Life, The Universe, and Everything is Utah’s premier symposium for serious SF/F creatives (who aren’t always so serious!) and has been an ever-expanding project of the local SF/F fan-creative community for almost four decades. My first one was in 2009, and by the following year I wound up on the other side of the panel table, dispensing what knowledge I could about this nutty new career I’d invented for myself. Due to military deployment and other issues, I wasn’t able to attend in 2016 or 2017, but I was thrilled to be back for 2018, and even more thrilled to find the symposium had grown even more — attracting an ever-larger pool of professionals, semi-professionals, and aspirants. Both from around the state of Utah, and from across the country as a whole.
Posts by Brad R. Torgersen
A couple weeks ago I had the great pleasure of seeing an old favorite from the 1980s: Silverado. In its time, it was not a blockbuster. Nor did it achieve the iconic silver-screen cultural footprint of other contemporary Western productions like Young Guns or Unforgiven. But it did have a long life on the cable movie networks, gaining a substantial amount of audience traction among those who appreciate a good old-fashioned Western feel-good drama. Silverado has an excellent ensemble cast, with numerous faces familiar to anyone who knows the eighties. But more than that, it has great story elements which are instructive for anyone considering how to properly plot and pace their writing.
HOOK BEGINNING. Everyone talks about how the opening of Star Wars hit them. With the Imperial cruiser roaring over the top of the audience, blasting away at the Rebel blockade runner. I think Silverado does a very similar trick. With very little context — other than a slow, silent pan shot across what is clearly rustic cowboy gear in a rustic cowboy shack — we’re plunged directly into the action, as nameless desperados shoot up the shack, attempting to kill our as-yet unnamed protagonist. He gets the best of his opponents, of course. In a feel-good Western, the hero always does. And in the process, we discover that our man is lightning-fast with a revolver, as well as a rifle. He’s got skills. And the canvas for his story is going to be the gorgeous backcountry of the American Southwest. The entire sequence taking less than two minutes. That is how you rope your reader in. Hit ’em quick, show ’em a lot, and given ’em something compelling. Don’t meander into the thing, over chapters and chapters. Put the stakes up front.
ORGANICALLY BUILD YOUR CAST. Just as the opening credits finish, we meet our next hero. A man down on his luck. Left for dead. With very little dialogue, we learn that our gunslinger is also a compassionate man, while the new guy has a sense of humor; even in the face of personal catastrophe. Together they ride. It’s an association of expediency, sure, but we sense quickly that these are decent men. Even if they’ve both become more acquainted with jails than is healthy for honest citizens. It’s discovered that the new guy was the victim of still more desperados, though not the same bunch who targeted our initial protagonist. The two men suddenly have an alliance of interest: who did this to us, and why?
I don’t have much for you on this wintery Sunday morning, other than to tack up a broadsheet with information on it. Since Facebook has deemed such information beneath its community standards — in the same manner that the Bolsheviks deemed both the White Guard and the Trotskyites beneath community standards — I feel compelled to record these things in an independent space. Because when the jelly beans are aligned, and a troll is revealed for who and what he actually is, I think it’s important to pay attention.
Long-time Mad Genius Club readers are familiar with Camestros — often dubbed Cameltoe, by those who’ve dickered with the man in the comments sections of various libertarian and conservative SF/F author blogs — mainly for his outsized ego, and a penchant for assuming he is several orders of magnitude more intelligent than not only the host(s) of the blogs he trolls, but also the comment participants to boot.
Put simply, Felapton is the proverbial pouting basement genius — because the universe is not sufficiently moved by his Brobdingnagian intellect. Read more
In no particular order. Your mileage may vary.
1) If you’re wondering about going indie, consider your lifetime fiction output. General rule of thumb — from a man I trust to know his business — is that “entry level” competency is reached when you have at least 500,000 words of books and stories in your trunk, and/or have several personalized rejections from trad pub editors. Prior to that, you may not have done enough “homework” to have your storytelling muscles up to the task of surviving in the indie marketplace. I know plenty of people immediately publish everything they’ve ever written, ever. I sometimes think that’s a mistake. I know I will get beat up for saying this.
2) If you’re wondering about going trad, consider your ability to withstand rejection. How long are you willing to wait for the editors/agents to decide you’re good enough? Keep in mind: waiting is not necessarily a bad thing. In my experience, breaking into trad pub print was one of the most satisfying events of my life. But I am from the old days, when the two options for authors were: outlast the gatekeepers, or shame yourself with vanity print. Anyone who has been through any kind of selection process — in any arena — will understand the joy of passing a tough bar. Just because it’s tough, doesn’t make it irrelevant. Although the tastes of many agents and editors can often seem wildly out of sync with the marketplace.
3) Editors and agents are not mind-readers. They cannot see into the future. There is no guarantee what will be a hit, or a dud, until it’s either a hit, or a dud. Some agents and editors develop reputations for “making” big-market talent, but this is akin to panning for gold: you have to devote a lot of time to sifting through silt, sand, and mud, just to get the little flecks and small nuggets of gold. In the words of one Hollywood producer, nobody knows anything. Ergo, the hits and the duds happen as they happen — and the one who ought to be a hit, isn’t, while the one who ought to be a dud, also isn’t. “Failure” in trad pub may have nothing whatsoever to do with the author or the stor(ies) and everything to do with events beyond an author’s control. Which is perhaps the #1 glaring flaw of trad pub that drives so many people to indie in the first place.
4) But indie isn’t an instant road to cash and fame, because now the slush pile is the whole world. Millions upon millions of books and stories being shoved at the audience, with fire-hose force. Standing out in that torrent, can be just as much of a chore as waiting in line at the gatekeepers’ transoms. You aren’t guaranteed anything. No matter how zealous you may be about the mode of delivery. Yes, indie grants the author full and total control, from start to finish. As well as the lion’s share of the take. But this also imposes the lion’s share of the responsibility. And if you thought it was painful waiting on editors and agents, it can be equally painful waiting on the audience at large. If you publish an indie book in the forest . . .
5) Don’t go cheap on covers. I know I am cutting against the grain with this. But seriously, don’t go cheap on covers. You want your cover to look like the trad pub covers that caught your eye when you were just a reader. Most artists will license an extant piece of artwork. May cost you anywhere from $200 to $500 dollars, which is stunningly inexpensive, considering that some of these men and women have done posters for Hollywood and done famous works which are known across the industry. I know many indie authors are poor as church mice, but still, don’t go cheap on your covers. You have a vanishingly short period of time in which to capture a prospective buyer’s attention. Pouring your heart and soul into a manuscript, then spending an hour on a free, terrible cover that you kludged yourself — with poor photoshop skills — is like devoting months of hard work to your diet and the weights at the gym, then going to the beach in dingy, grease-covered auto shop coveralls.
6) You can do everything right — according to the pattern established by your successful friend(s) — and still get bupkus. This is because the market is not a science. 1 + 2 does not necessary equal 3. It can equal 10,000 or it can equal zero. Consumers are legion, but they are fickle. They want a “sure thing” and herd dynamics dominate in every corner. Mountains of marketing advice is put forth, regarding ways to “game” the herd dynamic: get your product viral, so that the inertia of talk is on your side. When people are buzzing over your novel, especially if this buzz tends to self-reinforce as buzz-about-the-buzz, you can rake in wads. But there are still no guarantees. Like fishing. You can have the same type and kind of lure as your buddy next to you in the boat, with the same rod, same reel, same everything, and he will catch a dozen, while you reel in just one or two. Or none. And you have to be prepared to live with this. Pick yourself up off the hot pavement. Go wash your face and your hands. Then try again. And again. And again. And if this sounds way too hard for way too little return, there are 101 careers which serve as far easier paths to far better money.
7) So don’t quit your damned day job. Seriously. Do. Not. Quit. Your. Day. Job. It sucks trying to write full-time and work full-time. It sucks more not paying bills and being forced out of your house or your apartment. It sucks even more depending on the good will of your relatives, or your church, or government programs. If I had $10 for every embarrassed pauper author who proudly proclaimed, “I am a full-time writer, so fuck you,” and then (s)he went back to begging for lunch money, I wouldn’t have to work anymore. Starving artistry is not a holy calling. Really, it’s not. I know I am gonna get burned at the stake for saying it. But seriously, do not check out of the “mundane” work force. Not unless you’ve got a metric ton of dough in the bank, or you’ve got a spouse who eagerly volunteers to carry the mundane load — while you labor at the desk in the attic. But if you’ve got responsibilities to meet, and mouths to feed, please, meet them and feed them. As Steven Barnes said at Norwescon ’07, suffering for your art may be noble, but making your family suffer for your art, just means you’re an asshole.
The longer I go in this field, the more convinced I become that nobody has a truly comprehensive picture. Trad pubbers insist that New York is still the only road to brick-and-mortar stores, which lend brick-and-mortar credibility. Yet there are indie writers making several orders of magnitude more money than even the more well-off trad pub midlisters. With indie stars often getting plucked for trad pub eventually anyway — because indie is now the farm system where trad pub looks most closely, for all the hot new horses. Yet, for every indie author who rides a successful indie career to substantial trad pub paychecks, there are ten thousand other indie authors and trad pub authors alike, each dwelling in obscurity.
“Platform!” we all yell in unison, with almost prophetic urgency. Of the many industry buzz words to come and go these past two decades, platform is the one that continues to resonate. Because it’s plainly obvious that authors with sufficient platform, can perform at levels dramatically higher than those with little or no platform.
But do we ever stop to consider: what exactly is platform?
The most common response to the question typically focuses on blogs and article-writing — cough, not unlike this very example you’re reading right now, cough — which generates eyeballs for the author’s effort. And the potential for fiction sales — should the people attached to those eyeballs decide that the blog or article author is interesting enough in a non-fic setting, to risk coin on the author’s skill in a fic setting.
This type of platform is the path of least resistance, as evidenced by the millions of author blogs which now blanket the internet. Early adopters seem to have done best. Though there does come a point of sharply diminishing returns, I think. Because sooner or later, it’s the books and stories which matter most. Not how loudly or proudly an author can hold forth on topics like politics, the fic biz itself, cat pics, or any other subject.
It was this thought I found foremost in my mind while discussing my publisher — Baen Books — with a new, outspoken, and conservatively-minded indie firebrand, who was wondering what it would take to attract Baen’s interest.
“More than just being a partisan,” I told him bluntly. Because that much is true. Baen — being just about the only trad pub label in Science Fiction which isn’t observably anti-conservative — gets fairly mobbed with manuscripts and inquiries from prospective conservative and libertarian authors. I myself would not have earned more than a glance from Baen, had my pedigree in Analog magazine not preceded me. Even the good word of mouth, proffered by friends already being published beneath the Baen banner, would not have counted without those short fiction credits to form a foundation.
In simpler terms, I didn’t have a popular blog to show, but I did have quantifiable proof of audience.
And that is the root of it, my friends. Quantifiable. Proof. Of. Audience.
Which is not a bulletproof magic carpet, mind you. Just ask the trad pub office that shelled out for the Snooki book. Or the poor Dorling Kindersley people responsible for the print run decisions on the infamous Phantom Menace novelization.
Platform is just smoke. It is not (yet) the fire itself.
So . . . what’s the use? If platform cannot be a guarantee, why dig for it? And if not blogs and articles, what else?
My favorite trad pub comic strip artist of all time, is Berkley Breathed, of Bloom County fame. He re-launched that title roughly two years ago, to the delight of all of us who’d signed on with Bloom County during its original 1980s run. Breathed’s skill is as sharp as ever, and it’s a delight to see the man applying his talent to our present social and political climate. More remarkable still, though, is the fact that Breathed is doing his new work in the digital flow of commerce — like a grand old titan of legend, come back to show all the zillions of younger web comics scribblers how it’s done.
Breathed — correctly recognizing his long-established platform, left over from previous comic strip efforts — converted on that potential. His typical daily offering is now guaranteed many thousands of shares, with tens of thousands of likes, on Facebook alone. And he’s releasing a treasury of new material to boot, which is being sold at San Diego Comic Con this very weekend.
It took Breathed decades of work, to be able to come back to his platform, and find it sturdy.
Just as it took Mike Rowe years of Dirty Jobs outings to become the modern voice of working-class dignity and values.
If Mike had resorted simply to doing blogs, without actually going out and getting his hands (and much else on his person) filthy, I am not sure he’d be able to go before Congress, or a national audience, and convincingly speak on his chosen subject. Just as authors who ply their trade in military fiction (any genre) stand a better chance with crowds, provided those authors have some form of military pedigree to boot.
Because people want some kind of bona fide — pronounced Holly Hunter fashion, from O Brother, Where Art Thou?
I obviously can’t tell any of you what will work, in your search for bona fide.
Plenty of people attempt artful dodgery, especially in academic circles. Pay a prestigious university to give you a prestigious degree, and you can potentially sail your way through intellectual circles — which have always been easily impressed by schoolhouse credentials.
Other arenas will accept nothing less than the scars on your hands and the crookedness of your nose; from how many times its been broken. The kind of stuff that can’t be faked.
Because Lord knows, in the wordsie gameses, fakery is a fine art. It’s not what you have that counts, it’s what you can make them think you have. And so forth. Perception, perception, perception. And some people are incredibly good at crafting perception, often while constructing cults of personality.
But is that it? Get a few thousand loyalists together under your umbrella, set up a Patreon, and never look back?
I’m not convinced it has to be. Though I fully understand all the sensible — from a business standpoint — reasons why the above scenario continues to be played out over and over again. Good money really is where you find it. Especially in the digital age, when the old barriers against “vanity” anything, have crumbled. And artists of all varieties are working feverishly to expand into new markets. Especially artists who were shut out — by their reckoning — of the Old Way Of Doing Things.
I suppose the best advice I can put to you, is to do something you would have been happy doing anyway. Even if nobody was going to pay you for it.
Because you’re fired up, or you feel a calling, or you simply discover a talent for (mumble, activity of your choice, mumble) which stands out from what’s being done by others. Doesn’t matter if the thing is explicitly about fiction, or publishing. I often think lately that we as authors are too prone to spending too much time talking to each other, including selling to each other, that we forget the real market is outside of us. Beyond our small borders.
I’ve got a good friend down in Los Angeles who’s busted her ass trying to break in big-time with Hollywood. She faces all the same problems authors do, but accentuated to an extra degree. Just because Hollywood is a place of even greater disparity than publishing, and I sometimes fear she too has fallen prey to spending too much time among her own crowd, going to great effort for the sake of a purely internal audience — disconnected from the universe beyond.
So, if you can craft a platform that is visible beyond the publishing industry horizon, you’re on the right track. Get the attention of the people who don’t spend every waking minute fretting about contracts and royalties and the futures of trad and indie publishing both. Get the crowd that doesn’t care about any of that. Those are the eyeballs you need more than all others. Belonging to men and women, girls and boys, who are simply looking for an enjoyable read. For an hour. For an afternoon. A week. And so forth. Get their attention, keep it, and grow it, and you can be sure that your platform is not just strong, but capable of standing up to the weathering of time.
We’ve all seen the amusing Facebook meme: There are two kinds of countries in the world — those which use the metric system, and those which have landed on the Moon.
You could also easily say: there are two kinds of civilization in the world — the ones which culturally appropriate, and the ones which get left behind. Maybe even die?
It’s 2017, yo. Get your woke-ass panties out of your crack. Nothing you eat, read, listen to, drive, wear, or do for a living, was created in a vacuum. Each and every bit of your modern existence, is the result of people borrowing and stealing good ideas from somebody else. Doesn’t matter if it’s Hong Kong, or Paris, or San Francisco — every modern city is a gleaming, rich example of what happens when cultural appropriation is carried out with gusto.
Consider the nearest Chinese food establishment, employing Mexicans in the grill, a Filipino girl at the register, and serving food which bears little resemblance to anything anyone in China was eating a century ago. Because once people figured out how to jazz things up for an American palate, there was no stopping the culinary freight train. It was Mongolian Beef and General Tso’s from coast to coast. Ka-ching, ka-ching.
Did anyone ever ask the general if his recipe could be used for this purpose?
And it doesn’t matter anyway. The general’s descendants are over at KFC, eating the colonel’s chicken. While listening to South Korean hip-hop. Wearing synthetic clothing made from artificial fabrics invented by a company founded by a Frenchman. That same company also supplied almost half of the Union Army’s gunpowder, during the American Civil War. Gunpowder: another Chinese invention, imported to the West via Mongolian and Arabic means, and originally used for fireworks, as well as rockets. Rockets, which entered liquid-fueled prominence thanks to a New Englander named Goddard, as well as a German named Werner von Braun, who competed with a Russian named Sergei Korolev — to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying hydrogen bombs to the other side of the world, but which put human beings onto the lunar surface instead.
So, there you have it. From Americanized Chinese food to Armstrong’s, “One small step for man.” A cavalcade of glorious cultural appropriation, end to end.
Which begs the question: what culture in its (collective) right mind wouldn’t borrow or steal somebody else’s bright ideas? That’s what human beings are good at! We wander around, bump into other people, see how those other people are conducting their business, say, “Aha, that’s the ticket!” and suddenly things are going Gangnam Style. In Yonkers. In Dubai. In Saskatchewan. Everywhere. A global orgy of people ripping people off. Happily. In every way possible.
Anyone who says things ought to be different, not only doesn’t understand how history works — she doesn’t understand how people work, either.
Because culture is not a genetic trait. Nobody is born with culture. It’s not property. You cannot trademark or copyright it, though you can trademark and copyright specific fragments, which the Peoples Republic of China will steal and facsimilize anyway — because they don’t give a fuck. “Suck our dicks, capitalist pig dogs!”
No, culture is absorbed, at the same time it is constantly re-synthesized. Doubt me? Go talk to the middle and lower-middle class white kids who grow up in the Cherry Hill area of Seattle, or maybe out in the Rainier Valley. Do they sound more like George Plimpton, or Sir Mix-A-Lot?
Clearly, nobody owns culture. So why do we worry about appropriating it?
(Cough, when I say “we,” I mean American progressives and Social Justice Zealots who clearly have too much time on their hands, cough.)
My take: If you’re a science fiction or fantasy writer, you have more to say on this topic than anyone. Because you’re extrapolating futures, presents, and pasts. Alternative histories. Possible horizons. The “What if?” that makes SF/F so much fun in the first place. There are no rules which you aren’t automatically authorized to break. The entire cosmos is your paint box. Nobody can tell you you’re doing it wrong.
Are we really going to be dumb enough to pretend that SF/F authors of demographics X, Y, or Z, cannot postulate “What if?” for demographics A, B, and C?
We’re not even talking about homework — which is a good idea, simply because some of your best syntheses will occur when you take Chocolate Culture and Peanut Butter Culture — kitbash them together — and come up with the inhabitants of a frontier planet for your thousand-year-future interstellar empire.
We’re talking about authors voluntarily yoking their creative spirits to somebody else’s pet political and cultural hobbyhorses. A game of rhetorical, “Mother, may I?”
Quick: how can you tell that a strident fire-breathing feminist is full of shit? Put 20 randomly-selected women in a room, ask them all to tell you what a “real woman” would do in a specific situation, and you will easily get half a dozen different answers. All of which are valid! Because nobody “owns” womanhood. Different women define their paradigms differently. Hell, we’ve even gone so far as to let dudes into the game now. Still have your junk attached? No problem! Just say you’re a woman, and we’ll be forced to believe you. Otherwise the Correctness Patrol will be along to Twitter-shame us into submission.
“Mother, may I?” is a lunatic way to go about imagining possible futures, and could-have-been pasts. You — as the creator — have your vision. Set apart from anyone else’s. Unique to you, and your specific blend of experience. You will have insights about, and inject flavor for, your world(s) in ways that nobody else can match. Because they are yours. It’s your blank canvas. Do what you want to do. According to your inspiration. Kitbash the hell out of those cultures! Intergalactic Comanche Samurai Inuit space whale hunters! Flat-earth fantasy Zulu Highlander elephant-riding clansmen! Cyborg Brazilian disco geisha Valkyries! Nobody can say you’re fucking it up, because you’re not writing a history paper. You’re doing what people have done throughout time: looking at the universe around you, taking the parts you think are awesome, and incorporating these parts any way you damned well choose.
And if the Wokeness comes to your digital door — torches and pitchforks raised — give the assholes a dose of the old phased plasma rifle, in the 40-watt range. They can go do their own heavy-lifting. It’s not your job to appease them. Especially since they cannot even agree among themselves, about what the “right way” looks like.
When they’re not busy being dicks to decent artists, they’re being dicks to themselves.
Not your circus, not your monkeys.
Go forth. Have fun. Make awesome shit. That is all. Carry on.
I don’t have much for you this week. Other than remembering something one of my editors (who became a friend) said to me very early on in my fiction career. He said (and these are not the exact words, just a summary) “Fiction writers are making up lies as they go along — but these are lies which tell the truth.”
That’s always stuck with me. Especially as we progress toward the end of this century’s second decade. Who now dares to tell the truth? Especially in story form? Your average fledgling author, upon setting sail for publication, is promptly surrounded by a host of rhetorical U-boats — all demanding that the fledgling author conform to a blizzard of “correct” artistic and political expectations. Lest (s)he find herself on the “wrong side” of any number of editors, agents, other authors, etc. At which point said fledgling’s career will be sunk.
So, what remains? What’s the point?
Some people write for money. Others write for awards. Or prestige. Or to influence society. Or a combination of the same.
When I look at the stuff I’ve written over the past 8 years, I realize that I was — unconsciously — forever trying to speak the truth. About how ordinary, decent folk react to extraordinary, difficult circumstances. About how the universe is not just some happy accident of physics. About the timeless dance of romance, between men and women. About the noble dignity of a straightforward life, lived according to straightforward values. Even when the roof is caving in, or the bottom is dropping out.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
To choose one’s own way . . .
Ours is the era of, “It’s not my fault!” and “This was done to me!” and “It’s somebody else’s job to make my life better!”
But all of the quality literature on self-improvement, tends to reflect Frankl’s premise. That we alone, as individual human beings, still retain an underlying level of oneness and dignity. Which no earthly power is capable of stripping from us. So long as we do not forget who we are.
My protagonists tend to remember who they are, in the clutch. When it really counts. Not without bumps and bruises, mind you. Nobody goes through this life unscathed. Pain, or damage, don’t end the world. Each of us is fated to get it, in one way or another. That’s the state of existence. We can allow it to destroy us, or we can find within ourselves Frankl’s hidden, practically invincible freedom.
That’s probably the truth I want to tell. Because the world seems crazy, and it’s filled with people who react crazily.
Except, none of us has to fall off the cliff. We can look that crazy in the eye and say, “No thanks.” Re-button our collars, cinch up our ties, and get back to the business of building and preserving civilization.
What truths do you find yourselves unconsciously (or consciously) speaking through story?