Come With Me And Escape

Yes, I meant to give you that ear-worm. You’re welcome.

But actually I want to talk about serious-unserious stuff, to wit, how to make money from writing in hard times.

And here, briefly, I’m going to mention politics, but only because it was mentioned to me as political — I think the difference was something else that the publishing establishment chose to misinterpret because of ideological blinders.  But that’s fine, because they misinterpret reality for various reasons, mostly as a result of being a closed and small group of people, who all live in the same area and mostly all went to the same schools and belong to the same subculture. It never occurred to them there were other interpretations to the data.Particularly since they were working off a scant data set, as you’ll see.

In trying to sell to the rest of the US at large, this means as long as I’ve followed the industry they never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

When I was first breaking into the industry, in the early 90s, I heard an editor say that “When there are democrats in power epic fantasy and happy books do well.  When it’s a republican, horror surges, because all we can do is scream and die.”

From this person’s data set, having come into the business in the mid seventies, what she was seeing is that under Carter epic fantasy and fairly brainless books did well, and under Reagan there was a surge in horror.  I THINK.  Keep in mind even then it was skewed, because if I remember (and I might be wrong, as I got all these books out of order, since I got translations, which seem to be done as the spirit moves them there was a surge of horror in the seventies as well as very dystopian science fiction.  Right guys? Or am I losing my mind?)

Frankly, too, her data was vitiated by how much push the books got, what covers they got, how much the house had invested in them.

Although at the time the link between push and distro and success wasn’t as hard and fast, as there were still unconventional outlets for paperbacks, and ALSO ordering to the net — one of the most stupid ideas ever for the managing of intellectual/emotional inventory — wasn’t a thing, how much a house put into a book still had an effect. So if your editor was unhappy because of politics, and lacking twitter to tell us the opinions of her woke 8 year old that totally validate her own, instead chose to choose and push horror books, those would do better. Because they had push, not because it’s what the people wanted.

Also, I’ll note — gleefully — that this broke down so completely under Clinton and Bush (because of what it tracks to, not because of their politics, which had bloody nothing to do with it) that NY establishment just defaulted to picking books by the magical bean effect.  I.e. you have a bucket of beans, and you plant them and hope one will be the magical bean.  When one does well — note they never do well without at least a minimum of push because see ordering to the net and push model — then pick irrelevant characteristics of other beans that much that, and thing it means they must be magic.  Eventually, by sheer luck, hit another magic bean, but in the process throw away countless decent books that could have done well (and destroy hundreds of promising writers. Never mind. They never counted that.)

So, what was she actually seeing and completely misinterpreting, which might be useful in this case: In hard times people do not want to read about hard times. They don’t want to read about dystopia.  They don’t want to read about the wheels coming off the economy and people having to eat their neighbors, while they’re standing in line for gas.  (In fact, the insistence on dystopian science fiction in the late seventies was probably responsible for the idiot publishers’ other axiom “Science fiction doesn’t sell.” and “Space opera doesn’t sell.”)  They want to read about quests, and magical stuff, and some lone person’s ability to set things right, magically.

As times become better, particularly when (economically) things are doing well, then dystopia and horror come in and are welcome.  Hence the surge in dystopian stuff the last four years or so.  (Before that it was mixed, and you also have to choose your dystopia.  Under Obama the economy was very bi-modal. A lot of investors were doing very well indeed, while people with say engineering degrees were unemployed for four, five or more years.  So print runs fell for dystopian stuff, but they still sold pretty well, particularly when you account for the push/to the net model.  And there’s dystopia and dystopia. I actually encourage everyone going quietly insane to read John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising, because the wheels come off, but the competent protagonist is all right; and I particularly encourage you to read Last Centurion, a book he says was dictated to him, and which I THINK is a world-analog of ours. Possibly a close one, which explains the reactions in this world.  And, btw, the audiobook is great.)

So, I’m going to be blunt: We’re facing hard times. Very hard times.  Yes, I know all about the V curve and other such bullshit.  A V curve in the situation we’ve put ourselves in means that we get out of this in a year or two, instead of ten to twenty.  I expect twenty, but I’m a pessimist.  If you split the difference, it will be seven to ten.

The destruction caused, not by the virus but by the lockdown, has plunged our employment numbers, destroyed small businesses and ironically — since I’m fairly sure at least a number on the left (oops, politics again) thought cratering the economy was a clever trick to make sure their happy fun democrat socialist won in November — left very large companies enhanced and powerful (Particularly Amazon. )  Now, this bodes for some kind of giant corporatist/government collision and government by global elites, unresponsive to the small town and the individual.

IOW, this has set us on the path to dystopia.  Now, I expect before we get there we’re going to face war, famine, and world upheaval on a scale none of us can comprehend yet.  Which in turn means the end result is actually and completely unpredictable.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

EVERYTHING.  To the extent as some of us are too old to do anything else, even if there were jobs, which there aren’t, this upheaval means the following:

1- They also fight: It will seem completely irrelevant (at least if like me you were raised with the dictum that the important thing is not to be happy but to be useful) to spin imaginary worlds while people are struggling for their daily bread, and perhaps having to go off to foreign lands to fight.
Don’t be stupid.  In some of the hardest times in my life, I held on by sheer bleeding fingernails, because there were books that kept me sane.  I think that’s universal.  Yes. Movies and games can and will eventually also help, but you know…. NOT as fast as we can. Because Movies are large industries currently taking it in the shorts economically, and also infested with ideological rot.  Not that having any ideology means you won’t sell, but if you insist on preaching you won’t.

2- Make it an escape: It doesn’t have to be all happy fun, but your character and therefore, vicariously, your reader needs to be able to solve stuff.
I’m not suggesting the books should be all happy happy fun, and no challenges or difficult parts. I’m saying that judging by myself and every reader I’ve ever talked to, our tolerance for angst diminishes the more angst we feel.
Right now, I’m stuck (and have been for almost three months, since I got sick in January) reading Pride and Prejudice variations. In other words, I’m reading fanfic, where I don’t even have to figure out who I like or dislike, and which I know will end in Happily Ever After.  Now, in my case this is extreme and eventually I’ll bounce back. (I’m not even fighting it. Once in similar circumstances, before fanfic was widely available, I spent six months reading nothing but Disney comics.) But I doubt I’m going to develop a sudden appetite for angst and horror. Not …. for a while.
So, moderate the darkness in your books (this is hard for me) and if you must have it, make sure your character can cope/rebuild/triumph.

3- Don’t lecture: No one is going to be in much mood to be told everything they’ve done wrong. You want to do that? write a blog post.
For your books, sure you can have a message. Heinlein had one in his books. But messages that make impact in fiction are those that are buried in the fun ride, and pull you along, and are delivered without your even noticing.  So, do that. Concentrate on story first, and giving your reader a fun and immersive experience.

Oh, and be not afraid.

Now go write.  Because this is the time to write.  No matter how hard it is to do.


  1. From a conversation between C. S. Lewis and Tolkien concerning “escapism fiction”.

    Question: Who worries most about people escaping?

    Answer: Jailers.

    (They said it better.)

    But as a reader right now, the fiction that I’m enjoying most is fiction that allows me to escape my worries, anger, etc.

    The idiot would-be Powers-That-Be want people to despair for reasons.

    Don’t let them succeed.

    1. I never fully understood till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers. — Lewis

      Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? — Tolkien

  2. But if I don’t lecture the audience, how will they know what to think?

  3. I just cringe at the thought of how much depressing fiction has been written (and awarded and promoted) on the theory that people (and kids!) want to see their miserable lives reflected in their fiction.

    Which isn’t always wrong, depending on what happens next.

    Huh… according to the Federalist, this is the *real* Chesterton quote.

    “The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it– because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

    Though we’ve turned dragons into sparkly vampires or some such.

    What we might see is a reverse of that, real dragons or monsters, not angsty or misunderstood but evil, and St. George or a clever hobbit to defeat them. Or, you know, a boy and his spanner wrench, a girl with a space suit and her wits.

    1. Make the vampire sparkle and you can love and understand him as no one else in the world can. After all, what is more charming that a powerful and dangerous creature who NEEDS you?

  4. Huh. This might explain why my plotbunnies have been loathe to work editing my rough draft written back in November – the MCs win, but there’s a lot of angst. Instead they’ve been poking an idea they call “The Ghost Doctor” – a sort of Victorian Fantasy with a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits eventually facing down a horde of classic vampires and undead, and using Science! (which includes Sufficiently Analyzed Magic) to do it.

    …I don’t think I’m going to abandon the rough, but I am giving serious consideration to at least outlining “Ghost Doctor”.

  5. This is where I’ve been, as an author, since 2014. I decided that my books were going to be happy, that good things would happen to those who deserve them, and that nobody was going to die.

    I mean, even the frickin’ demons don’t die, really. They’re already dead. I just had one reappear from Book 4 and go to his reward this afternoon in the middle of a fight scene. Poor old Morg the disgusting ogre finally made it to the Pearly Gates. Go Morg!

    I’m so utterly done with dystopian fiction and apocalypse, I can’t even tell you. They’ve been SPAMMING us with this shit since the 1950s, and I’m 100% done. If I never see another one, it’ll be too soon.

    On Sarah’s blog today she asked the question “where is all this panic coming from?” and I think its Hollywood and publishing to blame for a lot of it. You say “corona virus” and -everybody’s- mind goes straight to The Andromeda Strain, Resident Evil, and a hundred other zombie apocalypse movies, books, games, you name it. Its the T-Virus!!!!

    No kidding people panicked. We’re propagandized from birth with this stuff.

    I’d say there’s an untapped market for stories about FIXING the world instead of blowing it up. How large a market I couldn’t say, since NOBODY is writing to it. But probably larger than the one for grey goo. Horrible people doing horrible things in a horrible place has a very limited appeal.

    1. Oh, yes – this. We’ve been propagandized for decades with “despair and die!” Grey goo is just the current iteration.
      I’ve always been attracted to the 19th century because of the optimism. Yes, with pluck and luck, you CAN come out ahead! So much more hopeful than “despair and die!”

  6. For what it’s worth, in the US in the early ’70s, some outfit did a paperback reprint of HP Lovecraft’s books, so for Republican (if one considers RM Nixon as one), there was at least *some* horror.

    That, and in SF, Newage (rhymes with the one beginning in ‘S’) SF was starting to make an appearance, complete with dystopian themes up the wazoo. That was one of the reasons I had an on-off subscription to the SF Book Club. I could handle only so many walled books before I pulled the switch, then they’d come back with some classics as a teaser.

    1. Now that I’ve finished reading the essay… The Lovecraft horror paperbacks were neatly packaged, with clever cover art (a skull with various bits and creatures). This would have been circa 1971-2; the Viet Nam war was still going on, but was not the horrorshow trainwreck of the Johnson era, and the economy was going reasonably well.

      The newage stuff was coming out in early 1973, I suspect when there were rumblings of a recession possible (which didn’t get going in earnest until after the war and oil boycott hit in September). The anthology I recall was touting newage as the wave of the future. The book was too heavy to wall, but it got ignored, and I managed to avoid more of the same.

      SF for me was saved by the publication of Time Enough for Love. Bought that one in hardcover and I still have it.

  7. Personally, when I read I’m looking for an escape. Fun, light, breezy stuff with little doom and gloom. Lately I’ve been greatly enjoying the Kindle Unlimited plan because I can easily find what I’m looking for. For example, the ‘Unbelievable Mr. Brownstone’ series by Michael Anderle (about an alien destructor raised by humans who has a very strong Catholic upbringing) and the ‘Chronicles of Old Guy’ cybertank series… (These are NOT Laumer’s Bolos – they’ve got a sense of humor and tend to pursue odd hobbies like recreating a 20th Century Costco™…)

    These are quick reads, well plotted, with characters you really get a feel for. And better still, I don’t have to haunt bookstores trying to find a missing copy…

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