Saturday, March 7, 2015

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Monday, March 2, 2015

New and shiny website

My new and shiny website

With any luck, this will one of the last* posts on Ask Nicola and the first new post of my brand new web site. The previous design went up 13 years ago, created before blogging software. It was the kind of thing one had to lick clean w’ tongue code by hand, definitely uphill both ways a pain in arse. It's why I started this blog here on Blogger in the first place—as a temporary solution. But, well, seven years later... 

So, I’ve been meaning to do this for years. There was always something more urgent in the queue. Last autumn, just before I embarked on the Hild tour, I'd had enough. I drew a dozen delicious wireframes for a site would do everything exactly the way I wanted it to.

Then it became clear to me just how much work it would be to actually make happen. For one, it would require a custom design and build for which I do not—have never had—the skills. I don't have the kind of money to pay market rate for someone good enough, either. And those friends I do have who could do this for me, well, it wouldn't be fair to even ask. (We're talking a lot of work.) Besides, even if a friend had been willing to labour over it for an age, it was so close to perfect (in my love-starred eyes) that I would have got completely lost in getting it exactly right. That kind of obsessive fussing can't co-exist with writing Menewood. And even if it could, that would be only the beginning; once the mad and beautiful site was built then the real hassle would begin. 

WordPress won't host custom-made themes (only its own themes, customised). Building the perfect site would have meant self-hosting, which, fine, I've done for years, only now with endless, thankless backend update drudgery on top. So I thought, Ah, fuck it! and chose a theme: Studio.

That was three days ago. At which point a good friend began to customise it for me. (All photos are, of course, by Jennifer Durham.) And on Saturday night, after a lovely dinner (there might have been wine...) I looked at the dev site and thought, Even unfinished it's a billion times better than my lumbering Mondrian-esque monstrosity! In other words, again, Fuck it! And we went live. Mostly. (It won't propagate everywhere immediately.) 

So here it is, still under construction. You will see changes over the next wee while; don’t be alarmed! Meanwhile, please point your feed readers, bookmarks etc to:

Soon I will discontinue Ask Nicola. It’s served me well. The Mondrian Monstrosity served me well, too. But, oof, it should have been retired a decade ago.

Questions? Comments? Leave them on the new blog.

* I've imported all these Blogger posts to the new WordPress site, but all the links will, I assume, be screwed. So I'll keep this one up for a while, but as I'll be updating from the new site this could get a bit dusty...

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Friday, February 27, 2015

Saturday: Seattle, 1 pm, Search for Meaning Book Festival

If you're in Seattle or environs come to Seattle University tomorrow, Saturday, 28 February, where I'll be taking part in the day-long Search for Meaning Book Festival. Room 103 in the Pigott building, 1 - 2 pm, with signing afterwards.

See you there!

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Some thoughts occasioned by recent 1-star reviews

Every now and again I listen to a fellow writer ranting about bad reviews, or telling a funny story about bad reviews, or just rolling her eyes at the mention of same, depending on where they are on the recovery curve. Because all writers get bad reviews, and we're all stung by them.1 Oh, perhaps not a high percentage of them, and perhaps not for long—it takes three or four minutes to get past my indignation, usually—but the more skilled the reviewer, or the more clearly they have laboured maliciously over their work, or the wider their audience, the more it stings.2

This recent 1-star reviews of Hild on sent my blood pressure up for five whole minutes. It's very carefully constructed and only just (maybe) skirts ad hominem attack:

Reading Hild is a lot like being cornered at a party by someone who has just finished listening to a bunch of educational podcasts, and they're going to tell you everything they know. Problem is, they refuse to make eye contact and thus never detect the increasingly panicked expression on your face as you wonder if a cocktail weenie is useful in a murder/suicide kind of situation.
The amount of research that went into this book had to have been staggering, but a good writer would have made that nearly invisible in service to the story. Instead, I spent the whole time cornered at that party, wishing Nicola Griffith would go away and let me enjoy myself. [, no verified purchase]
Note that he did not even have a verified purchase, a fact which added 30 seconds to my indignation: he didn't even pay for it! So then I couldn't resist taking a look at other 1-stars for comparison, and was struck by this one, which made me sigh for them:
This book, while based in historical fact, is laborious and dull. I slogged all the way through it, and have little more knowledge of early Irish history than I had before I began! [, verified purchase]
And then I was struck by how both stuck doggedly to the book: 124 pages and 535 respectively. That seems like a lot of leeway to give to a book you don't like. Far more than I'd give. (I tend to abandon books that aren't working for me by page 2—whether I've paid for them or not—because life is short and the TBR list long.) Perhaps because of that both reviewers came across (to me) as readers yearning for a particular kind of book and resent the author when she doesn't reward their persistence by giving them what they want.3

That made me wonder if this might be a cultural thing, so I checked
I'd love to read this book, but the price which its publisher/author have chosen for it has put it way outside my reach ... what's happened to the pricing of kindle books, Amazon? Very sad when money gets in the way of the accessibility of promising literature. [, no verified purchase]
Hmmn, I thought (after I'd finished rolling my eyes). Here's a review of a book the customer didn't even buy: no dogged persistence in evidence (though evidence points to them not knowing much about the publishing industry). I pondered.4 Is this a UK vs. US cultural response, or one based simply on the different signals sent by the book's packaging (which, of course, is itself based on publishers' knowledge of their book-buying culture)?

To answer this, I checked two other English-speaking countries, Australia (selling the UK/Blackfriars version) and Canada (US/FSG and Picador editions).5

In Australia, where sales until recently have been brisk, there are zero reviews. In Canada there are three reviews, all of them 5-star.

What does this means? Let me muse on this for a while. (In our house Kelley calls this telling myself a story: at it's best I think of it as serious play, a kind of exploration. Others might consider it spin and plain old bullshit. You've been warned.)

The story I tell myself based on this flimsiest of evidence is that the 1-star review behaviour is all down to culture. Americans (don't forget I am one now) feel entitled to vent our spleen against a person we don't know. Why? Because we're used to space, and less diversity (I've never lived anywhere so segregated—in terms of class, colour, religion, age, sexuality etc), and less community, and so fewer immediate consequences for antisocial behaviour. Also, those of a certain age attended schools where they were rewarded for things like attendance or tidiness, and, if they pestered their parents enough to make everyone's life (especially the teacher's) miserable, got themselves an inflated grade. They were raised to think everyone's opinion is of equal worth, especially theirs.

Britons are willing to let rip, too, but only against the publisher or retailer: the faceless corporation whom the community finds acceptable to gang up against. Why? Because we're raised with an Us v. Them attitude that's rooted in class.

Canadians are apparently (I am not a citizen) willing to say only nice things. Why? I don't know. Perhaps because they're, well, nice (hey, all the Canadians I've met are lovely people). Hurtling up the ladder of assumption, this might be because it's a big country, sparsely populated, and you never know when you're going to need your neighbour.

Australia is big, too. But there the citizens seem (again, I'm not one; I'm just making shit up) have either no time or no urge to discuss such things. Why? Well, maybe (if you believe their movies) they're too busy enjoying the great outdoors, or battling crocodiles and wildfires, to bother with anything less exciting. 

As I say, I'm just telling myself a story (having fun with cliché, basically). Gotta do something when I'm on break from the seventh century...

1 If we read them. I have met writers who will not read, listen, or watch a single comment about their work, in person or via mass media. Sometimes I marvel--the time they must save!--but more often I shake my head: there are times when it's a real rush to read a review, times when the praise is heady, or I learn something about my work, or--joy of joys--both. I always read my reviews, as many as I can find.
2 This stuff is not rational. The oddest things get through what (for me at least) is now a very thick skin. I don't review anymore because of that and the power differential. Relatively Famous Name dismembers Beginner's work is not a dynamic I want to involve myself in. It feels like hitting a fly with a sledgehammer: overkill, not to mention mean. (I would never set out to demolish another writer's work but, as I say, writers' response is not always rational, and some writers--not me, of course--are insanely touchy. There are writers whose work I admire but wouldn't write even an adulatory review of because they will find something in it to get angry about.) I'm just as uninterested in pissing off someone with seriously more heft than me. Once you're a published author with an established readership, you're between a rock and a hard place. So I just don't review. These days when I like something, I tend to mention it here.
3 I am of course making myriad assumptions here, just so we're clear. Something like a Bernard Cornwell novel: historically accurate adventure fiction with predictable outcomes and straight-forward prose. I am not knocking Cornwell here--I've bought and read all his Uhtred books and enjoy them hugely. But if you're expecting Uhtred, Hild might be a bit of a shock.
4 Why, yes, now that you mention it, this deliberation probably is avoidance behaviour; in my defence, a writer can't live in the 7th C all the time...
5 I stuck to English because seemed less like comparing apples and oranges than, hmm, apples and pears.
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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Character density in fiction

In 1988 one of my teachers at Clarion was Samuel R Delany. One of the things he taught that week was the three kinds of actions performed by fictional characters: purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous. He explained which was which, but, frankly, I forget and I didn't keep notes. (I was too busy falling in love, surviving 105-degree heat and Midwestern humidity without air-conditioning, and starving half to death—you try being a vegetarian who is allergic to cheese on an 80s campus in Middle America). 

However, with the hindsight and experience (and food, and air conditioning) of twenty-six years, I would guess (operative word: guess) that what he meant was, respectively, actions that are plot-oriented (doing something that moves the story along: the bad guy kidnaps the hero’s husband), characteristic (the hero has this habit of complaining just before she digs deep and does what must be done), and generic (endless scenes with characters pushing cups of coffee one way or another, nodding, tapping their fingers).

Let me repeat: I’m guessing what Delany means by this. My interpretation could be quite wrong. My apologies to Chip.

Clichéd fiction (often some variety of genre churned out too fast to meet terrible deadlines) traffics in clichéd characters; it leans heavily on a person's quirky characteristics or habits (they stutter, blink before they stab an innocent, or talk to their pampered cat in a girlish voice) and generic behaviours (they pout, or slam the door, or smirk—or grimace, or any of another twenty annoying and over-used to the point of meaninglessness verbs). So-called no-nonsense fiction, such as action-heavy thrillers, rely largely on purposeful actions: the hero kills the bad guys; the detective puts together the clues; the traveller survives the storm at sea. No time or motion is 'wasted'. Fiction that is stereotyped in some other way—treats a particular class of person as less than a whole human being—tends to use only one or two of the three behavioural modes. It dates fast. When the culture moves on, Gone With the Wind, or the Gor books are left behind; unless they become teaching tools, the same will be true of coming out stories and other We're Just Like You! fiction.

But a great story or novel—oh, a great story is dense. The characters' actions are plot-driving and characteristic and specific. These people are fully human, the kind of people we would recognise this year, last century, tomorrow. In this fiction, the writer is almost profligate in her generosity: we know a lot about the protagonist just by the way he flips his hair, just by the speed with which they blinks before they kill someone. No one in the book or story--protagonist, antagonist, or secondary character--flips or blinks the same way; you could never swap one character for another. (Even comic characters should be distinguished one from the other.) In a perfect world you wouldn’t need dialogue tags: the vocabulary would be so characteristic of whoever was speaking the reader would never get confused.

The protagonist's relationships with others are unique. And if the protagonist is unique, so is her story. (This is always true. Even if you agree with one of the many arguments about the number of basic plots,* story and plot are different beasties.)

Great fiction doesn't traffic in stereotype of any kind. In great fiction there are no generic queer people or women or people of colour or cripples; even the secondary characters and the antagonists are three-dimensional. And there are no cliched phrases, because in great fiction even the prose is alive. The people, their prose, place, and story are fresh and familiar, unexpected and inevitable—because everything that happens is set up early; the more subtly the better. Because great fiction is subtle, too.

In the end, though, what carries a novel is it's cast. It doesn't matter how beautiful your prose is, if you can't bring your reader inside the people, you have failed. Make your characters alive, supple to the needs of their own situation rather than the exigencies of your plot, and make them dense.

* There are as many opinions about this as there are writers. We could argue for years over whether, according Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, there are seven—and that the world revolves around Man; or we follow Joseph Campbell's assertion that there's only one, the Monomyth; or, more recently, agree with Christopher Booker, who also thinks there are seven, though they're different.
Quiller-Couch's are:
  • Man vs. Man
  • Man vs. Nature
  • Man vs. Himself
  • Man vs. God
  • Man vs. Society
  • Man caught in the Middle
  • Man & Woman
Campbell's monomyth is:
  • The Hero's Journey
and Booker prefers:
  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth 
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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Third Place Books on Thursday, February 19, 7 pm

If you’re in the Seattle area on Thursday night, February 19, come to Third Place Books (Lake Forest Park), and join me as I admire Kelley in conversation with author and playwright Robert Levy about his first novel The Glittering World.

As Kelley says:

It'll be fun! Robert is smart and charming, and his book has already garnered praise from Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand, Christopher Barzak, and many more.

What's the book about? I'm so glad you asked:

When Michael "Blue" Whitley — a former party boy turned up-and-coming Brooklyn chef — returns with three friends to the remote Canadian commune of his birth, he discovers that his entire life has been a carefully orchestrated lie. He is in fact someone else altogether, a replacement for a local child who disappeared twenty-five years earlier. He is something not quite human.

Only now it’s Blue's turn to vanish, leaving his friends to unravel the mystery of his abduction. Soon, psychology and skepticism collide with old-world folklore and superstition, revealing the secret history of the commune as well as that of an ancient race of beings that inhabits the hidden corners of the land.

Set among the artisans, burnouts, and New Age mystics of rural Cape Breton, The Glittering World is a dark and modern fairy tale, a novel of self-identity and supernatural suspense.

New Yorkers can help Robert celebrate the launch of the book Tuesday, Feb 10 at the release party at BookCourt in Brooklyn. Robert also has bookstore appearances in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Westfield NJ, as well as an appearance at Seattle’s Mythic Worlds convention.
Kelley is very good at this, and Robert—a forensic psychologist in real life—has some interesting things to say. Join us.
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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Writing a novel: where to enter

From: Jane

In the NYT today, I read a piece by Roger Cohen, quoting an Israeli author named Amos Oz.  I thought you’d like it:

TEL AVIV — Here is Amos Oz on writing a novel: "It is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions."
I was rather startled to find that by the time I got around to responding to this, the article is over a month old. My excuse? To use Oz's terminology, I've been lost in Legoland.

Except my Legoland is not the same as his. For me, choosing the right words is the easy part. When I'm in full flow, the words and their carriages—the punctuation—arrive without struggle or thought. Yes, it can all be tightened and tidied when I rewrite, but generally the words and sentences are the ones I want. The real work lies in getting to that state of flow.

To begin, I need to start in the right place.* Where the protagonist begins helps determine where she ends, and that beginning-to-end is the emotional arc of the story. That emotional arc is all about how and why the main character changes; it's about her choices and their consequences. For me, the ringing truth of a novel rests on its people. 

I have to know my people. What they do and how they think. How they feel and where they're from. Landscape is central; for me as a writer, people are their places. I have to understand what they notice about the world and how easily they move through it. I need to know, deep down, what metaphors they use to talk to others or to themselves.

All this takes time and active work. A lot of that work looks like doing nothing in particular: lounging about eating chocolate, sitting in the pub drinking beer, surfing the web for interesting PhD theses or blog posts. Some of it looks remarkably like daydreaming over a cup of tea, and sometimes, I admit, I am just loafing about. But mostly I'm working: I'm feeding the black box in my brain the raw material to make magic.**

Some of the work is much more obvious: creating charts and spreadsheets and maps. (Making maps gives me vast pleasure, too, which means—inevitably—that it sometimes devolves into making pretties and not really progressing with the work at hand. But that's balanced out by the fact that I loathe and detest spreadsheets.)

If this all sounds as though I'm one of those writers who sit around and wait for inspiration to strike then I'm doing a poor job of explaining. I work hard, many hours a day, it's just that I'm not always increasing word count. Sometimes I'm frantically researching climate, or trees—what species blossoms when, what fruits when, how tall do each grow, how easy is the wood to carve?—or tides or trying to work out travel times which means figuring out what state of repair the Roman roads or Iron Age tracks would be in, which in turn depends on how they were getting there, which of course rests on what time of year is it...and what trees are blossoming in what weather.

But all that, believe it or not, is secondary. They are the container in which I put the people and then watch. The question I ask myself most often is: Yes, it's very cool, but, really, would she do that? You wouldn't believe how many gorgeous, gorgeous scenes I threw away in the writing of Hild because, really, she wouldn't do that.

And now I'm working on Hild II. Which is more complicated in some ways but which I am determined will be shorter, even though it covers as much narrative time (about fifteen years). In every single scene I aim to cut to the heart: begin as late as humanly possible and end as early as possible—while appearing unhurried.

The false notes I've hit always come when I don't know, when I'm thinking with my fingers instead of coming to the desk with a bone-deep certainty of who, what, where, when, why, how: the smells and sounds, the dreams and disappointments. And, most importantly, where and when to enter. And in this I agree with Oz: readers always hear a false note. If you don't know, they will notice. But if you do know they won't even see the words, only your people, only your place. They will live in the world you built alongside the people you brought to life. It's worth a little work.

* For more on this see Hauser and Reich's, Notes on Directing. It is very short, and in the form of numbered rules for directing a stage play ("Never, never, never bully actors," "movement will always draw an audience's eye.") The book began as twelve pages of notes handed by Hauser (an English director who has directed the royalty of the stage: Judy Dench, Ian McKellan, Lawrence Olivier) to Reich (at the time an American neophyte) with the murmured words, "You might find these helpful." In addition to being a fascinating window onto a world I'm not familiar with, it is wickedly funny in places, and thought-provoking for anyone whose business is narrative. What I took away from it has been very useful: if a scene is going wrong, you entered in the wrong place. Too early, too late, or just the wrong scene at the wrong time. Then, of course, you have to figure why...
** The Language of Hild, an essay for Farrar, Straus and Giroux's Work in Progress. I'm only talking about one aspect of the work in this piece but it's relevant to the discussion at hand.
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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Generosity economy, feudalism in Hild, women's agency, and more

From: Robert

Just wanted to email you and let you know that I just finished reading Hild and I absolutely loved it.  Just to give credit for the recommendation, I went to an event at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, CA and watched a panel discussion with several science fiction/fantasy authors, and two of them had read Hild and raved about it, so I bought it rather than any of their books.  Personally, I blame them - they made your book sound so good, I really didn’t have an option.  If they had wanted to sell their own books they should have hyped their own books, rather than yours.  One of the panelists said it wasn’t just the best fantasy (if that’s what it is) book they read in 2014, but the best book period, and now that I’ve finished it, I have to agree.

The research you did was evident, but it was immersive rather than intrusive.  I also think you did a great job balancing how much and when you explicitly described major plot points and how much you left to the reader to figure out through context and later events.  In my experience as a reader that is a difficult balance to achieve, but you handled it perfectly.  I also really appreciated getting what seems to me a more accurate and balanced view of the role that women had in feudal (if that’s the right word) society.  It is all too common for fantasy authors to pretend that women in those types of societies were oppressed and largely powerless, and so it’s a sign of authenticity when they replicate that oppression and lack of agency in their own worlds.  I’ve never agreed with that view.  It always struck me, at best, as a lack of imagination and research, and at worst as a justification for their own biases and ignorance.  I was really pleased to see that you handled things differently.  In a sense you kind of had too, given the subject of the book, but you didn’t have to pick Hild as the subject, and you could have written a bad novel. 

I’m holding out hope that you will be traveling for some book signings or other events when the sequel is published so I can get my copy signed.  It seems like publishers don’t send authors out on traditional book signing tours too much anymore, I guess that’s just one of the many ways the industry has changed, but I do see other kinds of events like the panel discussion I attended at Kepler’s in San Mateo.  Borderlands in San Francisco also holds similar events, just in case you were wondering. (Feel free to take that as a polite and hopeful suggestion.)  Maybe I will be able to say hi and thanks in person one of these days.   

Thanks for writing such a compelling novel; I can’t wait to read the sequel. 
Well, bless those authors! Art is a precarious existence, sometimes, and what makes it work is mutual generosity--the generosity economy; it sounds as though they were generous. If you feel so inclined I'd love to hear their names so I can thank them in person.

I haven't had much opportunity for that kind of generosity--recommending others' work--lately because I haven't had time to read much fiction. And then, sadly, the fiction I do read is distorted by my focus on Hild II: I'm finding fault with everything. It makes appreciation difficult. For the last year or so my generosity has mostly been geared towards practical help for other writers--joint appearances to boost attendance, sharing behind-the-scenes contacts, advising on cover letters, that sort of thing. My own reading has been largely Hild-related research, and poetry. (Which, unhappily, I also seem to be unable to properly appreciate at the moment. Huh.)

Some old fiction standbys have helped: listening to Lord of the Rings, reading Watership Down aloud, and spending many happy hours talking about what worked, and why, and how.

So, anyway, I'm delighted you liked Hild but, no, I won't be travelling for a while. However, given that I haven't a clue when Hild II will be out, it's entirely possible I'll be travelling by then. I wrote a recent blog post about what goes into accepting/declining invitations, and how people might best go about it.

I wouldn't call Hild's age feudal. As there are more definitions of feudal than you can shake a stick at, I'm not going to parse it too closely. But--if we accept the term at all--it seems to me to be an institution requiring a certain level of literacy, clarity of legal roles and responsibilities, and social stratification--not to mentlon size of the state, and stability at the top. The early seventh century in the north of Britiain fails on all counts. There were groups living under different world views, using different languages, with zero literacy. Might was right: law was the edge of a blade. Kings were ousted with extreme prejudice sometimes on an annual basis. No king of Hild's youth (or none I can think of offhand) died of old age.

That will have started to change by the end of Hild's life. But the operative phrase here is started to... 

Women and agency in fiction. Ah, yes. One day I really will write an essay about this. But today is not that day. Let me just say that it infuriates me when writers treat women as chattel. Women, as I've said a hundred times before, as I've been saying since my very first novel, are human, we are people first and always have been, in every era.

Perhaps it's a conversation we'll continue one day when we meet in person at some bookshop or other when there's another Hild book in the world.
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Monday, February 2, 2015

Hild one of ALA's "Best Reads" of 2014, and Clarkesworld

Two things.

The American Library Association has announced its official list of Notable Books 2014, selected by the Reading List Council. They picked a winner and four runners up in each category. Hild is on the list for Historical Fiction. The winner is Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (Thomas Dunne), and the four runners up are:

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown (NAL)
Hild by Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)
The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon (Doubleday)

The whole list is worth looking at; you'll see many names you recognise. And you could do a lot, lot worse than use it as a basis for ordering books from the library or your friendly independent bookseller.

Also "It Takes Two" has been reprinted again, this time in Clarkesworld. Go take a look.

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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dog-whistle flap copy

In politics there are half a hundred phrases meant as rousing calls to action which only the faithful (of whatever stripe) can hear. It's known pejoratively as dog-whistle politics and designed to alert as many voters as possible while offending few. The phrases usually relate hot-button issues of race, religion, and values (often revolutionary and/or regressive, depending on the country). They are designed to trigger Us v. Them attitudes. See, for example, terms such as one of Reagan's favourites, "welfare queens," or homophobic English-speaking politicians harping on about the "mainstream" (that is, straight white people) or, currently in several countries that fear military juntas and/or populist leaders, talk of "corruption" (which means different things depending who's listening).  

Books, though, are not politics. The publisher's blurb about a novel, the flap copy and/or back copy, is designed to entice rather than alarm. Sometimes it must attract its desired audience without scaring off, or even alerting, those who might get it banned. And so was born dog-whistle flap-copy. 

Because flap-copy is all about intriguing potential readers, dog-whistle flap-copy seems to be mostly about sex:

  • Forbidden love (50s): lesbian sex. Featuring a cover illustration of two women (a well-lit, anguished-looking blonde, and a brunette with very red lips lingering seductively in the shadow). Sometimes the women were referred to as leading twilight lives.
  • Forbidden love (60s and 70s): interracial sex. Paired with a picture of a Tara-like antebellum house.
  • Forbidden love (lately): interspecies sex (paranormal: vampires and werewolves, etc.) or star-crossed lovers from different clans/cultures (the classic is Romeo and Juliet; lately, a woman from a strict religious culture meeting a man from another—usually but not always—that's more liberal.
  • Unexplored pathways of love: anal sex between straight people.
  • Dark desires: BDSM.
  • Singular erotic taste: general kink.
And half a hundred more; have fun making your own lists. But I'm drawing a blank when it comes to dog-whistle flap-copy for novels* about anything other than sex. Anyone?

Of course, all this refers to paper books. I suspect ebooks can be much more straightforward because specialist presses have excellent niche marketing, so finely focused on their audience that few outside that audience know about it. Also, they don't see these books "flaunting" themselves on the shelves and so are not "provoked" by them.

But I'd love to hear others' thoughts on this.

* I suspect non-fiction, especially the crackpot variety, is rife with non-sexual dog-whistlery.
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Thursday, January 29, 2015

The ending of Hild: not a romance

* This post contains spoilers for Hild and Hild II *
From: Diane

My book club just had a discussion about Hild. It was a lively exchange. I enjoyed the book very much, but several of us had issues with the ending. Our question is why do you have Hild and Cian end up together? It seemed like throughout the book Hild (and everyone else except Cian) knew or guessed that they were half siblings and of the clear taboo that this posed. We didn't want to see the book ending on a typical romantic novel story arc. 
It might seem like a romantic ending but it isn't. It was a selfish move on the part of Edwin, Paulinus, Æthelburh, and Breguswith—a move Hild had to accept. It's also the springboard into the next part of the story.

What follows contains spoilers for the beginning of Book II so skip everything between the lines if that's something you want to avoid.
Hild knows that the Yffing dynasty—certainly Edwin—will fall soon. Given that 'fall' in the 7th C means 'die horribly', she's looking for a way to keep herself and her loved ones safe. Being married to Cian does that.
  • It keeps Cian safe because:
    (a) He's no longer regarded as a contender for the throne—he's now officially Ceredig's son, not Hereric's, and therefore not an Yffing and therefore not a rival to any dynasty.
    (b) If he's no longer Edwin's chief gesith, he's much less likely to die in any upcoming battle.
  • It keeps Hild safe, because she's no longer the seer, no longer linked the king as his political advisor, she's a wife
  • If Hild is safe, her gemæcce is safe.
And that doesn't include all the people of Elmet whom Hild frankly thinks she can protect better than anyone else. Bottom line, though: she has no choice.

Also, I wanted to create a serious break with Hild's previous way of life. She has to change; this is one way to do it. But don't imagine she's going to live a long, peaceful life as Mrs. Boldcloak. For one thing, Mr Boldcloak, wilfully ignorant in Book I, can't remain remain so forever—and he's not going to be happy when he finds he's been lied to. And, y'know, the 7th C is a bloody and dangerous place. Plus, well, Hild is Hild; she's not the stay-at-home type.
Rest assured there's much change ahead. The arc of Book I is a small part of the whole, and the ending is a tiny part of that. So I hope you stick with it through the remaining two books. It's going to get interesting...
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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Want to be a character in HILD II?

As I said yesterday, I'm going to be Guest of Honour at this year's Readercon, July 9-12, Burlington MA. 

If you donate $250 to the Readercon Indiegogo campaign to raise money for a convention sound system, I will use the name of your choice (yours or someone else who has given permission) as a character in my next published fiction. If you're willing to wait a while, that will be Menewood (the working title of Hild II). Otherwise probably the character will appear in a novella I'm thinking about.

There's only one, and this will be the last time I offer this particular perk for any cause, no matter how worthy.

ETA: My wee offering is taken. But go get something else: a manuscript critique, a monster, a mug...

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Readercon 2015, July 9-12

If you're wondering what to do July 9-12, wonder no more. Come to Readercon in Burlington, Massachusetts. I'll be the Guest of Honour, along with the fabulous Gary Wolfe. Joanna Russ is the Memorial GoH. Seriously, you should come. It's $60 to register for four days and four nights of incomparable social and intellectual brilliance.

What is Readercon?

Readercon is an annual conference or convention devoted to "imaginative literature" — literary science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the unclassifiable works often called "slipstream." 
A typical Readercon features over 150 writers, editors, publishers, and critics, attracting prominent figures from across the U.S., and from Canada, the U.K., and occasionally even Australia and Japan. They are joined by some 600 of their most passionate and articulate readers for a long weekend of intense conversation. 
Readercon is the only convention ever to be honored by a World Fantasy Award nomination (Special Award, Non-Professional, 2010) for its organizers.
Gary and I both like to take the written word apart and look at it. We do it from slightly different perspectives—he's primarily a critic, I'm primarily a novelist—but have many overlapping interests. And we both like to hang out in the bar...

From this point I'm going to stick to my own point-of-view because frankly it's tacky to speak on someone else's behalf—but I wouldn't be surprised if much of what I'm about to say applies to Gary, too.

One of the things I want to do—and to encourage others towards—is to is approach the convention from the stance of radical hospitality. I talked about this on a post about my most recent GoH experience, but here's the gist: 

What's important to me is that people transform the approach to accessibility, accommodation, pluralism and welcoming that is frequently standard: "If you need something, just ask." While that approach is meant to be inclusive and affirming it often ends up putting the onus of arranging accessibility and educating hosts/venues on the marginalized or newcomers. Worse, I sometimes see it used as a justification for what is clearly just bad planning: "We didn't make our panel rooms accessible because no one asked." Or "We don't have a harassment policy because no one has ever reported harassment."
For me, radical hospitality is about making welcoming the norm, not an exception that must be requested. — Leigh Anne Hildebrand
Making welcoming the norm. Yes. To me this means to anticipate the needs of others and provide for them. In advance. Obviously we can't anticipate everything but we should do our best to put ourselves in others' shoes. In other words, don't make anyone ask for help; make sure there's already chair at the table, in every sense. Basically, not only Don't be a dick but be actively kind. 

So to take one example dear to my heart, physical ability: if you see someone looking tired ask if they need a chair—or anything else (a glass of water? a fan? a quiet room?)—and make sure you find one. Even better, make sure there are plenty of chairs (and water) there already. Make sure the bathrooms are accessible. Make sure there are handrails on the steps to the dais or the ramp. Really go there. Imagine what people will need and then provide it, beforehand and on the spot. Make everyone feel equally welcome.

This applies to sex, gender presentation, race, orientation, physical ability, religion, diet and half a hundred things I haven't listed here. Making welcome the norm applies as much to informal events as programming: if someone looks like a newcomer, talk to them. (Do make sure they want you to talk to them. If in doubt, ask. And heed their response.)

So: radical hospitality, my phrase of the convention.

But Readercon is not about radical hospitality, it's about literary fantastic fiction. It is about the story, the craft, the criticism, the business, the community, the ideas, and the people of the genre. It will be about discovering new stories and ways to tell the old ones to old friends and new. 

Also, if Kelley has anything to do with it, it will be about dancing. Kelley is a big fan of dancing. You could say she's a professional. So if you fancy shaking it in July with friends of like mind, well, you know what to do. (We can't guarantee the dance, but we're agitating for it.) Register here. It will be a blast!

ETA: Also, Readercon are running an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for better sound. Better sound = better experience. Go give them something!
ETA2: And I'm going to donate something, a Tuckerization perhaps. Stay tuned.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Search for Meaning Festival, Seattle University, Saturday Feb 28, 1 pm

If you're in or near Seattle at the end of next month you might want to hear me talk at Seattle University's Search For Meaning Festival about how Hild changed the world. Tickets are $10. Details below.

"Hild: The Woman Who Changed the World 1400 Years Ago" 
Location: Pigott 103 
Time: 1:00pm-2:00pm 

Description of Presentation:
Hild, born 1400 years ago, in what used to be called the Dark Ages, changed history. She is now known as St Hilda of Whitby. In a time when kings were petty warlords and might was right, how did she make such a difference? By being exactly herself. Extraordinary, yes, but very, very human. Because women have always been, above all, human beings: people. Even so long ago... 

Nicola Griffith is an English novelist (now dual UK/US citizen) living in Seattle. She is the author of six novels, most recently Hild, and a multi-media memoir. She is the co-editor of the Bending the Landscape series of original queer f/sf/h stories. Her shorter work has appeared in venues ranging from NPR and New Scientist to BBC Radio 4 and Nature. Until her diagnosis with MS, she taught women’s self-defense (for groups as varied as the Union of Catholic Mothers and the Equal Opportunities Unit in the UK, and the Girl Scouts in the US) but then switched her attention to writing. She now teaches workshops for writers, focused mostly on creative writing but occasionally more practical issues such as live performance and social media best practices.

Her work has won two dozen awards (national, international, and regional), been shortlisted for many more, and translated in a dozen languages. She is married to writer Kelley Eskridge. They co-founded Sterling Editing and now live in Broadview. Although these days mostly lost in the 7th century, working on the second novel about Hild of Whitby, she emerges to drink just the right amount of beer and take enormous delight in everything.
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Thursday, January 22, 2015

What goes into accepting or declining invitations

From: Wendy

Forgive my ignorance on such matters, but with all these appearances and interviews, are they required by your publisher? I'm also sure they are fun to do, but are you allowed to pick and choose and then finally just say "Hey, I need to go home and write."
Short answer: I get to choose, to a degree. I get to refuse but I don't always get to initiate.

Longer answer: it's a multi-level conversation. First of all, in terms of travel, I ask myself: 
  • Does my schedule permit?
  • Do I like the city? This makes a big difference: the kind of food, and hotels, and general stance to the world. The weather is significant: if I'm doing a multi-centre gig, then some conditions can make life impossible. Ice, for example (crutches and icy pavement do not mix) or extreme heat (MS and heat really don't mix). However, a conference or convention in a decent, large hotel or resort is fine in almost any weather, because if it's vile outside I can stay inside and use the facility's bars and restaurants and room service.
  • Do I like the university, bookshop, or library that's invited me? This in itself is a nuanced conversation. Has the bookshop sold a lot of my books in the past? Do they consistently move my backlist? Have they done me favours? Do I just plain like the people there? Do they have any media reach, i.e. can they publicise the event effectively? And—vital—is it accessible?
  • Will the time/energy expenditure be worth the goodwill/sales? This is always a tricky one, with many variables.
Then I ask Kelley (because she travels with me):
  • Pretty much all the above questions, though the emphasis and concerns are not identical. 
Then, if the publisher will be paying*, I ask them:
  • In terms of previous, continuing, and projected sales, is it worth it for the to spend the time/staff hours and money getting me to a particular venue?
  • If not, is keeping the author happy worth the time and expense?
All the answers go into the mix. Mostly, sadly, the answer is No.

If I had all the money and energy on the planet I'd go to a lot more places. I have many readers, and in a perfect world I'd get to meet most of them. I love reading from and talking about my work, and I learn a vast great deal from listening to readers' response to it. But travel and work and MS present competing priorities. I have to make choices. 

So if you're set on inviting me somewhere, ask early (what I need is here). Talk to both me and the publisher. Be prepared to be specific: How many readers can you bring? And how? (What kind of publicity/media reach do you have, and how many people will encounter your promos? It's good to be super-specific here: show? posters? newsletter? paid advert? social media promo?) How many books do you think you could sell—at the event and over the next month or two? And, if it's a teaching gig, or you represent a for-profit event series, what's my fee?

For interviews, some of the same considerations go into the mix: How long will it take? How many will it reach? What format is it?

Bear in mind that I'm a lot more generous when I've just finished a stage in the publication process: first draft, or rewrite, or copyedit. I'm freer, I have more energy, I generally not yet engaged on the next thing. Right now I am not free but hope towards the end of the year I might be.

* For tour-type stuff, the publisher pays. For university things, it's generally the institution. For genre conventions, it depends—if I'm GoH, they pay; if it coincides with a book release, the publisher pays; if it's just to party and/or show up at an awards ceremony, we pay for ourselves.
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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The long tail: not the author's friend

Picture by Hay Kranen/ PD. 
The long tail is that of the demand curve of products versus sales. The best-sellers are all at one end, but as we move to the other sales drop off in a long slow curve that never quite hits zero. Traditional retailers draw a line only part-way along this curve, because slow-moving items return less profit than the cost of stocking them. But online retailers backed by huge warehouses and fast stock deliveries can easily afford to keep them permanently available. Helped by clever search engines that can suggest possibilities for customers with special interests, these niche items suddenly become profitable. (World Wide Words)
Chris Anderson popularised the concept of the long tail in his 2004 Wired article, The Long Tail. He was talking mainly about cultural products—books and music—and he believed that digital supply and demand would turn the retail landscape upside down.

Almost ten years on, it's clear that the metamorphosis does not help writers much. (ETA: By 'writers' I mean those who write fiction, novelists in particular.) 

For sellers, Anderson's theory works. With digital products, words or music, it doesn't matter to retailer or a publisher whether a million writers sell one novel or song each, or if one writers sells a million. With no cost (or very little) to store and ship the story or song, the aggregator makes money. Lots of money. They aggregate the payments on an essentially limitless supply of product and walk off with a goodly chunk of change.

For consumers, it works. Imagine you live in a neighbourhood of Denver where there's no book or music store. If you're okay with reading or listening digitally you have millions or perhaps tens of millions of products to choose from, to suit any mood, mode, or model. And those products—that album, that book—are as pristine today as they were when they were first available. One keyword search and, boom, you've got what you need. You listen to a song in five minutes or gobble an ebook in four hours. You find another. There's an essentially limitless supply to meet your almost endless demand—almost endless demand for music, that is.

A music consumer can listen almost anywhere, almost anytime. She multi-tasks: listens to music while she drives to work, or has sex, or washes the dishes, or reads email. I'm guessing some people listen to music 18 hours a day. However, while I can imagine (if I must) a reader who can drive or have sex or wash the dishes while reading, I'm guessing if they're doing both at the same time, they're doing neither well.

For creators—especially writers*—it's different again. If you live in that neighbourhood of Denver and have spent a year writing a novel that sells only 3,000 copies, you can't survive on the proceeds. Readers might be able to discover and buy your novel for the next fifty years but it won't do you much good. Why? Because your book will be competing with an ever-expanding numbers of blockbusters—new ones, every week, with decent-to-massive publicity budgets. Reader hours are not a limitless resource. The limiting factor is time.

Every day we feel as though there's less time to read, even for those of us who love books. We are easily distracted: That lyric, that conversation, that TV show, that article snags our attention. And because skimming an article or vegging out in front of the screen demands less attention, less energy, less focus, we take the path of least resistance; the book lies unread. And next time we want a book to read, we'll pick up the novel we just saw reviewed, or heard/saw talked about; we won't try recall the title of that other book we were interested in.

In other words, for books, supply overwhelms demand. The long tail works in favour of publishers and retailers but not writers.

On balance, I think publishers make a greater percentage on sales of digital books than on hardcover books**. No returns, no shipping, no cost of production after initial costs—which are only a small add-on to the fixed costs of the print development: plant, overhead (editorial and design), marketing, and so on. Writers make less—about half on a digital sale of what they get on hardcover.*** So the long tail works brilliantly for publishers that have an enormous back list and for online retailers with listings for millions of individual items. It does not help authors.

The long tail will always work for retailers. It will continue to work for publishers—for a while. But publishers need a supply of fresh product in addition to their long tail income and if authors are dying of starvation, that supply line will fail.

My conclusion? It's time for the author to get a higher royalty rate for ebooks. Both online retailers and publishers who rely on the long tail can afford it. For starters, I'm thinking 40% of net...

* Musicians at most levels can derive income from ancillary products—t-shirts, posters—and performance. Writers rely on the writing itself—except mega-authors who can earn (comparatively) low appearance fees.
** It's hard to be sure because retailer and wholesaler terms are a moving target. 
***ETA: I don't know what terms my US publisher has with each retailer and my royalty statement doesn't list royalty per unit for ebooks. So I divided Net Earnings by Net Units and came up with $2.32. That comes to about 57% of what I earn on hardcovers.
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Monday, January 19, 2015

The Year's Best SF and F

Jonathan Strahan has released the table of contents for his upcoming The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol 9, to be published by Solaris in May. It looks like a big book: 28 stories, including "Cold Wind." Over 200,000 words. The full table of contents is here. I'm guessing it will be worth $16 or whatever the list price ends up being.

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

National marriage equality

So. The Supreme Court will hear four same-sex marriage appeal cases in (probably) April and issue their ruling in (most likely) late June*. 

The situation right now: same-sex marriage is legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia—in total, home to about 70% of the US population. The federal government supports immigration, tax, healthcare, and pensions for same-sex spouses. Most federal appeals courts have struck down bans on same-sex marriage, deciding that the 14th Amendment requires states to recognise same-sex marriage.

However, in November the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals (a federal court that covers four states, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee) decided that Amendment 14 does not require states to recognise—either in terms of issuing licences and recognising licences issued in other states—the marriage of same-sex couples. 

It's pretty clear you can't have a nation state whose courts interpret its constitution so differently on such a vital issue. So the Supreme Court will have to decide which interpretation should apply to the whole country moving forward. They've agreed to hear appeals from all four states affected by the 6th Circuit's decision.

This is one of those history-making decisions. Chief Justice Roberts would, I suspect, I hate to be on the wrong side of history—and given the speed of change in the last couple of years it's clear which way history is going. So he'll vote for the national legalisation of same-sex marriage. So, of course, will the four traditionally liberal justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor. Justice Kennedy is a big fan of states rights but on this one I think he'll opt for human dignity and vote with the majority. Thomas and Alito will not. Scalia... Well, I don't know to be honest. He might. He just might. It's possible we could end up with 7-2 which would make me very happy.

It would also make the Republican Party very happy. Most of them know same-sex marriage is not a vote-winning issue. A Supreme Court decision for marriage equality would render the radical conservative wing's agitations moot.

In my opinion, there's only one way for this to go. Prepare to party.

* Their term ends at the end of June. SCOTUS likes reserving their big ticket items for the end. As when they announced the decision that struck down DOMA and so legalised marriage in many states—on the 25th anniversary of the day Kelley and I met
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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Bookscan numbers vs. real world

Nielsen Bookscan numbers are not always a good indicator of real-world sales.

The other day my paperback publisher told me they'd sold a total of n copies of Hild. On the other hand, for the same period Bookscan shows sales of 0.6 n. I have less exact figures for the hardcover but I think they're roughly comparable. This surprised me because reports I've seen indicate Bookscan captures 75-80% of points-of-sale.

If you factor in digital sales, which Bookscan doesn't report*, then the figure reflects less than half my market. I knew that Hild was doing well via channels that often don't report to Bookscan (smaller independents mostly) but, still, I was surprised.

In a year or so, when the final print and digital picture is clear to me, I'll revisit this, complete with pretty graphs. For now here's my back-of-the-envelope estimate: for Hild, Bookscan gets 46.5% of real-world sales.

* I'm sure it would love to, but Amazon owns a big chunk of the market (65% in the US and far more in the UK) and it won't share that data.
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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Right now: No

We are only 13 days into 2015 and emails are pouring in asking me for things and the pace seems to be picking up. (Well over a dozen; three just this morning.) This is a post I can link to to save myself many emails in which I regretfully say no.

So, plainly: Right now, no. No, I will not read your book with a view to blurbing it or introducing it or appearing with you when you come through town on your book tour. I will not join your organisation, judge your competition, or blog about your cause, no matter how worthy. I will not signal boost your initiative or organisation, despite it's urgency or importance. I cannot come to your school or book club or library. I am sorry for it.

I recognise that there are many people out there I could help, that I would like to help, especially those who are climbing uphill—women, people of colour, quiltbag folk, people with MS. It turns out that readers in many different rooms might recognise my name and that has some value. So I am lucky, I understand that. But still, no.

I have helped. I do help. I will help again. But right now I'm taking a break.

I am focused on Hild II. I will allow nothing to get in my way. Over the last year I've spent so long talking about my work that I'm a bit out of practise at doing it. Even something that seems simple—responding to a request by email—pulls me out of the seventh-century long enough that it takes hours to get back. So, no, right now I will not help.

How long will this state of affairs last? I don't know. A few months.

But as I've said, I am not averse to helping, generally-speaking, so here are my criteria for travel requests and book blurbs. I'll put together something addressing other requests another time. Right now the seventh-century beckons...

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