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Archive for the ‘food for thought’ Category

Periodically I hold conversations with people who ask, in so many words, why I choose to focus all my energy on fantasy fiction, of all things. It’s not serious, really; I could be doing more challenging, more important work.

I disagree entirely with the premise from which those conversations proceed. I believe speculative fiction is the most challenging work a person not blessed with mad mathematical skills could take up. This genre has been called the literature of ideas, and I think that’s an entirely apt description. It offers writers the tools to take readers far enough outside their normal contexts to examine ideas that are otherwise beyond contemplation. The majority of people are not wired for digging directly into issues that make them intensely uncomfortable; but take those issues outside a context that looks familiar, run them through the filter of story, and they become possible to engage with. Through these filters we can look at the ideas without flinching away, think about them, and take them back into our everyday context.

Bells of the Kingdom, the third book in Leona Wisoker’s acclaimed Children of the Desert series, is one such work. It’s a gripping, impossible-to-look-away-from story–but there is a darkness running through it, elements of things people would prefer not to confront. Leona herself has written:

I set out to write a fantasy novel with a cast of Heroes, and wound up with rather a lot of Reluctant Heroes who needed their arms wrenched round twice to go where I wanted them to go. Not a single cheerful “let’s go get ‘em!” sucker among the lot. What’s worse, the longer I worked with them, the more convincing their reasons for being Reluctant became. Some very ugly stuff crept in along the edges and wormed its way into the heart of the story: child abuse, prostitution, torture, and all manner of sadistic behavior.

I never set out to write this sort of novel; but there it was, one day, staring at me with big mournful eyes. And with every revision, with every re-read, I remembered more and more clearly that I’d drawn this or that horrible snippet from things that really happen, every single day, all over the world.

Robert M. Tilendis, in his introspective review of Bells of the Kingdom on The Green Man Review, notes, “Wisoker’s series so far has not been what you could call light-hearted, but this volume takes us some places I found very hard to go.”

It is very difficult, even in the context of fiction, to contemplate “every horror we’ve found to inflict on each other and on ourselves”. It is devastating to look into a book and discover it is a mirror of humanity, of ourselves. To see the monstrous possibilities of our species, and to recognize the tendrils they stretch into us, whether we are participants or merely apathetic bystanders.

But if it is horrifying, it can also be redemptive. These mirrors into our species and ourselves can allow us to stir out of apathy, to take some sort of action. One avenue of action available to readers touched by the dark truths in Bells of the Kingdom is offered by the Not For Sale Campaign, which is working to end human slavery–not just in places comfortably distant, but in dark corners much closer to home. We’ll be donating ten percent of the profits on all direct sales of Bells of the Kingdom, whether via the website or at conventions, to the Not For Sale campaign this year. Leona will be donating ten percent of her profits for this book to the foundation as well. Both of these campaigns will run through the end of the year, and they cover both print and eBook sales.We hope that if this book touches you, you’ll consider supporting the Not For Sale Campaign in other ways as well.

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“I have multiple demons on mental speed-dial. Their names are variations on Doubt. One is called Misgiving, another Mistrust. (Oddly, I think both are male.) Anxiety, Paranoia, Qualm, and Concern visit regularly. The weirdest of the bunch likes to call himself Dubitation-the others keep trying to get him to call himself Dubious, but he likes the old-fashioned version better.”

This guest post by our own Leona Wisoker on Jhada Addams’ blog should be required reading for everybody. Writers especially, creative people of every stripe–and anybody who ever wanted to accomplish something. Read the whole thing here. You can thank us later.

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In her interview in last month’s Locus*, N.K. Jemisin issued one of my favorite calls to action yet:

“The way we write traditional epic fantasy now is making the whole genre look bad. I’ve heard so many people who read my book say, ‘I stopped reading epic fantasy years ago, but I liked this. It doesn’t feel like those epic fantasies.’ I think what they’re saying is that the genre has become so formulaic that it’s almost stagnant. I’m tired of fantasy medieval Europes in general, but what really bugs me are bad medieval Europes. … There’s no reason for medieval Europe-based fantasies to be as boring as they are. It’s time to shake things up.”

If that novel–okay, that series–you’re working on bears more than a passing resemblance to the works of Tolkien/Jordan/Eddings/{other wildly popular epic fantasist}, are you certain what you’re doing isn’t just rehashing a story you loved? For that matter, does that vampire/werewolf/other urban fantasy tale on your hard drive break new ground? Really?

I would not suggest that either urban fantasy or epic fantasy, even epic-fantasy-in-a-setting-that-smells-like Europe, is *dead*–but both of those territories are pretty seriously over-farmed, and if you’re writing for publication, you need to bring something new to the party. If your setting smells like settings we’ve seen a hundred times before, why did you make that choice? Why is it important to the story you’re telling? Would your story be improved by digging deeper into your setting and making it actually serve the tale you’re telling?

Yes, people are still selling the same-old-same-old. And people are still buying it. But I think Jemisin’s right: we can do better. Fantasy and science fiction are uniquely suited to explore characters and ideas that can be handled nowhere else. We have immense freedom in the tools and settings we use. What ideas are you pursuing in your story? How does your setting contribute to what you’re doing? Do your characters truly arise from the world you’ve created for them? Why does any of it matter?

Fantasy may be immensely popular, but it’s still the Rodney Dangerfield of genres. I think that’s because fantasy writers and readers have largely forgotten the power of the possibilities and challenges we grant ourselves when we work in this field. Senseofwonder is why we come to this genre; but it is the question of meaning that makes us stay for the end of the tale.

You mustn’t be afraid to dig a little deeper. That’s where the gold is.

* Yes, I’m behind on my reading. This is a surprise?

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Torrents seem like manna from heaven. You can go out on the interwebs and get something for free. It may feel like an opportunity to Stick It to some fat corporate entity, and if it’s a corporate entity you hate (frex a software giant with grossly overpriced and yet indispensible programs) it can be very easy to see it as either harmless or Just Desserts.

We don’t have time to address all the aspects of that legal and ethical can of worms. This is a blog. However, I submit that–even if you think stealing from corporations is either harmless or well-deserved–when you’re downloading books or music, the situation is not quite the same. Even if you don’t believe in the concepts of intellectual property or copyright (which, for the record, I do) it’s possible to understand this:

People paying for books (or songs) is how artists make a living.

There are some Very Real Reasons why people who want to read a book or listen to a song download it illegally, and we’ll come to those in a minute. But even if  those reasons apply to you, when you’re downloading illegally you are literally making it more difficult if not impossible for that artist to go on creating.

Artists have to eat; they have to pay bills. If they can’t make money on the art you’re enjoying, then they have to find some other way to get the money they need. Like, for example, a second job. (Because contrary to what you may think, most artists already have day jobs. Just to survive.) If it’s a nearly superhuman feat to create marketable art while also holding down a job and other adult responsibilities, it becomes impossible when another job is added into the mix. There are only so many hours in the day.

Yes, there are corporations involved in publishing books and music–and some of them don’t treat either consumers or artists with respect. But I submit that’s not what we’re talking about here. And I will spare you the long breakdown of how and why publishing businesses are just plain lucky to keep their doors open in this market.

Suffice it to say that illegal book downloads are not Sticking It To Some Fat Corporation. They’re making it harder for publishers to keep discovering and publishing new authors, and making it harder for authors to make ends meet.

I do know (see? I remembered) that there are Very Real Reasons why people feel the need to download a book or music. For example:

* don’t know if I’ll like this artist and want to try it out

* just can’t afford to buy it now

And yes, I get those. But if you believe that paying for art is worthwhile because it allows the artist to keep doing his or her thing, consider these ideas:

Check out the free samples. With a little effort, you can read or download the first chapter of a very high percentage of books, legally and for free. Reading the first chapter will tell you whether you want to read the book or not. The big online booksellers usually offer the first chapter or at least a good chunk of it on a book’s sale page. Otherwise check the author’s website, if she has one. If it’s a Mercury Retrograde book you’re interested in, look at our free samples page, which includes the first chapters of all books currently in print and many of those coming out in the next year.

Try your local library. If they don’t have the book you want, you can ask them to order it. Not only will the author get paid, because libraries buy books; any number of other people in your community will also get to read the book. For free. And that’s not the only way borrowing a book from the library benefits your community; in many cases a library’s budget, which is likely to be allocated from a local municipal or county budget, is significantly influenced by the number of library patrons served. Yes, that’s right: it may very well be that the more you use your library, the more money it will be able to get to serve the community. Getting your book there benefits many people.

If you like that book or song you’ve downloaded, buy it. If you’re a read-it-once person, buy a copy as a gift.

If you can’t buy it now, and your local library can’t help you, and you just can’t resist the urge to download, find other ways of supporting the artist. Introduce friends who you think will like the work; write about it in your blog or on Facebook; and did we mention asking your library to add the book to their collection? Those things make a difference in an artist’s career too, and will help to create future sales…which means the artist whose work you liked is getting paid. And can afford to keep on creating. Are these things just as good as buying the book? Not really. But if you honestly can’t get it any other way, those are ways to help even the score.

I’m not sufficiently delusional to believe that we can eradicate pirated torrents from the net. For a publisher or an author, trying to keep their books off torrent sites is the legal equivalent of Whack-a-Mole. But I do hope that you, having thought about the issue, will find better ways to fill your need for a good read.

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