Writing the threads of my reality

Top Ten Reasons to go read The Rejectionist

10. Frequent, unapologetic swearing

9. Posts which are written using the royal 'we'

8. Dramatic capslock use

7. Intense, vocal hatred of bad writing, the like of which may never be seen again by mortal man, usually parsed into mocking, humourous commentary

6. Continuing love of aspiring authors, no matter what utter waste-of-paper manuscripts appear in the slush pile

5. Random lessons on grammar and spelling

4. Posts that highlight cool feminist things or call out racism, sexism, and other prejudice for the shit that it is

3. Lola Pants

2. The funny. Oh dear god, the funny

1. This post. Specifically this quote: "THERE'S NO CRYING IN PUBLISHING. Go out there with your fabulous selves, and own that shit. OWN IT. LOVE YOURSELF. Own how awesome you are, and how brave, every last one of you. Fuck a bunch of form letters. You're a fucking WRITER." [edited to add] AND THIS POST about Stieg Larsson. "Most of us will never be abducted by a sadistic serial killer, thankfully. But all of us will, at some point, be told we are less because we are female. The worst thing about this book is that it seems to be saying the only violence against women that counts is the kind that ends up with us dead. The rest of us, I guess, are just complaining."

Just let me get my cheerleading outfit and pom-poms, and give me a minute to change.


Opening Lines

Kevin Sheridan over at Optimism Abounds has a post up about getting started with a story. Everyone says that you need something that will instantly grab the reader and get them into the story; something pithy, memorable, interesting, whatever. Nothing like "It was a dark and stormy night" anyway.

Yes, children, starting off your fantasy epic with a description of the weather is not exactly quality prose. Famous first lines usually have something better going on that instantly makes the reader want to look at the second line, then the third one, and so on in that fashion until they've got to the last page. Is this easy? Good grief, no - but if you're really getting serious about this writing thing, you really should make an effort to, y'know, write something that people will want to read.

Anyway. Memorable or interesting first lines:
  • "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." - Harry Potter, of course. The tone captures the characters perfectly; just a little snide, a little petulent, very stuck up. You'd read on simply because it's a fantastic piece of prose.
  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." - Pride and Prejudice. One of my personal favourites, and one of the most well known opening lines in the world. Interesting, quirky, almost playful writing.
  • "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." - 1984. All at once familiar and strange. George Orwell's publisher must have known he was on to a winner here.
  • "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Ah, Hunter S. Thompson. Apparently Fear and Loathing was partly based on his own weird experiences. You'd read on if only to find out what happens when you get hammered on drugs in a desert.
  • "Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen." - Northern Lights. The line might be ordinary if not for the mention of the daemon.
  • "To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman." - A Scandal in Bohemia. Watson is talking about Irene Adler, you discover later. But wow, what a hook there - it hangs on the reader knowing who Sherlock Holmes is, and you continue to find out who is the mysterious woman that has such an effect on him.
I have a problem with first lines, I think. I read over the opening of the Novel again last week, and winced at how pedestrian it sounded to me. I've already decided that the story has to start there, where the main characters suddenly come into contact with each other, and if I can't make a scene full of danger and excitement and death-defying madness sound interesting, then there's really no hope for me.

...Actually, I have an opening to another story I wrote a while back. I was talking to another writer-type friend, and we got chatting about the most overused opening lines. So I took the clichéd "It was a dark and story night" and tried to make something of it that didn't sound boring.


"It was a dark and stormy night.

Except it wasn't. I wanted it to be, though. I needed lightning, and thunder, and rolling clouds foretelling doom on the horizon. I wanted tree-falling crashes, and wind, and the kind of rain that'd soak you as soon as you stepped into it. I would have given anything for the weather to listen to me, when I was crying in that cafe in Paris, but the sky's a bitch in the middle of a French summer.

So it was actually the middle of a sunny afternoon, with a lovely warm breeze pulling my hair over my face, when that bastard broke my heart.

Yes, I can write things other than fantasy. Who knew?

Flying with the Phoenix

Today, I got my copy of Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon. Got home, did my usual speed reading thing and finished it in two hours flat.

Ai Ling is a young woman in the Kingdom of Xia - an oriental setting that kept bringing to mind images of the Avatar: Last Airbender artistic style - where women are constrained by social norms and generally expected to be seen and not heard. Everything starts going south when her father is called away to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams to do something mysterious with the Emperor, and after being threatened with a little blackmail and other shennanigans, Ai Ling runs away to bring her father home.

The dung then seriously hits the fan as she becomes hunted by demons, and in the course of things she falls in with a young man called Chen Yong, who is trying to find out what happened to his parents. Hijinks ensue, as they say.

Ok, gotta be honest here: I'm a terrible analyst of actual prose, so I'm just going to leave that to one side. I read so fast that single phrases or sentences get blurred into the overall narrative. I'm not all that aware of tone sometimes, and this might affect the stuff I pick up on in a book.

Anyway. Review time!

What I liked most about Silver Phoenix was the setting. It's a colourful, rich world, with little quirks and nuances that jumped out here and there. I always got the sense that there was much more to all of it than I was being told. Of course, this being a fantasy book, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Cindy Pon has reams of backstory hidden somewhere that we'll never be privy to. The demons are shockingly scary and horrible, too - maybe a little reminiscent of the oriental ghosts and monsters I've read about elsewhere, such as in the Legend of the Five Rings RPG or 3x3 Eyes.

Characters I had a problem with. I kept trying to resolve Ai Ling and Chen Yong and others in my head as I read, but they never truly gelled for me until the second half of the book. It started well enough with Ai Ling, but my vision of her fragmented early on and I couldn't seem to pull it all back together. Chen Yong was almost a non-entity for a long time there. I found myself asking at one stage, where's the emotional connection between them? Why are they together? Why do their interactions seem... unreal?

Plot, as well, remained hazy for me. It juddered at the start, going from here to there and although I could see the reasons that this needed to be here or that needed to be there, I couldn't get into it emotionally. I wasn't invested in what the characters were doing. Sometimes I wondered what exactly was going on, or I skipped back a page or two to try to get a clear picture of events. Not a good sign, unfortunately.

However, once Ai Ling and Chen Yong learn what's going on in the second half of the book, everything suddenly comes back into focus. Their characters become more real, the plot falls into place, and the story starts to come into its own. I still found a few hints of haziness, a moment or two where someone would do or say something that didn't seem right, but the overall quality leaped upwards and continued to climb up to the grand finale in the Palace and onwards. The showdown scene (no spoilers allowed, go get a copy if you want to know!) was not what I expected; powerful, edge-of-your-seat stuff.

...I always feel just a little bit bad when I write a review of a book and I have to say something bad about it. It seems like I'm betraying the author, or something. Hollywood get no such pass, of course, when I review movies - they like to inflict their crap on me, so I don't feel so guilty about flinging it right back at them. But yeah, authors, I feel kinda bad. Especially when I know my taste is flat out weird.

So - Silver Phoenix? There's a lot to like about it. The fantastical oriental setting is weird, strange and wonderful. Plot and characterisation are strong when they really come together. But for me, the first half of the book just let everything else down. I think of stories as having a flow, or a rhythm; Silver Phoenix spent far too long being out of time with itself.

The ending was... not unsatisfying, but somehow empty. Like I wanted more, and it wasn't there. It felt like Chen Yong had gone out of focus again as a character, and this had somehow washed out part of the emotion of the scene. I think if I didn't know there was a sequel, I would probably have been more than a little disappointed.

Now for the million dollar question: will I buy the next one in the series? I think I will. It's got a lot of promise, a lot of power as a story, for all that I think it has its faults. Fury of the Phoenix is out sometime in 2011, apparently.

As an aside: good grief, the cover? Changing the obviously Asian girl to an obviously Caucasian one for the paperback?! And that design! I'm a graphic designer and I could do better in my sleep! The original cover was a much stronger effort and far more faithful to the story. God, but it irritates me like nothing on earth to see an author short-changed by a publisher who won't do justice to a book cover.

Alright. The cat is attacking my feet, so I must go play with her before she turns her attention to my laptop.

T-Shirt Design: You Complete Me

Yes, I am on a roll with designs right now. Still waiting for my first sale. I live in hope, though. It's all for a good cause - that is, me and my better half packing up all our stuff and leaving Ireland in search of more geek-friendly shores.

Speaking of which, this design is just for him. Behold, the amazing Chibi-Man! With the power of his suspiciously familiar red suit, he can rescue cats from trees and help little old ladies across the road!

T-Shirt Design: Epic Win

The latest design: a gamer special! I used to play D&D a lot, then 4th Ed came out and it just wasn't the same anymore. Yes, I have my own dice that no one may touch on pain of pain.

I'm sure this would work better if it was white on black, but Skreened don't print white. Shame, really. I'm guessing it's to make it easier for people who are not graphic designers - white in any Skreened design becomes transparent, rather than allowing the shop owner to specify their own transparency settings. Efficient, yes - but annoying for the professionals.

This design's been added to a new shop for funnies - the Bizarrium. I chose the name because the other option, "The Happy Joy Shop of Happy", sounded a bit silly.

T-Shirt Design: Fly vs. Cobra

This is my latest design. It's been added to a new Skreened shop called the Bizarrium.

...I like funny names. Don't judge me!

In case you can't read it, it says "Do not taunt me Mr. Fly, I have a swatter and the reflexes of a disgruntled cobra". This design was inspired by a fly who got into my office today, and wound up splattered across the back of one of my notepads after it buzzed around my head one too many times.

Still haven't sold any shirts. Must... do... more... designs...

Jason Robert Brown, and the Sound of (Copyrighted) Music

I write a lot about copyright, and licencing, and the situations arising from filesharing, so the shennanigans with Jason Robert Brown were of particular interest to me. In short - JRB is a famous composer, and he was slightly and understandably miffed that some sites allow his sheet music to be accessed for free.

So he opened up a dialogue with one of the users of such a site, and the resulting exchange is enlightening and informative. His opponent is a teenager, a young aspiring singer who sees nothing wrong with filesharing.

What I found most interesting is that her attitude towards sharing online was very different to his, and she had a remarkably good grasp of how it could benefit him in a promotional way. JRB didn't agree, and directed her to buy his music at four dollars a pop - not much, of course, but without a credit card, she couldn't pay it. He did come off as rather heartless in that respect.

Several things struck me about all this. The first was that the teenager's attitude is certainly not unique. Her generation is completely comfortable with sharing files online, both technologically and morally, and JRB seems rather blinkered to this fact. That's a little dangerous when you consider that her generation will grow into the consumers with money that he will be playing to in a few years. Public perceptions shift and evolve over time, and hanging your future earnings on the idea that you can prevent the attitudes of the younger generation from merging into the mainstream is not a good business decision.

The second was that he just didn't seem to realise that it's not about him. This teenager likes his music. She has access to sheet music that she wouldn't normally have available, because her parents won't pay for it. She takes the time to learn it, sing it, make it a part of her life - and she tells him this, and explains that she loves his music so much that she wants to promote it and share it with others.

He, of course, is of the opinion that she could just as easily promote it with paid sheet music instead of free copies. But - and this is very important - it's not about him. He's not the only composer in the world. For a teenager who can't afford to buy sheet music, it's easier to download than to find a way to pay, so if he succeeds in having his music removed from this site, it won't somehow convince her and her peers to buy it instead. They'll just look for another free song that's been left online by another composer who isn't concerned about filesharing. Bottom line here, he's wilfully restricting the market for his work because he can't stand the idea that someone is getting his work for free.

The third thing, and I am tired of saying this, is that he repeatedly refers to it as 'illegal'. Anyone who's done any research into this area should know that filesharing is not illegal.


It's actually a civil case, as opposed to a criminal one. That's why you should be calling it infringing behaviour, not illegal behaviour. Small distinction, I'm sure, but it's an important one.

The fourth thing is that he uses incorrect analogies. The screwdriver, for example - he compares giving away a finite good (end result: he does not have a screwdriver anymore) with an infinite good (end result: he still has his own copies of his music). It's irritating when people make these comparisons and don't think them through.

Imagine if you had a screwdriver, and your friend wants one, and you have the technology to make an exact copy of it in about a minute at zero cost. Maybe it's an exceptionally well-made screwdriver, with variable size and type and whatnot, and it took you a year to craft it. So you tell your friend, "Sorry - you need to give me four dollars before I'll make you a copy". Maybe he'd give you the money, but that's a bit of a stretch if there are a hundred other screwdriver craftsmen who'd be happy to make him a copy for free, and all of them are clamouring for his attention.

It's all market forces, kids. If people know that it effectively cost nothing to produce the goods they are buying, they expect to get it for free or for close to free. Asking them to pay when your competitors are giving it away for promotional purposes is a colossal mistake. Maybe their goods are not as well-made, and maybe you'll get some sales out of the people who prefer quality over price, but at the end of the day it's not you who'll be getting the attention (and thus the money) of the majority of consumers - and unless your goods are significantly better and differentianted from the competition, you will go out of business.

(But wait, I hear you cry, how can they make money if they're giving away their goods? In response to this, I can only suggest that if an entrepreneur can't figure out how to take consumer attention and turn it into sales and income, then perhaps they should get a different job.)

In summary, I really feel for Jason Robert Brown. I'm not callous enough to ignore his point of view that he should be paid for the sweat and blood he put into his music, but the simple fact remains that his work is going to be shared whether he likes it or not, whether he rails against it or not, whether it's copyright infringement or not. He says himself that the recording industry is in freefall right now, and he's not wrong - but the music industry is booming, and musicians are finding new ways to make a living by reaching out to their fans directly, and by not relying on the sale of the infinitely and easily copied streams of data that make up their music. See the latest report from the UK, if I remember right - people are spending more money on music than ever before, but it's all in live acts and not plastic discs.

I feel bad for him because all he can see is how he's not being paid his share of four dollars. He's so focused on how the Internet is losing him a little bit of money that he doesn't recognise how he could be using it to make a huge pile of money. It's like Harry Potter all over again - up to May this year, the series was not allowed to be released as ebooks due to the fear of piracy. The result, of course, is that there was no other way to get it as an ebook except through illicit channels, which means it was heavily pirated anyway and both Rowling and Bloomsbury have lost out on potential ebook sales of the most popular children's series in the last decade!

I often wonder who was ultimately responsible for that particular business decision. Was it Rowling, perhaps? Did Bloomsbury buy into the media panic over filesharing and nudge her into it?

Anyway, back to JRB. People are fond of saying that there's no easy answer to filesharing, but I disagree. There is one answer that counts: Evolve or die, gentlemen. If your business model can't survive in the age of the Internet, you have a stark choice - develop a better one, or accept that you will fail.

There is no in-between, no happy medium. You are not a special snowflake that the digital age will treat gently and make exceptions for.

Evolve or die.

T-Shirt Design - Canadian Dream

Yes, Canada. My better half and I are making arrangements to leave for the land of forests and socialised medicine in the New Year. This particular design is called the Canadian Dream, in honour of the fact that any profits I get from the shirts will go towards our immigration fund.

Next up is a commissioned design for a friend of mine.

T-Shirt Design - Razor Angel

This is the latest design up on my store, called Razor Angel. This is the back of the shirt.

I'm thinking about modifying it slightly to move the wings farther apart. Hopefully I'll be adding more designs and getting more interest. I also have this mad idea to print up a run of shirts and take them to Gaelcon, but that'll depend on the cost of travel, accomodation, and the trade stands in the con.

That reminds me, I need to email the mysterious entities who run Gaelcon.

Anyway - I want feedback and suggestions! Comment here or tweet at me to get my attention.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

A very odd thought struck me today. I am a writer, and I am a graphic designer. I can come up with (reasonably) pithy commentary on the modern world, and I have a basic grasp of good design. I've been looking for other sources of revenue, especially considering my plans to leave the country at some point, and so I've been thinking about where I can apply my skills in my spare time to earn extra cash.

In retrospect, this should have been bloody obvious.

Cafepress style sites! T-shirt designs! It's perfect!

I've started up already with some feminist designs on Skreened. I have plans for some new sections on geeks, computers, gaming, and other stuff, and I'm considering setting up a second store on Zazzle or Printfection for stuff other than T-shirts. Skreened just happened to come highly recommended in quality vs. price.

If anyone has suggestions about what kind of T-shirts or merchandise they'd like to see, let me know! This is cash that's going to get me and my better half to Canada, by the way. Even if it's something silly, I want to know about it and do the design and sell it to you.

Promotion will have to be through the blog, Twitter, my site, and word of mouth. The challenge is how to do it without being tacky... ah, the joys of the sole trader business. Anyway - I added a few non-feminist designs to do some practice with branding and graphic styles. Enjoy!

The Nature of Online Gaming

The things you read at 4am...

What with the debacle of RealID, I've cancelled my subscription to World of Warcraft again. I was thinking of returning once I know for sure that the system will not expose my private information or connect my WoW characters with my real life name, but after doing some research, I think this may be the time I drop the game for good.

I read a few articles on RealID and the commentary from various WoW players, and eventually I came across this one that talks about the methods that games use to sucker players in and keep them paying. It's a huge shock to read that and compare what they're saying to my experience of World of Warcraft - and I will tell you 100% that it's all true, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and it's terrifying to me.

Leaving aside the thought of games designers using psychological tinkering to keep people playing instead of actual innovation, it took me a while to learn that the RealID thing is a result of Blizzard doing a deal with Facebook. That alone threw up some major red flags for me; they might have the best of intentions and plans for a new social gaming network, but going through Mark Zuckerberg? The man who doesn't believe in privacy, and whose company is constantly getting slammed over selling user data, and who thinks people who give him their information are dumb?

If Blizz think for one second that I'm getting involved with that, they're barking mad. Everything is saved on the Internet, and I can't risk something in WoW getting attached to my real life name - especially when I'm planning on being a published author, and I need to control my online image. I played it for stress relief, for goodness sake; that implies a certain freedom in what I say and do in that it has no consequences because I remain anonymous. I don't want to play a game where my virtual actions might come back to bite me later in real life.

That's to say nothing of the people who really, really want to be anonymous. Celebrities, for example. They have hobbies too, and it's common knowledge that some of them play WoW. If everyone knows who they are, how can they play the game normally? Female gamers, as well, have a trend of hiding their true gender to avoid harrassment - and I should know, because I've been there. I spent a year playing a male character and pretending to be a guy after a few bad experiences. Are we supposed to just suck it up and accept that our identities will be exposed?

They might have backpedalled now and decided to hold off on forcing people to use their real names on the game forums, but it's not good enough. They're still implementing it in-game in the next expansion, and allowing friends of friends (i.e. complete strangers) to see a person's real name. There's apparently an addon bug that exposes your name to anyone.

I forsee a situation where Blizzard and Facebook will exchange user information in order to build an even bigger social profile of a person. Facebook already has their real life info, and Blizz can supply their WoW or Starcraft habits and their in-game chatter; Facebook gets even more user info out of the deal, and Blizz gets access to Facebook's 400 million users through their friends who already play their games. Needless to say, I didn't sign up for that, and the new Terms of Use I had to agree to in order to access my account and cancel my subscription didn't exactly fill me with confidence.

End of an era, I guess. I'm sure some people will be celebrating.

Body Shapes

I have realised something deeply profound, and largely personal. Granted, this may make it uninteresting, but nevertheless, I feel the need to share.

I now know that I'm not, in fact, overweight.

Does that sound silly? Modern women carry around some amount of hatred of their bodies from the moment their mothers tell them that they shouldn't have that extra bar of chocolate. 'A minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips', they say. I've always largely disliked my hips for having too much fat on them, and deep down, I tend to blame myself for it.

But not today. I looked in the mirror, and I noticed that my shoulders are actually just a little bit wider than my hips, despite the fleshiness of said body parts. And it was something of a revelation to look at myself and see (instead of an average woman with a few pounds to lose) a woman who is bigger and heavier by design because I take after my father in my body shape. So I have very broad shoulders and hips because my dad is broad; I weigh more than 180 pounds even though I look much lighter because I have very dense bones, like he does; I have huge feet for which heels are generally not an option because my grandfather had feet like that.

The point of it all, really, is that it's not my fault.

It's not my fault, if fashion designers don't care or don't know how to make clothes that look good on women with broad shoulders. It's not my fault if I can never look like a model in a magazine. And because it's not my fault, suddenly all the guilt and hatred just falls away.

Even when I know that mainstream media presents an unrealistic view of the ideal woman, and that this view is callously abused to push beauty and enhancement products on the female population, it's still viciously hard to escape the nagging feeling that by not caring about being thin, or not caring about what I eat, I am somehow letting myself down. The feeling is just another facet of the media's pervasive influence - but rationalising it isn't the same as being completely free from it. So it's a powerful thing, to tell yourself that:
  • You will never reach this unrealistic ideal, but
  • It's not your fault, and
  • You can stop beating yourself up about it now and start concentrating on how to stay healthy and happy.
If you can truly convince yourself of this, then all the ads trying to convince you to buy makeup, or lose some weight with a new diet, or get this season's newest fashions don't matter anymore. You'll never look like Angelina Jolie, or have Reneé Zellweger's body, because you are not them and having the trappings of their lives will not change that - so trying to take on the veneer of a celebrity is pointless, and every little thing that says 'you are not worthy' because of your body becomes meaningless. Instead, it becomes a matter of difference; different genetics, different riches. You buy clothes for yourself. You exercise for your own health. You eat according to your own taste.

And in a myriad of small ways, you are suddenly free.

Comic Books and the Male Gaze

I like comic books, really I do. They're remarkably underrated as a medium. Alan Moore in particular is a storyteller of consummate skill; V for Vendetta, Top Ten, and others are among some of the most in-depth and emotionally involved works I've ever come across.

The problem, of course, is that comic books are rarely written for me.

Comics as a medium are, like the rest of mainstream media, entirely dominated by and created for men. I would probably be more interested in comics if they didn't constantly pander to the male gaze - that is, comics display women-as-objects, there to be eye candy for heterosexual men, even if the women are characters in their own right. The Most Common Superpower is aptly named; although male characters run the gamut of size, age, shape and what have you, female characters are overwhelmingly tall, skinny, young, attractive, and have breasts that apparently defy gravity.

Michael Turner was terrible for it, actually. See here for a classic example of his work. I don't recall ever seeing an adult female by him that didn't have an F cup at least.

Yes, it irritates me like nothing on earth. All comics have started to look the same to me now. Like movies, they have become variations on a theme of 'white hetersexual male plus assorted other white males and maybe some minorities get into shennanigans'. This just isn't all that interesting to me anymore, especially when women - yes, half of the goddamn human race - is considered a minority. The Losers? Five men, one woman. I didn't even look at the comic book. The Expendables? Nine men, most of whom are white.

That's just two films this year that my better half was getting excited about that I really, really couldn't care less about and will not be spending any money on. But I'm not bitter. Totally.

Anyway, I have to give credit where it's due, and much as I have a problem with a lot of comics, some of them stand head and shoulders over the rest. And the one that I elevate above all others is the Authority.

I prefer the Ellis/Hitch early stuff. I can remember faffing around, looking at the giant boobs brigade and getting a little disgusted, before someone shoved a copy of the first issue of the Authority into my hands. I started to read about Jenny Sparks (pictured above) and it just blew my mind that Bryan Hitch was drawing her so... normal. She smokes, drinks, wears tank tops and comfortable pants, and dresses like a businesswoman with a grudge when she goes out to kick villain ass. Jenny was an immensely powerful character, a leader, and a saviour. She had history, and depth, and experience. She was real to me in a way that, say, Power Girl could never be.

Jenny wasn't a sex symbol. Bryan Hitch didn't draw her like that. I met him at San Diego Comic Con once, and spent a silly amount of money on an original Authority comic page because of it.

Jenny Sparks became another thread that inspired one of my main characters in the Novel, and I would have given anything to have more of her in mainstream media. It hasn't happened yet, unfortunately, even though Wonder Woman is finally wearing pants after all these years. (Someone had to actually point out to me that WW's usual outfit is classic dominatrix - seriously, hot pants, corset, knee-high boots, and a whip? How did I miss that?)

Someday, though. Fifty years ago, there would never have been a Jenny Sparks to inspire me. I wonder will they ever do an Authority movie?