Author Archives: davefreer

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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“No Irish need apply”

Well, we’ve been through that form of discrimination.

We’ve had ‘no blacks need apply’

We’ve had various other forms, especially in publishing.

The newest is no Indies or even genre need apply.

It always seems to work out SO well, that it was inevitable…

You know, it’s always a right royal pain in the butt to have to establish if your enthusiasm is being a trifle misplaced. Whether that really is Beluga Caviar at two thousand dollars an ounce or whether it is buckshot softened with fish-oil you’re being offered as a great treat. Without the label on the tin, it is possible to be confused.

Which comes down to how do you know you can trust the label? Well, here’s a clue, which I don’t just tell everyone, but as you are all willing initiates into the dark side (as writing is known among us aficionados) if you look in the small print on the side of the tin and it says (in Cyrillic script) : Prop. Dread Cthulhu and Assoc., product of the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, and it smells like that, it really is caviar. Trust me. The Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn brand is best.

Otherwise you can just as well make your own with buckshot and shark-liver oil.

Ahem. Having done my bit for the conservation of the sturgeon in Caspian and Black Sea, as well as having supported dentistry, I will now continue in a slightly more rational tone.

I said ‘slightly’ (just before any of you get pissy.). What I was talking about was the various ‘Imprimaturs’ giving official consent for people to like a book or a movie or piece of music. Before you tell me you don’ need no steekin’ imprimiwhatsit, keep in mind that a lot of people do. And yes, they are necessary (the lot of people, not the imprimatur) for authors to make a living.

Of course, there is word-of-mouth (the finest hallmark of quality) and advertising as well as marketing, by means fair, foul and financial. But you’re selling a brand – your name, and it helps if you can tie that to another brand the public know more widely than your name, and possibly trust for qualities that public is likely to enjoy.

Of course the ‘possibly trust’ is key. Imprimatur Brands like Hugo Awards are now regarded by the relatively few who know them as severely tainted, by quite a lot of the possible audience. But they still have their niche following, and if you sell into that niche, they may be useful. Any publicity is better than none, if you’re not going to lose readers by it. But brands – at all levels, from author to brand-of-brands — are rather like living things: It’s a race between growth and death. When they stop growing death starts catching up. It can take a while, because even if you’ve trashed your brand, not everyone has heard about it.

Of course the key with your brand – or brand-of-brands (Baen is an example of brand-of-brands that works as multiplier) is that it has to be in touch with its audience and their tastes. Which is great when you are, when the brand (and especially the brand-of-brand) keeps up with the changes and means you make better living. I was reading how Rotten Tomatoes has assumed a major role as a brand-of-brands in the movie world – with its aggregation of various publications and critics’ rankings.

The problem of course is a similar one to that that the New York Times bestseller list – which relies on sales from (supposedly) a secret list of booksellers. That’s a way of subsampling, and can be quite effective, so long as those booksellers are effective at targeting the entire spectrum of the US reading public. To put it broadly, if the bookshops sampled were all in one kind of area – say near liberal Arts college campuses – well, that’s going to mean books loved by… say serving military (a HUGE market. Certainly for me: A lot of being a soldier is long periods of boredom, followed by short period which made boredom really attractive. I read a lot of books in the boring bits) are under-sampled. Chances are the college kids are going to find the recommendations spot on, the Military way off. Rotten Tomatoes apparently skews heavily left in its sampling. Hollywood – which also skews the same way, respect it. Unfortunately that’s about a quarter of the US audience – Not a great ‘in touch’ recipe for a brand-of-brands. Movies like the new Ghostbusters did well on Rotten Tomatoes – and terribly at the box-office in the US. I see problems – and if ‘in country’ sales are going to remain relevant, either they’ll have to change their sampling – or the public will find another aggregator, with Rotten Tomatoes losing value.

Speaking of the NYT bestseller list and being out-of-touch – with the reading public always skewing to buying more of what is cheap – Mass Market Paperbacks, e-books… The NYT has decided to ‘improve’ its bestseller lists.

“Our major lists will remain, including: Top 15 Hardcover Fiction, Top 15 Hardcover Nonfiction, Top 15 Combined Print and E Fiction, Top 15 Combined Print and E Nonfiction, Top 10 Children’s Hardcover Picture Books, Top 10 Children’s Middle Grade Hardcover Chapter Books, Top 10 Children’s Young Adult Hardcover Chapter Books, and Top 10 Children’s Series. Several more including Paperback Trade Fiction, Paperback Nonfiction, Business, Sports, Science, and Advice Miscellaneous will remain online.”

Hmm. Pure genius. That’s DEFINITELY going to help their brand-of-brand value.

Traditional publishing, increasingly reliant on Hardcover sales will be pleased. I don’t think anyone else will be. Genre sales, and particularly Indies will have now never make the NYT list. No romance – but literary hardbacks…

Anyone want a bet we’re going to see the NYT Bestseller list decline as brand-of-brands?

I wonder what will replace it? That could be something of real value to help selling books, if it is actually in touch with the general readership.

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May you live in interesting times…

Nar! (extra points if you recognized the origin of this)

I recall reading somewhere that the ‘ancient Chinese curse’ was made up by Eric Frank Russell. Who knows or cares? Its origins are murky and probably not Chinese. EFR is possibly implicated in making up quite a few things (including spontaneous human combustion) so, as I like his work, I’ll choose to believe it.

We’re in interesting times. As writers we tend to write about them – although as escapism, I suspect ‘less-than-interesting-comfortable’ books may be a coming trend.

It’s been interesting for me as an observer to see how aspects of EFR’s ‘Wasp’ have become true. We have had the Kaitempi out in full force for some time. Everyone believed they alone, helpless, and would suffer the consequences of any opposition. Then the wasps started putting up stickers and posters… Well, internet contacts, and then elections. According to the Kaitempi those who were not with the ruling power were few and weak and just waiting to die. They had no future. The future was a manifest destiny of the modern way.

And now that is less certain, it seems. I suspect we’re in for tit-for-tat – one side will protest, attack any of their members who are not displaying loyalty enough… the other cut funding and buying support in response… which could get messy in academia and the media, of which publishing is a part. Sense would suggest that there will be casualties. Interesting times, indeed, especially as many of my traditional publishing peers, failing to make a living at writing, have been going back to college to earn writing related degrees with fall-back plan of teaching others to write. I think I see the teeny tiny flaw in the idea of taking such a course in the first place, (to learn to be a writer from those who can’t make a living writing) but I suspect it’s going to get messier.

So as writers facing uncertain times what steps should you consider taking? My own guess is academia with the intent of teaching writing is probably not what I would do. I’ve read various comments from writers desperately unhappy about the outcome of the US election sneering at the ‘hoi polloi’ (yes really, they used that term) who they blame for not knowing what was good for them and saying: “well being called ‘elitist liberal’ will become a badge of honor because at least they can read.”

Hmm. I’m not the only one reading that. Methinks that attitude will not go down well with a lot of customers. Not for books, not for tuition, and certainly not for the funds for that tuition. It’s not actually supported by facts as an attitude either, but it is certainly deeply resented by ‘flyover’ country. My guess is colleges are going to take a sharp turn away from the arts and funding for courses in them, and will face a downturn in enrollment for such courses.

Nor would I bet the farm on anything coming out of traditional publishing: – it’s hitched its wagon very tightly to the left’s pet causes, to the point that it is being identified as one and the same, and very much part of the media – which is suffering a huge financial and credibility downturn. That bloodbath will affect traditional publishing too.

My advice hasn’t changed – no matter where you sit on the political spectrum.

  • Write a LOT, as much as you are able. Writing improves writing. And it’s pretty hard to sell what you haven’t written.
  • Build your own brand and platform: I, like so many others made the mistake of believing all I had to do was write and my publishers would do the establishment of my name as a recognizable brand. Learn by my mistakes, don’t repeat them. Be more than just a string of book adverts, find communities you fit into and don’t over-push.
  • Don’t spend money you don’t have: So many writers setting off spend, in the expectation of earning. They hire publicists, take out adverts, use precious resources (including time) and then discover the income is 1) nothing like as big as they hoped. 2) A lot slower than they believed possible (trad is usually bi-annual, and often months, and sometimes years late). You do need to speculate to accumulate, but it’s risky. Balance risk with reward using pessimism, and not resources that will leave you in trouble if it doesn’t work.  The right place to start, if you have to prioritize… is with proof readers, then covers and designs, IMO.
  • Be agile – more than I am – at new platforms. Remember facebook wasn’t very relevant not that long ago. Remember twitter was, but is dying.
  • Only make enemies to purpose – Think of it as not your opinion that you’re expressing, but your brand. If you were a restaurant with a largely vegetarian clientele, you’d be an idiot to put a picture on facebook of you tucking into a steak, and on the inverse – if you have a generally omnivore clientele who like steaks – telling the world ‘meat is murder’ won’t help. You may think this obvious, but as the authors sounding off publicly during the last US election, particularly about how they loved Hillary and detested Trump, it plainly isn’t. On the other hand some were clearly trying to make enemies to purpose. That’s a way raising your profile with those who think like you do. But don’t just do it, think about what you do.
  • Remember who you write for! (clue. It’s not you. Or the editor. Or in fact for most of us a little bubble of people in NYC). You want to be loved by those ‘hoi polloi’.

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Insulation destroys conductivity.

Or

The agony of hope and the tragedy of love, and why these must be.

(fair warning: long)

It’s fair to say my dogs have all loved me with a whole-hearted adoration that I really don’t deserve. With a devotion more fitting for a god than a very fallible man. In turn, well, I have done my fallible best for them, not to imply I haven’t been an asshole to them occasionally (which unlike cats, never seems to make the least difference). Humans are very inept at the god business and fail to appreciate the sheer joy that rolling in a nice decayed wallaby carcass will bring to a doggy life (and the study they share with their deity.).

It’s also fair to say my life is richer and fuller for having had them share that love and their all-too-short lives with me.

That doesn’t make the parting any less hard. As I get older…well, my Wednesday (the black lab), and 16 year old brother to the late Puggsley the golden lab, is snoring peacefully on the cushion next to my desk. I know 17 is unlikely and I will go through the tearing of my heart again.

A part of me says: enough. I cannot bear this again. No matter what joy, what companionship, what love… I’ve used up my cup of coping with the grieving. I will have no more dogs and not have to mourn their passing again. I will insulate myself from it. Give a little affection to dogs that do not own me as I own them.

I’m not ready to give in to that part, because I know that being Dave’s dog is not a bad billet for a dog, and there are dogs who need a decent home. But… well, looking back over the lives of my faithful hounds, it is harder every time. I understand, even if I think it’s the wrong answer (just like my never adopting a dog – almost all have been rescues – would be the wrong answer) how people hurt in relationship break can decide they’re never going to engage that deeply. They’re never going to let themselves hope or love that much again. Because it hurts like hell if and when it goes wrong. They insulate themselves, and form no deep attachments, never again allow themselves the chimaera of hope – or at least, not much. Distance lends insulation from the hurt.

This will make sense to some of those of who write, and very little to those who don’t, but this in way is true of the writer and their books. It was certainly true for me. I set out, a long time ago, back when fax machines roamed the earth, with hopes to write the books I loved, and with the proceeds buy a farm, or at least a small-holding, where I, Barbs and the kids and the dogs could have space, and I could raise our own food, in between writing. You laugh… and well you may.

I spent seven years working at selling that first book, writing a couple of million words, getting to the personal handwritten and quite lengthy rejections from two editors (both turned down at editorial board level –which meant nothing to me then, but I now know was rare) as well as the manuscript returned unread form rejections. I had a deep cup of hope and a belief both in myself and the fairness of the system, back then. Sending out a book manuscript, with its post-paid return envelope cost me around half a month’s income. It was hard to justify, as we were living on the bare bones of nothing. Eventually, I sold that first book out of the slush-pile. A pile about 3000 manuscripts a year deep – of which they bought… one.

Was I great? Had I written THE sf novel? As an older, wiser guy: no. It’s a good book, I had put a huge amount of effort into it, and, for what I knew then, it was best book I could write, in that sub-genre, and of that type. It, realistically, deserved to be in the top 300. Maybe even the top 30 of those slush subs. What differentiated it from the other 29 was more luck than anything else IMO.

That, at the time, was not something I was aware of – not that I’d climbed a massive cliff, or that there were probably a good few who passed the rest of the hurdles but lost on the luck at the last one. There were, I am sure a fair number of authors, like me, who had given everything they had to give to their book, which they believed in it, that, realistically, could have done well or at least as well as me. It had happened to me a lot of times along the way, even with that particular book.

Now: consider. I’m a guy living in a small foreign country. I only got the internet after selling that book. I was a prolific reader, but that was via second-hand books and the library system. There was no spare cash, and what there was, had three other places to go before books. I knew absolutely nothing about publishing, and just about the same about the US, my principle audience to sell to. I didn’t even know that was the case. Full of hope, I thought my book would get a fair shake. I knew it wasn’t DUNE or LORD OF LIGHT, but, doing my best to be dispassionate, it was more entertaining than a lot of the more recent offerings I’d seen. It was a fast-moving story and chock full of what I thought was clever stuff (Hey, I’m a monkey. Clever isn’t really our forte). I assumed all books got much the same and the market sorted ‘em out. And the right and honorable thing for an author to do was to stay out of the way, and let this happen. My heart was pure, and my love deep, and my hopes at their highest…

Um. I said I was pig-ignorant, didn’t I? Of course, in reality, my poor book got a cover that company had bought on spec (not a bad cover – but really nothing to do with the book, or selling it), and a title I hated, and exactly what most noob paperback authors bought for boilerplate minimum (the equivalent of a quarter in loose change in the ‘how much to we care about spending and recouping this’ stakes). The book got put onto the bottom of a list handed to Simon and Schuster to distribute. And that was it. No marketing, no incentives, no publicity. The equivalent of a punter finding a quarter in his pocket and tossing it into a slot machine and pulling the lever. If they got lucky, great. If not, shrug.

I was still luckier than the other 2999 authors trying for that slot. And despite me and my delusions about the marketplace and a fair crack of the whip… and doing everything wrong, THE FORLORN, tucked away in a scattering of bookshops, as near invisible as possible… did ALMOST well enough (it sold more than the ‘never-touch-again’ level but not enough for the ‘contact the author and buy’ – I was sorta-maybe class).

My hopes had taken a dent, but, as I lived out of touch with other authors, and had no idea that this wasn’t what the best outcome was or that Baen was considered the kiss of death by the hoity-toity new ‘literary’ sf in-group – i.e. most of sf publishing. I thought I at least had a sf publishing credit, which would get a chance at an agent or another publisher (from where I was, they all looked the same). Remember, at this time I was ONLY South African to EVER achieve this. I was vain enough to believe this meant something to the bookstores and libraries in my old country. It did. It meant ‘you’re a smelly local, eugh. We only buy imported. And only from the UK, or Europe, certainly not someone published in the US. And not (shudder) Baen EVER.’ (You have to say this with the sort of disdain a wino with holes in the butt of his trousers begging for change gets from a society lady to get the feel of it.)

I’m a battler, and a man with a lot of hope and love for what I was doing, so I kept writing and kept not selling, and did keep learning. In the process I’d made friends with the Bear – Eric Flint. He got a snotty rejection for a short about uplifted rats and bats – with the comment that the cranial capacity of rat was not large enough for uplift. He asked me my biologist’s opinion of this: Which was that I could think of at least three ways to get around that. He said ‘really cool, we should write the book’ (nothing to do with the short, barring having rats and bats) – and proposed it to Jim Baen – Who liked the idea and bought it for an advance $6500. This –split 2 ways was a step down for me, but 1) It was work, a chance and I’d take any chances. 2) I still believed merit would win out all on its own.

I wrote that book’s first draft in a month. I didn’t sleep much (I don’t, I’m a 5 hours a night guy, and I normally work around 14, I pushed it to 18+), and I did have some input from Eric when I got stuck. Baen had the finished product – from contract to book turned in — in less than two months. I put the ardent heat of a new lover into that book. Gave it everything I could, from layers of meanings and puns to plays on Shakespeare, Wuthering Heights and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas – and mixed this into a fast moving tragi-comic story.

Writing that was to me what writing ought to be: exhausting, demanding, reluctant to stop in the evening, and eager to get up and get writing in the morning. Loved to the core. I honestly believed it was the best thing I ever had written, and I thought it was leagues ahead of any other sf/fantasy humor outside of Pratchett in sf at the time. I loved it passionately. My hopes were as high as possible.

It got a title I thought sounded like an anthology, and a cover I thought a very poor fit (the book called, hard, for a Josh Kirby type art work IMO) It got into hardcover… and did badly. Two unknowns (before 1632) and a mediocre cover… But given the level communications in publishing Eric and I didn’t know that. And Eric was much better at self-promotion than I ever will be… so the paperback sold around 20 000 copies – which was exceptional for the chuck-and-chance marketing it got (although I didn’t think so. I expected that book to go big.).


(pictures are links)

I think you can see where this is going, can’t you, without me throwing all of my many books and their story at you. But over the years I’ve repeated the pattern of throwing my heart, hope and intellect into books… which, to continue the dog-analogy didn’t live that long. Some of them certainly deserved far better. I kept slogging away, building an audience slowly. There were no short cuts, no easy breaks.

Slowly, slowly I also insulated myself a little more from the hopes… Hope is an anchor. It’s also something you build on. We managed to buy a pocket handkerchief farm (due to inheritance and a favorable exchange rate), 12 acres, most of which was dense forest and verging on cliff-steep. Good for kids, dogs, tranquility, and view, not much else.

Then I finally negotiated another solo (which means not dividing the income) book, got a great cover. And… We also got our visa to immigrate to Australia – something I had worked on three years (because much as I loved it, I was at anchor in what could be the path of a hurricane one day, and was getting rougher.) It was a break we were truly lucky to get considering my age. It came with a very short window, which meant packing ourselves, our beloved dogs, our cats, selling our home, and moving to a strange, far country, to a place where we knew no-one. It took all our resources, our farm, all our cash… and I had a book coming out in the middle of it. A very important book for my career. A book I had put all my heart and hopes into, yet again.

By now I’d realized I was a chuck-and-chance author, not important or successful enough to expect more, and while I would never be good at marketing, at least I was doing something. I checked the Amazon listings, wrote the blurbs, told readers when the book was coming out (which I found out by looking at Amazon), did my best. Still, I had made some money for the company, and there wasn’t a soul there I hadn’t helped out, done things extra or extra fast for. It wasn’t like I was a crying whiner who constantly demanded and never delivered. I was going through a hugely difficult move at a crucial time. I wouldn’t even have internet access, let alone a place to work from. I sent e-mails to everyone at my publisher, asking if anything they needed before I went and please, please to give the book that tiny extra shove because I couldn’t do it. I had a choice of losing my visa or not doing it all for them…

Well: that was too hard, and too much to ask. Too much for anyone to even send a reply to Dave wishing him bon voyage and the best of luck. And – in a complex system I’d kept having check on… maybe someone did make an effort. But others dropped the ball in just about every way possible.

That was insulation point. I learned finally to stop hoping that traditional publishing would, except by accident, look to my interests as I had tried to look after theirs. If I didn’t believe they’d do anything much to help me sell, if I stopped expecting timeous royalty statements and communication which they’d benefit most from… well, I wouldn’t be angered when it didn’t happen. But I still loved the writing itself, although I started experimenting with indy.

For me it hit ‘Almost break’ point a couple of years later. Out of the blue I got a frantic message from my agent – he had someone from Funimation wanting to buy the rights PYRAMID SCHEME to make an anime movie. NOW. TODAY!

PYRAMID SCHEME had been out for 13+ years, without a solitary right being bought. This was true of all my books (and yes, many less-well selling authors sold translation rights, and film options, audio etc. Baen insisted on having all of them and never sold any. Shrug. I couldn’t sell them either). The movie rights were, de facto, worthless, unsellable. Trust me on this: such offers are once in a lifetime things. Most authors never get an offer. Better ones than me don’t.

Things were at a particularly rough patch in this New Australian’s life, what with rent, the cost-of-living in Australia being a long way up on South Africa, and the exchange rate meaning my income got 15% taken off before banks stole their cut – about the same again. And we’d had medical expenses that had to be met (I was glad we could) and yeah, things were hard and tight. I spent money I didn’t have chasing my publisher down with several expensive calls to the US, until I succeeded.

I made a terrible, awful mistake.

I let my hope blossom, and left myself with no insulation at all. Why wouldn’t I? There was no reason on earth it wouldn’t go through. We had a willing buyer who wanted something no one else did, and a surely a seller who would be delighted to get rid of something that they couldn’t sell to anyone else.

I had a promise that the publisher’s Hollywood agent was right onto it.

Except of course, they weren’t.

Funimation is a relatively small, reputable Texas-based Anime company. PYRAMID SCHEME was a book by a minor pair of authors, bordering on being out of print. It was a colossal dreamed-of break for me. I’d have given it to them for free, just for the increased visibility. I had in fact had my agent offer them CUTTLEFISH – for which I had the rights, for exactly that sum. They said, no, they wanted PYRAMID SCHEME.

A lot to me…. was not enough for the Hollywood agent to bother.

I spent hour after hour waiting, full of hope and I admit full of glee and delight.

And then a week full of worry.

And then asking questions by e-mail that got no answers.

And then actually making more expensive phone calls… to be informed it was with the agent.

And… eventually repeating the process, and getting a promise of an answer.

To which, eventually -a nag later, I got the answer he’d given: No deal. Funimation were just buying up rights from all and sundry on the cheap. It wasn’t a real offer at all.

This was, bluntly, an outright lie. I have a lot of contacts among other authors: none of them got the approach. I’d also offered them a book for nothing.

But… my publisher accepted the agent’s statement as the truth… and as months had passed on a ‘hot’ deal… it was all over.

I was nearly all over too. Facing writing again – something I loved – was hard. Facing 14 hour days for my hopes… writing, blogging, working, well, yes. Not easy. I was burned. Getting up to write in the morning was not something to make me explode out of bed.

I’ve failed to get back to that hope. I’m a stubborn bastard, and I escaped by writing a book I felt was really important – CHANGELING’S ISLAND and then TOM – a book I thought enormous fun.

I got back to the contracts and wrote the next HEIRS book. I’m busy with a KARRES book now. But the ‘a book in 2-5 months’ (5 months for a goat-gagger) is avoiding me. It’s been bothering me.

It was only in the last week or so I finally figured out what was wrong. I’m once again in that tense waiting phase for something I desperately hope to make true: we’ve put in an offer on a little farm. For various reasons, a large part of which is even by growing own food and never buying anything new and being incredibly careful, there just isn’t much money, this is also a ‘once in a lifetime’ chance for us. It hangs on me being able to keep various balls in the air, some goodwill I have no control over, and some effort from our local council and no hurdles (there are no real reasons for hurdles – but there were no reasons for Baen not sell PYRAMID SCHEME’s rights.)

My stomach is a knot, and I’m a phlegmatic sort of guy who doesn’t flap under stress. I have, minimum, another ten days –max 26 to wait. Doing anything coherent is hard.

But… the old hyper-energy is back. I can’t wait to get up in the morning, to start building, planting – even writing. Without letting myself hope too much I wasn’t giving up, but the drive wasn’t there. I’m still afraid to hope unqualifiedly, to drop all the insulation, the distancing.

But that is what it needs. That’s what feeds the drive. That’s what makes us build. And that’s what my writing needs too. I need readers, I need people who love my books. I need make those connections and get the rewards from them. I must not insulate myself, I must hope with all I have, I must love the books with all I can give. This profession needs you to be driven, to get the best out of you.

Hope is anchor, but of course that anchorage can also be in worst place, where you get pounded by the storms, and can never reach harbor. Ask any abused spouse. What keeps them there is hope. And being without that anchor is really hard on most of us. But you cannot insulate yourself. This is not ‘just a job’, you can do and hate.

The key is finding a better anchorage. My readers are that. My first mail has now gone  out, with a free RBV story. You can sign up here

That is what I must do. That is what you must do, if you want to succeed.

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The Geography of Fantasy

I thought I might write about the amusing conceit of a wealthy, powerful and famous scion of a chronically discriminatory industry hectoring the voiceless working poor about how they shouldn’t bully her clique, because it would generate the same. I’m sure it pleased the powers-that-be in Hollyweird and about 25% of the population enormously. Unfortunately they were 25% who liked her anyway and watched her films. Perhaps the Hollyweird grandees and her bank balance don’t care about the other 75%… Now. It was rather like New York Times promoting a blacklist of advertisers whose products appeared on Breitbart. It’s a weapon that works really well… if no-one replies in kind. Just as in publishing: virtue signaling to NYC publishing by attacking anyone outside their urban left-wing echo-chamber is still SOP. For now.

The worm turns: they don’t seem to have worked that out. I know it’s not the origin of the phrase, but I always have seen history as a sort of worm-drive, needing a full circle to shift on one gear tooth – but inexorable. These things will sweep our industry, change its landscape – and contrary to popular belief within it, the arts and entertainment world follow, rather than lead.

But then I thought even Cassandra needs a break, and I’d talk about the magic of geography in fantasy. No: Geography does not magically transform people… but it does shape people, and their fantasy. I was fascinated to be informed this week that C.S. Lewis’s fantasy Narnia was shaped by County Down, Northern Ireland, and its green landscapes. Being me, I of course wondered why there was not more rain in the books!

Geography has some of the disadvantages and advantages of the cliché and the stereotype character – You don’t have to ‘build’ too much of the landscape of your story in the head of your reader, if you use the standard geographical tropes. The reader may not ever have been in the mountains or deep woods, but they are ‘established’ in their heads.

Diana Wynne Jones in her ‘Tough guide to Fantasyland’


(The picture is a link)

(and used in her Dark Lord of Derkholm and its sequels) had a lot of fun with the sheer inane silliness of some of these tropes, which as often as not make no sense in real geography. Like the ‘stew’ which those on the quests eat, (despite stew being a rather slow, time consuming process, requiring ‘stewing’) on their nightly stops after their horses have covered amazing distances, these are often an escape clause for the lazy or ignorant writer.

What they should be – IMO, is a frame into which the writer builds. I must admit, however, that it is one of the few areas where ‘write about what you know’ can lead you into a lot of trouble, unless you’re careful.

You see, the reality is a lot of your audience… won’t know. Some of course will, and be very irritated if you get it wrong. But all of them will THINK they know – and will be just as irritated if they think you’ve got it wrong (even if you haven’t. It’s their idea, and their money – as a writer you have to appease the former or at least convince them you’re not wrong, if you want that money) Most of us have strong ideas about what geography is like, in our heads. Of course it would be simpler if it was all the same ideas… but even seemingly ordinary things like ‘mountains’ can mean very different thing to people who have been into the mountains – let alone the urbanite who has seen them on TV. For a simple example – the mountains of South Africa (where I was born), and the mountains of Australia, and the mountains of New Zealand are all very different in something really basic – slope. Australian mountains are old and to me quite rounded, South African Mountains middle-aged (with a little middle aged spread), and New Zealand mountains are slim and spiky youngsters with ridiculously (to me) steep sides. And all of the above are not the mountains of the Brooklyn Fantasy reader or writer.

Keeping this in mind we come back to using those ‘stereotypes’ landscapes without slipping into DWJ’s fantasyland stereotypes (It’s worth looking at if merely to know what to avoid), using the strengths of it, without the predictable tropes and boring the reader. This is a balance thing: I can’t make you instantly good at it – it’s one of the skills you learn as a writer. But I keep turning back to Tolkien and the concept of using those preconceived ideas as a frame, in which I shape the picture in the reader’s head with small touches of precise detail. Personally – because so many of these images are so visual in the reader’s head, I’ve found adding non-visual cues – the sounds and smells of a scene very evocative and powerful.

This was me adding to the image of a coastal storm in CHANGELING’S ISLAND

The wind flurry brought angry drops of rain hissing down the blue-gray wall of the surging swell. It roared up the ramp in a seething ravel of white water and rolling stones. The inky blackness across the water devoured the outer islands, and the horizon had vanished into the rain haze. Suddenly it was backlit by a tracery of jagged lightnings showing every black billow of the vast, stark roiling mountains of cloud above the whitecapped gray sea.

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