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.

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.

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.

Aug 25

Treble and Bass: A Metaphor

I woke up at two o'clock this morning and started thinking about fiction. (This is normal behaviour for a writer.) In the nonlinear way that brains work at 2am, my brain came up with a metaphor that I'd like to explore here.

Of the several ways in which fiction can be satisfying, here are two:

A. Events have an impact on characters.

B. Characters have an impact on events.

Those aren't at opposite ends of a spectrum. They're like sliders on a mixing board, which can be moved up and down independently. Let's call them treble and bass, respectively.

equalizer
underwhelmer / Foter / CC BY

Here's a theory. The "sad puppies" (if you don't know who they are, rejoice, and bail out now, because this post won't make a lot of sense to you) are all about that bass, 'bout that bass, no treble. (I'm generalising and exaggerating for the sake of a point; fair warning, I'll be doing a lot of that, so take what I have to say with salt to taste.)

My speculation is that in the brief interval before they decided to engage in a conspiracy to distort the Hugo nomination process in the service of identity politics, and then got hijacked by the king of the haters, the puppies may have thought, "We, and everyone we know whose opinion we respect, like fiction with lots of bass, and don't care much about treble. These Hugo-winning stories have too much treble, and not enough bass. Since no right-thinking person would actually like them, there must be a conspiracy to distort the Hugo nomination process in the service of identity politics! That's so wrong! We should do it too!"

Incidentally, in my view the short stories--not so much the novels--that have won Hugos in recent years do tend to emphasise treble a lot more than bass, reflecting a wider trend in the pro magazines and anthologies. The novels have more of a balance between the two--at least, the ones I've read.

I personally prefer a balance: both treble and bass. I find bass-only stories as unsatisfying as treble-only stories. But let's think about why people might write stories that are strongly one or the other. Wild speculation, OK? I could be completely wrong here.

Let's say you're a member of a historically disadvantaged and disempowered group (for our current purposes, any such group will do). What's your experience going to be? Might it possibly be that you experience being impacted by events more than you experience impacting events? And might your fiction reflect that experience?

And if, by contrast, you're a member of a historically advantaged and empowered group, won't you tend to experience, and think in terms of, your actions impacting events? And (here the speculation goes completely wild) might there be reasons that you don't want to think too hard about how events impact people? Why you might want to live in a universe where everyone is stoic and unmoved, and nobody's life is defined by things that happen to them without their consent? Particularly if your group's experience of unquestioned power is waning, and is now being constantly challenged, with questions being raised about whether your advantage over others is a good thing, even whether it will continue to exist?

Now, I want to live in a world where everyone can experience both bass and treble. I think that world is coming, but it isn't here yet. During such a transition, fiction becomes a zone of conflict, because fiction is inherently political, because it's a cultural product produced by people, who can't help being political even if they think they aren't.

And that is all I have to say about puppies.

Jul 30

Genre Considered As a Restaurant

If you’ve spent much time around writers, you’ve probably heard someone complain that “genre” is just a way for publishers and booksellers to impose marketing categories for their own convenience, and it should die in a fire, because we’d all be better off without it.

I’ve said things adjacent to this myself. After all, my first novel is set in a secondary world--like a fantasy, but with no magic--that’s loosely based on Shakespeare’s Italy, and combines the language of a literary novel with the plot of a serial-killer mystery thriller, told in diary entries. Consequently, it’s almost impossible to sell, because what’s the audience for that? What genre does it even fit in?

It’s easy, then, to fall into bemoaning the idea that a book even needs a genre. Recently, though, I’ve started to think about genre with a new metaphor: that of a restaurant.

We’re very fortunate in the 21st century to have access to the cuisine of so many cultures. My father, who grew up in New Zealand in the 1930s, once told me how much things had improved in his lifetime. When he was young, “going out” meant going to the pub for a roast dinner, which probably wasn’t even very tasty. At the time we were talking (the 1980s, I think), you could choose to get a meal from most parts of Europe and Asia, plus Latin America if you looked around a bit. These days, in most major cities worldwide, you can eat food from any inhabited continent.

That gives us a richness of choice which itself creates a new situation. We now have to ask ourselves, when going out to eat, which flavours, which experience, we want to have. What are we in the mood for?

Hence my metaphor of genre as restaurant, or rather, as cuisine. Different cuisines offer different satisfactions. Do we want the blended spices of India? The balance of sweet, hot and sour that Thai offers? The subtle flavours of France? Robust, earthy Mediterranean food? And if we want Mediterranean, is that Italian, Greek, Turkish, Middle Eastern, or North African?

Likewise, different genres offer different satisfactions too. Some of them are emotional: horror offers a thrill of fear, suspense offers a thrill of excitement, romance offers the warmth of intimacy, fantasy offers the imagined experience of having magical powers. Others are mental: mystery offers an experience of a puzzle solved, SF offers the exploration of a what-if. Our brains are wired to find these things satisfying, originally for survival reasons. The most successful genres, and the most successful books, I believe, combine emotional and mental satisfaction, but depending how you blend the flavours and which ones you emphasise, you can satisfy very different palates.

This is also why, although I read primarily fantasy, there are fantasy books (and authors) that leave me cold. Something in the blend is off. I had the experience, while in the US, of eating at a Thai restaurant where all the food primarily tasted sweet--no sour, no hot, just sweet. I love Thai food, but I didn’t love that.

I’m not always in the same mood, either. Just like I don’t always eat the same cuisine, I don’t always read the same genre or subgenre (or write it, either). Sometimes I want my fantasy to also contain mystery, or comedy, or be a thriller.

Just as there are different approaches to cooking, there are different approaches to writing. If you are working in a classic genre--French provincial cuisine, say, or noir detective--you have to get it exactly right. There’s nowhere to hide. You either produce an excellent, textbook example of the genre you’re attempting; you successfully update it into a modern version, without losing the essentials that made it great originally; or you fail, because you’ve created something that doesn’t match up to expectations, that isn’t well executed. And your failure is obvious, because we have well-known examples to compare with. We know what it should taste like.

If you’re being more experimental, or attempting “fusion,” using fancy techniques or ingredients, or combining ingredients that don’t classically go together, your possible failure modes are different. People may give you credit for attempting something new and different, but then go back to the classics for their next meal, because your imagination exceeded your ability to execute (for example, 99.99% of steampunk); or they may enjoy it, think you did it well, but decide that it’s not an experience they want all the time. Or they may become extremely excited if you pull it off, and come back again and again, and rave about it to all their friends--while struggling to express exactly what it is.

Genre, then, is like a restaurant sign. It tells us approximately what kind of experience we’re about to have. Covers and blurbs elaborate on this, which is why covers are so important, and why you need to have a cover that fits into your genre as well as standing out, and which doesn’t mislead readers about what the book is like. (This is a large part of the reason that I self-publish: because I don’t trust publishers to make good decisions about my covers.) And among the things I look for in a blurb (and in reviews) are the signals that tell me: this book is tragic, this book is funny, this book is action-packed, this book explores character deeply.

A bookstore, then, is a food court. And to market your book, you need to convey to people what they’re going to get when they consume it. One way, the easy way, to do this is to sit within an obvious genre, to, metaphorically speaking, call your food stand The Spicy Wok or A Taste of Turkish. If you’re going outside the well-understood genres, though, you need to think hard about who is going to want those particular flavours, and how you convey to them that that’s what you’re selling.

Mar 14

Spec Fic and Comedy

Like millions of other fans, I'm saddened to hear of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite authors. It seems like a good occasion to reflect on humour in SFF (science fiction and fantasy), a topic I've been thinking about lately in any case.

I recently read, or at least started to read, a single-author collection of supposedly humourous SFF. The humour didn't work for me, as sometimes happens, and what that revealed, like mudflats at low tide, was that the stories weren't particularly good stories, and the SFF consisted mainly of cliches (while the humour consisted mainly of silly names). I didn't make it past halfway through the second story, a limp Lord of the Rings parody, neither funny, nor well-written, nor interesting.

I see this a lot in would-be comedic writing. I have to admit, as a reviewer I do often grant an author a pass for a dubious bit of worldbuilding, plotting, characterisation or what-have-you if the writing makes me laugh. The risk you run when you rely on this, though, is that if the writing doesn't make the reader laugh, there's nothing left to fall back on.

I maintain that a big part of the reason that Pratchett was the preeminent comic novelist since P.G. Wodehouse, responsible at one time for almost 4% of the entire British publishing industry's sales, was that he wrote books that worked as stories. His characters in the early books may have been cliches and stereotypes, but by his long and productive middle period he was writing characters with depth, complexity, growth and development.

There's a subtle, but detectable, gradient from cliche to stereotype to parody to character trapped in an unfortunate pattern of behaviour by habit and social expectation, and Pratchett showed us the full spectrum in the course of his career. He was an insightful observer of humanity, as all the best comedians are, but he was also a compassionate one - not just holding people up to mockery but reminding us that, whatever their failings, however small-minded and ridiculous they might be, they deserved consideration as human beings. (Even when they weren't, strictly speaking, human beings, but dwarves, trolls, golems, vampires, Igors or goblins.)

He's often compared to other writers, most frequently Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse, but his stories have more depth than either. In Adams, there are cosmic stakes, but they're minimised by the absurdity. In Wodehouse, the stakes are seldom higher than social embarrassment. In Pratchett, the stakes are high, and we care about them, and yet we're laughing.

terry_pratchett
Sir Terry PratchettRaeAllen / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

I'll make a comparison myself. There's a fairly obscure American humourist called Damon Runyon. Most people who've heard of him know him through the musical Guys and Dolls, or perhaps the Shirley Temple movie Little Miss Marker, both of which were based on his work, but he wrote a great many short stories in the 1930s set in the more dubious parts of contemporary New York. They're stories of revenge, lost love, family tragedy, violence and, occasionally, good triumphant with the help of rough, hard-bitten characters who have a sentimental side. Yet, mainly through the voice of the unnamed narrator (who observes much more than he participates; he's never unambiguously the protagonist), they're funny, both because of their wry, ironic observations and because of the distinctive language. They are, at the same time, slangy and poetic, and characterised by a total avoidance of the past tense.

My parents had an omnibus of the Runyon stories, and I read them a couple of times growing up. A while ago, frustrated by another would-be comic fantasy that I didn't find funny or otherwise enjoyable, I set out to write my own version of the same premise, and for reasons connected with that premise I picked the Runyonese dialect to tell it in. To make sure I was getting the voice right, I re-read some of the Runyon tales, and I was struck by the fact that there's often a dark, or at least heartwrenching, story going on behind all the humour. So I strove to make that, too, a part of the story I wrote, which you can read here.

I might never have thought of attempting that, though, if it hadn't been for the example of Terry Pratchett. Death (the phenomenon) isn't funny. Death (the character, who makes at least a cameo appearance in every Discworld book and is a main character in several), while usually serious himself, is a cause of comedy in other people.

Let's reflect on that for a moment. At least one person dies in every Discworld novel. Often, it's a minor character, but usually it's someone with a name, though sometimes we don't learn the name until Death says it in all caps. And these are primarily thought of as comic novels.

That, too, was part of Pratchett's genius. Nothing in life, not even death, was outside his warm, human, comedic insightfulness. Now that he has made the transition himself, it's up to us who are left to try to carry on his legacy, not only of funny fantasy, but of kindness, good storytelling, and reflection on the human condition.

Jun 17

How to be a Light Hybrid Author

I recently participated in a thread on Google+ started by someone who was arguing for leaving self-publishing in favour of trad pub. Now, I'm not sure if he's genuinely naive or just trolling, but his view of trad pub is, let's say, rosier than the facts justify.

I've set out my views on traditional publishing before, but to summarise: the main remaining benefits of traditional publishing that I can see are wider exposure, including print distribution to bookstores, and some residual (and rapidly vanishing) extra credibility.

The two are intertwined. There are many podcasts, book review sites and the like which still only feature traditionally-published books and authors, often as a matter of explicitly stated policy, and the underlying reason is presumably that this gives them a straightforward filter to reduce the amount of crap coming across the transom. A high-profile site of this kind gets inundated with far more material than they can handle, and saying "no self-pub" reduces the volume by filtering out material that, additionally, is still statistically more likely to be of low quality.

The quality issue in self-pub is real, but things are shifting rapidly. As clueless trad-pub houses get rid of editors and savvy self-publishers take them on, the quality gap is shrinking. I have "shelves" (tags) set up on Goodreads for "needs-editing", "seriously-needs-editing" and "well-edited". At time of writing, I have 20 books marked "seriously-needs-editing," of which 5 are from large publishers and one from a small press (the rest are indie). I have 39 marked "well-edited," of which 33 are from indies. Now, disclaimers: I read a disproportionate amount of indie fiction, I'm pretty good at filtering out the bad ones, and out of those 33 well-edited books, 15 are by Debora Geary, who just doesn't seem to put many typos in or else has an incredibly eagle-eyed editor. Regardless, the quality gap is smaller than it's often portrayed, and as more and more of the most imaginative work is done in self-pub, the credibility gap will shrink.

Not only in editing, either. I occasionally browse the cover designs that Joel Friedlander features on his Book Designer website (link is to a post featuring a couple of my covers), and at a casual inspection, it looks to me as if they are getting much better than they used to be. Indies are aware now that they can't stick a hideous cover on their book and expect it to do well. Trad-pub, on the other hand, can still put out cliched and awful covers sometimes. One of the reasons I choose to publish independently is exactly this: in trad-pub, the author is stuck with whatever cover the publisher comes up with, good or bad, even if it's a terrible representation of their vision or undermines one of their main points. If that happens with one of my covers, I only have myself to blame, because I commission them and approve them.

As for print distribution, the value of that is shrinking rapidly, and Hugh Howey's analysis shows that it isn't financially beneficial overall (at least, not for the authors). It gets more eyes on your stuff, which is important in awards season, but it doesn't get you more money if you publish with a traditional publisher who gives you low ebook royalties and print distribution to bookstores, vs getting higher ebook royalties and no print distribution. (In fact, if you publish through CreateSpace you can buy an add-on that gets you print distribution to bookstores, though whether it is worthwhile is another question - the answer will vary depending on the individual book, but my sense is that on average it is "no" unless you're doing well already.)

The average traditionally-published genre book will have a couple of copies sent to each bookstore, where they will be displayed "spine-out" on a shelf in that genre's section of the store for a limited period of time (3-6 months, I believe), after which they will probably be returned for a credit if nobody has bought them. That kind of exposure is increasingly not worth signing over lifetime rights to a publisher in exchange for low royalties.

I do have a point, which I'll get to soon

I'm rehearsing these well-rehearsed thoughts (which many have stated before me) not so much for their own sake as in order to give background for my main point, which is this: there is another, backdoor way to get some of the "gatekeeper cred" and exposure that traditional publishing still, for the moment, grants.

If I did the submission dance and was fortunate enough to be one of the comparative few given a trad-pub contract - and I'm reasonably confident that I could eventually achieve that if it was a goal of mine - I would face four problems which are reasons I don't participate in that dance (apart from the tedium of the dance itself).

The first problem is timeliness. From submission to acceptance to publication is a long and winding road in trad-pub. That's time in which my work could potentially be earning me money, and in which I could be getting reaction to it which could influence the next thing I write.

The second problem is control. I'd have no control over the cover, no control over the price, no control over the blurb, and the final editorial decisions would not be mine. Now, you can argue whether my retention of that control produces a better or worse result. I think it produces a better result, but I do know this for sure: my preference is to have it.

The third problem is scope of rights. Under the usual traditional contract, my rights in that work - and possibly other subsequent works - would be severely restricted, and the publishers would effectively control them for what amounts to an unlimited period (from my perspective, anyway, since copyright freedom 70 years after my death does me no good). The problem here is not that the publishers have the right to publish the work - that's what they're buying, after all - but that they retain it indefinitely.

The fourth problem, of course, is earning potential, and anything I could say about that is covered much better at Authorearnings.

The Answer

So what's the answer? How can I get the benefits of trad-pub (exposure and perceived legitimacy) without the drawbacks I've just enumerated?

The answer is short stories.

There still remains a vigorous, and if anything increasing, market for short stories, especially genre, especially fantasy and science fiction. There are anthologies coming out all the time, and numerous magazines, not to mention many competitions. There are different kinds of markets; some pay only royalties, others a token upfront amount, but many pay an upfront per-word rate ranging from 0.5c to 25c. Professional rates are considered (by fiat of the SFWA) 6c/word, and according to The Submission Grinder, there are currently 35 pro-paying markets for SF and 29 for fantasy (many of them, of course, the same markets).

Now, nobody's going to get rich just selling short stories for 6c/word. But what the short story markets provide is a more flexible, more timely, less rights-grabby version of trad pub.

Anthologies, even from small presses, get reviewed in places that are closed to indies. The major short story magazines (and there are several) are highly regarded in the field. Short stories get on awards ballots; there's a special place for them in several of the major awards. And all these markets have editors, so you can prove that someone other than you thought your fiction was worth publishing.

At the same time, their turnaround is relatively quick - few take as long as three months, much faster than the query process for traditional book publishing, and then publication usually follows in short order. That solves the problem of timeliness. (Exception: tor.com, a short fiction market which is owned by a book publisher, has a notoriously slow turnaround).

In terms of control, I don't expect control over the cover of an anthology or magazine that includes my story among several others. I hope it's not awful, and usually it isn't, but nobody else thinks of it as representing me either, so if it is awful, the splashover onto me is minimal and people will believe me when I distance myself from it.

Scope of rights is something that short story markets mostly make very clear upfront. Usually, their submission guidelines will say something like, "We're buying first serial rights with an exclusive period of X". X can vary from zero (you're free to use it elsewhere as soon as it's published) to a year, rarely more, and seems to average about 30-90 days. Anthologies usually have a longer exclusivity period than magazines, since magazines have a faster churn time - once the next issue is out, they're usually not worried about someone republishing a story that was in the last one. Anthologies are either one-off or annual, and in either case often call for a one-year exclusive.

And once that period is up, your rights revert, and you can try to sell the story to another publication (though not many take reprints, and those that do often pay less for them than they do for first appearances). Or you can put it on Amazon, alone or in a collection, and people can buy it from you there. (You might, if you're lucky, get into a Best Of anthology of some kind, though some of those primarily pay in exposure.)

And that's the earning potential issue addressed. Sell your story to the highest-paying market you can (knowing in advance how much you'll get), potentially resell it to another market afterwards, then stick it in Kindle Direct Publishing and make some more money from it. You're not stuck earning 25% royalty while the publisher cleans up for the rest of your life. You can rewrite it, turn it into a novel, collect it, whatever you like, because you have your rights back.

Pink Moped
Kanaka Menehune / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I've got a collection coming out soon, in fact, from HDWP Books, including several stories I've published with them or elsewhere before, as well as some new ones. I joke in the back of the book that this makes me a "hybrid" author, though not like a Prius - more of a moped.

This, along with the good things it's doing for my practice of the craft of writing, is why I'm working on short stories a lot these days. I've placed one in New Realm magazine (royalty-only, and I haven't hit the threshold for a payout, nor do I seriously expect to - but it's a publication credit, and the story is mine again now); three in the Theme-Thologies from HDWP Books (again, royalty-only, and I've had one small payout so far); and I just the other day got the news that I've sold one to the Alternate Hilarities 3: Hysterical Realms funny-fantasy anthology, which is another step up the ladder. There's an upfront payment (at least 1c/word, and up to 8c/word depending on how their Kickstarter goes) and a share of royalties.

I have five or six more stories on submission and several more that I'm working on. My plan is to work my way up through the semi-prozines and semi-pro anthologies to the big time: Strange Horizons, Sword and Sorceress, Unidentified Funny Objects (to name three that have sent me encouraging emails saying they wished they could buy my stories but they weren't quite right for this time).

All the street cred of traditional publication, without the lifetime rights grab and the long delays. More like being a contractor than being a low-level employee. This is how publication ought to work.

May 23

Is Speculative Fiction?

I'm going to do a foolish thing here. I'm going to set up a distinction.

Nothing is more likely to lead to arguments than definitions, but here we go.

Speculative fiction. It's a term that's used to cover SF, fantasy and (supernatural) horror, and the bits and pieces that fall in between and across those genres. Bizarro, weird, surrealist, magical realist, slipstream - you could toss them all into a broad definition of spec-fic, though it's more often used for SFF: science fiction and fantasy ("oh, and horror, I suppose" as an afterthought).

Let's look at the first word, though. "Speculative". Spec-fic is based around the idea of "what-if". In science fiction it's usually "what if this technology existed?", and in fantasy "what if magic existed?", though there are vast numbers of exceptions to those generalisations.

I'd like to argue, though, that after a particular trope becomes familiar enough, it's not "speculative" in the strongest sense any more. It's just a counterfactual setting. Everyone understands space opera, now. You have spaceships, probably warp or wormhole drives, quite possibly blasters and stunners, usually some kind of artificial gravity/antigravity, there's interstellar trade, there are space colonies, there may or may not be aliens of fairly predictable types (comedic, antagonistic, just plain weird). A space opera that only uses these tropes, that doesn't introduce anything new to them, can be an excellent and very enjoyable story, but it doesn't really speculate all that much. It's using a set of trope technologies established in the mid-20th century (notably, the computer technology isn't usually very advanced, sometimes not even as advanced as our actual present-day tech in a story written today), and has not very much to do with the current state of science. Writing a space opera of this kind is like writing a planetary romance: it's a literary genre that's become established with a certain set of assumptions and understandings about how things work, and we continue to enjoy it even though we know now that things don't really work that way.

Everyone, likewise, understands paranormal romance. There are supernatural creatures, most commonly vampires, werewolves, and/or Fae (in roughly that order of popularity). There may or may not be witches/wizards. These elements are, in many ways, background. They're furniture. They're not what the story is, in any strong sense, exploring, any more than a cosy murder mystery explores crime or a spy thriller explores international espionage.

In the short story field, in particular, referencing a trope can be a useful shortcut in a limited space, which enables you to get to the story itself without a lot of tedious explanation. I've become more aware of this as I write short stories. It's one of the tricky things about short stories in my Gryphon Clerks setting, especially, which is very different from the usual tropes in ways that I don't always want to dwell on, but which need to be conveyed somehow if the story is to make sense.

As well as these heavily troped settings, there's also a rising phenomenon - you can see it in the award nominations and the Best Of anthologies - of "literary" stories that have small, sometimes vanishingly small, spec-fic or counterfactual elements. For example, the Hugo-nominated short story "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love," while a good story, is not speculative fiction by any rigorous definition. It contains speculation, but the speculation is counterfactual within the world of the story.

Scaring !
blavandmaster / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Now, I'm aware that I'm not going to bring about a revolution in which we all agree to save the term "speculative fiction" for fiction that actually, you know, speculates, and does so in fresh ways, and in which that speculation is at the heart of the story and couldn't be removed without killing the patient. For better or worse, and quite probably it's for better, "speculative fiction" has a broad definition rather than a narrow one. It includes the troped settings in which no new speculation is taking place, and the literary stories with a minor counterfactual that may not even make a difference to how the story goes.

What I would like to do is start at least a small amount of discussion about whether we could do with a few more terms. Maybe a spectrum of "tropedness" for subgenres like space opera and PNR, so we can talk about whether the story has just taken all its furniture ready-made from the archetypal space opera and pushed on with the action, or whether it's a story about what it might actually be like to be in space. Whether it's a vampire romance according to the usual template (so far as worldbuilding goes), or whether it's playing with, subverting, even adding to the tropes.

I'm starting to sound evaluative, so I want to make clear again: A heavily troped space opera can be highly enjoyable to read. Not having much original worldbuilding in your book can leave more room for character and plot, and if that's what you do with it, more power to your arm. If I'm reviewing, I probably will mention that it's on the familiar end of the familiar-to-fresh spectrum, and that I personally would like more freshness, but many other people will love it exactly because of the familiarity, and it is meet and right so to do.

Likewise, maybe a spectrum of "light" to "heavy" would be a useful way to talk about whether stories have speculative elements at their core or are using them more as decoration.

And finally, I personally would like more freshness and heaviness from time to time in my spec-fic. I hear good things about Anne Leckie's book Ancillary Justice in this connection, and I will probably read it at some point soon, even though it sounds darker than I usually like. There are still people writing spec-fic with a high level of speculation. The trick is finding them when there's not a clear vocabulary to describe such a thing.

Jan 08

How to Weaken a Scene

This morning, someone in a writers' community I belong to on Google+ posted a link to this Ars Technica article about how some of the changes in the Hobbit movies were necessary to strengthen the writing. (Obviously, both that article and this post contain spoilers for both book and movie, if you care about that, and in fact assume that you're familiar with both.)

Now, even though I love The Hobbit dearly (it was one of my first fantasy reads, if not the first, and I've read it at least eight times), I agree with much of what the article says. There's too much coincidence, luck and deus ex machina in the book. However, I think some of the changes made in the movie weaken the story rather than strengthening it.

Example: The spiders. Compare these two versions.

Book version: The dwarves and Bilbo, after many days of trekking through the forest, are out of provisions and almost out of hope. Bilbo climbs a tree to scout and falsely gets the impression that they are still far from their destination. In desperation, they disobey Beorn's advice and leave the path, trying to reach the elvish feasts they can see in the distance, but the elves, who are isolationists, keep disappearing as soon as they come near. They get separated in the darkness and confusion.

Bilbo wakes up from sleep being tied up by a giant spider, and kills it by a desperate effort. He luckily guesses which direction the dwarves are in, puts on his magic ring, and sneaks quietly towards them (it's been previously established that he's good at sneaking quietly).

The dwarves have been captured by the spiders. Bilbo cleverly manipulates the spiders through taunts and thrown stones to get them away from the dwarves, though he only just escapes from being surrounded by them and sneaks again to get away. He then kills another spider which has stayed behind, and begins to free the dwarves (who are in a bad way from the spiders' poison on top of their hunger and exhaustion). Before he can finish, the spiders come back, and they all have to fight. Bilbo cleverly draws them off again, and the dwarves make a desperate escape, having to fight repeatedly (with inadequate weapons) despite their weariness, hunger and the lingering effects of the spider poison. At a moment when it looks like the spiders will surround them and overwhelm them, Bilbo reappears and gives them the opportunity to escape. Bilbo fights so well and so determinedly, in fact, that the spiders eventually give them up as a bad job and go back to their nests.

The dwarves then realise that Thorin (their leader, and incidentally the only one with a decent weapon apart from Bilbo) has disappeared. He has been captured by the elves. The elves subsequently capture the rest of the dwarves as well, but Bilbo again uses the ring to escape and follows them.

Movie version: The well-supplied dwarves are having a bit of a frustrating time finding their way through the forest after what appears to be a few hours, so they send Bilbo up a tree to scout. He happily discovers that they're close to their destination. When he gets back, though, the spiders capture everyone, including him. He wakes up for no particular reason, gets himself out of a thorough binding and kills the spider with no real difficulty, and the dwarves start doing the same with a variety of effective weapons. The spiders are, individually, low-level mooks and apparently not much of a threat, but there are a lot of them.

The fight goes on for a long time, killing spiders, killing spiders, killing spiders. Then we get elves ex machina who finish up the fight, drive the spiders off and capture the party, apart from Bilbo, who rings up and follows as per the book.

Wolf Spider Portrait
e_monk / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Yes, the book version uses a lucky guess (the direction in which the dwarves were), though it's really more of an informed guess. But what gets established? Bilbo is resourceful, clever and brave. He can manipulate, sneak and fight. The dwarves' situation starts out bad and gets worse, then improves thanks to the protagonist's action, then gets worse again in a different way, and that cycle repeats several times. There's a lot of desperation, for several different causes.

In the movie, all of this is lost. It's flattened out to a straightforward fight in which Bilbo is, if anything, one of the weaker players. There's no real escalation of tension, not much up-and-down movement of the tension graph at all, in fact, and most of the sources of tension (hunger, weariness, loss of hope, believing they are far from their destination, being poorly armed and weak from spider venom) are removed completely. The protagonist doesn't solve the problem. We don't get to see much increase in his abilities. He doesn't show himself to be clever, resourceful or sneaky. The result is a bland bit of action with not much significance to the story or the characters, that isn't even that exciting to watch.

Now, I didn't write this just to sling mud at Peter Jackson and his writers. I think there's something to be learned here about writing.

Turn the process around. If you have a bland bit of action with not much significance to the story or characters, here's how you can punch it up.

1. Make the characters more desperate and/or weaker, so that the outcome is more in doubt. They're out of supplies, they have inadequate weapons, they're poisoned, they're lost, they don't know how far they have to go but it seems further than they can go. When desperate, weak characters triumph after a hard fight, it's more exciting than if strong, competent characters triumph after an easy fight.

2. Don't just write it as "they fight a thing, they fight another thing the same as the first thing, they fight yet another thing". Write a series of problems from which the characters have to escape: One-on-one conflict. Drawing off the spiders. Spiders nearly surround Bilbo. He gets away and starts to free the dwarves, but the spiders come back before he's finished. Spiders nearly surround the dwarves, Bilbo rushes in from the side and breaks through.

I watched an excellent example of this the other day: the truck chase sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a thrilling sequence because it's not just solving the same problem over and over, it's solving a series of different problems in different ways on the way to an overall goal (escape with the Ark). Indiana Jones must pursue the truck on horseback, jump on, force his way in, overcome the Nazis inside, then he gets attacked by other Nazis who climb forward from the back of the truck (antagonists can struggle and be brave and resourceful too), he's forced out, he climbs under the truck and is dragged behind, gets back up and in control of the truck again, has to contend with the other vehicles in the convoy (which he gets rid of by several different tactics), hides the truck in the village... It has variety, and every time he solves a problem he gets a new, and different, problem. We get a series of small releases of tension as he solves each problem, but the overall tension continues until the end of the sequence.

3. This deserves to be its own point: Give a variety of problems a variety of solutions. Not just "stab a spider, stab another spider, stab a third spider".

4. Take the opportunity for character development. If Bilbo is going to encounter Smaug with any expectation of success, he needs to be clever, resourceful and sneaky. This scene (in the book) establishes that he is becoming all of those things.

5. Have the protagonist solve the problem. Tolkien is as guilty of violating this as anyone, but not in the spider sequence. It's not fatal to have your protagonist rescued occasionally, but if it becomes a habit, they're not much of a protagonist.

6. Have the problem be more than just "do they win the fight?". Most of the fights in The Desolation of Smaug have no higher, greater or other stakes than "do the heroes win this fight?" Those are not very interesting stakes, especially when you're pretty sure the answer is going to be "yes". Will the heroes be eaten by the spiders? Will they find their way out of the forest? Will they starve? Where is their leader, and how can he escape? Can Bilbo continue to conceal his possession of the ring? All of these things are at stake in the book version, and they lead into and out of the fight, meaning that the fight is hard to remove as a story element. The movie version of the fight (and most of the other fights in the movie) could be completely removed as a story element and nothing else would need to be rewritten. That's a sign of weak writing, and a scene that isn't necessary because it doesn't do anything except present a (rather dull) spectacle.

I'll close with a link to another article: Why You Should Never Write Action Scenes for Your Blockbuster Movie. It's excellent writing advice in general, and the summary version is: Don't write action scenes. Write suspense scenes that require action to resolve.