Don’t Cross the Streams

When we tell our story, what audience are we seeking to gain?  Who are we aiming for? What demographic do we want to come running towards us with their shekels in hand?

My oldest child, a blond-haired blue-eyed hapa haole which takes after his mother, is 5 ½ years old.  He likes listening to “Daddy’s music.” We’ve been driving everywhere together since he was born. I used to take him for drives when his mother needed a break from the not-quite sleepy infant.  Middle of winter in Logan, Utah, I’d have his car seat on the rear bench in my truck as we drove through snow and slush with Brooks & Dunn, Poison, ZZ Top, Cinderella, Elvis or Sinatra playing. I consider “Legs” to be a perfectly acceptable lullaby for a baby.

Still, it shocked me Wednesday night when he was watching a Netflix show and wolves appeared, at which point he began singing the lyrics “in their own track, came the wolfpack!”  

That’s Sabaton.  From the Primo Victoria album.  Granted he’s 5, but does he know the history behind that song?  Answer: probably not, so let’s go fix that.

I cued up ‘Wolfpack’ on Youtube, sure enough somebody had made a fan video which included footage from the Battle of the Atlantic and what I would guesstimate is the period in question when Wolfpack Hecht scoured the high seas to stop Convoy ON-92.  Video begins, daddy stops it as needed to explain things. Except I forgot something important.

“Daddy what were those submarines doing?”

“Trying to sink those cargo ships.”


Brain lock.  Oh hell.  How do you explain to a 5 year-old the ramifications of submarines sinking cargo ships in the midst of a globe-spanning multinational conflict which saw millions dead over the span of less than 10 years?  I try very hard to talk to my son as if he’s an adult, but this is a huge leap for me. How do you explain that those men, on either side, were performing their duty to the country they loved?  

How does a father explain sacrifice, perseverance and facing catastrophe?  My son’s concept of life is so limited compared to everything I’ve done over the last 32 years.  How do you explain what it means to stand and be still to the Birkenhead Drill? That sometimes, all you can do is spit on your hands and lower your pike?  

Look at your manuscript- who are you trying to sell it to?  And who is your genre audience? Those are two separate questions, and if both don’t possess the same specific answer, you’re doing something wrong.  

In military science fiction, the fanbase is largely composed of veterans, history lovers, even the odd casual reader here and there.  It is not written for philosophically minded dopers who shop at Hot Topic to feel edgy. Probably won’t find it’s fanbase in an Urban Outfitters either.     

Tom Kratman’s Legio del Cid series was marketed to fans of Mil SF.  But it was also written so it appealed to those fans of the genre.  Look to the beginning of the very first book- which is below as a picture.  

Screenshot (39)

Tacitus.  A Roman name.  Those of us who deeply love Military SF are also avid students of history.  History provides the annals from which we draw inspiration, wisdom and learning.  The Gallic campaigns of Caesar which ended with his stunning victory at Alesia are every bit as relevant to a young officer or junior noncom in the 21st century as they were to the generations of tribunes, centurions and decurions who came after Caesar, to be a part of the mighty Roman war machine.

The opening paragraph is itself a reminder of what this book is about.  “Even more pleasant was the sight of his enemies, beaten and bleeding, captive and bound.”  Conflict has occurred. The current object of our attention has engaged in such. The rich imagery might as well be from a Robert Howard Conan story, a victorious legatus at the head of his legion against brutish barbarians, Washington completing the rout of the British Army at Yorktown, Jackson at New Orleans in 1815.  It invokes the emotions, thoughts, memories and experiences which draw us inwards and onwards.    

Compare this with Hurley’s The Light Brigade. “Don’t fight the darkness.  Bring the light.” Not a bad quote, but not one which feels appropriate.  This is Hurley’s debut piece in the genre. Nor is Hurley prior-service. We can forgive some errors, so long as the work itself improves.  Let’s get back into it.

“They said the war would turn us into light.”

What?  Really?  You can use that line in a young adult novel, you’ll be fine.  Fantasy? Knock yourself out. Maybe even a crime thriller, or a horror story.  But in a non-juvenile piece of work? In the genre of Mil SF? No. That sounds artsy fartsy.  Not soldierly. “I want to be counted among the heroes who gave us this better world. That’s what I told the recruiter.  That’s what I told my first squad leader.”

Zero.  Get back right now.  Touch my damn bulkhead and don’t you dare move or I’ll keep you on the quarterdeck till your ancestors hate me.  

Now, tell me, what recruiter on this green earth did you try that line with?  Yeah, that’s what I thought. No balls, go say that to a recruiter right now. He’ll fight to keep his bearing, and not laugh his chevrons off.  Staff Sergeant Garcia (Lancaster RSS 2008) would’ve told you to quit wasting his time. As for “That’s what I told my first squad leader” well I got a hot newsflash for you sports fans: that shovel worth of horse manure doesn’t work either.  If I had proclaimed such candy ass nonsense to Staff Sergeant Hakim when I reported to the Fleet Marine Corps as a brand new E-2, even money says he’d have left me in the hands of Corporal Salvador Huerta and said “fix his trash.” SSgt. Hakim was a great gun chief, but he didn’t tolerate such nonsense and Corporal Huerta was the strong right arm to correct such matters.  God bless them both.

Can we see the differences I’m driving at?  I hope so. Now consider what this says about the rest of the story.  In that first page, we as writers are selling the book to potential readers.  Which one works? Which one doesn’t? Kratman’s work was marketed to Mil SF fans, and is written for that audience.  Hurley’s book was marketed as the next great Mil SF novel, but it’s written for the “woke” crowd. The appeal for normal, book-buying Mil SF fans does not exist.  The Venn Diagram overlap between these two groups is so infinitesimally minimal as to be non-existent. What story we as writers tell must fit the audience. Otherwise, we are consigning our self and our work to failure.  

My wife wants me to write regency romance.  She’s a fan of those. Guess what is heavily researched, both by fans and fellow authors?  Regency romancers Guess who has vicious reviewers on hand to eviscerate you if you screw up even minor details? Regency romance. It is not a simple matter of “add one shirtless scottish noble in a kilt to corset-bursting maiden in (pick your haircolor) under duress during the British regency equals great novel.”  That way lies ignominy. Furthermore, she thinks Jane Austen is great. I prefer Rifleman Richard Sharpe and ne’er the twain shall meet.  

Story matters, not simply in and of itself, but to the pertinent audience.  Trying to sell to the wrong audience doesn’t pay the bills. And if you can’t pay the bills off what you’re writing, it is for sure not time to quit your day job.  If you’re going to write for the woke [amongst us], write accordingly and sell it as such. Do that thing. You’re gonna sell great in New York City and San Francisco and parts of LA.  If you’re trying to write Mil SF, write Mil SF and don’t be surprised when you’ve got book sales in Kabul, Kandahar, Okinawa and Baghdad. But don’t cross the streams. It won’t end well.  

As for my son, I followed what advice David Drake gave in An Oblique Approach.  Then we watched the final throwdown in Battleship together.  That he understood.  And someday will understand far better than he does now.

“Jonny Boy, sailors go down to the sea because that’s what their duty demands.  Someday, when you’re much bigger you’ll understand why Gleaves leading that convoy into the hornet’s nest is every bit as important as the Wolfpack in their own track.”


22 thoughts on “Don’t Cross the Streams

  1. Barely related: my office mate and I got to talking yesterday and the conversation turned to our relatives and their respective service in the Second World War. My great uncle was US Army, fought at the Battle of the Bulge (note to self: bug my family for a copy of his service records again).

    Her grandfather was Navy, served in the Pacific. All she knew was that his ship went down somewhere, he was in the water for a few days, and he punched a shark in the nose. She also knew the name of his ship: USS Gambier Bay.

    He was a part of Taffy 3.

    She says that her granddad was a badass. I don’t think she has any clue how big a hero he actually was.

    Speaking of Sabaton, they seriously need to write a song about Taffy 3. Something about full steam ahead into the jaws of death….

      1. Yeah, that was about my first reaction when I first learned about Taffy 3. Thought the History Channel (back when I could legitimately call itself such) was exaggerating. Nope.

        Her grandad passed a few years ago, sadly.

  2. One of the more irritating puppy kicker trolls remarked the other day that she had laughed herself silly at a conversation early on in “On Basilisk Station” by David Weber when a character mentions that a rival star empire is “north and east” of Manticore, and stopped reading at that point. This was her excuse for not knowing anything about one of the prime “strong female” characters in modern SF. Of course Weber goes into some might say excruciating detail about galactic compass headings and astrogation, so clearly this troll was reading-until-offended for the purpose of mockery. She also couldn’t understand why a genetically engineered combat specialist would be tall.

    Said troll is probably a HUGE fan of Cameron “No Clue” Hurley. Don’t really know, don’t really care.

    I think its fair to say that Woke(tm) fans are not in any way interested in historical accuracy, scientific detail to justify the science fiction part, horse knowledge in fantasy or magic that follows rules. They want the random trans character dropped into the story for the sole purpose of having a trans character. In fact, the whole purpose of the story is to showcase the trans character whose most discernible feature is being trans. Other than that, they don’t really do anything. Its all “atmosphere.”

    They think that’s The Shit, baby. Oh yeah, that one gets a Hugo! Or in this case, a fantasy award nom. Another fantasy award nom casts a female retired soldier as Grendel’s mother in an “update” of Beowulf. So fresh, so new!

    That’s what they want, the more and deeper the better. They just LOVE those themes: stickin’ it to the Man, soldiers are monsters, pacifists are brave heroes, government saves the day from evil businessmen, humans are trash, and destroying Gaia, we’re all going to die and we deserve it, and etc.

    Me, I’m not in that audience. I want to know about Galactic North and how it is used to steer a warship in space. I’m interested in the advantage reach and mass gives you in a fight. I want to hear about how to take care of a horse when you’re riding through the woods for days. I like my fight scenes snappy and my heroes believable.

    Normally, this isn’t a problem. Stanislaw Lem fans didn’t read much Heinlein, nobody cared. All SF, all fine. But lately the Woke(tm) have decided that everybody but them is Bad, and those Bad people audiences must be EDUCATED in the error of their ways. Problem being, they pretty much control the publishers now, and they can make that stick.

    I’m not paying for a lecture from some dumbass that doesn’t know how horses work, or how galactic coordinates work, and can’t spend thirty seconds finding out. I spent time yesterday finding out a plausible rival for an Edo period lord, they can at least use Wikipedia. This means I have nothing to read lately.

    But that’s okay. I can DO IT MYSELF. And I know there’s a fricking huge un-served audience out there with money to spend on fiction where you get the details right, or at least make a fricking effort. Its not a dissertation, its an SF story.

    1. While browsing through my local bookstore (small town) I stumbled over what I think was supposed to be a YA novel. Can’t remember the title, but the premise was that the Arthurian legend has been reprised over and over and over again, as Merlin tries to get it right, and this time, Arthur’s female.

      Okay, cool. I can dig it. You could do some interesting stuff with that, play with readers’ expectations a little.

      Read a little further. Guinevere is still female.

      Eh, okay. This is starting to sound like we’re playing diversity bingo, but this might not be terrible.

      Flip to the author bio–it’s co-written by a lesbian couple.

      Then turn it over and look at the back. Every single reviewer blurb involves some variation on “queering” the Arthurian legend being the main selling point.

      Yeah, forget that. I already know where this book is going, and I know the writing quality is going to be lousy, because none of the blurbs mention it.

      As a side note, when doing research for a story, I usually take the “five minutes with Google” approach for specific details. Any errors you make at that point, ninety-five percent of your readers won’t notice, most of the rest will probably forgive it, and the ones that won’t wouldn’t be satisfied unless you put Victor Hugo-like effort into your work. Of course, this approach requires you to know what you don’t know, which most people don’t.

      1. “Every single reviewer blurb involves some variation on “queering” the Arthurian legend being the main selling point.”

        Because changing around the genders and orientations of known characters is Important Work, no matter how badly done and no matter how many cringy sex scenes they padded it with.

        1. Thing is, I’ve actually seen it done with the Arthurian legend, in Camelot 3000, except the lesbian couple was Tristan and Isolde rather than Arthur and Guinevere, and I thought it was handled well.
          (Although technically it was Tristan’s spirit in a woman’s body. Camelot 3000 was weird.) However, importantly, it was treated as a plot point, rather than “this is THE reason why you should read this book.”

      2. That’s not new. The Fate/Stay series did it, likely before the lesbian couple did; and hinted it as a reason for why Guinevere had the affair with Lancelot. Arthuria also had little interesting character quirks; big eater was hilarious until you realized what kind of food was considered ‘normal’ by her in the day.

        It’s weird to have Japanese hentai visual novels have more thought put into the ‘whys’ of having King Arthur be female AND virgin to give a reason why she has to have sex later on with the male protagonist in a series.

        1. Considerable before–I think the book I’m talking about came out this year, and the Fate series has been around for what, a decade? Something like that? (I’ve only read about the the thing on TV Tropes.)

          Now, making Arthur and Guinevere lesbians might be new, but it’s not nifty enough to be the main selling point of a book by it’s lonesome. Good night, a book where the next Arthur is an evangelical Christian isn’t enough to be the main selling point of a book all by it’s lonesome for me, and I am one. In both cases, the potential is there for it to be at least interesting or utter drek, and dreck is more likely.

  3. …control the publishers…. Baen, and the people who publish Chris Nuttall, come to mind as counterexamples.

    On the other hand, ‘our miitary does it this way so everyone’s military must do it this way’ can get over worked, repetitive, and tedious. Basic Training episodes come most immediately to mind.

    As it happens, I immediately recognized the name “Gambier Bay”. And, yes, I am prior service, Army.

    1. When she mentioned “Gambier Bay,” my first thought was that I knew the name from somewhere but couldn’t remember where. Looked it up when I got home and my jaw just about hit the floor. Chalk it up to a childhood where hours upon hours were spent watching the History Channel, back when it actually lived up to its name.

      Thank you for your service, and God Bless.

  4. I am deeply sympathetic to that parenting moment where you realize you’ve stepped into really big, too big, now what, topic. But I want to point out that some people deal with that moment differently.

    I’ve mentioned before that my 7 year old son had cancer. A little 7 year old boy from Morocco came into the same hospital with essentially the same cancer at more or less the same time, and they became friends — as far as they were able, when one spoke only English and the other spoke French and Arabic, and both of them felt awful much of the time when they saw each other. One day they were sharing a computer and playing some silly twenty-years-ago game. I was standing behind them and took a picture of the two bald heads leaning slightly towards each other, one sort of pale beige and the other pale brown.

    The head doctor of the clinic, who was a Pakistani woman, saw a copy of the picture and snatched it right out of my hand, saying it was an illustration of what she was always saying: these children shouldn’t be taught to grow up and kill each other. Well! I wasn’t teaching that to my kid but clearly in Pakistan it IS part of what you tell very young children. My blood really ran cold.

    I’m afraid the only relevance of this to writing is the recognition that some people really start from very difference basic premises.

  5. “Hurley’s book was marketed as the next great Mil SF novel, but it’s written for the “woke” crowd.”

    I kind of figured that because it was written by . . . Kameron Hurley. The few parts I flipped through at the bookstore have done nothing to change that opinion.

    1. That’s about like the book that was billed by the publisher as Space Opera, and led a major reviewer to announce that Space Opera was dead, because that book sure wasn’t it.

      It centered on diplomacy, and was not a bad read, but it bore little or no resemblance to Space Opera. No exploding star ships, no great battles, no huge distances to be crossed, no adventures in space.

      1. I don’t know what book you’re referencing, but for a while in the early 00s I did wonder if I grasped what sci-fi was, because so many of the stories I found were “mundane SF,” and bored me to tears. Where are the spaceships? Aren’t there supposed to be space ships? And aliens? And rayguns or sword fights? I really did wonder if sci-fi in written form was just not supposed to have any wonder or fun. Fortunately I discovered Miles Vorkosigan and Honor Harrington.

        I hate to think of someone being introduced to the genre by going through the “wrong” door, e.g., entering the Boring Philosophical Treatise room when they thought they were entering the Exploding Spaceships room.

    2. Even “hard” space opera (like C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance Union/Compact Space stuff) in the very least has interestingly exotic aliens and racketing up tension.

  6. Hm, I’ve never read this Hurley, and was disinclined to when I once saw on her website that she calls herself an intellectual badass. That’s the kind of compliment that should be reserved for other people to make about you.

    But, I was curious about the crossing the streams business, so I investigated the Amazon reviews. I think your example of her is well chosen, because the 55 people who rated this book 5 stars were overwhelmingly fans of sci-fi in general, but not mil-SF in particular. A few specifically said they don’t read milSF. Of the ~30 or so 5-star people who just liked sci-fi, four of them referenced Starship Troopers, and said this book was either a response or an homage, or Hurley turning ST inside-out. The next largest block were fans of Hurley herself, and bringing up the rear were the seven who specifically said they love mil-SF and considered the book to be great milSF.

    To repeat: Only seven out of 55 readers who gave the book 5 stars specifically thought of the book as great milSF.

    Of the 12 four-star raters, again the overwhelming majority just like sci-fi in general, with only two who positively compare the book to milSF classics (Starship Troopers, Forever War).

    Several of the four and five star readers referenced philosophical matters and such, plus evil corporations (woke), or thought of the book as “Slaughterhouse Five” meets “Starship Troopers.”

    So based on the positive reviews, marketing the book as milSF really IS a bad idea, when even Hurley’s non-true fans — true fans being the ones who bought the book because she wrote it — generally don’t see it as such. In her place, I would concentrate my marketing budget on those new readers who like SF in general.

    Hurley’s book is a great, real time example of how crossing the streams won’t bring in the money if you’re marketing to a different stream than the one your book falls into. Based on the reviewer comments, its clear she did intend to aim for the milSF audience (they referenced her tweets), but the favorable reviews indicate she missed. Someone is bound to feel tricked.

    I know this site has talked about “reader cookies,” and it’s clear that in the milSF realm Hurley either didn’t offer them, or fully bake them or whatever. Not a total disaster, but she didn’t accomplish what she set out to accomplish. Valuable information for a writer to have.

    As even the four-star readers billed the book as a bit of a chore; Hurley really should switch marketing tactics, because the absence of the milSF cookies means the review trends won’t stay positive if she does draw in more milSF readers.

    Great example!

  7. If you want role reversal, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is pure role reversal. 🙂 And who we are writing to depends on what genre we are writing (or trying to write in)… sigh

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