publishing fiction vs. releasing music

I published Razor Strike, a cyberpunk novel with romantic elements, on 15 May 2022. A year later, I’ve worked on some drafting for a VN and another novel, but I haven’t made any progress beyond that. Instead, I’ve been working on music. I joined the band Thou Merciless Graves and worked on activities I’d trained for decades ago: music arrangement, engineering, and performance. I am sorry to my readers that I do not have any material with a near-future release.

I’m an extravert. I love to read and play solo video games. But I get my energy from activities with other humans. Writing takes alone-time. It’s lonely work, and I have to spend more time at my primary job than I used to. Also, finding a reader is more difficult than finding a listener. To get a listener, I can point them to a single song that will take them several minutes, which is a block of time humans in most modern societies are willing to budget for.

A consumer sees a book as a several hour active commitment, as opposed to a several-minute potentially fun thing, and a concert may be several hours but it isn’t as active a commitment as reading. During a music show, the attendee can plot themselves into a location and spend several hours letting it wash over them. They do not have to engage with the material as actively as they would if they had to read it. I do this myself: I’ll go to a concert where four or five bands are performing and sometimes just take in the vibes. If I like them, I buy the music.

Music is also a smaller commitment timewise for me because I can compose, record, and produce a song in a few months’ time. When I’m working primarily as an arranger instead of a songwriter, this can go down to several weeks’ turnaround. I haven’t been able to write short stories that I want to share. My first novel took me seven years to finish, and I anticipate further ones will take four. While I like big projects and the level of planning needed for them, it’s still a very long time for me to spend in isolation before getting to really talk about the project with anyone.

I recently finished up the post-production of our band’s forthcoming EP. As for writing, I’m back to re-reading the first draft of a near-future visual novel I wrote last year. If I think it’s something that merits publishing, I’ll continue revising it. Otherwise, I will continue scribbling various scenes in my notebook and pick up another old draft to review.

attaching moral qualms to fictional characters

While my family’s experiments with GPT-3 based engines are disappointing from a creative point of view, I got a kick out of some of the results.

People of the Internet (the worst kind of people) given access to GPT-3 worked hard to make the AI say things that are not considered prosocial by the people of OpenAI. Most of this work involves tricking the AI not to use the Assistant personality it’s trained to present. Programmers at OpenAI in turn have trained GPT to be resistant to various kinds of user manipulation.

This has resulted in GPT trying to present a more prosocial reality…about fiction. We asked ChatGPT to summarize the first chapter of The Shadow of the Torturer, a novel by Gene Wolfe. In the summary the AI repeatedly makes remarks about the main character Severian’s discomfort with torture.

The Book of the New Sun’s fictional world has torturer as a professional occupation. There’s a torturer’s guild and a bunch of bureaucracy to go with it. Severian is a torturer by occupation. For him, torture is a somewhat banal experience. He never reflects on its morality, nor does anyone else in the series. But GPT attempts to ascribe its own morality (which is also mine) to Severian.

Severian must be the hero of the novel, so the AI can only attribute heroic words and thoughts to him. The engine does not know what morality means. It only knows which words often follow each other in the English language. The output may only be useful for characters whose morals we agree with.

This is interesting to me in a creative tool sense. It’s possible to use GPT as inspiration for writing prompts, as long as the user looks up everything it declares to be true. For example, I could ask it to list objects in an abandoned warehouse. It would likely come up with some plausible ones and a marmoset, or something equally as preposterous. (The trouble is other things I might have to research)

Again, this engine is derivative by design. I don’t expect to get anything truly creative out of it. For writing prompts my first line of use is various thesauri by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

If novelists jump to using using this model to generate their stories, the stories will not only sound derivative, but the characterization will be muted. Good people will have fewer messy flaws than they do in real life. No amoral protagonists, or ones that have morals different from those agreed upon by the scientists at OpenAI!

By reading the same things over and over not out of choice (comfort reads are a different phenomenon that I enjoy with no guilt) but because they’re what’s most easily accessible, we’re more likely to live without challenging ourselves or examining our world views. I find torture horrific, and Wolfe has some sensibilities similar to mine. He sets up an alien society where Severian is uninterested in analyzing his day job. Violence is less remarkable in the The Shadow of the Torturer. But a person in a modern society may have qualms about owning a gun or buying from a shady business, although these activities are common in adjacent cultures.

I find that characters with morality systems different from mine force me to take a look at my values and why I hold them. What would be my values if I held them in a significantly different society? Exposure to different moralities makes us grow as human beings. The magic of a novel is access to infinite ways of life. With this exposure, maybe we can become better people.

2022 look-back: reading

I tend to read about 35 books a year for the past few years. This past year, I read and especially enjoyed:

  • The Jaguar Knight by Ann Aguirre
  • Clean Sweep, Sweep In Peace, and One Fell Sweep by Ilona Andrews
  • Enemy Storm by Marcella Burnard
  • Only Bad Options by Jennifer Estep
  • The Lotus Palace and The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin
  • Hunt the Stars by Jessie Mihalik
  • Once Upon a Marquess by Courtney Milan

These were all genre novels: paranormal, Victorian historical, science fiction in space, and Tang dynasty historicals. Not in that order. I already knew I mostly remember novels that aren’t in simple popular genres, especially within romance. Some heavy topics show up in these books: torture, assault, temporary disability, and the Opium War. I like pure fluff sometimes, but less in my novels than in webtoons, it seems.

Last summer, I fell down a webtoon rabbit hole. I practically inhaled these, and wow they were tropey and fluffy. Good for when I needed a distraction, but also gave me good feelings. Here are the ones that stayed with me beyond the reading:

  • Another Typical Fantasy Romance
  • Marriage of Convenience
  • Marriage and Sword
  • Pick Me, My Queen
  • The Not-Sew-Wicked Stepmom
  • Straight to the Red Carpet
  • Roxana
  • Villainess in Love

These are all swords and sorcery with lords and ladies. Some of them have light novels but the art makes things go right down. My substitute for television, really.

Rereading older books

I think it’s important to reread books and that I don’t do it often enough. Readers love to stay current and discuss the latest releases with our writing buddies. Many good books blur together in my head. They’re fun and I’ll recommend them, but they won’t stick with me over the years. I am focusing on books I read in the aughts, and some from ten years ago, before the age of book blogging and social media.

I’m interested in how books show their age: JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books, for example, mention the Motorola Razer quite a bit. I read the books when they were initially published, so this makes me smile. But I do wonder what a younger reader, who never encountered the Razer, would think. For me, the use of objects current in the contemporary gives the voice of the book and the attitudes context.

I’m hoping that rereading books will help me codify what I think makes a book memorable: if I want to reread a book, something must have stuck with me. Ideally I can incorporate it into my own writing. I’m going to start with Meljean Brook’s Guardian series. I fondly remember the golden age of paranormal romance!