The Back Up Game

How often do I back up my work?

It’s like the game.

And you just lost the game.

If you don’t know the game, do yourself a favor and don’t start. But if you must:

If you think about the game, you lost the game.

If you are thinking about doing a back up of your work, do it.


So I got startled awake this morning. It was nothing. But the first thought I had was not about my own safety. It was that my laptop was in the front room. I don’t care if a burglar runs off with my TV or whatever other valuables they can find in the front room, but don’t dare take my stories!

Remember the writer who ran back into his burning house to rescue his laptop. I think we can all relate.

So make a back up.

New to back ups?

There are are many options for both where to make your back up, what to back up and how.

There are three common places to store your back up:

Hard copies

Personal devices

The cloud

Hard copies

The old school solution is a hard copy. That means printed on paper for the younger writers. I know, it seems so antiquated. And in ways, it is.

My old hard copies.

Where you store your back ups say a lot about what you fear happening to your precious writing. If you worry about theft or hacking, hard copies are safest. No thief is carrying off reams of paper from your house and hackers can’t get to it.

If you are worried about a fire or some other disaster, you hard copies will be as vulnerable.

If you are paranoid, do a hard copy and then another version.

Personal device

Personal devices can range from a simple thumb drive to your own personal cloud device. They can range in price from a few bucks to a couple hundred dollars for a top of the line external hard drive.

A USB drive in the wild???

Again it depends a lot on what your biggest fears are. An electronic device is easily put in an out of way place, and won’t likely be sought out by a thief. But it won’t survive a house fire or similar disaster.

They can be invaluable in the event of a catastrophic computer failure, though. Unlike hard copies, which require you to retype thousands of words, you can plug the thumb drive into a new computer and copy all the files with the click of a mouse.

How far you want to go depends on how paranoid you are, and believe me I won’t judge. About once a year I back up everything to a thumb drive and put it in my lock box at the bank. But that’s my low grade paranoia at work and probably excessive.

Heck you might even want to shove an extra thumb drive in your bug out bag in case you are forced on the run by the zombie apocalypse. The survivors, trapped in some bunker somewhere, will make great beta readers! 😉

There might be beta readers, um, I mean survivors inside.

And I’m only half joking. My paranoia for back ups does include thinking about a major disaster. I don’t think the zombie apocalypse will happen, but a natural disaster or war could turn you into a refugee. Be prepared.

The Cloud

Many of my writer friends, being luddites, fear the cloud. They shouldn’t. It’s the best, easiest way to ensure the safety of your work. “The Cloud” is really just a fancy way to say storing stuff on the internet. Or at an even more basic level, storing stuff on someone else’s computer.

“The Cloud” includes many options, including some household names. Google Drive and Dropbox are both cloud services. Amazon offers a similar service.

The cloud is about the easiest, safest way to back up your work. Big companies spend a huge amount of money and effort on back ups and protections. The odds that Google or Amazon’s data farm crashes and takes your writing with it is infinitesimal compared with the odds of your laptop doing the same. If and when you laptop or home computer crashes, it’s as easy as signing into Google Drive or Dropbox and syncing your files to get them back. If you should have a house fire or similar disaster, you don’t have to go hunting through the wreckage for your thumb drive either.

What about hackers? Hackers are an ever present threat on the internet. But I think the average writer has an overblown sense of caution about this.

People don’t steal writers ideas, or their writing. Unless your name is J. K. Rowling, no hacker is interested in your new novel.

(If your name is J. K. Rowling — Oh my god, I can’t believe you are reading my blog! I am such a huge fan!)

The rest of you should get your head out of the clouds, and your writing into it. An unpublished novel takes so much work to publish and market that no hacker is interested in it. If you already have a successful career, they will be interested in your bank account, not your writing.

That said you should take reasonable precautions, things like strong passwords and two factor authentication. But beyond that I don’t think writers need to take special precautions around their writing. And the benefits of having it safe outweigh the slight risks.


There are literally hundreds of possible formats you could use to save your work and build an archive. I will recommend one and dis one. You can research other options if you are not satisfied with my opinion.

I have an archive folder on Dropbox, in Google Drive and on my Amazon cloud. (I’m not really that paranoid. I happen to have an Amazon cloud, so it’s easy. I use the other two regularly.) I compile my writing out of scrivener as an rtf file.

Why rtf? Because I am old and I am cheap.

I don’t use word docs for my archive because I am old. I have a pile of floppy disks from last century in a drawer somewhere. I don’t have a floppy disk reader. Who does these days? And they are very old doc formats.

Which is the real problem with doc formats. Word changes its format every few years and they have little backwards compatibility. Which means that even if I had means to access those old files, I doubt Word would read them anyway.

Rtf is an older but far more stable formate. There isn’t a word processor, text program or writing program that can’t read rtf. So I stick to it.

Besides I’m cheap. Rtf is so stable because it strips the majority of the formatting and extraneous code from the file, leaving just the words. Because of that, rtf files tend to be small files, even if there are a lot of words in it. For example I have a hundred and some thousand word novel that is a mere 626 kb rtf file.  The scrivener file is several megabytes.

That might not seem like much, but as your writing grows it adds up. How much does it add up? My documents folder is just over one gigabyte. My archive is closer to 65 mb. That’s a pretty big difference. Using rtf I can comfortably stick to free options on most sites even with other files (like pictures) in them. (One of the reasons I use multiple sites, they are all free. So I can have extra back ups at no cost.)

So that’s it. When you think of the game, you lose the game.

When you think of back ups, check them. It’s an relatively easy process to set up a dropbox folder and check it regularly to make sure everything is there. If you use scrivener it’s a matter of minutes to compile an rtf. And if something should happen to your computer or your home it will one less worry.

Esperanto: What’s the Big Idea behind the International Language?

Esperanto. What is it? Why am I learning it? Should you?

The Flag of Esperanto

Esperanto is a planned language developed by an amateur linguist in 1887. His goal was to create an easy to learn, universal second language.

The creator, L.L. Zamenhof was not alone in wanting to do this. The idea of a universal second language has been studied by linguist for centuries, pushed by idealist and desired by travelers, business people and diplomats. What sets Zamenhof’s language, Esperanto, off from the others is that its’ survived over 130 years of history and continues to have a large body of speakers worldwide. It has grown beyond the idea phase into a living language.

When I think of Esperanto, I divide the reasons for it into two categories, the big ideas and the little ones. The big ideas are why Zamenhof wrote the language and why so many people have learned it over the years. The little ideas are why you my want to learn the language. So let us begin:

The big idea

The construction of an international language is driven by three main motivations, convenience, fairness and understanding. All three are prevalent in Esperanto.


The convenience of a single universal second language should be obvious, travelers, business people, and diplomats would have a single language to learn, instead of hundreds. Journals and news could be published in Esperanto and be instantly accessible around the globe to speakers of many languages.

International news in Esperanto is already a thing. Here are a few sources. 

To be truly convenient, this universal language must be simpler to learn than a natural language and Esperanto passes this test easily. Natural language learning is measured in years, Esperanto in months or in some cases weeks.

(Don’t be fooled by all the “learn Spanish in thirty days” courses out there. You might be able to have some really basic conversations at the end of that time, but real knowledge of Spanish takes on average two years of study.)

It’s fair.

But what does that have to do with fairness? Using any natural language as a second language, universal or otherwise, puts an enormous burden on nonnative speakers, who must spend years learning it. It also puts native speakers at a distinct advantage in any negotiations and just in life in general.

However if both parties learn the same second language, they have the same investment in time and are on much fairer footing with each other. If public services, like healthcare, government services, police, education, etc. are done in this universal language, all have equal access with our regard to linguistic abilities.


Finally a universal second language could build a bridge between isolated linguistic communities. Eastern Europe of Zamenhof’s day was a mix of people who spoke different languages. His hometown of Bialystok was Polish, but filled with Russian, German and Jewish speakers.

In today’s world the problems are better in ways, worse in others. The internet and international news means that events are translated in a huge variety of languages in almost real time. But understanding often comes much slower. Facts translate easily, culture does not.

Just look at America’s convoluted relationship with the Middle East. The phrase “Allah Akbar” simple means “Praise be to God.” And yet images of Arabic men jumping up and down and yelling “Allah Akbar” have become iconic of radical terrorism and anti-American protests.

Many evangelic christian denominations say praise be to God. Many jump up and down and wave their hands during religious services.

What if both services appeared in the news with the caption “laudo estu al Dio?” (Esperanto for praise be to God) Would people realize those people over their aren’t doing anything that people over here do? Would it start to shift the narrative? I like to think so.

So Why Not?

Why aren’t we doing this?

The answers are many, and many are political. A lot of it comes down to two things, the myth that we already have a universal language and who that myth serves.

The myth is that we have a universal language: English. The reality is far different but I will address that in another blog, because it will take a lot of words.

Who benefits from this myth? Just about every English speaking country and many corporations. Both the US and the UK spend large sums of aid money on English education throughout the world because they know this is key to their national interests.

Africa is home to some of highest levels of language diversity on the globe. Thanks to a long history of colonialism, several of the commonly spoken languages that are used to bridge the gaps between linguistic groups are European languages, French, Portuguese and more recently English.

In modern times, American aid often comes with the English language. For example groups like the Peace Corp teaches practical agricultural skills but also sends many English teachers to impoverished areas. While the volunteers might be idealist, only wanting to help, those in Washington that pay for these programs often have a secondary motive, to keep Africa looking to the English speaking world for it’s future.

It is a great example of soft power, which are probably the future of global conflict. As a growing superpower and major oil importer, China would love to have a greater toe hold on African oil and mining wealth. How do they try to gain this foothold? In recent years Chinese foreign works have become vital to the industries in Africa. And Chinese language comes with them. As more and more Africans learn Chinese, they are more inclined to work with Chinese companies. And slowly the balance of power shifts.

Esperanto could serve to diffuse that conflict and reduce the soft power of corporations and governments alike. It would be a soft power revolution for Africans to have a unified second language that wasn’t beholden to any superpower. And that is the big idea of Esperanto.

Coming up next: The little idea. Or why you should learn Esperanto.

Convinced already? Check out Duolingo, the smartphone app that makes language learning easy.

Trivia Time: The Danse Macabre

I always thought the Danse Macabre was simply saying. Wikipedia describes the Danse Macabre as a medieval motif about the ever presence of death, one that arose in the years following the black death.


While researching the black death, I came across something very interesting. I found an old book by a medical historian Justice Friedrich Karl Hecker; The Black Death and The Dancing Mania. In it I discovered that the Danse Macabre was actually an event that occurred in the decades following the black death.

Dancing mania is an ancient disease that afflicted medieval peasants. Some modern historians have written off descriptions of the dancing mania as a form of epileptic seizure, but actual descriptions of dancing mania show it to be something quite different and unique.

A peasant afflicted with dancing mania would begin to dance and gyrate around wildly, often screaming or howling. A dancing fit could last for many hours or even days until the afflicted collapsed of exhaustion. According to the book, “their fury and extravagance of demeanor so completely deprived them of their senses, that many of them dashed their brains out against walls and corners of buildings, or rushed long headlong into rapid rivers, where they found a watery grave.”

that many of them dashed their brains out against walls and corners of buildings, or rushed long headlong into rapid rivers, where they found a watery grave.

And to make matters worse the dancing mania was not an individual affliction but a form of mass hysteria. Upon seeing somebody begin dancing other susceptible peasants would join in, sometimes in the hundreds. They would dance in the streets and courtyards of villages and towns. This would bring a large crowd of spectators out. Musicians would often come and begin to play for the dancers.

When the people collapsed onlookers would sometimes bind them about the waist with a cloth, pulling it as tight as they could. This would revive the dancer. In other times and places they would affect a much simpler and more brutal cure by kicking and pummeling the fallen dancers until they regain their senses.

Some of the dancers would recover normally and return back to their workday lives. Some would die from heart attacks or exhaustion. Others would be left with permanent maladies, tremors, epileptic seizures and other indications of some sort of neurological problem.

Learned men of the time believe the dancing was caused by demonic possession. For most of the Middle Ages doctors would not treat the dancing mania but rather left that up to the priests. The priests often tried exorcism, beating the Devil out of the afflicted and other brutal cures.

The Black death, a particularly virulent and deadly form of Yersinia pestis,  the bubonic plague, swept through Europe between 1346 and 1353. It destroyed nearly half of Europe’s population in that time and tore the fabric of society apart in ways that are hard to comprehend today.  People were so afraid of the plague that when it appeared in their town many would flee, leaving behind jobs, social roles and even families. So great was the fear, that mothers abandon sick children to die and fled into the surrounding countryside.

The danse macabre arose in Germany in 1374 nearly two decades later. The earliest reports were from Aix-la-Chapelle in western Germany.  Large groups of men and women would come together, “they form circles hand-in-hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continue dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion.”

This new mania swept over Germany spread by the sight of the sufferers and even by the word of the epidemic. In a matter of months the Danse Macabre had spread to Cologne where it possessed more than 500 dancers. In the city of Metz there were said to be 1100 dancers.

Of the more bizarre symptoms of this mania, the afflicted were often triggered by the sight of the color red or by pointy shoes (which had become the fashion shortly after the black death). As the number of dancers grew, some areas of Germany attempted to halt the spread by outlawing pointy shoes.

When time traveling to medieval Germany, choose your footwear carefully.

When time traveling to medieval Germany, choose your footwear carefully.

As the mania spread it also took on a more organized appearance. Men, women and children would abandon their homes and lives to join traveling troupes of dancers going from town to town. They would bring their own minstrels and the dancing became a show for locals, who would throw coins to keep the dancers going.

Dancers would also often take over religious halls or dance in courtyards in front of churches while services were going on. The priesthood became more and more convinced that the dancers were charlatans or religious fanatics similar to the flagellants that had existed during the plague. As a result, they used harsher and harsher methods to stop the dancing, including accusing the leaders of the movement of being in league with the devil or heretics. Either accusation led almost invariably to torture and death. The draconian measures used by the priests eventually put a stop to the dancing by the century’s end.

But it wasn’t the end of dancing mania. In Strasburg Germany in 1418 a new dancing plague emerged called St. Vitus dance or sometimes called St. John’s dance. That plague was associated with the feast day for St. Vitus and quickly became an annual event. The dance continued until as late as the 17th century but grew less severe with each passing year and eventually disappeared altogether.

The upheavals of the later centuries, the Protestant Reformation in particular, wiped out many of the clergy records of medieval Germany.  That plus the fact that physicians rarely treated or commented on the mania has caused the outbreaks to fade from cultural memory. Few history buffs today even remember that they happened.

So what was the Danse Macabre? Was it a form of mass hysteria? A group of charlatans looking to entertain a crowd? A protest movement against the church?

Quite likely it was a bit of all of these, depending on the dancer. The Black death had tore the social fabric apart and 20 years later many regions of Europe were still trying to weave that fabric back together.

Peasants who had fled from farms or villages may not have been able to go back even if they wanted to. The penalty for disobeying a lord could easily be death. For others, they didn’t want to go back and face the traumas that they had left behind. European forests of the day were often filled with these people, giving rise to the later folk tales and myths of outlaws in the woods. They scraped by and possibly the dance macabre gave them some tiny legitimate way to earn some much needed cash.

In the years of the plague, debauchery was common. Faced with the imminence of death people drank, fornicated, robbed and killed each other. No doubt many of the peasants felt remorse and regret for the things they did. Like the flagellants, the dance macabre provided a way to atone.

Human nature being what it is, for everyone feeling remorse there were probably others who miss the good old days. For them the dancing was may be a way to recapture some of the wildness of those days.

The medieval church was the cornerstone of social order and during the plague years it had largely failed the peasants. Priests often fled their churches or holed themselves up inside and refused to see anyone for fear of catching the plague. It is very likely that the peasants felt a deep sense of betrayal and anger at the church in the years following. It was in anger they could not express. Speaking out against the church could easily lead to an accusation of heresy, followed quickly by torture and death. The Danse Macabre provided the perfect outlet to disrupt and get back at the church and later claim you had no control.

Whatever the reasons for dancing the Danse Macabre provides a unique glimpse into the lives of a group whose story is almost never told, the medieval peasant.

What Exactly is the Gilded Empire?

The Mage Chronicles is the first book in The Gilded Empire Saga. So it’s a series, right?

Well, yes and no.

The next book, The Banner of Kash 1, is a completely different story and it is part of series, so I figured I had better have something posted online explaining what the deal was before I had a bunch of angry fans demanding to know what the hell was going on.

So here I go, or at least, attempt to go. It’s kind of like a world, like the discworld books by Terry Pratchett, though not nearly as funny. Most of the stories are designed to be stand alone novels and the casual reader should be able to pick up which ever one trips their trigger and have a satisfying read. There are a few sub series in the works and there will be characters that cross over into multiple books.

Unlike the discworld books, there is a story arc for The Gilded Empire. I have a fairly extensive Aeon Timeline and a resource manual to keep the story arc straight from book to book. While casual readers can read each novel as a standalone story, fans will start to see the pattern and the broad sweep of history behind the individual story lines.

How The Gilded Empire came to be.

This story has been in my head for years, literally. In my teens and twenty I thought I would someday write a book about the dying days of magical empire. It would have been awful, a giant narrative dump that no one would want to read. There was just too much information, too many strands that were coming together in my head.

Later, in my thirties, I thought I would write it as a series. That solved the problem with the amount of information. But there is another problem, the various strands that are leading the empire down this path are coming from such different angles. How to find one central narrative that explains it? I couldn’t.

A few years back I found the answer. I am writing a series of books that each explore one aspect of this vast place. Eventually each strand will start to weave together and the tale can be told. Or at least, that’s the theory. In the meantime, there are plenty of good stories left to tell.

For now if you would like a free copy of The Mage Chronicles all you have to do it sign up for my newsletter.

The Mage Chronicles


Yes, I want a free copy!

Action/Adventure tropes I no longer believe now that I am in my forties

One of the benefits of being older is being wiser, or so they say. But it’s starting to ruin action movies for me. As you get older and gain some life experience, some of the common tropes in action movies start to seem more and more unrealistic as I get older.

1. Cutting brake lines

We’ve all seen it. The bad guy pulls out a knife, lays down next to the hero’s car and cuts the brake line. Cue dramatic music. The main character is doomed. Doomed.


The problem:

There are three problems with this trope. Without brake fluid your brakes are weak, soft. But they do work. I’ve had my brakes go out more than once. It’s a frightening experience, but you can stop your car, eventually.

The second problem is that the driver will probably notice. If they don’t notice the big pool of brake fluid under their car for some reason, they will probably notice that their brakes are soft when they pull out. And then they will drive, very slowly, to the nearest garage. Or stop and call AAA.

Finally, even if they don’t notice until they are on the highway, driving fast and they can’t stop in time, not all car accidents are fatal. You might roll your car, but if you’re wearing your seatbelt you may well walk away.

Cutting someone’s brake line is a terrible thing to do. Driving without brakes is incredibly dangerous. But it’s not something a professional assassin is going to rely on to kill someone.

2. Tranquilizer Darts


I work in mental health, just so you know. As such, I am one of the few people who can honestly and legally say, I’ve held people down and sedated them against their will, more times than I can count. When someone is psychotic and out of control, it’s about the only thing you can do. So I know how sedatives work in real life.

It’s not like in the movies, let me tell you. IM medication hits the bloodstream in as little as five to fifteen minutes. It can take much longer to reach peak effect.

What about those wildlife shows you see? They shoot a tranquilizer dart into a lion’s backside and it passes out, right? Actually they shoot the dart and the lion runs away. They follow at a safe distance until the medication kicks in. They eliminate that part in editing.

Another important factor is the level of safety involved. For hospital staff in the United States trying to sedate violent patients, we have to error on the side of caution when it comes to dosing. Giving a lethal overdose would be a very bad thing. Veterinarians can be a little more generous, since most people and governments value animal lives as less than they would a human, but there is still a strong element of caution involved. Criminals, as in the movies, theoretically have no such limits.

But there are still two problems. This doesn’t solve the instant effect dilemma. Medications simply don’t work that way. A sedative, no matter how strong, isn’t going to instantly knock some down from a shot. An IV anesthetic might, but have you ever seen them shoot someone in the vein? I haven’t. I doubt such a thing is possible. The second problem is that you almost never see criminals screw up and kill someone they are trying to sedate. The main characters never wakes up strapped to a chair and demands, “where is…” only to hear, “oh, we gave her too much and now she’s dead.”

(The one exception to this rule? Practical Magic. The whole plot of the movie revolves around the two women accidentally overdosing the abusive boyfriend with belladonna. Also, in that movie the effect is far from instant.)

3. ex-marines/special forces/cops

Marines, special forces, police, professional athletes, and martial arts experts are amazing people. They have conditioned their bodies to extreme stresses. I have no problem believing that such people can do incredible things. My problem is with the “ex” part of the equation.

Again it’s something I’ve seen a lot working in mental health. “Look out, I used to be a green beret.” I’ve heard this implied threat many times. If we don’t give into this person’s demands, they can really hurt us because they’ve trained in martial arts/ been a marine/ trained in the special forces, etc.

Most physical skills, and all conditioning, are use it or lose it. You might have been a marine fifteen years ago. Today you are a burned out alcoholic. My security team is conditioned right now. Want to guess who is going to win?

Where I see this a lot is in action novels and thrillers. We are told that the main character used to be an Army Ranger. It’s years later and they are civilians. And yet when the Zombie apocalypse starts, they strap on a backpack and head for woods, killing zeds with a survival knife the entire way. Never once showing their age or lack of conditioning.

A veteran or retired cop is going to have certain instincts that a civilian won’t. That should give them some edge in an apocalypse scenario. But there will be significant lag time before they have the conditioning back. And if you have a character that (cliche warning) had to leave the force due to an injury, they aren’t ever going to be a hundred percent.

4. Drugs and Alcohol take a toll on the body

This another action novel cliche. It often goes hand in hand with number 3. The ex-cop with a drinking problem. Or the brilliant mind that somehow needs drugs to cope. (see Sherlock Holmes or House for example.)

Substance abuse takes a toll on the body. Over years it becomes worse. The average alcoholic or drug abuser can pull it together a) for a short time or b) after a period of detox. I’ve yet to read the zombie novel where the grizzled old vet shook and sweated his way through the first few days while DT’s racked his body.

Stimulants might improve concentration in the short term, but long term use of most drugs is going to be detrimental to mental and emotional functioning. Real life Sherlock’s might think they are being brilliant under the influence of their favorite substance, but reality generally finds otherwise.

Showing a character drowning his/her sorrows in booze, or using some other drug, is an easy way to show that they’ve had a rough life, or that they struggle with inner demons. It’s also cliche. But what is worse, is that too many writers forget about the issue once the action is underway. Life doesn’t work that way. Drugs and alcohol take a toll on your health. Addicts will tell you they must struggle constantly to stay clean and sober. If your character has a drug problem, they will as well.

A rare exception: In 100 days in Deadland one of the characters, a vet, struggles with PTSD throughout the series.

5. Suicidal henchmen

The villain in Mystery Men declares that he was so evil he’d kill his own men. The Governor in the Walking dead guns down dozens of his own citizens. It is an easy way to show how your villain lacks basic compassion. It is overused and often suspect.

In the above examples I question the strategic wisdom of the villains. Even if you don’t value human life, manpower is a limited resource. When cornered by themselves later they might regret sacrificing that manpower too quickly.

But my real question is, what’s in it for the henchmen?

Survival is a base instinct. It’s incredibly hard to overcome. And yet so many pulp fiction and action novels have henchmen throwing themselves against the hero with suicidal devotion to their boss.

What prompts such loyalty? This is almost never explained. The henchmen are just throw away automatons. We aren’t meant to worry about their motivations or feelings. But life doesn’t work that way. Writer Kurt Vonnegut said, “every character wants something, even if it’s only a glass of water.”

Henchmen must follow this rule. They want something. They serve the villain for some reason. The villain might have a soft side we don’t see. They might be part of some group or religion. They might think the villain will eventually share his/her wealth/power. But there has to be something.

And even when we get that something, will it override their survival instinct and all common sense? When they see that the hero completely outclasses them, will they keep fighting?


So there are my five action tropes that I no longer believe now that I am older. What about you? Are their action tropes that drive you crazy? Let me know in the comments.


Do you Nanowrimo? How about Octo-Fret-Mo?

I’ve done Nanowrimo for several years now. For those of you who don’t know the acronym Nanowrimo yet, it stands for National Novel Writers Month. Every November writers all over the world gather together and undertake the funnest, most insane challenge you can think of, write a fifty thousand word novel in a month. It’s a blast, even if you don’t manage to complete your novel. For more information, check their official webpage.

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Over the last couple of years I’ve developed my own set of Nanowrimo traditions. I’ve decided to create a new acronym and holiday to go along with Nanowrimo. I’m calling it Octo-Fret-Mo. It is when you spend October fretting about the upcoming Nanowrimo.
I spend most of October wrapping up projects, working on back burner projects so that I don’t start a big project too soon and mostly, worrying about what I’m going to write for Nanowrimo this year.
Anyone else Octo-Fret-Mo? Let me know in the comments.
In the meanwhile, if you need to take your mind of your fretting, you can pick up my latest YA novel for free this weekend only. Check it out here.

Shield Maidens, Bell Curves and Strong Women

The recent discovery that half of Viking warriors were women has shaken a lot of people’s world view. Of course, it has also already led to a backlash of why “that’s not what the study really said.” As someone who read The Prehistory of Sex when it first came out in 1997 and who has followed this debate for some time, it’s another in a long string of studies that shows the same two things. Trying to determine the sex of remains by the type of grave goods found with them reinforces gender stereotypes and is highly inaccurate. Secondly, whether the ratio ever hit fifty percent or not, women warriors were not as uncommon as many would like to think.

The assumption of our sexist society is that our view of gender is rooted in ancient history and in practical concerns of those times. In the rugged kill or be killed world of ancient times, men were hunters and warriors and women mothers and gatherers. This is not, we have been taught, because of sexism. Men are simply stronger than women and that makes them better warriors. And yet the Vikings seem to fly in the face of all that.

Are men stronger than women?

The best answer is yes, but…

1. The Bell Curve

Statistics don’t lie, but they are a great way to mislead. Nowhere is there a better example than the relative strength of men and women.

For starters it depends a lot on how your measure strength. Men have broader shoulders and that gives them better leverage. On measures of upper body strength men tend to outperform women by a wide margin in many studies. Measures of lower body strength tend to be much closer to equal.

Men tend to be larger than women, so the average man has more muscle mass. Again this leads to men being stronger in many fitness test. But pound for pound, muscle is muscle. There is no male muscle or female muscle. If you test two people who are equally fit and have the same lean body weight, the difference evaporates.

Back in 1994 Charles Murray and Richard Hernestein raised a lot of controversy by using the statistical method known as the Bell Curve to prove their sexist and racist assumptions about America. I have always found the title somewhat ironic, since the bell curve also shows the real problem with their assumptions.

If we plot a bell curve showing the average strength of men and women, we find the two curves overlap significantly. What that means is that while the average score for men might be higher, a significant percentage of the female population is stronger than the average man.

This is pretty much true of all gender based distinctions. They are true in general but the exceptions make up such a significant minority that it throws the result into question.

What does that have to do with shield maidens?

When people say things like men are x% stronger than women, many of us have this image of lining all the men and women up side by side. And the men will all lift x% more than the woman next to them. But that’s not how it works. Some of the men will be stronger than the woman next to them and some of the woman will be stronger. Once you’ve tested everyone and regrouped them according to strength, you will find more men in the stronger category, but a fair number of women as well. Do you tell this minority of women they must stay home from the war because their sex is, on average, weaker? If you are a smart Viking captain the answer will be no. Take the strong, leave the weak, regardless of gender.

2. Practical differences

The second problem with the notion that men are stronger than women is that no one questions to what extent this statistical difference translates into a practical one. According to this post on the average joe, the average man can bench press 145 pounds and the average woman 60 pounds. That’s modern Americans and that’s a pretty big difference. They can squat 165 pounds for men and 105 for women. There are a number of reasons why ancient Viking men and women were probably much closer in strength.

How important is this strength difference in combat? That’s a fair question.

Here is a list of medieval weapons with their size and weight listed. Looking at the list we see that a scandinavian sword from the ninth century was 30 inches long and weighed just under three pounds. The largest two handed sword on the list runs about 14 pounds. The common fantasy trope of a woman picking up a man’s weapon and staggering under the weight is an exaggeration at best. None of these weapons are too heavy for the average modern female to lift or swing, let alone a shield maiden.

Swing: I am transgender. I am also a hippy. I used to live in the country. We chopped wood and heated our trailer with a woodstove. I got good with an axe. I still own that land and we still go out there on the weekends. Now that I have transitioned and I don’t have the testosterone I once had, I don’t have nearly the same upper body strength. My sixteen year old son is probably stronger than me, but I can out chop him with the axe because I have more experience. The secret is to use the momentum of the axe, rather than brute force.I have no idea how I would fare on a Viking battlefield, but the same dynamic applies with swords and battle axes. It’s not always the one who can throw the most brute force behind an attack that’s going to win. A weaker warrior, with better skill and timing can bring down a stronger one readily.

People who really want to make the argument that stronger (male) is better than the weaker (female) can always look to the late medieval period, when plate armor and heavy sword and shield combinations were common. But to argue that a relative small difference in strength made women unfit to wield a Viking axe or sword is difficult at best.

Stab: So what if women’s upper body strength does translate to a disadvantage on the battlefield? The idea of two Viking men dueling mono a mono with swords is largely a myth, one they themselves perpetuate in their saga literature. Those duels were major events of the sagas, but a minor portion of their battlefield tactics. Many Vikings fought with spears. Spears are a thrusting weapon. It relies much more on lower body strength, especially in a charge. Even if you don’t have them wielding axes and swords in combat, a group of shield maidens charging with spears is just as effective as a group of men.

Shoot:  The Viking bow had a draw strength of up to 90 pounds. The average modern American woman might struggle with that, but a conditioned woman wouldn’t. And shooting a bow is a matter of skill, not brute strength. Here is another place where men and women have a practical equality even if men are statistically stronger.

Think: There is a lot more to fighting and war than charging blindly into battle. A crafty warrior often defeats a bigger, stronger one. Strength is but one factor on the battlefield. If you think women can’t be as crafty or devious as men, you don’t know many women.

Girl in armor with a sword knight

Girl in armor with a sword knight

Survive: History buffs will know this already, but in ancient times it was not uncommon for armies to lose more men from starvation and disease on the way to the war then in battle. Life was difficult in the best of times. For soldiers in the field it was brutal. They marched for weeks on near starvation rations. Poor hygiene led to epidemics of disease. Poor sanitation and no knowledge of infection meant that many of those injured in battle died of infections between battles.While statistics almost invariably show men to have greater brute strength, they just as consistently show women to have greater constitutional strength. In natural disasters women tend to have a higher survival rate than men. (A lot of this can be chalked up to simple estrogen and body fat. Higher body fat gives women a bigger cushion against malnutrition.) If you are considering who to take on a long campaign with you, this might figure into your thinking. The point of all this comes to this: being able to lift more weight over your head doesn’t necessarily translate into being a better warrior, or having a better chance at survival. There are many factors and brute strength is just one of them.

3. Outliers and Modern Athletics

If the difference between men and women are insignificant, why do men outperform women in almost every athletic field today? Doesn’t that prove that the difference is significant?

Not really. The problem is the highly competitive nature of most sports and outliers. Outliers are people that fall outside the statistical norms. Because of the competitive nature of most sports, professional athletes are all outliers, people who score well outside the normal range on any number of physical measurements.

The practical issue is that even a small difference of mean scores can translate into large differences at the end. For example a bench press weight that puts you in the top 5% of men might be the top 1% of women. For a real life example, Becca Swanson, the strongest woman in America can bench press 600 pounds. The number of men who have achieved that extraordinary feat numbers about 58. Becca proves that some women can compete with men even in the arena of brute strength, but she also shows just how outnumbered the women are at that level of competition.

When you are dealing with professional athletes you get a statistical double whammy because the events and results are also at the very edge of the statistical norm. Tiny differences in conditioning and training can equal much larger differences in the end result. The fastest marathon time by a man is twelve minutes faster than the fastest time by a woman. A marathon is over 26 miles, so that man ran about 46 seconds faster each mile. Meanwhile if you compare Usain Bolt’s men’s world record 100 meter dash to Florence Joyner’s time for women, the difference is just a hair shy of one second.

And, yes, at that level of performance biologically driven difference between men and women probably plays a role. Men are larger, on average, and have bigger ribcages and that means more capacity to move oxygen (critical to running). Men have more testosterone and other androgens, which play a critical role in conditioning. However the more research I do, the less conclusive the results seem. The inescapable conclusion seems to be that pound for pound, a conditioned female athlete is equal to a male athlete, there’s just fewer of them around.


What does that have to do with shield maidens?

Nothing, and that’s my whole point.

If King Haakon is picking the biggest, strongest warriors in all of Norway to be in his bodyguard, there is a good chance that it will stacked with more men, because men tend to be bigger. But if the average chieftain is deciding who gets to carry a spear and defend the village at need, there is likely to be a more even mix. A one second difference in rushing speed isn’t going to make a big practical difference when both runners are carrying spears and trying to spill your blood.


While this new finding may have shocked many, those familiar with Norse history expected as much. A generation of archaeologists and palaeontologists have been questioning the age old practice of sexing remains based on burial goods. It has created self reinforcing gender stereotypes. We assume that only men are warriors and only warriors would be buried with weapons. Then we assume any grave that contains weapons must be a male grave. As forensic science and DNA testing becomes more important tools, we are discovering these assumptions wrong.

Those of who have read some of Iceland’s great saga literature will know that it was a far more egalitarian society than later medieval Europe. Shield maidens, women warriors  and strong independent women in general abound. Those who doubt that Viking women were as tough as their men, might find an axe buried in their chest.


Ten Adult Dystopian novels now that you’ve read Hunger Games

Now that you’ve read the Hunger Games, Divergent and a slew of other YA dystopias, including one titled Dystopia, where do you go next? Dystopian novels are nothing new. Long before Suzzane Collins brought them to the YA genre, writers were exploring dystopian worlds in literature, science fiction and fantasy. Here are my favorites.

What makes a novel Dystopian?

Before we begin the list, what makes something dystopian? I will give my answer in two parts. First, what makes a society dystopian and then what makes a novel dystopian.

What’s a dystopian society?

Dystopia, at its simplest definition, is the opposite of a utopia. A utopia is a perfect society, so a dystopia must be a terrible society. But that’s pretty vague. I prefer to define a dystopia as a dysfunctional society.

Some families or groups look and act crazy, but function fairly well together. Others act normal but are loaded with dysfunction once you get inside. So what makes a group dysfunctional? A common litmus test that sociologists and psychologisst use is the Über rule. The űber rule is; you can’t question the rules.

Every group has certain rules and expectations. Ideally these rules were established for a reason. Members understand why the rule is there, when it was instituted and how. There is a protocol in place for discussing and changing rules as the situation changes.

But when the űber rule is in place, you aren’t allowed to question the rules. The reason the rules are in place are hidden or forgotten. Any attempt to discuss the rules or change them is an act of treason against the group.

For example, the United States might act a little crazy at times but we all know how the laws are made, how they can be changed and we are free to discuss what changes we might want to make, so it’s not a true dystopia. Of course you can argue that there’s corruption in how laws are made, unequal enforcement, etc. and we are times, pretty dysfunctional. But it’s still short of a true dystopia.

In Soviet Russia, on the other hand, laws were made by a small group who didn’t have to explain how or why they choose those laws. Any attempt to question the regime was harshly dealt with. It does qualify as a dystopian society.

So what makes a novel dystopian?

I have two simple criteria. The dominant group in the novel must be dysfunctional to the point of being dystopian. The group’s dysfunction must drive the novel.

A lot the novels that you find on the average listopia don’t really qualify as dystopian to me. By the same token there are a lot of good novels that should be considered dystopian but aren’t.

I don’t have any zombie or apocalypse novels on this list, because the dysfunctional society, if it exists, doesn’t drive the story. It’s a side effect of the apocalypse. Most epic fantasies don’t qualify either, because they tend to be about stopping the totalitarian regime (AKA evil wizard) from taking over. A true dystopian novel is about the character’s struggles living within a dystopian society.

Here are my top ten picks for adult dystopian novels.


1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

When a conservative Christian group takes over the United States, the Republic of Gilead is formed. Marketplaces now features pictures since women aren’t allowed to read. Facing declining fertility they begin to employ handmaids, to let the ruling caste procreate. In order to avoid the idea that this is adultery, the handmaid must lay under the sheets while the man stares at his wife.

Told from the point of a view of a handmaid, there is no doubt the novel is both dystopian and adult. It’s very well written.

2. Make Room! Make Room! (AKA Soylent Green) by Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel about an overcrowded urban society facing food and space shortages, became the inspiration for 1973 movie, Soylent Green. It’s a great dark dystopian novel. Fans of the film beware, Make Room! Make Room! doesn’t include cannibalism.

3. Wool by Hugh Howey

Wool tells the story of a future where the world has been blighted and unlivable. Survivors live in underground silos. What really makes Wool a true dystopian is that the survivors don’t even remember what happened to make it that way, and even thinking of outside is a criminal offense punishable by death.

4. The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert had a thing about survival of the fittest. It shows up frequently in his works. The Fremen of Dune are tough because they’ve spent generations in one of the toughest environments ever, the planet Arakis. Arakis, however, can’t hold a candle to Dosadi. The novel is set in the Whipping Star series, though it’s easy to read as a stand alone novel. Aliens have conspired to keep a small group of aliens and humans trapped on a toxic planet, until the survivors have become so strong they now fear to let them out.

5. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash is a classic cyberpunk novel but it also qualifies as dystopian in my opinion. The government has more or less ceased to function and sovereign corporations have moved into the power vacuum. The result is a byzantine world of sovereign corporations that is well described.

I have always admired Stephenson’s gutsy writing style, but never more than his decision to make his hero a half-Japanese American named Hiro. Hiro is a hacker turned pizza delivery guy who is drawn into a friendship with a young skateboard courier named YT. The two of them must work together to uncover the secret of Snow Crash, a computer virus that can infect hackers brains.

6. 1984 by George Orwell

Published in 1959, when the title date seemed far in the future, 1984 is a dystopian classic. It’s so old school that most 1984 fans still think old school is a popular catchphrase. Even so, it’s a must read, especially if you have ever wondered where terms like thought police, big brother and double speak come from. It’s a world that is so fucked up and dystopian that after the main characters is caught and re-educated for his thought crimes, they leave him alive until he is so brainwashed that he agrees with his sentence and volunteers for death.

7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

One of Bradbury’s classic novels, Fahrenheit 451 is an allusion to temperature at which a book will ignite and burn. The novel tells of a world where knowledge is censored and books are all banned. Guy Montag is a fireman. It’s his job to find and destroy books. That is until he is sucked into a secret society that strives to save literature by memorizing books whole.

8. Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson

Life under the dome is perfect, except for one small fact. To conserve resources everyone must die at thirty. That doesn’t seem like much of a problem when you are in your early twenties, and as you near thirty, well that’s what the Sandmen are for, to make sure no one runs.

9. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut is one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. His style is dark and cynical, and several of his novels show up frequently on listopia and elsewhere as dystopian novels. Most of those novels don’t make my cut. Titles like Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five are unrelentingly dark, but the societies are not true dystopias. But Player Piano is different. The society is one where machines are rapidly replacing humans in virtually all jobs, creating a new lower caste of unemployed or barely employable men. Strikes a little too close to home at times.

10. The sword of truth series by Terry Goodkind

I have left almost the entire fantasy genre off this list for one simple reason. Most epic fantasies are about the struggle of good and evil. The evil is the threat, a wizard, lord or ruler that is trying to take over the land. While that can make a great story, its not a dystopia. A dystopian novel must be driven by the characters reaction to living within a dystopian society. The Sword of Truth series is one of the few that meets that requirement.

My Shameless Promotion:

I’ve dabbled in post-apocalypse and have one book out that could be defined as dystopian. In Children of a New Earth, Amy Beland has been raised on Freedom Ranch, deep in the Rocky Mountains in the years after the collapse. The ranch is run by white supremacist. They don’t allow much discussion or input in decision making and they’ve lied to the younger generation about why the collapse has even happened, making it a pretty clear dystopian society. You can download a copy from Amazon:

Children of a new earth, front


Six Books that Prove Book Banners don’t Read

My last post, banned books I have loved, featured ten books that are often banned or challenged by conservatives. I told the story in that post of another book I was reading when book banning first entered my life. It was far more suggestive and sexual than what the ones they were seeking to ban, causing me to opine that conservatives must not read much.

So here is my list of books that to my knowledge have never been challenged or banned, but if conservatives actually read they might be.
1. The Heaven Makers by Frank Herbert

This is the book I was reading when my school was trying to ban Romeo and Juliet from the library. What I am going to say about the Heaven Makers is true of hundreds, if not thousands, of other books. There is sex in it. Not a lot, but as much as Romeo and Juliet, or a dozen other books that have been banned for sexual content. Conservatives don’t seem to get themselves into a book banning fever over sex in the average genre novel.

The point is that the classics often get attacked for relatively minor things that abounded in genre writing.
2. Billy Budd, by Herman Melville

While a Texas school board went after Moby Dick for head scratchingly vague reasons, no one seems to notice that his other great work, Billy Budd is about a homosexual encounter. The language is veiled, but the subtext is there.

Maybe subtext is okay because the conservatives can ignore it. Or maybe they see that as the proper place for any LGBT discussion, in the shadows. Either way it makes no sense to go after Moby Dick but not Billy Budd.

3. Darkover Landfall by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Left Hand of Darkness is frequently challenged for, among other things, presenting the concept of a hermaphroditic race that can become male or female depending on their potential mate. Darkover Landfall does the exact same thing, with Chieiri, with not a peep from conservatives.
4. Odd Girl Out

Again what I have to say about Odd Girl Out could easily be said of anything Ann Bannon, or many of her contemporaries, wrote. Bannon was noted for saying that there was one rule about writing gay novels in the days before stonewall, you could say anything as long as it had an unhappy ending. Unhappy endings aside, Bannon’s work gives us a glimpse into what gay life was like in the fifties.

Odd Girl Out was published in 1957. In 1975 Annie on my Mind was published, and immediately banned for violating the unspoken rule about unhappy endings. My point is that conservatives seem to object to specific LGBT titles that come to their attention, while entire genres of books fly under their radar.
5. The Moon Under Her Feet by Clysta Kinstler

Conservatives get up in arms over the Davinci Code, especially Dan Brown’s suggestion that Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene and they might have had children. Little do they realize, that was not Brown’s creation but a long standing, if heretical, belief in many gnostic sects. And someone already wrote the book. The Moon Under Her Feet retells the entire story of Jesus through the eyes of Mary Magdalene. It was published in 1991, beating Brown to the punch by more than twelve years.

6. Every fantasy book ever written

Conservatives want to ban Harry Potter because of stuff and reasons. Magic is treated as normal. There are battles of good and evil. Demons and spirits appear.

You know what, there’s a whole genre of that sort of thing. I can’t even begin to list them. If you don’t like this sort of stuff, fine. If you want to keep your kids away from its evil influence, don’t let them near any library, bookstore or pile of books larger than two, because it’s everywhere. For that matter, don’t let them read the bible either. There’s magic in it, stories of angels and miracles, battles of good and evil.

I guess my conclusion is this, I disagree with banning books on principle. I don’t, however, object to people having strongly held beliefs that are different then mine. But could you please be a little more consistent about those beliefs?

Margot Adler

I stopped being a Christian when I was sixteen. It was a conscious decision. I was raised in the Lutheran church. My parents insisted that I go through catechism class, at which point they considered me a spiritual adult and I could make up my own mind.

Even at the time I saw a lot of good in the Christian religion. The problem was that I struggled to find a personal connection inside that religion. I wanted, more than anything, to really feel that God was part of my life. I never got that feeling from praying or worshiping in a church.

From the time I was sixteen until I was twenty two, I described myself a spiritual seeker. I read about and practiced many faiths for a time. I meditated with a Zen Buddhist group in Iowa City. I studied Taoism, Shinto, Hinduism, several New Age groups. I learned a great deal from all of them and I had a deep respect for all of them as well. But none gave me a sense of personal connection to the divine. I despaired every finding such a thing in real life.

In 1992 I was working at a summer camp for the disable just outside of Des Moines, Iowa. One weekend between sessions, I went to the public library and stumbled across Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon. I read it over the course of the next week. I was struck, forcibly, by a sense that she was talking about people like me. It’s almost cliche in pagan circles, but I felt a sense of homecoming.

The next weekend after the campers and staff left (I was one of the few live in staff) I hiked deep into the back forty. I pondered and prayed over her suggestion, that the divine was originally female. I asked the mother goddess to show herself to me. A sense of presence came over me, the feeling you get when someone walks into a room only many times greater.

Over the years, the Goddess has shown herself to me many times and in many ways. But I attribute a lot of my start in paganism to that one book.

Margot Adler’s soul slipped out of it’s mortal coil yesterday. She was sixty eight and had been battling cancer for more than three years. In addition to being a pagan writer and elder, she had a long successful career as a journalist, working for NPR.

She will be missed by many. May the Goddess welcome her with open arms.