Feb 08

Fixing Social Media Part 2: What You and I Can Do

In my previous post, I sketched out a way of potentially reducing the current issues with the structure of social media, by taking it back in the direction of the internet’s open roots and reducing the control exerted by large, unaccountable, for-profit corporations.

I can’t actually implement that. I could maybe do the technical side, at a stretch, but creating the critical mass of adopters that would be essential for it to succeed, against the resistance of powerful incumbents, is far beyond my ability or the ability of anyone I know.

So what can you or I do to improve social media if we can’t do much about its structure? What influence do we have?

Well, we have some influence, however small, over the content of social media. Specifically, we decide what we share, how we comment, and what we react to. And since shares, comments, and reactions are the three ways in which a social media post gains traction and influence, this isn’t an insignificant power, if we choose to use it wisely.

In this post, then, I want to suggest some principles that we can follow to improve the quality of social media in our immediate zone of influence.

Posting and Reacting

Let’s start with posting and its little brother, reacting. (On Facebook, your reactions are broadcast to your network, so it’s similar to sharing the post; on Google+, your network only sees your reactions if you haven’t turned that setting off, and most people have done so. Among other things, this means that I feel more free on G+ to “like” things that not everyone in my network will agree with, without worrying about what they’ll think.)

On social media, few people create content, and much of the original content they do create is about themselves, not about issues. (Which is fine; one of the reasons I'm connected to people on social media is that I care about what's happening in their daily lives.) A larger number of people curate content, sharing articles or “memes” either from websites they frequent or from other social media users in their networks. Usually, we share things that we feel strongly about, and that we agree with; and the easiest strong emotions to arouse with a piece of content are outrage (at the actions or opinions of people who are “not our people”) or self-righteous smugness (at the actions or opinions of people who are “our people”). If you can find one of “your people” hitting out at one of “their people” it’s a two-for-one.

A lot of sharing on social media, in fact, is aimed at proclaiming our membership in a particular group. By proclaiming faithful group membership through the things we share, we can get affirmation from the other members of the group (in the form of further shares, reactions, and comments) and feel less alone in a hostile world.

The natural effect, though, is to amplify outrage, smugness, and division. I hope we can agree that smugness and division are inherently bad things to amplify, and that outrage is only worth amplifying in two circumstances: if it’s outrage about something that’s actually happening or has actually happened, and if our outrage leads to effective action for change.

Those two criteria are not often met, though.

“Fake news” is a term that’s had a lot of use over the past couple of years. It’s sometimes used as a mere slur against coverage that’s unsympathetic to the speaker’s “side,” but there are more objective definitions of “fake news”. It ranges from outright falsehoods presented as news (sometimes under the cover of “satire”), through conspiracy theories that impose a false narrative on real events; extreme spin and distortion; the omission of context or nuance to the point of reversing the significance of a fact; and biased opinion presented as facts.

A pair of data scientists trained a fake news detector, and discovered in the process that it’s actually easier to train a real news detector. They called it Fakebox. What it detects is whether a sample article is “written with little [sic] to no biased words, strong adjectives, opinion, or colorful language”. In other words, it looks for an objective, factual tone--the kind of article that doesn’t tend to compel people to share it on social media.

So, if you don’t have the technical resources to set up a Fakebox server, how might you decide whether to share something or not?

Well, firstly, is it substantial? Does it present or consider more than one viewpoint? Does it explore the topic in depth? This test basically rules out the “memes” which many people on social media share as readily as I click “Like” on a cat photo. I don’t mind (up to a point) the inspirational-quote ones or the jokes; I’m talking here specifically about the ones which lay out something that sounds like a fact, or a series of bullet points that sound like facts, but don’t provide any way of checking the claims for context or accuracy.

It’s essentially impossible to convey a significant amount of truth in an image with just a few words, and when these memes are fact-checked, they tend to range from outright falsehoods, through inaccuracies, to aspects of the truth presented without enough context to really understand them in a useful way. I haven’t done a study, but my intuition is that they skew towards the “outright falsehood” end, often by what they omit, but sometimes by what they claim. Whenever I see a new one do the rounds, I wait for the fact-check, and it almost without exception confirms my suspicion that they’re, at best, misleading. I never share them, even the ones that match up with my existing beliefs, and I urge you to consider adopting the same policy.

Secondly, before sharing something, check its tone. Does it amplify helpless outrage? Or does it amplify hope? Outrage is compelling, and in sharing it with your friends, who will agree with it and reinforce that you’re not alone, you feel slightly less helpless; but if all you’re doing is spreading the helpless outrage, it’s not a net gain.

Thirdly, does what you’re sharing give a helpful way forward or suggest action you can take? I listened to a fascinating podcast a while ago about some research done on China’s social media platforms. Surprisingly, the researchers found that people were not censored for expressing outrage against, or even insulting, government officials or government policy. What got them censored was calling for action. The Chinese government has apparently concluded that expressing outrage is no threat to them, as long as nobody does anything.

This suggests that amplifying a sense of helpless outrage on social media will only help to preserve the situation, and the system, you find intolerable.

Before you share, ask yourself: Would the Chinese government bother to censor this?

Fourth, does what you’re sharing draw us together by our common humanity, or focus on what divides us? Does it locate all the problems outside your group, reinforcing a sense of them and us? This is a question for liberals as well as for conservatives; liberals are far from immune to the temptation to excuse their own people for what they condemn in the “other”.

I have a lot more respect for articles that are criticism coming from inside the house. There is, of course, a place for criticism of groups you don’t belong to; part of the reason you don’t belong to them is that they stand for something you disagree with. But an article that implicitly (or even explicitly) places all the evil somewhere else is inevitably covering over a blind spot.

That doesn’t mean you can’t share it. But it does imply a duty for you to uncover that blind spot and comment on it, critiquing the failings and omissions of your own people according to the principles you claim to hold. If you’re actually acting out of principle, and not simply based on group membership, you should be able to do this at least some of the time.

In general, though, I suggest that you focus on and amplify what you love and what you hope, not on what you hate and what you fear. Terrible things are happening, but wonderful things are also happening, and they get a lot less exposure even though they’re more common. If you feel you need to talk about things going wrong (which is an important topic, as long as it’s not the only topic), do so by talking about people who are doing something about them.

If you can’t find anybody who’s doing anything, maybe you should do something.

Commenting

Let’s talk about commenting now. “Don’t read the comments” is generally good advice for websites (and excellent advice for YouTube); comments on social media, depending on who’s in your network and who you allow to comment, can be more positive and helpful, but they can also rapidly degenerate into insults and point-scoring. This is especially the case on controversial topics, the kind of thing that is based on amplified outrage--which is another good reason not to amplify outrage.

robot

One of my basic principles for social media comments is: don’t interact with posters who can’t pass the Turing test. The Turing test is the famous social conversation test which sets out to distinguish a person from a machine. There are a lot of “bots” around on social media, posting stereotyped comments based on keywords in order to draw attention to their business or cause, or amplify some particular form of outrage. Some of these are software-based, and some of them are implemented in the form of a human being typing on a keyboard. If you can’t tell which one it is, don’t talk to them.

If you are talking to a person, though, talk to them like a person, not a member of a group whose members are interchangeable. My wife had an experience recently of commenting on an acquaintance’s post, which was a classic amplifier of outrage against a group of which she happened to be a member. Another poster who I know is an actual person jumped in and ranted at her based on a stereotype of who she was, bearing little connection with reality. It didn’t result in a fruitful discussion.

An exchange of insults achieves nothing. Instead, look for common concerns and common humanity with people who differ from you. Consider the recent story of a well-known comedian who engaged with a man who coarsely insulted her on Twitter. She looked beneath his insult for the person and found someone in pain, and they ended up having a productive exchange; in fact, she helped him with the life situation that was part of what was behind his bad behaviour.

If you must have a discussion with someone you disagree with on social media (and I don’t advise it, in general), look for things you agree on, and appeal to shared values. Show how those shared values lead you to the conclusion you’ve reached. If you can’t find shared values, there’s not much point in discussing.

I’ll add: Don’t argue to win. Have some humility, and be prepared to learn and admit when you’re wrong. I’ve found that as a rule in life, whenever I go off on a rant, I almost always find I’m mistaken about something in the situation; sometimes about everything.

Summary

In summary, helpless outrage over misinformation; self-righteousness; and affirming group identity at all costs are not a good basis for basically anything. But they’re what social media tends to encourage.

We can help to change that if we approach our social media usage more consciously.

So here’s my social media pledge:

  • I will seek out and share the truth, not just what confirms my prejudices.
    • I will only share information that’s substantial and fact-based.
    • I will not share “memes” that sound like facts, but don’t provide enough context to evaluate their truth.
  • I will amplify what I love and what I hope for, not what I hate and fear.
  • I will look for ways I can take action to change things for the better.
  • I won’t engage with bots, or with people I can’t distinguish from bots, and I won’t act like a bot myself.
  • I will look for shared values and common humanity in the people I encounter.
  • I will approach discussions with humility, kindness, and a willingness to change my mind.

Join me, won’t you?

Jan 09

Fixing Social Media Part 1: The Big Fix

I'm going to talk about a topic which isn't usually what I blog about, here or anywhere. It's on my mind, though, and I think it's extremely important, even more so after reading this article in the Washington Monthly on the major issues with how Facebook operates and how that allowe bad actors to influence events such as the Brexit vote and the US election - to their (perceived, short-term) benefit and the rest of the world's detriment.

I'm doing this in two parts. The first is about what I think could be a fix to at least some of the issues mentioned in the article. That's not something I could implement myself (or rather, it's not something I could implement myself and make functional enough and, crucially, widely adopted enough for it to replace the current social media model); so I'm also planning a Part 2, on what I am trying to do, and what you can also do, on an individual level to mitigate the current problems with social media and make it ever-so-slightly less awful. I'm putting this out there, though, in case anyone who can make it happen wants to pick it up and run with it.

As a background, my day job is as a business analyst for a large corporation, and I've spent 20 years designing technology solutions for real-world problems. I'm not the best-qualified person in the world to suggest how to fix social media, but I'm also not completely without a clue. Here are my thoughts.

Opening Social Media

Most of the current problems with social media, as identified by the Washington Monthly article, occur because it's not controlled primarily by the users, but by largely unaccountable and almost unregulated corporations.

The heart of my proposal is to change this, and the means isn't (essentially) new. I propose a social media landscape built forward from the technology we had around the turn of the century: blogs and RSS.

The idea of the "blogosphere" was that people had a conversation by posting their thoughts and their responses to others' thoughts. But blog platforms never really facilitated that as well as they could have. Social media platforms make it much easier, because they're centred on the social network rather than on the content. However, the key thing about blogging that's different from social media, and better, is that you can own the content and host it on a site that you control - though you can also use free platforms that will host it for you if you prefer. This blog post, for example, is coming to you from my own site; I own the domain name and pay for the hosting, so I can pick it up and take it somewhere else if I want to.

RSS and its various successors are technologies by which you can subscribe to the entries on someone's blog (or similar) and see them turn up in a "feed reader". Google used to have a good one, but discontinued it, probably because in the age of social media fewer people were following blogs. I migrated to Feedly, but I don't keep up with the feeds much anymore either; I mostly just use it to make sure I don't miss any episodes of webcomics I follow. This is partly because it's not in a single stream, though I can put it into one if I really want to, combining multiple feeds under a topic that I define. Still, it doesn't produce a social-media-like experience.

There was an attempt, years ago, to create a platform that aggregated your various feeds from all the different sites you contributed to into one place where people could subscribe to them all. I don't even remember what it was called; the implementation wasn't compelling, and not enough people adopted it. But the idea of a unified feed that would show anyone who cares your Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Goodreads, etc. all in one place is a good one. Google+, Twitter and Facebook facilitate this, in fact, by enabling you to autopost from other platforms.

So here's what I imagine as a compelling alternative to the current monolithic social media platforms which are in control of the content you produce, the content you consume, and your social network. It combines those older ideas, and brings them up to date.

1. A new, open standard for "feeds" that can take content in text or multimedia forms, posted on any of an arbitrarily large number of platforms that conform to the standard; tag it in various ways that the user controls; and combine it in a way people can subscribe to.

The crucial thing about this is that the content remains on whatever site you posted it on. You absolutely can still post on Twitter or Facebook or Google+, but you can also post on your own hosted site, or Goodreads, or a completely new site that someone invents tomorrow, and (through a small snippet of code that anyone can include on their platform) have a checkbox or whatever that says "add to my feed". And anyone who subscribes to that feed can see it, because they're subscribing to the whole feed, not an algorithmically curated version of the feed controlled by an unaccountable platform. Nor do they need to be using Facebook to see your Facebook posts.

Anyone can create an app that allows people to post to their feed, and anyone can create an app that allows people to view the items in the feeds they're subscribed to. If Google+ changes their app in a way that annoys you, you don't have to stick with it to see content from Google+ users. You're in control of both your content and your user experience.

A crucial upgrade to the old feed system to make it more social-media-like would be the ability to post comments on the content straight from the feed reader app, in a similarly open and interoperable way to the posting of the content to begin with.

Of course, you will want to curate and filter the feeds you subscribe to. I'll get to that in a minute. First, how would you choose to subscribe to someone's feed? That's the next part of the solution:

2. An open social graph (which is what the connections between people in a social network get called by people who discuss these things).

It should be straightforward and trivial to provide, on whatever site you happen to be posting on, a subscription button that will allow people to link into your feed and select what parts of it they want to see - more on that below. When they do so, they should be presented, in whatever app they're using, with the option of categorising their connection to you: family, social, education (teacher, student, fellow student), employment (colleague, former colleague, employer, union), geographical (neighbour, old roommate, local organization), interest (religious group, fandom), and so forth. This is in their app and under their control; it isn't owned by a corporation or exposed publicly.

"Free" apps might have as part of their terms and conditions that they can make use of what they know about your connections for advertising - ideally revealing that they are doing so as they do so. Also, there are obvious advantages to my app and your app exchanging this information; if you and I went to school together, I'm likely to want to know about the people you're connected to who also went to school with us, and connect with them as well. But that doesn't require that the information be publicly accessible, or owned by a corporation. It can just travel between our apps in a private message.

Those two elements by themselves would be adequate to get the system going. To make it compelling, though, might require a little more.

3. An open topic system.

One thing that Google+ has over the other social networks is that you can self-categorize your content into "collections", and people can decide whether or not to see it based on that. If you post about robots and your dog, and I'm only interested in the robots and your sister is only interested in the dog, we can arrange it so that we only see the posts we're interested in.

There are limitations to the "collections" system, though. A post can only be in one collection; it's alternative to, not integrated with, "circles" (the way G+ provides to group people you're connected with); and the collection titles are chosen by the user and not related to any standardised list of topics. So I have a collection called "Every Day is Caturday", my friend Daniel has one called "Look at My Cats", and my friend Jen has one called "Because the Internet Doesn't Have Enough Cat Photos". All three are on the same topic: pictures of our respective cats.

A picture of my cat.

I'm envisaging a topic hierarchy, with some level of automation based on the keywords you use in a post, what a picture is of, and where you're posting, so a review of a fantasy novel on Goodreads would automatically get topic-tagged as Arts and Entertainment > Fiction > Fantasy Fiction and Arts and Entertainment > Fiction > Novels. Yes, multiple tags should be possible. Also, it would be good to be able to direct posts on a particular topic primarily or exclusively to a group of your connections, so that my political posts don't enrage my wife's family, for example. (How to implement making posts fully private, rather than just hiding them by default, is a problem I haven't figured out yet.)

Though not essential to an open social media system, I think a more robust topic system would help to get people who are interested in the same things together; to allow people to curate which posts they see - manually or with automated help from whatever app they use; and even, perhaps, to counter the "filter bubble". For example, your app could tell you not only what people you're connected to are talking about in a topic you're interested in, but also what people you're not connected to are talking about.

Further on curation, I can imagine an approach which bubbles the most engaging posts to the top, but also shows you that there are other posts from this user, or other posts on this topic, that are below some "interest threshold" that you've set. If you're feeling like looking at lots of cat photos today, and you're not so much in a dog mood, your app could cater to that.

Another potential fitering approach would be by sentiment. Sentiment analysis on social media is already well developed, based both on the words used in the post and on people's reactions to them. Corporations use it to get alerted when people are unhappy with their products or services. What if you could set your app to show you mainly hopeful posts, and to suppress anxious or negative posts? True, you could end up living in a delusional world of happy rainbows and ignoring real, urgent problems, but there are ways around that as well (if a negative post gets a lot of engagement, show it even to people who don't want to see many negative posts).

Right now, with the apps through which we access social media being controlled by the same corporations that control the content, what I've just outlined isn't an option. We're stuck with what their algorithms show us. But if the system was open, and anyone could write an app for consuming content that anyone could write an app for creating... Well, I think that would be a better world.

While we're waiting for that better world, though, there are things we can do individually to make social media less broken. More of that in my next post.

Jan 01

2017: My Year in Writing

The year just gone hasn't been as productive, in terms of word count, as the previous year. This is because in 2016 I was laid off at work in May, and didn't start a new job until October, giving me six months to effectively write full-time. I discovered I can write a lot in six months.

I also haven't written, or submitted, nearly as much short fiction this year, because I've been spending what writing time I had on novels. This is largely because my deal with Canadian-based small press Digital Fiction to take over publication of the Gryphon Clerks series has made my novels more profitable, and hence more attractive to work on; but it's partly been a mood thing, too. I write what I'm motivated to write, which is sometimes novels and sometimes short stories. This was a novels year.

Consequently, my short story submission figures for this year are way down, because I wasn't writing new stuff. I also pulled a number of my stories out of submission to work on them some more, and then ended up not doing so. I joined Codex, a forum for "neo-pro" writers, last year, and while the critiques I've received there have been all kinds of useful, by the same token they've clarified to me some of the issues with the stories I haven't sold yet, and I haven't quite puzzled out how to fix them.

I did sell a few stories, though, mostly reprints of ones I'd already sold somewhere else, and I reached the milestone of 200 total submissions (spread over 6 years). Here are my figures for the year, compared with previous years:

Year Submitted Accepted Rejection, Form Rejection, Personal USD Earned
2012 4 0 2 2 $0.00
2013 1 0 1 0 $0.00
2014 44 1 20 14 $0.00
2015 52 8 29 13 $354.09
2016 74 4 45 18 $680.78*
2017 24 7 11 6 $582.50*

I did get some writing done. My fifth Gryphon Clerks novel, Mister Bucket for Assembly, which I was originally going to self-publish in late 2016, ended up coming out as the first all-new publication I had with Digital Fiction, appearing in May 2017. That wasn't Digital Fiction's fault, or even, really, because I published it with them rather than doing it myself; it needed a lot of structural work, including tearing out a whole storyline that wasn't well integrated with the main plot. I do plan to publish those "deleted scenes", probably in 2018 sometime, as part of a (slightly? much?) larger book that follows the human characters from the Hope books and wraps up parts of their stories. It will take place over the timeframe of Mister Bucket and probably a bit beyond.

That's how the Gryphon Clerks books tend to work: it's a big world, even the small part of it that I've explored so far, and three of the novels already take place at overlapping times, with different groups of characters that occasionally intersect. (That's Realmgolds, Hope and the Clever Man, and Beastheads, all of which take place in part during the brief Unification War.)

Here's a timeline, in case you're confused:

You'll notice on there a book called Illustrated Gnome News. If you've read Mister Bucket, you'll probably recognise that as the name of the gnomes' newspaper, founded to support Bucket in his campaign for election. That's the book I'm working on at the moment. The third draft has gone off to my development editor; it's a monster, currently at 115,000 words, which is my longest book yet (Bucket is second, at around 90,000). It seems to grow by 5000 words each time I revise it. But I feel like I'm finally getting a handle on writing a long, multi-threaded, multiple-viewpoint novel with a unified theme explored from different perspectives.

Illustrated Gnome News follows some of the younger gnomes from Mister Bucket for Assembly, a couple of years later, as they struggle to figure out how to live in a world where gnomes are now free and not subject to the old constraints imposed by the dwarves - but where a lot of gnomes, particularly older ones, go on living by those rules, because that's what they've always done, and they're outraged at the idea that younger gnomes might depart from them. It's a confusing and challenging time for everyone, and the newspaper has to balance between being a voice to move gnomish society forward, and a business that can afford to keep operating. To make matters worse, some of the debt that Mister Hammer, the paper's owner, has had to take on has fallen into unfriendly hands, which could result in ruin not only for him but for other gnome businessmen. It's never been more important for gnomes to pull together, and yet they're more openly at odds than they've ever been.

And into the middle of all this I drop a romance that is very much not in the approved gnomish manner, and that's threatened by social expectations and economic realities alike.

I'm not willing to give a more precise estimate than "first half of 2018" for publication, but I think it'll be worth waiting for. Stay tuned.

I've also started a new Gryphon Clerks project. I'm not sure how long it will end up being; it's a set of three linked stories featuring a pair of gnomes, a Realm Agent and a woman engineer, who solve technological crimes together. Working title is The Piston and Precision Mysteries. It's set a few years later than Illustrated Gnome News, and Piston is a minor character in that novel.

Jun 05

Mister Bucket for Assembly

My fifth Gryphon Clerks novel, originally scheduled for last December, is finally out!

Most of the delay was because I needed to disentangle a few irrelevant storylines that were choking up the main plot; I'll probably publish those as a novella at some point, since they deal with characters that fans will be familiar with from the Hope books. The Gryphon Clerks series tends to have stories in it that overlap in time and tangentially connect through shared characters and events, and this will be another example.

Now is a good opportunity, in fact, to reflect on the series, where it's been, and where it's going next.

I'm finding that the books are tending to come in pairs. Although published first and fourth respectively, Realmgolds and Beastheads form a pair, since they both deal with roughly the same time period: what's known in the later books as the Unification War. The second and third books, Hope and the Clever Man and Hope and the Patient Man, are obviously a pair too, showing the struggles of the brilliant young mage Hope as she deals with the consequences of some bad decisions (one of which is hers). Part of the first book occurs during the Unification War too, linking it to the first pair.

Bucket the gnome is a secondary character in the Hope books, as are Hope's friend Briar Heathlake and the gnome leader Gizmo, and they come into their own in the first of the "gnome" books, Mister Bucket for Assembly. In the course of that book I found I needed a few more gnome characters and a newspaper, and once I had them they wanted a book of their own, which I'm now working on: Illustrated Gnome News. As I write this post, I'm probably more than halfway through the first draft, at 54,000 words. (Bucket was 92,000, and News looks like being roughly the same size.)

I actually got about 70,000 words into Bucket a couple of years ago, and was planning to finish it off during my summer break, but I got sick with a heavy cold, and then Beastheads didn't do as well as I'd hoped, and I got a bit down about the Gryphon Clerks series in general. To give myself a change, I started the Auckland Allies series, which is quite different in setting and pace and functioned as a nice refresher; and also the Hand of the Trickster series, likewise.

Then, last year, I took another look at Bucket, and felt like it needed to be finished. The themes of an oppressed people seeking representation were, let's say, timely, and elections were... somewhat in the news; and the book was better than I remembered. My editor, when I sent her a completed draft, agreed; she kept telling me, "This book is needed." For some reason, she edited parts of it while out in public, and she kept chiding me for making her laugh out loud or shed tears in front of people.

Around the time I was working on Bucket again, Michael Wills approached me to ask if his small press, Digital Fiction, could take over the Gryphon Clerks series. I'd worked with Michael before - Digital Fiction had republished one of my short stories, "Something Rich and Strange," and I'd done editing work for him as well - so I knew he was a good person to work with, trustworthy, and a better marketer than me. My response was basically "Let me think about that OK yes please."

So far, Digital Fiction have republished Realmgolds, which is doing well under their imprint, and now Bucket is out with them too - the first of my ten published novels to be with a publisher other than myself right from its launch. The plan is that the remaining three, and future Gryphon Clerks novels, will also move across to their list.

So, what might that future look like? As a science fiction writer, I know that predicting the future is basically impossible, and that applies even when I'm talking about things I plan to do; my published novels resemble my outlines, for example, but in much the same way as Hollywood movies resemble the books they're based on (the difference being that I make them better and more complex during the process, instead of the reverse). Be that as it may, as well as Illustrated Gnome News, there's that novella based on offcuts from Bucket that I want to finish up and release. After that, I'm pondering whether it might be time for a couple of books featuring the Realmgolds' Agents, an FBI-like organisation which has cropped up a few times so far in the books, and which some of the secondary characters already work for. I have one partially drafted, which is also a country-house mystery with potential to be hilarious.

There's also The Rediscovery of Hardlac, which I have an outline for; a completely new group of characters going to a part of the setting that I haven't fully explored yet in search of the secret of an ancient elven technology. And I have a couple more ideas that have been kicking around for a while, which you can read about on the Novels page.

(I have an outline for the fourth Auckland Allies book, too, and will probably work on that later this year or early next year.)

Meantime, Mister Bucket for Assembly is doing well on launch, hovering in the top 10 in the steampunk genre as I write. That's an encouraging sign for the series, and for my collaboration with Digital Fiction.

May 07

Being Visible, Being Seen

My wife has a long-term disability, one which, while it doesn’t confine her to a wheelchair permanently, does affect her mobility. She and I watch the TV shows NCIS and Bones together, and we’ve been discussing the representation of disability in the two shows. I’ll avoid spoilerific specifics, but in each show there is now a character who has been caught in a bomb blast and is confined to a wheelchair. The two sets of writers handle this circumstance quite differently.

The NCIS writers chose a minor character who only appears occasionally. When she appears, she’s in a wheelchair now - and that’s about it. There was some very brief dialogue about how it was difficult for her to adjust, a hint that maybe her boyfriend, who’s also a character, found it difficult - but no arc, no real story about how this changes her life and his life and their life together.
The charitable way of interpreting this approach is that the writers want to normalise disability, to present a disabled character as just a character who happens to have a disability and otherwise goes on with her life. Given the many opportunities these same writers have missed with the Ellie Bishop character, though (which is a whole different rant), I’m not inclined to be that charitable; and I’ll discuss later in this piece why, even under that interpretation, it’s still a problem.

The Bones writers chose a character from the core cast, who’s in every episode. This puts the whole issue more front and centre. Also, what they’ve done is represent the experience of having a disability, having a life partner with a disability, having a friend and colleague with a disability: the frustration with the things you can’t do any more; wanting to carry on with your work so you can feel useful, and hold on to all the things you can still do and haven’t lost; the unjustified optimism; the false hope which is dashed; the anger; pushing away those who care for you when you can’t deal with the emotions; not wanting to be pitied, yet feeling self-pity; the fear; the bad coping; the lost possibilities; the weight of the reality that it isn’t going to get better, that this is your life now; and also the experience of not knowing how to help your lover or friend, and frustration with their process and their emotions.

To me, the difference between these two shows is the difference between being visible and being seen. Disability in NCIS is visible: there’s a visibly disabled character (occasionally). But it’s a little bit like the sexy lamp test: If your female character was replaced with a sexy lamp, would it make any discernable difference to the plot? If that character was not disabled, had made a full physical and emotional recovery, or had never been in the bomb blast at all, would the plot of any episode of the show have to change even slightly? It would not.

Case in point: a recent episode in which the disabled character's boyfriend is looking at an apartment with a view to their moving in. There is a clearly visible step at the entrance to the apartment, one which you could not get down in a wheelchair. Nothing is said about this.

In contrast, disability in Bones is seen. A disabled person - my wife - looks at it and says, “That’s what it’s like. That’s how it is.” She feels represented, in other words, not just tokenised.

It’s early days in the Bones arc, but I expect good things. I expect the writers to continue to unfold what it’s like to be, or be close to, a person with a disability: the ups and downs, the personal growth, the things that always stay frustrating, the way you find value in your life anyway, the adjustments that everyone has to make.

There are two parts to diversity and representation. There’s the part that affirms that these people who are different in some way are also still people, that reminds us of our common humanity and our common human experience, and that’s important. But there’s also the part that says, “These fellow humans of ours have a different experience of being human that comes from who they are, and that different experience is also interesting and worthy of being seen.”

I’m committed to writing diverse characters in my fiction, not as some sort of quota, but because different experiences of being human are part of what fantasy and science fiction are about. I don’t do it enough, and when I do it, I’m sure I get it wrong sometimes; but I want to keep doing it, in the hope that people will recognise themselves and feel seen, and in the hope that other people will see not only their common humanity but also the value and importance of their difference.

Jan 28

Sir Julius Vogel Awards nominations

Sir Julius Vogel Award trophy

It's that time again - the time when I work on the "get nominated for a Sir Julius Vogel Award" item on my bucket list. I mean, look at how cool that trophy is. Wouldn't you want one?

The SJVs are New Zealand's speculative-fiction awards, given at the annual conference of SFFANZ (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand). Anyone in the world can nominate an eligible work to get onto the ballot, but only those attending the conference or members of SFFANZ get to vote on the final list - which is made up of the works with the most nominations.

I'm eligible in several categories, as usual. If you've read one or more of these, and think it's award-worthy, you can do me a favour by entering the details given below into their nomination form.

I actually published three novels last year (Ghost Bridge, its sequel Unsafe Harbour, and Trickster's Nab), and you should feel free to nominate any of them, but I offer Ghost Bridge as the first choice because of its New Zealand setting, and the fact that more people have probably read it than have read the sequel. If you nominate one of the others, make sure you include the correct link!

Unsafe Harbourhttps://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LX8TVD7/ 

Trickster's Nabhttps://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01KYS0214/

Best Novel

  1. Name / Title of work: Auckland Allies 2: Ghost Bridge
  2. Name of Author: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. Eligible for: Best Novel
  4. Year of First Release: 2016
  5. GENRE - science fiction, fantasy or horror: Fantasy
  6. Publisher / Production company name: C-Side Media
  7. How to contact the producer / author: mike at csidemedia.com
  8. Other details about the work, that might be relevant
    e.g. the media it appears in - radio, web: ebook
  9. Where to get a copy of the work: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01GDFWIAA

Best Novella or Novelette

  1. Name / Title of work: Hand of the Trickster
  2. Name of Author: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. The work is eligible for: Best Novella
  4. Year of First Release: 2016
  5. GENRE - science fiction, fantasy or horror: Fantasy
  6. Publisher / Production company name: C-Side Media
  7. How to contact the producer / author: mike at csidemedia.com
  8. Other details about the work, that might be relevant
    e.g. the media it appears in - radio, web: ebook
  9. Where to get a copy of the work: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01JHTIXMG

Best Short Story

  1. Name / Title of work: "Forget You"
  2. Name of Author: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. The work is eligible for: Best Short Story
  4. Year of First Release: 2016
  5. GENRE - science fiction, fantasy or horror: Science fiction
  6. Publisher / Production company name: Daily Science Fiction
  7. How to contact the producer / author: mike at csidemedia.com
  8. Other details about the work, that might be relevant
    e.g. the media it appears in - radio, web: professional webzine
  9. Where to get a copy of the work: http://dailysciencefiction.com/science-fiction/virtual-reality/mike-reeves-mcmillan/forget-you

Best New Talent

This requires a precis of 100-500 words. I have provided some details below; feel free to rewrite this in your own words.

This nomination is for Mike Reeves-McMillan (mike at csidemedia.com) for the fan award of Best New Talent.

This author published three novels (Auckland Allies 2: Ghost Bridge; Auckland Allies 3: Unsafe Harbour; and Trickster's Nab) in 2016, bringing his total number of published novels to nine. He also published a novella (Hand of the Trickster) in 2016, as well as three short stories, two in professional venues ("Forget You" in Daily Science Fiction and "Gatekeeper, What Toll?" in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores), and "Mail Order Witch" in the semi-professional Farstrider. (See http://csidemedia.com/shortstories/ for details.) The Daily Science Fiction sale enabled him to join the Codex neo-pro writers' community to work further on his craft, and he has since (in 2017) sold a story to Compelling Science Fiction. His self-published Gryphon Clerks series was recently picked up by the small press Digital Publishing Corp for republication, and the first of the series, Realmgolds, is now available in Italian translation. He curates the SFF Thought Starters collection on Google+ for fellow speculative fiction writers.

Include your contact details and any other comments in your email. 


Thanks very much for any support you choose to give me.

Aug 04

Settings and Stories

I've worked on books in three different series, with three different settings, in the past few months. This post is a reflection on how the writing experience differed between them, and how the settings contributed to the stories I told in them.

The three series are Auckland Allies (contemporary urban fantasy, set in the city where I live); Hand of the Trickster (sword-and-sorcery heists); and the Gryphon Clerks (secondary-world lightly steampunked fantasy). Yes, I know my last post said I probably wouldn't be working on any more Gryphon Clerks stories in the foreseeable future. The future is a lot less foreseeable than I thought, as it turns out.

Part of the reason for having different series going is that a change is, in fact, as good as a rest. Because they feel different to work on, I can work on one when I don't feel like working on another, and switching from one to another can be refreshing. In fact, the reason I got out my abandoned manuscript of Mister Bucket for Assembly, the Gryphon Clerks novel (which turned out to be about 75% complete), was that I was making slow, difficult progress on the second Hand of the Trickster book. I was soon happily logging 3000 to 5000-word days on Mister Bucket, where I'd struggled to reach 1500 words some days on the other book.

Let's see if I can identify what it is about each of these series that feels different, what attracts me to write in the settings, and what those settings contribute to the fiction.

Auckland Allies

The fun thing about Auckland Allies is that it takes place in a setting I know well: the real-world city of Auckland, New Zealand, where I was born and, where, apart from an eight-month period in Brisbane many years ago, I've lived ever since. That means that I can celebrate the things I enjoy about the city; work in a few complaints about it; and research my books just by walking around (or using Google Maps and Street View, in a pinch).

It also provides its own inspiration. For the first book, I strapped a GoPro camera to my head and walked through places where I'd set chase scenes, and that gave me additional ideas for those scenes and how they could go. I also used the extinct volcanoes which are a unique aspect of Auckland to make it a story that couldn't be set anywhere else.

Graves under Grafton Bridge (my photo)

The second book, Ghost Bridge, is almost entirely inspired by real aspects of the city, in fact. There really is an early-20th-century bridge which sits partially over a 19th-century graveyard, close to the downtown area. There really is a hospital at one end of the bridge and a luxury hotel at the other. Four thousand graves really were dug up when the nearby motorway went through in the 1960s, and the bodies really were cremated and reburied in a mass grave next to the bridge. And there really is a statue of Zealandia, the personified spirit of New Zealand, a short distance down the road. All of these are key elements of the story in Ghost Bridge; in fact, if you took them away, there wouldn't be much story left. And I didn't have to make up a single one of them, only take what was there already and combine them imaginatively.

The other fun thing about Auckland Allies is that I can write in my own dialect. A lot of the time, I'm writing with an eye to the American market, since that's the largest market for fiction in English, and I have to be aware of phrasing things in a way that will be clear to American readers, not using turns of phrase or slang that come naturally to me but would sound strange to them. In Auckland Allies, I'm writing characters who are explicitly New Zealanders, and they speak accordingly--not only in their dialogue, but in their narration, since I use first person points of view. I'm still aware of the language, and still careful to phrase things so that someone who isn't familiar with the slang will nevertheless understand it from context--something that, as a science fiction and fantasy author, I have practice at doing--but I enjoy being able to write in a full-on Kiwi voice, rather than in intentionally bland international English.

Hand of the Trickster

Hand of the Trickster is my newest series, so new that I've only just published the first book. So far, I have a 34,000-word novella (the one that just went up), and 26,000 words of what looks like being a shortish novel. Accordingly, the setting is less developed so far than in the other two series.

It's sword-and-sorcery, set in a world of many gods. The High Gods have become distant and uninvolved since the War of Gods, leaving their followers to (mis)manage the Empire, but the Middle Gods are still at large in the world, especially the Trickster.

One thing I enjoy about this setting is that not much is really nailed down yet. I'm making it up as I go along, rather than planning it out in advance (like the Gryphon Clerks) or conforming it to the real world (like Auckland Allies). I haven't even drawn a map yet. While that results in a setting that isn't as rich and complex, the focus is more on character and plot; the setting, apart from the situation with the gods, doesn't drive the story as much as in the other two series.

Having a main character who's a thief in the service of the Trickster also enables me to let my chaotic side out to play. I've met a couple of real-life fraudsters, and they were extremely annoying; but I love fictional heists, capers, and shenanigans, and this is my chance to write some. I identify as neutral good with strong lawful leanings, but writing a chaotic good character like Now You Don't (the protagonist and narrator of Hand of the Trickster), or like Sparx, the hacker technomage in Auckland Allies, is tremendous fun and gives the mischievous part of me a safe outlet. My father always enjoyed playing villain roles in light opera, for similar reasons.

The Gryphon Clerks

The Gryphon Clerks setting was originally intended as a game setting, but I never finished the game, and the story seeds I kept planting became too tempting. I mapped out a geographically large and culturally detailed and diverse world, with room for a great many stories, and in fact I find that the stories multiply as I write them.

This is partly because lots of minor characters tend to be needed for the kind of large-scale stories I tell there, and they turn up and become unexpectedly interesting, and then I want to write more about them. In the book I've just finished drafting, for example (Mister Bucket for Assembly), near the end of the book three young gnomes are running a small newspaper and what amounts to a radio station. They're secondary to the main action, but now I want to write a novel all about them as they build their media empire, bicker, fall in love, break stories, witness history and struggle against the odds. This is how the world tends to expand, one story at a time, and there's a whole huge area beyond the mountains that I haven't even visited yet.

I said above that I worked out the setting in advance. I didn't work out everything, though. As I write each book, I add to a wiki which holds all of the established facts about the world, so that I don't end up contradicting myself. Sometimes, this sparks further ideas; occasionally, it means I can't do something because of something I've already said, and I have to rewrite. This generally ends up being a useful creative constraint more than an annoyance, though.

What is a bit of an annoyance, in retrospect, is that I've made the setting almost science-fictional, and used some different terms for things that we already have names for, like marriage (which I call oathbinding), in order to underline the differences from our world. I've also used an approach to character names that not everybody loves. I'm kind of stuck with those things now, even though they can feel awkward at times. People who love the setting and the characters seem willing to forgive me, though.

Setting and Story

When you're writing fantasy and science fiction, in particular, setting is very important as a story driver. Not only does it determine what stories are possible, but it suggests what stories might be interesting.

My first published novel, City of Masks, was stalled for about 10 years because, having got the protagonist to the setting, I couldn't figure out what happened next. My creative block was freed when I made a large diagram of conflicting factions in the city and tied characters to them. Each group, and therefore each character, had its own agenda, and this set the story in motion. I've not, so far, thought of another story in that setting, but if I ever do it might well be driven by a similar spring. Certainly, clashing interests in the respective settings drive the plots of Auckland Allies, Hand of the Trickster and the Gryphon Clerks, in different ways that I've attempted to explore above.

While immersing deeply into just one world and writing a series, or multiple series, set there has proved a productive and lucrative approach for many writers, I find that variety helps me to stay fresh, and that my different settings have unique elements that make each of them fun in its own way. I hope that my readers find the same.

Jul 01

Who Am I? (And a request for betas)

I went for a walk to post a letter this morning, and I was thinking during my walk, as you do, about how I probably need to refresh my beta readers group. They originally signed on to beta read my Gryphon Clerks novels, which I'm not writing now (I won't say I'll never go back, but for now, I'm not writing stories in that world). I've noticed an understandable reduction in enthusiasm and participation from those folks, especially since I've been writing so much lately (and they're all busy people). So I'm going to be looking for some new blood, people who would like to read my stuff relatively early in the production cycle and comment on what did and didn't work.

That led on to another thought: so, how do I define what I write? The common advice from people who are making a lot of money writing is that you need to find your niche and stick to it, but so far I haven't found it, and I find that advice boring in any case. The realm of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) is broad and diverse, and I love exploring it; I may even wander out of it someday.

So far, this is what I write, more or less in order of increasing recency:

  • Nonmagical secondary-world sociological speculation, with a strong mystery component (City of Masks).
  • Science fiction exploring how more-or-less plausible future technologies impact people and society (the novella Gu, and a number of recent, as yet unpublished, short stories, including "Taking Pro," which will appear in Futuristica 2 in November this year). So far, all set on Earth rather than in space. I love space opera, but I haven't yet written any.
  • Lightly steampunked secondary-world fantasy (the Gryphon Clerks series, which, as I say, is on indefinite hiatus; one is arguably almost a romance).
  • Contemporary urban fantasy with a touch of technothriller (Auckland Allies; I've just finished drafting the third of what looks like being a six-book series).
  • A number of short stories featuring various kinds of magic users, for an eventual themed single-author collection, Makers of Magic. Some published, others not. Some are, and some aren't, in secondary worlds. Some funny, some serious.
  • Lyrical fantasy set in post-Zelaznian worlds of wonder (mostly short pieces so far, most not yet published apart from "Something Rich and Strange" and "Gatekeeper, What Toll?"; I'd put the forthcoming SF-ish fantasy novella Brother Blue in this category, too).
  • Sword-and-sorcery, with humour ("Axe Stone: Dwarf Detective" and "There's a Tattoo, But the Robes Hide It," plus the forthcoming novella Hand of the Trickster).
  • Several assorted other short stories that don't fit any of the above (and aren't yet published): a time travel story, a supers story, a solarpunk story set in the present day, a couple of pieces of historical fantasy set in our world.

Woman reading

And here are some future possibilities that don't fit into any of the above, with an indication of the stages of planning:

  • Three secondary-world, nonmagical adventure/romances (idea, rough outline, detailed outline). May or may not end up in the same world, though there's no reason why they shouldn't be, and it seems like a good idea.
  • A probably secondary-world steampunk fantasy novel(la?) in which the magic system is such that a form of feudalism is still active, and the characters end up in rebellion against it (detailed outline).
  • A space opera series with a bit of a post-cyberpunk overlay (rough series outline and setting notes).
  • A mid-future novel, or maybe series, exploring a post-scarcity world (detailed, but incomplete, setting notes and first chapter; no outline).
  • A mashup of noir, cyberpunk and shamanism, not sure how long (beginning written, and a rough outline which I may or may not follow).
  • An expansion to novel length of the supers story I've already written (mentioned above), about genetically enhanced kids who have to choose whether to work for the government who raised them or against it. (Rough outline.)
  • A secret school where all the kids have psychic powers of one kind or another, kind of a cross between Julian May's Galactic Milieu setting and Sherri S. Tepper's True Game setting, with a touch of X-Men, but probably on contemporary Earth. With sports? (Idea.)
  • An urban fantasy with different kinds of psychic powers. (Idea.)
  • The story of a non-neurotypical engineer (don't call her a mad scientist!) and the superhero she loves, told in tweets, posts, emails, user manuals and specifications. (Idea.)
  • A couple more time travel ideas, including one based on the paranoid delusions of a famous early-19th-century lunatic. (Ideas.)
  • A straight detective novel where the murder victim is the judge on a cooking reality show contest, and the suspects are the contestants from 10 years before, at their reunion. (Idea, fairly well developed, but not to the point of outlining.)
  • A comedy-thriller in which a retired female agent becomes a mentor to a young man, rescues him from a life of crime and makes him a confidential courier - and then they must both confront issues from their pasts. (Idea.)

Yeah, just call me Mister Pachinko Brain.

So what's the constant in all of that genre diversity? Is there a core of what it means to be a Mike Reeves-McMillan story?

I hope there is, and I hope it's this:

  • In any genre, I'm more drawn to the side of it that has hope and a sense of wonder, rather than to the cynical side. Some of my SF speculations do tend to come out downbeat, but they're not cynical, and the characters are still people you can empathise with - even as you dislike their choices and regret the consequences of those choices in a complex, difficult world. You won't see full-blown technopessimism, dystopia, or any kind of apocalypse (or horror, or very dark fantasy) from me.
  • My fantasy characters are usually admirable people who take costly action for reasons they believe in; I write "noblebright," not "grimdark". But they're not squeaky-clean cardboard cutouts, either. They have their flaws and their damage to deal with, and sometimes they make the wrong call at a critical moment.
  • I enjoy ensemble casts in my novels (you can't really do an ensemble cast in a short story). They fight and bicker among themselves, but ultimately pull together for the greater good. I've been told I do good dialog, and that my characters have distinctive voices and seem "real".
  • Many of my characters, in all genres - I think slightly over half, definitely including protagonists - are capable, intelligent women who don't take any crap from anyone.
  • The stories may or may not have a romantic element, but when they do, the partners are admirable people who deserve each other, by which I mean that the women are not stupid and the men are not cruel. (Or vice versa, for that matter.)
  • Even in stories that are not primarily humour, there's often something to laugh at in the dialog, the characters' fumbling attempts to come to grips with their lives, or the situation. I like to have fun writing, and believe that leads to fun reading.
  • The worlds are often beautiful and filled with wonder, excitement and possibility, even if there's also violence, conflict and risk. Grittiness and grimness do occur, but not as a prevailing tone, more as a source of contrast.
  • The "what-if?" ideas are unusual, surprising, and carefully worked out. In particular, I give a lot of thought to how they would affect both individual people and society as a whole, and use that to drive the story.
  • While I don't often do beautiful language for its own sake, I do use language consciously and, I hope, skilfully. I think that's important, since it's the medium I work in; just as a painter needs to know how to handle paint, and a sculptor how to handle clay, a writer needs to know how to handle words. Not only is the language carefully chosen and structured, but you'll seldom find typos, homonym errors or punctuation issues even in my first drafts.

So if you think that's the kind of thing you'd like, and you have the time to read early drafts and give me feedback, get in touch (leave a comment, or drop an email to mike at csidemedia) and I'll add you to my beta reading pool.

And if it's the kind of thing you'd like but you don't want to beta read, make sure you're subscribed to the mailing list so you know when I publish something. There are at least three books and, I hope, several short stories coming later this year. My existing work can all be found from here.

 

Jun 16

Stakes

I thought you might enjoy the latest chapter from the nonfiction book I'm working on, Writing Short: The Craft and Commerce of Short Story Writing. It's one of those ones that turns up at four in the morning and takes over your brain. I blame the Writing Excuses podcast I listened to yesterday.


You’ll often hear the expression “raising the stakes” in relation to storytelling. It’s a term that can be easily misunderstood, as I was reminded by listening to an excellent podcast on stakes by the Writing Excuses team (season 11, episode 24).

Stakes are the motivations that prevent a character from just giving up and walking away in the face of opposition, danger, difficulty or challenge. That means that the most powerful stakes are personal. There’s a reason for the cliché “this time it’s personal” in movie sequel taglines.

“Raising the stakes,” then, isn’t just about “before, the city was under threat, now it’s the whole country! Next, the world!” Obviously, in the abstract, a threat to the whole country is more important than a threat to a single city. But we’re not in the abstract. We’re telling stories, which means we’re looking at issues through the eyes of characters—people—and people respond to what is important to them.

A tragedy touches us much more if we know someone involved. A personal example: a few years ago, in the city where I live, some engineers and tradespeople were inspecting a new water pipeline. Somehow, gas had leaked into the pipeline, and it exploded and killed one person, severely injured a second, and injured several others (one employee and some contractors).

As it happened, I was working for the city water authority at the time, training people on the new computer system they were putting in. I heard about the tragedy, and wondered if it had impacted anyone I knew.

And then the media published the name of the woman who was killed, and I realised that it was someone who had been in my classroom two days before, who I’d spoken with and helped. The man who was badly injured (losing several limbs) had been in the same classroom. And I’d also trained the other employee who was injured.

That made the tragedy much more tragic to me. I know that in an ideal world, whether someone has a face and a name that you know, whether you’ve met them and spoken to them, whether you know their story, shouldn’t affect how much you care about their fate; but the reality is that it does.

Knowing this can easily lead you down a bad path with your writing, as well as a good one.

If you know that stakes are personal, that motivations with a lot of emotion attached to them are ones that will drive characters powerfully through great trials and also engage the audience, the temptation is to use cheap, thoughtless tragedy to make your story more powerful—just as fast-food companies use salt, sugar and fat to make their food more attractive to consumers without spending much money.

A classic example of this is the trope of the Woman in a Refrigerator.

Woman in refrigerator

The trope gets its name from an incident in a Green Lantern comic, in which Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) finds that an assassin has broken into his apartment while he’s out, killed his girlfriend, and stuffed her into the refrigerator for him to find. The thing that is wrong with the trope is that it is treating a character, and specifically a female character, solely as a source of emotion and motivation for another, more “important” character—not as a person with significance for their own sake, with their own story and character arc. The same thing can be done with male characters, of course, but because women are more often denied their own stories anyway, using a woman in this way is particularly pernicious.

It’s also setting up for the “man alone” trope. This is where the damaged loner goes out on the road seeking vengeance/peace/redemption/escape from his past, and all of that hovers in the background as he encounters various adventures, both driving his wandering from setting to setting and also making sure he never develops ties or settles down anywhere. If he does start to develop ties, either they will be tragically and brutally taken away from him, or he will leave rather than risk that happening. The problem with this trope is that it feeds the fantasies of actual damaged loners, discourages them from seeking help or support, and can help place them in a position where they end up creating real tragedies for other people.

I should clarify, at this point, that I’m not advocating any form of censorship, or saying that these stories should be forbidden and never told at all. What I’m advocating is that you, my reader, who wants to learn to write good stories, think about the stories that you are going to write, and whether they play into unhealthy societal patterns and reinforce them.

Along with the “man alone” is the “one woman” trope, where there is only one female character of any significance in the story, and so she never talks to another woman or forms one of those strong female friendships that are such a source of power for real women. Remember, stakes are personal, which means that having more, and more significant, relationships increases the scope and possibilities of your story. And loss is not the only motivator, as the last chapter, I hope, abundantly demonstrates. [Note: this is part of a book, as I mentioned, and the previous chapter sets out various kinds of motivation.]

While I’m talking about overused and toxic tropes: it’s true (unfortunately) that many women have experienced sexual assault. It’s also true that this is an experience that often impacts them for many years, even for the rest of their lives. But it’s not the only experience that can motivate a female character, and it shouldn’t be tossed casually into a female character’s backstory as a shortcut that doesn’t require much thought or follow-up.

I’ve said above that loss is not the only motivator. One reason, I think, that it’s overused as a motivator is that in epic stories, often we begin with the potential hero growing up in a remote, rural setting, in a life that they must be motivated to leave in order for the adventure to kick off. This is the cliché beginning for an epic fantasy: the Chosen One, a humble farm boy, survives the destruction of his whole village and the death of his parents or parental figures, which launches him on the adventure that he previously refused to embark on. Now, to the credit of the cliché epic fantasy, he will usually start gathering companions immediately, rather than being the “man alone,” but when you’re writing a short story instead of an epic, that’s tricky to pull off. Perhaps don’t start by motivating your protagonist with loss, and see if that leads to a better story?

Let’s think about Star Wars (the original trilogy) for a bit to see how this works. We open with the rebel ship boarded, the planet Alderaan destroyed; this is what movie makers, in particular, sometimes think of as “high stakes”. The fate of the galaxy! Destruction of planets! The problem is, at this point we really don’t care much, because it isn’t particularly personal. It’s gone too big too quickly. But it’s effectively a prologue anyway, letting us know that there will be Big Space Stuff coming up; we need to know that, because the next thing we see is a gawky kid called Luke growing up on a farm. He talks about getting involved in the war, like his friends, but he’s not really going to do it; he’s tied down by his family (his uncle and aunt) and small, local obligations.

When he sees the message from the attractive space princess, though, which conveniently falls into his hands, he’s motivated enough to go looking for the old hermit to find out more about her. The old hermit wants him to get involved, but he’s not that keen.

Until! They go back to his home, and it’s destroyed, his uncle and aunt (foster parents) dead, and it’s the fault of the Empire. Now it’s personal! Not only does he have nothing to keep him at home anymore, but he has a motivation to go out and get involved in the Big Space Stuff that has taken away his comfortable provincial life. Out there, he’ll meet companions, and come to have more and more reasons to fight and persevere.

As will his companions, though. Think about Han Solo for a minute. We meet him as almost a “man alone,” although he does have a sidekick. He’s out for himself, very much for hire, worried about his debt, skeptical about the old hermit’s mysticism, contemptuous of this kid with dust behind his ears. But as his ties to the others grow, as they risk their lives to rescue him, his stake in the conflict increases, and he becomes heroic, rather than self-absorbed and uncaring. He becomes the guy who turns up with a rescue when things seem hopeless.

He becomes, in fact, more admirable. Remember I talked about the admirable character, who is willing to bear personal cost for the sake of others? [Note: in another earlier chapter.] There’s an interesting sidelight here on the question of stakes, and it comes to me via Terry Pratchett. His characters Granny Weatherwax and Carrot Ironfoundersson, in Lords and Ladies and Men at Arms respectively, both say, at key moments: “Personal isn’t the same as important.”

In the Writing Excuses podcast episode I referenced at the start of this chapter, several of the podcasters discuss how villains often act out of motivations that are to do with preserving order or doing “good” for the community as a whole, while heroes will be driven by stakes that are more personal. I suspect that part of the reason for this is that the great villains of the 20th century—to those in English-speaking countries, at least—were fascists and communists, who placed the state above the individual and committed atrocities in service of that philosophy. (Nor were they the first or the last to put abstract principles before humanity, with tragic consequences.) It’s also because someone who is personally motivated is easier to empathise with, and so less likely to be regarded as a villain. But there is also the admirable character to consider, the one who will, when the chips are down, set aside what’s best for them personally and do something for the good of others, or their people, or their community, or their nation. We naturally value and praise this quality as a society, since we like to have people around who will help us, even at cost to themselves.

So what’s going on when someone values the concerns of others, and the big picture, above their personal stakes in the situation? I’d suggest that they’re transcending that instinct we all have to focus in on our immediate, short-term, personal benefit, to see those who are close to us as more important than those who are distant from us; who can, metaphorically speaking, look at a row of power poles that look smaller the further away they are, and not just know, but believe and act as if, each of them is actually the same height.

This is a higher order of thinking than the instincts of fear and anger that protect our own interests at any cost, and it’s the kind of thinking that produces great and wonderful results in our society. Whether it’s Harriet Tubman returning again and again to rescue others from slavery, or Malala Yousafzai speaking out for the education of women after being shot for going to school, or a soldier carrying a wounded comrade to safety under fire, we recognise the courage and selflessness of these people as an admirable kind of humanity. And we take inspiration from their stories exactly because they put their lives at stake because something else, someone else, matters more to them. Villains, in contrast, are those who will often claim to be acting for some kind of greater good, but who prefer to see other people pay the cost.

Stakes are personal. They will drive and draw your characters through great opposition and inspire them to magnificent deeds. But they don’t have to be selfish, and, in fact, we respond even better when they’re not.

May 19

Release Schedule for 2016

"Release schedule," listen to me, all highfalutin'. But I do have a few things coming out this year.

Soon:

I'm not sure when, but sometime soon In June, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores will be publishing my story "Gatekeeper, What Toll?" (accessible by subscription only). It boils down a multi-volume epic fantasy series about a fated tragic hero to the essential 0.1%, by filtering it through the eyes of the keeper of a gate between worlds.

Also in June, Farstrider published my story "Mail Order Witch". When Jim kind of semi-accidentally steals his buddy Bill's Russian bride, things don't go so well.

ALSO ALSO June:

MRM-GhostBridge_ChrisHoward_rev55_FRONTCOVERAuckland Allies 2: Ghost Bridge is all ready to go at the beginning of June. I'll be running a promotion on Book 1 as part of that launch, so stay tuned.

The contemporary urban fantasy/technothriller action continues as the Allies face a necromancer raising ghosts from a Victorian cemetery near the heart of the city. Steampunk Sally, I have to say, is awesome in this one, both when she pulls off a grift over the phone and when she... No, I won't spoil it. Put it this way: if you thought it was cool when she hit a guy with a weaponised possum, you'll really enjoy this.

August:

I've just finished a sword-and-sorcery novella, Hand of the Trickster. It features a thief who's been blessed by his patron god, the Trickster, with the ability to "conjure" small items to and from storage in the Trickster Temple. He teams up with an ex-priestess of Wisdom, who's done something unwise; a huge man with a steel scorpion amulet embedded in his chest that makes him invulnerable; and an illusionist grifter with a warped sense of humour. Together, they pull heists on the temples of Wisdom and Justice.

Update: All going well, there will be a second book in November.

Late this year, I hope:

I've started work on Auckland Allies 3: Unsafe Harbour, and have reached 20,000 words, or a bit under halfway. At the moment I'm not sure what kind of time I'll have to work on it in the second half of the year, but all going well I should have it ready in late 2016. More magic, more technology, more body-stealing Nazis, and 100% more ninjas! (OK, there's one ninja. Not technically an actual ninja. It's Tara in a super suit, all right? Are you happy?)

Update: Now complete, and scheduled for September.

Probably October:

I'm part of a cool project that I don't think I'm supposed to talk about yet, so I won't. But it features some authors whose work I admire, and an audacious attempt to... no, I've said too much.

Looking at the moment like November:

My science fiction story "Taking Pro" will appear in Futuristica 2 from Metasagas Press. I read the first volume of this anthology series recently, and there are some excellent stories in it, so I look forward to the second one. My story is about what happens when scientists come up with a treatment that turns people "prosocial", and how they face the ethical and political dilemmas that engenders.

Don't know when:

I have about 36,000 words' worth of short stories and an 18,700-word novella out on submission at the moment (counting the novelette that forms the first third of Hand of the Trickster), and hopefully at least some of that will sell at some point this year. I also have three more stories that I've already sold, but I haven't been told when they'll be published (some markets communicate better than others).

I'll let you know as things develop. Thanks, by the way, to those who voted for my story "Something Rich and Strange" in the Sir Julius Vogel Award nominations; it didn't make the final list, but as you can see, there will be plenty of material for nomination next year. Around 150,000 words of it, if I've counted right. Wow.