Story at Clarkesworld

I have a new story at Clarkesworld. “Born Outside” mixes pandemic, alien invasion and ecology themes. There is child illness and death.

Story Link: https://clarkesworldmagazine.com/blake_07_24/

I often include a few story notes when I have a new story out. In this case, the story notes are life notes. I caught COVID-19 in February, 2020. That was the end of writing for a bit. I had a couple of stories published after that, but they were both written and sold before.

It’s interesting that discussion keeps coming up about a lack of pandemic stories, whether directly about the one we’re in, or just in a general way. But people are vastly underestimating how many writers were hit by it. Including such themes isn’t going to happen when nothing is being written. In the case of older contemporary series, many will be set before that time, and continue on from their chosen time period. Assuming the author can still write.

Anyway, I’ve never really been a denial sort of person. So this is a little bit pandemic (in a general way), but nothing is ever only one thing. Ecosystems adapt, including the people within them. Things about the housing, woods and school are based on things from my past and present. I still live in the area with the broken roads covered in weeds.

The first draft of this story was written at the end of 2023. It sold a little over four years since I first got sick. It’s been a long journey to get here. But for now, I’m still alive, and here’s a picture of some tulips.

A field of colourful tulips. Full description below.

Image Caption: A field of tulips at Keukenhof Gardens in The Netherlands. They are planted in clusters. Plain pink at the front, white and red stripes in the middle, yellow a bit behind, and then red at the back. A small variety marker sign is visible near the back, but the writing is too small to read.

2023: Aliens

In a year that was terrible for a lot of people, I’ve seen improvements and actually have some plans for next year. It’s an odd place to be, but I’m making the most of my improved health, because I don’t know how long it’ll last or what else will happen. Food still has random shortages and the government is threatening more right wing laws, so it’s not like it’s going well locally. But right now, I’m relatively safe.

 

Health

At the beginning of the year, things were stable, both the good and bad. I’d improved a lot, but still had some additional executive dysfunction issues. I’d attributed these to needing to relearn to do stuff and having an overwhelming list of things to do, but now I’m not so sure. Basically because I started taking Astragalus membranaceus and the issues pretty quickly resolved. One person can be a coincidence and all that, but it was a rather sharp and well-timed coincidence if that was the case.

I caught nothing at all. Since starting to use regular nasal spray (Viraleze) in addition to a mask, that’s stopped being a thing. This has meant there were no relapses and I could get out more with reasonable safety. I visited the local museum and saw a play.

During this time, I also got a walker (it’s purple!), so I could get out for more walks. The extra support helps me to walk better and it means I can sit down anywhere. Though I prefer the stick if I’m going inside or will need to use steps.

Towards the end of the year, the inflammation/arthritis in my joints faded completely and I was able to stop taking antihistamines (this caused some itching and sneezing, as I’ve been on them for years, but it wasn’t that bad). The knee with issues straightening has something else going on, though that’s also seen some improvements.

At this point, things are likely to be where they stay, other than possible improvements in the one knee. It’s pretty clear that my joints will remain fragile. I get headaches and motion sickness if I overdo things. But it’s all very manageable. I can get outside to fill the bird feeders and go for short walks. I can make plans and work on projects.

 

Writing

I’d initially planned to publish single short stories with notes. This didn’t happen, but for the best reason. The first I was working on was “Rewilding Nova”, which had been accepted for the Rosalind’s Siblings anthology before that fell through. As I was working on the notes, that anthology found a new home with Atthis Arts. So I was paid, the story went into the world, and I included a few highlights from the notes on the release announcement. I still think the single stories idea would be neat, but the money meant I didn’t have to rush it.

Photo of Rosalind's Siblings

Image Caption: A paperbook book on a purple cloth. The book is Rosalind’s Siblings and shows a person with short hair looking into a microscope in shades of purple. A small paintbrush and a bowl with two jammy biscuits are next to the book. These items relate to my story.

I also ended up writing a whole bunch of flash fiction. As long as nothing terrible happens, this will be out next year. It’ll be a novella-length collection of stories on the theme of really alien aliens.

I have no idea what I’ll end up working on after that, but I am writing again more regularly.

 

Art

My tale of multiple art shops starts with Zazzle. Sales were down, but it didn’t appear to be due to any of Zazzle’s recent changes. Product views were fine. People just weren’t buying as much. But they were buying enough to keep my website going, so this carried on being solid. All is not well in the POD world though, so the story doesn’t end there.

Society6 has been my backup art shop for many years. I didn’t sell much and the uploader for products was the worst I’ve ever used, but customers liked the quality of the products. Until this year, when they decided to introduce subscription fees for artists. I reduced my designs down to the ten allowed for the free plan, but this shop will most likely be removed in the future unless sales really pick up.

Threadless was one I’d looked at, but hadn’t tried until now. It has some things in its favour, including being able to donate some profits to charity and a commitment to wanting to promote marginalised creators. Unfortunately, they have a curated marketplace and only really seem to like a certain busy style that I don’t have. I wouldn’t recommend this one to anyone starting out, because if you’re not in the main search and don’t have fans, you’re unlikely to sell stuff. It’s a pity they don’t allow customers to search the extended marketplace if they want.

Inprnt needs an invite from a current artist or submission of three pictures for current artists to vote on. I submitted my rainbow cat, rainbow squid and fungi meadow. I was voted in on my first attempt, so that was great. This is mainly a site for art prints, and the shipping costs mean mainly for people in the US, but the quality looks nice. I’ll aim to add more stuff over the coming year.

Ko-fi is not really a shop. It’s a tip jar. Though it does allow some selling, they don’t handle the VAT, which is too much of a nightmare for a small creator. So this will remain as tips only.

 

Blogging

I reviewed a game, wrote a post about book covers and reopened my review requests. I set up Ko-fi so that people could tip me if they liked the content. My brain is back in the game.

My old posts on subjects tended to get death threats, but more people would read them over a longer period of time compared to reviews. The threats weren’t the only issue though, as the trouble with posting early thoughts on something is that things change, and the posts aged badly. So my focus this time is more on roundups of things that happened with a focus on my experiences.

Another possible is discussions of themes or tropes that could do with a roundup. I’ve often ended up describing these in reviews, but that could be turned into a more general article that I could then reference.

This means reviews won’t be as common as the height of my reviewing. I’m trying to find more of a balance of content. Whether people will read any of it, who knows. Blogging and long reviews went heavily out of fashion. But I hate email newsletters, so I’m still blogging for now.

 

Social Media

The positive side of social media is I found a new microblogging site that works for me. Bluesky is now my main microblogging site, where you can hear how sink spider is doing, how my knee is doing today, and whether I saw a cat when I went out.

Bluesky needs invite codes to join, which are handed out to current members. I got as many out as I could before Twitter stopped being useable. I donated a few to code handout schemes. I used Reddit and Second Life to send out more. There are still holes in the community, but the creative side is getting established over there. What it could do with are more readers and fans, who aren’t necessarily writers and artists.

It’ll be a long time before my social media recovers. I built up followers over many years and I won’t get them back quickly. I’m not famous enough for that. It’s also harder to get people to repost silly little things now, which is basically how I grew my early Twitter audience.

 

Short Version

My health is stable and I’m working on things again. I had a story out in the Rosalind’s Siblings anthology. I have new art shops on Threadless and Inprnt. You can tip me on Ko-fi and follow me on Bluesky. As long as my health holds, I hope to be blogging more and also publishing a flash fiction collection about aliens.

On Self-Published Book Covers

Work in progress of a chalk pastel squid drawing.

The Same

When I started out self-publishing, there was a lot of pressure to use covers that looked like the ones big publishers would use. What a terrible thing it would be if people noticed the book was self-published. They might think it was different in some way. Different is bad.

I’d often had my short work rejected for being too different, too weird, too unlike what we’ve published before, not the direction we’re going in, and many other ways of saying it’s just plain odd. This raised the question of whether I actually wanted a cover that looked like I was writing something I wasn’t. The stories were different and maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. The cover should surely reflect that.

It turned out that big publishers didn’t disagree. There were covers that stood out from the crowd as being different, because that’s how the book was being marketed. One that stuck with me was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, where the majority of the cover is a solid colour. There’s a small picture of someone’s legs and feet in the top corner. The text is pushed to the edges.

A lot of online critique means well, but without context about the book and the publisher, that cover would be slammed. The elements shouldn’t be at the edges. Make the picture fill the whole space. Look at covers in your genre, because they don’t look like that. Indeed, some versions of the cover are more typically laid out. But it’s the one with the tiny picture that I noticed.

 

The Different

People talk about professionalism and quality, as though they’re carved in stone and never subjective. This is usually the artistic equivalent of a generic business suit, as though that would be suitable for every job and situation.

The Garden Gang books were written and illustrated by Jayne Fisher. She was a child and you can tell that from the drawings. The pen lines are clearly visible where the characters are coloured in. These books are not bad, low quality or unprofessional. The art and writing is just right for them. They were also published by Ladybird Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Yayoi Kusama dresses in bright polka dots. She’s an artist known for her work with patterns. There’s nothing unprofessional about that.

In a creative industry, there’s a very big range in what is acceptable. If it works, it works. Sometimes there’s no way to know if it will work without trying it.

 

The Unchoice

In the end, I didn’t really have a choice about doing my own covers. I couldn’t afford anything else. But thinking about these issues helped me break away from trying to make covers that looked like other people’s covers. I made covers that fit my books, with a focus on the styles I was best at doing. The result was people have bought my books based on the covers and I started selling art as well.

The one people most often talk about is Werecockroach, because I drew it in wax crayons. It was a bit of a dig at people who complain about self-published covers drawn in crayon, though it’s also a scene in the book. This has worked when I’ve run adverts, because it really stands out in a line of book covers (crayon covers are not actually the most common sort outside of jokes). It marks the book as being extremely self-published in a way some readers want.

 

The Twist

That hasn’t been the end of the story though. There’s a plot twist, because the issue of AI generated covers is at the forefront. Suddenly, it’s become an advantage to have a cover that doesn’t have a style that screams AI.

My humble crayon drawing is very difficult for AI to get right, because the AI is not one of Asimov’s robots. It copies things based on probabilities, with no understanding of how a tool might be used to create it. Smooth finishes are preferred over brush marks and sketchy wibbles where someone’s hand shook. Attempts to copy these things never look quite right. More like a digital filter put over the top.

I visited the Tate Modern’s exhibit on Matisse some years back. Viewing his cutouts up close, the pencil lines can be seen, along with the pin marks where the paper was held. It’s something AI is currently unable to accurately copy.

It’ll be interesting to see what this means for self-published covers. In a world where readers will increasingly judge anything that looks like it might be AI, and there’s no guarantee that hired cover artists will be honest, there’s a bigger push for self-published authors to make their own covers. An author might be better off with a cover that’s simply a nice typeface on a plain background.

 

The Future

For myself, it’s clear that I’m better off producing art by hand as much as possible. It’s going to be an advantage to show the sketchy lines and other marks, to the point of thinking of ways to make them more obvious. Embracing the imperfections that show thought behind them rather than being the result of mathematical mistakes.

There’s a sadness to this though. I like doing my own covers. It’ll be fun to see if more authors go that route. But I wish it wasn’t something that was forced and going to make it harder for artists who do cover art commissions.

Maybe the future will end up more balanced, but until then, it’s time to break out the pencils.

Story in Rosalind’s Siblings

My story “Rewilding Nova” is in Rosalind’s Siblings. This anthology is about people with marginalised genders and sexes in science. My story is about a non-binary Romani ecologist with joint damage doing science in their back garden. It’s a cozy slice-of-life story about science and rewilding an alien planet.

Book Link: https://www.atthisarts.com/product/rosalinds-siblings/

Rosalind's Siblings Cover

Image Caption: A book cover with a maroon monochrome illustration of a person looking into a microscope. They’re wearing a short-sleeved buttonup shirt and have short hair with a floppy fringe. The title reads “Rosalind’s Siblings” with the subtitle “Fiction and Poetry Celebrating Scientists of Marginalized Genders”. The book is edited by Bogi Takács. The cover artist is Mia Carnevale.

There’s a mention in the introduction about groups the authors come from. I’m one of those who wanted to be a scientist (I went to university) and couldn’t (no jobs). It was nice to have space to explore things like different approaches to science and barriers to getting research accepted by other scientists.

My main inspiration was the way rewilding has happened in the UK, where the reintroduction of locally extinct native animals has frequently been delayed and blocked, but they just appeared anyway. Your pet beavers going missing and not reporting it could happen to anybody. Who among us hasn’t lost a few wild boar here and there.

Some aspects of the main character are based on me, though I wrote this before long covid and joint damage. I’ve always had stiff joints, so there’s always been a risk that illness and injury could cause something more serious. It’d been something I’d thought about and knew could potentially happen. I just wasn’t really imagining it’d happen in the time between submitting the story and it being published.

It’s taken a bit for this anthology to get out there, so I’m pleased it happened and I hope people enjoy the story!

Palia (Closed Beta)

Palia in white fancy text with beta below. The background is a green natural landscape with deerlike animals drinking from a river.Developer: Singularity 6
First Release: 2023 (Beta)
Version Played: PC Closed Beta

Humans disappeared from Palia long ago, leaving behind their ruins and the mystery about what happened. You’re a human and suddenly appear at the ruins. Time to meet the locals.

Palia is a cozy MMO with a focus on things like crafting and exploring, rather than combat. There are bows and animal hunting, but that’s as combat-oriented as it gets. Player characters don’t have hit points and simply respawn if they jump into dangerous places (like deep water).

The closed beta has two main areas and also the player housing (everyone has their own instance of the housing plot). I got lucky with closed beta access, so these are my thoughts on that.

It all starts with character creation. There are two body types (A and B) which have a set of faces linked to that body. Everything else can be used on either body. That means any voice, hairstyle, clothing or makeup. The basic selection has options for different races, including being able to have a hijab for those who want to cover their hair.

Though the body types aren’t assigned a gender, and being able to put any of the stuff on them is great, they are still rather binary in their overall shape choices. I would like a few more bodies to choose from. Or the option to choose between flat chest or breasts on the current bodies. Given the range of body types in the NPCs, I wouldn’t be surprised if this happens at some point.

Character creator screenshot

Image Caption: The character creator for Palia has a starry background with the interface on top. A range of hairstyles are shown, including straight and curly hair, braids, locs, and a hijab. A colour selector has a mixture of natural shades and other colours. The character is on the left, showing the selected wavy curls hairstyle.

The way the skills are handled in the game works well. These skills are things like growing crops, fishing, bug catching, hunting, mining, chopping down trees and furniture making. What’s nice here is that very little grinding is required. Once I had a feel for where to get all the materials, I’d wander around collecting whatever was around. A bug here, a tree there, maybe some mining.

Housing is introduced very early, so I quickly started on growing some crops and setting up crafting stations. This housing area starts with some harvestable resources (trees, rocks and mushrooms) and has a private pond for some fishing. The full buildable space needs to be unlocked during play, but it’s a good size that’s clearly intended for an endgame of decorating the whole thing.

Star quality (literally marked with a star in inventory) bugs and fish can be placed as pets, so my endgame will involve whole rooms full of pets, as that’s just how I roll.

House plot screenshot

Image Caption: My character stands on the housing plot at night. The character has brown skin, black and purple curly hair, and purple clothing with a leaf pattern. A small building, fenced area with crops, windmill, work stations and two cuddling plushies, can be seen. The game interface is shown, with an inventory bar, compass, quest objectives and focus bar.

I appreciated little things, like crops not dying if they run out of water (they simply pause growth) and decor not taking up any storage space. If multiple players hit the same harvestable resource, everyone gets the full loot. These design choices help to make things more relaxed.

I also enjoyed the story so far. Humans appear with only the memory of a starry void and a reassuring voice (this is the setting of the character creator). Some quests are about visiting ruins, with a focus on exploring and solving puzzles. There’s obviously more going on here about what happened to humans and how it’s connected to the flow (a form of magical energy).

Exploring screenshot

Image Caption: My character is in a derelict tower with holes in the wooden floor and ivy growing on the walls. A lantern and plushie are on the floor. The toy is a cute animal cuddling a mushroom. I want that toy.

The NPCs have lives and wander around (press m for the map to see where they are currently). Every NPC has a friendship quest line and some also have a romance quest line. These quests provide more information on the various characters and the world. Only thing I’d say here is the NPCs are purple elf people, anthro cats and robots. It’s a pity that players have to be human and can’t unlock any of those appearance options.

It’s a multiplayer game, but the current system isn’t good for people who want to directly play together. For those who try teaming up, it’s tricky to get on the same server/instance. Groups find they get split up if they change to a new area.

This means that though other players are around, it’s mostly a game for parallel play: most people play alone near each other, rather than with each other. Some resources actively need many people, such as cutting down the flow trees, but this tends to happen in an impromptu way. There isn’t a reason for the gang to stay together once it’s done.

Flow tree screenshot

Image Caption: Multiple characters swing axes at a purple glowing tree. The tree’s health bar shows it’s taking damage.

Housing could have some potential future issues, as access is restricted. Friends can visit, but particularly as the game ages, people will want to show strangers their awesome decorations. I hope that something like the Animal Crossing dream codes might be introduced for that.

The controls are usable, but more the sort of thing I associate with console games that have been moved to the PC. The mouse controls the camera and the keys control movement. There aren’t options to lock the camera behind the avatar or to turn left/right (the camera has to be pointed in the direction of travel).

Options include things to reduce motion sickness. Most game information is text, but it would have been good to have subtitles on the speech in the character creator and the intro/exit speech of the NPCs. An option to click to start/click to stop would be nice for skills, rather than having to hold the mouse button. I can cope now, but holding down buttons was very painful at the height of my arthritis, so this will be a challenge for some gamers.

In very important news, you can pet the dog. It’s an option that comes up sometimes when you’re talking to him, though there isn’t an animation that goes with it.

The game succeeds at being cozy. The current content is a solid foundation with room to expand. It may not appeal to people who want a team game and some of the controls are not the best. In the end though, it’s free and I’m finding it fun, so I’m here to stay for a bit. I’ve got carrots to harvest.

(Shameless plug: Everyone gets a refer-a-friend link, which earns special items in the game. Here’s mine if anyone wants to sign up an account. Open beta started on 10th August 2023, so anyone can sign up now. I’m not being paid for this, I just want the cute fountain: Palia Account Signup)