Writing the threads of my reality

Oh Hollywood, why did you have to ruin Iron Man 2?

I saw Iron Man 2 last night, in case it wasn't already very obvious. I've taken a while to digest it, and now that I have properly marshalled my thoughts, I'm prepared to inflict them on you, the reader.

I loved the first Iron Man movie. It was a shining gem in the sea of rubbish that normally flows out of Hollywood; proof, right then and there, that you could have a comic book action movie that was also well-written and a joy to watch.

Robert Downey Jr. made the role of Tony Stark his own. He had the perfect balance of irreverence, decadence, egotism and wit. According to Jeff Bridges, they didn't have much of a script to work with, and much of the interaction between him and Robert was improvised. But the result was nothing short of perfect; the banter between Tony, Obediah Stane (Jeff) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) clicked together naturally. The set pieces didn't feel like set pieces at all - everything flowed, just as it should.

I will also give great credit to Iron Man for the character of Pepper Potts. Hollywood is undeniably sexist, and very often apparently allergic to the idea of strong female characters, so the appearance of such a powerful woman in an action film targeted at men was delightfully surprising. Pepper Potts is the one in control of Tony Stark's life; she is his balance, his help, and his shield, and throughout the movie there's never any question that he desperately needs her... but she doesn't necessarily need him. She's willing to walk away to protect herself, willing to call Tony out for his bullshit, and willing to tell him when he hurts her - and he responds to her, like a human being with actual emotions would.

Pepper walks into the dragon's den to get information for Tony and stares down Stane, the bad guy. She leads the SHIELD agents personally to the facility to arrest him. And then, wonder of happy wonders, Tony becomes the damsel in distress as she activates the arc reactor that destroys Stane. That, my friend, is a normal businesswoman taking out a supervillain. It's very satisfying to watch if you are a normal businesswoman.

I did so love the ending as well. We expect the hero and heroine to kiss, because that is the tired old Hollywood trope, but once again Iron Man throws a curveball; Tony brings up the night on the balcony, and Pepper just as quickly shuts him down in a not-so-subtle reminder that she can see right through him. But the brief exchange afterwards: "'Will that be all, Mr. Stark?' 'Yes, that will be all, Ms. Potts.'" They're back to being playful, even affectionate, because they know each other so well, and the moment is so wonderfully intimate that the audience never needs to see them kiss.

Oh, but Iron Man 2. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

The first movie started off with thumping rock music, witty banter from Tony that nailed the character perfectly, and pace-setting action. The sequel starts with... a montage.

And not just any montage, oh no. A montage of Tony Stark doing kick ass things that are only shown in newspapers, cut with the new villain slooooowwwwwwllly building his electric whips of doom. That leads into Tony landing on a stage in the Iron Man suit, opening the Stark Expo, getting a summons to appear in court over the suit being a weapon... No. My interest is lost. Robert Downey Jr. is just as good as I expect him to be, but his lines are not up to par, not as punchy, and everything is unfocused from the start. There's this villain, see? But also Tony is dying! And there's a senator who wants to take his suit! And his arms-selling rival is in his face! And the company is falling apart, and he makes Pepper the CEO!

The actors make the best of it, but good grief, what little they had to work with. Pepper changes from strong and powerful to stressed and weak. She's been running Stark Industries for months on Tony's behalf, but as soon as she's made CEO, we are shown her facing the strain of the position before finally resigning at the end of the movie. And the snide comments... Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell, tells her "Now you're thinking like a CEO," before he's taken away by the police. The news report questions her qualifications and abilities. And Tony himself goes from eccentric to borderline psychotic. We are meant to believe that this is the same man who said, "I shouldn't be alive... unless it was for a reason. I'm not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it's right"? That conviction that rang so true in the first movie is gone from the second, and it's apparently because Tony knows he's dying - but he's already faced death several times! It's already changed him! And he's spent the last six months fighting around the globe in an armoured suit, for god's sake.

Alright, I get it. Tony Stark is a playboy. He does his own thing, always. But they're beating the audience over the head with that fact, and it all seems a bit fake when you've seen the first movie and you witnessed the man he became.

The shennanigans with him dying, and the stuff with SHIELD returning with Nick Fury to help him find the cure, were nothing but hackneyed plot devices in order to let Tony play around with his hologram build interface and make himself another, better suit. If you remove all that, you get to the guts of what the plot might have been; US government wants to take the suit and give it to Hammer to weaponise. Tony doesn't want to give it up. After embarrassing both the government and Hammer, Whiplash comes on the scene and embarrasses Tony in return - and Hammer grabs a hold of him, and convinces him to make something like the Iron Man suit. A double-cross ensues, and a cat and mouse fight develops between Tony Stark and Whiplash before the final battle.

I think I would have liked that movie. Mickey Rourke did a great job as Whiplash when he was actually on screen, and he deserved to have more time. He deserved to be a bigger, badder character.

Overall, I think when the executives realised they had a successful movie franchise on their hands they sat down with Jon Favreau and dictated to him what had to be in the movie, whether it was a sensible choice or not. Here's what I think they insisted on:
  • A certain number of flashy fights, obviously
  • Nick Fury - advertise the Avengers movie!
  • Huge special effects like the hologram interface; "The fanboys loved it! Make it bigger!"
  • Scarlett Johanssen as eye candy - and I feel so bad for her because she can act, but they didn't give her the chance to do much more than look pretty and beat up goons here (oh, and flash her boobs when she was changing in the car. Real classy, guys. Seriously.)
  • A reduction in Pepper's role and alteration of her character - no strong women allowed, what if the target male audience feel intimidated? Oh, her part in the first movie, that the male audience totally accepted - just a fluke, can't risk it here
  • Cranking up the crazy for Tony Stark, because LOOK AT HIM HE CAN DO WHATEVER HE WANTS AND HE'S RICH AND DYING
  • Cranking up the stupid on Iron Man - "He fought one big mech in the last movie, let's make him fight LOTS of big mechs here!"
  • The hero gets the kiss at the end - versus the scene at the end of Iron Man 1? Zero impact
The whole movie turned into a chaotic mess at the end. It became a series of set pieces loosely connected by random shreds of plot, all sound and fury, signifying nothing. The redeeming features were always the actors, and what they made of the roles; Robert Downey Jr. glowed again as Tony Stark, and although I thought the banter between him and Gwyneth Paltrow didn't shine like it did in the first movie, they still had their moments.

It's like Avatar all over again. It could have been great, and it wasn't. It could have been better than the first movie, and it wasn't. It was ruined by bad writing, like a lot of Hollywood films; they could have made a good movie, but they decided to make a movie that they think panders to the target male audience - who, if the movie is any indication, supposedly have the attention span of a goldfish, are easily distracted by shiny objects, and are scared of women with actual personalities.

I'm getting very, very tired of this. Really. It boggles my mind that a studio could see the success of a movie like Iron Man and somehow completely miss the fact that that a huge chunk of that phenomenal earning power comes from stellar writing. Iron Man 2 will probably still be a moderate success, but it will never bring in as much money as the first movie - and Marvel Studios have only themselves to blame.

I now have no reason to go see Iron Man 3, if there is indeed a third one. Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter said it best, I think; "Everything fun and terrific about Iron Man, a mere two years ago, has vanished with its sequel. In its place, Iron Man 2 has substituted noise, confusion, multiple villains, irrelevant stunts and misguided story lines." Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...

Twittering away

The name 'Twitter' always brings to my mind the image of a pair of middle-aged Victorian ladies gossiping behind their pretty paper fans. I just imagine that that's exactly what they would sound like. It's onomatopoeia at its finest.

I joined Twitter, despite my usual adversion to anything to do with social networking. I had to ask myself, why would I avoid it? What am I so afraid of? It's a collective conversation; it's nothing to be worried about, when you already have a public blog and frequently wander off on non-writing related tangents.

So I joined, and I've started to follow a host of literary agents and authors whose blogs I read every day. And I quickly realised that I am terrified of them.

Isn't that bizarre? I'm actually frightened of these people taking notice of me. As a subscriber to their blogs, I'm only an email address at best. As a follower on Twitter... well, that's a little closer. A little more open.

I emailed one author in particular a few days ago. There wasn't anything strange or outlandish about it; I was commenting on their blog, and the comment form didn't work for me. But I haven't gotten a response yet, and it's filled me with this irrational dread that I've unknowingly made a social faux pas.

This is the kind of thing you ponder when you're a little bit socially inept by design. The stereotype of the genius-who-doesn't-really-understand-people has a lot of truth in it. I might be smarter than the average bear, but being smarter doesn't help much when everyone around you is speaking another language.

I'm certainly smart enough to know that my grasp of social communication isn't all that good, and I need to be careful that I don't say the wrong thing. It happened often enough when I was in school - oh, the boiling embarrassment of some of those moments still haunt me today. I'm not repeating that madness again, so I have to tread as lightly as I can.

I ponder, and after a while, I start to fall into the old habits of trying to analyse the tiny things that make up human interactions. I start looking for the patterns, the reasons, the map that will show me the appropriate way to behave. It's in the words, and how you say them; whether you move like this or like that; how far away or how close you stand; where you look when you talk, and when you are silent; your expression, your laugh, your stance.

I could walk up to any one of my friends, and tell them something about one of their mannerisms. I know that one has a habit of twirling a pen, or a mobile, or whatever he has to hand, and I can tell him exactly how he does it. Another has a way of clicking his tongue every time he's explaining something. Another has a gesture he always makes. Another uses her phone in a particular way, or laughs a certain way. I've learned enough to know how to act without needing to analyse the situation most of the time, but I still pick up on these things. It helps when I'm writing character interactions, of course; I have a stronger concept of how they should behave, and a clearer picture of what's going on.

It's not my native language, though. I'm still feeling my way along in the sphere of social networking, analysing what's being said and how people are saying it in order to understand what I should be saying and how I should say it. I'm still building the map.

Not going there

So, I realise I have some liberal opinions on the nature of the copyright debate. I realise my opinions regarding stuff like the three strikes law tend to be on the side of consumers, not copyright-holders, and that will probably not change until the copyright-holders start dealing with organisations who understand the nature of the Internet (i.e. not the IRMA, for one).

I'm perfectly willing to look at the other side and see what they have to say, in the interests of fair debate and whatnot. But there are some places I am not going, some discussions I am not getting involved in. This is one of them.

Johan Schlüter is a lawyer with the IFPI, a Danish anti-piracy group. He declared that "child pornography is great... It is great because politicians understand child pornography. By playing that card, we can get them to act, and start blocking sites. And once they have done that, we can get them to start blocking file sharing sites". This is according to Christian Engström, the MEP for the Pirate Party.

I've been trying to work out in what context Mr. Schlüter thought his remarks were justified and sane.

Let's take child pornography, a thing so vile that there are no words to really describe the hurt it causes to the innocent, the eradication of which is one of the foremost concerns of every developed nation. It evokes a strong emotional response, because this thing is so vile that we cannot bear to imagine it happening to any child.

Mr. Schlüter, however, doesn't seem to think like that. Child porn is great because we can use it to get the politicians to do what we want. All the pain and suffering that's a part of it, all the lives damaged by it... no. It's ok. We can use it as leverage.

I'm not going there. I'm not getting into that discussion. If someone can't grasp the concept of 'child porn = bad no matter what the situation is', then I'm honestly not sure I'd be comfortable being in the same room as them, never mind have a debate with them. His comments reveal a complete disregard for the very real pain that children are exposed to every day. I can't even begin to comprehend what would go through the mind of a survivor of abuse related to child pornography if they read them. 'Trigger warning' just isn't going to cut it.

This is who the copyright-holders choose to deal with? This is who they allow to speak for them? I am truly gobsmacked. There is more in the article from Engström, including talk about filtering, but it pales in significance really. Copyright infringement is irrelevant in comparison to real human suffering, and I hope someone can speak frankly to Johan Schlüter and explain this concept to him.

The stories we tell each other

Two posts in a single day. Who would have thought I'd ever have so much to talk about?

I read a lot of blogs, and inevitably I follow my nose through their links and find my way to other blogs and websites. Today, I've wandered into a blog by an author called Neesha Meminger, and I've read a post of hers that talks about bullying.

I was bullied as well, a long time ago. Shut up, sit down, get over it. It's not all that important. It's your fault. Stop making waves. Stop getting people into trouble. Maybe if you tried to make friends, they wouldn't be so mean.

It's so easy to tell that story, the one where it's not really bullying. The other one, where you have to face up to the needlessly cruel things people do, is a lot harder. Maybe it's because you did something, and you can't admit that it wasn't right. Maybe it's because you don't want to say it happened to you. Maybe it just makes you too uncomfortable.

It's so easy to tell children the stories that won't hurt them, or shake them, or make them feel uncomfortable. It's easy to tell them that nobody is racist or sexist anymore, and persecution doesn't exist. They hear that narrative and just brush it off when they are racist, sexist, or when they persecute someone. She started it. She's just making trouble. I was only joking.

Writers should tell the hard stories. We dream that the world can be different to what it actually is all the time; dreaming of a voice for the silenced is not beyond us. Those narratives are harder to tell, but they are very, very powerful, and they can change the world for the better.

I, like many others, still carry the scars of the easy stories. I have a duty not to let them stand.

Fantastic Worlds

So, Avatar has come out on DVD and BluRay, and smashed all kinds of records for most discs sold and all that. I will freely admit that I simply do not buy DVDs, and I don't own a BluRay player, so I'm a little baffled by all the excitement. If this follows the same trend as many other big releases, there will be a limited edition version out in time for Christmas with extra content that is supposedly there to encourage you to spend twice the money on the content you already own. I have heard that James Cameron is also planning a 3D version next year, so people will have the chance to pay yet again. Fun times indeed.

Oh well, I say. What people do with their money is entirely their own business, and long may it bring them joy. But, personally, I have no need for another plastic disc cluttering up my home. I saw Avatar in the cinema, in 3D. I experienced the spectacle as it was meant to be experienced, and (unfortunately) it doesn't have anything else to offer other than spectacle.

The plot is Pocahontas in space, as many other people have said before. I found it quite silly at times. It's already been ripped to shreds for racism and whatnot elsewhere, so there's no need to repeat all that here. And the dialogue... oh, the dialogue. If I were being kind, I'd call it 'unintentionally hilarious'. Characterisation was disjointed, a little unreal. I left the theatre with the firm opinion that James Cameron had poured all the money and effort into the visual effects, and wrote the script himself whenever he had a few minutes to spare.

So, if we strip away the artistry, the beauty of Pandora and her creatures, what then? I have no reason to spend money on a movie where I can't experience the one exceptional feature of it. Nothing in one's home can replicate the movie theatre unless one happens to be very, very rich. But the sad fact of it all is that Avatar should have appealed to me, and I should be out buying the DVD right now. I live and breathe in fantastic worlds; Alice in Wonderland, the Belgariad, Dune, World of Warcraft. Pandora should have been no different.

What might have been another playground of the imagination is... nothing. A vague metaphor for the New World with a different skin. A setting hamstrung by lackluster story threads, destined for bad fanfiction at best. It's like taking the most expensive canvas, the most delicate brushes, the most vivid paints, and handing them over to an amateur to draw stick figures and blobs. I'm sure people will appreciate it, but oh! What might have been!

And for all that, I still don't begrudge Avatar its success. It deserves it simply for pushing the boundaries of what can be done. I know Hollywood will be chasing the phenomenon of Avatar for years, and out of that effort we are sure to get at least a few well written movies.

It's shown the world that there isn't anything beyond the reach of special effects these days. It's shown the dreamers that the technology exists to make their own fantastic worlds real.

I can't wait to see them.


One of the things I'd recommend any writer to do is try to sketch your characters, or the things in your story, or the world you're creating. It gives you a better and a more solid idea of them, and of course, it's good practice. Anyone can learn how to draw, given time - at one stage, drawing was a skill that was learned like reading or writing.

I did art in school, like many people, and promptly forgot it on entering college. That was a mistake, true enough, but one that's easily fixed. It's never too late to start again. Creativity is not something that one can lose as easily as the skills needed to express it.

So. Here is a sketch done on computer of one of my main characters in the Novel. I used an old but very serviceable Wacom graphics tablet, and an open source program called the GIMP.

I'm just glad I got the proportions mostly correct. It's better than my usual efforts anyway, for all that it's very, very rough. It took a few hours of random doodling then erasing everything then doodling again, and finally settling on something that worked and then colouring in whatever way would look interesting.

'Three strikes and you're out' is not a game

This isn't baseball, and I wonder if perhaps the Irish High Court should really take note of that.

Three strikes laws are nothing new. They are the type of law, however the wording actually states, that disconnects a person's Internet connection after they have been accused of a third copyright infringement. They are law, or are in the process of becoming law, in Sweden, the UK, and France.

They are also a waste of time and money, a threat to human rights, and a threat to the livelihood of anyone involved in the creative arts.

In January 2009, Eircom signed a deal with the major music labels to disconnect persistant filesharers. This is not a law, per se, but a simple agreement between them and the IRMA - if they receive notice of evidence of filesharing against a particular connection three times, that connection is cut off. There was a High Court challenge regarding the legal status of an IP address as personal data, but that has now been resolved, and the agreement can go into full force. This is even worse than a law - there is no oversight, no accountability. And with Eircom signing up to this, the IRMA will have the leverage to bully other ISPs into accepting the same deal, or face being sued.

So. Let's hypothesise. Eircom receives a notice that a particular IP address has downloaded an infringing file. They duly send out the notice to the mailing address associated with that IP - they have no way of knowing whether the notice is accurate or not, and little reason to care.

But is that evidence accurate? It may not be, if it's similar to the system used in the UK by ACS:Law. The Internet Service Providers Association in the UK was not convinced. See BeingThreatened for more information on this. The content in question also may not be infringing - in Viacom's lawsuit against Youtube, for example, there were a hundred clips listed as infringing when Viacom had uploaded them itself! Fair use is not mentioned, so background music in a home video you share with your relatives abroad may get you disconnected (legally, it's still infringing material) - and we have no assurances as yet that the IRMA will not pursue people in that fashion. This, by the way, is the same organisation that claimed that people who copied music to their iPods from their CD collection were breaking the law.

Does the evidence actually point to your computer? It may not. The IP address points to your connection; your gateway to the Internet, as it were. Several computers in one house all use the same gateway. They have no way of telling which computer connected to that gateway actually did the infringing.

What if the gateway belongs to a business with a dozen employees? Maybe a rented accomodation, where students are coming and going all the time? A school? How do you tell who actually did it, and who is just a bystander? What if the culprit hacked into the connection, as many savvy users can, without the owner's knowledge - through a wireless router, for example? The IRMA apparently doesn't care, and Eircom stands to lose more through getting sued than it does by losing one customer's business.

But nothing can change the fact that this is punishment on accusation; the customer is guilty until proven innocent. It's like getting arrested for being nearby when a crime occurs, and the actual criminal is let free to break the law again. And Eircom will likely lose many customers as they move to other ISPs, but that is a stalling tactic at best if the IRMA manage to foist their agreement on all Irish ISPs.

I did state, though, that this is a waste of time and money. Allow me to expand on that.

The entire point of this agreement is to discourage copyright infringement, and encourage the legal sale of creative works. I'm sure it looked good on paper, but in practice, it simply does not work. Sweden saw a drop in filesharing traffic after implementing the IPRED law, but the levels simply bounced back and even increased. People moved to streaming sites, or bought VPNs that encrypted their activity and essentially let them fileshare with impunity. And the question of whether IPRED actually increased legal sales is up for debate; an increase was seen, but was that a result of the law, or of better availability of legal music through sites such as Spotify? Correlation does not equal causation. Attitudes to filesharing remained largely the same, and to date there have still been no IPRED convictions.

The lesson to be learned here is, as I've said before, that people will get the content they want in the manner they want, and laws that are easily circumvented by the technologically astute are hardly going to stop them. The time and money spent by the IRMA and Eircom on this is simply a waste - it will not even slow down piracy, if the figures from Sweden are anything to go by, and it is certainly not guaranteed to catch the actual pirates.

That the three strikes laws are a threat to human rights is quite clear; they are a threat to free speech, and the free access of individuals to information. Internet access is considered so important by the EU that it adopted an Internet freedom provision in the Telecoms Package last year, in which "the right to an effective and timely judicial review shall be guaranteed" in the case of disconnection because of copyright infringement. Alas, this provision only applies to states, not private ISPs... Technically, what Eircom and the IRMA are doing is legal, but that doesn't make it right.

But these laws are also a threat to people involved in the creative arts. I think I should know about this, as I am a person involved in the creative arts. The reason is simply this: the law disconnects people from the Internet. It cuts them off from the greatest communication medium the world has ever seen.

Without access, they cannot talk about my books on their blog. They cannot tweet about me, the author. They cannot buy a paper copy of my book as a present for someone. They cannot discuss my books with other fans. They cannot buy merchandise from me. They cannot find out about book signings.

They certainly can't buy my damn ebook.

The greatest challenge facing me, as an aspiring author, is obscurity. It's the same challenge facing all but the biggest names in music, books, and movies. And it makes me goddamn furious that the IRMA and licensing authorities like them feel that they can cut me off from my fans because of filesharing. Piracy isn't right, and I know I'd rather not see my books pirated, but this is not the answer! Removing one major avenue for people to consume and purchase media will not encourage them to consume and purchase elsewhere; in fact, if they're disconnected because they have an infringing copy of my work, it could damage my reputation as an author because they are likely to blame me personally!

I do not want my name connected with such idiocy, especially when there is money to be made by creative individuals who understand the power of the Internet. The Irish High Court certainly don't have a clue, judging by the comments of Mr. Justice Charleton. They should have done even the most basic research on other implementations of three strikes, and how they affected filesharing. They might have noticed how an IP address may not correspond to the infringer, and how there is enormous scope for innocent people to be disconnected. They might have considered other effects of disconnection such as inability to pay bills online, inability to complete coursework, inability to do business, inability to spend money on legitimate sites.

The fact that they seem to have ignored all this suggests to me that they are not treating this issue with the respect it deserves. They are not acting in the best interests of Irish citizens.

'Three strikes and you're out' is not a game.

Rejections, Rejections

Let's say you're a writer, and you have set your work free into the wilds of the world with the hope that an agent will find their way back to you. Hopefully with a contract in hand, of course. And time goes by, and the silence only grows - but suddenly an email appears! From nowhere! From an AGENT! Stardom is within your grasp, so close you can almost taste the champagne...

No. It's a form rejection.

It's something I have to handle, being an aspiring writer. You deal with it as best you can, hopefully with good grace and a shrug of indifference. Yes, underneath the veneer of professionalism, it feels like a solid punch in the gut. You take the threads of story, you live and breathe for your characters, you forge... well, something you thought was worthwhile. Something good. But, in some way, it wasn't enough.

That's the hardest part for me. I can't know where I went wrong. I only know that I did, and it hurts a little more than it should. But I also know it won't last, because I have other stories to write, and other threads to follow. I think Van Halen said it best - You gotta ro-o-oll with the punches to get to what's real!

It wasn't the Novel, you understand. It was just a short story. When I start getting rejections for the Novel, I'll probably spontaneously combust from agony and disappointment.

However, in any case, I won't be doing what Mr. Patrick Roscoe did! In the category of too-dumb-to-be-let-out-unsupervised, this writer's response to a form rejection is surely a winner. I do so love his use of the phrase, "You lose, silly woman", and the insults he levels at Ms. Lindsay's clients. And the follow-up email... classic stupidity, the like of which you rarely get to read about. It's like watching someone shoot themselves in the foot, and then clean the wound with bleach.

Perhaps the most important things that an aspiring writer can take note of are as follows:
  • Agents react badly to insults or snide sarcasm, because they just happen to be human.
  • Agents talk to each other, and to editors and publishers.
  • Agents often have blogs that are popular.
  • Agents have a hundred other hopeful writers with actual manners in their slush pile who have probably submitted work as good as yours.
In short, all that I have learned so far about agenting and publishing tells me that a writer trades on their reputation, and this is doubly true of aspiring authors like myself. Leaving aside for the moment that Mr. Roscoe was unbelieveably rude to Ms. Lindsay, what on earth was he thinking when he wrote that email? Did he honestly expect her not to reveal his crass behaviour to the world? Did he believe his words were actually justified? One does not simply insult an agent (especially one who works for such an esteemed agency as Fineprint) and expect to walk away with one's reputation intact. Five minutes of anger may have bought him fifteen minutes of fame, but it's probably cost him more than a few chances of publication and, if he routinely conducts himself in this manner, a entire writing career as well.

When I submit my work, I endeavour to follow every guideline, and act with nothing but the highest respect and courtesy towards the submittees. A published author isn't just a person with their name on a book cover; they're also a professional writer, and I think that demands a certain standard of behaviour.

It's alright to rage in private. It's even expected, I would think. But in public, when facing a rejection, it's unacceptable to be anything but businesslike.

Zen and the Art of Beyoncé

I will happily admit that I despise the vast majority of current pop songs. They are, as you say, not my thing, nor are they ever likely to become my thing. My taste in music is varied, weird, and frequently unpredictable.

But I do read a lot, and inevitably I read about music. I happened to spend an enjoyable hour reading through this article by Martin Seay earlier - warning: it is very, very long - and I particularly picked up on his dissection of the Beyoncé song, Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).

The idea of anything written by Beyoncé having hidden depth is, well, frightening to me - but I'd put that down to my natural adversion to most pop music. Mr. Seay puts forward some quite interesting explorations of a song called TiK ToK by Ke$ha (how I wish I was making that up) and how it compares to the Beyoncé single, among other things, and the conclusion seems to be that the Ke$ha song is eminently hateable because it's about as deep as a puddle on a sunny day.

He has this to say about Single Ladies, though:

Then there’s the way the meaning of the refrain—all the single ladies, put your hands up—blurs and broadens as the song proceeds. The line is of course lifted from standard-issue Friday-night club-DJ patter: an ostensibly playful exhortation for eligible women to identify themselves as such. This moment in a DJ set always comes off as icky, anything but playful, a moment of peak social coercion; it suggests that single women are to be regarded as public property, or that they have (or are) a problem that needs to be solved, or even that they’re simply present (Ladies’ Night!) as prospective quarry for the hapless prowling menfolk who by this point in the evening can’t be trusted to take aim at appropriate targets without a little help. “Single Ladies” sets out to divert and defuse the line’s coercive function, not so much by recontextualizing it through wit or double-entendre—a trick which can only work within the fictional world of the song—but instead by repurposing it along with the gesture it prescribes: we’re asked to see the single ladies’ hand-raising not as an act of acquiescence to or participation in a social ritual that objectifies them, but instead as a celebratory assertion of individual and collective agency...

...The degree to which “Single Ladies” has succeeded in accomplishing its implicit aims is, I humbly submit to you, pretty freaking extraordinary. Let’s set aside for a moment the VMAs and the Grammys, the globe-spanning dance craze, the millions in revenue from album and single and download sales, and consider a single achievement: it is now next to impossible for any DJ anywhere to unselfconsciously command all single ladies within earshot to put their hands up—at least not without the DJ then immediately playing Knowles’s hit, which will proceed to reassure those single ladies that everything is all good, that they have nothing to worry about, and that they should pay no mind to the drunk jerks and enjoy spending time with their girlfriends. This is one of those rare cultural phenomena that can legitimately claim solid practical value: the differences between it and, say, Lincoln’s second inaugural address are not those of quality but of scale. “Single Ladies” is a work of art and a feat of rhetoric that has made the world concretely better.

The song annoys the hell out of me, but still - I wouldn't normally consider work like that to actually have any deeper meaning, and the article at least made me take a second look. Mainstream media doesn't naturally lend itself to depth, in my opinion, although obviously it's not completely adverse to it. The question I would ask, in fact, is whether Mr. Seay is reading something into the song that isn't there or wasn't put there by Beyoncé; is there actually a hidden meaning, or is it accidental? I find it hard to say, because I don't really have an unbiased view.

If there is a meaning there, was it intentional? Does it make the effects, as Mr. Seay describes above, any less valid?

If an outsider reads a certain meaning into a creative work that the author didn't intend, is that meaning any less valid?

Anyone who's studied Shakespeare in school would be aware of the dissection of hidden meaning in his work. I know I did, and most of the time I thought that we were searching for something that wasn't really there. It was enough for me that the sonnets were beautiful, and so I didn't need to know why he used this particular phrase or word. The same is probably true for Beyoncé's fans, of course - do they care that Single Ladies might have deeper meaning? I'd say not really. But for someone like me, who'd normally ignore her entirely, the concept of there being a strong underlying message in her songs is fascinating. It's simply not what you'd expect.

At any rate, having been introduced to the idea of greater depths in Single Ladies, I may be willing to give her other songs more than a outright dismissal.

The first threads

I think every author must remember their first stories. The first published one, the first written one, the first completed one. You think back on them sometimes, even when you know they were complete rubbish and your current material is infinitely better. It's a tiny thing, but it's also a place you point to where you can say "This is where I began. This is where I made the choice. This is where I became a writer."

Those threads are probably frayed and ragged, utterly unworthy of attention in any normal frame of reference, but to you they are precious.

I can remember my first story vividly. As a child, I recall myself and my sister telling each other stories late at night - the pretend games of narrative, using dolls or pictures or whatever we had lying around. It was so natural to me. It was instinctive taleweaving, telling only for the joy of it, just like every other kid.

I remember our old computer. It was a huge, clunky (by today's standards) white box, with a clacky keyboard and a basic, DOS command line interface. A Commodore 286, I think; to this day, I wonder if my parents only got it for the novelty of it, because neither of them are particularly technically inclined. But on this pitiful, ancient machine - unworthy of attention in any normal frame of reference, even then - I made something magical.

I was twelve years old, and I started tapping out a story about the snakes returning to Ireland.

It's said that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, way back in yonder days. In reality, it's probably something to do with ecology and whatnot, which is not nearly so interesting. But the idea of it was fascinating to me, and I began to dream up images of rivers of scaly bodies slipping away into the sea, with St. Patrick standing sternly behind them with a grim expression. And I thought of snakes, in the modern day, talking amongst themselves about a lost land to the west and north - a sanctuary, Atlantis even - that was little more than legend and rumour.

Ah, it was so little. I barely wrote a few pages before giving up. And it was terrible, believe me - a twelve year old may write well for their age, but that doesn't make their stuff good. It was a story I wouldn't give the time of day to, now, and it was my whole heart and soul made real back then. That was the first time I tried to catch a dream and forge it into a story. Those were the first threads.

Be they ever so humble, I sure every writer remembers them.

Read any good ebooks lately?

The brouhaha over Amazon and the larger publishers setting the price of ebooks has become rather deafening lately. Doom and gloom all around; writers lamenting the death of traditional publishing; the impending Apocalypse. You'd think that everyone has stopped buying books in dead tree form altogether.

Well - it could just be me. I read a lot of publishing blogs, and I get the feeling that many people are uncertain and worried. The Internet wreaked havoc with the recorded music industry after all, and the publishers have had long enough to see how well EMI and Sony are doing with the digital medium. Perhaps they see their own business suffering in the same way. Perhaps they're already forecasting the rates of ebook piracy. Perhaps, perhaps.

The New York Times has an interesting article on the ethics of pirating ebooks when you already own the title in hardcover or paperback. This has already gone around the writers' blogpsphere, and opinion in general seems to be that the Mr. Cohen is talking crazy. The first thing I noticed about the article, unfortunately, is the improper use of the word 'illegal' - downloading a pirated copy of an ebook is copyright infringement, to the best of my knowledge. Illegal and infringing are not the same thing. He also refers to it as theft - again, not the correct term, as theft implies that you have deprived someone else of ownership of an item. A digital ebook copy cannot be stolen, but it can infringe.

Anyway, pointless word games aside - Mr. Cohen states that it is indeed ethical to download a copy of an ebook if you have already purchased the dead tree version, and the writers and publishers that I like to keep tabs on take serious issue with that. Their position, predictably, is that writers and publishers deserve to get paid regardless - that Mr. Cohen seems to be advocating that if you buy a book once, you should automatically gain free access to every version of that book, such as in audiobook format or as a movie or what have you. On one level, they do have a point - but, of course, I don't fully agree with them.

Writers and publishers should get paid, but the point that seems to be missing here is that arguing about being paid will not stop people from pirating books. People will justify it to themselves using Mr. Cohen's rationalisation, or they will do it out of convenience, or they will do it because they have no money, or just because. It can't be stopped, and trying to slow it down may backfire spectacularly - see the RIAA shutting down Napster, for example. People went to the bittorrent networks, and now that that's being restricted or throttled in some places, they're going to VPNs that cannot be traced. The lesson that should be learned here is that trying to get people to pay for music after they've spent years getting it for free is just not a good use of your time, especially when the pirated version is better than yours.

With the price fixing going on at Amazon for ebooks, I'm very much of the opinion that the publishers have not really learned anything. The recorded music industry might be in much better shape if they had made music available cheaply and easily online. It would have sent a great message to consumers - here's the music you want, when you want it; all high quality, with extras like cover art, and it costs very little for this great convenience. But they chose to keep it expensive, and DRM made it inconvenient, and people had no reason to go back to their services no matter how hit and miss pirate material was.

Publishers have the opportunity here to avoid that mistake, but it's not going to happen. Amazon have set the price of ebooks around $9.95, $12,95, $14.95. It varies depending on the release. And you'll buy a Kindle copy that you can only read on your Kindle device, that you can't give to someone else, that you can't doodle in, that is far more fragile, that needs to be charged, that may delete your books without your consent at any time. If it breaks or is stolen, you lose access to your library. And the main trade off is that you can have hundreds of books on one device.

Colour me unimpressed, to be honest. Part of the reason I don't own one already, despite being a geek, is that I don't want to pay for what I view as less functionality. I'd rather have a paper book that doesn't need batteries, that I can spill coffee on without it being a disaster, and that I can sell to a second hand store or give away once I'm done with it. I'd rather have a library all around me instead of one locked up into one little white tablet.

I really think they should drop the average price of ebooks to about $3 to $5 across the board, and less for out of print titles. They should be portable to any device, and DRM free. Publishers should concentrate on making ebooks bought from them a hundred times more convenient than trawling bittorrent networks, and set the prices good and low wherever possible. Offer ebook discounts to book clubs and libraries, for example. Bundle the ebook with the paper version. Let schools pay a set fee for all ebooks released, and let their students order the paper version or audio books at a discount - and include bonus material where you can. Make it simple, make it cheap, make paper books worth hanging on to - and believe me, they have not gone the way of the dodo yet, so there's plenty of space there for a company with a great marketing team to make money.

It galls me that publishers have the most powerful communication medium in the history of mankind at their disposal, where their customers are closer than ever to them and to each other, and all they seem to want to do is drive people farther away. From the perspective of someone on the outside looking in, they seem to want to stop people from spending money on their books; they seem to be working very hard to kill all the wonderful possibilities of the Internet with shortsightedness. I hope I'm wrong, and the Amazon price-fixing works out, but... well. Time will tell, I guess.

A new look

Thank the gods for free Blogger templates. No, it's not original - but it is lovely, and it saves me the trouble of making one myself.

I adore good design. I especially love design that is usable and easy on the eyes. This one in particular is delicate, fantastical, and warm, but still very readable. So here's a shout out to Ray Creations for making it; you have my gratitude, and my appreciation for your talent.

On the art of bullshit in advertising

Barry Eisler has an interesting blog post up right now, on the nature of bullshit in advertising. It's such a prevalent theme in advertising and marketing; politically correct, culturally sensitive, badly designed, emotionally appealing, and entirely illogical. I would guess that a fair number of people today don't even see conventional advertising, because it's simply too passé, too bland - or in Barry's case, it sets off their bullshit detector.

I'm almost waiting for companies to realise that advertising needs to become far more sophisticated in how it reaches consumers. Those of us who swim in the seas of the net are used to having control over our browsing experience, for example, and many will use ad blockers to strip offending elements out entirely; money well wasted, there, for the companies who pay Google for a chance to grab attention. An entire generation has grown up with the concept of downloading content on demand, and inevitably such content comes ad-free (courtesy of the pirates, naturally). How do you reach consumers with your products when they can choose to keep you from their gaze, or when they're completely uninterested in you?

Make advertising = content, as Techdirt likes to say. It applies in real life just as much as on the net. Strip out the bullshit, and give consumers a reason to come looking for you. Kulala.com have the right idea - their planes are advertising for them, obviously, but they're also funny and interesting. They draw attention honestly; this is content, after all, and you can enjoy it even if you are not a customer. There are plenty of other examples around. They all seem to be succeeding in their own way.

I hope there's a place for traditional advertising in the future, but I can't help but feel that it will have to change as the world becomes more technologically savvy. It has to be less intrusive, more intelligent, and better designed. Bullshit meters are only getting more sensitive, after all. It's something worrying and exciting at the same time, because I keep thinking about promotional ideas for the Novel - and while mine involve very few traditional avenues, I know publishers will have a whole host of ideas that are 100% focused into them. I worry about the effects of bad advertising, because I've seen it often enough.

I'm probably being pessimistic. This is something to think about after I've gotten an agent and a contract. In the meantime, I'll just have to sort out the look of the blog and see how I get on - but I will have no ads, and there will be no bullshit allowed here. Like Mr. Eisler, this will be my little contribution to the cause of keeping it real.

Time to Open up

I'm very, very nervous about this, but... I have to do it sometime. I'm opening up the blog so that it can be seen publicly.

This is an author thing, I guess. You need a presence online, something for people to connect with and enjoy and pass along to their friends. It terrifies me like nothing in the world. Up to this point, I've hidden away, too afraid of being judged for what I write.

But I got to thinking, over the last month; I'm working hard on getting the Novel finished. It's going to be real, soon, real enough to send to agents - maybe real enough to be published. I don't think my queries will be successful unless I can be sure the agents know that I am real too. That means a part of me has to be on display, whether I like it or not, whether I'll get flak for it or not.

All the posts I've entered so far will stay. It feels... dishonest, I guess, to edit or censor them for the sake of a presentable public persona. I'm not sure there's anything truly scandalous there, anyway - most of my opinions boil down to my wishing people wouldn't be so bloody mean to each other.

I'd better start as I mean to go on, then.

Hello. My name is Claire Ryan, and I'm a taleweaver. I've been telling stories since I was twelve. I've written two books, which will never see the light of day, and I'm working on one with promise right now. I can write about anything, in any medium. I've spent a long time honing my skills, and although it's been a long time coming, I know I'm good enough now to be a published author.

This is my blog. Thanks for reading it.