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Heroism and Narrative in MMOs

I happened upon a blog post and comment thread–over on Terra Nova–from 2004 asking where the heroes and heroic acts are in MMOs.  The comment thread was far more fascinating than the OP, because it involved a whole lot of people trying to actively figure out the answer to the question, as opposed to one dudes hot take.

The issue addressed is this:  Why do MMORPGs lack the awesome player-initiated heroic moments that are often found in table-top/pen-and-paper RPGS  or you friendly neighborhood game of Humans vs. Zombies(insert any LARP here)?

What does this have to do with writing fiction and literature, you may ask?  Well, a lot of things.  Also, video games are art.  There is writing in games.  And if you read the TOS, there’s no rule saying I can only talk about writing commercial genre prose fiction.

But back to my first point, there’s a lot you can learn about writing prose fiction from looking at interactive mediums like video games, LARPing, and pen-and-paper role-playing games.

In a novel(or short story or whatever), narrative is king.  You the writer dictate the course of the narrative by divine fiat.  In a traditional MMORPG, the developer dictates the limited number of available narrative choices by divine fiat.  This is especially true when a game is an interactive narrative or visual novel, but also true in theme park/sand box/open world narratives or even in something like an FPS.  Much like a book, a computer game, even when online and multi-player, is a fixed entity.

Now compare this to D&D which has rule suggestions, but is run by a Game Master or Dungeon Master who can dynamically tweak those suggested rules to fit the situation.  If we look at these three types of narrative experience as three circles, two of the circle include within them a greater ability to create heroic moments.  The reason for this fairly simple: Most of the time, even heroes are boring and normal.  Heroism is defined in part by its rarity.  Importance is defined in contrast to un-importance.  The fantastic is defined in contrast to the mundane,

In prose fiction or a role-playing game, we can work around the mundanity by choosing to present only a very specific slice of the narrative, of the life of the hero.  We can chop out all the boring stuff, leaving just enough hints to frame the fantastic and heroic–or villainous–acts.  Prose achieves this by fiat narrative.  The reader has no influence, they are only consuming what we the author have produced, sculpted, and fine-tuned to demonstrate heroism.

The same is true for a single-player game with a set narrative.  The player can fail or succeed in our set-piece conflicts, but no matter how many times they fail, the challenge remains the same.  But in contrast to our prose narrative or RPG session, there can be no heroic acts by the player, because they player cannot change the narrative.  There might be a scripted act by a side-character.  But when we talk about heroic acts in MMORPGs, by default, the goal is player heroism.

Now, in an MMORPG, the player has more freedom to act.  The game doesn’t restart when the player dies.  There are still often set-pieces, but there are also parts of the game in between.  Because the game creator cannot actively interfere in the game, heroism cannot be written in the way an author or a DM might do so.  It can only arise from player action.

But although the game doesn’t restart on the player’s failure of a quest, the player’s individual narrative generally does.  They might lose some experience or equipment, but their character remains intact.  And this is much of what precludes heroic behavior.  Losing is essentially meaningless, outside of the meta-issue of having to grind a few more hours to recover from the death penalty.  If there is no sense of loss or failure, it’s not really heroism.  The man jumping on the grenade to protect his friends usually suffers severe and often permanent consequences.  There’s a good chance he will die, and in the real world and even most novels, he’s not likely to be coming back from that.  But in the archetypal MMO, there is no permadeath because players invest a lot in a given character and usually don’t like starting over from scratch.

 

This leads us directly to the first obvious condition for heroic deeds in an MMO.  Permanent character death that cannot be avoided by loading a save-game.  Now, there’s a lot of momentum against this trope in most MMOs, as I mentioned above.  So the question now becomes, how do we counteract this?  In most MMOs today, such as the perennial World of Warcraft, everyone can play all the content, because creating it is expensive.  This means that when I kill the dragon, it’s not really dead, because then how could you kill it?  They can’t write unique content by hand for all 12 million players.  Thus, even a heroic act to achieve a difficult goal is essentially meaningless to the player.  It has no permanent effect to offset losing your entire character, which also leaves you unable to play with your friends who all have months or years invested in their own characters.

Which leads us to our first road-block on the path to creating meaningful heroism in an MMO.  Heroism is expensive.  Even if you can just make a new character, returning to your previous narrative position or experience level could take months or years.  Heroism in a game you pay to play and in which you are competing with other players requires a commensurate reward.  And that reward doesn’t exist when your heroism has not even a temporary effect on the game or the other players around you.  How then, to provide that effect?

The terranova thread explores several possible answers.  You could have a persistent game-state shared among all players, at least on the same server.  That changes the way you develop your content, and it means everyone can’t be a hero.  Which sucks for newer players, or less-skilled players, because likely they aren’t going to be the one who first slays the Lich King.  But consider this: with a consistent game state, you close off some avenues, but open others.  Perhaps not every character can save the world single-handedly.  But what about the village over yonder?  Since the game-world can change now, you have small quests that still matter, but aren’t going to be hogged by the high-level players.  The hundred gold from saving the village is essentially meaningless to our level 150 Lich-slaying Paladin.  But the level 12 Warrior who just started playing a few weeks ago might find it very handy.  And if he fails and dies, why then those five weeks are a lot easier to make up than two years.  And similarly, if our would-be Lich-slayer fails, well, the quest wouldn’t be so heroic if the risks weren’t so high.  So now all out players have level-appropriate tasks with useful rewards.  And if you connect enough low level-tasks, your village-saver might just find he saved the world by accident.

 
The thread at the link above also touches on another issue of prose/table-top vs. MMO games.  In prose and table-top RPGs, staying in character is often rewarded, whereas an MMO has no easy way to enforce your tragic back-story and weakness for cigars.  Sure, a particularly talented RPer might be famous for their dedication to staying in-character.  But why should minmaxxerz47 bother when doing so might hamper their goals?  Even a reputation system can’t enforce proper behavior.  MM47 is just going to game it.

But wait!  What if different player and NPC factions took a closer look at your behavior?  Perhaps saving that villager makes the humans happy, but the clan of the vampire you killed doesn’t take it too kindly.  And maybe they have something you want.  Even without a persistent game state or permadeath, giving different NPCs different opinions of the choices you make can add a sense of heroism.

And, you can make it even more useful by looking at your character sheet.  It might be irrelevant in Elder Scrolls whether you follow the lore on your race.  Even with the Faction Reputation system, perhaps it’s far better to rob that grave anyway, even if a High Elf wouldn’t, because of the cool equipment you get.  But if every Elf NPC in the world now refuses to do business with you because you’ve betrayed the laws of Elf-kind, then staying in character suddenly has some serious in-game relevance.

Or perhaps you have a tragic past.  Maybe you were orphaned at a young age.  Or a kindly old cleric of Imra gave you food wen you were starving.  So killing that Imran Initiate for their expensive clothes is doable, but you take a stat hit for ignoring your respect for clerics.  Conversely, perhaps you’re written as a vicious killer, and though showing mercy to your enemy might net a nice amulet, brutally slaughtering them adds to your reputation as someone not to mess with, and those palace guards aren’t quite as keen to detain you when you force your way to the throne room to see the king.

It takes a bit (or maybe a lot) more care in coding and writing the lore for the game to support players for staying in-character, but it’s certainly doable.

Finally, we come to the other side of the perma-death coin: the difficulty of raising a new character.  The obvious approach is to pre-level you to the appropriate point.  That does kinda defeat the goal of perma-death, however.  But what if the game were designed to have you play several characters over the course of your time in it.  Perhaps you can only have one character at a time, as opposed to the common use of a few well-leveled alts on different servers.  Perhaps characters automatically age and die over time.   Perhaps you learn things in one play-through that are useful when you take a different class on your next character.  Maybe you could only learn that secret alchemical trick if you once progressed through the mage class.  Perhaps your experience using a variety of weapons and armors teaches you something about armor-crafting you can’t learn sitting in the smithy all-day.  More off-beat: perhaps you carry-over some stats or skills or items from each consecutive character, sort of like how child units in Fire Emblem differ depending on their parentage.  Or perhaps your guild will lose this battle and you’ll all die permanently if you don’t sacrifice yourself.

There are all sorts of ways to make death the more interesting choice or just an equally interesting choice to just grinding on a single character, meaning players will be more willing to take the kind of risks that lead to heroics.  Of course, this opens up the door to hardcore players purposefully killing themselves in order to milk the system for advantages, but hard-cores gonna hard-core no matter what, whereas casual or average players are going to enjoy your game more if opportunities to do cool stuff aren’t all downside if they fail.

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Posted by on September 4, 2017 in atsiko, Game Design, Ideas, Rants, Video Games

 

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Is Blogging “Dead” and Is That A Bad Thing?

John Scalzi over on his blog Whatever just posted his yearly summary of readership statistics for his blog for this half of 2017, and it brought up some very interesting questions and insights for me.

 

He mentions how his site views seem to have halved since 2012.  But then he points out how the way social media sites address linking to content obscures many views and distorts the picture from the viewpoint of his built-in WordPress analytics package.

 

Whereas in the early 2000s, blogging was a rather distributed and free-wheeling hobby, nowadays it has been corporatized and hedged in by so-called “walled garden” platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr.  A walled garden is a platform that creates inward pressure on users and makes interfacing with outside platforms and media difficult.  Usually to preserve it’s userbase by requiring you to be a member/user of the platform in order to access or interact with its content.  This means that even though there may be links pointing outside, most of the discussion happens within the garden, and if the content creator wants to respond to comments on their content, they must have an account on the walled-garden platform.  And when a garden gets sufficiently large enough, like Facebook, the dilemma then arises: why go to all the extra work of maintaining an external platform such as a blog or website, when the audience all have say a Facebook and the content creator does, too–why not just post straight to Facebook?

 

And Mr. Scalzi is not the only blogger noting or struggling with the issue of how monetized platforms and walled gardens have altered blogging and the web in general.  In fact, many blogs, including many I used to follow closely, have closed their doors or switched formats to keep up with these changes.

 

And beyond the walled garden issue, part of this has to do with how we access the internet today.  Mobile devices make up a much larger share of web viewing now than they did when blogging and the internet first became popular.  And because these are mobile devices, they have many limitations: screen size, processing power, input methods.  A site or blog that looks great on a PC is going to look mighty odd on many mobile devices.  It would be almost impossible for me to type out this post on my phone’s touchscreen keypad.  Complex sites with lots of doodads load much slower on phones, though the gap has closed a bit these days.  Certainly, it’s nicer for me to read a long blog post on my laptop than my phone.  These things, too, have contributed to the decline of the blogosphere compared to its earlier days.

 

And I don’t like that.  For the things I use the blogosphere for, from my own posts to reading essays and such by people such as John Scalzi or Cory Doctorow, or others in various fields, I much prefer a good blog post to a Tweet, or a Facebook status.  I like long-form prose writing, and I don’t feel like I can get the same things out of a tweet or even a tumblr post in many cases.  That’s not to say those things don’t have they’re uses; they’re just different uses in my case.

 

I often wonder whether things might change back a little once we develop technology like laser keyboards and augmented reality or just mini-projectors that could let phones break out of the limitations of their size.  Is it merely that the medium is so different that forces these changes in media?  Does Twitter rely entirely on the artificial restrictions of mobile technology for its popularity?  If I could set my phone on a table or my lap, and have it mimic a keyboard and a computer screen, would I find that I wanted to use it like a more convenient laptop more often?  Or are the changes social changes.  Is it really that people don’t like reading 200-word blog posts anymore?  Or is it just that a 140 character Tweet is a lot less stressful when I’m on my tiny phone screen in the airport?

 

To get a bit more spec ficcy, do people just love Facebook and Twitter that much, or would we break out of the garden if we took down the walls a bit?  If there was an open-source freeware social media network that could access and display your Facebook data and your myspace data, and your Google posts and your tweets all in one platform/app–if it could convert a post/status so that your Google+ post would be accessible on your friend’s Facebook feed would people be more willing to step outside the single platform?  It takes a great deal of energy to manage even one active social media account.  I know I wouldn’t want to have to triple-post to Facebook, Google+, Ello, and then push a link to Twitter, just to reach all my possible audiences.  But what if there was a bridge between these castles that would do the work for me?  Because controlling every aspect of the garden is great for the companies behind Google+, Twitter, Facebook, etc.  But it’s not quite so great for the regular user, and it’s definitely not great for the community as a whole.  The democratization of the web is one of my favorite features, and Facebook and Co. work hard every day to kill that democracy and carve a monopoly from its bloody corpse.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2017 in atsiko, Blogging, Rants, Sigh, Social Media

 

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Kirkus Reviews and Rape Culture

I’m taking a quick break from talking about world-building today to talk about worlds much closer to home.  Specifically, publishing, book reviews, young adult literature, and sexism and rape culture.

 

Kirkus Reviews chose to post a review online of the forthcoming book Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu.  The gave a quick summary of the book, before jumping straight into the second half of the review where they criticized the author for promoting gender separation, vigilante justice, and ignoring the importance of due process.  Followed swiftly by faulting the book for not including a how-to manual of proper procedures for reporting crimes.

Which is not only off-base, but factually incorrect in several instances.

First of all, you are not legally obligated as a regular citizen to report a crime at all, nor are you obligated to speak only to police about criminal activity you may have witnessed or been a victim of.  You can also report crimes anonymously to many federal agencies.  Nor is reporting to school officials illegal or in any way wrong.  They might not have the authority to do anything about the assault but then neither does the justice system always provide a remedy.  Most people are aware that you can and are encouraged to report crimes to the police, and reporting to school administrators or any trusted adult can be and often is the first step in such an official report being filed, should you want to go that route.

 

Second, you have no obligation to include anyone, male or otherwise, in your private organization.  Inclusion of men and/or male allies has often been a thorny issue in regards to feminism and fighting sexism.  Even men who view themselves as feminists/allies can engage in enormously problematic behavior that can result in harm to women who are the victims of sexism or assault.  That’s not to mention the many documented and undocumented cases of false “allies” attempting to exploit or harm women and victims of sexist violence.  There is no wrong in choosing to have an all-female group to work on these issues.  Men can start their own groups if they so choose, or find a co-ed group in which to do their own advocacy.

 

Third, on the subject of anonymous accusations, due process, and vigilante justice there is a great deal more to say.  First of all, an anonymous accusation in a school paper is not an invocation of the justice system.  You have a legal right to due process and to face your accuser in a court of law when a formal complaint is made to the authorities.  Nowhere involved in that right is an informal complaint.  While it’s true that an anonymous accuser might be lying, so might a public accuser.  That doesn’t make the accusation automatically false or unworthy of consideration.  In fact, given the outcomes to public accusations that result in dismissals, acquittals, unfounded complaint notes in police files etc, it is horrifically unjust to demand a victim only even make a public formal statement.  Approximately 18% of rapes are reported to the police, and depending on the scope of the definition of rape/assault anywhere between 14-37% of accusations are actually prosecuted, with 18% of those resulting in conviction.  Just short of 7% of reported rape/assault cases result in a conviction when taking the highest estimates.

As for vigilante justice, one may be surprised to find that the repercussions for a victim whose assailant is not prosecuted, or not convicted, are generally far worse than those who were falsely accused anonymously outside of the legal system.  And chances are far better than even that the accused was in fact guilty.

 

Finally, as YA author Justine Larbalestier elegantly notes: YA novel are not instruction manuals.  They’re stories.  About things that happen.  You want to teach kids the (naive, ignorant, willfully blind) way to react to sexual assault, go be an advocate and teach them yourself.  Don’t tell others what their job is and how to do it.

And you don’t get to dictate other people’s responses to trauma, either.  No, not even if you were traumatized yourself.

Because what the justice system does best of all is silence sexual assault victims.  Because that’s what society wants.  They don’t want to hear about it, think about it, have to deal with it.  That’s why a university threatened to shut down a student’s organization if they kept supporting her in speaking out about her assault.  That’s why often (but not always!) victims are disbelieved, pilloried by their communities and their attackers, belittled, dehumanized, humiliated, called whores and liars and crazy bitches, told they don’t matter, that they didn’t react right.  That it’s their fault for being less than perfect.  Which is exactly the message this review sends to young women.  “Don’t be upset if your rapist goes free because other people’s rights are more important than yours.  For example, the guy you’re accusing.”

 

If you want to be the gatekeeper of proper behavior, get your own house in order before you go throwing stones through someone else’s windows.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2017 in atsiko, Uncategorized

 

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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Government

On this episode of Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds, I’m going to begin my look at governments in fantasy and how creating a new form government vs. using an old Earth-inspired one affects your world-building.  There are many different forms of government that developed in our world.  Few of them get an in-depth exploration or even usage in fantasy.  So it’s totally possible to use a real form of government to great effect in your world-building.  You can create a unique and original fantasy world without entirely re-inventing the wheel for every possible aspect of society.

For each episode in each series on creating unique fantasy worlds, I’ll be taking a look at the topic from a different angle, and then in the last episode, I’ll be trying to bring it all together to help you better understand the process of world-building.  Although I’m writing this from the perspective of a fantasy author, I do also do world-building for game ideas, whether pen and paper rpgs, boardgames, or video games.  And of course these ideas can apply equally to other artistic media such as television shows, movies, etc.  You could even make use of them in art or music, although full-scale world-building would probably be a bit over-kill even for a concept album or art show.  I will not be delving into the ways in which you can integrate game mechanics with your world-building, as that is not the goal off these posts.  But I’m not against doing so at a later date, since it’s a subject that interests me quite a bit.

This post will be functioning as an intro post for the entire Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds(CUFW) super-series, as well as for the CUF Government series.  I’ll eventually be creating a page on the site for this super-series with a more formal and structured intro to the concept and purpose, which will be linked to in the Nav bar and include a full index of posts.  Once each series has been published, I’ll also be creating a formal introduction post with links to all the posts with brief descriptions of the content and context within the series, and an overview of how everything fits together.

 

I’ll be discussing the purpose of government in general here, followed by individual posts for each of the major forms of government.  Although most of the information presented on government itself is available online and probably on Wikipedia, I’ll be organizing and presenting it for the purposes of world-building, so there’s going to be a slightly different slant to these descriptions than you’d find normally in a more general source.

 

Government as a concept  most broadly refers to the system by which a group of people choose to mediate their affairs.  You can have a government on every level of society, from a student council to the Federal Government of the United States of America.  The specific purpose of each level of government tends to differ slightly because of the group of individual people or collectives of people over whom it has authority.  For example, a town council can ignore aspects of government and human behavior that are crucial to the proper functioning of a US State Government, because such a government must concern itself with the interactions of the sub-units of government it oversees, whereas a town council has no authority over states and so can ignore their interactions with each other.

  1.         The first thing to consider when deciding how to design your fictional government is the collection of people and legal entities(such as corporations) over which it has authority.  If you have a village of 300 people, you might be able to institute a direct democracy where such a thing would be difficult to manage efficiently if it were to have authority over a population the size of the United States.
    Not only does the size of the population you need your government to rule affect the type of government you can reasonably implement, it affects the functions and services the government will need to manage.  These functions and services may include things like judging disputes between subjects, managing services like plumbing or roads, providing for mutual defense or really any possible requirement of the society it may see fit to put under the purview of the government rather than private citizens or groups thereof.
  2.         The second most important thing to consider, and one which divides many forms of government from each other, is who has a voice in the functions executed by the government and how they are executed.  In a direct democracy, each person has a theoretically equal voice in decisions.  In an dictatorship, a single person might have all the political power and be unable to be removed by legal means.  And there are many governments in between.
  3.         The third most important factor to consider is who actually puts these policies into action.  Are there elected, appointed, earned, or inherited positions in whom the people invest practical political power?  If the people vote to build a road between two towns, who actually goes out and gets it done?  Do the subjects organize the project communally?  Do they appoint a leader who is given time, money, and a set of limitations for achieving the goal?  Is such a leader temporary or permanent?  Does his power last for this single project, or does it extend to any similar projects?
  4.         The last major point to consider is how the government, in whatever form, maintains its authority.  If you have a direct democracy, whats to stop someone on the losing side of a vote from ignoring the outcome?  Are there cultural norms in place?  Laws backed up by a military or police force?  Do the people come together to enforce the decision, or do they just hope everyone goes along with it and might makes right, either way?

So, the most important things to know when designing a government are who is being governed, who governs them and how are such people chosen, how do they govern, and how they enforce their governance.

After you have an idea of these things, you should work out what actual things they govern.  Do they regulate trade, business, diplomacy, human behavior such as sex or religion or violence, adjudication, or perhaps various public services?

And finally, perhaps the most important question of all: how do they pay for all of the things they are required to do?  Do they use their personal fortunes?  And or levy taxes on the citizens or some form of interaction between citizens?  Do they ask for payment for services in kind, such as with labor or the products of labor?  Do they delegate to some lesser body of government or a private entity?  Funding government is perhaps one of the biggest political headaches in our world, and one of the strongest limits on the options available to the government itself, and it is likely to be the same in your fictional world, as well.

 

The purpose of these posts is not to provide a checklist or a template from which to construct your fictional government, but rather to make you think about what government really is and how it functions.  Not every fantasy story will require you to share or even know the exact details of your government in order to make sense to the reader.

If your story is about a rebellion against a central authority, your world-building might involve mentioning a greedy king and his big army, and your reader won’t care that truthfully he sits between three powerful nations all of whom would like the trophy of his kingdom on their wall to brag about to their enemies and so he’s forced to maintain a huge standing army on the strength of feudal obligations from his selfish and impoverished noblemen and a vast number of mercenaries who may or may not be trusted to hold to their contracts.  And he’s having to decide which ruthless political animal to create an alliance with by selling off his favorite daughter to be a concubine for the highest bidder.  And by law he can only demand his lords’ service for five months out of the year but his enemies have thousands of troops year-round, and two of his lords are eyeing a big fat paycheck for betraying him and he needs to maintain an atmosphere of frivolity and excess at court in order to distract from his desperate situation.  And damn his father for a greedy corrupt bastard and leaving him this shit-show he feels morally obligated to deal with because the next in line for the throne is a whore-monger and abuses his servants, but the king cannot interfere with internal household matters of his nobles.  Plus he swore in the name of the Gods to protect this kingdom and he knows that’s a pledge with real consequences in the afterlife even if his father and his asshole nephew don’t.  Also, his oh-so-much-more-capable older brother was assassinated by the nobles in a conspiracy with one of their neighbors because he tried to move forward too far, too fast, and the hostage exchange between his kingdoms and its neighbors took his younger sister and her son and left him with eight third and fourth sons by concubines who have surface political value but whom his neighbors just found a convenient way to remove from their succession if he kills them.

I’d hate to even speculate on the politics of a democratic republic or a viciously contested oligarchy in the same position, and you’ve been contracted for a standalone book anyway and you haven’t even mentioned your brilliant magic system that would make Brandon Sanderson weep in shame.  Knowing the right things about world-building can not only help you do it better, but it can teach you when skimming a particular aspect or just dipping your toes in the pond across the board will result in an easier writing experience and less frustrated readers, while letting you properly focus on the part of the story that really excites you.

In the next post, I’m going to talk about the various answers to the second question above and how to figure out which one best fits the story you’re trying to tell.

 

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The Myth of Publishers as Gatekeepers

I read a pair of posts over on Fantasy-Faction via Magical Words on the issue of self-publishing and its effect on the publishing industry in general.  The two authors took two very different approaches to the subject, and came from two different perspectives.

You should read the two posts if you really want to understand the full context for what I’m about to write.  But in summary, one called the explosion of new authors “the writer’s plague” and decried the damaging effect of much of self-publishing has had on publishing and English literature; the other expounded on how a self-publishing signal-boosting contest run by Mark Lawrence was “revitalizing” SFF.  The first comes across as very elitist even if it’s not meant that way, and the second is a massive exaggeration.  SFF is being revitalized by a large number of factors, of which one is certainly gems in the rough discovered from self-publishing.

But how does that relate to my post title?  Well, as often happens in self-publishing discussion, accusations of dreck-peddling by self-publishers and of elitist snobbery from fans of trade publishing came up several times in the comments to the two posts.  The existence of snobbery towards self-publishing and the justification for it are a mixed bag of truths that people rarely stop to examine.  But they should be examined.

Is and Why Is So Much Self-published Writing Crap?

Yes, a great deal of self-published SFF (and literature in general) is dreck.  So is s portion of trade published SFF.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. Publishers have an investment in their lists and therefore want to do as much as possible to be sure they pan out.  And so they engage in editing and proof-reading.  These costs come out of author profit for obvious reasons.  Many self-publishers do not to to the same lengths as trade-publishers to ensure the quality of the work.  This is for many reasons.  They are more likely to have a biased view of the quality of their work as studies have shown it is much harder to be objective about your own material and also because they may not have written enough or studied writing enough to know how badly they’ve misjudged their work.  Trade-published authors can suffer from the same issue, but that’s what editors and proof-readers are for.  Further, good editing costs money.  That’s why authors fork over s much of the profit to publishers and agents.  Which leads to the second issue.
  2. There’s nothing stopping you from publishing your trunk novels and high school angst poetry.  Self-publishing costs as much as you want to invest.  Stock covers and raw drafts and a few hours can get your book “published”.  This tends not to result in very good books.

 

People Misunderstand the Character of Publishers as a Business

Although publishers provide publishing services such as editing and cover design, publishers are not service companies.  Lulu, Lightning Source, and CreateSpace are examples of publishing  service companies.  You can pay them money for services.  There are many free-lance service providers.  But what they will not do is “buy your book”.  Which is itself a mis-characterization of what publishers do.  Publishers do usually buy the various copyrights associated with your intellectual property.  They don’t buy the intellectual property, though, only the license to produce a product from it.

But what publishers really are is venture capitalists.  Turning a manuscript into a quality book product is expensive.  Printing that book is expensive.  Just like a tech start-up tries to attract venture capital to start a business when they don’t have the money themselves, an author is something like a book start-up.  But they rarely have the money to take the risk on making, marketing, and selling their product themselves.  So the publisher comes in and looks at the product and if they think they can make money by fronting the author the money to produce and sell the book, they make an offer.

Now, the skills to produce a quality book from a manuscript are almost entirely unrelated to the skills required to produce a manuscript.  So not only does the publisher front the money, they provide the services in-house.  Their large reserves of capital allow them to take the risk of providing these services with no guaranteed ROI.  If the publisher publishers your book and it tanks, you don’t owe them the cost of production, nor do you owe them the advance on royalties for selling them the various license rights to the finished product.

It is the combination of these two aspects of a publisher that seem to cause people confusion.

Publishers Are Not Gatekeepers

Many people when self-publishing was just getting started were doing it because they couldn’t get accepted by a trade publisher.  Their product was not believed to be marketable enough for the publisher to risk an investment.  Publishers don’t give a shit about the quality of your manuscript.  They care about the commercial viability.

This is why you see so many books published by trade publishers that are total shit writing-wise, or you think are total shit.  Snookie’s memoir is going to sell a ton of copies and make a bundle regardless of the quality of her ghost-writer.  When you are a debut author of fantasy or SF or whatever, the publisher has no way to judge the risk involved in publishing your manuscript, except for their experience in publishing other manuscripts from debut authors.  And many books fail, or at least don’t succeed massively.  The publisher has to have a way to recoup these losses.  That’s why you get such harsh terms in your contract.  The few major sellers and many minor sellers have to not only pay for the non-sellers, they also have to pay the bills and then produce a profit.

No one is stopping your from publishing your book.  A publisher is not preventing you from being on bookstore shelves.  The bookstore is the gatekeeper, although honestly, would you go in and yell at Shark Tank or Walmart for not investing in or stocking your amateur product?  No, you wouldn’t.  Because that’s silly.  Publishers are investors with services-added, and they have no obligation to invest in your product/company/brand.

Agents Are Not Gatekeepers

Similarly, an agent is a company offering services.  Services on commission.  They are not a gatekeeper trying to screw over brilliant but misunderstood works of art.  If they think your manuscript will make them money, they take it.  On spec.  No charges.  For which you agree to pay them a percentage on future profits.  If no publisher takes on the book, you don’t owe any money.  In fact, the agent is out time and money on your book that they could have spent elsewhere.

Publishers Accepting Only Agented Manuscripts is not Gatekeeping

If you need an agent to get your work considered by a publisher, it’s not “gatekeeping”.  Well, it is, technically.  But gatekeeping is not a crime.  It takes me four or five hours to read a standard-length fantasy novel.  If a publisher would receive a reasonably-expected 10,000 manuscripts a year, that’s 40,000 hours.  If they pay minimum wage to their first readers–which would be stupid, because knowing whether a book is potentially commercial is a high-skill job–that’s $320,000 a year just on the first screening of a manuscript.  Let’s say 10% of those manuscripts are worth a second look by a more experienced reader, or even just a second read by another first reader.  $32,000 a year.  That’s equivalent to an entire employee position.  Why in the world would you expect someone to provide you that service for free?  Some entire businesses have net profits less than $352,000.

Publishers want agented manuscripts because then that process is already completed, and without them paying for it.  Shit, the agent doesn’t even get paid for it.  Do you as an author really want to be shelling out a minimum of $32 a manuscript submission?  If you submit to 10 publishers, that’s $320 out of pocket for a manuscript that is unlikely to be picked up.

Now imagine that, but you’re paying for all the costs associated with production of the final text and the printing.  You’d rather be paying for that?  Please.

 

The Pros and Cons of Trade Publication

 A trade publishing deal takes care of all the technical aspects of publication and getting space on bookstore shelves.  Publishers are respected brands.  You can expect to sell many copies on name recognition of the publisher alone.  I know that a book published by Orbit or Tor with an interesting cover blurb has a strong chance of being worth my time and money.  And you get thousands of dollars up front, which you will keep even if the books sells not a single copy.

But you do have to get accepted by a publisher, probably pay an agent, sign over your copyrights, and for a general average of 10% of the cover price in royalties, and you have to pay back your advance with sales before you get more money.

 

The Pros and Cons of Self-publication

You retain full creative control, keep all the copyrights, and get a far larger share of the profits.

In exchange, you front all the money for production and have to source and compensate your own talent.  If you are wasting your money on a bad book, tough luck.  And you might honestly not realize the low quality or commercial value of your manuscript.

 

Snobbery

So, you often hear complaints about snobbery from trade-published authors or trade publishers and readers towards self-published works.  There’s no inherent reason for this, of course.  Great books have been self-published and horrible books have been trade-published.

But!

There is practical reason for this snobbery, condescension, etc.  Readers get burned by self-published works all the time.  There are tons and tons of horribly written, edited, and produced self-published works.  The majority of them suffer from fatal flaws.  And there are hundreds of thousands of them.  Why in the world would a reader want to run those odds when the odds are much better (though far from perfect!) when going with a trade-published work?  That’s a silly expectation.

But!

There are many reasons an author might choose to self-publish besides they couldn’t hack it in the trade publishing world.  That creative control can be very handy.  There are many horror stories of publishers fucking over authors in contracts or with rights reversion.  There are horror stories of shitty or racist/sexist/etc covers an author has limited say in.  There are terrible stories about marketing from trade publishers for midlist books.  If you happen to have the necessary skill-set for publishing and marketing a book, it may be a much better choice to self-publish.  Hugh Howey got a trade publishing deal for print, but he kept e-book rights because is was financially sensible for him to do so given his success in that format.  He should be applauded for that decision rather than looked down on.

Maybe the writer knew they could make more money by ignoring the desires of the publisher.  If you can sell more shitty pulp novels at a higher royalty than you could a better quality novel through a publisher, who’s to say you shouldn’t, if profit is your goal?  (As long as you aren’t deceiving readers, in my opinion.)

Signal to Noise and Target Audience

The elitism in trade publishing is both misplaced and understandable.  The signal-to-noise ratio, or ratio of good books to bad, is drastically higher in self-publishing.  But it’s important to remember that even if an author is self-publishing because they couldn’t get a trade deal, it doesn’t automatically mean their books is terrible.  They may have a brilliant work that targets a niche market.  The publisher may have liked the book but felt they lacked the expertise to sell to its specific audience.  Perhaps it could have made profit but not enough.  Perhaps there was a glut in the market.  Maybe it was a little ahead of its time.  Maybe it didn’t fit the publisher’s brand.  Maybe it didn’t match any editor’s taste.

The sheer number of books being published today does make it a lot harder for even a brilliant story to stand out from the crowd.  Even though even more of the crowd of published books these days aren’t good.  It’s perfectly legitimate to complain about that.  Or to not read self-published authors because as a reader you’ve found it’s not worth your time.  There are more quality trade-published SFF books in the world than I could afford in terms or either time or money.  The review blog I participate in doesn’t review self-published books because we haven’t found it to provide us the same value as readers or reviewers.  There’s nothing snobby about that.  No one owes your book their time or money.  You may have a quality book that doesn’t succeed the way you want it to, and it doesn’t have to be malicious.

 

Conclusion

I am 100% against condemning other’s publishing decisions.  But I think it’s reasonable to discuss them.  If I think a writer might have done better to trade publish than self-publish, I’ll say so.  You shouldn’t call people stupid, or cast insults because they chose a different route than you.  You shouldn’t do that even if their book sucks, unless they are misrepresenting that for personal gain.  You’re perfectly welcome to say a book sucks, though.

The tone of the first article I linked to is distressing.  It’s metaphor is insulting.  It makes a few valid points, but there’s no reason why they had to be a jerk about them.  And it makes a few invalid points, as well.  Rather than just criticizing other’s “bad” decisions, we should first seek to understand them and the context in which they occur.  And then, with that understanding, we might consider critiquing them.  Maybe.

 

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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Originality

So in the last post I discussed the major challenges of creating unique fantasy worlds and cultures.  The first challenge I identified was the tension between coming up with a new facet of world or culture while not breaking the logical coherency of your world.  Every aspect of your world-building exists on multiple axes.  The two axes that are relevant to this post are originality vs. familiarity and coherency vs. incoherency.  We’re going to need some definitions here:

  • Originality: I’m using this word in the sense of departing from your idea of the standard implementation of an aspect of physical laws or culture.  So the patriarchy is the example of a gender power structure that is most common in our world.  So you maybe want to use a different gender power structure.
  • Coherency: I’m using this word in the sense of the different parts of your culture fitting together logically.  Say you have a people who live on a river.  Their whole livelihood is bound up in the river and it’s natural cycles.  And they worship a god who lives at the top of a far-off mountain.  Can you make that work as an author?  Sure, with enough other factors, such as perhaps they lived on that mountain in the past.  But assuming only the information I’ve given you, wouldn’t a form of worship involving the river make more sense?  If you live in a matriarchal culture, is it more likely you’ll have a king or a queen as your ruler?  If your people live on the coast of the ocean, are they more likely to be known for their sailors or their mountaineers?  If they have huge deposits of iron are they more likely to be known for their ironwork or their copper-smithing?

Now, we’re assuming, given the subject of this blog series, that you want to err on the side of originality over familiarity.  You’re reading an article on world-building, so I’m going to assume you value coherency over incoherency.  (If you write surrealism, maybe not?)

 

One trick to originality is looking at the axes which we use to judge familiarity.  You might think the opposite of patriarchy is a matriarchy, but that only differs on the feature of gender.  It’s still following a complex set of assumptions about what power is and how we define who holds it.  We have in our world a common concept of a struggle for power between the male and female genders.  It’s a single axis alignment of power.  If you want to be really original, you might consider altering a different axis.  Or maybe two.  Or three.  Perhaps there’s an equal division of power between genders.  Maybe it doesn’t even match our pre-conceived gender roles.  Or maybe there’s no gender division at all.

Now, true origianlity would not just be, “okay, let’s have Japan but with a matriarchal power-structure and everything else is the same.”  That’s a valid method to create a fantasy setting, assuming you watch out for things like cultural appropriation.  But it’s not what we’re addressing in this post.

And there are other power structures or aspects of power structures.  Such as do we have a single absolute ruler?  A group of rulers?  A democracy (of sorts)?  How do we decide on who fills these positions?  More generally in world-building, you have to decide on your goals for the culture or world and then pick the method to achieve that goal.  So you can focus your originality on those aspects, which certainly makes life easier.  Perhaps you want everything to be original.  A lofty goal, though I’m not sure it’s a good one.

But you can have a fairly original culture by just changing a few aspects.  What provides the true originality instead of just being gimmicky is whether or not you let these changes trickle down through other aspects of the society.  You have to find the reasons that underlie your new surface structure.

Another important aspect to consider is whether your ground state culture is the average of real-world cultures or those depicted in secondary-world fantasy.  So a democracy is more common in the real world than in fantasy, so within the context of fantasy, it might feel a lot more original than you might otherwise expect.  Theocracies might be arguably more common in fantasy than in real life, so they might feel less original.

You could look at religion the same way.  Polytheistic pantheons are far more common in fantasy than in modern real life.  Monotheistic religions might feel very common in the real world, but are far less common in fantasy, despite being present.  And Judeo-Christian Gods make up most of the fantasy monotheistic Gods.  So even though mono-theism might not feel super original, the way it’s expressed in the world could be.  Pantheism/animism is similarly uncommon in fantasy, though we have real-world examples such as Shinto from Japan.

Worship of spirits and gods is the most common state of religion in both fantasy stories and the real world.  Rarely do we have supernatural forces acknowledged without worship.  Do you often see scientific explorations of the the river and wind spirits in fantasy the same way we look at meteorology in the real world?  When looking to create an original culture, one of the methods with the highest ceiling on originality is to find the underlying assumptions in our ideas of both what’s possible and what’s original.  We have a big conflict between theism and atheism in the real world religious landscape.  But especially from a Western viewpoint, it’s rarely considered that we might have supernatural phenomena acknowledged without being revered.  And there are many other examples.

 

I’ve used examples of religion and politics because they’re very common subjects of “unique” fantasy cultures and I know something about them.  You can do the same thing with food or cleanliness habits, art or clothing or architecture.  Family relationships, education, values either moral or practical.  How they deal with their economy.  With their debts or social obligations.  Politeness is a fun one.

Next time, I’d like to talk about how to make the aspects of your culture fit together in a way that readers will accept/expect.

 

 

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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Challenges

It’s turned out that this is a series of rather long post rather than one or two medium posts, for wish I apologize.  I’m afraid I’m a bit of a discovery writer.  I had a very compact premise for these posts, but I found out as I went along that that premise entailed a large amount of background and set-up that couldn’t fit into a couple thousand words.  This post is going to be about the challenges of writing truly unique and original worlds.

  1. There’s nothing new under the sun.  Well, sort of.  The first thing to understand is that our only reference, our only source of inspiration for how the world and human cultures within it work is our world.  There’s only one.  That one contains thousands of years of recorded history among thousands of cultures.  But it’s still only one world, and all of those cultures follow one set of physical laws.  So even though in fantasy the possibilities are theoretically infinite, in practice, we suffer from a paucity of stimuli.  And even though we have an infinite number of possible combinations of physical laws, only a small subset of them result in coherent worlds and only a small subset of those are intelligible to us as humans.  So this challenge is a bit misleading.There are many things new under the sun, but our ability to understand them thoroughly or even conceive of their existence at all is actually quite limited.  And your challenge in creating a unique fantasy world is diverging far enough from real-world examples to feel new and exciting without diverging so far as to become incoherent to other humans–your readers.
  2. You have to convince the reader that your ideas fit together reasonably.  If you have a desert world where all the characters walk around in several layers of thick animal fur and you have a really cool social structure based around what caste of people wears what fur, that might be cool and original.  But it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  If you have a society set in the same basic geography as Scandinavia, it’s gonna be awful weird if they’re all eating rice and wearing Japanese-style clothing.  And this is because the environment affects how your society develops.  Tons of people in Illinois, USA eat salmon.  But there are no salmon here.  In a world without complex transportation networks stretching thousands of miles and supported by cheap refrigeration technology, that would be really odd.If you have quality steel armor and also katanas, then your world doesn’t make much sense, because katanas developed the way they did due to various factors including the lack of decent iron deposits, so that forging a decent blade required techniques that resulted in the shape of the katana, the sharp edge of which is forged from a different alloy than the body of the sword, and so when it reacts to being heated, those two sections expand differently, creating the trademark curve of the blade.  And beyond that, katanas only functioned because that same lack of quality metal meant the style of armor in use was vulnerable to the slashing attacks that are the main use of the katana, whereas steel plate is not generally vulnerable to slashes, but rather to chops, thrusts, and bludgeoning.
  3. In order to create a logical and coherent culture (or world), you need to know why things work.  But you don’t.  Most people will have no idea why Japanese culture developed katanas, or why the daimyos(lords) had so much power compared to the Emperor.  But they have the dual illusion of an incorrect idea of why those things existed and that they understand the why rather than maybe merely seeing the surface pattern of the what.  You don’t know the underlying reasons for gravity; you only know the surface effects.  Things fall rather than rising, falling causes damage.  But how does gravity create and affect the atmosphere?  How does gravity interact with other forces to create rain?  How does gravity create the tides?  You don’t necessarily need to know how the tides work to sail a ship.  You just need to know how they affect the ship.  The rules, not the reasons.  Because the world takes care of the reasons and how they create interactions between systems.The same goes for the systems that underlie human cultures.But when you are creating a a world or a culture for a story, there is no world to run the system for you.  You can’t input some facts about how you want the culture to work into a computer that knows how things work and let it hash out the results of your combination.  You have to be able to design and understand the way the systems interact yourself.  When you steal a culture from the real world, the reasons are irrelevant, because we all know the rules and we can extrapolate from our years of experience with those rules to create a logical model of how things work that we can use to both predict outcomes and judge how likely the outcomes the author presents are to really happen.  If their model doesn’t fit our model, we decide they screwed up or are outright cheating.

    But when you have an “original” culture, the surface patterns you expect the system to generate are much more likely to differ from the surface patterns your reader expects, and so they will judge your world-building or plotting skills negatively.  They will look at real world cultures that have similar rules and see the general consistency in the resulting surface patterns and extrapolate from that to the patterns your systems should theoretically create.  If your surface patterns don’t match that theoretical model, you’re going to have trouble with reader engagement.

So the two surface challenges for creating a new culture or world (or magic system or whatever) are making your world feel original and still feel coherent and reasonable.  And underlying those surface challenges are the mechanical challenges of not actually knowing how things in the real world work and so how they should work in your world based off your deviations, and how to derive new ideas from our shared experiences.  And in the next post, I’m going to start suggesting possible solutions to some of these challenges.

 

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