Assumptions

I assume you know what the picture is of… I mean, who wouldn’t?

Growing up, I assumed we were very poor. My friends and peers would get into the latest fad, be it dingbats or yo-yos or collecting memorial fake coins or dinky cars or the latest comic or fashions or whatever… and I would not even ask for them. Because… I assumed there was no money for these things.  My parents, on the other hand assumed I just had no interest in these things (they didn’t, either of them) if they even noticed.

In both cases the assumptions (at the time anyway) completely wrong. We lived in a fairly affluent neighborhood, and the kids in my area and at the local school appeared to me to come from much wealthier houses, with much smarter cars etc.  It… never occurred to me (I was just there, no one explained it to me) that my parents were about 25 years older than the parents of most of my peers.  My parents grew up, or in my father’s case started work… in the Great Depression (Dad had to go out to work in 1932). I was born very late in their lives.  The other kids’ parents grew up just post war, which was a prosperous growing time for the country.  My parents never bought anything except for cash, upfront. Everyone else bought on the never-never (hire purchase). I heard both of them make snarky comments about the stupidity of that… but I assumed that people I didn’t know did that, not our neighbors.

My dad had two jobs – his office job in the week, and working on a semi-commercial fishing boat (semi-commercials had a limited license allowing them to sell a certain volume) weekends and holidays. My mother was a teacher (because when she grew up there were two ‘respectable’ for a woman, nursing and teaching. Despite her Professor (male) and stepfather pleading with my grandmother, Grandmother would not let her continue and become the country’s first female geologist. So my ‘tomboy’ mum who loved rocks and doing outdoor things, had to teach.) They were, in actual fact, probably better off than their neighbors… but ‘waste no: want not’ being how they grew up, meant that being frugal was second nature.  And besides, neither of them had any interest in what the world in general thought of them, and wouldn’t know a fashion or fad if it jumped up and bit them on the leg.

I would have rather liked to fit in. It would have been easier. But, well, I loved reading, and would escape either into a book or the bush (we lived next door to huge nature reserve, which was my kingdom) or the beach – I learned to dive very early, as my nearly a decade older brother did. So the folks gave me books, diving gear and a canoe… which, it never occurred to me, cost a lot more than yo-yos.  Being sent to my father’s old boarding school… never occurred to me cost a fortune, that none of the kids from my neighborhood had to put up with.  It was just a particular form of hell, that I eventually got used to.

I was in the army at 17 before I really got some idea of my parents’ financial status – because the army was a great leveler. I found myself not just in with kids from my neighborhood, or school, but kids who thought Army food great, because it was regular and plentiful.

It still was damned hard to shift those assumptions.

If it was hard for me… I was trying to see my kids didn’t at least have the ‘only kid without a yo-yo’ syndrome (look, they’re Freers. They never were going to fit in or be ordinary. You learn to be a chameleon, to some extent) when my older boy was about eleven. My mother said in some surprise: ‘but you were never interested in any of that stuff David.’ My explanation: “I would have loved to have had it, Mum. But I thought we were too poor, so I didn’t ask.”

My dear mother was literally trying to catch her jaw… “But… but, we did…” And various things were mentioned, all of which were a lot more expensive than Yo-yos and had been what they thought we’d value. They considered themselves richer than their neighbors, but that it would be bad form to flaunt it, or to get anything new when something wasn’t broken.

“I know now. But I had no idea how much they cost then.” Which was true enough. My father’s family had been very much British upper class, and even mentioning money, let alone how much something cost, was very vulgar. It had rubbed off on him, although when his mother was widowed and he was 16 he’d suddenly found himself at work or starve position. From playing polo to working on the mines was a lesson he never forgot.

My growing up (and life since –I’m as frugal) was shaped by an assumption that was very wrong.  It of course didn’t end there, and there are many other things I got totally wrong. One of them was that books were bought by publishers purely on merit (I sold mine out of the slush pile) and sold well or badly, only on how popular they were. I didn’t even WANT an advance, let alone a big one. I wanted my book to prove itself and thought it could, because I assumed that it was a level playing field, and that the best book would win… I didn’t assume my book was ‘the best evarr!’ I just looked at what was for sale and assumed that was all that they had been able to find, so the competition was nothing like what had been when Heinlein or Niven had been active. I assumed my taste was fairly central to sf/fantasy readers…

Assumptions. Most of them wrong. Even when I sold my first, almost no books sold out of the slush pile, having been picked over by bored slush readers, slightly less bored junior editors, and then studiously considered by a senior editor and taken to an editorial board… I had assumed that was normal. Agents, contacts, leverage, things like Clarion… they’d never crossed my horizon, although they were normal, and my method abnormal in the extreme, and now, effectively, non-existent.

The size of your advance is, in Trad, vital (and without an agent, almost inevitably tiny). It dictates everything, from the quality of your cover art, editing, proofing… and especially the degree of marketing and distribution you will get. I remember getting zip codes and checking B&N stores across the US to see how many of my books were in each store… I was going to set up a program to monitor it.

I found… um, it wasn’t selling much because most stores had zero copies.  They’d order it if someone asked. Strangely enough, it didn’t sell as well as books that were in every store, and end-caps or displays at the counter or windows. And I have come to terms with the fact that my tastes are not central to sf/fantasy readers. There are quite a few people who share my tastes, it seems, but central, I am probably not.

Assumptions. Conclusions I jumped to because they fitted in with what seemed logical and obvious to me… which were mostly wrong. As a species I suspect we do that a lot.  We assume newspapers contain accurate reportage. We assume a ‘Labour’ (Australian) political party has the interests of the working class at its core, and that its support and politicians are ordinary working-class folk, with blue-collar interests shaping all their policy.  Well, um. No. Not in either case.

People (me included) tend operate on a lot of assumptions.  We assume the best authors get to the bestseller list. We believe what we see on TV or on the papers. We assume it’s true and a fair summation. We vote for the party which stood for things dear to us that we believed in. We assume they remain true to those values, with passage of time.

We assume our partner knows what we mean…

In practice, when we look closely, we tend to find, at best, those assumptions are conditional. And often, they’re just flat out wrong.

Don’t assume. Check it out.

Especially my books, of course.

14 comments

  1. Picture: An island. Or Mesa Rica in eastern New Mexico, or part of Black Mesa in NM-Arizona, or that one place down near the Big Bend in West Texas, maybe something in the Great Karoo, or . . . 🙂

    (OK, now to read the article.)

    1. Our brains are machines built for pattern recognition.
      Most of what we think we know, are unproven assumptions.
      It is very important to always be testing your knowledge against your observations.

  2. I was in my twenties before I realized I needed to leave some of the “I’m a little kid” thinking behind.

    1. I was in my 30s before I realized that most people hadn’t grown up with “you must do what the grown up is saying or you will be maimed and/or killed” other than traffic.
      (which is pretty obvious and direct– welding blindness? the way cows can jump OVER another cow if they get wound up right? Hormones? Various medications? The pump shorting into a watering hole? Those are all invisible until someone is dead.)

      It did explain some of the more insanely stupid things I saw done in the Navy, (but it’s never killed me before!) and how common some of the no-sense-of-proportion warnings are.

      1. I’d never connected this with growing up with cows and farm machinery and I certainly always felt entirely free to explore without restraint. But I think you’re right. Disobedience would never have occurred to me. And I always just thought I was naturally cautious. Some kids are.

        But the military, the Air Force…at basic those other girls couldn’t do the simplest things or follow the simplest rules. At the least, it took them effort and I recognized that it didn’t take me any effort at all. (PT on the other hand…misery, pure misery.) I was entirely unable to understand the *difficulty* of doing profoundly easy things simply because we’d been told to do them.

  3. For myself, having tried to get an agent and a trad-pub deal for my first two books, I was ready to chuck it after a year and go indy, which is what a very knowledgeable book/publishing/writer blogger advised, in the mid-aughties. (Grumpy Old Bookman – http://grumpyoldbookman.blogspot.com/ ) Fortunate that there were quite a good few reasonable and reliable POD houses available at that period, and what really launched me, and a lot of other indy writers was Amazon’s Kindle reader. I’d guess that about 4/5ths of my sales are through ebook sales. I am absolutely certain that indy writers were much more willing to embrace ebooks than the trad houses were.

  4. I assumed my first book would come out and get a dozen sales, based on the notion that about a MILLION books get published every year. I was pleasantly surprised to get more than that. Yay!

    1. I can’t at this date recall the exact figure – I think it was around 50 copies – but there was a survey out around 2007, 2008 – that this was the average sales figure for all books in print (from the million-seller, down to the little family genealogy of interest to maybe one or two readers). 50 copies (or something like it, less than 100 anyway) – and if you sold more than that, you were ahead of the game!

  5. Most of what we know is actually assumptions. One must choose carefully which ones are most likely to be problems if wrong.

  6. cows can jump OVER another cow Wait, what?!?! Maybe it was growing up only intermittently around dairy cows, but I’ve never seen one do anything other than plod. Seeing a cow run, let alone jump at all, would make my jaw drop.
    at basic those other girls couldn’t do the simplest things or follow the simplest rules. I noticed the same thing with the boys. Just do what the drill sergeant says to do! How hard is that? Don’t assume, don’t embellish, just do exactly what you’re told. Apparently, that _is_ really difficult for some people. I couldn’t live my entire life that way, but for a couple of months, who cares?

    Speaking of assumptions, I’ve read two things lately that were immensely helpful in understanding the Critical Theory folks (who inform the SJW crowd, which is much, much stupider). Their words don’t mean what our words do. One is a blog post about why they will not debate and the other is book (KU!) contrasting modernism with post-modernism. It should be easily possible to engage with them on their own terms, but I’m still working on the vocabulary.

    1. Wait, what?!?! Maybe it was growing up only intermittently around dairy cows, but I’ve never seen one do anything other than plod. Seeing a cow run, let alone jump at all, would make my jaw drop.

      99% of the time, beef cattle are just like that. The most you’ll see them move is a half-jog for five or six steps. Even in a chute, they’re usually fine, and the worst you’ll get is mounting. (where the females go up on two legs like a bull would, it’s one of the signs that cows are in heat)

      That other 1% of the time, it’s like one of those Russian traffic cam videos. You can technically tell that it’s physically possible, but (blankety blankety blank).
      Especially once your brain reminds you that a cow weighs as much as a small car. (Possibly midsized to large, now, my ’99 Neon’s empty weight was the same as one of the middle-aged Angus cross cows.)

      Here’s a big guy– I’d put about 6ft– and a small cow, probably a year and a half to two years, for those who don’t have “squeeze chute” in their mental image log:

      I have SEEN cows come out the top of those. Both when they went in themselves and it wasn’t quite tight enough– their shoulders should be almost brushing the sides– and when one walked in on top of another. It was nearly a decade after I had internalized the need to be careful, and one of those happened maybe five minutes after my mom and dragged one of the folks that was “helping” us away from the side by sheer physical force. (He stopped pouting after seeing that.)

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