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Prying A Closed Mind Open

First, take an ax… Okay, maybe not, but it’s certainly true that it’s very difficult to convince some folks that they might, just maybe, be a little bit less than correct. It is not, however, impossible.

This may be the appeal of fiction to the SocJus set: characters can be faced with situations that force them to re-evaluate their lives and yes, change their minds. The problem here being that life tends not to give a damn about social justice, and furthermore, is – by SocJus standards, anyway – horribly racist, sexist, and everything else-ist.

Life, after all, obeys the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and so forth, all of which lead to such terrible facts as women generally having different physiology than men, and this being the actual basis of societal sexual differentiation. You know, if it can grow babies it needs to be protected and so do the babies. And the physical adaptations that make it possible to grow a healthy baby and give birth to it also cause women to be shorter, weaker, slower, and to have different thought patterns. This is called sexual differentiation, and occurs throughout biology. We humans may be able to override our biology, but we are still very much creatures of it – and if you disagree, try not eating for a few days. Or even better, not using the bathroom for a few days.

Biology and other things aside, it actually isn’t true that after a certain age it’s impossible to change someone’s world view. The clue here is that precisely what the certain age is varies depending on who you ask. Now sure, it’s harder, but it’s possible. And makes for a lot of the fun in fiction, throwing characters into a situation where they have to adjust their world view if they are to survive.

Like, for instance, a thirteenth-century knight, well educated for his time and station – he can read and write Latin and Germanic, and speaks a couple of other languages well enough to get by – faced with a collection of misplaced, formerly enslaved aliens and pagan humans he inadvertently freed from slavery (Yes, the setup is kind of complex. He thought he was killing demons, and figured people, even pagans, were redeemable. Demons, not so much. So he killed the demons – who are actually a different alien race. One that regards anything not of their race as talking animals at best. And food if they’re no use as slaves).

The poor man spent most of the story lurching from one crisis of conscience to another, trying to wrap what he’d always known was right and good and proper (namely, medieval Christian doctrine) around a reality that includes non-humans as well as humans from cultures that have never heard of Christianity and aren’t even as advanced (by his lights) as the pagans he’d been fighting before being abducted. He also wound up having to beat sense into some of his fellow knights – because he also understood a little of that tool of the patriarchy known as math and science, particularly the part that says if you have too small a population you die out, and there are only just enough people to make it possible to survive, so yes, we are going to have to make a few compromises and convince them to accept us.

This is, more or less, how minds get opened to new ideas. Not necessarily quite so dramatically, but the process is the same. First is being confronted with evidence that the current world view is not adequate for the reality (it might not actually be wrong, per se. Just not sufficiently right to work in whatever mess your character is in. Or you are in). This generates cognitive dissonance, which is a very uncomfortable sensation. Most people go to a lot of effort to avoid it, and when they can’t they react with anger.

Gosh. Explains a lot about modern headlines, doesn’t it?

Anyway, moving on. There’s two things you or your character needs for the world view to change: the cognitive dissonance is one of them. The other is to need something that you can’t get without accepting the thing the cognitive dissonance is about. In my character’s case, he had to accept that the aliens were also people and that he’d need treat the pagans and aliens as equals if he was going to survive. A rather more simple case is having to learn this shit to pass the exam.

Then you get an integration phase where the old and new play tag with each other and you’re never sure which one is going to be on top (at least, if you’re sufficiently self-aware and didn’t run screaming from the cognitive dissonance). Reality being what it is, people who make it this far generally wind up reaching the end of the process, where the integration has finished, and the new stuff is part of their world view.

Characters usually get that far because the technical term for a character who doesn’t learn from cognitive dissonance is “corpse”. Or in some cases “red shirt”.

Okay, it’s not as much fun as taking an ax and prying someone’s skull open to open their mind. But it’s not as messy, either, and if you want them to survive the experience you definitely don’t want to use the ax method.

And now I must go see what kind of disaster the berserker kitten is creating.

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Stretching Exercises

Both of the posts this week, Dave Freer’s and Amanda Green’s are about not fully being able to anticipate the future.  I thought about them both when we drove past our old neighborhood and I realized the college is expanding dorms massively, now within a block of our old house.

All well and good, and my kids’ college, which is different is doing the same.  Expanding the dorms, making them spiffier, adding to the on site facilities, etc.

At the same time, tech marches on, and as usual, marches in directions that makes these dorms and facilities a supremely stupid “investment.”

It reminds me of five years ago, when, in the first flush of selling ebooks, and frankly not accounting for them too well, all the NY publishers were expanding their quarters, and getting spiffier buildings.  Now they’re firing authors.

The truth is that Education might think it’s immune to the tech stick, because governmental loans have made them fat and sassy, and who will trust an internet educational certificate?

But you know, the change is already in the wind.  The same way that trad publishers made the indie revolution easier by having this idea they could push taste onto their readers, instead of treating them like customers to be wooed, the traditional educational system is cooperating in its own demise by pouring out totally useless graduates, or worse, those who have been actively poisoned against the culture that shelters them.

When things change, they will change rapidly and terribly, as they did for publishing.

Six years ago I thought I was too late to the indie revolution.  And nowadays I live in fear of not catching up to change fast enough.  Other indies and I discuss options all the time.  And sometimes things still blindside us.

In this environment it doesn’t do to be too confident, or to get set in a rut.  And not JUST on how to market.  How to write too.  It helps to scope out the competition and “spontaneous hits.”  (That means those that don’t have push and money behind them.)

Not that you should write what other people write, but you should be aware what is selling, and what style it is, so you know what to do.

One of the things that is important to do, as it’s been borne upon me in the course of my (argh) starting to be long career is to have what Kris Rusch called “as many tools in your toolbox as possible.”

All of us have restrictions, and some of them are internal.  Currently, for various reasons, I’m writing a book I’d never write on my own.  Its structure is not something I would ever conceive of on my own, though I’ve read and enjoyed books like it.  I think I can do it, and hope so, since other people are depending on me, but it’s so new that everything feels “odd”.

Because your first time at everything will feel odd, better to try everything before it’s crucial.  Er… everything in writing.  Step down from the ledge. You only die once.

A lot of your internal stopping points are false ones.  There was a time I couldn’t write female characters.  This wasn’t exactly true but I couldn’t write female characters that made sense to Americans.  (I could write other ethnicities fine.)  However, I wrote Athena, and then I figured out how to write other people.  Kyrie didn’t even feel hard to write.

I’m still working on writing action, but I can see the time coming when it’s natural.

A lot of our stopping points are lack of practice.  Others will always stop us cold.  For instance, I can’t write sex.  Not because I’m prudish, but because I’m not a voyeur.  Described sex holds me out and bores me, whether I’m reading it or writing it.

So, include some writing stretching exercises in your routine.  Take a day a week, say, to write something that “doesn’t count” like, say, a short story, or a chapter of a story you’re not sure you’ll ever write.

Try a pov you’ve never written.  Try a genre you’ve never written.  Try a style you’ve never written.

Give it a whirl.  You might discover it’s not your thing.  Or you might add it to your core competency and enlarge your toolbox, the better to face the future with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Work of the Weavers

or ‘Hubris’

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

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

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

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

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

Which it is.

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

Until, of course, it did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The weavers have no idea.

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Childish Dreams

Childhood Dreams

As a teenager, I was all angsty, except when I was depressed, except when I was angry, except when I thought *anything* would be better than the dreary drag of everyday life.

I didn’t fear a nuclear war. I doubted ducking under those school desks would be an effective shelter . . . but if I did survive! Ah! Then I would shine! No school! Living off the land!

I had a pretty high opinion of my survival skills for a girl who felt it unfair she had to pick up her room once a week or so, and might rake leaves a few times every fall.

But anything, anything! Would be better than the horrible drag of everyday life as a child. Not allowed to have serious responsibilities, be on time to school, do your homework before TV. Mind your manners and hug your father, he’s had a long day at work . . . Other people controlled my life, I had no power to change it in even minor ways.

It’s probably no surprise that my reading leaned heavily toward escapist on one hand and post-apocalyptic on the other. I wanted to know how other people survived. How they rebuilt civilization. Or saved it in the first place—look at how many mega-hit thrillers, both in print and movies, are basically “stop the bad guy before he destroys the world” adventures.

I never liked the Dystopias, where everyone raids and all the building seems to concentrate on weapons and vehicles to attack and take from others. Even in the middle of the Cold War, and the middle of teen angst, I had some places I didn’t want to go, even in a book.

I think back to that bored whiney child when I see college students protesting and rioting today.

And I see powerless children like I was . . . except these children have found a way to create their own emergencies, their own opportunities. Can I blame them? Not only do they have to attend school and do homework , most of them are running up debt to acquire a piece of paper that *might* help them acquire a job. Most of them are older than I was when I graduated and went off to work. Today’s college students are children in every way except the number of years they’ve been alive. Other people *still* control their lives. They had no power . . . until now.

But it’s a destructive power. My dreams of post-apocalyptic life involved building, rebuilding, forming new and better societies. I never dreamed, nor desired to tear down civilization. The destruction was out of my young hands. A missile launch away.

These young people are actively working to destroy the system they are utterly dependent on. Can they think beyond “My student loans will disappear” to “and I still have no skills anyone wants” or if they’ve truly brought down the country “I have no survival skills, no food. But I have this club . . . and I know how to intimidate people.”

I don’t understand them. Do they somehow see themselves as the Heroes? Bringing down the corrupt system, no matter how many lives they ruin doing so? Got news for them. It’s the Bad Guys that destroy civilization. They are turning themselves into the classic disposable pawns, used and discarded as soon as their masters have gotten what they want. The power they are gleefully seizing is short-lived, and it’s shallow. It exists to serve those who want a different kind of power and it only exists until one side or the other stomps them flat.

But they don’t see that.

Maybe we should make up a reading list for them.

Unfortunately, modern publishers are highly Progressive. In their books, the corporations are evil, not the real-life creators of the jobs our rioters so desperately seek. And the military, yeah, they’re bad. Despite being a practical way out of poverty for many youngsters, including, or maybe especially, minorities. The Big Five give us characters we would rather not live next door to, worlds we don’t want to visit and hopeless futures.

Fortunately the Indie publishing boom is changing all that. Now one can find builders instead of destroyers. Heroes and heroines worthy of the name. Interesting places to take a mental trip to, adventures to have and monsters to slay. Future worlds to save, or improve, and yes, rebel against. Diversity of thought, opinion, lifestyle, sexuality, and physical body.

If you look, and yes there’s a whole lot to riffle through, you can find stories that entertain, that show you futures worth fighting for, characters you’ll love, and make you proud to be human.

Indie can teach you to hope. To build instead of tear down. Indie has it all.

How about a list of “Build a Civilization” books? And “Save the World,” while we’re at it.

Post links. Here’s one of mine to start:

 

Edited to add reading suggestions from the comments below:

Building or rebuilding

1632 by Eric Flint

Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling

The Red King by Nick Cole

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Out of the Dell by Laura Montgomery

Exiles and Gods by Pam Uphoff

 

Saving the World

Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy

The Satan Bug by Alistair Maclean

Cobra Event by Richard Preston

 

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Plausible? Impossible!

As a software tester by day, I’m always running headlong into the unknown unknowns. It’s part of the job description: finding this stuff before it goes live – if I can. I know and my manager knows that I’m not going to get all of it. If I can get the worst, we count that as a good job.

This crosses over to writing in several ways. One of the biggest is that a testing scenario is a story, complete with characters and plot. Characters and plot are usually pretty thin by author standards, but there are times when I’m quite sure they’re fantasy.

That testing story can get really fun when I get to go into the more esoteric aspects of the craft, like security testing (“I am Evil Hacker Dood. I am looking for way to make all your base belong to me.”) or load testing (“Just how high can I take this thing before it turns into a denial of service on the company intranet?”). Then there’s the stories I have to tell to convince people who don’t really understand the risks that yes, they actually do need to fix this problem.

Which is where I run right into the issue of something that’s plausible – even self-evident – to me looking impossible to someone else.

For work stuff I can make my case to the manager and he’ll make the call whether to do the thing or not. For fiction it’s not that simple.

To start with, it doesn’t matter if it can actually happen or not: if the in-book setup doesn’t make it reasonable, it’s going to give the book flying lessons. Hence, foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is where you the author carefully and ever so casually drop the little hints that your reader’s subconscious will grab and store away. Lots of little hints. You use Checkov’s Gun, and show the gun over the fireplace that’s going to be used several scenes later. Or in our genre, the sword. Or lightsaber. Or whatever. If you’re really good it’s not functional and has to be used in a non-standard way (I am not gratifying anyone’s feelthy mind, even my own, with speculation about how the hero is going to use the broken lightsaber).

Even better, you include everything to justify what happens later early on, in bits that are apparently red herrings or character development. If you need to explain how something works, you show it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t understand it and have them asking about it – if all Joe knows about dragons is that they’re big and they breathe fire, it’s perfectly reasonably for him to ask Bob (who, as everyone knows, knows all about everything) how he and his friends should deal with the beast. Have some business (in the theater sense, where the actors will do stuff that’s appropriate to the scene, like flipping through a book, or fiddling with the scenery) going on at the same time, like maybe Joe is sharpening his special-order Plus Ten Sword of Dragonslaying while he’s talking to Bob, or something. Even fiddling with his clothing works, but it’s better if you can contrive something that will be relevant later. Or come back and add it when you edit.

You see how that works? You can embed a heck of a lot of information about how things work and prepare people for your Big Reveal (or Big Encounter or whatever flavor of Big your ending uses). As a pantser of the extreme variety, I can say that you don’t have to be a plotter to do this. Even if you don’t know where the piece is going until it arrives you can foreshadow. It just has to happen in the editing passes instead of in the early drafts – something I’ve grown quite familiar with.

Half the time I find my subconscious has already put in the foreshadowing hooks for me to expand on. It’s a better writer than I am, or at least a better plotter. It’s also better at remembering that if I want people to know what’s going on, I have to actually write it down, not just leave half of it in my imagination.

Not like life which does erratic things like dump a couple of feet of snow less than a week after 70 degree temperatures. If I did that in a book it would meet the wall so fast… Which is a lesson in itself. If you need the snowstorm shortly after really nice weather, then make sure your characters make snarky comments about how changeable it is at this time of year so the snow doesn’t look like Act of Author.

Obvious Act of Author makes books get flying lessons.

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Starting Out

This post is inspired by something on my blog.  But it’s also a post about writing.  It’s very much a post about writing.  It’s also a post about life, because life and writing partake one thing: we all start out somewhere.  And we all have something when we set out.  Some will be very fortunate, golden children, and have everything they need to succeed.  The stories on those always go that they end badly.  But that’s stories, and that’s not always true.  It’s mostly a projection of our envy.  However any number of them WILL end badly.  There’s a reason for that.  Of course a lot of us, who come from nothing and got no help, also end badly.  Or often never start out.

I won’t go into the blog, because it was a commenter who inspired this.  I won’t say who or precisely what he said, just that he seemed to think the world had done him peculiar wrong because his parents weren’t very good at parenting and because he didn’t know how to get on with… well, anyone, but particularly the opposite sex.  The thing is, even on the blog, he demonstrated a social style that was simultaneously aggressive and whining.  This is a combination guaranteed to put off most normal human beings.  He seemed unaware of it.  I think he identified it, subconsciously, as “the way to win arguments” at a very early age, and therefore has continued using it, not realizing it’s creating a vast desert around him.

Most of us don’t have ideal upbringings.  Some have less ideal than others.  I’m not going into mine, because it’s none of your business, and because I love everyone involved, including the difficult ones.  I’ll just say that around ten, having realized my brother was the family favorite, I decided to imitate his social style.  Since he’s introverted and thinks manners and fashion happen to other people, this meant I took created my social desert around myself and was very miserable.  Around 16 I started to realized what I was doing, and started consciously changing.  I started paying attention to the popular-but-not-mean girls I knew and figuring out how to interact.  And it worked.  Combined with attention to grooming and dressing, I soon found myself very popular.  And even though some guys ran when they heard long words come out of my mouth, an equal number of them (not all of whom KNEW long words) stuck around and became fascinated.

But wasn’t it terrible, changing who I was, that way?

I wasn’t changing who I was.  Merely the presentation.  Note I still used long words.  I was just using social graces to make the medicine go down.

Of course the side effect of this is that it’s all too easy to become a chameleon and say things you don’t believe/act in ways you think despicable, to succeed.  That is a particular temptation when it comes to hiding your political opinions, when they’re taboo in your field.  That didn’t work too well.  Not for me.  I was getting to the point it was hard to look at myself in the mirror.  Which is why it’s important to remember the line between social style and your core beliefs and motivations.  Social style is and should be plastic, your core should not.  Not if you truly believe what you profess.

But the truth is as an adult, if your social life doesn’t please you, you should identify what you’re doing that makes it the way it is, and you should change.

No changing won’t be easy.  Social styles are ingrained.  It’s like breaking an addiction: it will take time, effort, and extreme self-awareness to get it to work.  But it can be done, and while I can’t tell you that most adults did it, I can tell you most adults OF MY ACQUAINTANCE did it, for good or bad, big or small reasons.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Everything.  You start with certain talents.  You start with certain inclinations. You start with a “writing upbringing” whether that was, like mine, an aged teacher in a one room schoolhouse who delighted in your creativity, or a college friend who said “you should be a writer” or just a delight in long hours with imaginary people.  That’s what you have.  That’s where you’re starting.

NO ONE told you it would be enough, that it would be easy, or that it’s all you can do.  And you should be aware it can change.  In fact it will change, on its own, if you pay it no mind.  It’s better to change it the way you want to instead of to the subconscious demands of your mind.  Your mind is a gorram idiot, who doesn’t know the market.

Of course, marketing is harder now.  It used to be that you marketed to the gatekeepers.  If you were lucky you hit in that thin sliver where readers liked you too, but that was a crapshoot.  Mostly you marketed to gatekeepers, which could be understood as paying attention to what they chose, to the interviews they gave, etc.

Now…  well.  It’s more like being a teen and judging your social style.  You get many inputs.  You have the example of successful peers.  You have to be awake and alert.

If you’re not doing that well at sales, look at who is, and why.  It could be, honestly, it’s not your writing.  It could be your marketing, your theme, your ideas.  So, if it’s those, work on those.

But what if it’s your writing?  Isn’t that who you are?  How do you change that?  What if your type of talent just isn’t marketable?

First of all, I’m not sure talent exists.  Not as neural programming, before birth or something.  No, I don’t believe in tabula rasa.  Obviously, you have certain innate propensities.  But the thing is, when it comes to writing…  Writing is not something that just happens.  It’s not even as simple as speaking, and that’s not simple either.

Your speaking and your writing will be influenced by the language you learned as a child, the style of speaking and writing your family/friends/society valued.  And in turn what they valued might hinge on hereditary stuff in your family/group/society.

For instance, is my talent for lyrical language something innate?  Or is it because dad read poetry to me in my cradle? And did he read poetry to me because he came from a long line of  very successful poets?

Do you know?  Do you care?

The lyrical style, which arguably survived my changing languages, is what I get “for free” in writing.  The one talent.  The one thing.  Freely given.

Unfortunately I realized after my first published trilogy, it also limits your readership.  And if it’s the ONE thing you can do, it restricts it even more.

So I worked.  And learned.  BTW NEVER let ANYONE tell you writing or style or timing or plot or whatever can’t be learned.  EVERYTHING can be learned.  It all depends on how much you want to learn it and how hard you’re willing to work.

But what if you can’t?  Then you’re just making excuses for not being able to work hard enough. Or not wanting to.

I know.  I did it for years.  I told myself my style was unique and special and someone would eventually LOVE it.

It’s not true.  If only two people read you, even if there’s a vast reservoir of readers out there who would love it (and it’s unlikely.  Most such writing has innate defects that are keeping most people away and which you won’t even see till you overcome them) they’ll never find it.  But, like holding fast onto self-defeating social styles, it IS comforting.  Hence “Well, people like romance in their books, and I won’t write that trash” which is one of my own friends’ excuses.  “I’m better and smarter than that.”  Which must be a great deal of comfort, when you need to work menial jobs because no one will buy your books.  And when your great dream of sharing your invention falls flat.

I don’t like cold comfort.  I like succeeding in my dreams.  So I took the other path.  I’m still taking it.  It’s hard, because oftentimes what I must learn is completely antithetical to what I naturally do.  But it’s possible.  And once you do it a few times, it becomes easier.  It becomes an habit, like your previous mode was an habit.

“But should you write to market?  You always tell us not to write to market!”

Waggles hand.  I don’t know.  I know things like Twilight were DESIGNED to be written to a market and to succeed, and they DO.

It comes back, though, to observing the more popular girls and imitating them.  How far should you go?  Do you want to also mimic their opinions and their attitudes until you become trapped in that persona?  That way, I think, lies suicide, real or metaphorical.

But imitating their smiles, their social graces?  That’s okay, and allows people to get to know who YOU are without being repulsed by dysfunctional social modes.

It’s the same thing in writing.  I have a friend who really ADMIRES nineteenth century writing, and tries to imitate it.  That’s fine.  Except no one ever reads the great stories he has to tell.  Our storytelling is different because our conditions are different.  Nineteenth century writing wasn’t competing with TV or games for entertainment and it was self-consciously elitist.  It was leisurely, slow, and often determinedly obscure, so it sounded “important.”  Sure we read authors from that time, but we go in knowing they’re from that time, and adapt our expectations.  Modern authors, we expect other things from, and soon grow impatient with nineteenth century mode, particularly when combined with some newby mistakes (and we’re all newbies compared to the greats who have survived centuries.)

Or you can take your ideas, the core of things that matter to you, that which is exclusively yours and dress it in the right clothes, and put in the right manners, so the reader will actually read and like what you do.

Look, 90% of the books I get from KU hold me out.  I want to like them.  I want to get into the story.  But the writer holds me at arms length by not telling me what I need to get in; by cloaking it all in weird, stilted language; by not researching; by making their opening scene/character/world DELIBERATELY repulsive.

It comes back to being a teen again.  The world is not going to adapt to you.  Not in the ordinary way.  Sure, sometimes you’re so rich, so powerful, the world will.  And if you are a billionaire, you can promote your book until it becomes the “new thing.” But most of us aren’t billionaires. We have to adapt to the world — and the writing world — not it to us.

And yes, even the golden children, the fortunate ones, to whom the gods gave everything in society or in writing need to know these facts, and to learn to adapt.  Our envy notwithstanding, most people I know who succeeded with their first written book hit a wall shortly thereafter and never wrote/published again.

Part of it is that the world changes, and if all you have is what you were given, you don’t know how to adapt.  Say you come in doing spy thrillers, then the cold war ends, and you don’t know how to do anything else.  Worse, you don’t know how to LEARN to do anything else.  Same could be said for horror, or, now, UF.  All of these had times of great bloom, then failed.

Even if you have everything, there are probably details that could be better.  It will be even harder to learn to change them, BECAUSE they’re details.  But if you do it will increase your ability and longevity.

Strive. It’s the best you can do.  And if you’re lucky, it will be enough.

 

 

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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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