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Excitement! Suspense! Cliffhangers! Or…not.

Further in my watching of ten gajillion cop shows with my workouts, I have noticed an alarming tendency to try to add suspense in all the wrong places. Not every season has to end with a cliffhanger. If people like your show, they will keep watching your show.


But if you do choose to end your season (chapter, whatever piece of your narrative arc) with a cliffhanger, for the love of Pete can you make it one that actually…cliffhangs? Competently?

For example: “Will this be the end for the group of people this story focuses on?” No. No it will not. Everyone knows it will not. Exactly zero cop shows ever have completely disbanded their unit after that kind of cliffhanger, and the ones that have sort of disbanded it (The Wire S1 into S2) did not make it a cliffhanger. They just said: yup, now we are shifting these characters around to do something different. “Will [only female character] perish in a watery grave?” I’m just going to guess no there. “Will [main protagonist] spend his life in jail for a murder he didn’t commit?” Also going with no.

And okay, yes, if you’re doing it right, the suspense is not whether they will get out of something but how–but in the cases above, the “how” looks pretty obvious. How will [only female character] not perish in a watery grave? Well, by swimming or by having one of the others pick her up in a boat, I’m guessing. Haven’t seen that one yet, so we’ll see. And how will [main protag] get out of jail for a murder he didn’t commit? In a cop show–except for The Wire pretty much universally invested in the system working–I’m going to guess exonerating evidence. Wheee. So could you please stop pretending that we don’t know these things?

Putting a secondary character in peril is more effective than putting a protag in peril if you have established a reason for us to be interested in the secondary character–and if we actually believe you’d carry through with it. By the time you’ve watched a season of a show (read several chapters of the book, etc.), you have some idea whether it’s the sort of show that would let a bad guy murder a 4-year-old. That kind of show has to signal its turns pretty early on, or they will put off the people who are watching it to unwind of an evening with a little light mystery. We live in a narrative-savvy age. You have to roll with it.

Also more effective: putting a protag in non-mortal peril of a kind you’d carry through with. Fiction does horrible things to series protags as long as it lets them keep protagging. “Maybe their spouse will leave them or die!” Yep, unless the spouse is seriously major in the show (El in White Collar, for example), that can happen. “Maybe they will be demoted but still able to do the stuff we thought was interesting about them!” Yep. “Maybe they will have an injury they will have to work through in implausible PT episodes!” Wait, that’s a different gripe. (LEGEND OF KORRA PT FAIL ARGH.) You can make them sad. You can make them lonely. You can make them injured. We know these things happen to protags, so we can actually worry that they will happen this time.

Tim and I had a beautiful alternate universe Criminal Minds for the season in which there was an SUV explosion and it was strongly implied one of the team members was in the SUV at the time. In the time between seasons, we lovingly detailed the adventures of Aaron Hotchner after he had recovered from his massive burns and was dealing with trying to run the BAU from a wheelchair while doing actual rehab so the scar tissue wouldn’t cripple his fine motor control and still raise his son. But we knew they would never, ever do it. The question for the beginning of that season was “how will they cheat,” not “who will be killed or maimed.” And really, “how will they cheat” is pretty much always less satisfying suspense. It’s got the viewer/reader thinking about the creator, not the characters. Not what we want.

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Rikki-tikki-tavi endorses this message

So I was reading Slacktivist today, and I found out that the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins was telling people that some parts of Minneapolis are no-go zones for non-Muslims. I just wanted to reassure you: stand down, friends and family! We are fine here!

(I was going to say “there’s nowhere in this city you can’t go on the basis of religion,” but that’s not true. The inner parts of Mormon temples are just for Mormons, for example. But that’s, like, certain rooms in a handful of buildings. Not even the whole building. Much less a whole neighborhood.)

Rep. Keith Ellison invited Perkins to Minneapolis to see for himself, which seems like a terrible idea to me, because then we’d have Perkins in my metro. But still, he’s a politician, it’s his job to score points off idiots be welcoming for his city. But the thing that got me is: I have literally no idea where Perkins thinks he might be talking about. This is not the “figuratively” use of literally. This is just, really, like: huh? Where’s that, exactly? Or even roughly–we don’t have to be exact. I can think of neighborhoods with lots of Somalis in them–we have Somali neighbors ourselves, and they pet my dog–but that’s so very far from the same thing as to not be worth discussing. There are some places Christians (and Jews and atheists and pagans and…) can buy halal meat more easily than others, but I wouldn’t think that would stop anybody from going there. If you don’t want halal meat, don’t buy it; problem solved.

I asked Mark and Tim, and they had no idea either. Seriously none. And what I really don’t get is that this kind of lie is so easily disprovable. Lots of people have friends and family here in the Twin Cities–many of them in Minneapolis proper, even–and so if they hear this and call up Aunt Ethel to say, “OMG Aunt Ethel, I heard about your neighborhoods with sharia law there in Minneapolis,” Aunt Ethel will say, “Are you high?” And then Aunt Ethel will call your mother to talk about maybe having an intervention for the drugs you are apparently on. Minneapolis: it is not the moon. I do not live on a satellite of the moon, people. If someone says something about Minneapolis, we can find out whether or not it is true. It doesn’t even take a Large Hadron Collider. We can just, like…wander out and look.

It’s a good plan, wandering out and looking. I endorse it in general.

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4th St. registration finally!

Fourth Street registration is finally open! Come to the best and nerdiest fantasy convention on the block. June 26-28, here in the Twin Cities area, although if you have flexibility in your travel plans you should know that there’s stuff going on Thursday and Monday also.

I am leading the seminar at 4th St. again this year, along with Alec Austin, Lynne and Michael Thomas, and Mary Robinette Kowal. In addition, this year’s new feature is a critique session going on at the same time as the seminar (choose one!), led by Beth Meacham, Max Gladstone, Patricia C. Wrede, Skyler White, and our very own Tim Cooper.

4th St. 4th St. 4th St. yay! I hope to see so many of you at 4th St.!

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Books read, early January

Max Adams, The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria. Seventh century Northumbria is not something I’ve gotten a lot of outside of Hild (which is fiction), so it was a lovely gap to have filled in. I really like the interesting interplay between various ethnicities and religions/religious subtypes. Fascinating stuff, lots of maps, lots of discussions of how we know various things about this period.

Alan Bradley, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. I squeed when I saw this existed. It’s the seventh Flavia de Luce mystery, and the sixth put a pretty firm period to the series, [redacting] Flavia off to [redacted]. Well, it turns out that [redacted] has murders and opportunities for intrepid girl chemist-detectives to poke their noses into things, too! So Bradley is ending plot arcs, not the series, HURRAH MORE FLAVIA HURRAH HURRAH.

Nancy Marie Brown, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths. Interesting take on the saga writer, effects on his life and his effects on further sagas. Sometimes good to argue with.

Greer Gilman, Exit, Pursued by a Bear. Kindle. One of Greer’s Jacobean noir novellas. Language just a perfect romp. Not long enough to get tired of any particular playwrights, fey, etc. even if you have low tolerance for any particular among them.

Barbara Hambly, Crimson Angel. Latest in the Benjamin January series. I think it would work all right as an entry point, although I recommend reading the whole series. This dovetailed nicely with my reading the last few months, because it’s partially set in the Caribbean and deals with the effects of the Haitian Revolution, among other things. Slavery, family, and more. I probably shouldn’t have read the latest installations of two of my favorite mystery series in one fortnight, but I am weak.

Florian Illies, 1913: The Year Before the Storm. What a strange little book. It’s a very narrative style, telling the story of that year in retrospect–the things that we think of as important harbingers of future things now rather than what the people of 1913 would have thought of as important. It’s translated from the German, and that’s remarkably clear: the focus is Germanophone (? is this the equivalent of Anglophone or Francophone? what I mean is not just citizens of Germany but also throughout the Habsburg lands of the time), and the focus is very much avant garde, to the point where someone who has not thought much about the continental avant garde of the early 20th century would end up saying, “Who?” repeatedly. There is nothing of Asia, Africa, or South America in this book, and apparently the main notable thing that happened in 1913 in North America was that Louis Armstrong first picked up the trumpet. (Which, hey: notable. I just think that once you’re reporting on when in 1913 Picasso had a cold, you might notice a few other things in the world.) Funny in spots, interesting in spots. Very weird.

Tove Jansson, Comet in Moominland. Reread, but not since approximately grade school. This says “1” on the spine, but I don’t recommend starting here. Jansson is clearly still getting her feet under her. It has some funny bits (OH THE HEMULEN), and I think it’s worth reading, but you’ll get the wrong impression of how good the series is if you start here, and there’s no reason to read them in publication order, really none–on the first page there’s mention of the flood that’s in a later book, so. May as well start later, with something where she’s got it on all cylinders.

Matsu Kannari, Kutune Shirka, the Ainu Epic. This is very short but filled with otters. It is not a complete epic, it’s a fragment of an epic. Still, there’s not that much in English about the Ainu–Japan is mostly presented as a monolith, culturally/mythically–so this is a good thing to have.

Frank L. Klemen, Dark Lanterns: Secret Political Societies, Conspiracies, and Treason Trials in the Civil War. (US Civil War, just for the record.) This was not what I hoped it would be. It’s not really the book’s fault: it did a perfectly cromulent job of covering mostly pro-Confederate conspiracies and secret societies in the North during the US Civil War itself. But I was hoping for a broader scope than that–leading up to the war and after the war would have been nice, and more of the pro-Union secret societies as well. (MORE WIDE AWAKES.) So I will have to find another source for that stuff.

Pascu Stefan, A History of Transylvania. This is an old book, from the Soviet era, so there are weird things about it. Particularly there is a firm and abiding hatred for Pan-Slavism that takes its form in insisting that Romanians are true Dacian Romans dammit. And you can see why, living under the Soviet influence, that might be a direction of subtle rebellion–Russia has often used Pan-Slavism to mean Russian domination. But Pascu didn’t really seem to see how similar the situation he was describing was to, say, Gaul. Ah well. Still some interesting gaps filled in, mostly in the “kings and crowns” direction.

Abra Staffin-Wiebe, A Circus of Brass and Bone. Kindle. Discussed elsewhere.

Brian Staveley, The Providence of Fire. Discussed elsewhere.

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And by “people,” I mean….

I was on the phone with my favorite great-aunt today, and I told her that I had been going through my stories in a particular setting, writing down a master file of who was who and who was where and who was related to which other person so that I wouldn’t contradict myself in future.

Auntie: “Oh, that’s good! Because some people get really engrossed in their reading and then get irate when there are contradictions and mistakes. And by ‘people,’ I mean your uncle.”
Me, laughing: “He’s not the only one.”
Auntie: “No, dear, but I live with your uncle.”

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A Circus of Brass and Bone, by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Review copy provided by author. For further disclosure, the author is a personal friend, and we’re in the same writing group, although the group did not critique this book.

A Circus of Brass and Bone is a dark fantasy set in an aether-powered alternate 19th century, and it starts with catastrophe. It was originally an online serial, but I hate serials (haaaaaate), so I didn’t read it that way, because then I would hate a book that didn’t deserve it.* The story follows a circus caravan through the ravaged northeast, as its members try to figure out who they can trust (inside the circus as well as among “civilians”) and how they can survive. There’s a lot of worldbuilding here–the world has a texture and a past that appeals even as it appalls–clearly lots of thought about what the aetheric applications are and what they can do, most of which is entirely backstory because the entire system is completely blown to shreds. Logistics are not foregrounded here but are important. Also relationships with animals vary realistically and interestingly, as you would hope for (but not always get) in a circus novel. The ending ties up the personal-level problems but not the world-level ones, leaving plenty of room for sequels or related work in the same setting if Abra decides to go that direction.

If I hadn’t heard another friend saying that it was too creepy for her, I wouldn’t even think to make a note of the creepiness, because it’s nowhere near my line for not liking horror, but apparently some of the aetheric…issues…are too much for some gentler sensibilities? Honestly I don’t expect that to be a problem for many people. The characters have a lot of bad stuff happening to them, but they retain both agency and their moral sense. The darker scenes never devolve into hopelessness or pointless gore.

Probably my biggest problem was with Tuckerizations, which I hate like I hate serials. They bother me more when I know the author’s social circles (as I do Abra’s), but honestly there’s often a way about them that’s very obtrusive–times when a character gets a both-names reference where it would be more natural to use only given name or only surname in a dialog tag, or when you find out a full name that you have no need to know, or when something is ethnically inexplicably out of place. That’s a fairly subtle thing, though, and most people either don’t find Tuckerizations as problematic as I do or won’t know enough of Abra’s social circle to spot them while reading (or in some cases both). They’re labeled in the endnotes for people who find that fun and interesting, which I know some people really do.

*Seriously, I tried reading Dave Schwartz’s Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib that way, and I had to stop and just read it when it was all done, because I could tell that it was a book I would not hate, and serials: haaaaaate. So at least I know not to do that again.

Please consider using our link to buy A Circus of Brass and Bone from Amazon.

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Now it can be told: papercutting

In the months leading up to Christmas, I talked about my Sooooper Seeekrit Project here and there. I wanted to surprise the friends and family I spend Christmas with, and “yours is this variation” seemed less surprising than “guess what I’ve been doing.” But now there’s only one not yet delivered of my first batch, and I’m going to make more for people but don’t want to keep it secret indefinitely, so I’m going to go ahead and blather about it: what I’ve been up to is papercutting.*

This started when I was blue about not getting to do my Scandinavian Woodcarving class. I kept trying to think of other fun things I could do, and stuff like “the concerts we already have tickets for” and “maybe we can go to a Gopher Women’s Hockey game” sounded good but was not the same sort of thing. Not scratching the same itch. What I really needed was to make something I could touch with my hands. Ideally through ostensibly destructive means. Right? You cut the crap out of some poor defenseless block of wood, and suddenly you have a goat. Or a sailor or a gnome or a bunny or a status of your son the PhD candidate, judging from the other people in my former woodcarving class. I, too, wanted to cut the crap out of something! Just not, y’know, my finger again. That part was not great.**

And then! I realized! Years of loving paperdolls had fitted me for cutting the crap out of things and ending up with something cool. That is my wheelhouse. That is my bailiwick.

First problem: I overestimated the cool papercutting templates out there. I started out thinking of this as something I would just do from other people’s templates. It turns out that despite the amount of messing with paper scrapbookers do, they don’t really want to cut intricate silhouettes of cool stuff all that often. There was, for example, no octopus template. There was no giraffe template. There was no template with a castle that said, “Have fun storming the castle.”

Well. There is now. So yeah…there are still some cool templates I’m cutting from other people’s designs, but I moved into making my own almost immediately. Lots of trees, for little things. And then other stuff, sea turtles, kittens, Daleks, lots of word-lace…so that part is fun. And it was completely unexpected. I think of myself as unable to draw, is part of it, when it turns out I’m pretty okay for the purposes of silhouette, and the other part is that I overestimated how eternal scherenschnitte and similar crafts would be–not that many people are doing it just now, and craft stores are full of scrapbooking and knitting/crocheting and quilting. And that’s about it.

Second problem: my trusty scissors can only do so much. Here is where the scrapbookers had my back. So I bought myself a little xacto-style knife but with a short looped handle and a blade cover. Because see above re: my finger. I also bought myself a cutting mat. It is pink. Pink is the only color they had, so pink it was. And at that point I was in the craft store buying stuff, and so I bought a fine-tipped Martha Stewart brand glue pen. (Ultra-fine-tipped. Seriously.) This last purchase was not greatly successful; it works beautifully at first but stops being, well, gluey, very very quickly. So we are still working on how to mount these things.

But I got everything done for Christmas, and I have plans to make things for some of you, and also! Also there is a new plan! And the new plan is this: I will take a continuing ed course called Conceptual Cartography, about maps as art, and I will do a papercutting mythic map of Iceland, with the different places different things happened in the sagas symbolized appropriately. (Or, y’know, inappropriately. It being Iceland and all.) And I will take pictures and yay. Yay, yay, yay.

*Well, and I wrote chapters of a thing to surprise Tim with, since he knew about the papercutting–I was doing it while Mark was out of town, but I couldn’t really get enough of a head start to get it all done in weird morning hours while keeping it secret from Tim. So he knew. But I didn’t think it was right that everyone else should get a surprise and not him, so I wrote the beginning of a thing. Surprise!

**It has finally stopped hurting when I press on the skin of that knuckle, but it can still ache when it gets reeeeeally cold. Progress.

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The Providence of Fire, by Brian Staveley

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the second book in a series. The first one, some of you will recall, was a bit disappointing in that it focused on the two brothers who were fairly standard fantasy novel archetypes and gave very little space to their sister who was a princess who was also Minister of Finance.

Well! You will be pleased to know that Adare, the princess in question, appears a great deal more in this book.

She is no longer Minister of Finance. She acts very little like a former Minister of Finance. I don’t really understand why Brian Staveley came up with a POV character who was Minister of Finance if he didn’t want to write about one.

Also in increased content over the previous book: torture. Lots and lots more torture. General misery, despair, and definitely torture.

Oh, and also phoneticized “peasant” dialect. You know, for the scum common people.


And yet I read this volume all the way through, so there have to be some good things about it. I was mostly invested in a handful of secondary characters, honestly, and the prose style is readable (when not doing phoneticized dialect), and I was hoping that the spoilerific means of getting from place to place would have some interesting stuff attached to it.

I’m not sure this is grimdark proper, but I suspect that people with a higher tolerance for grimdark than I have would enjoy it more.

Please consider using our link to buy Providence of Fire at Amazon.

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Things I Learned From Watching Cop Shows

1. If someone close to you is brutally murdered and you feel the urge to ask the police, “Do I need a lawyer?”, YOU NEED A LAWYER. Possibly even if they are gently murdered.

2. All people in the British Isles get their exercise by running very close to the edge of cliffs. Nobody in the UK or Ireland goes to the gym or runs on pavement or in a forest or something. Always a cliff, usually with no guard rail.

3. It is totally normal for a very recent widow or widower to make sexual advances to a police officer or other investigating detective. No one finds this suspicious. They should, of course, because it nearly always turns out to be relevant to the case. But apparently there are tons of cases we don’t see in which, “My spouse died this morning, helloooooo Officer Friendly!” is one of the stages of grief that Kubler-Ross missed, because no one ever goes, “hmm, that’s weird, possibly I should consider why this is happening other than my incredible personal magnetism.”

4. When people say that poker is a game that relies on skill and the better player will win in the long-term, they mean that ten to twenty hands should do it. It’s best if you form an elaborate plan for catching murderers (or other criminals!) that relies on someone on your investigative team winning one particular hand at one particular moment, with no way to cheat with the deck or dealer. That should be fine.

5. Boxing, on the other hand, is something that boxers don’t spend years training to do well. You can throw a random tough person at boxing and have them win at a crucial moment to catch a bad guy. Tracking down evidence is usually secondary to this.

6. If you worry enough about doing the right thing, no one will care that you never actually do it.

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Pacific Fire, by Greg van Eekhout

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the sequel to California Bones, and while having read the first one adds a lot to one’s understanding of the characters and setting, I think it would be a perfectly reasonable place to dive into this world. There are lots of weird things going on, but I think they’re weird things a reader could pick up on readily: golems who are functionally pretty human, osteomancy as a major force in human culture, an alternate Southern California that’s filled with institutions that are close but not quite the same.

The main character of California Bones, Daniel, returns older, wiser, and with a teenaged golem in tow. Sam, the golem, has been learning magic and life from Daniel, not that it’s a great life under the circumstances. Sam is the late Hierarch’s golem, and everyone expects him to be one of the greatest osteomancers ever. To date he has been completely underwhelming. He has to stay mostly hidden, because he looks like the Hierarch, so–no friends, no school, no home, nothing stable, nothing normal. Nothing a young golem’s heart yearns for, nothing but more magic practice and more truck stops.

Until the powers-that-be in LA start putting together a Pacific Firedrake. Sam and Daniel know that this is the magical equivalent of the H-bomb, the super-weapon, the one thing you do not want the other guy–or pretty much any other guy–to have. So they set about stopping it. Naturally, this doesn’t go quite as planned, and they need a series of allies–old friends, new clones, a throwaway reference to a pretty cool creature–to help them achieve…something. That is sort of like their goal, sort of? In a goal-like way? Look, I try to avoid spoilers. There’s closure, I will say that. Definitely closure. Fun stuff, and the LA references feel more geographical and less cultural to me this time around, so there are fewer “really, alternate history got there?” moments. (Also, I like second books for a reason, and one of them is that my expectation structure is set.) Recommended.

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