Native Lit is more than a marketing term

From High Country News:

If you drive west from Bozeman and veer off the interstate a few miles after Echo Lake, turning down a mostly gravel road still lovingly called Highway 38, you see them everywhere: Fences. At every turn, almost every inch of the way until you hit the national forest, they lurk. Some wrapped with tightly wound barbed wire, others just a few posts leaning on each other like a pair of drunken uncles. Everywhere you look, they straggle, weathered enough to deceive you into believing they’ve been there as long as the majestic streams and fields and mountains they serve to keep you from.

. . . .

I followed them all the way to Missoula, to the James Welch Native Literary Festival in late July. The first Native literary festival organized by Native writers themselves, it aimed to gather the premier and promising writers of Indian Country without the masturbatory performances of white guilt or capital-r Representation that ooze from similar industry-sponsored events. The festival was the brainchild of Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, a Blackfeet writer who loves to remind you that he is Blackfeet and that you are standing on his land. In this case, it’s actually Salish land, though in the span of the four-day fest, it also, kind of, felt like Sterling’s land, too. On the second day, we met on the third floor of the Missoula Public Library. As we spoke, writers floated past the couches we’d secured. Speculative-fiction writer Rebecca Roanhorse stopped by; poet and storyteller Taté Walker and I discussed journalism; essayist Chris La Tray marveled that he and Sterling both had the same limited-release Timex watch. And threaded throughout all of this was something resembling an interview with Sterling.

If you knocked back a shot every time he used the word “profound,” you’d be drunk by the time his first thought ended. Still, you’d stay on the edge of your seat until he finished. I asked Sterling why he picked Missoula for the inaugural fest. “When art ends up on a reservation, it dies,” he replied. “Art needs to be in conversation with other art, all the time. … Everybody just thinks like somehow we’re only in conversation with other Native art. And that’s not true at all.”

To be clear, neither the rez nor the Indian is the problem here. The problem is that most non-Indians would rather plop us into a category than sustain a conversation with our art. If you’ll allow me the metaphor, the term “Native Lit” is just another fence, one that the publishing and media industries use to separate us from other horror writers and sci-fi writers and poets and modernists. In order to pay the rent and carry on our craft, we must perform behind the barrier.

Link to the rest at High Country News

Artificial intelligence reduces a 100,000-equation quantum physics problem to only four equations

From Phys.org:

Using artificial intelligence, physicists have compressed a daunting quantum problem that until now required 100,000 equations into a bite-size task of as few as four equations—all without sacrificing accuracy. The work, published in the September 23 issue of Physical Review Letters, could revolutionize how scientists investigate systems containing many interacting electrons. Moreover, if scalable to other problems, the approach could potentially aid in the design of materials with sought-after properties such as superconductivity or utility for clean energy generation.

“We start with this huge object of all these coupled-together differential equations; then we’re using machine learning to turn it into something so small you can count it on your fingers,” says study lead author Domenico Di Sante, a visiting research fellow at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Quantum Physics (CCQ) in New York City and an assistant professor at the University of Bologna in Italy.

The formidable problem concerns how electrons behave as they move on a gridlike lattice. When two electrons occupy the same lattice site, they interact. This setup, known as the Hubbard model, is an idealization of several important classes of materials and enables scientists to learn how electron behavior gives rise to sought-after phases of matter, such as superconductivity, in which electrons flow through a material without resistance. The model also serves as a testing ground for new methods before they’re unleashed on more complex quantum systems.

Link to the rest at Phys.org

PG notes that this is the first quantum physics post he remembers making. He doesn’t think he was in two places at once when he decided to post this item.

The Onion tells the Supreme Court – seriously – that satire is no laughing matter

From CNN:

The Onion – a publication best known for its tongue-in-cheek, satirical postings on politics and world events – has taken the very serious step of filing an amicus brief before the Supreme Court.

It is wading into legal advocacy by asking the high court to hear a case about an Ohio man who was arrested and later acquitted for creating a fake Facebook page that looked nearly identical to a local police department’s site.

“Americans can be put in jail for poking fun at the government? This was a surprise to America’s Finest News Source and an uncomfortable learning experience for its editorial team,” the site’s lawyers wrote.

Indeed, The Onion said the headlines surrounding this case seemed like they were ripped off the front pages of its own publication.

The Onion’s amicus brief is itself written in a very tongue-in-cheek, satirical way, though its ultimate aim is genuine – to convince the Supreme Court to take up the case involving free speech and qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that largely shields law enforcement officers from constitutional claims and one that the justices have largely avoided questioning in recent cases.

“The Onion cannot stand idly by in the face of a ruling that threatens to disembowel a form of rhetoric that has existed for millennia, that is particularly potent in the realm of political debate, and that, purely incidentally, forms the basis of The Onion’s writers’ paychecks,” the brief says.

The man at the center of the case, Anthony Novak, was arrested in 2016 after he launched the Facebook page that mirrored the Parma Ohio Police Department’s official Facebook page. Police accused Novak of posting derogatory and inflammatory information under the guise of real officials from the police department, complete with fake job postings accompanied by notifications that the department discouraged minorities from applying.

Novak was charged with one felony count of disrupting public services, but was later acquitted at trial.

Novak’s attempts to sue the police department for violating his free speech rights were most recently stopped by the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel ruled in April that because officers there reasonably believed they were acting within the bounds of the law, Novak could not continue with his lawsuit against them.

But the panel of judges still was critical of the actions of the police officials.

“Granting the officers qualified immunity does not mean their actions were justified or should be condoned,” the appeals court wrote. “Indeed, it is cases like these when government officials have particular obligation to act reasonably. Was Novak’s Facebook page worth a criminal prosecution, two appeals, and countless hours of Novak’s and the government’s time? We have our doubts.”

Link to the rest at CNN

PG can’t believe that the local Ohio city attorney actually pursued a felony charge in this matter and that local judges failed to immediately dismiss it.

PG notes that the appellate court’s opinion identifies the city’s police management personnel and the two local judges by name, which is not necessary for its written decision. PG suspects this may have represented a legal backhand to embarrass the individuals involved for their stupidity even if the appeals court found Mr. Novak’s claim could not be pursued.

You can read the Sixth Circuit’s full opinion here.

Where Is All the Book Data?

From Public Books:

Culture industries increasingly use our data to sell us their products. It’s time to use their data to study them. To that end, we created the Post45 Data Collective, an open access site that peer reviews and publishes literary and cultural data. This a partnership between the Data Collective and Public Books, a series called Hacking the Culture Industries, brings you data-driven essays that change how we understand audiobooks, bestselling books, streaming music, video games, influential literary institutions such as the New York Times and the New Yorker, and more. Together, they show a new way of understanding how culture is made, and how we can make it better.

—Laura McGrath and Dan Sinykin

. . . .

After the first lockdown in March 2020, I went looking for book sales data. I’m a data scientist and a literary scholar, and I wanted to know what books people were turning to in the early days of the pandemic for comfort, distraction, hope, guidance. How many copies of Emily St. John Mandel’s pandemic novel Station Eleven were being sold in COVID-19 times compared to when the novel debuted in 2014? And what about Giovanni Boccaccio’s much older—14th-century—plague stories, The Decameron? Were people clinging to or fleeing from pandemic tales during peak coronavirus panic? You might think, as I naively did, that a researcher would be able to find out exactly how many copies of a book were sold in certain months or years. But you, like me, would be wrong.

I went looking for book sales data, only to find that most of it is proprietary and purposefully locked away. What I learned was that the single most influential data in the publishing industry—which, every day, determines book contracts and authors’ lives—is basically inaccessible to anyone beyond the industry. And I learned that this is a big problem.

The problem with book sales data may not, at first, be apparent. Every week, the New York Times of course releases its famous list of “bestselling” books, but this list does not include individual sales numbers. Moreover, select book sales figures are often reported to journalists—like the fact that Station Eleven has sold more than 1.5 million copies overall—and also shared through outlets like Publishers Weekly. However, the underlying source for all these sales figures is typically an exclusive subscription service called BookScan: the most granular, comprehensive, and influential book sales data in the industry (though it still has significant holes—more on that to come).

Since its launch in 2001, BookScan has grown in authority. All the major publishing houses now rely on BookScan data, as do many other publishing professionals and authors. But, as I found to my surprise, pretty much everybody else is explicitly banned from using BookScan data, including academics. The toxic combination of this data’s power in the industry and its secretive inaccessibility to those beyond the industry reveals a broader problem. If we want to understand the contemporary literary world, we need better book data. And we need this data to be free, open, and interoperable.

Fortunately, there are a number of forward-thinking people who are already leading the charge for open book data. The Seattle Public Library is one of the few libraries in the country that releases (anonymized) book checkout data online, enabling anyone to download it from the internet for free. It isn’t book sales data, but it’s close. And such data might help us understand how the popularity of certain books fluctuates over time and in response to historical events like the COVID-19 pandemic (especially if more libraries around the country join the open data effort). Literary scholars have also begun to compile “counterdata” about the publishing industry. Richard So, a professor of English and cultural analytics at McGill University, and Laura McGrath, an English professor at Temple University, have respectively collected data about the race and ethnicity of authors published by mainstream publishing houses. Through their work, So and McGrath each prove that the Big Five houses have historically been dominated by white authors and that they continue to systematically reinforce whiteness today.

While all of this data is powerful in its own right, it becomes even more powerful if we can combine it all together: if we can merge author demographic data with library checkout data or with other literary trends. This promise anchors the Post45 Data Collective, an open-access repository for literary and cultural data that was founded by McGrath and Emory professor Dan Sinykin, and that I now lead as a coeditor with Sinykin. One of the goals of the repository is to help researchers get credit for the data that they painstakingly collect, clean, and share. But a broader goal is to share free cultural data with anybody who wants to reuse and recombine it to better understand contemporary literature, music, art, and more.

. . . .

BookScan’s influence in the publishing world is clear and far-reaching. To an editor, BookScan numbers offer two crucial data points: (1) the sales history of the potential author, if it exists, and (2) the sales history of comparable, or “comp,” titles. These data points, if deemed unfavorable, can mean a book is dead in the water.

Take it from freelance editor Christina Boys, whom I spoke with over email, and who worked for 20 years as an editor at two of the Big Five publishing houses (Simon & Schuster and Hachette Book Group). Boys told me that BookScan data is “very important” for deciding whether to acquire or pass on a book; BookScan is also used to determine the size of an advance, to dictate the scale of a marketing campaign or book tour, and to help sell subsidiary rights like translation rights or book club rights. “A poor sales history on BookScan often results in an immediate pass,” Boys said.

Clayton Childress, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, came to similar conclusions in his 2012 study of BookScan data, in which he interviewed and observed more than 40 acquisition editors from across the country. Bad book sales numbers can haunt an author “like a bad credit score,” Childress reported, and they can “caus[e] others to be hesitant to do business with them because of past failures.”

According to editors like Boys, the sway of book sales figures has siphoned much of the creativity and originality out of contemporary book publishing. “There’s less opportunity to acquire or promote a book based on things like gut instinct, quality of the writing, uniqueness of an idea, or literary or societal merit,” Boys claimed. “While passion—arguing that a book should be published—still matters, using that as a justification when it’s contrary to BookScan data has become increasingly challenging.” In a similar vein, Anne Trubek, the founder and publisher of the independent press Belt Publishing, told me that BookScan data is a strong conservative force in the industry—one of the reasons, though not the only reason, that Belt Publishing stopped subscribing after only one year. Trubek says that BookScan data encourages publishers to keep recycling the same kinds of books that sold well in the past. “I didn’t want to be a publisher who was working that way,” she elaborated. “That was not interesting. I think a lot of Big Five publishing is driven by data, and I think that things end up much more unimaginative as a result.”

Despite these claims, other publishing professionals maintain that BookScan data has not changed their work quite as dramatically. Childress interviewed one editor who explained that he manages to use BookScan data in creative ways to support his own independent choices. Yet even when editors find inventive ways to use BookScan data and to preserve their own aesthetic judgment, it is striking that they must still use and reckon with BookScan data in some form.

Perhaps most importantly, however, it is likely that books end up much more racially homogenous—that is, white—as a result of BookScan data, too. For example, in McGrath’s pioneering research on “comp” titles (the books that agents and editors claim are “comparable” to a pitched book), she found that 96 percent of the most frequently used comps were written by white authors. Because one of the most important features of a good comp title is a promising sales history, it is likely that comp titles and BookScan data work together to reinforce conservative white hegemony in the industry.

. . . .

For all of its extensive influence, most of us outside the publishing industry know surprisingly little about BookScan data: how much it costs, what it looks like, or what exactly it includes and measures. According to a 2009 business study, publishing house licenses for BookScan data cost somewhere between $350,000 and $750,000 a year at that time. Literary agents, scouts, and other publishing professionals can subscribe to NPD Publishers Marketplace for the humbler baseline price of $2,500 a year, and many authors can view their own BookScan data for free via Amazon.

But academics and almost everyone else are out of luck. When I inquired about getting access to BookScan data directly through NPD Group (the market research company that bought US BookScan from Nielsen in 2017), a sales specialist told me: “There are some limitations to who we are permitted to license our BookScan data to. This includes publishers, retailers, book distributors, publishing arms of universities, university presses and author agents. Do you fall within one of these categories?” When I reached out to NPD Publishers Marketplace, they told me the same thing. David Walter, executive director of NPD Books, confirmed that NPD does not license data to academic researchers: “We only license to publishers and related businesses, and … our license terms preclude sharing of any data publicly, which conflicts with the need to publish academic research. That is why we do not license data for the purposes of academic research.”

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG notes that the OP continues to delve into the details and problems of excluded data in BookScan and he recommends reading the article in its entirety.

PG has written about BookScan on several prior occasions. BookScan is presently owned by Hellman & Friedman, a private equity investment firm headquartered in San Francisco with offices in New York City and London.

This structure means that BookScan’s activities and finances are watched carefully by a group of numbers guys and numbers gals (although all the big bosses appear to be guys).

A quick look at H&F’s portfolio companies reveal 77 present and past subsidiaries that are all over the board. Insurance, cloud computing, home décor products, home security, customer experience management, energy and metals research, etc., etc.

H&F’s description of the companies it formerly owned/invested in shows more than a few that the company purchased, rehabbed and resold.

While sampling H&F’s past and present portfolio companies, an old term floated into PG’s mind, Pump and Dump. Pump and Dump involves acquiring shares in a publicly-held company, then fraudulently inflating the price of shares of stock of that company and selling out while the share prices are high. Such activity was often followed by a decline in the price of the company’s shares.

Pump and Dump is illegal and PG is not suggesting that H&F’s activities with its past or present portfolio companies constitutes an illegal Pump and Dump scheme.

However, the company does list former portfolio companies it acquired and later sold presumably for a higher price after increasing the health and value of the company.

The traditional publishing industry’s reliance on BookScan for a whole lot of decisions that impact authors is, as the OP implies, close to a religion.

If anyone in the traditional publishing business asked PG for his opinion regarding the tracking of book sales (pigs flying is more likely to occur), he would advise developing an analytics system that sliced and diced sales on Amazon in a large variety of ways.

While not ignoring BookScan completely, PG suspects that publishers would gain more actionable data from watching sales (and returns) of their ebook and print editions in close to real-time from the world’s largest bookstore instead of a collection of traditional retail outlets that have been losing market share in books for a very long time.

In PG’s monumentally humble opinion, those people who regularly purchase books from a physical bookstore are not representative of the book-buying public as a whole.

Supreme Court to Weigh if YouTube, Twitter, Facebook Are Liable for Users’ Content

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether social-media platforms can be held liable for terrorist propaganda uploaded by users, opening a new challenge to the broad legal immunity provided to internet companies by the law known as Section 230.

The court on Monday took up a set of cases in which families of terrorism victims allege Twitter, Facebook and YouTube bear some responsibility for attacks by Islamic State, based on content posted on those sites.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has come under intense scrutiny from lawmakers in recent years, but this is the first time the Supreme Court has moved to weigh in on the foundational internet law.

The eventual ruling could have repercussions for businesses and internet users worldwide, said Anupam Chander, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

At issue are the “algorithmic processes for information dissemination that all internet platforms use,” Mr. Chander said.

The court agreed to take up Gonzalez v. Google, an appeal by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a young woman killed in an ISIS attack in Paris in 2015. Ms. Gonzalez’s family alleges YouTube, a subsidiary of Google owner Alphabet Inc., aided ISIS by recommending the terrorist group’s videos to users.

The court also agreed to hear a similar appeal, Twitter Inc. v. Taamneh, brought by family members of Nawras Alassaf, who was killed in an ISIS attack at an Istanbul nightclub in 2017. Mr. Alassaf’s relatives allege Twitter, Google and Facebook parent company Meta Platforms Inc. all provided material support to ISIS and are “the vehicle of choice in spreading propaganda.”

Lawyers for Google, Twitter and Facebook have said in court filings that they have made extensive efforts to remove ISIS content and that there is no direct causal link between the websites and the Paris and Istanbul attacks.

. . . .

Section 230 helped build the modern-day internet. The statute acts as a shield, saying that internet companies generally aren’t liable for harmful content user posts on their sites. Section 230 also allows companies to remove content they deem objectionable without liability, as long as they act in good faith.

In the Gonzalez case, the plaintiffs alleged Google knowingly allowed its algorithms to recommend and target ISIS recruitment videos to users, allowing the group to spread its message.

The case raises the question of whether Section 230 grants immunity for recommendations made by algorithms or if it only applies to editorial decisions—like removing content—made by representatives of internet companies.

“[W]hether Section 230 applies to these algorithm-generated recommendations is of enormous practical importance,” the family argued in their petition to the high court. “Interactive computer services constantly direct such recommendations, in one form or another, at virtually every adult and child in the United States who uses social media.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

I So Love Being Old and Not Married

From The Paris Review:

In the early seventies, Helen Garner, a newly single mother, found herself in the first of several “hippie houses” she lived in that decade in the suburbs of Melbourne. She read and made up songs with her daughter and fell in love with a heroin addict—an affair she documented daily in her diary. The writing deepened as her life became more complicated. Soon, she began to see an outline. “Story is a chunk of life with a bend in it,” Garner told Thessaly La Force in her Art of Fiction interview, published in the Fall issue of the Review, “and I could feel this one coming.” Every day for a year, after she had dropped her daughter off at school, she sat in the state library working on her first novel, Monkey Grip.

The book was a hit, although several critics (“almost always men”) accused Garner of simply publishing her personal journals. The truth is, she confesses, the novel really was closely based on her diary—and why not? “Underlying the famously big gap between fiction and nonfiction there’s a rather naïve belief that fiction is invented—­that it’s pulled out of thin air,” Garner says. “All those comments I’ve had to cop about my novels not being novels—­they rest on that idea that the novel is mightier than every other form.” When we asked Garner—­who is also an accomplished journalist who has covered criminal trials for decades—­whether she might share with us something from her recent journals, she sent us a true “chunk of life,” at once artfully sculpted and uncompromisingly honest.

. . . .

In the winter of 2017, when I wrote these entries, three things were dawning on me: first, that if my hearing continued to fade I would have to stop writing about criminal trials; second, that although I was probably burned-out, I would miss the courts terribly; and third, that I would be saved from boredom and despair by the company of my young grandchildren, who live next door.

*

Took the 17-year-old to the city to buy a pair of Doc Martens for her birthday. We walked past the Supreme Court. “Nanna, is this where you go to those trials?” “Yes. That big brown building.” “Can we go in and have a look?” At the door of the first courtroom we come to, a murder trial is rolling. I show her how to bow and we creep into the media seats. Young guy in the dock, pale, rigid, in a dark blue suit. The witness on the stand is giving a graphic account of what happens inside a skull when a head is smashed against a concrete curb. Oh God. I glance up at the judge. I know her. What will she think of me, bringing a schoolgirl in here? The girl is very still, straight-backed, bright-faced, watching and listening. I sit there gritting my teeth. Court rises and I hustle her on to the street. “Are you okay? Are you upset? Was it too much?” She wakes from a reverie. “No. I’m fine. It wasn’t upsetting. Because it was scientific.”

*

In the post office throwaway bin I find a CD of Glen Campbell’s Greatest Hits. Secretly in the car I play over and over Jimmy Webb’s three works of genius: “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Galveston.” On the freeway my ten-year-old grandson digs out the Campbell from the mess in the glove box: “Who’s this?” I flinch, but he puts it on, and soon we’re singing along, him in his breaking voice, me in my old woman’s one which has dropped to a tenor. He loves all the songs, even the revolting ones like “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife.”

*

Court 4, pale pink with high, looped plaster garlands that glistened like ivory. The sentencing of the African refugee who’d killed three of her children. The judge read out the sentence. I was straining to hear, fighting my hearing loss and the muffled acoustic of the courtroom. Her husband was shot dead in front of her? They burned his body? They raped her? She began to weep and couldn’t stop. Her two robed lawyers approached the huge old timber dock, they had to reach up and hook their fingers at shoulder level over its high edge, I saw their pale hands grip the rim, like kids at a lolly-shop counter. She got 26 years, 20 before she can apply for parole. Even the tough-looking woman security guard was wiping her eyes. Walked away, walked and walked through the city, crying and raving to myself, bought a pair of black trousers and a T-shirt, went up the stairs to Gopal’s and ate a bowl of carrot and beetroot salad for $4. I’ll be dead by the time she gets out. What will she do, in prison, each day for 20 years? What will become of her other kids? It seemed the first time I’d ever seriously asked myself: Why do we put people in jail?

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Abominations

It was once possible to participate in cultural debate—and write fiction—without thinking about identity politics. No longer.

From The Wall Street Journal:

A much-remarked recent poll found that more than half of Americans have become afraid to voice their opinions freely for fear of retaliation or severe criticism. The expatriate novelist Lionel Shriver is not among this cowed majority. Over many years of writing articles and essays for the Spectator of London, Harper’s, the Journal and other outlets, dozens of which are now gathered in “Abominations,” Ms. Shriver has persisted in making ornery observations about politics and culture. Her asperity has brought upon her the full flaming rage of the Twittersphere. Unhappily for her enemies, she is not on social media, and her professional associates have stood by her, so the conflagrations have left her unsinged.

In her works of fiction, meanwhile, Ms. Shriver has explored a variety of topics and themes, creating dramatically compelling stories that chase human proclivities to dark conclusions in such novels as “The Mandibles” (2016), a dystopian family saga set amid national bankruptcy and social breakdown; and “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2003), a psychological thriller that tells of a distant mother and her homicidal, psychopathic son. The latter book, made into a 2011 film starring Tilda Swinton, brought Ms. Shriver’s work to wider attention.

What made her personally notable, or perhaps notorious, was her appearance in 2016 at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia. Her speech to open the event was as much a plea to her fellow novelists to protect their creative realm from identity politics as an excoriation of the new vogue for policing acts of “cultural appropriation.” Earlier that year, two students at Bowdoin College in Maine had thrown a birthday party where tequila was drunk and miniature sombreros were worn. Such was the subsequent anger on campus that deans decried the party theme as a possible “act of ethnic stereotyping.” Members of the student body condemned an environment “where students of color, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, feel unsafe.” Ms. Shriver told her audience of writers that the Bowdoin morality play fit into “a larger climate of supersensitivity” that was “giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively make our work impossible.”

. . . .

Ms. Shriver has been quick to note, and brave to say what she thinks about, the progressive catechesis facilitated by the internet. In 2021’s “Would You Want London to Be Overrun by Americans Like Me?” she points out that, despite blithe “no human is illegal” rhetoric, nowhere in the world do people greet mass immigration with unalloyed pleasure. “We are a political and territorial species,” Ms. Shriver writes. “Most people are capable of hospitality toward foreigners who arrive in modest numbers, but balk when outsiders become so populous that they seem to be taking over.” In 2020’s “Just Because We’ve Been OK Doesn’t Mean We’ll Stay That Way,” written in the aftermath of the first Covid lockdowns and the violent Black Lives Matter protests that followed, Ms. Shriver blasts Western governments for failing to do any sort of cost-benefit analysis before shutting down their economies. She also roasts the “woke white activists [who] want to demonize ‘whiteness’ as the sole source of all evil, while mysteriously believing that this does not entail demonizing themselves.”

. . . .

 “We are told that a trans woman may have been born a man, but ‘feels like’ a woman,” she tells us. “I don’t mean to be perverse here, but I have no idea what it ‘feels like’ to be a woman—and I am one.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Amazon’s deal spree raises ‘No. 1 question’ from investors

From Yahoo Finance:

Amazon (AMZN) has telegraphed to investors and the world that deals are key to its future, but those transactions create antitrust risks — and investors are taking notice.

. . . .

Amazon has made headlines for its big-ticket dealmaking in recent months. The company acquired both subscription health care provider OneMedical (ONEM) and Roomba-maker iRobot in quick succession, for $3.9 billion and $1.7 billion respectively. However, investors have been concerned that Amazon’s deals, including the buyout of vacuum-making iRobot, are primed to face an Federal Trade Commission (FTC) challenge.

“It’s the No. 1 question asked,” Thill said. “It comes up in every investor conversation and I think, clearly, they’re not going to block a vacuum cleaner company from being bought. I don’t think they’ll have an issue there, but [antitrust scrutiny] does prevent Amazon from doing other software acquisitions and e-commerce acquisitions.”

Amazon has famously made some of the biggest deals out there in the last decade or so. In 2017, the company bought upscale grocer Whole Foods for a jaw-dropping $13.4 billion. Soon thereafter, Amazon dropped another near-billion to acquire online pharmacy PillPack. It hasn’t just been recent either — back in 2009, even in the depths of the recession, Amazon closed its deal to buy online retailer Zappos for $1.2 billion. Earlier this year, Amazon also closed its $8.6 billion acquisition of MGM.

However, major deals aren’t all that’s on the table for Amazon and other mega-cap tech companies. The innovation coming out of companies like Amazon and Alphabet-owned Google (GOOG, GOOGL) means they aren’t incentivized to exclusively focus on huge deals, according to Thill.

“There’s tons of innovation right now at Amazon and Google and others in tech, so I don’t think they necessarily need to go out and do big deals,” he said. “They’ll do smaller tuck-in deals.”

Still, it’s a question of what’s small to Amazon and which of these deals could finally push lawmakers over the edge. For example, Amazon’s iRobot buyout came under renewed scrutiny last week, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a group of lawmakers requested that the FTC reject the deal.

Amazon’s deals haven’t spurred federal action yet, but FTC Chair Lina Khan is a noted critic of Amazon, and her ascension has been linked to a series of her writings exploring what a breakup of the company would involve. Notably, the company has so far been subject to antitrust action at the state level. Recently, California sued Amazon, alleging that the restrictions it places on its third-party sellers are anticompetitive

. . . .

“It’s a question, it’s an overhang, it’s certainly in every investor conversation, in every meeting we go into, it’s the No. 1 question,” he said. “I think that the way they mitigate this risk is that they’ve been able to do M&A.”

Thill has a point. Though doing more deals is a risk, it’s also a safeguard. The Information has referred to it as Amazon’s “whack-a-mole” dealmaking strategy. The FTC can’t logistically challenge every single acquisition, so like Amazon, the regulator is going to need to pick its battles. While Amazon has to be careful going forward, so does the government, said Thill.

“They have to be careful… [Amazon’s] doing the right thing for their employees, their shareholders, and the ecosystem… Amazon is a huge employer, so the government also has to be careful with how much they regulate them, because they are an incredible, incredible vibrant source for the economy that’s helping many in their daily lives. So, there’s a fine balance that we have to walk and I think Amazon is doing that.”

Link to the rest at Yahoo Finance

PG notes that he hasn’t seen a whole lot of innovation in the KDP world. Indeed, he hasn’t seen much creative development in Zon’s bookselling business. An increment here and an increment there, but nothing very interesting.

‘Honorary authors’ of scientific papers abound—but they probably shouldn’t

From Science:

It’s a practice that makes some scientists cringe: The lead author of a paper pays homage to a department chair, or a colleague who helped secure a grant, by listing them among the manuscript’s authors—even though the person made no intellectual contribution to the paper. Such “honorary authorship” is discouraged by many journals, publishing industry groups, and universities, who say it undermines the integrity of scientific literature.

Despite such disapproval, however, honorary authors appear to be common, a new study concludes. Up to one-third of more than 600,000 authors examined by the study appear to have been granted authorship even though they didn’t meet some commonly used criteria.

The unusually large study is “novel and adds to what we know” about the long-standing but controversial practice, says Annette Flanagin, executive managing editor of JAMA and the JAMA Network, who was not involved in the work. And the finding comes as authorship practices have come under scrutiny over concerns that senior researchers often horn in on credit for work done by junior colleagues.

Previous studies of honorary authorship have estimated its frequency by surveying scientists directly. But such self-reported data can be unreliable. To get a firmer grip, a team led by veterinary researcher Nicola Di Girolamo of Cornell University examined what it believes to be a more reliable measure: statements, typically written by a paper’s lead author, that describe each author’s contribution to the work. Specifically, the team examined statements that accompanied some 82,000 papers—with 629,000 authors—that were published in seven open-access journals from 2017 to 2021. All the journals are published by the Public Library of Science.

The researchers used a computer program to comb through the statements—which are assembled using a standard approach called Contributor Roles Taxonomy, or CRediT—and see whether each author satisfied two commonly referenced sets of authorship standards. These guidelines don’t allow honorary authorship and also lay out the kinds of contributions that should entitle researchers to be named as authors. One set of standards was developed by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). The other, based on recommendations by the editors of several leading science journals, was published in 2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Overall, some 35% of the authors failed to meet the ICMJE criteria, and 4% didn’t meet the PNAS standards, the team reported this month at the International Congress on Peer Review and Scientific Publishing in Chicago. In addition, they concluded that some 1% of the authors appeared to have been listed solely because they secured funding or provided materials or other resources for the project, practices that don’t meet either standard.

The team might have found an even higher prevalence of honorary authorship, Di Girolamo notes, if the CRediT statements had allowed it to evaluate two other criteria required by standards: that all co-authors approve the draft submitted for publication and accept responsibility for the integrity of the work. But the CRediT statements don’t address those issues.

. . . .

The idea that honorary authorship is widespread is concerning, Flanagin and other researchers say. For example, it can mean honorary authors “are misrepresenting their contributions in the scientific literature,” possibly to inflate their volume of publications for tenure and promotion, Flanagin and colleagues wrote in a 2011 study of the practice. But they note that being an honorary author can also carry risk: If a paper bearing their name triggers allegations of research misconduct, for example, every author’s reputation can be damaged, regardless of their role in the work.

Di Girolamo says personal experience played a role in motivating him to conduct the study. In one of his first research projects, a collaborating institution asked him to add its scientists as authors of the resulting manuscript, even if they hadn’t substantively contributed. “Being a young researcher at the time, I was helpless in that situation,” says Di Gerolamo, who notes that honorary authorship can be “a form of scientific misconduct that is often the consequence of power dynamics. … For a co-author, it’s hard to tell a senior author, ‘You shouldn’t be an author of this manuscript, you haven’t done enough.’” When the paper was published, fewer than half of the dozen listed authors met the ICMJE guidelines for authorship.

Link to the rest at Science

Sheesh. What a cesspool.

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Never Finding Happiness

From Writers Helping Writers:

Notes
A character who is afraid they will never be happy may feel unworthy of happiness. It’s also possible they’ve grown weary of life’s many disappointments and don’t want to get their hopes up any more. This fear creates a dichotomy of emotions, with the character either spending all their time chasing happiness or running from it. 

What It Looks Like
Searching for the one thing that will light the fire within them
Trying many different hobbies and pastimes
Researching philosophies, religions, and other ideologies
Spending a lot of time alone, soul-searching
Hopping from job to job trying to find the perfect one
Abusing drugs or alcohol, either as a way to find peace or numb the pain
Retreating or hiding from the world
Lashing out at others in frustration
Trying to be perfect
Engaging in negative self-talk
Struggling with making decisions
The character being unable to make a move toward something they desire 
Being unable to find things that excite them
Hating life and everything in it
Having a “why me” attitude

Common Internal Struggles
The character being unable to enjoy happy moments because they’re worrying about what could go wrong
Feeling numb even when something wonderful has happened 
Focusing on past hurts, even when things have gotten better
Worrying about the future instead of being grateful for the good things in the present
The character struggling with anxiety 
Being unable to see their own value 
Experiencing guilt or shame though they have done nothing wrong

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The 5 Most Common Mistakes in Book Cover Design and How to Avoid Them

From Written Word Media:

In this post, we’ll outline the five most common mistakes in book cover design and how to avoid them. These tips can help you whether you are creating you own cover with a program like Canva, or working with a designer. When you work with a cover designer, keep these tips in mind and make sure you give them creative direction that won’t force them to make the mistakes below.

1. Too many elements on the cover

This is an all too common mistake, particularly with inexperienced designers. It’s common to feel the need to fit multiple elements of your plot on the cover to give it a more descriptive feel. It’s also common to see covers with all main characters depicted to give readers a better idea of what they look like.

Here are the big problems with overloading a cover with story elements:

  • It’s confusing, the reader isn’t going to know which element is most important.
  • Book covers are shown as rows of tiny thumbnail images on most retail sites like Amazon. There simply isn’t enough space on that tiny thumbnail to communicate much.
  • As a rule of thumb, one beautiful element that tells part of the story is almost always better than lots of small elements.

The desire to have a cover describe a book comes from a good place of care for the reader. But, unfortunately, such book covers will likely only be appreciated by readers after they have read the work. Without context, a mish-mash of elements can seem overwhelming and can turn a reader off.

Take a look at the example cover below. The style is in the Cozy Mystery vein, but it has tried to put every aspect of the plot on the cover. Yes, it’s interesting to imagine how the author will weave all of these objects together, but that requires a lot of thought.

A reader is making split second decisions about which book to buy. At first thought, this cover is confusing and overwhelming. A well-designed cover will draw a reader’s interest right away, not after studying it like a famous painting.

This cover also doesn’t utilize blank space, which is an extremely powerful design concept. Inexperienced designers will often shy away from leaving any space unused on a cover. But, in reality, having well placed blank space draws attention even more to key elements. If you notice your cover designer has left blank space on your cover, resist the urge to tell them to fill the space with stuff.

A great example of picking few elements and using blank space is Joanne Fluke’s cover for “Banana Cream Pie Murder.”

This cover leaves some room to breath in the middle, which draws the eye to the few main visual elements. It is easy for a reader to see and understand everything on this cover with a quick glance.

Many book cover designers will ask you to fill out a form with information about what you the author want on the cover, make sure to give them the feedback that you don’t want too many elements.

Link to the rest at Written Word Media

Bill C-18, the Online News Act: Does it Violate Canada’s Trade Agreement Obligations?

From Hugh Stephens Blog:

As Bill C-18 continues its deliberate journey down the Canadian Parliamentary legislative track on its way toward enactment, the Bill’s prime targets (Alphabet, in the form of Google Search and Meta in the form of Facebook) continue to deploy the full force of their lobbying efforts to derail the legislation. Their most recent effort is a White Paper released earlier this month by Washington DC-based tech industry lobby group, the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA). In a valiant but scarcely credible effort the CCIA attempts to argue that if enacted, C-18 would violate Canada’s international trade obligations, specifically commitments it made in the recently updated NAFTA accord (USCMA/CUSMA) and those required by virtue of its membership in the international copyright treaty, the Berne Convention.

In the process, the paper rolls out a number of other arguments against the legislation, such as claiming that it will benefit only a “select few large and powerful media companies” and will “do little or nothing to support sustainable or quality journalism in Canada”, while claiming that it will promote disinformation and content from untrusted third parties. The paper’s authors even claim that any payment from the digital intermediaries, who have scooped up the lion’s share of ad revenues (largely through leveraging content produced by others, usually without any payment), will “jeopardize the long-term viability of the (media) sector”. How will this happen? I guess it is supposed to make them fat and lazy. I will give the authors an “A” for creativity in terms of the range of objections they manage to roll out, but an “F” for making a convincing argument.

What readers should know is that the legislation is currently targeted primarily at two major US-based internet platforms, “digital news intermediaries” in the words of the legislation, just as Australia’s recent legislation to enact a News Media Bargaining Code aimed at the same two companies (Google and Facebook). However, they are not named in the Bill which, if passed, will apply to a;

“…digital news intermediary if, having regard to the following factors, there is a significant bargaining power imbalance between its operator and news businesses: (a) the size of the intermediary or the operator; (b) whether the market for the intermediary gives the operator a strategic advantage over news businesses; and (c) whether the intermediary occupies a prominent market position.”

Intermediaries have to self-designate, and the definition is generic, but it is clear who we are talking about. The CCIA paper goes to great lengths to quote Canadian politicians to show that Google and Facebook are the main targets although there are also references to “GAFAM”. (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft). If the shoe fits, wear it. No one has ever denied where the problem lies. And yes, they happen to be all US companies—for the moment.

The CCIA paper argues that if Alphabet and Meta are the only companies captured by the legislation, this amounts to a denial of national treatment (treating entities of your trading partners in an equivalent manner to domestic entities) and would be a USMCA/CUSMA treaty violation. But is this true? Hardly. Unless a measure is proven to be a disguised barrier to trade, as long as it applies to all companies, domestic or foreign, it will be difficult to substantiate a national treatment violation even if at the moment it affects only certain companies because of their size, market dominance or some other reason. Just because the affected companies happen to be headquartered in the US, it does not follow that this is an action targeted exclusively at US or foreign companies. For example, given the growing use of its platform for news distribution, it is possible that a platform like TikTok could fall within the ambit of the legislation.

C-18 is no more a violation of the national treatment principle than the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA), which targets the anti-competitive behaviour of “internet gatekeepers”, who happen to be prominently represented among the GAFAM US-based companies. 

. . . .

Just as the Bill contains a definition for digital intermediaries that are subject to the legislation, so too it defines an “eligible news business”. An eligible business, one that can enter bargaining with the platforms for compensation for use of Canadian news content, is any entity producing news content that receives the journalism tax credit or which has a minimum of two journalists in Canada and operates and edits material in Canada. That hardly limits the benefit to “large and powerful media companies”. The CCIA paper goes on to argue that the definition of an eligible news business will make it difficult for Canada to avoid a charge of unjustified discrimination against US media organizations. This argument must truly be galling to US news producers, none of whom belong to the CCIA and most of whom are engaged in trying to bring about the same legislation in the US as Canada is proposing.

Link to the rest at Hugh Stephens Blog and thanks to C. for the tip.

PG is certain that Canadians are regularly and justifiably aggravated by their southern neighbor, its businesses and citizens.

However, the internet and information flowing on it are not the easiest things to legislate. This is by design. As PG has mentioned before, one of the fundamental characteristics of the internet’s structure is that it’s pretty much impossible to prevent information from flowing wherever consumers want to use it.

For instance, without moving from his keyboard at Casa PG, PG can log onto the internet from a whole bunch of locations from Albania to Vietnam using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service, of which there are many.

China has spent a large amount of money and effort to create what is generically called, “The Great Firewall of China,” to prevent internet access to non-Chinese websites, but there are reportedly several ways of circumventing the Great Firewall for those who really want to do so. PG won’t speculate about how dangerous such circumvention may or may not be.

Why Getty Banned AI Images (For Now)

From Plagiarism Today:

Yesterday, Getty Images and iStock have announced that they are following in the footsteps of other art sites, including NewGrounds and Inkblot, in banning artwork generated by artificial intelligence (AI) from their service.

According to Getty’s announcement, “There are open questions with respect to the copyright of outputs from these models….” They further add that the move is to protect their customers from potential legal issues down the road.

Getty noted that this ban does not prevent the submission of 3D renders nor does it prevent the use of any digital editing tool, such as Photoshop or Illustrator.

It’s easy to look at this as another example of a battle line being draw with regards to AI-generated art. However, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

As divisive as AI-generated art is, the Getty ban is very different from the ones we discussed earlier this month. The reason is that Getty works different from sites like NewGrounds and their lack of comfort with AI stems almost entirely from legal concerns, not quantity or quality concerns.

To that end, it’s worth looking at why Getty, most likely, chose to ban AI images and how that could impact AI art moving forward.

Why Getty is Different

Sites like Newgrounds and Inkblot accept user-submitted content and host it on their servers. Because of this, they enjoy a great deal of protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright act (DMCA) should some of that content turn out to be infringing.

In short, under the DMCA, as long as they retain a DMCA agent and remove allegedly infringing content when properly notified, they will be protected under the law. 

However, Getty is in a different position. First off, they have editorial control over the images and then license those images to customers. This greatly increases their legal exposure as they could face repercussions both from directly from artists and their customers.

After all, part of Getty’s service they provide is that they promise customers that they hold the rights to the images they are licensing and, because of that, customers won’t face legal consequences for using Getty-licensed works.

But, with AI, that becomes a problem. All AI systems are trained on earlier works, and how much of those earlier works make into the images that it outputs depends entirely on the AI and the prompt it was given.

The fear is that the AI could “generate” art that is so similar to some of the work it was trained on that it could represent a copyright infringement. However, there’s simply no way for the human creator of the AI work, let alone Getty, to know if that’s a possibility with a given image.

As such, Getty has decided to avoid the issue altogether for now, banning AI art from its service.

Not Just Copyright

Though copyright gets the lion’s share of attention when it comes to legal issues AI art faces, there are other potential problems too.

For example, AI can be used to create images of real people in very unreal situations. We saw this recently with an AI app that swapped the face of actors in porn films with other people, creating the illusion that a different person was in the footage.

Though the AI that performed that was shuttered, there’s no reason other tools couldn’t do the exact same thing.

However, it isn’t just pornography. AI can generate images of individuals in a variety of compromising situations that never happened such as getting arrested, supporting/speaking hate speech and so forth.

All this raises issues of defamation. This is especially difficult for Getty, as many of their customers are news agencies, seeking photographs to accompany their reporting.

Getty is in the business of licensing images that are free of legal issues. In short, they’re selling legal certainty. AI images are the antithesis of that, generating not just countless images, but an equal number of legal unknowns that Getty is not prepared to take a chance on at this time.

Link to the rest at Plagiarism Today

The OP continues, noting that at least one other image-posting/licensing site has prohibited AI generated images.

PG suggests that litigation concerning copyright and ai images is almost certain to happen at some point in the not-too-distant future. If he had to guess about an early plaintiff, he would name Walt Disney, which has made and continues to make a huge amount of money from its cartoon characters.

If anyone sees/hears about an ai copyright case, PG would appreciate an alert through the Contact PG link at the top of the blog.

Iron and Blood

From The Economist:

According to a remark attributed to Voltaire, in the late 18th century Prussia was an army with a state rather than a state with an army. Its standing force of 200,000 men was vast for its relatively small population. A century or so later, the belief that Prussia and subsequently imperial Germany were uniquely militarised European powers was reinforced by Otto von Bismarck’s famous address to the Prussian Diet in 1862. “Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided,” he declared, “but by iron and blood.”

Peter Wilson, a military historian at Oxford, does not dispute how integral militarism has been to Germany’s past. But by providing centuries of context, he sets out to show that its history could have been different, and sometimes was.

Because of a focus on the two world wars, with perhaps a glance back to the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, a myth has evolved of a specifically German way of war, the author argues. In this telling, Germany’s position in the heart of Europe, encircled by hostile neighbours, meant it needed a first-strike capability that could only be achieved by a “power state”, an authoritarian system able to mobilise the necessary resources. This in turn has led to a further myth: of a unique German genius for war based on superior technology, skill and martial spirit. Even today, Hitler’s Wehrmacht is admired by many military types, especially in America. For Blitzkrieg, read “shock and awe”.

Much of the book is taken up with conflicts within or involving that strange entity, the Holy Roman Empire, the collection of mostly German-speaking states dominated by Habsburg Austria that, as Voltaire also quipped, was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. At least until the middle of the 18th century, this alone made the German way of war quite different from those of unitary states such as England or France. The quasi-autonomy of the component parts, which nearly all maintained their own armies, required a decentralised and collaborative approach—the antithesis of the authoritarian model that emerged later with such awful consequences.

Despite the horrors of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), which was largely fought within the empire’s borders, and the fearsome reputation of its pike and musket formations, it was not much more prone to violence than other parts of Europe, and enjoyed long periods of relative peace. Even after the empire’s collapse following defeat to Napoleon at Jena in 1806, and its metamorphosis into the German Confederation in 1815, peace held until the revolutionary uprisings of 1848 and the war with Denmark that began in the same year. But in 1864 a second war with the Danes forged the template for future conflicts.

The chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, was charged by Bismarck with achieving a quick, decisive victory before other powers could intervene. He did so, but more by luck than good judgment. The army had triumphed, in its view, because of its freedom from political supervision, an inference that led Prussia’s rulers to place their faith ever more blindly in the top brass. That faith appeared to be vindicated when Prussia routed France in 1871, thanks to efficient mobilisation, brutally effective tactics and French mistakes. But, as Mr Wilson observes, these and other successes embedded “flaws ever deeper into the country’s institutions, only to be repeated with ever more disastrous results in the subsequent two world wars”.

Doomed to repetition

Before 1914, the unquestioned assumption of the general staff (under the leadership of Moltke the Younger, nephew of the original) was that, since a major war in Europe was inevitable, it should prepare for one. The possibility that politics or diplomacy might be more productive was barely considered. Thus the constant reworking of the notorious Schlieffen plan, which required the encirclement of French forces by racing to the coast via Belgium.

This was, says Mr Wilson, an “opening gambit rather than a strategic plan”. Everything rested on a successful first strike, with little thought for the consequences if it failed—as it did. Not only was Germany unprepared for a war of attrition against foes with advantages such as greater resources and the Royal Navy’s blockade power; it did not even start with clear and achievable aims.

Link to the rest at The Economist

I’ve Heard Such Mixed Things

From Writer Unboxed:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, a reader in possession of a platform must be in want of an opinion.

As news desks covering books have disappeared, book bloggers and bookstagrammers and booktokers have proliferated. As such, I hate to break it to you, but you’re going to see some really mean comments about your book.

But chin up, because the reality is? There have always been people who hated your book. In a different generation, they just wouldn’t have had an easy way to let you know they hated it. And while that might not seem like much of a silver lining, then let this be: there are also people who love it and will talk about it so much you’ll wonder who, exactly, is paying them.

So, this is the way of things now, for better or worse. But whether the social media reviews are good or bad, it’s the volume of them that can feel particularly relentless. Your publisher wants them to be relentless. Relentless is a good thing in this ecosystem of content attention. Yet for all the good it may ultimately do, we should at least acknowledge that it’s different. That authors today are dealing with something authors yesterday did not: the presumption of access. And its corollary: the feeling that your reader is now looking over your shoulder.

So here are some things that help me navigate all that (when I remember to take my own advice):

No book is universally beloved so stop trying to write one that is. Because of my day job, I get tagged in reviews of other writer’s audiobooks. Sometimes I’m tagged even when the author isn’t, because while the reviewer liked my performance, it’s a bad review of the book (and the good reviewers have learned not to tag the author in negative reviews – seriously, what HEROES). So let me tell you: books you may think are universally beloved? Aren’t. There is some corner of social media that hates them. One of my favorite moments in one of my favorite movies, The Big Sick, has Ray Romano’s character utterly baffled by internet opinions: “This is why I don’t want to go online, ‘cause it’s never good. You go online, they hated Forrest Gump. Frickin best movie ever.” Even if you, in your social media bubble, have seen only positive posts about these books, trust me, if you scroll through the comments, you will inevitably see that someone has written: “oh, I’m so glad you liked it! I’ve heard such mixed things.” Whaaaat? you will think. Where? The internet. That’s where. Universally beloved books don’t exist. No one has ever written one. You will never write one. So you don’t have to try to!

Your opinion is just as valid as theirs. Roland Barthes argued that once a text is out in the world, the author, for all intents and purposes, is dead. That their opinion of the work they’ve created is no longer more valid than that of any reader. That’s a tough pill to swallow. After all, we are the final arbiters of right or wrong interpretations of our work. If a reader fundamentally misunderstands something about, say, our plot, then they are, objectively, wrong. But that doesn’t mean their opinion of the work is wrong. And in turn, that certainly doesn’t mean that our opinion of our work is wrong. In fact, I would argue – and I did – it’s the only thing that matters (see my previous post about only competing with yourself).

Some people are just miserable. In my experience, most reviewers understand how to say something that reflects their personal, subjective experience. “This book wasn’t the right fit for me.” “I just didn’t connect with it”. The ones who are vitriolic and have zero self-awareness (“this book is trash!!” “worst book ever written!!!”) are not to be taken seriously, the same way we don’t take seriously those same people in the real world. They are misanthropic and tedious on Instagram, just as they are in life. Would you let this kind of person offer their unsolicited opinion about your wife, your kid, your job? Realize this is a them problem, not a you problem. Have boundaries around whose words you take to heart.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Outlining/Plotting vs Discovery Writing/Pantsing

From The Creative Penn:

Every fiction author will (eventually) find their own method for writing but all fall somewhere on the spectrum between outlining/plotting and discovery writing/pantsing/writing into the dark.

. . . .

Show notes:

  • The benefits and difficulties of outlining
  • How to outline and examples from authors who use this method
  • The benefits and difficulties of discovery writing (and why I hate the term pantsing!)
  • Examples of authors who discovery write
  • My writing process: Discovery writing with a hint of plotting
  • Links to books and resources that might help you

This is an excerpt from my audiobook of How to Write a Novel, narrated by me.

. . . .

Outlining (or plotting)

“Outlining is the most efficient way to structure a novel to achieve the greatest emotional impact… Outlining lets you create a framework that compels your audience to keep reading from the first page to the last.” — Jeffery Deaver, Wall St Journal

Writers who outline or plot spend more time up front considering aspects of the novel and know how the story will progress before they start writing the manuscript. It’s a spectrum, with some outlines consisting of a page or so and others stretching to thousands of words of preparation.

The benefits of outlining

While discovery writers jump into writing and spend more time later cleaning up their drafts, outliners or plotters spend time beforehand so they can write faster in the first draft.

When it’s time to write, outliners focus on writing words on the page to fulfil their vision rather than figuring out what’s going on. Outlining can result in more intricate plots and twists, deeper characters, less time rewriting, and faster production time.

If you co-write, outlining is the only way to ensure your process works smoothly. As a discovery writer, I have found it particularly challenging to co-write fiction, which is why I rarely do it!

If you have an agent or a publisher, or you want an agent or a publisher, you might have to write an outline anyway, so learning how to do it well can help. If you’re a discovery writer, you can always outline after the book is finished, if you need to.

“When you plan a story the right way, you guarantee a tight, compelling structure that keeps readers turning pages and delivers a satisfying reading experience from start to finish. And really, a satisfied reader is all you need for a ‘good’ book.” —Libbie Hawker, Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing

The difficulties of outlining

Outlining and plotting suit some writers very well.

But not all.

Some authors get lost in outlining and plotting and world-building and character bios and theme exploration and symbolism… and never actually write full sentences and may never finish a book.

Such writers may go astray through a combination of procrastination through preparation, a delight in the learning process without a desire to do the work to turn it into a story, or perhaps fear of what might happen if they do write.

Some authors outline a book and then decide it’s too boring to write it and never finish.

Some authors become so obsessed with the technicalities of outlining that they decide writing is too hard, so they give up.

Other writers try outlining only to find it is no fun at all.

If you can do it, brilliant!

If you can’t, don’t worry. See the next chapter on discovery writing.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

Out of the Ashes, a New Notre-Dame Cathedral

From The Wall Street Journal:

Paris

For many years, Philippe Villeneuve has worn above his heart a tattoo of a stained-glass rose window from Notre-Dame. Inked on his left arm are two more images from this, the most beloved of all Christian cathedrals. One is of the great organ, the other of its spire, which was destroyed by the nighttime fire that engulfed Notre-Dame on April 15, 2019. A heartbroken Mr. Villeneuve had these etched just days after.

This display of bodily devotion is apt for a man who fell in love with the 13th-century Gothic cathedral 53 years ago, when he was 6, on a visit with his grandpa. Ten years later, he built a model of the sacred building out of balsa wood (over long days when his mother thought he was studying for exams). Today he is the chief architect in charge of restoring the charred edifice.

How difficult is it to work on a restoration with the world watching? “We’re so focused on the monument, we don’t even notice,” he says, in an answer relayed via WhatsApp by the spokesman for the Friends of Notre-Dame, a nonprofit at the forefront of fundraising in the U.S. Mr. Villeneuve is in Washington on a lecture tour with Rémi Fromont, another architect on the team. Of the 40,000 donors to Friends of Notre-Dame, 30,000 are American.

Does restoring a place of worship pose challenges different from those of a secular project? “No. You don’t need to be a churchgoing Christian to restore Notre-Dame,” Mr. Villenueve says. “You just need to understand and love it.” He admits it’s the most challenging restoration work his architects have done, and not only at a technical level. “It’s an emblematic monument, part of the world’s heritage. As such, literally everyone has an opinion. But people should stay in their lane and focus on what is best for the monument.”

In the initial clamor to rebuild, outlandish ideas were put forth, including by President Emmanuel Macron, who favored a new spire of contemporary design. Others included a roof garden, as well as rebuilding with glass or steel, not wood. Mr. Villeneuve, an adamant originalist, threatened to quit if Notre-Dame wasn’t restored exactly the way it was before. The army general in charge of the works, a martinet appointed by Mr. Macron, told Mr. Villeneuve to “shut his mouth.” Sanity prevailed, and the French Parliament passed a law to ensure that the rebuilding was identical to the original.

Also destroyed was the wooden roof above the stone-vaulted ceiling. Its reconstruction requires the remaking—with timber from white oaks—of a “forest” of 25 trusses, structures that hold up the roof. Most of the cathedral’s blueprints are thought to have been destroyed during the widespread desecration of churches after the French Revolution. A faithful restoration of the trusses would have been near-impossible had Mr. Fromont not made detailed drawings of the “forest” as part of a postgraduate study of Notre-Dame. Although Mr. Fromont is too modest to say so himself, that study has proved a structural lifesaver.

It is the trusses that have brought Messrs. Villeneuve and Fromont to the U.S., drawn to a project undertaken by Handshouse, a Massachusetts nonprofit focused on architectural education, and the Catholic University of America in Washington. These two institutions undertook to build a truss—No. 6 of the 25 at Notre-Dame—by working off drawings by Mr. Fromont.

Tonya Ohnstad, a professor of architecture at Catholic U, set up a course for her students on the project, titled “Joinery and Craft of Notre-Dame.” Students worked with skilled craftsmen, using the same techniques that were employed in medieval Europe to build a replica of the truss from white oak sourced in Virginia. The project was complete in August 2021, and the French architects wished to see it.

Ms. Ohnstad describes the “exhilaration” her students felt as they engaged in this task, which was also a way to “get their hands back into making things after Covid” and months of Zoom classes. “Everyone had lost all their senses.” Theirs was also a romantic fantasy: Handshouse and the students had hoped Notre-Dame would use their truss, “accept it as a gift.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

7 Experimental Books Reshaping Historical Narratives

From Electric Lit:

Sometimes the only way to approach history, particularly a history that has excluded you or one which you felt trapped inside, is to deface it. Defacing—like a form of graffiti—can take the form of literally writing or collaging on top of the record so that your words are visible, but so is the history you are reinscribing. The two interact to create a third space. Similarly, sometimes when going in search of a specific history, you can’t help but research your own. Your history creates another layer to the original, adding to it and permanently altering the way it will be understood or interpreted by others.

In my debut essay collection, Curing Season, I contend with the history of a county in eastern North Carolina where I moved when I was ten years old and to which I desperately wanted to belong—hello, adolescence!—but I could not find a space for myself. As an adult, obsessed with the county’s book of self-submitted family histories, I approached it as an opportunity to write my own history—on top of theirs.

Nonfiction books leaning against the borders of the genre—which is to say, in that expansive and exciting category called “experimental nonfiction”—continue to illustrate the ways we can work with history while including our own narratives. No one flinches when fiction alters, reshapes, or dismantles historically-agreed-upon narratives. But there are also some incredible experimental nonfiction books doing the work of defacing history, sometimes in a very visceral and visual way, by scratching off the paint, keeping the ghostly outline of what came before, and then making history anew.

The Bear Woman by Karolina Ramqvist, translated by Saskia Vogel 

The Bear Woman traces the legend of Marguerite de La Rocque, a 14th-century French noblewoman who was taken to North America and, as punishment for a love affair on the voyage over, abandoned on an island in the St. Lawrence River—a fascinating tale on its own. But Ramqvist’s own motherhood and womanhood are interwoven atop and between Ramqvist’s discoveries (and dead ends) as she combs the brittle archives to learn more about Marguerite, reflecting on how much control a woman has historically not had about the legends of her own life. Ramqvist notes that each person who recorded the details of Marguerite’s story had “their own motives for why they had chosen to tell her story at all, and for how they told it,” acknowledging that she herself must imagine into Marguerite’s narrative as Ramqvist navigates the stormy channel between what is her projection and what is her unveiling of Marguerite’s truth. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG notes that every historian decides what parts of history to leave in and what parts to leave out, the people to describe and quote and the people to leave out. Invariably, the vast majority of what happened is left out. Contemporaneously-written autobiographies, news articles, diaries and other accounts can help provide different perspectives, but, invariably, the large majority of the events and happenings are left out.

When done poorly or with pre-formed opinions on the part of the historian, histories can provide a completely misleading account of an era. When done well, histories can provide a glimpse that allows us to understand how lives differed and how events developed, as influenced by individuals with goals that sometimes were achieved, or partially-achieved and often were not.

PG doubts that human nature has changed a great deal, however. He is always reminded of a comment made some time ago by an attorney friend, “Thank God for human nature. Without it, lawyers would have nothing to do.”

The Fastest Way to Print High Quality Books

From LuluxPress:

Link to the rest at LuluxPress

PG wasn’t familiar with this site and hadn’t looked at Lulu for a very long time.

PG has no reason to question the honesty of either Lulu or LuluxPress, but, as always, read the terms of use, terms & conditions, etc., etc. before, not after, you use either service. Ditto for KDP, which reminds PG that he needs to review KDP for any changes, additions or deletions.

Form, function, and the giant gulf between drawing a picture and understanding the world

From The Road to AI We Can Trust:

Drawing photorealistic images is a major accomplishment for AI, but is it really a step towards general intelligence? Since DALL-E 2 came out, many people have hinted at that conclusion; when the system was announced, Sam Altman tweeted that “AGI is going to be wild”; for Kevin Roose at The New York Times, such systems constitute clear evidence that “We’re in a golden age of progress in artificial intelligence”. (Earlier this week, Scott Alexander seems to have taken apparent progress in these systems as evidence for progress towards general intelligence; I expressed reservations here.)

In assessing progress towards general intelligence, the critical question should be, how much do systems like Dall-E, Imagen, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion really understand the world, such that they can reason on and act on that knowledge? When thinking about how they fit into AI, both narrow and broad, here are three questions you could ask:

  1. Can the image synthesis systems generate high quality images?
  2. Can they correlate their linguistic input with the images they produce?
  3. Do they understand the world that underlies the images they represent?

On #1, the answer is a clear yes; only highly trained human artists could do better.

On #2, the answer is mixed. They do well on some inputs (like astronaut rides horse) but more poorly on others (like horse rides astronaut, which I discussed in an earlier post). (Below I will show some more examples of failure; there are many examples on the internet of impressive success, as well.)

Crucially, DALL-E and co’s potential contribution to general intelligence (“AGI”) ultimately rests on #3; if all the systems can do is in a hit-or-miss yet spectacular way convert many sentences into text, they may revolutionize the practice of art, but still not really speak to general intelligence, or even represent progress towards general intelligence.

Until this morning, I despaired of assessing what these systems understand about the world at all.

The single clearest hint that they might have trouble that I had seen thus far was from the graphic designer Irina Blok:

As my 8 year old said, reading this draft, “how does the coffee not fall out of the cup?”

The trouble, though, with asking a system like Imagen to draw impossible things is that there is no fact of the matter about what the picture should look like, so the discussion about results cycles endlessly. Maybe the system just “wanted” to draw a surrealistic image. And for that matter, maybe a person would do the same, as Michael Bronstein pointed out.

Link to the rest at The Road to AI We Can Trust

10 essential book cover tips for indie authors

From Old Mate Media:

Every book needs a cover and in a world where a million books are created every day, your book cover needs to be outstanding.

Bleed, margins, spines, embedding fonts, source files, layers, swatches and CMYK vs RGB are just some of the design terms we throw around every day here at Old Mate Media. If those words strike you down in an anxious whirlwind of confusion it’s time to calm your heart. You are not alone. Most authors don’t understand all the particulars and intricacies of book design.

It’s awfully important to get all these elements and many more right and your cover is one of the best places to invest your funds in a professional. But here is the kicker. Artists aren’t designers either. They don’t make books and go through the process of converting them into ePubs, Kindles, hardcovers, paperbacks, apps and more.

At Old Mate Media, we create the art, do the book designs and upload the various formats to their storefronts, so we’re across the whole spectrum. But we also complete plenty of books for authors who have had their cover design done elsewhere and it’s astounding how often the file they receive isn’t print ready. We’ve written this article because of the dizzying percentage of authors using our design service that send us cover art that hasn’t been prepared properly.

So how do you make sure your artist delivers you a book cover file that is everything it needs to be? We’ve created this step by step book cover guide to help you ensure your cover artist doesn’t leave you short changed. Whether you end up using our services or not, we believe in empowering indie authors with the knowledge to grow.

Book Cover Tips #1 – What is your book’s trim size?

It’s fair to assume most authors will be aiming to release their book in print. So how big is your book going to be? It is the first thing an artist needs to know to prepare your cover for you and if you change your mind, or are not sure, before you commission the cover, then it will need to be reworked. You can rarely just expand or shrink the image to the new size. Words will be cut-off, characters won’t be centred or your printer will blacklist the cover outright for having elements outside the printable margins.

Also remember that the bigger your book, the more – in general – it will cost to make and post, so don’t go overboard without good reason. For more, visit our list of the most common trim sizes in inches, centimetres and pixels. Just remember that a book cover must include a front, a spine and a back when submitted to a printer.

If we receive just a front cover image, then we will need to complete the spine and back with something more generic. This could end up being a block colour with text and another asset over the top. This other asset could be a photo of the author, or another image from within the book. It’s a totally acceptable solution if you’re left hanging with just the front image, but does take more design work.

Book Cover Tips #2 – Have you considered bleed?

Perhaps one of the most common mistakes we see from illustrators working on covers is that they don’t consider the need for bleed. Bleed is the name given to the part of an image that extends past the trim size of your book. It’s an essential requirement of every printer. The bleed is a minimum of 0.125-inches in width the whole way around your book, and we have a much more extensive guide to the concept here.

Book Cover Tips #3 – Paperback or Hardback (or both)?

Paperback and hardback covers have quite different requirements. Hardback covers require a lot more bleed than a paperback. This is because a part of the cover gets wrapped around into the interior of the book. It’s how the “hard” part is kept contained. So your cover art therefore needs to have bleed of 0.625-inches added on all sides.

If you intend to sell both paperback and hardback, or are unsure, then simply get your artist to make the book with hardback bleed. As it is bleed – excess background of your cover – your book designer can trim it at 0.125” or 0.625” as required.

Link to the rest at Old Mate Media

Working With AI

From The Wall Street Journal:

In August, first prize in the digital-art category of the Colorado State Fair’s fine-art competition went to a man who used artificial intelligence (AI) to generate his submission, “Théâtre d’Opéra Spatial.” He supplied the AI, a program called Midjourney, with only a “prompt”—a textual description of what he wanted. Systems like Midjourney and the similar DALL-E 2 have led to a new role in our AI age: “prompt engineer.” Such people can even sell their textual wares in an online market called PromptBase.

Midjourney and DALL-E 2 emerged too late to be included in “Working With AI: Real Stories of Human-Machine Collaboration,” by Thomas Davenport and Steven Miller, information-systems professors at Babson College and Singapore Management University, respectively. But the authors note other novel titles: chief automation officer; senior manager of content systems; architect, ethical AI practice. As AI’s influence expands, its borders with the work world gain complexity. Next up: deputy regional manager of AI-prompt quality and security assurance.

The bulk of “Working With AI” comprises 29 case studies in which corporate teams integrate automation into a workflow. Each chapter ends on three or four “lessons we learned.” For each study, one or both authors typically interview not only a worker interacting directly with the AI but also the worker’s supervisor, the manager who decided to adopt the technology, the software’s developer and the company’s customers. Though they include some statistics on, say, time saved, the reports are largely qualitative.

The book is aimed at managers, consultants and students planning their careers. As none of the above, I still appreciated the accessible narratives as a diverse survey of how current technologies can expand the range of human capabilities. Some of the applications came to resemble each other, but the mild level of bland business-speak, like “stakeholder” and “buy-in,” was positively tolerable.

Early cases lean toward desk-ridden workers. One system helps financial advisers at Morgan Stanley personalize investment ideas for their clients. Another helps fundraisers at Arkansas State University target potential donors and drafts emails for them. Others suggest life-insurance premiums to underwriters at MassMutual, or help forecast sales for Kroger. In all cases, humans have the final say. And in many cases, the systems provide explanations for their outputs, listing, for example, the variables that most heavily influenced a decision.

Later cases breach the office walls. One system predicts which field activities will be most dangerous to Southern California Edison workers, and recommends precautions. Another highlights neighborhoods where crime is likely to occur and recommends that police officers patrol the area. (The latter, a form of predictive policing, has raised concerns about biased algorithms. The vendor says they’ve implemented countermeasures, but the book doesn’t elaborate.)

The benefit in most cases is increased efficiency. AI relieves employees of boring and time-consuming work, freeing them to address other tasks, such as strategic thinking or client interactions. The authors spend less time discussing ways in which machines might perform with more accuracy than humans, though they do point to Stitch Fix, where algorithms assist stylists in clothing recommendations. The company’s director of data science notes that it’s usually best not to override the AI, whose choices tend to be superior. While algorithms can be biased, so too can humans. Stitch Fix’s styling supervisor said the software nudges stylists away from their own preferences and toward those of the clients.

Many readers’ first question might be: Will AI take my job? Or: Can I replace my expensive employees with AI? The short answer from the authors is: In the near future, no. Wealthy countries are actually experiencing a long-term labor shortage. And there are still many things AI (often) can’t do, such as understand context, deal with dynamic settings, create a coherent story, coordinate people, frame a problem and know when to use AI.

The authors include an oft-quoted comment from the radiologist Keith Dreyer: “The only radiologists who will lose their jobs to AI will be those who refuse to work with AI.” The authors elaborate: “If you’re a human reading this book—and we suspect you are—that means you need to shift your focus from worrying about being replaced by a machine to worrying about whether you can add value to a job that you like where a smart machine is your collaborator. Adding value can mean checking on the machine’s work to make sure it was done well, making improvements to the machine’s logic or decisions, interpreting the machine’s results for other humans, or performing those tasks that the machine can’t or shouldn’t do for some reason.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Sponsored ads and Stores launches in Egypt

From Amazon Ads:

What launched?

Sponsored Products, Sponsored Brands, and Stores are available to use on Amazon.eg. Sponsored ads can help you achieve your business goals by reaching customers as they shop for relevant products on Amazon, gaining product visibility and building your brand.

Grow your business in Egypt with Amazon Ads

Souq, now re-branded to Amazon, is a trusted online retailer. As 72% of Egyptian consumers are shopping online more frequently than before since the start of pandemic1, it’s a great opportunity to leverage Amazon’s self-service sponsored ads to engage with those customers.

Choose the appropriate ad product for your needs:

Help increase discoverability of your products

If you don’t know where to start your online advertising, Sponsored Products is a great way to begin your advertising journey in Egypt. Sponsored Products appear in shopping results and on product pages, it’s an effective approach to engage customers as they shop for similar products on Amazon.eg.
No experience necessary, in just a few clicks, you can create your first Sponsored Products campaign. We recommend leveraging our automated features, including automatic targeting, dynamic bidding, and suggested bids. You only pay when shoppers click on your ads.

Link to the rest at Amazon Ads

A Detective Poet, and an Empire in Revolt

From Public Books:

In 1857, the largest rebellion against the British East India Company took place. It spread across the subcontinent and among people of different religion, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class. The city of Delhi, as the seat of the Mughal emperor, held special significance among the rebellion’s many centers. The previous year, the Company had annexed the neighboring state of Awadh and exiled its ruler in a particularly venal move. It shattered the last illusions that the Company’s political ambitions would be limited by even an appearance of what was lawful. Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was to become the last Mughal emperor, feared for his remaining authority, which did not really extend beyond the city of Shahjahanabad, the walled enclave of political power in Delhi. And it is the powder keg of Shahjahanabad that is threatened with ignition by a murder in Raza Mir’s historical mystery, Murder at the MushairaThat is, unless Mirza Ghalib—a real-world poet in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor—can solve the mystery in time.

As required by their profession, detectives in Indian historical mysteries in English routinely and expertly transgress boundaries created by the socialization of the encounters between native and colonial hierarchies. In Mir’s novel, the process of this socialization comes to a head, with battle lines being drawn not only between the British and the rebels, but between rebels with different understandings of history, and between domestic and public spheres, as well as between different systems of political and cultural patronage.

At the center of these many oppositions is Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. In his novel, Mir casts one of 19th-century Delhi’s most illustrious residents as his detective.

Ghalib was born in 1797, six years before the East India Company captured Delhi from the Maratha Confederacy. His first collection of poems was written when he was 19, followed by decades of poetic compositions in Persian and a Persianized Urdu. Most of his now-famous Urdu ghazals, written later in life, were under the patronage of Bahadur Shah, himself a poet. Mir portrays Ghalib, as he was in real life, beleaguered by debt and familial conflict, painfully aware of each slight to his prodigious talent—in this case a reluctant detective who would rather write poems than solve crimes. Unlike many historical-mystery writers whose characters are taken from real history, Mir makes little to no changes to Ghalib’s character and temperament for the sake of fiction, for which there is sufficient documentation. His family being at the receiving end of both Mughal and Company patronage, his employment by the British in the role of a “cultural expert,” a native informant, to solve the mystery also rings true. It is of course a role that is then overwhelmed by the happenings of 1857, when, as Ghalib wrote in a letter a year later, “so many friends died that now when I die, there won’t even be anyone left to mourn for me.”1

In Murder at the Mushaira, Mirza Ghalib, blessed with uncommon insight and nearing the end of his life, is chief witness to the dying of his world. The novel itself is a satisfying read, paradoxically perhaps, because it so often divests its energies from genre conventions that are beloved by fans, and it gives itself over to the uncertainty and devastation of this moment in the history of India.

Mystery and crime fiction, even when not ostensibly historical, depend on the past, however recent, being available as a tantalizingly difficult object of investigation. Historical mysteries not only reinforce this rewarding pastness of the past by placing it at a greater distance, but they also analogize the detective’s queries within the narrative to the reader’s curiosity about the past itself. So what does it mean when Indian historical mysteries concentrate on the period of colonial rule? How does the solution of the crime figure against the collective inheritances of colonial pasts?

These novels have understandably capitalized on the romance of the Raj—the British colonial regime that lasted until 1947—which, in turn, is often connected to the decline of colonial rule. In fact, quite a few of these series are set in the 1920s, corresponding to the so-called golden age of detective fiction, when the likes of Agatha Christie started publishing.

The 1920s as a cultural idiom have powerfully affected writers of historical mysteries. But in choosing to set their mysteries in India of the 1920s, a decade that saw an upswell both in anticolonial movements and in their brutal repression, these writers produce interesting results.

Christie’s novels frequent the drawing rooms and parties of the English upper and middle classes. At times, these elites are shielded from the economic downturn in Britain in the early 20th century, often benefiting from colonial wealth. Christie’s crime fiction is mostly classified as cozy mysteries, indicating their underlying sense of comfort and the conviction that nothing really bad happens, which is a product of the novels’ spatial and economic logics.

However, the spaces that contain and arrange Christie’s characters—manor houses, seaside resorts, golfing hotels, and even sleepy hamlets—all replicate the logics of empire, their coziness inextricably tied to the latter’s political, ideological, and economic cohesion. Even when Christie mocks superior senses of Britishness that would brook no criticism, whether in person or in organization, the lasting impression of these spaces’ comfort is still linked to that Britishness that has resulted from centuries of imperial self-affirmation.

The factors behind the coziness in Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry novels are a little different. Here the coziness is afforded by the detective’s upper-class Anglicized Parsi community of Bombay, whose monetary and social capital was a product of the colonial economy. Modeled after the first female lawyer of modern India, Cornelia Sorabji, Mistry’s exclusion from the larger professional field of law owing to her gender is calibrated against the affluent spaces that open up for her due to her class. In the first novel of Abir Mukherjee’s Wyndham and Banerjee series, the blame for the murder of a British official is at first falsely laid on Indian nationalists, but finally is brought home to the inner rot of the colonial administration. One also has to read his novels vis-à-vis the origins of modern policing in India, which had less to do with solving individual crimes than with the management of colonized spaces and peoples, and often the protection of the interests of religious caste majorities. Besides Mukherjee and Massey, Barbara Cleverly, Brian Stoddart, and Harini Nagendra also set their mysteries in the 1920s.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Modern depiction of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

PG notes that the book described is apparently only available as a hardback on Amazon. Evidently, the publisher didn’t permit Look Inside to be activated for the book. The Share button also appears to be unusable as well.

Google Translate

Prompted by an earlier comment on TPV, PG conducted an experiment with Google Translate last night.

As many visitors to TPV will know, at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, set during the French Revolution, a central character, Englishman Sidney Carlton executed by guillotine although he is innocent of any crime, even by the loose standards of the time and place.

Carlton has a powerful unrequited love for Lucie Manette, who nevertheless inspires him to try to be a better person. Near the end of the novel, Carton manages to change places with Lucie’s husband, Charles Darnay, who has been charged with crimes against the Revolution.

From Spark Notes:

Sydney Carton is executed at the guillotine along with many other French prisoners. Although Carton does not make a farewell speech, Dickens ends the novel with imagining what he might have said. This hypothetical farewell speech allows Carton to look ahead and envision a future where those he loves go on to honor and cherish his memory: “I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants.” The visionary speech provides a sense of closure and optimism to an otherwise tragic ending. Carton has led a difficult and lonely life, and dies in much the same condition. Likewise, the French Revolution is wreaking violent havoc without showing signs of achieving much progress. By having Carton predict a future where his sacrifice will allow those “for which I lay down my life [to be] peaceful, useful, prosperous, and happy” and where France will be restored to peace and order, the novel ends with a sense of optimism rather than crushing defeat.

Link to the rest at Spark Notes

This section contains a well-known sentence:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known; it is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

First, PG used Google Translate to render this sentence into various languages.

Albanian

Është një gjë shumë, shumë më e mirë që bëj, sesa kam bërë ndonjëherë; është një pushim shumë, shumë më i mirë në të cilin shkoj nga sa kam njohur ndonjëherë.” është një gjë shumë, shumë më e mirë që bëj, sesa kam bërë ndonjëherë; është një pushim shumë, shumë më i mirë në të cilin shkoj nga sa kam njohur ndonjëherë.

Finnish

Se on paljon, paljon parempi asia, jonka teen, kuin mitä olen koskaan tehnyt; se on paljon, paljon parempi lepo, johon menen kuin olen koskaan tiennyt.” on paljon, paljon parempi asia, jonka teen, kuin mitä olen koskaan tehnyt; se on paljon, paljon parempi lepo, johon menen kuin olen koskaan tiennyt.

Hausa

Abu ne mai nisa, mafi nisa da nake yi, fiye da yadda na taɓa yi; hutu ne mai nisa, wanda ya fi nisa fiye da yadda na sani.” abu ne mai nisa, mafi nisa da nake yi, fiye da yadda na taɓa yi; hutu ne mai nisa da nisa da na je fiye da yadda na sani.

Hawaiian

He mea mamao loa aʻu i hana ai, ma mua o kaʻu i hana ai; ʻO kahi hoʻomaha lōʻihi loa ia aʻu e hele ai ma mua o kaʻu i ʻike ai. he mea maikai loa a’u i hana’i, mamua o ka’u hana ana; he wahi hoomaha loa ia a’u e hele ai mamua o ka’u i ike ai.

Scottish Gaelic

Is e rud fada, fada nas fheàrr a nì mi, na rinn mi riamh; ‘s e fois fada, fada nas fheàrr a th’ ann dhan tèid mi na dh’ aithnich mi riamh.” ‘s e rud fada, fada nas fheàrr a tha mi a’ dèanamh, na rinn mi riamh; ‘s e fois fada, fada nas fheàrr a th’ ann air an tèid mi na dh’ aithnich mi riamh.
Hawaiian to English

Vietnamese

Đó là một điều xa hơn, tốt hơn nhiều mà tôi đã làm, hơn tôi đã từng làm; đó là một nơi nghỉ ngơi xa hơn, tốt hơn nhiều mà tôi đã từng biết. ” là một điều xa vời, tốt hơn nhiều mà tôi làm, hơn tôi đã từng làm; đó là một nơi nghỉ ngơi xa hơn, tốt hơn nhiều mà tôi đã đến hơn tôi từng biết.

Next, PG took each translation and had Google Translate process it from the non-English language back to English. In the interest of avoiding an overlong post, PG will show only two examples.

Albanian to English

It is a much, much better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it’s a far, far better vacation to go on than I’ve ever known.” it is a far, far better thing that I do, than I ever did; it’s a much, much better vacation that I go on than I’ve ever known.

Finnish to English

It’s a much, much better thing I’m doing than I’ve ever done; it’s a much, much better rest I’m going into than I’ve ever known.” is a much, much better thing I’m doing than I’ve ever done; it’s a much, much better rest I’m going into than I’ve ever known.

Then, PG gave Google Translate an even tougher task.

Albanian to Vietnamese to English

It’s a much better thing that I do, than I’ve ever done; it was a far away vacation, much better to go on than i ever knew. ” it was a far, much better thing I did, than I ever did; it was a much better vacation I’ve had than I ever knew.

Hawaiian to Hausa to English

I went farther than I did; It was a longer vacation than I expected. It was a good thing that I did, before I did it; It’s a safer place for me to go than I know.

And for a grand finale:

Hawaiian to Hausa to Finnish to English

I went further than I went; The vacation was longer than I expected. It was a good thing I did before I did it; It’s a safer place for me than I know.

(PG would be interested to know how many people in the world are fluent in Hawaiian and Hausa and Finnish and English.)

PG accepts that Google Translate undoubtedly has been designed to handle the job of converting one language into one other language without interceding languages, but he admits being impressed by how well the program handled chained translations.

Here’s a link to Google Translate if you would like to wile away a few hours.

Or, in Arabic:

إليك رابط لترجمة Google إذا كنت ترغب في الابتعاد بضع ساعات.

Inside Penguin Random House’s play to reach avid readers on TikTok’s BookTok

From Digiday:

Much has been written about how the almighty algorithm shapes our taste in everything from food and music to movies and books, but Penguin Random House is leaning into TikTok’s major #BookTok trend to help users discover titles and engage with fellow readers.

On Tuesday, the publishing giant announced a new deal with TikTok that lets people link to books in videos using the popular #BookTok hashtag while also working with various creators to curate content. The feature will direct users to a page that has additional info about the book and the other videos about it created by various TikTok users. According to Penguin Random House chief marketing officer Sanyu Dillon, BookTok provides an “emotional journey” that is driving more successful videos compared to those that merely provide a book synopsis.

“It’s very powerful that BookTok is driven by real people, making real recommendations,” Dillon said. “And because the best videos kind of capture that feeling of a book, this, in turn, gives viewers and users more confidence in their book discovery in their path to purchase.”

For years, curated recommendations inside of bookstores have helped guide readers toward new titles they might be interested in. But does relying on a social platform like TikTok to serve up relevant content expand or limit potential readers from broadening their horizons?

It’s not necessarily just one or the other, Dillon said. She pointed out that the footprint of many bookstores often limits how many titles can be sold or how various titles are promoted on shelves. For example, she said TikTok communities within BookTok might help people to read more books in a certain category than before, provide a greater group of related authors to choose from, or help someone discover more books by their favorite authors.

Much of BookTok’s adoption has been driven by organic content from everyday users, but Penguin is trying to approach its role by co-creating content for TikTok with creators and users. Although Penguin works with thousands of creators across its various subsidiaries, it’s also hired three micro-influencers in-house, including two for TikTok and one for Instagram.

“We do understand that an algorithm can be absolutely effective, but you can kind of stay in your lane once you’re in that algorithm,” she said. “We want to kind of expand the awareness of the various categories that we publish and the authors that we are publishing every year.”

To do that, the company has recently created other tech-driven initiatives. Last year, it created a tool called Today’s Top Books which scraped data across every online platform where Penguin titles are talked about and shares those popular titles at any given moment. Penguin has also begun other more curated initiatives on other social platforms such as All Ways Black, a community on Instagram that highlights Black authors and books.

Link to the rest at Digiday

Color PG skeptical. He doesn’t claim to be an expert about TikTok or BookTok, but he does know that online communities can change directions and attitudes in a flash.

PG has doubts that Big Publishing can keep up with anything that moves very fast. And he has his doubts about cool BookToc videos are likely to spring forth from an organization that hasn’t actively engaged with ebooks (a very old technology, relatively speaking). Whenever PG imagines a world in which Amazon never existed, he wonders if TradPub would have changed at all.

Breaking into English

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN 2016, MEXICAN ESSAYIST Mariana Oliver released her debut collection, Aves migratorias. In March 2017, she read a fragment of the book on a podcast, catching the attention of the literary translator Julia Sanches. At the time, Sanches, a former literary agent, had just quit her job and moved to Rhode Island, where she was debating her next professional steps. She ordered a copy of Aves migratorias, waited the seeming eternity it can often take for a book to cross national borders, and, after reading the collection, began to translate an excerpt. She submitted the resulting English-language essay to several journals, but had no luck until Charlotte Whittle, a fellow translator and Oliver fan, included it in her pitch for an issue of the international literary magazine Words Without Borders focusing on women essayists from Mexico — an issue that eventually came out in May 2020. Adam Levy, one of the founding editors of the Oakland-based publisher Transit Books, read the essay and reached out to Sanches, and, as she told me, “the rest is history.” Migratory Birds came out from Transit a year later and went on to win the 2022 PEN Translation Prize.

This years-long story is not, in the world of translation, uncommonly slow. If anything, six years between the publication of the original text and its English translation is rather speedy, especially for a literary work whose author is not a known quantity in the United States. Books like Oliver’s often take a long time to appear in English, finding publishers only through intense effort and great patience on their translators’ part. Indeed, translators frequently double — or, really, quadruple — as literary agents, scouts, and tastemakers. So do the editors who make a point of working with them. It is telling that Sanches first published her translation of Oliver’s work in a journal that rarely prints creative works written originally in English; telling, too, that Levy runs a press that specializes in translation. Increasingly, translated literature in the United States exists in its own ecosystem, one that Eric Becker, digital director and senior editor at Words Without Borders, says “grew out of necessity.” The journal was founded in 2003, he told me, to “address the fact that there wasn’t much work being published in translation.” Twenty years later, the translation landscape is growing, and the magazine has expanded its mission, striving not only to publish translated works but also to “reach people who may not even know they’re interested in international literature” and to advocate for the translators and critics who help that work enter the American literary conversation.

Of course, the question of what constitutes advocacy in the literary world is a complex one. For Words Without Borders, Becker told me, it means crediting translators, paying writers and translators equally, and actively seeking to launch new writers’ and translators’ careers. The magazine has published some 3,000 poems, stories, and essays by authors from over 140 countries, giving many — including every writer mentioned in this essay — their first English-language exposure or helping their work grab the attention of agents who can further their careers. Crucially, that exposure is readily available to anyone with an internet connection: unlike many print-only or print-focused literary journals, which tend to rely on a subscription model, Words Without Borders is free.

But free isn’t always a good thing. Many translators, myself included, are exhaustingly familiar with the expectation that we should work for little or no pay. One way to resist that idea is simply to expose it; another, for many translators, is cooperative action. Translators’ collectives are abundant; online and in industry groups like the American Literary Translators Association, translators offer each other information and support that can be vital in the often opaque publishing industry. Asked about the effect of her agenting past on her translation present, including her role as the chair of the Authors Guild’s Translation Group, Sanches said that this insider knowledge “makes me a better advocate for myself and my peers.” She then highlighted the Authors Guild’s model translation contract, which is heavily annotated and includes the explicit statement that “a large number of U.S. translators are being paid rates that make it difficult, if not impossible, to earn a living, so we continue urging translators to ask for fair compensation and publishers to provide it.” Arguably, fair compensation is the bedrock on which any other politics of translation must rest; as Jhumpa Lahiri writes in the introduction to her 2022 essay collection Translating Myself and Others, it’s hard to perform the “essential aesthetic and political mission of opening linguistic and cultural borders” without being able to make the rent.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Death by Machine Translation?

From Slate:

Imagine you are in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and your small child unexpectedly starts to have a fever seizure. You take them to the hospital, and the doctors use an online translator to let you know that your kid is going to be OK. But “your child is having a seizure” accidentally comes up in your mother tongue is “your child is dead.”

This specific example is a very real possibility, according to a 2014 study published in the British Medical Journal about the limited usefulness of AI-powered machine translation in communications between patients and doctors. (Because it’s a British publication, the actual hypothetical quote was “your child is fitting.” Sometimes we need American-British translation, too.)

Machine translation tools like Google Translate can be super handy, and Big Tech often promotes them as accurate and accessible tools that’ll break down many intra-linguistic barriers in the modern world. But the truth is that things can go awfully wrong. Misplaced trust in these MT tools’ ability is already leading to their misuse by authorities in high-stake situations, according to experts—ordering a coffee in a foreign country or translating lyrics can only do so much harm, but think about emergency situations involving firefighters, police, border patrol, or immigration. And without proper regulation and clear guidelines, it could get worse.

Machine translation systems such as Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, and those embedded in platforms like Skype and Twitter are some of the most challenging tasks in data processing. Training a big model can produce as much CO2 as a trans-Atlantic flight. For the training, an algorithm or a combination of algorithms is fed a specific dataset of translations. The algorithms save words and their relative positions as probabilities that they may occur together, creating a statistical estimate as to what other translations of similar sentences might be. The algorithmic system, therefore, doesn’t interpret the meaning, context, and intention of words, like a human translator would. It takes an educated guess—one that isn’t necessarily accurate.

In South Korea, a young man used a Chinese-to-Korean translation app to tell his female co-worker’s Korean husband they should all hang out together again soon. A mistranslation resulted in him erroneously referring to the woman as a nightlife establishment worker, resulting in a violent fistfight between the two in which the husband was killed, the Korea Herald reported in May. In Israel, a young man captioned a photo of himself leaning on a bulldozer with the Arabic caption “يصبحهم,” or “good morning,” but the social media’s AI translation rendered it as “hurt them” in English or “attack them” in Hebrew. This led the man, a construction worker, to being arrested and questioned by police, according to the Guardian in October 2017. Something similar happened in Denmark, where, the Copenhagen Post Online reported in September 2012, police erroneously confronted a Kurdish man for financing terrorism because of a mistranslated text message. In 2017, a cop in Kansas used Google Translate to ask a Spanish-speaker if they could search their car for drugs. But the translation was inaccurate and the driver did not fully understand what he had agreed to given the lack of accuracy in the translation. The case was thrown out of court, according to state legal documents.

These examples are no surprise. Accuracy of translation can vary widely within a single language—according to language complexity factors such as syntax, sentence length, or the technical domain—as well as between languages and language pairs, depending on how well the models have been developed and trained. A 2019 study showed that, in medical settings, hospital discharge instructions translated with Google Translate into Spanish and Chinese are getting better over the years, with between 81 percent and 92 percent overall accuracy. But the study also found that up to 8 percent of mistranslations actually have potential for significant harm. A pragmatic assessment of Google Translate for emergency department instructions from 2021 showed that the overall meaning was retained for 82.5 percent of 400 translations using Spanish, Armenian, Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, and Farsi. But while translations in Spanish and Tagalog are accurate more than 90 percent of the time, there’s a 45 percent chance that they’ll be wrong when it comes to languages like Armenian. Not all errors in machine translation are of the same severity, but quality evaluations always find some critical accuracy errors, according to this June paper.

The good news is that Big Tech companies are fully aware of this, and their algorithms are constantly improving. Year after year, their BLEU scores—which measure how similar machine-translated text is to a bunch of high quality human translations—get consistently better. Just recently, Microsoft replaced some of its translation systems with a more efficient class of AI model. Software programs are also updated to include more languages, even those often described as “low-resource languages” because they are less common or harder to work with; that includes most non-European languages, even widely used ones like Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, to small community languages, like Sardinian and Pitkern. For example, Google has been building a practical machine translation system for more than 1,000 languages. Meta has just released the No Language Left Behind project, which attempts to deploy high-quality translations directly between 200 languages, including languages like Asturian, Luganda, and Urdu, accompanied by data about how improved the translations were overall.

However, the errors that lead to consequential mistakes—like the construction worker experienced—tend to be random, subjective, and different for each platform and each language. So cataloging them is only superfluously helpful in figuring out how to improve MT, says Félix Do Carmo, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of Surrey. What we need to talk about instead, he says, is “How are these tools integrated into society?” Most critically, we have to be realistic about what MT can and cannot do for people right now. This involves understanding the role machine translation can have in everyday life, when and where it can be used, and how it is perceived by the people using it. “We have seen discussions about errors in every generation of machine translation. There is always this expectation that it will get better,” says Do Carmo. “We have to find human-scale solutions for human problems.”

And that means understanding the role human translators still need to play. Even as medications have gotten massively better over the decades, there still is a need for a doctor to prescribe them. Similarly, in many translation use cases, there is no need to totally cut out the human mediator, says Sabine Braun, director of the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of Surrey. One way to take advantage of increasingly sophisticated technology while guarding against errors is something called machine translation followed by post-editing, or MT+PE, in which a human reviews and refines the translation.

Link to the rest at Slate

A man once asked me

A man once asked me … how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends? I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. “Well,” said the man, “I shouldn’t have expected a woman (meaning me) to have been able to make it so convincing.” I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also.

Dorothy L. Sayers

A Writing Career Returns from the Grave

From Publishers Weekly:

In autumn of 1996, I was a mass market paperback writer for Kensington Publishing under the Zebra Books horror line. My career was steady and building momentum, with eight novels published and two forthcoming on its midlist schedule. Then, without warning, the horror publishing industry imploded, and Zebra unceremoniously shut down its line.

After six years as a full-time author, I was suddenly unemployed. The reason for Zebra’s shutdown, as well as for that of many other publishers’ imprints, was an oversaturation of the horror genre. To feed the ravenous appetite of a loyal reading audience, mass market publishers had taken on inexperienced writers who were penning novels with inferior plotlines that lacked the spit and polish that established authors were accustomed to providing. In turn, readers got burned time and time again, and sales dropped. In desperation, publishers began to cut books and authors to sustain fiscal stability. Eventually, many canceled their horror fiction lines completely.

My agent’s advice upon calling me and giving me the bad news of Zebra Horror’s demise? “Write anything but horror.” So, I took that advice to heart and did just that. As weeks led into months, I tried my hand at several other genres. None of them panned out. Plain and simple, I was a horror writer and the niche I had worked so hard to establish myself in was gone. Frustration led to bitterness, then to apathy. Seeing no chance of regaining my success—and having bills to pay and a family to support—I simply quit. I completely abstained from writing and even reading horror fiction for 10 long years.

That decade of self-exile was rife with resignation and depression on my part. At age 36, coming from a blue-collar family and having no college education to speak of, I turned to the factories. I laced up my steel-toed boots and punched the clock from eight to four, sometimes six days a week. There were highs—raising a family, buying my first home, and enjoying the security of a 401(k) and health insurance. Even when the horror genre regained its footing, I shied away from the possibility of returning. In my mind, I’d had my shot and then lost it, never to retrieve the glory and satisfaction of publishing again. I kept my nose to the grindstone and clung to that weekly paycheck and sense of security.

During those years, everyone swore that the rise of the internet would herald the death of publishing—that easy access to cyber information would replace the need and desire for the printed word. Ironically, it turned out to be the catalyst that sparked a renewed interest in my work. Fans began to purchase my old Zebra novels on eBay and praise my work in online discussion forums. Many urged me to come back to the fold. After some soul-searching, I took the plunge and returned to the horror genre in summer 2006.

However, during the time I was gone, an entirely new generation of readers had appeared—a generation that hadn’t read my work and had no idea who I was. For several years, I worked to rebuild my popularity and appeal. Having regained all rights to my Zebra backlist, I signed on with Crossroad Press, a new publisher specializing in e-books and audiobooks, in 2010. My eight novels, plus two that hadn’t been published, were released, as well as a number of collections of short stories I had written for major magazines and anthologies.

I continued work with smaller, horror-oriented presses, which provided more author control and say-so over content and cover design—something I never had during my tenure with Kensington. Slowly, readers took notice, and my brand of Southern horror fiction became popular again. My readership expanded with the help of social media, and my sales followed suit. YouTube videos featuring reviews of my older books brought them back to readers’ consciousness, and those forgotten titles took on new life and thrived.

I continued work with smaller, horror-oriented presses, which provided more author control and say-so over content and cover design—something I never had during my tenure with Kensington. Slowly, readers took notice, and my brand of Southern horror fiction became popular again.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Exhibit 9148722-C for not hitching your professional wagon to a traditional publisher. At least the author of the OP was able to get his rights back from Kensington. PG notes the OP doesn’t mention whether Kensington made him pay to get his rights back. With a standard publishing contract, they didn’t have to give rights back if the imprint closed down.

PG checked out the website of Crossroads Press, the author’s new publisher, and found the site was being reconstructed – not a good look. If you’re going to replace a commercial website with a new/refurbished/restructured commercial, you keep your old site front and center while you build your new site either offline or on a URL that nobody will ever find.

When the new site is ready, you replace the old site with the new site, probably at the same URL so you don’t have to start all over with being discovered by the search engines and off you go without losing any online momentum.

PG has done it. It’s not rocket surgery.

PS: When PG checked the link to Crossroads Press, he noted that the redesign began on July 21.

Objective Estrangement

From Women, Writers, Women’s Books:

As an American author living in Geneva, I am often asked whether I am working on a novel set in Switzerland. White-peaked mountains, banking intrigue, anything chocolate. The potential is massive. Usually I say no. My latest novel manuscript contains one brief passage relating to the country where I’ve lived for the past decade. 

But who’s to say I am not gathering material for the Swiss novel I’ll eventually publish? Used purposefully, time and/or distance can be a powerful tool for the fiction writer.

I wrote my first novel, An Unexpected Guest, which is set in Paris, Boston, and Dublin, while living in eastern France and in Brooklyn. I wrote my second, Shining Sea, which is set in Southern California, Arizona, the Scottish Hebrides, Manhattan, and western Massachusetts, after moving to Switzerland. I’d been to (nearly) all of the places that appeared in each of the novels and had lived in several of them. But I wasn’t living in them while I wrote these books.

There’s a unique clarity that comes through having distance from something, someone, or someplace with which or whom the writer is familiar. I call it “objective estrangement.” It means being able to see the forest for the trees, while still knowing the sound of the wind through their branches in deep winter, the color of their leaves in autumn, their smell in early spring. It means being able to recognize the universal that will make a story meaningful to others, while retaining the details that will make it feel rich and believable. 

Look at it this way.  

In journalism, immediacy is a valuable commodity. The journalist doesn’t want facts to become clouded by reflection. But literary fiction, the genre I write in, is about reflection. The intrusion of practical, real-life, and personal concerns that have nothing to do with the story’s narrative and characters–this is the street with a pharmacy where I should pick up a prescription; this is the neighborhood where the friend who hasn’t returned my call lives—into the writer’s mindspace is not going to be helpful. 

As Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose fiction often takes the reader to the East Africa he left to live in Great Britain more than a half-century ago, says, “Traveling away from home provides distance and perspective, and a degree of amplitude and liberation. It intensifies recollection, which is the writer’s hinterland. Distance allows the writer uncluttered communion with this inner self, and the result is a freer play of the imagination.” 

That freedom is one reason why, for example, I placed the family at the heart of Shining Sea in Southern California, where I lived for two years in my twenties but is clear across the continent from where I grew up in New York City. The emotionality of my young California years has long worn off, but I can still remember how it felt weaving through bikini-clad rollerbladers on Venice Boulevard or racing out of my stucco condo during an earthquake. At the same time, Southern California couldn’t be further removed and still be in the continental U.S from where (and how) I grew up. Keeping the story and characters in Shining Sea purely creations of my mind was easy, but so also was imagining and understanding the world they would inhabit.

Link to the rest at Women, Writers, Women’s Books

7 Ways Houses, Homes (and the Rooms in Them) Can Rescue that Stalled First Draft

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Home is where the heart is. Or is it?

Home sweet home. Or is it?

You can’t go home again. Or can you? You can go from:

  • Shirley Jackson’s spooky Hill House to the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas —
  • The Rosemary’s Baby creepy West Side apartment in NYC to Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s classic Gothic masterpiece, Rebecca
  • From the outhouse to the penthouse —

Well-written details of houses and homes — or any place in which characters live and work — become permanently lodged in reader’s memories.

Houses — or homes as real estate brokers refer to them — and the rooms in them can delineate character, set a scene, replace or enhance back story, establish mood, theme or genre. And can save that stalled first draft.

. . . .

The famous first line of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s story, originally published in 1937 and never out of print, was written in a moment of sudden inspiration as the author, then pursuing an academic career, was grading papers. It tells us that—

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

***

In No Place Like Home, Anne describesJoe Torres’s tent—

“His little campsite looked welcoming in the moonlight. He had a patched but serviceable dark green pop-up tent with a cleared area in front, covered by a tarp. It was equipped with two camp chairs and a folding table. He opened the tent flap and shone the flashlight beam around.

The place looked amazingly neat and cozy, with blankets smoothed out on a sizable inflated air mattress, a little table with a kerosene lamp, clothes hanging from a pole, and in all the corners were books—piles of paperbacks, some without covers, but all neatly stacked.

An inviting interior. It didn’t even smell bad.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

How to Hook Readers with a Better Book Description

From Written Word Media:

We want to kick our post on writing the perfect book description off with a metaphor: one where you imagine your reader as a fish and your book as a tasty worm. You want readers to buy the book that you’re selling, similar to how you’d want a fish to grab the worm if you’re fishing! The only problem is that there are so many worms (or books in our case) to choose from in the world.

With all these available worms, you’re worried that yours might go completely overlooked. So how do you make your worm the prettiest, shiniest, best-looking option? You package it well.

We’ve shown you that there are many steps to successfully marketing your book, such as creating an attractive book cover, properly utilizing Amazon ads, setting up and managing an author page, and more.

But one crucial detail that authors often overlook is their book description. To reference our Freebooksy and Bargain Booksy emails, this is what we’re referring to:

Book descriptions are your way of quickly grabbing the reader’s attention and showing them why they need your book. With so many options for readers to choose from, your book description could be what makes or breaks a potential sale!

A successful book description will stop readers in their tracks, intriguing them enough to want to engage with your book. An unsuccessful book description, however, will make readers move on to the next book.

. . . .

Part of knowing how to write a successful book description that sells is knowing what not to do. Let’s break down the do’s and don’ts you’ll want to follow when writing your book descriptions:

The do’s:

  • Succinct and to the point
  • Proper utilization of grammar
  • Eye-catching, powerful language
  • Inclusion of awards, high reviews, or ratings
  • “Perfect for fans of… x, y, and z.”
  • Audience and age appropriate

Check out this example of a “do” book description: Clearly written with a powerful descriptor (“acclaimed”), it gives just a snippet of the plot while still intriguing readers. Makes you want to buy the book, right?

The don’ts:

  • Shouty caps
  • Too short
  • Cut off words
  • False claims
  • Misspellings or typos
  • Dated language like “just released”
  • Aggressive call to action (“You MUST buy this book!”)

Link to the rest at Written Word Media

Parents of Donor-Conceived Children Face New Calls for Candor

Not directly related to writing, but an issue that earlier generations didn’t have to face.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Parents of children conceived from donated sperm, eggs or embryos can be reluctant to tell their kids about their genetic origins out of concern that doing so would compromise the parents’ privacy or upend family harmony.

These mothers and fathers are facing pressure to change. Research now shows that donor-conceived people fare better emotionally when they learn about their origins early on. And states are starting to enact laws that require people intending to make use of donor gametes or embryos be informed about the importance of telling donor-conceived children about their origins.

Colorado enacted a law in June that requires people planning donor-assisted conception to receive information about how to discuss it with their children. State legislators in California passed a bill in August that, if signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, will require sperm and egg banks to provide information to customers that disclosure is associated with “improved family functioning and well-being” of donor-conceived children.

“We don’t want to encroach on parental rights. But many parents don’t know the research, and we want to make sure they are making an informed decision,” said Jillian Phillips, vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Donor Conceived Council, which supports the rights of donor-conceived individuals to learn about their origins.

Ms. Phillips, whose single mother told her before she entered preschool that she had been conceived from donor sperm, said information about genetic origins can also help donor-conceived people understand their risk for hereditary diseases. She began seeing a cardiologist after a DNA test helped her track down her biological father, who told her heart trouble ran in the family.

In previous decades, fertility doctors often discouraged parents from telling their children about how they were conceived, according to histories of the field. Secrecy was seen as a way to promote bonding between parents and their children and to protect couples’ privacy about infertility.

Research surrounding parental disclosure is still sparse but indicates that children benefit from learning the truth early on, said Susan Golombok, a professor at the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Golombok is the lead investigator on a United Kingdom-based study following children who were age one in 2000 through the age of 20 and were born through egg donation, sperm donation, surrogacy or unassisted conception. “They were all generally well-functioning families,” Dr. Golombok said, but children who knew by age 4 that they were donor-conceived felt better about their identity and were more accepting than those who found out later.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal