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Cabbage

 
I thought when I grew up I might become a thought leader.

You know, put on some eu-de-thought and take folk’s eagerly following thought on leads in a bunch for nice little drag around the park, before returning them to the owners’ heads, all relieved, exercised, happy, tired and ready for din-dins.

The only flaw in my plan seems to be getting the leashes to stay on. People’s thoughts seem to go where they will, despite my best efforts to drag them off to poop on the grass outside Councilor Onswud’s office.

This particular bit of inane insanity was brought to you courtesy of a young writer, who I asked why they were doing this? (Having in a fit of gullibility agreed to read some of their magnum opus.)

They told me they wanted to be ‘A thought leader’.

I smiled, wished them the best of luck, waved and walked the other way as quickly as I possibly could, heaved a deep sigh of relief and wiped my furry brow once I was safe around the corner.

It was of course a question asked because the ‘story’ in question was… a rather tedious recital of all the obligatory politically correct points, parroted by suitably politically correct characters chosen from the checklist and absolutely nothing else to commend them. There is of course an audience who want thoughts ‘lead’ (It’s a heavy toxic metal) in this fashion. And absolutely, the author should publish, and should be free to. I encouraged the author to do just that. They will probably nominate it for Hugo.

But for me it’s like cabbage.

It needs to quite well disguised before I eat it, and preferably in small quantities. It is, for me, anyway, unlikely to be the hero of the dish.

Which brings me around to yet another one of my silly stories. It’s what I do best, and I like to keep in practice. (Yes, one of my other games is obscure references to sf. It pleases me, delights a few readers and isn’t noticed by most.)

Once upon a time, not that long ago or far away, lived a few cooks who believed to the innermost core in the benefits of cabbage (there are indeed, some benefits. Many of which do not include being downwind.) In their busy little seaside town, where folk came to take a holiday, there were many eateries of various types. Indeed the food was very much a part of why people came.

The cooks inserted themselves into some of the eateries, and of course into the local town council, and cooked… and counciled (which is often rather like the aftermath of serving cooking but without any of the intermediate phases. Go straight to toilet paper, do no digesting or enjoyment.)

Now of course, their dishes all had an element of cabbage. Not everyone liked the cabbage, and some steered away from those dishes. But nothing loath, our brave cabbagers soldiered on, some moving into running restaurants, and needless to say, hiring more cabbage cooks. Of course some people just love cabbage. And a skilled cook can use a small amount of it in any number of ways, inoffensive to almost all, but the most sensitive super-tasters.

The town council made things… gradually more difficult for those restaurants did not have cabbage-obsessed cooks. It gradually got to the stage that if you wanted a job, cooking, you needed to profess a love of cabbage, and of course add it into any dish you prepared. This worked well in some dishes like Caldo verde – green soup, but alas, cabbage melba was not a success.

And as time went on, the town council, now entirely run by cabbagers refused entry and put out of business non-cabbage eateries. And gradually the restaurants stopped bothering with small amounts or disguise. Cabbage soup, without other ingredients, Stuffed cabbage was stuffed with cabbage, and any criticism of the cabbage flan or cabbage with cabbage ice-cream became punishable with a fine.

Needless to say, eating out in the town became something only hardened cabbage lovers enjoyed.

Other visitors didn’t. They didn’t even like being in the same town. They took their holidays in a neighboring seaside town, which flourished, just as the re-named town of Cabbage-On-Sea, wilted.

It was a pretty place and some well-disposed visitors suggested that a return to a menu at restaurants that wasn’t just cabbage (boiled, fried, steamed, pickled and raw) might bring the tourists back, and make the place smell less.

They were driven forth with hard words and harder sticks and stones.

Instead the cabbagers settled on trying to destroy the neighboring town, and, if that failed, repeat their takeover of Cabbage-On-Sea.

Because they believe cabbage is good for everyone, especially them.

And they never seem to learn about all things being good in moderation, and not in dessert.

If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it keeps happening. Books, news, countries, awards – always the same story. Only rather than cabbage, it is thoughts (you remember –those things which are led. Or lead (if they are heavy enough).

Writers are not thought leaders. They’re not even good thought-sheepdogs.

Yes, yes, occasional books do and will have a huge impact on the world. But really most people don’t pay to have their thoughts led, any more than pay to eat un-requited cabbage. Yes, of course there are a handful of people who will say that any book led them to think about xyz in such a way, and love the author for this (And as often as not, that wasn’t what the author meant). But mostly books are like the seaside town. We go there for a good time, to be comforted or relieved of stress or boredom of our lives. Occasionally we may come across a new idea (at least new to us) that says ‘shiny’ and we embrace it. But seriously, if your reason for writing is to lead my thoughts to a ‘better’ place… Work out what you’re saying about me, and why I don’t like it.

Who the hell are you to think I can, or should be, led?

Why should I follow you or your philosophy, you vain little pimple on the backside of irrelevance?

The willingness of the reader to be led, to admit they want to be led has to be major factor in whether people buy your book. Of course there are people who fit into the lost and needing leading. Or into reassuring ‘we are going the right way’ bracket. But for the rest of us… you need to disguise that cabbage.

And stop repeating the same mistake.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, with somewhat less cabbage, and almost no rat CHANGELING’S ISLAND is available for pre-order (which pushes my sales ranking up). The picture is a link that makes me few more pence. Yes. It is ‘YA’. The day I write something for a younger audience that I think isn’t worth reading with older eyes, is the day I quit. (So you can spend $6.74 and tell me it’s time)

Markets, versus what we think they want

I was at a convention not very long ago, and listening to a conversation going on between a number of my peers — to include several aspirants I knew would be breaking in very soon. There was much excitement over a supposed subgenre of a subgenre within Science Fiction and Fantasy, to the point that every single author in that circle seemed convinced that this subgenre was going to go out and take over the world. Each of them had plans for stories and books to be written in that subgenre of the subgenre. All of it sounded very interesting to me. But I also knew that the market for this material was going to be fantastically narrow. Which is really saying something, considering the extant narrowness of SF/F as a form of literary entertainment.

But that particular circle was on fire about their subject, and I am not keen on throwing cold water across creative people when they’re hot about their work. That’s not my style.

Nevertheless, I’ve yet to see this subgenre of a subgenre go on to become the genre-dominant force many say it will be, even to this day. Not because it’s not a worthwhile flavor of SF/F — I think it’s deservedly intriguing, and there are a great many people investing a great deal of time and energy in it. But because I think this is a (common) case of authors becoming fixated on a thing because it pushes our love buttons, without the market following suit.

I think we are, as a class of creative professional, incredibly susceptible to this inverted fish-eye view of the marketplace. Once we latch onto a thing, we can latch onto it with almost fanatical energy.

Which is not always bad. Sometimes I think we look around and we say, “I am not seeing X or Y type books and stories,” and that becomes the spark that drives our prose. I know it’s certainly been true for me, and I think I’ve been fortunate to tap a genuine vein within the SF/F audience that has been — according to my reader mail — underserviced and neglected. It was a case of author perception (mine) roughly matching audience perception (theirs) and the marriage of supply and demand has been a happy one, which I hope to enjoy for a long time into the future.

But then there are moments where I think we, as writers, overly fetishize our own innovation, to the point that we’re talking way past the readers, and are instead writing books and stories strictly to ourselves, about ourselves, for ourselves, and concerned only with our own desire to see a given kind of book or story reach print — even if there is not really any consumer interest waiting on the other end.

A lot of this fetishization can be traced to SF/F’s hoary old expectation that no wheel be re-invented. Going all the way back to the pulp era, a common conceit arose, stipulating that once a given concept or idea had been “done” that concept was more or less used up, and it was expected that future authors — having dutifully studied and read all which had gone before — would not re-mow the same patch of grass. A kind of faddishness grew from this expectation, such that topics would rise, explode, and die, in almost supernova-like style. But once that supernova had reduced to dwarf status, it was time for everybody to move on. The thing had been seen and done and read enough. It was time for something new.

Except, after a century of feverish activity, SF/F really has been just about everywhere it can go, in some form. There aren’t any new ideas under the sun, as the saying goes. So, people resort to improbable mash-ups, or extremely deep, hair-crack dives on old ideas — drilling down, at fine-tooth-comb detail, in an attempt to extract mileage from the tiniest shreds of unexplored real estate.

None of which is bad, mind you. I do hate how this kind of analysis can turn into a bad/good false dichotomy. Rather, I want to suggest that such electron-microscope exploration — while fascinating to students of the field — risks leaving the larger audience behind. That larger audience probably hasn’t read even one one-hundredth of the field’s books and stories. They don’t know this decade’s evolving iteration of the “classics,” as defined by the cognoscenti. They’re blissfully unaware of the yellow and black-striped caution signs saying, THIS HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE, MOVE ON.

The public just wants to be entertained — and they’re prepared to take any book or story at face value. Just because it’s been done before, doesn’t mean this generation of readers knows, or cares.

I believe this is how a concept like Weir’s The Martian captures so much attention. There was absolutely nothing new about it. Men-go-to-Mars stories have been around from the very beginning of the field. Weir just happened to tell a particularly detailed, hard-science version of that story — one which this generation of consumers was ready to embrace. All else grew from there, and Weir reaped the fruit thereof. And good for him. As an admirer and practitioner of Hard SF, I found it hugely gratifying to see a genuine Hard SF story not just succeed with a broad audience, but succeed to an overwhelming degree; both in print, and on the big screen. After enduring a lot of backhanded scorn from the softer side of the genre — obsessed with sociological explorations of SF — I was heartened by the idea that the public still wanted and appreciated a genuine Hard SF “nuts and bolts” approach to a classic Jack London man-versus-the-elements story.

So, I temper my enthusiasm for the latest talk about sailpunk wereshark post-apocalypse antihero pirate-crossover transexual romances, being the thing that will now light the genre on fire. This is speculation driven almost entirely from within — from that place where we desperately want to forge the new, from the old. We may pick up a thing, and marvel at how it sparkles in the light of our mind’s eye — but to the wider audience, it’s just another beach rock. Nothing worth getting excited about. Expecting that the broader audience will become enamored with it, to the degree we ourselves may be enamored with it, can produce a lot of frustration, and even anger.

Now, an artiste won’t give a damn. “Real art” is never, ever supposed to be about the desire of the unwashed masses. “Real art” is about pouring salt water on the paper cuts of the soul. To hell with what the audience wants.

For my money, a professional walks a middle path. Not slavish to market forces, but not prone to belly-button infatuation with overly strange and esoteric ideas, either. The number of artistes surviving on subsidy, is legion. The number of pros who discover how to routinely provide a product that speaks to a lot of people in the commercial pel mel of the entertainment universe, is much smaller. Thus the task is (in my view) much harder. But it’s a challenge worth undertaking. Not only because of the financial incentive. But also for the sake of readers who will appreciate being given a resoundingly solid experience.

Predictable Behaviour

As we learn to write, one of the greatest tools, and conversely, the most crippling failing, can be the understanding that humans are predictable. It can be very easy to predict that a man and a woman pushed into close proximity with, say, one of them in the role of taking care of the other who has been injured: we all know that story ends with them being in love. But if we do this too often, we fall into stereotyping. There’s a thin line between developing a cardboard character who hits all the clichés for human behavior, and one who is richly alive but still human in their motivations and reactions.

Let’s take, for instance, a denizen of a blog we’ll dub vile 666 and make an assumption. We could write them as cowardly creatures who stay in their safe space ranting about things they have extrapolated from other blogs, and those things bear little to no resemblance to what the rest of humanity would call reality. But that would be a stereotype. Instead, we need to look deeper and see what motivates these characters and drives them to believe the way they do with the concomitant reactions that leave the rest of us wondering just how delusional they can get. Here, we see that the characters are confusing a tiny space of their close, er, friends with the big wide world. Here’s a human assumption: the reaction of the larger population of humans to small cliques is, by and large, apathy. But inside the clique, reality becomes constricted to the small pool of light cast by their news sources, and they can only see what is illuminated by that light. In other words, a phenomenon known as gaslighting.

In a story, we sometimes see characters and wonder why they are doing a certain thing “that’s stupid,” we think, “why can’t they see beyond their noses?” In real life, this can happen. Humans are predictably short-sighted, and once they have allowed their world to contract into the visible range of the gaslight, the rest of the world falls dark to them. Powerful stuff for the author, if done right, to show that world being expanded again by turning on other lights and revealing a broader realm to the character. The most recent example I can think of in fiction is the Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia, with the culminating episode being the man who cannot see beyond what he was taught all his life traveling for the first time outside his proscribed realm. A redemption story is one that humans, predictably, crave as it promises that mistakes can be mitigated, and we’ve all made mistakes.

It’s not an easy journey to undertake for your character. Keep that in mind. Simply snapping on all the lights at once to reveal a once-hidden universe will shock a human into a whimpering withdrawal even if they are made of stern stuff. They will reject that which is outside their perceived reality. A very good example is writing a story of a human suddenly discovering that magic is real. Have you ever read a story where the character who learns all about some paranormal phenomenon, takes it in stride, and you the reader had your suspension of disbelief shattered? People don’t react that way. This is also a tool used in writing fantasy, the people who simply don’t believe their own eyes and reject truth in order to maintain their comfortable existence.

It’s not stereotyping to know that people do react in certain ways. The man who rescues the woman will indeed be very attractive to her. The nurse who tenderly cares for a man who in time recovers his strength will be dear to him. But if we look deeper, we can add depth to the characters, using the predictability as a map of highways and knowing we need to add the secondary and tertiary roads to create a fully-developed character. People resist change, and will return to old habits if not pulled away for some reason, or given support as they change slowly. Humans are this way for a reason: it’s not safe for a human alone to careen off in every direction, abandoning the cave for sleeping in the tree and picking that new shiny red mushroom for dinner. We take things slowly almost by instinct, and it’s not a bad thing.

In a story, we can precipitate our heroes into trouble that forces change on them. We can, authorially, shatter worlds literal and metaphorical, to make the story happen. But we must remember that humans are always human. Some of the characters, just like some people, will refuse to admit light into their constrained world, and will run around pulling all the blinds tight, taping tinfoil to the windowpanes, and then retreating to a small closet to pretend the world not-as-they-know-it doesn’t exist.

It’s much better to write the flexible characters, the ones who face the storm afraid but undaunted. These people exist in real life, too. The curious ones, the seekers of knowledge, the ones willing to take a pratfall from time to time, get up, dust themselves off, laugh at how silly they looked, and learn from it. The ones who follow the light and help guide those who cannot see out into safety as the skies fall. They are the characters that, predictably! we like to read about, and hope, in our hearts, that we are like.

97% Of The Time: Works Every Time

It’s been a while. Been busy, and while I’m assured that normal people manage this stuff, I’m becoming more and more certain that most of the time they just get used to the new normal. Wee-er Than Wee Dave Dave, aka Wiggles aka Moxie (she’s got attitude to spare, already) joined us on Groundhog Day (no, didn’t see her shadow, no, Mommy wouldn’t have taken her back even if she had. The appropriate jokes were made at the appropriate time) and I’ve been running since. The good news is that it turns out labor is an excellent time for me to plot novels. The bad news is that juggling a newborn, a toddler, and a recovering wife doesn’t leave one with much time to write. And it leaves my arms rather tired.

The other good news is that I’m writing again, though in fits and starts. And thinking about writing. I’m sure that’s in one of those pie-chart quasi-meme-fographics that flickered past my consciousness sometime recently. And I’m learning (re-learning?) that one of the things that’s key to me putting words on paper (or electrons on … other electrons) is getting out of the way of the story.

I am … prone to thinking. Partly this comes of being as extremely introverted as I am. Part of this comes of the way I was raised, and further training. It can be amazingly useful when it comes, say, to maintaining a relationship with someone. It can also be incredibly UNuseful when it comes to, say, not bollixing up a story by thinking too hard about it while you’re writing it. “Well, maybe he should turn right instead of left; maybe that’ll punch up the emotional impact.” (No, it won’t. Stop. Just write the story.) “He’s a scribe’s apprentice in an early industrial revolution where moveable type is a new but going thing. He needs to run afoul of the press gang. How did it work? Wait, did that even happen? *hours and hours later*” (Stop the research when you’ve got enough to write the next sentence. No, stop it. Just write the story.) And so forth.

Overthinking is a problem, and one my father will happily assure has always been with me. This post is not about overthinking, per se. It’s really about perspective. I firmly believe writers all to one degree or another suffer from this particular ailment. It might even be possible to judge a writer’s career based upon how they deal with it (somebody get on that, hmm?). Much like impostor syndrome, I’ve heard of perhaps one or two creative types who *don’t* deal with overthinking (and both of them, and one other will no doubt show up in the comments. Bring it!). Thinking about a thing is a comfortable place to be, as opposed to doing that thing, which is always hard work (I’m allergic, but I hear there are pills for that now) and often a distinctly uncomfortable place to be.

Sarah mentioned a notion at According To Hoyt yesterday that crystallizes what I’m after, here: Dance in the stream of chaos. For writers – certainly discovery writers, though I wager outliners deal with it to some degree, as well – this is bread and butter for doing art. It’s uncomfortable to be in the middle of the story with little-t0-no clue of what’s going to happen next. That’s a given.

Think of it like this: you have an ability to effect effects. Everyone does. Of the 100% of your ability, one percent is gone to the vagaries of the universe. Call it entropy, call it fate, karma, or kismet, one percent goes to reflect you doing everything right and still failing to make the effect you want. Of the remaining 99%, you’re going to be able to manage more or less depending on the myriad of circumstances at any given time. Some days will be more, some less. Days when you’ve gotten your eight hours the night previous, downed your Death Wish (naked plea for corporate sponsorship), knocked out your to-do list, and still plowed on to plot a novel, finish a short, and rock half a dozen new chapters in your WIP. A good day, no doubt. You were rocking that 99%.

Then there are other days. The days when you were up several times with the baby (I’m staring adoring daggers at you, Moxie), the coffee just barely drags you past death-warmed-over, and you haven’t even started your list. The days when the thought of writing actually makes your eyes glaze. The days when you’re barely topping 50%. There’s a thing you can do to regain some of your emotional distance; your perspective, and return your energy to a point where you can get things done, get words written.

When you hit the points where you start to – f0r lack of a better phrase and because this is just how I roll – freak out, you need to stop it (or I’ll bury you alive in a box, natch) short of directing that at anything external, and use it as a motive force. Have your moment of fight-flight-freeze reaction, but train yourself to step back from the brink before blasting that idiot on BaceFook or the dying leftward-spiral of Twitter, or yelling at your characters for making decisions you didn’t want them to make (unless that actually helps your process: seriously, do what works for you), and ask yourself if this is genuinely a priority for your energy. Is this whatever a real thing to deal with, or is this something you can actually use to further your real goals. Become a miser of your time and energy, and don’t spend them on anything that isn’t going to further your goals.

In my case, I could get bent out of shape over Wee Dave demanding ALL DADDY’S ATTENTION when I’m in the midst of preparing dinner so he, Mrs. Dave, and I can eat something besides a handful of nuts and maybe a twig or two tonight. In which case I’d be wasting a bunch of energy (and time), and I’d end up exhausted at dinner time, and have nothing left with which to write. Now, I can always then stagger down to the office and slaughter horrible monsters of one kind or another, but that doesn’t get words written. Or, I could mentally step back, recognize that I’m on the cusp of one of those moments, and choose to act more constructively. Then I don’t waste the energy I need for creative pursuits. In fact I experience a boost from redirecting that energy into something much more healthy than yelling in frustration, scaring my son, and making my wife wonder if, indeed, she has married a raving lunatic (she has; sorry, Babe). Then I can get the Boy-creature cleansed of his child-stench, the wife fed so she can get the Girl fed, and then I can finally escape downstairs (Dobby is free!) to write.

It’s that perspective that’s so vital. In the moment, it’s mighty difficult to step back and take the mental breath necessary to act better. Especially on the 50% days. I speak from no little experience. Without the training (and it does take training) you’re going to simply react, and end up exhausted, all the time. How do I train myself, Dave? I’m glad you asked! It begins with an act of will. You choose to take that breath, just like you chose to pick up the pen or lay hands to keyboard the first time. For me, I’m still in process (SWIDT? Oh, look: a lampshade! Where’d that come from?) and figuring out the other parts. I’m using visualization and analysis. What are the situations most likely to push my buttons? And then I run through scenarios in my head wherein my son spills something oily on the couch while Mrs. Dave is in the shower and Moxie is shrieking for a dry diaper. And I choose to act without freaking out (even in my head) and figure out some way to manage the situation to my advantage. Do that kind of thing.

The other piece of perspective is that you already have most of that 100% locked up. You got up, showered, adulted, and probably even did something constructive before you hit a cusp point. Recognize that. You’ve already got most of this. I repeat: you’ve already got most of this. Most of the writers I know keenly feel the chaos of existence, and this includes me. The part I most often miss in the moment is that I’m actually doing quite well, all told. It’s that last two or three percent that wants to elude me. I’m not going to let it. Are you?

Hugo Categories Highlight: The Big Two

Best Novel: Awarded for a science fiction or fantasy story of forty thousand (40,000) words or more.

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer : The John W. Campbell Award is given to the best new science fiction or fantasy writer whose first work of science fiction or fantasy was published in a professional publication in the previous two years. For the 2016 award, which is presented at the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon), the qualifying work must have been published in 2014 or 2015.

I’m wrapping these two together because they’re the big hitters of the Hugos even though the Campbell isn’t a Hugo. They’re also, well… kind of obvious. The Campbell website even has a list of eligible authors.

It’s pretty clear what’s eligible and what isn’t in both cases – the Campbell site FAQ has a nice clear guide to what they consider professional and while you can disagree about whether it’s valid or not, it’s certainly clear what counts.

As for what to nominate, well, that’s up to you folks. I can guarantee that what shows up on my ballot will not be what bubbles to the top of the List, because I’m doing the List as a service to anyone who’s interested and trying to boost interest and involvement in the entire Hugos process. Also because I’m just weird.

Now the administrative stuff:

I will start closing comments on the Sad Puppies recommendation threads starting around 5pm US Eastern Time on Monday 29th February. This is so I don’t have new recommendations coming in while I’m trying to collate what’s there.

I expect to be done collating by mid-March: I will post the list here and on the site either the second or third Thursday in March (that’s the 10th and the 17th). Anyone who wants to should be able to get pretty close to the results I get by counting for themselves – I will not be removing any comments. I expect that mostly what I’ll be doing is checking whether or not this or that post is an accidental double that slipped through.

Here, the post will be the top 10 (or as close as I can get) for each category. I will link to the full list for anyone who wants to see it.

Obligatory warning message: It might be too late to sign up to nominate, but you can still sign up to vote!

Obligatory warning message 2: I wasn’t joking about the demon berserker kitten.

UPDATE: Yes, yes, I forgot to link the recommendation threads.

Best Novel

Campbell Award (this one needs a LOT more love. Please give the category more love.)

Ten Signs That You Might Be A Novel’s Character

1- Nothing is ever easy, nor simple.  Say you are walking across the street to get a gallon of milk.  A rare make of car will almost run you down.  The store that sells the milk will be out of milk. You’ll have to walk across the most dangerous area of town to get to the next store.

This means someone is making you terminally interesting.

2- You remember more near-death experiences than a character in iZombie.

This is probably just background infodumps.  The author is trying to show how resilient you are.

3- All or your friends are terminally interesting and can be counted on for either an explosion or comic relief when needed.

This is good for keeping the plot moving when you’re tired/recovering/ill.

4- You have one or more catch phrases.

This is very useful for delineating a character when the author doesn’t have particularly good character skills.

5- You consistently get interrupted when you try to tell people the most important part of any story.

This is an attempt to create suspense.  Not a very clever one.  BUT, you know, sooner or later your author might find a good writers’ group.

6- You have almost lost a friendship to a huge misunderstanding which would have been cleared up if you’d just paid attention.

7- People are insanely attracted to you, despite age/body type/lack of interest.

8- You have one or more unlikely abilities, which comes in handy in circumstances that should never strike.  Say you are a camel whisperer.  It will turn out the only way to escape a traffic jam is on camel back. If you’re this well foreshadowed, you might want to consider you only exist within pages of a novel.

9- You never cry.  You’ve tried to, but you just can’t cry.  You can REMEMBER crying, but that’s probably back history.  Main characters don’t cry, because then the reader will have to.

10 – You don’t remember some of the more exciting episodes in your life, or not in detail, particularly if they involve more than three people.  This is because crowd scenes are very hard to write, but easier to summarize.

BONUS: if you keep finding people who were murdered in bizarre ways, you’re not the main character of a novel.  You’re an amnesiac mass murderer.

 

Okay, it’s time to wake up

I’ve sat down several times to write today’s post and each time I find my fingers poised above the keyboard and I know what I want to write. Then it disappears and I find myself once again wondering at a comment I saw in a private group this morning. It was one of those messages that make you stop, reread, do a little research and still scratch your head and wonder what the heck happened to common sense during the night while you were sleeping.

The price of e-books is not a new topic here at MGC, or just about anywhere else where authors talk about the value of their work. Some of us have a higher threshold for what we are willing to pay than others. The one thing we have all agreed upon is that an e-book should not cost more than a paperback and most certainly shouldn’t cost almost as much as the hardcover. That’s not only common sense but basic accounting. It simply doesn’t cost as much to produce an e-book as it does the print version.

But this morning, the comment that had me wondering if I had fallen down some sort of warp hole into an alternate reality came from someone who was looking for recommendations for e-books to read. From the comments made by this person, it sounded as if they were like many of us. They had budgeted a certain amount for books and did not want to go above that amount. There’s nothing wrong with that. Many of us, myself included, do that.

So far, so good.

But where the person lost me was with their explanation for why they weren’t buying a certain book. The book, Conquistador (by S. M. Stirling) was first published in 2003 by Penguin. The Kindle version currently sells for $7.99. That seems a bit high to me for a book that has been out more than 10 years but it is pretty much in line with what traditional publishing charges for e-books. Oh, you will find some that sell for a bit less but that isn’t what the OP was complaining about.

It seems the OP looked at how much the other versions of the book were selling for. The mass market paperback version, apparently still in print, sells for $7.99. Okay, I have a problem with that. E-book and print versions should not be selling for the same amount. It is a slap in my face as a reader because it assumes I can’t figure out that it costs a publisher more to print, store, and ship the print version than it does to convert and transmit the digital version. But even that wasn’t what the OP was complaining about.

No, the OP’s reason for not buying the e-book came down to this: the hardcover version sells for as little as $0.40. Yes, this is for a used version of the book. Yes, tax and shipping and handling have to be added. The lowest price, after all that is done, would be approximately $4.40. But not even the fact that the total price would be less than the mmpb or e-book wasn’t what the OP objected to.

What was, you ask. Simple. The OP felt that if people valued the book so little that they were willing to sell it for $0.40 for the hardcover, then it most definitely couldn’t be worth the $7.99 they would be spending for the digital version.

Apparently it didn’t matter to the OP that there are 129 reviews of the book posted on Amazon and that the book has an average rating of 3.9 out of 5. Nope, they glommed onto the fact that approximately 8 folks were reselling a book that is more than 10 years old for approximately $0.40. They apparently didn’t look through all 9 pages of resell listings to see that the price for the book went into the $50.00 range. Nope, all the OP saw was the first page of listings for $0.40 and above.

So what does that mean to the rest of us as authors? I’m not sure, other than it is yet another instance showing that we need to educate ourselves and our readers on the economics of publishing. I would rather someone resell one of my print books than trash it, even though I will get no royalty from that second sale. Why would I prefer it? Because that person buying the used book might like what they read and then buy new versions of my other work for themselves. Even if they don’t wind up buying new copies, they might recommend my work to someone else and that can translate into sales.

That is all very good.

But we also have to take this as a cautionary tale. Readers are looking for the best bang for their buck. Not all of them will look through all the used book listings to see if that really low price is the norm or an abnormality, nor will they think to add in shipping and tax to see what the final version is. So, if our e-books are priced at or near what the mmpb cost is (for new), then we very well may be doing ourselves a disservice. (Or our publisher is.)

Just a little food for thought.

So, here’s a question for you. Do you look at the price of used print versions of a book before you decide whether you will buy the e-book version? If so, at what point do you choose the used book over the e-book?

Wot ab’at the werkers?

‘Wuk, wuk, wuk. F’what? F’them’

Ok that is dredged from long-ago memory and I can’t find my copy right now.

But it is appropriate to what I wanted to talk about.

I’m a working writer. This is my job from which at the moment and for many years now, I have earned my and my family’s livelihood. Barbs is working again now, but in the interests of our kids she didn’t for some years. I know all about trying to make a living from my writing. Yeah, that’s why my beard is so white these days! It’s not just my sanity clause (jingle bells, jingle bells).

As a result, I am unashamedly partisan toward writers who do the same. That doesn’t mean I hate and want to destroy dilettantes with rich families or partners, or a day-job that provides, who can write to make a statement about their pet issue or to get in touch with their inner self. Occasionally they may well produce something brilliant – and they have the means, ability and freedom to do so. But I think the world would be an immeasurably poorer place if that was IT. If the only people producing books were those who had no need to respond to readers, and thus no interest in providing that real joy: a great read.

That makes me on the side of the ordinary working writer, the bloke who does popular fiction, because, yes, that’s what readers want and pay for.  I’m pretty solidly behind the folk who do this, or want to do this, as a profession. I have no objection to the others existing – hell, I believe in ‘make a bigger pie, and I’ve said that over and over. If you look back through posts on MGC you’ll find that’s pretty consistently what I, and my compatriots here, do. There are discussions on agents, on contracts, on editors, as well as on the process and pitfalls of Independent Publishing, as well as on the process of writing. I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve said ‘this may not work for you’ – there is no one route to success, and what suits one writer, won’t work for another. Trust me on this: Indy is hard, and as I’ve said some authors won’t make it there, despite being good writers. That’s a loss for all of us, and one of the reasons I keep hoping and pressing for serious reform in Traditional Publishing.

And yes, my affection and respect goes to the battlers. The guys who take on hell with a fire-bucket, get themselves knocked down, and get up and do it again, and again — not the well-heeled and connected, who had the path eased for them at every step. That’s Australian. That’s me. Live with it or piss off and read something else.

Writers are ‘my people’. We work for them. Their foes, and those trying to do them down, and those quislings supporting that, are my foes. We work against them.

MGC doesn’t make us any money or do any good for us directly. There are better avenues for that. But it’s paying forward and taking a long view. If sf withers and dies on the vine, I won’t have anything to read, let alone find it easy to sell my own work.

We occasionally get this sort of comment made about us:

It came from File 770, you so clever edition!

“Mark on February 14, 2016 at 1:24 pm said:

Leaving aside the special pleading about how Baen isn’t really “proper” trad pub, among the core puppies Hoyt has been published by Ace and DAW, Paulk also by DAW, and Freer by Pyr. Then there’s all the non-puppy authors enthusiastically embracing hybrid and self-pub, like puppy unfavourite Chuck Wendig. The split they point at simply isn’t there.

If MGC confined their cheerleading for self-pub to just talking about its pros and cons (which they often do well), rather than needing to take digs at other authors for pursuing their own success in different ways to them, they’d come over a lot better.”

Let’s give ‘Mark’ as much benefit of the doubt as is possible – He could be jumping to these interesting conclusions because of Mike Glyer’s artful selective abusive quoting, and the fact that he never bothers to read the actual MGC posts. I do get a whiff of GRRM of ‘separate awards’ (and maybe even water fountains) about it. I couldn’t give a toss how I ‘come over’ to File 770 and its occupants, (there is no point in trying to please a miniscule market at the expense of my existing readers) but it’s a useful jumping off point:

I think what is confusing to ‘Mark’ and the denizens of Flie 770 is that they conflate ‘Traditional Publisher’ with ‘Author’ – and assume that they if not the same, they are close allies and natural commensal parts of each other, who have near identical interests and positions. Many people do (and publishers foster this). After all, authors like Hines and Scalzi and GRRM never ever say a word that differs from those uttered by their publishers. (They’re not like that fellow Freer or his friend Flint who had public spats with their publishers. We know they’re bad people.)

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.

Publishers, their grace-and-favor clients, and the darlings of the industry have a strong and vested interest in keeping up this illusion. The rest of us – writers and readers alike, no matter where you sit on the political or socio-economic ladder – not much. It hurts us, it hurts the long term future, and serves no-one but the few who milk the system for their own short term gain. Inevitably they’ll claim to be doing it for a noble cause… Women, Diversity, whatever the cause de jour is — which adds up to them and their friends, not women or diversity that they don’t know and don’t like and who might see the world differently.

Bear with me while I try to explain and present a few figures before any more stupid conclusions get jumped to. The relationship between publishers and authors evolved over many years, as increasingly publishing – which started as a 50:50 sharing, where the author provided the book, and the publisher saw to the rest of the process  — shifted to where only fairly major publishers were able to get your book into lots of retail space, and that meant they (and the retailers) were effectively the ONLY path to getting your book to the reader. These were the ‘good old days’ for publishers and they yearn for them and want them back– rather like the people who were in power (or benefiting from it) in the GDR yearn for communism.

Pass through the gate and you could make a reasonable living (once). Without it: forget it. Absolutely, utterly forget it.

Power corrupts. Absolute power – such as this, corrupted even those with the best intentions and highest ideals.

I hate to make this trite situation comparable to slavery, because there was always an alternative for the writer, they could take another career path. I’m referring to it purely to explain how it was different in the writing world– you had luck and ended up as working for a kindly master, or you ended up somewhere down the river, subject to any casual abuse your master handed out, or worse, took pleasure in. The smaller the number of publishers – and the more entwined they became, the less chance you had of finding a ‘good’ master who would feed you, not work you to death, and not take all that your labor earned for himself.

They were, however, all ‘masters’. In society, they’d put on appropriate masks. Some of them may well have believed they were benevolent, and found rationalizations for some of the abuses. Others – well there are people, particularly those who are weak otherwise, who enjoyed power. Their tastes, their desires, ruled.

Power corrupted. Publishers did well out of being in power. Authors, less so. The old 50:50 situation gradually crept to the author getting 8% paperbacks, 10% for hardcovers. The accounting became more and more opaque and the contracts secret, and increasingly byzantine. They were increasingly greedy and restrictive. It was always more work for less pay.

No one complained, because nobody dared. If you were a commercial success – your agent (who actually really works for your publisher) might get you a better deal, but it was very much a field tilted hard to favor the publisher. Unfortunately, sales were getting worse, and worse – and the people who suffered most were, surprise, surprise, NOT the Masters. Judith Tarr provides a very good illustration here of what was happening. Look at the figures. For another measure, here is Kameron Hurley. As I said last week, the Hugo means something to literary sf. And it is one of the smallest selling sub-genres. Work out what getting to sometimes royalties –and sometimes not getting to earning out, says of the sales numbers of one of the most celebrated, pushed, supported and central darlings of that sub-genre, in terms of book sales. A popular bestseller adding to the cachet of the award could do her the world of good.

And then came Amazon and e-books. Both of which, not surprisingly, publishers hate like poison and have tried their best to destroy or cripple. No, Amazon is no ‘white knight’. But it is a counterweight, and it does mean that it’s no longer the traditional publisher or no career.

It has changed the world, for writers. It SHOULD change the world even for writers who are ill-suited to Indy – because to survive, let alone thrive, traditional publishing has to change.

Why should it, you ask? Because authors are going to desert their sheltering publisher? Ha ha. That’s only the likes of you, Freer, because you’re a loser etc. (see File 770 if you’re running out of abuse to pile on my furry monkey head. They will help you. Watch me worry.)

No. There are several factors at play here for the traditional houses.

Firstly, there is the fact that most humans are actually pretty conservative. The unknown and possibly dangerous is really unattractive to most of us if we’re not in dire need, especially when that’s rent and food. We really have to believe the grass is greener before we go. Which is why the grace-and-favor clients of traditional publishing, and their Quislings, put a lot of effort into belittling and painting it as inferior. They’re also very careful not to mention 70% of gross Indy pays for e-books compared to the 25% of net, that most of the traditional publishers have reluctantly dragged themselves to.

Secondly there is a huge level of Stockholm syndrome among authors. ‘He beats me but he’s my publisher and I love him. I’d be nothing without him.’ Is sadly widespread. In some cases it may even be true – they would be nothing, or much less than now — without him. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth fighting for a better deal for everyone, even those people.

Thirdly, as I’ve said often enough, traditional publishing is in a better position to provide value-adding services to a book, editing, proofing, blurbs, covers, marketing. These add value. You can get them done for you at a fee. That’s roughly what they’re worth, and once again we’ve covered this and options at length on this site. In one place, at a reasonable price, traditional publishing is attractive.

But there are two overwhelming factors against them.

Firstly: READERS no longer have to buy from them, or accept what they choose to sell, or do without, or pay the prices they set.

The second, of course, is even after paying for professional services like proofing or covers, the author (especially one with a following) is left with more money out of an e-book from 70% of the gross, than, (if he’s very lucky) 17.5% of the gross he’d get from Trad. Pub.

And that, slowly but surely, offers Traditional publishing a choice: Adapt to offering a good deal to authors and readers, or die. So far their best effort has been ‘La LA LAAA!’

Now, at the moment, I have a hybrid career. And, as I have often said (but only those who want to hear, listen) the carrot is better than the stick. I’m usually quite nice to Baen (yes, I have given them stick sometimes) because they’ve moved from being benevolent master to a company that is trying to learn to adapt, sometimes well, sometimes badly, from the habits of generations. In an era when the rest of the traditional publishers have had to have any concession dragged out of them, Baen have led the way, still paying better e-book rates than the rest (20% of gross), and getting there at least a year before the rest. In a time when every other publisher has resorted to lawfare and inserted basket accounting, and restraint of trade clauses and ever more Byzantine and longer and longer lawyereze contracts, the Baen ones are less one sided, without these treacherous clauses, and much the same length and language as they’ve always been (which is less dense by half than my Pyr contract, and a lot shorter than any other I’ve seen).

This is good stuff. Any author should encourage it. Any reader who wants authors to be able to write should encourage it. Of course, these are baby steps, but we need to reward them, to get more. To get others to follow. And we need to punish the opposite.

Oddly, that’s not what SFWA are doing. It’s not what you’ll hear the various influential authors like GRRM or David ‘Asterisk’ Gerrold, who could actually bring pressure to bear, doing. It’s not what you hear in places like file 770. No, they’re doing ‘important’ things like campaigning to destroy the sad puppies, or arguing about safe spaces for trannies. Go on: next time one of these lovely people are supporting traditional publishing and the status quo, do ask what they’ve done to improve the transparency of authors’ income accounting, or preventing restraint of trade clauses, or ‘basket accounting’ or breaking down the wall of contract secrecy that allows authors to be exploited. Or about getting a better share of the income from books to go to creator. What they’ve done to make sure authors can earn a living, and readers can get the books they want? What they’ve organized, what they’ve said?

The answer is: nothing.

But they’re loud to support Irene Gallo. Or Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Or any of the ‘masters’ and their quislings, but only those who do their best to maintain the status quo. Change is anathema, change in favor of ordinary working authors… worse.

Judge them by what they actually do.

Book-shaming

If you’re not reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch, she had an excellent post up Thursday about book-shaming, and publishing-shaming.

http://kriswrites.com/2016/02/17/business-musings-book-shaming/

Not only does it have such lovely lines as “Once upon a time, my friends, this snobbery was a self-fulfilling prophecy”, but it also talks about our rapidly changing world, in which the taste-makers have lost their power – not because they lost their positions of power, but because the positions themselves lost power.

But nothing screams “respect ma authoriteh!” like someone who brings nothing to respect to a position that has lost its own power. To quote Kris:

Let me be as blunt as I can here.

People who shame you are trying to control you. They want you to behave in a certain way. Rather than telling you to behave that way, they’re striving to subtly change your behavior by embarrassing you, and making you think less of yourself.

These people are trying to place themselves above you, to make you act the way that they want you to act, even if it is not in your own best interest. Shame is a particularly useful tool, because so many good-hearted people want to behave properly. These good-hearted folk don’t want to offend in any way. Yet shamers try to convince the good-hearted that they are offending or at least, making themselves objects of ridicule.

There’s an entire psychological area of study about this kind of shaming. It’s subtle, it’s nasty, and it often hurts the people it’s aimed at. Usually, shame is used by the powerful to keep the less-powerful under their thumbs.

So the next time someone tells you that you’re “racist sexist homophobic”, without ever trying to get to know you first, makes fun of your religion, expresses disgust at the idea of having children, belittles your choices in what to put in and what to leave out, how you publish, or makes fun of the type of fiction you like to read…

Tell them to take a long walk off a short pier, and keep writing what you makes you happy, and your readers want to read. They’re just trying to control you.

And as my husband said to people who called him all that, neo-nazi, and more, then threatened to boycott him: “You’ve never bought my books, and you were never going to, anyway. Why should I care what you think?”

Writing a Love Story

What is love?

Since I can’t possibly answer that simple question fully in the constraints of the post, I’ll satisfy myself with keeping it short: Love is wanting only the best for the one that is loved with no expectation of anything in return.

Not enough? No, it really isn’t, is it.

Let me try again. English is a wonderful language, and I’m glad I know it. The way it absorbs useful words, the way spelling can be creative, the homonyms… But the one place where it really falls flat on it’s little nose is the single word ‘love.’ We love our parents, our children, our cars, our food, the view of the sunset… One word. It hardly seems sufficient to encompass this emotion we term love. Are we really putting all that on one plane?

The Ancient Greeks had three words for love. Eros, Philos, and Agape: sexual or sensual love, brotherly love, and a pure love that was said to be of divine origin and the most selfless of them. I’m not going to get into the cultural context here, I’m just going to use them to categorize love a little more neatly than the English language allows with it’s single word.

All too often when you pick up a book that has a romance in it in these modern times, it’s all about the sex. All sex all the time… I have no objections to sex. But sex is not love, something that seems to have been missed in many books. Eros, lust, these things can happen and have a place in a book, but they are not love.

Love is not always between a man and a woman, either. We can find literary examples of pure, unselfish love – Agape – in places like Silas Marner, Black Beauty, and Where the Red Fern Grows among many others. I’ve included two books where animals are the focus on purpose. There is a subgenre I dub ‘boy and his dog’ which also includes girls, horses, and it is a portrait of the love that connects a mute animal straight to the heart of a human. Writing this connection can be heart-piercing, I can think of few books that will make me cry harder than Greyfriars Bobby, and I grew up loving and reading all of Jim Kjelgaard’s books.

My First Reader recently reread Big Red, and remarked on something about it that bothered him. It had taken him a while to put a finger on it. The main character, he pointed out, was seventeen, and not at all interested in girls or sex. He just wanted to hunt the woods with his dog. Does it say something about us, in the culture we have soaked with sex, that this seems unnatural to read now? The young adult books my teens read are much more concerned with boys and girls and falling in love, and sex is very much a part of that. A love story with no hints of sex might seem strange to kids these days.

One of the other things we lose with this rush toward Eros for all the love stories is the philos aspect. Brotherly, or comradely, love: the platonic ideal. How many stories have you read recently where there was a man and a woman and they loved one another enough to lay down their life for the friend… but there was no sex? Not many, for me… And how many stories have you read about two men (or two women) who loved one another that much, and still, there was no sex (or worse, crippling doubt implied because they couldn’t love as it might mean they were *gasp* gay).

In too many books I find paper-doll characters made out of thin cardboard and being mushed up together with kissy noises being made as they are moved through a parody of love and sex like marionettes. Love is many-faceted and yet authors fall into the trap of looking at only one – at most two  – facet. Which yields a flat story.

That isn’t to say that there are no great love stories out there. I have read many, and suggest that before you start writing, you think about love. We tend, as authors, to focus on the conflict, the hates, the crises… and not on what love can do for our story. Love gives support, offers a refuge, gives our hero something to hold onto when he’s about to break. Hope and love walk hand in hand.

Something that annoys me – and when I stop to think it through, disturbs me – is the treatment of love in series. I’ve been reading mysteries recently, three different series, and they all share a common thing: the hero’s love interest doesn’t last long. In one series, the hero is happily married in the beginning, his wife dies of cancer, he takes a lover who is killed, he is sexually attracted to his grad student, he takes a lover who turns out to be the killer (but wrongfully persecuted, natch)… In another series the hard-bitten old cop has run through three wives, before the series even starts, and then in the series has no less than three relationships in five books… in another series the hero is less promiscuous but no less ambivalent to his on-again-off-again lover… While I can understand the need to introduce conflict into each book, I can’t help but think about James Bond, who had a girl in every port, and how that can’t be healthy. While I know there are series out there which have long-running happily married characters, I can’t help but wonder if the frequent break-ups and easy sex in series is a cop-out for the author who feels they need some personal angst to go along with the overarching plot of the books.

I’m not saying to not write sex. Intimacy can be a wonderful thing to read about, although personally I know how tab B fits into slot A and I’d rather let my imagination take over as the bedroom door shuts. But there are bits of scenes that can fit in there – a moment of sheer silliness like tickling your lover, the moment of whispering in the dark that seals a connection – that can be powerful, alluring, and don’t get into the gory details. Eros, Philos, and Agape all are part of the ideal romantic relationship, I was taught.

In a book, as in life, we need more than love. But love can add a dimension to our characters that was missing, can flesh out a story into something beautiful. Love can be filial, can be passionate, can be the lifeline you throw your hero, or the string that draws him into deeper trouble trying to help his loved one. If we’re going to play marionettes, let’s make them dance, not just fuck. Dum vivamus, vivamus!

I asked in a couple of places for a list of love stories that people connected with. What books, other than straight romance titles, did people like to read as love stories? The response was huge, and I’ve put that list over at my blog, for those of you in search of a good love story. More than one person commented that they love a book about deep sacrificial love. And I think that’s a good use of the word love!