Eye Candy

Everybody listens to music…

Well okay, I don’t do listen much, because I get way too distracted. I can’t listen to music and do anything else at the same time. But anyhoo…

Everybody listens to music. Everybody seeks out music. And everybody can find music because there are a zillion sources from iTunes to Spotify to Bandcamp.

But many of us don’t seek out visual stimulation. The number of people who go to art galleries is tiny compared to the number of people who go to music venues.

Of course, there are plenty of visual sources besides galleries: Instagram, Pinterest, Deviant Art, to name a few. There are also infinite quantities of cute animal pictures out in the world…for which we must be grateful on days when almost everything else in life sucks.

But if you’re a writer, you should be constantly filling your eyes with visual input. Geography, for example. What can a desert look like? We’ve all seen picturesque sand dunes, but what other possibilities are there? What do desert-dwelling people look like? What do desert settlements look like? Desert animals? Desert rocks? You never know when you might need to write a scene that takes place in a desert. Filling your eyes and brain with desert images ahead of time gives you resources to draw on if you need them.

The same goes for other environments. Also for things: castles and railways and factories and alleys and parks and crustaceans and whatever exists in the world. And people: people of all ages, types, cultures, past and present.

Make a point of seeking web sites and other sources of diverse visuals. Do it every day. Make bookmarks for images that interest you. Cover your writing desk with pictures that get your juices flowing.

These days, it’s a cliche to ask, “What music do you have on your phone?” But I remember a Robertson Davies novel where a character asks, “What pictures does he have on his walls?” That really got me thinking. And I started figuring out what visuals might put me in the mood to write.

Writers should have pictures. A lot of them. And writers should make a point of seeing new things every day.

[Candy cane picture from gallery.yopriceville.com]

Sharing: Tor.com Novellas

A novella is shorter than a novel and longer than a novelette. Definitions vary, but the Tor.com line of Novellas uses a word count of 20,000-40,000 words. (For comparison, an average novel is about 100,000 words.)

Tor.com novellas offer a great cross-section of modern science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Because the line emphasizes diversity, you’re apt to find books full of fresh ideas seldom seen in other SF work. At the same time, you can also find great examples of “cozy” old mainstream SF (like the Murderbot stories by Martha Wells that I mentioned last week).

What’s so great about novellas? It’s been said that the novella is the “natural” length for SF: long enough to develop an idea in detail, but not so long as to wear out their welcome. Also, let’s be honest, novellas are cheaper and faster to read than full-length novels. In addition, novellas cost less to print, so the publisher can take risks on stories that may be more cutting-edge than conventional tales.

One way or another, I’ve enjoyed all the Tor.com novellas I’ve read. In addition to the Murderbot stories, here are some of my favorites:

 

To be honest, I didn’t realize how many Tor.com novellas I’d read until I started making the above list…and that’s not counting a number of books that I have on my Kindle waiting to be read.

So by all means, check out the line. All the novellas are available digitally as well as in trade paperback; many (or maybe all) are also available as audiobooks.

And if you don’t usually read science fiction/fantasy/horror, these novellas are a great place to start.

Sharing: June 17, 2018

More stuff I like:

Book: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
This made me laugh a lot: wry and honest cartoons about being an well-meaning misfit.
App: Feedly
Feedly is an RSS subscription reader…and if you don’t know what that is, you should. RSS is method of summarizing and syndicating blog posts. Almost every site you care about creates its own RSS information; software like Feedly can look up that information and tell you about any articles posted since the last time you checked. In other words, RSS readers let you follow blogs and quickly find out what’s new. I use Feedly as a fast way of checking many different web sites, so that I’m always up to date. (And by the way, you can use Feedly to follow this web site too, i.e. jamesalangardner.com. Never miss a posting!
Web Site: Reductress
Reductress is The Onion but with articles slanted toward women. Some of the articles are only titles…but the titles are so great, adding content would only spoil them. So yes, I just read Reductress for the headlines; it is a wonderful use of my time.

Sharing: June 15, 2018

More items of interest:

Book: All Systems Red by Martha Wells
The first novella in the “Murderbot” series. Murderbot is a part-mechanical part-organic security unit who has managed to disable its control module. Surprisingly, this doesn’t lead to a killing spree—Murderbot just wants to watch soap operas while doing the minimum amount of work required to keep up the pretense that it’s still under human control. Murderbot is utterly charming, so I’m glad there are several more books to come in the series.
Web site: Quartz (qz.com)
One of my favorite sites for news. Quartz covers the same sort of topics you see on many news sites, but from an international perspective. I believe it’s based out of India, although it hires writers from around the world. It also deals with items of interest from places other than North America and Europe—always with good explanations and first-rate graphics.
Web comic: Questionable Content
I feel embarrassed mentioning this, since anyone reading this blog probably reads Questionable Content already. But if you don’t, you should. I might note that the series has been running since 2003, so there’s a lot of backlog available to read. It’s evolved quite a bit since the early days, but I still think the comic is worth reading from the very first strip. (You won’t know how truly lovable Bubbles and Hannelore are unless you have years worth of context.)

RPG Setting: Divergent Hogwarts

I run role-playing games for various groups, and I thought it might be of interest if I shared some of the settings that I’ve “invented” (which often means “egregiously stolen”).

So let’s start with one I came up with for a group that included several teenagers. I knew they were interested in YA books, particularly the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth and the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling. So I invented a setting which combined the two in a way that I hoped would appeal to them.

As is only right for a YA-based campaign, the background is post-apocalyptic. The apocalypse was caused by an outbreak of magic in our modern world. (I was thinking of something like the Conjunction of Spheres from the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski, but it doesn’t really matter.) Things went to hell in a handbasket, thanks to the abrupt appearance of magical creatures and uncontrolled sorcerous outbursts.

Numerous enclaves and cultures arose out of civilization’s ashes. One such enclave was established by people who were fans of Divergent and Harry Potter. They created a school to train troubleshooters who could help other communities deal with problems. As you might expect from the school’s two inspirations, “Divergent Hogwarts” taught both magic and other useful skills as in the Divergent books.

Many role-playing games describe characters using an “X-axis” and a “Y-axis”. If you’re familiar with Dungeons & Dragons the X-axis is race (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) and the Y-axis is class/profession (wizard, fighter, rogue, etc.). Each axis choice gives you a set of abilities. By mixing and matching (elf wizard, human rogue, dwarf fighter, etc.), you get a wide variety of character possibilities that can be further developed in other ways.

In Divergent Hogwarts, the X-axis was Divergent faction (Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite) and the Y-axis was Hogwarts house (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin). Players would choose their character’s faction and house; each choice conveyed certain skills and attributes, giving the character a useful operating base.

For the game system, I chose Mage, the Awakening (Second Edition) from Onyx Path Publishing. Mage is well-suited for both magic and ass-kicking (as well as investigation and social life, which the teens were interested in too). Mage subdivides magical powers into ten arcana: Death, Fate, Forces, Life, and so on. Every mage has two primary arcana that they’re most adept with. In Divergent Hogwarts, one of your primary arcana was determined by your faction while the other was determined by your house. For example, a Dauntless Gryffindor would be good at Forces and Spirit, while an Erudite Slytherin would be good at Mind and Death.

With five factions and four houses, they almost covered the ten arcana. I decided that nobody would be good at “Prime” (which is essentially magic dealing with magic itself). Everyone would have to struggle with that.

The lovely thing about this set-up is that the teens didn’t have to read the rule book much to get started. They were, after all, just beginning students at the school. They’d know what types of magic they were good at (thanks to a version of the Sorting Hat which helped them determine their faction and house), but beyond that, they’d pick up the niceties as they went along.

Whenever they wanted to cast a spell, I just asked them what they wanted to do and what kind of magic mumbo-jumbo they’d do to improve their chances of success. Of course, shouting magic words and waving “wands” are basic (although lots of objects could be used in place of wands…guns and knives, for example). But the players soon started using other familiar tricks from fantasy books. For example, if they were trying to find someone who was missing, they knew it would be useful to get an article of the missing person’s clothing or perhaps some hairs off their comb. The players had a lot of fun figuring out cool ways to improve their chances of successfully casting spells.

Early adventures were restricted to the Divergent Hogwarts enclave…and I admit I stole some scenarios straight from the books. When the group got more comfortable with the game system and with working together, they started being sent on outside missions: helping other enclaves with various types of problems.

All in all, it was a really fun setting. We spent about a year there, until they discovered a big secret which propelled them into something completely different. But I offer this up as inspiration for anyone who wants to game with YA readers and is looking for something they’ll connect with.

[Rabbit picture from “Easter Bunny Rabbit The Magic Hats Clip art – Hat Bunny @kisspng”]

Models: Merit

Two examples of models:

Model 1:
Merit is an objectively quantifiable quality that numerous employers, reviewers, university admissions departments, etc. are quite good at judging without bias. As a result, the world is pretty much a level playing field, and those who achieve success are truly the most deserving that society has to offer.
Model 2:
Whatever “merit” might be, and no matter how unbiased you are personally, my best beloved, a shit-load of people who believe they’re good at judging purely on merit alone actually suck at it. Not only do they let their biases get in the way, but even before such gatekeepers have the opportunity to make decisions, numerous barriers in life and society prevent a host of disadvantaged people from even appearing on the radar. There is no universal answer to dealing with this situation, but one sometimes useful approach is to amplify the signal from those who might be expected to be ignored. This means deliberately choosing to pay special attention to people who are traditionally under-represented in various arenas. You do this, not as blind favoritism, but as an attempt to redress the big fat thumb on the mainstream side of the scales.

[Image of scales by User:Poussin jean (objet personnel User:Poussin jean) GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons ]

Sharing: June 11, 2018

Cool things for the day:

Book Bundle: British Mysteries Ultimate Collection
I picked up this bundle over the weekend, and I’m thrilled. On Amazon Canada (see the link above), it was only 73 cents. For that tiny price, you get a huge number of Kindle books, including all the Sherlock Holmes books plus more from Conan Doyle, all the Wilkie Collins books, all the A.J. Raffles books, all the Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, a ton from Edgar Wallace, and much more. I’m sure all the books are just taken from Project Gutenberg, but the convenience of downloading them with a single click is well worth 73 cents.
Comic Book Series: Lumberjanes
Lumberjanes is a lovely comic series for kids and those who’ve never grown up. Let’s say the series is for people age 7 to infinity. It’s about a diverse group of hardcore lady-types (i.e. girls, not all straight, not all cis) at a wilderness camp that’s enjoying an endless summer full of weirdness. I faithfully buy and read the collections when they come out, then pass them on to the daughters of some friends.
Role-Playing System: Mage the Awakening, Second Edition
I’m a big fan of games from The Onyx Path, who hold a license to create games that follow on from the old White Wolf games. I’d recommend pretty much any of their games, and will probably do so in the months to come. However, I’ve played Mage most recently, so I’ll lead with that. By default, the game is set in today’s world where you play (duh) a mage…which can mean any type of magic-using character you can imagine. The game system is very flexible; while it has long lists of predefined spells, you aren’t restricted to them. Since one of the groups I play with has several players who aren’t into reading rule books, I said, “Just tell me what you want to do. We’ll see if you’re powerful enough to do it.” For those who’ve only played games like Dungeons & Dragons, Mage can be an eye-opener.