I’m not Dragon*Conning this year but…

I’m not attending Dragon*Con this year – that’s nothing new as, despite my proximity, I’ve never been – but neither will be making it out to see the Parade this year.

But I didn’t want to leave you all completely hanging, so here’s an article on Dragon*Con costumes (and Japanese myth and folklore) that I enjoyed: “Costuming at DragonCon

The New York Times on the Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy

There’s a recent article on the New York Times about the shady business of buying Book Reviews called “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy“.  This is a pretty crucial read, I think, if you’re an author today.  And it paints a pretty stark picture of what I think is a fairly dystopian underworld that supports and undergirds the digital self-publishing revolution.

In many ways, the story it presents – that of sulf-published authors eager for a little fame and some positive acclaim for their work pay money for good reviews – is an unsurprising one.  Despite policies on Amazon and other sites against this kind of thing, there aren’t, to my knowledge, a lot of mechanisms to enforce this and prevent insincere, pay-for-play reviews.

It’s unlikely I’d have to actually answer this question, but in case it’s not clear: why should authors be worried about a system where some can purchase positive reviews in order to buff their sales?  Because it’s one more barrier to entry that keeps authors from being legitimately successful based on the quality of their work.  You want to be successful, and get a lot of sales of your hot-new-ebook?  Then be prepared to pony up for some positive buzz.  Strike that.  Be prepared to pony up for some artificial, fake positive buzz.  In short, it is profoundly unfair, and a market inefficiency to boot.

It could be argued, I suppose, that there’s nothing different from paying for positive reviews and paying for a cover artist or paying for an editor’s services.  It’s all part of the cost-of-doing-business.  It is different, though, because those fake reviews are deceptively positioned as the genuine opinions of actual readers: they’re supposed to be a stamp-of-approval from one reader to another, and signal that a book is bona fide.

But, truth-be-told, I’m no big fan of authors having to pay for all the services that go into producing a quality book in the first place, either.  I recognize it as a necessary precondition: something you have to be willing to do if you’re going to self-publish.  But there’s still a huge problem with that: it also necessarily excludes authors of limited financial means from entering into the market on a level playing field.  I’ve toyed with different ideas for how to deal with this situation – how to level the playing field for self-publishing aspirants so that those without financial backing but with tons of talent can still make a splash – but I haven’t seen any solutions rise in the marketplace, yet.  There’s Kickstarter, but Kickstarter is only likely to work if you’ve got an established audience (this has been the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen to date).  I take that back.  There is a mechanism by which established authors of limited means can try their work out and get the services they need to polish their book (though it may at times be a tad inefficient): the traditional publishing industry.

And so, this is how it goes.  The article suggests that its protagonist’s business (that of Mr. Rutherford) is no longer extant – having been discovered and effectively shut out by the likes of Google and Amazon. But I’ve no illusions that this isn’t still going on, in some form or other, with other players in the same roles.

And I think it’s a curious scandal, and one that needs more attention, that Mr. John Locke – he of the first-to-sell-a-million-ebooks fame – is implicated in this article.  Mr. Locke, it turns out, was a big-time customer of this positive-review-mill: a fact which he apparently carefully neglected to mention in his how-to book on self-publishing, How I Sold One-Million E-Books

This is not to say that others didn’t achieve their success more legitimately: by genuine readers reading, liking, and reviewing their books, gratis.  But it’s a painful revelation that Locke, and undoubtedly others, achieved their fame and success in such an underhanded way.

But there’s the rub, you see.  Even this scandal aside, the digital self-publishing revolution is still a pay-for-play system, inasmuch as the best-quality-looking covers and the best editing and the best copy-editing and so on will all cost an author money: doing this well isn’t free or cheap.

This is, of course, part of why I still prefer the “traditional” approach for myself.  I have no fan-base to speak of (the readers of this blog notwithstanding, their numbers cannot support a novelist’s career).  I cannot afford even the legitimate the costs of e-book production, let alone afford to buy black-market reviews.  Traditional publishing offers, at present, my best, and most legitimate, chance at success.

Still, I know the traditional path is not for everyone.  I just hope that new, better models arise that allow authors to spread the word about their digitally self-published e-books.  If I think of anything that just might work, I’ll be sure to let you all know.

Some other views on the scandal:

K.W. Jeter says “Amazon Should Do What’s Best for Indie Writers & Readers” – the problem with Jeter’s argument is that it seems like he’s trying to suggest that John Locke was an isolated case; but considering the huge amount of money Rutherford was making on this scam, that’s clearly not true: Locke was far from alone in this practice, and there are by necessity many more self-published authors like him, or else the facts in the reporting are wrong. Jeter clarified his thoughts (with quotes from his post) in the comments and it looks like my reading of his point was too narrowly focused on his reaction to Locke; I must apologize for misreading and mischaracterizing his post. It still bears pointing out that obviously, based on the numbers Rutherford was pulling down in his scam, John Locke was not alone in soliciting Rutherford’s services.  Whether Locke or one of the legion of others who used Rutherford’s services, the result is the same: a debasement of the utility of reviews for self-publishing authors.

Chuck Wending says “Bad Author Behavior… Is Bad Author Behavior” – Chuck would have us shrug it off… but he’s wrong and we shouldn’t.  Why?  Because if problems like this are not railed against they become the norm, they become systemic: and then that becomes just what you have to do in order to get published.  Self-publishing becomes an ugly caricature of itself, a pay-for-play slum.

Fellow writer/blogger Jo Eberhardt opines.

More links to come as I encounter them…

John Scalzi on Neil Armstrong and Future Past

I’m grateful to see John Scalzi’s comments on the passing of Neil Armostrong. I’d been beginning to think that maybe the Science Fiction community had somehow missed this sad passing of an era. I didn’t comment immediately because I didn’t think I had anything meaningful to say. When Neil visited the moon my parents weren’t even legal yet, and I was nowhere yet near Planet Earth. By the time the last man left the moon, I was still no closer, for all practical purposes.

But after reading Scalzi’s post, I realize I do have something to add.

The achievement of Neil Armstrong and his fellow Apollo Astronauts and those who supported him is one unparalleled in history: mankind has not come close either before or since. Think about that: the greatest human achievement in history was done and gone and practically forgotten by the time I was born. Nothing, since then, has come even close. Sure, we’ve built on the shoulders of giants. But our dreams have been small dreams.

The human race is capable of some truly amazing things: Armstrong’s achievement is proof of that. And we’ve done a lot to make my childhood’s future something that is starting, bit-by-bit, to actually feel like the future. But the greatest disappointment of our future-present is the failure of manking in general and the US in particular to live up to the promise of Armstrong’s achievement.

It’s telling, in our modern day, that we’ve become so fractious and divided that we no longer have any shared dreams. We no longer look forward to a some brighter future. We no longer believe our best days are ahead of us. Instead, you have half our country trying to claw its way back to some imagined (pre-Apollo) golden age and the other half trying to hold on to the gains we’ve made as a society since then. In this divided time there is no room for the future. There is no room for bigger dreams.

In some ways the half looking backward is right: there was a brighter age in our past, but it shouldn’t have been that way: our brightest age should have been still in our future yet to come, with our present always brighter than our past.

There’s a way we can get back to that “future past”. There’s a way we can get things back on track. But we have to stop looking backwards to do so.


I was two months old when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and 43 when he died, and inbetween those two events the future changed. When Armstrong landed, a human future in space seemed inevitable — we’d landed on the moon, after all. How long could it possibly be until we had moon colonies, space stations where thousands lived, stuck by centrifugal force to walls which were their floors, and a second space race to Mars? Why, not long as all, it seemed, and so I lived the first decade of my life breathlessly waiting for the moon colony and all the rest of it. And also drinking Tang because, hey, I wasn’t quite ten, and Tang was pretty awesome when you’re that age.

Four decades on, we never did get the mechanistic, physical future required for those moon colonies and space stations. In point of fact that future was…

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Writing Progress: Week Ending August 25, 2012

At least I can say I got a little bit of writing done:

Book of M:

  • Background Notes Wordcount: 0 words
  • First Draft Wordcount: 340 words

Grand Total: 340 words

340 words is barely above my “worth the time to count up and report it” threshold.  But even if it’s barely, it is above the threshold, so I’m reporting it.

The challenge, this week, in writing was dealing with what happens when characters collide with your outline.  As in, last week I’d gotten myself to this exciting part of the story that I’d been looking forward to for so long.  And then, the one time I managed to sit down and writing this week, I was left wondering: “Okay, so, given the turn of events last time, how do my two main characters react?”  And it was tough reasoning through that and figuring it out.  I’m still reasoning through that and figuring it out (most of it in my head, right now, and not so much on the virtual page). 

Basically, where I ended things last week was kind of out of left field.  For the primary protagonist, she had no basis of understanding what had just happened at all.  No experience to tell her whether to be afraid or put on a brave face, or curious, or what.  The other main character knows enough to be worried under normal conditions… but his circumstances are unique (such that he probably shouldn’t have to worry about anything), so what, precisely, would he be worried about?  The two characters have their own unique outlooks that make this peculiar turn of events a less-than-straightforward sort of thing.  Whereas, my outline dealt with it very simply and straightforward (which is, basically, to say in one line “and then there was an airship”; because when you’re looking to flavor liberally with steampunk you can never have too many airships). 

That aside, dear Wife and I actually spent a decent amount of time working on one of the sub-projects of the Home Project Phase III, and we also had a decent amount of work getting ready for some out-of-town family that was visiting over the weekend (I made plans to barbecue, which is something I’ve come to love doing this summer; the barbecue came out great, by-the-way).  Oh yeah, Zelda also happened at least once (okay, maybe more than once) because I’ve had a hankerin’ lately that I hadn’t had much time to satisfy.  (I’m still working my way through “Twilight Princess”, which is a great game; but then I’m a pretty big Zelda fan, so I would say that.) 

I honestly did weigh the pros and cons, there.  The internal dialog went something like this:

“If we play Zelda, then there’s no chance in heck we’ll get a half-decent wordcount this week.”

“You’re right, Responsible Stephen.  I should write instead of playing Zelda.”

“Awww, who’m I kidding?  It’s been ages since we played Zelda.  Let’s play.”

“Thanks, Responsible Stephen!  You rock!”

And then I played.

I think I scratched the itch well enough that Responsible Stephen will be slightly more responsible this week and convince that if I get free time, I should spend more of it writing than playing.

So, anyway, that was my week.  Now it’s your turn.  How was yours?

Links to Chew On: Publishing, Dialog, Language, Culture, DRM, and Weirdness

It’s time for another helping of the various links I’ve accumulated over several weeks on both diverse and literary topics, and with occassional added commentary.  Enjoy:

  • Jeff VanderMeer is Dreaming Well of the Future of Publishing…  and Jeff VanderMeer knows whereof he speaks – a man who has traditionally published and self-published both; my experience of Mr. VanderMeer (very limited though it is) is one that leaves me the impression of a very intelligent and thoughtful man, and I find this essay thoughtful as well; It matches pretty well to things I’ve been saying on this blog before: here, here, here, here, and here… oh, also here and herehere, too, and of course, here.  Hmm… you think this is something I’ve been thinking about for a while?
  • Jay Lake has a great little primer on dialog tags and the progression of style from said-bookisms all the way up to tagless dialog – it was really useful to see this laid out with some clear examples.  I don’t strive for purely tagless dialog, or even for the elimination of all said-bookisms (I believe they have their place in fiction writing), but I do try to be sparing and economical in their use.
  • Aliette de Bodard discusses character names, and different cultural approaches to naming conventions… a topic I ought to spend more time thinking about when I do my culture worldbuilding.
  • Another common Fantasy trope goes under the microscope: this time, it’s the axe-wielding Dwarf in an essay by Jim Hines; Steve Bucheit has a writing prompt based on Jim’s short essay: Story Bone
  • National Geographic has a Photo-essay on endangered languages: those in threat of extinction when the last few living speakers pass away
  • How much more pleasant would my afternoon commute be with a self-driving carSwoon… Let’s just say that I, for one, bow to our new robot overlords (if it means I don’t have to put up with crazy drivers and traffic jams)…
  • Tor Books decided to drop DRM, so UK publisher Hachette decides to double-down on DRM 
  • Author Cory Doctorow responds to Hachette’s draconian letters warning authors against publishing their titles in other markets without DRM; let’s just say Cory Doctorow doesn’t find Hachette’s position credible, or lawful… (I don’t know the relevant contract law, but I’m skeptical that a contract can dictate the terms of other contracts one party may have with a third party – that seems like a real stretch at best.)
  • So some author self-publishes a book filled with racist stereotypes and other derogatory things. Mostly, the world doesn’t notice or care, because poorly-written openly racist claptrap isn’t a big market these days.  More’s the pity.  (This is called sarcasm.)  Then a venerable and respected magazine of weird and speculative fiction decides to publish and promote said racist claptrap after forcing out the former, respected editor of said magazine, and against the editorial advice of said former editor. Get the whole sordid story here (background on said racist claptrap), here (author N.K. Jemisin reacts to the news), here (author Jim C. Hines reacts) and here (author Jeff VanderMeer and husband of said former editor dishes with the insider information on how it went down).  Finally, of course, said now-fallen-from-grace magazine retracts after the internet falls on its head, as the internet is wont to do when egregiously stupid collides with highly visible. I toyed with linking to the book in question, or to the “publisher’s” website, but decided not to push any traffic in that direction. 
  • In response to the above, a sub-pro short story market has decided to go pro. That’s pretty awesome.  Here’s Mary Robinette Kowal with some of the details.
  • A father and writer looks at violence in his books: this is one I’ve been trying to think more about, but just don’t have anything at this time to add.  I’ve talked about what I call the “Dark Matter” of fiction before, and fictional violence is a part of that.  No easy answers, but lots of questions.

Writing Progress: Week Ending August 18, 2012

A week of some writing is better than a week of no writing:

Book of M:

  • Background Notes Wordcount: 0 words
  • First Draft Wordcount: 1,196 words

Grand Total: 1,196 words

I’m pretty happy to report some writing progress from this past week.  And heck, Dear Wife and I still managed to do some of the remaining Home Project stuff, too.

Regarding the writing, though, I feel pretty good about it.  For one thing, it’s was measurable, positive progress.  Most of anything I’d done in the past several weeks was small-fries editing of stuff I’d already written, with very little new ground trod.  This was largely new material. The problem was, I wanted my characters’ motivations to be clear and consistent, and for the action and plot to tie to it naturally.  But my plotting and outlining wasn’t always clear on that regard.  So I’d needed to fix some things to make it all work, which required some editing.  Secondly, this was a huge step toward getting into a really exciting part of the story.  The part where cool things start happening, and everything goes all steampunky.

In writing this, I’ve had some anxiety about the fact that I don’t start the story where things get exciting.  There’s a lot of writing advice – stuff like the phrase “in late, out early” – that says you should just leave on the cutting room floor the parts of the story before things get exciting.  Or, better yet, don’t write them in the first place.

But prior to this point, things were already interesting, complicated, and difficult for my main character, even if as a story they weren’t exciting.  Now, they’re interesting, more complicated, more difficult, and exciting.  And that’s pretty much the trajectory of the story from here on out: things continue to get more complicated and more difficult until the heroine starts resolving the plot.

Thinking about it, however, I realize that this is a common theme or trope of many successful Epic Fantasies, and since my primary aim is to write a successful Epic Fantasy this is par for the course.  In Epic Fantasies we often start following the main character from a point prior to the introduction of the main plot.  First, rather, the main character must be introduced to the world of the adventure – and that’s typically the first point of transition in an Epic Fantasy.  We meet Harry Potter, for instance, not when he first catches sight of Hogwarts, not when he steps into Diagon Alley, and not even when Hagrid crashes down the door.  No, we meet him first on what looks like an ordinary day in his ordinary (if cruelly oppressed) world living with the insufferably ordinary Dursleys.  His story is still interesting in part because (a) we know from the get-go that things are going to get very non-ordinary in short order and (b) because even before that point the challenges the character faces are interesting and difficult.

And that’s where I’ve been, so far.  Everything I’ve written before has been before the First Transition – in Campbellian Monomyth terms, before the Call to Adventure and the Crossing of the First Threshold.  Last week, I reach the First Transition, and the end of the First Act (in what I expect will be, broadly, a 5-act structured story).  The next several chapters encompass the Transition, and the Crossing of the Threshold. 

All of which is to say, I’m not that worried anymore that I got in “too early”.  Rather… everything is going according to plan (except for the part where I’m writing too dang slow).  And I’m excited to have ended the first act of my book and to be starting on the next exciting chapter.

And now enough about me.  How was your week?

Writing Progress: Week Ending August 11, 2012

Hard to say what happened this week, but I’ll tell you one thing that didn’t:

Book of M:

  • Background Notes Wordcount: 0 words
  • First Draft Wordcount: 0 words

Grand Total: 0 words

That’s right.  Writing.  It didn’t happen this week.  I guess there was a lot of exhaustion on the part of both myself and Dear Wife.  We did watch some Olympics, but less this week than last (the events we were primarily interested had already played out by the weekend).  And we did do some work on the Home Project.  But not as much as we really ought to have done.

Some weeks go that way, I suppose.  More lately than we have in the past.  It’s gotten me thinking this week about where the time actually all goes.  What happens from day to day that keeps me from spending time doing anything productive – whether that’s writing, or Home Project stuff. 

I guess, on a typical day, I get home from work around 6:00 to 6:30.  There isn’t that much time – maybe a half hour, maybe an hour – to spend with my son.  Sometimes we get dinner at about 7:00-ish.  Then, before you know it, B.T. is getting ready for bed.  By the time he’s falling asleep, it’s 8:30.  Some days, Dear Wife and I are just then sitting down to dinner.  But even if we got dinner earlier, there are dishes to do.  Then getting ready for the next day – making and packing lunches, picking up just a little around the house, running loads of laundry, ironing shirts and so on.  You know, all the little things involved in running a household that add up to a big chunk of time.  If we’re lucky, it’s only 9:00 on a good day, and this is when I’d sit down to write, or we’d get started on Home Project activities.  More often than not it’s well past 9:00.  And we’re aiming to be winding down and bedward-bound by 10:00, because like most days we have an early start the next way.

Round and round we go.  Continue reading

Cursing the Heavens: The Trials and Tribulations of a Big Idea

So, you know what’s awesome?

The book I’ve been writing, the secretively-titled “Book of M” is basically getting published.

You know what’s not awesome?

The person who wrote the aforementioned book getting published wasn’t me.

Okay, in all seriousness, no, “Book of M” is not getting published.  But it just so happens that the debut novel of author Meagan Spooner, called Skylark, has a premise that is startlingly similar to the premise of my own W-I-P, “Book of M”.

We’re talking, if you read the description of the book in the “Big Idea” post I just linked to, you would find a roughly 75% overlap in the world-building and ideas behind the two stories.

There are differences, of course.  The two protagonists have very little overlap.  There are several important aspects of my worldbuilding that don’t show up in the short description.  And the magic system described in Skylark has very little in common with the magic system I’ve described in my world.  And since my magical apocalypse is pretty closely tied in to the nature of the magic in my world, that means some important background details will be different.  And Skylark appears to be a Middle Grade or Young Adult targeted novel, whereas I’ve conceived of my book as being targeted as an adult novel (albeit that distinction doesn’t mean much in the post-Harry Potter, post-Hunger Games world).

It was ironic, to me, that earlier last week author David B. Coe was talking about the fears we have about our ideas on the Magical Words blog.  I responded in a comment about my two greatest fears related to my own ideas, one of which is this exactly: that however great the idea I have for my book is, someone else is writing it right now, and is better positioned to take advantage of the good idea.  Of course, David’s advice was that sure the ideas may be similar, but don’t worry about it, because your own take on it will be thoroughly and unmistakably yours.

Except, yeah, it’s easy to say that. It’s tough to embrace that notion when someone else’s book has so many similarities to the one you’re working on now.  So many that it’s positively uncanny.

So, I’m pretty anxious about it all right now.  Given the high degree of similarity between the ideas behind these two books, what are the chances any editor will ever express any interest in a book that would, at first blush, look derivative.  Would my book be more interesting to editors and readers if this other book does well, or will my book seem even more derivative.  And what do I do now?  Do I keep on writing, or, well, just give up?  It’s likely I’ll want to read Skylark at some point, but should I avoid it until I’ve finished writing my book, out of fear that reading it will taint my own creative process, or read it sooner rather than later in order to make sure I avoid being too similar?

What would you do, in this situation?

Writing Progress: Week Ending August 4, 2012

So the Olympics are a thing that happens:

Book of M:

  • Background Notes Wordcount: 0 words
  • First Draft Wordcount: 467 words

Grand Total: 467 words

Dear Wife and I largely took the week off from most big “Home Project Phase III” stuff to be done.  That doesn’t mean we’re done  – not by a long shot – but enough of the heavy-lifting has been done that we could afford to relax a little.  We’ll likely re-approach the Home Project with renewed vigor this week and next.

So, you’d think that means I had time to write.  On a technical level, you’d be right.

But instead, the Olympics happened (and are still happening).  And it’s hard to cheer on my national team in whatever event NBC deigns to air at the same time as I’m trying to immerse myself in the sometimes dark, sometimes magical post-apocalyptic world of “The Book of M”.  More often than not last week the former happened rather than the latter.  And what I did write is of questionable quality.

And since the Olympics are a two-week event, and since I’m anticipating getting a lot more done on the Home Project his week, I expect writing productivity will not recover this week.   When free time comes, if I’m not working on the Home Project, I expect I’ll be rooting for my team, instead.

How was your week?  Get any writing done?  Watched the Olympics instead?

The Evil (And the Good) Among Them: Exoticism, The Other, Epic Fantasy, Elves and Orcs

Continuing on my current running theme of examining the tropes of Epic Fantasy, a few weeks ago I happened into a discussion that spanned multiple blogs that caught my interest.  And as these things often do, they settled into my mind where they collided with things I was already thinking about.

The topic at hand is apparently perennially challenging to Fantasy writers, especially as our genre grows and matures and opens up to wider audiences.  (Let’s hope it’s opening to wider audiences, anyway.)  And that subject is the question of “writing the Other”.  The “Other” with a Capital-O.  I’ve come to understand the word as something of a catch-all phrase for people who are “different”, in the sense that they have a different race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual identity, socio-economic background, age, or whatever.  I put “different” in quotes, though, because of course there are all kinds of assumptions implied in the use of the word “different” and “other”: namely, the assumption of a default race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual identity, et cetera.  That basic, unquestioned assumption being part of the problem and, in many ways, being anathematic to one of the core principles of Speculation Fiction, that being the exploration of worlds that are, well, different.

Now, I will caveat my further thoughts by pointing out the obvious: I am far from the first to think about these issues, and I will be far from the best.  In the great hierarchy of people who know what the crap they’re talking about on this issue, I rank somewhere near the very bottom.  At least one author whose thoughts I follow fairly closely, Jim C. Hines points to author Nisi Shawl as a powerful and authoritative voice on the subject.  (That link goes to an article Nisi wrote on the specific subject of “Cultural Appropriation”, which is one of many related topics under the general heading of “Writing the Other”.  But Nisi Shawl along with author Cynthia Ward co-developed a panel on “Writing the Other” as well as co-authored a companion workbook.  I have neither attended the workshop nor purchased their guidebook.)  Meanwhile, here’s a recent interesting post on the topic by an author whose background is somewhat more similar to my own (Ken Scholes).  And fellow writer-blogger T. S. Bazelli addressed this and related topics here.

So yeah, caveats and all, what got me thinking most recently on this subject was a post on Tiyana Marie White’s blog on “Portraying Cultures & Peoples in Speculative Fiction“. Continue reading