Author Archives: davefreer

The Work of the Weavers

or ‘Hubris’

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

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

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

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

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

Which it is.

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

Until, of course, it did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The weavers have no idea.

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‘Want fries with that?’

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

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

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

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

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

It is a pity about that, because it works.

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

She answered – and I paraphrase slightly:

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

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

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

Almost anything is possible.

That’s not the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ups and downs

I’m having a rough go of it. Friday we got transfer of our little farm. It’s not much to look at. 43 acres of rough grazing, bracken, sag tufts, and daggy fences. Still, for us, a big deal. Saturday afternoon I noticed Batman-cat was looking really skinny and that the dry food hadn’t been touched. I gave him some fish, which he ate. By Sunday evening he turned down fish, and I knew we had trouble. So first thing today he went into the vet. He was de-hydrated and anemic – he’s an elderly cat, who has no reserves. It’s probably his kidneys and not looking good – which is rough after 17 year of having the little tyrant around.

So tonight (it’s Monday night here, we live in the future) I was struggling to think just what to write about. I’ve gone from triumph to a sadness, and knowing that our other two cats are the same age, and my old dog lost her brother a few months back. Reality says that soon will be last sad trip for a loyal friend and rather affectionate cats. Time… no one’s friend, really. I thought of just saying ‘sad puppies’ three times, which is believed to have Mike Glyer appear on your blog and make passive-aggressive comments, always good for a laugh. But that was a bit of an easy cop-out. Writing isn’t easy. If you’re a professional with bills to pay, commitments to meet, it goes on through thick and thin, somehow.

So I got thinking how life imitates books and books imitate life, and how writers can learn from this. Because it isn’t true. In books we can play god.

Of course there are books in which authors let this go their heads. They’re often called Mary-Sue (or Marty-Stu), where the author takes deus ex machina personally. Still, like the news on the BBC or CNN, there is also sometimes a little kernel of truth in the idea of books and life mirroring one another: books which reflect wishful thinking (for example the typical modern feminist sf – which is rather like John Norman’s Gor stories, but with the roles reversed) or other books where the characters merely act as cardboard cutouts doing precisely what the god-like author would have them do in a perfect world… don’t usually get finished, let alone remembered. Of course they have their fans, but… well look at books that endure, have broad appeal. It’s not Gor, or its inverse. There’s space for them: it’s a broad church – so long as it is not space only for them.

Books where the characters (and sets of characters, and their interactions) are realistic enough to get us to accept the people (at least temporarily) as real, are remembered, are read, are loved.

The touchstone, sadly, is that for these characters a kindly author-god cannot intervene to shield them from the horrible bits. Life is ups and downs, disasters, heartbreak, joys and celebrations. The author can shape things so they finish the book on the last, but that’s really the limit on that power. Only real divinity goes further.

Characters need to suffer. It makes the good bits sharper, more wonderful and more joyous. Unfortunately that kind of means letting your own hurt bleed onto that page a bit. Characters need to fight back against that – or the book is a depressing downer, with an author not to be re-read.

And I too need to do that. The years with my beasts have been full of their character, affection, outright devilry at times (Wednesday the black lab was Wednesday from the Adams family by nature, Batman liked to attack my knees while I sat on the porcelain throne of power. Ventures to the bathroom required military precision and strategic genius or the little Tabby was just somehow in there. It was a game to him, constipation and twisted legs to you. His talent for mouse-skull-crunching noises at the squeamish was certainly deserving of a far higher award than a mere Oscar.)

And finally – taken from life, the writer needs to accept that when this is all over, and hearts are torn… I’ll take on another pup that needs a home and cat that needs a servant… and another book to bleed into. And yes, I’ll build up my little farm. It will be richer for my having the memories of the friends along the way, that if I were the author, a place they’d share with me.

And now I am going to pick up my little old hooligan kitty and tuck him into bed with me, because that is what he would like.

Kitty updates – don’t hold you breath version. Last night I thought Bat-cat would not see morning. Wouldn’t look at food, barely drank, was just flat. Somewhere during the night I got a purr out of him. On the plus side – for a dehydrated kitty with possible kidney failure, with sub-q fluids from the vet, he wasn’t wanting to go and wee.

He went out with the others this morning but just sat on the step, and then came in. More out of forlorn hope and obstinacy I opened a small tin of fancy feast salmon (our cats have seldom had tinned food and consider it a huge treat, just as islanders consider KFC a huge treat…) which I had every expectation of him turning away from as he had every other ‘treat’ I had offered the previous day. He sniffed it, licked it, paused and then ate a little. A little later he cam back and ate some more – we are talking perhaps a tablespoon and a half. He’s also had a drink, and gone back to bed.
 
This is anything but ‘out of the tunnel’ but there is a faint glimmer of what could be light, possibly from an oncoming train.

 

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The illusion of reality.

That’s kind of what fiction is, isn’t it? Only the author gets to say ‘My reality came in a bigger glass! And it was brim-full!’

And if he or she is any good, they make it so, at least for the duration of the book, and, just every now and again, with knock-ons through life. I have to wonder how much Jack Vance’s BLUE WORLD (the first sf book I read) shaped me, let alone my fiction. I mean, it’s a book about living on what essentially are islands (made of floating weed), where an obstinate (and sometimes not too bright) hero solves problems and builds things.

No similarities there at all, right?

And there’s nothing in the fact that it’s good satire about perspective: The people living on the floats consider themselves upright, moral and good, and are organised into guilds (with great pride in membership) named after the professions of the original survivors of the star-ship crash that marooned them there…

The reader gradually realizes it was a prison ship. And yes, ALL of the guilds’ founders claimed obsessively to be fine, upright and innocent people – which might indeed describe some of their descendants, trying to live up to that ‘saintliness’.

Generating that illusion is of course the skill that sets the popular author apart from the Chavez award winners. It’s a skill, part of the craft of writing, which one can have innately – or learn to do. The good news is learning does improve anyone’s writing. The bad news is some people will still probably be better at it than you.

A big part of this is writing believable characters – people who behave like real people, fill the roles of real people within the setting you create. This is difficult if you’re playing ‘insert the correct PC tokens’ because most readers who live in the real world struggle to accept an illusion that in no way mirrors their reality.

I have found two things make or break character. Firstly, motivation. If a character responds consistently to circumstances in the way the character you have built plausibly would – that is natural and so un-noticed that it is right. If your gung ho action man hero suddenly has a three page fit of angst about whether he’s offended someone, or your fainting violet who spends hours in angst about whether to have Chamomile tea or Earl Grey suddenly displays the capacity for unthinking action… well, you better foreshadow a split personality.

Secondly, consistent and recognizable patterns of dialogue. I’d hold Mary Ryan – Tim’s Grandmother, in CHANGELING’S ISLAND as one of my better efforts at that.

(the picture is a link) BTW the paperback of CHANGELING’S ISLAND is being released on the 28th. I’m sure you saw the publicity guys at Baen letting all of you and the world know. Read the many pieces in the blog tour they organized and took advantage of the pre-order bookbub specials etc… which would be a surprise to me. (Sigh). One day publishers may learn, but the above is an example of ‘out of character’ behavior, which would break the illusion for the reader (at least the reader who is a writer).

Another useful technique used by such masters as Tim Powers and Neil Gaiman (Gaiman is not one of my favorites but he’s good at this) is the foundation – in fiction – of successfully writing ‘secret histories’ is using part of the real truth. A selective part which gives veracity. In my opinion no-one does better than Tim Powers in ‘The Anubis Gates’. You KNOW you’re being swept along for the ride, but he’s good at it.

It’s a common feature of modern journalism: take elements that are obviously plainly true, leave out the bits that would spoil the spin you want to put on the individuals, and apply bias particularly in ways at least some of your audience are likely to want to believe. The attack on Milo Yanniopolous was a masterclass in this. It is long-term destructive if you’re supposedly writing fact, not fiction, but it is very useful for suspending disbelief in fiction. If you’re writing fiction and want to suspend disbelief it’s particularly instructive to see how the background was crafted.

It was no use having its source as a left wing website: the left has been trying to ‘normalize’ pre-pubescent paedophilia for generations, let alone post-pubescent sex. In sf – Delany has been a darling of theirs, the activities of Breen were well-known, and they tried to whitewash Marion Zimmer Bradley back into favor. They love Polanski and adore Dunham. It’s the right and center who regard it with disgust. A left-source of the carefully selectively edited material would have been treated with the disdain that the left wing would have treated right wing evidence of Hillary Clinton breaking security regulations or laughing at getting a rapist to walk free. So: they faked a right wing site… And of course there are parts of the US right (I believe that neo-Nazi fellow was delighted by it) eager to believe the worst of a flamboyant homosexual, from that sort of source.

I’m mostly dis-interested, except in the ‘when they came for the Jews I said nothing, because I was not a Jew’ sense. I’ve got a short called ‘BOYS’ (which is actually about topology, but I daresay it could be selectively edited from maths to under-age sex by cutting and re-arranging the words or the letters.) I suspect it’ll all work out just as well as their attempts to de-platform Vox Day or President Donald Trump.

Which leads back to using this in writing fiction – when working on building that framework of pseudo-reality, you have to consider what your audience could believe, AND who they could believe it from. Fortunately, people do accept our work to be fiction, and are usually willing to help us along.

Talking of fiction – I had a free giveaway with my newsletter, which is now up for sale (broad hint, I will be doing this sort of thing again. Signing up has advantages for people who like my writing). As usual the picture is a link.

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Sense and Sensitivity

Blame Sarah. She suggested I fisk this

As everyone*knows I am a sensitive soul. A virtual princess of sensitivity among the hairy simian kind – yes, I can pee through seven mattresses, that’s how know I’m a sensitive bleedin’ princess, you gormless pile of rancid cormorant fewmets. Look there has to be some measurable test of sensitivity or you’d have every moron and faintin’ blooming vi’let claiming their poor widdle sensitivities offended 24/7. And if you fixed every one of those sensitivities, reducing everything to bland pablum… they’d invent new things. Because being offended is better than being ignored…

No, we need a hard and fast standard of sensitivity! And being able to pee through seven mattress and not get a wink of sleep as a result is the proven test. It has historical President… precedent, and the hallmark of royalty. That’s where the term ‘disdain’ comes from. It should be written ‘dis stain’. Don’t you believe me? My sensitive-ititties are rubbed raw by your disbelief, and can only be soothed by that universal panacea, money. $250. Or I’ll howl and growl and squeal for a boycott…

Ah, money. Amazing how a little (relatively) of this unguent can soothe the most sensitive troubled breast. Sadly, like all forms of danegeld it is addictive to its recipients. You can be sure the Dane (or the monkey) will be back in short order, demanding more, and bringing 30 of his mates along, all wanting their $250.

I’m not going to write about censorship, and the devastating effect that can have on writing, quality and originality. I’m not even going to bring up the fact that in the end, we are all a minority of one. What offends one, may well delight his identical twin brother. I’m going to write about something else about this that probably doesn’t occur to the most well-meaning of sensitivity seekers: just who benefits?

The problem, in a way, comes down to perspective, and is not dissimilar to the issue of migration and the way we tend to see that. The best way I can explain that is to paraphrase a New Zealand Prime Minister, who talking of the flow from his country to the larger Australia was that it was a good thing, because it increased the IQ of both countries. (that flow has been reversed, lately. I leave you to draw your own conclusions). Now why this is apropos is because when we talk of migrants, we inevitably think of the issues of migrants themselves (their welfare, their well-being etc) and of the country receiving them.

It’s a rarity for anyone to comment on the effect of migration on the country of origin. When Bob Mugabe started going off the wall in his desire to cling to power, and his actions effectively destroyed the economic infrastructure of his country, migrants in their millions flooded out. Not all those who left sneaked across the border to South Africa, or were landless peasants. Many were also those who could go, legally, and could do well, elsewhere. I became very good friends with a young pharmacist from Zimbabwe. He was a bright Ndebele man, who spoke flawless English (it was his home language) who didn’t want to leave – but could and could do well. Zimbabwe’s loss was South Africa’s gain. When things recovered, he’d married, settled and did not go back. He sent some money to his family – which helped them, but not Zimbabwe as much as he would have. On the other hand there were plenty of poor, uneducated migrants who undercut local labor, and were a net gain for the rich and a loss for poor of South Africa – and put bluntly because they also sent money back, a gain for Zimbabwe, but a loss for South Africa.

It’s always complicated. And there are several sides and points of view. And inevitably there is a strong economic component.

It’s a similar situation with ‘sensitivity’. We’re talking about authors (and publishers, who transfer the cost and blame to authors – every crash in publishing is author-error) and whatever the currently fashionable group-of-offendee de jour is. What we’re not seeing considered… is the benefit to the minor group, and of course the effect on the readership. And we need the economic effects of this weighed sensibly instead of sensitively.

The first question should always be: who are the customers for this book? Who will pay to read it? Will said sensitivity make a positive… or negative difference? And yes, negative is possible. Your STEAK BARBEQUE BIBLE is insensitive to vegans, vegetarians, Hindus, global warming fanatics, atheists, fundamentalist Christians – and that’s just the title. By the time you’ve finished being sensitive to that lot… your target audience has nothing to read. And the offendees were never going to be customers in any substantial numbers anyway.

Let’s be real: most of the vocal angry perpetually ‘triggered’ and ‘micro-aggressed’ are impossible not to ‘offend’: ergo the bribe, to get them to go away – which means the next ten will arrive the next shakedown, before the words are cold. Secondly: in real demographic terms most of the perpetually offended make up a tiny proportion of the population, and in many cases an even smaller proportion of target readership. My wilderness survival novel is of no likely interest to urban Wiccan vegans. If I mention them in an insensitive way, most of the target audience wouldn’t give a shit. In fact they might like the book more. That’s reality, not PC.

It’s a different kettle of tea of course, if the target are pearl clutchers who never found a fashionable offendee-de-jour they didn’t want to signal their virtue by adoring. Paying danegeld is a requisite for that audience. It still won’t stop them turning on you and casting you out, to the shrieked traditional ululations of ‘Racist, sexist, …ist, …ist”. It’s a question of timing there. If you’re writing for that audience, knowing when fold ‘em is a survival essential.

But once again we come back to both sides of the equation – a migrant is loss to their own country as well as a gain to the other country – or vice versa. Because there is no doubt that for many a small group or minority, a sympathetic (not necessarily sensitive or accurate – but I think you will find ‘sensitive’ always means sympathetic not accurate) portrayal in a novel that has entrée to a wider world… is very good for them, doing far, far more for their image, than their image does for the author. In short… the ‘sensitivity’ readers who want their little group portrayed favorably (it’s seldom about accuracy – they may remove un-favorable inaccuracies but I bet never say a word about the favorable inaccuracies) should be paying the author – not the other way around. If an author does it for free – and most of us do, despite most authors being poor… it is gratitude and help that common sense would commend, not shakedowns. And, in point of fact, that really is the case for even merely moderately popular authors like myself. I’ve never had the slightest difficulty in getting volunteer readers in a field of expertise or in a group where I needed to make sure I got it right. They are delighted to have their interest or group portrayed to a wider audience, and want it done right.

I am grateful to them, and from what I can gather, they are grateful to me.

Everyone who is important ** anyway.

**Importance is a question of relativity, rather like the speed of light.

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Truth in advertizing

Now there’s lies, damned lies, and statistics… and as far as most of us are concerned, beyond that, advertizing. Especially if it comes with ‘But wait, there’s more…”

Of course there always IS more. Usually the parts you find out later, when it is too late and you’ve parted with your money for handy-dandy gutter-swizzle, sexbot and cocktail shaker.*

It doesn’t leave you pleased – but they have your money and they weren’t planning to sell to you again. Their customers don’t communicate with each other and anyway, there’s one born every minute…

Of course there are some trivial differences between the writing world and selling junk on TV. The pay-rates for a start.

The other relevant aspect is you shouldn’t be just selling once. The key to success as an author is building a customer base, building a name. Now over on Tor.com they were busy displaying how not to understand this. You see –according to the genius on Tor.com (I hope he runs marketing for the company) – Paul Verhoeven’s STARSHIP TROOPERS was a work of genius satirically parodying that nasty evil Robert A Heinlein that the modern literati of sf love to hate.

(shrug) I don’t care if you agree, or disagree, adore the movie or hate it… the problem is one the writer of the article seems blind to, and yet, when you think about it, is behind almost all the adverse reaction the movie received.

If you’re hungry, looking for somewhere to eat, and are really in the mood for a huge steak and fries… and you see a diner offering a special on a 16 ounce rib-eye with fries, well, your stomach and mind start eating that, and full of anticipation you’re in the door. Oddly they ask you for payment up front, but it’s a good price for steak and fries, so you pay up and sit down.

And the waiter brings you a four ounce piece of tofu, vaguely steak shaped with some mung bean sprouts.

It could be the best tofu in town, it could be a far healthier choice than steak and fries – you came in and paid your money because you WANTED steak and fries.

If the diner-owner had put ‘4oz Tofu and mung bean sprouts’ on the specials board, you would have walked past. No hard feelings. If it had been the only place in town open, you’d have eaten it and been glad to have it. If you were looking for tofu and mung bean sprouts you would have loved the meal.

But when you’d been told it was steak and you could and would have gone elsewhere – I hope they have big waiters. You won’t be back. And you won’t be kind either, when talking about it.

If Paul Verhoeven had called the movie I HATE HEINLEIN, or HUMAN FASCISTS KILL INNOCENT BUGS the same people now calling it ‘brilliant satire’ would still have loved it (possibly less, because they enjoyed watching the Heinlein fans get furious), but it would have engendered almost no disparagement. It would also have lost a huge volume of sales to the suckers who believed the advertised name.

The issue for writers – or at least writers who want a career, is you are heavily dependent on return customers. And to make the situation worse, word of mouth by readers, personal recommendation (or condemnation) of a book are for many of us as near as we come to promotion. Yes, I know, the John Scalzis of traditional publishing get marketed. To be fair he promotes himself a lot. But that’s not a starter for most of us: we rely on having written a book readers could enjoy and tell their friends. Which is why truth in advertising is so vital to us: We want the reader to bond to the book – the trivial amount one earns from a purchaser who hates the book (because it was tofu when he wanted steak) especially the share that comes to an author, is not worth the damage they do.

If you’re relying on a publisher for covers, titles and whatever advertising and promotion you may get, there is fairly little you can do, besides add caveats to your own social media promotions “Love the cover of Space Mercenary from my editor at Bor Books – great cover but it doesn’t really reflect that it’s Arthurian fantasy romance. I originally called Kissing Excalibur. If you’re a fan of Arthurian Romance you’ll love it.” You can at least protect your ‘name’ as much as possible.

It’s whole different ball-game if you’re indy and the key here is honesty. Honesty from cover to content. Don’t package a lecture on cis-hetero-masculine privilege as Arthurian Romance, and vice versa: there are people who want either or both, but they don’t want to buy steak when they wanted tofu. If you’re going to steak flavor your tofu, make it convincing. Your chances that they bought something labeled ‘steak’ when they wanted tofu are not good. Trust me on this one!

On a somewhat different track I see discrimination continues to be alive and well, and still is joyously practiced by some supporters of the party that gave us the KKK. David Gerrold told them how to kick puppies (in case anyone didn’t think of excluding and damaging careers of those that dared not sing along with the party line) and now I see it being well applied, by the usual suspects. Voting for different candidates is, oddly, a celebration of democracy, a right pertaining to it, and only totalitarians wish to suppress and punish that. You can read all about Baycon and their shenanigans here. You might want to consider buying Jon Del Arroz’s book to show them how well that worked.


The picture is a link.

Sooner or later, the sf establishment needs to come to terms with the concept of diversity being more than skin deep, and need to reflect opinion, and the demographics of the potential readership.

Or find out what tit-for-tat means. When the demographics are dead against you, it’s a stupid thing to invite.

*I know. Things could be worse. You could have been one of the first 99 customers and got two.

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Hymns to Breath

A friend commented on needing to switch off the endless stupidity and hysteria of the so-called news for a few days. It’s a time which ought to be good for selling escapist books! (to show they have no nous look at what the trad sf/fantasy publishers are buying…) My comment was that I tended to go and do something dangerous. Not only can’t you think of anything but the task in hand (well you can. But not for very long) but it had a good way of putting things in perspective, and rendering the irritant in a proper scale.

I went diving this weekend. Now, for me these days that means using a hookah – the equivalent of leaving your aqualung in the boat, being constantly refilled, and taking a long air-hose to a second-stage regulator. Much used by commercial divers, they kill a few people every year. Most die from stupid, and I put in an effort at that.

The rig we were diving with was an old one my dive partner bought recently, had serviced and checked… and ordered new hoses and connecters for. The hoses hadn’t arrived yet, but the good weather had. Now the arrangement on this rig is different to any other I’ve used – it’s got 100 feet of 10 mm hose, which then splits with 50 feet of 8mm hose to each regulator. The 8mm hose needs replacing and is prone to kinking and tangling.   A kink is particularly an issue at the full length, logically.

I think you know where this is going, don’t you? No one sings hymns to breath… but to be without it.

It actually gets worse, and here is where the stupid comes in. To get down needs a weight-belt to compensate for the bubbles in the neoprene of your wetsuit. That’s a 9mm longjon and 7mm hooded jacket. So we’re talking around 28-30 pounds of lead – without which you simply can’t get under water.

The trouble is your wetsuit compresses as you get deeper. So: if you’ve got it right for what we’re doing, you’re neutrally buoyant at about 18 feet down. Scuba divers have a buoyancy compensator vest allowing them to adjust – so they tend to start heavy. Hookah crayfishermen tend to start light –and don’t have a big bulky vest (or tank) that would stop them getting into narrow caves and cracks (because that is what we’re doing, 30 feet down). If you need help coming up… you just haul on your hose. If you really, really have trouble, emergency ascent trouble (believe me, you DON’T want to do this, and you DO want to scream all the way up if you do. It’s vital to do so. You will wreck your lungs and possibly kill yourself if not), you have an emergency safety release on the weight-belt. You go up really fast. I’ve had to do this once.

This was nearly the second time. It might have been the second time… I think this may be the time to mention that I lent out my belts (I use 2) one with the air hose attached and little weight, and one with a lot (which reduces the rapidness of ascent if you only drop 1 – a good thing). I noticed the little weight one was a bit heavier, but I assumed that meant they’d re-allocated the weight between them. Yes, on the bottom I did work out I was a bit heavy, and actually I had an extra 5 pounds of lead. This was my stupidity. It was –if nothing goes wrong, not serious.

Of course that’s just when something goes wrong.

My buddy was inside a cave – moved forward and the twists in his hose kinked mine. No air. And we were right at the end of the hose, and I couldn’t quite reach him to buddy breathe (his bubbles say he’s fine.)

Now… this is where being calm becomes important. I yanked his hose, and started to swim up and backwards – which was HARD with the extra weight. I decided, while swimming up to drop the lighter belt (slower ascent)… to have the catch jam. But I had moved back and up a few feet which had slightly eased the kink (still sucking, trust me) and so I just swam hard. I found the other belt catch and had that ready to drop, but I could by sucking furiously get another breath and get a bit higher (and I knew this was a better ascent than just dropping the belt was – controlled — scary as hell, bloody hard but you aren’t going to damage your lungs. And weight-belts cost. I tried hauling on the line, but that cut my air off. So it was just swim and suck hard.

I got to the surface and found the problem didn’t end (just improved) – I was sinking, and had to swim hard (against the current of course.) I couldn’t spit the reg and breathe air (I took one deep breath of surface air) and had to make my way to the boat. I couldn’t just haul, because that made my air cut off, and might make my buddy’s air cut off. And yes, I was a bit short of line to get back to the boat. Fortunately the boat came to me.

I took a breather, we untangled the hoses, took off some weight and about 10 minutes later jumped back in. It wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done.

But it was necessary. I spent another 4 hours underwater, and we came home with our bag of spiny lobster.box-of-crays

Sorry this has been a bit long – but there is fair amount that actually applies to writing there. Besides, now you know a great deal more than you wanted to about diving, and a little bit about the heads of the kind of people who do it.

Writing is of course very committing: you expose yourself, and your ego to a lot of possible risk. Writing doesn’t have to be about taking risks in content of course, of course. But it does sharpen the experience. It was quite central to sf 50 or sixty years ago when Eric Frank Russell had a black Doctor simply accepted as part of the crew of the ship, when Philip K Dick wrote about drugs… and so on, back when the editors and publishers and even a lot of the avant-garde readers blenched a little, but allowed the boundary to be pushed. Oddly, sf was growing. That’s long behind us in trad sf, and you’ll meet with censorship and shutdown now if your ideas are not narrowly doctrinaire. So: desipe being popular with some readers (not me, but definitely others) John Norman’s Gor Chronicles were killed. Oddly, trad sf hasn’t thrived under this change. But there are still good stories without those risks. A story merely has to entertain, after all.

That hasn’t stopped most of us loading ourselves down with weights, just to get into that water. Weights of preconceptions, weights of politics, weights of message. Try to make sure they won’t sink you or your book.

A writing buddy (or buddies) are good things to have. No-one else will quite understand the problems. No one else can be there when you need to breathe.

But the most important thing you can take out of all of this is: When things go wrong, when the book fails (and they will) Get back in as soon as you can. I cannot say how important this is. The longer you stay away the harder it will be.

I wanted to say a little something about freedom of speech. I said doing dangerous stuff gave me perspective: and either that or brain damage has me thinking this is really important. In some ways I am a classical liberal. That’s got almost nothing to do with modern US (L)iberalism. It just means I think good the idea of “I disagree with every word you say, but will defend to the death you being allowed to say them.” Equally, I defend the idea that no one should be forced to listen to them, or prevented from listening if they want to.

I believe, if you like, in ‘comparative shopping’ for ideas. A free market for them, which if it doesn’t produce the best will give all of them a fair go. If a speaker can convince people that the earth is flat and I don’t agree, shouting them down or preventing them from talking, isn’t selling my idea that the earth is in fact pear-shaped. What is, is presenting a better and more persuasive argument.

Yet we seem caught in a rash of the opposite right now: The latest incidents at Berkeley with Milo Yiannopolous’s attempt to speak there – to an eager audience, being attacked by a mob of anti-free-speech thugs and arsonists and their cheering and supporting crowd. It’s Sad Puppy ‘No Awarders’ grown louder more censorious and more unpleasant – and supported by the same people.

There are two reasons I can see for not doing this:

1) Your ideas are so stupid and useless they could never sell in a free market of ideas. They can’t compete and would fail in to gain any traction if there was an alternative.

2) You think that most people are inferior and incapable of making up their own minds, and shouldn’t be allowed to do so, in case they get the wrong idea.

So which is it? 1 or 2 or both?

I’ve a habit of being Cassandra. Here is Cassandra’s blunt warning to those cheering and celebrating silencing and de-platforming: you have far more to risk and far more to lose if this gets turned against you. The same has been going on sf/fantasy for years, and when (not if) it turns… and you want to get published, get publicity and you are excluded and de-platformed… well, the time to have acted to make sure EVERYONE could have a voice, whether popular or not… is nearly past. It may be too late already.

Finally, on arson as a political tool…

There was a house fire on the island on the weekend (not something that’s happened here for a long time, and I was one of attending Volunteer Ambulance Officers. No-one needed us particularly badly – for which I was very, very grateful. One of the things I try not to think about is my experiences in the army with burns patients. I’m going to talk about burns as one of those dangerous subjects people avoid more than the ‘brave ‘ and ‘daring’ alternate sexualities or nasty conservative white men are misogynists ‘brave and daring’.

Severe burns still give me nightmares 40 years later – and I wasn’t the one burned. I was just the guy who had to touch to move a man who had no epidermis left (85% burns). No matter how careful, how kind you were, he would scream. It was not because he was coward or soft. He was a brave man who walked to get rescue for his companions. How he walked I cannot begin to imagine. I cannot comprehend the extent of the agony he went through, then, and for months and months. Every movement, every breath just more pain.  And that was before the surgery started. That was before his wife arrived, screamed at his melted ruin of a face and ran away weeping. She never came back. And that was worse still because that pain will never ease. The psychological damage was horrendous. I doubt it ever went away.

I would not wish that on my worst enemy.

People who start fires because they’re not prepared to let someone speak which could burn innocent victims… Sooner or later, that’s what they will cause.

To those who started those fires, to the people who danced and cheered. To the people who said it was acceptable and justifiable. Go to a burns unit.

That is what you are prepared to do to innocents to stop someone speaking.

Wear it with shame.

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