4 Things Not To Do On The NaNoWriMo Reference Desk

I’ll get back to critique groups, but the NaNoWriMo site has rebooted and of course that means there’s a slough of new posts on the reference desk forum.

Which also means, all those annoying people who post annoying things are back.

So, here’s a few of the things that drive your fellow knowledgeable writers nuts:

Vague Post Titles: So you go to post a question and it won’t let you hit post without putting something in the title. Do you A) title it something descriptive so people who might have an answer can tell by looking at the post title without having to click on the post and read it – or B) title it “Question”.

*squinty eyes*

Yeah, I have some specialized knowledge about some specific stuff, namely aviation, bees, autism, African violets, and maybe a few other scattered things. I’m not going to click through to every frelling post that has no indication of what it’s about in order to see if maybe it’s one of those things that I know stuff about. If you do this, don’t be surprised that you have next to no replies.

Questions You Could Too Easily Research Yourself: Sometimes people post questions and you look at them and think, “Did they even try?” Like, I’ve taken some people’s questions and copy-pasted them into google and the first result gives them their answer.

I’ll pick on one recent one – someone asked how and when the United States acquired Alaska. Like, this is the easiest thing in the world to google, and find trustworthy sources, but you’d rather try your luck with randos on a forum who are literally just googling it for you.

Questions Too Broad To Answer At All: “Tell me everything you know about _______.” People will post this, and it won’t be something like “Tell me everything you know about the mating habits of swallowtail butterflies.” It’s “Tell me everything you know about Russia.” That’s an actual one I remember.

I just wonder what these people are thinking. Like, what kind of answers are they expecting? Do they not know that there are actual Russians out there, reading this forum and going “What…what do they want to know?”

I got nothin.

Questions That Assume Everyone Who Could Be Reading The Question Lives In The Same Country As The Person Posting It: Americans are the worst offenders here. Someone posts a question where the answer will be vastly different depending on where the story is set, but the questioner assumes everyone knows they’re talking about the USA, because where else would it be. This is common with questions about adoption, laws governing this or that, police procedure, school related things.

I run into it a lot when trying to answer aviation related questions, because air laws are similar but different between the US and here in Canada, and some of the hugest differences are due to how much more radar coverage there is in America compared to Canada.

Replies I Could Have Googled Myself: Okay, so when I post a question myself, I’ve usually googled it pretty thoroughly. Like, my google-fu is pretty damned good, so if I’m asking a question on a forum, I need an actual expert on the subject.

And yet, even when I end my post with “Please don’t just google the topic and post your search results, I’ve already googled the topic extensively, and I need someone who actually knows what they’re talking about”, I still get dudes doing this. Like they think I’m stupid, even though I’ve explicitly worded my question, and none of their search results or answers composed based on their search answered the question I was asking.

And these people can get arrogant and authoritative on their googling. There was once I saw a question about bees and beekeeping, and pointed out the fact that beekeepers wear white because bright colours excite the bees, and dark colours trigger them to become defensive and sting. This guy insisted that I was wrong, colours had no effect on bee behavior. Why? Because even though my dad has been a beekeeper all his life and I’ve worked with him with the bees and among beekeepers this is common knowledge, this guy couldn’t find anything confirming it in his googling, therefore I had to be wrong.

When I pointed out that google wasn’t the end-all authority of beekeeping, especially since beekeepers tend to be a bunch of old guys who can’t be bothered with the internet, his reply was “As a matter of fact, my google-fu is exceptional.”

*headdesk*

So yeah, don’t be those people. Happy Wrimoing.

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Critique Groups

I’ve been a part of a number of critique groups over the years, and the one I’m in now is by far the best. We’re a pretty relaxed group, can be honest with one another, handle the truth, and we all get a fair bit out of the critiques.

So for Keycon this year I did a panel on what makes a good critique group. Because I’ve been in some less good ones.

One thing that I really value in this group is the fact that we don’t obsess over spelling and grammar and line edits, to the exclusion of content analysis. When we go over a submission, we start looking at the flow of the scene, character motivations, pacing, the emotional arc, etc. I’ve honestly never had a group that focused so much on that and it’s great. Because anybody can nitpick line edits, but when you’re at an early draft stage, that feedback is so much less useful.

I’ve had groups that obsessed over a specific quirk – one was cliches, and often I’d leave the meeting with nothing but line edits and such and such a line is a cliche, you’ll want to change that. I think part of where the obsession with edits on phrasing and such is because amateur authors, that’s often all they know how to do, and they’ve never had anyone go tear their work to shreds to show them how it could be reconstructed better.

And then there’s groups that don’t follow the standard rules of not interrupting a critiquer or telling them their opinion isn’t valid. I attended a few meetings of one group that the meeting would go on all day because they would spend an hour arguing back and forth, telling one another they were wrong and their work was fine as it was, the person critiquing them just didn’t understand their genius.

That said, the group I’m in doesn’t follow those rules of never interrupting either, but that’s because we follow more of the spirit of the law, to an extend that the letter of the law is less important. If we interrupt one another, it’s usually more along the lines of “Ooh, I didn’t notice that, you’re right!” or “Ooh, I have an idea how I could fix that would X work?” You know – constructive conversation.

This particular group has developed a culture that allows that though. That same constructive culture of the group allows us to get away with being pretty blunt sometimes when we’re delivering honest critiques. We don’t feel the need to coddle one another, and I think the knowledge that we’re all here to help one another turn our work into the best it can be. We all know nothing anyone says is meant to tear anyone else down, but also, we’ve seen our own work evolve through edits and recognize that an early draft is going to have things that can be improved, and the rest of the group is just a second set of eyes for when we’re too close to the material to be objective.

How did I manage to find such a fantastic group?

I didn’t.

I built it. And I’ll go into more detail on that in another post.

A Little About My WIP

I recall seeing a presentation by Robert J. Sawyer about “Writing in the Zeitgeist” at Keycon one year, and I was really glad to hear his thoughts on the subject.

The dictionary definition of Zeitgeist is “the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.” In his presentation, Sawyer encouraged writers to write about things that are relevant in the here and now of modern day – things that people feel passionate about, have opinions about, etc, and that doing so would help them find an audience of people who will enjoy the book.

I got thinking about it and how I’ve tried to follow that advice in my current work-in-progress lately for two reasons.

First is the obvious political climate. The rise of hatred we’re seeing right now is frightening, and unlike many previous generations, we have enough global awareness and memory of the last big time it happened that it’s disturbingly familiar.

So I’d been wanting to make a point of writing something that had more diversity in it than what I’d written before, so I came up with a black main character. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be taking over black people’s stories and telling their stories for them, so it wasn’t going to be a story about what it was like to be black or anything like that. I still wanted to be saying something about my feelings about racism and discrimination and such, though, so I thought a while about what I, as a white woman, had to offer.

And sometime around when I was coming up with the world my story is set in, Folklorama was on again. I hadn’t always realized it, but Folklorama is apparently, quite literally, the biggest multicultural celebration in the world. And I stopped to think about that, realizing that I live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, in a country that has an official policy of not just tolerance of multiculturalism but embracing and celebrating multiculturalism as something that makes the country stronger.

And at the same time, Winnipeg also holds the title of the most racist city in Canada.

So when I thought about that, then I knew exactly what I have to bring to this conversation – it’s my experience living, not in a utopia of multiculturalism, but in a place that’s at least trying. A country and a city where that utopia of Star Trek’s Star Fleet is kind of the goal, but it’s a work in progress.

So what I decided to portray was just that – a society with government policy supporting multiculturalism, but people who are still struggling with it. A government that inconsistently applies those policies, governing people who disagree on how and to what extent those policies should be applied.

Sometimes the utopia seems like it’s just hopelessly far off. But I hope there’s room someday on the shelf in between all those dystopian YA novels, for a utopia in progress.

Artificial Intelligence And Gender In Science Fiction

I didn’t get to doing a Keycon recap this year, but one of the panels I was moderating was Women in Speculative fiction, and that was the panel where I had the main guests of honour. One of them was Tamsen McDonough, who is the voice of the ship’s AI in The Killjoys.

I watch the show, so I was familiar with the character, and was terribly amused to learn that the ship’s character was originally written to be a motherly, caring sort of character, but Tamsen thought Aaron Ashmore was hot, and got flirty with him in the ship’s dialogue, and the director ran with it. The ship, Lucy, likes her female captain less, but they avoid the jealousy trope by not having the ship get jealous when Ashmore’s character gets a girlfriend, and by giving her some girl chat mutual compliments moments with another female character, Clara. Those happen in season two, so it seems the writers made an effort to adapt the character dynamics in a positive way, which is one reason I love the show.

But since I had her on the panel, I brought up the gendering of artificial intelligences.

My main observation is that when you have an artificial intelligence that’s supposed to provide information or assistance to the human characters – who plays the human’s servant – the AI is typically voiced by a female, or otherwise gendered female. Lucy from the Killjoys is only one example – there’s also Romy from Andromeda, ship’s voices from star trek, hell, the maid in The Jetsons.

If it’s an AI who’s created to be some kind of enforcer – a police or soldier robot who’s intended to be obeyed by human characters – then the AI is voiced by a male. Examples include the combat droids in the Star Wars prequels, the I-robot AI’s, and the police bots from Chappy.

This is also a real-life phenomenon. Siri is voiced by a female. Most GPS devices are voiced by a female, though other voices are now available. Studies were done and they found that both men and women preferred a female voice.

In an aircraft, systems that provide information to the pilots typically have a female voice deliver that information. If a system needs to deliver an instruction that the pilots need to follow, the instruction is typically delivered in a male voice.

But it goes further than that. If an AI is supposed to be a character we sympathize with, if the writers are trying to make us see the character as human, and worthy of human rights, then the AI is gendered male. Examples – Data from Start Trek, the child AI from AI: Artificial Intelligence, Bicentennial Man, and the titular character from Chappy.

There’s less of the converse, but the example that bothers me the most is the AI from Ex Machina. Spoiler alert: I’m not sure if the writers intended to dehumanize the female AI character or not in turning her into a human murdering robot in the end. It feels like they were trying to warn the audience of the dangers of AI’s getting out of control, but what I saw was an AI reacting exactly as one might expect a severely abused woman suffering from PTSD might react when she’s reached a point of no longer being able to discern ally from abuser. I think that’s what the critics were picking up on when they said the ending felt muddled – it’s hard to tell who the sympathetic character was supposed to be.

Of course there are exceptions. C-3PO and Jarvis are gendered-male servant AIs. Cameron from the Sarah Connor Chronicles also breaks the mold, being a badass fighter robot with a female outward appearance, and the android from Dark Matter is a gendered-female android being humanized.

And you’ll hear the anti-SJWs whine that they’re machines, what does it matter what gender they’re made to look? Well queue my eye roll, because humans make the robots and the AI’s and it sure as hell matters to us. I always enjoy seeing stereotypes busted – it makes a story more interesting than seeing the same old same old all the time.

Book Review: The Operative: Gerald Brandt

The next installment in the San Angeles Trilogy – that one with the Final Fantasy VII style tiered city and dystopian cyberpunk setting. (Waiting for the part where the corporations bomb the support columns to drop one level on top of another and blame it on the freedom fighters…)

It starts with Kris having changed her name for privacy reasons. Mixing up the letters of your boyfriends last name to come up with your new last name Kris? Why don’t you just tattoo his name across your chest like all the other cool girls?

Anyway, she’s in training to be an operative for ACE now, the secret rebel group that’s trying to fight the corporations, when the training facility is attacked. I was glad to see the plot got more twisty after that, with Kris getting information leading her to doubt whether or not ACE was actually everything she’s been told it is.

All the while she’s got another survivor of the attack in tow who suffers from some pretty severe PTSD. I liked this character, and the fact that Kris gets to have some female companionship while she tries to track down her boyfriend.

Ian gets to be the damsel in distress for most of this book, and I’m willing to bet there’s going to be some whiney male readers who don’t like seeing a male love interest given treatment typically reserved for female love interests. Screw ’em though. Torture porn content warning.

Plot wise, The Operative I think did what it needed to do in a sequel. Book one had Kris just focused on not dying, and book two would have been boring if it was more of the same. Instead her goals get to expand to keeping her boyfriend from dying, and finding out the truth about ACE. The scope of impact of her actions grows too, from simply slipping out of the Corporations’ grasp, to doing some real damage.

This was more of the fast paced action of the last one. Trilogies usually go one way or the other – either each book gets better, or they peter out. This one is definitely getting better as it goes along. You can tell the author’s making an effort towards getting some diversity into it, even more so with book two than book one, and even in book one there were a number of female side characters and it wasn’t just a “Hey look, female protagonist” and then no other female character in the entire book like some books. Book two had a gay couple and several new female characters to replace the ones that didn’t make it to the end of book one. And the Chinese guy who was a background character in book one steps up into a main supporting role.

And it’s set up well for the sequel. I hope Kris gets to go to the space station or something; that would be cool. I wonder how many characters will still be alive at the end of book three!

Video Games: A Metaphor For Dispatching

I’ve been at the new job a little bit now, done job shadowing and on my own now. It’s a new experience – it’s a position with a lot more responsibility than I’ve ever had before. I’m literally in a position to make decisions that can cost or save the company thousands of dollars. It’s a small company, five planes, and I’m in charge of receiving calls from the ambulance dispatchers that take basically 911 calls from outside of Winnipeg, and sending the planes to pick up patients.

It sounds simple, but there’s a fair bit of strategy to it. Because legally, the pilots can work a maximum of fourteen hours consecutively before they have to be given a minimum of eight hours consecutive rest, plus we give them a little on top of that for transit time. Add to that the complication of some of the crews being based at our crew houses up North because the closer they are to where we’ll need to pick up patients, the more likely we are to be assigned the trip, and the more money the company makes.

There’s a type of game – board game or video game – called “worker placement games.” It will be based around units being used to build things, or collect resources that are then used to build things, and generally there’s a map and proximity to the resources has to be taken into consideration when working out strategy. Limits will be worked into the game mechanics on how long it takes to complete a task, or make a trip to the resource cache and back. In many games, the workers will need rest, or your fighters will need to return to someplace to be healed up before they can be sent out to fight again.

Very early on, I realized this whole dispatch thing, when the guy training me described the strategy involved in moving our planes into position, arranging schedules and calling out crews, I can think of it as a game – the goal being preventing the company from missing out on getting trips by having our crew held up unnecessarily or having crews called in and their fourteen hour duty day start but them sit around twiddling their thumbs rather than flying, and helping them make money by having our crews in position to get to patients quickly and relaying estimated times of arrival so that crews rendezvous with ground transportation efficiently.

The only thing missing is tallying up scores at the end of the game and seeing who wins.

I’d love to get on as a pilot here – the idea of having a job where I’m helping people has always appealed to me, and that’s one of the reasons I want to fly a water bomber some day. But I need 500 hours to get on as a Medevac pilot, so I’m looking for something part time, now that I have more time and energy to handle a possible second job.

In the meantime, and I’m enjoying working here, and not just because I’m not in a call centre. I’m being told that I’m doing well, and everyone seems to like me here, and my training went super quick.

But the company itself it very different than what I’m used to. I’m used to big companies now, with management being impersonal. Here, co-workers have described it as being like a big family. Everyone knows everyone, and it seems like the owners care about their employees. It’s a small company, and there’s no union like at MTS, but they don’t use the absence of a union to take advantage of employees and be hard-asses. Instead, they use the absence of a union to take advantage of opportunities to reward hard work and give employees a bit of a break when they know an individual could use it.

On top of that, it’s not as exhausting as the call centre work, so I have more time and energy left over for writing and other hobbies. Money is tight, so I’m helping my dad out with the bees for some extra cash, and looking into selling my art for the first time – I’m making Ukranian Easter eggs, or Pysanky, which are not just for easter, but traditional gifts for many occasions. And despite money being tight, I’m much happier where I am. I think I’d rather be homeless at this point than go back to the call centre. We will manage.

Gearing Up for Keycon

I can usually only manage one con a year, and last year I hit When Words Collide in Calgary, but this year I’m broke, so hometown con again this year.

The good news is I’ve been emailing back and forth with the programming committee, pushing for more serious writing related programming. There was some talk of not wanting to get too technical and have the panels end up not being of interest to non-writers.  I pointed out that the two need not be mutually exclusive, one can have the fluff panels and fan panels for non writers, and the nitty gritty technical panels for the writers. I also mentioned that there have been complaints about there not being enough serious writing panels in previous years, as well as the amount of positive feedback programming committees have received in years when they have had a good amount of serious writing panels. They were easily convinced and literary paneling this year is looking fantastic.

So, the panels I will be on:

Religion and SF & F with Lindsay Kitson, Sherry Peters and Daria Patrie: From Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality to David Webber’s Honor Harrington Series, from Michael Carpenter in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files to Bobby Dollar in The Dirty Streets of Heaven, and many more novels, religion has played a key part in SF&F literature. What part does religion have in the world building process? How has religion been used as a central theme or as an allegory in SF&F? How are religions portrayed? Should writers and readers alike be concerned about cultural appropriation when some religions are used in a book?

Alternative Aviation in Science Fiction with Timothy Gwyn: From Autogyros to Zeppelins: a catalogue of unusual aircraft past, present and future. A look at the strengths and weaknesses of each, plus how much technology is needed to build them, and how well they fit into different sub-genres of SF. Examples from noteworthy fiction, and how they played a role in plot or worldbuilding. Do you need air transportation in the age of steam, or on an alien world? Alternative aviation may hold the answers you’re looking for. Remember: getting there is half the fun! (I’m not so much on this panel, as manning the projector and heckling.)

How to Edit Your Own Work, and Why You Need an Editor with Lindsay Kitson, J. Boone Dryden, Diane Walton and Daria Patrie: The trick to writing is re-writing. Our panelists will share a few tips on editing your own work, and will go over what an editor will do with your work. Also, is the editor always right? What happens if you disagree with your editor?

Point of View with Gerald Brandt, Melinda Friesen, Lindsay Kitson, and Daria Patrie: What writing point of view is most often found in SF&F literature and why? How does point of view change the narrative or style of the story? Is it more difficult to write a certain point of view?

Women in Speculative Fiction with Kelley Armstrong, Tamsen McDonough, Lindsay Kitson, and Van Kunder: Join our panelists as they explore how female characters have been portrayed in books and on film in the past and present, and how women have been involved in their respective fields over time. Is Speculative Fiction on the leading edge of equality? Or is there still a long way to go?

Critique Group Survival with Lindsay Kitson and Daria Patrie: So you’re ready to share what you’ve written with others and get feedback on it. How do you find a critique group? How do you know if you’ve got a good one? How do critiquing meetings go, and how to you contribute effectively? And when is it time to move on to a different group? Bonus content: How to start your own critique group!

Aviation and Believable Airships and Aircraft in Science Fiction with Timothy Gwyn and Lindsay Kitson:. An interactive session with two pilots who are also writers. Lindsay Kitson and Timothy Gwyn tackle the credible and incredible in aviation fact and fiction. Learn how getting aviation right can enhance your story. Some pointers on how to keep it real with aircraft and airship scenes that actually work. (This one’s going to be fun, and there will be at least one signed pre-release copy of Tim’s book, Avians, as a prize for whoever gets the most questions right!)

The timetable is tentative and incomplete so far, but this is the earliest I recall them ever  having it available before the con, so that bodes well for how organized they are this year. What they have so far can be viewed here. Looking over it, I can see some other panels already that I’d like to hit.

Looking forward to seeing everyone there!