Attention policing paradox

I was reading this article on attention policing on The Atlantic, talking about major light memes of the week and the reaction against them. And it struck me that the author wasn’t addressing one of the major problems with attention policing, which I saw in action this week, and that is: it backfires.

Authors know this. I have had writers at conventions try to convince me to give bad reviews to their books rather than declining to finish them and staying silent, because they know this: when you talk about something, you draw attention to it, and if you talk about it enthusiastically, you draw more attention to it, regardless of whether your enthusiasm is positive or negative. Sure, the people who read me are more likely to trust me if I say, “Uff da, that was a stinker,” but not 100% likely. Nor am I 100% likely to follow any of your recommendations! If you say, “That book was so boring, it was not worth the time, it was just hundreds of pages of Chinese medieval monetary theory,” why, that’s the book I just picked up to read! That’s music to my ears! So this idea that we don’t pay attention to each other’s recommendations 100%: this is a feature, not a bug.

It’s not that I’m unwilling to give a bad review. But I do think that it’s worth being careful, especially when my reaction is “this book [/movie/TV show/etc.] is okay but overhyped”–because that kind of reaction can contribute to making the work central. It contributes to the feeling that the work is the important one that everyone must discuss–even if they don’t like it.

So yes, on Thursday my social media feeds were full of llamas and whether a badly photographed dress was white and gold or black and blue. But they were also full of people talking about how they weren’t talking about these things. Talking about how they didn’t care. Even more of that came up for the Superbowl, the Emmys, the Oscars. “I am not watching the thing everybody is watching!” said everybody. “Look at me thinking it is not important, and making it more important by keeping it the only topic of discussion.” One of my FB friends posted a little cartoon the morning after one of the Academy Award shows that said, “I did not watch the thing,” and I wrote back, “Too bad, you missed a great hockey game.” Because there is more than one thing. There is always more than one thing.

Telling people, “You should not like the thing you like!” or “You should not care about the thing you care about!” hardly ever works. They already like it. They already care. If you want to shift discussion and attention, it’s time for the tried and true, “Look, the Winged Victory of Samothrace!” What can sometimes work is, “hey, look at this other interesting thing!” Because the other interesting thing engages. It provides its own conversational points–and yes, sometimes these relate back to the first thing that the other person was interested in, that you wish they weren’t. If you were tired of llamas, then hooray, a badly photographed dress came along! And then some people combined the two in ways that they hoped were amusing! Someone said, “But look over here,” and they did, and some of them were wholly diverted from the llamas, and some weren’t.

So yeah, you’d be disappointed if you were hoping that the next big wave of comments would be about Russian/Ukrainian politics or new treatments for bone cancer instead of badly photographed dresses. These two things are not very much equivalent, though, and “STOP TALKING ABOUT LLAMAS” never once got people to talk about bone cancer. Attention is capricious and fickle, but some parts of it are predictable, and that’s one. So if you’re frustrated with the llamas, go craft your comments about your new local cheesemaker, the anime you just fell in love with, or the charity you think is worthy. Make them pithy, make them shiny, make them interesting. Virtue does not always out in the attention economy. You have to help it.

The Doll Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

You can tell from a quick glance at the cover that this is an anthology that will skew towards dark fantasy/horror. The cover does not mislead. So the first thing to know is that I am not the target audience for this book. While Ellen Datlow says in the introduction that she didn’t want any evil doll stories, I thought that at least one of the stories totally qualified as an evil doll story by my standards.

Still, even for someone who is not the target audience, there’s skillful, interesting writing in this volume. Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Doctor Faustus” drew heavily on Mary’s experience as a puppeteer–if you revel in telling detail and vivid accuracy, this is a standout story. I only wish it had had a longer/more complicated plot–I’d love to see more of this sort of thing from Mary. Pat Cadigan’s “In Case of Zebras” was a perfect example of how not every story has to be paced the same way: it unfolded in a way that was appropriate for both its teen narrator and her ER volunteer setting. The heroine was engaging and well-done. Finally, Seanan McGuire’s “There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold” used the doll premise to do serious secret-world worldbuilding, drawing on multiple sources in a way that I found delightful. For someone who is more horror-inclined, I’m sure there will be more stand-outs. It’s still not my sort of thing, but it was in general a very readable anthology.

Please consider using our link to buy The Doll Collection at Amazon.

Shinies of great goodness

Between now and midnight tomorrow, Elise is having a sale. She has asked those of us who have favorite or particularly inspiring shinies to talk a bit about them. As it happens, I’m wearing one right now–it’s reversible, it’s one of the rare things Elise has made with words actually visible in it, and the side I have out now says “make beauty,” and the other side says, “learn secret.” It is silver and broken shell and subtle purple glass. It was a gift from my godzillas*, and it makes me feel that I am loved very individually, that the things I do are valued as my things and not just as generalities.

I will tell you another Elise-thing story! I have had this necklace called “Eleven Words for Home” for awhile. It is a set of ocean jasper cubes of various colors on thick silver links. And I have been working on bits of it as a mosaic novel. And then I was sitting in the audience waiting for a Josh Ritter show, talking to Tim and Sarah and Mr. Sarah, and my brain said, “IT’S A TRILOGY.”** And lo. Lots and lots and lots of lo. So I texted Elise right that very minute and got “Playing Dice With the Universe,” which will probably also be called Nine Planets I Found Along the Way, and it goes with “Eleven Words for Home” and “Ten Reasons She Loved Science,” and it makes a set, and I have sold bits of them to Tor.com and Analog and–like I said, very much lo. They just keep coming, these stories. They have silvery bits and blue and black and shiny bits and little stars. And they feel cool and smooth, and I pet them while I am working, and they are something solid when I am trying to put words on stardust.

*Doesn’t everyone have this as a collective noun for “godchildren and their parents”?

**If you read on, you may notice that there is room for more than a trilogy in this titling scheme. Timprov has pointed this out to me already, and I said NO, but y’know. It’s quite a lot of lo.

Books read, early February

Eleanor Arnason, Hidden Folk. Icelandic mythology-inspired short stories. There were a few of these that fell oddly into the 1970s-esque trap of “the Irish are a special maaaaagical people,” but the language was right on in all of them for being saga inspired. Generally good fun.

Helen Bynum, Spitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis. So very good. Sanatoriums, interactions of TB with leprosy, general degenerative interesting stuff.

Octavia Cade, The Life in Papers of Sofie K. Kindle. A magical realist novella about a nineteenth-century Russian mathematician. If that doesn’t make you want to read it, I can’t help you; if it does, hey, did you know there was this book? There is this book! It is just the sort of thing you like if you like that sort of thing! (I do.)

Mike Carey, Lucifer Book Three. Giant graphic novel omnibus, and I think I am done with the Lucifer series on this one. The stories are not compelling enough to be worth the deliberately ugly art. I understand that it’s deliberately ugly for a reason, is making a statement, etc. But it is still a visual assault that I can opt out of, and will.

Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, Women in the Material World. A late twentieth century book of photographs and interviews with women in different countries worldwide, touching on their daily material lives in a very practical and specific way. I would have passed this by without a recommendation, because if it had been less concrete it would have been awful. As it was–fascinating.

Benedict Jacka, Chosen. These are short and zippy–this is the fourth in a series–and if you’re looking for Magical London Books, this is one. This one has had enough room to start ramifying interestingly. I don’t recommend starting here because of that, though–there’s no reason not to read the previous ones, and they’ll make the ramifications here work better.

Laurie R. King, Night Work. I may also be done with this series. There was a lot of exoticization of non-white characters, which was particularly bad as both the characters and the exoticization were central to the plot. I had sort of gotten along with the earlier volumes in this series on the theory that they were from an earlier time, but this is getting pretty contemporary and not acting like it. So–sigh. Onwards in the search for another long mystery series I like.

Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. This is a particularly interesting biography because so much of its process geeking is text rather than subtext: Milford will talk about interviewing Millay’s sister and then talk about what she thinks is not being said, what she has doubts about and why, what other sources she’s using. Quite good; I wish Milford had more work out there. (She wrote a bio of Zelda Fitzgerald, but I had enough of Zelda Fitzgerald in Flappers and don’t need an entire book of her, no matter how good the biographer.)

E. C. Myers, The Silence of Six. Myers is quite good at Average Teen Voice, whether or not the teen in question is entirely sympathetic. This is a teen hacker novel in the vein of Little Brother and Homeland. Lots of running around and skullduggery, good fun.

Julie E. Neraas, Apprenticed to Hope: A Sourcebook for Difficult Times. Lent to me by someone with whom I was talking about chronic illness stuff. I’m sure it’s very helpful to some people, but I found a lot of it frustratingly basic.

Greg Rucka, Stumptown Vol. 2. Portland PI graphic novel, with rock musicians. Reasonably fun if you want a one of those, not one of Rucka’s best.

V. E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic. Discussed elsewhere.

Chris West, A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps. Every year I buy myself a book for my grandpa’s birthday. I pick something that I think we could have enjoyed together, because I’m not done sharing things with Grandpa even though he’s gone. This was this year’s purchase, and I’m confident that Grandpa would have found it interesting. A lot of the historical overview was stuff that someone who knows a reasonable amount about GB/the UK would already know, but some of the detail was more middlebrow/person-on-the-street than histories often focus on, and that made it feel more authentic to me: if you asked a bunch of Britons what happened in such-and-such a year, the World Cup is very likely to come up, for example. Also the postal-specific stuff was interesting and explained some institutions we don’t have here, like banking at the post office.

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab

Review copy provided by Tor.

A Darker Shade of Magic is the story of four parallel worlds with very different outcomes. One of the protags is one of the very few people who can move between the worlds, and he has color-coded them to keep track of which one he’s referring to–Grey, Red, White, and Black. The divergence of the worlds is not random but refers to their relationship with magic.

That all sounds a bit technical and inside-baseball; the book is anything but. It was such a fast read that I was 2/3 of the way through before I even noticed I should probably do things like move around and stretch occasionally. I am not one of the genre readers who is a sucker for thief protags, but the thief Lila was brave and useful and entertaining. And the two princes were just what they ought to be (errm, sorry, child of the nineties)–that is, they were sympathetic and comprehensible in their relationship with each other, their parents, and the rest of the world. While not everyone has a fully filled-in backstory, ramification from background is the name of the game–each world shapes its denizens differently, for good or ill.

And there are music boxes and magical artifacts with minds–or at least wills–of their own. And burning ships.

Fun story, hurrah, would read author again.

One note: the city in which all this takes place is London, with the Thames as an important thing. If you pick this up hoping for another immersive London fantasy, it will not deliver. There is not a heck of a lot of our-London historical detail in this book. For me, this was not a disadvantage–I have plenty of Magic London Books and not a lot of good recent parallel worlds magic stories. But best to know what one is getting into in advance: set in London, yes, Magic London Book subgenre, not really, no.

Please consider using our link to buy A Darker Shade of Magic from Amazon.

The stupid mistakes of smart people (are not the same)

I have talked in this space before about how I watch a bunch of cop shows, largely because I watch them while working out. This has advantages (pacing! hurrah pacing!). It also has disadvantages, because dang, are some of the things paced the way I need them to be…kind of obvious, honestly. It’s like you can see the places where they said, “[Find motivation for character here],” and then never did a search on brackets. Except that I’m not convinced that they did. I’m not convinced that in every case there was someone saying, “Uh…that motivation makes no sense.”

Here’s the thing. It’s not that smart people don’t make stupid mistakes. For whatever axis of “smart” you have decided is important in this consideration, you can come up with obvious, boneheaded mistakes that people with lots of that kind of “smarts” will make.

BUT THEY’RE NOT RANDOM MISTAKES.

If you’ve established that a character is both street-smart and good at math, having them decide to go into debt to a loan shark with no known plan of repayment is so far out of character that you have to seriously jump through hoops to justify it. (Yes, actual example.)

That same character might underestimate an opponent’s competence in a number of areas. They might rely on contacts who didn’t come through this time. They might do any of a number of “dumb” things. But for heaven’s sake, make them dumb things that fit. You only get so many foolish choices without it looking like you’re making things too convenient for yourself, or without losing sympathy for the character, or without undermining their characterization as smart. There are all sorts of failure modes here, and you don’t have to give your character perfect decision-making skills to dodge them.

Something that is helpful here: if you have an idea of what a small characteristic error looks like for your character, you can seed that to ramify into the larger ones later, so that a reader doesn’t say, “They’d never make that mistake!” But it does have to ramify throughout, or it doesn’t work.

Choosing a short story market

Recently a friend who is just starting to send out their short stories sent me a story to find out what market(s) I would suggest for it. I gave that person my theories, and then I thought, well, this might be generalizable. Perhaps other people could use this too. So here we are.

First, your method is going to be different if you write a lot of short stories than if you only write a few. Someone who writes a short story a year or so can make their own total ordering of markets if they want to, and just go down that list, skipping any that don’t happen to fit the sub-genre of the story at hand. But if you write a lot of short stories (hi! welcome to the club! we have cookies!), doing that will give you a lot of down time for any given story, when really good editors who might like your work and give you money and a platform for it aren’t looking at your work. (Also some of us are allergic to total orderings.)

For those of us with a few more short stories in our system, I really recommend a more ad hoc approach, but the focal questions are still, “Of available markets, where would I most like to see this story published?” and, “Where does this story fit better than anywhere else?” You can focus the first question on money, response time, size of audience, prestige among people whose opinions you value, whether they’ve published you before, how much you like the editor, how much you like the art department, how much of a PITA their submission process is, reliability of publication time, how many q’s are in the names of the members of the editorial staff. Honestly I think the most sensible approach is to combine these questions for your own answers. I have a friend whose list is entirely, strictly based on how much the publication would pay them, and if that fits my friend’s needs, that’s great; I feel like you can write more stories, so waiting so that the person with the best pay rate sees everything first creates an unnecessary bottleneck between you and readers. I also think that if I have two stories to send out and one of them is a hard SF story, that’ll go to Analog or Nature first, while the other goes to markets with a broader focus. But if you write mostly or all hard SF, that’s a different question for you.

Another question you have to answer for yourself is whether you have a floor on your markets. Your time is worth something–time spent scouring the web for the fortieth market that will pay you $5 is time you aren’t spending polishing another story. It’s also time you’re not spending playing with the dog, building something out of Legos, or perfecting your flip turns in the pool. So you may find that some markets are just not worth your time at a particular point in your career. On the other hand, you may find one quirky amazing editor whose work you love but who is only offering $5 for your story, so I’m not saying that you absolutely have to set a dollar minimum (or a response time minimum or whatever). I’m just saying that it’s worth counting the costs as well. And while I haven’t put individual unpublished short stories up on Amazon, I have put some up for free on my website. Both are options. If a magazine isn’t run by your best pals, doesn’t pay you even the pittance we’re used to in this field, and isn’t going to get your work in front of more eyes than you can get for yourself, it’s time to stop sending it around.

There’s a lot out there. There are lots and lots and lots of options for publishing short stories, and it can get totally daunting to sort through them. I understand that it would probably have been easier if I’d just said, “Clarkesworld. They’re really fast, so always send to Clarkesworld first. Second, if it’s open….” But this is really one of those things you have to use your own rules of thumb for.

I know that it can get frustrating when editors say, “Read the publication to find out what we want,” but sometimes it really does help, and also reading broadly in a field you’re working in is good for your work. The caveat I have here is that you can’t always tell whether they’re not publishing things like what you’re sending them because they don’t want them or because they’re not getting them. Shimmer is probably not panting for your David Weber-homage space opera story, but in general, if guidelines say “all different kinds of speculative fiction,” I say believe ’em. I’ve sold stories when I was absolutely sure I was just checking off a box so that I could say I tried, so don’t pre-reject yourself. Prejection sucks for everyone.

Last thing: if an editor goes to the trouble of telling you that they don’t want a particular kind of story from you, believe them. An editor who is a friend of mine told me that there was a particular category they just were not into and probably would never buy. This helps me not to waste my time and theirs! I sent this editor a story in a different category, and they bought it, and I have every hope that this will happen again someday. But hearing, “I want to see more of your work, but not such-and-such,” is doing you a favor. Accept that favor with thanks if it ever comes your way.

Fields of brilliance

So I was reading this article about how students describe professors differently based on gender, and that part of things is interesting and deserves its own look; it’s at the very least something to keep in mind and interrogate in your own dealings with people and their work. But it’s not what jumped out at me here.

What jumped out at me is the differential in who gets described as a genius by field. So the graph in that article shows that something like two-thirds of male physics professors are described as geniuses by their students, but only about one-third of female physics professors. However, if you follow that one-third line down the graph, you’ll see that from anthropology on down the list, that’s the high point–that’s the percentage of male professors described that way, and the percentage of female professors who get given that descriptor is even less (around ten percent or lower). So what’s going on there?

There are some fields that just do not get the same cultural cachet for requiring outstanding brilliance. Professors of biology or history, modern languages or criminal justice, do not seem to me to inherently require less intelligence, less insight, less creativity, less brilliance, than professors in other fields–nor to reward it less when it does appear. But the genius musician–the eccentric genius physicist–oh yes, we know those types. Those are characters we recognize, culturally. Whereas the genius business professor?…not so much. It may be that there actually are fewer geniuses working in psychology than in chemistry, but it seems to me at least as likely that people are predisposed to see innate genius rather than hard work in some fields, and vice versa in others.

I doubt that this is immutable. I especially doubt that it’s immutable when related to gender issues–see the example of physicians in Russia, for example, how the perception of that occupation changed when it became more heavily female. Is it coincidence that biology has more women than the other sciences and is the lowest on the “percentage genius” scale? Maybe. It may also be causal one way or the other: more room for women in fields where people don’t have an idea of a genius man as central to how that field works, or less likely to rate the field in general as requiring genius if it’s full of girls. Still, the discrepancy among fields seems to me to be also interesting and worth thinking about.

I will note that when I was a physicist and people asked what I did, I often heard, “WOW, you must be REALLY SMART!” And very few people say that to me about being a science fiction writer. Possibly because they’re trying to figure out how to say, “WOW, you must be REALLY WEIRD!” politely.

(Just go ahead and say it. We don’t mind.)

(But physicists are pretty weird. Just FYI.)

Where are they now: science fiction with weird psychic phenomena

So I just finished reading a Peter Dickinson novel that had psychics in it. And it reminded me once again: where did all the science fiction novels with psychics go? I’m not sure I miss them. There are still some places you can find things like telekinetics–mostly superpower-tinged stories like Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith’s Stranger. But Karen Lord’s straight-up interplanetary novel with characters with telepathy felt like the sort of thing I would have read at age 14 and just don’t see any more.

Where did they go? Because ESP/telepathy/mental powers show up very early in SF, and they show up very regularly until somewhere around the time I was in high school. When they just…don’t really any more. Was it that people finally felt comfortable that these things had been debunked, and people who want to write about them write fantasy? Was it that there was a cohort of people writing those stories in the ’80s (Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Julian May, Andre Norton) who then either stopped writing, died, or moved on to other things, leaving “psychic power novels” as feeling like “their” thing rather than a broader genre thing? Was it the overwhelmingly female nature of that group, giving the concept “girl cooties?” (Catherine Asaro was writing about telepaths well into my college days, and she has demonstrated her bravery in the face of girl cooties on a number of fronts, so maybe.) Did it just start to feel old-fashioned, or did it really get played out? Was it the rise of willingness to do superhero/comic book themes in prose that pushed these topics into that category? (Seems like it happened in the opposite order, though.) Do you have an explanation I haven’t thought of?

The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud

Review copy provided by First Second.

The Sculptor seems aimed at young artists and wannabes: a sad-sack sculptor makes a deal with Death that he can sculpt whatever he wants, with his bare hands, in exchange for shortening his life to 200 days. Death’s motivations in this are pretty dodgy, and the text spends hundreds of pages crapping all over the main character (David) and then aims for cheap pathos in the ending.

Oh, sorry, do I sound unimpressed?

The thing is, there was enough good stuff about The Sculptor that I did want to keep reading. One of the things that favorably impressed me is that for all the rest of the times he falls for young-artist-narrative cliches, McCloud is clear that having your work turn out exactly as you intended doesn’t solve everything. Or sometimes anything. That’s pretty important–it’s a mistake I see a lot of young writers making, thinking that the only problem is that it’s not like it is in their heads. Stuff is like it is in David’s head, and nobody cares. He sometimes has bad ideas, he sometimes has obscure ideas, he’s terrible at promoting himself…and superpowers don’t change that.

Some of the sculptures are cool to look at on the page, and it’s an idea that’s fun to think about: if you could sculpt any material with your bare hands, including granite, concrete, etc. at very large scale, what would you come up with? How would you present it to the world? But the idea is better than the execution. The rule isn’t actually “do the worst possible thing to your characters,” it’s “do the worst possible thing that’s interesting.”

Ah well. Even at several hundred pages, it’s a quick read. And it’s not terrible. It’s just…well, it’s just like its protagonist: you start to think its lack of success is because it’s ultimately pretty shallow.

Please consider using our link to buy The Sculptor at Amazon.