It’s that time again … Oscar 2012

So the 2012 Oscar nominations hit today, and I’ll be writing up my complete list of predictions in the coming weeks. For now, I have a few thoughts:

  • This was one of those hard years for casual moviegoers, where many of the big, critically acclaimed films were artsy movies that came out in December. That means that they’re hard to catch in theaters, and Netflix is a no-go because of the studio’s insane 1-2 month restriction. As a result, I’ve yet to see a lot of these (The Artist, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Descendants, etc.)
  • While she won’t win, it’s good to see Melissa McCarthy nominated for Supporting Actress for her performance in Bridesmaids. To me, she exemplifies what a good Best Supporting nominee should have: she doesn’t necessarily steal the movie, or change its focus, but without her, it would have been significantly weaker.
  • Jonah Hill is sort of the opposite. Yes, he did a very good job in Moneyball, and he absolutely proved he can do more than sit around and make dick jokes. However, compare his performance to last year’s Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale in The Fighter) and it doesn’t quite seem up to the same level.
  • Really? They stretched out the Animated category to five with the unmemorable-at-best Puss in Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2, but couldn’t have done the same last year for Tangled? Whatever. Rango wins this category easily.
  • Rooney Mara should take the Best Actress trophy. Her performance was stunning.
  • Speaking of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was surprised that Fincher didn’t get nominated for Best Director. While I wasn’t expecting a Best Movie nomination, I would definitely categorize the lack of Fincher as a ‘snub.’
  • Also interesting to see both Tree of Life and Terrence Malik garner nominations. That’s a very love-it-or-hate-it movie, and I expected most critics to hate it.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks after I track down the remaining movies.

New Dangers in a New Publishing Landscape

One of the things that’s often thrown about with self-publishing is the unprecedented level of freedom and control authors have with their works. And sometimes it’s true. But if you think you can just assume that well-known companies like Amazon and Apple have your back … well … think again:

The nightmare scenario under this agreement? You create a great work of staggering literary genius that you think you can sell for 5 or 10 bucks per copy. You craft it carefully in iBooks Author. You submit it to Apple. They reject it. Under this license agreement […] they won’t sell it, and you can’t legally sell it elsewhere.

For those with a lack of experience in the publishing industry, I’ll go ahead and tell you: this is insane. It’s akin to Microsoft saying “If you write your novel with MSWord, you can only publish it via Microsoft Reader.” Wineman is correct when he calls this arrangement “unprecedented.” I can’t think of a single other case similar to this one.

Predictably, Apple evangelists have come out of the woodwork to decry that it’s only fair that you can’t sell your book anywhere else — after all, Apple’s product is freeeeee! And if they don’t enforce this rule to make sure you don’t, say, use iBooks Author to create a book and sell it on Kindle, then they’re helping their competition!


First of all, the concept is ludicrous. Do they really think a large number of people are going to use iBA, and then not use iBooks? That’s absurd. Most people who use Apple products do so because they like Apple. Furthermore, if that’s really an issue, charge for the product. Do not justify whittling away an artist’s rights because you can’t bother coming up with a solid business plan.

It used to be that writers needed to worry about scammy publishers who wouldn’t pay, or agents that would demand money up front. And while those things are still concerns, the actions of Big, Presumably Non-Scammy Companies are becoming more and more worrisome.

This exclusivity trend is starting to be a problem, and it’s not just Apple. Kindle’s recently introduced KDP Select program requires that they be the exclusive seller of the submitted book, whereas before they required only that you don’t sell your book cheaper anywhere else. KDP Select is essentially a book loaning program — there’s absolutely nothing that requires exclusivity. Amazon simply introduced it here, where it would be less of a disruption. I wouldn’t be surprised if they required the exclusivity for all Kindle Direct books in the near future.

So, self-publishers: keep your wits about you, and don’t assume just because you’re striking it out on your own that you’re protected from the shenanigans of corporations that don’t have your interest at heart. Remember Yog’s Law: “Money flows toward the author.” And remember that anyone asking for rights above-and-beyond “let us publish this” is essentially trying to take some of your cash.

UPDATE: Apple has changed (“clarified,” they say) their EULA to say that you’re only prohibited from selling the iBooks file you create with the iBook Author software — not the content itself. This is certainly a welcome “clarification,” though it’s still an absurd restriction. Going with the MSWord metaphor above, imagine if Microsoft said “You can write your novel in Word, but you’re not allowed to distribute the .doc file.” What a helpful piece of software that would be.

Review: Star Wars The Old Republic – Revan

A clumsy, disappointing followup to a seminal game

*Very minor spoilers follow*

While the exploration of the Old Republic era started in the comics, Bioware’s original Star Wars game, Knights of the Old Republic, created a massive interest in the events that occurred thousands of years before the appearance of Luke Skywalker. At the center of this story was Revan, the eponymous hero of Drew Karpyshyn’s new novel. Ever since the end of the original KOTOR, Star Wars fans have wondered what happened to the mysterious Jedi-turned-Sith-turned-Jedi. And, if they’re like me, they couldn’t be more disappointed.

The basic plot is simple: Revan, now married to Bastila, remembers there’s some great threat in the Unknown Regions and goes to seek it out. The secret, as we learn in the first chapter and as anyone familiar with The Old Republic can guess, is that the Sith are out there, waiting, plotting their invasion, so a significant portion of the novel is seeing the view of the Sith Empire culture from the eyes of one of it’s citizens. It plays out pretty much how you’d expect. There are very few twists and turns, and even the ending, while slightly unexpected, isn’t terribly surprising.

The most glaring problem with Revan is the characterization. Now, I fully admit that Karypyshyn had a rough job here. One of the main conceits of the KOTOR games is the ability for the player to create their own sense of who Revan (and the Jedi Exile, in the second entry) is. So there’s necessarily going to be some disparities between Karpyshyn’s Revan and mine. That’s not my problem. My problem is that the other characters act nothing like themselves, if they have any characterization at all. Gone is the strong, capable Bastila Shan. She’s been replaced by a Stepford Wife that seems to exist solely to say “I love Revan SO MUCH!” Canderous has been castrated, and he acts toward Revan like a rescued puppy toward its master. The rest of the characters are waved away with the flimsiest of excuses: “Oh, we can’t possibly ask Mission to help save the galaxy with us. She owns a shop now! A SHOP!” This run down of all the companions from KOTOR (except Carth, who, for some reason, is not mentioned once) and the reasons why Revan doesn’t want to talk to them gets pretty absurd.

Lord Scourge

The weird characterization doesn’t stop there. It’s not just consistency with previous material — the novel has a plethora of internal consistency problems. Revan oscillates from a paragon of justice, completely unwilling to do anything anyone would frown on, to a witty rogue, charming the pants off of everyone he meets, to a heretic, bravely straddling the line between Light Side and Dark Side. If you asked me for a single trait that defined Revan, I couldn’t give you one. And that’s just lazy writing, in my opinion. The new Sith character, Lord Scourge (who, it must be said, is really the main character of the novel) undergoes similar contortions. He starts out as a typical Sith — not so much evil, as just kind of a dick. About halfway through the novel, he has an about face and starts to think of a couple of people as his friends, suddenly grows a heart, etc. There’s almost no incentive for this — any motivation that’s present is given to him offscreen.

And thus, we come to the second glaring problem of the book. A good 75% of the plot — everything that’s not Scourge’s story — happens offscreen. Revan’s entire plot arc is just him remembering things, or having visions about things. Nearly every chapter in the first half of the book begins with Karpyshyn giving us a narrative infodump about something that happened in KOTOR, or something that happened between KOTOR and Revan, or something that’s going to happen in The Old Republic. I understand this is a setup for Bioware’s next game, and that you need to refresh people who haven’t played the older titles in years, but the author chooses the clumsiest way to do it. Instead of cleverly dropping a few reminders here and there, he just decides to organize the majority of the novel as if it’s the introduction in a video game manual. I can count two significant actions Revan takes in this novel. The rest of it is just backstory.

Strange and lazy choices, such as infodumps, are accompanied by wooden dialogue, horrible pacing and weak descriptions

Finally, I was very much surprised with how weak the novel is on the technical side of things. Strange and lazy choices, such as the aforementioned infodumps, are accompanied by wooden dialogue, horrible pacing (action scenes that go on for pages and pages, followed by major decisions and time shifts that are barely mentioned in passing) and weak descriptions. I say I’m surprised because Karpyshyn’s other Star Wars novels have actually garnered a fair amount of praise. But after reading Revan, I’m not in much of a hurry to track them down. I believe Karpyshyn knows how to tell a decent story, as evidenced by his role in Bioware games such as Mass Effect, as well as what I’ve played so far of The Old Republic. And normally I can forgive mechanics if the story is intriguing enough. But the problems here are so glaring, and the story so lackluster, that I can’t help but notice every little detail. I don’t normally expect great literature from Star Wars books, but I do expect some authorial effort and external editing, something Revan is in dire need of.

In the end, I can’t even really recommend this book to die hard Star Wars fans. The plot informs The Old Republic, and I’m sure some of the characters in Revan are the same we’ll be fighting in endgame raids in a few months. But all the relevant information can be found in a few minutes on Wookieepedia, and the read would probably be just as enjoyable. At the very least, I was at least able to plow my way through to the end — it was never so painful that I couldn’t continue. But I can’t say I had a good time of it.

Story Announcement

This shall be short and sweet. My story, “We are Not the Favored Children,” was selected to be published in the Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations anthology, edited by Eric J. Guignard and published by Dark Moon Books. The anthology will hit in both paper and electronic formats in Spring 2012, and I’ll post more information here (and in the Bibliography up above) when it’s available. Thanks to everyone who has sent me encouragement over the years! Hopefully this is the first step of a larger journey.

The Line Between Connecting With Fans and TMI

The recent firing of Bocephus for some (not-too-controversial) comments, as well as conversations with some friends, have got me thinking about publishing and politics. We live in a hyper-polarized world. There’s no such thing as a moderate anymore. If you think sales of assault weapons should maybe sort of be controlled, you’re an evil communist who wants to government to control our lives and take away all of our means to defend ourselves. If you think some of the data surrounding climate change is a little bit questionable, you’re an anti-science creationist wacko. There’s no middle ground.

This is an unfortunate byproduct of modern society, created largely by a sensationalist media. The concept has been covered ad naseum by media critics like Jon Stewart, but suffice it to say that, with a lack of 24 hours of real news, the 24-hour news stations resort to blowing up trivial differences and pretending that we need to go to war over things that normal people can resolve with “Ahh, Bob, you’re crazy!” There’s also the broader issue of those in power encouraging the peasants to fight amongst themselves lest there be some sort of silly revolt, but one could write a book (and many have) on that.

So what does this have to do with writing? In the connected age, everything. Unless your words are so mind-bogglingly brilliant that the teeming masses have no choice but to buy them, you’re going to be in the position of selling yourself just as much as you’re selling your books. Many of the big success stories in the past few years, both in literature and in other forms of media, take advantage of the ability to connect with fans. Gone are the days J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee. Today’s successful authors have a presence on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ (well, okay, no one really has a presence on Google+).

But there’s a danger. Like a little boy who worships his grandfather only to grow up and find out the grandma left him because of the nightly beatings, we don’t always want to know everything about the people who make our entertainment. Crossing the line from “purely professional” to “friendly” with your audience can give you some benefits, but it can also be risky. Example time!

A few months back, prolific author Jane Yolen participated in an interview in which she derided the Tea Party. Some conservative commenters interpreted this to say that she didn’t want Tea Partiers reading her books. Now, for the record, I don’t agree that’s what she actually said. But talking politics in general is risky. Since I’m not a member of the Tea Party, it would be easy for me to say that the Tea Partiers overreacted here. But could I really say that if Jane Yolen went on a screed about some group I was affiliated with, I wouldn’t even hesitate when considering buying one of her books? And hesitation is absolutely not what you want your audience to feel when they see your latest novel has hit the shelves.

Another famous example is Orson Scott Card, one of my favorite authors. Card is highly religious, notoriously opinionated, and not afraid to speak (er, write?) his mind, as evidenced by his anti-gay marriage rant (gotta love the constant quotes around “marriage” — you just know he does the air-quote thing when he talks about this in person). He has an absolute right to his opinion, of course, and an absolute right to share it. But readers have a right to avoid his work if they choose. And that’s exactly what some of them, many of whom were once big fans of Card’s books, have done.

And it goes beyond controversy — sometimes people just aren’t going to like you. Shocking, I know, but it’s very likely that if you picked 100 fans and decided to spend a week with each of them, at least a few wouldn’t be your fans anymore. I don’t want to name any names here, but there is one author in specific whose novel I enjoyed enough to follow this author’s blog. Several months of whining about personal matters later, I unsubscribed. Does that mean I’m not going to buy any more books from this person? Of course not! But it also means I’m no longer tuned in to the author’s feeds, which makes it probable that I’ll miss when that new novel hits.

I’m not a fan of boycotts for political opinions. As much as possible, I try to separate the art from the artist. In the case of Orson Scott Card, I don’t believe his political and religious opinions bleed into his work, and I continue to enjoy them (except Empire, which was … hmm …). But, as one of the aforementioned friends said to me, why should this necessarily be the case? If you find out the owner of your favorite coffee shops is a proud, card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, even if the business itself has no history of discrimination in any way, would you not hesitate to continue going there? It’s an uncomfortable topic to think about. I would feel horrible if someone, or a large group of someones, decided they couldn’t read my work because of some trivial opinion I’d mentioned in an interview. But if they chose to do so, could I really blame them?

All that considered, though, I’m absolutely not saying that authors should feel the need to censor themselves. If you have something you feel like you have to say, say it, especially when it comes to issues you feel passionate about. I suspect Mr. Card feels the same way about the topic of gay marriage as I do, although on the opposite side of the fence: it’s important enough to speak about regardless of whether it costs him readers. That’s a choice each author needs to make on each individual issue: is it important enough to risk losing a piece of my fanbase by revealing my views? Sometimes the answer is going to be yes. Writers especially can’t second guess every single thing they write on the basis of whether or not it’s going to offend someone.

But what writers should be mindful of is that sometimes it’s beneficial to keep things back. Do you hate soap operas? Perhaps. But does it help you to write a rant about how terrible they are and alienate the people who like them? Probably not. If you think it’s important, go for it. But be aware of the consequences. Connecting with your fans is encouraged and very nearly necessary for success, but connecting with fans does not mean letting the whole wide world in on your every secret and opinion on every little issue. In the end, there’s some things we’d prefer not to know.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to finish my posts about abortion and circumcision. See you soon!

Story vs. Choice, and Video Games as Art

Warning: Spoilers for Dragon Age 2 follow

Something like five years ago (has it really been that long?), Roger Ebert posited that video games are not, and possibly can never be, art. I don’t really feel like rehashing that argument (you can view the epic mound of responses here) — suffice it to say that my definition of art is abundantly less draconian than Ebert’s. To me, art is anything man-made and tangible designed to provoke an emotional reaction from the beholder (including lust, which means I consider even pornography a form of art!)

But let’s stop to think about a middle position, somewhere between Ebert’s point-of-view and mine. Maybe video games ARE art — but are they any good at being that? One of the beautiful things about different forms of media are that they each excel in specific ways, while failing at others. Movies can give us a visual form of a story in a way nothing else can; the most wonderfully written description pales in comparison to even the most poorly filmed movie, in terms of giving us an image of what the scene or characters look like. In contrast, a movie will never, ever be able to get inside a character’s thoughts the way a book can. Music, paintings — they all have their strengths. Do video games?

Many people think of video games, at least those that focus on a story, as an interactive movie. If we go down that path, video games seem clearly inferior. It’s just a movie that has removed authorial intent (something I don’t find at all important, but some do) and inserted repetition. If a developer sets out to make a game solely as a piece of art, wouldn’t making it into a movie improve it? And the answer is, yes. If you’re trying to provoke the exact same feelings that a movie does, it would seem the smarter choice would be to just make a movie.

But here’s where I reject that initial premise: video games and movies have a different strength … at least in my opinion. I think I finally came to realize this while playing Dragon Age 2. One of my favorite characters is Bethany, your player character’s sister. She’s actually just kind of a normal, if a bit sheltered, girl, with no real quirk. But I liked her anyway. And then what happened? She died.

I felt sadness, anger, and eventually, acceptance. Upon reflection, I knew why the writers had made that decision. It added to my player character’s, well, character. And I went on with the game, remembering my sister fondly. It was only after I completed it that I browsed the Dragon Age wiki and found out that Bethany’s death was not at all preordained. She could have died in a number of ways, including at the beginning of the game. Or, if I’d made my choices differently, she may not have died at all.

Here’s where people like Ebert would smile and say this is PROOF that games aren’t art. If Bethany could have died in any number of ways, or not at all, than her death means NOTHING. Without intent, there’s no story! Who’s to say what “really” happened?

All true. But that didn’t make it any less sad when I saw her die in my arms. And this is where I think games excel. Bethany’s death provided me with an emotion that I never could have felt in a movie, book, or anything other than interactive fiction: choice. My choices killed Bethany. Not my character’s choices, though that is what they became; that can be felt in any type of media. My choices. The emotion of regret — “if only I had done this” — is incredibly powerful. And it’s one I’ve never ever been made to feel by anything other than a video game.

“But!” the protesting reader screams. “Can’t you just reset and try again?” Well of course you can. Aside from the fact that this may be inconvenient depending on the length of the game, this is entirely possible. And it has to be possible for the issue of regret to come about. If I’d not been given the opportunity to choose this path, I could never regret it — and to truly give me the choice, I’ll have to be able to choose to keep her around too. But even if I replay the game, does that somehow nullify the original emotion I felt? Of course not. People in high towers like to somehow pretend that stories are written in stone, and anything that sullies that vision of ‘canon’ is ruinous. That’s absurd. I can read as much Ginny-Hermione slashfiction as I can fit on my harddrive, and still feel butterflies in my stomach when Ginny kisses Harry in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The same goes for any form of art. Multiple interpretations exist, but they don’t all have to be mutually exclusive.

I think this is the root of the uproar a lot of people had at Ebert’s explanation. His reasoning was not illogical; in fact, it was entirely logical. That was the problem. Art is not a logical proposition. If it was, computers could and would be making terabytes of art without any human interaction. Art is emotional. And when you say “X is not art,” you’re essentially saying “I know you think X has made you feel angry, sad, regretful, happy, and horny. But it really hasn’t, trust me.”

So here’s my challenge to Ebert (as I know he reads this blog religiously), and anyone else who disputes that video games are art. Find me a painting, movie, book, song, play, radio drama or anything else that can make me say “Wow, I really wish I hadn’t done that,” and I’ll give more credit to your train of thought.

Excerpts from “The Mormon Renaissance” and “Mission to Tau Ceti: A Retrospective”


The beginning of the modern Mormon Renaissance can be traced back to the second decade of the millenium. In 2012, with a fractured Republican primary containing upwards of 8 candidates, all considered viable, Sarah Palin is nominated with 35% of the delegate total. The general election is considered a disaster, and though Barack Obama only wins with 395 out of 538 Electoral Votes, as the solid-red states in the South and Big Sky regions stay in Republican hands, it is a blow to the superconservative wing of the party. They are futher marginalized in 2014, when Republicans, instead of gaining seats, as is the tradition for the minority party in midterm elections, lose several, expanding the Democratic majority.

In the runup to 2016, the GOP looks to moderation to win back power. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, now 66 years old, is ushered into the frontrunner status, and wins the GOP nomination handily. He eventually nominates former Senator from Maine Susan Collins, who chose not to run for re-election in the Senate due to a likely primary loss, as his Vice-Presidential candidate. He faces Senator Amy Klobuchar, a popular senator from Minnesota, with former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer as her running mate.

Romney’s campaign focuses on moderation, and is able to eek out a close 278-260 electoral win, even as Romney loses his home state of Massachusetts, and the Democrats retain majorities in both the House and Senate. During the campaign, as in 2008 and 2012, much is made of Romney’s Mormon faith. This has little traction in the mainstream media during the campaign, as the questioning consists mostly of “Would your faith influence your governing?” to which Romney’s answer echoes JFK’s: “Only in the aspect that my faith influences my morals. But as with all Americans, I can and do have disagreements with my church, and I can promise as President that I would never cede control to any religious authority.” This satisfies most Americans — indeed, in the wake of the election, many pundits point to independent groups attacking Romney’s Mormon faith as contributating factor to Klobuchar’s loss, even in an otherwise successful year for Democrats.

However, as Romney’s presidency begins, the Mormon faith comes under fire from conservative organizations. Several prominent conservative names, including a few members of the House of Representatives, inquire into the religion with delcarations that Mormonism is polytheistic, and that Mormons believe that God is just a normal person who received powers of creation after his death. These ideas are discussed ad nasuem, with some coming down that yes, Mormons do technically believe this, but it is not the most important part of their belief structure, to assertions that these more unfamiliar tenets are actually apocryphal and no longer represent the Church’s official positions. Nevertheless, the accusations dog Romney throughout his first two years, and the approval of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints plummets to an all time low.

As the country begins to recover fully from the effects of the depression in the early part of the decade, however, Romney’s approval rating remains high, and he sails smoothly to reelection in 2020. His second term completes fairly uneventfully in historical terms, and the hysteria about the LDS faith dies down. Romney exits gracefully amid a prosperous US economy and the best outgoing Presidential approval rating in modern history, besting even Clinton and Reagan.

Following his retirement, Romney pens two books. The first, a memoir detailing his time in office, entitled Faith in America, was only moderately well-received, as, though he was a popular president, he faced little scandal in his presidency and disappeared from the limelight after his second term. His second, a biography entitled Mitt Romney: My Life, My Faith addressed the more controversial aspects of LDS beliefs that came up during his first term. It was criticized by many, who claimed it cast Mormonism (and Christianity in general) in a more victimized light than it really was in modern society. Regardless, it became a recordbreaking bestseller, due mostly to the attention it received in Christian circles, even outside of Mormons. And most historians point to it as a turning point for the denomination, which grew to represent 20-30% of the Christian population in America by 2080. Indeed, in the last half of the Century, it is the only specfic Christian denomination other than Catholicism to grow as a percentage of the adult population in the country, as many more Americans began to consider themselves unaffiliated Christians, or nonreligious, with the majority of these changes happening from losses in the mainline Protestant churches.
– Jeremy Williams, The Mormon Renaissance

As the expedition to Tau Ceti began to solidify, with several groups already outlining their plans for the voyage, many influential members of the LDS Church lobbied the leadership to organize a church-supported mission, based on four main factors:

1) Mormon beliefs were uniquely qualified to tackle such a mission, as Mormon cosmology allowed for, and even explicitly mentioned, life on other planets;

2) Mormon doctrine called for spreading the message of Jesus Christ to all those who would hear it, and the possibility of witnessing to a foreign population seemed an opportunity too good to pass up;

3) Tithes were paid for no reason other than to build up and extend their Heavenly Father’s kingdom. Therefore, the mission would not be considered a waste of member resources;

4) And finally, the participants in the mission were likely to be seen as heroes, especially in the case that Tau Ceti is inhabitated. In that case, the expedition would be seen as a chance to be a “city on a hill” to the rest of the world.

The Church came under fire from secular and political organizations (including, it must be disclosed, yours truly) who claimed that the Church wanted to meddle in what could be a developing society, or invoke the wrath of an advanced one.  However, the President and Prophet attempted to assuage the fears by assuring the public that they only wished to present their beliefs, and that they would respect the cultures and beliefs of others as they did on Earth.

The Church leadership officially declared, in 2075, that they would indeed organize a flight to the newly discovered planet. The ship was to be named The U.N.S. Liahona, named after the compass given to Lehi to facilitate his escape from Jerusalem.  
-Mary Scott Davis, Mission to Tau Ceti: A Retrospective

I was just reminded of this piece, languishing on my computer, by a similar (but much more detailed) “how-they-got-to-space” type story by a peer, I figured I’d throw it up. It was originally written for a friend’s forum game, revolving around a bunch of different groups from Earth sending off expeditions to a planet called Tau Ceti (a place whose copyright belongs to him, and not me).

P is for Piracy

No, I’m not doing the totally-hip-and-cool A-Z Blogging Challenge (which I would link to, but I have no idea where it started). I just couldn’t think of a better title.

This post is going to be fairly short, and it’s going to be big on assertions and assumptions, cause that’s the way I’m feeling today. I’m channeling a lot of energy into my new job (Linux!), and into finishing the final, tricky scenes in To the Boundaries of Heaven.

That said, I’d like to talk a little about piracy, specifically book (though I may touch on piracy in other media as well). The topic has come up recently in several forums and blogs, as well as in my local writing group.

I think the most salient point I can make about piracy is the difference between an emotional response and an economic response. Most people who focus a lot of energy on fighting piracy have an emotional response: “These people are stealing my hard work!” That is a completely legitimate response, because it’s true. While “stealing” is not quite the right word, it certainly feels like the same thing. These people are enjoying the fruits of your labor (years of writing and editing!), and contributing nothing for it. Hell, I’m a big believer that piracy is free marketing, and even I get a little bit pissed off.

But emotional damage is not economic damage. Where I think a lot of parties, both individual artists and publishing/distribution companies, are getting off mark is the idea that their emotional interests and economic interests are 100% aligned. “My book is downloaded 1000 times a month from ThePirateBay, so if I stop those dirty pirates, I’ll see 1000 extra sales monthly!” Anyone with a smattering of common sense (and I absolutely hate the concept of common sense) can tell that this is a faulty argument. This makes as much sense as saying an author pricing an eBook at $.99 could multiply his profit by six figures simply by charging $1,000,000 for it. Many, if not most, illegal downloaders are downloading the material not because they’re highly interested in it, but because they’re highly interested in it at the price of $0. Raise the price to $.99, and they no longer care.

But let’s assume that perhaps 10% of pirates would buy your book if an illegitimate option were not available (I think that’s more than generous). Is spending a good chunk of your time and frustration chasing down 10% of a market that’s not all that interested in being your customer really a great business decision? Wouldn’t a better business decision be to just ignore this sector, and write another book for the people who ARE your customers? This is where emotional and economic decisions diverge. The author focusing on the emotional will track down every torrent, send out DMCA notices and nasty emails, try to seed the web with fake torrents, etc. The author focusing on the economic will say “screw it” and spend that time writing.

I don’t have the space to address the multitude of topics on this matter, but here’s some food for thought:

  • Piracy is publicity. Even if it takes a bite out of your profits (which I disagree with), it’s still publicity. A pirate is just as likely as a buyer to tell his friends that a book rocked (or sucked!)
  • Not all illegitimate downloads are a lost sale. In fact, very few are.
  • DRM (Digital Rights Management, obtrusive software that makes it more difficult to pirate) does not work. At all. Pirates can get into the most locked-down DRM in a matter of weeks, usually a matter of hours, and disseminate a clean, DRM-free version to the pirate community. This means the only people that DRM affects is legitimate users. In fact, if your DRM is so bad that it makes the product hard to use, or removes expected features, it will likely drive people who would have bought your book to pirate it.
  • You can not stop piracy. Ever. If a book can be read, if a song can be heard, it can be copied. At best, you can try to delay it, but that hardly ever works. Like death, piracy is inevitable. So why spend your time worrying about it?

Why so serious?

I don’t really have anything important or writing related to say — still working hard on the book! — but I want to get in the habit of not neglecting the bloggin’. So, in honor of the release of Tangled, how about some Disney songs?

My all-time favorite Disney movie:

And this one’s up there, too. Also, I’m pretty sure this movie served as a catalyst for puberty for me.

Mulan is often ignored, but it really shouldn’t be. Who says Disney doesn’t make strong female characters?

And finally, since I can’t embed any Tangled videos (stupid EMI!), here’s a bonus:

Story vs. Demographics — What’s Fair?

Dragon Age II’s Merrill, as drawn by squanderling

Making commercial art, or really, any art that’s designed for an audience, is always a matter of balancing self-expression with enjoyability. Sure, if your 500,000 word stream-of-consciousness epic about sea slugs is just dying to be written, put that baby on paper!

But on some level, writers want to produce something that people will connect with, and sometimes yes, something that will make us a little bit of cash as well. At what point, then, does an artist “owe” something to her target audience?

I started thinking about this as I scrolled through my daily (okay, more often than that) check of Kotaku, and came upon the following article, covering the complaint by one fan about the lack of romance options for straight male players and the writer response from Bioware, the developer.

Let me start by saying that it annoys me when people with a strong love of heternormality include other people in their argument, as if we all agree with them. The original poster, Bastal, complains that:

BioWare neglected The Straight Male Gamer

And this is offensive on its face. I am a Straight Male Gamer (such an important concept, apparently, that it needs to be capitalized!), but I did not feel neglected. I did not feel neglected when I played, as I generally do in Bioware games, as a bisexual female character, and I did not feel neglected when I replayed, as again is customary, as a bisexual (and kind of an asshole) male character. Go ahead and complain that you feel neglected, but please don’t lump me in to your anti-gay, anti-woman tantrum.

Even worse is the assertion that the two romance options for a heterosexual male character, Merrill and Isabela, are somehow not normal, not sufficient:

Unfortunately, those choices are what one would call “exotic” choices.

Exotic? I doubt the poster could have chosen a more offensive word if he tried. For the uninitiated, Merrill, as seen at the top of this post, is a quirky Elven woman, so I suppose I can understand that. Maybe some people just really can’t get past the pointy ears. But the other option is Isabela. Who is Isabela? A sharp-witted pirate, one who is, shall we say, experienced in the ways of love. So did Bastal label Isabela “exotic,” and thus undesirable, because of her sexuality? It’s a possibility, and that’s incredibly misogynistic. But the more likely scenario is because she looks like this:

For the vision-impaired: she’s not white.

So yeah, there’s also a creepy racial undertone to this whole argument. Bastal is not even simply complaining that there aren’t enough wimmin for his taste; he’s complaining that there aren’t enough chaste white wimmin for his taste, and Bastal don’t approve of no miscegenation. The argument is gross and offensive from the beginning, but Bastal brings up a fair topic for discussion. Bioware has made games where, say, a homosexual male character has no romance options, and this is generally acceptable, because it’s not necessary to shoehorn every sexual option into every game. But imagine there were no options for a heterosexual male character. Is this somehow less acceptable because the Straight Male Player is the target audience?

Privilege, or Demographics?

Those who fail to recognize their own privilege tend to get understandably angry about being accused of bigotry. I don’t hate “the others,” they insist. It’s the others who are demanding unfair benefits that outweigh their representation — it’s all about the demographics. I represent x% of the population, so I should get exactly x% of the consideration.

Hopefully, most of you are shaking your head about how lame that reasoning is. For those of you that aren’t, it may be because you’re thinking of this in the setting of a video game, and not a book or a movie. The main character in Dragon Age 2 is supposed to be a representation of the player, right?. But that’s not the case. Bioware long ago dispensed with the idea that the player character is a simple avatar. Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard and DA2’s Hawke are voiced characters with opinions, fully formed backgrounds and agency. Yes, your choices influence their personality (more on this next week), but the age of the silent, blank canvas protagonist is over.

The other problem with this reasoning, of course, is that the writers never once removed choice from the player. Even in earlier Bioware games, your player can be a homosexual, or asexual, or whatever — there just may not be a character in your party with whom you can consummate your love. What Bastal is demanding is that Bioware cave to his expectations and actually design the OTHER characters in the game based on demographics.

When you look at this demand from the perspective of any other type of art, it clearly falls apart. The focus should be on the story, and on the characters. They should grow from conception to creation. Their sexuality should be something that is a part of them, the same way as hair color; it shouldn’t be thrown in because 80% of our players are blond, and therefore 80% of characters need to be towheaded as well.

Kaidan Alenko is bland, but at least he’s not randomly gay

Bioware has actually gotten better at this over the years. The romance options in their early games were very formulaic, but even then, they didn’t force sexuality on a character when it clearly didn’t fit. Dragon Age 2 is some of their best work. It’s a lesson in what happens when the romances are not designed by committee, but by natural character growth. The sexuality and romance just fits. Stoking love in this game never felt like I was just checking a box in my character’s profile, and that’s an achievement of which the developers should be proud.

But should they be worried? Target audience is always a part of marketing. For good or bad, if I write a literary novel from the point of view of a gay character, it’s likely to be labeled as ‘LGBT Fiction’ and ignored by the mainstream public. There’s nothing anyone can do about that. A reader who doesn’t want to read about, or play, a homosexual character doesn’t have to. If Bioware’s sales drop off sharply because of this (I seriously doubt it), they’ll have no one but themselves to blame for not addressing the correct market.

Where Bastal crosses the line, however, is in the insinuation that an artist OWES her target audience something. How entitled of him! If a fan of Fantasy novels picks up a book marketed as Fantasy, and it has no magic, he has every right to say “I don’t like this book, and I’m not going to read it because it doesn’t have magic.” He does NOT have a right to say “How DARE you for not putting magic in here! Your target audience enjoys reading about magic! You OWE us!”

This, I believe, is the answer. Bastal has every right in the world to say “Unless you include a white heterosexual woman for me to romance, I won’t buy your game.” But Bioware has the right to say “This is the story we’re telling. Deal with it.”

Writers do not owe an audience anything other than the best story they can produce. They do not owe you any elements you think to be required. They do not owe you a sense of heteronomality because most of the population is heterosexual. They do not owe you a release date. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman: Bioware is not your bitch.

I don’t normally comment on video games here. While video games are one of my life’s passions, nearly half the internet is devoted to them (the other half, of course, is porn). But when gaming and writing merge (as they do in the best games, in my opinion), I think it’s a valid topic for discussion here. The newly released Dragon Age 2 exemplifies great video game writing in a couple of ways, so I’m going to talk about that in a couple of different posts. More to come.