Monthly Archives: February 2016

Perilous Pauline: Escape From Shawshank Five

Perilous PaulineWelcome back, fiction-friends, to another episode of The Armchair Adventures of Perilous Pauline! Hard-pressed heroes have written in, and Novelocity’s veteran ‘protagony aunt’ Pauline is here to dispense her own brand of silver-age wisdom. This week, we have time-travelling GIs, prison-planet refugees, and one stressed-out portal-hopping preteen. Add your own advice in the comments below!


The Invisible City - Brian K LoweDear Pauline,

There I was, just another officer minding my own business in the trenches, and suddenly I’m not in 1915 any more–I’m about a million years in the future! This place is crazy; they’ve recreated the dinosaurs, the mutants are out of hand, and a bunch of guys from outer space are running the place now. I hear there might be a time machine out there to help me get back, and I did sort of volunteer for the war back home, but honestly, they could really use me here, too. I mean, my old mates are all dead now anyway, right? What difference does it make now who won the Great War? And see, I’ve met this girl… What am I supposed to do–go back and fight for my country, or stay here and fight for humanity (and the girl)?

Out of Time and Out of Time


You see? You see, Willard? I told you this would happen. Total anarchy, I said. Cats and dogs living in sin together. Democrats in the White House. Well, I hope you’re laughing in hell, you rotten old pinko: the god-damned Bolsheviks have gotten clean out of hand, and now the future’s nothing but dinosaurs and mutants and chlamydia. Forty-nine years we had, Willard! Forty-nine years – and now the great-great-great grandchildren are going to be shacking up with little green men. This never would have happened under Harding’s watch.

Where were we? Oh, right. Stay where you are, OT/OT, and go get the girl. It sounds like we’ll need a few good men to repopulate the human race, and lord knows we’re not going to find any around here.


Petra - Matthew S RotundoDear Pauline,

Look, this was supposed to be just a fact-finding mission.  It’s not like I wanted to go to a brutal prison planet.  Sure, it can be pretty here on Petra, but seriously—it’s a prison planet.  Now some of the inmates have staged an uprising, claiming they have knowledge of a shattering secret.  And Rolf Ankledge, Petra’s ruthless warden, will stop at nothing to keep it from reaching Ported Space.  So through no fault of my own, I’m trapped in a hostage situation.  And if that’s not bad enough, the prisoners want me to help them escape.  If I involve myself, I risk losing everything I have. If I do nothing, I betray the last shreds of my ideals.  And all I really want is to get home to my family.  Is that too much to ask?

So what am I supposed to do now?

Imperiled on Petra

P.S. Communications are restricted, so I’m not even sure if this message will reach you, but I have to try.  If anyone can help me, surely you can.  Oh, wait, I think I hear someone com—


You know, IOP, that sounds like a sticky situation. Let me tell you a little secret about ideals: they sound pretty on paper, but they don’t pay the rent. You know who doesn’t need to worry about paying rent? Dead people. Catch my drift?

Now repeat after me: “not my space-circus, not my prison-monkeys.” As of right now, your job is to lie, connive, and fornicate your way out of there by any means necessary – ideals be damned. After you get home, you can embellish the good parts, cover up the sordid ones, and sell the whole story for a sweet book deal and Oscar-bait movie. (And let me tell you, IOP: option money buys a whole lot of therapy.)

Now get out there and get at it! I’ll look forward to receiving my autographed copy of “Escape From Shawshank Five.”


The Sword of Six Worlds - Matt MikalatosDear Perilous Pauline,

My name is Validus Smith (problem number one, thanks mom and dad!) and my substitute teacher is trying to murder me. Turns out a nearby world thinks I’m the only one who can save them from a creeping darkness called the Blight, and my sub works for said creepy darkness. Apparently this whole world thinks a middle schooler saving the world is normal. Any advice for how I might the able to save the world, get home, and finish my science homework before it’s due on Friday? 


The Portal World Ate My Homework


You know, Validus, I’m not sure you understand this whole anonymous sign-off conceit. Usually it works better if you don’t also use your real name. But let’s go ahead and run with it – if nothing else, the publicity means your sub will have to work that much harder to make it look like an accident.

So here’s the thing about portal worlds: time is notoriously widgety on the other side of the wardrobe. If you’re feeling the crunch, I would work on that whole saving-the-world thing first. It could be that you have a grand adventure, discover your own hidden strengths, save the day, and pop back into your bedroom two seconds after you left it – in which case you’re not even late for dinner. Or it could be that you come back to find that a hundred years has passed and everyone you know and love is dead, in which case you’re definitely off the hook for building that potato clock. It’s a win either way!

Oh, try not to judge your sub too harshly. Moonlighting for evil looks awfully attractive when you’re taking home $10 an hour.


Do you have a SFF book out in the world? Does your hero need a little help? Have them write to Perilous Pauline, c/o tex at!

Cybermorality: Making moral decisions in a vacuum

Steve Bein continues his fascinating series on the intersection of philosophy and SFF. Previous installments ponder when your car should kill you and if genocide is always wrong.


ColdEquationsThis week I’m going to juxtapose two famous short stories, Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954) and Orson Scott Card’s “Kingsmeat” (1978). If you haven’t read them, and if you don’t want them spoiled, go root them up and read them right now.

Godwin and Card both toy with our consequentialist sensibilities. Consequentialism is the not-too-creatively-titled moral theory that defines right and wrong in terms of consequences. (Not very creatively titled, is it?) As it turns out, this is how most people describe their moral intuitions: that is, if you ask them to evaluate the morality of, say, kicking a random stranger in the shin, most people will say it’s wrong because it causes needless pain.

There’s an open question about whose consequences matter most. If you’re an ethical egoist, you say your own pain and pleasure are more important than everyone else’s, whereas if you’re a utilitarian, you say everyone counts equally (or, put another way, what’s important is the net amount of pain or pleasure, not who happens to be receiving it). It’s worth noting that the great majority of moral philosophers discount ethical egoism as little more than a sophisticated defense of selfishness. In my experience, most ethics students do too.

OrsonScottCardBack to Godwin and Card. In “The Cold Equations,” a pilot named Barton encounters a stowaway on his Emergency Dispatch Ship, or EDS. The sole function of the EDS is to send emergency supplies to people who need them, and so it’s only equipped to deliver its payload and a pilot to their destination. Even reserve fuel is too great an expense; every gram of additional propellant is one gram less of life-saving cargo.

The stowaway, inevitably, is young and cute and female, and by modern lights it’s a little depressing how much this matters to the plot. She knows the EDS is headed for a planet where she’s got family, which is why she stole aboard in the first place. She knew what she was doing was against the law. What she didn’t know was that the punishment is death. But Barton’s policy manual is crystal clear: Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery.

So Godwin confronts Barton with a choice: doom himself, the girl, and her family, or send the girl out the airlock.

It seems to me this is a false dilemma. Barton could jettison himself instead. But let’s assume the EDS isn’t equipped with a decent autopilot and the stowaway isn’t a trained pilot herself.

Enter Card. In “Kingsmeat,” a human space colony has been conquered by aliens who love delicious human flesh. (In their defense, we do taste exactly like pigs, and are therefore particularly yummy with barbecue sauce. I happen to know this for a fact, but please don’t ask me how.) A character called the shepherd manages to fend off the destruction of the entire colony, but only by teaching the aliens how to maintain a herd. They give him a shepherd’s crook of sorts, part stun gun and part scalpel. With it he can paralyze his fellow colonists, painlessly remove their body parts, and keep the aliens well fed while waiting for the cavalry to arrive and fend off the aliens.

So now let’s say you’re the EDS pilot and in addition to a stowaway you’ve also got the shepherd’s crook. Your options:

1) Follow policy. Shove the stowaway out the airlock. Body count: 1, and it ain’t you.

2) Be chivalrous. Keep her aboard. Body count: you, her, and everyone you were sent to save.

3) Noble suicide. Thank your lucky stars that your stowaway happens to be an expert EDS pilot, then go out the airlock yourself. Body count: 1, but this time you’re the popsicle.

4) Start shepherding. Figure out which body parts you and your stowaway will have to sacrifice. Carve off enough meat and vent it out the airlock and you’ll get the net weight of the EDS down to where it needs to be. Body count: zero.

So now you get to choose which of these options you like. To make it harder, I’ll give you two questions. First, which option do you think is morally best? Second, which one do you think you’d actually be able to go through with?

Here’s what’s fun for me as a philosopher: this decision is actually harder for the ethical egoist than for the utilitarian. The utilitarian can’t tell the difference between 1 and 3, and has to say 4 is obviously the right choice. (This next part isn’t as obvious, but for my money I think you’ve got to start by chopping legs off. Legs are nice and heavy. You’d still be able to use all your hand controls, and your stowaway can lie on the floor and operate the foot pedals for you. After that, maybe lose a kidney apiece. After that… well, weigh in again before you do anything rash.)

Disciple of the Wind by Steve BeinIf you’re an ethical egoist, it turns out option 1 isn’t the obvious choice. Why? Because you also have to consider your long-term consequences. You’ll meet this poor stowaway’s family as soon as you land. You’ll have to tell them something. If you don’t, they can call your mothership (which you know they can contact, because that’s how you got in this mess in the first place). Whatever you tell them, you’ll be stuck on this planet with them indefinitely. So all of a sudden, even the most selfish person has to take a good, close look at option 4.

Steve Bein

Revision Blindness: A Peril for Writers

Hello. I’m Beth Cato, and I’d like to talk today about a not-so-little problem called “revision blindness.”

Breath of EarthThis is my term for what happens after you read through a manuscript so many times that it becomes imprinted on your brain. You have sections memorized–and how it changed between drafts. You remember the page where you found a truly epic typo. You can recite research material on cue.

“Revision blindness” is what happens when all this data is in your head and you begin another round of edits and you can’t see the errors anymore. You see how the book is supposed to be. You can’t see that missing “a” or “the” because your brain fills the blanks. You don’t recognized that you used the word “adorned” instead of “donned” because that wrong word has probably been there since draft one and it feels like it belongs there after twenty read-throughs.

Revision blindness is what makes you feel really stupid when someone else reads the work and easily sees all the typos that you missed.

I’m suffering an acute case of this phenomenon right now as I wrap up edits on my next novel, Breath of Earth. I have read this thing many times over in recent months. Here’s the breakdown:

End of October through mid-November: heavy structural edits on book. Read through whole book about four times, read through sections many more times.

Over Christmas: copyedits, requiring another two full read-throughs and more reviews of individual sections.

Early through mid-February: first pass pages, my last chance to edit the book. I am still finding typos and mistakes, but I know I am missing so much more.

I was recently sent the copyedits for my next Clockwork Dagger story, “Final Flight.” It’s out in April and contains an excerpt of Breath of Earth. The story copyeditor also went over the book chapter, which made me roll my eyes at first as I thought, “Geez, I’ve already completed this editing stage!”

Clockwork DaggerBut this new editor actually caught several errors (including a misspelled name) and smoothed out the text in significant ways… even on the first page. D’oh.

How can a writer combat this revision blindness? A lot of writers will change the font size or font to make the page look different and shake up the preconceived text in their head. However, time is the best remedy–the more time, the better. It lets you approach the material with fresher eyes.

Not like I have that option at this point. My deadline looms.

I make my best effort to revise. I read with slow care. I take breaks between scenes and chapters. Most of all, I pray that the errors that I miss aren’t too mortifying, because without question some kind reader will send me a list of the typos they find. Yes, this happened with Clockwork Dagger. Unfortunately, I have no clue if or when I will ever get the chance to edit that book again, and even if I did? I’d probably still miss some errors because I think I read that book a hundred times. Those words are chiseled in stone in my brain.

Revision blindness. It happens to me. To you. No one is safe.


Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN from Harper Voyager. Her new series starts with BREATH OF EARTH this August.

Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.

The Revision Chronicles: Three Ways to Add Words

And I know what you’re thinking: Why would I want to bloat my story? Besides, last month you told us to trim!

shearsAnd this is true. I am a big fan of trimming and nearly every story I see from beginning writers needs trimming. (I’m going to include the shears picture again just to remind you.)

However, I also see stories that need to be richer, deeper. It’s not about adding padding–it’s about adding the right words.

When do you know you need to add words? Think about what kind of feedback you get.

  • Do you hear things like “I didn’t know what the setting looked like.” “I didn’t know what she was thinking.” Or just, “It felt thin.”
  • Do you find that your drafts come in at an awkward length, like 2-3K? It might be that there are things you know in your head about the story that you haven’t effectively communicated to the reader. (This was one of my problems, early on–I would only get the bare bones of the story down, and stop, pleased to have a beginning, middle, and end.)

Here are a couple tips to practice fleshing out your stories.

  1. Add in more sensory detail. Sight gets used the most frequently, of course, but go back through your story and consider what your characters might be hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting. A few well-placed details will help you avoid “white room” syndrome, where your scenes are all happening in a faceless void of blah.
  2. Read every scene and think “what do I know about this scene that didn’t get put on the page?” Put it all in. Then you can go back through and take some out.
  3. Find more ways for your characters to communicate to the reader what they are thinking. Again, you might put too much in and then trim this back down. But if your feedback is: I didn’t understand WHY she hated him–then a few well-placed details (like a brief mention of the time he glued her math book pages together in grade school) can help your reader understand what you’re trying to convey.

As always, only you know what story you’re trying to tell, and whether this tip will help you, and that story. For an example from my own writing, I often write the first draft of a novel as extremely bare bones. Zero setting at all. Zero sensory description. Those things come in later passes, once I have the basic plot down. So you might find this is something that works for you, too.

Til’ next time! This has been (dum dum dum!) The Revision Chronicles. 

An Utterly Unscientific Survey: Fortifying the Frozen Author

As January was winding down, I was zigging and zagging around doing conventions and bookstore signings in Massachusetts and Michigan. And somehow, while I did not avoid the frigid temperatures, I did manage to miss experiencing any actual snowfall.

The consequences of the avoided weather was waiting for me when I returned home, and I am still shoveling out, at the rate of about 45 minutes each day (that looooong driveway seemed like such a good idea back when my wife and bought the house).

Contending with snow burns through my limited resources of stamina pretty quickly, not to mention a lot of calories. After I’ve left the shovel slip from my numb fingers and my dog has dutifully tugged my snowboots from my feet, nothing quite restores me like a hot bowl of soup and a tasty sandwich.

Recently, I’ve been enjoying a hearty white bean and ham soup that my wife made (because apparently that’s what former chefs do when they’re snowbound), served up alongside pastrami on rye with sweet munchee cheese. But soups and sandwiches are as individualized as the authors who consume them, and just like that, I had the contents for my post here this month, because I just knew you’d be curious what other authors reached for in the soup & a sandwich department.

Here are the results from folks who generously responded to my query:

Former Philadelphia resident and 2015 recipient of the Robert A. Heinlein Award, Jack McDevitt, author of Thunderbird, endorses tomato soup and grilled cheese.

Gail Z. Martin, author of the recently released Vendetta, similarly reports that her preferred combo is tomato bisque and a toasted cheese panini.

Allen Steele assures me his favorite combo is chili with a grilled cheese sandwich, and that he “could have that every day for lunch and be happy for the rest of my life.” His next book, Arkwright, comes out in less than a month from Tor Books.

John Pitts, whose fourth Sarah Beauhall novel, Night Terrors, is coming from Word Fire Press in April, bucks the trend and states that his favorite soup/sandwich combination is Tomato/red pepper bisque and open faced ham, Swiss, apple and horseradish.

Sofia Samatar, shamefully admits her favorite sandwich is the Reuben, but also that she’s never ordered soup with a Reuben as she thinks it would be too much food. She concedes that if she were to include a soup, it’d likely be tomato bisque. Her next book, The Winged Histories, comes out from Small Beer Press next month.

Recent debut novelist Eric James Stone favors tomato soup alongside a tuna melt. And that new book of his, it’s Unforgettable .

Famed anglophile Gail Carriger reveals her California roots and admits her sandwich choice is a grilled cheese made with extra sharp cheddar, avocado, and pickled jalapeno peppers, all on a whole grain seed bread. Her soup is creamy tomato. Fans of her work will have the chance to order a special edition of Soulless from Subterranean Press on Leap Day.

Lauren Beukes correctly pointed out that it’s summer in her part of the world, and offered up sundried tomato soup with fresh basil and Turkish bread. She’s busily writing Survivors’ Club, an ongoing monthly comic that asks, “what if the 80s horror movies were real and where are those kids today?”

Stephanie Feldman, last year’s Crawford Award winner for The Angel of Losses, opts for classic grilled cheese (with just a touch of Dijon mustard as a secret ingredient) and broccoli soup with a little goat cheese and lots of black pepper.

Author and small press publisher, Barabara E. Hill, brings our survey back to where it began with grilled cheese and tomato soup, even as she’s busily finishing up Shadow of the Phades, book two in her Erebis series,

A Writer’s Greatest Tool: Your Pitch Line

Things I Hate (part 107-A):  when I ask a writer what they write at a science fiction convention, and they answer “Science fiction”. That’s the *one thing* I already guessed.

Things I Hate (part 107-B):  when I ask a writer what their book is about, and they answer “about 90,000 words” Because blowing off a potential customer’s question with a joke is so very polite.

Yeah, okay, it makes me cranky.  So what can you, the writer, do to avoid making E.C., and many other potential readers cranky?

Find an answer to these questions!  Fortunately for you, they are usually related.  The first one is typically more general, the second more specific–but in both cases, the more specific you can be, the stronger a response you are likely to get.

I write dark historical fantasy about medieval surgery.  Simple, easy to remember.  This is a positioning statement–sometimes called an author brand–that packs a bunch of information into a compact form.  It gives the genre (fantasy), further placing my work into a sub-genre that people understand and respond to (historical fantasy).  It then includes two details that drill down deeper. It defines what period I write about (medieval–not uncommon in either historical or fantasy fiction), and finally, it delivers the intrigue of what makes my work different from other medieval historical or fantasy novels, it’s about surgery.

Then the conversation really begins.  Very handy in person.  Also handy on my business cards, email tag-lines, convention badge, or 30-second networking intro.  It gets results–including an interview on my local NPR affiliate timed to the release of the first book.

Agents and editors and readers are all looking for something “the same, but different.”  A new work or author who will expand an area they are already interested in, so if you can establish immediately where your work fits in the marketplace (what makes it the same) and also what makes it stand out, you’re on the right path.

Let’s take a look at the second question, “What is your book about?”

A great elevator pitch captures the essence of the work in one or two sentences.  The best advice I’ve found came from super-agent Donald Maass’s book The Career Novelist, which says that, in order to get interested in a book, the first things he needs to know are, who is this about? what’s the setting? and what conflict will the character face?  I boil this down to Person, Place, and Problem.

So, for my novel Elisha Barber:  In fourteenth century England, a barber-surgeon learns diabolical magic to confront an unjust king (but the cost may be more than his soul).

Setting (both place and time), character, conflict.  It also incorporates the genre by implication, and suggests the high stakes of the work.  I’m  not crazy about the verbs, but I think the specific phrases around them help to alleviate their relatively lower impact.

You don’t need to name the character, and I highly recommend that you don’t.  Why?  This is a tight summary, and you don’t want to waste any words.  The name is meaningless to an unfamiliar audience. Instead, use a phrase that reveals more about that person.  A vindictive sorcerer, a drunk astronaut, a rebel unicorn.  You get the idea.

Setting is often one of the keys that sets a book apart from others (hence the frequent pitching of films or re-working of Shakespeare by setting the work in a different place).

Take the first line of The Hobbit.  “In a hole, in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”

But if you wanted to make it a contemporary, you might try, “In a walk-up, in the Bronx, there lived a hobbit.”  It’s already a completely different book.

And conflict, well, conflict is the heart of fiction.  You want tension, worry, you want the reader to get excited about what might happen, and to fear what happens next.  For purposes of your pitch, you want to encapsulate the major conflict that will drive this work.

Aside from appeasing me when we meet at an upcoming convention, there are all kinds of things you can do with your pitch.  you might use it to actually pitch to an editor or agent–even casually.  I often have a line like this at the top of my synopsis or query letter:  a succinct handle for the complete work.  A pitch line can help you to refine the work in your own mind, either before you write it, or before you revise it. What’s the heart of this work?  And how can I focus my effort to revealing that heart more fully in the text?

You can tweet your book.  If you are an indie author, you can use it in those “brief summary” slots on all of the publishing websites, not to mention on bookmarks, business cards and postcards.

If you scout around, you can find some great advice on how to craft your own pitch. I hope this gets you started!  Feel free to pitch me at my next convention (Boskone, anyone?) I am always happy to help refine those magic words that will help you get your foot in the door–and, more importantly, your book in the hand of the right reader.