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Posts by Brad R. Torgersen

D.I.Y.

Saturday at the Torgersen house usually means do-it-yourself home fix-up. I spent all day yesterday running brand new 12-2 through the studs on the south wall of my garage. As well as hammering up new switch, light, and gang boxes. Like any other room in my (perpetually being renovated) home, the garage offers me the opportunity to put an outlet (or two, or three, or twelve) anywhere I damned well please. If the original 1962 contractor put in far too few outlets, using the (for our time) inferior ungrounded “silver sh*t” wire, I am (in 2017) putting in an overabundance of outlets, using coil after coil of 12-2, and enjoying myself capitally. Because I know once the wall is finished, I will never in my life ever think the thought, “Gosh dammit, I wish there was a place to plug in here!”

When I finish re-wiring a room, there is a place to pug in, everywhere. 🙂

It occurred to me — as I snaked my way through the attic, running new line to the breaker box — that fiction publishing is, now, perhaps more of a do-it-yourself business than it’s ever been. We are all expected to do our own promotion (whether we’re trad, or indie, or hybrid) not to mention bringing our own platforms to the effort. On the indie side, we have to provide the editing, the proofing, the formatting, the cover art, and rustle up our own blurbage. We operate our own public storefronts. Create our own ancillary media. This is no longer an industry where you can simply write a good story, and that’s enough. Ours is now an industry which requires an author to develop half a dozen different professional skill sets. Including accounting, tax prep, and so forth. Do you know how to do a Form 8829, with your Schedule C? If you don’t, you probably should learn how. Same goes for tracking your paper inventory. And carving out a percentage of your take (from the conventions) so that you can file the money.

And no, I am not saying it’s any fun for me either. The only thing I enjoy doing (beyond writing) is building covers — because I’ve got graphic design chops, and years of experience going all the way back to high school commercial art classes. The rest? Especially taxes and self-promo? It’s work.

But if you expected this racket to be easy, you wouldn’t be reading Mad Genius Club. Right?

Good business is where you build it.

A friend recently asked me why I still keep my hand in with short fiction — despite having a ready road, where novels are concerned. I told him that I get asked for stories on a fairly frequent basis, almost always for anthologies, and I work really hard to not say no. Because I never know if or when those stories might turn out to be lucrative. Just recently I netted a very handsome payday (second in as many months) for a story I put into an indie anthology which offered zero up front. Yet that story is now worth $0.15 per word, and climbing. Just as all my other short fiction continues to increase its net value, in the form of the collections I do through WordFire Press. Everything earns. And while not every story can be a four-figure whopper (like my last novella for Analog magazine) they comprise a nice hunk of my annual five-figure cash flow. Not to mention the fact they keep my “brand” current in the marketplace, during the long Mt. Everest effort of novel(s). Keeping my brand current is a big part of promotion.

But it definitely takes work. There is no royal road to becoming (or staying) known as a quality short fic man.

A different friend recently explained to me the concept of WIBBOW: Would I Be Better Off Writing? I’d never seen this acronym before, but I liked the question it posed. Because we each have to find the sweet spot between creating fresh prose, and devoting time and effort to things which are part of the writing business model, without actually being writing. WIBBOW is probably something a lot of people enamored of workshops and seminars could ask themselves, simply because I’ve noticed (over the years) that a great many individuals adore the energy and atmosphere of a writers’ event, but never seem to get down to the actual writing part — which is the single most crucial element of creating and keeping a career. (In fact, SFWA is filled to overflowing with people who write very, very little, but who will devote untold hours to the social politics of the thing.)

I don’t belong to any critique groups anymore. Have not belonged to any, for a long, long time. I’m not sure I was any good at them, both in terms of what I offered, and also in terms of what I received.

I am also no longer part of any “closed door” writing forums, clubs, message boards, etc. For the same reason.

Is that bad?

Still another friend posted this interesting article. Are we — authors — too wrapped up in the concept of community? What happens when community becomes expected? Compulsory? Lord knows the SF/F sphere prides itself on having a long, long history of community. To a fault, one could almost say. But is the best work being done by the people who devote the most time to demonstrating fidelity to the flock? Or is the answer really out there in the lonely wilderness, where you can make the things you want to make, and not have to care if you’re being sufficiently community-minded?

I have told several people that I think the purpose of a good writing group, is to strengthen your wings to the point where you can fly solo.

I still think that.

Which is why, when people carry on about how essential their writing groups are to their creative process, I kind of draw a blank. Not that I doubt them. Heavens no. It’s just that my experience hasn’t been like that. In fact, I think I’ve been trending in the opposite direction for some while now, and may keep trending that way. I like my friends, and I like being able to talk shop. But I also think there is far, far more in the world, than writing. I happen to like that world. It’s where all the most valuable experiences — which have made me who I am, as a person — came from. And I also think it’s the place which has the most profound effect on the types and kinds of stories I create. Because those stories are not manufactured solely for the “inside” audience. They are stories which — I hope — can speak to the common person. Who may or may not be a SF/F fan. And may or may not be an avid reader. But who will respond to a compellingly-told yarn just the same.

Which takes me back to pondering the fact that publishing has become such a singles game.

On days like today, I feel like maybe that’s a good thing? Sometimes there is no greater pride and satisfaction, than in doing something for yourself, on your own terms, and doing it well.

Homework for SF authors: NASA’s glory years

It still surprises me just how many would-be science fiction authors know so little about the period between 1945 and 1985. Oh, they know about the moon landings, sure. The names of Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin come readily to mind. But can they tell you which pilot was the first to Mach 2? Or which plane he did it in? Which test aircraft could beat Mach 5, and needed a reaction control system to help it fly beyond the atmosphere? Can they state with surety what Operation Paperclip was? Without rushing to Google the details on their cell phones? Can they recognize the voices of astronauts like John Young or Bob Crippen, just from hearing a few seconds of CAPCOM tape recorded the morning of April 12, 1981?

These might seem like superfluous details. In the era of the International Space Station, astronaut derring-do has become entirely too ho-hum. Many people take the space program for granted.

But I happen to think that every science fiction writer worth her salt owes it to herself — and her readers — to take a wayback machine voyage to those crucial four decades, during which humanity did something it had literally never done before.

NOVA: “To The Moon” — Produced in 1999, this excellent two-hour NOVA special does a brilliant job portraying the drama of the Mercury, Apollo, and Gemini programs, during which the United States kicked the race (with the USSR, for the Moon) into high gear. Not only does this special cover the vast technical challenge faced by the engineers and scientists tasked with building the rockets and spacecraft which would go the distance, it also contains priceless interview outtakes from various astronauts who offer their candid opinions about their missions, the political capital invested in those missions, and the danger they each faced every time they climbed through the hatch for yet another launch. Attention is also given to the Russian side of the race, with fresh details (then) on the ambitious Russian N-1 super-booster — a Saturn 5 equivalent which sadly (for the Russians) never overcame its technical faults.

SPACEFLIGHT (narrated by Martin Sheen) — A four-part 1980s series that not only covers Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but also the years leading up to manned spaceflight, as well as the post-moon phases of Skylab, and the Shuttle Transportation System. Like the NOVA documentary above, this series includes a great deal of interview footage, some of it quite rare.
Episode 1: “Thunder in the Skies” covers the genesis of organized rocketry, how these civilian efforts got rolled into the military, and the post-WW2 years when the pursuit of ballistic missile technology dovetailed with the famous Right Stuff years of Edwards AFB, where the various x-planes made and broke an endless number of records.
Episode 2: “The Wings of Mercury” covers the President Kennedy era, during which manned spaceflight became a central pivot of the Cold War between the United States, and Soviet Russia. Including the frustrations and problems experienced by the politicians and administrators charged with getting a young NASA rolling. Interviews with both Mercury and Gemini astronauts are numerous.
Episode 3: “One Giant Leap” covers Apollo’s roots in President Kennedy’s famous challenge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and how that pressure ultimately resulted in the deaths of Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. Rising from its ashes, Apollo would ultimately put 12 human beings on the Moon. Also included are details on the fascinating Skylab flights, as well as many more astronaut interview clips.
Episode 4: “The Territory Ahead” covers the shuttle program, with special emphasis on the (then, at the time of production) recent Challenger disaster. The second half of the hour spends its time discussing the (then) plans for military use of space, against the backdrop of nuclear war. There is also speculation regarding the projects which would eventually become the Hubble Telescope, and the International Space Station.

I should also point you to these many official NASA films, detailing the Apollo series. If you can get past the mildly dated production values (narration, as well as music) they’re marvelous windows into the Apollo program. Featuring spectacular footage of flights, flight prep, launches, animations regarding experiments and mission profiles, and so forth. Hard to believe this was all half a century ago!

Link for Apollo 4 is here.
Link for Apollo 5 is here.
Link for Apollo 7 is here.
Link for Apollo 8 is here.
Link for Apollo 9 is here.
Link for Apollo 10 is here.
Link for Apollo 11 is here.
Link for Apollo 12 is here.
Link for Apollo 13 is here.
Link for Apollo 14 is here.
Link for Apollo 15 is here.
Link for Apollo 16 is here.
Link for Apollo 17 is here.
Link for Apollo-Skylab 2 is here.
Link for Apollo-Skylab 3 is here.
Link for Apollo-Soyuz is here.

Beyond history lessons, there’s also a lot to be learned from play-by-play of the missions themselves.

An enterprising soul, using the alias lunarmodule5, has been uploading some brilliantly-edited videos to YouTube. Using both authentic audio and video, as well as still imagery — interlaced with skillful CGI — these videos are about as close as most of us can get to actually sitting in the cockpit of a space shuttle, or riding atop a Saturn 5 rocket. These are not documentaries, as much as they are highlight reels. Of particular note is the reel for the Apollo 12 flight, including full command module commentary prior to, during, and directly following the lightning strikes which almost caused a mission abort. Also of note is the segmented full-mission upload covering STS-1, the original launch of the shuttle Columbia. We hear a tremendous amount of pre-launch chatter between the crew and mission control, as well as get a front-row seat for STS-1’s two days in orbit.

Now, you might think CAPCOM tapes are an extremely pedestrian way to learn about spaceflight. But I happen to think that the CAPCOM tapes are the most revelatory, because they provide a candid picture of how a modern space mission is conducted. From the moment the crew sit down to breakfast before the launch, right through touchdown at the end of the trip. Including all the minutae that must be monitored by the staff on the ground — checks and guidance without which no modern space mission could ever succeed. It takes thousands of people to put a spacecraft into low earth orbit. Imagine the staffing needed for a truly ambitious voyage to Mars, or beyond.

Essential facts, data, and — best of all — food for thought, for any science fiction author.

Even if you’re not particularly “hard” in your approach to your stories. It never hurts to have these kinds of details rumbling around in the back of your brain, while you conjure up stupendous stories of interplanetary, interstellar, or intergalactic adventure.

Because the truth is that space is very possibly the most challenging environment humanity will ever face. Of all the planets we know about, the only one guaranteed to be friendly — with relatively safe temperatures, water to drink, and air to breath — is the Earth.

When we go anywhere else, we’re going to be taking it all with us. Our food. Our oxygen. What we drink. The clothes on our backs. The tools we use, including space suits — which are essentially self-contained miniature spacecraft. And if we’re not taking it with us, we’re hoping to find the raw resources (on the other side) capable of sustaining us in artificial habitats, once we’re there. To include ores and other things we will need to manufacture new artificial habitats.

After almost 60 years of putting people into space, we’ve gotten pretty good at it. Enough so that fatalities are extremely rare, and your average astronaut being sent to the International Space Station can pretty much guarantee (s)he’s coming back down without incident. Again, thanks to the effort of thousands upon thousands of engineers, scientists, and support and administrative staff.

But just because we’ve gotten good at a thing, does not mean it’s not hazardous. Or expensive. Two huge factors when you (as author) create space-worthy civilizations of the future. It takes a hell of a lot of “oomph” to put people into space. In terms of logistics. In terms of intestinal fortitude. And in terms of the technological and human-specific hurdles which must be overcome.

Such as: how well do you think you would adapt to spending 14 days trapped in the front seat of a compact car? You have to wear the same clothes the entire time. There is no privacy. Nowhere to use the toilet. You get your food and drink from tubes and small packages. You cannot take a shower or a bath. Sleeping is hard. And you must be constantly prepared to do technical, challenging tasks involving equipment which may or may not be working the way you expect it to work. While trying to tamp down potential worry that your compact car might not get you back through the atmosphere in one piece, when the mission is over. And you’re doing this all right next to your side-seat co-driver, who is in the exact same predicament.

That was the job of Gemini 7. One of the most unglamorous — yet vital — pre-Apollo flights. Which proved human beings could function in space long enough for a full-fledged moon mission.

What will a Mars mission entail? A mission to Jupiter? Neptune? The Oort Cloud? The nearest stars? Or stars much father away?

Understanding the nitty gritty of the NASA glory years, can give a science fiction author proper grounding in all the problems that will be faced by such (as yet) imaginary ventures.

It really is not as simple as Star Trek or Star Wars make it seem.

Case in point: the space shuttle was never a souped-up airliner. Because a Boeing 737 doesn’t have to be able to fly in an environment where the wings and tail don’t work. Nor does a 737 have engines powerful enough to boost it to orbit, using super-cooled fuel in such large quantities that the fuel outweighs the plane itself many times over. Nor does a 737 have to be able to survive three-thousand-degree (F) heat while deceleration from a speed of 18,000 miles per hour.

The shuttle — even though it did not take us anywhere we had not been before — was the world’s first reusable spacecraft. In this regard, it was several orders of magnitude more complex and expensive than a 737. Both in terms of designing the thing, and in terms of operating it. How much more expensive and difficult to operate would the shuttle have been, if it had been armored and armed for warfare in space? Like the spacecraft in a science fiction movie? How much bigger would it have to be, to voyage to the Moon? Or beyond? What kind of engines would it need? What sort of fuel would those engines burn?

These are the kinds of mundane (but necessary) questions that a science fiction author begins to ask herself, once she retraces the steps taken from 1945 to 1985. They are the kinds of questions which will enrich your stories immeasurably, and give your SF tales the sort of gripping authenticity that will make the challenge of space flight — space exploration, space warfare, and so much else — become real for your readers.

Lastly, familiarity with space history also humbles us. Because space history is a reminder of what real death-defying heroism looks like.

How such heroism walks, talks, and gets the job done.

I suspect we desperately need these reminders. As writers, and as a culture too.

Marvelous duh-versity

It’s been a long time since I collected any of the Marvel comics. When I see panels like this (now infamous) example, I conclude that I am not missing much.

When I was introduced to my first Marvel title — X-Factor, in 1989 — it was through a friend who knew the Marvel mutants series backwards and forwards. I enjoyed the universe, eventually picking up several Marvel mutant titles over the course of about four years. Not every issue was a knockout, but the storylines were consistently well-written and the mutant concept itself was intriguing. Especially since the entirety of the Marvel universe wove in and out of the space specifically given over to the mutant lines.

If I’d been greeted with a panel like the one above, when first someone handed me a copy of a Marvel title, I’m not sure I’d have gone on to invest all the money I eventually invested in Marvel products. Because I’d have felt like I — as the audience — was being so crudely condescended to, it was either a bad joke, or an insult.

So, what the hell is going on at Marvel these days?

David Burge (aka: Iowahawk) once posted the following:

1. Identify a respected institution.
2. kill it.
3. gut it.
4. wear its carcass as a skin suit, while demanding respect.
#lefties

The first thing I can see going wrong, is that Marvel has allowed certain time-honored characters to be switcheroo’d purely for the lulz. Gender, ethnicity, sexuality, they’re all on Marvel’s chopping block. And while it may be novel to flip Thor’s sex, flipping Thor’s sex and then having Thor utter lines as if Thor is a regular at Candace and Toni’s book store . . . is a great way to let the audience know that you not only don’t take the character of Thor seriously anymore, you don’t take the audience seriously either.

If you want to “diversify” your comics, A-OK. Do it with new characters who grow to inhabit their roles over time, and — this is important — don’t always sound like they spilled directly out of a grievance studies degree program from a trendy East Coast private university.

Last I checked, almost half the country voted in a way that the other half of the country did not. It might be nice to see some of this intellectual diversity inhabit a few costumes on the Marvel stage.

I won’t hold my breath, though.

The second thing I can see going wrong, is that Marvel is trading in audience loyalty, for quick-sales stunts. More switcheroos purely for their own sake, because these may knock the numbers — for a given title in a given month — up to double or even triple what they usually are. Remember when I wrote in this space about the marketing disaster of New Coke? I sorta see Marvel going down the same path. Whether or not Marvel has the good sense to resurrect Classic Thor or Classic Iron Man, remains to be seen. The minds at the top can either respect the core audience, or they can live in fear of being Twitter-shamed by Social Justice Zealots. Most of whom sorta don’t give a damn about comics anyway. Comics are merely a very visible institution that Social Justice Zealots want to take over and own, for their own political purposes. Ergo, kill it, gut it, wear it as a skin suit, then demand respect.

Hopefully Marvel jettisons the switcheroos, but again, not holding my breath.

The third thing I think Marvel may be messing up — and this is hardly a problem unique to the comics world — is mistaking internal in-house excitement for a thing, for external marketplace demand for that very same thing. This comes from creators on the inside getting bored with the same-old same-old, and deciding to get cheeky, or daring, or inflammatory, with a given line or character. The marketplace will just happily follow along, right? And if the marketplace doesn’t follow along, we’ll call them all a bunch of names, right? After all, it worked so well for the Ghostbusters reboot. Which — by the way — nobody asked for. And which never did domestically earn out its estimated $144 million dollar budget.

I am pretty sure they still call that kind of movie, a flop.

If confessions from within Marvel proper are to be believed, Marvel is getting mighty nervous that it might have a few flops on its hands. As if nobody could have predicted that arbitrarily messing with several characters and lines simultaneously, purely for the sake of politics — changes which precious few people in the core audience desired or said they wanted — was going to go badly.

Back to Burge: kill it, gut it, wear it as a skin suit, demand respect.

A huge step in the right direction, would be to STOP taking the Magic Unicorn approach to diversity. Don’t hang a damned blinking sign on the fact that your character(s) is gay, or trans, or a woman, or non-white, or whatever combination thereof you choose. “Hey, look everybody! The character of Tomahawk is both biracial and bisexual! Like, he’s really REALLY biracial and bisexual! We will go out of our way to make sure you ABSOLUTELY KNOW that Tomahawk is biracial and bisexual! Ooooo! Ooooo! So edgy! So diverse!” That kind of crap is the kindergarten version of diversity. It’s not even Diversity 101. It’s Remedial Diversity 077, for sheltered progressives who apparently don’t spend much time around anyone who is not also a sheltered progressive.

Ordinary people — even gay, trans, female, non-white — don’t broadcast their demographics like that. If they are broadcasting their demographics like that, just as with aggressive church evangelists, they’re usually assholes.

It’s hard (but not impossible) to sell a hero who is also an asshole.

(Lobo fans are excused, okay? Jeez, pipe down already.)

The next step would be to quietly jettison any and all switcheroos performed on time-honored characters, and let those characters go back to being who and what they were, before the Social Justice Zealots decided to ruin things.

Yes, you will endure howling mobs of Twitter users trying to hashtag your company into the ground. But if you’ve got even a little bit of spine, you can take the heat. After all, the hashtaggers are not the whole universe. Hell, a lot of people would respect and admire a creative entity standing up against a concerted Two Minute Hate. The American public especially seems to have reached its threshold for that kind of crap. They’re ready to support somebody — anybody — who looks like (s)he won’t roll over and say “Uncle!” at the first threat of digital arm-twisting.

The final step would be, naturally, to stay the course. Keep the time-honored lines secure. Make sure the venerable characters stay in character.

By all means, bring on your diverse cast of non-white, non-male, on-hetero, non-cis players. Give them their own lines. Spin mighty arcs of story wonderfulness around these individuals.

And leave the old-school characters OLD-SCHOOL.

Ya know, kinda like America itself? Old-schoolers and new-schoolers all walking down the same streets together, shopping at the same stores, watching the same movies, eating at the same restaurants, etc. Old-school and new-school, kicking it to their unique grooves. Because there’s room enough in the world for everybody.

Unless you’re a Social Justice Zealot. In which case the world before the year 2000 was a frightening wilderness of total and absolute oppression, and everything older than yourself must be sandblasted into an unrecognizable lump of nothingness.

I like to think the world of commercial creative arts has had its fill, where Social Justice Zealotry is concerned. That shit just doesn’t sell. No matter how much you harangue or lecture people. There are only so many consumers who will open their wallets as a matter of political duty. Everyone else . . . is going to go where the fun is.

I think Marvel may be learning this. But is the damage already irreparable?

Adjusting headspace

Sometimes there aren’t any easy answers. Especially not for authors — be they trad pub, or indie — who are balancing their writing against other commitments. Could be going back to school, or marriage and family, perhaps church and community, or the job (non-writing) that pays the mortgage? It doesn’t matter. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re very probably running into problems with delegation, time management, prioritization, crisis resolution, and finding enough hours in your schedule for decompression.

The latter can be especially tricky, if you’re like me, and you have a difficult time compartmentalizing. One thing bleeds into the others, and vice versa, thus it becomes increasingly difficult (over time) to just back off, and step away.

All on my own, I struggle when it comes to adjusting headspace.

As I commented to Sarah A. Hoyt recently, sometimes it’s as simple as my wife tugging me out of the house, putting us both into the car, then driving us to get some food, after which we find a quiet spot to park, eat, and talk. Maybe, for hours? Not at home, where there are a hundred different chores that demand attention. Just . . . off on the side. A stolen moment of time. To unload. Work something out. Maybe have that overdue (but potentially contentious) straight talk session, that you can’t really do in front of the kids? The business of taking care of business, so to speak.

Almost never does it involve anything to do with writing. But that’s part of the adjustment. The action of having your mind and your heart dragged away from the keyboard, and the manuscript, long enough to get your gears whirring along a different track entirely. So that when you eventually return to the project(s) at hand, you discover you’re staring at the pages with fresh eyes.

Now, in my experience, this kind of thing isn’t always romance novel material. A good, proper headspace adjustment can occasionally come with four-lettered words — both ways — and no small amount of gesticulating. But at the end of it all, common understanding has been achieved. New agreements forged, or old agreements renewed.

And when you get back to your desk, or your kitchen table, or your favorite couch — laptop propped on your knee — everything about your writing looks and feels just a bit different. Your plans for your writing will look and feel a bit different too. Almost always in positive ways. Because your mental and emotional picture is now much bigger than it was before.

I count these experiences as being distinctly different from down time, because down time is about unwinding the spring. Adjusting headspace can often involve winding the spring even tighter, before it suddenly unwinds itself very quickly, and in a fashion you (ubiquitous) did not plan, nor expect. It’s not relaxation, though you may feel very much more relaxed once you’re walking back through your front door, or in from the garage. It’s a form of necessary exertion, during which you grapple with your life — the other sectors of the “pie” — in ways that demand a great deal of energy and effort. But if you’ve managed to make good use of the minutes, you can return to reality with an expanded set of options, and a reinvigorated outlook.

Granted, my experience above is just that: my experience. I know too many writers who do not have the greatest relationships in the world, and for whom an event like this (described above) would spiral into destructive chaos. I also know some single authors who simply don’t have that Very Important Person in their lives, who will not only serve as a sympathetic ear, but also challenges these authors on a gut level — and in ways that won’t always be comfortable. In these instances, headspace adjustment may come in the form of a weekend backpacking trip into the mountains, or running a half marathon, perhaps even working on that classic car which has been up on chocks for years? You will know it when you experience it, because after said activit(ies) are over, you come back to the ordinary world with a different set of eyes. Eyes capable of seeing ways around obstacles that were blocking you before? Or spying new business avenues to take, where old avenues were frustrating you before?

The point is, everybody needs this, once in awhile.

Not constantly — because chronically adjusting headspace, or feeling like you need to do it constantly — is probably a sign that something genuinely and deeply wrong is happening in your life, or in your relationship. That’s when you want to look for some professional guidance. A therapist or counselor who can clinically adjust your headspace for you. Because you’re too deep in the shit to figure it out on your own. And that’s not a bad thing. Nobody gives any of us an owner’s manual for this life. The majority of us just kind of bungle our way through it. Some better than others. But even the seemingly well-adjusted, may not be so. And it’s not a sin to admit you need a pro to help you out.

Just be open to those instances when you — or you and your spouse — need to jump in that car, and bug out for a little while.

Even if the timing seems horrible, and it’s the last thing in the world you want to be doing.

Trust me, those are the moments when you may need it the most!

Sawdust, chocolate cake, and New Coke

Regarding this item which crossed my desk over drill weekend, it’s typical of the attitude one finds among deck chair rearrangers — the men and women who think the answer to flagging trad pub sales, is to scold the genre for poor marketing while simultaneously scolding the audience for bad taste.

Because the field has evolved, yo. We’ve moved on from Star Trek. Nevermind that Star Trek spawned half a dozen television shows, as well as over a dozen big screen films, hundreds of tie-in novels, numerous kinds of video and paper-and-dice games, merchandising for light-years, and so forth. Star Trek is done, okay? Time for you to update your settings. We, the rearrangers, are here to notify you that the stuff you loved from the old days, is over.

A sales pitch which works wonders — on people who read things out of a sense of political duty.

The rest of us? We’re just looking for a good time. Not a mindless time. A good time. The sort of read which leaves us with a feeling of satisfaction. Because our hours were well spent. The author has properly rewarded our investment.

What constitutes a “good time” is definitely one of those de gustibus questions. Populists and taste-makers have both existed, since the first campfire storytellers regaled us over the flames — dating back to prehistory. Which stories are “worthy” and which stories are not? Can such a judgment be imposed, from the top down? Or will it invariably manifest itself organically, from the bottom up?

My personal belief is that it’s purely organic. Even when there are strong forces working to make this decision for us.

Taste-makers may secure for themselves the levers of academic or institutional power — pressing a kind or style of fiction on largely captive crowds. But nobody likes to be force-fed a handful of sawdust, while being told that the sawdust is in fact a rich, delicious piece of chocolate cake. A few people, wishing to join the taste-making set, may embrace the sawdust. Swearing up and down that the sawdust is, quite simply, the greatest treat (s)he has ever had. (S)he will gobble further handfuls of sawdust, to prove that (s)he has adopted the acceptable and correct values.

But in the end, it’s still sawdust.

Which is why a Hugo or a Nebula short list — in 2017 — isn’t indicative of organic enjoyment. The Hugo and Nebula short lists are created by, and for, the sawdust set.

If I am talking to a prospective audience member who skips over SF/F as a general rule, I know precisely why (s)he feels this way. She’s had too many bites of the sawdust, which masquerades as chocolate cake. It’s the Nutty Nuggets rule. You can’t keep altering the contents, while leaving the packaging more or less unchanged, without running the risk of alienating your readers. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think the old contents are wrong, or bad, or outdated, or silly, or need to be revised simply to suit an arbitrary and purely internal sentiment. Remember how New Coke went over? Most of the people who want SF/F to “evolve” and “move on” probably aren’t old enough to remember New Coke — and how it brought a soda manufacturing giant to its knees.

The lesson of New Coke is, nobody asked for New Coke. The Coca-Cola folks were trying to figure out why their sales were slipping against Pepsi, so they cooked up this idea to reformulate Coca-Cola, and it bombed badly with consumers. Only the rapid and dramatic reintroduction of Coca-Cola classic restored consumer confidence. New Coke went down as one of the all-time great marketing and business blunders.

Now, speaking from memory, I didn’t think New Coke was fantastically different from Coke Classic. At that particular time, I was actually more of a Royal Crown consumer, with occasional Coke or Pepsi dalliances on the side. Especially Cherry Coke, which I still like very much.

But the point is: rattle your audience’s faith in your product, at your peril.

For the better part of two decades, SF/F’s rearrangers have been embarked upon their own version of New Coke. The sawdust-gobblers decided that we’d had just about enough of the blockbuster “old way” of doing things, even though the 1970s and 1980s invented the SF/F bestseller. It was time to move on.

And yet, the audience has not followed. In dribs and drabs, the audience has gone elsewhere. Trad pub numbers for SF/F continue to struggle, in comparison to a quarter of a century ago.

Some of this can be blamed on a media-diverse digital entertainment spectrum. Now that people can literally carry movies and television series and video games in their pockets, to watch or play at any time, the era of the paperback — as the single most convenient form of sit-down pass time — is over. Electronic books have also revolutionized the buying landscape, allowing consumers to get their books directly from the author, or from a clearinghouse seller.

But a lot of it — I believe very much — comes down to fans of SF/F Classic feeling burned, by New SF/F.

It’s not that New SF/F is measurably inferior — though some would argue it is. It’s just that the crowds from the high years of the genre’s print popularity, aren’t satisfied with what they’re getting anymore. New SF/F is “off” from SF/F Classic. Could you metric this on a chart? Not really, to the same degree that taste tests with Classic and New Coke yielded uncertain metrics. More, it’s the fact that print SF/F’s manufacturers have — since at least the year 2000 — decided they’re going to mix things up, even though there weren’t a lot of people from the old audience who had demanded such a mix-up.

SF/F Classic was deemed not good enough. So then came New SF/F.

And the trad pub numbers began their familiar decline.

Some of the 21st century’s strident SF/F activist-authors like to misstate the problem — accusing SF/F Classic fans of wanting to dial the genre all the way back to when actual coca leaf extract was in the formula, and it was administered as a pharmacological tonic.

I’m not sure what ground is gained via this line of reasoning, other than to further push SF/F Classic fans away from the very manufacturers who claim to want those fans’ business.

My own fear is that the zealots of New SF/F will so successfully alienate the audience, that SF/F et al will become an academic interest only. Ergo, the major trad publishers will jettison the brand, leaving it for the small presses and for a tiny reader base which is interested in SF/F purely as a political and sociological plaything.

We’re halfway there already.

Though, it must be noted, plenty of indie authors are trying desperately to ensure that SF/F Classic does not depart the digital publishing shelves. And there is also Baen, perhaps the lone holdout among all trad publishers, keeping SF/F Classic alive — with the flag proudly flown high. For these Classic SF/F parties, the taste of the original high-period audience (of print SF/F) is not in need of revision. Rather, it’s that very high-period taste which provides a solid market base.

Sawdust-gobbling be damned.

Which will not, of course, prevent the sawdust set from pushing New SF/F into ever more esoteric and obscure territory. Believing (vainly) that making New SF/F into a political cause, substitutes for returning SF/F to its natural state, as a popular cause.

In fact, there’s every indication that the zealots of New SF/F believe the political is popular, and vice versa.

But then, this is how zealots throughout history have always thought — theirs being the straight-line ramp of destiny.

I’m fairly certain the market disagrees. And it’s the market which always wins, too. It was the market which made SF/F Classic into a money-rich hit in the first place.

Icebergs

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of dining with several other local Baen authors, as well as Baen editor Jim Minz. It wasn’t a business dinner, really. More like, get the gang together (spouses included) to have a good time, with occasional shop talk. At one point during the evening I was struck by the notion that we had probably a century’s worth of cumulative authorial experience in the room. And by that I mean, the aggregate total of everything each of us had individually accrued over our lifetimes: the stories which had sold, the stories which had not sold, the stories we had read, the stories we’d listened to, watched on television, or in movie form, plus the many different proto-stories each of us constantly has swirling in our semi-consciousness. Along with personal habits — both good and bad — and work ethic. Followed by achievements unlocked, dreams yet to be realized, opportunities wasted, lessons learned, and so forth.

The landscape of our writerly souls.

When one is a newbie sitting in the audience at a convention panel, it’s easy to look at those behind the mics, and see only the tops of their professional icebergs. The more stellar or accomplished the career, the taller the spire rising above the waterline. What we don’t see — the thing we can’t often grasp, until we’re in the thick of the vocation ourselves — is what lies beneath. The giant bulk of a person’s history, which keeps that visible portion afloat.

The majority of an author’s life is invisible in this way. Not immaterial, obviously. Just . . . out of sight. The learning. The toil. The joyless hours spent staring into a screen at odd moments of the day or night, when our brains would much rather be focused elsewhere. On anything. Just not the project that’s due. Held back by the heartache of failed expectations. Pulled forward by the glimmering light of possibilities still on the horizon. Wondering if we’ve got what it takes. Pushing ahead, regardless. Because we’ve decided that we simply must do this thing.

All of that — everything that goes into making us who we are — is submerged.

Just the exposed piece of us that’s public, gets any sunlight.

Which — of course — merely reinforces our false perceptions of ourselves. That we’re sinking, while everyone else is rising. We look across the sea and we marvel at all the many, many successful people all enjoying their moment in the sun. We don’t see their fullness. We don’t realize that they too have a massive, invisible piece of themselves underneath the blue waves. Their own history of learning, toil, missed chances, failed manuscripts, the endless repetition of picking themselves up by the scruffs of their own necks, again, and again, and again. That aspect of their history is opaque to us. We know all about our own history. All the baggage and warts. But unless we know someone else at a fairly intimate level, it’s easy to believe that having baggage and warts is unique to us, and us alone.

‘Taint so.

Many are the professional athletes who have remarked that it’s the losses which teach them, more than the wins. That behind every Olympic-class performance, there are thousands of hours of effort. Painful. Protracted. Unrewarded. Probably there is no endeavor worth doing, on God’s green Earth, which doesn’t tell a similar tale. Work is who and what we are, as human beings. The dividends of that work come from a combination of intelligence, talent, and persistence. With persistence being the major part of it.

Which is not to say there’s no value in working smarter, versus harder. Sometimes the efficacy of your method is the issue, not the zeal of your application.

But there comes a point when even smart guys have to roll up their sleeves. The world is filled with people who dwell in failure, because for all their wit and knowledge, they lack the oomph necessary to turn spectacular plans into spectacular action. Too much talk. Not enough walk.

Your iceberg — the huge hunk drifting beneath — is largely made up of that very same oomph.

Sitting at the table the other night, I was surrounded by a hell of a lot of oomph. It was almost intimidating.

But also instructive.

Because unlike intelligence or talent, oomph is a self-made commodity. Even if you don’t have any today, you can most definitely have some tomorrow.

Just about every person you’ve ever met, who has achieved success in any specific field — of athletics, art, science, or industry — decided to make a commitment. Which manifested as applied energy. Over days, weeks, months, and years. Almost none of it yielding immediate results. No. The goal was far off, for most of the journey. (S)he simply had faith that (s)he would get there eventually. Despite hardships, setbacks, and disappointments galore.

So, when you catch yourself feeling discouraged, or lamenting your lack of relative forward movement, keep in mind that there is somebody else out there who is looking at you and marveling over how well you’re doing. (S)he is seeing the top of your iceberg, just as you see the tops of all the rest. You are somebody else’s picture of success, just as others have been your pictures for success, too.

You may feel reassured as a result. As well as inspired.

After dinner was over, I went back to my home office and stared at my authorial goals for the rest of the month, and the rest of the year. Then I looked at my goals for the next five years. And the five years after that. I asked myself if I was being too ambitious, or not ambitious enough? I thought about the writers I’ve known — some of whom have become my friends — and who’ve done what I’d like to do. I reminded myself that their money and their books are merely the part I can see. What I can’t see, is the rest of the iceberg. The countless daily sacrifices. Frustration, tempered with patience. Early mornings and late nights dedicated to projects which won’t pay off for years. And a stubborn refusal to allow backward steps to turn into full retreat.

Poor little rich girl


“Why won’t they love me?!”

It’s said that schadenfreude is an unworthy sentiment. But after reading this tearful piece, I must confess that my schadenboner is prodigious. Few things amuse me like watching a self-assigned moral and professional better slowly and painfully realizing that (s)he gets to be stuck in the marketplace just like the rest of us. There is no royal road to fame and fortune. No guaranteed path to glory. You dig it out of the mud like all of us, and if it doesn’t come with the first book or the tenth book, or it doesn’t come at all, that’s just the breaks of living and working in an era when more people are writing more quality prose — in the English language — than at any time in history. We also have more readers, too, thank goodness. But as Kevin J. Anderson once said, if publishing is now easier than it’s ever been before, success is still just as hard.

[my book got] more buzz than I’d seen for any book I’d ever written. People were telling me on Twitter that they’d bought three or four copies and were making all their friends read it. I heard from booksellers that the books were flying off the shelves. We went into a second printing almost immediately. I did a book signing in Chicago that sold a bunch of books. The reader response at BEA was surreal. It was magical.

Setting aside the fact that the author is talking about a non-fiction work of opinion, I feel like it’s worth pointing out that the advent of universal social media has also created universal concrete silos, into which many authors descend. These silos become perfect echo chambers: constantly reflecting praise and wonderment back to said author, until said author is sure in her heart that she’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. Get yourself a few hundred loyal sycophants, plus a cadre of like-minded peers — all sending you digital love notes every time you open your mouth — and it’s easy to perceive yourself as being on the crest of a wave.

This, I thought, is what it must feel like to have a book that’s about to hit it big. This was it. This was going to be the big one. It was going to take off. I gnawed on my nails and watched as big magazines picked up articles from it and it got reviewed favorably in The New York Times, and I waited for first week sales numbers.

Thing is, what does “big” look like? There are waves, and then there are waves. J.K. Rowling is probably the 21st century diamond standard, where Fantasy & Science Fiction literature is concerned. She’s second only to Tolkien, in terms of broad, deep impact. The whole planet knows Harry Potter just as the whole planet knows Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. If not through text, then certainly through movies — successful, big-money, silver-screen adaptations being the holy grail of all commercially engaged fiction authors.

But there are other waves, besides the 3,000-foot tsunami.

Not far south of me, there is a nice guy named Brandon Sanderson who is certainly enjoying his own wave. To my east and north is Larry Correia, who built his wave in just about the most difficult way I can imagine. Every time I visit a Utah authors’ conference of any sort, I bump into people who are riding different waves at different heights. I think you’d have to go to New York or the Pacific Northwest to find more bona fide successful authors crammed into the same geographical footprint.

Again, the era of social media has tended to create silos. Especially in New York publishing, which (as I noted in this space in an earlier article) tends to be a bukkake club of self-referencing, self-blurbing, self-praising, and self-promoting. It’s why so many authors — against all sanity — still make New York their home. Despite the crush of people, and the insane cost of living. It’s worth it to be “in the swim” as it were.

But even being in the swim, doesn’t necessarily translate to mass market traction.

I expected to see at least twice the number of first week sales for this book as I had for any previous book. The buzz alone was two or three times what I was used to. This had to be it . . .

But when the numbers came in, they weren’t twice what I usually did in week one. They were about the same as the first week numbers for The Mirror Empire. And… that was…. fine. I mean, it would keep me getting book contracts.

But . . . it wasn’t a breakout. It was a good book, but It wasn’t a book that would change my life, financially.

Reader, I cried.

Ohhhhhh, the heart bleeds! Her great political non-fic tome — which the whole world was squeeeeeeeeeeeing about, and lurving over, and Tweeting at light speed! — simply did average.

Again, I point to Larry Correia, who gets maybe a tenth as much New York press coverage as our plaintiff. He recently bought his family 50 acres on a mountainside. Over the next two years, he and his lovely wife will build themselves the dream home of dream homes, where they will finish raising a family, grow old together, and die.

I’d call that a wave worth celebrating. And Larry did it all by working his ass off, being entertaining, working his ass off, working his ass off, and oh yeah, working his ass off. 100 hours a week, or more; when he was still pulling down day job paychecks and writing full-time to boot.

Now, for somebody living on a New York City high-rise budget, Larry’s amount of “wave” may not go nearly as far as it goes out here in Deplorable Country. But that’s why I always encourage fledgling authors to use internal metrics and standards to create goalposts. If you’ve spent your adult life in the lower-middle class income bracket, a modestly successful series of books will change your financial situation forever. You will be rich! Or at least, you will feel rich. But if you’re from the silver spoon set, even a very nicely-performing book (or string of books) will seem like just so much chump change.

It’s been strange since then, because everywhere I go, people come up to me and congratulate me on the release of the book. It has the best reviews of any book I’ve ever written. People come up to me and burst into tears at the head of the signing line and thank me for writing it. It’s a transformative book for people. It’s a manifesto. It’s a book that’s even more relevant now after the election. It changes people’s lives. I’m very glad I wrote it, though it nearly broke me to do it.

Here again, the concrete silo. “How could my book not be a hit?! I don’t know anyone who didn’t buy it, and tell me it was pure awesome!”

Sort of like, “How could Hillary Clinton lose? I don’t know anybody who didn’t vote for her!”

The lesson — for those adult enough to discern it — is that you can do everything right, play the game precisely the way it’s supposed to be played, do the bukkake circle and bathe in the admiration flowing from the fonts of prestige — and still turn in a so-so performance. Not terrible, mind you. But not earth-shattering, either. Just kind of . . . midlist.

Gasp! That word! Midlist! Horrors! The giant graveyard of egotists with swollen heads!

Or, if you’re sensible, the wide, fertile field of robust commerce. Where even folk of modest ability can still make okay money. Enough to pay a few bills. Maybe a car payment? The rent? The mortgage? Or more? There is no shame in being a midlist author who handsomely supplements a “mundane” primary income, with writing dollars. In fact, if you don’t have a bloated ego — really, I can’t emphasize enough how important this is — the midlist can be your Shire. Replete with rolling hills covered in green crops, where the Party Tree is always alive with happy Hobbits raising a mug and putting their feet up. They still have to work during the week, sure. But it’s not misery. In fact, there are few finer places in Middle Earth — if you’re not obsessed with thrones and heraldry.

it’s not making money hand over fist, I’m not quitting my day job, and while yes, it’s selling steadily and well, this is not the breakout book I was tentatively expecting it to be (not this year, anyway). It will likely earn out by the end of this year, based on what I know (though we’ll see. I’ll get royalty statements soon). But it’s hard to say this out loud to people when they congratulate me about the book. Lots of people would love to have a book that’s sold as well as it has. But that’s the sixth book I’ve had in print, and you know, you get tired of the emotional rollercoaster in this business after so many years of it (only five years! But egads, I feel that I’ve lived a lifetime of publishing bullshit in that time).

My first novel earned out during its first six-month period of release. My royalties have only climbed in the period since. Granted, my publisher was smart enough not to freight a first-time novelist like me with a dead elephant contract — the kind many would-be novelists dream of bragging about, until they later realize that earning out a substantial five-figure or six-figure advance is tough even for established pros with an established audience. Once more I ask: how big does your “wave” have to be, before you’re satisfied? Each of us must ask ourselves this question, and determine what we can live with.

I always advise optimistic modesty. Don’t quit your day job. Moreover, don’t work a day job you hate so much, that you can do little else besides dream of quitting. Do a day job you can like, or at least tolerate. Work out a writing schedule you can tolerate too. Set sane, reasonable goals. And each time a book is released, have sane, reasonable expectations. The novel earns what it earns. You’ll be amazed how even a small royalty check seems kingly, if you’re not living an aesthete’s life where writing is the only thing keeping your tummy full.

I have two non-authorly jobs. When I am not deployed, the military income stream is my tertiary, writing is my secondary, while healthcare tech is my primary. My pie-in-the-sky objective — over the next ten years — is to try to make my authorly income the primary, then I can make military secondary, and perhaps won’t need a tertiary? This outcome is largely beyond my control, because it’s predicated on one or more books/series becoming over-abundantly successful, to the point that all my debt is cleared, my home is paid off and fixed up entirely, and I’m sitting on a Smaug-sized pile of cash in the bank.

Sounds like I’ve set myself up for failure, right?

Nope. I’ve ensured that I won’t jump too early.

I’ve seen what happens when authors jump too early. They’re so desperate to escape their day work — either because they detest punching a clock, or they are ego-infatuated with the idea of being a full-time author — that they put the cart before the horse. Which is fine, I guess, if you’re single and lack dependents of any sort. Living in a garret is the luxury of being unattached. But if you’ve got mouths to feed? Little ones to clothe and shelter? Set the escape velocity high, and keep it high. That way you’re never having to explain to either spouse or children why they live like urchins.

It’s difficult to say these things out loud to new writers, that most of the books you write will mean a lot to some people, but that they won’t make you rich. They won’t even pay enough for food and health insurance. You will have to work two jobs, novels and day job, until you retire. And maybe even still then. We want to talk about the six or seven figure book deals, the breakout hits, the fairytale stories. But the majority of writers face only this: writing the next book and the next book and the next book, building an audience from scratch, from the ground up, hustling out a living just like everyone else does, cobbling together novel contracts, Patreon money, day jobs, and freelancing gigs.

It’s not difficult at all. It’s necessary. Burst that bubble early, and often. Keep re-bursting it. Put their feet in the soil. Get their heads out of the clouds. Again, the Shire is a wonderful place to live. If you’re not obsessed with thrones and heraldry. There are authors in the midlist making anywhere from the cost of their electric bill each month, all the way up to buying a new house with cash. I’m friends with folk all up and down that spectrum, to include some full-timers of the seven-figure variety. And even the seven-figure folk will tell you: being happy with a supplemental writing income is not a sin. It’s normal. And there is zero shame in being normal. Zero.

Certainly, any of my backlist books could still breakout at any time, but I need to acknowledge the emotional cost of that rollercoaster of hope and despair. We are all of us just working to put food on the table and revolution in the mind, working, and working, until death or the apocalypse or both.

I’m going to gently suggest that replacing the word “revolution” with “entertainment” might be the key to putting more food on her table. She’s spent far too long in her concrete silo.

People are less interested in revolution — even the Pussyhatters — than they are in being shown a good time. Revolution may sell well with zealots, but really, unless you ply your trade exclusively as a pundit at the Bill O’Reilly level, revolution is going to get you lots of praise from like minds — but precious few dollars in your pocket, as originating from wallets beyond your concrete silo.

Madonna and Ashley Judd didn’t become famous (or wealthy) by making batshit insane tirades whilst standing on platforms at marches. They became famous and wealthy being entertainers first and foremost, and they will remain famous and wealthy if they keep (or go back?) to the correct order of priorities. I know authors — cough, especially Left-wing authors, cough — like to see themselves as grand harbingers of the coming transformation of humanity and society. But here again, beware the power of ego. Of all the truly “transformative” books in the West’s considerable archive of same, precious few were ever written with the author thinking, “Yes, this book is going to change everything.”

Of the few who did set out to write such books — Karl Marx? — the results are often historically horrendous. So no, please, skip the revolution. Just forget it.

Take people on a journey instead. Lead them into the mines of Moria. Show them the Balrog. Let them cheer as the Fellowship fights off goblins and orcs. Keep your soap box tucked under your desk, as a foot rest.

And yes, don’t get your heart stuck on the idea that you’re waiting for The Hit. I know it’s hard, because every time we see somebody else enjoying The Hit, we wonder what it would be like to ride that kind of wave. But if you’re so caught up in waiting for The Hit you’re unable to recognize the good things you already have, when they come, what’s the point? Then your career truly does feel like agony! Because you’re perpetually progressing toward your far-off destination, without ever reaching it.

Better — I say — to set yourself up with a model for success which is quietly abundant. No Hit required. L.E. Modesitt, Jr. did it, and he lives better than sooooooo many New York types do. Like Larry (and Brandon for that matter) Lee was very practical and pragmatic in his approach. He has never, by his own admission, had The Hit. But he owns a whole shelf at Barnes & Noble, filled with books which are seldom out of print. And he enjoys a princely existence of productive retirement.

You could do a hell of a lot worse than Lee. Especially if you let your ego do the driving.

Don’t. You will be saner. And happier.