Sunday, 9 November 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014 update

NaNoWriMo 2014 is now well underway.  There was a good turnout for my talk on Wednesday at Milk Wood (as usual, I forgot to take a photo until a few minutes after the event had ended and half the attendees had left; never mind).  My own novel today passed the 20,000 word mark and now has a working title - 'AFK and Avengement'.

I'm pretty pleased with the book so far, though initial feelings about one's writing being good should rarely be trusted.  As an appetiser, here's a short excerpt from the chapter I wrote today.

She left the house at about noon, climbing into her red Volkswagen Polo and driving off in the direction of town.  We followed from a distance.  She was a dark-haired woman; she wore it straight and shoulder-length.  She had on skinny jeans, tall boots, and a green and purple Orla Kiely raincoat.
“What if it was her?” Spence asked.  “What would you do?”
“Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,” I told him.
She drove into town and parked in a pay and display.  We stood behind her at the machine, where she purchased two hours.  Then we followed her to a coffee shop, where she met up with a woman who was sitting at a table with a toddler beside her asleep in a pushchair.  They kissed each other on both cheeks.  Mrs Herriot took off her raincoat and put it round the back of the facing chair.  Spence and I took a nearby table and sat side-by-side on the sofa; he took out his laptop and put it on the table in front of us so it wouldn’t look odd that we weren’t facing each other.  Then he went to get us coffee.
It wasn’t noisy in the coffee shop; all the same, it was difficult to make out individual words any distance away.  The woman with the toddler stood and said something, to which Mrs Herriot nodded vigorously and said, “Of course!”  Will you watch him for me a moment whilst I join the queue?  Whilst I make a call?  Whilst I use the loo?  She headed for the toilets.  The latter, then.
Spence came back with a latte for him and a skinny cappuccino for me.  “Look at her, how blank her expression is now,” I said to him, “compared to how it was when she was talking to that woman.”
“How do you want her to look when she’s not interacting with anyone?” he replied.  “Should she have a book of poetry open in front of her and a thoughtful, reflective expression on her face?”
“Look at her eyes,” I said.  “They’re anywhere but here.”
“So she’s thinking about other things,” he said.  “That’s hardly a crime.”
“Any individual behaviour can have a thousand explanations,” I said.  “Our job is to join up the dots.”
“No picture forms from a single dot,” he said.
The friend returned.  She sat, opened her handbag, took out cream and rubbed some into her hands.  Mrs Herriot smiled in the direction of the toddler and said something that made the other roll her eyes and reply with a sentence that contained the word ‘now’ emphasised in it.  They both laughed.  The friend bent over the buggy to check on something.  The smile slid from Mrs Herriot’s face.
“See?” I said.
“And again I say, so what?  Maybe she doesn’t like this person.  Maybe it’s an old friend she feels obliged to keep up with, a passive aggressive acquaintance who counts the number of texts she gets in a month and then halves it when she tells everyone how little she matters.  Maybe – just maybe – Mrs Herriot had to cancel a meeting with her lover to be here.”  I looked at him.  “Why not?  Why are we assuming this to be a simple matter of a good person and a bad person – why shouldn’t it be mixed up a little?”
“This is pointless,” I said.  “Why are we here?”
“Why indeed?” he replied.  “You wanted to see her.  But I get it now.  I get why it was different for JP.”
“I was in love then,” I said.  “I didn’t see anything clearly.”
“But he fit, didn’t he?  Just like this woman of quickly fading smiles fits the general picture you’re looking for.  When you saw him for the first time, he was everything you wanted him to be: old and overweight and worn out.  How dare such a man assume a character of vitality in the metaverse?  How dare he pretend to be not old, not fat, not a person who got out of breath climbing the stairs to his apartment?  The very sight of him made you sick.  The very sight of him made you furiousThis was the flesh behind the pretend man that Inch had chosen over you?  If only she knew.  If only she knew!
“Please stop talking about this,” I said.
“Look at that fat woman over there by the window and tell me what you see,” he demanded.  “Don’t stop to compose your words.  Tell me what her story is and why she’s here by herself.  I want to know.”
“How the hell would I know?” I said, the words catching in my throat.”
Don’t edit!” he barked.  A couple of heads turned in our direction.  “What about the youth with the hoodie looking in through the door right now?  You just know he’s wondering if they keep cash on the premises overnight, don’t you?  What about the guy taking orders at the till – is it me or did he have a touch of yellow to his skin?  You know, it’s his kind that are turning this glorious country into a state of woman-stoning, halal-slaughtering, tower-block-destroying jihadists and if he was actually opposed to any of that he’d be sticking his head above the fucking parapet instead of hiding away from his kind in here, serving overpriced coffees – which, by the way, is a job that a proper English person could be doing.”
I got up, shaking.  I picked up my coat and bag.  He rose too, knocking the table and sending his latte to the floor.  “And just look at that guy in the corner!” he shouted, pointing.  “I do believe I just saw him twirling his fucking moustache!”
“Leave me alone!” I shrieked, backing – stumbling - away.  Customers were gasping.  Men were standing.  The guy at the till came across and put himself between us, his arms stretched out, his palms open.  “Calm down, alright, mate?” he said.  “Just calm down.  Just calm down.”
“Fuck this!” Spence spat.  He slammed shut his laptop, picked it up and took a direct line to the main doors.  He didn’t look back.
A hand touched gently my shoulder from behind.  “Are you ok?  Did he hurt you?”  Mrs Herriot handed me a tissue and stroked my hair back out of my face.  “It’s okay – he’s gone now.  Come and sit down,” she said.  Then she put her arms around me and held me whilst I sobbed.
“Is he alright?” the till guy said, presently.  “Is he likely to come back?  Should I call the police?”
“He won’t come back,” I said, hoarsely.  “He made his point.”

He was waiting for me when I got back to the car.  “So, did you get to speak with her?” he asked.
“I did,” I said, coldly.
“And?  Theory supported?  Hypothesis rejected?”
“She was lovely.  It tells me nothing.”
“Of course it tells you nothing.”  His voice went suddenly gentle.  “Of course it tells you nothing.”

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Free novel covers for NaNoWriMo and indie authors

For a while now I've been building up a small collection of photographs I think might make good backgrounds for a novel cover.  I thought I'd share some of these today.

If you are an indie author - and most especially if you're publishing your NaNoWriMo novel - please feel free to use any of the images below for your cover.  You may alter them as you please.  In return, please attribute me in your novel (a line like, "Cover photography by" would be perfect).  You do not need to let me know that you have used one of my photographs, but it would be nice if you did - and if you did so as a comment below then you'd also be getting a bit of free publicity for your novel (feel free to include a link to the book on Amazon or elsewhere).

Just one limitation: you may not use any of these images for the cover of any writing which promotes any form of discrimination or prejudice against any group of people.

You can scroll through the covers below and they can be downloaded from Flickr here.

Created with flickr slideshow.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

NaNoWriMo novel progress tool

I've updated the Excel Spreadsheet I use to keep track of my NaNoWriMo novel.  It's a cosmetic update which works in exactly the same way as the tool did previously.  Basically, it just looks more cool.  Enter your current word count into the second column from the left (it's labelled 'Word count') and the spreadsheet will work out how far ahead or behind you are, and even plot your progress on a pretty graph.  Tip: stay above the red line.

You can download this tool for free by clicking here.  You'll need, of course, a copy of Excel.  It might work in Open Office, but no guarantees.

And, in case you have any difficulty running it, the old version of the spreadsheet is available here.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Yet more novel ideas

November is nearly upon us, that month when the world’s population of fictional characters is incremented by at least a million as aspiring writers across the globe sharpen their pencils and set to work on dragging the novel inside them kicking and screaming onto the empty page.  If you don’t take part each year in National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo, as we veterans like to call it – then you don’t know what you’re missing.  What else, after all, is there to do in this muddy, overcast month; this dour, humourless security officer of a month who beckons you in from the warm oranges of October only to keep you waiting in cold, windy dampness for what seems like an eternity before finally unhooking the rope which admits entrance to the delights of December?  In the UK, we try to liven up this bleak collection of days with bonfire night, supposedly once a celebration of a terrorist’s failure to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but possibly actually just an excuse to remember what being warm felt like.  In the US, the artificial bubble of enforced gratitude generated for Thanksgiving collapses so spectacularly on the day after that news coverage of the blood lust of Black Friday has now become important entertainment viewing the rest of the world over.  Anything to make the month pass more quickly.

But November novel-writers are oblivious to all of this.  Enshrined in their little cocoons of their very own make-believe, the only possible relevance of happenings in the real world to them are if these can offer any potential plot devices.  Time passes all too quickly when you’re trying to knock out 50,000 words in a mere thirty days, though this is not to suggest that there won’t be moments when you wish no-one had ever invented the concept of the novel or writing or language even itself, and that an impromptu world war would at least have the silver lining that it might spare you from having to think about any of these things ever again.

For the past couple of years in AVENUE magazine I’ve entertained myself (and, possibly, one or two readers) in November with a collection of potential storylines for Second Life inspired novels, that emerging genre of fiction across the surface of which I’ve vainly scratched away for the past eight years.  For my own amusement as much as anyone else’s, therefore, I humbly present yet another.

Lindependence Day.  The continent of Nautilus decides it wants independence from the rest of Second Life and manages to convince Linden to hold a referendum of its citzens.  The campaign is ferocious.  All attempts by the board of governors to persuade Nautileans to vote ‘no’ only seem to increase the percentage saying to the pollsters they’ll vote ‘yes’ – even Ebbe Altberg’s surprisingly emotional plea not to vote yes just because it represents a possibility to “kick the effing Lindens” has Yes campaign leader Nigelex Salmage claiming that the No campaign is falling apart.  In the end, even Philip Rosedale is wheeled out to make the case for ‘Better Together’.  Salmage is unperturbed; speaking with absolutely no authority whatsoever, he claims that an independent Nautilus would keep the Linden as its currency and that residents will still be able to access Torley Linden videos.  In the end, the reality of independence is brought home to the majority when several high-profile mesh creators start talking about relocating their skin factories to Zindra.

Project Really Interesting.  Comedy. A bunch of high-school nerds create the perfect female avatar and she comes to life in the real world thanks to a keyboard spillage during a thunder storm of something cutting edge (let’s say a memristor-graphene suspension) that one of the gang swiped during a school trip to the local science genius’s laboratories.  It turns out that the very same genius has been secretly plotting to take over the world and our heroes manage to put a stop to his plans through a sequence of contrived events that mostly require one or all of them to be naked accidentally.  A zany caper from start to finish; if this were a movie you could expect it to be advertised on buses during a holiday season.

The Amazing Second Life into Darkness.  In a not-too-distant future, the successor to SL is launched by Linden.  Marketed as a reboot rather than a sequel, ‘Amazing Second Life’ features planets rather than continents and sims, with travel between worlds a lengthy, complicated and expensive affair.  Whilst your initial rez point is officially described as random, it soon becomes clear that Linden are employing a formula which the company eventually fesses up to being derived from your Google search habits, your Amazon spending pattern and the number of times you’ve shared pictures of Grumpy Cat on Facebook.  Group identity being what it is, however, the revelation comes too late to prevent entrenched identities from forming and, within barely a year of the new metaverse’s release, two nearby planets go to war over a mesh body IP issue.  It is the first in a decade-long series of conflicts which historians later refer to as The First Virtual War.  Property is destroyed by missiles which initiate a virus chain reaction when detonated.  The real life media don’t know quite what to make of this, and the novel follows a young intern reporter as she travels around Earth to meet individually in real life the refugees from a virtual planet that’s been almost totally ravaged by the Primfluenza Virus.  Her journey takes her from a French Chateaux to a New York apartment to a bedsit in a Hillingdon council estate.  “It was terrible,” one refugee – a member of the German aristocracy – tells her.  “We were running around in panic because one moment everything was normal and the next it’s all vapourising before our eyes.  All gone, just like that.  All gone.  Everything.”  She then orders her butler to bring more tea and weeps silently for several seconds, telling our bemused protagonist, “You don’t know what it’s like.  You don’t know what it’s like.”

The Time Traveller’s Virtual Partner.  Within hours of meeting and falling in love in the metaverse, Wigander Sansom and Dostree Chan are astonished to find out that they’re communicating from different time periods.  Twenty-two-year-old Wigander is a full quarter-century ahead of the thirty-year-old Dostree’s 2018.  In 2043, it turns out, people have become nostalgic for the good old days of SL and the Ruth look is very fashionable amongst teenagers.  One of many self-proclaimed ‘retronauts’, Wigander was spending his time exploring the thousands of abandoned regions (preserved for posterity by Google as a tax-deductible expense) when he came across ‘Moonstand’, a sim of space-themed fairground rides which – unbeknownst to him – runs on a server which utilises experimental memory chips made from a memristor-graphene composite.  At first, the love-struck pair declare this barrier to the possibility of physical union as a meaningless triviality and rejoice in the universe finding a way to bring them together; a few days later, however, Dostree asks casually if Wigander can research 2018’s winning lottery numbers for her.  A month passes and Dostree becomes a millionaire many times over, but each meeting she has with Wigander sees his recollection of their previous encounters more and more degraded.  Throwing caution to the wind, she buys one last winning ticket, but when she logs in to celebrate with her love, Wigander is no-where to be found.  The reader is then told he was the son of the original winner of that final ticket, an unemployed writer who kept secret his fortune from his family by claiming all his money was from the sale of his Kindle novels.  Without that lottery win, he doesn’t feel able to ask for the hand in marriage of his girlfriend and Wigander is never born.  Dostree, of course, knows none of this; just when you think it can’t get any more heart-breaking, the reader is told how she looks sadly through her apartment window at the statue of ‘The Railwayman’, a newly erected tribute to her town’s local history and the very same statue which – not a hundred pages earlier – Wigander also was noted to look at through his window.  Yes, Wigander was Dostree’s son.

Red Prim Rising.  The Russians launch their own metaverse, Вторая жизнь созданных шахт (Second Life of Crafted Mines).  Derided by western governments, it becomes an overnight internet sensation and populated by millions of disaffected Americans and Europeans.  Everyone becomes friends and world peace breaks out.  Well, I can dream.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Is sex in Second Life pornography?

Wagner James Au has opened up an interesting debate over on his blog, New World Notes, stating that Linden should “forbid pornography and extremely violent content [on Second Life 2], at least in the first few years of launch before SL 2 achieves mass growth (assuming it does).”  This is based on the finding that half of SL’s current most-visited regions are adult-themed.

All credit to Au for having the courage to even approach this can of worms, let alone open it.  On the one hand – as was swiftly pointed out in the comments that followed – this statistic could be interpreted in a very different way: that the popularity of adult sims suggests SL2 absolutely must not ban such content if it wants to achieve appeal.  On the other, however, many long-term residents – myself included – are sick of the sniggers that mention of SL gets amongst RL friends; sniggers based upon the widespread belief amongst the ‘masses’ that sexual activity is the main reason why people enter the metaverse.  Of course, we all know that plenty of people do enter the metaverse for exactly this reason, and also that plenty of people who don’t go on to discover it anyway.  I have no real issue with that at all, but I do wish SL could be respected for all the other experiences it offers – or at least that it could be understood as a place where people get up to the same range of stuff more or less that they might in any other place.  As Au goes on to say, “virtual porn in particular has always been an impediment to Second Life going mainstream, hurting its brand, scaring away mainstream institutions, and just generally causing it to be a laughingstock for anyone who wasn't familiar with how much more non-porn content the world contained”.

What really got me thinking about Au’s piece was the notion that sexual activity in the metaverse could be termed pornography.  To be fair, whether it can or cannot is something of a straw man issue not really relevant to the larger point he’s trying to make – possibly for want of a better word, he’s using the term ‘porn’ as a convenient umbrella for activity he’s absolutely right in highlighting has given SL an unhelpful reputation.

As a side issue, however, I think it’s still one worth exploring.  Porn is an ugly word.  Folklore would have us believe that something like 99 per cent of men use it, yet if that is the case it’s certainly not as openly discussed amongst this population as its other passions, such as football: the knowledge that it’s widely used does little to reduce the sense of personal shame or embarrassment in admitting to using it oneself.  There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that regular ejaculation in males promotes good health in a variety of ways, so one might think that anything which facilitates this could be viewed – at least tentatively – as a good thing (not everyone is lucky enough to have a sexual partner, nor necessarily one with whom sex is frequent enough to achieve these benefits).  But the word porn carries with it an immense baggage of association, with mental infidelity, the exploitation of women and the maintenance of male chauvinist and misogynistic views probably headlining amongst these.

An argument could be advanced that ‘porn’ is no longer fit for purpose as a word which carries sufficient meaning by itself.  One qualifying adjective has already fallen into common use, with ‘child porn’ now the common expression for a type of pornography which is illegal.  There’s a clear and necessary need for this (much as we would wish that there wasn’t), a line which just has to be drawn.  Other lines or subdivisions aren’t perhaps as necessary, yet to classify, for example, a video of two lovers having consensual sex (which they’ve both agreed to distribute) as the same thing as one of an acted out encounter between a plumber and a housewife (who has mislaid her purse somehow) seems odd; we wouldn’t consider a home video of a family barbecue to be the same thing as a restaurant scene in a movie just because both featured people eating.  To extend that category into some of the more extreme areas of pornographic depiction and practice makes the one-size-fits-all approach feel even more bizarre.  And what about porn made by women?  What about porn made for women?  What about ‘revenge porn’ videos posted after a break-up?  What about the videos made with the explicit purpose from the start of publically humiliating someone?  What about, where no nudity or sexual contact whatsoever is shown, only the faces of people as they experience orgasm?  Is all of this really one thing?  Surely not.

Though this, to a certain extent, is also another issue.  What about sex in Second Life?

Perhaps sex in SL can be considered under two different lenses.  First of all, there is the depiction of sexual activity: the poses, the animations, the removal of clothing, the visual enhancement of genitalia through attachments, the use of furniture or other items, the sound effects and the various descriptive phrases used either by the people engaged in the act or – and I still scratch my head over how this phenomena came into being – by scripts in the aforementioned genitalia; all of the things which someone could observe, either as a person involved or as a third party witness to the scene.  What sets this aspect aside from ‘conventional’ or ‘traditional’ (I really can’t think of a better summarising term) pornography is that it’s an entirely artificial depiction: anyone observing such a scene is not actually observing real people actually having sex.  Having said that this is different from ‘regular’ porn, however, computer generated sexual imagery is certainly not an invention of SL and goes all the way back to the very earliest and least graphically capable of computers, where ‘pixel sex’ would have referred to black and white pixels the size of your thumb.  Beyond that, erotic drawings and paintings pre-date computers by centuries.  In this respect, then, perhaps SL sex can be considered pornographic.

The second lens, however, concerns the interactive nature of sexual activity in SL.  If one is engaged in sex with another person in the metaverse, one is no longer a passive observer of an act.  Instead, one is actively engaged with another person in creating sexual imagery – be it through a visual depiction as described above or through an entirely textual exchange of intimate thoughts and ideas.  Whilst there might be elements of this which originated in SL, the more general notion of interacting with someone non-physically to create a ‘sexual story’ is, again, hardly unique to the metaverse.  ‘Sexting’ – the act of interacting with someone sexually over mobile phone texts – is perhaps the most prominent example of this discussed in the mainstream media today (whenever a celebrity or politician gets caught doing it), but, going back, sexual activity took place in internet chat rooms long before even Yahoo Messenger became popular – before even the web was created.  Then there’s phone sex.  Then there’s sexually explicit letter-writing.

Whilst publically expressed opinion on such activity might well be judgemental, such judgements would probably mostly take place in the context of a revelation of someone who is in a monogamous relationship interacting sexually behind the back of their partner.  A politician caught doing this is only generally newsworthy if he or she is a married politician.  Amongst the liberal-minded, at least, few would raise much of an eyebrow upon learning that someone was sexting their girlfriend or boyfriend – it might well be considered a little Too Much Information, but no more so than learning something about their ‘regular’ sex life.  Few would consider it porn.

Does role-play blur the issue still further?  In a role-played situation, a fictional scenario is created between two or more people; the option to share RL information alongside this is of course there, however it’s entirely possible – and, I understand, an expressed preference amongst some role-players – that a whole scene could be acted out without any reference whatsoever to the authors’ emotional state or sexual arousal.  In such a scenario, the argument could be forwarded that the only sexual intercourse that takes place is between the avatars on screen as fictional characters, that the real-life humans behind them are merely writers engaged in an act of shared storytelling.  Is this still, nonetheless, the creation of pornography?  Even if all authors involved remain completely sexually detached from their narrative, they are still creating something which depicts a sexual act, as described earlier – even if it’s entirely without avatar manipulation (an entire scene could be role-played in chat or IM, whilst avatars remained fully clothed, potentially not even in the same sim as each other).

By this reasoning, then – and I readily admit it’s a tentative reasoning; others might approach this from entirely different standpoints – sex in SL both is and is not pornography.  One of the reasons why I continue to love Second Life and the metaverse more generally is the way in which it opens up topics like this and exposes the inadequacies of the words and constructs we use to define life and the experiences which comprise it.  ‘Porn’ is an inadequate word.  One of the most beautiful things about sex in SL is how it can awaken you to the thoughts, feelings and desires of your partner – and that’s something you can take back with you into the real world if you hadn’t already discovered it there.

To return to Au’s article, if SL do implement a ban on porn in SL2 it will be a hard ban to enforce.  Animations and poses would all need to be vetted, for starters (including all scripted furniture).  Nakedness would need to be forbidden, perhaps by incorporating underwear into all skins, though this would require all user-generated skins to be vetted also – in fact, more or less anything worn or attached would need to be checked in order to avoid the creation of ‘nudity clothes’ (which I recall reading once was the method of circumventing enforced-underwear employed during the days of the teen grid).  For the ultimate in porn-prohibition, chat and IM would also have to be monitored, perhaps using the same sort of software that corporations now use to screen emails (your IM to someone that you can’t sleep because the cock next door is crowing would be blocked with an automatic message that “Your message breaches our community communication policy”).  It would be an enormous effort that many might argue would be better invested elsewhere.

And yet, sex in SL is an issue.  In fact, it’s not whether or not it’s ‘porn’ that’s the issue, but the sort of sex that’s going on and where it’s happening.  By and large, I think the division of sims we have today into adult, moderate and general – with adult sims separate from the mainland – is appropriate.  Remember: at the time of SL’s largest media exposure, sex halls could be wondered into within your first few virtual steps.

But the issue is ultimately deeper than that.  There are sims and groups in SL which promote rape fantasy.  There are sims and groups which promote female slavery and humiliation.  I’ve heard the liberal arguments about consensuality defending these things, but I remain deeply uncomfortable about their existence in the metaverse.

My guess is that a ban on sex – or porn, if you prefer – in SL2 is probably unlikely.  If virtual reality does go on to become the Next Big Thing, however, expect the can of worms concerning it to get well and truly opened.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Counting down to NaNoWriMo 2014

As we hit the halfway mark of October, it's time to start the clock on the countdown to NaNoWriMo 2014.  This year in November, I'll be writing the fourth novel in the AFK series.  Currently untitled, the book will explain the unexpected twist at the end of 'AFK, Indefinitely' and introduce a new Second Life investigation for Definitely Thursday.

As any of you who attended my talk last year at Milkwood might recall me saying, I've taken in recent years to cheating a little before the start of NaNoWriMo by getting a few thousand words down over the preceding month (though still aiming to add 50,000 words post 31 October).  Somehow or another, I'm already past the 10,000 word mark for AFK4, so I have strong hopes that this year will see the book finished.

If you would like to hear me talk about NaNo, I've been asked by Harriet Gausman to talk again at Milkwood at some point over the coming weeks.  No date set as yet, so check back here later for more information.

Oh, and don't forget I have a free Excel Spreadsheet for keeping track of your NaNo progress - one of my most popular blog posts!  Click here.