24 December 2015

Fallout 4 (some spoilers)

Fallout is one of the major game franchises that passed me by - primarily because I'm a hard sell on shooters, though the Fallout series did have more of a reputation for story than most others.  It's also what's known as a 'sandbox' game, which usually means there's a ton you can do, and a thousand different paths to get there.  It's a rare sandbox game that doesn't exhaust me long before the main quest ends (eg. Skyrim).

Fallout 4: There is no massive moon hanging in the sky in the actual game.
Still, I picked up Fallout 4 at least in part because of the slick graphics, and because of the positive reviews.  And also because of some of the cartoons going around showing the character creation process, where you get to design both yourself and your spouse (though cannot choose the gender of your spouse - and, minor nitpick, the child waiting in the next room does not appear to reflect any of the appearance changes you might make [though I've heard that the appearance is supposed to be generated according to the parental appearance]).

[I spent as much time working on my spouse's appearance as my own, even though I knew that character would die before the game got really started.  Not such a waste of time, since I had multiple opportunities to visit the corpse, or watch him die in flashbacks.]

Dressing for success in the post apocalypse. Lucky there's plenty of laundry cleaner scattered about.
Starting at the fourth game in series isn't a big bar to new players, since each of the Fallout games starts with a new character (dubbed "the Lone Wanderer"), who emerges from a vault after a nuclear war that has devastated a fission-tech Earth around 2077 (an alt-reality that seems to be going for a Stepford Wives vibe).  In Fallout 3 I gather you start the game as a child born in a shelter, but Fallout 4 adds a twist of cryo-storage and you go through a brief starting sequence of your family being frozen in their shelter, your character waking briefly to see their child stolen and their partner murdered, then frozen again before being properly released.

The double-freezing leads to an obvious twist, though there is a nicely-done fakeout in relation to your search for your stolen child.  However, long before you get anywhere near your child's trail, you must deal with "the Commonwealth" (set around the ruins of Boston), where the law has almost completely fractured following the fall of the Minutemen.  They are the first of four factions you encounter and you can choose to help out, and start re-establishing protected settlements (and get lost in an entire side-game of clunkily building houses, decorating them, and setting up defences and supply lines).

The other factions are the Brotherhood of Steel (basically a variation of Nazis, always talking about purity and wanting to kill off everything not-quite-human), the Institute (a shadowy super-tech place which everyone in the Commonwealth is convinced is, for some reason, replacing people with replicants called synths), and the Railroad (a group dedicated to helping synths escape the Institute).

On the whole, I found Fallout 4 to be compulsively playable - tons of little quests, and a landscape seething with life.  I racked up between 4 and 5 full days played before I completed the main quest line and decided 'no more' (there is scope for continuing on with minor quests near-indefinitely).  At the same time, I didn't find the main quest particularly compelling - especially once you get to meet with the Institute.  Part of that is, I think, because I didn't find the Institute leader's actions at all believable (ludicrous, in fact).  There is also very little option to try to convince any of these factions to change their views, even when some of the leader's actions in particular suggest he's not nearly so firm on the major divisive issue as his words would suggest.

There are a ton of potential companions - so many I didn't even find them all - and the companion quest lines, unsurprisingly, are some of the more interesting segments of the game - and the voice acting overall there is just fabulous.  My faves were Dogmeat (the iconic german shepherd companion, who is just glad to be around you - I felt bad every time I swapped him out as a companion), Hancock and Nick Valentine.

D'aww!

The game is also swimming in bugs (some of them shoot streams of maggots at you, but the rest just mess with the gameplay).  Most don't cause major issues, but it's worth saving frequently.

Recommended for: anyone who has several weeks free, and doesn't have a book they're supposed to be writing.

17 December 2015

Star Wars: The Parallels Awaken. So many parallels (but no spoilers)

First, yes, very good movie.  Much fun, high pace, some tears, lots of awesome.  Star Wars as a series has a real thing about spaceship adoration, and spaceship adoration definitely gets lots of love.

As the post title suggests, there are a _ton_ of parallels, of similar events from the first movie happening to different people, but it's done very well.  Rey is all kinds of awesome, and I especially love her 'girl engineer' aspects, and where that leads her in terms of emotional resonance.  Finn is a great big sweetheart, and while I don't think Finn/Poe is where they're going, they totally should (though perhaps give Poe a little more plot-time so he gets to have a personality as well as a jacket).

I only have a couple of negatives.  First, could have done with more Leia and more Phasma.  Second, Kylo Ren's parallel is from the prequels, which is not a good thing: here's someone we're supposed to see in conflict, but instead we (or at least I) mainly saw a fairly stupid, temperamental jerk.

But still, definitely already looking forward to the next one, and especially finding out the things about Rey that we didn't find out in this movie. Will rewatch when it comes to TV.

08 December 2015

'Truly alien' aliens

One of the things I very commonly come across in SFF discussion is someone saying that the aliens/werewolves/angels/other things are 'truly alien' or 'look and behave just like humans', where one is a compliment and the other criticism.

Every time I come across this sort of thing, I stumble.  Not because I don't get what they're saying, but I wonder what boundaries they're intending to draw.

What makes an alien 'alien'?  While 'does not look human' is an obvious thing, here's my cat Cinnamon.  She doesn't look particularly human either.  Does that make her 'alien'?




Cinnamon and I are not much alike. She likes racing madly up and down corridors, scratching things, and has a magnificent twitch reflex should a string move suspiciously anywhere in her field of view.  She eats stuff that would make me vomit.  She has no command of English, though she's a rather verbal cat, and won't hesitate to meow loudly until her humans try to guess what she wants.  She isn't into computer games or reading.

And yet Cinnamon and I and thousands of other creatures are very alike.  Earth itself is full of things not so very unlike Cinnamon, and yet all theoretically different from each other.  All of them share a drive to reproduce (or, well, we wouldn't know about their species at all).  All seek food of some sort, and an ideal environment.  The more complex ones generally exhibit fear, aggression, curiosity, play and something that at least appears to humans as affection.  I don't think anyone is arguing that 'aliens' could not exhibit these qualities.

But these are animals, and not at the intelligence level of the type of alien that SFF readers are talking about – a being that would be able to communicate effectively with humans if given access to language lessons and whatever mechanical aids might be necessary, while remaining 'truly alien'.

I think we can effectively divide aliens into 'physically similar to humans' and 'have a strong dissimilarity to humans'.  Cat-ancestry people, for instance, might claw stuff and have a tendency to pounce, but they're still mammals, with live births, milk feeding, and the food-in/poop-out process.  Then you have, say, the 'piggies' from Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead (where reproduction is…different from the standard mammalian process) but otherwise these are creatures that exhibit a similar range of drives and emotions to humans.  Thirdly the 'completely different' – living rocks, or energy beings that have little to no concept of many human physical experiences – but could still presumably produce fear, aggression, curiosity, play, affection.  No-one is arguing that 'truly alien' aliens must not have emotion, or biological imperatives.  If you don't go in for large physical differences, a lot of what people point to as 'alien' seems to be "non-Western culture" – and if you got into the alien's POV, they would read very much as humans of a different culture.

Different cultures are very interesting!  Altered experiences caused by physical differences are also very interesting!  But surely we're not arguing that beings with cultural and physical differences are intrinsically non-human.

Cognative differences takes us into more complex territory.  Humans have cognative differences too, and I'm sure no-one who is talking about "alien aliens" means to say that non-neurotypical humans are 'alien'.  Where does the line get drawn?  We have humans with synesthesia.  We've seen robots depicted with depression, or aliens who in theory have no concept of lying, or don't understand death or love or friendship.  And, to be honest, most of this latter type of 'alien' reads as extrapolated concepts to me, constructed to create a plot.  I am vastly, vastly more inclined to believe that if we somehow overcome the echoing hollows of space and stumble across a few intelligent alien species…we'll get a bunch of creatures that look an awful lot like Earth creatures – and probably act like them as well.  Aliens because 'not from here', and with some physical differences, and big cultural differences, and not 'truly alien aliens' at all.

What do you all think?  If we started planet-hopping, would you be all that surprised to find mammals?  Cats?  Bipeds with roguish grins, a taste for scotch, and a nice line in leather jackets?  At what point do you throw up your hands and cry: "These aliens may as well be human!"?

03 December 2015

5 Years!

On 1 December 2010 I published Champion of the Rose and The Silence of Medair (on the same day, to make the question of 'my first book' a matter of some quibbling).  While it would have been a nice bit of symmetry to publish The Sleeping Life this month, it looks like it's going to be a late January-at-earliest publication.

However!  I can still celebrate five years of being published, and as always enjoying writing and having people read my books, and even saying nice things. :)  I doubt I'll hit full-time author status any time this decade, but I'll definitely continue to put out one to two books per year just because I really like doing it. [And commissioning art for them. ;) ]

A giveaway is definitely in order - my entire back catalogue, plus my upcoming The Sleeping Life in whichever format you prefer (TPB or ebook), when TSL finally releases.  [If you have all my books, you can name a character instead!]

This time I'll combine it with a fun survey (well, fun for me).

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NFMS5YB

You can fill in the survey without entering to win (or enter without filling in the rest of the survey), and the competition will remain open until the day before release (whenever, sigh, that happens to be) is closed now.

Thanks so much everyone for reading me!  Whenever I'm feeling down about my writing or suffering from self-publisher's chip, all I have to do is read the wonderful reviews, comments and fan mail I've received these past five years and bask. :D

22 October 2015

Life is Strange (all the spoilers)


Life is Strange is a recently-concluded Square Enix game set in a US high school where our girl photographer protagonist Max discovers her powers of time-reversal and embarks on a journey of choose-your-own adventure and then erase that choice and choose again if you don't like the outcome.  I played the first episode of this some time ago and set the game aside because I'm not overly keen on playing through the teen experience of bullying and girls-as-victims of violence themes that the game seemed to focus on.

 
 
But plot curiosity is one of my traits – and since I'd already purchased the full series, I picked the game up again after episode 3's release.
 
The game is a type becoming more common: small to no combat (LiS has none), similar to visual novel games where you follow a primary plot while impacting secondary outcomes (how other characters feel about you, usually), with all those choices ultimately deciding which "endings" are available to you (often ranged from 'best ending', 'good ending' and 'bad ending').  These games are also increasingly broken up into a number of chapters, where at the end of each chapter you get a summary of the major choices, and a breakdown of what percentage of players made what choice.

 
 

LiS has many positives.  It's visually lovely, and the photography works nicely to make the player look at the world in even more detail.  It's well-scripted (the teens mostly talk like teens), well-acted, and has few dull or dragging sections.  If you're looking for a game that grips you by the feels and hauls, then you'll find this is a game that pulls you all the way under.
 
My initial qualm about the game – that of not really enjoying situations of female victimhood – is fulfilled in the final episode with a truly unpleasant visit to the "Dark Room".  But it's the final decision of the game that has me continuing to think about the game.  [Don't read on unless you're happy to be completely spoiled on this game.  Also note that this is a game that definitely warrants several trigger warnings in relation to bullying, abuse and suicide.]

 
LiS starts out with Max returning to her home town of Arcadia Bay to attend Blackwell Academy – particularly the class of a prestigious photographer, the hipster-cool Mr Jefferson.  Like many schools it has problems with bullying, of privileged and non-privileged students – and it's plastered with posters of a missing girl, Rachel Amber.
 
During class one day Max has a strange vision of climbing to a lighthouse during a tornado.  After class, a trip to the bathroom (and the inevitable butterfly-effect allusion) leads her to witness the school rich kid, Nathan, meet with a blackmailing, blue-haired girl – who he promptly accidentally shoots and kills.
 
Wanting to stop this event leads Max to discover she can rewind time, and she ends up back in her classroom, right after she'd had her vision of a tornado.  Naturally, she sets out to "fix things" by saving the mysterious blue-haired girl from being shot – doing so by setting off the fire alarm.
 
Max now has a dilemma – she knows that Nathan has a gun and is seemingly spiralling out of control – but she also has brand new rewind powers.  Unfortunately, Nathan's now suspicious of her, and confronts her in the car park, only to be foiled by a quick getaway in the truck of the blue-haired girl, who turns out to be Max's nearly-unrecognisable childhood friend, Chloe Price.
 
Where Max is shy and a little nerdy, Chloe is brash, rule-breaking and defiant – considerably changed from the girl Max knew.  Much of this change is put down to the death of Chloe's father shortly before Max's parents moved from Arcadia Bay: Chloe has been acting out from a sense of abandonment, her anger exacerbated by her mother's remarriage to an all-rules-and-lectures security officer, and then the disappearance of the friend who was helping her get through it all, Rachel Amber.
 
The relationship between Max and Chloe is the core of LiS.  Max's guilt and Chloe's anger play off each other as they renegotiate their friendship, and try to investigate Rachel's disappearance while dealing with the various crises that arise from a dysfunctional school – the bullying frenemy Victoria, the fragile Kate, the wants-to-be-more-than-friends Warren.  Max, with the advantages of time reversal, can help or hinder her fellow students, can accept or fail to notice Warren's romantic overtures, can uncover the spying tendency of Chloe's "step-douche", David, and anger – or kiss - Chloe.  There's a lot of joy in this section, this connection between two friends, but a couple of flies in the soup as well: Chloe is in debt, she's angry, she's messed up, and she's occasionally willing to throw Max under the bus for her own benefit.  But then, Chloe's had a dark few years, and Max's return is helping.

 




It's not until Kate attempts to commit suicide that Max really hits the limits of her power.  She can reverse time enough to try to talk Kate down, but she can't reverse it so far as to undo all the little choices and decisions that will make the difference between succeeding and failing.
 
Many players are unable to save Kate – an event so upsetting that quite a few players replayed previous chapters in order to be able to succeed – something that Max is unable to do – until she can.  Or, at least, Max discovers her time-travel abilities have expanded to travelling to any point of time in the past that's been captured in a photograph.
 
Naturally Max immediately travels back to "fix" the major event that seemed to cause so many problems: the death of Chloe's father.  And it works!  She visits the past, prevents a car accident, and returns to a future where Chloe's dad is still alive – and Chloe had a car accident instead, is paralysed, and dying, as her parents drown in medical-bill debt.  This is where the player might feel that the game universe is being a little unfair, as Max has to choose between undoing her "fix", and killing her best friend.  She chooses the friend, of course (not something players can alter), and the timeline reverts to the angry Chloe fixated on finding her missing friend.
 
Here the investigation steps up, but with a suggestion of a major cost.  Weird stuff is happening around town – snow in summer, whale beachings, doubled-moons – not to mention those persistent visions of a mega-tornado, and a clear physical toll on Max.  The story presses on, uncovering the truth about Rachel Amber – and the reasons for Kate's distress, and who is the bad person behind all this, which culminates in Chloe's sudden, shocking murder, and a not-at-all pleasant scene at the beginning of the final part of the game, where all players everywhere really want Mr Jefferson to just shut the fuck up, and Max is frantic to escape and go back and stop Chloe from being killed.
 
Which she does.  But here we hit the real consequence.  Messing with time, as heavily foreshadowed, carries a storm of a price.  Max's mental situation starts to fragment, as we spin through possible alternate realities – or perhaps simply nightmares – until finally she – and the players – are faced with one final choice: go back and undo the first change, the one that set this all off, or watch the entire town be wiped out by a no-warnings tornado.  Let Chloe die, or destroy the town.
 
In other words, this game doesn't have a "good" ending.  This is a game where you kill the person you have spent the entire game trying, in one way or another, to save, or you become a mass murderer.  Where you kill fragile Kate, sitting in her hospital room.  Where you kill Chloe's mother.  Where you kill Warren, the science-boy who was so eager to play White Knight for you.  Where you kill Victoria, the frenemy you ended up kinda on-side with.
 
Where you kill babies.
 
And here's where those end-of-chapter choice statistics become fascinating.  Because (last time I looked) in this lose-lose situation, 50% of players save the town.  50% save the girl.
 
I'm hard-wired in the former camp: the Mr Spock camp, so to speak.  You don't kill hundreds of innocent people to save one, no matter who they are, no matter how much you care.  You don't kill babies.
 
So I, the player, watched Chloe's funeral, and cried quite a bit.  Then I turned to ever-useful YouTube to watch the alternate ending, where two friends – horrified, exhausted, stunned - drive out of town through the wreckage, leaving behind nothing but rubble and corpses.  Together at any price.
 
[I have to wonder if Chloe's surname isn't a coincidence.]
 
Anyway – an unusual, powerful and complex game.  I don't think it's an entirely fair dilemma – there was no option to let the storm hit but do your best to evacuate the town, for instance.  I also think that there's a mild logic issue with why Max's power woke at all – she didn't even know it was Chloe being shot, at first, and wasn't nearly so powerfully bound up in saving her until after they reconnected.  So why did the time-bending power waken?  But I still like how this ended, I like this choice between loss and being (basically) a villain.  And it says something for the sheer charisma of Chloe, the power of the friendship (or potential romantic relationship, if you followed that course), that so many players will choose the one over the many.
 
[Note: the game skirts into ableism in the alternate timeline (this skates by because Chloe is not only disabled, but a few months short of death, so the message that being paralysed is worse than anything is leavened).  Nor is the story's handling of David (does very iffy things, but ultimately forgiven because well-meaning troubled vet) entirely unproblematic.  Because Chloe is also fairly clearly signalled as a lesbian, the game also falls into the "tragic queer" territory.]

05 October 2015

Until Dawn (mild spoilers)

The point where I lost interest in Until Dawn was well over halfway through the game - after the First Reveal, and the Explanation Point.  At this point, the four characters I had not yet failed to keep alive (because you can, theoretically, keep all your characters alive in this survival horror game) have been told Just How Bad It Is and (mild spoiler) leave relative safety for, so far as I can tell, very little reason.


No, actually, it was when three of them (travelling in a group) not only bring no weapons, but they split up without hesitation.  And I just stopped caring.

The mechanics of the game are, in themselves, quite playable.  None of the teens in this teen slasher flick game are necessarily going to die.  They do, however, have multiple opportunities to die, depending on your branching choices, and your ability to hit triangle-circle-square in quick time action sequences.  NOT acting at certain times is also critical for survival - something that the game exploits, since you become very punchy about hitting buttons as soon as they're signalled on screen when that's usually the one thing keeping you alive.

The story is pretty par for the course for a teen slasher story - not very interesting in itself - and the characters are quite clearly deliberate stereotypes: jock, slut, sweet guy, geek guy, geek girl, bitch, dork-bro and ingenue.  It was fairly hard to like any of them (caught as you are between bland and deliberately off-putting).  Though I ended up very sympathetic toward Emily (the bitch) just because she went through _so much_.  After all the extended awfulness she survived (and apparently she has at least twice as many opportunities to die as the ingenue) I'm kinda glad I stopped before accidentally killing her.

If you can put up with the idiocy that killed the game for me during the end game build-up, then gamers might enjoy Until Dawn for the sheer challenge of not getting anyone killed (I don't even know what I did to get the first one killed), and seeing how the dynamics of certain scenes play out if more characters have survived to be present.

I was also quite interested in how close to crossing the uncanny valley we're getting, at least in the pause-scene close-ups of character faces, where many of the tiny movements of a living face have been mapped, making them look eerily alive.  Not so strong in the full-body playable scenes, but I was impressed otherwise.

30 September 2015

First Lines

A big deal gets made about first lines.  They're the hook, the main chance to catch a reader's interest.  With novels, this is more a first paragraph rule than a first line rule, but I thought it would be an interesting exercise to list off the first lines of all my books (including any unpublished partials longer than a single chapter).

This is roughly in the order the stories were initially written, rather than publication, though of course the first lines may have changed considerably since the first draft.

---

Jame, scraping unruly brown locks out of his eyes, called Piotr every foul name that he could think of, including the ones the herdsmen called their sheep when they wandered off, but he said them softly, muttering under his breath, because Piotr would do more than call him names if he heard him.

Stairs that circled down and down and down, away from the dim light which was the night sky into a shadowy pit which resounded with echoes born a thousand years past.

A barefoot, smoke-scented girl sat above the River Milk.

"You two are disgusting."

"Nervous, beloved?"

They'd been poking through her gear again.

The Danai.

A lavish display of women.

Arlen EidAren refused to believe that someone could be following her.

"And then what?"

The inn fell sideways.

There was a point where you just had to stop waiting for the prince to ride over the hill, and take matters into your own hands.

Taine held one long-fingered hand against the plasglass and smiled.

The first few weeks in Jorbarra, Teale Rameidin was blithely unaware of the Mage Trap.

"Bloody Snakes."

Sunlight on metal.

Hands gripping her wrists.

After a morning spent sorting through the previous Champion's library, both Soren Armitage and the aide lent her by the Chancellor were so dust-laden that they were beginning to blend into their surroundings.

Looking north, Gentian Calder could make out the shadow of land.

Where the FUCK am I????

April Fool's Day. 

It's one thing to decide to save the universe, another altogether to find a way to go about it.

Wow – feels like forever since I've written.

ShhooTHuMP!

Even ignoring his nightmare predicament, Fallon DeVries would be glad to get back to the Arkathan and away from the ritual of saying goodnight to an idealised statue of his mother and sister. 

"The following students will report to the Vice-Chancellor's office at second bell."

Fifty-seven pence until Sunnesday.

Madeleine Cost's world was a tight, close space, a triangular tube tilted so her head lay lower than her feet. 

Sunlight picked out motes of dust, and burnished mellow wood to match Arianne Seaforth's hair as she strolled through the Southern Nomarch's library. 


There are no real surprises in an MMO.

The longer sentences, of course, tend to give a better idea of the story, but I think my favourite will ever remain "The inn fell sideways."  A most dramatic start indeed.  [The story involves an entire inn (with about 50 occupants) being transported instantly right smack to the centre of the deadly and abandoned land of magic will magic your ass.]

25 September 2015

"Zero Difference" Worldbuilding

Sylvia Kelso, a writer friend who has had a large influence on my own writing, once riffed on Barthes' "writing degree zero" (in regards to writing without regard to the conventions of language) to describe the kind of worldbuilding I do as "zero difference".

This was in reference to Champion of the Rose, where I'd built a 'bi-normative' world.  The story did not touch on the terrible discrimination and pain that non-heterosexual people regularly face in our own world - the protagonist never discusses or even thinks about her sexuality.  Characters are shown in a range of situations - committed m/f or f/f relationships, disappointed in or longing for past relationships, or happily flitting from lover to lover, guided only by opportunity and personal taste.  I also built into that world the concept of 'thirds' and 'tribonds' to handle different ways society would expect same-sex people to approach conceiving children.  But this was just in the background: never underlined or directly examined.  Zero difference worldbuilding involves making massive changes to a status quo imbalance, and presenting it without remark.

In almost all of my books I do exactly the same thing with the role of women.  The Darest, Eferum, Touchstone and Medair books have no societal sexism (though individuals are free to be asses).  Women have the same inheritance rights, rights to own property, right to rule, and to pursue careers, as anyone else.  I don't discuss how this came about, or how awesome it is: it just is a fact of the world, like gravity.

There are a few reasons I build 'zero difference' worlds, but a primary one is to move away from the limitations of stories I have already read.

I Can So Do It

I have long sought stories of "girls doing stuff".  Often, the books I cheerfully gulped down were "girls can too" stories.  A girl in a sexist society is forbidden from doing something, and wins through adversity to stand triumphant (often assuming and discarding a boyish disguise) having saved the colony/won the battle/defeated the Dark Lord AS A GIRL! (*gasp*)

These stories are a lot of fun.  Hunting, one of my earlier novels (in order of writing), is set in a structurally sexist kingdom (somewhat isolated from a wider world without such inequality), but I put her in boy's clothing specifically to avoid time spent telling the protagonist Girls Can't Do That.  I've loved many a story of girls proving that they Can So Do It, but at the same time Hunting is my only book where I've even touched on that dynamic because the world itself limits how you tell your story.

Even if you allow your main female character to Do Stuff in a structurally sexist world (by putting her in boy's clothes, or giving her a Get Out of Gender-Jail Free card, or showing her valiantly Doing "Women's Stuff" because Women's Stuff is Also Important, by setting the story in a structurally sexist world, the story often revolves around and repeatedly has to deal with gender limitations.

An (unmarried) girl in such a world is unlikely to be sexually experienced, which considerably changes her dynamic in romances.  Tasks such as investigation are endlessly complicated when a woman would cause comment or scandal simply by her presence at, say, a race course or a public tavern.  A woman's expertise and suggestions are likely to be dismissed in worlds where they are held incapable of non-domestic skills.

And the 'cost' to the story is time.  Time devoted to overcoming the problem of being female in order to tackle the problem that is the plot.

It's not easy being

Of course, sometimes the plot is primarily about being female.  Books that directly examine and hold up to the light challenges faced by women (or people of colour, non-cis people, non-het or differently-abled people) are incredibly important.  Many readers find it a gift and a direct aid to witness a character in a book struggle with the same issues that are a central concern of the reader's daily life.

The character(s) might overcome those challenges, test different methods of tackling them, or be injured and retreat from them.  The importance is in the acknowledgement, on shining a light on both the dystopian-level oppressions and the small, silent shames that are delivered to people who are not sitting on the very top of the privilege pyramid.

My particular interest as an author, however, is not holding up a mirror, but creating a window to somewhere else.

Second 'Verse, Same as the First

I've walked through thousands of fantasy worlds.  There have been some very unlike our own, but the vast majority are more than familiar.  Even if there are gods who can enforce their edicts, even if physics is debatable and magic a wild card altering all manner of expectation, these massive variances seem to make little difference to culture.  Humans are divided into women who are domestic and men who are in charge.  Heterosexuality is not only common, but mandated, with transgression punishable by law.  Civilisation seems inextricably linked to a low melanin count.

At times when reading I feel as if stories are trying to lace us into a corset of "this is how it is" and refusing to let us breathe.  We are being told over and over that some things are inevitable.  Not only are they inevitable, but they are the primary aspect of our Selves, and to be x or y or z  means that we must absolutely, inescapably devote large amounts of time to dealing with mandatory hate.

Loosening the stays

So one of the reasons I both seek out and write "zero difference" worlds is simply to breathe.  To not shower my characters with major threats and micro-aggressions, to not make prejudice against that character their one abiding truth, their constant preoccupation, and the required focus of the plot.  To show that a person can simply be x or y or z, and also a and b and c, while focusing the majority of character time and energy on j.

With me 'j' is usually the morality of mages, or dissonance caused by time dislocation, or bonds of rule or friendship, with a side order of frustrated artist.  And I want to put my characters through those questions, not set them on the old, familiar treadmill of "girls can't do that".

Modelling possibility

Another reason I enjoy "zero difference" worlds is to take a next step.  In the Darest books, I began to explore what social constructs would develop in a bi-normative world.  In the Singularity Game series I'm questioning gender by introducing virtual body-hopping.  In the Trifold Age books I hamstrung colonialism - the period of European invasion on the back of gunpowder and disease - by introducing gods who "Answered" and protected their various peoples.

That is not to say that zero difference worlds are Pollyanna wishful thinking.  Hamstringing a few invasions, of course, won't necessarily stop people from hating, fearing or demonising other races, any more than interventionist gods necessarily erase institutional sexism - Gods, after all, can be racist and sexist too.  But limiting colonialism can be used to fiercely undercut the terrible lie that is the White Superiority narrative.  Changes such as this allow me to look into a world where the myriad African kingdoms whose names we're never even taught in school were not dismantled to the point where people deny they ever existed. Where English is not a dominant language, and the influence of the Egyptian social imperative of Ma'at directly opposes the concept of 'serf'.

Because one of the real joys and pleasures of a zero difference world is not treating what we have now as inevitable, true, and correct.  There is room for more worlds than that.

26 August 2015

'Hugo Worthy'

There are naturally a lot of posts about the Hugos going around at the moment, and the phrase 'Hugo worthy' has come up a lot, starting me thinking about perhaps nominating next year.  And what to nominate.

Other than favourite authors on auto-buy lists, it's unusual for me to read books in their year of publication, let alone the books that people seem to think are 'best' or 'worthy'.  And when I do get around to reading one of the hot nominees or winners, it rarely seems to be the sort of story I like, let alone thought excellent.

Which is, oh well, people like different things. 'Best' is a construct built of buzz, and word of mouth, an active fan base or, apparently, sealing wax, string and puppy dog tails.

So I circle back to that term 'worthy', and what exactly 'best' means, and realise that, substantively, they're terms that push me to not nominate the kind of books that work best for me.

So when the nomination deadline approaches I shall compile a little list of books I've read that were published in the relative year, throw away any criteria other than a yes/no decision on whether the book 'worked' for me,  and nominate them.

'Worthy' really is that simple.

16 August 2015

CDC: A sex game for girls

Cute Demon Crashers is unique in my experience.  Admittedly, I'm not an expert in the otome gaming area, but most (non-puzzle/time management) games I've played aimed at a female audience are either adventure, adventure+romance or romance+adventure.  CDC is not about romance: it's about getting a girl some sex.

CDC bills itself as a game about "consent and feeling safe in intimacy", and focuses on Claire.  We meet Claire as she's home alone and...somewhat frustrated.  Then four attractive demons turn up and offer her no-strings sex.  And that's...pretty much it.  Claire can get to know the demons a bit and decide whether to have sex with one of them, and just how much sex she wants to have (there's a lot of emphasis on stopping at any time).  But there is never a suggestion that this is a romance (the demons cannot form romantic attachments).


I think the last game I played where sex was the goal was Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (way back in the dark ages of gaming).  But LSL was about convincing some woman (any woman) to have sex with Larry (or, apparently, just paying a prostitute - I only played the beginning of LSL), while CDC is pretty much a beginner's guide to sex as a mutually positive experience.  I'm fairly sure it's also the only game I've ever played that (depending on the route you play) provides imagery of an erect penis (not hidden as towers in the background).

Anyway, I think this game will be a gift to tween girls worldwide, and it amused this non-tween too.  We've come a long way from Larry.

06 August 2015

Covers: Snug Ship and Filigree

Whoo!  New covers!  I am now fully covered out for my writing expectations well into 2017 (possible short stories aside).  This is the start of a new series, and I'm hoping to establish a 'series' look.  The artist is Andres Parada,



The only thing bigger than the world's first full virtual reality game is the mystery surrounding its origins. Who is the hidden figure behind Ryzonart Games? How was such a huge advance in technology achieved?

All Taia de Haas is interested in is getting her own virtual spaceship, but the very core of the game leads her inexorably on a dangerous quest for answers. When she uncovers the truth, she will have no future outside the Singularity Game.


The second book, Filigree, doesn't have a blurb yet (my gosh, it's going to be hard to write one without massive spoilers!).


Here's a close up of her face (and the reason she ends up called Filigree). :)


Lots of writing to do.  Still working on The Sleeping Life in the mornings and Snug Ship in the afternoon.

25 July 2015

Journey

Journey came out some time ago, to great acclaim, but it was Playstation 3 exclusive, and I had an X-Box.  It's now been released for Playstation 4, and I have one of those, so I've finally had a chance to try it.


And, yes, it is just as wonderful as all the reviews claim.

You start as a cloaked figure in a desert.  On the horizon you can see a mountain with a light.  And so, with bare instruction and no understanding, you start toward it.

Journey is a combination of evocative music and visual beauty and a story stripped of any language that you understand.  It is very short, but I think is the sort of precious jewel of a game that you keep by for the grey days, when you want to be uplifted.

Well recommended.

10 July 2015

Five-year financial report

I've been doing my taxes!  What fun!  Since it's my fifth tax return that features an entry (somewhat erroneously) called "royalties", I figure this is a good time to share some stats.

In December 2010, I published Champion of the Rose and The Silence of Medair on Smashwords.  I didn't tell anyone I knew, or do anything particularly resembling meaningful advertising.  Stained Glass Monsters followed in January 2011, Stray in March 2011 and Lab Rat One in June 2011.  My gross earnings up to 30 June 2011 were $76.24 AUD:


It's important to note that Smashwords pays quarterly and Amazon after 3 months, so the above doesn't reflect royalties earned in this period, but royalties paid.  [Smashwords also covers Barnes & Noble, Apple, and a myriad smaller vendors.]

In the 2011-2012 financial year I published Voice of the Lost, Caszandra, and Gratuitous Epilogue.  My gross earnings between 1 July 2011 to 30 June 2012 were $10,160.67 AUD:


In the 2012-2013 financial year I published And All the Stars and Hunting. My gross earnings between 1 July 2012 and 30 June 2013 were $16,645.97 AUD:


In the 2013-2014 financial year I published Bones of the Fair.   I also put a stop on my payments from Amazon for a while so that I would have more money for my overseas holiday (putting off my tax payments).  My gross earnings between 1 July 2013 and 30 June 2014 were $9,300.89 AUD:


You can see that the non-Amazon percentage is creeping up (though a little distorted by my deferring some of the Amazon payment).  This in turn distorts the next year of earnings.

In the 2014-2015 financial year I published The Pyramids of London  My gross earnings between 1 July 2014 and 30 June 2015 were $57,204.78 AUD:


My tax bill this year is going to be hefty.

As you can see the number of vendors has increased (Popcorn Press is the fee for the Touchstone RPG Source Book), but the bulk is still by far coming from Amazon (and by far coming from the Touchstone Trilogy, for that matter, with two rather successful Bookbub promos further distorting this year's royalties).  A further point of distortion is the plunging Australian dollar, which means I get more AUD for any USD these days (and very nice that is from my POV too).

Overall, my earnings look like this:


And, really, woohoo!  That's a lot of money!  A pity it's going to drop by about $20,000 in the current financial year (gauging from current sales/publication rates), but this is still a good deal better than I expected from my five-year check-in on the state of my self-publishing career.

If I were all about the money I'd just spend my time publishing Touchstone sequels, but as ever I'm writing what has my attention at the moment, dividing my time between the quiet and very unlikely to be very profitable The Sleeping Life and the tremendously entertaining and likely to get me my first hate mail Snug Ship.  (Gaming is such a touchy area.)  There are some mild similarities between Snug Ship and Stray (first person voice for a start, though Taia is more mildly snarky rather than self-deprecating and consistently humorous), but it doesn't have a strong romantic plotline, so it will be interesting to see how it's received.

Anyway, this is a post for the stat-collectors.  Sooner or later I will have to get around to the more formidible task of doing charts for the sales numbers.

20 June 2015

Interview with me at R L Martinez's blog

There's an interview with me up at R L Martinez's blog (where there's a whole series of interesting author interviews).  In this interview I go through writing process, cover creation, offer gratuitous publishing advice and (almost inevitably) weigh into the current Hugo Awards controversy.

17 June 2015

Occasionally self-publishing isn't fun

As I mentioned in my previous post, while I really love self-publishing, there are some negatives that anyone considering the route should be prepared for.  Obviously not selling or bad reviews sting, but that's a common experience for many authors.  Not having as many promotional opportunities (and some people simply refusing to read self-pub work) isn't fun either, but I'm pretty good at shrugging that off.

My most negative experience as a self-publisher was an innocuous twitter conversation.

This followed a guest post I'd contributed to the Book Smugglers' web site, where I'd listed 99 female authors.  The post was a response to the usual nonsense about how women don't write SFF.  Instead of producing a list of the same half dozen luminaries whose names seem to turn up on every list (perhaps contributing to the perception that there are few female SFF authors), I simply listed authors I had on my physical book shelves.

An Australian author* asked me why so few Australian authors (there were four) and I explained that most of my Australian books were in e-format, and thus not on the list.  [Though a lot of Australian fantasy is big-book multi-volume epic fantasy, which isn't to my taste.]

I thought nothing of the exchange until a month or so later when I noticed the same author talking about sources of information about Australian SFF authors, and speculating that there were so few Australian authors on my list due to cultural cringe.  She offered up her own list of Australian (adult SFF) authors, one she'd prepared some time before tracking Australian authors put out by mid-range and large publishers.

I suggested that the Aurealis Award nominees listed on Wikipedia would be a good source (a list I happen to be on, as a multiple finalist).  I was told that she'd started with that list, and then left off the YA and the self-publishers.

She'd taken the Aurealis Award list, and removed me from it.

This was a fantastically minor conversation, with no malice whatsoever involved, but it really brought home to me that self-publishers continue to be thought about in a separate category.  To not only be left off lists, but removed from them.

Sometimes it's the tiny comments, the smallest things, that are hardest to shrug off.


* Identity not important - this was an entirely innocuous exchange. Please no trawling through my twitter history playing detective.

On Writing, the 2015 AKH edition

I gotta say, I just love my writing situation.

I love writing, of course.  Making up worlds, putting people in them, adding unfortunate circumstances and then spinning out the consequences.  So. Much. Fun.

And I love being read.

I love that other people can walk into worlds that I have created.  I get a huge kick out of watching readers react to certain twists, or seeing which characters they fall for, or whether they spotted the clever thing.  Fan mail is awesome, and I'm an inveterate ego-searcher on Google, and really enjoy the discussions about my books.  Even the negative ones can be enlightening, though I often read them with a raised eyebrow or a 'well, all that went over your head didn't it?' expression.

I'm more mindful of probable reader response now, when I write, though I usually write the things I want to write anyway.

For that reason (among others), I love self-publishing.

I particularly love being able to write whatever the fuck I want, even YA including swear words.  I'll take the occasional one star review for swearing if I think it's character-appropriate. :D

Being able to write non-commercial stories (which, frankly, most of mine are when you look at what is popular and what I choose to write) is a big bonus for me.  I'm happy not to have to fret about not being able to sell the next book in a series, even if it has, say,  a...subdued critical response like Pyramids, or really low sales numbers like Stained Glass Monsters.  I can still happily work on The Sleeping Life, which is the kind of 'quiet' novel without a big hook that would struggle to get accepted at any publisher.

And I can embark on something off-the-wall, like Snug Ship (first in the Singularity Game series), which has a ton of wish fulfilment and a complete over-indulgence in my addiction to MMOs (and, uh, an ending that will make readers want to strangle me, if only for the pun in the final sentence), and choose exactly how much explanation of gaming terms I stick in.  Readers who are gamers will find it effortless, and there's a glossary for everyone else.  I get to make that call.

Self-pub isn't without its down sides (I'll have to get around to writing up my most negative self-pub experience one day), and I've got plenty of ground to cover before I can hope to be a full-time writer - in part because I choose to always prioritise the fun over tedious things like marketing, but also because I live in Sydney.  But every so often I look at how my life is going because of self-publishing, and can only stop and appreciate the moment.

I'm getting paid to have fun, and people randomly email me compliments.

^^

13 June 2015

Jurassic World (Spoilgrrs)

There's been some debate, leading up to this release, as to Jurassic World's treatment of women, given that the trailers made it look like an "uptight Smurfette gets lesson in loosening up" narrative.

This is and isn't true.  In fact, it's a little worse than that.

Jurassic World is pretending the second and third movies in the series don't exist, and thus spends a lot of time making direct references and call-backs to the first movie, including mixing and matching a large similar set of main characters.

Jurassic Park was about:

John Hammond - wealthy guy and dinosaur fan, due for a lesson in hubris.
Dr Grant - paleontologist and dinosaur fan, there to save the day and learn that kids can be okay.
Dr Sattler - paleobotonist and dinosaur fan, there to save the day and make direct feminist points.
Dr Malcolm - chaos theorist, there to snark and be shirtless.
Lex - grandchild, computer fan, with a sibling relationship to work out.
Tim - grandchild, dinosaur fan, looking for a dino-loving friend.
Muldoon - manly man doing manly thing.
The Lawyer - there to be wrong.
Samuel L Jackson - as himself.
Nedry - greedy bad guy, there to get his just desserts.
Scientists of debatable morals.

In Jurassic World we get :

Aunt Claire - Park operations manager, brittle control freak, due to get in touch with her inner Ripley.
Grady - Velociraptor trainer, nature fan, there to save the day.
Zach - nephew, fan of girls, there to remember he should care about his younger brother.
Gray - nephew, fan of dinosaurs, there to tremble and be unhappy about his family.
Hoskins - there to be wrong, and to get his just desserts.
Cruthers - there to snark and to wish he could look half as good as Dr Malcolm shirtless.
Masrani - wealthy guy and dinosaur fan, due for a lesson in hubris.
Barry - there to be somewhat luckier than Samuel L Jackson.
Vivian - there so Claire isn't (practically) the only woman with a speaking role in the park.
Karen - busy guilting Claire about not caring enough about her nephews or about having kids of her own.
Scientists of debatable morals.

Grady is clearly Grant + Muldoon, but Aunt Claire (it was hard to catch her surname at all) is definitely not in the position of Hammond or Dr Sattler.  She is not a fan of anything except control, for a start, and spends her time reciting statistics (ah, KPIs and deliverables, how I dislike corporate-speak).  She's also not ultimately in charge, is answering to people of higher authority, has had vital information kept from her, is never shown to be respected, and is operating two beats behind competency.  Her story arc is about how she should lighten up, spare more time for her family, and maybe think about having kids.

In other words, Claire is an essay on work/life balance.

[Strange timing - I just finished a review over on Goodreads about how Dragonsbane is an essay on magely work/life balance.]

While Claire does morph into Ripley toward the end of the movie - and is given two separate crowning moments of awesome - this story would have been so much more powerful if Claire had started out as effortlessly competent and respected, lauded for the Park's safety record.  Instead, we have someone constantly being lectured on how wrong wrong wrong she is.

A poor foundation for any character arc.

28 May 2015

Cover reveal: Tangleways

This (Australian financial) year, a couple of Bookbub promos have seen a spike in my royalties that I suspect won't be repeated next year, so I have been busily upping my expenses (and thus lowering my taxes) by commissioning covers well in advance.

No-one is going to be surprised to discover that the Cwn Annwn are a factor in Tangleways after this cover. :D  I asked Julie to use salukis as the model - and this hound of death is just as gorgeous and strange as I hoped.  [DWJ's Dogsbody was one of the major inspirations for the Trifold world.]



The font layout was HARD for this one, because the background curves aren't symmetrical, but I think this works.  [I've taken to designing an ebook cover with larger fonts, and then a TPB later - where the edges will be cropped.]

WIP-wise, I've been bouncing around.  I've written one of three planned short stories for the trip to France that sits between Pyramids and Tangleways.  Actually, at around 7,500 words, it might just creep into novelette status - a first for me, and the next will probably be a little longer, though the third is just a shortish scene that could helpfully be titled "Ned's First Kiss".

Primarily, though, I've been working on The Sleeping Life and still expect it to be my next release, out toward the end of the year.

I've also been straying a little into my MMO game series, and have commissioned two covers for it (as part of my "OMG, I don't want to pay that much tax I'd rather buy covers" splurge).  After TSL has been released, I'll be working concurrently on both the Trifold and Singularity Game series, working my way through them.  Singularity is an open-ended series - no fixed end point.  I'm finding its worldbuilding endlessly entertaining, especially since people have been talking lately about utopias and the game in Snugships would probably qualify for one - though humanity is kinda on the level of chocobos in that universe.  [For those who don't get the Final Fantasy reference, that means we make great pets. ;) ]

23 May 2015

Poltergeist (2015)

The original Poltergeist, even with its now very dated special effects, remains a wonderfully effective movie.  The compact storytelling sets out in easy strokes a young family, and then it introduces WONDER.

The family reacts much as any family would.  A little disbelieving, a little nervous, but mainly with "HOW COOL!"  It is only when the phenomena steps up that it's even treated as a horror story (and even then there is a ton of wonder, and beauty and _joy_ in the story).

The 2015 version fails on just about every level.  From the very beginning the camera shots treat the family's new house as wrong, as full of lurking threat.  It skips almost all of the wonder altogether, instead taking us on a little tour of jump scares and obligatory dragging girls up stairs.

It's also just plain badly done, lingering on boring scenes (the check-out scene, particularly, is just pointless) and in every instance replacing the things that were cool with less interesting, scarier scenes.  Worse, no-one reacts with any logic, and apparently no-one has ever read any of the rules of scary movies.

I did not expect the 2015 version to wholly recapture the magic of the original, but this was a miss on every level.  I recommend skipping it altogether.

02 May 2015

Cover Reveal: The Sleeping Life

Another from the fabulous Julie Dillon, The Sleeping Life is the sequel to Stained Glass Monsters, and I just love the thematic echo in the swoony light and jewel tones of TSL's cover.  Due out toward the end of the year!


Fallon DeVries has a sister who lives only in his mind. Paying the price of magic gone wrong, Aurienne is trapped watching a world she cannot touch, only able to communicate with her brother while he sleeps.

And it's slowly killing him.

Fallon and Auri's best chance of untangling their lives is to win the help of a mage of unparalleled ability. But how can they ask for help when the warped spell prevents him from speaking?

Besides, Rennyn Claire - once the most powerful mage in the world - is a shadow of her former self: ill, injured and unlikely to recover unless she can hunt down the monster who once tried to make her his slave. But that Wicked Uncle is nowhere to be found, and other dangers, once slumbering dormant, are stirring..

18 April 2015

Self-publishing and SFF Awards

It's SFF awards season!  And very, ah, exciting it's been so far.  Since I published no eligible novels in 2014, this seems like good timing to talk about how self-published books stand in regards to SFF awards.

There are a lot of SFF awards out there, and the good news is that unlike many non-SFF awards, self-published books are eligible for almost all of them!  Very few SF awards restrict entries according to manner of publication, being far more concerned with criteria like year, length, place of publication and, sometimes, theme or content.  You can view a full(ish) list of SFF awards on the Science Fiction Awards Database, broken down into a number of categories.

So can a self-pub win any of these awards?  Well, yes.  Self-published authors have already begun to pop up on nomination lists, and even to win the occasional award.  What are the chances?

To understand that, we need to get into an additional major division for all awards: voted or juried.

Voted

Unless you're a well-known figure in the SFF community, or have had a blazing break-out book, a voted award is not an easy bar to hurdle for a self-pub - or, for that matter, the average trade published author.  You're just one of the horde swarming the foothills of Discoverability Mountain, staring hopelessly at the genre's luminaries blazoned in countless reviews across the blogosphere.

The results of voted awards can vary wildly each year, because different groups of people are nominating the books.  Some are open to anyone with an internet connection who knows about the award (such as the Locus Award) and some are only open to a restricted group, such as the Norton Award (SFWA members).  Some combine a limited nomination field with an open voting pool (eg. the Gemmell Award).  One of the absolute biggest is the Goodreads Awards, which merely has SFF categories, rather than being dedicated to the genre, and is weighted heavily toward those books that are already the most-shelved.

Of the 'core' SFF awards, the best-known voted award is the Hugo, which is an endlessly confusing award run by a new set of people every year (each year a different group of people hold a World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention (WorldCon), and a combination of attendees and supporters of that individual convention, and the previous convention, can nominate).

There are some people who go to almost every one of these conventions, and some who go to the occasional one (I've been to four).  A solid percentage of WorldCon participants are industry professionals (authors, publishers), who are positively overwhelmed by the flood of books released each year.

Frankly, for many voted awards, most SFF books published each year will not have been read by more than one or two voters (if any).  On the flip side, for many of these awards the nominating pool is relatively small (particularly in some of the short fiction categories), so if your work happens to be known and liked by a group of voters, there's always a chance.

Juried

Juried awards, like the World Fantasy Award, invert this system. The judges read all the work submitted.  Who wins will depend entirely on the particular tastes of the judging panel, and that could just as easily be a self-published work as a trade published work.

Technically.  There are still several hurdles for self-pubs with juried awards.

Cost of entry is big factor.  Most legitimate awards have no entry fee or only a small entry fee, but many still require or prefer physical copies to be mailed to various parts of the world.  Looking at the addresses on the World Fantasy Award list, it would cost me (in Australia, one of the most expensive places to mail things from) a couple of hundred dollars to send physical copies.  While I see that the WFA has opened up to e-submissions, the hard copy is apparently preferred.

Which leads into the second point - perception of your book.  Will the judges seriously read/consider self-pubs?

As the occasional wins of self-pubs on juried awards show, the answer is yes.  Oh, sure, you may get the occasional judge who is actively negative toward self-pubs, but it appears to me that most people who get on award juries make a solid attempt to work their way through the entries and judge without fear or favour.

At the same time, I'm not going to pretend that judges aren't human.  A person who has been hearing buzz about a particular book all year, who has read multiple trusted reviewers claiming that X book is award-worthy - they'd have to be a paragon to pay exactly the same amount of attention to a self-published book by some author whose name they don't recognise.  They are almost certainly going to spend more time on the highly-lauded book, while the unknown will need to "prove worthy" of a full read, and prove it straight out of the gate.

Because this is a numbers game.  I don't have the stats on how many books get entered in the World Fantasy Awards each year, but it would be a rare judge who could wade through them all.  And every year, more books are published.  Can any judging panel realistically give all entries a fair shot?

The YA-oriented Cybils Awards uses one possible solution to this very problem.  Instead of one overwhelmed jury labouring through hundreds of books, two stages of juries are formed.  Stage one involves multiple juries reading an allocation of the eligible books and passing a set number along to the stage two jury, who chooses the finalists.

But are overwhelmed judging panels the biggest barrier to self-pubs winning juried awards?

Here's an interesting statistic about the Kitchies.  198 submissions.  8 self-published.  I read that, and then read it again in wonder.  Only 8 self-published authors entered the Kitchies?  I mean, I know it's a relatively new award, but it seems there were 190 non-self-published works entered.  What the heck's going on there?  Where's the tsunami?

But, you see, where trade published work is concerned, it's often not the author entering the work.  It's the publisher.  Over and over again I've seen self-pub authors (and, heck, creators of all stripes) talk themselves out of entering or drawing notice to their award-eligible work because to do so looks arrogant.  When you're a self-pub author, well aware of the stereotype of the deluded self-pubbed writer unable to judge the quality of their own work, do you really want to be so tacky-embarrassing as to put your own name into the hat?

I personally had the chutzpah to enter the Australian version of the WFA, the Aurealis Awards (and I've made the finals list a few times).  But there are a lot of awards out there.  Take the Tiptree Award, which recognises "science fiction or fantasy that explores and expands the roles of women and men for work by both women and men".

The last book I released featured a highly competent woman suffering from a variation of imposter syndrome, who falls in love with her country's Crown Princess.  Although the country is relatively egalitarian, I deliberately set out in that book to break down gender roles and expectations, starting simply by showing the majority of people in positions of power as female.  I am always exploring the role of women in my novels.  I usually write egalitarian worlds. Sometimes they're binormative worlds.  You'd think I'd be throwing myself at that award.  Yet I've never put my work forward for consideration for the Tiptree.

Because?  I guess I ran short of "FIGJAM".  How many other self-publishers are doing the same thing?

Does it matter?  In the grand scheme of things, awards are an ego-boost, with very few awards making a noticeable difference in sales.  But since making the finalist list a few times in the Aurealis Awards, I've seen the resulting reviews of my work that start "I don't usually read self-pub work, but...".  And award lists (when they're not melting down the internet) are fun - I like talking about SFF, and I'm not going to pretend I don't like my work being talked about.

One thing all the dramas in awards over the last few weeks have made clear is that, in this broad, diverse and fragmented community, if there's a book you want to see on award lists, talk about it, nominate it, enter it, put it out there.

Awards are part of the literary experience.  You may never win one.  You may think yourself a hack.  You may think that you won't be considered fairly.  But don't count yourself out at the start - become part of the discussion.

11 April 2015

An Experiment With Gender Numbers

You may already be familiar with Geena Davis's Institute for Gender In Media.  Discussing the results of the Institute's studies, Ms Davis has stated:
“If there's 17 percent women, the men in the group think it's 50-50.  And if there's 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.”

Now, in SFF we're sadly familiar with stories that barely manage one or two female characters, often with background characters strangely almost completely male (even when the story is ostensibly focused on women - such as the Pixar film Brave - they're apparently set in worlds where men outnumber women 100 to 1).

In my own books, outside the main characters, I usually aim for a roughly even split: if the last passing character was male, the next will be female.  If there are two guards, one will be male, one female (or alternating sets).  If the Chamberlain is male, the Captain of the Guard will be female.  I don't use a precise split, and have never counted them up, but I've always aimed for an equal 'feel'.

When drafting The Pyramids of London, I decided to try something different.  I would skew the background character numbers female to see how a book would read with 33 percent men 'in the room'.

Pyramids is set in an alternate Britain (Prytennia) where there's a legal equality between men and women that has grown out of a near-unbroken rule by a Trifold under the aegis of the goddess Sulis.  Only women can become one of the Trifold, and so no man can rule Prytennia.  However, while the country has become matrilineal, it is not strictly a matriarchy, but one where both men and women are equal partners in marriage, and where gender is not a factor for most roles in society.

Reader reaction (and keeping in mind that most people who have read Pyramids come from a background of my already woman-heavy other books) has been mostly positive.  Readers notice that there are a plethora of women, but find it novel or enjoyable.  Only a minority of reviewers comment negatively on the balance.

Anyway, a while ago I read this post by Marie Brennan about the absence of women in a particular fantasy work and I thought it would be an interesting exercise to take with Pyramids

And it was!  Very interesting, in this book where I'd set out to to achieve a 70/30 skew in favour of women, I created 82 female-presenting characters and 83 male-presenting characters.

I don't think I'll do this exercise with the books that I thought were 50/50.  That may bring embarrassment.

I suspect that one of the reasons that Pyramids feels so full of female characters (beyond our apparently ingrained perceptions) is that the skew of powerful women to powerful men is much more distinct.  Prytennia's Trifold is always made up of women.  And when making clear that both men and women could hold important office, I did so by mentioning men formerly holding the roles, but naming current women.  With the exception of Lord Msrah and Lord Fennington (and the foreign Gustav) all the people shown to be in charge of groups and organisations in Prytennia 'just happen' to be women.

I ended up with a meeting where I added a male secretary just so the vampire wasn't the only man at the table.

Quite possibly Prytennia is, in my subconscious, biased against men in roles of power.  But would a reader even notice the skew if it was all powerful men, plus Lady Msrah and Lady Fennington?

I'll be returning to attempting relatively equal numbers in the next book, Tangleways, and hope that doesn't mean I accidentally produce 30/70 F/M.  I don't think I'll count them, but I'm glad to have done this exercise.  As eye-opening as a white-gold/blue-black dress.

For those who love detail, below is the breakdown of characters (divided up by importance in the story, and taking gender presentation at POV character assumption in regards to less binary gender identities).  I also chose to count all characters, even those identified only as "a girl".

Critical to the plot (F: 4/ M:3)
One Aunt (F)
Two Nieces (F)(F)
One Nephew (M)
One Vampire (M)
A Suleviae Princess (F)
An Alban (M)

Important to the plot (F: 2/ M: 4)
Another Suleviae Princess (F)
Another Alban (F)
A Swedish Prince (M)
A Bound (M)
A Roman friend (M)
An Eccentric (M)

Plot role/several paragraphs of dialogue (F: 26/ M: 11)
Another Bound (F)
A collection of Royal Heirs (F)(F)(F)(M)
Two Sphinxes (FF)
A Consort (M)
A Suleviae Queen (F)
Another Vampire (M)
A Cab Driver (F)
A Dragonfly Rider (F)
A Daughter of Lakshmi (F)
A Warden of the Borough (F)
A Family of Grocers (MF)
An Eccentric's Assistant (M)
Two God-touched (M)(F)
A Pharaoh (F)
A Curator (F)
A Police Commander (F)
Conspirators (F)(M)(F)(F)
A Wisdom (M)
A Coafor (F)
A Page (F)
A Minister (F)
Fulgite Conspirators (MFFF)
A Custodian (F)
Gods/higher powers affecting plot (M)(F)(M)(Unspecified)

Brief role/appearance/dialogue (F: 22/ M: 27)
A couple on a train (UU)
Station Master (M)
Train driver (F)
Two train guards (MM)
A Courser Rider (M)
A Workshop Manager (F)
A gawp of Warehouse Workers (MMM)
A Shop Gossip (M)
Volunteers and Grove Visitors (FM, U)
A Warden's grandchildren (FM)
A gift dog (M)
A horned serpent (F)
Various triskelion (N)(N)(N)(N)
Various other horned serpents (U)
Folies (U)
A current First Minister (F)
The Daughter of a Pharaoh (F)
Hotel doorman (M)
A Roman Engineer (M)
A Palace Factotum (M)
A Sacred Mare (F)
A Wind Stag (M)
Hounds, Owls, Mice, etc (U)
A Grove Administrator (F)
Three Potential Students (FFF)
A Fencing Instructor (M)
A Brace of Drunkards (FMF)
A Hand of Huntresses (FFFFF)
A Secretary (M)
Day Staff (M)
A Foreman (M)
Roman Expert (M)
Cart Driver (M)
Minister's Second (M)
A Chauffer (M)
An Attendant (U)
Dead People (MMFF)
A Caracal (F)
Siege Fellows (MUUUUU)

Mentioned, but do not appear (F: 28/ M: 38)
Niblings' parents (MF)
The Three Sisters (three former Suleviae) (FFF)
Three Prytennian Dragons (FMF)
Aunt's parents (MF)
Cantankerous great-uncle (M)
A Dacian Proconsul and his son (MM)
A French Princess (F)
Mayor Desh-aht (not specified)
A former First Minister (M)
Train passenger (F)
Hotel staff (not specified)
A former Keeper of the Deep Grove (F)
Aquitanian Hoteliers (FF)
A Lawyer (U)
An Apprentice (F)
A Vendor of Patent Medicine (F)
An Egyptian King (M)
A Student Artist (M)
Wisdoms (M, unspecified)
A Coafor (M)
A Karnatan King (M)
A dog walker (F)
A French Great-Aunt (F)
A Taxi Driver (U)
Palace Guards (F, U)
A Princess' Grandfather (M)
A member of the Tuatha De Danaan (U)
A King of the Tuatha De Danaan (M)
A Dragon Emperor (M)
A Tutor (U)
A Kitten (M)
A French Prince (M)
A Roman Consul (M)
An Auction Purchaser (M)
An Artist's Model (U)
Feuding Siblings (M)(F)
A Deiographer (M)
An Estate Guide (U)
An Art Teacher (M)
A Drink Inventor (F)
Four Nephews (MMMM)
An Avid Driver (F)
Unlucky Child (M)
Fulgite Dealer (M)
Artists (UUUF)
A Captured Driver (M)
Nomarch of the East (F)
Gods/higher powers (M)(M)(M)(F)(F)(F)(F)(F)(M)(F)(F)(M)(M)(M)(M)(F)(M) 8/9