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Formula

Mar. 5th, 2017 07:13 am
mbranesf: (Default)
Last week when I was putting up Kyler Fey's new novellas in the ebook stores, I was a little bit baffled as to why every venue has a different hierarchy of categories. The print versions were easy enough to categorize the way I wanted them to be when I assigned the ISBN and arranged for print distribution, but the three ebook stores (Kindle, iBooks and Kobo) into which I placed them all varied. The most cumbersome was Kobo because for some reason I was not able to include "erotica" as a category without assigning  "romance" as its primary category. This is because in their categories system, pretty much all fictional genres except romance fall under "fiction," but "erotica" is not a sub-category of "fiction." It only shows up under romance, and when one tries to select that in combination with "science fiction," one is blocked by the rule of not being able to use catgeories from both fiction and "non-fiction." Which I would not consider romance to be, but anyway there  it was. I did end up sticking them both in romance because I felt it was fairly important to get them tagged as erotica (since they are both filled about eighty percent by volume with explicit depictions and discussions of m/m sex). But we actually consider them to be part of a serial of gay erotic "science fantasy" (some later installments of the series which I have gotten to examine also tread into supernatural horror).

Since I don't read a lot of genre literature crafted as "romance," I figured that I was probably not fully informed as to what makes it that. I know that its a multi-genre mode in that there can be contemporary settings, historical settings, science fictional settings, etc. But I wasn't entirely clear on what unifies all of this under the romance umbrella, and if erotica in general is under that umbrella or not (it's not necessarily). So I checked out submission guidelines for a few publishers who release a lot of Kindle books to see what they are shopping for when they say "romance." Here's what I did not know in my ignorance of the form, and which surprised me: it is evidently very deliberately formulaic in its construction in that whatever happens in the story, it is the expectation that every story conclude with a "happily ever after" (HEA) or at least a  "happily for now" (HFN) ending. I think every guidelines page that I read mandated this formula.This made me sit back and think for few moments. In most other genres--especially ones where the authors have some ambition of crafting "Real Literature" out of their SF or F or H concept--writers are constantly trying to subvert or evade the formulas. They'll get lauded when they succeed and their books are considered to be "better" than formulaic genre fiction. In fact it's a fairly common knock on a book that the reviewer didn't much like was that it was "formulaic." TV shows and movies are routinely panned over hewing too closely to an obvious formula (even though they all pretty much do so on purpose). So the story, in this mode, is really about learning how the characters reach their HEA state, because you know already that's where it's headed. The ending is not in doubt. There will be happiness. In this sense, the form reminds me of another very formulaic one that I got a lot of pleasure from when I was a kid and a teenager and even once in while still as an adult: Star Trek tie-in fiction.  I read tons of it in my youth, have a couple boxes of it still in a closet (only reason it's not out and shelved is because I dont have enough shelves), and once in a while will go back to one of those novels when I want something easy to digest. Like these romance novels, those Star Trek novels (many of which include romantic subplots) all ended HFN. You knew there was going to be another crisis, another adventure later on, but at the end of each story, things were pretty much reset to normal, the characters were all alive and well, and the mood was good.

So, are Kyler's books "romance" by formula? Intersex Boys of Venus ends with portents of an ominous threat that is not resolved and has yet to be fully uncovered (it's chapter 5 of a serial). But it does focus on two boys who plainly love each other a lot, but their relationship is not depicted as all that "romantic" in that they didn't just meet and fall in love etc. There's a little taste of HFN between them in their final scene of the novel, but then that's immediately followed by a creepy foreshadowing of future problems for them. One Hundred Times (the b-side of the print double with Intersex Boys) ends sort of HFN between the main characters, but it's also implied that they'll probably never see each other again, and it is explict throughout the book that the entire purpose of their relationship was fucking. They were never in love, and the narrator at one point grapples with feelings of "crushing" on his short-term sex partner and tries to bat those feelings away with rationality. So that's not a romance either, at least by formula. It's also true that the storyline is actually a thinly-veiled account of something that Kyler did in real life, so one probably wouldn't expect a memoir to hew to a genre formula in the way one would expect a romance novel to do so.

I'll be spending some time today on final formatting of the next episode of the serial, titled The Strange Case of the Tattoed Twink. The accompanying picture is the illustration for its cover. [updated to note that while this illustration was used for the final book, we changed the color of it].

Annoying Dream:
For some reason, I've lately been having dreams in which I somehow end up in a wooded park and find myself getting lost and running into dead ends as I try to navigate its trails and roads. This park is a real place from my boyhood, a fairly large and heavily wooded park in the town in which I was born and lived until I was thirteen. It had (and I presume still has) hidden trails, a couple of weird bodies of water, an old stadium, a police shooting range, some assorted attractions like a public swimming pool and a dirt-and-gravel road that cuts through its back regions, but which doesn't really go anywhere--it just loops back around to where you started. But in some iterations of this dream, I am either walking or driving that road and somehow just can't quite find my way back out of the park. The road forks in strange ways, generates long sidepaths that dead-end in the woods or run into a large lake (there was in real life swampy flooded lake-like algae-choked area of water there that one could get to by following a dead-end path from the main road--and where it was believed that teenagers would go to fuck in their cars--but nothing nearly so large as the dream lake). In last night's version of the dream, instead of following the endless ever-changing road, I got similarly disoriented on a trail that cut through the woods and followed a narrow shallow stream. This trail and that stream were real things back in those days, too. During the summer when I was twelve, I frequently ventured down this trail by myself and masturbated. I enjoyed doing this outside so much that it became a nearly daily habit that summer even on rainy days, always standing in the same hidden spot and squirting on a clump of milkweed. It's amazing that I was never caught doing this because, while the path itself and my favorite spot on it were quite hidden from view, it was still traveled pretty frequently by other kids who liked to use it to cut aross the deep foresty middle of the park and feel some kind of sense of adventure from doing so. But I always got away with it. In fact, the only thing I was ever seen doing with my fly open was pissing in the stream that ran next to the trail, but that was totally non-controversial as it was absolutely standard for every boy who ever went to that part of the park to piss in that stream as if it were a long public trough-style urinal. In this dream from last night, I was on that same path, and I remember so many vivid details of it that makes me feel like my old impressions of it had risen whole and unchanged from some deep geological layer of memory. In the dream, I didnt jerk off and wasn't in the least bit horny enough to want to do so anyway, because I was intensely frustrated at how long circuitous the trail had become, and how it seemed that no matter which direction I went, I was just getting farther and farther away from the park's exit. At one point, I decided it would somehow be faster to simply go back the way I came and quit trying to find the end of the trail, but then the way back had changed, as if the path had been reworking itself behind me as I trod the woods' depths. Eventually, I made myself wake up. I can't always do this, but occasionally I have the ability to realize while in dream-space that I am probably dreaming and can just put an end to whatever dumb situation is going on by waking myself up.

New book project:
I am well into the editing and revision phase of a long project that I will probably release through (the long dormant) M-Brane Press hopefully later this year as both a series of ebooks and a single big print volume. It's a gay pornographic science fiction thing with elements of planetary romance and cosmic horror, set in a fantasy version of the Solar System several centuries from now, centered around a cast of specially-endowed characters that work almost like a Doc Savage-type secret organization to save the world again and again from various insidious threats (while continually getting their rocks off). I started it last summer, and added over fifty thousand words to it as my NaNoWriMo project last November, and it's been kind of growing gradually since then. I may release it pseudonymously, not because of its content but more because its built on the conceit that it's an assembly of several dudes' diary entries put together by an editor many years after the events described. So I think I will credit the book to its imaginary editor. It's become a lot more complicated, elaborate, nuanced, weird and just plain longer than what I had intended at the outset (which was just to knock out some quickie Kindle porn really fast and see if anyone would actually buy it), so I am months behind my own deadlines on it. The original idea was to release it as a bunch of ebooks, each "book" really just being a chapter in a serial. Typically these erotic Kindle books on Amazon tend to really just be four or five thousand-word short stories, and sometimes even shorter than that. My project is currently mapped out to have twenty-seven of these "books", each with a number and a lurid subtitle (I was kind of inspired to that number by Mark Danielwski's The Familiar, which he intends to tell in twenty-seven massive volumes). These individual book segments tend to be clocking in at around ten to twelve thousand words (and they get longer as I lard them up with "scholarly" footnotes) so a bit longer than is typical for the Kinde erotica format, but that's for the best, I think. I find a lot of that stuff to be too brief and not sufficiently fleshed out (and just plain awful) anyway. The final number of chapters may change by the time I am done, because a few of the unfinished ones seem to not need to exist anymore, while a couple of new ones that weren't even in the original outline have grown up and become important to the story arc. Also, I a few months ago, I had more or less decided to kill off one of the characters and excise him from the whole storyline because he didn't seem to be doing much of anything important, and I thought I maybe had too many major characters anyway (nine of them). But more recently, I kind of fell in love with the lad when he suddenly needed to be at the center of a couple new plot threads due to his special ability (he paints and draws stuff derived from prophetic visions). So he stays.
I am happy to be collaborating with Brandon Bell on a new project, Weird Bard Press, a small press focused on "socially aware fiction." Its first project, an anthology called Torn Pages, has its guidelines posted already. This particular book, which is Brandon's concept that he will edit, has a particularly interesting and powerful motivation behind it which will be elaborated upon in an article that he'll be publishing soon. When he asked me if I would knock the accumulated dust off my publisher hat and get busy on a new project, it was not possible to say no. I never even considered saying no. I decided in five seconds to say yes, because it's a cool project and it's with my favorite collaborator.
shakeweb
Hmm, collaboration: it ain't always for me. I don't always do well in groups (unless it's a group that I'm running). In my most private personal life, there's one person with whom I collaborate closely (he knows who he is) and the two of us are the entire group (with the cats, too, of course). In my day-to-day work-life, I do pretty well in the group (but I'm also kinda the boss of most of it, so I get my way a lot) but there, too, is one person who is my main collaborator, and he knows who he is. In my third strange area of life--this weird publishing and editing thing that's done almost entirely on computers--it's awesome to have a collaborator that you can actually get something cool done with, and in this area it's always Brandon Bell. My M-Brane Press handled his awesome magazine Fantastique Unfettered. He and I worked really hard and had great fun making our shared-world fiction concept The Aether Age a real book that Hadley Rille Books published a couple years ago. He also helped me make real my dream of a new book in the style of the old Ace Doubles by giving up one of his novellas to form half of it. I sometimes forget that he wasn't technically a collaborator on my antho Things We Are Not--though he did provide its awesome title story, reprinted here--because the whole time I was working on it I was constantly chatting with him by email about it and getting his insight about things. And the second story that I acquired for the M-Brane SF magazine's first issue was his. It was a stunner, and I knew that I was in touch with someone who was going to be important. So when he mails me and asks me if I want to do something, it's easy to sign up.

Another thing I like about the Weird Bard Press plan right now is that we're not doing a periodical. It's too much of grind right now at this stage of things. I like magazines, and I think Brandon does too, but we're not in that mode this year. FU was finally cancelled a few months ago after its last issue didn't quite make it all the way to press, and I have not--despite some low-level clamor for it--committed to bringing back M-Brane SF. And I'm not going to this year. I'm not saying never, but it's not the right year for it. So, we're going to do stand-alone books and focus first and fully on Torn Pages. It's exciting for me right now because I really have no more idea what this book is really going to end up being than anyone else does, but I know for sure that it's going to be super-cool and very interesting. This certainty comes from knowing that it has a great editor with a great concept.
This will be an intellectually lazy post, largely devoid of cross-references, just an off-the-cuff reaction to a big old Fail that I just now happened to detect on Twitter. It seems that Weird Tales, that on-and-off venerable institiution of speculative fiction, which had apparently been having a halcyon age under the editorship of Ann VanderMeer, had at some point changed ownership and editorship, and--bafflingly--its current editor decided they'd print a chapter of Victoria Foyt's novel Save the Pearls. Did you click that link in the previous sentence? If not, go ahead and do it. Never will you see a douchier author pic. 

Anyway, the reason for much brouhaha is that Foyt's novel is heavily larded with racist tropes and language. Unfortunately, I have read more words of it than I'd have ever liked because I read this entire good and damn-long post on Requires Only that You Hate, a vivisection of Foyt's book complete with many quotations from its tedious prose.

Which is what befuddles me about the Weird Tales editor wanting to publish this (they have since backed down, cancelled the plan and sort of apologized, by the way). Its language and concept is so fucking tiresome, even if it weren't also so offensive. I hate, Hate and HATE stories where they "cleverly" flip the real-world convention, such as: women are now the dominant oppressive sex, blacks are now the dominant racist overlords, homos are now the norm and str8s are oppressed. It's trite on its face, it's always more offensive than it intends to be, and it's always a big epic fucking fail. Combine a big trite failed cliche with an author who poses like a poseur on a bunch of leather couches and add Foyt's dead-tired prose, and you got that dumb "Pearls" book. 

So why would Weird Tales, of all venues, want to fuck away their rep on this shite? It boggles. It ain't even "weird" and it's not of pro quality either. I guess to hell with that zine.
I found some evidence of my teenage activities (which pre-dated a bit my use of the internet) on a wiki site called Fanlore, a neat repository of info that I'd never seen before.

461px-Alternativewarp13
For a couple of years when I was in high school, I published a monthly Star Trek fanzine called The Alternative Warp, (which has entry here at Fanlore.) In some ways, it's a bit of an embarrassment because there wasn't much to recommend it as far as the quality of its content, but for me and my co-editor and our handful of other contributors (all of us being 14 and 15 years old at the time), it was still a pretty solid effort: monthly publication schedule for almost two years, full-size pages, typical issue-length of 32 or more pages, serious effort at making it look decent (in the pre-computer age, yo), cover artwork of no worse quality than the writing inside. It was a mix of fiction, non-fiction, letters, news items, opinion pieces and other random stuff. It fit well with my general interest in writing and my student journalism activities, and it was good fun for those last couple years of teen-hood right before having a driver license and a car opened up a world of other stuff to do at night.

Much of the article about it on the Fanlore site is text copied from a post that I made on the M-Brane SF site on the occasion of Trek's 44th anniversary when I was feeling old and remembering The Alternative Warp #4, our big 20th anniversary extravaganza (kudos to whomever found that post, it being nearly as obscure as its ancient subject matter!). It's kind of exciting in a dorky way to see it referenced anywhere at all. None of its content ever existed in an electronic form, and whatever extant print copies of it may remain on Earth are surely brittle and warped with age, pages probably stuck one to the other by toner decay, so it's kind of cool to know that something I did way back then is noted in the big online record of Stuff That Happened even if the work itself doesn't survive.

But evidently a couple issues are still to be found in "Box 120" of something called the Ming Wathne Fanzine Archives Collection at the University of Iowa. Evidently Ms. Wathne amassed a vast collection of fanzines in numerous media properties and bequeathed the entire collection to the University. According to the catalog, in Box 120 are issues #13 and #14 of my zine and according to the image credit on the Fanlore page, it is from those copies that the images of those covers were grabbed. #13's cover is copied here. Until today, I had not seen it in over 20 years! I can still interpret the headlines: "New Trek cast" refers to the announcement of the actors cast for Star Trek: The Next Generation, which would start its first season a couple months later; "Awards progress" has to do with a (largely fraudulent) poll that we were running to designate best-ofs in fiction etc. from the zine's first year; "Stamp drive" refers to a rather extensive piece that I researched on an effort by some über-fans (but we didn't say über back than) to get the post office to issue a Star Trek commemorative stamp (which effort also scored me the awesome prize of a handwritten note from Isaac Asimov stating that he didn't know anything about the stamp campaign); and "Brazil review" is there because I'd recently seen the Gilliam film, was obsessed with it, was obsessed with making other people see it, and I wrote a little article about it.

This cover art itself was source of mild controversy at the time, but I assume it won't cramp anyone's style all these years later. It was drawn by an artist named C. Kyle (am about 99% sure that C. stands for Christine). We ran this Kirk cover, and also a Spock cover and a McCoy cover, all drawn by Kyle, in three consecutive months (the McCoy image can be seen on the Fanlore page). After we had done so, we received a gently scolding letter from the late Bill Hupe, who was a huge publisher and re-publisher of fanzines. Hupe was a big deal. We called him a "fanzine mogul" and we dreamed that he would for some reason "buy us out." But he was a subscriber to my zine, and even purchased from us random, stupid merch that we sold to raise extra money (homemade tribbles, for example--which got us another cease-and-desist, by the way, from David Gerrold's assistant). Evidently these Kyle covers had previously appeared in some of Hupe's publications and we ran them without proper attribution. Which was really more the artist's fault than ours for not mentioning that they were not previously unpublished. We just published pretty much anything anybody sent us. But I didn't want Hupe angry with me, so I replied with an apology and ran a statement in a subsequent issue properly crediting the items. And here it is again!

My pet project, the M-Brane SF Double: The New People/Elegant Threat is finally close enough to publication (due out May 31) that I can start a pre-order special for it
here at the M-Brane website. Featuring short novels by Alex Jeffers and Brandon H. Bell, the Double is a print book designed in the fashion of the old Ace Doubles series. For well over a year, I have been working on making this idea into a real book that people can hold in their hands and set on a shelf. Even in the undeniable age of the ebook, I think there is still a lot of value in the physical book as an object in and of itself, so I tried to make a really nice one. Also, since I thought the old Ace series was super-cool both content-wise and object-wise, I have long wanted to make something similar. While the old Ace books did not always feature content of uniformly excellent quality, they did provide a venue for a lot of really fantastic literature to get published under the cover of a cheap sf paperback--which is better than it never having been seen at all. Sitting right nearby me are copies of Doubles containing the first publications of items like Samuel Delany's Captives of the Flame and Ursula LeGuin's Rocannon's World. I don't really expect very many people to be as captivated by the Double concept as I am, but I hope enough people will buy it so that I can at least recover its cost and pay the authors a few bucks. But I do know that I'm not the only one who thinks that the novella or short novel is a great medium for speculative fiction in general and science fiction in particular. The length (both Jeffers' and Bell's entries are about 30,000 words) allows for a lot more world-building and character development than a short story usually allows, but it doesn't demand the huge, convoluted plot-lines that epic-length books do. If this first attempt at a Double goes well, I may do a series of them.
End of the year is a logical time to review one's status, either to identify things that point toward a decent next year or suggest that much improvement is needed. In no particular order, these were the major features of my year 2010:

Professional: In May of this year, I returned to a proper day-job as a working culinarian after years spent in the Exile. This has made all the difference as far as the management of the household economy and my general attitude on the ongoing, intractable need to work for a living. I owe this turn of good fortune to a very dear friend. Since I don't talk specifically about the day job here, and because I do not want to embarrass anyone, I will not mention him by name here. But good friends are things to be thankful for even more so this year than most. 

Homelife: We returned from the Exile this year. Our long, dark, insanely self-imposed sojourn in OKC was finally brought to its blessed bloody end by my partner's clear thinking. Well, Jeff had some help in the form of inheriting enough money to finance a move, but he talked me out of delaying the move until the end of the lease on our OKC home and instead saying "fuck that" and moving months early like we did. This wisdom on his part not only brought the Exile to an end months earlier but made the timing perfect as far as getting my new day job.

Writing: I wrote a lot, but didn't finish very much. On the other hand, I submitted two short stories for publication, which is far more than the zero that I had submitted during the previous three years. Of the two stories that I submitted, both were for specifically-themed publications and both were accepted. That puts my acceptance rate for the year at 100%, bitches! (Only two, I know...but still!) But tempering that success was my epic fail at NaNoWriMo in November. While I did clock about 30,000 words, they were quite a mess. Also, they were 30K words of a thing that needs to be more like 100K to actually be done rather than NaNo's 50K winner threshold. Projects that had fallen more or less into hiatus, like my military sf novel Shame and my non-fiction restaurant memoir/cookbook Stackin' Hogs, did not advance much during 2010, though both did have some words added and neither have been given up upon.

Publishing: If the actual work that I perform to make a living is my "day job," then my other job is as the editor of M-Brane SF and the publisher of the recently retooled M-Brane Press. 2010 was really only my second full year in this role, but it was a big one. Other than edit and publish the monthly issues of M-Brane, I also brought out a couple of single-author collections: Cesar Torres' The 12 Burning Wheels and Derek J. Goodman's Machina. I co-edited with Jaym Gates a one-off (maybe) erotic spec fic zine for Crossed Genres called The Little Death. I also published 2020 Visions, a really remarkable collection of near-future spec fic, edited by Rick Novy. We also started a second zine. Brandon Bell's Fantastique Unfettered published its first issue just a few days ago in a beautiful print edition. But perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the year was the publication of The Aether Age, co-edited by Brandon and me and published by Hadley Rille Books. This one was a long time in process and is absolutely the coolest book of the year, period. There's nothing quite like it. Anyone who thinks they know what it is but hasn't seen it yet is wrong. It may take a few months for the word to spread, but begun the Aether Age has!

Political: My undying disgust for teabaggers, Republicans, and other assorted morons reached new heights in 2010. If anyone had any doubt that American "conservatives" are wholly invested in promoting plutocracy, theocracy, know-nothing-ness and bugfuck dumbassedness, then no one need look any further than than the news of 2010.  I actually don't much care at the moment that these people have taken control of the House of Representatives. In fact, I look forward to how they will have to explain to the public why they want to destroy everything. The public needs a fucking refresher anyway: these are some of the same jackasses (Boehner) who ran the Congress just a few years ago, and now they are joined by some even crazier ones. On the upside: the health care law was passed and so was the REPEAL OF DADT!! In your face, McCain!

Personal: Ten years into the relationship with my significant other, I have never been more in love. This is why I do and care about all the rest of it.

I think that's everything from 2010.
Here's a post from Victoria Strauss on the Writer Beware blog (sponsored by SFWA and MWA) about a sham publisher representing itself as a selective small press, but which is, in fact, a vanity publisher, meaning that they ask you for a whole bunch of money to print your book for you. Vanity publishers aren't necessarily fraudulent operations, but this one evidently was. But what I really don't get about this story is why the hell vanity presses even exist anymore in the age of print-on-demand?

If all you want to do is make a book for some kind of small-scale or local purpose (as the examples mentioned in that article seemed to be) that does not need distribution, it's easy and costs next to nothing to do it yourself through Lulu or one of the other POD sources. True, you need to have some kind of skill with a computer if you want to make the thing look decent, and probably even a bit of "advanced" user skill with desktop publishing basics if you want to make a nice custom cover for the book and successfully upload it to the printer. But someone who's got thousands of dollars to blow on having a shady operation "publish" their book can certainly get some inexpensive (if not free) format and design help if they don't know how to do it themselves.

It's just a shame that people don't research these things better. If you want to self-publish your family's genealogy or your collection of grandma's recipes or your unified conspiracy theory or your otherwise unpublishable (but brilliant!) novel, the technology is close at hand to just do it yourself without paying anyone much of anything for it. A few months ago I saw that someone used Lulu to print a lovely hard-bound print edition of his Twitter updates. Maybe I could print a trade paperback edition of the contents of this Live Journal if I wanted to. Worth doing? Probably not, but the point is that one can do it easily and cheaply, and the whole idea that there are still expensive vanity presses separating clueless people from their money really annoys me.  

(PS: I wonder if small-town churches know about POD? It could really help them step up the production quality of their cookbooks!)
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For the past few days, I have been contemplating a dilemma in my capacity as editor of M-Brane SF Magazine. I discovered, to my great irritation, that a writer whom I have published a couple of times sold me first rights to his stories when, in fact, they had been previously published not just once but two times and three times. I don't take reprints, and if I did, I would 1) expect to be informed by the writer that the submission was previously published; 2) I would want to acknowledge in print the previous publisher;  and 3) I sure as fuck would not contract for first English rights on the story. 

For people not in the writing and publishing world, this may sound like an obscure and technical issue, but for me it is one of honor and integrity. This writer is a douchebag for misrepresenting his work as new, and he has made me look like a douche for publishing it as new. I have uncovered numerous instances of this kind of chicanery involving this writer and a number of other zines. I have informed the affected editors so that they can decide for themselves whether to do as I am doing and ban from consideration any future submissions from this person. I am sure there are many other publishers whom I have not yet informed because I am sure that I have not uncovered every instance of this situation. If this were some newbie writer who didn't know what he was doing, and had only done it once or twice, I could maybe forgive and forget. But this is a person with literally hundreds of credits (many of them evidently duplicative under false pretenses).

Despite my rage over this and my natural impulse to call out liars when I spot them, I think I have made the correct decision by not yelling this person's name far and wide and instead just dealing with it directly with the affected parties as I discover them. Word spreads among the zine publishing community. My research into this fraud happened to lead me to a blog that is evidently almost wholly devoted to hating this writer, and does so with great bile and personal nastiness. That sort of thing is not my bag, and I will not participate in it. But I will make sure to take any opportunity that presents itself to shut down yet another market for this particular writer. I have already closed about ten of them.