Hope, No Hope, and What the Heck

I’m having a hard time getting back to writing after an enforced period of life adjustments, including no computer. I gladly gave up pen and paper years ago, and despite my best efforts during the down time, there’s just no going back. I hate to think what that will mean for people like me in the event of societal collapse and the end of the power grid and the internet.

In fact, thinking about the oncoming future, for which my grandchildren are in no way prepared, makes writing about almost anything, and particularly writing and publishing, seem like a pointless exercise. Depressives shouldn’t start their day skimming over a dozen news sites and environmental magazines. But the world goes on and somehow I do too, in spite of being all too aware of the now-official sixth extinction, which has actually been going on for sometime, and the very real possibility that climate change can take some very sudden and nasty turns. Environmental scientists are beginning to speak openly of their despair that we will change the destructive ways that are destroying the natural world, and that may very well kill us.

All in all, my little trauma of losing my quiet cave after 15 years, of losing over half of my fairly skimpy belongings (which includes several hundred books), seems like pretty small potatoes. Granted, it hangs over me in a nearly invisible cloud that I’m fighting on a daily basis. After all, human psychology is far more effective at controlling our lives than logic can ever be. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have post-traumatic stress disorder, but I’m not functioning at my laughable-by-anyone-else’s-standards best.

Still — I think I wrote sometime back that I would be expanding my blogging beyond literary topics to more or less whatever’s concerning or interesting me at the moment. So, you can take this post as a first step in that direction.

Two articles that have impacted on me lately, with reference to the above: When the End of Human Civilization is Your Day Job (that’s the despairing one). And one that looks on the slightly brighter side, but one that depends on you, not some outside power that’s going to come along and make everything okay: Beyond Hope

No Recent Posts – Big Life Change

The apartment building I lived in for 15 years had a major fire. As a result, I was a Red Cross refugee for two weeks, with minimal access to a computer. I’m more or less back — new state, temporarily (I hope) living with son, and hoping to get a place of my own sooner rather than later. Being back online is the biggest step toward normality for me, but I have lots of catching up to do.

But I’ll be back.


Water, Sex, Money

About the only time I envy people with money is when I want to buy a book that I can’t afford. I’d love to know what it feels like to plunk down 10, 15, 20 dollars or more without giving it a thought. No “Should I?” No “Can I afford it?” It must be nice. Right now, it’s a new novel by Paolo Bacigalupi that I’m yearning for. Wired posted the first chapter, and it sucked me right in. I loved The Windup Girl which, admittedly, is the only one of his books I’ve read so far, so I can’t say that I’m a fan. But if I could afford it, I probably would be.

I don’t know if The Water Knife will have the same dense, almost manic feel that rules The Windup Girl, but it looks to have the same immersive quality. The world is deep into a time when water can be so scarce and precious that it instigates wars. I don’t know how far along the timeline Bacigalupi places his novel, but we might be closer than the book anticipates, with water theft already becoming a matter of concern in drought-ridden California.

It’s the kind of book I practically drool over, both in the anticipation and the reading. And patience isn’t my strong suit.

It’s this kind of frustration that’s making me consider tweaking a novel-in-progress, purely for financial considerations. The story combines indentured servitude and coming of age. It would probably be about as popular as my hand slaves novels, which is to say: not very popular at all. But it would be easy to tweak it into a gay romance. I don’t do erotica. I don’t even do sex, so this would be very discreet — not even fade-to-black sex scenes. So, still not a tempting buy for readers (mostly women) who like to be turned on by male/male sex. (I honestly don’t get that at all.) It wouldn’t be HEA (happy every after), but HFN (happy for now), with even that possibility left up in the air. The male-romance crowd pretty much hates ambiguity, so between no-sex and no promise of happy ever after, maybe I’m shooting too many holes in my foot for it to even be worth the effort of making the changes.

I dunno. Some days, I think I’ll just give up writing. I’m pretty good at proof-reading. Maybe I’ll set me up a little business.


The New Serfdom — Again

I’ve been wrestling with one particular novel for two or three years now. The New Serfdom, which I’ve mentioned here before, has evolved drastically, moving Nolan,  the original main protagonist, to secondary position and moving Gil, the original secondary, into the primary. And somewhere along the way, the novel turned into something completely different from the original concept.

There have been, and still are, a lot of problems with trying to get it written (or rewritten). I didn’t know Gil well enough. And there are two, and possibly three timelines, to fit in so they don’t lose the reader. I’ve swerved back and forth between trying to “fix” it and just tossing and forgetting. Tossing and forgetting has been very tempting at times because the novel is now a complete mess. But the new version that has been evolving from the original keeps pulling at me. In almost every way, it’s much more interesting than the original and potentially more productive of the conflicts that are necessary to any novel, and of the world building that is necessary to a science fiction novel.

I’ve played around with making setting up a rough chronological outline that takes all the timelines into account, but that hasn’t worked. And the reason it hasn’t worked is that I haven’t worked out why this character or that character is present at a particular time and exactly what they are supposed to be doing. What I’ve been trying to do is exactly what many writers do successfully — work out the plot first — and that I can’t do, successfully. Just in case anyone is confused here, a story idea isn’t a plot. You can invent many different plots from one story idea. In fact, that’s been done — giving several authors a story idea and challenging them to come up with their own plots.

My books are much more about the characters than the plots, and for some reason, I’ve upset the balance in trying to work out a new version of New Serfdom. I will never be able to work out the timelines until I know exactly why each character is doing what he’s doing and why he’s where he is at a specific moment in time. And the only way to learn all that is to ask questions.

The working file for every novel I’ve written has a section called “questions.” The questions I ask, and how I answer them, determine more about the novel than does the plot. That’s where I need to focus my attention. Go through the old questions based on the original concept, throw out the ones that are no longer relevant, add the ones that will lead me to the answers I need now. Instead of an outline, which many writers of how-to books insist is an absolute necessity, my books are shaped by questions. And most of those questions are about the characters, not about the plot.

A lot of genre novels are mostly about the plot, which makes them fairly easy to outline. They’re about what happens, and when. Once you have that, the characters do what the plot demands. Adding depth to any of the characters is optional. But genre stories don’t have to be written that way. Some readers prefer depth, thank goodness, so it’s possible to write stories where the plot is determined by the characters’ motivations, rather than the other way around. The main protagonists determine the direction of the plot. If I don’t lose sight of that again, maybe New Serfdom will get finished someday.

A Future When I Won’t Be Here

You’d think someone as old as I am wouldn’t give a damn about the long-term future. And part of me doesn’t. It’s a great source of inspiration for science fiction, but it isn’t going to affect me one way or the other. My children are too concerned with their day to day concerns to think about it. My grandchildren? They will be the victims of today’s actions and inactions by those in power.

A small part of the long-term future is resources. Water is much in the news because of the drought in the far west of the US. Nestles and other companies are making fortunes bottling up the water that is in increasingly short supply. Fracking operations are draining and polluting underground water that cities draw on for drinking water. Maybe the drought will break next year. Maybe it won’t. Weather prediction is still just as much an art as a science.

The comments on a Gizmodo article on #droughtshaming in California are a good insight into attitudes pro and con water conservation. One point that got me was the statistics. Residential use of water in California is only 20% of overall consumption, and exterior landscaping is only 9% of that. So, while there are good reasons to shame  the celebrities who still maintain their swimming pools and green lawns, even a 100% switch to ecological common sense by the moneyed elite wouldn’t be more than a drop in the bucket. If all the lawns in California dried up and blew away, it wouldn’t make a dent in a failing water supply.

All of which made me think about the good old days when we were encouraged to recycle everything. Cities invested big bucks in recycling pickup, and sorting facilities. Most of them shut down when they proved to be mostly a financial drain. And, of course, the statistics showed the truth — that residential garbage was such an insignificant part of the country’s waste stream that if every citizen did their part, it wouldn’t make a dent.

I live kitty corner from a 24/7 convenience store, and for the last two months I watched the remodeling that involved huge dumpsters filled to overflowing as the inside was gutted and the outside was redecorated. I watched a small fake dormer torn down and replaced by a giant fake dormer that involved what was probably thousands of pounds of lumber and roofing materials. And all I could think about was that if I recycled every recyclable for my entire life, it wouldn’t amount to what that one store hauled to the dump.

The funny thing is that I do still recycle, but I’ve recently made a change. I still put paper products in the dumpster set aside for that behind my apartment building because paper recycling is fairly efficient, and paper sent to the dump would be worthless in the future. But glass and cans now go into the garbage. I think of it as my tiny contribution to a future when municipal dumps are a major resource in a society that has collapsed under the weight of its own stupidity and blindness.


Month by month, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to write — anything. I’m not written out, not with WIPs that still entice me to finish them. Not with new ideas steadily percolating. Not with the world bursting into flame everywhere I look. But it’s a good day when I write a couple of hundred words. It’s about relevance — the place you come to one day and say “What’s the point?”

A recent article in The Daily Beast asked “Are We Distracting Ourselves to Death?” That instantly reminded me of a book written by Neil Postman thirty years ago: Amusing Ourselves to Death. The answer to the Daily Beast’s question is, of course, yes. It’s just a replay of Postman’s book. I read over a dozen news sources, including independent and international, so I have a pretty good picture of what’s taking place in the world — the trends and patterns of international politics and how the average person views what’s going on. And the only possible conclusion I can come to about the value of writing anything is that it’s an exercise in futility, unless you write purely for the income.

I’ve never spent much time on social media, and have less and less motivation to do what little “promotion” I’ve been capable of. The effort is just too great for too little return. What difference does it make if 25 people sign up for my prison blog? The only people who will do that are already interested in the topic, and they are perfectly capable of getting the same information elsewhere, from dozens of sources. What difference does it make that I write novels exploring moral issues? The few people who buy and read them, are far more interested in the emotional issues of the characters. Give your reader someone they can cry over, and the rest of the content hardly matters.

I’m not so much bitter as realistic and very, very tired. I’m tired of reading about the dangers the human race is facing, and the overwhelming indifference and sheer denial of most individuals. I’m tired of living in a country that bills itself the champion of human rights and freedom, and that grips the rest of the world ever tighter in its fist, with military bases everywhere, and the ability to deal remote-controlled death wherever it wishes. The people of the United States have been conquered in an almost bloodless coup (unless you happen to be poor and/or black), and are now living in a military/corporate regime that is the real power behind the presidency.

But none of that matters because what the beautiful people are wearing is far more important, along with the pity parties that are becoming standard fare, as everyone moans publicly about their bad marriage, unhappy childhoods, their unappreciated books, etc., etc. Studies have shown that news items about abused pets or babies draw far more interest than stories about villages being wiped out, whether by nature or bombs, or about horrible injustices that take place daily. I don’t find that at all surprising.

Believe any of that, or not. I really don’t care. This post is just about how I feel, not an attempt to influence anyone.

Bentham’s Dream – Two

Everything about the interior that I was led through was also generic, so bland that we might have been in an ordinary office building. Even the carpeting underfoot was the heavy-duty, no-nonsense kind that said no money was being wasted on luxuries. Presumably, that wouldn’t be true of the technology.

Right from the first, this place was intended never to succumb to obsolescence. We knew that much. It had been built with the most advanced technologies of the time, with the intention of updating to keep the prison at the forefront of penal institutions. That it continued to function after almost a half century without the slightest hint of any significant problems, said a lot about its planners and builders. And also about the level of security that kept every advance a dark secret. How the hell they’d managed that, decade after decade, was something that I sincerely wanted to know. If there had been problems, would the news ever have leaked out? I suspected it would be one of the things I wouldn’t learn.

The man that stood up when we entered his office was almost as ordinary looking as Feldman, but I sensed a presence. I know that sounds crazy, but there aren’t that many men who can impress me without saying a word, and this one cranked up my nerves an extra notch. The warden of any supermax prison carries an extra burden, but Westminster is the only one where every prisoner is in solitary confinement for the remainder of his life. So many ethical questions still swirl around solitary; the idea of using it as a lifetime punishment — that’s still beyond the pale as far as a lot of people are concerned. That was the crux of it, really. Out where I normally worked, it was still a volatile issue, even when it’s temporary, even when it’s been modified to acknowledge its terrible mental effects. But it was the entire reason why this prison existed. And the first few seconds of being in this man’s presence told me that he was up to the job. More, he wasn’t someone I wanted to piss off.

“Mr. Stanton.” Chandler gave me a small nod and an even smaller smile, and reached across the desk. He was observing me, and I found that vaguely unsettling. I expected this assignment could be an unpleasant one, but I wasn’t prepared to be examined as if I was an entering prisoner. But I damn well wasn’t going to let the man intimidate me. I smiled back and shook his hand.

Chandler turned his attention to his deputy. “Mr. Feldman, please inform me when the new prisoner arrives.” And that was it. He came around the desk and took off without another word. He apparently took it for granted that I would follow him.
“We’ll start with the maintenance areas, Mr. Stanton. Then we will proceed to the cells and tower. That should give you the basis you need to understand the intake procedure you’ll be seeing afterwards. You will be recording audio throughout?”

Taking a deep, silent breath, I said, “Yes, I will. I’ll also be making text notes.” I pulled a slate out of my jacket. “If you and Mr. Feldman wish to review the material before I leave, I’m willing to wait. And you can download your own copy.”

A committee member had suggested that I record video or at least take photos, but that had been shot down by the chairman without comment. I’d been sure it would be. For a couple of seconds, I’d even debated with myself about the man’s intelligence. So, when it came time to sign the non-disclosure agreement, I wasn’t at all surprised that it was the strictest I’d ever seen. I couldn’t even make sketches  from memory, after leaving the prison. I’d thought about dashing off a couple of rough ones, just to have a memento, until I read the agreement. I wasn’t a fool. Even if I hadn’t been legally bound, I realized that even something so innocent could risk the security of the prison if they were ever found.

My inspections had always included tours that the administrators set up, hoping that I wouldn’t look any further or ask any uncomfortable questiosn. This one was impressive, strictly on point, without personal chatter or any sign that Chandler would welcome frivolous questions. And he sure as heck wasn’t the slightest bit interested in me. The man was all business, and if he was cooperating only because he didn’t have any choice, he kept his feelings about it well out of sight. He spouted statistics, and pointed out details that I might not have noticed on my own, with an assurance that said this was a man who stayed on top, always in control. It was reassuring, but in a way that gave me a chill. The prison would be run exactly as mandated, but it made me wonder how that translated to the inmates. Were they humans to this man, or just warm bodies to be managed? Maybe, during the course of the day, Chandler would reveal his humanity, but for the first part of the tour, he did a very good impression of an extemely well-designed and intelligent robot. But if he thought I was going to be distracted from my own goals, he was mistaken. I took it for granted that he was covering up something. And I took it for granted that, whatever it was, I would find it.

Our first stop was the kitchen, maybe to impress on me just how different this place was from a normal prison. Well, it did. It was antiseptically clean, with every surface, and every pot and pan sparkling. The odors coming from the huge pots on the stove, in preparation for lunch, were tantalizing enough to remind me that I hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning. One of the cooks, with a nod from Chandler, offered me a taste of a vegetable stew. It was delicious, and Chandler allowed himself a tiny smile that I was beginning to think of as a patented mask, at my surprise.

Given what I knew about the average diet and the quality of the food that prisoners were usually subjected to, my question was inevitable. “Is this how the prisoners normally eat?” There was every possibility that it was all theater, for my benefit. That’s why my normal inspections were always unannounced. There were wardens who hated my guts. They couldn’t tidy up the disgusting conditions before I saw them and they couldn’t bribe me to look the other way.

“Staff and prisoners eat the same food,” Chandler said, without seeming to grasp the implication of the question or taking it as an insult. “Proper nourishment contributes to good health and extends the lifetime. You might say it is part of the punishment.”

Was that official prison policy or Warden Chandler’s personal philosophy in action? Or an example of extremely dry humor? Whichever it was, it put me a little off-balance. There might be some interesting twists in this investigation. If Chandler had a philosophy at all, it probably wasn’t going to be like anything I was used to hearing about.

The statistics kept piling up as we walked through the laundry, the clothing depot, the housekeeping area, and a mobile medical dispensary. Chandler answered my questions concisely and briefly, but with a promise that I’d be able to quiz him in more depth after the tour. I resigned myself, making brief text notes, and marking the most important ones for priority in case the warden cut me off at some point. What I was most curious about at the moment was why there seemed to be no infirmary, just the mobile unit. But the recitation of facts went on, and didn’t give me much of a chance to break in with questions. Had he actually memorized a script for the entire tour?

“Westminster has 32 support staff and a rota of 21 guards…”

I broke in right there because I couldn’t let it go by. “How is that possible? You have… what? Some six or seven hundred prisoners! 21 guards for three shifts? I don’t understand.” His numbers had to be off somehow. Maybe his definition of “support staff” accounted for it.

“Since the inmates never leave their cells for any reason, the prison is designed to provide all services as efficiently as possible. That includes the number of personnel. All services are conducted in the prisoners’ cells, under conditions that require a minimum number of supervisory officers.”

The inmates never leave their cells! I stopped dead for a few seconds and had to catch up with him, jolted by that casual bit of information. It was a detail that no one knew about. And it immediately raised all kinds of questions about how this place was run.
“Mr. Chandler! What do you mean, they don’t leave their cells at all? Ever?”

Chandler stopped and turned when he realized that I’d fallen behind. “I mean exactly what I said, Mr. Stanton. Once a man enters his cell, the only way he leaves it is when life has left him. Oh, there is one exception. If there are any problems with the cell or its equipment that would make it difficult or impossible for the prisoner to remain in it, he will be transferred to another cell.”

“But that’s impossible! The effects of prolonged solitary confinement have been known for more than a  century. Not even the most despicable criminals deserve that. You’ve been allowed to operate without any outside oversight, but this…” My disbelief and indignation were in danger of carrying me away when Chandler raised his hand in a sharp gesture.

“I know what you are thinking, Mr. Stanton, but I assure you that your experience with solitary confinement has no relationship to what goes on here. Please have the courtesy not to judge until you see and understand how we deal with our prisoners.”

My face burned at being so openly chastised. And what the hell was I thinking, anyway, to criticise with so few of the facts in hand? If I blew this chance, it was unlikely that it would come again until a new warden took Chandler’s place. I didn’t even want to think about what such a serious mistake would do to my career.

It galled me, but I had to back off and apologize. There was every reason to expect that what went on here would be different, and there had been plenty of brainstorming about what that might mean. Now it looked like we’d all suffered a failure of imagination. “You’re quite right, Mr. Chandler, and I apologize. I assure you it won’t happen again. It’s just… It took me by surprise.”

“Yes, I suppose it would. I’m well acquainted with the methods of penal systems out there. Ours are quite different, as you’ll see.”

The warden’s expression was cool, but I didn’t detect any sign of anger. Either the man was just a cold SOB who didn’t let himself be affected by what anyone else thought, or he’d prepared himself for criticism. Was the smooth delivery of his patter rehearsed, as I’d thought, or was he one of those people who always have every detail at their finger tips? It wasn’t as if he was going to make a habit of giving tours. Why go to that kind of trouble for one intruder in his domain?

He went on with a recitation of the kinds of support staff employed by the prison, so an explanation of total seclusion was apparently going to come in its own good time. Or his good time. I kept part of my attention on the spiel, and the rest on trying to reconcile the small staff with the new knowledge. That would certainly allow a reduction in the number of guards needed, but even so, only 21 in three shifts of seven? That would mean a level of control I’d never encountered before, even in the most draconian supermax prisons. It had to be based on something more than just 24/7 cell restriction, which wasn’t that uncommon in high-security prisons. There must be other precautions. And for the life of me, I couldn’t imagine what they would be.

But the thought of anyone, even the worst of criminals, being condemned to solitary for the rest of their life, sent a pang of empathetic pain through me. Such extreme isolation had to lead to madness. I knew all too well what supermax conditions were like, and the statistics for mental breakdowns and suicides in their prisoner populations. I forced myself to abandon the problem for the time being. There was too much I didn’t know. Hell, I didn’t really know anything. At least, if Chandler had already revealed that much, he probably wasn’t going to evade a thorough explanation.

Hugo Awards, Autism, Website

Has anyone noticed the big to-do about the Hugo science fiction awards? Apparently a more or less far right group calling themselves Sad Puppies have hijacked the awards in order to prevent books and stories that they disapprove of from winning. This is another tempest in a teacup that has caught the attention of too many pundits. How important are the Hugos? Well, if you have $40.00 you, too, can vote. So all that’s necessary to swing the votes is persuade a lot of people to shell out their $40.00, and you can buy the awards.

I’ve never bought an SF novel because it was a winner of any award. And I daresay that’s true for most SF fans. Over time, novels of any genre stand and fall on their merit. Very few readers know or care what awards they won or lost.

. . . . .

I’ve been reading a series of articles and book reviews on Disability in Kidlit. Since April is Autism Awareness Month, the site is devoting the entire month to reviews of juvenile and young adult books about autism, and articles by writers with autism, discussing how literature affects the public’s view of autism, and how books by non-autistics and autistics differ.

It has me thinking more seriously than my usual idle pondering, about my own experiences of growing up on the spectrum, when Asperger’s Syndrome was a brand new diagnosis that very few people had ever heard of. I was in my 60s before I knew there was such a thing as a autism. I spent a couple of years delving into it, mostly because it initially seemed to explain a lot of my lifelong problems, including why the heck I seem somewhat eccentric to many people. The controversies, which still dominate discussion about autism, were interesting, but once I judged that I was on the high end of the spectrum, I went on to other interests.

Reading the series on Disability in Kidlit, I’ve been able to look at autism from a new perspective. I’m not in the least interested in writing “kidlit,” and there’s a definite limit to how much I would want to write about myself, but as an adult with “high functioning autism,” I’m aware of many issues that even the autobiographies I’ve read don’t cover. So, possibly, another writing project. Low priority for now, but since I’m a patchwork writing, I’ll let it build slowly, just like most of my projects.

. . . . .

Speaking of projects, I’ve shut down my “official” website and am transferrring all the material here. The free reads have already made their way over, and there’s a link in the top menu. A website has no value unless it has readers, and trying to attract readers for it is just one more miserable task that I don’t have the time and energy for.

Bentham’s Dream – One

Today is just-do-it day, ending the internal debate about posting this story or at least a good part of it. It’s still in process, although it’s been through many edits already. I have notes on areas that still need to be more fully developed. It started out as a short story, about 10,000 words, and has expanded to 20,000 now. There might be another thousand or two in the hopper.

The story is science fiction, a look forward to a possible refinement and perfection of the Panopticon prison, where inmates are always under the eye of their warders. If you’re curious about the title, you can Google Jeremy Bentam and Panopticon.


Looking up at the enormous wall that loomed over Westminster Prison, waiting for the gate to open, I hadn’t been able to tell whether I was thrilled or frightened. I was used to prison walls, after all, but this was different. More threatening, somehow. I knew the bare facts: 30 foot walls surrounding approximately six acres, not that different from other prisons I’d visited. What was distinctive about it was the lack of razor wire at the top. I’d never seen walls that weren’t topped with razor wire, and asking around, my colleagues in other regions hadn’t either. That lack of the extra few feet of escape-proofing said something important about the security. It made me uneasy enough to think that it might be something I didn’t really wanted to know.

Its inmates were the kind most feared by the public, brutal killers too dangerous to ever see freedom again. Guilty of multiple murders, torture, and rape, and deemed incapable of being rehabilitated in any way that could guarantee society’s future safety, they lived out their lives here, effectively dead, as far as the rest of the world was concerned. How had this prison managed never to have had an escape, or even any major violence, in all the years of its operation? The decades of secrecy had given rise to all kinds of wild rumors. The prisoners were subjected to illegal medical experiments and then disposed of. Guards were turned loose to discipline prisoners without having to worry about rules. Prisoners weren’t confined to their cells and were simply turned loose to survive however they could, fighting and killing each other without fear of any penalties.

Even though I didn’t believe any of that, I still couldn’t help a shiver of apprehension at the thought of entering the place. But it was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I was the most qualified for it — twelve years as chief investigator for the Northwest Region Bureau of Prisons. If the assignment hadn’t been thoroughly official, vetted by bigwigs at every level almost all the way up to the president, I would have sold my blood, maybe even my soul to have this chance. How many people had ever been allowed more than a politely tolerant glimpse of Westminster’s public relations facade? Up till now, anyone who managed to get into the prison on official business was given a tour of the offices, the kitchens, a long-distance glimpse via telepresence, of the internal guard tower and beyond that, an out-of-focus view of some cells. They were shown a map of the structure, but with no scale indicated. No one knew how the place was staffed and run. Who the hell wouldn’t be itching to get hold of the key to that kind of control? Unless it was just public relations BS.

Westminster was the mystery that everyone in corrections wanted to solve. And I was the lucky son who was going to solve it. It was the most secure and the most secretive supermax prison ever built. If anyone had the vaguest idea what was behind the blank wall that surrounded it, or the least idea of how it was managed, it might have served as a model for other nations. Bribes had been paid, political influence had been brought to bear, more than once over the years, but Westminster had kept its secrets. Until now.

Only one thing could have opened the door all the way and allowed those secrets to be laid bare: the threat of a severe funding cut, by a legislature sick of being kept in the dark about how the taxpayers’ money was being spent. All three parties put aside their differences — most of them, anyway — and hammered out a bill that would crack Westminster wide open. Even the years of complaints by a judiciary that was forced to condemn men to an unknown fate hadn’t been able to do that. It was as if the successive wardens of West were absolute monarchs  of a country with an impenetrable border. All anyone knew was that when a man was sentenced to West, he would never be seen or heard of again.

Here on the cusp of the 22nd century, hidden away for nearly forty years, was the most expensive, and most radical, criminal containment project ever conceived. It was based on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, but what did that really mean? The structure, according to the blueprints, followed Bentham’s circular plan, with the all-seeing eye of the guards in the center tower. But beyond that? Nobody knew. How were the prisoners treated? How did the prison prevent outbreaks of violence?

The hands that gave out or denied funding wanted to know whether society still needed Westminster. Had its presence and its ever-present threat to the most violent and dangerous criminals resulted in any improvements in public safety? That had always been an arguable point, with equally strong pros and cons. Overall crime statistics hadn’t changed much. They went up and down with the economy, just like they always had. Besides, Westminster was only one prison, and it only held a few hundred prisoners, the provably “worst of the worst.”
One argument against its effect on crime was that the threat was too vague to be taken seriously by the very people it was designed to hold. If there was anything about prison that all the experts agreed on, it was that the threat wasn’t any kind of deterrent. But nobody ever came back from Westminster to talk about it. In the long run, all arguments broke down against the near-universal feeling that the kind of person who wound up in West wasn’t likely to do a risk assessment before setting out to murder or maim.

So there I was, nervous as hell, standing in front of the only human-size door I’d seen in the drive from the front gate. The gate itself was a monstrosity that was perfectly proportioned for the thirty-foot walls, and the sally port was no less impressive.[ Asks why the sally port is so large. The ultimate in caution – if an emergency of any kind required large infusion of police or military.] This door to the side of the sally port was, in a way, far more frightening. It reminded me that I had the privilege of walking in on my own, and walking out again, while the condemned men who were brought here in armored vans would never see the free world again.

Exactly what that meant was what I was here to discover. The thought of being swallowed up in that maw set my heart racing and my hands sweating. I hoped it was just the anticipation of being the first person to see every detail and report back to the rest of the world, and not the irrational fear that once I was in I would never be allowed to come back out. It was an uncomfortable reminder of being a brand new guard in my first job out of college, and too aware of how dangerous the work could be. In nearly 21 years I’d seen everything — the best-run prisons and the very worst. There had been plenty of indictments along the way, massive shakeups that had sent staff to prison for brutality, smuggling, bribery, sexual abuse. From the wardens at the top of the hierarchy right down to the maintenance crews, no one wanted to see me coming. I didn’t think the warden of Westminster would greet me with delight.

But this was different. No matter what I discovered, most of it would be labeled top secret and limited to the highest of the higher ups, and to the not quite so high, on a need to know basis. Only the most superficial of the prison’s secrets would be revealed to the public, just enough to satisfy the ever-burning curiosity about the place. I’d signed a non-disclosure agreement that was worth my life to violate. Literally. One leak, and I could conceivably end up here myself.

Several seconds after I’d pushed the buzzer I was beginning to wonder if anyone even knew I was out there. Then, with a loud click, the door opened, and I stepped into the sally port. Three uniformed men armed with rifles stood at different points around the interior. That was more security than I was used to, but the weapons were aimed at the floor, and I decided it was okay to breathe again. It was just as well because I was overwhelmed by the space that dwarfed mere human beings. Even the size of the main entrance hadn’t prepared me for the cavernous space and it was tough trying not to look like a gaping tourist.

My first thought was a question. Why such an enormous space when sentences to West were few and far between? With all the legal precautions in place to ensure that life in isolation was a just and appropriate fate, why build a sally port that could accomodate a small fleet of transport vehicles?

I shook off the question reluctantly. It might be one of those I’d be better off not asking, but I wouldn’t know until I’d sounded out whoever was going to be my escort. That was one of the things we’d talked about, preparing me for this visit —deciding what I needed to ask, and figuring out what not to ask. I wasn’t fool enough to believe that some things wouldn’t be hidden, but I had learned some diplomacy over the years, dealing with people who often had something to hide. Even here it should be possible to ask in a way that allowed people to just say no.
Nobody seemed inclined to tell me what I should do next, so I looked around, not that there was anything much to look at. The walls were just as blank and featureless as the one that surrounded the entire prison, and the walls of the building itself. That was one of the first things that struck me on the drive in, the odd construction of the prison. I’d guessed that the massive building in front of me was about three stories high. And it was only a guess because there were no windows to serve as a measure, except in the one-story protrusion wrapped partly around the dome that was the bulk of the prison. Externally, it fit the architectural drawings, but just like the drawings, the scale was impossible to judge. The only word that had come to mind, totally inadequate, was huge.

Looking across to the far wall, I saw another human-sized door. I hesitated, reluctant to step forward, uncertain as to what I was supposed to do next. Even if the rifles weren’t aimed at me, that could change in a heart beat. Should I head for the door? Wait for instructions? I took a few steps before the clicks stopped me. The sound was familiar from films, but it wasn’t one I was used to in real life and my heart pounded. It was a relief when a voice from somewhere above me said,

“Wait, please.”

I waited, just barely reassured by the ‘please.’ Was I being scanned? Had something gone wrong and I was about to be ejected? My appointment had been confirmed and reconfirmed at the highest levels. It would be a bitter disappointment if I had to turn around without seeing anything but this sally port. Not to mention the reactions of my superiors. Again, I kicked myself mentally for being stupid. West’s warden, as powerful as he might be inside these walls, hadn’t been given any choice. He would see me, and show me — everything. Then the door opened and a perfectly ordinary looking, middle-aged guy in a business suit came toward me.
“Your identification and authorization, please.” The tone was pleasant enough, but it was just as bland as his looks, and didn’t tell me a thing. Up close, he was a type that I might have met anywhere, the generic official, practically anonymous. He held out his hand, and kept it out while I fumbled to get my identification out of my wallet, and the authorization papers with the agency letterhead, signatures and seal out of my case. “Thank you.”

I watched him skim through them, then run a small scanner over my identification card. “Welcome to Westminster Prison, Mr. Stanton,” he said, as he handed everything back. “I’m Deputy Warden Feldman. Warden Chandler is expecting you. Come this way, please.”

500 Words a Day?

500 words a day shouldn’t be a big deal. I’ve written as much as 3,000 a day during NaNoWriMo, but I’ve also gone for weeks without writing a single word. Problem is, I get bored easily, and have so many WIPs that it’s way too easy to jump from one to another when I hit a tough spot that I don’t want to deal with. The net result is that I wind up frustrated with having too many things to work on, and end up unable to write at all.

Scrivener has been largely responsible for my becoming a writer at all, so now I’m hoping that one of its features will keep me from giving up altogether. I’ve never been one to set a daily word count goal, except during NaNo. Even then, it took being motivated to get to that 50,000 word pot of gold to keep me at it. And a big part of that was the stats page, which gave me a visual picture of how I was doing.

Scrivener’s stats aren’t as extensive as NaNo’s, but it does have a “target” feature that sets a daily count and shows a progress bar that gradually shifts from red to deep green. With the negative-count feature set, it keeps the count up to date even when I delete material. Leaving that little box on-screen is a nice motivator. I just hope that it’s a sufficient one. I started with a goal of 250 words Tuesday. Pretty pathetic, but a big step after a long dry spell. I ended the day with a little over 500 words, so Wednesday, I pulled up my writer pants, set the goal at 500 words and pushed a little beyond. Today’s goal is still 500 words, and I’m going to stick with that for a while, and try to get into a solid writing groove before upping the count any further.

The WIP that I’m dealing with right now is a short story that I’m expanding into a novella. Revision is just as mind-straining as editing, so I’m hoping that the color bar will be enough to keep me from jumping to another project to relieve the pressure. I’m also thinking about serializing it, either here or on my website, to add an extra bit of motivational push. Self-discipline isn’t one of my top characteristics, so I need all the help I can get.

Biting the Formatting Bullet

I didn’t publish anything last year, and for too long I was afraid that this year would be just as unproductive. I have one novel completed that I had planned to publish last year, but it didn’t happen, a victim of ebook-formatting despair. Formatting for Smashwords and Kindle was always a hassle, with my books looking completely different, depending on whether they were .mobi, .epub, or .pdf. They also displayed differently in different readers. I finally decided that I needed to give up my faith in my own formatting and turned to Scrivener’s Compile. After days of wrestling with too many details of the program, most of which were poorly explained, and failing to get the damned thing to set up a TOC the way I wanted it, I just gave up, my manuscript a worse mess than I could have managed on my own.

If that was the last book I was ever going to write and publish, it wouldn’t have mattered. But it wasn’t and I needed to find a workable solution. One well-known program for creating ebook files didn’t work at all, another was too complicated, and another worked for some people and not others.

It had become obvious that I needed to start using styles, which I hadn’t been doing. But that didn’t solve the problem of live links for the TOC, or converting the source text to the ebook formats. I can’t afford to pay someone to do any of that for me, and even if I could, I refuse to pay someone to do what I should be able to learn to do for myself.

I knew that the core of all ebooks is HTML. I also knew a few basics of HTML, so I was mildly interested whenever someone would say that the way to go was to convert your text to HTML for total control. But I’m not good at any kind of coding, and wasn’t willing to dive deep into HTML. Until now. What got me to change my mind was an excerpt from Guido Henkel’s new book, Zen of eBook Formatting, plus a somewhat confrontational discussion about his formatting methods, on Kindleboards. His much earlier blog tutorial on the subject hadn’t convinced me, but the combination of that discussion and the excerpt did. HTML was the way to end formatting frustration.

So I bought the book and started reading. By the time I reached chapter three, my fears about HTML (and CSS) being too complicated to learn were assuaged. Yes, there’s a learning curve, and the material is the kind that takes a lot of repetition for me to understand and absorb. But I could see my way clear to it for the first time. I learned that CSS isn’t the fearsome and mysterious thing I thought it was, and the number of HTML tags that ereaders will accept is actually fairly small, so I probably won’t have to go much deeper than what I already know. Best of all, once I have HTML under my belt and can use it fairly easily, my books will look exactly as I want them to, on every device, in every ebook format.

A new self-publishing adventure begins.

What Visuals Help You With Your Writing?

I came across this article on The Millions this morning, just about a week after I printed out blowups of two photos from the web and taped them to the wall next to my desk. When a colleague asked Edan Lepucki if she had any visuals that helped her in understanding the novel she was working on, it inspired her to ask several other writers what they kept nearby as they wrote.

To Be Eaten in Case of Emergency: Inspiration and Comfort for Writers

Family photos, art, random objects, sometimes just a note that says “Work.” It can relate to a specific work-in-progress or serve as a reminder of who you are as a writer, what inspired you to write in the first place, or…

My visuals are fairly specific — the faces of two men, one of whom died in 1947, and one who will undoubtedly die sometime within the next few years.

Victor Serge was a Russian revolutionary and anarchist, who was also a novelist. I’ve only read one of his books so far, Men in Prison, written from his own experiences in prison. It’s a strange book, both in structure and viewpoint, but fascinating and moving. It is, in its own way, a protest novel, and I can see from this one example, why he is still influential as a political thinker, even if he’s largely unknown in the United States. He died in exile, in Mexico, at the age of 57

The other man lives on death row in a southern state. We have become friends over the last year and a half, not an easy process, given the desire of the state to isolate death row prisoners, and deny them even what they’re legally entitled to, such as mail. My friend is also a radical, a fighter who willingly suffers the retaliations that are the price of fighting for prisoners’ rights — not just his own, but the rights of the others who share his hell.

He is partly responsible for the book I’m writing about the death penalty, though there are many other influences. Most of all, when I look at his picture, I’m constantly reminded of the difference in the choices available to us. When I’m overwhelmed with the human tragedies of our “justice” system, I can turn my back, temporarily, on the research and the effort to express what an appalling institution the death penalty is. He lives with it every day, inescapably surrounded by dehumanization and death.

Both men make me feel like a coward when I look at their pictures and realize that I’ve frittered away another day trying to avoid the pain of writing about what they experienced at first hand.