Friday, March 31, 2023

What I'm Learning

 I was referred to a biofeedback specialist who is training me to state shift. Shifting from fight or flight states to relaxed but alert states. NSDR / Yoga Nidra are the method by which that shift happens. The video is a 10 minute NSDR session designed to shift you out of your head and into your body for a little while. You reset your nervous system, restore energy, and heighten focus. If you suffer chronic pain, this is also a balm that might not cure all the discomfort, but which will certainly lower the volume a little.

 Yoga Nidra is another version of NSDR (so is self hypnosis). If you need a longer break or a longer session to help draw down pain or high stress, you can find sessions as long or as short as you like. I like Ally Boothroyd's ad-free channel.She offers an array of yoga nidra sessions.

Biofeedback is teaching me that all this time, I've been doing life wrong. Turns out you're supposed to rest. The modern worship of business and SO MUCH WORK TO DO is actively bad for our health and in my case, is likely a major contributor to chronic pain conditions. The hardest homework I have from biofeedback is learning that I need to structure my day around rest and that my productivity increases when I do. I hope this is useful to someone besides me - because honestly - establishing this new routine is at that all-consuming stage. I think I'll go listen to one right now.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Sisyphus and the 2nd Arc

 This Week's Topic: On My Mind

On my mind this week is when to surrender to a WiP that just won't come together. Regular readers of this blog know I'm a skeleton plotter: Two or three bullet points per arc, per chapter to ensure I have a cohesive plot from beginning to end. 

What is currently plaguing me is that I have the 1st, 3rd, and 4th arcs mapped. I'm dying in the 2nd arc and have been for [mumble, mumble] far too long. The problem, of course, is if I don't have-- what I affectionately call-- "the arc of failures" mapped I can't claim to have the beginning or the end truly set either. Because the problems the characters face can change who is involved and how the ultimate goals are achieved, I have introduced a villain's pov, removed the villain's pov, added allies, removed allies, shifted the setting from mountains to a river valley, revamped the rules of magic more times than I have fingers and toes, and, well...

 [huff, huff]
[tantrum flails]
[frisbees notebooks, note cards, and laptooo--No, no, not the tech!]

I know full well I've wasted too much time trying to resolve this problem, which harkens to the classic decision point of knowing when to cut losses versus clinging with desperation determination to overcome the obstacle to savor the sweet, sweet joy of triumph. 

Dear readers, I am weak. I cannot quit this torment. Day after day I try coming at the problem from a different angle, a different POV, a different age, a different conflict, and yet... I am Sysiphus this second arc is my stone. 

[picks up notebook, starts writing in pen pencil with big eraser]

Saturday, March 25, 2023

The (Real) Rise of Skywalker


Be forewarned — spoilers ahead.

First, let me preface this with one thing: I absolutely hate stories where the villain redeems themself through death.

I loathe it. It’s the easy road. It’s a cheap way to tie up loose ends without actually putting in effort.

And I despise Disney for doing it to Ben when they could’ve done SO. MUCH. MORE. with his character.

So today, I’m going to share what I would’ve done with Ben’s character post The Rise of Skywalker…

Ben (as Kylo Ren) did a lot of things that most people would consider irredeemable throughout the trilogy. To name a few: he merc’d his dad (Han Solo), he ordered the slaughter on the village of Jakku, he destroyed the Hosnian System, and, at times, he was an entitled little shit.

But before he was Kylo Ren, he was a child who was manipulated to the dark side by someone literally inside his head. He needed help and the people he trusted most (his parents and his uncle) abandoned him to the voice, to the dark side.

It really was quite tragic.

So what would I have done with him?

I would’ve had him fighting side-by-side with Rey so death wasn’t an option. They would’ve defeated Emperor Palpatine together along with the help of some Force ghosts (and maybe Anakin’s ghost would tell Ben he’s so proud of him for overcoming the dark side, and we’d all cry…), and once Palpatine was toast, Ben and Rey would’ve kissed and laughed and realized that keeping hope alive in other people is a very real thing that has magnificent outcomes.

Afterward, Ben would’ve become the notion behind the film’s title by doing everything he could to right the wrongs he committed (while going to therapy). He would move to Ach-To (where the Jedi Order was founded), and he would train the next group of Jedi. He would give back endlessly/tirelessly until he earned the trust of those around him and he would’ve stood on the right side of history in the next inevitable battle against the dark side. And during that battle? Ben would wield Anakin’s lightsaber (not Rey) and all would be right in the galaxy.

Can you tell I’ve thought a lot about this? Haha.

In my debut, A Realm of Ash and Shadow, there is a character who shares traits with Anakin/Ben Solo. He’s messy and could really benefit from a really tight hug and years of therapy. But I wouldn’t dream of killing him off to right the wrongs he’s committed. Instead, he is working every day to be better, to do good, and to atone for what he’s done. And dare I say, he actually apologizes.

A non-death redemption arc for Ben Solo would break the cyclic notion that in order to be forgiven for all the wrongs that a character had committed, they’d have to die. But stories shouldn’t be that black and white. They are shades of grey. By giving Ben Solo an actual redemption arc, writers would instill hope that people can change, they can do better.

So what do you think about my redemption arc for Ben Solo? Would you have preferred if he lived and trained a new school of Jedi? If he made amends without dying? Let me know in the comments or over on Instagram @laraonfire!

And if you’re looking for any ideas on what makes a good villain, Alexia has you covered in this blog HERE.

PHOTO CREDITS: All images are from Google Images.

Lara Buckheit is the author of A Realm of Ash and Shadow: She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Communications from Wilmington University, is a 2021 WriteMentor Mentee, an avid writer (and reader) of spice, and one time she met Taylor Swift's dad. She started writing at a very young age, mostly fanfiction centered around women with swords and men with devilish grins. And she hasn't stopped since. When not writing, Lara can be found drinking tea, hustling for her day job, and reading from her endless TBR pile. Lara currently lives in Charlottesville, VA, with her husband, dog, and thirteen houseplants named after fictional characters.

Friday, March 24, 2023

It's a Rocky Road to Redemption

I wanted to see if there was a villain who couldn't be redeemed. My mind turned immediately to Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights (even if, looking back, I wonder just how much racism there was embedded there). AI came up with a perfectly rational, logical list (that I have edited for brevity as much as possible):

Heathcliff is seen as a cruel, manipulative, and vengeful character who causes great harm to those around him. However, here's one possible redemption arc:

1. Acknowledge the harm he has caused: For Heathcliff to begin his redemption arc, he must acknowledge the harm he has caused to others. He must confront the fact that his actions have hurt the people he claims to love. He must take responsibility for his actions.

2. Seek forgiveness: Heathcliff must seek forgiveness from those he has hurt. This could be a difficult process for Heathcliff, as he has always been a proud and stubborn character. (Author insert - any concern about some of those people being *dead*?)

3. Make amends: After seeking forgiveness, Heathcliff must make amends for his actions. This could involve doing something to help those he has hurt, such as restoring Wuthering Heights to its former glory. Making amends will show Heathcliff is committed to change and that he is willing to take action to make things right. (Uhm. I feel like we're brushing off a dead heroine here.Are we seriously talking about buying off her life with an estate restoration? Cool. I feel like's a whole new Kate Bush song.)

4. Find inner peace: Throughout Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is portrayed as a tormented and unhappy character. To complete his redemption arc, he must find inner peace and come to terms with his past. He must find a way to move past his pain and find happiness in his own life.

5. Act selflessly: Finally, Heathcliff must act selflessly and put the needs of others before his own. He must stop seeking revenge and focus on helping those around him. By doing so, he will demonstrate that he has changed and he is committed to living a better life.

My problem with this enumerated list is that it's so tidy. The road to redemption rarely has a map as facile as AI would like us to believe. It would be up to us as writers to put Heathcliff in such dire, horrifying straits that he'd have no choice but to face up to the monster he'd become. And given that Catherine is a freaking GHOST (speaking of causing harm to loved ones) how's he supposed to seek forgiveness from her? In my head, this redemption arc is skewing straight into horror territory and the only possible ending for my theoretical 'redemption' arc is for him to accept that there's only one way to atone for causing someone's death - he has to join Catherine. They'll haunt the moors together, forever. (Yes, I get she died post-child birth, mad with fever and in her longing for Heathcliff went out wandering the moors and died. Still his fault and unless he owns that in the "Face the Music" portion of his redemption arc, then redemption never happens.

Someone as self-absorbed as Heathcliff doesn't simply wake up one day deciding to a saint. They're forced - shoved, squashed, extruded through horrifying-to-them circumstances into restitching the fabric of themselves. And for a monster, the fastest way I know is to do to them what they've done to others. That's some major psychological horror, right there. 

Completely different story and a sharp contrast, I know, but think of the movie, Pitch Black. Riddick is presented as a villain. The tagline of the movie is "Fight Evil with Evil." The survivors figure out pretty quickly that their boogeyman, Riddick, is their only hope of survival as something much older and much hungrier wakes. As the story unfolds, if there's one thing those of us watching learn, it's that each survivor must atone for things they've done before they can escape - if they're going to escape. One of the surviving pilots jettisoned pods before the crash, trying desperately to save herself. In doing so, she was killing passengers. In the course of the story, she's driven to change to the point that she's willing to sacrifice her life to save others. That's redemption, even if it doesn't save her life. The best line in the film is when she does sacrifice her life for Riddick's only to have him yell, "Not for me! Not for me." Yeah, look. The movie has been out for so long that if you haven't already seen it, you probably weren't going to anyway.

The moral of my very long story: Redemption doesn't mean HEA. Not necessarily. It just means putting the villain in so much extremity that they have no choice but to change stripes. Then and only then can the story decide what price is required of them. If asking forgiveness is one of the steps on the road to redemption and everyone you'd ask forgiveness is dead because of you - well. Live or die, the future is probably a little dimmed by the weight of those people haunting your villain.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Heroes, Villains—Villains, Heroes

log with an axe imbedded in it and resting against its head is the book Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long with its yellow cover, blue owl, and outline of a Nordic warrior woman holding an axe

Heroes are memorable. Heroes save the day. Heroes are who we want to be. But what about those villains we love to hate? They're heroes in their own eyes which is why this week we’re asking: 

Which fictional villain would you write a redemption arc for if copyright and trademarks weren’t a thing?

If you love epic fantasy that’s norse inspired, you need to pick up Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long. It speaks of loss, found strength, and honor. Also, there’s axes and gods, and friendships that surprise you—so many good things! 

But what I really loved about this book was Eang, the Goddess of War. Eang is the god that the MC, Hessa, is devoted to. Throughout Hessa’s story, Eang, either in her owl form, formless voice, or goddess shaped, lead and direct Hessa to battle the Old Gods that are waking and wreaking havoc on mankind. 

Old Gods, bad! Eang, good! But wait…the veil is torn from Hessa’s eyes and she sees the souls of her fellow vestiges within her goddess, providing Eang power and prolonged life! Hessa wakes up and [spoiler]. Yeah, that’s right. You’ve gotta read the book to find out what happens between Hessa and Eang. 

I love what H.M. Long did with Hall of Smoke. She took a goddess and her acolyte, pitted them against some seriously powerful beings, and then turned the tables. So, I’m choosing Eang as the villain I’d write a redemption arc for because she’s so incredible, and complex, and she has reasons. We all want villains that have reasons, a purpose, behind their decisions that make them steal/lie/cheat/do evil things. Eang has all of that and more. 

One of the ‘and more’ things is her son, Ogam. Because if I were to write Eang’s story from her point of view, Ogam would have to be part of it and he is a handsome trickster who lands in the grey zone—a little more black and a little more white depending on the situation. Seriously, if I haven’t mentioned that you need to read this book, do so if only to read about Ogam alone! 

Back to the villain. The soul stealer. The vengeful, unrighteous god. Eang would be so much fun to write, to look through her eyes and see the world of small men and the strength she wields to hold it. 

Hannah, I love your writing and your characters! If you ever want to share Eang, I’ll be over here dreaming! If not, I’ll keep scanning the trees for the owl! 

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

My Favorite Phantom

 I'll be at the Willamette Writers Conference In August! I'll be teaching a workshop and giving manuscript critiques. I'm not sure yet if I'll be in person or online, but I'm hoping for the former!

This week at the SFF Seven, we're discussing which fictional villain we'd totally write a redemption arc for if copyright and trademarks weren't a thing.

You know, I did this once before - although I was in the clear legally, as the original work had just moved into common domain. My villain? The phantom from The Phantom of the Opera. I don't know know that I redeemed him, but - SPOILER - I did ensure that the heroine picked the correct guy! 

My version is called MASTER OF THE OPERA, and is a contemporary, erotic retelling of the old phantom tale as written by Gaston Leroux. I set it at the Santa Fe Opera house, so it has more of a Southwestern mystical vibe than the Parisian opera house of the original stories. I won't post the cover(s) here. There are a number of them, as the book was originally published as a serialized ebook, and so had six different covers. Then it was published in print as a single edition with a different cover. Salient and recent good news: I received word that my publisher plans to put a new cover on the book and repackage it! So, stay tuned for that re-release. I'm super excited to see this new cover and a new bounce for this book and my sexy villain. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Evil Goddess Redeemed?

This Week's Topic: Fictional villain for whom I'd write a redemption arc
(if copyright and trademarks weren't a thing).

rubs chin, waggles brows

Of late, I've returned to my demons-and-divine-beings obsession, which neatly evades the copyright or trademark part of this week's prompt. Whenever the topic of "villains" comes up, my mind goes straight to the gods deemed "evil," and I question why they're portrayed this way and who gave them the short straw?

In the 4th book of my Immortal Spy series, I leveraged Musso-Koroni, traditionally known as a goddess of discord. As is not at all uncommon in mythologies, goddesses who are branded "bad" are typically victims of a smear campaign by other parties within the pantheon (usually male-presenting parties, but not always). A little digging into Musso-Koroni's origin myth revealed her #1 enemy in the pantheon was her husband. So, I wrote her a little redemption backstory...despite her being the antagonist in my story.

“Musso-Koroni married a dreadful twit on the promise that she and her new husband would rule other gods. A new pantheon for a new World. Unfortunately, her husband was like most men who are bestowed power. He got drunk on it and demanded more. She saw the way it warped him, was disgusted by it, and called him on it. He wanted her subservience. When she refused, he turned their people against her, so she left. Became a traveler goddess, untethered to any location. Her husband, in his futile fury, branded her a goddess of discord and formally banished her. His choice of derogative was better suited for himself than his wife."

I'd happily write redemption stories for Hera and Medea too, despite there being other redemption tales out there. Ya know, if I ever finish the other books on which I'm working. 

laughs maniacally, clutches coffee mug

Saturday, March 18, 2023

AI Art vs. Human Art


Photo by pure julia on Unsplash

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is becoming increasing popular in the world of art. AI-generated art is created using various techniques, such as algorithms and machine learning. While AI art is created with these programs, traditional art is created by human artists using their skills, creativity, and imagination. With traditional art, there is a level of control that the artist has over the final product. With AI art the algorithm is responsible for the final creation. Human artists have unrestricted freedom of choice in terms of aesthetic direction, colour palette, style choice, and revisions during the creative process.

AI programs are not producing original works of art, but rather replicas. The problem with AI generated art is that to learn how to create their artwork, they are pulling art from human artists without their agreement and without giving any acknowledgment to the original artist. Artists on the human side should have the choice to opt-in to these AI platforms using and learning from their work.

Personally, I do not agree with AI generated art as I understand the frustration of having your work taken without your consent, but I can see the appeal behind it. I think it should be created in a way that is not harmful to human artists, as I mentioned above by giving them credit and receiving their permission. 

Many people use AI-generated artwork for fun, for character inspiration, or for character artwork because it's an inexpensive way to express their creativity. Many see AI-generated artwork as an approach to making high-quality artwork accessible to a wider audience at a lower cost. Not to mention, it is created quickly and easily, and is becoming more difficult to distinguish the difference between AI art and human-created works of art. 

It can take some artists years to develop a signature style that truly expresses their voice and emotion. AI art does not need the time that human artists require to learn or to create. Algorithms can now make art for you in a matter of seconds, drastically shortening the time it takes from idea to finished product.

I wanted to reach out to an artist to get their opinion on AI art and how and if it has affected them since it has becoming more and more popular. I have many friends as well as artists I have worked with and this is what one of them had to say:

“Art is something done with great passion. Artists put a lot of hours and determination; the concept alone takes time. And once a brilliant idea clicks in my mind, it fills me with joy and motivates me to create more. It takes up to a week for me to create an artwork, if not more. 

It honestly feels bizarre. With the kind of attention it gets (AI art) and people appreciating something that was put together from the scraps of other artist’s work, honestly, it’s not only disheartening but highly demotivating as well. Being inspired by art is one thing, and copying and editing an art is another. The main issue here is using the work of other artists and getting away with it. It not only loses the originality, it is cheating many!”

Real artists will have a harder time keeping up with AI's rapid art production. Contrary to popular opinion, I do not think the rise of AI-generated artwork spells the death of human creativity. Nevertheless, I do think that many human artists will lose their inspiration and drive as a result of this trend.

Danielle Hill is an Amazon Top 10 author of drama filled, swoon worthy and magical contemporary fantasy novels. Danielle first came up with the idea for A Kingdom of Sun and Shadow in late 2017 and began publishing chapters on Episode shortly after. After a warm reception on Episode, she decided to expand the story and began writing the manuscript in February 2018.

Friday, March 17, 2023

AI Writes Like a Drunk Middleschooler

Artificial Intelligence. AI. It sounds so innocuous unless you grew up in the 60s and early 70s watching cheesy scifi matinee movies about rogue robots going on rampages. Maybe if you read Asimov and realized that the entirety of his writing career was spent coming up with the laws of robotics and then BREAKING them.

Sure. At the moment, we're talking about using AI to generate words or art for us (though I guarantee that AI is already in use a ton of other places that impact you already - you just don't know it.) It's a big gap between cribbing someone else's work and dodging Skynet. 

I am already using AI (specifically Chat GPT in this case)  to write with. It's for the day job where I'm part of a research group working on using the power of AI to transform our business model. I'm taking classes from those smarter and more experienced in the arena that I am so I can learn how to wrest forth the best of what AI has to offer. Benefit: I'm producing technical writing content for clients that is roughly 1/3 AI written based on prompts I give the AI. Problem: AI writes like a drunk sixth grader. Maybe a seventh grader. There isn't much that AI writes that can remain untouched. I cannot simply copy and paste wholesale and move on. Second problem: I MUST know my subject matter because AI is pulling information from the web. Some of that information is outdated. Some is dead wrong. Result: AI has shifted me to being a knowledge worker rather than someone who sits around and thinks up words to write for clients.  It's not all bad. Drafting is my weak spot. Editing is my strong suite.

AI favors writer/editors who have a grasp of their subject matter and who know how to match a brand's tone and voice. The moral of the story is that no matter how much or how little AI content I include in a piece of work, I will always have to tweak it or rewrite it. Always.

Chat GPT is good at distilling information from the dark, dusty corners of the WWW and bringing back something reasonably cogent. Mostly. To generate the best content, you'll need to understand what Chat GPT needs as a prompt. It's powerful for nonfiction. It's a little less useful for fiction. Like too many of us, it seems to want to avoid conflict.

I'm experimenting with AI (Sudowrite, in this case) in novel generation. I'm finding it is a much better fit for fiction. I do not like it at all for nonfiction. At least not the kind I'm working on where I need to bring hard data to a paper.  Sudowrite also requires super robust prompts that are loaded with details around your story. There are classes available for this. Some are free. If the tech interests you, the classes are worth the time. Benefit: Collaboration with that drunk middle schooler I mentioned earlier. Sudowrite takes a prompt and generates 2-3 text options. Problem: The writing is pretty terrible. Unless you declare a POV character in your prompt, Sudowrite defaults to omniscient POV. It's all tell and no show. It's pretty bare bones. The power of Sudowrite is that you can change all of that with different options in the interface. Maybe you want more action. Sudowrite can rewrite for more action. Or more description. Or more intensity. Sudowrite isn't afraid of conflict or blood. And as you write or paste in your own writing, Sudowrite learns to match your style a little better.

Sudowrite isn't capable of generating a novel without a writer to knit everything together and direct the story. Like one of the instructors said in class - think of AI as a junior writer. You're still senior. You know the craft. You know the story and the characters. You will always have to supervise and direct the junior writer's efforts. Just like with Chat GPT, I cannot take big chunks of text from Sudowrite and import it to my WIP. Just can't. I can pull a cool turn of phrase or a sentence or two. But mostly, Sudowrite's power is in making me question how I'm thinking about my story and the direction it needs to go. I have not successfully completed a book with it. I do know people who have and who continue to use it to spur their writing.

So. AI. Evil? Benign? Beneficent? Eh. Yes. To all of it. There will be good. There will be bad. Most of it will be neutral. But AI is a genie that escaped the bottle. There's no getting it back in there, now. We're going to have to learn to cope with it. The way that generations before us had to learn to cope with the evil televisions rotting our brains and making us all go blind because we sat too close. Or computer games. Or cell phones. Or whatever other technology destroyed hearts and minds and the modern family and civilization as we know it.

I do believe that AI will change the shape of work. It already is and has. You can figure out how to work with it, or you can ignore it like most of us ignored crypto. I expect that publishing will break up into camps. One will expound the evils, the other will tout the benefits, and somewhere in the middle, the rest of us will just try to finish our stories and get them out into the world.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

100% Human Made

Alexia Chantel, in a long dress, standing in the broom maker's shop, he's in a green t-shirt and shorts, with the hand made broom standing between them

Kears Broom Shop, Gatlinburg TN...a great story

We’ve all seen the Terminator, right? “Dense network computers. New…powerful…hooked into everything—“ You’ve seen it, good. Then you knew this was coming. Artificial Intelligence art and composition. 

I’m a sci-fi consumer. I love it, I binge it, I can’t get enough of it. Heck, I even wrote about a pandemic that raced across the earth a few years before the COVID pandemic hit. So it’s no surprise to me that AI is now writing.

My husband and I had dinner with some friends recently. One of them pulled up ChatGPT and entertained us with some limericks and romantic poems, all written by the app. And they weren’t bad. The interesting thing about the app is that it will learn you, meaning it will pick up on your wording and speech patterns and become even better at writing for you. 

I’m still not surprised. 

What did surprise me was when our friend with the ChatGPT asked me what I thought this would do to authors like me who write books. He asked, what will we do? I shrugged and offhandedly said that we’ll end up marketing our work as 100% human made, our writing will become more of an artisan craft. 

But that quick reply is truly what I expect to happen. Authors, those of us who are passionate about the written word, will continue to write. Yes, publishing will become, and has already been in some areas, inundated with AI crafted and AI assisted novels, short stories, articles, poems, and every other type of writing that can be submitted for payment. Yes, it will become even more difficult to make a living as a writer. Which means that yes, for those of us that persist, we will need to become even better at marketing ourselves. Because now, more than ever, it is ourselves, our human nature, that will become a selling point.

I love traveling and finding shops that craft and create their own products. Even better than finding said shop is actually talking to the people who made the goods, hearing their story, and finding out the history of whatever item I’m holding in my hands. I also love supporting the people that live in my area and work, grow, make things that I use. Why? Why do I pay more for a mug handmade by a gentleman that lives 30 miles from me over a lovely, cheaper, mug I can pick up at Target? 

Because of the story. 

When you create something, that item/process now has a story. My husband and I entertained a group of work colleagues. No, they don’t work for the same company as my husband, they work for a supplier, but he has met with them so many times over the years my husband became sick of the same old conversations around the same old restaurant tables. So they arrived at our home.

We had our wood-fired oven hot and ready and as we entertained we shared stories. Stories of how the oven arrived in our backyard, a severed finger was involved though not in the way you’re thinking, and the hand made pizza cutter that was formed out of black walnut from my husband’s grandfather’s farm. So many stories! And our guests were astounded. My husband met up with them again a few months later and they still couldn’t stop talking about it. 

All because of the stories. 

Yes, AI is going to replace a bulk of what we consume as written word. Yes, it’s going to become more challenging to be an author. But did you really come to this profession because it sounded easy? I believe you came to writing because you had a story that needed to be told. So tell your story, and then sell it proudly as 100% human made.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

ROGUE FAMILIAR Delayed (Again) - But Not as Much as You Think!

 Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is Artificial Intelligence (AI) and what's going on there with the creative professions. I have Opinions, which boil down to my conviction that nothing can replace human creativity. But a lot of very smart people have written on the topic and SFWA has been collating those. Go read those excellent articles. 

For my part, I'm trying to get ROGUE FAMILIAR written. I've passed 60K words and I'm closing in on the Act II Climax. I'm getting there! But I'm not there yet. No way can I make a March release date. So I've pushed the release back. Amazon will tell you the new release date is April 24, but that's a handy lie. That's just the farthest date I could push to, just in case. I'm guessing it will be more like April 7 or 10. I can always release early! I know you all are patient and supportive, so I don't need to apologize. (But I feel I do.) Anyway, I'm working away on this! 

No AI involved. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

AI-Generated Content: Here to Stay

 This Week's Topic: AI Art vs Artist / AI Composition vs Authors

Whoooooboy it's wild to be alive during another episode of technology aiding and infringing upon creative works. This season on Helpful and Harmful, we have machines being trained on copyrighted works and regurgitating bastardizations of those works without permission from Intellectual Property owners or remuneration paid to said owners. 

All was well and good in AI's nascent stages when developers used works in the public domain as source material. Then, sourcing tapped into lesser-known protected works under the education umbrella of the Fair Use Doctrine. Still hungry for data, sourcing leveled up to web crawling, blowing past any pretense of acknowledging Intellectual Property laws and protections. Now, AI is like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, screaming "Feed  Me, Seymour!"

Developers and project leaders pointed to Consumer Interest to continue to acquire funding. Creative AI hit the sweet spot of the 3 Cs of internet Consumerism: Cool, Cute, and Creepy. Image mashups went viral. Predictive texts got baked into apps as a "sticky" feature. It was all entertaining and time-saving. Then the fourth C of Consumerism arrived, slightly behind schedule: Costly. 

Through the theft of intellectual property, the AI projects didn't bear the cost of sourcing their data. The cost fell to the copyright holders through lost income. 

Suddenly, artists were discovering machine-generated collages containing significant portions of their original works, including modifications of commissioned works purchased by individuals and large Multinational Corporations. Reuse of purchased art without permission is a violation of the artist-client contract. So who was at fault? Neither of the parties in the contract. These modified works were being reused in commercial ventures without credit, permission, or remuneration. In legal terms, the businesses behind the AI machines infringed on the artists' copyright by exceeding the Substantial Similarity standard. 

Growing pains, the technologists scoffed. The AI "mind" is much like the human mind: the more information to which it is exposed, the more it is capable of expressing original concepts. Similarly phrased, the larger the pool of source material, the less readily identifiable the Intellectual Property infringements. Fully aware the enforcement of IP law lags significantly behind technology development, the AI teams push ahead. By the time the courts tell them to stop, it'll be far too late. Market integration and saturation will have peaked. The revenue realization will make whatever damages are to be paid a pittance, in the unlikely event that damages are awarded at all.  

Seeing artists being screwed, writers winced and wished them luck. Pirating has long been a problem for both groups, so have fan works that cross from appreciation into appropriation. Now there are machines programmed to do both with both clunky and slick consumer-facing frontends. Artists despaired, but their works remained cataloged. 

Despite sniggering over nonsensical AI-generated scripts and genre snippets, writers felt the creep of inevitability. We may not be in the same boat as the artists, but we are navigating the same sea. 

Sure enough, before long, the composition AIs were fed enough source data that predictive text expanded from a sentence to a short reply, to an article summary, to a short article, to short stories, to novellas, to novels. Freelance writers are losing gigs to composition bots. Magazines are inundated by AI-composed articles. Publishers, already unable to efficiently manage slush piles, are buried by the AI additions.

But is AI bad? No. Just because a significant portion of its development came about through peak avaricious capitalism doesn't make the programs themselves bad. Within 3-5 years AIs integration into our daily lives will be as seamless as emojis and voice assistants. Is it the death knell for creative arts? No, of course not. However, our marketplace is going to be inundated with AI-generated content. It is going to impact our revenue. It is going to demand we learn how to leverage the technology to help us succeed or we will suffer the fate of Luddites. 

The arrival of this technology isn't too different from when ebooks went mainstream. Publishing went through massive change and expansion. Cottage industries popped up to support the development of the primary technology which then spawned secondary and tertiary supporting technologies. Remember when the book market exploded with the deluge of self-published books? We're already seeing an influx of AI-generated books.

Can we look to the heavy hitters of industry to push for responsible use of AI? Pfft. If their approach to combating plagiarism and IP infringement is any indicator, it is highly unlikely that major retailers are going to stop AI-generated content from being listed in their stores. Sure, I'd love for the creatives' guilds and the parent companies of publishers to force retailers to use AI detection and employ deterrent programs and policies, but, let's be realistic. Anyone who read the US vs Simon's Radom Penguin transcripts can see what little value parent companies place on talent. They'd have to lose billions to AI to bully big retailers like Zon, Walmart, and Apple. It's way more likely that the parent companies will have stood up their own AI divisions before investing in protections for human talent. Remember, profits matter most. 

Lest we think we are too holy to partake in the sins of AI, we can't forget that we too are business owners looking to make a profit. If we are presented with low-cost, legally licensed use of AI-generated images for our covers or marketing materials, will we turn away from it on principle? If we are presented with a reasonable cost for an AI voice-acting app to create audiobooks of our novels, are we going to decline for fear of putting voice actors out of work? We are the pot and we are the kettle.

What about protecting our IP from AI? It's an expensive Sisyphean effort, particularly once our works are indexed by machines in countries that don't participate in IP protection. Once the data is added, there's no removing it from every system that has accessed the data. That's a battle to be waged at the level of national governments. Sure, we now have small claims courts for copyright infringement in the US, and, yes, the Author's Guild recommends adding a "not for AI training use" clause to all publishing contracts, but the burden of proof falls on us--not the data farms--to prove that that specific farm was the one who imported our protected text. Good luck proving it before you go broke. 

Look, we--the authors--have never had a say in how many books of what quality are released in our genre. Sure, we worry about reader experiences and how "badly written" books turn away potential buyers, but we can't control any of it. All we can do is write our stories to the best of our abilities...and scream into the din of Buy Me in search of readers. As for welcoming AI into our creative and business processes, we shouldn't shy away, but we need to be more responsible when it comes to the IP of others. That means being more diligent about verifying the licensing of images and voice work.  

AI isn't going away. It's intended to make our lives easier. It's on us to figure out how, responsibly.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Back Cover Copy is Hard


What's so hard about back cover copy? I'm just summarizing the plot, right? Giving you a short snippet of insight into the story?

It's what I thought when I was first published. Except my editor kept making me rewrite it. And rewrite it. I'd like to tell you I learned better by book two. I hadn't. In fact, back cover copy didn't get any easier for years. Because I was coming at it all wrong.

I don’t recall who finally clued me in, but I had to learn that back cover copy has nothing to do with the story. It has everything to do with the conflict and with the story question. At one point, I'd have shrugged and said, 'those are the same thing.'

I've learned better. Some.

Try summarizing the breadth and depth of your story in three paragraphs. I bet you tear out your hair. Your story spans hundreds of pages and sprawls across tens of thousands of words. It's people and places and events and backstory and oo! I forgot to tell you the main character grew up apprenticed to a dragon! I mean, it may be an amazing story, but it won’t sell a book because it doesn't lodge a question or a compulsion in a reader's mind.

That question should be, “OMG, HOW?”

Your conflict is the bait on the story question hook. Conflict, obstacles, and stakes. It doesn't matter what genre you write. Tell me what your characters need, tell me why they need it, tell me what's in the way (and why the answer is on some level 'themselves') and make sure to tell me what happens if they don't overcome their obstacles. What do they have to learn or overcome in themselves to earn the right to cross the final threshold successfully - assuming you aren't writing tragedy?

Recall our main character who was apprenticed to a dragon. All she wants is to learn to fly, because she's in love with the dragon's son and dragons court on the wing, but she can't fly because she's human. Internally, that sets our heroine up to believe she's a failure. She's not good enough. Maybe this echoes an old wound about not being good enough because her family gave her away to the dragons. All we know is that she longs to fly so she can tell the love of her life how she feels.

The young dragon prince, on the other hand, wants to eradicate humans because they hunted and killed his father. He can't start burning down human cities, though. The humans would rally and endanger the dragon prince's remaining family. Internally, he wants to avenge his dad and protect his remaining family. While he’s been kind to the human working with his mother and maybe even admires her, he’s convinced that all other humans are mean and nasty and destructive.

We create a sentence or two about how these different conflicts collide and interfere with one another. Finally, we cap it with what the two of them must learn if they're going to get together. If they aren't getting together, they still must learn something before they can win whatever challenge awaits at the climax of the story.

And there’s the trick. Your job with back cover copy is to snag the reader’s imagination by presenting all the desires, all the stumbling blocks (look! She’s in love with a dragon who hates humans! Uh oh!) and set up the horrible, dreadful consequences of the characters failing to learn their lessons before the climax. Aaaand you have to do that without giving the climax away AND while making it seem like these two will never rise above their obstacles.

Maybe our heroine argues with the dragon prince because she’s dead set on convincing him not all humans are bad. He’s not buying it, so he challenges her to prove it by hunting down his father’s killers and bringing them to him. Since she’s secretly convinced she’s a failure and not good enough, she refuses. He throws her out and banishes her. Cool. We all know that to prove her love, she’s going to go hunt down the killers (and learn to believe in herself at the same time.) We all know he’s going to start harrying innocent humans and endangering the rest of his family (and come face to face with the terrible consequences of his actions and realize he’s become what he hates.)

Finally here’s what the stakes sentence might look like:

If they cannot learn to trust one another and work as a team, all dragon-kind will die.

(Yeah, yeah. It’s a romance. She catches the killers and bargains with the dragon prince for a ride on his neck while he flies so she can confess her feelings, okay?)