Gimme Three Steps

Gimme Three Steps . . . and New Point of View
Pam Uphoff

Dave’s post Monday—mentioning parasitism being a matter of point of view—reminded me of a post I wrote back in the Pleistocene, probably on Baen’s Bar. Which, of course I didn’t save. But it was brilliant! It was Yugh! With luck this reboot will at least be coherent.

Take this song, think of it as a scene in a story:

Here’s some poor schmuck who unknowingly has danced with the local Boss Bad Guy’s girl. And he’s trying to explain his way out of getting shot for it. All flight instincts fully engaged, and he fast-talks, and no doubt is backing toward the door and ready to run.

Or is he that scared? In a book, you can stick some internal thoughts in there. Maybe he did know who’s girl he was dancing with, and did it gleefully, knowing he was stirring up trouble and he thinks if he has to, he can get his gun out fast enough . . .

Or you could write the exact same actions, but tell it from the girl’s POV. Is she horrified that her thoughtlessly accepting a dance from a stranger didn’t matter? And now the poor guy is going to get killed!

Or does she not give a damn? Is she gleefully delighted to have men fighting over her?

Or could it be a cold blooded calculation to make Boss Bad Guy realize that she’s still very desirable and he’d better pay more attention to her?

Maybe she’s seriously psychotic and is going to enjoy the humiliation of a complete stranger and maybe even get to watch him die.

And what about the Boss Bad Guy? What’s his POV? Is he furious, and only constrained from killing the interloper because of the public venue?

Or is he sick at heart, realizing that he has to kill this fool. Knowing that if he shows weakness his gang will pull him down? But he has no desire to kill this naïve idiot. Maybe he can just back him out the door, begging for his life . . .

What about that stranger, sitting in the corner? Personally, I think he’s a spy, who’s watching his meeting with an informant about to go to hell . . .

Yep. That stupid song was a real eye-opener for me about how critical the POV was for a scene. Do you have a scene that just isn’t working? Who else is there, or can be added, who has a different perspective on the same actions? Whose POV will engage the reader, steer them toward looking at the scene in a different way?

Or an entire book.

I wrote my cross-dimensional espionage story from the POVs of the infiltrating spies. Didn’t like it. Wrote it over again from the POVs of a government political analyst and a presidential bodyguard. Not bad, but it created as many holes as it filled . . . so I brought out the original version and intertwined them. Voila! Worked pretty good.

Now, by the time this posts I’ll be in Taiwan being given the personal tour before the Big Traditional Chinese Wedding Dinner. Ten courses. All vegetarian. Only forty guests (my very sweet daughter-in-law was trying to keep it small.) The vast majority of the guests speak little English. Just picture me offending them as I try to pronounce the written phonetic phrases on these flash cards . . . Completely incapable of understanding replies. I shall smile a lot, and rumor tells me that translators can be hired. I expect to have a great time and become a local legend for malapropisms.

Which is a long winded way of saying I may not be replying. So tear into it. Grab the last scene you wrote and write it over from a different POV.

Oh, and buy a book. The groom’s parents pay for weddings over there . . .




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Doing it for Reasons

The usual spectacle of denial – ably described by Amanda in her last few posts – self-cannibalization – I’ve been finding that one rather morbidly entertaining – and what looks remarkably like a conspiracy to bring down the publishing industry from within continues to rumble on, forcing me to remind myself every few days that sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice.

In short, if there is any way, no matter who bizarre, that it could be caused by stupidity, that’s the way to bet.

This is actually one of the reasons the soziale Gerechtigkeit über alles types wind up stepping in their own manure. See, I’ve yet to find one that really gets how individuals work – and every society is functionally an emergent entity arising from the interactions of a number of individuals all doing what they believe is the best thing to do given what they know and their history. Usually these folk are convinced that everyone thinks and feels more or less the way they do, which means that if their decisions don’t match up, why, they must be going against their own self-interest due to some conspiracy or other!

Which is where the storied Vast Right Wing Conspiracy usually appears.

Now I may be stretching the analogy a little here, but if there’s a Vast Right Wing without an equally Vast Left Wing cooperating with it, you’re just going to flap in circles.

But anyway.

The mechanics behind this behavior are almost as entertaining to observe as the mechanics behind why people do what they do – and lead to equally interesting story fodder.

After all, few people are evil for the sake of evil. I might, along with Sarah, be half of the Worst Person In The World, but I’ve never yet got out of bed and said, “What evil will I do today?” If I do manage something evil along the way, it’s usually for what presents itself as a good reason.

This applies to fictional antagonists. Or motives attributed to historical figures in fiction (do not ask me about the places my mind is going with this possibility. It’s entirely possible nobody wants to see those results, especially including me). Or, for that matter, the motives of your protagonists and heroes.

We all do things for reasons. Sometimes those reasons are reactions – just watch what happens if you accidentally blunder onto somebody’s sacred cow (or bull, bullock, steer, etc. since we must be sensitive to non-binary gender) – and sometimes they’re conditioned reactions (which is, as I understand it, the core of PTSD: conditioned reactions to an ugly environment combined with a crapload of difficulty adjusting to an environment where those reactions aren’t healthy life-saving things. To a soldier in the middle of a war zone, it’s perfectly normal and healthy to be flat on the ground crawling for cover before the gunshot sound stops, but it’s not quite as well-adjusted if you’re doing that every time a car backfires. Or the neighbors let off fireworks). Or we’ve been told our entire lives that X is the right and moral thing to do, so it never occurs to us to do anything except X.

It’s possible to work through all this and figure out why someone does something, and even know a character who’s completely unlike you so well that you can predict what they’ll do in most situations. Sometimes even in all situations – which requires understanding that person’s life, culture, and innate drives at a level which is at times rather unnerving. One of the reasons Impaler doesn’t have a sequel yet is that writing it puts me so deep in Vlad’s perspective, I get frustrated that I’m not allowed to impale people. This is not a healthy mindset when I’m already in a high-stress situation (to those who think this isn’t possible, I suggest reading The Year of the King, by Antony Sher – it’s a magnificent chronicle of Antony Sher’s process of becoming Richard III and building out that character to the point where he felt odd and wrong to be walking and speaking normally).

Find the reasons your characters are doing what they do. Without that, there’s a high risk of authorial sermonizing devolving to pap.


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Making it Real – How To do Targeted Research

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can get lost in research for years on end.  It’s the perfect excuse to climb down a hole and pull it in after me, the hole in this case being interesting factoids that had never come my way, or narratives of exploring strange lands, or…

After a while, if I give in to my inclinations (has happened once in a while) my loved ones gather around the hole shutting down “are you still alive in there.”  And once or twice they’ve tossed down a rope known as “the book is way overdue and we need the money.”

The funny thing is, when I climb back up, I find I still don’t have what I need to write the book.

We won’t talk about my Shakespeare trilogy, because I’d been interested in Shakespeare since my early teens, and reading stuff about his time and his bio was just normal, and led, in turn to knowing a lot of things I didn’t even know I knew and which I dropped in carelessly.

But even there I ended up having to do specific research, like when I found out that the book needed a whole heck of a lot about clothes.  I had to buy a book about clothes in Elizabethan England.  (The good side of this, of course, is that it came with patterns, which, when the younger son got bitten by the Shakespeare bug in the performing version, allowed me to make him an entire wardrobe to perform as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.  This is the kid who is 6’4″ now, so at 10 he was the size of most 13 year olds, and the school had nothing that fit him.)

Anyway, this is my method: if I am asked — as I was recently — to write something set in say the time of the revolution, the first thing I do is buy one or two general interest books, preferably ones well thought of.  Then I buy a biography or ten written by people of the time.  And then I outline the book and decide what targeted research I’ll need.  Will they sit down at table?  Will there be a tavern scene?  All of those have books written about them.  I find those and read them for the specific scenes I need.  At this time, too, to “soak in” the feel of things I start watching documentaries about that time and place.  This gives a “texture” to the book it would otherwise lack.

Of course, my books change as I write them, so sometimes I’ll find I have to write a scene that wasn’t in the outline, like horse shoeing or perhaps riding between two specific scenes.  At that time, I will put notes all over the book that say “look up x” — most people use something to bracket those, that isn’t used in normal writing, so that we can do a final look see and make sure we got them all.  I use curly brackets — and also, my monitor gets “porcupined” with sticky notes with things like “try to find book or website or reenactor who knows about x.” and “I’m almost sure the description of horse shoeing in the blah blah novel is wrong,” but it’s all I could find “so, replace it when you figure out the right one.”

After I’m done, there’s an other checking the facts and feel time.

That’s about it for historical books.  For non-historical books, particularly space opera things get trickier.  Needless to say I’m not going to research brooms, burners or flyers when most of their tech relies on anti-grav which can be miniaturized into a hand-carried gadget.  There was a leap somewhere along the line that we can’t see.  It would be like a cave man writing about the modern era and researching how to build airplanes.  If they could do it, it would already exist.

But even in space opera, or fantasy, you’re going to run against real-life, verifiable situations.  And if you fob those, your readers won’t believe you about the bigger things.  So, I spent a considerable amount of time, with the help of one of my first readers, trying to figure out if an oxygen tank would explode in a certain situation.  I also studied what to do when submerged in something opaque, like sewage, and how easy it is to lose your bearings.

The little things are what makes the reader by the big things.

Then there’s how people act in certain situations.  I lived through one (or a series of small ones) revolution, but I was a kid, and the revolution didn’t do much but flip the country between national and international socialism.  This means it’s not the pattern for all revolutions.  And it certainly doesn’t give me insight into being on the inside of the thing.

Hence, when writing about revolutions (which is all the Earth Revolution series is about) I read a lot about revolutions.  Not because it’s going to follow any in particular, but because it gives me the feel/sense/texture of what a revolution does, how it happens, the type of people who thrive vs. the type of people who sink, etc.) Again, this gives you, as it were, the touchstone of the possible, if not of the probable.  You find out what might happen in your imagined revolution, in another time.  You discover angles and ideas that would never have occurred to you on your own.  It makes the whole thing more real.

Of course, this applies beyond revolutions.

There are a few other points, but I’ll dispose of them in a list:

1- It used to be said you could play fast and loose with geography and feel of anything but NYC.  That was the city your agent and editors knew and they’d come down on your like a ton of bricks.  Indie has changed things.  You really can’t play fast and loose with any area well known to any large number of people.  You don’t have the time to answer all the irate letters because no, that store isn’t in that street in Chicago, but in the one two over.
So, write about places you know very well, make a place up, or lie about a tiny town in Montana, population 100.  Even if they all write to you, at least there’s not many of them.

2- No matter how much you research or how well you know something, you’ll get at least ten letters pointing out a mistake.  Sometimes they’ll be right too.  Take the fact I re-read all of Dumas looking for descriptions of the guys, and finding none, went on to write Aramis as blond.  I immediately got ten letters pointing out that Aramis, in Twenty Years After is mentioned as his hair “still being so black.”  I recovered from that one by pointing out that yes, and that was a jab at the obvious fact he was coloring his hair (most color at the time didn’t do blond well.)  You can recover, but you ARE going to make mistakes.

3- Beware things from other research that fall in.  I was researching China while writing the last Shakespeare book, and suddenly there was a wooden bell clapping to signal people should bring out their waste.  This happens but it needs to be weeded.

4- Please, please, please don’t stop writing because you don’t know something.  Curly bracket it and put in “look up later.”  Or write how it feels right, then make a sticky note to correct in post.  Your readers will never know it was all wrong in rough draft.

5- If you know an expert in that discipline or time, for the love of heaven, have him read the d*mn thing when you’re done.  You’ll never be an expert like someone who has devoted his/her entire life to it.

6- be careful of readers’ prejudices.  I got the Musketeers’ Mysteries rejected at a house because I apparently didn’t know Porthos had been a pirate.  (So the editor watched movies, but had never read Dumas) You can go with the writers’ prejudices or against them, and in this case I had no way of doing this, but… when going against what the reader thinks he knows, hang a flag on it.  Ie say things like “It wasn’t that people lived worse while working in the mills than they had in the countryside.  If it were so, people wouldn’t come to the city in droves.  It was that–” and then go on with your dog and pony show.

This is all that occurs to me now.  There’s probably more, and feel free to ask in comments.  Next up Real People!



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Delusion or Reality?

The other day, I sat down and tried to figure out how long I had actively been watching the publishing industry and how it responded to the digital revolution. I was surprised when I did. It’s been ten years, give or take a couple of months. That was long before my first foray into indie/small press publishing. It was when I first started buying e-books from Baen and wondering why I couldn’t buy similar offerings from other publishers, especially at a realistic price point and without DRM added.

Back then, and for some years prior to that, traditional publishing had looked down on Jim Baen for rocking the boat. Traditional publishing didn’t understand that their customer base was changing. It was getting younger, more technologically sophisticated and more on the go. Back then, traditional publishing was the only road open to writers who wanted to be considered “legitimate” authors. Oh, there were vanity presses out there but not much more for those writers who wanted another route besides the traditional — and slow — route available.

Then along came the Kindle, an e-book reader that was affordable, connected to a bookstore for easy purchase and download and traditional publishers started to grudgingly admit there might be a market for e-books. But they wanted to control that market, control prices and got their hands judicially slapped for colluding with one another on pricing. All the while, Amazon — and later other outlets — opened up digital publishing to indie writers. I’m not sure anyone expected e-books to take off the way they did. Certainly, traditional publishing did not. Nor did the lamented Borders, a bookseller chain that is no longer with us, and certainly not Barnes & Noble that is still having issues finding the right online platform to make it easy for its customers to find and order e-books.

So, when I read over at The Passive Voice how Randy Penguin (sorry, Penguin Random House) claims it “read too much into the e-book hype”, I have to laugh. This from a company that didn’t want e-books to begin with. This from a company that consistently overprices, in my opinion, e-books. But I wanted to be sure. So I went to Randy Penguin’s website to see what books they have coming out and what prices they are offering them at.

The first I checked is Janet Evanovich’s Turbo Twenty-Three. It will hit the stores November 15th. The price for hard cover is $16.78 on Amazon. The price for the hard cover on the flap is $28.00) The e-book price, which is set by Penguin Random House, is $14.99.

Debbie Macomber’s Sweet Tomorrows is listed at $26.00 for the hard cover (flap), $14.99 hard cover (Amazon price) and the e-book price (set by the publisher) is $12.99.

It goes on like this. You can check.

Now, I don’t know about the folks at Penguin Random House, but there are very few hard covers I buy any longer. It just isn’t economically feasible for me to buy hard covers like I used to. They have simply become too expensive. Those hard covers I do buy, I buy from Amazon or when the books are on sale in brick and mortar stores. I can’t tell you the last time I paid what the publishers have printed on the inside flap for a hard cover. Every reader I know does the same thing. They shop for the best price for their books just as they do for almost anything else in their lives.

So, when readers see e-books that cost almost as much as a hard cover book, they shake their heads and walk away. Oh, there are exceptions. Each of us have a few authors we will pay more for their books than we will for everyone else. But that seems to be something the traditional publishers have a hard time accepting, just as they have had a hard time accepting the fact that e-books are here to stay.

From the Telegraph:

Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Ms Prior [Joanna Prior, the managing director of Penguin’s general books] said: “There was a definite moment when we all went shooting out after the shiny app thing and spent money on that and invested probably unwisely in products that we thought could in some way enhance the book.”

“Enhance the book” instead of simply converting the book into digital format and getting it out into the reading public’s hands. That was the second mistake. The first was dragging their feet when it came to getting behind e-books to start with. Now, I have a couple of those “enhanced” e-books and I found myself getting aggravated at the enhancements. Sure, it’s great to have links to external sources and the link IN NON-FICTION books but not in fiction. It interrupts the flow of the narrative and throws the reader out. But the editors and bean counters didn’t see that. All they saw was the shiny and a way to increase the price of the book.

And what is bringing this change of mind to the bosses at Randy Penguin? The fact e-book sales dropped 2.9% last year. Yes, read that again. A decline in sales of less than 3% has they crowing that they were initially right to doubt the viability of e-books. Funny, they didn’t have that sort of a reaction when print sales declined much more than that. Instead, they doubled-down on doing all they could to keep the print portions of their business alive.

So what does this mean for readers? It means we will continue to see traditional publishers over-pricing e-books. They will continue to load them with DRM and will press for more onerous (for the reader) laws about the licensing of e-books. Remember, traditional publishers don’t believe you “buy” an e-book, only license it.

As readers, it means we will have to continue to choose between buying one traditionally published e-book from publishers like Randy Penguin (at $12.99 or more) or buying two or three — or more — indie or small press published e-books. It means choosing to buy e-books from indies or publishers like Baen, sources that don’t add DRM, or buying fro publishers who aren’t afraid to say they think their customers are thieves and that is why they add the DRM. After all, they don’t trust us not to pirate their books or — gasp — resell them after we’re done with them. As readers, it also means we need to be smart and start backing up our e-books to places not connected with our e-readers, etc. Because, as sure as I’m sitting here typing this this morning, I guaran-damn-tee you there is some bean counter sitting in an ivory tower in the publishing industry who is trying to figure out a way to limit the number of times we can read an e-book before we have to buy a new license or something equally as silly. Don’t believe me? Remember, these are the same publishers that put a limit on how many times an e-book can be checked out at a library before the library has to buy — at an inflated rate — the e-book again.

What really caught my eye and had me shaking my head was this:

Penguin is now focusing on providing app developments for picture books aimed at pre-school children, which Ms Prior believes can make money.

“There is beginning to emerge a financial model for that, I think it is an exciting way of getting very young children into reading,” she said.

So, they want an app aimed at pre-school kids for picture books to help them learn to read. This at a time when studies are saying we need to get kids, especially young kids, away from the screen. This at a time when we are told we need to get our kids outside to play. This at a time when parents should be sitting down and reading with their kids instead of shoving a tablet at the kids as an electronic babysitter. Oh, wait, there are already apps like this out there. But Penguin wants to re-invent the wheel. Color me surprised. Once again, Penguin is behind the times and targeting a single audience instead of looking at what needs to be done system-wide to increase the productivity and profitability of their business.

Frankly, it is time for us, as readers, to understand that the traditional publishers who follow the path of Penguin-Random House and the other Big 5 publishers aren’t our friends. They don’t respect us as readers or as their customers. They sure as hell don’t respect most of their writers. To them, writers are simply interchangeable widgets. It is time for us to hold them responsible for their actions. If we don’t like the price of a book, don’t grit your teeth and buy it. Wait until it goes on sale. Let the author of the book know — yes, I know. The author has no control but they need to see that their publisher is killing them — and let the publisher know. More than that, use social media and let other readers know. Check your favorite authors on Amazon or your favorite online site and see if they have their backlist available. If they have it available through the indie route, buy it. Sure, you may have already read the book but a lot of authors are updating their backlist, returning the book to what they wanted it to be before the editors got to it. Even if you have already read it, you will be supporting that author, showing them that you still enjoy their work. Leave reviews for the books you read. That is some of the best help you can give an author.

Just don’t buy into the hype from publishers when they talk about how expensive e-books are to produce. Don’t let them con you into paying hard cover prices for a mass of electrons. Unless and until the publishers realize that their business plan no longer works, they will continue down this path and, believe me, it is not the Yellow Brick Road.

I guess it’s now time for me to do a bit of promo.

Witchfire Burning (Eerie Side of the Tracks Book 1) is now available for purchase.

Long before the Others made their existence known to the world, Mossy Creek was their haven. Being from the wrong side of the tracks meant you weren’t what the rest of the world considered “normal”.

Normal was all Quinn O’Donnell wanted from life. Growing up on the “wrong side of the tracks”, she had been the only normal in the family. The moment she was old enough, she left and began life as far from her Texas hometown as possible. Now she has a job she enjoys and a daughter she loves more than life itself. Their life is normal, REALLY normal, until her daughter starts calling forth fire and wind.

Quinn knows they must go back so her mother can help five-year-old Ali learn how to control her new talents. But in Mossy Creek nothing is ever simple. Quinn’s mother has gone missing. Secrets from Quinn’s past start coming back to haunt her.

And the family home is more than a little sentient.

Can Quinn keep everyone — particularly Ali — safe? And will she ever get back her illusion of normalcy?

Witchfire Burning is the start of a new series. However, it takes place in the same town as Slay Bells Ring and some of the same characters are present in both. Both have a little bit of mystery and a little bit of romance. Witchfire adds in an urban fantasy note as well. While it wasn’t a book I had planned when I sat down at the beginning of they year to figure out my publication schedule, it’s one that decided it needed to be written and I had a blast doing it. I hope you guys all enjoy reading about Quinn and company as much as I enjoyed writing about them. Also, for those who prefer print versions, it should be available in approximately two weeks. I’ll make an announcement when that version is ready.



Parasite load

“So nat’ralists observe, a flea

Has smaller fleas that on him prey;

And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em.”

Jonathan Swift, On Poetry: A Rhapsody

We’re all a cheerful heaving mass of parasites.  Parasites on parasites at times. A delightful thought, one of the joys of having a biologist write about writing…

Some of these parasites do no real harm – we can survive them, although we might do better without them. Some of course, do harm. They can maim, hobble, weaken and indeed kill. There are tales of cows being killed by mosquitos, by sheer blood-loss (not, thank heavens where I live). Other parasites stray a little… or even quite a lot into the area of commensualism, and right through to outright symbiosis.

It might, for example be said that the male anglerfish particularly in the deep-sea ceratiidae (the sea devils) is perfect example of parasitism that is essential to the survival… not of the host but the host’s products – well, offspring. Genes.

You see out in the deep blue desert – well, ocean, but it is de facto rather like a desert in that food is sparse and scattered (although there is plenty of water) – but it’s nutrient poor, deep and cold. The possibility of finding prey is small, and find sex when you need to breed, well, let’s put it this way, you’d have more luck finding a nudist colony in Riyadh. So the sea devil females have a way around this. They keep one… well I was going to handy, but it more like hanging around their butts.

Now, as I said food is scarce, and taking someone for dinner down there is well, usually digestive, for at least one. If you have ever seen an anglerfish you’d know they are like banks – a little dangly ‘bait’ on the end of the illicium – held just above a vast mouth full of evil teeth to make sure dinner doesn’t leave undigested. The males are more like politicians, they can somehow – despite having lousy noses or eyes or anything else except testes, find females in watery waste. Perhaps there is a sea-devil pub.

Once they find a female… they bite her. This may be just as well as she’s all too well equipped to bite them, and they’re small and feeble compared to her. Females need to be big to accommodate a lot of relatively large eggs – males do not.

And at this point things get really, really weird… as he bites and then releases an enzyme that digests the skin on his mouth, and her body, where he has bitten… and the ‘wound’ heals up with the male and female joined in sense humans can never experience. The male and female join at the tissue level, and share blood-vessels.

He gets what he needs to live directly from her bloodstream. The bits he no longer need atrophy. He’s there to be sperm when she needs it. Sometimes as many as eight males can be found like ticks that have actually grown into the host (and you see why biologists look at arts graduate sf writers blathering about ‘non-binary sex’ with amusement.).

I suppose too many would kill her, but it is a system that works, despite the fact that the parasitic males draw all their nourishment, and indeed oxygen from the host. Without them, the species would die. With them, individuals may.

It has parallels in our lives (and no I don’t just mean the waste of space who does little more than father children) and of course in the writing world.

Most of life involves ‘carrying’ a ‘freeloading parasite’ load which may do you (or at least humans in general) some good – or not. There’s a fine line between the benefits (if they exist) and the sheer cost of carrying this load. Governments (national and local) and bureaucrats with their slew of petty rules and associated costs and taxes are good example. Yes, they might protect you from being eaten, but they’ll make up for it by devouring much of your subsistence without doing much positive, most of the time. Still, rather like the male anglerfish, they’re supposed to be there when you need them.

In writing there is some difference of opinion as to who the degenerate freeloaders are. From the point of view of agents, traditional publishers, and at least some of retail, we are. We’re interchangeable widgets, sucking their blood and giving precious little in exchange. Without them, we are nothing, and while they need us as a group, as individuals we’re worthless, instantly exchangeable if we want too much of their precious lifeblood for doing the trivia we do. After all, any fool can write books. Look at Freer for example… It’s one point of view.

As with so much of writing, the point of view makes quite a difference, as I for one am reluctant to see myself as an exchangeable widget. However, while I may want and benefit some – or all – of the services that agents, Trad publishers, and retail provide (almost as an afterthought it seems at times) – I can do without them. Some writers can do very well without them, selling directly. You can certainly cut some of them, and benefit a lot from carrying less of a parasite load, and simply do what they do yourself, or contract it out for less. The agents, traditional publishers and retailers can do without me, but they cannot do without writers.

It then becomes – for the writer, anyway, an equation of can he survive and have his work thrive alone in the deep blue sea of making a living from writing, or does he need all, or some of the ‘parasites’ so they’re there at the right time, so his work does not fail to find readers. That equation varies from writer to writer. Honestly, I believe if you can, you’re wise to outsource proofing. Unless you’re a wiz at covers or the cost cannot be met, well, they’re your display. If you can afford – and if you can find a good structural editor, take this opportunity with both hands. They can turn a mediocre or even bad book into something great, just by finding where and how to tweak it. This is difficult, because most Trad publishing houses don’t have them either. Copy editors have value, but seriously, most of them are widgets. If you find one that isn’t, hang onto them. Marketing… well IF you can do it well, great, if you will probably do it better than any publisher’s employee, even though they have the contacts etc. You will work only for you. He or she will work for the publisher – who has lots of irons in the fire. Even outsourcing here is tricky – so much marketing these days is social media.

When it comes to retail – unless you have a social media platform par excellence and/or a mailing list, retail still are ‘have to have’. That’ll cost you. But some parasite load has to be carried.

It’s always good to know what you’re carrying, and to work out if it has value relative to the cost.

Otherwise ditch the sucker.

As the anglerfish didn’t say, ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea.’

And biology is very useful for designing implausible aliens.


Filed under DAVE FREER, point of veiw, Uncategorized, WRITING

Stranger Things

Last year I did a breakdown on why I think Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International universe has been such a colossal hit with readers. Having finished screening — with my wife and daughter — the runaway Netflix original series Stranger Things, I think there are many parallels which are worth re-examining; for writers seeking to tap into that elusive oomph that can make a SF/F project spark with the audience.

Both MHI and ST are contemporary thriller fiction which ask us to believe in a kind of shadow world, or alternate realm. Something we think we see just out of the corner of our eye, and when we turn to look, it’s gone.

That alternate realm — for both series — is infested by grotesque, nightmare-beneath-the-bed monsters.

As with MHI, the world of ST is troubled by the machinations of secretive government institutions and individuals within the government, who are actively harming the lives of decent citizens, while masquerading as protectors.

Also like MHI, the protagonists of ST are a somewhat rag-tag cast of n’er-do-wells and “broken” people — who’ve been kicked around by life. Yet, they find within themselves the power to fight for something, even if they don’t really understand what’s going on.

Family drama is very much front-and-center in both MHI and ST. The protagonists aren’t just battling supernatural evil, they’re battling themselves as well. Old wounds. Emotional scars. Loved ones lost. Unrequited love. Romance. Envy. Betrayal. All twined into the action, wherein the hero(s) and heroine(s) have to navigate their relationships, at the same time they’re trying to defeat demonic forces threatening the real world.

The conclusion of ST’s inaugural voyage is much like that of every MHI novel, in that it suggests there is much more “there” there. A story continuing long after the story, which entices viewers to look with anticipation for the next installment.

Setting aside the sterling character performances of the cast, I think season one of Stranger Things deserves high marks for some very astute, sharp writing. Which uses just about every tool in the thriller writer’s and horror writer’s toolbox. Including some patently classic scary movie editing which really maximizes the “jump in your seat” factor, as well as slowly winding the spring of anticipation — regarding character choices, consequences, and inevitability. In the end, ST’s first season is about redemption and sacrifice, as well as the nature and meaning of family, friendship, and loyalty. Each of the protagonists must make hard choices, in the face of overwhelming odds, while attempting to combat two different foes — one of which operates in the real world, while the other operates in an inverted mirror image of the real world.

That, my friends, is a recipe for a hit. It’s no wonder people have been talking non-stop about this show! And I watched it eagerly, not just as a writer who is always looking to unravel the clockwork of effective storytelling, but also as a fan — who likes to be swept up in that very same storytelling.

If you haven’t taken a look at Stranger Things‘ debut outing, I really think you should. It’s only eight episodes, and they really hit the ground running in the first hour. I don’t want to give away too many specific plot details, but the performances are top notch — especially the kids. With singular praise for Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the pivotal Eleven. She did a fantastic job, mainly because she had to communicate so much, without having very many lines of dialogue.

As always, when I peg to the fact that a story has utterly evaded the scalpel of my interior plot surgeon — the guy who is forever trying to pick apart every book or movie I see, to figure out how it ticks — I try not to worry too much about the Tab A into Slot B mechanics of the thing. Rather, I let the story roll around on the back forty of my brain. I try to turn off my targeting computer, and just let the story melt across my writerly semi-conscious; like butter on hot toast. I don’t believe directly imitating any story is a sure-fire path to success, but I do think that good stories can always teach us a lot about the craft, and the art. Because of the way they make us feel. ST (and MHI too) are great at getting us to feel these people, and what they’re going through. To include — perhaps surprisingly — antagonists who turn out to not be bad guys after all. Even if they’ve done some bad things.

Anyway, Stranger Things was a delight. Highly recommended, both for pure enjoyment, and as a lesson in terrific tale-telling.



I Spent the Evening in Jail Part 2

From the administrative segregation pod – in other words, where they stash the trouble makers, the sheriff and Officer Justice led us into a tiny space between two sets of locked doors. To pass through each set, the corrections officer had to radio his location and request. The control room, far from any inmates, held the control for the whole building.

From that sardine experience – there were 17 of us, including our guides in a space intended for two to three – we exited into one of the oldest parts of the jail, built in the 1970s. Not that any part was beautiful, but you could see and smell the difference twenty more years (the new part having been built in the nineties) had made. In this small pod, where cells lined one wall, and windows the other, the doors had been welded open. The inmates stood in their cells next to double bunks, and the sheriff explained that in order to give each man a minimum of ten square feet, the doors had to be permanently opened once they made the cells double capacity. Outside the pod, he further explained that the sixteen men occupying the pod were allowed work releases. Isolating them kept contraband from entering the general population.

We progressed slowly through long, empty halls, and into the newer part of the building. Here, the cream- coloured cinderblock walls were painted a soft cream that looked brighter than the dingy walls of the old. We entered a small pod, holding around fifty men. This one had a control booth, too small for all of is, so we clustered at the entrance, two extra COs standing between us and the inmates. The bunks were pointed out to us. This pod, due to overcrowding with non-violent criminals, had no cells, per se. Instead, chest high cubbies like you would see in an office (only made of the ubiquitous cinderblock) delineated the ‘cell’ around a double bunk. Each bunk held a mattress with built-in pillow. Each inmate would be issued a thin sheet, and two blankets (three, after Labor Day) all in white.

We were taken to the kitchen, where inmates prepared all the meals from materials contracted from the same supplier who does school lunches in the area. The kitchen smelled strongly, obviously never cleaned the way a true commercial kitchen would be, much less a residential one. There was no visible dirt, just a powerful odor of long-burned grease and mustiness. The CO with us explained that a crew of five cooked, and it was considered a good job, as the cooks got extra food and treats. But, he said, they usually have women doing the kitchen work. They break less stuff! He told us.

On to another pod, the one larger, but with cells in two ranks, and a larger control room. Here, we squeezed into the control room and were shown how the railing on the top rank of cells was now ceiling high rather than the waist high it had once been. They also showed off the 360 degree camera that allowed them to see everything, although usually after the fact when reviewing an incident. The final male pod was where the max-security was in place, so we entered the elevated control booth, but we were not in the pod itself. The other control booths had been on the same level, but this one held a vantage point and was accessible by a narrow, twisting corridor.

In the other pods, the CO explained to us, the men could easily overcome the two guards who were in with the population at all times. They just don’t, he told us. They want to get out, they don’t want to get points against them. They respect us, we give them respect back. That’s what this job takes, a lot of patience and showing respect. You disrespect them, you got trouble.

Finally, we were taken into the female pod, a much smaller space with cells, not the cubbies, and couches on the ground level where the women were sitting and socializing. Again, the pod had a control booth rather than a room.

Subdued, the group was led back into the halls, where we met the captain of the HRT team. The team, the equivalent to SWAT for jails, had been summoned by the fire alarms. He talked to us for a few moments, about what they do, and the methods they use to subdue violence. A Taser (the sort with an arc between two points) was shown, an impressive display of light and sound. Then we exited the jail, back out into the cool dark evening, and walked back to the courthouse and juvenile detention center.

Before we entered the JDC, we were taken to the rehab facility. As much as is possible, this judge prefers kids to be here, a softer facility geared toward instruction and a program intended to teach them self-respect, respect to others, and to slowly put them back into a home situation. Both facilities work with children ages 18-13, although rarely a child who was in need could be granted the ability to stay out of the regular jail until age 21. In the rehab facility we saw three classrooms, one full of computers. The children continued right alongside classmates, the woman who was guiding us explained. Their school sent lessons over, and the students were in the classrooms from about 8am to 3pm. Then they took part in the rehab program, had dinner, did crafts, like the decorated pumpkins we saw in the common room, and watched TV for a couple of hours before bed. Although the living facility we saw (it was empty. We saw no children for privacy reasons) was fitted with cells, they were single occupancy with better beds and a desk.

The JDC itself was much smaller than the jail, and brighter, the walls painted in attractive colors. The pods can only house up to twelve, and we were told the population of the JDC at the time of our visit was only five. The pod was lined on one side with a bookcase, easily ten feet by six feet, full of books, and on top of the bookshelf were board games.  Here were the ubiquitous welded stainless steel tables, but also a pair of couches. The gym, we were told, was open to both facilities at different times, and they were in it a couple of hours at a time when they couldn’t be outside. One young person, we were told by a laughing CO, had built an obstacle course that all the kids had enjoyed just the week before. For the JDC, there was a single classroom, as there were rarely more students than could be held in it. A small cafeteria was the only other part of it. We were told that they were made to sit one kid to a table, to keep horseplay down. This was also where family visits would take place, which is why there was a small shelf with more board games.

And then we were done, back to the judge’s office three hours after we’d started, a quiet group in comparison to the start. He talked to us for a minute about the next class, and sent us home. At home, my son pounced on me. He was supposed to be in bed, but I was so happy to hug him I didn’t scold.

I’m sure I’ve missed something, feel free to ask in comments. This was quite the experience, and hopefully some of my readers can use it in their writing to create a more realistic story.