PLR Day

Today I got my cheque from Canada’s Public Lending Right program, so I thought I’d say a little about how great the program is.

Public Lending Right (PLR) is a way to compensate authors for the use of their books in public libraries. Libraries are absolutely wonderful, but for writers they have one drawback: if someone buys a book, the author gets a royalty; but if someone borrows a book from a library, the author doesn’t get paid.

Now of course, libraries do buy their books in the first place, so the author gets a royalty on that purchase. But once a library buys a book, the book may be read by dozens of people, and the author gets no more money.

PLR attempts to balance the accounts, at least a little. The details differ in different countries, but the basics are simple: the government allocates a pool of money, then divides that pool between authors in proportion to how much their books are “used” in the country’s public libraries.

In Canada, this is done by checking computer records in a representative set of libraries across the country. They don’t count actual check-outs; they just count how many copies of an author’s books each library has on the shelves. In Canada, only Canadian authors are compensated. In other countries, other policies may apply.

The money isn’t huge, and there’s a maximum payment cap for each author. According to the Canadian government’s web site, payments run from $50 to $4000. Still it’s a nice gesture, and the cheque always brightens up my February.

(By the way, if you’re an author, it’s worth checking to see if your country has PLR. The U.S. doesn’t, but many other countries do. Once you register, you’ll get a bit of money every year, with almost no work on your part.)

Sharing: February 18, 2019

A rundown of what I’ve been up to recently.

What I’m Reading: The Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan. They’re fun middle-grade books about the demigod children of deities in the Greek pantheon. Percy Jackson is sometimes painfully slow on the uptake—I’m on Book 3 (The Titan’s Curse) and he still hasn’t got it through his head that EVERYTHING HE ENCOUNTERS IS SUPERNATURAL…but because these are middle-grade books, I’ll cut him some slack.

What I’m Listening To: Audio versions of the Goddess Wars books by Kendare Blake. You might consider these a dark YA counterpart to Percy Jackson. These books too feature characters from Greek mythology, including gods and heroes, but in a much grittier context. Gods are slowly dying in horrific ways, and those who still survive are at war each other. Interesting but nasty.

What I’m Playing on the Tabletop: One reason I’m reading the above books is because I’m running a campaign of Scion (Second Edition) from Onyx Path. Players portray the half-human/half-divine children of gods; our group includes children of Thor, Loki, Kali, Lugh, Winonah, and Cheeby-aub-oozoo. This is part of a continuing campaign that’s been going for more than ten years, having spun through multiple game systems including D&D, Ashen Stars, Mage: The Awakening, and more.

I’m also part of a group play-testing a tabletop RPG that I can’t talk about. Maybe eventually…

What I’m Playing on the Computer: Sunless Skies, a game where you fly a Victorian locomotive through otherworldly landscapes. I’ve reached the point where I don’t die too often, and therefore can follow the story-threads of my crew. It’s an odd but compelling little game. I got it on Steam.

What I’m Writing: The novel I’m calling PROJECT TECH-BRO, and a short story for an anthology that will be published in 2020. I will definitely say more about these in the fullness of time…but not yet.

Meditation

Okay, here we go: my take on meditation.

First of all, I’ll note there are many types of meditation, arising from many religious traditions. Furthermore, individual teachers may have their own homegrown approaches to meditation, based on whatever they’ve found helpful or even approaches they’ve invented themselves. Many people think that meditation is always just sitting quietly, but there are forms of meditation that involve walking, lying down, chanting, running, yoga positions, and lots of other activities.

But let me talk about the forms I know best. These forms do one of two things:

  • Either the practice is intended to focus the mind on something in order to shut out external and internal distractions. This means quieting the mind.
  • Or else the practice is intended to open the mind to observe whatever thoughts and sensations arise.

Often in a meditation session, you do the first type of practice for some length of time to calm the mind and make it less busy. You focus on your breathing, or chanting, or a mental image, or a phrase. Then you move on to the second type of meditation form.

A phrase used to help you focus is called a mantra. It may or may not make sense. One of my teachers taught us a particular mantra saying, “I’m not going to give you an English translation. That’s not the point. Just focus on the sounds.” This illustrates an important principle: meditation isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s not something you figure out or think your way through. In fact, it’s the opposite—it’s designed to quiet the talkative intellectualizing part of your mind and to get you into a more non-verbal state.

The second type of meditation practice is basically watching your thoughts and body sensations. You do this after your mind has settled down enough. Notice that you pay attention to your body, not just your brain. Ideally, you get out of your head completely and just make note of whatever is happening in your entire realm of experience. But you don’t make that a goal. You don’t make anything a goal. You do nothing except observe.

That way, you see what you see, moment by moment. You aren’t trying for a result, you’re just observing. Why? To get past your mistaken ideas of who you are, to get past your habits of ignoring the truth, and to see what’s real.

One last note about meditation: I strongly recommend you find a teacher. Meditation is hard, and it doesn’t get easier with practice. In fact, once you accumulate some experience, it’s embarrassingly easy to find yourself just going through the motions and not really paying attention. You get in the groove…and that means you start ignoring your mind and body again because you’re doing what you did before and you think you’re “there”. A good teacher will keep you honest, and help you stay awake.

Self & Character Sheets

I said I was going to write about meditation, but some tweets I saw on Twitter have aimed me in a different direction: the concept of no-self. Since this is a tricky thing to get your head around, let me come at it from an angle I understand better than Buddhist philosophy: role-playing games.

In Dungeons & Dragons, you portray a character who’s represented by a list of numbers and descriptors. One of the numbers represents how strong your character is; another how healthy or wounded you are; and so on. You also have a list of skills you’re good at, a list of what you’re carrying, perhaps a list of spells you know, etc. All this information can be written down on a few pages which are jointly called your character sheets.

Other role-playing systems also use character sheets. Different games have different information on their sheets, depending on what’s important in the game—a game about superheroes needs different information than, say, a game where you play a pirate or a spy—but all RPGs distill a character down to a page or two of attributes.

Games have to work this way because games need rules, and the number of rules needs to be small enough that people can actually remember them. Inevitably, then, games simplify life, and character sheets are severe simplifications: you can’t really sum up a complete person in a few pages.

More generally, every representation of a person is a simplification. For example, a 400-page novel is just a long character sheet. With subtext, a novel can suggests depths that aren’t explicitly on the page, but it’s still small in comparison to actual life.

Even a very long novel is short compared to a lifetime. I just took a look at audiobooks of War and Peace, and they run between 60 and 70 hours. That’s a lot of reading, but it’s still less than three days. A good novel makes you feel as if you know the characters exceedingly well, but you don’t actually “live” with them very long at all.

Now back to “no-self”. My personal take on this is that your idea of who you really are is just a character sheet. It’s a simplification that misses so much, it blinds you to reality. It’s always off-base. The truth is that we’re constantly changing; right now we may be angry but thirty seconds later, we’re wondering what we’ll have for supper, and then if there’s anything funny on Twitter, and so on.

This isn’t just a symptom of modern distractibility—the Buddha talked about it 2500 years ago. The human condition is that we change from second to second. Even scientifically valid personality profiles like the Big Five are only another type of character sheet. They may be useful in some contexts (just as character sheets are useful when you’re playing a game), but they aren’t the unchanging truth of who we are.

So what is the truth? How do we get at it? The answer isn’t finding the “right” character sheet that will encapsulate our “self” correctly. The answer (according to the Buddha) is to give up trying to find an encapsulated self at all. Just pay attention to your body and mind in this moment…and in the next moment…and in the next. Avoid trying to make a character sheet of who you “really” are overall. Just know what’s happening in the moment.

And that takes us back to meditation…which I really will try to talk about next time.

{Image of Stormbringer character sheet in German from Ingo Willms, [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D from Wikimedia Commons}

The Three Poisons

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the causes of bad behavior. Given the way that things are now, how can anyone not think about the causes of bad behavior?

In the Western tradition, this kind of thinking can go two ways: talking about psychology, or generalizing about evil. But Buddhists look at bad behavior from a different angle.

Why do people act in ways that increase their own suffering and/or cause suffering in others? The Buddhist answer is that people are affected by the Three Poisons: the three roots of unhealthy behavior. These three are translated into English in various ways, but I’m going to use craving, aversion, and ignoring.

Craving and aversion are familiar moral “evils”, even in Western thought. Craving is wanting something in an unwholesome way; it lines up with the Christian deadly sins of Greed, Lust and Gluttony. (I’ve talked about the deadly sins before.) Craving is the urge to fulfill our desires even when we should realize it’s going to be bad for us or someone else.

Aversion is the flip side, corresponding to deadly sins like Wrath and Envy. We hate or fear something so much that we go to extremes to reject it: fight or flight.

The third poison is the one I’ve been thinking about the most: ignoring. We cause suffering to ourselves and others because we ignore things.

We ignore our own feelings and the feelings of others. We ignore the probable consequences of our actions. We ignore the real consequences of our actions. We ignore how other people have different experiences and viewpoints than we do, so their reactions to our behavior will differ too.

Although I’ve translated the name of the third poison as “ignoring”, another common translation is “delusion”. If we’re ignoring significant aspects of the world, we aren’t seeing things as they are; we’re deluded. And if we’re deluded, it’s no wonder we make bad choices. How can we get things right when we’re seeing things wrong?

This leads to one of the major reasons for meditation: to pay attention to what’s actually going through your head. If you learn to pay attention to your mind and body, you start to notice when you’re ignoring things: when you’re in denial about something, or skipping over inconvenient truths. The more you notice that you’re ignoring things, the less you’ll let yourself do it, and the less you’ll poison yourself and others.

On that note, I’ll step off my soapbox…but sometime soon, maybe I’ll talk a bit more about meditation.

Liner Notes

The Bundoran bundle has finished its run with great sales results. I’m also happy with the series of “liner note” posts I made discussing most of the stories I contributed to the bundle.

Do I need to explain liner notes? Way back when, before music was simply downloaded, vinyl albums and later CDs often came with notes about the songs. Most commonly, the notes included the lyrics of all the songs. Sometimes they also contained commentary about the songs, either by the writer(s), the performer(s), or a music critic. These comments were called liner notes (and it amuses me that there’s a Wikipedia entry for them…but of course there is).

The practice of liner notes has been taken up by writers in a number of other media. In particular, Kieron Gillen writes liner notes for his comic book series The Wicked + The Divine. These notes are panel-by-panel discussions of each issue; they’re all well worth reading if you want insights into the thoughts and the process of putting comic books together.

Gillen has just started a similar set of commentary notes about Peter Cannonball, Thunderbolt, a new series featuring the old comic book character who inspired Ozymandias in Watchmen. Again, I recommend both the comic book and the notes. Since there’s only been a single issue released, I have no idea where the series will go, but I’ll certainly keep reading.

And the experience of writing liner notes for my short stories has made me wonder about writing liner notes for my two published Dark vs. Spark novels. It would mean a ton of work, which is why I’m vacillating about the idea…but if any of the people reading this would like to read chapter-by-chapter notes about EXPLOSIONS and GUN, send me a comment or a tweet to show your interest.

“Friends” in SPAAAACCCCE!

The Bundoran Buddies Bundle offer ends soon, so if you haven’t already grabbed it, snap it up fast! In the meantime, let me talk about one more story in Organisms, my contribution to the bundle.

John Joseph Adams is a great editor who currently heads up Lightspeed magazine and Nightmare. He has also edited a number of story anthologies, including Federations. He invited me to submit a story to Federations and the result was “The One with the Interstellar Group Consciousness”.

Adams wanted stories dealing with large interstellar societies like the Federation in Star Trek, or the many many empires that are found in a gazillion works of science fiction. When I heard what he was looking for, my mind immediately leapt to the idea of telling a story about such a society itself, not about people living in such a society. The story would be told from the society’s communal viewpoint, ignoring what might happen to any of its citizens. People may come and go, but groups have a life of their own.

So what kind of story could I tell about an interstellar society itself? As the title of my story might suggest, I wrote a sitcom. (Side note: the episodes of the sitcom Friends were never given names on screen, but the scripts were always given titles like “The One Where Ross Got High”, “The One with the Boobies”, and so on.) So my story, “The One with the Interstellar Group Consciousness”, is basically a silly sitcom episode, except that the characters are vast societies rather than individuals.

It’s a love story. It ends with a wedding. And the Borg.