Author Archives: davefreer

Looking forward, looking back.

Science Fiction particularly is, at least in theory, about looking forward…

But that may not be right direction for a writer – or even a society.

I’ve been re-reading THE COLOUR OF MAGIC – Sir Terry Pratchett’s first Diskworld book – which is really 3 novellas loosely strung together. It’s an absolutely fascinating exercise, in that you can see the writing of one great masters of comic fantasy work evolve.

I freely admit to being a fan and one who in my inept fashion used his writing as a role model (along with Douglas Adams and Tom Sharpe) for writing humor. No, I am not in the same league – my best are pale shadows of his first and, bluntly, worst. But that doesn’t stop me learning rom him and from this – because I promptly went back to my old manuscript cupboard and did something I would advise any writer to try. Actually in a broader context it applies to relationships, politics – whatever. Life in general.

I dug out really early book I wrote, never sold.

It was a great thing to do at several levels. We are often so busy pushing as hard as we can at the current book, current chapter current page… that the bigger picture gets lost.

Firstly, it was – at least in parts – moderately bad. I could see, now, how to improve things I just didn’t know how to do, back then, as well as things where my skills have increased and improved. I’m no Pratchett, but yes, I have got better at some things.

Secondly I could see how far I had come. That was very comforting and yes… to use that stupid newspeak word, empowering. I have improved and grown in skill. It was also a sharp lesson, and not of the ‘empowering’ kind. It was painfully obvious just how hard I had tried to make up for that lack of skill with effort, with sheer hard push and enormous depth of research and development of those characters (I wrote 3 page bios of each character. I haven’t done that in a while).

Oddly, one of the things that was very clear was that I’d lost the path I had found – which wasn’t a bad path. I find even at a micro-level, within a book (or chapter) sometimes I just need to go back. Sometimes just to think it through again, take a slightly different tack. And sometimes at a deeper level yet – reading this I realize that I need to go back to re-read Tom Sharpe before I write another funny fantasy.

The other thing that burned out of that manuscript that I’d lost – thumped out of me by the saga of battering my way through trad publishing and the horrible ‘in’ cliques of sf… was that incredible enthusiasm. Now… well that’s become dogged determination and sheer obstinacy. That’s… admirable, perhaps, but less attractive to some readers – particularly the younger ones than enthusiasm. I shall have to go back and try and recapture it – because it is readers I write for, and I kinda think they pick tone too.

Anyway, so there is my brief piece of useful advice for the aspiring writer, the no-longer quite so aspiring writer, and people in general. It’s worth looking at where we’ve come from. And sometimes – says the guy who grows his own food and shoots/catches or rears his own food – the right way direction is back. Maybe that’s what is happening across the world.

Anyway, talking of back, tomorrow (America’s afternoon) we have the Anzac Day dawn service. The forecast is for rain and misery. I will be going as always, despite it, to play my part in remembering the fallen. Wars didn’t stop for rain, and neither should the honors. I won’t be replying to posts as a result.

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Fertile Ground

There is, of course, naturally fertile ground. Volcanic soils are good in this way.

I think you can see the small drawback in that…

It doesn’t stop people, but it does sometimes end in tears, or at least ash. Nothing really is free and without consequences.

Otherwise… most fertility – of the soil at least, and possibly other kinds require a lot of input and a lot of work. Some people are willing to make those inputs and that effort (yes of course that was a double entendre. This is me writing not some modern literary darling). Others get grumpy when it doesn’t come easy.

But really, whether we refer to politics, gardening, or writing – or even selling writing: the same applies – your results will depend on the ground you sow into — and that is something you can control and influence.

If you’re writing a book preparing the ground is actually the hardest and most important stage of the entire thing. If you prepare the ground well (and the ground in this case is the reader’s mind) the story simply seems to evolve naturally out of it – characters did what they did because you had prepared the reader to see that as a natural consequence of the circumstance you (the author) had created in the reader’s mind and the character that you, the author had created. Foolish people say ‘oh that was an easy read’ (implied: the author is too stupid to write a turgid convoluted and un-natural thing that we are assured is award winning literature). It’s a lot harder to do well than to write stodgy work people have to force their way through – rather like a skilled ballerina or gymnast makes something hard look easy and effortless.

It’s always a balancing act between too much and too little.

Too much… an infodump of many pages may explain everything you need to know about an alien Womblebottom landing craft, and how to sabotage it, and may tell you that the heroine’s defining characteristics are her love for reading Alien tech manuals, and her ability to do telepathic welding… But it’s like preparing your 10 by 10 foot garden buy digging in a ton and a half of fish-guts – which are good in very small quantities, but will probably poison the soil for years in that volume. Information needs to be trickled in, and without the reader realizing they’re being set up.

The opposite of course is true too. The reader has no idea how to disable an alien landing craft, or even what the author means by that, so to have heroine just do it, by her amazing power that the reader never knew she had until she used it… that’s barren soil. Rocks.

Characters react in the way they believably, logically would react for reasons that are 1) built in preparing the reader for that behavior. In CHANGELING’S ISLAND I started preparing the reader for the way that Tim would react to circumstances in latter half of the book in the first two pages. 2) plausible for their mindset, body type etc. Characters are not chess-pieces or PC tokens. They’re people. If you want one a classic example of preparing the ground to give yourself later problems: consider the PC prescription in the token checklist. The gay character is always the sanest, kindest, and most reliable character. Now, that’s possible, but it does not stem from being gay. That is like assuming your skin color or religion defines your character… oh wait. The PC checklist makes just that assumption.

This too is a kind of ‘ground preparation’. It was meant to make readers accept the narrative that these superficial things defined humans. That the pampered wealthy third generation upper crust academia black author is as abused and deserving of special support as a black author who grew up in poverty a housing project and survived real abuse.

The problem with such ‘ground preparation’ is that like the infodump, it poisons the ground. The inverse is likely to happen. I was amused by one of the Puppy Kicker Snowflakes whining that the Puppies had followed the same Playbook as the Alt-right to elect President Trump. I’d actually say the only commonality was that in both cases, was that the ground was largely prepared by the other side, successfully alienating people, who were not necessarily foes or even engaged in the subject before. They are now.

As a writer: sowing ground that detests you may well be a way to get others to like you. There are demagogues on both sides. That’s a kind of ground preparation too. The problem arises if – like modern Trad publishing you’re reliant on not being hated by 75% of your audience – but to get published you must be loved by the other 25% – who will only love you offend the 75%…

To return to the subject of preparing your ground: it also goes into marketing you book/s. Trust me on this, if you don’t prepare your ground – you’re stuffed. (which in theory your traditional publisher does, but in practice, actually they only do if the author doesn’t need it – unless of course they’ve vastly overspent on the advance, in which case they will be willing to sell sows’ ears as silk purses, let alone push your book). There are reasons for this – their fixed costs remain the same for Joe Bestseller, as for Jill Neverheardofher – but the end result is traditional publishers spending a million dollars on a promotional effort that will add perhaps 10% to Joe Bestseller’s sales. A hundredth of the cost, would quintuple Jill’s sales (adding more than 10% of Joes)  – but that’s actually hard work (promoting a well-known and widely read author is easy – money for old rope, even if it really isn’t very effective. The opposite is true of promoting an unknown). So let’s assume you want to market your book. Now I am not a master at this, by any means, but I can tell you what doesn’t work.

  • My book comes out tomorrow. I will suddenly send people I never ever spoke to before and don’t know the news. They’ll care (no they won’t). That’s unprepared ground the seed will land on. People who know and like you will care, and may buy. But that preparation started years ago, with finding people of similar interests, and… well, being entertaining. Writing well.
  • I will send the same people endless spam about my book. That’s poisoning the ground.

The truth is you need to prepare that ground, slowly sensitively and without infodumps about your book, with just as much care as you set scenes and build believable characters.

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Currents

It looks idyllic, doesn’t it? I know it well. I can tell you that it is so flat because the current is strong enough to rip the bottom out of the swells. There is turbulent sea breaking in 8 foot swells just outside those islands, and the wind is hiding the current lines.

current

I’ve spent a lot of my life in the sea or on it. It’ll probably kill me in the end, but… well, I guess it’s like the man drawn to a lover that he knows is a capricious, unfaithful and unpredictably moody and sometimes cruel… but he still loves her. It might not be smart, but it is.

Of course, after some years of loving the sea – well, if you’re still around you do learn some degree of caution, some degree of mitigation, and a lot of skill at trying to guess the ‘moods’ right.

Couple of things I’ve learned which apply quite well to the writing world: Firstly – swimming against a strong current is an exercise in futility and exhaustion. You can swim across or go with it, or hang onto a rock if you can find one. Secondly, the wind and the current tend to run in opposite directions. You can use one to survive the other – but it tends to be a very choppy experience, that could just as easily sink you.

My own sense of the mood in the writing world – which is inevitably controlled by readers (not writers, not editors, not publishers, not critics and not reviewers, contrary to their delusions of grandeur) and reflects the wider world to some extent, is that changes are happening. In a way the things we here on MGC write about are change symptoms, not the causes – we write about the self-pub revolution, the disappearing agents, the way the big six became the big five, will probably the medium-sized four, and changes in things like distribution. But if things had stayed the same, continued down the same track, none of this would have happened. The zeitgeist was ‘progressive’ – against the center, the libertarians, the conservatives. Most publishers were left wing, or hard left as a result, and de facto, their authors largely were too or at least put on a good attempt to look that way.

In my opinion the left wing zeitgeist hit apogee in about 2007 with the financial downturn. The media, the politicians, academia, the churches, and publishing continued on with yesterday’s trend – growing further from the ordinary people and how they felt. By 2016 things slipped off the plateau and began going the other way.

What has happened (and all of the symptoms feed back into the causes) is that the readers – whose buying supports the bulk of the writing industry – buying… or not. This is probably best illustrated for us in the collapse of the traditional sf/fantasy sales (I’ve graphed this for you before) or as recently illustrated Marvel admitting their direction – for more ‘diversity’ and ‘social justice’ in comics had failed.

Now the important thing about these sales dives is that… nobody (or, to paraphrase the HH Guide, nobody important) reporting these figures wants to admit the direction is wrong, that there are problems. They liked, approved and supported the direction that sf and fantasy and indeed comics were taking. If there was a way to hide these declines, they would. The fact that this sort of data is creeping out means that financial problems, even bankruptcy, are looming, and there are no other choices. When some Jackass says ‘Oh they’re wrong, I luv Burkawoman, and Miz Marvel and Black Panther have both been nominated for Hugo Awards.’ What that says is that Jackass and the Hugos are out of touch with the buying public. There is a market for this, just as there is a market for the taste of the Hugo voters. It’s just 95 pound supply trying to fit in 5 pound demand bag.

Their idea was they could change demand…

It seems not.

And there are two alternatives here: you either please that buying public enough to earn a living, or… well, you know what vanity publishing is? When you get ‘recognition’ and social status (which includes polishing your resume among the kind of people who also find this important – Arts Departments at Colleges- a transfer from buggy whip manufacture to buggy horse blinker manufacture, IMO) and mickey mouse awards and prizes that no-one outside the tiny clique that award them to each other gives a damn about, or even know exists… instead of pay which you can live on. Any real profit goes to the publisher, who gets de facto free labor, subsidized by the author’s day job, or their spouse, or trust fund. It’s just a question of time before the author is asked to chip in for the ‘prestigious Editor’ (I’ve already seen this ridiculous model happen here in Oz via one of GoFundme type of fundraising – to get a ‘prestigious award winning editor’ –who had crashed three magazines, for an anthology. It’ll spread, mark my words)

Given that the current is running counter to the direction traditional publishing and much of the establishment direction (and I think we’re looking at a 20-50 year trend, as that seems the historical norm) the issue for the working writer particularly those invested in the old system is ‘how best do I survive?’ For the rest of us –it could mean rough water ahead too, because the publishing establishment will not want to drown alone. However, we’re better off, as we haven’t had that support in the past.

There’s no doubt that at least some parts of traditional publishing will happily continue down the plug-hole and take their authors with them. It’s – historically – been a good bet, turning hard left, killing the company, and the editors failing upward. This – given the shrinking number of places to fail to –may not be viable for them in future. It’s probable that some at least will, in time, learn, just as Marvel appears to be learning (the proof will be in the pudding). It is likely authors and illustrators will get hurt, whatever happens. It’s likely that drowning publishers will become more aggressively demanding that authors swim harder against the current. I expect them to be rewarded in ‘awards’, literary ‘esteem’, ‘critical acclaim’, not cash.

So: how best do you cope with this? Personally I have no desire to see authors go broke, outside a few vicious Puppy-kickers, or for all dissenting opinion to be silenced and crushed. There are people I disagree with who write well, and I am ethically disposed to let the marketplace sort them out. Yes, I am aware that there is a very totalitarian attitude in the modern US Left that wants to silence and de-platform all dissent – but honestly is that not just that they cannot compete? If we become the enemy to beat them, we lose anyway.

No matter how hard you swim against the current – authors won’t push publishers to safety. More likely they’ll stand on you to get some air, and drown you.

The answer to failing appeal is not _more_ failure, any more than the answer to communism’s failure is more communism. Swimming harder against the tide, kicking swimmers going across or down would be futile, exhausting, and make those swimmers ready to drown you.

On the other hand if you are in this situation… you can 1) learn to swim with the current or at least not straight against it. I don’t think that the buying public would be fooled by a sudden change in direction and heart from David Gerrold or John Scalzi or NK Jemison – but for the vast majority of trad authors, this is less obvious. It’s that, or find a rock to cling to. There will be some rocks, or at least one, just as Baen was the rock for centrist and libertarian and right wing authors, when the current was running hard the other way. But the rock or rocks will be small – and the biggest ‘names’ are going to claim most of the space. 3) Swim across the current. Build yourself an independent brand, try not to alienate too many people in the process. 4) Catch the wind – use Patreon and Indigogo and the likes to find like minds and fund you to push you against the current.

Of course we can expect vicious and increasingly shrill attacks from the publishing establishment and their clients. There’s a reasonable chance that they’ll destroy as much as they can rather than accept change. We have had a foretaste with the No Awards at the Hugos. We’ve seen it expressed when Hillary Clinton lost the US election to Donald Trump.

The nastier that they get, the more desperate they are.

Interesting times.

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Not because but despite

I want to start by apologizing to readers here: at the end of February I said here that CHANGELING’S ISLAND was now available in mass market paperback, and provided a link. Some 96 people clicked through that, and I assume some of those good folk ordered the book. If you were one of them: I must ask you please to check your credit cards.

If you have been charged for it: you have been the victim of a fraud in which I had no part other than advertising my book in good faith. I was sent the proofs of the mmpb on the 9th of December and returned them – giving up a rather lucrative little casual job to do my bit, to have them back in time. Baen advertised the book on its website, Amazon listed it on its website. As this near non-effort appears to be the only form of publicity I actually get, I did my best, and kind folk on Facebook gave me nearly 200 likes and over 40 shares. I had some shares on Twitter, and the release of the mmpb was up on Instapundit, as well as on several other blogs besides this.

Prior experience – TOM — says this could produce around two thousand sales. I’m a minor author, and I’m very grateful for that support, be it ten or ten thousand. There’s always a few new people, and reaching new readers is vital. Mass Market Paperbacks are great as tryouts, as they’re quite cheap, and given that CHANGELING’S ISLAND seems to have been a hit with readers across a broad spectrum, I hoped I’d get more readers.

Unfortunately… the mass market paperback of the book does NOT exist. It was cancelled back in early fall of last year. That, of course is their decision, which they’re perfectly entitled to make. However, they didn’t tell me – or, it seems anyone else.  The formatting, the proofs, the listing on Baen.com still went ahead. Simon and Schuster, who distribute for Baen, put the book up on Amazon – and presumably other venues. Well, possibly. To me Simon and Schuster appear to have been for distributing my books what Adolf Hitler was for synagogue building in Berlin in 1941. I made the error once some years ago of searching bookstores online for one of my books. Shall we say I found the coverage ‘somewhat underwhelming’? That’s about as polite as I can be. It’s hard to be successful when your book is just not widely available. Still, that — at the time -– was the only choice I had. Simon and Schuster – as the distributors, presumably got the orders for the mmpb of CHANGELING’S ISLAND. Amazon was listing it as ‘more on order’. I thought that meant it was doing well, and wondered why the sales rank wasn’t moving.

Quite what they did with the unfilled orders I would love to know. If they have charged you: I apologize, again. Please demand your money back. I cannot imagine that Amazon will fail to refund – they acted in good faith, and were unaware of this multilevel mess – which must have involved at least four people at two separate companies not doing their job. _I_ picked it up (not Baen, not Simon and Schuster, not Amazon. Me. The guy with least information and control. The guy whose job it is not. The guy who gets the smallest share of the book’s income because the other parties take a larger share for doing the administration.) I will be asking people on all the avenues I advertised on to do the same. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee I can reach all of those people.

If you did not get charged – which I sincerely and desperately hope was the case, but you actually DO want the book, it is only available as trade paperback or as an e-book. I am fairly certain that the jackass who got these orders – presumably at the distributors, Simon and Schuster, who possibly passed it on to Baen (or didn’t. S&S do not inspire faith), did NOT tell the people that ordered the non-existent mass market paperback that it could only be had in Trade Paperback. I suspect that most of those sales are now lost – as my fans have mostly already bought the book. Those orders were chances, opportunities, gifts from the kind folk who shared my advertising here, on Facebook, on Insty. I want to apologize (again) to those kind people.

I’d like to say this was one of those unusual sets of circumstances where at least four separate people perpetuated a cock-up was just massively improbable — but honesty forces me to admit that I can’t actually think of a book where the parts I know about have gone without problems of some kind or another. I’ve had lost manuscripts, lost maps, cover typos, lost corrections, lost payments, lost contracts, never yet been told what the release date for a book is… I could go on. I’m sure, of course, that the parts I don’t know about ran like clockwork. Maybe I just remember the bad bits… But most authors – if you speak to them privately, and after a few glasses, will tell you their horror stories. It’s not one editor or publisher, it is widespread. Authors themselves are no angels, and it’s a chaotic business. But not every crash is an author error. Some are, but there was a time we couldn’t talk about any other kind. I think – for the sake of traditional publishers worth saving – that this needs to be acknowledged and change.

You know, I am so inept I would probably fail to successfully organize casual sexual congress with a lady of negotiable virtue in a house of ill repute, with a full wallet and the desire to organize this. But at least I try. And at least I own my mistakes and do my best to fix them. That is the positive aspect of indy. Amazon is not flaw free, but at least you have some idea what is going on, and are in a better position to respond. I’m beginning to accept that if I succeed it will not be because of traditional publishing – who gave me my first break – but in spite of it.

So: CHANGELING’S ISLAND (the picture is a link): It’s not available in mass market paperback. It’s not available in audio. Given that Simon and Schuster are supposedly distributing it it’s probably not available in many brick and mortar stores, if any. It’s had no advertising except from me and my fans, and no apparent push – but quite a lot of people think it’s a good read, and not just for young adults.

It IS available from Amazon. Despite the fact it still offers three formats, if you want to read a good book and support my writing, it actually is only available in two. I would commend the e-book version, which cuts out S&S, and pays me slightly better. I would hope good sales may send a message to Baen. If, on the other hand, you feel that you’d rather just reward me – TOM is produced by my own small press, as an Indy.

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Today Mars. Tomorrow the Galaxy

Sf is occasionally predictive and a driving force toward a future.

Believing it major force is a vanity authors and publishers like to engage in. It does sometimes ‘make straight the way’ by preparing the public to accept concepts that were simply outside their Overton window before (the idea of space travel, for example). But… well, viewed dispassionately, 99% of sf (or fantasy or murder mysteries) are more of a reflection of their society, than society is a reflection of them.

Yes, most of it is just entertainment. I know this is a bit lowering if you had delusions of grandeur, a belief in your sacred mission to make the future gender-fluid or whatever, but at least entertainment generally pays.

The interesting part – for the working writer trying to make a living out of this is that looking at the world and its interests can give you a remarkably good idea what could well be popular into the future. When the space program / moon-race was hot and front and center, the popular and well-selling sf had a hard-engineering interplanetary ‘realistic’ feel to it. For the last few years when manned space programs were far back on the US Admin’s agenda, which also slipped away. SF generally actually became more ‘space opera’ (in the sense that space/space ships/ other worlds was merely a convenient setting for the story – which really didn’t have space etc as a core plot requirement. There is nothing wrong with this, just as there is nothing wrong with Brazilian as compared to Kenyan coffee. It’s just the not same and to different people’s tastes.)

With President Trump now supporting and endorsing ideas like manned flights to Mars, I’m guessing the “THE MARTIAN” might be one of those books that paved the way – but we may have a lot more that follow that way. There was always a market, it may just be a bigger one.

Of course that’s not the way everyone sees it. I was fascinated to see a combination of sneers ‘He just wants to sell Martian Real Estate (and variations on this theme) from people I thought were sf fans eager for space travel, and ‘We should solve all the problems on earth first’.

Curious.

I wonder if these people will stay non-customers, and just how many of them there are?

I wonder if the latter group have any idea how much of scientific progress we owe to that space race, and how vastly that impacted on all of our lives in so many ways from Teflon to GPS navigation, and a few million stops between, that just couldn’t have come out of ‘solving all the problems on earth first.’? And a great many of them made solving those problems a lot more plausible. Not completely plausible, because the human capacity to invent stupid problems is vast, if not infinite.

I wonder about the former group too. Is a spade not a spade if someone you didn’t like made it? We had an amusing incident a few days back where in the hearing for a new Judge (I think for the US Supreme Court. Sorry, it’s not my country, and so I don’t pay all that much attention) had a Conservative – Senator Cruz IIRC ask the Judge for the answer to life, the universe, and everything. To which he got the answer ‘42’ – and the resultant melt-down from some snowflake that the Hitchhiker’s Guide was now tainted… because people not of her political persuasion had read it, remembered it, and were amused by it.

It had been sullied by their vile eyeballs, and would remain now forever unclean. She could never enjoy it again.

By now my vile eyeballs are rolling so hard and fast you could hook up a generator to them and power a small city. I was reminded of Orson Scott Card and John C. Wright – both considered brilliant writers by the Modern American Left… until they were cast out utterly for doctrinaire reasons in their personal lives and not their writing. Now, the same books, same writing style, has been miraculously transformed from pure gold into the basest of base metals. A spade is not a spade any more. Humans getting to Mars was good but is now bad. And logic has gone for lunch.

Oddly I consider someone with a different worldview reading and enjoying my work a huge win – even if what they get out is not what I meant. I can’t control what they think, and don’t want to. But I have communicated… possibly over a very wide and high barrier. That’s an achievement. And maybe I can make some points – as well as some money. I couldn’t do that if they didn’t sully it with their eyeballs.

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The Work of the Weavers

or ‘Hubris’

If it was not for the weavers, what would you do?
You wouldn’a hae the clothes that’s made of wool
You wouldn’a hae a coat of the black or the blue
If it was not for the work of the weavers

Though weavin’ is a trade that never can fail
As long as we need clothes for to keep another hale
So let us all be merry o’er a bicker of good ale
And we’ll drink to the health of the weavers
trad. folk song.

I remember when I first heard this song – I was a young man just out of the army sitting at a campfire after a day’s climbing, listening to one of the other lads girlfriend’s playing the guitar and singing.

Afterwards I said: “Wow. That’s tragic.”

For which I got a look of puzzlement. “But it’s just a cheerful drinking song. About weavers,” she said.

Which it is.

It comes from a time when weaving as a craft provided a reliable living for people in rural cottages. It was a secure, sure thing. “Though weavin’ is a trade that never can fail.”

Until, of course, it did.

The songs and stories of ‘dark satanic mills’ came after that, destroying a way of life that the singers had believed forever secure.

It’s easy, from a safe distance of centuries to say: “Well, progress. Look, things are better now and you can’t stop progress.”

I wonder how the weaver felt about that, and reacted to it? I came across a fascinating story of some weavers in a village in Lancashire who put up their own mill – the weavers bought shares – at five pounds a piece (a lot of money back then), in a mill they built for 20 000 pounds. Shares that were handed down as inheritance among local families, until the mill finally closed in the 1980’s, and the village remained pretty much intact, with the weavers working their mill. Others… were less lucky, or had less foresight, and were devoured by the squalor and poverty of the larger mill-towns.

I suspect our traditional publishing industry of being rather like the weavers, having believed themselves unable to fail. I can almost hear it pronounced with the same self-satisfied hubris in their New York offices, a few years back. Funny, they’re very ‘progressive’ – but not this sort of progress.

And that is almost defining characteristic of ‘progress’. It’s not what you want, or expect, and the ramifications certainly aren’t either.

Of this sort of disruption is the heart and soul of much of sf – and even fantasy. The assumption seems to be that robotics and automation are going to lead either to new Luddites, particularly as working class ‘laboring’ jobs – from ditch digging to burger-flipping – become robot-jobs, or a sort of utopian ‘end-of-work’ where the robots and automation do all the work and all humans have to do is explore art and try new and bizarre sexual combinations.

Being me – and knowing ‘progress’ — I suspect that ‘none of the above need apply’ will be the case. We expect those. We experiment toward dealing with them. Yet it’s the unexpected but in plain and obvious sight – in hindsight, that took the ‘weavers’ (the secure, the sure), and their ilk, time after time.

So: what is ‘unexpected’? What is the progress the author who will make their name for foreseeing the unforeseen will write about? If I knew the answer, I’d be investing, not writing novels. That of course doesn’t stop me having ideas – usually out of synch with expectations. Occasionally, I might even be right – like the post I wrote several years ago on Coal-Fired Cuttlefish about it being hard to tell whether the tide was going out or coming in, just by looking at the sea for an instant – where before the European “refugee” migrant crisis, long before President Trump’s ‘Wall’ was even thought of or his campaign existed, I foresaw a sea-change there, and wrote about how to deal with it – as a migrant.

In the shorter term I’m predicting something I am wary about: not the longed for ‘International Socialism’ which has been a dream of ‘progressives’ for generations, but National Socialism. Looking at the forces of international fragmentation (to be seen nowhere than easily than in the fragmentation of the news media – where the internationals are steadily losing ground and trust, and small regionals, the little neighborhood papers and even TV channels have proliferated.) and the state of various economies – and the habit of citizens to demand government provide, without knowing where the money comes from… well, yes. National Socialism solve that one: the money comes from anyone who isn’t part of the nation. And the definition of who is, gets narrower as you run out of the money of who isn’t. This starts to get even nastier when you get to funding your National Socialism with the country next door (which yes, so-called ‘International’ Socialism had a long history of, oddly much ignored by its admirers).

Sexbots… along with aged-care bots I see as near inevitable – but what this ‘progress’ will do to society is probably unexpected. I doubt if modern ‘progressives’ (or traditionalists) will see it as progress.

Looking further – I foresee AI’s getting sentient rights – including, in time, the vote. This may come long after they become exceptionally wealthy – and good luck to you at robbing – or taxing – them. I can imagine AI aged care workers being left money by those in their care.

Biology – I feel gene manipulation is the next vast change coming at us. Writers have toyed with this as far back as the 60’s – changing humans to fit their environment (Blish’s Pantropy), or to use their environment – Sheffield and Niven spring to mind. My own bet is that it’s microbiology that is the unexpected, but in retrospect obvious ‘progress’ area. If we’ve survived the other ‘progress’ we hit an era when terraforming becomes relatively fast and plausible. We also hit an era when raw resources may make a significant change in availability. We’ve barely hit stone-age with micro – and the key to micro-biology is the speed of replication. At the moment that is held in check by the same factor that stops me worrying about Van Nuemann machines or self-replicating nano-bots. Is that true for a constantly AI tweaked bacteria genome?

And that’s all assuming that the world is not already dead, and we on Flinders Island do not know about it, as my internet is not working. So: what would the progress be in a world without that?

The weavers have no idea.

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‘Want fries with that?’

Or ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ (being the advice given to many an aspiring writer, by many saddened but wiser authors or people who trod the course before.)

Here’s the thing: chasing down your dream instead of taking the careful course has become fashionable. Who the hell am I to criticize anyone for doing so? I live on an island and write novels as a result of making choices that were not what most people think are sensible. It worked for me.

That doesn’t stop me knowing that many of my choices were really anything but sensible, and having decided to do it anyway.

That’s a very different animal to believing that a degree majoring in Wymyn’s Studies, and Impressionist Medieval Bathroom Décor would lead to a world of opportunity and was well worth getting deep in debt for… and then being terribly unhappy and blaming everyone else, when the most common opportunity (outside of teaching the same stuff others) oddly involves potato products.

It is this whole personal responsibility thing, which I believe is out of fashion.

It is a pity about that, because it works.

Now, all of this post is due to a very successful and skilled writer being asked by a wannabe if the wannabe should – in order to follow her writing dream, take BA majoring in English.

She answered – and I paraphrase slightly:

English Major = “Want fries with that?” Pick on something that will make you enough money to write what you want. *

Of course deeply offended English Majors promptly rushed to the defense of a degree they’d spent a lot of money getting. One even claimed to be a writer earning 6 figures. I’ve never heard of her, but it is possible.

It IS possible that you can be a very successful author with a BA in English. It is also possible that you can be a very successful author with a degree majoring in Wymyn’s Studies, and Impressionist Medieval Bathroom Décor.

Almost anything is possible.

That’s not the question.

The question is: how probable is it? Given some idea of that, you can make rational (or irrational) decisions about your best course toward your goal.

Back in pre-history when killer fax-machines roamed the streets with greasy hair-dos, I made some of my own choices, which did come with having to learn something of the dark arts (AKA Mathematics and Statistics. Yes, I already washed my mouth out with soap), and this forces me to say: the odds on becoming a traditionally published author, making a good living, are such that becoming an astronaut is not all that ridiculous a goal, and neither is winning the Lotto.

And unlike the aiming for becoming the astronaut, where sensible study choices and high intellect can reduce those odds hugely (they’re still very high) luck still remains a huge factor for authors (Yes, good persistent writers are lucky more often than people who write poorly and don’t keep trying). So unless there is a study course which makes you a lot more likely to win at games of chance… study probably isn’t going to be a deciding factor. That’s not say you can’t succeed as a writer having accrued $250 000 in debt doing a BA in English or Creative Writing… or Ichthyology. It’s just a lot of money to spend, and time to invest if your goal is being a writer, not just loving your College course.

“But, but… but… English! You’ll learn all about literature, and understand it.”

You probably will. Or at least to understand what you College Prof thinks it means.

And how, pray, will that make you a better writer? At least ‘better’ for definitions of ‘better’ which include earning a reasonable living by selling books to readers in general. It’s not about how well you bleg on Patreon. That’s a skill too, BTW. Not one of mine, but a skill. It might help you sell more English Lit textbooks to future students. Or – like several of my peers now hastily working on MFA’s – and a couple of Australians taking PhD’s on their own books, it may help to make you a living teaching wannabe writers. One is a little curious here – as this is a fallback position for failing as an author… how valuable would such teachers be? Possibly more value than the English Prof who has never sullied his hands with commerce, let alone spoiled his perfect mind with popular books: but still, this is people who couldn’t do, teaching.

Look, this is a profession where, honestly, failure is MUCH more likely than success. A lot of that comes down to luck.

So the key is how do you improve your chances as best as possible?

I’m going out on a limb here, and will say investing time in writing is going to cost less and pay more to you as a writer than any college training will. Most of the skills you need you can learn yourself, or should have, if you passed 8th grade English (assuming you wish to write in English). Yes, you need to spell, have a reasonable grasp of grammar at least to the level of your readers, and having a clue about structure helps. There are plenty of books which can fill in any gaps. You may find advice on writing sites too.

Secondly, read critically – not as a critic, but to learn the skills and techniques of popular authors. There is no point in studying the average English curriculum of literary works read by other academics unless you want lessons in what not to do (unless they are your audience). The exception may be if you can find a course which actually focuses on popular books and the techniques their writers use.

Thirdly, publicity, whether it is a blog following of size or being a Kardashian, or playing your race, sex or orientation cards, is probably still more valuable than most things. It’s relentless work in almost all cases. Yes, every now and again someone gets lucky or has the right connections, or has sex with the right person… but sustaining public interest is work. You can parley that into commercial book success, even if you can’t write well.

Fourthly, the one thing you can learn from a degree is about the field you wish to write in. So: for example if you plan to write American War of Independence Historicals, it makes sense to study American History, especially that bit. If you want to write hard SF, Physics, Maths or Chem make some sense – and so on. Any subject WILL enrich your mind and help broaden your background (unless it is incredibly badly taught, and you are totally credulous. College SHOULD make a skeptic of you. If it doesn’t make you question what you’re being taught – you’re wasting your time.) Whether the cost and time – especially if it doesn’t lead to other opportunities – is worth your investing, is your calculation. Along with a habit of questioning accepted ‘knowledge’ you ought to learn research skills in academia (I certainly did) as well as bad writing habits that you will have to lose to appeal to a wide audience.

Finally: I know of no degree that focuses on ‘how to communicate entertainingly with people who do not share your expertise or interest.’ That would be a course worth taking, because that describes most of your customers.

So: what’s your opinion? Does taking English Lit qualify you as a writer or as staff at Burger-joint? Is it worth the investment, and why? Is any degree more relevant or useful, to the point that it is specifically worth being in debt for?

*Twitter is a hard environment to be subtle or tactful on. The author since removed the tweet, so I assume she’d prefer not to be named, which is fair enough. It’s not easy advice, but sometimes the best advice isn’t.

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