Sharing May 1, 2019

Let’s get back to this, shall we?

Books: The Slough House series by Mick Herron
I’ve been burning through the books of this series one after another. Slough House is the place where MI5 agents are sent when they’re burned out or incompetent, but for one reason or another can’t just be fired. They’re given boring and meaningless desk jobs in the hope they’ll give up and quit…but of course, things don’t stay that simple. In each book of the series, the “Slow Horses” as they’re called stumble into serious cases that the rest of the Security Service has overlooked. Not only are the books exciting thrillers, they’re written in a delightfully snarky tone of voice that makes me laugh a lot. Highly recommended.
Place: Banff
The last time I was in Banff was 1979, but I had a chance to get back there last week. The town has completely changed, but the mountains haven’t. Neither has the smell of the air. I should get back there more often.
Movie: Avengers: Endgame
It’s not at all a perfect movie, but it does what it had to do: serve as a gala ending for Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Technically, the forthcoming Spider-Man movie is considered the end of Phase 3, but no matter how good that movie is, it’s more of a palate cleanser than a climax…although it could still go out with a bang as I suggested in my recent speculations.) I’ve seen a lot of people point out weaknesses in Endgame, many of which I agree with, but still—it worked for me.

Sharing, February 26, 2019

Stuff I’m doing:

Fixing a cataract: I’ve had a slow-growing cataract in my left eye for at least three years and it’s finally reached the point where (perhaps) it’s time to get rid of it.

My cataract is almost certainly just a symptom of age. The way I understand it is that the lens in your eye is made of transparent fibers which should lie tightly side by side. As you get older, the fibers loosen up enough to allow small gaps between them. Not only does the lens have more difficulty focusing, but light can get in through the gaps which has various effects. In my case, if I look at a single point of light, I see three points (or sometimes six, depending on the size of the original point).

Luckily, my right eye is still good, and with my glasses, it’s 20/20. This means I can still see fine for driving. However, I’d love to have two working eyes again. As it happens, eye surgeons prefer not to deal with cataracts until they’re bad enough—cataracts can develop very slowly, in which case there’s no reason to jump the gun. At long last, though, my optometrist says that it’s time; so I now have an appointment with an eye surgeon to see if he agrees.

What I’m reading: The Mister Miracle graphic novel by Tom King. Mister Miracle is a lesser known DC “superhero” created by Jack Kirby. I put “superhero” in quotes because MM doesn’t fight crime, and he seldom gets involved in standard superhero shenanigans.  Instead, he’s the greatest escape artist of all time.

The graphic novel is essentially about MM having an extended bout of depression. It’s not played for laughs (although there are plenty of humorous moments). It’s very human and highly recommended.

What I’m playing on the computer: Dragon Age: Inquisition. I don’t know why…but on the weekend, when I looked at the list of games I have on my computer, DA:I is the one I clicked on. (I’ve played DA:I from start to finish at least four times. I guess I might be making it five.)

What I’m writing: In the mornings, I’m working on the novel I’ve designated PROJECT TECH-BRO. In the afternoon, I’m working on a short story I’m tentatively calling “The Red Wolf Canto” (although that might change). It’s a combination of Little Red Riding Hood and Dante’s Inferno. Because they belong together.

(Seriously, on the very second page of Dante’s Inferno, Dante meets a wolf in a dark forest. So hey, it’s a gimme.)

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.

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}

“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.

Sharing: Booklife

For the past week, I’ve been reading Booklife by Jeff Vandermeer. I’ve been aware of this book for quite some time—it was published in 2009—but I didn’t get around to reading it until now.

I deeply wish I’d read it earlier. It’s full of so much valuable advice on managing a writing career, it would have helped me immensely with things like PR, career planning, time management, maintaining one’s sanity, and much more. It’s already spurred me to tweak my writing process in several useful ways, and it will certainly inform my future publicity activities.

Even though it’s now a decade old, the book is hardly dated at all. Partly that’s because the writing life hasn’t changed as much as you might think in the past ten years. Some of the balance has changed—MySpace has sunk while Twitter has risen—but the issues are still the same.

What’s a good use of your time and resources? What isn’t? How should you think about interacting with the public, no matter how you end up doing it? Those are the types of questions that Vandermeer looks at. They’re important and relevant to whatever media ecosystems exist now or in the future. Specific details will change, of course, but if you think things through systematically, you can cope with whatever comes along.

So I strongly recommend Booklife to anyone who’s thinking of a writing career. It’s not a how-to-write book, although it includes some useful tips and references. It’s a how-to-handle-a-writing-career book…and as I said, I wish I’d read it a whole lot sooner.