Karen Romanko has said some lovely things about my story over on her blog, on the occasion of my story being chosen to represent the collection as the online sample. The upshot of this is that you click through that link, you can read the story online! For free! Though you should still totally buy the book, the link for which is right over there in the sidebar.

(This is kind of a mess. Sorry.)

So there was a really great post about fantasy, power, and magic at the American Scene. This paragraph in particular resonated with me:

By contrast, Steven Erikson, as best I can tell from Gardens of the Moon, does not appear to be interested in anything other than the many varieties of power: physical, psychological, magical, political, spiritual. In his world there is no art, unless you consider as art certain varieties of magic — say, shifting a person’s soul from a human body to a wooden marionette. But this is really just the exertion of a (temporary) power over death. And once I decided that I wasn’t going to read any further in the series, I decided to cross the Rubicon — that is, check the Wikipedia pages of the next few volumes for plot summaries. I turned away from the computer with a great sigh of relief that I didn’t devote any more time to Malazan.

I haven’t read Erikson and so can’t comment on his books in particular, but this complaint is one that I’ve had, too. Furthermore, it puts me in mind of that thread at SF Signals about gods in fantasy. What’s intriguing is that almost all of the discussion of gods in fantasy assumed that the primary thing that gods to is be powerful. So the responses included the typical warning that having an omnipotent god would remove the tension (since s/he could just come in and fix everything) and a discussion of the ways that gods and their followers get or use power.

(Aside: Why do we assume that an omnipotent diety removes tension? I believe in an omnipotent God, but I experience plenty of tension thankyouverymuch.)

Really, is this all that gods are good for? In the actual religious lives of people around the world, I can think of three broad categories of experience that are related to the gods or divinity:

  • Diety as powerful and influential over the world and human lives
  • Diety as a moral judge and source of ethical judgements
  • Diety as sacred, numinous, and beautiful

Now what’s up with this list? In discussions of diety in fantasy, #1 bestrides the discussion like a colossus far disproportionate to the amount of concern that actual worshippers have for power.

#2 is almost completely absent. The problem is that “God as a source of moral reasoning” has become so tightly identified with Christianity (and with a particular political platform) that any writing about it will be perceived as a commentary on that religious/political stance. The only writer that I can think of who seriously addresses this idea is Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, and he has an explicit agenda to subvert the idea.

That leaves #3: diety as the numinous. My personal favorite! This is much rarer than treatments of diety as power, but at least it does have some serious treatments. I’d put Tolkein in this category, for example–though his dieties are certainly powerful, they’re associated with beauty and sublimity much more than ability. Raw exercise of power is the almost exclusive province of the baddies. Maybe it’s just me, but this approach seems to open up so many more possibilities than the exclusive focus on power. Art, love, majesty, sacrifice, wonder–these are the things of great literature, and they’re only tangentially related to power.

I’m working on revisions for the current novel, the one that I finished last fall for NaNoWriMo. My main character grew up on a generation ship in orbit around a gas giant, which set me looking up information about the atmosphere of Jupiter so that I could describe what the planet looked like from the ship. It looks something like this:

Can you imagine having this as your “moon”? My writing skills are completely inadequate to describe something so profound.

I gave the first chapter of the novel I’m working on to critters today, and most of them say the same thing: too many unexplained terms and concepts introduced in a very small space. But hasn’t Gene Wolfe has made an entire career out of Not Explaining Things? There were things in the Book of the New Sun that are introduced on the first page, but which aren’t explained until the final pages of the fourth book. Why can’t I do that? Are you trying to tell me that I’m not Gene Wolfe?

In all reality, I’ll probably change it (especially since some of the unknowns are gratuitous bits of worldbuilding that aren’t actually necessary to the story). But still, when I’m rich and famous I’ll confound and befuddle my readers whenever I dang well please.

This makes two: Lights on the Horizon will be appearing tomorrow at Everyday Weirdness! I’ll update this post with a link once it appears.

This is a study in contrasts. The first story I sold was written about 24 hours before being submitted, and was submitted exactly once. The second story was written eight years ago, and has been submitted almost everywhere. There is a clear and valuable lesson here, but I’m too lazy to figure out what it is. You’re smart; I’m sure you can put it together.

This was originally posted as part of a discussion of e-books and the publishing industry over at The OWW-SFF Writing Group. I’m cross-posting it here, since parts of it may be of general interest.

Let me outline a possible future for the publishing industry. This is based on what we already see in the music industry, plus a little bit of optimistic speculation. My basic conclusion is that the coming changes in the publishing industry are likely to be good for unpublished and newly-published authors, but it may be bad for some other segments of the industry.

First, what do we have right now? If you’ve written a book, there are three possible outcomes:

1) You don’t sell it. Nobody reads it except for your mom, and you get zero dollars.

2) You sell it to a small press, which puts it out as POD, e-book, or (maybe) paperback. You get somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars.

3) You sell it to a major publisher, who puts it out as a mass-market paperback or a hardcover. You get somewhere between a few thousand and a billion dollars.

An important feature of the current market is that there’s a steep cut-off between the small presses and e-publishers, which pay very little, and the big publishers, which pay 2-3 times what you’re likely to make at a small press even at the lower end of the payscale. Plus, at the big publishers you get an advance, which often aren’t paid at all by small presses.

Now, let’s think about the future. E-readers become common and affordable, and the price of e-books drops below $5. People who are avid readers move mostly to e-books for price and convenience, and because the price has dropped they buy more of those than they would have bought paper books. Sales of physical books drop as readers move to digital formats. Casual readers, the sort who buy books for the beach or the airplane, mostly stick with physical books, since it’s not worth their time to get an e-reader that they rarely use.

The result? The market for e-books expands, while the market for physical books drops. Paper books become restricted to best-sellers and specialty items, like signed limited editions. Some of the big publishers go out of business or merge, while the number of e-publishers goes up to take advantage of the bigger market. Some midlisters are pushed out to the e-publishing market. As e-publishing loses its stigma, the accepted career path becomes to move up through the small presses building an audience, and to make the jump to paper after years of publishing, if ever. The big publishers have already delegated the slush to the agents; agents start delegating the slush to the small-press editors, and work by poaching the top 1% of small-press writers and selling them up to the big leagues.

Now, why would you like this as a writer?

1) You get something rather than nothing. The e-publishing houses have more niches, more opportunities, and more ability to take risks, so your chances of getting published are better. You’ll get hardly any money at first—but right now the most common outcome is getting no money at all.

2) Your back-catalog always works for you. As mentioned by others, you can’t sell used e-books—but when a new e-book costs the same as a used paperback, why not buy it new? And you get the royalties from those sales, forever.

3) You have a clear ladder towards fame and fortune. It used to be that writers were expected to make their name in short stories, then sell a novel on the basis of that reputation. With the collapse of the short fiction markets, that’s much less the case these days, so writers have to sell their novels to a public that’s never heard of them, via publishers that are understandably hesitant about taking these risks. The e-publishing model gives you years to build an audience in lower-risk venues before trying to move up.

It may be that it’s harder to actually make a living as a writer in this world—but how many of us are making money, anyway? I, for one, would be happy to release my books as e-books and sell a few hundred copies for the present time. It’d be a lot more than I’m making from my writing now.

Mark Liberman has a post up at Language Log discussing Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, and in particular his “upper case phoneme”.

I’m a fan of Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, but I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that they might be improved in their approach to matters linguistic. As an example, on p. 470 of his recently-released novel Matter, we learn that “Marain, the Culture’s language, had a phoneme to denote upper case”.

Linguists would usually call a unit that denotes something a morpheme (or perhaps a word), not a phoneme, even if it was only one phoneme long. (In fact, we sometimes find meaningful units whose effect on pronunciation is just a single feature.)

In addition, it’s odd to find a morpheme that signals something essentially in the realm of writing, like alphabetic case; and also to find that Marain still uses upper case in (some of) the same ways that English does.

I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that Liberman is being way too nice. The quoted passage from the book makes it pretty clear that what Banks means: the Marain language has the ability to indicate aurally that something is a proper name or otherwise an Important Word. But Banks calling this an “upper-case phoneme” is a basic mistake on two levels. First, he seems to have confused phonemes and morphemes, and second, he has confused a property of written language with spoken language. Liberman suggests a few interpretations of “upper-case phoneme” that would be linguistically defensible, but they’re increasingly implausible. No, what we have here is the linguistic equivalent of making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs: an absurdity brought on by the fact that the writer didn’t know what he was talking about.

Of course, none of this really matters, and my irritation is, I’m sure, tiny compared to the irritation of a physicist trying to watch Star Trek. But it would be nice if people using linguistic vocabulary would at least try to get it right.

I find that I fully agree with David Levine’s analysis of the cultural appropriation imbroglio. Because it’s basically the same thing that I said when a similar brouhaha came up last year.

I heard about the supposed firestorm late, after the major participants had already had their say. The only thing that I want to add is that the original Elizabeth Bear post is actually a fantastic piece of advice for writing the Other.