Saturday, December 30, 2023


Greetings from your friendly internet writer.

Yes, writer.

A few years back, I wouldn’t have believed this possible.

A few years back it wouldn’t have been possible.

But despite the sneering complaints of certain vocal critics, it is possible for a writer to make a modest living this way.

It used to be “writer” was defined as somebody who assembled words and ideas into books, short stories, articles, and perhaps screenplays, fact or fiction, and submitted those efforts via various means to editors at publishing houses or various presses or various media outlets, and then lived on cheese sandwiches hoping a check of some small amount would come back. Traditionally the profession of “writer” meant you repeated this cycle without healthcare or adequate hygiene or presentable clothes until you died, or gave it up for a real job.

That model, that definition of writer, still very much exists.

And a lot of writers make varying degrees of living from it.

And I do that. I write various stories for various publishers and they give money. Not much, but enough to call myself a professional and enough to get invited to various writing conventions to talk about it. If you were at WorldCon in Chicago this year, or MisCon in Missoula where I was a guest of honor, it was great to see you there, thanks for coming and saying hi. 

Which is, you know, pretty cool -- at least to me. 

See, I wanted to be a writer since I was kid. 

Other kids wanted to be fire fighters or astronauts or dentists. Not me. I wanted to be writer. 

It’s a sickness, writing. A weird mental disorder that makes you sit in front of a keyboard for hours, daydreaming and playing with ideas and wondering why anyone would read the blather on the screen. No matter how upbeat and confident you are, and I am often very upbeat and probably too confident in myself for my own good, writing is fraught with self doubt and black depression mixed with mania. In that way, it's sort of like my previous military profession which is best described as "long periods of tedious boredom punctuated with moments of furious insanity."

I know exactly when I caught it, this sickness. 

As a kid of maybe nine or so, my grandmother gave me a Hardy Boys book (#8; The Mystery of Cabin Island) for Christmas one year. I’d been an indifferent reader up to that point, but that book captivated me and my lifelong obsession with words began right there. It was long before I discovered the local library, and then Robert Anson Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. Somewhere shortly thereafter, in a staggering moment of epiphany, I realized there were actually people out there who got paid to sit in front of a keyboard and daydream and those people didn’t have to put on pants every day. Hell they might not even own actual pants – unless you consider pajamas legitimate work apparel.

I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.

I’d always intended to go the traditional route, cheese sandwiches and all.

I’d never intended to write about politics. But evidence would suggest that’s where my talent lies – if you’re charitable and agree that it is indeed an actual talent and not just something you could train a chimpanzee to do (they taught monkeys to fly spaceships, so I imagine political pundit wouldn’t be that difficult).

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, by the time I was free to write what I wanted (upon my retirement from the military) and I started writing in earnest with the idea that someday somebody somewhere would give me actual money for it, the world had changed. How we connect to it had changed and continues to evolve at a rapid pace and a new type of “writer” became possible – well maybe not new new, but perhaps a more modern version of the political broadsides and pamphlets penned by the likes of Thomas Paine.

Ten years ago, I would never have guessed that social media would become my primary platform for day to day short form.  

Social media is horrible. 

Absolutely horrible. 

Social media is horrible in all the ways it's possible for human interaction to be horrible. No matter the platform, or the owner, social media is howling a bastard cross between an opinion column and a public forum and doesn’t do either very well. It’s subject to arbitrary and random censorship. There’s no protection for intellectual property at all. It lacks the most basic of editing tools and formatting functions, its search capability is ridiculous and all but useless. As a general rule, and again no matter the particular platform, the interface, timeline management, and display are one of the single most infuriatingly horrible experiences in an age of limitless customization. Universally, social media is subject to every kind of cyber-abuse from bullying to trolling to sexual assault. 

And if there's one thing that is the terrible same across every single social media platform, it is this: You will never get any kind of help from the operators and AI is only going to make that worse by orders of magnitude. You can't argue with a machine, and you'll never get any human sympathy from software. Ever. 

If Facebook is your dysfunctional community, then Twitter is Monkey Island in that community’s monstrous zoo, a screeching riot of flying shit and bared fangs. Twitter is a chemical plant for distilling out the absolute worst elements of human existence, like some sort of highway where every driver is armed and in the throes of seething road rage and they don’t care if they die so long as they can take everybody else with them. I left Twitter a few months back due to the owner's increasing bigotry and unhinged madness, and moved my microblogging to Threads, which is basically just more Facebook but with the single redeeming quality of not be subject to the random capricious machinations of Elon Musk. I'm active on a dozen other platforms, including my own here, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. 

As a platform for writing, social media, whatever the flavor, stinks. 

And yet – and yet – these platforms do one thing very, very well.

They do the one thing that traditional publishing venues cannot do.

Social media connects creators to people in an organic, viral, geometrically expanding manner that is completely impossible anywhere else.

Now, interacting with readers on a real time basis for hours upon hours every single goddamned day isn’t for every writer. It takes a certain degree of masochism to do it, see my previous comments about road rage and flying monkey shit. In point of fact, a lot of writers become writers because they are anti-social curmudgeons who enjoy living on moldy fake-cheese sandwiches and sitting around all day in dirty pajamas and who tend to break out in a cold sweat when they actually have to put on pants and go outside where all the other people are.

So real time interaction with their audience isn’t something they consider a feature.

And that’s okay. 

“Writer” is a loose enough definition that it accommodates the gregarious right alongside the hermit.

But, if you write well, if you write the things people are interested in, and if you’re willing to interact with your audience directly and in real time, then social media makes it possible for your work to spread far beyond the size of audiences normally available to traditional writers. 

Social media, for all its ills, has created new opportunity, an alternative to traditional writing models. Not a replacement, a supplement.

And that’s where I ended up.

I admit that in my case there is some degree of luck. I happened to be in the right place just as opportunity opened with the right experience and skillset and enough free time to take advantage of it.  It suits me. It’s not easy. Really it’s not. It sometimes (often) takes 14 to 18 hour days, research, writing, swearing at the screen, it can be incredibly frustrating at times for reasons you never imagine or anticipate. It requires constant attention, a constant presence, and everything becomes grist for the mill, making much of your life public – something that is often less than thrilling to your spouse.

It’s work.

And it is … writing.

I’ve had a number of critics sneer at me, you’re not a real writer! Well, okay. Fair enough. I’m not particularly put out by that and I’m willing to go with whatever description you want to call it.  Sincerely.

But what do you call it?

I sometimes crank out a quarter million words in a month for a dedicated audience larger than that of many highly successful novelists. Hell, news sites steal my work on nearly a daily basis, and publish my stuff as their own for profit – that’s got to mean something, right? Now, I’m willing to accept any label you want to slap on that, but before you do, I’d like to suggest you try it. Start a substack, social media sites, assemble words every day, build an audience without gimmicks or tricks solely on the basis of what you write, and then tell me what you call that effort.

As a cautionary note: no matter what you call yourself, no matter how much adoring admiration you manage to inspire in your audience, no matter how many people send you fan mail and messages of respect, no matter how successful you eventually manage to be and how full of yourself you become as a result, your family and friends still think you’re a putz and remind you of it as often as possible.  Ideally this keeps you grounded and from turning into a complete ass. Ideally.

And every day, every single day, no matter how well you’ve done, everyday, you’re sure that’ll be the day it all falls apart and you’ll have to go get a real job again.

And every day, every single damn day, you'll get hate mail and death threats and DMs filled with gibbering insanity that you can't decipher (even if, like me, you were once trained as a code breaker). That can be pretty depressing unless you have a very, very thick skin. 

I’ve been invited to a number of writer’s conventions to talk about this with other writers and those who are interested in such things. That’s something I’m happy to do. I’ve been pretty lucky and I’m glad to pay that forward. The world is a big place, there’s plenty of room for many, many more writers – or whatever you call ‘em – in this new arena.

But, here’s the downside – or at least the part I like least.

Every once in a while I need to ask for money.

I don’t like this. 

No, I really don’t like this. I don’t like asking for money. I feel bad about it. It gives me endless anxiety. I’m getting more used it, especially since it doesn’t seem to bother readers at all – well except for that one guy who shows up periodically to call me names and generally make an ass of himself. But ideally, I write something and if you like it enough, you’ll kick in, or you buy my artwork which I very much appreciate it. And thankfully, you do so often enough that I can mostly survive on that part.

But I still feel guilty about it.

So, when I began this I found a way to assuage my conscience.

Thus: Any subscriber who donates any amount via the donation button or as a new Patreon for the next 30 days, will be put in the running for a giveaway. 

Every few days over the next month, I’ll give away loot. It's the end of the year and I’ve got at least a hundred of my handmade ink pens, engraved with Stonekettle Station. I’ve signed copies of books that my work appears in. I’ve got signed copies of my photography – and given that I generally don’t sign those prints, these will be unique. And since I've recently started making calendars with my photography, I'll print and sign a selection of each version and give those away too. 

Winners will be announced here every few days until I run out things to give away.

To donate, click on the “Donation” button on the upper right side of this screen and follow the directions or click on the Patreon link for additional options.

PayPal is here 

If you want to become a monthly supporter My Patreon is here

You may enter more than once. Each donation will be counted as a unique subscription. 

If you’ve already donated to Stonekettle Station this month, you’re already on the subscription list.

Those of you who already donate via an automatic monthly payment, you’ll be entered automatically in the giveaway.

Note: I’ve discovered that winners sometimes, often it seems, do not want their names made public. I’d like to tell readers who got the various art pieces, but if you want your name kept private I will certainly do so. Last time I did this, the first person I selected to receive a prize refused because they lived on a boat and had no room for addition items. The alternate also refused for personal reasons and requested that the artwork go instead to a charity for auction to raise money for a cause important to them. They wanted it kept anonymous. So, that I did. 

I will honor any reasonable request when it comes to such things.

Legal Disclaimer: To be clear, this is not a lottery or a raffle.  Donations are voluntary subscription fees specifically in support of this blog and the associated social media feeds and conducted in accordance with state and federal requirements.

That is:  you’re paying for content not a chance to win something.

I am not claiming any tax-exempt status or charity. Donations are considered business income and I pay all applicable state and federal taxes on that income and I have the records to prove it.

The items I give away are my artwork, created and paid for by me.  As such I chose to randomly give them away to supporters, just as I gave away my custom made pens to my fellow writers -- and if you come find me at a convention, I'll give one to you, whatever your profession.  The giveaway list is generated from voluntary subscriptions, since I have no other way to determine who readers are.  You are not donating for a chance to win a prize, you’re paying for the content I create and I’m using this opportunity to give something back other than just my usual blog essays and social media posts.

As always, thank you for your support // Jim 

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Fear, Hope, and Polling

Headlines this morning: Biden's poll numbers continue to fall despite surging economy!

Oh no!

What are we gonna do! 

CNN has a whole panel of earnest looking talking heads enthusiastically opining on the subject. Dire! Woe! Terrible! The End is Near! 

It's the same over on Fox, except the talking heads are all gleeful and showing a lot of cleavage. 

My social media feeds are clogged with MAGAs (or foreign intelligence assets pretending to be MAGAs), all pushing the same message:

See the common theme? 

Fear sells. 

Rage sells. 

Anger sells. 

Cleavage sells ... okay, that's probably not the point here, but anyway. 

It's not about the economy. Not this election, not really. 

"The Economy" is just a convenient narrative the press and politicians use when they don't want to do any actual work. It's an easy fiction that no one bothers to dispute. 

Gotta be the economy, Stupid. 

No kidding, right?

But it's bullshit. Voters don't show up because gas prices are high. And they don't show up because prices are low and there are plenty of jobs. They'll bitch and complain about inflation and the cost of milk, but they don't show up either way. 

They do show up, however, because they're mad about something.

Or they're afraid of something.

Or they hate something. 

Rage, fear, anger are all far more powerful motivators than the economy. That's why the press and the politicians spend so much time making you mad and afraid -- and the easiest way to do that is "The Economy" because America is a capitalist society and Americans are all driven by money. 

You mention money, Americans get very, very afraid very quickly. 

That's the entire basis of supply-side economics: fear. What's good for business is good for us. What's bad for business is bad for us. If business doesn't have to pay taxes, isn't hobbled by pesky regulation, isn't constrained by antitrust laws or any concern for the environment or the health and safety of consumers, then we all profit. Now, it's true that some profit a lot more than others, but that's the American way, isn't it? We gotta make the rich richer so some of it trickles down to the rest of us. That's what they tell us -- they being the rich. If business fails, we all fail. Be afraid. Be afraid of anyone who might put constraints on profit. 

That is the entire message of our economic system. 

Americans were afraid of inflation, but business boomed. Profits are way up. The stock market is riding an all time high. Because Americans paid more for goods and blamed the White House, but it wasn't actually inflation at all was it? It was that business blamed the economy while conspiring to raise prices and pocket the difference. 

See the price of eggs and gasoline et al. That wasn't inflation. That's the rich raising the price of goods to make themselves richer. 

Americans were afraid of COVID, but business got bailed out on the backs of Americans who'd lost their jobs, and not a single wealthy CEO lost even a penny's worth of income. 

That's the lesson the rich learned from the Great Depression: never gamble with your own money. 

A rising tide lifts all boats, which is great if you've got a boat. When things are good, the poor and middle class sacrifice to make the richer richer on the idea that some of that largess will trickle down to them. And when things go bad, the poor and recently unemployed lose their homes, college funds, and retirements and pay for bailouts to those same failed businesses while the rich pocket bonuses and then declare bankruptcy and leave the government they so utterly despise to clean up the economic, social, and environmental wreckage left in their wake which is also paid for by the middle class and the poor. 

That's how it works in America. Profits are personal, but the risks all public. 

Republicans hate "socialism," but they sure do love socializing failure. 

Profit is a privilege of the wealthy, failure is the responsibility of the poor, and you don't have to look any further than Donald Trump's business record to see it. And that is what republicans love about him, right there. And that is the thing the rich are terrified you'll figure out -- because the guillotines typically follow that social epiphany in short order.  So they push fear, fear of economic failure. What's bad for them is bad for you. Fear of losing your job, your income, your retirement, your home, your healthcare...

That's what actually trickles down, you know. Fear. That fear. That fear the rich will lose everything and we'll have to pay for it. 

But you know what? Hope is a hell of a motivator too. 

Yes it is. Remember that guy? The one who talked about hope and change? He pushed hope instead of fear and he won, won big. Twice. That's a lesson everyone seems to have forgotten. Because hate, rage, and fear are all a hell of a lot easier. 

You gotta be a hell of a leader to win on hope instead of fear. 

And those sorts of leaders are in short supply these days.

My point here is: those polls? Yeah, polls are like the Bible, they tell you whatever you want to hear. Polls are absolute evidence of whatever narrative the shouty guy up front wants you to believe today. Tomorrow they'll be absolute evidence of exactly the opposite and no one will even notice the switcheroo. 

Don't listen to the polls, they're trying to manipulate you, trying to make you confidently hopeful so you'll stay home because you believe the job is done, or trying to make you depressed and defeated so you'll stay home because the job isn't worth doing. 

Don't listen. Don't listen to the talking heads, their only interest is rage, fear, and anger because that's what sells advertising copy. That's what makes them rich. The more terrible the world, the richer they get, so they have an interest in making the world seem a worse place. 

Steady on, Folks. Be hopeful instead. 

Show up and you'll win.

You want a better nation, be a better citizen. 

Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Month In Pictures: Michigan Autumn


I spent most of November in Michigan.

Which isn't a bad time of year to spend in the Midwest. 

November is fall colors and migrating birds and apple cider and hay rides. Pretty great if you're a photographer.

Pretty good if you're not a photographer too.

Not great for my mobile bandwidth though. I tend to take a lot of pictures. Given that I make a not insignificant fraction of my income from photography, I don't suppose that's any sort of surprise to you. And of course, if you follow me on social media, you know I post a lot of images to my various audiences on multiple platforms. Which is, as I said, not real great for mobile bandwidth. I burned through 150GB, all of my primary mobile hotspot, in about 28 days and was well into my reserve allocation on my backup device when I finally was able to pack up and return home. 

So, instead of posting my normal week in pictures from the road, you're getting the whole month all at once. 

I spent most of my time in Michigan at my mother's place outside of Middleville, a small farming town turned Norman Rockwell bedroom community in the Lower Peninsula's southwest. 

Long ago, the place used to be a mill town and a stage coach stop on the routes between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. The mill is long gone, so is the stage coach and the railroad that replaced it in later years. The old rail line is now a Rails-to-Trails conversion and a popular path for hikers on the North American Birding Trail. 

The old dam that once held back the Thornapple River is still there though, a fixture of downtown, and still doing its job generating some small amount of electricity and regulating the flow of the river. And because of that, the miles-long millpond that once powered those long gone wheels and grinding stones is still there too. It's shallow these days, a wetland overgrown with cattails and reeds, home to white sucker fish, trout, bass, carp, leeches, several species of squirrels, chipmunks, a half dozen species of turtle, mink, fox, bobcat, deer, muskrats, ground hogs, seven species of woodpecker, cranes, herons, jays, sparrows, finches, juncos, coots, grebes, ducks, geese, swans, a colony of kingfishers, and a vast, vast biome of native and imported plant species. 

It is the perfect stop for migrating birds. 

Such as these sandhill cranes:

For certain reasons, I shot the cranes primarily in the very early morning hours before the sun was fully up or in the late evenings at and after sunset. 

Now, normally, this would be less than optimal, photography wise, but the equipment I'm using (Nikon's latest mirrorless system, the Z9 and the Z8) is very, very good in low light. And I'm fortunate enough to own very good, very fast glass (i.e. lenses that are able to both provide high magnification and a very wide aperture). 

So if low light is what you have, said I to myself, quit bitching and make the most of it. 

It takes some experimenting to get it right and capture these ghostly apparitions in the dark.

It's not just a matter of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. In these conditions, the light changes. The quality and the wavelengths of light change. The sun is low on the horizon, certain wavelengths (colors, in layman's terms) are filtered out by those extra miles of dense atmosphere, by rain, by moisture, by clouds, by temperature, by dust, and pollutants in the air. The color changes. The amount of light changes. Very rapidly. Sometime there's a bright moon, sometimes it's as dark as a cave on the far side of Pluto. 

You might have only a very few minutes to get the shot. Sometimes less than that. And remember, the subject has to cooperate in that brief period as well. 

In the old days, you'd need to swap out film as the light changed. You'd get pretty good at it, like a soldier reloading a weapon in the dark. But it was complicated and clumsy and not particularly optimal. Or you could carry multiple cameras, each loaded with different film, sensitive to different wavelengths and light levels, that would produce different results. 

That gets expensive and logistically complicated pretty quickly. 

Nowadays, most of us use digital cameras. 

This is where the purists spit on the ground, but modern digital sensors make for photography that would have been simply impossible not very long ago. Film has some pretty specific limitations as dictated by chemistry and physics, and there is only so much you can do with it. Chemical emulsions can only react so fast, at least the ones most of us can afford or are safe enough to use.  

Digital sensors have limits too, of course, but those boundaries are often much, much broader and can be adjusted in the field very, very rapidly (if you know what you're doing). 

Don't get me wrong, it's still about physics.

Photography is ultimately about light. And light is physics. And physics is the law, there's no way around it. 

You want to see in the dark, in color, then you have to gather more light. More light means bigger lenses (or mirrors, if you're an astronomer). Bigger lenses mean more glass. But more glass can mean less light if that glass isn't very, very optically pure in the wavelengths you want. And what that means in a practical sense is: money.

More light means more glass means it's going to cost you a lot more. 

And it's heavy. 

My big lens, a Nikkor 600mmf4E weighs about 18 pounds (that's without the camera) and costs about what a decent small car does (then again, people spend that on golf clubs, so your mileage may vary). 

I'm not actually trying to impress you with the quality of my equipment or trying to dazzle you with technobabble, but I keep getting asked: How do you get photographs of birds, sharp, in motion, in color, in the pitch dark? 

Actually, the question I usually get is: Settings? 

That's the question professional photographers get asked most often. What are your settings, exposure and shutter speed? 

What were your settings for that image of sandhill cranes at night reflected like ghosts in still wine dark water?

Will you tell me?

And I can do that, I can give you those numbers, and I will, but it likely won't do you much good. 

For the reasons I've described above, you can't just plug those two settings into any camera and get the same results. 

I'm not saying you can't get similar results with lesser equipment. I'm saying you can't get it by just plugging in a couple of numbers you got from some random guy on the internet. 

What I'm actually saying here is this: If you want to do photography (and I highly encourage any and all to do so, the more the better, the world needs art and it's never been easier or cheaper to make than it is today) as opposed to just clicking selfies and snapshots, then you have to learn how your equipment works.

Experiment. Take notes. Make mistakes. Shoot a lot of crappy pictures. 

And learn what works for you.

There's an old truism among photographers: Amateurs talk about equipment, professionals talk about results

I find that to be pretty true  -- after I just spent how many paragraphs talking about equipment? Heh heh. That said, I hope my results speak for themselves. 

It took me a lot of years to get where I not only liked the results I got, but also to be able to predict with decent accuracy what results I'd get in any given situation. 

I'm still learning. 

I think that's true of most photographers. 

I have days, fairly rare now, where I shoot a thousand shots, sometime ten thousand shots, and don't like any of them. 

Most of the time, I get something that I like -- and sometimes I really, really like it. 

Sometimes I take one shot, but that's the shot. That's the one. 

I'm always looking to do better. 

And not just do better, but help others do better too. 

Art is subjective. 

Some of my own work, stuff that really speaks to me on a personal level, elicits little more than a "meh, nice" from my audience. 

And some things I think might be derivative or done to death or not my best work gets tens of thousands of likes and comments and goes viral on social media and I sell hundreds of copies. 

And that's great. That's what pays for the gear, and my mortgage. 

But, you never know what will appeal to people. 

Because art is subjective. 

We like what we like and that's okay. 

The point of making art isn't so much for the audience, but that the artist enjoy it.

If you're getting the results you want, so long as you're not hurting others or making the world a worse place, then you're probably doing it right.

That means you don't have to be a professional or have hundreds of thousands of dollars in gear.

It means you just have to enjoy doing it for your own sake and to hell with the critics. 

Note that this is also true of any other art, not just photography. Paint. Write. Make the music you enjoy. For your own sake. 

Speaking of liking your own work, this blue heron fishing in the very early morning light is probably my favorite shot from this month. 

It was a tough shot, long distance, weird light, damn bird kept moving and turning its rear at me. I kept waiting for him to strike, and waiting, and waiting, and it was about 13F, and waiting, and my hands were numb, and waiting and I had to wrap my hat around the camera to keep the batteries from dying in the cold too fast because I'd left the spares in the car, and my ears were about to fall off, and waiting, and waiting, and finally he slammed his face into the water and came up with that white sucker fish and the light was just right and, yeah, I got the shot. And it's a hell of a shot. It's a shot I love.

That's a good morning. 

That's what makes it worth it. That's what makes it fun. 

This is probably the most popular shot I did this month.

It's one of those things that took a lot of work. Several weeks of tracking the cranes' flight path as they returned to the pond each night. Watching the phases of the moon. Figuring out the right spot to get both in the frame at once. Right equipment. Right settings. And then it all lined up and I got it. 

But it was mostly just to see if I could.

This was one of those shots that I did for myself and didn't think anyone else would care. Meh, birds, moon, whatever. You know. 

Instead, it's the one that appealed to everybody and I got the most requests to put in the store.

You never know.

Or maybe it's this little chickadee I like the best. 

I love every bit of how this shot came out. The colors, the framing, the soft focus but dead sharp on the berry in the bird's beak, the pastel colors, the implied motion, the feel of the season. 

This is the kind of image I love, right here.

Most of these images will available for purchase in various formats, prints, canvas, metal, puzzles, mousepads, and more, in my store, this coming weekend. Just in time for Christmas, along with a selection of my other art, pens and seam rippers and so on. 

I'm uploading now, but it's not fast even with my office connection. 

That's it. 

That's the month of November in pictures. 

Hope you enjoyed this little break from the ugliness of the world. 


Prints, Puzzles, Calendars, and other products featuring my work are available for purchase from my store.  // Jim