Opinions on Piracy (and Some Data)

I've decided this week is going to be piracy week here at Author's Echo. Not the cool kind of piracy where you swing from the rigging and swash and buckle and stick it to the mean, oppressive, royal navy. But the lame kind, in which copyrights are infringed and authors get all upset over lost sales.

Apparently, I have a lot to say on the topic, but I hope to contain it to three posts (so I don't have to bore you with it again for a while). First, some of my opinions on the subject, so you know where I'm coming from, and maybe where I'm going.

Tomorrow's a little more fun.
  • Pirates are not bad people. That has to be said up front. I have lots of friends who pirate stuff (I live in Thailand, remember?), and I still like them. I still like you. And heck, even I sometimes take advantage of "gray areas." Just, uh, don't expect a high five from me because you "stuck it to the man."
  • Most arguments for piracy are empty justifications. Just like telling myself I can eat a chocolate cake because I ran a mile today, justifications don't make a bad thing okay. (Note: I don't actually tell myself this. I just eat the friggin' cake and don't run at all.)
  • Piracy is illegal. There are gray areas, and some things are legal in some countries, but for the most part, if you download something people usually pay for? Yes, that's illegal.
  • Piracy is not worth getting angry about. For one thing, there's no strong evidence that pirated downloads = lost sales. Certainly some are, but I think for the most part, if we magically figured out how to prevent piracy forever, it would result in approximately the same number of sales. Getting angry about piracy, on the other hand, is likely to lose paying customers more than it stops the illegal ones.
  • Pirates are not doing authors any favors. It's often argued that piracy leads to new readers. The data (what little there is) doesn't support this argument either. Certainly some pirates turn into paying fans, but most don't, and not enough to justify the practice.

For those last two, Tobias Buckell does a great job discussing the data here. He also sums up his opinion (and mine) thusly:
"I believe piracy [has] a neutral effect from all the studying I've done, but also that standing up to declare you didn't pay for it for whatever mental judo justification you have means you're being kind of a dick." -- Tobias Buckell
To that end:

To reiterate: pirates are not bad people and I still like you. I don't want to beat up on pirates this week, though neither do I want to imply that piracy doesn't hurt anybody. Mostly I want to be clear that the justifications for piracy are just that: justifications -- something humans are very good at composing.

Feel free to disagree with me in the comments, especially if you've got good (non-anecdotal) data to contradict anything in the links here. Of course, you can agree with me too. We love that sort of thing around here.

Tropes vs. Cliches

A trope (in a story sense) is any plot, character, setting, device, or pattern that we recognize as such. It's kind of everything, from the unassuming farm boy to the rebellion against an oppressive government to the wise mentor to the chase scene in which the car smashes through a pane of glass being carried across the street.

Tropes are what make stories run. A story is not good or bad based on whether or not it has tropes. ALL STORIES HAVE TROPES. A story is good or bad based on how those tropes are used.

What we like about tropes is familiarity ("Yay, ninjas!"), excitement ("Oo, the hero's going to get all awesome on the badguys!"), and especially when our favorite tropes are twisted in interesting ways ("I did NOT see that coming").

What we don't like is when tropes are predictable to the point of boredom. That's when a trope becomes a cliche.

Now, cliches are subjective. What's old and tired to you may be brand new to someone else, or it might be someone's favorite trope--they don't care HOW much it's been done; they love it every time. So how do you keep your stories from slipping past trope into cliche? Here are a few ideas:
  1. Be trope-savvy. One of the things I loved about Avatar: The Last Airbender was how it was always aware of its own tropes. Sokka knew he was the comic guy, the plan guy, the boomerang guy, or "the guy in the group that was normal." They knew they were being silly (and yet a little bit serious) when they came up with a name for their group or for the bounty hunter Zuko sent after them.* It worked because they showed you they were aware of their tropes, through action and dialog.
  2. Subvert the tropes. I thought Megamind was fantastic because even though it used all the superhero tropes, it never played them straight. It took one of the oldest tropes (villain captures girl, threatens hero, hero outsmarts villain), showed they were trope savvy (girl mocks villain's threats as cliche), then twisted it (villain kills hero?!). And that was where the movie started. That sort of thing kept me guessing the whole time, even though I knew the ultimate end.
  3. Don't bother. Seriously, the subjectiveness of cliches is one of the reasons you can't please everybody. One completely viable method of dealing with this is to not even try. Use the tropes you love, put them together in ways you think are awesome, then find the people who agree with you.
What do you think? How can we use the same old tropes (there are no new ones) while avoiding cliche? When have you seen it done well?

* And the fact they never tell you his real name proves even more they know the tropes they're playing with:
Sokka: Wait, YOU sent Combustion Man after us?
Zuko: Well, that's not his name, but--
Sokka: Oh, sorry. Didn't mean to insult your friend!

Dr. Bananas

K. Marie Criddle is challenging herself to draw something every day for a year. It has inspired me--no, not to draw every day, are you INSANE? It inspired me to draw for the first time in 6 weeks (gosh, every time I put a sketch up here, it's been months since my last one...maybe I SHOULD draw something every day *slap* *slap* NO! What, are you INSANE???).

(Yeah, okay, maybe a little).

Her first sketch also inspired me to draw something with a gun for an arm, so I'm not being very original here. But then this is what was in my head. You HAVE TO draw what's in your head, right?

How to Get Me to Unfollow your Twitter Feed

I know this is going to cause a swath of readers freaking out wondering, "Am I good enough? Will Adam unfollow me too?!" Because, of course, you're ALL worried about what I think of you. (That's how it is in my head, at least. Maybe I should see someone about that...).

Okay, so nobody's worried about my follow. But to avoid hurt feelings, I want to lay this disclaimer: I unfollow people rarely, and only when they define themselves by tweets like the ones below. If you do some of these sometimes, but other times post something witty or interesting, or converse with me like a human being (as opposed to a marketeer), then chances are very good you're safe.

But if these are the ONLY things you Tweet, then you might rethink your social media strategy:
  • Follow Friday (#FF) lists of random Twitter handles, with no explanation as to why I should follow all these people you crammed into 140 characters.
  • Publicly thanking a list of random Twitter handles for the #FF mention.
  • Tweeting "Good morning" every time you get on and nothing else.*
  • Links to your blog, your book, you, you, YOU.
  • Tweet 20 times within a couple of minutes, thus filling my entire timeline with you.

Again, if you sometimes tweet things like this, don't worry. I link to my blog post too (a lot of my traffic comes from Twitter), but I try to keep that from being the only thing I say. The people I drop are the ones who followed me just for the follow-back, who just want to up their numbers even though nobody's actually listening to them, who don't intend to interact or read anyone's tweets but their own.

What behavior on Twitter (or any social media) bugs you the most? What do you LIKE people to do?

* I realize some people use Twitter only for conversation, and "Good morning" is a way to let their followers know they're on and ready to talk, but if I don't converse with you, it's all I see. Besides, we can talk without me following you.

How This Blog Works

At the risk of spoiling the magic, I thought some of you might benefit from knowing how I do things around here. Here goes.

A long time ago, I wrote posts whenever I thought of them, trying for a vague "once or twice a week." Now I post every Monday, Wednesday, Friday. I don't know if you guys care (because of Google Reader, and living 11-15 hours ahead of the US, I never know when people post), but it makes it easier for me to plan and to know I'm being consistent.

There is no way I could come up with a blog post idea on the spot three days a week. Shortly after I began a schedule, I started a list of blog post ideas. This takes off tons of pressure, and also allows me to cherry-pick the best ideas. They come in waves: one week I'll have a dozen ideas, the next couple of weeks I'll have none.

I've taken to writing my posts a week ahead of time (right now, it's May 23rd). I usually have all three posts written by Wednesday or Thursday the week before, scheduled to go up between 7-8 PM, my time, on their respective days. Occasionally real world news will inspire a real time post, but not as often as you'd think. As with the idea list, this takes a lot of pressure off me.

When I choose a post topic, my general rule (that I made up just for this post) is each post must attempt to be one or more of the following: helpful, funny, interesting (in that order of preference). I try to avoid "housekeeping" posts, which is why you usually don't see blog awards and why I've never mentioned the change in my background picture (um, until now). I also try to avoid rants, albeit with limited success.

Every post is unique to its own topic, but there are a few things that seem to occur often:
  1. I make lists and/or embolden key sentences. That's cuz I know how lazy a reader I am, and I figure other people are the same. It's also because I like lists.
  2. I link to myself a lot. I link to other places too, but basically I'm self-centered. Partially because I hate to think those posts are forgotten. Partially because linking to an old post feels better than repeating myself. I know you can't follow all of them, but I hope you click on one every once in a while.
  3. I add images. I used to do it only where I needed one, but a lot of feed aggregators (like Blogger's blogroll widget, or the blog apps on Facebook) grab a thumbnail from the post. So lately, if I can think of/find a good image, I'll throw it in to help the post stand out.
  4. I try to ask you guys a question at the end. Because unpublished-author blogging is more about getting to know people than anything else. And because when you comment, it makes me all happy inside.
Though I read them all, I'm a little sporadic with replying to comments. It depends how many comments I have to respond to and how late the girls are to school and how many boys hit how many other boys that morning. Besides, I'm pretty sure my lame replies aren't why you come here. I've been experimenting with replying to comments via e-mail (for those of you who allow that in your Blogger profile), and I have to admit, it's a lot easier and feels more personal. If I learn anything else useful, I'll let you know.
I try to save funny pictures, question/answer times, and short posts for those weeks I need something quick, or when I just want a bit of a break. Once or twice a month I'll remix a post for my sanity (I like "remix" better than "repost," especially since I usually update them before reposting), but never one younger than a couple of years. If I need a longer vacation, I'll go with guest posts or in extreme cases, a 1-2 week hiatus.

There. Now you know what goes on behind the bamboo curtain. Hopefully you can forget you know all that now, so you can still pretend I'm cool.

How do you blog?

When (and When Not) to Prologue


There are three things that make something a prologue:
  1. It comes before the first chapter.
  2. It is a part of the story (as opposed to an introduction, preface, or forward, which are about the story, but not part of it).
  3. It says "Prologue" at the top.

Simple, right? That's what makes something a prologue instead of, say, "Chapter One," but it doesn't explain what makes a good prologue. That's what this post is about.

A lot of writers use prologues as a band-aid for a bad beginning. This doesn't work (I'll explain why in a second). It actually has the opposite effect, to the point where some people skip prologues entirely. TIP #1: Don't use a prologue because you need a better beginning. Fix your beginning.

There are generally two kinds of band-aid prologues. The first is the FALSE ACTION SCENE, in which the writer is told he should start with action, so he inserts a scene that has nothing to do with the inciting incident. Sometimes the writer will use a flash-forward, inserting a tense scene from the climax and letting that be the tension that drives the reader through their boring beginning.

The reason this doesn't work is because starting a story is hard, and when you add a prologue, you require the reader to start your story twice. TIP #2: Don't use a prologue just to suck the reader in. You'll only have to suck them in a second time when the prologue's over.

The second band-aid prologue is the BACKSTORY INFODUMP. This happens when the writer is afraid the reader will become lost without all the background. Sci-fi and fantasy are notorious for this. A good genre writer, though, is able to mix telling details into the story so they don't have to put it all up front in one big exposition. TIP #3: Don't use a prologue to explain the world or backstory or any other kind of telling exposition. 

 Once again, George Lucas shows us what not to do.

Despite their downsides, I like prologues. Used wisely, they can be very effective. Here are some situations in which a prologue can be useful.
  1. To show a point of view that doesn't appear anywhere else, or doesn't appear until the end. For example, if you need to dramatize some event the protagonist never witnesses, like, say, the mysterious circumstances of their birth.
  2. To create tension that the protagonist is not immediately aware of. This can be especially effective in mysteries and thrillers, where the real tension (e.g. When will the killer strike next? Will the protagonist learn the truth before the killer comes for him?) is behind the scenes. Then the opening scene, in which the protagonist is going through their daily life, is flavored by the tension that the reader knows something is wrong.
  3. To manage the reader's expectations about your story. Have you ever read a story that was all dragons and swords and magic, only to discover the evil villain is a space alien with his own spaceship? Genre blending like this can be done well, but if it's done poorly you end up sucker-punching the reader. A prologue establishing that your fantasy world is a forgotten Earth colony, or that "God" in your story is an intelligent super-computer orbiting the planet, can sometimes go a long way towards easing the reader into the weirdness.
Keep in mind, though, that these are all guidelines. There are no rules in this business. That's why the best tip is this one, from the illustrious Nathan Bransford:
Take out the prologue and see if your book still makes sense. If it does, you didn't need it.
    What do you think about prologues? Love 'em? Hate 'em? To the comments!

    Time Travel for Writers

    Technically, time travel is impossible, but as Isaac Asimov said, "I wouldn't want to give it up as a plot gimmick." Unfortunately, time travel has also been done A LOT, which leaves it open to accusations of cliche. It doesn't mean you can't do it (You can! Do!), but you need to know how it's been done and where your story fits into that (vast) collection.

    Just because it's impossible doesn't mean you can't do it. Four common methods:
    1. Faster-than-light travel. If you travel close to the speed of light (theoretically possible), you actually travel into the future. If you could travel faster than the speed of light, you would go back in time. You can't, of course, but this is fiction. See also rules #3, 4, and 5 for space travel.
    2. Dial-a-time. You've seen Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, yes? Keanu Reeves' finest hour (if ever there was one). Their time machine was the soft sci-fi standard: don't explain how it works, just punch in a time and go. See also: Back to the Future.
    3. Wormholes. This is probably the most scientifically feasible method. If wormholes can be used to leap through space, then it should work for time too.
    4. In the minds of others. Like Quantum Leap, you don't go back in time yourself, but your mind does, implanting itself in the minds of others. You might be a watcher or you can take over that person's personality for a time and change things through them.

    Most time travel stories must, at some point, deal with The Paradox. That is, they must answer the question: what happens to the present if you change something in the past? The impossibility of time travel means nobody knows, so you have a lot of freedom here. Beware, though, some of these devices are hard for a reader to wrap their head around.
    1. Time fork. If you change the past, then you actually create a fork in time. There's the "old" present that you came from, and the "new" present created by the events you changed. If you take your time machine back to the present, it will always be the "new" present, unless you can undo the changes you made.
    2. The Butterfly Effect. Like the time fork, except that any change--even your very presence or the butterfly you just swatted away--will have drastic effects on the future. This makes it highly unlikely that you can undo said changes.
    3. No change until you return. Say you kill your great-great-grandfather. In this scenario, you will continue to exist until you try to go back to the present, at which point you (and all descendants of your g.g.g-father) disappear. It doesn't make much sense, but it means you have a chance to undo things.
    4. Change occurs gradually. Like Back to the Future, your changes to the past become a ticking clock. If you stop your parents from falling in love, it's only a matter of time before you cease to exist.
    5. Change occurs immediately. If you kill your ancestor, you cease to exist there and then. Of course that's the true paradox: if you never existed, how did you kill your ancestor? Wouldn't that undo everything? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. This is where stories get REALLY complicated.
    6. Events cannot be changed. The opposite of the paradox. Any attempts you make to change the past will either (A) be thwarted (e.g. the gun jams, your ancestor trips and dodges the bullet, your ancestor is saved by a medical miracle after you leave the scene, etc.) or (B) prove to have been a part of the timeline all along (e.g. he never was your ancestor, but his death is what brought your real ancestors together).

    The biggest problem with time travel is how powerful it is. If you can go back in time and change any mistake before it happens, it immediately raises the question, "Why don't you just...?" Like, "Why don't you just go back in time to before you made the machine and stop everything from happening?" This is another place where time travel gets all headache-y, and where you need to be the most careful. Some ideas:
    1. The machine is broken. So you can't go back and forth until it's fixed. Of course, once you fix it, you could just go back and undo everything, but if everything is right again, maybe you don't want to.
    2. It's against the rules. Time travel is essentially magic: you make up the rules, then stick with them. If there's a plot hole, make up a rule to patch it up, but make sure that new rule is consistent with everything else that happens. Maybe time travel is uncontrollable (as in Quantum Leap, or anything with wormholes), or you can get somewhen in a broad sense (say, a certain year), but not close enough to fix details (i.e. the exact place and time where you would have opportunity to fix everything). Maybe you can't change the past. Maybe you can only go one direction (forward or backward, not both) or you can only jump a specified amount of time (like in 5-year increments).
    3. It makes things worse. In an attempt to subvert the plot hole, you do go back in time to fix it, but your old self doesn't listen, or someone worse comes back and fixes the machine after you broke it, or you killed a butterfly and spaces monkeys take over the planet in ten years. Whatever.

    The short version of what's been done in time travel fiction is: EVERYTHING. Nothing's original, we talked about that. If you want to see for yourself what's been done, take a week off of work and read these.

    However, anything can be done well again. Mix it in new ways and make it your own. Just don't make the mistake of thinking you're the first person to come up with the idea of time tourism, time police, fixing the future, stopping someone from wrecking the past, beings that move through time, a modern-day teenager stumbling upon a trip to that period in history he can never seem to understand in school (God bless you, Keanu)...

    It's all been done, but you can do it again and better. Just don't be boring, and you'll be fine.