May you live in interesting times…

Nar! (extra points if you recognized the origin of this)

I recall reading somewhere that the ‘ancient Chinese curse’ was made up by Eric Frank Russell. Who knows or cares? Its origins are murky and probably not Chinese. EFR is possibly implicated in making up quite a few things (including spontaneous human combustion) so, as I like his work, I’ll choose to believe it.

We’re in interesting times. As writers we tend to write about them – although as escapism, I suspect ‘less-than-interesting-comfortable’ books may be a coming trend.

It’s been interesting for me as an observer to see how aspects of EFR’s ‘Wasp’ have become true. We have had the Kaitempi out in full force for some time. Everyone believed they alone, helpless, and would suffer the consequences of any opposition. Then the wasps started putting up stickers and posters… Well, internet contacts, and then elections. According to the Kaitempi those who were not with the ruling power were few and weak and just waiting to die. They had no future. The future was a manifest destiny of the modern way.

And now that is less certain, it seems. I suspect we’re in for tit-for-tat – one side will protest, attack any of their members who are not displaying loyalty enough… the other cut funding and buying support in response… which could get messy in academia and the media, of which publishing is a part. Sense would suggest that there will be casualties. Interesting times, indeed, especially as many of my traditional publishing peers, failing to make a living at writing, have been going back to college to earn writing related degrees with fall-back plan of teaching others to write. I think I see the teeny tiny flaw in the idea of taking such a course in the first place, (to learn to be a writer from those who can’t make a living writing) but I suspect it’s going to get messier.

So as writers facing uncertain times what steps should you consider taking? My own guess is academia with the intent of teaching writing is probably not what I would do. I’ve read various comments from writers desperately unhappy about the outcome of the US election sneering at the ‘hoi polloi’ (yes really, they used that term) who they blame for not knowing what was good for them and saying: “well being called ‘elitist liberal’ will become a badge of honor because at least they can read.”

Hmm. I’m not the only one reading that. Methinks that attitude will not go down well with a lot of customers. Not for books, not for tuition, and certainly not for the funds for that tuition. It’s not actually supported by facts as an attitude either, but it is certainly deeply resented by ‘flyover’ country. My guess is colleges are going to take a sharp turn away from the arts and funding for courses in them, and will face a downturn in enrollment for such courses.

Nor would I bet the farm on anything coming out of traditional publishing: – it’s hitched its wagon very tightly to the left’s pet causes, to the point that it is being identified as one and the same, and very much part of the media – which is suffering a huge financial and credibility downturn. That bloodbath will affect traditional publishing too.

My advice hasn’t changed – no matter where you sit on the political spectrum.

  • Write a LOT, as much as you are able. Writing improves writing. And it’s pretty hard to sell what you haven’t written.
  • Build your own brand and platform: I, like so many others made the mistake of believing all I had to do was write and my publishers would do the establishment of my name as a recognizable brand. Learn by my mistakes, don’t repeat them. Be more than just a string of book adverts, find communities you fit into and don’t over-push.
  • Don’t spend money you don’t have: So many writers setting off spend, in the expectation of earning. They hire publicists, take out adverts, use precious resources (including time) and then discover the income is 1) nothing like as big as they hoped. 2) A lot slower than they believed possible (trad is usually bi-annual, and often months, and sometimes years late). You do need to speculate to accumulate, but it’s risky. Balance risk with reward using pessimism, and not resources that will leave you in trouble if it doesn’t work.  The right place to start, if you have to prioritize… is with proof readers, then covers and designs, IMO.
  • Be agile – more than I am – at new platforms. Remember facebook wasn’t very relevant not that long ago. Remember twitter was, but is dying.
  • Only make enemies to purpose – Think of it as not your opinion that you’re expressing, but your brand. If you were a restaurant with a largely vegetarian clientele, you’d be an idiot to put a picture on facebook of you tucking into a steak, and on the inverse – if you have a generally omnivore clientele who like steaks – telling the world ‘meat is murder’ won’t help. You may think this obvious, but as the authors sounding off publicly during the last US election, particularly about how they loved Hillary and detested Trump, it plainly isn’t. On the other hand some were clearly trying to make enemies to purpose. That’s a way raising your profile with those who think like you do. But don’t just do it, think about what you do.
  • Remember who you write for! (clue. It’s not you. Or the editor. Or in fact for most of us a little bubble of people in NYC). You want to be loved by those ‘hoi polloi’.

38 Comments

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38 responses to “May you live in interesting times…

  1. Draven

    Its an old Romulan proverb….

    no wait, that’s “Revenge is a dish best served cold…”

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      Reminds me of the last episode of Stargate SG-1, where Daniel translates the wisdom of the Asgard and it’s all familiar aphorisms.

  2. Interesting times, indeed – and am glad to be a) self-employed, and b) living in a state where my own political leanings to not stand out, much.

  3. Back in the 1920s-30s, the English professor Walter S. Campbell, better remembered as the historian Stanley Vestal, taught a practical writing class. You passed the class if you sold your work to a magazine, pulp, newspaper, or other outlet. He was considered crass, commercialized, and almost beyond the pale. How little things have changed.

    • But I bet his students spent less time starving in gutters than the hoity toity types did. 😉

      • Oh yes. That was part of the “problem.” There’s a reason Vestal’s books are still in print, too.

        • Oh, that’s funny! Back in the mid-70s, I took a course offered out of our journalism school, and one of the requirements was to have some number of your pieces published. I rewrote a number of press releases and had them published in a local weekly. Which led to my part-time work for a while. It was good training, though. Never thought about whether it fit the “academic” side, I was already well on my way into practical employable skills at that point and I appreciated the jumpstart.

  4. Eric Frank Russell? How have I missed him? Now I have yet one more writer on my TBR list. Sigh.

    • Wasp is why Eric Frank Russell shot onto my “read any damn thing of his you can find” list. Great book.

      • I’m always surprised when I find someone else who has read that book. A friend lent it to me way back when (we used to swap books to read so as to save on money) it was one of those books that you couldn’t find anywhere, as the publisher had pulled it for some reason (back in the 70’s). It’s a great story however with some very subversive ideas.
        We often used to speculate on just why you couldn’t find it in bookstores anymore.

        • WASP is one of my absolute favorites. Little known factoid… (not a complaint, mind you, just an amusement).

          There’s only one main character, and a great many puppet villains. But that’s alright, because in this entire book, praised for its “gritty realism,” set mostly in urban areas with crowd scenes, shops, and public transport, in a humanoid culture very like our own, there is not one single female character (or reference to one) of any kind, puppet or not. Anywhere. Doing anything.

          This is not part of the premise, it just happens. The only time the word “she” appears, it refers to a car. And the hell of it is, you don’t even notice, and I’m not sure Russell did, either. I must have read it half a dozen times as a teenager before it struck me.

          • Terry Sanders

            Yah. And an interstellar war that involved WWII submarines and limpet mines, and posters nailed onto telephone poles.

            I read somewhere that a lot of that came from the origin of the story. Russell was fictionalizing a lot of his (ignored) suggestions for how to do covert ops in Germany or Japan during the war. Why be obvious? That kind of thing.

        • adventuresfantastic

          I’m late to this conversation, it being the first full week of classes at the day job, but Wasp is one of my favorites and overdue for a reread.

    • TRX

      The first EFR I read was “Sinister Barrier.” It’s hard SF from 1939, but it reads like something written much later. You’ve probably read better, but criminy, *1939*!

      Russell didn’t write a whole lot, and I don’t like all of his stuff, but when he’s good, he knocks it out of the park.

      It’s odd, in a way. Old-school British writing was slow and stodgy by American standards, and that probably worked against Russell, who tended to write things that moved right along.

  5. Things are getting physical out there. It would be wise, if your work is “opinionated,” to have a nom de plume. It might pay to have several, if some of your stories lean Right and others do not.

    It worked for Ford/Lincoln/Mercury, why not for you?

  6. sabrinachase

    Bleak House by Dickens had spontaneous human combustion, which predates Mr. Russell. And from the description, it was already a news item at the time, something that ordinary people might have heard of like we would “know” about chemtrails 😀

    • They’ve explained it, actually. It’s not spontaneous, and it certainly isn’t fast, but it is highly localized and very, very hot. They’ve demonstrated the mechanism on pig carcasses, and it’s basically turning someone into a literal candle.

  7. Synova

    “Write a LOT, as much as you are able. Writing improves writing. And it’s pretty hard to sell what you haven’t written.”

    And tattoo this to my forehead.

  8. A blessing for the czar:

    May the Lord bless and keep the czar–far away from us.

  9. “Write a LOT”

    I’m trying, but lack of confidence has been making the process an uphill struggle. After getting discouraged and bogging down on a long novel, I’ve decided to shift to medium-length works for a while. Stuff in the 10K to 50K word length.

    I’d been rewriting and putting up some of my short stories while trying to get the long novel written, but it’s hard to convince readers that a work under 5K is worth 99 cents. So now I’m digging out a bunch of stuff that I trunked because it was falling into what then was an unpublishable void. Too long to be squeezed down under 5K, but not long enough to be expanded to 100K without visible padding. But now it seems there’s actually a market for them, so maybe I can get some of them up and selling.

    • Leigh – the ‘length required’ has definitely come down – 40-60 K being good enough for a book, now.

      • richardmcenroe

        60K was the ‘standard’-ish length for most mass market paperback books pre-70’s.

      • Listen to Dave because he knows what he’s talking about. I’ve got seven novels on Amazon with an eighth due in a few weeks. They range in length from 45K to 65K and sell just fine. The 80K and above word count for novels is a fairly recent thing and is routinely ignored by indie authors.

      • Alas, I’m comfortable with a 100K length — just feels right for my stories.

        To each their own.

        • To each his own. But if you can’t use the genderless (male) pronoun, then at least get the number agreement right, and say “to all their own.”

          (Sorry, as a kid dad yelled at Burger King commercials for using Their as Singular, and this was in the ’70’s! So it’s kinda burned into me.)

    • TRX

      If they don’t sell as shorts, bundle them into twofers or threefers.

      Two of Keith Laumer’s novellas are found together as “The Day Before Forever and Thunderhead”, being two completely unrelated works, each too short even for the (modest) lengths of novels back in his day.

  10. Christopher M. Chupik

    Frankly, I could do with some boring times for a while.

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