No. Just no. (A snarky fan fiction rant.)

I’ve mentioned before how twitchy I get while seeing the dreaded ‘Original Character’ tag in fan fiction. (While I have read killer examples, they are rare.) Too often that tag is a warning sign for Mary Sue Alerts, and all the bad writing those seem to include.

Well, I’ve found a category of even scarier story tags on my current favorite fan sites: a fresh batch of reader-insert stories, which generally seem to be from very new authors. 

I understand the temptation for new authors. We *all* put pieces of ourselves into our writing, be it original or fan work. Usually, we do it with the obvious clues filed off. 

In twenty-four years of reading fan fiction, I think I may have seen three or four Reader-as-Character pieces that were worth going beyond the first page. And I’m generally up for most kinds of literary wanking…provided it has style. 

While reader-insert stuff shows up in lots of early Trek and LotR fandom, why does it seem to be happening more often now? I blame ‘Twilight’. Bella as a character was so flat she was a perfect mirror for readers to insert themselves. The demographics of certain fan writing sites seem to skew toward younger and less-experienced writers. 

I am torn between wanting fan fiction to be a safe place for new writers to explore their craft, and a crotchety fan reader who just wants good, solid stories.

There’s room for both…as long as the writers properly tag works ‘Character/Reader’, so I can just avoid the misery and skip them.

Context reading in Adult SF&F

…or, ‘I Am Not Five, and I Don’t Read Like This:’

I’ve recently followed some online critiques of other people’s science fiction and fantasy works-in-progress. I noticed a common factor: some readers’ inability or unwillingness to deduce words from context.

One example: a friend’s Norse-flavored take on the Tam Lyn folktale held seven or eight generally unfamiliar words within the first 2900-word chapter. I could parse those words from contextual clues, and from knowing a tiny bit of Saxon and Old English (thank you, professor Tolkien!) From the other readers’ comments, I realized the words that intrigued me actually bothered them.

The readers seemed unable to accept one different word, let alone many, without an immediate explanation within the story. They seemed unable to hold that word (or many) in mind, until an explanation came up in the next paragraph, page, chapter, etc.

If the answers were not presented immediately, the readers balked. Some wanted to stop reading, until the text was rewritten with the explanation given right away.

What the hell? Is this a function of shorter, simpler texts in genre writing fashions? Too much Dick and Jane for older readers? Power-point presentations in elementary school, for younger readers? Text speak? The twenty-second soundbite of most modern media?

These are not low-skilled readers unfamiliar with science-fiction and fantasy, either. Otherwise, I might think this is going on.

(Putting Old Woman hat on for a moment). When I was a kid in the 1970s, one of the big thrills of reading science fiction and fantasy was the disconnect between words and the revelation of their meaning (and often significance). I loved the strangeness of new words and concepts. I trusted the author to give me contextual clues or an outright definition later. Sometimes much later. If I was lucky, at least it happened in the first book of a series…

Writing to reward the short attention of readers is tricky. Too many explanations too soon in the body of the story, and we verge on infodumps, ‘As You Know, Jim’ discussions, and other awkward literary devices. Too few explanations, and we’re off jousting with shadows in Foggy Metaphor Land.

I wish I could tell those reluctant readers: ‘Please try to trust the author to give you signposts when they think it’s appropriate. When in doubt, dictionaries, Google, and Wikipedia can be your friends. In the meantime, just try to enjoy the ride.’

 

The SFR ghetto: why 1992 stalled my writing career

Warning: I rant about publishing stuff. Note: by SFR I mean ‘Science Fiction Romance’.

In 1992 a well-meaning relative (who knew I loved romantic science fiction and space opera) sent me a new romance novel. I won’t name it or its author: the book spawned a series and the author is still widely published. Fine. The author earned her retirement, but I’m not paying into it.

That book broke me. It was horrible as a romance. The heroine was a doormat, the hero a rapist, the plot cliche and cheesy as any of the other ‘New Romances’ of the early 1990s. As a ‘science-fiction romance’ it was even worse: the author had no concept of physics, chemistry, astronomy or cosmology…and no apparent interest in learning them.

Several other romances around that time convinced me that their authors were similarly clueless. I saw unbelievable differences between them and the contemporary science-fiction writers incorporating romance. The SFF writers knew more about science, and they assumed their audience did, too. Those works were sparkling, witty, swooningly romantic. The actual romances that I read – and I admit I might have missed the good ones – were terrible by comparison.

So I stopped reading original romance for nearly 20 years. I read fan fiction from authors I trusted, and kept to science-fiction and fantasy original commercial work. I didn’t get back to reading romance until I started researching the new M/M romance market in 2011.

Why am I ranting today?

Because romance publishers still haven’t apparently clued in that Science Fiction Romance readers like both science fiction and romance. They keep wanting to ‘dumb-down’ the worldbuilding and SF in SFR books. I’m grateful to Loose Id for their enthusiastic support of my Moro’s Price – I never had a hint of such treatment with my editors. Other publishers are not so bold. 

Here’s Heather Massey at The Galaxy Express, giving the groundwork for the latest skirmish.

http://www.thegalaxyexpress.net/2015/05/its-2015-and-one-publisher-is-still.html

Greta van der Rol at Spacefreighters Lounge has her take on it:

http://spacefreighters.blogspot.com/2015/05/you-cant-have-science-fiction-romance.htm

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My snarky answer to this problem: readers need to ante up, too. Readers who love the science and worldbuilding in SFR books need to say that to their favorite publisher. They need to yell it at substandard publishers. They need to avoid authors who haven’t got a clue, instead of just buying more crap because it’s at least in the right genre.

Stop rewarding bad work

Cate Baum has a wonderful quote from Henry Baum, founder of Self Publishing Review: “It’s not that only the writer has to be talented – the reader has to be talented too.”

I understand guilty pleasures. I’m not saying all romance authors need to pass a Masters course in STEM. But I want to have the choice, dammit. 

Mom’s Mutant Cactus

Back in 1998-1999, I needed another last-minute entry for the Beadwork Magazine/Interweave Press miniature beadwork exhibition ‘Up:Close’. I made this piece in three days: ‘Mom’s Mutant Cactus’. Dimensions: 3″ x 3″ x 3″.

Mom's mutant cactus

It’s a mutant because it doesn’t precisely mirror an existing cactus species, and because it has a blue flower. Until we get much better at genetic engineering, that’s not something you’ll find in nature.

The cactus is built of gourd stitch on a wooden bead form, the other elements are gourd stitch as flat panels and freeform vegetation. Accents are iridescent glass buttons and pressed glass beads.

This sculpture and ‘Pocket Garden’ made it into the show and traveled around for a couple of years. The latter mini-book eventually sold at a science-fiction convention art show, but I still have this one.

I’m posting it today because my mother was an amateur cactus botanist. She never lived to see this piece, alas. When she died, I hadn’t even discovered shaped beadwork yet.

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.

A handy tip on writing for your blog: do most of it yourself or don’t do it at all.

Sure, cultivate guest blog trades for relevant and relatable posts. It’s fun and lets you network with peers. But your blog should be about your voice and vision, not someone else’s. Especially not someone you’ve hired to scrape and repackage web topics. Otherwise you’re not blogging, you’re just a spamming spammer who spams. 

If you can’t write well enough for publication, take some classes or use free online English-as-a-second-language resources until you can

Especially if your blog is your business contact and showcase.

Content writing for blogs

Happy Star Wars Day

C’mon, you gotta know this one. It went from pun to meme to geek celebration?

May the Fourth be with you.

It’s a bittersweet holiday for me. ‘Star Wars’ was my Sf&F call to action back in ’77. It galvanized my attention like Tolkien had a few years before: big settings, classic stories slightly retold, instant mythologies I could share with a few million other vicarious pre-Internet friends. I didn’t know it then, but those movies coaxed me into writing.

Though the Lucas luster slipped, I’m cautiously optimistic about the new movies. Disney and J.J. Abrams have a lot to make up for. 

Intergalactic Medicine Show: free fiction

I’ve witnessed some extraordinary discussions over the past month, as the Hugo Awards controversy continues in the science-fiction and fantasy community. Eventually, I’ll provide links (cribbed and cited from a couple of diligent AW sources) to the best explanations of what happened and why.

Part of the fallout? Free stories listed online by authors, editors, and publishers who have refused Sad Puppy/Rabid Puppy nominations this year.

The latest is a collection of science-fiction and fantasy from Orson Scott Card’s ‘Intergalactic Medicine Show’, offered by its editor Edmund R. Schubert. Schubert recently gave a passionate defense of his magazine, pointing out that it does not share all of Card’s politics, and seeks diversity from all authors and stories. 

Disclosure: I am one of the authors who recently avoided IGMS because of its perceived association. Schubert’s essay convinced me to take another look. I’m several stories in, and I’m pleasantly surprised. It takes me back to my teen years, and my mom’s subscription to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. 

Real sense-of-wonder stuff. 

More happiness

…is adding a kickass prologue that brings the fantasy novel up past 85,000 words, which is the minimum that several great Big Five publishers want to see. Once I finish minor tweaking to answer comments from four beta readers, I should see a book around 87K.

More to the point, it’s a good book. I’m comfortable sending it out on query or self-publishing if need be.

(And one of the added scenes brings my possible self-pub cover art neatly back into canon.)

Thesis mills

Especially in America, there is immense corporate pressure to have a college degree – as a meal-ticket to a better job and future, not necessarily as a proof of one’s intellectual skills. When the fact of having the degree is more important than the process of earning the degree, the stage is set for fraud on a massive scale.

The for-profit college student loan meltdown is another direct symptom of this rot, with one difference: people are beginning to realize that student loan debt is hindering our economic recovery.

Paid thesis writing is still winked at as a largely victimless vice. Maybe railed about in literary journals. Advertisements for such services bill themselves as ‘academic support’ or ‘academic content writing’, and stipulate they aren’t responsible for how students will use the custom ‘sample papers’ provided by the service. Skilled, fast writers can earn respectable incomes ghostwriting other people’s term papers, thesis papers, entrance essays, and other writing assignments. They’re earning money – why should I care how they do it? How is that any different from book packaging, novelization, or ghostwriting?*

Because the people buying these papers are doing so to pass courses or meet business responsibilities they would otherwise fail. In this instance they are frauds. Many of these buyers go on to, or already are in, positions of power and authority. If they’re willing to cheat on a college grade, what else are they prepared to cheat on?

Do you want a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant who never did their own homework? This shows they not only cheat, but that they may not know how to learn, frame a rational argument, research their position, and write out their opinions.

*Book packagers are usually upfront with their authors: in exchange for the work and a sizable fee, the author gives up further rights to the book. Their name may or may not be on the byline.

Novelization turns a movie, graphic novel, screenplay, etc into a text-based novel – sometimes by the person who wrote the original work, often not. They can be paid a flat fee, or get royalties off sales.

Ghostwriters team up with celebrities, scientists, politicians, and other people who may have a great idea and information, but no experience in writing it down presentably. Ghostwriters don’t get their name on the book (usually) but they do get paid for it, and may get royalties. I have less problem with entertainment ghostwriters than I do academic and political ones – in the latter cases, they still enable a kind of misrepresentation that can further careers and agendas.

#

I’ve seen exposes of thesis mills before, and I’m sure the practice will never go away. The money is really tempting: sometimes greater than $30 per page, sometimes a gross yearly income of $60K or more.

What’s at stake, beyond the money, beyond fraud? Nothing less than the human ability to learn.

New research on learning techniques seems to indicate people learn least when simply handed information, and more when they have to search it out and analyze it. Even the act of entering search keywords can help ‘lock’ information into memory.

The underlying point of the thesis not the grade. It’s showing that you know how to research, argue coherently, and write your case.

Here are a couple of good links on a brilliant book which is just now making its way into an official English translation: Umberto Eco’s ‘How to Write a Thesis’.

http://www.openculture.com/2015/03/umberto-ecos-how-to-write-a-thesis.html

Josh Jones article in Openculture: <Eco dissuades a certain type of possible reader from his book, those students “who are forced to write a thesis so that they may graduate quickly and obtain the career advancement that originally motivated their university enrollment.” These students, he writes, some of whom “may be as old as 40” (gasp), “will ask for instructions on how to write a thesis in a month.” To them, he recommends two pieces of advice, in full knowledge that both are clearly “illegal”:

(a) Invest a reasonable amount of money in having a thesis written by a second party. (b) Copy a thesis that was written a few years prior for another institution. (It is better not to copy a book currently in print, even if it was written in a foreign language. If the professor is even minimally informed on the topic, he will be aware of the book’s existence.>

(In case you can’t unravel that quote, the good Professor directs his laziest, unteachable students to fraud and theft, since he believes there is no point wasting time on trying to teach them.)

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-guide-to-thesis-writing-that-is-a-guide-to-life

Hua Hsu article in the New Yorker:

<…in Eco’s rhapsodic and often funny book, the thesis represents: a magical process of self-realization, a kind of careful, curious engagement with the world that need not end in one’s early twenties.**

“Your thesis,” Eco foretells, “is like your first love: it will be difficult to forget.” By mastering the demands and protocols of the fusty old thesis, Eco passionately demonstrates, we become equipped for a world outside ourselves—a world of ideas, philosophies, and debates.>

** Learning needs to be lifelong to be effective: new technologies and markets demand it. Paid academic writing undermines that critical skill.

Dryland Codex (in progress, post 1)

In my typical ADD fashion I was reorganizing fabric yesterday, in preparation for some housecleaning. Found snippets of printed map fabric left over from one of the award ribbons projects. Remembered a possible book project I’d sketched, using digitized fabric prints of some old Southwestern mini-landscape paintings I’d sold to galleries years before.Sedona dinkies flat

Why yes, turns out those scans were detailed enough to print beautifully, at 1/2 size on white cotton muslin. And yes, no one else was here to object to my noisy monster of a sewing machine…

I wanted to make something with the feel of this, but not quite as much detailed embroidery/hand painting.

Larrea sketch

Or maybe this desert landscape glass micro-mosaic piece from around the same time period.High Desert113 hours later, with a shamefully small proportion of housework completed, I had this:

Dryland in progress

‘Dryland Codex’ is probably 3/4 done. It’s medium sized, for me: 5″ x 4″ x 1.25″, and worked entirely in fabric applique with some bead embroidery accents. Still needs covers and finishing details, but I rather like the pages. More to the point, it will be another book project to send out to the art agents.

Yay, for recycled art!

Selfie or not?

AW Amor avatar

There’s a writers group on LinkedIn I was considering joining. I’m not, now, because they require a headshot photo of all prospective members. (I did end up joining, after all; see update in Comments below.)

I don’t have many pictures of myself not costumed or otherwise masked. They’re around. I’m just not happy about adding to them. Not for religious reasons, or any crippling insecurity about my looks. My face is an accident of reasonably decent genetics, coupled with the sensible desert-dweller’s instinct to keep it away from too much sun.

I get why companies and social groups want to know what I look like. Sock puppets have made authorial authenticity even more important these days. Some publishers push their writers for author photos, because it’s accepted that readers want to have a deeper connection with their favorite authors. The selfie (be your own paparazzi?) photo has become a kind of currency, with an industry building around new ways to provide it and monetize it. For all these reasons, there’s a relentless hunger for personal images from most social media platforms. 

There are dangers and disadvantages to plastering one’s face everywhere:

Security. Any image that reaches the Internet stays on the Internet, regardless of naive ‘right to be forgotten’ court cases in Europe. Those images can be easily stolen and/or misused. The less ammunition given out, the better. My friends in InfoSec sometimes have ‘no photos, no or limited public appearances’ clauses in their employment contracts – for their security as well as the company’s.

Narcissism. Like it or not, there’s a delicate boundary between presenting one’s authentic self in a sympathetic manner, and going overboard. As an author, I’d hope my readers couldn’t care less about what I looked like. My art collectors certainly don’t.

I recently found myself reacting negatively to a couple of new local businesses, when their owners displayed oversized photos of themselves as store advertisements. I’m sure it was meant to humanize and introduce them, but to me it came across as ludicrous and jarring. Donald Trump is not a good role model, in that respect.

So at least for now, my social media profiles will have images of things I’ve made, not my face. After all, I existed as an artist and writer long before the rise of the selfie.

Below The Boat

While browsing for out-of-copyright quotes about maps, journeys, and wanderlust (for an upcoming book art project), I stumbled across some incredible wooden bathymetric charts.

copyright Below The Boat

‘Below The Boat’ creates unique, breathtaking maps of laser-cut, stained, and layered birch plywood, each following a coastal area’s underwater terrain. It’s a deceptively simple concept, brought to reality by skilled artisans. The results make my inner map-geek so happy.

Can you imagine if they did a fantasy version?

(Borrowing from Stephen Colbert): A Tip Of The Hat to commercially published authors who are self-publishing their backlists. That’s good for them and their readers. We don’t want a return to the days of the midlist mass-market paperback that had a print run of 2000 copies, and about two weeks on the bookstore shelf to prove itself.

A Wag Of The Finger to those same authors who imply or state their current self-publishing experience and results are 100% applicable to the masses of unpublished, unagented, likely unpolished, and possibly under-informed writers who follow them.

A reasonably successful commercial author can springboard their self-publishing efforts off already existing readerships, and whatever work their old publisher’s marketing department did on their behalf.

Unknown self-published authors have a far rougher road. 

one of these platforms is not like the other

Sad Puppies, the Hugo Awards, and WTF

So…over the weekend, the Hugo Awards nominee lists were released to the public. And the Internet blew up.

Blazing Saddles pie fight 1372273854567193_animate

For anyone not an SFF geek, the Hugos are the SFF publishing industry awards voted on by the members of Worldcon. They’re a coveted prize, but by no means an all-encompassing or even reader-relevant accomplishment.

To be honest, I haven’t paid attention to who won the Hugos for over 15 years. I can’t go to Worldcons, and I can think of better immediate uses for $40 (the non-attending supporting membership fee, which allows one to vote.) I use sample texts and trusted review sources to determine which SFF books I will buy or borrow. So I almost never pay attention to the nominees lists. (I might notice after the fact, while I’m reading one.)

The Internet blew up because a group of authors, editors, and sympathizers decided to vote in organized slates, for their specific candidates, to supposedly strike a blow against what they consider to be Social Justice Warriors. According to the complaints made popular by Brad Torgerson, Larry Correia, and Vox Day, these SJWs have been perverting the glorious old, white, male traditions in SFF toward icky character-driven and sexually deviant stories. To counter this, for several years, this group has been nominating socially-conservative writers they know (or themselves), as well as non-affiliated writers whom they deem effective at the old-school forms of science fiction and fantasy.*

Their attempts worked very well this year, effectively shutting out all other candidates but their own from a number of Hugo categories. It’s also backfiring sloppily all over the place. Some of the nominees have asked their names be removed from the ballot. Whether out of actual distaste or fear of being ‘stalked’ by Social Justice Warriors, really doesn’t matter at this point. The intricacies of Hugo voting have been outlined in many posts, with instructions on how the much larger block of voting members can force down the nominations with a ‘No Award’ (or even below) vote.

Here’s a link to Jim Hines’ blog, which contains other links to get an overview on the Great Hugo Kerfuffle of 2015.

*Whether this is an actual Culture War battle** or not, it’s both slimy and hilarious to follow. I can say this as an outsider writer unlikely to ever get a Hugo nomination, and a reader who has enjoyed works from many different camps of SFF. One sad side effect: I’m even less likely, as a fan, to engage in fandom in general as a result of conflicts like this.

** Ah, I thought I’d seen the apparent chief instigators before this, a group centered around the small-press publisher Castalia House. Last year in an AbsoluteWrite forum discussion about Castalia, I wondered if its principals would boycott ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ because it was written by a woman. They went so far as to nominate it on their Hugo slate this year (though listing James Gunn on the entry). I have no idea if it was nominated out of sheer joy and respect for the medium, or as a sideways attempt to say ‘See, we are inclusive!’

While I poke fun and satire at the whole mess, Charles Stross has a sobering post that is worth a look or two, about the ‘real’ game Castalia and the Puppies may be waging.

With that in mind, I may find an extra $40 just so I can vote. 

pieces of ‘Whisper’

Inspired by the tiny books, I’m re-energized to attack a mini-book that’s been in progress for over a year. Here are the components laid out in an old teak tray I like for beading:

Whisper book

Whisper, 1″ x 1.75″ x 1″ when complete. The tiny fabric pages are layers of linen and commercially printed cotton, hand-inked, and overlaid with ultra-sheer nylon panels. The nylon comes from high-end tea bags, which I’ve been collecting and washing out for a while – because they’re a glassy sheer fabric I haven’t seen anywhere else. (Some people call it hoarding, I call it upcycling.)

Whisper book pages

The covers are glass blanks I bought at a local bead store, then drilled, etched, and frosted with the aid of a flexible shaft drill. (Yay power tools.) whisper glass in hand

I’m looking forward to Coptic-binding it this week.

Added 4-3-2015: Done! I’m very happy with it. More detail, second entry down here.