Okay, so the title was clickbait. Guilty. Here’s the deal. As I see it, the Jonathan Ross Hugo fiasco was a massive tactical blunder on the part of our community. After reading over a dozen different After Action Reports on the fallout, I can’t help but feel like there’s a lot of ass-covering, sour-grapes, and wishful-thinking being passed around in the aftermath. In general, I don’t think that many of us really grasp the scale of what happened. So to try and make it clear to a largely American audience, I’ve come up with the following metaphor:
Let’s say that next year in Spokane, WA (which really did have the strongest bid, btw) the Hugo committee gets word through the grapevine that Stephen Colbert is willing and eager to donate his time to hosting the awards ceremony. Members of the committee, excited for the prospect of such a high-visibility host, rush the confirmation through so as not to waste any time or risk losing out on the opportunity, just in case they wait too long and a scheduling conflict should arise, which given Mr. Colbert’s celebrity caliber is a real possibility. One particular committee member is upset that procedure wasn’t followed and resigns.
Still, the Hugos have booked their most famous host in years or decades, raising the profile and prestige of the awards and exposing them to a whole new audience of potential fans. In short, despite some internal friction among committee members, they have achieved a public-outreach coup. In their excitement, the committee rushes to announce the decision on social media, which considering this is a group of sci-fi fans who are supposed to love tech and be web savvy, probably doesn’t seem like a bad idea, especially now that Mr. Colbert’s millions of followers will get the same update and start talking about the Hugos, raising their internet reach even further into their target demographic.
But then, we hit a snag. Some fans of the Hugos, mostly from abroad who do not actually know anything about Mr. Colbert or have seen him perform, rush to question his selection as host. Questions very quickly turn to ugly accusations and personal attacks, based on little more than supposed controversies they read about on tabloid websites not five minutes before. People start insisting that he’s likely to make jokes about women or fat-shame nominees right there at the podium, despite the fact Mr. Colbert has hosted awards ceremonies and given keynote speeches many times without any such ugliness. They question if he’s a “real” geek, despite airing his credentials as a Tolkien uber-dork over the course of an entire week on his nationally televised talk show.
Stephen, being a professional comedian, replies to these attacks exactly as anyone could have predicted, with snark.
Then, things get really ugly when his millions of fans on twitter, facebook, and elsewhere get wind of a handful of people who openly admit to not knowing much about him, yet feel qualified and indeed righteous in attacking his character. This goes about as well as any sane, reasonable person who has spent any time on the internet would expect it to. It quickly devolves into a feeding frenzy of flame wars, insults, and ad homs being thrown around like tomatoes in the streets of Bunol.
Eventually, Mr. Colbert’s patience wears out and he withdraws from hosting, making a tiny handful of people who objected to him very happy, an even larger number of people in the community very confused, and an exponentially larger number of Stephen’s fans incensed.
Now, the Hugo’s public relations coup has turned into an utter rout. People who are only now hearing about them for the first time are associating them with petty, baseless attacks on a very popular comedian and talk show host. Op-eds run on entertainment and news sites throughout the net drawing more attention to the controversy and reinforcing negative stereotypes about sci-fi fandom being insular, socially-inept, and naive of the “real world”. And instead of our previous controversies which were basically limited in reach to our membership and fans, this controversy manages to pierce the mainstream, where it is read by, and influences the perceptions of many millions of people.
Meanwhile, back at camp, many from inside the community appear to have learned nothing whatsoever from the fallout. Some are so disconnected that they seem to regard the whole episode as a victory. They say things like “Well, we didn’t want someone as famous as Stephen Colbert to overshadow our awards.” Or, “We stood up to intolerance and will be better off in the end.” Or, “He wasn’t a good fit, he wasn’t really one of us anyway.”
Does that sound crazy to you? Because it should.
As both a fan of, and writer of science fiction, there are few questions that loom larger in my mind than are we alone? Two great minds of the last century tried to answer the question, or at least lay the foundation for how we think about the problem. The funny thing was, they couldn’t have been more different in their approach.
Many of you are familiar with the famous Drake equation, which looks something like this:
You can read the meanings of the different variables at the link, but suffice it to say that even with very conservative estimates, the number of intelligent species out there are significant. This optimistic view of the volume of critters out there for us to talk to is shared by, well, pretty much everyone who writes books, movies, or television on the subject. Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Farscape, Stargate, they all share the assumption that there will be a vast diversity of races out there ready to trade goods, technology, culture, and maybe even genes with if you’re a sufficiently charming Starfleet Captain. Indeed, the universes devoid of anything but human life, such as Firefly, are the glaring exceptions that prove the rule.
But there is another line of thinking that has proven to be just as persuasive that argues for exactly the opposite. This is known as the Fermi Paradox. In short, Physicist Enrico Fermi asks if intelligent life is relatively common in the galaxy, why isn’t it here already? The universe is billions of years older than the Earth. Our Sun is itself a young star. There should be civilizations many millions or billions of years older than our own. Why has not even one of them colonized the entire galaxy by now? Even without faster-than-light technology, colonizing the galaxy completely would only take a few tens of millions of years. So why is the Earth overrun with humans instead of aliens from a planet near Betelgeuse?
It’s a good question, and the implication is, since we aren’t overrun with aliens, maybe there simply aren’t any. However, I don’t find the Fermi Paradox compelling, largely because I believe it rests on assumptions that require just as much hand-waving as the Drake Equation might. Here’s an attempt to explain why.
Fermi’s first assumption is that intelligence and technology are necessarily intertwined. This is a rather human-centric assumption, and not at all true. We have several examples of intelligent races right here on Earth, such as dolphins, that have language, self-awareness, complex societies, but no technology. Nor is it likely they will ever develop technology on par with our own, not even if their brain development should one day match or even exceed our own. It’s not brain power they lack, it’s hands. Without hands, they are incapable of the precise dexterity needed to produce anything much more advanced than a pointed stick. Their aquatic environment poses another challenge. Living in water means no fire. No fire means no smelting or forging of metal tools. No metal means no radios, rockets, or other means of getting off world or contacting other sentients like ourselves.
With the explosion of extrasolar planet discoveries over the last ten years, there are very good reasons to suppose that many, many populated worlds are either super-earth water worlds, or roofed water worlds such as Europa. Indeed, they may well represent the majority of habitable planets and moons. Intelligent life in these environments would be very hard-pressed to develop technology beyond stone-age levels. The same limitations would apply to any life present in the clouds of gas giants. No ground means no workbenches. This represents an entire category of potentially intelligent life that would never have a chance to colonize space, yet could be waiting for us to show up in orbit and start a chat.
Furthermore, there are very good reasons to suppose that the galaxy has only been friendly to intelligent, technological civilizations for the last couple billion years, due in large part to the number of stellar lifecycles that were necessary to get to the concentrations of heavy metals we see today, elements that are crucial to any sort of technological advancement beyond the very primitive. It is possible that we are among the first generation of critters who finally have the potential to put plans of interstellar flight into action.
The next assumption I feel is an inappropriate analogy to the period of European colonialism applied to interstellar travel. Just looking at our own history of exploration and expansion leaves the core assumption that we should expect intelligent, technological races to spread across the sky without hesitation very suspect.
Looking at our colonial period, it becomes quickly apparent that we didn’t expand for its own sake. We expanded for resources, and usually only once the surrounding resources have been stretched to their limits. Economically, expansion even across the land masses of Earth was very expensive, an undertaking mostly reserved for nation-states. Exploration and colonization was motivated by profit, not the insatiable quest for knowledge we were told in school. New lands were stripped of easily extracted resources such as precious metals, gems stones, etc, all for shipment back to the home country. The exploitation continued beyond simple extraction when new land opened up to grow crops ill suited to more northern latitudes, especially sugar. Without this profit motive, colonies would never have been formed in the first place.
It is for this reason that colonization at interstellar distances should be anything but a given. Unless someone out there ever came up with an Alcubierre Drive, odds are we’re all going to be stuck at sub-light speeds, which would impose such a huge delay in travel times between the homeworld and even the nearest potential colony worlds, that trade between them becomes effectively impossible. This fact pretty much destroys the profit motivation for space colonization. Any expedition would be, from the viewpoint of the people actually paying for it, money thrown into a hole and burned. There would never be any hope of any return on their investment beyond pure scientific knowledge.
It will basically always make more sense, at least from an economic standpoint, for a species to simply find ways to live within their means on the homeworld. With this in mind, one would expect that if a species were to expand, they would only do so once the homeworld was no longer habitable, say due to their star moving out of the main sequence, as a last ditch effort to preserve the race from extinction. There’s a good argument to be made that not enough time has passed yet for ANY habitable planet with an intelligent, technologically advanced race on board reaching that point yet, and may not for another couple billion years. And even when that first generation of advanced races start jumping ship to new worlds, they’ll likely settle down and wait it out once more instead of spreading like a virus for no reason, because no matter how you slice it, interstellar travel by any theorized method, while possible, is still going to be really expensive.
Finally, and this is the clincher for me personally, if there’s one thing science has taught us over the last several hundred years, it’s that every time we’ve assumed our position in the cosmos to be unique or privileged, we’ve turned out to not just be wrong, but HILARIOUSLY wrong. From the Earth being the center of the universe, to our galaxy being the entire universe, to the rarity of planets and solar system elsewhere, and now finally to our unchallenged status as this planet’s only sentient race, reality has an unbroken track record of punching our ego in the gut and knocking us down a peg.
My gut tells me this will prove to be the case once again, so start funding NASA again for fuck’s sake.
As many of you are doubtlessly aware, the Arizona State House has recently passed a new law which, simply put, legalizes discrimination against LGTB citizens by anyone who runs a business serving the public. The bill awaits Governor Jan Brewer’s signature before it becomes law, but the fact that it passed with solid majorities, in 2014, is a deplorable situation that must not be allowed to pass without comment.
The simple fact is, no matter what Gov Brewer decided to do, this law will be short lived. Not because those people who passed it will suddenly have a change of heart and become reasonable and tolerant human beings, but because the law itself is OUTRAGEOUSLY UNCONSTITUTIONAL. It violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause in about a hundred different ways, and won’t survive five minutes of judicial review, even in today’s right-leaning Supreme Court.
So, what we’re talking about here isn’t so much a step backwards for equality, but a histrionic fit from the extreme rightwing of our polity, a death spasm coming from the still-warm body of bigotry and discrimination that has already been largely vanquished. These folks look around today and see that over the last ten years, the ground has simply disappeared from under their feet. From the death of DADT, DOMA, the shocking speed at which same-sex marriage has spread among the states, the complete flip of national polling on the issue, to the reality of a gay athlete in the manliest of sports, they simply weren’t prepared for the speed and scope of their total failure. Things are moving too fast for them, they’ve barely been able to process one defeat before five more have piled up on top of them. The rate of change is just too much for them to handle, so they’re fighting back like a cornered animal; no strategy, no skill, just pure, unadulterated violence.
What’s being revealed here is very telling, at least to me. The AZ bill, very similar to one that failed to pass in Kansas, (seriously, Arizona, Kansas knew better than to walk over this cliff, anti-evolution, butt-of-all-jokes KANSAS!) was written to hide its discrimination under a veil of religious protection. You see, these poor Christian business-owners were being persecuted by being forced to provide services to those queers, who kept getting their sin juices all over everything. And everyone knows queer sin juice doesn’t wash out, leaving a stain of immorality on whatever they touch. Sure, the disguise was about as convincing as an NBA Center in a Sailor Moon outfit, but that was the justification it passed under.
But what does that tell us about the “Christians” who would choose to refuse service to homosexuals on religious grounds? Well, here’s what it tells me: They aren’t Christians at all. The story of Jesus, whether you believe him to be a real historical figure or not, is one of tolerance and acceptance. The people he broke bread with were lepers, prostitutes, the hungry, the poor, the people society had rejected as unclean. His story and message was one of universal love.
Let me ask you a simple question: Who Would Jesus Deny Service? If you actually read the fucking Bible, the answer is pretty clear. Jesus would deny service to NO ONE, (well, maybe money changers).
Anyone who would deny service to the LGTB community on religious grounds may indeed be religious, but they are anything but Christian. They are not following the clear and unequivocal example set by their founder. The irony here is the very bill that was passed under the guise of protecting Christians is perhaps the most anti-Christian bill imaginable. It codifies discrimination, something that Jesus fought against his entire life. Many of the same people here in the U.S.A. who are so terrified of Sharia Law coming to our shores have embraced a bill that the Imams in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt would support whole-heartedly. That’s pathetic.
The modern rightwing obsession with homosexuality is simply baffling to me. Why is this the one group that a certain group of Christians care about discriminating against? Why gays and not divorcees? Why are “Christian” bakers not fighting for the right to refuse service to gluttons? Would that eat into profits too much? Why not fight for the right to deny services to couples who had premarital sex? I just can’t understand what the big fucking deal is if two gay people want to use their bodies in many of the exact same ways straight couples do.
And what happens the first time a Jewish deli in Scottsdale denies a Lutheran their morning bagel on Saturday? Or a Muslim denies a Catholic a humus tray during Ramadan? Can you just imaging the fucking shit-storm that would come about if these same people faced ACTUAL discrimination because of the law they passed? Usually, I have very little patience for discussions of ‘privilege’, ’micro-aggressions’, or a dozen other liberal buzz-words, but in this case they are exactly appropriate. The people who designed this law intend to use the overwhelming majority position of their beliefs in society to allow them to discriminate against a disadvantaged minority group with very little risk of the same thing happening to them. They are trying to codify their privileged position into law.
Not only is that anti-Christian, but it’s anti-American, and real American Christians must fight it if the label is to have any meaning whatsoever.
Hello everyone. Continuing in my series of guest posts today is my good friend M. Todd Gallowglas. His story comes from a slightly different perspective than my previous guests, because Mr. Gallowglas is one of those self-publishing vandals. Enjoy!
M. Todd Gallowglas:
A couple of weeks ago, I put out the word that I was looking for stops on a blog tour to promote the release of the first installment of my serialized novel: DEAD WEIGHT. Patrick asked me if I’d stop by his little corner of the interwebz and talk about how I got my first book into print. He’s asked several writers to talk about this, just so people can get some other perspectives from different writers. With me, I think you’re going to get a very different perspective, as I’m the first self-published writer he’s asked to write about the experience of producing a first book. However, I’m going to talk about my entire career, because for me, each new project is kind of the same.
The overall theme of my self-published writing career has been experimentation. Everything I’ve done has started as me getting an idea and saying, “Huh, I wonder if this will work out. Lemme give it a try.”
Let’s head back to 2009. I had just received my BA in Creative Writing from SFSU.
I’ll say two things in defense of a creative writing degree. 1) You’ll generate a crapton of material that you can later go back and rework to make publishable. (The entire DEAD WEIGHT project came out of work I did for three or four classes.) 2) You’ll get over that whole writers block myth. You’d be amazed how few instructors accept “But I had writers block” as an excuse when you don’t complete your coursework.
Alright, so there I was, degree in hand, ready to work on being a high school English teacher while I wait for some publisher to realize my genius. We’ll ignore that I didn’t have anything ready to go. I was, however getting up at 5 am every morning and writing for two hours before schlepping the kids to school. Long and short of that teaching thing: it didn’t work out. Thankfully, I had my storytelling show and a gig moderating on-line games to fall back on. In fact, the storytelling show is responsible for my first foray into self-publishing.
I received my first paid writing gig from Fantasy Flight Games in December of 2010: a series of flash fiction pieces from their Call of Chthulu card game line. GO ME! I worked on the Chthulu stories during early 2011 (no pressure, you only have to pretend to be HP Lovecraft for your first writing gig) my wife and several close friends who knew I had aspirations of authorship sent me a series of articles about self-publishing success stories John Locke and Amanda Hocking. At the time, I thought it was cool, but I still bought into the stigma of self-publishing. It still had yet to make its big boom.
A buddy of mine from Renaissance Faires shared a story with me that he’d written titled, “Knight of the Living Dead.” In it, zombies invade the Yuma Renaissance Faire. He knew it had problems, and he asked if I would help clean it up. He’d originally posted it in episodic form to MySpace (remember that?). We talked about it, and decide to try publishing it to Kindle. I’d clean it up, and put it out, we’d split the money. That’s where I decided to go with the M Todd Gallowglas, rather than use my actual first name, just so I’d have a little buffer when I sent my manuscripts and queries out to really get published. So, May 1st 2011, my first ebook went live on Amazon. Due to the popularity of my “Bard’s Cloak of Tales” show, and Steve Moore’s “Myth and Magic” show at ren faires, “Knight of the Living Dead” hit the top #10,000 paid in its first week of publication.
Which made me think, “Huh. Maybe there’s something to this self-publishing thing after all.” Two weeks later, I published a novella I’ve been fiddling with for over a decade called, “The Dragon Bone Flute.” That did pretty well too, even though each was only $.99. “Huh,” I thought. “Maybe I should put out something a little longer…and charge a little more.” So a month after that, I put out First Chosen the first book in my Tears of Rage series.
Now, I’d originally intended Tears of Rage to be more of a serialized story. The first was about 60,000 words, pretty short for epic fantasy these days. I imagined that each volume would be between 50-60k words. Heh…riiiiiiight. Book two turned out to be 80K, book three 120K, and book four 140k. I’m really, really going to try and put book five at the 100K mark. Heh…riiiiiiiight.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In between book one and two of Tears of Rage I got this awesome idea of having a book to tie directly into my storytelling show. Thus Halloween Jack and the Devil’s Gate was born. It’s a steampunk historical fantasy that’s the continuation of an Irish legend about Halloween. Hit #4 in Amazon’s historical fantasy list in the first month of publication, it helped that I published it in October of 2011.
So…here’s the kicker kids. When people talk to me about self-publishing a book, I’ll say, “Just because you can self-publish a book doesn’t mean you should self-publish a book. Not only do you have to do the writer thing, you have to do the editor, artist, marketing, publisher thing too. I am extremely lucky that I had my storytelling show as a platform to launch my career, elsewise, I wouldn’t have made as much of an impact out of the gate as I did.
My initial readers were very forgiving of the amateurish errors I committed. I didn’t have a real editor, just a collection of beta readers. It showed in the typos in the early drafts I loaded to Amazon. It took me three tries to find an editor that not only catches my errors, but also seems to grok the artistic vision I have for all my various projects and is working to help me become a better writer over all. Thankfully, I seem to have enough talent and skill as a natural storyteller for my readers to stick with me long enough to find an editor I clicked with. Aside from Tears of Rage the covers for my first couple of books were pretty bad. They have been fixed. The Halloween Jack books have been through three iterations, and now I’m pretty happy with how they look and that finally, they hit the steampunk YA-ish fantasy thing I’m going for.
The self-publishing thing is a learn as you screw up thing and fix it before too many people notice. I never dreamed I’d get as big as I did as fast as I did. It was one experiment after another as a way to get a little extra money out of my storytelling show. Each new book is a new publishing experience. I experiment with new promotions, and new formats. Partially because I can, partially because it’s exciting, and mostly because the publishing industry (especially in self-publishing) is changing so rapidly, what worked last your, or even a few months ago, doesn’t work now. With my latest first publication, DEAD WEIGHT: The Tombs, I’m pushing all kinds of boundaries. I’m breaking it into serialized novellas, crossing all sorts of genres: It’s a meta-fiction, near-future, urban-fantasy, noir, war-thriller, with a dash of epic fantasy, and did a massive pre-launch release to generate reviews and buzz. Okay, so I’ll be honest…it’s mostly because it’s exciting.
Here’s the big thing though, no matter what crazy thing I experiment with, one thing holds true in self-publishing as in traditional publishing: I strive to make every single book I publish outshine everything I’ve done before. That’s the bottom line. No matter how you’re publishing, be better and be different. Strive for excellence at both.
Good morning friends, lurkers, and mortal enemies keeping tabs on me. While Let Sleeping Gods Lie cools its heels in a new agent’s hands for a while, I’ve brought in an excellent guest post from the indomitable Myke Cole! For those of you who don’t know, Myke has been making a big splash these last couple of years in the urban fantasy genre with his Shadow Ops trilogy, the final installment of which, Breach Zone, drops tomorrow. Just go ahead and order the whole trilogy now. You’ll thank me later. In addition to being a rising star in the genre book world, Myke is an officer in the United States Coast Guard, and works cyber security for the NYPD. He also has a pet fish that has more twitter followers than I do.
I asked Myke a couple of months ago if he wouldn’t mind sharing his experience bringing his first book to publication in a guest post. What he wrote wasn’t so much a post as a manifesto. If you have any inkling, and desire at all to become an author, you want to read the whole thing through to the end. It is blunt, loud, profane, and above all, honest, just like Myke himself. Enjoy!
Nothing To It But To Do It
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess why you’re reading this. It’s not out of an abundance of affection for some blocky dude with a buzz-cut, hunkered over a laptop in Brooklyn. You know I’m a writer, a published writer at that. You’re wondering what the secret is. You want to see how I did it.
You’re looking for the magic key.
Well, let’s get to the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front, as we say in the guard). There is no magic key. There are no gatekeepers. There’s a tiny sliver of who-you-know and a pinch of luck, but the lion’s share isn’t rocket science. It’s just work. Endless, relentless, grinding work. You push until you can’t possibly push anymore, and then you dig deep and find a way to push some more.
There’s no secret. Want to be a writer? Fucking WRITE.
Now that we have that out of the way, I’ll tell how I did it.
I did it the wrong way.
When I decided that I wanted to be a writer, I immediately went about it bckwards. Instead of focusing on my craft, I focused on everything else: I networked. I made connections. I read blog after blog to figure out how others had gotten their first book deal. I read posts much like this one.
That was a bad move. Because until you have a dynamite manuscript, a novel so good that it competes with the giants in the genre, nothing will help you land a book deal. Quality is king in this business. Bullshit walks. I would have probably got my first book deal years earlier if I’d just concentrated on learning how to write an amazing book. Instead, I heeded the wrong-headed advice of more than a few writers on the Internet. In retrospect, most of these advice-givers were writers focusing on short stories as a path to novel writing, which makes no sense to me. More on that in a minute.
But I was young and impressionable. So, I paid attention. The steps they laid out were these:
- Write lots of short stories. Get good at them.
- Submit to the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. Finish on the podium.
- Your WOTF podium finish will give you the credit you need to get associate membership in SFWA. It will also give you a cover letter credit that will get you out of the slush pile at the major magazines.
- Get your 3 major magazine/anthology short story sales, and get active membership in SFWA. This will get you into the closed parties.
- Go to the closed parties and meet your agent.
- Agent signs you, sells you novel, mission accomplished.
There is SO much wrong with the steps I’ve just listed. For one thing, short stories are a different medium than novels. Developing skill at one does not necessarily translate into the other. For another thing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a truly “closed” SFWA party. If some effort is made at closing it, you can have a friend get you in. We’re geeks. We don’t have bull-necked bouncers at the door checking membership cards.
But most important is this: If you write an AWESOME novel, and you have no short story credits to you name, and you’ve never won WOTF, and you don’t know industry people, your novel will still sell. Because it is awesome.
The myths about gatekeepers is a bunch of bullshit that people spin to try to get themselves off the hook. It’s easier to say “but the gatekeepers will never let me in,” throw up your hands and refuse to try. Or you can try the “talent” myth. “I don’t have a talent for this, so why bother?” Lock that crap up. Bleed until you have it right. Write an INCREDIBLE novel. It will sell. The so-called “gatekeepers” are people with decades of experience picking winning horses. They don’t pass on manuscripts they are confident will make their company a ton of money because they don’t personally know the author. Or because the author isn’t in SFWA. Or because the author doesn’t have a strong social media platform.
Bullshit walks. But great writing sells.
So, yeah. Those steps are all totally wrong. And I followed them anyway. To the letter. Every. Single. Step.
And whaddya know, it worked.
I firmly believe it delayed my first book deal by at least 5 years.
So, let me give you some alternate steps:
- Come up with an idea for a novel. Not a short story. Not a novella. A novel. Because you want to be a novelist. Because maybe one person on this earth makes their living writing short stories, and it isn’t you.
- Focus on the characters. Stories are always about people. Make sure that your characters are complicated and fascinating. Consume media that focuses on character. Read romance novels. Watch The Wire. Think about how complicated your own goals and hangups are. Make sure that kind of thing is making it on to the page. A book with an amazing plot and wooden characters sucks. A book with a weak plot and incredible characters is amazing.
- Write the book. The whole book. Not a partial. Not an outline. The whole thing. Make sure it’s at least 80,000 words long. That’s approximately 320 double-spaced pages.
- Give yourself permission to write a lousy first draft. If you edit as you go, fine, so long as excessive agonizing over minutiae doesn’t prevent you from actually finishing the thing.
- Do not freak out over the font. Or the margins. Or whether you’re using “proper manuscript format.” Nobody really cares about that crap. Jut make sure it’s clear and readable. No editor every rejected a great book because the italics were actually italicized instead of underlined.
- Print the Turkey City Lexicon. Read it. Then, burn it. Invent a machine that burns things that have already been burned and burn it again.
- Take risks. Every major success in the arts has been an outlier. To play it safe is to commit yourself to mediocrity.
- When you have written the entire book, not part of it, but all of it, take a break. Start thinking about people who might be able to give you feedback. I would select beta-readers thusly:
- I would first look for people whose careers are where I want mine to be. If I want to be a published novelist, I would try to find a published novelist.
- If I couldn’t find a person with a career that’s where I want to go, I will seek out insightful, critical readers who don’t blow sunshine and who give advice that has you slapping your forehead and thinking, “that’s so obvious! Why didn’t I see that?”
- Don’t pick too many beta-readers. There’s such a thing as too much advice. I use two beta-readers. At most, three.
- Pay attention to the feedback, but also remember that this is your book. You are free to disregard it.
- Sit down and rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. Polish and perfect and obsess. CONTROL POINT’s 19th draft was the one that went to press.
- Be fully prepared to have to throw away an entire novel. Accept the possibility that it can be unfixable. Accept the possibility, no, the probability, that you will have to throw away hundreds of thousands of words until you come up with ones you can be truly proud of.
- And this: the hardest part – accept the possibility of ultimate failure. Accept that you could pour 20 years of your life into this pursuit only to come away empty-handed. It is a real possibility, and if you can’t take pleasure in the work itself, if you can’t find something worthwhile in the journey, then run away and do not look back. Not everybody wins in this arena. The odds are long. They are not ever in your favor.
- And this: It never gets easier. When you finally do get that book deal, nothing will change. The grind will still be there. You will have to feed the beast for the rest of your life. Every novel is a debut. Every writer is one bad book away from the end of their career.
Here’s the thing. I felt a joint come unglued, a switch flip, when I finally crossed the threshold. But it wasn’t a networking switch. I never learned a secret handshake. The barriers fell away when I stared defeat in the face and smiled back at it. There was nothing else I wanted to do. Everything else had been stripped away. I realized at that point that I had some 50 years or so left to keep trying, and if I couldn’t pull it off in that time, well, the worms slowly digesting my remains could put up with the taste of disappointment.
When my goal was to get published, I didn’t. When my goal became to write a great novel, I did.
The magic key was this: I focused on being good above all else.
Get to work. I’m with you.
When we last saw our brave little manuscript, it had been lost deep inside the review process. Yes, finally I have some news to share about Let Sleeping Gods Lie, (which you may remember as Any Port in a Storm, that was the working title). Some of the news is good, some of it not so good. Which is exactly what you should expect during this stage. Even very good projects take months or years to find the right combination of agent and publisher, more often than not.
So, let’s start with the not-so-good. You may remember back in September an agent and editor had asked me to submit the book for consideration. Since then, I’ve been in contact with the editor in question, who sent me a note to let me know he had received the email, and again last week to let me know he was going to be in touch soon. Great, no problems there. The agent, however, proved to be a bit more of an issue. After sending off the manuscript in September, I never had any word back from them. Now, it’s only been four months, and one would not necessarily expect to have an answer by now. Agents often get hundreds of queries per month, and trying to keep on top of the pile is a daunting task. However, I never heard anything back from this agent, not even a quick note to verify receipt of the manuscript. After two months, I sent out a feeler email asking if they had gotten it. I did so again a month later, with no reply to either. So I made the difficult decision to abandon the attempt and begin actively querying new agents again.
That first day, I pulled out the stack of business cards I’d collected from agents at cons and receptions over the last couple years and sent out a half-dozen emails. Be very careful during this step to review each agent’s submission guidelines individually. These can usually be found on their agency website. Tailor each email to that particular agent’s wishes. Do not BCC or, heaven forbid, CC every agent in your address book. That looks simply terrible, and will probably mean your query gets deleted before it’s even opened. You can read a generic version of the query letter I sent out here.
And in the interest of total transparency, on five out of the six queries, I totally fucked up. Somehow in my rush to get them out the door, I completely forgot to include that last important bit of the email where you’re supposed to share your publishing credits, (if you have any). Dumb, dumb, dumb. I was excited, and simply didn’t take the handful of seconds needed to review the emails before hitting SEND. On the final query, I caught my mistake and added the information back in.
On Sunday during the drive back from ConFusion (which was great) I received a reply from one of the agents I’d queried. Low-and-behold, the one who actually got to see my pub creds had come back asking for more. I’m not saying that is the only reason the other five didn’t respond, but coincidences are hard to ignore. In his response, this new agent asked for a “partial” to review, which is nothing more than the first few chapters of a book to see if they successfully capture the agent’s interest before they commit to reading the entire manuscript. Some agents ask for partials, others just ask for the entire manuscript. It’s really up their individual taste. In this case, he wanted the first thirty pages of the book, which worked out to be the first two chapters, and a synopsis.
Now, writing a novel synopsis is possibly my least favorite thing to do in the world, right up there with changing a flat tire on the side of the interstate during a hailstorm, running the last mile of a half-marathon, and force-feeding venomous snakes. For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, think of the synopsis as a Cliff Notes version of your book, except way shorter. Like 1,000 words short. Take that two-hundred page manuscript you’ve just spent a year writing and editing, and cram it down into two pages without losing any important plot elements, characters, or narrative flavor. It’s like trying to stuff a full-grown African bull elephant into a Russian nesting doll, without killing it or breaking the doll.
However, it must be done. And if you’re smart, which I wasn’t, you’ll have written and honed your novel synopsis before you even start querying. Just as with the query letter, there are a lot of great resources out there for nailing the synopsis. Here are a few:
My best advice is to read through a few examples of novel synopsises… synopsi? Fuck it, you know what I mean. Read a few of them to get a handle on them, then write a couple of your own. If you have a trunk novel or two, write a synopsis on them as practice. This will give you a chance to write one out without the stress of getting it totally right on the first try.
My synopsis for Let Sleeping Gods Lie came in at 1,600 words, or about two and a half pages of text. That’s a little longer than what some agents prefer, but this is an epic, second-world fantasy, after all. That was about as crammed as that elephant was willing to get. I would love to put it up here to let everyone read for themselves, but considering what it is, that would spoil the entire book and quite possibly hurt or end its chances at publication. However, if the book does get picked up, I’ll be happy to put it up as an example after that point.
Next week, After The Draft continues with a guest post from the indomitable Myke Cole. He’s stopping by to tell the tale of how his smash hit, Control Point, made it out of his brain and onto the shelves. And he’s doing so on the very day the final book of his Shadow Ops trilogy launches. See y’all then!
For the umpteenth time, I’ve had the less than pleasant experience of having to defend myself after revealing that I identify as conservative. Usually, it comes from a liberal friend or colleague who assumed I was one of the faithful. Nearly as often, it comes from a republican who accuses me of being a Rhino, Blue-Dog, or simply not a conservative at all.
Well, I am, and I think I’m part of the very small minority to which the label actually works as it was intended. Here’s an explanation of why, so I can just point people to this post in the future.
Take a look at this chart:
Some of you already know what it is. For those who haven’t seen it yet, it is a graphic representation of all of the scientific papers on the topic of climate change published in peer-reviewed journals over the course of the past thirteen months.
The blue part of the graph are those papers written in support of the notion that the world is warming on average, and that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for most of the increase. The black slice represents those papers that rejected this idea. Actually, that’s not right. There’s no need to pluralize “papers,” because there’s only ONE of them. One, out of more than two-thousand. I actually had to open the chart into a larger window to see it at first, because my smartphone didn’t have enough resolution to display that tiny slice.
Yet one party in our government sides entirely with that barely-visible slice, that single paper. For them, the science is undecided, and ever so controversial. “There’s no consensus!” they’ll say on the Senate floor, “And it was really cold last week!”
For the GOP, reality is whatever their donors tell them it should be. Facts, evidence, and reason are the tools of “elitists.” This pattern of outright denial of confirmed, objective reality is repeated over and over, with their stances on evolution, abstinence-only education, homosexuality, the state of healthcare, global warming, everything. You don’t have to find solutions to problems if you can just pretend for long enough that they aren’t really problems at all.
And this, dear readers, is why I identify as a conservative, but never, ever Republican. The conservative movement, at its roots, was meant to be a rejection of the well-intentioned utopian impulses that so often lead to governmental overreach. The originators of the intellectual, (yes, intellectual) tradition of conservatism like Burke and Oakeshott wanted for problems and their solutions to be well-defined and based on solid evidence, not reflexive ideology and extremism. They wanted government to operate within the confines of the real world and human nature, and to stop pretending they could fundamentally alter either by force of law.
But what is present in the current iteration of the GOP is nothing but reflexive ideology. Dogma. The unfaltering belief that government is always the problem, that taxes should always be cut, the country was founded on Christian values, and that the market is an infallible, self-correcting machine that always spits out the maximum of human success and happiness for those willing to work. It is for these ingrained, unassailable assumptions that they have ceased to be conservatives in any meaningful sense of the word.
Conservatives would see the overwhelming scientific consensus on issues such as global warming and draft up solutions that met with their core beliefs of a small, unobtrusive government and maximum liberty. Solutions that relied more on steering the testing grounds of the free-market towards reforms without the heavy boot of government regulation stifling innovation. Ideas such as Carbon Markets, which not unlike another “controversial” piece of legislation that passed a few years back, actually started from inside the conservative movement as a market-based alternative to more liberal policies. Conservatives would argue their case on its own merits, and trust the American people to decide for themselves which approach would bear the most fruit.
But that’s not what Republicans have done, is it? Instead, they’ve latched onto that one single, almost invisible paper and decided to use it as a hatchet to chop the negotiating table into kindling. Instead of laying out a solution to the problem in line with their ideals, they simply deny that there is any problem at all, then go about doing their level best to misinform the public, muddy the waters, and deny objective reality. They’ve abandoned their own ideas the moment it looked like they might actually become law and labeled them “liberal”.
And they expect you to be stupid and ignorant enough for it to work.
You see, many of the causes and policy positions that have been long associated with liberalism, if actively investigated, actually turn out to be very conservative. If taken at their word that public policies should be weighted to maximize individual liberty and minimize government power, a real conservative would support everything from gay-marriage, to marijuana legalization, to abortion rights. A real conservative would be appalled at the idea of a government big and powerful enough to define the limits of love placed on two consenting adults. A real conservative would recoil at the enormous expense of an utterly failed War on Drugs and the expansion of the police-state at the expense of personal liberty and privacy that has resulted. And a real conservative would take up arms against a government invasive enough to override the requests of a husband and force a dead woman’s heart to continue beating just to serve as an incubator, against her own express wishes.
That is not conservative. It is the Modus Operandi of the very types of people which the conservative movement formed to oppose. It’s time to come back to the real world, not the one the GOP wishes it could create. Some of us have been here all along.
Well, the Packers lost and now I’m mad and want to shout about something. So here goes.
It’s been almost three years since the tragic double-catastrophe of the March 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami caused what is undoubtedly the second largest nuclear accident in history, crippling the Fukushima Nuclear plant and sending many thousands of tons of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and leaking into the Pacific Ocean. To call it a disaster is an understatement, and the people of Japan will be dealing with the after-effects for a generation. None of this is in dispute. Scientists, environmental agencies, and nuclear watchdogs throughout the world agree that continued study and work needs to be done to limit the damage.
But a funny thing has been happening lately, as the usual chorus of lunatics, conspiracy theorists, know-nothings, and the slick-talkers who make their money pedaling falsehoods to them have been flooding the internet with new accusations, unproven links, and wild speculation about the fallout and after effects of the Fukusima disaster on U.S. soil and sending many well-meaning people into a panic.
The headlines read like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie:
Radioactive Fish Invade West Coast!, Ocean Floor Covered in Corpses!, California Babies Dying by the Thousands! They even have big, colorful, very official-looking maps!
All very scary, to be sure. The problem, as is so often true of sensationalistic headlines, is that they people running them have used exactly the same standards of scientific rigor employed by the average Hollywood scriptwriter.
That is to say, none at all. Let’s calm everyone down one headline at a time.
Holy shit, there’s radioactive fish in my tacos!
Here’s the issue with that. The claim is absolutely true, up to a point. Samples of bluefin tuna have been found to contain traces of Cesium-134 and 137 that can be linked back to Fukushima. Cesium-137 is a byproduct of the fission process and does not occur naturally on Earth, so whenever we find it, we know it can be traced back to a nuclear reactor (or bomb). This is where the alarmists, kooks, and anti-nuke hippies want you to stop reading.
Still with me? Good, I figured you would be. Here’s what Paul Harvey would call, “The rest of the story.” The very scientists who took the tuna samples and discovered the contamination go on in their study to say that the levels of radiation in these fish is miniscule. Only 3% above naturally-occurring background radiation. That’s well below presenting any measurable increase in cancer risks to humans. Indeed you get a dose of radiation twenty times greater from the decay of potassium with every banana you eat. Here’s Nicholas Fisher, one of the authors of the study, speaking to Scientific American:
“For fish that are harvested 100 miles [160 kilometers] out to sea, I doubt it’d be a problem.”
To help you visualize why he can say eating these contaminated fish isn’t an issue, take a look at this radiation dosing chart. An airline flight gives you many, many times more radiation exposure than one of these fish ever could. Living in a brick building. Getting a mamogram. The list goes on and on.
But what about the ocean of corpses? Radiation kills things, so that has to be the answer, right?
Not so fast. Turns out, the study being misquoted in these headlines was actually referencing a natural cycle of something called “marine snow” which is the deposition of organic detritus onto the sea floor from higher up in the water column. This cycle goes through things called “Blizzards” where an unusually high amount of material falls to the seafloor. However, these blizzards have been observed many times before and after Fukushima, and have more to do with ocean currents, wind patterns, and temperature, as the study itself goes to some length to explain.
You may also have heard or read headlines about massive starfish die-offs happening along the West Coast. This is, just like the previous two claims, true, except that again it is not a new phenomena, hasn’t been linked to Fukushima in any way, and has also been observed recently happening on the East Coast as well, many thousands of miles removed from any possible water contamination for Fukushima. Often times, knowing only half the facts is worse than knowing none at all.
Wait! Babies are dropping like flies! Don’t you care about babies!
Yes, I do, which is why I really hate it when people lie about them to manipulate our innate parental fears and protective instincts. And incidentally, no, U.S. babies are not dying from radiation poisoning. But even after having this headline shot out from under them, the publicly anti-nuclear energy authors of the first ridiculous claim doubled down and, using many of the exact same methodological flaws, came back with this gem about an increase in infant hypothyroidism on the West Coast that is just as big a pile. As the link shows, the authors never even attempt to establish a causal link between the two, instead merely documenting a rather weak correlation and hoping a largely scientifically-illiterate public will connect the dots that they failed to, while ignoring important details like the fact Iodine-131 has a half-life of only eight days. It turns inert in a matter of weeks, yet three years and many thousands of miles later, people are still being whipped into a panic.
If these sorts of tactics sound familiar, they should. For years, we’ve seen the exact same kinds of distortion coming from all corners of the alarmist, denialist, and conspiracy theory camps. For example, nearly everyone by now has heard from the completely discredited anti-vaccine movement about how childhood vaccinations correlate with rising rates of autism. They point to vaccine ingredients that everyone recognizes as poison in sufficient doses, such as mercury or formaldehyde as the triggers. What they always leave out are important things like the fact the dose of mercury is massively overshadowed by other natural sources (including, ironically, tuna) while the formaldehyde that naturally forms in our own blood streams is many dozens of times greater as well.
Same pattern; find a correlation, throw out some scary scenarios, add a pinch of facts, but only a pinch, leave out the rest of the facts and important context needed to see the whole picture, then pass it around through channels that are not subject to peer-review and wait for a concerned, yet naive public to draw the connections you never had the evidence to prove scientifically. It works for anti-vax, global-warming denialism, 9/11 truthers, moon-landing hoaxers, the whole lot. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Okay, but what about that terrifying map of all the radioactive water? Surely that’s got to be something, right?
Wrong. In fact, it’s not even a map of water currents! What you have here is a map of the projected distribution of tsunami waves from the disaster, how they were expected to propagate across the Pacific, and what heights they were expected to be. And before you ask if the waves could carry radioisotopes, just stop. Waves do not carry anything except kinetic energy. A wave is simply a transfer of energy from one molecule to the next. Think about what happens when you’re in the deep end of a wave pool. Does the wave pick you up and carry you all the way to the shore? No. You go up, then come back down again as the wave of energy moves on and the next person goes up, then comes back down and so on.
The exception is right at the coasts where the water shallows out and forces the wave up until it ‘breaks.’ Only once the wave breaks in the last few dozens or hundreds of yards can it move anything forward with any speed. This is why you can’t catch a wave in Tokyo and surf to San Diego. And if you can’t, neither can radioactive cesium and iodine.
So why did they use the map in the first place? I don’t know. Lack of any fact-checking, or a deliberate attempt to mislead, it doesn’t really matter in the end, because now YOU know better.
The basic, foundational problem with all of the claims about Fukushima material causing species die-offs, habitat destruction, or human health risks on the west coast or anywhere else in North America is simply that the Pacific is absolutely, staggeringly massive. It is seventy million of cubic miles in volume. That’s one hundred and eighty-eight quintillion gallons. I’m going to write that number out: 188,000,000,000,000,000,000 gallons.
Got that? By the time any contamination from Fukushima has been mixed into a volume that large, it will have become diluted many millions, even billions of times. Coupled with the fact that most of the more dangerous contaminants have radioactive half-lives ranging from days to a handful of years, and the danger is reduced even closer to zero. Once you understand this, the alarmists are left with a sort of homeopathic theory of radiation poisoning, with just as much supporting evidence backing the claims of both disciplines.
But I’ve rambled on long enough. Thanks for hanging in there with me. Now, my west coast friends, go take a swim in the ocean. Enjoy a plate of fish tacos.
And 49ers fans, you can go to hell.
Last night, I had a vision. Captain James T. Kirk came to me in a dream, with a dire warning. For forty days and forty nights heavy, crippling snow would fall, blanketing all the world in white death. He ordered me to dig out a shelter, large enough and with enough provisions to see us through until the Thaw. It would be called Echo Base. Then, I was to fill Echo Base with two of each kind of nerd, geek, and dork to repopulate the world.
“But how will I get the MMO players out of their basements?” I asked.
“Set up a LAN party, with a Mtn Dew fountain machine and a case of Flaming Hot Cheetos. They will come.”
“Okay,” I said, “But do I really need to bring the LARPers?”
“Yes,” answered the Captain.
“What about the furies?”
“No, their suits will keep them warm and see them through to the Thaw. Also, they creep me the fuck out.”
“Thank God, but how are we supposed to repopulate the Earth when the cosplayers are the only ones who get laid?”
“Hmm. Hadn’t thought of that. You know what? screw it.”
I awoke in a cold sweat, while the snow tumbled down outside my window…
As both an author and amateur stand-up comic, I, perhaps more so than most, try to keep keenly aware of what’s ‘Offensive.’ But, unlike most, I do so to push the envelope of what’s acceptable. I’m the guy standing on the railing leaning over to get a good look at how far it is to the bottom, instead of the people clinging to the wall for safety.
It’s here, toeing the line, where some of the most interesting characters, stories, and jokes are written, because it’s exactly this territory that ‘polite’ people do their best to avoid talking about. I believe that means a lot of very important things would otherwise go unsaid.
So it is from this perspective that I would like to comment on Taking Offense.
There is an assumption, common among nearly every segment of society regardless of political affiliation, that when someone, somewhere is offended by something said, written, tweeted, painted, or otherwise communicated, whether intended for public or private consumption, that the fault and responsibility for the transgression lays entirely with the person who wrote, spoke, or otherwise put the offending statement out into the universe. The intentions behind the statement are inconsequential, even if they were misinterpreted or taken out of their proper context. The expectation then is for the “Offender” to immediately apologize publicly, accept that they are a deeply flawed and/or troubled human being, and resign-to-spend-time-with-their-family, or go into some sort of counseling program to help them cast out their demons.
Where else in the social contract are a person’s intentions not part of the equation? Even if you do the worst thing imaginable and kill another human being, your intentions matter. You can see this to be true based on the fact suspects aren’t actually charged with “murder” per se. Instead, the DA in a murder case weighs things like 1st Degree Intentional Homicide, 2nd Degree Homicide, Manslaughter, Negligent Homicide, or even Justifiable Homicide. All of these spring from the same action, one person killing another. But where they are different is the intention and mindset of the suspect. And, depending almost entirely on this mindset at the time of the killing, the suspect can face punishment ranging all the way from the death penalty, to walking away free without even being charged with a crime in the first place.
So where is this logic when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of causing offense? Certainly no one died, otherwise they wouldn’t be standing there demanding an apology in the first place. And I think we can all agree then that since causing offense isn’t as big a deal as killing someone, that perhaps we should look at metering how we dole out punishments for this transgression as well.
The other thing about the way we deal with offense that bothers me is how one-sided the baseline assumption is. How can responsibility lay entirely with the person making the statement, when ‘taking’ offense is itself an action? It simply isn’t realistic for everyone, at every moment, to be able to accurately guess how every word they utter will be interpreted or misinterpreted by anyone who may hear or read it, especially in an age of such hyper-connectivity.
For example, I use Google Analytics to track this site’s usage. I’ve had people from as far as Singapore and Pakistan read some of the brain scrapple I’ve greased up and shot out there. There is no way, no way at all for me to understand every nuance of language and culture that might lead to someone on the other side of the country, much less the other side of the world, to find something I said offensive.
If that should happen, I’m expected to simply accept whatever the receiver’s interpretation of my words may be, and apologize, as though they are the world’s foremost expert on my inner thoughts and motivations. Well, I’ll tell you right now that should that happen, and my intentions are not taken into account, my response will not be an apology, but a hearty “Go fuck yourself,” a concept that I hope transcends any linguistic or culture divide that may separate us and successfully convey my desire that this time you really are offended.
Why? Because communication isn’t a one-way street. How the recipient chooses to interpret the content of a message is just as crucial for successful communication to take place as the sender’s intentions for it. The expectation, nay, demand that the viewpoint of the person who takes offense trumps the person who gave it is ridiculous and absolves listeners of their responsibility to the conversation. It gives them a free pass not to even try to understand, or in many cases deliberately misunderstand, what was said.
And before anyone digs out the pitchforks I’m sure many of you delicate flowers have stacked up in the basement for exactly this occasion, I’m not saying that it’s never okay to take offense. Often times, it is exactly the right thing to do, and handled properly can further along understanding and expand important conversation. However, what I AM saying is that understanding must go both ways if it’s to really take root. Consumers of media, art, literature, comedy, etc, have just as important a job in trying to see where the speakers are coming from as they do in trying to understand why your background and experiences make you feel the way you did about a book, a joke, a piece of art, what have you.
Take that responsibility seriously, and maybe you’ll find people are a lot more willing to meet you in the middle.