[repost] “why does it matter if the best books have white protagonists?”

NB: This essay is reposted from my old blog. The original post was written when Una was almost 1. Now she’s 5, and I have another baby daughter. My opinions have not budged; and the American left’s internal crisis over “identity politics” would appear to lent them fresh relevance.

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“When A Popular List Of 100 ‘Best-Ever’ Teen Books Is The ‘Whitest Ever'”

Read the article and the comments. I’ll wait.

In place of what I actually want to write next, just imagine a big guy with a red face yelling a lot.

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Let me explain myself in a more measured way.

I have this daughter. She’s real cute. I don’t hang out with her as much as I’d like, but enough that I can’t really tell whether she can pass for white. I think maybe she can’t — though she’s changing every day, so in the long term, who knows? But even if you don’t know her mama, she does, and she’ll figure the genetics out, like you do.

It’s going to be some time before she can read at all, and some more before she can read with any sophistication. So there’ll be a period in there where she doesn’t have any idea whether “race/skin color [is] important to the context of the stories being told,” or whether a story is “ABOUT being black or Indian or Asian-American and how tough it is.” But she will have some idea whether there’s anyone who looks like her, or like her mama, in the book. And if there isn’t, and there isn’t in the next book, and there isn’t in the book after that or the book after that, she’s going to notice.

Beyond that? I’ve probably spoken too much for her already. But I’m guessing she’s going to wonder why. And I’m guessing she’s going to wonder if there might not be something weird, or off, or not quite right, about being the way she is, since no one seems to want to write about those sorts of people.

I’m white. I’m not going to pretend I know how that feels. Maybe it’s not that bad. But I’m also not going to pretend that “I’m so special that no one will write about me!” is a likely outcome.

The brain is a statistical engine. Our conscious minds are shit at probability, but unconsciously, we soak it up. We automatically notice what’s amiss.

The brain is a social engine. What’s talked about — what’s in other people’s brains — is attractive and valuable. What’s ignored and hidden is shameful and worthless.

Is this difficult? Have I said anything anybody doesn’t know?

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And, by the way, what is with all this speculation that maybe a huge chunk of kid’s books contain racially ambiguous protagonists? Did you ever notice that characters have a weird way of having names? My daughter, for example, one of my own movie’s main characters. Shin-Yi and I agreed (and here, by the way, I refer not to Shin-Yi O’Shaughnessy of Cork County, Ireland, nor to Shin-Yi Kvaratskhelia of the Republic of Georgia, but to my wife, Shin-Yi Lin, whose ancestry, it may shock you to learn, is mostly Han Chinese) way before she was born that, whatever her name was, it’d be part Chinese and part Western. And we loved Una for a first name, so her last name is Lin. So, go ahead, speak to me about how Hermione Hussein Granger was really Kenyan all along. (2016 update: Obviously I got this one wrong; quite pleased to have been made a fool of.)

While we’re in Q&A time, I’d also like to understand how “Making such a big deal out of things like this keeps racism alive and well.” I’d like that explained to me in meticulous detail. Is the KKK marching in the streets outside the publishers’ offices in New York, burning crosses for greater racial diversity in YA literature? I did not receive that telegram. Perhaps there was a paper jam in my fax machine.

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I couldn’t give a shit about basketball, truly I couldn’t, but I gave a shit about Jeremy Lin. (No relation.)

Look, I don’t get to pick who my daughter is. She gets more of a say, but she, too, is not without constraints. When I hear people being too cool for school about Jeremy Lin my fucking brain-pan overheats, because it matters if my daughter has a pro athlete for a role model. Not in my ideal world, maybe not in the world that will be, but in the world of weird wobbly possibility that obtains when your little girl is 11 months old and might, just might, find herself able and hungry to do literally any given thing at all, IT MATTERS.

I would have blown off Linsanity a year ago as well. Being a dad has made me hella more political, in the “identity politics” sense. I have probably jumped at shadows once or twice. I’m not sorry. Protip: Do not get me started on sexism.

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I am actually not fussed at NPR’s response, by the way. I think the article was badly titled, the solution of flagging the popularity-contest nature of the thing with a better title is easy and obvious, and the matter can more or less rest there. No need for NPR to distort reality, as long as they call it what it is. The top sf & fantasy list was called “Your Picks.” I wasn’t happy that NPR’s audience couldn’t bring themselves to upvote a single author of color, or that NPR was too oblivious to notice that fact, but that’s what it is. NPR listeners’ picks, which elevated a piece of STAR WARS companion merch over Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, but there you go.

It’s the self-satisfied complacency of the commentariat that’s nasty. Race is done, am I right? If you didn’t hear about it before it was cool, then it’s lamestream. (That’s right, you fuckers, I just called every one of you a hipster Sarah Palin.)

I don’t like the concept of “derailing.” I don’t like sniping over “privilege.” But I am starting to get where all this anger is coming from.

jack and the apples

Art first; context later.

Jack was Adam John First the Third,
As hale a lad as you’ve ever heard
Run over the brook on a rotting log
With an apple in his pocket and a loose-skinned dog;

And V was Valentine Eve Vereen,
As sharp a lady as you’ve ever seen
Sew pockets in the chimney of her old top hat
For pencils and books and apples for her cat.

Now Jack and V and Dog and Cat
Had something in common (did you guess at that?) —
For Cat and Dog and V and Jack
Were joined in their love of a red sweet snack.
Yes, Dog and Cat and Jack and V
Loved apples in every variety…

I wrote a story once. It was about stories, and how they can be dangerous, and about a father who is losing his son; and in it I name-checked a fictitious children’s book called JACK AND THE APPLES. The name-check itself is later, but the description comes first:

Kelly and Kieran, Madonna and child, that voice like coffee with cream poured into those words like tiny perfect cups. She always hated her writing, but for once she could forget it was hers, just giving him that voice, those words, that slight simple story built up from symbols so old and commonplace you wouldn’t think anyone could do anything with them any more. Apples, trees, a dog, a girl, a boy. But balanced, like calligraphy, flowing in this stately dance out of a spiral notebook that looked like an elephant’s bung-wipe. Light mother and dark boy, a book, a couch, a lap, the sun before naptime. All mine. Can you imagine that?

… I won’t quote the rest — I’m too proud of that story, even if no one would buy it, you can read it if you like what you saw.

The point is, more or less as soon as the story was done, I started thinking about JACK AND THE APPLES. Now, I’ve written a dissertation in neuroscience; I’ve written dozens of scientific articles and short stories; I’ve written a couple novels in the 50-60K range and a couple in the 160-170K range. Footprint-wise, in comparison, a kid’s book is like… well, a kid’s foot. But I tried a few times and it would never come out. I was trying to write it more or less like a comic, with a descriptive mise-en-scene for the artist and the words, and I just couldn’t get anything that would go where I wanted it to go (or even somewhere else interesting).

But tonight, after a weekend of furious editing on THE EIGHTH KING and somewhat less than furious recovery from a really awful cold, I was lying in bed with Rowan and the words just started coming.

I’m not saying the doggerel above will ever measure up to the impossible bar I set for this book in “Keynote Speech…” But I’m very interested that this is starting to take something approximating shape.

THE EIGHTH KING acquired by Curiosity Quills!

People of the Internet: It is with considerable delight and non-negligible bemusement that I announce the corporate takeover of my creative alter ego. The fine folks at Curiosity Quills Press have made the questionable decision to acquire my epic fantasy, THE EIGHTH KING. Publication date isn’t firm yet — you’ll hear more about that. You’ll hear more about a lot.

Speaking of which. There will definitely be book news posted here, especially the stuff that works better in long form. But for moment-to-moment updates, you’re probably going to want to follow me on Twitter or my author page on Facebook. Wattpad and Goodreads are also options, but I function more naturally in FB and Twitter, so there’ll be more action there.

When I was 7, I resolved to have my first novel published by age 10. Better late than never. Here we go.

VERSO is free on Amazon through Wednesday!

As some of you know, I’ll occasionally put out a novel or a book of short stories for the enjoyment and edification of discerning individuals. This is such an occasion. Better yet, the book in question is free on Amazon, today through Wednesday! (That’s 29 February through 2 March 2016, for those of you arriving later.)

verso-ebook

Five short SF and fantasy stories, about 140 pages if it were in print (which it will be in due course). One of my favorite passages, from the title story:

There were girls’ hordes too, of course. More, even, and more lethal: Boys were picked up from the streets at five or six, like Xin, but son-hungry families shipped extra girls to Verso in barges and baskets and the backs of watermelon trucks, and they began to work as soon as they were old enough to take a jack. Once he had seen a girls’ horde take on one of the guild armies on the Emerald Plain. They moved together like birds, the mass of them weaving and jackknifing with perfect precision, not even slowed as their foes folded in on themselves like wheatstalks burdened by an early snow.

If that seems at all intriguing, definitely pick up VERSO while it’s free!

(Sad bit: Non-Amazon readers will have to wait another 10 weeks or so to buy it on their e-readers. But I will announce it again when it’s available on Nook, Kobo, Google, &c.)

the belieber’s journey

If I’m not mistaken, I referred to myself in a prior post as a “pattern-matching ape.”

This is about as simian as it gets, folks.

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If you have the “right” sort of “friends” on social media, you periodically run into these wild, fantastically detailed, obsessively sourced theories about the hidden structure of beloved fandoms — e.g., all the Pixar movies are set in the same universe, Tarzan is Elsa and Anna’s brother, &c. In the car today, I had my own version of such an epiphany, although the fandom in question is not nearly so universally beloved.

If, like me, you’ve spent the odd few hours in a gasoline-powered conveyance every day, and you’ve listened to the radio once or twice, you’ll have chanced upon a few new singles by an old hand. I’m referring, of course, to Justin Bieber, who appears to have been revived, Lazarus- or Frankenstein-style, to tickle our cochleae anew. I first started giving this any thought when I noticed that his first new single, “What Do You Mean”, is essentially one long bout of gaslighting:

What do you mean? Oh, oh
When you nod your head yes
But you wanna say no
What do you mean? Hey-ey
When you don’t want me to move
But you tell me to go
What do you mean?

… and it goes on like this, it’s astonishingly awful, which makes its catchiness really problematic. (Surprisingly, BTW, I seem to be the first person on the Internet to have made the gaslighting connection, or possibly second after this woman, who I hope has since found some more uplifting things to make lists of.)

But Bieber seemed to have gone some distance toward redemption with “Sorry”, released next. It’s not what you’d call a textbook apology — whoever he’s singing to is stipulated to be angry at “all of his honesty,” like he’s Edward Snowden or something, and “I’m missing more than just your body” may fall squarely in the “doth protest too much” category — but the balance of the song seems to be a genuine, or at least repetitious, admission of fault. So he is perhaps not entirely without empathy.

At least until you listen once or twice to “Love Yourself.”

Just to be excruciatingly clear, “Love Yourself” means “Fuck Yourself.” And, much as we might dearly wish it were addressed to, say, Ted Cruz, or manspreaders, it is yet another relationship song:

And I didn’t wanna write a song
‘Cause I didn’t want anyone thinking I still care. I don’t,
But you still hit my phone up…

… and it’s at this point I realize that he’s singing to the same woman. (Or else Ted Cruz.)

The three songs in their release order describe the arc of a Bieberian relationship. First, he explains very reasonably to a woman that he has trouble understanding her reasoning. Then, his own reason having failed, he resorts to placating her with apologies. Finally, having realized his error in pursuing this woman, he sings a righteous breakup anthem.

Or at least that’s how it would appear to have gone in the Bieberian imagination. For the rest of us: First, he psychologically tortures a woman to the limit of her endurance. Then, realizing he’s gone too far, he backs up with a torrent of apologies. Then, having failed to save the relationship, he lashes out in bitterness.

As fan theories go, this clearly belongs in the rarefied echelon of the Passion Play theory of “Seven American Nights”. My only residual question is: How did Bieber actually intend the lyrics to be taken? Considered individually, there’s not much to suggest that he intended them to be questioned or the lines read between. As an arc… well, maybe not much either. To me, the interpretation less favorable to Bieber seems more salient when you consider the songs in order, but I’m not sure I could say why. Maybe because the breakup that’s occurred before “Love Yourself” is now invested with some history, which invites the listener to interrogate whether that breakup is good or bad for either party? Or maybe because the construction of the arc itself just implies a bit more thoughtfulness and intention on Bieber’s part than any of the songs themselves imply.

All right, I’ll stop short of 1000 words. If you got this far and don’t hate me for it, great. If you do hate me for it, please keep in mind that I’ll almost certainly never write about Justin Bieber again. At least not unless/until he starts writing science fiction.

the particular taste of silver

A couple of years back, I had a story do well enough at tor.com that it was hung up in submission for almost a year. Ultimately, the editor sent me some very thoughtful, smart feedback, but rejected the story.

A week or so ago, I got through a few phone interviews and up to an on-site interview at a very cool company in New York City. We’re developing a theme here, so: Rejected.

Just today, I got a reply from an agent who’d asked me for a full manuscript of The Eighth King. It was a hugely complimentary letter, honestly some of the nicest feedback I’ve ever gotten on my writing. But: Rejected.

Everyone makes the best decision they can for their business. I don’t begrudge any of these parties one iota, either for “leading me on” (scare quotes because business ≠ flirtation) in the early going or for taking a pass later. And the almost-success I’ve achieved in those three cases really does help encourage me to keep going, so I’m certainly not here to say that getting rejected with compliments after a lengthy engagement is worse in some plain, objective way than a quick form rejection.

But it does have its own particular flavor. For one thing, you can’t console yourself with “They just didn’t look quite hard enough”; this is my typical psychological self-defense against most query rejections, which are typically form letters or non-responses. When you’re the runner-up, the agent or editor definitely put a lot of time and thought into stacking you up against a very concrete, very Googleable set of competitors and found you wanting. For another, when you have gotten close enough to what everyone acknowledges is a very high bar, you can’t help but wonder about the “real” reason you fell short — if your story or your CV was in fact as badass as the agent or editor or recruiter led you to believe, or if you haven’t in fact given off some emanation of unpleasantness or unreliability that the person in charge of your fate has picked up on.

Let me emphasize that rationally, this is crazy: a very high bar is by definition hard to clear even for very strong contenders, and in the face of close competition, the reasons for rejection are going to start getting a lot less hard-edged, which is typically reflected in vague language in the feedback (although the tor.com feedback had some concrete reasons why the story fell just short — which, though I wouldn’t dream of insisting on, I hugely appreciated). But, you know, I am a pattern-matching ape just like everybody else, and when my brain can’t match a pattern, it’ll create one.

Luckily, I am also an ape that is set in its ways. Wherefore the queries will continue until morale improves. Or that’s the plan.

So this is where I am today. How are you?

forms of respect

Every so often, Jason Howell will send out an interview question to an elite group of writers and publish their responses. Sometimes, he makes a slip of the keyboard and includes my name on the distribution list, and I get a shot at unspooling some half-formed thoughtlet to the wider Internet. I generally do all the requisite Twitter stuff around this, but it occurs to me that the links might benefit from a representation with a bit less churn.

This week’s question:

If we assume the following respect-vectors are what all writers want, and we pretend that they’re (somehow) mutually exclusive…

a) Peer acceptance: to be well thought of by other writers you admire; b) Critical acceptance: prestige by way of smarter-than-yous who assign artistic value to literature; c) Pop culture acceptance: relevance, hipness, hotness, a presence in established media outlets alongside “big names”; d) Audience acceptance: a large-enough, loyal readership that quietly pays the bills; e) Family acceptance: make parents / relatives proud.

… which two would you select at the expense of all others? And why?

My answer, along with many other writers’ answers, at Howlarium.

back cover copy

In case the featured image isn’t readable, here’s the text:

In the domed city of Anvard, society is defined by an intricate network of clans: the stolid Medawar, the flamboyant Llaverac, and dozens more. Clan membership means status and security; the options for outcasts without the protection of a clan are few and grim.

Rachel Grosvenor has grown up straddling worlds. The daughter of a Medawar father and a Llaverac mother, half raised by her mother’s nomadic lover, Rachel has fought her way through the grueling contest for admission to the Llaverac clan. But just as her social ascent seems inevitable — and her family’s future secure — the theft of an indispensable heirloom sends her spiraling into the dark underbelly of Anvard and a paradox that holds the key to her fate:

How do you find a Finder?

(Spoilers for VOICE in what follows.)

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Since pretty much the first talk I gave in grad school, I’ve known I don’t have the knack for cutting to the chase.

This is not altogether a bad thing, especially as someone who makes his living analyzing data. Getting hung up on technicalities and weird patterns is a good way to spot errors, which in turn is a good way to stay humble about your work — and realistic about the work of others, who may exaggerate their findings. (You’d never do that, of course.)

But data analysts almost always need, at some point, to become data communicators, and that’s where this tendency can make you fall down. You can’t communicate every possible confound and caveat. Probably you can’t even communicate every substantive point. You need to concentrate on the absolute most important features of the analysis, explain them in the simplest language possible… then leave it alone for a few hours, come back, and sand it down even further. Then do it again. Then run it by someone who doesn’t know the problem too well, take their feedback, and do it again… and then maybe it will penetrate the 800 other things on the CEO’s mind and take root to do some good.

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This is not a post about data, exactly, but it is a post about compression. Traditionally published authors need to do it to sell to agents and editors; indie authors need to do it to sell to customers. As someone who’s attempted both, I’ve compressed various books in a variety of forms: Query letters, Twitter pitches, product descriptions.

And I’m not any better at it as an author than I am as a data scientist.

As an author, I suffer from delusions. I think my books are un-summarizable; I am proud that they are un-summarizable, that nuance and novelty and complexity are (in my mind) in fact a key feature of my writing. And, you know, maybe I’m right! At any rate, I try to write stories I’d like to read, and nuance and novelty and complexity are attributes I value and seek out in literature. But even books I like for these exact reasons, and try to emulate–say, the Book of the New Sun–have product descriptions, and most of them are famous enough that the product descriptions can safely be presumed to be doing some useful work. If a publisher can boil Gene Wolfe down to a gripping little ingot of back cover copy, I should be able to do the same for my own work.

Which is what brings us to VOICE.

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Carla Speed McNeil is a writer and artist of comics, but her writing has pretty well everything I could think to strive for in my own: Humor, heart, intelligence, care, world-building so solid you forget the book is nothing but black lines on white paper. (That’s leaving aside the visual storytelling, which is also really fucking good, but I digress.) Although she’s writing science fiction, and science fiction comics at that, her stories are intensely focused on emotions and relationships. VOICE is no exception. It is a coming-of-age story in some sense, but the coming-of-age ritual isn’t necessarily interesting in and of itself — it’s deliberately vapid, actually, its only usefulness in the purposes it serves…

And maybe this is where we start turning to the back cover copy.

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“In the domed city of Anvard, society is defined by an intricate network of clans: the stolid Medawar, the flamboyant Llaverac, and dozens more.” Function: Set the scene. It’s perhaps worth noting that most of this is strictly irrelevant to the story: Rachel is competing for admission into Llaverac; there’s nothing about the dome, almost nothing about other clans. In meaningful ways, not much about this story would change if the Llaverac were a weird cult instead of a clan with broad recognition. But we’re looking to interest people who might not understand the setting, so we zoom out a bit.

“Clan membership means status and security; the options for outcasts without the protection of a clan are few and grim.” Function: Delineate the stakes.

But this gets interesting, because it overstates the material consequences of Rachel’s bid. About the only thing that’s explicitly at stake is her sisters’ ability to go to school — which, as explicitly stated in the book, neither seems to want or need to do. Their mother was a member of Llaverac and life was still hard, and when (spoilers) Rachel is admitted to the clan at the end, she does win a house, but she can’t pay the servants. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the series, there are characters who seem to do all right who aren’t in clans.

Being admitted to Llaverac is a lot more about Rachel’s personality and desires than it is about her *needing* to get into Llaverac. But that’s hard to convey in a small space, because it’s hard to convey Rachel in a small space — and you’d run a strong risk of making her sound kind of spoiled and bitchy if you tried.

“Rachel Grosvenor has grown up straddling worlds. The daughter of a Medawar father and a Llaverac mother, half raised by her mother’s nomadic lover, Rachel has fought her way through the grueling contest for admission to the Llaverac clan.” The “grueling contest” is a beauty contest. Rachel has “fought her way through” in a sense — I’ve heard how hard it is to be a model, and I don’t doubt it — but this phrasing conjures up a more… shall we say, classical set of trials?

Presumably the bit about Rachel straddling worlds and being mixed-clan by ancestry is to accentuate how difficult the contest is likely to be? I can’t imagine why else you’d use up this many words on those biographical facts. (Which are interesting and important — but, recall, the problem we’re trying to solve here is how to get a reader to open the book.) Interestingly, prejudice doesn’t appear to have stood in Rachel’s way all that much at any point.

“But just as her social ascent seems inevitable — and her family’s future secure — the theft of an indispensable heirloom sends her spiraling into the dark underbelly of Anvard…” It’s probably worth noting that this all happens in Chapter 1. No deep analysis of all the crazy plot that occurs in the dark underbelly of Anvard, and there’s a lot of it… we just point Rachel in the right general direction, remove the safety, and leave the rest for the would-be reader.

“… and a paradox that holds the key to her fate: How do you find a Finder?

I suppose “holds the key to her fate” is one of those phrases that’s calibrated to maximize both portent and plausible deniability? Rachel is looking for a Finder, but she doesn’t find him. She finds help, but it isn’t really the right kind of help — at least, it isn’t her clan ring, which is what she’s looking for, the loss of which is what’s theoretically disqualifying her from clan membership.

It’s Rachel’s own wits and guts that ultimately win her acceptance into the clan. To me, that’s much more the “key to her fate,” even if looking for a Finder had something to do with bringing her to it.

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Is there anything we can learn from all this? 1300+ words in, there’d better be.

I’m proceeding on the assumption that this is a good product description. This doesn’t seem like a crazy assumption: The thing is brief, it’s intriguing; it has the principal, the problem, the setup, the stakes.

What it isn’t is accurate. In my view. In, shall we say, incomplete seriousness, I’ll go so far as to suggest that it’s intentionally deceptive*: It suggests that Rachel has “fought” for acceptance, that she needs a Finder to close the deal, that her family will be fucked if she fails. Whereas Rachel’s acceptance into the clan is contingent mostly on the results of a beauty contest, that she strictly fails at that contest and gets what she wants by an inspired bit of blackmail, and that her success is mostly important to Rachel herself, not her family, which by its own assessment is doing fine.

It would be a mistake to suggest that the hero’s journey is absent from the pages of VOICE; Rachel does literally venture into and return from the dark underbelly of Anvard, having learned things and retrieved things and walked unscathed away from encounters with monsters. But the cover copy doubles down on the Campbell notes, scanting the internal dimensions of the stakes, the quest, and the victory. And it’s not so hard to understand that shift in emphasis. VOICE in my “accurate” summary is the story of a vain girl out for herself; VOICE in the words of its cover is a plucky quest story about a hero whose family is in danger. VOICE in its fullness is a little bit of both of these things and a lot of something else… but, strapped for space, you can see the appeal of the plucky quest story.

There’s obviously a political dimension to that assessment, and I have neither fuel nor spark to interrogate it deeply, beyond acknowledging that, yeah, we want to be careful about saying that stories of women out to improve their own circumstances are intrinsically unappealing. But, to wax obvious: I think we are drawn to altruism, to real journeys to tangible dark places, to MacGuffins. They are fluent; we understand them easily, and so we like them.

I suppose there’s also an audience dimension. FINDER is a science fiction comic, two genres not known for their friendliness to the general reader, or to women. The particular distortions of this product description might have as much to do with making the pitch sound like science fiction, or at least congenial to science fiction readers, as anything else.

But if we can extract some general principles of product description design, maybe they’re these:

  1. Lay out the basics swiftly and clearly: Principal(s), setup, stakes, problems.
  2. Externalize. Stakes, journeys, conflicts: Make them exterior and therefore tangible.
  3. Emphasize the early part of the story, the setup for the start of the action. Don’t go far into the plot.
  4. You’re not trying to capture the spirit of your story; you’re trying to raise questions.

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And that’s probably all the blood that’s likely to come from this stone. Thanks for hanging on, and do seriously consider picking up a copy of VOICE. Or just go pick up the first volume of the FINDER library and start at the beginning.

some nuts and bolts of an author website

It’s pretty common for people to talk about their writing process, but you don’t often hear how people build their websites. Maybe because a lot of the people with the big megaphones don’t do it themselves? (This isn’t a knock on people with big megaphones; if I had the cash to outsource, I would.) Anyway, there have been some changes here in the past couple of days, and I thought some of the technical stuff might be of general interest. More importantly, I want to write down what I did so I can reference it later.

NB: I’m still a pathetic n00b at WordPress, but I am just comfortable enough with HTML, CSS, and PHP to make minor modifications (heavily commented so I know where they are). All alterations are perpetrated on a child theme.

Appearance

As I write, the theme you’re looking at is the Quality theme. It’s more or less the look I wanted, but I made a few tweaks to the code in the Editor (Appearance -> Editor on your dashboard). The big change was to page.php, removing the title, featured image, date, and comments from my pages so they’d look less like blog posts. (Looking at it, I think I’m going to remove the title on the blog page as well, if I remember.)

I also made some changes to style.css, changing from the theme’s default salmon to a navy blue. This exposed a couple of interesting facts about Quality and WordPress. First, I discovered that Quality has a bunch of CSS in files that aren’t exposed to the Editor because they’re in a css subdirectory within the theme; the source code links to them, but I can’t edit them in the WordPress interface. So I spent a bit of fun time re-familiarizing myself with Site5’s file manager — which actually has a code editor with pretty decent syntax highlighting.

But this all didn’t seem to have any obvious effect on the appearance of the salmon text. So my second discovery was browser caching and WordPress. I don’t pretend to understand the issue deeply, but I do pretend that when I cleared the browser cache, the changes showed up very nicely.

Enabling file downloads

One of the things I’ve been meaning to do for donkeys’ years is set up a list bribe — specifically, a free download of The Dandelion Knight for anyone who joins the list. Initially, I wanted to have a swanky setup like Amanda Abella’s, where you get the download directly from the browser as soon as you enter your email, but I couldn’t find a good free solution for that; there are free plugins for MailChimp signups, and free plugins for requiring an email before a download, but I couldn’t find any to require a MailChimp signup before a download. So I settled on installing Download Monitor and including download links to the list bribe in the final welcome email, which users receive when they’ve finished signing up for the list. (This last is done completely within MailChimp, in case that wasn’t clear.)

Once I’d installed Download Monitor, I ran into a problem with WordPress security settings: EPUB and MOBI files (i.e., e-reader files) can’t be uploaded due to a perceived security risk. It was pretty easy to figure out how to fix this, although it did involve editing wp-config.php, which again had to be done through my host’s file manager rather than the WordPress editor.

For a brief time, I did flirt with the idea of bypassing the WordPress media library altogether and just uploading the book files directly through Site5’s file manager. I decided to go the slightly more fiddly route because it seemed worth it to have Download Manager’s analytics available — especially because the links to the free copy of TDK aren’t authenticated at all, except by secrecy. I don’t flatter myself that it’s hugely likely someone will join my list and then post the links publicly… but if it happens, and I start getting a shit-ton of downloads without corresponding list signups, I’ll at least have a prayer of seeing it in my WordPress dashboard.

Ubiquitous mailing list signup

I wanted to at least experiment with having a list signup available elsewhere on the site. MailChimp Top Bar seemed as good an option as any. By default it’s sticky and on the top; I kept it sticky, but moved it to the bottom, which hopefully strikes a good balance between availability/noticeability and unobtrusiveness/ignorability.

Plugin manifest and summary of modifications

Here’s my full list of currently activated plugins:

  • Akismet
  • Download Monitor
  • Google Analytics Dashboard for WP
  • Jetpack by WordPress.com
  • MailChimp for WordPress
  • MailChimp for WordPress – Top Bar
  • WP to Twitter

Anything non-default about the plugins was changed via Settings, not by modifying the code directly.

As I’ve said before, I’m running the Quality theme. I’ve made text-color modifications to style.css and css/default.css, some minor layout modifications to page.php, and file upload security modifications to wp-config.php in the root directory.

I think that’s it! I don’t mean to suggest that these hacks make my site exceptional — quite the opposite, they make it feel more slapdash and likely to break. But it’s fun to figure things out, and it’s useful to learn how to do things outside the WordPress interface when necessary.

red fire monkey

A few months ago, I listened to Hal Elrod’s appearance on the Self-Publishing Podcast. His schtick is the “Miracle Morning,” six practices to do before you start your day: meditate, say affirmations, visualize the day, do a bit of exercise, read, write. Whether something that fussy is really a net win, I leave to wiser heads, but it made me think that a brief semi-regular introspection (in the “write” category) might do some good. So.

The new year finds me and Shin-Yi both between jobs and a bit burned out, with many fixed expenses and no immediate prospects. I’m half-sanguine about this in ways that feel vaguely unhealthy: Like, sanguine enough not to hammer hard on the job search, but not sanguine enough to tamp down the gnawing anxiety. Then again, if I weren’t pretty far along in interviews for a couple of opportunities, I’d be hammering harder; and, honestly, a bit of a break after two straight weeks of rainy days with kids isn’t the worst thing. I saw THE FORCE AWAKENS at 10:30 am yesterday. It was a good use of my time.

The year of the monkey comes in 33 days, just under a week before my birthday; January 1 having been found wanting, I’m looking ahead to that date for a reset. For nearly my entire childhood, I thought I was a monkey, until some heart-stabbing scumfuck informed me that Chinese New Year had come literally the day after my birthday that year. Instead of a Metal Monkey, I was an Earth Sheep. I’m only beginning to process the trauma, really.

But Google tells me that February 8, 2016 will usher in the year of the Red Fire Monkey. This is exactly what is called for, in my view. Let us all be Red Fire Monkeys this year, America! Let us set some shit on fire and hoot in triumph from the trees! Let us drive mediocrity from us with clods of flaming dung and great fulminating gouts of napalm semen!

… if you don’t hear from me for a bit, it’ll be because Donald Trump has hired me as his PR manager. Take care.