Mercenary’s creed

‘The doer and the thinker, no allowance for the other, As the failing light illuminates the mercenary’s creed.Jethro Tull, Thick as a brick

It’s tough bein’ yer workin’ thinker these days (to misquote the Hitchhiker’s guide) because interest in paying you for it has suddenly become tepid.  But frankly yer working thinker has always had to be a mercenary bloke. It’s that or very hungry.  Back in the days yore (which are earlier than the days of ‘you’re’, and a lot earlier than the days of ‘your’ yer working thinker who also wrote books about what they did their thinking about had a rich patron, who liked their thinking, or at least the thinking they put into books to please the patron.  Somewhere down the line it became possible to have the public as your patron and, mercenary blokes that those thinkers were, write their thinking down in ways that that pleased the public (or at least enough of it) who paid for it.  Gradually publishers took up the role of picking stuff that they believed could sell.  Eventually yer working thinker effectively had sell his pen (as pen is mightier than the sword… for writing with, at least) to thinking or at least expressing publically the thoughts – especially on paper, that his or her publisher was pleased by.

Once Indy happened, many thinking-writers were able to do pretty well out writing things enough of the public liked their thought about. Because the public is a very broad thing, with a range of tastes and opinions, so long as what the writer thought was popular with enough people, they didn’t even have to be mercenary about it, but actually write what they felt and believed.

So Indy is better right? You don’t have to live by the mercenary’s creed: your pen to the highest bidder.

Not so fast, dude.

As the people doing Patreon have found, that isn’t just money for doing what YOU want.  In that environment you get to know quite fast what your new tribe of bosses want for that monthly pay-in. Some of them, I gather, want your life and direction for a few bucks a month.  But at least as an indy you’re not directly at their beck and call.

Good, isn’t it?

Yes… but you still live by the mercenary’s creed – because you can choose, sure enough, to write for people who share at least some of ideas and ideals – so long as there are enough of them. You’re not gate-kept by NYC publishers whose bubble is so philosophically different as to a little out of touch with even those who come from other large cities and share their typically far left ideology and values and worldview, and on another planet to most of the population outside that. It’s not that hard to find a few million people who see the world like you.

Well… actually it is very hard. Not that the people don’t exist, they do. It’s just making contact with them, and then getting them to read AND enjoy (and therefore be willing to pay for) your work is hard.

So: you find yourself as a mercenary to whole new master: making your book enjoyable for ordinary readers. A lot of us don’t even think about this: we just set out to write a story and/or prose that pleases us. For some of: we have the gift and it comes out as a pleasing story. But for most of us that could be better… which is why we read how-to books, study the work and techniques of writers we like or… that lots of readers like, and frequent sites like this.

A friend asked some of us a question about POV (point of view) which is something of an obsession with a lot of writers, as are issues like first, second, third person not to mention Third person intensely personal, omniscient etc. etc. etc. etc. and few dozen more etc. He’s a writer, and one of the good ones to whom story telling comes easily.  We writers can get very obsessive and wrapped up in these things – and be hypercritical of those who get them ‘wrong’. And other writers… notice.

They CARE. So it must be important.

Except nobody else on earth gives a shit. Maybe your grammar teacher… but I have found most English teachers blissfully ignorant about point of view and head-hopping.

Look: these are sort of important, but not to please the fussbudgets of the writing world. They’re important for the reason they developed: which is a very mercenary one.  The whole point of POV and all these conventions – the entire body of Strunk and White… is to make your story easier to follow. Because if the reader has to struggle to follow it: they might think you a literary genius and future Hugo winner, because they had to read your book slowly, and each sentence three times, but with rare exceptions they won’t ENJOY it.

Reader enjoyment sells books.  I’ve read a few books with great ideas, books that I loved the concept of… but were so badly written as to make it hard work, that I only kept slogging at because the ideas fascinated me. I itched to re-write them (and I’m not good, but well, sometimes I could hardly do worse.  Some of Simak’s books…). I’ve probably given up on a hundred for every one of those, though.

So: when you start worrying about POV and first person or third person or whatever… is when your first reader gets confused, loses the track of the story.  I worry a lot about it because I can confuse myself, let alone readers. But there are authors out there, all over the place with these supposedly adamantine rules – who jump cheerfully from first to third, head-hop like crazy… and they obviously tell the story well enough for readers to utterly love it, and not to struggle to follow at all.

The editor, the other writers say it absolutely matters.

But the mercenary’s creed says use what works best for your story: it doesn’t matter as long as the reader follows and enjoys. The reader is paying. The editor (these days) and other writers aren’t.

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18 thoughts on “Mercenary’s creed

  1. Do we say that Georgette Heyer head hops? No, we don’t. We wouldn’t dare.

    However, we can note that she shares the feelings, the perspectives, the point of view–as it were–of minor characters. My best understanding is that because she does it well, we call it omniscience.

  2. Concerning sins of craft such as inept grammar and sloppy viewpoint management:

    — …nobody else on earth gives a shit. —

    When you say that, or that what matters most is what pleases the reader, do you believe that you’re speaking of all readers? Why not allow that you’re describing a specific group of readers: the ones that are pleased by what you have to offer?

    My readers care about good craft. They’ve told me so. It’s a limited market, but it’s the one I address and strive to please.

    Believe whatever makes you feel good.

    1. Does it get in the way of the reader? It’s not good writing.

      Will the reader sweat that you used the newer past perfect form instead of the older past perfect past perfect form (thrived vs. throve)? No. Other writers might but the reader’s won’t UNLESS you have deliberately picked the older forms for reasons of story voice. In that case, we writers might tisk, but the readers don’t care.

      I think that’s the point Dave’s trying to make. (I could be wrong. I’m only on my second cup of tea.)

      1. As a reader, I don’t automatically have the analytical skills to identify those details as I work through the story.

        I’m learning to write fiction, so I’m starting to be able to study a story, and then find those features. But, I don’t do it all the time, it takes deliberate intent.

        If I’m reading a fanfic, and it is really hard to get into, I may not figure out why. Or I might take the time to work out, “Oh, they are doing x, and it doesn’t work for me”.

        My “I don’t need to know the factory tolerance of the firing pins” is exaggeration to make a point; the fanfic that inspired it was probably influenced by Clancy, and seemed to me to have an excess of invented technical details. Those might have been verisimilitude or worldbuilding to the writer. I didn’t understand how they were important to the story, and the pacing and characters weren’t pulling me in either. So I quit reading. I did not put it in those terms when I quit, they are hindsight.

        Person is a formal theory of writing term. The formal theory is a useful tool for writers. Probably impossible to reliably produce excellent writing without some exposure to the formal theory. It gives jargon that you can use to describe some of your design choices to yourself. You may need that description to keep track of the whole complex project. (Look at da Vinci as a machine designer, and then look at all the modern machinery designers trained with modern theory. da Vinci had formal training of various sorts, but also had a great deal of ability. Modern trained designers of less raw ability than da Vinci provide things we would not have if we were waiting for da Vinci grade talents.) Just like physics evaluates a machinery design without caring about the quality of the scholarship behind the theory, a reader can evaluate a story without the use of theory.

        As long as there are academic English programs, there will be a small market of readers who cares very much about how well stories conform to this or that theory. I have a long theoretical argument for ‘why it would never be a large market’.

        1. Is it bad that I immediately started coming up with reasons to use your specific exaggeration in a story?

          I mean, there’s characterization potential when the information is received (e.g. he went deliberately looking for it, or he’s trapped in a conversation he’s desperately trying to escape), and it sets up tension for when the protagonist has to kludge together a mechanical solution out of things not made for the purpose (it should work, but…)

          1. At one point I formulated it “If you tell me the factory tolerance of the firing pins, it had better be important.”

            You could do a story about the factory’s quality control issues, and attempts to fix it using Taguchi squares, etc.

            There are circumstances where the details of the guns matter to the audience. Spend a bunch of words on unnecessary things, at the start of the story, before I even have a character I care a thing about, and maybe I’m gone. Prince Roger books do good things talking about procurement issues. I think we might meet Roger and Nimashet before we get too deep into the infodumps, but I’m not sure. MHI, we meet Owen and the weird situation right off the bat, and the gun details are fan service, mostly of real or close to real guns that the target market would appreciate.

            There are people I might trust to invent a bunch of details and have them consistent enough to be worth studying without character or action pulling me along. Someone I don’t know doesn’t get that level of trust.

        2. Speaking of firing pin tolerances, you mean it’s not important to know that there are 96 cruisers, 32 destroyers, 57 battleships, 4 carriers, 3 dreadnaughts, and a flagship before the space battle starts?

          Hint: DEFINE THE TERMS!!! I don’t care how many cruisers versus destroyers there are if I don’t know the difference between them. No one has agreed what these words mean since the first keel was laid and I’m just supposed to know what it means for space ships?!?! My pet peeve of mil-sf.

      2. “Will the reader sweat that you used the newer past perfect form instead of the older past perfect past perfect form (thrived vs. throve)? No. Other writers might but the reader’s won’t UNLESS you have deliberately picked the older forms for reasons of story voice. In that case, we writers might tisk, but the readers don’t care.”

        Actually, something like ‘thrived’ throws me out of the story every time.

        Just a reader.

    2. Whatever pleases your audience, Francis. My point is if the readers are unhappy, it is a problem. If the readers are plentiful then you’re probably doing just fine, whether the books are or are not following every form. If they’re not, it’s one aspect writers might look at. It’s not a cure-all, but it may cure a problem by making your story easier to follow.

  3. I’ve read a few books with great ideas, books that I loved the concept of… but were so badly written as to make it hard work, that I only kept slogging at because the ideas fascinated me.

    Focault’s Pendulum.
    (Picking a book translated from a different language and a culture with different storytelling conventions is perhaps a bit extreme as an example. But even though I found it brilliant, I will never reread it, or recommend it without caveats.)

    1. “Even though I found it brilliant, I will never … recommend it without caveats” would be an apt endorsement for every novel Prof. Eco wrote.

  4. I haven’t read a lot of romances, but I like the “one head per chapter” convention for head hopping. It makes it unsurprising. Using those little sub-chapter separator whirlygigs (centered “* * *” for the text inclined) works well, too. Just arbitrarily swapping POV is a bit annoying. Or not having one; “whoever is talking first person” is just awful.

    I just finished The Wizard’s Butler on Saturday and I have no idea what person it was in. I’d _guess_ first, since the butler is the protagonist (mostly – arguably it’s the house). I would not be at all surprised to check and find “tight third”. I re-read the April series last week and it’s the same: I have no clue. It’s “tight” around April, but I don’t think first-person, but it could be. I’d still have to check – after the fourth read (and, yes, I finally bought it – four times through on KU seems unfair).

    It’s hard to do party splits well. Bouncing back-and-forth each chapter will work if that’s the only point of the chapter breaks (i.e. every chapter starts with “meanwhile, back at the ranch… “). That’s rare. It’s more common for each sub-party to have a couple chapters then switch to the other. It’s annoying when “a couple of chapters” turns into 100 pages and I’ve forgotten all about the other sub-party by the time the author switches back to it. Cliff-hanging those transitions can result in a walled book.

    I’m reading fluffy space opera, right now, and it’s in first-person – but I’m pretty sure it’s cheating first-person where some third-omniscient creeps in. I haven’t really paid much attention, but thinking about it, I know more than the protagonist so it must have come from somewhere. That doesn’t bother me. In this series, time is bothersome; things happen WAY too fast. By the middle of book one, our intrepid hero had invented an FTL drive, built the ship, found a galactic empire, and we had become part of it – in about two months. The main reason I’m reading more is I want to see how much can happen in six books! I’m betting on intergalactic human domination, we’ll see.

    1. If everything is “I,” as if the person was narrating the story, then it’s first person. If you’re inside one character’s head but only their thoughts or speech are “I”, you’re in tight third.

      I tried to read a historical novel where the author had the American Indian character use “this one” in her thoughts, because supposedly her tribal language did not have the concept of an individual “I” or “my.” It . . . didn’t work for me. At all. Because all the other PoV characters did use “I” and “me.” The author was trying to jar the reader, and he did. Jarred me right out of the novel and I never came back.

      1. Oh is that why the elves in… Huh. Okay, now that I understand where the author was pulling that quirk from, I can see what she was doing.

        Sadly, in story, it was both jarring and, after a while, tedious. And I doubt we’re even talking about the same book.

    2. And each genre has its conventions. Historical novels allow transitions different characters’ points of view within the same scene. Science fiction readers want chapter or scene breaks like the triple asterisks.

      I did get away with a transition between character POVs mid-scene in one book, but it was a battle. Or, maybe I didn’t, but no one has complained yet.

      1. Laura, readers also get very used to their favorite genre’s conventions – which is why so many literary fic ventures in sf (they sneer at sf, and yet push into it) are often admired by people who don’t read sf – and sf readers find them hard work.

    3. I think the Wizard’s Butler is a great title anyway. My bet on the six books is what you’re reading is the build-up before the knock down, and the long slog back up… to somewhere higher. Not a bad story arc concept, really.

    4. In case anyone is wondering, we (humans) don’t end up in charge. More like Lensmen/Babylon 5: The old ones are gone and the universe is now ours.
      I gave it (Alicia Jones) four stars throughout; would have been five if time hadn’t been so crazy fast. At about two hours per book, I recommend them.

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