Café Society

coffee

 

Lately, I’ve seen a definite trend on Twitter and elsewhere, extolling the idea (and attendant, buyable merchandise) for making “café-style” drinks at home.

 

They usually focus on how much you’ll save by making your own lattes and cappuccinos, and while the entry-price is steep, it is undeniable that those daily plunk-downs of $5 at Starbucks mount up pretty quick – so I cannot dispute these claims.

 

But I think that in so many ways, the entire idea misses the most salient points about coffee houses.

 

First of all, the chains are frequented in the early a. m. by people whose lives are not going to accommodate getting up 20 minutes early to make their own delicious mochaccinos.

I’m serious: no one who uses the Timmie’s drive-thru or whips into the Starbucks across from the office is unaware that the coffee is overpriced, and that pushing the alarm back a quarter-hour and then actually getting out of bed could save them a bundle.

It doesn’t matter how gorgeous and pricey the appliances are, or how thrifty and delicious their drinks would be: they still won’t do that.

 

And for everyone else, it isn’t the coffee.

 

Heck, half my friends meet me at the local café and grab a can of soda, for Pete’s sake.

 

It’s not about the coffee – or at least, it is only peripherally about the coffee.

 

It’s about the where.

It’s about the comfy chairs, the neutrality, the socialization, the feeling of specialness and the conversation.
It’s about the conversation.

Even when you are alone…there’s a reason why Rowling wrote most of the first Harry Potter book in a coffee house, and despite what she may say, I suspect it wasn’t any of those reasons, but because of the community feel, the ambience, the sense of the past backing you up and cheering you on.

Otherwise, she could have saved more money and just gone to the public library instead. It’s very quiet, and there are tables and chairs, and all the research material you could dream of, right at your fingertips.

But she went to a café, and that is no simple accident.

Café society, coffee houses – they have a long and honourable (although sometimes disreputable) history of fostering the arts. Of welcoming the different, the outcast, the misfits of the world.

They have been at the forefront of so many cultural and political movements that were they to utterly disappear, I suspect society would vanish immediately thereafter.

I don’t know what it is, exactly, but my friends are smarter, more articulate, and a whole lot wittier when we sit down in a real café to have a catch-up.

Their advice is more thoughtful – and I’m more open to it, in a café.

Their jokes are wilder and funnier than they are in someone’s living room. Their stories are more compelling, and we all listen better, harder, than we do at home. We give each other more space.

 

So stop with the “this $500 gizmo means you’ll never buy Starbucks again.”

Because that really isn’t why we go out for coffee.

The World Beneath

All art has a subtext.

stratification_2

 

You might not believe it. You might think that it’s all just English Lit profs trying for job security, or ego boosting or whatever.

A lot of writers and artists routinely decry the re-interpretation of their work, and a lot of students (a WHOLE LOT of students) take up the war cry, too.

 

“It’s just a story!”

“It’s just a painting!”

“It’s just a song!”

 

But here’s the thing.

What you create is informed by your beliefs – many of which you yourself are completely unaware that you hold.

They creep in. They are there before ever you open the new Word document, sing a note, or pick up the charcoal or the paintbrush.

They’re inherent in the story you choose to write, and in the subject/object you re-create on paper or canvas. They’re inherent in you as the creator, and your awareness of it is immaterial.

For fantasy writers, the very fact that you choose to write about pitting “Good” against “Evil” suggests that you in fact, deep down, know this.

When you write about a humble heroine overcoming great evil – you say volumes more about you and what you believe in than you realize.

When you write about evil swamping the world in an abyss of hate – when you tell your readers that “good” doesn’t always win, when you tell a story from the point of view of a villain who thinks they are the good guy – you have shown more about yourself than a million words speaking directly about what you think you believe could ever say.

 

Even the trivial has unspoken connotations.

 

In art college, our instructors were quick to tell us this: that everything we put into our art carried meaning – that every visual cue had a symbolism we needed to be aware of. That we needed to educate ourselves, constantly and widely, so that the message we wanted to send was the one that got sent.

Colours, objects, shapes, placements: they all carry emotional and cultural qualities, read by the viewer from their own life/context.

And that is just as true with words: when you decide the curtains are blue, or the man wore a ball-cap, or the trees were laden with snow – you might think you picked the colour arbitrarily, but underneath, your social values, your emotional state, your cultural preferences are all at play.

And we need to be aware of this – we need to stop deriding the people who point out what these things could mean, because when we do that, we undervalue and shortchange our own work. We make it less than it is. We announce that we stand for very little and that we don’t think the arts matter.

 

But they do. They matter more than anything else.

 

Why do you think that totalitarian governments go after artists, writers and musicians right from the start, silencing those voices before any others, and replacing them with low-effort propaganda?

 

They fear the world beneath your words.

 

Don’t let them silence you.

On Magic

mickey-magic

 

It may not come as a surprise that, as a fantasy writer, I’m interested in magic. It’s one of the basic building blocks of fantasy, and fantasy writers, no matter what subgenre they work in, are all interested in it.
Magic is the thing that we share.

What magic “is”, and how it works,  though, that can vary.It’s one of those world-building questions that we struggle with.

Is there a “divine” single-entity that is the source of all magic?

Is the magic inherent in the world, or in us?

Is it something innate…or learned?

Is it an art or a craft?

Does it require special language, or is it based on intent?

How dangerous is it to the wielder? What are the limits?

In one sense, answering these questions can be a lot of fun for the author (or a big head-ache, depending on the writer) – they can be approached as a kind of intellectual game.

For some writers, the questions are a rabbit-hole they fall into, and it can paralyze them, keep them from writing, while they try to nail down every specific and quantify and qualify every aspect.

It can be a trap. There are pitfalls to that fine-grained an analysis.

One, of course, is that the writer cannot reach a satisfying conclusion, and because (having placed a stricture on themselves that until they’ve worked it all out, they can’t start writing) they never write the actual book.

Oh, well. That’s no one’s problem but theirs.

The other, more deadly problem is that, having worked all this out, the author cannot refrain from telling the reader all the secrets. The trouble is that this takes all the mystery out of it, and places “magic” into the realm of science.

I’ll let you in on an obvious fact. Most fantasy readers don’t come to a fantasy novel for the science.

You need to let the mystery speak to your readers.

You need to let the mystery speak to you.

One of the things that will draw readers in is the space given to them to imagine and create things within the world you have built. They need that space. They need to have gaps they can fill.

Writing is a two-way street: it is a conversation, not a monologue.

If you don’t leave room for the reader, you haven’t left room for the magic.

 

I’ve been thinking about gender fluidity lately.

A lot of us have been, actually.

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For me, not necessarily because it’s in the news a lot, or because it might, somewhere down the line, connect to my writing, but because I have a lot of friends whose gender doesn’t really match their external genitalia, and in the current social climate, this causes confusion, emotional turmoil, and occasionally, real and real-life problems.

And I am trying to make sense of the binary – why do we have it? Why does someone else’s gender identity concern us? Why is this becoming such an overarching topic, and why is the “dialogue” suddenly changing?

Now there are a lot of reasons for all of that, and I am no expert for most of it, but as someone with a background in anthropology, I think some of it might lie in how human beings, down the millennia, have needed to interpret their world.

(****Please note: this applies mainly to European/North American cultures. I know that a lot of other societies dealt with this differently – especially in how they explain to children how this works. But Western culture is the driving force in the world right now, and frankly, we’re the ones who set the agenda, for good or ill, in this as with so much else.****)

 

Small children get very interested in “gender” and “sexual identity” almost as soon as they begin to talk – and there are good and cogent reasons for this.

At two years old, your entire life’s business is to make sense of the world you live in.

But you are two (or four, or six) and so simple explanations and definitions and categories are what you want.

So: girls and boys. Men and women. Penises and vaginas. Those are (at this stage) concrete, visual, easy to understand.  At this stage of life, children feel most comfortable with easy-to-grasp words and concepts, and this is the kind of tangible evidence they can wrap their minds around.

As they grow up, though, new factors enter the mix. By the preteen years, their life’s business is not just comprehending the world around them, but figuring out how they, individually, fit into this world. The questions are not as simple, and the answers – were one to think deeply about the possibilities – are not easy ones.

By and large, an awful lot of us fall back to the binary. It’s what we know, after all.

And once again, for the majority of teens, the binary does serve them as they head into adulthood: they identify with those broad categories, and they try to find ways to fit into them.

 

Now, originally, this wasn’t that big a problem.

When the average life-span was under forty, and one’s collective purpose, both socially and biologically, was centred on the survival of the species and the transmission of one’s own genes, what you might personally want out of a gender identity or a sexual encounter was not merely moot – it wasn’t something any of our ancestors had unlimited time to think deeply about.

Even as we evolved socially and began to have things like leisure, there was still a strong/over-riding compulsion to increase our numbers. Warfare, among other things, made codifying sexual and gender definitions relevant – not to mention, useful for chieftains/warlords/priests/kings controlling populations and thought processes. The division of labour based on sexual apparatus was an easy way to police a lot of other patterns of behavior, and until very recently, life expectancies were still very short, overall.

People didn’t have TIME to think deeply about whether the binary served them individually.

They also rarely (if ever) had good ways to communicate with each other about their unease, if they had any, regarding their place in a tightly defined pair of categories. If they felt they didn’t fit, well, they kept it to themselves: society was still so rigidly controlled that a fairly large swathe of the population would have been severely penalized for even mentioning the problem. An even larger percentage of the population was denied the educational opportunity to gain the words they might need to discuss the issue.

Those for whom the binary did not fit suffered in silence. They married. They had children. They pretended and hid and denied.

 

You may have noticed that this has changed.

Life-spans have grown well past the forty-year mark, especially in Europe. Time, on an individual basis, keeps increasing. Education has been extended to larger and larger segments of the population. Communication has become widespread.

 

And more and more people have that time, those words, and the connectivity to pursue problems that we “didn’t used to have” – because we were like toddlers, using simplistic and easy categorizations of ourselves to avoid thinking about complicated things.

The mistake is in believing that the simple, easy-to-grasp, toddler explanation is the truth (although part of that feeling is because we were given this model as a fact so early: what we “learn” before school even starts tends to stay with us in the most visceral way).

But even the most cursory observation of history and/or nature will tell you that this is not, in fact, how any of this works.

 

We were always fluid. We have never been a binary.

It’s just that now, some of us are ready to take the questions on.

Branding – Not just for Livestock

brands

 

Branding is a marketing buzzword in indie publishing these days.

On the surface it makes a lot of sense. If you can find something that encapsulates your work and can be manipulated so that whenever people see it, they think about your work, even on some subterranean level, the possibility that they will at some point down the line actually buy your books becomes more likely.

So: a good thing – in theory.

 

In practice though, not quite so simple.

 

There are some writers who seem to be trying this, but are trying it in such a way as to completely defeat the purpose.

Branding is mainly thought of in visual terms, and I suppose that’s reasonable, because we are very much a visual culture, so it stands to reason that we’ll come to associate a certain “look” with a product/writer output.  So, okay: a logo, a style, a consistency of form: it makes sense.

But problematically, a few writers have decided to use some incredibly substandard but popular visual looks to “brand” their work.

 

There is a site someplace (don’t ask me, I never went there) where you could pick some cartoony-esque drawings and add captions and then throw them up on social media to – I don’t know , make some kind of statement or point or observation or something.

It was madly popular for about a month and then thankfully dropped into an abyss somewhere.

But on my Twitterfeed, there are a couple/four writers who have decided that this is the very thing that will get them where they want to go, branding-wise, and use these cartoon images to post updates on them, their books, their process, their philosophy of writing.

Now, there are a few things wrong with this.

One is that unless the “branding style” actually matches your books on some deeper level (ie – dovetails with your cover art or adequately conveys the sense of your books’ tone, intent and content) it might defeat the purpose entirely. If a reader goes looking to buy based on the idea that your brand is “cartoon”, and you actually write dark, disturbed tales of woe and dystopia, they might buy something, sure, but they will never, ever trust you again.

But the other thing is that these cartoons are really awful.

The art is pedestrian, dull, and uninspired. It’s bad art. It’s not bad art in the sense that things don’t look like what they should. It’s bad art because it is unfailingly bland. It speaks of the timid – it suggests that the brand you might be selling is “Don’t rock the boat.”

It’s also kind of ugly, in a wholly unobjectionable way. Cartoonists have made some terrific strips using what might, in other contexts, be considered incredibly ugly art, but manage to merge it all seamlessly with the content in ways that work so brilliantly that one cannot imagine any other art paired with that content.

Using a boring and tasteless branding style that is not in any way unique; that is, in fact, almost fascistically “average”, and so generic as to make Kellogg’s Cornflakes appear in the light of the exotic and spicy, seems a really poor advertisement for your creative skills.

Moreover, using a branding style that a) was briefly on every Facebook wall from here to Ethiopia and b) smacks of pre-teen, flash-in-the-pan trendiness, seems unlikely to gain readers. The adults who had a modicum of taste were bored by the trend the first time one of those cartoons appeared, and the preteens and mindless fashion zombies who were addicted to it for a mere four weeks before moving on now see the whole thing as antiquated, behind the times and “so last week”.

Branding is supposed to set you apart from the herd. In a good way.  Indelibly marking yourself as not only unable to generate ideas for yourself, but as hopelessly behind the times, does not strike me as a brand most readers are looking for. The reader might not want the groundbreaking, the on-the-edge, the uncomfortable – but they like to pretend to themselves and their friends that that is what they are there for.

It’s a rare reader who admits outright that what they want is potato chips for their mind. They at least want to believe that what they read is original, striking, one-of-a-kind, even if they are reading a simple, life-affirming, flinch-free romance where the conflict centres solely on just when the hero will ask the heroine to set a date for the inevitable wedding.

They want the illusion of new and different, even when they know full well they are reading the same book over and over, with the names and the hair colours changed.

 

Branding via a publicly open and widely used mock-up cartoon site that any of your readers could access themselves – one that several authors are already doing this exact same thing with, all over the ‘net – well, the brand you might be selling is “I cannot be arsed to even try”.

 

Not the brand I would want to be associated with.

YMMV.

 

The Genre Tourist’s Guide to Epic Fantasy – Part Three

This Band of Brothers…or whatever.

cartoon-medieval-people-stickers-25621910

In every Epic Quest, the hero quickly draws into his orbit a doughty group of supporters, each with unique talents that will become essential in order to Fulfill the Prophesy and enable the hero (girl or boy – we are post-gender-biased here) to do whatever it is that they need to do in order to Save The World.

In addition to a wise old mentor of mysterious origin, there is usually at least one person, generally recognized as “The Ranger”, who arrives armed with bow and arrows.

In general, these folk are of hearty, peasant stock and know innately the Ways of the Wild. They can simultaneously track a single deer over hundreds of miles, unearth badgers at the drop of a feathered hat, unerringly detect the presence of a disturbance in the woods (just moments before all Heck breaks loose), accurately read the minute signs of passing waterfowl and know why they did not remain in this foul place, whilst  whistling Dixie (or some other annoying tune) the entire time.

The nice thing is that when the group of intrepid Questers is at starvation point in some deserted wasteland, the Ranger will be able to track, kill and cook the only wildlife available for the next forty miles or so.

Another essential companion on these excursions is the Comic Relief.

The childhood friend who accompanies Our Hero/Heroine on the journey often does double duty and fills this role as well. But Comic Relief can also take the form of a servant, with or without an attitude, who has a commoner’s slow, straightforward literalness of mind that causes the hilarity.

They might be a thief, suborned by some means into joining the Quest, often as a way to escape some other, more dire punishment.

Their tendency to steal from the wrong people at the wrong time serves not only to provide much-needed breaks from the seriousness of the task at hand, but to usefully pitchfork the entire group into some life-threateningly terrible Peril and enable at least one of the group to discover heretofore unknown talents, to reconcile a quarrel or other difference of opinion between members of the Questing team, or, in some cases, to push the Reluctant Hero onto the inevitable path required.

Sometimes the Comic Relief comes in the form of an animal/insufferably cute pet, or even a magically-animated object. While animals usually provide amusement merely by being true to their animal instincts, Talking Swords are often great ad-lib comedians, and one has to listen very carefully to discern the difference between practical advice and practical jokes.

Another important component of this requisite crew will be the love interest.

In the case of young peasant boys who turn out to be royalty or great natural mages hidden from Evil’s eyes, this is usually a willful, adventurous Princess (sometimes in disguise) who, while at first seeming to be a lot more trouble than she could possibly be worth (royal ransom notwithstanding) eventually comes to her senses and learns to cook, throw oddly-pacifist-but-sort-of-useful magic spells, or knife people in dark alleys.

Or whatever.

The reverse, of course, always works: the young peasant girl who has been dragooned by Fate into the role of Savior will inevitably team up with some rogue Prince or noble cutpurse, who besides being devastatingly attractive, will constantly do things that put Our Heroine in jeopardy and/or rescue them in clumsy but endearingly whimsical ways.

In the case of young nobles/royalty escaping the machinations of their Uncle-The-Usurper, the love interest is often a highly talented but unpedigreed wizard/sorceress, or the most kick-ass natural warrior ever born. Either way, love blooms, and once ensconced on the throne, the new ruler inevitably finds a loophole in the law (or simply ignores centuries of tradition) and marries them anyway.

It’s a Good Thing, too, because some of those royal families get awfully inbred and eccentric over time.