A few years ago I wrote a bank robbery scene in passive voice

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A few years ago I wrote a bank robbery scene in passive voice and the result was pretty funny. The robbers themselves completely vanished from the story–only the effects of their actions remained and honestly, I was laughing by the time I got to the end of the first and only paragraph.

I posted it online because I had gotten caught up in a (deeply stupid) argument about the subject. What exactly is passive voice, and is it always terrible?

To answer the second question first, no, of course it’s not always terrible. There are times when passive voice is exactly what a sentence needs. The whole point of studying writing as an art form is to recognize that words and sentence structures are tools that we can put to use. So, there’s nothing inherently bad about passive voice. It just has to be used correctly.

As for what passive voice is, the question gives me flashbacks to the person who argued “Blood pooled on the floor” was in passive voice because blood is an inanimate object and how could it therefore be doing the action? The active force was gravity, which might have been absent from the sentence but was the active force causing the blood to pool. Therefore: passive.

Which… sure. But we’re talking about literary structures here, and that argument misses the point.

Another sentence that’s not passive? “He was tall.”

Which brings me to Prosecraft, (link deliberately excluded) a service offered by a company using an AI called Shaxpir (a joke name that I didn’t get until I said it aloud.) Supposedly, you submit your work of fiction to them and they use Shaxpir to run a linguistic sentiment analysis to compare it with other previously published works in their database.

There’s one work by me in there. The Twisted Path.

Some authors are contacting the guy behind it all with angry demands to pull their works from his site as though this was another free pirate library. I’m not sure it is, though. If he’s bought these works legally, then run them through his dumb (more on that later) algorithm to analyze and compare them, I’m not sure that’s a copyright violation. If he’d been doing the same analysis and comparison with a notebook and sharp pencil, I doubt anyone would complain.

Others are unhappy by the idea that he’s using their works to “train” his AI, Shaxpir. But when I look at the site, Shaxpir seems to be another a word processor with some publishing and analytical bullshit thrown in. It doesn’t appear to be one of those enter a prompt and the AI will vomit a novel manuscript for you places. It looks a bit like Scrivener.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not going to look any deeper into it, considering the quality of the analysis it does.

Judging by the Prosecraft page about my own work, I see problems with the service. First, listing adverbs–broken out into adverbs with an -ly at the end and those without–as a percentage of the total word count, then ranking the book in a “percentile” with other books in the database tells you nothing about the quality of the book. Adverbs are not a metric for quality. They’re a tool, and the only measure that really matters is whether the tool is used correctly.

Second, the service breaks down the text into “vivid” and “passive” words, then using the aforementioned sentiment analysis determines where your book is more of one of those things than the other. There’s even a little color coding for the text: the words the system codes as vivid are red, and the deeper the color the more vivid they’re supposed to be. Passive is the same but blue.

And state of being verbs are all rendered in the most intense blue.

Maybe the creator of prosecraft was a little careless with the way he labeled things. Maybe he liked the word vivid because he thought Vivid books are good books, and so he wanted to put something with a negative connotation at the other end of that scale. Therefore: passive. Passive is bad, right?

Except, in his blog post on the software, he posts an analysis of some text from one of his favorite authors, says it rates in the 99th percentile for Passive, then talks about how much he likes the guy’s writing, esp his use of “passive-voice constructions.”

No surprise then that, out of all that blue text indicating passive voice, only one of those sentences is actually in passive voice. The rest just use state-of-being verbs, which are not themselves passive voice, although there’s an argument to be made that they are not particularly vivid.

But you know what state of being verbs are? They’re really easy to identify.

So it’s a mess, really. The Passive label is being stuck on words/sequences that are not in the passive voice, and passive is used as a binary opposite to the Vivid label, which it absolutely is not.

If the books are being shared like a library, that’s bad and it shouldn’t happen. If they’re being entered into an AI so the algorithm can pull them apart and regurgitate them as works of fiction, that’s also bad and shouldn’t happen.

But as I see it, the main problem is that the service Prosecraft offers is a mess and is basically useless.

Edit: He took the website down. I knew I should have just been lazy and ignored all this. Now I’ve blogged about nothing.

Things That Go Away

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I moved to Seattle in the fall of 1989, crashing on the couch of the only friend I ever made in college. Months later, we started renting a house with two other guys. All three of them had been part of an improv comedy troupe, but they weren’t happy with the way it was being run, so they quit and formed Jet City Improv in 1992.

I was the only housemate not actively involved in the group but I did a few things to help out, like run the video camera when they needed to record shows. Little stuff. I also spent a lot of time in the audience in the early days when the crowds were thin. It was their thing, not mine, but since I was around them all the time I got caught up in it, too.

Eventually I fell in love and moved out, which meant I wasn’t around Jet City much and was no longer witness to their day to day. I remember the way they moved from venue to venue until they got a dedicated theater of their own up near the University of Washington. It was a great location for them. College students are always looking for something to do and they naturally circulate into and out of the neighborhood. Smart move by the guys, I thought.

When my buddy and I made the (disastrous) decision to make our own cheapie horror film, we were allowed to shoot a scene or two inside the building. A few years later, we took our son to see a holiday special they were putting on, which he liked quite a lot. Not as much as video games, but hey, he’s a 21st century kid.

So I was a little shocked to learn that the theater had been condemned a few years back, and was going to be demolished. Here’s what it looks like on Google Maps as I write this.

Jet City Improv theater, now condemned and covered with graffiti

Taken from Google Maps, Sept ’22

I remember when they painted the building yellow. For weeks after they moved in, they had friends and acquaintances who wanted to come to the new venue but who couldn’t find it. They’d drive down the street, looking for the theater, and somehow just pass it by. The shadow you see in the lower right is for a bus shelter, but even saying “Next to the bus shelter” didn’t do them any good.

So they bought a few gallons of yellow paint and made the building un-missable.

I remember one of the founders telling me that, as they were slapping on all that bright color, a business owner from across the street yelled at them for making the neighborhood garish or whatever. A week later, that same business owner was telling customers on the phone that they were “across the street from the big yellow theater.”

That’s how I remember the story, anyway.

But nothing last forever. The building sold and was set to be demolished a few years back. It was left to decay, as you can see in the pic above.

And then this happened:

The condemned theater on fire, at night, while firefighters work on it.

This is just a couple of weeks ago.

Here’s a little video:

 

Supposedly, witnesses heard an explosion when the fire started, and some saw a person on the roof while it–and they–were burning. Firefighters couldn’t recover the body until excavators removed the roof. I can’t find a mention in the media about who this person is, but the SFD has determined that it was intentionally set.

Maybe the body was the arsonist. I certainly hope it wasn’t a squatter.

Seattle has seen a string of arsons at the end of last month. As usual, people are blaming the crimes on whoever they hate most. Some point at addicts living in condemned buildings. Some blame developers who want to get their projects fast-tracked. Personally, I wonder if it could just be a neighbor who hated the way an undemolished ruin makes their neighborhood look. I’ve asked about it but gotten no answer.

And obviously I think it might make an interesting book.

I’m glad Jet City is still active, although it’s sad to think that the building is gone.

There are no permanent things.

Somehow, I’ve Become Scary Again

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For most of my adult life, women crossed the street when they saw me walking toward them.

Not crowded city streets, but in residential areas, where it’s just me heading in one direction reading a library book and them coming in the other direction, often walking a dog, by the time I got within half a block of them, I’d look up and notice that they’d crossed to the other side.

Which is fine. I know there are guys who take this shit personally (I’ve argued with them) but I don’t. People should do what they need to do to make themselves feel safe. What does it matter to me if a neighbor looks me over and thinks “I don’t think so”? It doesn’t. I just wish I didn’t make them feel uncomfortable.

Then, a few years back, I noticed it had stopped happening. I would pass people on the sidewalk–women, men, couples, whatever–and say hello, then move on with our day.

Finally, I thought, I’ve gotten old.

But recently, I’ve made an effort to get out into the neighborhood and walk as much as possible, and it’s happening again. I’m not sure why. I’m fatter than I was during the pandemic. My clothes are a little older. So am I.

So, to the folks in my neighborhood, I’m sorry for making you feel unsafe. I’d stop if I knew what to do. Hopefully, I’ll go back to looking old and harmless and we can go back to saying hello again.

Writing update: I started a new novel that is not 20 Palaces. I told myself that this time I was going to start it off right and write the whole book without ditching the opening chapters and starting over, as I usually do.

I’ve already ditched the opening chapters twice.

Third time’s the charm, right?

Key/Egg Reviewed in the Current Issue of F&SF, Eight Years After Publication

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Today I’m writing about something I never expected and which I still don’t know how to think about it. I mean, I have literally spent the last ninety minutes starting and deleting this post. 

After Circle of Enemies, I wanted to write something that wasn’t quite so dark and mournful. Even though I had more Twenty Palaces books in mind, I wasn’t ready to continue working in that style and tone.

Therefore: A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark, which most of you reading this already know is a pacifist urban fantasy with a main character in her sixties who is a cross between Gandalf and Auntie Mame. In a genre that has sometimes felt like a series of Mike Hammer novels that slotted vampires in place of gangsters, I wanted to do something different.

Like an idiot.

However! 

Here we are, eight years later, and the latest issue (July/August, 2023) of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has a review of Key/Egg in the “Books to Look For” section.

That’s Charles de Lint’s review column. What’s more, he finished his review with the phrase, “Highly recommended”. 

If you look at de Lint’s Wikipedia page, it correctly states that he “pioneered and popularized the genre of urban fantasy.” To have this bestselling author, winner of a World Fantasy Award and an Aurora—one of the authors who helped define the non-Mike-Hammer end of this genre—pick up one of my books and give it a glowing review eight years after it was first published, well….

Like I said, I didn’t expect this and I haven’t really wrapped my head around it yet, but having a pioneer in the genre like de Lint give the thumbs up to this book–which I truly believed in but which pretty much went nowhere–gives me complicated feelings. 

Some highlights from the review: 

“too entertaining not to give you a head’s up about its existence”

“full of lovely bits of strangeness”

“never a dull moment”

He does say that he didn’t care for the first chapter, which is fair. The book is, in part, a murder mystery, and I borrowed the mystery conventions of having, first of all, an unsympathetic murder victim and second of all, an opening chapter from the victim’s POV. Even so, I tried to keep things interesting, and I’m glad I didn’t make him toss the book in the recycling. 

Anyway, at this point, eight years after release day, I sell about five or six copies a month. Will there be a de Lint bump? I’ll write a post about it later when the numbers are in. 

Want to read the latest issue of F and SF for yourself? Their web presence doesn’t seem up to date, but the most recent issue can be read gratis, assuming you’re subscribed to Kindle Unlimited. 

Thank you for reading. 

Audiobook for The Flood Circle available for pre-order, plus a very happy surprise

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On Tuesday, June 20th, the audiobook for The Flood Circle will be available. This is the Amazon/Audible link. Links to other vendors are already in the main post for this book.

If you want to pre-order it, you can do that now.

In other, unrelated news, the next issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction will have  a review of A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark, which I (self-)published more than eight years ago. Even more surprising is that it’s a positive review, from multi-award winning author Charles de Lint!

I have said a lot about this book over the years, but for once I’m going to let common sense take hold and shut the hell up. I’m extremely pleased to see this review and I refuse to bad mouth myself for a joke that no one will laugh at.

Please check out the review when the next issue drops, on June 27th, and the rest of the issue, too.

Annual SPFBO Finalist Sale Happening Now

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Cover art collage of books in the SPFBO finalist sale

Cover art for *some* of the featured books

Once again, many of the finalists in the SPFBO competition have come together for a group sale.

If you pop over to the sale page for this year, you’ll find a variety of fantasy genres: epic, urban, horror, romantic, grimdark, and so on. If you see something that intrigues, give it a click. Almost all books are priced at $0.99, with only a few at $1.99.

You’ll also find that some authors have added additional books for sale. For example, Twenty Palaces, the first book in that series, is also (still) on sale at 99 cents.

So if you’re looking for new and unusual (or new and traditional) fantasy to binge, check out that page.

Newsletter Problems

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When I sent out that last newsletter with the free promo codes for The Iron Gate audiobook, I got an unprecedented number of error messages. At the time, I had more than 1450 subscribers and I got more than 180 bounces.

A few of those were the usual stuff: this email address doesn’t exist/please fill out this form to have your email whitelisted/this server doesn’t exist. But most of the bounces–more than 150 of them–were from gmail telling me that I haven’t set up some kind of special new email authentication.

Which has to be written in a kind of code.

What do I know about coding? Nothing.

Does my domain host have a little “set up SPF for this site” box for me to check. No.

Was it something I could just copy and paste? Absolutely not, and nothing about the little codes they required made sense to me.

Luckily, my son is teaching himself to program. He helped out (meaning that he took over while I did dishes) and set up something that erased the big red X error messages that popped up when I ran a check on my mail server. There were exclamation points in a circle though, so I contacted the domain host help desk and asked them to look it over.

They wrote back to say that they’d made some changes to the SPF my son created.

I checked again. A big red X error message appeared again. This one, in fact:

domain must have at least one mail server error message

“Domain must have at least one mail server.”

When I sent this screencap to my domain host help desk, they told me it wasn’t their fault. They had done everything correctly, even though it was a change they’d made that triggered this error message. They suggested I read that “help center article,” which of course I’d already tried to do.

Basically, it felt like they had washed their hands of me.

Anyway, I’m expecting another newsletter to go out when The Flood Circle comes out in audio. Will gmail users receive it? Honestly, it’s hard to say that this point. I hope so.

Free audiobook codes for The Iron Gate from Audiobooks.com

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Tantor, my audio publisher, has released The Iron Gate as an audiobook, and I have promo codes for Audiobooks.com for the first six people who snap them up.

Here’s how to use them:

HOW TO REDEEM: Your free audiobook(s) can be enjoyed via Audiobooks.com. Existing Audiobooks.com account holders can visit their My Account page to redeem, while new listeners can follow the below instructions. 1 Visit www.audiobooks.com/promo 2 Input your promo code and hit "apply" 3 Continue creating your FREE account and then hit "Start Listening" 4 Download the free Audiobooks.com app for Apple or Android devices (see below for links), or listen on your desktop through Audiobooks.com 5 Login and start listening! Your free audiobook(s) will be waiting for you in the My Books section

And here are the codes:

Z7NS0842UFJY7YDF3CMBKT42G3T1NY2JDKL70RPNE6GYTMZXXQRD4HUZ7W30BMYX46T2N107

Each can only be used once.

Hope you guys enjoy it.

All I ask is that you tell your friends, share this on social media, and/or review it online. Frankly, I could use a little extra word of mouth.

Audiobook for The Iron Gate out March 7, 2023

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What the subject header says.

I’ve added audiobook sales links to the main post for The Iron Gate for convenience’s sake. In my experience, most audiobook listeners are locked in to a specific vendor but I’m happy to include as many options as possible.

Tantor has brought back the same narrator, too, which I’m happy about. Also, with previous releases they offered the book as a compact disc. I haven’t seen those yet, but I’ll add them when I can.

Anyway, you can pre-order right now and…

I don’t really have a lot else to talk about. Take care and please post reviews.