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Former TOR editor still longs to gatekeep the field

Brad R. Torgersen

I don’t usually take to fisking the comments of others in the field, but the recent words of Teresa Nielsen-Hayden simply demand it. Since my inception as a professional, I have made the case for an “open” system. No barriers. Not on writers, and not on fans. Publish, connect with your audience (for fun and profit!) and for God’s sake, no more gatekeeping of the “ghetto” that is the literary Science Fiction and Fantasy field. Writers are writers are writers, and fans are fans are fans. My reasoning along these lines is not original to me. Others were saying similar things ten-plus years ago. But now it’s gotten to the point that certain would-be gatekeepers have become so thoroughly convinced of their station — and so absolutely sure of your unworthiness to partake — that it’s time to stand up.

Sad Puppies 3 terrifies SMOF queen (and former TOR editor)…

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It depends on your point of view

The story goes that old bloke gets the final call, and there he arrives at the gates… and says to the gate-man. “Before I go in, is this heaven or hell?”

And the gate-man says “It depends on your point of view.”

The old geezer says “Huh?” (you know, one of those deep meaningful philosophical comments I make all the time. Because my mind is too highly trained).

And the gate-man opens the gate a crack, and there is his old mate Jim, who was in the car with him when they crashed, and must have got here before him, sitting next to the river, with a full bottle of their favorite bourbon in his hand and a gorgeous naked curvy blond woman on his knee. “Are you coming in?” says the gate-man.

Now Fred’s about to surge forward to join Jim, when the point of view thing comes back to him. “Just what do you mean by ‘the point of view’?”

“Well,” says the gate-man. “He thinks he’s in heaven, she thinks she’s in hell.”
Fred says… “So what do I get?”

And the gate-man says “I thought you preferred brunettes.” And a luscious one, dressed the same way as Jim’s blond comes in view as the gate-man holds out a full bottle of Bourbon. “It’s yours and it will never be empty.”

And Fred’s in through the gate faster than you can say ‘Gollum attenuatus‘.

And the devil closes the gate, and says: “Of course from my point of view, which neither of those fellows could know, is that the bottle stays full because there’s no way into it or the woman being punished.”

Now I’ve been editing CHANGELING’S ISLAND this last week, (In general, I’d think I’d prefer brimstone.)and it’s been hard going. The reason was very simple. The editor wanted more detail on the hero’s parents and why they’re doing what they’re doing. This makes sense, and seems a particularly easy thing to do.

Except of course that neither parent is a point of view character, and they not on scene, so we can’t have the point of view character seeing or hearing or even being told just what is going on in their lives. We can only know just what the POV character knows. Well. I could do ‘omniscient’ point of view, but I find that weakens the tension considerably. It’s fair to say that many relationship dramas in writing stem from point of view issues. Of course being omniscient, and knowing Judy is not thinking about sex but shoes, or that Henry’s deep deep brooding expression is not mourning for his long lost Susie, but for the Green Bay Packers would cause more and bloodier and different issues, but generally the unreliable narrator/s giving the situation from their point of view makes for nicer story, with less corpses. I think I worked through the issues, at least as far as possible without adding more than 3000 words I did, but it reminded me again just how vital that point of view is. And that the devil is in the details.

Speaking of points of view, I wanted to add something to Brad’s Torgersen very gentle point of view on the pushback against the Sad Puppies 3. I think it is fairly important when writing a point of view to establish where it comes from, and what could motivate that point of view, and of course how reliable that narrator is known to be on the subject. Let’s start by saying a lot of the outrage and smear is coming from Making Light and commenters thereon, the mouthpiece of an editor at Tor, and a major force in Now, at the moment I’m busy putting together a database of the Hugo history. Tor and indeed in shorter works are very, very extensively represented. Out of proportion to their share of new publications. As a large, powerful publisher with influence and with a considerable camp following, suggesting they ‘check their privilege’ before whining and bad-mouthing is not a joke, even if it is hilarious goose-sause. Of course, depending on your point of view, they may just be able to find better books or have better editors. If it’s better books they’ll have stood the test of time… Hmmm. Well, check the sales rankings. If it’s better editors… well, check sales rankings. How embarrassing. I do understand why they would be very angry about the status quo being disturbed though.

The other thing is just how familiar those bad-mouth slanders and slurs and campaign seemed. It’s a technique we’ve encountered before… Someone called ‘Requires Hate’ who was much beloved by many of the crowd who hang out with the Anti-puppies and, it seems by the evidence, a darling (for no reason whatsoever) of a couple of the major figures on That’s the crowd that nourished this viper, and used her for a role model. The pattern seems to have endured, even if she’s not doing it.

From my point of view it’s really funny. Especially the projection.

You see, from my point of view I don’t have a darling I’d like to see get a Hugo. I couldn’t care less. Given the award’s present status it’s not going to do them a lot of good. Authors I like are populist, not literary, and getting the same award as Politically Correct ‘literary’ garbage (from my point of view), isn’t going to sell extra copies to their audience. If anything it might sell the literary garbage, or revive the value of the award. I would however derive a lot of satisfaction from their angry frothing at the mouth, and being proved right about the ‘elitist’ clique thrashing about viciously trying to keep their hold on power. I don’t want that power – I think it is a terrible idea that anyone has it. I’m all for it being a real people’s choice. Then it’d point me to books and stories I might want to read.

Defenders of the nail house

Brad R. Torgersen

We’re about a week out from the release of the final ballot results, for the 2015 Hugo awards. These results will determine which picks are available for your choosing when it comes time for you to cast your ballot. Best Novel, Best Short Story, etc. Already, the critics of Sad Puppies 3 have been laying the groundwork for de-legitimizing SP3. To include statements which completely misunderstand the point of Sad Puppies. Some of it is innocent. Not everybody’s had time to do a deep-dig on the history of Sad Puppies, nor to be able to discern that each iteration of the project has tended to assume its own personality. What they’re hearing about SP3 is probably hear-say from friends, and much of that is at least one to two years out-of-date. And even then, many of the “facts” put forth, are demonstrably wrong.

But other commentary is not so innocent…

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Is Hard SF Still Relevant?

I attended a panel last weekend at Millennicon. It was the only panel I made the time to attend that I wasn’t sitting on, partly because there were few panels that interested me, and partly due to my busy schedule.


David Drake and Mark Haynes (Dave Creek showed up too late to be in the photos).

long weekend-3

Christopher Stasheff and David Burkhead

The panelists were David Drake, Christopher Stasheff, David Burkhead, Mark Haynes, and Dave Creek. I only jotted a few notes during the panel, but there were some interesting thoughts that I will use to springboard into my take on this. In the comments, I fully expect to hear from you all that you disagree, and why. Or not.

Drake started it off with his definition of Hard SF. First of all, he said, I don’t write hard science fiction, and I don’t read it for enjoyment. I consider what I write to be adventure science fiction, he told the audience. But if he had to define Hard SF, it would be: science fiction written by engineers, not scientists. The First Reader and I talked about this later. In his day job, he works with both. An engineer, he pointed out to me, will build by rule of thumb, It just needs to work. A scientist wants to know why it works, and can get hung up on some odd quirk of the machine rather than just accepting it works and moving on to what comes next.

So Hard SF ought to be practical, the ‘what really happens’, and focused on technology, then?  I know that I have always thought that Hard SF wasn’t so much about the people, although they are in a good story, but about the science, and the consequences.

Christopher Stasheff told the audience that he has always ascribed to Asimov’s three rules – no, not the ones about hurting humans – which partition Science Fiction into:

  • What if?
  • If Only….
  • If this goes on…

Stasheff added that he also likes Norman Spinrad’s question, “who does this hurt?”

Indeed, given those questions and applying one or more to any aspect of technology could quickly generate some very interesting fiction, and some of it would most likely be Hard SF. But as Stasheff went on, he never wrote much Hard SF, as he had “a few questions I want asked, some to do with human beings rather than their gadgets.”

David Burkhead, whose career is in atomic force microscopy, once in itself considered rather science fictional, pointed out that “people like me got into science because we read science fiction.” For him, the hard science was not always constrained to what we know now to be possible, but what might come in times ahead. A hundred years ago, science flatly proclaimed impossible matters that are now daily feats.

So far, we have established at least a nebulous idea of what hard science fiction may be. And we touched on the relevance, with Burkhead’s inspiration of the next generation of scientists. Indeed, as one audience member held up their cell phone and pointed out that it was a Star Trek communicator, we do use science fiction made fact every day.

Why, then, does it seem that we need to question the relevance of Hard SF? Why is it more difficult to name a title published in the last year or two that was not only ‘hard’ but compelling storytelling? When an audience member asked this question, and the panel was stumped, I could only think of one, off the top of my head, which I enthusiastically recommended. Andy Weir’s The Martian which came out about 2 years ago is not a typical novel in format, but still a good story, and diamond-hard SF. I also recommended that she take a look at Baen’s catalog. David Drake told her about the short-story contest he has helped judge for the last three years, the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award. How can you go wrong with entry requirements like this?

What We Want To See: Moon bases, Mars colonies, orbital habitats, space elevators, asteroid mining, artificial intelligence, nano-technology, realistic spacecraft, heroics, sacrifice, adventure. What We Don’t Want To See: Stories that show technology or space travel as evil or bad, galactic empires, paranormal elements, UFO abductions, zombie stories, thinly veiled copies of previous winners, non-standalone novel excerpts, screenplays.

So what do you think? Is Hard SF still relevant?


Dragon Noir

The new book!

Off topic entirely: if you’re looking for some fresh Fantasy Noir, my sixth novel, the finale of the Pixie for Hire trilogy, was released today. Dragon Noir was born of reading far too much Spillane, Chandler, and Hammett and then letting my twisted sense of humor loose.

“The pixie with the gun has come home to see his princess crowned a queen and live in peace. But nothing is never easy for Lom. A gruesome discovery on his doorstep interrupts their plans and sends Lom off on a mission to save not one, but two worlds. It’s personal this time and the stakes are higher than ever before. With friends falling and the enemy gathering, Bella and Lom must conquer the worst fears and monsters Underhill can conjure. Failure is not on the agenda.”

My Own Little Slice of Pi

So I got a new toy tool a few days ago. Actually, a couple of them, and the first precipitated the second. You see, I acquired a new keyboard. The keyboard I had was … less than awesome. Keys were pressed, strokes registered, but it all felt … well, lackluster is putting it tactfully. The keystrokes were short, the action blunted, the sound muffled. It felt as though I was trying to type through sand. I was always pulled out of what I was doing to make sure I was still doing it. Yes, those are my fingers pounding plodding away. Gosh, I sure hope those electrons know where to go.

Anyway, it was … uncomfortable. Not a state in which to try to write. Enter Das Keyboard. It’s a little spendy- okay, it’s more than a little spendy. At $160, it’s more expensive than the second acquisition, but the keys are a dream. It utilizes mechanical keys. They have substance. They have haptic response! They strike like the very hammer of Thor! (Also, it’s Germish. (Is it German? Not really, but it’s kinda like German: it’s Germ-ish.) Actually, it’s made in China and sold by a company in Texas.)

That last may be an exaggeration, but you do know you’re typing. You know when every key strikes home, and all the while you hear a delightful clickclickclickclick of rattling keys. Well, it’s delightful, assuming you go in for such things. I might just be weird. One “downside,” if you want to consider it such: the Das Keyboard is heavy, at something around three solid pounds. Personally, I appreciate the mass, as it means my furious digits aren’t going to scoot the thing around on my desk. That makes me happy, though it will affect the second of my new tools.

So I have my new keyboard, I’ve typed on it. I love it with all the loves. But it’s not portable, exactly. I mean, I could start carrying my laptop around again, but the things old. And heavy. And cranky. And heavy. And needs a new battery. And heavy. (Did I mention it’s heavy?) I have zero interest in deliberately increasing the mass I carry around when I leave the house to write (no’gonna happen for a while, admittedly, what with the infant in the house) or when I travel. It’s this last that is the issue. I want to take my new keyboard with me when I go places that are farrish away (road trips, flights, cons, etc.), and that requires something to do the heavy lifting of electrons in a useable format.

Enter Raspberry Pi. The RPi, as it’s known among aficionados, is a single board computer designed in Great Britain as an educational tool to enable school children cheap access to programming tools. The original Raspberry Pi rocked a hefty 256MB of RAM stacked on top of it’s blistering 700MHz processor. It carried no onboard storage memory (still doesn’t, in any configuration), but read from a SD card slot on the credit card sized circuit board. The power is through a 5V microUSB port, which acts as the on/off switch. That was a few years ago, and the RPi has gone through a few iterations.

My slice of Pi (I never get tired of that. Never.) is the newest version, released just last month, the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B. Gone is the single core processor. Now we’ve got a quad-core 900MHz beast, with a full gigabyte of RAM, and not one, but four USB ports. The 10/100 ethernet port is still there, but we now have a microSD card slot, and the 3.5mm jack can carry video, though I’d much rather use the HDMI port for video. All in something the size of a credit card. Well, sort of. You see, the it’s got chips, and pins, and port and such. I’d say it’s the size of a deck of cards. Maybe two, depending on the case you put it in. Also, it’s still $35.

Of course, that’s for the card, without any “accessories,” like input devices, or, I dunno, a monitor. Regardless, many people have such things lying about. Heck, most televisions these days have at least two HDMI ports.

The RPi is designed to run Linux, so it’s a little different in feel than Windows or OS X, and a little more hands on. Fortunately, the RPi community is … robust. The Raspberry Pi is doing its job of providing a low cost platform in an education setting. On the other hand, it’s also used to run robotics projects. Heck, the RPi has been to space, and that’s more than I’ve done. It’s tiny, it’s light, it’s cheap, and it’s all kinda of versatile.

Why do I care, Dave, you may ask. Well, I’ve loaded mine with LibreOffice, GIMP, Icedove (the open source version of Mozilla Thunderbird), and Calibre. I can write, manipulate images, format ebooks and check my email. I can do everything I need to do on the RPi. Just as much as I can on my desktop, or tablet, but with fewer distractions. All for about $60. I splurged a bit and picked up a 2TB USB drive for external storage, but that still gives me a computer for about $150, as I had all the other parts already.

Now, a caveat. When I said it’s a little more hands-on, you may have to learn a little bit about Linux and how to navigate around the guts of the thing using the command prompt. While the GUI would mount my external drive just fine when I plugged it in, I was unable to write to it. At first. I didn’t have permission, and that took a couple of commands in a terminal window. I also had to set the RPi to send more power to the USB ports, so the drive would actually initialize. That required I dive into the /boot/config.txt file (again, from the terminal) and add a line of code. While none of this was difficult, it did require some time to find the correct commands. Not much, but some. This is not an effortless project, though I’d call it low effort.

And, right now at least, I’m dependent on my location possessing a monitor with a HDMI port. I may in the future (likely will: this thing’s fun to tinker with) pick up a smallish tablet screen so I can take this with me anywhere. I’ve also seen reports of folks running their RPi from a device battery charger, though I’m wary of that without further research. While I don’t intend my slice of Pi to replace my desktop, it’s going to see a lot of duty as a writing box. In fact, I may get another in the near future for use as a media server on my home network.

It’s astonishing. This setup is better – by leaps, if not by bounds – than the one I took to college as a freshman. And far, far more portable. I’m excited.

Carefully on tip-toe stealing

There are… interesting whispers and things floating around the Internets in places that are rightfully private. I’m not at liberty to reveal what those whispers are saying, but I can say this much: the announcement of the Hugo nominations on April 4 should be interesting indeed, and will potentially kick Sad Puppies Three into the final phase of encouraging everyone who’s eligible to read the nominated works if they haven’t already read them, and then make sure they vote. Word is that the Hugo committee had to sort through more nomination ballots than ever before, which means that competition for the actual award is likely to be stiff.

Those who waded through the various vote counts and phases will remember that the ballot system used (preferential voting) is one explicitly designed to find the consensus candidate. What that means is that those who wish to end Puppy-Related Sadness need to make sure they rank all the candidates – otherwise we’ll see a repeat of last year where even though one nominee led the ballot after the first round of counting, that person was in last place by the final tally (this happens with preferential voting. Unless one of the candidates is an uncontroversial stand-out winner, the one who offends the fewest people will be the one left standing. Which is fine when you’re after a politician who’s going to have to make deals with other people, but rather less appropriate for an award that says it’s for the “best”. If it was called “least offensive”, that would be a different issue. But I digress…)

In any case, there will be Sad Puppies to be made happy, the awards will happen in three months or so, and the puppies will be forgotten for a while.

Or will they…

Nope. They won’t. Because in a fit of even greater insanity than usual, yours truly, Kate the Impaler of the Evil Legion of Evil, will be picking up the banner for Sad Puppies 4 and running with it. I even promised not to impale anyone with it (it’s such a pretty flag, and getting blood and… stuff… all over it would make those poor sad puppies even more sad. Even the Evil Legion of Evil has standards, you know. We’re completely against letting Sad Puppies stay sad. We want them to be happy).

There won’t be much action from Sad Puppies 4 for quite some time, but rest assured I will be lurking in the shadows looking for worthy candidates for the campaign to End Puppy-Related Sadness. When the time is right, announcements will be made and campaigning will begin in earnest. In the meantime, I shall rub my hands together and practice my evil cackle.

Documentary madness

So the thing right now, in the endless state of convalescence –

Yes, I know, it’s getting a little better everyday, but I didn’t finish the books or the other house before getting the surgery, mostly due to pre-op stuff and my younger son trying to destroy his foot (he’s better now), which means I’m champing at the bit and very impatient with the slow rate at which I’m becoming more capable of doing things. Among the things that annoy me are the need for naps, because I get extremely tired, but I still suffer insomnia.

So, as I was saying in the endlessly gradual convalescence, I need something to rest when I can’t sleep and can’t write. I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries.

Watching is, of course, sort of true. What I normally do is watch the first ten minutes, then start laughing and turn it off, and put another one on. Sometimes, once in a long time, I actually watch the whole documentary.

Why documentaries? You say. Well, I figure it’s because of mental illness. Unless you have a better explanation for why watching something with plot right now makes me physical nauseated. I think, honestly, though I am reducing the pain killers, it’s because the opiates turn my brain into mush and trying to concentrate makes me ill.

But what kind of documentaries, you say.

Well, mostly stuff on animals and history. The kind of stuff that Animal Planet and History Channel used to show, when the kids were little and I let them watch something with me for a treat. (Dan had a traveling job and Marsh had trouble sleeping, so we’d cuddle on the sofa and watch stuff like Al the alosaurus.)

The other restriction is that I’m watching the free ones on Amazon prime, because honestly … well, why not.

Now I realize these are not the crème de la crème, but a lot of them are produced by names like the bbc.

And documentaries would seem to me to be a fairly easy genre. In the end, what are you looking at but a kind of lecture, on a subject?

So, you show whatever the subject is, then you show the drawing/cgi – whichever – of how it got that way, then you show the subject doing interesting things.


Except that… most of these documentaries fail. Take the one on the petrified forest. I expected at least some drawings and explanation of what happened in visuals. No. I mean, they told us how minerals replaced the wood, and all, but what they showed us was random panning over petrified trees while this reassuringly paternal voice droned on.

Next came – it said – a documentary on the natural history of chickens. This interested me, since chickens are either descended from or a relative of the T-rex. I expected long explanations of how the bone became this bone, and how… etc. Etc.

Only… only the people making the documentary had other ideas.

I’ll admit the beginning, showing this woman living alone on a farm with her chickens and her dog was interesting. And by interesting I mean that in my early fifties I have twenty years to get that completely mad. It culminated in a scene in which the chicken freezes during a Nor’ester, so she brings the chicken inside and thaws her out, and gives her mouth to mou– er, mouth to beak ressusciation.

But then it devolved into this screed on the inequities of factory farming chicken and how we should all be vegetarians. Look, guys, whatever you think of factory farming, I grew up with chickens. First, with rare exceptions, they are the closest walking thing to plants. Second, most small farm operations are actually crueler than a well run factory farm. In fact, a lot of what they were going on about was based on the idea that chickens were the same as kids. Or something.

I don’t disagree with their right to say this (duh) but they were having a grand bathos orgy that would only convince those who already agreed with them (And who’d never seen a significant number of chickens raised.)

So… I tried one about this guy and whales. Oy. That one didn’t last long. It was about the inequities of the whaling industry.

Again, nothing against it, except you can’t start your argument by treating it as though the whales were human. The only people you’re going to convince are those who already agree with you. Also, you have your hook baited wrong, sir. The major whale harvesting right now is not in the US and I failed to see Japanese subtitles on your screeds and mini-fits.

Then I found a quite nice documentary on the Galapagos. Oh, it talked about tourists destroying it, but in the end it said “but of course, it is always changing, so…”

And then I tried to find a documentary on sea turtles. Uh… guys… yeah. The voice was this weird droning, and it took the same approach as the petrified forest one.

Anyway, we ended up watching one on the Terracotta army, but on the way there (and has anyone checked their heads for chems, or would they have rotted? Also Apropos nothing, if you haven’t read Barry Hughart’s delightful China trilogy, find it and read it now) my husband did the bad voice simulation on computer and I realized half of these “documentaries” are stock photos with voice over of “mechanical reading.”

So, why am I inflicting this on you?

Because it occurred to me how much this experience is like when I try to read indie books. Now, I read a lot of indie books and like them (duh) but I also have a high percentage of discards. Higher than in traditional? Well, not really but for different reasons.

The traditional discards tend to “impress” me a lot like the natural history of chickens or the rants about whale hunting (Btw, all whales are gentle creatures and the tales of its being dangerous to hunt them were made up to appear macho. No, seriously, he said that. Head>desk.) They are great if what you’re looking for is affirmation for some “correct” belief you already have. I.e. the belief your friends, your teachers and all your gatekeepers told you was true.

Look, you don’t even have to show any beliefs. The chicken thing could have made its case more effectively by being all about her crazy lady and her love of her chickens. At least I’d have hesitated before diving in to fried chicken because I’d think how important these silly muggings were to that old woman.

Likewise most traditional books could capture me by giving me people to care about and a story to follow. They might not convince me, but I’d be interested enough to read. However, when it turns to reciting the rosary of politically correct woes, I’m both bored and annoyed, and discard either documentary or book. (One of the indies that did this was pride and prejudice from an Evangelical pov. I’m sorry, the religion they depicted the Bennets having didn’t even exist in that time, in that place, and for people who didn’t already share your precise set of beliefs both characters and plot were risible. So, I suppose the political correctness of NYC gatekeepers is very much an evangelical religion.)

However, when it comes to Indie, though there is always some number I discard because the author assumed the world outside his head is exactly the same as inside his head, be that in politics, religion or just the way people act, most of what I discard is due to carelessness.

I have infinite tolerance with the cover, but if your character is Joe in the second chapter make sure he’s not Bob in the first. Also, try to make sure your style doesn’t read like voice-emulating programs. Also, plot – you should have one.

My second most likely reason to discard a book, is the strong feeling it’s not aimed at me, though it claims to be aimed at me. What I mean, is, particularly with science fiction, if you don’t read the genre, please, dear bog, don’t say you write it. If what you’re writing is hot girl gets it on with aliens, tag it as erotica and futuristic and romance, but DO NOT tag it as science fiction. Because when all your aliens are star treck aliens, enrolled in the forehead of the month and when it turns out that not only does Mars need women but so does every other planet, I’m going to return your book mostly unread.

On the other hand I will read things I shouldn’t have any interest in, and forgive a multitude of sins if you do two things: entertain me, and treat me as an equal.

When you’re writing, keep in mind the person in your head, the person you aim the book at, and treat that person with respect. Think of them as your equals in intelligence. Try to do your best for them.

Then if you have something interesting to say or an interesting story to tell, you’ll be all right.

Oh the whining and whinging – repost and update

(Apologies first for doing a repost and brief update. I have to leave the house shortly to take my mother to a doctor’s appointment that will last all morning and possibly part of the afternoon. It is one of those marathon testings that will, hopefully, finally give us at least some insight into what’s been going on with her the last few months. It’s nothing serious and is only intermittent but she has no warning before an episode happens and, once it does, she is wiped out for a good 24 hours after. So, I hope you understand that my mind is elsewhere today. As for the update, I will post that at the end of the original article. Until later!)

I do so love how some folks have to hunt to find some sliver of something that might, in some faraway galaxy, be construed as ill-will by Amazon. Once they find it, they run with it, doing their best to make it into a “big” deal, never considering what the actual facts might be. After all, it’s Amazon they are condemning, so why worry about such minor things like facts? The haters are going to hate, no matter what.

The latest example comes from the New York Times. Yes, yes, I know. It is a bastion of journalistic integrity. How could I doubt it when it hosts headlines like this: Amazon Offers All-You-Can-Eat Books. Authors Turn Up Noses.

The article starts out by saying that authors are mad — again — with Amazon. It goes on to note that “[f]or much of the last year, mainstream novelists were furious that Amazon was discouraging the sale of some titles in its confrontation with the publisher Hachette over e-books.”

Now, the teacher in me would take the reporter and the editor who approved the article to task for that sentence. After all, it implies that all mainstream novelists were “furious” with Amazon over the Hachette issue. Funny, I don’t remember it being every mainstream author. In fact, the only ones who seemed to really be furious were the favored few and those who felt it necessary to align their names with those same little darlings of the Hachete world. Most of the other so-called mainsteam authors — and what is a mainstream author? Could the article actually mean traditionally published authors? — were busy doing what writers do. They were writing. Note also how the article doesn’t mention once the suggestions made by Amazon to help these so-called furious authors, suggestions that would have put money into the pockets of the authors and that were summarily tossed aside by Hachette. But I digress.

According to the article, there is too much competition out there for writers now. Without the gatekeepers to limit the number — and “quality” — of books available, there are just too many choices for the poor reader to choose from. This is a variation of the argument that is also going around that Amazon is a purveyor of lettuce and shouldn’t also be selling books because, duh, they sell lettuce.

But the real issue the article has with Amazon is the new Kindle Unlimited program. For those of you not familiar with the KU program, it works like this. From the reader’s standpoint, you pay a monthly fee of $9.99. In return, you get the option of downloading up to 10 books at a time for free. These books have to be enrolled in the KU program, so most will be indie books. There is no time limit on when you have to read the books. You can’t loan them and you don’t own them. Think of it as a for pay library. You are paying for the ability to borrow a book for an unlimited period of time.

From the author’s point of view, you have to enroll your title first in the KDP Select program. That means you cannot sell your title anywhere else. Then, if you want to go into the KU program, you check the little box and your book is now enrolled. But don’t get your knickers in a twist — yet. You will get paid for those loans.


At some future point in time.

The problem with KU from an author’s point of view is two-fold. The first is that you don’t know how many times your book has been downloaded. You only find out about a download when it is read to a certain percentage of the book’s length. When that magical number is reached, you get your share of the common “pot”. And therein lies the second issue.

As with the Kindle Only Lending Library (KOLL), authors get paid out of a monthly fund set up by Amazon. The fund can vary in amount from month to month. Worse, there is no limit on the number of books that can be in the program at any one time. So, the more books downloaded and then read to the magic percentage point, the lower the monies paid out per download.

But the real problem with KU is the fact that there is no payment tier based on title price. Someone who puts up a title that normally sells for 99 cents will get the same amount of money per download as that $9.99 title gets. What that means is that those who are putting up titles that fall under the 30% royalty structure normally will get more money per download than they would for a straight sale. Conversely, depending on how much a title sells for you might make close to what you would for a sale if your title is priced at $2.99 but you will make substantially less for those books priced higher than that.

Now, how you look at that is up to you. Amazon is not, contrary to what the article says, making e-books an all-you-can-eat proposition. Most folks aren’t going to pay basically $10 a month just to maybe be able to download 10 books every 30 days or so. Some will, of course, but the average reader will quit the program after realizing they aren’t getting their money’s worth out of it.

But, as an author, you need to look at your sales stats — and that includes returns as well. My personal experience has seen a dramatic decrease in returns on the romance/paranormal romance novels. As I’ve blogged before, other authors I’ve talked to who write in the romance genres have complained of higher return rates for those books than for other genre novels they write. It has nothing to do with quality — usually — but more to do with a certain set of readers. Don’t get me wrong. Most romance genre readers are wonderful fans who would never think about buying a book, reading it and then returning it. However, there is a subset of readers who have no problem doing just that. It isn’t unusual for romance genre authors to have a return rate of 10% or more. Since KU premiered, my return rate for those particular novels has dropped dramatically. It is now at the same level as my other books, below 1% for most novels.

There is something else I’ve noticed. With the exception of my science fiction novels, sales — and borrows — of the other novels have picked up since KU began. That is a good thing. It means money in my pocket and kitty kibble for Demon Kitten and Her Royal Pussiness. Would I like a better way of accounting for the number of downloads vs reading to the magic number? You bet. Just like I’d appreciate knowing how long the average is between download to reading. But what I am finding out through reviews and emails is that a number of those who try a book on KU will then return the book and buy their own copy. Better yet, they will buy other books in the series. I know I am getting sales from KU that I might not otherwise because people do hesitate to buy from an author they aren’t familiar with.

I do wish Amazon would restructure the payment for KU to make it more difficult for authors to game the system. I don’t think something that normally sells for 99 cents should get the same payout that a $2.99 novel does, much less a novel that sells for $4.99 or more. For the system to really work, there needs to be modifiers based on price and length of the work. Without the latter, you will simply have those who want to game the system changing the price of their 2,500 work story from 99 cents to $2.99 (or whatever) to get the larger royalty payout.

The way I look at KU, however, is much like I look at the Baen Free Library. It is, in a way, a loss leader. People get my work for “free”. I don’t get as much money for their borrows but I do, hopefully, get sales out of it in the long run. Am I leaving everything in the program?  I’m not sure. I think I will tweak my offerings a bit over the next month or so to see what happens. But, for now, I’m not going to completely abandon it. Not when I do see positive results from the program.

Now if Amazon would only adjust it so the payout was based on price and length of the work, I’d be a happy camper.

Update: I have tried a couple of things since the KU program went into effect. I’ve done the countdowns and I’ve let titles time out of the program to see how my sales were impacted. The countdowns didn’t give much push but there were some additional sales. But what surprised me — and yet didn’t — was what happened when I went out of the KU program. My sales for those titles went down. So not only was I missing out on the borrow payouts but I also lost traditional sales. What that tells me is that there are those who “borrow” a book under the KU program and then go back to buy it. I still wish Amazon would adjust the payouts for the titles in the program so it is more fair — a short story should not get more for a borrow than it would for a sale and a novel should get more than a short story, imo — but the borrows are still money I might not have made. I will keep tracking and will update later, after I do a few more promotions. What have been your experiences, as a reader and as a writer, with the KU program?

The older hero

I’ve spent most of my life doing… stupid things. I was going to say energetic, adventurous, exciting, bizarre, and, um, stupid. But only the last is really universally true. For someone, somewhere anyway. But as I flopped into my chair this evening, to try and write a post, having 1)got through my word count (just), 2)Written a blog post, 3)worked on the farm fencing(AKA earning some money) 4)Worked on my container-cum-workshop-in-the-future’s roof, 5)done some minimal gardening – or we do not eat (yes, I still grow catch or raise most everything but the basic food groups of coffee and chocolate. It’s cheap but also time consuming and hard work.), 6)cooked supper, 7) writing this. 8) going to shoot and butcher some more wallaby -we’re low on dog tucker) fitting it in basically by cutting back on sleep, that maybe stupid is the only right word. When I was the other side of 50 I thought it was intelligent and the only way worth being. Now that I have finally grown up a tiny bit, and I hurt a lot more after a long hard day… well, I am not so sure. On the other hand, I am too obstinate to quit.

But I was, in my ample spare time reading a few books for homework for the next Karres novel (I read very fast to make up for writing slowly) and it stuck how young all the heroes were. So I started looking at other books, scanning my mind… There are exceptions (PEBBLE IN THE SKY springs to mind), but heroes have a median age of about 28, I’ll swear. And the female ones are younger. Now in real terms this is a good idea. Get rid of the meat-heads young before they breed. Think of it as evolution in action, encouraged largely by writers who avoid that sort of dangerous sh1t. And I suspect we all have a finite cup of courage, and if you’ve been quaffing liberally at it as a young snot, and you’re still alive by 40, there’s not much left. (While some of you have expressed doubts about this I really am a very quiet tame sort of bloke these days. Just still fairly stupid about getting involved in odd things.) Still… I wondered. SF is supposed to be greying. You wouldn’t guess by looking at the heroes. Do we fancy ourselves as 28 in our daydreams? I’ve written, deliberately, heroes of younger ages for those target markets. Is there a market for targeting the older hero. Or is he a boring old fart, who likes a little snooze at lunchtime? (yes, I know, there’s PI Bolg 1728 years old and still counting, but Bolg is a Pict, and written by Freer so it’s no use expecting him to be typical)

And if it is generally applicable to sf/fantasy… in Romance I swear they all die at 35. But this isn’t true, surely? And what is their median reader age?

Okay, I’m brain-dead, and tired too, and still need to go shooting. Short post this week. But tell me, why do all the PC darlings whine like deranged mosquitoes with no volume control about PoCLGBTalphabet-soup characters, but nary a word about older ones (who, boringly, are tired, hurt a bit, and think warm dry socks are really exiting?).

Revising Old Writing Part Two: The Betas are Circling – Alma Boykin

Revising Old Writing Part Two: The Betas are Circling – Alma Boykin


So, when we last left the Dissertation/Draft (DDraft), the old work had been cleaned up, improved, had material added and some deleted, and in general was a bit tighter than when I started, thanks to the passage of time and two Alpha Readers suggestions. Much like revising old fiction, I found things that needed to be polished, language tics that really did not improve the book, excessive detail here and not enough backstory there. My Alpha Readers had advised some pretty major changes, which I made some of. Others I thought hard about and decided not to try and do, because they would, in essence, change an epic fantasy into a steampunk novel. OK, not quite, but the changes would have been pretty major. So it was time to look at the Beta Reader comments.

(Quick aside. I call the second and third commenters Beta Readers, even though they had some comments closer to Alphas. In general, their suggestions were closer to what fiction beta readers look for, so I consider them the equivalent. Carry on.)

Again they were a mixed bag. Both encouraged more trimming of jargon and trying to tighten things to make the story flow faster, to grip the reader better. Beta Reader 2 loved what Alpha Reader 2 had hated, so I rolled my eyes and decided to let the editor decide which version of that chunk she liked better. I was still too in love with the original to want to change. One of the suggested changes left me a bit flummoxed, because the Beta Reader suggested that I try to change my writing style in order to make the book more like a very famous and incredibly readable history. Sort of as if someone had suggested that I re-write the next Cat Among Dragons novel into the style of Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Sterling’s Prince of Sparta. I took the suggestion to mean “tighten up, get rid of jargon, and focus on story here and here.” And my transitions needed work still.

You are looking at the screen and saying, “OK, at this point, why are you bothering? Just how much work are you going to put into this beast, Alma, and why don’t you just self publish?” Good points, and if this were fiction, I would. And if this were an independent project and not the DDraft, I’d seriously think about it. But in the world of academia, you really should not do that. And the publisher still wanted/wants the book, just revised and polished. We are now looking at a far better, more readable, smoother, and probably about 90% improved version of the original. Large repetitious chunks are gone, the story flows better, the title reflects the contents, some things have been brought to the front of the book, and a lot of undergrowth has been trimmed. And keep in mind that I’m still reading lots of non-fiction and writing fiction, so I’m trying to work in what I’m learning as I re-write.

At this point a style editor got involved. You probably do not need this sort of service, but after four or five (it seems like twenty-four or twenty-five) pretty major re-workings, I can’t see all the problems of flow and other things anymore. Think of this as having an advanced Beta Reader look over DDraft. Some of my fiction style had leaked into the non-fiction and not in a good way, another reason for a cold pair of eyes. And this individual can also flag problems that have crept in. He’s caught some things I missed, recommended some things I’m still mulling over, and generally helped smooth the wrinkles. The DDRaft is now about to go back to the publisher for an up/down decision.


How is this all like re-writing fiction, old fiction? Some thoughts.

First, you will probably find that some of what you wrote stinks. Some was good even then, but other portions will leave you cringing and wondering how it ever escaped your pen/keyboard.

Second, you may need to be a little ruthless about killing your deathless prose, if the situation warrants it. This is especially true if you are going back into a universe where you have been writing since then. Re-writing the Cat novel feels a whole lot like re-writing the DDRaft in places. I loved that scene, I really did, but it no longer fits. There’s been new developments since I wrote it, and I need to incorporate them, which means taking out Lovely Scene.

Third, your Alpha Readers may knock you sideways. One certainly did to me, and it took a while before I could go back and sift the useful bits from the frustrating bits.

Fourth, do not be afraid to chop and change if necessary. I’ve created new chapters (fleshed out backstory as it were), plumped up others, turned overly long sections into shorter ones. Let’s face it: no one is going to read a 300-page book of only four chapters, unless you are releasing a set of novellas.

And it may be that you discover that bits of Ye Olde Work can be saved, expanded, or used elsewhere, but the guts are dead. You may have 150 pages of description and no plot. The characters may refuse to cooperate and you realize that the tale of a modern liberated woman as wife in early Imperial Rome absolutely will not work, not even if you hold your nose and try to pretend. Or the magic system you cobbled together has collapsed now that you’ve read more and learned how to and how not to arrange such things. If rewriting the beast means taking the character names, a little of the setting, and the McGuffin into a different book, you might be better off holding a lovely memorial service for Ye Olde Work and writing the new book. Take the good bits as you need them and leave the rest to decay. I ended up doing that with part of the Cat novel. Even after major rewriting for continuity and flow and to eliminate a major authorial pity party, the chapter still went thud to the point of detracting from the book. So out it came. I had something similar happen with a different history book, because the material dragged the story in an out-of-the-way direction, literally. I’ll probably use the excised chunk for an academic article some time.

In conclusion, rewriting can be a little painful. It can also be very educational, especially if you have good Alpha and Beta readers who are willing to point out the oopsies and continuity problems. Yeah, that stream does not reverse flow and go east, then west out of the state. It flows north and only north. Big oops. If all goes well, between how you have developed as a writer since you started the Olde Project, and some helpful suggestions, you can rework what was rough into something much better. You will learn a great deal in the process, some good, some bad, and possibly some “things not to do to people I read for.”


Some of what I described is exactly what Amanda talked about earlier. Some is different. Re-writing is personal and varies from author to author. But I hope you find my experience helpful (or cautionary).