Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ender's Game and character building

Ender's Game and the subsequent books were important to me, not just as a smart, alienated teenager, but as a writer. The second point is less trodden into the ground, so let's go with that.

Han Qing-jao of the novel Xenocide was one of the only reasons I enjoyed that particular installment in the series. She's part of the nobility of the planet Path, a Chinese-inspired culture where nobility and meritocracy are comingled by means of genetic programming. The nobility of Path are known as the 'godspoken,' because along with brilliance, they are 'gifted' with crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that is understood as service to the gods.

In Xenocide, this was done deliberately by the government as a means of controlling their geniuses.

It was the first time I really noticed that many totalitarian shadow regimes - sometimes know as authors - cripple their characters in this way. Not all of them, and many times in novels starring primarily adults it's backstory and not current concern, but enough that I have a long and thorough and distressing list.

I understand part of the motivation for crippling characters. We want to want to write characters readers will want to connect to emotionally, because nothing's quite as satisfying as being told someone cried at something you wrote. A lot of the time, we do that by trying to create characters readers will not necessarily fall in love with, but will identify with.

Sometimes - often - this involves taking extraordinary characters and giving them quite notable flaws to make them seem more 'human.' Crippling flaws, usually. In the Enderverse, this is mostly shown through smart people having really, really awful lives. Like Ender, perpetually guilt-ridden over his xenocide. Like Virlomi, who's smart enough to set herself up as a religious figure for political power, and stupid enough to get caught up in her own hype and therefore totally useless. Like Bean, the most brilliant character in the series and so also with a genetic condition like severe giantism, which will cause his body to break down and eventually kill him horribly. And like Qing-jao, slave to her own brain.

The flaws are supposed to make them feel closer to hand, partly because real people go through things that suck, too, but partly - and this is the important bit - because writers want to make being spectacular in some highly visible way seem as if it has a price attached. Making people reading political space adventures and also wars feel better about not proceeding to start a religion or contribute to a new world order or discovering a new life form (and then going crazy, but we don't talk about that) encourages complacency.

Speculative fiction is about reaching out and exploring, and that shouldn't be just an authorial privilege. Remarkable characters don't have to be horribly flawed to be relatable, and achievement on a large scale doesn't have to be made out as sin or suffering.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Hey, look, antitrust

When the US Department of Justice is investigating accusations of collusion among big publishers and Apple, it's a sign that people still care about reading.

Agency pricing is what self-publishers traditionally have no recourse from: you set your price, the seller takes a cut, and you get the rest. Wholesale pricing is a matter of selling the book to the seller, and then they sell it to the customer for whatever price they choose. That's kind of neat, because while self-publishers in particular don't traditionally have access to reams of statistics about the best price to sell something for, booksellers do. Letting the sellers set the price means that they'll optimize it to sell as much as possible, and takes some of the worry from you (under wholesale model pricing, you get paid the same not matter what, so you can quite gleefully cease to agonize over pricing). Amazon traditionally sold ebooks for very little over their wholesale cost. A lot of the shift to agency pricing as opposed to wholesale boils down to 'wah, Amazon's willing to make less money on this than me.'

This does raise some concerns: if ebooks are absurdly cheap, that makes printed books less attractive.

And then we take a break from numbers and theory and talk to real people. Jesse Hajicek and Cory Doctorow both have their books available for free, in their entirety, online. They both have many people who read them for free, in their entirety, online. They both also sell hardcopies. People buy the hardcopies. It's a miracle!

But this post is not about the benefits of one's work being available free. This is about colluding to make the work of the people one represents more expensive. The publishers accused of course have experience hiding collusion, so it's possible nothing may come of the accusations. But lawsuits and expensive settlements and the possibility that the people who are handling your work are doing morally reprehensible things while not notably increasing what they pay you sure do make self-publishing more attractive right now.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Literary Conventions

Second person is a lot of fun to write, and I don't know why it's not more widely used.
Actually, I do, a little bit: Choose Your Own Adventure novels are considered a bit of a holdover from the 80s, and a lot of the people who find the form natural are going to gravitate to writing for video games.

This branches into two separate issues: literary conventions and differences between media.

Observant readers can probably guess what I'm covering today.

We have established storytelling forms, ways we make a story easy to parse for a reader. This tends to be through the employ of past tense, and usually either first or third person narration. Third person is far and away more common, even if we're only seeing the inside of one character's head. First person has recently become more popular for the Young Adult market, particularly in the paranormal romance genre (Twilight, House of Night, The Hunger Games), but third person past tense still dominates.

It's common enough to be invisible, partly because that's how it would naturally come out if someone was telling us a story about something someone else did. That is, quite often, the most comfortable position for a reader. I imagine I'd read far fewer romance novels if they were in second person: it would make them a decidedly uncomfortable prospect.

But readers have accepted and even embraced the conceit of the main character as narrator. Is it really that much of a step to ask that more accept the conceit of themselves as main character?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


This is my hundredth post on this blog. I've been going for just about two years now, and a lot has changed.

I finished my first non-fiction book, Navigating the Ebook Jungle. That was last year, meaning it's dated and needs editing, because such is the nature of epublishing right now.

I finished my first novella, Intervention, with my friend Mason Kochanski.

I finished the second draft of my first novel, which is still under revision.

I became Managing Editor and then Editor in Chief of Island Writer magazine.

I helped found Theory Train Magazine, now with its third issue out.

I spoke as part of a panel on getting your book out there for the Victoria Writers' Society.

I started writing fan-fiction which I'm actually showing to the public.

I won the first season Anything Goes Writing League, earning the Faulkner Prism.

I finished Emergency Medical Responder training (still need to get my freaking license, but we're talking accomplishments here, so never mind that).

It's been a pretty good couple of years, all told, and it's only looking up. I have several writing projects in various stages of completion, and have discovered the many and varied joys of outlining first. The publishing industry appears to be stabilizing more in favor of epublishing (now watch as the next couple of months make me look back on the word 'stabilizing' in shame). I'm excited for what the future holds for the writing world.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Fandom, part three

Last week I talked about why I don't read Kristen Britain anymore. You should read it! It's another example of my carrying through with strong reactions to things most people don't care about. This week, other stances authors have about people writing fanfiction of their work and why I like them better for it.

Sherwood Smith
's attitude towards it makes a lot of sense to me (bottom of the page): alternate universes only, because you as a fan don't have enough information to write in the universe completely accurately. That makes sense, and gives everyone boundaries they can stay comfortably within while still allowing a great deal of leeway to write fantastic odes to Sherwood Smith's work.

J.K. Rowling has a slightly different boundary: she loves fanfiction, but is disturbed by the porn and wishes people would stop. Given that she originally conceived Harry Potter as children's book, and a lot of the characters can remain under the age of consent even in the more explicit works, this makes sense to me, too.

Andrew Hussie is probably the most generous with his creation: he encourages people to play all they want as long as they're not profiting from it (it's how he makes his living), but he sometimes lets fanart be sold through the shop, fan art gets put in the calendars, and the latest soundtrack is going to be all fan contributions. He has also unilaterally declared that all fan things are canon to the story. Given the sheer range of stories, this was most likely at least partly sarcastic, but it was hilarious and inclusive and pretty much a gift to the fandom.

They have different comfort levels in terms of fanfiction, and slightly different boundaries, but they're all engaging their fandom about fanfiction. It works for them: people stay engaged between books/movies/updates. Of course, some fans are still going to be jerks and be impatient for new installments and express it inappropriately. But a fandom where people connect positively keeps interest up and keeps everyone happy, which is something to consider in terms of engaging readers long-term.