Self published books have (almost) no quality control. Here’s something we can do about it.

Here’s a reason to support my Kickstarter campaign to hire an editor for my novels, which has nothing to do with me or my books. It’s that a lot of self published books, perhaps most of them, have almost no quality control. But this is not a reason to stop reading self-published books. Rather, it’s a reason to change the way self-published books are put together. And my Kickstarter is an attempt to set a precedent in that direction. As I shall explain.

The problem is this: Readers can never be sure that a self-published book has been proofread for consistent spelling and grammar, or edited for continuity and similar matters. Nor can it be easily known whether the design and layout was done by a professional. Some are, and some aren’t, and you can’t know for sure until you buy the book and start reading.

If you read indie or self-published books, you already know it’s harder to enjoy a story, or even to be constructively critical of a story, when spelling errors and typos and continuity slip-ups get in the way.

But this isn’t because indie writers don’t care. They do. It’s because most indie writers simply don’t have the money to hire the editors and designers they need. I certainly don’t, even though I have the ‘safety net’ of a decently-paying day job.

My big idea is that self-published writers can use crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to help overcome the problem of absent quality control. If my fundraising campaign is successful, you, the backers of this project, will help me set a new precedent. You will show that it is possible for independent writers to prove that that their work is quality-controlled, engaged with the audience, and professionally prepared. They’ll be able to say, “My book has been professionally edited and designed, no less than a book published by a big international publisher, with the financial support of the readers, and the Kickstarter backers.

A statement like that on an indie book’s back cover would make me trust the book much more readily. I would feel as if the writer respected me as a reader. I hope it would do the same for you.

Not only that: by backing my project, you’ll show that it is possible for indie writers to get their book up to snuff at less cost to themselves, without short-changing their editors and designers.

Then the main thing indie writers will have to worry about is how to persuade people that their book is interesting enough to be worth a few bucks in advance. And that, I think, will bring the interesting-ness of the book to the front of reader’s and writer’s minds.

Which is where it belongs. Not behind the technical issues of comma splices or weird page breaks.

At the time I write these words, Fellwater is 36% funded, with 33 backers. There’s only $2,035 to go. Can we make it to the target, and beyond? Only with your help! :-)

If you want to know more about the books before backing the project, click here:

And to back the project, click here:

Please, if you care about the quality of the books you choose to read, and you want to support independent writers and not only established writers, then support my project. If my project succeeds, you can point other indie artists to it as an example of what the possibilities are. And I’ll do what I can to help them, too.

And thank you for your support.

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Bren’s Guide to Writing

Over the years, I’ve noticed that I follow some unacknowledged “rules” in my own writing, especially in fiction. So over the last few months, I started writing them down. Here’s what I got so far.

Bren’s Rules (actually, they’re just guidelines) for Writing

The first rule is that you should fall in love with words, languages, and storytelling. Your language both limits and liberates you. Know how it works. Be a serious student of words, sentences, paragraphs, catchphrases, proverbs, tropes, neologisms, alliteration, rhyme, syllables, phonemes, definitions, propositions, arguments, fallacies, and speech-acts. Be a lover of the best of them; be the nemesis of the worst. If you do not care about your language – if you are not interested in what words can do and not do, and what they can be twisted into doing – then you should try a different field of art.

Find the words in your language that can do what you need done. If those words do not exist, invent them.

Write as if every word is inevitable.

I have two languages in which I’m fluent: spoken English and written English. These are two different languages. Learn the difference; play in the space between them.

Read what other people in your field are writing. Know the climate and the weather of the intellectual environment in which you are working. It is also the environment in which you are thinking. And it is the environment where your audience lives.

Do your homework. Even fantasy fiction, which doesn’t take place in the “real” world, requires research.

Do not waste time, procrastinate, or distract yourself. But do not force the creative powers, and do not rush. Do whatever you must do to put yourself in the mind to create, and then take your time. Treat the work as if it is a living thing, with its own requirements, and its own gifts.

Don’t write about magic, or technology, or political ideology, or the like, even if you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, or a thriller, or whatever. Instead, write about people – people who happen to live in a magical, or high-tech, or power-shifting world, as the case may be. Let these things stay mostly in the background, where they can serve the story about the people.

Decide early which characters are smarter than others, stronger than others, more dominant than others, and why. Decide who looks up to whom, and who looks down on whom, and why. Even a fairy tale is full of power relations.

And some of those power relations will not be obvious to the characters themselves.

And some of those power relations will change.

Be a serious student of human nature, even if there is no such thing.

A stumbling block in the plot, or a bout of writer’s block, is a sign that you should go back into an earlier point in the story, and change something.

Build a world that readers would want to explore. Make sure part of it is inviting enough that readers would want to live there. The world doesn’t have to be completely safe. It just has to be interesting.

Don’t write “strong female characters”. Instead, write female characters who are interesting. The so-called strong female character often ends up being nothing more than a woman who is good with a weapon and quick to anger. Such characters are ultimately uninteresting: they serve only to fill a kind of quota. Instead, be aware of your own background and experiences, and write about interesting people who have different backgrounds and experiences: different genders, different cultures, different ethnicities, different religions, than your own. But don’t make them different for the sake of being different: make them different for the sake of being interesting.

Characters are interesting because of the way they change over time. Write about how and why those characters change.

If you are depending on the character’s appearance to make him or her interesting, then you are not really writing; you are costume-designing. And there’s nothing wrong with costume designing; but don’t let it do all the work of character designing.

For that matter, make all your characters interesting. Even the villains. Especially the villains. Nothing is worse than a boring villain.

Write interesting heroes, too. Heroes who are unambiguously good are not truly interesting. Heroes who are conflicted, morally compromised, weak or foolish or afraid, or even sometimes un-heroic, are at least interesting. But if you write heroes who are in some way un-heroic, then be sure that they change in a way that redeems them.

Unless, of course, you are writing an anti-hero. But in that case, you still need something in the hero that the reader can see in herself. Heroes, even anti-heroes, must be identifiable; that is, the reader can identify with her. That, too, can make them interesting. Let the reader see herself in an amazing place, doing amazing things.

Characters have reasons for why they change. They might be simple reasons, silly reasons, illogical reasons, even selfish reasons that make your readers mad at them. But they have their reasons, nonetheless.

Those reasons have to make sense. Readers will accept a foolish reason or a complex reason, but they won’t accept an unintelligible reason.

That’s what a story is, after all. A story is a character who changes over time.

Write about characters who have problems. Sometimes the problem is the villain; sometimes it’s an event in the world; but sometimes the problem is something within the hero.

Problems have to be rational, too. They have to be the kind of problem that a reader could recognize in the real world. Even if it’s the kind of problem that could only exist in a science-fiction futuristic world, or a magical fantasy world. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to be not-stupid.

That, too, is part of what a story is. A story is a character with a problem.

Don’t include characters from marginalized cultural, gender, or ethnic backgrounds for the sake of filling some kind of quota. There is no quota. But do include characters from different backgrounds when doing so would make the story interesting. And be aware of the actual state of cultural diversity in the real world around you, and reflect it in what you write.

All characters have voices. Even the secondary and tertiary characters have voices. Make sure those voices are heard. Make sure they, too, are interesting. At the very least, give them names.

If there are political or moral statements to be made, let the characters make them, from their own perspectives. Don’t put it in the narration. Don’t turn the whole story into a polemic.

But do decide early how much the narrator will know. The reader will see only what the narrator reveals. So decide whether the narrator is omniscient or not, and decide what will happen “off stage”. Whether you write in first person or third person, decide whose point of view will be featured, and whose thoughts the reader will hear.

Every character wants something. And every character needs to deal with other characters to get it. The different ways characters deal with each other to get what they need – whether it’s cooperation, or aggression, or trade, or threats, or seduction, or whatever – is part of what makes them interesting.

Every chapter must end on one of the following notes: an advancement of the plot, an important revelation about a character’s life, a moment of peace and beauty, a decent cliffhanger.

Keep the expositions short; and when they are done, up the drama.

Let your most important phrases, proverbs, and statements appear in a character’s dialogue, and not in the narration.

Do not, do not, and I repeat DO NOT end the story using deus ex machina.

Let nothing get in the way of your writing time. Not even your best friends. Turn off your phone and internet while you’re writing. Let friends and loved ones know you will be unreachable for a certain length of time. Be willing to decline invitations to parties or dates in order to make time to write. Writing is an inherently lonely activity. (It’s reading, not writing, which is social.) If possible, write in a place where you can be fully alone. For my part, I find it almost impossible to write with anybody nearby, even if they’re in another room and behind a closed door.

While writing, don’t play music with lyrics. You need the part of your brain that processes language to write your book. If you must have background music, choose instrumental music, or music in a language you don’t understand. I usually write with classical music in the background, or with silence.

Know who you are writing for. And “writing for yourself” isn’t enough. Have some person or group of people in mind. Use the work as a way of telling that person you love her.

But don’t assume they will read it. In fact, assume they won’t read it. That way you won’t worry about pissing them off. So, write as if you are speaking to a particular person or a particular audience that you want to reach but probably never will.

If that last “rule” seems absurd, that’s okay. Trust me when I tell you, it works.

Once in a while, write during the wee early hours of the morning, after having had just-slightly-but-not-quite-almost-too-much-to-drink. And if what you’ve written still makes sense the following morning, then keep it. If it doesn’t, cut it out.

Don’t be afraid to make cuts. Not all your work will be genius. A lot of it will suck. Just accept that a lot of the time, your work will suck, and You will suck. Except when you don’t suck. So mercilessly cut out the parts that suck. Save them elsewhere if you think you might be nostalgic about them. It might be the case that a piece of writing sucks only because it’s in the wrong place. The right place for it may present itself later.

Avoid encouragement-memes. Avoid “tips for writing” articles that offer no more than cheerleading and self-esteem-building. You should be strong willed enough to motivate yourself without it. And that kind of help often makes people feel worse, not better, about their work. That said, it’s okay to seek help and advice from others. You should seek that kind of help often. But look for specific practical help, not amorphous pop-psychology.

Trust the intelligence of your readers. Write as if they are at least as smart as you are, and probably smarter. If you use a cheap trope in your story, assume your readers will see through it and that they will be pissed off. Don’t play to the lowest common demonator. No, I did not mean to say ‘denominator’.

Write to address yourself to something happening in the real world that you want to change. All good writing is activist writing. It wants to think about things in new ways. It wants to show us something that we might have never seen before, or that we might not want to see. Good writing wants us to do something or try something we might not have done, or tried. Write something which speaks to a real debate, a real controversy, a real injustice, a real problem, in the real world.

Write as if what you’re writing doesn’t matter at all – but if you don’t write it, you will die.

Following these rules won’t make your book awesome, not on their own. You may be an awesome writer, but you still need an editor.

And pursuant to the last point: want to help me hire one? Click here to support my Kickstarter campaign! There’s some great exclusive rewards, including audiobooks, and a never-before-seen novella. And please spread the word, too!

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Whatever happened to the pagan community statement on religious sexual abuse?

With yesterday’s revelation that the well-known pagan musician and author Kenny Klein had confessed to possessing child pornography, a criminal offence, there’s been a little bit of renewed interest in the “Community Statement on Religious Sexual Abuse” which I helped to write, back in back in 2009.

I’d like to say a few words about what happened to it.

The version of the piece which appears on my web site (here) is the most up-to-date version that there is. No further work was done on it since that time, because most of the various contributors and critics had lost the will to continue with it. There was a lot of disagreement, often angry disagreement, about whether the statement went too far, or didn’t go far enough, and so on. I’ve included below a list of the common criticisms, as I saw them on Jason Pitzl-Waters’ blog, and on my own website forum (which I’ve since taken down, to stop the spambots from filling it with 419 scams). But there’s one group of criticisms that I’d like to draw special attention to.

There were a lot of angry voices who continued to demand the right to perform sexual acts as part of initiation ceremonies, even when the inductee would not be warned in advance about the nature of the ceremony, and even when the inductee was legally a minor. The most common argument in favour of that position was an appeal to tradition; which is normally a fallacy of logic. Some said that initiatory surprise was an important part of the drama and the power of the ritual, and that therefore initiatory surprise had to be preserved, even when it involved a sexual act. Some also justified it by saying that if they were disallowed from performing such a ritual, that would be an unjust limitation upon their personal freedom. Some people even went so far as to claim that the utterance of any moral statement, or even ordinary moral indicator-words like “should”, constitutes oppression on someone, somewhere, somehow. Even when the “should” was a condemnation of sexual abuse. Some voices really were that absolute with their rejection of all ethical propositions.

Frankly, I think a lot of these arguments are nothing more than a kind of cover-up or a justification for a situation that can be far too easily twisted into a criminal act. I think that no tradition, however old, can be ethically acceptable if it permits such surprises on its initiates, or keeps secrets from them about whether they would have to undergo a sexual act in their initiation. And I think that if someone seriously and truly believes that he can harm others and ignore their feelings and rights, all in the name of his personal freedom, well then he has simply not learned the first thing about ethics.

But when I raised these objections, my voice was drowned in all the shouting about the importance of initiatory surprise and craft secrecy. And I eventually gave up trying. There’s no sense in debating someone who only wants to shout about how right he is and how oppressed he feels when someone raises a criticism. It’s worth noting that I wasn’t always the most polite debater around the table. I apologized for it back then; I do so again now. But nonetheless, the strong resistance against the statement, in the name of tradition and freedom, left me feeling disenchanted with the pagan community. For a long time I doubted whether I should remain part of it.

But I still think the statement is important. I’d like to see it spread around, talked about, argued about, modified by different groups to suit their specific needs and priorities, and incorporated into the policies of any pagan organization which offers teaching, or public services, or which collects money from members.

(To save space on my blog, I have moved the record of the criticisms of the statement here.)

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A Straight White Male Writer Grapples With His Privilege

There are a lot of fantasy and sci-fi writers in my FB and Twitter feeds. And a lot of those writers are feminists, of one degree or another. So, I’ve been seeing a lot of discussion about white male privilege in popular fantasy and sci-fi television, film, video games, and literature.

This discussion of privilege appears in, for example, statistical surveys and professional research which proves that the overwhelming majority of stories in mass media feature a straight white male protagonist. Or, the discussion might be about the prevalence of the ‘damsel in distress’ trope, or the way the male hero always gets a girl in the end. This sends a politically charged message to readers about role models, about which race or gender has the potential for greatness, which race or gender is always the villain or the sidekick, and so on. Or, the discussion might be about the way the overwhelming majority of celebrated writers in the genre are straight white men.

The call goes out: to redress this inequality, we should write stories with heroes who come from different backgrounds and identities. And we should seek the stories written by people who come from all those different backgrounds and identities.

Now, at the same time, one of the most common pieces of advice that new or aspiring writers may hear, is the advice to write what you know, and write what you love. You’ll write a better story if it’s set in your own world, whether that’s the world you see around you or the one that you imagine. And you’ll write a better story if you write about worlds, problems, and ideas that you care about. Prima facia, this is unobjectionable, even valuable advice.

Now, let’s build an argument.

  • Proposition 1: we should create more stories with greater diversity of characters’ identities.
  • Proposition 2: we should write what we know and love.
  • Proposition 3: I, as a writer, am a white, able-bodied, heterosexual man, one might say a privileged man, whose experiences are already prominent in the mass media.
  • .

    I could conclude, from propositions 2 and 3, that the experience of the white straight able-bodied man is the kind of experience I should write about.

    But I could also conclude, from propositions 1 and 3, that I should write about different experiences, not just my own.

    Which conclusion is better?

    One possible answer: the second conclusion is better, for reasons like these. We shouldn’t prefer the book about the straight white man, just because it’s about the straight white man. That story isn’t necessarily any better or worse than another, for that reason alone. In the same way, we shouldn’t prefer the book about the gay aboriginal woman, for instance, just because she’s a gay aboriginal woman. Her story may or may not be any better than anyone else’s, for that reason alone. (Thus we avoid the genetic fallacy.) But the straight white male character gets more attention, for reasons that have nothing to do with the artistic qualities or flaws of the story. So, we should write stories with greater variety among the characters, in order to give everybody’s story a fair chance.

    But we could also prefer the first conclusion, for reasons like these. If a privileged writer (like me) writes about characters from marginalized identities, he’s almost certain to get those characters wrong. He doesn’t know much about what their lives are like, and he won’t know how to speak with their voices. Carried further, it might be said that he should not even try to speak with their voices: to do so would risk the problem of colonialism. For the sake of this discussion, let’s define colonialism as the harm that arises when members of a dominant culture discourage or prevent members of a marginalized culture from defining themselves. Imagine a white man telling a black woman how to look and speak and behave as a black woman ‘should’. You see the inherent absurdity of the situation. Carried far enough, it’s not just patronizing: it’s oppression. A privileged writer risks colonialism when he writes about marginalized characters. So he shouldn’t do it.

    We might dismiss both conclusions by claiming that an artist should be allowed to write about whatever the hell she wants, and that if readers don’t like it then they don’t have to read it. These two statements are irrefutable, but they do not dismiss the problem, because they still presuppose the same power relations. Something is said, something else is not said, someone is speaking, someone is prevented from speaking, someone is spoken to, and someone is spoken about. And so a reality is configured. And we still have to ask: who is configuring that reality, and what reality is configured?

    I do not know what the answer is. That’s part of why I wrote this article: I’m asking you to help me find the answer.

    Here’s a brief survey about how I’ve handled this problem in my own fiction, so far. (Warning: Spoilers.)

    The first novel in the series, “Fellwater”, was written in 2006. At the time, my purpose in writing the story was to pursue a kind of catharsis following an event in my personal life. And I wanted to create a story that reflected my feelings and my world at the time. (That’s why the lead male hero, Eric Laflamme, looks like me.) So I wasn’t thinking about the quasi-political implications of my artistic choices. Consequently, all the characters are caucasians. And the story fails the Bechdel test. But the male hero does not get the girl in the end. He achieves a victory, but it’s a pyrrhic victory which emotionally scars the “strong” female at his side, so she leaves him. That ending, while unhappy, seemed to me more true to life; certainly, at the time it seemed more true to my life.

    The second novel, “Hallowstone”, introduced the first non-white major character: a woman named Ildicoe Brigand, who is of mixed racial heritage. She would appear to be the female prize for the male character when he achieves his victory. But the male character is emotionally scarred from the events of the previous novel, and he doesn’t grow a spine until near the end of the story. Even then, it’s she who must come to his rescue. And although they share a kiss, she immediately leaves him again. She has unfinished business of her own, which the reader learns about in the third novel. And while writing Hallowstone, I learned about the Bechdel test, and I made sure the story passes it.

    And in that third novel, “Clan Fianna”, the leading male character of the first two stories becomes a member of an ensemble cast, and is no longer a singular hero. We also see more ethnic diversity: we meet a Hindi family, and a group of West African muslims. These are secondary characters: not because they don’t deserve to be primary characters, but because the primary characters were established in the previous novels. But I can always write another story which features them in more prominent roles, and in the future I plan to do so. The world of The Fellwater Tales will not be the only world I will write about.

    Finally, the lead hero of the spinoff novella, “Jillian Brighton”, is a thirteen year old girl. (Writing not only from a female perspective, but also a child’s perspective, was particularly challenging for me. But also personally rewarding, too.) And I’m almost finished another spinoff story in which the main heroes are the same West African muslims who we met in Clan Fianna.

    Through my two decades of participation in the pagan community, and through my years as a college prof, I’ve come to know, and often to love, people of many different ethnicities, backgrounds, genders (it appears that there’s more than two), sexual orientations, political views, and so on. When I write characters who are not straight white able-bodied lower-middle-class men, I think of the people I’ve known over the years who are like the characters I’m writing about, and try to imagine what life is like from their point of view. And I sometimes write to them, and ask them how they would view or respond to certain situations. This is part of the research writers should undertake, when they write about characters vastly different from themselves.

    I will never know an experience of life other than my own. That is the nature of the immensity of loneliness. I suppose it’s possible that someone reading this will point out another invisible privilege I possess which I’m taking advantage of here. But I can make a serious effort to understand and empathize with the life-experiences of people who are unlike myself – not only for the sake of writing better fiction, but also for the sake of becoming a better human being. Reading and writing good fiction about characters different from oneself may be an excellent instrument for this moral project.

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    The Fellwater Tales RPG – the new plan

    In the fall of last year I ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to produce an urban fantasy RPG based on my fiction series. Financially speaking, the campaign failed. But here’s a little update on how I’m planning to re-start the project.

    At the moment I have two “lesser” creative projects in progress. There’s “Fellwater Four”, the working title of the fourth book in my fiction series. This will be a collection of short stories and novellas set in the world of the Fellwater Tales. In relation to this project, I have an artist making portraits of the main characters, which will soon appear on my web site. Fellwater Four will be finished in the summer, or maybe later, but the web site will be ready sooner, of course.

    A second creative project is another tabletop strategy game: tentatively called “Merchant Age: Business Is War“. That’s the game referred to in a previous blog post (here). Like my previous game, Iron Age, this began as an exercise in my classroom, this time in a course in business ethics. I now have another artist on board to do the interior illustrations. This will be finished in around 8 to 10 weeks.

    The point of these two projects is not only to create a few books. It’s also to demonstrate what kind of stuff I can write, what kind of world I can build, and what kind of team I can assemble to make it look great.

    Then, later in the spring or early summer, we’ll have a great team, and a great portfolio of art and other material, which we can use to help re-Kickstart the RPG.

    I’m not asking anyone to do anything about any of this just now. I’m just giving you a kind of “heads up”, a chance to let me know if you’re still interested, and a few months to think about it.

    After the campaign, assuming it is successful, I’ll be able to bring on board one or two more artists, a layout designer, an editor, and anyone else who we’ll need and which the budget will allow.

    One last thing: if you haven’t done so already, please join my mailing list. This is the best way to get progress reports about what I’m up to. :-)

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    The Sacred Lives In The Hearing

    While researching a question about human nature and metaphysics (you know, as a young man about town is apt to do on a Saturday night), I began to wonder where the sacred lives.

    I define the sacred as “that which acts as your partner in the search for the highest and deepest things: the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful.” (Circles of Meaning, pg. 27). And when I began to wonder where the sacred ‘lives’, I mean, which of our ways of being in the world is the “home” of the sacred?

    This is not as weird a question as it sounds. Or as it feels. Or as it looks. Or ‘smells’. I shall explain; although my thoughts here are still very preliminary.

    The question occurred to me when I was reading the Upanisads, and I noticed that the names of the gods ended in vowels or soft consonants. And I began to wonder if this was a constant in other bodies of mythology in other languages, too. So I took up my copy of Alexander Murray’s “Who’s Who In Mythology”, which is a handy reference because it lists the gods of Greece, Germanic Europe, India, and Egypt, and prints their names in bold so they’re easy to find. Then I just counted the names of the gods whenever they appeared on the page, and counted how many ended in vowels or soft consonants, and how many ended in hard consonants.

    The discovery: almost all the names of the gods end in vowels and soft consonants. Only one that I found ended in a hard consonant, and that was the Scandanavian goddess Frigg.

    This observation might appear quite trivial. And admittedly, I flipped through my book here for only twenty minutes so I might have missed something. But to me it seemed very significant. Because vowels and soft consonants are easier to sing. You can draw out the length of the note, you can raise or lower the pitch without entering a new syllable, and you can harmonize with other similar sounds. Hard consonants are like staccato beats: you can use them to establish a rhythm. They are the drumbeats of spoken words. But you can’t draw them out over time or pitch. Try singing a word that ends in a hard consonant. It ends abruptly, immediately, deliberately. Now try singing a word that ends in a vowel. The word ends when you are ready; you can hold the note for as long as you still have breath; you can let the note trail away in its own good time; it ends easily and gently, when you are done with it. Hard consonants end when they are done with you.

    Listen to these exemplary pieces of vocal music: Adiemus by Karl Jenkins, and The Host of the Seraphim by Dead Can Dance, and Sæglópur by Sigur Ros. All of these pieces are sung in nonsense phonemes: there are no real words spoken here. They all, in various ways, share with each other the ability to invoke a hard-to-define experience of the sacred: a kind of longing, wishing, loving, despairing, and invoking quality. And the sounds are almost all vowels! (While I’m at it, listen to Meo Blodnasir by Sigur Ros, which creates this feeling using only one phoneme, the long-O sound.)

    By contrast, listen to the kind of words we use (in English, anyway) to curse and to insult each other: they are quick, staccato words, often of one syllable, and usually ending in hard phonemes: words like shit, fuck, piss, fart, damn, drat, jerk, asshole, dickhead, knave, cur, villain, wicked, witch (sorry), wastrel, bitch, bastard. With their hard phonemes, these are words to be shouted, spat, and flung like weapons. Hard sounds are not the sounds we use to address friends and loved ones. They are the sounds we use to despise and to hate.

    It’s in long sounds and soft sounds that we laugh, we cry, we hope, we plead, we greet our friends, we show love, we say goodbye, we grieve the dead, and we sing. So it is perhaps natural and right that it’s with long sounds and soft sounds that we address the gods by name.

    And in English anyway, if not in other languages, the basic words which separate the world-of-things from the world-of-beings also follow this pattern: they are the words “it” and “you”. The word “it”, ending in a hard consonant, is used to speak of objects and things we might use and own and discard; the word “you”, ending in a long vowel, is used to speak to a being who can respond in kind, a being with whom we might have a human relationship. Again, it’s in the long and soft sounds, the sounds that can make music, which we use to invite the relationship.

    One might say that the sacred dwells in all our senses: the sight (as when we make paintings, mandalas, symbols, and diagrams); the scent and the taste (as when we make offerings or share sacraments); the touch (as when we dance); the mind (as when we read and write). And I am sure this is true. But I’m beginning to think that sound has a certain special privilege here. It’s possible that the sacred in exemplary images like this portrait of the Buddha, this mandala of Kali or this image of The Great Queen, would be lost on those who don’t know the language of visual symbols presupposed here. But no one, or almost no one, could mistake the overwhelming spiritual power of a piece of “secular” music like Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – especially when the choir sings “For God!” three times, loud enough for God to hear. (It’s at 3:18, in case you don’t want to wait.)

    Sound lives in its own moment in time; one has to be there to hear it. Sound penetrates surfaces in a way that light does not: think of how we rap upon walls to find where the beams are, or how we use ultrasonic devices to find underground bedrock, or to “look” at the silhouette of an unborn child in her mother’s womb. Sound has a physical presence, as well as a sensory presence: sound can create vibrations, and those vibrations can resonate with harmony or with dissonance. A loud noise is something you can physically feel. And sound can translate into light, as when we reveal the frequency of sound waves in a visual pattern.

    My preliminary conclusion: the sacred lives in the hearing. The names of the gods are to be spoken aloud, sung aloud, to come alive in your relationship.

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    JK Rowling does care about writing, and that’s why she should keep doing it.

    In the last day or so, I’ve been seeing a lot of this op/ed piece on The Huffington Post: If JK Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It, by Lynn Shepherd.

    A brief summary of Shepherd’s thesis might go like this: the publicity machine that supports big-name writers makes it harder for small time, independent writers to get the word out about their own books.

    Here’s a noteworthy quote:

    It wasn’t just that the hype was drearily excessive, or that (by all accounts) the novel [The Casual Vacancy] was no masterpiece and yet sold by the hundredweight, it was the way it crowded out everything else, however good, however worthwhile. That book sucked the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere. And I chose that analogy quite deliberately, because I think that sort of monopoly can make it next to impossible for anything else to survive, let alone thrive. Publishing a book is hard enough at the best of times, especially in an industry already far too fixated with Big Names and Sure Things, but what can an ordinary author do, up against such a Golgomath?

    Well, the first thing that an ordinary writer can do is suck it up, and accept that the publishing industry is not, has never been, and probably will never be, a level playing field. The market is cutthroat, unforgiving, and very crowded, and probably always has been and always will be. And that is part of what you sign up for as a writer. And yes, it’s unfair. It’s unfair in deeper ways that Shepherd didn’t address: for instance, it’s unfair that white male writers get more attention than almost everybody else, for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their work, good or bad. (This is why JK Rowling used her initials, instead of her full name, when she published her first Harry Potter book.) And yes, there probably should be an easier way for indie writers, and for that matter all marginalized writers, to get the word about about their books to large audiences. But I think this is not a good reason to punish or complain about writers who are successful. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that JK Rowling was a single mom living in a council flat, receiving social assistance, and papering her walls with her rejection letters.

    To counter the unfairness in the market that Shepherd is addressing, it might be better to address the books themselves, for instance by writing negative reviews of bad books and positive reviews of good books. That might help direct the attention of readers toward better books, whether those books are popular or not, which is the whole point of the exercise. Readers are part of the marketing team and writers have to persuade them to help promote their books. Asking a successful writer to stop writing seems to me unhelpful.

    This leads me to the second thing a writer can do, which is write her book anyway, and worry about the publicity later. As I have said before, writers should write because they care about writing, and because they care about what they’re writing about, and because they care about artistic and intellectual excellence more than they care about material success.

    As an indie writer myself, and thus the sort of person who “should” agree with Shepherd, I find her argument a little silly. If my book sucks, then getting rid of JK Rowling won’t make my book better. And if my book is awesome, then getting rid of JK Rowling won’t (by itself) put my book on the NYT Bestseller List.

    I have this dream in which my books become hugely successful because of their quality alone. But this is, after all, only a dream. For one thing, my books might suck and I might not know it. And moreover, there is simply no correlation between the success of any given book, and its quality, or how much publicity it receives, or how crowded or not crowded the market it.

    Sure, I’d like to be as famous and successful as JK Rowling. But there is no way to predict or ensure that will happen. And at any rate, that kind of success has almost nothing to do with the quality of a writer’s work, good or bad — a point that Shepherd might find agreeable. What I can do right now, as a not-very-famous indie writer, is write the best book that I can write, and then write another one, and another one, and another one, for as long as I can. And yes, I’ll also do as much promotional work as is in my power to do. But the writing always comes first. In fact the writing comes before everything. And if I become JK Rowling, the writing will still come first.

    I think Rowling is a great writer, and I’m glad she has done so well. I read all the Harry Potter books as an adult, and I found many of them intriguingly philosophical. I actually liked The Casual Vacancy (though I admit haven’t finished it yet). And sure, her success might make it harder for writers like me to reach the same level of success. But that has nothing to do with her personally, and it’s certainly not a reason to tell her to stop writing. In fact, I’m going to write my next book while imagining that she will read it. It’s likely that she never will. But it’s sure to make me want to write something better than I’ve done before. And that, my friends, can be its own reward.

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    National Women’s Sports Day, February 20th.

    This afternoon, I wrote the following letter to six of my Members of Parliament:


    Good day,

    My name is Dr. Brendan Myers. I am a professor of Philosophy at CEGEP Heritage College, in Gatineau, Quebec. I am also the author of 14 books, mostly in nonfiction.

    Yesterday, Canada celebrated as our national women’s hockey team, and our national women’s curling team, won gold medals at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Our hockey team has now won Olympic gold four times in a row. And at the time I write this letter, more of Canada’s gold medals at the Games in Sochi have been won by women, or women’s teams, than have been won by men.

    I believe that the occasion should be marked by declaring that the 20th of February, the day of our Olympic victories in women’s hockey and curling, should be officially declared National Women’s Sports Day.

    Here are some reasons why I think this declaration should be made.

    Men’s sports already receive an overwhelmingly large share of money, resources, media attention, and prestige in Canadian society. Events like the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Grey Cup Game, are effectively unofficial “Men’s Sports Days”. The same can be said of high profile sporting events in other nations which Canadians enjoy watching: the MLB World Series, the Super Bowl, the Premiership and Champion’s League, the FIFA World Cup. At these events, there are no women on the field, except sometimes as cheerleaders. These occasions are, admittedly, not statutory government-declared holidays. But they are celebrations of men’s athletics nonetheless. There is no equivalent celebration for women’s athletics; not with the same level of prestige, media attention, and economic expenditure. My proposal is a small attempt to help redress this strong inequality.

    Another argument might go like this. A National Women’s Sports Day might be a good way to promote Canadian athletes like Hayley Wickenheiser as positive role models for girls and young women. Some of the best known role models for girls and young women are fashion models with unhealthy physiques, and pop stars with dysfunctional lifestyles. A National Women’s Sports Day might be a good way to draw more public attention to better role models: our nation’s highest-performing athletes. The day can also be integrated into existing efforts to promote public health, such as ParticipAction.

    No intelligent person would deny the importance of promoting women’s sports. But some intelligent people might deny the need for a government-declared special day for women’s sports. A critic might claim that it’s unfair because there is no equivalent National Men’s Sports Day (although there are several unofficial days, as noted above). Or, a critic might claim that a National Women’s Sports Day is patronizing to women. These arguments, however, could be used against Gay Pride Day, or Black History Month, or National Aboriginal Day, or any other government-endorsed occasion which both celebrates, and also draws attention to the injustice of ignoring, the accomplishments of people in traditionally marginalized groups. (Remember, “Women” are one of the four groups which are recognized in government hiring practices for employment equity and statistical purposes, and this does not discriminate against qualified men.) Finally, a critic might claim that support for women’s sports should grow more naturally and organically, as a movement in culture which the government should neither encourage nor obstruct. In reply, we might look again at comparable events for other traditionally marginalized groups, which governments at various levels (municipal, provincial, federal) do support in various ways, even if only with lip service. Rainbow flags on public buildings are examples of this. We can also reply: a group of people in a democracy, demanding that the government should do or not do something, is exactly what a natural and organic change in a culture looks like.

    Finally, let it be added that the declaration of a National Women’s Sports Day would cost the government very little, perhaps almost nothing, in terms of money, staff time, or other resources. Once it is established and publicised, then the Canadian people can do with it what they will. I have confidence they will use it to do great things.

    I hope this letter finds you in good health and good cheer, and I look forward to your response.

    Brendan Myers

    Nycole Turmel, MP for Hull-Aylmer (my current residence)
    Michael Chong, MP for Wellington-Halton Hills (my hometown)
    Stephen Harper, MP for Calgary West, Leader of the CPC, and Prime Minister of Canada
    Thomas Mulcair, MP for Outremont, Leader of the NDP, and Official Opposition Leader
    Justin Trudeau, MP for Papineau, Leader of the LPC
    Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, Leader of the Green Party.


    Please feel free to copy the text of this email and send it to your own MP. Let’s make this happen!

    Also, please click here to “like” National Women’s Sports Day on Facebook.

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    How I Teach Philosophy Using Games

    There are lots of ways in which the success of education cannot, and should not, be measured in a student’s final grade. But for various reasons, schools and colleges and the political establishments that fund them want to see a definite mathematically-quantifiable result, at the end of every course. There are only so many ways to do this: tests, quizzes, essays, and the like. And a lot of students feel alienated or even hurt by these methods: they might encourage rote-memorization instead of comprehension, or they might reward conformity instead of autonomous critical reasoning. So I have been working on ways to make my evaluations more interesting, useful, and fun for students, while at the same time satisfying the institutional requirements for a quantifiable grade at the end of the day. And one of the ways I do this is by playing games. Here’s an example.

    This term, I am teaching business ethics; I have two sections of the class, with around 65 students in total. Last week, I presented them with a market capitalism simulation game that I invented. In brief, the game works like this. The students form five teams. Each team is a “company” that makes a certain product, and their productivity is determined by dice throws. Each team needs the products made by the other teams to assemble a complete finished product, which is then “sold” to me. I play the role of the end-product consumer, and I set my level of consumer demand with a dice throw. Thus players have to negotiate and trade with other teams: this much represents the co-operative aspect of capitalism, the relationship between a manufacturing company and its various suppliers. But I’ve also stipulated that whichever team makes the most money by the end of the two hours “wins” (and I toss in a small incentive for winning). So there is also a competitive aspect.

    This isn’t a perfect simulation of capitalism. But that’s okay because it’s not supposed to be. The game isn’t really about capitalism. It’s about ethics: specifically, it’s about trust, fair play, and co-operation, and also cheating, fraud, and deception. What the students don’t know, because I don’t tell them until after the fourth of fifth round, is that I’ve been keeping a record of every team’s original productivity. Four or five rounds into the game, I audit their balance books. The last time I ran this game in class, I discovered that there were more “units” of three (out of five) commodities in circulation than there should have been, compared to my record. A fourth team’s productivity was fully accounted for, and a fifth team saw some of its productivity disappear, probably due to an accounting error. It’s also possible that the excess productivity appeared through an accounting error, but since that kind of error benefits the team that it affects, it’s more likely that someone somewhere exploited another player’s trust for private gain – possibly without the other team-mates knowledge. Certainly, that’s what it would look like to other players. At this point, I announce that as the end consumer, I have read the auditor’s report and I decide that whether the discrepancy is from errors or from fraud, nonetheless I have lost consumer confidence, and I reduce my rate of demand. Everyone is affected. Just as happens in real life.

    Now there are two ways a teacher could use a game like this as an evaluation tool. One is by giving points to students who win. I don’t like doing this most of the time, because students who “lose” may still be learning something, and their learning experience has to be acknowledged and rewarded somehow. What I have been doing lately is this: we play the game in class, and then students write a report about what happened when they played it. What strategies for winning were successful? How did players negotiate with their team-mates for a strategy they wanted to try, and how did they negotiate with players on rival teams? Was any cheating detected, and how did it affect the negotiations, and the results? Could any of the moral and/or economic theories discussed in previous lectures explain what happened?

    My pedagogical games are not always successful. I sometimes wrestle with student apathy and deliberate resistance: some students who don’t see the point of the game (or who are on the cusp of losing) would rather disrupt the game for everyone, rather than take the time to think it through. But most of the time, using games as evaluation tools is very successful. There is laughter, and imagination, and experimentation. People sometimes thank me on their way out of the room at the end of a session. Think about this: no normal student enjoys a test, and thanks the prof for it. But when I turn the evaluation into a game, they sometimes do. My college is very open minded to experimental evaluation methods: we recently built an extension on our building to house a special “Active Learning” classroom.

    Games are good for us. Games help us develop all kinds of skills, from hand-eye coordination to strategic planning. They help us build empathy with team-mates, and they can encourage the kind of competition that leads to excellence. Games can even be used to explain social justice issues, or to assist people recovering from illnesses. (I tip my hat to developers like Jane McGonigal and Brenda Brathwaite here.) And, of course, games are fun! In fact, one of my other pedagogical games, a game designed to simulate party-political competition, proved so popular with my students that they encouraged me to publish it. And that seems like success to me.

    Please contact me privately if you are interested in a complete description of the rules of the game described in this blog post.

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    Bren Fair 2014

    When my father turned 40 years old, I was 11. I remember the occasion quite vividly. We prepared a secret birthday party for him: we rented the local school gymnasium, invited about a hundred friends of his including some he had not seen since high school, hired a caterer and a DJ, and I gave my very first public speech before an audience of strangers. I told the story of the funny things he used to do to trick-or-treaters at Halowe’en. After the speeches, there was a dance, and a DJ. I didn’t want to dance, and there was no one I wanted to dance with anyway, so I danced with a balloon.

    This year, on July 4th, it’s my ‘turn’ to turn 40. It feels like a milestone of a sort. A number of my friends had special events for their 40th, and a few friends of mine have already said that I should do something special for mine. Normally I celebrate my birthday by inviting a few people to join me in a local pub. Nothing bigger than that. But this time, I think I’d like to do something special.

    I’d like to rent a hall somewhere. Ideally, I would rent the fireplace lounge in the Elora Mill Inn, but I think it might not be finished renovations by then. Alternatively I might rent a special-events room in a pub or small hotel; I might even host it at my parent’s house in Elora, which is certainly big enough, and we’ve had big parties and house concerts there in the past. I’d also like to book a band, and I’ve already spoken to Heather & Ben about it, and I want Frosty to perform too. And I’d like there to be a big feast, maybe with someone’s home-made beer and wine. I’ve already set aside a few thousand dollars for the purpose – money I probably should be saving for home-ownership or for retirement, but what the hell.

    I’d love it if some of my far-flung friends from Ireland, UK, America, and distant Canadian provinces east and west, could attend. People often travel that far to attend weddings; my birthday is of course not a wedding, but a 40th birthday seems to me like an equally significant milestone. So, this is why I’m sending out this “invitation” of sorts six months in advance.

    Details will be posted to my FB and Twitter as they are determined. But in the meanwhile I am open to suggestions about venues in southwestern Ontario (because that’s where I grew up, and where the majority of my friends and family still live), and catering, and entertainment. And, of course, let me know if you would like to attend!

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