Author Archives: accordingtohoyt

About accordingtohoyt

I am a novelist with work published in science fiction, fantasy, mystery and historical "novelized biography". I also write under the names Elise Hyatt and Sarah D'Almeida. http://sarahahoyt.com/

Driving that Truck

At the risk of being called truck-o-phobe again, writing is not driving a truck.  Except when it is.

I was talking to a friend last night.  Both of us are hard workers, perhaps compulsively so, and we were lamenting the fact that we can’t just “put in x hours” and the book will be done.  That’s not how it works.

Oh, yeah, I know, I seem to be contradicting what I told you before.  You know, when I say when it seems like the book is dead and you can’t go on, go on, afterwards you won’t even be able to tell where you were phoning it in.  This is true.  I know there was a place in A Few Good Men (written in 2 weeks) where I came to a stand still for two days.  I honestly can’t remember where it is, and I have trouble finding it.  I reasoned myself back into the book, and then I finished.

I’m not contradicting what I said before.  There is a difference between a major stoppage and a minor one.  There is a difference between stopping and not being able to go on, there is a difference between writing only with inspiraction, and writing when there’s nothing forever.

Let me start at the beginning: I’m not sure I believe in talent — you know that — simply because I couldn’t define it for you.  Nor would I undertake to tell someone starting out  “you have no talent, so stop trying.”  The same way I wouldn’t tell someone starting out “you’re talented, keep on the way you’re going.”

If there is talent, it’s an exhalation of personality and intellect that no one, least of all me can point at and say “There is talent.”

I tell beginners “You’re doing THIS right.  Your weakness is THIS.  The way to combat it is THIS.”  In the rare case I find one that is almost perfect, I say “How many manuscripts do you have under the bed?”

So let’s leave talent aside.  A book or just the act of writing starts with desire.  You desire to write (Heaven knows why.  Maybe our mothers dropped us on our heads?) and you desire to write well (for most people.)  So you work at it, till you can tell a story that people want to read.  And then you continue to work at it.

The individual work starts with inspiration.  The inspiration might be as simple as “hey, I could write a thing like that thing combined with that thing and I bet people would love it” or it might be (often is for me) a presence in the head, a fully formed character with a story to tell.

However it comes, something about that idea makes it compelling to you, and you HAVE to write it.

I once heard that event he greatest saints go through periods where they can sense G-d, where as far as they’re concerned he’s withdrawn from them and from the world, a winter of the soul, bleak and cold.  And they say the way to get through it is to continue working as if they could feel Him, as if they knew He was there.

Writers hit winters of the inspiration as well.  And most of the time the answer is exactly the same as for saints.  You use the craft you learned, and you do the best you know how to continue the story, and inspiration comes back.

Dean Wesley Smith says this happens to everyone once per novel.  Usually in the middle.  Being speshul, this happens to me twice per novel.  One third in, then one third from the end.  (As everyone knows about the novels I was writing in public on these blogs, and more on that later.)

Finding that out was the key to becoming a professional.  For 15 years, I bridged that gap.  I pushed on.  The novel lived again and was finished.

And then about five years ago something went weird.  I could come up with stories (ALL day long) I could even see the story, finished, in my head.  I just couldn’t write it.  It’s like there was no force compelling me to write.  Not even the force of “we’re broke and they’ll pay when I give them this.”

This is where writing isn’t like driving a truck.  I couldn’t.  I’d sit in front of the computer, and nothing happened.  I couldn’t force myself to do it.

Because of when it came, I thought I was just burned out.  But this burn out, if it was that, had weird characteristics.  I could think of the story, but not of elaborations.  Say this is the story of a man who finds a dragon.  Okay, he found the dragon, he’s either happy or unhappy with the dragon.  The end.  I found myself at a loss to give him a family, friends, a dog named George.  I had the concept, and… nothing.  I could write short stories.  They conform this format better.  I could write non-fiction pieces.  I could not write novels.

Through Fire, just started, hit a wall.  I managed to edit Witchfinder.  But the wall was still there.  Ideas came, I jotted them down.  The last book written from beginning to end in a long drive was A Few Good Men, and then gradually things got more and more difficult and the wheels came off.

I could clean the house.  I could do enormous amounts of work in anything that required just physical work.  I could do art.  I couldn’t write except for short stories, and sometimes those were difficult.  Instead of the day they normally take me (unless I’m in the middle of a novel, because “switching heads” takes time) they were taking weeks or months, and it was like passing each word out through a tiny crack in a brick wall.

That problem had physical reasons, which we’re working on.  I was seriously hypothyroidal, which apparently affects ability with words first, at least with many people.  I’m recovering from that.  I’m happy to report the words are back, and I no longer feel like I’m trying to  write word per word.

Now my problems are more mundane.

Writing is not like driving a truck.  Except where it is.

Long distance truckers need to learn things, like not to let themselves be distracted behind the wheel, and also that no matter how heroic you are, you need to rest enough that you don’t crash by falling asleep behind the wheel.

I’ve been having long distance trucker problems.

Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine.  We’ll call her A.  A. was so excited when her first book came out (indie) and made her money, and so in need of money, and had so many books under the bed that she set a goal of two books a month.  I mean, most of them only needed revising.

Then she looked at the schedule and froze in fear.  Which meant she blew the first deadline.  And now she had two books in two weeks….

To make a long story short, she never wrote, that whole year, and it was only when she discarded the insane schedule and gave herself permission to write slower that she started writing again.

I’m having similar problems.  I am so late, I have so many blown deadlines, I want to write everything yesterday.  The results have been less than stellar, particularly over the holidays.

Here’s some things to deal with your trucker problems.  To begin with, trucker problems aren’t like a novel dying in the middle.  They’re more like an extended cat rotating jag.  You’d rather do anything than sit down and write.  Your guilt and shame over the whole thing drive you away from the stories.

If you’re having trucker problems, take a deep breath.  Then take a day off.  No, I know a day off won’t fix it.  But it will help.

Then have a serious talk with yourself.  You’re not a machine.  When you fail, it just means you’re humans.  Reset your schedule.  Go with the sane “I’ll write x number of words a day” — be it 200 or 6000.  I know writers that work at each of those speeds.  Once those are done, I can go on if I feel like it, or I can go read a book and clean the house.”

Read.  You got into this because you love books.  Read.  It helps.

Refill the well, whatever that means to you.  Read a good book, listen to a good song, go for walks, snuggle your sweetie, go to a lecture, sign up for a course on brick laying.  Whatever allows you to feel whole and like you.  You have to have something to pull from before you can pull.  You need to be rested and well, before you can drive that truck.  Or you’re going to crash.

Then work.  And block out the time you’re working — this is the other truck driver issue I’m having.  I keep getting interrupted, yeah, I know, the holidays — and try (good luck, mine don’t) to make your family understand a two minute interruption is going to cost you an hour or so of getting back into the novel, and too many interruptions make it hell to work.

But most of all, remember, you’re not a machine, and you’re not a slave.

Sure you can accomplish amazing things for a while by being an *sshole to yourself, but in the end it stops working.  You break down.  And then you won’t be able to work at all, or to accomplish anything.

Cut yourself some slack.  Take a half day a week off and don’t even think about writing.  Take time to read a book, or watch the kids play.  Let yourself be human and fallible

Because it is your humanity and fallibility that make your work unique. It is they who keep you alive and sane.

You need your full humanity to drive that imaginary truck on a road you invent, to the place where stories live.

Drive that truck!

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Some Hard Thinking About Our Business

One of the puzzling things about the writing business, right now, is that “nobody knows anything” (or in proper vernacular “we don’t know nothing.”

So I am continuously puzzled watching indie authors who are doing better by an order of magnitude than any traditional writer I know succumbing to the lure of a traditional contract.  I’m not disapproving, mind you — who the hell am I to be disapproving of other people’s business decisions? If I had my time again, I doubt I’d have made most of the ones I made.  I’d still want to write for Baen, but that’s about it — I’m just jaw-dropped shocked.  Because they’ll be giving up 90% of their income or so.  But perhaps they want the respectability.  And perhaps they think it will give them further reach.

Is the reach thing true?  For now.  For a time. More on this later.

Is the respectability that important?  Sure, if you want to have some sort of job as a “real writer” such places are starting to choose indies, but not really.  Some conferences too (though we’re not absolutely sure, in this new era how much attendance of conventions contribute to sales, with the remarkable exception of hard copy books [more on that later.]) expect you to flash your “real writer” credentials in the form of  contract.  I even understand it from the social point of view, where when you’re at a party and people ask what you do, the question after you answer “writer” is “so have anything published?” (Or maybe that’s just to me, because of the accent.)  Mind you, you can answer “Sure” and  list your books and not say “indie” but I also know that when I say “Sure, x books with Berkley, x with Bantam and x with Baen” people’s attitude changes completely.  And I can see that when people suspect you’re indie they say “So you published yourself” and dismiss it.  I know that’s a stupid reason to give up 90% of your income, but humans are social animals and I can see “not being embarrassed at parties” making a difference.  I can even see the velveteen writer thing, wanting to be a “real” writer in your own eyes, the wy you envisioned it.

The thing is, that though people sometimes mention reach, most of what they actually mention as a reason is not sane.  They mention “excellent editorial developmental oversight.”  I.e. the publisher will assign someone to help you develop your book or take it to the next level.  I don’t know if this happens to some writers.  It doesn’t happen to ANY writers I know.  I’ve heard stories of it in the 40s and 50s of the last century, but whether that was true or memorex, who knows?  They mention publicity.  Uh… most of the publicity I’ve got, I’ve designed and paid for myself, and I suck like a dyson at it.  If the houses offered anything (other than an ad in locus, which I’ve sometimes got, but like conventions the question is how much it helps) I wouldn’t do it. Baen puts me in the Baen slide show, most of the time, and that’s the most any publisher has ever  done in terms of publicity. I’m grateful, and I’m not discounting it.  Part of the reason I’d still go with Baen “if I had my time again” (I’d go with Baen and put in a drawer for indie anything Baen didn’t want, so when indie hit, I’d be able to put a lot of stuff up that first year.  What? like you don’t plan for being able to send your mind back to your younger body.) is because they have a rabid and dedicated fanbase, and those slide shows help with word of mouth.

But other traditional houses?  I wouldn’t consider it!  Only most of the people doing this have never worked with the other houses, or studied the stories of successful indie who went trad.  That’s fine.  Their career, not mine.  Their decision, their results.

Is this because I think traditional publishing will go away?  No.  I do think however that the current houses are going to mutate. They have to, if they want to survive.

Now, I’ve never been a publishing executive, but I’ve been close enough to have an idea how traditional houses operate, how small/agile new houses operate (I saw the running of two really close up and personal and heaven have mercy on my soul, part of the plan for 2017 is to embark in starting/running a new one. [It’s complicated, but for accounting reasons, I need somewhere to send collaborations, to publish anthologies and to provide a haven to some of my friends [Kate, cough] who inexplicably don’t want to do it themselves.  If we’re going to do that, we’re publishing other friends who don’t want to do it themselves, and we’re hiring someone to deal with it day in day out so I still have time to write. Do NOT send me manuscripts because at this stage they’ll be circular filed.  We have enough for the first year, and after that our manager will set up some process to review — maybe — cold submissions.]

Here’s the thing, the publishing houses, as they currently exist, are the lumbering giants created by the merge-mania of the eighties.  They run several lines over several genres, hire mostly humanities graduates who might or might not have any interest in the line they’re overseeing, and more often than not belong to media conglomerates, for which they are a tiny and relatively unprofitable arm.

It wasn’t always like this.  Publishing enterprises in the — ah — good old days were often small businesses, run by people fanatically devoted to the genre/subgenre they published, and passionately interested in their version of good sf/mystery/whatever.  These enterprises ran at a tight margin and paid book-reps to hit the road, as traveling salesmen, putting books into small bookstores and gas stations and yes corner convenience stores.

All of this is as dead as the dodo, and it was the change in distribution that caused the change in publishing.

When the mega bookstores came in, and, with their discounts and glitzy fronts swept the mom and pop bookstores out of the business, small publishers were out of luck.  You didn’t even need book reps, really, though you still had them.  Their job was now to wine and dine the regional manager of B & N or Borders, or what have you, who in turn chose to place the books the publisher was “pushing” (not all of them) into every branch of the store int he tri-state area.

And this is ultimately what burned the mega stores, because h*ll, the market is different in the same state, say between Denver and the Springs, let alone between Denver and Columbus Kansas.

To make it worse, the agglomeration and conglomeration of the business made it that the people in charge really didn’t read what they were pushing. Push or non push was decided in a business meeting at the publisher’s headquarters.  The rep didn’t read it, and the store’s tri-state manager was an MBA graduate who might never have read a book in his life and who, last year, might have been managing shoe stores, and next year might manage grocery stores.

This worked for a time, both because book addicts are book addicts, and because there was nowhere else to turn for our fix.  The “push” worked too, because if there are a hundred of the book, you’ll stop and pay attention, where you might not if there are two.

But such a model could only work with excellent choices, geared at the fandom of the particular genre, and that was not what we were getting.  It was more the “new new” thing that some NYC office decided to pursue.

And so, as a reader (I wasn’t even published when the decline became obvious) I (and my friends) started referring to bookstore trips, looking for new material, as “I’m going to go and get disappointed by Barnes and Noble, or Borders, or whatever.”  And here we’re talking of people who had a hard and fast trip to the book store a week penciled into their social calendar.

It might have dragged on.  Almost certainly would, see addicts and fix.  But disruptive technology happened. Kindle came on.  And though a few hard and fast (older — more on that) readers are still stuck on their paperbooks, I actually prefer my paperwhite, because of lighting and ability to read next to a sleeping spouse, as well as portability of an entire library in my purse.  Most people seem to.

And here I go into how I have visibility into at least two new-publishers (we should call them agile-publishers) and countless indies.  For every one who says they sell a lot of paper books (and there are reasons usually for those) most people sell a hundred ebooks to one paper book.

You read that right.  A hundred to one.

Which brings us to bookstores.  Barnes and Noble still survives — barely — but I had to go there last month, to buy a gift for a friend (because I’m a derp and was having massive asthma attacks, so I forgot to order.)  They still have books, at first blush.  On second approach you realize a good 50 percent are book-shaped objects.

I’m not dumping on the adult coloring-book craze.  Some of my hobbies are weirder.  BUT I’m telling you that those aren’t books that will help traditional publishers of FICTION.  They’re just books in which traditional doesn’t face competition from Indie.  Yet.

Most of the other books were non fiction (that’s not new) i.e. what celeb x says about how you should run your life, manuals for this or that computing platform, or (and I confess for research I still use paper books) history books, quote books, that sort of thing.  Oh, and a whole lot of lifestyle gifts  “Night lights for the discerning night reader” and “Mugs to impress your colleagues at work” type of stuff.

Mind you distributing to B & N even in their present state is still an advantage of traditional (hence the more later) but how long it will be, I don’t know.  No one knows, at this point, if B & N will survive, or if the pivoting of their business away from fiction books will leave any room for fiction books on their shelves.

Also from grumblings I heard, while trad publishing is still making money in fiction, that part of the business is being subsidized by non fic and “lifestyle and hobby books.”

Which brings us to the part of this post (ah, you though we were almost done, you fools) where I put on my futurist hat.

Remember that making predictions is hard, particularly about the future. However, yesterday I had some news that made me think “All is proceeding as I have foreseen.”

Before we get to that I’ll give anecdata which might or might not be in any way significant, but it’s the sort of thing I do to keep an eye on what is happening in various fields, books included.

Because I am a cheapskate (Everyone say “Noooooo”.  Thank you.  I feel better.) I often shop through craigslist.  I knew vcr tapes were on the way out when people were giving away the cabinets and shelves designed for them.  And I suspect a lot of people are giving up on dedicated TVs (we already have, but we are a techy household) and having large computer screens fulfill the need (which btw, must play havoc with Nielsens because you really watch whenever) because everyone is outright giving away “entertainment cabinets” made for the huge tvs of the 90s.

Which brings us to bookshelves.  I have been a bookshelf hunter for years (now I intend to build up another wall in the library, after I deliver the next three books, and donate/get rid of mine, too) and now, in the last five years for the first time, they’re showing up free or very cheap and in batch lots.  And I hear of more and more people going “electronic” and getting rid of paper books, which, let us face it, for all their sentimental associations, are cumbersome dust traps that make you need twice the house space.

Also, when we moved out of the last house, we put up a batch of 1k books for sale on amazon, and then the bottom fell out, after about a month or two, and I just donated something like 7 k books.

Judging by my own buyer behavior, I only buy 1c used books, and only for things I either can’t get or are insanely expensive in e (I’m not buying a mystery for $14 in ebook.  No.  Won’t be happening.  I’ll buy some of my sf favorites in both paper and e but it hurts like hell.)

And here we hit on the problem traditional houses are having.  They’re not geared for ebooks.  Ebooks offer them no advantage over indie.  (In fact I wish to hell they’d get competent ebook people.  I just bought an e “boxed set” of Miss Marple mysteries, and when I have time I’m going to ask a friend to remove the DRM.  Oh, not so I can give it away, but so that I can put it on my computer and reformat it.  This is a 7 (I think) book collection that has NO WAY to navigate between books.  There’s a table of contents within each book, but not for the boxed set in general.  Also, the indents are about half an inch, which looks bizarre on the kindle, and there are ENTIRE SECTIONS doublespaced.)  They don’t know how to publicize/promote books, beyond the obligatory page on a genre trade magazine, and maybe some talk from their editors in blogs.  They only know how to push books to the super-bookstores and those don’t matter with indie.  I saw them once put an ad for a book they were pushing in a times square billboard.  This was early days of kindle competition.  It doesn’t seem to have done them much good, particularly since the book was a fantasy niche.  I sometimes hear of that book and author, and I judge they’re both about the level I’m at.

They are simply NOT equipped to make the switch from “big push to big stores” to “market ebooks.”  And part of the problem, of course, is that none of us is too sure how to market ebooks.  (I seem to have had some success with DST marketing on comics vaguely related to the book.  I need to look into that again.  The years since 2011 have been too fraught to do anything like that again, but things are calming down.)

Most of what markets ebooks seems to be word of mouth, which intersects badly with the annual-and-done model of big publishers, who at least are no longer taking books out of print on the anniversary of their publication, but also aren’t giving those books any help, while holding onto them.

Compared to the new agile-model long-tail publishers (most of them medium size, not large, sort of like the old publishers, pre mega-mergers.  Or sort of like Baen, though Baen is mixed on this, since it’s larger than these agile-publishers) the traditionals have hellofalot of sunken costs: buildings in NYC, dedicated editors/proof readers/book reps/cover designers who must be paid every month, whether or not the book makes money.  The model I’m seeing emerge from the agile publishers is more a 50/50 (or sometimes 75/25 (with the house taking the greater part and justifiable, depending on what the writer negotiates and how much of the burden the publisher is shouldering, for promo, etc.) with fees for proofreaders, cover artists, finders fees for readers, etc. coming out (as a percentage, say 5% for a proofreader, 10% for a structural editor, etc) of the book’s earnings.

Since there is no advance in most cases, this reduces the house’s sunken costs to pretty much zero.  Which makes them better, faster, leaner, and more able to survive bets on books that just don’t sell.  (This is something that can’t be helped. Even if there were decent customer surveys — there aren’t — it’s impossible to figure out what will catch fire.  See the “nobody knows nothing” in this new ebook thing.)

Meanwhile, these emergent, agile businesses, in the end, provide the same respectability and further reach to indie writers.  Maybe not as much, but they’re changing, and these are the people that traditionals need to compete with.

Dave Freer, in this site, has many times told them “abandon the office in NYC.  Give up the raft of employees that do almost nothing for the books.  Stop with your concentration on promoting bestsellers who would sell anyway.”

They probably won’t do that.  They probably won’t do what I suggest below, too, though I’ve seen some movement in that direction.

Yesterday I heard that Ace, who was an almost-exclusively paperback publisher has now gone all-hardcover.  And I muttered “quite right” except at their decision to shed writers they don’t think “fancy enough” (my wording, not theirs) for hardcover.

Because those are the writers they should be concentrating on.  The ones with a large following, writing popular books, not “prestigious” ones.

From what I’ve seen, both from agile publishers, and from my own experience as a reader and a writer, paper books are becoming, instead of a vehicle for the story, a sort of promotional product, crossed with a souvenir/collectible.

Most of your paper books will sell from events where you meet your fans.  Most of them will be signed.  Even people divesting from paperbooks (even us!) keep signed copies of books they REALLY like.  Because it’s something they can touch and admire and which sometimes reminds them of meeting the author.

So  going hardcover is a brilliant idea, as is (as Baen who is smarter than the average bear is doing) bringing out numbered, signed leatherbound editions of your most popular authors and books.  That cashes right in to the “collectible” market.

The next step to this, which I suspect that traditional publishers will not see their way to doing, would be booths at all the massive conventions (comicon, or more closely related to the book’s content, say gun shows for Larry Correia, or space conferences for me (scientists LIKE pulp.)  Have your author flown to those, have them meet the readers.  Sell books.  Sell more books (and ebooks) by word of mouth, as people talk about how great it was to meet Big Bestseller, how fun he/she is, and how great his/her books are.

So, are there other venues for traditional publishers, where they would have the advantage (being able to fund a booth, which is pricey, at major events?) over indies.

Sure.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the concept of a packager.  In SF/F (and mystery) for many years the late Marty Greenberg was the packager par excellence, and I worked for him for years, off and on, as a writer.  Some years, he was the one who kept the lights on in my house, and certainly the one who kept my then fast-growing sons in shoes.

A packager is someone who comes up with an idea, sells it to major publisher, finds writers to work it, and takes a relatively small cut for his effort.

A lot of Marty’s sales were anthologies (and I miss getting a phone call saying “Sarah, we have a hole in an antho, can you write a short story on fairyland, say about 11k words by this afternoon?”

But there were others.  If a bestseller got critically ill or ran away with his office boy and a  suitcase of turkey feathers, and they needed the book yesterday, people who could imitate styles would get a phone call saying “Can you write this?” and then get very well paid indeed both for the work and for keeping their mouth shut forever.

Sometimes the houses took their own hand at a sort of packaging, too.  I wrote Plain Jane under the house name Laurien Gardner, for what was then for me the biggest advance I’d ever got and — my agent fought like hell for this — a 2% royalty.  That book has now made me double the advance on that paltry royalty share, which means it’s probably a cash cow for the house.

Houses can and perhaps should do that.  Take young and eager writers, and chain them to the house name mills. Have them write in either fantastically successful series, (how successful? Well, Weber might work.  I don’t know if anything below would) or really appealing concepts, or perennials, like say Henry VIII’s wives.

The more inventive houses could hire an actor to play the author at their booth.  Or they could delegate a junior staff member to write the author’s blog, within guidelines.  (NO politics, but you can talk about your dog, Little Tail.)

Another way to do it is shared worlds, either owned or contracted to the publisher.  This is a risky thing.  Sure some shared worlds (163x) do very well, (but it was also started way back, and the original concept-holder kept tight hold on the concept and who gets to play in it) but as Kindle World’s attests, it’s hit or miss, and depends (as all books do) on whether it catches the reading public’s fancy AS A CONCEPT enough to support books by very different authors.  In the sense that each author uses his/her name, it’s fairer to the author, but it is also a big issue in terms of name recognition.  This becomes not “I love that new series by Laurien Gardner” but “I kind of liked what so and so did with x world.”  Honestly, if I were a publisher going that route I’d acquire the rights to some of the more popular gaming or anime series, because you have a proven “I like this world” concept there.

[Addendum I meant to put in: it would also be wise for publishers to start an ebook-only side, and some like Harlequin have.  This could not just be the “farm team” to identify authors who could fly with a little push, but also a way to test “shared worlds” and “packaged concepts” cheaply.  OTOH since having a paper edition is now the mark of “real book” it might be that this would be counterproductive and cause these books to be ignored.  I don’t know.  I just know if I were a traditional publisher, I’d try it.]

The middle option is frankly awful for writers, as they would be laboring in other peoples’ vineyards, with no right of reversal, no name recognition and maybe no royalties.  BUT OTOH if they pay enough up front, it’s a living and new writers could sharpen their skills that way.  Maybe.  (Those who don’t wish to go indie.)

Will the houses do any or all of these?  Yes, I suspect so.  In the long run.  Those that survive.  Because they’re larger organizations, it’s going to take them a while to turn the boat around, but some of them will do it and will thrive.  And some other houses will join in that model.

What I don’t think they’ll ever be again is the primary market for writers of fiction to sell to.  No.  That primary market is and will continue to be the general public, directly.  And that’s an option that opens up new vistas of income and perhaps even of fan-building.

So strap down, it’s going to be a wild ride.  But those of us willing to try new things should be better off in the end.

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A Matter of Character

Yesterday or the day before yesterday, on my blog comments it was suggested that the way to judged if a book was any good is “Can you remember the name of the main character a few days/weeks/months/years after you read it?”

This was apparently proposed by Ursula Le Guin as a method for determining if a book is any good.  (Weirdly the only character of hers I remember the name for is that for The Left Hand of Darkness, and not the voice character, and even then I only remember his “house name” Rem ir Estraven.  That is forgivable though, as it has been more than 20 years since I re-read it.)

So, is she right?

To a great extent yes.  My quibble would be with “main character” if the book is first person.  For instance, I just finished two excellent medieval mysteries, and I remember the names of all of the characters around the main character, including his daughter’s dog, but I had to think hard to remember HIS name, because it’s only mentioned a couple of times in the book.

On the other hand, if I don’t remember the names, it’s not a very good book.  Now there is a place, at least in my life, for not-very-good-books.  As I’ve explained before, I was born (I think.  At least my parents certainly didn’t TRY to make me this way) an insufferable blue stocking.  I am not very fond of TV or movies.  I could be fond of games, but after losing two years to Tetris decided my personality is too prone to addiction to risk computer games.  So, mostly I read for fun.

And while it’s fine to read a great book, it’s also a bit of trouble, because you can’t just put great books down when it’s time to work, cook dinner, or spend time with the kids.

I don’t do this so much now, but when the boys were little, I often read what I call “popcorn books” and I chose them for being on that edge where they were interesting enough to continue reading, but not so interesting that I couldn’t put them down if the baby started crying or whatever.

I don’t remember most of those books, and in fact, my run of buying them and reading them like popcorn ended when I realized I’d left a book halfway and started another one halfway and didn’t realize they were separate books.

Now these were mostly mysteries.  Mysteries and the more formulaic of romances (there are romances that are good books, yes, and will knock your socks off) lend themselves to this better than science fiction which is, by definition, a literature of ideas.

If you aspire to write popcorn books, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Judging by the mountain of them I bought (and donated when we moved) they sell, and can keep you in food and shoes, and it’s not a dishonest trade.  And believe it or not, for many people, that is exactly what they want to do.  This is the sort of book they enjoy and wish to write.  And that’s fine.  I never saw any point in sneering at craftsmen whose tastes/goals are different from yours.

For most of us, we at least aspire to something better, at least for most of our books.

And the way to do better is through character.

I read an awful lot, both of popcorn books (not so much today) and of decent books that stay with you, and here are some tips on making your character memorable.  (And keep in mind I get characters for free. They show up in my head fully realized, living and breathing, and so I don’t do any of this consciously.  But I can analyze what other people do.)

1- Don’t make them stereotypes.  You can start from the stereotype, but then make sure to put in something that’s not a given, or twist the stereotype and turn it upside down (Terry Pratchett’s Yoless, the female version of which might be in medschool with my son.) For instance in the medieval mystery I was reading, the shopkeeper who is the main character has a complicated interior life, as he abandoned the chance to be a scholar in order to get married, and then lost his wife to the Black Death. He’s just SLOWLY coming back from the grief.  (Oxford Medieval Mysteries, though title and author escape me.) His love for his children who ARE rather stereotypical children characters makes them important to the reader, and neither he nor his sister who keeps house for him are QUITE standard.

2- Don’t make them unavoidable losers.  Yes, yes, I know, the world you designed is supposed to highlight unfairness, etc, and your character is supposed to be a noble victim, suffering with no end.

Listen, even 1984 the character is not without hope.  In fact, it is the destruction of hope at the end that makes the book a tragedy.

Once while very depressed I wrote a character whose only function was to be victimized/have walls dropped on him.  The book didn’t work — even for me — and no one really wants to read this, unless they feel it is an obligation or that it is somehow good for them.  And good books are very rarely spinach, endured as an obligation.

You don’t even need to end a book designed to show unfairness or victimhood in a tragedy.  Sometimes the underdog wins, or at least escapes the system altogether.  The only people who oppose escapism are jailers.  And if we wanted reality, we wouldn’t read fiction.

3- Keep your characters consistent.  If you had an excellent education, as I did, you might feel a compulsion not to let anyone be completely clean.  Your hero might have to sleep around or whatever to make it feel real or worthwhile to you (and I feel sorry for you.  I’ve found there are in fact real people who are heroes, or brave, or pure all the way through, no matter what our educations tells us.)

That’s fine, but give us hints at the beginning, and also be very careful to balance the thing so the character is still admirable despite having flaws.  This is a difficult thing to do, because fiction is (DUH) not reality, and you can “sully” a character much more easily than in real life.

For instance, I’ve had friends who were sluts (no, really) and I didn’t think any the less of them for it.  However, a romance character who can’t help sleeping around with EVERYONE despite being in love with the love interest, is going to be “sullied”.  The readers will judge her a slut and stop caring, because after all she’ll sleep with anyone, what does love mean?

In the same way, your detective who is devoted to discovering this crime, can’t be taking bribes for minor stuff on the side.  Sure, real detectives who are otherwise admirable can be dirty in minor ways, but again fiction is not reality, and since fiction only shows small snippets of a person’s life, it’s easier to sully that imaginary person.

If you must give your character obvious, glaring flaws almost the equal weight of the virtues, consider the phrase “the virtue of his/her faults” ie. someone who gets angry easily and is choleric might make a very effective fighter/champion for a great cause.  You just know he’s going to get into fisticuffs off the battle field, too.  As long as you don’t have him beating the defenseless or going so far as to kill someone people will go along with the character.

4- Give the character his/her own internal life an motivations.  This goes along with 1.  People are not widgets.  Don’t have the character be just his profession or his station in life.  Give him some sort of interest, one that we’re preferably disposed to be tender towards.  Books, or art, or a pet.

This is a brief collection of ideas on how to make your character memorable, but in the end, you have to remember, you have to create a character that is REAL to YOU.  If you don’t believe in the character, no one else will, and, no matter how great your plot, you’ll have written, at best, a popcorn book, with an unmemorable character.

 

 

 

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Some Exercises

As you know (Thank you Amanda for keeping people informed) this has been a really interesting week for me, and by interesting I mean “argh” which continues today with some more tests.

So, I’m doing this the easy way by making you do the work.

Look, every writer should do exercises, every once in a while.  No, I don’t mean push ups at your desk, though that might not hurt either.  As many of you know I have a treadmill desk, though I’m not using it this week because I have been becoming frighteningly dehydrated even without sweating.  However, next week…

But I meant doing writing exercises.

Ours is an art like any other art and it benefits from practice.  We are however the only artists who expect our exercises to be saleable every time.  Sometimes they won’t be.  Many a painter paints over the last picture, because he knows it’s not his best.  Sometimes the exercise can SPARK something saleable, but it’s not saleable in and of itself.  However when you know you’re not writing for consumption you can experiment, which is difficult to do when you are writing to sell.

So–

Some exercises I’ve tried, and which have helped me:

-Take the first three pages of a story you wrote long ago (this being relative to when you started working) and which you don’t feel happy with and change the voice.  If it was third person, make it first.  If it was omniscient, make it close in third person.  Now change the pov.  Instead of the main character, use a secondary one.  Describe the same events. How did it change?  Do you like it better now?  (I actually rescued an old novel this way.  It will get re-written.

Go to a place you’ve never been before: shop, coffee shop, mall, garden, whatever.  Write three pages about your experience, as though it were a story.  (i.e. not an essay but through your eyes while there.)  Use all five senses every page.

Now do the same in a place that’s familiar to you but public: a favorite restaurant, a coffee shop, a museum.

For extra benefit, write the second one then revisit it and rewrite.  Compare the two to see how many authentic details you missed in the first.  (Or if you didn’t, congratulations.)

Take a scene from your favorite TV show.  Rewrite it in a more real world and realistic way.  Change things as needed.  If needed research how things really are done in courtroom/lab/coffee shop/whatever.

Go out early morning to a diner.  Listen to the conversation of the people nearest you.

Write it as though it were a short story.

Write it as though it were set in the future

Write it as though it were the beginning of a murder mystery.

Now go do some exercises (of whichever kind) and I promise a more substantial post next week!

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The Irrelevance of Race – Christopher Nuttall

The Irrelevance of Race – Christopher Nuttall

 

[Author’s note – I’ve said some of this before, but it really needs to be said again.]

Back when I was 12, or thereabouts, my teacher read us a story.  (I have forgotten the title.)  A group of schoolgirls were visiting an old folks home, where they met a bunch of old ladies and chatted to them.  One girl sat down next to a sweet (and blind) old lady.  Unfortunately for her, the old lady – after exchanging some mindless conversation – went off on a racist rant about black people ruining Britain.  She praised the girl, told her she’d do well for herself and warned her to stay away from blacks.  And then she patted the girl’s hair …

… And discovered that it was springy.

I cannot say the story made a great impression on me at the time.  The boarding school I was unlucky enough to attend was pretty much a foretaste of hell.  Being, as I was, at the bottom of the totem pole, I was more concerned with avoiding discrimination against me than discrimination against others.  I could, and did, sympathise with people who faced discrimination.  But, at the same time, I was always wary about assuming that they were genuinely facing discrimination.  No one seemed interested in doing anything about my problems.

For what it’s worth, I consider the story to be quite believable.  I knew two girls in Manchester, both of whom were of Indian ancestry (but born and raised in the UK).  One of them had an accent that was perfectly Lancastrian, the other had a very pronounced Indian lilt to her voice.  And yet, the former was more wedded to her culture than the latter, who was practically culturally British.

I effectively forgot the story until the Fireside Report sprang into my awareness and its claim, that black writers were staggeringly underrepresented in published writing, sent hundreds of publishers and editors into a flurry of virtue-signalling.

I was not impressed.  And the reason I was not impressed was simple.

I have been writing for over twelve years.  I’ve honestly lost count of the number of submissions, mostly rejected, that I’ve made.  But I can say, with great certainty, that none of the publishers (or agents) I applied to asked for my race.  They asked for my name, address, email … and very little else.  There was nothing in what I sent them to suggest I was anything other than a WASP …

… And yet, I got a string of rejections.

Most of them were useless, from the point of view of an aspiring writer.  “Dear Sir.  Thank you for your submission.  However, we are unable to publish your work.  Good luck.”  Short, pithy, and completely useless when it comes to explaining WHY the book was rejected.   A handful were more detailed, but even they weren’t much use.  It wasn’t until I had been writing and submitting for several years that I got feedback worthy of my time.

And it wasn’t until I did slush reading myself that I started to grasp why this might be so.

The (few) publishers with open submission polices are deluged in pieces of writing that are utterly unreadable.  I started with the intention of giving every last piece of work a serious look and ended by feeling as though it was a complete waste of time.  I saw manuscripts that were unedited, manuscripts that were composed of nothing but MS edits, manuscripts that didn’t suit the publisher at all (or didn’t meet submission guidelines), manuscripts that were openly fan fiction (a big no-no) … I honestly don’t know what some of those writers were thinking.  I never know who the authors were – I never had the time.  All I could really do was write a short note saying why the items were rejected and pass them back to senior staff.

To prove that there actually had been discrimination against non-white authors, all other factors would need to be eliminated.  But the Fireside Report writers were completely incapable of doing anything of the sort.

For example, writers are not created equal.  Writing is a learning process.  A writer at the start of his career is going to make mistakes, many mistakes, while a more experienced writer will avoid them.  Were all the writers who submitted to a given magazine at the same level of experience?  I would be very surprised if the answer was yes.  It would be rather more likely that some of them were newcomers, while others were mid-range authors.  (The truly advanced authors don’t need to send in blind submissions.)

And, even if there was a policy of rejecting non-white authors, how could they be sure they were rejecting non-white authors?  Blind chance?  It seems a little unlikely.

Furthermore, it is terrifyingly easy to get discouraged.  You write a story, it gets rejected … do you give up?  Do you see the rejection as a chance to grow, to study what you did wrong, or do you try to find a way to blame it on someone else?  Writers are egoists, plain and simple; writers need to learn to balance their egos with a realistic assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.  Blaming a publisher for rejecting you because of your race – when said publisher has no way of knowing your race – is utterly unhelpful.

The blunt truth – which anyone outside Human Resources Departments and Social Justice Bully mobs will tell you – is that merit is far more important than appearance.  Publishing is a business.  A wise publisher will not choose his or her authors on race, gender or politics, but on their ability to write.  I have been told (I have no idea if this is actually true) that young black men are disproportionally represented in American basketball, because they are taller and have better hand-eye coordination.  Is there actually anything wrong with this?  Only a complete nincompoop would insist on a racially-balanced team when there are games to be won.

When writing is concerned, merit is a relative concept.  There is a military-SF writer I practically worship, but I don’t care for his fantasy, even though I love fantasy books.  Some writers are simply more comfortable in some genres than others.  And there’s a fantasy writer hundreds of people praise, but I don’t like him.  And someone must have bought all those copies of Fifty Shades of Grey and all the other romance novels published over the last few years, even though I wouldn’t dream of wasting my hard-earned cash on them.  One man’s favourite writer is another man’s despair.  (“They publish this crap, yet I can’t get a publishing contract?”)  No writer has 100% market penetration and no writer ever will.

A writer’s race is utterly irrelevant.  Why?  Because hardly anyone sees the author.

I have been reading science-fiction since I was five.  In all of that time, I have only ever looked up an author’s appearance once.  (I was going to meet him at a convention and I wanted to make sure I spoke to the right guy.)  I couldn’t help seeing a few photographs of various authors, of course, but I never deliberately sought them out.  Why should I?  And if someone asked how many black authors I read, I honestly couldn’t answer … because, at base, I don’t know what most of my authors look like.

No one judges a book based on the author’s photograph on the dust jacket, assuming there is a photograph.  They judge the book by its blurb, by its cover, by the words … by everything that actually matters.

We have been told that the shortage of non-white authors is a problem.  And we have been told that publishers are going to make a greater attempt, in future, to publish works by non-white authors.  And I can honestly say that this, far from being helpful, is going to be actively harmful.

The problem with ‘Affirmative Action’ is that it is corrosive.  It assumes, largely incorrectly (and, in the case of publishing, almost certainly incorrectly), that businesses do not hire non-whites because they’re racists.  People who believe in AA rarely realise that there might be other factors involved in the decision.  Bob might not have gotten the job because he has an arrest record longer than my arm; Jim might not have gotten that promotion because he was beaten by a better candidate.  Instead of working to tackle the root cause of the problem, they attempt to use the law to redress what they see as social injustice.

Their good intentions have completely predicable unintended consequences.  Those who appear to gain from AA are resented by those who don’t gain from AA.  If they happen to be poor at the job, their co-workers start whispering that the only reason they got the job was because of AA.  Those who are promoted above their (current) level of competence don’t get the experience they need to do the job properly (and, if they believe they honestly earned the post, they get a nasty shock when they discover they’re not ready for it).  And, worst of all, a poor AA hire drags down the reputation of everyone else who might have benefited from AA.

Humans are inherently tribal creatures.  As I have blogged before, people have a tendency to divide the world into ‘us’ versus ‘them.’  ‘Us’ is a group of individuals; ‘them’ is a vast hive mind.  This is obvious nonsense, but it’s the way people think.  People who appear to have benefited from AA fit neatly into the ‘AA Tribe’ and whatever negative feelings a person has towards one of them will spill over onto the others.  Why not?  If one member of the tribe is bad, why not the others?

The thing that makes this so dangerous is that it is both an emotional and intellectual reaction and thus extremely difficult to disprove.  Classic racism can be discredited because, at base, it is a purely emotional reaction.  But dislike based on the sense (perhaps correctly) that your boss was promoted because he/she/whatever is a member of a protected class is much harder to dismiss, because when the emotional reaction fades the intellectual reaction is still there, proving that you are actually right.  Your boss is incompetent.  You know you should have got the job.  And why didn’t you?  He’s a member of the ‘AA Tribe.’

And the fact you KNOW this makes it impossible for someone to talk you out of it.

To introduce AA – in any form – to publishing will be utterly disastrous.  If an author is marketed as a ‘non-white author’ (however described) it will convince readers that the only reason they were published was because they ticked a diversity checkbox.  Particularly, of course, if they don’t like the book.  You can market an author, perfectly legitimately, as a SF author, a fantasy author, a romance author, a detective author … you can’t market an author by something that has no bearing on writing skill.  And if you do, a single bad author – in the estimation of the readers – will damage the rest.  This is not logical, but it is often true.

And in an industry that is practically tailor-made to remove race from the equation!

The people who asserted that ‘people of colour swept the 2016 Hugo Awards’ were essentially missing the point.  The Hugo Awards are not (were not?) diversity awards – they’re awarded for excellence in SF/Fantasy.  Or at least they should be.  Skin colour and gender has nothing to do with writing skill – the gloating over the awards going to non-whites strongly suggested that the Sad Puppies had a point all along, that awards were being handed out for factors other than merit, factors beyond the writer’s control.  And this threatens to poison the careers of writers who deserve their awards.

It’s a radical suggestion, I’m sure, but maybe – as fans – we should concentrate on what unites us, rather than divides us.  I am a Babylon 5 and Doctor Who fan.  I have something in common with every other Babylon 5 and Doctor Who fan.  Does it matter, does it really matter, if the fan next to me at the con is black or female or wearing a cosplay outfit that conceals everything?  Of course not!  But talking about diversity only reminds us of the differences between us.  (Just as managers have discovered that mandatory diversity training in large organisations sends racism, suspicion and general discontent skyrocketing.)

I don’t care if a writer is white or black, male or female, young or old or anything else that can be used to draw lines between people.  All I care about is being entertained.  And frankly, I think that’s true for everyone.

Now, if you want to be a serious writer, how should you proceed?

First, write a manuscript.  Set yourself a goal – 100’000 words, perhaps – and write out a story.  The first time is never easy, but keep going.  Try to make sure the book is completely self-contained, even if you do plan a long series.

Second, when the book is complete, submit it.  Find a publisher who takes slush submissions and submit your book.  Follow their instructions to the letter, even if they want you to write everything in an obscure font.  You do NOT want to give the first readers any excuse to reject your book (and thousands of books get rejected because the author didn’t follow instructions) or to dislike you personally.  I was told, once, about a writer who noted that he would sue the publisher if his book wasn’t published.  There is no way such a lawsuit would actually get into court, let alone end in anything other than total humiliation.

Third, write another book.  And another.  And another.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll get your first rejection letter midway through the third book.  Keep going anyway.  The average writer needs to write at least a million words before producing anything publishable.  That’s ten 100’000-word manuscripts.

Fourth, when you reach the fifth or sixth manuscript, hire a consulting editor (there are some links on my site) to do a conceptual edit.  This person will be savage – and that is precisely what you want.  The edit will tell you what you’re doing wrong and how to fix it.  Learn from this.  Then continue writing manuscripts.

Fifth, when you reach the tenth manuscript, you may be getting somewhere with the publishers.  You can also try looking for an agent at this time.  If not, start putting your later books up on Amazon Kindle.  (NOT the first manuscripts.)  Try to use this to build up a reputation as an indie writer.  Prepare yourself for critical remarks because you will get them; keep a lid on your temper and DO NOT reply.  There are no shortage of stories about indie authors behaving badly.  Don’t be one of them.

Sixth … keep going.

It’s easy to get discouraged.  It’s easy to fall in the trap of believing you’ll never make it, or that ‘they’ are keeping you down, but keep going.  It’s worth it.

And no one will care about your race, your gender or your creed … only about your ability to write.

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And be a Dog

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

I don’t remember Sad Puppies 1.  I’m not saying I wasn’t aware of it, or didn’t follow it.  I’m saying that I was then so ill that I could barely remember my name from week to week.

Sad Puppies 2 I somehow — and d*mned if I remember how — got pulled into discussions about.  But again note the “I was very, very ill.”  I was so unaware for instance of Larry’s attempts to get one of my stories on the ballot, that I didn’t even tell my readers about it.

Because one of the problems with the hypothyroidism is that I wasn’t aware of being sick, it was just a never-end of colds and illnesses, so I would briefly focus, then go under.  My recollections might not match anyone else’s because of that.

However, from my recollection, Larry Correia was the miracle kid.  For years in the field we’d known awards were biased and how to write/act to get one.  Yes, there were ways to game them, including kissing all the right *sses.  But even while in the political closet there were lines I could not cross without disintegrating or being unable to look at myself on the mirror.

Also, frankly, I’m not a joiner, much less a brown-noser.  In fact in any circumstances that required brown-nosing, I tended to go the other way.  I find that, in general, people who require brown-nosing are despicable and I don’t want to associate with them.  I’d rather say with Richard III “I am myself alone.”

Also, the Hugo was not an object, or I could have captured one of the “least voted” categories by enjoining my fans to buy supporting memberships and get me a Hugo.

The problem is that my days of buying anything that said “Hugo” on the cover had ended before I entered college, and my last attempt at reading Hugo collections (I bought three… early nineties?) ended walled, because it felt like reading the assignments for my degree again: pointless, boring and definitely not SF/F unless you stretched the definition to the point of meaning nothing.  They read in fact like a lot of George Luis Borges impersonators without the deep thought or the genius.

But other people took the Hugo deadly seriously.  People who’d never seen the sausage made, including many people on the right, referred to the Hugos as “the awards for excellence in science fiction.”

Oh, the real fans didn’t give it much attention or credit (and by real fans I mean people who REALLY read SF/F preferentially, not people who are using SF/F for social signaling, much less those who came to SF/F in the spirit of missionaries bringing their gospel to our field and trying to make us wear pants, or be literary, or whatever the tight-lipped scolds are obsessing on right now.  I have some vague idea the new hotness, beyond “literary” is “Must write while having a vagina” or various other marks of victimhood. I find this no more offensive, but funnier than their past obsessions.)

I was used to living with this: with the idea that what people outside something considered as being a mark of quality was in fact something people inside rolled their eyes at.  You get the same thing starting in elementary school (not in my day, no, but in my kids’) where the “gifted classes” are not for gifted children, but for those in the “high normal” whom the teachers’ like.  (Not sour grapes.  We had to have both children tested early on, for different reasons, and they were both put in gifted classes, which really didn’t do any good, since they’re more “classes for teachers’ pets.”  Which is why we ended up with an individual learning plan and giving the school a lot of headaches in an effort to keep the boys from being bored.)  It goes on like that, through most professional organizations, and that’s before you bring in politics, either national or office.  And frankly, human is social so there’s a lot of politics of all kinds.

The problem with what happened to the Hugos is that it was objectively bad for the field.  Because having a Hugo allowed books entry to places that rarely carry SF, like supermarkets.  And then people who aren’t into the field will pick one up, casually, and decide it’s atrocious and run screaming.  Which means they’re not going to pick up a science fiction again.  And thus, our readership/printruns/and more importantly the field we love, shrinks.

To make things worse, because our field is small and not in itself overly lucrative, publishing houses were attuning what they bought and what they pushed to what won the Hugos.  (Yes, all except Baen, of course.)

Well, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Thank Heavens for Larry Correia!

He wasn’t one of the traditional track into sf/f people, and he’s also a good ten years younger than most people are when they break in.  And he hadn’t spent his time beating his head on the door and learning the rules before breaking in.  Instead he self-published, then published with Baen, then went massive.  (Yes, I know, he was always massive, but I mean metaphorically.)

So he wasn’t going to put up with the situation, and he set out to prove the Hugos were rigged by a small cabal and totally irrelevant to the taste of most fans (if not actually antithetical.)

I don’t remember the first at all, but I know for the second he tried to nominate things of at least as good a quality as what had won, but from people the cabal in power hated.  (Which is why I should have known he was trying to push me into nomination, but again, I was very ill.)

I volunteered to take the third one, because I like stirring hornets nests.

And just as I volunteered, I was diagnosed with (thank heavens, still completely encapsulated) uterine cancer.  This was quite literally a bombshell from nowhere.  I’d gone in and had a biopsy and my doctor (heaven knows why) told me there was nothing to worry about, apparently because they wanted me not to be scared during the holidays.  So we went ahead and rented a house to move into, so we could have work done on our house, so we could sell it (something we’d been planning for three years, that is after younger son was out of high school)  In the middle of the move, I got a phone call telling me they were booking surgery asap.  At which point I called Brad and dropped the whole mess in his lap.   The alternative was Kate, who had just started a new job, and would probably not be able to do much.

Brad is younger than us.  Brad is also a pure halo knight, who thought that maybe he could save science fiction.  To that end, he got nominations from readers of his blog, culled the top ones, and we ended up with an awesome field, and also one that no one should be able to object to, considering it included all sexes and colors, and also two of the most popular writers in the field today, and an editor who has worked with some of the most enduring bestsellers.

I knew it had gone South fast when people were being hounded till they dropped out.  I was sure of it when we were being called racist/sexist/homophobic.  I crawled out of bed the week after surgery to point out that Brad was doing this for me, that the idea was to have a Latin woman lead it, until disease intervened.

Brad, in my opinion, made two mistakes — but hindsight is 20/20 — both of which came from being way too nice.  One of them was to ask people’s permission to nominate them.  The second was to not record every interview (and tell people he was doing so) and put them up on his blog as soon as he was done.  These allowed for the three hour interview, in which Brad talked about how much he loved the field and how it was unfair to have the award belong to a narrow clique, and then the gotcha question in which the interviewer asked something like “So, you think it would be difficult for a white man who is to the right of center to win the award” and he would say “Well, given the current obsession with victimhood, it wouldn’t be easy” and he’d be quoted as saying that white right wing writers were not allowed to win, or something like.  I had to yell at mutual friends to point out “that was a quote out of context from a three hour interview” because reputable publications were playing these games.  With science fiction.  With Brad.

It all ended not just in the wooden assholes at the ceremony, but in supposedly impartial publications all bringing out the same story, at the same time, about how a movement started by a Latin male, and involving at least three females, one of them Latina, was about “keeping women and minorities out of science fiction and fantasy.”  They had zero evidence for this, but they needed none.  As I’ve been observing recently, the left’s default position for “opposes us” is to scream that whoever opposes them is discomfited by the “progress” of women and people of color.  Even if the people they’re screaming at are women and people of color.  (And let’s talk progress sometime, shall we?  Convincing people they’re victims, making them scared, and vote-farming them is only progress if you’re a stone cold racist.)

And then I was going to take leadership.  I was.  Only the move had turned into move from hell, which included a landlord wanting us out two months before we intended to leave (though we were on a month by month lease) and us having to find a place that would take four cats and four bedrooms with a month’s notice.  Thank heavens one of you stepped forward, or we’d have been warehousing everything and living in a hotel.  (We were waiting for a short sale to complete.)

So Kate stepped up.

Look, we are individualists, so each person gets to decide how to do this.  Which is why saying “if Sad Puppies had been run like–” is nonsense.  Each leader of the sad puppies leads this in the direction of what they’re trying to do or prove.

Larry tried to prove the game was rigged, Brad tried to rehabilitate the awards to, again, mean the best in SF, and Kate tried to give the puppy kickers no excuses.  This included having an OPEN SOURCE recommend list.  Having more than the number of slots in the nomination.  AND reading the nominees herself, and saying how SHE would vote, making sure everyone knew it wasn’t a “Slate.”  (BTW “slate” just means recommended for a vote.  It doesn’t mean a list for rigid vote.  How the heck the left thought we’d enforce that is beyond me.  It makes me wonder too if they enforce it on that side, and how.  Is it a matter of one people voting several registrations, to make sure?  And if you don’t hand over your ballot, you’re out of the club?  I’m not saying that’s what they do, but if they don’t, how do they think we COULD enforce voting?  Inquiring minds want to know.)

And this brings us to Sad Puppies Five and me.  This year, the creek not rising, I shall be leading the Sad Puppies effort.

The problem is, I think Larry had the best point: he wanted to prove it was rigged.  This, even with Kate and Brad’s much more appeasing and definitely more hopeful approaches, has been proven abundantly.

Also, there is a new player in town, the Dragon Awards (which might or might not have come to exist without the Kabuki of the Wooden Assholes, and how mad it made people) which promises to be more prestigious and give the field a new face.

I assumed John Carlton was talking about me when he said one of the organizers said she wouldn’t nominate or something of the kind.  I did intend to nominate (no. Really, but this was right in the middle of forced-move-two and I was still suffering from “at nine pm, I find myself in bed without even putting the computer to sleep” surgery recovery, so as it turns out, I didn’t nominate.)  What I didn’t DO was buy another supporting membership to vote again.  I saw what they did with the money we gave them in 2015 and, honestly, fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.  It wasn’t the Noah Award of books they PUBLICLY refused to read, no.  It was the kabuki skits before and the self congratulatory smirks, and their assumption they’d saved the awards from racistsexisthomophobe, which meant they never bothered to read any of the works, or any of the blog posts on our side, either.  I was not going to give them any more money.

I am still not going to give them any money.

But Sarah, you’ll say, how can you lead Sad Puppies 5, when you’re not going to nominate and vote on the Hugos.

Well, as much as I hate to say this, the Hugos as the award Heinlein won, are dead.  There is nothing that can be done.  I’m not a necromancer.  In that sense the Sad Puppies won.  We proved the game is rigged, and we can walk away.

Only not.

We’re still in the middle of a culture war.  And one of the things the — for lack of a better term — other side has is bully pulpits.  Now most of them are in the old paper media, and they’re not really read by fans of the field.  BUT still, they have magazines that publish recommended lists, and interviews with authors, and turn the spotlight on work they think should be read.

We have nothing like that.  Yeah, yeah, Otherwhere Gazette, which might or might not be revived some day (depending on health and a million other things) but even if it is, will have to climb up into …. people’s awareness.

And if we’re going to do that, we might as well tie it to the Sad Puppies effort, because hey, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

This year the Sad Puppies (5) will host a page, on which you can make recommendations, and which will, every month, give you a collated list of the 5 works with the most votes, in each subcategory (if we have that many, of course) and if/what awards they’re eligible for.  The list will also include mystery, where a lot of the indie are quite good and by and large unnoticed.

Before the nominating dates for major awards, I’ll put a notice on the page, and a list of the however many (5 or 10) most recommended books for your consideration.

However, the awards are NOT the point anymore.  Frankly in the hyper-distributed world of indie publishing, they might never be the point again.

The point is to give science fiction and fantasy that escapes the bounds of what traditional publishers encourage — which is often not what the public at large will even read — and to promote the health and popularity of our genre.

Watch this space for the URL of the page (it needs some programming done.)  More coming by early next year.

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Hang A Lantern on It — More Real Than Real

It is an often repeated truism that reality doesn’t need to make sense.  Fiction doesn’t.

This is true and not.  I found, after years of relentlessly pruning back everything that contradicted the forward thrust of my story, as outlined, that sometimes it’s the bits that stick out that make the other bits shine.

I discovered this when I watched a writer at Milehi read from a scene that was objectively unnecessary for the book.  It was also apparently a favorite of all her readers.  In the middle of this very serious and solemn quest adventure the characters stop off at a not-very-well-appointed tavern, where everything goes wrong and hilarity ensues with serious elf, very serious elf and deadly serious wizard getting accidentally drunk and planning and playing a massive prank involving a dog and a sausage.  (I don’t remember the prank, but nothing bad happened to the dog.)

I watched that reading in awe and went home and wrote what I call “three guys in a car” in Draw One In The Dark.  Tom and Rafiel have been at each other’s throats the whole time, and frankly at that point we don’t think Rafiel is a particularly nice guy. Keith, the were-human, is along for the ride, but he knows he sticks out.

Only in the aftermath of a shifting episode, and fighting the really bad guys, they drive through New Mexico, in a stolen car, with two of them naked (shifting) trying to get clothes and food, before they eat someone. (And not in a fun way) and it becomes a long stretch of prank and counterprank, as their repressed hostility comes out, but also they start on the very early, very tentative way to friendship by laughing together.

Normally I’d have written that scene and deleted it, because it’s objectively unnecessary.  It is not, however, unnecessary “as to feelings” and it helps the characters and the readers bond, because h*ll, the readers know how many times they are silly in the middle of very serious business.

Since then, often still with trepidation, I’ve learned to let such scenes stay in.  Lucius’ first wakening as Good Man in A Few Good Men, in which he finds out there are people who (probably pay to) want to sit around and watch him get up, bathe, etc.  His reaction is hilarious, but also sets up his relationship to Sam Remy as a foster-father, and sets us up for the tone of the society.  Same with the “I’m not sleepy” scene with Simon and Alexis in Through Fire.  It’s funny, it’s scary, and it tells us more about Simon than we’ve learned in four books.

But that’s only one type of scene that sticks out.  Sometimes what sticks out and must absolutely be in there is your character acting against his nature, say, or your world behaving in a way you wouldn’t expect.

I don’t mean you can do this very often.  You can do it at most once or twice.  After that, you’re going to run into “the character was a puppet, with plot up his nether regions, making him move.”  But you usually can do it once per book just as, if you absolutely need it, you can have one coincidence per book.

For both counter-intuitive actions or coincidence, it’s best to hang a lantern on it, rather than sweep it under the rug.  If you try to sweep it under the rug, smart readers will go “She expected me not to see that?” and be insulted.  OTOH if you hang a lantern on it, they go “okay, she knew it was unlikely, but unlikely things do happen.”

So, you know “Of all the worlds in the galaxy, of all the space-ports in this world, how could she have run into the man she’d met as a child, here, in this one?”  Hang a lantern on this.

For more unlikely stuff like, that your miser character is suddenly generous, you can do something like “He’d never given bread to a child, but she reminded him of his little sister, who’d died when he was six, and still innocent of the ways of the world.”

Stuff like that.

This can also be used for stuff that you know is true, but which the reader will think is otherwise, because of books or — shudder — movies that portrayed the event wrong.  Or, of course, when you’re writing in someone else’s world and about to kick their world in the nadders.  I had to do this with Dumas, because in a picaresque adventure it’s perfectly fine to have a stupid character, but in mysteries I couldn’t have Porthos be dumb.  So I made him like my younger kid at the time, a visual/tactile thinker, who had issues with words.  To sell it, I hung a lantern on it.  I explained something like “Many people thought Porthos was a simpleton, but his friends knew better.  Indeed, none of them would be friends with an idiot.  The problem was that Porthos thought through his eyes and through his hands, and words often came lagging and contradictory to his lips.”  I did this at least once per book, but mostly when I was in his head.  Because people “know” Porthos is dumb.

This is harder when you’re countering history people of the time/book couldn’t know.  You often have to do stuff like “People in Europe thought all Africans were alike.  In fact, there were varying degrees of civilization and accomplishment among tribes, sometimes tribes residing very close together.”

Anyway, you get my point.  Now go and hang a lantern on it.

Next week: Making it fly: the trend of your world.

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