Breads, Circuses, and Separatists -by Chuck Gannon

*Having spent the entire week with flu, I had my er… bread saved by Chuck Gannon who offered to fill in this Sunday.  We might host him at intermittent Sundays, when he sends us something. -SAH*

Breads, Circuses, and Separatists – by Chuck Gannon


The recent discussion and vote over Scottish independence has, according to some analysts and pollsters, given encouragement to US secessionists. It is certainly a significant debate, particularly as we dwell in the collective shadow of superstate and macrohegemonic realities.


It is important to note that the surge in US seccessionist conversations is by no means restricted, as some like to suggest, to Libertarians. Quite the contrary: a recent poll (Reuters/Ipsos, linked below) shows that the national US average of persons either supporting seccession or willing to consider it stands at about 24%. And the distribution of this sentiment is not so very lopsided: the partisan statistics are 21% of Democrats, almost 30% of Republicans. But here’s the kicker: no matter how much separatist Americans may dislike hegemonic power- politics (domestic or international), I wonder how many have taken the time to find and closely read a reasonable study on what is likely to happen when one–and ONLY one– hegemonic global power diffuses/fractures. (I have sat in on some of those studies and looked at some of those white papers, from both sides of the political spectrum. They have been most illuminating.) I am not talking about the cherry-picking expeditions of selective argumentation, employed by utopists and dystopists as widely divergent as Orwell, Rand, Wells. Rather, I am referring to sober projections carried out with comprehensive databases and reasonable application of games theory heavily informed by historical models.


I will not presume to say one word about Scotland. Not my country, not my right or my business. But in regard to the US, I offer one observation. When the people of a *superstate* dismantle it in a world where other vigorous–not to say “rival”– superstates are active, they have furnished their nation’s arch-competitors with the first condition of the most reliable strategic axiom on record, “Divide and (then) conquer.”


This is not a right or left argument. It is not, in its motivation, even a statist argument. Rather, it is a simple observation of historical fact to date. And given the costs of strategically significant technologies and infrastructures (which include not only the predictable military, high-energy, and aerospace domains but even those of education, medical technology, and information/automation systems), it is simply not in the fiscal and resource scope of smaller states to compete equally with superstates ( do not mistake some small nations’ excellent standards of public tech/service diffusion with total global leverage). They are materially unable to both make the breakthroughs and extensively deploy the resulting devices which ensure not merely their competitiveness with rival superstates, but also their autonomy from the commercial and military pressure that those same states can exert.


Whether one sees the limits of hegemony at the end of national borders or in the larger sense of traditional allies and cultural kin (such as the UK), a splintered US is a world with many new vulnerabilities in general–but particularly for those polities which were once part of the US. For instance, be assured that, in a scenario where separated states might attempt a limited recentralization, any rivals who hope to enjoy greater “freedom of action” in the absence of a US superstate will resist and confound, however they may, any corrective reversion toward closer ties, let alone a reformation of the nation.


And besides, if we are willing to dissolve our bonds of confederation over local inequities and partisan pendulum swings, it seems likely that such rival superstates will always be able to find enough willing collaborators whose cooperation may be purchased in exchange for a boost to their regional interests. Red state vs Blue state, city versus country, cosmopolitan versus fly-over, and all special interest groups versus all other special interest groups: in general, it has ever been thus in this nation. But two things seem to have changed. One change is structural: the increasing centralization of power. And this too has been an ongoing struggle and balancing act for our nation. It may be that we have veered too far away from the center at this moment, or it may be that these are disorienting and dislocating times for many groups in our nation, and that the pace of change and the centralization of power together cause proportionally greater trepidation… which manifests in some as a cautious withdrawal from the common cause and objective of healthy nationhood.


But I suspect that the greater force undermining the union of American States is the decline and even decay of civitas as displaced by sheer materialism and self-interest. When our media holds up self-aggrandizing sports figures and self-absorbed celebrities as the heroes and models for our youth, then we have reason to question what kind of citizens we are mentoring. And also what kind of citizens we ourselves have become in tolerating it. Lest a reader fear that I am about to invoke the tired rhetorics of an out of touch moralist who is more suited to telling kids to get off of his lawn, allow me to make clear that I am not espousing any particular set of morals or cultural shibboleths.I only suggest this: that we may be living in an age of unfettered electronic breads and circuses– which could be the unintended handmaidens to our national undoing. The Cult of Me has never been so strong. Small wonder that the value of We–particularly We The People–has become so weak that many Americans are willing (almost casually so) to undo the bonds that have made us–*together*–the pivotal nation and social experiment of the modern epoch.


If such considerations extend to traditional partners and cultural relatives in places such as the UK, well, obviously, that is ever and only for them to decide. But if their interests at all align with ours in this contentious world, then perhaps they will find some modest food for thought in these lines, as well.

Dr. Charles E. Gannon’s Nebula-nominated best-seller, Fire With Fire, won the 2014 Compton Crook Award. It’s August 2014 sequel, Trial By Fire, launched (with a starred review in PW) as an immediate best-seller, as was Gannon’s June 2014 collaboration with Eric Flint, 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies. Their 1635: The Papal Stakes, was a Wall Street Journal Best Seller. Gannon also collaborates in the NYT best-selling Starfire series and has been published (mostly novellas) in various shared universes and anthologies (Honorverse, Man-Kzin, War-World, Going Interstellar) and magazines such as Analog.

Although no longer in the classroom, Gannon remains a Distinguished Professor of English (SBU), was a Fulbright Senior Specialist (2004-2009), is a member of the sf think-tank SIGMA (advises DoD, NASA, NRO, others), has been featured on The Discovery Channel and NPR, and won the 2006 American Library Association Choice Award for Rumors of War and Infernal Machines.






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Biological Dark Matter

molecules, proteins, what are we made up of?

molecules, proteins, what are we made up of?

It happened in class. I was quietly sitting in the big lecture hall, surrounded by some fifty-odd other students (this was Friday, and no homework due in class, and a beautiful day… about half the class didn’t bother to show up). I was writing, because the character I’m weaving a story around likes this class. It reminds her of her undergraduate days, and she starts talking about the things she’s working on, so I write. Only I needed to stop and think a little, because in the story, there are colony planets, and she’s traveled to one. I wanted to know how she got there in only three weeks, and was looking up space drives. My knowledge of the FTL possibilities is rather limited to the fictional.

She didn’t know, and didn’t care. She was much more interested in telling me about the tweaking of her microbiome in order to make her safe to live on a new colony because four human generations is practically a millennium in genetic shift of pathogens. For her, the ship was simply a container that got her from point A to her new lab, where her employers betrayed her… But I digress. I suspect that for most of us, even those who aren’t quite so focused on one topic in the way she is, don’t think a whole lot about how we get from point A to point B.

Going to look at NASA’s site yielded this, initially, which was fascinating, but as far as I can tell, strictly pie-in-the-sky. I knew I’d seen something recently about an ‘impossible drive’ recently, so I kept digging at the site, while the lecturer began. I’d read her powerpoint slides before class, so I skimmed through the paper while listening to her describe the differences between RNA and DNA (the sugar backbone and one of the pyramidines, uracil, if anyone following along was curious and didn’t know). The results of the tests NASA performed on the flying microwave? “Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.” I don’t see how this makes interstellar travel more possible, but anything to get us off this mudball and out into the Solar System to explore new ground will be good. Exploration is vital to growth, development, and giving the next generation something to strive for.

And then the professor got my whole attention, by stopping talking and starting a video. A TED talk with a gripping title, I watched and let my brain kick into overdrive while the guy talked. What’s left to explore? he was asked by a middle-schooler, and the idea he came up with was to look inward, literally up one’s nose, and discover biological dark matter.  We know there are bacteria, and viruses from the time we are school children. Then archea were split off and the whole domains of life as we know it rearranged. Sometime not too long before I was born, the weirdness that is prion disease as postulated and proven. Now… what else might be sharing our world with us?

Which led me back to the article I’d first opened this morning in my tabs, and the story I was working on. If a tiny handheld DNA sequencer is possible, and we extrapolate based on current trends, how far in the future can I set my tale of plague and bioengineering without having my story begin to fail the plausible science tests in the general public’s mind? What can we find here on Earth with us, living in us and on us, that could affect human development, and even if we know, what does it mean? I’m trying to delicately fold all this into the story without destroying the plot, the characters (especially one pedantic scientist who has moments where she really doesn’t care about humanity, she’s much more interested in what’s growing in her vats), or my reader’s delicate suspension of disbelief. It’s like making a souffle. One wrong move, and the whole mess is dense and inedible. I don’t know if I can do it. But I can sure have fun trying, and the research is fascinating.


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It Must Be Love!

It must be Love!

Pam Uphoff

I really hate it when my subconscious is right. I mean, I’ve got this story all plotted out. The enigmatic bad-guy-or-is-he? The slimy politician, his weeny gofer, his bubble headed bleached blonde trophy wife, his bodyguard the retired heroic space marine, the bright pretty young secretary . . .

All I have to do is throw them together with a bit of outer solar system wild west diplomacy/justice/exploration and . . .

What do you mean the space marine isn’t the hero? Shut up, back brain.

No, the weeny gofer is not an undercover agent. The marine is going to rescue the girl. Shut up back brain, he is not too old. Yes, I may have a sixty year old woman’s perspective on what makes a man attractive, but . . . well . . . crap. OK, he’s too old, but this isn’t a romance, so it doesn’t matter.

Actually, it does.

Sex sells. That’s why we’ve got those half naked men and women on the book covers. Readers expect their he-men to come with hormonally driven impulses. Women are _supposed_ to fall in love. Mind you, outside of Romance, Erotica, Urban Fantasy, and Literature the sex is supposed to be a sub plot, not the main storyline. (OK, not always the last two genres.:)) But you just can’t have realistic characters without some libido creeping in, now and then. It just doesn’t happen that way.

And some sexual context adds spark to a story. It changes the readers’ view of the character.

I’m trying to think of some broad categories that romance can fall into.
There’s the just met, feel attraction, falling in love sequence we’re all familiar with. Generally with a ton of ups and downs.
Then there’s the already committed couple, working with each other, worrying about each other, maybe a rescue or three . . .
There’s the estranged couple who might or might not get back together. Ups downs and rescues? Ya think?

Please, all you other writers, chime in, because while I can decide to do it deliberately, I tend to write it subconsciously with no real knowledge of how to properly analyze it, so I can do it again.

And I don’t have the relationship as the focus of the plot. I write what, for lack of a better term, are science fiction-fantasy crossovers. So . . . how do I introduce True Love into a story? Or sex, for that matter.

Well, first you have to throw the characters together in a fashion that won’t have your reader throwing the book against the wall.

I’ll honestly say that I don’t write “can this relationship be saved” books because I don’t really like reading stories about people who are obviously unsuited for each other. Someone else needs to chime in about to how to put one together and make it work.

So, what about the characters meeting for the first time?
Starting with an adversarial relationship is one of those tropes that sticks around, because it works so well. Sarah’s Darkship Thieves, and her shifter series both start with the two main characters at odds.
Cedar Sanderson’s Pixie Noir series starts with a bit of cross purposes, but never actually adversarial, and works very well. They marry early in the second book, and adventure ensues.

So . . . what about an old comfy pair of people? Actually you can have either romantically involved characters, or characters with an established non-sexual relationship who finally notice the other in a new way. (Dang, I just realized I have the perfect pair to do that to!) Or perhaps they’ve been attracted all along, but for professional reasons, it’s just such a bad idea it never happens. Half the cop shows with male and female partners fall into this category.
David Weber’s Honor Harrington makes it through a gabillion books before she falls for Admiral White Haven.
Jim Butcher ditto. But Harry has always had a yen for Murphy, just . . . hands off the cop. _Lots_ of sexual tension, hiding behind both friendship and a very stormy professional relationship.

Which points out another important aspect of making your story sexier. For there to be tension, the characters can’t just have sex in the first chapter, with or without details on the page. The reader has to be kept in suspense. Are they going to? When are they going to? Arg! Another hot, steamy, scene interrupted by a mere explosion or an axe murderer crashing into the room!

Make your reader keep flipping those pages.

“But, but,” you say, “I don’t want them too! I don’t write that sort of book, and anyway, I’ve got this idea for the next book and it has no place for a spouse or similar sort of true love interest!”

That can get tricky.

The clichéd method is to kill the one who is not the main character. Then you have a nice little vengeance book, and your bachelor(ette) hero(ine)can get back to work in the next one without encumbrances. Umm, been done so many times it’s really hard to find a fresh angle. Some clichés stand up to time, other get old really fast. This one’s past it’s sell date, IMO, but you can always try for a new angle.

If you really don’t want a married character, you really need to figure out a way to end the romance that won’t have the reader tossing the book across the room. Or spraining their thumb deleting the file from their ereader.

Umm, lesson from my personal experience. The worst case I had of forcing a romance into a story was a book where the hero, at the end, was essentially, emotionally, untouched by the death toll of the climactic fight. He was a spy and had gotten into an advantageous position . . . So I added a female security agent for him to fall in love with. Right? Last person he should have let get close to him. I felt bad killing her, at the end, just to add angst. In fact my spy got all snotty about it. Inside my head. Yuck!

Always listen, when your subconscious dresses up in one of your characters and sneers at your pathetic attempt to make him feel bad.

So I changed the ending . . . No spoilers, since I’m giving it away down below, but my Beta readers approved. Happily ever after, in this case was they both lived, and he fled to spy another day.

A good finish (AKA satisfying to the reader) of a romance subplot can make the reader forget about all the other loose threads (but do try to sew up as many as possible.) A dangling romance is especially noticeable. Only do it if you’ve got a sequel in the works, with the hanging romance included. Really.

Another thing to remember, in crafting a romance, is the readers’ ick factor.

I’ve run into quite a few people who can’t stand May-December romances. They seem to think it’s (1) a power imbalance and possible abusive use there of, (2) practically pedophilia, or (3) a gold digger, taking the old man (or woman) for all they’ve got and probably the cause of his/her earlier divorce . . .

S&M, B&D . . . read the popular ones and see how far they go, or don’t, and don’t go too much further. Research, so you don’t become a laughingstock.

The GHH’s are all for odd relationships. But how large of an audience is there? What do they actually like, in the way of explicit as opposed to behind closed doors. Again, research, before you write the gay relationship, or the three way or whatever. The more detail you add, the more you need to know to get it right. Closed doors are useful, but the lead up needs to be credible.

What other ick factors have you seen in action? What really turns you off a book, in terms of romance and sex? Personally, I hate the clingy, needy type relationships.

You have to make it work. It needs to fit the story you are telling.

Get it right and it adds sparkle to the story. It can make your characters do the stupid things they otherwise would never have done, and the readers don’t complain. You can make your readers laugh, cry, or throw the book across the room. Romance is _useful_.

What pointers do y’all have? How do you make your romances work?

And the book push: Here’s the SF/F spy novel with added romance. Free today and tomorrow.


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In Which Obvious Reporter is Obvious

It seems that no matter what I do or where I go I am constantly hit between the eyes with yet more evidence that the Stupid is not Out There, it is In Here and trying to convince me it’s really, really smart: everyone says so.

The latest example of this can be found claiming that, as history, myth, and Shakespeare all claim, Richard III did indeed die painfully in battle. To which I say, DUH. Battlefield deaths, especially in that era, weren’t exactly known for their gentle nature.

The charitable explanation here is that the reporter is aware her audience is somewhat… challenged and adjusting (aka dumbing down) her article accordingly. The more likely explanation is that she’s on par with her audience. Of course she is reporting on a paper published by researchers who have been examining ol’ Tricky Dicky’s (the first one. The US Tricky Dicky is much later in the piece) battered skeleton and figuring out more or less what happened to him – so what’s reported is already going through at least one filter.

Let’s take a look at this piece…

The reviled king suffered nearly a dozen injuries on the battlefield, but the fatal blows were probably only sustained after he had to abandon his horse, according to a new paper.

What, they think the whole “A horse!” thing was fiction? Shakespeare was writing a couple of generations later, when there would have been a ton of stories floating around from veterans of the battle (as told by their kids and grandkids, most likely). Said stories probably weren’t quite so poetic, of course. They probably involved a lot of laughing and crude comments about precisely what ol’ Dicky was going to use the horse for, since his army was getting slaughtered.

More seriously, we’re talking about a late medieval battle here. Men of Dicky’s rank fought on horseback. And since the spine curvature has turned out to be something other than Tudor propaganda, there’s a damn good chance he fought much better on horseback than off it. No need to worry about the balance and limping issues any spinal curvature might generate, you see. He’s got a seat as long as he can hold it.

Since the skeleton of the 15th-century king was discovered under a parking lot in central England in 2012, scientists have done numerous studies, including an examination of his twisted spine that led Shakespeare to label him a hunchback. In the latest research, published Wednesday in the journal Lancet, scientists used computer scans and other methods to analyze the king’s skeletal wounds.

Since bones are about all that’s left of him, that’s about all they’re going to be analyzing, but other than some seriously confused antecedents this isn’t too offensive (the 21st century examination of Dicky’s anatomy is what made Shakespeare call Dicky a hunchback? Really?)

“Richard was probably in quite a lot of pain at the end,” said Sarah Hainsworth, a professor of materials engineering at the University of Leicester and one of the study authors. She said the king was most likely attacked by numerous assailants after dismounting from his horse, which got stuck in a marsh.

I detect a scientist using “Speaker to Morons” voice here. The man was killed in battle in the 15th century. Of course he was in a lot of pain at the end. Also the top, the front, and the back, and everywhere else. At least he didn’t suffer poor Ned’s fate (Edward II, he whose end involved a red-hot poker and his… er… end, as it were). He got to go down fighting and take a few of them with him.

Precisely how they know the horse got stuck in a marsh is something I’m not that sure about. I’m going to go with “it was a marshy bog at the time, so it probably got stuck because if it had been killed he might not have been able to get off it in one piece. We’ll figure it was a controlled dismount, then.”

Richard’s skeleton showed evidence of 11 injuries from weapons including daggers, swords and a long metal pole with an axe and hook that was used to pull knights off their horses. “Medieval battle was bloody and brutal,” she said, noting one of the skull injuries showed a sword had pierced his head.

Aside from our reporter not knowing the correct terminology (definitely some kind of pole arm although exactly which flavor is up for grabs), I’ve got to say I’m impressed. The dude’s hit hard enough by a pole arm, daggers, and swords to leave at least 11 impact wounds (or worse) on his bones before he goes down. Tough bastard. Who knows how many flesh wounds there were?

And yes, medieval battle was bloody and brutal. Most battle is like that, when it comes to the crunch. Or sharp pointy thing. Or shooty thing. The object is to kill the guys on the other side before they can off you, after all. Modern civilian life appears to have forgotten this for some reason.

The nine injuries Richard suffered to his head prove the king somehow lost or took off his helmet during the battle at Bosworth Field, against Henry Tudor, on Aug. 22, 1485. He was the last English monarch to die in battle.

I’m not entirely sure what relevance the fact that ol’ Dicky’s death was the last time an English monarch died in battle has to the price of oranges. It’s an interesting piece of trivia and just made a whole lot of Trivial Pursuit junkies happy, but apart from that? Meh. It’s a factoid that could be changed tomorrow (okay, probably not, since I can’t see Lizzy – or Charlie, for that matter – heading off to battle any time soon. Wills, possibly).

Even if Richard’s injuries had been treatable, it was highly unlikely his rivals would have shown him mercy, said Steven Gunn, an associate professor of history at Oxford University, who was not part of the research.

Excuse me while I laugh hysterically, Professor Obvious. Mercy at this point meant killing him quickly instead of taking their time about it. We’re talking an era where it wasn’t that uncommon to deal with threats to the royal line by eliminating the entire family down to the newborns.

Seriously, the fact that the reporter thought this was significant – and presumably asked about it which is why Professor Obvious is making such an obvious statement – shows that she isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

“A live ex-king is just an embarrassment,” he said.

Apparently Ms Reporter didn’t get it, since Professor Obvious needed to emphasize this point.

Gunn also said it was significant there were no attempts to disfigure Richard. “Having evidence that the real Richard III is dead is very useful,” he said. “You don’t want somebody popping up somewhere later claiming to be the real king.”

Oh dearie me. Apparently the English were a bit more civilized even then. The usual method of having evidence that the real Richard III is dead (or whoever) was to cut their head off and coat it with a thin layer of tar so the head could be mounted somewhere really obvious. You know, like the Ottomans reputedly did to Vlad the Impaler’s head (although with him I’m inclined to suspect it was more to prove to themselves he was dead).

Hainsworth said the wounds in Richard’s skeleton match historical accounts that he fought until the very end.

I’ll give the researcher a bit of a pass here. She’s a materials engineer (I’m not quite sure what the relevance of that is to what amounts to Extreme Autopsy, but it’s not my sport, so what do I know), not a historian. It should be obvious to her that back then, there was a choice between fighting to the end and taking a few of the bastards with you, or not fighting and not taking any of them with you. Or offing yourself, with more or less the same result.

“This doesn’t tell us anything about what kind of king he was or the controversy surrounding his nephews,” she said, referring to rumors that Richard murdered his two nephews to protect his throne. “Whatever else people think about him, he fought bravely until he died.”

Er. Right. Under the circumstance I think it would take more courage not to keep fighting. Besides, back then? Not fighting to your last breath was unthinkable. The consequences of surviving the battle and being on the losing side were typically a lot worse than dying (think Ned of the Red Hot End), and took rather longer than a crapload of sharp pointy things all trying to hit you at once would.

And for the sake of my blood pressure if nothing else, Ms Reporter, please cut down that “I’m smarter than you” tone. You make me want to demonstrate medieval battle wounds on you. Personally. And neither of us wants that. I’d never get the blood out of the carpet.


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Riding Shotgun — short story workshop part 11?12?13?

Riding Shotgun


So, you’ve found you pony. Good. Now to dig him out and give him a good polish.

That is, you’ve decided what you want to express with this story and now it’s the time to clean it up and make it shine.

Again, let me make this very clear: editing, this type of structural editing is not proof reading. You can do a final pass for wrong words or words that are repeated, or out of place punctuation, nothatIeverdothat, of course.

Also, cutting is not editing. Cutting might be needed as part of editing, but if you just go in and cut everything – unless you are on a word limit and you’ve greatly exceeded it, and even then I’d advise you to just try recasting the story or writing something completely different. If you have to cut more than half of a story, you’ll be maiming it, and you might not even be aware of it, because to you this story is not fresh, and you don’t know if you’re missing important parts.

As a secondary recommendation, if you’re going to be cutting that deeply, DO make sure some readers read your cut version and listen/watch very carefully for their reaction.

Now, as part of your editing, you might need to cut, but you also might need to grow some parts.

Think of it as gardening. If your approach to gardening is to go out and cut everything, from rose bushes to lawn to about an inch high, your garden will look like mine. (Not that I do that, but I have the touch of death for plants.)

No, clearly, you will trim what must be trimmed, fertilize what must be fertilized, support what must be supported, which are actually rather apt analogies.

But first, of course, we must know what you’re trying to say, right.

This is always difficult for me, since I often don’t know what the “message” is till I’ve thought about it. But once the story is done, you should have some idea what you’re trying to say. It could be as profound as “all men are flawed” or as simple as “little girls like pink way too much.”

The first thing you need to understand, before you start this editing is that your reader isn’t reading your story for the “moral.” Oh, sure, if you’re writing some sort of “lesson” for a version of a Victorian “book for good girls” (grandma had one) maybe. Although one could argue that sort of book is not chosen or bought by the people who would read it. In this they share the more modern tracts of political correctness, where the work is consumed for the “good feels” of what it says and not the ludic experience involved in reading.

If you’re writing for either of those moralizing purposes, more power to you. Figure out what you’re trying to say and make your story a just so story.

But if you’re writing to entertain, to hold the reader’s attention and to make the reader look for more of your stuff, you have to aim differently.

First you have to look at your story and realize you’re not going to be “saying” this moral or this idea. No. You’re going to be causing the reader to experience it.

What I mean is, a fiction piece is an encapsulated bit of experience that differs from reality only by being coherent and making sense.

So, what you want is for your reader to experience the emotional highs and lows along with the character. Your read will in fact be riding shotgun with the character.

In this, fiction has an advantage over movies or other forms of visual entertainment, where you can to a certain degree empathize with the character, but truly it’s more that you’re looking at someone else live the experience.

You know that whole “show, don’t tell?” it’s a misnomer. It should be “live, don’t tell.”

What does this mean in practicality. Say you want to tell the story – as so many of us do – of a character who suffers and triumphs and your moral is “Great love inspires character to survive.”

You want to highlight the parts that show the character has great love for someone, and then you want to make his survival very, very difficult, but you want him to keep ticking through it.

In the course of a short story, the part where he shows his great love (and remember to make it interesting, not just his saying it) would take maybe a third, and the trials most of the remaining two thirds, with the climax taking maybe 10% of the story, if that.

That is, give greater emphasis to the parts that have the greater emotional load. Yeah, your character can go out shopping, but that should take proportionally little room, unless the frustrations of shopping are the trials of your story.

More room in the story should be given to your character longing and striving towards what he might or might not be able to get. Because that is the core of emotion of your story.

Other structural edits, once you get that sorted out, are minor. They’re stuff like “do both your arguments in the story take place in the pastry shop? Unless there’s a reason for this, move one of them to as different a setting as possible. Say the bedroom. Or the garage.” And does your character drink too much coffee? Find another bit of stage business for him to do. Stuffing envelopes, or knitting or painting walls, or something.

And I’m running too long on this, without going into a revision of the structure, so we’ll do that next week in “The part of the first part, making sure you have all the parts of a functional story on paper, and not just in your head.”




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Most of us are amateurs and thieves if you listen to some folks

Last week, I wondered if we were in a perpetual full moon phase because of all the craziness that seemed to be going on. Little did I know that the craziness was just beginning. In the time since that post went live, we’ve seen an author on Amazon taking the fight to reviewers because they didn’t like his book, another author going on a rant because of another writer’s politics and espousing the fact that you aren’t a “professional writer” if you self-publish on Amazon and then the latest from HarperCollins, once again proving that legacy publishers look at their customers as thieves. Foolishness, just foolishness with a sense of entitlement thrown in.

Starting from the top. . . .

For years, Sarah and I have inflicted on our friends and people we’ve done workshops with a certain book we found at an RWA conference. This book has been an example of not one what you shouldn’t do as a writer but also the fact that publishers will buy bad books and put money behind them, making them successful enough to become a series. While the book isn’t Eye of Argon bad, it comes close. So close, in fact, that I never thought to find one worse. Until we were introduced to a book in the Diner on Facebook. From a cover the author worked on for years but which screams amateur to poorly written prose, it is a prime example of why you always check the preview samples before buying a book.

That, in and of itself, wouldn’t be enough to cause comment here. What does is the behavior of the author himself. Ten reviews have been posted since the book was first published. The average rating for the book is two stars. Now, that’s not all that unusual. You can find bad books on Amazon and other retailers without much difficulty. Where this one differs is what happens with the reviews. This is the first time I have seen so many comments regarding the posted reviews. The author continues to try to refute the bad reviews — heck, he even tries to refute anything negative that might be in the good reviews — to the point that it goes beyond just being invested in what is obviously a story he believes in. His straw arguments are that you can’t review a book unless you buy it and read all of it. This comes after he has invited folks to read the first five chapters — or the preview on Amazon — and post what they think.

When that argument doesn’t work, he either completely ignores the specific critiques or he chooses one obscure point a reviewer has made and latches onto that with a death grip in an attempt to prove the critic has an agenda he is working and that is why he didn’t like the book. The accusations from the author have ranged from envy because he is such a good writer and the critic will never be able to write a book to the critic not being smart enough to understand what he was striving for in the book (mind you, this is a book the author says is for children) to religious bias and, quite possibly some sort of global conspiracy. He comes across as condescending and more than a bit “off”. That is never good when it comes to engaging with your readers.

As tempting as it is to respond to negative reviews and to try to explain why you wrote something the way you did, don’t. Just don’t. It isn’t going to help you any and it will drive you crazy trying to keep up with reviews and, worse, trying to make everyone happy. Write your own book, pull up your big boy — or girl — pants and take your lumps. There is going to be someone who leaves a review that has you scratching your head and wondering if they read the same book you wrote. Move on to your next project after you finish the first one instead of trying to guard the gate and defend it against the naysayers. If you just have to defend it, don’t, absolutely do not, claim that some unnamed person who holds some super important job that is so important you can’t name the job or the employer or the person himself read you book and loved it. The moment you do, you will be called on it.

As I said, pull up your big boy pants, kiss your darling book goodbye and send it off into the world to sink or swim.

In the next example of what not to do, don’t go onto Facebook or other social media to rant and rave — and, in the process, show your own fear of the changing face of publishing. In this particular example, an author ranted that they would have loved to join a professional writers group but for the organizer’s politics. The tone left no doubt that the organizer — who at least wasn’t named in the rant — was a wrong thinker and didn’t follow the current cause du jour of traditional publishing. My first thought as I read the rant was to wonder if the author put the same sort of requirement on authors they read as they obviously did on authors they might network with. For myself, as a reader, I don’t give a flying rat’s hairy butt what an author’s politics are as long as they don’t hit me over the head with them in their books.

But that wasn’t what really bothered me about this author’s comments. What did was the comment that you can’t be a professional author if you self-publish on Amazon.

That brought the whole potential for understanding that they were having a bad day and maybe had a history with the group leader that hadn’t been detailed in the rant. Nope, the comment about indies was a slap in the face not only to me but to every author who has taken advantage of the new opportunities provided by Amazon and other e-tailers. It also indicates that this particular author is still buying in to the arguments of traditional publishers that the reading public still needs gatekeepers. It also forgets that these same publishers have abdicated much of the gatekeeping responsibilities to agents who are now, in all too many cases, acting as competitors to publishers because they have their own publishing imprints.

Since the first of the year, I have made more from indie publishing than I would have received as an advance from a traditional publisher — assuming they didn’t see me as the next Stephen King or Nora Roberts. I know others who have made much more than I have. Indie authors have been able to quit their day jobs and work as writers full time. But, according to the ranting author, we aren’t professionals because we haven’t made our bones in the traditional way.

Sorry, but I’ll take indie publishing over almost every traditional publisher. I’ve seen how much work authors who are still traditionally published have to do to make sure their books are of the quality they want. Some hire outside editors and proofreaders because they know they can’t trust the editing and proofing that comes out of the publishing house. Almost all authors do their own promotion and spend their own money to do so, despite assurances from their publishers that they will take care of promotion. It is a lie, in almost every time.

I’ll settle for doing all that and keeping most of the money made from my sales. I’ll proudly wear the label of indie and call myself a professional writer. I don’t care that SFWA has yet to figure out what to do about indies who are making more money and accruing more sales than many of their so-called professional author members. As a reader, I’ll remember the words of those same so-called professionals who trash other writers simply because they chose a different path to get their work out to their readers.

If all that isn’t enough to convince you that the inmates are still trying to run the asylum, this last bit might. HarperCollins has decided that it isn’t enough to add DRM to its ebooks because, you know, all readers are potential thieves. Now the publisher is going to add a digital watermark to its ebooks so there will be an “additional layer of security”. The explanation offered is that HC wants to make sure the etailers it uses to sell its ebooks overseas are using the highest security possible. However, this new technology will allow HC to know if someone has illegally downloaded a book. Any bets on how long it will be before HC sends its first cease and desist letter to a reader? If you don’t want to place a bet on that, how about on how long it will take for the geeks to figure out a way to break that level of encryption as well as the standard DRM?

I don’t know about you, but I hate DRM. I hate being treated like a crook by people I’m paying money to. Of course, the whole thing boils down to the simple fact that publishers, on the whole, don’t believe ebooks are “real” books. That why they sell “licenses” for their ebooks and why they fight against the mere suggestion of the customer being able to sell an ebook after reading it.

And they wonder why people look for plug-ins and programs to break DRM and why we read as many indie books as we do.

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready for the grown ups — or at least someone with some common sense and an understanding of basic economics and the theory of supply and demand — to take over the industry. I’m tired of the tantrums and the digging in of heels and the denial that things need to change. This is a situation where the industry is broken and it does need to change and adapt if it is to survive.


Filed under E-books, publishing, writing

Mud, Glorious Mud…

“Mud, mud, glorious mud,
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.”
Flanders and Swann – The Hippopotamus’s Song
So come let us wallow… Now a few weeks ago I wrote of the poor fellow who decried the terrible tragic sinking into the swamp, the morass of self-published drekk, where jewels (such, naturally, as his own offerings) would be lost. No one would ever sell more than fifty copies. Alas, alack, alackaday-dee…(and various other suitable cries of woe, and occasional alarums).

Let me draw you a picture of a hill to comfort you. Because, you know, if you don’t want to be down in the swamp… what you need is hill. Well, mostly. As a mountaineer I can tell you near-vertical bogs do exist, and many an adventure hangs… or falls, thereby, but that aside water mostly runs downhill. And where there is not more land than water, it becomes very attractive to amorous Hippopotami. If you’re a hippo, it’s a good place to be. This may not be true for aging hipsters bemoaning Indy sales. You’ll have to forgive the hokey pictures – I got coreldraw for my birthday and today I tried to use it. Take the will for the deed – because it makes my point.
mudcurve 1 001

So look, behold, and otherwise espy: A hill. Otherwise known as a normal Gaussian distribution. Stick with ‘hill’. It’s simpler and rhymes with thrill, which is what the author who does not want to be in the swamp gets, when he finds himself on a dry piece of the hill. Now that doesn’t have to be the top of the hill – just a place where there is no rain (books that can soak in there) and thirsty ground (readers who want books that appeal to them). It can be very big hill, so a dry patch can be quite enough to make an author a living.

Now the hill can ‘describe’ all sorts of things, from an interest in gay romance, or how readers feel about a particular author, to the IQ of a country. The high point of the hill compared to the high point hill that is the demographic of the whole body of possible readers isn’t the same, and, duh, obviously, the biggest hill possible matches the demographic of the possible reading populace precisely. That’s a big hill, if we just talk English first language and an IQ of over 90… say 200 million strong. Some of those will read very little. Some of those will consume a lot of books. Again you can draw a hill for consumption, and the ‘sweet spot’ highest of that hill is not with the few reading 5 books a day (like me, on a reading jag) nor with the one book in ten years, or with the very bright, or the stupid. It’s probably with the medium-bright, and 2-3 books a month people.

Once upon a time, when the world was so very new and all, men wrote books for men.
A little bit of that leaked into the female half of the possible reader population, but really, it made their heads overheat and explode and there was no point in doing something that might appeal to them.
mud2 001

As time moved on and the world was slightly more shop-soiled and worldly-wise, publishing began to realize that women spent money and really, no one knew or cared what sex the money had come from. And the books, and writers (the lady novelist…) began to cater for both genders. And the Bronte’s and Austen’s found a ready audience, and some of it wasn’t female (the area under the curve represents buyers.) And so, gradually, the publishing industry and writers adapted to pleasing and, not surprisingly, representing their audience. Of course there were bits on the edges, or out of socio-political favor who were ignored. But, in general, this was not a huge part of the curve.

mudcurve 1 003

And, let us be real here, most of the readers didn’t care if the 0.1% – or (5 or 10%) the possible reading population – be these the worshipers of the sky-spaghetti-monster, or gay, or ex-Lithuanians didn’t get books that appealed. There was a small but real market for these people, just as there was a small (maybe not as small) market for sf or fantasy. Let someone who is interested in it, who fits there him/herself, write it. For a few writers it can be a good niche.

The problem of course is when you have too many writers in one niche, especially if that’s a small niche. Which cuts to core of what this blog post is about (and mud, of course)

It’s no secret that the bulk of the NY Traditional publishing establishment has steadily moved leftwards, and nowhere more so than in sf-fantasy, which has been more accepting of the left and quite open to the avant garde for their time, for the better part of seventy years – in other words, the claim that sf/fantasy ever was a right-wing, sexist, racist etc etc totally fails to hold water. Taken in a direct comparison to other genres of the same time, sf always was more wide open to the entire spectrum than any other section of literature. That, for a genre that sold to a part of the demographic (those prepared to read sf) was its strength. It’s a strength which has gone to the opposite in the last thirty odd years.
First you had this

mud4 002
Which when the publishing establishment controlled the rainfall (books that could naturally soak in there) … meant that the rest of the hill could go dry or take the run-off, but they weren’t interested (especially in sf/fantasy, in appealing to those sectors. They could like or be educated by it. There were aspects to those authors that might appeal to some readers. And when you controlled access to retail (which is what tradpub did) You could dictate what was available.
So they pushed it to this.
mud5 001

And then of course… it got far more doctrinaire. You had people like Orson Scott Card tossed from the fold because while the rest of his tenets might be ‘progressive’, he didn’t approve of gay marriage. And Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg daring to call a woman a lady… OUT, unclean unclean and so on, narrowing down on PC tenets, producing this.
mud6 001
And then this.
mud7 001
Which is far too much for the tiny part of the reading population in that part of the curve. It exists only because the dry hill is supposed to take it, and as declining sales of sf from tradpub (IIRC they’re down another 6% this year) many people either go dry or go indy. The result is the swamp. And it’s all mud, all the way down. Which if you happen to like mud flavor and color… there’s no shortage. In fact 50 books might be a good sale. Meanwhile the hill is dry.

Of course, that is over-simplifying it. There is no reason a hard-core left-winger can’t write books that appeal to readers elsewhere on the political front. It gets a lot harder when the ‘message’ trumps and invades every bit of story. It gets a lot harder when the villain is always the fellow outside your doctrinaire clique – and you still expect that outsider to buy it and enjoy identifying with the bad guy and being vilified – and knowing that the author obviously is applying a false stereotype. Try and imagine being a black reader, where any black character spend their time either apologizing for sins of all black folk, as if they were his own, or being the vilest of nasty people… I don’t see you buying another book by the author, especially if there is something else on offer, which, um, is the situation now starting to happen.

The big tag of course for indy writers is identifying the empty/under-served niches, and identifying the short medium and long term trends there. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of data available. And yes, it’s common sense – write about subjects and in genres and subgenres that interest you, which you know about, but you’d have to be a very mono-focus fellow to have that making your life easy. I write high fantasy, low fantasy, hard sf, soft sf… Steam punk (well, coal-punk) Alt history, humor, I’ve just finished a cozy whodunit, and realistically that’s just scratching the surface. They’re definitely not PC because the PC swamp couldn’t get any fuller (why do people write this? Is this really how they see the world with token minorities and prescribed attitudes? Or is this because they assume this works because there is so much of it?)

I think the only clues to take is 1) Is there a lot of the particular type of relatively generic stuff? 2) If so does it match the interests of a large demographic segment of the market?
If 1) is true, and 2) is false, don’t go there for ever-so-much, unless you have a new trick.
If 1) is false and 2) is true, you’re golden (I suspect this held true for the early adopters of indy Mil sf. It will probably change if too many suddenly try to write something they have no background in.)
If both are false or true, well, you could do okay.

A curious twist on another popular myth (at least with many trad sf/fantasy writers in their 30’s and 40’s) is that sf was a right wing bastion (false) until they stormed it, but now the future is solidly ‘progressive’, and it’s just old privileged white men (curiously many of these old white men seem to be female) yearning for their lost bastion, gnawing away at the wonderful Hugo awards. Oddly just as many of these new writers are rapidly heading into becoming old privileged white… and quite a lot of them loudly feminist men. But they are convinced that socially and politically their views are what sf/fantasy will be now and forever, once these old people die off, and will we hurry up about it.

Only… um. I had an interesting read of some UK stats that showed 20-30’s… drink less often, and use drugs less often, and are more conservative about money, than either of the previous two generations at that age. They’re also much more likely (in the UK) to vote conservative, than their predecessors. Partly this is rebellion, and partly circumstance, IMO. Socially yes, they are more ‘liberal’ about issues like homosexuality or race. But… well, three little observations here. The first is everything follows the money. The second is that this money reaction is a in itself a sign that things are tougher and more uncertain for young folk than they were when the previous cohorts were making their way through their 20’s. And nothing is more likely to turn those feeling the pinch against any group they feel are getting it easier than them. That has been the product of a PC culture – special perks for special groups. I think it’ll start with being sick of the smallest and most vocal groups and work its way up. Thirdly – people become more conservative as they get older – this is a fair well known and documented fact. So… if this lot are already more conservative… what are their tastes in sf going to be like when they’re fifty? And given that the next generation of the current 30-40’s kids are likely to rebel too… and there is only one way that can go.

And no I am not trying to put you off faithfully cloning whatever ‘new and unique’ thing trad pub is claiming is new and unique – just like its predecessor. But that is the swamp.

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.

And now for the obligatory advertising (which pays for the sand in the Arena). Yonder picture is a link to book of mine. Dive in with an ear-splitting splosh

while I work on some more.


Filed under markets