Thursday, June 30, 2011

Zombies Rule?

Several years ago I heard a talk by Nina Auerbach, author of OUR VAMPIRES, OURSELVES. She discussed the popularity of vampires in the media and the possibility that their dominance was waning. At the time, she predicted (partly on the basis of such movies as THE SIXTH SENSE) that ghosts would be the Next Big Thing in pop culture.

Vampires haven't faded into obscurity, by any means. They've been joined in urban fantasy and paranormal romance, however, by creatures such as werewolves, demons, angels, and witches. The main Next Big Thing in fiction and film, though, doesn't seem to be ghosts but zombies.

Why zombies? Personally, I don't see the attraction. They don't have nearly so much versatility as vampires (which display many different faces in both literature and folklore), and they lack the potential romantic allure of werewolves and demons. Does the theory that zombies symbolize a revulsion against the pervasiveness of "faceless" bureaucracies and mass market consumerism in our society account for their recent explosion in popularity? Do we have a horror of the mindless shambling hordes? Or a horror of BECOMING part of the mindless shambling hordes? Or does the zombie motif reflect a secular mindset that finds an afterlife in the all too physical body more believable than an ethereal afterlife in spirit (ghosts)? Or what?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Big Love Sci-Fi: Part 2, The Drama of Illness In Fiction

Last week we began a series of discussions I titled Big Love Sci-Fi after a comment by Heather Massey over at Galaxy Express. 

That one is titled Sex Without Borders, and talks about this week's Parallel Universes series on Galaxy Express where the following Romance Authors will be posting during RWA.
This is at:

(all post times are EST)

June 28

9 am Jacqueline Lichtenberg

3 pm A.K. Norris

June 29

9 am Gini Koch

3 pm Marcella Burnard

June 30

9 am Diane Dooley

3 pm Yolanda Sfetsos

July 1

9 am Lilly Cain

July 2

9 am Lisa Paitz Spindler

So now to the topic of Big Love Sci-Fi -- is the SFR genre big enough to contain Love?  Or does it have to split?

I've got so much going on and so much "pending" (such as the arrival of a new computer), and as always happens in times of big stress, I caught a cold.  Or maybe some kind of flu, despite flu shot.

Whatever it is, it's going around this community, so no biggie.

Or is it?

Usually, in fiction, trivia like physical functions such as elimination, sneezing, etc are just left out of the narrative.  It's assumed people take care of themselves in the blank spots between scenes.

The most famous example I can think of at the moment is the lack of restrooms in Star Trek's Enterprise bridge area in the original design. Fans eventually pointed this out, so they put in some. 

One of the weakest skills among novelists, even some very well published writers, is scene structure and scene transitions.

I've written a lot about scene structure here:

That link has a link to Part 1 in it. 

Novelists have a hard time learning screenwriting because in a novel, you can get away with letting a scene wander on too long, with starting a scene too soon, and with describing all the character's movements from one scene to the next.

Readers just skip the boring parts.

Novelists often use traveling and looking at the scenery as an excuse to tell not show the reader all the interesting background that the reader really doesn't need to understand yet.

I was reminded of scene structure this morning as I watched a (time-shifted) episode of the television series IN PLAIN SIGHT. Hot sex scene: FLIP : working a case scene.  Or working a case scene: FLIP : dinner with ex-husband. 

It's in the FLIP (called a CUT) black screen section that the characters do things like going to the bathroom, changing clothes, cleaning their guns, calling to straighten out a billing error, sneezing.  The viewer infers they've done these things because they are real people living real lives.  But these things aren't relevant to the plot.

Last week, (6/21/2011) we talked about the "borders" in life that create dramatic tension.

Big Love Sci-Fi: Sex Without Borders.

Part of what we've seen as our modern culture shifts is an erasing of the borders of "privacy" -- and in Romance that has generated the sex scene placed right at the beginning of the novel. Today, sex is viewed as mere recreation by a lot of people, and studied as such in university courses on psychological counseling.  The public may be almost ready for the swing back in the other direction.  So a study of "privacy" in our culture is important for writers. 

One of the other sorts of functions that triggers our desire for "privacy" is illness. 

When you're sick, you just want to crawl into a dark corner or hole and not have to talk to anyone or even move.  Just breathing is hard enough, forget the world.

Mostly, in a family situation, you don't get a chance to do that.  Either people want you to go right on doing your chores for the house, or they want to keep you in bed and take care of you.

Either way, your privacy in a family situation is just plain gone.

Our society today seems to be trying to define the entire human species as one family, wherein there is no such thing as privacy, just as in a small living group, family, clan, tribe, whatever. 

Whether that's good or bad is mostly irrelevant until you get down to choosing a theme for your story.  At some point in the creative process, you will have to take a stand on the issue, but first look at all sides of the matter and find characters committed to each side.  You will then have to create the arguments for each side of the issue.

In the structuring of scenes, then, you must choose how to present the background beat of ongoing trivia.

In science fiction, those bits of trivia are the author's chance to insert relevant (only relevant) worldbuilding tidbits that will figure into the ending.

"She spent three days fighting a case of Arcturian Flu, slept off the fever and woke to a rainy dawn."

Or, if Arcturian Flu is not relevant to understanding the resolution at the end, then it would read:

"Three days later, she woke to a dismal morning."

The thing is illness is boring, especially if it's minor, does not involve the character's "arc" (or lesson the character learns because of the events of the story) or doesn't affect the character's ability to perform during the next challenge.

Even if Arcturian Flu is relevant to the ending, it might not advance the main character's arc, so someone else would come down with it.

Likewise bathroom scenes are boring unless they involve a "development" to the plot-line such as a ghost appearing in the steamy mirror, a lipstick message on the toilet cover, or a much needed, relaxing hot shower during which the main character gets an idea.

You're in the same danger zone when writing a sex scene. It's sort of difficult to understand why a sex scene could be boring, but someone mentioned that on Twitter recently and it stuck in my mind.

How can sex be boring? 

When privacy lines are not crossed!

Think about it.  Sexual activity (well, maybe except in some SF novels) requires physical contact, intimate contact, and almost by definition an invasion of privacy.

That's why sexuality is so fascinating to adolescents.

In adolescence, we first discover the personal need for privacy.  The crossing of that barrier or line is what makes teen-sex so titilating -- it's "forbidden" by the nature of the discovery of personal identity and sovereignty.  In adolescence, we push our "borders" outward so that we are sovereign over a larger "space."  If that process is interrupted with sexuality too soon, psychological health can be affected for the rest of the life.  (just consider parents reading a teen's mail!)

So loss of virginity is a redefinition of "privacy."

"Love" can be seen as the inclusion of someone else inside that bubble of privacy we work so hard to push our family out of.  

Kids are usually sick a lot, and get used to being cared for and kept in bed.  Thus being sick and having someone "invade" your private space is part of your identity.  It may actually feel good to an adult if they were treated well as a child.  .

Hence we have the plethora of fanfic stories in the now recognized genre called "Hurt/Comfort." 

In Hurt/Comfort, the stronger character of the couple loses self-sufficiency in some way (illness, sexual vulnerability, or an injury) and the weaker character becomes the stronger of the two, offering "comfort." 

"Comfort" in this definition is an invasion of privacy, and the most potent stories in this genre use a stronger character who would (if possible) resist being cared for physically.

That rejection of needed care is often seen as a masculine trait, but it's really just human.

So think about all this in terms of your reader's real life assumptions about where that "privacy" line is drawn, and what kind of dramatic tension can be built (and yes you have to build it by foreshadowing, worldbuilding, characterization, and especially plot) to separate the "private" from the "public" functions in your character's life.

Then you can play with your reader's unconscious assumptions and build a profound and meaningful resolution of the "privacy conflict."

Any Romance, SF or Paranormal, has to have that tension across the "Privacy threshold" but it might not be the central conflict that has to be resolved in the end.

If you need to learn more about "privacy" as handled by various human civilizations, read some books on anthropology.  And I especially recommend Edward T. Hall's book The Silent Language.

Language, body and spoken, shifts as we cross the privacy threshold.

Let your character's behavior reflect that, and they will seem more real to the reader.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg (for new Sime~Gen novels)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Argus-Eyed Parents and YA Fiction

YA spec-fic writer Diane Duane, author of the Young Wizards series, on over-controlling parents, with particular reference to books:

Eyes in the Peacock's Tail

One of my favorite bits:

"To have somebody ruling yes/no on every aspect of my life until I was eighteen? There’s a word for that kind of life. It’s jail. (And some of you will probably recall J.R.R. Tolkien coming up with something similar in a discussion of the value of the literature of escape. “Who are the people most concerned with the possibility of escape?” he asked. “The jailers.”)

"I do not accept that life for kids is all that much more dangerous than it was when I grew up. I just don’t. The difference between now and fifty years ago is that we now openly discuss the dangers that were often only whispered about half a century ago."

And Duane should know, being a former psychiatrist as well as a YA author.

Needless to say, I completely agree with her. Parents shouldn't try to control their children's reading, especially by the time the kids reach double-digit ages. In most cases, material that might "corrupt" the young mind's "innocence" goes over their heads and bores them. They abandon the book altogether or skip over the parts that don't presently "speak to their condition." Furthermore, one never knows how a reader of any age will react to a particular work of fiction. Audiences often respond to books in ways the author never expected.

Diane Duane again: "Books interact directly with the imagination in an essentially noncontrollable way that movies and TV and computer games do not. After all, when you sit down to watch a TV show or a movie with your child, you can at least verify that you’re being presented with the same imagery and deriving generally the same meanings from it. But you can’t be sure of that with a book: the reader does so much of the work in his or her own head."

Freedom of thought should be sacrosanct, even for people under the age of majority. As Duane phrases it, what I put into my brain is my own business.

My parents had very little idea of most of what I was reading in my teens—thank goodness!

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Big Love Sci-Fi Part I - Sex Without Borders

I'd been thinking about the relationship between Sex and Romance for a couple of weeks before Heather Massey invited me to participate in "Parallel Universe 2011."

-----HEATHER MASSEY-------

Greetings from The Galaxy Express! Once again, it’s time for Parallel Universe, and I would love to have you aboard for my biggest science fiction romance event of the summer.

Parallel Universe 2011 will be the virtual SFR gathering for those unable to attend the Romance Writers of America’s 31th Annual National Conference. From Monday, June 28 until Saturday, July 2, The Galaxy Express will feature a series of guest posts from a variety of authors. Therefore, I’m inviting you to submit a post for it.

The theme of this year’s Parallel Universe is the craft of writing science fiction romance.

-------END QUOTE----------

So I wrote her a "short" entry titled

What's Wrong With So Much Pounding Sex?

Galaxy Express URL is  for the top of the site.

The Parallel Universe posting begins June 28, with a post in the morning and another one in the afternoon.  At this writing I'm not sure when my post will go up, but you'll probably want to read whatever's up there.

And Heather wrote back something very interesting.


Your second to last paragraph reminded me of something I read in the latest Entertainment Weekly. A writer there reviewed Mieville's Embassytown and described it as "Big Idea Sci-Fi." That made me wonder what SFR was--"Big Love Sci-Fi"?

------ END QUOTE -----------

Yes, Heather admits she was a fan of the HBO series "Big Love."  

Hence the title of this series on the way SFR and PNR currently handles graphic sex, how it was handled, maybe how it will be handled in the future -- and how all that very abstract philosophical ruminating relates directly to the writing craft techniques Heather's Parallel Universe postings highlight.

SIDEBAR: Watch your world for odd "coincidences" because they might not be all so random.  For more on how random chance might not be random see my series on Tarot (hopefully soon to be released as e-books)  is an index to my posts on Tarot. 

As I'm sure someone on the Galaxy Express Parallel Universe series will point out, random coincidence has a place in novel plotting but it's very difficult to use properly.  We'll have to study that in depth at some point, but meanwhile check out this neat calculator that makes a "cloud" of author's names.  When you put "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" at the center, Mieville shows up on the right periphery!  Or at least he did while I was writing this post.

Most Romance readers, historically, don't read backlist, or at least they haven't until recently.

Here is a review of one of my novels, Dushau, on the Galaxy Express, by a reader who is finding treasures in backlist e-Books:

I found the comments to that post especially interesting.  

The publishing industry still believes modern readers of current novels won't read older novels.  

Romance and Science Fiction/Fantasy genre publishers put a book out on the shelves for a couple of weeks and then trash it or abandon it.  Stores don't restock these titles unless they're published at the "top of the list" (i.e. that in the publisher's catalog, that book is listed first, then stores stock it, and if it sells, they reorder.  If it's not listed as the #1 title of the month, it does not get restocked when the 3 or 5 copies on the shelf sell. )

Amazon has changed that.  Titles stay available sometimes for a couple of years or much more. But still I've found recently published Romance titles simply unavailable at Amazon after a few years.

So when a publisher is no longer "supporting" a title, the frustrated author and especially her fans, have no way to get the book. 

In the science fiction venue, used books sell and resell, and there's a huge collector's market.

So Romance and other genre writers who have some best selling titles, and a list of awards to their names, started retrieving the rights to old titles and re-issuing them in e-book on Kindle, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, etc etc.

Right on the heels of this several groups of writers got together on Facebook and Yahoo Groups and began communicating.

Out of that, Backlist e-Books was founded as a group of mass market and hardcover writers with backlist books they are posting and promoting themselves. 

See the list of writers who are doing their own backlist titles here

I've pointed you to this Group here previously, and I'm tracking the significance of this trend as it develops.

"Backlist" means titles that have either gone out of print or been remaindered and forgotten.  They aren't available from publisher's warehouses anymore, so stores and online outlets don't stock them.  Used book dealers and E-bay might, or might not.

Now these books are at your fingertips on Kindle and so on, and they are very reasonably priced, too.

And a whole new world is emerging, driven by "marketing."

Reading these old titles is often (if the writer didn't update the text when re-issuing their own book) like watching old movies.

It's a glimpse into how the world worked before cell phones, texting, the web, social networking.

The change in how we live is significant, and so reading such titles is extremely educational.  It's especially illuminating for younger people because the entire social attitude toward sexuality has changed.

There is a stark if not sharp dividing line in how sexuality is presented in Romance.

In one decade, the sex scenes (if there were any at all) were all handled in "go to black." 

"Go to black" is the camera direction in screenwriting for inserting a black screen -- i.e. you know it's happening, but you don't see it.

In Romance genre, very often THE END was the point where they first kiss, and that kiss is chaste and tentative by today's standards.

Physical sexuality was implied, but you didn't see it.  If you didn't know, nobody was going to instruct you in print or on screen.

These two fiction delivery channels have developed in parallel.

We see bloody violence on screen that would never have been accepted by audiences before a certain decade.

It's not that bloody violence or graphic sex wasn't "permitted," but that it wouldn't sell because people didn't want it.  Nobody ever thought to prohibit such depictions in "art" because there was no market for it, at least not a mass market.  

If they did want it, they went to side-venues, not major theaters or printed novels.  (yeah, porn shops but such things were not spoken of in polite company)

As pornography pushed into larger markets, more obvious public places, a public out-cry caused laws to be made trying to get that trash out of view of the children.  Times Square used to be a place where you'd take the kids and let them roam around by themselves -- nobody had to chase the porn shops away because there weren't any.  The generation in charge of things didn't want private things shown in public.  That generation died off, and things changed. 

What would have been considered porn in those days is now available on WalMart's book shelves and video section.

"Sex sells" was the touchstone of publishing, theater, and film even in the 1940's. 1930's - well, forever actually.

It isn't that sexuality wasn't there in early Romance novels.  Readers of those novels got just as much of a charge out of reading without explicit sex scenes as you do with them.

But society as a whole kept a border line between what we do and say in public and what we do and say in private.  And privacy was private, not spoken of or depicted in public.

Today the entire concept of "privacy" is melting away, if it's not gone completely. Today women wearing dresses instead of tight pants must subject themselves to a stranger's hands sliding over private parts just for the privilege of traveling to see a grandchild.  There was a time when anyone suggesting such a thing would have been lynched. 

I'm not taking a political position here, but pointing out a cultural shift in BORDER, or perhaps a melting of the concept "border" between private and public.

Today candidates must "disclose" private financial information.  Simply maintaining an "identity" to do business, online or offline, you must disclose information about yourself that was once considered inside the borders of privacy. Just filling out an application for a job requires disclosure of very private information and you have no idea whose eyes will see it. 

Our current culture is speeding toward a situation where there is no such thing as "private" -- and government considers anything you want to keep private as something you are keeping secret from those who have authority over you in order to protect others from you.

Running parallel to these developments in our general society, there has been the trend toward ever more explicit sex scenes in Romance, Paranormal Romance (PNR) or Fantasy Romance, and even Science Fiction Romance and Science Fiction itself.

Today a typical PNR starts with a sex scene, usually violent and erotic.

Don't consider whether this is "good" or "bad" or a sign of moral corruption or anything like that. You'll just get too angry to think about what this all means, and you won't get to learn the writing technique involved here.  

You might want to spend some time thinking about whether the art leads society or follows it.  Or both. 

But do think about how the art in the mass market genre fields reflects society as a whole. 

You as a writer can't change this Romance market back by writing Romances that have no sex scenes. Publishers won't buy them, and if you self-publish them, you won't sell very many.

There's a thriving (and growing) side-market in Christian Romance that is much more chaste. You might sell some there, but if you're not writing with the specific faith angle, that venue won't publish your novel.

There are a number of (very good) Erotic Romance publishers online doing mostly e-book editions -- and that extreme erotica market is growing fast, too.

Those are the two ends of this Romance-spectrum market, but most readers are found in the middle.

The "Big Love" Romance, PNR or SFR, novel that will get the kinds of celebratory reviews that Mieville's Embassytown is garnering has to appeal to that central audience.  So it has to depict the world the reader perceives around her/himself -- a world where there's no PRIVACY BORDER anymore, a world where the moment you meet someone who turns you on, you have sex with them.

There's a much-cited rule of thumb that defines where a girl stands with her self-esteem -- "No sex until the third date."

It's a little like "I don't drink until after 5PM." 

Such rules beg to be broken in fiction, of course. And they lead to this whole controversy over what exactly constitutes a date, what counts as something that gets you closer to being allowed to have sex without loss of self-esteem? 

The question of how much of your privacy you give up to a stranger leads to the questions what constitutes a stranger, and how do you define privacy?

Think about that.  Is there anything left that our society acknowledges is PRIVATE? And is it on the chopping block?

Why do you think teenagers get into such trouble on Facebook?

Where are the borders in our world now?

The social borders are a writer's main source material for conflict, which is the essence of story.

There's a lot more to be said on the topic of BIG LOVE SCI-FI, exploring the sacred and the profane, the body and soul, the heart and mind, the normal and the paranormal, the private and the secret.

It's all about the mystery of life which is the substance of art.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Game-Playing Chimps

Chimpanzees can learn to play video games!

Chimpanzees and Human Awareness

The significant dimension of this achievement is that the chimps can distinguish which game characters they control, suggesting that they have a "sense of self" similar to human beings.

It's already known that chimps, along with a few other animals, recognize themselves in mirrors. As more evidence accumulates that these apes share self-awareness with us, one can't help feeling increased uneasiness about keeping them in zoos and labs.

On the other hand, some critics of popular culture might say playing video games isn't necessarily a sign of advanced intelligence. :)

Which leads back to the classic SF question: How can we be sure we'll recognize intelligence when we meet it on another planet?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Genre: The Root Of All Decisions

Last week I responded to the confusion one reader of these posts who is also a writer expressed.
In the course of that post I said:

That's right - genre shapes the world of entertainment so that what you may may have access to, or may discover first, depends entirely on what others want rather than on what you want (or really need).  So you learn to be satisfied with what others want - and in a way that's "good" because it allows you to "fit in" and to discuss what others know about. In another way, though, it sows confusion within you about "who" you really are, what your purpose in life is, and how that relates you to everyone else.  

This situation (which is changing so fast it's confusing) has profound consequences for writers, readers, and probably human civilization.

Marketing is based these days on some mathematical principles I discussed in a previous post here:

One principle of marketing I didn't discuss in any depth is information overload.

Way back in the 1970's Alvin Toffler (a journalist) wrote a book titled FUTURE SHOCK, which I urge you to acquire and read.  It's had many printings and you should be able to find it easily. 

That is a link to a "study guide" to Future Shock -- on Kindle.  That book is so important it's still being studied, and I think younger people probably need the "guide" because many of the then-contemporary references are now obscure after only 40 years.

In this book, Toffler pointed out to the general reading public something that only SF writers and readers, and some scientists, were discussing.

Remember the World Wide Web only began in 1990 with the creation of HTTP, hypertext, the code for web pages.

In the 1980's, there were Lists and Bulletin Boards proliferated, but only a few neighborhoods had dial-up services that allowed you to get your computer to read these Boards.  Every Christmas, the access to the Boards would clog up and become impossible as the number of people with a modem increased 10-fold or more via gifts.

Through the 1990's fiber optic cables were laid at a frantic pace, all based on a lie deliberately told by a corporation head -- about the rate of increase of the amount of information being transmitted on "the web."

The lie led to the dot-com bubble bursting in 2000's.

Now, in 2011, we're seeing "slowdowns" again as data transmission maxes out what fiber was laid and lit.  (also as corps fight government for control of traffic patterns and volumes)

All of this was foreseeable by Toffler in the 1970's.

The core of the issue, for Romance readers and writers anyway, has two nuclei.

A) The basic hardwired LIMIT of the human brain & emotions for decision making

B) The available strategies that attract the most people trying to deal with those hardwired limits being exceeded

Marketers (who invented genre and continually re-define it) know what neuroscientists discovered around the time Toffler was writing.

The human brain's wiring allows a human to make a certain number of decisions during a wake-period (i.e. per day).

Then you have to sleep. 

Confusion sets in as that limit is reached.

Modern living (cell phones, texting, web-surfing via phone, at work, etc) has an increased number of decisions per day built into the infrastructure.

Agricultural living centuries ago didn't require any such pace of decision making, except maybe when being over-run by invaders.

And then there would be a few days of stark terror, followed by bare survival, followed by resuming the slow pace.

Google saw the opportunity in the information overload situation and has made good sorting information out, and sorting real information from noise (i.e. spam).

But now even Google brings up thousands of pages on almost any search terms.  How do you sort the sort?

Also CNN made good by deploying camera/news crews all over the world, making them satellite broadcast capable, carrying their own batteries, able to report on anything anywhere at any time.  That opened a flood of information sources that was simply overwhelming, in spite of very professional editing.

See my blogs on what is an editor.  This one has a list of the previous ones in the series:

The CNN you see today does not in any way resemble the CNN that dominated cable news for a decade.

There's more reason for that than merely political slant.

The reason, (from an SF writer/ futurologist point of view) is rooted in item B) above -- available strategies that attract people.

The influx of sheer information is causing a whole generation that is now in their 40's to fight back by ignoring information such as CNN specialized in providing.

In the 1990's, information (live visuals from around the world) was a novelty, and the events seemed "important" simply because we never would have known had CNN not had a crew on the spot.

20 years later, world events don't seem so important.  They are on every TV channel -- hundreds of channels that didn't exist in 1990 -- and on the Web newsfeeds (which didn't exist then) -- and now in newspapers delivered to your iPad or Kindle.

What is common, what floods in with force and abundance, becomes "cheap" and therefore uninteresting.

But it's uninteresting for another reason.  The human brain can accept just so much information in one day, and that's it. 

As the limit is reached, each successive incoming item is less interesting.  The nervous system can't respond to being jerked around like that (yes, this is relevant to Romance novels - very relevant).

Bombarded and stressed to actual, inherent, hardwired physical limits, people fight back by ignoring.

All of this flood of information has been added on top of what we are hardwired to prioritize -- child-care, getting money, food, shelter, and paying attention to those intimate individuals inside our lives more than the faceless strangers outside our lives.

So TV news has become soap opera, a hard-news story such as the tornados in the central USA in April/May gives a few facts then cuts away to quotes from victims giving personal "color" to the story, making it a story rather than an information dump.

Those who want to make headlines (politicians, ax grinders) start squabbles and sling insults at each other.  So-and-so said such-and-such about whoever.  Whoever answered by trashing So-and-so.

Since when is name-calling news?

And what has that to do with Romance?

Oh, it has everything to do with Romance. 

Readers of novels seek out a novel to GET AWAY FROM the information dump, the stress of being required to learn stuff (yes, neuroscientists have measured the number of things a human brain can learn between sleeps, too, and it's a hardwired limit)

But what is the process of "seeking out a novel" these days?

Well, that process has changed markedly, and will change even more.

But here's one clue quantified by marketers.

As with the fight to be at the top of Google's search results page for your keyword, the fight for your attention pervades e-space.

Marketers have discovered that most people (probably not you, if you're over 40 and an SF reader) will CHOOSE FROM the first 3 to 5 items they come across.

A purchase will be made if there are 3 or 4 choices.  If there are more than 5 choices offered, the customer will more likely wander off into confusion, unable to MAKE A DECISION.

There you are, 10 novels almost identical (all labeled Romance) -- choose one.  Most people won't choose.

There you are facing 3 Romance novels.  Pick.  Flip-flip, oh, that's interesting, CLICK BUY NOW.

People act decisively when there are fewer things to compare.

That's hardwired into the basic human brain, and remember the fog of confusion that sets in when an individual is reaching a decision-limit for the day.

These days, with all the influx of information, the demand for decisions, the need to learn new procedures for doing things you always used to do without thinking -- (I have to discuss my adventures with my new iPod as a Kindle reader, but that's another topic, yet intimately related) -- each and every one of us is walking around maxed out by noon every day.

Yeah, by noon or halfway through your day whenever you started, you've pretty much learned as many things as you can for the day, made as many decisions as you can, and the "fog" begins to set in.  By 3PM or the equivalent for you, forget it.

Now, I've been reading a whole lot of urban fantasy with contemporary settings, lots of fantasy (a few really good SF novels I have to talk about in my review column), and just lots of fiction.

I can't even scratch the surface.  There are more books than ever on my to-read stack, and I can't DECIDE to discard unread ones!!!  Too many decisions. What if I miss something important.

Yet no way can I read it all.

So I can't say my cross-section analysis is as good as it has ever been.  I know I'm missing out on some things.

But -- I think I've found something that may exemplify a trend.

We all know the social analysts have compiled statistics on the changes sexual mores in the USA, maybe the world.  These trends among readers show up in what editors demand of writers -- the way they promulgate a formula for a Romance line.  That is, so many sex scenes of such and so length, such and so amount of graphic language, and various situations that must be there and others that must not.

Westerns used to have some of that kind of formula behind them, but that formulaic approach is one reason the Romance Genre as a whole does not acquire more respect. 

But it's also one of the reasons Romance sells so much better than most other genres.

After the relentless pounding our nerves take in a day, when we're totally maxed out on learning and deciding, we want to read something that's predictable while fresh and new, and that soothes the nerves rather than challenges.

So what's the trend?

With Romance genre reading as a background, readers are venturing into other sub-genres such as Fantasy-Romance or SF-Romance, or Paranormal Romance (all of which I devour ravenously).

And what I'm seeing in the way writers are crafting the romance branch of the plot parallels what we see in everyday life, the way people conduct their "real" lives.

The trend I want to point out here is one about how writers depict Relationships forming in a Romance.

It must be 20 years now since the moral standard emerged that says serial monogamy is not "sleeping around." 

The standard has become to test drive a boyfriend before getting really serious.

Triangle Situation Romances are bleeding into SF and Paranormal sub-genres with these assumptions firmly in place. 

And of course the plot revolves around the woman making a choice between boyfriends.

Do you see where I'm going?


Test drive your guys until you find "the right one" -- the one who delivers the best sex, or the best sense of self-worth, or security, or sense of danger, or whatever you're looking for or need in a guy.

But our exterior, non-relationship, world floods us with more information than we can tolerate, and our defense is to ignore most and depend entirely on "editors" to select what we really need to know and present it in 90-second bytes called "news."

We have to ignore even those 90-second news items in order to have the capacity to evaluate all the information gathered on test-driven guys.

We test-drive so many guys, collect so much information about all of them, we end up not deciding. 

I think the buy-decision research that shows offering a customer too many choices results in the customer wandering off without making a purchase explains the plethora of "ex's" littering so many people's lives.

The "arranged marriage" allows you only one choice.

"Playing the field" drowns you in too much information, resulting in no-decision.

Marrying your High School sweetheart or the boy-next-door may soon come back into fashion, simply because the number of choices are fewer and therefore a decision is made.

Now, what if misery results from a bad choice made too young in life?

That brings us back to what I said at the top here:

So you learn to be satisfied with what others want - and in a way that's "good" because it allows you to "fit in" and to discuss what others know about. In another way, though, it sows confusion within you about "who" you really are, what your purpose in life is, and how that relates you to everyone else.  

"Learn to be satisfied with what others want" -- in choosing a guy, that means succumbing to the social pressure to be married and have kids (or adopt).  You then have to make do with the husband you have, somehow making your peace with the flaws.

Perhaps the Romance genre will revive the scene of the neighborhood kaffee klatches where the mothers sit around minding the kids and bitching about their husbands -- learning thereby that everyone has something to bitch about and that's what binds us together.

In the 1970's, women's lib became the "what others want" that you had to be satisfied with, as it became the norm for married women to work for a living.

In the 1950's, prevailing opinion among working men was that a man ought to be paid more than a woman because a man had a family to support.  If the man wasn't paid more for his work, his wife would have to work, and if she did that his children would not grow up to be happy, well adjusted human beings.

I kid thee not!!!  That was indeed the rationale.

Today I don't know many families where both spouses don't have careers.  These are people raising kids who were raised by two working parents.

OK, today many households have one or the other spouse out of work.  Let's hope that's really temporary! 

SFR premise though - suppose the current hard-recession, double-dip recession or mini-depression the USA is in leads to working spouses being paid double and the other spouse staying home to care for kids?

It might put daycare centers out of work, or shorten school hours depending on non-working parent to do the rest of the schooling.

That could reshape society again. 

Since the real problem shaking the roots of our society is the Information Explosion Alvin Toffler discussed, sheltering one parent (doesn't matter which gender) from the pounding the workplace inflicts could produce the kind of excess decision-making-capacity in that non-working parent that is necessary to have patience with kids.

Now, what would that generation of kids grow up to be like?  More like the adults of the 1980's, pre-web?

Do you suppose Road Rage is the result of Information Overload?

I saw a series of clips from YouTube focusing on fistfights, hair-pulling catfights, and one really horrid shooting the other day. 

In most cases where images of violence between people having an argument over something petty have made it to the top of YouTube, the scene shows many other people just standing around.  No help offered.  No attempt to quell the hitting or bullying.  No interference.  NO DECISION.

We see the general public (via YouTube and handy phone-video) having turned indecisive if not indifferent or ignoring of new information such as "somebody might be hurt."

I can't believe this is because a majority of people just don't care about other people.  I can't believe this is because violence against strangers or even family members in public is approved of. Yes, some of these videos might be staged, but why would anyone watch videos of people ignoring a fight in a public place?  It's amusing because it illustrates how the viewer feels inside.  Apathetic, foggy, due to information overload.

We're just maxed out on decision making all day every day, just as Toffler discussed. 

Being maxed-out is affecting the way we choose a spouse, the way we raise our kids (letting the over-indulge in video games; using the TV as babysitter), and the way we interact with strangers in public (not getting involved because that could lead to even more decisions to make.)

And it affects how marketers market books at us -- limit choices in order to get a sale.

Take the marketer's thinking into account when you decide what genre to write in -- or to mix-n-match, or to invent a totally new genre and hope for your book to become a "market maker" like Harry Potter. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg Unlimited

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The "Superhighway"

Americans and their illegal immigrants may well not be the world's worst drivers... but they are bad, and getting worse.

The same applies to the superhighway of the internet, if some of the supremely ignorant and selfish comments by law-breakers and renegades can be believed.

I wonder whether there is a connection?
Jacqueline Lichtenberg starts her world-building with the sun... "a sun", I should say. That's a very good place to start. However, one might start with roads and highways if one wishes to examine a society's descent into lawlessness and anarchy.

I'm reminded of the Max Max movies!

Next time you go driving, or are driven, take a look around you. See a car moving dangerously slowly? Chances are, the driver is texting. See a car weaving within the lane, or drifting out of the lane? The driver is driving with her thighs, while smoking/using the cell phone/eating/drinking. It is simply horrendous what people do, because they can and because they assume that they will never get caught.

In my opinion, which I concede may be wrong, the root of the problem (not everyone would think of it as a problem) is No-Fault Insurance, and a Highway Code riddled with loopholes. "Stop at a red light.... unless you think it is safe to turn right, or left, or across or into oncoming traffic." And then, there are the facilitators of law-breaking, who sell radar detectors, so a speed-limit-defying driver can know where the speed traps are, and special coatings to cover your license plate, so the police cannot identify the law-breakers. Google is probably one of many superhighway equivalents. In fact, every OSP and ISP that helps people remain anonymous on the internet is an enabler. One could stretch the similes almost to infinity.

So... if you are still with me... in your alien romance world, are there rules of the road or jet lanes or airways? How are they enforced? Who enforces them? Are there the alien, interstellar equivalents of transponders? Are their "weigh stations" as well as "way stations"? Are there toll booths? There could be. Perhaps there ought to be a toll booth and Customs at the entrance to every wormhole and event horizon and star gate. Would that slow the action? Or would one end up with interstellar Dukes Of Hazzard?

Linnea Sinclair's worlds are very well planned particularly in this respect. Remember the mollytrock scene?
Inevitably, I think, most sfr stories are most likely to deal with the regulations of ports and harbours, landings dockings and departures, quarantines and escapes.

In my Alien Djinn worlds, the Imperial Family owns the airspace. If you own the air, and are unscrupulous, there is no end to what you can do. (I'm tempted to offend grammarians and write "what you can conveniently do," so I will!)

For instance, why drop bombs? It would be so much simpler to do a Midwich Cuckoo job, gas everyone (with a humane and harmless gas), and then send in the boots to arrest the senseless undesirables. Or, do a Day Of The Triffids fireworks show and temporarily blind everyone (I know, the blinding was permanent in DOTT.)

In Knight's Fork, I had a lot of fun with air traffic control. I spent a couple of hours talking to pilots about jet streams and how transponders worked, and what air traffic controllers can do to control air traffic, and about the almost Regency Romance levels of barbs within excruciatingly polite, recorded verbal transmissions.

Basically, what happens in a world where their choices are rather binary: they can talk you down, or send someone to shoot you down? No midway twixt these extremes.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, I fantasize about what would happen if I were to use my horn (there don't seem to be too many observed rules about the use of the horn in America... one uses a double parp to satisfy oneself that one has, indeed, succeeded in locking the car doors, also one honks to inform persons within the house that one is waiting) to disrupt illegal use of a handheld cellphone that is apparently distracting a driver.

Sigh. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Genderless Baby

I could hardly believe it when I read about these parents, who decided not to reveal the sex of their baby, Storm, to anyone outside the family. It's so—seventies:

Genderless Baby

The story immediately reminded me of the 1978 book X: A FABULOUS CHILD'S STORY, by Lois Gould (which that article mentions as an inspiration for Storm's parents). In that book, the toddler known only as X wears colorful overalls and a unisex haircut. He or she, portrayed as completely happy and healthy, opens the minds and hearts of his or her friends to the freedom of exploring the full range of our society's options for children, regardless of social gender.

Several professionals are quoted to the effect that bringing up Storm genderless will gravely confuse him or her. (That's a problem right there; since we don't live on the planet of LeGuin's LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, what do we do about pronouns? And even LeGuin had a problem, using "he" instead of choosing to create a sex-neutral personal pronoun, because her alien characters inevitably came across as masculine despite her best efforts.) Storm will supposedly have self-concept problems because our sexual identity is such an integral part of our personality. Lois Gould's picture book stated that X knew whether X was a boy or a girl, and by the time it mattered everybody else would know, too. Presumably Storm will be in the same situation as he or she grows up. I do wonder how long a real-world toddler will be able to keep from letting the secret slip out, though.

As SF readers and writers, we're presumably more used to thinking about gender and sexuality in multivalent, innovative terms than the general public. Do you think Storm's parents are being "unfair" to their child by making the baby the subject of this experiment? Does Storm's case have any light to throw on the situations of transgender or intersex people? I've read that intersex conditions are more common than generally realized, and most of the people born with such biological ambiguities are forced to choose one sex or the other, or often have a sex assigned to them in infancy long before they can make a choice.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Genre: The Root Of All Confusion

A while ago I did a post titled Genre: The Root Of All Evil.

Since then the issue of defining genre has come up on many twitter chats, for example on #bookchat which is about marketing, and #scifichat which ranges all over the "fantastic" -- and where even the very erudite experts have a hard time classifying a work.

Recently, a comment emerged addressed to me via
 in response to another blog post I did here on aliendjinnromances
MIRIAM wrote: JL, this is where I most recently 'caught up with you'. Usually I see you on Twitter and its been a while. I was humbled into submission about the SWFA membership pieces and am still baffled by the genre difference - lol, is that like gender difference?, between my first and second novels. The 2nd isn't even SF, but still feels like it 'should be' because 'I am' or something irrational but mysteriously truthful like that.

Here's my reply substantially embroidered from what I wrote Miriam.

"Genre" is an invention mostly I think of "marketers" trying to figure out how to "account for taste" so that if you like one novel, they can then supply you an endless chain of novels "just like that only different."

Here are a couple of my blog entries on accounting for taste:
And on "the same but different" (a Hollywood term)
Astrology Part 8 is about "the beat sheet" and why it works commercially.

"Genre" is about selling (or marketing) professionally.

Art is totally different.

Art is about saying what you were born to say to the people you were born to talk to, to help, to scold, to enlighten, whatever.  Art is about your purpose in life while making money is about staying alive long enough to complete that purpose.

Since Genre is in fact an artificial construct, its borders and definitions are subject to whimsical change without notice as public taste, and "markets" (i.e. groups of people who like one thing, like Harry Potter fandom) shift and change, influenced by successful marketing of another product.

That's right - genre shapes the world of entertainment so that what you may may have access to, or may discover first, depends entirely on what others want rather than on what you want (or really need).  So you learn to be satisfied with what others want - and in a way that's "good" because it allows you to "fit in" and to discuss what others know about. In another way, though, it sows confusion within you about "who" you really are, what your purpose in life is, and how that relates you to everyone else. 

The Internet, (interweb and other terms), Web 2.0 and above required, is changing all that too fast for marketers to catch up. They are seriously confused. especially where "social networking" is involved.

See my recent entries on the value of social networking:  

And the following one posted May 3rd.  Note my blogs on writing come out on Tuesdays.  You may be able to sort them out by searching on Tuesday.

You will likely be successful now at mixing genres to make new ones, whereas in the past you would have failed -- because SF has bled into "mainstream" -- i.e. you see the motifs that originated in SF (like alternate universes) appear in general fiction meant for people who hate Science Fiction.

My personal theory about why people "hate" science fiction is that they were force-fed Ray Bradbury in High School under the label "science fiction" (but his stuff, while very literate, does not in any way shape or form resemble science fiction as I know it.)  Oddly, "Romance" has pretty much escaped that fate so far.

On Twitter, I made a writer-friend who does historicals who asked which of my SF novels she should try reading since she dislikes SF.  I pointed her to Molt Brother, and I don't know if she finished it but halfway through she liked it and intended to finish reading.  Molt Brother is an interstellar, human/alien relationship (not romance, but deep intimate involvement) where the driving force of the plot is an archeological mystery.

And likewise on Twitter, I made another writer-friend who is an SF fan but writes contemporary mystery (with a bit of fantasy mixed in) who eventually decided to try reading one of my novels - chose House of Zeor, the earliest published Sime~Gen novel and to her astonishment liked it and said she could see why it had spawned a fandom that writes fanfic in that universe.

You can find all of these (in ebook and print) by clicking the tabs in this Amazon "store" (you can then dig up the books on your favorite supplier's website.)

This genre definition confusion issue is extremely relevant to the brand new Sime~Gen novel, FARRIS CHANNEL, which I'm now working to finish.

In this new novel, which tells the story of the founding of the House of Zeor, and is a sequel to FIRST CHANNEL and CHANNEL'S DESTINY, I wildly mix genres until you can't figure out which is what, which is kinda like "reality" you know.

I've got to write more, and at considerable length, in this blog about Sime~Gen, not just because Margaret Carter asked in her post here where she discussed Jean Lorrah's Sime~Gen novel TO KISS OR TO KILL (which is a genuine SF-Romance with sociological romance overtones), but also because as I was re-re-reading these novels to proof for the new publisher, and to prepare the new novels, I discovered that the principles of worldbuilding I've been discussing here are illustrated precisely in these novels.

Here's a link to Margaret Carter's post on Sime~Gen:

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Alien Nations

Let me start with a disclaimer.
I write fiction, but I take inspiration from the world around me. It is never my intention to offend anyone*, and if I do so, it is not deliberate.

Have you ever remembered a time when we have been treated (if treated is the right word) to so many conspiracy theories and so much conflict? To so many ready-made plots for cyber-punk or alternate history or science fiction?

If Greece leaves the Eurozone, do you think Arizona or California might follow suit and secede from the USA? Might States with very large populations of immigrants who are not interested in integrating decide to become politically active and force a secession vote, perhaps to set up a new Hispanic homeland in this State, or a sovereign, Sharia-compliant State in that State.

It would be a case of American history repeating itself, but with the boot on the other leg.

Where undocumented immigrants are already here, and living unobtrusively, could they be compared to John Lithgow's "Third Rock" without the comedy? Or modern day Midwich Cuckoos without the hive mind?

Alien Nation dealt with the problems of integration, where America (I think it was America) struggled to assimilate homeless/exiled/asylum-seeking space aliens into society. I wonder what would have happened if that fictional America had simply donated a National Park so the friendly aliens could have a new homeland.

The recent talk about what a government shut down might mean (closing the National Parks) has me wondering what the cost is to the taxpayer of those glorious places, and what the return on investment is, and whether that prime real estate could be run equally well as a for-profit tourist attraction by someone or some nation other than the American government.

Homeland Security would have a fit, of course. But, what we prescribe as workable for others should work for us, too. No? Digressing for a moment, what's the deal with tearing down a perfectly good fence along a border because the agents would prefer to have it see-through? What's wrong with watch-towers? Besides, can you imagine the distress that someone with a mirror and a spray can could cause, if he wrote rude words or drew lewd cartoons on the Mexican side of the glass wall for Americans to see?

Since my thoughts have turned to the lowest of comedy, I will end here.

Rowena Cherry

That is, with the possible exception of unapologetic copyright infringers.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Fantasy Goes Mainstream?

Here's an article—from the WALL STREET JOURNAL, believe it or not—about the recent boom in fantasy and horror tropes in bestselling fiction as the supernatural goes mainstream:

Season of the Supernatural

The article cites many examples of highly successful novels and series "blurring the lines between literary fiction and genres like science fiction and fantasy, overturning long-held assumptions in the literary world about what constitutes high and low art."

Fantasy and SF, the writer mentions, comprised 10% of adult fiction sales last year, compared to a 7% share for literary fiction. Mystery is glanced at, too, although its market share isn't stated. Michael Chabon, author of THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION (an alternate history detective novel set in a Jewish nation in Alaska), says, "There is a critical sniffiness still toward stuff that smells too strongly of the mystery novel or the space opera." Romance, by the way, which outranks all the other genres in market share, isn't mentioned.

Lev Grossman, author of THE MAGICIANS (which has been accurately described as "Harry Potter discovers Narnia is real"—I found it riveting) and its forthcoming sequel THE MAGICIAN KING, declares, "We are the mainstream. Literary fiction is a subculture." About time somebody noticed!

It's pointed out that "the divide between popular and literary fiction was established relatively recently by the modernists, who favored hyperrealism over plot and narrative." Among the works of the great classical authors of the western canon, e.g. Homer, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, and many others, supernatural elements are more commonly included than excluded. Since any literary historian could have told us that, it constantly baffles me when critics trained in the academic tradition disdain all novels that aren't purebred descendants of George Eliot and Henry James. (An attitude less dominant now than in the past, as demonstrated by an academic organization I belong to, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.)

This attitude splashes over into the general readership, too, as in the exasperating review presently at the top of the reader comments for THE MAGICIANS on Amazon. The commentator praises the book to the skies, while continually assuring us that it isn't fantasy. It's a Real Novel, with characterization, theme, and all that Important Stuff, also containing fantastic elements. An egregious example of the "it's good so it can't be SF" trope.

Happily, as even the WALL STREET JOURNAL acknowledges, "The pendulum may now be swinging back, with literature that can be both popular and literary, realistic and fantastical."

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt