Ella’s Story: Chapter 31

Augh! Still trying to get caught up and stay caught up with Ella’s Story. The editorial bidness is a classic drought and flood affair: months go by with hardly any paying work, and then a tsunami comes pouring in. I just moved the fourth full-length math paper off the desk, when an entire issue of our client journal flew in through the transom. Working seven days a week is barely enough to keep up. And so…here’s a bit of a stopgap in the Ella tale.

Ella’s Story follows people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.

Ella’s Story


In the morning . . . ah, but she loved a morning on Varnis, a real morning, not artificial lights sliding from dim to bright enough to roust you out of bed. She needed no alarm to get her up to greet the day. Its strangeness never stopped fascinating: that golden sun sharply defined, most days, through the unnaturally clear air that faded from deep violet, sometimes through red or pink, and finally lit the sky to topaz. A few low clouds glowed orange in gold in this dawn’s rising light.

She lingered on the walkway outside the servants’ quarters and gazed out over the waking pastures, the fields and distant forest copses, as she always did for a few minutes before launching into another day.

“Good morning!” A bright greeting interrupted her quiet moment.

“Sigi. Good morning, dear.” The carpenter girl had a towel tossed over her shoulder, on her way to wash up for first meal.

“Wow! It’s really pretty today!”

“Mm hmmm.” Born and raised on Varnis, Sigi surely wouldn’t see the sky here, with its almost coppery blue-green clarity, as quite so exotic as Ella herself did. Pretty might not be the word she’d choose. Beautiful, maybe, though inadequate. Incandescent, if she thought that hard. But strange was the word that would first come to hand. If she were asked.

“You finished up the job in Cinorra,” Ella remarked, redundantly, by way of making conversation.

“Just about. Thank goodness.” The job had dragged on a ten-day and a half too long. “I’ll need to go back this afternoon or tomorrow to check on the clean-up. But otherwise I think we’re done.”

“Good. So, are you ready to start working on the clinic thing?”

“Yes, ma’am. That’s what I wanted to talk with you about.”

Thought so. “All right…”

“May I get a couple of strong backs to help set up the room Dorin wants to build out for this project? There’s stuff stored in there that we’ll need to find new homes for. And I’d like to get it scrubbed down before we start measuring and painting and things.”

“Darl seems to be well enough to start planning what needs to go in there.”

“Give me a day or so to shovel the place out.”

“We should get started thinking about this project, Sigi. Even if you’re not ready to begin drawing plans, you ought to take some time to talk with him.”

“Needs something to take his mind off his troubles, does he?”

“No doubt.” Sigi had a way of seeing through to the point. And Ella thought Darl should be occupied – very soon now – with as many plans, tasks, and physical jobs as he could tolerate, increasing in number and demand as he recovered strength.

As it developed, Ella didn’t have to get her way this time: Dorin was already seeing to it. After the morning wake-up, feed, and rush, he summoned Sigi and Darl to meet with the two overseers in his quarters. So Ella was sipping the obligatory morning tea, served up from Dorin’s desk steeping pot, when first one of them and then the other showed up

Darl was settled, stiffly, into a chair near Dorin’s desk. He would, she thought, not be a bad-looking man, once he recovered his bearings and his chopped-off hair grew back enough to brush smooth. Well fed yet fit, even slender, dark of hair and eye, he carried himself with understated but unmistakable grace: very upper-class. He came from a slice of Samdelan society that Ella had never seen, at least not up close, and never would have seen had she been left in the life.

“I’m not sure I understand…” he began—and then was cut short when Sigi bounded in. Bounding, Ella reflected, was Sigi’s default mode of locomotion. Did she ever slow down?

“Hello,” she said to the new guy, evincing not the slightest bit of deference. And why should she, Ella thought…they were both slaves now, no matter what this Darl had been before he landed here. On his tush. “You must be Darl. The doctor?”

He smiled tentatively. Ella thought he looked nonplussed, but he spoke up with humble enough self-possession: “I am. Yes.”

“I’m Sigi. The carpenter. I’ll be building out the space you need to work in.” She offered her left hand, palm up, and, to Ella’s mild surprise, he laid his own hand, palm down, on hers. She slipped into the chair that Dorin had set out for her.

“So, brother. Are you ready to get started?”

“I…well, don’t know. There are some things I don’t understand altogether.”

“Like what?” Dorin responded. “Ask away.”

“So…you want me to operate a clinic here for…the slaves on this estate, do I have that right?”

“Yeah. For us and the people around here.”

“Even though I’m not allowed to practice medicine now.”

“The kaïna has already canceled that out of your terms. The way it reads now,…” Dorin pressed a few links and brought up the official record that described Darl, his crime or crimes, what he was cleared to do, and what he was prohibited from doing. He ran his eye down a long stream of text written in an avalanche of Varn symbols. “You are allowed to dispense and direct healthcare services to people in service, to the landless in the care of the state, and to local residents, as long as you’re doing it in the employ of your owner. Rysha Delamona, Kaïna leh Varnisiel ch’Molendi Hededalla.”


“Because she said so. Circular, hm?”

“All right. Then…how many people are we talking about?”

“Well, I don’t know.” Oddly, Dorin seemed not to have considered that question. “We have about sixty adults here at Skyhill, plus another fifteen children. Various contract workers come and go, who I suppose could get hurt or sick while they’re on the grounds.

“She has in mind you’re going to be available for staff on the estates around here – north of E’o Cinnora. There’s over a dozen of those. And Skyhill isn’t the largest. Not by a long shot.”

“The kaïna doesn’t own the largest estate on Varnis?”

“Hardly. The House of Delamona was never given to unnecessary…showiness. Historically, it was not the biggest hereditary property when the first of the line took power. And it still isn’t.”

“So twelve or fifteen times about sixty people?”

“More like about seventy or eighty, on average. Maybe 850 to 950 all told. Give or take. Plus the people who live in the villages.”


“There are several of them in the north district, mostly attached to the estates. And the only medical carers they have are lay healers. And midwives. The midwives are mostly trained in Cinorra.

“The one that’s closest to us – that’s Skyhill Village – has…uhm…about a six or eight hundred people living there. I guess. Wouldn’t you say?” He cocked an eye in Ella’s direction.

“That’s probably about right.”

“Most of the great ones’ manors have a village associated with them, little places that have grown up around the estates.”

“And they’re all about the same size as this Skyhill town.”

“More or less.”

“Twelve or fifteen times eight hundred people…ninety-six hundred to twelve thousand villagers? Plus another nine hundred retainers in service?”

“I’d guess that’s about right.”

Darl looked at him in disbelief. “That’s ten to thirteen thousand potential patients. I’ve never had a population of more than about two thousand. That’s about as many as any one doctor can handle. And then some.”

“Well. They don’t all get sick at once.”

“Sure. Never rains but it pours, you know.”

Dorin laughed softly. “You won’t be the only one providing care. If that were so, we’d all have been dead before you got here. Besides, there’s not fifteen villages. It’s more like eight or ten.”

A doubtful smile ghosted over Darl’s face, briefly.

“Look. Most people in a place like this are pretty healthy. We get plenty to eat and we get a pan-immunization that keeps us from getting sick. So what we’re talking about here is an occasional accident. And…well, we have a pregnant mother just now – it would be nice not to have to drag her to a midwife or call one in every few weeks.”

“And most people will go to a village healer before they travel to town for a doctor,” Ella added. “Unless they’re really sick, they get over it first. About nine-tenths of the midwives live in the villages, and they take care of the women there. And sometimes our women.”

“So…then what would I be needed for?”

“This is the kaïna’s idea,” Dorin replied. “I don’t second-guess her. I just do what she says.”

“No, c’mon Dor’,” Ella interrupted. “It’s reasonable, brother. We don’t have a real medically trained doctor, one who does science, anywhere on this side of Cinorra. To find someone who isn’t just practicing folk medicine, you have to travel into the city. Like Dorin says, most people don’t get very sick. But when they do – and when they get hurt – it would be a lot better to have someone like you here.”

“Well. I guess we’ll see, then.”

“Let’s go see the space Dorin wants to turn into an office for you,” Sigi proposed.

“It’ll have to be quite a place to accommodate 13,000 patients.”

Writers’ and Publishers’ Rights and Contracts: The Complete Writer *FREE READS*

The Complete Writer
Part VI. Ethics and Legality: Rights, Obligations, and Risks

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Rights and Contracts

The question beginning writers most often ask is “how do I copyright my work?”

Just put it on paper. Under the Copyright Act of 1976, your rights in a work take effect the minute you write it. You do not have to publish it or register it with the Copyright Office to receive protection. A work written after 1978 is protected for its author’s lifetime plus 50 years. A work written anonymously or under a pen name is protected for 100 years after the work’s creation or 75 years after publication, whichever is shorter. Works done for hire (about which we will say more below) receive the same 100-year protection, except the publisher, not the writer, owns the copyright.

What is “copyright”?

Copyright is a legal concept that gives you the right to reproduce your work; to prepare derivative works based on it; to sell, rent, lease, or lend the work; and to perform or display it publicly. Copyright permits you to recover damages from other people who do any of these without your permission.

A writer owns many kinds of rights to a work and may choose to sell part of the ownership, to lease the right to use the work, or to sell all the rights to it. The law’s purpose is to let you say how your work will be used and to guarantee that you will be paid for your efforts.

To be eligible for copyright, the work must be fixed in a tangible form: copiable with a machine or other device. Literary works; musical, dramatic, pantomime, and choreographic works that have been notated or recorded; pictures, photographs, and sculptures; motion pictures, videotapes, or other audiovisual works; and sound recordings are protected.

Intangible works, such as improvised speeches, dances, or performances not written or recorded, are not covered by copyright. Nor are ideas, titles, names, short phrases, slogans, lists, and the like.

Note that copyright covers the creation, not its physical form. In other words, someone could buy a famous writer’s manuscript for its value to collectors, but owning the paper and ink would not confer the right to reproduce the story.

Although you don’t have to register your work to receive protection, registration with the U.S. Copyright Office does give you some advantages. Your work must be officially registered before you can sue someone for infringement, and if you registered the work after the offense took place, you can sue only for actual damages—that is, for the income or other benefits you lost as a result of the theft. If you had already registered your copyright, you would be permitted to sue for statutory damages (a punitive award) or recover the costs of attorneys’ fees. There is, however, a ninety-day grace period following the date of publication. If you register within this period, you can sue for statutory damages, actual damages, and attorneys’ fees, even if the infringement took place before the registration.

As a practical matter, it’s not worth registering every magazine article you send out. Normally, you have a contract or letter of agreement that spells out the rights you are selling before you present a work to a publisher. But if you have some good reason to believe someone might steal your work, register it. Fill out a form (available at reduced cost online) from the Register of Copyrights, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20559 or at the copyright office’s website:


If you wish to retain copyright to an article that is to be published in an uncopyrighted collective work (such as, for example, a club’s cookbook), insist that your copyright notice be printed on the article’s opening page. A copyright notice consists of the symbol ©, the word “copyright, or the abbreviation “copr.,” followed by the year the work was written and the owner’s name. This notice must appear on works that you send to the copyright office for registration, and anything that is printed or distributed in an unrestricted way should have a copyright notice on it.

Magazines and newspapers normally take the responsibility for registering all the work that appears in each issue. The copyright notice appears with each number, usually near the front of the publication.

The United States is a signatory to the Berne Copyright Convention, a multinational treaty that covers copyright questions. According to this international law, you don’t have to put a notice on your published work for it to be protected in the countries that have signed the treaty. However, because under U.S. law you may not collect statutory damages and attorneys’ fees unless the notice was on the work, you should be sure a copyright notice appears with all your published works.

As the owner of a copyright, you can sell certain parts of your rights to a work. Let’s consider a few.

First serial rights. The word “serial” here refers to periodicals—works that come out “serially” or in a continuing manner. That is, the term means “magazines or newspapers,” not “installments.”

When you sell “first serial rights,” you offer a magazine the right to be the first periodical to publish your article, poem, or story. The remaining rights belong to you. You retain the right to sell the same, unaltered work to another periodical after the story appears in the first publication, and to be paid should the original buyer reprint it.

Logically enough, then, you may also sell second serial or reprint rights. This allows a publisher to reprint a piece that has already appeared somewhere else.

Sale of one-time rights promises nothing about whether the buyer is the first to publish your work. It simply grants permission to publish the piece once.

First North American rights guarantee that the buyer is the first in North America to publish the work. First U.S. rights are restricted to the United States.

Foreign serial rights cover periodicals published in countries outside the United States. If you have sold only first U.S. rights, you are free to resell your story abroad.

Simultaneous rights allow two or more periodicals to publish something at once. The term is used by writers who self-syndicate articles by sending the same work to many different newspapers across the country at once. Make sure your editor understands this by typing “simultaneous submission” in an upper corner of your first manuscript page.

Syndication rights permit syndicators to sell works to several publications at once, taking a commission on sales and passing the rest to the author.

Subsidiary rights are additional rights, usually listed in book contracts. They include dramatic, motion picture, translation, foreign, and various serial rights.

Are Internet sites copyrighted?

You bet. Just because the reproducible medium in which the work is published happens to be digital does not negate the author’s rights in the work.

What is the reference to “Creative Commons” seen on Wikipedia? Doesn’t that give anyone the right to use the work as they please?

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization dedicated to enlarging the range of creative works that people can build upon and share. Through Creative Commons, writers and artists can obtain any of several licenses that specify what rights they waive and what rights they retain. A notice of a Creative Commons license does not mean others can grab the work and do anything they please with it; you must examine the license and discover what rights are available before reusing the author’s or artist’s work.

What is public domain?

“Public domain” means the work is not covered by copyright. This may occur because the copyright has expired (see above), because its author has explicitly placed it in the public domain, or because it was produced by a government entity. Works in the public domain may be reproduced without permission.


An experienced editor, freelancing between jobs, took a job as a consulting editor to start up a regional magazine. Once the magazine was running, he hired a permanent editor and managing editor and then stepped into the background.

Shortly afterward, the new editor called and explained that a story had fallen through and he needed 2,000 words to fill the hole—fast.

Promised a healthy fee, the consultant raced around the city tracking down and interviewing people, spent a weekend cranking out the desired 2,000 words, and dropped the piece on the editor’s desk Monday morning.

A week later, he had heard not so much as “thanks, we’ll be in touch.” So he called and asked after the story.

It was all right, said the young editor. But it was more copy than they needed, and so they had to cut it to fit their space. And by the way, since they couldn’t use the 2,000 words they had asked for, they would pay him only for what they could use, at an arbitrary per-word rate.

“I should have had a contract,” mourned the freelance, “but my god! I’m the consulting editor!”

There is no such thing as a gentleman’s agreement in this business.

You should always have a contract before you write a story, because it protects you as well as the publisher. It spells out what is expected of you and what you can expect from the publisher, says how much you will be paid and when, and establishes your rights in the work. If a magazine folds before it pays you, a contract establishes you as one of its creditors.

A contract should cover these items:

  • The title and length of the story
  • A brief description of its content and approach

  • The deadline
  • The rights you are selling
  • The fee you will receive
  • The kill fee you will receive if the magazine cannot publish the article through no fault of yours (usually about one-third of the total fee)
  • Whether you will be paid on acceptance or on publication
  • Whether you will be reimbursed for routine expenses
  • A guarantee that your work is original and, to the best of your ability, accurate and free of libel

In addition to the work-for-hire clauses discussed above, you should watch for these pitfalls:


Some contracts include a sentence saying the author indemnifies the publisher against any claims for libel, invasion of privacy, defamation, or anything else for which someone might choose to sue or demand redress. Never sign a contract that contains such a clause.

Unless you are a lawyer, you have no way of second-guessing the reasons litigious individuals threaten to file suit. Nor is it your job to purge the story of all actionable material. It is the editor’s responsibility to recognize passages that may be defamatory, libelous, or invasive. If any such statement makes its way into print, the magazine is as guilty as the writer. Nevertheless, publishers have been known to buy off people who claimed they were wronged and then bill the writer for the cost.

If the clause is modified with words that say the article does not libel or defame to the best of the writer’s knowledge, it is acceptable.

Payment on publication vs. payment on acceptance

Too often, agreements to pay a writer when an article is published mean “pay never.” Magazine copy usually sees print months after it is accepted. Should the editors decide, for whatever reason, not to run your article, you get no pay for your contracted work. If the magazine folds before the story runs, a bankruptcy court will not number writers with payment-on-publication contracts among the magazine’s creditors.

For fulltime freelance writers, payment on publication makes it impossible to budget living expenses, because they never know how much they will be paid in a given period. One month $5,000 may come in; the next month, the take is $89. For this reason, established professionals hold out for payment on acceptance of the piece. If the editor will not agree to this, the writer declines the assignment.

A beginner may have to take payment on publication to establish some credits. Always ask to be paid on acceptance. As you gain experience, seek out publishers who will treat you fairly, and avoid pay-on-publication markets.

Do you buy Cesar Milan’s dog training advice? If You’d Asked Me… *FREE READS*

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Section II: Going to the Dogs
(Or Cats)

3.  Who do you agree with: Cesar Millan’s way with dogs or those critical of it?

What do I think of Millan’s method, personally? Well, bear in mind that I am not a scientist. With that a given: I personally think it makes great TV. A lot of things that are full of beans make great TV. The alpha-wolf theory of dog training is full of beans.

To the extent that the results shown on television appear to be successful, one could argue that any method that applies consistency and reasonably clear instruction eventually will work on most dogs. We might ask, though, how many of Millan’s results are NOT shown because they failed?

Macho bossing around that entails the use of fear, hanging a dog by the neck on a choke chain(!), and showy dominance techniques: that’s not what works. What works is the same thing that works on a human child: quiet, consistent repetition and open, enthusiastic reward for desired behavior.

I once had a particularly difficult German shepherd. She was extremely smart and notably stubborn. She was powerful, intelligent, confident, and assertive—as a German shepherd dog should be. She also was a very strong-willed pup.

After trying every training technique I knew, including Millan’s, I could not get this dog to quit trying to chase cars and to heel consistently and safely. Finally, at the suggestion of a veterinarian, I hired a “behavioral trainer.”

This guy immediately threw out the choke chain and the pinch chain, insisting that collars of this nature are cruel. He put the dog’s regular rolled leather collar on, walked off down the street with her, and within 20 minutes had her heeling like she was strutting her stuff at Westminster.

“That’s fine for you,” said I. “But she’s not gonna do that for me. This dog knows she can get away with dragging me down the street while she’s trying to bring down a pickup truck by the oil pan.”

“Wrong,” said he. He then showed me how to use short, brief jerks on the harmless collar accompanied by a voice command, and demonstrated that once the dog connected the jerk with the “HUP!“ command, all that was necessary was the voice command. No pinching was necessary. No yanks on a choke chain were necessary. No posturing or pretending to be the Boss Wolf was necessary.

That dog lived to a ripe old age. People would come up to me and coo admiringly, “Ohhh your dog is so well behaved!” Who’d’ve thunk it?

None of the behavioral trainer’s techniques entailed Mr. Millan’s crackpot theories—but the guy’s method worked, where Millan’s did not. His method was just what I said: quiet, confident, consistent repetition. Think about it: wolves are successful predators because they cooperate, not because they beat each other up. The idea that Millan is aping the behavior of wild wolves in packs misapprehends what wolves do. And what dogs do. And what successfully functioning human families do.

You don’t work on a dog. You work with a dog.

Abuse may elicit the desired result—submission and fear. But abuse is not the same as training.

Ella’s Story: Chapter 30

Ella’s Story follows people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.

Ella’s Story


Bhotil listened silently while Vighdi described what Ella had told her: cargo records altered, offloaded shipments shorted, missing goods diverted to some unknown destination…possibly with almost every incoming freighter. Ella felt herself shiver as Vighdi spoke.

The news delivered, he remained quiet for a moment, his expression blank. Time passed: an era, an eon. Half of Ella’s lifetime. Vighdi also fell silent and stayed silent, as though afraid to interrupt his thought.

“This has been going on…how long?” After the endless hiatus, the question felt anticlimactic.

“Five and a half circles, sir.” Zaitaf, distant from its mother planet, had gone five times around Varnis and then some, after that first day Lohkeh had asked her to “correct” a figure. Five circles took the better part of a Samdelan year. Samdela’s biggest moon would have waxed and waned eight times by now, the smaller one fourteen times.

Another moment of silence. “Can you tell us,” he resumed, “what exactly was taken?”

“Not specifically, Mr. Bhotil. I have…I just have the categories.”

“You’re stealing cargo but you don’t know what cargo you’re stealing? Doing it just for the fun of it, then?”

She felt her face go red.

“What in the names of all your people’s cock-eyed gods possessed you? You’ve been doing this for…why?”

“I don’t know, sir,” she murmured, barely audible.

“You don’t know what you’re stealing and you don’t know why you’re stealing? Is that it?”

She shrugged.

“What put this project into your head?”

“Lohkeh asked me to, sir.”

“Lohkeh.” He glanced at Vighdi, whose expression remained studiedly noncommittal, then turned his gaze back to Ella. “I see. So. Love loses its mind at the garden gate, hm?”

“I…no… Yes. Sir.”

Vighdi’s expression shifted, but Ella couldn’t read it. Anger? Disgust? Pity? Or was she suppressing laughter at his remark?

Bhotil expelled a sigh through his nose, unmistakably disgusted. “I’m disappointed, Ella.” This brought on an instant sting of tears. “Really, I am disappointed. You work hard. You’re smart. You’re polite, you behave yourself. You learn fast… I thought you were going to be fine. But behind the scenes, you’re doing this?

“I’m sorry, Mr. Bhotil,” she said into the heavy silence that followed, a silence that seemed to demand a reply or an explanation.

“I’ll bet you are.” He gave her a vexed look. “Damn it. I thought you were going to be all right.”

At this, Vighdi spoke up. “She is going to be all right, Bho. She just needs a chance to come all the way over.”

“She’s had her chance. And she squandered it.”

“No. Not yet.”

“She is done.” The statement was said with finality.

“Boss.” Ella had never heard Vighdi address him that way. She saw it got his attention, but whether this was in a useful way, she couldn’t guess. “She wouldn’t have told us any of this if she hadn’t wanted to break free. Can’t you see she’s trying to come over to us?”

He snorted softly. “Sure! It’s a creative approach.”

“If she’d said nothing, chances that we’d have found out about this, ever, are about nil. Why would she come forward if she weren’t trying to come out of the life?”

“She was already out of the life. That’s what this whole exercise is about.”

“Bho. She’s Syndicato. She was some capo’s lieutenant. You don’t just walk away from that, any more than you walk away from living and breathing.”

“Right. That’s exactly right. And that is why she’s done. As of now.”

The silence that was his response rang in her ears. She drew a breath, but didn’t seem to be able to pull in much air.

Moments seemed to pass before she could speak.

Mr. Bhodil,” she managed. “I did a wrong thing. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway because…I…” Briefly she considered her words. “I was attracted to Lohkeh. When he asked, I did what he asked because I wanted to please him. Because he’s so beautiful.”

Bhodil raised an eyebrow.

“I loved him and I wanted him. And I got him. And so yes, that’s why I did it. I never knew what became of the redirected crates or what was in them. He didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask.

“I let you down. And I’m sorry.

“But what he said would be a one-time thing got to be a regular thing, all the time. When you brought me here, I thought I would be out of the life. Forever. But it sucks you back. It was sucking me back into the life, and I don’t want to be there.

“So…so I came to Boss Vighdi. To make it stop.”

Bhodil seemed to gaze at a point on the wall for a moment. Vighdi and Ella waited for him to reply.

“Does he know you’re here?” he asked.

“No, sir.”

“He can’t be doing this alone. Who’s he working with?”

“I don’t know.” Haidar, she figured. But she couldn’t prove it, nor did she know who or what Haidar really was, if she was more than she appeared to be. So she refrained.

He seemed to think for another moment, then addressed Vighdi. “What do you propose we should do about this?”

“Remove Lohkeh. Right away. Say nothing about it. The point will be made, to those who know there’s a point. As for this one? Well…would you please give me another chance with her? Let me have her for awhile.”

“My inclination is to put her in isolation now and send her down to the surface with loverboy on the first planet-bound ship.”

“Please don’t do that. It would be a waste. A total waste.”

“Looks suspiciously like a waste right now.”

“I know. But I think we can turn that around. Bho, she’s worth another try. Let’s not just throw her away.”

He looked at Ella as though he were trying to make an appraisal. “I don’t know,” he said.

“When in doubt, don’t,” Vighdi returned. “Let her try again, will you?”

He sighed, more capitulating than conciliating. “All right. All right: once. But that’s it. One more fiasco and she’s gone.” He looked at Ella. “Do you understand?” She nodded.

“I think she’d better be isolated while we deal with the male,” he added.

Vighdi caught Ella’s wince. “Let me keep her with me.”

“She could be at risk. He is a capo. This won’t be kindly received.”

“I can handle it, you know.”

He looked at Vighdi a little askance. “All right. But…be careful, will you? Stay alert.”



Bhodil left the room, bound to give out a string of orders from the comfort of his own office. Vighdi let a sigh of relief escape her lips. She reached for Ella, who was beginning to weep again.

“That was a close call,” Vighdi said, gathering the other into her arms. “Don’t cry now. You made it.”

“Are they going to kill him?” Felons who escaped execution would not live past a second offense, committed in servitude.

“Ella. On Zaitaf, that’s what it means, to send someone to the surface.”

Writing Sex Scenes: The Complete Writer *FREE READS*

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Please note: This chapter contains a scene that may not be appropriate for all readers. If you are uncomfortable with depiction of sexuality, please pass over this chapter.


Writing Sex Scenes

One of my clients was wrestling with the question of how to present a sex scene between his two favorite characters. He would swing between flummoxed (oh, no! writer’s block!) and exuberant (yipes!). Though I recognized that there’s an in-between, I also found myself wrestling: trying to explain how to handle it.

When an author addresses the sexual frolics of a story’s characters, he or she confronts a slew of challenges:

  • One’s own hang-ups.
  • One’s own fantasies (Even in fiction, there’s such a thing as over-sharing . . .)
  • The characters’ hang-ups and fantasies
  • The influence of other authors’ sex scenes (“and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”)
  • The sense that it is impossible to improve on some other author’s sex scene (see above.)
  • Political correctness
  • Resentment of political correctness
  • Absence of political correctness
  • Expectations of the perceived audience
  • Imagined or real hang-ups of the perceived audience

One could go on at length. As it were.

We could add to the list of challenges: “The essential ludicrousness of the sex act between human beings and the difficulty of making a love scene appear less than (or more than) ludicrous.”

I try to advise, but am limited by all of the above. I certainly have written a number of very randy sex scenes, one of which, with some trepidation, I copy and send over to him as a sort of example.

This gets him past his Victorian mores and jump-starts a pretty lively exchange between the characters. But now I think the result is a bit much. Baroque, even.

When it comes to writing sex, there’s a fine line between not enough and too much; between wimpy and creepy. And as for what the readers want to read? It’s anyone’s guess.

Personally, I think the writer is better served by restraint than by extravagance, where sexuality is concerned. Tone it up. Tone it down. But make it part of the story.

As a real-life human being’s sexuality cannot be divorced from his or her experience and milieu, so a fictional character’s sex life must fit into the plot and the action. Whatever that character gets up to must relate in some way, preferably in a significant way, to the ongoing narrative.

From one of our pseudonymous authors writing as Roberta Stuart comes a passage from Cabin Fever. In that novelette, a crusty sea-salt of a lady yacht cabin hires a young man to help crew her boat across the Caribbean so that she can meet some tourists who await her arrival. At the outset, she takes him for a rich-boy frat rat looking for a little adventure, but as the story proceeds we see he’s deeper than that. The two fight the attraction slowly growing between them…until that fateful night…

When my alarm woke me at midnight, the chop had subsided somewhat. I climbed the ladder and stepped into a world transformed.

The moon was high and full, and all around me, the sea glowed as if lit from within. Millions of plankton, too small to be seen with the naked eye, hung suspended in the water. And everywhere, as the water moved and the moon struck them, they lit with a bioluminescent glow.

Pete needs to see this.

I bolted back down the ladder. “Pete!”

He sat bolt upright, and if we’d had stacked bunks, he’d have put himself out like a light. “What’s wrong?” He lunged for his shorts.

I hadn’t meant to worry him. “Nothing’s wrong. Something I want you to see, is all.”

He let out his breath. “Oh. Okay.” He rummaged for his shorts.

“Never mind that! Who’s going to see you? Come on! I bolted back topside without waiting to see whether he followed.

He did, of course. He stopped short halfway out of the hatch.

“Wow,” he breathed. He came up the rest of the way and turned in a slow circle, taking it in. “It—it’s beautiful.”

I swallowed hard. No matter how many times I’d seen it, it always got me that way, too. “Go up front and look at the bow.”

By the time I’d checked the readings and updated the log, Pete was standing braced at the front of the boat, watching the phosphorescent wave rolling away from the bow. “It’s like magic,” he said when he heard me behind him.


I sat down on the decking, and after a moment, Pete flopped down beside me, his leg warm against mine.

“Bioluminescent plankton,” I told him, a little short of breath. “The moonlight hits them and they—”

“I know.” A slow grin spread across his face. “I’ve heard of it, but I never thought I’d get to see it. Thank you.” His eyes watered up a little. “Thank you.” And before I knew he was going to do it, he leaned down and kissed me, very gently, right on the lips.

Bad idea. Terrible idea. I drew back to tell him so, and then I was kissing him, full on, my arm coming up around his neck to steady us both.

We fell back on the deck together, side by side. Our arms came around each other, and our legs tangled as we pressed close together.

Pete’s hands came up to cup my breasts through my shirt, thumbs squeezing my nipples gently. I groaned and ran my fingernails up his spine, goading him.

His tongue darted between my lips and slid away, and mine chased it eagerly. It felt wonderful, lying here on Fever’s deck with his hands and mouth on me, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

I cupped his balls through his shorts, then squeezed his hard-on. He groaned into my mouth. “I want you,” I growled.

“God, yes!” Pete reached down and freed his cock from his shorts, and I slithered out of my panties, kicking them away.

His eyes widened when I rolled him onto his back and straddled him. “Is this okay?”

“Yeah. I mean, it— Yeah. It’s great.” His cock twitched beneath me. “It’s wonderful.”

I lined us up and he slid into me, filling me. Damn, it felt good!

Pete’s hands came up to squeeze my breasts again. I yanked my shirt over my head, swung it like a rodeo cowboy, and let it fly. I thought it landed somewhere on the boathouse.

Fever pitched a little, and I grabbed Pete’s arm to steady myself. I leaned back and slapped his thigh. “Lift up a little.” He brought his knees up a bit and I tucked my heels under his thighs, locking us together. There was no way I was coming off him now, not even if we both slid right off the deck. Pete propped his hands up and I braced myself on them and began to ride.

I rode with the motion of the boat, letting it move me. Up and up as we crested a wave, then down into the trough, Pete plunging deep into me. As we bottomed out, I ground hard against his pubic bone. Then the next wave was lifting me, and I was soaring higher and higher into the night air.

Up. Down. Around. Up. Down. Around.

I could have gone on like that forever, surging and falling with the sea. But all too soon, my orgasm came crashing over me like a wave.

Like any scene in a piece of fiction, the effective sex scene does more than add spice. Otherwise you get a hot tamale with no interest other than its jalapeños. Not that we don’t enjoy the occasional hot tamale . . . but Man cannot live on jalapeños alone.

This passage echoes not only the sights and feel of the open ocean but resonates with the characters’ faltering resistance to their mutual attraction. It continues to characterize the two while it moves the plot’s action forward.

A sex scene needs to add spice. But it also needs to serve another purpose. Jalapeños, after all, are full of vitamin C.

What NOT to do . . .

My goodness, there’s some bad writing out there! Most “erotic romances” are awful: graced with dangling modifiers (some of them truly funny), typos, unidiomatic language (“grinded”; “withering” for “writhing”; and on and on), lapses in point of view, characters dissolving pointlessly in laughter, eye-glazing clichés . . .

Oh, well. Clearly literature is not what people are buying the things for.

Some erotica does display workmanlike writing, and some stories are even done with style and humor. But even those self-consciously deploy tried-and-true tropes. There’s a sameness to the things, especially where the female characters are concerned.

The female character almost invariably is said to be lonely: either she describes herself as lonely, explicitly, or some other character observes or speculates that she’s lonely.

As the story unwinds, the woman is “rescued” in some way from an unhappy relationship with a former husband or boyfriend. The male lover(s)’ sex is better, kinder, hotter, more positive all the way around.

The female character yearns for change or sometimes simply for an outrageous spree.

She often is described as feeling self-conscious or insecure about herself.

Attraction is immediate, as you’d expect in such short pieces—the characters lust after each other at first glance.

Men are described as “gods.”

Men are often described as cooking or doing some other domestic activity; this seems to be part of their appeal or at least a repeating trope.

We’ll redact some of the other observations, lest the young, the impressionable, or the tender be reading. Suffice it to say that all the way across the board, a kind of monotony reigns.

It explains why some very, very silly things rise to the top in the erotic romance genre. Like the series about the woman who gets it on with Bigfoot.

Yes. That one is said to be authored by a stay-at-home mom who home-schools the kiddies.

Erotica vs. porn

In front of me I had the work of an author who would like to publish with Camptown Races Press and whom we would like to have writing for us. After plowing through his current effort, I thought, Where’s my coffee? Toss in an extra shot of espresso, please. . .

Once again I tried, as I have tried with various scribblers in the past, to explain about writing sex scenes. This boils down, really, to explaining the difference between erotica and pornography.

Pornography is a variety of erotica, but erotica is not a variety of pornography. As author Kate Douglas wrote in her essay “Writing the Fine Line between Erotica and Porn” (published in Shoshanna Evers’s collection, How to Write Hot Sex), the term erotic means “having to do with sexual love; amatory.” Pornography is “intended primarily to arouse sexual desire.” Amatory has to do with love, whereas unalloyed sexual desire amounts to lust.

There’s a difference.

Has your pet saved you from a perilous situation? If You’d Asked Me… *FREE READS*

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Section II: Going to the Dogs
(Or Cats)

2. Has your pet saved you from a perilous situation?

My late, great German shepherd Greta saved my son’s life and, on another occasion, chased off a hapless cat burglar.

When my son was a toddler, we lived downtown in a gentrifying central-city neighborhood with friendly neighbors. Our neighbor across the street had a German shepherd mix called Colonel, who like Greta was mellow with children. Colonel was allowed to sit around loose, in front. Whenever my son and I would go for a walk with Greta, Colonel would amble along with us. Both dogs were unleashed—fortunately, as it developed.

So we’re walking up the sidewalk, approaching a corner house that has a six-foot wall around the side yard, blocking the view of what’s coming up the street that runs at a right angle to our street.

Colonel is walking ahead of me, maybe 30 feet up ahead. My son is holding onto Colonel’s tail as the two of them stroll up the sidewalk. Greta, who by this time is getting on in doggy-years, is dawdling behind us. I am midway between the Colonel/kid dyad and Greta.

Suddenly, from behind the wall comes a willowy young woman jogging up the bicycle path behind a huge Great Dane.

My son sees this massive dog, emits a squeal of delight (two-year-olds can be brain-banging shrill), waves his little arms in the air (waving your arms is a threat to a dog), and starts to run toward them.

The Dane instantly goes in for the attack.

I try to grab my son, catch ahold of his shirt, but he jerks away from me and keeps running toward the dog.

Now the Dane has my little boy’s entire head inside its mouth. The young woman, who can’t possibly weigh more than a hundred pounds, is pulling with all her strength on the Dane’s lead, to no effect.

As I’m charging into the battle, I sense a motion at my right side, almost at shoulder height.

It’s Greta. She is literally flying through the air. She has raced up behind me and before she reaches my side has launched herself into a flying leap.

She slams into the Great Dane’s side. The Dane, distracted, releases my son, who falls under the two dogs. I grab him and yank him out from underneath them as they tumble to the ground, fighting.

Now the Dane has Greta down. Greta weighed about 90 pounds, but the Dane was at least half again her size.

Colonel is gone. As in gone gone. He ran off at the first sign of trouble. As I drag my son away from the fighting dogs, I figure Greta is going to die.

Then all of a sudden, the Dane drops to the ground—it passes out! The woman has been pulling on the dog’s leash so hard that she cut off the animal’s air and it literally has lost consciousness.

Idiotically, I say something like omigod! I’m so sorry.

She says—this is truth!—she says, “Oh, it’s all right. It happens all the time.”

Then there was the Night of the Cat Burglar.

My husband and I had come home from a night on the town and gone to bed. When he would get very tired, he would snore. Loudly! I couldn’t get to sleep with that racket going, so I got up and went to sleep on the living-room sofa. In the altogether, we might add.

By now, Greta was old and deaf. We had acquired a German shepherd pup, knowing that Greta’s time was coming to an end and, since we lived in a dangerous part of the city, wanting to have another large dog trained and acclimated to living with us while Greta was still around to serve as a role model. As it were. This dog was more than half-grown but not yet old enough to have developed any real protectiveness.

Greta liked to sleep in the hall outside our bedroom door. The pup was probably in the bedroom near my husband. The baby was in his bedroom, down at the far end of the hall.

It was about three in the morning.

Something woke me. Greta, in the back of the house, emitted a tentative, rather quiet woof? I looked up and saw a flashlight in the kitchen. And . . . here’s what goes through one’s befuddled mind at 3:00 a.m: I thought, “Ohhhh, the power must have gone out, and the baby must have waked up and John must have gone into the kitchen to get him a bottle.”

I now sit up and say “John?”

And Greta explodes!

She comes roaring into the kitchen. And let me tell you, the sound of an angry German shepherd is something you will never forget.

The flashlight is jerking around frantically.

Greta is between the sh!thead and the door he came in, and she does mean business.

Dumb as I am, I still haven’t figured out WTF.

I get up and start to walk toward the kitchen. The sh!thead manages to find the door to the service porch and darts out, slamming the door between himself and the enraged dog.

I still haven’t a clue.

My husband comes into the kitchen, trailed by the terrorized pup—by now the lights are on—looks at me buck nekkid, and says, “Who was that man?”

I still haven’t a clue! I now say “What man?”

He says, “The one who just ran out this door.”

Holy mackerel.

Well, the perp is presumably still running. By now he must have circumnavigated the globe several times.

Don’t mess with a German shepherd. And be sure to lock your doors at night.


Never rains but…

…yeah: like that. For the past ten days, I’ve been so swamped with paying work that I haven’t been able to keep up with anything else. Hence: no posts here. Not because I’ve forgotten you, dear readers, but because there simply isn’t any time to do anything else but read copy, feed myself, feed the dogs, and fall into the sack.

Yesterday evening I was just wrapping up a Chinese math paper when in came another one! I haven’t looked at it yet (that’s next on the list of to-do’s, after “write post for P&S Press”), but this author is given to long, complex projects that require many thousands of words to explicate. So I expect it will take the better part of a week to plow through the thing and then go back and proofread edits.

Not that one should complain… If this much work came in all the time, week in and week out, I could make a decent living off The Copyeditor’s Desk. But it doesn’t. In my experience, the copyediting biz is a feast or famine affair. A year ago this spring, work poured in steadily for four solid months. I was never without a project. In first-quarter 2017, I earned as much as I normally earn in an entire year.

Good thing. Because the work stopped when summer started. I hardly saw another project for the rest of the year…and that wasn’t until fall. Nor has enough work to matter come in this year — not until the past month or so. Now…lordie! I’m so swamped that if I had another editor who could convert Chinglish to academic English (most people can’t even convert air-headed English jargon to acceptable academic English…), I would farm out some of this work. My associate editor has started a new graduate program — this on top of two full-time jobs! — and so somehow I doubt she will have a lot of time to cope with my workload.


So, I haven’t had a minute to write the next chapter of Ella’s Story, nor have I even had time to fiddle with posting copy that’s already written for The Complete Writer and If You’d Asked Me.

But eventually, the floodwaters will drop, and I’ll be back here to post my ramblings.

Watch this space!

Ella, for the moment

NO WAY am I going to get an Ella’s Story post up today. With summer coming to an end, things are heating up here — a lot of activities have re-started and I’ve been busy every minute of every day, mostly out of the house. And in the middle of a great deal of whirling around, in came 7600 words of math copy from one of the Chinese scientists!

Welp, paying work trumps hobbyist frolics, so today I’m going to have to edit copy like mad, since I put off the job over the weekend (do they have Saturdays and Sundays “off” — har har — in China???), today and for the next several days Ella is going to have to wait.

Always glad to get paying work…but sometimes one does wish EVERYTHING wouldn’t happen at once!


And….a-a-a-a-n-d before I can even hit publish here’s ANOTHER of the mathematicians!



Running in place…

A day late in posting this week’s Complete Writer post — my apologies to anyone who’s been following that *FREE READ.*

Summer is coming to its end and life is beginning to stir here. All of today and this evening will be completely given over to choir. Tomorrow morning: socializing with a lovely friend. Next week: all day on Monday is gone, half the day Tuesday, half the day Wednesday, half the day Thursday, all day Friday. And that doesn’t cover time needed for grocery shopping, maintaining the pool, maintaining the yard, maintaining the house, taking care of the dogs, and taking care of me.

I have not written next Monday’s chapter of Ella’s story; the likelihood that I will find time to do that in half a day tomorrow is almost nil.

Complicating matters more: WordPress is dumping its operating system (or whatever one calls the software that runs a website) and installing Something Completely Different.

Yes. Life as a Monty Python Show.

Our Web guru says the new software, bloviatingly dubbed “Gutenberg” (so original and earth-shaking is it, we’re told…), is not all that difficult to use. But I have no faith. He, being a young thing, does not realize how difficult it is for the older brain to change gears at full speed. Nor, I suspect, does he fully appreciate how sick and tired I am of the endless, brain-banging hassles caused by endless, brain-banging, pointless techno-change for the sake of mere pointless change.

It is entirely possible that a new whack-sh!t conversion will break this site, and maybe even all my sites. It is also possible that I will find it too difficult or too confusing to make the adjustment. In that case, I will try to migrate my content to Medium.

That also will entail having to learn an entire new program, but from what I can tell, it’s pretty user-friendly and not all that different from WordPress. Also, the Medium platform has some serious advantages that could increase traffic and readership.

Complicating matters further, my credit union is also completely revamping its website, as of Labor Day. Expecting the usual snafus, their PR people have begged us — over and over — to download all data NOW! Obviously, I’ll have to wait until late next week for that, to capture all of this month’s transactions. Since that CU hosts both corporate and personal sets of accounts (a total of SIX separate savings and checkings accounts), that fun activity will absorb yet another half-day of my time next week.

So…watch this space. If  I have to shift to another platform, I’ll ask my guru to post a notice to that effect with a link directing readers to the new site, keep this site up for a month or so, and then shut down P&S Press, Funny about Money, The Copyeditor’s Desk, and Camptown Ladies Press in favor of whatever appears on Medium.

Theme & Symbol in Fiction: The Complete Writer *FREE READS*

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.


Theme and Symbol

When you’re writing fiction, theme is crucial, as we all know. Theme is what your story is about. Not the action, not the plotline, but what the story signifies—its overall meaning or message.

Not all stories can be said to have a “meaning” in some deep, artsy way. Genre fiction often exists to amuse, and so its authors can get away with recycling canned plot lines and characters developed in previous novels. But in my never-too-humble opinion, a genre novel that is just a reiteration of some canned theme is not very good reading. The best genre fiction, like the fiction we regard as “literature,” is trying to tell us something.

Think of your favorite genre fiction. These days I spend a great deal of time watching Poirot and Murdoch, themselves latter-day spinoffs of my hero Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. On the surface, they’re just detective stories. Their characterization makes them interesting. But below the surface, they all have thematic currents that carry over from story to story and that keep us coming back.

In any detective story, as we know, there’s the underlying theme of good vs. evil. In Sherlock Holmes we can discern a number of themes, one of them the power of science and intellect to combat evil. We see the same theme arise in the Murdoch mysteries, but there it’s combined with a pattern of frustrated love. Murdoch also represents the efforts of gifted women to escape societal oppression, a theme that recurs frequently throughout the series. In Poirot, the strangeness of the protagonist is just a thread in the thematic strangeness of the culture in which he moves—our culture, heaven help us!

So, what is your story about?

The first installment of my post-apocalyptic series, Fire-Rider, developed around the protagonist’s weariness with his people’s endless wars and his growing sense that much of what he has devoted his life to—revenge, disruption, and an allegedly infallible religion—is simply wrong. This theme couples with his famed wiliness—the character echoes Odysseus in a number of aspects—which can verge into duplicity when he uses it among his own people to get his way.

The second theme—duplicity and deceit—resurfaces in Book II, where it elides with issues of sin, error, and forgiveness. The second book’s theme suggests that if you really want to be macho, you must learn to forgive.

It’s tricky to weave these threads into a book-length work without shoving them in the reader’s face and without making them look forced. By and large, some hint of the theme, shown in action or setting, needs to appear early on, maybe even in the first few paragraphs. But it’s something that needs to be shown, not lectured about: for that reason one should avoid presenting any direct exposition of the theme in dialogue or narrative. At least, so I think.

Rules, as we know, are made to be broken . . . though probably that should not even be thought of as a “rule.” It’s just one scribbler’s opinion.

Fire-Rider opens with a group of characters expressing sentiments exactly the opposite of the theme represented by the protagonist’s experience. The first two and a half pages show comrades in arms celebrating their triumph over an enemy city that they have breached, sacked, and burned. Not until this scene is firmly set and action has begun does a suggestion of the protagonist’s troubled heart appear:

[Kaybrel, his fierce young sidekick Fallon, and his cousin Mitch] stood taking in the view, the torched city a roaring, gaudy backdrop to the activity on the plain before it.

“Must do your heart good,” Fal said to Kay.

“You bet,” Kay said.

But his eyes said something else, Fal saw, the expression gray and pensive, far from the unrestrained joy Fallon would have felt had he stood in Kay’s boots. Tired, maybe: the fight was hard-won, and Kay and Fal had put themselves at the front line.

As for Kay, the man of the moment: What was he feeling? The smoky breeze combed his grizzled beard and hair like the hand of a woman who had been working by the kitchen hearth. He thought of Maire and the child. When he looked at the devastation below him, he did not, could not think of bygone sorrow or of the years spread out between past loss and present victory. Instead, he thought of going home.

The narrative touches on this and then moves on. Over the course of the entire novel, Kaybrel’s weariness and nausée develop thematically. But a little at a time.

Theme is something the readers need to discern and interpret on their own. It should never be fed to them.

One tool you can use to help the reader do those things is symbolism: a concrete image that represents something abstract—an idea, a theme, a psychological concern, a cultural current, or the like. Ernest Hemingway infuses his stories with symbolism; I can’t recall a place in any of his stories where he explicitly reveals the theme in so many words. Interestingly, he denied any guilt in this line. But if you and I could deploy imagery the way Hemingway did, we’d all be living on our yachts and punctuating our writing stints with drinking and deep-sea fishing.

One of my authors, who has just begun to explore the finer points of writing fiction, wants to develop two symbols to present a long novel’s main theme. One—the sound of an ethnic musical instrument—was an afterthought. It leaps to the fore as the novel rises toward its climax, but because we’ve never heard of it before, it jars.

I suggested that, on rewrite, he should introduce the musical tradition’s sounds and sights early on, with at least a mention in the first chapter and then recurring appearances as the story grows. A few months later he came forth with a chapter, imbued with magical realism, in which the protagonist encounters the tradition as a young boy. From there the author builds the image into the narrative until it becomes thematically symbolic.

Theme is crucial to good fiction. Symbol is a tool you can use to point to theme. And to use either of them, show, don’t tell!