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Category Archives: Rants

The Problem with “Boy Books”

First, read this post by YA Author Justine Larbalestier: The Problem with Boy Books

I’ll wait.  It’s a very good post, and the parts I want to respond to are probably not the ones most would expect.

Unfortunately, comments on Justine’s post were closed, so I’m putting my response here on the Chimney.

I have a page here on the Chimney listing 200  YA/MG-ish books with male protagonists and/or authors.  For a variety of reasons, most of which aren’t made explicit on the page itself. For example, it makes the point that in fact there are many and even many good YA books with male protagonists and authors.

But to get to my thoughts on the whole “we need more YA books starring boys so boys will read” debate.  This argument, as Justine points out, makes several important assumptions, almost all of which are false.

  1. Boys don’t read.  Well, that’s obviously crap.  I read and I know many other folks of the male persuasion who do as well.   Not only now, but from back when many of us would have classified as YAs ourselves.
  2. Relatedly: we must solve this problem by getting boys to read YA.  Also crap.  Justine points  out that many boys do read, just not within the genre of YA.  The argument seems to be that YA books are for YAs, so if male YAs aren’t reading them, male YAs must not be reading.  Which is silly.  Although most YA lit focuses on YA (or lightly above) protagonists, sales data shows that the audience, whether intended target or not, is so much wider.  First, yes.  More female YAs read YA lit than male.  In fact, the readership appears to be drastically weighted towards females in all age categories.  So despite that settings and characters–and the blunt category label–I don’t think we can say that YA is lit for YAs, thus undermining the argument at issue here.
  3. A third assumption, which some might disagree about the truth of, is the assumption that we need boys to read more. Do we?  That depends on what value we believe/claim reading to have.  Is there some positive influence unavailable elsewhere that reading provides?  I certainly don’t claim to be able to prove either possible answer there.  But even without the full answer, the partial response we can rely on is that reading does have value and does provide some benefits, at least to some people.

 

I do have to disagree with Justine on one point: books do not have gender, sure.  But they have a target audience.  Just looking at the above-mentioned readership of YA, it’s clear that some books appeal more to certain people (and arguably groups) than others.  So in fact, there are “boy books” insomuch as marketing shows that  we can target our product and advertising towards specific groups we wish to cultivate as customers.  The underlying question is really whether there is cultural and individual to the reader value in such targeting. Most marketers and companies will naturally argue for the financial value to them.  Personally,as I suspect Justine does, I think there’s a great deal of value in having readers cross market category lines.  If we indirectly discourage boys from reading “girl books” by creating an opposing category of “boy books” and then hinting very strongly in our marketing that boys should read these in preference to girl books, we’re artificially preventing them from gaining the value of learning about different perspectives.

 

Now to address my points:

Boys do read.  They may not read YA, but as I say in point 2, that doesn’t mean they don’t read.  In fact, there’s a strong belief among the book-ish community that boys read a great number of Middle Grade books, and then generally mix in adult genre fiction over time as they age out of the middle grade category.  (It’s interesting to note that YA has a much wider practical audience compared to its supposed target audience than middle grade does, such that many readers never age out, or eve pick up the category later in life having not indulged when they were actually young adults.)  So there’s  no reason to artificially force some sort of supposed gender parity in YA publishing.  The fact that YA is less popular with boys does not as claimed equate to reading in general being less popular with boys.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy a broader array of male protagonists in YA, written by male authors or otherwise.  But keep in mind that I read over a hundred books a year, so it’s not that there’s necessarily a deficiency, but that I am an outlier, and further, no longer a young adult, thus somewhat disqualifying me from being a statistic at all.  (Though I read at the same pace when I was younger.)  Also, I had and have no trouble reading either female protagonists and authors or “girl” books, so again, still not an argument for forcing gender parity in main characters.

And speaking of consumption of alternate media, I don’t enjoy (fiction–or non-fiction, I suppose) books about sports.  But I love anime (and manga) that involves sports.  As Justine brings up early on, all boys are different.  Anecdotally, no amount of sports-themed boy-lead stories are going to automatically bring more males like me into reading YA.

 

I’m gonna now delve into the Go vs chess analogy in Justine’s post because as you probably know, I love both linguistics and AI.  It’s in some ways a brilliant analogy, since it captures the issue of ignorance on the part of the person criticizing YA as simplistic.  Although Go has far simpler tools and rules to play, it’s far more complex than chess in it’s play.  Words work similarly to games like Go and Chess in terms of the complexity of meaning that can be derived from very simple building blocks.  I took those stupid reading level tests in high school.  Scored too high to get any book recs.  As Justine points out, the complexity of stories come not from the quality of the words themselves, but  from how they are arranged.  Quality here being defined as conversational level words versus SAT words.  For example, I could have said  “verbiage” instead of words, but despite the fancy  vocab, the meaning is the same.  In fact, I could have given the same meaning with “Two-syllable words vs eight-syllable words.”  TL;DR: If your plot is simple, you can’t hide it beneath flowery prose.  So much more goes into a story than the grammar.

 

 

Finally, onto the third point.  Justine cites empathy as something that readers can gain from novels.  You’re more likely to get empathy from a competently written story about someone different from you than about someone much more similar to you. Similarity enforces rigidity in thinking, where as difference more often encourages flexibility.  So if we want boys to read more(they already read plenty accounting for non-gender-related factors!) because of what they gain from reading, then in fact forcing stereotypical gender parity is the opposite of the correct solution.  They might read more (they won’t!), but they’ll gain less.

 

*I’ve actually left out a few very interesting points Justine made in her own post, because I don’t currently have anything to add, and they are separate attacks on this myth from the ones I’ve chosen to address here.  But they are just as important!   Especially the point about general gender disparity in readership/charactergender/author gender  vs. YA specifically.

 

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Poetry, Language, and Artificial Intelligence

Poetry exemplifies how the meaning of a string of words depends not only upon the sum of the meaning of the words, or on the order in which they are placed, but also upon something we call “context”.  Context is essentially the concept that single word (or idea) has a different meaning depending on its surroundings.  These surroundings could be linguistic–the language we are assuming the word to belong to, for example, environmental–say it’s cold out and I say “It’s sooooooo hot.”, or in light of recent events: “The Mets suck” means something very different if they’ve just won a game than if they’ve just lost one.

Poetry is the art of manipulating the various possible contexts to get across a deeper or more complex meaning than the bare string of words itself could convey.  The layers of meaning are infinitely deep, and in fact in any form of creative  writing, it is demonstrably impossible for every single human to understand all of them.  I say poetry is the “art” of such manipulation because it is most often the least subtle about engaging in it.  All language acts manipulate context.  Just using a simple pronoun is manipulating context to express meaning.

And we don’t decode this manipulation separate from decoding the bare language.  It happens as a sort of infinite feedback loop, working on all the different layers of an utterance at once.  The ability to both manipulate concepts infinitely and understand our own infinite manipulations might be considered the litmus test for what is considered “intelligent” life.

 

Returning to the three words in our title, I’ve discussed everything but AI.  The difficulty in creating AGI, or artificial general intelligence lies in the fact that nature had millions or billions of years to sketch out and color in the complex organic machine that grants humans this power of manipulation.  Whereas humans have had maybe 100?  In a classic chicken and egg problem, it’s quite difficult to have either the concept web or the system that utilizes it without the other part.  If the system creates the web, how do you know how to code the system without knowing the structure of the web?  And if the web comes first, how can you manipulate it without the complete system?

You might have noticed a perfect example of how context affects meaning in that previous paragraph.  One that was not intentional, but that I noticed as I went along. “Chicken and egg problem”.  You  can’t possibly know what I meant by that phrase without having previously been exposed to the philosophical question of which came first, the chicken that laid the egg, or the egg the chicken hatched from.  But once you do know about the debate, it’s pretty easy to figure out what I meant by “chicken and egg problem”, even though in theory you have infinite possible meanings.

How in the world are you going to account for every single one of those situations when writing an AI program?  You can’t.  You have to have a system based on very general principles that can deduce that connection from first principles.

 

Although I am a speculative fiction blogger, I am still a fiction blogger.  So how do this post relate to fiction?  When  writing fiction you are engaging in the sort of context manipulation I’ve discussed above as such an intractable problem for AI programmers.  Because you are an intelligent being, you can instinctually engage in it when writing, but unless you are  a rare genius, you are more likely needing to engage in it explicitly.  Really powerful writing comes from knowing exactly what context an event is occurring in in the story and taking advantage of that for emotional impact.

The death of a main character is more moving because you have the context of the emotional investment in that character from the reader.  An unreliable narrator  is a useful tool in a story because the truth is more surprising either  when the character knew it and purposefully didn’t tell the reader, or neither of them knew it, but it was reasonable given the  information both had.  Whereas if the truth is staring the reader in the face but the character is clutching the idiot ball to advance the plot, a readers reaction is less likely to be shock or epiphany and more likely to be “well,duh, you idiot!”

Of course, context can always go a layer deeper.  If there are multiple perspectives in the story, the same situation can lead to a great deal of tension because the reader knows the truth, but also knows there was no way this particular character could.  But you can also fuck that up and be accused of artificially manipulating events for melodrama, like if a simple phone call could have cleared up the misunderstanding but you went to unbelievable lengths to prevent it even though both characters had cell phones and each others’ numbers.

If the only conceivable reason the call didn’t take place was because the author stuck their nose in to prevent it, you haven’t properly used or constructed  the context for the story.  On the other hand, perhaps there was an unavoidable reason one character lost their phone earlier in the story, which had sufficient connection to  other important plot events to be not  just an excuse to avoid the plot-killing phone-call.

The point being that as I said before, the  possible contexts for language or events are infinite.  The secret to good writing  lies in being able to judge which contexts are most relevant and making sure that your story functions reasonably within those contexts.  A really, super-out-of-the-way solution to a problem being ignored is obviously a lot more acceptable than ignoring the one staring you in the face.  Sure your character might be able to send a morse-code warning message by hacking the electrical grid and blinking the power to New York repeatedly.  But I suspect your readers would be more likely to call you out for solving the communication difficulty that way than for not solving it with the characters’ easily  reachable cell phone.

I mention the phone thing because currently, due to rapid technological progress, contexts are shifting far  more rapidly than they did in the past.  Plot structures honed for centuries based on a lack of easy long-range communication are much less serviceable as archetypes now that we have cell phones.  An author who grew up before the age of ubiquitous smart-phones for your seven-year-old is going to have a lot more trouble writing a believable contemporary YA romance than someone who is turning twenty-two in the next three months.  But even then, there’s a lack of context-verified, time-tested plot structures to base such a story on than a similar story set in the 50s.  Just imagine how different Romeo and Juliet would have been if they could have just sent a few quick texts.

In the past, the ability of the characters to communicate at all was a strong driver of plots.  These days, it’s far more likely that trustworthiness of communication will be a central plot point.  In the past, the possible speed of travel dictated the pacing of many events.  That’s  far less of an issue nowadays. More likely, it’s a question of if you missed your flight.  Although…  the increased speed of communication might make some plots more unlikely, but it does counteract to some extent the changes in travel speed.  It might be valuable for your own understanding and ability to manipulate context to look at some works in older settings and some works in newer ones and compare how the authors understanding of context increased or decreased the impact and suspension of disbelief for the story.

Everybody has some context for your 50s love story because they’ve been exposed to past media depicting it.  And a reader is less likely to criticize shoddy contextualizing in when they lack any firm context of their own.   Whereas of course an expert on horses is far more likely to find and be irritated by mistakes in your grooming and saddling scenes than a kid born 16 years ago is to criticize a baby-boomer’s portrayal of the 60s.

I’m going to end this post with a wish for more stories–both SpecFic and YA–more strongly contextualized in the world of the last 15 years.  There’s so little of it, if you’re gonna go by my high standards.

 

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Machine “Translation” and What Words Mean in Context

One of the biggest commonly known flaws of mahcine translation is a computer’s inability to understand differing meaning in context.  After all, a machine doesn’t know what a “horse” is.  It knows that “caballo” has (roughly) the same meaning in Spanish as “horse” does in English.  But it doesn’t know what that meaning is.

And it certainly doesn’t know what it means when we say that someone has a “horse-face”(/”face like a horse”).

 

But humans can misunderstand meaning in context, too.  For example, if you don’t know how “machine translation” works, you’d think that machines could actually translate or produce translations.  You would be wrong.  What a human does to produce a translation is not the same as what a machine does to produce a “translation”.  That’s why machine and human translators make different mistakes when trying to render the original meaning in the new language.

 

A human brain converts words from the source language into meaning and the meaning back into words in the target language.  A computer converts words from the source language directly to words in the target language, creating a so-called “literal” translation.  A computer would suck at translating a novel, because the figures of speech that make prose (or poetry) what they are are incomprehensible to a machine.  Machine translation programs lack the deeply associated(inter-connected) knowledge base that humans use when producing and interpreting language.

 

A more realistic machine translation(MT) program would require an information web with connections between concepts, rather than words, such that the concept of horse would be related to the concepts of leg, mane, tail, rider, etc, without any intervening linguistic connection.

Imagine a net of concepts represented as data objects.  These are connected to each other in an enormously complex web.  Then, separately, you have a net of linguistic objects, such as words and grammatical patterns, which are overlaid on the concept net, and interconnected.  The objects representing the words for “horse” and “mane” would not have a connection, but the objects representing the concept of meaning underlying these words would have, perhaps, a “has-a” connection, also represented by a connection or “association” object.

In order to translate between languages like a human would, you need your program to have an approximation of human understanding.  A famous study suggested that in the brain of a human who knows about Lindsay Lohan, there’s an actual “Lindsay” neuron, which lights up whenever you think about Lindsay Lohan.  It’s probably lighting up right now as you read this post.  Similarly, in our theoretical machine translation program information “database”, you have a “horse” “neuron” represented by our concept object concept that I described above.  It’s separate from our linguistic object neuron which contains the idea of the word group “Lindsay Lohan”, though probably connected.

Whenever you dig the concept of horse or Lindsay Lohan from your long-term memory, your brain sort of primes the concept by loading it and related concepts into short-term memory, so your “rehab” neuron probably fires pretty soon after your Lindsay neuron.  Similarly, our translation program doesn’t keep it’s whole data-set in RAM constatnly, but loads it from whatever our storage medium is, based on what’s connected to our currently loaded portion of the web.

Current MT programs don’t translate like humans do.  No matter what tricks or algorithms they use, it’s all based on manipulating sequences of letters and basically doing math based on a set of equivalences such as “caballo” = “horse”.  Whether they do statistical analysis on corpuses of previously-translated phrases and sentences like Google Translate to find the most likely translation, or a straight0forward dictionary look-up one word at a time, they don’t understand what the text they are matching means in either language, and that’s why current approaches will never be able to compare to a reasonably competent human translator.

It’s also why current “artificial intelligence” programs will never achieve true human-like general intelligence.  So, even your best current chatbot has to use tricks like pretending to be a Ukranian teenager with bad English skills on AIM to pass the so-called Turing test.  A side-walk artist might draw a picture perfect crevasse that seems to plunge deep into the Earth below your feet.  But no matter how real it looks, your elevation isn’t going to change.  A bird can;t nest in a picture of tree, no matter how realistically depicted.

Calling what Google Translate does, or any machine “translation” program does translation has to be viewed in context, or else it’s quite misleading.  Language functions properly only in the proper context, and that’s something statistical approaches to machine translation will never be able to imitate, no matter how many billions of they spend on hardware or algorithm development.  Could you eventually get them to where they can probably usually mostly communicate the gist of a short newspaper article?  Sure.  Will you be able to engage live in witty reparte with your mutually-language exclusive acquaintance over Skype?  Probably not.  Not with the kind of system we have now.

Those crude, our theoretical program with knowledge web described above might take us a step closer, but even if we could perfect and polish it, we’re still a long way from truly useful translation or AI software.  After all, we don;t even understand how we do these things ourselves.  How could we create an artificial version when the natural one still eludes our grasp?

 

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Social Media and Plagiarism: How the Dynamic Web Has Changed Speech

There’s been a lot of hubbub on the internet lately, in social media circles as well as the traditional press, about the issue of plagiarism in social media.

Now, plagiarism has been a problem online for a long time, but social media brings something different to the discussion.  Back when the internet was young, and you had to pay your own hosting fees and code your own website, it was a lot more difficult, and just plain inconvenient to plagiarize.  You had a static site and relatively few ways to distribute your work.  Much like with books, the Static Web was everywhere, but not all that hard to police.

But social media and the content creation movement has changed all that.  Where once we had the Static Web, with people coding their own sites by hand, or paying someone else, we now have the Dynamic Web, where for the cost of an internet connection or a walk to the local library, anyone can have as-good-as-infinite accounts on the hundreds of content creation and social media sites whose struggles carry vibrations all across the Web.  And these sites auto-create pages from databases and some PHP/RoR/Perl code.  No more commitment-heavy hand-coding.

There are actually two issues at hand here.  Although content creation platforms and social media platforms are different in method, they are similar and ethos, and their differences shrink daily, as VBulletin includes blogging features in their forum software, and Facebook Groups function much like an old-style message board.  The effect of both of these Dynamic Web implementations is to bring written speech much closer to casual speech.

It used to be that creating written work required a commitment to the end product.  People struggled over letters to friends, competed to be published in newspapers.  Many people ascribe the various issues with Dynamic Web speech to the lack of gate-keepers or competition.  But what’s really going on is deeper than that.  Although social media sites like Facebook and Twitter store speech in text format, a status on Facebook, or a tweet on Twitter, is not really the written word.  It’s treated and acts much more like a comment tossed off in a college discussion class, or a joke made to a friend.

And where the disconnect between people in the Static vs. Dynamic Web paradigms happens is that the Tweeter or the Facebook poster isn’t thinking of their status as a publication.  So when they leave off a citation, or mis-attribute a quote, they don’t consider the consequences.  After all, we’ve never policed the spoken word to the extent that we police the written word.  It would be impossible.

So when I stumbled across the false MLK quote doing the rounds on Facebook and looked it up on Snopes.com, it didn’t surprise me that it wasn’t really from MLK.  If it had been a spoken word mis-quote, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.  The maximum propagation rate for the spoken word is relatively small.  It’s limited by memory, by audience, by time, by importance, by significance.  But because the text Web is searchable, because it allows instant access to much larger social networks, because the Web is forever, the propagation rate of a statement is significantly higher.  What would have been an un-important mistake in a casual conversation with a few friends has the potential to reach a much larger audience.  And that audience, reached through the Dynamic Web, is more likely to treat the statement as normal speech, and therefore, before passing on this mis-quotation, they are unlikely to source and cite it.  And then we have the issue that we had with the MLK quote and many others in the last few years.

As an example of this dis-connect, I have an anecdote I heard from a friend of mine.  He was perusing his Facebook feed, and came across an screencap from tumblr showing images and recipes for cocktail shots based on Eevee’s evolutions in the Pokemon games.  He shared it.  As it happened, one of his friends was friends with the person who had created the shot recipes.  And who was shocked and a bit creeped out to find it coming back to her in this circuitous Kevin Bacon effect manner.  Whoever had learned about it from her probably didn’t consider it plagiarism to pass it on.  After all, one of the features tumblr is most well known for is the “reblog” feature.  Which actually does a decent job of citation.  Tmublr has a system for that.

And so we encounter the other disconnect of the Dynamic Web.  Not all sites have the same terms of service, and very few sites, if any, have clear rules for how content is to be treated if shared outside the boundaries of its original, individual site.  You may have come across the auto-citations that many sites have started adding to links and copy-pasted quotes.  Or how a major art-based social media and display site, DeviantArt, implemented an anti-hot-linking system a few years ago.  All of these are individual sites’ attempts to combat the casual speech ethos of the Dynamic Web.  But what we really need, what would actually do something to solve the greater problem, is to educate people on the differences between social networks and content creation platforms and casual, real-world speech.  Perhaps the chat systems implemented by Facebook and other such sites are somewhat equivalent to casual speech.  But a Facebook status or a blog post is not.  You can’t treat them the same way, because as a decade or so of evidence has shown us, the consequences of such speech are very different.

Now, it isn’t a sure thing that Dynamic Web speech is the same as professional publication or journalism, either.  It may be in-between.  But better to err on the side of intentional publication than of casual speech.

(Maybe next time I’ll address plagiarism of status and blog articles more specifically.)

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Blogging, Publishing, Rants, Social Media, Writing

 

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I Am A Terrible Person

You are about to read a big long rant about how much I hate the world and all the people in it.  I will sound like a terrible person.  Because I am a terrible person.  I do not act how I really want to act, or do what I really want to do, or say what I really want to say.  Why?  Because I care what other people think about me.

Here’s a very incomplete list of why I am a terrible person:

1.  I am a hypocrite.  I do not stand up for what I believe in.  I let people say racist things, and sexist things, and just plain terrible things.  I laugh when people say these things.  I say these things.  I have told racist jokes, and sexist jokes, and Hellen Keller jokes.  Even though I knew they were wrong.  Because if I held to every principle I believe in, I would be very alone.  Most of my friends would not be friends with me anymore.  Most of my family would refuse to talk to me.  Many of the people I stood up for would blame me for making their lives harder.  And it is very easy to say that maybe I should find different friends.  Well, I have an excuse for that, too:

2.  I am pathetic.  I don’t make friends easily.  I am shy, I have severe social anxiety, and most of the time I can’t understand for the life of me why anyone would want to talk to me at all, much less be friends with me.  And so I am willing to bend my rules quite a bit to keep from losing a friend.

I once had a huge fight with a friend of mine.  It was one of many such fights.  He made a comment about me on Facebook in response to a status that had exactly zero to do with him.  It was rude, and irrelevant, and I still don’t really understand why he said it.  And he had been following me around facebook making similar comments in similar contexts for several days before.  That comment struck a nerve like a planet-killing asteroid, and so I called him on it.  But I didn’t want to ruffle feathers.  Not everything he says is like that.  Not everything he says makes me want to break his nose with a violin case.  So, I pretended like it wasn’t a huge deal.  I called him out with a joke.  And so of course he refused to listen.  So I called him out again, more strongly.  And he got mad.  We started trading shots back in forth and he ended up, in complete seriousness, threatening to beat the shit out of me the next time we met.  And he could.  He could drop me on the floor in three seconds flat.  He gets in lots of fights, and there’s usually broken bones involved.

I am never completely innocent.  I have done things I believe are wrong, I have trapped myself.  If I tell someone I think they have done something wrong, they can point to all of the times I have done that thing, and no matter what excuse I have, and I have many, it is never enough, and so I shut my mouth and agree that I am wrong and that I have no right to criticize, and I apologize for calling them out for their words and actions, and I tell them that what they have done is okay.

I’m still not sure I wouldn’t deserve it if he beat the shit out of me.  I said some pretty bad things to him in the course of that argument.  But, what I was sure of, was that I didn’t want to lose this person as a friend.  And so, even though I believed that he was at fault, and I still would have clocked him if we had been face-to-face and he said one more thing, I apologized, and I let him work me around until I ended up taking all the blame, and he had only responded as any sane person would.  And I felt it was completely worth it, and I would do it again in a second.  Because if our friendship got trashed, it would have caused major damage to several other relationships, which I also didn’t want to lose, even if he chose not to be vindictive about it.

3.  I am selfish.  The status quo sucks, but because I am a white, hetero-sexual, American male, I can look at all of the acts which violate my beliefs and say: “This does not affect me.  It does not make my life harder.  But opposing it would; and because I am selfish, and I like having friends, and not being treated like a freak, I will put up with and even participate in these things in order to maintain my current position.

4.  I am a coward.  My position is not perfect.  I have money problems, and I get bullied, and I have no idea what the fuck I am doing, and I feel like shit every day for giving in to peer pressure, and sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep and not wake up in the morning.  But things could be worse.  They could be a lot worse.  And one of the things that would make them worse is standing up for what I believe is right.  And so I will not do it.  Because I am afraid of what would happen if I did.

And all of those things make me hate myself.  But clearly not enough to do anything about it.  And that’s why I say I am a terrible person.

Now, this is a writing blog.  I said it was a writing blog.  You expect it to be a writing blog.  The obvious connection to writing here is flawed but symapthetic but realistic characters.  A realistic character will not have a good reason for everything they do.  They will do things that conflict with their beliefs.  They will do things that conflict their society’s beliefs.  And they must absolutely do something that conflicts with the readers’ beliefs–because otherwise their flaw is no flaw.  Their reasons for doing these things will range from righteous to deplorable.  People will disagree over whether their actions are justified.  But if you want the character to be sympathetic, these actions must be understandable.  And in much of the fiction I have read, whether speculative, or mainstream, or YA, I don’t see people doing these things, and it really takes the tension out of the story.  Your hero does some horrible thing and I am about to have a fascinating moral debate with myself–but wait!  A god revives all the people he killed, or it turns out that things were not as they seemed and the hero is completely justified, or maybe he got so far as picking the lesser of two objective evils.  And so I can’t possibly fault his decision, and all that angst you built up on the way to this climax falls flatter than a week-old glass of coke.  And all the sympathy for the character and the terrible choice they had to make vanishes, and I want to throw your book against the wall, or maybe smack you in the back of the head with it.  Bad Aurthor!  And then I will go leave a scathing review on Goodreads or Amazon, because the one thing I do have the guts to stick up for is protecting readers from a shitty book.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2011 in atsiko, Rants

 

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Why I Subscribe to Blogs

I have recently subscribed to a new blog, Invincible Summer from lovely YA writer Hannah Moskowitz.  This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually the first new blog I’ve subscribed to in a year.

So why did I subscribe to it?  Did I stumble upon it on Google?  Find a link on a bookmarking site like reddit or delicio.us?  No.  I kept running into links on other sites and blogs.  Took part in some conversations on Absolute Write.  After about the fiftieth link on blogs to which I am already subscribed, I stopped by and read the first ten posts on the blog.  Several of them were exactly the sort of thing Ilook for on a writing blog, and so I copied the url into my googlereader.  Now, I’ve done similar things with other blogs, but I ended up not subscribing.  Here are the five most common reasons I subscribe to a blog, and the five most common reasons why I do not:

Why? (In no particular order:)

1.  Links from blogs I already follow.  The more the better.  They tell me that there is a consistent pattern of valued and valuable content.  These can be posts about the link only, or they can be round-ups.  If I start to recognize your name on a round-up post, I am very likely to give your blog itself a look.

2.  Meeting the blogger in a community setting, such as a forum for writers.  My top forum for finding good blogs?  Absolute Write.

3.  I buy one of the bloggers books and like it.  if I like your book, then I have a reason as a reader to look you up.  If I like your blog, it’s because I enjoy it as a writer, as well.

4.  I see one of your books on Amazon or Wikipedia.  These are the places I go when someone recs a book to me.

5.  Guest posts on blogs I read.  These are fantastic advertisements for your own blog.  They mean someone I trust likes what you have to say, and they are a good sample of what I expect to find on your blog.

Why not?

1.  I go to your blog and I see advertisements.  If I get to the point where I’m reading through your recent posts to see if there’s a pattern of value, I don’t want to see adverts for your books.  I don’t want to see contests, or giveaways.  All of these things are fine.  But they are not what attracts people to a good blog.  A good blog gives something to the reader, it does not only solicit money for the writer.

2.  I go to your blog and all I see is pictures of your cats, covered in bacon or otherwise.  I am not looking for cat blogs.  I am looking for writer and/or writing blogs.  If you want to occasionally post pictures of your cats or of sunsets, or of your cute little kid, that’s fine.  But it’s a grace note, something you can foist off on me as content once I am engaged and interested.  John Scalzi likes to post amateur photos of sunsets, and they are very pretty.  I like them.  But they are not why I read his blog.

3.  If there have not been any posts for over two months.  I don’t think I need to explain.

4.  If the posting schedule is inconsistent.  This is not a big loser.  It’s why people invented blog readers, so I don’t have to check every day to see if a bloggers has dug up and displayed some nugget of wisdom for me.  It’s a small issue, but consistent posting does tell me that this blog is likely to survive long enough to be worth my inital investment.  (I am also a hypocrite for saying this, since I have updated irregularly of late.)

5.  Boring stuff/stuff I have seen before.  This is tougher.  These sort of posts will attract blogging newbies, because they have not seen all the other examples out there.  But the best blogs provide something new, something you can’t get elsewhere easily.  After the thirtieth generic query advice post, they all start to seem the same.  If they are well-written, I will forgive you.

So, here is the conclusion.  I want good content on a consistent basis.  I understand that promotional posts will pick up when a book release is imminent.  I understand tha real life gets in the way.  But if your entire blog morphs into promotion when a book is coming out, or you suddenly veer into all extras about your cats and kids, then I am likely to not subscribe, or else to drop my subscription if I already have one.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2011 in atsiko, Authors, Blogging, How To, Ideas, Rants

 

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Don’t Judge a Series by Its First Book

Series are very common in speculative fiction, and especially in fantasy.  And even more especially in Urban Fantasy.  Normally, when you read the first book in a series and find it less than satisfying, you don’t read the rest of the books in that series.

So, when I finally put down Stacia Kane’s Unholy Ghosts, the first book in her Downside Ghosts series, I was very disappointed.  Here was I book I had greatly been anticipating, and had recommended to me, even though I don’t usually read a lot of Urban Fantasy.  The author is also active on Absolute Write, my favorite writing forum, and I have in fact spoken to her there.

But after the first 50 pages, I found the book very slow going.  The magic system was interesting, there was a unique twist on the post-apocalyptic world, the character was a strong but flawed woman with drug issues and ties to the underworld that actually caused conflict with her everyday job.  The writing was good.  The villain was interesting.  Yet the book wasn’t.  (Keep in mind this was my first Stacia Kane book.)

I tend to finish things I start, and so I finished the book.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as I usually enjoy books, and I felt let down.  Even though I was desparate for reading material, the other two books sat on the shelf for two or three weeks.  If I hadn’t bought all three currently available books in the series in one mass splurge of book-balancing, checker-shocking hemorrhage of cash, I would have written it off as bad luck and moved on.  I would not have picked up the sequels.  And I would have missed out big time.

Because the sequels were both page-turners, which I tore through in one day instead of studying for my finals.  I loved them.  I could see how much they benefitted from the set-up in the first book.  There was a bit much re-hashing from Unholy Ghosts, and I think the books could have still been good reads if I hadn’t slogged through the first book.  But overall, they were great, and I’m glad I bought them.

I’ve heard similar stories about Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.  Fans are constantly explaining that the series really gets started after the first book, Gardens of the Moon, which is apparently slow and boring in its overwhelming detail.  (Personally, I loved it.)  The point is, even though writers are often advised that the first whatever–sentence, paragraoh, page, chapter, novel–is what makes or breaks a sale, those criteria don’t always match up with reality.

While it’s true that there are more books out there than a single person could read in ten life-times, that you can always just move on to a series that is good from start to finish, that doesn’t mean you should never read a book by that author again.  Some authors deserve a second chance.

If you haven’t taken the hint already, Stacia Kane is one of those authors.  But this post is not about how much I now love Stacia Kane.  It’s about how no matter the amount of polish you grind into your first whatever, it won’t always be good enough to hook someone’s interest.  But that doesn’t mean it sucks, or that you should give up on further work in that direction.  So keep writing, and keep reading, and hopefully you’ll find what you’re looking for.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2010 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Fantasy/Sci-fi, Rants, Reviews, Series, Writing

 

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