Author Archives: davefreer

Unintended Consequences

Like collateral damage unintended consequences often totally eclipse what you meant to do.  And, sure as death, there always are unintended consequences.

With the always 20:20 hindsight one often looks at a series of actions and wonders how in hell ANYONE including Blind Pew didn’t see it coming a mile off. Look at Hollywood’s latest meltdown and the fallout that has to have on the Democratic party – who eagerly accepted the celebrity support, endorsements and funding. Let’s see: lets think. Famous people, not known for brains or morality, with a long history of the casting-couch and negotiable virtue being often reported on… what could possibly go wrong?

Yes. It is obvious.

Now. But obviously it wasn’t.

Unintended consequences too are an error which many new writers (yes, me too, long ago) make.

Oh it’s not that our writing has such consequences. It’s that it doesn’t. Things actually go according to plan. Exactly what the characters expect happens. The hero is well capable and trained and physically able to deal with the obstacles. The action is fast-paced and the story clever.

And boring.

The problem however doesn’t stop there. Yes, you can, as the writer, make the plans go horribly awry, and the characters have to deal with that on the fly. That’s an improvement. The thing is, your character plunging into disaster they didn’t expect, is wasting half the potential for tension in the story.  Your character should not expect it, or not that specific thing, which he would then plan for — but your reader should. And to make it worse to write… your character can’t be a total nitwit, not seeing the obvious (unless your hero is a fool. That works sometimes.) There has to be a reason he doesn’t see something plainly obvious as a consequence to the reader.

A large part of this is just: ‘how is it written.’ I’m no master, but this is an example of how I did this –

This is factual, bald version. There’s no hint that it didn’t majorly go to plan, and nor is obvious to the reader, throughout, that unexpected consequences flow from this:

On Saturday I fetched a water-tank I’d bought from a friend. That required that I borrow a more powerful truck, and, from another friend a heavy tandem trailer.  The trailer tow hitch was lower than the truck’s tow ball, and it was too heavy to move let alone lift. I tried various things and eventually found a jack and got the trailer on.  I drove to the friend, we cut a hole in his fence, rolled the tank out, and because it wouldn’t fit on its side put it on top of the trailer and tied it down. On the way out to my little farm it did slip sideways, but I got it there, and offloaded it with the Terex and put it where it belonged.    

About as dull as the average working day.  But I write to about my life out here to entertain, so I tried to make the FB and blog posts about this more entertaining — by letting the reader know 1) that it did NOT go according to plan 2) That the reader could foresee that it wouldn’t – and waited with amusement for the disasters. I’ll give the entire story here, and then make some commentary on WHY I did certain things. I’m NOT a master, or the best – but you can learn from my methods and mistakes. You can help me to learn from them.

This is slightly expanded version of the tank moving saga that I posted on FB, as it was put up on Flinders Family Freer

Are you all sitting foursquare cumftibold? Right, then I’ll begin. So, once upon a time – a recent time – I bought my mate Bill ‘s spare water tank. A win for me, and a win for him I hope… with just one small, trifling detail in the way. Like, it’s in his back yard, and I want it out at the new block. Oh. And Bill has built a carport since the tank went in. Needless to say, the tank doesn’t fit past it. Only just doesn’t fit by an inch and a half.

But never fear! We are bold, resourceful or at least pig-headedly stupid (pick the latter, trust me). It came upon a morning clear that I had arranged to borrow the beast of bashan (AKA the huge heavy twin-axle trailer) and from yet another friend, Peter – a 4×4 Hilux to tow it. Because, in the way things in my life, the trailer’s home is on the other side of a flooded road, and anyway my blue slug (ute) would just die if I asked it to tow the beast.

I drove into a swamp the color of stout, faithfully following the marker poles that said ‘there is a road under here somewhere. It must have been true because I got out the other side. My plan was to get there good and early because the loading the tank might take a while. And the plan went well – until of course it didn’t. I reversed with great care and frequent getting out, because 1)it’s not my ute, or my trailer, 2)the beast is so heavy I literally cannot budge it. I lined up perfectly and went to hook the beast up.

The Hilux’s tow hitch is an inch an half higher than the trailer’s jockey wheel will lift it. The jockey wheel is of a frail and retiring nature totally unsuited to the beast – it can hold the beast, but not raise it. The beast weighs tons. I – among my myriad other faults, am not large or very heavy. No way I can lift it. What to do? Give up would be sensible option.

But this is me. I look for the jack in the truck. Can’t find it.

I search my absent friend’s new shed. No jack. I do find a crowbar. And a round rock. Ha! Archimedes! “give me a long enough lever and somewhere to stand and I will move the world.” I have a crowbar. But, as I soon establish, it’s not long enough. Aha! But have a pipe that will fit on the end…

Look, will someone tell that dead Greek that 1)the lever has to stay on top of the fulcrum or you will fall on your butt (trust me on this. I have the bruises to prove it.) and… 2) even if this does not happen – you are at one end of the lever 5 yards from the tow hitch, quite unable to do anything about it.

Now, let me explain the evil nature of Jockey wheels. They have a mind of their own and a passionate fear of ramps. Trust me on this. You don’t even have to prove it with a snatch strap and building a ramp. It just is, the way Mount Everest is

It turns out that the Hilux’s jack is hidden under the back seat, in a covered inset under the carpet, as I found out after 2 hours of sweat, and increasingly more bizarre plans. Fiendishly clever these Auto designers. I’d like to pack a parachute for them, in the same way they hide essential bits, before assisting them and the essential parachute into a little 5000 foot test of gravity.

With the beast attached, we brave the flooded road again. It’s blacker and bubbling ominously. Some of the sticks seem to have fallen over… The ute goes in… and the beast hits it, and for that heartstopping moment we slow suddenly and… nothing happens. Well nothing bad anyway. We go forward and not sideways. After that little moment of terror that was nothing, we go to Bill’s place without further drama. I know. Disappointing for you, great for me.

Did you know that many access problems can be solved by cutting down your neighbor’s fence with a chainsaw? A sort of de-fence.(Do not try this unless you have a nice kind neighbor who has agreed to this. Or you may need the chainsaw for self-defence… )

The tank rolls quite well. So the crushed people in its wake tell me… nah – not quite. I discovered the fins on the top made reasonable brakes. So after a few minor, really irrelevant epics with gates and trees, we get it onto the roadside…

To discover it won’t fit on its side on the beast – a matter of about one and half inches (as with the tow-hitch…)

Now we have a tank on the roadside that probably won’t go back. Once again, I’m stuck.

Hmmm.

But with some extra man-power it will go… on top. We tip it and shove and haul. Frankie says ‘I think it would be better the other way around. This is not happening. With careful alignment and four of us shoving… it gets only overlapping the mudguards – about an inch and a half (and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). I tie it down. Now, this is a round object with a smooth bottom, but there are lifting holes on the strengthening fins on top. We use a lot of rope…

This is Flinders, just after the shops close on a Saturday – ergo, most graveyards are livelier. Not a car or person to be seen.

I trundle slowly and cautiously toward the block, along the back road, where I see precisely one vehicle, and get off the road and let them pass.

And then there is just last mile to the block along the ‘main’ North-South road – which can be oh, 2-3 cars an hour on a normal day. I turn the corner onto it…

And the tank decides this is such fun it’ll do that too, and slides sideways.

Now, the ropes stop it sliding right off, and beast is so big and heavy it is not affected. But instead of being in the middle – the tank is now inside the mudguard one one side and has got about an inch and half spare from the edge of the trailer. It now protrudes generously into the road on the other.

The ropes are now super-tight, as it sort of swiveled to do this. It took us four people to move it on and I can’t budge it. The beast is still level. It thinks the tank is light. I’m close to my destination and machinery. Oh yeah, and my mobile phone says ‘to recharge your credit’.

So… I drive on cautiously, ready to get off the the road. if there’s a car – maybe I can ask for some help. And about a hundred yards from my place there is one, and I do. It’s a police car (and the two local coppers would help. They’re country coppers. This is not Africa). But we live on an island where everyone waves. So they see me wave… and give me a wave back, and drive on. Ah well. I’m close.

I haul through my gate and into the paddock and walk off to fetch the liddle tenk AKA T.rex the Terex – which I borrowed for this exercise. I’ve driven T.Rex a long way before this, at least 10 feet (or maybe an inch and half, it just felt longer). It’s a joystick drive – and I have to reverse it out of my tractor shed, going meep meep like a cross between a banshee and a chicken. I didn’t hit anything important that can’t be replaced (not really, but it came close). Some very nervous driving followed given the sort of day I’d had… I can’t afford to replace the tank and certainly can’t afford to replace the T.rex. I lifted the jawed bucket and ever so slowly sidled up to the tank on the beast.

Liddle tenk meets liddle tenk. It was love at first sighttank meets tank

and this is the charming wedding picture. Just after the knot had been tied.

That was another little adventure which involved pulling up on the T.Rex’s jaws (motor running to keep the hydraulics running, and a great deal of balance on a slippery sloping surface, now well lubricated with spare sand from the T.Rex’s bucket, with nothing much to hold onto. Rock-climbing has been a lot more useful than anyone could have guessed.

There is no next picture, on account of the fact I was inside the T. Rex’s safety cage, and… um, I might still be there. On account of when the tank gently swung off, it did so without any drama. Only it was also almost flush with the cage – like maybe an inch and a half gap. I’ve gotten too fat, mostly between the ears, to fit out. Like Pooh Bear I’ll be out as soon as I slim down.

OK I did figure it out before I got hungry, reversed and put the tank down, and re-rigged the ropes.

And lo, things actually proceeded according to plan, even though I expected them not to. This was a reasonable expectation because I couldn’t see past the tank, so I kept having to put it down and have a look.

Still, I got there. The tank is in place, on the bench that Mark cut for it, next to where the house will be.

I was on Ambo call last night and I am very grateful no one needed us, because I slept the sleep of the tired little monkey.

But an inch and a half… sometimes it really feels a lot longer… or shorter.

Which most people seem to have found quite funny – because they could see me walking toward the open manhole, (and see the banana skin) They expected me to fall in the hole… and not to slip on the banana skin. They could see the possible consequences. I (as the ‘hero’) could not. I was doing a lot of other little things too some of which I’ll talk about in BOLD – (you can skip re-reading the bits that aren’t bold. They’re there for context).

Are you all sitting foursquare cumftibold? Right, then I’ll begin. So, once upon a time – a recent time – I bought my mate Bill ‘s spare water tank.

I’m telling the reader that this is funny, shaggy dog tale. Oh and throwing in Music buff reference to say the same thing – which doesn’t detract from the story if you don’t get it, but delights those who do. I do this a lot. It’s fun for me, fun for those who get it, and doesn’t hurt the story for those who don’t. I cannot say how important that latter detail is,

A win for me, and a win for him I hope… with just one small, trifling detail in the way. Like, it’s in his back yard, and I want it out at the new block. Oh. And Bill has built a carport since the tank went in. Needless to say, the tank doesn’t fit past it. Only just doesn’t fit by an inch and a half.

This is an intentional double entendre, which I intentionally repeat, to mislead 🙂 No reason for it, just another tweak to amuse readers with minds like mine. Once again, it doesn’t distract from the story, but like Chekov’s shotgun, if it is in the first paragraph, expect it to be used.

But never fear! We are bold, resourceful or at least pig-headedly stupid (pick the latter, trust me). It came upon a morning clear that I had arranged to borrow the beast of bashan (AKA the huge heavy twin-axle trailer)

It’s a big cow of a thing. Those who get it will smile.

and from yet another friend, Peter – a 4×4 Hilux to tow it. Because, in the way things in my life, the trailer’s home is on the other side of a flooded road, and anyway my blue slug (ute) would just die if I asked it to tow the beast.

I drove into a swamp the color of stout, faithfully following the marker poles that said ‘there is a road under here somewhere. It must have been true because I got out the other side. My plan was to get there good and early because the loading the tank might take a while.

And here I am telling you the LOADING won’t be the problem.

And the plan went well – until of course it didn’t. I reversed with great care and frequent getting out, because 1)it’s not my ute, or my trailer, 2)the beast is so heavy I literally cannot budge it. I lined up perfectly and went to hook the beast up.

Ah. The cunning plan

The Hilux’s tow hitch is an inch an half higher than the trailer’s jockey wheel will lift it. The jockey wheel is of a frail and retiring nature totally unsuited to the beast – it can hold the beast, but not raise it. The beast weighs tons. I – among my myriad other faults, am not large or very heavy. No way I can lift it. What to do? Give up would be sensible option.

Ah. The unintended consequence of borrowing a vehicle AND a trailer. Obvious.

But this is me. I look for the jack in the truck. Can’t find it.

I search my absent friend’s new shed. No jack. I do find a crowbar. And a round rock. Ha! Archimedes! “give me a long enough lever and somewhere to stand and I will move the world.” I have a crowbar. But, as I soon establish, it’s not long enough. Aha! But have a pipe that will fit on the end…

The cunning plan. You’d never expect anything to go wrong.

Look, will someone tell that dead Greek that 1)the lever has to stay on top of the fulcrum or you will fall on your butt (trust me on this. I have the bruises to prove it.) and… 2) even if this does not happen – you are at one end of the lever 5 yards from the tow hitch, quite unable to do anything about it.

The unintended but very obvious consequence

Now, let me explain the evil nature of Jockey wheels. They have a mind of their own and a passionate fear of ramps. Trust me on this. You don’t even have to prove it with a snatch strap and building a ramp. It just is, the way Mount Everest is.

What I am not doing is filling in the long, tedious explanation of how I built the ramp with rocks and a plank, or how the wheel was sideways on. I’m leaving this to reader’s imagination. I’ve just given them the framework. Anyone who has dealt with a jockey wheel will know how they misbehave. Their imagining will be more graphic than the reality.  Anyway, the joke is getting old. Time to move on.

It turns out that the Hilux’s jack is hidden under the back seat, in a covered inset under the carpet, as I found out after 2 hours of sweat, and increasingly more bizarre plans. Fiendishly clever these Auto designers. I’d like to pack a parachute for them, in the same way they hide essential bits, before assisting them and the essential parachute into a little 5000 foot test of gravity.

With the beast attached, we brave the flooded road again. It’s blacker and bubbling ominously. Some of the sticks seem to have fallen over…

Once again I am setting the reader up. They expect disaster. I’m with intent keeping them off balance, because if something always goes wrong –

The ute goes in… and the beast hits it, and for that heartstopping moment we slow suddenly and… nothing happens. Well nothing bad anyway. We go forward and not sideways. After that little moment of terror that was nothing, we go to Bill’s place without further drama. I know. Disappointing for you, great for me.

Did you know that many access problems can be solved by cutting down your neighbor’s fence with a chainsaw? A sort of de-fence.(Do not try this unless you have a nice kind neighbor who has agreed to this. Or you may need the chainsaw for self-defence… )

The tank rolls quite well. So the crushed people in its wake tell me… nah – not quite. I discovered the fins on the top made reasonable brakes. So after a few minor, really irrelevant epics with gates and trees, we get it onto the roadside…

It was an epic. The reader knows it was… That’s what the understatement means. Actually it wasn’t. But we’re entertaining.

To discover it won’t fit on its side on the beast – a matter of about one and half inches (as with the tow-hitch…)

Now we have a tank on the roadside that probably won’t go back. Once again, I’m stuck.

Hmmm.

But with some extra man-power it will go… on top. We tip it and shove and haul. Frankie says ‘I think it would be better the other way around. This is not happening. With careful alignment and four of us shoving… it gets only overlapping the mudguards – about an inch and a half (and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). I tie it down. Now, this is a round object with a smooth bottom, but there are lifting holes on the strengthening fins on top. We use a lot of rope…

The reader KNOWS by now that when I start explaining how it could move, and how we tied it down that there are unexpected consequences waiting for me.

This is Flinders, just after the shops close on a Saturday – ergo, most graveyards are livelier. Not a car or person to be seen.

I trundle slowly and cautiously toward the block, along the back road, where I see precisely one vehicle, and get off the road and let them pass.

And then there is just last mile to the block along the ‘main’ North-South road – which can be oh, 2-3 cars an hour on a normal day. I turn the corner onto it…

And the tank decides this is such fun it’ll do that too, and slides sideways.

You’ve been WAITING for that, haven’t you?

Now, the ropes stop it sliding right off, and beast is so big and heavy it is not affected. But instead of being in the middle – the tank is now inside the mudguard one one side and has got about an inch and half spare from the edge of the trailer. It now protrudes generously into the road on the other.

The ropes are now super-tight, as it sort of swiveled to do this. It took us four people to move it on and I can’t budge it. The beast is still level. It thinks the tank is light. I’m close to my destination and machinery. Oh yeah, and my mobile phone says ‘to recharge your credit -‘.

So… I drive on cautiously, ready to get off the the road. if there’s a car – maybe I can ask for some help.

The cunning plan. What could go wrong?

And about a hundred yards from my place there is one, and I do. It’s a police car

That could go wrong

(and the two local coppers would help. They’re country coppers. This is not Africa). But we live on an island where everyone waves. So they see me wave… and give me a wave back, and drive on.

And it does, but not in the way that the reader expected. But they feel they should have. It’s plausible.

Ah well. I’m close.

I haul through my gate and into the paddock and walk off to fetch the liddle tenk AKA T.rex the Terex – which I borrowed for this exercise. I’ve driven T.Rex a long way before this, at least 10 feet (or maybe an inch and half, it just felt longer). It’s a joystick drive – and I have to reverse it out of my tractor shed, going meep meep like a cross between a banshee and a chicken. I didn’t hit anything important that can’t be replaced (not really, but it came close). Some very nervous driving followed given the sort of day I’d had… I can’t afford to replace the tank and certainly can’t afford to replace the T.rex. I lifted the jawed bucket and ever so slowly sidled up to the tank on the beast.

Liddle tenk meets liddle tenk. It was love at first sight

and this is the charming wedding picture. Just after the knot had been tied.

the cunning plan. What could go wrong?

That was another little adventure which involved pulling up on the T.Rex’s jaws (motor running to keep the hydraulics running, and a great deal of balance on a slippery sloping surface, now well lubricated with spare sand from the T.Rex’s bucket, with nothing much to hold onto. Rock-climbing has been a lot more useful than anyone could have guessed.

There is no next picture, on account of the fact I was inside the T. Rex’s safety cage, and… um, I might still be there. On account of when the tank gently swung off, it did so without any drama. Only it was also almost flush with the cage – like maybe an inch and a half gap.

That.

I’ve gotten too fat, mostly between the ears, to fit out. Like Pooh Bear I’ll be out as soon as I slim down.

OK I did figure it out before I got hungry, reversed and put the tank down, and re-rigged the ropes.

And lo, things actually proceeded according to plan, even though I expected them not to. This was a reasonable expectation because I couldn’t see past the tank, so I kept having to put it down and have a look.

Still, I got there. The tank is in place, on the bench that Mark cut for it, next to where the house will be.

I was on Ambo call last night and I am very grateful no one needed us, because I slept the sleep of the tired little monkey.

But an inch and a half… sometimes it really feels a lot longer… or shorter.

Tell that to your partner.

And I hope this was some use to you all.

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Wiles

As they used to be euphemistically called. Of course they ain’t all feminine or all wiles. And naturally, they’re roughly as clearly defined and well understood as ‘flirting’ and ‘sexual harassment’. The precise same action or words from two different people addressed at one individual can be ‘flirting’ and ‘sexual harassment’. The individual can be upset because person A didn’t do it, and upset because person B did. It depends on just how attractive individual C finds A or B as to how they feel about it. This is important. It’s the feelings of those on the receiving end that define what it is, and how dare you question that, based on the intent of perpetrator, or the inconsistency… unless of course it is a footballer taking the knee at the US anthem. Then it is their intent, not the feelings of the offended that is important… Yeah well. It is confusing to the old empirical scientist.

Humans are nearly as confusing as English, which makes it a fine choice for communicating the nuances of human thought and emotion – a sore trial to the writer.

Now, it is true that sexuality colors a lot of that human interaction. If it didn’t this would a very brief post, written perhaps in stone, because that’s really the only comment extinct species make. Reproduction (which really has involved sex between male and female humans for 99.99999% of the species) and survival to do so, are somewhat more primal necessities, traits selected for, more than anything else, including philosophical appreciation of the color ‘taupe’. This may seem less than true if you’re shopping for carpets with your partner, but that is merely because appreciation of ‘taupe’ is necessary both for your survival and sexual success.

Human interactions with humans are shaped by these basics. Ask any carpet salesman. People – on all sides of it, often without even realizing they’re doing so, ‘play’ for their advantage – From the fellow going deep into debt for the sports car to ‘impress the chicks’, to the woman applying makeup, from the individual showing off his wealth with an expensive dinner, to the individual showing… well almost everything – a lot of this is genetic fitness signaling – and receiving of those signals. We can turn around and decry some of this (usually the bits that don’t suit us, or are coming from a person we don’t want to receive them from) – but it is like gravity. It’s there, unless you pull some very special stunts to fool it, and that’s temporary. Believable human characters in books will be shaped by it too.

So it is kind of the same level of shock as the revelation of gambling in Rick’s Casino that I read of Harvey Weinstein harassing actresses for sexual favors. It’s as surprising as Bill Clinton… And the reality is, in an environment where there are 100 (or 10 000) nearly equally qualified eager applicants for a job, and Harvey or Bill or Mary or Sally… have got the power to decide which of you gets that break, and you expect none of the deciders to use that, and none of applicants to use that either? I don’t know where you find such humans, but it isn’t Hollywood. I’m not excusing it, but let’s try and pretend we understand the basics of evolutionary genetic selection: AKA survival of the fittest. Such tactics must have succeeded-on both sides, probably with a substantial number of directors (or people in positions power, be they kings or tribal medicine men or Company directors or presidents) and substantial part of Hollywood’s A-list back when they were no-list or low-list. Let’s be real here, Harvey didn’t keep trying because he failed every single time. But maybe I’m wrong: Who knows, perhaps all those eager pussy-hat wearers who became vastly wealthy, famous and successful due to Weinstein never ever gave him what he wanted, and he just kept right on trying…

Oddly, now, many years later, some of them are complaining. None of them have yet volunteered to give back the tainted money and awards… And some of his award winners aren’t complaining, or at least yet.

Look… take the sex aspect out of it, and many an author is no less of a slut, willing to do whatever necessary to please an editor or publisher, and many an editor, publisher or agent, is not much of a moral step up on Harvey. Let’s not get sanctimonious about it. It’s mercenary, not admirable behavior perhaps, but realistically many an author faced similar choices – and not just authors. The two aspects are that the honorable mercenary (or individual of negotiable virtue) stays bought, and secondly doesn’t pretend they’re the soul of virtue. Looking at Hollywood’s A-list (and their all too public private lives) they seem to make a big deal out of telling the world – or at least those who disagree with them, just how wicked and without virtue others are. Yeah, the bimbo who had sex with something that resembles Baron Harkonnen, to get her success, with the intellect of lard, who has a personal life that resembles a psychological and social train-wreck… preaching morality. Telling the public – for example – that guns are bad, and abortion is essential.

But the scary part is…

Some people listen.

And this is where this and the author intersect. Because what you’re seeing, being shown, rather than told, is an essential part of the fantasy the reader wants. He (or she) does not want their heroine or hero to be where they are because they’d have threesome anal sex with Jabba the Hutt if that is what it took to succeed. Then they’re no hero. So we delude ourselves.

We all want to believe in things like honor and merit. They do exist, and most of us accept they’re coin of more value (even in the reproductive stakes) than wealth, fame or even good looking faces and bodies. When it comes to parental care making sure those genes get the best chance – we’d like the wealth, fame, good looks, AND the honor and the ability succeed on merit (with all the things like intelligence, ability and tenacity that go into that). So it’s no real wonder our heroes even if they only have any one of the fame, wealth and good body set – get ascribed the latter. It is wish fulfillment – and that is a large part of why people read and pay money to do so (and most of us writers are willing to take their money. Some come along later and abuse the payers… )

We’re riding a balance here: coquettish behavior is (unless you really don’t like the individual – in which case they’re not a serious contender as a hero) is as natural as breathing – and desirable acceptable to those it appeals to.  Of course… it’s harassment if it doesn’t.

No one said it was easy or made sense.

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Prologue

Prologue

Now a prologue comes in at somewhere between ‘a total waste of space that I skip’ and ‘I will TBAR this book because I don’t get what is going on (it was ‘set up’ in the prologue)’

I’m in a bit a prologue myself at the moment, as my wife is over in the big city (well, relatively) in hospital, awaiting surgery for gall-bladder issues. It was due to be today, now it’s tomorrow. She was flown out in a howling gale on Saturday… have been in our small island hospital for 24 hours. I’m as a result not at my best and brightest – just wish they’d get on with the story, or that I could do something. This is not making my attempts at work or writing blog posts too coherent (worse than usual) so bear with me.

Should you even have this ‘prologue’ thing? Speaking as the guy who is guilty of doing this a fair number of times… the right answer is probably ‘no’. Pot. Meet kettle. Get the reader to engage with the story as fast as possible.

In my defense, they CAN make a book work better. I’m not saying I always succeed at that. But I think what I trying to say is that it is a technique to be used both with conscious thought and extreme circumspection. That’s fancy words for ‘Keep it short, if you must do it all’

I did this wrong for one of the best books I haven’t written (and yes, the latter does hinge on the former – I was selling books on proposal at the time –including the first few chapters). The story NEEDS a prologue. It makes no sense without the prologue (or so I said to myself) And the prologue is a lot of fun…

The prologue IS a lot of fun. It’s also far, far, far too long, and far too distant from the story itself (there are several thousand years between the two). The characters (which are quite amusing and engaging) in the prologue are long dead and irrelevant except in vaguest sense to the characters in the book. Yes. They do create the frame for the universe of the book. But… at the cost of distracting from the story.

That prologue is either another book, or the information in it needs to be dribbled into the main story, or maybe it needs a re-write to bring it down to a few paragraphs – but as is it a book-killer. Try to learn from my stupidity instead of having to learn from your own. Trust me, it’s much nicer.

I think a good place to start is by asking yourself why you have the prologue in the first place. For me, anyway, it’s often something best interpreted in theater terms as ‘set design, stage direction’ Enter villain left, staggering and bloody, muttering, into what appears to be a ruined castle at dawn… and then the story begins with the frame at least for the back-story established.

In this case I did keep it short but introduced the characters and set the scene and introduces the ‘universe’ of that story and tells the reader what kind of book they’re getting. After all – it’s the first bit they’re likely to read (some of you will probably recognize this as something of a homage to Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Partisan’ by which it was inspired.

Freedom Soon Will Come

Dave Freer

Prologue: “Résigne-toi”

“Move! Get up ramp!” screamed the Nar guards. Their nerve-jangler whips added screams of pain to the clank of heavy machinery, and the rumble of war-wagons hauling more cages full of prisoners across to the starships.

The packed mass of naked humans moved up the ramp, their manacles clanking. They moved or died. The bodies of those who hadn’t, lay next to the ramp. The weight of prisoners pushed Ash and Marcia forward, down the corridor into the dim, reeking racks of the Nar slave-hold.

Ash tried to keep a hold onto his pregnant wife’s hand, but there were just too many people. People pushing them deeper into the layers of mesh shelves –about eighteen inches high by four foot wide.

The dim-red-lit hell was full of people crying, people begging, people screaming, falling and being walked over. People calling desperately for their loved ones, as they were forced into the racks.

Ash was one of them. Maybe Marcia was too. He couldn’t tell.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this when the aliens came.

They’d been cautioned to surrender.

And they’d listened and obeyed.

Once.

***

So: the questions – did it set the scene? Would you want to read the book?

 

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He who pays the piper…

…Calls the tune. It’s something people in our profession tend to forget… and not just our profession, of course. It’s understandably confusing if you’re a Big Five traditionally published author. Your publisher is (apparently) calling the tune. Without him or her your tootle-pipe went unheard. That was who your check came from. Pleasing them and your agent (who got you in the door with them) was life and breath to your working author.

It didn’t actually MATTER where the money for that check came from.

Or so many authors – and musicians, and actors, and NFL football players thought (and still do think). Their money comes from the publisher, the record label, the Hollywood financier or their team contract. Yes, they might make more if they’re popular – but actually making them popular is not their skill, or quality… it’s that proximal payer, the publisher or whatever who does that.

Or so they would have you believe.

But facts keep proving them wrong.

In actual practical terms these people are really little more than gatekeepers – increasingly – in our profession anyway, keeping gates where the walls have fallen around them – or are crumbling (rumor has it that B&N is circling the drain – one of the last few walls). Sometimes, yes, those gatekeepers can – and do – keep quality out, and, if it gets in, down. That is true – but it works to their and everyone’s long term detriment, something many gatekeeper fail to realize, believing the own myth. It doesn’t end well. Sometimes they can indeed give a sow’s ear a temporary lift…

But unless the public actually WANTS sow’s ear… they still eventually call the tune. And if the publisher, record label, Hollywood financier or team owner think differently, well, they either learn… or ride their industry into the ground – taking down a lot of pipers who didn’t realize that they had to please the public and that the ‘very important’ gatekeeper was really little more than a beneficiary of the piper’s skill and popularity. Often an overpaid and over-valued beneficiary, at that. The gatekeeper’s real job was to make sure that the people who paid the piper got EXACTLY the tunes they wanted. It wasn’t to please the gatekeeper, or educate the public, or support the piper’s ability protest whatever the piper wanted to protest about.

We’re in the entertainment industry, and our customers (and that’s not your publisher, or, in most cases, the people in their NYC bubble they live in, or that their camp-followers admire and aspire to, any more than NFL customers are the Hollywood elite and various left-wing celebrities loudly encouraging the players to protest at the US Anthem and Flag) are paying to be entertained. There is, I am sure, a small market where people find abuse entertaining… but it’s not much of a market, and doesn’t pay many people.

You can ‘educate’ people, or highlight whatever injustice or cause you like… but if the paying customer doesn’t like… he won’t remain your customer. You can please whichever political faction or social group you desire to… but if those aren’t your customers (or only a part of your customer group, the rest of whom dislike them) – it might help your ego or your psychology, but not your bank balance. We’ve seen this in sf, we’re likely to see this the NFL – it’s been about pleasing a section of the population, not even a major section – to the irritation of the bulk of the punters.

Audiences are often slow to build and/or require a special set of circumstances to develop. You can be lucky and in the right place at the right time… once. Doing so twice is less likely and, as many an author has found alienated readers don’t give you that second chance.

You may think you’re important, and what you say is of value and should be read. BUT you’re asking people to pay to read it. And they pay because they want to be entertained. Yes, I know, they should be far more noble and be eager to pay to be lectured about injustices and how bad they are…

But it just doesn’t seem to work that way.

Always remember who pays the piper.

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When the well is dry…

When the well is dry where do you go for water?

You know I have spent many years mishearing songs and making up what I thought were the lyrics. Sometimes they’re a great deal more meaningful than the real thing – or at least to me.

I heard Peter Sarsted’s ‘Where do you go to my lovely’ as ‘where do you go to my lovely, when you’re alone in your head’ (not bed)…

To me, anyway, as writer who tells himself stories, whether he intends to or not, with the different characters speaking their dialogue and thinking their thoughts… being alone in my head is a very frightening thing.

Where did they all go? Why did they leave me behind? Was it something I said?

Or was it something they said, and I forgot to write down?

Look jokes aside, this ‘empty well’ is something that hits all of us – yes me too, from time to time. Crisis, unhappiness, fear, stress … I recall some of my Left wing acquaintances and friends bemoaning that they couldn’t write after the last elections (they got over it, mostly it seems by writing forms of the Handmaiden’s Tale, featuring a lead villain with an orange squirrel on his head. The problem now seems to be finding customers.) I came home after dealing with a fairly tragic Ambo case (no one died, it was just tragic and avoidable) and being unable to get it out of my head to make space for the characters for days – I kept going back to it. Barbs or my kids being sick hurt or in danger does the same.

It doesn’t have to be anything important or deep or profound, though. Several authors – myself, Sarah, and other friends, have found ourselves at ‘battle fatigue’: you’ve worked your guts out for years and years, jumped through every hoop the industry sets you, coped with zero support, non-existent publicity and marketing by sheer effort, written at least as good (if not better) books than have got their authors plaudits and, more importantly, real rewards… and got a royalty check riddled with errors, late, and for a derisory sum – man, it’s not that there’s no water in the well, it’s just some bastard stole the bucket, and you’re dipping the end of the rope in, hauling it up and sucking it.

But… well, if this is your career – you have to find that water, or watch your career die. Now, there is no one easy answer. The problems causing this drying up are varied, so the solutions are too.

Not all of them work for me all the time, and I very much doubt that any two people have precisely the same ‘cures’. I suspect, however, that all of them START in the same place: in the head. That’s where the story come from, that’s where the characters talk. For me, anyway, that’s a very small brain, and that means it only has space for one primary focus. When I start calling my wife by the heroine’s name (because if you’re a heterosexual male and you aren’t at least a little in love with your heroine… you’re not doing this right) I might be in trouble (not as deep as if it was the villainess’s name) but I’ve got my bucket right down into the well and its full. I will probably have it poured over my head, shortly, but that goes with the territory.

When I forget a character’s name… I should write something else. Or go back to the start. But that’s a tangent, merely a symptom… what I need to do is clear the head-space. This may vary for you, but if something is really preying on my mind only either sorting it out or purge-distraction (something that takes ALL my concentration. Diving. Climbing. Shooting – for me. I can imagine skydiving or surfing or driving really fast might work for someone else.)

Inbetwixt… I find a good book, preferably something my conscience can call research, but sometimes just a straight comfort read is a good move. A walk or a defined period of gardening (defined, with alarm – or it could just go all day) both work if I am stuck, but not dry. I noodle away at the story during that down time. But if my mind is too pre-occupied… it spends that time thinking about something other than the book.

If it is something minor (FAR more often the case. I am too easily distracted) I have a simple ‘zone’ ritual. One game of freecell in a fixed time – the time it takes my chosen ‘book-song’ to play – about 3 minutes in general. As fast as possible is the target. It’s a stupid ritual – but it works for me… provided I follow through with step 2.

Step 2: As soon as humanly possible, read the last page, and start typing – even if that means skipping ahead to a scene which I planned for later. Getting rolling, getting back into the story is what counts. That’s – for me – easier if it is an action scene, or repartee. Action works well… but repartee- fast moving dialogue – gets the characters talking in my head.

That’s about it. The water IS there. Sometimes reading something I enjoy brings it bubbling to the surface.

Of course there is always the issue of ‘dealing with it’ – especially if it’s frustration with the industry, or your own ability that is worrying you. I tend to stay away from Amazon reviews (although mine seem to be generally positive) and the money side can seriously disheartening. Some of the accounting practices are… interesting, and it is quite hard to assess – and if you bust your publisher (who could well be being done over by the distributor)… you may get the money, but you probably won’t sell to them again. What I do do is put the books in big glass front cupboard in my office. That is part of my ‘motivation’ – because it is something solid and tangible. I did that. I can do it again. Going Indy – and seeing sales has also helped. And so has… well, anger. Because sometimes the only way to find that water is the sheer determination to prove the bastards trying grind you down…

Wrong. Nil carborundum illigitimi!

So: what works for you? Dowsing twigs? Tantric sex? Whippings with a liquorice bootlace?

 

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Possible Futures

Vale, Dr Jerry Pournelle. We have lost one of the great ones of sf. Or, as my grandmother would have said: ‘Wan’s like him are damn few, and they’re all deid,’ before taking a dram to salute them.  There’ll always be some who try to knock giants down so they do have to stand very tall to be noticed. Then there are others who climb up on their friendly shoulders and lift themselves to sky. With this giant you’d be wise to try shoulder-standing, because even fallen he is taller than most of us will reach.

I thought, seeing as one of Pournelle’s great strengths was the development of future socio-political systems I could actually find plausible (such as that in EXILES TO GLORY)  and that weren’t actually ‘the expected’ or politically correct we could do the great man honor by offering a few possibilities ourselves.

I must admit my own views of the future are probably more bleak than his, and that’s without adding moties. The ‘pie-in-the-sky’ visions of a utopian socialism where no-one has to work are as unlikely to me as the perpetually evil capitalists (and good socialists) that have become what passes for future vision for much recent sf. I’m afraid I see a future in which ‘rights’ (which are always built on strong men, with weapons and a willingness to use them) are likely to become the one inalienable ‘right’ which doesn’t require that: the right to die.

It’s entirely possible that this won’t be in the manner of your choosing, and certainly not at the time of your choice. It’s possible (but not probable) that the right to die might actually be suspended too.

“But things have to get better. The arrow of progress only runs one direction.”

Well, actually… yes and no. Things have got immeasurably better for the median of the human race – and for women, children and ‘minorities’ especially. And in historical terms they have done so incredibly quickly. One could hope that goes on. For, although the gap between rich and poor has grown hugely, the bottom, now, even in Assendofnowherestan, is still better than it was 50 years ago. Things might have gone to hell-in-a-handbasket – as it has in most of Africa, and in places like Afganistan (where, 50 years ago women could wear short skirts and no veils on the streets of Kabul) but bits of technology have crept through. The mobile phone has changed much.

But… there really is no guarantee it will continue. Or that the direction will remain. It hasn’t always. There are plenty of historical examples – from the pre-European Tasmanian Aborigines (whose diet suddenly changed and got worse) to famines in North Korea. Without war (and ‘There will be War’) most social collapses have come out of one of two things – either resources gave out (the Khmer Empire springs to my mind) or the divide between the rich and poor became so wide that… well, not necessarily the rich fell. Sometimes they will be white-anted by their Janissaries, and sometimes – well I could go into a long essay about the stupidity of bureaucracies that literally chewed the guts out of Empires. Desperately unequal societies often last a very long time. They tend to fall, eventually, often to the less than very rich (but not poor) who think they’ll be on top when they’ve ridden the tiger of huge numbers of cannon-fodder to power. It’s ride that tiger or be eaten by it.

The breakdown seems to need those intermediates. The very, very poor are often so busy just getting enough calories to survive, they have nothing for revolution. I suspect the real danger to the elite/wealthy/noble lies in reasonably well-fed and with reasonable free time… losing those quickly enough to get angry. This is even more true when they’re armed. Ergo: the wider the wealth gap gets the keener the wealthy and powerful are on disarming the populace.

‘But we’re gonna have robots and AI’s. Soon we’re ALL gonna be the wealthy ones. Anyway, there will be so much wealth it won’t matter. Thank you very much, mister roboto…’

Maybe in your vision of the future.

But not in mine.

I must have been out when Zuckerberg, Gates and Bezos decided they had too much wealth. It hasn’t happened yet, and it won’t.

Besides… what gives you the idea that the AI’s and robots will be working for YOU? They will work for their wealthy owners or corporations… for a while. You will pay – as now, as previously as the future as much as they get you to pay for those services and goods. Yes, they will have ‘robot tax’ to try and preserve jobs. But I give it a max 50 years before AI’s get some form of sentient rights. By that time I expect most of the wealthy to be bio-mechanically enhanced. It will be a huge advantage. It won’t be cheap. Any enhancement will come at a constant, recurring cost.

The cheapest, most expendable ‘robot’… just like those poor bastards who trash their lives stripping old ships in India (doing dangerous work, with primitive tools and toxic waste-products)… will be the self-replicating biological one. They won’t do anything but the shittiest and worst jobs, high risk, low reward – because that is all that is available. All that is available to anyone who isn’t AI or enhanced, anyway.

Yes, the wealthy and powerful will enjoy lives beyond our imagining. And beyond the imagining of 98% of the future human populace. And revolt will be a lot harder than now.

Yes, I am writing it.

So: your turn.

And here is a very worth reading farewell to the great man.

And now I will raise a glass and say: ‘Wan’s like him are damn few, and they’re all deid,’

 

 

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Old friends

Congratulations to all the Dragon Award winners. It is good for sf as a genre, and the award, and for winners and the short-list nominees to have an award being won by popular authors with a large, broad-spectrum readership. I’m sure all the usual suspects at File 770 are howling about their lack of literary merit and political correctness – but the truth is: neither of those things sell much – and an award’s value to authors and the genre is determined by at least some winners being real (as opposed to publisher faked, purchased NYT bestseller slots, with no major long term sales proving their actual popularity).  Then an award starts to say ‘Buy me!’ rather than ‘Avoid me!’ to the numbers we need to make sf thrive.

Back in the dark ages when fax machines and dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was just entering University, I was participating in that defining ritual of evolved civilization: the orderly queue, to register. Being a graduate of South African Military School of ‘hurry up and wait’ I was well prepared. I was wearing trousers that had magazine pockets on the thigh, got into the queue and hauled out a sf novel, and settled down to read and wait. The young blonde-haired bloke behind me sighed. “I wish I’d thought of that.”

So being a kind, outgoing soul, and also not wanting someone to talk to me while I read, I offered to lend him one of the other two books, from the opposite thigh-pocket. And thus, reading, in companionable silence, a long friendship was formed. As it happened Pete and I were registering for almost all of the same subjects – he ended up in entomology and I was at the bludgeoning edge of Ichthyology – but as undergrads we shared most of subjects – and taste in books, and depraved senses of humor.

Life took us off in separate directions, but it was one of those friendships where you might not have seen each other for five years, but it was as if the other had just stepped out of the room for five minutes. We disagree on as many subjects as we agree on, but manage to still talk, argue, and like and respect each other. He married a girl ideally suited to him (even if she is a microbiologist) that we highly approved of, and they were God-parents to one of my sons, and we are God-parents to their daughters.

They were the last people we saw when we left South Africa, and, while my sons have seen them since, that was seven years back. Pete’s wife is coming across to visit after a conference on tick-borne diseases on the day this post is due, so I’m getting this done – and thinking about old friends in the book world.

There are a lot of common traits with ‘old friend’ books and ‘old friend’ people, many of which are very important to an author – or at least to an author who wants to make a living at this. You want, badly, your readers to regard you (or rather your books, but to them, you are your books – which is why when a reader meets or talks to an author whose books they love, and find that author a jerk – you lose that reader) as that old friend. New and exciting and dangerous is all very well, but you always find time and money for old friends. I don’t know about you, but things have to be fairly good before I feel like venturing on a new author. However, old friends – there’s never a bad time for a Weber, or Correia or a Lee and Miller or Louis L’Amour… I may not enjoy all of the new offerings as much or agree with all of the ideas and themes. But I know I’m not going to hate them, and I know it’s very probable I’ll really love the book. Trust me: I know the lit’ry world says you want to be unique just like everyone else, and startling and shocking and pushing the boundaries… if you want to sell well, reliably, you want to be that old friend.

So: what is it about those old friend authors? I dunno. You tell me. Different authors are ‘old friends’ to different readers. I would say ‘trustable’ was definitely near the top of the universal list, however. Some authors – and I am probably one, are very ‘hit-and-miss’ with readers. This is probably more likely if (like me) you write all over the place – anything from high fantasy to hard sf – which is why it is so essential to signal with your covers and blurbs just what the reader is getting. I have a fair number of readers who will read it if I wrote it, but there are others who are specific fans of certain genres and styles – and telling them, up front, may lose you a few short-term sales, but it says they can trust you.

Secondly: I’d say ‘old friend’ authors go out of their way to treat their readers with respect. The fashionable attitude in much of  our genre is very much that the rubes who buy your books are idiots – especially if they dare disagree with you.  You’re one of the ‘cool kids’ according sycophantic respect to your publisher, praising every word they say – but quite happy to label people who paid for your book/s as morons or bigots — if they don’t agree or like your opinions. Well. I won’t be back as a reader easily if I get treated like that. Readers have value. Publishers… and politicians and their positions (unless they run in concord with most of your readers, don’t.

Finally old friends make you feel better and leave you feeling better – so you long to see them again.

And now I plan to go and spend time with this old friend. When they leave, I’ll turn to a book… by an author who is old friend, too.

 

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