Dear Fellow Fanfic Writers…

Dear Fellow Fanfic Writers...

First of all, I want to compliment you all on actually writing something. Some of you have actually written works that are better than the stories told in canon. I salute you and hope that you continue your endeavors. Reading your works has been entertaining and enlightening, not to mention gratifying as it reminds me that there are people out there who can speak and write English properly. Yes, you may have the odd spelling mistake, typo, or minor grammar error here and there but that’s only because proofreading your own work is nigh on impossible.

However, there are very few of you in the category above. The rest of this missive is directed at the vast majority of you hanging out on AO3,, and Tumblr who have kindled my ire to such a degree that I have spent hours watching YouTube videos on how to operate a backhoe so that I can dig a deep enough hole to find fissionable materials in hopes of either 1) escaping the planet we are currently forced to share or 2) blowing up said planet as an act of penance to any superior lifeforms out there who might have stumbled upon your crap.

Let us discuss a few things frankly, escritor a escritor, shall we?

1) Spelling matters. I don’t care what you think. Spelling matters. Word choice matters. I have put down stories because the first paragraph had five or more spelling mistakes that rendered it nearly incomprehensible. Oddly enough, those of you with the worst spelling are the first ones to wonder why you don’t get reviews and to get offended when someone tells you that it’s because you need to use spellcheck.

You don’t want to be this guy, do you?

There is no such thing as “alot.” There is such a thing as “allot” which means “to give or apportion something.” “Of” is a preposition, not a form of “have.” “Accept” means “to welcome, great, or take something in willingly” as in “I accept your apology.” “Except” means “excluding this” or “other than this” as in “You are talented in everything except the ability to use a spellchecker.” Effect is the impact an action or ingredient has upon another thing. Affect is to have an effect. Water has an effect on fire. Fire is affected by water. The difference is subtle but important. You offer apologies in order to apologize to a person; you don’t apologies to them. You lose the love of your life; you let loose the dogs of war. You wait with bated breath. If your breath is baited, then you’ve been eating worms.

A few more before I finish: “it’s” means “it is.” “Its” is possessive. “There” means a place like over there. “Their” means a possession belonging to them such as “their house.” “They’re” means “they are.” “Your” is possessive. “Yours” is also possessive. “Your’s” doesn’t bloody exist. “You’re” means “you are.” “Your welcome to this house of yours shows me that you’re sincere in your desire to make peace.”

If I can get them right, then so can you.

2) Typography and formatting matter. If your idea of formatting is a great big block of text, I’m not reading it. Break it up into paragraphs. A paragraph generally covers one central idea. Also, you may notice that your words appear on a screen and not a sheet of paper and that word-wrapping happens automatically without you needing to hit “Return” at the end of a line. That’s because you are typing on a computer, not a typewriter! That also means that you put only one space after terminating punctuation (and if you don’t know what terminating punctuation is, you are either too young to be reading this blog or you need to go and apologize to every teacher you have ever had).

In electronic publication (meaning “online posting”), there are no indents at the start of a paragraph. Instead, you add an extra linebreak between paragraphs. If you have a change in point-of-view, perspective, or locale within a chapter, you indicate the break in scene with a centered scenebreak. Some writers use “###” but I prefer “~*~*~*~” or “* * *” because the first one is also used at the end of a manuscript to indicate that it is the end.

If you don’t know how to center text, it’s Ctrl + E in just about any word processor I know of. For HTML, if there isn’t a WYSIWYG bar for formatting, it’s <p align=”center”>text to be centered</p>

3) If you write a sex scene, I will be able to tell if you’re experienced or at least consulted with someone experienced. If you aren’t experienced, for the love of Cthulhu, ask someone who is.

I’m fairly certain that this one needs no further explanation. If it does, don’t write sex scenes.

Seriously, if you ask me to explain this one, Godzilla will facepalm and I will headdesk

4) Pick a POV style and, for the love of Galileo, stick with it. The same goes for verb tense, by the way.

If you start off telling the story in first person, stay in first person. The narrator is telling the story from their personal point of view and the reader is only privy to such things as the narrator would know, think, or notice. The narrator is not omniscient and cannot tell what another character is thinking directly. They can, at best, intuit it through facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice. Unless you are writing a psychic or telepathic character, the narrator cannot read minds.

Don’t write stories in second person. Just. Don’t.

If you are writing in third person, decide if you are doing third person limited (deep included), third omniscient, or third limited changing POV. Limited means that the point of view narrator or narrators are limited to one or a few characters. In deep third, you’ll do away with immersion-breaking dialogue indicators and generally will stick to one character as the narrator per book or per chapter. The reader will know only what that character knows but will be privy to information the character does not directly observe or to the intention behind other character’s words, actions, or expressions. In third omniscient, the author shows the motivations and internal monologues of all or most characters. In third limited changing, the narrator is always a character but the point of view character can change from scene to scene.

I myself usually write in third limited changing.

With regards to verb tense — past tense, please. Do not write stories in present or future tense. All action in narrative should be past tense. The characters might speak of something they are doing or they will do. They might have an internal monologue in present or future tense. But the actual action of the story should be in the past tense. If you’re not certain of how that works, here’s a sample:

Frank watched as Mitchell prepared the slide. They both wanted to know what had killed their neighbor.

“What do you see, Mitch?” Frank asked after Mitchell had studied the sample for several long, silent moments.

“I see trouble,” Mitchell sighed. “His blood was clean. No poison, no toxins.”

“But there wasn’t a mark on his body. No signs of asphyxiation or strangulation. Healthy men do not just keel over dead!” Frank protested.

“Well, it will take an autopsy to tell you more, Frank. There is not a damned thing on this slide that says he met any kind of foul play.”

Putting that in present tense would be very immersion-breaking. Putting it in future tense would have the reader wondering if you had lost your damned mind.

5) Don’t build in tension needlessly. This one I sometimes have trouble with myself. I’ll want my readers on edge for something but, if you build up tension, there needs to be a release. If you keep people stewing for too long, they will put your work down. If you never have a pay off, they’ll be rather upset. That doesn’t mean you need to rush things; it means you need to check the pacing. It also means you don’t throw in a bunch of tangential tragedies or misunderstandings just to keep people on tenterhooks. And yes, it is “tenterhooks” and not “tenderhooks.”

Pacing matters. If you’re writing a slow burn love story, you don’t have the characters get together in the second chapter. You also don’t have them get together in the very last chapter (at least not for the first time). If you’re writing an adventure, your heroes do not beat the Super Villain at the end of chapter one. They also don’t beat him in the penultimate or ultimate chapter. If the last damned line of your story is “the good guys won over the bad guys,” I will personally hunt you down and beat you within an inch of your life.

6) Beta readers are not all editors and editors are not beta readers. Yes, good betas will generally point out typos, misspellings, and grammar errors. However, their job is primarily to give you feedback on how well the chapter progresses the story, how plausible the actions and inner monologues are, how in-character things are, and to help you with internal consistency. Editors, on the other hand, are going to focus on grammar, spelling, word choice, and the way that paragraphs flow and transition. They may not notice internal inconsistencies or your characters doing things completely out of character for them. I can and have done both but they are different processes so I have to focus on one during one read-through and the other during the second.

7) Content labels are fine. Trigger warnings are stupid. It is fine to label your story with content warnings such as “swearing,” “non con,” “M/M,” “F/F,” “F/M,” or the like. Certain people may not want to read a story with a lot of swearing or a lot of sex or certain kinds of pairings. That’s fine. But trigger warnings are stupid and show that you are ignorant about what PTSD actually is and how it works.

If someone is “triggered” by words on a page, then they probably should be institutionalized. Most people with PTSD will never be triggered by mere words on a page. It will be sounds (such as explosions or gunfire), smells, or conditions that are physically occurring around them that trigger them to have a flashback episode. This is why concert venues, movie theaters, and other live performances will sometimes give warnings that the event taking place will involve gunfire, explosions, pyrotechnics, or sudden loud noises. Treatment for PTSD involves gradually re-exposing the person to the things that trigger them so that they will become desensitized to them and will no longer be triggered to have a flashback whenever a car backfires.

So, unless you are embedding video in your story, it doesn’t need a trigger warning. A content label will do fine for those who wish to avoid certain types of stories. Putting a trigger warning in it only diminishes and makes light of actual PTSD.

How do I know this? One, I have read up on PTSD and treatment for it. Two, I have friends who have gone through it. Three, I have dealt with a mild case of it myself in the months after I was carjacked and kidnapped at gunpoint. That’s how I know.

8) Again, for the love of Cthulhu, learn what certain idiomatic expressions actually are as opposed to what you’ve misheard them as. The phrase is “for all intents and purposes” not “for all intensive purposes.” “Irregardless” isn’t a word — you’re looking for “regardless.” “Literally” means that something could actually happen the way described. “Could care less” means that you do care to some degree.

This list is, of course, not comprehensive or all-inclusive. However, it covers the most common mistakes I’ve seen. Please try to do better in the future because I am very frightened that some of you might represent fan-writers to the general public.

Hugs and kisses!

— G.K.

I Know, I Know… But I Have A Really Good Excuse This Time

I Know, I Know... But I Have A Really Good Excuse This Time

And no, I haven’t been wasting all my free (non-work, non-school, non-writing) time watching Sherlock, Doctor Who, or playing Diablo III (don’t even mention Mass Effect Andromeda — we split up and it was not amicable. I’m planning to sue to try to get those hours of my life back). Nope, I have been studying calculus and numeric theory. Oh, and string theory physics, standard model, and quantum mechanics.

It took me two solid weeks of studying but I actually get this joke and think it’s hilarious.

By the way, have I mentioned I have been hired to teach high school English next year?

That’s right. I will be teaching English. Not science. Not math. Not any of the things I spend my free time studying. English. I have a degree in history and I’m teaching English.

My Scrivener research section looks like an odd mix of math and physics notes that even I can barely make sense of. When I started trying to parse chemistry and biochemistry I realized that regardless of what my IQ is, I can’t handle atoms and molecules. Leptons, bosons, fermions, strings, vibrations, and my pet theory that gravity isn’t a proper force — it’s the result of another force spanning multiple dimensions: that’s all relatively simple for me to sort out. Start mixing those together in atoms more complex than hydrogen and my head does this really interesting number that makes a migraine feel like a love-tap.

So, why am I doing this? No, not just because I’m a very special kind of insane. Not just because it interests me, either. And not just to make my lovely ex-husband send me a War and Peace length list of corrections. Nope, this is actually for a series. It’s probably the weirdest thing I’ll ever write but it’s one that just won’t leave me alone until I finish the thing (other writers will understand what I mean).

Seriously, it’s like this story — which started out as relatively simple — decided to throw a lot of challenges at me and, for some reason known but to Cthulhu, I am too much of a masochist to stop accepting them.

And that, my dears, is why I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’m good with history, languages, tactics, logistics, encryption, and computers but math and chemistry will wipe the floor with me every day of the week. Lately, I have just been either too busy trying to wrap my head around concepts that ought to make sense but just won’t or recovering from the headache that this effort invariably brings on.

That said, I will try to get better.

— G.K.

So, Hugos?

So, Hugos?

This year things have been pretty quiet on the Hugo front because, frankly, no one cares anymore. DragonCon started up an actual fan award that’s been about ten thousand times better than the Hugos and it’s only in its second year. WorldCon, on the other hand, seems to have managed an almost 50% loss of paying membership in the past year or so since they pulled out the Asterisks and booed every non-SJW pick.

Hopefully, in about a decade, WorldCon will be bankrupt and there won’t be anymore Hugos. Yeah, sure, it’ll be just a little bit sad that such a long-running award died out but, frankly, it needs to die. It’s been nothing more than an industry-insider thing for the past thirty years. In the past ten, seeing that something has won the Hugo is a guarantee that it’s crap. It’s become the Palm d’Or of the writing world and not in a good way — in a “we’ll give it to Michael Moore who couldn’t film a documentary about pouring piss out of a boot with instructions on the heel because he’s got goodthink” kind of way.

I just thought it was funny because of Declan Finn’s post on the subject. It’s true that Toni W. only got nominated because of the Puppies. All of the non-Puppies swore blind that she would have won if it hadn’t been for being a Puppy Choice. Well, this year they got their chance to show that they weren’t full of shit and guess what? Toni W. didn’t even get nominated.

For the rest of the categories, there are maybe two picks that most people will have heard of. The other three in that category are all obscure authors or works that, if you’re lucky, Amazon might have. I’ve scanned through most of them and, aside from one or two picks, they’re all pretty much the exact same story. Evil Man With White or Pale Skin Oppresses Everyone Until Black/Latino/Latina/Latinx/Lesbian/Gay/Trans/Muslim (which isn’t a race, btw)/Otherkin Person or Womyn Stops Him and Brings About Utopia. Nothing you haven’t read at least a hundred times. I’ve read porn with better writing.

At any rate, sorry for posting being bad last week. I got hit with a series of migraines.

— G.K.

Hoisted By Their Own Petard

Hoisted By Their Own Petard

If you’re even somewhat libertarian in bent (and I suspect that most of my readers probably are), then you’ve probably at least heard of Reason Magazine. Well, last week, I came across an article they had written that shed some light on a phenomenon I thought was recent in nature but actually turns out to have been a long time in development.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have no problem with gays, lesbians, Christians, atheists, non-militant Muslims or really, with anyone. About the only group I harbor a strong antipathy towards are idiots and idiocy is a condition brought on by willful ignorance and has nothing to do with race, religion, skin tone, sex, gender, orientation, or even political bent. However, everyone who knows me knows that I prize freedom of expression and freedom of association above almost everything. I wouldn’t want to be forced, by law, to deal with idiots and I wouldn’t want anyone else to be forced to deal with people they dislike or disagree with — no matter how irrational the grounds. The furthest I will go on curtailing these deals strictly with government. I believe that government should be forced to remain neutral and that a person who holds a governmental office must be forced to remain neutral in discharging that office no matter what their personal opinions are.

So yeah, that means that I think it’s stupid that pizza parlors, florists, photographers, and caterers get sued because they don’t want to provide services for gay couples getting married. I don’t think that a halal Muslim butcher shop should have to sell me pork chops, either. I would hate to see a black church forced to officiate and celebrate the wedding of a Klansman and I would be seriously annoyed if a synagogue had to solemnize the marriage of anti-Semites.

But, it turns out that it was the Christians who brought this on themselves back during one of their anti-Mormon moments. Reason does a fairly comprehensive background on the different laws, court cases, and judicial reasoning that have brought us full-circle with this mess. I had originally thought that the whole “you can believe whatever but you can’t act on it if it offends someone” thing was something born out of the tendency of the left towards authoritarianism and their preference for Balkanization.

Seriously, go read that article and realize that these kinds of tools always get turned against those who wield them. Eventually, it will swing back again and it will be the left’s allies or dupes who find themselves forced to provide services for people they loathe. When that happens, I’m going to be sitting back and laughing fit to bust.

I have no worries about this being used against me — nor do most libertarians — because when someone tries to force us to do something we don’t want to do, we just walk away with our middle fingers aloft because, frankly, we don’t need society and we’d be perfectly happy living alone and never seeing another person for the rest of our lives.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it. 😉

— G.K.

World Building — Brandon Sanderson

I’m not linking to any of these books because they’re sold by Tor. My advice is for you to go to the library to check them out or to borrow them from a friend who purchased them before Tor decided that anyone not to the left of Mao was a neo-nazi. Whatever you do, try not to give your money to an organization that hates freedom of speech.

While Tolkien is often held up as the best example of world building in fantasy, I’ve found that his legendarium leaves too many important questions unanswered for him to be a good person to follow when it comes to world building. Sure, what he did was just enough for the stories he told but there are a lot of things left unsaid. Are the Vala worshiped? Do men and dwarves know of Eru Illuvatar? How, exactly, does magic work? Do you cast spells with words and components or is it just a kind of mental or willful projection?

Robert Jordan is a better example but his world actually got to be so complex with so many societies that I try to avoid using him as a good example for a beginner to follow. He’s someone you should check out, though, once you understand the basics and you’re trying to build a world that has a very, very, very high level of diversity in it.

Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, is a great person for a newbie world builder to check out. His worlds and systems are complex but not overly so. He does a hell of a job with his magic systems. Each one is unique and different from the others. Each of his worlds contains enough history to be believable and enough societies to be interesting but you don’t wind up having to learn about every last one of them just to make sense of what’s going on. The first book you should check out by him is Elantris. It’s a good one for a newbie world builder to try to mimic. There are three religions, only one of which has much play in the story. There’s one magic system that the reader has to deal with. There are four nations mentioned but two of them can be treated as one because they’re similar enough to each other.

Elantris does a good job of having diversity without having it overwhelm you.

Once you’ve read Elantris, I’d suggest Warbreaker if you want another one-off or the first Mistborn trilogy (Mistborn: The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages). Both have one magic system apiece (though Mistborn winds up having that one system show up in three forms). They have two or three countries you have to worry about. Again, it’s diversity without the Parade of Nations aspect. Mistborn might be a slightly better choice than Warbreaker since Warbreaker can be a little off-putting with the way that the magic system is treated by two of the main characters (Vivenna and Vasher primarily).

Only then should you pick up The Way of Kings. It’s excellent and the world building is solid but it’s much closer to Jordan’s style than the others are.

Sanderson generally starts out his world building by determining what the major “elements” of the world will be (ruin, cultivation, honor, preservation, hatred, endowment, etc). He then builds a magic system that makes use of those elements while staying within the lines he’s drawn for himself in his greater cosmere outline. Each system winds up being unique and having its own quirks without being overly powerful and turning characters into gods wearing mortal flesh. He also only pulls in as many nations as he needs to tell his story and no more. He may make off-hand references to nations who never appear on-screen but he doesn’t hit you over the head with them the way Jordan sometimes did. He also avoids a lot of the D&D-clone aspects you’ll find in other worlds like R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt series or the Dragonlance universe. Granted, those series were commissioned by Wizards of the Coast but the worlds themselves function more like gaming modules than living worlds.

Next week, we’ll explore some aspects of Jordan’s worlds and how he could build a world that had a definite fantasy look-and-feel without making it feel like a D&D cloneworld.

— G.K.

Book Review: Red Queen

It should come as no surprise that I like a good bit of speculative fiction that is a bit heavier on the science than filled with handwavium. Therefore, when I stumbled across Jeb Kennison’s The Substrate Wars series, I was hooked. The first book in the trilogy, Red Queen, is definitely worth a read if you haven’t checked it out yet.

The series starts following a nuclear attack on Manhattan that led to a single party pretty much dominating American politics. The premise is not too far fetched and shows some of the problems that can come from having a political monoculture in universities and the media. A rebellious group of college students gets together and through a breakthrough in technology, develop a way to get away from the oppressive environments on Earth.

The books are short and the characters, while somewhat Mary-Sue-ish, are still likeable and believable. If you’re looking for a good adventure in sci-fi that deals with technology that we would actually recognize, then this trilogy is definitely worth the $7.00 all three books will cost you. I give it a solid three-and-a-half rainbow farting zebricorns. It loses one-and-a-half for the Mary-Sue characters and the black-and-white nature of the way it treats the good guys and the bad guys. Still, it’s readable and well worth the time.

— G.K.

Tribalism and Distance

Tribalism and Distance

Or “Oy vey, the problems that can crop up when you share one semi-but-not-completely tongue-in-cheek picture on the Book of Face.”

There is one fundamental aspect of all humans everywhere regardless of culture, gender, sex, religion, skin tone, hair color, ability, or intellect and that is that we are all lazy sods who want to do the minimum contribution to the mass of society it takes to satisfy us and then be left alone to do our own thing. Sure, some of us are perfectionists and will insist that our minimum be to a higher standard than someone else’s but that’s not a given with most humans. Honestly, unless we know someone beyond just their name, we generally don’t spend much time thinking about them. We’ll help out our friends and family (after all, my parents have helped me and my sister out a lot when we needed it) in a heartbeat because we know those people. We might even go to other folks we know who don’t directly know a friend of ours who’s hard-up at the moment and ask them to pitch in to help out.

That’s how society functions at its most basic. It’s a web, of sorts, a kind of distributed network where not every person (or node) is connected directly to every other person (or node). It scales well enough so that people can understand that they are part of a family, then a tribe, then a nation, and finally the entire human race. The problems creep in when one rank of the web is mistakenly assigned a part that would go better to another rank. It’s taken us a long time (almost embarrassingly long) to figure out which rank should have which task. For instance, for a long time, armies were held at the tribal level. That worked out okay when people were still spread out in sparse groups (the hunter-gatherer phase). Then they started forming nation-states and the ones that were the most successful at maintaining stability — internal and external — were the nations that moved control of the armies up to the national level. In places where armies were held at the familial or local level, things were unstable. Civil wars and in-fighting were much more frequent. This is part of why feudal Europe took so long to recover from the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire. It’s also why organized crime and gangs are such a problem — they aren’t beholden to anyone or any particular set of ideals other than “we want shit others have” and so have no check on misuse of their martial powers. The military is beholden to the government and the government — be it the President or the Queen or the Pope — decides when and where to use it. If the people don’t like their decisions, there are ways to deal with it. A military unit that goes rogue and starts invading places or harassing people is a military unit that is going to be hunted down by the whole rest of said military and hanged from the nearest set of trees.

Another example is dealing with other nations. For way too long, that kind of stuff was held at the tribal level with one local chief (or lord or earl or whatever fancy name they want to call themselves) might have a peaceful relationship with a foreign power while another chief wanted to go to war with them and the king (the head of the chiefs) might just not care much one way or the other. Look at Scotland if you think I’m making shit up. The Scots were buddy-buddy with the French for a long time while the English fought with the French so frequently that I’m half-surprised the wars finally ended. Even after Scotland became the senior partner in the United Kingdom, the Scots were closer to the Continent than the English. Even today, the Scots would prefer to stay part of the European Union while the English want out. This is probably going to be the issue that finally breaks up the union and I don’t think either side is going to be happy with where they end up.

Charity is the biggest example most of us can think of for “an act that belongs to one web but got tossed up to another to the point of it no longer functions well at all.” Back when it was held locally, pretty much everyone who needed charity could get it. It also had the function of forcing society to remain somewhat more tightly knit by reminding those who were on it that they owed gratitude to those who provided it and reminding those who were well-off that there’s a price to pay for status and benevolence is that price.

Was it perfect? Nope. Is it perfect now that we screwed around and assigned a local-web function to the national-web level? Oh hell no. Thing is, many of the imperfections from the past era had to do with the fact that life, in general, sucked for everyone back then. Orphans starved or died of disease at just a slightly higher rate than non-orphans. Poor women lived just a few years less than their wealthier counterparts. Medical care, whether you were George Washington or some random Irish guy consisted of being cut to let the bad humors out. These days, though, everyone has access to clean water, indoor sanitation, vaccines (vaccination is so cheap that we do — rightly — fund it to keep companies making them even though the profit-margin is practically nil), and education. Aside from vaccination, all of these things are pushed down to the level most appropriate for them. Water regulation is a state matter in the US. So is education (for the most part). Building codes are municipal. And, imperfect as they are, they mostly work better than they would if they were delegated up or down. It would be a complete waste of time for DC to try to figure out how homes in Mississippi should be built or to try to demand that all homes in the US be built to the exact same code. It would also be incredibly stupid considering the sheer variation in local climate, average seasonal temperature and humidity, and population density. Could you imagine the outcry if idiots in Flora, MS started telling the morons in Los Angeles that they had to allow at least fifty feet between habitations to allow for proper water run-off on adjacent properties? Or if the dingbells living on the Gulf Coast tried to tell the doorknobs living in Manhattan that they needed to have ceilings that were at least 12′ high and all buildings had to be wood-framed to allow for give during thunderstorms and tornado outbreaks?

That would go over about as well as a lead balloon.

So why are we doing it for charity? Do the sods in Michigan have any clue what the needs of the poor in Jacksonville, Florida are? Do the tossers in Queens have any earthly idea what it’s like to be poor out in Cheyenne? Do they know if it’s tied in to local economic cycles or is this a structural problem leading to generational poverty? Does it have to do with lack of access to education due to budgetary shortfalls, poor teacher training, or scarcity of population? Could the issue be cultural in origin? Do they know? Do they care? Nope. Because this is so far outside of their local-web that they can’t imagine it anymore than I can imagine or sympathize much with what it’s like to grow up a gay dude in Japan. Instead, they throw money at the problem and absolve themselves of actually having to analyze and deal with it. It’s not like they know those people, after all. And money helps everything, right?

It helps about as much as mandating 12′ ceilings for all.

It also leads to other problems. After all, if the national government’s job is to provide charity, then why should we bother giving to local concerns? Eventually, you wind up with a lot of national or international charities and only churches doing anything local. There’s also no status given for paying taxes or helping in local charities. Back before we went stupid on this, one of the main ways for the wealthy to sort themselves by status was for them to be involved in local benevolent concerns. And yes, it was a good idea to have the wealthy running them because they knew how to handle money and how not to get ripped off. Anyone who doubts that should take their savings out of the bank and hand it to the first guy they see on the street and then get back to me in a year with the results. Unless you happen to be insanely lucky, chances are you’re going to be broke.

There’s also no penalty for not giving to charity or not participating in local organizations. Used to be, if you didn’t, then you really didn’t get invited anywhere and people looked down on you — especially if you were well-off. Your sons might not be allowed to court women from other good families and would have to either be eternal bachelors, go abroad (and rumor would go with them), or marry down. Your daughters would require a higher dowry and would have to prove that they hadn’t inherited your tight-fisted ways. But these days, no one cares. Be as tight-fisted as you want — there’s no downside. After all, you pay your taxes and that’s enough. Maybe if you want to show how pious you are, you advocate for higher taxes (and then do your best to minimize your tax burden by creating an LLC, giving it ownership of everything — cars, homes, etc — and then claiming a low salary from it to file on your 1040 so that you get the lower tax burden from the LLC and can even qualify for a refund on your 1040. And yes, every blasted actor out there, I’m lookin’ at you. Assholes).

After all, it’s not like it’s your problem, is it? It’s the nation’s problem and that means that the nation — namely Someone Else — should have to contribute to fix it.

Will moving charity back to the local-web make it perfect? No. Nothing will make it perfect because the minute you throw humans into the mix, you’re going to get imperfection. Will it make it better? Not immediately. It’s been almost three or four generations that we’ve been screwing this up. We’ve axed a lot of the local customs. It will take generations to rebuild the local customs that put pressure on people to contribute and to show gratitude. It will also take a long time for us to understand that, in this, Jesus had it right. The poor will always be with us. What we really need to do is figure out what the various causes of poverty are and try to see what can be done at the local-web level to fix them, scaling it up only if it’s necessary to do so. Some people are poor because they make stupid decisions. Some are poor because they were never taught how to handle money. Some are poor because they can’t work. Some are poor because they don’t really want to work at a level that would take them out of poverty. Some of these issues we can fix. Some, we can’t.

No matter how much money from however far away is thrown at it.

— G.K.

World Building 101: Institutions

Okay, so after everything you’ve already considered, it’s time to start looking into the major institutions in your primary society and any in secondary societies you’re planning to have your characters interact with. The biggies are government, social classes, and individual institutions. If you’ve managed to stay awake through most of your high school history classes, you’ll already have a fairly good idea of most of the major forms of government and variations you can make on them so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that. Social classes will generally tend to flow from both your form of government so I’m going to let those pass for now as well. However, individual institutions are where you can have the most fun.

The family unit is the primary individual institution. What is marriage like in your world? Is it a religious thing? A cultural thing? A contractual arrangement? Do you have two-party marriage only? Polygamy? Do you allow for multiple wives and multiple husbands? Can you have both in a multi-party marriage? Are they all married to everyone else involved or is it strictly only to those they wanted to marry with? How are children reared in a family? Is divorce or separation allowed? In what cases?

After the family comes the guild or tribe/clan structure. Do you have guilds for different professions? All or particular ones? Is membership required or optional? How are small towns or villages governed? Larger towns or small cities? Is there a religion? More than one? How intertwined is it with the government? What is the priest class like?

Then there’s the individual economic sphere to consider. Are there shops? Are they large or small? Single-product or multi? Is there an open air market? Is it daily, weekly, monthly? Are prices set or is haggling allowed? What about medical treatments? Are there hospitals or do priests handle the healing? Does your world have plagues and outbreaks that force quarantine?

How are crimes handled? Is there a professional police force? Trial by judge or jury or both? How is evidence given or collected? What’s allowed as evidence? Are there formal rules or is it informal? Are there jails? Are convicts sold into slavery? Executed? Branded? Some other punishment?

Finally, are individuals allowed to travel across national boundaries without needing any kind of permission or is travel pretty much free and open? What about settling abroad? Can someone born in nation A become a citizen or subject in nation B? What are the requirements?

You actually will find yourself having to deal with almost all of these as you write. Even if you’re not planning on doing a lot of world building, these kinds of things will show up in your story. Since almost every story is about individuals, you are going to see more individual institutions in play through a narrative than you will major institutions (though you do still need to keep tabs on those).

Next week we’ll step away from world building a bit to look at how others have done it and what they’ve done well and what aspects could use some work.

— G.K.

Book Review: Magna Carta — The Birth of Liberty

Most of you who know me know that I did my undergrad degree in history and Classical languages. However, I don’t think I’ve ever done a book review of one of the history books or biographies I’ve read (and I have more than a few in my library). That’s going to change this week. Just recently, I read Dan Jones’s Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty. If you’re interested in British or American history, this book is a good one to add to your list. It does a great job of covering the problems that King John created with his misrule of England and his off-and-on wars to try to win back territories his brother Richard held on the continent. The focus of the book is on King John and, in many ways, it could be considered more a history of his reign than a treatise on the Magna Carta itself.

That said, Jones does a great job of explaining the history and the attitudes of the English nobility that gave rise to the creation of the Magna Carta. Where most other European countries had less liberty accorded to the nobles, the English had a lengthy history of certain prerogatives among the nobles and restrictions on what the king could do. Jones does a good job of explaining what those were and why the nobility were so upset over John transgressing the boundaries of “acceptable” behavior for a king.

Overall, if you’re interested in learning more about the last of the Plantagenet kings and the first major document drawn up to place checks on the sovereign — a concept that would later be expanded upon both in the United Kingdom and the United States — this book is a great place to start. It earns a solid four out of five rainbow-farting zebricorns for its comprehensive coverage of the topic and its approachability for the non-historian.

— G.K.



Welcome to a semi-stream-of-consciousness type post wherein you get to see just a little bit of what goes on in my brain when I’m not forced to focus on something mundane. No, I’m not a physicist and I don’t pretend to be. I doubt I could ever hack the math to be one but I find the field interesting and spend an inordinate amount of time reading up on it because I’m weird like that.

Okay, this is not a review of the film because I’ve not seen it and have no plans to do so. No, this is my somewhat errant and wandering thoughts on gravity itself — the force that both binds and repels everything in our universe.

Newtonian gravity: still a better love story than Twilight

Newton, probably the greatest genius that humanity has ever known, was the first to accurately describe the effects of gravity and to deduce that they were caused by mass. The greater mass an object has, the greater its gravitational pull. Also, gravity is actually incredibly weak — two objects are attracted to each other by a product of their mass but by the attraction is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them or F = G(m1 * m2)/r². Einstein later proved that gravity is an attribute of curved space-time which we all know from the whole “put a bowling ball on a mattress — the ball is a big-ass object and the mattress is space-time” thing.

Earth is the bowling ball, btw.

If you never did that, then you had a crappy childhood.

Gravity is also the force that hasn’t yet been unified with the other forces — electo-magnetisim, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. It’s something that physicist have been having fits over for a while now since quantum theory can handle the other three but gravity seems to throw a spanner in the works. Gravity also impacts time. The closer something is to a heavy gravity field or the deeper in a gravity well an object is, the slower time moves for it.

The secret to immortality? Live on a planet orbiting stupidly close to the event horizon of a black hole.

It’s a fun thing to think about if you’re as whacked in the head as I am.

But what, precisely, is gravity? Yes, it’s a force. Yes, it bends things in space-time. Yes, it has to do with mass and it can screw up time from a local perspective (go watch Interstellar to see what I mean). But what the devil is it? And why is it probably the first force discovered and described but the last to be unified with the rest of the lot (sorry — I’m slipping into British mannerisms because it’s late and I just finished watching The Imitation Game which is awesome and you should go watch it right now).

I’m beginning to suspect that gravity is playing on a much larger field than our universe and that it is not a native force here. It’s more like an invading force that stems from somewhere else. Electro-magnetisim and the nuclear forces are very much natives to our universe. But gravity is the guy from Corsica who comes around, invades places, and makes everyone under his command drive on the right side of the road. Gravity doesn’t just impact time: it’s the cause of it. Without it, we would live in a flat and static universe. Actually, scratch that, we’d live in a flat, static, and unimaginably hot universe and we probably did (we being the tiny quarks that compose everything, including our bodies and the electrical impulses firing between and among our neurons). Then comes gravity and all of a sudden: BAM! Since matter wasn’t uniformly distributed, it had something to screw around with. Clumps formed and attracted more matter to the bigger clumps and crap began spinning and the next thing you know, a few hundred million years go by and we have galaxies and stars and stuff. Gravity also caused space to expand faster than light (the inflationary period which may very well still be on-going and yes, space can go faster than light without violating any laws of physics).

This is your universe without gravity invading it. The other is your universe with gravity being dumb and invading Russia in winter. Any questions?

But gravity didn’t arise here. It’s a force coming from somewhere else in the multi-verse or mega-sphere or whatever it’s called these days. We can detect its influence on our universe but I don’t think we can place it with the three other forces because it’s not just non-local; it’s completely foreign. It’s like it’s part of the bulk that our brane/universe rests on. Maybe like a kind of gel — like the kind you find in an ice pack. Where there’s a lot of matter, it presses down on the gel which, again, thanks to Newton we know will cause the gel to be pushed and bunch up elsewhere.

Crap like this is probably why G shouldn’t be allowed to read anything by Michio Kaku.

And yes. This is the kind of stuff I think about when I’m left to my own. It’s either this or whether or not I could dig deep enough to find something fissionable in my yard and I think that the world would prefer me not to develop my own backyard Manhattan Project.

By the way, you’re welcome for that.

— G.K.