Why So Much Online Discourse Sucks: My Theory

It’s simply this: In order for local standards of civility (whether those be vanilla-custard bland or three-chili-pepper strong, it matters not) to be maintained, what’s required is vigorous, hands-on, and visible moderation. Simply providing users with a “flag this post if you find the content objectionable” button isn’t enough. All that does, so far as the user can see, is push the problem off onto a faceless, and possibly automated, minion someplace, for said minion to deal with, or not, according to whatever invisible algorithm may or may not be in place. This does nothing to chide the offending user, or provide immediate feedback to the offended user, or steer the discourse into a less offensive channel.

To do all that, you need a person — a name, a face (even if that face is a cartoon avatar), a consistent presence — to be on the spot and monitoring the venue for discourse that’s about to go toxic. A good moderator can defuse or shut down toxic discourse as needed; a great moderator can spot the warning signs far enough in advance to change the conversation before the toxicity gets a chance to arrive.

Done well — and it has to be done well, if it’s going to be done at all — this is a full time job, and not one to be undertaken by volunteers. If you want somebody to stare into the abyss 24/7 — or better yet, two somebodies, so that they can take enough time off to stay sane — you need to pay them for it.

And sooner than pay good moderators a regular wage, most commercial online fora will either close down comments altogether, or go to one of the now-standard automated systems that end up pleasing nobody.

Not because these sites are run for profit. But because they are run for profit by cheapskates.

I Think It’s a Rule

If you’re driving into Boston from out of town, you have to get lost at least once on Massachusetts Avenue.

Normally, our GPS navigator saves us from this, but the rules caught up with us this trip, because the navigator went toes-up on us shortly before departure.  Fortunately, we were able to access Google Maps via my phone — not by using the phone’s web feature, because it doesn’t really have one, but by calling our younger son back in Colebrook and having him find the necessary directions and relay them to us.

After that mini-adventure, we made it safely to the Westin hotel, and our first programming item is a signing at 2 PM in the Galleria.  We’re signing alongside Ken MacLeod and Charlie Stross, so if you’ve got a book (or a short story in an anthology, or a bookplate, or whatever), feel free to bring it in and we’ll happily sign it for you.

And if you’re one of the people who mostly own our stuff in electronic format . . . if you can figure out how to get us to sign that, we’ll happily do that as well.

(Surely somebody, somewhere, has invented an app for getting author signatures on e-books.  Heaven knows, they’ve got apps for everything else.)

Bad Moon on the Rise

If everything in this article at blogcritics is true (and that does appear to be the case) then there is some very bad stuff going down at All Romance E-Books.

Hard to tell, from the available info, whether the root cause is malice or stupidity, but for the authors caught up in the ongoing mess, it doesn’t make a difference.

(This is also why, when I purchase an e-book, I prefer to take what measures are necessary to make certain I have it stored on my own hardware, and not on somebody else’s.)

Lo! A Review!

Speaking as an editor and instructor of writers, one should never obsess over reviews, because that way madness lies.

On the other hand, there’s nothing like a good review to brighten a writer’s day.  If you’re friends with a writer, and spot a good review of their work, it’s an act of kindness to let them know about it.  If you spot a bad review, don’t bother – even if it’s one of those completely off-the-wall, did-the-reader-even-read-the-story bad reviews – because for one thing, they’ve probably already heard about it from those other friends who make a habit of kindly supplying people with all the bad news they might ever need, and for another thing, it will only depress them.  See madness, above.

All that being said, there’s a nice review of the Altered States of the Union anthology over here at the Legendarium, in which the reviewer calls our story “Gertrude of Wyoming” a “shrewd and intelligent thriller.”  Considering that those were exactly the qualities we were aiming for, I for one am pleased.

One Reason I’m Glad I Don’t Write Children’s Books

Or don’t write them any more, to be specific . . . My co-author and I started out in middle grades and YA, but moved on to writing for grownups (and for any kids tall enough to reach the bookshelves on their own, which was how we ourselves were raised – any book we could get off the shelf was acknowledged to be fair game*) a few years before the explosive growth of social media made being pecked to death by chickens inundated by critical commentary a fact of life.

It can’t be helped, I suppose. Nowhere else in publishing are there as many gatekeepers and barrier-builders between the writer and the intended audience as there are in children’s literature – and because by and large the gatekeepers, and not the intended audience, are the ones spending the money, nowhere else do the gatekeepers get listened to so intently. And the gatekeepers want a lot of sometimes mutually-exclusive things. They want the books children read to be relevant – relevant to exactly what, can change whenever the wind blows. They want the books to have diversity and inclusiveness and representation – but not necessarily too much of it, or of the wrong people. They want the books to put forth good moral values – all sorts of moral values, defined in all sorts of ways by all sorts of groups who frequently can’t stand each other. And they want books to be challenging, as if being a kid weren’t hard enough by itself without having your recreational reading turned into some kind of spiritual or mental calisthenics.

And these days, every gatekeeper – every social activist, every moral missionary, every concerned parent – has a Facebook page or a Twitter account and is primed to post. Given that saying anything – anything at all, including nothing – is capable of whipping up at least one portion of that vast crowd into a froth of wrath, it’s amazing how many writers for young people nevertheless keep on trying to get their stories into the hands of their actual intended readers.

God knows, if I had reason to feel that no matter what I wrote, somebody would want to drop the internet on my head, I wouldn’t be nearly so well-behaved and gracious as most children’s and YA writers have to be nowadays.

*It’s also the way we raised our own children, on the grounds that – in our opinion, anyhow – we turned out all right.

Not How It Used to Be

This weekend, this year’s Worldcon in Kansas City announced the winners of the Hugo Awards – and the results were reported as news in a variety of non-fannish outlets, from the Guardian to Slate.

‘Twas not always thus.  Within the living memory of fandom,* the science-fiction community could carry out its debates and fanfeuds without anyone else caring or even noticing, because in terms of literary respectability, sf was a pariah genre, ranking well below mystery fiction or even westerns.  (Only romance fiction ranked lower on the respectability scale, possibly because it suffered from the added stigma of girliness.)  Newspaper and television reporting on sf conventions was heavy on the “look at these people in their funny costumes” factor and light on “listen to these people talking about everything from literature to politics.”

These days, we can’t count on that comfortable obscurity any more.  Science fiction and fantasy have become dominant storytelling modes in both film and television; mainstream authors are working with science-fictional and fantastic tropes more and more often, and doing a better job of it than they used to – sometimes, they don’t even try to pretend that what they’re writing isn’t sf or fantasy, which is another big change; the President of the USA is a Spider-Man fan who’s been known to engage in lightsaber battles on the White House lawn and to flash the Vulcan salute.

And it’s hard, sometimes, to let go of the habits and defensive reflexes from days gone by, before the geeks and nerds took over the earth.  But we’re fans.  We can adapt.

*Taking, as one does, oneself for a yardstick – I can remember being told by the writer-in-residence instructor of a creative writing class, back in my undergrad days, that I was “wasting my talent” writing science fiction.  (Everybody else in the class was writing “coming of age in the South” stories.  My position on that was that having come of age in the South and survived the experience, I ought to be exempt from having to write – or, for that matter, to read – about it afterward.)

A Trio of Links

The Folger Library is sending Shakespeare’s First Folio on tour.  It’ll be making one stop in each of the fifty states, including Hawaii and Alaska; you can find your state’s Shakespeare stop here.

Also, a reminder for writers who might want to transform lived experience or known history into fiction:  Fiction has to be believable, while reality is under no such constraint.

And finally, an interview with one of the many authors over the decades who have been Carolyn Keene, about writing Nancy Drew novels.  Full disclosure:  I’ve never been Carolyn Keene, but I have been one-half of Victor Appleton.  Twice.  And I can vouch for the truth of this article.

My only beef is with the interviewer and/or the editor on the Slate end of things, who persist in referring to the author as a “ghostwriter.”  She was not – and doesn’t call herself one.  A ghostwriter is writing under the name of, and in the persona of, an actual person who is the purported author of the book.  Sometimes this is a flagrant pretense, but sometimes it’s for a good reason – if, for example, the “author” has an important or interesting story to tell, but absolutely no writing chops whatsoever.

At any rate, a writer for the Nancy Drew books, or the Tom Swift books, or any of a number of syndicated properties, is not a ghost writer.  The proper term for what they’re doing is writing under a house name – so-called because the name “Carolyn Keene” or “Victor Appleton” or whatever is owned by the publishing house, not by the writer of a particular book.  Which is how I can have in my personal library a Tom Swift hardcover from the mid-1920’s that used to belong to my father, and a couple of Tom Swift paperbacks from the early 1990’s that were co-authored by me and Jim Macdonald.

And “Victor Appleton” wrote them all.

A Trio of Assorted Links

A guide to semicolon usage, with illustrations.  Some people find semicolons intimidating; this is the post for them.  Other people love semicolons not necessarily wisely, but too well; I’m not sure if there is any help for us.

An article on Slate, ranting about the overuse of unnecessary synonyms for “said.”  I’ll be over here on the sidelines, waving my pompoms in enthusiastic agreement.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, “said” is all you need, assuming you need a dialogue attribution tag at all.

And Great Britain’s Arts and Humanities Research Council has released a digitized collection of Jane Austen’s manuscripts, including drafts and juvenilia.  I love living in the internet age, I really do . . . time was, to see something like this, you’d have had to make a trip (in the case of Jane Austen’s MSS, a number of different trips) to visit the material in person.

What This Election Year Needs is a Good Anthology

Altered-States-promo-art-640_thumb.jpgAnd hoo-boy, have we got one for you: Altered States of the Union, edited by Glenn Hauman for Crazy 8 Press.  (Full disclosure: Jim Macdonald and I have a story in it.)

Altered States is a collection of original alternate-history stories in which the states of the USA are  . . . not as we know them.  It’s being crowdfunded through Indiegogo, and you can reach its web page here.

Rewards being offered for supporters range from a copy of the e-book version of the anthology (at the $5 level, or $3 for the first 20 early-bird pledges) to tuckerization* in one of the stories (at the $200 level; six chances are being offered.)  The official publication date is scheduled for the Shore Leave science fiction convention being held July 15-17, 2016, in Hunt Valley, Maryland.

So here’s your chance to be a patron of the arts and enable the publication of some good new stories.  (Lorenzo di Medici would totally have kicked in a florin or two.  You know he would have.)

*For those unfamiliar with the lingo of the sf tribe, “tuckerization” is the naming of a character in a story after a friend or fellow-fan.  The name derives from the early science fiction writer Wilson Tucker, who made a practice of giving his minor characters names in this fashion.  These days, opportunities to be tuckerized are often offered by writers for fundraising or charitable purposes.