April 2010 Archives

There has been some ... interesting news from the tech sector this week.

Firstly, the Apple vs. Adobe vendetta gets even nastier, with a public letter from Steve Jobs explaining why Adobe's Flash multimedia format will not ever be allowed into the garden of pure ideology that is the iPhone/iPad fork of OSX.

Secondly, Hewlett-Packard are buying Palm, apparently for Palm's WebOS — with rumours of plans to deploy a range of WebOS tablets to rival the iPad — at the same time, they're killing their forthcoming Windows 7 slate, just as Microsoft are killing the Courier tablet project.

Finally, gizmodo (not, perhaps, an unbiased source in this regard given current events) have a fun essay discussing Apple's Worldwide Loyalty Team, the internal unit tasked with hunting down and stopping leaks.

It's probably no exaggeration to say that Apple's draconian security policies are among the tightest of any company operating purely in the private sector, with a focus on secrecy that rivals that of military contractors. But even so, the control freak obsessiveness which Steve Jobs is bringing to bear on the iPad — and the desperate flailing around evident among Apple's competitors — bears some examination. What's going on?

Misconceptions abound, and not only about the publishing industry. In this posting, I'm going to talk a little bit about what it is to be a commercial fiction author.

Most people have a very romanticized view of what it is that authors do. Firstly, there's a widespread perception that the workload involved is relatively easy — in modern western nations, the level of functional literacy is high enough that a majority of the population can read a book, and write (at least to the extent of thumbing a 160-character text message on their phone). Because there is no obvious barrier to entry as with music (where proficiency with musical instruments clearly takes practice), most people assume that writing a novel is like writing a text message — you put one word in front of another until you're done. The skills of fiction composition are largely invisible, until you try to actually do it. Secondly, many people harbour peculiar ideas about how much money there is in commercial publishing — and when disabused of the idea that selling a first novel is a road to riches, they assume it's because the evil publishers are conspiring to keep all the money to themselves (rather than the unpalatable truth — publishing commercial fiction is hard work for little reward). Finally, there's the Lifestyle chimera.

Before I get onto the Lifestyle rant, I'd like to point you at this 2005 paper by the Author's License and Collecting Society, titled "What are Words Worth?, describing the findings of a study organized by the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management (CIPPM)I, Bournemouth University. Briefly: in the UK in 2004-05, median (typical) earnings for authors were £4000 a year, with mean earnings of £16,531 — that is, while most authors earned very little, a handful earned a lot more and so the mean skews high. Once you discard part-timers and focus on professional authors who spend 50% or more of their time working by writing, the median rises to £12,330 (and a mean of £28,340). Many professional authors supplement their income by teaching or consultancy; restricting the survey to focus on main-income authors (those who earned over 50% of their income from writing) gave median earnings of £23,000 and mean earnings of £41,186.

Interestingly, the researchers went on to calculate a Gini coefficient for authors' incomes — a measure of income inequality, where 0.0 means everyone takes an identical slice of the combined cake, and 1.0 indicates that a single individual takes all the cake and everyone else starves. Let me provide a yardstick: the UK had a Gini coefficient of 0.36 in 2009, the widest ever gap between rich and poor — while the USA, at 0.408, had the most unequal income distribution in the entire developed world. The Gini coefficient among writers in the UK in 2004-05 was a whopping great 0.74. As the researchers note:

Writing is shown to be a very risky profession with median earnings of less than one quarter of the typical wage of a UK employee. There is significant inequality within the profession, as indicated by very high Gini Coefficients. The top 10% of authors earn more than 50% of total income, while the bottom 50% earn less than 10% of total income.
And so, the Lifestyle misconception raises its ugly head.

The Lifestyle misconception is this: people base their expectations of how authors live and what their lifestyle is like on media coverage of the top 10% — or rather, the top 1%. And the lifestyle of the top 1% is indeed aspirational. J. K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett are responsible for something like 5-6% of all fiction sales in the UK; Stephenie Meyer is probably pocketing another couple of percent these days. The media spotlight focusses on the stars, leaving nothing but shadows for the 50% of writers who earn less than £4000 a year from what is essentially a hobby — albeit one that involves grinding work.

So what is the job like?

Putting words in a row is wearying work. When they're flowing fast, I can sometimes reach a dizzying peak output of 2000 words per hour for a couple of hours — not in fiction, but in a blog entry or a non-fiction essay. I've occasionally had death march sessions in which I pumped out as much as 10,000 words in a day. But such Stakhanovite output isn't sustainable; a 10,000 word day is usually followed by a three-day-weekend to recover from it. A more realistic target for a full-time professional writer is 500-1000 words of finished prose per workday, corresponding to about 1-2 hours of writing, 2-4 hours of polishing, and another couple of hours of thinking about what they want to say, and how to say it. Like anyone else, they need weekends and vacation weeks and time to do the housekeeping. 1000 words per day for a 250-day working year (50 weeks of 5 days a week) works out at 250,000 words per year — or two 320 page novels.

You might think that a job that requires 3 hours of work per day is easy. But in most intellectually demanding jobs, the worker isn't delivering head-down time for 40 hours a week: we work in bursts, and the rest of the time gets filled up with administrative junk and social fluff. I have correspondence to deal with with my agent and editors, marketing folks at my publishers, booksellers, and people who want to tell me about the typo they just discovered in a book that came out five years ago. I do around 25 magazine/website/newspaper interviews a year, and about an average of one public appearance per month — which may be anything from answering questions on stage for an hour to a gruelling three to five days on public duty as guest of honour at a big SF convention. On top of this you can add all the administrative tasks of running a small business — double-entry bookkeeping, tracking expenses and cash flow and receipts, chasing invoices (where appropriate) and paying tax.

There is a catch, though. This job takes place in what is basically my spare bedroom. I have office-mates, but they're not co-workers: at best they'll stand on the keyboard and meow at me when I need a screen break. Writing is an intensely solitary occupation — so much so that many authors give up after a while and go hunt for a part-time day job to ensure that they see other human beings once in a while.

In addition to being a wildly unstable, lonely occupation with an insane income spread, there are other drawbacks to being a writer. Many American writers are forced to rely on a day job, or a spouse with a day job, for health insurance: health insurance for the self-employed is prohibitively expensive, especially for the self-employed poor. Those who don't have a job that provides healthcare, or a partner with family benefits, are never more than one accident away from bankruptcy. As the median age for publishing a first novel is around 34 because it takes a lot of life experience before you know enough to write something worth publishing, most authors are in the age range 34-70 — old enough that they're likely to develop chronic health conditions or need expensive treatments. (To be fair, it's not just authors who get the short end of this particular shitty stick: I suspect the US health insurance industry is actively suppressive of entrepreneurial start-up ventures by older folks in general.)

So here's the truth about the writing lifestyle: it sucks. It is an unstable occupation for self-employed middle-aged entrepreneurs. Average age on entry is around 34, but you can't get health insurance (if you're American). You don't have to be a complete loner, but it helps to have a solitary streak (or a bad talking-to-cats habit). It also helps to be an inveterate optimist, because you'll probably need to supplement your income (about 70% of the mean for someone in a skilled trade, never mind a professional job) by taking on other work such as teaching, journalism, or consultancy. As a business, it's a dead-end: you can't generally expand by taking on employees, and the number of author start-ups where the founders have IPOd and cashed out can be counted on the fingers of a double-amputee's hands. And then, finally, when you go out in public and people ask you what you do for a living and you tell them, they look at you as if you've just sprouted a second head because they know that real authors are millionaires with country estates and private jets who work an hour a day, languidly dictating their next bestseller to their secretary, and who the hell is this poverty-line loner freak anyway?

No, it's not a fucking lifestyle — it's a job. And if you'll excuse me, I've got a book to go write ...

I got home yesterday after a 25 hour journey, door-to-door, and am now merely fuzzy-headed with jet lag. Talking to fellow-passengers on the short-haul from Paris, it sounded like everyone had a horror story of volcanic disruption to tell. Anyway, my plan for the next few days is to take things easy, catch up on the domestic stuff that has been waiting for me for the past month (have you any idea how much junk mail a British general election campaign can generate?), and get back to work when my head's clear again.

(Incidentally, there won't be a trip report like the one in the "Specials" to the right — at least, not for a while. Not because I'm not writing one, but because Hayakawa SF, Japan's largest written SF magazine, are buying it. It'll show up here eventually, when their readers have had their exclusive.)

Believe it or not, I'm not going to work on "Rule 34" today — or any other fiction. William Gibson wrote in "Pattern Recognition" that when we travel long-haul, our souls take hours to catch up with our bodies — and that's how I feel right now.

In other news, "The Fuller Memorandum" should be at the printer now. Barring production hiccups, this means it should be showing up in the warehouse in June, and available in bookshops for the July 6th launch (US hardcover). British readers can look forward to getting it earlier, and cheaper, in paperback on July 1st — a reversal of the usual "rip-off Britain" syndrome.

Normal blogging service will now be resumed ...

I've just checked in online for my flight home; barring last-minute delays and cancellations, I should be home on Monday after just shy of an entire month in Japan. I will admit to being a bit frazzled. The effect of that damn volcano has been to cause the worst delays to the civil aviation industry since 9/11 — arguably, the worst ever, in terms of cancelled flights. I count myself lucky to be going home only six days late: I know other folks who've been delayed for a fortnight or more.

I travel a lot, and I've written here before about stuff I've picked up to make travel easier. This time, there are different lessons. I haven't had the wheels fall off like this before — I am boringly risk-averse — but it's given me some food for thought.

UPDATED (22-November-2013)

A while back I did a series of postings on the topic of Common Misconceptions About Publishing.

Here they are:

  • The publishing industry, and how it's structured

  • How books are made

  • What authors sell to publishers

  • Territories, translations, and foreign rights

  • Why books are the length they are

  • "Why did you pick such an awful cover?"

  • Miscellanea

  • Lifestyle or Job

  • ebooks (circa 2010)

  • Understanting Amazon's ebook strategy (circa April 2012)

  • More on DRM and ebooks (circa May 2012)

  • Things publishers can't do (yet) (How supply chain contracts limit booksellers' operations)

  • Why I don't self-publish (Note: the title does not read, "why you should not self-publish")

  • Why Microsoft Word must die

  • Why I [still have to] use Microsoft Word (even though I hate it)

  • I'm booked on an Air France flight departing Narita for Paris at 21:50 on Sunday night, six nights late. Hopefully Mount Doom that damned volcano will keep its opinions to itself and allow us (self plus spouse) to scuttle home; whereupon herself has approximately eight hours to get over her jetlag before she has to rush off to Amsterdam. For my part, I'm going to run the washing machine non-stop, remind the cats who feeds them, and sleep off the effects of too many time zone changes.

    I'd like to apologize for not blogging more about my experiences on this trip. From the day-long excursion to the volcanic hot springs at Owakudani (in a blizzard, inappropriately dressed, on a pirate ship) to a hot day's wandering around Odaiba (an artificial island in Tokyo bay, dominated by corporate showcases, geodesic domes, a monorail-like people mover, and a bizarre Italian-themed shopping mall), by way of the miniature robot stores and shops full of pregnant nun bondage anime porn in Akihabara (I'm not making that up), it's been ... strange. Unfortunately the room we're staying in is so tiny I'm not really up to using it as a workspace (I can bang both elbows on the walls simultaneously while typing), so any real write-up will have to wait until I get home.

    We have not gone shopping-mad on this trip (sterling is very weak against the yen). However, our luggage does contain a bottle of sake, a plastic cuttlefish, and a theremin.

    Still stranded in Tokyo, but we've got a hotel roof over our heads and, more importantly, a rescheduled departure time (six days late). And more to the point, Air France are re-opening some routes into Paris CDG (the hub we're due to fly through). There's no guarantee that our new flight will actually take off, and we may end up stuck in Paris for a while, or be forced to catch the train (a euphemism for a minor logistical nightmare if you're aiming for Edinburgh — three hours from Paris to London, then change stations, and the thick end of five more hours to get home), but at least we're not in limbo any more.

    And I'm pleased to announce that my novella "Palimpsest" and short story collection "Wireless" are both finalists in the Locus Reader Awards for 2010.

    EDIT: And because we're stuck in Tokyo, we'll be drinking in Popeye tonight from 7pm (directions in the earlier post, Beer, Tokyo).

    Regular readers will have noticed that I have a bit of a travel habit. And my wife and I are currently in Tokyo. Our primary excuse for coming here was an SF convention (I was the foreign guest of honour), but you don't fly from Scotland to Japan for a long weekend without taking some extra time to poke your nose around.

    Anyway, we were due to fly home tomorrow — Monday, on a long-haul from Narita to Paris Charles de Gaulle, then a connection back to Turnhouse (Edinburgh).

    However. Airliners fly along great circle paths — the shortest route between any two points on a sphere — and the great circle between Narita and Paris CDG flies over the northern coast of Russia and then down the Baltic. Which is right in the middle of the ash plume venting from That Damned Volcano, aka Eyjafjallajökull.

    And our flight home has just been cancelled (in the early hours of Sunday morning).

    We're not in any immediate jeopardy. We've got travel insurance, sufficient money, and enough medication for an extra fortnight. However Tokyo is the most expensive city on the planet, so I think I'm going to be a bit busy today negotiating an extension at our hotel and doing some hasty planning.

    The bad news is that the last time Eyjafjallajökull popped its top, in the 1820s, the initial eruption continued for six months. If that happens, we may be hitting the trans-Siberian express. Not to mention doing a whole lot less air travel this year ...

    UPDATE

    Finally got through to Air France, after a couple of hours of war-dialing. I'm now awaiting the arrival of an e-ticket with us re-booked on basically the same flights, departing next Sunday (i.e. six days late). I am hopeful, if not optimistic ...

    Seeing as how Charlie's still away, and is currently at risk, it seems, of being kept away by an irate Icelandic volcano god, I thought I'd slip in another post to help tide things over, maybe riff off something I touched on at the end of the previous entry, and in a couple of comments after. Cause, yeah, another of my current madcap schemes is the screenplay I'm trying to sell for a high school movie based on As You Like It, with the female character of Rosalind changed to a male character, Ross. Is that a sellable proposition? I ask myself. I don't know. One commenter rightly points to the success of Brokeback Mountain. Another points to Glee. And both of these are pertinent. But maybe, I think, it's worth expanding on the backstory of how the script came about to give a sense of why -- as much as I wish it were otherwise -- those two examples don't entirely assuage my doubts. Not that I think it's entirely hopeless.

    So, OK, it all began with a happenstance encounter via Wikipedia with a cool little movie called The Curiosity of Chance, starring Tad Hilgenbrinck. The actor was entirely unfamiliar to me from his roles in sequels to American Pie and The Lost Boys but, hey, he was clearly a hottie, so I was intrigued enough to track down a copy. Set in the 80s, it's a straight-up high school movie in the mold of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, by turns comedic and dramatic, a thoroughbred of its genre right down to the Battle of the Bands denouement. There are two differences though: 1) Hilgenbrinck's main character, Chance Marquis, is openly gay, so the whole thwarted-love rom-com plot is about this quirky outsider having the hots for the jock next door; 2) It's set in an international high school in Belgium.

    The latter is visibly a constraint of budget and funding, (the indie production had to actually go there to find the damn money and willpower to get the film made) with the largely Belgian cast performing characters with names like Hank and Brad. It jars at first, and there's a few of the supporting cast that don't quite pull it off, but I found once I got past that initial discord, I fell in love with the movie. A bona fide high school movie with a gay kid as the protagonist? Awesome! And it is, I think, a little gem of a piece in terms of a script that sings and zings, and wonderful performances from Hilgenbrinck and Chris Mulcahy as his military father. (One of the things I love most about it is the way Mulcahy's character slips out of the overbearing, homophobic dictator dad cliche into something much more subtle and ultimately sympathetic.) Anyway, I blogged about it here so I won't go on.

    A little while later I caught another movie set in a high school, again with a gay protagonist at its heart, another indie flick called Were The World Mine. And better still, this one's a musical, and better still a musical based on A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's rougher around the edges than TCoC, I think, but again I found myself having a lot of love for it. So again I blogged about it, though the entry linked is less a review and more of a fanciful riff on the fact I couldn't help but see parallels between the leads in this movie and two characters I use a lot in my own fiction. (So, yeah, quite possibly meaningless to those unfamiliar with my stuff.) In the comments thread to that entry though, a reader grumped that this was patently escapist fluff when compared to something like The History Boys. Do we really need the banality of a Gay High School Musical, for crying out loud? was the general sentiment.

    This is, I reckon, a very bad comparison, the music in WtWM being way more interesting than the sort of treacly trite Disney nonsense that, trust me, gives me the boak as much as anyone. But my main argument wasn't to defend WtWM -- or TCoC for that matter -- as serious cinema, especially when that runs the risk of derailing into arguments over idioms like the musical or the high school movie which some are going to disregard as essentially populist low art whatever you say. No, my argument was simply that we do indeed need exactly those popcorn flicks. Brokeback Mountain is a great movie, but does this serious, worthy movie actually offer much to a fourteen year old kid? To a not particularly precocious teen who doesn't want to see a ponderous tale of the human condition, just the same sort of fun popcorn flicks his mates are going to... but one where it's his story being told, not theirs, not always, always theirs? For all that Brokeback Mountain was groundbreaking, My Beautiful Launderette broke that same ground over twenty years previous; and being there at the time, as a gay high school kid, you know, I didn't really want to see something sophisticated and sensitive and blah blah fucking blah. Booooooring!

    I wanted Grease with Danny Zucco as a deviant, Star Wars with Han Solo as a homo, Raiders of the Lost Ark with Indie as an invert. (It's not a Harrison Ford thing; he was never my type. Those are just the first examples that spring to mind. Just saying.) What I mean is, as a kid I wanted John Hughes to have made something like The Curiosity of Chance, so I didn't have to project a queer reading onto Some Kind of Wonderful by pretending that Watts was not just a tomboy but an actual boy boy. And as a writer now, that's the sort of shit that drives me to create works that might hopefully fill that niche for others. I see movies like The Curiosity of Chance or Were the World Mine as important steps beyond where we are today, where you can, yes, have a gay protagonist in serious cinema with mainstream backing, but when it comes to the popcorn flicks the fags are relegated to supporting roles. Glee has been superlative in the storylines it's allotted to the Kurt character, but he is still secondary. Rachel and Finn, Schue and Sylvester -- that's where the core stories are at.

    But here's the thing. As I was making this argument in the comments, saying how I saw this as an absence begging to be filled, I wanted to ensure that I wasn't painting a bleaker picture of reality than was fair. The Curiosity of Chance exists, after all. Were the World Mine exists. These are indie flicks made on shoestring budgets, labours of love the both of them, but they are out there. And maybe I was just ignorant. Maybe I'd just missed the movies I was looking for. So, in the interests of fairness, I did a quick Google on "gay kid" and "high school movie". The result at that time was my post on The Curiosity of Chance as the top hit.

    That floored me. I wrote it into my response -- so ironically the page that comes top now is the one where I comment on it. I twittered about it. I realised Google might be doing something weird algorithmically just for me, so I signed out and tried again. Same response. I'm still half-convinced there's something I've missed, but I've talked about it on numerous occasions and I'm yet to get someone coming back with, "No, I get something else entirely." And I know my hit stats. I know how low a profile my blog has. I'm staggered at the idea that nowhere on the whole internet are those phrases used together on a page that trumps me. They're not that idiosyncratic, surely. Gay kid. High school movie. How can these phrases not be popping up together all over the place?

    And the answer seems to be because the movie that would have that effect doesn't exist. While The Curiosity of Chance and Were the World Mine are out there, they didn't get to sit at the big table with the grown-ups. They didn't get backed by major studios. They didn't get Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. They didn't get Ang Lee. They didn't get the serious PR that comes with all of that, the hype that's only boosted by the fact that -- holy fuck! -- it's as big a movie as you can get in terms of investment and it's a motherfucking gay love story.

    That's the movie I want to see.

    Forget Brokeback Mountain. Forget Glee. Or better still, think of what I want as the fusion of the two. With the big studio budget and support of something like 10 Things I Hate About You, The Curiosity of Chance or Were the World Mine could have been, I think, game-changers in Hollywood. There was a time when Hollywood still baulked at the notion of a black lead in a popcorn flick, a good old-fashioned blockbuster. Now all such nonsense notions can be quashed with two words: Will Smith. Would a gay lead in a popcorn flick really be surefire box office disaster? What is the target demographic of your average high school movie as, in many respects, a rom-com for teens? What proportion of that prospective audience is female? How many men who actually want to see 10 Things I Hate About You are contrarily going to refuse to see something comparable just because the lead character's queer?

    Did whites stay away in droves from I Am Legend because they, like, just couldn't relate to Will Smith?

    If you think that comparison is a stretch, this is the same issue that's beset another movie, Falling For Grace, as pointed out by the Interstitial Arts Foundation. That movie is a straight-up romantic comedy, written and directed by Fay Ann Lee, who also stars in it. As the name might suggest, Lee is Chinese-American. Which apparently means "no movie studio, no TV channel, and barely any theaters will pick up this film." Lee has been told in no uncertain terms that the movie can't be marketed as the rom-com it is, only as an "Asian-American film."

    Imagine: "I'm sorry, Mr Smith. We couldn't possibly sell I Am Legend as a sci-fi action/adventure blockbuster. With a black guy in the lead role, we could only ever market it as a Black film."

    How fucked up would that be? But that does seem to be the logic at play here for Falling from Grace. I can't help but think the same is true for the high school movie I want to see with a gay kid as a protagonist, and I suspect it will hold until such time as the game-changing movie comes along that smashes through the craven cowardice. Being an ambitious and contrarian son-of-a-bitch, of course, seeing that woeful state of affairs, getting that gobsmacking Google result thrown back in my face, didn't make me simply bemoan the stark reality. Bollocks to that. As I sat there, trying to put into words my sheer shock at being the top hit for a string combination like "gay kid" and "high school movie," I found myself basically saying, oh fuck, if the movie I'm looking for doesn't exist, the only thing I can do about this is try and fucking write it.

    And thus was born Whatever the Fuck You Want.

    It's a simple premise. If you've read As You Like It, it's based on that, pretty much scene for scene. Even the dialogue, while modernised and freely fucked around with, is largely riffing off Shakespeare's original text. The big change -- switching Rosalind's gender -- is actually, I think, in keeping with a quite radical subtext to this play, an update of a feisty queer spirit I see in it. You know that in Shakespeare's day the female parts would have been played by a boy, right? Well, the main plot of AYLI revolves around Orlando meeting and falling in love with Rosalind early on. Almost immediately though, she has to go on the lam disguised as a boy, calling herself Ganymede (ahem!) When they meet up again, he doesn't recognise her. As Orlando moons over this Rosalind girl, "Ganymede" offers to help him practise his courtship skills by pretending to be her. So we end up with Orlando pretending to woo a girl who, he thinks, is really a boy, who is really a girl, who is really, in reality, a boy. Dig? Shakespeare's gender-bending is, I think, so consciously playing with this that modern performances with Rosalind played by a woman erase a fundamental import. Because she -- no, he -- no, she -- no, he -- is actually the person Orlando loves, only he doesn't realise it. Hmmmmm.

    But wait, you might say, isn't that last "no, he" stepping out of the story? Like, the base character is still a girl, it's just the actor would have been a boy, so there's that whole fourth wall between her and him, no? But Shakespeare breaks the fourth wall.

    In the epilogue to that play, the actor playing Rosalind addresses the audience directly, first with an excuse for the irregularity of having a woman speak the epilogue. But, hey, if it's fine for a man to do the prologue, she says, why shouldn't a woman do the epilogue? The usual elicitations of indulgence are made: we tried our best; give us a break if it wasn't your cup of tea. But then something interesting happens. All you women in the audience, Rosalind says, for the sake of the love you bear to men, I ask you to like this play... as much as it pleases you. (I'm paraphrasing here.) All you men in the audience, for the sake of the love you bear women -- and we know you do cause you spend so much time whining about them -- maybe "between you and the women the play may please." Which rather reads to me as if Shakespeare knows fine well that your average red-blooded male may suffer "chick flicks" only for the sake of his girlfriend. So you don't like rom-coms? Be happy that you're making her happy, by being here with her. Find the pleasure in sharing this experience between you.

    And then comes the kicker.

    "If I were a woman..." says Rosalind. And where is the stress in that? "If I were a woman..." If it were me at your side. "If I were a woman..." But I'm not. "If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not..." I'd kiss all you fine specimens of manhood, with your manly beards, your smooth skin, your sweet breath. If I were a woman, that is. You hunks, you.

    There's a blatant flirtation here, as I see it, a feisty faggotry that demands to be acted with desire. I've read at least one commentary that posited the actor's removal of his wig as part of the performance. With the explicit admission of gender -- that he is not a woman -- the character is being abandoned, the pretence stripped away. To remove the wig at this key point while carrying on the coy plea for indulgence, to stand revealed as a boy while still coquettishly teasing the men in the audience... this is, I think, queer theatre in action. It is defiantly deviant, an inversion of the play's "truth" -- that Ganymede is really Rosalind. No, it's saying, Rosalind is really Ganymede.

    Granted, it's fairly coy for the most part, almost everything in the subtext. We're not talking a bad boy like Marlowe here, happy to break a few noses on his path to an early death, picking Edward II as subject -- the king who, for his sexual sins, got a red-hot poker up where the sun don't shine. But does Shakespeare worry that all the straight boys will have their masculinity so threatened by a hint of Teh Gayz that they'll stay away in droves? Does he chicken out from what, if played just so, could well have been pretty much in-your-face faggotry, for fear that it'll make men run a mile? No, "for the love you bear to women" Rosalind says to the men. Enjoy it for her sake. Don't get all gruff and manly man heteronormative about it. "If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me..." You're too handsome to be a homophobe, honey.

    I studied the play at uni, and loved it for that from the off. Part of me wonders if Shakespeare was deliberately writing it for the queers on the stage and the queers in the audience, to give the actors a chance to play lovers without one of them in a dress, to give the audience that sight. To give them a scene where a boy dressed as a boy stands on stage and, as other characters proclaim the passions of love, that love is this and that and the other, and that this is how they feel for such-and-such and so-and-so, he repeatedly echoes: And I for no woman.

    And I for no woman.

    One might well read that as an assertion of sexual identity. One might well read Shakespeare's title as a response.

    So as I got to thinking about the high school movie I wanted to see, with films like 10 Things I Hate About You in mind, it occurred to me that As You Like It might well stand a similar treatment. And could you switch the gender of Rosalind to take it back to its bolshie roots? It turns out you can. It changes the whole dynamic to have Orlando and Ross first meet while Ross is dressed up as a girl, to have their mock courtship charged with Ross's knowledge that the girl Orlando claims to love doesn't actually exist. But it changes it in, I think, a kinda interesting way. And there are so many features of the play that transfer so neatly to the high school movie idiom that a large part of the writing process consisted of me wetting myself at how naturally it all clicked into place.

    Will it work for a reader who's seen screenplay after screenplay? Have I fucked up in some way that I, as a novice in this field, just don't see? Fucked if I know; my literary agent liked it enough to pass it on in the right direction, but there's every possibility it's not at all what anyone in the right place is looking for, purely on the screenplay level. And even if it does work as a script, is such a story sellable in Hollywood right now? I hope it is. It'd be cool for such a movie to be made outside the gay/indie ghetto, to get a seat at the big table. And for it to be one that lays its cards on that table in the title, if one does take it as a comment on the queer desires that ripple through the subtext: As you like it. Whatever the fuck you want.

    Hell, I just hope something like this is sellable. I want such a movie to get made whether it's mine or not. Cause if it's not, it seems like the whole "gay kid" and "high school movie" Google thing will just carry on being true. I'll keep on being the top hit for those strings. And that is frankly just fucked-up.

    Although, hey... Charlie has much better traffic than me, so maybe from here I can knock myself off the top spot. Heh.

    I gather an erupting volcano in Iceland has closed all the airports in Scotland due to a volcanic ash plume that's drifting south-east. Hopefully it won't stop us flying home next week, but you never know; I might be stranded in Japan!

    In order to maintain the usual content flow when I'm short of time for essay-writing, I usually post a link salad; but for once I'd like to do something different. Mili Popova is an IT project manager with a background in economics; I ran across an interesting blog posting of hers on the subject of content and public goods, and while I'm not sure I agree completely with her conclusions, I think they're provocative and deserve wider exposure. So rather than simply posting a link I'd invite her to repost the whole thing here. So without further ado — see the blog entry below.

    Hi there! I'm Mili. I released a little thought of mine into the wild that is my LiveJournal the other night, and Charlie found it and liked it and very kindly invited me to repost it here.

    This post has been two years in the making. I had the insight for it about two years ago and have been meaning to blog about it since then, all the time wondering why no one has twigged this yet, or whether they have and were too scared to say, or whether I just didn't know that they had. Anyway, what with the Digital Economy Bill having become the Digital Economy Act last week, it's about bloody time I get my act together and put this out there.

    So, let's have a bit of economics to start with. Because this is what's it's all about - the money, the economic incentives and the economic possibilities; and because I'm an economist by training, though I don't like to admit to it most days.

    There's a theory in economics about things called "public goods". To understand the distinction between private goods, public goods and the couple of shades of grey in between, you first need to get your head around two concepts: rival and excludable.

    Rival: (Wikipedia seems to call this "rivalrous", but when I were a young economist lass we used to call it rival so I'll stick with that.) A good is rival if my consumption of it diminishes the amount of the good that you can consume. Say we had 10 apples, and I ate one. There would now be 9 apples left which you could eat. If we had one apple and I ate all of it, tough luck, no apples for you. Knowing whether a good is rival or not tells you whether you want to use the market (if I were a good economist that would possibly be capital-M Market ;-) to allocate access to that good. If it's rival, then the market is an efficient way of allocating the good; if it's not, then you might want to think about other ways of getting your good to people. Remember that scary anti-piracy clip at the start of your DVDs which says "You wouldn't steal a handbag"? Hold that thought for a minute.

    Excludable: A good is excludable if you physically have a way of stopping people from consuming it. Back to the apples: if they're in my fridge, inside my locked house and you don't have a key, you can't have my apples. (Yes, yes, you could break in. The law provides additional protection here, but ultimately there's probably a better way for you to obtain an apple than breaking into my house, right?) Knowing whether a good is excludable tells you whether you can use the market to distribute the good. If your good is excludable, go ahead and sell it on the open market; if it's not - you might struggle because you can't stop people from just taking it for free.

    So. Most of the goods you deal with in your day-to-day life are both rival and excludable. We call them pure private goods. But there's a few things here and there that aren't as clear-cut, and this is where it gets a little messy.

    If a good is rival, but not excludable, we call it a common good. In that case, we want to use the market to allocate that resource but it's actually quite difficult to do. Fish in the sea is a good example: my overfishing the seas stops you from being able to fish and leads to long-term damage to fish stocks, yet it's remarkably difficult to stop me from doing it using just market tools.

    If a good is non-rival but excludable, we call it a club good. The classic example given in economics textbooks is cable television but I'm going to steer away from that for reasons which will become obvious. A better example for me is a golf course. My wandering around hitting a ball with a stick does not diminish your ability to do the same (as long as there's not thousands of us in the same place), and with a judicious application of fences I can stop you from coming in and therefore charge you money for the privilege (i.e. use the market). Is that the most efficient allocation of golf courses? Not necessarily, but it works, more or less, because they're excludable and therefore we can use the market.

    Here's the important part: a good that is neither rival nor excludable is called a pure public good, and the market is neither a practical nor an efficient way of allocating that good. The textbook example here is national defence. I'm in the UK, so are you; the UK has an army which protects us both (Theoretically speaking - this is not about the value or otherwise of the army, kay?), no matter what either of us do. Purely by virtue of being here we benefit from it - there's no way of stopping one of us from benefiting from defence, nor does my enjoyment of this good in any way diminish yours.

    So, to recap, for pure private goods, the market is both a practical and efficient way of allocating resources, and that's what we do most of the time. As soon as we move away from the pure private good paradigm, either because our good is non-rival or non-excludable or both, the market ceases to look like a good idea. In practice, what happens is that we try to use technical and/or legislative means to help us approximate private goods when dealing with any type of not purely private good. We can, for instance, make it a crime to overfish the seas, or put fences around our golf course to stop people from overrunning it without paying; we can make it a crime not to pay the tax that contributes to running the armed forces. (Oh and, incidentally, using a public-type good without paying your dues is called "free-riding". It's something economists are obsessed with stopping.)

    Okay, enough with the theory. Let's look at content in practice. Remember that little clip at the start of your legally purchased DVD that delays your enjoyment of the film you've paid to see to tell you about how you wouldn't steal a handbag and thus should not steal a movie either? If you've been paying attention you should by now have spotted that these two things (the handbag and the movie) are not alike. If I steal a handbag it stops you from having it; if I download a movie from Piratebay, there is nothing that stops you from enjoying that same movie (either by getting it from Piratebay yourself or by forking out 20 quid at HMV or a fiver at Tesco's). In other words, while handbags are rival, movies aren't.

    Hold the rotten tomatoes. I am not saying that stealing a movie is a victimless crime, or that it's not stealing, or that the people who make the movies shouldn't get paid because I can get my movie off Piratebay. What I'm doing is describing the behaviour of movies as goods in economic terms. We'll come to the moralising in a bit.

    What's been happening over the last 10 or 15 years is that it's become progressively more difficult to make content (such as movies or music or cable television) excludable. Thanks to progress in technology, such as making the media via which content is distributed cheaper, faster and easier to copy, if I want to watch a movie tonight I don't have to go to the cinema or to HMV to obtain it, I can just stay in the comfort of my own home and download it from the internet. This kind of progress isn't new. Remember how home taping was killing music? Same phenomenon really, but the internet has just scaled it up by a factor of 1 with lots of zeros on the end. In the 1980s, if I bought an album and then made a copy on tape for my friends, there were only a limited number of people I could distribute those tapes to: 5, 10, 100 if I tried really hard and didn't mind forking out money for the blank tapes. Along came Napster, and all of a sudden my copy of The Black Album could be accessed by millions of people at no marginal cost whatsoever.

    Remember how, to make public-type goods behave more like private goods, we use technology or legislation? The content distributors made DRM, we cracked DRM, they made more DRM, we cracked it again, rinse, repeat. Turns out technology wasn't very good at this. The other tool in the box is of course legislation. Copyright laws already existed and, let's face it, we'd already been breaking them cheerfully for years (see home taping) before Napster made an appearance - at least in part because copyright legislation isn't fit for purpose (see breaking the law by ripping your CD to put it on your iPod). So the content distributors (distributors, not creators - important distinction) lobbied our elected representatives to tie our hands even more using legislation. The DMCA was born, and more recently the Digital Economy Act. Other countries, too, are reviewing their copyright provisions. There's been a recent government consultation in Canada, and ACTA is on its way. (I trust you can google DMCA and ACTA if you're not familiar with them.)

    Here's the thing though: no amount of legislation will put that particular genie back in its box. Or at least no amount of legislation that is either acceptable in a democratic society (Yes, the Digital Economy Act arguably crosses that line already, but it's easily circumvented by technological means and I certainly don't believe we can go much further beyond the line.) or cost-effective to enforce. Content has never been a rival good and recent technological progress has made it, for all intents and purposes, non-excludable. It's time to face the music: Content is a public good.

    Here's what this doesn't mean: It doesn't mean content is free (Cleverer people than me have explained why information doesn't want to be free.), or cheap to make (though it can be), or that content creators should not get rewarded for their efforts.

    And here's what it does mean: It means that old business models based on content being a club good simply don't work. It means we have to rethink our relationship with content - as creators, as distributors and as consumers. It means that there are a lot of giants in the content distribution industry whose livelihoods (profit margins) are being pulled out from under them faster than they can say "illegal downloads", and they are fighting it. Of course they're fighting it. They've had an incredibly profitable business model for about a century and suddenly they don't. Let's face it, human beings don't like change at the best of times, and we sure as hell don't like it when it means less cash in our pockets.

    And here's what it also means: Content creators have direct access to content consumers (see "we have to rethink our relationship" above). There's a myriad of ways to create, promote and make available your content; and those are just the ones we've thought of so far - more are coming. While old industries may be victims of change, the money that previously went to them is being redistributed, creating new industries. For most of us, this is something to get excited about. (And even for David Geffen it's an opportunity to come up with something new and shiny and exciting, if he only took it!)

    So what does the future of content look like? The short answer is that I don't know, but here are a few guesses and extrapolations from what I'm seeing already.

    There is by now more than just anecdotal evidence that, for certain types of content at least, putting it up for free on the internet will actually increase your sales. Books are a good example here and Cory Doctorow demonstrates this quite nicely - all his books are available for free from his website and he's selling loads of them. (I suspect part of the reason why this works so nicely with books is that we bibliophiles already have a special relationship with dead-tree versions of things, we like to own them, and we like to support the people who create them. It's in the culture.)

    Putting your stuff up for free on the internet does two things. Firstly, it helps you reach a wider audience. A lot of people who wouldn't fork out the best part of a tenner on a book or CD will happily download it for free. They might find they like the book or CD, and that might make them pay up, or it might make them recommend it/share it with their friends, and some of them might pay up. Secondly, it allows you to price-discriminate in the most finely-tuned way possible - it allows you to charge every single person who comes across your content exactly what they're willing to pay for it. This is actually a good thing for content creators: it maximises your (the creator's) profits while the consumer pays for the content according to how much they value it - no more, no less. This may mean I get lots more content more cheaply now, or I focus on giving my favourite artists more money - the choice is up to me. (Price discrimination is traditionally seen as Evil by economists who believe in the Market. In many cases it is. In this case... I have yet to see an argument to convince me.)

    I think another trend we're likely to see is a move away from big blockbuster type content (bands like Metallica, or the Foo Fighters, movies like Avatar, big-budget TV shows, etc.) towards a wider range of smaller artists. Being a rock star may not make one or two bands a year hugely, astronomically rich, but more artists should hopefully be able to make a living off their art.

    We're going to see a wider variety of distribution models. My favourite example at the moment is the just-released Indelicates album which comes as a "pay-what-you-like" download, CD, iTunes type formats, CD plus various levels of extras such as art books, and the super special edition where Julia and Simon Indelicate rock up at your house, perform the album, record the performance and sign over the rights to the master. (I'm thinking that'd make a great 30th birthday present - hint-hint...) Amanda Palmer is also experimenting with different ways of making money, including pay-what-you-like releases and webcasts where she auctions off her finance's daughter. Ditto Zoe Keating. Kickstarter looks like a great way of funding art too.

    Consumers' relationship with art and artists will change. It will be a lot more direct. Art isn't the shiny disc that you buy from Tesco's anymore. It's the project that your favourite artist announces on their blog and asks you for funding and posts updates about and that you wait for with increasing excitement. How we find new artists we like will change. I did a little calculation back in February on how much money I'd spent on music over the previous 6 months, and had to stop counting at the 300 quid mark lest I gave myself a heart attack. Of all of the musicians whose music I bought, I'd only discovered one or two through the radio (and that was Radio 4, so they, too, were fairly obscure). One set were street musicians whose CD I bought. A few I'd discovered through other artists I liked (Amanda Palmer through Neil Gaiman, Zoe Keating and the Indelicates through Amanda Palmer, etc.). One CD I'd meant to buy for a while and was prompted by seeing the artist in an episode of a TV series which I'd nabbed from Piratebay. A substantial number I discovered through friends pointing me in their direction and giving me free samples to listen to.

    Of course there will be free-riders. Not everyone will pay for the content they download for free, even if they really like it. But those people might point their friends in the direction of that artist. (There's a reason why I'm plugging a bunch of artists in the previous paragraph. ;-) And even if they don't, you know what? That's okay too. As long as there are enough of us willing to pay for our art so that artists can make a living, that's fine. It'll be a bit like public services: some people pay their taxes, some people find all the loopholes, some people claim more benefits than they're allowed. It's not always 100% fair, but in the grand scheme of things, it works.

    I think the sooner artists start engaging with their fanbase in a direct way and looking for creative ways to distribute their art, the more successful they will be. Content consumers need re-educating, and those artists who reach out to do that education first will be ahead of the game. Those who hide behind their record labels, sue their fans and see them as the enemy... well, we'll see, but I ain't buying CDs from Metallica anymore - haven't ever since they helped shut down Napster.

    The distribution models I've talked about don't necessarily suit all types of media. They work well for books and music, they may not work well for the type of TV and movies that we're currently used to. But we're already seeing innovation in those sectors too (Hulu, or being able to buy individual episodes of series from iTunes). It'll come.

    Bottom line: change is happening. There will be winners and losers, it'll be a long and difficult process. But the sooner we collectively stop sticking our heads in the sand and admit that content is a public good, and that that puts some responsibility on consumers too, the sooner we can start figuring out - together, rather than as enemies - what we want the future to look like.

    After blogging about travel adventures and the unknown, I thought I'd follow the loose tangential connection my mind makes with such things, and post about the next jaunt on my own agenda, and about the way that stepping outside your comfort zone in other ways can sometimes end up in something unexpectedly cool. Cause for me the next journey off my native soil -- flights just booked shortly after that post, actually -- is a wee trip to Chicago in June. It's only a few days, with I don't know what crash space organised for me at the other end, there's no convention to go to, and no publishers to see, and I really can't afford it, but I couldn't resist it, couldn't not go. There's a musical playing, you see, for the first time ever, world premiere. And it's mine.

    Yeah, yeah, I'm sure there's some of you out there who're thinking right now of how much you hate musicals. A lot of folk just can't stand the rupture of a perfectly good narrative with a sudden left turn into song and dance. That's your prerogative. Some people love musicals and some people have no soul. Those of you who have no soul feel free to berate me in the comments for infecting the world with one more acoustic atrocity. You are quite entitled to have no soul. Me, I love em. I hate disco music, divas, rainbow flags, and all other such cliches of "gay" culture, but I have to admit, I'm a sucker for jazz hands. (That sounds vaguely dirty, but you know what I mean.) In almost all other respects, I'm about as far from your stereotypical flouncing flameboy as can be, but from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers through to Sweeney Todd, I loves me my show tunes. I draw the line at Andrew Lloyd Weber -- no, wait, even he gets a pass with Jesus Christ Superstar cause "Heaven on My Mind" is just awesome. That's how deep my addiction runs.

    I can't help it.

    Anyways, this one has been kind of a weird project of mine for the last... um... five years or so, maybe. It would probably have taken considerably less if I had any capacity whatsoever to actually, you know, sing. Or play an instrument. Or write sheet music. Those skills would undoubtedly have come in handy. When you write a musical, I suspect that being able to communicate what it actually sounds like is, generally speaking, a major advantage. But I'm not one to be daunted by such trivial practicalities. Reality? Hah! If I gave a flying fuck for your piddling reality, do you think I'd be writing a fucking musical?

    It began -- as is a good place to start with such things -- with a doomed love. I hooked up with a hot young guy via Teh Seedy Intarwebz -- via Gaydar namely, a gay personals site with all too many profile pics of the "put that away!" variety but where occasionally you run into someone who isn't actually advertising themselves as, apparently, little more than a prick or an arse. And so I met this guy, we had a three-day weekend of intensive dating, I fell head over heels for him, and... he didn't return my calls. Shit happens. It wasn't meant to be. I tried, to a level that didn't overstep the bounds into creepy stalker territory, but he just wasn't into me.

    So I hit the booze.

    I take what I think of as the Bernard Black approach to a broken heart. Red wine, absinthe, beer, whatever. Smoke lots of cigarettes, don't wash for days, and spend all night railling drunkenly at the injustice of the world while listening to Tom Waits. Or Neil Diamond's "Love on the Rocks." That's a good one for the self-pitying. The more overblown the better, cause it gets it out of your system faster; you just have to push yourself to the point where you know you're a caricature, where you can't take yourself seriously any longer, and eventually, after a week or two of cathartic misery, you come out the other end and get on with your life. It may not work for everyone, but that's my recipe. Shit, maybe I'm just fickle.

    That was pretty much my approach this time, except somewhere in that gleeful self-abandon to debauchery, I wrote a song, a blues jazz number called "That Great Big Sanatorium in the Sky" that clearly came from listening to Waits's Small Change one too many times. Then I wrote another called "Tango for the Dead" that had pretty much the same dive bar delight in all things self-destructive. Somewhere in there, the story-teller in me kicked in. I couldn't help but imagine them being sung by a Waitsian waster in some seedy piano bar, a character in a story that clicked together as I dug out some old songs -- scribbled down years before when I really, really wanted to have a punk band called Fagsmoke but knew no one insane enough to put up with my... vocal idiosyncracies. Those songs belonged in other characters' mouths, I realised, and those characters fell together into a narrative. Before I knew it I was writing a script and twisting those songs I had into medleys and reprises, ensemble numbers -- a punk anthem here, a Broadway ballad there, West Side Story meets Hedwig and the Angry Inch meets Tommy meets Cabaret, and all of it in my head.

    And then I had a musical. In my head.

    It's kind of weird having a musical in your head. An earworm you just want to get rid of, but when it's your own invention you sorta love that earworm. You know your eyes are glazing over as people talk to you, but all you can think of is the tune playing inside your skull. You try to pay attention but you've just come up with a really awesome lyric. It would be fine if you could lay it down. If you could only sing it properly. If you could only play the piano or guitar. If you could only write sheet music. If you could only find some way to communicate it. But, no. There's a fucking orchestra in your head, and half a dozen voices singing different refrains in harmonies over each other, and you have a voice that... well, when it comes to voices breaking, mine took that to mean like when you throw a spanner in the works of some heavy machinery. Christ, they wouldn't let me in the school choir even before it broke.

    But I tried. Neil Williamson of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, God bless him, being as talented a musician as he is a writer, and an all-round good guy, suffered through my ungodly attempts to get across a couple of the tunes; but he'd had to have been psychic to figure out what fucking key I was aiming for most of the time, let alone what note. So eventually, I stuck the script in the drawer and got on with projects that might actually come to something. Cause, really... a musical? Like even if I got the basic melodies in sheet music, what was I going to do? Set myself up as the Ed Wood of Glaswegian musical theatre? Use my wild-eyed passion to convince the score or more people I'd need to stage it at the Edinburgh Fringe as some grand folly? How the fuck did I think I was ever going to get this on the stage when I don't know shit about the million things that matter there?

    This sort of applies to writing too, I think. I mean, really, every creative endeavour is something of a madcap scheme. A lot of aspiring writers I've talked to are daunted by the odds that can seem insurmountable, and sometimes it's not so much that they doubt their talent as that they just... feel like Luke Skywalker at the start of Star Wars. That they're a nobody stuck in the middle of nowhere. They're never going to be in the right place at the right time. They're just that shitkicking kid from a town of dicks, pricks and fucking hicks. I felt like that myself for most of the time I was working on what was to become Vellum. Who the fuck am I to think I can do this?

    But don't worry. I'm not going to get all inspirational on your ass, trot out the old chestnuts about soldiering on and lucky breaks. This is about left turns.

    So. Fast forward to a year or so back and I pick up my first Mac as a replacement for a kaput IBM ThinkPad. If you know Macs, you might have messed around with GarageBand, that oh-so-easy-to-use music mixing application with all these loops of piano, guitar, drums and whatnot that you can slap down in multiple tracks, splice and dice, generally fuck around with till you come up with something listenable. It's kind of fun, especially if you're a writer who likes meddling in other media. You can't fool yourself that email and interwebs are anything other than procrastination, because there's nothing constructive going on. Me, I'm shit at video games, so I can't even throw myself into one of those and at least feel I've finished something. But slapping together a tune in GarageBand... now that I can do. It's a great way to avoid work.

    So, you're sitting there staring at the outline, writing a word here and there, knocking up against some mini-block where you know something's wrong but your unconscious hasn't figured out what yet. So you take a left turn. Or at least I do. I open up GarageBand and start fucking about with piano loops, and I discover one that sounds... strangely right. It is, I realise, exactly the refrain I had in my head as the backbone of the musical's title song. I slap it down, start fucking around some more. Long story short, a week or so later I have all but two of the numbers laid down -- in files so big, so layered in tracks, I have to do jiggery-pokery to run them without stalling, but near as damn it exactly the way they've always sounded in my head. Awesome! And with a few button clicks and a fileshare site, it's a piece of piss to mix them down to mp3s and stick them up on the web, embed some little doohickeys in a blog post or five so you can share them with the world. Wouldn't inflict my singing on a Tory Shadow Home Secretary, but at least anyone who wants to can hear the instrumental version and get the gist of it, as they read the downloadable libretto.

    It's sort of a weird free giveaway but it's a form of fiction. And it's not like I'm really in a position to do anything with it, so what the fuck? Why not?

    Some months later I get an email from some kids at the University of Chicago. They're fans of my books, they read the blog, and they've fallen in love with the musical. Would I give permission for them to stage it through the university theatre group? They'd need sheet music, of course, for the proposal, and they'd need to know how the lyrics are meant to be sung, but would I be open to the idea in principle. Is that a lucky break or a left turn? Is it their left turn or mine? Maybe we both took left turns while facing different ways, and found ourselves looking at each other. The point is just, I guess, that sometimes madcap schemes are just crazy enough that others fall in love with the glorious folly of them. They like that sort of left turn too.

    I mean, I couldn't give them sheet music. You can produce sheet music of sorts from some of the tracks in GarageBand but it's a far cry from just hitting a button and printing out a usable score. But they got themselves a musical director who was up for taking the mp3s and the project files and working my multi-layered mess -- where a melody might well be based on the way three different piano tracks interact with each other, the refrain woven between them -- and arranging it so it could actually be performed. My singing may be shite, but with some saintly friends at this end, I could lay down my own vocals, play the tracks to them what can sing, and try and direct them as they navigated their way by the music to what I was aiming for.

    The result? In a three day run from the 3rd to the 5th of June, University of Chicago Theater Group is proud to present the world premiere of Nowhere Town by Hal Duncan. It may not be Broadway, but it's fucking awesome as far as I'm concerned. It's a madcap scheme born in a week of caprice and chaos, and now it's coming to fruition. It's a left turn, taken on the spur of the moment because a bit of distraction isn't always a bad thing. I like left turns. They might seem to take you completely off the track, but sometimes you stumble onto a whole other path, and if you follow it, you find yourself somewhere you never expected to be. For me, a couple of months from now, that's going to be sitting in the audience on the opening night as my words and music are made real on stage.

    As I say, I used to have that mentality that's... not fatalist, not defeatist, but... daunted. Wrapped up in the sense that certain things just don't happen to some snot-nosed scruff from a shithole in the West of Scotland. And when you look at it in terms of soldiering on and lucky breaks, I'm not sure that helps that much. They're words to the wise, these warnings that you have to work your arse off and even then you might not get the golden opportunity, just have to do your damnedest, cross your fingers and hope for the best. But they're words spoken so often that those who need to be persuaded of those realities are as often as not in deep denial of them already. And those who already get that... well, that reality is pretty daunting.

    But now I just say, fuck it. Take the left turn and see where it goes. So while I'm waiting for those two long months to pass, I've got two other madcap schemes on the go -- an illustrated children's book with Eric Orchard, and a screenplay for a high school movie based on As You Like It, with the female lead changed to male. Eric's artwork is awesome, so I think I've had a lucky break in hooking up with him, but the idea of a potty-mouthed waster like me writing for kids? Heh. And as for the screenplay? Man, the main reason I wrote it is because "gay kid" and "high school movie" don't mix in Hollywood. (I know this for a fact cause if you Google those strings the top hit is a post on my blog -- not an IMDB entry or a proper review, but a post on my fucking blog -- and I know how low my traffic is. But that's another rant.) Every last scrap of sanity in me says that trying to sell such a project is an act of utter folly. But fuck it.

    Fuck knows if anything will come of these left turns, but it was fun to take them. And, hey, if in June I'm going to be sitting in a theatre, maybe one day I'll be sitting in a cinema...

    I'm in Tokyo, and I intend to have a beer or two next Tuesday from 6:30pm at Popeye (Bakusyu Club Popeye, 2-18-7 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, Tokyo-to Tokyo-shi, 130-0026). They've got 42 taps and a draft real ale, not to mention food.

    If you want to join me (and can be there), add a comment below so I can tell them how many folks to expect.

    So, Charlie's off in Japan, and I'm his unlikely surrogate for a week or so. Hi, I'm Hal Duncan, and I'm the poor man's Charles Stross. Or the Charlie Stross's poor man. Or something. I'm certainly jealous as fuck of Charlie's gallivanting to Japan, cause it's probably one of my favourite things about this whole writing gig -- the travel. Whether it's a wee con in Belfast (mmmm, Guinness!) or a huge con in Nantes, meeting your translator in Berlin or Helsinki or wherever, it's always an awesome experience for me. I like culture shock. I like the disconnection. I like being lost and alone among people whose language I barely understand two words of.

    I realise I caught the bug at an early age, on holiday with my folks in former Yugoslavia, in a little touristy town outside Dubrovnik, wandering off on my tod and randomly picking a stranger to follow -- not in a creepy stalker way, but just to give a direction to my wanderings. Like, even if they were just going from their house to a shop, still, walking in their path was somehow being more a part of the place than, you know, lying on the beach or traipsing round after a tour guide with my folks. Actually, tell a lie; given my age I probably was pretending to be a secret agent or something, but I do think that's where the first germ of the disease got under my skin.

    It really took hold on one of those student interrail journeys, trying to muddle my way around Europe with the piss-poor French that comes with a UK education. Years of travelling with my parents, a holiday or two with a mate -- those were cool, but I decided I really wanted to go it alone, not have to haggle with someone else about where we were going, what we were going to do. So, yeah, in classic would-be boho style I decided to do my own Grandish Tour -- Paris, Rome, Florence, etc. -- on a ticket valid for a month, with money that, of course, lasted for two weeks of youth hostels and student halls. So, OK, I blew most of my dosh in one week in Paris; it was still fucking fantastic.

    I remember kinda loving the fact that the guy behind the counter in the Metro completely disdained my insult to his language, and most decidely did not "appreciate the effort." He was a bloke, working his dull daily job, and not interested in linguistically wiping my arse for me. I liked sitting in cafes on my tod, preferably ones with as few anglophone voices as possible, cause when you're a solitary scruff, waitors don't give a fuck about you, but every so often you'll find yourself in some random conversation, like with some middle-aged guy who's worryingly keen to get you to come to his night-club in a part of town you've never heard of. I liked taking the Metro out through neighgbourhoods that looked a little rougher, to St Denis Basilique where I was staying. I liked missing the Metro and being fucking stranded.

    That was the clincher, actually. See I didn't know much French, but I did remember the word ferme, so having not quite realised the Metro closed at midnight, when that word came over the tanoy as I made my way to a transfer that wasn't going to happen, I sort of wised up rather quickly to the fact that I was fucked. Sod all money in my pocket, needless to say, a little but... enough for a taxi? Shit, I had no idea. But with not much choice in the matter, I made my way outside, found a taxi rank and stood waiting, hoping that I could find some way to ask a driver what the fare might be.

    The fight in the taxi rank was an adventure. The sort of adventure you back away from as quickly as possible, the sort you watch really nervously as two men go at it, then their girlfriends try to separate them, then their girlfriends go at it, and very soon one of them is dragging the other backwards by her hair across the street. O-kay, you think, valiantly waiting, soldiering it out until you get to the front of the queue and the taxi driver gives blank stares at your butchery of his tongue. Can you get the gist of your meaning across? Can you fuck.

    But, hey, there's always Shanks's Pony! And you have a map, a map of Paris. OK, so where you're staying is actually off the map, but it's labelled so you know that this road here, exiting the map due north, is headed for where you're staying. And the route you need to take to get there is fairly straightforward. And who the fuck knows how far it is when the scale is in kilometres anyway? It's possibly not advisable, if you find yourself in such a situation and having walked for a number of hours already, to select now as the time to experiment with hitch-hiking, not when the street you make that decision on turns out to be, as you later find out, the heart of the red light district. But it turned out fine. The man who picked me up seemed perfectly nice, and if he was sorely disappointed in getting some halfwit Scottish naif who could do little more than jabber "St Denis Basilique?" at him, instead of the long-haired, leather-jacketed, junkie hustler I might have looked like, well, he didn't show it. Hey, I couldn't tell. Didn't have a scooby what the fuck he was saying.

    Granted, when he dropped me off on the edge of Paris, the long stretch of unlit pathless road between the city and the suburb was a little daunting, but with the lights of that suburb in sight, it was at least a straight line through the pitch-black. It only took another hour or so to get three-quarters of the way -- not far now! -- and realise that the pocket of my backpack was unzipped, presumably from when I stuffed the map into it in my Parisian Samaritan's motor. And, oh wait, that was the pocket my passport was in, right?

    I think it was then that I decided this was awesome. Seriously. You'd think it was after the two-hour walk halfway back to Paris, the painstaking inch-by-inch trudge with my eyes scouring the grass verge every step. You'd think it was after the excruciating tension of hoping against hope that the passport hadn't fallen out in the car and that I could actually spot the old-style British passport, black as the night itself. You'd think it was after the miracle of actually seeing that tiny white bit for your name on the front, gleaming in the darkness. You'd think it was the blessed relief, the swingback into elation from the adrenalin overload. But, no. Swear to God, a part of me just broke a little as soon as I realised the passport was gone, just surrendered to a joyous relish of the absurdity of the entire fiasco.

    I made it back to the student halls I was staying in eventually. Couldn't get into my room because the night porter had no access to the key I'd had to hand in (to get my passport, to change money.) Spent the night on a wooden bench watching a scabby moggy chase creepy-crawlies that weren't quite big enough to be cockroaches, (I convinced myself.) But it didn't really matter. Even at the time, I didn't look at it as a horrendous gruelling experience of When Holidays Go Wrong. And my attitude was nothing to do with any platitudinous bollocks about "if life throws you lemons, make lemonade." Fuck that shit. I just discovered there was something neat about being that stranger in that strange land.

    When I got a programming job that involved the odd jaunt abroad to places like Marion in North Carolina, Bursa in Turkey or Odorheiu in Romania, that disease resurfaced. I got stranded in Istanbul once on the way back from Bursa, had to find a cheap-ass hotel for myself on the few Turkish lira I had in my pocket. Loved every second of it. But it's not about the thrill of disaster, so much as it's about the disconnection. One of the things I love about going to foreign cons or visiting publishers are exactly those moments people apologise for -- when you're with a crowd of locals who've relaxed into the craic so much they forget they have this barbarian in their midst who doesn't speak their tongue. Suddenly at some point someone will realise -- shit! you have no idea what we're on about! -- but there's something wonderful about not knowing what's being said, about just soaking up the rhythms and tones and body language. Hazy with jetlag, adrenalin and alcohol, seeing the human interaction stripped of referential meaning, you catch a deeper sense to this strange ballet of sounds and gestures, in a way you can never do when you're immersed in the back-and-forth of words and ideas. And it rocks.

    Of course, the most alien languages in my travels I've ever had to deal with are Polish, Hungarian or Turkish; and the strange lands I've been a stranger in have been heavily Westernised if not wholly Western, so I can't help wondering if Charlie's having some real honest-to-God lost-in-translation moments out there in Japan.

    Fuck, that makes me so jealous.

    For the past six years, whenever the Hugo award shortlists have been published, I've had a book on the shortlist for "best novel".

    (I'm told that's an all-time record for consecutive best novel nominations. None of them won; but who cares? A record is a record, and just being on that list is an honour.)

    Well, not this year. Book #5 of a series was always unlikely to be shortlisted for an award, and my other book of 2009 was a short story collection.

    However, I'm very pleased to say that my novella Palimpsest has made the shortlist for best novella, and Overtime has been shortlisted for best novelette! And you can read them via those links (in the case of Palimpsest for the duration of Hugo voting; Overtime is on Tor.com permanently).

    Just a reminder that I'm doing vacation-like things in Tokyo this week and next, being a guest of honour at a Japanese SF convention the following weekend, and doing more vacation-y things the week after that. Hal Duncan and Elizabeth Bear have the mike and the soapbox; my presence here is going to be limited to short bulletins rather than long essays for the duration.

    Meanwhile, from elsewhere on the internet: an illustrated tutorial on the subject of cooking bacon with a machine gun.

    (When I get home I so need to do my photo-essay on duct-taping tofu to a cat ...)

    I'm still working on "Rule 34" (due from Ace in 2011), but as some of you probably noticed I've reached a stopping place in my Merchant Princes series (published by Tor) and need a break. More importantly, I've been ploughing a stony field for the past few years; writing the same stuff time and again is draining. So it should be no surprise to you to learn that I've been discussing possible new projects with my agent for the past year.

    There are other factors at work besides a lack of fresh ideas, of course. We've been taking a hard look at the market realities; things have been particularly grim in SF/F publishing ever since November 2008, and it has become clear that in light of a downward spiral of diminishing sales things can't go on as before. The poor market conditions (Tim Holman of Little, Brown says the British publishing industry as a whole shipped 1% fewer books in 2009) are resulting in downward pressure on new book advances: as an agent of my acquaintance put it, with respect to advances, "five grand is the new twenty grand". Despite my editor's kind offer to increase my advance by 50% in real terms if I'd accept payment in repossessed Hummer H2's, I am afraid that for me, the opportunity cost of producing science fiction has become too high relative to the untapped revenue potential inherent in other genres. So it's time to branch out.

    Late last year my agent and I conducted an exhaustive review of my skill-set and background, to the extent of commissioning a focus group to look into my work to date and suggest new directions. Readers commented favourably on the interpersonal romance subplots in the Merchant Princes series and the depiction of sexual relations in "Saturn's Children"; they also liked the paranormal elements in my Laundry novels, but expressed reservations about the tentacle count. A/B testing of a series of book proposals yielded some interesting insights into why people read books carrying the Charles Stross brand, and what could be done to improve their sell-through and market penetration. Finally, after a mammoth overnight brainstorming session, we put together a collection of new and extremely promising proposals for works that I feel are compatible with my interests and the reality of this age of changing market conditions we live in.

    My agent issued a proposal package and deadline for auction among the most likely-to-be-interested New York publishing houses. One thing led to another, by way of one of those whirlwind romances for which the publishing industry is famous, and we're now engaged: I'm pleased to announce my new five book deal, for a very strong six-digit sum, with one of the largest publishers in the United States!

    Harlequin Romance will publish my first paranormal romance, "Unicorn School™: The Sparkling", in Q1/2012. US:TS is the first book of the projected series, and introduces Avril Poisson, who moves with her family from Phoenix, Arizona, to Forks, Washington with her divorced father, and finds her life in danger when she falls in love with a Sparkly Unicorn™ called Bob. Stalked by and in fear of a mysterious horse-mutilator, Avril must practice her dressage skills with Bob and qualify her steed for a scholarship to the elite Unicorn School™, where he will be safe to grow (and sparkle) without fear of the vampires who infest the senior's common room. In the second book, "Unicorn School™: The Exsanguination" Bob and Avril must stalk a Vampire Unicorn™ who is draining her fellow pupils of the will to live back to the rocky outcrop where he lives. In book three, "Unicorn School™: The Deflowering", Bob and Avril confront their most ghastly foe yet, a moustache-twirling villain who is intent on seducing all the pupils (as we all know, unicorn/human relationships are only possible if the human party is a virgin) in order to sell their heart-broken steeds to evil French multinational meat conglomerate Hachette. In book four, "Unicorn School™: The Big Chill" the swindle that is global warming is exposed and, as glaciers pounce on the Louisiana Bayou, Avril and Bob are hunted by monstrous black-and-white swimming birds. And in book five, "Unicorn School™ Forever", our young lovers are going to get married — but not if the evil, bigoted anti-unicorn Sheriff Osama gets his anti-unicorn-marriage by-law passed first!

    Editorial director Connie Cozened said, "we're delighted to have Stross on board, bringing his inimitable style and fizzing dialogue to the fastest growing sector of the romance market! (If only from a very small base.) His Sparkly Romance Unicorns™ marketing concept is sure to be a massive summer hit with immense spin-off marketing potential, and we've already been in discussions with Archie McPhee about co-branding. Movie rights are still available, but hurry! Stocks won't last!"

    For further information relating to this press release, please contact Aprilsnar Maj-Kat, administrative assistant, Liza Dawson Associates.

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