Nobody can explain etheric engineering. Or the stuff that makes it work: aether.
The best anyone can do is describe aether. To our faulty three-plus-temporal-dimension senses, aether is nothing but a dark brownish fluid. It seems to bubble, giving off flashes well into the UV end of the spectrum.
That’s why one’s advised to wear goggles (or install UV-protective mods if you’re likely to encounter the stuff regularly). Relatively cheap, those. Even I have ’em, and you know what my finances are like! If you get the stuff on you (I strongly advise against it!), it tends to adhere.
Is sticky. You don’t want it stuck to you, trust me.
If aether gets loose, you want to corral it fast. Every compartment at risk of an aether spill (that is, any compartment etheric conduit passes through) should be equipped with an aether net. When deployed, it becomes a fine, gauzy web that attracts aether. Not to worry, it’ll draw off whatever’s stuck to you as well as gather up the globules floating in your face. So, no, it’s not a “net” so much as an “attractor.” I’d be happy to argue semantics with you any day.
Don’t get in my face about why it’s pronounced ay-ther in Standard. Open your chem reference, search for (C2H5)2O, and shut up already.
Aether’s the stuff that wormholes tunnel through. So no surprise that aether’s about as safe to play with as your average gravitational singularity. Aether is all places at once. That is, it knows only one where and one when.
The aether in the conduits of my ship is the aether flowing in yours. That’s why our comms people can talk to each other in real time. That’s why skipships don’t get lost, navigating the galactic byways, why the big ships that barge through gate-boosted wormholes don’t crush us as they pass. We’re all floating in the same ocean of aether.
There are…entities…out there who can perceive and manipulate aether directly. Some of them invented devices that make use of it. We lesser beings—humans, our allies, our enemies, our uncanny neighbors—have taken it on ourselves to copy those devices. Nobody knows what happens when you make a mistake copying Ancient etheric devices.
Nobody knows, because nobody comes back from those experiments. I like to think they’re gently transported to a parallel universe, given a kindly lecture on interfering with things they know not of, and sent off to some alt-universe pastoral countryside to learn…I dunno, painting, country dance, noveling, harmless little hobbies.
It’s nicer to imagine that than the alternative. Aether is dangerous stuff. A seemingly innocuous ball of cute fizzy brown goo can happily float straight through your ship’s hull. Try breathing vacuum sometime. Not fun. Not fun at all, no matter how well trained your crew is or how good your mods are.
And that’s just for starters.
So take it from me: don’t mess with aether without proper training. Even then, keep all the tools you might need right handy. You never know when you might need them.
Detail from cover of “Coke Machine,” by Niki Lenhart.
Artist’s depiction of a black hole at the center of a galaxy. NASA/JPL-Caltech. (Modified for effect)
Ever since my story “Coke Machine” came out, I’ve been feeling pressure to share more about life in the Truck Stop Universe. Marichka, of course, is the talented engineer who’s at the center of that story.
Just to be clear, she’s not too enamored of rule books.
Here are some rules she knows about that perhaps you’re not aware of. I’m not sure you’ll want to follow her example.
Do NOT criticize the formatting of the Handbook for SkipShip Operators. It has to be cute or nobody will even open the thing. Do NOT mistake cuteness for mild, gentle, tentative advice.
RULES FOR INCURSIONS BY GOD-LIKE ALIENS
DO NOT ENGAGE
All interaction is engagement.
(Worship is engagement.)
Do NOT do what they tell you to do
Do NOT accept “assistance”
Do NOT accept gifts
OBSERVE AND TAKE NOTES
Do NOT allow the entity to know you are observing
Keep all communication lines open to your shipmates
Compare notes with your shipmates
Do NOT attempt to reconcile notes; Notes will never agree
REPORT ALL INCURSIONS TO AUTHORITIES
Surrender all information or objects acquired
Erase all records of the encounter
By NO MEANS tell anyone else
Oh, my god, do NOT tell everyone
DO NOT FOLLOW ALIEN TO ITS BASE OF OPERATIONS
Leave that to the experts
Absolutely, don’t do this
Don’t even imagine doing this
Don’t believe any suggestions the alien has what you want there
This isn’t so much a blog post as a paper. There are footnotes and citations. Bear with me.
Have you had this experience? Someone in a group discussion notes that April is Autism Awareness Month. Then someone else says, “Oh, remember Rain Man? I watched it again recently! Isn’t that a great movie?” And then everyone has a lovely chat about movies. Unfortunately, this kind of response is what gamers call an Epic Fail. Let’s walk into April with some better awareness.
So, what is autism? What isn’t it?
Photo Credit: Nina from Australia, Rain, Rain, Go Away (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons
What it is
Autism is a set of neurological characteristics found in as many as 1 in 50 people [2,3] that can lead to difficulties with social interactions, repetitive behaviors, or intense engagement in special interests. Not necessarily all these things. (So, you know 100 people? Well, you likely know a couple of autistic people.)
Nobody knows what “causes”  autism, although probably there are combinations of genes that are more likely to yield autistic characteristics. (It may run in families, like other polygenic characteristics, such as height.) Autism presents on a spectrum, so its current designation is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)…though many autistic people will counter, “there’s nothing disordered about me!”
What it isn’t
Autism has absolutely nothing to do with vaccines—that absurd idea was generated by publication of fraudulent research, a real-world hoax that has harmed untold numbers of people [5,6,7]
Autism is not Rain Man. Dustin Hoffman did his best, and the film made a positive difference at the time, but that was over thirty years ago. The movie is now woefully out of date, and most autistic people find it discomfiting, stereotyping autism, families of autistics, and the way the world perceives them.
Autism is not sociopathy/psychopathy/other-mispercepathy. The number of mysteries or thrillers or police procedurals in which the murderer/terrorist/stalker is a shifty-eyed, unempathetic, twitchy weirdo whose speech patterns and movements and sometimes specific labelling code them as “autistic” make my hair curl. No, the autistic people of the world are not spying on you, plotting the perfect murder, or designing weapons of terror. Instead, as a class, they are the kindest people you know.
Autism is not the strange child. The vast majority of autistics are adults. Autism doesn’t go away when you grow up. Why don’t you notice? Those whose difficulties with the world are great still live in relative isolation. As for the rest, they’re “masking.” This isn’t a lighthearted improv exercise. It is a progressive modification of behavior—often unconscious, in ways learned over many years—to appear more like you, because they’re pretty sure you won’t accept them otherwise. (So, maybe this should be Autism Acceptance Month.)
Masking isn’t perfect; you probably think of your autistic friends as ‘the little-bit odd one’ or the ‘cute, quirky one.’ You may not see them around as much as your other friends—because keeping up masking is hard work. The older an autistic person is, the better they can be at masking—but then, it’s harder for them to change that. Also, be aware that if you realize a friend is autistic, it doesn’t help to tell them to stop masking. It’s a difficult process, and they’ll let you know when they’re ready.
Photo Credit: Dietmar Rabbich (CC BY 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons
Unfortunately, old movies like Rain Man leave the impression that all autistic people are weird geniuses, can’t take care of themselves, and suffer extreme difficulties with life. Yes, some are in that boat (and a rare few are even geniuses). It’s important to be sure everyone’s properly supported in life—can we simply agree to support autistic people with needs just as we support neurotypical (NT) people with serious life issues?
A few thoughts to keep in mind, no matter what type of neurons you’re thinking with:
Autistic people are, as a group, extremely honest. This presents complications—because most autistic people don’t react in conversation in quite the exact way that neurotypicals expect. For instance, if someone doesn’t look you in the eye all the time—a favorite behavior of NT’s—they’re perceived as “dishonest”. That’s unfortunate…which is why ambitious autistic adults work hard to make eye contact, even though it may be enormously stressful to do so.
Autistic people are empathetic—and have all the same emotions you do. They may express their emotions a little differently, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the exact same feelings you experience. Your autistic friends may even be more likely to notice how you’re feeling and to empathize with you, because they are observing you and working to figure you out, all the time. So they’re not just in possession of that deep, humanizing characteristic, they’re actively working at it, every day.
This doesn’t mean that autistic people are all perfect, wonderful, nice, diligent, hardworking, or what-have-you and are somehow better than neurotypical people. Everyone has shortcomings—and autistics don’t need to become the next perfectionist minority. It’s just that the stereotypes (weird, twitchy, untrustworthy) are contradictory.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably part of the reading/writing community.Here’s another thought for you.
Well. Ummmm. YOU might be autistic. Nobody wants to think of themselves as “different,” but writers—whether they’ve gone the publishing route or not—draw heavily from a well of “difference.” Lots of us grew up feeling like we were “on the fringe” or “the odd one out.” We dive deep into the special interests that drive our work. We can go on and on and on about a character or a situation or a plot point—whether in a story we wrote or in one of our favorites. Heck, some of us can sit down and hammer out 50,000, 100,000, a million words. That’s hardly what nonwriters would call “typical.”
If you’ve secretly, quietly wondered if there’s something you don’t know about yourself that maybe you should, here is one easily-accessible book to read: Cynthia Kim’s Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriateis a clever, affecting story of one woman’s journey of self-discovery. Some terminology it uses, unfortunately, became outdated the year after publication, with the elimination (for very good reasons) of the problematic term Asperger’s [8,9], but the self-realization content still holds up.
Ready to raise awareness a little (or a lot) more?
Below are a couple of helpful, easy-to-access resources. You can find deeper reading by continuing to the Notes and Citations section.
Ask Autistic Adults is my current favorite website for quickly-accessed on-point information on what grown-up autistic people feel you should know: labels, appropriate language, effective support, fake/abusive “therapies,” and more.
To catch up on the current zeitgeist in the autistic community, try the hashtag #actuallyautistic. To some extent, outsiders have tried to co-opt it, but the hashtag has withstood that pretty well so far.
Now, have a very happy Autism Awareness Month, everybody!
Below the blue umbrella: Notes and Citations
Photo Credit: Tom Mrazek, An Umbrella In the Dark, (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons
Yes, lots of notes and cites. Because a blog post needs to be brief, but the topic is complex!
No one person speaks for all people in any marginalized group. I make no claims that my perspective, or those of the autistic individuals I’ve cited here, is more worthy than that of any other member of the broadly-defined autism community. This essay cannot be perfect, but I will update it as necessary, and I welcome honest, fact-based critique.
“Rising rates” of autism do not reflect changes in the incidence of autism; rather, reports like the Johns Hopkins article reflect how wider application of diagnosis reveals that more people are autistic than was thought previously. This article in particular highlights a progression over time, as researchers began attending to this data and improving their diagnostic techniques. I linked to this article because it is quite readable and provides links to the academic papers and data, for those who are interested. The choice of a headline in a public-facing news presentation can be misleading—remember to read more than headlines.
Autistic people, by and large, dislike using “cause” to describe the mechanisms underlying autism. It makes it sound like a disease, something you can “cure,” and that detracts from attending to what can truly help autistic people thrive in a largely non-autistic society, understanding what “therapies” are harmful bunk, and listening to what autistics think. However, it’s the term that’s easiest for a casual reader follow in the context of a (supposedly) brief article like this one. As a reminder, this is a note to a sentence stating clearly that the mechanics are still unknown.
Wakefield’s horrific piece of hoaxery was published in the Lancet in January of 1998, and its awful effects have flowed into every corner of our medical landscape—even influencing vaccine resistance during the current pandemic. By the time the journal retracted the piece, the damage was done and the evil thought-virus of ‘vaccines are scary’ had spread too far to eradicate it.
Hans Asperger, the man after whom the so-called “high-functioning” side of the autism spectrum was (temporarily) named, is now known to have been a eugenicist, Nazi-assisting child-hurter, and all-around guy-you-wouldn’t-invite-round-to-dinner. The article below  is an accessible read and includes references.
I promised a post on my so-called accomplishments of the past year. It’s a decent exercise, especially when the year ahead looks so daunting. I’ve had to slap some provisional titles on works in progress, but that’s part of the fun. So, without further ado:
What Bit of Writing It Has to Do With
One short story published in an SFF market, both digital and print
Wrote, revised, and had accepted a middle-grade SF novella for a shared-universe collection
The Smugglers (planned for mid-2022)
Wrote, revised, performed, and had accepted a humorous short story for a shared-universe collection
“Coke Machine” (planned for spring 2022)
Submitted multiple entries to the California Writer’s Club (CWC) SF Peninsula Chapter’s Literary Stage competition, won awards for opening chapter for a diverse-characters novel, a humorous madcap short story, a structured poem (a sestina), and a short story.
A Sorcerer in Levoigne (Chapter 1), “Coke Machine,” “Trap” (poetry), “Solitary Dances” Note: the contest does not involve publication, but awards are listed on the SF Peninsula Chapter website.
Launched a newsletter and published the first eleven monthly issues (Twelfth issue came out in January 2022.)
Tales from the Oort Cloud What do you mean? You haven’t subscribed yet? EZ box on this page. Pop-up roaming the page. Link in the title and right here. Go for it. You won’t be sorry.
“Some” is as close as you’re going to get to a number, here.
Also: racked up several agent rejections, practiced pitches and studied statistics of twitter pitch contests, and wrote four (count ’em! FOUR!) blog posts!
I should note that at each of the open mics I manage, I also take part, sharing excerpts from works in progress as well as poetry and related works.
I’ve also been diligent at showing up for my critique partners and my non-critique writing group, even if I can’t be there in person. That boils down to 10-12 hours a week of reviewing colleagues’ work, accepting notes on my work, and discussing craft and our work together in online meetings.
One of my writing groups (the one that isn’t a critique circle) has set a blog-post prompt of “How do you measure success as an author?” We’re supposed to introspect, come up with wise words to inspire and console others. I don’t know about y’all, but the past two years have been a low-rising roller coaster, beginning with a brief burst of elation that my first book (my “debut” if you want to get precious about it) was coming out.
Only then we had a little bit of a pandemic to deal with.
And now it’s two years later.
All That Was Asked has never had a book-launch party (it slightly predates online launch parties), a signing session, a reading at a convention—none of those things. Not uncoincidentally, it hasn’t made much dough for me or for my publisher. At least the print copies are mostly print-on-demand, so no one’s staring at a warehouse full of unsold copies and calling a shredding company.
But is selling a ton of books a success? To stay sane in this business, I think you have to measure success more on the basis of what you are doing than what you have done. If you’re making oodles of money in the publishing industry, that’s mostly a matter of luck, so is that success? I’d call it good fortune. It’s very much a lottery. I’ve read absolutely stunning work in critique circles, listened to mind-blowing readings by little-known writers, and I’ve even had people tell me after a reading “wow, that was awesome!”
What makes sense is to measure how this work—writing—impacts your life. Is this what you live for? Not in a rosy-eyed, dreamy way, not “I luv writing <3” but “writing is what drags me out of everything else” and “writing is my food, drink, and sleep” and “writing is how I exist in this universe.”
What I’m doing right now is working on projects that I’ve wanted to tackle for years—no, decades—but never could due to the vicissitudes of child-rearing, day-job workload, personal upheavals, and disability. I’m not whining. These are just facts. I chose to raise kids, and it was satisfying work (and, yes, frustrating, too, but in all the right ways). However, doing the best job possible involved more than dropping them off at our barely-adequate schools. It meant advocating for them, fighting an uncaring administrative system, volunteering, fundraising, and, as a last-resort, homeschooling. At least in the pandemic age, there are more parents out there who understand that homeschooling—at least not ideally—isn’t a romp in the garden, it’s serious work. And, like most of us, for me that was work that had to take place in parallel with earning a living.
So right now, I’m successful. Every morning (afternoon?) I wake up, and there’s writing to do.
This kind of writing, which is off-the-cuff, barely edited, and hurled into the interweb’s event horizon, never to be seen by human eyes.
Critical writing, where I’m critiquing work by fellow writers, trying to help them make their stories the best they can be.
Social-media writing—mostly Twitter—where I practice being concise, kind, and thoughtful.
And, finally, yes, writing my own stories, the ones I’ve been wanting to read.
What I’ve been looking for—and yes, I’ve found some, but far too few—are stories led by characters who have trouble communicating, who don’t fit in, who think differently than others but find a way through life anyhow. I’m tired of hero’s-journey stories and chosen-one tales that take themselves too seriously. I don’t mind playing with the tropes. For instance, one of my WIPs has a seeming “chosen one” in it, but the whole thing is a crock, a scheme worked up by a person who’s trying to change society and is using an old myth to get buy-in. Not that the “chosen” person isn’t worthy, but there’s no magic in the process—they’re carefully selected for capability and then trained for the job.
I’m not writing to market. I admit that. So I can’t complain about sales, not too much. It may take time for people like me to find the stories I’m writing for them. That’s OK. I waited a long time. A little longer—I can deal.
Well, I’m trying to, anyhow.
In the meantime, I’m keeping on. For me, that writers learned to use remote meetings to connect for critiques, discuss craft, conduct conventions, and more has been a compensatory gain during the pandemic. It’s not a benefit of this horrible time; it’s a thing we could should have been doing all along, and only just now learned to value. When the pandemic’s over, we’ll keep connected this way. That’s a good thing, but we don’t get to pretend it’s all right that millions of people died while those of us privileged to live were fumbling our way to this belated discovery.
I’ve leveraged that new learning, because I’m an engineer and tech things come naturally to me. I’ve let myself get roped into volunteering to help others less comfortable with the technology—and that’s OK, because participating with other writers helps me connect more deeply with my writing community. I value the friendships I’ve formed with people I’ve only met in Zoom rooms. This is not a trivial feeling—I dedicated my Monday afternoons for half this past year to help a Zoom friend whose critique circle had lost their only zoom-capable member. That meant stepping aside from one of my other critique circles, one that needed me less. I’m returning to my prior group as of this month, because my friend’s old zoom-host has returned. I’ll miss the new friends I made in her circle, even though we only ever saw each other in little boxes on our computer screens.
Am I a failure because I had to defer my writing career? Looking back through my drawer of shelved and partly-done stories, one thing is strikingly clear—I was so young, so ignorant, so clueless. Much of what I’m writing now, I couldn’t have done when I was younger. In technique, I’m much better than my younger self; some of that gain I can attribute to years of writing science and engineering reports and papers, working collaboratively with colleagues on phrasing, structure, and word choice … plus coping with deadlines. Beyond the technique, older me is able to imagine more-complex characters, see worlds with more-different people in them. Through personal experience, I know most lives—most real stories—don’t have a “call to adventure” or a “supreme ordeal.” There’s no wise mentor waiting to guide us. We have to muddle through, try to survive in an irrational universe, and deal with the fact we’ll never quite make sense of it all.
Sure, I’m still learning. You have to keep learning. It’s the key to growth in every respect. Even there, though, I’m doing better, working actively to learn more of what I need to continue improving.
In my next posting, I’ll demonstrate my success by sharing a list of what I consider to be my 2021 accomplishments not only as a writer but also as a member of the writing community.
For my New Year’s Day new learning, I worked out how to create a thread (properly) in Twitter, in order to post my very first awards eligibility thread.
I know, I know, none of these are going to win any awards, though one has already been nominated (by the editor of the anthology) for a majorly major award. Nominations count; just being nominated is a huge, huge thrill.
But not everyone likes to hang out on social media. Facebook is broken. Twitter has deep wells of toxicity, Instagram is all about being pretty (and owned by Facebook), and Tik-Tok is … out of my league.
So in this blog post, I’ll try to recreate the Twitter post. I have two 2021 stories that are Hugos-eligible (the science-fiction ones). What awards do you know about that you’re eligible to nominate for? You might be surprised!
Let’s jump ahead now, and make this Not About Me. It’s readers who nominate for Hugos, and readers don’t care if the author is famous, made a bucket of money, or only managed to sell one story. Sure, the list of finalists is short, but consider–what did you read last year? What moved you? If you’re a 2021 or 2022 WorldCon member, you can nominate the things you liked. You can nominate up to five things in EVERY category. They don’t have to be the movies, stories, novels, or magazines that your friends liked, that your social-media leaders went on and on about. You can voice your own preferences.
So, pitch made. GO forth, write reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, nominate all your favorites for awards, and then enjoy all the new (and not-so-new) stories out there in 2022.
Here, then, is my Twitter thread. Do ya love or hate my cartoony profile pic? I’ll only put it in for the opening tweet; otherwise, it gets annoying in blog format.
The official awards-eligibility thread. In 2021, I had three short stories published:
1. a #scifi story about stolen land
2. a light #scifi #romance featuring a favorite 20th-century artist
3. an upbeat piece of literary fiction grown from #autism, #depression, and #optimism.
2/7 “Heart’s Delight,” anthologized in Fault Zone: Reverse, edited by @LaurelAnneHill and published by Sand Hill Review Press. An intelligent ecosystem repels those whose ancestors took the land unjustly, returning custody to its true caretakers. #SFF
3/7 For the record, I live on Tamien Nation Territory, bordering Popeloutchum (Amah Mutsun) land, connected to the territory of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area. These people are all, right now, working to protect this land, e.g.: http://amahmutsun.org/history
4/7 “Parrish Blue,” published by Water Dragon Publishing (Dragon Gems short fiction). In an elite restaurant on a climate-ravaged Earth, under the glow of a recreated artwork, a young woman rediscovers a dream of life immersed in wonder—and finds one who shares that dream. #SFF
5/7 I’m dropping in an image of the piece of art these two fall in love under (Romance, by Maxfield Parrish). Just because.
6/7 “Reunion,” anthologized in Fault Zone: Reverse, edited by @LaurelAnneHill and published by Sand Hill Review Press. Two young people, separated in childhood by separate traumatic events, renew a friendship forged through shared suffering.
7/7 If this story resonates for you, consider further research at https://autisticadvocacy.orgor connect with mental-health resources in your community. Also, remember to reconnect with friends in 2022.
It’s surprising hard to recreate a Twitter posting in a blog! Go follow me on Twitter, OK?
In some critique circles, shooting down misplaced modifiers has become a sporting activity. It’s fun, because they’re easy to spot and can be really funny. “The robber drove the getaway car in a batman costume” should make you smile at the image of a car cosplaying as The Batman. It’s logical that a modifier works best when it’s placed as close as possible to the thing it’s describing. For example, the descriptor “in a batman costume” should be next to “robber” and not “car.”
Unfortunately, a valuable writing tool—the participial phrase—is taking collateral damage.
A participial phrase is a specialized modifier that conveys movement or change, often incorporating visual imagery and other details, while performing the duties of an adjective. This tool has its own grammar and punctuation rules. Like any modifier, it can be misplaced, but the writer has flexibility in its placement, supported by the unsung hero of grammar: the comma.
To be sure we’re all on the same page, let’s start with participles. A participle is what you get when you take a verb and use it as an adjective: drowned trees, running water, flying pigs, grown woman, billowing clouds. Look for the past- and present-tense endings.
A simple participle works just like an ordinary adjective and is placed exactly as you would expect. For example, “drowned trees” could be a more dramatic way to say “dead trees.” It’s not unique to English, but repurposing words is relatively common in our language. Apparently, we English-speakers are determined to keep turning one part of speech into another, as if we haven’t got enough words already. Verbing nouns is one of my pet peeves.
(Yes, I know. You saw what I did there.)
A participial phrase is both
a phrase with a participle in it, and
a phrase acting as an adjective, intended to describe the subject of a sentence.
For example, “acting as an adjective” is a participial phrase. So is, “intended to describe the subject of a sentence.”
To get a participial phrase, you build upon the participle:
Trees … drowned in the flood from the broken dam
Water … running over rocks and rills
Pigs … flying like eagles
Woman … grown wise in the ways of the world
Clouds … billowing like windblown sheets of satin (note the participle within this participial phrase)
Participles and participial phrases add flavor and texture to our sentences, and because they come from verbs, they help create a feeling of action. Questions arise when we go to put our nicely-constructed phrase into its sentence, because … where do we put the darned thing? You have three choices:
Leading: Billowing like windblown sheets of satin, the clouds sailed over the plains of Endor.
Subject-adjacent: The clouds, billowing like windblown sheets of satin, sailed over the plains of Endor.
Trailing: The clouds sailed over the plains of Endor, billowing like windblown sheets of satin.
(Note: these are my own terms. Reliable texts will say “at the beginning/in the middle/at the end.” yawn. Also, do not rail at me about the forests of Endor. This one is about the plains. Where, possibly, it rains. Like in Spain.)
Now … wait for it … here it comes:
If (and only if) you fail to properly punctuate a participial phrase, it becomes a misplaced modifier.
Technically, it’s a mispunctuated modifier, but to the reader, it’s confusing, and that’s why we care about misplaced modifiers. It occurs most often when the participial phrase is trailing. The separating comma before the phrase signals the reader that what follows describes the subject, in our example: clouds. Without the comma, you get:
The clouds sailed over the plains of Endor billowing like windblown sheets of satin.
Here, the reader is cast adrift and must grab for the nearest noun. While it may be possible that the plains of Endor billow, without other information, the reader will snicker, backtrack, guess what you mean, and move on, now somewhat annoyed by your absent comma.
Participial phrases bow to the humble comma or risk being misunderstood. For leading ones, you need a comma to close off the modifying phrase and move into the sentence proper. For subject-adjacent placement, commas—or their absence—are used intentionally to create subtle distinctions in meaning, distinguishing between essential description and nonessential elaboration.
A participial phrase placed next to the subject but without commas makes that descriptor an essential one. Consider:
The clouds billowing like windblown sheets of satin sailed over the plains of Endor.
Here the phrase is “essential” because it’s telling us that only those clouds that are billowing (yes, like satin) sail over the plains. Perhaps other clouds lie high in the stratosphere, unaffected by the winds below. If we put the commas back in, then we know the descriptor is colorful but nonessential. That is, we understand that all the clouds are sailing, though we pause in the middle of the sentence to enjoy the charming detail of their movement and sheen.
Placement at the beginning versus the end of a sentence allows us to create a sense of sequence, the order in which the storyteller wants the reader to experience each element. With the leading version of our Endorian sentence, the author wants you to take in the image of the shape and movement and texture of the clouds first, then imagine them sailing over the plains. It’s like when a child runs up to you with a remote-control toy and says “Look! Godzilla is driving this robot car! Isn’t it cool? Now watch what it can do!”
In contrast, with a trailing placement, the author nudges you to first realize that the clouds are sailing over the plains—maybe it’s important, because a party of adventurers must cross the stormy plain—and then lets you enjoy the clouds’ beauty. In our child’s-play example, first you are startled by a remote-control car zipping across the playground, and then a child is calling out “Wow! Cool! A robot car with Godzilla driving it!”
And now, don’t you want a robot car?
Were the plains of Endor too much? Let’s review, using a simpler situation. Imagine a romance in which a young woman has just learned her true love is about to sail away on a ship, and she’s hurried to the docks. She spots him boarding a vessel, but it’s way down on the pier. She has to run. She wants him to see her, but he’s too far away.
Here’s a mispunctuated participial phrase: Mun-Su ran down the dock waving to her departing lover.
We know the dock isn’t saying farewell to its lover, we know it’s Mun-Su, but as readers we don’t like to have to stop and think about it. Add the comma demanded by a trailing participial phrase, and all becomes clear as we yank out our hankies: Mun-Su ran down the dock, waving to her departing lover.
Of course, you could stick the participial phrase at the front: Waving to her departing lover, Mun-Su ran down the dock. Grammatically, this is correct, but we’ve defined a situation in which Mun-Su needs to get a move on first; her running is the critical action, because the lover won’t see her waving until she gets closer.
Further, what if you want to make the situation more complex? This is an important beat in the story. Surely, you want to share the character’s innermost feelings, her physical sensations at that moment: Her heart hammered like a steam piston as Mun-Su ran down the dock, waving to her departing lover.
Those unaware of the functionality of the participial phrase will point and cry, “You must place the phrase next to the subject.” Oh, my, but then you get: Her heart hammered like a steam piston as Mun-Su, waving to her departing lover, ran down the dock.
Poor Mun-Su is awkwardly waving, in a nonessential way, as she runs down the dock. Sadly, I’m not seeing a happily-ever-after now. Pass me the tissues.
I do hope you have enjoyed this little missive from the Grammar Police. We protect and serve … the text.
I’m findable at online readings, conventions, and open mics and available for more at the drop of a … microphone. (See my Appearances page!) Here’s what I’ve been squee-ing about lately. Yes, I know, Octocon’s over, but I can’t resist sharing this cute view with Octo in their Wonder Woman outfit. In my Twitter feed this week, I’m sharing links to the videos of my panels, which are all live on Twitch right now and will be on YouTube forever … or until people get tired of them.
In December, I’ll be (virtually) on-site at the World Science Fiction Convention, DisCon III. I’ll be roving the virtual halls and hanging out in the dealers room. Water Dragon Publishing is planning lots of special activities there, like we had at Readercon in August! See you there!
Octocon is Coming!
On October 1-3rd, I’ll be part of the the Irish National Science Fiction Convention, Octocon. It’s free, online, and international! The programme has just been finalized. I’m moderating two panels, participating in another, and will also be taking part in a Very Silly Event. Click the super-secret button below to find my panels—and connect to the full programme.
When I post on the front page of my site, it has to be temporary, but it’s often goodies that I don’t want to trash, so I’m beginning a little practice of shifting the “old” content to a NEW blog post, maybe with a little bit of extra commentary. Skip it if you want, or not, whatever. This is the blog part of this page, it’s my playground and as long as I’m not hurting anybody, I can do whatever I want, right?
Like, right now, I’m listening to Travis music videos on YouTube. There are official ones and unofficial ones, and these guys are so menschy, they don’t worry about the unofficial ones, because fans love them, right? Besides, what does it make me want to do? It makes me want to go see if there’s an album of theirs I maybe don’t have yet. Marketing, kids.
The funniest one is a concert video where whoever has the camera skips real fast past the audience members closer to the band’s age and lingers on the fresh-faced youngsters. Well, it’s nice that younger people have discovered them, isn’t it?
All right then, here’s a nostalgic look at the front page that’s going away today:
Greetings, fellow star travellers! Big news!
Paper Angel Press has launched a new imprint devoted to science fiction and fantasy.
I’ve been waiting for months to say: you’ll now find my book at Water Dragon Publishing. Click the dragon and explore their new site.
Meanwhile … my newsletter launched successfully last month! Thanks to all who signed up here and through StoryOrigin. The newsletter comes out mid-month, with science news, story previews, writer-life chat, and just a little gaming stuff.
Learning by doing! I ran an experiment: subscriber pop-up vs static subscribe-here form. The pop-up wins, hands, down. Apparently, it’s just way more convenient. However, I can flip a switch so it only asks every so often. And I’m keeping the static forms on the contact and blog pages, for those who prefer that. Remember, if you’re on gmail, Google will tend to pipeline emails from new people into preset folders like “Promotions,” until you tell it not to.
This first-contact story explores the challenges of communication between species–when neither side has a universal translator to rely on, when the alien in question is so odd most people would consider it an animal–not a person, and when accidents and misunderstandings get in the way.
Ansegwe’s a tagalong, a wannabe poet, and the pampered offspring of a rich, powerful family. When faced with the choice of leaving an injured alien creature to fend for itself in the wilds of a strange world, he makes decisions that force him to contend with his own failings–but also help him discover his mission in life.
Official Safety Notice for Poetry-Averse Readers: There are no actual poems in this book.
Nowadays, everyone says a writer needs a newsletter. I’m beginning to lose count of the number of things I’m supposed to produce that isn’t my stories. But what about all those goodies that don’t make it into the stories?
That chapter I deleted. The one that’s now just a couple of sentences buried in a conversation. Well, more like, how that works, how you decide to kill off 3000 words in exchange for 50, for the sake of the story.
The interview between me and my MC, you know, the one that went over so well at that open mic.
My research on the folk sayings that spark each of the chapters in Wind and Smoke. The ones that prove that Ireland and South Korea are pretty much the same.
The things I want to tell agents. Not mean things. Just advice. Would you sign with an agency if their website takes 20 seconds to load a page?
I could blurt out some of the things I wanted to say at book club, because other people sure have a lot to say. Or is it not OK to reveal that writers are readers, too?
I have all that stuff.
So now I have a new work-in-progress.
I won’t be sending a newsletter more often than monthly, because that’s what I like in a newsletter. Maybe the occasional special edition, like when I sign with an agent or get that next book deal.
Target date for first issue: Let’s make it Valentine’s Day.