Author Archives: davefreer

‘Bring out yer dead’

I’m a volunteer Ambulance officer, and my son assures me on the verge of canonization. Oh, it’s not what I do, or that I’m God’s gift to that (I’m not. I’m a very minor and inept cog.  I find the fact that I’m responsible for taking decisions (fast and effectively) that if I have screwed up, I could kill or maim the person I’m trying to save incredibly hard to handle.). No: It’s all the miraculous cures when the death’s-door patient sees who will be driving: “I’m feeling much better! I think I’ll take a little walk.”

Heh. I’ll probably have a terrible accident tomorrow, but oddly, besides reversing my ute into a stump hidden in the tall grass, I haven’t hit anything yet. I used to ride a motorbike with only a front brake. It made me quite observant. And when I’m actually conveying patients I give that task my full concentration, and try not to help them too much to suddenly find religion.

Ahem. I seem to have lost my thread again. Anyway, what I was going to write about was something that came out two of us Ambos talking about very stuff of sf and some fantasy: real disaster. Now, let’s be honest many a writer has never experienced much in the way of disasters. Trust me, this is a good thing, even if it does sometimes make their books irritate the hell out of me. I’ve never been through a major disaster (and I’d like to keep it that way. About 60 injured in bunch was my worst. That was pretty terrible. I can only admire the guys who deal with hundreds or thousands) but I’ve been through a lot more than my fair share of lesser ones – on both sides of the equation (the victim and the rescuer) and a couple of times both. I hasten to assure you that I’m not a jinx (much).

The awkward thing is how badly you remember a lot of it. Seriously, the adrenalin kicks in, and you just do stuff. Well, about 10% of people just do stuff, some of it incredible, some incredibly stupid. The other 90% do freeze and/or panic. Okay maybe I exaggerate a trifle. I’m not much good at most things, but fortunately that also includes panic. I’ve done the wrong thing a few times, but without the panic. I’ll probably master it at precisely the wrong time. That still doesn’t mean I am that good at reconstructing disaster and what happens – besides that people panic. It does mean that when I read SHTF disasters, I often find them throwing me out of the book, without precisely knowing why.

Now, it is perfectly possible that it throws me out simply because of my background. That other people, with the same lack of experience as the writer, think that in a crisis most people do something (besides freeze, panic, or run around like chickens just after having their heads cut off). There is a reason why the military and emergency services practice, practice, practice, practice – because seriously, it’s a lousy time to try and think. Some people do, but most can’t. They (or at least some people) can however go through a pre-thought, pre-practiced routine – whether that’s taking cover and returning fire, or applying pressure to a major bleed, or sounding a fire-alarm. Yeah, I know: all that planning usually goes to shit, because it never happens according to plan. But, speaking personally, that few seconds of practiced, drilled-into-you behavior calms me and helps me to think. Sometimes it’ll be wrong reaction, but generally it saves lives.

So I thought it might be worth trying a bit of this ‘crowd-sourcing’ stuff. Maybe if pool experiences and memories, we’ll get the whole picture. Adrenalin does strange things to me, I don’t even know if they’re normal. Yes, heart rate goes up, mouth dries. Those are common. I also lose all emotion (and normally I’m a big softy. Bawl my eyes out at a funeral) – but I can (and have) dealt with the horrible and tragic with a complete clinical detachment. I know hysterical strength is well reported. It’s very real – I’ve carried twice my body-weight, lifted things I can’t normally move. Pain is another odd one. Unexpected injury can be mind-numbingly sore, robbing you of the capacity for action – expected (or at least possible and known to be) when you’re full of adrenalin – hurts like hell… later.

Under that sort of stress – especially searching or waiting, the jokes are tasteless, crude, and absolutely necessary. Oh and really funny.

What you don’t do (or not me, anyway) is agonize about decisions, or experience a second’s worth of angst. (one of my co-authors –Misty — has people angsting mid crisis. Maybe she does.  It’s so unlike me, it drives me spare)

Later is always hard. The hardest part is remembering it all. I find I get scenes, like snapshots, rather than a whole movie. I replay it a lot. I can’t sleep – even a call-out will have me awake for 4-5 hours. Maybe that’s just me. Sex, if it happens is pretty desperate, urgent, and usually entirely without pre-amble.

So: anything you guys can remember?

The other thing I am very aware of is just how in disaster, people actually show a face that you don’t see in day-to-day life. Some of it… seems a great reason to preserve the human race. And some of it shows what useless assholes some people are (the guy who ran up his wife’s back to get into a tree when they were being chased by a Rhino comes to mind. Photographs of the boot-print on her back were used in the divorce case.)

Other people show sacrifice and kindness and courage so far past any expectation as to leave you wondering if anyone knew that quiet guy who drowned, going back into the water for the fourth flood victim, was really something of a demi-god in disguise. (That’s my only ghost story. I was underwater, bleeding like a stuck pig with several 8 inch cuts down my back from being swept over a rock. I was exsanguinating and drowning. I had already passed trying, and was to all intents and purposes in final stage of drowning, and going to die. Then I saw my brother (who was a 1000 miles away at the time) – with muttonchop sideburns (which he never had). He lifted me and shoved me into the wave that washed me up at my father’s feet, who hauled me up the rocks and emptied water out of me. I kept trying to tell him to get help for my brother. There was no-one else in the water. Years later I had the eerie experience of being shown an old picture of the man who had saved me: my Great Uncle. He’d been dead for seventy years or more, drowned after rescuing three Mosotho women in a flooded river. I’ve never been able to explain that one.)

It’s the one place where I have trouble with the basic building block of good character writing – people do not do what you expect, so it is hard to foreshadow. Look, I cheat. I do foreshadow it, even if by putting it in in lesser incidents – so it is not so implausible when it happens. But yes, disaster: when the veneer of human society is stripped off, and you see the raw steel, or the raw crap underneath. And size and strength… don’t seem determinants.

It does make me wonder what will happen if – or rather — when, we have the big disaster. When the power grid goes down, or Yellowstone blows, or that asteroid hits. Odds are those who do have the right background – the military, the outdoor survivalist, the paramedic will have a better chance. But of course every time is different, and just because you kept your head before, doesn’t mean it will be true this time (more likely, but not sure). I always have this lurking fear that I’ll flip out, run away, myself, if it was big and bad enough, or just do the wrong thing. It’s something you just can’t write off. And then there are opposite extreme: the people who will panic, the people who will turn feral to save themselves. The people with no experience and no skills. Most will die. But I believe some will surprise us… and that would be a story to write.

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Success, real and imaginary

“You shift sixteen tons of number one words,

And what do you get?”

Yeah well.

Mostly just older. I’ve largely managed to stay out of debt, possibly because most banks throw up their hands in horror and run away screaming when confronted with the realities of a writer’s income. No really… I’ve seen whole banks galumphing down the streets on fat little legs to escape an importuning writer.

Tch. You don’t believe me? I’m shocked. Go and try it sometime.

In reality this is a pretty good thing, because logically banks didn’t get rich by giving away money, and, while there have been times when a loan might have been very tempting, at least part of my personal success comes down to not giving them the lion’s share of my income, over time. This of course is why authors going Indy benefit – although they lose whatever push and brick-and-mortar exposure a traditional publisher could give. That varies from a great deal, to trivial, and one size does not fit all. Generally only headliners get much support these days, although occasionally a publisher may push a new dahling hard – with mixed success. Once push was all it took. Those days are largely past.

Still, the honest truth is most authors have an erratic and unreliable income, and according to various surveys… it’s pretty rotten. Those who don’t do too badly are either exceptionally lucky, well-connected, or are talented AND work hard. I can’t buy into the idea that we should go back to the time when authors either had money of their own or support (a patron). That excludes so many writers: as readers we’d lose so much. Even in an environment where some authors can make a living (and a few can get rich) the dilettantes and products of patrons (and patreons) will exist. The reality is they put some downward pressure on the earnings of the working-for-a-living writer. We can live with that – but I don’t think we can live with writing becoming only their preserve.

It therefore makes sense to celebrate those successes – otherwise why would battlers even try? (Yes, I know. Because we’re battlers. We can no more not try than we can give up flatulence. Still, encouragement is good.) It also – to me anyway, makes sense that writers should support writers. After all, reading feeds reading, which feeds writing – at least if the readers are enjoying the books and eager to find more. The more variety, surely the more likely it is that any reader will find their form of pleasure. It was the fundamental reason we started MGC. There were many things we wished we’d known and had support with – and we had a common ‘enemy’ – getting published, getting paid, reaching readers. I’ve put thousands of hours in MGC, which has a relatively small audience, as is natural as it is really a writers’ site. I’d do it for one person, so the size of that audience is not that relevant to me. It’s been personally rewarding for me to see some of our followers making a great success out there. It’s kind of cool to think we had a small part in that, even if most of it comes down their talent and work.

Now, of course there are quite a lot of people who barely manage to think from A to B let alone A to C (and beyond). Somewhat to my shock some of these are writers – which must make plotting and characters… difficult. To no one’s surprise Traditional Publishing and most of its associates and hangers-on often seem to have trouble getting as A to B, let alone further. This results in their trying hard to reduce the competition, instead trying harder to compete.

Think of it as a club for the express purpose of meeting potential marriageable partners back in yesteryear, when this sort of thing was common, with drinks to make the place money. Time passes and the well-meaning club founders pass on. The new club owner – who did almost none of the real building up, and has no interest in the purpose of the club — has a penchant for pale willowy blondes with boyish crops and a taste for jazz and martinis. Ergo, he gradually becomes more restrictive about who is allowed into his club. And if you didn’t fit, you’d better diet, dye and cut your hair, and pretend to like gin and jazz. He’ll tell you it’s club tradition although it is provably not.

Those who like buxom curvaceous brunettes who like country music and beer… are in for a disappointment. But the owner discourages that sort of man, and expressing that opinion will get you ignored or tossed out. Maybe this works to a degree if this is the only place in town – the price of the drinks certainly went up, but as a result… the town is slowly shrinking and dying.

However, if a cheerful beerhall down the street opens up, and a pleasant wine bar on the next block — both of which are happy with clientele of any sort… well, that’s going to make for more and happier marriages, more babies, and a bigger town. The only people pissed are the club owner and pale willowy blondes and the waiters and bouncers at the club – even though the whole town was dying, it was their town.

That’s, increasingly, been the story sf-fantasy’s establishment. The club, which regards competition as anathema and to be destroyed, is furious, from the owner to the bouncers, and the real blondes. They’re doing their level best to get the wine bar and beer hall closed down. It’d kill the town, but it was their town.

We saw this a few years ago with… call it the club’s annual beauty pageant – AKA the Hugo Awards when some Brunettes and redheads dared enter. One of the waiters –who had grown very plump on tips and powerful in influence about who got to meet who, and didn’t want to lose his regular tips… set himself up to stop it – in his own words. ‘by facilitating the growth of a new community of people who wanted to talk about these issues — most of them opposing the vandalism of an institution they had spent years building up.’

In other words chumming up a hate mob of something bizarre, rather like a gay supporter of Sharia law, a left-wing mob of ‘conservatives’ resisting change. The ‘new’ and ‘most’ is a lie. They were all old blondes and waiters. Any new people who didn’t fit with his ‘most’ were censored. He also pretended to be neutral, another lie which he lost track of and exposed in this quote. Anyway, he and his little friends succeeded in keeping the nasty riff-raff out of their little club by closing the doors, trashing the pageant and putting new rules in place to maintain the status quo in their club. They attacked the non-blondes and people who weren’t club staff, and did their level best to destroy the reputations and livelihoods of authors who were daring to say it ain’t all Blondes.

The beerhall and wine-bar weren’t much affected, despite their efforts. But the club was all theirs.

Fast forward a few years, and the club is still there with Mike Glyer puttering around its decaying and increasingly seedy interior, declining membership, with the handful of long-in-tooth blondes, badmouthing those not in the club and trying to chum up interest in a pogrom to get rid of the beerhall and the wine-bar and their noxious non-blondes. He gets into an altercation with… shall we say one of the brunette authors (which is funnier than the rest of this as a description.) Anyway, Larry, who knows him well by now, cuts to the chase and tells him to F… off, a commendable and understandable sentiment. Mike, henceforth known as ChinaMike ™ announces with fury and quivering lip, that he is much more important and influential than Larry as his blog has many more followers.

He produces the following Alexa ranking to prove it. Oh my. The club is really booming…

alexa2

He’s in 15 315 position and that wicked Larry is at 509  265. That’ll teach him his place.

Alexa1

Only ChinaMike ™ didn’t expect everyone to notice this

alexa3

92.1% of his Alexa traffic comes from China. It’s either bought traffic or spam-bots. Oddly other sf sites don’t have much a Chinese component. I gather bought traffic is cheap, and ignorant people don’t realize how obvious it is… It’s that or the ‘club 770’ is a great place to get spam and malware. Choose to believe whichever you please. Both are unattractive

In actual followers, real ones, ChinaMike ™ doesn’t rank much above this trivial authors help site, and well below some of the contributors personal sites. He’s so far below Larry – at a US ranking of 108 972 compared to his US ranking of 337 508 as to be near irrelevant.

Having been roundly mocked ChinaMike™ is now saying Alexa isn’t a good indicator of popularity. Still no mention of his 92.1% Chinese army. I gather he edited to hide the Chinese part of the original Alexa shot – how typical of ChinaMike ™ integrity and honesty. Yes, you know you can get sf news you can ‘trust’ there!

The club will continue to limp along for a few years, perhaps even posting in Mandarin.  It’ll probably tighten its rules and continue to tell us how important it is, doing its level best to exclude those it doesn’t like and damage those that don’t fit its mold.

But it isn’t the only place in town. It’s increasingly unimportant. The wine-bar also has gin even if the beer hall doesn’t. Both occasionally have a jazz trio. They welcome everyone, even willowy blondes. But there’s no job for ChinaMike ™.

The MGC crew will still be trying to help writers, not excluding the new, or demanding they dye their hair and go on a starvation diet. We believe authors should have as good a chance as readers will allow, to make a good living, regardless. That’s my personal vandalism of the institution ChinaMike ™ spent so long building up.

Let’s celebrate the success and happiness of some of the authors outside that mess, despite it, the people who are making a go out of writing through their hard work and talent.

It is possible.

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plus ça change

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more it changes, the more it remains the same)

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, 1849

I only know two Karr quotes, and the other – the other on the abolition of the death penalty – is also a fine dryly humorous comment : ‘Let the men who do the murders lead the way.’ But what brought the more it changes to mind was the fact that at a garage sale I picked up three Australian century old children’s novels. As I figure that they formed some of the foundation of the nation I emigrated to, and that I am trying very hard to become a part of, I thought they’d make good homework. (Yes I know. That’s just depraved. The correct, approved multi-cultural attitude is to remain ignorant and expect my host culture to adapt and learn mine. Not happening. I’m not that stupid.)

They’re by Mary 3-Names. No, not sf/Fantasy’s one, but Mary Grant Bruce (plus ça change?).

A century plus on from the first one… and they’re still readable. Things have changed, of course. But the language is still readable, the story entertains, and the dialogue is not as stilted as some far more recent novels. It’s a bit like reading Enid Blyton set 30 years earlier, and in Australia.

There are a couple of very noticeable differences to modern tales in that the food is very Enid Blyton-ish (something that is much less described in modern books, to my mind) and of course the attitude to fathers and brothers is vastly different. That’s probably the biggest single difference, that actually kept hitting me about the head. The girls (and it was, I suspect principally written for a female audience) are resourceful and plucky, and somewhat tomboyish, with unruly hair, less interested in what the author rather derides as the female pastimes of the urban girls of the day (and yes, those too seem to have changed only in details). That, and the fact that hard physical (and often monotonous) outdoor work (for both sexes) are lionized, and indoor city work… well, it’s like going to the toilet. Necessary but not a subject of praise or discussion. Second best to working the land.

The boys, and men, particularly the fathers, play a far larger role than I think I’ve seen in a MG or YA novel in twenty-thirty years. They’re portrayed with – for want of a better description, a far higher expectation of kindly, generous and out-right noble behavior, and with intelligence and ability. When in one of the later books a father fails to live up to this – does not defend his daughter from the demands of his second wife (her stepmother) it’s held up as an abnormality, and a thing of disparagement.

I sometimes wonder about modern portrayals –as people do try and live up to expectations (particularly society’s expectations, as Adam Smith so eloquently explained way back in 1759. There’s a whole that he wrote about that hasn’t changed much either.) If you think about it, it’s what fashion and appearances, and all of the SJW virtue signaling come down to: caring about what others think of you. So yes, brilliant move, portray all men as bumbling incompetents or depraved sexual predators. That’ll give them something to live up to, eh?

Fortunately, society’s mirror is broken into many fragments, or heaven knows what further self-inflicted injuries the perpetual victim class would have to whinge about.

The inevitable comment made of Mary Grant Bruce’s work – with the usual anachronistic viewpoint that gets hissy fits about the ‘N’ word in Huckleberry Finn, is the usual complaint about racial stereotypes of Irish, Chinese and Aboriginal characters. Honestly – considering it was published in 1910 – she did a pretty good job. Yes, she may resort stereotype ‘accents’ – these stereotypes didn’t spring unbidden from the air – they have at least some basis in what the writer had heard. And –once again, considering the time, her characterization is remarkably ‘liberal’ (the Chinese, Irish, and Aboriginal characters are all minor heroes, and portrayed as kindly, nice people. Not what we’re told was typical of the time.

One of the obvious differences is sexual content. That is pointedly different – the heroine of the first book is I think 12 and appears entirely free of hormones. In fact even romance of any sort (even among adult characters) seems rather absent.

What endures (or recurs) is always worth noticing. These were enormously successful books in their day, for their target market. They had, I suspect quite an impact on the society of the day. I don’t think that was the author’s manipulation as is so often the case now – it was merely holding up a mirror to what was best in bush society rather than the worst, and telling quite entertaining yarns to carry it along.

But what struck was a worrying similarity, a lack of change, despite all that has changed. She was writing for the customers of the time. The people who read, who bought books for their children… And rather like YA’s lead characters being a year or two above most of the readers, she sets her lead characters among the Squatters (Australian term for a large landowner -rather like the Squirearchy but with slightly less servants, and more land, and actually doing some of the work themselves) – the upper class of large-landowners. They’re in her book fairly decent people, and some are in life. That’s not the point. The point was the upper and middle-classes of her time were her major customers. They could read, had money to buy books, had leisure time to read them. The lower middle class such as scraped into her customer base aspired to be part of that. The largest part of society… didn’t read much, and didn’t have much spare money for lots of books. At a coarse guess 50-70% were just below the radar.

But we’re a century later… and we have gone through – particularly with paperbacks – a HUGE popularizing of reading novels. Almost a feature of many of those was Joe Ordinary (not the secret prince, or squire, or even the squatter) – just a working stiff, getting into strife and and fighting his way up and out. Sometimes he ended up as the king or the squatter… but he didn’t start there. I like to think this was particularly true of sf. I think of Keith Laumer’s Galactic Odyssey, Simak’s ordinary farmer/countryman heroes, or Heinlein’s Glory Road as examples.

So… how come we’re drifting back overwhelmingly into upper or upper-middleclass settings, heroes, and indeed the values of particularly female East Coast Arts and Humanities Liberal authors? That was 1912’s market. Things have changed. There are more customers available, a lot of whom do not aspire to those values, and won’t.

Maybe we need more battlers barely making a living, not college graduates, or bluebloods.

Or maybe I should just stick to 1910 fiction. It had a lot of can-do, even if it did concern itself with the lives of those who automatically become the officer class in 1914-18.

 

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The Banjo player rule.

I’m an equal opportunity offender. Mostly I don’t do it on purpose. It requires little effort on my part, except to continue to breathe. In some cases that I ever did breathe is enough.

So you might say this is my natural talent, and while I’m good for ‘show-don’t-tell’ as a result, I should really stick to pontificating about something I know a little bit about. Fortunately, we have excellent precedents as to why that not required any more. Excellent precedents, Presidents, Prime Ministers and just about every celebrity in existence. For some reason people take them seriously, though why is beyond me. It’s even true of traditionally published and award winning SF/Fantasy authors.

I suppose one’s opinion on that expertise may differ if you consider males to be ‘ancillary people’. As an ancillary person, I really have done my best to help my female compatriots to achieve workplace equality in my little field, or rather, paddock. Crutching daggy merino sheep is an appallingly sexist field entirely dominated by men. It’s important and respected work too. I would happily arrange the opportunity for Ann and Kameron to come and destroy the patriarchy by showing us all that they can do it better. But perhaps just writing ‘Women have always crutched’ would do. So much less physically demanding, smelly, and less full of maggots, or at least one hopes this is the case.

Seriously, there is an element of the Banjo player joke about ‘offense’ (yes I will explain, eventually). Let’s be clear here, I’m not actually talking about the ‘extract-rent-by-being-perpetually-offended’ clique that Political Correctness spawned. What that is, generally, is a quest of Danegeld (in the shape of power, money, special perks). And as Kipling observed, you never get rid of the Dane. You can do your very best, comply with every petty demand… and the goalposts would just move ahead of you. They have to: that’s the test of offense-for-benefit. There’s no use in letting bygones be bygones and no longer get rent from it. It’s really a form of psychological abuse, preying on the better side of human nature. And the reality is that, almost inevitably, the more strident, the more demanding… the smaller the group. Even if allied with a slew of others, given the way the zeitgeist is moving, it’s not a big hill of beans, and shrinking. They’re just, as beans can be, noisy and… fragrant. So – if you can never appease them and they’re not that many of them… Why bother to try?

There is one possible reason: they could be your key customers. That, in the case of most traditionally published authors, is the situation. Remember, their customers are New York traditional publishing bubble, not those hoi-polloi readers. I suppose it’s a good enough reason if they pay you well enough, and you’re happy with that. Of course that is very much an isolated bubble rapidly diverging from the tastes and opinions of a lot of readers. Once-upon-a-time they – as the gatekeepers to retail, had capacity to drive sales – or destroy them. This has diminished. Not vanished, but shrunk. But they are selling into a fast shrinking pool.

I predict traditionally published authors are going to find themselves in a cleft stick pretty soon – either offend the publishers (in which case they’ll stop being traditionally published) or offend that part of the readership that increasingly detests the tastes and opinions of the NY bubble. That’s going to leave a very nasty fight over a declining pool of resources (customers).

Of course you could always aim to not be as inept as me, and actually try hard not to offend your target audience. There are two ways of looking at this. The first is the banjo player. How do you stop a banjo player from drowning? You take your foot off his head…

Which is particularly funny if said to a banjo player, or, just as likely, BY a banjo player. It’s ridiculous, not even banjo players take it seriously.

Now try substituting in other ‘victims’. Lawyers. Arabs. Seventh Day Adventists. Puppies. Depending on your audience, some people will find various variations hilarious. There are a few most audiences will find objectionable. This, it seems likely, is Leckie and Hurley’s shtick in this panel which at least two of their audience found very, very funny. Given that they’re noted newest wave feminists, and not precisely known for their skill at writing male characters, and that their feminist audience found them really funny, I think we can safely guess it was the sort of misandry typical of feminist extremists – especially among their own. The equivalent of ‘grab them by the pussy’ comments to fit their particular audience.

Like Banjo players most men understand the ridiculous nature of these jokes. If you substitute the opposites – making the jokes misogynistic – the feminists are going to be screeching for your utter destruction… even though it is actually the same jokes. Leckie and Hurley are playing to their audience, to the people who buy their books. These are the feminist equivalent of John Norman of Gor fame, giving their audience what they want. Now, as I feel John Norman, or Jill Normelle or whatever, should be free to publish and try and sell their books in an unobstructed marketplace, I can hardly criticize this strategy. You just need to be aware that that IS your target audience, and reach them. And, if necessary, prepare for fervent shrieking and screeching from the offended – who aren’t your market and were never going to buy your books anyway. It does seem to increase sales, even if it hurts the eardrums.

The second possible way is what I term ‘consideration’ – a thing which is sometimes willfully confused with ‘respect’ (Respect is a different animal, much harder to earn, and keep, and not freely given for no reason). You don’t show teenage kids mock-ups of their father’s severed head. You don’t deliberately set about mocking the weak for laughs – the banjo player joke just ain’t funny when you make it Downs Syndrome kid. I’d probably flatten you if you made it. And most decent folk would stand on your head.

It requires something that authors OUGHT to be good at: putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, seeing a character or scene from their point of view. Realistically, you can subject most things to the banjo player test – if you were substituted into that portrayal – would you take offense? Would you find it trivial?

It seems a reasonable and sensible thing do, if you’re not making your living by appealing to a narrow group. You can’t please everyone, all the time. It makes sense to at least not piss off your obvious customers, especially large groups of them. YMMV.

Apologies -the link is now fixed.

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Heaven Weeps

Heaven weeps

(or it is raining. It’s a matter of perspective and characterization, if you think about it)

We’re in a world where real tragedy, from Muslim extremists who find murdering little girls something to celebrate, to the little personal tragedies – not making ‘phone call to your mother until that tomorrow – which was too late, that can cut us to the quick. For many of us, we read to escape this, not to have it dragged up again.

Yet it is a very real part of great writing.

One of the things I am weakest at, and yet both admire and hate in the work of other writers who do it so much better than me, is the effective use of tragedy. It’s, probably, of the literary forms, slightly easier than comedy. That’s not hard to understand: we at least have some common ‘buttons’ across at least most of western civilization that make us want to weep, or at least get dust in our eyes. That’s not true of humor, where one man’s joke can easily be another man’s chosen political candidate.

Of course, as has frequently been observed, nothing is simple, and then you die… which is almost inevitably tragic from at least one perspective. Tragedy too can be a question of perspective, but, for the writer anyway, that a controllable perspective. The character suffering, or dying, is a character we have built. Everyone but rare psychopaths find suffering or dying pretty unpleasant if they identify and/or care about the character. (Yes I know. Poor psychopaths, sadists, masochists etc. so left out. Especially the intersectional ones. Look, feel free to start a hashtag campaign on twitter for them: we’re trying to sell books, preferably a lot of them, and that means that we worry about large enough chunks of the demographic to make a living selling to. Outside of Political Correctness, there is little point in endless appeasement of microscopic parts of the population, if you want to make a living selling books. Don’t worry, traditional publishing will cater for them.)

As I said, heaven weeps, or it is raining – depending on perspective of the reader about ‘Heaven’ (if you the author have managed to apply anthropomorphism to the sky and clouds, well, you’re following in ancient traditions. If you’ve carried the reader along, maybe a theological career is for you after all.) Whether the reader cares will depend on character that you, the author have created for ‘heaven’.

Of course, this is where it starts to get complicated. Obviously, not all readers are the same, and a substantial part of getting readers to care is some degree of being able to identify with the character and thus their distress. I suspect the slew of traditional authors contracted by angry, tearful publishers to write horrifying, tragic distrumpias (it’s the new big thing with traditional publishing. I suspect it will be for at least the next few years. It has a ready market with 95% of NY publishers. I wonder how it’s going to do outside that bubble.) may come to some startling discoveries. I’m sure it will be the readers’ fault, the insensitive boors, because the features that make a tragic tearjerker in NY publishing and their social and political circles… mean nothing to ¾ of the readers. In fact it may well be like the politician who gave the Guardian reporter a ‘body-slam’ (AKA a good shove). The media saw it (their perspective) as making the fellow an un-electable villain. Plainly – as he got comfortably elected, this was not the case from the perspective of many people.

Having had Guardian writer Damian Walter attempt to damage my career by attacking my book without actually reading more the first paragraph of CHANGELING’S ISLAND… I know who I would probably have voted for. A bit of defenestration, with a nice picket fence to land his derriere on and it would have been even more vote-grabbing, if hard on the fence. #NotAllFences!

That of course is an example how tragedy is a matter perspective… when the character is a stereotype of whom we see an ‘upper’ layer. It’s a lot harder – no matter what your perspective is, when the writer tackles the characterization well, from the basics up. Because yes, most of us are, at that level, remarkably alike. It is far easier to get a reader to identify with and care about a character after showing him or her, for example, trying to comfort a crying baby – especially if that is at 2 AM and the adult has no idea what is wrong, and is full of that odd mixture of helpless despair and utter exhaustion that every parent dealing with this goes through. You’ve done all the obvious (diapers, feed, attempt to wind, cuddle, sing, check temperature, panic a little, etc.). Pretty much every decent parent has been there. If I’ve seen these aspects of character, showing their human-ness, I care at least a little, even if they are the villain, or a Guardian reporter.

If all the reader has seen of them is at a busy day villaining (or being a hero, depending on perspective) at least to some, if not all of your audience, that tragedy you agonized over writing, is either ho-hum or a comedic interlude.

Another aspect of tragedy within the novel – besides eliciting the sympathy of reader, or providing motive or shock value a la GRRM (I disapprove. It’s like adding cocaine to your bottled soda recipe to sell it. It’ll work. But by next month you need add a little more. And the month after, more.) is one that I think is often missed. It is that of contrast. Now, I’m a mediocre to poor tragedarian, as I tend to be too involved and fond of my characters to be as nasty as I probably should be. I’m also pretty poor at this style of drama, as I tend to blunder into comedic interludes. I stand in awe of authors who can hold me while it is nothing but drama, the whole way. I fail at that. But tragicomedy (both in the ‘happy ending’ and the Satyr play sense) is my natural métier. This is where ‘contrast’ really comes into play.

Take a bottle of white paint, and a bottle of black. Mix them equally and your picture is gray. Do various proportions and you can achieve a wonderfully complex picture. If you want elements to stand out… you put extremes against each other. A piece of music with the same dynamics, same pace… makes a good lullaby, which is great if you’re selling your books as soporifics. Otherwise – a tragicomedy is an orchestration, a balancing act of pathos and humor, of fast and slow pace (slow – used judiciously makes the fast seem a lot faster).

It does require sometimes killing beloved characters (I have never quite forgiven Diana Wynne Jones for the death of Olob – even if it was a key feature of that book. She did it well in the Dalemark Quartet. Worth learning from.) which is never easy.

However – the good aspect of tragicomedic writing, for me anyway, is that one can – at least in part, resolve the tragedy, or ease it. That’s not always true in real life.

I guess that might explain why Ilike to write it and read it.

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“I’ll wait for delivery, each day until three”

Another patient day in the endless waiting, waiting waitingggg life of a working author passes. I remember Snoopy, the great author, being sure his mailbox was eating his replies from publishers… And then of course there is that terrible mistake which publishers so frequently make, where they send us this bizarre letter saying that this manuscript was not suitable for their present needs. I have been obliged to point out that I was not waiting for a letter about their needs, which are no concern of mine, but that check for a million dollars, which is very much my need. They really are a bit obtuse about something quite so obvious. Sadly the quality of staff they are able to recruit these degenerate days, is not what we would like to become accustomed to.

That of course is not what I am waiting for. And no, it’s not my royalty statements either. Perhaps because they deal in fiction, due dates are also fictional in publishing land – and I’m sure they would have no problems delaying their wages by three or four months, so why should I? One of joys with Independent publishing is you do know what you are going to be paid, and the lag is much shorter, and payments are monthly and reliable. This does make life a little easier, and something I believe publishers would be well advised to move to. But no: I am waiting for something else.

I have been preparing the gilded stable. I even put up an advert for stable-hands (the only source of advice I have found says it takes a staff of 36 to adequately care for each animal) – as I am the father of two sons it should be obvious I can’t do the job. I haven’t had any responses. Perhaps looking up the most common baby name in Britain for my pseudonym (I wouldn’t everyone to know what the job was, I’d get people taking shameless advantage) was a mistake. I’ve ordered (from Amazon) all the food, as well a pair of suitable silver bridles. Yes I am getting a pair of them. As I said elsewhere I hope to start breeding them. Google has rather let me down though, I don’t yet know if the foals have horns on birth, or if they develop later. My theory now is that they’re soft, rather like baby rhino horn (one of the more unusual delights of my life was getting to pet an orphaned baby rhino. The baby in question adored the attention, and would have made an ideal housepet, if they stayed that size, that affectionate and that cute). Perhaps the reason the animals are so rare is not the shortage of virgins, but the fact that if the horn is hard and sharp… well it’s a caesarian or kill the mummy.

The problem is there is so little good literature on the care and rearing of Unicorns. I’d have read it all while I wait.

Amazon is sending me not one, but two. You get them when you get 50 posted reviews. I know this is true because I read it on the internet. We all know that’s even more reliable than the NYT.

Seriously, I was delighted to see that TOM and CHANGELING’S ISLAND both have hit the 50 landmark. (the pictures are links).

That’s remarkably cool even if I don’t get to go into the bottling of unicorn farts to sell as an alternative power source. (I am sorry to be so mercenary, but the cost of unicorn tucker (complete with sparkles – entirely natural and made from organically grown vampires) is such that it dwarfs California’s deficit, and I have recover the money somehow.)

And now that I have temporarily finished being silly I thought I’d bring up a subject which ought to be close to the heart of all authors.

A reader – a good guy, a hard scientist who shall remain nameless, but a lifelong sf/fantasy reader – asked a facebook group if he had to attend sf cons to be a fan. A group he’d commented on implied such to be a requirement. And, um, did he have to dress up in costume?

He of course got a resounding ‘No, of course not! If you read sf/fantasy you’re a fan, and welcome!’ It was very good to see – especially from my perspective, because it has always been my attitude. As far as I’m concerned if you’ve read one sf/fantasy book and would like to try another… I’m ready and eager to welcome you in to the ‘club’. Aside from my professional interest, we share an interest in something I love. Something I want to foster, encourage, and have as many people enjoy as possible. Suggesting otherwise gets the same dropjawed look of shock that my sons had on their faces when someone said their Physics class was excluding women. The idea was just so bizarre. They wanted EVERYONE to be physicists. And, generally, their group’s idea of wet-dream was a female who even vaguely understood, or cared about their precious subject. The slightest accidental expression of interest would have you in danger of being physically dragged eagerly into their midst, and finding yourself neck deep in quantum tunneling.

Speaking professionally it’s probably even more the case. A fan – as the guy whose entire livelihood hangs on people liking my books, liking my genre enough to even try my books – this exclusionary ‘keep out of our treehouse’ attitude is as welcome as a dose of the clap.

Yet… it’s out there. There are Cons at which this has indeed become the case. They tend toward the pretentious literary ones, but tread with care. WorldCon has sadly increasingly become something you’d probably like to avoid, which is a shame as there are still some great older authors to be met. But it’s become very cliquish, substantially political, and overtly unwelcoming to people who aren’t ‘trufen’ (who don’t fit the ideological mold –something that seems to get narrower by the hour let alone day). There are still good people, both running and attending, and it is possible to enjoy yourself despite this. But seriously, it’s a lot of money, you want to actually mix with welcoming fans of similar interests, get meet authors that interest you and attend panels that interest you, and hear readings from authors you like. You don’t want to watch out that you don’t accidentally cause offence, or find yourself subject to claims of harassment or worse, from which you’re not even permitted to defend yourself. It might never happen… but you are there to have a great experience, not walk on eggs, constantly worrying about whatever the latest ‘offense’ is, that you might unwittingly commit.

My own feeling is: you’re better off at the smaller cons (where there is enormous variation) or the big commercial cons like Dragon Con. Look at the author/guest list. Look at the panels. If your interest is Military SF and firearms, DON’T go to one with one with a GenderQueer intersectional poet as the GoH with panels on the rape of Gaia by the conceptual white patriarchal penis – and vice-versa. Talk to people who have attended recently. Good cons tend to have people like my sons’ Physics crowd supporting them – eager to help and welcome you. Bad ones attract the sneering asses.

You don’t have to ever attend a con to be a fan. There is a delight in sharing your interest with others who also love the genre. There are loads of welcoming groups all over the internet – and a few I would avoid where they’re very keen on keeping the wrong people out of their treehouse.

One of the things about groups with an interest in anything out of the mainstream, from sf to steam railways – or, as in some those I am involved in – Writing, Scottish Country Dancing and Rock Climbing, is that there are always a few jackasses who attain positions of power and influence, enjoy that, and try to keep that power. And the only way to do that is maintain the status quo, restrict entry –or at least make sure it’s only the ‘right’ sort of suitably indoctrinated noobs coming in.

You don’t have to be mathematical statistician (but it helps) to see that this is a recipe for medium/long term destroying that group, that interest and for damaging its reputation. It’s almost mind-bogglingly stupid, except for the shortest of short-term self-centered benefits. That doesn’t ever seem to stop at least some cliques trying the same dumb stunt over and over again. SF-fantasy has its share. The minute they start telling you you’re not a real fan… you’ve found them. They like to pose as the cool kids table, but really they’re more like mean girls table. Ignore as much as possible. They’re worthless.

Which is why I take I take anyone I can possibly gull into it climbing, and have invested thousands of hours in teaching, showing people cliffs, routes, lending them gear, taking them to-and-from airports etc. Do not express the vaguest interest in Celtic music unless you’re prepared to firmly defend yourself from invitations to join us in our capering. And writing – well, Mad Genius Club is just one small part of the efforts this group put into helping anyone who might wish to write.

Because without new writers, and without new readers, without a welcome mat…

Something I see as wonderful would die.

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The story loom: Threads and the weave.

As yet another manic Monday looms… I got thinking about looms. I can’t help having a fairly small brain (rather like Winnie-the-Pooh, with my thinking largely activated by my head bumping as I am dragged upstairs by one leg. Ahem. Now you all need brain-bleach to get that out of your heads, I can comfort you by saying that hasn’t happened much, which explains my lack of thought.

But to return to the loom: inevitably I was thinking about the kind one weaves a story on. Look, stories follow a number of patterns none of which the only true way. Some are easier than others – for readers and for writers (the ease of type not necessarily being the same).

I think, generally, single thread story, in third person, past tense, chronologically linear with a limit number of POV characters (with POV well handled) probably is both the easiest write well, and often the easiest to read.

But sometimes the story simply can’t be told well like that. Sometimes you don’t want to tell it like that. That’s your choice and your risk. I’ve told one in first person – of a character very unlike me (female, timid, urban, a priest.) because a large part of the story was how this character interacted with everything that she did not know. If I’d allowed another POV it would have been a lot easier… but also a lot more dull. The fact we only knew what the character knew was central to the plot. I’ve done some linear single thread tales too, but I find I like writing (and hopefully readers like reading), that entirely more complex beast, the multi-thread, multi-POV story. It is something which is amazingly easy to make a horse’s nether end out of – so if you inform me I have succeeded at the latter, I won’t be surprised. It’s exceptionally powerful (rather like a bandsaw) – and like a noob with a bandsaw it’s not easy to use well, and very easy to cut fingers or hands off with. Yet in the hands of a pro, it’s both easy and effective.

Rather like the bandsaw there are a couple of simple rules if you wish to keep your fingers… readers (if you like your readers you can keep your readers, the publisher said). The first and most important is DON’T CONFUSE YOUR READER. If, let us say, you are tracking three major threads – Heirs of Alexandria series for example – Manfred and Eric, Marco and Benito, and Jagellion and minions – make damn sure the reader knows clearly and well who they’re reading about right now. This is more just naming the scene, and naming the character. Speech patterns, ways in which thoughts are internalized, details of the settings (even if it is the SAME setting, a canal-born brat, does not see a canal the same way a Frankish Noble does. And neither see it the way the monster swimming the water does.)

Secondly with any multithread tale, you are always working with two opposing forces – firstly the reader need enough to become immersed in the misadventures of one set of characters, but secondly not to forget what the second set (or third or fourth) set is doing. This is MURDER at the beginning of a complex multithread novel. The pattern I work to is relatively short thread sections to start, changing back and forth often, to establish the character and threads so the reader knows them. I then get longer as the story progresses, often including a short piece from the other threads (often at a chapter end or beginning, to keep characters and thread ‘fresh’ in the reader’s mind.)

Of course, the threads don’t STAY separate. It would not be one story if they did. You can always tell when mine are getting close to merging, because the sections from each thread get shorter (and are usually juxtaposed.)

A bit technical, perhaps. I am, actually. Some people just tell stories well, and don’t work on structure but just do it by ‘feel’. Me: I have to try to augment my small talent. Multithread multi-POV one of the few areas where I feel pre-plotting is easier and possibly more successful than pantsing.

But what are your opinions? (About multi-thread books, not world peas, corporal punishment or the way steak should be cooked. Let us answer the easy questions first.)

 

 

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