge, complicated lives, interlaced into the affairs of "wizards" (the movers and shakers of their world). These are people whose actions make a difference, and their personal values and mores will have far reaching ripple effects. They are responsible enough to care and to move with an eye to that ripple effect.

Meanwhile, life brings these intense relationships that just change everything. Every time you turn around, you're tripping over issues your everyday ordinary action hero doesn't have to deal with. These characters' lives are not as simple as say, Indiana Jones' life, or Rambo's.

RoC Fantasy is cultivating this type of story, which is a genre-buster of a mixture, and it's my type of story! I'm so glad it's not so hard to sell anymore.

Devon Monk is going to be a major player in this field.

Here are 3 novels in a series by Devon Monk, and the first 2 meet my criteria for structure, story, and theme so well I've no reason to think the 3rd won't.

Magic to the Bone (Allie Beckstrom)

Magic in the Blood (Allie Beckstrom)

Magic in the Shadows: An Allie Beckstrom Novel

I finished reading Magic to the Bone and immediately started Magic in the Blood, and don't expect to pause until I've finished Magic in the Shadows.

I'm halfway through Magic in the Blood and still love it, though the Hunk-Soul Mate of our kick-ass heroine doesn't reappear until after page 100. Don't worry, the story doesn't sag at all since you know she can't survive this unless he does reappear. And when he does step onstage, Allie discovers something new about him we didn't know before (by using a Reveal spell) that raises all sorts of alarming questions.

For Alien Romance folks who like a solid science-fantasy plot with their relationship story, this is just the right meter. It's not all about sex. But the sex is not gratuitous. The action plot wouldn't hold together without it.

In the Allie Beckstrom universe Devon Monk has created, "magic" is a force or power, somewhat like electricity, that can be captured and distributed by conduits (a utility) beneath the city's streets. There are university courses in business magic. Science still works. Cell phones die in Allie's hands. The attitude toward using magic is scientific.

You "draw on" magic or use it by the usual spells, mantras, and symbols, but USING MAGIC COMES WITH A PRICE.

The "price" is some sort of physical illness or dysfunction that hits with the rebound. It can be magically diverted onto another person, (thematic moral complications there!). For Allie, the worst effect of using lots of magic is that she loses pieces of her memory. In the second book, she's lost a piece of memory that might include having sex with this Hunk -- or not. He knows. She doesn't. He's not telling.

Allie Beckstrom is the daughter (and heir) of the man who owns the patents on this technology. He had several wives after her mother divorced him. The latest, whom Allie is only now meeting, owns a quarter of the business, Allie owns more than half (but hasn't gained possession yet), and the other ex-wives split the rest. (this is sooo Robert A. Heinlien and sooo modern all at once!)

Allie is accused of her father's murder (there's magical proof she did it but she didn't.)

A man her father hired to tail her, (and who her current step-mother separately hired for other reasons) is a potential Soul Mate, our Hunk, but she doesn't know that. They are magically suited to one another very much like a certain kind of pairing of channel and Companion in my Sime~Gen Universe, called Match Mates.

( not included in the 4 titles I have available on Kindle)

This guy is one luscious hunk you have got to meet! Mystery Man Extraordinaire. Allie has almost broken free of being dependent on her father whose morals she doesn't like when this Hunk appears, and she can't figure him out.

From there her life gets almost as complicated as mine!

OK, there you go. Find copies of these novels and devour them.

This is my kind of stuff - neither SF nor Fantasy nor Romance, but all three in nicely balanced proportions, with a main protag with dire and terrible complicated problems that are as much ethical and moral as they are physical (plenty people want her dead).

Allie reminds me of Harry Dresden of The Dresden Files novels that I rave about here and in my review column, but her love-life puts a whole new spin on it.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, December 21, 2009

Is that really you?


This Monday post is not by Linnea Sinclair who is well, but frantically busy.

Today I ( Jacqueline Lichtenberg ) am posting for you a Guest Blog by Linda Welch.

I ran into her on Twitter as (who knows how? That's how twitter works; connects the most improbable people in improbable ways!)

I became intrigued by her description of her current novel. I confess I didn't expect it to be any good because it wasn't from an editor or publicist whose endorsement I rely on.

OK, so I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to high standards in fiction.

I was not really surprised though when I discovered IT WAS TERRIFIC! These off-brand nooks and crannies of the spreading apron of publishing are "where" all the really really REALLY good stuff went. Today a few writers are fighting to get that good stuff back into the big bookstores, and I think we're winning. Where we're not winning, the little side-channels of publishing are expanding and reaching larger audiences.

So you can't ignore the edges of the publishing field. You have to mine any vein you find, and I found one!

Linda Welch is a byline to memorize. Linda Welch is a terrific writer. And what's more, Linda Welch is definitely on our wavelength with Alien Romance.

Here are links to her novels on Amazon so you can read about them, and then there's a few words by Linda you will want to pay attention to.

Along Came a Demon on

Along Came a Demon Kindle Edition

The Demon Hunters on

The Demon Hunters Kindle Edition

-----------And Here's Linda!----------
The question I get asked most by my Twitter and Facebook followers? Am I the tall, slim, long-haired woman seen on my avatar? One Tweeter commented: “Your hair is beautiful.” A local journalist asked: “Is that really your butt?” followed by: “I find it very relaxing.” Much as I’d like to lay claim to having a “relaxing” bottom—or maybe not—sorry, no, that’s not me. She is Tiff Banks, the star of Along Came a Demon and The Demon Hunters, respectively books one and two of my Whisperings series of paranormal mysteries. I am nothing like her. Well, okay, the world of the supernatural is not foreign to me, but I don’t (at the moment) see Demons, and I haven’t seen a dead person in a few years.

I like to think Tiff is a little different to currently popular urban-fantasy heroines. Tiff knows nothing of the martial arts, and although she carries a gun, she’s no markswoman. Living as she does in the mountains of northern Utah, if she wore micro-skirts and revealing tops she’d freeze her butt off in winter. She’d break her ankle if she wore four-inch heels while trying to run down a suspect. Not that she’s homely; in fact six-foot-two Tiff with her long silver hair and pale skin is a striking figure, and a startling contrast to her new partner, a tall, copper-skinned Demon with glittering eyes and copper-gold hair. Detective Royal Mortensen will be a major player in Tiff’s life, but can an exotic Demon and a small-town Utah girl have a compatible relationship?

No, Tiff is not a butt-kicking, nerves-of-steel heroine, but she has a good head on her shoulders, unflagging determination, and an advantage other criminal investigators lack. She sees the dead victims of violent crime, who are earth-bound until their killer dies. To Tiff they look like regular people, and their whispering voices are the only means by which she identifies them. As they linger, waiting to pass over, their “life” consists of watching what goes on around them, and in return for a little of Tiff’s time, a little conversation, they’ll tell her what they see and hear. With the help of her spectral informers, Tiff will solve cases which leave the local police department baffled.

Having written the above, I realize I am something like Tiff Banks. From where does Tiff get her logical mind, if not from me? From where come her likes and dislikes, her opinions, her take on the world around her, if not from me? Like Tiff, I’m impatient and by nature suspicious. Like Tiff, I can be doggedly determined. Although I do not share my home with two dead people, I do know living people as irritatingly needy as Tiff’s roommates Jack and Mel, and my husband can be remarkably zombie-like when parked in front of the television. And I admit I might be just a touch cranky until I get my first cup of coffee in the morning.

If only I had Tiff’s figure, and her sexy Demon partner. . . .

Sunday, December 20, 2009

In praise of underwear (in speculative romance)

Good quality underwear is absolutely essential to a speculative Romance writer. I am not talking about erotica, nor about everyone's grandmother's admonition to wear clean underwear for fear of being knocked down by an omnibus.

The best Fantasy underwear ever, in my opinion, was Frodo's mithril undershirt. We readers knew he had it, but by the time he needed it, we'd forgotten that he'd got it on. It allowed everyone to think that he'd been killed by the most dreadful, invincible weapon, and after we were emotionally wrung out over the loss, it allowed us to believe that he'd survived.

It could have supernatural qualities, and did, but because the Elves made it, and they were made plausible, and because it was underwear and therefore out of sight and out of mind, I found it plausible.

Magic underwear could be the modern and futuristic deus ex machina.

Certainly, Electra-Djerroldina's futuristic "chastity belt" was inspired by mithril (Knight's Fork). It allowed me to retain all the restrictions that my alien romance plot required, yet did not oblige my heroine to clank or rust. In the interests of coming clean with my characters' underwear, Djetth in Insufficient Mating Material sported trunk briefs very similar to what a seven foot tall basketball player might endorse. Tarrant-Arragon wore something half way between a loin cloth and a kilt.

In a waiting room the other day, I indulged in highly risky behavior and read a magazine. It might have been "People". Carrie Fisher gave a revealing interview, and disclosed her feelings when Star Wars wardrobing showed her the brown bikini she had to wear as Jabba The Hut's slave.

I remember what I felt when I saw it. I was not convinced. Why would a nudist like Jabba make his slave girl wear a bikini? What would a futuristic, tyrant Heff do? Of course, we couldn't have Princess Leia looking like she worked for Hooters. I understand the political problem. I think I might have draped her in veils...

Where are we going with underwear in sfr? It is going to change, I assume. Look how much underwear has evolved and changed in the last couple of hundred years. I cannot imagine thongs lasting into the future. Can you? They're neither comfortable nor functional, are they? And there's not a lot of room for magic.

If our bodies become more perfectly sculpted, will we need underwear? If we try to save more energy, will we wear more thermal underwear and look more like the heroes and heroines of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers?

By the way, will we wash less often? I saw in Discovery Magazine that unwashed, greasy hair absorbs harmful ozone. Making an environmentally responsible choice to wash less often also reduces water usage, and reduces the quantities of soapy reside and other chemicals going down the drain and ultimately out to sea.

Maybe we'll use more disposable tear-off strips. "Always" for his and for her gussets. What are you seeing your heroes and heroines of the future in?

Rowena Cherry

Saturday, December 19, 2009

I love writing Time Travels. Except for the fact that they give me a major headache when I'm working on the plot. Thinking of all the repercussions of going to the past to change the future is really difficult. Still I was thrilled to be invited to be a part of The Mammoth Book of Time Travel. (psst if the link doesn't work just look for it on Amazon.)

My story is about Rand Brock, a Texas Ranger investigating a mysterious death and disappearance in West Texas during the 1880's. Imagine his surpise when he's taking a bath in a stream and comes face to face with Shea, a Time Cop from the future. You must read the story to find out what happens but I will let you in on one part of the plot. Steam Punk Scorpions.

I hope you enjoy reading Time Trails as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Allure of the Beast"

Amber Quill Press has just published my short, spicy werewolf romance, “Allure of the Beast,” in their Amber Heat line. Check out the fantastic cover:

Allure of the Beast

Amber Quill is also the publisher of my full-length werewolf novel, SHADOW OF THE BEAST, a horror story (with romantic elements) about a woman in her early twenties who discovers she inherited lycanthropy from her long-lost father. “Allure of the Beast” started as sort of a re-thinking of this premise. Erin, the heroine of this new piece, has known since her teens, when she began to transform, that her father is a werewolf, and she has been in touch with him. But she resents his leaving when she was a baby and wants as little as possible to do with her werewolf nature. When dashing lone wolf Raoul shows up to inform her that the new alpha male has killed her father, she is forced to deal with the pack and embrace her beast nature.

The motif of a character suspended between the human and nonhuman realms, like Spock in STAR TREK, has always enthralled me—hence my human-vampire hybrid protagonists in DARK CHANGELING, CHILD OF TWILIGHT, and “Night Flight.” Erin in “Allure of the Beast” is another of these.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Worldbuilding By Committee

Here is an AP news story I found on Yahoo. Look it up. It's relevant to the point here.

It sent me scrambling through my collectible Hardcover SF looking for one of my favorite books because I couldn't remember the author's name (probably a pseudonym and I probably knew it some years ago; might be Murry Leinster as he had many bylines used only once or twice).

The article is about Australian Scientists who have observed a species of octopus that collects coconut shells from the ocean bottom, selects ones broken in half, and carries them back to a specific spot, then constructs a shelter between two halves.

This shows tool use. There's a cognitive function revealed by the collecting for LATER USE. The octopus gains no shelter from a half it is in the process of carrying. It's only later that shelter can be provided, after manipulating two halves.

It doesn't sound like much, but the news story says that the octopus is among the most intelligent invertebrates, and this is a new discovery of tool use. I don't know how long its been considered "intelligent for an invertebrate."

I stared at this article in astonishment, vividly remembering one of my favorite books (from back in the day when there were no female characters in SF except as victims).

THE LOST PLANET by PAUL DALLAS (1956) is the novel, and there are a couple of used copies on Amazon.

Try this link.

The Lost Planet

The Lost Planet about a young boy who goes with his father to a planet where there are non-human natives who look like the octopus. They have an amphibious civilization. The boy makes friends with the child of the native ruler, and that changes the course of the relationship between the planets. Yeah, it's an old story, but this is an old book -- and one of the many influences on me.

At the time I read this book, nobody had yet told me that if "he" could do it, that meant "I" could not because I'm a girl. So as far as I was concerned I was the human making friends with the alien and fixing the mess the adults made of things.

But that's not what I remember about this book. I don't remember reading any OTHER SF novels that used the octopus as the model for an alien species.

And now it seems we've observed tool use by several octopuses.

Where is the SF written today that's predicting such impossible things?

Well, folks, TWITTER may be the place where you'll find such bold thinking turned into SF/F.

No, I'm not kidding. This is for real. It's here. It's now. You're invited.

For more on twitter, social networking, and how Web 2.0+ is changing the business of being a writer (an SF prediction of yore), check out my prior blog entries:


So here is the latest installment on the impact of Web 2.0 and beyond (are we up to 4.0 yet?)

Last Friday afternoon, I participated in a twitter "chat" with a publisher who has asked a group of writers to build a world for a shared world anthology and then write stories for the anthology.

Twitter chat works like this.

On the right of your Twitter browser window there's a slot called search which searches all tweets posted on twitter, even those not from people you are connected to (i.e. people whose tweets you see) or people who are connected to you (people whose tweets you don't see but who do see your tweets).

You can search the whole public stream of twitter for a certain keyword, and then see a list of posts with that keyword. As new posts with that keyword appear, the list of posts you're looking at flows before your eyes, and you see whole conversations.

So tweeters invented "hashtags" and twitter accomodated them as keywords. A "hash" is the # mark, and "tag" is a word related to the subject somehow.

Now all kinds of domains are offering twitter utilities that make this "chat" function easier. I am exploring

So this publisher who is on twitter as @DavidRozansky ( ) has been running #sfchat as a Friday afternoon feature for some time, where his authors chat.

He's been playing with hashtags to create different streams of conversations, and came up with the idea for creating a shared world anthology via twitter hashtag chat. He named this chat-stream #sfchatworld, and held the first meeting Friday afternoon.

I hadn't attended the previous chats he'd held, but this concept (collaborative worldbuilding) was irresistible (see my Web 2.0 posts to see why it hooks me so). The working chat was to last only 2 hours. I cleared my schedule!

David Rozansky has posted the raw chat log at:

Right in the middle of this, when it got really creative, one of the chatters piped up with the suggestion that we enable this discussion as a "Wave" on google wave.

Google Wave may be the advent of Web 4.0, but it's still in beta and works irregularly for me.

People jumped on that idea of using Google Wave with JOY. A few minutes later the enabler called for people to give their google wave addresses and started a Wave where people could side-chat the chat.

Only problem is, I had barely paid attention to Google Wave. I didn't know what it was or how it worked or why it might be useful, and I didn't have the credential they wanted to sign me into their Wave, nor know how to get that credential (except I knew someone had to invite you to be a beta tester), so I continued to read and comment on the twitter thread.

At the end of 2 hours, the group of creative, well educated, amazingly talented, and broadly read folks had come up with the charcoal sketch of a "world" that they could build together and all find stories to tell within the boundaries of that world.

Here's the deal.

The worldbuilding chat sessions (another on Friday Dec 18, 2009) were started by David's invitation to about 60 writers, and they were open to anyone else on twitter. Since for the most part, our cryptic tweets went to all our followers (often over 1,000 people apiece), a number of non-participants watched this process, and a couple ducked into the thread to say it was very interesting. You can come watch the second chat session. Follow @DavidRozansky for the announcement of the hashtag, most likely #scifichat or #sfchatworld

David Rozansky intends to select from submitted stories so that the anthology he's creating will end up about 50% established professionals and 50% new voices.

The concept is that we collectively will create the world, then anyone who wants to submit to it will send him a story. When the world has been created, the story-length and anthology length and other terms will be determined. Just participating in the worldbuilding and submitting a story does not mean your story will be accepted. This is a "real" publisher, with the usual stringent standards.

So having seen that this suddenly created world-by-committee was actually something I could write a story in, and having "met" via twitter a couple of the very lively participants, and particularly one who apparently likes all the stuff we focus on at (Star Trek, Marion Zimmer Bradley, C. J. Cherryh, Katherine Kurtz, etc etc) @PennyAsh then I decided I'd like to attend the next chat and keep up on the conversation. I'd like to frame a story that would dovetail into PennyAsh's story seamlessly, so they make a pair.

So on Sunday, I fished out the invitation to Google Wave that my friend Patric had sent me some weeks ago (it ended up in google's spam trap! they trapped their own mail!), and flung myself into Wave.

I still don't understand Google Wave well, and my display (it displays in a window in your browser) flicks up and down wildly, or won't respond to scrolling, sometimes doesn't accept my entries, and I type ahead of the cursor about two lines. It's slow, balky, and everything you'd expect of a beta version (which this is and google makes it clear they're working on it, so report problems but don't complain).

Google Wave does have some features that will make it an excellent collaborative tool, though. You can not only edit your own entries but you can edit someone else's entries after they've made them.

You can add a comment directly under someone's comment to make an exchange that makes sense, rather than the usual chat where every comment comes after the previous one even if it refers to one 10 comments before. You can do that on some blog comments lists, such as on Yahoo Buzz. But this is the first time I've seen it in chat (I generally only use AIM and IRC).

So a "Wave" is a constantly moving document you create on the fly, more like a mural than a thread.

Patric told me nicknames for the cells that contain your comment, and for the comments, but I don't remember!

Patric tells me the Wave stream's data resides on google's server, not your computer, so that's why you can cross-edit. This is a powerful concept that will probably spread. But I have broadband cable, zippity fast service, and still this thing lags beyond usefulness.

And yes, Google is much in the news for invasion of privacy, and apparently this is one of those invasive tools they are inventing.

So no matter what happens with the shared-world anthology (which doesn't have a title yet), I've gained a new dimension to my social networking.

The problem with that is simply that it is yet one more thing that soaks up time.

But if Google Wave takes over, everything we do on social networking will be gathered together.

I've been wondering if Google Wave works better in Google Chrome. I've been using firefox because I found IE8 absolutely unusable (probably because of my antique computer).

So now there is a public Google Wave inventing a shared world in which many authors will participate. You can check for the summary of this new world that's being built. The summary is called #sfchat on Wave. The discussion wave is called Contact List For

They're both public at the moment, but don't ask me how to access them. I'm not sure how it happened that the shared worlds chat appeared before my eyes!

See? Isn't that exactly what the boy hero of The Last Planet experienced upon debarking at his new abode? ADVENTURE! And a new chance to make cool friends. He had no idea how the spaceship worked.

The Shared World

As for the World that's the product of a committee, so far it lacks a certain cohesive polish, but it's broad enough to work within.

If you read the raw transcript linked above here, you will see how the different writers were pulling in different directions until the editor saw a consensus building and declared this or that element accepted.

If you're studying worldbuilding, you might want to look carefully at the point where I commented on the difference between world building and adding the societal and social tensions that would generate conflict and characters for a story.

Worldbuilding doesn't have to be the first step in writing a story, and in fact rarely is.

So many of the people diving into this exercise went right to stories they wanted to tell, and perhaps characters they were already writing that they thought might have an adventure in this "world" and wanted to do what I always do, build the world around the character and story.

But "worldbuilding" is a very different exercise than "storytelling."

A "world" doesn't have "a conflict" or "a theme" -- a "world" by definition has all conflicts and all themes within it, or it's not a world.

And yet, all the writers participating in this chat seemed to have their own story trope in the forefront of their minds as they suggested parameters for the "world."

Often "world" and "setting" were confused. The World includes all the Settings you can put stories against.

People wanted to start by inventing themes, motifs, (and one person even did contribute a REFRAIN that I can use that the editor grabbed onto -- "I'm tired of Jupiter" and someone contributed graphics on the Google Wave thread with "I'm tired of Jupiter because" and that went around through the twitter chat.)

So again, read the raw twitter feed to see all the different ways creative minds approach the charcoal sketch phase of writing a story.

It's all helter-skelter and criss-crossing dance steps, but you can see that most of these people actually have perfected their own personal ways of going about this.

"Worldbuilding" can be likened to dressmaking. What we were doing last Friday is the line-drawing sketch for the dress. What we'll be doing next Friday is very likely creating the tissue paper pattern that will be mass produced and handed out to contributing writers to create stories.

Finding the social and psychological and cultural CONFLICT, the THEME, the CHARACTERS, and even the specific SETTING, is very much like hunting through bolts of material and racks of notions for the specific colors and styles to generate a specific dress from this pattern. (you could make a wedding dress or a nightgown out of the same pieces of tissue paper).

If this shared world anthology works out, it could become something totally new, and could contribute that element I asked for above, the exploration of the edges of the laws of science, the extrapolations -- the "what if; if only; if this goes on" revealing the next 50 years.

Yes, you've seen many successful mass market paperback shared-world anthologies, often with big name writers participating. I was present when some of those shared-worlds popped into existence, effortlessly, during well lubricated SF convention conversations among writers and editors who knew each other.

But this Twitter thing has brought together people who barely know each other except by twitter-@ and have not all been trained by the same editors. They work in disparate media, and many have screencredits and music as well as a variety of podcasting projects behind them.

The "Art By Committee" label pretty much originated with the film industry as a way of novel writers scoffing at the thin, childishly over-simplified results of a story-in-pictures.

And it's still true that deep, complex, nuanced, incisive stories painted on a truly broad canvass, still do better in text than video. (that may be changing real soon now!)

Video and text story-telling seem to me (futurology here) to be evolving along a converging path. When I read The Last Planet I was already living in a world where novel type stories could be told on screen. To me, TV and text had to be used together to really tell a story. We saw that world start to emerge when Star Trek fans launched fanzine fiction, mostly stories that explained the contradictions we saw on screen.

Those contradictions were mostly just mistakes that happened because of the haste and budget limitations of a TV show, but an SF trained imagination could explain them given enough text words to elaborate. We reveled in dueling one explanation against another, generating whole splinter universes.

This twitter chat process I participated in on Friday was just like what a hired team of writers would go through when creating a TV show from scratch. So far the parameters are broad enough to accommodate stories from every genre ever invented or criss-crossed into another genre, except that because the "world" is set across the galaxy in the system of a gas giant and its moons, and involves at least one (probably more) alien lifeforms, most readers would force the stories into the SF genre. But today's audiences are more sophisticated. I don't think the audiences of the near future will assume that just because it's set in space, it's SF. Or just because it has a vampire in it, it must be horror.

If done right, this anthology could become a webisode series, or even a TV series, or video game using all media to tell a multi-faceted story. Each medium could add what it portrays best, all under David Rozansky's very capable hand.

We are participating in the birth of a new entertainment medium with new uses for our million year old skills.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, December 14, 2009


2010 is going to be the start of a rather busy on-line workshop year for me. I’m starting by co-teaching a workshop on building space/fantasy militaries with a beta-reader of mine, Michael L. Helfstein. USNR (retired). You can find a complete list on my website in NEWS . But I want to talk about—and, yes, promo a bit—the upcoming class on building militaries and military characters.

First, I have absolutely no military experience. That’s what Mikey’s for. But I am and have been a consumer of military stories, from romance to SF to action-adventure, from Weber to Brockmann to Dees, and more. I think that in order to write a good military character it takes both parts: a knowledge of the “world” you’re building, and a knowledge of reader expectations.

Thanks to my new nook, I received as a freebie download a copy of David Sherman’s and Dan Cragg’s first book in their STARFIST series—essentially, the Marine Corps in space. I’ve only read book #1—just downloaded book #2 this morning—but as an avid Suzanne Brockmann fan I related to the military descriptions and authenticity, but the plotting and, oy, head-hopping didn’t work for me. The characters did, eventually, enough that I ordered book #2 and likely will read more in the series because I definitely respect Sherman’s and Cragg’s street creds as former military. And if I was simply a purist SF reader and had never read more character-driven genres, I wouldn’t have felt cheated by the way the book was crafted. Or rather, my reader expectations would have been different and, likely, satisfied.

You see, it’s all about reader expectations and that’s something I don’t think we’ve touched on as much when we talk about world building here.

And it’s not just the romance angle, so please don’t bring that out as the only tune a female can dance to. My expectations have been met by Huff’s VALOR series, Moon’s VATTA’S WAR series, Weber’s HONOR HARRINGTON series. Not one is romance. I’ve also had fun reading David Drake’s LT LEARY series. Again, no romance, though definitely lighter in tone than STARFIST.

The difference between the books is the emphasis on character vs. world building. Not that Sherman and Cragg don’t have some memorable characters: Charlie Bass is a terrific hero. But I kept looking for a key central protagonist to latch on to and by book’s end, realized there really wasn’t one. There was Dean, there was Bass, there were other characters I thought might be central who then—yikes!—ended up getting killed off.

Surrounding all that was a lot of military structure, some neat tech stuff, and some interesting song lyrics. There were lots of words spent on the authors telling the reader about military structure and why the characters were doing or doing to do something or the other. There was, sadly to my way of thinking, far less showing the characters doing those things.

That perhaps can be chalked up to reader expectations. The ubiquitous (and I do believe this is changing) sixteen-year-old male SF reader is more attuned to reading manuals than fiction. Character development is dropped in favor of technical detail.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As long as that’s what your readership wants.

And that’s why I think reader expectations must be inexorably a part of whatever world building you do. But to do that, you need to know your readership; you need to know the likes and dislikes of the readers who would pick up your book.

Writing cross-genre, that’s not always an easy thing to suss out. I would love to have Sherman’s and Bragg’s knowledge to integrate into my books, mostly for the verisimilitude but also to draw in the wider range of readers. But I know I’d risk losing some readers as well. While I eagerly soaked up much of the military techs and specs and routines early in the first STARFIST book, I found by mid-book I wanted, now, more of the characters. I wanted to see them arguing about mission strategy rather than being told that certain strategy launched an argument, with emphasis being on mission details rather than on character action.

Sherman and Bragg had built the world for me. Now I wanted to see and feel the characters moving around in it (and yes, the ending chapters were ones where they did, and they were great fun!).

On the other side of the spectrum has been the charge that many futuristics and SFRs fail in their depiction and execution of technical and military details. “Sloppy science” is the criticism I’ve often seen, but also a failure in accuracy in military elements. While it can be maintained that the average romance reader doesn’t care about such things (and I do believe this too is changing), I think failure in those areas does weaken world building. When I read a romance set in Victorian England, I want to hear, feel, smell, and taste Victorian England. When I read a romance set on a military battleship in some distant galaxy, I want to hear, feel, smell, and taste life on board that battleship.

So my upcoming workshop in January with Lt. Commander Helfstein will strive to hit that middle ground. Mikey will provide the Sherman- and Bragg-like details. I’ll do my best to help students turn that detail into page-turning, character-based action.

And then I’ll reward myself by reading the second STARFIST book.

REBELS AND LOVERS, March 2010: Book 4 in the Dock Five Universe, from Bantam Books and Linnea Sinclair—

Kaidee hated when her ship didn’t work. Dead in space was not a place she liked to be. Especially with an unknown bogie on her tail, closing at a disturbingly fast rate of speed that made her heart pound in her chest and her throat go dry.

PS: Yes, I love my nook but then, I’ve long been an e-book fan and was previously reading on a small Dell Axim X50.

PPS: More info on the workshop HERE.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

SFR Holiday Blitz... and the Alien Romances winner is

Elorie Alton.

Elorie, congratulations! Please contact Rowena Cherry with your mailing address.
Leave a comment, which we will not publish, if you prefer.

Thank you very much to everyone who supported the "Blitz" and who left a comment.

Rowena Cherry

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Superior Species

The question of whether vampires would have the “right” to treat us as mere prey or livestock, which I touched on last week, is something I’ve thought about a lot, since the issue impinges on my fiction as well as forming a major theme in much of the fiction I read. I’ve never thought of, “I’m physically and mentally superior to you, not to mention immortal” as a valid excuse for “using” another sapient being. Dr. Weyland in Suzy McKee Charnas’ THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY regards Homo sapiens as livestock, while Miriam in THE HUNGER thinks of some human beings as pets, but in either case the prey or pet has no rights. Again, would we approve of extraterrestrials who treated us that way? The aliens in the TV series “V” and the classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode “To Serve Man” eat human beings, and the audience is clearly expected to consider them villains for doing so.

Amusing twist on this point in Heinlein’s PODKAYNE OF MARS, by the way: The narrator mentions to an interplanetary tourist that Venusians have sometimes been known to eat Terrans. The other person exclaims in horror at the idea of Venusian “cannibals.” Podkayne says they aren’t cannibals—they don’t eat each other, just us.

That a superior species should feel free to use us the way we use most animals would imply that “superiority” within the human species would justify treating, for instance, people with below-average intelligence like animals. Cultures that have taken this attitude, such as Nazi Germany, are generally classified as evil. Controversial bioethicist Peter Singer, as a champion of “animal rights,” maintains that species should be irrelevant; intellectual and emotional capacity should determine the treatment to which an individual is entitled. Accordingly, he thinks a healthy chimpanzee should have more rights than a human fetus or a severely disabled human child. I don’t agree, but I have to admire the consistency of his convictions. At the same time, though I don’t think chimps should have “human rights,” I’m repelled by the idea of eating them (as some cultures do)—same with such complex creatures as elephants or dolphins.

Someone at the Darkover vampire panel suggested that if I were starving, I wouldn’t hesitate to eat a dolphin. That comment, naturally, brought up the topic of shipwrecked sailors and stranded pioneers devouring their human companions. Although such acts might be excused in cases of desperation, we don’t actually approve of them. Nor does our culture approve of slavery nowadays, another practice that used to be defended on the grounds of "superior" and "inferior" groups.

People who believe angels exist hold that they’re far above us in the chain of being. Yet they aren’t supposed to mistreat us. Angels who do that are called demons. C. S. Lewis in THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS postulates that demons feed on life energy (especially negative emotions such as pain and fear), ours and that of lesser devils.

My vampires don’t have to kill when they feed on human prey (or donors). Those who do are condemned for drawing attention to their kind, and vampires who kill with sloppy conspicuousness, if caught by the elders, are punished. Still, most vampires do think of us as merely very intelligent, useful animals. The vampire heroes of my novels, of course, are the exceptions among their race. They’re capable of recognizing some human beings—or at least one, the beloved—as potential equals.

That kind of relationship brings up another ethical problem: If your vampire lover (or werewolf, demon, ET alien, etc.) treats you as an equal but still thinks of everybody else as lower animals, are you morally justified in overlooking this fact and embracing your status as the exception? Suzy McKee Charnas touches on this issue in the provocative essay “The Beast’s Embrace” in the “Byways” area of her website:
Suzy McKee Charnas

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Astrology Just For Writers Part 8: The Beat Sheet

But first --

A word about the Galaxy Express contest. At the right sidebar, you see a column of book covers. Enter by commenting on the announcement post here below and one person wins them all. If you win, and have already read the book I put up there, Dushau, you can switch to one of its sequels or one of the other titles at


Now to the BEAT SHEET, a mysterious screenwriting term that is the major key to success in text-fiction writing today.

The "Beat Sheet" we'll discuss is the one featured in the "Save The Cat" series of screenwriting techniques by the late Blake Snyder. A pdf copy can be downloaded at

Get it, print it out, puzzle over it a few minutes. The names of the beats are all interpreted and explained with examples in Blake Snyder's books.

On that website you'll also find a film or two analyzed by the beat sheet, and at the top of the page there's a list of all the films mentioned in Snyder's book, grouped by the "Genre" signatures he has extracted empirically from a plethora of blockbuster films.

Look over that list of films and you'll see from the ones you're familiar with just what his concept of "genre" does for understanding story structure, and what his beat sheet does for understanding plot structure. All this is free. The books are available on Amazon.

Snyder's concept works proportionately for shorter screenplays, say for TV for example, and you can calculate the page numbers for each beat of a shorter work at:

Try it for novel length works and see how the proportions fall. Check those proportions against your favorite books.


This blog post you are now reading is actually Part 8 in the Astrology Just For Writers series.

The previous post in this series

Was named Part 6 by accident, but was actually part 7.

The real Part 6 is

Now, in Part 8, we are blending bits and pieces of writing craft techniques we've discussed in some depth both in these Astrology posts and in the 20 posts on Tarot I did in 2007 into an orchestrated performance.

Here's the final Tarot post with links back to the previous ones.

So Astrology Part 6 was ALSO Part 2 of Targeting a Readership.

Astrology Part 7 was ALSO Part 3 of Targeting a Readership.

Using Astrology as a plotting tool is kind of like learning Quadratic Equations in Algebra. Up to now everything has been Freshman algebra, pretty simple, one thing at a time, take the lesson, practice it as a single thing, master it, move on.

Now however, we're learning cross-terms, integration, powers and factoring. Now we're starting to "solve" real life (actually writing a novel or screenplay) problems.

Yeah, now we get to "word problems."

This "Astrology Just For Writers" is a non-technical discussion of how a writer who knows no astrology (and doesn't want to learn) can apply basic principles from astrology to infuse their writing with verisimilitude.

Most people, when they hear I teach writing via Tarot and Astrology instantly think "cast a chart for the main characters" or "a character does a Tarot reading that predicts whatever and the story is how it works out against fate."

That, however, is what Hollywood screenwriters call "on the nose" and is in fact a highly inept and ineffective writing tool for most writing projects (worked gangbusters for Piers Anthony though).

Besides being "on the nose", inserting Tarot readings or doing a natal chart for a character requires expertise you can't fake by reading interpretations from books and planting them in your story.

I know because when I set out with a collaborator to create a TV series based on a group of Astrologers solving mysteries using astrology, it took me only a few hours work before I picked up the phone and called one of the biggest name Astrologers -- possibly in the whole world -- Noel Tyl.

Noel Tyl's books on Amazon

He worked with us for about 6 weeks creating the ensemble characters natal charts and charting The Event they had to dig into and solve with their individual specialties in astrology. The resulting script would pass muster with any astrologer, but didn't sell because it was too farfetched.

The Event we chose was 9/11 (written about 6 years prior), and we wrote it a lot (I mean a LOT) smaller and more trivial to make it believable and small enough to fit a TV budget, and we set it in Los Angeles.

I had done birth charts for various cities for an anthology of non-fiction on Astrology and thus knew which cities the planetary alignment in effect at that time would hit (a transit that doesn't connect with the natal chart will not manifest anything). We chose Los Angeles because it would be cheaper to do location filming there.

It was a very "on the nose" presentation of astrology, but done for the non-technical general audience who wouldn't believe it at all.

Lesson: stay off the nose. That means don't say what you mean; let the reader figure it out from their own knowledge of life in general.

Astrology and Tarot can be useful to a writer by objectively delineating the underlying patterns in life that everyone knows but can't actually see.

Astrology and Tarot reveal the poetry of life. Most writers already "see" that poetry in motion in lives around them and that's why they want to "become" writers. They want to make everyone see what they see. But others with dynamite stories to tell can't quite make sense of the way readers see life, and so can't communicate their visions.

Just a cursory glance at the body of ancient wisdom called Astrology will reveal to the writer how the world looks to readers, and allow the writer to present their unique vision in terms the reader (and editor with money to pay) will understand.

This Astrology Just For Writers series of posts is likewise useful to readers who want to become insightful and popular reviewers, but general readers may be happier not knowing the tricks of the writer's trade.

Knowing these tricks, a reviewer can assess whether the writer applied them well enough to please certain readers even though the work doesn't particularly please that reviewer.


I have 4 issues to discuss about The Beat Sheet here:

1) The Beat Sheet (go get it at the link above, read discussion below)
2) Why Astrology Does Not "Work"
3) The power of Astrology as a plotting tool
4) A Question about identifying, concocting and placing the CATALYST (Blake Snyder's term) or Inciting Incident (general screenwriting term) or Springboard (general TV writing term) from the beat sheet into your story.

1)What is Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet?

It is a list of generic types of events that have to happen in any screenplay, in that order, at those precisely proportioned intervals.

The "beats" are EVENTS -- so they are plot.

However the "beats" can be EMOTIONALLY LOADED INFORMATION revealed to the audience, so beats carry the story forward.

Ideally, in a great work of art, the emotionally loaded information is revealed via Events, a story told in pictures.

Plot and story are welded so close the viewer/reader can't tell them apart. Telling them apart is the writer's craft. The less the readers know about that craft, the more they enjoy the work of art.

It's like watching a stage magician. "How did he do that?"

Well, the point is that magicians never tell.

If we don't tell, how do we pass it down to the next generation?

As the writers who founded the art of the "motion" picture, and the "talkie" began to die off, their secrets were being lost. But in the meantime, the artform had evolved with the ever increasing sophistication of movie goers -- and of course, TV educated moreviewers in childhood, shaping new tastes.

So the artform evolved with growing frustration among producers who couldn't get the material they needed from new writers, and new writers with great ideas who couldn't sell their stuff to the moneyed producers.

Along came Blake Snyder, second generation film family (read his bio in his books and on his website).

He was a film addict and when he became filled up with films, he began to notice what made a good film, and what made a great film.

Meanwhile, he was "on the inside" working with studios and producers to get scripts whipped into usable shape.

Using "The Board" (a visual display of the beats of a script) to reveal the problems with the script and also the solutions to those problems in visual terms (film people are very visual), Blake gestalted an underlying truth that had escaped previous formulators of "how to write a screenplay."

The producers want "the same but different."

The writers want to be different - unique.

Writers get accepted for being unique, but rejected for being "too unique" which is bewildering. Writers understand "different" -- but not "the same."

Viewers, meanwhile, reject films and TV shows that are too predictable. But viewers reject films that aren't predictable enough as "making no sense."

A very rare few writers understood "the same but different" on a non-verbal, intuitive level and took Hollywood by storm. Others, with grand stories to tell, couldn't "break in." But with the internet, inexpensive computerized video recording equipment, and leaps and bounds in communications, The Independent Film Producer burst on the scene just as the Self-Published and then E-Book Publisher burst on the text scene.

And guess what? To make a great film with no budget to speak of, you need a writer who has a complete grasp of The Same But Different.

Blake Snyder's beat sheet clarified all this fog.

Today prize winning Independent films have Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet visible to the trained eye, shaping the filmed events, however cheaply produced.

What's different about Snyder's beat sheet?

It has 15 beats. It fills in the GAPS in the usual screenwriting course's beat sheet with something a writer can grab hold of and use.

Naturally, since Blake revealed this years ago, today you see the 15 beat shape everywhere, not just in the blockbusters.

In the traditional beat sheet for a film, the beat called "Inciting Incident" was formulated to be one specific kind of dramatic event.

Blake renamed it CATALYST, which broadens the application of this beat's underlying concept and allowed Blake to formulate a series of types of stories he called "genres" which define stories and group them in a different way.

All these "genres" have the same 15 beat structure.

See my review of SAVE THE CAT! on Amazon.

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need

And Save The Cat Goes To The Movies!

Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter's Guide to Every Story Ever Told

And the new, 3rd book in the series pub'd Nov 2009:

Save the Cat!® Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get Into... and Out Of

Many commentators on Amazon were deriding SAVE THE CAT! as being too restrictive, too formulaic, too stultifying to writer-artists creativity. I pointed out that this series of books on screenwriting are about OPENS EVERYWHERE films, not Art House or "Opens Near You" films.

This is the beat sheet to use if you want to shoot for the Big Budget Producers (or big publicity publishers) looking for the next Batman franchise. It'll work to win film festivals, but very likely won't win film festivals focused on the leading edge of the evolution of filmed story telling.

Save The Cat! is billed as the last book on screenwriting you'll need, but that's the point. It is the last not the first. But it does reveal the connection between the screenplay market and the novel market, and how and why they are converging as they are, and how to write a novel for this new market.

Save The Cat! is not about evolving or changing or leading the film industry. It's about making money at screenwriting.

But there is ONE BEAT that appears in every single form of film, avante guarde or cliche-ridden ho-hum, in every novel and every other sort of story I've ever run across.

Every film, every story, every plot, every novel, has a CATALYST BEAT.

The CATALYST BEAT inciting me to write this blog entry was the Question by a writer who asked me to explain the Catalyst beat in depth.

The Question has 2 parts, "Beat" and "Catalyst" or "Incite."

But we are not mechanics. We are artists. Worse, yet, we are performing artists (as I was taught by Alma Hill).

Our artistic medium is not paint pigments, or sound, or woven textiles, or paper mache, or embroidery thread or city planning.

Our artistic medium is the emotions of our readers/viewers. We cause our reader/viewers to dance to our music, internally.

I should point out here that "reader" does not mean someone who can sound-out the words. This is something very frustrating and unfortunate in our world.

You can't make a 40 year old "literate" by teaching him to read. He's missed 35 years of reading thousands of books, and there's no way to replace those years or catch up.

Remedial literacy training is of course invaluable, a "Catalyst Beat" in a life that changes everything. But the later in life you "learn" to read, the less facile your brain will be at making the cold text disappear from before your eyes so you can walk into the story as a character, live their experiences, and learn vicariously.

A reader who learns at 3 or 4 to decipher words, and goes on to devour every book their parents allow (and some they don't) has learned how to make the written text on the page disappear from before their eyes and to see and experience what the characters do.

A viewer has learned to make the actors and sets (a feat in live stage) disappear and immerse themselves in the reality of the story, but that story lacks dimensions of intimacy and immediacy that can be achieved only by text (so far in our world's technology -- another Catalyst Beat would be the advent of such a new technology of storytelling.)

The writer's "craft" is the mastery of the entire set of tools designed to help readers and viewers make those concrete symbols disappear so they can live the story the writer is performing before them.

The STORY is the sequence of emotions the character experiences.

The "science" of emotions is "psychology" -- but some people can take any number of psychology courses in college, read self-help books until they're eyes cross, and still not understand what motivates people, or what shapes lives, well enough to connect with readers/viewers.

Some people need a model of the universe which includes a spiritual dimension but does not depend on spiritual awareness.

Some writing students need to learn (a very little bit) of Astrology in order to master the Beat Sheet.


2) Why Astrology Does Not Work

I recently posted a link to an article mentioning astrology onto my facebook page ( ), and a comment popped up dripping scorn, insisting that Astrology Does Not Work -- and therefore, that's the end of the matter.

Well, of course astrology does not "work!" I never said it did.

But that doesn't mean it's not useful to an artist.

Why would such superstitious nonsense, such snake-oil-salesman fodder, such flimflammery as astrology be any kind of artistic tool?

Astronomy "works" -- it's real.

And astronomy is revealing some very important things about the universe and its structure. But it's still a work in progress.

Likewise, so is astrology a work in progress.

The advent of computers has helped both investigations.

So why is astrology being left in the dust?

Because Astrology has become (like Tarot) the tool of the grifters, snake-oil-salesmen, confidence men/women, bunko artists.

There is something in human nature that is absolutely convinced that knowing "the" future will fix everything that's wrong with a person's life.

That's one reason I love the new TV show FLASHFORWARD -- knowing a snatch of the future is more trouble than it's worth. The CATALYST moment for that show was the moment that almost everyone in the world experienced a flash of a future event in their personal life. It's also the concept. The economy of that is what makes it art.

The rest of the episodes deal with the following set of attributes of general human nature.

There is greed for power (over self, and others).

There is greed for free money (just send me $10 and I'll tell you your lucky day or what lottery numbers to play).

There is greed for love (free and otherwise). ($15 and you can make her love you)

There is greed for success. ($20 to learn where to move to get a job or better job).

There is greed for sex. ($25 for a charm to attract "women" (plural))

There is greed for good health (which is much harder to sneer at).

There is greed for alleviating anxiety.

There are 12 signs in the zodiac, each with a greed, and 10 "planets" or moving points, each with a greed. Greeds come in mixed shades and are sometimes hard to recognize as such.

Somewhere, symbolized by the placement of one or another point in your natal chart, you have a "greed point" -- almost everyone has something they can't get enough of; an emotional black hole, a neurotic need.

These "black holes" are also our greatest strengths.

In astrology, every sign and every planet and every "house" in a chart has a "positive" manifestation as a strength, and a "negative" manifestation, a malfunction, turning what is a shining WHITE HOLE into a bottomless BLACK HOLE (or vice versa) according to how the Soul incarnated to live that life uses those resources.

The Soul is here, on life's journey (the Hero's Journey) to transform the power represented by the natal chart points into positive or virtuous manifestations.

Power is very hard to handle. Each point in the natal chart describes a type of power available in this life, and how well the Soul has mastered handling that power in previous lives, and what is to learned in this life.

During the life, the planets continue to move, triggering off spurts of power from the stationary natal points. In other worse "live and learn." (I'm leaving out Solar Arcs and Progressions because I promised this wouldn't be technical. Use what you know, nevermind what I leave out.)

Some regard those spurts of power entering the life as "lessons" and others as "tests." Every religion has a different explanation for how life goes. If it's not a religion you grew up with, the explanations can seem confusing or ridiculous. But most religions seem to accept that there is some kind of purpose in life, some reason for our vicissitudes.

Astrologers look at life's patterns as just pure energy blasting into lives and either being handled by the Soul living the life, or not. And so sometimes the symbolism expresses itself as a vice (someone becomes an addict at a certain transit) or as a virtue (same transit, someone else becomes a doctor). Sometimes both doctor and addict result.

The virtues and vices of these symbols were described in detail by the famous astrology writer Grant Lewi, but that book is out of print.

Our shared instinct, assumption or neurosis is that if we could just fill that black hole UP once and for all, we could solve all our problems. After several failures at filling their black hole, most people are willing to listen to bunko artists who will "sell" them the promise or hope of filling that hole.

That's how bunko works. Every "mark" targeted in every scam (and the art in bunko is figuring which scam to run on which mark) is manipulated by the mark's greed.

If you have no greed in you, you are absolutely safe from ever being targeted as a "Mark" -- or if some beginner grifter tries a scam on you, you'll see right through it, or just turn and walk away because they can't get their hooks into your subconscious (where your greed lies).

That greed is just POWER entering your life at a time determined at birth when your life's clock began running. Think of a fire hose with water gushing out full strength. It takes a lot of strength, determination, cooperation with fellows, and discipline to keep that power pointed at the problem (fire). It could break the neighboring house's windows if it gets out of control.

"Well governed" = manifesting as the "virtue."

"Ill governed" = manifesting as the "vice."

It's the Soul that has to "govern" the power gushing into our lives.

But when it comes to our black holes, to our greedy spots, to our lazy spots, to our neuroses, to our simple one-step solution to all our problems by getting something for nothing, by finding the easy way out, by just saying you're sorry and starting over, by doing the sin planning to confess, or by offering the politically correct excuse "I'm sorry, Ma'am but I'm doing all I can," which simply means you refuse to expand your capabilities in order to do your job, when it comes to our black holes we are all absolutely convinced there's someone somewhere who knows the answer to all our problems.

And that's what the grifters are selling. Answers. The promise of filling the black hole.

Some grifters use astrology itself as the scam. Some use Tarot. Some use legitimate religion (or spinoff cults), or drugs, or "I'll make you a star," or self-publishing, or "post your script here for $50 and big production companies will read it," or whatever seems to fit the greed of the mark.

Each astrological symbol (planet, sign, house) represents a FORCE. It's just plain power.

Each soul acts as a conduit for the power they have at birth.

That life's pattern of power is described in the natal chart, and the bursts of power strewn throughout life are described via transits to those activated natal points.

The Soul funnels that plain, raw power into the world of manifestation, coloring and shaping it into objects, or events, via the four-step transformer process I described in detail in my 20 posts on the Tarot.

Those 20 posts describe the function of "Jacob's Ladder" -- the Wheatstone Bridge of the Spirit.

Here's the final post in the series, with links to work backwards through all 20.

The reason Astrology does not "work" is very simple.

Astrology is just a CLOCK. It tells you what time you were born, and thus what time it is "now."

Astrology can tell you that you have an appointment with the dentist, but it can not tell you that you will be there in time (or at all), or which dentist, or whether you have a cavity, or even whether you'll have any teeth left by the time the dentist appointment comes around.

Each astrological symbol and combination of symbols represents an infinite range of different possible manifestations.

Like the symbol X in algebra can have an assigned value, a calculated value, or a range of values - a different value in each equation - the astrological symbols are likewise "unknowns" until a specific Soul "lets them equal."

That variance in "value" does not make X useless in algebra.

That variance in "value" does not make Mars useless in astrology.

The astrological symbol does not contain any information about how any given set of energies WILL manifest.

Grifters try to convince you that they can tell you how energy will manifest in your life. Since astrology has been adopted as a grifter's tool, and since almost everyone who has fallen for that scam has been disappointed, therefore astrology has the reputation of "not working."

Well, it doesn't work (and can't and never was intended to "work") to foretell "the" future, or your future.

That's why it doesn't "work" -- it doesn't do what "they" say it will do.

But what it does do, it does superlatively, and everyone knows that in their heart of hearts just as anyone who's had to balance a checkbook knows how useful X is even in the simplest equation.

You don't need an astrologer to tell you what transit you're under or what it's good for.

Your BONES know. You feel it. Your soul knows.

You may not believe your soul when it yells at you, but you HEAR that still small voice inside repeating what the higher powers have sent you still small voice within when it tells you what the higher powers sent here to do. Or what you sent you here to do.

Everyone has this inner access. Everyone has this experience. We are all "the same." We have something inside that reads our astrology to us.

Astrology is about timing the events of life. Astrology is the beat-sheet of your life. You know those beats as well as you know the beats of your favorite TV show.

Astrology is the objective structure behind your life.

Your life has a genre, just like Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! genres.

Life has a plot and a story that belong to the genre of your life.

As Shakespear pointed out we are all actors on a stage with our exits and entrances, and we each play many parts, trying to fill our black holes until we discover that "filling" doesn't get rid of black holes.

Very spiritually advanced, incredibly "together" people don't have this black hole because they've learned that filling doesn't work.

But we don't write stories about them because they have no INTERNAL CONFLICT, which is an essential ingredient in a protagonist and antagonist (the two characters the story is "about"). Sometimes a guru or tsadik may be an ancillary character in a story, but not the protagonist or antagonist who must learn the lessons the guru already knows but can't teach.

Such spiritually advanced folks (there's maybe a few dozen in the world at any time) have spent lifetimes mastering every sort of energy coming into life from every possible direction, made all the mistakes we're currently making, and mastered it all. They're here only to show us that "it" (whatever it is that's bugging you) can in fact be mastered.

They can't do it for us. And they can't teach us. They can only assure us that it's possible and ignite aspiration. Meeting such a character can be the Catalyst Beat (that's a transit to a Node or a Solar Arc to a mid-point involving the Nodes usually).

And you won't find those extremely advanced folks practicing "Astrology" as a means for foretelling your future or solving your problems for you. More likely they'll be trying to convince you that you should stand on your own feet.

Because, you see, "Astrology" actually does NOT WORK.

It is not a tool for foretelling "the" future or even "a" future. It can't solve your problems for you any more than Tarot can.

Astrology can't tell you anything you don't already know. But it can show you what other people know that you can use to tell them stories.

Just like Tarot, Astrology does not tell us how we're different from each other, which is all that really interests us.

When you're just trying to live your life (as opposed to writing stories for general audiences) you're not looking for the connections among all things, and the general solution to life for everyone.

All you want is to solve your own life.

It makes a difference to you whether you get the job, or not; whether you live or die; whether you get cancer or not; whether you become crippled in a car accident or not.

Astrology though can't tell the difference among these manifestations which is the only difference that matters to us. And so Astrology "does not work."

An astrological natal chart can't distinguish male from female or living from dead. Massive fame, fortune and success have the same signature as chronic spectacular failure, dramatic improbable accidents, and a woebegone pillar to post existence.

3) The power of Astrology as a plotting tool

Astrology's inability to distinguish between what seems to us living folks as polar opposites is what makes it useful to a writer.

Another attribute that makes Astrology useful to writers is the deep, innate, instinctual, subliminal awareness every human being has of the "beats" of his own life being tapped out by the transits of planets to the natal points in his chart.

Astrology describes what we have in common with each other, and how come it seems like we're all such unique individuals yet at the same time we're really all the same.

The same, but different.

Sound familiar?

That's the call that all big budget film producers send out every day. "I want something the same as (whatever), but DIFFERENT."

What are they saying, really?

Human nature, as described by Astrological natal charts, is all "the same, but different."

That's why we are willing to pay for entertainment that's "the same, but different" -- why we want permutations and variations on a single theme until it bores us to death.

Our natal chart is the "beat sheet" of our lives. We see it in ourselves and we see it in others we know personally, or even just read about in celebrity magazines.

"That's life," is a philosophical shrug for a reason.

We choose friends and life-partners -- or shun others -- because we can see the "shape" of their life in the series of events we know they've lived through. We know how they've handled certain energies, and therefore predict they will continue to handle such challenges that way. Therefore, we either throw in our lot with them, or shun them.

Because "that's life."

Learning a little astrology can help clarify these half-intuited patterns behind "life."

Bad luck comes in threes. The outer planets often transit a given point once in your lifetime -- but do it 3 times (because of retrogradation which is an optical illusion visible only from Earth's surface.)

Everyone knows the principles of astrology even if they've never heard the word astrology.

If you've read a lot of biographies, you know all you need to know about astrology. Or not. Some people need to have it quantified, laid out mathematically, clear and concise.

Astrology assembles and organizes "life's lessons" into a drumbeat that all readers and viewers will recognize.

Waltzes have a rhythm. Tango has a rhythm. Fox Trot has a rhythm.

The backbone of music is rhythm. The backbone of dance, ice dancing, synchronized swimming, ballet, every artform in motion has a rhythm.

A Life has a rhythm.

Life in general has multitudinous rhythms simultaneously. 12 Signs in the zodiac, 10 moving points, 12 Houses in each individual chart. Multiply it out factorial. All of this going on simultaneously. It's white noise.

But as I've said I learned early, the writer is a performing artist, an ARTIST first and foremost.

The job of the artist is to discern patterns invisible to others and portray those patterns to the audience in such a way as to increase the audience's understanding of what they can not see for themselves.

The artist brings out Eternal Truths and particularizes them to the current life-situation of the audience.

A writer can take one natal chart, create a character to live that chart's most prominent life-lesson, and walk that character through learning that lesson in such a way that a reader who has not lived that lesson can understand the lesson.

The reader may know other people who have lived or are living that lesson -- or perhaps have only heard of such a person. The reader will recognize this lesson and the lesson's BEATS.

Sometimes, a reader will actually learn a life-lesson from a story because in a past life they learned that lesson by dying for it, and here they can acquire the lesson vicariously. Reading such a novel that makes such an impression can be a CATALYST beat for a character's life.

If the writer gets the astrology correct, the very largest possible audience will be able to relate to that lesson as something familiar.

And that's another reason not to "cast" a natal chart for your characters. To grab the widest audience, you need to write about "Mr. Everyman." He may have Sun in Leo (as Gene Roddenberry did), but your character might need to have characteristics of Moon in several signs to connect with a broad audience.

If you specify too much, fewer and fewer people will believe the character or see his actions as plausible. So you scatter hints that some readers will see as Moon in Cancer and others will see as Moon in Aquarius, etc. If you hint broadly enough, any given reader can interpret the hint to make the character real to themselves.

So some characteristics have to be loud and clear, and very specific. Those are the ones that the story is about, the lesson being learned, and the tools to use to learn that lesson. Everything else has to be kept vague enough to let all the readers in.

That's what Leonard Nimoy taught us (while we were interviewing for the Bantam Paperback STAR TREK LIVES!) that actors call "open texture."

Think of DANCE.

If you know how to fox-trot, and someone invites you to dance to a tune you've never heard before -- but you recognize the fox-trot rhythm and you know the steps, you can spin right out onto the floor with a strange dance partner and fox-trot away. Or Mambo. Or Samba.

The fox-trot is a rhythm. The tune, the band, the singer, the dance floor's polish, the colored-light ambiance, the acoustics, the open ballroom doors, the cold breeze, the red velvet curtains, and the bar tender are all there making the experience unique. But it's a pleasant experience because YOU KNOW THE RHYTHM and that rhythm is not broken.

"Not broken" means your partner does not step on your toes. It also means the writer doesn't step on the reader's toes.

So a book or a movie is an artistic rendition of LIFE with a recognizable rhythm and a unique ambiance. The same, but different.

The reader only sees the details of the ambiance. The writer knows the whole thing "works" as art because of (and only because of) the rhythm being exactly on beat.

There are a lot of rhythms in music and in life.

There is one life rhythm that the pioneer astrologer Grant Lewi singled out and became famous for revealing in the early 20th century.

His books Heaven Knows What and Astrology for the Millions made him ultra-famous outside Astrologer's circles because they can "prove" to people who flat out disbelieve in astrology that astrology is REAL (not that "it works" because it doesn't, but that it relates to your own personal life in a spooky-unique way only you yourself can recognize).

The ability to absorb the proof that Grant Lewi offers depends on how self-honest you are, how self-aware.

There are times in life when you protect yourself against these hard truths because they would destroy you. So don't go around trying to "prove" astrology to anyone. When it's time, they'll find it and their own use for it (which is minimal unless they're artists).

So the one life-rhythm that Grant Lewi wrote an entire book about is the Saturn Cycle. Read that book, you'll recognize it in your own life and in the lives of people you know.

You could write thirty novels where the protagonist lives through the lessons of the Saturn cycle, and never repeat yourself and never bore your readers. (one I wrote is titled UNTO ZEOR, FOREVER)

But there's also Uranus.

And as I've mentioned so many times on this blog, there's NEPTUNE.

Neptune transits produce all the variants on "falling in love" (and out of it) that is the foundation of the entire Romance Genre and all its subgenres (including my own favorite SFR).

Where you are in your Saturn cycle when a Neptune transit hits can determine the flow of that romance.

Then Uranus (freedom; Aquarius) can operate at the same time. You get the cheating-on-the-wife syndrome mixed with cheating-on-the-mistress, and the wife running around on the side. If you can jump double-dutch, you can write these novels, and right in the middle of the mess the Soul Mate turns up which of course doesn't solve the problem.

Soul Mate turning up can be a Catalyst Beat.

Request for Divorce can be a Catalyst Beat.

Spouse dying can be a Catalyst Beat.

Being deployed to Afghanistan 2 months before the baby is due can be a Catalyst Beat.

Catalyst Beat material is made from transits of the slow moving outer planets to the inner Natal Planets or angles. These are great, common events everyone knows and understands given a unique personal dimension by the character to whom they happen.

Think of the woman who was being deployed to Afghanistan but had a 2 year old, and her backup plan for childcare fell through so she refused to go with her unit -- and got arrested for it and made national headlines. Catalyst Beat for some, crushing blow for others.

If your novel is about the Lawyer who handles the case and becomes famous because of it, the catalyst beat in his life is when he first hears of the case. The "debate" beat is whether he should take it. The Break Into Two beat is accepting the case. The Fun And Games beat is putting the case together. The Break Into Three is the courtroom scene.

See? You can already see the movie.

Each thread of life's beats is governed by a particular planet and moves with its own rhythm. Mercury and Venus go around the Sun every year, Mars about every 1.88 years, Jupiter 12 years, Saturn 28, Uranus about 84 years plus or minus, and the Neptune and Pluto probably won't make it in your lifetime. Think about that. Hear the beats. That's the beat that governs the music of the spheres.

You can make up interesting rhythms, and make up new ones nobody ever heard of. You can create new rhythms, and they will "reach" audiences just the way any new musical rhythm will.

If you want to reach a very wide audience very quickly and get your byline memorized, use a tried and true, old as the hills, rhythm.

It's the beat, man, it's the beat.

It tells you what options suddenly open before a particular kind of character at what age.

The "character" is the life + the soul, and the lessons the soul has already learned from living this life and maybe previous ones (how Wise is your character?).

The beat of life is the astrological natal chart. The soul is the entire orchestra playing a NEW SONG to that beat, and with most souls some of the instruments are playing a tad flat (the black hole; the weakness).

So now we know what a beat-sheet is, and can see how Astrology describes (as many other disciplines describe) the beat-sheet of a character's life.

We know that the "beat" underlying a story has to be recognizable and familiar (i.e. "the same") to the reader while the tune and the instruments can be experimental and unique, totally unfamiliar to the reader (i.e. "but different").

Or the tune and instruments may also be "familiar" (i.e. belonging to a certain well defined genre such as Romance, Horror, SF, Adventure, Western).

Characters fall into cliche's but are usable with a twist. The Hero. The Grifter. The Town Drunk. The Techie. The Wastrel. The Guru.

These become archetypes -- blank templates into which the writer pours original distinguishing characteristics.

Creating these variations is an art in itself.

4) A Question about identifying, concocting and placing the CATALYST (Blake Snyder's term) or Inciting Incident (general screenwriting term) or Springboard (TV writing term) from the beat sheet into your story.

OK, now to the point of this post.

The writer asked me how to concoct the CATALYST for a story.

How do you know what it is and where it happens in the character's life and where to put it in your story?

We know it happens on page 12 of a 110 page screenplay.

We know what it does. It changes EVERYTHING in that character's life that the character thought could never change.

The cheap-cheesy way to do it is to make the catalyst a threat to the protag's security. Some genres require that. "Women in Jeopardy" for example.

If you know enough technical astrology, you can see why certain genres become popular with certain age-groups at certain times. People gravitate toward permutations and combinations of themes because of the real life issues highlighted by their natal chart and transits, whether their own soul is living that issue or not. Their contemporaries are, and that makes it a concern.

I did a post on how Pluto has influenced mass tastes over generations. It's here:
And this one is the sequel misnamed - it's actually part 7

The general solution to finding the Catalyst Beat is that the catalyst is the first contact the protagonist has with the antagonist, the first moment the CONFLICT that will be resolved at THE END emerges and is defined for the audience/readership.

In ROMANCE, it's the point at which the two who will fall in love first meet or become aware of each other.

We all know that can result in love-at-first-sight, or hate-at-first-sight or even one or the other or both being totally oblivious.

In Mystery, it's the moment the first corpse is discovered. In open form Mystery, that's after the murder is watched by the reader/viewer. In closed form, that's the opening scene or chapter. We get a little introduction of the Detective whose problem it will be, sketching why this particular crime might mean something to him/her, then BOOM corpse-call.

As I've detailed in a number of other posts here on craft, you find the BEGINNING by finding the point at which the two forces that will conflict to a resolution in this story first come in contact.

That contact is the inciting incident, the Catalyst, the Springboard, the event which subsequently CAUSES everything else that HAPPENS. (things that happen are the plot; things characters learn because of what happens is the story; "because" provides motivation.

Here's where art gets involved.

In a short story, or even a TV show premise, the catalyst can take place BEFORE the story begins.

Take the TV series BURN NOTICE, and listen to the premise stated before each show. The main protagonist is a spy who has been "burned" - his records have been burned; he has no identity, no job, no money, and only whatever friends are still speaking to him to rely on. He does whatever job comes his way, even if it involves helping his mother's friends.

The show is about him trying to get reinstated.

The Catalyst is that he was burned. We never see that happen.

In the Action genre (which editors insist Sf is part of, but we all know it's not), the writer is supposed to open page 1 on ACTION, dive right into the middle of the story.

A good example of opening on combat as the CATALYST for a story is Marion Zimmer Bradley's Spellsword of Darkover which opens on a sword fight in which the protag's side is defeated and he, last standing, runs away -- the rest of the book is about dealing with the shame of that act of fleeing the battlefield.

More usually the action starts after the inciting incident, after the catalyst. The usual definition of catalyst is that NOTHING IS HAPPENING -- all's quiet on the western front -- silence, life is stagnated. BOOM something enters the life from outside, and catalyzes or incites the protagonist to action. In a film, we get 12 minutes (screenplays are rated at 1 page per minute of viewing) to figure out who the protag is and what their problem is (where the black hole in that character resides). Then on page 12 the Catalyst arrives.

I think the reason Snyder used the term CATALYST for this beat is that a catalyst does not participate in the chemical reaction but only provides the environment which makes the reaction inevitable.

So a "catalyst beat" can involve a character or event that really is "outside" the character's life or personality. The catalyst may not be affected by the protagonist's "reaction." It's a broader definition from "Inciting Incident." "Incident" however does imply that it is an event which is off the plot-line.

So after the catalysis, events are exploding, and the protagonist has to scramble to figure out what's going on while trying not to get killed by it.

In the modern Romance, the catalyst can happen before the opening, and the two already can know each other in some context. Now another catalyst drives the relationship in a new direction.

The catalyst should "incite" the protagonist to a) debate b) consult someone (B-story) c) launch into half-assed attempts to cope d) get scragged by the bad guys e) learn his lesson f) take correct definitive action and g) win (or not).

So the catalyst's first effect is to make the protag DOUBT what he knows to be true, what he has rested his whole life on with total tranquility (my Dad will never get old; my Dad doesn't have Alzheimer's).

The story is about re-orienting the character to his new world. Once that's done the story is over.

OK, which catalyst can blast which protag out of which mire in life?

How do you concoct an event that will affect THIS CHARACTER by addressing THAT conflict?

Remember, the Character is the Soul -- all the things that make him/her different from everyone else.

The plot is the NATAL CHART, the beat sheet of his life, that makes his experience of life the same as everyone else's.

Everyone in your readership or audience KNOWS the rhythm of the life-lesson this protag is going to fight his way through.

If you use the Saturn rhythm to teach a Neptune lesson, nobody will believe your story. It'll be tagged implausible.

If you concoct a Neptune (Romance) driven opening event to a Uranus (science) driven plot resolution, nobody will believe the story. That's not a "twist" but a violation of the fox-trot rhythm.

So you have to figure out which life-lesson you're teaching this character, and what the corresponding symbolism is. (Many writers can't do this consciously. But you can program your subconscious to concoct stories with this shape by consciously studying these disciplines and doing writing exercises using them. That's why I always suggest practicing on material that has no commercial value.)

So as you're outlining your story, you can pick from the menu of Vices or Virtues, the plethora of different sorts of manifestations of that planet's symbolism during such-and-so a transit.

But you can't pick at random. You have to take into account the Soul of this character -- what does the Soul know, what has the Soul mastered already, what lesson is this Soul resisting hard?

You can have 2 manifestations of the same transit at once.

Take Pluto transits conjunct the Natal Sun. The protag might be undergoing sanctification as a priest (I'm thinking of Katherine Kurtz's short story The Priesting of Arrilan), and at the same time be attacked violently because of some long-buried crime he committed (or sexual indiscretion).

The question to ask yourself when concocting the plot of a story you have had "an idea" for is, "I know this Soul - so what is the very WORST thing that can happen to him/her?"

Think of the most diabolical, test to destruction, event, and hurl that at the character as a Catalyst. Then find something even worse for the next event.

Find the character's "black hole" -- his weakness, his greed, his need, his torment. Find the Catalyst that awakens that greed and incites the character to reach out and grasp that hope. Once he's hooked, pull him through the story one agonizing inch at a time.

Remember, you can't "fill" a black hole. The life-lesson the protag undergoes has to turn that black hole "vice" (greed for example) into a white hole "virtue" (generosity for example).

The protag has to learn to take the incoming raw energy his natal chart diagrams and "ground it" in reality, create with it, make the world a better place with it.

So, to find a set of classic stories in archetypal form read Grant Lewi's classic pair of books, HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT and ASTROLOGY FOR THE MILLIONS which outline the natal resources typical of various sun/moon combinations, and how the Saturn cycle (and Uranus cycle) works the same for everyone, but always looks different depending on the Sun/Moon blend.

Heaven Knows What (Llewellyn's Popular Astrology Series)

But apparently ASTROLOGY FOR THE MILLIONS (with the Saturn cycle described) is out of print right now. So here's Amazon's Grant Lewi page

Grant Lewi's books

You won't find the treasure-trove of usable writer's plots and life-beat-sheets in just any other Astrology books, but many of them do have useful summaries. Linda Goodman's Sun Signs is another good one.

I'm citing Grant Lewi because his explanations are very SIMPLE and aimed at non-astrologers. I wouldn't want you to have to learn astrology in order to do this simple bit of writing craft.

Also Grant Lewi wasn't a grifter selling astrology as snake-oil. His work, is, however maddeningly sexist and infuriatingly obsolete. For a writer those two traits can be a big plus!

Astrology is the beat sheet of life.

Grant Lewi's work shows how that can be useful to a writer in a unique way (I own a lot of astrology books. Lewi is cited by many but paralleled by none). Noel Tyl's work is way too technical for this.

Astrology can tell you what the lessons to be learned are, and at what age those lessons will be driven home by events (i.e. what the timing of a catalyst event for a particular person would be and what sort of energy would carry that event into the life's pattern).

Mark Schulman's Karmic Astrology series gives very neat life-plots that will ring-true to any reader who walks a mile in your character's moccasins. My favorite is The Moon's Nodes and Reincarnation:

Karmic Astrology, Volume 1: The Moon's Nodes and Reincarnation (Karmic Astrology)

It doesn't matter whether you "believe" in astrology or any of this. The summations of life-stories have been compiled over thousands of years, sifted, refined, distilled into patterns, archetypes, that any reader of your books will instantly RECOGNIZE as "real" -- and therefore be able to suspend disbelief about the rest of your fantasy world.

Using astrology in this "off the nose" way provides verisimilitude, yes, and plausibility. In professorial circles that's called an "objective correlative" -- a character the reader can become, identify with, and aspire to be, pretend to be, or really enjoy hating.

Using astrology this way allows your reader to experience what it feels like to have their black-hole shrunk if not vanquished. Of course, as I've said many times, astrology isn't the only study that can help a writer create this effect. In fact, it's likely the least used of all such tools. But there's a reason there are so many astrologers and Tarot readers in Hollywood.

Astrology and Tarot are about the art of life, not life itself. It's about the art of living, not living itself.

Astrology can not tell you what the events of a life actually are or how any given type of person will respond to a given challenge.

For example: some people respond to a given 6th House transit by attaining employment success, and others respond to the same transit by becoming critically ill. Still others respond by experiencing both these events simultaneously (they make great protagonists; Harry Dresden of THE DRESDEN FILES is that kind of character).

The part of your destiny that matters to you is not written in the stars. The part of the story that engages the reader is not written in the stars.

The part that is written in the stars is the rhythm, rhyme and REASON.

The part that's written in the stars is the part the reader (just like real people living real lives) will never know is there (if you do it right). The part that's written in the stars is the poetry. It makes your bone marrow shiver to apprehend this simple fact.

People who know Astrology is bunkum know that bad luck comes in threes, and that age 29 is a bear to live through. They know that Lady Luck (Jupiter) is fickle. They know that people commit crimes of passion (Mars and Pluto) and it's a once-in-a-lifetime event. But of course, astrology is bunk and if you use the word, everything you say is invalidated. Still they know the happiest year of their life (Solar Arc Venus to the Natal Sun -- the movie DIRTY DANCING) was unique.

Do you as a writer really want your readers to know what astrology is really good for?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg