Thursday, 18 December 2014

Lecturer

No-one who knew me during my first year at university, or to be completely honest at any point in the five-to-eight years before that, would be surprised to hear that I enjoy lecturing. During that time, I lectured indiscriminately and at length to anyone who paused to listen or gave me a reason to open my mouth.

The years (yes, all eight of them) have humbled me somewhat. When my head of department asked me back in August if I'd be willing to do some lecturing this term to fill a gap left by a departing staff member, I was paralysed with something quite a lot like fear. On the one hand, I knew it would mean more money, money I do still need to be quite careful about. On the other, it meant standing up in front of dozens of undergrads - any one of them potentially as uppity as I was at their age - and desperately pretending to be an expert.

I did not feel qualified to be an expert.

I also didn't feel that public speaking could be a strong point of mine. Historically, I've done a much better job expressing myself in writing than verbally (which, long-time followers of this blog will realise, implies some truly horrific moments of verbal misexpression). I'm not good at improvising and I know from long, painful experience that an over-planned lecture, particularly one with a tight, complete script, is a miserable waste of student time.

But in the end I took the job. I arranged my share of the lecturing so I wouldn't have to be the first member of the team to go in front of the students, did my best to prepare, and fretted until it was my turn. I felt certain that I'd panic, or stumble over my tongue and say something completely false, or that I'd do that thing nervous speakers do where they steadily speed up and up and up and turn everything into horrible run-on sentences that go on and on and on forever until you're really desperate for the end of this paragraph right now aren't you?

Suffice it to say, none of that actually happened. My lectures weren't perfect - I flubbed jokes, ran too long in some sessions and too short in others - but I've not seen a catastrophic drop-off in attendance and no-one's made a formal complaint against me, so at the very least there have been no disasters. And it's actually been quite fun. Well, not preparing Powerpoint presentations for each session, that sucks, but the rest of it.

Probably some of this is unhealthy - the gratification from playing the expert for an hour or two a week (sidebar: turns out that compared to people with a decade's less experience of philosophy, I am an expert and don't need to do much pretending) - but unless and until someone complains I'm not going to overanalyse. For the most part, I'm just pleased that I've now been asked to do more lecturing next term - though this does mean I'm going to be just as busy and thus have just as little time for blogging, which is why new content here has been a bit sluggish in recent weeks.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Everyday sexism (that I am guilty of)

I was walking across campus on Monday and it so happened that the person in front of me on the path was female and attractive. I made a conscious effort not to ogle, and yet, when she was greeted by a group of her classmates waiting outside a lecture hall, I still had this weird moment of cognitive dissonance. Suddenly, she was a human being interacting with human beings, rather than a shape taking up a central chunk of my visual field.

Was this entirely a sexist response? I don't know - it was, after all, Monday morning and I'd just been giving a lecture on semantics for quantificational logic, so I was a bit spaced out, and maybe there's an argument that I was just startled by the intrusion of voices in what had been a quiet environment - but I think I can tell the difference between sensory and cognitive startlement. My point is this: it's that easy (for me as a man) to dehumanise a woman, even despite a conscious effort not to. That's how insidious sexism can be.

Another example, this one perhaps a little less everyday, but more stark. Over the last couple of days, Crash, the dog belonging to game developer and favourite gamergate target Brianna Wu, took severely ill and died. Wu mentioned this on Twitter and was barraged with abuse in the form of mockery of Crash, photos of mutilated dog corpses, and at least one fake account for Crash proclaiming 'lol I'm going to die soon'.

All of which is horrible and reprehensible, but that shouldn't need saying. What does need saying is this: I felt a new level of shock and outrage at this kind of abuse, compared to the 'usual' abuse Wu has been receiving (threats of rape and murder against her, her family and friends, and her business, which among other things drove her from her home).

To put it bluntly: abuse aimed at the dog had more emotional impact with me than abuse aimed at the woman.

Perhaps it's tempting to say something along the lines of 'well, yes, but the dog's innocent, gamergate shouldn't be dragging a pet into this'. That's stupid, though, because it implies that Wu is in some way not innocent. That she deserves some part of what's happened to her, which is bullshit.

My point, guys (and I do mean guys) is this: these subconscious psychological mechanisms don't go away when we decide to try to care about other people. I don't know whether these two responses are things I've learned or are innate in some way, but they're habits of thought so deep that even when trying to be conscious of them I miss them working.

And they are responses I am responsible for. Even if I was born with the tendency to think about women this way, as long as it has the power to affect my behaviour, I am responsible for making sure that it doesn't. I am responsible for making sure that my poisonous habits of thought don't spill out into the real world.

That requires an effort of constant vigilance, regardless of whether it's Monday morning and I've just come from lecturing on difficult logic. And it really matters, because (for example) a huge part of the problem of stopping gamergate, and of taking it seriously as something that must be stopped, is a lack of empathetic understanding of what life is like for gamergate targets - of how damaging harrassment can be.

It's exactly the kind of empathy that I've failed at (at least) twice in the last week which we (men) most need in order to recognise, understand and tackle this problem.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Getting what you wish for

Back in early July I wrote this post, basically bemoaning the fact that video games aren't 'taken seriously' by our culture. Since then some very serious things have happened in gaming (i.e. gamergate), and so one negative element of gaming has come to be taken a little more seriously, but that's not what I'm going to talk about today. I refrain from talking about gamergate primarily because I've yet to think of anything I have to add to the discussion that hasn't already been said - I do, of course, wholeheartedly condemn gamergate itself.

Today, I have something rather more optimistic to offer. I'm now part of the planning process for a university-level 'gaming and interactive media' course (title not final) within the University of Liverpool's School of the Arts (backstory: UoL is my alma mater and now my primary employer; I lecture and teach in the Department of Philosophy, part of the SotA). We had our first departmental discussion of possible modules/topics this morning, and I got clearance to engage in some informal public consultation.

This is exactly the kind of thing I was yearning for when I wrote that post back in July. It's not a technical course - we're not expecting to cover programming, hardware design etc. though we may build links to courses that will - but a cultural/humanities one. The process will put gaming closer to film, television, theatre, literature and so on in terms of serious cultural consideration.

But this is a very new field, and if we're clear about one thing so far it's that we're not clear about much. I'm looking for suggestions of issues that a course like this - a humanities course, one approaching games as cultural artefacts - could or should address. If you're a gamer (either in the sense of 'someone who plays games' or of 'someone who identifies primarily as a gamer') what would you like to see discussed?

Some issues are obvious; for example, there's no clear definition of 'a game' or 'a video game', and phenomena such as augmented reality gaming and the gamification of education make the definitional question profoundly interesting. There are complex issues relating to authorship within videogames, too; who is the author of a narrative which is directed as much by the player (the audience) of a game as its developers? And, given everything that has come to the surface over the last three months, it would be negligent not to discuss feminist critiques of games (along with other dimensions of privilege - race, sexuality, ability etc.).

Not everything need come under the banner of philosophy. Our School of the Arts includes Music, English, Architecture and Communications/Media Studies, and there's a joint meeting in three weeks' time where we'll all be putting things forward. Any suggestions you can offer for what we should cover will be most welcome.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Go watch this. It's not necessarily a perfect sociopolitical model (after all, it's only an 8-minute video), but it's an interesting idea. The claim is basically that automation means that very soon - in the next 20 years or so - no-one will need to work longer than 12-15 hours in a week (note: we're talking about a quite complex notion of 'need' and a conservative estimate of the effects of automation in that sentence - but there's nothing in that to render the claim implausible).

And once you've watched the video - probably well before the end, in fact - you'll immediately be able to hear in the back of your mind the voice of your current political leadership (at least in Britain and America) raising the following complaint:

'Without the incentive to work more and work harder, everyone will just sit around all day doing nothing!'

Now, anecdotes are not data, but I believe I can provide at least one counterexample to that objection. For the last two-and-a-half years (longer, depending on how you account it), I have been in the fortunate position of working an average of less than 15 hours a week, and having living costs small enough and a wage rate good enough to make ends meet.

In that time, I've completed a PhD (including all the thesis-writing and most of the specific research), written well over 300,000 words of original fiction (seasons 2 and 3 of The Second Realm, two NaNoWriMo projects and a handful of short stories/novellas), written and recorded an EP of original music (which you shouldn't listen to because it's terrible but no-one can say I didn't put effort into it), decorated half a house, and studied a huge amount of stuff about the world, from feminist discourse to critical history to the publishing industry.

Perhaps none of that sounds very worthwhile (because it didn't make me any money, perhaps? But then what did I need the money for, if my living expenses were met?), but even the most cynical person could not accuse me of inactivity. And, since all these activities are things I value, no-one could accuse me of not trying to better myself (whether or not you think I'm barking up the wrong tree in terms of what I value).

The other objection to my example would be to suggest that I'm in some way exceptional - that most people in my (again, extremely fortunate) position would not behave the same way. There are two possible responses to that. The first is to take the objection as claiming that I possess some rare intrinsic virtue of productivity - and anyone who's seen me on an off day can tell you immediately that this is a particularly stupid idea. I am possessed of no exceptional will or drive at all, only a rare freedom to express a very ordinary human will.

The second response is to take the objection as making a purely statistical claim, that there is a body of data from which I am the exception. The problem with this is that no such body of data exists - my circumstances are simply too rare. There are very few jobs on which you can make even as much as I do from as few hours as I work, and I have exceptionally low costs of living.

In fact, the only people who work less than I do for more money are the very heirs and old-money institutions most likely to be found making this argument in the first place. So if I am the exception, it suggests that they are, in fact, a bunch of lazy tossers. News to no-one, perhaps, but nice to have it confirmed in their own arguments...

Thursday, 6 November 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014

(Disclaimer: contains shameless self-congratulation and bragging. You are under no obligation to read any further).

When I finished NaNoWriMo 2010 in a little under 8 days, I knew I could do better. I proved that in 2011, by bringing my personal best down to under 7 days. At that point, I foolishly opined that I could complete the 50k in five days, if I had them completely free. That would require me to be able to take time off work, though, which has not really been possible for financial reasons in the intervening time.

I improved my personal best again in 2012, to six days and fourteen hours, despite still having various professional commitments. Last year I was on track to better even that, but my chosen project ran into a thick tangle of character and theme issues which weren't fixable within a NaNoWriMo mindset (it would be fair to say, too, that I neither prepared well nor was quite as committed to it as my ambition required). Having thought at one point that I would break 6 days, I ended up finishing the 50k on the last day of the month, and then only by switching to another project altogether for the last 10-15k.

That actually gave my writing confidence quite a hit, and this year I've been going back and forth over whether to do NaNo. The biggest question was what project I was going to write; with the Second Realm over, I was having all kinds of trouble deciding what to work on next anyway, and choosing a project suited to the intensive, relatively research-and-planning-light NaNo process just made that question more difficult.

I settled on a plan whereby I'd only do NaNo if I could finish last year's project before November, so that I could get on with its sequel this year (that series remains almost uniquely suited to NaNo, as far as my ideas go). I failed utterly to get last year's project finished on time, though I did at least make some progress.

So I thought I wouldn't write something new for NaNo. I figured I could get on with one of the many bits of editing I need to do. Then I discovered that reading week for the courses I teach on falls this year on this week, the first week of NaNo. Since this entails not having to do anything this week for what this year is the much more significant of my jobs, I was gutted that I didn't have a proper NaNo project. I started to think about some way to make the 'edit things' plan more concrete.

Then life dropped another heavy hint. My current client for my other job turned out to be on a field trip from last Friday through this Wednesday (i.e. yesterday). Since that meant not seeing him until Friday of this week, the first week of November was now completely free. I gritted my teeth and tried to pretend I'd never bragged to myself that I could do it in five days if I had them completely free. I told myself I'd get through an entire editing pass on the season 1 collection of The Second Realm instead (no mean feat given that's currently around 125,000 words). I prepared accordingly.

And then the powers that be got sick of dropping hints altogether. I woke up on Thursday morning from a dream about the tail end of a horror movie scenario, the heroine finally escaping and burning down the haunted house, to realise that I had been given the seed of a new idea, well-tuned to address a theme I've been keen to address for some time.

Even then, I prevaricated somewhat, hemming and hawing over whether I had a setting I could write in, an ending I could write towards, a selection of characters which befitted this commitment. The muse, or whatever other vengeful god it is that sees to it we are required to make good on our outrageous boasting, obligingly answered my every question.

I wouldn't speak in such mystic terms, but seriously, it is sometimes pretty hard not to be superstitious. An entire novel plan fell into my lap in the space of about thirty hours right on the cusp of the best writing opportunity I've had in about three years.

So I wrote the damn thing. Well, in honesty, I wrote about half of it, padding frantically and egregiously. It's NaNo, there isn't time to stop and think about whether what you're writing really serves your final goals. The last day's progress included some pretty big I'm-definitely-editing-this-out-later moments; the main character's mother turned into an appauling comedic stereotype in the midst of an otherwise serious narrative about haunting and harassment, and I took a couple of thousand words to just tell a random unrelated ghost story mid-scene, for example.

But as of about 11:30 last night, I'd written my 50,000 words, in five days flat. Strangely, it's been physiologically the least debilitating NaNoWriMo I've ever done. I planned better, was careful to always get enough sleep, to take regular breaks, to make sure at least some of my snacks were healthy (cherry tomatoes are god's gift to the compulsive snacker). Today, apart from a slightly sore wrist, I feel great.

Whether that feeling will persist once I go back and look at what I've written remains to be seen. I do intend to finish a first draft this month, though I'm taking a couple of days off first. If you want to see me actually writing in real time, you can follow me on Twitch.tv, where I've been live-streaming most of my writing for the past few days (disclaimer: at the moment, it's just my Word doc, no webcam or anything, and I've no idea whether it's interesting to watch).

In the meantime, I'm off to look up the definition of 'month'.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Diversity

My books are not very diverse. In all my published work and in my trunk novels, I have never written a black character. I've never written an openly gay character, or one who is not cisgendered. I briefly approached disability as a topic with Dora in the first season of The Second Realm, but fell into at least one common failing of mainstream disability narratives - the disability-that-is-also-a-superpower (think Daredevil).

I could give narrative reasons for at least some of this, but that would be to paper over a genuine personal and creative blind spot. It's a problem I've been growing aware of for some time, but I think it's finally reaching the point of jumping from 'aware of' to 'actually not giving myself a free pass anymore'. (Even the fact that I could be aware of my problem without feeling motivated to deal with it is a symptom of the problem).

#Weneeddiversebooks has appeared prominently on my Twitter feed recently, with the launch of a new Indiegogo campaign, raising money to fund grants for authors, classroom campaigns and other activism in support of diverse authors and books. I've just donated, because part of the problem is that I very seldom encountered diversity in the books I read growing up.

But throwing money at other people won't fix my books or my writing. That would be Medici thinking - buying my way out of past sins. I need to learn how to write outside my own demographic.

For that, I need diverse books. There are no black characters in my books because I have carelessly, lazily imitated patterns established by the books I have read, which in my genre are overwhelmingly about white people, with other races either sensationalised or rendered as primitive savages (sometimes both at the same time). The same goes for disabled and LGBTQIA people.


It's not enough for me to contribute to the funding of diverse literature. I need to seek out whatever diverse literature exists and read it. I have (ballpark) twenty million words of epic fantasy on my bookcase, in which I can think, off the top of my head, of perhaps two well-written, non-stereotyped, non-sensationalised characters outside the straight, white, able, privileged norm. That's a big imbalance to redress.

And, of course, I need to fix the imbalance in my own work. That doesn't necessarily mean meeting some arbitrary quota of 'diverse characters', nor does it mean centering my storytelling on people whose lives I do not know from the inside - it's not my place to tell other people's stories, and doing so runs the risks of appropriation and misrepresentation. But I've got to stop writing worlds where the only race is white, the only sexuality is straight, and no character is disabled.

Fantasy novels present a reality that is not necessarily our own, but they are inescapably part of our reality - not necessarily presentations of it, but always representations of it. Diversity exists in our reality, so it must be represented in fantasy (the question of how is complex, interesting and difficult, but a topic for another time).

I don't know if I can fix The Second Realm, which I'm in the process of re-editing for a collected edition at the moment, and I'm not willing to abandon it outright (either by unpublishing it or leaving it in its current state), but I'll be choosing my next project very carefully. And, of course, following #weneeddiversebooks intently for everything I can learn.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

New Realms and Old

So, it's done then. The Second Realm is complete.

What the hell do I do now?

Actually, before I get to the future (...he said as if he wasn't entering it right now), I'd like to take a moment to look back over the series and what it's done for me.

I never actually wrote a blog post at the start of the project laying out my aims for it (though somewhere in the past three years I've convinced myself I did). In October of 2011, I'd just published Heaven Can Wait (which I might finally get around to republishing soon, but I'm not sure), and was two years into my PhD, with the hard part very much still ahead of me.

I wasn't sure how much attention I'd be able to give to my writing and platform-building over the coming couple of years, a concern that proved well-justified. I'd made what felt like a good start, joining a warm, passionate and very active community of authors spread out across social networking and the blogosphere, but it was very early days - this blog, for example, enjoyed less than a thousand pageviews in the month that The Second Realm launched (this month is on course to be the first to break 50k).

I felt a bit like I was trying to kindle (see what I did there?) a fire in a high wind. Constant attention would be needed to maintain progress, during a period in which I would have little attention to spare. A serial looked like a good option - a way to write, publish and promote in small chunks scattered through my otherwise busy life.

This wasn't just about promotion and platform-building, by the way. It was also about practicing and developing my craft. In the thirteen months November 2010-November 2011, I wrote five whole novels, and I knew I wasn't going to be able to do that again any time soon. My technique had improved markedly over the time and I didn't want to start back-sliding.

So The Second Realm had two purposes, really; to keep me writing and to keep me publishing. It wasn't, initially at least, intended to make any money. Episodes went out completely free (except for the few that I pushed onto Amazon, where I couldn't set 'free' as a price), and I'm not convinced that my introduction of pay-what-you-like mechanisms from season 2 onwards was a well-thought-out strategy.

Given those goals, I think I have to consider The Second Realm a success. I finished the thing, so I must have kept writing. Indeed, my writing has definitely benefitted, not just from repeated practice, but also from regular, robust feedback. As a writer, I've not degenerated, I've advanced.

As a platform-building exercise, the analysis has to be a bit more complex. On Smashwords, episodes and samples have been downloaded a total of over 9000 times, but while the persistent growth of that number over time entails continuing (and even growing) interest, it's not clear how much of that represents people actually reading my words. The same goes for the traffic on this blog, which has shot up over the last year - there's a lot of page-viewing happening, but not much visible sign of engagement (I get over a hundred spam comments a day, but that hardly counts).

Still, my storefront on Smashwords has 32 book covers on it, and the number 9000 is a pretty good calling-card. Money has trickled in, though not yet enough to justify the expense of getting a passport so I can apply to the US IRS for tax treaty status and actually collect my earnings.

The test will be whether there's significant carry-over into whatever I publish next, and that requires me to publish something. Which brings us up to date. I have several options, and would love nothing more than to go for all of them (I can't, after all, out-compete myself), but the demands of earning a living make that infeasible right now. When I make up my mind, you'll all be the first to know.

One thing that can't be underestimated is the value to my self-esteem and self-perception of having finished this thing. I don't feel like I have to cringe anymore when someone asks me 'yeah, but are you really an author, or are you just saying that?'. I can give them a link. Hopefully soon, I'll be able to hand them a physical copy of (at least part of) The Second Realm, or maybe hit them with it if they get really uppity about it.

Thanks for taking this journey with me. Here's to the next leg!