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Rites of Passage

The marker of half-a-century is less than a month away now, and I found myself the amused recipient of one of modern America’s rites of passage today.

Yes, I have received my first junk mail from AARP, trying to convince me to part with my hard-earned cash to pay for their dubious goals. Never mind that I fully expect to be working for at least another fifteen years, most likely more than that. Never mind that I keep looking at the approaching milestone and wondering where the hell all that time went because despite my various issues (and their issues, and theirs) I still feel little different than I did in my early 20s. Maybe a bit more secure in myself, but other than that I don’t exactly feel middle-aged, much less approaching old. (Yeah, I know, these days 50 isn’t old. It’s definitely well into middle-aged, though).

Which in turn reminded me that modern rites of passage kind of suck. It makes a coming of age piece set in modern times much harder, just because there really isn’t a big challenge that people can use to say that after successfully completing it you’re an adult. Instead you get a series of stuttering bits and pieces. Driving age, legal sex, legal drinking, voting age… It’s all over the place. Young adults here are apparently perfectly capable of having sex, voting, dying for their country, and starting a family… but not of drinking anything alcoholic. In other modern cultures there are equally “interesting” disjointed transitions.

What there isn’t, unless you’re fortunate enough to have the kind of family that teaches these things, is a partial shouldering of responsibility that allows someone approaching the child-to-adult transition to practice adult tasks with the supervision of someone who’s already passed the rites and knows the path.

The transition from “adult” to “elder” is even more blurred, possibly because it wasn’t until relatively recently that large numbers of adults survived into old age. There were still markers: the last child married, or failing that, an adult. Gray hair. Menopause (the sooner that finishes, the happier I’ll be. No more monthly mess). The first grandchild – which in my case will be the first of my siblings becoming a grandparent because I haven’t spawned and don’t plan to (too many genetic time bombs, plus I’d be a dreadful parent).

Of course, a big part of the reason we humans invent rites of passage is because we as a species suck at recognizing gradual transitions. We’re great with patterns, and not bad at distinguishing whether or not this is like that. But give us a slow process where over the course of somewhere between fifteen and twenty years that tiny baby becomes an adult ready to make babies of his or her own, we have as a species a definite need to find some kind of marker and say, “Here. Past this point this person is no longer a child.”

Human cultures are littered with arbitrary markers like this (they’re arbitrary because what is child and what is adult doesn’t change appreciably overnight, but our cultures insist on making it so. Same with a lot of other absolutes.) which of course give writers the opportunity to play with them.

So, Author, kindly cease sending me cultural markers that say I’m getting old. I’m bloody well not. Not where it matters.

Skeletons From The Writer’s Closet by Christopher M. Chupik

Skeletons From The Writer’s Closet

by Christopher M. Chupik

 

Sarah was joking that this should have been done Halloween week because one’s juvenilia is always scary to look back on. I recently decided to look into my old green file folder and see if I’ve grown as a writer. All spelling and grammar mistakes are reproduced faithfully.

My oldest surviving work of fiction is a school workbook repurposed into my illustrated saga Dinosaur: The Lost Land (Frist of 7!). According to the inside jacket, it was published by Bookworm Publishing 1987. Yes, that’s right. I was a pioneering indie author! Mind you, Bookworm went under not long after putting this book out, so maybe I shouldn’t brag so much.

The eight-page epic begins thusly:

“It was the ICE-AGE. The NARWANTY tribe was looking for a new home. They have found an ISLAND in the South Pacific. It was surrounded by fog.”

The Narwanty settle on this fog-bound island only to find it inhabited by dinosaurs:

” ‘LOOK, Theres a WERID thing comeing!’ It was a Tyrannosaurus Rex! It was 22 meters long and 40 feet tall!”

See how I cleverly got around the fact that cavemen and dinosaurs lived millions of years apart? Eat your heart out, Michael Crichton. The mash-up of eras is skillfully illustrated by the symbolism of rendering the T-Rex’s measurements in both Imperial and Metric. Also, the shifting of tenses conveys the temporal dislocation of the Narwanty. Honest.

After several dinosaur vs. caveman clashes, the tribe settles down and a sequel is threatened. I think I did a few more Dinosaur Island stories, but most of those are lost now. Perhaps that’s for the best.

Next stop on my tragical history tour is a short story I wrote in junior high based on the legend of the Beast of Le Gevaudan. I suspect I must have already read some of the Solomon Kane stories by Robert E Howard because the protagonist is a German monster hunter named Josef Siegfried armed with sword, musket and bullwhip. He never uses the bullwhip. Siegfried quickly discovers that the Beast is actually a werewolf:

“Karl said that all wolves and men were the children of Fenric and that werewolves were Fenrics closest relations. Fenric created werewolves to become the masters of the world in the final days before the world’s end.”

That’s quite some cosmology I had going there, though I mangle mythology terribly. Why would a wolf from Norse myth create the human race, wolves, and werewolves? No idea. Later, the hunters encounter the werewolf:

“You stupid, stupid human” he said in German. Then the man leapt into the air at Josef. During the flight the man’s features twisted and transformed into the features of a wolf.”

Clearly, dialogue was not my strong point. Neither was sentence structure. But at least I had developed some sense of energy and action. And it set the stage for the kind of stories I like to write now.

Last stop is my Biology 20 Major Assignment from 1995. For it, I decided to write a piece of Hard SF about an interstellar flight to Alpha Centauri and the life-bearing planet the astronauts find. I certainly did not lack for ambition.

In The Odyssey/Falstaff Report: A speculation on the future of space travel, I lay out a history of early concepts for interstellar travel, including graphics of Orion and Daedalus. I also have a graphic of the Odyssey and it’s Clippers (based on the old Delta Clipper rocket concept). For graphics rendered with a crappy mid-90s drawing program I think they look pretty decent. I wish I could share them here. I have a crew list (several classmates and teachers included as in-jokes). There’s even a helpful timeline:

“2012 – An alliance of the North American Trade Bloc, European Union, Japan, South Africa and three other nations begin work on Project Lightsail, a program of interstellar exploration.”

Optimistic, isn’t it? If you had told the 18 year-old me that the space program would be on life-support by the real 2012, I would have cried. I lay out the Odyssey mission in detail, going into the physics of the laser-propelled lightsail and the 25-year flight to Alpha Centauri. I even took the long-term effects of zero-G into account with a drug called Gravitol (I googled this and found the name and idea was also used in the TSR Buck Rogers XXVC game which was out back in the early ’90s. Did I crib it? Seems possible). Finally, I get to the planet Falstaff (Not sure why I named the planets after Shakespearean characters, seemed cool at the time I guess). Falstaff is roughly similar to Cambrian Era Earth, with most organisms confined to the seas:

“The alphanauts discovered through submersible probes vast herds of armored fish known as sea-tanks that swim through the murky waters of the deep sea, hunting for silt dwelling worms that are occasionally exposed. Another predator is the spitting-worm, a large invertibrate that kills its victims with a poisonous mucus that contains digestive enzymes that help the worm devour its prey.”

I must admit, some run-on sentences and odd terminology (“herds” of fish?) aside, it holds up not too badly. However, the biology aspects, which were the whole reason for the story, don’t take up a huge amount of the report. That didn’t stop me from getting a 30/30 for my assignment. My teacher wrote on the last page: “You have gone far above and beyond what was required.” And that remains my favorite comment from a teacher ever.

I may laugh at some of it now, but I can see my progression as an author. It’s said that you have to write a million words of crap before you can get to the good stuff. I’d like to think I’m finally at that point.

So, what have you got hidden away in your secret files? Confess!

Thinking of Houston

Let me begin with a simple hope that all our friends and readers in the path of Harvey are all right. The images coming from the impacted areas have been both inspiring and terrifying. There will be time later to dissect whether enough was done to prepare the area for what would happen. For now, if you are the praying kind, offer up a prayer or three for everyone impacted by the storm. If you have the means, donations are being accepted as well. Right now, approximately 8,000 people are sheltering in the Houston Convention Center — which had been set up for 5,000 — and more are showing up as I type this. Patients have been evacuated from the hospitals. Here in the DFW area, shelters have been set up as well and are filling up. There are any number of people needing help now and who will need it in the future.

As a writer, part of my brain looks at what is happening and files it away for later inspiration. There has been a little bit of almost anything a writer could hope for in the aftermath of Harvey. Videos of rescues by helicopter and boats, by neighbors and strangers who are pitching together to do the right thing. There are examples of politicians cutting through the red tape so doctors from out-of-state can come here and legally practice medicine and assist with those needing medical attention. Other regulations concerning repair and building of utilities have been waved so the companies can move in as soon as the flood waters recede to start rebuilding. We have example after example of how local and state official should — and should not — respond in a disaster.

But we also have examples of some of the, shall we say, less smart behavior we, as humans, tend to exhibit in the face of danger. There is a video of a fellow trying to swim down a freeway in Houston. He swam for a ways and then turned around, only to be greeted by a Houston police officer who basically told him not to be so stupid again. Then there was the guy who, despite everyone lining the freeway and yelling for him to stop, the water was too deep, who was determined to drive his pickup through the high water. When his truck started floating — yes, floating — down the highway, he climbed out the window. Instead of swimming to safety, he moved to the font of the truck and tried to push it backwards. When that didn’t work, he still didn’t swim to safety. He returned to the bar of his truck to save his glasses. He tried to save stuff that had been in the bed of his truck. His truck that was now in 10 to 12 feet of water. Yes, he did finally decide to get out of the water but he could have died in an attempt to save a truck that he never should have driven into the water in the first place.

All this is a roundabout way of saying there is inspiration around us all the time but, if you want to see just about any and every aspect of the human condition, look at how we react during a crisis. Most of all, keep all the communities impacted by Harvey and its aftermath in your thoughts. It is going to take months, if not years, for some of the communities to recover.

The long view

 

panorama

Because David Gerrold was as good at predicting the imminent doom of my career as everything else he does, I’m busy planting the orchard on the little farm we’ve bought since that prediction. Just in case that doom finally arrives at the right address and gets delivered I want trees. I don’t understand it – Australia Post is actually remarkably reliable. You’d think they could manage a bit of doom. Mind you it’s not just Australia post. The US postal service seems to have failed him on Larry Correia’s doom. All it seems to have done is make us buy real estate. Is that what the Puppy-Kickers meant by ‘I hope they buy the farm’?

Anyway, if it all does go pear-shaped, I’ll have the pears to match. Well, I’ll have pears, apples, figs, grapes, cherries, peaches, nectarines, grapefruit, lemons, apricots and advocado pears (fruit-trees for the farm are what I asked for as birthday presents, and got)… not to mention the Banana Passionfruit. Er…

orchard planting 010

Well I’ll hopefully have them in a few years’ time. With the Chestnut trees, I should be long dead before they get up to full production. I’ve spent most of my adult life planting trees, especially fruit trees, that I have known I was going to leave behind. I’d like to have to enjoyed them, and others may chop them down – but I usually manage the long view. Someone needs to plant for the future.

We’ll probably have the banana passionfruit earlier.

I’ve nurtured it and several plants through several years in pots, waiting for enough of this kind of doom to allow us to buy our own place. It’s taken some vision, a lot of faith in my ability to write books popular enough to sell, to ride the storms of the industry. It’s part of the long view.

An orchard – pretty much like a novel, or a career as writer, really requires (for most of us, anyway) the long view. I suppose if you were rich enough, there are short-cuts – short cuts based on someone else’s long view, because you might be able to have fully grown trees delivered, someone had to grow them. But the real answer is that it’s something that rarely happens (or happens well, anyway) by accident and almost never fast. And it’s not just ‘plant it and forget it, and come back in 10 years’ either. You have to prep the ground, plant the right things in the right place, nurture, prune, water, AND exercise patience. Here you have to keep the wildlife from demolishing your plants, let alone your fruit. You can make a horse’s butt out of it and still do well, or get something at least. With the best laid plans, and hard work, it can all still go wrong, of course. The best chance, however, comes from the most effort, the most foresight, and the longest vision.

Which has a lot in common with writing (and possibly life). Look, our industry is in strife because it lacks the long view. You have editors buying the equivalent of tropical fruit to try and grow in Nebraska – because they happen to like tropical fruit. You have authors given no support (the equivalent of tossing an apple core in and hoping for a tree.) You have poor quality pruning (editing) and little or no watering (money). And of course there are vermin trying to destroy authors for little more than petty spite. There’s a lot of very short term thinking – the ten year view, let alone the hundred year view is not a feature that I have noticed. That’s what separates humans from most of the animals – we don’t need instincts to prepare for winter, we can figure it out. Inevitably, of course, some alarmists have to capitalize on this ability! And some sheep follow them.

Still, for most of us that long view is both what sustains us and saves us.

It’s been, to the day, 19 years since my first book was bought – probably the biggest birthday present I’ve ever had.

The long view back is quite different. It will be with your book too.

Cheers. I am off to drink a glass of wine and have special dinner.

 

On Old Protagonists, and a Brand New Book

Peter’s got a brand new book out: a fantasy featuring an old man (by medieval standards.) Owain, the old King’s Champion, has outlived his swordbrother, his wife, and most of his friends… but is still going to prove to the enemies of his kingdom why you should fear an old man in a profession where most die young.

Several of his beta readers (including his wife) noted that they really appreciated a quest undertaken by a old man who defeats youth and enthusiasm with cunning and experience, instead of yet another plucky coming of age story with wise old mentor who dies. (Campbell’s Hero’s Journey was descriptive, not prescriptive!)

Thinking about it, some of the protagonists I really love and hold up to re-reading are older, with their own scars and deep backstory. Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga has Aral and Cordelia. Her Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls feature an old man and a widow, respectively. Elizabeth Moon’s Remnant Population was an utter delight with Ofelia, who was too old to care what people thought anymore. And lately, I’ve been reading some Raymond Chandler, who definitely has world-weary protagonists who had all the wide-eyed shiny rubbed off a long time ago.

What books with older protagonists do you enjoy?

Bet you’ll enjoy this one!

King's Champion
King’s Champion

After decades of peace, war is threatening the Kingdom of Avranche. Its old foes are stirring, in a new alliance with darker powers. Black wings bring death and torture in the night.

Owain, former King’s Champion, hears rumors of sorcery. Visiting the grave of his sword brother, he stumbles into a deadly raid, and uncovers coded orders for a larger plot.

The kingdom’s enemies know Owain is now their greatest danger. He must race against time to find and deal with them… before they deal with him!

Get King’s Champion here, at Amazon.com!

It’s not zero sums

This is a blast from the past, but it’s still applicable even if the central tantrum has been long forgotten. I’m afraid I’ve been sick, and am thus a girl of very little brain this morning in search of hunny… And perhaps tea to put it in.

Hear, O fellow authors, and consider this. Writing is not a competition. There is not a scarcity of readers, and although there has been for lo, these many years an artificial scarcity of of reading material, that drought is coming to an end with the Age of Indie. So why do we hear fearsome cries from certain throats, proclaiming that those who are elders in the field should step aside and let them in?

The young person who has been most noticed for this recently (although it is not a new lament), has apologized. “Shepherd apologised for upsetting writers and readers alike, explaining that she had “only ever meant to raise the issue of how hard it is for new writers to get noticed and how publishing is much more of a zero sum game than people often think” However, it remains that she thinks publishing is a zero sum game.

I had to look that up. I’d heard it before, of course, and from context knew more or less what it meant, but for the writing of this article, I needed to research, to make certain that what I was saying was accurate. So, here: “The theory of von Neumann and Morgenstern is most complete for the class of games called two-person zero-sum games, i.e. games with only two players in which one player wins what the other player loses.” However, this is palpably inaccurate when it comes to writing. There are far more than two players involved, and the success of one writer does not predicate the loss of another.

By the success of JK Rowling, there are more readers, rather, for us the authorial sort to lure into reading of our books. What we must do to win is not to shove aside those who have succeeded, demanding our turn in the game, but to write engaging books readers will not only read themselves, but recommend enthusiastically to others. You will note I have removed the publisher from this equation. At one time, there was a bottleneck, for the publisher can only afford to publish so many titles, and to promote so many (a fraction of those they do publish) authors. That bottleneck is breaking open, and as independent authors our reach is spreading. My books, published by the very small imprint that they are, can be ordered from any bookstore, and when I look online, they are available at least in webstores of the largest book retailers.

In order to win this game we play, it’s not the other writers we need to defeat, it is ourselves. For fear of rejection, for laziness in not wanting to promote and market one’s own book, for lack of confidence in getting the best cover and editing we can, we shoot ourselves in the foot, and do not succeed. I venture to say that the Shepherd person has not succeeded because of Rowling’s success, but her own shortcomings. Like a child in a game, she has pitched aside the board, and now pouts petulantly, blaming her loss not on her own lack of skill, but her opponent.

The readers are out there, I say again. Writers, if you can offer them a good product in the form of a story with meat on its bones, with engaging characters, well-constructed plot, and emotional appeal, you will win. If your story is not selling, or selling too slowly for your tastes, inspect the product you are offering, and ask yourself questions.

The oft-discussed post demanding “I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.” is an excellent example of another writer who feels that it is failing in a field do to discrimination against itself. In this case, not by another writer, although certainly it seems to feel it is hard-done by those who view its views as odd. No, it wants more stories with its viewpoint in them. Lovely, dear. Go write them. If they sell, wonderful! If not, do not go around moaning that you are being discriminated against because you are an it/she/alienbeing. Again, that is not how the game is played. Appeal to the readers, and you have won. Make them yawn, or repel them, and you lose.

When I started mulling this post over in my head, waiting for it to gel and be ready, someone mentioned the calls for Stephen King to retire. I went to look as part of my research, and found that rather than calling for him to step aside and let other writers in, the cry seemed to be that his writing had gone downhill, and he should stop. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have made a dent in Mr. King’s presence, as this took place over a decade ago, and I believe (I don’t personally read him, but as a librarian was very aware of how much shelf space he occupied, and how many requests we had for his books) that he has another book coming out this year. You see, no matter what the critics think, it is the readers who matter. They are the ones who buy the books, and that is what wins the game.

Readers win, with good books they want to read, and authors win, with sales. Publishers who care about giving the readers what they want (coffBaencoff) win, and publishers who care only about pushing their agenda (see blog address for ‘it’ above) lose. Zero sum? No, more like exponential growth, and I don’t see a limiting factor, yet… Want to feel like you are winning? write more!

*flailing and tantrums, divers alarums*

Amanda just reminded me today’s my day. Mrs. Dave is in the middle of a five week course in Virginia Beach, and I’m playing single dad, and we’re out of bananas. And apples. It’s that bad, ’round here. Not excusing, just summing up.

 

Referring to the title, we’ve been seeing a lot of unprofessional behavior from all quarters recently. What have you learned to do, or bot do, recently, about how to behave as a professional writer? I’ve been watching some authors do everything they can to drastically cut down their potential market. That just seems … ill-advised to me.