Author Archives: davefreer

Winning the peace

I’m paraphrasing but something Dr. Jerry Pournelle said at the end of one of his stories stuck with me: Something to the effect of ‘All soldiers do is buy you time, for politicians to find a solution.’  Pournelle is a man whose thinking I admire, if not always agree with. Actually, you’re not going to find anyone I always agree with. This is called ‘thinking for yourself’. Everyone should try it. Sadly, many people find it ‘too hard’ and simply follow the herd. Not thinking for yourself is not a great survival strategy. I can only conclude it is increasing as a result of humans no longer permitting ‘didn’t think’ to be a capital crime as it had been for most of our species history. I hope we don’t pay dearly for this.

Anyway, I finished reading yet another fantasy novel (no, I won’t say who it was by, except it wasn’t published by Tor. I won’t buy or support their books) ending in a victorious war, in triumph. That’s an acceptable-to-many-readers end.

Of course, to people who read and look at the patterns of history (history doesn’t so much repeat as follow pieces of the same pattern) the end of one war all too often is the seed for the next – principally because soldiers can win wars, but it is a rare politician who can win a peace.

Part of that is – outside certain exceptions – it takes two politicians to tango – or rather make peace – and it is a requisite that they be from the winning and losing sides. I get very confused about US politics, so forgive me any gaffes, but to this outsider it seems that the Republicans missed the memo ‘from winning AND losing side’. Opposing your own side to find favor with the losers… is not going to work. That’s the wrong way around. Perhaps someone needs to explain this to them.

Speaking as someone who has some small experience of the consequences of war, and lived in a country with a civil war – you don’t want to go there. Common sense says yhe rank and file of neither side really does (contrary to popular belief being dead or maimed and on the ‘winning side’ still leaves your friends and family dealing with it.) There are times when it is necessary (a large part of the themes of several of my books, including the pacifist-who-had-to-learn-to-kill in SLOWTRAIN.). A good example might be when the ‘other side’ informs you they intend to eliminate you, or that which you hold dear – be that your nation, culture, or history. People who don’t want war should think carefully about saying ‘You’re on the wrong side of history’ – because that is – de facto – telling their foes that that they intend genocide.

Look, war is always ‘conquest’ of some sort (even elections might be viewed as war with reduced bloodshed) and the ways of ‘winning the peace’ are a well-established matter of historical record. So long as you don’t erase history, you can learn from it, and seriously, it tends to make books better. Now, one of the most difficult bits to erase is written in DNA. There are lots and lots of female lines… but a handful of male linages by comparison (regardless of race, place or anything else). That’s because all humans had the same basic strategy to win the peace, if you go far back enough. I’ve seen it live, in action, in a baboon troop. The conqueror/s kill all the males (including the children) and take all the women (who didn’t get much say in it. No=kill you too). The only way out of this was to run away, quite possibly applying the same to those whose territory you now invaded. There are no living humans whose ancestors haven’t, somewhere down the line, taken territory (and women) from someone else. Remember this next time you write your ‘noble savage’ tale. Of course the SWJ crew will attack you for this despite the fact that it is plainly true and un-erasable (getting rid of the Y-chromosome is more of a problem than your average statue. I know, it is goal in certain quarters, but in the meanwhile belittling it is the best they can do. It doesn’t change the facts. ).

When ‘conquest’ moved beyond merely acquiring your neighbor’s lands, hunting/livestock and women, but actually became about leaving the people conquered alive because they had more value alive than dead… winning the peace became a far more complex and varied problem. These of course blended into each other – and no, I am not going into infinite detail: this is a blog post, not a 10 million word treatise on the subject.

The simplest was a variation on the basic. Castrate the males, and enslave the conquered. Castrated slaves continued to flow out of Africa, eastwards, particularly into the Islamic world, and within Africa… well. I don’t think it has stopped. It’s quite a popular concept in certain extremist militant feminist circles. It certainly has a history of allowing the conquerors to stay on top, as it were. Of course it has failed too at times, notably where the conquerors allowed the castrati to rise to power.

The next step was the Saxon variation. Basically, after winning the war, kill any male who wasn’t a peasant, take the women as chattels, reduce the losers to what we would think of as slaves, destroy their culture, punish any sign of failure to accept subjugation with utmost brutality. Look at the number of Saxons who held England – and you realize it was both successful and the only possible way of succeeding.

After that, things become slowly more complex and nuanced. Conquerors started catching on to idea that the conquered could have more value than just fresh slaves and women. That it was possible sometimes to merely replace the rulers and get a new but working system to add to your holdings.

This was the start of this politics and tango stuff, because it required a balance between fear and reward. The Mongols (As I wrote in MUCH FALL OF BLOOD) honed this. They made a grim example of a few places. Very grim examples, and then offered a very tempting deal: Surrender… and for joe citizen things got better. They offed the head honchos of the conquered, took the princesses to add to the impressive collections of Mongol leaders wives (which is why Chinngis Khan’s genes run in so many of us) and actually lightened the tax load a little, and provided a system of justice that was less arbitrary, and made for a safer society – as long as you didn’t even hint at raising a finger to the conquering Mongol.

One can come up with similar variations on this strategy across Europe, India, China, Japan, Indonesia and the pre-European Americas and I suspect whole lot of places I know less about than I would like to. The commoners swapped rulers. The rulers fought to have possession of what de facto were a taxable resource. Peace might be hard to find among rulers, but realistically the peace was won for great mass of humanity just as soon as Baron X was killed by Baron Y.

Somewhere down the line someone figured out letting the ordinary people in on the wheeze was a bit cheaper than having to share out the loot with what were de facto mercenaries, fighting for reward. Yes, that is a rather cynical interpretation of patriotism and nationalism (which have roots too, in the genetic inter-relation of tribes of pre-history.) No, I’m sorry my American friends, you are not the first to cheerfully combine people of various ethnicities and geographical localities under one flag. Look at the make-up of Belisarius’s army for a good example (thanks to Procopius of Caesarea, who himself is a good example). The key was that they remained loyal to Justinian, and not their little factions.

This nationalism saved on the cost of cannon fodder, but vastly complicated winning the peace, unless you went right back to Saxon or earlier – which was not as profitable as merely annexing a new tax-base. Russia, Britain, Japan, China, Germany, Italy and many more… often conquered fractious states, some close at hand, some far off. And some were more successful at winning the peace than others. If you want to really pull it apart, the successes kind of went along with the Mongols. Either kill off, exile (risky) or better still buy off (allow to keep their jobs/positions is a form of this) the hierarchy – except the top. They had to go or be incorporated into the conquerors (see Chinngis’s collection of princesses). The people you really, really didn’t mess with were the tax base. You actually gave them perks, respect (even if they had lost) allowed them to keep some of the things dear to them – especially symbolic things which people fight and die for, but actually don’t have much tax value. Unite them under NEW symbols. And yes – you sat on your own troops, if they then took their national prejudices out on the newly conquered. To read a work of fiction by someone who understood this well, you could try LORD KALVAN OF OTHERWHEN by H. Beam Piper.

The key remains to gain reciprocity and mutual respect and honorable conduct: where the conquered foe and the conqueror end up making concessions to the other. The Second Boer War had a huge level of bitterness to overcome. They were at least to some extent successful – people like Generaal Jan Smuts and my Great Uncle, Generaal Koos de la Rey, were both respected by the British conquerors – and in turn, gave respect. Two more honorable men would be hard to find – and this meant that bargains made were honored and concessions given were recipriocated. The British made some reparations, and, as Kruger had fled, did not attempt any major purge or punishment. The boers were allowed to retain their culture and celebrate their heroes, and to have some political power under British rule. Peace had a few fractious moments – including the shooting of Koos de la Rey – but it was successfully won for generations.

Of course other methods were tried in other places, including genocide. And of course, some conquered people took the generosity of the conquerors – and smiled, and did their level treacherous best to destroy the conqueror. Sometimes they succeeded, and sometimes (more often) they lost. Inevitably reaction started by killing the leadership and making conditions harsh for their followers. Rather often that crushed them – those rebels are forgotten. But the peace was not won until the losers desired it and winners wanted to give it.

If you want an example of how not to it – which I think has some applicability to modern America – the treaty of Versailles is a good bad example. Germany lost – and various allied forces set out to cripple, hurt and to shame her. A global group set out to crush a national group. You can argue that they had cause, or that it was fair, or didn’t go far enough. What you can’t argue with is that it led to a far more vicious German regime, and another war, which, had Hitler not insisted on his ‘military’ ideas being followed, might have ended differently, or gone on much longer. As both of my parents served with Allied forces, I am glad it did not.

But afterwards the victors actually learned from the mistakes of Versailles and actually did a pretty good job of winning a fairly long peace, at least with their principal foes. It struck me, fairly pointedly that while comparisons between modern times in the US and the conflicts between the brownshirts and the reds leading toward Nazi Germany are frequent, it might also be seen as a global group trying to repeat Versailles. That didn’t work then.

The losers certainly are showing no signs of wanting to make peace, to accord respect, to match concessions with concessions. I kind of keep waiting for the winners to behave as winners do, in these circumstances. It seems the losers are hoping for actions against the foot-soldiers. But historically reprisals have inevitably been at the leadership, first.

Interesting times. I am glad I live elsewhere.

So how does all this tie into writing? It comes back down to understanding motive, and when you build such motives into your war-end either peace or another round of war will follow. The latter is more pleasant in fiction. It’s also useful for sequels –which are also more pleasant in fiction.

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Now and again (and again)

‘I have a cunning plan,’ sayeth Baldric…

‘Do you dare countermand my divine instruction?’ Sayeth the Emperor Mong.

And then there’s the ‘Good Idea’ fairy…

Besides all these fine helpful folk we have the generous intervention of natural disaster, plain accident (and not just the ones looking to happen thanks to the intervention of the above-mentioned) and of course illness and the natural consequences of age.

I might be talking about the core of many a great novel – which, as often as not, are about dealing with the above, or the consequences of the same. Actually, I was referring to my weekend. For a change it wasn’t me listening to the great advice of the sage Baldric, the Imperial commander Mong, and eternally charming and beguiling Good Idea fairy. I’m sure they were as busy as ever, but their great work did not result in a demand for medical help, at least not here on our island. I was doing something that really was a good idea.

No. REALLY. Not a Good Idea fairy good idea, but one designed to help with the consequences of her good ideas.

You don’t believe me, do you?

Hmph. I’ll have you know that Ambulance Officers are ranked as the most trustable people, even narrowly eclipsing Fireys. That’s why all the puppy kickers trusted and believed me, and not ChinaMike ™ ‘cause no one trusts them ‘revenuoors’. Oh… wait. Oh well. There goes another good theory.

None-the-less, it actually is true, and exactly what I spent the weekend at – Ambulance Service training. We’re all volunteers and from a range of backgrounds. Our lot, anyway, are pretty much who you’d choose to ride the river with, who you’d love to have around when any of the above factors come into play. I’m very proud to be a very minor and junior part this group. We do 10-12 twelve hour on-call shifts a month, and a call is typically three hours chewed out of your day or night. It’s stressful, enormously responsible and physically and mentally demanding at times. And, yes, we help, and at times will put our lives and health at risk, for anyone who needs it. Anyone. (Which as you know from the gospel according Irene Gallo is what people who are nasty Nazis, sexists, homophobes etc. etc. do. Good people stay at home and join PC internet lynch mobs, or, if they’re really giving a lot to society join protest marches to silence people whom they disagree with.)

I spend a lot of time worrying that I’m going to screw up, because I have (possibly) someone’s life or at least well-being in my hands. Now, I do this diving (my buddy’s life) and climbing (my second and party’s lives). But there I actually have a reasonable idea of what I’m doing and how to manage best. I’m an utter obsessive perfectionist (and a martinet to boot, to those who do these things with me, alas), which comes through in my writing – which is not a good thing. I really, really don’t know enough human medicine and ambulance practice to make this a comfortable experience for me (for what it is worth, the same is true of writing books. I still spend a lot of time and effort trying to get better at it.)

So training weekends are something I really value, that I try to put as much mental focus into as I can. Okay, so there are some very good inappropriate jokes about our new training dummy – who according to the box she came in is called Ann. We had interesting times getting her electronics working, which as I’d been thinking about a ‘some-assembly-required’ IKEA style sexbot story and talking about it, was particularly fraught with bad puns. As she appears male (she has no hands or feet… or boomps-a-daisy) she’s been renamed trans-Ann. I think the jokes kind of go with doing something terribly serious – which no one is playing the fool about. They’re common in surgery and on grim search and rescue. Not on TV of course – but in reality. TV surgery and TV S&R show awfully earnest people. Which they are… they’re also coping with stress in a very psychologically appropriate manner – which at times includes laughing at it.

This weekend, particularly Sunday, however was really particularly great – because after the theory refreshers, our trainers put us through a series of scenarios with our poor hapless second dummy (who has legs. Her arms seem to have come adrift…) where we actually used our ambulance and the gear – quite a lot of times. In daylight. Without any real fear that dummy would die or feel pain. We still worked as if she would, but it lets you concentrate better without that worry.

You get faster, better, and far more confident. You also have your mistakes pointed out (and our trainer was great, making it about learning, not ‘you idiot’.) We WANT to learn. Doing the same basic stuff – getting a stretcher into an ambulance for example, or taking obs, over and over, so you don’t have to think about it, so you can concentrate on the real medical problems. Also… you start to see your own flaws (mine: being far too inclined to take charge. Which is all very well when you are the most experienced and do know what to do. This is not true of me.)

In case you hadn’t worked out: I was also writing… about writing. A lot of us are busy writing books. Books to sell, books as a final product. If we step back at all: it is to learn about the theory, the methods (marketing for example). That’s good and valuable. But… there is enormous value in writing NOT for your book (you can use it, perhaps) Just writing, where per se, the outcome does not matter. The piece is done as best as possible, but you can shred it, you pick the story apart, you can pick up faults, you can experiment and try doing things differently. That’s what it is for. Not to sell but just make yourself comfortable with your tools and skills. So when you go back to that book… you can focus on making it a great story, because the other stuff is muscle memory.

Even if you don’t do it like this: write a lot. In my opinion it is better to push through a reasonable volume than endless fuss on two sentences a day (yes, I do know a ‘literary’ author who does just that. I think her work sucks).

I know, some people get it right first time. Most of us don’t.

 

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UnReality

You’re lucky I am posting at all tonight, as I have at the moment it seems insufficient blood for my brain for much thinking. Most of it seems to be hovering around my Gastro-intestinal tract. We have a nasty batch of Gastric ‘flu that has swept the island (and Melbourne for that matter. It was in the papers a few days ago, illustrating the subtle difference between Oz and the US.) As I’m a Volunteer Ambulance Officer, and my wife works in the Doctor’s surgery (and yes, it hasn’t skipped him, either) it’s one of life’s inevitable issues. Only people with toddlers in pre-school are more in the target zone.

Now, as my main thought tonight is “how far am I from the porcelain throne, and have I brought a big enough bowl along?” I thought I’d write about something derived from that, seeing as my American cousins blanch at the idea of describing gastro – but will cheerfully write the most detailed description of oral sex. British humor is more scatological than American. For British colonial, multiply that by two. It can cause some confusion. I remember some American visitor of youth asking for ‘the bathroom’ – and being conducted to it. There was no flushing convenience in there…

And yet… if we’re talking fantasy-worlds with horses and knights and whatever… well, let’s put this way: the bloody flux killed more people than any battle ever did. And every time I read fantasy about people drinking water – or filling water bottles in villages and towns – I go ‘Oh shit!’ for good reason. I often wonder if some of the more insane deeds of yesteryear owe their doing to the fact that the street was the sewer and washed down into the river, from whence came all the water. You drank alcohol not just because it made you see toothless women through beer-glasses (quite common before oral hygene – the fan flirted behind was in no small part to hide the state of the teeth in high society that could afford sweet things but knew little of oral hygiene. Even I blench talking of the dentistry of ‘the good old days’.) Alcohol was literally safer to drink than water. Small-beer or watered wine – or just a mug of porter or goblet of Gascony got you going in the morning. It was that or water, which could really get you going.

I often wonder if the popularity of tea might have something to do with the boiled water involved.

Anyway, I wasn’t actually going to post about the potty-details. I was simply using them to make a point, and not just about the traps and pit-falls of different cultures within the Anglosphere.

That point is that realism in fiction – often praised… is actually seldom sought.

Here’s the thing. Reality is FULL of TMI. And a lot of it, if it isn’t revolting, is BORING. Kind of like the twitter account that details every single thing, reality actually comes largely as something skipped for the exciting bits. Now, SOMETIMES readers actually want realism in these exciting bits. But they want the good realism or the bad realism and not the actual thing. Trust me on this. There really are limits. There are ‘exciting’ bits of my life as a Medic you really don’t want to go through, even vicariously. And there are far worse things.

What you’re trying to do is a very difficult balancing act no one ever tells you about or explains. You’re trying to distil time and distance, and the reality of the human condition into ‘the interesting bits – but not the wrong bits of that.’ And what is the wrong bit? Well I’m stuffed if I can tell you. I just know it when I see it – by the fact I’d rather not. Graphic sex that literally reads like an IKEA instruction schedule comes to mind. When you actually sit down and STUDY books praised for their realism, you’ll pick up a constant pattern – no matter how different the books – of the authors tricking the reader into believing they’re giving a detailed and often graphic description of a real event. Often with what would be termed ‘gritty’ details, bordering on the TMI line.

If they’re good it is crafted into a seamless package, that feels ‘real’ (even if you have never experienced that reality). The key is in having enough very precise but often discrete details – some at least of which the reader will recognize and identify with – so they believe and accept AND FILL IN THE BLANKS. Really. It’s not damn IKEA instructions. The writer pictured – and smelled and felt and feared/loved it in his head – and gave you details so you can produce your picture (which may well not be his picture).

Take your favorite piece of realism. Read it sentence for sentence, from the end to the beginning. Learn how to do this. It’s largely something writers to instinctively, but understanding it doesn’t make you worse at it. It makes you better.

And now…

I need to go and see a man about a dog.

Urgently.

(And yes. I just illustrated my point, without even mentioning technicolor yawns.)

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Preparing the ground (writing)

You can walk into a piece of virgin bushland and scatter your seed. You can, but other than achieving some snickers at the double entendre, that’s about all you’re likely to succeed at.

Trust me on this: as one of those skilled gardeners who can make one plant struggle to survive where ten flourished before I attempted to grow them, I know. I tried this method in earlier years…

It was a great reason to learn to forage for bush-food, because you can’t feed yourself like that. Not even on plants that are little more than glorified weeds.

And it’s not just the domesticated weeds we eat that need prep to have a better than pure luck chance at success: From engineering to writing the same applies. Different people do this in different ways – my gardening is rather more like letting the war materiel catch up with the advance column as and when it can. This is not a great way of fighting wars and it isn’t too crash-hot for gardening either. I do get results, we feed ourselves and sometimes produce a bit of surplus of life’s essentials, like zucchini.

Oddly, it’s not the way I build (or write) where I tend to spend a lot of time assembling the materials I will need, making sure I have the necessary tools and skills… and then getting it all to go together in double quick time… or at least until the careful planning hits reality and things fall apart. Either new plans and unexpected ingenuity comes into play, or I find myself paused again while the next essential bit that I should have anticipated but didn’t gets bought and delivered to our remote island, because, no, you can’t just nick out to the shops. It tends to color your way of seeing the world. I have not yet learned to build with zucchini, but I am sure it is just a matter of time.

Now this probably hasn’t bypassed those you who have military or disaster-response experience, but that is just about the key feature of any real (or realistic) story. Just as in life, there are unexpected consequences, and no plan works quite as you hope it will (in all too many situations – whether it is a pick-up in a bar or open conflict, or both, as can happen) the other players aren’t pawns and won’t think like you do, or do what you expect them to do. Hell, even the waves and weather don’t.

That doesn’t stop it happening in a lot of books. There are no hard and fast rules for writing, but clockwork plans I would say chuck me out of a book faster than the open-conflict pick-up line does. The problem is, the author is, de facto, playing God for his characters, and of course God being omnipotent could actually have his plans work. It’s a very tempting line to follow.

But this wasn’t actually what I wanted to write about. Preparation is more than just one thing. Ask me. I am trying to do at least 11 different and largely unrelated tasks with our house building project, ranging from tractor repairs to scavenging red ironbark posts, to dealing with expensive and mindless bureaucratic crapola without losing my cool and vaporizing the legislators and administrators, to learning a whole bunch of new skills, to trying to play chess with the effects of each of the steps I take (take down a tree. It will take 20 years to replace if you find you need it there), put in an orchard without clearing the ground properly and allowing room for large machinery – and curse yourself for 20 years). Books are creating a whole damn world, not just a property. You CAN wing it. Many do. I spend a huge amount of time on research. It’s terribly useful at times. I now know for example (as a byproduct of reading about a shipwreck for the WIP) that in 1835 British surgeons’ were treating syphilis with large hypodermic syringes with which they would inject mercury up the patient’s urethra. How could I possibly write without this valuable information?

I think I kinda made my point. That way lies madness, and not just from mercury poisoning and tertiary syphilis.

There is a huge temptation –because you have prepared for a book by doing a Master’s thesis worth of research – to put it all in. Once again I speak with the voice of experience: research is like zucchini plants. You may feel it wise to put in an entire row of five varieties… but you can’t actually use all of it – not without turning your entire family in zucchinophobes (and doubtless the PC police will persecute them for that. You must love the entire alphabet soup, A to Z.).

However, the key here is the same as with disaster-management or when a battle plan meets the enemy: you won’t have prepared right, but in my opinion you will have a better chance to adapt your plans.

Which leads me into the truism that preparedness is a state of mind, not just a stock of canned goods. And this holds true IMO with writing too. The characters, if they’re worth having, WILL stray from the plan (if you have one, which is why sometimes not having one has plusses.) and their interactions with other characters. You have to be prepared for that change. Otherwise you run the very real risk of the reader expecting the change inevitable from the shift in character (often with the 20:20 vision of hindsight) and not getting it. It’s a profoundly unsatisfying experience – and that is something you never want your reader to have.

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Bony fingers

Work your fingers to the bone…

Over the years I have concluded that most authors believe paranoids really don’t quite get the severity of the problem.

There can be no other reason why your book doesn’t do well. Of course, publishers come at this from the other side. There can only be one reason a book fails: every crash is an author error. They put a cover that looks used toilet paper on your book? They did precisely zero publicity for it? They failed to get it into any major book-stores? The distribution is such that it is easier to get Fort Knox to hand out free gold bars than get your book in your local store? The book wasn’t printed at all? Trust me, despite these (and yes I know authors who have had each of these, and releases in the midst of national disasters) publishers have, according to publishers, nothing at all to do with a book’s failure.

Which, given that level of accountability, may partly explain why every author whose books undersell their hopes, is sure that it’s someone else’s fault. Possibly the patriarchy. Or Alien mind control rays.

Oddly, the success beyond reasonable expectations is also entirely caused by authors. It’s never luck, being in the right place at the right time or having your publisher, marketing, and distribution actually get it right. At least this seems the view of some authors. /s (inserted purely because sarcasm detection is hard for some people.)

Here’s the thing: succeeding as an author is incredibly hard. Making a living is an achievement of note. Hell, finishing a readable book is something not that many people get right. There really are very few easy rides, and outside of celebrites having ghost written books, even the easiest still has more work than most other jobs.

My personal rough formula for working out the probability of how well a book could do go something like this:

(Enjoyable Readability) X (Potential Audience Size (which is also divided by competition)) X (Awareness of the Book’s Existence/Visibility)

(R) x (A) x (V)

So, let’s take two hypothetical cases: Johnny’s book, which is rather badly written but on a subject/genre and with characters likely to appeal to around a million people, and is exceptionally well promoted and he’s lucky and favored and everything goes right in telling that audience it’s worth buying (including building momentum): (0.1) X (1 000 000) X (0.7) = gives him 70 000 sales.

Sarah’s book, which is well written, entertaining, targeted to appeal to twice the audience, but her publisher’s publicist has recently discovered she voted for the wrong person and decides to serve up vengeance…

(0.7) x (2 000 000) x (0.05) = 70 000 sales.

Which would make the two equal, just on sales, but this is plainly not the case.

The hardest thing in this set for an author to do anything about is visibility. You can – Like Larry Correia, John Scalzi or Vox Day — develop an independent-of-your-publisher presence, particularly online. But, realistically, most of us would consider hypothetical Sarah’s 0.05 = 5% of our possible audience even knowing a book exists as a vast achievement. The reality probably runs to one or two orders of magnitude below that in most cases.

This is your biggest mountain as a self-published author.

It leads directly into one of the areas authors frequently believe that someone is out to get them. Their friends, their mother… all tell them their book is wonderful.

And it sells less copies than they have friends.

Lest you think this only is a self-published author problem, the usual crowd of Torlings and Chinese bots and the like, have regular whines about how women/ LGBT / PoC are being erased. The wicked patriarchy takes time off from its busy schedule to silence them.

Hmm. You know, one of the reasons given for this wicked silencing by the publishers is the patriarchy (that evil male conspiracy that meets on alternate Tuesdays at the North Porchester Bowls and Tiddlywinks club to secretly plot how to keep wimminz down) are biased towards their own, which is why there is this constant struggle to make everything more inclusive. Logic states that these inclusions would in turn then be biased towards their own, and thus ensure representation. And indeed if you look at sex ratios in publishing, and the sex of new entries, there does seem some justification in this.

While figures for Traditional publishing are sadly lacking, the BBC – which draws from a not dissimilar pool and shares a great deal with the Publishing world has published its figures. Now given that IF like-for-like bias exists (if you’re red headed Spanish Catholic from Minnesota, you’re going to like and support authors who fill any of those, and increasingly so with each category) we can look at the root of much comfort in Traditional publishing – the John Scalzi theory that white males are playing life on the easiest setting. ‘Life’ is broad category, about which we have even less data, so let’s settle for the publishing like-for-like giving visibility.

Now the BBC runs to 48.2 % women compared to publishing’s 74%, (note that this is voluntary survey with all the problems and bias that includes) with management being 42.1% in leadership roles as to 54% in management in publishing

Curiously in publishing women run 84% in editorial, and 73% in sales and marketing. As these two groups directly affect (R) and (V) it follows that there’s not a lot to whinge about the difficulty setting for those areas from the ‘erasure’ facing the oppressed women of traditional sf/fantasy. Yet, true enough, their sales are tepid. Maybe – like all of us – they need to ask why instead of simply blaming the usual scapegoats.

Of course not all of the Beeb’s data are similar – different countries and different attitudes I assume. One example is race, where the BBC under-represents the white people to include more people of other races. This, if the PW sample is to be believed, is not true in US traditional publishing, where whites are over-represented. I wonder how compares for LGBT etc. where the BBC is around five times over-representative of them. No data, for the US but if the BBC is any indication, it’s unlikely that impacts negatively on the difficulty setting. The BBC would suggest it’s a seriously easier difficulty level to gain that like-for-like visibility and support than in the general public. There is no data to suggest that, compared to others, it’s the hard setting.

Where of course this really gets interesting is education and background, and, I suspect, politics. If you’re looking at like-for-like preference: coming from the upper-middle class parents has a 60% chance in BBC and 20% chance in UK populace… and I’ll give long odds that that is true in the US traditional publishing too. That actually does come with a whole set of expectations and cultural ‘mores’ so yes that is relevant in choosing and supporting books. The same runs on expensive education at ‘status’ schools and colleges – a relatively rare thing in the US I gather, but not so in Traditional Publishing.

This clearly holds true in politics, where sectoral analysis of donations show that Traditional Publishing is close to 100% Democrat. That is, coarsely speaking 3-4 times what it should be to be representative. There is plainly a substantial ‘easier’ setting for (V) for vocal left wing authors.

So to summarize traditional publishing like-for-like ‘game level’ for different participants, taken as a fraction of Traditional Publishing or extrapolation from the BBC numbers over actual. None of this more than wild guesstimates, and the data quality sucks.  I run under the assumption that these are additive merely for the purpose of ranking (They aren’t. It is more complicated.)

White 88/70 = 1.25

Black 2/13 = 0.15

Female (taken from publicity) 73/51 = 1.43

Male (as above) 27/49 = 0.55

LGBT (from BBC data) 10/1.7 = 5.88

Heterosexual 90/98.3 = 0.91

Upper-middle-class (or above) origins 60/20 = 3

Working class origins 20/60 = 0.33

Expensive status education (purely on UK figures) 17/7 = 2.42

Ordinary education (7/17) = 0.41

Publicly Left wing supporting (taking a generous 33% – surveys indicate it’s closer 26%) 100/33 = 3

Publically not left wing 1/67 = 0.01

So: if you’re looking the actual hardest setting in like-for-like support in Traditional Publishing – Working class origins, Hetero, male, black, state education, not-left-wing. You can work out the easiest setting for yourself. Clue: it’s not actually white male. (and, interestingly who gets the hardest deal runs parallel in things as disparate as educational opportunity or age-at-mortality – but that’s another subject, far too wide for a writing forum).

But there is something that doesn’t come through with those figures – it’s how the quality and accessible readability of the work (R) can transcend these barriers and how people can (not always do, but can) rise above like-for-like (otherwise Anne of Green Gables would never have been published let alone sell IIRC 50 million copies) Sometimes too there alliances – one group supporting another, so their numbers are actually higher. And of course, the single most important thing (A) the size of the audience to which the book appeals. That, in a nutshell, is one reason that small sectoral-interest books fail to sell a lot of copies – despite huge support and visibility push from Traditional Publishing.

What really counts in the end is writing as good a book as possible, targeting a reasonable size audience (particularly one without too much competition) and getting those eyeballs.

Otherwise all you get is bony fingers.

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New lamps for old

But wait… there’s more

Order now and we’ll…

DOUBLE THE OFFER

(If you wait until the author has finally finished writing it, and pay for the second book)

When I was young, optimistic and foolish (I’ve outgrown the first part) I was talking to Mercedes Lackey about the theoretical framework that I’d created to make an Alternate history with religious magic work (The Heirs of Alexandria series: I’m – of the three of us involved in that project – the one who liked to work in logical and plausible fantasy. Not really ‘fantasy’ per se, I suppose). I eagerly expostulated about how ‘NEW’ this idea was, and how readers and critics alike were always after something new. I paraphrase, but she told me something that stuck with me: “Dave, they say they want ‘new’, but they don’t. They want new old.”

In other words readers – in general – want the characters and story type they have come to love, with a new story (that is sort of like the old story, at least in type). Yes, of course there are exceptions. But there is a lot of truth in that too.

In part it is capitalizing on past success, past achievement, meaning you don’t have to do the hard-yards from the start. It’s a bit like various African regimes renaming colonial cities, streets, buildings and airports etc. It’s a lot easier than starting from scratch. It even fools some of the people some of the time, especially those who want to believe.

It can be done reasonably well. It’s hard to eclipse the first book (or movie) although that happens sometimes if the author was just at the start of learning his trade when he wrote it. Of course sometimes that’s spun off into franchises. No one realistically expects the ‘franchise’ to be the same as the original. Occasionally, and rarely, a new author does such a good job that it’s different but better (Sanderson?) Mostly, of course it’s riding coat-tails. Hell, who am I to point fingers? I wrote the Karres books, and I’m no Schmitz.

Of course what many an author (or film-maker, or comics author) has tried is to use the franchise – particularly ones that are getting a bit ‘tired’ like many of Superhero comics were – with a new twist to attract new audiences and hopefully retain most of the old audience.

The trouble with this is it’s a judgement call, and especially inside the various bubbles (New York Publishing, Hollywood, and in the UK the Beeb’s little Guardian-and-Birkenstock club) they’re often so distant and unconnected with audiences outside their bubble that they assume they think like them and will respond like them. Which is why they have flops like the Ghostbusters remake, because they assumed the audience for the movie was just dying for a feminist version, with lots of man-kicking. Dr Who is trying much the same thing with a female Doctor. It could work because that audience is already pretty much restricted to inside their bubble. Still, with a new writer, and female lead after 12 male ones… She’ll have to be a good actress, and he’ll have to be a better writer. I expect we’ll see a long sequence of designated victim minorities cast in the role in future, until the show dies. I doubt we’ll ever see another white hetero male, but maybe that’s just me being cynical.

I expect Jane Bond, 007 will be next.

Funnily enough I’m betting we’re not going to see ‘Tomb raider starring Larry Croft’ or ‘The Handyman’s Tale’ about a dystopian atheist society where men have been stripped of all liberty and rights and relegated to plumbing and other dirty jobs… oh wait… that’s a wet-dream that might sell to certain audiences – so long as it didn’t include the inevitable social collapse from blocked sewer systems because the boss (female, naturally) had no idea how they actually worked in practice.)

Anyway, the market will deal with these as the audiences see fit, probably to my amusement because I’m a bad man. Ask any puppy-kicker. My issue for today was rather more about dealing with the desire for ‘more’ as a writer, and not getting dealt with by the market myself. Because Lackey was right, at least about this – audiences that you’ve established want more ‘new’ stories in a ‘world’ or setting they enjoyed, and characters they want to see more of.

There are of course several problems:

1) You’re catering for the audience you established for your first book. New readers really don’t like starting with book two.

2) You’re walking on the heels of a book they loved – and inevitably that’s hard to live up to (because it doesn’t have that new magic, and also it does, often, follow directions that you thought were a good idea… and your readers don’t.)

3) You’re trying to get new readers anyway. You have to: aside from anything else, readers drift away or move on or die. Even the most addictive of stories won’t have a 100% come back for seconds. And like Hollywood, New York Publishing etc. – you’re chasing them at the possible expense of your old audience.

There is actually a fairly brutal and blunt answer to all of this – quite simply you’re selling an existing franchise’s goods to an existing audience. They are your priority. They will – if they love this book, recruit new readers to the prior one (especially if you’ve made it cheap or free). However – they have very high and very, very distinct expectations. Disappoint them… and they’ll never buy one of your books again. What is worse is that one angry or disappointed reader is I would estimate ten times as likely to badmouth you, as one satisfied customer is. Complaints are easy, praise is hard. A good reputation is built slowly and with difficulty. You can trash it in an instant.

You need to work out just who that loyal audience is. You need to learn what they want and like. You need to keep them that way. They will forgive you (perhaps not follow that series) if you write to catch that ‘new’ audience in a new ‘world’ with new characters, far more than if you mess with their established ‘loves’. Some readers – new, drawn to a new series, will explore the old one, and become loyal to that. Some old series readers will like the new. That way you get the best of both old and new. But –as so many authors have shown – chasing new at the expense of the old is a great way of ending up with nothing at all.

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Mercedes Benz

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz,

My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends…

Janis Joplin

Ahem. I’ve spent a good few hours today, swanning about in the Mercedes Benz, looking down on the pheasants (We don’t have peasants around here. I had to make do with pheasants. One adapts to circumstances.) from my lofty place in the world, through the windscreen of the Mercedes Benz (just repeating that, in case you didn’t get the first time). I’d like to set something straight though. I have had lots of help from my friends.

Yes, the world is different from inside a Mercedes Benz. More… Lofty. And the feeling of power in one’s field is most delightful. I revel the thought of crushing some of the clods that have annoyed me. They are mud beneath my treads. I won’t let myself get bogged down in that though. I’ve still got a long row to hoe, so to speak.

Still, people don’t drive Porsches in my field much. Oh yes, there are a few successful writers out there who could afford them, and I’m sure that New York Editors, Publishers, and even the distributors are in utter penury to give the poor old working writer a better deal, or they could. I hear Jeff Bezos leads by example at Amazon, going to the back of the queue of his executives at the soup kitchen… heh. I suppose you’ll say ‘those are not your friends, Monkey.’ And you’d be right. It’s business, at least as far as I am concerned.

Which of course is why you should be surprised about me swanking about the Mercedes. Well, you know, quality will out. And there is nothing like a Mercedes to tell people you’ve made it, you’re great.

Mind you it would have been some fun to drive over a few Porsches, after they got bogged down in my field. Porsches, generally, don’t do that kind of mud. I have 32 gears, 4 wheel drive, and diff-lock, and bigger wheels than most Porsches. This Mercedes Benz was built for mud…

MB

And yes, it is a Mercedes Benz – an MB Trac 440 of some vintage, and lots of rust. The mud inside the cab was growing moss. It still is a Mercedes Benz. It’s just also a tractor with four large wheels and a lot of height. And, yes it is out, standing in my field right now. Mercedes IIRC took over the company that made Unimogs –and built a tractor on the same technology. It actually belongs to one of those good friends who has given me a lot of help, and I’m using it on the little farm we bought. Without peasants, a tractor does a great deal of the work we need to get done.

So why did I write this, besides for my – and hopefully your – amusement? This is after all a writing blog, not an agricultural one, despite the level of bullsh!t you get out of me. You see, one of the problems I see in modern writing – particularly the kind favored by the modern literary wing of sf and likely to be awarded a Chavez or three, is that they’ve forgotten ‘show don’t tell’ – Which is why you end up with boring social justice sermons, which are as subtle as a brick, and about as much fun as one thrown through your front window.

I’m an odd individual for the anti-traditional publishing establishment side of the writing world, in that many of my books are about social issues. That’s normally the other side’s bragging point and raison d’etre. Mine, admittedly, are NOT fashionable or popular or politically correct ones, and I don’t lecture on the rightness of any of them, but leave the reader to make up their own mind, if they notice or care. It would be fair to say it’s a fairly major part of everything I’ve written. (For example RATS, BATS & VATS is about a clash of Fabian Socialism, Communism, hierarchical crony capitalism, and about what actually defines ‘human’, for a start. Yet I have never had a soul comment on this. They all say ‘funny’ – which suits me down to the ground.)

To the contrary to the literary establishment I find this an irrelevant and personal choice. I am quite outspoken about the idea that books need to be fun, entertaining to read, and that ‘social justice’ is an un-necessary addendum. I’ve nothing against it being there, just as I have nothing against some people writing turgid PC sermons. I am sure there are people who want that. It’s a numbers game, however. Despite the fact that New York’s Liberal Arts literary and publishing elite think it is what people ought to read, it sells badly: If you don’t chase populist reading tastes, then there is no money left for idealism.

Which is why idealism, or, if you like ‘Social Justice’ issues, if you’re going to write it and sell to lots of eager willing customers… either needs to sell to a large audience who wants sermons (which is pretty pointless evangelism of an issue or cause) OR need to masquerade as other things. (And this, BTW is not confined to the left. Writers of other political leanings do, or want to do, this too.) A tractor as a Mercedes Benz for example. This quite a lot of writers get. The problem is they don’t get that the tractor actually needs to BE a Mercedes Benz to do this successfully. The old tractor is old, it’s a tractor, but by Heavens, it is quality. And everything I said about it was true – and in the process I said a great deal more, mocked a lot of things and I amused my readers.

Plough a straight furrow, not a furrowed brow.

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