ideatrash

Writing, publishing, geekdom, and errata.

Atomic Time And New Year's Resolutions

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The story goes that it happens every seven years. Supposedly, every cell in your body has died and been replaced within the span of 2500-odd days.

Which means that I'm twice over not the same person as I was when I wrote the "Atomic Time" essay you'll find below back in 2001.

Part of me wants to argue with that assertion that I'm the same person. Part of me wants to enthusiastically agree that there's no way I'm the same.

But I think the essay still holds up.

As we round into the new year, help us start some new things at Alliteration Ink - like reaching our stretch funding goal of a second volume of diverse steampunk (with an open call for submissions). If you're already a backer, then please take a few seconds to share the project on Twitter, G+, or Facebook. Thanks!



“It’s okay. My watch is set to atomic time.”

I knew better, yet I briefly expected to see a small nuclear generator strapped to his wrist, ticking the seconds away with radioactive precision. But no, it was just a regular plastic wristwatch (though with calculator pad and memory function) set just that morning to the most accurate time in the world. Apparently even more accurate than even the ticker clock on the Weather Channel, which disagreed with the watch by four seconds.

Normally, such a small difference would be insignificant, but this was different. This was important. Someone – nobody was quite sure who – had noticed that we were running out of year. That there were only minutes left until midnight – few seconds remained of the first (or last, depending on how you want to count) year of the millennium. The previously subdued party erupted in a frenzy of channel-flipping, trying to locate the ageless Dick Clark or, failing that, a ball dropping somewhere in the world: an effort to find an “official” countdown to chant with.

There are times when it becomes painfully obvious that I no longer live on the East Coast; New Year’s is the most obvious of them. As the channels flipped by, news, after-midnight televised parties resplendent with second-rate pop icons and drunken hordes, and even the occasional rerun of a sitcom confronted us. It seemed that our only timekeeping salvation would be in the precision of a small quartz diode, only hours ago calibrated to the National Institute of Standards and Technology atomic clock, a feat made possible by technology and an Internet connection.

“We’ve still got three minutes,” the watch-holder announced. The relief was tangible – for a moment there, we were afraid we’d missed it entirely. Paces slowed, and our final preparations continued at a more sedate pace. That is, until the bathroom door swung open, and another guest who had missed the ruckus raised their watch aloft.

“I set my watch to atomic time this morning! We’ve only got sixty seconds left!”

I caught sight of my reflection in the window; outside the night was dark and freezing, moonlight shone upon the snow. Behind me the ghostly reflections of people scurried, bearing hats, noisemakers, poppers, champagne. Someone was making sure the kids – collectively and safely sequestered downstairs – were on-cue and taken care of.

And we had no idea if the New Year had come yet.

Did our resolutions count yet? Did we have time for a last cigarette, a last sugary snack, a final drink? Was it time to kiss someone, or wish for someone to kiss? Should we be toasting, singing, reminding our loved ones that they were our loved ones after all? Was it time yet to start fresh, to wipe the slate clean and try to do things a little better than we had before? Nobody knew for certain – the watches disagreed with the television channels, and all of them disagreed among themselves. No ball (or Dick Clark) was visible yet, and suggestions flew back and forth. “Try CBS.” “ABC! Dick Clark’s on ABC!” “Headline News always has a clock!” The mood was nearly frantic – several of the timekeepers already claimed we were in the New Year. Then:

“Why don’t we just say we have twenty seconds left and start counting?”

In a rollercoaster of emotion, the thought ran through our brains. Suddenly, we would decide when our New Year began. We, nobody else, would decide when to start anew, to hold ourselves to our resolutions, to love our families and remember our friends. From there, from that simple idea, realization spun outward: If it was possible to just say that the New Year began whatever time we wanted today, then we could do the same each day. Every day, every midnight, every minute could be a New Year, a new chance, a new opportunity.

The New York ball suddenly glistened upon the television in gaudy glory; someone had found it. It was a replay; Mayor Guiliani smiling as the seconds counted downward an hour ago (despite the “LIVE” blazoned in the upper-left hand corner). Dutifully, we joined in, chanting away seconds with the televised throng; distanced by thousands of miles and nearly an hour of time.

It was several minutes into the New Year, poppers popped and champagne drunk, that we noticed that the ball hadn’t agreed with either of the disagreeing watches, both meticulously set to atomic time.

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Things I do when I'm on call, can't sleep, and miss my kid.

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Because you quickly hit that point where you're just anxious enough that sleep isn't really a good option, but doing something horribly intense is usually interrupted by being called in, so it has to be something you can just put back down...

So I cleaned some.  And then I realized I had a flat surface I'd just pile more crap back onto.

So I did this instead.

The dog and cat are very puzzled.

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Alliteration Ink To Focus on Publishing

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It's almost a new year, and while the milestone might be arbitrary, it's still useful.

Effective immediately, Alliteration Ink will focus on being a publisher and stop providing publishing services. The difference between the two is explained at http://alliterationink.com/pubservices.html.

In regular-person speak, that means I'm going to stop doing eBook conversions and distribution for other people. Instead, I will focus on producing original content, including anthologies like What Fates Impose and Steampunk World, single author collections like Wild & Wishful, Dark & Dreaming, and novels like Net Impact.

There are several reasons for this, but the largest and most important is this: I have many things going on, and a limited amount of time left in this world. So I'm going to focus on the things that I want to do.

The second reason is that I've reached a point where wearing multiple hats starts to look like a conflict of interest - even though I've made a bright clear line between the two.

And the third reason is that looking forward over the plans for the next year - including a new anthology with Bryan Thomas Schmidt and Maurice Broaddus, new work from Lucy Snyder, a novel from KW Taylor, and work from Alethea Kontis in the first quarter - I won't be able to do them justice while providing services to others.

If you are looking for eBook design, I would like to recommend Digital Bindery. Not only have I known one of the co-owners for most of my life, but they have high standards and technical expertise.

Thank you for your business in the past, and I hope that we all have publishing success in the future.


#SFWAPRO

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Problems Loading Crashplan GUI in Debian Jessie (or GNOME 3) on Linux

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I use Crashplan now for my backup provider, and ran into a small snag while upgrading to Debian Jessie (I also use Crunchbang #!, and yes, that's all google bait for other people who have the same problem.)

The thing is, it's actually pretty well documented on the Crashplan website... I'm just enough of a moron to try searching the internet and forums first... and the terminology I used wasn't the same as theirs.

So my GUI would launch and then almost immediately crash with an error in libsoup. Turns out that's because I accidentally pulled in GNOME3 during the upgrade (yeah, that annoyed me), and apparently didn't get rid of all of it.

The fix is actually really simple: add this to the second line in run.conf:


-Dorg.eclipse.swt.browser.DefaultType=mozilla

Which means that you'll end up with something like this:

SRV_JAVA_OPTS="-Dfile.encoding=UTF-8 -Dapp=CrashPlanService -DappBaseName=CrashPlan -Xms20m -Xmx512m -Djava.net.preferIPv4Stack=true -Dsun.net.inetaddr.ttl=300 -Dnetworkaddress.cache.ttl=300 -Dsun.net.inetaddr.negative.ttl=0 -Dnetworkaddress.cache.negative.ttl=0 -Dc42.native.md5.enabled=false"
GUI_JAVA_OPTS="-Dfile.encoding=UTF-8 -Dapp=CrashPlanDesktop -DappBaseName=CrashPlan -Xms20m -Xmx512m -Djava.net.preferIPv4Stack=true -Dsun.net.inetaddr.ttl=300 -Dnetworkaddress.cache.ttl=300 -Dsun.net.inetaddr.negative.ttl=0 -Dnetworkaddress.cache.negative.ttl=0 -Dc42.native.md5.enabled=false -Dorg.eclipse.swt.browser.DefaultType=mozilla"


And BDAOW.

While we're at it, I'll also share my other tips for Crashplan on Linux:

1. I stopped the system service.
sudo /etc/init.d/crashplan stop
sudo update-rc.d crashplan disable
2. I set up sudoers to run the Crashplan Engine without requiring the password. This is the "you need to do enough research to understand what you're doing" portion.
3. I use ionice to reduce the disk i/o demands so I'm more willing to let it run in the background instead of killing it when it interferes with my games. :)
ionice -c 3 /usr/local/crashplan/bin/CrashPlanEngine

This helps my system startup time, and then I can configure the engine to start a few seconds later once everything else is going.

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Heroic Uncertainty

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I like to think they didn't know.
That despite what the sacred texts tell us, that it was just a guy and a girl, finding themselves far from home.
Without any guidance.
Without any family.
Without any friends.
And despite that - despite the lack of angels giving them walkthroughs or cheat codes, despite the lack of miracles and signs and portents, despite their people imprisoned and prophecies unfulfilled - they still went on.
Despite their doubt.
Despite not really knowing what would come next.
It's that doubt that is important. That uncertainty. In a universe where everything is known then decisions don't have meaning. Where every action is fixed, predicted, and inevitable, then every decision is meaningless and futile.
No matter how evil. No matter how banal. No matter how good.
In a world where the future is known, Ezekiel is right. All things are vanity.
That's not the world we live in.
At a fundamental subatomic level, there is an unpredictability where absurd thought experiments are literally true, where matter is created from nothing and disappears back into nothing.
Yes, at the level we experience reality, that uncertainty is not really observable. It's true: Charlatans say "quantum" instead of "abracadabra" to invoke unobtainium and excuse away their handwavium. We may never have the ability to create wormholes the size of a person, to communicate across light-years instantly, or to manufacture functioning warp drives no matter how many engineers with Scottish accents give it all they've got.
But there is uncertainty.
There is randomness.
There is chance.
And in those places, there is freedom.
So the real heroes of our story - the story we keep telling ourselves while burying it in more and more decorations and carols and saccharine greetings and public posturing and manufactured controversy - the real heroes are two people.
By themselves.
Far from home.
Frightened.
Without a walkthrough. Without an angelic host telling them what to do next.
Our heroes - forged ahead anyway.
Determined to make things a little better than they were before.
And that determination - not the Child, not choirs of angels, not rich foreigners or all the trappings that followed - that is what brought a little more light into the world.
And that is something that we can do, too.
Happy holidays.

"Lost Frontier" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

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Like Crowdfunding and @Kickstarter? DJ Grandpa's Crib Deserves Your Support. #djg

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This probably seems strange, given that I'm running a Kickstarter right now... but I would like for you to support another one.

If you have ever run a Kickstarter, or thought about running a crowdfunding campaign, or backed a crowdfunding campaign - go give whatever support you can to DJ Grandpa's Crib right now.

They're a weekly podcast that covers cool and interesting Kickstarter campaigns.

Each week, he interviews real people with honest dreams.



I've had the pleasure of speaking with DJ Grandpa on several occasions now - not just for business - and it's been an actual pleasure

He isn't like all the shifty people I keep talking about here.  He's been doing this *for free*, for love of the projects, for love of helping others.

And now he wants to be able to keep doing that without breaking his own bank account.

This is exactly the sort of thing that Kickstarter is for.

This is not just a project for people who like DJ Grandpa - but for people who like anything on Kickstarter.

Go check out his campaign.  It's well worth it.

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The (Mostly) Snark Free Lessons From @Grammarly - or Why I Bothered To Write About It At All

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Contains 100% of your
daily allotment of snark
for this post.
I've been thinking a bit about why I let Nick Baron get under my skin... especially after writing about how I try to focus on behaviors instead of people.

Part of it was that I wanted something to write about right then, so it was just bad timing on his part. Part of it was that insulting academic integrity (especially that of my girlfriend) is a really quick way to piss me off.

But also, there were still teachable moments (for you, not him) admist all that. So I decided to write about it.

In case it got lost in the midst of all the (amusing) GIFs:

1. When you're apologizing, take the time to really hear what the other person is saying. ("More impartial" bit)

2. When you've done something wrong, admit it and try to fix it, not try to bury it. (Asking people to take down or change their blog posts.)

3. When someone in your organization has done something wrong, just fix itdon't require the insulted party to file an official complaint.

4. Have something of substance to back up your claims - or admit they're just claims. ("more impartial" again with the press release news articles and "research" that consists of infographics)

And perhaps most importantly:

5. Recognize that there are some people you're not going to convert, and let it go.

And that's where I'm at with Grammarly.  The mail filters are trained, and when I get a chance, I'm going to block them on social media.  I'm so done. 

It's not even amusing to me any more, and I do not need or want their expensive service. I'd rather spend the money on my authors, thanks. And offering me Amazon gift cards for a positive (and SEO optimized) review isn't going to change my mind.

I want you to trust my recommendations - because the things I bother to recommend are things that I really enjoy and want to recommend to you.

And that's worth more than any stupid gift card.

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In Which Grammarly's PR Continues To Be Clue Free (Once Again, Featuring Nick Baron!)

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I previously wrote about Nikolas Baron's flawed (and then sleazy) attempts to get me to plug Grammarly on my blog. And he keeps trying to get me to change my mind.

Here's a protip for everyone else:  When someone reacts more negatively to your followup attempts, you should probably either fix your mistakes or shut the hell up.

Apparently that is not something that Grammarly can catch in its ongoing scummy PR campaign. Herein lies an example of how to NOT conduct a PR campaign - and how to NOT brag about vapid press mentions.

So let's start with the e-mail (emphasis mine):

Hey Steve,

I just saw your blog post about Grammarly from six months ago and wanted to apologize for being annoying. I clearly failed to do Grammarly's Blogger Partnership Program justice. As I mentioned in my first email to you, we offer sponsored bloggers a free, premium account of Grammarly so they don't have to go through the hassle of signing up.

I've taken the liberty of creating one for you to play around with. You can log in here with your email address and the password "REDACTED". You'll quickly see how much more there is to Grammarly than just a writing score and report. I'd love to know what you think, please don't hold back.

Happy Holidays! :)

Nick

P.S. To get a more independent take on Grammarly, check out our press page. We’ve been featured in The Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, and The Economist, and have been mentioned on USA Today, the Huffington Post and The New York Times.


Okay, so first he starts off with a misleading statement (again). I've e-mailed him both times that I wrote about Grammarly, with the URLs. The second time I heard and reported to you all about where Grammarly requested bloggers violate FTC rules. The first time, I was more suspicous of Grammarly using a bogus "blog sponsorship"... something that Nick never bothered to answer.

The rest is actually pretty straightforward... until we get to the postscript. I quoted a college English instructor panning the service (hence his "more independent" crack). Apparently Nick didn't bother to notice that said English instructor was my girlfriend.  Or that besmirching my or my loved one's academic integrity is a quick way to piss me the hell off.


Though thanks, Nick, for giving me an excuse to post this GIF.

I then looked back over the comments, and discovered that Nicholas has been trying to get people to take down their negative blog posts about Grammarly.

(It's a G+ comment, so you might need to disable some ad blockers to see it.  Screencap below.)

Keeping it classy for Grammarly, huh, Nick?




Still, I decided to do what he asked, and checked out several of the links on the press page.  I got about halfway through before I got tired of them.  There were several links to fluff pieces about the company's existence... or a NaNoWriMo stunt that they sponsored this year.


The rest I checked out (I went back about a month or so) were reports about "research" that Grammarly had done. And I put research in sarcasm quotes - because the crap they present as "research" are merely infographics with no methodology or raw data whatsoever.

It's almost like he's talking to people with advanced degrees in this stuff.


You'd think that a respectable name like Forbes would have an editor to axe such "Press releases as news" articles, but no (emphasis mine):

According to a recent study from Grammarly there may be a strong correlation between accurate writing and career success. Professionals with fewer grammar errors achieve higher positions. For entrepreneurs, this could mean the difference between gaining or losing a customer—or even succeeding or failing at the business. So I asked Allison VanNest of Grammarly to give me some tips on writing for entrepreneurs. - via

But finally one fluff report points out the insecurity Grammarly's founder, Alex Shechenko, had as a non-native English speaker.

Alex Shevchenko encountered many of the same problems that learners of a second language face when leaving their home countries for school.

Growing up in Kiev, Ukraine, Shevchenko learned English for the first time as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. He struggled to stay competitive in his classes and couldn’t shake a nagging feeling of insecurity over his work.

And that's the greatest irony of all. Because grammar error correction appears to have little benefit for L2 learners like Mr. Shevchenko.

RESEARCH!


Unfortunately, that article isn't in the form of an infographic... and you'll have a hard time getting that taken down, Nick.

Hey @GrammarAllie, maybe you should point out that asking for negative reviews be taken down is a horrible thing to do.  Just sayin'.

So kids, the next time someone comes and offers you a super-duper solve-everything product, check out their claims.  Because if their "press references" are little more than infographics of their "research"... well, maybe they're not worth your money.

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CONTEXT, Millennicon, Imaginarium, Oh My! Appearances for 2014 and Con Going on a Budget

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In addition to heading up programming at CONTEXT in Columbus Ohio (Sep 26-28), I'll probably be on several panels and around and about.  I'm also hard at work making sure there's a strong series of panels there for everyone to enjoy.

And I know I'll be at Millennicon in March of 2014. 

And yes, I'm also going to be joining people at The Imaginarium the weekend before.  It's going to be a busy year - I'm just getting started making plans.

Actually, I'm probably going to do a lot more panel appearances in the area in 2014.  However I'll probably only be at each event for a day, maybe a day and a half.  So please plan ahead - there's a lot of great conventions this year.

One note for the people who ran into me at GenCon and Origins last year:  At this time, I do not have plans to attend either of those conventions.  I might drop in at Origins, but again, as of right now I'm not scheduled for anything there. 

One of the things I keep thinking about is the price of conventions.  It's a great part of why I'm pushing CONTEXT.  It delivers a LOT more than it should be able to with the cost of admission, and definitely costs less than a big gaming-focused convention.  Addie J. King wrote up how she was able to attend (two years ago) on a serious budget;  it's a great example.  And while I highly recommend the long workshops, it's a top priority for me to ensure that the panels alone are worth your time and money... and then you can be wowed by the workshops.

One other tip:  You might also want to consider volunteering for the conventions you want to attend.  For a bit of work before (or during) the convention, you may be able to get a significant reduction in the ticket price.

Carpool, share a hotel room, book early (many conventions have "early bird" rates going on right now), and you can make it to those conventions without breaking the budget.

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Hey, look, I'm old and stuff.

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I am officially old.


I'm afraid it's true.  Well, not eleventy-one old, but old enough. 

I'm forty.  (Somehow my parents have put up with me all this time.  Dunno how.)  Cue the black balloons - my goth side will be quite happy.

Add caption


Anyway, there's two (and a half) things I'd love for you to do for me for my birthday.

1.  Check out Steampunk World at http://bit.ly/kicksteam .

1.5 - If you've already backed Steampunk World, support it by spreading the word with three clicks at http://bit.ly/sharesteam

2.  Check out the other books I've published.  I'm really happy to have helped these books come into existence.  You can see a full list at http://alliterationink.com/store.html

That's it.  I got to talk to my son earlier today, and now I'm off to go have dinner and watch a movie with my girl and generally chill. 

Thanks, everybody.

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I Made A Lousy Book Cover Once. Learn From My (and Other's) Mistakes

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I made a lousy book cover.

It's still out there.  Let me show you:
http://alliterationink.com/store.html#boughtlove

This is not a good book cover.  It breaks most of the design rules - and does so with no reason or purpose.  But I'm okay with it - it's personal for me, and the book was put together largely for me.  So it meets my goals.   That doesn't change the fact that it's a lousy book cover.

It's possible to put together a good book cover, though.  Consider this one:

http://alliterationink.com/store.html#pencils

It gets noticed when I'm at conventions.  (The professional covers I pay artists quite a bit of money for get noticed consistently;  that's a different issue entirely.)    People stop and look and flip through this book.  People buy this book at approximately three times the rate that they buy Bought Love is a Salaried Position

Or at least, they do now.  When I first started, I had a version of this book with a slightly different cover (you can actually see it in the thumbnail at the webstore):

And this cover got far, far less attention.   It's obvious now, when you're looking at the two covers so close together.  The contrasts.  The slightly different font.  The whitespace.   (You might also see a few things that I could still improve, like the pencil positioning in the newer cover.)   

I bring these to your attention because it is really freaking hard to create a good book cover from scratch.   Derek Murphy (guest blogging on The Creative Penn) wrote a post that had a great first half about how and where to get images and choose colors.

So how do you learn what makes a good book cover?  Here's my suggestion:  http://lousybookcovers.com/

You'll start to see themes emerge.   Bad themes.  And just like critiquing someone else's writing, you start to see where you make the same mistakes.

Which brings us to why I only recommend the first half of Derek Murphy's post.  Because for all the great information in the first half, the second half is about using MS WORD to design images.  That's like saying you're going to use a claymore to spread butter on your toast.  

Okay, it's not just because I hate Word with a passion nearly equal to Charles Stross'.  It's because Mr. Murphy is essentially advising folks to use the cut-and-paste school of cover art design.  While cut-and-paste can work in skilled hands, it too often fails.  Again I'll refer you to my own lousy book cover at the top of this post... and then I'll point out there is a cut-and-paste category tag from Lousy Book Covers.

So after you get your book edited, don't skimp on your cover design. 

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The Write Agenda Can Teach You How To Avoid Untrustworthy People... Like Themselves.

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If you mention Writer Beware (or SFWA) on social media, you will probably get the attention of "The Write Agenda".

And you'll have my sympathy, and a recommendation to hit that "Block/Report" button right quickly.

There's an explanation for that recommendation - as well as some background links, and a screengrab of the rudeness that this anonymous person spewed at me personally and toward people that I care about.  They've got a huge hate-on for Victoria Strauss in particular, demanding that she go debate them in NYC, at which time they'll reveal their true identity, and...




...yeah, it sounds like a substandard Venture Brothers script to me.  With a usericon that looks like someone wanting to copy the DJs from Mars, but couldn't afford the cardboard box.

But all their singleminded focus on hating Victoria actually helps highlight something very important.  By and large, Author Beware (as well as myself and others who help people steer clear of scams and sleazy predatory folks) look at behavior.  For example, my post about the Dark Crystal writing contest.  Yes, there's a particular example - but it's an example of a principle of behavior.

Likewise, the post about Writer Digest's Self-Publishing award .  It's a post that talks about specific companies, but the problem is the principle of conflict of interest.

But it's not about the specific people.

Could even infamous author-exploiting vanity press Author Solutions clean up its act and treat authors reputably, like a real publisher?  Sure - in fact, many of us hoped that it would after being acquired by Penguin Group.  Unfortunately, the behavior remained the same, leading to the class action lawsuit going on this year.

As I keep saying, we cannot focus on people so much as behaviors:

And that's when we have to remember that we care about behaviors. If someone's behavior is flawed, we must call them on that behavior. Not just because of ethics (though that's enough), but because it helps our friends grow as human beings.
And that's why principles like Yog's Law (with Cthugha's Corollary) are so important.  Why knowing how contracts work is so important.   Why setting an ethical standard for Kickstarters and backer rewards is so important.

Because that way we can focus on the behaviors.  Learn the ways that scams are run, and you won't have to point to each and every scam out there - you'll be able to identify them for what they are.

And people - like the Write Agenda - who are singlemindedly focused on hating a person rather than a behavior? 

Well, now you know to avoid that kind of behavior too.

Background on the Write Agenda:

 
Sadly, this is a typical exchange.

Yes, that's right.  He spammed a link WHILE insulting people.  Another big red flag.

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The Idea Kitchen - A Guest Post by Justin Swapp

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Now that you've finished up NaNoWriMo (and if you wrote anything, you were successful) you might find yourself wondering what the heck you're going to write about next.  Justin Swapp has some answers from you - and no, it's not a bloody mail-order catalog.

One of the most frequently asked questions of writers is, "where do you get your ideas?" 

While seemingly innocent, there’s something inherently wrong with that question. The implication is that there is some magical place that certain writers can steal away to in order to harvest fantastic ideas. It's as if they're asking, "where's the mystical portal that takes me to the land of the idea storks?" 

There is no such place. There might be a story there, though. (If you think so, go write it and post a link in the comments.)

The truth is that ideas come from hard work. There, I said it.

I believe that there are a few behaviors you can employ to make things easier on yourself; to help foster your creativity, capture your ideas, and ultimately harvest more ideas. 

1. Get to know yourself and what excites you to tell a story. This is more important than you might think. If you understand what motivates your writing, you’re more likely to uncover ideas that you are passionate about. You will be more likely to take an early idea, stick with it, and massage it because it inspires you. Moreover, when you write you’re more likely to infuse that energy in into your work, and therefore into your reader. To look at it another way, writer’s block (a shortage of ideas) can be caused by a simple lack of interest, or by having nothing to say. If you start with an idea that you are really excited about, you are likely to develop and help it realize its potential.

Make a list of your favorite books, and what you liked most about them. Was it a certain character? What about the character? A particular fight scene? What of it? A certain plot device? Write these things down. After a careful review, it may become clear that there are certain things that jazz you about stories. Find more of that thing, or better yet, write about it.

2. Go get some experiences. Writing ideas come from connecting the dots; from asking 'what if?' questions, and then exploring the answers. By creating plenty of life experiences, you are improving your ability to connect things: Places, people, and situations. In other words: Settings, characters, plots, and that ever-important 'voice' that will make up your writing.

3. Pay attention to what goes on around you, and collect your observations. It does little to have experiences if you don't actually absorb them for what they are. 

Be observant wherever you go. Write what you see (especially what you find interesting) in a writing journal. Maybe it’s a crazy haircut, or something flashy someone’s wearing. Perhaps it’s a certain characteristic of an old building, or a bit of dialogue you overhear someone say. If you carry your “journal” with you wherever you go, it should be fairly easy. It could be an app on your smart phone (you carry that with you everywhere, don’t you?) Maybe it’s a moleskin notebook you keep by your bed at night. Either way, capture your observations and lock them up in your magical idea book. I've had several things published based on ideas, a sentence or two that I had written down long before I developed the ideas. As we grow, those old sentences take on new meaning and become more usable. You do have to capture them, though. If you don’t, they slip away like sand between your fingers.

4. Twist your ideas around to make them fresh. Once you’ve written your ideas down, you have to play with them a little, and massage them. You knead them like bread dough. Depending on your preferred genre, maybe you torture them. Either way, great ideas are developed with hard work, not just plucked out of the air.

You might be tempted to disregard your more simple ideas in the hunt for the ever-elusive silver bullet type; that zinger that you just know is a "novel" idea. Don't. More often the best ideas start out a bit bland. You add seasoning, cut them up, and mix them together. Maybe you drown them in boiling water, and suddenly you have something totally new and appealing. 

Good ideas come from the kitchen. You MAKE them. You collect ingredients, mix them together, and experiment with new recipes. A master chef is someone who has learned what he likes, which ingredients compliment each other the best, and how to put them together in a way that will leave most people satisfied. Writing is no different.

Justin was born with an active imagination on a U.S. naval base in Spain, but has spent most of his life in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains of Utah. He is bilingual, and has lived all over the world. He has four children; two boys, and two girls, and an enduring wife. He doesn't have any pets that he's aware of, but his children have been known to hide things under his bed.
Justin is the author of The Magic Shop. He has also been published in several anthologies, including The Crimson Pact (Volumes 1, 2, and 5), The Memory Eater, and Short Sips: Coffee House Flash Fiction Collection 2.
In his free time Justin loves to read, write, and play games. He enjoys his close friends, and loves to make people laugh. To learn more about Justin, or his work, you can visit him at www.justinswapp.com

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Dear Grammarly: Your PR Relies on Scammy, Clueless, Spammy Practices. Stop Trying To Get Me To Help.

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(See updates at http://ideatrash.net/2013/12/dear-grammarly-your-pr-relies-on-scammy.html and http://ideatrash.net/2013/12/in-which-grammarlys-pr-continues-to-be.html)

NOTE:  The links for "spam" and "scam" and "sleazy" all point to the same place.  This is the same tactic I took with OmniBuzz Media.   Everything else is a real link.

Stay away from Grammarly's "blog sponsorships". They employ scammy SEO practices at best, and there are reports of their PR person asking bloggers to violate FTC regulations and failure to follow through with the promised rewards.

 
You might remember that back in June I said I got an e-mail from Nikolas Baron representing the online grammar-checking service Grammarly.   He wanted to give me a gift card as a blog sponsorship because I was nominated for some (apparently fake) award.  Not only did I pan his tactic (and suggested phrasing), but I also kinda suggested the service wasn't really worth the exorbitant price they were offering for it.

And then my girlfriend - who unlike me, does teach college English - unabashedly panned the service.
I would NOT recommend such a program for my students or my school for a bunch of reasons. First, I can't see the quality of the feedback provided. If I can't see an actual sample, I wouldn't ever endorse its use. Period.

Second, the program appears to give A LOT of commentary on work, as if quantity indicates quality. Students need help not only finding problems but also PRIORITIZING them. An omitted Oxford comma is a stylistic choice; pervasive run-on sentences are a much more pressing issue.

Third, this program should be used ONLY under the guidance of competent real-live writing teachers. But admini$trator$ will see $12 a month as a wonderfully cheap way to get a new "teacher"; they'll get what they pay for. And without guidance as to HOW to use the comments, students may think that a properly edited piece of writing is GOOD, that the correctness somehow proves their content is okay. However, editing isn't revision. If I could give students grades based solely on where they placed their commas, my job would be much simpler and grading much more efficient.

There's a body of research out there, and more being conducted all the time, about computer-assisted writing assessment on products such as Criterion and My Access, which purport to assess content as well as correctness. Do they work? Finding of most researchers indicate, in short, that they don't.

Now, I'm back to grading. And not only for the commas.
 A brief search indicates that Nikolas is continuing to spam (and even scam) people with really shady marketing tactics in order to get blogs to endorse Grammarly.  Check out this post (and roundup of other blogger's assessments) on Poisoned Rationality.  And read the comments - apparently good old Nick isn't really following through on his promises.

As I pointed out in my first post, I replied to Nick... largely because he has one of those "you can't repeat this because I typed some fancy words in my e-mail signature" things.  Luckily, I have one of those "You getting this e-mail releases me from all of those agreements in my e-mail signature" things, so I'm going to comment on his e-mail here.  

Unfortunately, I do not have a crochet penis to show for my review.  I do, however, have GIFs. 

Let's do this.



Hi Steven,

I just stumbled across your review of “The Power of Habit” (which is fantastic, by the way) and thought to myself, “What a perfect fit!” 
Really?  Because that review was two paragraphs.   My son wrote better book reports in grade school.
As a part of our Blogger Partnership Program, we’re currently looking to sponsor similar blog posts with an $50 Amazon gift card in exchange for a small text ad placement.
 Oh, look.  Nick's learned how to put tracking links in his e-mail.  (That's the thing where each person who gets an e-mail will be sent to the same page... but the person who sent the e-mail can match up who clicked the link because they know which link they sent you.   Sneakytimes.  You can find out more about this tactic here:  http://www.pardot.com/faqs/emails/link-tracking/)  No, Nick, you're going to learn that I looked at this e-mail when you see this post saying what a spammer you are, and how sleazy your marketing is. 

In case you haven’t heard of us, Grammarly is an automated online proofreader that finds and explains pesky grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes that are bound to find their way into your writing. If you'd like to join our 3 million users and try the premium version of our proofreader for free, let me know and I'll make it happen!
You don't remember me, Nick?  Wow, not only do you act like a sleazy, spammy, scammer, but you apparently can't even keep a database straight.
Please send me the expected publishing date and topic of your next appropriate blog post (ideally something about books or writing) so I can give you the details you’ll need to participate.
Oh, Nick, I will definitely tell you ALL about this post.  I will tell EVERYONE about this post.  When I see people share something from your page on Facebook, I will tell them about how sleazy and scammy your tactics are, Nikolas.
P.S. Let me know if you ever find yourself in foggy San Francisco; I’d love to grab some coffee. :)


If I had the money to do it, I would love to have every blogger you'd e-mailed show up at your (foggy-ass) doorstep.   By the way, for those of you playing the home game, googling his e-mail signoff implies there'd be a LOT of us for him to buy coffee for.

So let us sum up:  I thought the service was (at best) overpriced.  A college-level English instructor thought it was worse than useless for students, and points out that studies back out her opinion.   And the service consistently - and unapologetically - uses a scammy, spammy asshat to try to get fake recommendations.

 So am I going to use Grammarly?  Well, let's look at one of the testimonials on their webpage:

So the Oxford comma wasn't caught, nor was the lack of a pronoun in any of the sentences.  And this is one of their testimonials.  

So will I use Grammarly?  NO.  And no matter how good their service is, the sleazy spammy marketing is a good reason to try some of the alternatives instead.

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Finished Your Novel? Good. Now You Need An Editor - Here's A Convenient List of NaNo-Friendly Editors

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So you finished your novel, and you've paid enough attention to know that you need an editor to help whip that puppy into shape. You did pay that much attention, right?


Exactly.  Revise.  And then get an editor to make that book as good as it can be.   (Yes, you need to invest in an editor, just like you need to invest in cover art.  You are investing in your own work.  Don't you think you are worth investing in?!?!?!?!!)

I put out a call for freelance editors who are ready and willing to work with NaNo writers (or anyone else).  I've worked with a few of these folks, but not all of them (and some of them in different capacities than as editors).  Take a look at what they have to offer.   If you're an editor just finding this post, please feel free to add in your information in the comments.

Lillian Cohen-Moore

Contact Info: http://www.lilliancohenmoore.com/contact/
Experience:  I do edit NaNo books, and I'm currently open to take on new clients. I edit non-NaNo manuscripts as well; I edit short stories, anthologies, roleplaying games, non-fiction, memoirs, how-to/advice, and  genre fiction.  I do anything from proofing to developmental editing, am a strict fact checker. Nonfiction editing includes creative/narrative nonfiction, nonfiction books, blog posts, essays, articles,  academic papers, white papers, thesis work and dissertations. My projects and publications page lists all of publicly known, credited work.
Rates:
Hourly: 30.00
By word: 2.5 cent minimum.
Block fees: I will do them, often for projects with small budgets.
Sample edits: $100.00, length dependent on project. If I go ahead with a client after a sample edit, I subtract the sample edit cost from their editing costs with me.
Short story or book proposal/novel synopsis critique: $100, up to 5, 000 words for a short story. If over 5K, will discuss how to handle it on case by case basis.
All of these rates do scale up (and even down) when projects get particularly complex, and I've scaled some rates down when I felt strongly about working on a project with a small budget. Genre:  I edit mystery, thriller, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, urban fantasy, YA, willing to give romance books a whirl, though I readily admit to having very little experience editing romance.

Nayad Monroe

Contact E-mail: nayadica@gmail.com
Experience: Editor of What Fates Impose, and three years as a slush reader at Clarkesworld Magazine
Rates (roughly): $1/page (double spaced, 12pt font)
Preferred genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror

Matthew Wayne Selznick

Contact Info: mwsmedia@gmail.com
Experience: Author of two novels, one anthology, and several short stories / non-fiction works. Award nominated (Parsec, KeyArt, ENNie, Origins); Amazon.com Bestseller (#53 on overall chart). References available.
Rates: $1,000 ~ $1,500 for novels up to 100,000 words (estimate -- actual amount may be less depending on work involved)
Prefered Genres: Specializes in developmental editing. Any genre.

Neal Litherland

Contact info: nlitherl@yahoo.com
Experience: Edited for Jupiter Gardens Press, and freelance editor
Rates: $200 per 50k words (price is negotiable, varies based on time and thoroughness required)
Preferred Genre(s): Prefer horror, fantasy, and science fiction, but willing to read for any genre.

Savannah Armstrong

Contact Info: savannah.woods23@gmail.com
Experience:  I have been freelancing for about four years now. I have edited four novels that are currently in print, and about half a dozen that have yet to be published. I was a Senior Editor for TM Publishing for about two years, and during that time I worked on quite a few short stories as well, though I prefer larger works. I have also been a contest judge for the League of Utah Writers for the last two years. I specialize in substantive editing (coherency, plot, character development, etc.).
Rates:  I charge $35 per hour, averaging 3-8 pages per hour, depending on the manuscript. I'm happy to do an initial read through of the first 1-3 chapters and offer a quote at no charge.
Areas of Expertise: My preferred genres are sci-fi/fantasy, mystery, and thrillers.

Daniel Friend

Contact Info:  dcfeditor@gmail.com
Experience: degree in editing; ran and edited two short fiction SF/F publications, editing pieces by award-winning authors Dan Wells, David Farland, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Eric James Stone; edited several novels. 
Rates:  $25/hour
Areas of Expertise:  I specialize in SF/F but am willing to take on other genres as well.

Jim White

Contact Info: jim@twwombat.com
Experience: Mostly RPG rulebooks and supplements at this point, but I'm excited to work with fiction. RPG Editor CV available at www.twwombat.com
Rates: $0.01/word
Preferred Genres: SF, Cyberpunk, Sword & Sorcery, Fantasy.

RJ Blain

Contact Info: http://rjblain.com/editorial-services/
Experience:  I'm a developmental editor. I've been working for 10 years editing and writing for businesses, but started developmentally editing for clients at the start of 2013. Here is my page about my rates and services, which answers most of your questions: http://rjblain.com/editorial-services/  I have references and samples available. I'm currently booked up to July, but quite a few of my early 2014 clients are having nanos from 2012 edited, so it's not uncommon for authors to work on their nano before having it worked on by an outside editor.
Rates: http://rjblain.com/editorial-services/

E. Catherine Tobler

Contact Info:  http://ecatherine.com/editing/
Experience:  Editing at Shimmer magazine for the past seven years, and is also a Sturgeon nominated author with her first two books came out this year.
Rates:  $20 to $45/hour, depending on the type of editing.

Stephanie Lorée

Contact info: stephanie@stephaniemloree.com
Experience: Anthology editor, editorial assistant, and proofreader; worked on several professional magazines and anthologies including: Lightspeed, Nightmare, Wastelands 2, Triangulation, Dead Man's Hand, Fantasy Magazine (ebook conversion). Full bio and testimonials available on website: http://stephanieloree.com/ (to launch January 2014).
Rates: $0.01 / word base, negotiable
Preferred genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, & Romance; short fiction welcome!

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Kerrie L. Hughes talks about "Gamer Fantastic" for "The Whole Is Greater"

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The Whole is Greater is a semi-regular feature on the blog where I ask the editors of anthologies to tell us about their experience working on an anthology.  Today's features Kerrie Hughes,whom I originally met at GenCon.  She's been editing anthologies since 2005, and as damn near as many professional "hats" as I do.  Full disclosure: Kerrie bought my story "Coyote, Spider, Bat" for the anthology Westward Weird, but today she wanted to talk about her experiences editing another anthology.

Gamer Fantastic comes to mind because Gen Con has been my favorite convention and I was able to get an all star line up of gamers/writers from the people that have become my friends via the convention.

The stories are good of course because I only invite the best of the best, but this collection became a bittersweet effort because Gary Gygax passed away before he could get me a story.

Strangely, I had a hard time finding someone who wasn’t feuding with Gary to write an eulogy for him until Ed Greenwood stepped up and said he would be glad to. I dedicated the anthology to Gygax’s memory.

Brain Thomsen also passed away by the time the book came out which is sad. He wrote a fiction based on a true story about the power struggle for intellectual property that a major GC presence went through; deliciously scandalous.

Speaking of scandalous, Ed also wrote a story for the book that speaks to the trope of saving an Elf Princess.

Margaret Weis did an introduction for me and I got Don Bingle, one of the top ranked D&D players in the world to do one as well.

I also have stories from Chris Pierson (Dragonlance,) Jody Lynn Nye (SF&F legend,) Richard Lee Byers (The Sundering,) Bill Fawcett (Dragon Con,), SL Farrell (The Cloudmages,) Steven Schend (Forgotten Realms,) and Kris Kathryn Rusch (Legend in every area of writing,).

My favorite success story from this anthology is one that I suggested to Jim Hines. I wanted him to write a creature story featuring his fire spider from Goblin Quest for Zombie Raccoons and Killer Bunnies. But it fit better in Gamer and I had fun telling him I was rejecting it for ZRKB then telling him it would be a main story in GF.
He liked the character from that short story so much that it became Libromancer and he thanked me in the book. Which is editor glee gold! The book has gone to multiple hardback printings and I believe he is on book 2 with the series.

I like all the anthologies I’ve done but this one is in my top five.

Good Fun! Game On!

Kerrie L. Hughes

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Twelve Books I'm Thankful To Have Published. And you don't have to wake up stupidly early to get them.

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Sometimes you forget exactly how far you've come in under three years. Twelve books which I'm quite proud of publishing (and yes, that is not counting my own work).

I am seriously thankful for being able to help bring these works into the world.  I'm thankful for being able to read the excellent stories, poetry, and essays in them.  I'm thankful that I'm able to help these authors see the reward for their efforts.  And I'm thankful that I'm able to bring these books to you.
 
Check 'em out if you haven't already - order online (digital and print) or request from your local bookstore if they don't already have them.

 Wild and Wishful, Dark and Dreaming An Inheritance of Stone What Fates Impose Eighth Day Genesis: A Worldbuilding Codex Sidekicks! Dangers Untold See No Evil, Say No Evil Net Impact The Crimson Pact Volume One The Crimson Pact Volume Two The Crimson Pact Volume Three The Crimson Pact Volume Four

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The Complexity of Television And Story Pacing

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The latest (I'm writing this the day before Thanksgiving) Agents of SHIELD was easily the best to date. High powered stakes, great acting by Ming-Na Wen, and a bit of characterization for everyone. The last few weeks have been steadily upping the ante from "fancy X-files/Torchwood with a plane" to the promise Coulson gave us in the first episode:  this is a world post-alien invasion. Post-Avengers. And I'm finally starting to feel it as the team of plucky misfits gets more and more out of their depth.

Because we see the patterns established in the first couple episodes - Coulson's trust in SHIELD, May's reliance on violence, Skye's go-to tactic of "do the thing everyone said not to" - stop working.  And then we see the characters try to figure out what the hell to do next.

It turns out that these characters ARE quite a bit more than stereotypes.  They just had to get pushed pout of their comfort zones for us to see that.

And that fact might be the undoing of the series.

Not that the tropes are being subverted and revealing character growth. Nope - it's that we've had to wait a half season to get here.

And in a culture where we can consume an entire series in a weekend... Well, who wants to wait for it to get interesting?

I'm still trying to figure out what this means for us as storytellers. Not just in terms of release schedules, but for pacing as well.  What do you think?

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Playing With Fear: A Kickstarter For a Documentary About Horror Games

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Playing With Fear is an independent exploration of the relentlessly creative world of horror video games. The project will shine a light on the stories behind the enduring classics, the ingenuity of the new harbingers of our digital nightmares, and the speed of technological innovation nurturing the global renaissance of interactive horror.

They have three days left, and need your help.

This project absolutely deserves to get funded, folks.  Take a look at this three-minute video, and you'll understand why:



History Of Horror Video Games In 3 Minutes from Anthony Carpendale on Vimeo.

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7 Things I Know About Women - A Guest Post by Graham Storrs

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Graham Storrs is a science fiction writer living in rural Queensland. A former research scientist, IT consultant and award-winning software designer, he now lives and writes on a quiet mountain top with his wife, Christine, an Airedale terrier and a Tonkinese cat. His published non-fiction includes three children's science books, over a hundred magazine articles, and more than thirty academic papers and book chapters, in the fields of artificial intelligence, psychology, and human-computer interaction. In recent years he has published over twenty short stories in magazines and anthologies. His time travel thriller, Timesplash, and its sequel, True Path, are published by Pan Macmillan's Momentum imprint.

I've published Graham's work both in Eighth Day Genesis and Sidekicks!. This is a longish worldbuilding post, but when you go back and review your NaNoWriMo manuscript (or any manuscript), these are the kinds of things that you have to keep in mind about your characters and how they are the same - and different - than you are.



7 Things I Know About Women

by Graham Storrs

There's been much discussion over the the years about men writing female characters, and women writing males. Some writers do it well, it seems, some don't. A recent post on a publisher's blog suggesting that some female characters these days were essentially male characters in drag – especially in high-adrenaline, action-packed thrillers where the female cop, or the female spy, or the female space cadet kicks ass, smart-mouths her superiors, and knocks back cheap scotch with the best of them.

Since this is the kind of fiction I write (only of a highly refined, intellectually stimulating, and deeply meaningful variety) it made me wonder about my own female characters. More than this, it made me wonder if you could ever say that a character of either gender was not representative of their sex.

I recall vividly a short story by Roger Zelazny which I read about forty years ago (Yes, I'm really, really old. Get over it.) in which the reader does not discover that the rough, tough spacer protagonist is actually a woman until the very last paragraph. It has had a profound effect on my writing, I believe, and I rarely, these days, mention the sex, ethnicity, or stature of a character unless it becomes useful to the story. I honestly believe that such “external” attributes of a person are irrelevant to who they are – but they may be relevant to how the other characters react to them.

So, let me list a few things I know about women to illustrate this notion.

1. Curves

And here I'm talking about bell curves – normal distributions of human traits like height, weight, hair colour, intelligence, empathy, strength, psychopathy, courage, creativity, and so on. On all of these traits you will find that there is an average and that the great majority of people are clustered around it. As you move away from the average to higher or lower “amounts” of the trait, the chances of finding it in a random sample of people falls away sharply. If you plot the amount of the trait against the frequency of finding each amount in the population at large, you get a graph that starts off very low, rises quickly to peak at the average amount, and then falls away just as quickly as it rose. It makes a nice, neat bell-shaped curve.

The interesting thing about men and women is that their averages on some of these traits are slightly different – like strength, height, shoe-size, and so on – and the averages on others are just the same – like intelligence, hair colour, etc.. But, and this is the really important point, if you draw the bell curve for men and the bell curve for women, even for traits where they have quite different averages, and lay one on top of the other, you will find that the curves overlap massively. There are plenty of women who are taller than the average man, plenty of men weaker than the average woman, plenty of men with more empathy than the average woman, and plenty of women heavier than the average male.

The point is that there are vastly more similarities between men and women than there are difference. Technically speaking, the variance in the two populations all but swamps the difference in averages. All things being equal, there should be plenty of hard-hitting, beer-swilling, foul-mouthed, tough-talking, borderline psychopath women. Not quite so many as there are men, perhaps, but enough that if you were to say Sam is that kind of person, it is mostly prejudice that makes you think the character is a Samuel rather than a Samantha.

2. The Eye of the Beholder

You have to remember that most of what you see of any person you meet is an act they're putting on for your benefit – or somebody's, anyway, even if it's their own. Take that gorgeous creature who just walked into the cocktail bar in the tight red dress, she might well be thinking that her underwiring is chafing and those heels are murder on her feet. Maybe she's on the prowl, you think, intimidating, a woman who uses her body as a bribe to get what she wants.

But maybe, inside, she's bitter and angry with herself, humiliated that she dressed up like that just because she heard that her ex-husband and his new girlfriend would be there that night and her idiot best-friend encouraged an impulse to make him regret leaving her. Maybe she flies light aircraft for a tourist company. Maybe she's doing a PhD in reptile physiology. Maybe she has two kids at home with a sitter. Maybe her brother just died of cancer. Before you write that arrogant sneer onto her full lips, it's worth pausing for a moment to consider that the life of every woman you meet is far more complicated than you imagined. It's a tangle of family and friends, work and hobbies, childhood and adolescence. She's got political opinions, religious views, she's got emotional problems and blind spots, gaps in her knowledge, passions and obsessions, sexual hangups, irrational fears, and a limited supply of courage. Sitting at the bar in your best suit, you have to realise that that red dress tells you nothing at all.

And, as you stride across the room in your high heels, hoping to God you don't fall off them and break your ankle, you need to realise that the guy in the suit watching you from the bar stool isn't the simple middle-management drone on a business trip, off the leash and looking for action, that he seems to be.

3. Emotionality

It's a well-documented scientific finding that men are generally more emotionally unstable than women. They start of that way as little boys. They cry more, they're more easily angered, their highs are higher, their lows are lower. But don't forget those bell curves. This is just a small difference in averages. The most striking thing about the emotionality of men and women is how much overlap there is.

Even so, the relative emotional instability of men manifests itself in some strange ways. In a recent study, it was found that men are more likely to be the first in a couple to say, “I love you.” Men might like to think they're stable, solid, dependable and reasonable, but the evidence is that, in the face of danger, they're more likely to take stupid risks, or collapse under the strain, or both.

Of course, there are differences in the hormonal systems of men and women. Oestrogen can make a person more nurturing and compassionate. Testosterone can make a person more aggressive and take more risks. But the differences are not as dramatic as you might think and, again, the overlaps are considerable. There are plenty of men who make great nurses and plenty of women who can run major corporations.

4. Society

It's great that there are so may stories about women running police departments, women heading up law firms, women astronauts, women scientists, women spies, but you have to remember that the real world isn't much like that. In the real world, women are as rare as hens' teeth in top jobs and, in some professions, even rarer than that. It was shocking to hear that when the Australian Academy of Science voted in its new fellows this year, there were thirty-seven nominees and all of them were men. Not one single female scientist was thought good enough to be elected to the country's top professional body.

But it's OK, I suppose, that, in the spirit of affirmative action, or just shifting the perceptions of young people reading books and watching telly, we should portray a world that doesn't resemble the real one all that much. It doesn't even matter, I suppose, that the female lawyer, the female cop, the female mining executive or gang boss, are all stunningly beautiful and dress like a teenage boy's wet dream, because, these days, the same standard of physical beauty is increasingly applied to the male cop, the male lawyer, and the male mining executive or gang boss – as long as they're the good guys. If they're bad guys, the female still has to be smoking hot but the male can be as fat and ugly as you like.

In our real world, women do, very, very rarely, get to be heads of state. But, unlike men, they also have their clothing and their bodies endlessly discussed in the media. Their male colleagues snigger at sexist jokes about them behind their backs. The public – both men and women – frequently expresses a lack of confidence in them purely on the basis that they are female. She has to put up with all that crap on top of the normal pressures of running a country.

It's the same for the cop, the lawyer, the mining exec. And the gang boss. Overt and covert pandemic sexism is probably the single biggest difference between men and women. Women suffer it, men don't.

5. Sex

In the fictional bedroom, protagonists tend to be good at sex. They're adventurous, skilful, considerate, enthusiastic, and yet tender. They're also blatantly heterosexual. If it's a man he's ripped. If it's a woman, she's got breasts like melons. It probably all arises from a male fantasy that the heroic male is more than adequate in every way. Great male leaders are traditionally giants and well hung. That it has now rubbed off onto the female protagonist is probably just by analogy, rather than a strong cultural belief that heroic women are also sexual athletes. Indeed, until very recently (and it still happens a LOT) it was the female antagonist who revealed her moral degeneracy by exhibiting a healthy sexual appetite.

But the male stereotype has as little to do with reality as the new female equivalent. Think of all the real male heroes and leaders you know. Can you imagine they were or are exceptional lovers? What about Winston Churchill, or Rupert Murdoch? And, among the women, Margaret Thatcher? Julia Gillard? I'm not saying they aren't terrific sex partners, just that it may not be a safe assumption based solely on their leadership skills.

And what about all that rampant heterosexuality? It's estimated that as many as five per cent of men are practising homosexuals and that a tenth of one per cent are regular cross dressers (and that these are quite different groups). There is also a substantial number of men who are asexual – preferring not to have sex at all. The figures for women are less certain. It wasn't all that long ago that female homosexuality wasn't even acknowledged by many legal systems. My suspicion is that the numbers might tend to be quite similar over time if our society moves in the direction of more openness.

I don't know what kind of books you read but I'm guessing fewer than one in a thousand have featured a cross-dressing male hero, and fewer than one in twenty a gay hero. Have you ever read a book in which the heroine is a female-to-male cross dresser? (Stories like Tootsie and Yentl don't count. I'm talking about heroes whose strong gender preference is to present as the opposite of their biological sex.) When do you think we might elect such a woman as head of state?

6. Genius

Differences that we do see between men and women are typically to do with differences in opportunity rather than innate differences. They are differences in achievement (which is regulated by society) rather than differences in ability (which is not – yet – but we live on the cusp of being able to choose such traits for our children). There is some evidence that there are more men with extreme IQs (both high and low) than women. This is thought to be because men are inherently a little more variable on most traits than are women (the set of bell curves for male characteristics are slightly wider and lower than the women's, even when they have the same average value). However, it's hard to be sure in the case of IQ since the tests are notoriously dodgy and they are validated against actual achievement or estimates of likely achievement, which are both culturally biassed in favour of men.
The usual argument (“Name me ten great women composers/artists/physicists/engineers/etc.”) is clearly a load of codswallop in a society that has always been biassed against female achievement (and still is, remember the Australian Academy of Sciences example above).

Evidence of differences in maths ability, spatial reasoning, language skills, “social IQ”, and so on are also based on more-or-less shaky evidence. While we live in a society that pushes so hard for boys to go one way and girls to go another, it is almost impossible to tell what is a truly innate difference and one which has been socially determined. My feeling is that we should err on the side of requiring very strong evidence before we attribute any individual difference in ability to sex rather than society.

7. Geeks and Jocks

And, finally, returning to the problem that set off on this exploration, we are seeing a great many new female stereotypes arising in popular fiction. The Geek Girl, the hard-as-nails, one-of-the-boys cop/spy/cowgirl/roustabout/you-name-it, the fiercely competitive lady lawyer/senior cop/senior spy/executive/newspaperwoman/etc., to name but a few. It would be fair to say that many of these characters are so like their male equivalents that the accusation that they're men in drag would be hard to defend. Possibly to offset this, a fair number of them are single moms with a small child in the background somewhere (and many of these youngsters are preternaturally understanding and forgiving of their absentee parent – probably to assuage cultural bias against neglectful mothers).

More alarmingly, the female stereotypes that have emerged seem to fall into two main camps, mirroring the geeks and jocks categories into which so many male characters can be divided these days. Like male geeks and jocks, the attractive, competent, physically larger, self-assured women get to be jocks, while the unattractive (although often “cute”), socially inept, incompetent, smaller ones get to be geeks. What this phenomenon indicates is not that female geeks and jocks actually mirror their male counterparts – since, in the real world of actual males, it would be hard to make that distinction anyway – but that the writers who use these stereotypes are exhibiting an appalling failure of imagination and a shocking inability to observe and describe real women.

In Conclusion

It seems to me that a lot of the complaints about male writers writing female characters and female writers writing men are at least as much a reflection of the gender prejudices of the reader as of the writer's lack of skill. I don't deny that some writers struggle in this area and some simply write stereotypes. However, before criticising the writer, we might first make an inventory of our own attitudes to gender and ask ourselves how realistic are our own notions of what is masculine and what is feminine.

Be sure to check out more of Graham's writing at his blog, grahamstorrs.cantalibre.com

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