Author Archives: davefreer

Juno Genius (if you met them in the street)?

Juno, Genius, Lares and Penates and say nothing of Dis Pater (not a dissipater – but a chthonic god and wealth accumulator – as his wealth is the dead – which gives a whole new slant to ‘plutocrat’. Oh and he is possibly derived from the Sabine god Soranus. Where Soranus got his wealth from is unknown, and the rumor that it was from selling a primitive form of Preparation H is on the whole a base slander.)

That’s to name a few of the rabbit-holes I’ve been running down. Soranus was a bit of bummer, as the Hirpi Sorani (the wolves of Soranus, fire-walkers who carried about the entrails of sacrifices during their rituals. It took a lot of guts to do it.) sounded promising. I was looking at the ‘brothers of the wolf (luperci)’ as part of a story I had been toying with. I just felt the name would make it hard for the reader to suitably appreciate the meaningful nature of the tail. Heh. When you’re stuck, fruitless research is at least not as pointless as political arguments on facebook. The fruitless research will eventually, possibly, find its way into a story. I know: a story with two bands of naked young men running around the streets spanking women with furry thongs… but then 50 Shades of Gray was popular, so you never know…

So: what prompted this particular digression – and what does it have to do with writing? I mean besides giving you the story seed for a Roman S&M fantasy? Actually it did relate to the book in hand and started with looking up genius loci (protective spirit of place, to give it one interpretation) – which lead onto genius (which one hoped wasn’t mad as it was the individual’s protective spirit, later interpreted as a soul) and thence into Lares and Penates – the household gods.

The fascinating thing about ‘household gods’ and indeed genius loci, are just how widespread similar myths are – whether you’re talking about Slavonic domovoi or various incarnations of genius loci – from Chinese Tudi or the Landvaettir of Norse mythology – these are concepts that cross a huge number of cultures. Yes, when you read up on the rituals and details, they’re fascinatingly alien. I mean I hardly ever sacrifice more than some veggies to Greenmould, the tutelary deity of the refrigerator… I don’t give him a piece of every meal as one would to a Lar.

What I am doing here – not just wasting time (I can do that with freecell or facebook) is picking up on a concept which has appeal – both broad and enduring, and that re-evolves and repurposes old superstitions and myths. Which – if you’re a story teller, is like a dvergr finding an ore-rich vein. This is where the stories are. Humans predisposed to accept and believe them (or at least suspend disbelief in them). It’s rather beyond the scope of this post – but look at people’s reactions to different houses or localities. “This house feels welcoming.” “This place gives me the creeps” Now- there may be good psychological reasons or even physical cues to these reactions — but a large proportion of humans have them. They’re well over 2/3 into believing in genius locii. You don’t have to work hard to make this suspend disbelief – even if you, the hard-nosed rational writer, who never propitiates the cistern-troll* with the required libations, think it is nonsense.

It’s kind of like the art of war – the writer attacks at the point least likely to resist – in fact likely to welcome him as liberating explainer of things which otherwise conflict with the rational. Jim Butcher does it brilliantly. As a writer you can make it hard for yourself – or you can exploit the ‘weaknesses.’ This is just one.

Another joy of ‘household gods’ and genius Locii (besides a rich mythology to mine and play on) is that they are in a way the perfect foe (or friend) because, oddly, the last thing (as Diana Wynne Jones pointed out in her ‘Tough Guide to Fantasyland) is the supernatural item or being that is omnipotent, which the hero or villain spend the entire book not using – although it would make 1000 page novel a great piece of flash fiction. They’re literally ‘small’ gods – powerful in their setting, but nowhere else, and usually with clear limitations. It’s those limitations that make the story, not the vast power.

This brings me onto my final point: and I’m guilty too. As sf-and particularly fantasy writers, we’re conditioned into the final battle, the ultimate enemy or cataclysm. And some of those make great stories. But you might notice that even in those, it’s the personal and often (looked at dispassionately) relatively irrelevant ‘small’ character-to-character interactions that bind readers to the ‘big’ story (Tolkien does this so often – and yet so many imitators don’t notice.) But great stories don’t actually HAVE to be the saving the universe or the kingdom from destruction. Great stories are simply defined as ‘entertaining’ (and preferably to a lot of readers) which is why many successful authors are rather like household gods – the story they weave is important to the characters in it, not to the world – Louis L’Amour to Maeve Binchy, or Heyer Regency Romance – very satisfying as a read. Important to OUR universe (which is really our families, friends and homes) and not THE universe.

It’s a door to endless stories.

And now, the fridge is making strange noises at me…

Certain rituals must be performed.

 

*Ever wondered where that supply of cubed carrot and green peas (which you haven’t eaten for three years, you’ll swear) comes from when you throw up? They’re actually warning from the cistern-troll, who is not pleased by your lack of observance.

 

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The anonymous buyer.

So where do you go to my lovely, when you’re alone in MY head…(With apologies to Peter Sarstead…)

You see, you can’t look at the thoughts that surround the reader when they’re alone inside your book (which, whether you like it or not is at least a lean-to or porte-cochère of your head. Well, your mind. The last person who looked inside my head claimed he could see daylight out of the other ear. I had not the heart to tell him it was an oncoming train… and it’s been lost in there for a week.)

The best you can do is look inside your own head and fondly imagine that there are other heads like that who would want to read your book. Of course that is only true for certain values of ‘like that’. No two people are alike, BUT we’re social animals. We’ve survived by making educated guesses about what is inside the heads of others, and getting right enough times to breed and survive (many men are surprised by this. Women should be. Some are, some may be. Some of them may yet be, because we’re living in changing times.)

Look, here’s the thing: people may be curious enough about your ideas and writing to read about what goes on in your head, projected onto characters. If you give them enough to identify with or care about those characters this becomes a lot easier and more likely. I was reading about, for example, a major award winning movie about a gay romance between a younger male and older one. Now, while one side of the political spectrum was raving about how wonderful and deserving of awards it was because of the issues, and the other was pointing out it would be considered pedophilia in a number of jurisdictions… my own reaction was ‘and why do I care?’ Why would I bother to pay to watch it? I’m not really interested in their ‘world’ or the type of characters portrayed, and to get my attention action or drama or mystery is more likely to give me a reason than ‘a gay romance.’ I’m not gay, and while I enjoy a few romances – they tend to be long on action, history, characters that amuse or attract me, and have great dialogue, or better, repartee.

Now the film may have all the action, history, characters and repartee I’d enjoy. But in ‘selling’ it to the public the focus is on homosexuality and the romance. Oh and awards. That’s supposed to be the dog-whistles to pack the audience in. For a segment of the audience it probably will be.

Yes, that’ll convince ME I have to see it. Oh, but ‘important people’ like celebrities and critics, will call I’m a bigot if I don’t rush to do so… Good-o. If that is what they – or you – want to call me or even believe, I don’t care enough about their or your opinion to pretend I give a damn.

And, at least in private, that’s how a lot of people work. The reading world is VERY private – which is why porn (Hetero, homo and all the alphabet soup, + pianos, dwarves and donkeys.) or ‘erotica’ sell well, especially as e-books. And this, I think is the missing fact which has confounded publishers, booksellers and many authors.

You see, online purchase is anonymous (at least to your friends, acquaintances and coworkers if not FBI, and NSA), No one sees you browse, no one see you at the check out – and the online bookstore doesn’t care about its image and carrying the ‘right books’ and has everything – it doesn’t care if you want ‘Coprophagia made Tasty’ or ‘See Dick and Spot Run’. Delivery is secret, and so is what you do with it… and world inside your head is most private of all. Unless you tell the NSA they won’t know (probably just as well)… and neither will the author.

From this you get a multiple award winning feminist author – who has standing room only at her Con readings and twitter-praise lavished on her man-bashing panels… moaning that if only she sold one copy for every person there. But you see, they’re seen to be there, by people they care about impressing. No-one sees them buy, and they cared far more about being seen than actually reading – which is why you have ‘prestigious’ authors begging on patreon, while authors slated and slandered as useless and bad are buying mountains and farms. And supposedly influential critical sites running fund-raisers and patreon begging – because advertising – once lucrative – just doesn’t pay the bills.

Society’s mirror is largely lost on the internet, and entirely lost when it comes to spending money. More and more customers are getting that. It’s not what the world, or even ‘important’ people think of their choices… because they won’t know what any individual bought. They’ll just know what their income is. That income depends entirely on what the reader derives from the book.

The latter point is what I’m driving at. As a writer who lives by selling you’re trying to guess at least what goes on in people’s heads when they enter your world. Being a good observer and listener will help because that makes your characters less of just a shade of yourself. But of course the only real measure is them buying your book or story, and coming back and buying more. Honestly, it’s the latter that publishers ought to try to measure, to base their decisions on. Advertising or luck (being at the right place at the right time) can boost anything. But if the same customers keep coming back, they like having you in their heads.

The traditional publisher essentially operated on ‘there’s one born every minute.’ Yes, big names and big sellers got favored. But with the noobs and midlist – well, it wasn’t the customer that was important – but pleasing the publisher. Series were supposed to lose readers with every book – and that was acceptable and normal. Return custom hasn’t been a factor with some – particularly erotica, and cheapies – indies either. But I believe that will change – we’re in shakedown now. Customers will become more discerning, names they like and trust, people they want and trust in their heads will attract more sales and a price premium. Not a vast one, but some.

So just how do you tell that you’re getting returnees? (You obviously attract them by being fairly consistent.) Well, you start by a steady increase in sales within a series (especially if the first becomes free or cheap). You also start seeing the comments ‘I’m a fan/regular reader of so-and-so and I love this book’. You get increasing sign-ups for newsletter.

If you’re seeing growth you’re winning – inside their heads. If you’re seeing awards and critical acclaim but losing sales and needing patreon to survive… you’re not.

 

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Recovery Time

Now, it is true that I am tough as a junket sandwich. Anyone telling you otherwise has never met ‘real’ tough. None-the-less I do some fairly hard and energetic things, somewhat erratically. I wouldn’t know a gym if it jumped up and bit me on the leg, and I always wonder how the energetic people who do get to regular gym sessions find the time. I admire them for their dedication, but between writing, failing to grow my garden (well, for certain values of ‘fail’) and harvesting our own seafood and wildlife, and processing them same, Ambos, trying to get the new farm sorted, not to mention the wasted time on such essentials as facebook…

Yes. Well I really have to cut back on the last one. But what I was talking about was the dive-trip I left for at around 5 AM on Saturday. I ended up spending around 5 hours down at 40 feet, swimming against the current, which is pushing my body and 29 pounds of lead around, into caves, cracks and crannies. I’m a fat old man, but I can still do this…

I used to be able to spend 8 hours in the water, clean the boat and catch, and still have energy left, and do the same the next day. Or to go rock-climbing. I must have been a nightmare to live with.

I probably still am, the only difference being if you asked me to go to and dive or climb or do anything more energetic (even mentally) than stare at facebook the next day… the spirit is willing, but the flesh ought go to the gym more regularly. Actually, to be truthful, I don’t know how much that would help. Despite not following a planned and regular regimen – which would be good – the sheer amount of physical labor I do keeps my pulse rate somewhat below 60. It’s not just needing to be fitter and less fat.

It’s just the grim fact that the older you get, the longer your recovery time is.

It’s kind of like why raising infants at 25 is physiologically easier than at 45 – although your maturity and experience may make the task easier – the interrupted sleep, or straight lack of sleep is easier to cope with when you’re 25, to say nothing of the hyper-awareness and constant running, carrying, soothing etc. that energetic toddlers add to your life.

So what does this all have to do with writing?

Well, especially if you want to write for a living… it’s honestly a young mug’s game. Success definitely comes at the cost of a huge amount of hours and work (unless of course you happen to be a favored darling getting an easy ride) plus a lot of stress.

Not that older writers can’t work, or can’t produce – but look at the lag phase between books. There is a clear linear relationship with how long and how much a writer has produced. It affects different people differently, obviously. Some are harder and slower to break down than others – we’ve seen that here on MGC – where several authors have come… and gone – at very different rates. And the old warhorses plod on. But it is harder yakka than it was all those years back when we started.

Look, we speak of an inevitable reality here – whether I speak in terms of diving, or writing. It’s going to happen.

What cannot be cured… must be coped with as effectively as possible. I’ve been going through a very rough patch, with writing myself – a lot of stress with Barbs being sick (and, um, she’s sick again. I am in fear of starting this all again. Fear of worse.) and my old dog… well, the vet and I not sure what the hell is going on there – but she’s waking me 2-3 times a night. She doesn’t appear in any major distress, or have any real reason. She just barks or cries until I come. just… I don’t know. Maybe she just wants dad. She likes attention and she sleeps most of the day. She’s old, loyal and… well, what else can I do? I sit with her, pet her and she goes back to sleep. Or she wants me to go out with her – the door is open the night is mild. She’s 18 and labby. That’s old and deserving of my care, and she’ll have it as long as she is comfortable and still enjoying her food and life, regardless of me losing sleep. But the broken sleep isn’t a help with writing – as most young parents with kids will tell you.

When I add Australia’s ridiculous-for-remote-rural-bureaucratic nonsense that I am wresting through with trying to build (almost entirely expensive and worthless rent-seeking) and the usual other joys of publishing (the endless waiting, the late payments etc etc.)… well, I’m fairly frazzled. Serious escapism has been very occasional. I’ve actually taken a day fishing and a day diving in the last 3 months – the freezer is getting low.

And my writing has slowed to glacial crawl. It’s good… when it happens. But it’s blood from a stone. And yes, I need to write – because that at least helps the finances, which add stress.

So: it’s what to do to try and get the writing going and flowing?

I can’t really alter the stress factors. Taking a major break, with lots of sleep and no worries – well, Hell might freeze over regularly first. I can’t relax while these things hang over me.

The best I can do is occasionally indulge in counter-stress (diving or climbing are both good. I don’t think about writing, or Barbs, or the dog, or the #$@ing bureaucrats then.)

But I have decided on three other steps.

  • I’m going to take a week’s break from the internet.
  • I’m going to try and read a few novels, and not in snatches.
  • I’m working on a disciplined ‘writing time’ again.

I’m up for any other ideas.

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From the bare earth

I’m slowly building a home and a farm. It’s slow because of the famous equation – “You can have: fast, cheap, good – pick any TWO. “ Of course because I’m special I only got to pick one, and that was ‘cheap’ as I spent most of my money on the land. Unfortunately, nobody told the parasites and rent-seekers (AKA government and their clients) that was an option, so they’re still expensive, and make things even slower, for no visible benefit. I bought a piece of land with – as total assets, some fence-posts. Every other thing I have to either make, scavenge or buy and bring in. Now, I’m a former rufty-tufty fish farmer so I can do anything*. If you need to know how to make fire with two sticks, I’m your man**. If you dropped me butt-naked on desert Island I am sure that when you returned a year later I would be in some kind of shelter, with sunburn and a hat and with fish to eat. More, if I was getting all my work done by Friday. My knowledge breaks down a bit above the certainty of ‘fish that you are trying to keep alive, die’, but that’s never stopped me giving it a go.

But it has re-enforced two things I already knew:

1)The pioneer who trekked into the wildness, much maligned and sneered at today, was tough and resourceful, and a hundred times the man that any urban latte-sipper is. It’s HARD. It would simply kill 9 out of ten modern folk – those that didn’t run as fast as possible back to the shelter of pre-existing infrastructure. The only reason I can see for not respecting that is you don’t want to admit he was your physical, intellectual and probably moral superior.

2) EVERYTHING rests on other things – equipment, knowledge, and things others have made. Mr Butt-Naked – has a huge hill to climb just to survive, let alone build up and progress. It’s fashionable to praise primitive tribes who have little material structure or goods, and to sneer at the people (particularly the Europeans) who built all this ‘stuff’. The evidence, of course, is that most of ‘wonderful’ primitive people run towards the ‘stuff’ just as fast as possible. The smart ones keep the goods bits of their cultures and traditions, and appropriate the good bits of Western technology. The dumb ones keep the bad bits of both. You live better, and work less hard to live – when you have a steel knife instead of a knapped stone – especially if you don’t have to make the knife. Try not to misinterpret me on this. I’m the guy who has actually bothered to learn and has –as a result—a lot of respect for these ‘primitive’ skills. I just don’t romanticize and gloss over the little details like child mortality and short lifespans… and just how much hard work digging is when you have a piece of stick, as opposed to steel spade or a JCB.

So: what does this have to do with writing? Well, I particularly wanted to dwell on the second aspect. If you turn your back on all the wicked, evil patriarchal cis-gender patriarchal Western ‘stuff’ and start again, metaphorically butt-naked on your desert isle… Well, good luck with that. Maybe you can scratch out your new language and whatever you invent for symbols thereof with a piece of driftwood (from a naturally fallen tree, of course) in the wet sand. I am sure happiness, fame and wealth (oh wait. You wouldn’t use something as tainted by evil Western Capitalism as ‘money’)… ah. And droogal (which is like money, but is absolutely un-similar, and can’t buy anything) will rush to your door… uh. Your sand. You don’t have doors.

For the rest of us, we build on the ruins of yesterday, cheerfully re-using their stones. But aside from mocking the conceit of the twits who don’t grasp this, what I was thinking specifically about was the ‘world’ or ‘universe’ that writers build for works of fiction.

One can buy a ready-made structure and piece of property. Let’s face it, that’s the easy way. Quite the sensible path, too, and can have brilliant results. BUT… it’s someone else’s design, with the shape and constraints they put on it. The best you can do is with characters (and, if like me writing in James H. Schmitz’s Karres series, not even too much of that). It can still work exceptionally well IF the initial building was sound and allowed for extension.

Or you ‘buy off plan’ – that is to say, write in the real world. That too can work really well. The only down side is that a lot of other people seem to know this too. With a bit of ingenuity you can ‘put your mark on it’

Then, of course, you get to ‘the real fixer-upper, the renovators dream’ the area in which we find almost all sf/fantasy. Whether you’re talking about DUNE or CHANUR or my DRAGON’S RING… or any one of ten thousand high fantasy novels (which are, as often as not, built on a ‘framework’ of LORD OF THE RINGS (which itself draws heavily from Germanic and Scandinavian sources, to name some)) many, many stories take their basic structure from known real historical (or biological) parallels. The one great thing about this is you know they work. There probably is still functioning plumbing and maybe a roof that needs work… but a lot of the basics are done. That doesn’t mean that many authors haven’t managed to turn a habitable universe into a disaster area, transposing horses, and knights and all the bits they fancied into a fantasy world without a vestige of the practicalities that fed those horses or the relentless looting and warfare that existed to create and nurture a hierarchy topped by a knighthood. I’m a practical sort of guy and I have to admit that a lot of high fantasy takes my willing suspension of disbelief, throttles it, shoots it through the head, dismembers it and buries the remains in quicklime. But that hasn’t stopped millions of people reading and enjoying it.

Of course the ‘renovation’ required varies a lot. Some authors settle for roughly filing off the serial numbers and adding a few bits of gratuitous sex and violence, or a few tack-ons of magic that has no basis in logic and lacks internal consistency… and still sell well. Plainly that is what their audience are happy with. Good for them, they got it right. It’s not to my taste and so I neither buy it nor write it, but it works.

At another level entirely come the great renovators. Tolkien. C.S. Lewis, Frank Herbert and Gene Wolfe spring to mind. They used a few stones (often from several older ‘buildings’) added a huge amount of their own and the structures they built were so superb – and with such attention to detail, and solid construction, that they far eclipsed the structure/s they were built on and from. They were so good that others used them to build on. But… well… yeah. Start young and construct your own languages and complex mythology… and you still have to be the writer with the skills and knowledge of JRR Tolkien. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you think that’s you. The one thing I am sure of is it isn’t me.

And finally there’s the bare bit of land with, at most a few fence posts. Man, this is HARD. Hal Clement’s A MISSION OF GRAVITY – but that suffered a little in that the aliens thought rather like humans. Robert L Forward’s DRAGON’S EGG is truly brilliant in this respect. I’d rate Niven as a first rate creator of ‘new’ aliens which have little material from other ‘buildings’. I hope you can do this. I’ve enjoyed the results enormously… but it’s a MOUNTAIN to climb. Mount Lookithat. It’s how many things depend on and inter-relate with other things to make an internally consistent universe that is terrifyingly hard. It’s not a whole lot easier on my little farm, and I am grateful I can import material from elsewhere. I’ve just put in about a quarter mile of poly-pipe which has meant I can have water at my orchard. If I had to do that by drilling the knots out of bamboo-stems… or by digging a ditch with a sharp stick… yeah well. I’d be carrying water, and making something to carry it in. There is clay there…. About 4 foot down.

So: I find myself in the writing world at least working mostly on ‘fixer-uppers’. The key here is looking for good underlying structure (and, er, ‘location’ – in a genre that has appeal and growth potential. Not something overstocked and under-popular. The writing suburb ‘Likelytowinnahugo’ may be undergoing gentrification, but it is overpriced and not a growth area). Choose a location you like, and remember you can gather materials from diverse prior ‘buildings’ – as long as they fit together or at least don’t conflict. For instance, I took the aliens of RATS, BATS & VATS – for the Khorozhet, biology from starfish and sea-urchins, and of course the rigid hierarchy from Byzantium. The politics I cobbled in from pure communism – the ‘magh, to Shavian Socialism for HAR’s two tier society, to the utter libertarianism of the ‘Rats’… It’s a question of looking at what you have and working out how you can possibly fit it all together, and make it work.  A bit like my building – where I have the remains of three houses and a chook shed for materials.

I might manage to rebuild the chook shed…

*Just not well, or successfully.

** Make sure one is a lit match.

 

 

 

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Bleed Red

I was at sea on 11/11 at 11 past eleven… when we remember the guns falling silent on the Western Front. I did manage to notice the time and spend a minute in silence, remembering. Barbs’s father actually served in that war, having enlisted in the Navy, lying about his age, and having had a daughter at 59. It’s not that far behind us. The courage and sacrifice of soldiers is too easily and too often forgotten – particularly by writers. It’s in part why I wrote the RBV books.

I’ve been reading about Beersheba (1917) – the last great cavalry charge of the Anzac forces. It’s a fool, an even bigger one than I am, who does not try to read and learn about the history and people of the country he lives in, and this is doubly true if you weren’t born there, and absorbed it all your life. Besides as a writer, it’s always grist for the story mill… except in this case it isn’t. No piece of modern, plausible fiction could include it. The Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade charged into the face of machinegun and rifle fire and took the trenches of Ottoman Turks, with their bayonets in their hands, rifles on their backs.

Man… I know they were Australians not Scots, but kilts would have been more comfortable for men with balls that size. It’s almost impossible not to respect that kind of courage.

Mind you, just going over the top – as tens of thousands of men did, well, they probably all needed kilts. This – the trenches of Somme – shaped JRR Tolkien. This, in its way, made the LORD OF THE RINGS what it is. It’s a far, far cry from the caliber of self-elected ‘elite’ of modern sf and Fantasy, having tantrums because someone was so terribly, terribly, horribly awfully insensitive and used the term evil ice-cream name ‘tutti-frutti’ in the title of con talk. You have to laugh. We’ve passed through micro-aggressions, down through nano-aggressions, into pico-aggressions. And they’re demanding ‘respect’. I had a few orificers who demanded respect, back when I was in the army. They didn’t get it: it’s not something you can ‘demand’. It’s given, when it is earned.

You have to wonder what ‘great literature’ to rival Lord of the Rings pico-aggression meltdown will produce. I’m sure that it will be Hugo-worthy.

Anyway, to leave irrelevancies behind (they tell us they’re important but, to give you a practical example of the 7000 + hits on Dr Mauser’s post last week… only 5 (Maybe if the post had been in Mandarin it would be different) came from that ‘vital’ multi Hugo award winning site, file 770, where these self-nominated ‘important’ people hang out. Most of them are clients or dependents of various panjandrums in the slowly dying and shrinking traditional publishing industry.) and to talk about what those men – from many countries and backgrounds, who mastered their fears and rode a horse at entrenchments, charged with fixed bayonets at entrenched foes, or poured out of landing craft in the face of withering fire.

Men from many nations. Men from many backgrounds. And yet… very alike. I know, it’s become fashionable to divide the human race, and pretend we’re not alike in any way. We have different cultures, different backgrounds. Maybe Pommie bastards do get on better with Poms than with Frog-eaters. I chose those terms with deliberate intent, and not just to show what an insensitive clod I am – because you all knew that.

You see: Western culture at its apogee, has an odd, admirable trait – we’re kind to the weak, to the small children, or to the mentally incapable. We don’t put them down or take the Mickey. That would be cruel and pointless. That’s for equals – or even superiors or those who are far more powerful, who will give it back in spades, unless they think we’re the weak, small children or the mentally inferior. I’m thus always mystified as to why some people want to denigrate women or people of other races by treating them as if they were weak, children, or mentally inferior — or why anyone would want to be treated that way.

To return to ‘human’. Take Tolkien, again. His family were epitome of Englishness – and yet… The family origin is German. Just as I study to be Australian, to read the poetry, to read the books, to mix as much as possible with the ordinary people of my country, they did, and had become very English. Which kind of brings me, finally, to my point for tonight. Most of the time I think giving the audience pretty much what they want and expect is probably a good selling technique. There is a time however, when I personally can’t do it.

When Eric and I wrote PYRAMID SCHEME – one of my characters was South African – a zoologist, Liz De Beer. Now, those of you who know me, know I was writing just what I know about. The character is loosely modeled on two South African female Zoologists. We got a complaining critique – they enjoyed the rest of the book, but the authors plainly knew nothing about South Africans. Liz was simply an American woman, who sounded and behaved and thought like an American woman with a few irrelevant bits of fake foreign-ness from people who knew nothing about South Africa.

Huh. I wrote her in the entirety. I’d spent a whole 10 days in the US, ever. If Liz sounded and behaved ‘American’, the problem wasn’t my ignorance of South Africans of her background, culture, and education.

The problem was that the reader had their own illusion of what a ‘South African’ was. I realize, now, with the 20:20 vision of hindsight, that what they wanted was for Liz to be their caricature stereotype of a ‘bad white South African’ and I had written something ‘false’ because instead I showed her as just as human as an American woman. I have news for them – people aren’t caricatures, or stereotypes. Not even Pommie bastards or Frog-eaters – we know that, just as we call them that.  I know my French and English cousins well.  The family likeness of character over-rides the differences of language and culture, and we’re very fond of each other, respect and trust each other and insult each other a great deal.  People are varied, and some of them will be very like you in what they do and feel and want. And some vast differences may exist… but I can’t, honestly, write something that fits their delusions to feed their bigotry. And I am far from the only author facing this. This American of Korean extraction found the same situation.

We are different. But we’re not caricatures or stereotypes. And most of us bleed red.

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How little one knows oneself

As John has talked about it on FB, I’m going to break my tradition of not talking about books until the contracts are signed. I’ll be writing a novel in the BLACK TIDE RISING universe with John Ringo.

About maybe 10 years back John said that the Hugo Awards were systemically biased against conservative authors. I was one of the people who said ‘Oh bullshit’, on the assumption that no one would be that petty – or that stupid. Of course, later, when I actually looked at the figures, I found out he was completely right, and I had been completely wrong. I apologized. I was wrong. John was a gentleman about it, and somewhat later I got an invitation to submit a story for an anthology set in that universe. Now, the BTR universe was a big departure for me from my normal sf of fantasy, which are not what one could call ‘near future’ or ‘really plausible’ – but it was something I enjoyed, felt at home with so I wrote with the I hope I could manage to suspend disbelief and take readers along for a ride. I can’t be total failure at it because despite zero marketing and people David Gerrold advocating boycotts, I’ve sold a reasonably large number of books. But… this is near future and IMO dangerously plausible for some form of biological terrorism/warfare. The nearest I had ever come to it was CHANGELING’S ISLAND (which has a substantial fantasy element set in the ‘real’ world).

It’s not my kind of thing, right? I have enough to do without going off on a short-story tangent. I would have politely declined… BUT I thought it was generous gesture, I appreciated that, and what the hell – I’m a hack. I can write anything…

Well, maybe. Within limits.

When I set out to write a first person ‘Cozy’ Murder-mystery from a timid urban female priest’s POV (which is about far as you could get from me) with absolutely no violence on scene… I did it. But it stretched and challenged me. It was HARD.

So there were doubts, real ones. I’ve tried hard to shift my envelope, to keep learning and growing as a writer. But all of us do have limits.

Of course (and probably unsurprisingly to most of you. It’s what I do best and have a natural talent for. My métier, you might say) I was being a fool. I  actually loved doing it, and – unlike my female priest – I was writing right in my comfort zone. I’m not a super-skilled veteran like the sekrit squirrel (insider joke. He writes ‘Military SF’ and not for Baen) but I’ve kicked around in a few wild and lonely spots, often exercising my métier. If you live through that often enough, you have stuff to write from experience.

So the take-away from this: if you think something is outside your comfort zone: you need to try it. Maybe you’re as rotten a judge as I am.

One of my ‘bad judgements – which a lifetime of being involved in various forms of volunteer (and less-than-volunteer – as a conscript) rescue/ search things has always proved true is that it takes extraordinary circumstances to show that someone who looks and seems ordinary, isn’t. ‘The good guy with a gun’ who ran TOWARDS the shooting and saved a lot more lives at the Texas church massacre, and the guy who drove the good guy chasing after the murderer, showed that in spades. There are some pretty good humans out there, to balance things out a bit. We tend to hear about the various Hollywood celebrities, and other nasties, but I can tell you from first-hand experience, there plenty of real heroes who are unsung. You know, I’d rather read stories about those ordinary folk who aren’t ordinary when the chips are down than about superheroes.

That was the appeal of ‘Mouse’ Padway in Sprague de Camp’s LEST DARKNESS FALL and Billy Danger in Keith Laumer’s GALACTIC ODYSSEY. Those are old books… but a great, still resonating concept. Some things change in sf/fantasy, but not that. Our ideas of the future have changed a great deal, and sf/fanatsy has changed with it… pushing the limits of what is different and daring.

Or has it?

I don’t think so. I think it’s stuck – principally for political reasons – in what was exciting and daring back in 1960. When I start seeing books that have the ideals of the modern US left (who got all their idea from new ones back then) as a utopia, and the inverse as the villains, the one thing I sure of – they’ll be as wrong about the future as everyone else, and possibly more so. And when you strip all the bull out of it, their demands for more navel-gazing amount to an attack what they fear most: a level playing field where readers decide what they’d like to read, and may the best writers win.

Here’s Dr Mauser’s take it. A good read.

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Watch my right hand…

Watch this right hand. It’s doing interesting and strange things…

We all KNOW this stunt.

We all fall for it (or most of us). Every. Darn. Time.

We know (or we should) what is being done. It doesn’t stop it working far too well. Whether it works for contracts or politics, it’s a human instinct. You know – or you should – when someone ‘leaks’ to a friendly media outlet (with its own credibility and possibly legal problems) they’re waving the hand that you’re supposed to see around. It happens in Australia, it certainly seems to happen in the US.

The keep doing it because it still works pretty well.

That’s the real world’s problem. Ours is slightly different. You see… we’re the ones waving the distracting hand (or rather prose) around. But we face a more complex task. You see it’s very rare that we don’t want the reader to – at the right time and right scene – see the other hand. Worse (for us) we want them to realize that they were actually seeing the other hand all the time.

It’s the centerpiece of the modern Murder Mystery, important in a lot of SF and Fantasy and very common in Romance. (I can’t say I noticed it in modern Literary Fiction much). It struggles in modern PC literature of any sort, because the characters are count the tokens and their roles are defined by their position in the hierarchy of victimhood. For example, you can’t have the lesbian token even appearing to be the villain, let alone actually being the villain, without attracting hissy fits.

One of the more common tropes – particularly in Romance, but I’ve seen it – and used it, in sf/fantasy – is the ‘villainous’ hero – the hero who looks like the villain.

Yeah. You’ve read it too. Done badly it is TBR awful.

Done well… it can be exceptional.

So: first off what IS ‘done badly’? Yes, I know. We all know it… and throw it, when we see it. But what makes that difference between bad and good? Quite simply: readers don’t like changing their allegiance to a character (and yes, we all identify with and root for certain characters) because the author says ‘ha ha, fooled you. Cousin Fred is the good guy after all.” If you as the reader suddenly find that Cousin Fred was doing his level best to save the heroine, but the writer was deliberately letting us see his worst characteristics, and his deeds in the most suspicious light (that ‘noisy’ right hand)… and you’ve spent the entire book eagerly waiting for Cousin Fred to get his comeuppance – to instead have him gain the heroine’s love and hand in marriage – you’re not going to be a happy reader.

BUT if from the get-go the deeds of Cousin Fred are colored with just that hint of the left hand… and the writer has slowly built sympathy and even possibly liking for Cousin Fred… a little whimsy desire to see him… at the very least, escape justice… that’s different. It usually works with his inevitable counterpart – the ‘heroic’ villain gradually having his sympathy and the reader’s trust eroded – so when he turns into the bad guy, they are relieved.

It’s NOT an easy trick to pull off well. The common murder mystery trope, where the villain appears innocent and another character appears guilty is an easier one, because you just have to set things up so that the guilty party would be the suspect, were it not for the loud right hand (and the visible but distracted from left, which makes them guilty). It can be simply about the mystery and both the patsy and the villain be rather unlikable (Midsomer Murders does this a lot. Heyer did to a lesser extent in her murder mysteries. When she did it in the romance arena she was a lot better at making us like the apparent villain – even when it was de facto a murder mystery (THE QUIET GENTLEMAN – where Theodore attempts to make it look as if the impetuous young Martin (the heir apparent, who has been ‘done out’ of his inheritance by unlooked-for survival of Gervase, is the guilty party, trying to kill Gervase. Now the hero of the story is Gervase, so the reader thinking Theodore dull and Martin painfully intemperate and impetuous is fine.

The classic example of the ‘villainous’ hero is in her ‘REGENCY BUCK’ –not one of my favorites, but really fine example of doing this cleverly and well. The author pulls off something probably way beyond my ability – She starts off with a moderately unlikeable heroine (which is done with a balance of PITA impetuous behavior, and a somewhat more impetuous and foolishly spoilt younger brother – the heroine is ‘redeemed’ by her high spirited self-reliance, and her care for her brother – and by the fact that the left hand shows (despite the right hand flashy displays of temper and outright foolishness) that she knows her errors. Won’t readily or happily acknowledge it, but knows it. The heroine takes a vast dislike to the ‘villainous’ hero on first meeting, and the author is careful to cast her experiences with him (in the attempts to murder her younger brother) as… ambivalent. In her eyes, he could be guilty. BUT the author lets us see things that the sister is unaware of: the ‘villainous’ hero destroying the debt-vowels that could take money from the younger brother and heir. The real villain – Bernard – allows him to wear the blame for this non-existent loss (but the reader knows it is non-existent) Bernard is thus gradually shown to be cozening rogue, but what the author has done is not so much to change the ‘villainous’ hero as to change the heroine gradually, and therefore her perception of the hero. We see relatively little from his point of view, and that carefully ambivalent – because that would reveal too early. But it’s a really brilliantly orchestrated piece.

Read it – as a study not as a pleasure (you’re better off with the repartee-dialogue in several of her others). But once you realize you’re being shown the left hand, just distracted from realizing it by the pyrotechnics on the right… you’ll understand how to do it yourself.

I wish I could do it half as well. I wish politicians did it worse.

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