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”



2012-2024



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

2070-2080
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.

The Case of the Icky Readers

Nathan Bransford generated some interesting comments last week about the value of 99-cent readers. The initial conversation revolved around an interview with Zoe Winters, an eBook author. The article, “Does Lowballing Attract the Wrong Kind of Reader?”, sent chills down my spine just reading the title. The wrong kind of reader? What, exactly, is that? It seems like a business complaining about “the wrong kind of customer” or “the wrong kind of venture capitalist.” But maybe she has a point? It’s worth exploring, right?


No, not really.


The Quality of the Customer


The thrust of the argument is that “quality” of a customer is more important than “quantity.” Let’s briefly touch on the assumption that someone who would purchase a $37 eBook, a price-point that interviewer Jennifer Mattern seems to advocate, is “higher quality” than a reader who buy at 99-cents. The idea is that buying a book at a high price instills reader loyalty, whereas a lowball price does not. That’s absurd on its face. How many times has a high price made you more likely to buy something else from the same company or author? How many computer manufacturers, for instance, try to shoot for the highest price possible out of the idea that if consumers pay too little, they won’t be likely to buy from that company again? Nobody, of course. If, out of some case of temporary insanity, I pay $37 for your eBook, it better damn well be one of the best books I’ve ever read, or I’m exceedingly unlikely to purchase any of your future works. On the other hand, price your book at $.99, and not only will I be more likely to buy it, I’ll be a lot more likely to give it the benefit of the doubt, see the potential, overlook the flaws and try your next book.


I have a feeling that Ms. Winters and Ms. Mattern agree with my logic up to now. “Of course a higher price doesn’t instill loyalty. It weeds out those readers who aren’t loyal!” Ms. Winters even says:

I think the readers I attract now are truly interested in MY work, and not just a bargain. I feel like the readers I’m attracting are the types of readers who are going to be passionate about the work and tell other people.”


This, to put it simply, is a fallacy. Math averse should look away right now. Let’s call X the set of readers that will read a book at a $9 price point. Let’s call Y the set of readers that will read a book at a $.99 price point. I’ll use some of Ms. Mattern’s noncontroversial assumptions that the readers in Y are, on average, more loyal (and thus more desirable) than the readers in X. This is certainly true; if you’re selling your book at a bottom-of-the-barrel price, you’r certainly going to attract a certain readership that is voracious in reading, and don’t really care who or what they consume as long as it’s cheap. 

However, where I believe Ms. Mattern’s and Ms. Winter’s argument breaks down is in the assumption that X is not a part of Y. The assumption is that all those loyal readers somehow won’t be there if you sell your book for cheap. That’s false logic. A low price point doesn’t scare away loyal reader, or if it does, that has failed to be proven to me. Ms. Winters muses that a low price creates some sort of psychological idea that the book is going to suck, which is not the way it works in any other creative medium, so I’m not sure why anyone would think it would be the case here. Instead, the likely truth is that X is a subset of Y. Y has all those crazy, unloyal, finicky readers, sure, but it has all the same loyal readers as X. If your only concern is having “the right kind” of readers, I see no reason why a higher price point would help you achieve this goal.


So 99-cents is the way to go?

Not necessarily. What my post shouldn’t be construed as is an economic suggestion one way or another. The interview itself shies away from the examples of 99-cent millionaires, instead focusing on how such successes are rare. Ms. Winters says:

“I think almost no one can make a solid living with 99 cent ebooks because you have to have huge volume for that. When I sold 6,500 ebooks in June 2010, that was around $2,300. Well, most people can’t live on that, especially after you take out Uncle Sam’s cut.”


And that is a completely fair statement. Maybe most authors can’t make a living at that price point. If that’s the case, raise your prices to $2.99. Or $4.99. Or $37.99. The idea that 99-cent eBooks exert a downward pressure on all prices is a similarly valid one, but that’s not a worry that individual authors have control of. Regardless of how you price your books, there will be authors that sell for 99-cents. Hell, there will be authors that give their works away for free, and not all of these works are “low-quality.” Some people just care more for readership than money. That is their right, and it’s pointless to think that the entire marketplace is controlled by how you price your books. 

One of the strawmen that gets thrown around, sometimes, is that people like me (sometimes referred to as ‘Freevangelists’) think everything should be free, and an author shouldn’t deserve to make money. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think great artists deserve to be compensated, and I would love a world where talented authors could be guaranteed a living. But that is beside the point. 

The argument from ‘Freevangelists’ is not that free or low-price is always ideal, but that it’s sometimes ideal. If you can make $1,000,000 selling eBooks at 99-cents, but you only make $500,000 selling eBooks at $2.99, should you raise your prices simply because 99-cents “devalues your work?” Of course not! It’s silly! I’m absolutely not saying that 99-cents is an ideal price, or that all authors should aim for that. Each author and publisher is going to need to make economic decisions based on their individual situation. That’s part of running a successful business. What I’m saying is that discounting a certain price point because of it makes you feel icky is wrong, both from an economic view, and from the view of respecting your fans, regardless of how much cash they shell out. A fan is a fan. A reader is a reader. Cherish them.

The Best Films of 2010, Part II

It’s that time! I’ve officially watched all the Best Movie nominations, so I feel totally qualified to give my worthless opinion on this nigh-meaningless award show! Seriously, though, there were some pretty good movies this year. If you didn’t read my first entry, check it here. For the record, I saw The Social Network, The Fighter and Winter’s Bone since I wrote that. The Fighter and Winter’s Bone were both very enjoyable movies, though I think TSN edged them out overall (and it probably edged out The Town from my list).

This followup will just be a rundown of my picks for each category (other than a few in which I didn’t see all the entries, like Documentary, etc.). It will be a lot more sparse and less melodramatic than previous post.

Note that my picks are what I think should win, not what I think will win — though I may address that in certain categories. I’ll highlight the things I didn’t actually see in red. Maybe there’s some amazing indie movie out there that blows everything away, so I’m hedging my bets. On with the show!

Best Original Screenplay
Another Year
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech


All right, so The Fighter and The King’s Speech are going to be duking it out for a lot of these on who I think will win, but I think King’s Speech is the better movie in most regards. You can certainly see it in the writing. Though it’s hard to fully separate writing from directing from editing, The King’s Speech has a better pacing and overall arc. The Fighter has some really great bits — I particularly enjoyed the subplot about the documentary — but we also see a few events happen over and over again (i.e., a fight between family and his life), and these aren’t always presented in fresh ways. It gets to be a little redundant at times, and I think that’s more of the fault of the script than anything else. The King’s Speech, on the other hand, hits its mark well. The pacing is great, the characters are well written, and it never gets bogged down.

Best Adapted Screenplay

127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

All right, all right, yes — The Social Network is very clearly a Sorkin joint. The characters are very pithy and quick-witted. There aren’t really any strong women to speak of. But it succeeds anyway. It succeeds at making us both like and dislike this irritating, annoying character. It succeeds at making us care about the trials and tribulations of people who, let’s face it, at the end of the day, they’re all multimillionaires. So I have to give Sorkin props for that. It also helps that some of the other scripts were messes, even for good movies. Winter’s Bone was a pretty simple tale, but it really fell apart at the end. The whole thing revolved around people snitching and people finding out about meth labs, but the thing is, EVERY SINGLE PERSON in that town ran a meth lab, and every single person knew about it, so the issue seemed forced to generate conflict. True Grit was all right. Maddie was written well, but the rest was ho-hum. Toy Story 3 touched me to my core, but the central conflict wasn’t all that impressive. So Facebook Movie it is!

Visual Effects
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
Hereafter
Inception
Iron Man 2

The rotating room was brilliant, that’s all I can say. I haven’t been that blown away since The Matrix. It wasn’t even all that original, really, but Inception executed it so well.

This was a category where I was actually really disappointed this year. Iron Man 2? Please. Aside from the fact that the movie sucked, I don’t remember being impressed by anything visual. Alice in Wonderland has to be disqualified for the ridiculous Red Queen with elephantiasis. Harry Potter? It had Dobby, I suppose, and the multiple Harries, but cloning characters on screen isn’t really that impressive anymore. We all saw The Parent Trap.

Sound Mixing
Inception 
The King’s Speech
Salt
The Social Network
True Grit

I almost didn’t pick a winner for this category because of the lack of Black Swan. Seriously, the fact that Salt got nominated, but Black Swan didn’t is kind of disgusting. Black Swan literally made me gasp at the awesome way it used sound. Inception is the only one who came close to using sound as creatively or masterfully. So I’ll pick that, but don’t be fooled, Black Swan should be the winner.

Sound Editing
Inception 
Toy Story 3
Tron: Legacy
True Grit
Unstoppable

Same story as above. I still remember the cracking of Nina’s feet in Black Swan. I can’t remember a single sound effect from True Grit.

Best Original Song
“Coming Home” – Country Strong
“I See the Light” – Tangled
“If I Rise” – 127 Hours
“We Belong Together” – Toy Story 3

Ye gods, kill me now, I listened to Gwyneth Paltrow’s country song. You’ll have to at the ceremony. Change the channel. It’s awful.

You know, it’s weird that songs have to be regular 3-minute long vocal songs to be considered in this category. Many songs from 127 Hours could have put up quite a fight, but “If I Rise” isn’t the strongest piece on the soundtrack. So yes, Tangled wins. “I See the Light” is probably the best song from the movie, outside of the simple, short “Let Your Power Shine” motif. It’s not the best Disney song ever, but it’s sweet, catchy, and I hate Randy Newman.

Best Original Score
How to Train Your Dragon – John Powell
Inception – Hans Zimmer
The King’s Speech – Alexandre Desplat
127 Hours – A.R. Rahman
The Social Network – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

I feel bad because I didn’t really notice the music in The Social Network. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. But it doesn’t really matter. Because Black Swan isn’t eligible for this category (it used too much of the music from Swan Lake to be considered “original”), 127 Hours takes it easily. Hell, it might have anyway. Listen to this, specifically the last half, and tell me that’s not fantastic.


Best Film Editing
Black Swan
The Fighter
The King’s Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network

This, along with director, was one of the hardest categories to decide. I feel like all of these films are edited extremely well. The King’s Speech was paced well, but I feel like that was mostly scripting, so I crossed off that one. 127 Hours did a great job making this confined subject interesting, but I can’t shake off the weird, over-the-top camera angles in the first half-hour or so. It was likely a directorial choice, but it’s an editing one as well. The main reason I gave it to The Social Network is how flawlessly it combined scenes taking place at different times to intensify certain themes. Once the movie shows you that this isn’t going to be a step-by-step, day-by-day type of movie, you never really question it. It’s clean and unambiguous, even though it’s untraditional

Best Cinematography
Black Swan
Inception
The King’s Speech
True Grit
The Social Network

Social Network and The King’s Speech both had some great shots (the school board room, and the physical therapy respectively), but I thought Black Swan just outclassed them. A lot of the scenes in that movie truly impressed me. Powerful, but subtle. Also, it’s kind of funny that 127 Hours didn’t get nominated for their crazy angles. I figured it would have just because it was unusual. I guess the Academy disliked them as much as I did.

Best Art Direction
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter
The King’s Speech
True Grit
Inception

This award always mystified me, because it seems like more of an administrative thing. I guess it’s an award for the overall Art Design, so in that sense, I think Inception should win (and Alice in Wonderland should lose horribly). But it’s not a category I have a lot of insight into.

Best Animated Film
How to Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

I refuse to pick a winner for this film out of protest, because Tangled wasn’t nominated. I’m not saying it should have won, but it should have absolutely been on there.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

I still think Steinfeld deserves to be nominated for Best Actress, but since she wasn’t, she certainly deserves to win the award here. Adams and Carter did exceptional work as well, but Steinfeld held the weight of the entire movie on her shoulders.

Best Actress
Annette Benning, The Kids are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Jennifer Lawrence nearly stole it. Seriously. I would not be surprised, or all that disappointed, if she won it. I was really blown away by her performance. But I was also blown away by Portman’s performance, as I outlined in Part I, and I think she edged out Lawrence just barely. Both actresses were by far the most interesting parts of their respective movies, but Portman gave more nuance. It may be because Lawrence had less to work with (I wasn’t really impressed with Winter’s Bone, other than by her performance).

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Fighter
John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

Christian Bale, no question. This might be the most obvious pick of the night. He simply became that character. It was spot-on perfection. Geoffrey Rush was good in a charming sort of way, but Bale was better. I’m pissed off Andrew Garfield (Eduardo from The Social Network) didn’t get nominated, as I thought he did a fantastic job, much better than Ruffalo, even. He deserves recognition for that part.

Best Actor
Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

Again, this is sort of an obvious one. Franco was decent. Bridges brought it, as usual. Eisenberg did a great job, and this role is certainly going to catapult him to mainstream stardom instead of being a poor man’s Michael Cera. But Colin Firth was incredible. He showed frustration, sadness, vulnerability, without overdoing it. And of course, the voice was brilliant. Listen to recordings, and it’s pretty eerie how close he sounds to King George.


Best Director
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
David O. Russel, The Fighter
Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
The Coens, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network


Aaaagh. Best Director is really hard, because, as I’ve said, it’s really hard to separate it from editing and writing. I don’t think True Grit or The King’s Speech did enough for me to justify awarding those directors. The other three are tough. Really tough. I decided against Russell because of the aforementioned redundancy that pops up in a few places in The Fighter. Deciding between Fincher and Aronofsky is a toss-up, honestly. I gave it to Aronofsky because of one thing: a weird scene in The Social Network where we see the Winklevoss Twins come in second place in a race. It’s a very wink-wink, nudge-nudge type of moment, and it pulled me out of the movie. So Black Swan gets the trophy.

Best Film
Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

I think I said all I need to say on this topic previously. Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece on multiple levels. It touched me, and was memorable on a level that none of the rest of the movies on the list will achieve (all right, I’ll probably remember the amputation scene from 127 Hours). It won’t win, of course. If I had to bet, I’d bet on The King’s Speech. But I wish the Academy would not discount films just because they’re animated. Pixar has been released what should have been Best Film contenders pretty much every year now. This time, they should win.

(Classic) Review: “Herland,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“Life is a stuggle, has to be,” he insisted. “If there is no struggle, there is no life–that’s all.”


Utopian fiction is a tricky business. It’s generally a misnomer at best. Utopian fiction often falls into one of three categories: Utopia that turns out to be the utter opposite of paradise for some, if not all, of the inhabitants (dystopia); Utopia that turns out to be flawed in one way or another; or, a utopia that actually is heaven on Earth. The first two types of stories are generally more interesting. The third, unfortunately, is where Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland falls.

That’s not to say there’s not some very interesting ideas here. Herland was written near the beginning of the 20th Century, and many of Gilman’s thoughts are ahead of her time. The main problem, however, lies in Gilman’s choice of outlet. What may have been better suited for an essay is instead formulated as a sort of adventure novel that never quite gives us an adventure.

Herland revolves around a simple premise. Somewhere in the unexplored jungle lies a pristine, modern paradise populated solely by women. A group of intrepid (not really) explorers stumble upon what they call Herland, and the inhabitants teach them their history, their culture and their way of life. That’s it. There are relatively few twists (the men try to escape at one point, fail, and are brought back). The ending isn’t too unexpected. It’s really more of a what-if essay than a fleshed out story.

In a somewhat interesting choice for feminist literature, Gilman uses male protagonists to filter the reader’s view of the issues at hand. Our viewpoint character is Van Jennings, a sort of middle-of-the-road kind of guy who can see both sides of any argument. This makes for a kind of boring and timid “hero” (if you can call him that, which, now that I think about it, no, no you can’t), but I can see why Gilman chose him. The reader is not really asked to follow along for any sweeping judgments. Instead, we identify with Van as he observes the other two male characters: Terry Nicholson and Jeff Margrave.

Terry is, to put it bluntly, an ass. He holds the traditional turn-of-the-century views of women, but escalated to sometimes comical levels. To Terry, women are silly little things with no real intelligence or capability, obviously the inferior sex, and only really necessary as a motivation for men. One of the best examples of his character: to him, the existence of Herland is less of a scientific impossibility than a social one. He argues against the concept of female-only reproduction (which, in one of the most speculative aspects of the story, is identified as parthenogenesis). But to him, the craziest part of this country is the idea of women living amongst themselves with no men to run the town, grow the crops, maintain and invent the technology and stop all that silly female bickering.

If Terry is the resident misogynist, Jeff resides squarely in the opposite side of crazy. He represents the pro-feminist camp, which is generally cool, but sometimes creepily approaches putting women on a pedastal (something, it should be mentioned, Terry does as well, but in more of a “women are so frail, they shouldn’t do work” kind of way). I’m not sure if this is intentional on Gilman’s part, or if Jeff is supposed to be a positive character and our modern ideas of feminism have just changed in the past 100 years. However, given the fact that Jeff is not our central character, I’d like to believe the former.

Jeff and Terry frequently spar over the roles of women in society, while Van watches on, giving us the novel’s only real conflict. Unfortunately, this conflict becomes repetitive almost immediately. The woman claim they have accomplished some spectacular achievement, Terry says no, that’s impossible because woman are stupid and silly, Jeff says nuh-uh cause women are awesome! All while Van nods his head and jots it all down in his mental notebook.

My other criticism, beyond the lack of a real plot, is that Gilman’s female characters all sort of run together. A strange thought, isn’t it? In a book about the exceptionalism of women, the women become exceptionally stale and boring. There’s really no difference in any of them. They’re all incredibly smart, capable, confident in themselves and their culture. The three women who end up getting paired off with the males (Ellador, Celis and Alima) seem different in temperament, but that’s only because they are given different situations to react to  (Alima, who gets to deal with Terry, is obviously going to behave differently than Celis, who gets Jeff).

So what’s to like about Herland? Gilman’s subtle references to feminist thinking of the time. In one of my favorite passages of the book, one of the women brings up the concept of being trapped in one’s own home and life:

“It’s not the same thing at all,” [Terry] insisted. “A man wants a home of his own, with his wife and family in it.”

“Staying in it? All the time?” asked Ellador. “Not imprisoned, surely!”

“Of course not! Living there–nautrally,” he answered.

The point being how silly it is to consider a woman’s confinement in her home “natural.” This is very likely a reference to Gilman’s own The Yellow Wallpaper (a speculative-ish feminist story surrounding a woman’s depression and confinement. It’s absolutely fantastic). It is also oddly similar to Virginia Woolf’s then-unwritten A Room of One’s Own, though exploring the idea of living quarters in opposite directions.

It is moments like these that made me sit up and evaluate Gilman’s work in the greater pantheon of feminist literature. To my disappointment, there were exceedingly few moments that made me sit up and consider her work in the realm of adventure or speculative fiction. Maybe this isn’t so bad. I’m sure Gilman was more concerned about her feminist themes than whether or not her work could be adapted into a Syfy Original Movie. But if one were to read, say, a feminist western, one would hope that the work had something to add to both of those genres.

The most relevant passage in the book seems to be the one I quoted at the beginning of this post. Terry asserts that life must be filled with struggles to be worthwhile, and the women inform him that, no, living in a perfect world is perfectly satisfactory. In my interpretation, Gilman is speaking directly to the reader at this point. It seems evident that she knew that her story was more about the themes and ideas than any sort of character development. And she seems okay with that. I guess, in the end, that’s all we can hope from an author — that everything they do is done with full knowledge and purpose.

For fans of feminist literature, Herland is sort of a must-read. In fact, I’d assume most fans of feminist literature have already read it. That’s like saying “If you’re a fan of fantasy, you simply must read this Tolkien fellow!” But, as it is a very early example of utopian/futurist fiction, it may be of interest to specfic fans. And if that’s your sole interest, you may want to skip Herland. It doesn’t go much further than its synopsis. Instead, for feminist science fiction, go for any of Margaret Atwood’s books (ignore her unfortunate views on science fiction), or the aforementioned work, Gilman’s seminal The Yellow Wallpaper.


Herland can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.